You are currently browsing Neddy Merrill’s articles.

At least a lot of people do.

I think there’s near-universal agreement among philosophers (!?) that the online job postings could be much, much better, e.g. easily searched by areas of specialization and competence. As Geoff Pynn snarks in comments: “But how ever could it be done? What great Secrets must Nature yield before we can harness her Powers to such wondrous ends?”

Does anyone have a lot of experience with teleconference-style interviews? Phone interviews are terrible, I think, but we’ve never done video interviews, and if it’s even close to as good, and if we do them uniformly (i.e., all candidates do their interviews this way, rather than only some), it could save everyone an undesired hassle. It really would be a great thing, especially for candidates, if the trip were no longer necessary.


Am I understanding this right? A teacher starts talking to a guy in a bar, tells him a story about how another teacher used the word “nigger,” and this results in the storyteller getting into trouble?

The intuitive sense of unfairness comes from the fact that we all understand the difference between genuinely asserting and using the same language in a way that doesn’t assert. You might overhear me utter the phrase “Ari is so handsome” as I’m in the midst of saying “Only Mrs. Kelman could think that Ari is so handsome,” for example. While the phrase itself retains its meaning in the two contexts, the sentences mean very different things.

As I recall, Frege’s general point about this is that there’s no operator that indicates what follows is being asserted. Phrases like “I’m genuinely asserting that….” are themselves subject to the same problem– they can be put in contexts where they aren’t asserted. Geach seizes on this to develop a really interesting objection to expressivism, the thesis that moral judgments are expressions of noncognitive states such as emotions, rather than statements of (moral) fact.

On the expressivist view, “lying is wrong” is doing the work of “boo lying!” But notice how “lying is wrong” appears in contexts where it’s genuinely asserted and in contexts where it isn’t. Canonical example:

1. Lying is wrong.
2. If lying is wrong, getting your little brother to lie is wrong.
3. Hence, getting your little brother to lie is wrong.

This argument looks good (by which I mean deductively valid). In order to be good, though, “lying is wrong” has to mean the same thing in (1) and (2). Wrinkle: in (1) it’s being asserted, in (2) it’s not. Even if (1) makes sense as the expression of a boo-attitude toward lying, (2) doesn’t. You’re not booing lying because you’re not saying lying is wrong, when you assert (2). So it looks like the expressivist is stuck. (Stuck in two related ways: first, it’s a problem that the expressivist hasn’t given us an account of (2), and second it’s a problem that, whatever an account of (2) would be, it won’t preserve the meaning of “lying is wrong,” and that’s needed to make sense of the validity of the argument.)

Simon Blackburn has a go at this by trying to understand (2) as something like “boo for the following conjunction of attitudes: booing lying while not booing getting little brother to lie.” Not really convincing, but a nice attempt.

There’s lots more to say, but now you’re equipped to utter “The latest O’Keefe shenanigans got me musing about old Gottlob Frege” and that will make you sound erudite.

The Chronicle has an interesting story about a guy who ghost-writes term papers.

You’ve never heard of me, but there’s a good chance that you’ve read some of my work. I’m a hired gun, a doctor of everything, an academic mercenary. My customers are your students. I promise you that. Somebody in your classroom uses a service that you can’t detect, that you can’t defend against, that you may not even know exists.

You know whose fault it is? The system, man. (I was hoping he’d turn out to make incredible money this way, but he says this is his best year yet and he’ll get about $66k.)

Tom Levenson:

Those final six hours of the war were surreal. The news of the cease-fire order passed swiftly down the line, but the fighting did not stop. U.S. Army captain Harry Truman, commanding an artillery battery, fired under orders until 10:45 a.m. British troops were ordered forward, with instructions to achieve their objectives by eleven. German fire persisted too. Among those killed were British soldiers wearing the Mons star, veterans of the first battle of the war. Within the German lines, troops waited for news of the negotiations in the midst of preparations for a last battle. Early that morning Georg Bucher went to his company commander to beg for more machine gun ammunition. At 7:15, an attack came; Bucher’s machine guns broke it up before the Americans facing him reached his barbed wire. His company’s casualties were light. One new recruit went down with a chemical burn. Bucher comforted him by telling him how much worse it could have been, how he could have lost his leg. “The youngster seemed, God knew why, to find comfort in my words,” Bucher wrote. At that moment, Bucher’s company commander returned, leaping along like a mad man, shouting “Cease fire at eleven a.m.. Pass the word along, cease fire at eleven.” ….

There was one incident that captured the essence of war on the western front, the distillation of its arbitrary violence. At two minutes to eleven in the vicinity of Mons a Canadian private named George Price was hit by a sniper’s bullet. He died instantly. The man who killed him remains unknown. That man made a choice. He was a marksman, a skilled soldier. He had just moments remaining in which it was legal for him to kill. There was no need to fire, no purpose, and some risk at least to himself and any comrades near him. If he waited until eleven, and then put his gun down, the only consequence would be that a young stranger would go home. Instead, the shot rang out. Two minutes ticked past. The war ended. George Price lay dead.

(More on Price.)

Look, not my bag, but none of the professionals were talking.

…because something stupid is surely heading my way. First, Williams is probably right to say that NPR was looking for a reason to fire him, though he is wrong about why; it’s not so much that he appears on Fox as it is that he says inane things, e.g. Michelle Obama is like Stokely Carmichael in a dress. (The halfway serious point here is that it’s a mistake to take Williams’ firing out of the context of his general lousiness.)

Second, the people in “muslim dress” on your flight are probably the least likely to be jihadists, unless their nefarious plot involves making everyone very aware of, and suspicious of, their presence.

Third, the phrase “muslim dress” annoys me because it conflates religion and culture. There’s no religious reason to wear salwar kameez instead of a suit. Everyone knows what he meant and it’s not a big thing, but still, irritating. Oh look, someone made tthe point in funny.

Fourth, this is amusing:

I think what I’m reacting to so strongly here is the Inquisition-like state of journalism today, in which speech deemed offensive to Jews and Muslims in particular is considered immediate grounds for firing.

Goldberg, plz. If you think there are equal social sanctions for anti-muslim and anti-semitic speech in media…oy.

Finally, I need to start praying more in airports to make you nervous.

Via Farley at LGM:

Sad news.

Two papers I love: “Morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives” and “Moral beliefs.”

In “Moral Beliefs” she argues, among other things, that there are conceptual limits on the use of moral vocabulary, that is, moral terms have some sort of fixed content, rather than being terms for the expression of noncognitive states akin to boo or hurray. In her famous example– forgive me, my memory of this is unclear and the book is packed away– she says that a man clasping his hands three times in an hour simply cannot be splendid or brave or whatever unless there’s some story tying those actions to some recognizable good (e.g. if he’s signaling in code or overcoming a stroke or something).

This paper is in opposition to views like RM Hare’s, which say that moral judgments are such because of their formal features, e.g. they endorse or command; they have no fixed content.

“Morality as a system of hypothetical imperatives” (a paper she later partly recanted) argued that there are two senses in which moral judgments might be said to be “categorical.” First, we apply them to people without regard for their motivations or desires. That is, we don’t take someone’s lack of desire to tell the truth to render “you ought not to lie” inapplicable or incorrect. Second, (true) moral claims guarantee reason for complying. That is, if it is true of you that you ought to F, then you have reason to F. Foot argues that moral claims are categorical in the first sense but not the second. That is, we apply them without regard for motivation or desire, but they are not thereby reason-giving independent of motivation or desire. Her famous example involves club rules or rules of etiquette: a failure to reply in the third person to an invitation addressed in the third person is rude whether or not you care about avoiding rudeness. But this by itself does not show that you have reason to avoid rudeness. So too with morality.

She wrote a lot of great stuff– these are just personal favorites. And she gave us the trolley problem!

Kevin Drum is looking for a “Human Nature Top Ten” — well-established but underappreciated aspects of human psychology that illuminate behavior. His opening gambits are loss aversion and regression to the mean. I’d add adaptation effects, e.g. the hedonic treadmill: people adapt to changes in levels of (many) goods so that over time the additional good adds nothing to their levels of satisfaction. However, people tend to underestimate the strength of these effects on themselves and others. (E.g. Midwestern college students think that West Coast college students are happier because the weather is nicer; people think they’d be miserable in prison or in a wheelchair.)

Other candidates?

Some musings on Tyler Clementi’s suicide.
Read the rest of this entry »

Assistant DA [oops] AG Andrew Shirvell takes to AC360 to defend his interest in UMichigan student government president Chris Armstrong. Shirvell’s not-at-all obsessive blog.

Shirvell has published blog posts that accuse Armstrong of…sexually seducing and influencing “a previously conservative [male] student” so much so that the student, according to Shirvell, “morphed into a proponent of the radical homosexual agenda;”

Is anyone else reminded of that scene in Rocky Horror where Frank shows up in Brad’s room?

James Fallows posts about a minor UK scandal over restaurants serving halal meat to unsuspecting customers. Since halal meat is basically kosher meat, here’s a time where substituting another religion’s parallel term is a useful heuristic.

(I once read that a lot more meat is slaughtered kosher than is sold as kosher; if so, then if you eat meat regularly you’ve eaten a bunch of kosher-slaughtered meat. Sneaky Jews!)

Of course, this is just another example of picking out some commonplace activity, calling it by its Arabic name, and holding up the result as an example of the inscrutable Muslim form of life. Another nice example is the fuss over taqiyya, which certainly is utterly alien to Christian thought and also to ordinary moral reasoning.

“Air hair lair.”
“Sir, good news! One of our men has discovered that semen is an excellent invisible ink.”
“Who the devil is responsible for this?”
“Cumming, sir. Mansfield Cumming.”

Seriously, Newsweek picked up Kausfiles?

Ole Miss senior Levi West on his school’s unofficial mascot:

“There’s no more of a noble cause than continuing the tradition of Colonel Reb,” said Mr. West, standing in the baking Mississippi heat in a giant stuffed mask and foam shoes. “Everyone loves the guy.”

It’s only Monday but Mr West has set the bar high.

David Bell reviews Mark Taylor’s new book in TNR.

Mark C. Taylor’s unbelievably misguided book provides an almost textbook example. In April, 2009, he published an incendiary New York Times op-ed entitled “End the University as We Know It,” which denounced graduate education as the “Detroit of higher learning,” demanded the abolition of tenure, and called for the replacement of traditional academic departments by flexible, short-lived “problem-focused programs.” Widely criticized (by me, too, in this magazine), the piece stayed at the top of the Times’s “most e-mailed” list for a cyber-eternity of four days. Enter Alfred A. Knopf.

It gets worse. Via Leiter.

Whoopi Goldberg’s reaction on first seeing Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. Apparently Nichols almost left the show because she had a Broadway offer, until a chance encounter with a fan changed her mind.

That fan was Martin Luther King Jr. Nichols recalls their conversation:

One of the organizers came up to me and said that there was someone who wants to meet you; and he says that he’s you’re best, biggest fan and I’m thinking it’s a Trekkie! [laughs] and so I said certainly and I got up and turned around and maybe 10 or 15 feet coming towards me I see Dr. Martin Luther King and I remember thinking whoever that little fan is, he’s going to have to wait, because here’s Dr. King, who walks straight up to me with this big, magnificent smile on his face and says, “I’m the fan!” because I’m sort of looking around for someone else, and he says, “I am your best fan, I am your biggest fan!” and I… I was at a loss for words, and if you know me, I am never at a loss for words.

…and so I told him I would be leaving the show, because; and that was as far as he let me go, and he said, “STOP! You cannot! You cannot leave this show! Do you not understand what you are doing?! You are the first non-stereotypical role in television! Of intelligence, and of a woman and a woman of color?! That you are playing a role that is not about your color! That this role could be played by anyone? This is not a black role. This is not a female role! A blue eyed blond or a pointed ear green person could take this role!” And I am looking at him and looking at him and buzzing, and he said, “Nichelle, for the first time, not only our little children and people can look on and see themselves, but people who don’t look like us, people who don’t look like us, from all over the world, for the first time, the first time on television, they can see us, as we should be!

Our debt grows ever greater.

Lots of discussion of these images of South Carolina Senate President Glenn McConnell dressed as a Confederate Navy officer posing with black people dressed “in antebellum attire.” Apparently the black man and woman are “members of a Gullah-Geechee cultural group, which travels around bringing to life the Lowcountry African-American experience during the mid-1800s, including their dress, music and singing.” They were paid for their appearance.

It’s a weird picture. Since there are no actual historians here, and certainly none with an interest in the Civil War or the politics of memory, I’ll muse as follows:

(i) watching members of a Gullah preservation group would probably be pretty interesting;
(ii) it wouldn’t make the gathering less creepy if they were absent;
(iii) this makes me think that whatever badness there is here is present in a powerful white guy dressing up like a Confederate officer, rather than in the addition of Frank and Sharon Murray, the Gullah representatives;
(iv) but it’s more salient or more easily noticed when the addition of actual black people reminds us of what the Confederate Navy was for;
(v) not knowing much about Glenn McConnell except for his obsession with things Confederate, I can imagine– imagine! not endorse as true!– that he kind of lost track of all of these nuances a while back and just decided it would be neat to have some Gullah culture at the event.

As always, it’s important to remember that Ari is the real racist.

By Mark D. Fefer of the Seattle Weekly:

You may have noticed that Molly Norris’ comic is not in the paper this week. That’s because there is no more Molly.

The gifted artist is alive and well, thankfully. But on the insistence of top security specialists at the FBI, she is, as they put it, “going ghost”: moving, changing her name, and essentially wiping away her identity. She will no longer be publishing cartoons in our paper or in City Arts magazine, where she has been a regular contributor. She is, in effect, being put into a witness-protection program—except, as she notes, without the government picking up the tab. It’s all because of the appalling fatwa issued against her this summer, following her infamous “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” cartoon.

Norris views the situation with her customary sense of the world’s complexity, and absurdity. When FBI agents, on a recent visit, instructed her to always keep watch for anyone following her, she responded, “Well, at least it’ll keep me from being so self-involved!” It was, she says, the first time the agents managed a smile. She likens the situation to cancer—it might basically be nothing, it might be urgent and serious, it might go away and never return, or it might pop up again when she least expects it.

We’re hoping the religious bigots go into full and immediate remission, and we wish her the best.

This makes me sick.

It is no more or less awful because the cartoon was whimsical and fun, rather than spiteful, but it does add to the sadness.

The NYT discussion forum asks “why are colleges so selective?” Dean Dad moves in for the kill:

I couldn’t really expect them to acknowledge the existence of community colleges. There are only 1100 or so of them in the U.S., enrolling just under half of the entire undergraduate population of the country.

Hard not to sympathize with the vitriol.

Honestly, sometimes reading the Times I channel my inner Lou Ferrigno. “HULK SMASH PUNY RECORDING SECRETARY OF RULING CLASS!” What’s the difference between the New York Times and David Hasselhoff? One is a pathetic joke, and the other is David Hasselhoff.


It may seem incredible to suggest that the anticolonial ideology of Barack Obama Sr. is espoused by his son, the President of the United States. That is what I am saying….For Obama, the solutions are simple. He must work to wring the neocolonialism out of America and the West. And here is where our anticolonial understanding of Obama really takes off, because it provides a vital key to explaining not only his major policy actions but also the little details that no other theory can adequately account for.


Gingrich says that D’Souza has made a “stunning insight” into Obama’s behavior — the “most profound insight I have read in the last six years about Barack Obama.”

“What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?” Gingrich asks. “That is the most accurate, predictive model for his behavior.”

Please account for D’Souza’s beliefs by appeal to his origins in Mumbai. Contenders: many Indians consider bathing in the sewage-filled Ganges to be purifying, and only after realizing this can you see why D’Souza tries to make the national conversation better by taking huge dumps in it; only a man raised on ghee could provide such concentrated, rarified idiocy.

God help you when Ramesh Ponnuru is the sensible one in the room.

This is officially an award-winning blog

HNN, Best group blog: "Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band.... Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing...."