Thursday, November 26, 2015

A Backward Clock Thanksgiving Picture

I have a lot to be thankful for this year, including the acceptance of "The Backward Clock, Truth-Tracking, and Safety" in the Journal of Philosophy! It was my good fortune to have John Williams, who published his first epistemology paper before I was born, as my co-author.

Here we are in the NUS philosophy department. John came across town that day to see Mary Salvaggio's talk and have a reading group meeting on his next book, which discusses Moore's paradox.

You can use this picture of us in your presentation if you're discussing our paper.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Of Marco Rubio, and hiring philosophers in Singapore

We've started to review applications for our tenure-track position at the National University of Singapore. If you're looking to apply and haven't already, send your application quickly!

Back when NUS hired me in 2008, the department advertised five positions, including some that were open in both rank and specialty. I'm told that the total number of applications for the whole mix of five jobs was something like 150.This year we're only advertising one job at the Assistant Professor rank, open to all specialties. We have 311 applications.

I'd like to think that the higher numbers are because we've been publishing lots of good work and raising the international research profile of the NUS philosophy department, making people more interested in crossing oceans and continents to come to Singapore. But even if that's part of it, the big story is the huge backlog of PhDs seeking jobs anywhere after the global financial crisis crushed university hiring. It looks like the supply of jobs this year is even lower than the last two. With the global economy mostly on an upswing, I have no idea why. 

I've taken at least a brief look at all the applications. It's exciting and depressing at the same time. Exciting because lots of people are doing useful work on questions that human beings so far haven't been able to answer, and one of them is going to be our new colleague. Depressing because the number of people doing good work far outstrips the number of available jobs, and a lot of them will have to do something else instead.

Marco Rubio's inaccurate claim that welders make more money than philosophers was a big story this week. Many of my philosophy friends pointed out that philosophy majors have a median income of $85,000 by mid-career while the median wage for welders is $37,420. Of course, most of those philosophy majors are chasing the big money in the private sector rather than facing the grim academic job market that I've described. And that brings me to something else that was wrong with Rubio's remark.
The path to American prosperity in this century is unlikely to involve being the world's top welding country, or even the top country for welding education. Other countries' labor markets are set up to out-weld us. America still manufactures lots of stuff, but usually through highly automated processes that require ever-fewer humans and create ever-fewer jobs.

America could be the country with the world's best universities, where all the other nations pay to send their best young people. Steel manufacturing may be moving to China and India, but academia there still lags far behind the US. Knowing this, wealthy parents there will pay lots of money to get their kids US college degrees. Oxford and Cambridge used to play a similar role in the old British Empire as the prestigious place where the smartest kids in the colonies wanted to study, and America could easily step up and occupy much of that role. Even apart from tuition fees, the financial benefits of having the world's smart people connected up through your country's university system are diffuse but tremendous.

Philosophy investigates the answers to deeply puzzling questions. The country that hires the philosophers publishing the best research becomes the country where the best answers to these questions are. That's the kind of country whose university system one should regard highly.

With three of my excellent NUS philosophy colleagues:
Ben Blumson, Weng Hong Tang, and Loy Hui-Chieh
If America doesn't seize the benefits of having the world's best universities, other countries will get them. Singapore did that when it hired 5 philosophers in 2008. As the head of our hiring committee, I'm helping it do that now.

Rubio isn't a confused dad giving his kids dubious career advice. He's a US Senator, and perhaps the most likely Republican presidential nominee. He has influence over funding for humanities research in America, and may come to have much more. Whether America reaps the benefits of being the global leader in higher education, or whether it lets these benefits fall to other countries wise enough to seize them, is among the stakes in the 2016 Presidential election.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Laura Stevenson and The Cans - The Healthy One

Laura Stevenson's voice makes me imagine her as the doting mother of all my favorite indie rock stars. Cheery music, dark lyrics.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Does this happen often in books on ancient philosophy?

Sometimes your copy editor requests that you include an author's first name in the bibliography. But you have already included the author's full name, and it is "Aristotle".

Monday, September 28, 2015

Peter Railton meets fan

To conclude my talk in Belgium, I asked: what kind of normative ethics do you get if you base constitutivism on my Humean account of agency instead of a Kantian one? And then I stripped off my shirt to reveal my jersey and said: "You get Peter Railton's view!" It was my first time giving a talk with Peter in the audience and I was going to make the most of it. Thanks to Maarten Steenhagen for taking this picture of us!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Bentham on bestiality

Apparently there are credible allegations that British Prime Minister David Cameron had sexual relations with a dead pig as a member of a secret society in college. This provides a nice occasion to note Bentham's sensible discussion of bestiality in 1785:
An abomination which meets with as little quarter as any of the preceding is that where a human creature makes use in this way of a beast or other sensitive creature of a different species. A legislator who should take Sanchez for his guide might here repeat the same string of distinctions about the vas proprium and improprium, the imaginations and the simultaneity and so forth. Accidents of this sort will sometimes happen; for distress will force a man upon strange expedients. But one might venture to affirm that if all the sovereigns in Europe were to join in issuing proclamations inviting their subjects to this exercise in the warmest terms, it would never get to such a height as to be productive of the smallest degree of political mischief. The more of these sorts of prosecutions are permitted the more scope there is given for malice or extortion to make use of them to effect its purpose upon the innocent, and the more public they are the more of that mischief is incurred which consists in shocking the imaginations of persons of delicacy with a very painful sentiment. 
Burning the animal
Some persons have been for burning the poor animal with great ceremony under the notion of burning the remembrance of the affair. (See Puffendorf, Bks. 2, Ch. 3, 5. 3. Bacon's Abridg. Title Sodomy. J.B.) A more simple and as it should seem a more effectual course to take would be not to meddle or make smoke [?] about the matter.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Election special in my political philosophy class

Singapore holds elections on Friday! After the election timing was announced in August, I changed the syllabus for my honors political philosophy seminar so that the students could do 5-minute presentations on election-related topics of interest to them, with 5 minutes for discussion.

So today students presented on the various parties' manifestos, lowering the voting age, Max Weber, gerrymandering, Singapore's (awful) treatment of single mothers, and many other things -- some concrete and some abstract. There was a pretty even split of support for the ruling PAP and the opposition coalition, with a few people arguing forcefully for one party or another and many people in the middle or making broader points. I'm proud that my class can be a venue for smart students in a young democracy to discuss important issues before an election.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Google logo thoughts

This was a good redesign. Google likes to present itself as brilliant and innocent like a genius kindergardener. The primary school primary colors and Google Doodles are part of that image. Now the logo is a bit more elementary school to match. I'm not sure about the tilted 'e', which looks out of place, but it does have a bit of a happy and optimistic vibe. The old 'g' never seemed right to me, and now it's fixed. 

Sunday, August 30, 2015


The Bank of Japan prints Yen, so the Yen falls against the Singapore dollar, so it's cheap to fill my fridge with Asahi and have a party! Germans take note: the role of central banks is to provide cold smooth delicious liquidity.
When my head of department came to the party, he remarked that this was less like taking advantage of a sale and more like commodities trading.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Chuck Schumer would be a nuclear disaster as Senate Democratic Leader

A few months ago, some lobbyists told me that Chuck Schumer was likely to become Senate Democratic Leader after Harry Reid steps down. This had me deeply disappointed. A lot of Schumer's rise to the leadership has involved getting money from Wall Street (his home state is New York) and using it to buy power within the Democratic Party. But it didn't look like there was any way to stop his rise. I'm generally a look-on-the-bright-side kind of guy, so I tried to content myself with the thought that we might make progress on other issues by using his ill-gotten money to maintain control of the Senate, even if he blocked financial regulation and higher taxes on the financial sector. It didn't really work -- those issues are important.

Now he's announced that he's going to vote against President Obama's astoundingly good Iran treaty. And he's spreading misinformation that originated on Fox News and other right-wing media sites against the treaty. His claim that "you have to wait 24 days before you can inspect" is highly inaccurate -- there are lots of ways for inspections to happen faster than 24 days even if Iran doesn't want them to, and if Iran tries to delay the inspections repeatedly, there are mechanisms for the international community to reimpose sanctions. As arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis writes,
Some of us might think it’s good that the agreement puts defined limits on how much Iran can stall and explicitly prohibits a long list of weaponization activities. Opponents, like Schumer — apparently for want of anything better — have seized on these details to spin them into objections. A weaker, less detailed agreement might have been easier to defend against this sort of attack, perhaps. 
... The claim that inspections occur with a 24-day delay is the equivalent of Obamacare "death panels." Remember those? A minor detail has been twisted into a bizarre caricature and repeated over and over until it becomes "true."
This treaty isn't just important for eliminating the threat that Iran will use nuclear weapons -- it's important for preventing a nuclear arms race in the Middle East where nations like Saudi Arabia build nuclear weapons to deter Iran. In such an unstable region, the fall of a nuclear-armed state could easily put nuclear arms in the hands of some people who could do a great deal of harm. Perhaps Schumer's solution to those problems will be along the lines of his 2002 vote of support for the Iraq War. (Hillary Clinton, who also voted for the Iraq War, supports the Iran nuclear treaty.)

Fortunately, the Democratic wing of the Democratic party is mobilizing against his ascension to the party leadership. I don't know whether they'll be able to stop him, as he looked certain to succeed Harry Reid until recently. But it matters a great deal, and I'm more confident in the need to keep Schumer out of the leadership than in my opinions on the Democratic primary. I'll explain why.

I think Bernie Sanders has a small but real chance of defeating Hillary Clinton in the Democratic Primary. If both sides play perfectly, she wins by coming out with enough interesting left-wing policy that she doesn't alienate the Democratic primary electorate on substantive issues, and electability issues and her enormous funding put her over the top. But campaigns don't always do a perfect job, and she fails to make reasonable-looking leftward moves, she could lose. Obviously we need to see a lot more general election polling to figure out whether Sanders could defeat Walker or Bush or (this probably won't happen, but...) Trump in a general election, but if the polling doesn't make a good case for Sanders, I can see a lot of Democrats being worried about whether he can win when the time comes. And it's so terrifying to imagine a national version of what Scott Walker did to Wisconsin that it could be a rational decision to play it safe with Hillary rather than going for the big risk/reward with Sanders.

But set all that aside. Suppose we're watching a Bernie Sanders inauguration in January 2017, and we have a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress! This would be an utterly spectacular outcome. You'd expect awesome legislation to follow. Except it turns out that Bernie can't get meaningful financial regulation through Congress, and also can't make progress on a variety of foreign policy issues, because Schumer is obstructing financial regulation and peace in the Middle East as Senate Majority Leader. As far as I can tell, this is what ends up happening in a Sanders administration, if the Schumer ascension goes through as planned and the Senate is in the hands of someone more conservative than Hillary Clinton with oceans of Wall Street money behind him. And that's why it's so important -- perhaps more important than the Clinton/Sanders primary -- that Schumer be stopped. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The 10 most harmful jobs

My friends at 80,000 Hours try to calculate what the most socially beneficial jobs are, for career advising purposes. The site is called 80,000 Hours because that's the amount of time the average person spends on work over their lifetime. 

They recently put up a post about the 10 most harmful jobs. The list includes weapons research, tax minimization for super-rich people, and patent trolling. (These and the others strike me as sensible choices.) Also interesting is their discussion of jobs that they considered but didn't put on the list.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Singapore's government built transit infrastructure, and the infrastructure built Singapore

Today is the 50th anniversary of Singapore's founding, and a day of massive celebration. As part of the festivities, everyone gets free rides on public transit today. The government keeps buses and subways very cheap here by any other First World city's standards, so it doesn't make much of a difference. You can go from one end of the island to the other on the subway for under 2 US dollars, with shorter journeys under $1. But it's been fun to watch people board city buses and smile a little about getting something literally for free.

Western media sometimes describes Singapore as having a fundamentally capitalist economy. I wish they'd tell people that everyone rides elephants to work here instead. That would be equally false, but much more entertaining. From transit to health care to food to housing, the best things about this island have been built with a great deal of government involvement and planning -- often at levels unheard of in the US. Going into detail about health care, food, and housing (80% of Singaporeans live in government-owned public housing!) would prevent me from watching National Day festivities with my friends and drinking whiskey, so I'll just talk about transit for now.

Public transit systems everywhere are government projects, and Singapore's Mass Rapid Transit system (the subway) is no different. As far as I can tell, the hero of the MRT was a Minister named Ong Teng Cheong, who convinced the government to spend billions of dollars building it in the early 1980s. Here's Mr. Ong at the time, talking about what was to come:
"this is going to be the most expensive single project to be undertaken in Singapore. The last thing that we want to do is to squander away our hard-earned reserves and leave behind enormous debt for our children and our grandchildren. Now since we are sure that this is not going to be the case, we'll proceed with the MRT, and the MRT will usher in a new phase in Singapore's development and bring about a better life for all of us."
I also like his quote about positive externalities:
"the Government has now taken a firm decision to build the MRT. The MRT is much more than a transport investment, and must be viewed in its wider economic perspective. The boost it'll provide to long term investors' confidence, the multiplier effect and how MRT will lead to the enhancement of the intrinsic value of Singapore's real estate are spin-offs that cannot be ignored."
That's what happens when you build good transit. Lots of the stuff around major transit nodes becomes much more valuable, because people can easily access it and interact with it in positive-sum ways. They say that the three most important determiners of real estate values are location, location, and location. By building good transit, you can put huge immobile structures in a better location! Who knew that you could do that? Well, Mr. Ong did, and he made it a focus of Singaporean government policy.

If anyone wants to see a map of the MRT system, here it is in all its interconnected subway glory:

There's basically no way to get everyone where they're going in this place with cars. The island is basically 20 miles east-west and 15 miles north-south with 5-6 million people, so if everyone had a car you'd probably have to pave the entire island for them to get anywhere. That's why Singapore imposes car taxes of epic proportions. To buy a car, you have to pay a tax that's usually around 100% of the car's value. On top of that, you have to buy a "Certificate of Entitlement" to own the car for ten years, and those usually go over $50K apiece in USD. In the end, owning a Toyota Prius will cost you over a hundred thousand US dollars. The government rakes in the revenue from rich people who have lots of money to blow on cars, and then pours it back out into building transit for people who don't have cars.

I'd say that Singaporean transit is every US lefty urban planner's dream come true, but that isn't quite accurate. Their wildest dreams fall far short of the Singaporean reality. 

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Lady Lamb, "Billions of Eyes" + Ibn Battuta

I've spent a lot of time on the road this year, and now I'm back in Singapore. At the end of my journey I was listening to a lot of Lady Lamb, and particularly Billions of Eyes, which has a lot of travel-related lyrics. And really there's a lot of lyrics -- I admire how Aly Spaltro just packs a lot of her songs full of as much nonrepetitive lyrical content as she can.
The kind of high I like is when I barely make the train
And the people with a seat smile big at me because they know the feeling
And for a millisecond we share a look like a family does
Like we have inside jokes
Like we could call each other by little nicknames
I think I've started smiling at strangers a little more often when something like this happens and I feel like smiling at them. Anyway, this video has the lyrics. "It's June where you sleep, July where I land" was one of the travel lines that really resonated with me.
Ibn Battuta was one of the great travelers of the medieval world, visiting places from West Africa to Sumatra in the 1300s. He describes how he left Morocco to visit Mecca in the beginning of his travels:
I set out alone, having neither fellow-traveller in whose companionship I might find cheer, nor caravan whose part I might join, but swayed by an overmastering impulse within me and a desire long-cherished in my bosom to visit these illustrious sanctuaries. So I braced my resolution to quit my dear ones, female and male, and forsook my home as birds forsake their nests. My parents being yet in the bonds of life, it weighed sorely upon me to part from them, and both they and I were afflicted with sorrow at this separation.
I like this line he wrote at the end about his life:
I have indeed—praise be to God—attained my desire in this world, which was to travel through the Earth

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Killers, "Spaceman" + Nixon's Moon disaster speech

"Spaceman" sounds like a thoughtful reflection on having been abducted by aliens, set to a fun poppy beat. There's one or two Killers songs I really like per album, and this is my favorite on Day & Age.

Before the moon landing, speechwriter William Safire wrote a stirring speech for President Richard Nixon to give if something went wrong and the astronauts weren't able to return to Earth. Here it is:
Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace. 
These brave men, Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin, know that there is no hope for their recovery. But they also know that there is hope for mankind in their sacrifice. 
These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding. 
They will be mourned by their families and friends; they will be mourned by the nation; they will be mourned by the people of the world; they will be mourned by a Mother Earth that dared send two of her sons into the unknown. 
In their exploration, they stirred the people of the world to feel as one; in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man. 
In ancient days, men looked at the stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood.
Others will follow, and surely find their way home. Man's search will not be denied. But these men were the first, and they will remain the foremost in our hearts. 
For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind. 
The President should telephone each of the widows-to-be. 
A clergyman should adopt the same procedure as a burial at sea, commending their souls to "the deepest of the deep," concluding with the Lord's Prayer.
I like xkcd's suggestions for speeches Nixon could have given in other unfortunate scenarios, including "IN EVENT ASTRONAUTS ABSCOND WITH SPACECRAFT".

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Iran deal and Democratic foreign policy

The Obama administration's deal with Iran looks excellent. Iran gets relief from international economic sanctions in exchange for sharply limiting its ability to make a nuclear weapon. It has to give up most of its uranium-enriching centrifuges, including the newer and better ones. It's forbidden from enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels, and has to give up 97% of the enriched uranium it has now.

After these concessions, the fastest Iran could make a nuclear warhead if it went all-out will grow from three months to a year. And that's if Iran did so and everything worked out, both of which are significant assumptions. Nuclear nonproliferation expert Aaron Stein says, "The intention of this agreement is to take the weapons option off the table for the next 25 years, and the agreement does that." Nancy Pelosi has pledged Democratic support for the deal in the House, and it looks certain to pass.

Republicans aren't happy. Scott Walker (whom I see as the most likely Republican nominee, just ahead of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) pledges to "terminate the bad deal with Iran on the very first day in office, put in place crippling sanctions and convince our allies to do the same", and muses about ordering airstrikes on his first day in office. The National Review is putting up photos of Neville Chamberlain and decrying appeasement, as if Iran were the country in these negotiations that had carried out the most recent invasion in the region. Fortunately, restarting international sanctions against Iran is going to be really hard for a future president -- Walker isn't going to have an easy time getting China and Russia to sign on. But the noises he and the other Republicans are making, in line with John McCain singing "Bomb Bomb Iran" as a parody of "Barbara Ann" eight years ago, tell you a lot about how they can be expected to approach similar foreign policy issues in the future.

This is one of my favorite aspects of Democratic foreign policy, and foreign policy as practiced by sensible people everywhere: a recognition that international agreements can help us avoid negative-sum conflicts and promote positive-sum cooperation. Meanwhile, it's no surprise that a Republican party known for its negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities would approach foreigners of other races with suspicion and hostility that often leads to massive wars. Agreements like this are the path to a more peaceful world, and anyone who wants peace has reason to hope Democrats win elections.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wolf Parade, "Yulia" + "Tell Detroit that I thank them"

This is Wolf Parade's "Yulia", sung by a Soviet cosmonaut to his beloved on Earth as he's lost in space on a failed mission. Dan Boeckner writes haunting love songs set around the former USSR, and here are the last lines of this one:
So when they turn the cameras on you
Baby please don't speak of me
Point up to the dark above you
As they edit me from history
I'm 20 million miles from a comfortable home
And space is very cold
There's nothing out here nothing out here nothing out
nothing out here nothing out here there's nothing out here
nothing nothing out here nothing out here nothing nothing out
While I'm on a former USSR kick -- somebody wrote this in a discussion of World War II tank battles, and it's beautiful:
While swimming on a beach in the river flowing through Krasnodar, in southern Russia, another American student and I struck up a conversation with an old, scarred man. He was surprised to find that not only were we foreigners, but Americans. He asked where we were from and I replied, “Have you ever heard of Detroit?” His eyes welled up and he started to cry, then he grabbed me in a strong embrace and said, “In the Great Patriotic War, Detroit gave me a tank with which I killed many German fascists. Tell Detroit that I thank them.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Zarathustra's Metaethics" accepted by the Canadian Journal of Philosophy

Twenty years ago I found my Dad's old copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and it made me a philosopher. It introduced me to the philosophical question I care about most: does a naturalistic picture of the world include moral value? The book can make young readers less inhibited about wholeheartedly pursuing what they love, and it did that to me too. I stopped aiming to become a scientist and switched to philosophy, despite standard concerns about my future job prospects.

I'm delighted to announce that "Zarathustra's Metaethics" will soon appear in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. The first half of the paper argues that while Nietzsche is an error theorist about morality, he tells us to pursue a nonmoral and subjective kind of value that our passions confer on their objects. This subjectivism is most beautifully expressed by his title character Zarathustra when telling us how to speak of what we value:

"This is my good; this I love; it pleases me wholly; thus alone do I want the good. I do not want it as divine law; I do not want it as human statute and need: it shall not be a signpost for me to overearths and paradises. It is an earthly virtue that I love: there is little prudence in it, and least of all the reason of all men. But this bird built its nest within me, therefore I love and caress it; now it dwells with me, sitting on its golden eggs."

The second half of the paper derives Nietzsche's conception of virtue from subjectivism. I start with Thomas Hurka's account of how value relates to virtue: desiring the good and being averse to the bad are virtuous, while desiring the bad and being averse to the good are vicious. If we see desire (D) and goodness (G) as positively valenced, and aversion (A) and badness (B) as negatively valenced, a multiplicative relationship emerges -- two negatives (aversion and badness) multiply into a positive (virtue), while one positive and one negative multiply into a negative (vice). Considering these attitudes for each object and summing over all objects gives us the following formula for someone's net virtue (their positive virtue minus their vice):

Σ (D x G + A x B) - (D x B + A x G)

Nietzsche's subjectivism entails that all things are good insofar as they're desired, and bad insofar as we're averse to them. So we can substitute the G's for D's, and the B's for A's. This gives us:

Σ D2 + A2 - 2DA

So virtue is having strong and focused passions, making the first two terms big; and not having both desire and aversion to the same thing as self-denying ascetics do, which would make the last term a big negative. Section 2.1 goes through this slowly, so please look there if you're interested. It's an unusual view of virtue, but the rest of part 2 shows how it fits the unusual things Zarathustra says, and gives us a picture of the Overman as the person with supremely strong and unified passions.

The paper was rejected 13 times. Some referee comments improved the paper, but I also learned the hard way that some Nietzsche scholars don't like math. After my harsh review of a famous scholar's Nietzsche book, I also got some rejections with weird ad hominems. But that's just how it goes. Zarathustra told me to overcome stuff.

I've tried to write the paper in language my teenage self could understand. I'm grateful to the book for what it did to me, and now I can make some of its most beautiful ideas more accessible.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Decemberists / Laura Viers, "Yankee Bayonet" + Peter Menzies Symposium

This week's song is "Yankee Bayonet" by the Decemberists and Laura Viers -- a duet about a much-beloved dead person. Unusually for these things, the dead person is singing.

Last week I was in Sydney at the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference. Helen Beebee and Rachael Briggs presented the best plenary address I'd ever heard at a conference, on Peter Menzies' approach to interventionist causal modeling and its connection to the free will debate. I came to the conference not knowing anything about interventionism (Phil Dowe gave a helpful talk that got me started, but it went in another direction). Helen and Rachel took me from nearly zero to getting a handle on the debate over whether interventionist approaches would help solve problems related to free will. I'd been wanting to learn more about Helen Steward's views to see if they opposed to my Humean project, and it was exciting to see a talk begin with views about causation and take me there.

Peter Menzies passed away this year. I never got to meet him, but now I've met some of his work. As I left their talk, I thought to myself -- if I should meet an untimely end, I hope people like Helen and Rachael will do something like that for me.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Blumson on transitivity and resemblance, with drinks!

I helped my friend and colleague Ben Blumson formulate an example for his conference presentation on transitivity and resemblance. It involved 3 different things each resembling each other in 2 out of 3 ways: beer, gin, and tonic. Beer resembles gin in being alcoholic while tonic isn't, tonic resembles beer in being bubbly while gin isn't, and gin resembles tonic in being clear while beer isn't. I brought examples to help the audience understand the point.

Then I formulated cocktails for the audience during question-and-answer period. Thanks to Luke Russell for taking this picture! He got the beer.

During the talk, there was another example of resemblance involving fruit. Ben tossed one of the unusual fruits (a Buddha's Hand) to Dennis Robinson so he could get a closer look at it. Mark Colyvan commented that it was interesting to attend a session where people were drinking and throwing fruit. If you haven't been to an Australasian Association of Philosophy conference yet, I strongly recommend it!

Friday, July 3, 2015

John Denver, Annie's Song + How John Denver saved America

Happy 4th of July! It's a good day for the story of how John Denver rescued freedom of speech from the forces of censorship. 

In 1985, the Parents' Music Resource Center was getting upset about obscene lyrics in music, and Congress was considering legislative restrictions. Frank Zappa, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and John Denver were sent before Congress to testify in defense of artistic freedom. John Denver was least in need of protection from the censors, with his gentle acoustic folk (the song above is a nice example) that appeals to earnest saps like me. But he did the most to prevent any censorship from taking place.

Barry Miles' Zappa tells the story:
Pressured by their wives, the congressmen held an impartial forum to investigate the sorry state of the record industry. Senator Hollings (whose wife was a signatory to the RIAA letter) said, 'If I could do away with all of this music constitutionally, I would'. The Senate hearing on 19 September 1985 was fixed in favor of the PMRC.  The five-hour event was a media circus with 35 television feeds, 50 photographers, plus reporters and members of the public. 
At the Senate hearing, Zappa was by far the most eloquent speaker, though he undermined his credibility by imitating the southern accents of some of the PMRC wives.  Dee Snider from Twisted Sister proved to be much more articulate than the PMRC had expected and was able to contradict much of their testimony, but it was John Denver who did the most damage to the PMRC cause. Clean-cut and all-American, he held fast to the First Amendment, telling the Chairman, "Sir, we cannot have any kind of censorship whatsoever." 
Dee Snider described Denver's testimony: "And here they were, falling all over themselves, complimenting him about the work he'd done for world peace and hunger and all his good efforts, and saying, "But Mr. Denver, don't you think we could have a little bit, maybe some ratings on records? And he says "Absolutely not." He wouldn't budge. He had everything backed up. He was devastating. But to watch the press coverage, you wouldn't even know that John Denver was there for the most part. He was most damaging, they gave him the least press."
The record of John Denver's testimony begins at the end of this page. I like how at the very end he talks about playing in the USSR, subtly reminding everyone of America's contrasting self-image as the home of free speech.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Can Republicans amputate their opposition to same-sex marriage?

According to recent polling, a majority of Americans think same-sex marriage should be legal, while a majority of Republicans think it shouldn't. In a two-party system with primaries, 35% of the general population is just about where you want your opponents to be on any issue. At that percentage, Republican politicians will find that it's easier to win primaries if they oppose same-sex marriage, since opposition is the majority view among Republicans. And then those politicians will be in trouble against Democrats in the general election, where support is the majority view.

It's obviously much better for your party to have majority support among the public on issues, but in some ways it's okay if some issue position is favored by only 5% of voters, all of whom are in your party. Then there aren't enough of those voters to control your primaries, so your party can still nominate people who don't have massive disadvantages in the general election. You run the risk of losing that 5% if that's their only issue, but the hope is that you can make it up to them on other issues. They may also realize that their view is in the minority, and that more work needs to be done before they can expect a major party to push it forward. Being at 35%, meanwhile, just sets you up to nominate politicians with the unpopular view who then lose general elections. You can hope to appease general election voters with other stuff, but the unpopular view is going to be a constant liability, and your opponents will do whatever they can to raise its salience.

It'll be interesting to see whether the Republican Party can become a majority supporter of same-sex marriage, or at least make opposition a less powerful force. Maybe there's some way the party leadership can de-emphasize the issue in primaries. Or maybe the general demographic and cultural trends leading to increasing majorities in favor of same-sex marriage will soon lead to majority Republican support.

But this won't be easy. The contemporary Republican party isn't built for maneuverable abandonment of long-held and long-reinforced positions. There will be TV and radio hosts ready to castigate Republicans who break from party orthodoxy, and they've already developed a rich enough parallel worldview among their audience that reconnecting the party faithful with political realities is going to be hard. Until they solve this problem, Democrats will benefit.

The Republican Party's problem isn't a problem for gay and lesbian couples who want to get married. The Supreme Court has made same-sex marriage legal across America, and that isn't going to change. So the substantive question is settled, and for that it doesn't matter how long the Republican Party sticks with the losing position. The interesting political question is whether Republicans can quickly amputate their gangrenous appendage, or whether it'll keep hurting them in election after election.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Indigo Girls, "Closer to Fine" + Conclusion of Kennedy's same-sex marriage ruling

It's been a great week in America, with the Supreme Court upholding Obamacare and making gay marriage legal across the land. I posted my optimistic prediction about the Obamacare ruling a few days ago, and I'm happy to see that things worked out even better than expected! Thanks in particular are due to Anthony Kennedy, who joined the majority opinion on Obamacare and wrote the majority opinion on same-sex marriage.
The concluding section of Kennedy's same-sex marriage opinion is beautiful. I like how the lovely prose of the first paragraph supports the final sentences' commanding legal language. 
No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. 
The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed.
It is so ordered. 

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Supreme Court speculation: 90% chance of Obamacare being okay

Sometime in the coming weeks, the Supreme Court will hand down a decision on whether the Affordable Care Act can provide subsidies on state exchanges established by the federal government. Challengers claim that this wasn't the intention of Congress, but everybody who actually voted for the bill in Congress says they intended to provide subsidies on state exchanges. If the Court decides against the subsidies, millions of people lose their health insurance until Congress comes up with some kind of fix, which won't happen anytime soon because there's no support in the Republican Party for ACA subsidies. Probably there's more interest among Congressional Republicans in having an Obama-linked disaster as they go into the 2016 elections.

The left side of the court - Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor - is sure to support the ACA against the challenge. Scalia, Thomas, and Alito are nearly certain to side with the challenge against the ACA. So the decision rests with Roberts and Kennedy, one of whom has to side with the ACA in order for it to be upheld. I've been reading Scott Lemieux throughout this drama, and I'm probably more optimistic than he is. Only one of Roberts and Kennedy needs to vote for the subsidies. My guess is that there's about a 90% chance of state subsidies surviving.

I'd guess that there's about an 80% chance of Roberts voting in favor of ACA subsidies. He surprised everybody by casting the decisive pro-ACA vote last time. That challenge concerned the constitutionality of the individual mandate, which he upheld by claiming that it was an extension of the government's taxing power. That never struck me as a particularly plausible challenge to the constitutionality of the ACA, but this challenge is just plain weird in how it goes against every legislator's expressed intentions and most of the relevant text of the ACA. Why would Roberts defy his conservative friends' expectations by supporting the ACA against the more plausible challenge, only to abandon it against the completely implausible challenge? And why would he choose the most disruptive possible time to do so, when it would throw lots of people off of their health insurance? While Scalia is the sort to generate massive disruption to people's lives from the Supreme Court, Roberts doesn't seem to be that kind of guy. I suppose there's a possibility that he doesn't want to disappoint the conservatives again. In the 80% chance of him voting to keep the subsidies, I include him again writing some kind of concurring opinion that achieves a minor conservative goal while preserving the ACA.

I'd put Kennedy at 50%. He voted against the ACA last time, but his questions this time suggested openness to keeping the subsidies. Moreover, while the last case was about individual mandates (which are kind of odd and can displease romantic libertarians of his stripe) the relevant provisions of the ACA give states a lot of flexibility. That's the sort of thing he likes more than federal government power, making him less likely to strike them down. But he did vote against the subsidies previously. He's less likely than Roberts, as far as I can tell, to be moved by concerns like the fact that lots of people will suddenly lose their health insurance.

I've been treating their votes as non-correlated. Why might they be correlated? Perhaps because they're convinced by the same argument (unlikely) or because Roberts doesn't want to be the deciding vote again (good for the ACA since that he can only do that as part of a 6-3 pro-ACA decision). Why might they be anti-correlated? While they're both in the middle, they seem to care about somewhat opposed things, which is why I don't think they'll be convinced by the same argument. So let's split the difference and say they're non-correlated. We lose the ACA subsidies if they both vote against them, and I'm seeing the probability of that as 20% x 50% = 10%, with a 90% chance of everything being okay. 

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Happy Fathers' Day!

The grounding relation is sometimes analogized to causation, and Karen Bennett suggests that causation itself could be an instance of grounding. My mom and dad caused my existence. Does this mean that they grounded me for the rest of my life?

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Coup, "Laugh, Love, Fuck" + How Henry "Box" Brown Mailed Himself To Freedom

Here's some fun Marxist hip-hop from Boots Riley and the Coup.

One of the more delightful stories of slaves escaping to the North is that of Henry "Box" Brown, who got some money together, bought a box, and mailed himself to a Philadelphia abolitionist.
To get out of work the day he was to escape, Brown burned his hand to the bone with oil of vitriol (sulfuric acid). The box that Brown was shipped in was 3 feet long by 2 feet 8 inches deep by 2 feet wide and displayed the words "dry goods" on it. It was lined with baize, a coarse woollen cloth, and he carried only a small portion of water and a few biscuits. There was a single hole cut for air and it was nailed and tied with straps. Brown later wrote that his uncertain method of travel was worth the risk: "if you have never been deprived of your liberty, as I was, you cannot realize the power of that hope of freedom, which was to me indeed, an anchor to the soul both sure and steadfast."
During the trip, which began on March 29, 1849, Brown's box was transported by wagon, railroad, steamboat, wagon again, railroad, ferry, railroad, and finally delivery wagon, being completed in 27 hours. Despite the instructions on the box of "handle with care" and "this side up," several times carriers placed the box upside-down or handled it roughly. Brown remained still and avoided detection. 
The box was received by Williamson, McKim, William Still, and other members of the Philadelphia Vigilance Committee on March 30, 1849, attesting to the improvements in express delivery services. When Brown was released, one of the men remembered his first words as "How do you do, gentlemen?" He sang a psalm from the Bible, which he had earlier chosen to celebrate his release into freedom.
The article goes on to discuss the role of the postal service in promoting freedom, both in this fashion and by allowing abolitionist pamphlets to get to the South. Apparently Frederick Douglass wanted Brown to keep quiet about his escape, so that more slaves could mail themselves to freedom, but Brown was a bit too eager to tell people about his unusual journey. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hillary, Jeb, (Barack!) and why I'm not worrying about dynasties

Long before Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton officially announced their campaigns, my friends were cringing at the possibility of having yet another presidential election with a Bush or a Clinton or both on the ticket. I understand the distaste -- we hope that political power doesn't just track family connections, but instead goes to people with good ideas who are skilled at public administration. But distaste for dynasties isn't going to affect my vote. Much bigger things are at stake.

The bigger things include: whether the domestic policy initiatives coming out of the White House look like universal health care or Social Security privatization, whether Republican foreign policy advisors push America into another conflict as large and destructive as the Iraq War, whether our new Supreme Court justices respect individual rights, and whether America plays a constructive role to mitigate global threats like nuclear weapons and climate change. The substantive issues at stake in picking the most powerful person on earth are tremendous, and that's what we should think about when we vote. In general, I'm not interested in hearing much about candidates' family backgrounds except if they tell us something about what they'll do on these and other issues.

It would be bad news if Hillary was stuck to mid-1990s Clinton positions, but things aren't looking that way. We're seeing good signs on mass incarceration issues and expanding voting rights, and I hope there's more where that came from. You could see this as simple opportunism -- she has a Democratic primary to win, and while she's very likely to defeat Bernie Sanders, her most certain way of doing so involves moving left at this time. But her current positions invite those who agree to permeate her political organization, and implement them in her White House if she wins. If Mark Penn were among them, I'd probably be a committed Sanders supporter already, but thankfully it doesn't look like he'll be there to mess up her campaign and her administration. So I'm just waiting for the time being to see how things play out before declaring support for anybody. If Bernie Sanders is beating Scott Walker (my guess for likely Republican nominee) in head-to-head polls when January rolls around, he'll probably have my vote! Or if Hillary comes out in favor of universal basic income, she'll probably have mine. We'll see what happens.

In any event, Jeb's success is based on family connections much more so than Hillary's. He's a president's son, born shortly after his grandfather was elected to the Senate. Hillary, meanwhile, is as close to an equal partner in her husband's rise from humble origins to the presidency as any First Lady has ever been. While the post-2000 phase of her career involves dynasty-like family connections, everything before that for her and Bill involved succeeding without them.

If the possibility of having no choices outside of the Clinton and Bush families remains galling, I hope you'll appreciate our current president. He's as far from being the scion of a political dynasty as any President in American history, with a father born in Kenya and a mother who spent her later years writing a 1,043 page anthropology dissertation titled Peasant Blacksmithing in Indonesia. They were incredibly smart and capable people who produced a son like them, but they didn't hand him any significant wealth or Bush-like family connections. He rose to the presidency on his own abilities, defeating opponents whose names opened more doors than "Barack Hussein Obama".

Friday, June 12, 2015

Capercaillie, "God's Alibi" + how Ernie Chambers sued God

I like Capercaillie's Scottish traditional stuff a bit better than the slightly new-agey sound you get below. But when Sean Connery said that Karen Matheson's voice came from a "throat that is surely touched by God", I wouldn't have offered any counterarguments, and not just because he's Sean Connery.

That's all to set up the story of how Ernie Chambers sued God:
In the U.S. state of Nebraska, State Senator Ernie Chambers filed a suit in 2008 against God, seeking a permanent injunction against God's harmful activities, as an effort to publicize the issue of public access to the court system. The suit was dismissed because God could not be properly notified, not having an address. The Judge stated, "Given that this court finds that there can never be service effectuated on the named defendant this action will be dismissed with prejudice". The senator, assuming God to be singular and all-knowing, responded "The court itself acknowledges the existence of God. A consequence of that acknowledgement is a recognition of God's omniscience ... Since God knows everything, God has notice of this lawsuit." 
...a judge finally did throw out the case, saying the Almighty was not properly served due to his unlisted home address. As of 5 November 2008, Chambers filed an appeal to the Nebraska Supreme Court. The former state senator John DeCamp and E. O. Augustsson in Sweden, asked to represent God. Augustsson's letters, mentioning the Bjorn (cf. the Bjorn Socialist Republic) were stricken as "frivolous". The Appeals Court gave Chambers until February 24 to show that he notified DeCamp and Augustsson of his brief, which he did. The case was finally closed on February 25 when the Nebraska Court of Appeals dismissed the appeal and vacated the order of the district court. The court quoted cases according to which "[a] court decides real controversies and determines rights actually controverted, and does not address or dispose of abstract questions or issues that might arise in hypothetical or fictitious situation or setting".
I count at least five ontological categories in the last sentence. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Left-wing students don't get professors fired, but Republicans might

Last week, Vox published "I'm a liberal professor, and my liberal students terrify me". The actual facts in the article left me reassured that our jobs are safe from our left-wing students. I wish they were so safe from Republican state legislators.

The article begins by describing how its pseudonymous author received a formal complaint from a conservative student after noting that the financial crisis wasn't caused by overly generous lending to minorities. The student alleged "communistical sympathies", the professor wrote something about what had happened, and perhaps the administrators recalled Joe McCarthy before ignoring his ideological descendent's complaint. 

This had me bracing for a story about how complaints from the left had been taken more seriously. But no: "That was the first, and so far only, formal complaint a student has ever filed against me." There isn't a single concrete story of a professor losing a job due to left-wing student complaints anywhere in the article. There's nothing resembling the story of Steven Salaita, who lost a tenured appointment at Illinois for criticizing Israeli military policy on Twitter. I guess the article's headline is true -- the author is terrified of his students. He expresses his fears at length. But he never describes an actual case that makes such fear rational. 

Is the dismissed Title IX suit against Laura Kipnis supposed to be the sort of thing we're worried about? I think it shouldn't have been investigated in the first place, and I'm sure it was a scary and unpleasant hassle for Kipnis, but an instance of a complaint going a step too far before being dismissed isn't exactly chilling my blood. The explanation of why we need this form of Title IX enforcement by Josh Marshall's correspondent seems to basically answer Josh Marshall's argument-free invective against Justin Weinberg.

At worst, left-wing students can do some things that scare left-wing professors: make them feel bad, and scare away their friends. If conservatives called me "communistical", I'd laugh, and not just because it gets the little red dashes from the spell checker. I know that accusations of communism in America are generally ridiculous. You get them for supporting the economic policies of our NATO allies. But there's plenty of sexism and racism around (the implicit bias research suggests that it's in me too). I can't so easily brush off charges of that sort, and neither can others if they hear students making them against me. Even if the accusations were completely unfair, they could cost me well-meaning friends and they'd definitely make me feel bad. But I don't see any reason to think jobs are at risk. 

Fear of your right-wing state government makes more sense. In North Carolina, Republican state legislators have closed research centers on the environment, voting rights, and poverty -- the last of these after threatening the director with the closure of his center if he kept writing newspaper editorials. The right-wing think tank director who seems to be designing academic policy speaks negatively of "collectivism" and positively of Ayn Rand

In Wisconsin, proposals are moving through the legislature to allow the firing of tenured faculty “when such an action is deemed necessary due to a budget or program decision requiring program discontinuance, curtailment, modification or redirection.” If Scott Walker decides that Wisconsin requires program modification and Republican legislators agree, does tenure still count there? Gratuitous advertisement: philosophers in North Carolina and Wisconsin seeking more academic freedom may find it at the National University of Singapore.

We've had passionate left-wing students for a long time. Sometimes they're right and sometimes they're wrong, but either way the risk that you'll lose your job because of their political complaints is basically zero. Amanda Taub writes, "Students, after all, have been complaining about their professors and just about everything else since time immemorial." If left-wing students haven't gotten their professors fired in the past, why would it start now? But the rise of right-wing state governments trying to eliminate the politically troublesome aspects of their state universities is new. They have the formal power to make funding decisions and change policy, and they're just starting to use it.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Clancy Brothers, The Mermaid (better than Animal Planet on mermaids)

Our song for the day is "The Mermaid", by Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers. I don't have the lyrics memorized anymore, but it was one of my favorite Irish folk songs to sing:

Why is the narrator alive to tell the story after his ship sank to the bottom of the sea? I think it's because the mermaid rescued him.

While I'm fond of fictional works involving mermaids, I draw the line at cable channels trying to drive up ratings by claiming that mermaids actually exist. This is a problem with Animal Planet:
In May 2012, a Mermaids: The Body Found, a television docufiction aired on Animal Planet which centered around the experiences of former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists, showing a CGI recreation of amateur sound and video of a beached mermaid and discussing scientific theories involving the existence of mermaids. In July 2012 in response to public inquiries, and the possibility that some viewers may have mistaken the programme for a documentary, the National Ocean Service (a branch of NOAA) made the unusual declaration that "no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found". 
A year later in May 2013, Animal Planet aired another docu-fiction titled Mermaids: The New Evidence featuring "previously unreleased video evidence", including what a former Iceland GeoSurvey scientist witnessed while diving off the coast of Greenland in an underwater submersible. The videos provide two different shots of what appears to be a humanoid creature approaching and touching their vehicle. NOAA once again released a statement saying "The person identified as a NOAA scientist was an actor." The actor is separately identified as David Evans of Ontario, Canada.
It appears that market incentives aren't set up to prevent for-profit TV channels from boosting ratings with mermaid pseudo-documentaries.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

I gave Jeff Merkley $5000. This could work out well for people and animals!

This is the fifth year that I've donated $5000 to Jeff Merkley, who represents Oregon in the US Senate. I do this because he has the right outlook on issues from global poverty to intellectual property to animal welfare, and he's a brilliant legislative strategist who can use my contributions to make the Democratic Party better on these and other issues. I've just spent a weekend with him and some staffers and supporters, and I'll have some information about that here too.

First, here's how the donations work: I give to his Leadership PAC, which is a fund from which he gives to other Democrats for their campaigns. This helps them get elected, and makes them more likely to do what he says later on. So contributing to his Leadership PAC gets more Democrats elected, and gets them following someone who will lead them in the right direction on a wide range of issues.

I suggest giving to Leadership PACs if you want to support a party and also support particular policy options and leaders within that party. You can also help your favorite candidates by directly donating to them through the internet, but your contribution might not move them in any particular direction on issues because they don't know what exactly you want them to do. Also, you might not be following Congress closely enough to suggest a clever plan to achieve your goals by voting a particular way on a particular procedural motion on a particular amendment. But Jeff is a Senator who's in a social and epistemic position to suggest highly detailed and specific plans. So I can get the party organized to act effectively on important issues by putting money in his hands.

A side benefit is that I get to hang out with Jeff, his staff, and some donors at a fundraiser every year. These events are usually set up to show off cool stuff in the Senator's home state. In Oregon that's Portland and the Oregon wine country, both of which are beautiful. One isn't supposed to talk to the media about these events, but I want to give my friends a bit of a taste for what goes on at these things, so what I say will be somewhat cryptic and involve silly nicknames for some people involved.

For the most part, I talk with people at fundraisers like I'm at a philosophy conference, asking them what they do, learning about their work, and telling them about my work if they're curious. Sometimes when they're working on an issue where I have an idea, I tell them about it (I try to chat with labor union folks about monetary policy, since they want more jobs and the Fed has tremendous power over total employment). Last year I showed some campaign staffers political science research on how to raise voter turnout. This year one of them told me that the Oregon Democratic Party had done some of the things that the research suggested! For a philosopher, that's an unusual level of immediate impact.

Early in the fundraiser is a nice dinner during which people stand up and introduce themselves and briefly say how they or their organization support the Senator. I explain that I'm a philosophy professor who cares about global poverty issues, and recount how Jeff won me over by clearly stating the case for third world debt relief during a conference call in 2008. I often get a round of applause, because people recognize the importance of reducing global poverty, even if they don't have any clear idea how to do it.

I got a great surprise when I was done talking this time -- Jeff got up and said that now that he's on the Senate Foreign Appropriations Committee, he'll be in good position to make progress on that! By the end of the fundraiser, I'd mentioned GiveWell to him as an excellent public source of quantitative information about how to reduce global poverty. At another point I was telling people about guinea worm while food was being served, and another donor understandably suggested that I talk about something else. But overall, I've been very impressed with the reception these issues get here and I hope Jeff's new committee assignment enables him to help very poor people on an epic scale.

I didn't expect to bring up animal welfare issues during this fundraiser, but at one point during dinner Jeff told me about work he'd done on the Agriculture Committee to prevent neonicotinoid pesticides from killing bees and other wildlife that pollinate plants. I couldn't resist expressing concern about the ag-gag bills that agribusiness is trying to pass to block people from recording and displaying brutal conditions in factory farms. If I have any ability to read Jeff's immediate enthusiastic nodding, having him as ranking Democrat on the Agriculture committee could be very good for animals.

I wish my friends who focus on police brutality issues could've seen my conversation with the Chief of Staff, who hails from one of the cities where a notorious shooting occurred. As we were talking about how Hillary Clinton and other Democrats approach these issues, he was laying out the gruesome details of the shooting and describing how one of the officers escaped punishment on a technicality. It was a sign that passion on these issues isn't limited to the Democratic grassroots, and that it's pervading the party as a whole.

One of my favorite perennial guests is someone I call Ancient Democratic Insider. On basically any issue (civil rights? science policy? financial regulation?) he's done some highly placed and helpful work over the past five decades. Shortly after I met him this time, he was telling another DC person about something that needed to be done quickly to outflank more Wall-Street-oriented Democrats and set up tougher financial regulation. I'm sure that plenty of Democratic insiders push the other way on these issues, but I'm glad to be supporting the Senator at whose fundraiser the conversations go this way. I also talked with him and the Chief of Staff about how to solve general problems Democrats are facing with congressional district maps, about which I'll probably put up a full-length post soon.

I'll close with a note on Jeff. I've described his legislative achievements a few times in past writing, so I won't add to those points here. But I've been meeting up with him for five years now, and I'm always sort of amazed by his lack of ego. In a business with lots of self-important people, he's a thoughtful, laid-back, modest guy whose sense of humor typically involves gentle understatement. Really this shouldn't matter too much to me -- I'd support a jerk if it were the best way to help poor people. But it feels better that I don't have to do that. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Old Crow Medicine Show, "I Hear Them All"

This is the song that made me an instant fan of Old Crow Medicine Show when they played it at South by Southwest in 2006. Thanks to Dan Korman for taking me there. It's some great songwriting:

I hear the sounds of tearing pages
And the roar of burning paper
All the crimes in acquisition
Turn to air and ash and vapor

The peaceful symbols of different religions including "the gentle lamb of Judah / Sleeping at the feet of Buddha" was a delightful surprise from an Appalachian string band.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Was Michael LaCour Really the Texas Longhorns' Mascot?

I just looked at the CV of Michael LaCour, who is notorious for falsifying political science data and even a departmental teaching award. It has this curious entry under "University and Departmental Service" at the end of the second page:

The University of Texas at Austin
• Mascot, “Hook Em”, The Longhorn, 2007-2009.

I have no idea whether LaCour was the Texas Longhorns' mascot for two years, or if he made that up too. Any journalists reading this blog might want to check out whether LaCour is again full of bull, or if in this case the bull was actually full of him.

If it's true, I suppose he could go back to that line of work, since it doesn't require him to show his face in public.

Update: A few people have sent me this blog post from 2008 discussing Longhorn mascots of that time period, which doesn't mention LaCour. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Siberian regionalist flag

I recently played in a historical live-action roleplaying game about the Russians and British in colonial India. It got me curious about the history of Siberian independence movements (in the game, I started one, and courted British support in breaking away from Moscow). Apparently in 1917, a "Siberian National Banner" was chosen, and this is what it looked like:

Kazantzev, who designed it, said: "The National Siberian Banner shall be a combination of 2 colours: white and green. White colour means Siberian snow, whilst green colour - Siberian taiga. The banner shall be rectangular, split into 2 parts diagonally from the left top to right bottom. Thus, the upper triangle shall be of green colour, and the lower one - of white colour."

I agree that green and white is a good color scheme for Siberia, but I think a more symmetrical design would've looked better. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

Don't Fear Announcing Your New Publications on Facebook

Lots of my friends in philosophy are shy about announcing their new publications on Facebook and other social media sites. Getting a paper published in a prestigious journal is an impressive achievement, but some people don't mention it (or do so in a conflicted way) because they're modest and they don't want to boast or appear boastful to others. I think they should become less conflicted and post about their forthcoming papers! Recent work can be advertised in ways that help other philosophers and make your friends happy.

A good way to talk about your paper that just got accepted is to provide a brief and accessible explanation of what it's about. This takes a few extra minutes to write, but it's helpful to all the philosophers reading your Facebook page. They get an easily digested update on new research and they don't even have to stop procrastinating. A few people might have helpful comments and ideas and give you good instant feedback. When John Williams and I got our Backward Clock paper accepted in JPhil, I posted about it on Facebook and David Manley told me about some additional work that supported our point and which we cite in the final version. I had some excellent conversations on Facebook about my paper attacking the fine-tuning argument as well.

For the most accessible work, you might be able to write in a way that helps your friends outside philosophy figure out what exactly it is that you do for a living, and maybe even explain cool stuff to them. If you're working in a very technical area it may be hard to communicate the idea in an accessible way. But you might at least be able to say something general that helps people get a sense of what it is that you do.

Maybe talking about your publications like this is still kind of boasty. But even then, the effects of your boasting may be ones you want. Your friends will be happy for you when they see that you accomplished something, and don't you want to make your friends happy? You probably also have some frenemies who'll be envious or annoyed or have some other negative emotion about your success. But you shouldn't worry too much about them. They're frenemies! If you let concerns about your frenemies' feelings determine your decisions, your life will be less fun. And if you're concerned even about your frenemies' feelings, you're probably a kind-hearted person who deserves to have fun.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Wild Flag, "Future Crimes"

My little sister, who introduced me to Sleater-Kinney, gave me the first Wild Flag album. This is my favorite song from it, and I think hers too.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


I'm planning to post random cool stuff that I found somewhere on the internet every Wednesday. Today's post is just a quote about astatine, the 85th element on the periodic table. Its name comes from the Greek word astatos (αστατος), meaning "unstable".

Randall Munroe of xkcd writes in What If?:
We don’t know what astatine looks like, because, as Lowe put it, “that stuff just doesn’t want to exist.” It’s so radioactive (with a half-life measured in hours) that any large piece of it would be quickly vaporized by its own heat. Chemists suspect that it has a black surface, but no one really knows.  
There’s no material safety data sheet for astatine. If there were, it would just be the word “NO” scrawled over and over in charred blood.

Monday, May 18, 2015

First and Final Post

Back in July 2004, when I was a grad student at UT-Austin, I started a blog called "The Ethical Werewolf". I wrote mostly about politics and philosophy, since that's most of what I spent my time thinking about, apart from smart ladies from various possible worlds. The blog unexpectedly propelled me into 2008 Democratic primary politics, thanks to interest from a bunch of smart young bloggers who are now superstar journalists at Vox. Later on, it basically became my academic homepage, with occasional posts outlining my travel plans and making silly philosophy jokes. I also wrote at a lot of other places with a lot of nice people, most notably at Donkeylicious with Nicholas Beaudrot. 

I called the blog "The Ethical Werewolf" in part because I've always identified with helpful wolfy characters (Oz from Buffy, Perrin Aybara from Wheel of Time, and Remus Lupin from Harry Potter who is a role model for teaching). It also had to do with my views concerning moral motivation. David Brink once emailed me about why I gave my blog that name, and after making the Buffy / Harry Potter references, here's what I told him:
...I think humans have a lot more in common with the higher mammals, at least as far as the psychology of motivation is concerned, than most philosophers thinking about motivation allow. This is a basically Humean view -- we're all passion-driven, desire-belief-motivated creatures.  The differences between humans and animals aren't to be found in the structure of motivation -- they concern other things like our capacity for abstract concepts which allows us to have a theory of mind, and how much working memory we have.  Our motivational continuity with the animals is kind of werewolfy.  I also think that if an animal had a strong desire to avert others' suffering and promote their pleasure, it would be a perfectly good example of a moral agent. And that's what I am -- a mostly-animal moral agent, or to be poetic, an ethical werewolf. (If I actually turned into a big powerful beast under the full moon and did socially beneficial deeds, that would be awesome, but unfortunately I haven't been bitten by the right person yet.)
Christine Korsgaard attacks a "picture of the virtuous human being as a sort of Good Dog, whose desires and inclinations have been so perfectly trained that he always does what he ought to do spontaneously and with tail-wagging cheerfulness and enthusiasm". But that's exactly the kind of animal I aspire to be! And I guess the ultimate Good Dog would be an Ethical Werewolf.

I still like the name, the view about motivation, and the fictional werewolves. But now I'm planning to start blogging again, I'm thinking it's best to set up an eponymous blog that's better integrated with my new academic homepage at So I'm putting this up as the final Ethical Werewolf post, and the first post at If you're looking for the kinds of posts you used to see at The Ethical Werewolf ten years ago, that's the place to go!

I sort of have a plan for a schedule of posts. On Mondays I'll post something that runs at least a few paragraphs (philosophy? politics? Philippa Foot fanfic?). On Wednesdays I'll post something nifty I found on the internet. On Fridays I'll post some music I like. Probably a lot of the Monday posts are going to be inside-baseball stuff about philosophy, especially in the beginning. I'm hoping for a core audience of philosophers and people who don't mind chatting with philosophers. If that's you, come on over!