Friday, November 26, 2004

The Cult of the Untrue

I've been working on revising a paper I wrote last spring. My two goals were to (1) make it a better paper, and (2) make it a length suitable for conference submission. I think -- mind I say, I think -- I accomplished both goals. I apply some of the work I've been doing in the philosophy of imagination to a fictionalism about normativity that can be found in Nietzsche. If you're interested in checking it out, I'd be delighted to hear comments, criticisms, suggestions, etc.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Hell of a country

In case any of you think that maybe, things aren't quite as bad as they look, and this country isn't *really* regressing on tolerance and civil liberties, I direct your attention to this story in today's New York Times:
The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit yesterday against a Missouri high school that twice admonished a gay student for wearing T-shirts bearing gay pride messages. The suit charges that the school violated the youth's constitutional right to free expression. By the account of the civil liberties union, the student, Brad Mathewson, a 16-year-old junior, was sent to the principal's office at Webb City High School on Oct. 20 for wearing a T-shirt that he said came from the Gay-Straight Alliance at a school he previously attended, in Fayetteville, Ark. The shirt bore a pink triangle and the words "Make a Difference!" Mr. Mathewson, the A.C.L.U. said, was told to turn the shirt inside out or go home and change. ... A week later, Mr. Mathewson was again admonished for wearing a gay pride T-shirt, this one featuring a rainbow and the inscription "I'm gay and I'm proud." Told once more to turn the shirt instead out or leave, he chose to go home and was eventually ordered not to return to school wearing clothing supporting gay rights. ... Mr. Mathewson began attending the school, outside Joplin, in September. In a statement issued by the civil liberties union, he said: "The school lets other students wear antigay T-shirts, and I understand that they have a right to do that. I just want the same right. I think tolerating each other's differences is a key part in teaching students how to become good citizens."
And if this isn't depressing enough, check out the latest from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia:
"Did it turn out that, by reason of the separation of church and state, the Jews were safer in Europe than they were in the United States of America? I don't think so."
There you have it -- seperation of church and state is worthless because it didn't prevent the Holocaust! These stories hit me hard after my day began with NPR's coverage of 'intelligent design' in public school science classes, where a woman explained how taking prayer out of schools leads to godlessness which leads to Columbine massacres. Take that, Michael Moore. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


This is the new greatest website ever. It's designed to test the old adage that "If you have enough monkeys banging randomly on typewriters, they will eventually type the works of William Shakespeare." I've used my computer to simulate 1.95 * 10^37 pages of random monkey-typing, and so far, the best string is this one:
King. So shaken as EHwtqcUcURFdhyih;BDXbSkh6Q8z;w(...
It matches the first 19 characters of The First Part of King Henry the Fourth! This is so cool... I'm determined to beat that record of 22 characters. Hat tip: Brian Weatherson.

Monday, November 22, 2004

I call it the "don't play defense" strategy

Adam Vinateri just kicked a field goal. There is 01:46 remaining in the fourth quarter, and the Patriots are kicking off, up eight points. The Chiefs, of course, will try to score a touchdown and two-point conversion, to drive the game into overtime. This seems like the sort of position where something really unusual might be the rational strategy. Suppose that the Patriots kicked the ball off and instructed all the coverage people to just sit down and let the Chiefs score on the kickoff. Chiefs get a free touchdown, bringing the Pats margin to two points. Now the Patriots play their very best defense against the two-point conversion attempt. If they can stop it, they get the ball back with a buck thirty left in the game and a two point lead -- pretty close to a certain victory. If they can't, then the game is tied and the Pats get that 1:30 to put together a game-winning drive. Fifty yards and a chance for Vinateri to be a hero yet again. You have to like the Pats's odds under those circumstances. Playing conventionally, the Patriots have to spend the last 1:42 trying to stop a drive. In this case, the Chiefs have a very explosive offense, and just finished putting up a 97-yard drive, and the Patriots's secondary is weakened by injury. It seems like my suggestion would be the rational course of action if the Patriots think they can more easily score than stop the Chiefs from scoring. I'm not sure the relative strengths of offense and defense were to that point, but it's not crazy to suggest they might've been. As it happens, during the time it took me to write this post, the Patriots stopped the Chiefs's drive and won the game. Still, though, my way would've been pretty cool.

Arthur Sullivan

Today is the 104th anniversary of the death of Sir Arthur Sullivan, one of the two men responsible for the best body of light opera in existence. Sadly, last night also marked the death of Jim Farron, the man responsible for the best internet resource for that body in existence. Thank you, Jim.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Split Brains

Brad Templeton runs a fun blog, absolutely FULL of cool ideas. In his really fascinating and exciting latest, Brad considers the surprising independence of the two hemispheres of the human brain. The left brain and the right brain are connected by a series of neural channels called the corpus callosum. In rare cases, usually having to do with severe epilepsy, the corpus callosum is intentionally severed, resulting in a fascinating dual-brain individual. the left and right brains are literally unable to communicate, and *know different things*. It's really fascinating and shocking and surprising, and challenges a lot of our assumptions about personal identity. Anyway, that's all background, and is known by anyone who's ever taken a course in human neurospychology. Now Brad's insight:
It seems plausible one could apply a temporary anesthetic to the corpus callosum, and temporarily split a person into two brains. Today that might require drastic steps like brain surgery. In the future it's not hard to imagine a specialized drug or highly targetted drug delivery or nanobots to temporarily numb and disable the zone, without too much shutdown of adjacent tissue.
Ever since learning about split-brain patients, I've been fascinated by the possibility, and wondered what it would be like to experience life that way. Brad's idea seems non-absurd. We could study the phenomenon in a much more controlled way, using Brad's suggested technique. Students would volunteer in labs to have their brains split. I sit here and wonder what it would be like for me to undergo that procedure, but I guess I should wonder what it'd be like for *us*. It boggles a mind. Maybe both.


We've been discussing Nagel on altruism in The Nature of Morality lately. Nagel draws a parallel between prudence -- taking my own future interests as providing reasons -- and altruism -- taking others' interests as providing reasons. There's some question as to whether prudence in this sense is really partly constitutive of rationality; maybe it's just a contingent fact that we're presently interested in our own future well-being. I guess that's Calvin's view, here (link is to a bigger picture): Update: Spelled out more clearly what the hell I'm talking about in the comments.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Monday, November 15, 2004

Global focus on hunger

Oxfam at Brown hosted a hunger banquet last night. Participants were randomly sorted into three groups -- high income (15%), middle income (25%), and low income (60%). The high income group had pasta and salad and a really nice meal at a table. The middle income group had beans and rice, with plates and silverware and chairs. The low income group sat on the floor and ate rice with their hands. There was some good discussion that followed -- people seemed really moved by the inequality in the room, which obviously was designed to mirror that of the world. We had a speaker come in after the meal. Janet Cooper-Nelson's talk, I'm sorry to say, rubbed me a little wrongly. It's possible that I just misunderstood her, but she seemed to be saying something like this: When we think about miserable people in third-world countries who live on less than one dollar per day and walk five miles to work in the rain with no umbrella and cannot afford a second meal per day or medicine for their children, and brush their teeth with ashes and their fingers because they can't afford anything more appropriate, it's difficult to imagine being that unfortunate. We have a hard time conceiving of ourselves falling to that level. But there are unfortuanate people who are much closer to us, too. People in Rhode Island with college degrees get a few tough breaks and end up unable to pay rent. We can imagine that happening to us -- it really could happen to us. Therefore, we should focus our energy on being good friends and support systems for the people around us. They need help, and we can make their lives better. I think that's pretty bad reasoning. It's true, as a matter of psychological fact, that it's difficult for us to imagine being as poor as most of the people in the world are. Why does that matter? We understand the important part -- that these people are miserable, and that therefore, if we can help them, then we should. I just don't see that the failure of imagination on our part tells in any way against the importance of helping these people, unless we think that the reason we should help people depends on something about our own thoughts. Now I'm no Kantian, but in this case, he'd be *right* to have a fit at that suggestion. The reason I should help relieve suffering in Sudan has nothing to do with me or what I'm capable of imagining -- it has everything to do with millions of suffering people who need help. Obviously, there is suffering at home, too, and helping people is good, period. But I think that a speaker who is advising us to focus on those around us *instead of* those far away (many of whom are much, *much* worse off than almost anybody in Rhode Island) is acting irresponsibly, and sends the wrong message for a group like Oxfam. Especially at the conclusion of an event with clear international focus. Every participant was assigned a name and a story along with an income group. Almost all were non-American. The *point* of this event was to raise awareness of global inequality with respect to food. At least, that's what I thought the point was. I've discussed this via email with a couple of Oxfam members, and I plan to bring it up at our weekly meeting tomorrow. It turns out, the more I think about it, the more strongly I find myself feeling about it. I'm nervous about shaking up a really important group, but I think it's also important that we're on the same page as to what we stand for, etc.

Imagination and Theoretical Inference

I spent the weekend at the Virginia Tech Graduate Philosophy Conference, where I presented my paper on dreaming and imagination. It went over well, I think -- it seemed to get people interested. It also got *me* interested in it again. Here's a question I've been focusing on for the past couple of days, largely thanks to insightful questions by Colin Klein and Jason Decker: how is it that imaginings can lead to beliefs? They clearly can and do -- I imagine one figure rotating and moving to the position of another and form the belief that they are congruent, or I imagine a fistfight between Al Sharpton and Al Gore and form the belief that Al Sharpton would win such a fight, or I imagine my apartment burning down and how I would react to it, and form the belief that I don't have a good enough evacuation plan. How does this work? I'd like to be able to tell a story about this on the model of theoretical inference, so the first step for me will be to figure out how plain old reasoning works -- I believe that p and I believe that p implies q, and I somehow manage to form the belief that q. I'd like to read up on how that works. Any suggestions? I know John Broome talked some about that here at Brown last year... pointers to published papers, online resources, etc. would be very welcome.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Fast for a World Harvest

I will be participating in a thirty-hour hunger awareness fast next week, from 2:00 a.m. Wednesday night to 8:00 a.m. Friday morning. It is organized by the Brown University Oxfam group in order to raise money to combat poverty, starvation, and general misery in Sudan. More information on our fast is here. If any readers are willing to sponsor my fast, a few dollars can really go a long way to relieve suffering for the people who need it most. Drop me an email or a comment.

Go Google!

I got a rather mundane instance of "give me your bank account and credit card numbers quick before it's too late" spam today. But I noticed something new -- Gmail attached a warning to the front of it!
Warning: This message may not be from whom it claims to be. Beware of following any links in it or of providing the sender with any personal information. Learn more
Google explains their policy:
Google is currently testing a service designed to alert Gmail users to messages that appear to be phishing attacks. When the Gmail team becomes aware of such an attack, the details of these messages are used to automatically identify future suspected phishing attacks. The result: when a Gmail user opens a suspected phishing message, Gmail displays a warning. Gmail's phishing alerts operate automatically, much like spam filtering. Gmail's spam filters automatically divert messages that are suspected of being unwanted messages into 'Spam'. Similarly, Gmail's phishing alerts automatically display warnings with messages that are suspected of being phishing attacks so that users know to take care before providing any personal information.
That's a fantastic idea. I hope that other email services will follow Google's lead, here, and that far fewer people will fall prey to these ridiculous scams. It's absurd that spamming can be so lucrative. My only complaint: thanks, Google, for tagging the bad message -- by why not move it to the spam folder while you're at it?

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Those tree-hugging moderates

So the Right is up in arms about some of its members not being Right enough. Here's Tony Perkins:
Yesterday, Senator Arlen Specter spent much of the day defending his comments saying that, if chosen to be the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he would establish a litmus test against pro-life judges. [NOTE: Sadly, this is not true. -Jonathan] The untold story in this battle is that he won reelection to the Senate last week directly because President Bush and Senator Rick Santorum, two decidedly pro-life men, came to his side during a tight primary race against pro-life challenger Pat Toomey. Rather than expressing support for the men who helped return him to the Senate, Arlen Specter is now opposing their pro-life values. This is the height of arrogance and ingratitude. President Bush and Sen. Santorum need to remember their role in reelecting Sen. Specter to the Senate. If they want to protect their values, and the values of the vast majority of Americans, they need to ask whether or not they want Sen. Specter in control of the confirmation process. The President and Sen. Santorum can provide much-needed leadership to this debate. If the Republican Party continues to support moderates who are out of step with the American people, we will continue to see the arrogance that Sen. Specter continues to flaunt. It is time for them to weigh in with Republican senators and offer another alternative to a Specter chairmanship.
My emphasis and added brackets. Mark down November 2004 as the date when "moderate" joined "liberal" as a pejorative.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Rules of Rooting

Matt Weiner has a fascinating post on the rationality of rooting for football teams in certain circumstances. The basic question, as I understand it, is this: suppose that I am a Cleveland Browns fan, and don't care about any other football teams one way or the other. My only football interest is in the success of the Cleveland Browns. Suppose that one week, the Browns play the Ravens, and defeat them. The next week, the Ravens play the Steelers. Should I root for the Ravens? Matt says:
Here's the argument for so rooting: You want X to be as successful as possible. The better X is, the more successful they will be (most likely). The better Y is, the more evidence X's previous victory provides that X is good. So if Y beats Z, you have more evidence that your goal will be achieved. The argument against rooting for Y is basically this: What happens between Y and Z has no effect on X's fortunes. All you care about is X's fortunes. So why should you care what happens between Y and Z?
Both arguments do seem somewhat compelling, which is why we have a genuine puzzle. Add for further consideration that many of us, I think, *would* root for the Ravens under those circumstances. I guess I consider that to be weak evidence that it's rational so to do. Following are a few random thoughts on the issue: Maybe we're not *only* concerned with the success of the Browns -- maybe we also care about *respect* given to the Browns. (Or *maybe*, and I'm getting more and more tenuous, I know, respect given to the Browns is partially constitutive of their success.) It's also worth noting that it's contingent on the way the NFL works that the Ravens' future performance does not affect the Browns' future success; in college football, 'stregnth of schedule' considerations affect BCS standings, so it is clearly rational to root for previous opponents of the preferred team. I guess these two points might be applied as attempts to 'explain away' the intuition that it is rational to root for the Ravens. Matt sets up the example, as I did above, with the preferred team having *beaten* the team we're now considering rooting for. I don't see that this is critical -- even if the Browns had *lost* to the Ravens, there is still exactly the same argument for rooting for the Ravens: the better the Ravens are, the less bad that loss looks. Maybe grudge factors come into play, but I suspect they're not rational.

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Elegy for a Democratic Candidate

Savannah wrote a poem!
Now that November's nipped our bums With frost and desolation, And Bush and all his right-wing chums Have swept our mooing nation, When tears bedew my shining cheeks, I weep not for John Kerry, Who pandered to gun-toting freaks And would not let gays marry. I do not mourn for Howard Dean Despite his peacenik creds, And Sharpton was a drama queen, And Lieberman on meds. And Clark did tend towards mumbling, All plumed with hawkish feathers, And Edwards, well, he's stumbling, A vane for all our weathers. No, when I mourn the Democrats Who should wear Honesty And Moral Values and White Hats And Being Strong and Free And Peace and Civil Liberty And Eating All Your Spinach For all America to see, I weep for sweet Kucinich. Kucinich had a crooked smile That winked at all our whining. Kucinich walked a crooked mile With footsteps straight and shining. Kucinich was for Peace and Love And Hugs instead of Hitting, Kucinich was a cooing dove While all the hawks were spitting. Kucinich used his inside voice And loved his fellow man. And one state made the Kooch its choice At the con-ven-ti-on. But all the others lost their way And nominated Kerry, And with conviction Bush could stab, And John could only parry. So on this dark November day I mourn our country's fate, And hope that we can find our way And that it's not too late To find our lib'ral souls again, And learn how not to mooch, To stand up proud from 'mid our pain And win one for the Kooch.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Moral Issues

The general consensus seems to be that voters were more concerned about 'moral issues' than about war. And everyone seems to respect the dichotomy. How can anyone -- let alone everyone -- consider war not to be a moral issue?

...and the winner is...

...definitely the Christian Right. I think that John Kerry is right to hold off on conceding, just in case, but at this point it would take a miracle for him to win the election. It's time for me to gradually start reconciling myself with the idea of a second Bush term. There are a lot of things I'm afraid of, but I'll start facing them in the coming weeks and months. In the meantime, I'm reeling. I invested a lot in John Kerry, in terms of time, energy, and emotional capital. And, for a poor grad student, a non-trivial amount of money. What a depressing night. For now, here's what I took from the election itself: the clearest thing to me is, 2004 represented a *tremendous* victory for the Religious Right. It turned out in droves, and it elected its man. (It also emphatically banned gay marriage in eleven states.) At one point in the evening, I heard the CNN people saying that Kerry won convincingly among moderate voters. In an election with record turnout, Kerry won convincingly among moderate voters, and did not convincingly win the election. The Christian Right demonstrated yesterday that it is powerful enough to determine a nation-wide election, more or less all by itself. This could change everything.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

Trusting the Media

Emily points me to a poll at the San Francisco Chronicle online. Here's the version as of 10:00 Tuesday night:
And Jon Stewart's GOP correspondent just said, "The numbers? This is not a man who's going to let the numbers keep him from moving America forward. ... Waiting for election results is a sign of weakness."

Biggest lie yet from Focus on the Family

I haven't been this nervous in a long, long time. The latest thing that disgusts me is an email from my old friend, Focus on the Family. They say the following in their "Citizenlink email update" yesterday:
Bin Laden Threatens Those Who Vote for Bush The videotaped message from Osama bin Laden broadcast Friday threatens any state that supports President Bush in the election may be targeted for attack, the New York Post reported. Bin Laden refers to Bush as a "white thug" and is angry that the president chose to stand up and fight -- and those who are Bush supporters are considered as the enemy. The message, according to a new translation of it, indicated that states John Kerry wins on Tuesday will be seen as trying to make peace with bin Laden and his followers. The Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors and translates Arabic media, noted that bin Laden timed the release in order to divide the nation during elections -- hoping to tilt the vote toward Kerry.
In addition to being irresponsibly misleading, this statement is a blatant lie. Here is the transcript of the bin Laden address. Can you find the passage where bin Laden threatens Kerry states? It's things like this that make me think twice about free speech, because you just *know* a bunch of people are going to get this email and think, ooh, bin Laden's not going to scare me, I'm going to go vote for Bush!, who might not have otherwise voted. UPDATE: I may have spoken too soon. The National Review argues for the same conclusion that FOTF does, but they actually *argue* for it. I don't know if they're right or not, but apparently it's a position for which there actually can be arguments. Still, it's pretty bad of them to have plainly stated it as an uncontroversial fact.