Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Best Dumplings Ever

In learning to play go, one of the most elusive concepts has been good shape. Bad shape, on the other hand..well, just look at this game I played today. If the groups with the triangle and the square make you feel uneasy or even nauseated, you understand bad shape.

Incidentally, I'm white, and it's my turn.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Why does the world refuse to arrange itself to my wishes in every detail?

My continually growing affection for the Pittsburgh department notwithstanding, I graduated college a year too early.

Kenan Seminar: Empirical Moral Psychology (Phil 805) (305) - Joshua Knobe & Jesse Prinz

Recent philosophical work on moral psychology has taken an interdisciplinary turn. Philosophers have been calling on empirical findings to assess traditional theories, and psychologists have been exploring questions that emerged within philosophy. What role do emotions play in moral judgment? Is morality an evolved capacity? Could there be a faculty of moral intuition? What is the empirical viability of Aristotelian virtue ethics? How do notions of freedom and responsibility hold up in light of recent research on mind and brain? In this seminar, we will read articles addressing such questions, and, through the generous support of the Kenan foundation, we will also have the opportunity to engage in intensive discussion with some of the leading authors in the field. Visitors will include (at least) philosophers John Doris, Shaun Nichols, and Walter Sinnott- Armstrong, as well as psychologists Daniel Gilbert, Liane Young and Fiery Cushman.

This course will meet on Wednesday from 4:00-6:30. (Chapel Hill graduate seminars)

I should also note that I don't have class on Wednesdays this coming semester...

Monday, December 04, 2006

No one told me I was moving to a cold place!

I've already resolved not to go out of my apartment tomorrow.

Update: Well shit! This policy only made sense when the forecast said Friday would be warmer than Monday.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Ratio of Lifehacker Visits to Ideas Implemented ~30 : 1

So, I finally broke down and installed Invisibility Cloak which blocks time-wasting websites. More precisely, you list the worst offenders and it prevents them from loading prior to a certain time of day. I had previously resisted the software based on the important principle that I really enjoy wasting time.

The script exhibited a sad lack of professionalism: it has a built in variable specifying the time of day after which the cloaking stops taking effect, but no opposite variable. Perhaps they assumed that anyone who is awake after midnight is just too degenerate to embrace this sort of productivity enhancing tool. As a result, I was forced to alter the code so that I won't be stripped of my diversions after midnight. Since I've never even previously looked at javascript, the chances of this failing are approximately 100%.

A more insightful post than this would have noted how this hack is really just another instance of applying a high-powered technical solution to avoid applying any concept of personal responsibility, but I'm too lazy for that.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

This is relevant to 11% of my visitors

There has been some chatter about a security flaw in Safari, though as of yet there's no malware in the wild. You can fix the most serious issue by going to preferences and stop having Safari automatically open “safe” files. Even to my uninformed eyes, this looks like an atrociously bad feature, but it's the default setting. Given that Gruber was writing about this feature back in 2004, and again in 2006 it seems time to start entertaining the thesis that all the (extra) protection Apple has going for it is security through obscurity.

Update: it may be that the dmg problem doesn't actually pose a threat beyond forcing you to restart. That's reassuring, but doesn't change the badness of Safari's presets.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

My apologies to Chekhov

If there is a database of driver's license data in the first act, it will be hacked in the second.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Please to not exercise your creativity

I went to a go tournament in D.C. this weekend, but I'll reserve comment until later, as it only sets the stage. While driving back to Pittsburgh on I-76, I was behind a pickup with a bumper sticker reading Gun Control Is Racist. Several hours later, I still don't get it.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Ding, dong, the witch is dead

Vernon Robinson is no more. Brad Miller beat him 96,842–55,308 or 64 to 36 percent. Both Vernon's political hopes and half of my traffic have now gone the way of the dodo.

Related News:

Friday, November 03, 2006

A schedule

It's almost exactly a year since I last posted a harrowing schedule of my activities for the upcoming several weeks, so for tradition's sake, I might as well let you know what's happening.

  • November 6th: Presentation of Projectivism about laws of nature
  • November 8th: Presentation on Michael Dummett's article “Realism”
  • November 9th: Philosophy of Science paper on something somehow connected to causation or reduction
  • November 13th: Paper for metaphysics, which will probably be on projectivism
  • November 16th: Presentation on Kuhn's “Revolutions as Changes of World View” and probable paper on lack of theoretical unity in science (how did this happen?!)
  • November 23nd: Probable paper on the topic of scientific change
  • December 11th: Final short paper in metaphysics
  • December 13th: Short paper for M&E core
  • December 13th: 4000–7000 word paper for Philosophy of Cognitive Science

The two saving graces are that the philosophy of science papers are usually just 1000 words, and I have a topic for cognitive science that is quite exciting. I'm writing on Stich's argument that the simulation theory blocks arguments for eliminativism. For that paper, I'm looking at his books From Folk Psychology to Cognitive Science and Mindreading (with Sean Nichols), the latter of which is an all-time favorite. Nevertheless, this hurts.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

My Internets Fame

I give in. I really want to know why are people doing google searches for poll data on Vernon Robinson all of a sudden? And would any of them mind telling me how things stand in that race? I'm still left choosing between the principles "the American people would never elect someone so obviously insane" and "the American people would elect only someone that insane."

From Daily Kos, I get that Vernon Robinson is inching up against Miller, implying that he is behind. I also find out that his ads random substituted a picture of a Palestinian man for a Mexican man. Another advertisement (SFW) reads “Brad Miller even spent your tax dollars to pay teenage girls to watch pornographic movies with probes connected to their genitalia,” but I think we're all better off if I don't joke about that.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

It's news because we're talking about it

If you are the BBC and someone produces a report for the Bravo television channel claiming that the human race will split in two, much as in H.G. Wells' The Time Traveler, you should:

Cynicism bleg

Everytime I find myself getting optimistic about the elections, I have to remind myself that while voters seem ready to elect Democrats, the factor which goes unmentioned is that the other side is going to be cheating. A lot. If things go well enough, it won't matter, because elections in this country are still more or less democratic—you don't win them without a hell of a lot of people voting for you. Once that requirement is met, however, we have very little to do with the matter.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Combatting Plagiarism

One university professor writes that he suspects as many as 25–30% of the graduating seniors at his university were guilty of some form of cheating. I'm a bit put off by his emphasis on Wikipedia as a source of cheating—though I don't doubt that it's often the source of plagiarized material, that's just because of its prominence as a source of information. The tone just strikes me as typical “blame Wikipedia!” style hysteria. The comments are also excellent in an entirely different fashion: somehow the cheating problem is the professor's fault, because they are either failing to engage the students, assigning too much work, or the assignments fail to require student creativity, facilitating plagiarism. Also, fantasy-land is an excellent place which you should visit! The only serious complaint is that many students get in trouble because no one has done a good job explaining citations to them, meaning that they are merely dense instead of scum.

In any case, he raises the point that sites such as Student of Fortune, which offer answers to questions on an as needed basis, and provide all original content thereby make it much harder for professors to catch cheaters.* I'm tempted by the idea of a legal mandate to give universities access to these sorts of sites, so that the written content would be searchable just like what's on wikipedia. Obviously, there is both a demarcation problem in terms of identifying the sites which would be subject to the law, and a matter of the political impossibility of passing such legislation, but I suspect this is a decent idea in principle.

(*)(I think it's irrelevant that one has to question Student of Fortune's impact, given that its top earner has made $43.50 so far. There are other sites that offer original content and do greater business.)

Saturday, September 16, 2006

More than 4 million possible configurations!

Apple has begun stealing marketing strategies from my favorite late night food which can be purchased from a restaurant chain. If you are one of Tim, Ed or Dan, you should instantly know what I'm referring to.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Did I say I'd write about Pittsburgh? That was silly of me—I have nothing to say. Nevertheless, a promise is a thing which you halfheartedly fulfill the day after you said that you would. If you're smart, you realize that your promise lead to an unutterably

Since arriving, I have lived a hermit-like life, in hopes that the absence of human company would motivate me to seek friendship among the various cleaning supplies and use them to clean things just as God intended it to be. You all know just how much that happened.

Apartment roundup. The bad:
  • Most electrical outlets are controlled by the light switches, which makes it an unsafe environment for computers and alarm clocks.

  • Limited kitchen counter-space, poor outlet placement.

  • I can't get the handle of the gas stove, even though I know gas is preferred by like, anyone who knows how to cook. That doesn't help me if I can't get the temperature anywhere in between off and inferno.

  • The shower has the same deal. Tiny tiny range in between cold and scalding.

The ambiguous:
  • Things aren't dilapidated, but they do have interesting geometrical properties. (If you're wondering, that was taken with the built in camera on my MacBook, which gives things a slight sepia-tinge even with three lights and three open windows, unless they are less than three inches from the screen. Also I suck with taking pictures.)

The good:
  • I guess I like it here. It's relaxed, and spacious, and the roommate seems cool.

Thursday, August 10, 2006


I move saturday, and this will completely destroy my ability to concentrate or exercise my willpower for the time being. So don't come here looking for posts. If I catch you checking for new posts, I will give you a stern talking-to. Sometime between saturday the 19th and monday the 21st, I will post something about Pittsburgh. Then and only then can you look at this blog. Got it?

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Modern man defined

Guy on cell: I'm only calling because I have to walk ten blocks, and I can't stand to be alone with my own thoughts. overheardinnewyork

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Japan and Kitsch meet, Kitsch “overwhelmed”

It sounds a bit like Busch Gardens.

Note: I am not that guy. I do not have a retarded fascination with Japan which centers around anime and guffawing over inventions such as shoes with umbrellas on them. These recent posts are just coincidences based on cute overload and gmail presenting me with links.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

I endorse metaphysical realism about stupidity!

The Washington State Supreme Court case concerning gay marriage is not an unmitigated disaster if this bit from the Times is accurate:

The decision seemed to invite targeted constitutional challenges to the denial of equal treatment to homosexual couples.

Also intriguing is the Times's choice of quotations

“Limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples,” Justice Barbara A. Madsen wrote in that opinion, “furthers procreation, essential to the survival of the human race, and furthers the well-being of children by encouraging families where children are reared in homes headed by the children’s biological parents.”

While it's true that reading that probably won't embarass the people that it should, it's pretty embarassing, and all that really needs to be said is “do you really believe that?” I was couldn't decide whether the writer included that quote partially in order to make Madsen look stupid, but the article also relays that the dissenting judges described the majority opinion as relying “on speculation and circular reasoning to endorse discrimination.” No defense is given. Though that could be an accidental feature of the article, I'm inclined to read it as reflecting the opinion of the author that no credible defense to the charge has been offered.

If that's so, it's an interesting demonstration of what can be done within the limitations of journalistic objectivity—it doesn't even break the “he said, she said” mold that everyone sensible complains about. The difficulty is that I really don't know how to find out whether it's accidental or not. I suspect that my own opinions render me an unreliable reader when it comes to questions about intent such as this one.

Enlighten me?

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Ultimate Cats: Fish-Carrying Contest

I'm not really exploiting the new media opportunities for instantaneous commentary about the breaking news that are afforded by blogging, as this story is already old. I might as well publish a newspaper as have a blog!

Anyway, watch the video. Toribia-no-Izumi, the Japanese trivia show (as if I can distinguish one Japanese trivia show from another), subjects a group of cats to ever more grueling tasks of fish-carrying in order to determine the maximum weight of fish that a cat can carry.

The excitable commentary by the judges and dramatic music is the best part. Also, I swear I heard one judge say 'sensei.' Since I don't speak Japanese, I can continue to hope that he was referring to the cat.

Monday, July 17, 2006

I'm sure you've all seen this

..but you really ought to visit the CSS Zen Garden. Despite my glee, I'm compelled to point out that the Mozart design is downright ugly.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Vernon Robinson

For people who know more than I do: does Vernon Robinson have a snowball's chance in hell of beating Brad Miller? I can't find any polls on the subject, and it would pretty much be an unmitigated disaster if Robinson was elected. So please, tell me what I need to hear in order to sleep at night.

Update: My parents, who I think are in the 13th district, have the attitude that Miller is safe, but while they're generally well-informed, they didn't hear about polls or anything similar.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

It helps if you imagine this being said in Ros's voice

You're such a cute widdle Mac, oh yes you are oh yesh yesh you ARE! You're so pretty and new and I'm gonna hug you and squeeze you forever, oh yesh I AM! ...I love you, widdle Mac.

Actually, I'm really disoriented, as I've spent almost no time on a Mac since OS 7 or 8—long enough that I can't even remember the precise time frame. So I'm still doing ridiculous windows stuff like ejecting a disk while trying to hit page up, or forgetting that programs have to be quitted.

But any new Mac owner has to gush, and I shall not violate this rule.

Sunday, July 09, 2006


I'm less sour on evolutionary psychology than I used to be, largely because of mild increases in my familiarity with it, but I still often run into something where it simply hurts me to read it. The latest is a model which purports to explain suicide (look for “Evolutionary Explanations” and apply all necessary disclaimers since Wikipedia is my source). Is there any more obvious time to stand up and yell “pleiotropism” or “spandrel?” Seriously, suicide is very heavily linked to severe mood disorders. Is there an explanation of them in terms of evolutionary psychology which doesn't treat them as spandrels?

Oh dear. They've done it. (No idea how reputable those folks are.)

Thursday, June 29, 2006


While in California, I represented the younger, newer, more hip generation to Jason and Jeanine, who quizzed me about my use of blogs. In particular, I had cause to reflect on the status of blogs run by graduate students and their probable effects on the reputation of those kids. If I were better at finding old things, I'd like to a post where many people who interact with job search committees concluded that it would probably hurt these kids. Instead, I'll just assure you that they said this.

I'm happy with most of what I write about non-philosophical topics on here. It's usually not too stupid, even though my writing style still fails to exist. But if this is to be my public face as a philosopher, I need to write better philosophy or less of it. So I think I'm taking the easy option. I'll try to take up the slack with personal posts, but unincriminating ones. So here's what you can expect from me in the future:

“Moved to Pittsburgh three months ago. It is very cold. I am eating Ramen.”
The summer is not going so well. I haven't even started studying logic in preparation for the exam I'll be taking at the beginning of next semester, nor have I done any work on the Brutal Composition paper, or my stab at Simples. I try to reason that it's the summer before I enter grad school, and that I can afford to postpone serious work until I arrive there, but it still makes me hate summer.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Cost of Higher Education

A federal education committee has released a report of rather mixed content. To its credit, it notices that the public universities are not being given sufficient support by the state—a fact obvious to everyone paying attention as well as a minority of any given legislative body. It also makes the criticism that increases in financial aid have been tilted towards merit aid, so that unmet demonstrated financial need has grown rapidly.

Now for the bad news—the report claims that the increase in the cost of higher education is a result of inefficiencies within the university. This seems largely incorrect. First, the substantial decrease in state funding is accountable for a portion of the increase in tuition costs, rather than an underlying change in the cost of educating a student. If you take money away from one source, the university has to get more from the source it has control of. Second, what real changes in the cost of educating a student have happened (and there have been substantial ones) can largely be attributed to a simple economic reality. Two of the sectors of the economy which have seen prices increases which substantially outpace inflation are health care and education. The reason is simple: both are labor-intensive fields which have limited room for increases in productivity. The general formula for increasing productivity is to have each person spend less time on any given task—dealing with a patient or teaching one class to one student. But in education and healthcare, this formula is rightly perceived not as an increase in productivity, but a tradeoff between increased quantity at some loss of quality. Just like not seeing the doctor for any length of time, teaching classes of 200 students is seen as a bad thing.

As overall productivity increases, the amount of compensation it takes to get skilled labor increases. Most industries can easily compensate for that by creating more of the product in the same amount of time. That's not possible in healthcare and education, so prices increase. Salaries also decrease to some extent, as attested to by the decline in salaries for educators relative to other professions. Blaming inefficiency is really missing the point: there's an important and largely unavoidable economic process involved which leads to rising prices for higher education.

There's also a lot of objectionable things in there about accountability standards similar to those that have been implemented in K–12. Did I mention that one of the leaders of the report came from the accountability movement in Texas? But that bit of the report is just a bad idea, and one I have nothing new to say about.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Open Office

A quick look at my webcounter tells me you're all gone, but I think enough people read this to get an answer to the following question:

I am buying a laptop soon, and when the computer doesn't automatically include it, MSOffice is bloody expensive. What reason if any do I have to not just use OpenOffice?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A curious argument

Over at crookedtimber, Kieran Healy notes that the NSA's program of monitoring every phone call is actually quite familiar to a sociologist. That is, what the NSA is doing is very similar to the sociologists pipe-dream of having an infinte dataset, unconstrained by any practical considerations. The sociologists just lack the freedom from ethical prerogatives and monetary constraints that the NSA enjoys.

To me, this suggests an interesting argument: we don't let scientists collect ideal datasets in the way the NSA has done out of ethical considerations-we're happy to set up Institutional Review Boards which constrain the ways in which you can treat people you're researching. So why should the NSA be any different? There's a certain tug once you think about the topic. A little voice says "it's for national security*, we can do more to protect ourselves from attack than we can for the sake of science." Upon reflection, that's just wrong, though. National security is a fleeting and ephemeral thing which only benefits one nation, often at the expense of another. Science, on the other hand, is a progressive body of knowledge which is the shared property of humanity. Whatever case you can make for a measure being justified in terms of national security, you can make for it being justified for the sake of science.

I admit that I have some trouble seeing this in the case of sociology, probably because I don't know the field. But when I think about epidemiology, for instance, it just feels obvious that invading people's privacy to get good data would be far more useful than it would be for the NSA. Yet we still gladly live with these restrictions on epidemiological research. I think it's clear that in this case, it's the calmer reasoning employed in the normal case of scientific research that is worth heeding. Given the status quo, any inclination that people have to turn tail and accept the NSAs actions, or amend the law to make it legal in the future, is hysteria speaking.

Saturday, May 13, 2006


In case you missed it, Dolphin communication incorporates names. Awesome!

Friday, April 28, 2006

Fish in a barrel pt 5

Someone insults Atlas Shrugged over at the Volokh conspiracy, and we get the following defense from a Randian:
Somebody thinks it's the worst, most pretentious, etc., but in polls it ranks second to the Bible as one of the most inspiring books ever written. Don't take a leftist's word for it. Read it and see what you think.
Oh my.

The bad news is that the thread started because there may be a movie in the works.

Monday, April 24, 2006

Prima-facie incompatibilities

In class last Tuesday, Bill Lycan was discussing the free will debate and the common thought that there is a prima facie incompatibility between free will and determinism. Bill made the following methodological point: prima facie, anything is compatible with anything. For two propositions to be incompatible, there has to be some deductive argument, with one as a premise and the negation of the other as a conclusion. So there should be no such thing as a prima facie incompatibility. Moreover, it's the proponent of the incompatibility who has to establish a necessary truth. So above and beyond the absence of any prima facie incompatibility, the burden of proof is always to prove the incompatibility.

Ignoring the burden of proof argument, I think that prima facie incompatibilities are much better off than Bill gives them credit for being. There's two ways to see this. First, as a psychological fact, you can often guess that you could formulate an argument for a given proposition, and these guesses are better than chance. But if the proposition in question is "the existence of free will entails the falsity of determinism" this guess just is a prima facie incompatibility. This isn't something deviant and isolated either. Much of philosophy (science, math, etc) works like this: you hear a statement and immediately think it's true or false. Then you search for an argument. We do revise our opinions--overturn our prima facie judgments--when the arguments fail to pan out, but that's why it's a prima facie judgment.

Second, most epistemologies compatible with our knowledge of necessary truths would license judgments of prima facie incompatibility. Both Bealer and Sosa's defenses of philosophical intuition hold that a necessary proposition can just seem true to you, and thereby confer justification on that proposition. So the proposition "necessarily not both p&q" can have a prima facie justification. This sort of seeming is prima facie because intuitions are fallible, the canonical example being that the naive comprehension axion of set theory seems true. Lycan's own epistemology endorses of a principle of credulity: at the outset, believe each thing which seems plausible to you. So if you find that you are inclined to think that free will and determinism are incompatible, you have a prima facie justification for believing that they're incompatible.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Patriotic Awesomeness

I read a recent NYTimes article concerning Bush's diplomatic meetings with China. Apparently, one of the major issues was China's growing demand for oil and American concerns that (1) China might enter into partnership with unsavory regimes in order to secure future supplies of oil and (2) If China would like to maintain its present rate of growth, it would have to rein in its consumption of oil.

Obviously one has to read between the lines and consult external sources to discover that China's ratio of GDP to petroleum consumption is half that of the United States'. China's GDP is ~8 trillion, the USA's is ~12 trillion, while the USA uses 3 times as much oil as China. This is another problem with the notion of objectivity in American journalism--neither one of the political parties has a genuine wish to be fair or truthful about the States' consumption of oil, so the mainstream press is even more free than usual to shrug off the truth.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Dennett as public intellectual

Over at leiter reports, they're debating the merits of philosophical specialization. There have been a flurry of posts on related subjects in the past few weeks, actually, so one might have a good time perusing the archives. One thing that caught my eye was the requisite mention of contemporary philosophers who have had roles as public intellectuals (the good guys that is, no evil ones like Derrida and only half credit for Habermas as a chaotic neutral). One fellow mentions Dennett and Nussbaum. I think Dennett is interesting, because his work bifurcates. The work of Dennett's that I find most interesting is exactly the stuff that hasn't become popular-The Intentional Stance and Consciousness Explained (I take the bestseller status of Consciousness Explained to be a weird anomaly--this is not a public intellectual's work). What has given him a place in the public culture are his books on Free Will and Evolution/Memes/Religion. I wish I'd paid more attention to these so that I could comment, but I'm sceptical whether this represents an important part of his philosophical thought. One claim that I've heard is that Dennett has given up philosophy for the limelight, and I think this might be the commonplace attitude.

This is all so much hand-waving. It's also not meant to be mean to Dennett-he's one of my philosophical heros. But I'd be less than shocked if it turned out that his serious work and the rest of it just split right down the middle.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

What to say to a soldier?

Even saying "thank you" to a soldier carries a political message, since you wouldn't say: "thank you for the fact that our nation has abused you by sending you to fight a worthless and unjust war."

It's not as overt a political message as many of our other national fetishes, but it is an interesting conversational implicature.

Unfortunately, it's not clear what else one could say, and in the absence of an easy alternative, I see no reason why one couldn't just say "thank you." There is definitely a sense in which the troops deserve respect, even if you consider the majority of them to be victims, as I do. Sadly, our nation has again produced honest to god war criminals, but these are a minority, and though many of the rest support the war, that makes them no more culpable than our many friends and relatives who support it.

(This is prompted by a carolina support the troops organization which bills itself as non-partisan. My initial thought was "I have a bridge to sell these people," but their web presence and the articles about them really do make it appear that they are as non-partisan as a support the troops organization can be. Pointing out the presuppositions of saying "thank you" to the troops is the most loaded thing they do as far as I can tell).

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Brass Balls

"When I came to Texas, my main two goals were to get started on earning my degree and to have the opportunity to play in the NBA," Aldridge said. "I've accomplished both of those and the opportunity is there for me right now to begin the next stage of my basketball career."
I tip my hat to Aldridge--the kid has got style, vaguely tipping his hat to the ideal of the scholar athelete while obviously not giving a shit.

In other news, how come most of my posts are about sports?

Monday, April 10, 2006


Hey! I got a job! I need a roommate! If you yourself need a roommate in Chapel Hill or proximal parts of Durham or know someone who does (who's even remotely capable of living with me), please do tell me!

Update: this is for the summer, June-August ideally.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Missing links

I'm pretty excited by the discovery of Tiktaalik roseae skeletons, and not just because if the models are correct, this fish looked awesome. From the times article:
In the fishes' forward fins, the scientists found evidence of limbs in the making. There are the beginnings of digits, proto-wrists, elbows and shoulders. The fish also had a flat skull resembling a crocodile's, a neck, ribs and other parts that were similar to four-legged land animals known as tetrapods.
So the fossils appear to be one of the best examples of a transitional form discovered to date. This should be bad news for creationists, and to a lesser extent, proponents of intelligent design.

The bad news for us is that the discovery won't really do that much. For a long time, the missing link argument has been a bad argument bolstered by a lie. The obvious points are that we have no strong a priori reason to expect a complete fossil record, and much less of a reason to expect a discovery of the complete fossil record. But while the anti-evolution argument requires that we have a complete fossil record, with missing links, claims about common ancestry can be established in spite of huge gaps in the fossil record. Given some large number of species with gaps present, we may be unsure of certain details of descent, we can identify evolved traits and get a course-grained image of the phylogentic tree sufficient to confirm the hypothesis of common descent. There's more wiggle-room for intelligent design here, as they don't question common descent, but even they would lack any strong argument from missing links.

The lie concerns the status of the missing links. While it is true that we don't have many transitional fossils similar to Tiktaalik roseae, creationists are fond of asserting missing links that are not missing. To take an example, some estimates show as many as 20 early hominid species, not all of whom are our ancestors, and quite a number of species who are not obviously either hominids or other apes (this isn't to say we could use a few more fossils). And yet creationists are fond of asserting that there is a problem of missing links between early apes and man. The argumentative strategy goes something like this: if you say there's a missing link between A and C, once a scientist finds B, you just proclaim one missing link between A and B and another missing link between B and C. That this rhetorical strategy has some force relies on neatly forgetting all previous claims about unbridgable missing links and completely ignoring the issue of what a problematic missing link would be, as in the last paragraph.

So I think it's safe to say that while this discovery might help convince some people who are sitting on the fence in this whole discussion, it won't have a serious effect on creationists and even less of one on the ID folks.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

It had to be done

As usual, pundits are being stupid about how the final four has never consisted of all #1 seeds, and therefore you're stupid if you have them all in your bracket. A wee bit of probability. Most of the calculation is suppressed to prevent massive boredom.

If each #1 seed has a 40% chance of making the final four. Then the chances of all four making it are about 2.5%. Given that the tournament has had 32 teams for only 27 years, that leaves it a coin flip whether we would have had all four there by now. These numbers are also (roughly) compatible with another actual result, which is that all four have made the elite eight exactly four times.
Is 40% a reasonable number? Look at the distribution of results: 41.6% of the top seeds have in fact made it over the years.
Three top seeds: 3
Two top seeds: 13
One top seed: 10
No top seeds: 1

So duh, right? Well, no. There appear to be a lot of people who don't think it's just a matter of probability.
(If it didn't happen in '93, one of the greatest years ever for college basketball, it might never happen. The only No. 1 to miss the party was Indiana, which might have had the best team in the country until Alan Henderson hurt his knee late in the year. The Hoosiers were beaten in the regional final in St. Louis by No. 2 seed Kansas.)

So the odds are stacked heavily against Duke, Connecticut, Villanova and Memphis advancing en masse to Indy. Don't count on seeing it.
Pat Forde.
That's true. With the four teams in the sweet sixteen, the chances that they'll all make the final four are still pretty bad. But unless one of the teams is mis-seeded (sup, Memphis?) the chances they'll make are as good as, or better than the teams that end up there.

In conclusion, this has been massively boring, but to the extent that you trust me you can be confident that it all works out and the guy lecturing you about why you shouldn't pick all #1 seeds is a hack.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Professors Ftw

Some people somewhere are peeved about sabbaticals. "Paying Teachers Not to Teach" and such.

The short rhetorical answer: Professors are exploited. These people are so smart and so well educated and you're paying them a pittance to teach when they really should be running the world.

The longer answer takes into account the quality of life issues, peculiar features of the market incentives concerning Ph.Ds and the substantial benefits that sabbaticals confer on the academic world, and admits that on the whole professors get a fair deal that isn't in need of substantial alteration in either direction. For a portion of that long answer, check the left2right post up there including the comments, and this bit from Keith Burgess Jackson in the rare moment when I'd agree with him.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Terrorism is not a success term

If you're a student of philosophy, you will eventually get yourself in trouble by saying "Oh, I'm a philosopher." Not only will your parents immediately feel a great sense of shame, no matter how far away from you they are, but also the person you are speaking to will think that you consider yourself the equal of Plato, Hume and Nietzsche. In the ordinary way of speaking, 'philosopher' and 'good philosopher' are nearly synonymous terms, in the way that 'Olympic athlete' and 'talented Olympic athlete' are. But really, 'philosopher' is more like 'plumber'. Not everyone is a plumber, and it takes a certain sort of skill that most people lack. But there's still such a thing a bad plumber.

Well, Mohammed Taheri-azar is just as much a terrorist as he is a philosopher. I just wouldn't want to hire him in either capacity.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

The zeroth course in statistics

Given that we know that students give higher evaluations when they receive less work and get better grades, we know we should be somehow correcting evaluations based on the average grade in the course. There are a lot of technical details concerning the proper corrective, and fully removing the impact of grades seems like a bad strategy (after all, bad professors sometimes cause bad grades by teaching poorly), but doing nothing is just wrong. Figure out some way to offset harsh grading and low workloads, and then tell professors about it so that they'll have less of an incentive to be slack.

Wanna tell me I missed something obvious?

Libertarians are weird

From a comment on a crooked timber post concerning inequality:
Do you disagree with Dave’s contention that society is not a race, a but a cooperative productive endeavor?
I'm unsure what he could be asserting. Descriptively, there's a problem with Darwin. As an ideal, it sounds weird coming from a libertarian (I don't find his post particularly bothersome though).

Thursday, February 16, 2006


I'm just going to repost something I wrote elsewhere about the cartoons issue. It's a bit less careful than I'd like it to be, but I'll put it up anyway.

What's amazing to me about this is that a lot of people who are nominally capable of serious thought about the state of the world who have just uncritically jumped on the bandwagon of defending the Danish journalists. What I wrote comes from the perspective that there are a lot of people who just want war between Christendom and Islam, regardless of the specific circumstances. They will say to invade Iraq because of the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but this is only the closest justification at hand. On the other side, Bin Laden represents the same tendency-whatever initial proximal causes led him to declare enmity towards the West, he has now reached a point at which provoking war between the Muslim world and the West is his goal. These people, who are thankfully fewer in number than the group of people who will support any given war, are our real enemies. Here's what I wrote elsewhere:
It's almost impossible to overstate how bad the reaction in the Muslim world is. It is seriously scary that such a large number of people in these various countries are capable of reacting in this way, and certainly when it comes down to it, it is necessary to defend ourselves against people whose actions follow this pattern.

But characterizing this as a simple case of free speech vs. ignorant heathens is missing the point by a long-shot. Muslims in the EU are subject to pretty vicious racism. These cartoons are just another episode in a dominant group doing everything it can to remind others that they are seen as inferior. There's an analogy with spoiled children who provoke an animal until it lashes out (usually in a more violent fashion than what the children were doing) and then the parents respond by putting the animal down, because it's hurt their poor innocent child.

Put this in a context where thousands of muslims (many of whom we have found out were innocent) are being abused in detainment camps, with religious humiliation being one of the primary tools used. Then consider that the same paper refused to publish cartoons of christ a few years ago on the grounds that they would offend people, and this looks less like an issue of free speech, and more about people who are interested in furthering a war between Christianity and Islam. Note that Andrew Sullivan is using a commentator who advocates deporting Muslims from Europe as an encouraging sign about the hard thought that people on the left are engaging in. The people who wrote these cartoons are in the business of ensuring that we spend the next 50 years at War with the Muslim world. They're no better than any other political leader who uses war as a convenient tool. If they get that war, yes, we better hope that our nations win, but for those of us who are atheists, apatheists, or just uninterested in having our politics governed by religion, there's more than one reason to be scared of what's going on here.
The other thing to add is that taking the long view, the retribution which will be enacted against the Islamic world for this incident will dwarf the damage that the rioting has done.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006


While watching the game, it occured to me that most everyone complains about overpaid juvenile athletes, whereas no one complains about the announcers except for the occasional intelligent fan. This is in spite of the fact that announcers obviously are much less skilled and do much less work than the athletes(*). Announcers do three things:
1. Recite statistics
2. Make inane non-mathematical statements about the players
(2a. Make homoerotic comments about Sean May's "big soft hands")
3. Reminisce about when they played basketball
They do a pretty good job of two(three) of those things. But would it really kill us to require our sportscasters to have some notion that the law of small numbers doesn't exist? I'm not asking that they be doing 2-way-anovas before every statement they make, and I'm fine if the vast majority of the things they say have little to no statistical significance, but can we please not try to make predictions based on the free throw percentage of a kid who has taken 12 free-throws during the entire season?
Absolute statistical genius: "Wes Miller is 10 for 15 from the line this year, so he's not very good, but that's probably because he's been to the line so rarely."
Within a single comment, the announcer asserts that these 15 shots are enough to verify a stable level of free throw shooting ability, which is also so ephemeral that another 20 trips to the line or so could've erased it. Rarely have "p" and "not-p" been so rapidly asserted by the same person.

(*) Yes, the athletes eventually become sportscasters, but they're good at their first job and horrible at the second.


It's everyone's favorite game wherein I talk about things I want to get done in the medium to long term instead of actually contributing to the academic work which I need to get done today or this week.

1. I need to get a general familiarity with the major issues in metaphysics. The things I'm familiar with, I tend to know quite well, but I have huge holes. I think I'll read
Metaphysics: A Contemporary Introduction by Michael Loux. This should mostly provoke the response that I've seen this before, and I'm just jogging my memory.
Metaphysics: Contemporary Readings by Michael Loux. This should be a bit more novel.
The Bible by David Lewis.
After those, I'll probably hit up Jason for suggestions, and possibly look at the syllabus for his summer course.

2. Talking to one of the best prospective students this weekend in WashU, I realized that I'll probably have to shelve my thoughts about the Special Composition Question for a while (see Quotidiens). He didn't have any devastating objections, but spending a little bit of time fleshing the idea out with him led me to think that there are too many things I don't know to make a serious attempt at articulating my proposal at this point. Taking it as a conjecture that I'm aiming to prove might be a good way to focus my studies.

3. Study some logic. I realized on the plane ride home from St. Louis that I didn't remember the rules of passage (and correlatively the process of prenexing quantified statements). I also never really got anywhere in studying modal logic. If I don't want to take logic during my first semester in grad school, I might could need to do something about all this.

Monday, January 30, 2006

From Wikipedia:
Kripke delivered the John Locke Lectures in philosophy at Oxford in 1973. Titled Reference and Existence, they are in many respects a continuation of Naming and Necessity, and deal with the subjects of fictional names and perceptual error. They have never been published and the transcript is officially available only in a reading copy in the university library, which cannot be copied or cited without Kripke's permission. In fact many copies are informally circulated among philosophers. Its influence, though considerable, is thus difficult to trace.
I find it slightly odd that a philosopher can deliver a seven part series of public lectures and then control the transcript so that others are technically (if not actually) prohibited from even mentioning it in print. There's such a thing as speaking off the record, but surely this isn't it (for contrast, most of the John Locke lectures for the past decade and at least a large number of those before then have been published as books).

Fish in a barrel pt 4

I ran across some confirmation of the obvious fact that the media is paying much less attention to the NSA spying leak than it paid the Lewinski scandal. Not a surprise, but it's useful to see some quantitative measures, on which the difference is striking.

The charitable interpretation is that the Clinton administration had so many fewer scandals that the media was forced to spend time on unimportant or completely imaginary wrongdoing. (Media Matters)

Monday, January 16, 2006

Interesting tidbits

From Bill Lycan's preliminary description of his seminar on Dualism:

"First we shall examine the standard objections and consider some Dualist replies.
(I have come to think that the standard objections are actually pretty
feeble.)" Unless something has drastically changed, Bill is a staunch materialist in spite of this, so it's interesting that he'd trash the standard objections.

"April 4: Intentionality! (I think plain old intentionality is a much
worse problem for materialism than is anything in the area of subjectivity,
qualia, phenomenal character,....)"

I fairly well agree with that. In the fall of 2004, I wrote a paper for Bill on the Knowledge Argument. The argument runs as follows: you can know anything you want about the physical structure of the world, as well as neurology and psychology, the dynamics of color perception, etc, but if you have never seen red, then none of that information will tell you what it is like to see red. Therefore, there is some fact you do not know if you merely possess all the physical information. This is a problem for materialism (when you try to make this sentence precise, there be dragons in that forest...). The standard response is to say that you do gain information when you experience red which is not a consequence of physics, etc. This is just because you have a particular "introspective perspective" that is, your brain monitors the activities going on inside of your brain more or less directly, so that particular types of activity in your brain appear to you as seeing red.

My paper argued(*) that this response didn't get you squat, because the notion of a perspective was every bit as problematic for materialism as the explanatory gap between physics and color sensations. The problem is closely linked to how original intentionality arises: how is it that this particular lump of matter comes to have a viewpoint on the world, which is roughly similar to having any intentionality at all, since presumably any creature with intentionality has some sort of perspective.

(*) Actually, my paper did not argue anything. It flailed at various targets.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

I am a ridiculous creature

One good way to improve your Go is to review games you've played, noticing what worked and what didn't, finding slack moves, whether or not the opponent noticed them, etc. It's best if you do it with someone substantially stronger than you, or at least your opponent, but it's still worthwhile if it's just you.

In that spirit, I present you with a commented game I played. No, really..I took a game which was on my computer, wrote down comments, showed some alternate sequences, etc. It's in a .sgf file.

There's something wrong with me.

Commented game

Fish in a barrel pt 3

Duke is really freakin good. They have played five ranked opponents and won by an average of 16.8 points. The fact that they are the obvious choice to win the national championship this year makes me very sad.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006


I played the best game of Go today. Only made one obvious mistake at the beginning of the game when I thought I could push through a one point jump and cut when I couldn't. I ended up starting a decent sized fight which I was pretty sure I could win. Then I came up with a several move sequence which exploited a throw-in and shortage of liberties to catch six stones. That then led to a one sided ko which netted me ten points or so.

I was about to post a couple of mundane updates earlier this week, one of which would've included a complaint that my Go was stagnating and every game I played was bad. Good timing.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

A minor quibble with Chomsky

From his newsweek interview:
Well, it's extremely difficult to talk about this because of a very rigid doctrine that prevails in the United States and Britain which prevents us from looking at the situation realistically. The doctrine, to oversimplify, is that we have to believe the United States would have so-called liberated Iraq even if its main products were lettuce and pickles and [the] main energy resource of the world were in central Africa. Anyone who doesn't accept that is dismissed as a conspiracy theorist or a lunatic or something. But anyone with a functioning brain knows that that's not true—as all Iraqis do, for example. The United States invaded Iraq because its major resource is oil. And it gives the United States, to quote [Zbigniew] Brzezinski, "critical leverage" over its competitors, Europe and Japan. That's a policy that goes way back to the second world war. That's the fundamental reason for invading Iraq, not anything else.
I think Chomsky is slightly off on his analysis of the 'rigid doctrine': I think you were perfectly able to admit in civilized discourse that part of the reason we invaded Iraq was its oil reserves, you just can't do that while maintaining that this fact has any moral relevance. This isn't really based on any detailed thought about the situation, I just feel like I heard a lot of people (even within the media) talk about how we were involved in part because of the oil, but I agree with Chomsky that you never heard anyone prominent act as if that made any difference to the justification of the invasion.

On the subject of bad excuses

It appears that the supreme court nominee was part of a Princeton organization which was opposed to large numbers of women and minorities attending the university (it's hard to determine exactly what the group's stance was, but it seems clearly reactionary). The best excuses that the various people were able to offer when interviewed by the Daily Princetonian were that he might not have been in the organization despite having listed it on a resume, or if he was in it, that was merely to get jobs and wouldn't have mentioned it on his resume unless he was exploiting a connection to someone in the organization. So either he's a liar or completely unprincipled. Good traits for a justice, I hear.

Monday, January 09, 2006

A tepid defense of conceptual analysis

Over break, I read Frank Jackson’s book “From Metaphysics to Ethics: A Defense of Conceptual Analysis, along with a review of it by Steve Stich and Jonathan Weinberg. S&W pose two questions to Jackson concerning the empirical assumptions that he makes: first, Jackson seems to rely on a dubious notion of concepts as embodying a folk theory, and second, he seems to assume interpersonal consistency of intuitions about hypothetical cases without any basis. What I have to say mostly bears on the first question.

S&W note that in the contemporary cognitive science literature most researchers have adopted theories upon which our concepts do not resemble any sort of “folk theory.” For reasons of space, they only examine one alternative, exemplar theories of concepts.

On such a theory, a given concept is constituted by a set of exemplars, which can be seen as detailed ‘descriptions’ of particular members of the category. When called upon to answer whether some new object is a member of the category, we determine how similar it is to several of the exemplars, and render a verdict on that basis (much of the processing will be unconscious). One important fact about the theory is that a person’s recent emotional and cognitive history “primes” or activates a subset of the exemplars, as well as altering the level of similarity which must be achieved for a positive judgment. So there is a substantial degree of intrapersonal variance in people’s intuitions, as well as interpersonal variance in the exemplars various people have.

Neither of the points which S&W make are very definitive attacks on Jackson’s account as they stand (in all fairness, S&W present them as questions). There is a doctrine, typical of the rationalists, but also present in Aristotle, that only a certain sort of person is capable of properly doing philosophy. For instance, Plato believed that you had to spend years studying a variety of subjects in order to develop your “rational intuition” (not the Platonic term) before you could properly do philosophy.

I don't know whether exemplars are supposed to be the sort of thing you can intentionally influence but it seems possible given that Stich points towards “the importance of myths and parables in moral pedagody, since these stories can serve as the basis for building stored up exemplars” (639). This fits with the fact that you can inculcate reluctant undergraduates with the traditional philosophical intuitions (Gettier and Twin Earth cases, for example). Since one’s recent cognitive and emotional history prime the exemplars that are used in a particular case, perhaps one of the abilities that characterizes a good philosopher is the ability to prime the proper exemplars in herself. If that was true, then there could be an account of how both interpersonal and intrapersonal variation in conceptual intuitions can be compatible with the possibility of conceptual analysis.

There are still problems for this sort of account. Jackson meant to defend an account of conceptual analysis on which the philosopher is elucidating folk concepts—if this is the case, that places a limit on the divergence between the exemplars used by the philosopher and those used by the folk. Still, even this account does not require perfect agreement in judgments-you possess the same concepts at different times in your life, even though you activate different exemplars and make different judgments at different times.

Pointing out that this account is available obviously falls quite short of defending it. In particular, what reason do we have to suppose that anything about the philosophical training we undergo in the Anglo-American tradition has any of the effects on our intuitions that are mentioned above? I think even if everything I've said so far is correc, that question might prove impossible to answer.

Friday, January 06, 2006

A steaming pile of shit

A little bit of philosophy of science can be a very bad thing. Albert Aschuler on the Dover court decision:

The court argues that ID does not follow the ground rules of science because it is not “testable” or “falsifiable.” Like most writers on the subject, the court invokes the image of science associated with Karl Popper – a view still endorsed by many scientists but rejected for good reason by most philosophers of science. W. V. Quine (and before him Pierre Duhem) showed that paradigm-preserving explanations are always available. New data never require the abandonment of a particular belief when we are willing to sacrifice other beliefs. In that sense, no scientific proposition is ever falsifiable.
This summary of 20th century philosophy of science would be poor by the standards of an undergraduate paper, while the apparent inference to rejecting any demand for falsifiability is simply appalling.

Monday, January 02, 2006


Eat, sleep, relax. Keep up the good work. Eat all of the candy and drink all the booze I received this christmas (I've failed at this one for some of the recent holidays).