October 29, 2007

The diversity of philosophy

Quoting a quotation of a summary (with quotations) of Anita Allen's keynote address at the recent first meeting of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers (my source; the punctuational oddities are, I believe, theirs):

“I have not been able to encourage other people like me to go into philosophy because I don’t think it has enough to offer them. The salaries aren’t that great, the prestige isn’t that great, the ability to interact with the world isn’t that great, the career options aren’t that great, the methodologies are narrow. Why would you do that,” she asks, “when you could be in an African American studies department, a law school, a history department, and have so many more people to interact with who are more like you, a place where so many more methods are acceptable, so many more topics are going to be written about? Why would you close yourself off in philosophy?”I feel that philosophy is hoisting itself by its own petard. Its unwillingness to be more inclusive in terms of issues, methods, demographics, means that it’s losing out on a lot of vibrancy, a lot of intellectual power.”Despite delight at the birth of the collegium, the existence finally of a “critical mass” of black female philosophers, she admits “philosophy still feels to me like an isolated profession. I don’t think I would encourage a black woman who has big ideas necessarily to go into philosophy,” Allen says. “Why? What’s the point? Go out and win the Pulitzer Prize! Don’t worry about academic philosophy. On the other hand, I would like to see that world open up to more women and women of color.”

I worry a lot about the lack of diversity in philosophy. (Setting aside for the moment the problems with treating diversity as a mass noun.) As a discipline, we're notorious for being just about the only branch of the humanities that's still as male- and caucasian-dominated as physics and mathematics. That's an ethical problem, and it's also an epistemological problem.

The first thing I want to ask is, How do we create more diversity in the community of philosophers? The obvious but unhelpful answer is, Eliminate or counteract the features of that community that drive off most of the potential philosophers that aren't caucasian men. This leads to the second question, What makes contemporary philosophy so unattractive to people who aren't caucasian men? And this question is ill-posed. Philosophy isn't unattractive in an absolute sense. It's unattractive as a major compared to other majors, as a career compared to other careers, as a discipline compared to other disciplines. The choice to go into philosophy is neither made at any one discrete moment nor made in a vacuum.

So, before answering the second question, we need to identify the comparable disciplines that do not have the problems with diversity that philosophy has. This, I think, is fairly easy: pretty much every other discipline in the humanities. The interdisciplinary disciplines that have formed over the last 35+ years -- African American studies, gender studies, and so on -- are especially important answers here. Someone interested in clinical psychology might take a courses or two in philosophy of mind and early psychology (Freud, James, et al. were still considered philosophers), but she's unlikely to end up a philosopher. Likewise with political science and history. African American studies, gender studies, and similar interdisciplinary disciplines in the humanities, by contrast, draw heavily on the work of a certain kind of philosopher, just as much as they draw on the work of historians, sociologists, political theorists, and so on.

This leads me to my hypothesis. As distinct majors, these interdisciplinary disciplines are drawing potential philosophy students away from philosophy. To expand on Allen's question, Why would you go into philosophy when African American studies is a much more inviting place to do the same sort of thing?

The passage from Allen has given me some things to think about under the aegis of my hypothesis. First, doing philosophy in gender studies (with which I'm more familiar than African American studies) isn't the same thing as doing philosophy in philosophy. The abstract worries over, say, whether compositional nihilism is compatible with ante rem realism about universals (and if so, what sort of ante rem realism) that are the central problems of contemporary Anglophone philosophy are non-starters in gender studies. This is one thing that Allen might mean when she talks about `so many more topics ... be[ing] written about' in other humanities departments. While the methods and techniques can be the same, the topics are very very different.

But this is a gross overgeneralisation. There are ethicists and political philosophers in philosophy departments; not all of us spend all of our time worrying about compositional nihilism. The topics contemporary ethicists and political philosophers consider are much more closely aligned to the topics considered in gender studies. And it's also grossly prejudicial to assume that an undergraduate trying to choose whether to major in philosophy or African American studies wouldn't be interested in worrying about compositional nihilism, as grossly prejudicial as assuming that women decide not to pursue careers in mathematics because set theory is just so boring.

Hence, second, the content and topics of `mainstream', `important' philosophy are not the only reasons why philosopher has a problem with diversity. As much as I'd like an excuse to cast metaphysics out (in the nicest possible way, of course), diversity is not going to be one. So we need to look at other potential causes. We need to look at discrimination, on both a personal and structural level. Third, we can't do this, as philosophers are so often wont to do, from our armchairs. We cannot divine, a priori, the reasons why our discipline is so much less attractive than our sister disciplines in the humanities. We cannot, by pure ratiocination, discover the objectively best way to structure the discipline. We need to be talking to students from underrepresented backgrounds, especially those who consider majoring in philosophy and decide to major in something else -- Why did you decide to major in gender studies/history/African American studies/Swanhili instead of philosophy?

Fourth, this means we need to meet these students. We need to offer classes within philosophy that deliberately align with and support the classes offered under the heading of African American studies, gender studies, and so on. We need Intro to Philosophy classes that aren't just a parade of dead wealthy European men worrying about whether the fact that the stick looks bent but feels straight means I'm being deceived by an evil demon. We need joint minors and, eventually, majors with these interdisciplinary disciplines -- not to mention more traditional disciplines like history, psychology, and political science.

October 26, 2007

A question for every Democratic presidential candidate

Over the past seven years, we've seen the Bush administration systematically and continually assault the Constitutional doctrine of the separation of governmental powers. This assault has resulted in one of the greatest expansions in Executive power in the history of the United States, and is widely regarded as the single most pernicious effect this administration will have on the American way of life. Simply put, the presidency of George W. Bush has threatened the rule of law in this country.

Bush's Democratic successor will have an opportunity to use this Executive overreach to undo much of the more immediate harms the current administration has inflicted on the United States. Between executive orders and signing statements, the next President will be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, roll back the Bush tax cuts, and rebuild our health care system without the co-operation of the Congress. But this successor may well be the last chance this country has for restoring the separation of powers. Should you win the nomination and then the election, you will therefore be presented with a historic moral dilemma: Will you sacrifice your policy goals for the sake of restoring the rule of law, or will use the nearly unchecked power of the Executive to achieve policy reform?

October 25, 2007

The metabolic fallacy

There is, or so one often hears (as I heard last weekend), one sure-fire, guaranteed, absolutely foolproof way for a fat person to lose weight: eat less. More specifically, first you figure out the average number of calories burned a day, then you eat less than that. You'll burn `excess fat' making up the difference. (Presumably, once you reach your target weight, you resume a normal intake.)

Only problem: this doesn't work. As anyone who either is, or knows someone who is, fat or thin and tried to lose or gain weight knows, `naturally thin' people can eat `all they want' and never gain and ounce, while `naturally fat' people can't keep their weight down longer than about five years.

Maybe you think the former cases -- the thin people -- just have a high metabolism, and the latter cases just are `psychologically weak'. Fat = psychologically weak is certainly a popular narrative in our culture. But that's an odd asymmetry: thin people are thin for physiological reasons, but fat people are fat for psychological reasons. And the `high metabolism' explanation doesn't work for thin people anyways -- just factor the metabolic rate or an estimate thereof into the calculation of the number of calories burned a day. Likewise with a `low metabolism' explanation for fat people. You'll see the same thing.

No, something is wrong in the line of thought above. And that something is the assumption that there's this number, called the average number of calories burned a day.

Now, in trying to calculate this number, of course you have to look over a period of time (previous week? previous one year? previous ten years?), and throw out exceptional days (that day you went on the 12 mile hike on Mt. Rainier, and that week you were too sick with the flu to do much more than shuffle to the bathroom and back). This requires making choices about what data to include and exclude, and these will be arbitrary but make a difference. If that's what I meant, then the easy reply would be to point out that this difference will, most likely, be negligible, or utterly irrelevant to the process by which you actually calculate your average number of calories burned a day (that is, by carrying around a little journal on a `normal day' and making note of what you do, how often you do it, and for how long).

So that's not what I mean. The average number business is confusing, so let's drop it. What we really assume when we assume there is such a thing as the average number of calories burned a day is that metabolic rate is roughly constant from day to day. Again, some daily variation is likely and expected, but typically things will stay within a fairly narrow range.

In particular, the line of thought from the first paragraph needs to assume that the metabolic rate is roughly the same for a given individual both when they are fat and when they are thin.

And this assumption was pretty thoroughly debunked. Nearly fifty years ago.

There is a reason that fat people cannot stay thin after they diet and that thin people cannot stay fat when they force themselves to gain weight. The body's metabolism speeds up or slows down to keep weight within a narrow range. Gain weight and the metabolism can as much as double; lose weight and it can slow to half its original speed.

You might still think the counting-calories method would work -- we just need to be able to measure the change in metabolism. But the change in metabolism isn't the only effect of dramatic weight loss.

fat people who lost large amounts of weight might look like someone who was never fat, but they were very different. In fact, by every metabolic measurement, they seemed like people who were starving.

Before the diet began, the fat subjects' metabolism was normal - the number of calories burned per square meter of body surface was no different from that of people who had never been fat. But when they lost weight, they were burning as much as 24 percent fewer calories per square meter of their surface area than the calories consumed by those who were naturally thin.

The Rockefeller subjects also had a psychiatric syndrome, called semi-starvation neurosis, which had been noticed before in people of normal weight who had been starved. They dreamed of food, they fantasized about food or about breaking their diet. They were anxious and depressed; some had thoughts of suicide. They secreted food in their rooms. And they binged.

The Rockefeller researchers explained their observations in one of their papers: "It is entirely possible that weight reduction, instead of resulting in a normal state for obese patients, results in an abnormal state resembling that of starved nonobese individuals."

This doesn't formally refute the line of thought from the beginning of the post: if you're fat you can lose weight by carefully monitoring caloric intake. And literally starving yourself. So the `fallacy' of the title is more polemical than logical. Still, this is a case of the `cure' being orders of magnitude worse than the `disease'.

October 24, 2007


Will Wright, Nerdiest of Nerds, says the much anticipated Spore will be released in 6 months. He says the game is done an is just being tweaked and balanced at this point, but healthy skepticism would not be remiss here. Still, it's nice to think that then end might be in sight. Link.

An Offer I Couldn't Refuse

You know how I've been talking about that HD-DVD player for the 360 lately? Well I bit the bullet and got one. It seems Best Buy has changed its initial position and is considering the player an actual HD-DVD player and not an Xbox 360 accessory. This means the machine is eligible for the 2 free movies of your choice they were giving away with all the other HD-DVD players. This means that when you purchase the player for $179 at Best Buy you get King Kong (packed in with the player), 2 free HD-DVD movies of your choice, Heroes Season 1 on HD-DVD, and 5 free HD-DVD movies in the mail through the Toshiba promotion. HD-DVD movies run between $25 and $35 and Heroes Season 1 is $99, so that's about $300 worth of movies/tv shows for free. Granted, I don't really want King Kong and the selection from Toshiba only has two or three movies that I'd want to hold on to, but if I can get $50 in store credit from Gamestop trading the movies in that I don't want then I'll still consider this a steal. For those of you with an Xbox 360 or who are planning on getting one, this is a hell of a deal.

October 22, 2007

It's Alive!!!!

I received a brand new Xbox 360 from Microsoft today to replace the dead one. At under two weeks turnaround between shipping it out and getting the new one, I have to say that I'm impressed with the service and no longer worried about whether this new machine might die.

October 20, 2007

Win A 360 And More

Update to a previous post: I know nobody will see this if I post it to the original post, but in addition to the 5 free HD-DVDs you can get from Toshiba for purchasing an HD-DVD player for your Xbox 360, now you can also get the first season of Heroes for free from Buy.com and Best Buy in addition to the five free movies. Best Buy is also running a deal this week where you get two free movies from them with the purchase of any HD-DVD player but there is some dispute as to whether this applies to the player for the 360. Even without those last two free movies, if you've got a 360, a fan of Heroes, and you're in the market for an HD player, this is a pretty sweet deal. Link.

Don't have an Xbox 360? Amazon is giving away 90 Heroes themed 360s over the next month, so there's your shot. Link.

Unreal Tournament 3 is going to allow PC gamers to build levels and other modifications on their PCs and then export them to the PS3, where presumably anyone can download them. Now, my experience in mods for the PC is a little out of date, but I played plenty of mods in college and about half of them were utter crap, 45% wouldn't be worth your time if they hadn't been free, and 5% were legitimately good. So yeah, this is really interesting news and there's some real potential for cool free stuff to come out of this, but it doesn't make my heart sing the way it seems to make some people. Link.

Microsoft and Toshiba are working on an Xbox 360 that will include an HD-DVD player in the machine itself. Now, I think the Blu-Ray/HD-DVD competition has been and continues to be horrible for consumers and is still nowhere near being resolved, but I suppose this could be an interesting system as a replacement for the Elite. Link. Update: After mulling a bit I think this probably is referring to the next generation of Xbox and probably not a replacement for the Elite. Crazy though it may seem, the replacement for the 360 will probably be announced in less than two years and be released in three, so it would make sense that they're in the planning stages now.

Thanks, EA.

October 19, 2007

Video Game Blog Dump

The new NPD numbers are out for the month of September (though there seems to be some question as to whether they count the first week of October here as well) and Halo 3 sold 3.3 million units. Keep in mind that Halo 3 came out the last week of September. The game also bumped the hardware sales up to over half a million as well, surpassing the Wii. We'll see how that carries through to the holiday season, but my guess is this is only the beginning. Link.

Microsoft is offering five free HD-DVDs if you buy the HD-DVD player for the Xbox 360. At $200 it's not super cheap, but it's probably the cheapest of the HD players and five free movies helps a bit I guess. Plus, as far as deals like this go, this is a fairly decent list of options. Link.

When the PS3 launched both 20gb and 60gb versions contained both the CPU and the GPU (graphics processing unit) of the PS2 in addition to all the computing stuff that makes PS3 games go. When they brought out the 80gb version of the PS3 they ditched the PS2 CPU in order to cut some costs. From what I understand this solution worked pretty well for playing PS2 games. For the new 40gb version, however, Sony is *also* ditching the PS2 GPU, meaning the machine will be completely unable to play PS2 games. It will, of course, be $399 rather than $499 they're charging for the 80gb version, but Sony Computer Entertainment America CEO Jack Tretton thinks we're actually better off without backwards compatibility. You see, now you can buy a PS3 and a PS2 for a combined price of $70 less than the original 60gb PS3. What a deal! (/sarcasm) Link.

October 16, 2007

Will Wright Also Resolved The Iran Hostage Crisis

Wow, it's amazing it took this long to come out, but before he made Sim City and all the other Sim games, Will Wright won the race eventually known as Cannonball Run. Dom DeLuise was his navigator. Will Wright is the awesomest ever. Link.

October 11, 2007

One Of Us! One Of Us!

EA has assimilated Bioware and Pandemic, two of the best video game studios out there. Link.

P.S. The comments following that post are of varying interest, but are worthwhile if only because they produced this:

You know the sick part? I knew within a few seconds what episode that shot is from. Kudos to anyone who can name the episode *and* tell me what Picard is quoting.

Quite possibly the bestest thing ever

Pour Silk Chocolate Soymilk in a mug. Microwave for 2 minutes or so. Add a dash of paprika.

A Moment Of Silence

Please, everyone, bow your heads out of respect for my fallen comrade, my Xbox 360. It was quite nearly two years old and had played many games but the recent strain of finishing Halo 3 in two days was just too much and it finally died yesterday afternoon. I've sent the body off to Microsoft where, like any good pet, it will be quickly replaced. I suppose they might try to repair it. If that's the case, ZOMBIE 360!

October 10, 2007

Holy Crap!

Somebody get a home loan now. We're moving to a decommissioned missile base in Central Washington State. Link.

Tip o' the hat to PA.

October 09, 2007

Cannon Rock

Insomnia set in, so I listened to twenty or so versions of Cannon Rock. I love that the internet allows musicians to gather like this, showing each other what personal twist they can each put on a basic song. Also, I think this song is ripe for an appearance in Rock Band.

And because I'm still up....

Hammer tricks.
Crazy claymation.
Funny cat.
Holy crap, some dude getting tasered at a Kerry rally.
That's one tall bike/Ron Paul advert.
Honestly, I was only hoping there was a reason they misspelled "lucky". There wasn't.

October 05, 2007

Is The Whale Coming Back Next?

Winnipeg is being considered as an expansion city for the NHL. Is there anyone in the world that thinks expansion is a good idea? I'm not a contraction hawk, but come on, move a team to Winnipeg if it's such a good place for a hockey. Link.

October 04, 2007

I Needs Me Some Of That Haloez Money

Halo 3 has raked in $300 million in one week of sales. I know it sounds crazy, but I'm betting that there will be a Halo 4 at some point. Link.

October 02, 2007

A hypothesis

The reason scientists dislike philosophers (as a discipline) is that they -- the scientists -- have no idea what the hell philosophy is.

Be sure to skim the comments thread. Commenters Caledonian and Glen Davidson are especially wacky in the having-no-idea-what-philosophy-is respect.

I think I'm done reading PZ, frankly. The biology-for-the-masses posts are what really hooked me on his blog in the first place, and those are few and far between lately. His atheist shtick is really nothing more than disingenuous ad hominem attacks on religious believers. I'm still not a theist, and have no interest in theism, but I've had enough of `only stupid people believe in God, except I didn't mean stupid even though that's what I've said ad nauseum'.

PZ's spot on my daily reading list, I think, will now be occupied by Feminist philosophers, which, based on the past week, is pretty good at exactly what you would expect from the name.

The Brave And The Bold

Who among us is brave enough to try a beverage purposefully trying to taste like sports cream? Link.