From the monthly archives:

December 2013

15 Step bleg

by John Holbo on December 6, 2013

You know what’s a great album? Radiohead, In Rainbows, that’s what. I was just relistening, and then relistening again, and then again. What a great rhythm section, perfectly setting off the ethereal-cerebral Yorke vocals!

Take just the first track. The 5/4 “15 step”. Such a funky, danceable track. It’s like, I dunno, the Purdie tsakonikos shuffle or something. Played by a robot. It would be fun to make a music video for it using a loop of the 5/4 Fred Astaire dance from this video. Just speed up the video a little bit to match the beat.

So that’s someone’s homework assignment. Kindly upload the results to Youtube when you’ve got it properly synched. And give us the link.

Update: Thanks!

When Professors Oppose Unions

by Corey Robin on December 5, 2013

Rick Perlstein has a great piece on how faculty respond to grad student unions.

He quotes at length from a letter that a professor of political science at the University of Chicago sent to graduate students in his department who are trying to organize a union there.

What always amuses me about these sorts of statements from faculty is how carefully crafted and personal they are—you can tell a lot of time and thought went into this one—and yet somehow they still manage to attain all the individuality of a Walmart circular. No union contract was ever as standardized or as cookie-cutter as one of these missives. The very homogenization and uniformity that faculty fear a union will foist upon their campus is already present in their own aversion.

Anyway, here’s what the good professor has to say (I have no idea which member of the poli sci faculty at Chicago actually wrote this): [click to continue…]

Not now, but soon, soon.

by John Holbo on December 4, 2013

Folks are linking to it. The Farhad Manjoo profile of Neetzan Zimmerman, the Gawker writer who picks the linkbait stories like no one else, apparently. I do like the idea that after AI’s are better than us at everything else, it might still take a human to figure out whether sloths are in this month.

Donald Barthelme wrote a story about this back in … – turns out it was 1980! “Pepperoni”!

Basically, he envisions a kind of Gawkerization of media. (But without the social media aspect, admittedly.)

A newspaper has found financial success by diversifying its operations. It owns timberlands, mines, pulp and paper operations, and a number of different media, and over-all return on invested capital increases at about 9% a year. But top management is saddened and discouraged, and middle management is drinking too much. Automation has lowered morale in the newsroom. Recently the paper ran the same stock tables every day for a week. No one noticed, no one complained. Some elements of the staff are not depressed. The real estate, food, clothing, and games columns of the paper are thriving. Nevertheless, the Editors’ Caucus has applied to middle management which has implored top management to alter its course. The paper’s editorials have been subcontracted to Texas Instruments and the obituaries to Nabisco. There was an especially lively front page on Tuesday. The No. 1 story was pepperoni – a useful and exhaustive guide. Top management has vowed to stop what it is doing – not now, but soon, soon. A chamber orchestra has been formed among the people in the newsroom, and we play Haydn until the sun comes up.

You can get it in Forty Stories [amazon]. Funny stuff! But the funny thing about the New Yorker summary is that you probably think you are getting a teaser. The first paragraph or something. But it’s actually a condensed version of the whole story. Only, of course, nothing really happens in a Donald Barthelme story. Executive summaries of postmodern literature are weird. I never really noticed that until just now.

UPDATE: Oooh, oooh. Now I’m rereading Forty Stories. From “Conversations With Goethe”:

Critics, Goethe said, are the cracked mirror in the grand ballroom of the creative spirit. No, I said, they were, rather, the extra baggage on the great cabriolet of conceptual progress. “Eckermann,” said Goethe, “shut up.

I forgot how funny this stuff is.

Stereotype threat and Philosophy’s problem

by Harry on December 3, 2013

On the topic of Philosophy’s uneven sex ratios: Gina Schouten has a really interesting paper about stereotype threat as a possible explanation of those ratios (PDF). Her paper is, as she says, an armchair reflection on the hypothesis, but I think it would be useful to anyone wanting to study the causes of the sex ratios empirically.

The reason she has to do an armchair reflection is that Philosophy is a small discipline, and one the composition of which does not have huge social consequences, so the incentives for empirical researchers to give it the kind of attention they give the STEM subjects, the subjects for which the stereotype threat hypothesis was formed, and has been tested, and for which treatments have been devised, are small (Kieran seems to do it as a strange sort of hobby – but I don’t think his discipline promises great rewards for this part of his work).

Her reflections, though, are interesting and useful. She points out that the main leak in the pipeline is between the first philosophy course and the major. It would be really handy if it turned out that stereotype threat explained the exit of students at this point in the pipeline, because psychologists have devised interventions to counter stereotype threat that are extremely cheap and easy to implement, and seem to be highly effective (see footnote [1]). We could adapt some of those interventions relatively easily to Philosophy courses. (Then we could continue to be completely insensitive and rude in the way we teach, without suffering the consequence of depriving our discipline of talent!)

Problem is that we don’t have a lot of evidence, and some of the features of stereotype threat seem to be absent. For example, the fact that girls get lower average grades in any given STEM course is prima facie evidence that they are underperforming (one indicator of stereotype threat). I don’t have data on how well girls and boys do in intro level courses, but anecdote suggests that girls do not get worse grades than boys (Ok, ok, I’m writing this, and realize I should just get someone to check for my dept, and I’ll report back if it’s legal to). Of course, “underperformance” means something like “lower performance than the student should perform given his or her prior achievement”, and given that girls at most institutions have significantly higher prior achievement on most measures, they could be getting higher grades than boys and still be underperforming.

Another problem with the idea that stereotype threat explains why girls leave after the first one or two courses is that they just lack the stereotype. After all, philosophy is a found major, and because they have no experience of it, our students lack the relevant stereotypes: girls don’t think that philosophy is the kind of thing that girls do badly, or that others think that, because they don’t know what it is. In so far as they do have beliefs about what philosophy is [1], those beliefs are usually quite wrong, and we disabuse them pretty quickly.

However, as she points out, their first encounter with the subject might easily introduce a stereotype to them:

[click to continue…]

A non-violent, unfunny trolley problem

by John Q on December 3, 2013

So, you’re a controller for a municipal trolley system with a perfect safety record. You’ve just been alerted that one of your tracks, serving a community of 5000 people has suffered unexpected damage which could cause a trolley car accident involving fatalities among philosophers. You have no budget allowance for this, so the only way of fixing the line is to abandon planned maintenance of another line, serving 1000 people, which would then have to be closed until more funds become available. Presumably, in these circumstances, most people will decide to fix the more important line.

Now, we change the situation. You no longer control the funds for the other line, which are within the jurisdiction of your colleague the Fat Controller, so named for obvious reasons. If you draw management attention to his obesity problem, HR will force him to take leave until he can get his weight within acceptable limits. You will then be given temporary control over his line and the associated budget, which you can divert to fixing the more important line.

What should you do?

[click to continue…]

Because I Love You

by Belle Waring on December 3, 2013

I think it’s possible–nay, probable–naw, it is a nigh-certainty that you have not seen one of the best music videos ever made, quite randomly for French electronica duo Justice (they aren’t even, they’re sort of a rock band. But not.) It stars a young Snake Plissken (presumably before he is inserted into, and subsequently [SPOILER ALERT] escapes from, New York, in the movie “Escape From New York.” I strongly encourage everyone to go on and click full screen and listen to the song and everything. Dudes this is so fucking awesome. C’mon. Did they actually program a computer from the 1980s to make some of the “high-definition” graphics?

My best friend from middle school and I once wrote a program like that which, by displaying a series of screens on which we had drawn the lines point to point, created the image of a rotating green wire cube on a black screen on her Apple II c. It took us like four hours or something. More? Her family’s cook made killer shrimp tempura, though, so that was sustaining. And then coffee milkshakes and chocolate cookies for afters. Actually she would ask you egg preferences the night before and bring us breakfast in bed every morning that I ever slept over, which was a billion. With fresh-squeezed OJ. With sugar in the coffee already how she knew you liked it. Mrs. Hong was the shit, but she was prone to get angry and would not let anyone go in the kitchen and make a peanut butter sandwich or anything. Or even a bowl of cereal. Eventually Sacha’s mom had to fire her when Mrs. Hong threw a huge-ass knife at her during an argument over menu planning and it stuck, quivering, embedded a good two inches in the plaster of sloping ceiling of the back stairs. Even then it was a struggle (internally, for her mom). Mrs. Hong claimed it was a “warning shot” and hadn’t gone that close to Sacha’s mom’s head, which was kind of true but kind of not super-relevant. Anyway, A ROTATING CUBE YOU GUYS RLY! We were siced. Just like how siced I am about this video right now.
ETA: sometimes the frame isn’t quite wide enough, so watch on YouTube if not.

Another follow-up on the philosophy styles and aggression issue, raised initially by Chris. I meant my first post to be a response, narrowly, not to Chris’ post but to the suggestion that sort of ate the comment thread: trolley problems are symptomatic of philosophers’ taste for intellectual bloodsport. (Not that tying people to tracks and running them over is sporting, mind you.) I didn’t mean to offer up the whimsical innocence of trolley tragedy as proof that philosophers don’t, otherwise, suffer from the sorts of problems that Jonathan Wolff alleges. But I actually do disagree, substantially, with the Wolff piece. Let me try to say how. [click to continue…]

How To Tell A Philosophy

by John Holbo on December 1, 2013

And right on the heels of my brilliant observation that silly-seeming thought-experiments tend to be mildly whimsical, this from Alan Moore in the Guardian:

I like Jacques Derrida, I think he’s funny. I like my philosophy with a few jokes and puns. I know that that offends other philosophers; they think he’s not taking things seriously, but he comes up with some marvellous puns. Why shouldn’t you have a bit of fun while dealing with the deepest issues of the mind?

As an accomplished Derrida-disliker, I am obliged to set Moore straight. It isn’t that he told jokes but how that bothered analytic critics. Searle said Derrida didn’t get Austin’s arguments, which was true. But the thing that bothered him – but he couldn’t just say this is what bothered him – was that, as a result, Derrida couldn’t ‘tell it right’. (I said all this somewhere else, long ago. Well, I’ll just say it again.) Reading Austin for the Nietzschean spark is like reading Wodehouse for its Kafkaesque quality.

In general, Derrida is obviously extremely concerned to collect applause for his punchline – coup de don, etc. Which often comes right at the start. And it doesn’t work as a ‘snapper’, not just because he tells it at the start, but also because ‘I’m telling a joke and it’s going to be very funny!’ is painted all over his face.

That sort of obviousness about the fact that you are joking limits the styles of humor you can pull off. Analytic philosophy consists of jokes that can only be told in a more understated style.

The analytic-continental split, in philosophy, is a side-effect of different styles of joke-telling. Continental means not telling jokes: Heidegger. Or: telling Heidegger’s jokes in a French style. Analytic means not telling jokes: logic. Or: telling logic jokes.

UPDATE: The deepest issues of the mind arise equally in both traditions, but that tail can’t really wag both shaggy dogs, as it were.