Friday, June 30, 2006

Vacation time at last.

Off for a few days. Will probably check email sporadically, so feel free to keep commenting, you oh-so-conversational bastards, you.

Israel.

I'm no big fan of the whole Middle East debacle. I'm confident there's more than enough blame to go around. However, this is a peculiarly dismaying summary of what Israel is currently doing, on the pretext of "rescuing" one of their soldiers. Regardless of the blame that attaches to the Palestinian government for whatever role they may have played in said kidnapping, this response is entirely out of due proportion. Moreover, it seems that the Israelis were looking for an excuse to attack and defeat a government that they consider illegitimate (notwithstanding the prior example of the IRA and Sinn Fein). It seems that, so far, they've succeeded. One wonders, though, how long Israel would last if it pulled these kinds of stunts without the backing of the US? Point to ponder, at least.

The worm turns in the UK.

Since I'm English by birth, I find this a hopeful sign. I also find it a hopeful sign for the direction Canada may go. Basically, the popularity of the Labour Party (Blair's party) is falling, and the popularity of the Conservative Party is climbing. But, in the recent by-elections, it wasn't a wash for the Conservatives -- a number of voters chose the pox on both houses, and instead ushered in the Liberal Democrats (a left-leaning party, formed from the former Liberal and Social Democrat parties) and something called the UK Independence Party (apparently, their big issue is withdrawal from the EU). And, a few simple independents also won seats. It's nice to see the big party machines being told to stick it. It's the only way to keep them honest.

Net neutrality.

There is so much wrong with this article. Not anything the reporter said; what's being said by those against net neutrality. For those not in the know, net neutrality is the principle that companies that provide access to the internet should not be able to discriminate amongst the traffic they carry. (Rather like how one expects a public library to buy and lend books that are good, not merely books that they've been paid to take.)
"E-commerce giants want to compete in communications but don't want communications companies to compete with them," said Scott Cleland, chairman of Netcompetition.org. "Net neutrality isn't neutral; it's a form of corporate welfare for dot-com billionaires. Net neutrality would kill the goose that laid the golden egg, and the goose that laid the golden egg is competition."
This is the most insane series of bad arguments. The first is a clear straw-man -- no one (worth listening to) who supports net neutrality cares about access to Google and Yahoo!. The problem is with access to little sites and small competitors to the giants. The fact that the giants don't want to see their competition get an advantage is a bonus, because it puts some heavy hitters on the side of the little guys; but, ultimately, the danger is that corporations who already control huge amounts of internet traffic will be able to leverage their position into even greater, nigh-monopolistic advantage.

The second is a non sequitur. Competition did indeed help grow the internet. But now, as with all (relatively) mature industries, there are a few extremely rich and powerful companies sitting at the top of the heap. Without regulation, there's a great danger that these companies will form a cartel/trust/whatever you want to call it and keep potential competitors from entering the marketplace. There's nothing more anti-competitive than the winner of a free competition being allowed the same freedom that got them where they are. After all, free competition ultimately changes the competitors to the point where continued free competition would be disadvantageous (indeed, disastrous). Hence, progressive taxation, regulation of mature markets, etc.

Let's fisk: Ethics a-go-go.

Fisking this piece of nonsense (the first half; the second I don't care about).
There were protests last week when Ryerson University gave an honorary degree to "ethicist" Margaret Somerville. I insert quotation marks since I dislike adding syllables to a simple, rich term such as ethics. It's like calling starvation, racism and murder in Darfur, “humanitarian,” and not just human, issues.
I agree that the word "ethicist" is quite ugly. But what else do you call someone who studies ethics, thinks about ethics, and writes on ethics? The old word is "moralist", actually, but that's got a very negative connotation now. ("Moralistic" is a pejorative.)
The protesters may have assumed that an expert in ethics should be particularly ethical herself and that Dr. Somerville's restrictive views on marriage, child-raising and abortion, didn't meet that test. Personally I think the problem lies in the assumption.
The assumption is indeed false. Being an ethicist doesn't make one ethical -- although it does tend to make one better at justifying what one does ethically. However, I note that there's consideration as to whether Somerville's views are actually wrong -- that is, whether her claims that marriage is all about child-rearing actually are "unethical". That assumption is clearly up for grabs, and that assumption is what Somerville's work challenges, and challenging that assumption is why she received a doctorate. Talk about missing the point.
During my lengthy adolescent religious quest, I had a Bible teacher in Israel named Nehama Labovitz. I once asked her if she thought a person lacking faith could understand the Bible. "I think it is like a blind person could be the world expert in optics," she mused. "He would know everything about it. He just wouldn't know what he was talking about."
The example is nonsense. Firstly, the analogy doesn't fly. Having faith isn't a pre-requisite for understanding the Bible, in that anyone can read the words and the commentaries and come to some sort of understanding of it. Having faith is a pre-requisite for being Christian. Secondly, a blind person could indeed be a world expert in optics, in that optics is the science that explores the workings of light. To say that you have to be sighted in order to understand optics is rather like saying that a human being can't understand how creatures "see" with sonar. Of course we can -- we have to use analogies to do it, but we can. I'd imagine the same applies to the blind man's understanding of optics. Thirdly, it's pretty clear Salutin doesn't have a clue what optics actually is -- he thinks it's got something to do with seeing things, and that's only a small part of the story.
That's how I'd feel about ethicists, if I thought their discipline actually existed.
Need I point out how stupid this is? Well, I will, in just one more paragraph.
But I'm inclined to think it doesn't. It has no established body of knowledge or technique — unlike neurosurgery or auto repair.
Bullshit. Ethics has an established body of knowledge -- the number of works written on ethics is vast. Ethics has its own techniques (indeed, they are special applications of the general techniques of philosophy). I also note that his comparisons are to practical disciplines -- neurosurgery and auto repair both involve manipulating the world, somehow. Better comparisons would be to pure theory -- say, pure mathematics. Does Salutin think there's no "established body of knowledge or technique" to N-space vector algebra?
By its nature, ethics belongs to each person; all claims to expertise diminish that broad application.
Also bullshit. I don't know where he's gotten this "definition" from, but I get the feeling this is an argumentum ad dictionarium. The idea that the existence of experts diminishes the application of ethics to everyone is sheer nonsense. There are experts in dynamic forces, which govern the basic physical interactions of all physical objects. That there are experts doesn't mean that dynamic forces don't apply to all physical objects. It's a total non sequitur.
So do attempts to squeeze it into academic compartments such as bioethics, medical ethics (the Somerville niche) or journalistic ethics, in which I once held a “chair” at, come to think of it, Ryerson.
And now an appeal to personal experience, as if that's supposed to be significant. The baseless attack on academic comparmentalization (which is actually not as hard and fast as non-academics seem to believe) exposes the actual problem, which is that Salutin doesn't seem to like experts telling him he's doing things wrong. Rather than admit that he might be wrong, he's attacking the expertise and the institutional structure that supports it. Not terribly ethical, really, nor intellectually respectable.
The best writers on ethics are notably vague. Immanuel Kant, my fave, never tried to prove right and wrong exist; he said each of us knows that from "the moral voice within." Any rules he offered were dead simple: The only unambiguously good thing is the will to do good. Act as if your conduct could be a guideline for everyone. Treat others as ends, never as means.
To go back to the idea that there is indeed a body of knowledge for ethics, if Salutin was familiar with it, he'd know that Kant's ideas of the "good will" and the two formulations of the Categorical Imperative are notoriously slippery. There is an embarrassment of counter-examples to all Kant's claims. Furthermore, to claim that Kant didn't try to prove right and wrong exist is to misunderstand the place of the arguments in the The Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals , and pretend those in the Critique of Practical Reason and Critique of Pure Reason do not exist. Kant didn't try to "prove" right and wrong exist, in the sense Salutin seems worried about, because Kant didn't think you could prove anything existed in that sense. The confusion, says Kant, lies in overlooking the distinction between things as they appear (phenomena) and things as they are in themselves (noumena). Nothing can be known about noumena, for we cannot ever experience them; all we ever experience are phenomena. In that sense, we end up with a strong bifurcation of the world: pure reason tells us that the world consists of physical objects obeying laws of science and in strict cause-effect relations; practical reason, on the other hand, tells us that the world consists of many rational beings obeying laws they choose for themselves and who are free (autonomous). (More on Kant here, at the excellent online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.)
I don't mean you can't explore ethical topics or speak usefully about them.
Yes, you do. You just denied there's any body of knowledge about it.
Dostoevsky wrote brilliantly on moral issues, but I don't think anyone would call him an ethicist or go to him for advice.
Well, the fact that he's dead makes it hard to go to him for advice. If you mean "go to his writings", then, in fact, people do, just as people turn to the Bible, or to Kant, or to whomever, for moral advice. As to being an "ethicist", well, probably not, because he was in the first instance a writer and not a philosopher; his thinking was not systematic. He may have had good insights, but they hardly form a rigorous system of thought.
When I held that comfy chair at Ryerson, I took it on the understanding that I felt there was no such thing as journalistic ethics. I didn't mean that in a snarky way.
Doubtful. Although it's nice to know one can be paid to hold a chair at a public university and think that the money one is earning is for doing jack shit. I note that Salutin just takes it as given that there's no "journalistic ethics" -- I wonder what, if any, academic papers he wrote to justify this. (This is why professionals should have to prove their academic chops before being allowed into universities. Often, even if they know how to do something, they don't know that.)
Just: Ethics is ethics, here, there and everywhere; we are all our own ethicists because that is our moral duty.
I find it funny that he can think ethics is personal and subjective, has no body of knowledge, and yet also think that the concept of "moral duty" is coherent.

Perhaps the federal Cons now have their own funding scandal.

This is the gift that keeps on giving. Ultimately, it's a minor point: either the Cons didn't have to count convention fees as donations, and were right therefore not to; or, they did have to, and they'll have to pay a fine. No one's going to go to jail over this. But, still, the Cons' first instinct is to attack their accuser:
The Tories said there is no such rule and claimed that Elections Canada had already audited the 2005 convention in Montreal.
Of course, as the very next sentence points out:
"Elections Canada has not audited the books of the Conservative Party regarding this convention," said the release from [Jean-Pierre] Kingsley [chief electoral officer with Elections Canada], adding Elections Canada has no legal authority to compel such an audit.
It's amazing to me that people who played such a canny political game in the last election are blowing it now. Don't they get that continuing to deny this, instead of shutting up and letting it die down, is all that's keeping the story brewing?

Can US neocons say anything wrong?

This I find rather horrifying. On national TV news, a "commentator" is interviewed with a journalist who lets the former call for not just the execution, but the horrible, painful, (literally) Nazi-style execution of the editor of a prominent US newspaper. Why are people like this given any legitimacy? It simply boggles my mind. It might be claimed that this is a "joke" -- indeed, Ann Coulter often claims that her repugnant pronouncements are "jokes" -- but I really don't see how this is a joke. I mean, I like a good dead baby joke as much as the next guy, but those are deliberately over-the-top and absurd. Beyond that, what's the possible source of the humour? There's no word-play involved, no sudden ironic twist. Simply a call for appalling violence.

On the other hand, if this person is serious, then it seems they should be arrested for uttering a death threat. Shouldn't they?

Ontario Cons -- friends of public broadcasting?

See here. Why do I not believe John Tory when he says that he's terribly upset about the cancellation of TVOntario's Studio 2? Probably because, were the shoe on the other foot -- that is, was a public broadcaster criticizing a Tory government -- I have no confidence he wouldn't have done exactly the same thing. (After all, his predecessors, Messrs. Eves and Harris were notorious for stifling dissent wherever it came from.)

CanWest = the FoxNews of Canada?

According to this, CanWest Media wants to withdraw from the Canadian Press. This is no great shakes for the CP -- with Bell Globemedia's backing, at the very least, the CP will continue on as it alway has. However, it's not surprising that CanWest wants to be able to control its own "content", without fair oversight or sharing of information. This is, again, the profit-motive clashing with public interest. It is in the public interest to have a fair and aggressive press, but the media corporations are driven to make as much money as they can. Controlling their "content" accomplishes the latter, but seems clearly against the former.

Investing in the public system works.

Who would've thunk it? Putting money into reducing wait-times is a good way to try to better manage the current healthcare system (although focusing on wait-times is still a bit too bean-counterish for my liking). And much better than scrapping it in favour of the highly-flawed private insurance model.

In general, it seems to me that any insurance which serves a public interest shouldn't be run by market forces, for the simple reason that the profit-motive is incompatible with achieving other socially valuable goods. For example, if the aim is to make sure that people hurt in car accidents are compensated fairly for their injuries, then it seems the private sector should have nothing to do with it. (After all, private insurers will be trying to make as much money as possible, which is not compatible with the concept of fair compensation.) Same holds for health insurance, insurance against work injuries, disability insurance generally, and probably also for life insurance. It won't hold for property insurance, though, because protecting anything other than minimal personal property (what you need to live and work) just doesn't seem like a social good.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

The wackiness that is Alternet.

Every so often I visit Alternet.org. Occasionally, it has something interesting, like this, which is a nice little opinion piece on how the left should deal with the religious. Basic idea is: be nice to 'em, treat 'em respectfully, but get 'em to back the hell off from trying to explain anything. Religion has no place in politics, and vote-buying by kowtowing to religious groups is nuts.

But, then I see crap like this (1, 2), and realize they're just fruitcakes (hence, "loony left", eh?). The "argument", such as it is, is that air conditioning is an "unsustainable" technology (uses too much fuel, etc.) and that people shouldn't live in hot places. I'm shocked that there's no companion article arguing people shouldn't live in Scandinavia because it's too cold in winter and they'll just waste fuel heating their homes. It's really the same argument.

The problem is not the basic idea of regulating temperature. Humans have been doing that for years. The problem is twofold: first, our homes are not designed to retain heat in winter but also lose heat in summer; and, second, the technologies we use to heat and cool our homes are wasteful. So, two obvious solutions: first, build homes better (instead of cookie-cutter townhouses dumped in the middle of a previously open field, with no regard for where the sun will hit them and such); and, second, develop more efficient technologies for regulating temperature (instead of burning natural gas and running a pump while pushing air through a refrigerated region, respectively). Simple.

But the idea that air conditioning is inherently bad is part of this loony left idea that we should all eat vegan organic foods and walk to work and so on and so forth. There's no good principled arguments for these sorts of views, and, practically, they're a nightmare (largely because they will never be accepted by the average person). Instead of pretending we can create some environmentalist utopia, I humbly suggest we simply try to improve the way our world actually operates.

Insurance payments and evidence-based medicine.

Decisions like this infuriate me. On the one hand, I have no sympathy for private insurers. They make billions in profits each year. Their general method for dealing with claimants is to pay out a minimal amount, then use investigators, legal ninjas and denial of payments to convince claimants to just go away. This decision helps them out a little bit further, by allowing them to deny benefits without instantly being sued for punitive damages.

Unfortunately, though, the Canadian Supremes have put more bullets in the plaintiffs' guns than the defense's. First is as follows. The claim was for fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome which are, basically, bullshit. Chronic pain is real. Chronic fatigue is real. That is, both are symptoms of genuine pathologies. But fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome are as real as railway spine. (Shocking note: I tried to Google some skeptical sites on FMS and CFS and couldn't find anything. The Web really is a home for altie bullshit.) There is no single pathological process you can point to an label fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. The idea that one can claim damages for being denied benefits for these "diseases" is disturbing.

Ordinarily, to call something a "disease", we need a process that is, in some way, deviant from the body's "normal" processes. Simple enough: things like colds pass this definition, as do things like cancer. (Injuries may as well; but, since I'm not trying to rule out injuries, this doesn't bother me.) So, the question is: what "process" underlies FMS or CFS? If one can be found, then it's not FMS or CFS! For example, fatigue is often a symptom of hypoglycemia. The deviant process that is hypoglycemia can be found; and, since it can be found, the patient would be diagnosed with hypoglycemia, not CFS. The same holds for FMS.

Secondly, plaintiffs can now dump in a "mental distress" claim if their benefits are denied. Which is insane. While it might be "distressing" to be denied benefits, I cannot for the life of me see how (1) this can be a pathology for which one deserves compensation and (2) how it's the insurance company's problem that, basically, you're a wuss.

Insurance companies' purpose is not to pay you what you "deserve". They enter into a contract with a consumer to provide a certain level of payment if certain conditions are met. For example, life insurance pays out if the consumer dies. So, unless the insurance contract is very badly worded, I'd think that disability insurance will only pay out if one has an actual pathology which disables one (usually from working). "Mental distress" due to denial of benefits is hardly enough to disable one, unless one is exceptionally fragile -- in which case, surely one would not have been insurable. (Interesting side-note: if you turn out to be a fragile sort of person who can't handle being denied benefits, are you as liable to have your insurance cancelled as someone who, even unknowingly, concealed osteoporosis and then suffered a fracture partially due to the underlying condition?) So, to allow claims for mental distress exposes insurance companies in an unacceptable way, and may (I would think) lead to a refusal to cover any mental illnesses.

The continuing glory of the US healthcare system.

This suggests that one should, oh, say, not need an organ transplant in the US ever. Go to Hotel-Dieu Grace in Windsor instead, eh? Nice to know that the "market model" of healthcare delivery is so capable of monitoring outcomes and keeping patients alive.

Edit: Fixed link.

US Supremes finally see the light -- REPOST.

[Something went wrong with my original post. It was visible from the index, but otherwise didn't exist. Odd.]

Finally. Look, everyone knew Gitmo was illegal. The whole "enemy combatants" (as distinct from PoWs) was always nonsense on stilts (with apologies to Bentham). The interesting thing about this is not that Dubya is going to close Gitmo -- he won't -- but that the Supremes have finally woken up to the fact that they are the third branch of the US government, and, if the legislature is asleep at the wheel, then it's up to them to check executive power. It also seems that this may have a negative effect on Dubya's ability to find laws that superficially justify his illegal wiretapping program (again, he won't stop doing it, he'll just look like more of a power-hungery idiot). My hope, of course, is that Bush will continue to defy the law, and will expose his party to utter defeat in mid-terms and in 2008.

The worrisome thing about the decision, of course, is that Thomas, Scalia, and Alito were the dissenting opinions. Roberts recused himself; even if he had weighed in, it still would, at worst, have been 5-4 (and, at best, 6-3). This means that conservative appointees think that the President of the US can do whatever he wants, as long as he follows his declarations with "Yah, boo, scary, terrorists under the bed!" Hence, the next vacancy must be filled by someone sane -- it's as simple as that.

Edit: As this makes clear, Gitmo itself is not illegal. It's the military commissions that Bush was trying to use instead of real trials. Fair enough -- but, if Gitmo detainees must be tried (as they must) and kangaroo courts are no longer legal, then Gitmo comes closer to being an actual (acceptable because necessary) prison instead of a gulag. Again, I expect Bush et al. to try to use military commissions anyway, or simply give up on even mock trials, but at least the Supremes are in the ballpark of doing their job.

Taking a page from Dubya's book.

It looks like Stephen Harper and his oh-so-ethical comrades are taking another page from Dubya's book, and potentially legalizing government surveillance without public oversight. Frankly, I'm surprised they aren't a little gun-shy about trying this, considering the fallout from the HRDC scandal a few years back (wherein, if I recall correctly, part of the problem was the maintenace of a massive database of information not directly relevant to the HRDC mandate). Then again, the Cons haven't been bothered to respect the rights of Canadians yet (see: gay marriage), so I'm not surprised privacy rights may wind up on the chopping-block, too.

Cons are crooked -- I am (still) not surprised.

This is amusing.

I accept that campaign finance laws may be hard to understand. I accept that they may require interpretation. What's funny, though, is that the Cons' lawyer isn't saying: "Okay, look, maybe we did something wrong, we're not sure" or even "That's not our interpretation of the law, but we'll puruse it in court". Instead, we get a superlative claim that there has "never" been such an interpretation of the finance law. Given that this lawyer has probably not read the case law, I find that hard to believe.

Moreover, I find it hard to believe that the Cons would have let the Libs get away with that sort of a response.

Moreover still, it strikes me as pretty evident moral weakness. The lawyer is not claiming that the Cons didn't do it. The lawyer is not claiming that it isn't illegal. He's disputing whether the interpretation of the law can be stretched to cover this particular action. This is not a declaration of innocence, or that the law should be changed (perhaps to sharpen the interpretation), or anything of that nature. If the Cons didn't do anything wrong, why don't they just say so?

The answer that seems most plausible is that they did do something wrong, they know they did something wrong, and they're frantically trying to control the fallout instead of standing up and admitting it.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Amputation vs. salvage.

I always find it odd how attached people get to their limbs, even after their limbs are clearly non-functional. This is the second time I've had to read through a file where that happened -- the previous was a traumatic near-amputation of the leg (below-knee), and this is a traumatic amputation of the arm (below-elbow). In the former case, the orthopods saw reason and tried to convince the patient to get the amputation, after their salvage didn't really do much good (patient still couldn't walk). In the latter case, however, the orthopods got into some stupid jockish kind of mindset and reattached the limb. Which, six years later, still has no function and no sensation. So, really, what was the point? A hook is more functional -- at least it can pinch, eh?

I have to say, I don't get it. Why hang on to something that isn't working? I mean, yes, it's your leg or arm or whatever, but it doesn't work and it doesn't feel -- it's basically just a lump of useless flesh -- so why not replace it with something that might actually help you get your life back together?

Slow news day.

Very little of philosophical interest in the news today. Since I'm busy working on a friggin' medleg file, I'm not in the right mindset to plug the gap myself. Ho hum.

Recall legislation.

Ever since I heard that BC had recall legislation -- something unheard of in my home province of Ontario -- I've been mulling over the concept. Basically, as I understand it, if a certain proportion of the citizenry within an MP's/MPP's/MLA's riding sign a petition by a certain time, then their MP/MPP/MLA is recalled and forced to run in a by-election. This could, if drafted improperly, be a recipe for malcontents to attack MPs/MPPs/MLAs they don't care for. Fair enough -- but that's a matter of implementation, not a matter of the principle. It's the principle I'm interested in.

In Canada's parliamentary system, if a party has a majority, then they are a de facto and de jure dictatorship. They can, literally, do anything -- except what the Constitution forbids. (And, since I'm not sure what the notwithstanding clause doesn't apply to, even that limit may be relatively flaccid.) How can the citizenry respond to a government that is no longer, they feel, governing in their interests? If the government is a minority, it's easy -- the opposition parties aren't stupid, and, smelling blood in the water, they will circle and attack. If necessary, they will force a vote of non-confidence and trigger a general election.

However, if the government is not a minority, then it becomes harder to see what the citizens can do. Civil disobedience is a possibility, to be sure, but a dicey one. And political protests can simply be ignored (Dubya has demonstrated that aptly, through both his terms). This is where recall legislation comes in.

Politicians, professional though they have become, need to remember that in a democratic country, the authority to govern is passed upwards from the citizenry. Each citizens has the right to govern him or herself, and each citizen, through the mechanism of an election, passes that right temporarily to a parlimentary representative. There is no "divine right" to rule (even of the federal Liberal party). Now, since the right to rule is passed up to the representatives, surely the citizens should have the right to take their right to rule back and, potentially, pass it to someone they feel is more deserving?

Given that, then the following practical problems must be dealt with (to ensure fair attempts at recall, and to block nuisances):

  • establish a time within a term past which an MP/MPP/MLA cannot be recalled
  • establish a "grace period" at the start of a term within which an MP/MPP/MLA cannot be recalled
  • establish a proportion of the citizenry considered fairly representative of dissatisfaction (say, a representative supermajority)
  • establish a mechanism by which the citizenry can express their dissatisfaction (e.g., signing a standard petition form)
  • put all this in the Constitution, so future governments can dick around with it at will.

Grading thoughts.

Did I inflate the grades on the final exam? The short answer is "yes", but I think I have good reasons for it. When grading, there are really two issues in play. First is between rewarding improvement and holding tight to academic standards. Second is reasonableness of expectations.

With regard to the first, generally, improvement is to be encouraged. So, a student who started out with a D and ends up with a B on the last assignment should, overall, have a final grade that tends towards the B -- but, only insofar as there can be things found in the last assignment to justify a slight grade inflation.

With regard to the second, if students are taking an accelerated course (5 weeks vs. 10 weeks), then it's likely that there's only two or three assignments (instead of five or six). This means that early assignments will probably get disproportionately weighted. In a regular-length course, grades for early assignments will be weighted less than later ones, because it's expected that students take a little time to get into a course and really reach their actual level of ability. In an accelerated course, though, this is not possible because there are fewer assignments. So, to compensate, a little grade inflation on later assignments is necessary.

So, despite initial misgivings, overall I'm happy with how the grades turned out. I think those who deserved to be rewarded were rewarded deservedly, and the disproportionality was at least somewhat corrected for. And all this without sacrificing standards.

Marking post - the final

I've got to figure out a way to do this that doesn't involve staying up this late, scrambling to get the marking done and the balance of grades right. Ultimately, it all worked out -- I have 24/39 B and higher in the final grade, and 15/39 C+ and lower, which works out to about 64%/36% split (consider "normal", for some odd reason). But, damn. I have to figure out a better way to budget time.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Marking post - the sixth.

6:52pm: It all has to get done, so, now it's gonna get done! Onto question #7 -- which, apparently, over 2/3 of the students did.

7:20pm: Okay, if the question says "critically evaluate", wouldn't one expect some, I don't know, critical evaluation? I would, but apparently I'm crazy.

8:08pm: Wow. That took forever. And, I note that the next question was done by... 1 person. Jeez. And the question after that was done by... apparently about thirty people again. What the hell, eh?

8:29pm: Okay, here we go. Question #9.

9:26pm: I'm clearly slowing down here. These are taking longer. However, it seems that the remaining four questions after I get done with this one don't have nearly as many fans. Hence, each question should go faster. (What's shocking is that I haven't yet got a final grade for anyone -- means no one just did the first five short-answer questions. Bizarre.)

9:47pm: Okay, #9 is done. Final marks thus far are looking all right -- I've already got 16% over the C+ hump, and only one exam is completely marked. I need to get half the class over the hump before I'm done. There's a number of C's and D+'s that I suspect will bump upwards.

10:31pm: Okay, Q#10 is done, and I realized a problem. I need to get them over the B hump, not the C+! I may have to bump up the essay grades to get things better. Crap.

10:42pm: Q#11 done.

11:00pm: Q#12 done. I'm really thinking that this isn't going to turn around as I need it to, which means I'm going to have to revisit Q#2 and #3 and try to bump the marks up. These are the questions with the lowest averages, hence the ones that can make the most difference to my overall balances.

11:20pm: Q#13 done.

12:30am: Q#14 done. Adjusted the grades a little, but I've become confused about how the distribution should be falling. Will call prof in the morning to check, then adjust and enter final grades. Wahoo!

New York Times accused of treason by US Senator.

You know, every time I think the US has sunk into abject fascism, they find a new feature to adopt. This time, they're trying to infringe the freedom of the press. It's about the bank records' spying program being leaked, but it's also about this:
Bunning later added that those who leaked the story, plus journalists involved in earlier stories revealing the existence of a National Security Agency program involving eavesdropping on telephone calls also should be looked at for prosecution.
So, to recap: if a free press reports on (a) an illegal program (wire-tapping), and (b) a questionable program, at best, both are acts of treason and the reporters should be prosecuted. The guys who actually instituted the programs should get off scot-free.

Really, at this point, it seems all they need is some version of the SS, beating people up in the streets....

Edit 8:24pm: Glenn Greenwald is on the case.

Marking post - the fifth.

4:08pm: Been marking the first short answer for the past hour (the only required one). It's not going well. Basically, all they need to do is recite a fairly prominent paragraph from the book, or go out on a limb and (if they're good) come up with something clever of their own. Most are just flailing.

5:00pm: First short answer done. Onto the next.

5:33pm:And that one's done. Average grade on it was a B -- not bad. Onto the next.

6:22pm:And that's that one. Average was a C -- not so great, but, generally, it was sloppily done. If you're asked to define two concepts, make sure you define them! Onto the next one... after a little break.

Swiftboating Kos.

This is hardly surprising. I tend to think the analysis is spot-on -- whatever Kos may or may not have done, it seems exceedingly minor. However, it demonstrates that the party establishments in Washington, whether Democrat or Republican, are equally hostile towards "outsiders" trying to exercise their constitutionally-guaranteed rights to participate in their own government. I tend to see the same problem here in Canada (hence why I'm not a card-carrying Dipper, despite the fact that I find them the "least worst" of the major parties).

I'm not quite sure what the source of the problem is, but I would suggest that it lies in the fact that one can have a career as a politician. Political parties are massive, power-hungry and monied machines that are largely unregulated (and, really, who would regulate them?) -- which is unlike any other massive, power-hungry and monied machine I can think of. (Even large corporations are subject to independent regulation.) If there were constant turnover of the higher-ups, then this would act as a check on their institutional ossification; but, there is no such turnover. Hence, we see the interests of the populace ignored in favour of the ongoing power interests of an elite -- and, worse, an elite whose claims to being elite are only grounded in their own self-interest.

Marking post - the fourth.

11:56am: Here we go again.... Still on the third essay question.

1:05pm: Okay, these are almost universally mediocre. I still haven't seen an answer that really knocks my socks off vis-a-vis either Aristotle or Hume (or both).

2:35pm: Mediocre, mediocre, mediocre. On the whole, I'm mostly seeing the broad outlines of getting the virtue ethics line, but not the actual details.

2:55pm: That was far too much like work. But, 'tis done! At least, that question is. Although the marks were generally mediocre, the average worked out okay. I guess I lost both the high and low ends.

Revision on Harry Potter deaths.

From here, I'm changing my last vote. I'm still going with Snape, but I forgot about the bad guys! So, for my second death, I'm saying Voldemort.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Marking post - the third.

11:26pm: I'm going to start the third question, but quit when Colbert's over. I'm seriously starting to crash here. It's another straightforward one: explain and critically evaluate virtue ethics.

11:48pm: Yeah, I'm completely crashing here. I've marked three and then sat and stared for about eight minutes. So, I'll have to finish these in a mad rush tomorrow. (Why is it always in a mad rush tomorrow?)

Global warming and Bush.

It's bizarre to have to keep saying this, but perhaps it is necessary. There is no reasonable scientific debate left (barring some miraculous new evidence, of course) on three issues:
  1. Global warming is happening.
  2. It's our fault.
  3. It's going to change the way we live, if not destroy any hope for our continued civilization.
Anyone who isn't incredibly scared about what's happening to our weather, to our resources, and to our air -- and, particularly, the total inaction on the part of our elected officials -- is an idiot. It's just that simple. (Hence, no surprise that Bush doesn't even seem to care.)

Marking post - the second.

10:27pm: Okay, here we go. Essay question 2. For this one, they need to tell me about liberalism and communitarianism, with a focus on individual rights. Let's see how well this works...

10:51pm: These are actually pretty good so far. I figured they would be. The question's not terribly difficult, particularly because it just follows a dialectic. The only problem I can foresee is failing to recognize the central question, namely whether we prioritize the individual or the community. (Which is a problem I happen to find very interesting in another context, namely on the question of the origin of normativity.)

11:14pm: Okay, so, second question done. Most people avoided it, oddly. Third question on a new post....

(Ack! Now my eyes are stinging! I have no idea why, they just are for some reason.)

UN claims cannabis as dangerous as heroin and cocaine.

This makes me wonder how long the US has been dictating UN drug policy. The funny thing is how the twit quoted in the article doesn't see the irony in these two statements:
"Today the harmful characteristics of cannabis are no longer that different from those of other plant-based drugs such as cocaine and heroin," he said. ... It said: "Despite early claims to the contrary, cannabis dependence is a reality. Many people who use cannabis find it difficult to stop, even when it interferes with other aspects of their lives, and more than a million people from all over the world enter treatment for cannabis dependence each year."
If you replace "cannabis" with "tobacco", you still get true statements; the same if you replace it with "alcohol". The point is, illegality is only one way to deal with harmful substances. Social approbation and disapproval is another. The question really is which is more effective. Clearly, we're dumping millions into the "war" against cannabis/marijuana, and just as clearly usage rates are going up. So, we really should try something else, even if cannabis is getting more dangerous. Talking about the potential health effects of the drug is really beside the point.

Harry Potter speculation.

According to this, JK Rowling is planning to kill off two major characters in the last Harry Potter novel. The article speculates that it could be Harry. While this is possible, I doubt it. Harry's been going through a pretty standard "coming of age" story, and if he dies at the end, the archetype goes out the window.

I suspect that one of the characters will be Snape. Frankly, given what he did in the 6th book, I don't see any other way out. If it turns out he really did betray Dumbledore, then that means Dumbledore was wrong and Harry right from the very first book -- which makes no sense, as Dumbledore is always right. So, Snape has to be a good guy. However, since he's now walked into a figurative lion's den, he's probably not going to make it out alive. I suspect a heroic sacrifice to finally redeem himself in Harry's eyes and pay back whatever debt he feels he owes to Harry's mother from their own schooldays.

As for the other, it's a tough call. I thought maybe Draco, but his archetype seems to me to be more the redeemed traitor -- rather like Snape, but his redemption hasn't yet come. So, to have Draco redeem himself and then die would be fairly cheap. Thus, I doubt it's Draco.

I'm also ruling out the remaining teachers -- I mean, really, why kill them? So, it's really down to our two remaining central figures: Hermione and Ron. I kind of like the dramatic symmetry of the best friend sacrificing himself to save his friends, so, I'm voting for Ron as number two.

The marking post.

8:17pm: Why is it hard to tell me (1) how utilitarians treat persons, (2) how deontologists disagree, and (3) how the deontologists' concerns might be addressed? I've just given out a "pity 5" on this question for someone who didn't even answer any part of it.

8:28pm: And now I have one that didn't answer (3). Augh!

8:57pm: Okay, I just marked an 18/20 and a 19/20. I feel better about this now. (At least the average will be better than on the midterm. Or so I hope -- this is only the first essay question, after all!)

9:58pm: They're getting much better. And, I'm finally almost done the first essay question! This is the problem with having a required question -- I have to mark thirty of them!

10:15pm: Okay, that's the first question. New post for the second.

Culture, evolution and morality.

This is odd. (I haven't read the article linked to within that link because I'm technically supposed to be marking.)

I take exception to evolutionary explanations of moral or moralistic (proto-moral) behaviour. Not because I don't think they work -- they do. But because they're explaining the behaviour, but not the moral. Let me unpack this: behaviour is, minimally, one's doing something rather than having something happen to one. Further, behaviour seems to be something of a process -- it's not the moving of my arm, the pressing on the light switch, and the electrical current surging along the wires to the lightbulb; my behaviour is, instead, turning on the light, a process which is constituted by these physical events.

So far, so good. Clearly, we can explain the contitutive parts of behaviour in an evolutionary-type fashion (either selectionist or developmental -- I'll gloss both as "evolutionary"). I move my arm when turning on the light because it's a very efficient way to turn on the light and, through my life, I have come to associate moving my arm with the most efficient way of turning on the light. I'll even buy that we can explaining the whole process in an evolutionary fashion -- that is, all these constituents came together because, collectively, they are the most efficient way, etc, etc.

What we can't so explain, though, is why the behaviour is moral: that is, why it receives praise or blame. (And, indeed, I note from the post I linked to that the praising/blaming is being presumed and not explained.) There have been heroic attempts, but I don't buy any that I've read. (More on that in the dissertation!) The only way I know to account for the fact that value -- particularly, morality -- is not amenable to evolutionary explanation is that value is not natural. That is, it is a supernatural property.

Another comment.

Follow-up to the below. Just noticed this quote:
It's well-known that our system coldly leaves more than 46 million of us without any health coverage.
Yeah, that's 46 million. According to the 2001 Canadian Census, the population of Canada was 30,007,094. So, about 150% of the population of Canada has no health coverage in the US.

I seriously can't believe any right-thinking person would ever look to the US as a model of healthcare delivery.

US healthcare a bit of a mess.

Smell the irony in the title. Then click here. The money quote:
THERE'LL BE WAITING LISTS. Hello! Have you ever tried to get a quick appointment with your family doctor -- especially at night or on weekends? Only a third of Americans have same-day access to their own doctor. It takes days, even if you have insurance -- ask an uninsured American about waiting lists! And forget about trying to see a specialist within a month of calling. No country with SPS has a waiting list for emergency care and few have them for primary care. Waits for other procedures are almost always for elective surgeries (liposuction, face lifts, tennis elbow, nonessential MRIs, etc.).
Look. Everyone, in every country, has problems with their healthcare system. Largely due to lack of technologies and lack of practitioners where they are needed. There are institutional changes that need to be made in Canada's healthcare system to try to make it run more efficiently and effectively for our current social context. That's beyond question. What's not beyond question, though, and has been demonstrated time and time again is that introducing market-based healthcare is utterly back-asswards. It doesn't help: costs go up, coverage decreases, and the essential problems don't get changed.

Gift cards and expiry dates.

This is quite silly. Okay, yes, it's annoying to give someone a gift card, or receive one, and not realize that it will expire. However, (1) I'm sure that I've had regular ol' paper gift certificates with expiry dates attached to them, so the fact that the plastic cards have expiry dates is neither here nor there. (2) Whatever happened to caveat emptor (let the buyer beware)? If you don't check what you've bought carefully, or what you've received that someone else has bought, then you deserve to lose it. If time is a huge problem, then give a cheque. Or cash. (3) Doesn't Ontario have bigger problems to worry about? The collapsing transit system in Toronto? Homelessness? Poverty? Racism? Gun violence? Repairing (its share of) the healthcare crisis? Heck, if it has to be a consumer issue, why not make Mike Holmes' job easier and regulate general contractors, and make them legally responsible if they fuck up a job? Something?

Can you be born gay?

This leaves me with mixed feelings.

For one, the idea that there is some biological (and that is not the same as "genetic") basis to sexual orientation just seems obvious to me. It's nice to have some proof of it, but it's not surprising.

For two, the idea that it could be due to conditions in the womb is possibly a problem. If the conditions in the womb just increase the chances of adult homosexuality, then there may be no (serious) issue; however, if the idea is that conditions in the womb determine sexuality, then it suggests to me that the anti-homosexual lobby has a perfect avenue to pursue for a homosexuality "cure": genes are hard to manipulate, but conditions in the womb are not. So, change the conditions in the womb and ensure that your kid will grow up "normal".

I'm not for a moment suggesting that scientific research into the origins of sexual orientation should be avoided or refrained from, but I am concerned that the way it's starting to seem like sexuality works -- genes are not determinate one way or the other, womb conditions plus later (non-utero) environmental effects "steer" one's orientation -- is a way that can be mucked around with. And, as with everything we're capable of mucking around with, this raises the inevitable question of whether we should. It's one thing to say that a fully autonomous adult can make decisions about his or her (consenting, adult, etc.) sexual partners without interference, but why not interfere with the development conditions that shape the future sexual orientation of current neonates, infants and children? (I should note that this could cut both ways: parents might want to intervene to ensure that their child is homosexual.)

After all, it's not as if we don't interfere with childrens' developments pretty much constantly -- that's what child-rearing is all about. On the whole, I don't really have a good answer about "why not". It seems like there's no social benefit or detriment one way or the other, which would leave the decision entirely in the hands of the parents.

John Tory and the Toronto agenda.

See here.

Let's face it: barring a major realignment in the nature of provincial elections in this country, there's always going to be more hay to be made by playing to the sticks than to the cities. The rural regions represent more seats for fewer people, so fewer must be convinced to vote for one's party in order to get into government. Moreover, you can't get into government, at least in Ontario, by just winning the cities. You can (although not majority) by winning the rural areas.

So, what impetus is there on Tory to try to win Toronto? Well, he may be looking for a majority. That's one. But, why else should he care? Mike Harris won, if memory serves, two back-to-back majorities by bashing Toronto and the other cities throughout southwestern Ontario, and successfully ruined them for at least a decade. Dalton McGuinty has, as far as I can see, done jack-squat to improve matters, but is that really any reason to shift focus to John Tory?

It strikes me that the Toronto media are playing the same game with the Ontario PC Party that the national media played with the federal Cons -- namely, bash the Liberals, ignore the NDP, and pretend that the far-right tendencies infecting Canada's conservative parties are really the historical centre-right tendencies that we're all used to.

Marking, marking....

Today is marking day. Hoorah. This is, by a long shot, the least favourite part of the job. (I don't actually know anyone who looks forward to marking.) The problem is not that it's arduous, or that the bulk of the exams are invariably mediocre. The problem is that grading is really beside the point of education generally, and of higher education in particular. Grades are just there because bean-counters can't understand anything that can't be dumped easily into a spreadsheet. Marks, letter grades, and numbers of credits earned fit into spreadsheets. Understanding, knowledge, and critical thinking ability do not. So, those of us who want to inculcate the latter -- professors, lecturers, TAs, et al -- are forced to inculcate the former.

The question I wonder about, though, is why it works that way. Allegedly, professors run universities -- deans and other administrators all have advanced degrees, after all, and proved themselves as academics before becoming administrators. So, shouldn't the bean-counters have to dance to our tune, rather than the other way around? Or is it just a matter of the historical antecedents -- i.e., prior schooling -- having a heavy reliance on grades as markers of success, and this carrying over into university? Or some combination thereof?

I should point out that this year, in three seperate classes, I've had about six students complain about getting B's (70-79%).

Sunday, June 25, 2006

What is a property right?

Found an odd little note on our door this morning. Something about town council thinking about passing a bylaw restricting the use of weedkiller and lawnfeed on private lawns. What struck me as odd about it was not the fact that people didn't like this proposed bylaw -- no one ever likes a bylaw that tells them not to do something that their vanity suggests they should -- but the reasons given. Namely, that this was an infringement on property rights.

This raised a question in my mind about the extent and nature of property rights. I've never bought the Lockean story about property rights -- as Susan Okin has argued (against Nozick), it seems that if you take this far enough, then our mothers (and possibly our fathers), since they make us, thereby own us, and can transfer us to whomever they choose like any other piece of property.1But this then leaves property rights quite hard to understand.

My general sense at this point is that my private property rights only exist in a very weak way -- that is, whenever there is no stronger right or duty to override them. And the (mild) public health concerns and (much stronger) environmental concerns which seem attendant on chronic, long-term use of weedkiller and lawnfeed seem like just such overriding forces. Hence, the incoherence of the argument on this little notice: no one has an indefeasible private property right to dump chemicals on their lawn (and, consequently, into the groundwater and into the rain, and thus the water supply generally). Unless, of course, our mothers can buy and sell us like any other piece of property.

1 I couldn't find a link that wasn't behind a password for Okin's attack on Nozick. Hence why I linked here. It's not a bad little critique of Okin, but is extremely modest in its aims. Back

Edit: Format.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

From the world of wacky statute proposals.

This is simply unreal. The money quote is:
To amend the Revised Statutes of the United States to eliminate the chilling effect on the constitutionally protected expression of religion by State and local officials that results from the threat that potential litigants may seek damages and attorney's fees.

This is particularly weird to an English-born Canadian (both the British and Canadian civil courts routinely include fees as part of the damages awarded to successful litigants). And I don't know what to make of the attempted connection with religious freedom -- collecting attorney's fees doesn't just apply to religious groups.

It's been pointed out that, should this law not die in committee (as most do), it may tend to favour groups -- such as the religious right -- that routinely violate the Constitution and get called to task by other groups -- such as the ACLU. And that's true, but it misses the point. The central point is that if I sue someone successfully, then that means the person I sued did something wrong. Which means that I should not only get something above the amount of money/goods I started with, but I should not have had to outlay anything in the first place (after all, I'm the one wronged; why should I pay when I'm in the right?). That is the reason why I should get my lawyer's fees paid for. And that is what's wrong with this law. If the person I sue is a religious group, that doesn't give them a get-out-of-jail-free card, any more than being a religious leader gives one amnesty from being jailed for child abuse.

(Maybe that's why it's getting connected to religious freedom? Because, once the civil courts have excused religious groups from culpability, then the criminal courts are next? Why not just reinstate ecclesiastical courts and be done with it?)

Why public broadcasting should remain public.

Some hack in the National Post argues that the CBC should be made into a pay-TV channel. About half the argument really hangs together. Certainly, the CBC shouldn't be run like a private broadcaster -- it shouldn't be contingent on having to suck up to advertisers in order to keep itself afloat, for it should be directed towards creating quality programming. However, this same argument tells against making it a pay-TV channel. Making the CBC a pay channel (or a series of pay channels) would, first, make the CBC completely elitist instead of genuinely public -- many thousands of Canadians simply cannot afford pay-TV channels; and, second, would require CBC management to suck up to pay-TV subscribers and providers instead of advertisers -- changing masters without disposing of masters altogther.

If public broadcasting's mission is to produce good television (which, plausibly, it is), it should not be beholden to any particular master -- neither the market, nor the public, nor pay-TV subscribers, nor advertisers. Instead, (1) its funding should be guaranteed. Also, in order to ensure that the CBC doesn't become entirely insulated from any evaluation,(2)it should be overseen by a board of people who are competent judges of good television. For example, The Canada Council for the Arts.

Of course, I'm not surprised to see the National Disgrace trying to covertly shove the CBC out the door, under the guise of cutting a reasonable middle course. Turning the CBC into a pay-TV channel would get it out from under the mandate of the federal government, and leave it free to fail to attract any sort of an audience, thus slowly failing and fading. The fact is, despite the patina of vague plausibility to the argument, there is no reasonable middle course. Either Canada is serious about having a public broadcaster which produces quality television -- television that needs to be made, regardless of how many people immediately want to watch it -- or Canada is not. If it is, then this broadcaster needs funding not tied to fluctuations in preference and money, it needs to be accessible to everyone with a TV set, and it needs to be held to reasonable standards (i.e., standards of quality not standards of popularity). On the other hand, if Canada is not, then we should not pretend otherwise, and just get rid of the CBC now.

Personally, the value of public broadcasting as a bastion against the onslaught of privately-funded, ratings-hungry pablum is almost self-evident. So, I favour (1) and (2) above. Both could be guaranteed by Act of Parliament, or simply dropped into the Constitution by amendment. (The Constitution already guarantees Catholic school boards (see s.93, if I read it correctly), so why not the CBC? Or universal health care, for that matter -- but that's another post.)

The point is, there's really no good argument for the CBC to chase ratings. But there's also no good argument to keep it dependent on pleasing people for its funds. It serves a valuable social purpose, regardless of how much money it makes.

Social isolation in the modern world.

I'm not surprised to see this. The problem is not, as the article suggests, solely commuter culture (although that is certainly a contributor). The problem is that citizens in modern societies don't have a choice. Labour protections are laughable, there are no guaranteed wages (nor housing nor food nor ...), and one basically must take whatever job one can get and live wherever one can afford. When choice is limited, this will inculcate isolationism as a means of protecting and controlling what little one actually has power (never mind authority) over.

I suspect that this is also responsible for the more cutthroat office politics that seems to be arising as well. If all I can control is the paper supply cabinet, then everyone who wants into it will have to sign their life away and promise me their first-born child.

The solution, of course, would require significant government intervention through an activated and engaged citizenry demanding the right to live and work where they choose, and thus to form communities as they need to. This would be expensive but, given that we seem to be running out of the resources (particularly oil) necessary to sustain our current socioeconomic cultural structures, we may as well get started now.

The Con con.

This Globe and Mail article underscores the problems with the contemporary conservative movement. (Ignoring the soft fascist movement in the US.) Instead of trying to draft sensible, reality-based policies, the Canadian Cons are interested in vote-buying and currying favour with the electorate. While I have no particular problems with the latter if they end up indistinguishable from the former, in practice this is often not the case. Vote-buying is, on the whole, an exercise in gamesmanship and political strategy. And it is disappointing, but not surprising, to see the federal Cons try to pull off a majority government by this means, rather than accepting their minority status and trying to establish something ideologically respectable.

What's disturbing, of course, is that it might actually work, which will screw us all over for four years. Majority governments in Canada can be elected with around 40% of the popular vote, and they can strongarm anything they want through Parliament by whipping the caucus. Thus, majority governments are profoundly antidemocratic and tend to become ossified in their political values, as well as dictatorial in their policy procedures. It happened to the Chretien Liberals, it happened to the Mulroney Tories, and it will happen to the Harper Cons. Remaining in a state of constant minority governments, forcing parties of different ideologies with differing constituencies to negotiate and work together to produce policy compromise, will, overall, be best for Canada. I only hope that Harper et al. will lose their blind ambition for power and come to this realization (or that Hell will freeze over and Jack Layton will figure out how to win an NDP majority for the first time in Canadian electoral history).

Religion and science just don't mix.

This is simply fabulous. Although I should point out that this "Ron Numbers" is hardly exemplary of the general philosophical attitude towards numeracy and clear thinking. (Heck, for all I know, he's probably a closeted Hegelian.)

What we owe to each other.

Prima facie, we owe each other a duty of non-interference (per Rawls's first principle of distributive justice (The Liberty Principle)). And we owe people to whom we have special relationships -- eg., friends, family members, employers and employees, etc. -- extra duties, by virtue of and in proportion to these relationships. For example, I owe extra fidelity to my wife than to a random stranger; I owe extra honesty to my mother than my employer; etc. The question I'm thinking about right now, though, is what we owe to people with whom our relationships are tenuous and superficial -- such as grocery store cashiers, neighbours whom one never speaks to, and so on. Do we owe more than the minimal non-interference? And, if so, how much?

It seems that rules of courtesy are intended to bridge this gap. The problem is that, unlike many other rules (laws and morals), rules of courtesy are very hard to justify and vary quite widely. For example, it seems that people of my generation consider spitting in public basically rude, but excusable, while people of the generation after mine consider spitting in public basically permissible. (From the perspective of courtesy, that is; putting aside prudence and public health and such.) It's not at all clear to me how one would argue for either rule.

So, if courtesy is supposed to help us out with these superficial relationships, it's a very poor, crude tool. Which suggests to me that it should be abandoned; but this then leads back to the original problem: what do we owe to people to whom we seem to have more than a duty of non-interference, but less than the special duties attached to closer and deeper personal relationships?

My cat licks my nose.

And I have no idea why. For whatever reason, on occasion, he will perch on my knee whilst purring and try to lick my nose (and, rarely, nip at it). I've never known a cat before or otherwise who will do so.

A motivational problem.

How much motivation does one require in order to do something? Prima facie, the answer is "enough", but this is decidedly unenlightening.

As a more insightful possibility, I would suggest "enough to defeat the reasons against". This then requires an account of how one can have reasons against doing something. Presuming such an account exists, it then follows that one is sufficiently motivated to do something if and only if one has some combination of more numerous and more weighty reasons in favour of doing it than reasons against doing it.

The problem remaining, of course, is in the presumption at the head of the previous paragraph: namely, how can one unpack an account of "having reasons against doing something" that (a) doesn't squarely beg the question of having enough reasons to do something (i.e., the problem that was under consideration in the first place) and (b) doesn't just define reasons against in terms of reasons for (which would move the argument in a vicious circle).

I tend to think that one has a reason against doing something when either (and these are not meant to be exhaustive) (1) doing it is impossible, (2) doing it is imprudent, (3) doing it is illegal, (4) doing it is immoral, (5) one would prefer not to do it.

So, if one can do it, it is not a bad idea to do it, it is legal and moral (at least permissible, it not required) to do it, and one has the preference to do it -- and all these reasons sum, with weighting, to more than the reasons against -- then one would be motivated to do it.

Jon Stewart hates America.

I'm sure this has been picked over elsewhere before, but it deserves further mockery.

The money quote is this:
"Ultimately, negative perceptions of candidates could have participation implications by keeping more youth from the polls," they wrote.

What amuses me is that this is supposed to be Stewart's fault. It seems American politics is the only place where the maxim, "If people judge you as x, it's their fault" is considered a universal law. (Kant is spinning in his grave.

(Counter-example to this putative "universal law": if I steal your wallet and you judge me as a bad person for doing so, it's really your fault -- after all, you left your wallet where it could be stolen. While it may be true that you bear some responsibility, it's grievous moral error to think that my fault is thereby eliminated.)

Anti-science makes no sense to me.

I'm not the world's biggest fan of science, by any means (generally, I thnk its reach far exceeds its grasp, particularly when it comes to issues of morality and mind). However, when we're dealing with a clearly physiological -- that is, physical -- proposition, science has demonstrated time and again its (rational) superiority. So, in short, when it's a physical proposition at stake, science gets to be the expert, unless there are significant countervailing reasons.

So, things like this: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/5081286.stm just bug the hell out of me.

The issue, as I understand it, is that, since anti-vaccination hysteria in the UK began a few decades ago, immunizations with the MMR vaccine have gone down. Consequently, herd immunity has now been lost, and thus the conditions for a potential epidemic are in place. Of measles.

It simply makes no sense to me. Denying the proven efficacy of vaccines is tantamount to saying that science does not rule when it comes to proving physical propositions.