Saturday, December 31, 2005

Fighting Dems and primary comments

Dadahead argues that there isn't much strategic benefit to running Democrats who fought in wars. In this week's Ezra post, I disagree.

When my friend Dennis came over yesterday, he told me that according to recent scholarship, the 72 virgins promised to Islamic martyrs may actually be 72 raisins. I did some more research into Islamic paradise and came up with some pretty fun stuff.

I should have a post on 2008 primary people up on Sunday. (Update: I spent Sunday trying in vain to finish the draft of my first dissertation chapter. You'll see it next week!)

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Abortion at Redstate

When I should've been polishing up the draft of my first dissertation chapter, I instead went on Redstate and argued with some conservatives about abortion. Bad Neil! Anyway, it actually went a little better than I expected. Always good to start a discussion by saying "I think it's a wonderful thing to help a 10-year-old get an abortion" and end up with some conservatives thinking, "hey, this guy isn't crazy." Stylistically, forceful attacks on my views occasionally drive me into a sort of calm, detached Derek Parfit mode, and there are moments where that happened here.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nefarious New Hampshire

This law is completely bizarre:

Few...question the ferocity with which New Hampshire guards its prerogatives in this process. Granite State pride -- and Granite State coffers, which swelled by $264 million because of primary-related economic activity in 2000, according to one study -- are on the line. New Hampshire law stipulates that the state must hold its primary seven days prior to any "similar election" in another state. The commission, interpreting "similar election" to mean "primary," recommended inserting one or more caucuses between Iowa's and New Hampshire's so as not to contravene the statute. New Hampshire's secretary of state, Bill Gardner, has offered no indications that he agrees with that interpretation. "The law doesn't define 'similar election' and gives us total freedom," he told The (Manchester) Union Leader in late November.

How can you pass a law that says you get to hold your primary seven days before any other state's primary? What if another state passes a similar law?

One of the scenarios presented in the article involves New Hampshire's jerkitude causing the DNC to refuse to seat their delegates. If it comes to that, let's hope the DNC does so. I've always thought the outsized role that New Hampshire and Iowa have in choosing presidential nominees was ridiculous, and this law is an absurd way to maintain it.

My uncle and Jesus

Now a coda to the discussion of the Magi: Over dinner, Mother presented us with the wacky revelation that my uncle Hemanta, who lives back on the village in India, has started worshipping Jesus Christ. He was very ill a few years ago, and he went to a Christian hospital in Vellore where he got better. So he took to worshipping the deity associated with the hospital -- in this case, Jesus. There's a picture of Jesus up on the wall in his house, among the pictures of relatives and Hindu gods, and he prays in front of it at night. I don't think this makes uncle Hemanta a Christian in any sort of usual way -- he's just a Hindu who's making full use of his polytheistic freedom.

Monday, December 26, 2005


At restaurants, you often get chopsticks that come with one end fused together. You're supposed to snap them apart and eat with the pointy ends. But when you break them, the back ends have these nice squarish blocks on them that are much better than the pointy ends for gripping and lifting food. So I've started eating with the back ends rather than the front.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Christmas Ezra posts

Welcome, new readers coming over from the Leiter Reports!

I do guest posts at Ezra Klein's place on the weekends. The first of the weekend is Wonks play offense, a discussion of the importance of having smart policy people around, and an explanation of why they're feeling so melancholy and insignificant lately. Contains extended football metaphor.

update: *sigh* I worried that I was overextending the wonky wankathon, and then that's all anyone else wanted to write about this weekend. Oh well.

I also have a post on the mutability of religion, with specific reference to Islam. (If you read only one of these two posts, read this one.)

Friday, December 23, 2005

We Three Kings of Orient Are

A comment I posted at Ezra's about the coolest guys there when Jesus was born:

Does anyone know exactly where the Three Kings were from? If I ever move into a religious community that does nativity plays or some such, I'll try to get a part as the Frankincense guy. I like the idea that a Hindu showed up at the Nativity and was like, "Hey, it's another God! Good thing I'm a polytheist! Man, ain't he the spitting image of the baby Krishna. Here, let me light some incense. Om."

Update: Constantine gives me a helpful link to this information -- turns out I was right! Or at least Bede says so.

According to tradition dating back to medieval times, their names were Balthasar, Gaspar (or Casper), and Melchior. They are often depicted as representing the three races. The Bible says they came from the East, but exactly where is not known. Arabia, Babylon, and Persia are popular choices. According to one tradition, Balthasar was king of Arabia, Gaspar was king of India, and Melchior was king of Persia.

An 8th century saint, Bede the Venerable, described the kings this way: "The first was called Melchior; he was an old man, with white hair and long beard; he offered gold to the Lord as to his king. The second, Gaspar by name, young, beardless, of ruddy hue, offered to Jesus his gift of incense, the homage due to Divinity. The third, of black complexion, with heavy beard, was called Baltasar; the myrrh he held in his hands prefigured the death of the Son of man."

On the rocks, in a plate

I'm reading this article about how bartenders pour less liquor into taller, skinnier glasses, and the angle on it is: "If you want to watch what you drink, get a tall skinny glass." Certainly not the most harmful kind of media bias in the world, but it's funny how the media focuses on the health-conscious side of things as opposed to the getting-drunk-cheaper side of things, even when most people are going to be thinking, "Whoa! I'm gonna ask for my next Long Island in a pan!" Or at least, that's what I was thinking.

Long Island Iced Tea, by the way, has become my default drink, since it's hard to beat on the alcohol per dollar measure. So drinks the utilitarian.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Ape stories for everyone

Robert Sapolsky's article about apes and human nature is really good. One of the big themes of the piece is about how cultural factors have a huge role in explaining how apes behave.

This first excerpt is about Forest Troop, a troop of savanna baboons whose more aggressive males all got killed by eating tainted meat they found on a raid. This left only the girls and a bunch of laid-back dudes:

In a typical savanna baboon troop, newly transferred adolescent males spend years slowly working their way into the social fabric; they are extremely low ranking -- ignored by females and noted by adult males only as convenient targets for aggression. In Forest Troop, by contrast, new male transfers are inundated with female attention soon after their arrival. Resident females first present themselves sexually to new males an average of 18 days after the males arrive, and they first groom the new males an average of 20 days after they arrive (normal savanna baboons introduce such behaviors after 63 and 78 days, respectively). Furthermore, these welcoming gestures occur more frequently in Forest Troop during the early post-transfer period, and there is four times as much grooming of males by females in Forest Troop as elsewhere. From almost the moment they arrive, in other words, new males find out that in Forest Troop, things are done differently.

At present, I think the most plausible explanation is that this troop's special culture is not passed on actively but simply emerges, facilitated by the actions of the resident members. Living in a group with half the typical number of males, and with the males being nice guys to boot, Forest Troop's females become more relaxed and less wary. As a result, they are more willing to take a chance and reach out socially to new arrivals, even if the new guys are typical jerky adolescents at first. The new males, in turn, finding themselves treated so well, eventually relax and adopt the behaviors of the troop's distinctive social milieu.

Then there was this:

Optimizing the fission-fusion interactions of hunter-gatherer networks is easy: cooperate within the band; schedule frequent joint hunts with the next band over; have occasional hunts with bands somewhat farther out; have a legend of a single shared hunt with a mythic band at the end of the earth.

For sheer love-of-mythology reasons, I was totally goosebumped-out by the "legend of a single shared hunt with a mythic band at the end of the earth" part. That is so damn cool.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Hackett! on Health Care!

Just one piece of Ezra action this week, and it's on a promising interview with Paul Hackett, in which he stands up for fixing health care.

Ezra and the other reservoir bloggers are talking about Bush's illegal wiretapping. Why didn't he follow FISA and get a retroactive warrant? What the hell was going on?

Thursday, December 15, 2005

The world is rich in beauty

Having recently gotten my Texas state ID (due to not driving, I'd lived here several years without one), I can now buy whiskey, and my beer needs are no longer dependent on a few friendly convenience store clerks who wouldn't hassle me about my Pennsylvania ID. Now it's a springtime of liquor, with whiskey-buying opportunities blooming like flowers where there had only been grey winter before.

Galen got there first

Yet another dissertationblogging post that will be of interest to < 3 of my readers, but it seems that my Neutrals example was invented a few years ago by Galen Strawson. Except, with him they're the Aldebaranians:

Consider a race of creatures—the Aldebaranians—that have beliefs, sensations, thoughts, and so on. They are not capable of any affect states at all, but they are capable of entering into states—call them 'M states'—given which, and given that they believe what they believe, they are regularly caused to move in certain ways, and so regularly engage in what looks like purposive behavior. M states, then, may be defined as motivating states that are functionally very similar to states that we normally think of as desire states. They are functionally similar in respect of the way in which they interact with a being's informational states to cause it to move in apparently goal-directed ways. Roughly speaking, specific M states, in combination with specific informational states, lead to specific movements. (Mental Reality, p. 281)

Strawson says that "some may hold" that these creatures have desires, but he defends a view of desire on which connections to affect (and thus to pleasure) are essential to desire. It seems that he's with Mill on this being an a posteriori identity, though it's not really clear.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Book learnin'

This Ezra post about his shortened attention span for book reading reminded me of the time I read a Harry Potter book after a heavy fall semester of philosophy. Accustomed to a speed of about 10 pages per hour (more for Naming and Necessity, less for Kant's first Critique, both of whom I was reading that semester) I suddenly found myself flying through an entire 500-page book in a day. It was like riding a jetski.

I haven't read any book-length light fiction for a long time. I'm guessing that blogging won't change my reading style too much, since I balance it with the opposite kind of reading pretty regularly.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Time warp Mill

There's this funny passage on page 49 of Utilitarianism. John Stuart Mill claims that "practiced self-consciousness and self-observation, assisted by observation of others" will show that

desiring a thing and finding it pleasant, aversion to it and thinking of it as painful, are phenomena entirely inseparable or, rather, two parts of the same phenomenon – in strictness of language, two different modes of naming the same psychological fact; that to think of an object as desirable (unless for the sake of its consequences) and to think of it as pleasant are one and the same thing; and that to desire anything except in proportion as the idea of it is pleasant is a physical and metaphysical impossibility. (49)

I thought it was cool that Mill seemed to be affirming the necessity of pleasure at the thought of B for desiring that B, just like I do. But what really tickles me about the passage is its close resemblance to contemporary views about semantics and metaphysics. Just like Putnam with water and H2O, Mill sees one object with two names, posits an a posteriori identity, and asserts that having one thing without the other is metaphysically impossible. I know he's regarded as an early direct reference theorist, but I'm pretty surprised to see him making moves that look so Putnam. The only difference I can see is that water has a hidden essence while desire seems to have an unhidden one, but after reading Justin on natural kinds, I don't know whether any semantic or metaphysical conclusions follow from this.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Dinner's ready!

And here's what I've got for you:

The appetizer: a bleg for cool left-wing photos taken by bloggers.

The main course: my vote for best conservative blogger, and a discussion of right-wing attitudes towards Iraq.

Leftovers: Last week's piece on when big companies fail, and a dessert on the whole "Merry Christmas" issue.

In other food-related news, I'm going to be running Live-Action Hungry Hungry Hippos at Vericon this January. Less thinking, more eating!

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Tripartite division of the Neil

This weekend I have three blogs. There's this one, there's Ezra's blog, and there's Philosophy, etc. where I'm doing some dissertation-related guestblogging while Richard Chappell is off at a conference. Here's my first (huge) post: Is "desire" a natural kind term?

What desire is lays out my analysis of desire. Sinhababu scholars will be interested to learn that I've dropped the direction-of-attention component, and I now regard that as merely a contingent feature.

This post will be updated until Thursday, when the good Mr. Chappell finishes conferencing.

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 [whose blog is now, sadly, gone] 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.

Monday, October 31, 2005

Of Milk and Moo

Two more posts up at Ezra-land. First I criticize the old saw encouraging women not to have premarital sex if they want to get married -- "Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free?" The obvious problem with thinking about men's relationships to women in this way is exposed therein.

David Sirota descended upon my Ohio Senate post and got really mad. So I wrote a response that pointed out his near-complete failure to correctly present his opponents' arguments. It was fun to write, and I hope it's fun to read.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Lindsay? Dadahead? Please?

I'm not happy with either of my friends' contributions to the debate over whether we should nominate Paul Hackett or Sherrod Brown for the Ohio Senate seat. Here I point out problems with their arguments, and talk about what they'd have to prove in order to win my vote.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Swing low, sweet Harriet

As fun as it was to read Redstate and watch conservatives tear into Bush, my right-wing friend Matt O'Brien told me today about an even greater pleasure that the Miers resignation denied us. Many conservative intellectuals, Matt says, have long fantasized about a nominee battle turning into a debate on constitutional interpretation -- a debate that they're sure they can win, and in winning persuade the country to their side.

These conservatives have always dreamed of some intellectual giant of the originalist movement swatting away the sophistries of liberal Senators. The horrifying prospect that opened up before them, however, was that they'd get every bit of their fantasy, except with Harriet Miers as their representative. Imagine them tearing out their hair as she fumbled through arguments, mis-cited the Constitution, and embarrassed them in front of everybody.

Harriet, we'll miss you. You leave us well though -- the filibuster gun is still loaded and the Republican base is fractured. How good it would've been to see you make it onto the Supreme Court, where Breyer could win your innocent mind over to our side. I dreamt of you living in sin with the Court's most eligible bachelor, David Souter! Those dreams are gone now, but I wish you all the best.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Sometimes we fight. Sometimes we win.

Bush's attempt to underpay workers involved in the reconstruction of New Orleans has been defeated. Congratulations, George Miller, on a job well done.

Monday, October 24, 2005

The John Edwards experience

Over the last few years, I've developed an incapacity to properly listen to political speeches. I generally approach them in some kind of meta way, analyzing how the speaker's rhetorical moves and mannerisms contribute or detract from the effect he is trying to create, and considering how they play into a broader political context. It doesn't usually matter whether I support the speaker or not -- it happens as much with Democrats as with Republicans.

That's not what happened today. For most of John Edwards' talk on poverty here on the UT campus, I was naively absorbed in what he said. This is partly because of my great Edwards enthusiasm, and partly because Edwards' speech -- the stated purpose of which was to encourage students to join a campus volunteer group -- didn't fit within a narrowly political context. It's also because Edwards is an truly amazing speaker. Everything seemed completely natural, off-the-cuff, and conversational and yet it fit together -- often uncannily -- into a well-organized speech. (There's a reason for this -- much of the speech is here. Ezra linked to it a long time ago, but I never got around to reading the whole thing.) The following reflections are, almost without exception, ex post facto.

Edwards' anecdotes about poverty didn't fit the "here's an example to obviously fit my point" rubric that disposes unsympathetic listeners to immediately think up counterarguments. In the aftermath of Katrina, Edwards met a man who had lived and worked for 23 years in New Orleans, but whose workplace had been destroyed by flooding and wouldn't reopen. A truck came by the shelter he was staying at to pick up day laborers for work at 5 AM some mornings. He had stood there for 10 days trying to be among those chosen for work, without success. He told Edwards, "So far, it hasn’t happened, but I want to go to work." The anecdote segued him from talking about Katrina to talking about general poverty issues, and I only realized later that it defused the stereotype of poor people as indolent and lazy. Some of the less tendentious Lakoff framing principles are operative here -- when you want your audience to think "A", and you know they have some degree of credence in "not-A", don't say "not not A". Give them evidence for "A", and give it in such a way that people won't even remember that "not-A" has some appeal to them. One of the major roadblocks to antipoverty spending -- the worry, primarily of middle-class whites, that they'll be supporting lazy blacks -- is thus neatly avoided. Does stable belief-change actually result? Perhaps not immediately. But I'm guessing that it would successfully push people towards liking policy proposals premised on "A", even if "not-A" also has some grip on them. And once people get in the habit of nodding along to "A", their attachment to "not-A" may fade away.

"Some of you might remember I'm the son of a mill worker" was successfully played for laughs, and that made me happy. Not only because it's good to see that Edwards knows what he's repeated ad nauseam, but because it's good (even in a fairly tuned-in crowd) to see that he's established his poor-boy upbringing enough that the joke works.

Now for the really awesome part: After the speech, I and a few other local reporters and bloggers were invited to a media session in which we could ask him questions. First I asked about his plans for providing health care coverage to more uninsured people, and asked if he had any particular reflections on single-payer plans to offer us. He didn't come out and offer any particular positive proposals, though he did talk about the necessity and inevitability of universal coverage, and went briskly through the flaws of the current system. He also had a nice bureacracy anecdote -- when Elizabeth was undergoing cancer treatment, he had to fill out a whole bunch of paperwork that he simply couldn't understand, despite being a former lawyer and Senator. I'm wondering whether Elizabeth Edwards cancer-treatment anecdotes will someday play an effective rhetorical role in bringing us closer to a decent health care system.

The end of his speech had discussed the need for American leadership in combatting global poverty, which I was very happy to hear him bring up, especially since there was no real reason why he had to talk about it. So I asked him about that too. He expressed support for more foreign aid spending, and discussed Bush Administration failures of leadership on climate change and a host of other issues.

For the last question, someone asked about whether he'd be running in 2008, and he had some kind of genial non-response, starting with "I can't believe we got this far without hearing that one!" Nobody asked him about Iraq, though he had a few offhand negative remarks about the situation. At one point, he talked about the need for Democrats to have "big ideas" instead of merely targetting their tax cuts a little lower than Republicans target theirs. He was wearing a white "Make Poverty History" bracelet of the Lance Armstrong variety that a student had given him in another town.

At the end I got my picture taken with him and some other folks. I told him that I'd volunteered for him, and that it was good to finally meet him. As I left the Union, simple walking proved too mundane for my emotional state. I leapt onto a long elevated piece of concrete that people often use as a bench and walked on it. A girl passing by broke into a smile as she saw me, and I realized that my enthusiasm was more obvious than I thought.

Sunday, October 23, 2005

No penumbras, no Air Force

As Don Herzog points out, originalism about Constitutional interpretation threatens to make the Air Force unconstitutional. Go to the Ezra-blog to find out how!

Saturday, October 22, 2005

The Incompetence Dodge

My bit on the Rosenfeld/Yglesias Incompetence Dodge piece is here. Mostly, I think they're right, but that a different set of considerations applies to Democratic politicians than to liberal commentators.

Notes from the happy side of nighttime

A lot of cool stuff happened tonight. In nonchronological order:

-I met Amanda, who embodies the spirit of Austin.
-I met Norbizness, who is every bit as funny as his blog would suggest.
-I met Lindsay, who is even cooler than her blog makes her out to be.
-I even met Twisty! And she appears to be doing fine.
-Dan Korman fed me some genuinely delicious meat substitutes.
-I danced. A good Austin band is responsible.
-I ate fire, somewhat randomly.
-I danced again. And again. Nobody seemed to mind.
-Lindsay said that Paul Hackett seems to be enthusiastically referring to her as "Magic Thighs". She's cool with it, in a codename-assigned-by-the-Marine-commander sort of way.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Reflections on blogging and me

My blog's more than a year old now, and altogether I'm pretty happy about how this whole blogging thing has gone. There are downsides -- I spend way more time on the internet than I should, and that's dangerous to someone writing a dissertation. But I'm pleased to have a web presence that far-flung friends can interact with, I'm happy that smart people in politics and philosophy occasionally check out my blog, and I'm really excited about being invited as a weekend guestblogger by Ezra Klein.

In general, I'm going to be pushing the weekday postings in a more philosophical direction here over the next couple months. This is mostly due to a need to get cracking on dissertation-writing so I can go on the job market next year. Lately I've been saving my full-length post ideas for Ezra, and that's probably going to continue. Of course, I'll still say my bit about exciting sudden events like the Miers nomination, and if I find interesting/funny news or a great post by someone else, I'll link it here.

There's a bunch of political stuff I'm really happy to have learned and done over the past 15 or so months of blogging -- last night at the bar with some other philosophers, I was giving this semi-speech on the manifold virtues of single-payer health care, which I didn't know the faintest thing about when I started blogging. People seemed to be impressed -- both with the arguments and the fluidity with which I presented them. (Big thanks here go to Ezra, Brad, and Matt, who are responsible for my increased knowledge.) On Monday I'm going to go see John Edwards speak here in Austin, which I might not have even known about if someone from the Edwards organization hadn't seen my blog and emailed me about it. So, in violation of the philosophy-weekdays trend I'm trying to introduce, you might see a political post from me Monday night.

Monday, October 17, 2005


Ryan Lizza, via Ezra Klein:
"The Hollywood liberals over at Huffington Post as well as the university-town activists at Daily Kos and love Gore."
Okay, that's nice as far as the primaries go. But this is absolutely not the group of people you need to appeal to in the general election. Do I have any reason to think that he'll appeal to Hispanics? Suburbanites? The white working class? Chris Bowers points to old polls according to which his his unfavorability ratings were in the mid-40s. Clearly, there are/were a large number of people who don't/didn't think much of him.
If he runs for president he would be the only candidate in either party who instantly passes the post-9/11 threshold on national security issues.
I don't see why this is the case. Sure, he may have more foreign policy experience than whoever the GOP runs, but is there any reason to believe that ordinary people would think, "Ooh, Gore! There's a guy who can protect our country!"

Now, the guy has given some awesome speeches that I really like. If the rest of America were able to appreciate Al Gore's awesomeness, we wouldn't actually have any of the problems we do now. But Americans won't take to Gore, as far as I can see, and we do actually have all these problems.

Ezra weekend posts

Bit late on this, but my work at Ezra's this weekend consists of a brief description of three liberal groups I'd like to see, and a longer, more morose reflection on the ratification of the Iraqi constitution.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Bunny's chickens

Bunny McIntosh wants to get some pet chickens. This is a decision I would strongly endorse, as the presence of pet chickens might get nearby people to reflect on the evils of farming these wonderful animals in awful ways. And since Bunny is a blogger who takes excellent pictures of herself and others, there is a possibility that cute chicken pictures and stories might spread righteousness far and wide.

When the Iraqis stand up, Sunnis will die

From a sergeant major in the heavily Shi'ite Iraqi Army: "Your country had to have a civil war... It will be the same here. Everything in this world has its price. In Iraq the price for peace will be blood."

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Mark Schmitt geeks out

By going to his home site rather than TPMcafe, I unlocked a secret level. Nice post too, full with Schmitt-wisdom.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Cramer: Everything is going to hell

Jim Cramer (who taught me a lot of what I know about investing) is telling us to invest in gold, oil, and minerals, since they'll keep their value even after Bush destroys our currency. Now, if I know Cramer, he'll abandon this view in about two weeks, but the fact that he's even considering this is scary:

Our only hope that financial disaster won’t strike sooner lies with the Chinese, who actually fund our deficit by buying our Treasuries—$242 billion worth, or 12 percent of all foreign holdings. If the Chinese decide to be good communists and stop buying our bonds, the Feds will have to raise rates to attract new investors and the reaper will be at our doorstep with interest rates more akin to those of South than North America. Right now, it’s not a problem. But in a year or two or maybe less, I perceive that the government will throw a bond auction and nobody will show, including the Chinese, until rates shoot up dramatically... You can bet that when you cash out your nest egg of nice U.S.-based mutual funds and solid common stocks, your dollars will fit nicely into a wheelbarrow designed specifically to cart worthless currency to the bank.

NGOs help Mozambique

As an Oxfam donor, stuff like this makes me proud. I know there's a lot of debate out there on the relative advantages of aid versus trade in helping developing countries, and the apparent Mozambican success lends some support to the aid side.

Kung Fu Monkey helps Pakistan

Last month when I gave money for Katrina relief, I sent it though Kung Fu Monkey, who matched my donations and sent them to the Red Cross. This time when I wanted to give for Pakistan earthquake relief, I did the same thing. Given that you can effectively double your donation, it's a good way to help.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Adverse Selection

Ezra had the day off, so he had us fill in for him. I'd wanted to post something explaining adverse selection for a while, so that's what I did. This is a post that will Teach You Something about economics, and I'd encourage you to go check it out.

Yglesias and democracy

Solid Matt post on how democracy actually spreads [now gone from the internet].  The one thing I'd add is that part of the motivation behind actually invading Iraq, rather than just letting democracy run its course over the decades, was a desire to act in big dramatic explosion-involving ways after 9/11. When you add in confusion among benighted segments of the electorate about whether Saddam was responsible for 9/11, you've got a recipe for the dumb, violent, ineffective form of democracy-promotion.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Miers and Roberts

My latest at the good Mr. Klein's: "given what seems to be the case with Miers, Bush simply didn't care about advancing deep conservative goals with his second nominee. So why should I think he tried with the first?"

Missing voters

How can Democrats mobilize poor nonvoters? As I argue, it's hard. What I do know is that our policies help them, and that there's a big challenge in trying to get useful policies to win you elections. (This is kind of a typical Neil-post-at-Ezra's, in that I sympathetically but critically examine things that my liberal buddies say. Also, I go all John Edwards Crazy at the end.)

Saturday, October 08, 2005

I asked, and I received

In response to a query, friend Tony offers some good thoughts on why we actually do want Paul Hackett going up against Mike DeWine, instead of Sherrod Brown. I agree with a lot of what he says, though I'm still concerned about the fundraising angle.

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Imagining conditionals and trouble for Kant

Responding to Aidan's concerns about imagination and modality, I'm going to spell out in greater detail how one comes to know the truth-value of subjunctive conditionals, and how one evaluates claims about necessary truths truth or falsity.

First, subjunctive conditionals, which have the form "if p were true, q". We imagine the closest world where p and then apply our whole set of beliefs to the facts of that world, to determine whether q in that world. So suppose I'm considering the subjunctive conditional, "If Gore had won the election, America wouldn't have invaded Iraq." I imagine the counterfactual situation, and extend my imagination into the future by applying my beliefs about Gore's intelligence, honesty, and rationality. My beliefs lead me to imagine a world where Gore doesn't invade Iraq and instead launches some kind of global antipoverty program after invading Afghanistan. So I accept the subjunctive conditional.

Now, claims about necessary truths. Let me just consider those which have the form "necessarily, if p then q". This actually seems simpler for the imagination account than the case of subjunctive conditionals does. "necessarily, if p then q" is false iff the following obtains in any one world: "p ^ ¬q". So we just try to imagine a world where p ^ ¬q obtains. If we can successfully imagine such a thing, the claim is false.

This, it seems to me, is exactly how I go about trying to think up counterexamples. Kant says, "If everyone made false promises all the time, then the institution of promising would necessarily collapse." He intends his claim to hold across all worlds, not just ones close to ours, so I'm licensed to imagine some pretty wacky worlds. I can imagine a world where everyone makes false promises all the time. Can I imagine the institution of promising flourishing there? Well, yes, if I imagine also that there's a psychoactive chemical in the water that causes everyone to forget all false promises, and gives them false memories according to which people have made great sacrifices to keep their promises. Since I can imagine (a world full of false promising) ^ ¬(the collapse of the institution of promising), Kant's claim is false.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Not actually an endorsement

This is what we want to hear:

"Not to my recollection have I ever sat down with her [to discuss abortion]," Bush said Tuesday at his first solo press conference since May. "What I have done is understand the type of person she is and the type of judge she will be."

The president said he has never discussed abortion with any of his judicial nominees. "There is no litmus test," he said.

Bush also defended the 60-year-old Miers, who came to Washington with him from Texas in 2001 and has been White House counsel since February, against Democratic charges of cronyism and questions about her conservative record, saying she shares his legal philosophy.

Looking at her blog, it would seem that their agreement on legal philosophy is pretty far-reaching!

Note: this post once contained an endorsement of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court. Sorry, just thinking about this situation for too long makes me go all unserious.

She's embarrassing. Not terrifying.

TLaura's post on the embarrassing and the terrifying sums up my feelings on the substantive Miers-related issues quite well.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Imagination and modality at FBC

For philosophers who can pull themselves away from gawking at the distraught Republicans, Jonathan has a nice post on connections between modality and imagination. I've wondered for a while whether one can use imagination to explain modal thought and discourse in the way that philosophers like Gibbard use (supposed) mental states of norm-acceptance to explain normative thought and discourse. I haven't thought enough about this to say anything particularly good, but I like Jonathan's observation that imagining and belief often interact as follows: we imagine a particular situation where (perhaps among other things) p is the case, and our belief that p -> q causes us to imagine q subsequently happening.

The old-girls' network

Looks like Harriet Miers graduated from Southern Methodist University with a degree in mathematics in 1967, and got her law degree there in 1970. Laura Bush graduated from SMU with a degree in education in 1968. Wikipedia has Miers meeting George Bush in the 1980s, but she could've met Laura 15 years earlier. Of course, there's no evidence that they met, or that Miers' nomination resulted from pictures of Laura Bush Gone Wild.

Harry, thanks for Harriet

I haven't been reading many liberal reflections on the Miers nomination. There aren't many out there yet, and it's fun to watch Republicans freak out for a change.

Democrats seem to be in a pretty strong position. As she's never been a judge and she's Bush's personal lawyer, we'll be able to attack on cronyism if we want. If we find evidence of a serious anti-choice streak, we can attack on ideological issues as well. But having the cronyism point in our pocket is pretty nice.

We should take a moment now to reflect on the skill of our Democratic Senators in getting us here. This is a judge who forces Dobson to roll the d20 to save against Souterization. Had we lost the filibuster fight or set up our defenses badly in the Roberts vote, Bush would've been able to pick some extreme candidate with clear right-wing views, and Republicans would be rejoicing. But we saved the filibuster and we used it to set an ambush that could possibly destroy any extreme right-wing nominee. I'm proud of Harry Reid, and you should be too.

I don't know how she'll rule on business-related issues. But whatever the answer is, she's 60 years old. Win election 2016, and you're in good shape.

Harriet Miers

At this moment it's interesting to look at Ezra's Sitemeter. Google searches for "Harriet Miers" fill the first page and a half of referring links. She was, after all, nominated to the Supreme Court. But what's the very first among all of the Harriet Miers searches?

That's right. "Harriet Miers naked". Harry Reid, I know that you're trying to find incriminating evidence on Bush's nominees, but this is going too far.

[Update] Looking closely at the Kentucky address on the Sitemeter page, and at the horror on Redstate, one wonders -- is it actually Mitch McConnell at the keyboard?

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Ancient Wisdom of Refundable Tax Credits

If you want to learn some really important stuff about tax policy, I recommend this post I've put up at Ezra's place.

Friday, September 30, 2005

The water's too warm

Ezra cites the following poll:

"Canada has a universal health care system run by the government that covers all people. Compared to Canada, do you think the overall health care system in the United States is better, worse or about the same?"
Better: 29%
Worse: 37%
Same: 23%
Unsure: 11%

The first thing to say is that there's a bit of push in the first sentence of the poll. If most people like the idea of universal coverage (as I'm guessing they do) it's going to make the poll an inaccurate measure of basic public sentiment about Canada itself, since some people might not know that Canada has universal coverage. On the other hand, "run by the government" probably isn't widely regarded as a plus, so maybe it balances out. I guess if you're looking for a poll that gives you feelings about US and Canadian health care contaminated by feelings about government-run universal coverage, this might be the poll for you.

But I don't think this difference is sufficient to account for the difference between the poll results and the American-health-care-boosterism that one encounters in the media. Part of the explanation of that, I think, is the quality of health care enjoyed by the pundit class. People in the media, and most people who you'll find holding forth on the awesomeness of American health care, have the employer-provided health care that's available to educated white-collar professionals, not the absence of health care that's experienced by 45 million uninsured Americans. Rising health care costs are a relatively uninteresting social issue to them rather than an active threat to their well-being.

There's a cartoon I saw on the wall in our department that depicted a man in a Jacuzzi. The caption was, "The system can't be collapsing! The water's too warm."

Thursday, September 29, 2005

He's been reading The Nation

Always special to see Josh Marshall link to an webpage that says:

Nevertheless, the tragic fate of the Ewoks seems to have been the subject of a New Republic cover-up.

Intro to violence

From an article on how Palestinian authorities are trying to round up loose weapons:

The crackdown came as dozens of Palestinian towns and villages in the West Bank held municipal elections. The powerful Hamas movement was expected to make strong gains, despite a continuing Israeli offensive against Islamic militants.

despite? This is exactly what I'd expect when you turn up the level of violence. I really can't pronounce on whether you create more terrorists than you destroy when you publicly kill a bunch of their leaders, but the electoral consequences of this kind of thing should be pretty obvious. Hamas terrorism makes Israelis run to Likud, and Likud violence makes Palestinians run to Hamas.

New twist in the TAPPED game

In the course of trying to push embarrassing drunk posts further down the page, I'm going to talk about TAPPED, which I regard as the best political blog in existence, since they just added Ezra and got the biggest piece from the tripartite division of Matt. Since the bylines are at the bottom, there's a game I used to play as I read it -- scroll down slowly, and after finishing the post, try to guess the author. I used to be able to pick out Yglesias posts with something like 80% accuracy. But now the addition of Ezra has thrown the whole thing into chaos. It's not so much that I confuse his writing with anyone else, but the addition of an extra possibility has unsettled my judgment to the point that I'm not calling them right. I guess I just have to take time and get used to Ezra-style with a red/black background.

While I'm at it, Ezra's defense of Medicaid is really good.

lampposts and Aeroplanes

When you're drunk and you encounter a lamppost, and you touch your face to it and start kissing it, and you gently stroke the back of the pole as if you're touching the back of her neck, who do you imagine that it is?

Don't actually answer that question in the comments or anything. The point is, that's who you're in love with. And since it's just a lamppost and not her, she probably doesn't know. Which, given the circumstances, is how it has to be.

In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, by Neutral Milk Hotel, is probably my favorite album of all time. So much of the album seems to be expressing a need for closeness with other people -- most strikingly, a little Jewish girl who died in the Holocaust and whom we all read about in 7th grade, but when Jeff Mangum read about her he was overwhelmed by grief. When I want to be closer than possible to people, it's all I want to listen to.

And here's where your mother sleeps
And here is the room where your brothers were born
Indentions in the sheets
Where their bodies once moved but don't move anymore
And it's so sad to see the world agree
That they'd rather see their faces filled with flies
All when I'd want to keep white roses in their eyes

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Why are poor people fat?

First of all, apparently they are. (I'd suspected it, but I was never really sure whether it was just some kind of prejudice working on me.) It's because calorie-dense foods are cheaper, while healthier foods like fruit, fish, and lean meats are more expensive. Given how unhealthy it is to be obese, working to feed the hungry more nutritious foods might help us improve their health prospects in the future.

Sunday, September 25, 2005

Ask a Werewolf: Iraq and Terrorism

My latest Ask a Werewolf is up at Ezra's. I like this format, because it indirectly addresses the fact that there's something oddly comical about random bloggers out in the hinterlands offering political strategy advice to high-profile elected officials.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Justin is incoherent, but also really smart

[Here's Justin's comment on my parental consent post. I wanted to put it up here just to make sure that nobody missed it because of troll infestation at Ezra's. Again, the words are Justin's not mine, which is why I'm referred to in the 3rd person.]

I like the argument.

I strongly suspect that the general population's moral intuitions about abortion and what should and shouldn't be legally allowed are something of a mess. Here's a question sequence I've asked students:

#1) Is abortion morally wrong?

Ignoring those who say yes, for those who say no consider the next question...

#2) Imagine a woman who has 87 abortions over the course of her lifetime. She has each one with complete indifference -- they don't give her pause for thought, much less any regret. Admittedly, this isn't very cost efficient for her, and the abortions don't protect her from STDs, but for whatever reason abortion is her favored method of birth control. Is this woman doing anything morally wrong?

Many people who confidently say 'no' to #1 feel at least some inclination to say 'yes' to #2. In fact, my own unreflective intuitions (but not my considered judgment) go this way. But, it would seem, this is incoherent. If abortion really is morally neutral (a 0 on the moral ledger rather than a -10), then a whole bunch of it should be morally neutral too (37 x 0 = 0). So, if you're okay with abortion, as I am, it seems that you should be okay with the woman in #2 too. But again, I find that my intuitions just don't want to point this way.

Related to this point, if abortion is genuinely morally permissible, then there is no *moral* reason that we should want abortion to be rare. There may be financial reasons (e.g., abortions are expensive) and there may be psychological reasons (e.g., even though abortions are morally permissible, people have a hard time allowing this point to fully sink in, and so they have hangups) to want abortion to be rare. But, from a moral perspective, we shouldn't really prefer a country where abortion is rare to a country where it's extraordinarily abundant.

Public polls on where people stand on abortion -- for X, against Y, etc. -- seem to me to reflect incoherence. That is, they don't reflect a carefully worked out and subtle view which could justify how you could be in favor of X but against Y. What they reflect is a deep underlying incoherence accordin to which abortion is sorta okay and sorta not.

Views on parental consent laws are, I think, a case in point. If abortion is genuinely bad, then parental consent should be irrelevant -- parental consent can't make an immoral action moral. On the other hand, if abortion isn't bad, then Neil's sort of reasoning seems good to me. It's plausible to me that the usual motivation for parental consent doesn't generally apply in abortion cases or, if anything, applies in the opposite direction of how the laws actually go (as Neil argues).

Still, at a gut level, Neil's argument feels "glib", like it's missing the deep point here. At least in my own case, though, I suspect that this intuitive reaction to the argument should be ignored. My intuitions here ought to be rejected, just as my intutions that there's something wrong with the woman in #2 above ought to be rejected. I suspect that those intuitions of mine which speak against Neil's argument aren't really responding to some deep and good considerations which speak in favor of parental consent while acknowledging that abortion per se is morally permissible. I suspect that what my intuitions are responding to is an underlying incoherence I have on abortion.

The futures of girls

My argument against laws requiring parental consent for abortion is now up on Ezra's blog. I think I've given a successful argument for a controversial position (even among Democrats) and I'm fairly proud of it.

[Update] Is this 'shunting all the comments to the Ezra blog' thing okay? There is a substantial troll presence there, although I've sent Ezra an email looking into ways to deal with it. (In other words, Tony, your voice is being heard.)

[Update2] The 30th comment, by Justin, is excellent.

D B T!

Just got back from the Drive By Truckers show at La Zona Rosa here in Austin. Dan Korman, in his great tactical wisdom, got us there early so we could grab the front-and-center positioning, and fully appreciate their awesomeness live. And awesome they were, with excellent guitar action and much well-done rocking out! (The cute bassist girl touched my hand, so I may not be fully objective.)

Friday, September 23, 2005

Law and Lennon

Dadahead has an excellent post on what the law actually is.

He also links a hilarious article on why the FBI didn't consider John Lennon to be a threat to society. Click through, I'm not going to spoil it for you.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Fighting the next battle

I've left this position in comments on a few blogs now, and I was thinking of saying it to Laura and Amanda, so I guess I'll just post it here: the Democratic base shouldn't be getting too worked up about how anybody votes on Roberts. Even with all Democrats voting against him, he wins. Frist has too much power over the pro-choice Republicans for them to vote with us and defeat Roberts. Filibustering would be a bad move here, since the compromise Republicans will desert us, the GOP will push the nuclear button, the filibuster will be destroyed, and we'll be defenseless before whatever maniac Bush wants to send in as the O'Connor replacement. When the Senate math guarantees Roberts' confirmation, Democratic Senators would be wise to take up positions that'll win them the next battle.

That's what they 've done. If Bush nominates, say, Priscilla Owen, Leahy gets to say, "I'm willing to vote for competent Bush appointees -- heck, I voted for Roberts! But Priscilla Owen is simply not fit for the Supreme Court." In terms of winning the media battle, this is a more powerful position than universal opposition, and it'll make Owen look like the extremist she is. If Owen makes it out of committee, Harry Reid launches the filibuster. Then, if the right-wing judges are indeed regarded as genuine extremists by the public, compromise Republicans will be able to let the filibuster stand.

Another possibility is that the White House thinks through the above situation, looks at Bush's low poll numbers, and decides that an extremist won't be able to make it into O'Connor's seat. They nominate a relative moderate, and expose Dobson to the risk of another David Souter. Given how little power Democrats have, I'll be congratulating Harry Reid for at least the third time this year (Social Security Privatization, the Katrina Whitewash Investigation) on how well he's played his cards.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Collective anal action problems

I recently received a large number of comments, including one from a well-respected member of my dissertation committee, on a post attacking the purported anti-factivity of pretense. Now I shall squander any gained reputation for high-mindedness by applying philosophical rigor to problems of ass fucking, as cited by Alley Rat:

Now guys, we know you love the ass fucking. Love to see it, love to think about it, and you love to pretend that you are doing it. But consider for a moment what the world will be like if all the normal women out there catch the “porn star fever” that is beginning to spread and begin ass fucking as a matter of course. Sure, you may enjoy that now but how will you feel when, as you start to lose your hair and thicken around the middle you finally settle down and get married? You will then be all but guaranteed to wed someone who has ass fucked every man she has ever dated. Do you want to live in that world? We didn’t think so. Please, for the love of God leave the ass fucking to the real porn stars of America.

Unfortunately, the solution described above is subject to a collective action problem. If I wish to avert a future situation where I am "guaranteed to wed someone who has ass fucked every man she has ever dated", the success I can attain through refraining from any anal acts of my own will not be great. I shall, of course, be able to marry a woman who has dated n men and ass fucked n-1 of them -- myself being the exception. But excepting the trivial case in which my wife has dated only myself, I stand no great chance of marrying someone whose rectal chastity is uncompromised. And uncompromised rectal chastity, I think, is the desideratum that concerns us here. A man who engages in anal acts with women whom he will not marry -- a "free rider", as the game theory literature would call him -- does not decrease his chances of marrying a wife whose rectal chastity is inviolate. So it will be in his interest to disregard principles of respect for rectal chastity, regardless of the behavior of other men. The goods achieved by collective action will not be sufficient to safeguard rectal chastity when every man has an all-things-considered interest in free riding.

The problem is not especially pressing to me, I admit, because I personally do not regard rectal chastity as a desideratum of any significance. (Befitting an academic of my position, I have a preference structure which relaxes some of the strictures that others have. I have argued elsewhere that if Lewisian views of modality are correct, preferences like mine might be satisified even by women who do not actually exist.) Relative indifference to issues of rectal chastity, I think, is part of the sensibility with which men should approach women and the world.

Kevin's weird graph

Kevin Drum has a graph with one of the weirdest y-axes I've ever seen. "Time till next event" -- does that mean the time until the next dot that gets plotted on the graph? Then the arbitrary decision to assign dots for some things and not for others makes a big difference. If it so happened that humans controlled fire immediately before learning agriculture, and you decided to put in a dot for fire, you'd get an big downspike in the graph. Really, there are tons of other dots you could think up -- "domestication of animals", "man on the moon", "discovery of alcohol"...

From the look of the graph, though, "next event" seems to be whatever happens (roughly) at the present. That would explain why 10^9 years before the present, you get an event that's 10^9 years until the "next event". So it's no wonder that the graph is pretty much a straight line -- the number of years before the present varies directly with, um, the number of years before the present.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005


Ezra loves the latest from John Edwards, and so do I.

I'm toying with the idea of starting up a CafePress shop that sells Edwards shirts, and possibly other Democratic items. Ideas are appreciated. "Return of the New Deal" and "FDR: Part II" with a nice picture (I'm partial to this one, but I may need something bigger) is a possible idea.

Stewart at the Emmys

Without TV service, I'm forced to rely on Crooks and Liars for my Jon Stewart fix. Thanks, C&L!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Is "pretending" anti-factive?

Time for another survey of intuitions! Consider the following situation:

As part of a tasteless joke, Rob starts pretending that he's a blind person. From noon to 12:02 PM, he closes his eyes and wanders around the room with his hands outstretched. But at 12:01, a strange chemical reaction occurs in his eyes, permanently and totally destroying his ability to see. The reaction is painless, and he doesn't come to believe that anything is wrong with him until 12:02, when he opens his eyes. Until 12:02, he just keeps making jokes about blindness while wandering around the room with his eyes closed.

It seems pretty uncontroversial to me that Rob is pretending to be blind from 12:00 to 12:01. But here's the harder question: From 12:01 to 12:02, is Rob pretending to be blind?

I solicit opinions from philosophers and non-philosophers alike!

[Update]: As always, make up your mind before you look at the comments, so nobody taints your intuitions. Of course, if the comments convince you that you've misunderstood the question, feel free to rethink.

Budget tragedies, budget statistics

As Democrats know and Republicans try to forget, this Administration has turned the record budget surpluses of the late 1990s into unprecedented budget deficits. We've gone from a surplus of $236 billion in 2000 to a $412 billion deficit in 2004. Among the causes are tax cuts, the Iraq War, corporate welfare, and general mismanagement.

The Bush Administration hasn't paid any serious political price for its fiscal nihilism. When there's a war on, nobody can be brought to care about bloodless matters like deficits. Furthermore, there's a level at which you pay no additional political price for pushing the deficits higher. You'll have the fiscal conservatives (all five of them, perhaps!) against you with the same intensity whether you run deficits of $112 billion or $412 billion. So once you've stuck yourself with deficits, there's no reason not to let them run out of control.

Comment at Ezra's blog

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Why Hillary Will Lose

The old CW on Hillary's presidential aspirations was that they'd be crushed under her liberal reputation. The "socialized medicine" attacks on her health care reform plan stuck to her more than they stuck to Bill. And while Bill's upbringing and red-state governorship made him acceptable to Southern regionalists, Hillary's Chicago roots and New York Senate seat marked her as someone from the strange liberal cities that many small-town folk still regard as foreign to their way of life.

The new CW is that she's moving to the center and leaving the old liberal reputation behind. She supports the Defense of Marriage Act, repositions herself on abortion, and has an incomprehensible position on flag burning that allows her to vote for a ban. But I doubt that she's actually gained any lasting political support through these moves. A candidate just coming onto the political scene might use these positions to get a genuine reputation as a moderate on the issues, which could play into any number of attractive political identities. But given Hillary's history and the way her moves are being analyzed by the press, her new reputation will be that of an unprincipled opportunist -- a reputation that has, in one way or another, defeated our last two presidential candidates.

They said Gore was a serial exaggerator who would make up anything to win; they said Kerry was a flip-flopper whose positions shifted with the political winds. While people identify with and vote for leaders who share their values, there's no identifying with opportunism. The current understanding of Hillary's positions is one that plays straightaway into charges that she's just saying whatever will help her get elected in 2008. Perhaps it's somewhat overblown -- this bit from Media Matters argues that she's not actually changing her positions that much. But perception here matters more than reality, and Media Matters documents the ubiquity of perceptions that Hillary is making opportunistic moves.

Every one of our other 2008 primary possibilities -- save the hapless John Kerry -- has a reasonably well-defined political identity, and staying true to this identity will do a lot to avoid charges of opportunism. Wes Clark is the General, and he can present himself as personally concerned with good national defense and foreign policy. Russ Feingold is the Liberal, and while this has limited appeal, he'll avoid charges of opportunism as long as he just goes out there and does his lefty thing. I'm guessing that Mark Warner will present himself as the Governor, a competent executive who knows how to make a government work efficiently. John Edwards, the Populist, probably has the most firm identity of them all. Who is Hillary? I'm worried that she's the Opportunist.

[Crossposted at Ezra's, go there to comment.]

Monday, September 12, 2005

Too cool to be believed

The southern Bosnian city of Mostar wanted to put up a statue of a hero whom all of the local feuding ethnic groups could look up to. So whom did they choose? Bruce Lee!

"At a time when politics and ethnic ideology have occupied and poisoned everyday life, we want to show that there are true values that have nothing to do with politics," the Mostar association earlier said of the initiative.

"It would also be a reminder of our childhood dreams of a just world where crude physical force does not matter, but skill, speed and the will to fight for justice does."

Sunday, September 11, 2005


"...the causes we care about will reap much more benefit from long-term damage to voter perceptions of the Republican party than from damage to Bush's personal reputation."

Ezra said my post had one of his favorite titles ever! Go see.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Word verification

Imagine my excitement when the post below suddenly appeared with 5 comments! Then imagine my annoyance when they all turned out to be comment spam. Now, loyal readers, you'll have to go through the annoying step of typing an additional word to prove you're not an evil spam robot. Sorry about that.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Alchemy World: Why Water=H2O isn't metaphysically necessary

In this post I'm going to attack the view that water and H2O are identical in all metaphysically possible worlds. I was discussing this example with some of our new first-year students last week, and they seemed fairly impressed with this case, so I'll throw it out to whatever philosophical readers I have left.

Imagine Alchemy World. It isn't another planet in our universe, like Hilary Putnam's Twin Earth, but rather a planet in a different possible universe where instead of our 100+ elements on our periodic table, there are only 4. Call them E, F, A, and W. W makes up most of the rivers, lakes, and oceans, and it falls in rain. The people on Alchemy World drink W regularly. Their lives and the macrophysical phenomena surrounding them are identical to the lives and macrophysical phenomena of people on our world until, say, 1600 AD. Of course, things are different at the microphysical level, since our world has molecules of H2O where theirs has the indivisible element W. Suppose further that the elements of their world are so constituted that if H2O suddenly appeared in their world, it would annihilate everything.

Now the question is: In their world, is water H2O or W (or both or neither)? My intuition is that W, not H2O, constitutes water in such a world. Water, I'd say, is multiply realizable across the space of metaphysical possibility. It's probably only singly realizable across the space of physical possibility, however. Alchemy World contravenes physical laws, and I don't imagine you could get another reduction base for water without contravening physical laws.

Personally, it'd be a lot more convenient for me if I accepted the metaphysical necessity of the water-H2O identity. I think aggregate hedonic improvements constitute the good in all possible worlds, and I often have to refer back to the identity of H2O to water when I'm trying to make some point about how metaphysical necessity connects to issues in epistemology and science.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Explaining Michael Brown

Why would somebody with the comical resume of Michael Brown get a job at FEMA? In a post at Ezra's, I explain.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The nature of the mission

In a rather disjointed post over at Ezra's place, I talk about the Bush Administration's fiscal nihilism and offer my view about what motivated the Iraq War.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

No more northerners!

I'm going to start linking my weekend Ezra posts individually from here, so that my regular readers know what I'm up to. Here's my magnum opus on why Democrats need to nominate a Southerner for the presidency, with full-color graphics! (Okay, one full-color graphic.) Comments are closed here, but they're open over there, so go ahead and join the big discussion that I hope will happen!

Friday, September 02, 2005

Jabbor Gibson's hurricane bus

With legions of poor people who couldn't afford transportation trying to escape New Orleans, Jabbor Gibson took matters into his own hands. He stole an abandoned school bus, got about 100 people onto it, and drove them 7 hours to the Astrodome. His passengers got there before anyone else did. Watching the video that's attached to the article, I can't help but think of how media coverage might differ if the bus were full of articulate white people rather than poor black folks.

At first, I was hoping that the authorities would decline to prosecute him for his heroic act of bus theft. Now I'm thinking it might be better if they prosecute him unsuccessfully, so that his story becomes more widely known and long enough for some kind of TV-movie deal that makes him rich. I wish Jabbor all the best.

Friday, August 26, 2005

I think I have no power

Democratic leaders must look themselves in the mirror every morning and say to themselves, "I have no power.""

That's Matt Yglesias, five months ago, on the Social Security debate. I thought it was a pretty funny image -- imagine Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid building that into their morning routines. I also thought it was right. To put it more accurately, but in a way that would make Pelosi's morning routine a little longer, the only power that Democrats have is to ambush dramatic new Republican legislation like Social Security Privatization that we can successfully rally public opinion against. Dramatic improvements in policy are beyond us.

Now Matt's talking about how to get our Iraq policy in order, and I'm confused. Did we somehow get power? If so, it must have been a lot of power, because it's hard for me to see how Democrats can reshape something that's as much an executive matter as Iraq policy. Is Matt envisioning a future in which Democrats retake the House or Senate in 2006? Is he imagining that the moderate Republicans will come around and actually vote our way? (I don't think he thinks that.)

If we have power, making constructive suggestions about a withdrawal tied to events in Iraqi politics (elections, progress on the Constitution) might be a good idea. Everyone should be puzzling over Brad Plumer's post against withdrawal and figuring out whether he's right. If we don't have power, though, our energies should be devoted to finding politically sellable positions that will help us win some seats in 2006 while leaving us in position to clean up the mess in 2008 if it still exists. Taking the longer view, we should be trying to make this debacle the symbol of Republican foreign policy for a generation. When you can't actually change things, you have to settle for making Americans aware that Republicans make idiotic decisions which strengthen terrorism while killing lots of good people.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Yumminess in paradise

Having had a wonderful time in Hawaii, I shall now bore you with vacation pictures.

One of the big thrills for my mom was seeing all the delicious flora that Hawaii had in common with her native India -- mangos, jackfruit, date palms, guavas, and sugarcane. Dad found some sugarcane by the side of the road and ripped out a big stalk for us. I've found sugarcane to have a slightly bubble-gummy flavor among its sweetness, and this piece was no exception:

On the topic of deliciousness, I am here depicted enjoying a rainbow:

If you were reading back at the beginning of July, you'll remember my brother Robin and my sister Supriya, here embroiled in their usual backseat antics:

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I must away, ere break of day

I'm going to be traveling*, mostly with the family, until the beginning of September. Expect light posting for the next two weeks. In the meantime, you could read the poll Brad Plumer's linked to about public opinion in the Arab world. It's more informative than anything I could say, even if I had read the whole thing.

*Apparently it's spelled differently in different countries. Which makes the chart unusually handy in its case, since you're traveling if you're going to different countries. Except that only Americans spell it with one l, so you don't really need the chart once you've figured that out.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Sunday's Song: MacPherson's Farewell

Over at Ezra's, I mentioned one of my favorite songs, Óró Sé Do Bheatha 'Bhaile. Another one, which I learned from the good people of the Harvard Celtic Society, is MacPherson's Farewell. (The song also goes by MacPherson's Lament and MacPherson's Rant, the latter of which seems more appropriate than the former.)

The story told by the song is over 300 years old -- Scottish bandit James MacPherson, the illegitimate son of a Highland lord and a Gypsy woman, was captured by the authorities and hanged. According to legend, he was a skillful fiddler, and on the gallows he played his fiddle and then offer it to anyone who would perform the subversive act of fiddling at his wake. Seeing no takers, he broke his fiddle right there so that it wouldn't fall into unworthy hands after his death. The fiddle was recovered by a member of his clan, and now it sits in the clan museum. Yet another legend is that local officials who wanted him killed were afraid of a pardon being delivered by higher authorities, so they put the town clock forward 15 minutes so they could hang him before the pardon would arrive.

I've never found a particularly good recording of this song. As for the lyrics, there's a whole bunch of different versions of this song to be found on the internet. I really have no idea which one most closely resembles whatever MacPherson originally said. When I sing it, I do the version I've linked to, but I swap out the anti-vengeance lyrics for a more fiery verse from the Robert Burns version:

I lived a life of sturt and strife;
I die by treachery
It burns my heart I must depart,
And not avenged be.

(I'm usually a pretty terrible singer. But practice makes better, and I've done these songs a couple hundred times. Apologies to my old Celtic Society buddies who had to suffer through the earlier versions.)