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Health Insurance Mandates

by Brian on February 2, 2008

Barack Obama’s health care policy has come under a lot of blogworld attacks for not including “mandates”, i.e. fines for people who don’t buy health insurance. Here’s a typical passage from Ezra Klein.

A central tenet of his proposal is that ” No insurance companies will be allowed to discriminate because of a previous bout with cancer or some other pre-existing illness.” You literally cannot have that rule without some mechanism forcing everyone to buy in, as the healthy will stay out. … A mandate is not how you cover everyone, it’s how you force insurers to cover everyone, and discriminate against no one.

I don’t know what the force of that ‘cannot’ is supposed to be, but I know it isn’t historical impossibility. Australia for several decades did just the thing Ezra thinks that you can’t do. It had community rating of health insurance, and it didn’t have health insurance mandates. This was true of the periods 1953-1975, and again from 1981-1984. At other times it had compulsory universal basic health insurance. The system wasn’t perfect, bringing in compulsory public health insurance was a very good thing, but it wasn’t as bad as anything I’ve seen in America, and nor was it somehow an impossibility.
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Election Markets

by Brian on January 2, 2008

Since the U.S. Presidential primaries are about to start, it would be nice to be able to get a read on what the betting markets are saying in order to make some retrospective assessments of how well they predicted the result. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately for some of you, there’s no such thing as what the markets are uniquely saying. Indeed, there are some arbitrage possibilities (if you have access to each of the markets) the size of which you might find hard to believe.
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Against the Copernicans

by Brian on July 17, 2007

John Tierney today writes about Richard Gott’s Copernican principle. He has a little more on his blog, along with some useful discussion from Bradley Monton. The principle in question says that you should treat the time of your observation of some event as being a random point in its duration. Slightly more formally, quoting Gott via a paper Monton wrote with Brian Kierland,

Assuming that whatever we are measuring can be observed only in the interval between times tbegin and tend, if there is nothing special about tnow, we expect tnow to be located randomly in this interval.

As Monton and Kierland note, we can use this to argue that the probability that

tfuture is between a and b times tpast

is 1/ ( a + 1) – 1 / ( b + 1), where tpast is the past duration of the event in question, and tfuture is its future duration. Most discussion of this has focussed on the case where a = b = 39. But I think the more interesting, or at least easy to interpret, case is where a = 0 and b = 1. In this case we get the result that the probability of the entity in question lasting longer into the future than its current life-span is 1/2.

As a rule I tend to be very hostile to these attempts to get precise probabilities from very little data. I have a short argument against Gott’s Copernican formula below. (Against the general version, not for any particular values of a and b.) But first I want to try a little mockery. I’d like to know anyone who would like to take any of the following bets.

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Citation Practices

by Brian on June 6, 2007

In a recent post about citing papers on the web, Ross Cameron drew the following conclusion.

I’m tempted to think that if you put a paper up on the web, that’s to put it in the public domain, and it’s no more appropriate to place a citation restriction on such a paper than it is on a paper published in a print journal. I’m even tempted to think that conference presentations can be freely cited; i.e.that I shouldn’t have to seek Xs permission to refer in one of my papers to the presentation X gave.

The particular issue here is what to do about papers that the author posts and says at the top “Please don’t quote or cite”. (You occasionally see ‘don’t circulate’ as well, which is a little odd.) I’m not sure how common these notes are outside philosophy, but they are pretty common on philosophy papers posted on people’s websites. Now on the one hand, there is something to be said for following people’s requests like this.

On the other hand, as Ross notes, the requests can lead to annoying situation. One kind of case is where the reader notices an important generalisation of the paper’s argument. Another case is where the conclusion of the paper supplies the missing premise in an interesting argument the reader is developing. Either way, the reader is in a bit of a bind.

I think the main thing to say about these situations is that writers shouldn’t put such requests on their papers.

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Privacy and Slippery Slopes

by Brian on June 6, 2007

Ever since Google’s street view service was debuted there have been many discussions over its privacy implications. I’ve found most of these fairly overblown, but this morning I started to get a better sense of what some of the concerns might be about. Writing on the SMH’s news blog, Matthew Moore writes approvingly,

Mr McKinnon reckons you can hardly have a reasonable expectation of privacy on a public street when every second person has a video camera or mobile phone and when Google is now using street-level maps with images of real people who have no idea they have been photographed.

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Congratulations Language Log

by Brian on June 6, 2007

This is a nice story. The latest issue of Southwest Airlines’ inflight magazine features some recommended diversions. They include the usual summer books, movies and music, and a plug for Language Log as blog reading. Academic blogs have come a long way if they’re being recommended in inflight magazines. Now we only have to get them to be promoting other academic blogs the same way.

I’ve been seeing a lot of references to Language Log around the web recently, particularly to their prescriptivist-bashing posts. I particularly liked this attack on the alleged rules for using less and fewer, complete with examples from King Alfred’s Latin translations. It’s an example of how academic blogs can make an impact on public life not by dumbing down their work, or by stretching to find alleged applications, but simply by setting out their work in a clear and accessible way. Or, to bring things back to a favourite theme of mine, of why academics should get credit for successful blogs not necessarily as examples of research, but as examples of service to the community. Now giving people diversions alongside summer blockbusters isn’t quite the same kind of service as solving their medical or social problems, but it is a service, and a praiseworthy one.

Martians and the Gruesome

by Brian on January 23, 2007

One of my quirkier philosophical views is that the most pressing question in metaphysics, and perhaps all of philosophy, is how to distinguish between disjunctive and non-disjunctive predicates in the special sciences. This might look like a relatively technical problem of no interest to anyone. But I suspect that the question is important to all sorts of issues, as well as being one of those unhappy problems that no one seems to even have a beginning of a solution to. One of the issues that it’s important to was raised by Brad DeLong yesterday. He was wondering why John Campbell might accept the following two claims.

  • There is an important and unbridgeable gulf between our notions of physical causation and our notions of psychological causation.
  • Martian physicists—intelligences vast, cool, and unsympathetic with no notions of human psychology or psychological causation—could not understand why, could not put their finger on physical variables and factors explaining why, the fifty or so of us assemble in the Seaborg Room Monday at lunch time during the spring semester.

I don’t know why Campbell accepts these claims. And I certainly don’t want to accept them. But I do know of one good reason to accept them, one that worries me no end some days. The short version involves the conjunction of the following two claims.

  • Understanding a phenomenon involves being able to explain it in relatively broad, but non-disjunctive, terms.
  • Just what terms are non-disjunctive might not be knowable to someone who only knows what the Martian physicists know, namely the microphysics of the universe.

The long version is below the fold.
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The Ashes

by Brian on November 22, 2006

If you Google for greatest rivalry in sports today you’ll get a lot of references to the Ohio State-Michigan series (largely because of last week’s game) several references to Red Sox-Yankees, and a few other college pairings. From a global perspective, these all look faintly ridiculous. Does any of these rivalries really compare to Real Madrid-Barcelona for history, or Celtic-Rangers for intensity?

It’s probably futile to say which of these is the greatest. But I think on the list should be the series that starts in a few hours.
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Parking for Dummies

by Brian on October 16, 2006

I’m sure I used to be good at parking a car, but the older I get, the worse I get at it. So I was rather excessively excited to see that Lexus have invented a car that can automatically parallel park. The link is a few weeks old, so apologies to those who find this kind of news old hat.

Self-Evident Truths

by Brian on October 14, 2006

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea that some propositions are self-evident recently. And it is hard to think about this without being reminded of the Declaration of Independence. But I realised when going back over it that I didn’t quite know what Jefferson meant at one crucial point. Maybe this is something completely obvious, or maybe there is some historical literature on this that I should know about. But it seemed to me to be an interesting interpretative question.
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Taboo Avoidance

by Brian on October 10, 2006

Over at Language Log, Arnold Zwicky has been having some fun tracking the various ways in which newspapers avoid printing taboo words. The strangest instance of differing taboo standards I’ve seen was in an article in the SMH this morning. At the end of the article, we see this paragraph.

[Sienna Miller] who is in town shooting the screen adaptation of Michael Chabon’s novel The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, called the city a name that sounds like Pittsburgh, but contains an expletive.

That’s not too surprising. In fact this is one of the instances of taboo avoidance that Zwicky mentions. At risk of engaging in my own little piece of taboo avoidance, I will just link to the article and note the quote from Miller in its fourth paragraph, rather than reprint it. I’ve worked on publications with several different standards with respect to taboo language. But I’ve never seen standards quite exactly like what the SMH seems to be using.

Campaigning the Old-Fashioned Way

by Brian on October 3, 2006

Up here in Central New York, there are several close congressional races. So we’re being treated to a flood of TV advertising for the various candidates. You’d think it would be pretty easy to run a Democratic campaign these days. Just pick one of the many things going wrong for Republicans and run with it. In the 25th CD, incumbent Jim Walsh is running TV ads on the “Elect me because I don’t vote for what George Bush wants” line. That would be Republican incumbent Jim Walsh.
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Philosophy on the Radio

by Brian on July 30, 2006

A week or so ago, philosopher and blogger Greg Restall was on (Australian) Radio National’s show The Philosopher’s Zone talking about logical pluralism. The link to the show is here. I’m partially bringing this up because I was pleased to see a discussion of philosophical logic in on national radio, and partially as a segue into gratuitous self-promotion.

This week’s episode of Philosophy Talk features a panel discussion that was recorded at the Pacific APA. The panellists were Liz Harman, Sean Kelly and me, discussing the future of philosophy. Though I can occasionally spot short term trends, I’m pretty useless at spotting larger patterns, so I wouldn’t put much stock in much of what I say. The show will air on Tuesday at noon PST on KALW in San Francisco, and be repeated at 8pm PST Thursday on Oregon Public Radio. I’m going to be away at Bellingham the next few days, so I won’t be able to hear the show live to air, but hopefully I’ll hear it soon after. I’m not exactly sure what I said, so when I hear it I might have to scramble to come up with some justifications.

France v Portugal

by Brian on July 5, 2006

Kieran has been complaining about mixed metaphors, but at least the mixer avoids directly contradicting themselves. Which is perhaps more than can be said for Paul Kelso writing in the Guardian blog.

Few would bet with confidence against Scolari coaxing another odds-defying performance from his side.

I’m not as confident as several of the commentators here that prices in betting markets are a good guide to the truth, but even I think they are a decent guide as to what people will bet, and even bet with confidence, on.

Consider this a France v Portugal open thread. Everyone else I know is cheering for France, with good reason, but I still feel a little bad for the Portugese fans after they missed what must have seemed like a golden opportunity to win Euro 2004. So I’m probably going to feel bad for whoever loses, which is always a great way to watch a football game.


by Brian on June 20, 2006

The domain name under which I keep my philosophy blog and personal webpage seems to have been taken over by a domain name hijacker. (You might wonder how this could happen; there are a few details below the fold.) So I’ve had to move everything around. For anyone who links to those sites, or read them, the domain name is now rather than Similarly the domain name of my email address has changed so it now ends .org rather than .net.
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