Friday, December 07, 2012

One Sign of Pathological Self-Absorption... when you steal ashes from a concentration camp crematorium to make paint for your art. The real kicker, though, is the response of the art gallery showing the piece:

The British newspaper reported that despite the scandal surrounding the painting, the Lund gallery owner Martin Bryder defended the decision to exhibit the work of art, telling the Polish News Agency, "Please come to the gallery, see the painting and judge for yourselves whether it's controversial."

Yes, come and give publicity and support to my art gallery by taking the trouble to see the painting partly made from murdered Jews before you judge whether it's controversial. I am not a huge advocate of these sorts of measures, but at this point I am thinking that if someone were to burn down the Lund Gallery over this they wouldn't be entirely unjustified. Then at least we could use the ashes of the gallery to make paint and tell Mr. Bryder that he should wait to see the paintings before he judges the matter. But even that just would not convey the degree of narcissism this artist and this gallery owner must have.

Global Village Construction Set

A tool economy, or tool ecology, is itself a highly modular machine with hardware, that is, an infrastructure, and software, that is, processes that run on the infrastructure. The hardware/software aspect is not accidental; if one looks at Babbage's plans for the Analytical Engine, one quickly realizes that Babbage was modeling computation on production: the Analytical Engine is a little tool ecology or manufacturing system of its own, for producing a particular kind of product (data structures) from a particular kind of supply (energy). Any tool economy is itself a sort of Engine, analytical or not.

I was interested to come across the Global Village Construction Set, which is an attempt to pull together into one package a little sustainable manufacturing system of its own -- Industrial Revolution in a box, so to speak. It's based on the idea of product ecologies: you can use (say) solar collectors to power steam engines to generate electricity to run machining tools that can make solar collectors, steam engines, electrical generators, and machining tools, thus creating a potentially sustainable cycle. If you can link several different possible cycles, you have a network and a highly flexible system. The GVCS is planned to make use of 50 different machine components:

CEB Press, Cement Mixer, Saw Mill, Bulldozer, Backhoe

Tractor, Seeder, Hay Rake, Well Drilling Rig
Microtractor, Soil Pulverizer, Spader, Hay Cutter, Trencher
Bakery Oven, Dairy Milker, Microcombine, Baler

Multimachine, Ironworker, Laser Cutter, Welder, Plasma Cutter, Induction Furnace
Torch Table, Metal Roller, Rod and Wire Mill, Press Forge, Universal Rotor, Drill Press
3D Printer, 3D Scanner, Circuit Mill, Industrial Robot, Chipper Hammermill

Power Cube, Gasifier Burner, Solar Concentrator, Electric Motor Generator, Hydraulic Motor, Nickel-Iron Battery
Steam Engine, Heat Exchanger, Wind Turbine, Pelletizer, Universal Power Supply

Aluminum Extractor, Bioplastic Extruder

Car, Truck

Most of it is still in the planning and development stages. It's one thing, of course, to have these things, which we obviously do, and another to have them under the right conditions: the project requires cheap, replicable versions that are capable of working with the other parts in the system to allow actual replication. Not an easy thing to do. But some of the basic ideas are quite interesting.

To some degree, though, this is due to the ambition of the project. One could imagine less ambitious versions, intended not as tool micro-economies but as upgrade systems for tool economies already in place. Further, for a lot of things one wouldn't need state-of-the-art solar collectors and the like; technology far short of the state of the art can do less, but it also generally requires less to replicate it and sustain its tool economy. And one could also focus on specific subdomains of the tool economy, like agriculture, irrigation, or basic tool-making. In a sense this is the kind of thing that the Africa Windmill Project is trying to put together.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Analytic/Synthetic II

Thinking about some issues raised by Pseudonoma's comments on my previous Kant-and-mereotopology post, one question that keeps coming up is what connection would the account of synthetic judgments require? Kant says (A7):

Either the predicate B belongs to the subject A as something that is (covertly) contained in this concept A; or B lies entirely outside the concept A, though to be sure it stands in connection with it.

The second clause is synthetic or ampliative judgment. The relevant connection can't be internal definitional relevance, i.e., it can't be the connection of an internal part for the definition, because that would mark an analythic judgment. So it has to be in some way extrinsic to the definition as such. At the same time it's unclear whether, when considering definitions, anything can be relevant to anything else without overlapping it at some level of generality. So something in between seems relevant, and that would suggest something like an overlap. But we seem to have two different kinds of synthetic judgments: those like "The house is red" and those like "The shortest distance between two points is a straight line". The latter seems more obviously to have an overlap than the former. I'm more and more taken with the idea that the difference is that, as far as Kant goes, the former has to do with possible experience, whereas the latter has to do with the possibility of experience. Thus house and red overlap in the sense that they share general features (sensible, for instance) that mean it is possible that they can come together in experience, whereas straight line and shortest distance between two points as Kant understands them overlap in the sense that their sharing something is required for experience (of any sort that we would recognize) at all. But that's a rough characterization that would need more development, and I haven't a clue how it would further relate to Kant's broader question of how we can know synthetic a priori truths.

Two Poem Drafts


The human heart is frail:
a breeze its strength may take.
But though the dogs of hell
with storms the worlds shall shake,
my friend, beside you I
will stand, a wall will make;
then see, though hell-hounds cry,
I swear you shall not break.


You are most lovely of lovable things,
rising in splendor, aurora-arrayed,
roseate, luminant, aureate-splayed,
lightening worlds. The morrow-red sings
songs that will chase away winter-formed frost,
brightening ice that, translucent, transforms
light into iris in colorful storms,
hope iridescent. I would be lost,
broken, should brightness not rise in the west,
joy iridesce on the surface below,
breaking the bondage and service of snow:
you I behold, and by you am blessed.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Notable Linkabilia

* Brendan Woods discusses Euthyphro Dilemmas

* Looking around for something on error statistics, I discovered that Deborah Mayo has a blog, Error Statistics Philosophy. Mayo is one of the top philosophers of statistics, and her approach to the general philosophy of science, error statistics (PDF), has always seemed to me to be far more plausible than Bayesian epistemologies. Bayesians, of course, would disagree.

* D.G. Myers discusses the doctor/patient relationship.

* Archambeau discusses parallels between Kant's account of the sublime and Russell's account of the intellectual.

* Some recent SEP articles of interest:
Philosophy of Humor (John Morreal)
Japanese Pure Land Philosophy (Dennis Hirota)

* It's looking like Germany will pass a ban on bestiality in the next few weeks; animal welfare issues, of course.

* Robert C. Rubel, The Epistemology of War Gaming (PDF)

* Gerald Russello reviews a book on John Witherspoon, America's most important connection with the Scottish Enlightenment.

* Palaeocast is a paleontology podcast that looks interesting.

Let's Not Agree to Disagree

I'm finishing up the grading of dialogue projects for my Intro course -- my major projects are quite involved and I've been headachy and tired from allergies recently, so it's been a long process -- and I have noticed that a quarter of the dialogues at some point use the phrase "let's agree to disagree," or some close variation. I'm not sure if it's just that the phrase is suddenly having a mini-vogue, or if I'm just primed to see it this round because I watched the third Men in Black movie last week, which uses the phrase several times. It's starting to wear on my nerves. Obviously there are cases where, for ethical or practical reasons, it makes sense to 'agree to disagree', but in general it's not what philosophy teachers want to hear. Let's instead agree to figure out which of us has the better reasoning, especially when writing philosophical dialogues. (In fairness, they usually seem to use it as a way of artificially bringing the dialogue to a close, and there is, of course, nothing wrong with a philosophical dialogue in which the dispute is not resolved -- excellent Platonic precedent for that.)

Of course, part of it is that I've never liked the phrase anyway; it's one of those cases of associations being colored by personal experience. I was once, years and years ago, falsely accused by someone of egregious dishonesty, and after I put forward evidence that the accusation was false, was told, "Let's just agree to disagree." At which, of course, I exploded; I would not be agreeing to disagree about whether I had been completely dishonest, thank you very much. And every time someone uses the phrase I am tempted to say, "We don't need to agree to disagree because we already are disagreeing." I think what gets me is that it's such an unbelievably low standard that almost anything would be more intellectually robust; why not agree to something more ambitiously intellectual, like swapping book recommendations, or having a temporary cooling-off period, or going to a third party for arbitration or advice, or anything else, really?

Apparently we owe this phrase to George Whitefield, although the first person we actually have on record using it is John Wesley. Thank you, Anglican-Revivalists-slash-Methodists, for this particular Totschlagargument.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

By Day She Woos Me

The World
by Christina Rossetti

By day she woos me, soft, exceeding fair:
But all night as the moon so changeth she;
Loathsome and foul with hideous leprosy
And subtle serpents gliding in her hair.
By day she woos me to the outer air,
Ripe fruits, sweet flowers, and full satiety:
But through the night, a beast she grins at me,
A very monster void of love and prayer.
By day she stands a lie: by night she stands
In all the naked horror of the truth
With pushing horns and clawed and clutching hands.
Is this a friend indeed; that I should sell
My soul to her, give her my life and youth,
Till my feet, cloven too, take hold on hell?

An allusion, of course, to the old saw that there are three Enemies: the World, the Flesh, and the Devil.

Monday, December 03, 2012


Mary Beard on teaching evaluations from students:

On the forms I have been dutifully handing round to my audiences, we even ask the poor dears: "Do you have any difficulty hearing the lectures?" "Yes" or "No". An innocuous question maybe. But the rebel in me does think that if a group of highly intelligent 19-year olds have just dumbly sat through eight weeks of lectures without putting their hands up to say, "Err sorry, we can't hear you at the back", they hardly deserve to be at university.

The primary benefit of student evaluations is that they are highly reliable (i.e., students tend to agree with each other) and, given that, moderately valid for 'teaching effectiveness' (i.e., student evaluations tend to track, roughly, with other measures of teaching effectiveness). The former is less of a benefit than it is often made out to be -- a great deal of it seems to be due to the fact that the evaluations tend to be very generic questions answered very generically by people who do not have a deep familiarity with the field and don't have much of an opinion on the quality of the class (and often don't think that the evaluations will have any effect one way or another), but do tend to agree generally on what is not stress-inducing. It's the latter, for instance, that appears to be the reason why student evaluations exhibit a very measurable leniency bias -- favorable evaluation correlates very well with students expecting high grades -- and is related to their exhibiting a 'Fox Effect' (in which enthusiasm and confidence, rather than content or how much is learned, tends to the major influence on evaluations of quality). One study showed that end-of-term student evaluations could be predicted with fairly good accuracy from how students judged thirty-second clips of professors on things like 'optimism' and 'confidence'. And it has been shown that students think they've learned more in a class with an animated instructor than in a class with a dull instructor, even if all objective measures suggest they have learned less.

Contrary to the usual talk on the subject, we do not know how to evaluate teaching effectiveness. There are a number of reasons for this: good teaching is often potentially controversial in its approach, we have no way of precisely comparing the difficulty of (say) the graph theory of a discrete mathematics course with the House of Fame section of a Chaucer course, what is effective for some students will not be so for others so there are no general measures, there seem to be several very different things conflated together under the label 'teaching effectiveness', etc. Students do not know how to assess it, contrary to what they feel; faculty do not know how to assess it, contrary to what they think (faculty assessments of teaching suffer from analogous problems, but are also far less consistent with each other than student assessments); and administrators certainly do not know how to assess it. Perhaps this is because we have not thought carefully enough about what it is.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

A Mystical Potation

A Cup Of Tea
by James Whitcomb Riley

I have sipped, with drooping lashes,
Dreamy draughts of Verzenay;
I have flourished brandy-smashes
In the wildest sort of way;
I have joked with 'Tom and Jerry'
Till wee hours ayont the twal'--
But I've found my tea the very
Safest tipple of them all!

'Tis a mystical potation
That exceeds in warmth of glow
And divine exhilaration
All the drugs of long ago--
All of old magicians' potions--
Of Medea's filtered spells--
Or of fabled isles and oceans
Where the Lotos-eater dwells!

Though I've reveled o'er late lunches
With blasé dramatic stars,
And absorbed their wit and punches
And the fumes of their cigars--
Drank in the latest story,
With a cock-tail either end,--
I have drained a deeper glory
In a cup of tea, my friend.

Green, Black, Moyune, Formosa,
Congou, Amboy, Pingsuey--
No odds the name it knows--ah!
Fill a cup of it for me!
And, as I clink my china
Against your goblet's brim,
My tea in steam shall twine a
Fragrant laurel round its rim.