Justice, mental health, and redirected aggression

I’ve not written for long enough that I’m out of practise, so just a couple of quickies.
First is, if you have any interest in mental health as it relates to the justice system (and if you vote, you should), but haven’t done a lot of research in those areas, you should take an hour and listen to a recent CBC podcast, “The Enright Files – Mental Health Maladies”. They touch on a lot of issues that I discussed in a paper I did for class last term, which I hope to eventually discuss further here. The popular theories of justice, the opinions of the courts regarding justice, and the ideas of mental health professionals are all at odds with one another, and all of this is coloured by societal attitudes towards mental illness. Enright also talks to an English prof who has a great deal of interest in things like social dysfunction disorders and the DSM. The show originally aired on Ideas, I caught it on the podcast of The Best of Ideas on 4 February 2008.

The other thing I wanted to point to is something I wish I’d known about while I was writing that paper. It is a Chronicle of Higher Education article on redirected aggression. I was reminded of it this morning watching my cats; my cat was stalking my wife’s, but my wife’s cat can’t really take him on, so instead, she went over and hit my stepdaughter’s cat.
Barash writes:

We might also want to reconsider “justice” and ask what is really going on when victims demand punishment, nearly always claiming, of course, that they are not out for revenge. But, in fact, aren’t they insisting — although not in so many words — that their pain be offloaded onto someone else?

Something to think about.
This post brought to you by the letter R, and the words retributionism and redirected aggression.

Aphorism regarding academic computing

While discussing with my boss the potential for purchasing (or rather, recommending the purchasing of) some HPC equipment for one or more of our research groups, something occurred to me while I was making observations regarding the usage of their existing equipment.  Mike’s Law of Academic Computoring is still in a pre-natal form, but it goes something like this:

The problem with things like high performance computing is that it is about getting things done.  Academia is not (necessarily) about getting things done, it is about getting as many papers published as quickly as possible.  If learning how to better use computing resources gets in the way of paper publication, then the learning takes a back seat.

Pretty long and gross, but it seems to sum up my experience with both procurement and “real-world” usage patterns so far.  As with anything there are, of course, exceptions.  But, in my experience, the academics who really want to continually learn how to use new technologies in order to fulfill their real ends are much harder to find than the ones who want things to never change so they can continue doing things in the ways they’re used to.

Note that this is not (really) a value judgement – it doesn’t matter to me how academics produce their work, only that they do.  But where academic departments run into trouble is when those who want New Ways conflict with those who feel more productive using the Old Ways, which will inevitably pinch the system administrators who have to support them.

Interdisciplinary seminars

I’ve now taken seminars in two topics, history and cognitive science.  My history seminars were full of other people, mostly just like me: third and fourth year honours history students.  Some were doing joint honours in political science or psychology, and some were older (we had a pair of retirees in our class, for instance), but we all had more or less the same sort of background.  My cognitive science seminar – listed as phil/psych – was mostly philosophy students, but there were at least three or four psychology students and three or four engineers.  A chunk of the philosophy students and at least a couple of the psych students were also grad students – we had 6 in total, I think evenly split between Masters and PhD.

My experience was that while the cross-disciplined approach seemed to be less “echo chamber”y[0], it also took a bit longer for us to cohere, despite the greater academic experience of those in the class.  (As it was, us old fogeys tended to dominate the conversation anyway.)  For a 10 week seminar, taking four or five weeks for everybody to feel comfortable talking – and it wasn’t until the last couple of weeks that we had actual disagreements – is just not fast enough.

I’m not sure how one could kick-start the process.  Obviously, familiarity with one another would help – perhaps UW could look at a series of CogSci seminars.  It doesn’t seem to me that there’s an attempt made to keep a class of people together, as we had at UNB in my history program.

[0] Google and context will tell you what I mean, if you’re not sure.  I’m resisting the obvious Wikipedia link, but here’s a Salon article about its alleged effects on the 2004 Howard Dean campaign.

Mens rea in Canadian law

I wrote a 15 page (ok, 17 page, but some of that includes bibliography) paper for my cogsci course on consciousness, centred on fMRI scans and their application in the law.[0]  So articles like this tweak my interest. 

I’m of two minds on the “drunken defense”.  On the one hand, I do think it’s possible to be so blotto that you don’t know your own name, never mind what you did.  On the other hand, what the fellow did was reprehensible and he should be locked away.  Clearly he lacks the controls that we ought to expect of our citizens.  I don’t think second degree murder is the most appropriate crime to convict him with, but I don’t know that our legal system has exactly the best way to handle this sort of case anyway.

[0] Summary: fMRI scans are here and they’re not going away.  I take a generally compatibilist approach to matters of cognition, which is to say I’m too wussy to pick a side.  So, I argue that society is pretty much going to have to accept that we don’t have as much free will as we think we do, and laws are going to have to change as a result – our concept of mens rea is entirely incorrect.

Why your writing sucks.

And mine does too.

Since I’ve a paper due in, oh, about 14 hours give or take, and I’ve another 4ish pages or 1000ish words (whichever comes first) to go, writing is even on my mind than usual as of late.  My wife sent me a link this morning, and I’ve been off and on skimming the site through the day.  One which resonates clearly with me: poor grammar.  I think I tend towards the fogey side; some would probably argue I shot right over that edge and am plummeting, but hey.

All that aside, the site is a good read, and it’s not just for dead-tree authors either.