Thursday, November 27, 2008

beyond parody

I've been meaning to blog about an exchange Will Wilkinson had with Brian Leiter a while back. It's really doing my head in, Leiter is a bigshot philosopher who is just ridiculously mean about people he disagrees with. Leiter hasn't lost his mind like Chomsky seems to have (Leiter loves Chomsky though) and he's not like Michael Moore or Naomi Klein so I'm trying desperately to understand how he can be so uncharitable to people he disagrees with without simply dismissing him. I know people find it mystifying that I care so much, but I guess I'm just weird.

Anyway, I was browsing his blog and came across this

More Fun with Ayn Rand

Via this German blog, I am reminded that the 2008 Philosophical Lexicon has an amusing entry on the pseudo-philosopher du jour:

rand, n. An angry tirade occasioned by mistaking philosophical disagreement for a personal attack and/or evidence of unspeakable moral corruption. "When I questioned his second premise, he flew into a rand." Also, to attack or stigmatise through a rand. "When I defended socialised medicine, I was randed as a communist."
This is an accurate description of Rand, but it describes Leiter's blogging style so perfectly that I'm stunned at his lack of self-awareness (when I e-mailed Leiter about his exchange with Will, he attributed a slip Will made to animus). Obviously I know he doesn't think this of himself but it's jarring to read him faulting someone else so specifically.

Here's a taste of Leiter's style
It is perhaps worth remembering that the “conservatives” of each prior era in America in the last century were, without an exception I can recall, on the morally reprehensible side of every major social and economic issue:
Yip, conservatives loved communist mass slaughter. I know how Leiter would respond; either that all liberals were on the same side and he meant issue where liberals and conservatives were on different sides. Either that or conservatives were only on the right side for morally reprehensible reasons (I'm not kidding!). But you get the idea; in all debates, without exception conservatives have been morally reprehensible.

Added: On the off chance that you're a reader who skims my posts but doesn't read the comments, Leiter responded in the comments. Three of the comments are his.

And here's my name.

Stuart Torr.

maybe things really are going to the dogs

Recently a beggar asked me for money while urinating.

A few days later I heard someone answer his cellphone in his little stall in the Cavendish restroom and he flushed while still on the call.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

So, I've been evicted...

In a rather dramatic turn of events, my apartment building has been condemned and I've got till Friday to move out (I found out last Friday).

Last night I attended this endless meeting with other tenants, 4 (!) people from the letting agent, the owners mother and the owners lawyer. In two hours I learned nothing concrete, though I do have a clearer idea of what's going to happen in the next few days.

I feel a little guilty that this isn't affecting me as badly as it is the rest of the tenants. I'm lucky, it's an inconvenience but I'm glad to avoid paying rent in December. One of my neighbour's has been living there for over 30 years, she's very old and has lots of stuff. Many people had been living there for years; to be evicted on such short notice really, really sucks.

We were reassured that we'd get our deposits back, once they've inspected the flats, which is very gracious. It is reasonable to do the inspections on the ground floor, where I am, because these flats are not really affected by the damaged roof, but it's funny to think of people scrutinising my flat with a fine tooth comb just after I've been evicted because the flat is not safe for human habitation.

If the deposit is not paid out, you can expect a rather more colourful post to follow.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The problem isn't the box, the problem is YOU

I don't mean Trevor, I mean, you know, people.

I don't disagree that people assume assume negative things about people who self identify as capitalists and atheists*. But if you're talking with one of these people and feel the need to say, "I am an Atheist. But I have a strong moral core" then that's a concession to that mistake and that person will actually experience a little surge of positive reinforcement in his mistaken conception rather than feeling the uncomfortable pressure needed to change his view of atheists. At best he'll create a new small box for Trevor "Atheist. Not evil.", more likely he'll just forget and dump Trevor in with the rest of the damned, at least in the unusual situation of thinking of these things at all (atheism implies immoral), day to day, he'll likely think any atheists he knows are fine people if he happens to like them.

My impression is that qualifying some opinion you may have with, "but I'm not racist" isn't the best way of convincing the sceptical.

The term atheist is perfectly fine and those people are just plain wrong. Making concessions in how you use words firstly encourages people to press home perceived advantage but also debases language. Words don't have essential meanings but we can fight people trying to get debate freebies through misuse of language. More extreme forms of this debasement play an important role in the dystopia of 1984.

We must fight for our boxes! We must not comfort our enemies!

*(I use the atheism example here because capitalism is much more difficult to define with any precision).

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

was that really necessary?

I just finished the 4th season of the wire and it was so horrible I ended up kinda mentally switching off and being less interested in what happened next. I can already hear the response; Simon is just telling it like it is and if I can't handle it then that's my problem, no doubt a result of my (undeniably) sheltered and cushy existence.

But that's not quite right. It's not like the first three seasons are relentlessly uplifting and I haven;t complained about the Wire's pessimism till now. Horrible things have been happening from the very beginning (in fact, I re-watched the first episode recently and one of the worst incidents happens there).

I haven't been watching The Wire like I watch most stuff, constantly thinking, "That's stupid. He would never have done that." I've just been watching to see what happens, I'm genuinely interested to see how each character acts in each situation. This is to the show's eternal credit, but I also think that my gut reaction of, "Oh common! This is just too randomly tragic!" means something.

On further reflection, I almost certainly wouldn't have had this reaction if one incident (horrible, but not central to the plot) had been omitted or changed.

This could mean we're back to assuming that I just need to toughen up, or that David Simon doesn't want to educate us so much as drive us to despair.

Monday, November 17, 2008

how do you feel about enlightened self interest?

Naturalistic accounts of ethics usually involve the prisoners dilemma in some way. People are motivated to be nice to people because they'll be nice back. This invites the response that this isn't morality at all since it's still selfish. Truly moral behavior involves being prepared to sacrifice your interests.

This is fair enough, but I think it's interesting how this mixes with other moral intuitions.

Say Jack gives Freddie a birthday present because he thinks it's the right thing to do. He takes care to get something his friend likes and goes through all the motions to do it in the right spirit, but just hates doing it. Hated the expense and effort and doesn't take pleasure in Freddie's happiness. Jill also gets a present but loves thinking of what gift to buy and loves seeing Freddie's happy reaction to the present.

My experience suggests we think of Jill as a better person, not just a more pleasant one.

If I'm right, then out of two people behaving identically, we think of the person who's actions are more closely aligned with their self interest as better, which i think is odd.


I've been confused by my reaction to Trevor's last post in which he says
I am a capitalist. But that doesn't mean I don't want the poor to do well...
I am an Atheist. But I have a strong moral core (in my humble opinion).
My reaction was that Trevor's wording implicitly endorses these common beliefs, even though I know that's what he's taking a stance against.

And yet that remains my impression. I'm sure that says something about me rather than Trevor's post. Just though I'd note it...

Friday, November 14, 2008

I’m proud to be a libertarian, pescetarian, atheist, transhumanist, compatibilist, neo-darwinian and one day I hope to join the Bayesian Conspiracy

Trevor has a post about avoiding classifying yourself. I basically agree with what I take to be point of the post. I don't want to feel compelled to agree with Ayn Rand lest my libertarian decoder ring be confiscated, but I think there's a confusion here.

I feel that I don't really classify myself as a libertarian, that's just what I am. A libertarian is someone who has certain beliefs, values etc and I share enough of them to be a libertarian. Someone who doesn't eat meat simply can't help being a vegetarian.

Trevor worries about feeling the need to defend the principles of your box, but I personally hope that people like Trevor can be counted on to defend the principles of democracy, freedom of expression and many other things.

Admitting, or even hoping, that your beliefs will mature and improve isn't the same as denying you have them.


But I'm not sure why I'm only seeing posts like this now. The Obama hysteria is lunatic and the proliferation of Che style iconography is creepy. America is going through a horrible financial crisis and if the great depression is anything to go by, people will tolerate a prolonged depression just so long as the government is doing lots of stuff. The Great Depression went on forever and not only was FDR not dumped, he was reelected in, I think, the biggest landslide ever in an American election.

If Obama "does something" and it doesn't help, well at least he's tried and if it works, well then he's a hero. In either case capitalism will remain the villain. Democrats in power combined with Obama mania does not bode well for a measured response.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The String Theory

David Foster Wallace wrote what will probably always be the definitive Federer piece. I read it without knowing that the author was a big deal. I recently discovered that he'd written another famous tennis article 10 years earlier. It was about Michael Joyce, then ranked 79th in the world. My interest flagged the second I realised it was about a nobody, even though I knew that was exactly the point (Joyce was young and people though he could break through to the top 10. He didn't, the article was written right at the peak of his career).

I pressed on though and it's excellent, the kinda article that makes me wonder about the other brilliant articles I'll never read because I just don't have the energy to find them.

I've always known, in an impersonal, abstract way that being one of the best in the world at something is to be WAY beyond what I can understand. I could see what I was relatively good at and knew people personally who were just way better and I knew how unlikely it was that I could reach that level. It's also extremely unlikely that these people I know are all that exceptional.

This article is the best thing I've read that makes this understanding real. I find this very impressive and important for some reason. Here's one of his concluding paragraphs
Whether or not he ends up in the top ten and a name anybody will know, Michael Joyce will remain a paradox. The restrictions on his life have been, in my opinion, grotesque; and in certain ways Joyce himself is a grotesque. But the radical compression of his attention and sense of himself have allowed him to become a transcendent practitioner of an art -- something few of us get to be. They’ve allowed him to visit and test parts of his psychic reserves most of us do not even know for sure we have (courage, playing with violent nausea, not choking, et cetera)
This guy is quickly becoming a hero of mine, I'll have to track down more of his stuff.

Monday, November 10, 2008

all possible evidence does not support your theory

Greed has been in the news recently because it apparently explains the current financial crisis. I’m not sure how this really deepens our understanding of what’s going on but it does remind me of a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while now about the relationship between greed and price rises.

A snippet of history I’m sure Trevor will enjoy is that the US imprisoned Japanese people during World War II. This was not very nice but the reason for it was clear enough, maybe they were conspiring to launch an attack from within US borders. So there was the theory (Japanese conspiracy) and one fact influencing the probability of the theory being true is weather or not there had been any Japanese attacks.

Some people took the absence of such an attack as evidence in favor of the theory. Now it’s easy to imagine the plotters attempting to lull people into a false sense of security to make the attack all the more devastating when it happened, but this is not the same as lack of attacks being evidence for the conspiracy. If it’s just “attack” or “not attack” you can’t have both counting in favor of your hypothesis. If you did, every single piece of evidence increases the likelihood of your theory being correct, which is crazy. In fact treating lack of attacks as incriminating necessarily implies that an attack would lower the odds of your conspiracy theory, which would be a strange way of looking at things.

The point is that if you have a theory (greed) and an event that you think counts in favor of your theory (price increase), then a price decrease must necessarily lower the odds that your greed theory is right (increase the odds of altruism). Most people seem reluctant to take the low prices of Wal-Mart as evidence of Wal-Mart’s altruism which is perfectly sensible because big companies are always greedily attempting to maximize profits by whatever price they set.
So I’m not saying that companies are not greedy, just that increasing prices can only count as evidence for this if you count price decreases as evidence for altruism. If you don’t think this, price increases tell us nothing about current levels of evil.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

how thrilling

Arsenal were 2-0 up in the 89th minute and are contriving to throw away their lead. O yipee.

Added: Well, Aresenal won. I wish they hadn't conceded that late goal, but they were lucky that things played out the way did. By the end they had also had many, many opportunities so I'm not going to they shouldn't have won, but they weren't the better team most of the game.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

I'm relieved

It'll be over soon. At the start of the year I was terrified that we'd be seeing a Clinton Romney "showdown". I liked both Obama and McCain better, but I've been depressed by both McCain's campaign and the media coverage of it (especially through bloggers I like). McCain was basically sabotaged by his own party but my impression is that this is not how things will be remembered.

One thing that's actually pretty cool though is that immigration has barely been an issue in the election which is the issue I care most about. Naturally I actually want it to be an issue, but not in the way it'd actually play out so best just to forget about it.

Anyway, I no longer officially prefer McCain, but I'm not really endorsing Obama either. I like Obama, he's charismatic, smart and seems levelheaded. I just have an instinctive reaction against the mindless euphoria surrounding his candidacy and worry about how this will mix with the Democrat's being in power. It's easy to find cults of personality creepy if you don't like the personality, but if we like the guy, well then it couldn't be a cult of personality could it? We're reasonable smart people, unlike those crackpots who got all excited about that other guy. Worse though is that Obama seems to be quite keen on this himself.

On balance I'm reasonably optimistic and I really hope he turns out well, but I'll think I'll give the delirious celebrations a miss.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

infinite coolness wins!

I was worried that sense wouldn't prevail, but thankfully it did. I'm typing this on Greg's new I-phone. Why this thrills me so much I'll leave to the philosophers...