Sunday, November 23, 2003

Saturday night

Tonight I somehow ended up in this Tell us the Truth thing. I am not sure what it is, but there were all these people who got up and talked about how much they hate all that the US ever did. Then they sang some songs that were not particularly motivated. It was sad. It was kind of pathetic. The whole thing was MC'd by Janeane Garofalo who was not particularly funny just talking about how she didn't like George Bush.

The bright spot came from Jill Sobule who was really cute and sang really cute songs. She was pretty enjoyable.

With the one exception, it was a whole festival of people with hokey gituars telling us, that because they can put it to music, they must be right.

Then "Y" and I went to see Donny Darko in that Theater on 3rd and A. It was a cool movie. I had a good time. I then went to have a slice of pizza and went home.

Saturday, November 22, 2003

Suing gun manufacturers

It seems that there is are real theoretical problems with holding gun manufacturers liable for the misuse of their products.

If they are responsible for every gun crime, then certainly they are responsible for every good thing done by guns too. There must be a symmetry. Gun manufacturers are either responsible for everything or nothing. They are actually more responsible (read: praiseworthy) for the good things, because, as "B" pointed out to me, they intended the good things. Approximately 2 million crimes a year are prevented with firearms. This is a rather underreported fact, but it is true.

Of course it is easy to overlook millions of good deeds in favor of the little harm, similar to the looking at the ill effects of a war, and ignoring the historic good that will be produced as a result.

John R. Lott recently wrote a new bookthat outlines a strong case for gun legalization.

A strong argument for not holding gun manufacturers responsible is that we have no intuition that they are praiseworthy when they do good. Guns don't prevent crime, police officers do, right? If we do not hold them praiseworthy for their good deeds, and there are millions a year, then we cannot hold them blameworthy for the bad things done with their products.

The function of Intro courses

I was wondering what the point of introductory classes was. I don't think they are useless, rather I want to understand why they are useful so that we can structure the classes accordingly. I want to focus especially on my own field, philosophy.

I think that there are two main functions to the introductory class. The first is to literally introduce the field to the beginning student who might develop an interest in the subject and be inspired to major in it. I think this is somewhat rare though. Philosophy is something people tend to discover on their own for personal reasons. Nonetheless professors must take this in to account when structuring their classes.

The second class of students is far more important. First, most people are taking introductory philosophy classes because they have to. The course is required of them. So we start at a disadvantage. We must pique the student's interest.

But what should we address in class? There is no canon or accepted introductory way to teach the course and there is a lot of leeway given to the instructor. I know one that talks about Plato's Republic, Descartes' Meditations and Ayer's Language, Truth, and Logic. I know other professors who just talk about Philosophy of Mind. Still others who arrange their course around the question of the meaning of life, and a younger colleague who mostly teaches questions of love and sex. Some of us stodgy types teach just old dusty texts of Kant, Plato, Mill, and Descartes. Others of us use watered down anthologies and mostly talk about how boring Kant must have been and how exciting Leibniz's sex life was, without really getting too deep in to the actual philosophical context of their works.

What problems or texts should we be exploring? Should we explore texts or problems? Many professors give introductory versions of what interests them at the moment. This is selfish and lazy but does have its merits. The professor will exhibit the most enthusiasm and be able to incorporate the most up-to-date research in a field he or she is currently thinking about. Conversely, the professor, being so absorbed in his own field may forget that the obvious assumptions and background to the material which he has mastered and is fresh in his mind, might not be so obvious to the incoming freshman.

Texts are good ways to introduce philosophy, as it gives the students a feel for what it is like to struggle with a real philosophical problem. Kant might be tough reading, but it pays off if you can convey what it is like to have engineered the categorical imperative. If you can get across the importance of consistency, duty, and the inherent worth of persons as Kant saw it, you have made important inroads toward giving the student valuable philosophical insight.

There is also good reason to think that a problem-oriented approach is better. Students get nifty units which they can deal with. There is a definite question and a definite answer. There can be a paper, and there are areas for further research. There is a nice satisfying beginning and end in which the students really see a question and develop and use the methodology for answering it. This is quite good.

Unfortunately I do not think that completing and satisfaction is what we are looking for in philosophy. The field of history is well known for having lots of details. You can take a class on the Civil War, or a class that addresses the Civil War, and develop a life-long interest in it because you know there will always be another book that you can buy that will shed more light and give you a more complete grasp of the war. There are new details you can find out, and new stuff you can learn. Philosophy too must strive to do that. It must provide enough so that some question that students might be interested in can provide for a lifetime of interest in the field.

This is not an easy task. There are not many accessible books in philosophy that can be read by people with a first course in the field, and this is the fault of the profession. But the first course must make more literature accessible to the average college graduate. I suppose my real goal is to train people to be able to understand philosophy a bit, or at least one or two of the problems, and make them interested enough to want to try. It is important that the students realize that these problems, despite appearances, are still open problems. These open problems are still interesting. Studying these problems are partially what makes us human as a species.

So to sum up, the goal ought to make problems interesting enough so that when students are all grown up and have time to think about the issues, they might turn to a book in philosophy, and have it still be readable.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003


Just yesterday I was complaining about the anti-Semitism situation in France. Today JTA NEWS has an article about France actually responding. I am impressed.

Review of Aristotle in 90 Minutes

I read Paul Strathern's Aristotle in 90 Minutes. It took me about 70 minutes to make it through, and even those 70 minutes were pretty much a waste. Aristotle was mostly known as a philosopher. The book is a little essay which is just a bit of dubious gossip about the man, with a nod toward some of his writing. Do not read the book if you are interested in Aristotle. Read something else.

Europe to Oppose U.S. Effort to Air Iran Arms Issue in U.N.

Europe to Oppose U.S. Effort to Air Iran Arms Issue in U.N. reads the times headline. Europe, and frankly the middle east is gearing itself up, not for the simple shooting itself in the foot type accident, put probably blowing its head off type catastrophe.

How do I mean. It comes back to Israel and the UN. Look, here is what is happenning. Israel is currently marginalized by the UN. They have little say in what goes on there, and there is nothing that they can do there. At this point, except for keeping up appearances, it is not at all clear what Israel is doing there. Israel gets nothing out of the UN.

So the benefits of the UN are zero. Moreoever, given UN routine condemnations, Israel gets less than nothing, it gets to be humiliated (which would be easier to ignore if Israel were not part of the UN). And, given that there are no benifits, the cost of defiance is pretty low too. Israel is thinking, if you've got nothing, you've got nothing to loose. By defying the UN Israel will get what they are getting anyway, condemnation.

So now Iran is upping the stakes. Iran is a big threat to Israel. Iran is not building nuclear weapons to defeat the Iraqis. Iran has only one target - Israel. If the UN cannot reassure Israel that the UN has Israel's best interest at heart, which they have never been able to do, not in the Siani, not in Lebanon, and not with Iraq, then Israel will think it has to take care of Iran herself. The only thing stopping Israel is the fact that the UN wont like it.

If the EU keeps making sure that anything that will reassure Israel is off its agenda, then it it setting the stage for a catastrophe in the Middle East. Either Israel will have to take out the reactor, or there will be an attempt at a nuclear exchange.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

France's anti-Semitism. . .and some suggestions

Apparently I am not the only one who thinks that France is the most anti-Semetic country on the planet. This article in Haaretz suggests that over 90% of Jews think so. It is no surprise that France is doing little to attempt to change this, though Sharon's recent pronouncement about Chiraq not being an anti-Semite probably helped a bit.

France is a shitty little country in Europe. It is about as significant as Greece. Many years ago they made a contribution to the world, but that era is over, and now they have to show themselves to be the great liberal, progressive country they claim to be.

There is no Zionist conspiracy to hate France. Jews have nothing to gain by marginalizing her. Zionists have more important things to worry about. It just works out that anti-Semitism is France's biggest commodity.

France should improve her image. Perhaps she can start a program of having Jew-friendly tours of the country with kosher food, and a guide who is not rude to everyone. Perhaps they can admit that they liked being Vichy, and now feel sorry. Perhaps they can crack down on those who stab rabbis and burn synagogues. Perhaps a few public trials of perpertartors. Maybe Chiraq could come to Israel and make Kennedyesque "Ani Yerushalmi" speech.

Of course doing this would piss off her new Arab voters.

And that reminds me that there are now two strands of anti-Semitism in France. Maybe I should give up.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

Review of Gregori Freiman's I seem to be a Jew

I just finished reading a book called I seem to be a Jew by Grigori Freiman. (The title apparently invokes a line of the poem Babi Yar by the prominent post-Stalinist Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko.)

(The copy I have is one signed by the translator Melvyn Nathanson to Marshall Shulman. Unsurprisingly, I found it in a bookstore near Columbia University.)

It is an old book, from 1980. It is about the situation in mathematics in Russia during the cold war. The author was a mathematician (I wonder what ever happened to him) who went on about the state of anti-Semitism at the time in the Soviet mathematical hierarchy.

Mathematics has been singled out over and over agin by those in the know as a stronghold of academic anti-Semitism in Russia. One does not hear similar stories about Soviet physics or biology. There are still some traces of this in mathematicians who moved here from the former USSR.

I should offer an aside, that I happen to personally know a few Russian emigre mathematicians who are genuinely princes among men, and very fine people, who in no way exhibit any signs of anti-Semitism, and I have absolutely no reason to believe that they are bigoted in any way. On the other hand I have quite a bit of second-hand information about other mathematicians (in my own university) who brought their bigotry with them. In my experience, the more prominent they are the less they have time for the pettiness of anti-Semitism. I am grateful for that.

The book itself is very much a product of the cold war, and it shows on every page. It can be quite informative though. It si odd to look in to a society where it was normal to expect that your mail was read, and there was even an organization which officially did that. It is odd to see how one's travel was controlled so carefully, and all the other stuff that goes along with a repressive regime that was the Soviet Union.


This weekend I spoke at a conference in New Jersey. I also happened to eat dinner there the night before. It totally felt strange to be in and out of New Jersey twice in two days. I suppose that is normal for people who live there and work in New York, but if felt strange to me.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Colin Powell's speech

Yesterday I heard Collin Powell speak at my university. He is an alum, and it was good to see him there. It was veterans day eve, and he gave a speech in memory of Ralph Bunche. Bunch did a lot to make peace in the middle east, just like Powell is attempting to do now. It was very appropos.

Unfortunately he did not say anything new that anyone didn't know yet. We are doing good things in Iraq, trying in the Middle East, fixed Afghanistan (even though it is still a Muslim country), etc.

Today I saw the Veteran's day parade on Fifth Avenue. As I passed by.

Sunday, November 09, 2003

Beautiful minds- not very telegenic though

The Guardian published an article Beautiful minds that addressed what it is like to do a film about philosophy and philosophers. They picked as their subject the philosopher Richard Rorty. Now, I am very much not a fan of Rorty. I tend to think much of his work is almost not even worth criticizing.

I have been known a few times to lament on the fact that tere are not enough philosophers in the public eye, and there are even fewer philosophers who are glamorized in the mass media. When you ask people who the last philosopher they saw in a film inevitably they answer something as dumb as Ethan Hawke's character in Reality Bites or something like that. He is a philosopher because he seemed bored with life and he was show reading Heiddegger on the movie.

Now the reason why it is hard to portray a philosopher is because philosophers don't really do much. They have pencils and ideas. So to make Rorty look interesting they resorted to showing flowers. I am not sure I understand why even after reading their explanation.

Of course the author points out, and they hardly exploit this, that many important philosophers have had facinating lives. Socrates, Descartes, and Wittgenstein for example had been soldiers. Russell was a peace activist, decended from a prestigious political family. Chomsky, not exactly a philosopher, but close enough has been involved in so many things it is dizzying, has had many films made about him. Kripke, the most importatn philosopher this century lives a life so interesting he has been satirized in a novel. But enough about philosophers.

What philosophy is often about is much more telegenic than filmaker give credit for. The problem is that much of philosophy sounds (and often is) hard, so before you can make something visual, you have to understand it. The Matrix portrayed a few elementary philosophical concepts amazingly well. Something like this, but with a philosopher doing the talking can portray what philsophy is about. There are all these anthologies out now about the Matrix, Buffy the vampire slayer, and even the Simpsons as topics for philosophers. But even if you don't take all that seriously, which I can understand, there is still so much to work with.

Much of philosophy is thought experiments. What if the world were a certain way? What if wer were brains being maipulated by evil scientists? What if we lived in a world with a different government? What if we lived in a world with different laws? What about different laws of nature? What if we lived in a world with different laws of logic? What if we really had souls? Many of these questions are waiting for some good visual effects to bring them to light in to sharper focus.

I suspect that the author both chose the wrong philosopher, the wrong topic, and had too poor an understanding of philosophy to understand how to put it on to film.

Give me a call next time you need advice on this, OK?

Bombing in Riyadh

Don't these muslims know that it is wrong to launch an attack in Riyadh against innocent muslim children and families during Ramadan? These people can't even respect their own codes of decency.

Saturday, November 08, 2003 - Lunar eclipse to turn moon red - Nov. 8, 2003

I write this as I watch the Lunar eclipse today.

I love this astronomical stuff.

Street Fair

There has been so much going on in the news lately that I am tired of pointing it all out. I just thought I would mention that there was a nice street fair going on today from Union Square north till 23rd street. It was nice, though I realize that the more I attend these fairs, the less interesting they are. The food is less and less exciting, and how many times can you look at the same T-shirts before you wonder who would ever wear such tacky stuff?

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Suggestion for the Military

I was just thinking that (on my estimation) the military just issued about 300,000 new uniforms to the soldiers in Iraq. They were all brand new and were made for desert warfare. We have all seen them on CNN. Soldiers are normally issued woodland camoflauge when they start out, and then new special ones if there is a mission that requires it, like the one in Iraq. Now, each uniform has the soldier's last name just above the right breast pocket.

As part of the "hearts and mind campaigns, perhaps the government would be wise, as a nice courtesy to the Iraqi people, to throw on another name tape on the pocket or something. Perhaps the government could put each soldier's name in Arabic on his pocket. We should at least try to get a local to write everyone's name on 100 MPH tape and stick it on to their body armor.

It would make American soldiers more human to Iraqis and allow the Iraqi people to at least address them by name. It is a small cheap courtesy that would perhaps provide a small contract to some local name tape store in Bagdad, it would be a nice gesture to the people and make Americans look a bit less like foreign interlopers. Unlike many cultures who could not care less, Arabs appreciate foreigners making small gestures toward being accommodating like this, and toward communication with them. As it is too hard to teach everyone there Arabic, this would be a nice start.