Sunday, February 25, 2018

Radcliffe on Humean Nature in AJP

Elizabeth Radcliffe refers to Humean Nature as “Neil Sinhababu’s brilliant book” and says that it “manages to rebut a remarkable number of critics.” (The book note is behind the AJP paywall.) She describes the structure and strategy of the book just as I conceived of it, and as I hoped readers would understand it. She concludes:

“Humean Nature is written in a clear and personable style. Its ingenious arguments will prove invaluable for scholars and students and—given the range of literature that it covers—for those simply seeking an overview of the current state of discussion in action theory.”

The Humean psychological story is broader and more interesting than people have thought over the past couple decades. I wanted to tell that story in a clear and engaging way. It didn’t occur to me that I was writing a good overview at the time, but I see how my pursuit of other goals might’ve had that result.

It’s very fulfilling to have an eminent Hume scholar tell me that Humean Nature is what I hoped it would be, and maybe even more.

Monday, January 8, 2018

Oprah for Democratic Primary Interviewer / Moderator!

People are talking about an Oprah Winfrey presidential candidacy after her speech at the Golden Globes. It’s probably a good time to say some general things about X-for-President conversations as they relate to 2020.

1. The Democratic field is going to be packed. I’d guess that at least half of the following are going to offer themselves as options, at least in the early stages: Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. There will be many others too. I remember Jeff Merkley telling me that every Republican Senator looks at Trump and thinks: “I could do so much better!” and every Democratic Senator thinks “I could totally beat him!”

We’re going to have way more choices than we did in 2016 when everybody got out of Hillary’s way, except for Bernie who probably was just running to bring left-wing issues into the conversation… until a movement formed up behind him. So if 2016 has led you to think we'll have a shortage of options, we’ll have a lot more options in 2020, and it’s worth looking into them.

2. Given that we’re going to have a densely packed field, I’m just going to let candidates bid for my support by coming out with innovative policy proposals. This primary needs to be policy-dense, with candidates pledging support for things like Medicare for All, defense cuts, opening up immigration, marijuana legalization, and foreign policy ideas that prevent the collapse of the world into feuding illiberal ethnic nationalist regimes. I expect to vote for a candidate with a good package of all that stuff, plus good favorability ratings when early 2020 rolls around and the polling isn’t all name-recognition effects.

There’s a decent chance of unified Democratic control of Congress in 2020, and we need to hit the ground running and pass big stuff fast. If Oprah comes out with the best policy ideas on stuff like this, I could see voting for her, but since she hasn’t been in the business of doing that before it’s a bit hard to expect.

3. Oprah is uniquely well-positioned to make a big impact on the 2020 race, as a power broker rather than a candidate. She could start a show sometime in 2019 where she interviews the leading primary candidates, asks them questions, and presses them to sign onto her favored policies. This is broadly like the role that Al Gore played in the 2008 primary – instead of running, he let the candidates compete for his support with good climate-change policies. Everybody came out in favor of cap-and-trade, and there was enough of a party consensus behind the policy that Nancy Pelosi got it through the House. If not for the filibuster, we’d have passed major climate change legislation in 2010.

Oprah’s media profile gives her the ability to galvanize support behind a favored policy in a much bigger way than Gore did. Moderating Democratic primary debates would also be a natural extension of her core skills. If I were a person Oprah listened to, I'd say: do that!

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Veronese's Last Supper

In 1573, Veronese painted a Last Supper, and it "...led to an investigation by the Roman Catholic Inquisition. Veronese was called to answer for irreverence and indecorum, and the serious offence of heresy was mentioned. He was asked to explain why the painting contained "buffoons, drunken Germans, dwarfs and other such scurrilities" as well as extravagant costumes and settings, in what is indeed a fantasy version of a Venetian patrician feast."

Q. In this Supper which you painted for San Giovanni e Paolo, what signifies the figure of him whose nose is bleeding?

A. He is a servant who has a nose-bleed from some accident.

Q. What signify those armed men dressed in the fashion of Germany, with halberds in their hands?

A. It is necessary here that I should say a score of words.

Q. Say them.

A. We painters use the same license as poets and madmen, and I represented those halberdiers, the one drinking, the other eating at the foot of the stairs, but both ready to do their duty, because it seemed to me suitable and possible that the master of the house, who as I have been told was rich and magnificent, would have such servants.

Q. And the one who is dressed as a jester with a parrot on his wrist, why did you put him into the picture?

A. He is there as an ornament, as it is usual to insert such figures.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Obamacare wins again, repealers can't deliver garbage

This is Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) hugging Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), the last Republican Senator whose opposition sealed the defeat of Graham-Cassidy. Obamacare repeal efforts now hit the Sept. 30 deadline for passing the bill with 50 votes.

It's worth saying a little about how we got here. Many Republicans claimed that Obamacare cost too much, while Trump promised more generous coverage that would cost more. Some attacks on Obamacare (death panels!) didn't point at anything it was actually doing.

After winning elections with incoherent policy proposals and straw-man arguments, Republicans were committed to passing incoherent legislation that eliminated nonexistent policies. They tried to introduce repeal-branded legislation that their base could be misled into thinking of as doing everything, but they could never get 50 of their 52 Senators behind a bill.

Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan now find themselves in a trap of their own making. Instead of compromising with Obama, they made really bad arguments against his policies. Now they have to follow through with really bad legislation that can't actually make it through Congress. And it only gets worse from here. Since the base has seen that they can't deliver, their people are losing primaries (Luther Strange) or retiring for fear of losing primaries (Bob Corker).

The runup to passing Obamacare was very different. Democrats had spent the 2008 primary achieving consensus about a basic structure for the plan (insurance regulations + individual mandate + subsidies). Yale's Jacob Hacker wrote it up for a labor-union think tank, Edwards introduced it in early 2007, Clinton copied it that August, and the party as a whole adopted it as a model after Obama won. As a moderately high-profile John Edwards volunteer, I spent a lot of 2007 arguing for the plan on the internet and face-to-face with other Democrats. An entire caucus of 60 eventually lined up to get a version of the plan through the Senate, breaking a Republican filibuster.

I know it often doesn't seem this way in politics, but there are advantages to not saying total garbage. Then you don't have to promise garbage and write garbage legislation that Susan Collins can't bring herself to support. Your base doesn't ask, "You promised me garbage, now I want it, where is my garbage?" and get furious because you didn't deliver the garbage.

Monday, September 18, 2017


Primaries are very important. They also make people a little crazy.

People who prefer a candidate fall into like-minded communities where everyone says the best about their candidate and the worst about the other. These communities give them an exaggerated sense of the differences between the candidates, at least relative to the spectrum of national opinion and the spectrum of outcomes they'd create relative to the opponent.

(Personally, I wouldn't say that Hillary-Bernie in 2016 was especially fiery by historical standards. Seriously, contested presidential primaries are always that way. I'd rate 2004 with Howard Dean a bit higher. The Iraq War was going into its worst period. The Dean people were rightly furious at the other Democrats who had let that happen.)

This dynamic has continued post-primary. Except since there isn't a primary anymore and we aren't focused on the policy outcomes, it's more purely about lauding your hero and hating the enemy.

Social media sharing after Hillary's book came out has been an example. People who were in one social media environment or the other during the primary should probably reflect a little on how they might be seeing the best or the worst stuff related to a 512-page book. Content is more likely to go viral if it's more intense, so you might be seeing some especially slanted material.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Halloween costume: Russia

If you want to dress up as Russia this Halloween, all you need is a bear costume and a Donald Trump hand puppet.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Doing metaethics like Judit Polgar

Judit Polgar's swashbuckling chess style is sort of a philosophical inspiration to me. I watch more chess than I play, because I'd rather see great players make beautiful moves than make mediocre ones myself. Her game against Alexey Shirov, narrated here by friendly chess uncle Mato Jelic, is a perfect example.

On move 10, Polgar makes a pawn sacrifice that looks bad at first glance. But there's a whole world of possibility behind it that nobody else had previously explored. She plunges into that world, and makes a bunch of other weird-looking awesome moves. Eventually she emerges into a conventional endgame with a massive advantage, and Shirov resigns.

My feeling about the philosophical literature in metaethics today is that a bunch of smart people are carefully mapping out a narrow subset of options. There are moves out of this literature that are dismissed because they initially look bad. And it's true that lots of the initially bad-looking moves are just bad.

But there are a few bad-looking moves that open up awesome new opportunities. People stop exploring these moves too quickly because the path to victory really is hard to see. But if you do see the precise weird moves to follow up with, you could come out far ahead of the possibilities discovered in the existing literature.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Ingber on executive power creep

Friends wondering why executive power continued to expand under Obama might appreciate this excellent paper from Rebecca Ingber. One reason is that career civil servants who staff executive agencies and believe in their missions are interested in expanding their power over time.

The paper described another factor that I wouldn't have guessed. Lawyers tend to orally tell executive agency people "No, we can't do this." They write memos that might be useful in later in legal proceedings defending the decision to say "Yes, we can do this." So when the next administration shows up, it inherits a lot of "Yes, we can do this" memos and nothing to the contrary.

A bit of good news Rebecca mentioned when I emailed her is that some dangerous agenda items of the Trump Administration are about curtailing executive power rather than increasing it. Even if Trump tries to stop the State Department from doing its diplomatic thing or stop the EPA from doing its environmental thing, the career civil servants will keep plugging along. Things might be more diplomatic and environmental than the Trump Administration wants.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

"Nazi" and "Nacho" are distant cognates

A few days ago Warren Tusk told me that the words "Nazi" and "Nacho" are very distant cognates. They come from German and Spanish contractions of the Latin name "Ignatius".

"Nazi" is primarily a contraction of Nationalsozialismus, or "National Socialism". Back in the 1920s it was also a derogatory nickname for peasants in Bavaria. "Ignatius" was a common name there, which was sometimes contracted to "Ignaz" and then to "Nazi". (This is similar to how "Paddy" has been a stereotypical nickname for Irishman and a contraction of "Patrick".) Since the Nazi party originally had its strongest base of support in Bavaria, its opponents liked the nickname as a way to tie the party to backwards Bavarian peasants.

Nachos were invented by Ignacio Anaya, a Piedras Negras restaurant maitre'd. He wanted to feed some wives of American military officers who were visiting Mexico during World War II, but the chef had left and he had to figure out how to make something they'd like. He threw together some canapes from tortilla chips, cheese, and jalapenos. Ignacio's nickname, "Nacho", soon was applied to his creation.

Monday, May 22, 2017

I bought color vision glasses and I'm going to see green!

I’m home with my family and the Enchroma color-vision-correction glasses have arrived! Tomorrow I’m going to put them on. I hope I get to see green like everyone else does.

I hope to usefully answer people’s questions about how I sense colors before and after using the glasses. Here I want to record some previous thoughts on the questions. It might be a useful check on cognitive penetration issues raised by former student Eugene Yao in a Facebook post a month ago.

On to some answers! People suggested many questions and I selected the ones I thought I could answer the best.

Claire Zabel:
“If there are some differences between green and brown, can you currently imagine what it would be like to go more in the green direction, you just can't see it in the real world, or can you not imagine it?”

This is the question I’m most interested in. I can try to imagine colors that are more in the green direction starting from a dull green, but I don’t think I succeed. I just end up adding yellow or sometimes blue or even white instead of green. Amy Kind is interested in this question too, and I’ll put up a blog post for her in June discussing it.

Bryce Huebner:
“I'd like to know 1) how long adaptation takes, and 2) whether it ever seems like you're seeing something new. I tried them out two summers ago, but didn't get any color shift. But that was before I realized that there's an adaptation period (which, uh, of course there is).”

Thanks for telling me about the adaptation period, Bryce! I’ll wear the glasses for some time over the week-plus that I’m home. Probably I’ll write down the answers at the end of that, though I could do it before if the effects are faster.

Geoff Pynn:
“I wonder whether you will experience any effects on tastes. Will avocado and broccoli taste ... greener?”

My mom has used her spectacular cross-cultural cooking powers to make dolmas from the grape leaves in the garden! I’m about to have some for lunch today and I’ll have some after I put on the glasses and see if they’re different.

Bryony Pierce:
“Does the colour you now see, when you look at it, seem to have the associations it has for those who can easily differentiate green from brownish colours (e.g. fresher/less murky than brown, brighter than grey, more soothing than red), or does it have a similar feel to brown, say, or perhaps some other colour?”

I have positive associations with the concept of green because I like trees and nature and elves. I’ve always liked the way sunlight glows through leaves. (Sunlight through grass is on the cover of my recent book, and I like that.) But I think for me it’s what you’d call a bright amber. I have positive associations with that amber color. Maybe after the glasses, I’ll feel like I’ve been invited to Lothlorien?

Stephanie Hoyle Dorton:
“After wearing the glasses, does it make someone more acutely aware of what they're missing? …Do people wish they'd never found out what they're missing?”

Will the green I see after always strike me as a dull imitation of the green I saw before? Some people say that the glasses can actually train your brain to pick up on green if you use them for a long time. That would be surprising and completely awesome. I hear that the visual system is pretty complicated and I’m not going to rule it out. If I end up really missing green I guess I can wear the glasses everywhere and look like a dork.

Jim Moskowitz:
“If you open up an image in Photoshop (or equivalent), and then use the "adjust colors" slider to increase the saturation just of the green part of the picture, how does it change the image's appearance?”

To simplify, I’ll just use this RGB slider instead of a full picture:
If blue is at zero, upping the green slider adds yellow. If I set red and blue to zero, the image goes from black towards yellow but doesn’t get all the way. It stops at something that I guess is bright green. If I set red to maximum and blue to zero, the image goes through amber to primary yellow, which is probably my second-favorite color behind primary blue.

If blue is at max, upping the green slider makes things whiter. If I set red to zero and blue to maximum, the image goes from primary blue to a bright but pale blue. If I set both red and blue to maximum, the image goes from bright magenta to white.

Lauren Chris Horne:
“what things that you thought of as being the same color, and did not expect were actually different, are there? what things that you thought of as being different colors are actually the same?”

I’ll see! I hope there are some cases like this. I have some internet hex-color cases in response to Toby Ord's question at the end.

Claire Zabel:
“Do you think these glasses will give you a subjective experience of greenness that's similar to that of a person with normal color vision, assuming inverted spectra aren't a thing?”

That's what I think! But I guess it's possible that Enchroma is running a scam where they make someone have a totally different experience and they're like "wowwww Greeen!" Still, if the glasses give people totally new experiences, they’re getting their money’s worth.

Alexa Forrester:
“The question I want you to answer is not one I think you'll be able to answer, which is, when you see green while the glasses are on, are you seeing the same color green as me?”

I probably won’t be able to answer this! But my guess is that I’ll get closer to how you see it. Too bad I can’t directly compare our experiences.

Mirja Annalena Holst:
“Will you learn a new fact when you see green for the first time?”
I think so. The fact could be stated as “green experience is like that”. Hard to talk about simple phenomenological components without demonstratives.

Ann Pearl Owen:
“Let us know if the glasses make you feel any differently about green politics and/or the Green Party.”

I don’t know what green politics is, but it sounds nice. But the only real effect of the Green Party is to help Republicans win elections and impose horrible policies on America. I'll let you know if my views change!

Jamin Asay:
“I want to know if you see "the dress" differently.”

White-and-gold before…

Chase Hamilton:
“Do you see what you think is green in afterimages now? Will that change after putting on the glasses for a long time?”

I don’t think I see green in afterimages now.

Laurie Paul:
“can you see green, but not well? Or can't you see it at all? If the former I'm not sure why you think you'll see green for the first time.”

Sweet to have a question from the mother of transformative experience research! I think I can see green, but not well. How would the glasses then help me see green for the first time?

Perhaps the levels of green-cone stimulation I can have don’t allow for vivid green experience. I can have a little green-cone stimulation, which is enough for a range of dull green experiences. Maybe the experiential simples that make up dull green aren't sufficient to construct vivid green. So I need the glasses to hyperstimulate my cones into generating a new experiential simple that makes for vivid green.

Toby Ord:
“I'd also love it if you made a computer image (like the one linked in your FB post) whose two halves look to you (while wearing the glasses) like the before and after.”

I’m just in the before stage now, but I can identify some pairs that look very similar. There’s only a slight flicker of variation when I toggle between tabs with these colors. If I focus on the text in the box with the color background and shift back and forth between the pages, it’s hard to notice the colors changing. (I can see differences more easily if I look at the screen from above, but the colors look basically similar seen straight-on, or at the slight below-tilt of a pushed-back monitor.) I’ve given the RGB values in decimal form too:


Darker blues:


The general idea seems to be that you can make up for a little loss of green by upping the red significantly from a low value. This isn't how I would've thought of it before, but I guess that's how it works.

Ben Blumson suggested a paper for me to read on the Frege-Schlick view. I’ll read it this evening and tomorrow I'll put on the glasses!

[Update:] Here's a blog post I put up for Amy Kind after trying on the glasses. The effect wasn't dramatic, but I think I saw a shade of green with more depth than I could've imagined before!