The cromulence of wasabi, and other stories

by Dave Maier

One starting point for any philosophical account of language is that the truth of a statement depends both on what it means and on how the world is. Handily for contemporary pragmatists of my stripe, this fits neatly with the post-Davidsonian project of overcoming the dualism of conceptual scheme and empirical content. All we need to do is show that the two factors that make up truth are not so detachable as contemporary dualists claim.

If it were as easy as that, though, we’d be done by now. Last time I said some things about semantic externalism, the idea that our meanings and other mental contents depend in some way on how things are in the world (as opposed, that is, to being transparently internal to the mind in the Cartesian manner). While not uncontroversial (there are a number of versions of this idea, some of which lead to serious problems), this thought is not generally regarded as scandalously radical or insane – possibly because when it goes bad, it does so in the direction of realism, contemporary philosophy’s default metaphysical assumption. The world, and the semantic content it determines, turns out to be too independent of our minds for us to know for sure what we are even saying. But again, for most contemporary philosophers, metaphysical realism, even of a problematic sort, has always seemed preferable to the unthinkable alternatives.

Things get dicier, or can easily seem to, if we consider the converse thought: that how things are in the world depend in some way on our meanings and beliefs. Stated so baldly, the only people who accept it are the most hard-bitten idealists. Not only does this thereby fall off to the forbidden side, it’s not at all clear how to state it in any more acceptably hirsute fashion. (I except the obvious cases, the subject of an entire book by contemporary realist John Searle (The Construction of Social Reality), such as the straightforwardly conventional, mind-created, but thereby no less real, truth that this sawbuck is more valuable than that fin – although inventive if also perverse counter-examples are available even for that one.)

I won’t be arguing for any particular doctrine today, let alone anything controversial, but instead simply batting about some examples, in the hope of a better understanding of a few important and interrelated things: first, how diverse our semantic options really are, and how little the dictionary really tells us about them; second, how essential to meaning are the creative and expressive aspects of language use; and third, the overlapping and indeed interconstitutive notions of a) knowing what a word means; b) knowing how to use a word appropriately; c) knowing the word’s referent; d) knowing what such a thing is. With any luck this may clear the way to discussing matters of meaning and truth without the threat of linguistic idealism seeming to hover over us at every turn. Read more »

Is 2020 Rabbit Season?

by Michael Liss

“You should look into this, perhaps write a little something about it.”

When Ed suggested something to you, it always emerged gently from his mouth as if on a cloud, and somehow morphed into a command by the time it reached your ears. He beckoned, I came, and now we were sitting together in one of his conference rooms, a MacBook and a bottle of unsweetened iced tea between us. My brand, in fact. It was a signal—he was telling me he knew, although we hadn’t talked in some time, that I’d gone cold turkey on Diet Coke. Of course he knew: he always knew, always was so wired in, always five steps ahead on everything. When we first met, roughly fifteen years ago, I had the absurd idea we were equals, but it took all of about a week for me to realize the central fallacy of that conceit. Still, he was remarkably good at recognizing and employing other people’s talents. And so, there would be a call or an email, and I would find myself conscripted to be a foot-soldier in Ed’s Army for some worthy cause.

I opened the iced tea, he clicked on a short YouTube clip, and I got my latest marching orders. Poke around, ask some questions, use that marvelous disguise of harmless late-middle age that allows me to pass unseen among men. Amass information, report back, write and post something. Topic: Bugs Bunny For President.

Of course, it sounds absurd, but, just how absurd is anything in politics these days? And Ed is a serious guy—if he’s lobbing this little gem at me, it means it’s not just him, but others in his happy little group are also considering it. So, on assignment, as it were, I’ve spent the last few weeks thinking, researching, looking at data, and talking to people. What I’ve found was that, the more I learned, the less irrational it seemed to be. Bugs Bunny for President. Doable. And desirable. Read more »

On the ideology, political economy, and prospects of cryptocurrencies

by Namit Arora

The cryptocurrency movement may be a mainstream media story but confusion about it is widespread. It evokes deeply polarized opinion, what with daily stories of scams, speculative booms, crypto billionaires, and government bans amid tall claims about how cryptocurrencies (and blockchain) are about to transform life and society as we know it. I call it a ‘movement’ because its acolytes imagine it as a totally disruptive force for economics, politics, governance, the Internet, and much more, even though there is little empirical evidence yet to ground that imagination.

The cryptocurrency (aka crypto) movement is exciting—full of brainy people, venture capital, heady innovation, and high hopes. It behooves us to more clearly understand the animating ideology of the crypto movement. Should it ever succeed, where might it fit into our political economy and what might be its effects on society? And finally, just how likely is it to succeed? Read more »

The Moon and a Computer

by Richard Passov

“…If I were to say my fellow man that we shall send to the moon 240,000 miles away from the control center station in Houston a giant rocket more than 300 ft tall the length of this football field made of new metal alloys some of which have not yet been invented capable of standing heat and stresses more than have ever been experienced fitted together with more precision than the finest watch carrying all of the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance control, communication, food and survival on an untried mission to an unknown celestial body and then return it safely to earth re-entering at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour causing heat about half that of the surface of the sun and do all this and do it right … then we must be bold.”

—President John F. Kennedy

On May 25th, 1961, President Kennedy gave a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress.  Though only five months into his term, Kennedy had reached a low point. The prior month witnessed Yuri Gregorian become the first man to orbit earth and the failed invasion at the Bay of Pigs.

After acknowledging Russian resistance to a nuclear test ban treaty, Kennedy asked Congress to fund a rapid deployment force, a programing effort to counter Soviet and Chinese propaganda and a nation-wide effort to build fallout shelters to “…insure against an enemy miscalculation…”  

It was only in the final minutes that he turned to space.   The time had come, he said, for “…a great new American enterprise, which may hold the key to our future on earth.” That enterprise was to send a man to the moon and back before the end of the decade “…in full view of the world.”  And so the Apollo Space Program was launched.

Rather than assume the chairmanship of the Space Council, established as part of the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act and which Eisenhower tried to disband, Kennedy saw it as a parking spot for his troublesome Vice President.  Before taking office, he asked for an amendment to the Act to allow Lyndon Johnson to assume the chairmanship. Read more »

Older White Men

by Akim Reinhardt

Old white men wearing ties can do anything they want.
-Mike Cooley, “One of These Days” (2001)

I am more powerful than I used to be, and it unnerves me.

I am a white man. And to be a white man in America is to have more power than women and people with darker skin. Just like rich people are more powerful than the poor, and heterosexuality holds more power than transexuality. I’ve been a white guy all my life, a half-century of it now, and for most of that time I’ve been aware that my skin color and increased testosterone endow me with extra power in our society. It’s been a learning curve, to be sure, one that I continue to climb as best I can. And the first lesson came at the hand of my father the only time he ever struck me.

Both of my parents suffered abuse as children, and when they made me and my sister, they swore they would not beat us. But there was this one time . . .

My father was working at a small, private school in the Bronx on a summer afternoon. The owners had hired him to repair a stone retaining wall. My father ran a small contracting business and often had one or two men working with him. Even though I was perhaps no more than six or seven years old, I knew this because I sometimes tagged along with him on jobs, like I had on this day. And so as I watched him labor and sweat beneath the hot sun, moving earth and lifting heavy stones, it occurred to me that normally he would have another worker to at least help with the worst of this grunt work. And indeed, there was another worker there. A black man who was close by, wearing work clothes and tending to some other manual task. So when my father let out a mild complaint about the weight of the rocks and the heat of the day, I offered what I thought was a perfectly reasonable suggestion:

“Why don’t have you have the black man do it?”

He turned, eyes afire, and slapped me across the face.

He thought I was being racist in a way that reminded him of growing up in segregated North Carolina, where even a white child could openly suggest the ordering around of black people. He would not suffer that in me. He would beat it out of me, if necessary.

But as soon as my tears welled up, he regretted it. He understood. Read more »

Now That Bill Cosby’s Been Found Guilty, Why Aren’t Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer And Donald Trump Under Arrest? Or Is There A Line To Be Drawn In Sexual Misconduct Between A Punishable Offense And A Guy Just Being A Jerk?

by Evert Cilliers

There are the Bill Cosbys and Harvey Weinsteins and Matt Lauers of this world, and then there are the Al Franklins and the Aziz Ansaris.

There are those who need to be in jail — Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill O’Reilly, Russell Simmons, Bill Clinton, Donald Trump — and those who only need to be fired, censured, shamed or … maybe forgiven?

So, the first question is: why aren’t Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill O’Reilly, Russell Simmons, Bill Clinton and Donald Trump being criminally prosecuted, if Bill Cosby was? What makes them more special than Cosby? Read more »

Gojira 1954: No More Nukes

by Bill Benzon

0 no 5.jpgWhen I was a child back in the nuclear-anxiety-Cold-War 1950s I went to see a film called Godzilla, King of the Monsters. I probably noticed that the people on screen didn’t look like Americans. They looked – well, I don’t know what I would have called them then, but they were in fact Japanese, except for this reporter guy (Raymond Burr) who talked a lot. What I remember is being scared out of my wits by this HUGE monster that seemed determined to destroy the world.

What I didn’t know at the time – I suppose that almost no one in the American audience did – is that this was somewhat different from the Japanese original, which came out in Japan in 1954 as Gojira. The Japanese original has two interlinked storylines: the story about the monster from the sea and a story about love vs. arranged marriage, which grapples with tradition vs. change. That second one was dropped from the American re-edit; the idea of an arranged marriage was and is all but meaningless in America, though it remains alive in Japan and in other nations. With a sense of grave ritual that is missing from the Americanized version, the Japanese original is a richer film. Read more »

‘The Fatal Conscience’: Julia de Burgos, Puerto Rico’s Greatest Poet

Molly Crabapple in the New York Review of Books:

After, when the sea will curl violently
They will say: “it is the fatal conscience of that girl,
She had many sins because she always lived in verse
And what you do on earth, on earth you pay for.”

—From “After,” by Julia de Burgos

In 1928, when Julia de Burgos was fourteen, Hurricane San Felipe devastated Puerto Rico. The Category Five storm left not a single building unscathed, least of all the wood casita in a mountain barrio in Carolina where De Burgos was born. Three hundred people died in what would be, for the next ninety years, the most violent storm in the island’s history. Julia de Burgos did not record her experience.

Puerto Rico’s most famous poet and greatest literary figure, De Burgos is as significant a cultural icon for the island commonwealth as the artist Frida Kahlo is for Mexico. Every line of De Burgos’s verse is imbued with passion, feminist self-assertion, and love of homeland. As with many female artists, De Burgos’s life story added to her legend, though her romantic life and untimely death threatened to overshadow her work by turning her into an allegorical figure for the patria’s humiliations. Yet, outside of Puerto Rican communities, she is largely unknown despite the fact that her poetry, while firmly rooted in place, addresses the universal human subjects of love, war, and self-creation.

De Burgos’s life spanned Puerto Rico’s full entrenchment as a colony of the United States, while her public life as a writer took place against the backdrop of the twentieth-century’s global conflict between fascism and democracy. The problems Puerto Ricans face today, as their impoverished island fights for survival in an era when the international order seems to be coming apart, are the legacy of the struggles De Burgos faced. In January, I traveled to Puerto Rico with my father, carrying a copy of Julia de Burgos’s letters, visiting the places she had lived, trying to hear her voice.

More here.

Matt Ridley: Cities Are the New Galapagos

Matt Ridley in Human Progress:

Easter Monday bank holiday feels like a good moment to put aside politics and consider something far more portentous: evolution. Recently I was walking alongside a canal in central London, surrounded by concrete, glass, steel and tarmac, when I heard the call of a grey wagtail. Looking to my right I saw this bold, fast, yellow-bottomed bird, which I associate with wild rocky rivers in the north, flitting into a canal tunnel. Later that week I stared up at two peregrine falcons circling high above parliament — and got funny looks from passers-by.

Like other cities, London is increasingly home to exotic wildlife and is as biodiverse as some wildernesses. Mumbai has leopards, Boston turkeys, Chicago coyotes and Newcastle kittiwakes. Suburbs are already richer in wildlife than most arable fields in the so-called green belt, making environmental objections to housing development perverse. Gardens, ledges, drains, walls, trees and roofs are full of niches for everything from foxes to flowers and moths.

Two Czech scientists counted the species of plants in the city of Plzen compared with a similar area of surrounding countryside. In the city the number of species had risen from 478 in the late 19th century to 773 today. In the countryside it had fallen from 1,112 to 745.

Since most animals have shorter lifespans than us and no welfare state, they are genetically adapting faster to the concrete world than we are. A fascinating book by a Dutch biologist, Menno Schilthuizen, called Darwin Comes to Town, documents just how wide and deep this urban wildlife evolutionary pulse is. We have unleashed an unprecedented burst of natural selection.

More here.

Why America’s 2-party system is on a collision course with our constitutional democracy

Lee Drutman in Vox:

There was a time, several decades ago, when America’s two-party system was praised for its moderation. Unlike European parliamentary democracies where “dogmatic ideological parties” of Europe thrived, America’s winner-take-all electoral system seemed to reward and therefore encourage parties and candidates with broad national appeal. No party, it was argued, could simply give up on half of the electorate. Similarly, no party could convincingly win a majority by putting forward extremist anti-system candidates far outside the mainstream.

Obviously something has gone wrong with this theory. Instead of being rejected as outside the mainstream, Donald Trump, an extremist anti-system candidate, simply redefined what “mainstream” is for almost half of the electorate.

And today, both American parties regularly forsake about half the electorate. Or even more than half, really.

Consider some basic numbers: Trump was the choice of 14 million people who voted in the Republican primaries. But in a nation where 230.6 million Americans are eligible to vote, that’s 6 percent of eligible voters. In the 2017 German election, the far-right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) won 5.9 million votes. In a nation of 61.5 eligible voters, that’s almost 10 percent.

In short, when voters in both countries were given the full range of options, Donald Trump was less popular in the United States than the AfD was in Germany.

But in the German system, AfD can be kept out of power by other parties forming a coalition. In the United States, Trump’s 6 percent support gave him a major party’s nomination, which gave him instant legitimacy. And because he was a Republican candidate and because he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, 63 million Americans cast a vote for him — enough to catapult him to the presidency.

More here.

Why we should bulldoze the business school

Martin Parker in The Guardian:

Visit the average university campus and it is likely that the newest and most ostentatious building will be occupied by the business school. The business school has the best building because it makes the biggest profits (or, euphemistically, “contribution” or “surplus”) – as you might expect, from a form of knowledge that teaches people how to make profits.

Business schools have huge influence, yet they are also widely regarded to be intellectually fraudulent places, fostering a culture of short-termism and greed. (There is a whole genre of jokes about what MBA – Master of Business Administration – really stands for: “Mediocre But Arrogant”, “Management by Accident”, “More Bad Advice”, “Master Bullshit Artist” and so on.) Critics of business schools come in many shapes and sizes: employers complain that graduates lack practical skills, conservative voices scorn the arriviste MBA, Europeans moan about Americanisation, radicals wail about the concentration of power in the hands of the running dogs of capital. Since 2008, many commentators have also suggested that business schools were complicit in producing the crash.

Having taught in business schools for 20 years, I have come to believe that the best solution to these problems is to shut down business schools altogether. This is not a typical view among my colleagues. Even so, it is remarkable just how much criticism of business schools over the past decade has come from inside the schools themselves. Many business school professors, particularly in north America, have argued that their institutions have gone horribly astray. B-schools have been corrupted, they say, by deans following the money, teachers giving the punters what they want, researchers pumping out paint-by-numbers papers for journals that no one reads and students expecting a qualification in return for their cash (or, more likely, their parents’ cash). At the end of it all, most business-school graduates won’t become high-level managers anyway, just precarious cubicle drones in anonymous office blocks.

More here.

The Creepy Genetics Behind The Golden State Killer Case

Megan Molteni in Wired:

For the dozen years between 1974 and 1986, he rained down terror across the state of California. He went by many names: the East Side Rapist, the Visalia Ransacker, the Original Night Stalker, the Golden State Killer. And on Wednesday, law enforcement officials announced they think they finally have his real name: Joseph James DeAngelo. Police arrested the 72-year-old Tuesday; he’s accused of committing more than 50 rapes and 12 murders.

In the end, it wasn’t stakeouts or fingerprints or cell phone records that got him. It was a genealogy website.

Lead investigator Paul Holes, a retired Contra Costa County District Attorney inspector, told the Mercury News late Thursday night that his team used GEDmatch, a no-frills Florida-based website that pools raw genetic profiles shared publicly by their owners, to find the man believed to be one of California’s most notorious criminals. A spokeswoman for the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office reached Friday morning would not comment or confirm the report.

GEDmatch—a reference to the data file format GEDCOM, developed by the Mormon church to share genealogical information—caters to curious folks searching for missing relatives or filling in family trees. The mostly volunteer-run platform exists “to provide DNA and genealogy tools for comparison and research services,” the site’s policy page states. Most of its tools for tracking down matches are free; users just have to register and upload copies of their raw DNA files exported from genetic testing services like 23andMe and Ancestry. These two companies don’t allow law enforcement to access their customer databases unless they get a court order. Neither 23andMe nor Ancestry was approached by investigators in this case, according to spokespeople for the companies.

But no court order would be needed to mine GEDmatch’s open-source database of more than 650,000 genetically connected profiles.

More here.