Monday, November 28, 2005

The Utilitarian Cookbook

At Right Reason, Chris Tollefsen asserts that all good cooks are conservative. Now, I'm no expert on cooking, or on the strange casserole of hardened traditionalism, religious dogma, and leftover prejudice that seems to constitute philosophical conservatism. But it seems to me (and he might agree) that Millian "experiments in cooking" are essential to the improvement of the art. Any who disagree are welcome to sample Dennis Clark's champagne vinegar and chili oil mayonnaise -- a substance so delicious that I originally refused to consider it mayonnaise. Dennis then explained to me that mayonnaise is not defined by its immediately sensible properties, but by its hidden essence as an emulsion. But I'll put aside questions of artificial kind semantics for another day.

Should I someday learn to cook very well (or marry a far better cook than myself), perhaps I'll play some role in the writing of a utilitarian cookbook. Think of all the desiderata that utilitarians use to evaluate a meal -- yumminess, appearance, fun-ness to eat, health, price, ease of preparation, ease of acquiring ingredients, and kindness to animals. The cookbook would contain recipes that maximized utility, keeping all these features in mind.

I should say here that the core of Tollefsen's claim about conservatism in cooking does not seem wrong to me. That cooks defer in some degree to tradition and authority seems plausible. But this is something that culinary utilitarians can easily swallow. Nobody argues that the art of navigation is not founded on astronomy, because sailors cannot wait to calculate the Nautical Almanack.1 And none should argue that the art of cooking is not founded on utility, just because cooks use recipes that have proven themselves over time.

[Update]: Having just bought my first carton of soy milk, let me say that it's wonderful as an oatmeal solvent.

Friday, November 25, 2005


My little sister got her SAT results in today.


No prep courses. No studying, except the night before. 800 verbal, 800 math, 800 writing. Ohhyeahhh.

Thanksgiving Ezra blogging

I'll be updating this post with my Ezra posts over the next couple days. Here's what I've got so far:

A denunciation of agribusiness, with suggestions for how to set up a better subsidy regime.

A discussion of how public opinion got Democratic Senators to vote for the Iraq War. With cartoon.

Snark about Pajamas Media, the blog that looks like a late-1999 dot-com.

Functions, Norms, and Dildos. The title speaks for itself.

Employment and the Minimum Wage. The former doesn't go down when the latter goes up.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Mood disruption music

During my sophomore year, two of my roommates had a major falling out over a girl. As a result, her eventual boyfriend usually didn't bring her back to our room. On a rare occasion when he did (apparently for purely academic reasons), a huge fight erupted between the roommates. For the duration of the fight, I was sitting at my desk trying to read Heidegger, in full sight of all three. Their voices were getting louder, faces were getting red, the girl was crying, and I was worried that physical violence might ensue. So I went into my MP3 collection and started playing "I Touch Myself" by the Divinyls. The effect was dramatic -- people just can't stay angry at each other when that song is playing. Tempers cooled and it was generally agreed that I had dramatically improved the situation.

Tonight I was working on the dissertation but repeatedly rechecking my email to see if the girl I've been going crazy over for months would write back. Dissertation writing decreased, email rechecking grew, and moping ensued. It's at this point that Liz Phair's "H.W.C." came on.

Now, "H.W.C." -- which stands for Hot White Cum -- is nobody's idea of a great song. It's basically a poppy brainless shock-value song about how wonderful it is to be spooged on a lot. It's totally devoid of the self-awareness and yearning that typified Liz Phair's older stuff1. But it's dumbly cheerful right through its patheticness, and this enables it to lead pathetic people along the road to dumb cheerfulness. Which is really what you need.

I'd like to learn more about which songs can be used to disrupt which moods. It's a pretty useful thing to know.

1. cf. "Fuck and Run", "Chopsticks"

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

well I've been down to Kent...

A friend who's moved to Britain wrote a poem, and it's the kind of poetry that I like.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Bunny wants a unicorn. What'll Kripke do?

Her desire for unusual pets extending beyond chickens and seahorses, Bunny McIntosh wants scientists to make a unicorn for her. This makes a problem faced by the Kripkean semantics for natural kind terms even more dramatic.

According to Kripke, natural kind terms like chemical formulas and species names refer to some object at the beginning of the causal chain that started when the word was first used. Anything that has the same essential features as that object is a member of the kind. Since unicorns don't actually exist and nonexistent objects can't cause anything, no proper referent stands at the beginning of the causal chain that underlies the course of the word "unicorn" through the world. Unicorns don't end up merely being nonexistent, they come out to be impossible objects, since there are no such things as the essential features of unicorns. Unless there actually were unicorns at some point in the past, and they stand at the beginning of our unicorn-talk, unicorns cannot exist. While one could create a horse with naturally growing horn, perhaps with wings, a kindly disposition, great intelligence, and an affinity for virgins, it still wouldn't count as a unicorn -- nothing could.

Now here's what Bunny says:

I want a pet unicorn. Maybe one with wings, even if it can't really use them or anything. It doesn't even have to be pink, necessarily. I'd settle for white. Or black.

Avian flu schmavian flu. Get to work on this unicorn thing. That way, when kids are in high school doing their biology assignments and they ask "when am I ever going to need to know this?" The teachers can say "I don't know if you've heard, but scientists have recently been working on genetically modifying a horse to have a horn. That's right, they're making Unicorns, and they're getting paid millions of billions of dollars for them. If you want to learn how to make your own from the privacy of your own state funded lab, you're going to need to shut up and pay attention."

She not only wants a pet unicorn, but believes that scientists can use genetic modification to generate one. So she believes that unicorns are not only possible objects, but possible in the future of this world. I don't think she's speaking loosely here -- it seems that she considers the creature that would be generated a genuine unicorn. (Her desire for one seems hard to explain otherwise. Would one wish in this way for a unicorn-knockoff?)

Here I'd push for a rigidified descriptivist cluster theory on which the nonexistence of a proper referent doesn't make an object impossible. If the cluster element that involves the original causal connection goes unsatisfied, having the right descriptive features is enough to make the species term refer properly to some possible object.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Paternal daydream

Amanda's post set me on a daydream, dated sometime in the future when I'm a father:

My daughter comes down the stairs to her boyfriend, dressed in a tight little tshirt that says, "Philosophers do it a posteriori." The earnest young fellow gasps and looks at me. "You're letting her go out of the house dressed like a... Quinean?"

"Naturalistic epistemologists will be naturalistic epistemologists," I say and shrug. I mean, I disapprove of her attitude towards analyticity, but what can a father do? As he drives away with her, I hope they enjoy auditing that lecture together. Little do I know that they're planning to sneak into a colloquium on two-dimensionalism. Crazy kids.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Iraq Weekend

I've got two short pieces up at Ezra's, both of which should be fun to read. One concerns the Republicans' sham Iraq withdrawal resolution. The second explores the circumstances under which Elizabeth Cheney was conceived.

Update: Here's the big meaty one, about how the White House is misconceiving our struggle in Iraq and how we can win by getting people to properly understand it: "The Real Iraq Problem".

Friday, November 18, 2005

Join the fun, get some money

Anybody who wants to join me in betting on the 2008 Presidential nominations and all manner of other topics is invited to do so! If you start an Intrade account, mention my referral code when they ask you, "Where did you hear about the exchange?" and fund your account with $250, they'll give you an extra $50 to trade with. I'll get $25. (It might also be good to send them an email mentioning the code and my name once you've funded your account.) Here's my referral code:


So if you think Hillary is badly positioned, Guiliani is hopeless, Feingold is underrated, Allen is inevitable, or Osama is going to be captured soon, come on in and place your bet!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The virtues of Education

I saw The Education of Shelby Knox tonight. It's an excellent documentary about a girl in West Texas who sets out to replace her school's abstinence-based program with real sex ed. I particularly liked Shelby's Republican father, a good-hearted guy who only thought about his political views when his daughter did things to change them. Shelby herself was on hand to handle questions afterwards, and she seems to be starting a great activist career.

Afterwards, Amanda Marcotte and I went out for drinks and had a great time (does this count as celebrity name-dropping? If so, cool.)

Monday, November 14, 2005

Mouth-money colocation

I just opened an Intrade account today (it's the political part of the Tradesports franchise) and bought a few Edwards nomination futures at $6.50. If Edwards wins the nomination, these turn into $100 -- if he loses they turn into $0. 15:1 odds seem a little high for Edwards -- 6:1 would strike me as more reasonable. Apparently traders didn't see his mea culpa in the Post as the smart move that I did. I also have an open order for Clark at the low low price of $2.60. If Clark's still on the map in October 2007, I'm pretty sure I'll be able to sell these for a nice profit.

The two top picks on Intrade are Hillary, in the 40s, and Mark Warner, who shot up from $9 to $18 after the Kaine victory. If I had the guts to go short, I'd be short them. There's lots of good stuff to be said about Warner, both in terms of his chances of winning and his actual quality as a nominee, but I don't think he's firmly in second place yet. As for Hillary, it's unclear whether she's going to run, and it's even less clear whether she can lug that pro-war position to victory. I hear her fundraising power is pretty fearsome, though.

The right way in Iraq

I proudly present my latest Edwards-related piece: an analysis of his excellent op-ed admitting his mistake and calling for withdrawal from Iraq. I think this was absolutely the correct move for him regarding 2008, and the actual policy suggestions in his piece are pretty good.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Free Preschool!

I went to Raintree Montessori preschool in Lawrence, Kansas. The adults were very nice to me, and there was a farm nearby where kids could go and feed carrots to the horse. Even if other kids won't get to experience similarly idyllic settings, I'd like to make free preschool available to them. (I also think it's a smart way for Democrats to appeal to working families.) More Ezra's blog.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Desiring the good of others and being crazy

Dadahead and I both find delusional child-murderer Andrea Yates more sympathetic than Iraq disinformation conduit Judy Miller. This is the result of a view that I alluded to some time ago -- what makes a person morally good is her intrinsic desire for the good of others. One can be a morally good person (or for that matter, a morally good dog) with any set of beliefs whatsoever. Evil people are particularly susceptible to some beliefs -- if you have some deep-seated desire to harm black people, this desire can get some wishful thinking going when combined with a desire to only harm people who do bad things, generating a belief that black people do lots of bad things. This is the belief with which your desires are maximally satisfied. What really makes you evil in this case is the desire to harm black people, not the resultant belief.

Nomy Arpaly has an example where aliens visit Earth, and their otherwise correct travel guide to the planet has one error in it -- it says that dark-skinned humans are genetically stupider and more predisposed to violence than others. If the aliens were simply misled by their travel guide, I wouldn't think they were morally bad for forming their racist beliefs. What makes people with racist beliefs morally bad is that these beliefs are usually irrationally caused by some desire for black people's suffering.

I offered this view to an undergraduate section here in Texas once, specifically making reference to the Yates case, and the students seemed fairly receptive to it: If the 'believing' part of somebody is completely malfunctioning, so that they believe that the best way to care for their children is to kill them, but the desiring part of them functions right and they desire whatever is best for their children, they can be morally good people even as they kill their children. (My knowledge of the Yates case isn't great, so I can't be certain on the facts of the situation here. But that's how I've been told about it.)

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Conditional hitting-on

People often engage in conditional utterances. For example, we make conditional assertions: "If there's an avian flu outbreak, people will die." We make conditional apologies: "If I hurt your feelings, I'm sorry." We make conditional promises: "If your house burns down, I promise to build you another one" and issue conditional imperatives: "If Rick Santorum becomes president, flee the country." A conditional promise only operates as a real promise if the antecedent is satisfied, and the other conditional utterances operate similarly.

Sadly, it's not easy to conditionally hit on somebody. Here's a straightforward example: "If you're interested in me, then I think you're really cute." This, however, amounts to actual hitting on, whether or not the antecedent is satisfied. I'm interested in this because even after all the excellent advice to the contrary that I got from kind women here, I feel some prospective guilt at expressing interest in girls who don't feel reciprocal interest in me, even if I do so politely and go away quickly afterwards. But if I could make an utterance that didn't count as hitting-on if they weren't interested, I'd have nothing to fear. Guess I'll just have to gather my courage and charge ahead without the protection of conditionals.

There's one clear problem with conditional hitting-on. It evinces the same attitudes of sexual interest that are essential to actual hitting-on. So when you try to construct a case of conditional hitting-on, it immediately becomes a case of actual hitting-on.

Another possible issue is that hitting-on doesn't seem to be an illocutionary act like promising and asserting. It looks like the only kinds of speech-acts we can conditionally engage in are illocutionary ones. I don't, however, see the deep reason why this should be the case. (And am I right in thinking that hitting on someone isn't an illocutionary act? According to the view implicit here, it isn't, but I don't understand what unifies those five things as the only 5 possible kinds of illocutionary points.)

I'd given up hope for conditional hitting-on last night, but then Josh Dever was able to come up with what I think is a genuine example. Suppose you see a girl who looks like Willow Rosenberg walking into a bar. You go into the bar, and you discover that it's a weird theme bar where everybody wears hoods and masks all the time. So you go up to one of the hooded and masked people, and you say, "If you're the redhead who walked in just a moment ago, I think you're really cute!" In this case, you've only hit on her if the antecedent is satisified. If it turns out to be somebody else, no hitting-on has occurred. Sadly, this example doesn't help me very much.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Friday, November 04, 2005

On "acting white"

Good stuff from the new hand at Pandagon:

"When white burnouts give wedgies to white A students... it is seen as inevitable, but when the same dynamic is observed among black students, it is pathologized as a racial neurosis."

Thursday, November 03, 2005

On the design inference

One issue that comes up pretty often in the Intelligent Design debate is: When are we justified in assuming that something is the work of a designer? I was talking with Cory Juhl (who's been talking with resident IDer (yeah, we have one (Rob Koons))), about this today. IDers usually come up with some account involving complexity, and say that the complexity of an object is a sign that it had to be designed by an intelligent agent.

I think it's best to just regard design-inference claims as parts of explanations, and evaluate them the way we generally evaluate explanations. Someone who makes a design inference infers that part of the explanation for some object's existence is that it was generated by a designer. So how would I evaluate this explanation?

First, I'd determine how plausible it was that there existed a designer with the capacities and motives sufficient for creating the object. Then, I'd evaluate this explanation on the usual grounds -- explanatory adequacy / simplicity -- against the best non-design explanations.

I don't know how to properly assess the claim that human beings and other organisms are really amazingly complex. (I don't know what a proper metric for the complexity of an object would look like, and it's up to the IDer to come up with a good one.) But when we start considering explanations including a designer who would have all the right motives to make us, just as we are, and all the weird species in the world, just as they are, we're going to need a terribly non-simple explanation to account for all the data. The designer will have to have all sorts of complex motives and mental states. To quote a Joan Osborne parody from some years back:

What if God smoked cannabis?
Do you suppose He had a buzz
when He made the platypus?
When He created earth our home?
Does He like Pearl Jam or the Stones?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Wha wadna vote for Johnny?

I really should be sleeping or studying for my German test or posting about philosophy. But John Edwards mania compels me to bring you the latest from Pew:

Among possible Democratic candidates, former Sen. John Edwards has the greatest crossover appeal. ­He is viewed favorably by 85% of Democratic voters who can rate him, 68% of independents, and 48% of Republicans.

Hillary ranks second in independent-love with 58% and only above Kerry in Republican-love with 23%. Biden gets 54% favorability from independents and 42% from Republicans, second to Edwards.

One cause of Edwards' high favorability ratings is that Republicans were consumed with going after Kerry in the last election. So Edwards' public persona was transmitted to people without any real Republican interference. It's a great persona, and nobody's going to be able to redefine him now.

Tangential Jacobite reference here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005


Awesome Pakistani feminist Mukhtaran Bibi has finally come to America. Thanks to all my readers who wrote in to protest her imprisonment by the Musharraf government.