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!

Monday, April 24, 2017

365 days, 114 talks

I left Singapore for Hong Kong on April 24, 2016 for a talk at Lingnan University. Today on April 24, 2017, I’m on the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond after a talk at St. Andrews. In these 365 days, I’ve given 114 talks. Thanks to everyone who organized events for me, and to everyone who came! It’s been a wonderful year of discussing exciting stuff with smart people around the world.

I return to the National University of Singapore in August. NUS made this possible with a post-tenure sabbatical, combined with other kinds of leave that I could piece together for 15 months of travel and something like $15K-20K USD in total travel grant money. I started with the crazy idea of giving over 100 talks in 365 days, and it's sort of amazing how well things went.

 Loch Lomond at sunset last night. I was listening to
the Loch Tay Boat Song and Wild Mountain Thyme a lot.
This post has some statistical information about the 114 talks I’ve given so far, to answer questions people asked me on the road.

Talks to departmental colloquia and topic-specific groups: 107

Talks at conferences and workshops: 4

Presentations for students and public: 3

Number of distinct articles: 14-18. The exact number depends on questions of article-individuation, and on how to count a conference response and two more popular presentations. I presented various parts of my recently published Humean Nature, as well as a forthcoming book tentatively titled Moral Value is Pleasure that makes metaethical arguments for hedonic utilitarianism.

Number of countries: 17 – Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada, Ireland, UK, Switzerland, Norway, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia.

Number of universities: 111, with Yonsei/Underwood, Boise State, and Duke inviting me to multiple venues.

Biggest month: August 2016, when I gave 16 talks in 31 days.

Most intense period: August 16 to September 2, 2016. I gave 12 talks in 18 days, covering 8 paper ideas on 3 continents and a different paper in a different city for each of the last 5 days. Things looked bad when I came down with the flu on August 16th after the first of the 12 talks. Fortunately, my fever broke that night as I slept on friend and colleague Ben Blumson's couch. I was a little weak for the next 3 days as I gave talks at Sydney, Wollongong, and Brisbane before an overnight flight to Singapore where I would bounce to the US, but I recovered quickly.

Least intense period: December 10, 2016 to January 10, 2016, when I stayed with family, apart from a few nights visiting the Bay Area. Apart from that and my June visit home, my longest period with one home base was for two weeks in Melbourne, with overnight visits to Adelaide and Wagga Wagga.

Talks missed: 0, thanks largely to excellent luck with transportation and my resistance to disease and exhaustion.

Talks I was seriously late for: 2. In April 2016 at Hong Kong University, I had the cab drop me off next to the department just in time, and then realized that the department was at the top of a four story cliff. In April 2017 on the way to University of Zagreb, my bus was stopped an hour at the border, where extra border controls had been initiated in the preceding week. I thank my audience at both places for sticking around and being very friendly about the situation.

Total list of dates, venues, and titles:

Sunday, April 16, 2017

North Sea Sunset

On a ship from Amsterdam to Newcastle, I saw the sun set over the North Sea.

Thursday, April 13, 2017


Thanks to Matej Susnik for bringing me to Croatia! The Zagreb city center feels like the Slavic Europe of music videos, with stylish young people in tight black jeans walking past stately old buildings. I friended Matej on Facebook a few years ago when Google Scholar told me that he had discussed my work in Croatian. I ran his paper through Google Translate and was happy to see that he was bringing Humean ideas into a new language.

Yesterday after I laid out my naturalistic moral epistemology for the philosophy department, Matej organized a second talk on moral metaphysics at another venue. So I get to play with more philosophers, and I don't even have to go to a new city! Tonight will be the only night for nine days in which I sleep in the same country I slept in the night before. It's been Norway-Finland-Slovakia-Hungary-Croatia, and from today Croatia-Netherlands-North Sea-UK.

Philosophers in Zagreb have enemies who want to shut their department down for bad reasons. (For example, the philosophers discovered plagiarism in a government minister's work, and now the minister's friends want revenge.) I hope the department can survive and keep being awesome. I don't know how international support can help at this point, but we should be ready to provide it if needed. 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Nuclear Option Silver Linings

Republicans have unanimously voted to end Supreme Court filibusters and will confirm Neil Gorsuch. This was always the most likely outcome. But Democrats did the right thing in forcing Republicans to end judicial filibusters.

The bad news is that Neil Gorsuch will be on the Supreme Court, making Scalia-like decisions for three decades. Some judges are further right and some judges are younger, but it's hard to get both at once. That's serious bad news, but it's basically the only bad news, and it was the likely outcome ever since Trump won the election.

People will say it's bad that we've lost the ability to filibuster further Trump Supreme Court nominees. They're wrong. This party-line vote shows us that our filibusters weren't ever going to succeed. McConnell was always going to be able to break the filibuster, as long as Republicans had a Senate majority. He probably would've had an easier time after 2018, as we have to defend 25 Senate seats including some in very conservative states (WV, ND, IN, MO, MT). We'll probably lose some Senators then, so this was the best shot we were going to get.

There are two long-term benefits here. First, it'll be easier for Democrats to confirm their own judges. I was chatting with a Democrat at the center of this fight in DC yesterday. He specifically brought up the prospect of being more ambitiously left-wing in our party's judicial appointments in the future, now that Republicans can't filibuster them.

The second benefit is that this makes it easier to end the legislative filibuster someday. And that would benefit progressives much more than conservatives. Why?

It'll take more than a Trump Administration to end my faith in human progress. The world has become wealthier and less prejudiced over the centuries, and I expect that long-term trend to continue, barring nuclear war or some other global catastophe. From a blog post I wrote back in 2009:

"So if you make it easy to change the laws, you make it easy for a society to have the laws that people want in a high-tech, unprejudiced society. But if you make it hard to change the laws, you stick us to laws from the past. The filibuster is basically a way of making it very hard to change big laws, so it keeps us a couple decades behind the present."

Neil Gorsuch will do his best to keep America trapped in the brutal and impoverished past. But if today's events make it easier to end the legislative filibuster, that moves us towards an enlightened and generous future.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Filibuster Gorsuch

Of all Trump's nominees, Neil Gorsuch is the most important to block, as he could easily spend 30 years on the Supreme Court. I would've loved to block Jeff Sessions, but the filibuster doesn't work on the Cabinet. It works on the Supreme Court, and Democrats should use it.

Gorsuch likens his own judicial views to those of Scalia. Ronald Reagan named his mother to run the EPA so that she could tear it apart. She slashed its budget by 22% and rolled back environmental regulations. Given this, his potential opposition to executive power strikes me as a minus rather than a plus, as he's basically a machine built from birth to overturn executive action against climate change.

I never saw the 1930s Germany path to doom as a big risk under Trump. An independent judiciary is a deep and central American institution, and it's served us well in blocking things like Trump's travel bans. We can probably muster 6 votes on the Supreme Court against really crazy Trumpy stuff -- there's 4 progressives, Kennedy's libertarian streak, and the old institutionalist Roberts. Whatever Gorsuch's virtues might be, they're small enough not to win us any decisions we wouldn't win already.

I fear the more traditionally American antidemocratic horror -- Republicans suppress the black vote and win elections even though a majority of the public opposes them. Gorsuch's emails show a favorable attitude to the work of Hans Van Spakovsky, who makes his living doing vote suppression for the Republican Party.

If Democrats filibuster, we'll see if McConnell can successfully end filibusters on Supreme Court nominations (the 'nuclear option'). He'll need 50 of his 52 senators to do that. 3 of them supported preserving the filibuster back in the 2005 Gang of 14 compromise. So it's not clear that he has the votes.

One possible endgame resembles the 2005 compromise: 3 Republicans and some moderate Democrats work out a compromise where the filibuster is preserved, Gorsuch is replaced with a more moderate judge, and Democrats agree to accept the moderate.

There's also the possibility of negotiating a much better nominee with Trump directly if Gorsuch fails. Gorsuch owes his nomination to a deal Trump made with evangelicals to win the election. Recognize here that Trump doesn't have deeply held views about jurisprudence. He just knew the nomination was a trinket he could barter for evangelical support in the election and gave them their man. But if the nomination fails and Trump's alliance situation becomes much more fluid after other failures (Obamacare repeal among them), other deals are possible. After demonstrating their power by blocking the nomination, Democrats might be able to negotiate for a nominee significantly more liberal than Gorsuch.

In any event, the tradition of generally accepting qualified nominees from the other party ended with Merrick Garland. Democrats shouldn't pretend otherwise. With a lifetime appointment at stake, they should play for the most moderate nominee they can get.