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Member since: Wed Jul 24, 2013, 01:10 PM
Number of posts: 2,561

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If you're going to protest...

...avoid doing things that will alienate people and possibly end in tragedy.

Last night, a right-wing speaker with prominent anti-LGBTQ points of view gave a talk on campus. I didn't go - I had a long list of better things to do than listen to a bigoted loudmouth repeat what he's said hundreds of times on social media - but although I was at first happy to see a large crowd gathering to give him the welcome he deserved and loudly support LGBTQ rights, I was later disappointed in some of the actions taken by some of those who protested.

I don't like saying this. I thought about joining the protest. I was very much on their side. I would never have called for this speaker (or pretty much any speaker) to be banned, but showing him what our community thinks of his verbal myiasis was perfectly appropriate.

Except for two things.

First - one or more protesters dumped marbles in the stairwells where the presentation would happen. That was breathtakingly stupid. Someone could have gotten killed that way. I hope those who pulled this stunt are caught and prosecuted. I don’t care what message they were trying to convey.

I also later learned that the protesters blocked traffic on one or more streets.

I’ve said it before – blocking traffic is a seriously counterproductive way to protest.

Protests are intended not only to make a point, but to draw sympathy for a cause. Preventing people from picking up their kids at school, visiting a loved one in the hospital, getting to a job interview or court appearance on time, or any other reason for going from point A to point B doesn’t even remotely accomplish that. Instead, it frustrates a lot of people – most of whom, in this community at least, might actively support the protest’s rationale. Their reaction will be less “wow, these kids have a good point” and more “get off the road.”

It can also be dangerous. Emergency vehicles might be blocked. There are lots of semis that whip through a stretch of interstate passing through town, and they can’t stop on a dime - especially if the protest happens at night, when visibility is limited. This is especially true if law enforcement isn't told of the blockage in advance so traffic can be re-routed.

(This happened in our community in 2020, when part of an otherwise peaceful BLM protest decided to block the interstate after dark. Police ended up firing tear gas into the crowd - not because authorities wanted it silenced, but because it wouldn't clear out from the freeway. The crowd had created a hazard that could have ended very badly. I'm still not sure how I feel about the tear gas, but I can understand why the decision to deploy it was made.)

Seriously - I, for one, don’t want to be responsible for someone’s death because an ambulance couldn’t get through. And had that happened, the reason for the protest would have been all but forgotten.

I get it. Protests are intended to stop business as usual. But blocking traffic is not a good way to accomplish that. And before someone points to the roads blocked during the Civil Rights era – those really aren’t the same thing. They were targeted against communities with Jim Crow laws. If lives were interrupted, it was for the people who needed a little interference in their lives. These protests were less likely to antagonize sympathizers.

People have actually been more than inconvenienced by this sort of thing. Someone I know was denied a job because the off-ramp to the airport was blockaded, making her miss her flight. Another highway blockade in town a few years ago kept people from getting to the hospital to visit a gravely ill relative who, for all they knew, was about to die. Fortunately, they managed to get to the hospital and meet with their relative, who I don't think ended up dying (though I could be misremembering that) - but the incident became front-and-center when the protest was reported in local news media. And you know what? No one remembered the reason for these protest. They only knew that a job opportunity was lost or that someone could have been prevented from saying a last goodbye.

Anyway – the protest itself was a good idea, but it could have been handled more strategically. There weren't any unintended tragedies, but it could have ended very badly.

My thoughts. And they’re worth every penny you paid to read them.

on shills and contrarians

It's sometimes striking when a public figure who once argued strenuously for causes on one side of the political spectrum starts arguing equally strenuously for causes on the other.

I take one thing as axiomatic - for every point of view grounded on physical reality, there will be at least one person with an advanced degree who will argue against it. This comes with a corollary - the number of such people is directly proportional to the amount of money or publicity that comes from espousing the minority opinion. It's a bit hazier when one is issues involve policy rather than science, but the principle is the same.

Why does this happen?

In some cases, someone's opinions might have actually changed over time. It happens. In a very few cases, there might even be a point of principle at the heart of the pivot. But the usual explanation is "money." Shills gain from expressing certain views. If there are serious business interests behind that opinion - that climate change isn't really happening, that second-hand tobacco smoke isn't dangerous, that the side effects of a drug aren't actually caused by the drug - such people can gain quite a lot.

I think this oversimplifies things, and the testimony given by Jonathan Turley at the recent Congressional Twitter hearing demonstrates what I mean.

Some of them might be contrarians rather than shills. For contrarians, attention is more important than money. They figure out where the consensus lies and immediately adopt an opposing view. They may or may not actually accept that view - it's the attention garnered from adopting it that matters.

I've seen this in my own discipline. For example - that birds are theropod dinosaurs is generally accepted, but there was small community of degree-holding scientists who've protested this conclusion. Most have since passed on, but a few are still out there, though they're not so vocal these days. Dislike of modern methods and personal conflicts were central to some of them, but one or two of them absolutely knew better. They liked the attention. Very few have given presentations at meetings in recent years, but when they did, they provided a years-long spectacle of shifting goalposts and increasingly contorted reasoning. Those of us who attended their talks did so more for their entertainment value than to actually learn something.

This was how I perceived Alan Dershowitz - a professor as well as lawyer - as he defended the Orange One during his first impeachment. The vast majority of constitutional law experts all agreed Captain Combover had crossed important lines and thought the impeachment investigation, if not the impeachment itself, was justified. But Dershowitz? The same Dershowitz who had become a darling of the political Left? The same Dershowitz who loudly supported Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton? Not him - he joined Trump's defense team.

At the time, the claims he made on news channels seemed to have only one organizing principle - they were the opposite of those being expressed by whatever other lawyer was on the talk show. Otherwise, I couldn't find any coherence.

I think the same is true of Jonathan Turley, who - like Dershowitz - is both a lawyer and an academic. He was blistering in his criticism of George W. Bush at a time when a whole lot of talking heads were defending him. He commonly appeared on Keith Olbermann's show on MSNBC. But now, he expresses right-wing bologna, and when he's called out on it, he acts as though his status as a lawyer, in and of itself, gives it legitimacy. They way he tried to distinguish "opinion" from "legal analysis" while sparring with Congresswoman Wasserman-Schultz is a key piece of evidence for this.

I freely concede that the shill and contrarian categories overlap. A contrarian can make money through his contrariness. But I think shills and contrarians have different motivating factors - material gain for the first, attention for the latter.

Shills and contrarians can also both be distinguished from crackpots - and boy howdy do we have those in the sciences as well. Crackpots don't change their views based on where the consensus lies at any given moment. They believe what they believe. I don't think Dershowitz and Turley are crackpots. They may be making money from their TV appearances, adding a level of shilliness to their actions, but their behavior is absolutely consistent with an academic contrarian otherwise.

My thoughts, anyway.

The Great Non Sequitur

That's what Sarah Huckabee Sanders' counterpoint should be called.

Biden raised a whole lot of issues most people care a great deal about, and she responded with culture war shit most people couldn't care less about.

Or if they do, they regard her points of view as archaic and diminishing.

dear Congressional Republicans.

I just watched the State of the Union address. This means I saw how you behaved during the address.

The Senate and House of Representatives of the United States are the most consequential governing bodies in the world. The Capitol is a building of great dignity and profound history.

You belong to these bodies, and you work in this building.

Act like it.

thanks in advance for your consideration.

why I think we hadn't heard about previous "spy" balloons before

First - I'm not convinced these balloons were primarily intended to gather sensitive information. They were at the mercy of wind currents, and given their size, they would likely be seen. And as we've seen, they're easily shot down, meaning it's unlikely they carry much in the way of sensitive information.

I think they were part of what, during the Cold War, were described as "spoofing" missions. The US and USSR both undertook them; Soviet aircraft, for example, would fly into US airspace until they were detected by US radar. American planes would do the same in USSR airspace. These usually involved one or a few small planes - not the number of planes that would indicate an attack - and they'd be intercepted and escorted away.

The point wasn't to collect sensitive information. That's what actual spy planes (U2, SR71) and satellites were for. The point was to test the detection capabilities of the other side.

The other side, of course, wouldn't necessarily want to tip its hand on its capabilities - meaning they might let the plane fly for some distance after detection before intercepting it.

Nor would these usually be publicized. They were classified. Besides, what good would it do to admit that a Soviet bomber made it all the way to Fairbanks without a response, even if we knew damn well it was there before it crossed the coast.

I suspect these balloon flights have more to do with probing our detection capabilities than with surveillance.

What mystifies me is that Trump didn't shoot one down and brag about it, as we all know he'd have done.

That, in turn, makes me wonder if Trump was even told about them.

my thoughts, anyway

Have you tried to provide feedback to a company online?

It's become bloody impossible.

As some of you know, my wife and I live about somewhere between 3.5 and 4.5 hours apart, depending on traffic. So while classes are in session, I commute every weekend.

My wife was in an accident three or four weeks ago. She and our daughter were fine, but the car was a total loss. It was one of those chain-reaction multi-car affairs on a city freeway, meaning insurance companies are still trying to sort out the liability; until then, it's hard for her to get a new car. Before classes began, this merely meant I took on the title of "chauffeur." But classes started last week. I headed back, and she got a rental car to keep her going until I returned.

A leak arose in the cooling line of my own car. The part of the line with the leak in this particular car (Kia Niro hybrid) is part of the same unit as the catalytic converter. Thus, the whole unit - including the catalytic converter - must be replaced. The repair has to be done by a Kia dealership, and they wouldn't be able to look at it until next week. (The diagnosis was made not by the dealership, but by a local auto service business I trust. And on the bright side, this setup does make the catalytic converter more theft-resistant.) Thus, I had to rent a car to get back with my family. Slight nuisance and a cost I'd rather not have to absorb, but things are how they are, so off to a local office of a rental agency I went.

(This is one of the major international car rental companies. I probably shouldn't name it, but it rhymes with "hurts."

The car made it about a third of the way. I stopped to get something at a convenience store in a very rural area, and after that, the car basically wouldn't start completely after I pressed the start button. (I won't go into details, but the problem appears to be with the car's entire electrical system and not the battery or transmission.)

I don't blame the company for the faulty car. Cars break down all the time, and one cannot always sniff out a lemon from a car that otherwise looks fine. Nor do I blame the agent who set up the rental - he was, presumably, not a trained mechanic. But I nevertheless ran into a comedy of errors from the company as a whole.

First - we eventually established that the car wasn't drivable, but my first impulse was to check the user manual to make sure I wasn't overlooking something. But the user manual wasn't in the car.

I was able to find a pdf of the user manual online with my phone, but between the size of my phone screen and the setup of the manual, it was all but useless.

Second - the first person I encountered on the company's roadside emergency assistance line listened to me for a few minutes, then switched me over to an automated message with instructions for filling out an accident report and bringing it to the local rental office. Beyond the fact that I wasn't actually in an accident, this was worthless advice - I was stranded in a very small town with no way to take such a form to a rental office.

The next person was a lot more helpful. She arranged a tow for the broken-down car and a Lyft ride to the nearest office that was open - which happened to be 2.5 hours away at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago. These seem like simple tasks, but it took more than an hour, much of which was spent on hold. (O'Hare is actually close to my destination, so that wasn't really too big of an inconvenience.)

The problem was that nearly all of this company's offices close at noon on Saturdays. This includes Moline, IL, which is a reasonably large town with a regional airport less than an hour from where I was stranded. I mean, I get that some businesses haven't recovered fully from the pandemic, but you'd think a company in the business of renting vehicles that might break down, stranding a customer in the middle of nowhere, might keep longer business hours on days when many people travel. (For some reason, the tow company they hired also came from Chicago. The Quad Cities may not have an office for the rental company with reasonable working hours, but they certainly have towing companies.)

That agent - who, as I said, was overall very helpful - gave the Lyft driver the wrong address for my location. He ended up driving 20 miles in the wrong direction before realizing I wasn't just standing at the point on the side of the freeway provided by the agent, to whom I provided the precise address of the convenience store where I was stranded. I also told her which exit on the freeway the driver should take; the store is something like a third of a mile off the freeway.

The bright spot was the staff I encountered at O'Hare, all of whom were paragons of courtesy and professionalism. They all went out of their way to help. But that help was delayed because I was never given a case number, nor had they been informed that the original rental vehicle was being towed. (They learned of this from the text message the towing company sent me.) In fact, they appear to have heard nothing about the situation at all, and they were (properly) reluctant to just hand a vehicle over to me.

I finally made it back, albeit several hours late and in a sour mood.

So - for obvious reasons, I want to provide some feedback to this company. Some of it will, of course, be in the form of a nastygram. I encountered one employee who was incompetent, and their internal communication system sucks. They failed to provide a user manual for the car I was provided. I was almost left stranded in a town with no hotel, no taxi service (and very few people who drive for Lyft or Uber), and limited ability to tow a rental vehicle to the closest business location.

But go to the web site for this company, and there's no meaningful way to provide any sort of feedback. Go to "contact us," and they phone numbers where I can set up a new rental, along with "frequently asked questions" that came nowhere near to describing anything I dealt with.

At this point, I may just end up sending the letter to the company's president. It's the closest thing to an email address for complaints I can find.

Do they not want to improve their business? Do they not want to know of employees who should be replaced? Or employees who should be recognized for exemplary service? Or issues that really should be addressed if they want to keep customers returning for business?

Seriously - am I the only one who's encountered this?

out of curiosity (regarding George Santos)

What happens if he ends up losing his seat? Not sure even a particle of decency remains in his blood stream, so I don't envision him actually resigning unless things get way worse for him (which they might), but he may end up out on his ass regardless.

I don't know New York election law. Would a special election be held, or would the governor appoint someone?

grades are in - further advice for college students.

I submitted the grades for my course just now. My semester is officially over.

Only it isn't. I will, no doubt, spend several days fielding questions from students. All of my friends in higher education are fielding the very same questions. So let me assist by answering them.

"How far was I from the next highest grade?" Not close enough. Otherwise, you'd have gotten the next highest grade.

"Can I come in to discuss some homework assignments, quizzes, and exams from earlier in the semester?" When I'm back in town, yes. But please bear in mind - nickel-and-diming for points after grades have been submitted rarely, if ever, results in an improved letter grade. The number of points awarded back to you won't be enough to push you over the threshold.

"What can I do to get a higher grade?" The time to ask that question is before you take the final exam - not after.

I actually get it. You might need a certain GPA to remain eligible for financial support, or you might be applying for an MBA program, medical school, graduate school, or whatnot. I don't WANT to give you a low grade. But I have to treat everyone the same. So do my colleagues.

And please, for the love of whatever deity or deities may or may not exist - don't beg. It only makes you look pathetic.

On the other hand -

"I think you got some of the math wrong. Can you double-check the scores entered for me?" Absolutely! Data entry errors happen. We're as error-prone as any other human being. I'm way more than willing to make corrections as needed.

But it helps if you kept whatever was given back to you. I might take you at your word that I entered an exam score incorrectly, or I might not. (I'm generally inclined to do that, but I've got colleagues who are far less trusting.). But I'll certainly make the correction if you can show me the exam itself.

I'm also willing to make sure your final exam was scored correctly. I'm less happy to do this for midterms and quizzes taken weeks ago, but I'll usually relent and take a look. But as with the nickel-and-dime negotiations in which we're often asked to take part, don't expect anything to change. It does happen, but not very often.

I would imagine most of you don't need this advice, but I put it out here in case any of you do.

for whatever reason, I'm watching the original version of Red Dawn.

I thought it was rediculous - fun, but rediculous - when I saw it in the theater when it came out.

Try watching it now, in light of Russia's performance in Ukraine. It's even more rediculous.

about that comment I posted last Thursday.

I commented about an event sponsored by the Young Americans for Freedom that happened in my department's building.

Upon reflection, I shouldn't have used disparaging language against students at my own institution. I regret that.

(Not saying I like what the organization stands for - only that I crossed a line when I spoke about the members themselves. I've got an ethical duty to avoid doing that.)

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