Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Go east, young werewolf

Tomorrow evening I'm getting on a plane to Baltimore for job interviews at the APA. I've got interviews with some nice departments, and I'm looking forward to it. Once the conference ends, I'll be hanging out with people in the DC area until January 8. Then back to Austin until job stuff takes me out of town on the 17th.

In between prepping for interviews, I had time at home to shoot my first video blog post. I think it went well, except that the full moon came up and caused some rather amusing technical difficulties...

Monday, December 03, 2007

The life

I've sent off 93 applications, and I could end up with everything I want or no job at all. Here I enter the week when I'll be hoping places call me. I'll feel my cell phone vibrating, and excitedly open it, and see nothing, and realize that it was just sliding a little against the inside of my pants pocket as I shifted position. And that'll be the ninth time it's happened that day.

But getting a 'revise and resubmit' from Philosophical Review -- one of the two best journals in the business -- on the paper that's at the core of my dissertation makes me feel rock solid.

I don't know where the world is taking me, but I know I'm strong.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Books for smart nonphilosophers

When a smart and well-educated person with no philosophy background asks you for something interesting in philosophy to read, what do you recommend to them? I'm being asked for a recommendation right now, and I'm unsure about what to say. Books and papers are both acceptable. In fact, papers might even be better, because they're bite-sized.

Towards better arguments

A standard way to promote candidates one supports is to defend them, or criticize their opponents, with well-considered arguments that stand up to criticism. Once made, a good argument stands on its own, advancing the debate and persuading intelligent readers to join your side. There's another strategy that I hadn't thought of before, but which I suppose has its own perverse appeal: shoot out shoddy arguments and frivolous criticisms so fast that by the time that one is defeated, you've posted another. Go fast enough, and you'll always have at least one argument standing.

This is probably the best way to understand Garance Franke-Ruta's coverage of the Democratic primary on TAPPED. Even though I'd most likely disagree, I'd like to see her make substantial and well-thought-out arguments in favor of nominating Hillary Clinton, because those would advance our understanding of the race and lead to an informative debate. Instead we get Garance's ill-thought-out smears of Hillary Clinton's opponents, presented with airs of journalistic objectivity that are quickly dispelled by their obvious sloppiness.

On Tuesday, in a post titled "Unconstitutional Is Unconstitutional", Garance leapt to attack the constitutionality of Edwards' proposal to take away the health benefits of Congress and top federal officials unless universal health care passed by July 2009. But as no less an authority than Constitutional expert and Obama advisor Cass Sunstein soon observed, unconstitutional wasn't unconstitutional after all -- while the President can't take away health benefits by fiat, it's not implausible to read the 27th amendment as allowing him to strip benefits from Congress by passing legislation. (Rarely noted: if the effective date for ending benefits is pushed into the next term, the Constitutional objections evaporate entirely.) On the phone, Joe Trippi clarified to Garance that a legislative takeaway of benefits was exactly what the Edwards campaign was proposing.

What happened next was bizarre. Garance seized on Trippi's phrasing in the phone call to announce that according to the Edwards campaign, Health coverage is a 'perk' and wrote a long post on how regarding health benefits as perks would be a bad way to start the health care debate. The number of wacky assumptions required for her to make this argument in good faith would be truly staggering -- that an advisor's phrasing of one word in a quick phone conversation with a blogger would be representative of a campaign's overall policy views, that those views would then go front and center into the eventual presidential message strategy, and that ordinary voters be affected more by the Constitutional questions than the sheer populist force of the proposal.

And that's why I don't regard hers as a good-faith argument. Arguments like this are as soon written as they collapse (in this case, when Trippi called back to note that he meant "benefits" by "perks") and GFR's next attack takes their place (in this case, her attempt to turn the failure of her sophistical argument into a dig on the effectiveness of the Edwards campaign: "Sounds like it's been a long day over in Edwards land.")

This has been going on for a while. There was GFR's October discovery that a Democratic PAC trying to prevent Hillary Clinton from winning the nomination was started by an environmentalist who had previously endorsed John Edwards. While Garance seemed to think that this was some kind of scandal, Kate Sheppard immediately responded that there was nothing particularly strange about a Clinton opponent supporting Edwards, and that it was fine for progressive groups "to challenge Clinton's progressive credibility and work to counter what seems to be accepted gospel around these parts on her inevitability." Most of TAPPED's commenters echoed Kate's views.

There's a larger point to be made here. Back in July when I examined her article on Edwards and poorer voters, Garance commented: "As for the specific criticism that I am shilling for a candidate, I will note that I have in no way endorsed Clinton." As subsequent commenters noted, that's no way for bloggers to defend themselves. Our endorsements count for nothing; it's by our writings that you know us. Garance doesn't go around making transparently silly anti-Clinton arguments. She does so against Edwards and occasionally Obama. (And sometimes she writes a gem like Thursday's "twinkling of Hillary Clinton's eye" post) That's why readers of TAPPED regard her as a fervent Clinton supporter, and are justified in doing so.

There's nothing wrong with having a candidate. Mine is John Edwards, and people who have read my political stuff know very well why I support him. I've told them many times. He's the most likely to beat Republicans in a general election, he's willing to forcefully defend progressive positions on issues from poverty to health care to foreign policy, he'd make our party more appealing in downticket races where we need to expand our majorities, and his attention to the tremendous issue of global poverty sets him apart from any major presidential candidate I've ever seen.

For all of her smears on Hillary Clinton's opponents, Garance hasn't come out and told me what's so great about Clinton herself. In this she's kind of like the Clinton campaign, which doesn't have much of a message other than that its victory is inevitable. I'm happy to hear an earnest and good-faith progressive argument for Hillary, and it's something that I was pressing Garance for back in July. (Commenters at Ezra Klein’s blog did more to develop the argument than Garance ever did.) I'm not saying I'd agree, and I'm sure I'd find much to criticize in her argument. But our debate would have a positive impact on the state of public understanding, rather than just delaying Joe Trippi's dinner and requiring TAPPED commenters to debunk yet another smear.

Friday, November 09, 2007

"Possible Girls" gets published!

Today when I went to my mailbox in the department, I found a solicitation for money from Al Franken, letters from various departments acknowledging their receipt of my job applications, and a well-stuffed envelope from USC. That surprised me -- I hadn't applied to anything at USC. When I opened it, and saw that "Possible Girls" had been accepted for publication by Pacific Philosophical Quarterly, which comes out of USC, I spent the next hour acting like a complete fool. (Made loud excited noises in the hallway, started dancing uncontrollably at various moments, and abruptly hugged Josh Dever, who had helped me most with the paper.) I have to make a couple changes, but they aren't especially substantial, so I should have them done quickly.

I have a couple other publications -- most notably the book that Brian and I have come out with -- but getting my first peer-reviewed journal publication is really exciting. And it's pretty cool to be an ethicist with a metaphysics paper in a good journal. Especially a paper that made the reviewer laugh out loud several times.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Defending atheism from... Lee Siegel?

When talking philosophy with my students or with nonphilosophers, it's really useful to see their facial expressions, so I can get a sense for when they've gotten what I'm trying to say, and when I need to keep explaining things. One of the things that makes philosophy blogging in nonphilosophical places so challenging is that I can't see the faces of my audience as I write, and I don't have as good a sense for how much explaining to do.

I may have overexplained a little bit in my latest post at Ezra Klein's blog, which responds to some really bad arguments against atheism that came up in an LA Times op-ed. Other than that, I'm quite happy with the post.

(Backstory: Lee Siegel, the author of the op-ed, is a really weird guy -- he had to leave The New Republic when it was discovered that he was dishonestly using aliases to defend himself in comments. In his time at TNR, he took some mean swipes at Ezra, so I'm not especially well-disposed towards him.)

Monday, September 24, 2007

She'll slice them with Occam's razor

Lindsay Beyerstein describes her cooking style as empiricist . If the dish photographed above the post is any indication, Lindsay's cooking is remarkable for its parsimony. In keeping with the Quinean emphasis on ontological simplicity, very few objects are involved.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The wheel weaves as the wheel wills

I was a fan of the Wheel of Time series back in my high school days, though I stopped reading after about book 8, in part because of my concern that Robert Jordan would die before completing the series and leave his readers stranded. Today I heard news of his untimely passing, just as he was working on the 12th book. Many of the books run 500+ pages, so what you basically have here is an immensely long fantasy epic, full of foreshadowing and stagesetting for a climactic final battle... and no ending. Yikes.

I don't even have an intuitive sense of what to say about truth and falsity about incomplete fictional works. Will Rand al'Thor die in the final battle? Before, we thought that question had a correct answer, though we didn't know for sure what it was. Were we right to think it did have a correct answer, or does Jordan's death make it the case that we were wrong? If it did have a correct answer, does it still?

Monday, September 03, 2007


I eventually got fed up with the fact that half the blogs on my 'roll hadn't been updated in 2007, so I switched a lot of stuff out. (Fafblog? dadahead? where have you gone?) And in keeping with an interest in making this the philosophy / funny dancing space, while the politics stays at my weekend Ezra Klein gig, I've promoted the philosophers to the top of the blogroll. I expect that more philosophy links will appear...

Sunday, September 02, 2007

Small Steps To Happier Pigs And Chickens

After eating a nice veggie burger with extra pickles (for the low price of $2.26; thank you Burger King) I feel moved to address the posts by Matt, Tia, Scott [dead link], and Matt again about how we should respond to the cruelty of factory farming. Says Tia, addressing the response to Michael Vick's crimes:
I, too, find silly the spectacle of someone who is not in any discernible way opposed to factory farming practices fulminating about dogfighting, and there's just as much a cultural diversity argument against a prohibition of dogfighting as there is against a prohibition of any kind of law against animal cruelty. It's much easier to justify encroachments on someone else's cultural practices if they're based on some kind of gesture towards a coherent ethical scheme; "factory farmed meat for me, but no dogfighting for thee" strikes me as the most baseless sort of imperialism.
As a statement about the badness of the practices involved, that seems right. And as Tia says, the mere fact that we have entrenched social practices of treating different animals differently doesn't make any moral difference -- entrenched social practices of treating different races or genders differently, for example, don't justify themselves. There's some difference in the way we should regard the agents, though. One has to be quite cruel to make a leisure activity out of watching animals suffer terribly. By contrast, the distance between a diner and the sow that spent her entire life squeezed into a gestation crate is large enough that one can understand how kind-hearted people ignore the suffering and order the pork chops.
Matt and Scott concede the wrongness of factory farming, despite continuing to enjoy its fleshy fruits. And so do many people, including, I'm sure, many readers of this blog. I often think that animals would be better off if people were comfortable with taking smaller steps to reduce their meat consumption. Avoiding factory-farmed meat need not be all-or-nothing -- it's something that's fully half as good if done halfway.
And there are a bunch of ways to do it halfway. You can avoid factory-farmed meat for the meals where you least enjoy the meat portion of your diet. If you're concerned about messing up other people's plans when you go to eat their cooking, you can have a policy of never choosing factory-farmed meat, but eating it when it's placed in front of you without your requesting it. Or if you're the sort of person who likes action more than abstention, you can make a project of exploring the various interesting foods that the veggie world has to offer. When you find something you like, eat it more often, and let it displace some of your meat intake. There's plenty of different ways to go about this, and if there's some meat or egg dish (the situation of egg-laying hens is pretty terrible) that you're absolutely unwilling to give up, don't let that stop you from giving up a lot of things that you like less.
If you only go halfway, there may still be something deeply inconsistent about your practices. You understand the badness of factory farming, but aren't willing to move as fully against it as you know you ought to. But it's far better to be inconsistently kind than consistently unkind, and being a vegetarian with exceptions is far better than causing great animal suffering. All of us fall short of doing everything we could to make the world a better place, but we're worse for doing less, and better for doing more.
My own practices regarding meat are often seen as amusing, and you can read about them here. I enjoy meat as much as most people do, and in a city like Austin I've been pretty successful in finding ways to satisfy myself while not contributing to factory farming. (The Chipotle across the street with its excellent free-range pork plays a big role.) And I've found plenty of yummy things to eat that I might not have tried if my refusal to eat Normal Meat hadn't steered me to them. May you be so fortunate.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Brightness and the Beasts

I just got back to Austin yesterday.

I was amused to see the new book that Brian and I put out referred to on the Nietzsche society blog as "a major new publication involving some of the big beasts and bright young things of the anglophone Nietzsche world." Brian's definitely on the 'big beast' side of that, which leaves me as one of the 'bright young things', I suppose...

Friday, August 10, 2007

Dance floor linguistics research, and other adventures

Mike and I went out dancing tonight. He tells me that I owned the dance floor for about two and a half hours, and he's probably right. I've got the one-inch diameter patches of ripped skin on my knees to show for it. If you haven't seen the knee-walk, ask me for it whenever I show up in your town. (Not tomorrow, Rochester residents, because I need some time to recover.)

We left the bar when some girl slapped Mike for no easily discernable reason, and went to another place where a pretty sad bachelorette party was going on. As is my way, I brought people out onto the dance floor by doing all the crazy stuff I do, and Mike ended up dancing beautifully with the bride-to-be. If there's a place that the benevolent spirit of the evening wanted us to visit, it was there. We made that party a lot more fun than it otherwise might have been, for all involved. If I spend the rest of the dancing nights of my life livening up dead bachelorette parties -- even with none of the lucky consequences that single men might hope for -- I will have lived well.

When we were at the Pita Pit after all our dancing, a girl came up and told me that when she initially saw me doing the knee-walk, she thought I was horribly injured and didn't have legs.

I also managed to verify the results suggested by the good Aaron Dinkin in the comments to the previous post. Four out of five women who grew up in Rochester and go out on Thursday night pronounce "documentary" with the stress on the next-to-last syllable. The woman from Syracuse does too. I'm eager to be sent out into the field on more linguistics research assignments, so when you hear where I am, let me know what you want me to ask people about.

If you'll pardon me, I'm off to disinfect my torn knees with a spot of Jack Daniels. Have a great night, wherever you are.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

leave me a rambler, til the day that I die

Next stop: Rochester NY, from August 8-13.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Congratulations, Matt and April!

I'm heading off to their wedding in the North Carolina mountains this weekend. Back late Sunday.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Defending Intentionalism

Ever since a wonderful graduate seminar with Al Martinich five years ago, I've been an intentionalist about interpretation. According to intentionalism, the meaning of an utterance or a text is whatever the author intended to communicate by it. This means that the correct way to interpret texts is to figure out what the author was trying to communicate. Martinich and I hold that this view is correct of utterances and texts of all kinds -- from what you say when ordering at a restaurant, to instruction manuals, to works of literature.

The more conventional opponents of intentionalism are formalists, who believe that the meaning of a text can be determined by the words of the text itself, without recourse to things like the author's intention. (The New Critics were the paradigmatic formalists.) There are also exotic views like reader-response theory, according to which the reader or the interpretive community determines what the text means; and deconstructionism, which seems to hold that texts don't have unified meanings. What I'll try to do here is explain why intentionalism is the best theory of interpretation. I'm going to direct my attacks mostly at formalism here, because it strikes me as the strongest opponent.

First, a simple example. Suppose someone tells you, "I went to the bank today." This could mean either that they went to the side of a river, or that they went to a financial institution. In some circumstances, there won't be enough context to rule in favor of one interpretation or the other. (The fact that the person actually went to a financial institution and not the side of a river doesn't make it true that they meant that they went to a financial institution, although it's good evidence for that -- they still might have meant that they went to the riverside, and been lying. But the reason it is good evidence is that it makes it more probable that they intended to communicate that they went to a financial institution.) Even if there's not much context, we still want to say that they meant one thing or the other. It's hard to see what could make it the case that they meant one thing or the other in cases where there isn't a lot of context, unless it's their intention that did it.

I also don't know how a formalist makes sense of our judgments about which literary works are satirical. If we found something like A Modest Proposal coming from a society that practiced cannibalism, we might be tempted to read it as an earnest suggestion, as the intention to promote cannibalism is one that a cannibal might have. But our understanding of the sorts of things that literate Irishmen of Jonathan Swift's times were likely to regard as acceptable makes it wildly implausible to ascribe pro-cannibalistic intentions to him. So we regard his work as satirical. The best way to explain our different responses to Swift's work and to the identical words, written by a cannibal, is to go to our judgments about what the two authors are likely to intend.

I've aimed both of these examples at the formalists, but they work against reader-response theorists and deconstructionists too. Even if a reader, or an entire interpretive community, believed that Swift was earnestly proposing cannibalism, they'd be wrong. And it's hard for me to see any support for the idea that texts don't have unified meanings in these cases -- in Swift's case, we insist on a particular unified meaning -- the satirical one.

Now I'll deal with a case that's supposed to cause intentionalists trouble. Amanda posted a while ago about how Ray Bradbury has told us that Fahrenheit 451 isn't about censorship. According to him, it's "a story about how television destroys interest in reading literature." I haven't gone back and read the book to see if this actually makes sense, but in any case it's not unheard of for authors to make statements about the true meaning of their works that seem ridiculous. Does this mean that we were, in fact, all wrong about what their works meant?

Not necessarily. The causes of our actions often differ from the way we rationalize them, and in complex cases of communication like the writing of novels, people might not have a good handle on the psychological processes motivating them to write exactly as they do. So even as the forces within them cause them to focus their writing in a specific fashion and to play up aspects of stories that emotionally resonate with them, they may not be able to give correct descriptions of what's going on inside them. Perhaps what really drove Bradbury to write the story as he did -- and what he would've felt strangely unsatisfied if he hadn't been able to properly express -- was an appreciation of how bad government censorship of literature was, even though he didn't explicitly realize that this was motivating his portrayals of events and characters. I'm willing to give a fair amount of credence to first-person reports of one's intention, but even honest people aren't perfect at reporting their intentions in complex cases, so their reports can be overridden if we have enough contrary data.

Another case, brought to me by English grad students in Dr. Martinich's seminar five years ago, concerned the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud. They explained to me that some of Rimbaud's poetry seems to leave some aspects of its meaning open for the reader to fill in. This made reader-response theory seem more plausible to them. It did concern them, though, that not all interpretations of the poems they described would be correct, even if every reader had them. For example, Vowels is not a casserole recipe, no matter what a casserole-obsessed interpretive community might say. There's no good way to fill in the ambiguities in the poem and get there.

I don't know if they eventually accepted it, but they were intrigued by my way of reconciling their interpretive practice with intentionalism. Suppose Rimbaud intended aspects of the meaning of his poems to be filled in by his readers, so that it would mean different things depending on who was reading it. And suppose the readers took seriously the project of operating within the space generated by Rimbaud's intentions and did not try to turn the poems into casserole recipes. Then the meaning of his poems would be generated by something akin to an act of joint authorship. When two people's intentions are in harmony, they can jointly generate the meaning of a text, and to my English department friends, this seemed to be at least a plausible story about how one reads Rimbaud.

I should say a last word about the practice of reappropriating texts. In taking ahold of a text -- perhaps a play or a novel -- and giving it a meaning that you know the author didn't intend, either in your own mind or in some work you create based on it, you cease to be an interpreter and start being a kind of author. This can be good or bad, depending on how good an author you are, but the important point is that the responsibility for the things you intended but the original author didn't goes to you. If you take it upon yourself to turn Vowels into a casserole recipe, don't blame Rimbaud if it the casserole doesn't taste good. But if it does, most of the credit belongs to you, and not to Rimbaud.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


This is a pretty good debate roundup.

For my part, I really hated the Edwards hair video the first time I saw it, because the detail wasn't good enough for me to make out what the images were. But now that I've got a better view of it, I'm really digging it:

Monday, July 23, 2007

Bad people making bad arguments

Who voted against anti-dogfighting legislation this spring, and why? NPR reports:
Most of the bill's opponents say they aren't fans of dogfighting but are conservative, pro-life Republicans. Iowa Rep. Steve King from Iowa says it's wrong for the federal government to criminalize pit bull trafficking while allowing legal abortion.
"My vote says that human life needs to be elevated and stay above animal life. And I think it devalues all human life, when you set the life of an animal up above that of a human," King says.
It's one thing to say that human lives are more valuable than animal lives. It's another thing to think an early-term fetus is morally like an adult human. And it's a totally different and completely insane thing to think that you can alleviate the badness of injuries to humans by permitting wanton cruelty to animals.
For our second bad argument, we turn to Tom DeLay:
"I contend [abortion] affects you in immigration," DeLay told the Washington-area gathering. "If we had those 40 million children that were killed over the last 30 years, we wouldn't need the illegal immigrants to fill the jobs that they are doing today. Think about it."
DeLay criticizes abortion because it decreases the labor supply, creating economic opportunity for foreigners. To those of us who have any acquaintance with poverty in developing countries, and who aren't deeply racist, this seems like a wonderful thing. But if you're Tom DeLay or his College Republican audience, that's a bug, not a feature. You'd like to ban abortion so that you can create an America where labor oversupply forces native-born workers into bad jobs for terrible pay, and where Mexicans are starving to death across the border.

Battle of the former Perspective staffers

This Saturday's Ezra-blog output:

The Senate calendar tells us why Hillary's strategy of putting off universal health care until a hypothetical second term is a very bad idea.

I show that the facts from Garance Franke-Ruta's latest article don't support her Edwards-bashing conclusions. Garance kind of responds in comments, but doesn't address many of the actual issues.

I'll put up the post from Sunday here, since it has mild philosophical content.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tired of myself, tired of this town

I'm leaving the DC area tomorrow evening, and I'll arrive in North Carolina Friday afternoon. Chapel Hill, here I come!

A hill of beans, and a beautiful friendship

One of the many things I like about Casablanca is that even though the love story has an unhappy ending, the movie has a happy one. Rick finds new purpose in his life, leaves Ilsa with Victor, and goes off with Louis to fight the Nazis. He doesn't get the girl, but he ends up doing the best thing he could with his life, and he knows it.

It's the kind of ending that a utilitarian can love. Despite the fact that people are built to obsess over minor matters in their personal lives, these aren't the things that matter from an agent-neutral perspective. And if you can attend more directly to the agent-neutral considerations, you'll pay less attention to problems afflicting only yourself, and become more effective in making the world a better place.

I think of this now because it's becoming apparent that I have less control over my romantic life than I have over the fates of other people I don't know, several thousand miles away. Even my meager assets can save lives in developing countries, while I can't brighten the days of a lonely girl two blocks away. It's time for me to internalize that, and live accordingly.

Friday, July 13, 2007

The Line of Worst Fit

In trying to argue that very high tax rates lead to lower total government revenues, the Wall Street Journal used the following graph. They think the Laffer Curve is the line of best fit, or something close.

As the mildest attention to the graph reveals, however, it's just a random line that goes through an outlier and doesn't bear any interesting relation to the collection of points on the graph.

We've all encountered many cases of people wantonly imposing bad theories on recalcitrant data. But I've never seen such a graphic example before.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

McCain's cash problems are bad... but not that bad

Josh Marshall clearly had a lot of fun writing this [dead link removed].

In the end, the state representative was merely attempting to pay for gay prostitution rather than actually being a prostitute. The confusion results from media's attempt to be delicate about the situation, in which he was paying to be the kneeling partner rather than the unzipping one. (As I'm discovering, it's hard to be both accurate and non-vivid about these matters.)

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Voting From The Unicycle

Haven't been posting much recently because I'm visiting a lot of friends in DC. But here's the latest from Ezra's blog, on evaluating voting records of Senators from different states.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Nancy Grace and the animals

Via Bunny McIntosh, this is wonderful.

Elizabeth, wherever you are, you're awesome. BTW, why did the station have the clips of the animals anyway?

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Folk Cardiology

After Tenet Healthcare settled a lawsuit over unnecessary heart surgeries recommened by its doctors, the plaintiff's lawyer said:

"The heart is a metaphysical part of your body. It’s not just an organ."

Expressing a common mereological intuition? Or pushing the boundaries of dualism? Ahh, the things the folk say...

This is the man I blog for

My weekend blog host Ezra Klein was on Larry Kudlow's CNBC show earlier, and he was amazing. You can see him here.

I love the beginning, where Ezra makes the little comment that takes control of the show. In his first chance to talk, he shifts the conversation away from Michael Moore to the substantive issue -- the quality of care in government-run systems like the VA. It's one of the many areas that Larry Kudlow, being Larry Kudlow, thinks he's competent to hold forth on. So Larry bashes the VA system and walks right into Ezra's trap: "Rand corporation ranked VA highest on quality. The Annals of Internal Medicine ranked it highest. The New England Journal of Medicine ranked it highest on quality. They keep healthcare costs down and they have slower spending growth. I don't understand what you don't like." Of course, what Larry Kudlow doesn't like is that it's state-run. I doubt he knows anything else about the VA, which leaves him with little else to say.

Another special moment comes when Kudlow and his other guest are beating up on the Canadian system. Ezra mentions that the Canadians have fewer health care resources because they spend half what we do per capita per year on health care -- $3K to our $6K. We find the right-wing guest stammering for a response, and all he can do is make the point that part of the reason Canadian health care is so much cheaper is that they're skimping on spending. Which is exactly Ezra's point put in reverse, and takes the force out of the free-market attack on Canada. If you're going to beat up on the Canadians, you have to show that they're getting a clearly worse deal -- and when you concede that they're just making a tradeoff so they can save $3000 per person annually, your attack is a failure.

And then there's the moment where Kudlow is wishing for consumer-driven health care, and Ezra comes back by saying that we are doing consumer-driven care now in HSA's, and studies show that people aren't using them and don't like them very much. Ezra has the facts; Kudlow doesn't. And Ezra wins.

The facts, of course, usually have very little influence on proceedings like these. Hosts control their shows with an iron grip, and use their guests merely as props to shout about matters far outside their expertise. They often sidetrack the discussions in ways that keep the important facts from being expressed. But Ezra uses every one of his few opportunities to maximum effect, and comes away from the long-odds fight of a lone progressive guest against a right-wing host and his minion with something that looks a lot like victory.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Poem meets author

I'd always loved the following philosophical poem, which I read online many years ago:

I gave my love an emerose
Upon a summer day,
While all around us in the grove
The gavagai did play.

"I've never seen a hue so green,"
My love did say to me.
"My dear," I said, "it's shmolored gred,
Just green until time t."

Emeroses are emeralds until time t and roses afterwards. They're useful in setting up versions of Nelson Goodman's new problem of induction.

As I've just discovered, the poem was written by Brock from Battlepanda, back in his grad school days!

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Thursday, May 31, 2007

I'll to England

In less than seven hours, I'll be flying off to Chicago, and then to Southampton, England, for a job interview with these folks. So there probably won't be much blogging, here or at Ezra's place, for the next week or so.

Upon returning from the UK, I'll go to San Francisco to visit the family, and then to Washington DC around the end of June.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Was the left row full of A-theorists?

My friend Dan Korman, who works in metaphysics and is soon to become a professor at the University of Illinois, tells me that he once was on a flight with Dave Chalmers. As fate had it, Dan was in seat 2-D, and he was pleased to offer it to Chalmers. (Chalmers refused.)

Friday, May 25, 2007

There's my Johnny

Good to see him hitting back.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Three and One

This weekend I wrote three little posts on the presidential primaries:

Larry, Curly, Moe... Newt?

Family Issues Aren't Primary

The Latest From Iowa

And one big one on how I learned that the anti-abortion movement was up to no good:

What I Learned From Missouri

Monday, May 14, 2007

And kneel and squeak an Ave there for me

Apparently the dolphins of the River Shannon have an Irish accent:

As part of a research project, student Ronan Hickey digitised and analysed a total of 1,882 whistles from the Irish dolphins and those from Cardigan Bay in Wales on a computer and separated them into six fundamental whistle types and 32 different categories.

Of the categories, he found most were used by both sets of dolphins -- but eight were only heard from the Irish dolphins.

No word on whether they drink Guinness and play underwater hurling.

Pretty Pretty Polls

I've posted some nice state-by-state polls showing how Clinton, Edwards, and Obama stack up against Giuliani. Edwards dominates the Midwestern swing states that decide presidential elections. The post got linked at a lot of sites including Buzzflash and Memeorandum, and Matt Yglesias did the favor of commenting on it (though he was dubious.)

I've also got a nice post on hedge funds and why you shouldn't be scared of them.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Parfit blogging

It's always nice to be able to introduce my favorite passage from Reasons and Persons to non-philosophers.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Ultrasound and the Future of Confused Wannabe Paternalists

My biggest problem with William Saletan's support for requiring women to view fetal ultrasounds before having an abortion is that it gives women actively misleading information.  What are you going to learn from an ultrasound that you didn't know already?  Well, obviously you already knew you were pregnant, so all ultrasound adds is the visual experience of your fetus squirming inside you.  This visual experience is apparently of great moral significance to Saletan -- "Ultrasound has exposed the life in the womb to those of us who didn't want to see what abortion kills. The fetus is squirming, and so are we.

Of course, nothing is morally significant about squirming -- ours or the fetus'.  What is significant is whether the fetus has a mind like ours.  If it has no mind, or a mind of such a primitive level that it can't even feel pain, there's no reason to have attitudes of moral concern for it.  The neural hardware for pain perception only starts to show up around week 23, and isn't in place until week 30 of the pregnancy.  So having moral concern for a first-trimester fetus on the basis of the squirming you see in an ultrasound is a mistake.

It's a mistake that lots of people will easily make, though.  People are quick to attribute mental qualities like beliefs, desires, and the ability to feel pain to things that don't have them.  I imagine that lots of anti-abortion activists will be happy enough to let ultrasounds drive home the thought that women are murdering a real person inside them when they have an abortion -- when it turns out that women are doing nothing of the sort.  (As Amanda points out, ultrasounds also cost money, and another part of the anti-abortion strategy is to reduce access to abortion simply by making it more expensive.)

It's hard to see a plausible moral outlook on which ultrasound would be genuinely enlightening as to the morality of abortion.  It's not like an ultrasound is going to show you that the fetus has desires or a soul or a future capacity for having a mind like ours.  There are non-rational processes that all of us are subject to, however, that cause us to see minds in places where no minds exist.  By triggering these processes, ultrasounds promise to sow moral confusion, bad decisions, and unwarranted guilt.

Feminist commentators on Saletan's piece have played up its paternalistic elements.  To quote Jessica:
He claims to “trust women” while simultaneously making the case that women don’t understand what they’re doing when they get abortions; that we’re incapable of making an informed decision without a helping hand from the state.
For my part, I think there's room in the world for paternalism, but if you're going to be a paternalist you need to be better-informed and more rational than the people you're trying to impose your paternalistic requirements on.  By letting his own squirming get the better of him and push him to support a useless and expensive procedure, Saletan fails this test.  Instead of requiring ultrasounds before abortions, perhaps we should require him to reread the medical research on fetal pain before he does any more punditry. 


Why is the 2008 presidential election so important? I describe how the Senate calendar makes 2008-2012 the window in which progressive political change has to happen.

And if you're looking for the Democratic candidate most likely to win that election, you might want to pick the solid progressive who people mistake for a moderate. I think people tend to average out Edwards' liberal issue positions and his Southern accent, and think he's a moderate.

To link to content not created by me, I think the guy in this comic should be happy. He made the right wish.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Weekend Johnny posts

I put two Edwards-related posts up on Ezra's blog. First, I managed to get the facts out about the haircut pseudo-scandal. (Thanks to Kevin Drum for linking!) Then I compared the recent head-to-head polling data between Edwards and Republicans.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Bloggers like Form One

My post on Edwards' tax simplification plan got a positive reception from a bunch of people. Thanks to Becks for linking. I particularly liked this comment: "People might be more aware of this proposal if two ladies hadn’t been chased out of their jobs by a rabid mob."

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Concrete possibilia

Of course, in the Lewis system the worlds are spatiotemporally isolated, but I can't read this without thinking about my possible girlfriend. I suppose this could happen in an impossible world, though, so those of you with impossibiliaphilia can dream about it...

Republicans Wish You A Painful Tax Day

So here's a pretty nice policy idea from John Edwards: if the IRS already has all the information it needs to do your taxes, as it does for about 50 million Americans, why don't we spare you the trouble and have the IRS do your taxes by itself? The IRS would then just send you "Form 1" in the mail, telling you how much you owe or how big your refund is, and you'd sign it and return it. Studies suggest that this would save Americans approximately 225 million hours of tax-related drudgery.
The folks at the National Review have objections, though. I particularly liked this from Steve:
I think one of the best things conservatives could do to make people realize just how bad our tax burden is would be to require all taxpayers to file and pay taxes quarterly. The current insidious system of employer withholding was designed to collect income taxes without taxpayers feeling the pain of writing a check.
Apparently he wants to build up government bureaucracy... so that people will get mad and want to tear down government bureaucracy. Republican governance at its best!
Now, I think the Republicans are right about the political situation here. If you make paying taxes painless, the most intense negative emotional experience associated with the tax system will go away. Not that everyone will suddenly be going "Hooray for taxes!" but the situation that instills the most passionate hatred of taxes will be gone, and resistance to taxation won't be as strong. Those of us who want to provide the revenues for national health care, free preschool, or any number of other useful benefit programs should be especially happy about progressive tax simplification proposals of this kind.
There are a couple other side benefits to the Edwards tax simplification proposal. It'd help poor people get deductions and credits that they might not know they're entitled to, like the EITC. Less than half of the eligible families with incomes below half of the poverty line know that they're eligible, and Hispanics are especially likely to be unaware.
Also, some poor people don't know about refunds, and the "Form 1" proposal would be especially beneficial for them. A friend of my brother was in a poor black North Carolina neighborhood some years ago, educating people about their taxes as part of a volunteer program. He met a woman who had been avoiding her taxes because she simply didn't have any money to pay. When he explained to her that doing her taxes meant getting a large refund check from the government, she didn't stop hugging him for a while.

Saturday, April 14, 2007


The best post I read on the Don Imus situation was by Pam Spaulding. It dealt with the subject of nappy hair and how to straighten it:
I am old enough to experience the “pleasure” of the thermal hot comb — you rested it over the gas flame of the stove to heat it up. Then the grease was carefully applied to your hair and that comb sizzled through the kinks till it was bone straight, hissing as you prayed the comb didn’t touch your scalp — inevitably you got scalp burns because the “stylist” f*cked up. [By the way, the “stylist” for most folks was usually a relative, but in my case, everyone in my family had straight hair, so my mom had to take me to a salon till she figured out what to do.]

Once the chemical relaxer came into vogue it was the same problem with a different twist, it became a watch-the-clock endeavor to see how long you could leave the vile-smelling chemicals on to achieve maximum straightness before your scalp started to peel, burn and get open sores. Anything for that damn straight hair.
And that's what one does to get hair that won't activate Don Imus' stereotypes about "nappy-headed hos". It wouldn't be so much of a problem, except that the success of one's career often depends on impressing men who come from Don Imus' demographic.

Dominant groups can impose strange and unpleasant burdens on less powerful groups, while acting on judgments that they never take a moment to consider. A straight man reading feminist blogs learns this over and over again.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Catch of the day

My big post on the Ezra blog this weekend expresses my concerns about Barack Obama. Does he actually have it in him to fight for progressive causes? His recent actions don't inspire a lot of confidence.

I also have stuff about the vacuum at the top of the GOP nomination race, media coverage of the primaries, and the fragmented nature of Iranian politics.

In philosophical news, the lineup for our grad student conference is looking pretty good.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Monday, March 26, 2007

This weekend's stuff

Over at Ezra's blog, I've got a tribute to Elizabeth Edwards (complete with pretty photo) and a little post on the unfortunate incentives for nonpartisanship in the media, which relates to 24.

Monday, March 19, 2007


Thanks to Paul the Spud for posting this.

Spreading the gospel of spreading aid

Or at least, I'm defending it both at Ezra's site and on Daily Kos. Here's the Kos version from today, which comes with an amusing poll. The Ezra version currently has a longer comment thread.

Friday, March 16, 2007

I'm everywhere!

One of my recent posts got linked by these respectable people who are famous and advise campaigns and write books and stuff.

About two years ago, fellow philosopher Jonathan Ichikawa saw me give my "Possible Girls" paper, which I'm currently submitting for publication. He has a webcomic discussing this significant issue, in a somewhat ontological-argument related context.

My friend Warren made avatars of a bunch of us. I like mine a lot -- it's the 4th from the top.

[2019 edit: Warren's avatars are the last link still standing; I've removed the others.]

Monday, March 12, 2007

Miroslav the War Criminal Slayer

Via LGM, the news:
Serbian vampire hunters have acted to prevent the very remote possibility that former dictator Slobodan Milosevic might stage a come-back - by driving a three-foot stake through his heart...

Miroslav Milosevic said "he and his fellow vampire hunters acted to stop the former dictator returning from the dead to haunt the country". His team explained that the wooden stake had been "driven into the ground and through the late president's heart".

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mysterious Character

The result of this poll is a sad truth that I long ago made my peace with -- voters care more about a candidate's character than the candidate's issue positions, and least of all about experience and other leadership qualities. Character, unfortunately, is something that voters are in a very weak position to judge. Our information about the personal qualities of candidates is subject to much more media distortion than our information about the candidates' issue positions. For the latter, we have more hard data to fall back on. But getting yourself portrayed as a person of honesty and integrity is largely a matter of being able to effectively manipulate the more touchy-feely side of media coverage. Being a difficult target for negative ads, which is quite far from being a good person, helps too.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Fox Loses, Democrats Win

In 2004, New York Times writer Alessandra Stanley described Fox as "the conservative cable network", and Fox immediately called for a retraction. If you want the money, power, and influence that comes from being a network with a broad audience, you can't let yourself be regarded as the provider of a niche product, and a politically biased niche product at that.
In addition to the immediate benefits of cancelling the Fox News debate in Nevada -- we won't have to deal with conservatives immediately framing the Democratic candidates' views in a negative light -- I'm hoping that this will be the beginning of the marginalization of Fox News. If Fox keeps getting this kind of treatment from Democratic leaders like John Edwards, whose decision not to participate was instrumental to the debate's collapse, it'll be a lot easier for reporters to rightly tag Fox as conservative. I hope for a situation where even the most politically tuned-out viewers are on guard against Fox's conservative bias, and people choosing channels for a TV in a public area will see picking Fox News as a strong political statement that they probably don't want to make.

(Searching for "conservative cable network" on Google News gives some interesting results. At this writing, four almost identical stories turn up about Edwards' decision not to do the Fox News debate. In three of them, the word 'conservative' has been removed. I don't know who oversees these decisions, but thanks to the San Francisco Chronicle for printing the article as it stood.)
Anyone hoping for the marginalization of Fox News has to be happy about the Edwards campaign's statement following the collapse of the debate, which attacked "Fox's long history of spreading Republican propaganda at the expense of Democratic leaders," and specifically criticized its "blatant lies about Senator Obama's background." I'm very happy about seeing Edwards come to Obama's side -- defending a good Democrat against ridiculous right-wing smears costs you little and will win you friends.
As for whether Edwards made a smart political move in rejecting the Fox debate, I'm closer to Garance's position (Edwards made a smart call and will win bloggers' hearts) than Ezra's (Edwards took one for the team; Fox will come after him with a vengeance). Democratic primary voters aren't going to take Fox's word for it when they come out with ridiculous anti-Edwards smears. But I'm not sure, because if some of the Fox smears get play in other media outlets it could still be quite damaging. We'll have to see how this plays out, and I'm hoping for an outcome where Democrats work together to degrade Fox's position by the time the general election begins. In the meantime, I'm going be proud that my guy hit back hard against one of the most vicious forces in the media. Let's have more of that.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Anti-Palestinian lobby

This post by Matt reminds me of something he'd probably want me to say -- we've got to come up with a better term for people who want to push Israel into violent conflict with its neighbors than the "Israel lobby." The strange use of the phrase "Pro-Israel" is especially problematic. I want the folks who live in Israel now to stay there and live happy lives untroubled by violence. I think that peace agreements, like the agreement of the late 1970s that has ended war between Israel and Egypt, are the only way to achieve this. Compare me to the Texas megachurch pastor who endorses Israeli military action as the best means for covering the region in a "sea of human blood drained from the veins of those who have followed Satan." The term "pro-Israel" should not be applied to his view. Yet NPR bestows the "pro-Israel" appellation on him, even while noting that most Israelis reject his position. Suggestions for reforming the discourse are welcome.

"War is not the instrument he thought it was"

Hilzoy has a long and beautiful post on why using war to set up democracy in other countries is so hard. There are lots of reasons for this, but the reason she discusses hadn't really occurred to me before.
we should never forget how astonishing it is that people vying for power are willing to concede even when they believe that the rules have been broken, out of respect for the rule of law and for courts they believe to be profoundly in error.

In many countries, there are no established procedures for resolving conflicts, and certainly none that command the kind of allegiance that would lead people to yield even when they believe that they deserve to have won. In those countries it will always be tempting to think: well, this election was stolen from us, and this year-old Constitution is unfair; why not fight for a better one? Wouldn't our opponents do the same?

This is especially likely in a country in which the price of losing a political struggle has always been not just being in the minority party in Congress, but death or subjugation. And it takes a long time to learn to trust that losing power will not cost you your life or your freedom, when all your experience to date has taught you the opposite.

When you use force to liberate a country, like Kuwait, that has only been occupied for a short time, you can hope that its people will accept their previous government, and that whatever made that government function in the past will have survived. But when you liberate a country like Iraq, a country whose people have been brutalized, you risk loosing Hobbes' "war of all against all" on its people. You remove the sovereign who has kept that war in check, without thereby creating any of the political virtues that allow alternate forms of government, like democracy, to function.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Thank you ma'am

Elizabeth Edwards has a nice post on the whole Ann Coulter brouhaha. I'm happy that she's using this as a way of attacking homophobia:

Although her words did not hurt us, they may have hurt some in the gay community. We are all sick and tired of anyone supporting or applauding or introducing hate words into the national dialogue, tired of people thinking that words that cause others pain are fair game. And we are sick and tired of people like Miss Coulter thinking that her use of loaded words about the homosexual community in this country is remotely humorous or appropriate.

In general, this is how people should respond to homophobic or racist language -- hit back against the speakers for being prejudiced. Enough progress has been made on the more crude variety of racial slurs that even outside polite society, they do more to damage the speaker than to humiliate the target of the language. It won't be long until antigay slurs work the same way, and every bit of scorn that we throw at people who use the slurs brings that time closer.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Old Crow Medicine Show

I just saw them live for the second time in Austin, and it was wonderful. In the past I've posted lyrics to my favorite OCMS songs, "James River Blues", and "I Hear Them All", both of which they did (the latter beautifully). Ketch Secor's high-energy fiddling was spectacular. My head was one of three off which his harmonica ricocheted when he tossed it into the crowd halfway through the show.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Life Marches On

The first post is this short thing on the whole Edwards bloggers mess. Now I'm going to go eat a donut and feel better.

...mmm, yummy maple-glazed donut. Here's a post on why American liberals tend not to get recognized for supporting reforms in Iran.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Bill Donohoe is going down

This week the FDR campaign rejected pressure from Anthony Comstock, keeping Molly Ivins and Mother Jones on staff, and winning the heart of Tom Paine. Or at least, that's how this werewolf imagines it. Read about what actually happened here.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Passion of the astronauts

Sometimes you can read a news story and instantly visualize the made-for-TV-movie that it will spawn. The lede graf (is that what they call it?):
An astronaut drove 900 miles and donned a disguise to confront a woman she believed was her rival for the affections of a space shuttle pilot, police said. She was arrested Monday and charged with attempted kidnapping and other counts.

This part is just really weird. I don't know if it'll go in the movie:
When she found out that Shipman was flying to Orlando from Houston, Nowak decided to confront her, according to the arrest affidavit. Nowak raced from Houston to Orlando wearing diapers so she wouldn't have to stop to urinate, authorities said.
Astronauts wear diapers during launch and re-entry.

Monday, February 05, 2007

More Johnny fun

Yesterday I applauded the Amanda-hiring and Iran-engaging ways of John Edwards on Ezra's blog.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Johnny and Amanda, sitting in a tree...

...W-I-N-N-I-N-G. Or so all good people hope. Congratulations to Amanda on her new job with the Edwards campaign!

Welcome to the Hellmouth

I haven't been posting much recently because I've been on the road, and preparing for the job talk at BGSU. But I liked this line from Spencer Ackerman, discussing the appearance of apocalyptic Shiite death cults in Iraq: "We don't need Petraeus in Iraq, we need Buffy the motherfucking Vampire Slayer."

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Norms! Norms! Norms!

I think my friends up at the University of Michigan would like this.

Speaking of which, I'm going to be seeing them soon! Here's my travel schedule for the end of January and the beginning of February:

January 25-29: Cambridge, MA
January 29-31: Ann Arbor, MI
February 1-4: Bowling Green, OH
-Possible trip to Chicago to visit my sister, Supriya Sinhababu-
February 4-15: Ann Arbor, MI

Then I return to Texas, where we're doing a Nietzsche conference and I'm commenting on a paper.

Did you guys write this song for me?

I'm listening to the Decemberists' "Yankee Bayonet" right now (you can download it from this guy), and I have this eerie feeling that the song was written to satisfy basically every lyrical preference I have. I like folk songs where girls sing about their soldier lads fallen in battle, and folk songs where the soldiers sing about the girls back home, and this is both at once. I'm on record highlighting the poignancy of references to death in which becoming food for scavengers is discussed, and the girl says to her dead man, "But you are in the ground with the wolves and the weevils / All a'chew on your bones so dry." I like songs that tell stories with mild supernatural content, and the guy appears to be a ghost, or at least a dead guy singing. Furthermore, it's a really nice duet, all pretty and acoustic, and I'm a wuss. A happy wuss.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Two Edwards posts

The first one is on Daily Kos. (Yes, I post there sometimes!) I was trying to let the Kossacks know about how Edwards fought back against the Bush-McCain escalation plan last night on Jay Leno's show. People liked the poll at the end.

The second one started as a way of trumpeting Kate Michelman's endorsement of John Edwards, but segued into a defense of the positive right to have an abortion. It gets kind of Rawlsy at some points (I've been reading a fair bit of Rawls lately).

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Run, Rudy, Run!

If you buy the conventional wisdom that Rudy Giuliani is too liberal on abortion, gun control, and gay rights to win the Republican nomination, you should want him in the Republican primary. Anything that forces John McCain to humiliate himself with more Stupid Politician Tricks is good for Democrats. Since Giuliani and McCain will be splitting whatever votes are available to Republicans Republicans don't trust, a Giuliani candidacy will put pressure on McCain, and push him into more electability-reducing panders to the GOP base. Unelectable Republicans like Gingrich and Brownback, who are more appealing to the base, have better chances of winning the primary if there's a strong Rudy candidacy that cuts into McCain's votes.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Drunk global poverty posts? fuck yeah.

What happens when I try to post on how to deal with poverty in Third World countries while being drunk off my ass? This, I guess. It's mostly a blockquote of stuff from a good article on the subject, so I don't think it shows too many signs of my current inebriation, but I'm guessing there are some.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Jefferson's Koran

This story gave me a little bit of yay:
Rep.-elect Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, found himself under attack last month when he announced he'd take his oath of office on the Koran -- especially from Virginia Rep. Virgil Goode, who called it a threat to American values.

Yet the holy book at tomorrow's ceremony has an unassailably all-American provenance. We've learned that the new congressman -- in a savvy bit of political symbolism -- will hold the personal copy once owned by Thomas Jefferson.

"He wanted to use a Koran that was special," said Mark Dimunation, chief of the rare book and special collections division at the Library of Congress, who was contacted by the Minnesota Dem early in December. Dimunation, who grew up in Ellison's 5th District, was happy to help.