Monday, October 29, 2007


I just got out of an hour and a half long meeting which included the phrase “a timeline with monthly benchmarks for generating a set of rubrics for assessing infused curriculum outcomes.”

As near as I can tell, this timeline is a third order assessment: it is a method for assessing our progress in developing a method for assessing the methods of assessment used in classes.

Friday, October 26, 2007

anthropomorphism checklist

anthropomorphism checklist
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

This is an exercise I do during my classes on Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. I think it is fun.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Joey and I switch to opera on youtube

Joey: What going *on*
Me: The girl just...and the boy...I don't know.
Joey: That princess.
Me: Yes, that's a princess.
Joey: That bears.
Me: Those are bears
Joey: Have teeth.
Me: They have teeth.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Herbie Hancock on Sesame Street

Herbie Hancock demonstrates the Fairlight Synthesizer to Maria and the children of Sesame Street

Right now Joey is engrossed in a video of Hancock live in 1971. I wonder how long I can keep him interested in this fusion stuff.

Added: I think it's safe to say that Rockit has not just been rehabilitated. It is now canon.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The fusillade of developmental facts argument against abortion

Every time I teach abortion I get three or four papers that attempt to argue the pro-life position by appealing to every single fact about human development the author can look up. They generally go like this

Paragraph 1: State the thesis that full moral status is present at conception, thus making all abortion wrong.

Paragraph 2: State some facts about early embryonic development, along with several things that aren't facts. Say that this shows that all abortion is wrong.

Paragraph 3: Emphasize that the heart starts beating very early on. As a matter of fact, blood circulation can be present as early as 4-5 weeks, however students will place the date even earlier. I just read a paper that asserted the heart was beating at 18 days. Whenever the heart is asserted to start beating, this fact is then used to claim that all abortion is wrong.

Paragraph 4: Finish up the developmental cycle. Repeat thesis.

Paragraph 5: Conclusion.

This argument simply doesn't work. You cannot both assert that every stage of fetal development is morally significant and that full moral significance is present at conception. If you really felt that the presence of a beating heart marked the onset of personhood, than you would allow abortion before that event.

Now perhaps what the people who write this paper are thinking is that the *potential* for a beating heart is what brings moral status. But if that is the case, why focus on the potential for these minor events in development, and just talk about being a potential sapient adult?

Monday, October 15, 2007

The Abortion Papers are Starting to Come in

I had forgotten the pains of reading student papers on abortion. The repetition of bad arguments and misinformation *hurts.* When I was at Auburn I started to create a tool that would let me drop in standardized responses to standard mistakes, sort of a FAQ I could use in paper grading. I never got as far with it as I should, because I got all caught up in researching particular scientific issues, like the so called "Post Abortion Syndrome"

With my current teaching load, I really do need to creating this FAQ quickly, without getting caught up in academic journal-level research. With that it mind, I am moving some (anonymized) comments from a student's rough draft here so I can begin to create the file.

Third Paragraph

“There are many forms of contraceptives out there for women to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies like birth control, condoms, the shot, and absincence.”

If this is so important to the pro-life argument, why does every major pro-life group also oppose all forms of birth control? This is a major anomaly in the public debate, and if you are going to raise the contraception argument, you really need to explain it. For example, A Woman’s Concern, the pro-life pregnancy counseling group views all birth control as demeaning.

Christina Page, quoted here reports that "there is not one pro-life group in the United States that supports the use of birth control."

“Abortion is an easy way out for people who do not want to take the responsibility of taking care of a baby.”

To make this argument, do you need to assume the conclusion of the first argument, that is, assume that the fetus has moral status? Notice, you could say that birth control is a way of avoiding the responsibility of having a baby, but presumably you do not because you do not think sperm or eggs on their own have moral status.

“Overall, if women are going to have sexual relations than they should be ready to take on all the responsibilities that come along with sex.”

Is this just an argument against sex for purposes other than reproduction? You seem close to saying that a couple who wants to strengthen their relationship and have fun should not have sex unless they also want to have a baby.

Also, you misspelled “abstinence.”

Fourth Paragraph

“There are also a number of risks and dangers that could happen to the mother during the abortion procedure.”

Are these moral arguments? That is, do these dangers, if they are real, make abortion *immoral* or just risky.

“Statistics show that abortion is more dangerous than childbirth.”

What statistics? Who collected them? How where they collected?

First trimester abortions---88% of all abortions—are *much* safer than childbirth. You can sometimes make abortion look more dangerous by focusing on later term abortions, which often have complications because the pregnancy is already going badly—that is what motivated the abortion to begin with. See here

“Women who have an abortion are four times more likely to die the following year than women who carry their pregnancy to full term.”

Again, where did this statistic come from? How was it collected?

“Abortion is a risk factor for breast cancer.”

To be blunt, this is not true. The connection has been alleged for some time by pro-life groups. At first the idea had some scientific plausibility, but a study published in the 1997 New England Journal of Medicine discredited the link. Pro life groups have ignored this and subsequent studies. The Bush administration even had information about the nonlink between abortion and breast cancer removed from government web sites.

My information on the abortion breast cancer non link came from Chapter 13 of this book but I forgot to mention that to my student. I also should have noted that she didn't want to say "There are many forms of contraceptives out there like...birth control."

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Another Thing Joey and I Found

I love the woman in the yellow dress at the bottom of the stairs.

Three useful god terms

While checking out the Wikipedia definitions for some terms used in my Eastern Phiosophy class, I came across two new words

Ignosticism is the refusal to decide on the existence of God until someone comes up with a coherent definition of what God is.

Henotheism is the belief that many gods exist, but that only one is deserving of your worship. As near as I can tell, most of the Hebrew bible was written by henotheists, not monotheists.

Meanwhile, my colleague Ben Cordry has coined the term "Deflationary Theism" to describe the viewpoint suggested in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, that the difference between theism and atheism is merely verbal.

Caroline asked me again why we don't say grace. I told her that grace was a part of a religion I don't believe in. She did not, thankfully, ask the follow up question "what is religion?" This is a question I ask my students regularly, and I ask it because I don't have a very good answer.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Kids' art update

As the co-proprietor of the North Country Academy for the Excruciatingly Fine Arts (which has not changed its name, nor will it, for the same reason that the East Village Inky did not change its name: You can take the excruciatingly fine artist out of the North Country, but you cannot take the North Country out of the excruciatingly fine artist) I was interested to read that a movie had been made about Marla Olmstead, the child artist whose paintings sell for thousands of dollars. NYT reviewer A.O Scott rightly points out some troubling aspects of this story. The fame Marla garnered was probably not good for her, and her parents were probably not thinking about her best interest. However, Scott clearly knows nothing about the nature and value of art. He describes children's art this way:
The value of these artifacts is personal and sentimental, but they can also have an aesthetic power that goes beyond parental pride. The untaught sense of color and composition that children seem naturally to possess sometimes yields extraordinary results, and the combination of instinct and accident that governs their creative activity can produce astonishing works of art.

Except that these magical finger-paint daubings and crayon scribblings aren’t really works of art in any coherent sense of the term, but rather the vital byproducts of play, part of the cognitive and sensory awakening that is the grand, universal vocation of childhood. The urge to commodify and display them is, primarily, an adult expression of appreciation and nostalgia.
Surely being by products of play does not disqualify something from being art. In many cases, it is an asset.* If a work of art by an adult was a part of a story of their cognitive and sensory awakening, it would contribute to calling the work a masterpiece.

I have no doubt that Marla Olmstead's work is art in the highest sense of the term, if perhaps, a little overpriced. I would display her work prominently, if I owned any, and wasn't already quite busy displaying the work of artists known more personally to me.
* In general I buy the expression theory of art, rather than the currently popular institutional theory . However I will not try to relate my claims about children's art to any broader theory here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

For My Intro Class

We will be getting to the AI/philosophy of mind portion of my intro class very soon, so I need to start stockpiling material to use in class. Here are some fun clips of robots