January 4, 2006

On maintaining a blog

Writing is like taking a shit. It is at its most satisfying when it is something that has to come out, and the greatest pleasure it offers authors is the relief of release. I guess I've been pretty constipated lately.

I'd like to say it has to do with the events of this last summer, but I don't think this is really true. I could be wrong. One's own motivations are never fully accessible. Obviously, it's been hard. We haven't had any success lately in getting pregnant again, but it takes a while for regular ovulation to return after a pregnancy, even a terminated one, and it takes long when you're older than when you're younger.

The grand irony of it all is that I don't actually have any heavy responsibilities for the first time in as long as I can remember, and trying to get pregnant has involved having - well, I suppose this is too much information but what the hell - more and vastly better sex than I've ever had in my life. My Dutch is good enough that I can actually impress people as a rare anglo who speaks the language. I think my Chinese is improving, although it's hard to tell. My wife is actually learning French - she's in Paris right now - and has enough French that I can start to rent films in the language. My presentation in Amsterdam went well, and I think I actually managed to impress the people I wanted to impress. Perversely, things are going really well in every way except one.

Even the political scene is improving. Everyone hates Sarkozy and Villepin and generally thinks Chirac is a joke. Bush appears to be in real trouble on enough fronts that it may yet destroy him. The European economy seems to be on a real rebound.

And yet... And yet I can't write. It's not so much that I'm horrified at the thought, it's that, I just can't seem to do it.


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January 6, 2006

Finally agreeing with Bush on something

From today's NY Times:

Bush Proposes Broader Language Training

WASHINGTON, Jan. 5 - The Bush administration on Thursday proposed spending $114 million on educational programs to expand the teaching of Arabic, Chinese, Farsi and other languages typically not taught in public schools.

Speaking to more than 100 college and university presidents attending a two-day conference at the State Department, President Bush said the effort would play a critical role in national security and lead to American students' gaining a better understanding of foreign cultures.

"In order to convince people we care about them, we've got to understand their culture and show them we care about their culture," Mr. Bush said. "You know, when somebody comes to me and speaks Texan, I know they appreciate the Texas culture. When somebody takes time to figure out how to speak Arabic, it means they're interested in somebody else's culture." [...]

"We need intelligence officers who, when somebody says something in Arabic or Farsi or Urdu, know what they're talking about," he said.

Robert Birgeneau, chancellor of the University of California, Berkeley, said he was among presidents in Washington last year discussing similar issues with the Central Intelligence Agency. He said he left that meeting with the understanding that "their needs are desperate."

Mr. Birgeneau said that he appreciated the administration's efforts but that, for university presidents, language training for the government is "not our central focus." [...]

The administration's language proposal, known as the National Security Language Initiative, would create several new programs and build on others, including a Pentagon effort begun three years ago to increase the number of military personnel fluent in languages and familiar with customs in developing nations.

Barry Lowenkron, the assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, said a few of the programs might include a commitment to work for the government or the military. "But it's not like a draft," [...]

He said that only 44 percent of American high school students were studying any foreign language and that 70 percent of those were learning Spanish. Ms. Powell said that by comparison, the nation had only 2,000 Chinese language grade-school teachers.

Margaret Spellings, the education secretary, said in an interview that efforts to teach such languages as Chinese and Arabic to children as young as 5 were brand new. "We don't know how to do it. This whole notion is in its infancy. But our hope is this is a start, and we can build on it."

Alas, as with all other Bush initiatives, I see this one boldly going nowhere. "Somebody comes up to me and speaks Texan..." - isn't it great that America has a bilingual president? While I think there are loftier goals in second language education than fixing the CIA and the Pentagon's hiring problems, I can't really disagree with the main thrust of it. More Americans in the upper echelons of military and political planning who actually have a clue about the rest of the world can only be a good thing.

But, as the Iraq war shows all too well, the advice of existing experts is already ignored, and having more experts won't make that problem go away. I think it's a fine thing that at least some Americans have discovered that cultural autism comes at a steep price, but I don't think anyone in the Bush administration really intends to address that issue. They've simply discovered that they're short on translators.

Furthermore, when this Barry Lowenkron character says "But it's not like a draft..." you know that it means that it is like a draft. Whet I expect to see is the government offering something like the ROTC program: Get a Bachelor's in area studies on the government and you can join the army as an officer. This will probably fail because now, as in the Vietnam era, people are reluctant to join the army if they think they are likely to actually have to fight.

But the worst bit comes from the education secretary, Margaret Spellings, a woman who has, from what I can tell, never taught a class in her life. "We don't know how to do it. This whole notion is in its infancy." - no, it's been going on for thousands of years and virtually every other country in the world has already confronted the issue of raising second language knowledge in its population. Geez, the one thing that George W. Bush got right in his entire career as governor of Texas was establishing bilingual schools with a mixture of Mexican and Anglo kids, so you'd think the idea might be within the memory of one of his favourite hacks and flak-catchers. Set up bilingual magnet schools in areas with developing world immigrant populations, pay parents to send their kids to them if you have to. Hire teachers from overseas to offer classes in both languages.

The things that have to be done to make this work are substantial. Provide funds for second language education in public schools, yes, but also provide outside reinforcement. Make second language studies a requirement for university admissions (as it was two generations ago). Provide subtitled foreign media - something that has clearly made an enormous difference in Belgium - by making it a license requirement for broadcasters.

But none of this is going to happen.


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January 16, 2006

Hyperdrive - boldly going anwhere?

Okay, this is a frivolous topic, but look: I loved Red Dwarf, so naturally I'm dying to see if BBC can get another sci-fi comedy to work. Because I have Chinese class on Wednesdays, I flip over to Hyperdrive last night, and I am totally not amused.

For a guy who is utterly into British sci-fi comedy and who is never going to get a new episode of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Red Dwarf ever, this is a major bummer. I mean, they've got the guys who write for the dead hilarious Black Books. This series really ought to be better than the first episode leads me to think. I hope it gets better. Right now, it's pretty weak.


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January 17, 2006

Apologies for lost comments

I set the anti-spam system to fairly aggressive a few months ago after cleaning out a lot of crap, but it seems its been excessively aggressive lately. Some comments have been lost. I'm trying to fix the problem.

Update: Ah jeez, I apologise terribly. I have been incredibly negligent in maintaining this blog. The spam filter that comes with MT is, to say the least, total crap. I thought it was just e-mailing me whenever there were comments needing approval, but instead it's actually sending most of them to the junk folder and never notifying me at all. I have restored almost all the comments from the junk folder and turned the filter off. All comments will now be immediately displayed and I will just delete the spam, rather than using the notification/approval system in MT.

Thanks to Tim May for e-mailing me to let me know there was a problem.


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January 26, 2006

Go read Cosma

...over at The Valve.

I question the centrality of reader-response theory to literary theory, although I don't question that reader response theories may be interesting and useful in their own right. Really, I think it's more a question of what ought to be taught to whom than any actual methodological difference: I think critical theory can play an important educative and political role without the benefit of a cognitive psychology of narrative, but a cognitive psychology of narrative may nonetheless be a handy piece of theory to keep around.

Otherwise, I find myself in agreement with Cosma in general, specifically in his conclusion which I think lines up neatly with my thoughts on the role of theories.

I'd like to say more, specifically about "'practices' and other shared mental objects" and whether or not one should be dubious of them. Specifically, I'd like to look at how the notion of a syntactic rule - an ordinary concept in linguistics that is usually accepted by linguists without a second thought and is even less critically seen by speakers of Indo-European languages - is exactly the kind of unseen shared mental object that Cosma (or at least Stephen Turner, the target of his related link) would be dubious about, and yet is very difficult (although not quite impossible) to dispense with.

In short, I'm not sure that the shared mental object is so easily abolished. Too often, the presumption of social object's existence can't be readily abandoned because it "concretely change[s] the way we work" in ways that we can't just give up. We might, of course, following the empiricist tradition, just say that these things aren't entities in theories, merely rules of thumb yet to be explained within a productive theory. The English empiricist tradition in linguistics takes this view of quite a lot of apparently social objects in language. However, I'm not convinced that there is an obvious way to distinguish between theories and things that just work.

I guess my point is that, unlike Cosma, I don't especially priviledge methodological individualism as a method. It's basis seems poorly founded - why should we not equally priviledge a methodological cellularism, expecting all of our social theories to explain the actions of cells in living organisms, or subatomic particles? - but I am willing to accept that theories of social objects should be at least compatible with theories of the individual (and for that matter, theories of cellular biology or particle physics) and that useful work can be done in identifying and resolving the contradictions present in these different theories.

I haven't read anything by Moretti, so I can't really comment on the subject of genre theory or his book.

Alas, I have my Chinese exam today, along with a strong suspicion that I will not do very well on it. I'm switching language schools at the end of the month, to a pricier, but more conveniently located and scheduled facility. But, this keeps me from trying to respond more fully.


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