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Jon Mandle

Auschwitz

by Jon Mandle on June 17, 2013

Several years ago, I was at a conference in Krakow. The organizers put together a couple of excursions for the participants. One was to the Wieliczka Salt Mine and one was to Auschwitz. I was with my wife and daughter who was 6 at the time, so we went to the salt mine. It was pretty spectacular, much better than in pictures, and I didn’t regret the decision. Several friends who went to Auschwitz described the experience in pretty much the same terms: they were glad that they had gone, but never wanted to go back. I recently was in Krakow again, and this time I took the drive – about an hour – out to the camp.
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ASAP

by Jon Mandle on June 4, 2013

ASAP – Academics Stand Against Poverty – is an organization devoted to “promoting collaboration amongst poverty-focused academics, by helping them reach out to broader audiences on issues of poverty, and by helping them turn their expertise into impact through specific intervention projects.” It’s only a couple of years old, although its origins are a few years older. The Board of Directors, chaired by Thomas Pogge, includes professors and graduate students, and their Advisory Board includes philosophers, economists, political scientists, and others from around the world.

They have a number of on-going projects that are worth looking at, but they are just launching a new one concerning an issue that I, for one, don’t know much about – illicit financial flows. They estimate that some $1 trillion per year is transferred out of developing countries through corruption, smuggling, money laundering, and corporate tax evasion, and this directly hampers efforts at development and poverty relief. More information about this estimate and this issue is available at Global Financial Integrity. This focus on the relationship between global institutional structures and poverty is, of course, one of Pogge’s main areas of research and advocacy, as is the emphasis on issues that can create an overlapping consensus of different perspectives.

The United Nations Millennium Development Goals are a set of 8 priorities set to expire in 2015. ASAP is pushing to have illicit financial flows become an important piece of the next set of priorities. So they are looking to raise $15,000 to produce a policy paper articulating politically feasible goals concerning these illicit financial flows and to promote their inclusion in the UN’s next development framework. Take a look.

Charter School Competition

by Jon Mandle on May 18, 2011

About a year ago, Diane Ravitch wrote a piece in The Nation called “Why I Changed My Mind”. The piece was a summary of the main claims of her book The Death and Life of the Great American School System. She reported that she had changed her mind about “choice” and “accountability” – or at least how these have been interpreted, especially in No Child Left Behind.

About “accountability” she wrote: “the emphasis on accountability for the past eight years has encouraged schools to pay less attention to important subjects and inflate their test scores by hook or by crook.” The most visible example of this – no doubt there are more that are less visible – was the scandal in the Washington D.C. schools that USA Today uncovered this past March.

About “choice” Ravitch wrote: “Now the charter sector sees itself as competition for the public schools. Some are profit-driven; some are power-driven. In some cities, charter chains seek to drive the public schools out of business.” She then noted that some charters have large marketing budgets. This has been the case in Albany, NY, where there has been extensive advertising for the charter schools, and the public schools system has increased its marketing budget in response – needless to say, diverting scarce resources from other goals. Even large advertising budgets need not indicate that they are attempting to harm or to drive the public schools out of business. But from today’s Albany Times-Union:

A group associated with Albany’s charter schools sent out multiple fliers and likely paid for a push poll to kill the Albany school budget.
At least three separate fliers were sent to Albany residents in the last two weeks that encouraged voters to reject the school budget and intentionally exaggerated a tax rate increase to mislead voters. A telephone push poll also asked city residents leading questions including if they were fed up with tax increases and wasteful spending.

Albany’s charter schools are currently reimbursed about $12,000 per student by the Albany school district. A defeat of the budget would have no effect on the charter schools, which received $30 million in Albany taxpayer money this school year.

Some of the money for the organization [which paid for the fliers] has come from Albany’s charter schools, which means Albany taxpayers may have supported an entity that has encouraged them to vote down the district’s $206.5 million budget proposal.

The budget passed by a vote of 3,555 to 3,382.

Notes on the Generation Gap

by Jon Mandle on October 28, 2010

According to this Nielsen study, American teens between 13-17 years old are sending or receiving, on average, 3,339 texts per month, and teen girls send or receive 4,050 per month. (Obviously, this is among teens with cell phones.) It’s hard to believe that the average is distorted by a minority of massive users – that’s already a text every 7 to 9 minutes across the whole waking day. Of course, I could be wrong about how much they sleep. On the other hand, the study was conducted between April and June, 2010, so at least some of them were presumably in school – not that this necessarily eliminates all opportunities to text, I know, but it must cut down on them somewhat, right? I mean, we’re talking about high school, not college, here.

Minds, Magnets and Morals

by Jon Mandle on March 30, 2010

MIT researchers have shown that people’s moral judgments change when the functioning of a certain part of the brain is suppressed using magnetic stimulation. Here’s the abstract:

When we judge an action as morally right or wrong, we rely on our capacity to infer the actor’s mental states (e.g., beliefs, intentions). Here, we test the hypothesis that the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ), an area involved in mental state reasoning, is necessary for making moral judgments. In two experiments, we used transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) to disrupt neural activity in the RTPJ transiently before moral judgment (experiment 1, offline stimulation) and during moral judgment (experiment 2, online stimulation). In both experiments, TMS to the RTPJ led participants to rely less on the actor’s mental states. A particularly striking effect occurred for attempted harms (e.g., actors who intended but failed to do harm): Relative to TMS to a control site, TMS to the RTPJ caused participants to judge attempted harms as less morally forbidden and more morally permissible. Thus, interfering with activity in the RTPJ disrupts the capacity to use mental states in moral judgment, especially in the case of attempted harms.

So basically, they have identified a part of the brain that is important in attributing mental states to others. And the moral judgments of normal adults depend on attributing mental states – intentions, specifically – to others. When they suppress the functioning of this part of the brain, moral judgments alter.

“We judge people not just for what they do, but what they’re thinking at the time of their action, what they’re intending,” [Liane] Young says. But, she says, a brief magnetic pulse was able to change that.

[The resulting judgments are] the sort of moral judgment you often see in kids who are 3 or 4 years old, Young says.

Interesting. The researchers themselves seem to be fairly careful in stating their results, but Joshua Greene – psychology professor at Harvard, Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton – swings for the fences (although note that this is mostly a reporter’s paraphrase):

The fact that scientists can adjust morality with a magnet may be disconcerting to people who view morality as a lofty and immutable human trait, says Joshua Greene, psychologist at Harvard University. But that view isn’t accurate, he says.

[According to Greene,] The scientists are trying to take concepts such as morality, which philosophers once attributed to the human soul, and “break it down in mechanical terms.”

If something as complex as morality has a mechanical explanation, Green says, it will be hard to argue that people have, or need, a soul.

But of course the scientists are not adjusting morality with a magnet, they’re affecting people’s moral judgments. I don’t think anyone ever doubted that manipulating the brain in various ways can lead people to alter their judgments – moral and otherwise. This is obvious to anyone who has observed the results of alcohol, for example, or – much more indirectly – framing effects.

The experiment really doesn’t have much to say one way or the other about souls, meta-ethics, or the justification of any ground-level moral judgments. (Actually, it might suggest that you shouldn’t rely on your interpersonal judgments when the neural activity in your right temporoparietal junction is being disrupted by transcranial magnetic stimulation, or perhaps just when you’ve volunteered as a subject in an MIT lab.) Rather, it highlights the importance of attribution of intention in the moral judgment of normal adults, shows how localized in the brain this function is, and demonstrates how easily it can be suppressed in isolation from other functions. A plausible next step:

Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a brain expert at University College London, said the findings were insightful.
“The study suggests that this region – the RTPJ - is necessary for moral reasoning.
“What is interesting is that this is a region that is very late developing – into adolescence and beyond right into the 20s.
“The next step would be to look at how or whether moral development changes through childhood into adulthood.”

Artificial Meat

by Jon Mandle on November 30, 2009

I don’t know how I missed the breakthrough in fish stick technology mentioned so casually in this article from the Sunday Times:

SCIENTISTS have grown meat in the laboratory for the first time. Experts in Holland used cells from a live pig to replicate growth in a petri dish.
The advent of so-called “in-vitro” or cultured meat could reduce the billions of tons of greenhouse gases emitted each year by farm animals — if people are willing to eat it.
So far the scientists have not tasted it, but they believe the breakthrough could lead to sausages and other processed products being made from laboratory meat in as little as five years’ time.
They initially extracted cells from the muscle of a live pig. Called myoblasts, these cells are programmed to grow into muscle and repair damage in animals.
The cells were then incubated in a solution containing nutrients to encourage them to multiply indefinitely. This nutritious “broth” is derived from the blood products of animal foetuses, although the intention is to come up with a synthetic solution.

The Dutch experiments follow the creation of “fish fillets” derived from goldfish muscle cells in New York and pave the way for laboratory-grown chicken, beef and lamb.

The Vegetarian Society reacted cautiously yesterday, saying: “The big question is how could you guarantee you were eating artificial flesh rather than flesh from an animal that had been slaughtered. It would be very difficult to label and identify in a way that people would trust.” Peta, the animal rights group, said: “As far as we’re concerned, if meat is no longer a piece of a dead animal there’s no ethical objection.”

That’s the “big question”? I’m guessing that Dr. Kass will find this even more repugnant than the public licking of an ice cream cone.

Ray Davies

by Jon Mandle on November 26, 2009

Okay, so he’s 65 and perhaps his voice isn’t what it once was – actually, I’m not sure his voice was ever what it once was – I haven’t seen him play live for probably 25 years, so I can’t really remember too well. But oh, those songs! He’s touring in support of a new cd called “The Kinks Choral Collection”. Some of his gigs have been with chorus, but I saw him the other day without – around 45 minutes of just him and the incredible Bill Shanley on guitar, followed by a full-on band blow-out. Amazing stuff from throughout his career – early and late Kinks along with his recent solo albums. He certainly was in fine spirits – he kept cracking himself up with lots of funny stories and interaction with the audience – and did I mention that the songs just don’t quit, although, no, he didn’t play “Thanksgiving Day.” Looks like he’s headed back across the Atlantic next month – Cambridge, Birmingham, Glasgow, Manchester, and London. Definitely worth seeing.

Any State with a Name that Begins with the Letter “U”

by Jon Mandle on September 22, 2009

And I thought only philosophers played games with “general” descriptions like this. Via Think Progress:

And while Republicans have proposed several compromise amendments, most of their provisions seek to delay the mark-up process and undermine the bill. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT), for instance, introduced an amendment (Hatch F7 [pdf]) to “add transition relief for the excise tax on high cost insurance plans for any State with a name the [sic] begins with the letter ‘U.’”

Diamond’s Vengeance

by Jon Mandle on May 19, 2009

Around four years ago, there was some controversy about Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel (and, I gather, a PBS documentary based on the book). Various bloggers at savageminds.org – a group anthropology blog – for example, here and here and elsewhere – attacked Diamond for various reasons, up to and including calling him racist. Brad DeLong replied by accusing the critics of being “positively green with envy at Jared Diamond’s ability to make interesting arguments in a striking and comprehensible way, and also remarkably incompetent at critique.” Henry discussed the flap here, here, and here, writing: “I strongly suspect that the ‘Diamond=racist’ claim is a more-or-less pure exercise in boundary maintenance – I certainly haven’t seen any substantial counter-evidence to date. Which isn’t to say that there isn’t a real, substantive argument to be had between different ways of knowing, or that there aren’t advantages to anthropological approaches which can’t be captured in a big, sweeping structuralist account like Diamond’s.” And he linked to Tim Burke, who here and here offered a critique of Diamond that was more – shall we say – nuanced (and interesting!) than the one at savageminds.org.

Now there’s a new controversy. About a year ago, Diamond published an article in the New Yorker called “Vengeance Is Ours.” Abstract is here – full text available to subscribers only (I think) from that link.
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Maddow interviews Duelfer and Windrem

by Jon Mandle on May 15, 2009

On her show last night, Rachel Maddow provided a genuine service. [tip: TPM] She reviewed Bush Administration claims about the link between al-Qaeda and Iraq (with clips) and ran that alongside a time line concerning the use of torture. This took about six minutes. Then she interviewed Charles Duelfer, former head of the Iraq Survey Group, who says that “Washington” suggested using stronger interrogation techniques against an already cooperative Iraqi official, and Robert Windrem, who reports that two sources confirmed to him: 1. the suggestion was to use waterboarding; 2. it came from the Vice President’s office; 3. the purpose was to find a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq.

Duelfer doesn’t exactly say that he was told to find a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq. But that’s the strong suggestion of his comments, and he doesn’t object when Maddow draws that inference. (He does object to the characterization of his being ordered to use more aggressive techniques. It was more of a suggestion – one which was not acted on.)

Cohen on Constructivism (Chapter 7)

by Jon Mandle on April 25, 2009

Continuing the discussion of G. A. Cohen’s Rescuing Justice and Equality – sorry about the delay – chapter 7 is on “Constructivism.” Cohen argues against the view that fundamental principles of social justice can be identified by considering a selection procedure that addresses the question, “What rules of governance are to be adopted for our common social life?” (p.275) The selection of principles from the original position is his primary target, although the specific features of that choice situation are not at issue. The main objection that he presses is familiar from chapter 6: constructivism mistakenly identifies the principles of justice with all things considered judgment concerning rules of social regulation. This must be a mistake, for Cohen, because the all things considered perspective encompasses considerations other than justice (including other virtues), and asks how best, given certain circumstances, to achieve the optimal balance of these various considerations.
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Cohen on Rescuing Justice from the Facts (ch.6)

by Jon Mandle on March 19, 2009

Part I of Rescuing Justice and Equality consisted in a series of chapters designed to rescue equality from the arguments of Rawlsians who sought to dilute an underlying egalitarian commitment with the incentives argument, the Pareto argument, the restricted focus on the basic structure, and then the difference principle itself. In each case, the structure of the argument was a kind of imminent critique. As far as I recall, Cohen nowhere directly defended the egalitarian commitment itself. Rather, he pointed to alleged tensions in the Rawlsian edifice and submitted that they should be resolved in the direction of greater egalitarianism than Rawls’s position recommends.

Part II aims to rescue the concept of justice itself, and the argument is structured very differently. The critique does not proceed from tensions within Rawls’s work. Rather, we get an argument in defense of a certain meta-ethical position. Cohen remarks that “the meta-ethical literature says very little about the question pursued in the present chapter. But a notable exception is the work of John Rawls, who argued that fundamental principles of justice and, indeed, ‘first principles’ in general, are a response to the facts of the human condition” – which is exactly the position that Cohen rejects. (pp.258-259) Rawls is simply mistaken, Cohen thinks, because he confuses “the first principles of justice with the principles that we should adopt to regulate society.” (p.265)
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The Times of Harvey Milk

by Jon Mandle on March 16, 2009

The 1984 documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk” is available for free on hulu.com – you just have to be prepared for the commercial interruptions. I remember seeing it in a theater when it came out – I must have been 17 or 18 – and being devastated. The opening shot, the famous footage of Dianne Feinstein announcing the assassination of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Milk, is still shocking. But more shocking to me was the verdict in the Dan White trial – guilty of manslaughter. I knew about Milk’s death going into the theater, and I’m pretty sure I had heard of the “Twinkie Defense” but I hadn’t put them together. At one point in the film, Jim Elliot – a previously homophobic auto machinist who got to know Milk through his union work – comments on the verdict: “if it had just been Moscone that got killed, I think he [White] would have been guilty of murder and he would have been at San Quentin the rest of his life. But, sad to say, I think there’s a lot of people in this world that still think that if you kill a gay, you’re doing a service to society. I think I’d have thought that too if I hadn’t been associated with Harvey and the gay community – I probably would have felt the same way.” I distinctly remember thinking: “that’s absolutely right.” I don’t think I had any (out) gay friends at the time, and it was a shocking revelation to me that gays faced this kind of attitude as a matter of course.

It’s interesting to compare “The Times of Harvey Milk” to “Milk.” Despite Sean Penn’s amazing performance, I like the documentary much better – but this very well could reflect my own failings in film appreciation. Some footage is used in both – including the Feinstein announcement. But the clips don’t always serve the same purpose. In “Milk”, they show President Carter telling an audience to “vote against proposition 6” – the 1978 California initiative to prohibit gays and lesbians (and arguably anyone who supported gay rights) from teaching in public schools. But “The Times of Harvey Milk” shows more. Carter had finished his speech, and began to leave the podium. Off-mike, Governor Jerry Brown says to him: “and Ford and Reagan have already come out against it, so it’s perfectly safe.” Carter leans back to the mike and says: “Also, I want to ask everybody to vote against proposition 6.” He smiles, and walks off. Anyway, whether or not you’ve seen “Milk,” you should find 1-1/2 hours, brace yourself, and watch “The Times of Harvey Milk.”

Albany-Moscow Video-Conference

by Jon Mandle on March 4, 2009

Last week, the University at Albany and the Moscow State University’s philosophy departments held a joint video-conference. The conference spanned over two mornings (in Albany, evenings in Moscow), with around six 30-45 minute presentations (including discussion) from each department. The topic was “What Progress Has Philosophy Made in the Last 50 Years?” One of the goals was to allow each department to get a sense of the research interests of the other as a basis for possible future collaborations and exchanges. So, the Albany faculty gave presentations on changes in philosophy of science, language, political theory, Kant interpretation, and applied ethics. Basically, we all thought that there had, in fact, been progress in these areas and we described the more important changes. The Moscow faculty tended to discuss the nature of philosophy and what it would mean for philosophy to make progress in the first place, although there was some discussion of changes in more specific areas. There was good discussion of these issues and interesting overlaps and complementary interests and perspectives. I was in Moscow in the fall, and a colleague had been there last year, and the personal connections that we made helped ensure the tone was very good. Obviously, one appealing aspect was that it was very inexpensive. We used a conference room that had two large-screen monitors and a camera, and we connected over the internet. It really worked well and everyone felt it was a big success. This was the first event like this that I’ve been involved with, and I would definitely recommend it and expect that this type of thing will become much more frequent.

Springsteen on Songwriting

by Jon Mandle on January 27, 2009

BBC Radio 2 has a fascinating interview with Bruce Springsteen about songwriting (and other stuff, including a nice sampling from the new album) here. (It starts about a minute in.)