Sunday, February 29, 2004

This blog is now anonymous.

I've decided to become anonymous -- I'm afraid that having my identity attached to this blog will forever identify me as a not-serious-enough philosopher, which may be detrimental to the job search, many years down the line. Also, I think it'd be fun to watch people try to sleuth my true identity. I'm not sure what steps to take in order to become anonymous, though. I considered adopting a pseudonym and removing my name, email address, and AIM name from the sidebar, but reasoned that if I did that, then people wouldn't be able to contact me if they had something interesting to say. I'd hate to miss out. There's also the inconvenient fact that my URL is currently tied rather closely to my name. Fortunately for me, names need not pick out unique individuals, and there's no reason to believe that mine does. With this in mind, the following possibilities should make it clear that, as my blog stands now, you don't know who I am, and that I'm therefore in an important sense anonymous:
  • You think that I am Jonathan Ichikawa. Possibly, I'm not -- I'm someone else whose name is 'Jonathan Ichikawa'.
  • I might, as far as you know, be lying -- it may not be the case that my name is 'Jonathan Ichikawa'. Furthermore, Jonathan Ichikawa might be in on the trick, such that he pretends to be the author when you talk to him in the non-internet world.
  • You assume, based on the fact that my language appears similar to English, that I am writing in English. This may not be the case -- I may be writing in Shmenglish, which is almost identical to English, except with respect to the way that speakers or writers identify themselves (also, some things look like typos in English but are correctly-spelled in Shmenglish). So in fatc, I may not have even alleged to have been Jonathan Ichikawa.
  • Nobody knows the real me.
Unless you can definitively rule out these scenarios, it is not the case that you know my identity. Whew, that's a relief.

Happy Birthday Frederic

Today is Frederic's (tenor lead, The Pirates of Penzance) thirty-seventh birthday. He was born in 1856.

Mechanic on Sunday

I do not understand why no mechanics are open on Sundays. I'm stuck in Boston, and was planning to drive Emily to New York. This frustrates.

Friday, February 27, 2004

G&S Pet Names

I used to maintain an online diary... slightly like this blog in some respects, but more (slightly) more likely to have entries about how I was having a bad day or trouble with my girlfriend. I was looking through it this evening and found this entry from December 16, 2002. I still think these are neat ideas, so I thought I'd note them again.
Someday, I will own a non-empty subset of the following set of pets:
  • Orange tropical fish named The Pirate King
  • Black ferret named Ko-Ko
    • White mouse named Pitti-Sing
    • White mouse named Peep-Bo
    • White mouse named Yum-Yum
  • A Gila Monster named The Mikado
  • A yellow finch named Phyllis
  • A cat named Phoebe
    • A hamster named Marco
    • A hamster named Giuseppe
  • A racoon named Dr. Daly
    • A golden retriever named Hilarion
    • A golden retriever named Cyril
    • A golden retriever named Florian
  • A very large white cat named The Fairy Queen
  • A very large black cat named Dame Carruthers
  • One of those droopy-faced grumpy-looking dogs named Gama
  • A boa constrictor named Katisha
  • A peacock named Bunthorne
I find these fun.

Paranoia Externalism?

There's an old joke: "Just because I'm paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get me." The latest Dilbert cartoon suggests otherwise: I take the inference to be, they are trying to kill you, therefore you're not paranoid for thinking so. The Dilbert position amounts to a kind of paranoia-externalism -- whether you're paranoid depends in part upon external factors. The common-sense idea, which underwrites the old joke above, is that paranoia is merely a mental state. I think that in this case, common sense is right and Dilbert is wrong.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

The funniest 49ers news in the history of the universe

Terrell Owens is not a free agent. 49ers, presumably, will trade him for a #1 pick. I vote we trade up (or just use our new absurdly high pick) and find us a brand new superstar wideout. I was a T.O. fan until the end of last season. Once he 'knew' he was leaving the Niners, he had no reservations about badmouthing everyone he could. This is the best case of football karma in recorded history. (I read it first at: Brayden King, even though I check for 49ers news daily. =P)

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Hume's Law

I'm working on a paper about Hume's Law, the principle that "no 'is' from an 'ought'." I think there's a lot to be said for it -- I think it was an important insight, and that a proper understanding of it will yield important insights into normativity. I also think I've never seen a decent formulation of it that wasn't false. Here's the gist -- the intuitive part -- the part I think is *right*: suppose I want to prove a moral statement. (We're working with an intuitive definition of "moral statement", here -- "Murder is wrong," or "Murder is right," or "Freddie ought to keep her promise," etc. are all pretty clearly examples of moral statements.) Hume says I'm doing something wrong if I think I can prove a moral statement by logic without relying on some moral premise. Example: suppose I try to run the following argument:
  1. If I go to bed now, I wonÂ’t finish my project before lunch tomorrow.
  2. I promised Emily that I would finish my project before lunch tomorrow.
  3. Therefore, I ought not to go to bed now.
That argument isn't valid -- (3) doesn't follow from (1) and (2). We're missing a "bridge" premise (maybe something like "I ought to always keep my promises"). There is a 'gap' between the moral and the non-moral, and logic isn't going to get us across it. Yesterday I made a comment on an interesting blog post by Jeremy Pierce which invoked Hume's Law. He said: One sexual act creates a permanent bond between these animals. That doesn't always happen with humans, but I'm wondering whether this is scientific evidence that it should. I replied: It's not obvious to me that there's ever (or that it's ever conceptually possible for there to be) scientific evidence establishing any should-conclusion. (This is roughly Hume's Law.) He responded (I'm quoting excerpts here, apologies if I miss important context): I think Hume's perspective on this issue is actually pretty silly once you think about it. ... The problem is that Hume says there's never a fact that can give rise to a moral truth. Utilitarianism has facts about what creates happiness. Social contract theories will have facts about what rational people would agree to. Ethical egoists have facts about what's in your personal self-interest. All these theories then say that those facts determine what's morally right and wrong. But I think Jeremy's missing the point here. Of course he's right that a utilitarian (take, for example, me) believes that the facts of the matter determine its ethical properties. But utilitarianism -- or any other normative moral theory -- is a substantive moral claim. No facts, by themselves, can demonstrate something to be right or wrong. They only can once we add in, as a premise, our moral theory. It's just like when we added in the premise about how we ought to keep our promises in the example above. So I think there's something very importantly right about Hume's Law. But it's notoriously difficult to formalize just what it is. Here's a first take: "No valid argument has only non-ethical premises and an ethical conclusion." But here are several counterexamples:
  • Everything Jeremy says is true. Jeremy says murder is wrong. Therefore, murder is wrong.
  • Dan is a vegetarian. Therefore, either Dan is a vegetarian or we ought to condemn him for hypocrisy.
  • Fred cannot save Jordie. Therefore, Fred does not have an obligation to save Jordie.
My project in my paper is to sort through these, and identify in what sense exactly Hume's Law is correct. I really believe there is something interestingly true about it. Thoughts?

Religion in America. And as a bonus: bad arguments!

I'm very aware that a life in academia is almost necessarily a life that is out of touch with "the folk". I have to remind myself often that In the Real World, abortion, homosexual marriage, and Gettier counterexamples to JTB knowledge are controversial. But sometimes I'm still shocked to see how small my minority is on many issues and beliefs. The BBC has a feature on Religion in America today. Some extremely surprising statistics, quoted from the article:
  • A Gallup Poll released in November 2003 found that six out of ten Americans said that religion was "very important" in their lives. In contrast, in Canada and the United Kingdom, two societies often perceived as quite similar to the United States, only 28% and 17% respectively described religion as similarly important in their lives.
  • A survey done in 2001 by the City University of New York Graduate Center found that 85% of Americans identify with some religious faith.
  • An ABC news poll, done in February 2004, found that approximately 60% of Americans believe that the Genesis creation account, Noah's ark and a global flood, and Moses' parting of the Red Sea are "literally true."
  • According to an ICM poll in January 2004, Americans believe in the supernatural (91%)
  • an afterlife (74%)
  • "belief in a God/higher power makes you a better human being" (82%)
  • God or a higher power judged their actions (76%)
  • "would die for their God/beliefs" (71%).
I find some of these numbers just plain difficult to believe. The author of the BBC piece, a Southern Baptist named Dr. Richard Land, goes on to suggest, in a very strange way, that it's a good thing that America is so religious:
In 1880 Dostoyevsky wrote in The Brothers Karamazov that "If God does not exist, then everything is permissible." The history of his native Russia, wracked by the atrocities of atheistic communism for most of the 20th century, serves as a most graphic example of the truth of his conclusion.
The history of Russia proves that if God does not exist, then everything is permissible? What? Did historical Russia demonstrate the truth of each clause? Russia proved that there is no God, and that everything is permissible? Or maybe historical Russia proved that there is a God, thus making the conditional trivally true, because of it's false hypothesis. But if historical Russia did actually prove that there is a God, he might better advance his cause by showing us that proof. He goes on to offer one more argument for his thesis that America is better off with religion (honest, I'm not clipping anything relevant out of these arguments):
Nazism, above all detested religion because it called for allegiance to something greater than the state, namely God.
So, yeah. We're different from the Nazis. U-S-A! U-S-A!

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Bush accused of being a Republican male, too

President Bush today announced his backing of a constitutional amendment to prohibit gay marriage. The BBC has this headline for a story about reactions to that announcement: Bush accused of anti-gay stance. That's a silly headline, because there's no room for debate as to whether Bush has taken an anti-gay stance. A more reasonable headline would have said something like "Bush attacked for anti-gay stance."

Monday, February 23, 2004

Tracking Back for us Lowly Folk

Volokh today indicated that that wonderful resourse, Technorati, could give trackback-kind of features to those of us who aren't powered by systems that give us trackback. This site shows how to do it for many such systems, but I was disappointed to see that, for a variety of uninteresting but frustrating reasons, it does not have a method that will work for those of us who use blogger and have "#" symbols in our archive links. I spent an hour trying to come up with a workaround solution, then asked my friend Dave Price for help. Three hours later, we've achieved success. It was a lot harder than one might imagine. Blogger tags didn't cut it. I won't go into details. But here's the Javascript code Dave came up with, if you want to use it yourself. A suitable variant on the following can go inside your "blogger" tag: Thanks very much, Dave. UPDATE: Kevin Aylward has blogger code at his site now, too. It's a lot like this code, but it ends up making a prettier link. There may not be any rational reason for me to use Dave's code instead of Kevin's, but I'm emotionally attached to Dave's, having invested a recent evening in it. Maybe I'll switch eventually.

Finally, some 49ers off-season moves

The San Francisco 49ers announced two pieces of good news today: (1) Linebacker Julian Peterson will be a 49er again next year -- they were unable to negotiate a long-term contract, but they have placed an exclusive franchise tag on him. So the best 49er defensive player is under contract for one more year, at least. (2) Running back Kevan Barlow has signed a five-year contract. He would have been a restricted free agent this year, and an unrestricted one next year. The upshot:
  • Anyone still holding onto the possibility of keeping Terell Owens (or getting something by trading his contract) ought now to let go. Our franchise tag has been used, and TO's not coming back.
  • Odds are pretty good that Barlow is now the man in San Francisco, and will stop sharing time with Garrison Hearst. I'd be willing to bet that Hearst, still a great back, assuming his surgery-recovery went well, will get a starting job somewhere else. Maybe Detroit.
  • Jamal Robertson will probably get a chance to step up as the number-two running back. He's been solid so far.
  • Front office attention will likely turn now to Ahmed Plummer (unrestricted free agent) and Jeff Garcia (trying to cut pay or restructure contract).
So far it's been a dismal off-season, but the long-term deal for Barlow is definitely good news. And although I wish we had a long contract for Peterson, too, I'm definitely happy to have him (virtually) assured for next year.

Which FRCP are you?

Michelle Boardman at the Volokh Conspiracy linked to a quiz designed to identify which Federal Rules of Civil Procedure its participants are. I, like Michelle, am Rule 11:
You were designed to make sure that attorneys in federal cases make reasonable inquiries into fact or law before submitting pleadings, motions, or other papers. You were a real hardass in 1983, when you snuffed out all legal creativity from federal proceedings and embarassed well-meaning but overzealous attorneys. You loosened up a bit in 1993, when you began allowing plaintiffs to make allegations in their complaints that are likely to have evidenciary support after discovery, and when you allowed a 21 day period for the erring attorney to withdraw the errant motion. Sure, you keep everything running on the up and up, but it's clear that things would be a lot more fun without you around. Which Federal Rule of Civil Procedure Are You?
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Thanks to Jones McClure Publishing for making "FRCP" a household term (subjective to me).

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Kinds of "knows" and disjunctive concepts and the value(s) of funny things

The keynote address at our philosophy conference was Jonathan Schaffer, "Knowing the Answer" -- a really excellent talk. His idea is that "knowing that", which epistemologists have always focused on, is actually not the basic form of knowledge. To know, Schaffer says, is to know the answer to some relevant question. One (fairly minor) part of his project was to demonstrate that knowing-wh (his term for knowing the answer to a question, like "knowing what I had for lunch") employs the same concept of thing as knowing-that. (The worry is that maybe it's just kind of an accident that we use the word "know" for both cases, like we use "bank" for a financial institution and for the edge of a river.) So he proposed a kind of neat test -- we can tell we're using the same concept in two cases if we can apply it to a conjunction of them. That is,
I know that you ate pizza and what your favorite kind of pizza is
makes perfect sense, while
I ran the 100-meter dash and for governor
does not. I have two things to say about this. Thing to say about this #1. Is this a definitive test? Maybe it's just prima facia evidence... I'm thinking about knowing a person, which I'm pretty sure Schaffer thinks is a different kind of knowing. I don't think it'd be all that weird to say
I know your mother and what she looks like.
Do you share my intuition? Thing to say about this #2. I think English would be a really cool language if we were able to apply homophones over conjunctions. I have some control over my concepts, right? I think I'm going to go ahead and try to acquire some disjunctive concepts. I encourage you to do the same. So I do want to be able to say things like "After dinner, I ate a date, then went on another with a med student" and "my boss fired my partner and up the grill." And I don't want to just be able to come up with these by being clever -- I want my mind to actually instantiate concepts like "planned romantic meeting or fruit from a palm tree". I that if we actually spoke and thought like this, the world would be better for two reasons:
  1. Intrinsic value of humor. All the cool kids are adopting absurd but apparently unrebuttable philosophical views, so I will too. I claim two-partedly that (a) the world would be objectively funnier if we spoke and thought like this, and (b) objective humor is intrinsically valuable.
  2. Extrinsic value of humor. Even if there is no objective funniness, or if it's not intrinsically valuable, we do recognize an extrinsic value to humor -- it makes people laugh, which makes them happy, which is intrinsically valuable. Distant future human linguists and philosophers of language or alien observers who study our concepts (either as historical artifacts, or in the versions that persist far into the future) will surely get a kick out of these highly artificial-looking but thoroughly internalized disjunctive concepts.
Ok, I'm done for now.

Ralph Nader!

(The exclamation point in this post title is meant to be, in A. J. Ayer's terms, a "special kind" of exclamation point used to indicate moral disapproval. If I were reading the title out loud, I'd read the name with an obviously disapproving tone of voice. In this written version, Jamie Dreier would draw a "U" over the top part of the exclaimation point, to make the part above the dot look like a pitchfork. Sadly, I have no such character on my keyboard, so you'll have to imagine.) Those who have known me for a while know that I'm very anti-two-party-American politics. I've believed for a long time that our two-party system gives voters insufficient choice. This year, for instance, there is no candidate whom a voter who was both strongly anti-war and anti-abortion could wholeheartedly endorse. Also, I think that the two-party system tends to encourage both parties to push toward the middle, leaving no room for real ideology in political discourse. I voted for Harry Browne for President in 2000. I wished Ralph Nader success. I bought into the typical third-party rhetoric: "there's no real difference between the Republicans and the Democrats." I believed, with the other third-party proponents, that a Republican and a Democrat will do pretty much the same thing... the only real vote is a third-party vote. George W. Bush proved us wrong. I've taken the message -- at least sometimes, there is a very big difference between Republicans and Democrats. Ralph Nader, it seems, has not. I don't know whether I used to be wrong about the two-party system and have since matured to a point at which I understand it, or whether the political landscape has merely changed to such an extent that my former opinion is no longer correct. But I have to question the sincerety of someone who both is not an idiot and who claims, today, that it doesn't really matter whether George Bush or a Democrat is the next President. Ralph Nader has no business in the 2004 Presidential race. UPDATE: Dave Estlund, who is much more informed and insightful about these issues, has a somewhat different and very interesting take on Nader's run. Check it out.

Beings we ought not to torture

This weekend was the very awesome 8th Annual Brown Philosophy Graduate Conference. We heard a lot of great speakers, engaged in a lot of great conversation, and consumed a lot of greatly socially-stimulating consumables. It was pretty easily the most positive experience I've had in grad school thus far. Benjamin Whiting's paper, "Epistemic Rephrasal and the Hard Problem of Consciousness", made me recognize an interesting intuition in myself. Now, I will share it with you. Ben defended a pretty attractive hybrid theory of consciousness under which phenomenal states are identified with physical (brain) states, and psychological states are defined functionally. One example we discussed was pain -- there are two senses of "pain", which, according to Ben, we often conflate in ordinary English. (This isn't a big deal, because they always coincide in humans.) The two pains: Phenomenal pain: What it feels like to be in pain. Psychological pain: A disposition to say "ouch", writhe in agony, avoid the stimulus, etc. Ben's suggestion was that the psychological version of pain is the fundamental one (just as molecular motion is the 'real' heat, not the sensation). To (partially) motivate this, he introduced a Martian thought experiment: suppose there are Martians whose physical constitutions are very different than ours. Nevertheless, when we poke a Martian with a cattle prod, it screams, writhes, etc. The Martian certainly doesn't have a brain state corresponding to our 'pain' states, because he doesn't have a brain anything like ours, but we do want to say that he's in pain, and that it'd be morally wrong to torture him. But once we start talking about thought experiments and different kinds of beings and pains, I think about Hilary Putnam's Super-Spartans. I wondered how the intuitions would go in the other direction: imagine beings that are physically very like us, but who train themselves to never display the outward signs of pain. When we poke them with cattle prods, C-fiber firings in their brains occur, just like they do in our brains when we're in pain. But the Super-Spartans just sit calmly -- they never say "ouch", never writhe, etc. I still have a pretty strong intuition that these people feel pain when I poke them with a cattle prod, and that it's morally wrong to do so in just the same way it's wrong to torture the Martians. I'm not sure what this means. It's possible that I'm just associating psychological pain with phenomenological (physicalist) pain very tightly, and ought not to. But if my moral intuitions here are correct, then I think it suggests that pain, the concept (at least with respect to morality) is conceptually tied both to behavioral dispositions and to brain states. I admit, that's a weird consequence... I'm not sure how to sort all this out. I think I'll start with a blog post in which I lay out the issue.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Being linked: good, but not intrinsically so

My Java "Who's Linking" sidebar thingy tells me that I have twelve hits in the last twenty-four hours from an adult-themed dating site. I've identified two possible explanations: (1) Someone on that site is linking to my blog for some reason. That person is not me. If you genuinely clicked through from somebody's personal, leave a comment or send me an email; I'm curious. (2) This is a particularly innovative form of blog-SPAM.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Which Old Testament Character are YOU?

I saw this in Jeremy Pierce's blog, and for some reason I filled it out. The questions seem to have very little to do with Old Testament characters... but it alleges that I am Nehemiah. I think most of the description is at least somewhat reasonable about me, except for the second-to-last clause. I'd be a lousy politician. You are NEHEMIAH!
Which Old Testament Character are you?

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Monday, February 16, 2004

Transcendental Certainty?

I've read an argument I don't think I'm comfortable with, but I'm not quite sure why. Any suggestions? I'm reading Janet Broughton's Descartes's Method of Doubt for Ernie Sosa's epistemology seminar. In the beginning of Part II of her book, she attributes a very interesting argument to Descartes in Meditation II. She doesn't believe that he's actually employing the cogito at the point everyone thinks he does. Very briefly, here's the traditional interpretation that Broughton does not adopt (she calls it the "Cogito First reading"):
I am certain that I think. Anything that thinks must exist. Therefore I can be certain that I exist.
Broughton thinks that Descartes is employing a different argument to reach certainty of his own existence -- one which does not depend on a prior certainty. Here is the argument:
1. The only way I could doubt that I exist is to invoke a skeptical scenario. 2. The invocation of any skeptical scenario implies my existence. 3. Therefore, all skeptical scenarios about my existence are incoherent. 4. Therefore, I cannot entertain rational doubt about "I exist". 5. Therefore, I can be absolutely certain that "I exist" is true.
I'm sure that something about this argument makes me uncomfortable, but I'm not sure what it is exactly. It definitely has to do with the "certainty" status magically appearing in (5). Is (5) really a valid inference from (4)? It seems plausible that (5) could be a valid inference from "There is no rational grounds for doubt that I exist". But (4) just says that I can't entertain any. Isn't there too much psychology here for the inference to go through? Maybe there are possible grounds which I'm psychologically unable to entertain? I'm just thinking this through for the first time, so any suggestions/pointers/criticisms/confirmations would be appreciated.

More Googly fun

Two very odd Google hits recorded this morning: conditional probability, beauty or beast show (#8) "Kurt Warner" anti-semitism (#23)

Navy Jet Fighter on Ebay

This looks legitimate.

Saturday, February 14, 2004

Voting and Bank Deposits?

A column in the New York Times has many important and worthwhile things to say about the care due to ensure the right to vote. It also has what seems to me to be a very bad analogy:
No bank would be allowed to withdraw money from a depositor's account based on the sort of rough name matches and loose procedures used in voter purges. The right to vote should be treated with the same respect as a bank deposit, and guarded as carefully.
Unless I'm even more confused than I think I am, there are three problems with this analogy:
  1. Analogy Agreement. The author first establishes a point using the example of bank withdrawals, then makes a claim about deposits.
  2. False Empirical Assumption. Bank deposits aren't guarded very carefully; I've deposited paychecks on behalf of friends (into their own accounts). There's no reason to guard deposits all that carefully; if someone wants to deposit money into someone's else's account, few people would mind.
  3. Too-weak Normative Claim. Relatedly, the right to vote should be treated very carefully -- much more so than the right to deposit money into someone's account.
All three of these problems could be fixed by a closing paragraph that said:
No bank would be allowed to withdraw money from a depositor's account based on the sort of rough name matches and loose procedures used in voter purges. The right to vote should be treated with the same respect as a bank withdrawal, and guarded as carefully.
I guess I'll go ahead and tentatively assume that's what they meant. Still, it's a pretty obvious and weird kind of mistake to show up in something like the New York Times. Am I making some kind of mistake in my analysis?

Not suitable for children or deaf people

Alexis mentioned this a few days back... I didn't click the link then, but I did just now. What I found was almost too stupid to believe. I'm quite serious -- I'm skeptical about the facts. Surely even the Bush Administration would do anything this randomly stupid? From an opinion column last weekend in the Palm Beach Post:
The Bush administration has decided that people with bad hearing have bad judgment, too, and need special guidance from the federal government. So the U.S. Department of Education is declaring about 200 television programs inappropriate for closed-captioning and denying federal grant requests to make them accessible to the hearing-impaired. The department made its decisions based on the recommendations of a five-member panel. Who the five members are, only the government seems to know, and it isn't saying. But the shows they censored suggest a perspective that is Talibanesque. The government is refusing to caption Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, apparently fearing that the deaf would fall prey to witchcraft if they viewed the classic sitcoms. Your government also believes that Law & Order is too intense for the hard-of-hearing. So is Power Rangers. You can rest easy knowing that your federal tax dollars aren't being spent to promote Sanford and Son, Judge Wapner's Animal Court and The Loretta Young Show within the deaf community. Kids with hearing problems can forget about watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, classic cartoons or Nickelodeon features. Even Roy Rogers and Robin Hood are out. Sports programming took a heavy hit, too. The government has decided that people with hearing problems don't need to watch NASCAR, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, the National Football League or Professional Golf Association tournaments. ... The Department of Education is refusing to reveal the names of the panel members whose opinions determined the caption grants and also won't disclose the new guidelines. By every appearance, the government has changed its definition of what constitutes a caption-worthy program. But it's keeping the new rules secret. "They apparently used a panel of five individuals and then made the censorship decisions based on the individuals' recommendations," Mr. Brick says. "We have found the identity of one of the panelists. This individual tells us that he never knew he was on such a panel and that his views would be used for censorship. No panel was convened. The five panelists were contacted individually and separately."
I have a hard time taking this at face value. I mean, I'm as anti-Bush administration as the next academic, but this is ridiculous. Please tell me I'm missing a piece of the story.

Etymology resources?

Does anyone have a convenient way to find out how long "bun" has had a meaning in English associated with the human posterior? In particular, would it be reasonable to conclude that in 1881, Gilbert intended "Bunthorne" to mean "pain in the ass"?

Friday, February 13, 2004

Rice Baseball, 1-0 on the season.

Congratulations to the Rice Baseball team, which just defeated Texas Tech in the first game of the season. Including the last leg of the 2003 championship run, the Owls' current winning streak stands at 9. Big game against UT tomorrow.

Gilbert & Sullivan & Normative Ethics

There should be more people writing about ethics and the Savoy Operas. This post is adapted from a post I made today to Savoynet. I've been thinking about Patience from Patience and Frederic from The Pirates of Penzance. Each is clearly motivated by a desire to be virtuous. Each is concerned with doing the right thing, but has some trouble identifying the moral action. Frederic is motivated by his perceived duty -- which he believes requires him to honor contractual technicality agreement to be a pirate. Patience is motivated by the perceived virtue of selflessness, which she believes requires her to love a man she hates. One of the fundamental disagreements in normative ethics is whether consequentialism -- the idea that we should always try to choose actions that will have the best consequences -- is true. Anti-consequentialists reject this claim to allow for agent-centered considerations. To take an extreme example, Kant famously thought that it was morally wrong to tell a lie, even if lying is the only way you can prevent your kids from being murdered (or, for that matter, to prevent your kids from telling lies). A consequentialist, of course, would weigh the negative effect of a lie against the negative effect of murder (or several lies), and conclude that in such a case we morally ought to lie. It's quite literally a case of "the lesser of two evils." Both Frederic and Patience endorse agent-centered considerations. Frederic believes (1) that he is morally required to always fulfill HIS duty ("at any price...", including the horrible deeds which Pirates perform), and (2) that his duty is determined entirely by his technical contractual requirements. The second belief is the problematic one. Frederic's mistake isn't his belief that duty is important -- he was merely incorrect about what his moral duties really were. Patience's mistake, I think, is the greater error. Frederic's anti-consequentialism is based on a mistaken belief about what constitutes duty. Patience fixates on a somewhat reasonable criterion of virtue -- selflessness -- and then grossly misapplies it:
It follows, then, a maiden who Devotes herself to loving you Is prompted by no selfish view.
This, of course, is simply false. Just because loving Bunthorne wouldn't be pleasant for Patience, it doesn't follow that to do so would be *selfless*. (Even if I *hate* torturing people, it wouldn't be selfless of me to torture you!) In point of fact, Patience is fully aware that every maiden in the village is in love with Bunthorne, and that by marrying him, she'd be disappointing everyone else. In that sense, it is the most selfish action she could possibly have chosen. She is placing her own (perceived) virtue above the consideration of those around her. Ironically, her perceived virtue is identified as selflessness. (It is as if she said, "I will be selfless, even though that will make everyone around me miserable.") There are two ways that we can interpret this. One is as a mere conceptual confusion. This is entirely valid and reasonable -- As a rule, Gilbert & Sullivan sopranos are rarely confused of being particularly intelligent. But I think there are textual clues that cast Patience is a morally worse light. Consider the line in which she determines that love is a duty:
It's perfectly dreadful to think of the appalling state I must be in! I had no idea that love was a duty. No wonder they all look so unhappy! Upon my word, I hardly like to associate with myself.
The emphasis is on her new negative feelings about herself. This suggests to me that her new-found "virtue" is a kind of perverted self-punishment, designed merely to ease her conscience. Under this interpretation, Patience isn't *trying* to be selfless at all -- she's trying to martyr herself in order to make herself feel better. (Under her view, self-punishment, mislabeled as "selflessness", is only a means to this end.) This bears on another controversial point in Kantian ethics -- the idea that good will is the only relevant consideration in the evaluation of moral action. This does seem to generate counterintuitive consequences in cases like Patience's, in which she is in one sense acting out of duty, but in another, out of selfish motivation. I think this is related to Savannah's point about the relevance of the sources of our moral beliefs.

John Reed's Birthday

Today is John Reed's 88th birthday. I never saw him perform, but he was my first G&S hero, and his recordings introduced me to all the Grossmith roles. I've since developed a taste for a different kind of musical interpretation of the comic baritone roles, but John Reed is still very important in my G&S appreciation. It is no overstatement to say that in many ways he personifies Gilbert & Sullivan in my mind.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Scandanavia, you say?

The Houston Chronicle reports:
DENTON - Eckerd Corp. has fired three pharmacists who declined to fill an emergency contraception prescription for a woman who had been raped, one of the pharmacists said Wednesday. ... Herr said he declined to fill the prescription for the so-called "morning-after pill" because he believes it could have killed the embryo if the woman already had conceived. Though he had declined five or six times in the past to fill such prescriptions, it was the first time he had been handed one for a rape victim, he said. "I went in the back room and briefly prayed about it," said Herr, who had worked for Eckerd for five years. "I actually called my pastor at Denton Bible Church and asked him what he thought about it." ... Gallagher said Eckerd's employment manual says pharmacists are not allowed to opt out of filling a prescription for religious, moral or ethical reasons. Herr said he did not know about that policy until his supervisors questioned him about it shortly before he was fired.
Gee, he didn't know that he doesn't get to decide who does and does not get their prescriptions filled? Savannah said it right:
cjbrownefan: That's pretty bizarre. cjbrownefan: *sigh* When did the world go mad? Muppet Horde: Long, long ago, I'm afraid. cjbrownefan: Shouldn't it be over it by now, or something? Muppet Horde: What, the world, or the madness? cjbrownefan: The world should be over the madness. Muppet Horde: Agreed. Let's you and me have a revolution, and run the world, and not be mad.

Greatness in Advertising

Two pieces of self-promotion have impressed me recently: (1) I was browsing in that book store on Thayer Street, and I read the description on the back of the cover for a novel called "Jennifer Government." Following is the description, quoted in its entirety:
Taxation has been abolished, the government has been privatized, and employees take the surname of the company they work for. It's a brave new corporate world, but you don't want to be caught without a platinum credit card--as lowly Merchandising Officer Hack Nike is about to find out. Trapped into building street cred for a new line of $2500 sneakers by shooting customers, Hack attracts the barcode-tattooed eye of the legendary Jennifer Government. A stressed-out single mom, corporate watchdog, and government agent who has to rustle up funding before she's allowed to fight crime, Jennifer Government is holding a closing down sale--and everything must go. A wickedly satirical and outrageous thriller about globalization and marketing hype, Jennifer Government is the best novel in the world ever.
I almost bought it, but didn't. It does sound good, though. If the description was accurate, then it's probably very, very good. (2) I auditioned this evening for a student-written Brown musical entitled The Best Brown Musical Ever: The Musical. It reminds me a very good deal of Pre-Med: The Musical, the student musical I was involved in my freshman year at Rice.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

"Providing" Bibles

The Houston Chronicle reports on a California ballot initiative to cause California public schools to provide Bibles to students:
A drive is under way in California to have the state government provide a Bible to every public elementary school student in the state and suggest that schools use the books as texts for the study of literature.
Disappointingly, the Chronicle story is somewhat ambiguous as to what exactly is being considered. Is the suggestion that study of the Bible merely become part of the curriculum, with Bibles being "provided" the same way that math books are? Or are they buying new Bibles every year and sending them home with kids? For the record, I think there are good reasons to study the Bible, and don't have an objection to its study in public schools. But if they're giving students Bibles, that's elevating it to a special status with the pretty apparent motive of spreading Christianity. I'm going to go ahead and guess that's not what's at stake, and suggest that the Houston Chronicle ought to have been clearer on the issue.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Blurring the plagarism line...

Brandon Butler points to a Newsmax poll. His commentary is perfect, so I'll just quote it:
Vote your passion on this sham NewsMax Poll. Man, Newsmax is fair and balanced! Check out this "question": "Should Mel Gibson have portrayed Jesus' death so accurately?" I wonder what questions they might have considered but decided not to include? Here are some possibilities: "Do you think Jews [besides Noam Chomsky, natch] will ever admit that anti-Semitism doesn't exist?" "Do you think Jesus has forgiven Bill Clinton for killing Vince Foster?" "Is there any limit to what liberals will do to undermine President Bush's righteous war against terror?" "Should Rush Limbaugh be telling so much truth so often?"

Reading RSS feeds

I've been experimenting with a few RSS-reading programs, and have found little luck so far. Any suggestions? Ideally, I want a program that is simple to use, that will let me follow all the blogs I read quickly and efficiently, will understand ATOM, and be free. Barring that, I want a program with as many of those attributes as possible.

Monday, February 09, 2004

Gay Penguins!

Saturday's New York Times had a very interesting story about homosexuality in the animal kingdom. Homosexual behavior in animals seems to be more prevalant than I'd realized. The story is full of interesting examples. Here's one:
The open discussion of homosexual behavior in animals is relatively new. "There has been a certain cultural shyness about admitting it," said Frans de Waal, whose 1997 book, "Bonobo: The Forgotten Ape" (University of California Press), unleashed a torrent of discussion about animal sexuality. Bonobos, apes closely related to humans, are wildly energetic sexually. Studies show that whether observed in the wild or in captivity, nearly all are bisexual, and nearly half their sexual interactions are with the same sex. Female bonobos have been observed to engage in homosexual activity almost hourly.
Inevitably, findings like this prompt arguments of one or the other of the following forms: (1) "if animals do it, it must be natural, therefore it's good for humans to do it," and (2) "if animals do it, it's subhuman, so it's bad for humans to do it." I honestly have no idea where the idea that "naturalness" has anything at all to do with morality came from. The Times is to be commended for actually getting that issue right here:
Still, scientists warn about drawing conclusions about humans. "For some people, what animals do is a yardstick of what is and isn't natural," Mr. Vasey said. "They make a leap from saying if it's natural, it's morally and ethically desirable." But he added: "Infanticide is widespread in the animal kingdom. To jump from that to say it is desirable makes no sense. We shouldn't be using animals to craft moral and social policies for the kinds of human societies we want to live in. Animals don't take care of the elderly. I don't particularly think that should be a platform for closing down nursing homes." ... What the animal studies do show, Ms. Zuk observed, is that "sexuality is a lot broader term than people want to think." "You have this idea that the animal kingdom is strict, old-fashioned Roman Catholic," she said, "that they have sex just to procreate." In bonobos, she noted, "you see expressions of sex outside the period when females are fertile. Suddenly you are beginning to see that sex is not necessarily about reproduction." "Sexual expression means more than making babies," Ms. Zuk said. "Why are we surprised? People are animals."
Also, they should be commended for including a picture of gay penguins.

Since everyone's doing it...

Yesterday I found this both on Brian Weatherson's blog and on Katie Southard's livejournal. Today I'll find it on my blog, and so will (did) you. Here is a map of the U.S. states I've been to. create your own visited states map

Getting scared...

...a little behind schedule, but my brain might be catching up. This story requires no commentary from me at this point, so I'll just quote a lot of it.
DES MOINES, Iowa In what may be the first subpoena of its kind since the Communist-hunting days of the 1950s, a federal judge has ordered a university to turn over records about a gathering of anti-war activists. In addition to the subpoena of Drake University, subpoenas were served this past week on four of the activists who attended a Nov. 15 forum at the school, ordering them to appear before a grand jury Tuesday, the protesters said. Federal prosecutors refuse to comment on the subpoenas, served by a local sheriff's deputy who works on the FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force. In addition to records about who attended the forum, the subpoena orders the university to divulge all records relating to the local chapter of the National Lawyer's Guild, a New York-based legal activist organization that sponsored the forum. ... Those served subpoenas include the leader of the Catholic Peace Ministry, the former coordinator of the Iowa Peace Network, a member of the Catholic Worker House, and an anti-war activist who visited Iraq in 2002. They say the subpoenas are intended to stifle dissent. "This is exactly what people feared would happen," said Brian Terrell of the peace ministry, one of those subpoenaed. "The civil liberties of everyone in this country are in danger. How we handle that here in Iowa is very important on how things are going to happen in this country from now on." ... Mark Smith, a lobbyist for the Washington-based American Association of University Professors, said he had not heard of any similar case of a U.S. university being subpoenaed for such records. He said the case brings back fears of the "red squads" of the 1950s and campus clampdowns on Vietnam War protesters. According to a copy obtained by The Associated Press, the Drake subpoena asks for records of the request for a meeting room, "all documents indicating the purpose and intended participants in the meeting, and all documents or recordings which would identify persons that actually attended the meeting." It also asks for campus security records "reflecting any observations made of the Nov. 15, 2003, meeting, including any records of persons in charge or control of the meeting, and any records of attendees of the meeting." Several officials of Drake, a private university with about 5,000 students, refused to comment. A source with knowledge of the investigation said a judge had issued a gag order forbidding them from discussing the subpoena.

Saturday, February 07, 2004

What's it take to be weary?

A small debate has emerged between me and another person on Savoynet. In Princess Ida, Melissa is supposed to have grown up at a women's university, and to have never seen a man before in her life. Upon seeing one in Act II, she says, among other things, the following:
Their cheeks have not that pulpy softness which One gets so weary of in womankind
It was suggested that this line represents an inconsistency on behalf of Gilbert, the author: "Logically, she could not have grown weary of women's faces unless she knew that an alternative existed. You don't grow weary of things when--as far as you've ever known in your life--there is no other way." I don't think that I accept this principle. I posted:
I don't think I agree with this principle at all. Frankly, I've grown weary of the fact that it takes energy and effort to build friendships. I've never seen a friendship just magically appear, but I think it'd be cool if one did, because *I'm weary of the way it always works*. Or consider the "Belle Principle", taken from my favorite Disney Cartoon, Beauty & the Beast. Belle has lived in her small villiage since birth, and doesn't seem to have travelled. Nevertheless, she manages to "want much more than this provincial life". I see no contradiction at all in Melissa's having grown weary of women's faces, even if she's never seen a man's face.
It was justly pointed out to me that I was merely citing another fictional example in the Belle case -- but does anyone seriously think that Beauty & the Beast is psychologicaly unrealistic on the basis of Belle being weary of a town she's never left?

Student discount at Borders

Borders appears to be offering a 20% discount on almost everything (books, DVDs, music, etc) to students tomorrow. Here's information about the Providence store... and it looks like a nation-wide thing. Just thought I'd share, because I'd be pissed off if I learned about it Monday.

Friday, February 06, 2004


This is a follow-up to my last post, regarding a civil suit against CBS claiming injury from the sight of Janet Jackson's breast:
"As a direct and proximate result of the broadcast of the acts, (Carlin) and millions of others saw the acts and were caused to suffer outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious injury," the lawsuit filed by Knoxville attorney Wayne A. Ritchie II states.
According to that reasoning, the citizens of St. Louis, Missouri might be entitled to a class action lawsuit against Fox Networks. After all, as a direct and proximate cause of a Fox broadcast, Rams fans everywhere were presumably caused to suffer outrange, anger, and embarassment. And if watching one's "team" pathetically lose a divisional playoff game at home isn't serious injury, I don't know what is. (Also: Maybe Kurt Warner should sue himself for causing embarassment. Like, several times.) As someone once said, "there was no part of that that wasn't fun."

Breast! Ow!

A comment to a Crooked Timber post yesterday provides a link to this amazing story. You all know about Janet's right breast, right? It got revealed on national TV during Super Bowl halftime. (There's some controversy over whether it was intentional or not.) Well, a woman in Knoxville has filed a class action lawsuit, claiming that the viewing of the breast injured her and millions of other Super Bowl viewers.
Terri Carlin filed her lawsuit "on behalf of all Americans who watched the halftime show" in federal court in Knoxville. ... Carlin, who works at a Knoxville bank, said the exposure and "sexually explicit conduct" by other performers during the show injured viewers. "As a direct and proximate result of the broadcast of the acts, (Carlin) and millions of others saw the acts and were caused to suffer outrage, anger, embarrassment and serious injury," the lawsuit filed by Knoxville attorney Wayne A. Ritchie II states. It doesn't specify the type of serious injury.
I love this country. Here's a confusing bit:
"All of the defendants knew that the Super Bowl, the pre-eminent sports event in the United States, would be watched by millions of families and children," Ritchie wrote. "Nevertheless, (they) included in the halftime show sexually explicit acts solely designed to garner publicity and, ultimately, to increase profits for themselves."
Is it just me, or is that entirely not the right thing to be complaining about at all? It's not like the lawsuit is charging CBS et al with capitalism -- of course they wanted to increase profits. They're supposed to make a case that they've wrongfully damaged us. And of course there's this part:
Because the game is broadcast worldwide, Ritchie also wrote that the actions harmed the "standing and credibility" of Americans throughout the world.
I'm no expert on the non-American world, but my impression is that in most non-United States places around the world, a breast on TV is even less of a big deal than it is here. I find it very likely that this silly lawsuit does more to harm the international standing and credibility of the American people around the world than Janet's breast. I'm curious how sincere this is. I wonder if she's genuinely offended, or whether it's more about
Carlin's lawsuit seeks compensatory and punitive damages worth billions.
Money's fun. Suppose, hypothetically, that this class action lawsuit went to trial and was won. Would I get a cut of it? I'd like to amend this blog post by replacing every sentence in which I make clear my personal attitude toward the viewing of Janet Jackson's right breast with its negation.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Coolness as virtue

I'm still exploring Kant -- something I've done surprisingly little of, given my station in life. Kant says the following in the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals:
Moderation in affects and passions, self-control, and calm reflection are ... good for all sorts of purposes ... but they lack much that would be required to declare them good without limitation (however unconditionally they were praised by the ancients); for, without the basic principles of a good will they can become extremely evil, and the coolness of a scoundrel makes him not only far more dangerous but also immediately more abominable in our eyes that we would have taken him to be without it. 4:394
I rarely find myself in sympathy with the virtue ethicist, but I think Kant may be treating the position unfairly here. It seems to me that coolness (I mean that as a technical term, including moderation, self-control, reflection, intelligence, etc.) is a virtue, even in an evil person. Maybe one reason Kant got this one wrong is that he didn't have movies. Today, contemporary thinkers get to see lots of examples of cool evil people. Consider Hannibal Lecter from Silence of the Lambs. Hannibal is a good example because he's both extremely evil and extremely cool. Remember his brilliantly holding on to a hidden pen spring, leading up to his brilliant escape from his cell, his brutal murder of a guard, and his brilliant escape from his prison? (If you don't, just take my word for it -- he's both evil and brilliant.) If Kant's right, then Hannibal's coolness should be a vice -- it should make him appear "immediately more abominable", independent of the fact that it makes him more dangerous. To determine whether he's right, compare Hannibal with two new fictional characters I'm about to invent. First, consider Hannidull. Hannidull, just like Hannibal, is an evil psychopath. In fact, his will is evil to exactly the same extent -- he has identical murderous inclinations, and he decides to act on them exactly as often. However, unlike Hannibal, Hannidull is not cool. He's not a genius -- in fact, he's a little slow. We're not as worried about Hannidull as we are about Hannibal, because Kant's right about Hannidull being far less dangerous. But Kant makes two claims: "...the coolness of a scoundrel makes him (1) not only far more dangerous but also (2) immediately more abominable..." So yes, he's right about (1). But what about (2)? To run this comparison, we need to hold dangerousness constant. So consider Hannidull+. Hannidull+, internally, is just like Hannidull: he's evil and dull, to exactly the same extent. But Hannidull+, unlike both Hannidull and Hannibal, is very physically powerful. He's so powerful, that he's just as difficult to capture as the cool Hannibal, and just as likely, once captured, to escape. In short, his power compensates for his lack of coolness (in terms of dangerousness). So Hannidull+ is exactly as dangerous as Hannibal. If Kant is right, we should judge Hannibal to be "more abominable" than Hannidull+, because he's "cooler". But that's not my intuition, and I'm guessing it's not the most common one, either. Once we hold dangerousness constant, Hannibal is more praiseworthy than Hannidull+, precisely because he's cooler. Hannibal is a better person than Hannidull+ (it's too bad about that evil psychopath thing, though). That is to say, coolness seems to be praiseworthy, even in evil people.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Meritorious B?

This is an old question relevant to Kantian moral philosophy. I've done so much circular thinking about it that I no longer find my intuition to be very interesting, so I'd like to run a quick poll. People who have done work with Kantian ethics will indubitably have seen this before. I'll set it up kind of the same way Kant does: Here are three people, all of whom end up perfoming the same action. Which is, morally speaking, the best?
A: Shopkeeper A is motivated solely by making money. He reasons that if he treats his customers fairly and is nice to them, they'll become repeat customers, recommend friends, etc. So he treats them fairly and is nice to them. B: Shopkeeper B just gets a kick out of making people happy. It makes him feel good to make other people feel good, so he treats his customers fairly and is nice to them. C: Shopkeeper C hates people. Also, he likes money, and is constantly tempted to cheat his customers. And maybe to kick them, too, because he'd like it if they experienced pain. But he knows that this would be morally wrong. So he treats his customers fairly and is nice to them, because it's his duty.
I take it everyone will agree that A is less good than either B or C. But which of B and C is better?

"Yes, I am beautiful."

Happy Birthday, Lenora Braham.

Monday, February 02, 2004

Descartes joke, revisited

It seems I was (very slightly) too quick in dismissing the horrible Descartes joke I quickly dismissed a couple months ago. Remember, the horrible joke:
Descartes is sitting at a bar. The bartender asks him if he wants another drink. "I think not," says Descartes. Suddenly, Descartes disappears.
And remember also, the reason that the joke was horrible: Descartes famously said, "I think, therefore I am," but he didn't say, nor does it follow, nor is it true, that "I do not think, therefore I am not" would be a valid inference. But I was reading Meditation Two today, and I do see that he did say the following:
I am; I exist -- this is certain. But for how long? For as long as I am thinking; for perhaps it could also come to pass that if I were to cease all thinking I would then utterly cease to exist. At this time I admit nothing that is not necessarily true. Descartes, Meditations on First Philosophy, Meditation Two, 27
In light of this passage, I feel that I ought to add one more to my list of more-acceptable Descartes-in-a-bar-joke alternatives: Descartes is sitting in a bar. He finishes his drink, and the bartender asks him if he'll have another. "I think not," says Descartes. Suddenly, Descartes disappears for all he knows. Ok, so the other ones are funnier.

Sunday, February 01, 2004

Super Bowl ad censorship, again

I blogged a couple weeks ago about CBS's Super Bowl ad censorship. Today I notice that provides a link to the censored commercial in question. They also provide a form for sending complaint email to CBS. Here is the text they suggest I forward to my friends:
Subject: The ad CBS will not air Dear friend, During this year's Super Bowl, you'll see ads sponsored by beer companies, tobacco companies, and the Bush White House. But you won't see the winning ad in Voter Fund's Bush in 30 Seconds ad contest. CBS refuses to air it. Meanwhile, the White House and Congressional Republicans are on the verge of signing into law a deal which Senator John McCain (R-AZ) says is custom-tailored for CBS and Fox, allowing the two networks to grow much bigger. CBS lobbied hard for this rule change; members across the country lobbied against it; and now the ad has been rejected while the White House ad will be played. It looks an awful lot like CBS is playing politics with the right to free speech. Of course, this is bigger than just the Voter Fund. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) submitted an ad that was also rejected. We need to let CBS know that this practice of arbitrarily turning down ads that may be "controversial" – especially if they're controversial simply because they take on the President – just isn't right. To watch the ad that CBS won't air and sign the petition to CBS to run these ads, go to: will deliver the petition by email directly to CBS headquarters. Thanks.
I hadn't heard about this bill. Sounds like something I want to know more about.

Tiny update

I've moved my counter from the bottom of the page to the top. I think that some ISPs make my blog appear oddly (I know that from JMP, only about a third of it loads unless you're willing to wait about ten minutes). I think that this change will give me a more accurate report, and I can't see why it should have any negative effects, beyond possibly being slightly annoying to have to look at a little colored box at the top of my blog. Please let me know if this manages to cause trouble, or if that little box/quote is really annoying. And just for the heck of it, and because that box creates some blank space, I think I'll go ahead and institute a Gilbert & Sullivan quotation of the however-often-I-update-it.