Wednesday, January 26, 2005

starve in the cold if you live too long accounts

Matt is right:
The only way to get the media to refer to private accounts as "private accounts" is if the media is convinced that "private accounts" is a neutral third-way term between the Bushian "personal accounts" and some other Democratic alternative term.


Dennis is funny:
At some stage the slow transformation of Bush administration rhetoric will reach its final destination, and, drunk with power, Scott McClellan will insist that the press refer to Republican Social Security plans only as "orgasmaccounts."

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Marriage for gay people and magic horses

I've been talking with a bunch of conservative friends about gay marriage. Some of them claim that it's part of the meaning of "marriage" that only people of different genders can get married. I think that "marriage" is a family-resemblance term, and that a difference of gender between the participants is not necessary. It's one among many things that cause us to call something "marriage", but something can still be a marriage without it. As Justin and Brandon might recall (but probably don't) from our discussion about concepts a year and a half ago, I like to give cluster-theory accounts of just about every descriptive term as a way of saving analyticity and the classical view of concepts.

It's a very strong claim that gay marriage opponents are making here. If being of two different genders is an essential part of the meaning of marriage, then "gay marriage" is like "round square" -- something logically impossible and unimaginable. I hold that "gay marriage" is more like "flying pig" or to use David Lewis' example, "talking donkey." We can imagine these things, even if the latter term ("pig", "donkey") would usually predispose to expect that the former term ("flying", "talking") won't be present. I can easily imagine two people of the same gender getting married. (By the way, I wouldn't bet against the ability of biologists a thousand years in the future to generate actual flying pigs and talking donkeys.)

Let me list some other things that contribute to something's being a marriage. None of these are necessary or sufficient conditions, but they do contribute to something's being a marriage:
-Being, or having been, in love.
-A commitment to having sex with only your spouse for the rest of your life.
-There being a big ceremony intended to initiate and celebrate this commitment.
-Living together, or wishing you could if circumstances prevent it.
-Having sex with your spouse, or having done so on a regular basis.
-Raising children together (which gay people can do, given adoption or artificial insemination).
-The application of some legal stuff to you (about the inheritance of property, health benefits, taxation, recognition of what you're doing as "marriage", etc.)
-Some externalist elements -- whatever marriage is, it's what my mom and dad and various other couples I know are involved in.

To see how flexible the concept of marriage is, consider this ancient Chinese folk tale about the origins of silk, which involves the possibility of inter-species (though heterosexual) marriage:

Legend has it that once there lived a father with his daughter, they had a magic horse, which could not only fly in the sky but also understand human language. One day, the father went out on business and did not come back for quite some time. The daughter made him a promise: If the horse could find her father, she would marry him. Finally her father came back with the horse, but he was shocked at his daughter's promise.

Unwilling to let his daughter marry a horse, he killed the innocent horse. And then a miracle happened! The horse's skin carried the girl flying away. They flew and flew, at last, they stopped on a tree, and the moment the girl touched the tree, she turned into a silkworm. Everyday, she spit long and thin silks. The silks just represented her feeling of missing him.

My strange attitudes

I find this Onion article quite depressing. Are there really people for whom getting laid is so simple? Yeah, I know it's fiction, but I don't think the joke is simply that people are having that much sex.

I greatly enjoy these Michelle Malkin pieces. Her impotent rage at wanton sexuality is delightful. From the first one:

This naked truth cannot be disguised: The era of radical feminist sexual liberation has produced a generation of shameless skanks.

from the second:

But give The Washington Post two vain, young, trash-mouthed skanks who couldn't care less about what their parents think of their sex-drenched infamy, and the newspaper can't wait to help make them full-fledged members of the media elite.

Part of the latter quote is on Wonkette's front page. I imagine that she's as amused by Malkin as I am.

Sunday, January 23, 2005

one year ago

Just got back from drinking with a group of Democrats who supported several different primary candidates. The guy who worked with Clark's campaign was making the point that Iowa was a total disaster for Clark. Clark was attractive because of his military background, his southern roots, and his outsider status. How did Iowa go?
1. Military guy (Kerry)
2. Southern guy (Edwards)
3. Outsider (Dean)
Lots of other internal Democratic Party gossip was discussed. Good times all around.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

I have seen it all

As I stepped out of the bagel shop this morning and trudged through several inches of freshly fallen snow, I passed a guy wearing skis. No wonder Dustin named his blog "The Frozen Texan" when he came up here.

Lead into gold

Buy a Brita filter, and you can turn repulsive nasty vodka into nice smooth vodka. So claim these dudes. If this works, it'll be awesome! I sort of wonder, though, why the makers of crappy vodka don't run a process like this, improve the quality of their vodka, and sell it at higher prices.

If you're wondering if this has any connection to philosophy, remember that I'm a utilitarian. Good cheap vodka! Hedons for all!

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Kripkenstein

One of the perils of a mixed philosophy/politics blog is that if I write about one thing too long, I probably lose all my readers who do the other thing. But today we talked about Kripke's Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language in the Gibbard "Normativity of Meaning" seminar and I want to talk about that with my ~3 remaining philosophical readers.

I don't think the skeptical problem of the first half of the book -- What makes it true that some agent's use of the '+' symbol represents addition rather than quaddition, where you add if the numbers are below 57 and otherwise the answer is 5? -- is a particularly big problem. My two points of contention with Kripke are these:
(1) He neglects the possibility of giving a synthetic reduction of the normativity of meaning.
(2) His objections to an idealized dispositional theory aren't good.

(1) is pretty simple. On page 37, he talks about how the dispositionalist will give a descriptive account of the addition relation. He says that "this is not the proper account of the relation, which is normative, not descriptive." But as naturalistic moral realists using Kripke and Putnam's own theory of reference are aware, normative and non-normative concepts can have the same reduction base. Just as water and H2O (assuming the Putnam intuition which I don't have, but whatever) are concepts that pick out the same property, normative and non-normative concepts can pick out the same property. If you see the dispositionalist as trying to run a synthetic reduction of this sort, the normative/descriptive contrast doesn't have any great significance.

If (2) is right, a dispositional theory can even work as a conceptual analysis, and not merely as a synthetic reduction. I think that one can solve the skeptical problem with an idealized dispositional theory -- you consider a counterfactual situation where people have perfect calculative power, flawless memory, and long enough lifespans to hear the longest numbers for sums. If they would say that 68+57=125 in this situation, they're doing addition, and if they say 5 it's quaddition. Kripke claims that an idealized version of the dispositional theory fails because any idealization sufficient to get addition as a result is so gerrymandered as to be question-begging. The account must have been constructed with the idea of getting addition and not quaddition to be the answer. I think this is far too quick. If we can isolate the set of psychological processes having to do with meaning, we can fix everything else so that those psychological processes will be the ones expressed in behavior. Whether one is an adder or a quadder will depend on what one would do in this counterfactual situation. The question hasn't been begged here -- if the psychological processes having to do with meaning are the right way, the subject will be quadding.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Movie recommendation

I strongly recommend "A Very Long Engagement" to anyone who is willing to smuggle a bottle of whiskey into the theater and pour about 5 shots into their soda. The movie is pretty long and the heroine is determined to the point of obsession, but if you're drunk like me and Howard, you'll be totally behind her. The more sober members of our party didn't have as quite as good a time. Since it's a French movie, some of the sex scenes were emotionally tangled enough that you'd need alcohol to enjoy them properly. There is also one scene of battlefield action-movie triumph and one awesome hooker assassin character, but for the most part the action is brutal WWI trench warfare stuff. Jodie Foster also appears, has emotionally complicated sex, and speaks French.

Monday, January 17, 2005

Pentagon considered gay sex bomb

Given how badass the Spartans were, this might not be such a good idea.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Going pro with the whining game

The first half of this Yglesias post concerns the lack of fun at Harvard and how we wished they'd serve more popcorn chicken. If I hadn't found the good folk of HRSFA, I might be with him on lack of fun, and back in my carnivorous days, I was definitely with him on popcorn chicken.

But what this old Perspective editor really wants to do is pick a fight with former Harvard Salient editor Ross Douthat for going pro with the campus conservative game of whining about how awful academia is. I haven't read Ross' book, which hasn't come out yet, but the blurb about "the trumping of intellectual rigor by political correctness and personal ambition" raises my suspicions.

The blurb is only a minor datum here. Ross' attack on lefty academic blog Left2Right in the Weekly Standard a few weeks ago gave me a picture of how his career is taking shape. Consider this ridiculous bit about Left2Right's contributors:

These are thinkers, after all, who have given their lives to left-liberalism in its purest, most theoretical form, in which all the significant questions have been settled and the only remaining difficulty is determining how many sexual identities can dance on the head of a Rawlsian pin.

Ross willfully misleads his readers about what these people have spent their lives doing. I know the published work of four L2R contributors -- Velleman, Deigh, Darwall, and Railton. They're all famous for their work on practical reason -- they spend their time arguing about things like whether all practical rationality is means/end rationality, and whether thinking A is the morally right thing to do implies having some motivation to do A. There are huge disagreements between the four of them on these issues, which are at a level of abstraction so utterly removed from contemporary politics as to support no particular ideological stance. (Substantive doctrines about morality do appear at the end of Railton's 1986 paper "Moral Realism", but you'd have to do a lot of extra argument to turn Railton's conclusion into an endorsement of any particular political view.) This stuff about sexual identities is utterly disconnected from any of their work. You only write garbage like this if you're trying to earn the wages of hackery by slandering intelligent liberal professors.

Maybe Ross' book will be accurate in its criticisms of Harvard -- as I said, I haven't read it, and there are plenty of things at Harvard worth criticizing. The rest of the publisher's introduction gives some reason for hope that the book will deal with many aspects of life at Harvard, not just those that lend themselves to cheap shots against academia. But I'm suspicious. The Right is very good at promoting conservative members of generally liberal groups and using them to discredit the institutions associated with those groups. Taste the crocodile tears at the end of this Armstrong Williams column that makes an internal NAACP strategy dispute into a reason to say, "This is a crime. This is a shame. This is the sad state of the nation's most storied civil rights organization." I'm sure there's lots to be gained in being the Harvard man who finds any excuse that exists (and some that don't) to bash Harvard. It keeps the right-wing troops marching and you probably don't even need to be as pathetic a creature as David Horowitz. But it's not a proud way to make a living.

It's about time!

It's great to see some lawmakers working on the problem of long lines at voting places. Some of my people in Detroit, when I worked Election Protection, were standing in line for 2 hours in the morning to vote. This is an especially significant issue for Democrats, whose urban voters often face the longest lines.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Anti-Semitism, on the Right, 15 yards, first down

Occasionally I've seen conservatives, either viciously or stupidly, misinterpret left-wing attacks on "neocons" as attacks on Jews. If we on the left were clever and vicious, maybe we could've spun right-wing attacks on "liberals" as veiled attacks on Jews, defanged a favorite conservative attack term, and discredited people who use it against us. Shouldn't have been too hard -- liberal and Jewish stereotypes are fairly similar (overeducated, bloodless blue-state nerds). Sadly, we didn't and it's probably too late to do so.

If anyone wants to get started, though, they can begin by pointing to a conservative who attacks the ACLU in the course of an explicitly anti-Semitic post, which was linked by Yglesias:

I'd never understood how the medieval kings found it so easy to get the common people to hate the Jews in their midst. But if those medieval Jewish leaders were anything like the idiots running the ADL, the ACLU and the Council of Jews, one can see where the idea of persecuting them would have held some appeal.

Insane dude has a weekly column on WorldNetDaily, by the way, so he's more than some random yahoo with a blog.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Libertarianism and old people

Bush pitches his plan to replace Social Security as an "Ownership Society" initiative. On Bush's plan, your investment account will be your property. If you die with money still lying around in your account, you get to pass it on to your kids. This is the kind of thing that libertarians like. While the government is making you save a certain percentage of your income, this is intuitively less coercive than the transfer payments in the current Social Security system. Your retirement is provided for by your property, and property rights are an institution that libertarians like. Utilitarians, on the other hand, aren't that bugged by coercion per se, especially when it operates in the noninvasive form of payroll taxes. (The regressive structure of the payroll tax is a topic for another day.)

But if you fail to die before your retirement account runs out, as a large percentage of the population will, you'll be a very old person with no money. This is the kind of thing that makes utilitarians really unhappy. Libertarian theories don't give any reason to care about an old person's poverty -- since nobody's been coerced, all is well.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Soap factory worker speaks

Both my liberal and conservative readers may be amused by this, from an article titled "TV appeal by Richard Gere perplexes Palestinians" -- liberals because Bush is dissed, conservatives because Gere comes off looking silly.

"Hi, I'm Richard Gere and I'm speaking for the entire world. We're with you during this election time. It's really important. Get out and vote," Gere says in the English-language advertisement. He repeats the phrase, "Get out and vote" in Arabic.

But many voters, already struggling with the labyrinthine politics of the West Bank and Gaza, say they have never heard of the actor who swept Debra Winger off her feet as a dashing Navy officer in the 1982 film "An Officer and a Gentleman" and were even less interested when they were told he's an American.

"I don't even know who the candidates are other than Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas), let alone this Gere," Gaza soap factory worker Manar an-Najar told Reuters Wednesday.

"We don't need the Americans' intervention. We know who to elect. Not like them -- they elected a moron."


It looks like the Palestinians, in fact, did know who to elect. Mahmoud Abbas opposes violence and there's a decent chance that he'll keep the extremists in control. My general views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, by the way, are here.

Also, I can not think of a cooler occupation for a normal man-on-the-street who gives a funny, pointed quote than "Palestinian soap factory worker."

Sunday, January 09, 2005

Laughter and music

There's lots of things in human psychology for which an adaptationist explanation makes some sense. We desire food and sex because creatures that desired these things were more likely to live and reproduce back in the old times, and we carry these traits as the descendents of those creatures. The capacity for laughter and the appreciation of music, however, seem more difficult for adaptationists to explain. Would a creature that laughed or that enjoyed music really produce more viable offspring than a creature that didn't? Maybe there are some minor ways in which these things are adaptive (stress relief?) but it's hard for me to make a serious case for them. I can see how they might be adaptive if a large percentage of the population (and particularly your potential mates) already has a sense of humor or likes music. But I'm wondering how this stuff gets going in the first place so that a large percentage of the population has the traits in question.

My guess is that if you throw together a bunch of complicated, evolved modules in the brain -- language processing, emotions, auditory processing -- you get weird emergent capacities on top of those things that weren't specifically selected for. If there aren't any selection pressures on the emergent abilities, they just stick around. If I remember correctly, Gould talks about this kind of thing in "The Spandrels of San Marco."

Personally, I'm not as enamored of adaptationist explanations as some people are. Developmental factors, random genetic drift, and most importantly the number and severity of the mutation steps between a previous stage and a subsequent one are a huge part of the explanation. Sure, natural selection plays a role, but there's no reason to think it'll be the central factor in explaining why we are the way we are.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Armstrong Williams: $240,000 OBO

In the most egregious purchase of a black man by a conservative white man since 1865, pundit Armstrong Williams got paid $240,000 of our tax dollars to praise Bush's education policy and convince other black people to do the same. I have a number of quick thoughts about this, which I will present below in brief form:

-I always wondered why one would be a black conservative. Now I know why.
-With this and Judith Miller's WMD distortions, I will never feel compunction about talking about this country's right-wing media.
-Rep. George Miller (D-Mealymouthia), report to Democratic headquarters for a tutorial on how to speak. Instead of "A very questionable use of taxpayer's money that is probably illegal," we need to hear "The administration is using your tax dollars to buy favorable media coverage, and that's completely wrong"? Or something that advances the partisan ball?
-As Josh Marshall asked on his website, which other media figures are in the administration's pay?

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Off-roading

I have new boots, and I imagine that they give me some idea of what it's like to drive an SUV. They add some height and allow me to maintain traction when I go off paved paths in the snow. While they're kind of bulky, there's a feeling of power I get from walking in them that I don't get from ordinary sneakers.

Unlike an SUV, they don't increase America's dependence on foreign oil or bring us closer to global environmental catastrophe.

Monday, January 03, 2005

Media bias

Take a look at this flyer from Westboro Baptist Church, exulting in the deaths of Swedish tourists in the tsunami. Then come back to hear me rant about media coverage of churches and academia.

Done? Okay. One one hand, there are lots of stories in the media about how evil and liberal academia is -- John Leo has hardly written about anything else in his weekly US News column for the last decade. On the other hand, you don't hear that many stories about how evil and conservative churches are.

(Of course, not all churches are conservative. There are lots of liberal Christians. Unitarians are awesome. And not all academics are liberal -- I remember Dan Bonevac telling hundreds of students that each time you use the death penalty, it saves 8 innocent lives. Religious schools and economics departments are conservative, while academic scientists and engineers are not too different from smart non-academics.)

Here's a part of the explanation why media coverage slants one way and not the other. A very large percentage of Americans are in regular contact with churches. A very small percentage of Americans are in regular contact with colleges. While many people went to college, lots of them aren't there anymore and some went during the 1960s when everyone was a hippie. So if you say that insane leftish things are the norm at universities, people don't have access to counterevidence. But if you tried to spin a story that evil and hateful behavior like the flyer above is the norm at churches, lots of people would be aware of the counterevidence. Their churches don't say things like that! Readers would be angry and there would be nasty letters to the editor. So those stories don't get written.