Monday, February 26, 2007

People write down what I say.

One of the weirdest things about being a college professor is that people write down what you say. Today in my ethics class I pontificated, "The world is full of weak people who idolize power," and everyone's pen started moving. Funny thing is, this isn't something I had planned to say. I didn't make a pedagogical decision that my students should know that the world is full of weak people who idolize power, or even that they should be confronted with this idea. In fact, we had been talking about Nietzsche, and I realized that they should be warned away from a certain kind of poor thinking, so I started talking. And people wrote down what I said.

Ooh, the power!

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Super hard pitch and rhythm tests

Designed by a neurologist. Here. Via unfogged.

I got a weird gap between my pitch and rhythm scores and my tonedeafness score.

Pitch: 2.4 hz, 42nd percentile
Rhythm: 72% correct , 44th percentile
Tonedeafness/melody: 83.3%, 79th percentile.

Music has always been very important to me, but something I didn't understand much and wasn't very good at. I've always felt sheepish for finding so much importance in something that I knew so little about.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

China reveals plans to extract Tibet's mineral wealth

So it turns out that back in 1999, the Chinese Communist Party conducted a massive secret survey of Tibet's mineral wealth, and that the construction of the Tibetan railroad was expressly designed to get that wealth out of Tibet. Abrahm Lustgarten as Fortune has the full story. Turns out there is a heckuva lot to take, including copper, iron, lead, and zinc. The story makes a big deal of the effect this will have on the iron markets. All told, it looks like China will extract about $128 billion worth of minerals from Tibet.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Victims of Development in China

Skynews' Dominic Waghorn reports on the people forcibly displaced by massive Chinese development, showing their efforts at resistance and brutal repression.

All day I've been mentally cursing some students for not paying attention to the sources of their information, so I'll note that Skynews is a British 24 news station owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Questions on Buddhism and Environment

I spent part of this afternoon answering questions students submitted on Buddhism and environmentalism, and thought I would share some with you.

Nirvana is defines as freedom from desire, and therefore freedom from suffering. Since animals have a natural desire that is free from the self-conscious, how can we ever be free from suffering if we are a part of nature and have the same natural desire as animals?

The role of animals & animal desire in Buddhism has an interesting history. Classical Buddhism and contemporary Theravada basically take the same attitude towards animals that you see in Hinduism. Animals are lesser beings, and their distance from enlightenment is clearly seen in the fact that they are slaves to their desires. For later schools of Buddhism, particularly Zen, nirvana became more of a matter of cutting of higher rational thought, and as a result animals started to look more enlightened. The question of whether a dog has Buddha nature became a fit subject for Zen Koans. (Master Chou Chou said “no.”) This movement towards saying the lower beings have higher enlightenment reaches its peak with a painting by Itō Jakuchū called “Vegetable Nirvāņa,” which depicts a carrot in the pose of the Buddha passing into nirvana.

So to answer your question, some schools of Buddhism take our animal nature to be something overcome on the way to enlightenment, and others actually see it as a bonus.

It would see to me that any active environmental pursuit, maybe other than awareness and teaching, would go against Buddhist grain. I think that Buddhism relies on the fact that while every being has the potential to reach nirvana, that everyone will not at the same time, leaving people to operate in action/reaction, leaving the world to exist. What do you think?

I think it would be a shame if simultaneous worldwide enlightenment were some kind of precondition for environmental activism, or any kind of activism. Interestingly, though, there have been and still are Buddhist millenarian cults: groups that believe in an approaching transformation of the whole world, similar to apocalyptic Christianity. White Lotus Buddhism and Aum Shinrikyo are good examples of apocalyptic Buddhism.

I got frustrated while doing this reading, as the only viewpoint I could agree with was the eco-critic. If Buddhism aims for detachment, how can any of their readings be taken as a concern for the environment? Isn’t concern a form of attachment? I agree that the values and readings of Buddhism could be interpreted as such, but I see that as misinterpretation. If you attribute too much value to nature it implies attachment. Example—p. 131 Payutto’s interpretation. I think he implies more value to the word “friend” than he should. The Buddhist doesn’t cut the branch simply because there is no reason to, not because he cares for the tree like we care for our friends. Maybe Buddhism sometimes results in environmental non-action, but that doesn’t mean it is on purpose.

I think we need to look in detail at the idea of mettā (loving-kindness) and the possibility of nonattached action. The Buddha clearly did preach universal love. The word he used is mettā, which denotes both love and kindness and is thus often translated “loving-kindness.” This is the Karaniya Metta Sutta, from the Pali canon.
As a mother would risk her life
to protect her child, her only child,
even so should one cultivate a limitless heart
with regard to all beings.
With good will for the entire cosmos,
cultivate a limitless heart:
Above, below, & all around,
unobstructed, without enmity or hate.
Whether standing, walking,
sitting, or lying down,
as long as one is alert,
one should be resolved on this mindfulness.
This is called a sublime abiding
here & now.
The question is how can universal love be compatible with nonattachment? The beginning of an answer can be found when you think of the difference between a jealous and possessing love and a genuine feeling for the well being of another. But wait, even if you simply desire the well being of another, aren’t you desiring and therefore suffering? Properly speaking, desire will not enter into it. What you actually have is only understanding and action. You see the other for what they are, and act for their benefit. There is no desire, no striving, no attachment to an outcome.


When I start typing "does..." into the search window of Firefox, the software helpfully suggests these search strings

  • Does he like me
  • Does anyone know
  • Does your chain hang low
  • Does God exist

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Christopher Dodd introduces a bill to roll back the MCA

Christopher Dodd has introduced a bill that would undo the damage of the Military Commissions Act. In particular, it restores the right of habeas corpus to detainees. You can become a citizen cosponsor of the bill by clicking here.

There is also a charming video of Dodd explaining the act. He's at his desk, with his tie loosened, and a half full Styrofoam cup of coffee in front of him. I don't know if the look is deliberate, but it does project a "hard working legislator" image.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Transgenic corn wandering into the food supply

Andrew Leonard has a post up arguing that the real problem with corn based ethanol is that it will create a market for all sorts of new varieties of transgenic corn. These transgenes will obviously wander into the food supply, because it turns out that gene flow is very hard to manage.

As an argument against corn ethanol, this is pretty weak. The market for transgenics is already so big it is only limited by the producers' ability to get new breeds to market. On the other hand, Leonard's article is a nice update on the world of transgenic corn, including an attempt by Monsanto to evade regulators for a new variety of high lysine corn for animal feed.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Why didn't someone fucking tell me Ian had done children's music

At last! A job database searchable by AOS!

Epistemelinks has a new job database up, and its searchable by AOS! If all hiring departments starting using this, it would make life so much easier.

Unhealthy Love Week!

Every year at this time SLU sponsors "Healthy Love Week" full of good advice on matters both physical and emotional for good relationships, both short and long. Its all communication and condoms all the time. This year the email they sent announcing the start of healthy love week included a treacle poem: "Some people come into our lives and quickly go/Some people move our souls to dance/They awaken us to new understanding with the passing whisper of their wisdom." Blah blah blah.

As much as I recognize that everyone needs sound, nonjudgmental sex advice, I am rather tired of Healthy Love Week, and therefore am announcing the start of Unhealthy Love Week here at Big Monkey, Helpy Chalk. Unhealthy Love Week exists to highlight some of the most spectacularly dysfunctional relationship practices out there. Including:

Emotional Blackmail! What better way to keep your partner with you than to threaten suicide? But don't be fooled into thinking that emotional blackmail is an easy trick that anyone can use. It takes a lot of hard work and practice to make yourself so pathetic that the suicide threat looks real. But never doubt that the hard work pays off. The most adept emotional blackmailers can not only blackmail people into staying in relationships, they can actually use emotional blackmail to start relationships. "Go on a date with me, or I will throw myself under a train!" Its something to aspire to.

Grudge Sex!Have a fight with your partner. Pretend to make up. Have extremely vigorous intercourse. For some couples, this is the foundation of their relationship. Remember: Hate is a passion, too.

Model your life on romantic comedies! Catholic League president Bill Donahue claims that "Hollywood loves anal sex." If only it were true. Really, Hollywood loves stalking! And couples that don't have to talk, because they just know what the other person wants! (Like on BSG a few episodes ago, where Helo just knew that Athena wanted him to kill her so she could resurrect aboard the Cylon ship and rescue their baby, so he shot her. I would have cleared that plan with my beloved explicitly first.)

Join me in Unhealthy Love Week parading atrocious habits for all to see!

Friday, February 09, 2007


Citizendium is a new encyclopedia designed to be like wikipedia, but more friendly to expert knowledge. It was founded by Larry Sanger, the co-founder of wikipedia, who is also (I did not know this) a philosopher.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What question am I trying to ask?

So I’m at an annoying place in my research where I not only can’t answer questions, I’m not sure what questions I want to ask. I need questions for mid term student papers in my course on environmental ethics in China, and I need another question for my own paper I want to build from teaching this class.

The broad question which motivated the reading selection for my portion of the class was “What values and nature attitudes are motivating current environmental decisions in China?” A related question I wanted to focus on was “can the growing Chinese environmental movement find its roots in indigenous thought, or is environmentalism fundamentally a Western import?”

These questions are, of course, impossibly broad, which hasn’t stopped people from trying to answer them, especially the latter. The standard approach is to focus on one of the big traditional Chinese philosophies (Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism) and then enthuse about its rich environmental awareness. People especially love to do this for Buddhism—much better than Christianity with all that dominion stuff. This leads to some easy debunking replies. The last stage in this debate is a constructivist position about a particular tradition: Yes it has environmentally friendly and environmentally hostile elements, but if we just cherry pick the elements that are environmentally positive, we can create the environmental ethic of the future. This sorting process usually involves examining ancient philosophical texts, with occasional references to traditional practices. Baird Callicott’s Earth’ Insightsis essentially an attempt to do this on a global scale.

This is not a useful way to turn an impossibly broad question into a tractable one. The only reason to focus on ancient philosophical texts is that its something we know how to do. I’m quite sure we need to examine Chinese environmental philosophy from a perspective closer to the ground, as it were. But how?

One thing I’ve been futzing with is philology. I’m trying to figure out the relationship between eight terms in a four languages: Fusij, Natura, Nature, Wilderness, zì rán, qì, tiān, and shānshuĭ. This actually leaves me doing the annoying thing we tell the undergraduates not to do: look at dictionaries for philosophical analyses. I'm looking in the OED, Liddell & Scott, and Mandarin Tools, sifting through the definitions and examples of use and trying to see patterns that will help me answer some question whose nature I'm no longer sure of. (BTW, does anyone know a better resource than Mandarin Tools? Does anyone know why the Perseus web page is so damn slow?)

Part of the problem is the basic tension between what the lexicographer's aims and my aim. I don't want to do an armchair analysis of meaning, but I'm not interested in cataloging every use. Really what I'm interested in is what Aristotle in The Categories called a "focal meaning" behind several different uses in several different parts of speech. What I have wound up doing is simply winnowing down OED type definitions: throwing out irrelevant uses, consolidating some meanings, trying to get at an essence of sorts. Is there a more formal method for doing this (one that doesn't revert back to Euthyphro suggesting definitions and Socrates proposing counter examples)?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Philosophy as a family business

A few years back I had a conversation with some friends where we tried to name philosophers who were also children of philosophers. The conversation has stuck with me mostly because I would be tickled if either Caroline or Joey went into academic philosophy, even though I know that it is an impossible business. More bluntly: I generally advise students not to go to philosophy grad school, but I would be thrilled if two of the most important people in my life did it.

In any case, this is all I can remember of the list. I'm certain that once you start going back into ancient philosophy, this sort of thing will be more common, but this is all I can think of.

Elizabeth Harman and Gilbert Harman

Penelope Mackie and J.L. Mackie

Roy Wood Sellars and Wilfrid Sellars

Thomas Nagel and Ernst Nagel (? actually this doesn't seem to be likely)(because its not true)

James Mill and John Stuart Mill