Archive for January, 2010

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Agent of Chaos

January 17, 2010

Curious George is a favorite around my house. I think I’ll spare my son, Jasper, the following annotation from Werner Herzog…but you might like it:

Me? I’m holding out for Marlon Brando reads Babar — because, that, my friends, is one seriously psychedelic children’s tale.

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Good News Bears

January 17, 2010

Brian Leiter directs our attention — somewhat hyperbolically, I think — to this startling bit of wingnuttery from Charles Rowley, a professor of economics at George Mason University.

Given the closing quote, Leiter suggests that Rowley is calling for the assassination of the president. That’s a terrible thing to call for, of course, and it is maybe even true that Rowley is calling for that, but I’m here to rescue readers of Rowley’s ramblings from any such absurd conclusion.

Namely, Rowley’s logic is so manifestly abominable that even a merely moderately astute reader should ascertain that the concluding remarks are only randomly tacked on, and that the substance of the argument doesn’t affix to the concluding remarks.

Rowley uses this clever device to suggest that the current health care legislation signals a descent into tyranny:

Suppose, dear reader, that, while residing legally in the United States, you choose  not to purchase a daily newspaper.  Perhaps your choice is determined by a concern that all newspapers varnish the truth, perhaps by budgetary constraints.  Suppose that you choose not to outlay your monies on an annual vacation, perhaps because you believe that ‘your nest is always best’, perhaps because of budgetary constraints.  Suppose  that a bigot is elected to the presidency and ‘persuades’ Congress to require you to purchase a newspaper, or  to fine you for not so doing ; to require you to take an annual vacation, or to fine you for not so doing.  Would you not be alarmed, dear reader, by such an invasion of your liberty to engage or not to engage in specific market activities? Would you not view such an intervention as an act of tyranny much more serious than the eighteenth century interventions by King George III merely to tax certain kinds of consumption while yet leaving  his colonists  free to purchase or not to purchase the affected items?

Okay, suppose…

Read the rest of this entry ?

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Philosophy and Business

January 14, 2010

Can’t say I disagree with this guy. It’s often difficult to get the practically minded graduate student to take the bait that philosophy actually does offer practical guidance, and that it can be helpful in a huge range of areas… but having spoken with innumerable philosophy and non-philosophy majors, I believe that it does. Not sure that this article makes the case any better than simply asserting that it does, but philosophy is more-or-less a post-experience good.

The financial and climate crises, global consumption habits, and other 21st-century challenges call for a “killer app.” I think I’ve found it: philosophy.

Philosophy can help us address the (literally) existential challenges the world currently confronts, but only if we take it off the back burner and apply it as a burning platform in business.

It’s all very interesting, coming out at approximately the same time that the UK is training its guns on the “blue skies” disciplines that have no apparent economic value.

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Urban Caveman

January 14, 2010

Pebbles FlintstoneAt first, I thought this was a joke. Someone gone Geico crazy. But no, the New York Times reports about this “latest fad,” not long after the raw-foods craze of the early zeds.

Mr. Le Corre, 38, who once made soap for a living, promotes what he calls “mouvement naturel” at exercise retreats in West Virginia and elsewhere. His workouts include scooting around the underbrush on all fours, leaping between boulders, playing catch with stones, and other activities at which he believes early man excelled. These are the “primal, essential skills that I believe everyone should have,” he said in an interview.

How very Tyler Durden.

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Haiti

January 13, 2010

There’s really very little appropriate to say at times like these. The pictures and stories are horrifying. The destruction is unimaginable. The pain and suffering, really, cannot possibly be comprehended. To think of the loss of just one person I care about, not to mention those I haven’t even thought to care about… it boggles the mind. Far easier to bury my nose in my classes and forget that it has happened. Except that in many of my classes, I will be shepherding my students through readings in which the benefits and beauty of nature are extolled.

Haiti is a reminder — as there are many unfortunate reminders — that nature is not quite the pleasant nurturer as it is often made out to be.

When I first began this blog, not so long ago, I figured that I could catalog the horrors of nature and point this out. To do so in the face of this devastation, however, seems somehow sick and wrong. It’s so painfully obvious how terrible this is, it is hard to comprehend how one could need reminding of it. Sure, nature has its moments of beauty, and it offers immense value to humanity that has long gone unappreciated… but it is easy to forget, from the comfort of our living rooms, just how devastating nature can be.

My thoughts and best wishes are with those throughout the country.

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Glacial Advancement

January 12, 2010

Looks like there are some dust storms brewing over another statement in the IPCC report.

I’m not familiar with this particular controversy, but it seems to me that there are at least two ways of looking at it. One way, which is the way that I anticipate some from the contrarian community will view it, is as suggesting that this is yet one more nail in the coffin for the IPCC report. Another way, which is the way that I’m much more inclined to view it, is as suggesting that this is yet further evidence that the body of scientific knowledge is proceeding normally, albeit glacially, with the right sort of scrutiny.

Many are quick to suggest that the IPCC data is cooked or rigged in some way, but if there are observed errors in the report, and if then future iterations of the report are responsive to corrections of those errors, doesn’t that suggest that the process is in fact more open than is sometimes asserted?

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Whistleblower Inducements

January 11, 2010

Now that the semester is kicking back into gear, I’m finally digging out of my backlog, reading through old blogs and catching up on all the delicious bad reasoning that I’ve missed. I just got a fantastic kick out of this bit of pipe-dreamery from James Delingpole.

Delingpole seems to think that because the US has a law rewarding whistleblowers handsomely for blowing whistles, that therefore this will spell doom and disaster for Michael Mann and most of the climate researchers in the United States. (I’m giving benefit of doubt to Delingpole that this law exists. I’m not a lawyer. I have no idea if it exists. If it does, it’s a pretty serious law. Yay, millions of bucks for simply saying that your colleagues have done something dishonest with federal funds. You don’t even need to prove it!)

I suppose only time will tell on this one, but it seems to me that precisely because the US has this law, if nobody comes forward, then we have yet one more very strong reason to trust the research. Namely, with all that cabbage hanging out on a Deling’s fishingpole, no takers either means no trickery or that there is some seriously rich and nefarious Lex Luthor character pulling strings at Penn State. Delingpole is just hoping beyond hope that someone will come forward and claim the money because he believes that there is criminal chicanery going on.

Perhaps the appropriate counter-challenge is due: if nobody steps up to claim the money, might we stop this silly charade and STFU?

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Dirty Laundry

January 10, 2010

I always get a wee bit nervous whenever an article quotes or cites me. It doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, I get my red-face on. Here’s a nice little bit from the Washington Post’s travel section. To be frank, when Juliet told me that she wanted to write an article on this, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what her angle might be, even though this is exactly what she told me she’d write. Here are the relevant passages:

Benjamin Hale, an environmental studies and philosophy professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, was attending the December climate talks in Copenhagen when he noticed something odd about his three-star hotel: It kept giving him fresh towels, even though he was hanging up the ones he’d used in accordance with the hotel’s advertised policy of allowing guests to reuse towels as a conservation measure.

“I kept wondering, why are these towels getting washed? Because I’m trying, I’m making an effort” to reuse them, recalled Hale, who stayed at the Copenhagen Strand Hotel when delegates from 193 nations gathered in the Danish capital to debate how best to save the planet. “It’s become this unfulfilled promissory note.”

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Huey, Dewey, and Louie

January 9, 2010

Freeman Lowell is friggin’ weeping at the sad state of affairs for Biosphere II. Photographer Noah Sheldon offers this nice collection of images sixteen years after Hobbes came to life. Nice commentary here.

Wondering what to do this cold Sunday? Snuggle in for a short orbit around Saturn, that’s what.

“On Earth, everywhere you go, the temperature is 75 degrees. Everything is the same; all the people are exactly the same. Now what kind of life is that?”

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Sea Shepherd Splintered

January 8, 2010

Revkin had a post up a few days ago on Dot Earth about the Sea Shepherd ramming. Near the end of his post, Revkin slyly asks:

If a whale is hit by an exploding harpoon near Antarctica and the world doesn’t have a way to witness that, does it make a sound?

Apparently, Peter Singer, Philosopher and Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, responded:

Yes, it has a sound. Because the question about a tree falling in the forest assumed that there are no sentient being able to hear it fall. But whales are sentient beings, and they make sounds that can communicate through the water over a great distance. But even if the whale was alone it can hear the harpoon and feel its own agony, as studies have shown that harpooned whales often die slowly.

I’ve been heavily influenced by Singer, even though I disagree with him pretty strongly (methodologically speaking). Not only does his response to Revkin strike me as having missed the point of the question — the question, in other words, was not technically about whether whales are phenomenologically aware of their own slaughter, but about the extent to which the slaughtering of whales matters politically if no one is around to call attention to the fact that they’re being slaughtered — but it is unapologetically entrenched in his sentientist POV.

On the first point, clearly the question was political. One might also ask the same thing of a protest organization like Sea Shepherd: if they continue doing what they’re doing, and nobody is around to hear, does it make a difference?

Indeed, ever since Sea Shepherd began allowing cameramen on board to shoot Discovery Channel’s Whale Wars, critics of Sea Shepherd have accused Watson of jumping the whale shark.  My students, mostly fascinated by the extent to which Sea Shepherd walks a tricky legal line, cannot stop talking about what a pompous self-promoter Watson is. Until the show came on the air, they’d only caught wind of direct action organizations like Sea Shepherd through the twisted missives of the self-parody that is the Center for the Defense of Free Enterprise.

But that’s just the way it should be: Whale wars is a media phenomenon. They’re in the news now, partly because they’ve been very good about getting and holding media attention.

On the second point, it’s true by definition that sentient creatures like whales are aware of pains and pleasures, and so presumably would “hear” the harpoon as it enters their body. But simply because this is true ought not to be the critical factor in determining what’s wrong with harpooning whales. Singer and many like him argue in multiple locations that sentience is what matters morally, presumably because pains are bad and pleasures are good. But many others disagree. So what if whales can feel the harpoon enter their body. Of course they can. Cows and pigs can probably also feel it when they get clobbered with a hatchet. I have to wonder if the awareness of the whale is a strong enough reason to stop harpooning whales.  To combat the shortcomings of this view, many try to argue for personhood, just as these scientists argue that dolphins should be viewed as non-human persons. Watson also argues something like this when he claims that whales are more intelligent than humans. This strategy also has its substantial shortcomings. For starters, it’s a relatively confusing, given the commonplace use of the term “person,” and the extent to which this is caught up in moral language.

A slightly better strategy, it seems to me, is to argue that the relevant features of an existing being are salient in a particular circumstance. I guess my attitude is that we can give lots of great reasons why whales ought not to be harpooned and slaughtered, and we don’t need to adopt the strong sentientist or personhood position to make these claims. There are reasons for me to not go mowing down a forest in Alaska, for instance, and those reasons don’t necessarily overlap with the forest’s intelligence, personhood, or ability to feel.

Semester begins on Monday. Should be a bit easier to hit my schedule when I’m in a routine.