<the greatest weight, the greatest weight> 
Imagine an angel comes to you in the night, when you are feverish and in the midst of metaphysical reveries. The angel says that she has been taught metaphysics by God, and so she can answer truthfully any questions you might have. You are slow to react, and this is the first question that you think to ask: Do ordered pairs exist?

The angel boggles and, after an awkward pause, asks you to explain the question.

Well, you say, you encounter individuals like your armchair, your pajamas, your fireplace, and so on. (You pick these because they are close at hand, and you can point at them.) Making sense out of the semantics of relations leads to positing a further thing which is an ordered pair of two objects. For example, the relation "__ is wearing __" holds of a pair of things; e.g. <you, your pajamas>.

The angel laughs. The sound is a bit like a wind chime and a bit like a carnival.

Your mind is too small, says the angel. God considered making a world like that, built out of individuals which stood in pairwise relations to one another. This seemed like it would be a waste of infinite power and infinite intellect. What God did instead was to directly create all of what you think of as ordered pairs. To God, each of these has a separate and true name.

You blurt out, almost interrupting: That's absurd! Surely God thinks of individual things, rather than only of pairs.

In a way, the angel replies. God can think of you by using the name for what you, with your limited intellect, think of as the ordered pair <you, you>.

But... surely individuals are more fundamental than ordered pairs. If two things exist, like the angel and the fireplace, then there are necessarily ordered pairs <angel, angel>, <fireplace, fireplace>, <angel, fireplace>, and <fireplace, angel>. Having enumerated the four possibilities, you consider saying "QED" but instead thump your fist on the arm of your chair.

Of course God made all those, and what God makes must necessarily be so. Yet God, considering only infinite power, might have refrained from making <fireplace, fireplace> while still making <fireplace, angel> and <angel, fireplace> and all the rest. There would not be the thing which you think of as the individual fireplace.

You know, says the angel, you've been very sick and you're taking this lesson very seriously. I think we better stop now.

What would you make of this encounter, after your fever had passed?

[edited for clarity]

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Books about kinds 
I met Muhammad Ali Khalidi in Paris last Spring. I had regrettably only taken the most cursory of glances at his book, Natural categories and human kinds. The library here had just gotten a copy, so 'just' that it wasn't processed and available for checkout until after I got back.

So I checked it out and took a more careful look at it when I returned. Over the summer, I was invited to write a review for Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. This provided me a copy of my own and an occasion to think more about his view.

I was asked to write a longish essay review which both evaluated the book and connected it to broader issues that I think are important. I have am already on record as to what I think is important about natural kinds, so I use the review to distinguish MAK's view from mine and to argue briefly for my own way of doing things. It's a review and a critical notice all in one, at once other-directed and self-indulgent.

I sent my last draft off to the journal and posted it: Epistemic categories and causal kinds

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Facebook and civil society 
A while ago, there was considerable controversy about Google+ insisting that people use their real names in their profiles. G+ ultimately relented.

I had not realized that Facebook has a similar policy. It turns out that Facebook recently deactivated the accounts of several LGBT activists and has only reactivated them for a brief period, insisting that the activists use their real names or have their accounts deactivated again. The EFF has details.

I have, as a conscious choice, used my real name for almost all of my on-line presence: philosopher, gamer, font designer, cartoonist, and all the rest. The one exception is pseudonymous because it was originally a collaboration, not because I want to distance myself from potentially offensive content.

Having a single identity has made sense for me, but it is a luxury. I can do it because I am in a comfortable position socially and economically. There isn't an aspect of my life which will be threatened if someone connects the dots between what I'm doing in different domains.

Not everybody can afford to be connected in daily life to the identity that they use on Facebook. They have nevertheless invested quite a lot of time and energy in the public persona that they present on Facebook. And that's one bad thing about Facebook, because it is a closed system. If Facebook decides to delete the account, then all the content that was posted and all the connection that were made are gone. With the Web (in the old-school sense of a personal home page) or even Twitter, the content is preserved in a public archive. Not so Facebook.

Facebook justifies its policy on the grounds that people using real names will be more civil. However, that's bullshit. Those of us who can comfortably use our real names can also comfortably be uncivil using them. It's hard for me to imagine saying anything that would make me the target of off-line violence, but that is precisely the lived experience of queer activists.

Real names are not necessary for civility: If someone has invested time in developing an account and an on-line identity under a pseudonym, then the cost of losing that is the same as if it were in their own name.

Real names aren't sufficient for civility, either: Plenty of jackasses are willing to say horrible things under their own names. Not to turn too quickly to farce, but Adolf Hitler would have been happy to post under his own name.


To add an epicycle: Recent events, including the University of Illinois' firing of Steven Salaita and asinine comments by Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, suggest that I could be wrong about the security of my position. Unlike Salaita, however, I am a white guy who talks about science and art rather than a person of colour talks about Palestine. The rhetoric of civility is used with discrimination to squeeze the already disenfranchised. That is precisely why it is objectionable, but also precisely what gives me a margin of safety.

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Scotch philosophy 
I just finished reading "As a good bartender might" by Thomas W. Polger, in which he enquires into whether whiskey and varieties of whiskeys are natural kinds. His answer, disappointingly, is that they might but he isn't sure: "I'm sure that not every distinction drawn among beverages qualifies them as natural kinds, but I would like to think that whiskey - bourbon in particular - is one of them."

He suggests, sensibly, that whiskies might be divided into natural kinds in terms of their ingredients: barley, rye, wheat, or corn. Although barley and corn plants form distinct natural kinds, they might still not underwrite separate beverage kinds. The matter is complicated by the fact that many whiskies use some combination of ingredients. Bourbon, for example, is predominantly but not entirely corn based.

He spends most of his attention, though, on whether place of origin divides whiskies into natural kinds. This is how liquor stores (and Wikipedia) divvy things up, but it seems like a non-starter to me. I have always counted Irish and Canadian whiskies in the same partition of whisky state space, along with blended Scotch. A more important division, which Polger doesn't discuss, is between blended whiskies and single malt or single batch whiskies.

I think that the difference between blended and single batch tracks an important culinary distinction. It seems to me that there are two different ideals in whiskey, distinct standards according to which whiskey might be judged and heights to which it can aspire. One is the smooth and crisp whiskey, best exemplified by fine blended whiskies. The other is the deep and weighty whiskey, exemplified by a peaty single malt Scotch (although it can be realized in other ways).

My father is rather fond of Johnny Walker Blue Label. To me, it exemplifies the first ideal. I have had it, and I can recognize its excellence for what it is. I am unimpressed not because it isn't good but because I think it chases the wrong dream. It's wasted on me. My dad, for his part, prefers Blue Label to any single malt Scotch. This difference between us is explicable in terms of the distinction between two different kinds of Scotch; the different kinds have different corresponding standards of goodness, different basins of attraction in beverage space.

This distinction cuts across ingredients. It also separates blended from single-batch bourbon. So too for rye.

Although differences in tastes are about the responses of drinkers, whiskey is a beverage. Natural kinds are always domain-relative. If we ask whether whiskies comprise natural kinds, then the proper domain should include agriculture, distilling, and drinking.

I'm not sure whether whiskies do comprise natural kinds, but the blended/single-batch (smooth/deep) divide strikes me as a plausible candidate.


Reference
Polger's essay appers in Fritz Allhoff and Marcus P. Adams, eds. Whiskey & Philosophy. John Wiley & Sons, 2010. Amazon link

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Contest results 
The Aesthetic for Birds contest, posing the question of whether a band can be its own cover band, is over and judged. I was the judge for the contest, and saw only anonymous entries. I wrote up the results and had Christy insert the names of the winners.

Here's my report.

Crossposted at AfB; if you have comments, make them over there.

* * *

The contest grew out of a conversation between Christy and me about whether musicians adopting different personas might do a cover of a song they had recorded earlier. It would have been easy to get caught up in how to define a 'cover', but we quickly realized that the meatier philosophical question was about the identity conditions of a band. Neither of us have an account of that, so he decided a contest was in order. I agreed to be the judge, so that entries could be judged anonymously.

I expected the entries to fall into two broad categories: No, with general considerations to show that it is impossible for a band to cover itself. Yes, with a thought-experiment scenario in which we can imagine a band becoming its own cover band.

The first strategy calls for a straightforward deduction; something like this:
1. By definition: A cover version is performed by someone other than the original artist.
2. By definition: A cover band of X plays cover versions of X's songs.
3. The original band is the original artist and not someone else.
Therefore, the original band cannot be a cover band.

To my surprise, nobody quite made this argument. In fact, out of 21 entries, only four answered no to the assigned question. (Most answered yes, and one equivocated.)

Several entries presume that the relation 'A covers B' is transitive. All of those entries got set aside, because their assumption is just false. There are two accounts of cover songs in the literature. Kania (2006) argues that the target of a cover version is a thinly-specified song. Magnus, Magnus, and Mag Uidhir (2013) argue that a cover version targets a specific prior version. In neither case is the relation transitive.

Another entry invoked the distinction made by Magnus, Magnus, and Mag Uidhir between mimic and rendition covers. Well played, given who organized the contest and who secretly was going to judge it, but not ultimately persuausive.

Three entries merit honorable mention.

The entry by Roy T. Cook was the cleverest of the no answers. The author defines a perfect cover band and goes on to give a natural deduction proof that it is impossible to know that a band is a perfect cover band of itself. The definition is that "A is a perfect cover band of B" iff we cannot determine whether A and B are the same or distinct. The proof submitted cuts a corner, presuming without mention that knowledge is closed under implication. I mark partial credit.

The entry by Jonathan Weinberg was written in a nice analytic style and posed a schematic scenario for a yes answer:
Suppose band B has sound S1 at t1, and then by t2 their sound evolves to S2. Now suppose by t3 they abandon S2, and pursue a career simply reproducing their t1 songs performed a la S1. Then B at t3 is a cover band of B at t1.

This answer plays nicely with the identity conditions for a band, suggesting that later time slices of a band might be a different band than earlier time slices. A few other entries similarly relied on different time slices of the same band, but this one was clearest. However, as Cristyn pointed out to me as I was mulling over answers, fans don't actually think about bands this way as the bands get older. When a band is forced to play their old hits even though they have moved on musically, we might think it's sad but we don't call them a cover band.

The entry by Jim Hamlyn was the only one written in verse. It poses a yes-answer scenario that is similar to the one in the winning entry, but somewhat less precise. Perhaps imprecision is the price of doggerel.
A band can be a cover band
By a form of exaggeration and
By mocking, shamming or otherwise hamming
Their art as if by another's hand.

Second place goes to the entry by Eric Wiland:
A band can be its own cover band. I'll argue by example. The White Stripes would cover themselves if they were to play all their songs with Jack on drums and Meg singing lead and playing guitar. Interestingly, a solo artist cannot cover herself.

The crucial thing is that Meg played drums in the White Stripes while Jack played guitar and sang lead. We typically identify a band not just by its members but by what each member does in the band. So having everyone trades roles could constitute a different band and allow the same people to constitute a cover band. (I had to look up the lineup of the White Stripes to make sure I understood the crucial thing correctly. Points off for clarity.)

The winner is BP Morton, who wrote:
Sure! Imagine a band that secretly re-unites, pretends to be a cover band of itself, and is taken as such by its new audience. Whether they fess up or not, by posing as a cover band successfully and being taken as one, they have become a cover band of themselves.

The idea plays on an ambiguity of what it is to be the same band: The band in the scenario is the same band in one sense because it has the same members playing the same parts. The band is a new band in another sense because band identity is a social fact, constituted by the members presenting themselves in a certain way and being accepted by the audience. It's even if just being a cover band is a social fact in that sense.

Congratulations to the the winners, but I had fun reading all of the entries. Thanks to Christy for the chance to decide the matter.

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