March 30, 2007

In which I pick up, and drop, a bad habit

`Just in case' does not mean `if and only if'. You bring along an umbrella just in case it rains; two sets are of the same cardinality just in the case that there is a bijection between them. What a difference a definite article makes!

Where did I pick up the habit of using `just in case' when I really meant `just in the case that'? Possibly from one Andrew M. Bailey. Except that I was doing it two years ago, quite a while before I met AB. More likely this nasty little meme has been circulating throughout the Anglophone philosophical community for quite some time, and both AB and I contracted it that way.

March 24, 2007

What is feminist philosophy?

From a recent review in the NDPR:

I have been puzzled by a tension between feminist critiques and extensions of Western philosophical traditions and the understandings of feminism that appear in counter-critiques by those, like Landau, who identify themselves as feminist-friendly. Landau finishes with a characterization that has helped me see the issue more clearly. He states that "[f]eminist philosophy can be considered as a truth-seeking enterprise, or as a political endeavor." (p. 165) To treat these as mutually exclusive alternatives, as he does, is to reject the premises on which feminist philosophy is based. The investigation of power relations, the role of the political, social, and cultural in the search for truth and understanding, is one of feminist philosophy's key features, one that it shares with a number of other philosophical traditions, including pragmatism. That it is worth investigating how the political can hinder or aid our understanding of the world and our place in it is a presupposition of feminist philosophy. If we believe that truth-seeking and political goals are mutually exclusive, then it is difficult to grasp the nature of core feminist arguments.

March 21, 2007

Portrait of the web of belief

Like many philosophers of science, I'm a holist. Very loosely, this means that I don't think individual statements or propositions as such are ever shown to be true or false or have a determinate meaning. They get their meaning -- and their truth or falsehood -- from being part (or not) of what Quine called `the web of belief' or `our best theory of the world'. Astrophysics, for example, doesn't stand on its own; it depends on our mathematical theories of abstract geometry and topology (which is not so surprising), but it is also connected with our chemical theories and even biology and sociology (which should be quite surprising).

This image maps these relations between different `paradigms' (a more accurate term would probably be `microdisciplines') within contemporary science. (For a legible or printed version, follow the links here.) Astrophysics is that cluster up at the top; pure mathematics is the cluster below it, with chemistry over on the left, social science on the right, and the biological sciences sweeping out the long C across the bottom. But, as the map makes clear, these disciplines are not sharply defined, and draw on and support each other. It would be impossible to remove and replace one `paradigm' without changes rippling through the entire web.

Something is missing from this picture, however, and that lack is saddening and frustrating. The vast empty space in the middle of this image should house robust and active research programmes in logic, ethics, and philosophy of science. The function of philosophy is to be the theory describing the structure and management of our aggregate best theory of the world. Philosophy is not prior to the web, or above it (there is no prima philosophia); instead, it forms the web into a coherent whole, drawing support from and supporting the other theories just the same way they draw support from and support each other. The absence of philosophy from this map reflects the sad fact that much of contemporary philosophy is irrelevant to, and indifferent towards, contemporary science. Often the best philosophers of science manage to do is squabble over rarefied and ludicrously abstract models; other microdisciplines within philosophy don't even usually get that close.

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March 20, 2007

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

I've never played a tabletop RPG, but came across this and thought it'd be helpful for those who might consider attempting such a game.

March 18, 2007

The Show

So, today is the last day of The Show: With Ze Frank. You wouldn't think something like the end of a video blog would effect anybody, but you'd be wrong.

Ultimately I think The Show was about building commuinity, about finding crazy esoteric ways of bringing people together in a world that's increasingly set upon impersonality. Ze found a way to truly make the news personal rather than entertaining. He also found a way to make people interested in and care about a small community of users in a way that I'm not sure has been done before. Now, I'm not saying people haven't found community on the internet before. I've posted on all kinds of blogs before, including on my own, but The Show always seemed special somehow. It brought a zest and excitement to the blogosphere that I haven't felt in a long time. I wish Ze all the best in the world, and may all the old viewers deftly deflect the hard chargers.

As I find myself contemplating the next several weeks I can think of several things that I need to get done. What I do know, however, is that I'm going to miss The Show with Ze Frank. It was great, and like so many great things it's gone. Se te las buenas memorias! I know I'll be watching for Ze to pop up somewhere out here.

March 16, 2007

So I happened to pick up Season 3 of Buffy today

Watching the first episode, it occurs to me that this isn't just about the necessity of confronting the difficult parts of life head-on. It's also an allegory about capitalism, with the demons forcing poor people to literally work themselves to death.

And then Buffy starts fighting with a hammer and sickle. I laughed and laughed. And then wrote this basically useless blog post.

March 15, 2007

It's Like Bosch In His Head

Go read this extremely crazy look into Bush's mindset. I'll wait, it's pretty long. Ok, and now we can all understand why we keep getting scandal after scandal, insanity following insanity. This is why the Administration will never turn itself around politically and why January '09 can't come fast enough.

March 13, 2007

Not Knowing Your Genre

The worst thing a character in any story can do to themselves is fail to recognize what kind of story they're in. The babysitter who's getting scary calls should call the police or get out of the house because staying there is just asking to get stabbed. The space marine who lands on some planet that's quiet, a little too quiet, should pack it in because any second now the crazy worm aliens are going to start offing people you don't know much about. The quarterback should realize his cheerleader girlfriend is going to end up with that quiet guy from the A/V Club because he's special, or something. The Bush Administration obviously doesn't understand that they're a cross between SPECTRE and KAOS.

Although, I suppose the really scary idea is that there might be something they're *actually* getting away with. Still, given their track record I suppose that will probably come out too. Josh Marshall thinks Attorney General Gonzales is going to have to resign over this. Given that this story will take a couple months to reach a full on boil it's going to be nearly impossible for the Administration to get out from under the scandal before full on primary season.

March 12, 2007

I'll admit it, I'm not an aesthetician

I love art, but sometimes I just get confused:

Even though Stingel's work does not always involve paint on canvas, it continually reflects upon the fundamental questions concerning painting today -- authenticity, hierarchy, meaning, and context.

First, those are individual words, not questions. Second, `authenticity' and `hierarchy'?

March 09, 2007

Spidey 4?

In a really terrible interview Avi Arad implies the Spiderman series will continue beyond the upcoming third movie. All of the principle actors' contracts as well as Sam Raimi's contract were for three movies. Who would star in or direct any further movies is unknown.

Speaking Of Watchmen

Evidently hidden in the internet trailer for 300 is a test image of Rorshach for the upcoming film adaptation of Alan Moore's masterpiece. Zach Snyder is directing both movies. It's hard to restrain the nerd inside me's excitement when stuff like this is acually being produced and released to the public. I know, I know, it's just a test image and this attempt at filming the comic could be just as doomed as every other verion talked about over the last several years. Still, awesome.

On Terminology

In the last post I mentioned picking up a trade paperback, which reminded me that I've been meaning to post something about comic book terminology for a while now. For the last several years "serious" comics have started to penetrate into a more mainstream audience and with that has a very slight annoyance on my part over the term "graphic novel". First, some straight up definitions. Traditionally comics are published in three primary forms, the strip, a short form booklet, and a longer form. Comic strips are referred to as such. The short form, usually taking the shape of an 8" by 11", 22 page booklet are usually called "comic books" and even though movies based on such books have made several billions of dollars are still considered the domain of children and to consist exclusively of men wearing their underwear on the outside of their pants and punching things a lot. This is, of course, not terribly accurate, but that's not really my concern.

The long form comic is where we run into a bit of confusion and my slight annoyance. Technically, a graphic novel is a comic story written and published in a long form. Companies also, however, bind together several issues of the shorter form "comic books" into a long form book and publish that as what is known as a trade paperback.

My annoyance is simply this, I feel like the term "graphic novel" has been appropriated by mainstream folks to represent "serious" comics which are suitable for adults to read. It's used as a term to justify participation in an activity and a medium which those people still deride as beneath them by removing any mention of "comics" from the name. This becomes all the more apparent when you consider that all of Alan Moore's major works, including the much vaunted V For Vendetta and Watchmen, were originally published as individual comic book issues. Preacher, soon to be made into an HBO Original Series, was published as comic books. I don't call Faulkner's stuff literature in fear that people will think I read Danielle Steel if I call them books.

Now, I said this was a minor annoyance and that's true. A world where people are discovering that comics are more than men-in-tights is better than a world where that 's not happening, even if they're being coy about it through the clever use of labels. There is a useful place in our terminology for graphic novel, but let's agree not to use it as a code word for "cool" or "serious".

Update: Here's an excerpt from Roeper's review of 300 that's exactly what I'm talking about.

"If you thought "Gladiator" was a bit too stingy with the bloodshed, if you
felt "Sin City" could have been more stylized, if you hate it when the masses
refer to graphic novels as "comic books," this is your day.

For today brings about the release of "300," and it is the "Citizen Kane"
of cinematic graphic novels."

Is Singer's principle consequentialist?

Yesterday I had a letter published in the Observer where I gave essentially the same argument from Singer's principle for universal health care that I used in the post from a few days ago. This was in response to a column the previous day by a much less pleasant libertarian than Andrew Bailey.

I had some compliments from an officemate and a few students, which was nice, but several people said they were surprised to see me say something so consequentialist.

But I don't think Singer's principle is consequentialist. To see why, let's first remind ourselves what Singer's principle says.

If we can prevent something very bad from happening by doing X, and if we can do X without sacrificing something of comparable moral worth, then doing X is morally required.

Singer is, of course, a consequentialist, so in the sense of the origin of the principle, it would be fair to call it a consequentialist principle.

But that's kind of a silly reason to call it consequentialist. Just because a consequentialist was the first person to formulate a principle doesn't mean that principle is verboten to ethicists of other theoretical camps. When we say a principle of ethics is consequentialist, we mean only a consequentialist can consistently endorse it. And, since I said Singer's principle was as close to an analytic truth as one would like, if the principle was consequentialist in this sense, it would seem that consequentialism is analytically true.

Which, while many consequentialists would stand up and applaud here, is probably not right. What I want to claim is that any ethical theory, not just consequentialist ones, can endorse Singer's principle.

Let's look at a classical example: suppose we can save the life of a skilled and influential doctor by harvesting the kidneys from a homeless person. Crude consequentialism takes Singer's principle as a major premiss, takes as its minor premiss the claim that the life of the doctor is of more moral worth than the life of the homeless person, and concludes that the sacrifice of the life of the homeless person is morally required to save the life of the doctor.

Now, no-one (at least, not very many ones) thinks this conclusion is acceptable. The problem is in the minor premiss: crude consequentialism gets things wrong when it starts saying that the life of one person is of more moral worth than that of another person. That is, the problem is not with the idea that different goods have different relative moral worth (as in the major premiss, Singer's principle), but instead with the particular assignments of different relative worths made by the theory (the minor premiss).

Every theory of ethics and politics is going to need to give an account of which goods are more valuable than others. This is the concrete difference between different theories, and possibly the only concrete difference. When the Aristotelean says that X is part of our natural function and Y is not, while the consequentialist retorts that Y will promote more aggregate good than X, is the argument really over anything but which of X and Y is of greater moral worth?

Thus, Singer's principle is an absolutely general -- and analytic -- principle of ethics, and one that, in some form or another, will be endorsed by every theory of ethics. (Perhaps communitarians will dislike the language of `sacrifice', and Aristoteleans might not like the language of `requirement', but they will still agree that some goods are to be favoured over others.) What the principle does not tell us is how to do the comparing of goods, how it is to be applied to a given situation. That is where different approaches to ethics will disagree.

Finally, I note that those disagreements do not always come up in every situation. I think universal health care is a good example: pretty much every serious approach to ethics is going to say (at the very least) that maximally unrestricted property rights are less morally important than individual lives. (Non-collectivists should note that I have said `maximally unrestricted property rights', not `all property rights per se'.) The ethical judgements that we take to be obvious and irrefutable serve as data for good theories. For example, if a theory says that organ harvesting is morally required (as in crude consequentialism), then we consider that a reductio ad absurdum of the theory. `Common sense' or pre-theoretical ethical reasoning is useful for getting at these ethical data. Hence, to the extent that there is a substantive domain of obvious and irrefutable ethical judgements, we don't need highly articulated ethical theories to actually do ethics. This is the level at which I generally try to write both on this blog and in my letters to the Observer.

Captain America

Spoilers ahead. This is mainly for Jamie, who may not have picked up or read his comics yet...

Captain America is dead! That's right, one of the most recognizable characters in comics was shot and killed in the recently released Captain America issue #25. For some background for those who might not have followed along, recently a super hero related disaster caused public sentiment to turn against super heroes in the Marvel Universe. The Government responded by passing the Super Hero Registration Act which required all persons possessing super powers to register their identities and the nature of their powers. Any such people wishing to use those powers in public would have to obtain a license after receiving training. These licensees would also be required to participate in missions for the government if the need arose, though the government also established and funded a full time super hero team in every state to deal with most such issues. Captain America and some others objected to the invasion of privacy and infringement on liberty the Act represented and refused to register. The pro and anti registration forces fought several battles which cause increasing amounts of collateral damage and casualties. In the final battle Cap realized the damage they were causing and that escalation had led to the groups losing focus of the argument. The Act was law and popular with Americans. Not willing to cause any more damage fighting for beliefs out-of-step with the American people, Cap surrendered and was arrested. On his way to trial an old enemy, forgotten in the fight between the heroes, arranged to have a sniper and an assassin on the ground fatally shoot Captain America three times.

This event has gotten all kinds of press, including some right wing nutjob ranting. It was last night's Word on The Colbert Report (which I can't seem to link to because it crashed my brower last time I tried, losing the previous version of this post).

The fan reaction has been mixed, as it always is. The cynical reaction is that this will be wiped away through some strained literary maneuver eventually. Superman died with much fanfare in the 90s only to be resurected a year later. Of course, this theory is totally correct. Steve Rogers will come back to life eventually. It's simply the nature of a medium where characters have had stories told about them for sometimes nearly seventy years, and that's fine. Writers keep thinking of stories to tell because the characters are compelling. A good story shouldn't be disregarded because of what some writer might do in the future, and by all accounts this is a *very* good story. I can't wait to pick up the trade paperback.

Update: Found this, which is awesome.

Update 2: Another media piece about Cap, and it's pretty good.

March 08, 2007


Here's the first review of 300 that I've come across. Granted, this is a comic site, so it's not a review your your average film goer. Still, I expect to enjoy myself when I eventually see this.

Here's Rotten Tomatoes. 62%. Not great, but then again, I expect a certain percentage of reviewers to dismiss films based on comics out of hand.

March 07, 2007

Rape is your punishment for Drinking While Female

A quotation from a rape apologist, via an excellent post on victim-blaming by Jill:

All women need to be taught a very simple lesson:

girl, if you go get drunk at a party, and you expect some random person to be looking out for you, you best expect to be disappointed. You make sure beforehand what you expect your friends to do for you. You think about the consequences before you take that next drink. Think while you still can. Or learn the hard way. Up to you.

My emphasis.

Just where did this gem appear? Townhall? WingNutDaily? Would you believe Alternet? (I can't get a permalink to the comment, so just search in-page for `blaming men')

Now, Alternet's discussion thread software is rather poorly designed, and I can't find a way to view some kind of profile or index of previous comments by this Iconoclast421 person, and most of the other comments broadly agree with the thesis of the article (that the single most important thing we need to do to prevent rape is hold rapists responsible for rape, not their victims). So maybe this is just some misogynist trolling Alternet, not a real-life `progressive'. Maybe Iconoclast421 would be more at home at Townhall.

Or maybe not. Someone with exactly the same handle seems to fancy him- or herself something of a leftist. And what I'm going to call a crypto-Marxist anti-feminist.

And `maintream' leftists and liberals wonder why feminists claim misogyny is pervasive across the political spectrum?

March 03, 2007

Interstellar travel may be practically impossible

but, fortunately, you don't have to go far to see some amazing things. Like this -- it's an ultraviolet image of a transit of the Moon across the Sun, and absolutely amazing, especially if you download the high quality video.

Via the Bad Astronomer, who also gives us information about a lunar eclipse tonight.

March 02, 2007

Why all the attention on Walter Reed?

If all you knew was what you saw on teevee, you'd think the combination of terrible care at an outrageous cost is only a problem in a single hospital. In reality, of course, that's an accurate characterisation of our entire health care system in this country. The question we (and, in particular, the journalists amongst us) should be asking is not `How did Walter Reed get so bad, and stay so bad for so long?' (to paraphrase some guy who just said something on The News Hour), but instead `How did our entire health care system get so bad, and stay so bad for so long?'

Incidentally, Mark Shields is a lameass for not asking this question in The New Hour's followup segment on the Walter Reed story.

Of course, I already know the answers to both of my questions. The blame for Walter Reed can be laid squarely at the feet of the VAA, and fixing it is just a matter of replacing some bureaucrats, maybe closing the hospital down and doing some superficial reorganising and rebudgeting. It doesn't require the radical overhaul of the entire medical system.

And, more importantly, fixing Walter Reed doesn't require rich people to pay higher taxes. Which is directly related to the reason health care is so fucked up in the US today: for 25 years now, rich people have cared more about their money than the lives of poor people, and in our system, money is power.

March 01, 2007


Reality-minded individuals have been having fun at the expense of Conservapedia for the last few days. This is something you guys really need to see. "Creationists can cite material showing that there is no real fossil evidence for the macroevolutionary position and that the fossil record supports creationism." No seriously, I'm tired of encyclopedias with a factual basis instead of the more proper conservative basis offered by Conservapedia.

Here's a challenge: find the most outrageously moronic or factually baseless statement or claim in Conservapedia and post it in the comments. Players will receive extra points if they sign up to edit Conservapedia and fix an inaccuracy, posting the original nonsense and your updated version.