Wednesday, December 30, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Final Day

Last day today. Typically, I overslept -- read "I turned the alarm off and rolled over" -- and missed the first morning session. Which is unfortunate, as it looked interesting, but oh well.

In any event, did the whole getting up, getting ready to go down to Times Square thing. Coloured this time by the joys of packing up as much of my stuff as I wasn't going to need before flying back to good ol' TO.

I haven't really said much about the NYC subway system, so let me pause to sing its praises. It runs all night, you never wait more than 5 minutes for a train, and it costs less than the TTC. Oh, and, your fares are all loaded on a card with a magnetic stripe which you swipe to unlock and walk through the turnstiles. You can pretty much go anywhere on this system. Very, very well done. Why don't we have anything like this in Canada? Vancouver is the only city that comes close, and that's pushing it. Montreal and Toronto's systems are sad jokes.

In Times Square, they were starting to set up for the New Year's Eve thing. Very glad I'm not anywhere near that; Times Square is bad enough on a regular day, but tomorrow night you wouldn't be able to move. There was, apparently, some sort of a bomb scare in Times Square today (see here, for example), but I really didn't see anything. It's actually not surprising that a van could sit in Times Square for days and no one would notice: you're so busy dodging people that you barely have time to notice the lights and the buildings, let alone the vehicles (of which there are so many that, again, one little van wouldn't really register). Saw a number of reporters around, but I assumed that was a New Year's Eve thing, shooting for the evening news.

Saw a number of folks standing around the Mariott Marquis with luggage in hand. Given that I hadn't seen that many before, either the hotel was clearing out to avoid the jacking-up of prices for New Year's, or philosophers were trying to grab early flights.

The session I ended up in was called "Duties to Others", which can really mean anything. Turns out it was about what sorts of health-related obligations we have to the global poor (first paper), and how to resolve a logical puzzle about obligation to future generations (second paper). If I had to pick, I'd say the second was more interesting, as the first was -- overtly and deliberately -- utilitarian. But both were interesting discussions.

I will say, though, that I'm not a fan of the "colloquium" set up. The APA has, basically, four kinds of sessions. First are invited papers, and I didn't go to any of those. They were in larger rooms, IIRC, and so I expect they'd be more like formal presentations. Second are symposia, which was what I went to yesterday. Smaller rooms, but still relatively formal; papers are presented in about 40 minutes or so, with 15 or so minutes of questions and discussion. Third are colloquia, which was what I went to today. Even smaller rooms, and much more informal; papers are presented in about 20 minutes, with a response from a commentator (10 minutes), followed by a reply from the presenter (5 minutes), and then some time for discussion. And, fourth, there are group meetings, and I didn't go to any of those. Group meetings are put on by various groups affiliated with the APA -- the Society for Philosphy and Psychology, for example -- and are conducted under their rules. So, I imagine there's a fair bit of variation there.

As said, I don't really like the colloquium set up, for two reasons. I think the 20 minute rule is insane. Philosophical papers have a nasty tendency towards minutiae anyway, and reducing the time of presentation exaggerates this propensity. Both papers today avoided this problem, but they skated pretty close to the line. I also don't like the whole presentation/commentator/reply thing. I get the logic of it -- it's a way to try to get the discussion going, without the danger of the room just going dead because no one wants to talk -- but I don't think it's effective in achieving that goal. A more effective method, I suspect, would be to make papers available some time before the APA, so everyone would have time to consider the arguments and come up with things to say in advance. In practice, the commentary/reply thing becomes little more than a somewhat forced extension of the paper's own dialectic -- better to just give those extra 15 or 20 minutes to the presenter.

First paper was "The Moral Basis of Global Health Aid", by Christopher Lowry and Udo Schüklenk, both of Queen's University. Well, Lowry was of Queen's, but he defended his dissertation and got a job at the Chinese University of Hong Kong -- and hence wasn't able to make the presentation. This left Udo to fly solo, apparently at the last minute. Have to say, he acquitted himself admirably. Very good presentation, very interesting argument.

Here's the gist. There are, according to Lowry and Schüklenk, two approaches to the issue of whether we are morally obligated to provide health aid to the global poor. One they called either the "institutional" or the "political" approach. This derives from work by, e.g., Thomas Pogge, and holds that we are morally obligated to provide aid on a compensatory rationale. That is, national and transnational institutions have created the conditions of global povery and affluence, and thus affluence is due to the existence of poverty elsewhere. Given that the affluent have caused poverty, the affluent are obligated to alleviate poverty. When it comes to health aid, then, insofar as we healthy folks in the West make people elsewhere less healthy (more prone to disease, shorter life expectancy, higher infant mortality, and so on), to just that extent we are obligated to aid those poor. The other approach they called either the "humanitarian" or, probably more accurately, the "utilitarian" approach. This derives from work by, e.g., Peter Singer, and holds that we are morally obligated to provide aid on a reduction of suffering ratoinale. That is, suffering is a moral bad. Insofar as someone can alleviate suffering, they are obligated to do so, as long as the costs sustained in alleviating the suffering are not too great. Given that it would not be too burdensome to give up some of our luxuries in order to ensure that the global poor experience less suffering, we should do so. When it comes to health aid, then, insofar as we healthy folks in the West could, without much cost, do something to make people elsewhere more healthy, thus reducing their suffering, we should do so.

Straightforward enough. Here's the twist. According to Lowry and Schüklenk, the institutional approach has a serious problem with prioritizing who should receive health aid. It's unquestionably true that national institutions have a direct and obvious causal impact on the health of citizens of that state. It's also unquestionably true that measuring the extent of the causal impact on the health of citizens outside the state is very difficult. So, more often than not, a compensatory rationale for aid will entail focusing on domestic health aid rather than international. Improving domestic health aid is not a bad thing, of course. But, often, it doesn't seem as morally pressing or weighty as international health aid, and so the institutional approach is often going to give us the wrong answer.

When it comes to the utilitarian approach, however, with a little modification, it can work quite admirably. We need modification because the undiluted utilitarian approach would give us no way of distinguishing between aiding a needy country with an open, responsive government and aiding a needy country with a dictatorial, corrupt government or currently in a state of civil war. Clearly, if we have to choose between these two countries, we should choose the former, but it's not clear on a pure utilitarian approach why this is justified. Lowry and Schüklenk's suggestion is that we should always prioritize efficiency of aid over need, whenever need is already particularly severe. (So, we shouldn't prioritize efficiency when choosing between a country that needs very little and one that needs very much, but we should prioritize efficiency when choosing between two countries that are both suffering significantly.)

Fair enough, right? Putting aside general worries about utilitarianism, it seems like a tight little argument. I do have one concern, though: namely that the rejection of the institutional rationale seems to turn on a bit of an elision. Institutional rationales are available for harms imposed by national and transnational institutions -- so, national governments and global institutions like the IMF and multinational coporations. The objection on the basis of priority, though, only applies to national institutions. The objection is that institutional rationales will prioritize domestic health over international health, because the causal impact on citizens is easier to measure, and just more obvious, than the causal impact on non-citizens. But transnational institutions have no citizens, by definition. So, why can't they solve the prioritization problem?

One move at this point is to repeat a point raised by, IIRC, Mathias Risse (sorry if that's a misattribution; I'm working off memory here), namely that many poverty-stricken countries can't be helped on a compensatory rationale, because their problems simply aren't caused by affluent nations -- except on some very tortured appeal to "the system", à la Naomi Klein's (laughable) "Shock Doctrine". They aren't integrated into global markets, so no harms are done, so no compensation is owed. As an argument, it's a fine one, but I have no reason to believe that Lowry and Schüklenk would endorse it.

Another move is to suggest that there's some analogue to citizens available when talking about transnational institutions. National institutions have citizens, transnational institutions have members, so transnational institutions are going to favour the needs of their members over the needs of non-members. This is not a bad argument, but it's substantially weaker than the one advanced in the national case. Many transnational institutions have hundreds of member countries, including many of the poorest nations on Earth: examples include the UN, obviously, but also the dreaded IMF. Indeed, the IMF is a telling example, as it (arguably) has directly caused harms which have led to the impoverishment -- and thus poor health states -- of many member countries. So, I suspect the institutional account of the prioritization problem is much stronger than Lowry and Schüklenk have allowed, and more needs to be said about transnational institutions and the compensatory rationale for global health aid. (FWIW, it gets worse if we include multinational corporations in our set of transnational institutions, for participation in the global markets can, arguably, cause harms for which the affluent owe compensation to the poor. I say "arguably" here, BTW, because participation in global markets may actually help more than it hurts.)

Good paper, though. I enjoyed it.

Next was David DeGrazia of George Washington University on "Obligations to Future Generations". Here's the gist of this argument. Basically, it's a logical problem: we have competing intuitions about what makes certain kinds of conduct towards future generations wrong, and it's difficult to find a way to make them gel together.

Intuitively, we have obligations towards future generations. DeGrazia considered environmental stewardship, but we could pick many different sorts of cases. The important point is that we do some morally obligated in certain ways towards future generations. And this includes not only those people who currently exist and will be part of the "future generations" (so, children, infants, etc.) but also people who don't exist yet. But, there's a problem with people who don't exist yet. Drawing off Derek Parfit, this is called the "non-identity problem".

Suppose we don't adopt any policy to reverse environmental damage. Environmental damage occurs, and people who live in the future -- say, 200 years in the future -- live in a degraded environmental state. They don't lead bad lives, their lives are still worth living, but they do face some problems. They should have reason to resent us, and believe we have done something morally wrong. But, suppose that the policy we could take would actually cause at least some of these people to not exist. That is, in one scenario, the policy is not adopted, damage occurs, and some group of people come into existence, who resent and blame us for our failure. In the other scenario, the policy is adopted, damage does not occur -- and other things change as a consequence -- and a different group of people come into existence. What, then, is the basis -- maybe there isn't a basis -- for the resentment and blame towards us of the people in the first scenario?

One possible basis is harm. But it's hard to make that work. The alternative to the first scenario, ex hypothesi, is the second scenario. Living a decent life in a degraded world is not a harm when compared to non-existence. DeGrazia worked through a few definitions of harm in order to make this point.

Another possible basis is rights violation. Again, though, it's hard to make that work. The problem here is identifying a plausible, non-waived right which has been violated for the future generations. It can't be a right to exist in a non-compromised environment, because no one has a right to exist at all. It can't be a right to have a non-compromised environment, because that would likely be waived in order to exist at all. It can't be a right to, if one exists, exist in a non-compromised environment, for that right can be satisfied both by existence in a non-compromised environment and by non-existence (in other words, we lose the wrong completely). And there aren't any other obvious candidates.

What DeGrazia turned to instead, then, was an idea of negligence. Part of what is wrong about damaging the environment so it affects future generations is that we have failed to be certain kinds of people: concerned, interested, careful, and so on. Which gets part of the idea, but DeGrazia notes that there still seems to be some sort of harm-like thing involved here. There is negligence, that is, but it's not just negligence; there's a moral difference, that is, between just leaving the stove on and leaving the stove on and burning the apartment building down. So, DeGrazia invokes Parfit's idea of impersonal harm, but within limits. Personal harm -- harm done to someone by someone/something -- is our usual idea of harm, and applies in most cases. But, in non-identity cases, we need an impersonal view of harm, which views harm as producing a state of affairs that is worse off than it otherwise would be.

Thus, our obligations to future generations are grounded on our negligence in failing to perform certain actions, and in impersonal harm to the state of affairs that would exist given what we have done or failed to do.

I have two concerns with DeGrazia's account -- while appreciating how ridiculously careful and tight the argument is. The first is with regard to the metaphysics of impersonal harm. I can understand how there is personal harm -- we take something away from someone that they had (diachronic view) or that they would have had (counterfactual view). The metaphysics of the former is unmysterious -- the thing was theirs and now it is not -- and the metaphysics of the latter is unmysterious insofar as the metaphysics of counterfactuals is unmysterious. But how can there be impersonal harm? Well, I suppose we're going to have to import the diachronic and counterfactual notions and simply relate them to states of affairs. But this is when it gets weird, because the harm done to persons is based on taking away something that they had. The notion of "having" (which is at least quasi-ownership, if not ownership outright; think of the case of theft as a diachronic harm) is doing some work here. In the impersonal case, nothing "has" the state of affairs that is lost (diachronically) or failed to obtain (counterfactually). All we have, then, is difference -- so, what's the basis, metaphysically, for calling one state of affairs a harm and the other not a harm?

The second is with regards to the appeal to negligence. While I understand and accept that negligence is a matter of virtue, in the sense that negligence displays a kind of character defect -- lack of sufficient concern or some such -- I don't know how to unpack the notion of "lack of sufficient concern" without appealing to harm. A lack of sufficient concern seems to me to be measured in terms of whether I am concerned about the harms I do or might do. If I don't care about the interests of others and how my actions affect them, then I am not sufficiently concerned, and am negligent. I suppose we could go Aristotelian and appeal to the idea of a mean, and "lack of sufficient concern" is considered a deficiency, somehow falling short of a threshold point of interest in others. But that doesn't really help, for how do we fix the point of sufficient concern without making reference to harm? How can I say that this much concern is enough without claiming that it's the point at which I am interested in how my actions affect others' interests, i.e., the extent to which I harm them? So, the appeal to negligence might turn out to be vacuous, and this account really works out to being based on harm. And then the worries about impersonal harm come to the fore.

Enjoyed this paper, too, but I think the session was going a bit long at this point. Not a lot of questions, and everyone seemed ready to go. Too bad, as I think DeGrazia's paper was conceptually quite rich.

Overall, this has been a mixed bag for me. I still think this conference was organized in a way that was basically punitive towards graduate students, and mildly abusive towards junior faculty, for that matter. The job services are terrible, and the job market itself is awful. It really wouldn't have killed anyone to go out of their way to be a little friendlier to grad students, in light of the extra burdens we're being expected to bear. Instead, the attitude was generally quite unfriendly. For example, I saw a faculty member who is rather prominent in my academic history (not naming names) who walked right by me. Possibly I don't look the way I used to, but I suspect I was deliberately ignored.

But, the sessions I did manage to go to, although not particularly friendly, were at least interesting and entertaining and got me thinking about various issues I maybe hadn't thought that much about before. So, to that extent, it was fruitful. I think I need to get in to some of the smaller philosophical groups, though, so that I might have a better chance of getting into some informal conversations with people. That might also cure the unfriendliness I sensed at this, rather large and impersonal, conference.

Too perfect to not share.

At Rate Your Students, a post on the importance of not being an interchangeable drone when on the job market. It's about MLA, not APA, but the principle applies, I think.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Day 3

[EDITS: Minor typo, added a section.]

Before getting into today's recollections, I need to say a few words in response to an email correspondent. I won't post the email or the emailer's name (unless I'm really provoked, that is). But, in essence, my correspondent raised a worry about my blogging about the APA. (There were a number of other issues raised as well, which I am treating with generalized bemusement, for reasons I won't go into here.) The basic concern was that a hiring committee, or philosophers in general, might look askance at what I am saying, or the manner in which I am saying it. So, let me address this, before turning to today's events.

I've talked about the tone thing before on the blog. I've lost track of where the post is, and I don't see a handy search function to find it for me. I have offline archives which I could search with Windows' search, but they're not accessible to me right now. The basic idea is that complaints about "tone" are, in my view, usually complaints about content, but wearing silly hats and false mustaches. Actual complaints about content I take seriously, but dolling them up in nonsense is unimpressive. So, putting that aside, let's talk about content.

If folks who stumble across this blog just looking for information on who I am when I'm not at work, then they're free to peruse the archives. Indeed, if they ask, I'll make some recommendations for things I think are interesting, illustrative, or just plain fun. That kind of approach is fine with me, because it's just expressive of curiosity. There's nothing sinister or malicious about being curious. I like people who are curious.

On the other hand, if they're looking for dirt -- i.e., reasons not to interview or not to hire me, or reasons not to publish me, or reasons to treat me badly in person -- then I'd rather they didn't bother. Because -- and this is a general rule of mine -- I have no interest in associating with someone who thinks like that. I mean, think about it. Why would I? Why would anyone? Why associate with someone who's always looking for reasons to despise or reject you? I may not have the world's greatest social skills, but I at least understand this much: when you meet someone and you're trying to build any kind of relationship, personal, professional, or what have you, you start by looking for the good things. Okay, maybe you don't like the jokes this person tells. But at least they're telling jokes: they're trying to amuse you. Steer them over to things you find more entertaining. Maybe you don't like the way this person dresses. Unless you're a fashion-plate, though, are you really in a position to criticize? And, who knows: if you become a good friend, maybe you could help. They won't stop talking about their kids? Smile, look interested, try to change the subject over to something mutually compelling. Looking for negative things is a deliberate attempt to destroy a relationship before it even starts. You can't win with someone like that, no matter what you do, so I don't propose to try. (And I strongly advise readers not to bother, either.)

It's also important to note that this is a blog, and a public one with a diverse readership at that. The role I play as the author of this is distinct from the role I play as an instructor or as a philosophical writer. (There are overlaps, of course; they're all still me.) I had hoped that most adults understood this simple point. There's actually a commerical on right now, for Iams cat food, if I recall correctly, which makes the point. A young man is lying on his porch, playing with his cat -- scratching its chin, calling it pet names, and so on. A cleared throat interrupts them; the guy sits up, and his buddy stands there with a perturbed look on his face, then comments that they're about to miss their tee time. Cut to product shot and tagline. It's funny (insofar as it's funny) because of the role collision: how the guy behaves with his cat is distinct from how he behaves with his buddy. But everyone knows that everyone is like this. So, anyone who stumbles across this blog and thinks it's any kind of a guide to how I would be as an instructor, a researcher, and/or a colleague would have to be either ignorant of, or deliberately neglecting, one of the most basic aspects of human social interaction. Goes back to the previous point: this is an attempt to destroy a relationship before it starts, and I don't propose to play along.

Basically, acknowledge the context. Some comments I make on the blog are jokes for everyone. Some things I write for my own amusement. Some are meant quite seriously. And not everything wears a neon sign around its neck, saying what it is. That's all appropriate, given it's a blog. It wouldn't be appropriate at an APA presentation, or in an article for submission, or in front of a class, but so what? It also wouldn't be appropriate for me to speak to my wife the same way I speak to my mailman (or vice versa). Context matters.

"But," I hear the objection start, "it's a highly competitive job market this year, even moreso than normal. Do you really want to give a hiring committee reasons not to hire you?"

This objection is founded on a seriously mistaken assumption, namely that success or failure on the job market (and I speak of the philosophical job market, but it applies mutatis mutandis to the academy broadly and, I suspect, the job market per se) are due to personal successes or failings, respectively. This is mistaken -- by which I mean, of course, false -- because the criteria by which people are selected for interviews, campus visits, and job offers have at least as much to do with factors related to the hiring committee or person as they do those related to the job seeker. In the most likely scenario, you didn't get an interview, a campus visit and/or a job because the market's so ridiculously tight that every candidate was perfectly capable and qualified. The selection could not be made on grounds that have anything to do with the position or the candidate. So, the decision was made on grounds that are entirely outside the candidate's control.

I've been on the other side of the table a few times, in non-academic circumstances. Trust me: if you get interviewed, you qualify. No one wastes their time interviewing unqualified people. The process of being interviewed -- and, in the academy, of the campus visit -- are to see if they like you. And that's not always within your control. Sometimes people just don't get along. It's not that anyone involved is a bad or unlikable person, but that these people just don't like each other.

These decisions are often blamed on the candidate, of course: "we couldn't hire that weird guy", "he didn't know anything about Kant's letter to his landlord of March 13th, 1768", "he's never taught Derrida to nursing students", and so on. But that's a matter of making hiring committees refusing to own their decisions. (Note: not "failing"; not owning a decision is itself a decision.) You can see this expressed as well in the bizarre tendency to write rejection letters in the passive voice. Not all universities do this, of course. I've received some very cordial rejections which I have no objection to -- except the obvious "they were rejections!" thing. But, seriously, the following is barely a parody:
Dear (candidate),

Your application will not be pursued further at this time. Many applications were received, and yours did not qualify.


(some guy)
Key here is that these sorts of rejection letters are instances of the tendency to pretend that no agents are involved in hiring decisions. And this, I suspect, is an attempt to evade responsibility for the decision. It's not necessarily motivated by malice, of course. It's hard to say no to hiring someone in circumstances such as these, when not hiring someone might mean they never get the job they've worked years to earn. That's an awful burden to bear. But, honestly people: bear it. Avoiding the responsibility doesn't mean that you haven't (potentially) killed someone's dream. It means you don't want to accept it.

This applies at all levels of the process; you see it again and again and again. Large institutions like universities are good at diffusing responsibility to the point where no one is responsible. The application was rejected -- not that someone decided it wasn't good enough. The market's bad -- not that people have made decisions which made the market bad. The funding didn't come through -- not that someone in the upper administration decided to pull the funding. It's all nonsense. Someone, somewhere, made a decision, and needs to bear the responsibility for that decision. If you can't bear it, maybe you should make a different decision?

I don't mean to say that it's impossible to shoot yourself in the foot professionally. Personal factors that the individual can control do matter. You can misspell someone's name in your cover letter, forget to send in a CV, and so on. It makes sense to worry about things like this; but these are broad issues. Minor issues -- such as having a low-traffic blog where you occasionally make snide jokes about your professional association -- if they ever come up, come up because you are otherwise qualified and the committee is fishing for some arbitrary ground on which to base their decision. It's not any less arbitrary because it's rationalized in this way or that. If I closed up this blog, or changed everything to sweetness and light, those who didn't want to hire me would still find some factor that they could blame it on. Again: evasion of responsibility for killing someone's dream because, basically, you just didn't like them.

I want to emphasize I understand why hiring committees might want to avoid this responsibility -- because it is quite a heavy burden -- and I understand why hiring committees might not want to admit the reason for their decisions. I don't accept either as good reasons, but I do see what the reasons are.

[Added] Another objection: "But what will you do if you don't get a tenure-track job in philosophy?"

[Added] What the thousands of others who don't get TT jobs in philosophy do (or should do, rather than clinging on as adjuncts): move on. The market's been terrible for years, and that's not changing any time soon. Indeed, it's going to get worse. I'm not kidding when I say that we're looking at the end of the humanities in American universities. Counting on a TT job is insanity. It'd be a nice job to have, a job I think I could do and would very much enjoy doing. I think I could make important contributions to a department, to students' intellectual growth, and to the philosophical literature. But I'm not fooling myself into thinking it's even remotely likely that I will get a TT job. There just ain't enough jobs. (And, given that, it makes even less sense to make personal compromises in order to get such a job.) If it doesn't happen, then I accept the dream is dead, and find another dream.

So, that's done. Moving on with Day 3.

Up not terribly early today, as I didn't have a session I wanted to go to until 1:15. When I got down to Times Square, it was really friggin' cold. I'm not looking forward to going out to get dinner tonight. Ick. Wind was like a friggin' knife, coiling through the spaces in between all those huge buildings. (Yeah, yeah, mixed metaphor, "coiled knife". Whatever.) Got to the Marriott, and there seemed to be something else going on, too. The Marriott contains the Marquis theatre, which is currently showing Irving Berlin's White Christmas: The Musical. I suspect there was a matinee today, hence why there were lots of tourists wandering around, and Christmas music playing in the lobby. (Which you could hear pretty much everywhere in the hotel -- it might even have been piped through the PA, I'm not sure.) Bah, humbug, says I.

Got to the session on "Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mind" -- which was a weird title, and I'm not entirely sure who came up with it. "Evolution and the Mind" might have been more appropriate, as the first talk didn't really talk about Darwin or Darwinism, and the second was in part about distinguishing Darwin, Darwinism and evolution. But, whatever. Interesting talks, both.

First was from Karen Neander of Duke University, called "An Argument for Biosemantics". Here's the gist. Biosemantics is the view that the content of mental representations ("mental content") ontologically depends on features of biology. In particular, the view Neander was defending was that mental content is explained by normative biological functions. Normative biological functions were unpacked as biological functions which allow for the possibility of malfunction (that's the normativity). And the argument turned on rejecting the claim that physiological study proceeds without relying on such normative functions, established on the basis of a quick quasi-sociological examination of physiological practice, and an a priori argument about the impossibility of doing physiology without normative functions. The examination was of titles and abstracts of papers in physiological journals, intended to establish that physiologists do frequently rely on these sorts of normative functions, in the most casual and commonplace sort of way. And the a priori argument noted that, given the tremendous range of variation in complex living systems such as human beings, it was very unlikely that we would be able to present token-level causal analyses of the functions of these systems, and would thus have to appeal to more general functions, which would necessarily be normative. (For going general requires abstracting away from the actual functioning of any particular system, and thus requires that we capture both the well- and poorly-functioning system.) There was a lot more, but that's the basics.

Neander pointed out that this is a condensed version of two chapters of a book, and I really want to read the book now. I've been getting more and more interested in the biological underpinnings of normative notions, and a robustly worked-out semantics based on biology could, I think, provide some useful lessons for areas of practical philosophy, including philosophy of action, ethics, and politics.

One thing I do wonder about, though, is whether there's a presumed scientism underneath the argument, which bears a lot of the logical burden. (That's not necessarily a bad thing, I just wonder if it's there.) That is, Neander seems to be assuming that philosophical theorizing needs to follow scientific practice, and thus we can't, in philosophy, concoct an understanding of mental content which is at odds with how science is done. I'm not sure what argument supports this claim, though, as opposed to a broad and presumptive committment to a certain limited sort of naturalism. Even the a priori argument seems to have this problem, in that it actually doesn't rule out the possibility that the limit here is epistemological rather than ontological, i.e., that the problem with providing a causal analysis of the functions of a complex system is not that there must be normative biological functions, but that we must presume normative biological functions, given our failings as knowers. It's possible, of course, that Neander would be sympathetic to this move, as it's rather like Dennett's intentional stance. But I'm not sure.

(See, this is my problem about conferences: I come up with good questions a few hours after the paper's been delivered! Hey, APA: how 'bout making it mandatory that papers be made available beforehand?)

Decent question and answer session, but I think Neander made a tactical error -- one I've made many, many times (you'd think I'd learn) -- in that she mentioned a particular way that she would take the theory of biosemantics beyond this stage. That is, Neander believes that the normative biological functions in question are "teleo-functions", i.e., the phenotypes of the system that were selected for. This is apparently controversial as a theory of content (I'm not up on that debate), and the first questions seemed to fix on that point, rather than on whether she'd established the very idea of biosemantics or not. One interesting question -- couldn't see questioner's nametag from where I was, unfortunately -- noted that other sciences, besides physiology, seem to get along without invoking normative functions, instead relying on a set of paradigm cases which are theoretically useful, and variations from these paradigms. That is, rather than using the ideas of normal and abnormal function, a science like ecology might point to cases which are paradigms and theoretically useful (heuristics, if you like), and cases which differ from the paradigms. Neander allowed that different sciences may have different needs here, which is an odd move to my way of thinking. It seems to me that her notion of normativity is no different from this notion of paradigms and divergence: to be normal/well-functioning vs. abnormal/malfunctioning seems the same as the idea of paradigm cases and cases that differ. Perhaps the idea was that there could be cases in physiology wherein the normal case is actually rather rare, possibly due to the spread of some disease throughout a population. But nothing about the notion of a paradigm requires that the case be typical or common; a paradigm is just a useful set of generalizations which can be used as a baseline. So, maybe the idea was that this is too epistemological a take, and insufficiently ontological? But that goes back to my previous worry.

Five minute break, wherein I rushed across the floor to the other washroom, thus avoiding the line at the one close to the meeting room, and came back for the next talk. I missed the title, unfortunately; I think it was something like "Darwinism and Multigenomic Variation", but it's possible I cobbled that together from some concepts mentioned in the talk. This one was from John Dupré of Exeter University.

Dupré basically had two aims. First to upset the idea that Darwinist/neo-Darwinist ideas were good, contemporary evolutionary biology. Second to point out that if we want to understand the evolution of the mind, we need to walk away from neo-Darwinian approaches like evolutionary psychology. This was a talk with some pretty hardcore biology, so I was scrambling just to keep up. Here's the sense I got from it. Darwin was an important historical figure to science, who made many amazing contributions. However, neo-Darwinism, the way of doing biology which emerged from his thinking, has really had its day. Neo-Darwinism's problems are basically two. First, it makes erroneous claims about how biological variations enter a population. Second, it overlooks the importance of cooperation in addition to competition. And, third, it leads us to make morally bad claims about human nature.

With regards to the first, Dupré made a number of claims about interesting cases in biology. Way too many for me to note down. The basic thought is that genetic change doesn't work in the way neo-Darwinists think it does; and that genetic change is not the only mechanism of biological change. So, for example, Dupré discussed the well-known image of the "tree of life" (see here, for example), so-called because all species "branch" out from a more fundamental "limb", all leading back to a common "trunk". As far as Dupré was concerned, this works, but only to a point, because it focuses too much attention on eukaryotes, and ignores other forms of life, such as viruses. Viruses, he claimed, transfer a lot of their genetic material laterally, not by branching. That is, in effect, viruses intermingle and interbreed, thus sharing genetic material in ways not captured by neo-Darwinism. He also claimed that other creatures, such as ducks, have been known to do this, too.

He also made the obvious point that the process of change doesn't have to be genetic, as such. Again, many examples were brought up. If I understood the example right, apparently mother rats can change the sex of their babies depending on how they raise them. This is an environmental mechanism of biological change, rather than a genetic one. The idea of cultural evolution was also discussed, as a possible modern-day version of Lamarckianism.

When it comes to cooperation and competition, neo-Darwinism does leave a role for cooperation. But it's supplementary to competition: we cooperate, according to neo-Darwinian understandings, in order to compete more successfully. Cooperation plays a much broader role than this, according to Dupré. He noted, for example, that we can find vast numbers of cooperating creatures, many, many more than would make sense from a neo-Darwinian perspective. Apparently, there is a colony of ants on the coast of southern Europe that stretches for about 3,600 miles (not a typo) and contains billions of members, who are genetically quite diverse. Neo-Darwinian theories can't explain this, only suggest that it will prove to be unstable -- which really amounts to saying that they can't explain it.

How does this relate to the mind? Well, there is a neo-Darwinian story to be told here, under the rubric of evolutionary psychology. Dupré pointed out the following basic argument, as a crude gloss on what evolutionary psychologists have to say: evolution is selection for genes; genes make brains; and brains cause behaviour. Hence, if we want to understand behaviour, we need to understand how evolution made our genetic code into what it is. Dupré attacked this on a number of grounds, some of which simply followed from what I've summarized above. (e.g., this assumes that genetic change is the only mechanism of biological change.) Interestingly new and different, though, was the point that this view of human nature -- mind and behaviour -- is actually morally bad. That is, the neo-Darwinian gloss on psychology leads us to attribute our current thoughts and actions to distant historical causes which having nothing to do with the actions of institutions or individuals. This becomes alienating, disempowering, and fundamentally conservative.

As I say, this was a heavy, heavy talk, with lots of biological hardware involved that I didn't fully understand. I really enjoyed it, though: Dupré is a hell of a speaker, and he clearly knows his stuff. (Not that Neander was bad, just that, IMHO, Dupré was better.) You can tell he spends more time talking to scientists than philosophers, as he didn't read his paper, and made heavy use of PowerPoint. (He even thanked the sponsors of his research institute at Exeter!) I didn't stick around for the questions as I was concerned they might confuse me even further on the details of the science.

I have the same sort of worry about Dupré's approach as I did about Neander's, though. It's not clear to me why we're deferring to the science to this extent. Maybe neo-Darwinism doesn't work as a model of biology, but how does it follow from that that it fails as a model of the mind? While this might have bad moral consequences, it's equally possible it'll have good ones, in that it'll eliminate our presumption that we have power over areas where we don't.

I am sympathetic to both Dupré's and Neander's projects -- hence why I want to read Neander's book, and I want to find out if Dupré has one -- but I'm worried about the arguments they're marshalling for them. It's a sort of naturalism that I really don't have a lot of truck with; it takes science as the arbiter of what is or is not natural, overlooking the fact that "natural" is itself a contested concept which can only be analyzed by stepping outside disciplines, like science, which presume a certain conception of it. That doesn't necessarily mean philosophy, but it could, and I would really like to know more about the view of nature which underlies Neander's and Dupré's views.

Not adding the tweets for today as, except for some sarcastic shout-outs to hypothetical hiring committees, they don't really say much more than I've said here. Note to mysterious correspondent left unnamed at the top of this post: if hiring committees are looking at my series on the APA, and they only read the material you claim to be concerned about, overlooking the plethora of other material in today's post, should I be more or less inclined to try to conform to their expectations?

[Added] Boo and, indeed, ya.

Monday, December 28, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Day 2

Today didn't start terribly well. Didn't go well overall, really. I didn't sleep much last night, for some reason, and was operating on about four hours sleep when I got up. But get up I did, and headed off to first session -- left about 8:20, to make a 9:00 session.

Times Square was less crazy than last night, at least in terms of pedestrians. Still a ridiculous number of cars, and all those lights are still on. Lunacy!

Got to the Marriott Marquis on time. And the place was pretty much deserted. I did run into Alice MacLachlan as she was heading out to grab some breakfast before meeting up, I presume, with York folks who have interviews. I don't begrudge that, BTW: it makes perfect sense. I'm just reporting what I figured she was doing. She suggested that I might want to go to the Society for Women in Philosophy session, which is who's awarding Lorraine Code the Distinguished Woman Philosopher of 2009 (looked up the name this time). I'm pretty confident no one missed me.

When I got upstairs, there were a few latecomers at the registration windows, but everyone else seemed to be having a late morning. Or, more likely, everyone was busy mingling with folks they already knew. I'm pretty sure the cafe/atrium area was largely taken over by philosophers, but philosophers sitting in departmental groups. Remember that scene in Mean Girls where Lizzy Caplan is explaining all the various cliques in the cafeteria? I could have done that. "You got your perpetual grad students, desperate postdocs, well-funded postdocs, burned-out postdocs, tenured profs who haven't published in decades, tenured profs who haven't had a good idea in decades, tenure-track profs at 2-year colleges bitching about research institutions..." (See, it's not funny 'cause it's true.)

In any event, not what you'd call a lot of opportunities to get to know people. So, I went to the Placement Service. For those out of the know: the Placement Service is a complete misnomer. It is, in fact, no such thing. A genuine "placement service" would coordinate applications and job ads, provide job search support services, and generally help to get you employed.

This Placement Service has two bulletin boards set up, one for listing where the universities that are interviewing are interviewing, and one for listing any new jobs (grand total: 2; welcome to the end of the humanities in North American universities). It also has a series of boxes -- y'know, banker's boxes -- with numbered manila folders. When you register, you get assigned one of those folders. In the folders: two "interview request" forms and one "information" form. The info form is basically name, affiliation and contact info, in case anyone wants to contact you for a late interview (insert hollow laughter). The interview request forms are if you're either (a) too stupid to have applied to jobs before the convention or (b) applying to any of the jobs that have just appeared at the convention. If you want to do so, you fill in the form, attach a CV (which you have to provide -- no printers or photocopiers available), and drop it in a plastic container reserved for the purpose. If universities bother to reply to you, they'll return the form to your manila folder in the banker's box.

Oh, and, there's a bunch of chairs where you can collapse and wonder why the fates have cursed you with curiosity and intelligence. I'd put up a picture of the room, but it's pretty depressing, frankly. At least the APA staff manning the registration table seemed to be enjoying themselves. Someone should be, eh?

After that, I found the room where there was one session I wanted to go to -- the Society for Empirical Ethics meeting, talking about virtue and moral development, from both philosophical and psychological perspectives -- but it had already begun and, frankly, looked clique-y. Again. I checked the schedule, realized I didn't really care about the rest of the sessions, and left. The whole setup is weird, BTW. Sessions are spread across multiple floors, and meeting rooms are all on the edges of the floors -- there's this open section in the middle running all the way up the building, where the elevators are. It has to be a couple hundred feet from side to side of the floors. (NB: I tend to be very, very bad at estimating size and distance. So, "a couple of hundred feet" works out "takes probably 20 seconds to walk from one side to the other". However big that is.) And, except for the rooms, and the registration windows on the fifth floor, there's nothing in between. Carpet, walls, a few chairs. No signage. Nothing cool to look at. No one standing around. No staff, except occasional hotel staff. Very, very weird. Barren.

There's supposed to be some sort of gathering this evening. Officially, it's a "reception". Unofficially, it's called the "smoker", harkening back to the days when the ballroom would slowly fill with smoke as the evening progressed. Cash bar, as far as I know. No food, again as far as I know. And, yet again, everyone gathers around their little clique-y groups -- either old cronies or departmental colleagues. That's not just me being paranoid; that's actually how it's set up. Departments and groups reserve tables at the reception, and everyone gathers at their own little table. Occasionally, ingratiating suck-ups try to talk up famous philosophers who have deigned to show their faces; given how shitty the job market is, I suspect famous philosophers will skip it for fear that the sucking up will never end.

It's been suggested that I show up and stick my head in the room, just to see what it's like, but to hell with it: I don't see any reason to show up just to hang out with the few other York folks that are here. As a grad student with no publications, no one else is going to be remotely interested in talking to me. (And most of the York folks that are here have interviews, so they have their own problems to deal with.) No, I'm not going to have a drink and try to strike up conversations with people. First, the smoker, from what I know, is an opportunity for job candidates to try to firm up the impression they made in interview, and for everyone else to meet up with people they haven't seen for a while. Neither applies to me, and it's not fun being the only guy in the choir who doesn't know the words. Second, I don't drink, so "social lubricants" aren't able to help me.

It's pretty clear to me that this thing was organized by tenured philosophy professors, for tenured philosophy professors. It caters to their interests, almost exclusively. Lots of opportunities for them to collect together and talk, in a big expensive hotel in a big expensive city. Very few opportunities, if you're not already well-connected, to do pretty much anything. Unless you happen to be highly gregarious and personable; but, really, neither you nor I has much by way of advanced social skills, right? (I'm an academic writing a blog... and you're reading it.)

If it was organized for the interests of everyone, there'd be some sort of actual reception, with food, wherein folks would be strongly encouraged to mingle with people they didn't already know. (A sit-down banquet would guarantee that, but I suspect that might be a bit out of the APA's price range.) It'd be somewhere reasonably priced, so everyone can stay at the same hotel and get into informal meetings and discussions. There'd be services that actually helped with things like planning your trip, getting a job, getting published, and so on. (And, yes, if I ran the world, everyone would get a pony.)

I'm pretty down on the profession right now, in case you haven't entirely figured it out. I find the problems of philosophy interesting, but I don't find the process of publishing interesting at all, and "big conferences" like this one are coming off as quite alienating and intimidating. So, yeah. Not sure where to go with this career path.

Will try it all again tomorrow. This time, I'll be sure to stick around and float through the book publishers' exhibits -- maybe that would trigger some conversations? -- and see if I can find a less clique-y meeting. Something on the Main Program rather than the Group Program might be a better idea. Still, we'll see. For now, I'm trying to hammer out a dissertation chapter.

Oh, pictures from today (the links are repeated below, in the Tweets section): - Interview room (sorry for the blur). Note how small it is -- you can see the back and both sides of the room. Usually, I'm told, the room can hold about 150 tables. There's maybe half that number this year, and most were unoccupied when I stopped by. - A safety pin. ROFL. Shows you how badly planned this really is. Seriously, folks, you can get plastic sleeves for these badges which have metal clips attached -- clips which don't require putting holes in your clothes. They can't be that much more than buying the safety pins, and taking the time to shove them through the sleeves.


Maybe I need to start my own association? Might solve the not knowing anyone/not being interested in sessions problem. #APA #APAEastern about 7 hours ago from TweetDeck - Interview room (sorry for blur). about 7 hours ago from TwitPic

Yeah, I'm calling it a day. Maybe I can bang out a chapter this afternoon/evening. #APA #APAEastern about 8 hours ago from txt

Two things learned about myself: I really don't miss going to classes; and I really stink at meeting new people. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

Not sure what to do. Missed first half of really only interesting session today. Second half may not work. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

Two things, neither of which should surprise me, but: this is a very unfriendly conference. And philosophers dress badly. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

Placement area is filling up. Depressing to see folks worrying who HAVE interviews. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

Really can't shake the feeling I don't belong here. #APA #APAEastern about 9 hours ago from txt

That was the nearly deserted interview room, BTW. Think I'm skipping first session and looking for breakfast. about 10 hours ago from txt

I know I promised pictures of desperate job-seekers, but no-one's here. Two new job ads, neither worth the effort. #APA #APAEastern about 10 hours ago from txt

First things first: registering in the placement room. #APA #APAEastern about 10 hours ago from txt

At the Marriott. Times Square less people. Still crazy lights. Ran into first York person I've seen (Alice MacLachlan). #APA #APAEastern about 10 hours ago from txt - A safety pin. ROFL #APA #APAEastern about 11 hours ago from TwitPic

Off to morning session. #APA #APAEastern about 11 hours ago from txt

Sunday, December 27, 2009

APA Eastern Division: Day 1

Typical. I was just about to tweet from the APA Eastern today, only to have my phone's battery run out. So, here's today's events, from my fortunately inimitable perspective.

Took the train in from Queens to Times Square at about 4:30 or so. Times Square was a zoo. You could barely move for people. I don't know if that's usual or not, not being a New Yorker, but imagine the busiest day you've ever seen in Toronto or Vancouver -- so, probably New Year's Eve. It was like that, and it was just regular traffic. Insane.

Got through that and wound up at the hotel, the Marriott Marquis on Broadway. Nice hotel. Big, well-appointed. Way out of my price range, hence why I'm coming in from Queens. Up to the fifth floor for registration, which was, frankly, out of control. Two windows and two lines, one for pre-registered people to pick up their materials -- conference badge plus program -- and one for people registering at the convention (like me!). There had to be a hundred people in the registration line. The wait was about 45 minutes.

There were a couple of tables set up with various bits of literature -- calls for papers, announcements of other upcoming meetings, etc. Nothing even remotely interesting; it struck me that the tables were there for the no-hopers and cranks. The Ayn Rand Society, for example, and something about the philosophical significance of the Batman mythos. The one useful thing was an announcement of something I already knew, that Lorraine Code was receiving an award for, I think (I may get this name wrong), Woman Philosopher of the Year.

I also got talked to by some guy from, if I recall correctly, Edwin Merrell Press. He claimed to be the editor of the press, and he was handing out pamphlets -- which, if it were twenty years ago, I would refer to as "mimeographed" -- of their alleged publications. He started soliciting some girl in front of me, who was from U Notre Dame, trying to get her contact info and convince her to publish her dissertation with them. He offered me the pamphlet, too, but I think he got the "fuck off" vibe pretty clearly and didn't try too hard to sell it.

Interestingly, he also didn't try to sell it to anyone else in line. I guess we both gave off a "grad student" aura, and she looked more vulnerable, hence he homed in on her. She was actually trembling slightly, I thought. I won't give out her name, but I've checked her academic webpage, and I think she's on the job market this year, too. Enlightened despair is an acquired attitude, and fear/panic much more natural.

Back to the story. Basically, the guy was a scammer. If you've never heard of a press, it's academically useless. The only reason to go with it is if you want to sell lots of books -- academic presses aren't always good at getting books sold, and some commercial publishers are not well-known, but are nonetheless capable of shifting significant amounts of books. But that kind of publisher would lead with sales information, not with "hey, we publish dissertations!" Publishing dissertations is bullshit vanity publishing that does jack for your academic reputation, and less for your impact on the wider world. You may as well self-publish it -- at least then you'd retain the copyright. So, yeah. Not impressive that he was there -- and, indeed, not impressive that he had an official-looking badge. (But, given he was just wandering around the registration lines, it's possible he made that himself.)

[Okay, just looked it up. It's not a scam, as far as I can tell, so that's not a fair way to characterize the guy. He could also be easily taken as a hustler, trying too hard to sell too little. Here's the Wikipedia page: it's Edwin Mellen Press. And down at the bottom of this page, we find something relatively salacious, which seems to confirm my dubious impression:
Warren St. John deems Edwin Mellen Press a vanity publisher capitalizing on the desperation of credential-hungry academics. St. John also finds that the Press's offshore adjunct, Mellen University, is little more than a diploma mill. After the exposé, Mellen chief Herbert Richardson, a former University of Toronto religion professor, accuses LF of libel and sues for $15 million. He loses. In September 1994, St. Michael's College, where Richardson holds tenure, dismisses him for "gross misconduct."

Anyway. Got that out of my system. Felt bad for the girl, but she needs to learn -- and, besides, she's at U Notre Dame, they'll take good care of her. (Unlike other universities I could name, *coff*splutter*York*hack*wheeze*. Seriously, why do I have to do everything myself and on my own?)

After I got registered, which was thankfully easy -- I had worried they didn't get my membership renewal, as I hadn't gotten any sort of confirmation -- and looked around for something to do. And... there wasn't anything. There was only one set of sessions tonight, and nothing in them that looked particularly interesting. One might have been okay, but it also might have gone into neuroscience/cognitive science hell. (Not that I object to those areas, but they're a hell of a lot easier to deal with when written, so you can review them repeatedly, rather than when spoken.) I suppose I could have registered with the job placement service, but I figure I can do that tomorrow morning, as well as go and take a look around the real book publishers, who are supposed to be set up tomorrow.

So, I came back, around 7:45. Had Mickey Dees. Kinda diggin' Queens, incidentally; reminds me of East Van, where I used to live. And also liked, except for the hookers on the corners. Not that they were bad people or anything, but they didn't attract a good crowd. No obvious hookers around here -- note I did say "obvious". Oh, and, the fact that the building I lived in was a firetrap. Seriously: a fuse blew once, and we took the panel off 'cause we thought we saw smoke, and the whole thing behind was fused. I'll tell y'all sometime about the time we had a flood, too. This hotel is pretty decent -- two-star, so safe, warm, decent bed, city accessible by transit.

Plan for tomorrow: go out early, register for placement, see what's going on with the Society for Empirical Ethics, look at books. I'd never heard of the society before, incidentally, but they look like they do things I'd be really into, and they have two sessions tomorrow. So, could be good. Or, could be one of those things where you feel like a third wheel 'cause everyone knows everyone else. Whatever. I can always come back here and write. Haven't yet decided if I'm going to the infamous smoker or not. It seems to be only useful if you're going to meet people, or if you've been interviewed and want to be available to your interviewers. Neither applies to me.

Famous people seen (not met or spoken to, of course) today:

Trying to work out how I could post things to twitpic for tomorrow....

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Live-blogging the APA Eastern Division.

Well, live-tweeting, anyway.

The American Philosophical Association Eastern Division meeting gets underway tomorrow evening, running until Wednesday afternoon. And guess who's sitting in a hotel in Queens, getting ready to go to it tomorrow? If you're interested, you can see the conference website here:

I'll be tweeting as things occur to me, over at I'll post the interesting/salient stuff here on the blog at the end of each day. This may be an incredibly fascinating window into the truly weird world of academic philosophy, or a series of whinges about how bored I am. Possibly both. Such is the life I've chosen.

(Oh, and, for those not in the know: Eastern is the meeting where, usually, US schools interview junior candidates, such as myself, for tenure-track jobs. Given the ongoing economic meltdown in the US, though, that's all gotten a bit cock-eyed. There's fewer positions, positions are being cancelled, schools aren't interviewing at the APA... it's a mess. So, the meeting could be rather sparsely attended, or attended largely by horrifically desperate job candidates. I may be able to get pictures of grown men bursting into tears from the stress of it all.)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging.

The Haunted, "All Against All"

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging

Belphegor, "Hell's Ambassador"

You can tell that the budget here consisted of a couple of paperclips and not much else. But, good tune.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging.

Austrian Death Machine, "I Need Your Clothes, Your Boots, and Your Motorcycle"

Silly? Yes. Brutal? Yes.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging

Gorefest, For the Masses

The guy's voice is ridiculous.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging

Hail of Bullets, "Warsaw Rising"

Good ol'-fashioned death metal.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging

Baroness, "A Horse Called Golgotha"

Odd video. Good tune, though.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging.

Entombed, "Damn Deal Done"

Thursday, November 05, 2009

On the long gun registry.

Background for non-Canadians and Canadians who were, until recently, living under rocks: This is regarding Bill C-391, currently passed second reading in the Canadian House of Commons. Bill C-391 would eliminate the federal long gun registry, which was created by the Chrétien government in the early '90s. Under Canadian Parliamentary procedure, the bill now goes to committee to be studied, before going to third reading in the House. The third vote -- which is the final vote -- cannot change the bill in a substantial way. However, once being passed by the House, the bill must be passed by the Senate, which can also study it. As far as I know, the Senate can make significant changes. There has been serious reaction to the passage of this bill through the House, with many commentators calling for those who voted to send the bill to committee -- rather than killing it on the floor -- to resign from their parties and even from the House.

I really don't understand the near-hysteria around the long gun registry.

I mean, I get why people, especially people who have grown up and live in urban areas, are afraid of guns. It's a combination, I think, of the unfamiliarity with something potentially dangerous and the anti-gun propaganda distilled rather effectively through the mass media. The first time I saw an actual gun -- not a prop, but the real thing (which, for what it's worth, was a long gun; I have also seen handguns) -- I had a pretty visceral reaction of fear to it. It was similar to the reaction I had when seeing a bandsaw in operation for the first time -- that is, this is a weird thing that looks rather dangerous. So, that's the first part of the general reaction, I think: many urbanites have never seen, let alone handled, guns. Thus guns are foreign and potentially harmful, so we instinctively recoil, much as we might recoil from a welding torch.

But it was also more extreme than that. I knew that a bandsaw could be used safely; indeed, my shop teacher proceeded to show us how to do that after showing us how to turn the thing on. I also know that a gun can be used safely. But, for some reason, I found the gun more frightening than the bandsaw. And that is what I tend to attribute to anti-gun propaganda: the broad depiction of guns as threatening items and objects of death. The association of the classic shape of a gun -- either a rifle or a handgun -- with fear, intimidation, pain and death strikes me as well-established in our culture, and these are powerful negative emotions. I find further confirmation of this in the tearful testimonies CBC News Network (to pick one) was broadcasting yesterday: crying women, especially mothers, elicit a strong emotional reaction in most people.

So, I understand the fear. I really do. And I think the fear makes sense: it's not crazy or a sign of illness to feel this fear.

But I don't think it's a good ground for sensible policy. Guns are scary, therefore everyone who owns one should be put in some government database? Well, what if you live in a rural area and regularly hunt, thus owning multiple long guns? Or, for that matter, what if you happen to be experienced with guns and own several handguns for your own enjoyment and protection? You would thus not find guns scary, and thus surely conclude there should not be registration in a government database. Emotional reactions generally, because they are utterly subjective, do not make for a productive political discussion -- or a discussion of any kind. They also don't serve, on their own, as reasons for any action.

Of course, the fact that there are emotional reactions is slightly different. That many people find guns upsetting and frightening is something to take into consideration, as is the fact that many people do not. These are potential reasons. But is the fact that people find guns upsetting and frightening good enough reason to make people generally register their guns? Unfortunately, the answer has to be "no". People certainly shouldn't be needlessly frightened or upset, but most who are frightened and upset by guns will never see them, handle them or have to deal with them. For the most part, guns can just be avoided -- at least in the urban areas where there is, I suspect, a greater proportion of negative reaction to guns.

So, the principle I'm working with here is that the fact that people have emotional reactions to something is not in itself good reason to adopt any particular policy. If these reactions are unavoidable, then perhaps there is good reason. In this regard, think of people in minority ethnic groups who live in a society which casually demeans their ethnicity. These reactions are ex hypothesi unavoidable, and so should lead us to try to reduce them. (This will fail at the margins, of course; some emotional reactions are so minor that we expect individuals to deal with them on their own. It's one thing if you're black and everyone calls you "boy"; it's another if you're Jewish and people think the yarmulke is a little silly.) But surely it's reasonable to expect people to avoid deliberately upsetting themselves. Consider people who find it deeply upsetting to see gay couples kissing or holding hands. We shouldn't expect a government policy to be developed in a way that would undo the occurrence of these emotions. Instead, we should demand the offended individuals look elsewhere and not deliberately upset themselves. Everyone has to take at least some responsibility for their own condition, after all.

I tend to think the reactions to guns fall in the latter camp. If you don't like guns, don't look at them. Don't own one. Avoid gun shows. Don't go hunting. And so on.
Once you do that, you'll find that you no longer have these negative, difficult emotions. It just seems like good sense: if guns are upsetting to you, just don't think about them or go near them.

There is, of course, another argument in favour of gun registration, which is the crime argument. It's a little confused, though. We're told both that the long gun registry reduces the occurrence of crimes and that it makes it easier to prosecute crimes. The former is relatively easy to assess; and, from everything I've read, it just isn't true. Since the registry has been in place, crimes involving long guns have not gone down, and may even have increased. We could also consider the impact of similar registries (if there are any) in other jurisdictions to confirm this, but I suspect it's a robust result. There's, after all, no particular reason to think that registering anything will reduce the possibility of crime. The causes of crime have little or nothing to do with whether the object that is used in the crime is legally registered or not. (Has dangerous driving -- a crime -- gone down because all cars are registered?)

The latter cimre-related point in favour of registration is just odd. Many things would make it easier to prosecute crimes, but they are nonetheless unjustified. A national DNA or fingerprint database, for example. Indeed, an international one would make it even easier. National ID cards would help. Implanting everyone with a microchip that could be tracked using a GPS system. And so on, further into the realms of science fiction. But so what? Security is not the only value in society, and it's not the only thing we should expect a government to ensure. And we certainly shouldn't expect a government, or believe a government is justified, to sacrifice anything in the name of security. The things a government is permitted to sacrifice are the things that are less valuable than security: where security is sufficiently important that we will trade in order to achieve it. Think of things like random roadside stops for drunk driving: the inconvenience and loss of freedom are quite minor; the gain in security is, to my knowledge, rather great; hence is it justified.

On this line, then, if there were a significant gain in security from registering long guns, then there would be a good reason to go ahead. After all, registering a gun is a relatively easy matter -- no more painful or expensive than registering a car. So no one could reasonably object. Unless -- and I want to emphasize this -- there is no good evidence to show that we're actually getting more security. And I'm not convinced that we are. Police and prosecutors claim the registry is useful, but that's anecdote -- not data. Are we getting more convictions (successful prosecutions) since the registry than before? Are we successfully arresting and charging and convicting more criminals since the registry than before? If not, the registry is as much a boondoggle as rural MPs (and the Conservative caucus generally) charge it is. If so, then it does have a purpose and should be maintained.

I can only hope that this is the issue that will be discussed in committee before the third reading of the bill, rather than flooding the room with emotionally-charged, but ultimately pointless, grandstanding. (Well, I would so hope, if I weren't already so utterly cynical about the sort of "debate" that's currently in progress.)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging.

Been listening to this one a few times. It's grown on me.

Scar Symmetry, "Noumenon and Phenomenon" (And, no, the lyrics don't get Kant right.)

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Weekend metal-blogging

Ensiferum, "From Afar"

I like the song. But this video is so cheesy. Seriously -- move!!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

(Late) Friday metal-blogging

Skeletonwitch, "Repulsive Salvation"

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Long weekend metal-blogging

Emperor, Empty

Dragonforce, Heroes of Our Time

Friday, October 02, 2009

Friday metal-blogging

ChthoniC, "49 Theurgy Chains"

Very high on these guys right now. If you don't quite see it, skip to 00:45 and let it play for a little.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday metal-blogging

Not necessarily a fan of the video, but classic Megadeth song.

Megadeth, "Headcrusher"

Saturday, September 19, 2009

(Belated) Friday metal-blogging

The Duskfall, "Shoot It In"

Not the best video, but when you can riff like this, who cares?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Since there's been complaints...

...from the Liberal side of things about NDP "silence" on the pending ways and means motion, let me be one to break it. (Although, really, folks, you have to get on Twitter; we've been kicking it around for a little bit now.) For my money, there's little upside to supporting the Conservatives at this point. The motion will pass anyway, with BQ support. There's also little upside to going along with the Liberals' bizarre shift from reflexive support to reflexive opposition. So, the best move is to go before the cameras, explain why the EI reforms don't go far enough, explain that neither the Liberals nor the Conservatives are covering themselves with glory, and abstain from the vote in protest.

Which is basically what Dr. Dawg said here.

The way forward for the NDP, as I see it, is to refuse to play the game of either Canadian conservative party. (Note the lower-case there.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday metal-blogging

Arch Enemy, "My Apocalypse"

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Letter regarding University of Toronto Libraries' new fees

[Addressed to my MPP, David Zimmer, as well as other members of the Ontario Parliament, as listed below.]

Dear Mr. Zimmer,

I am writing to you as my MPP, regarding the University of Toronto Libraries' recent decision to charge fees to external borrowers.

By way of background, the Ontario Council of University Libraries (OCUL) includes 21 post-secondary libraries, including the University of Toronto and my university, York. The OCUL manages a number of resource-sharing programs between its members. These include inter-library loan, document delivery, and coordinated purchasing. They also include direct borrowing. For most member libraries, a library card held at one library can be used to obtain a library card at another, with borrowing privileges transferring over directly. So, a graduate student at Ryerson University could obtain a McMaster University library card and borrow as if he or she were a McMaster graduate student.

The University of Toronto Libraries have always been something of a special case. Undergraduates at other universities did not have direct borrowing privileges at U of T libraries. Graduate students and faculty were limited to U of T's undergraduate lending policies (two-week loans with only two renewals). And, if borrowing by inter-library loan, University of Toronto-held books were considered a last resort, in that they would only be delivered if the resource could not be obtained from another OCUL member.

Recently, the University of Toronto Libraries has decided to make itself even more of a special case. The new policy can, in part, be read here:

The gist is this: direct borrowers are, as of October 1, being charged for direct borrowing privileges, at a rate of $200 per year. And, although the webpage does not mention this, visitors will also be charged a $20 weekly fee in order to simply browse the stacks at Robarts Library.

Thus, the University of Toronto Libraries has, with little notice, cut off access to one of the richest academic libraries in Canada. Graduate students and faculty members at York, Ryerson, McMaster, Guelph, and many other universities and colleges in the area rely on the University of Toronto library collections in order to conduct their research and prepare for classes. And the justification seems to be that, because the library is on U of T campus, U of T can determine, entirely on its own, who is permitted to access the resources and how much they must pay for the privilege. Worse, it is my understanding that this decision was not made by U of T Libraries' staff, but directly by Cheryl Misak, Vice-President and Provost.

It is not acceptable for U of T to take it upon itself to levy an arbitrary and excessive fee for a research library that is meant to serve the needs of students, faculty and researchers throughout the province. I trust that you will do your utmost to engage with the relevant members of Parliament and the academic community in order to have this fee removed and the previous level of borrowing privileges restored.


Adam Rawlings

CC: The Hon John Milloy, Minister for Training, Colleges and Universities.
Gilles Bisson, Critic, Research and Innovation
Rosario Marchese, Critic, Training, Colleges and Universities
Jim Wilson, Critic, Colleges and Universities, Research and Innovation
Tim Hudak, Leader, Official Opposition
Andrea Horwath, Leader, New Democratic Party of Ontario

Friday, September 04, 2009

Friday metal-blogging

Insomnium, "Down With the Sun"

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

On voter alienation.

So, it looks like we may go to a federal election in October. I say "may" because I'm still not entirely persuaded that the Liberals won't try to back off for some reason or another, and I'm also not persuaded that Harper won't sell out his hatred of the seperatists by cutting a deal with the Bloc. But, let's operate on the assumption that the election will happen. I'm not particularly interested here in discussing who will or won't win. Instead, I want to talk about two election-related motivational phenomena, one that has captured popular interest for some time, and one that is just starting to emerge: decreasing voter turnout and disinterest -- even disgust -- with the prospect and process of an election. These can both, I think, be classified as "voter alienation".

The first is certainly well-known. Voter turnout is dropping all over the developed world, to the point that even marginally increased voter turnout -- such as in the 2008 US Presidential election, and the recent Japanese parliamentary election -- is considered worthy of note. "Why" is a more complicated question, as voting itself is a complicated action. There are many motivations for voting at all, and many other motivations for casting a ballot one way or another. Short of a more sophisticated system of voting, there is no way to tell what motivates someone to cast the ballot that they cast, and why they bothered to vote at all. Cases make the point. I may come out to vote because I care about casting my ballot, because I've been paid to, because I'm bored and have nothing better to do, or because my wife is making me. I may vote NDP because I support their environmental policies, their economic policies, or some other policies, because I happen to like Jack Layton and believe he would be a good Prime Minister, or because I happen to know my local NDP candidate and believe he/she would be a good MP. Or, of course, some combination thereof.

It's a simple point, but it gets overlooked: humans very rarely do anything for one motivating reason; it's almost always a combination of different factors which get us to do something, usually after overwhelming a combination of still more factors which pointed towards doing something else. Extremely single-minded people, I suppose, might only have one motivation in mind whenever they do something, but this I take as a rare and highly exceptional case. Voting is no different. So, the simplistic analyses that are trotted out by the mass media and all manner of commentators simply aren't worth taking seriously. The explanation that accounts for why one person doesn't vote may not work for why another, not obviously different, person doesn't vote. And, of course, I'm ignoring the complicating cases of people such as myself who will vote federally, have never voted municipally, and only sporadically vote provincially. Oh, and I've never voted for any student council, either. No single explanation will work for me, clearly.

That said, I think we can group many of the various motivations together into one category. I say "many" because I concede that there are some people who genuinely object to the institution of government and won't participate on that basis. So, put them aside. Who is left? Those who won't vote because they don't care. Those who don't vote because they're disgusted with all parties or candidates. Those who won't vote because they believe the process is stacked against their favoured party or policy. So, we have apathy, disgust, and despair. These motivations all seem to rely on a belief that something isn't working the way it's supposed to. If things are going the way they are supposed to, you don't feel apathy, digust, despair, or any of that host of emotions; instead, you feel content or happy or fulfilled. So, what's driving low voter turnout, I think, is a sense, in other words, that things just aren't right.

Turning to the second phenomenon. It's not as common, but seems to be growing in frequency, especially as we are faced with our fourth federal election in five years. Even that phrase seems to encapsulate the phenomenon: that there is something objectionable about having "too many" elections in "too few" years. It's very unclear on the face of it what might drive this problem. Elections happen whenever a government cannot be legally sustained. Unless we want to live in an autocratic state, there is no choice here. Elections have to happen at certain points in time, and these may be quite regular. Yet, in comments on various news websites, I've even seen calls for outlawing minority governments. Put aside questions of how on earth that would be managed (I can't really fathom it myself), and consider why someone would say something like that. It speaks to a desire for stability, I think, but also and more deeply to a desire to not be bothered. That is, a worldview which sees government as a peripheral annoyance, rather than as a significant social force. This is distinct, you'll note, from the more hardcore forms of libertarianism or anarchism, which would see government as dangerous and/or deeply immoral. And it is, I think, an instance of the belief that things are not going as they should. In this case, that government is somehow failing to do what we charge it to do: instead of running the country, governments are collapsing into election again and again and again.

I'm using "voter alienation" for both these phenomena. I say "voter" because they both clearly affect voters -- voter turnout and voter disgust or disdain for the electoral process itself. I say "alienation" because I think that, at bottom, these both express a belief that government is somehow not part of ordinary society. There's always been an element of this in public attitudes towards government, of course; spitting out "Washington" or "Ottawa" or "London" with disdain is a longstanding shorthand for a myriad of objections to the government of the day. But it seems to have moved on from that to an objection to government itself. Again, not the sort of libertarian/anarchist critique of government, but to an objection to government's bothering us. To government not knowing its proper place and role. To things not being right, and government being the problem rather than the solution.

I'll come back to that "proper place and role" idea, but let me take a brief detour to talk about "voter apathy". I know "voter apathy" is the more common term, and I'm not using it for good reasons. There are some serious problems with this term. For one, it's too limited. As noted above, non-voters may be motivated by anger, despair, or disgust, none of which qualifies as apathy. simply inaccurate. "Apathy" describes an emotional grey state, a lack of interest or feeling toward something. For example, I am apathetic towards cars. Except insofar as they are an instrument of transportation, I don't really care about them one way or the other. The deep passion any number of people feel for different makes, models, styles, and so on just doesn't move me. When it comes to voting, the phenomenon is not adequately characterized as apathy. Many who do not vote or who are disgusted by elections are not apathetic -- indeed, they're often angry, depressed, disappointed, revolted, states which cannot accurately be considered apathy.

For two, it's demeaning. Calling voters who object to the process of voting and the process of election "apathetic" is almost a way of infantalizing them. Apathetic voters, rather than alienated voters, are too juvenile to have the appropriate feelings and motivations of an adult citizen. Apathetic voters are almost like spoiled teenagers unable to deal with the unfairnesses of life. Alienated voters, by contrast, are excluded, sometimes forcefully. Alienated voters have been rejected by the choices of other people, and thus can demand that these other people justify and account for these choices. In short, apathetic voters have deficient characters, while alienated voters have been wronged. So, I understand why "voter apathy" is the preferred term, as it gets people off the hook for what they have done.

So, to recap. The problems are declining voter turnout and increasing disgust with elections. The motivation, I think, is a sense that things aren't right, that government isn't fulfilling its proper role. I call it "voter alienation" because "voter apathy" is an inappropriate term. I could spend some time discussing the proper role of government, and whether government has any proper role at all. But I think that would take some time, and I'm not sure of my own thinking on the issue. So, let me make two assumptions. I think these assumptions are certainly widely-shared views, although I concede that they are not universal. First, I assume that government has some proper role; that is, that the question of the legitimacy or justification of government power isn't answered with the claim that government is never legitimate. And, second, that this role somehow involves acting for the best interests of the citizenry. The issue of what counts as a "best interest" is difficult: are best interests what people want? what people say they want? what people should want? in what sense of "should"? Similarly difficult is the issue of how one might act for those interests: by passing laws? upholding the constitution? privatization? But I think most people, when they think of government, have some sense that this is what government is for.

What can we do to reverse the course of voter alienation? I'm not trying to assess what would be successful -- that's a matter for investigation, experiment and testing -- but what, in principle, seems like it might work. One thing that clearly won't work is chastising or deriding alienated voters. That clearly will only serve to deepen the sense of alienation, of being excluded, by setting up an opposition between the "parental" figure (the chastisers) and the "children" (the alienated). Another thing that clearly won't work is insisting on the social duty of voting. The issue is that alienated voters believe the other side of the social bargain has been betrayed, that government is not doing what it was set up to do. Given that government has failed to live up to its end of the deal, alienated voters believe that they would be foolish (at least!) to continue to live up to their end.

The basic idea has to be to create a more responsive government and electoral system. If the problem is that an increasing number of voters are being alienated by the system, then we need to give these voters reason to believe they are not alienated. That is, we need to convince alienated voters that the systems are working as they should, that government is working towards their best interests, and thus that they are obligated to live up to their end of the social bargain referred to above. I see two guiding principles here.

1. Responsiveness

Government needs to actively become involved in, and thus more relevant to, the lives of people. Not in the sense of passing laws or conducting an endless series of referenda -- the former is invasive, the latter abdicates their responsibilities. I mean that the people who are supposed to represent us in government need to realize that it is no longer acceptable for them to vanish into heavily-guarded buildings to negotiate largely in secret and occasionally engage in public performance in the House or the Senate. We need to see the negotiations. All of them. Unless it's a matter of national security, I see no justification for any of the process of government or Parliament to be behind closed doors.

We also need to be taken seriously by our alleged representatives. Far too few are interested in hearing what we, their constituents, think or want or need. Even fewer are interested in engaging with us outside of election campaigns. Even politicians with Twitter accounts or blogs rarely read and respond to them themselves. One of the few things I admired about Garth Turner was his willingness to have an open comments section on a frequently irascible blog. I realize that politicians are busy, especially as they become more senior. I suspect strongly that back-benchers have absolutely no excuse for not maintaining a blog, responding to their own email, and tweeting occasionally. Furthermore, it is not difficult to have a small staff that manages one's online presence and serves a similar function to the assistant(s) of a busy executive -- converting short notes into full prose, explaining positions, passing on sentiments and ideas, and so on. And even the most senior US politicians take time to conduct townhall meetings with constituents, where they can be challenged and argued with face-to-face.

When it comes to parties, the point here is similar to that above. Parties are quasi-governmental entities, after all; party affiliation is at least as important as personal views, whether running for office or serving in office. Furthermore, we have a very large country, containing some very large ridings, wherein it is often difficult to get noticed by the media and by voters without the money and resources of a fair-sized party. Running parties in a top-down fashion is deeply alienating to voters, for the same reasons that running a distant and removed government is alienating. So, the same sort of solutions need to apply here. Open it up. Take the ideas of party members seriously. Listen to those who aren't members, and engage with their concerns. And so on.

Finally, when it comes to voting, voting is largely a passive action in the worst sense. It's an action which rarely has any serious impact. I'm not convinced that proportionality is the cure for what ails us, but certainly every vote needs to somehow count towards the outcome of all elections. If votes don't count, then why cast them? If voting isn't important, if it doesn't make a difference, then you'd have to be somewhat irrational to bother voting. So, there needs to be some kind of change here: multi-member ridings, transferrable votes, preferential balloting, etc. Many different systems have been tried, and there is much evidence available on their success in resolving the problems of voter alienation (as well as many other problems). This should be the easiest change to make.

2. Openness

It needs to be easier to get into government. Right now, the barriers that have been erected serve to convince many -- I include myself here -- that to run for office is simply not worth it. It's too much trouble, it's an invasive process, and so on. Obviously, this is a form of alienation. The same applies to forming parties, getting official party status in the house, and so on and so forth. Of course there have to be processes and procedures. But these do not have to be restrictive; indeed, they should only be organizational. It's the difference between having a limit on when you can drink alcohol (a restrictive process) and needing to drive on the right-hand side of the road (an organizational one). The former prevents certain citizens from doing something, by creating a limit. The latter dictates how something is to be done, if one chooses to do it. Right now, the barriers for entry in order to run for office, and so on, are all restrictive. They are intended to narrow the number of people and organizations that are contending for public office. The problem is, though, that these offices are ours. They exist in order to serve our interests. It's up to us to decide who fills them, not for those who hold them to determine that we are somehow not worthy.

Voting should be open as well. That is, it should be something that is similarly easy to do, and not something that bears a heavy burden of restrictions. Certainly one has to prove one's citizenship (or residency, or some such -- basically, that one has a stake in the outcome) and identity (that one is indeed the person one claims to be, and is thus entitled to the vote) in order to vote. That seems quite reasonable. But beyond that, why is voting as difficult as it is? Why line up to vote? Keep in mind that it's becoming easier to do most anything -- order food, organize utilities for one's home, buy a home, buy a car, get married, get divorced, plan a vacation, etc. Why isn't it getting easier to vote? As with changing voting systems, there are many different ways of organizing the process of voting, with much research discussing benefits and problems. What we're doing clearly isn't working, so why not change it?

I don't pretend this is any more than a sketch. But I want to conclude by suggesting what sorts of policies might enact these principles, and fill in some more detail. Some obvious ones first. A change in the electoral system, such as to STV, MMP or IRV. Reducing the requirements for voting, such as introducing online voting. Engagement with voters (for parliamentarians) and with party members (for party officials, candidates, etc.) through Twitter, blogs, Facebook, and other such services. Recording and broadcasting all government business in an easily-accessible way, so that citizens can see, track, discuss and affect what officials are doing.

We could also use some serious reform of the House, Senate, the federal courts, and the role currently filled by the Crown, which I've given in increasing order of detachment from voters and thus from all citizens. The office of the Prime Minister is not defined explicitly anywhere in Canadian law. And thus the Prime Minister's level of power is always in flux. There are no clear rules governing cabinet posts. There is no way of removing MPs from office if they fail to fulfill their obligations to constituents.

When it comes to the Senate, while its Constitutional role is fairly clear, it is very unresponsive to citizens and very much a closed boy's club. The courts are worse. Clearly both the Senate and the courts should be filled by people with relevant expertise. But there is no formal process for selecting such people from the populace at large. An election is not necessarily the solution, but why, at least, don't we have a public process for selecting Senators and judges?

Finally, the Crown is a hereditary office, yet has tremendous power under the Constitution. Many Commonwealth countries -- for example, Ireland, India, Pakistan -- have replaced the Crown with an elected President, with varying levels of importance and power. I don't see how having an important office that all Canadians could focus attention on, that would respond to the interests and ideas of Canadians, that all Canadians could contend for could do anything but reduce alienation.

Generally, alienated voters who despise the process of voting and the cycle of elections need to see that the government is playing its role, that it matters to their lives, and that they can actually affect it in a serious and meaningful way. Without that, alienation will continue to spread. And the reason to be concerned is, ultimately, that the end of that process is a rejection of the civil authority. We already have a majority of voters who find themselves at least somewhat alienated. If this number continues to increase, it is hard to see how the government could continue to claim to be anything other than an irrelevant relic.