Wednesday, June 30, 2004


I'm seriously going to get back into my good philosophy-reading habits. The most exciting books that I will definitely read/finish reading in the next few weeks:
  • The Nature of Fiction by Gregory Currie
  • Dreaming by Norman Malcolm
  • Recreative Minds by Gregory Currie and Ian Ravenscroft
  • Descartes's Imagination by Dennis Sepper
Yeah, seriously, just making that list was enough to help motivate me. Ok, Currie, then bed.

AND they both have long noses!

Sunil sends me this link, correctly predicting that I will find it fascinating. It's been a good long while since I've engaged in any serious Harry Potter speculation. This is a warning for Harry Potter spoilers and a boring post, if you haven't read the books. The thesis defended is that at some point in a future book, Ron will travel back in time and live the rest of his days as Dumbledore. This is supposed to explain why Dumbledore seems to know so much about Harry's doings, and also certain thematic similarities between the two characters. (Much is made of a metaphorical chess game, instantiated when Ron directs the pieces in the first book.) There are some pretty bad arguments ("Weasley is our King/Born in a bin", and bin is a prefix meaning 'two', so Weasley has two lives), but also a few that I'm not in a hurry to dismiss. After reading the whole thing, it actually sounds like a plausible theory -- although it will raise even more prominently some difficulties with action theory and metaphysics of time than Prisoner of Azkaban did. The three points that most impressed me:
  1. In Tom Riddle's memory, Dumbledore had red hair.
  2. The sock thing. I quote:
    Socks are a running theme throughout the series. They are used as symbols of freedom, redemption and love. Ron, however, doesn't ever really fully appreciate the socks his mother gives him. In PoA, he tosses them aside to gush over Harry's Firebolt. In GoF, he gives his Christmas socks to Dobby. ... Dumbledore, the man who clearly has all of the fame, power, respect, possessions and wisdom one could hope for in a lifetime, sees himself holding a pair of wooly socks in the Mirror of Erised. If you read this scene with Dumbledore being Ron in mind, it takes on a whole new and really huge significance Ron indeed becomes greater than all of his brothers, yet as an old man, he is still wistful for those socks his mother gave him and he never fully appreciated.
    I think that that is *awesome*.
  3. A silly little one, but fun: Dumbledore says he ate a vomit-flavored Bernie Bott's Every-Flavored bean "in his youth", but according to the Bernie Botts card, he was born in 1935, when Dumbledore would have been a century old.
The biggest problem I see for the theory is that Dumbledore occasionally seems NOT to know things that he should, if he'd actually lived his adolescence as Ron. Barty Couch/Mad-Eye Moody provide the best example. This seems a pretty serious problem, but it is a fascinating theory, nevertheless.

Tuesday, June 29, 2004

No Papers Blog Today

I will not have time to update the Papers Blog today. Sorry. There'll be an extra-long update tomorrow.

Twenty-five important dollars

It's as much as two medium-priced meals, or three cheap ones. Or one philosophy textbook. Two evenings at the bar. A shirt. Even poor students like me and a lot of the people who read this blog can afford a $25 donation to the John Kerry campaign. It's very quick and easy. Do it, because it's that important. Now's a good time.

Come, mighty not-might

Continuing today's observations of English usage in newsprint, I notice the following passage in a discussion by Anthony Lewis in today's New York Times:
It was as profound a day in the court as any in a long time. The justices did what they have often shied away from doing: said no to the argument that the title commander-in-chief means that the president can do whatever he says is necessary to win a war. In 1944, for example, the court upheld President Franklin D. Roosevelt's order to remove Japanese-Americans from their homes on the West Coast and confine them in desert camps — on the thin argument, as it turned out false, that they might be disloyal. (my emphasis)
I'm curious about that use of 'might'. It takes a lot to negate a 'might'. What does Lewis mean when he says that it was false that Japanese-Americans might be disloyal? (Set aside the difficulty with an argument having a truth-value.) He seems to assume false an epistemic view of 'might' -- the idea that "they might be disloyal" means that "I don't know that they won't be disloyal". I take it it is uncontroversial that FDR & co. did believe that the Japanese-Americans might be disloyal. If this is correct, then an epistemic reading of 'might' makes the sentence in question true. And he obviously doesn't mean this to be a rigorous modal necessity statement -- there clearly are possible worlds where the Japanese-Americans were disloyal. I am, of course, not doing anything close to defending the U.S. policy. The internment of Japanese-Americans is one of the darkest stains in recent American history (and autobiographically, I may as well add that my own family, including my grandparents, was in an internment camp). What I'm saying is that the problem with the internment was not that it failed to match the officials' beliefs, but rather that it failed to match beliefs that it would have been reasonable for them to have had. So what do we do with Lewis's 'might'? It seems as though he intends it in a particularly normatively epistemic sense -- "They might be disloyal" means "It would be reasonable for me not to believe that it is not the case that they won't be disloyal". I'm not sure how I feel about that reading -- it might be semantically plausible. Or maybe he's just misusing the word. It did sound a little funny when I read it.

Newspapers have problems, including the Houston Chronicle

The Houston Chronicle reports today on a controvery regarding sex education in Texas public school textbooks. But let's talk about grammar. Here's a bad instruction. I'm pretty sure it comes from a textbook (but see below):
Analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods including the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, keeping in mind the effectiveness of remaining abstinent until marriage.
The following is a reason why the quoted instruction is a bad one: Including the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases refers to the implied analysis; said prevention is not a contraceptive method, as the sentence suggests. I think that's a reason that counts against the book; good grammar, and more particularly *clear wording* is important, even in a science text. Of course, it's also important in a newspaper report. Here's the quotation in the context of the Chronicle story, with my emphasis added:
The books, which will replace 11-year-old texts, were found by panels of educators and citizens to meet state curriculum standards, including one which requires students to "analyze the effectiveness and ineffectiveness of barrier protection and other contraceptive methods including the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, keeping in mind the effectiveness of remaining abstinent until marriage." But critics, including a member of the review panel, said that the books shouldn't have been approved.
Here's the question to ask: that 'one' -- what kind of thing is it? It's most natural to read it as a curriculum standard, but I think the context suggests it's a textbook. The story seems to commit the same error the textbook does. That's pretty lame.

Monday, June 28, 2004


Woman allegedly gives birth to frog. The thing allegedly has human-like characteristics.
The "so-called frog", as the newspaper puts it, has yet to undergo precise genetic and anatomic tests. But it quotes clinical biology expert Dr Aminifard as saying: "The similarities are in appearance, the shape of the fingers and the size and shape of the tongue."
There are many odd and noteworthy things about this story. One of them is the idea of a frog with a tongue the SIZE of a human's. (Hat tip: Jeremy Pierce)

Buxton Diary

If you're interested in following the G&Sier side of my life this summer, check out Jonathan's Buxton Diary.

Friday, June 25, 2004


Just to confuse everyone, today's Papers Blog entry is up at an hour before when normal people go to bed. If there's a lot of updates, I'll publish again over the weekend. Otherwise, I'll wait until Monday.

A little family law practitioner humor

I penned this a few weeks ago, and it's made the rounds at Jones McClure Publishing. If you're not familiar with family law (or maybe this is even specific to Texas family law -- I don't know), you'll need to follow the link to get the punchline.
My father and I had never been close. We'd had our first major fight when I was eighteen and decided not to enter the family business, and we never really quite got over that. For years, we didn't even talk -- it turned out, we didn't have very much in common at all. We had different interests, different personalities, different taste in movies and foods. The only respect in which we were alike was our body shape and size. One day, I acquired a beautiful black three-piece suit. It fit me perfectly, and I looked great in it. My mother asked me if my father could borrow it for a wedding he'd be attending. I reluctantly agreed, and had my first contact with him in several years when I leant him my suit. Since we were the same size, it fit him very well too. We got to talking, and it turns out that we had more in common than we'd realized. And we discovered that our fight about the family business had rested largely on a misunderstanding -- he thought I'd been insulting his position in life, when really I was just expressing a preference for something different for myself. Once this was cleared up, things were much smoother between us. I'm happy now, both with my place in life and with my father's place in my life. That was the best SAPCR ever.
Please forgive me.

Kerry stands up for secular politics

From a Houston Chronicle editorial yesterday:
"I am not a spokesperson for the church and the church is not a spokesperson for the United States of America," [Kerry] said recently. "I'm running for president and I'm running to uphold the Constitution, which has a strict separation of church and state."

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Thursday Papers Blog Up

Papers Blog entries have been coming late at night lately. This means you have fresh philosophical treats in the mornings. There are some particularly juicy ones today -- especially if your philosophical interests are exactly coextensive with mine. Pekka Väyrynen has a paper entitled "A Theory of Hedged Moral Principles", John Sutton has one called "Childrens' Dreams and the Nature of Dreaming", and my colleague Allan Hazlett has two new papers, both of which I believe I've read the precursors to on FBC. All this and more in the Thursday edition of Online Papers in Philosophy.

Conceptual Analysis of Spam

I discovered a cool new google feature today. They do definitions. Check it out. I was wondering about the definition of spam. It started when I read this short post from Chris to the Rochester blog. Chris asks,
Anyone know how to stop spam comments?
Imagine a scenario like this. Suppose a spammer is advertising anti-spam software. (I don't know whether this actually happens or not, but I don't see any reason why it couldn't.) Suppose further that his spamming vehicle is blog comments. He has a little bot that goes around and posts his anti-spam service ads indiscriminitely to whatever weblogs he finds -- including, we may stipulate, to Chris's post. Has the Rochester blog been spammed? My intuitions are a little hazy here, but I think that's still spam. But let's look at some definitions. Merriam-Webster offers this definition of spam:
unsolicited usually commercial e-mail sent to a large number of addresses
This is clearly insufficient in at least one respect -- we know that spam needn't be email. Let's set that aside and focus on 'unsolicited' and the large number. Our hypothetical anti-spam spammer does distribute his spam to a large number. But would it be "unsolicited" on Chris's entry? I don't really know. Chris did solicit spam solutions. Of course, the solicitation played no causal role in the possible spamming. I thought that 'unsolicited' was a pretty unproblematic word, but I really don't know whether it applies in that case. Turning to more definitions, courtesy of google (linked above), I find the following elements appearing in various definitions, along with the ones m-w already gave:
  • Unwanted
  • Unsolicited
  • Large Number
  • "Inappropriate" (as in, "An inappropriate attempt to use a mailing list...")
  • Sent indiscriminately
These all seem to be importantly connected with the concept of spam, but I don't feel like I'm much closer to a conceptual analysis. Chris's spammer's message may very well fail to be unwanted. Chris may be glad that he got the piece of spam that he did, so 'unwanted' can't be a conceptual necessity. Similarly, it seems possible that our spammer could have begun spamming, but only gotten one message out before his server crashed. Then there'd be no large number, but I think the one message would still be spam. "Inappropriate" is more difficult to gauge, as it's a pretty heavy normative term. Inappropriate in what way, or from what viewpoint? For a profit-maximizing corporation, spamming might be the rational thing to do. And we can surely imagine cases in which spamming would even be the morally appropriate thing to do (let the world be destroyed unless you send out some spam tomorrow). I think that last one is key. Spam is sent out indiscriminately. I'm surprised it doesn't show up in more definitions -- it's only in two of Google's twenty-eight. The hip thing, I understand, is for philosophers not to worry about conceptual analyses, and talk about prototypes and clusters and fuzzy things like that. But I still get a little disappointed when I fail to pin down exactly what a fairly simple-seeming concept amounts to.

Wednesday, June 23, 2004

No, I think that makes him the BEST archbishop ever

This is truly awesome. I don't know how The Simpsons manages to get so many huge celebrity guest stars (Tony Blair last year!), but I'm very impressed. I generally think of Christianity as anti-Simpsons (and vice versa), but the Archbishop of Canterbury apparently disagrees, and plans to guest star as himself for the show. My favorite bit of this story:
[The Archbishop] said he notices similarities between himself and Homer. Executive Producer and chief writer Al Jean said he was flattered to number the Archbishop among the show's fans. He said: "We'd love to have him on the show if he doesn't mind Comic Book Guy calling him the 'worst archbishop ever.'

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Papers Blog

I got in late and almost decided to skip today's Papers Blog entry. But then I thought of all the philosophers would would be deprived of reading material tomorrow, and who might waste time clicking a link to the site for no new entry, and of the philosophers who would lose a day's worth of chance to have their papers read and discussed, and I concluded I had a moral duty to update the thing. Turns out, today's (that is to say, Tuesday's) was short. Lucky me. Goodnight, everyone.

The Way

I got over 500 page views and over 350 hits yesterday -- I'm pretty sure that that was handily the most popular day in the history of my blog. Almost everyone came from Brian Leiter to this entry. Bloggers who like traffic, Brian Leiter is your messiah.

Scientists Against Bush

"Nobel laureates tend not to use their names for anything outside of science," adding, "I hope you take that as a sign of how seriously all of us think the errors of our present course are."

Virtual identity porn

Eugene Volokh raises an interesting question (here and here) about privacy. He says:
Within about ten years, there will probably be software that can merge people's photographs and voices with movies that depict someone else. This is of course often already done manually with photographs; but a sophisticated computer program can do it automatically and seamlessly, for a whole movie. And it can deal with multiple scenes where the person is shown from different angles doing different things. ... [T]he most common use of this would probably be for pornography. Consumers would buy the program; get ordinary, nonpornographic photographs of celebrities or of acquaintances; merge the photograph with a pornographic movie; and then be able to watch pornography that "stars" whomever it is they lust after. Some such merged movies might be sold to others, but many will be just made at home, to fit the user's own personal preferences. ... [I]f I were the sort of person whom either acquaintances or strangers would like to merge into a porn movie -- even one they'd only watch by themselves -- I wouldn't be at all pleased by this technology. Even if they watch the movie in the privacy of their own homes, there'd still be something mighty icky about them watching pictures that show me having sex. Again, I'm not sure whether it's worth trying to regulate this, or whether it's in any event practically possible to do so. But it's a troubling scenario, it seems to me.
I share Eugene's instinctual distaste at being the object of such a possible movie, and I think his empirical prediction is surely correct: this technology *will* be available, and soon. And yeah, a lot of celebrities will understandably be upset. But the appropriate advice for them: get over it. Volokh says "I'm not sure whether it's worth trying to regulate this", but it seems to me that it's obviously not. What principled lines could be drawn? What non-principled, arbitrary lines in roughly the right place could be drawn? As things stand now, we could have lookalikes act in pornographic films. A studio could hire an actor who looks a lot like President Bush and film him performing sexual acts with, I don't know, kangaroos or Tony Blair or whatever. There is, I contend, no moral difference between this and an actor digitally modified to look like George Bush. Nor should there, or practically could there, be a legal one. We'll get used to it.

Monday, June 21, 2004


A long Monday Papers Blog entry is up. It's after midnight on the East Coast, even though it isn't here in Houston, so it's listed as an entry for the 22nd. Expect another entry Tuesday evening. In general, I've settled into a pattern of posting in the evenings -- either after work (6:00ish Central Time) or after rehearsal (11:00ish Central Time).


Continuing my series on upsetting and far-fetched fictional events that surprisingly correspond to real life, teacher makes student write apology in own blood. *shudder* Dolores Umbridge would be proud. Maybe the teacher was influenced by the novel... this could provide more ammunition for the "Harry Potter is the downfall of man" camp.

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Internet finally back up

Joy. If you wanted to email me but were worried that I wouldn't get it until Monday because the internet connection here might still be down, you needn't worry. I'm plugged back in. And a long Papers Blog entry (4 days worth) is up.

Friday, June 18, 2004

2004 Texas GOP Platform: Dishonesty!

The Texas Freedom Network informed me yesterday that the Texas GOP has published its 2004 platform. I also find via the Texas GOP website that it is available (PDF) online. It should not be surprising that this is a very frightening document. There's the usual anti-women, anti-science, and anti-homosexual rhetoric. But as I skimmed through the 24-page manifesto, I did find one very confusing position:
Americans with Disabilities Act – The Party supports amendment of the Americans with Disabilities Act to exclude from its definition those persons with infectious diseases, substance addiction, learning disabilities, behavior disorders, homosexual practices and mental stress, thereby reducing abuse of the Act.
Now this is an interesting list of things to exclude from the Act. (The ADA is a 1990 federal Act designed to protect Americans who have disabilities which "substantially limit one or more major life activities" from discrimination in the workplace.) So the Texas GOP wants to reduce the number of protected disabilities. They think that the following ought not to be protected:
  • infectious diseases
  • substance addictions
  • learning disabilities
  • behavior disorders
  • homosexual practices
  • mental stress
I don't particularly feel right now like getting into an argument about this list on the merits. But I am prepared to argue some of it as a matter of law. Let's take the juciest-looking item on the list, "homosexual acts". One might expect this list item to polarize the electorate, with conservatives looking to take protections away from gays and liberals opposing it. But here's the thing about the ADA: Homosexuality has never been protected by it. Nor should it be, because it's not a disability, nor does it substantially limit major life activities (although I wouldn't necessarily put it past the GOP to argue that heterosexual sex is a major life activity...). The current law is very clear on the matter. Here's 42 U.S.C. §12211(a) (on the books since 1990, the same as the rest of the ADA):
(a) Homosexuality and bisexuality.—For purposes of the definition of "disability" in section 12102(2) of this title, homosexuality and bisexuality are not impairments and as such are not disabilities under this chapter.
So why does the Texas GOP platform include REMOVING an item from the list that wasn't on it in the first place? Stress, too, I should note, is not protected under the ADA. Case law: Paleologos, 990 F.Supp. 1460 (N.D.Ga. 1998); Krocka, 969 F.Supp. 1073 (N.D.Ill. 1997). And substance abuse is also statutorily excluded in (b)(3) of the U.S.C. section quoted from above. So three of the six items on the list of things to stop protecting are already not protected. It can't be a coincidence that these are the three items most likely to resonate with conservative voters as belonging off the list. Of the remaining items, "infectious diseases" and "behavior disorders" are too vague to evaluate or even understand. And "learning disabilities" pretty obviously belongs on the list of protected disabilities. Who's willing to run on an anti-retarded people platform? Apparently, the Texas GOP is, as long as that component is hidden as part of an anti-homosexual, anti-freeloader component. But you'd think they could bury the provision in suggestions for "changes" that don't just describe the status quo. I'm pretty shocked at the dishonesty, here. In the absense of a better explanation ("The GOP leaders don't know what the ADA actually says"), I have to conclude that it is attempting deliberately to mislead the public about what is and is not on the federal books.

'A Pickle Stepping Into History'. I'm still stumped.

I'm apparently not the only one perplexed by President Clinton's weird line. I've gotten about a dozen google hits for variations of the phrase. I see a couple of other sites talking about it too, but so far no definitive answer to "what the hell is he talking about?" Zack offered a suggestion on my last post:
The only way it makes any kind of sense is if you think of the British meaning of pickle -- that is, a "mischevious or troublesome person."
But that doesn't seem to fit either. Seriously, what's the deal? Bill Clinton is a reasonably cogent person. He wouldn't just spout gibberish. Somebody, please tell me what this odd phrase means, such that I can start using it myself on appropriate occasions.

OPP, Internet Update

The internet connection at Joe's, my home for the summer, has been down since early Wednesday evening. I keep hearing that it'll be back up "soon", but I've lost confidence in its actually being so. The last couple days, my only internet access has been from work. What this means for some of you is: (1) I have not been able to update the Papers Blog. (2) I haven't been able to read email from home (and am not sure whether I'll be able to this weekend). So email is a much less reliable way to contact me evenings and weekends than, say, telephone. (3) I haven't been on Instant Messenger any evenings, and don't know if I will be this weekend. This is frustrating because I'm an extremely internet-dependent person.

Thursday, June 17, 2004

They have invented a philtre...

This is fascinating. Researchers at Emory University noticed a difference in social patterns between two closely-related species: the meadow vole and the prairie vole. The prairie vole mates for life, while the meadow vole runs around and sleeps with lots of different prarie voles over the course of his life. The scientists went looking for the biological explanation, and found it in a single gene:
The researchers, in essence, were able to change the meadow vole's natural propensity to philander by inserting a single gene that changed the way the pleasure centre in their brains worked. After a single treatment, they became as monogamous as prairie voles. (source)
Monogamous relationships are rare in the animal kingdom. The Seattle Times story says that fewer than 5% of mammal species typically mate for life, including prairie voles and humans. And now scientists have a lead on the biochemical basis for monogamous instincts. What if they learned how to adapt the monogamization procedure for commitment-phobic humans? (USA Today begins their coverage of this study with the question, "Could the day come when a simple bit of gene therapy might cure infidelity?") Obviously, even assuming it's possible to develop drugs in that direction, it's a ways off from this interesting discovery about hormones in voles. But just the apparent plausibility of such a procedure raises a whole host of fascinating and potentially troubling questions. My co-worker John raised one of them this afternoon: devotion that is caused by a drug is no devotion at all. The idea, I think, is that a couple's commitment is cheapened or is less genuine if it is achieved with the help of a breakthrough in medical technology. (But we should ask: if I am severely depressed and overcome my self-loathing with the help of counselling and medication, does this cheapen or make less genuine my emotional recovery?) Another question has to do with responsibility. Any time we observe obvious physical influences on the part of mental life that we take to be the product of free will, issues about free will and responsibility come up. That's a very general problem, though, and I won't talk any more about it here. But what about this question (also rising from conversation with John): if I take a commitment pill, and it successfully causes me to remain faithful to my wife, am I remaining faithful of my own free will? My instinct is that I am, but John's isn't, and I feel the force behind John's point of view. After all, it's the drug that made me do it. (It may also become relevant whether I voluntarily and understandingly took the drug of my own free will.) Brad Templeton (who runs a fascinating blog that I've only just discovered) raises another issue:
[T]his story made me wonder about how people might try to alter the concept of marriage. Imagine there was a gene therapy which would improve the chances that you would remain in love with the one you currently love. Might couples want to take it when getting married? (Or, more practically, after a few years of test marriage and before children are begun.) And more to the point, if this became popular, might there arise pressure to do so, even for those who don't particuarly want it? One can imagine injecting the virus to deliver the gene at the wedding, truly sealing the bonds of love. (It's unlikely that the romantic idea of transmitting the virus in the first marital kiss would be a good idea.) But what if it starts coming down to "Honey, why won't you take the gene therapy? Don't you love me enough? I'll take it for you!" How will we answer that?
It's a damn good question, and suddenly Gilbert's Topsy-Turvy scene from The Sorcerer looks a lot less Topsy-Turvy.
ALINE. How joyful they all seem in their new-found happiness! ... ALEXIS. But one thing remains to be done, that my happiness may be complete. We must drink the philtre ourselves, that I may be assured of your love for ever and ever. ALINE. Oh, Alexis, do you doubt me? Is it necessary that such love as ours should be secured by artificial means? Oh, no, no, no! ALEXIS. My dear Aline, time works terrible changes, and I want to place our love beyond the chance of change. ALINE. Alexis, it is already far beyond that chance. Have faith in me, for my love can never, never change! ALEXIS. Then you absolutely refuse? ALINE. I do. If you cannot trust me, you have no right to love me - no right to be loved by me. ALEXIS. Enough, Aline, I shall know how to interpret this refusal.
To me, this is a reminder that the abstract and difficult questions that philosophers deal with in agency theory, normative ethics, and moral psychology really are critically important. We really might have to deal with these questions about 'love potions' some day. If and when we do, it'd be great if we could go into the process armed with the correct theory of moral responsibility.

Papers Blog Late

I'd almost finished yesterday's Papers Blog entry when the internet connection went out. I meant to bring a text file to work to post from here, but forgot. Probably, there'll just be a longer post tonight.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Slimy, yet Educationally Motivating!

There's a great story on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal. The principal of an elementary school in El Paso promised to eat worms if every grade met reading goals throughout the year. They did, and she did.
On May 21, Ms. Onick stood up in the school cafeteria and ate two 8-inch night crawlers sauteed with mushrooms and onions. The children squealed. Then Assistant Principal Alberto Reyes plucked two worms from a far and ate them raw. "I bit the first one and it squirted all over my mouth," he says. "So the second time, I just swallowed."
That's awesome.

Monday, June 14, 2004

It made me feel like a pickle!

The Clintons received a standing ovation from guests in the East Room of the executive mansion before the paintings by artist Simmie Knox were revealed. "President Clinton and Sen. Clinton, welcome home," Bush said. Clinton said it was a great honor for him, his wife -- now a U.S. senator from New York -- and their family to return to "this wonderful place we called home for eight years." Bush's introduction, he said, "made me feel like a pickle stepping into history."
I have absolutely no idea what that means. Anyone?

It's funny

Big John Kerry scandal.


If the NBA decided today to cancel the remaining one game of the NBA Finals without declaring a winner, I'd be annoyed. CNN Breaking News:
The Supreme Court at least temporarily preserved the phrase "one nation, under God," in the Pledge of Allegiance Monday, ruling that a California atheist could not challenge the patriotic oath. The procedural ruling did not directly address whether the pledge recited by generations of American schoolchildren is an unconstitutional blending of church and state. The court said the atheist could not sue to ban the pledge from his daughter's school and others because he did not have legal authority to speak for her. The father, Michael Newdow, is in a protracted custody fight with the girl's mother. He does not have sufficient custody of the child to qualify as her legal representative, eight members of the court said. Justice Antonin Scalia did not participate in the case.
I know it's appropriate for the Court to make rulings like this, but I'm still disappointed. Things were about to get interesting.

We've been watching you

Most days for a few weeks now, I've read the same cute entry at the top of Alexis's Livejournal, in which she quotes an amusing message from
Dear Customer, We've noticed that many customers who've purchased albums by Various are also interested in music by John Williams.
Today I started wondering whom that 'we' refers to. Presumably, no person sat down and analyzed Alexis's viewing and purchase history and noticed something about her habits -- the reason the quotation is cute and amusing is that it demonstrates the clumbsiness of the automated suggestions -- a real person would recognize that "Various" is not the name of an artist. So Amazon has a big computer that has scanned Alexis's Amazon history, and it 'noticed' that she's a fan of Various. This part sounds ok, so far. I'm not too uneasy about the idea that there might be zero Amazon employees who have noticed anything about Alexis, but Amazon, nevertheless, has noticed. I'm not sure this is the wording that Amazon wants to use, though. I understand that "we've noticed" is more personal-sounding and inviting than "our records and statistical analyses indicate that", but I think the latter might be less disconcerting upon reflection. Consider the extremely similar phenomenon of Google's gmail's ad-targetting. I've been using gmail for a few weeks now (I love it) and it has 'noticed' some of my interests. I'm getting ads about Gilbert & Sullivan events and 49ers merchandise. Gmail wisely does not follow Amazon in anthropomorphizing its pattern-analyzing self:
Like Google search results pages, Gmail does include relevant text ads on the right side of the page. The matching of ads to content is a completely automated process performed by computers. No humans read your email to target the ads, and no email content or other personally identifiable information is ever provided to advertisers. (from the gmail FAQ)
It would be PR suicide for gmail to say, "So Jonathan, we've been reading your email and we've noticed you're a Niners fan and thought you might like to purchase an autographed Steve Young jersey". They're having enough privacy trouble as it is. Apparently there's an important difference between Amazon and Gmail: Amazon seems to thrive on selling itself as a smart person who watches us very carefully and anticipates our desires, while Gmail has to work very hard to avoid that impression.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

Life update

This is looking like the busiest summer *ever*. So far, I've driven from Providence to Houston, spent a week visiting family in California, and returned to Houston to start Mikado rehearsals and to continue work. I work from 8:00-5:00, and rehearse from 7:30-10:00 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. I try to save Tuesday and Thursday evenings for a social life. Between work and rehearsal is for a quick dinner, a run, and some philosophy. I'm actually getting quite a bit of philosophizing done this summer, which is exciting because I'm exploring the exciting world of philosophy of fiction and imagination. (I'm also trying to revise and expand my paper on dreaming.) After rehearsals I generally update the Papers Blog and relax for an hour or two, catching up with friends online and reading. I also often catch Futurama and Family Guy on Adult Swim. Bed generally happens around 1:00, then I'm up again at 7:00 for the new day. Weekends I sleep in to catch up. I think I can keep up this pace. And those of you in Houston, I both want and will make time to spend time with you. Email or call. Also, if you want to see our Mikado, click the link above and get tickets sooner rather than later (your seats will be better, the sooner you buy). Or get in touch with me, and I will order tickets for you.

Friday, June 11, 2004

Papers Blog

Today's short Papers Blog entry is up. I think that some of my non-philosopher friends (as well as the philosophers) who read this might find interest in Richard Feldman's new paper, Reasonable Religious Disagreement (pdf). He describes it:
This is a draft of a paper that is supposed to appear in volume with a title something like "Philosophers Without God." The volume is intended for a wider audience than just academic philosophers. It is supposed to be at least to some extent a personal statement.
Judging from the first paragraph or so, I'd say it looks to be about religous tolerance.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Free-Range Meat

There are some pretty convincing arguments out there that it is almost always morally impermissible to eat meat. (For some discussion, see this FBC post.) How do we feel about free-range meat? I'm enjoying a free-range carnitas burrito from Chipotle right now -- am I doing something immoral? I have considerable sympathy with the view that the moral problem with the meat industry is not that it kills animals for food, but that it causes animals intense suffering from the deplorable way they're raised. Should I feel guilty that a pig was killed to make my burrito, even though he had a reasonably happy pig's life? I do think I have a moral responsibility not to torture pigs. I do not think I have one not to kill them.

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Papers Blog and Dreams as Imagination

The Papers Blog is up, featuring, among other things, a paper by me! It's my term paper for Ernie Sosa's epistemology seminar, very slightly revised from the version I submitted. I'm very interested in the topic, and plan to do more work in the area, so comments are extremely welcome. Fire and the Cogito: Dreams and Imaginings (pdf)
Descartes assumes that dreaming is like hallucinating – that when we dream, we have sensations (such as the visual sensations of redness and the tactile sensation of heat from a fire) and form beliefs (such as the belief that there is a fire before me). Call this view of dreaming the orthodox model. I reject the orthodox model of dreaming and argue in favor of an imagination model of dreaming, according to which dreams are less like hallucinations and more like fictions. I believe that dreams are continuous with other kinds of imaginings like daydreams. In particular, I will argue that when I dream that there is a fire before me, I do not thereby believe that there is a fire before me, nor do I experience the sensations as if there is a fire before me. A consequence of the imagination model is that Descartes is wrong about the way in which the dream scenario leads to skepticism – it is not the case that my beliefs and sensations could be explained by my dreaming. Nevertheless, the imagination model will not assist in a Cartesian project to overcome skepticism – rather, I suggest that a proper understanding of dreams will demonstrate a deeper possible source of error that threatens not only my knowledge of the fire, but even knowledge of the cogito.
I wrote a fair amount on this topic while preparing the paper at Fake Barn Country, and a substantial amount made it into the paper -- check out here, here, and here if you want to see what's been said, both by me and by commentors.

The administration's "morally dubious culture"

There's a good op-ed in today's New York Times. There's nothing spectacularly new or surprising there, but it puts together nicely some of the disgusting pieces of the Abu Gharib atrocities.
Since the Abu Ghraib scandal broke into public view, the administration has contended that a few sadistic guards acted on their own to commit the crimes we've all seen in pictures and videos. At times, the White House has denied that any senior official was aware of the situation, as it did with Red Cross reports documenting a pattern of prisoner abuse in Iraq. In response to a rising pile of documents proving otherwise, the administration has mounted a "Wizard of Oz" defense, urging Americans not to pay attention to inconvenient evidence. This week, The Wall Street Journal broke the story of a classified legal brief prepared for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in March 2003 after Guantánamo Bay interrogators complained that they were not getting enough information from terror suspects. The brief cynically suggested that because the president is protecting national security, any ban on torture, even an American law, could not be applied to "interrogation undertaken pursuant to his commander-in-chief authority." Neil A. Lewis and Eric Schmitt reported yesterday in The Times that the document had grown out of a January 2002 Justice Department memo explaining why the Geneva Conventions and American laws against torture did not apply to suspected terrorists. In the wake of that memo, the White House general counsel advised Mr. Bush that Al Qaeda and the Taliban should be considered outside the Geneva Conventions.

Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Determinism and Obsesity

I'm posting this to Fake Barn Country, but I think it's also of general interest, so I'll put it here too. There is an interesting article in today's New York Times about obsesity in America (thanks to Brayden King for the link). A Dr. Jeffrey Friedman focuses on two claims about obesity, one of which is of philosophical interest (the other is of merely sociological interest; he suggests that the data suggest that although the mean weight is increasing and a larger proportion of the population has crossed the obesity line, average people are really not heavier than they used to be). His philosophically interesting argument seems to involve something like an assumption of anti-compatiblism, combined with an empirical discovery of determinism with respect to weight gain and loss.
Body weight, he says, is genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height. Genes control not only how much you eat but also the metabolic rate at which you burn food. When it comes to eating, free will is an illusion. "People can exert a level of control over their weight within a 10-, perhaps a 15-pound range," Dr. Friedman said. But expecting an obese person to decide to simply eat less and exercise more to get below the obesity range, below the overweight range? It virtually never happens, he said. ... But isn't it true that we can decide to eat or not, choosing to skip dinner, say, or pass up dessert? Isn't that free will? Not really, Dr. Friedman said. The control mechanisms for body weight operate over months, even years, not day to day or meal to meal.
As a result, Friedman's central claim is that we should not blame overweight people for being overweight, and more than we should praise or blame tall people for being tall. It is somewhat tempting to dismiss Friedman's claim out of hand; after all, it is possible to skip dessert -- or even to make a habit of skipping dessert -- or to integrate exercise into one's daily routine. But we can't argue this from the armchair. Friedman says that there is a gene that virtually guarantees my being fat, and I can't contest that a priori. And I personally can't contest it empirically, either, because I lack the expertise. So let's suppose he's right. As I said above, Friedman's conclusion that overweight people are not responsible for their status depends on anti-compatablism, which is, of course, controversial. A compatablist should have no trouble embracing Friedman's empirical claims and interpreting them as "there is a gene such that people with it tend to freely choose activities that make them overweight". It would then be an open question whether it is appropriate to criticize people for allowing themselves to be overweight (as, I think, it is pre-theoretically an open question). I wonder, too, whether Friedman would be willing to generalize this point. Suppose he discovered a gene that was an excellent predictor of violent crime. Would he be willing to say the following?
Criminal tendencies are genetically determined, as tightly regulated as height and weight. When it comes to refraining from murdering people, free will is an illusion. People can pass up a particular homicidal urge or two, but the control mechanisms for violent crime operate over months, even years. Therefore, it is inappropriate to blame murderers for their states.
Maybe he would say that. To be consistent, he'd probably have to. But if he did, it'd be pretty shocking to a lot of people.

And Turing still

Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber notes that today is the fiftieth anniversary of Alan Turing's death. Although I once wrote a comic opera about his work, I know very little about his life -- Kieran's description of Turing's death came as a great surprise to me:
Turing committed suicide after being forced to take estrogen for a year to "cure" him of his homosexuality.

Papers Blog

Yesterday's Papers Blog is finally up. A power outage prevented me from posting it last night. I expect to do a new update tonight.

Monday, June 07, 2004

New Philosophy of Religion Blog


Muse, wot hapnd wiv Achilles?

This is one of the most amazing things I've ever heard.
...The Iliad [will] be trivialsed by Microsoft to help it find an audience in the text message generation. According to the Sydney Morning Herald , the "translation" of the first five of the 24 Iliad books condenses 37,000 words to 32 lines of mobile telephone text message language with sad and smiley faces and love hearts. In the third book, a duel between Paris and Menelaus to determine the possession of Helen, is reduced to: "Paris went 2 fight Menelaus. But he was wiv fright. Hector told im 2 b a man. Shame on him! Helen went 2 watch from da walls."
I'm less than 100% confident that this isn't a hoax, but a Google news search yields reports from The Guardian and The Orlando Sentinel, to add to the one from the Syndey Morning News.

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Blogroll Redone

I've updated my blogroll, which was long overdue. I've removed a lot from it. Yeah, that's basically all I have to say.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

Papers Blog

I'm running Brian's Papers Blog while he's travelling. I'll occasionally update its status here. I intend to update it (the blog) at least pretty close to every day, generally in the fairly late evenings. I did not update yesterday, but I did today. New things that look interesting to me: J. David Velleman and Nishi Shah -- "Doxastic Deliberation", Neil Levy -- "Cognitive Science Challenges to Morality", and Paul Gatto -- Review of The Simpsons and Philosophy.

Friday, June 04, 2004

Chemo is murder!

I forgot my MP3 player last night when I was driving to the theater to see Harry Potter. Sports radio was uninteresting and news radio was playing music, so I went to the frightening #3: conservative talk radio. Sean Hannity was discussing abortion. He said (I'm probably paraphrasing, but this is pretty close to right):
We have a responsibility to protect human life. And it seems to me that what's growing inside a woman is alive.
My mind filled with images of protesters outside cancer clinics.

What, never?

I found this on today's "Bottom of the Page Deals". I don't know whether this link will get you there or not.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

This whole article is great.

Cable show helps prove man innocent of murder. A few snippets:
Juan Catalan spent 5½ months in jail on murder charges before his attorney found video footage taken by the show at Dodger Stadium that backs up his client's claims of innocence. ... The attorney said it would have been impossible for Catalan to get out of the parking lot, change vehicles and clothing and play with his daughter as well as kill Puebla during that span. ... The show was hardly about the ballpark crowd that night. It focused on David hiring a prostitute, not for sex but to be a passenger in his car so he could travel in the carpool lane and escape traffic on his way to the stadium.
In other news, Houston sure is humid!

Nice take on 49ers

National Media Incapable of Analysis Excerpts:
When the media moguls outside the Bay Area think about the 49ers, they think Terrell Owens and Jeff Garcia. Their obsession with these two players infects their minds the same way Aunt Dorothy's chicken spaghetti infects my stomach. It precludes reasonable discussion. "The 49ers lost their starting receivers." How perceptive. ... What I just described is the typical thought process of those who observe the 49ers with a birds-eye-view, such as FOX and CBS commentators. I'm already cringing at the prospect of announcers spending two-thirds of the game discussing the losses of Owens and Garcia. Just watch—it will be week 15, the 49ers will be 8-6, and the announcers will be blabbing on about the loss of Garcia, even as he compiles a 75.0 passer rating for the miserable Browns. Rather than dwell on what we've lost, why don't we take a look and realize that the cupboard ain't so bare. Who cares who left? Tell me about the 22 starters who are going to suit up on game day. The media should think as follows: 1 - Rattay outperformed Garcia last season. 2 - Barlow is better than Hearst. 3 - Weaver will be missed as a blocker, but Eric Johnson is a better pass-catcher, and Aaron Walker may soon supplant him as the starter. 4 - Justin Smiley will soon be better than Ron Stone. 5 - Kwame Harris is already a better run blocker than Deese, and within a year or two should be a better pass protector. 6 - Curtis Conway is an upgrade over Tai Streets, but even he might not wrestle the starting job from Brandon Lloyd. Furthermore, Streets has never gotten the separation or made the types of catches that Brandon Lloyd made last season as a rookie. Derrick Hamilton, baed upon where he was drafted, should be better than all of them. 7 - Cedric Wilson has improved in each of his three seasons, and had just as many catches last season as Joey Galloway (35), despite not starting. The consensus among scouts was that Rashaun Woods was the most complete receiver in the draft. If the 49ers have a problem at receiver, it may soon be finding time for all five of them to get on the field. 8 - At a minimum, Isaac Sopoaga will replace Travis Kirshke. Ideally, he'll use his incredible strength to take on two blockers, clog the middle, and collapse the pocket. 9 - Chidi Ahanatou was a great acquisition last season, but the coaching staff is particularly excited about Andrew Williams, who has added 15 pounds of muscle and is showing a burst off the left edge. If the 49ers can afford to keep Brandon Whiting, they will be much improved at left defensive end. 10 - Jason Webster covered well in the slot and underneath, but was a liability down the field. Shawntae Spencer is taller, more athletic, and has quicker feet. He will make a good nickel back. 11 - It would be impossible for Dwaine Carpenter, Ronnie Heard, or Keith Lewis to play any worse than Bronson played last season.
Nice stuff. Felt good to read.