Tuesday, December 22, 2009

My Holiday Writing Project: Smashing Perverse Insentives

My goal this break is to revise For All x, a logic textbook made available free under a Creative Commons license, so that it is appropriate for my community college students. Textbook prices are salt in the wounds of students who have trouble paying from college, but right now teachers have no pressing reason to assign cheap or free textbooks, since they don't have to pay for them. (The economists call this kind of situation a "perverse incentive.") Most free logic books are written for geeks by geeks and aren't useful for the sort of student who is hurt most by textbook prices, so I think my project will help more than just my students.

I'm already running into problems, though. The changes I want to make are fairly basic: I want to rearrange the order the material is presented in so that more of the basic stuff comes first, and then I want to create more exercises for that basic material. (I'm just calling my version of this text a "remix.") But simply moving around text is turning out to be difficult. Magnus wrote the whole thing in LaTeX, which I don't know, so I've been opening the files in MS Word, replacing the formatting tags with formatting in Word, and then making the alterations I want to make. I was then going to convert the whole thing to a .pdf and send it to Kinko's to create $3 coursepacks for my students. Getting all the formatting straight is a big pain, though. Which leads to questions

Should I just learn LaTeX? Can I do this over the break and get the text ready in time for my stduents? Is there a reader I should use to show how the marked up text will appear in print? How do I put this all in a form that Kinko's will accept?

If I don't learn LaTeX right now, how do I get my formatting to look like Magnus's? How can I figure out what fonts he is using given the LaTex files or a .pdf file? If I'm just approximating his formatting, what fonts should I use?

These are just my initial worries. I haven't even begun to do things like generate new exercises yet. I'm still hung up on the mechanics of producing a book. Anyone have advice?

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Worst science reporting ever.

Be sure to click through to read the story. Remember, science reporting gets really bad, and this is the worst ever science reporting.
Worst science
Originally uploaded by perca fluviatilis.

Friday, October 02, 2009

More on Issue 2

My colleague Ben and a woman from the Ohio Farm Bureau have raised some interesting points about issue 2. I'd like to respond to them publicly because in order to clarify some misconceptions.

The Oversight Board Would Be Undemocratic

Ben points out (on Facebook) that in general, oversight boards are a good thing, and a board that overseas farm animal welfare could be good for animals. While this is true in general, it is not the kind of board we are looking at here. The goal of this board is explicitly to keep decision making about animal welfare in the hands of the agriculture industry, and not in the hands of voters, by making a change in the state constitution.

The vote Yes campaign is being run by Ohioans for Livestock Care. The flyer I have from them begins "Ohio farmers know best how to care for their flocks and herds." This tagline is repeated at in an announcement on the Ohio Farm Bureau website about a Yes on 2 rally. The content of the ballot issue is perfectly in line with this goal. Eleven out of the thirteen members of the commission would come from within some aspect of agriculture (farmers, farming organizations, deans from agricultural schools, etc.) There be one person representing consumers and one representing animal welfare, but the animal welfare representative cannot come from national organizations of animal activists. This last point is crucial, because the real aim of this ballot issue is to block efforts by the Humane Society of the US. (More on them soon.)

Now wait, you might ask, don't farmers know how best to treat their animals? Why shouldn't the oversight board be dominated by the farmers themselves. Well, well obviously farmers have first hand knowledge of the lives of their animals, but they do not have an interest in the welfare of those animals. Their interest is in maximizing profit, and this means raising veal, chickens and brooding sows in boxes so small the animal can't turn around. In order for everyone's interests to be honored, decisions made about animal welfare have to be made democratically, and include people who can speak for the animals.

Ballot Issue 2 is an amendment to the state constitution. It is fundamentally about taking power away from the legislature, power that it now has under the constitution, and giving it to industry.

The Oversight Board is Aimed at Blocking a Good Legislation.

Everyone involved in this debate admits that the driving force behind the issue is a recent California law that animals be kept in pens large enough to "to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely." The law was passed as a ballot initiative in California and was backed by the Humane Society of the US. Afterwards, the HSUS met with Ohio lawmakers to discuss bringing a version of it here. The lawmakers response was to immediately put issue 2 on the ballot, so that they would have the power to enact any such laws.

The California law effectively eliminates three industry practices. First of all it would eliminate veal crates. People who eat veal like the pale tender meat that comes from anemic calves. Starting in the 1950s, farmers have learned that they can produce a lot of this sort of meat by keeping calves in pens where they are unable to turn around, groom themselves, or lie down while extending their legs and feeding them a liquid diet of milk powder, vitamins and growth hormones. The only justification for doing this is the consumer's preference for pale, tender, anemic meat. Second, the law eliminates battery cages for egg laying hens. To maximize profit, hens are again raised in stacks of wire mesh cages, with each bird having an area about the size of a piece of paper to move around in. Again the only motive here is profit. The third practice, crates for brooding sows, is a little different. Pregnant pigs are generally kept in gestation crates because they are extremely ornery and likely to fight

once the big gives birth, they are kept in farrowing crates like these, so the piglets can nurse while the mother remains immobile

here the worry is that the nursing pig would roll over on her young, or perhaps eat them. To my knowledge, though, there is no actual evidence that this happens. Furthermore, there is no evidence that any crazy behavior by the pig isn't actually brought by other aspects of their environment, like poor diet, lack of access to the outside, etc. Certainly in the wild, the pigs must be able to raise some of their offspring to adulthood. So again, we are left with little justification for treatment that creates incredible suffering.

The Personal Attacks
I originally got on to this issue because someone from the Ohio Farm Bureau left some flyers in support of Issue 2 at our office, along with a basket of fresh bell peppers. I sent around an email to the rest of the department about the issue, and shortly thereafter, the woman from the Farm Bureau wrote me back. The first thing she did in her email is attack the Humane Society of the United States, including sending a flyer about them produced by the food industry organization the Center for Consumer Freedom.1

Some of her complaints are reasonable. The name of the organization misleadingly implies that they run local animal shelters, when in fact most of their work is activism on the issue of farm animal welfare. Other attacks were false, including that the HSUS seeks to end all animal agriculture. From their policy statement: "The HSUS supports those farmers and ranchers who give proper care to their animals, act in accordance with the basic ethic of compassion to sentient creatures under their control, and practice and promote humane and environmentally sustainable agriculture." Still other complaints made by the woman from the Farm Bureau and the Center for Consumer Freedom are things I can't evaluate, like accusations that HSUS mismanaged charitable donations and has a spokesman for a terrorist organization on its board of executives.

Well, as a teacher of critical thinking, I am duty bound to remind you of the existence of the ad hominem fallacy. The moral character of the HSUS is simply not relevant to whether Issue 2 is a good constitutional amendment.2 Bad people can argue for good causes and good people can argue for bad causes.

Annoyingly, it looks like I'm going to be writing more on this in the future. Next up: finding my copy of Bernie Rollin's Farm Animal Welfare and researching the European laws on gestation & farrowing crates.

1. For the record, she sent me the flyer to correct an erroneous statistic about HSUS fundraising she had given in her first email. She didn't repeat the accusation of terrorism herself.

2 Although it is worth noting that The New York Times describes the HSUS as the "least radical" of all the animal rights groups.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Ohioans: Vote NO on Issue 2.

Issue 2 would create an industry dominated "animal care" council to set standards for farm animals in Ohio. The goal is to head off the state from passing anything like California's Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act (which banned veal crates, gestation cages, and battery cages) by taking the power to regulate farm animal treatment away from the voters.

Read more here, here, and here.

The text of the issue is here. Notice that the board is supposed to include a member of a local humane society. This is specifically to keep the Humane Society of the United Sates out of the picture. The HSUS was instrumental in getting California to insist that farmers keep animals in cages large enough to turn around, and were considering promoting similar legislation here when the state legislature decided to put Issue 2 on the ballot.

Vote No on 2!

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Now this is how to educate.

The way he recommends you address other people, and the way he addresses the viewer. This is high end shit.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Stanley Kaplan and the legacy of gaming standardized tests

Christopher Caldwell has a piece in the Financial Times titled "The Opposite of Education" about the lasting effects of Kaplan test preparation. The most prominent change in the post-Kaplan era is the awareness of motivated students of how to game game standardized tests.
Kaplan’s insight was to figure out that there was an idiom to multiple-choice tests. Choices tend to be offered in predictable ways. For instance, if a problem about ratios has the answers (a) 2/3, (b) 4/5, (c) 6/7, (d) 3/2, the right answer is probably A or D, with one of them meant to “catch” a test-taker who has reversed the terms. His study guides are full of wisdom about the prose styles of test-composers, such as: “If guessing, a good rule of thumb is: the longest choice is often the correct one.” Kaplan insisted he was a respecter of subject matter. But figuring out the “tricks” of testing would give you a leg up, whether you had mastered the subject matter or not.
The advice works. The trick about choosing the longest answer, in particular, works well unless you have a test writer who is aware of the problem, and purposely puts in wordy incorrect answers. The problem comes up because the test writer knows that the correct answer is something very specific, and needs to explained precisely. The incorrect answers, on the other hand, are just things you make up and don't need to have much content. If you are in a hurry, it is easy to skimp on the effort needed to create plausible wrong answers.

The whole thing is really an arms race, and unfortunately, too many teachers never make the effort to write good multiple choice questions. The practice questions that come with the online supplement of my ethics textbook can all be beaten using the "longest answer" rule. This kind of laziness leads a lot of teachers to assume that multiple choice testing is a tool for fake education and decide not to use them at all. This is unfortunate, because in the real world, we all have situations where we need to evaluate large numbers of students en masse, and a good multiple choice test is a valuable tool in those situations.

Another interesting thing about the Kaplan techniques is that some of them are farther removed from content than others. The ratio rule, for instance, does have some bearing on content. Students who use it are aware of the fact that swapping numbers is a common mistake in this sort of problem. I tell my students explicitly about this sort of Kaplan-technique as a way of getting them closer to the content while seeming to only be teaching to the test. I tell them to know what the common mistakes are for the kind of problem you are working on, and look for the answers that seem to be testing for this common mistake.

(We had a job candidate here at LCCC who played a related trick on students. He would say he was going to tell them secrets for ticking your teacher into giving you an A. Then he would offer advice like "Buy a dictionary and bring it to class. Be sure you sit so the teacher can see you have a dictionary. Then when the teacher uses a word you are unsure of, be sure to look it up right in front of him. This will be time consuming, so you will also want to be looking up words from your readings at home.")

The legacy of Kaplan (and its nemesis, the Education Testing Service) is an education system built around teaching to tests. As Caldwell writes
Now that not just children but school systems are rewarded and punished for their performance on tests, public education has been colonised by the Kaplan philosophy. Entire school systems have hired testing companies such as Kaplan to undertake the Monty Python-esque task of teaching teachers to teach students test-taking skills.
The situation is not beyond hope, though. The thing we need to do now is have tests that are worth teaching to. You need to write tests that can't be gamed by techniques completely unrelated to content. You need to write tests that actually measure the knowledge, skills, and values you are concerned with promoting. In the terminology of the industry, you need tests that are valid and reliable. The biggest obstacle to education right now is that too many people have an interest in making sure the test isn't worth teaching to. Administrators and parents of privilege want tests that can be gamed so they can game them. Teachers don't want to take the effort to write good tests or change the way they teach to match a good test. Caldwell laments
So everyone wound up back in the same place. SAT scores still tend to track parental income fairly faithfully. Except that educational advancement now goes not so much to those who know the periodic table or can translate an English passage into Latin, but to those who have learnt to outsmart an educational bureaucracy
This is true, but at this point an educational bureaucracy is inevitable. We just need to create one that is harder to outsmart

Reasoning with children

Molly: "That's not just Halloween costume, that's an advertisement. If you wear that, you will be turning yourself into a walking advertisement for Hanna Montana."

Caroline: "But you're going to let Joey wear the Wolverine costume, and that's just an advertisement for Wolverine."

[Look, a counter example! Its reflective equilibrium!]

Molly: Yes, but it is not an advertisement for something I hate.

[Revising the rule in light of the counter example.]

Molly: Also, I'm not as excited about the Wolverine costume as I was about the Princess Dragon Ninja costume that wasn't an advertisement at all.

[Adding nuance to the rule to make the whole thing more plausible.]

Friday, August 28, 2009

Does Socrates use the Chewbacca defense?

I use this all the time in Critical Thinking and Introduction to Philosophy courses (Discussion question: does Socrates use the Chewbacca defense?). But I couldn't find it last time I needed to grab it in class, so I'm putting this up my future reference.

new twitter feed: shitmydadsays

I just signed up for twitter so I can get this guy's feed, where he writes down the things is 73 year old father tells him. Example: "You need to flush the toilet more than once...No, YOU, YOU specifically need to. You know what, use a different toilet. This is my toilet."

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Elderly people are concerned that "The government will take over medicare"

A HuffPo columnist notes that most of the people disrupting town hall meetings are over 65. They are also very very confused about the current state of healthcare and what is being proposed. One demand that seniors repeatedly make is that the government shouldn't "take over" Medicare. You'd think seniors would be aware that Medicare is already a government run program, but I guess not. Bob Cesca, the HuffPo columnist notes that one person shouted "Keep your government hands off my Medicare!" at Rep. Robert Ingles. The LA Times reports that someone contacted Rep Jim Tanner saying, "I'm happy with Medicare, don't let the government take it over."

So where is this wacky talking point coming from? Republican activists with the assistance of the major news networks Arthur Laffer, economics advisor to Ronald Regan and a leading figure in libertarian economic thought, went on CNN and said "If you like the post office and the Department of Motor Vehicles and you think they're run well, just wait till you see Medicare, Medicaid and health care done by the government." No one on CNN challenged him.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

One of the largest ___ graveyard

One of the largest ship graveyards: the bay of Nouadhibou

The whole site is full of pictures of abandoned industry. Its amazing.

Via Emily B on facebook

Update: OMG check out the pictures of the boats abandoned in the retreat of the Aral Sea.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

For the sake of contrast:

A couple of years ago, my neighbor locked herself out and figured she could save the locksmith charge if she could get to an unlocked door on her second floor porch. A Cambridge police officer happened by and helped us carry an extension ladder across the street from my garage. He even held the ladder steady while my nimble neighbor ascended to the porch. The police officer never asked two laughing Caucasian women to prove we were not burglars.

The rest of the article, by someone who has dealt with police misconduct cases, discusses in detail about what was screwy in the way Sgt. James Crowley treated Skip Gates

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Skeptoid on Locally Grown Produce

Brian Dunning, the skeptoid, has a post up arguing that locally produced food is not actually better for the environment. His central claim is that getting your food locally doesn't actually reduce the amount of fuel used in shipping, because systems of direct delivery are less efficient than systems with distribution centers. This sounds like a good argument, but it contains a subtle fallacy. Basically, when he shifts from talking about locally vs. internationally produced to talking about direct delivery vs. distribution centers, he changes the topic. Granted, if you look at two complex distribution systems of the same size, the one with distribution centers is going to be more efficient than the one that relies only on direct delivery. But what about a local system that uses distribution centers compared too a global system that uses distribution centers? Dunning assumes that once a system starts using distribution centers, it no longer counts as local. But his own example is of a local system that switched to distribution centers because it was more efficient. The system didn't start importing beef from New Zealand, but Dunning wants us to believe that because one local farmers group switched from direct delivery to distribution centers that it is more efficient to ship food globally. This just doesn't follow.

There are a lot of problems with locally produced food. Peter Singer has a good argument that supporting agriculture in the developing world is just as important as reducing carbon footprint. He also points out that transporting cargo by ship is much much more efficient than transporting by truck. But broad, almost data free, arguments like Dunning's just don't cut it.

In general, calculations of environmental impact are incredibly complex, and the rhetoric of skepticism really doesn't work here. Skeptics and debunkers always frame debates as cases of reason vs. superstition. The tone is "I'm rational, and you're not." But environmental debates are generally not cases of reason vs superstition, but conflicting ways of calculating costs and assessing risks. If one person uses a model that only takes GDP to be a basic good, while another person tries to include, say, the rights and interests of non-human animals, neither side is being irrational. They are using different frame works with different assumptions about value.

Good fences make good neighbors!

Which is why I'm building a fence across the middle of my neighbors' yard and putting up a security checkpoint in their living room!

The ad. The explanation.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Sunday, June 28, 2009


Joey: A gazzoom is part rabbit part flamingo. It is white and always eating nothing.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Joey Picks Up Taglines

All day Joey has been saying "Creepy? Creepy is my middle name!" I recognized this as a line from Scooby Doo II, which is the kids' new favorite movie.

Then Joey started adding "Look for it at Creepy Dot Com!"

This is not from the movie.


Me: Joey, do you need to use the potty?

Joey: No.

Me: Then why are you dancing around holding your penis?

Joey: Because that is my favorite kind of dance to do.

For variety

For variety, we are now watching TV at the library.

I told them they couldn't watch any more TV until they ran around outside for a while. So, we decided to all bike to the playground. The training wheels just came off Caroline's bike, and I've been looking forward to actually riding places with her. It took about an hour to get everyone wrangled up, with Caroline helmeted and on her bike, and Joey was in the trailer. We rode about four blocks before Caroline said she was tired and that her bike didn't work. It turns out her brakes were grabbing the rear tire, so we turned around and went home.

I was still insisting that we had to get out of the house and do something, so we hopped in the car and went to the library. Once here, the kids plopped down in front of a computer and started watching kids videos again. So its just like sitting around the house, except I can't get any work done, because everything I need is on the machines at home.

Big Weekend

It is just me and the kids until Tuesday. The question: will i get through the weekend without simply indulging every desire of the kids. So far, not good. We had cupcakes for breakfast, played the wii, and are now watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The opening of the video is a simple ad for the trading cards game.

UPDATE: I'm trying to grade student comments while the kids watch TMNT. TMNT actually sounds pretty cool, judging by the audio. Triceratops space aliens. Parallel dimensions. Demonic laughter.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Operation Rescue in 2007: "Together we can put an end to George Tiller"

In 2007 Operation Rescue produced this video (warning, extremely graphic content), which doesn't quite call for the assassination of George Tiller, but it comes close. (Here is the link to the video on the OR website, where they take credit for making it.) The video opens by calling Tiller a "Murderer, Liar, Profiteer, Drug Addict, Corrupt, Unethical, Perverse, Alcoholic, Drug Addict, Malicious, Evil, Defiler, Foul, Blasphemer, Butcher." It ends with "Together, we can put an end to George Tiller, Abortion and these horrific crimes."

It is probably, as with abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph, that Scott Roeder had material support from pro-lifers in his long campaign to assassinate George Tiller. It is certain that he was actively encouraged by the most prominent pro-life groups in the country.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Moral Status Survey

I use short surveys on philosophical issues as conversation starters in my classes. I've adapted one below for the intertubes as a part of my online bioethics course. The first two parts are Likert scale questions, and the third part has a few examples of discussion questions I use in class after I give out the quiz. I am grateful to any passers by who want to check it out and give feedback.

part 1

part 2

part 3

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Free Translation of Plato with Commentary

John Holbo and Belle Waring have produced a translation of Euthyphro, Meno, and Republic I, with extensive commentary and introductory material for students! And very pretty illustrations! The electronic version is free, and a paper version is coming out from Pearson Asia.

Here is the books official site. You can click on the preview above to get the page for the book from the self-publishing site ISSUU, or click here.

Since I teach basic Plato once or twice a year, this is a natural textbook for me to adopt. Recently I've just been doing the death of Socrates sequence, but I've done Meno and Republic as well, so this would be no problem to fit in.

But there's an on the other hand. Cathal Woods and Ryan Pack have published the death of Socrates sequence (with only the final scene of the Phaedo) under the Creative Commons License. Both books have free e-versions, are written and translated by people I have met once in real life, and basically fit my course plan. Which to choose?

My goal for all my classes is to use only texts that have free electronic versions and paper versions that are cheap. I haven't really decided on a line for "cheap" but right now I'm thinking no more than $25 non-recoverable costs overall (that is, the cost of the book minus the amount the student can reasonable expect to get reselling it). John and Belle aren't releasing their book under the Creative Commons license, but the book's website says that I can make a free e-version available to students as long as I also stock the paper version in the book store. I can't find a price for the paper version, and I doubt my students could get much in resale for it. I'm not even sure if the LCCC bookstore can order from Pearson Asia. The Woods and Pack book doesn't have a paper version at all, but with the liberal CC license I can just take it to Kinkos. So far, my experience has been that LCCC students prefer a paper copy, if they can afford it. But both Chrysler and GM are shutting plants down around here as a part of their bankruptcies, so everyone is trying to save money. And most of the technological literacy here is at the cell phone/text messaging level, not the "I read all my books in my Kindle" level.

Well, at the very least John's illustrations are gorgeous, and I'm looking forward to reading his Plato commentary while I decide what book to use.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Catholic Church in Malaysia uses word "Alah" for God.

A Catholic church in Malasia is using the word "Alah" for God in its services and other Christian groups are publishing Bibles and religious newspapers that use the word "Alah" for God. The justification is simple: in the official language of Malaysia, "Alah" means "God."

The BBC story above doesn't give all the details I'd like. The religious services they show are in English, not Malay, the official language of Malaysia. So why import one word? They also don't say how long the Arabic word "Alah" has been a part of Malay, the official language of Malaysia, or whether there is also an indigenous word for God.

More interesting still is the nature the controversy that this move has provoked. In the US, if you showed people a Christian Bible that used the word "Alah" for God, you would probably offend Christians, who felt that "Alah" was the name of some false god or God who was competing with theirs. But in Malaysia, where Islam is the state religion and 60% of the country is Muslim, the feeling of offense is coming from the Muslim side, where people feel that this is a recruiting tactic used by Christians to make Muslims more comfortable with Christianity.

Last year in my Asian Philosophy class I had a student write a paper arguing that the Chinese word "Tian" and the Hebrew word "Yahweh" referred to the same person. His arguments were pretty poor, but the issue raises interesting problems for both the philosophy of religion and for language. How is reference fixed when you are dealing with entities as elusive as gods? Here's a related case: Indra, Zues, and Thor are all gods associated with lightning. Are they the same God? Herodotus would have said so. What about the Marvel comics character? We had a discussion about this on Unfogged. I should go back and look at it.

In any case, I want to revisit all these issues in my Asia philosophy and religion class again next fall. It should be fun. Maybe I'll also use it to revive this blog.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Softchalk talk

lessons as web pages.

"Users can create content!"

interactive learning games
customizable flashcards

Embed videos--youtube.

Pop up text on images
Drag and drop image labeling exercises.
Click and label image exercises.

Assessment--as many varieties of angel--looks better, easier to navigate than Angel--still some gliches when Chalktalk interacts with Angel. Weirdly, enough,if you hide of the angel banner at the top or get rid of the Angel frame, Softchalk looses touch with angel. Works better with Firefox.

you can deliver via Angel or internet. Detailed instructions for Angel integration. Upload it as SCORM file

30 day free trail. $350 dollars/year. Distance learning has access to some licenses.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I rewatched the BSG series finale

In the end it is all about the stories of the couples.

The action show that is the first part of the finale, with the gunfire and the symbolism and the getting the girl back, and the how did Laura get to the CIC?...it just doesn't work, but that's ok because...

Adama and Laura are the heart of the story. Really, they wanted to tell you about the sentimental military leader and the hard-nosed civilian leader.

It is all set up to cut off at the end of the Adama-Laura story. He says "it reminds me of you," and then there is a long black out. After that they give you the epilogue with angel-six and angel-Baltar and the fearful images of Japanese robots. They should have ditched the epilogue.

The Apollo-Starbuck story is a FAIL. Not just because of the loose ends, but because the storytellers didn't know where to go with it. They never did. How to make a love story out of the original show's action hero buddy pairing? How to actually get Batman in bed with Robin? And have Robin be, not just more than a sidekick, but some kind of spiritual presence? This is beyond current storytelling technology.

The Baltar-Six story. He says "I do know about farming, you know," and cries, and she says "I know, it's ok." That is the win for the show.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Do all fictions occur in fictional worlds?

(with Battlestar spoilers)

So the big reveal in the series finale is that the characters we are watching our are ancestors, and that Hera, in particular, is the mitochondrial Eve. To normal people, this is just a nice plot twist. For people like me it is a little metaphysical puzzle.

Up to now, Battlestar has been painting a picture of a fictional world, a place that is like ours, but different in fairly rule governed ways. World-making like this has has been very popular in nerd fiction ever since Tolkien, and audiences have very high expectations of fictional worlds. Fictional languages now have to have invented grammar. We are expected to imagine all sorts of things are happening off screen. The Galactica presumably has a method for recycling waste. Somewhere there is a fictional person who wrote the fictional counterpart to "All along the Watchtower."

But fictional world-making is fairly new to art, and is still unusual as an explicit goal of an artwork. The recent miniseries about John Adams with Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney was historical fiction. We are not supposed to imagine that there is an alternative colonial America where it takes place. We are supposed to imagine it takes place in the real colonial America. But can we really do this, or in imagining, do we create a fictional universe? You might think we have to create a fictional universe, simply to deal with the fictional elements of the historical fiction. If the miniseries shows John and Abagail having a certain intimate conversation, where they treat each other as equals, we imagine that this is a part of long relationship full of such conversations, even though such a relationship may not have existed. Thus a parallel fictional world is created.

But this all seems to have too many moving parts. Suddenly, John Adams is not a fictional representation of American history, but a fictional representation of a fictional universe that resembles American history. But that can't be right. It is not like John Adams is some kind of steampunk alternative history where punchcard computing helps Washington defeat the British. It makes sense to say there is both a fictional representation and a fictional world for Battlestar because the writers go out of their way to make you feel like you are watching an incomplete representation of someplace very different, down to shaky cameras.

This is just a part of the problem of fictional reference, and I suppose the final twist in Battlestar doesn't really add anything to the debate. But it does blur the line between science fiction and historical fiction in a weird way. When the reveal happens, we are meant to feel as though the fictional world has been revealed to be our world. The emotional impact of the reveal wouldn't exist without this jab into the world of historical fiction. But the fictional world of Battlestar hasn't actually changed. It is still obviously fiction, because no one expects us to believe we have robot ancestors.

Hrm, if I had time in my life to do real philosophy I could figure this out.

Friday, March 20, 2009

It is good that all the couples are together on the real live Earth

I wasn't down with the face-off dialogue between brother cavil and baltar, and the epilogue with the sony aibos and the other proto-cylon toys. And, lets face it, the Starbuck storyline, and the storyline with Baltar's imaginary 6: these weren't resolved satisfactorily.

But I'm happy with it. Ron Moore earned the Jimmi playing Dylan at the end.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Another cite for the claim that it is difficult to compare mental states across vast differences in circumstance and culture

This doesn't look like it speaks directly to the worry I want to dismiss in a paragraph, but it might be a more up to date citation to give for "meaning isn't in the head" concerns than the twin earth stuff.

from the Miscellany section of Characteristics

Were we in a disinterested view, or with somewhat less selflessness than ordinary, to consider the economies, parts, interests, conditions and terms of life which nature has distributed and assigned to the several species of creatures around us, we should not be apt to think ourselves so hardly dealt with. But whether our lot in this respect be just or equal is not the question with us at present. 'Tis enough that we know "there is certainly an assignment and distribution: that each economy or part is so distributed is in itself uniform, fixed and invariable, and that if anything in the creature be accidentally impaired; if anything in the inward form, the disposition, temper or affections be contrary or unsuitable to the economy or part, the creature is wretched and unnatural.

Judging by google search, the word 'disinterested' doesn't seem to come up in aesthetic contexts in characteristics. Also, Shaftesbury seems far more concerned with theodicy than aesthetics.

Comparing Shaftesbury to the Buddhist nature poems I consider in my essay is interesting. Both works assert that by taking up a selfless frame of mind in the presence of nature, one can attain sacred knowledge. But how they conceive the knowledge is very different, because of the different attitudes toward suffering in the two religions. Shaftesbury sees suffering as part of a just larger order, and links it to punishment of those who do not contribute to the order. The Buddhist view cuts suffering off at the root, so that the selfless person simply ceases to experience suffering.

lets try this quote.

New forms arise, and when the old dissolve, the matter whence they were composed is not left useless, but wrought with equal management and art, even in corruption, Nature's seeming waste and vile abhorrence. The abject state appears merely as a way to some better. But could we nearly view it, and with indifference, remote from the antipathy of sense, we then perhaps should highest raise our imagination, convinced that even the way itself was equal to the end

So for Shaftesbury, disinterestedness meant looking beyond the narrow good of the self, or of any subset of the whole universe. Once you view the world sub specie aeternitas you can see both divine beauty and divine goodness.

Perhaps I should get the book through ILL. Or maybe just buy it. I don't know which would be faster.

Shaftesbury's notion of aesthetic disinterestedness

One reason one might be reluctant to compare aesthetic disinterestedness with Buddhist nonattachment is that the former is generally thought of as a secular concept while the latter is explicitly religious. However, aesthetic disinterestedness has been linked with religious ideas since the beginning. Shaftesbury's primary aesthetic interest was in the religious contemplation of nature, which he felt afforded a view into a greater order than any human art. Thus in The Moralists the character Philocles begins an invocation of the beauty of nature like this.
Oh glorious nature! supremely fair and sovereignly good! All-loving, all-lovely all-divine! Whose looks are so becoming and of such infinite grace; whose study brings such wisdom and whose contemplation such delight; whose every single work affords an ampler scene and is a nobler spectacle than all which art ever presented!
Disinterestedness enters the picture because seeing this divine order requires one to set aside earthy interests.
Since by the, or sovereign mind, I have been formed such as I am, intelligent and rational, permit me that with due freedom I may exert those faculties with which you have adorned me. Bear with my venturous and bold approach. And since nor vain curiosity, nor fond conceit, nor love of aught save thee alone inspires me with such thoughts as these, be thou my assistant and guide me in this pursuit, whilst I venture thus to tread the labyrinth of wide nature and endeavor to trace the in thy worlds.
Arg, that didn't quite say what I want it to say. The passage right after might be better, but I am reading the book in google preview, and can't get the next pages. In any case, I think Shaftesbury's sub specie aeternitas approach to aesthetics, probably makes him disinterested and cognitive, rather than disinterested and noncognitive, as I had had him.

I'm not going to get this done over spring break. My head hurt so much this morning I had to take a nap. I'm having trouble focusing. Winter has returned and the kids are back inside making noise. Maybe I should focus on classwork. Maybe I can keep writing a little bit every day once classes start again. Actually if this is going to get done, I'm going to have to.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

means-ends rationality, desire, and non-cognitive mental states.

The spring day has put what seems like a dozen kids on our lawn. I think two of them are mine. I think there adults out there keeping track of everyone, but I'm not going to worry about it, I'm here to write. And I'm worried that the way I have set out the problem of my paper will force me to use the term "non-cognitive mental state," which might be a straight oxymoron.

I want to assert that aesthetic disinterestedness, as it has been described in western philosophy since the 18th century, and nonattachment, as it has been has been described in Indian and Buddhist philosophy for thousands of years, name similar mental states. Here's the problem: in talking about aesthetic experience of nature in the western tradition, I distinguished two axes of disagreement. People have argued over whether aesthetic experience is "disinterested" or "engaged" and whether it is "cognitive" or "noncognitive." The cognitive/noncognitive dispute is over whether the aesthetic appreciation of a natural environment, should be guided by ideas from history and natural science or whether it should be free of all guiding narratives. The disinterested/engaged debate is over whether one should feel a personal stake in the object of aesthetic contemplation or view it from a detached perspective. You can then map the position in the debate over the aesthetics of nature onto a two-dimensional space, like this.

A two dimensional logical space of aesthetic experience

I love making little diagrams like this. I'd like to populate this one with a lot of thinkers and then actually publish it with my article, but it probably wouldn't be scholarly enough.

In any case, I want to put Buddhist nonattachment in the lower left, as a disinterested, noncognitive state. This sounds right if you talk about the dots as "experiential states." But it does't work as well if you say they are "mental states", which is what I did in the last post. Noncognitive mental state doesn't sound right. I suppose I should just change "mental" to "experiential" when I work the material in the last post into the actual essay, but that might make the references to meaning in the head awkward.

Drop the problem and move forward.

We need to zoom in on the lower left corner, look at the notions of disinterestedness that have been held in the western tradition and how they relate to noncognitive experience. Then we need to do the same for nonattachment. Lets start with disinterestedness.


kids need reading to

ok, I'm writing again

I went with Caroline down to the Rock Beach, a small stretch of sand, garbage, driftwood and stones along Lake Erie near our house. We go to hunt for pretty rocks and "sea glass" (really fragments of old bottles that have been worn smooth by the water.)

Ok, back to work. The idea of nonattachment developed during the axial age of Indian philosophy, from around 800 BCE to the beginning of the common era, an age which saw the writings of the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita and the lives of the Buddha and Mahavira. It cannot be traced to particular thinkers interested in promoting particular ideas, the way disinterestedness can, and it was not intended as an account of a single aspect of experience, such as beauty. Instead it was an integral aspect of a program for attaining complete spiritual liberation.

Despite the radically different origins of the two ideas, I maintain that they describe similar mental states. In each case, we are looking at a suspension of means-ends rationality and some form of putting desire on "hold." Admittedly, mental states are a bitch to individuate, and clearly depend on factors that are not "in the head," including social and physical reality (cite annoying twin earth-type research here.) You cannot know what a subject is thinking about simply by looking at the the state of his brain, because the same brain state might mean something different in different social and physical contexts. This means that on one level, the mind of a Hindu Sadhu in deep meditation is obviously going to be in a very different category than the mind of a 18th century contemplating a lovely view of the countryside. Still, we can productively classify mental states based mostly on features that are "in the head", including phenomenological descriptions of the state and, as technology advances, descriptions of physical brain states, using only very general descriptions of external social and physical reality. For instance, we can say that two individuals in very different circumstances are both "fearful," based on their descriptions on how they feel and increased blood flow to, say, the amygdala,1 even though one person is afraid of karmic pollution from touching a dalit and the other a humiliating loss of face in the House of Lords. Similarly, I think that if you focus on the aspects of disinterestedness and nonattachment that are mostly "in the head", you will see a strong resemblance. More importantly, insights into the mental state as it has been described in one tradition can help us understand related states in a different tradition.


1 Whenever I read about the neurological correlates to any interesting mental process, it always seems to involve some combination of the amygdala, the hypothalamus, and the prefrontal cortex. I'm beginning to think that the brain really only has these three parts and that "increased activity in the amydala, hypothalamus, and prefrontal cortex" actually means the same thing as "brain activity." People only substitute "amygdala" for "brain" because it sounds fancy. I used to hear about the hippocampus sometimes, but I think the hypothalamus is the new hippocampus of fake brain science.

I'm writing, I'm writing

The idea of aesthetic disinterestedness was introduced in Western philosophy by Lord Shaftesbury and Francis Hutcheson. Shaftebury's ideas were developed in works he wrote between 1705 and 1710, including Sensus Communis and The Moralists most of which were folded into a summary volume of his life's work,Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times (1714). Hutcheson's aesthetic ideas were promulgated in Inquiry concerning Beauty, Order, Harmony and Design (1725). Hutcheson was primarily interested in defending the thesis that beauty was perceived directly by a rational intuition. Shaftesbury's ideas, which came earlier, are harder to classify, but he is still basically concerned with the thesis that the experience of beauty is a perception of divine harmony and order.

The roots of nonattachment in Eastern philosophy are much more diffuse. The idea was already commonplace amongst the spiritual seekers and world-renouncers of India at the time the Buddha began to preach his version of the practice. The primary interest here was not any kind of perception, but the attainment of a mental state that would preclude the build up of Karma, and thus free one from the tyranny of samsara (rebirth). In the Gita, composed between 200 and 500 years before the common era, the nonattachment is used to reconcile the conflict between the need to act in the world and

argh. Kids need attention. And it doesn't take much to get me to play outside with them on a day like today.

In the terms I outline in my paper, they understood the aesthetic experience as being disinterested and noncognitive.

Buddhist non-attachment and aesthetic disinterestedness--ok, I'm going to write this.

Ok, I have a mental block.

Two and a half years ago, I had a paper accepted to Environmental Values, with a few conditions, mostly that I clarify the relationship between two concepts I employed, Buddhist non-attachment and aesthetic disinterestedness. I estimated that this would require three to five pages of new material. When I am in a groove, I produce about a page of academic prose a day. I should have been able to send this back right away, but I didn't. Whenever I got time away from day to day responsibilities--teaching, parenting, the job market--I spent it on lower prestige projects. (Or in the case of the Buffy paper, negative prestige projects.)

I'm on spring break now. I have no pressing responsibilities until next Sunday. I'm behind on grading, sure, but sometimes other things have to take priority. The upstairs sink is clogged, but we can always brush our teeth in the downstairs sink. The weather is almost spring like, for once, but Molly can take the kids outside--she just got done with one of her big projects.

So I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. Or maybe I'll continuously blog my mental block for five days.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

doubleplusgoodthingers bellyfeel truthiness!

For my critical thinking class.

I'm going to use this disclaimer: "The opinions expressed are here for discussion purposes and do not necessarily represent the views of the instructor or the college."

Readings: Orwell, "Politics and the English Language" and chapter 1 and the appendix to 1984.

George Carlin - Soft Language

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

People are talking about the book I am in!

The website Watchmencomicmovie has put up a thread to discuss Watchmen and Philosophy, a book that I have an essay in. In the thread, people are asked to pose questions which will be put to the book's editor, Mark White, in an upcoming interview. One of the first questions to come up, from EmPiiRe x, is actually about the topic of my essay, deontology and utilitarianism. Annoyingly, EmPiiRe x suggests that we made a mistake I went out of my way to avoid: treating Veidt as a straightforward utilitarian, rather than a megalomaniac who uses utilitarianism to rationalize his actions. I've posted a response you can check out at the end of the thread.

The amount of attention the book is getting is a pleasant surprise. Molly and I went into Borders last weekend and there was a whole display dedicated to Watchmen, including two piles of copies of Watchmen and Philosophy. I've never been in a book that gets displayed like that.

Also interesting this thought on livejournal about the contradiction between Dr. Manhattan's own existence and his professed materialism. (The blogger also mentions the book I'm in!)

Friday, January 23, 2009

Update: Reliance on Adjuncts Drives Away Students

Earlier I blogged about a study by Allison Jaeger showing that when adjuncts teach introductory level courses, students are less likely to go on to take other courses in that field. The study had only been presented at a conference, but had been written up in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The full peer reviewed version of a related study by Jaeger is now available. This study only covers one institution, but it is quite large. The final sample included 14,494 students at a "a large research-extensive institution located in the
southeast" presumably NC State University, Raleigh, the authors' home institution.

They examined ten variables to see if they would predict an eleventh, student retention. The potential predicting variables were

  1. ethnicity
  2. gender
  3. high school GPA
  4. high school percentile
  5. rank
  6. SAT verbal score
  7. SAT math score
  8. total SAT score
  9. percent exposure to graduate student instruction
  10. percent exposure to part-time faculty instruction
  11. percent exposure to full-time faculty instruction

Of those only HS GPA, gender, number of hours attempted and exposure to part time faculty had any predictive value. Interestingly, exposure to part time faculty did not have as strong a negative effect on retention as being female.

One of their citations seems worth following up on:

Hagedorn, L., Perrakis, A., & Maxwell, W. (2002). The negative commandments: Ten
ways community colleges hinder student success. (ED 466 262).

I don't know what (ED 466 262) means, but the article seems related to this

Florida Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Fall, 2007 by Linda Serra Hagedorn, Athena I. Perrakis, William Maxwell

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Israeli soldier shoots three children close range.

Israeli soldier shoots three children, ages 2, 4 and 7, close range. The girls were on the front steps of their house holding white flags, with their mother and grandmother, having been ordered to evacuate. The soldier who shot them was not under fire, and shot slowly and methodically from on top of a tank turret. The seven year old died instantly. The two year old died in minutes. The seven year old was carried a mile to the hospital by her father, past Israeli soldiers eating potato chips and chocolates.

Details of the story were confirmed by three witnesses to The World's correspondent. The IDF said it would investigate.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Updated CV and publication links

I've got some new projects--after like four years I heard back from Slayage about my Buffy paper, my review of Cylons in America should be posted soon, and I'm sending my CV to someone organizing a academic journal on philosophy and pop culture. So its about time I get some of my online professional stuff in order.

Here is the curriculum of my professional life (click to see whole thing):


Article title links to article, book or journal title links to book or journal

  1. “The Theragāthā Model of the Aesthetic Appreciation of Natural Environments” accepted, subject to revision, at Environmental Values

  2. “Moral Complexity in the Buffyverse” accepted, subject to revision, at Slayage: An International Online Journal of Buffy Studies.

  3. “Means, Ends, and the Critique of Pure Superheroes” in Watchmen and Philosophy ed. by M. White, (Oxford: Blackwell Press, 2009)

  4. “‘What a Strange Little Man’: Baltar the Tyrant?” in Battlestar Galactica and Philosophy ed. by J. Eberl (Oxford: Blackwell Press, 2008)

  5. “The Other Value in the Debate over Genetically Modified Organisms” In Ethical Issues in the Life Sciences, edited by F. Adams. (Charlottesville, VA: Philosophy Documentation Center, 2007).

  6. “Germ-Line Enhancement of Humans and Nonhumans” Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal Special Issue on Justice and Genetic Enhancement 15:1 (March 2005).

  7. “Three Problems for the Aesthetic Foundations of Environmental Ethics,” Philosophy and the Contemporary World 10:2 (Fall–Winter 2003).
Reviews for Metapsychology Online. http://mentalhelp.net/books

I review books a lot of places, but these are easily accessed online.
  1. C.W. Marshall and Tiffany Potter (eds.) Cylons in America: Critical Studies in Battlestar Galactica, Jan 15, 2009.
  2. William Irwin and Jorge Gracia (eds.) Philosophy and the Interpretation of Pop Culture, Mar 25th 2008
  3. Maxwell J. Mehlman, Wondergenes: Genetic Enhancement and the Future of Society, July 25, 2006.
  4. Peter Coates Nature: Western Attitudes Since Ancient Times Janurary 9, 2006
  5. Elisabeth A. Lloyd, The Case of the Female Orgasm, August 2, 2005.
  6. Robert Plomin et al. (eds.), Behavioral Genetics in the Postgenomic Era, March 26, 2004.
  7. Gordon Graham, Genes: A Philosophical Inquiry, June 23, 2003.
  8. Marc Bekoff, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart, February 7, 2003.
  9. Susan Lufkin Krantz, Refuting Peter Singer’s Ethical Theory: The Importance of Human Dignity, July 15, 2002.