Tuesday, December 30, 2008

This blog doesn't look right!

That's because Blogger tricked me into updating the way it's designed. This may be for the best, though I'll have to more work to take it there. I'll be putting links back in pretty soon, probably after I get back from drinking with former Cogitamus blogmate Sir Charles.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Save Us, Government! Set The Journals Free!

(I'm crossposting this from my political blog, donkeylicious, because it deals with academic stuff)

Ezra Klein, the rare and wonderful non-academic who reads academic papers, asks:
why is so much content locked up in pricey journals? Much of this research is being conducted on the public dime, but is utterly inaccessible to the public. The journals might have made sense when you needed some sort of archiving and distribution model to store, categorize, and spread research, but with the advent of the internet, their existence serves to foil those efficient dissemination of relevant research. Do they simply survive because the prestige they confer as gatekeepers plays an important role in rankings and advancement? Or is there some crucial purpose I'm missing entirely?
Here's my understanding of the story: All these journals were originally things more or less like magazines. In fact, they still are. The library at your university (because of course you're an academic at a university, or you wouldn't be interested in this stuff) pays a subscription fee and gets mailed a booky-looking object four times a year with the latest research. Journals are pricey and have copyrighting because that's the business model that works for low-circulation high-interest publications being sold to rich institutional libraries.

But now, there's the internet! Instead of the expensive printing, binding, and mailing of booky-looking objects, you can transmit information for free through the magic tubes. Since the editors and reviewers are professors who do this without getting paid by the journal (they regard this as part of the job the university pays them for) the entire process could be done for free. There's sometimes a grad student making a little money as an editorial assistant, but that's about it. We academics would be happy enough to just put our content on the web for free. In fact, a cool new journal in my discipline, Philosophers' Imprint, does that.

But Philosophers' Imprint is a very new journal. The existing journals aren't doing this. The trouble is that a lot of these journals are now owned by big publishing companies that don't make any profit by giving away their stuff for free. So they're clinging to the magazine business model.

I'd love it if the government could buy the journals out of the publishers' hands and open them to the public. I hear that some of that has happened in the sciences. The money taxpayers pay out in doing that would soon be recouped, at least in part, by public university academic libraries not having to pay subscription fees. Bonus: Ezra and other ordinary folk get to read my stuff without paying.

But I'm going to keep sending most of my papers to old-line journals that Ezra can't read and hoping they get accepted. After I got a paper accepted in Philosophical Review two months ago (it's the top journal in the discipline), one of my colleagues told me that at some places, people can get tenure just for that! I'd love to have more people read my stuff, but if I just put it on the web for free hardly anybody would even know it was there, or that it was worth reading. Get it into Philosophical Review, and I'm assured that my colleagues will see it, my adversaries will respond to it, and people hiring or promoting me will be impressed. But Ezra won't be able to read it. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Changing the past

Something I've been wondering about lately -- what modality applies to the impossibility of changing the past? Is changing the past logically impossible, metaphysically impossible, or physically impossible? (If there's some weird physics thing that makes it possible to change the past, please tell me, but I'm not sure how that would work.)

I'm working on a paper that discusses how norms apply to impossible actions, so I'd like to get a better handle on what sort of impossibility would apply to preventing the Civil War or other past-changing actions.

Saturday, December 13, 2008


San Francisco: Now until December 26
DC: December 26 until January 5
Singapore: January 9-whenever

You who wish to hang out are encouraged to contact me!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Students write things

It's exam grading time! My favorite sentences from this batch included the Mount Everest theory of laws, which isn't much better when you take out the typo:
Law of nature is something that guides how the world or things will be in their upmost natural state.
This student had a talent for accurately translating the philosophers' views (Hume in this case) into ungrammatical mess:
Great evil or noble man (extraordinary) are but "freaks" which is similar to extraordinary weather phenomenas observed also in nature which is governed by laws.
I liked the question this student had for Kant:
Are all rational beings autonomous? Then, what about human beings who have been brought up with animals and have never interacted with humans -- do they then have this intrinsic quality of autonomy?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Introducing Donkeylicious

Nicholas Beaudrot and I have started our own political blog, Donkeylicious. I hereby refer you there for all your werewolfish political commentary needs. As of today, War or Car is complete. It will stay up as long as the internet permits, a monument to three trillion dollars wasted on killing people for no good reason.

I only met Nicholas this summer, but he and I were blogging together during the weekends on Ezra Klein's site for two years, and then for the last year on Cogitamus after Ezra got fully absorbed into the American Prospect. He's excellent with numbers, and he was putting up some awesome county-by-county maps during the primaries to understand what was happening. This was the secret to his super powers. Here he is on February 11, 2008 -- almost four months before Hillary Clinton ended her campaign:

It's over. I'm calling it. When all is said and done, Barack Obama will have a Florida-and-Michigan-proof lead among pledged delegates (68 or more) to convince enough superdelegates to earn the nomination.

Even if Clinton manages a narrow loss, tie, or narrow win in Virginia, Barack Obama should win Maryland and DC handily. Combined with a likely big win in one of his home states (Hawaii), he'll have roughly a 100 delegate lead going into the Wisconsin primary. Let's be pessimistic and assume Obama loses by 15%. With 75 pledged delegates, that means his lead will drop to the high 80s.

We're now all the way to the Ohio and Texas primaries, with a total of 334 pledged delegates at stake. To claw back to a draw, Hillary Clinton will have to win a whopping 61% of them. There's no way that can happen; the only state where Clinton has managed a margin that large is Oklahoma. And remember, this is the pessimistic scenario; if Obama wins Virginia by 15% as polls indicate, and can play two out of three between Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania to virtual draws, he'll have lead large enough that Clinton will have to pack it in.

So, yeah, he's good! As for me, I'm basically going to be doing the kind of political blogging there that you might remember from the halcyon days of this blog. With the election behind us, I'll be free to spend more time on more technical philosophy-blogging here.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Humean Theory of Motivation Reformulated and Defended

...has just been accepted by the Philosophical Review!  

This is just awesome.  Thanks to all y'all who believed in me.  

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Holding the world together

There probably aren't going to be any new posts here for the next two months or so until the election, while I'm working on War or Car.  But please go over there -- I'll be putting up a new post daily to dramatize the cost of the Iraq War.  And if there's a post that you find particularly amusing, infuriating, or astonishing, I'd be honored if you were to email a link to whoever you think might be amused, or spread it around in some such way.  

In the meantime, I'm also buying up a bunch of Google Adwords ads to help Obama and the Democrats win elections.  

Thursday, August 07, 2008

War or Car?

I've started an exciting new project: War or Car?  Have a look!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

What I did on Saturday night

Eating Singaporean Tex-Mex with John Holbo.

Friday, August 01, 2008


I traveled from Bangkok to Ko Samet and back with the two intrepid explorers below. Sadly, the 44m long Buddha declined to accompany us on our journey.  

While in Bangkok I was tempted to eat a plate of roasted insects.  When my camera saw what was going on, it responded in an unusual manner.  

This is how the natives of Ko Samet have traditionally consumed their coconut milkshakes.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Going to Thailand

Tonight I'm flying off to Bangkok. Among the attractions of the area I'll be staying in are: the National Gallery and National Museum, the 16m tall 45m long reclining Buddha, and a clandestine meeting with a special agent whose identity can be guessed at only by loyal readers with RSS feeds.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

An Important Event In the History of This Blog

This is the view outside my office window. The tree is a coconut tree -- those fruits are unripe coconuts. Ripe coconuts are the brown shelly things that you're more likely to see in the supermarket. In their unripe stages (when they're called young coconuts or green coconuts), they don't contain the yummy hard white pulp. But they have more water in them, and it's good to drink.

Since the last post, many good things have happened. I've gone to a conference in Australia, where I hung out with lots of awesome local philosophers and danced in the usual crazy way in front of David Chalmers and Tim Crane -- see the penultimate picture here. David had been distributing "Possible Girls" to the ANU folk and lots of them thought I was a metaphysician. I also delivered a paper on how Humeans should respond to Korsgaard's stuff on the error constraint, which went quite well, and spent more than an hour talking with Michael Smith the next day about topics of common Humean interest. And I finally met utilitarian hero Jack Smart, who is still attending conferences in his late 80s.

But the event of greatest blog-related importance is that I've finally bought a decent camera phone (a Sony Ericsson P1i, with wi-fi and a 3.2 megapixel camera), which was used to take the picture above. Many more pictures of exotic tropical locales should be forthcoming -- including Thailand, which I'm visiting next week!

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Malaysian politics is INSANE

Checking in from my office in Singapore, where the news from neighboring Malaysia is like nothing I've ever heard before.

Soon after his party's victory in the March 8 elections, Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been accused of forcibly sodomizing a 23-year-old male staffer. This isn't new for Anwar, who also was the subject of sodomy allegations 10 years ago. In the prior case, the sodomy was alleged (among other things) to have happened in a building that hadn't been constructed at the time. So to most Malaysians, it looks like the ruling party is just going back to its old strategy -- when Anwar gets too powerful, falsely accuse him of sodomizing somebody. The fact that the young staffer went to Deputy Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak's residence before the police report was filed doesn't help matters.

But that's not the worst. In 2006, beautiful Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu was shot and then blown to bits with C4. They had to identify her body from bone fragments. Her ex-lover (ruling party defense analyst Abdul Razak Baginda) and two special police from current Deputy Prime Minister Najib's office have been charged in the murder. A few days ago, a private investigator who worked for Abdul Razak Baginda has put forward detailed allegations that DPM Najib and the murdered woman also had a sexual relationship. (And yes, this is yet another Malaysian scandal involving anal sex.) The next day, the private investigator retracted the allegations entirely, claiming that he had made them under duress. Draw what conclusions you will.

I'm flying off to a conference in Australia tomorrow. I imagine that politics there are a little less insane. In any event, probably no more political blogging from me for a week.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Deontic flavorings of Singapore

The ingredients list on my bottle of wintermelon tea (I never had wintermelon before and mmmmmm...) goes as follows:

Water, cane sugar, winter melon juice, permitted flavouring and

This is the first time I've seen 'permitted flavouring' on an ingredients list. I'm wondering what other deontic flavorings obtain in Singapore. Obligatory flavoring? Forbidden flavoring?

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Duty Free

Just picked up a liter (I guess around here it's a litre) of Bombay Sapphire for $18.58 at the Duty Free store here in Hong Kong. Building my liquor cabinet through international travel will be part of the game plan for the next couple years.


I'm leaving for my new job at the National University of Singapore in a couple hours. Wooooo!

Things I've posted on Cogitamus lately

If Obama wins the election, who will replace him? Let's hope the Governor of Illinois picks Jan Schakowsky.

John Edwards polls better in Ohio than the Governor of Ohio. And with economic worries getting more intense, he's the sort of VP pick you need.

I can NBA-blog too! Here I talk about how Michael Beasley really is the best player in the draft.

[as of 2019, none of the links work, so they've been removed]

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sadly, The Name 'Moral Hazard' Is Already Taken

Lindsay Beyerstein and Amanda Marcotte introduce me to a kind of market failure I hadn't heard of before. Compucredit VISA "cut credit lines if consumers used their cards at certain places. Among them: tire and retreading shops, massage parlors, bars, billiard halls, and marriage counseling offices."
As Amanda says, the idea is that these things correlate with future credit problems. If you're getting your tires retreaded, it's probably because you don't have enough money to buy new tires, which is a sign that you may have financial problems down the road. If you're going for marriage counseling, you're more likely than average to have a messy and financially difficult divorce in your future. Never mind that marriage counseling may help you keep your marriage together and avoid these problems. Useful attempts to remedy a problem correlate with problems, so the bean counters will regard you as a problem if they see you taking them.
Taken to an extreme, this sort of thing can prevent you from taking useful steps to get your life in order. If you're having marital problems that require some counseling, don't get counseling or the credit card company will get antsy and take away your credit! So now we're in a situation where the forces of the market give people reasons to avoid helping themselves.

Telecom immunity

So the new big controversial thing I've written is a post on how the new telecom immunity legislation, though bad, isn't quite the disaster that people have made it out to be. There's good discussion in comments.

Saturday, June 21, 2008


Two VP-pick related posts at the CogBlog today: One on Barney Frank putting his foot down against the Sam Nunn VP ridiculousness, and one on why picking Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty doesn't deliver Minnesota to McCain.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Taking It To The Max

I've been very interested to read Ezra's posts on Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus, an oft-disappointing Senator who's crucial in reforming health care. Yglesias details how Baucus helped Bush pass his tax cuts for the rich and takes tons of money from health care and insurance interests. I remember Baucus as the only Dem to vote against giving DC a vote in Congress, on the ridiculous grounds that it would dilute Montana's voting power. But Ezra lays out some reasons for optimism that he's taking health care seriously and says in comments:

Baucus is the chair of the relevant committee for health care reform. If you care about the issue, you have to watch him closely, try to figure out what he's doing, and try to figure out what his incentives are and how to shape them.

This is one instance of a big question that I generally don't know how to answer: How do you, as an ordinary citizen, get an influential Senator from another state to do what you want? I know only two ways to push on a Senator -- direct contact through letters and phone calls, and primary challenges. The former only works if you live in the state, and the latter probably isn't feasible in the case of a red-state Democrat who works his evil magic behind closed doors in the Senate, not out in the open on cable TV like that idiot from Connecticut who got kicked out of the party in 2006.

All that comes to mind is buying BlogAds on Left in the West to explain to our Montana progressive brethren that the fate of American health care is on their shoulders, and we'll buy them all the beer they want if they organize really good letter-writing campaigns. Is that the appropriate move here?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Home of the Whopper

The LA Times caught up with "Curveball", the guy who told the CIA all the bullshit about WMD in Iraq. I'd always thought he was a top scientist or something. Turns out that he left Iraq after his shampoo business failed (he was cheating his partners), his cosmetics business failed (he was cheating his suppliers) and he lost his job at a TV company (he was selling their equipment on the black market). He was working at a Burger King in Germany when we were deciding whether to invade Iraq:

In early 2002, a year before the war, he told co-workers at the Burger King that he spied for Iraqi intelligence and would report any fellow Iraqi worker who criticized Hussein's regime.

They couldn't decide if he was dangerous or crazy.

"During breaks, he told stories about what a big man he was in Baghdad," said Hamza Hamad Rashid, who remembered an odd scene with the pudgy Alwan in his too-tight Burger King uniform praising Hussein in the home of der Whopper. "But he always lied. We never believed anything he said."

His fellow Burger King employees knew he lying. (I imagine that the guy who gave him the codename 'Curveball' had an inkling too. I'm waiting for it to be revealed that the CIA's other informants were codenamed 'Play-action' and 'Headfake'). But he said what Bush wanted to hear, and the CIA bought it.

If only a Burger King employee had been president instead of George W. Bush.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Did Anybody Watch That 70's Show?

I see that a lot of the folks over at The Next Right like attacking Barack Obama by tying him to Jimmy Carter. One of the foremost problems with this is that half of today's voters are too young to get the reference. The median voter is 46 years old, meaning that they were 17 when Carter left office, and presumably not paying too much attention to macroeconomic phenomena.
And the late 70s weren't all that bad for ordinary folks -- the unemployment rate during the Carter years was well below the worst numbers of the Reagan era. Of course, the combination of stagnant asset values and inflation made it a terrible time to be an investor, so tying Obama to Carter will probably resonate with the voter who had a large stock portfolio during the Carter days. McCain is welcome to make those folks the focus of his messaging, just as I'm sure he'll be welcome to visit Barack Obama in the White House next year.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Instant Identities! Just Add Water!

Kevin and Ezra are making fun of the post where Jim Geraghty tries to attack Barack Obama for not wanting to live the life of a suburban commuter who works a 9-to-5 job. Geraghty tells us that "there's a fine line between rejecting that life and looking down at that life. Because some people are just fine with jobs that require them to take the New Rochelle train... Never mind the small towners who "cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment." Obama didn't want to be a suburban commuter." It's a half-assed attempt to gin up something like a new anti-suburban-commuter Bittergate. Or something.

Right-wingers have coveted the power of left-wing identity politics for some time. They don't, however, have a good idea of why gender and racial solidarity are politically powerful. When some group has a common interest, you can get them to band together behind it. Defeating racism and sexism definitely count. But what are suburban commuters up against? Lousy train service? Unless Republicans are going to go after Ryan Avent and David Alpert with box cutters and somehow hijack the mass transit movement, they're just not going to succeed in stirring up an anti-Obama suburban commuter voting bloc.

Why don't Republicans get this? In part, it's because a lot of them think racism and sexism are over. So they think that Democratic voting blocs are still hanging together in the absence of any common interest. And if identity politics is that easy, turning Italian-Americans, or suburban commuters, or anyone else into a cohesive anti-Democratic group will be simple. But actually, there are good reasons why voting blocs hang together.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

The Big Obama/Edwards post

I forgot to link my favorite post as a guestblogger for Kevin Drum. It's the big one in which I lay out 10 good reasons for an Obama/Edwards ticket.

Edwards is denying VP interest a little more intensely than VP candidates usually do. Given that an Obama/Edwards ticket seems to be electorally invincible (check out reason #2 from Minnesota) and Edwards is the guy I'd most want as VP and president (check out most of my blogging for the past 3 years) his protestations of disinterest aren't enough to deter me. My guess is that if Obama told Edwards he'd have a somewhat looser leash than he did in the '04 Kerry days, he'd be a lot more receptive.

Another post, at Cogitamus, about the possible end of ridiculously good media coverage for John McCain is here.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

More Pelosi!

I've got a big love note to Nancy Pelosi at the Washington Monthly.

Sunday, June 01, 2008


Now at the Washington Monthly's site: my big post on how Barack Obama is completely awesome.


Tonight, my friends drove me up to Flint, MI, and I drank two pitchers of Killian's. It wasn't the chosen drink of any of my compatriots, so I had to drink them by myself. My head is spinning like... uh, I'm looking for some kind of economically depressed Rust Belt analogy, preferably involving things unionized workers in the automotive sector would attend to, but it's escaping me.

I hope all of you had a similarly wonderful Saturday night.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Mmmm... Veepsteaks!

I'm currently in the happy and exciting position of guestblogging for Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly! He gets over 30,000 readers a day, so it's an awesome gig.

I decided to start off by doing some Veepstakesblogging, since your average political junkie likes talking about that. So I produced a post discussing some general considerations for who would make a good VP, and then a post discussing specific candidates. The arguments for John Edwards in the second post seem to be impressing lots of people.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Six Reasons Why Clinton Shouldn't Be Obama's VP

I liked Hillary Clinton a lot back in my teenage political junkie years, and she won big points with me when she copied John Edwards' health care plan. Even though I've become an Obama guy lately, I was excited to see her stick it to him on domestic policy issues -- her one clear area of superiority -- during the Texas debate. But an Obama/Clinton ticket is a match made in a place with lots of brimstone for making matches. So let me tell you why she clearly won't be the best VP choice for Barack Obama.

6. We'll have party unity regardless.
Over at Shakesville, PortlyDyke wants a unity ticket, regardless of who the nominee is, because a unified party is important. Of course it is! But after a Democratic convention where everybody in the party including Clinton talks up Obama and a couple months of campaigning against a warmongering GOP nominee with a 0% NARAL rating who doesn't care about working people, Obama will consolidate Democratic support.

We're moving through the stage in the process where there's maximal bitterness between the candidates' supporters. (I remember this from 2004, except it happened a lot earlier in the year.) But sure as Dean people fell behind the once-hated Kerry and people who care about each other make up after a fight, you'll see the vast majority of Clinton people cast a vote against McCain. And looking at the numbers, Hillary-Obama animosity is pretty tame by historical standards, with 1/5 of Obama people saying they won't vote for Hillary and 1/4 of Hillary people saying they won't vote for Obama. You know what percentage of McCain supporters said they wouldn't vote Bush in March 2000? 51%.

5. Just look at her favorability / unfavorability numbers.

When I want to see how people think of a candidate (and therefore, whether they'll make a ticket more or less likely to win), I don't rely on my own subjective impressions. My youthful fantasies of being the young White House intern Hillary would use for post-Monica revenge, for example, shouldn't have led me to believe that everybody liked her the way I did. Instead, I should look at favorability ratings and other poll numbers.

Even at the end of a brutal general election campaign, I don't think a non-Clinton VP nominee will end up with fav/unfav numbers worse than Clinton's now. If you ask the question the way Gallup does, both her favorables and unfavorables have been stuck between the mid-40s and the low 50s for a long time now. To give you an example of what a more standard VP choice's numbers would look like, John Edwards ended the 2004 campaign at 48-37. Those were his worst numbers of '04 -- he usually had favorables in the 50s and unfavorables at 30 or less.

4. I don't trust the consultants in Hillaryland to play well with an Obama campaign.

Some of this depends on whether the disastrous Mark Penn really has been replaced -- word is that he retains his access, but not his official stature. But even if he is gone, I don't trust Harold Ickes, Terry McAuliffe, and Howard Wolfson -- all of whom came into this with the confidence that they'd be running the next Democratic general election campaign, and probably the next Democratic administration -- to take orders from Plouffe/Axelrod and fit their candidate into the role that Obama's folks want them to play. There's a huge potential for organizational dysfunction here, one that's much smaller with any other VP candidate. Hillary herself strikes me as less problematic -- if she really wants the VP slot, she'll adapt to it. But a lot of people under her won't be content with less than they expected, and they may make trouble.

3. I want to see the Republican Party's 15-year investment in smearing her come up absolutely worthless.

Over the years, the Republican Party has spent a gargantuan amount of money and effort smearing Hillary Clinton. Right-winger Lisa Schiffren's post is one of my favorites:

Let's say last night really did indicate that Hillary's negatives will keep her off the ticket. (Or keep her from winning if she's on it.) You know what? Deep in my psyche, in the place that kind of misses the toothache I've been prodding at with my tongue, I am having a tiny little pang of missing Hillary. Not her, but hating her. Hating Hillary has been such a central political impulse for so long now — 15 years — and I have had to work so hard to keep it up as she became more appealling looking, less shrill, more human — I don't really know what I will do with that newly freed strand of energy.

Imagine all that well-tended right-wing fury... gone to nothing. What a pleasure it'll be to say, in January 2009: "Guess how much that enormous anti-Hillary investment was worth? $0. We had another great candidate -- the smart black guy who will make sure that American foreign policy won't ever be done your way again. His army of young followers will be voting Democrats into office for the rest of their long lives."

2. We need a clear antiwar message.
Bill Clinton's presidency made the economy a Democratic issue. Obama's big promise is that he'll do the same with foreign policy, and advance a view of the issue that will serve the Democratic Party and America well for the next several years. For VP, he needs somebody who can reinforce that message -- either a Democrat who never supported the war, or one who has totally renounced his/her support and rejects the war with the zeal of a convert. Hillary could've -- and should've -- come out against the war full-force during or before the primary. As it stands, it'll be a grand shame if we accept a candidate who's tied into Kerryesque knots on this central issue, and whose impulses for how to do foreign policy and how to strategically position yourself on the issue are so far inferior to Obama's.

1. We've got a whole heck of a lot to choose from.
Stephen cites the polls showing that 60% Democrats think Obama should choose Hillary. But this data is most likely the product of low name recognition for any of the other contenders. Most Americans, for example, have no idea who Kathleen Sebelius is. John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Jim Webb probably didn't come before most respondents' minds at the time, as they weren't mentioned as options. (Hillary was the only option named.)

One of the pleasures of all this Veepstakes talk is that it gives people a chance to learn about a bunch of Democrats who have accomplished great things for the party. And in fact, we have some excellent people to choose from. I'm going to be talking up Sebelius (who accomplished some truly amazing things in Kansas), Edwards (probably the ultimate in-office VP pick), Brian Schweitzer (the badass governor of Montana) and my favorite dark horse -- domestic policy Senate superstar Sherrod Brown of Ohio -- over the next couple weeks. I'll read more on Napolitano, too, and see if there really is as much of a case for Jim Webb as some people seem to think. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

California Supreme Court Legalizes Gay Marriage

I don't have many original things to say about this, so I'll express my feelings by animated gif.


Those of you who have interesting things to say are encouraged to post them in the comments.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Night Of The Links To Female Bloggers Better Than Me

After the GOP convention chairman resigned due to his having lobbied for the vicious rulers of Myanmar, Hilzoy has a typically awesome post looking at all the dictators that McCain's top advisor, Charlie Black, has worked for. Best quote is probably this one: "Black has represented a more than usually repellent group of dictators. Two of Transparency International's top three kleptocrats in recent history (Marcos and Mobutu); a self-proclaimed God; torturers, murderers, and even someone who deliberately destroys reservoirs in arid country, so people will die of thirst."

Someday I'll be bouncing a little granddaughter (with a last name like McBabubaum, no doubt) on my lap and I'll say, "I once blogged for Ezra Klein, and one of my blogmates, just for a little while, was Kathy Geier!" And she'll say, "Wow! Was that when she wrote her post that told you everything you need to know about the minimum wage and employment?" And I'll say, "No, that's after she moved to Crooked Timber. But I linked it!" And she'll shrug, because all her friends, who will be precocious children with weird ethnic fusion names, will have linked it too.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Name Fusions For Nuclear Families

Congratulations to Michael and Diana Bijon, who got the ACLU's help in overturning the California law barring men from taking their wives' names when they marry. From older news coverage, I recall that Michael had a bad relationship with his father, and was very close to his wife's family, and thus wanted to take her name. I don't know exactly what we should call his old name now -- "maiden name" isn't appropriate. Bachelor name, I suppose?

My preference is for both spouses to keep their names, and to invent clever name fusions for their offspring. So if I were to marry a woman named, say, Von Argebargebruger, the kids would be Sinhabargebrugers or Von Sinhas or Argebargebabus or something, depending on how many extra syllables of adversity we wanted them to overcome.

Philosophers Steven Yablo and Sally Haslanger call their clan the 'Yablangers', which always sounded kind of nifty to me. Definitely for academics and other people whose names show up in bibliographies, having people retain their names seems the way to go. You don't want people thinking, "Whatever happened to that book that Von Argebargebruger said she was going to write?" or "Why didn't Baroness Sinhababu publish anything until she got tenure?"

Saturday, May 10, 2008

How To Help People In Burma

The basic outlines of the situation are laid out here. Tens of thousands of people have already died, and the ruling dictatorship (they're the ones who renamed the country Myanmar) believes that letting outside aidworkers care for the people would destabilize their rule and let outside organizations that don't like them gain a foothold in the country. So they're hardly permitting any aid in at all, and many thousands more people may die from the diseases that result when flooding mixes sewage and clean water. This is why dictatorship isn't the best form of government.
I've been communicating with a friend who works in an NGO in Vietnam, who knows a guy who works in Burma, to ask for aid advice. She writes:
I did get another brief email last night from this guy in-country, but the only thing of note that he really said was: "Things in Yangon are improving rapidly. Obviously that's not the case in the delta. But to be honest, here in the city, the recovery has been faster than in nola." 
Still, the situation in nola was so terrible that saying the recovery is faster than nola isn't saying much...also, the situation in the delta is the real disaster. He also says that "save the children seems to be the best organized INGO on the ground right now". But maybe the network of monks can deliver supplies in areas where save the children can't (?)
The aforementioned 'network of monks' is a group that MoveOn is directing people to, which I asked her about. In ordinary situations, I'd go through the big international NGOs which I'm familiar with. But the monks may be able to get aid into the country to the places where it's needed through their own networks of monasteries. Here's what MoveOn said in an email:
Humanitarian relief is urgently needed, but Burma's government could easily delay, divert or misuse any aid. Today the International Burmese Monks Organization, including many leaders of the democracy protests last fall, launched a new effort to provide relief through Burma's powerful grass roots network of monasteries--the most trusted institutions in the country and currently the only source of housing and support in many devastated communities. 
Giving to the monks is a smart, fast way to get aid directly to Burma's people. Governments and international aid organizations are important, but face challenges--they may not be allowed into Burma, or they may be forced to provide aid according to the junta's rules. And most will have to spend large amounts of money just setting up operations in the country. The monks are already on the front lines of the aid effort--housing, feeding, and supporting the victims of the cyclone since the day it struck. The International Burmese Monks Organization will send money directly to each monastery through their own networks, bypassing regime controls.

Says my friend, "I would imagine this claim about established networks of monks is true, though I'm not sure how one would be able to really verify it..." If anybody knows anything else about these monks, please do tell. They're firmly opposed to the military dictatorship, and have staged protests against it, so if you're looking for people who are likely to bring aid into the country without government approval, they're probably the people to turn to. I'm thinking that I'll be donating through them and Save The Children, unless someone can tell me about a better way.

Monday, May 05, 2008

When Politics Gets Weird

I'm so inured to the idea of my fellow voters stupidly falling for everything that I often find myself kind of happily confused when some transparently cynical ploy fails. This has happened only a few times on major (non) issues that I remember -- the Clinton impeachment and the Terri Schiavo episode are the major ones.

It's too early to be confident, but I'm hoping that maybe the gas tax mess will be another episode of this kind. If the relevant points can be gotten into circulation -- the oil companies eat up more than half of the tax cut, and this is a dumb short-term fix that does nothing to address the deeper problem -- it's possible that a political debate will actually be won by educating people so they come to have the right views on policy. Weird.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Good neighbor noises

I've been living in a rented room in an old mansion for the last couple years, and the guy whose room is next to the bathroom often plays excellent music quite loudly. This is a very good thing. The more Sleater-Kinney I can squeeze into my life, the better I'll be living.

Future AOC for Texas job candidates

Aidan McGlynn points out that with the hiring of Anna-Sara Malmgren, who sang in "What Would Jesus Buy?", Texas is positioned to move to the top of the Leiter Reports' specialty rankings for people with imdb pages who do epistemology. Our department chair (and my dissertation co-chair!) is David Sosa, who probably had the best segment of Waking Life, explaining to the people why quantum indeterminacy doesn't save free will.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

UT Methodology Workshop

I'll be reporting for duty at NUS on July 1, so I'll have to miss this (as well as Netroots Nation). But you don't have to!
The UT-Austin philosophy department is pleased to announce a week-long graduate student workshop on philosophical methodology, August 12 – August 16.

Possible workshop subtopics include (but are not limited to) intuition, conceptual analysis, reflective equilibrium, reduction, and ontological commitment.

Already confirmed speakers include Julia Driver (Dartmouth), Marc Moffett (Wyoming), Roy Sorensen (Dartmouth), Ernest Sosa (Rutgers), and a number of UT faculty.

We hope to accept around 10 outside graduate student participants. If you are interested in applying, please see our website for details:
I've interacted with Julia Driver a few times, and she's awesome. Also, what this announcement don't tell you is that UT's Josh Dever is also going to be participating. I often tell incoming graduate students in our program that the secret to becoming a good philosopher at UT is to talk with Josh Dever as often as possible. Despite the fact that he works entirely outside my area, I've learned a gigantic amount of stuff from him.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Rules, imperatives, and noncognitivism

On Friday, Paul Boghossian gave a talk on epistemic rules. (I think it's the same paper that's in pdf form here.) On the way to discussing the Kripkenstein stuff, he claimed that rules are normative propositions and not imperatives. Being a cognitivist, I was generally sympathetic to his view at the time, though I thought some of his arguments didn't do as much to establish his thesis as he thought.

I've been thinking about rules more, though, and I'm seeing some reason to regard them as imperatives. Here are two ways we talk about rules that resemble the way we talk about imperatives.

-We usually don't say that rules are 'true' or 'false', just as we don't say that imperatives are true or false. Propositions, however, are different.

-It's natural to talk about following rules and following imperatives. It's a little less natural to talk about following propositions.

Even if this and other things convince us to regard rules as imperatives, though, I don't know how much it's going to help noncognitivists in ethics and other domains, because these imperatives might be best regarded as derivative from normative propositions anyway. (It'd be something like this -- accepting an imperative commits one to accepting a normative proposition, and the truth of the normative proposition determines the goodness of the imperative.) All the worries about embeddings, etc, are still out there when you're talking about non-truth-evaluable things. So it's open to the cognitivist to just say, "Well, we're going to need something truth-evaluable to explain embeddings and moral reasoning and the intuition that we need some substantial notion of moral truth to ground moral discourse. So assuming that Gibbard and Blackburn and those guys can't deliver all that, we can concede rules to the noncognitivist and still win."

Against what I've written just above, I suppose the noncognitivist could try to turn the tables by explaining the acceptance of normative propositions in terms of the acceptance of imperatives. This just seems kind of weird, though, because normative propositions are going to require truth-makers, and now the noncognitivist is going to have to posit normative properties or tell some kind of story about why we keep holding on to our normative propositions when there aren't any properties out there. So it looks like the noncognitivist can't have anything to do with genuine normative propositions.

In an amusing but irrelevant side note, one of our first-year graduate students has affectionately nicknamed Boghossian "Bog Hoss".

Friday, April 25, 2008

It has been an unusual morning

As I was walking to the philosophy department, a bird crapped on my head.

Then as I started walking home to clean up, I saw two birds having sex.

I do not know how to interpret these omens.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

How Good People Can Be Guilted Out Of Their Rights

I was talking about abortion with two students today -- we've read a few articles on the issue, including Judith Jarvis Thomson's defense of abortion and Don Marquis' anti-abortion argument. Thomson's argument is a particularly interesting one, because she argues that abortion is permissible even if we regard the fetus as a person with the same rights as you or I. This is one of the many picturesque thought-experiments in her piece:
suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not--despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won't do--for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.
One of the two students (I think they're on opposite sides of the issue) wanted to argue that even in this case, you're responsible for the upbringing of the person-plant, and that a woman similarly has the obligation to nourish a fetus within her for nine months after it's conceived, even if she used contraception. She justified her opinion by talking about how bad she'd feel if she had an unplanned pregnancy, even if she had used birth control. Someone who did something like that, she said, ought to bear the consequences. And here I discovered something interesting about the issue of abortion, and about the debate over rights in general.

Our beliefs about rights often come out of our emotions, and sometimes this process leads us to the correct conclusions. Consider the indignation we feel when we think of slavery and segregation. We're outraged by these practices, and when we see them through the emotional coloring of outrage, we see them as injustices where human rights are violated.

But this way of figuring out what rights you have is deeply fallible. Many good people, for example, have some tendency to blame themselves even in cases where they really shouldn't. They have a strong desire to do things the right way, and they hold their actions to very high standards. And when something goes wrong, even though they did everything in their power make sure it went right, they feel very bad.

(With my students, I brought up a case where someone makes some complex machinery doing absolutely everything possible to make it safe, and an employer installs it exactly as he should, and the worker follows exactly proper procedure, but something one-in-a-trillion goes wrong, and the worker is killed. In this case, nobody may be to blame, but the maker and the employer are good people, it's hard to imagine them not feeling bad about their role in the death. Both of my students agreed that in such a situation, people could feel bad but not be blameworthy. This generated one of those Amazing Philosophy Moments when my anti-abortion student realized that this would make the conception of an unwanted child a similarly non-blameworthy occurrence. Her friend was excited to see her say that, which is why I think they're on different sides of the issue.)

The range of things that most good people will feel bad about, then, is wider than the range of things where they do wrong or violate someone's rights. So -- and this is what I found striking -- it's frighteningly easy to convince good people that they have fewer rights than they do. If you can make them interpret their bad feelings as feelings that they've committed an injustice, you can get them to believe that they -- and others in their position -- lack certain rights. (I'm sure this is especially significant with young women who are taught by a patriarchal society to feel guilty about premarital sex.)

There's a bunch of other stuff here that I find really interesting -- the naturalness of the idea that childbirth is a rightful punishment for having sex, for instance. And, of course, the premise Thomson famously grants -- that the fetus is a person. Maybe we'll get a chance to discuss that next time, because they want to talk with me again tomorrow afternoon.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

"Hooray for trees!" he gibbar'd

One of the things I want to do before I leave Texas and our big library is read up on the recent history of the cognitivism / noncognitivism debate. I'm talking about stuff like the Simon Blackburn vs. Bob Hale exchanges of the 1980s, though I don't have enough of a grip on the area to know if that's the most important stuff out there. (In particular, I don't know what the most important Blackburn texts are.) But in general, guys like Gibbard and Blackburn versus their best opponents is the debate I'm interested in.

Do people have any suggestions for what I should make sure to read? (Or for what I should make sure not to read, if you're so minded.)

While I'm at it, I'll plug Andy Egan's paper on Blackburn, which seemed really good when I read it, though again I'm not quite strong enough on the ins and outs of Blackburn to know what to say.

Monday, April 21, 2008

I'm fine with rejection

It's pretty cool how accepting a job makes you like rejection letters a lot more. I get one, and I'm indifferent to the fact that I didn't get the job, while being mildly pleased that St. Podunk's College and someone who wanted to teach there found each other.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

On dearths of posts

One thing that had reduced my posting frequency over the past year+ was that some faculty suggested that I not blog too much while I was on the job market. Insofar as this was because they didn't want anyone on a hiring committee to google my name and see something disagreeable or think I was distracted by other issues, I followed their advice, and I kept the content of this blog mostly philosophical, since it's the first google hit for my name. (The Garance post below was an exception, but that was a special situation.) Insofar as they were trying to make sure I didn't waste too much time blogging, I kind of didn't follow their advice and kept up my usual pace at Ezra's place, and then at Cogitamus.

I can't promise a return to the past frequency of posting, but now that I've accepted a job, I imagine that there'll be more action around here in the next couple months. I'll start crossposting my Cogitamus stuff, for one thing. And when I go to the other side of the world and finally get a high-quality camera phone, who knows what kind of exciting pictures and stuff might show up.

Update: You know, I really shouldn't be allowed to finish this post without mentioning that more dancing-related wackiness will be featured in this space as well. Like that of last night, when I was out at Beauty Bar and my dancing secured the attention of a mid-sized bachelorette party for an extended period of time.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

In which the werewolf is admitted to paradise

Like many of us kids fresh out of philosophy grad school, I sent off a total of 99 job applications this year. I applied all around the country and the world, to places from Louisiana, Nebraska, and Idaho to Wales, Bulgaria, and Turkey. When I read Jobs For Philosophers and saw that the National University of Singapore had five tenure-track jobs, I mostly thought of it as a crazy place I'd mention in conversation to illustrate how I'm scouring every corner of the globe for philosophical employment.

Today I accepted one of those jobs. Now that I've visited the place and seen the details of the offer, it looks like a complete dream job. They'll have me teaching a light load of two courses per semester to bright and motivated students. This will give me plenty of time to focus on research, which is something they want me to do and which I can do very well. I'll have a lot of good colleagues -- the Philosophy department at NUS has 19 academic staff, including political philosopher and eminent Mill scholar C.L. Ten. Crooked Timber readers will note that one of my colleagues will be famous academic blogger John Holbo (whose super-cool wife is fellow Crooked Timberer Belle Waring). More good colleagues are probably on the way -- they were hiring 5 people this year. The food is amazing. Amazing tropical fruit and delicious Asian food with spices and weird meats and coconut milk are cheap and plentiful. And the money is enough to blow a grad student's mind. In going from TAing to an Assistant Professorship, my salary is going to multiply by something like 4 or 5. My plan is to live on half of it, save a quarter, and spend the rest on a variety of bold schemes to promote the good of humanity.

Now for a story that longtime readers might appreciate. Before giving my job talk, NUS had me give an hour-long presentation to the graduate students and advanced undergraduates to prepare them for the talk and also evaluate my teaching abilities. Since my talk was on the Humean theory of motivation, I taught them about the puzzle involving cognitivism, internalism, and the Humean theory -- if you accept all three, you end up having to say that humans can't make moral judgments, so you'd better deny at least one of the three. I'd planned the talk to include about 20 minutes of student questions, but a third of the way through, the students hadn't asked me anything.

So I looked at them and tried a trick that I had spontaneously come up with in the previous session of the lecture I've been teaching at Texas. I said, "If someone asks a question, and it's a good question, I'm going to dance." Amid lots of giggling, a brave young man raised his hand and asked a question -- I've forgotten what it was now, but it was good, and the students laughed again when they saw me dancing. After that, good questions flowed freely. When students see that their teacher is willing to do comical and mildly embarrassing things to reward student participation, they get the idea that class really is a place where they're suppose to participate.

I wondered at the time what the NUS faculty evaluating me thought of that stunt. They didn't express emotion in any obvious way, and it seemed kind of high-risk, high-reward -- would I look like a dynamic, exciting teacher, or a maniac?

Apparently they didn't think too badly of it, because they've offered me an amazing job.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Patience, dear ones, all is well

I haven't posted many updates about my job situation here lately. But things have taken a hopeful turn. Barring improbable events, I'll have something to share with you soon. It'll be something that could make this blog very interesting in the next year or so.

And with that I leave you. No asking! I'm not gonna tell!

Friday, March 07, 2008

The last big step

The dissertation is defended. All went well. Very minor revisions, and I'm proud of my performance.

Now I'm just hoping I get a job.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Go Tigers!

It's been a really busy month. Talk in Singapore, teaching my first lecture class, sending the dissertation off to the committee, writing a cute little paper on a topic that loyal readers (assuming I haven't lost them in my monthlong hiatuses) may recall. And now I'm going to LSU on the 13th and 14th for my next talk.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Going to Singapore

For philosophical reasons. Back on the 22nd. This is going to be fun!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Nietzsche __ Morality

A couple years ago, Brian Leiter came out with Nietzsche on Morality, which discusses Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morality. Last year, he and I edited Nietzsche and Morality, a collection of essays (I've linked to the review in the previous post).

I'm kind of wondering what other titles involving "Nietzsche" and "Morality" are in Brian's future and mine. Maybe Nietzsche or Morality -- I imagine the disjunction being exclusive. Sadly, Nietzsche if Morality is ungrammatical and probably suggestive of an incorrect view, as is Nietzsche if and only if Morality. But there's more opportunity in going beyond the truth-functional connectives. Consider Nietzsche Underneath Morality, Nietzsche Slightly To the Right Of Morality, and the like. Clearly we have many excellent publications ahead of us before we exhaust this productive line of research.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

NDPR reviews our book!

Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews has come out with a review of Nietzsche and Morality, edited by Brian Leiter and myself. The author is Scott Jenkins at the University of Kansas. It's pretty good, and offers nice summaries of all the articles in the volume. Here's the summary of mine:
Neil Sinhababu's "Vengeful Thinking and Moral Epistemology" is concerned with showing that Nietzschean claims concerning the origin of distinctively moral beliefs can serve as premises in two different arguments for the conclusion that beliefs in the existence of moral properties are unjustified. He maintains that if the best explanation of a person's having such a belief does not make mention of moral properties of acts, we have the most important premise of Gilbert Harman's argument in "Ethics and Observation." He also asserts that if it can be established that distinctively moral beliefs arise in subjects by way of an unreliable mechanism, knowledge of this fact undermines a person's justification. Sinhababu then argues that the first essay of the Genealogy provides us with the outlines of an explanation of moral beliefs that makes no mention of moral facts and appeals instead to unreliable psychological mechanisms and the historical transmission of belief. The essay succeeds in demonstrating the contemporary relevance of Nietzsche's concerns and the philosophical importance of the second argument against moral realism, but it does not devote much attention to the question of whether Nietzsche's claims in Genealogy I are correct. For this reason, Sinhababu's conclusions concerning Nietzsche's work tend to take the conditional form "If Nietzsche was right, then. . ."
All of that is right. Of course, I'm not a historian of antiquity, so I'm not really in position to say whether Nietzsche is right or not about how Christian morality originated. I point out some important features of how morality originated according to Nietzsche, and then say that if our moral judgments really did originate through some process that had those features, you can get arguments that we are unjustified in believing that moral properties exist (at least on a naturalistic nonreductive realist framework).

An interesting take-home message is that there are good reasons for philosophers to worry about the origins of our moral values. So while I don't actually do the kind of historical work that Jenkins describes, I establish that it's philosophically interesting and spell out the way that it'd bear on questions about the justification of our moral beliefs. For a philosopher, that's a good day's work.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The GOP Primary Field in Buffy Villains

I've got it up at the new political group blog, Cogitamus. It's taking the LiveJournal Buffy fan world by storm.