Thursday, December 29, 2005

An Uncertainty of Mine, Expressed as a Proposition

Proposition: In the scene in American Beauty in which the plastic bag is featured, we are supposed to largely agree with the boy about the beauty of the plastic bag, or at least sympathize insofar as we feel him to have a certain depth.

"we are meant" can be either cashed out in terms of authorial intent or any other theoretical apparatus you find appropriate.


Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Brutal Composition Again

I've posted updated versions of the Brutal Composition paper. It's in a pdf this time, so it's nice and shiny and cool and friendly to the .doc-challenged. There's some significant revisions, but that'll only be of interest to nascent Blank scholars and those who missed it the first time around.

(Ignore the "writing sample, department of philosophy" junk at the top of the file. That just indicates that I am now finished with 3! grad school applications. Also, I blatantly stole the reference to "Blank scholars" from Neil Sinhababu, but I'm connected to him by a reasonably tight two degrees of separation, so it's cool).

Friday, December 23, 2005

Bob Jones? Not so much...

There's a small debate in the Times Higher Education Supplement over intelligent design being taught in schools. First exhibit: can anyone figure out what the ID defender is saying? Does he have an argument? Second exhibit: the critic of ID is arguing for the beneficial effects of faith schools. Unbeknownst to me, there are a large number of religious state schools in the UK. The author argues that the faith schools can be used as a tool to integrate Muslims, and that a number of distortions in the U.S. educational system are the result of the fact that religious education is run almost entirely by the private sector.

Aside from the constitutional problems with anything similar to the British system, I think it would be a horrible idea. My picture of how primary and secondary education should work is even funding for all schools at the national level, with the states given the option to increase funding for education, again subject to maintaining an equitable distribution of resources between school districts. You'd have to couple this with high taxes imposed on private schools to prevent the middle and upper classes from fleeing the public schools and manoeuvring to slash funding for public education. The salutary side effect of this would be to, in an entirely constitutional fashion, push a lot of religious education out of existence. There would still be private religious schools for the fanatics who were able to pay, as well as some extremely prestigious schools, but the net effect would be to improve the quality of public education while making it more egalitarian.

Thursday, December 22, 2005


1. Went to Go club today after a two week hiatus. Played three reasonable games, which ended my pattern of playing rushed and disastrous games. Still, I haven't made any noteworthy improvement in at least a month.

2. I go home Friday, which means I'll probably not post until the New Year, though a reasonable internet connection should appear at the familial estate on the 28th.

3. It's getting harder for me to talk about politics. I'm just getting more stupid and ill-informed and apathetic. Apathetic in the sense that I know my general stance on a lot of different areas, but can't be bothered to examine the nuances that distinguish particular positions, and can't be bothered to try and defend my viewpoint. In particular, I no longer know or care enough to argue with people who are misinformed or lie (whether it's real or a hypothetical discussion with some nutcase in the blogosphere). I feel that this is a bad thing.

4. I think I'm going to start trying to write my second paper on composition, a defense of the intuitive conception of when composition occurs as a moderate, non-brutal answer to the Special Composition Question. Don't know what that means? Read the first paper! It's in an old post "Consistency Again." The view that I'm going to defend will be that
some objects, the xs compose another object y iff y is epistemically salient.
The trick is to define the notion of epistemically salient in the proper manner: the result I want is for the SCQ to reduce to a question about reduction and/or elimination in the special sciences. The question "do the molecules that make up my body really compose something?" reduces to the question "is the category 'human being' a scientifically significant category?"

In that case, our intuitions about composition end up being intuitions about reduction, except 'composition' is referentially opaque (that could be a misuse of the term 'referentially opaque'). Nihilism and Universalism turn out to be limiting and equivalent cases. Everything either gets reduced to physics, or is eliminated in favor of physics so either 1) nothing exists except fundamental particles, or 2) every fusion is real, because physics doesn't distinguish between them (in some sense of the word).

In a natural enough sense, this paper is a followup to Brutal Composition and Our Intuitions because that paper argued that we need a theoretical account of what composition is, or when it occurs that explains how our intuitions could have evidential force, and I think this account does the trick.

(I know the title of this post isn't quite a word, but I like it).

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Whoring Myself

I'm spent an amusing 5 minutes pondering putting ads on this blog. Thanks to the Google AdSense program, it's easier than ever!

There's something ridiculous or unethical about the thought of putting ads on my blog when I use firefox with adblock and would recommend that the rest of you do the same. Silly questions about ethics aside, the real point is that I don't quite get enough traffic to justify the practice. Most ads give you money for every thousand views/viewers, and it takes a little while for this blog to get a thousand views...

Thursday, December 15, 2005

I just realized today that I screwed up something in my writing sample. I took Michael Lynch's minimal conception of intuitions as my working 'definition' of intuitions, and then did some analysis of Ernest Sosa's reliabilist theory concerning intuitions, without noting that Sosa is using a more restrictive conception of what an intuition is than Lynch is. Bad news. I think my commentary on Sosa is obviously still relevant despite the disconnect (and will add a sentence saying so) so I don't think anyone will think this hurts my argument. I'm more worried that it'll just make me look unobservant and stupid.

Good thing Rutgers was the only place I sent that copy of the writing sample to, because it's obviously an unappealing safety school for me.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Four Joys

From earlier today:

1. Valentina hot sauce has reignited my passion for cosmic, which had waned over the past month or two.
2. I pulled an all-nighter of the good kind.
3. I turned in my application to Rutgers.
4. I had my last day of class today.

One down, Ten to go

I turned in my Rutgers application. That leaves


to go. Luckily, the vast majority of work has been done.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

An Utterly Trivial Terminological Point

The title gets you going, huh?

I'm revising my writing sample, and I'm confronted with the question of how to name the view that "For any xs, the xs compose an object y if and only if the xs are fastened together." Fn 34 of Brutal Composition reads as follows
See Van Inwagen, Material Beings, p.56. Van Inwagen calls the view "fastening." But Mark Aronszajin and Fred Feldman have convinced me, in conversation, that this is a misnomer, since 'fastening' is a form of the verb that denotes the act of causing some things to be fastened together, rather than a word that denotes the relation being fastened together. And 'fastenedness', which does denote that relation, is too hard to pronounce.
Nevertheless, every reader of my paper who was not completely immersed in the composition literature has responded to seeing 'fastenation' with complete and utter incomprehension. So I think I'm going to use 'fastening' since at least one canonical figure in the literature uses it, and I'd rather not annoy the heck out of non-specialist readers. But I'm really unsure of this decision. Most importantly, this is obviously the best way to be using my time at the moment.

Chapter the Third, In Which I Come to Accept Capitalism

Achewood and Fafblog are going up against the Dilbert Blog and The Hate Mongers Quarterly on The Weblog Awards for Best Humor/Comics Weblog. I was going to write about how this is a clear example of market failure, since Girls are Pretty just isn't included and the Dilbert Blog isn't really that funny. Also, the Hatemonger's Quarterly is some of the shittiest shit ever shat onto the net. Believe me on this one. You don't want to spend the time confirming my opinion.

I know I'm biased, so let's factor that into the equation, by moving my opinions of both Fafblog and the Hatemonger's Quarterly towards the center. The result is that Fafblog is still one of the top 250 things to happen to humanity, while the Hatemonger's Quarterly has become a despicable mediocrity. Even when they take on targets where I can roughly sympathize with an old conservative curmudgeon, such as the "Student Environmental Action Coalition’s Activist Training Camp," they just sort of muddle around being unfunny. One of their favorite posts for the year involves making fun of an English professor for ending a sentence with a preposition.

On second thought, this isn't really a market failure, since Achewood and Fafblog are both solidly in the middle of the pack, Dilbert isn't in first, and the Hatemonger's Quarterly is dead last.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Purpose and Religiosity

Ed linked to an old article by Mark Oppenheimer which laments a trend in which college campuses discourage single-minded purpose. Oppenheimer's idea of single-minded purpose is a bit eccentric, as he cites some odd reminiscences
They say it would take a lifetime simply to copy out the works of Bach or Telemann. Much the same is true of Wodehouse. I know: at school I hammered out all of his novel Fringe Assets on an electric Remington in an effort to teach myself to touch-type, an effort that took me a term and a half.
This particularly eccentric pass time aside, Oppenheimer mentions physicists and poets, so his concerns are broader than the welfare of the almost OCD. I'm less interested in Oppenheimer's article itself, which I am often in agreement with, so much as the influence of his religiosity.

Oppenheimer is not concerned with our lack of ability to sustain attention per se--the sort of concern which can be articulated from the viewpoint of soulless careerism. Instead, Oppenheimer is concerned with what the lack of devotion present on college campuses shows about our view of the good life. Fry's patient transcription of Wodehouse has touch-typing as its product, but this is hardly what gives the image of Fry its gravity. We are told to "reflect for a moment on the elegant asceticism of Fry's project" and this project exemplifies "something provided by college life at its best, something all too rare afterwards, to be cherished while one can: the uninterrupted moment."

Respose can be a commodity. The dominant careerist aesthetic includes yoga, meditation or gardening as ways to take a little bit of time for yourself, which enhances your concentration and keeps your mind healthy. But Oppenheimer's vision of what validates repose is different. His description of the values which are the opposites of repose is curt and dismissive: "well-rounded and liberal is a perfectly nice way to be — I hope it describes me — but it connotes no particular meaning or calling or purpose. It's a way to be, not a reason to be." Going by that description alone, many people would by surprised to realize that they're devaluing peacefulness and rest. I'm belaboring this point, but I want to stress that there's something peculiar about Oppenheimer's point which invites you to identify with it, without necessarily understanding what motivates him.

You most often hear calls for leading a purposeful life from religiously minded commentators. If, as a secular atheist, you start to reflect on not just the concrete complaints Oppenheimer lodges but also his reasons for doing so, you might feel a substantial disconnect. The language of purpose and "a reason to be" are familiar and natural to a theist, whereas for us they leave the sense that we don't really know what either thing would be, or they reflect nothing more than a shallow dressing up of careerism. I don't think this difference is intrinsic. Certainly, given Oppenheimer's examples: Campus Crusade for Christ, and Big Ten football players, one might suspect that he has a poor grasp on what activities exhibit purpose in any important sense. The inclusion of Big Ten football almost has the force to rewrite the entire article as a parody.

In any case, a religious outlook fosters a comfort with the notion of a purposeful life, whereas a reflective atheistic perspective tends to discomfit us by stripping away a layer of illusion about the purposes that our life might serve. I don't mean to say something idiotic to the effect that atheism makes life meaningless, as I've heard a theist or two assert, rather, I'm saying that the task of explaining the nature of a purposeful life becomes much more difficult because we're not allowed to cheat. In particular, despite my intrinsic sympathy for Fry and for the notion of single-mindedness of purpose and for the uninterrupted moment, I feel as if I have nothing more than a hunch that these things have anything to do with a purposeful life.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What is Dad Rock?

Dad rock is ususally from the period referred to by historians as "back in the day," but it's not classic rock. None of
The Beatles
Jimi Hendrix
The Doors
Simon and Garfunkel or
Credence Clearwater Revival
are Dad Rock, even though there's a reasonable chance that any given Dad listens to several, if not all of them. If you want examples of Dad rock, look at Paul Simon on his own (I don't know if he was always Dad rock, but he's put out an album or two in the genre) or the 800 lb gorilla: Steely Dan.

But what makes those last two Dad rock? I'd really like someone to answer that for me.

I was probably going to apply to CUNY...

and then I found out that the application fee is $125. In comparison, Princeton is a complete ripoff at $65 for applications before December 1 and $80 afterwards.

I'm still applying to Princeton, since if I got in I'd spend $80 of my pocket money on the party without hesitation. Wouldn't do $125 for CUNY (seriously, with my likely guest list, how the hell could I throw a $125 party? Grey Goose screwdrivers? Drinking contest employing 10 year Laphroaig?)

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Bush Guarantees All Suspicious Arabs Will Get Good Grades

One official said about three dozen names fall in that category; others believe it is fewer. The list includes several people whose identities were offered by al Qaeda figures during CIA interrogations, officials said. One turned out to be an innocent college professor who had given the al Qaeda member a bad grade, one official said. Wrongful Imprisonment: Anatomy of a CIA Mistake (Washington Post)

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Objectivity Again

An interesting example of what the current journalistic mode of writing demands. The Pentagon has been planting articles in the Iraqi press, and paying friendly journalists. The New York Times comes down with the following unusually angry denunciation.
Even as the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development pay contractors millions of dollars to help train journalists and promote a professional and independent Iraqi media, the Pentagon is paying millions more to the Lincoln Group for work that appears to violate fundamental principles of Western journalism.
All in the third person, but also non-factive: the phrasing "principles of western journalism" leaves the crucial ambiguity between accepted principles and binding normative principles. I'd love to learn to be able to write like that.