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.