Wednesday, August 24, 2016

How to Diversify Philosophy: Two Thoughts and a Plea for More Suggestions

Academic philosophy in the U.S. has diversity problem.

On October 16 I'll be speaking about this at a MAP (Minorities And Philosophy) conference in Princeton. I'd like to toss some thoughts out there and solicit your suggestions.

Most of my previous work on these issues has focused on documenting disproportion. Compared to other academic disciplines in the U.S., philosophy is disproportionately white, male, and Anglophone. Plausibly, but not as well documented, its students are also disproportionately upper- and upper-middle class. Disabled people might also be underrepresented in philosophy compared to other fields (as well as compared to the population as a whole).

For October's talk, I want to discuss remedies. I'd like to suggest a few specific, concrete things that university philosophy instructors can do; and I'd like those specific, concrete things to target the situation in academic philosophy in particular.

Here are my two favorite ideas so far:

(1.) Encourage very-small-group discussion in the middle of class. (This sounds boring, but humor me for a few hundred words, because really it's magic!) Here's how to do it. Pause for 5-10 minutes in the middle of class. Have the students divide into groups of exactly 3 or 4 (not 2, not 5), and have them discuss one particular question from the lecture. To motivate discussion, require them to produce a simple written document, to be graded pass/fail. (For example, have each group produce what they think is the best consideration in favor of position P and the best consideration against position P.) Wander around during these 5-10 minutes, prodding groups that don't seem to be on task. Finally, reconvene and then have groups summarize the conclusions they came to.

I find that this exercise produces a pleasantly loud classroom, and that afterward a much broader range of people are willing to contribute to class discussion. Quiet people have finally got their mouths moving, and they probably found that what they said was respected by the 2-3 people they mentioned it to. This emboldens them to try it on the class as a whole. Also, the instructor can draw out normally quiet people by asking what their group thought. Individual students aren't as personally on the hook, since they can attribute the view to "the group", and they have already rehearsed the answer by talking it over with the group. If all else fails they can read what they've written down. This broadening of the range of people discussing philosophy in the classroom persists for the remainder of the period, often longer.

Here's why I think this exercise improves diversity: Philosophy classroom discussion is normally dominated by people with high academic/cultural capital. In the U.S. this means: rich, white, male, non-disabled, self-confident, parents with high educational attainment, fluent in highbrow English speaking styles. These are the students mostly likely to have the boldness to announce, in the second week of class, in front of their peers and professor, confident opinions about why Kant is wrong, or relativism is really the correct meta-ethical theory, or David Lewis's metaphysics is objectively better than Hilary Putnam's. (For an uncharitable version of the phenomenon, see this penetrating article.) Others need to be drawn into the conversation. Very-small-group discussion, in this above format, is the best way I know how.

(2.) Choose one non-white philosophical tradition to learn enough about so that you truly appreciate the range of positions and arguments in that tradition. (For me this is the ancient Chinese tradition.) This will take some time. But it needn't be unpleasant and you needn't aim to develop sufficient expertise to publish articles addressing that tradition. It's neither important nor achievable to have a global understanding of every tradition, and a superficial sampler approach risks misrepresenting and oversimplifying other traditions. What is important is that you have a moderately deep understanding of at least one other tradition, whose contributions you can discuss, with knowledge and enthusiasm, alongside the contributions of the currently dominant white European-derived tradition.

Interesting philosophy has emerged in every cultural tradition. How could it be otherwise? Philosophical issues are fundamental to one's worldview. In every culture, there will be thoughtful people who have reflected insightfully on such issues. Students know this. If we present the history of philosophy as the history of what white guys have thought about the fundamental issues of the human condition, then students will understandably regard philosophy in their university as an "area studies" program of white-guy thought. Even white students might forgivably be annoyed by this.

My hunch is this sort of cross-cultural engagement conveys a general message that encourages diversity of all sorts -- the message that you do not see philosophical value only in the words of people of high cultural power in your own tradition.


I offer these as concrete ideas for diversifying philosophy that individual philosophy professors can realistically implement. I'm interested in further thoughts and suggestions!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Network Map of SF Writers That Philosophers Love

Andrew Higgins has created another of his fascinating network analysis maps -- this time of the science fiction / speculative fiction authors appearing on my updated Philosophical SF list, which consists of 10 SF recommendations each from 48 professional philosophers.

Higgins writes:

Each recommendation was treated as a connection (edge) between a scifi author and a philosopher who recommended that writer. These connections pull authors closer together insofar as they're recommended by the same people. One way to see this similarity is the physical locations of the authors relative to each other, but the color of the nodes is a more accurate indicator of similarity (based on modularity measure groupings, resolution = 1.7). The size of the circles reflects the number of recommendations for each author (weighted degree), and the size of the author's name was determined by network centrality (PageRank).

Or, in the common tongue, "Ooooh... pretty!"

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Thanks, Andrew!

Interview on Crazyism

Julia Galef at Rationally Speaking interviews me about the idea that something that seems "crazy" must be true in ethics and the metaphysics of mind.

Along the way, we discuss, among other things, Solar-System-sized orgasm machines, the possibility that the U.S. literally has conscious experience over and above the experiences of the individual people composing it, and the awesomeness of Jorge Luis Borges.

The interview is about an hour long. Listen during your commute or workout!

The written transcript is also available in PDF and DOCX.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Philosophical SF: Updated Master List and 30 More Recommendations

We might think of fictions as extended thought experiments: What might it be like if...? Ordinary fiction confines itself to hypotheticals in the ordinary run of human affairs (though sometimes momentous, exotic, or exaggerated). In contrast, speculative fiction considers remoter hypotheticals. Although much speculative fiction considers hypotheticals of future technology (and thus is science fiction), speculative fiction also includes fantasy, horror, alternative history, and utopia/dystopia. (The abbreviation "SF" can be read either as meaning science fiction specifically or speculative fiction more broadly.)

Speculative fiction is often of philosophical interest: SF writers think through some of the same hypotheticals that philosophers do -- for example about personal identity, artificial intelligence, and possible future societies. Good SF writers think through these hypotheticals with considerable insight. I would like to see more interaction between philosophers and SF writers.

Since 2014, I have been collecting professional philosophers' recommendations of "personal favorite" works of philosophically-interesting science fiction or speculative fiction. Each contributor has given me a list of 10 works, each with brief "pitch" pointing toward the work's philosophical interest. So far, I have 48 sets of recommendations -- almost five hundred recommendations total!

Since the master list is huge, I have organized it in two ways: by contributor and by author recommended. The by-contributor list consists of each list of ten works, in alphabetical order by contributor. The by-author list lists the authors (or movie directors) in order of how frequently their work was recommended. For example, the single most recommended author was Ursula K. Le Guin. The list begins with her, gathering together the Le Guin recommendations from all of the contributors. Next come Ted Chiang and Philip K. Dick, so that you can see what work of theirs has been recommended and why; then Greg Egan, then... well, I don't want to spoil your surprise!

* Stable URL for both Master Lists and other "Philosophical SF" project links.

* Master List by Contributor as of Aug 15, 2016.

* Master List by Recommended Author as of Aug 15, 2016.

Below are the three most recent sets of recommendations.


New Contributions:

List from Lucy Allais (Professor of Philosophy, University of Witwatersrand and University of California at San Diego):

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Surely the reasons for this are well known enough; amazing exploration of political and social possibilities.

Alastair Reynolds, trilogy starting with Blue Remembered Earth (novels, 2012-2015). Fun trilogy in which Africa leads the space race, with different forms of consciousness and intelligence including elephants and machines.

Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves and The End of Eternity (novels, 1972 and 1955). By far his most interesting and imaginative work I think. Though my favourite is The Gods Themselves, for philosophical interest The End of Eternity is great as it’s about time travel.

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). I also found Brin’s uplift trilogy a lot of fun but this one is more philosophical in ideas about personal identity.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (novel, 2009). Bangkok in dystopian post climate apocalypse future, interesting ideas about modifying humans.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake trilogy (novels, 2003-2013). Also post climate collapse, many ideas about current social and technological trends taken to extremes.

Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (novel, 1968; short story 1966). So many Philip K. Dick works to choose from!

Vernor Vinge, trilogy starting with A Fire Upon the Deep (novels, 1992-2011). Amazingly fun different forms of consciousness, including collective consciousness.

Octavia Butler, Earthseed/Parable series (novels 1993-1998). Interesting ideas about post climate collapse, societal collapse and about religion.

Ann Leckie, Ancillary trilogy (novels, 2013-2015). Awesome story and cool ideas about AI and collective consciousness.


List from Melanie Rosen (Lecturer in Philosophy, Macquarie University):

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). **spoiler warning** Although the lives of the protagonists are at the forefront, the story raises ethical issues regarding cloning for organ donation and the status of clones. What is a person?

Kurt Vonnegut, Sirens of Titan (novel, 1959). Questions the meaning of life- or lack thereof and free will. A character who is swept up by fate suffers, loves, finds happiness, dies. Social critique and the pointlessness of war.

Neal Stephenson, Anathem (novel, 2008). Discusses many philosophical topics including parallel worlds, discussion of metaphysics. Describes a world in which modern philosophy is highly valued.

Phillip K. Dick, “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (short story, 1966). Philosophy of memory, what does it mean for something to be my experience?

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale (novel, 1985). Ethical issues of a world where fertility is declining, feminist critique of the value of women in society.

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler’s Wife (novel, 2003). Time travel! Can you change the past? When our timelines are determined, what differences do our choices make?

Frank Herbert, Dune (novel, 1965). Questions the meaning of life, ethics, utilitarianism, and the treatment of indigenous populations. Discusses issues of fate and being able to see the future, suggests at the perils of AI.

Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). Description of life in a 2 dimensional world, social critique of the arbitrariness of social standing and the class system, references Plato’s cave allegory.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (novel, 1979). Discussion of the meaning of life (or lack thereof), critique of how indigenous or rural populations are treated, discussion of determinism regarding the end of the universe and time travel.

Grant Naylor, Red Dwarf: Infinity Welcomes Careful Drivers (novel, 1989). Last human in existence scenario, discusses the meaning of life, AI, consciousness downloading, time travel, and how to be your own father among other themes. Hilarious.


List from Craig Callender (Professor of Philosophy, University of California at San Diego):

Charles Yu, How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (novel, 2010). Only 93 percent of the laws of physics were installed in this universe. People time travel, but mostly in sad desperate attempts to change the past. Yu, the narrator and character in the book, is a low level technician whose job is to stop them. Cool send-up of time travel books, but very human story.

Philip K. Dick, Counter-clock World (novel, 1967). OMG this one is stupid! It’s the opposite of Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow in terms of depth, meaning, writing, sophistication and coherence – but fun and philosophical and right up my alley. In 1986 time arrow flips: people start calling from their graves to be let out, un-smoking stubs to clean their lungs…and don’t think about eating and excreting.

Fred Hoyle, Black Cloud (novel, 1957). I’m excited to see others suggest this and also that it got a new release in 2015. Great for epistemology and philosophy of mind. One of the best sci fi books I’ve read.

Greg Egan, Axiomatic (short story collection, 1995). This collection contains many of my favorite stories ever, including “Hundred Light Year Diary” (bouncing signals off a time-reversed galaxy gets you answers before you sent questions…fate, fatalism, free will, time) “Learning to Be Me” (functionalism, personal identity). I’ve used three of the stories in philosophy courses.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (novel, 2009). Capitalism, genetic engineering and global warming all run amok…the world portrayed is massively original. For more stress on the American West, water and environmental ethics (or lack thereof), read Bacigaluipi’s The Water Knife.

Cixin Liu, The Dark Forest (novel 2008, trans. 2015). This is the second installment after The Three Body Problem. Good for game theory? After learning what the title refers to (a theory), you’ll never be in favor of the SETI program.

Battlestar Galactica 2 (television series, 2005-present). My favorite scifi TV series. Hard to think of topics in philosophy not thoughtfully done here. Just fantastic.

Stanislaw Lem, Solaris (novel 1961, trans. 1970). Seems wrong not to mention this classic. Great for epistemology and philosophy of science.

Hugh Howey, Wool (short story series, 2011-2013). Not great writing, but fun, fast and original. Plato in the Cave themes, trolley problem dilemmas.

M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (novel, 2014). The book jacket says, “Kazuo Ishiguro meets The Walking Dead.” That seems right. Good moral tensions.


Further contributions welcome!

To qualify as a contributor, you must either be a professional philosopher (PhD or full-time permanent research/teaching post in philosophy) or a professional SF writer (generating a livable income or comparable degree of critical acclaim) who has done graduate work in philosophy.

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Thursday, August 11, 2016

My 1000th Post. Whoa!

This is my 1000th post at The Splintered Mind.

Ten years. 500,000 words. Four million pageviews. Gadzooks!

I think a toast is in order:

What keeps me going? Three things, I suspect:

I love the discipline of it. At least once a week, I must take some weird thought, or some philosophical or psychological or science fictional idea, and give it shape. It has to be novel enough that specialists won't find it boring. It has to be clearly enough articulated that educated non-philosophers can make sense of it and see why it might be interesting. Every week, I need to find something new that meets these criteria. What an exercise for the mind!

I love the directness and lack of filter. I can write whatever I want here! It doesn't have to go through editors. It doesn't have to please referees. I don't have to wait two years to see it in print. It's not behind a paywall or buried in section three of a twenty-page journal article, beribboned with caveats. I can put it here, and you can see it, and I can link to it, and you can link to it, and we can argue about it in the comments section, and there need be no one between us.

I want to engage with a broad audience. Since the topics that interest me also sometimes interest people outside of my corner of the academy, I want to be able to reach those people, have discussions with them, possibly influence them and be influenced by them. Although insular debates among specialists have an important role in philosophy, and sometimes even have an awesomely nerdy beauty, I think philosophy fails if it doesn't also regularly reach out beyond the academy -- and in a way that involves genuinely working out one's ideas in public (as opposed to presenting simplified digests for a public from whom one does not expect to learn anything).

The result has been a hundred posts a year for ten years.

All this blogging has, I believe, changed me as a philosopher. It has solidified my commitment to an ideal of philosophical writing that is as clear and accessible as possible without oversimplifying, my commitment to always seeking what is humanly interesting in philosophical questions, and my commitment to thinking of philosophy as an activity in which everyone engages and to which everyone brings some valuable wisdom rather than as a specialists' exercise to be conducted behind a wall of jargon.

Even if you have never linked or commented, the very notion of your presence has influenced my work, pressuring me always to write more vividly, interestingly, and defensibly. I imagine you reading this post and I am inspired to think through and write each idea as well as I can.

Thank you.

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Monday, August 08, 2016

Forty New Philosophical SF Recommendations

Since 2014, I've been collecting professional philosophers' recommendations of personal favorite "philosophically interesting" SF -- where "SF" is meant to include not only science fiction but also "speculative fiction" more broadly construed. Each philosopher recommends ten works, along with a brief "pitch" pointing toward the philosophical interest of those works.

The results as of last summer are here (41 philosophers' recommendations). Last week, I nudged some of my friends and got another seven sets of recommendations. Below are the first four. Next week, I'll post the next three (and any others that arrive in the meantime) and I'll update the overall list.

I welcome further contributions to the list (as well as revisions by earlier contributors). To qualify as a contributor, you must meet one of two criteria: (1) You are a "professional philosopher" in the sense that you either have a PhD in philosophy or have a full-time permanent teaching or research post in philosophy; or (2) you are a professional SF writer who has done substantial graduate work in philosophy even if you haven't completed a PhD (where a "professional SF writer" is someone who either generates a livable income from writing SF or who has a level of critical recognition similar to those who generate livable incomes).


List from Paul Prescott (Part-time Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Syracuse University, and Lecturer in Bioethics and Humanities, SUNY Upstate Medical University):

Edwin Abbott, Flatland (novel, 1884). The original mind-bender.

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818). The original bioethical cautionary tale.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (novel, 1932). A critique of contemporary social-political philosophy that still rings true today.

Stanisław Lem, Solaris (novel, 1961). What would it mean to meet a truly alien intelligence?

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Dispossessed (novel, 1974). Another critique of contemporary social-political philosophy … sure to be relevant for some time to come.

C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (novel, 1946). A powerful Christian Platonist vision.

Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (novel, 1959). A challenging vision of one all-too-possible future.

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). A contemporary bioethical cautionary tale.

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (novel, 2003). A challenging vision of another all-too-possible future.

Cormac McCarthy, The Road (novel, 2006). A brilliant, albeit dark, meditation on the nature of the good.


List from Helen Daly (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, Colorado College):

Ted Chiang, The Lifecycle of Software Objects (novel, 2010). Could an AI have moral rights, even if it’s just software? It is hard to imagine drumming up sympathy for the characters in your computer games, but this novel succeeds in pushing us to consider even bodyless software blips as objects of moral concern.

Ridley Scott, Blade Runner (movie, 1982). Based on a Philip K. Dick novel, but with more philosophical depth than the book. It sparks at least these two great philosophical questions: Could androids be people? and What would you ask or say to your creator, if you were really angry about the human condition?

Octavia Butler, “Bloodchild” (short story, 1995). Some questions raised by this short story are: How would it feel to be a farm animal? What exactly is sexual consent? Is the survival of our species worth any price?

Ted Chiang, “Hell Is the Absence of God,” “Seventy-Two Letters,” and “Story of Your Life” (short stories, 1998-2001). Each of these is a fully envisioned reality that offers a new way of seeing our own. They are each mind-blowing in a distinctive, inventive way. Ted Chiang is a genius.

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (novel, 1953). What would it mean for people living now if we knew the human race were about to “evolve” out of existence?

Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel, 2005). The narrative perspective of the novel is one of its chief strengths. We discover the plot along with the narrator, so we spend much of the book wondering what’s going on. A key question raised: Do human clones deserve the same rights as other humans? The novel strongly suggests that they do.

Duncan Jones, Moon (movie, 2009). Like Never Let Me Go, this is a horrifying look at how we might treat someone (again, a clone) whose humanity we question. The pace is extremely slow, so it might not be appropriate for undergraduates.

Greg Egan, “Learning to Be Me” (short story, 1990). This may be the best short, fictional introduction to questions of personal identity and consciousness. There are many great ones, but this is chilling and delightful.

Andrew Niccol, Gattaca (movie, 1997). If genetic diseases were all readily discoverable, would genetic discrimination be permissible? The movie is heavy-handed in its opposition to genetic discrimination, but it never gives great reasons for that. A devil’s advocate could easily disagree.

Paul Verhoeven, Total Recall (movie, 1990). Based on a Philip K. Dick story, this raises skeptical concerns about memories. It is also a fun Schwarzenegger action movie.


List from John Holbo (Associate Professor of Philosophy, National University of Singapore):

Ted Chiang, Stories of Your Life and Others (short stories, 1990-2002). Many others have recommended Chiang and this is absolutely, utterly justified. His stories are far more sophisticated than those of most other sf authors. He is a ‘new’ author, relatively. But he is up there with the best of the classic authors, deservedly. I teach eight Chiang stories every semester and, at most, two by any other author.

The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, Arthur B. Evans et al., eds. (anthology, 2010). When I was first planning to teach SF and Philosophy I fretted long and fruitlessly about which anthology to make into the spine of my syllabus. There are an awful lot of choices—new and old, cheap and expensive. Many of them are very good. Still, I had a perfectionist temptation to make my own from scratch. But it’s better to give the kids some one published collection they can have and hold. I decided the Wesleyan was best of the lot. My personal dissents from the editors’ selections could be turned from bugs into teaching features as we went along. (You’re never going to be perfectly happy with someone else’s anthology about a subject close to your heart, when it comes to teaching that subject. It’s like using someone else’s toothbrush. Well, deal with it.) Some of my choices below are how-to-fix the Wesleyan tips (by my lights). One fix too big for any top-10 list: the Wesleyan is Anglophone—i.e. mostly Americans and Brits. That is a defensible editorial focus, and is tolerably clear from the Table of Contents, if not the cover. You can’t be everything to everyone, plus everywhere at once. (If you want something more international, the very new The Big Book of Science Fiction, edited by the Vandermeers, looks a solid option.)

Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (novel, 1818). So standard you might fail to try it. Try it! I’m a historicist, so I bounce off Brian Aldiss’ well-known Frankenstein-is-first critical line. A nice teaching trick: ask the kids to tell the story of Frankenstein before they read the novel for the first time. So what’s the philosophical difference between what we know is going to be there, and what actually turns out to be there? Also, this is maybe the single most often adapted work of sf, in a broad sense. (So many artificial beings constructed, so unwisely, since Shelley’s day.)

Greg Bear, The Wind From A Burning Woman (short stories, 1978-1983). Bear is first and foremost a novelist, and many of his novels are philosophically fantastic and would be eminently teachable. But in the classroom there is a limit on the number of novels you can assign. Short stories are the way to go. I pick Wind, rather than, say, Tangents, because it contains “Petra”, about the day the laws of nature change. Very grue. But medieval, if that’s your cup of after time-t and/or you want to get Goodman and the Good God of Augustine out of the way at the same time. I list Bear to compensate for his unjust omission from the Wesleyan. I think their picks from the 1980’s are non-representative. (I have not actually assigned Bear in my own class but am planning to do “Petra” this coming semester.) Bear deserves to be higher on the list of recommended authors than he currently stands.

David Brin, Kiln People (novel, 2002). Another hard-sf ‘Killer B’ (like Bear—see also: Benford) from the 80’s who didn’t make the Wesleyan cut. Brin is not so strong in the short story department (so his exclusion from a short story collection is pardonable.) Kiln People is a novel from 2002, but I rate it philosophically higher than his better-known Uplift books. Kiln came in second for, like, every prize. It coulda’ been a contender for classic novel status! If you are teaching personal identity stuff and you want Derek Parfit’s Reason and Persons, but a murder mystery, this is for you. Brin is on my list twice, not because he’s so great as all that, just because if I assign essays or criticism from fiction writers, I like to sample their actual fiction as well. And I assign Brin’s criticism. See the next entry. This semester I’m planning to recommend (not require) Kiln.

Star Wars On Trial, David Brin et al. (non-fiction anthology, 2006) Resolved: Stars Wars is crap and the cause of the ever-increasing crapification of sf. That’s pretty much it. Then the various authors line up and go at it, hammer and tongs, pro and con. This book is fun, available in a cheap Kindle edition (as of this writing) and extremely helpful for teaching-by-example a particular style of writing: informal, opinionated, argumentative (in all senses) personal essays. This is also a good book for bridging the literary-vs-film gap, if you need something to help you over that hump; and to help address the historically huge phenomenon of Stars Wars—something curiously invisible if you are just using, say, the Wesleyan anthology. At a certain point sf became mostly not on paper. So is that good, bad or indifferent?

Jonathan Lethem, Gun, With Occasional Music (novel, 1994). Lethem takes up the Philip K. Dick mantle in about as stylish and sophisticated a way as anyone ever has. PKD is a giant, of course, and I assume you are teaching some. (What are you? A fool?) So maybe you want to talk about the literary legacy of that line? Gun, With Occasional Music. It’s got an Ubik-y, VALIS-y, Scanner Darkly-y paranoid noir-vibe. In a weird way it would go great with Brin’s Kiln People (see #5). Or his Uplift novels, come to think of it. (That kangaroo!) A murder mystery that is really an exploration of personal identity, only in this case the technical novum is not qualitative duplication of selves but deliberate (often pharmaceutical) self-design. Yet Lethem is stylistically the antipodes of Brin. So hereby you get at that no-nonsense hard-sf thing that goes back to Campbell and Gernsback, vs. the literary New Wave that starts in the 60’s. You can’t teach the history of sf without touching on that, I say.

James Tiptree, Jr., anything from Her Smoke Rose Up Forever (besides “And I Awoke and Found Me Here On The Cold Hill’s Side”) (short stories, 1969-1980). Alice Sheldon, a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr. is the best female sf author who isn’t named Ursula. Or maybe she’s just the best. But the Wesleyan editors, in their wisdom, include what I regard as one of her most ‘meh’ stories. No accounting for taste, but I would recommend her other stories, and every sf and philosophy class should include one from Tiptree. (Also, I suppose Her Smoke Rose Up Forever goes well, in a titular sense, with Bear’s The Wind From A Burning Woman. Not that I recommend being pyromaniacal about it. But maybe you have a St. Joan thing?)

Fritz Lang, Metropolis and William Cameron Menzies and H.G. Wells, Things To Come (movies, 1927 and 1936). They go together. If you are teaching SF film you have to teach Lang’s Metropolis. It’s the first special effects blockbuster, which failed (it lost money). It’s the first glossy triumph of sexy style over philosophical substance (that is trying to be philosophical, despite succumbing to its own sexy siren song of style.) It’s the first blockbuster dystopia. It’s dumb (which might trick you into thinking you can skip it, but you would be an idiot to do that, at least if you seek any kind of history angle on the subject.) Less well-known: you have to Teach Menzies’ (H.G. Wells scripted) Things To Come, which was a deliberate, blockbuster response to Lang’s failed blockbuster—which also failed and lost money. Things is highly utopian and rationalistic in spirit, which plays very weird onscreen. It’s a study in how not to make Star Wars (for example). The students will dislike it. Then you ask them: list everything this film does wrong, by contemporary Hollywood standards. Might it be that Wells was trying to write a philosophy of technology? (Alas, an sf screenplay cannot be a philosophy of technology.) This is an excellent via negativa exercise.

The online Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute et al., eds. (non-fiction encyclopedia, 1979-present). Weirdly, students often seem not to find this when they are looking for stuff. You really ought to point them to it. It’s not itself fiction, nor (primarily) philosophical, but it’s scholarly enough. And it’s huge. Why don’t more people know of it? Why isn’t it higher in the Google ranks? I don’t know. I really don’t.


List from Ethan Mills (Assistant Professor of Philosophy, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga):

Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light (novel, 1967). In the far future humans use technology to become gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon, until a Buddhist challenger arrives. Not entirely accurate, nor easy to understand, but always fun.

Frank Herbert, God Emperor of Dune (novel, 1981). The most philosophical of a philosophical series. Aside from Herbert’s usual ruminations on politics, ecology, and what it means to be human when some are more human than human, it asks: What would you do with the whole human race?

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (novels, 1993 and 1998). During a chillingly realistic slide into dystopia paired with meditations on race, gender, empathy, and nationalism, a quasi-religion, Earthseed, is founded by the main character and later questioned by her daughter. Should we make space travel a long term organizing goal rather than war, economic gain, or political domination?

C. S. Friedman, This Alien Shore (novel, 1999). A bit of Dune, a bit of cyberbunk, and deep science fictional meditations on the value of diversity in which physiological diversity is paired with cognitive diversity.

Amy Thomson, The Color of Distance (novel, 1995). A scientist is marooned on a planet with amphibian aliens. Exploration of issues in feminist ethics and philosophy of science: Should we abide by abstract rules and sanitized observation or should we also rely on lived experience, particular judgments, and direct interaction?

Liu Cixin, The Three Body Problem (novel, Chinese original 2008, English translation by Ken Liu 2014). Begins during the Chinese Cultural Revolution and follows a First Contact story and a video game that features Mozi and Leibniz and introduces a world where the laws of nature aren’t uniform.

Jo Walton, The Just City (novel, 2015). Time traveling goddess Athena tries to set up Plato’s Republic in the pre-Homeric Mediterranean world. Socrates shows up. Hijinks and philosophical ruminations ensue.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (novel, 2015). A beautiful, melancholic work of hard scientific speculation and philosophical inquiries on artificial intelligence, narrative theories of personal identity, and whether it’s ecologically plausible or ethically desirable to colonize other solar systems. The ship is one of my all time favorite characters.

Nnedi Okorafor, Lagoon (novel, 2014). Aliens first contact a giant swordfish and then encounter various humans of Lagos, Nigeria. Science fiction doesn’t have to be Eurocentric or even anthropocentric.

Carolyn Ives Gilman, Dark Orbit (novel, 2015). An expedition to a planet where the inhabitants are mostly blind. Interrogates whether the senses, especially in the modality of vision, and empirical scientific methodologies are giving us the full picture of the universe.

ETA: Ethan welcomes further discussion on his blog here.


[image source]

Friday, August 05, 2016

The Mind/Body Problem Revisited

... a new interview of me, on the philosophy and science of consciousness, by Tam Hunt, in yesterday's issue of Noozhawk.

I'm pretty happy with how the interview turned out. Thanks, Tam!

Thursday, August 04, 2016

Are the Social Elite Moral Experts?

Michael Huemer has just published an ambitious and interesting article defending the idea that global moral progress toward "liberal" values is best explained as a result of the gradual discovery of the truth of those values. By "liberal", Huemer means views that recognize the equal dignity and worth of diverse people and oppose gratuitous coercion and violence. (Published version here; free preprint here.)

I'm inclined to accept Huemer's big-picture view (with some hesitations and modifications). But I want to highlight one passage for discussion. It concerns "reformers" -- the people who see past the prevailing norms of their day and push toward moral progress (e.g., early anti-slavery activists, early advocates of women's right to vote).

... reformers tend to be disproportionately influential members of society. They are more likely, for example, to be authors, professors, other intellectuals, or business or political leaders, as opposed to members of less influential professions. This is because the ability to see through errors in prevailing social norms will be strongly correlated with one’s degree of intelligence and reflectiveness, which itself is correlated with belonging to relatively socially influential professions.

In the manuscript preprint, but not in the final published version, the passage continues:

For example, a talented writer who wants to promote greater tolerance for homosexuality will have more influence on society than a steel worker who wants attitudes toward homosexuality to stay the same. That is an extreme example, but it illustrates the point that people who desire social reform tend to have much more influential social positions than the average member of society.

So: Is it true that intellectuals and business leaders are more likely to see beyond the moral errors of their culture and more likely to desire social reform?

This is partly an empirical question. It would be interesting to see some empirical data on this. My hunch, though, is that the situation is more complicated than Huemer suggests.

Here's what strikes me as likely to be right about Huemer's claim in the quoted passages:

The social and intellectual elite will, on average, have traveled and read more widely than others. As a result, (1.) they will, on average, have been exposed to a greater variety of social norms, including some that conflict with the local cultural norms of their childhood, and this is a plausible source of social and moral insight; and (2.) they will, on average, tend to have more cosmopolitan worldviews in general, seeing less of a divide between themselves and the social elite in other societies to which they have been exposed.

The social and intellectual elite might also, on average, have more social opportunity to advance reforms that they care about, especially if pushing for reform can advance their career goals (e.g., giving them opportunities to write attention-grabbing articles).

However, I hesitate to draw the conclusion that members of socially elite professions have more accurate moral views in general or are more likely to desire social reform.

Here are some of my reasons for hesitation:

* The view comes across as a little bit elitist and self-congratulatory, at least on the surface. I say this not as a personal critique of Huemer, but just as a thought about how these statements read at first glance. These are reasons not to accept the view quickly or casually, without careful examination of alternative possibilities.

* Members of socially elite professions tend to be people who are benefiting from the status quo, so it would be surprising if they were disproportionately dissatisfied with the system that has put them in their positions of power.

* Huemer is emphasizing certain sorts of moral norms on which, I agree, there has been a lot of progress in the past couple of centuries, and for which there is at least some superficially plausible reason to think intellectuals might tend to be opinion leaders -- what he calls the "liberal" norms of non-violence and equal rights. But of course there are many other arguably ethical norms on which it's not clear we have made progress, and on which it's harder to build a case that intellectuals and businesspeople exhibit leadership, such as norms of kindness and thoughtfulness to those around us (not being a jerk) and norms of modesty, restraint, and humility. It seems to me at least possible that whatever cosmopolitan liberal insights the social elite may tend to have are approximately counterbalanced by a tendency toward lack of insight on some of these other issues.

* Suppose we grant that intellectuals are more likely to develop radical new moral insights at variance with their culture. One possible explanation is greater moral intelligence. But another possibility might be something like a random walk view: Intellectuals might tend to to reject culturally prevailing norms in all directions, good, bad, and sideways, just because part of being an intellectual means questioning existing norms. We might then disproportionately remember the ones who endorsed views that we now favor and disproportionately forget the ones who advocated breaking cultural norms in ways that we don't favor -- e.g., calling for eugenics, increased colonization, nudist communes, forcible religious conversion, unrealistic utopian social planning, etc. This disproportionate forgetting might lead to the impression in retrospect that intellectuals tend to be insightfully ahead of their time.


HT: Helen De Cruz, "Who Needs Moral Experts, Anyway?"


Related posts:

Steven Pinker: "Wow, How Awesome We Liberal Intellectuals Are!" (Apr 13, 2012)

On Whether the Rich are Jerks (Mar 31, 2012)

[image source]

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Top Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazines 2016

In 2014, as a beginning writer of science fiction or speculative fiction, with no idea what magazines were well regarded in the industry, I decided to compile a ranked list of magazines based on awards and "best of" placements in the previous ten years. Since people seemed to find it useful or interesting, last year I updated. Below is my new list for 2016.

Method and Caveats:

(1.) Only magazines are included (online or in print), not anthologies or standalones.

(2.) I gave each magazine one point for each story nominated for a Hugo, Nebula, Eugie, or World Fantasy Award in the past ten years; one point for each story appearance in any of the Dozois, Horton, Strahan, Clarke, or Adams "Year's Best" anthologies; and half a point for each story appearing on in the short story or novelette category of the annual Locus Recommended list.

(3.) I am not attempting to include the horror / dark fantasy genre, except as it appears incidentally on the list.

(4.) Prose only, not poetry.

(5.) I'm not attempting to correct for frequency of publication or length of table of contents.

(6.) I'm also not correcting for a magazine's only having published during part of the ten-year period. Reputations of defunct magazines slowly fade, and sometimes they are restarted. Reputations of new magazines take time to build.

(7.) Lists of this sort do tend to reinforce the prestige hierarchy. I have mixed feelings about that. But since the prestige hierarchy is socially real, I think it's in people's best interest -- especially the best interest of outsiders and newcomers -- if it is common knowledge.

(8.) I take the list down to 1.5 points.

(9.) I welcome corrections.

Results: [corrected Aug 8]

1. Asimov's (253 points)
2. Fantasy & Science Fiction (190.5)
3. Clarkesworld (104.5)
4. (96.5) (started 2008)
5. Subterranean (82.5) (ran 2007-2014)
6. Lightspeed (64.5) (started 2010)
7. Strange Horizons (51)
8. Analog (48)
9. Interzone (45.5)
10. Fantasy Magazine (27.5) (merged into Lightspeed 2012, occasional special issues thereafter)
11. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (18.5) (started 2008)
12. Postscripts (16) (ceased 2014)
12. Realms of Fantasy (16) (ceased 2011)
14. Apex (14.5)
14. Jim Baen's Universe (14.5) (ceased 2010)
16. Electric Velocipede (7) (ceased 2013)
16. SciFiction (7) (ceased 2005)
18. The New Yorker (6.5)
18. Nightmare (6.5) (started 2012)
20. Black Static (6) (started 2007)
20. Intergalactic Medicine Show (6)
20. Uncanny (6) (started 2014)
23. Helix SF (5.5) (ran 2006-2008)
24. McSweeney's (4.5)
25. Cosmos (4)
25. Flurb (4) (ran 2006-2012)
27. Black Gate (3.5)
27. Conjunctions (3.5)
27. Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet (3.5)
27. Tin House (3.5)
31. GigaNotoSaurus (3) (started 2010)
32. Lone Star Stories (2.5) (ceased 2009)
32. Matter (2.5) (started 2011)
32. Nature (2.5)
32. Shimmer (2.5)
32. Weird Tales (2.5) (off and on throughout period)
37. Aeon Speculative Fiction (2) (ceased 2008)
37. Futurismic (2) (ceased 2010)
37. Harper's (2)
40. Cemetery Dance (1.5)
40. Daily Science Fiction (1.5) (started 2010)
40. Sirenia Digest (1.5)
40. Terraform (1.5) (started 2014)
40. The Dark (1.5) (started 2013)


(1.) The New Yorker, Tin House, McSweeney's, Conjunctions, and Harper's are prominent literary magazines that occasionally publish science fiction or fantasy. Cosmos and Nature are popular and specialists' (respectively) science magazines that publish a little bit of science fiction on the side. The remaining magazines focus on the F/SF genre.

(2.) It's also interesting to consider a three-year window. Here are those results, down to six points:

1. (57)
2. Clarkesworld (54.5)
3. Asimov's (54)
4. Lightspeed (37.5)
5. F&SF (35)
6. Subterranean (24)
7. Analog (21.5)
8. Strange Horizons (13)
9. Beneath Ceaseless Skies (12)
10. Interzone (11.5)
11. Apex (8)
12. Nightmare (6)
12. Uncanny (6)

My sense is that recently, Clarkesworld, Asimov's, Lightspeed, and F&SF form approximately one peer group; Analog is its own unique thing (with a decades-long reputation as a great place for old-school hard SF); Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Interzone, and Apex form a second peer group; and Nightmare and Uncanny are influential newcomers. (Subterranean is now closed.) The future of remains to be seen now that it has closed its slushpile in favor of submissions by invitation only.

(3.) One important thing left out of these numbers is the rise of good podcast venues such as the Escape Artists' podcasts (Escape Pod, Podcastle, and Pseudopod), Drabblecast, and StarShipSofa. None of these qualify for my list by existing criteria, but podcasting might be the leading edge of a major change in the industry. It's fun to hear a short story podcast while driving or exercising, and people might increasingly obtain their short fiction that way. (Some text-based magazines, like Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Strange Horizons, are also now regularly podcasting their stories.)

(5.) Philosophers interested in science fiction might also want to look at Sci Phi Journal, which publishes both science fiction with philosophical discussion notes and philosophical essays about science fiction.

(6.) Other lists: The SFWA qualifying markets list is a list of "pro" science fiction and fantasy venues based on pay rates and track records of strong circulation. is a regularly updated list of markets, divided into categories based on pay rate.

(7.) The "Sad Puppy" kerfuffle threatens to damage the once-sterling reputation of the Hugos, but the Hugos are a small part of my calculation and the results are pretty much the same either way.

[image source; admittedly, it's not the latest issue!]

Survey on What Is Important in Philosophy

... conducted by Valerie Tiberus.

She writes:

In my capacity as the president of the Central Division of the American Philosophical Association and as part of the research for my 2017 presidential address, I have created a survey for philosophers: “What Matters to Philosophers”. The point of the survey is to gather the views of philosophers regarding what is valuable in our academic discipline, so that we can address questions about philosophy’s future and its role in the academy on the basis of values we share as a community. They survey is anonymous and the data will be shared.

Survey here.

This is an important topic, and the results might have some impact on APA policy and general perceptions of the field. It takes about 15 minutes to complete. I would encourage readers to complete it, regardless of their degree of formal connection with the field. In fact, I would especially encourage non-philosophers to express their perceptions of the field, since I expect non-philosophers will not be well represented among survey respondents, and it would be valuable for the APA to get a sense of their views about what is important in philosophy. (At the end of the survey there are demographic questions so that the responses of people with different degrees of philosophical training can be distinguished.)

Sunday, July 31, 2016

First Sentences Project (Part Five)


How much can you predict about a story from its title and first sentence alone? Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Cati Porter, Rachel Swirsky, and I have discovered the answer!

Well, maybe not the definitive answer. Here's what we did: We took the first sentences of five stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine (kindly provided to us in advance by John Joseph Adams) and attempted to predict the plot of each story. [Note: Ann and Rachel attempted to predict based on the first sentence alone, while Aliette, Cati, and I also looked to the title for clues.] Links to the results from the first four stories are below.

"Magnifica Angelica Superable" by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.

"The One Who Isn't" by Ted Kosmatka.

"Some Pebbles in the Palm" by Kenneth Schneyer.

"5x5" by Jilly Dreadful.

Our fifth and final story is "The Child Support of Cromdor the Condemned" by Spencer Ellsworth. It begins:

Cromdor the Caldernian, thrice-condemned, (I've forgotten the rest, but believe you me, there is thrice more) had nearly finished his tale when the traveler slipped in.

So... what's going to happen to Cromdor? Let's guess. We can do it!

(I've put a link to the full story at the end of the post.)


Our Guesses (order of authorship has been randomized):

Cati Porter:

This is the story of a deadbeat dad evading supporting his kid in the same way that he evaded capture and punishment.

Or perhaps he is a womanizer and doesn’t even know about all of the bastard children he has left behind in his life on the run and finally the process server (aka “the traveler”) has found him, thanks to a tip by a barmaid to a private investigator.

Or maybe this is like that story with Duane “The Rock” Johnson where a kid he doesn’t know exists suddenly shows up at his house and he is forced to become a dad rather just a sperm donor.

This “Cromdor” guy does not sound like someone you want to hang out with, unless you like getting into trouble.

This sounds like a story told in a bar, over a big pint of whatever they call beer. This story also must take place in a world where there aren’t so many people with the same name, so that you can say “Cromdor the Caldernian” rather than “Cromdor the Frugductorian” (or whatever) and know they are two different people, and that the name “Cromdor” is not equivalent to John or Steve.

Ann Leckie:

Each of the three times Cromdor was condemned, he managed to bargain for some more time--he agreed to accept each sentence of death on a prearranged date, far in the future. Far enough that he might die accidentally before then. Except he doesn't--his executioners are supernatural and as the proverb goes, a man won't drown if he's destined to hang. Quite the contrary--his luck has been quite good, he's escaped every attempt on his life (and believe me there have been plenty, Cromdor did not make himself popular in his youth), and, now too old for all that wandering around and pillaging business, he's met a rich widow and settled into life as a prosperous innkeeper.

Tomorrow is the agreed upon day. The first of Cromdor's executioners has just come into the inn, disguised as a weary traveler, a pilgrim to the shrine a few towns away. The other two can't be far behind.

Cromdor, of course, has a plan. There are three executioners, three separate condemnations on separate occasions. Each of those executioners is determined to deprive Cromdor of breath and life. But while it was easy enough to condemn him three times, he can only be executed once.

If Cromdor plays his cards right, all he has to do is introduce all three to each other and then run. Then again, Cromdor never could just do the obvious right thing, and besides, he doesn't really want to run away, he's been enjoying the whole rich innkeeper thing too much.

Eric Schwitzgebel:

I love the juxtaposition in the title. Cromdor is some muscled, greatsword-swinging hero. Evidently, he is entangled in a legal battle about child support. He is thrice-condemned not because he is evil, but because of the misjudgments and political cluelessness that go along with his barbarian attitude, perhaps even a stand on a principle of honor. And that dalliance with the fair maiden, well, what do you expect? Child support will be owed. The fair maiden knows her rights under the new statutes.

Cromdor’s tales are embellished. Of course they are! He’s relating them in a lively, torch-lit tavern of the sort where so many tales of adventure begin. But did he expect a legal adventure, with codicils and notaries public and underpayment of estimated tax? No. No, he didn’t. The traveler sees through him. Slips in. Thinks he is smarter than Cromdor.

There will be at least two clever twists and Cromdor will win partly but not entirely by luck, happily ever after, and the child will be supported. Cromdor may still be condemned, but the punishment need not fall. He’s in a different jurisdiction now, and they cancelled the extradition treaty after that dust-up about the eighty-year-old mining claims from the Aldunian League.

For the traveler and the maiden I foresee a mixed resolution, with both consolations and regrets.

The notary public will be the only one who gets exactly what is expected.

Aliette de Bodard:

Guessing this is going to be a humorous story in a Sword and Sorcery world. I'm guessing Cromdor is some kind of barbarian, and he will find in the course of the story that one of the maidens he's slept with has a child and wants him to take the child along on his adventuring.

Rachel Swirsky:

Stipulation: I know a little bit about this story because I interviewed Spencer Ellsworth for my blog so I’m going further afield here than I would natively.

The traveler has news of a quest! The quest is to defeat a dragon. But when they reach the dragon, it turns out that this is a portal fantasy instead. The dragon is actually something technological from the future—a war robot or something. The traveler ventures through the future, giving us glimpses of both the perspective of his own past world and this future one, and then discovers that there is actually a dragon in the future. It is an alien invasion of dragon-like evil things. The war robots are dispatched, but it’s up to Cromdor and his companion to go back to the portal and bring back other barbarians and warriors from their fantasy realm because no one knows more about how to fight dragons than epic fantasy folks.

Also, his tale from the beginning that he was telling at the tavern, is relevant somehow.


We mostly agree: Cromdor is a well-muscled barbarian fighter, and he tells his tale in a tavern. That’s already kind of an interesting consensus, since neither of those facts is explicitly mentioned or directly inferable, yet somehow the author has effectively triggered those standard fantasy tropes. Also, we mostly to agree that this will be a humorous story (there’s already a joking tone in the first parenthesis), that the child support will have something to do with sexual exploits in Cromdor’s former life of adventure, and that probably that there will be some cleverness and unexpected twists.

Full story here!




Further Thoughts from the Contributors:

What I like about this line by Swirsky:

The alliterative name catches attention. It also gives a clue about what the reader can expect in the story because the name so specifically evokes a genre. The parenthetical establishes some humorous tone, and a particular narrative style. Then there’s a traditional movement “the traveler slipped in and did what?”

Diagnosis of our guesses (warning: SPOILERS) by Schwitzgebel:

What we got right: The stuff we mostly agreed on, we got right: Cromdor is a barbarian, he’s telling stories of past glory in a tavern, he owes child support from his wild past days of bedding maidens. The story is humorous and clever. I was right that the laws are changing and Cromdor is caught up in them, that the condemnations don’t fall for jurisdictional reasons, and that the child is supported at the end – and there’s even something about a mining rights!

What we got wrong: Contra Porter, Cromdor is good at heart (despite dubious morals). Contra Leckie, it’s not mostly about Cromdor evading his death sentences. Contra me, the traveler is the child himself, not an attorney or scammer, and the child ends up supported more in a sweet and symbolic way than in a monetary way. Contra de Bodard, the child doesn’t seek adventure. Contra Swirsky, no portals, and ice giants instead of dragons.

The first sentence clearly activates some standard fantasy tropes, but then the term “child support” in the title doesn’t fit with those standard tropes, suggesting a kind of cultural change toward legalism and recognition of women’s and children’s rights. We are invited to think that the traveler at the end of the first sentence introduces the factor that breaks Cromdor out of the fantasy world – both the fantasy world of his tales of adventure and the world of the swords-and-sorcery fantasy culture in general. A lot of good setup work in just one sentence!

Group grade: 70%.


Coming Soon: Did We Learn Anything from This Preposterous Exercise or Does Our Ignorance Remain Divinely Unspoiled?

[image source]

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Ethics of Gauging the Interest of PhD Applicants Before Offering Admission or Financial Support

Here's one way philosophy PhD admissions could go: Your program offers admissions to the N top-rated applicants, figuring that X% will accept. If the acceptance rate looks like it will be unexpectedly low, then you expand admissions to the N+M top-rated applicants. Financial support packages could be done in a similarly neat way.

Often, things aren't quite that neat.

One way that they can be less than neat involves a department's gauging the interest of an applicant before offering admission or financial support. Here's an experience I had as an applicant in the 1990s: A professor called me from one of the schools to which I'd been admitted, and he told me that they had only a few "top tier" financial support packages to offer to prospective graduate students. He said they would be happy to offer me one of those packages if I was likely to come, but they didn't want to waste it on me if I was likely to go somewhere else. I told him I hadn't ruled out his school yet, but that I had a greater level of initial interest in a couple of other schools. I did not receive that financial support package and decided not the visit the school.

That was a fine outcome for me. I'd kind of thought of the school as a "safety" school anyway. The professor correctly guessed that my application was strong enough that I'd been admitted to higher prestige programs than his. It would have been unusual for an applicant in my position to choose his school over those others.

Although that was a couple of decades ago, I think the practice isn't unusual. Recently the APA's Committee on the Status and Future of the Profession, of which I am a member, discussed an email from a former PhD applicant suggesting that the APA adopt a policy against departments' contacting applicants to gauge their level of interest before making offers. Apparently she had been contacted by the Director of Graduate Studies at a department to which she had applied but to which she hadn't yet been admitted. Her sense of the conversation was that the DGS was prepared to offer the student admission if the student committed in advance to accepting the offer. She felt that this constituted illegitimate pressure to decide about a school before the conventional April 15 deadline.

In general, it seems to be in the interest of the profession if applicants can see the full range of offers and then choose the offer that fits their interests best rather than being pressured into accepting early offers out of fear, possibly at schools that are relatively poor matches for them. (Here's the official APA statement on the April 15th deadline for accepting graduate student aid offers.)

I, and some other members of the Status and Future Committee, are interested in others' thoughts about this issue. The APA might be willing consider clarifying or revising the APA's April 15 deadline policy, if that seems desirable.

The official wording of the APA policy is that "Students are under no obligation to respond to offers of financial support prior to April 15". Situations of the sort described above don't appear to violate the letter of this policy, since support has not been formally offered. However, it could be argued that informal conditional offers violate the spirit.

On the other hand, we might use hiring as a model, and it's common in both academic and non-academic hiring for the hiring department to gauge applicant interest before making an offer. Also, practically speaking, some departments have "hard caps" on enrollment or funding so that they cannot make more than N offers for N slots. Departments with hard caps will be in a difficult situation if several candidates who are unlikely to accept wait until April 15 to decide. Other departments, even with softer caps, still might not be able to rely on higher-level administration to return the slots to them if applicants decline. Departments in either of these positions might understandably want to reserve some of their primary offers or waiting-list offers for applicants they think are likely to accept; and part of this process might involve informally asking applicants about their about likelihood of accepting an offer if one were to be made.

Discussion welcomed below.

[cross-posted at the Blog of the APA]

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

First Sentences Project (Part Four)


How much can you predict about a story from its title and first sentence alone? Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Cati Porter, Rachel Swirsky, and I are in the process of finding out! We have taken the first sentences of five stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine (kindly provided to us in advance by John Joseph Adams) and attempted to predict the plot of each story. [Note: Ann and Rachel attempted to predict based on the first sentence alone, while Aliette, Cati, and I also looked to the title for clues.]

Our first story was “Magnifica Angelica Superable” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.

Our second story was "The One Who Isn't" by Ted Kosmatka.

Our third story was "Some Pebbles in the Palm" by Kenneth Schneyer.

This week we do our final two stories of the month. First, “5x5” by Jilly Dreadful, which begins:

Sugarloaf Fine Sciences Summer Camp
Bunk Note: Cabin Lamarr

Dear Scully,
I should’ve been suspicious of the girl in the lab coat offering me psychic ice cream.

Due to a transcription error, only Ann and Cati saw the first three lines. Aliette, Rachel, and I just saw the text starting from “Dear Scully,”.

Uh-oh. Psychic ice cream! So... what do we think comes next?

(I've put a link to the full story at the end of the post.)


Our Guesses (order of authorship has been randomized):

Rachel Swirsky:

(Note: I admit I’m a bit biased because I am writing a story about psychic ice cream. Yes, really.)

Scully turns out to be Scully from the X-Files, and this is Mulder writing to her. We’re in a universe that’s X-Files reminiscent, but covered by parody, so it’s not a violation of copyright law.

Mulder goes on to tell her a detailed story about his experience eating the psychedelic ice cream. The letter is about a page long, and ends with his sign-off.

The rest of the story is told in letters to Scully of approximately the same length (with a longer one at the climax, and a few shorter ones peppered in for humor and pacing reasons), detailing a lot of zany adventures that are gently mocking—in the spirit of tribute—the X-Files.

A through thread involves an alien-human conspiracy which is developed lightly in references during the early part of the story, with a direct encounter about 1/3 of the way through. After halfway through, the references become thicker, and the story eventually becomes mostly about the conspiracy, with a climactic scene that’s longer than the others where the alien conspiracy thing comes to an urgent state, and is subsequently resolved.

The story ends on a final letter or two which incorporate both humor (in reference to new zany adventures now being embarked upon) and a note of emotional resonance based on Mulder’s recent experiences.

Cati Porter:

What’s immediately clear is that: a.) this story must be at least partially comprised of letters home from summer camp; and b.) this is not your summer camp! Addressing it to “Scully” could mean that this is X Files fan fiction; or that this letter-writing duo has taken on the names of X Files characters; or, could have no relationship whatsoever at all! But because of how popular the series is, I have to think that it was a deliberate attempt draw some parallels between the show and this story, and to immediately point to something strange, supernatural, or super silly about this story.

A lot of information is conveyed in these first few lines. Sugarloaf is a small mountain town near Big Bear City, so we’ve already been given a location. Most of us know what to expect from a summer camp and psychic ice cream from girls in lab coats is not one of them! So it subverts expectations and invites us to read further.

If we assume that the speaker is the “Mulder” to the recipient’s “Scully”, then there is likely some active investigation taking place. Because of the way the speaker is reflecting on how they *should* have been suspicious, the fact that they weren’t indicates that either they have somehow been tricked or that they didn’t realize what they were getting themselves into. The presence of a girl in a lab coat is indicative of a clinical setting, and in such a remote location, it could be that the camp is taking advantage of unsuspecting “campers” and conducting sneaky scientific experiments on them. The “psychic ice cream” points toward some form of mind-alteration, whether that be via some crazy cap covered in electrodes or telepathy or drugs. My sense is that the speaker is in peril and this letter is intended to bring aid. Except: The “bunk note” is the return address? So it’s not as though they are being held against their will, if the camp is allowing letters to be sent and received. And I’m not sure about the numerical notation - a date? A time index? And then there’s the title, “5x5”. Square feet? The size of the room (or cage?) in which they’re housed? It’s definitely an intriguing opening that is both mundane and mysterious, inviting the reader to keep going to find out what’s going on.

Aliette de Bodard:

This is going to be a surreal, dreamy story about different realities. I'm guessing the psychic ice cream will end up causing some kind of extended mental travelling. The setting will be modern or "mundane" future (i.e. not more than 30 years out), and tinged with fantasy. The title and the epistolary format also make me think that the relationship between our narrator and Scully is going to be key to the story--and quite probably some focus on how they talk and communicate with each other. Wondering if by the end the narrator is in a different reality altogether?

Ann Leckie:

This is a Summer Camp AU X-files fanfic. Middle-school aged Mulder writes to his skeptical friend about discovering that his summer camp is run by aliens disguised as humans, who are luring campers to a secret facility underneath the dusty, spider-ridden shack by the lake. Several campers have disappeared altogether. Others were only gone for most of a day, and insisted on their sudden return that they were merely on a hike, but they are oddly hesitant to discuss the details of their outing and they seem weirdly cheerful, where the day before they had been homesick and complaining. They tell Mulder that once he's gone on the ice cream hike, he too will discover how much fun camp is. He finally breaks into the canoe shed to find only spiders, moldy life-jackets, and a not-at-all dusty empty reagent bottle, which he snuck back to his cabin and hid in his sleeping bag, intending to take it home and run tests on it. It's gone missing, though, and the ice cream hike looms.

Scully's reply suggests that the bread in the dining hall might have been contaminated with ergot, and thus the aliens are toxin-induced hallucinations. The disappeared campers got sick and went home, of course, and as for the ice cream hike, well, Mulder, maybe it's actually a lot of fun!

Of course, this is the X Files so Scully's wrong--the ice cream hike is no fun at all.

Eric Schwitzgebel:

Scully?! You mean like Mulder and Scully from X Files which I’ve only seen once? Or isn’t there a Scully in Monsters Inc? Is this a common name?

This can’t be the actual Scully of X Files. Based on my intimate knowledge of X Files from watching one episode in 1995, I know that Mulder would never accept psychic ice cream from a girl in a lab coat! The character will be X Files Scully-like in some way I won’t understand because I don’t know X Files. No biggie.

Look, no one writes ”should’ve”. People speak that way, but to write that way is forced casualness. It’s a false show of casualness. It’s important to Mulder -- I’ll call the narrator Mulder just to pick a random name out of a hat -- that he seem to be causal, but in fact he’s not causal at all about seeming to be casual. This forced casualness will be his downfall, even more so than the psychic ice cream, which wouldn’t really be harmful to someone without that tragic flaw. The ice cream is symbolic.

I love the tease of the last three words of the first sentence. Don’t we all want to know what psychic ice cream is? The one thing we know for sure is that it’s not what it appears to be!

And “5x5” -- what’s with that title? I already feel boxed in. It’s a tiny three-character title to name a tiny space. The story will end tragically, with Mulder in the moral equivalent of a 5x5 box.

(Not Scully)


This second story brought out longer responses than the earlier ones, even though three of us didn’t see the camp address header, because the (seeming) X-Files reference gave us more to work with. Everyone seems to agree that the writer is Mulder to some version of Scully and that the story will be a mind-bender with weird twists. De Bodard and I predict that the Scully-Mulder relationship will be central to the story, while Swirsky, Porter, and Leckie seem to see aliens, conspiracy, hallucination, and weirdness as more central.

So is it an alien conspiracy with a zany end (Swirsky), a hallucinatory trip with Mulder in trouble (Porter), a story of mental traveling and the nature of communication (de Bodard), a cheerful hallucinatory hike gone wrong (Leckie), or a story about Mulder’s false show of casualness and resulting downfall (Schwitzgebel)?

Full story here!


Further Thoughts from the Contributors:

What I like about this line by Swirsky:

Well, it’s an obvious, disconcerting attention grabber. There are a lot of implied questions to propel the reader onward, and disconcerting imagery to grab their attention. Unusual ideas pop out – “psychic ice cream.” The combination of “girl” and “lab coat” is a contrast, since the latter is usually associated with respect, and the former isn’t. And of course, the beginning – “I should’ve been suspicious” – prepares the reader to ask why, while also highlighting the weirdness in the second part of the sentence.

Diagnosis of our guesses (warning: SPOILERS) by Schwitzgebel:

So yes, the story is set in a summer camp, and yes the X Files Scully-Mulder reference is central to the story – but those points are so obvious that we hardly deserve credit for getting that right.

De Bodard was spot-on that the heart of the story is the Scully-Mulder (actually “Fox”, but same thing) relationship and that it’s all about communication styles. How did she figure that out? I still don’t see the clue to that, rereading the first lines, unless maybe De Bodard knew that the title was also about communication, “5x5” being radio jargon for “loud and clear” (and not, as Porter and I had guessed, reference to the size of a room or box). I’ll give myself partial credit for thinking that Mulder/Fox starts with a forced casualness that becomes his [Jul 27 -- actually "her"!] downfall. He [she] fell hard for Scully right away, and he [she] doesn’t reveal that fact to her in the casual-seeming first letter. He [she] lets go of that pose by the bioluminescent end! But “downfall” probably isn’t right.

“Psychic ice cream” is a bit of a diversion. It’s Scully’s science fair project, and it reappears in the story, but it’s not central. Although the story has some paranormal weirdness in the science fair projects, the paranormal weirdness is mostly a backdrop for a sweet, funny love story. So I’ll have to count the guesses about aliens, hallucinations, etc., as mostly off-target. On the other hand, if we interpret the idea of “alternative realities” in a mundane way, I suppose we can say that Mulder/Fox is in a different reality from the other kids.

I’ll give us a group grade of 60% for this story, with a gold star for Aliette.


Continued at First Sentences Project (Part Five).

Friday, July 22, 2016

Under What Conditions Would You Upload into a Simulated World?

I have a new science fiction story out in Clarkesworld (text version, audiocast). One of my philosophical aims in that story is to reflect about the conditions under which it would make sense to upload into a simulated world.

"Mind uploading" is the hypothetical process of copying your mind into a computational device. If futurists such as Ray Kurzweil are correct, we might be only a few decades away from mind uploading as a real technological option.

When mind uploading is presented in science fiction, usually the following are assumed:

(1.) The uploaded mind retains all the important psychological features of the original mind (including, of course, a genuine stream of conscious experiences).

(2.) The uploaded mind experiences a world as rich as the world of the original mind. If the mind is uploaded into a robot, that world might just be the same world as the world of the original mind. If the mind is uploaded into a Sim or a Matrix world -- that is, an artificial environment of some sort -- that artificial environment is usually assumed to be as rich and interesting as the mundane environment of everyday Earth for normally embodied humans.

Under these conditions, if we also assume that uploading has substantial advantages in improving longevity, allowing backups, improving one's cognitive powers, or giving oneself access to a new rich vein of experiences and possibilities, then it probably makes sense to upload, unless one is strongly committed to traditional human embodiment or to projects or relationships that would no longer be possible post-upload.

However, it seems natural to suppose that if uploading does someday become possible the first uploads will not have features (1) and (2). The first uploaded people (or "people"), even if genuinely conscious, might be seriously psychologically impaired and unable to access a full, rich world of experiences.

There might, however, still be advantages of uploading in terms of longevity and experienced pleasure.

In "Fish Dance", the narrator is presented with the option of uploading his mind under these conditions:

(a.) the world is tiny: a single dance floor, with no input from the larger world outside;
(b.) his mind is limited: he will have some memories from his pre-uploaded self, but he won't fully understand them, and furthermore he won't be able to lay down new memories that last for more than an hour or so;
(c.) his dance-floor experiences will be extremely pleasurable: ideal experiences of dancing ecstasy;
(d.) he will experience this extreme pleasure for a billion years.

Also relevant, of course, are the relationships and projects that he would be leaving behind. (In our narrator's case, a recently deceased child, a living teenage child who wants him to upload, a stale marriage, and an okay but not inspiring career as a professor.)

I say the relationships and projects "he" will leave behind, but of course one interesting question is whether it makes sense to call the uploaded being "him", that is, the same "him" as the narrator.

If it seems obvious to you what one should do under such conditions, the parameters are of course adjustable: We can increase or decrease psychological function, psychological similarity, and quality of memory. We can increase or decrease the size of the world and the range of available input. We can increase or decrease the pleasure and longevity. We can modify the relationships and projects that would be left behind.

You or your descendants might actually face some version of this decision.


"Fish Dance" (Clarkesworld #118, July 2016)

Related blogpost: Goldfish Pool Immortality (May 30, 2014)

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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

First Sentences Project (Part Three)


How much can you predict about a story from its title and first sentence alone? Aliette de Bodard, Ann Leckie, Cati Porter, Rachel Swirsky, and I are in the process of finding out! We have taken the first sentences of five stories from July’s issue of Lightspeed Magazine (kindly provided to us in advance by John Joseph Adams) and attempted to predict the plot of each story. [Note: Ann and Rachel attempted to predict based on the first sentence alone, while Aliette, Cati, and I also looked to the title for clues.]

Our first story was “Magnifica Angelica Superable” by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz.

Our second story was "The One Who Isn't" by Ted Kosmatka.

Our third story is "Some Pebbles in the Palm" by Kenneth Schneyer. It begins

Once upon a time, there was a man who was born, who lived, and who died.

Um... what? The point-of-view character appears already to have died in the first sentence! Where could it possibly be going?

(I've put a link to full story at the end of the post.)


Our Guesses (order of authorship has been randomized):

Eric Schwitzgebel:

The title is zoomed in on the small and trivial -- a few pebbles held in the palm, not even an exact number of pebbles, just “some”. In contrast, the first sentence encompasses a whole lifetime as if from far above.

“Once upon a time”. A fairy tale. There will of course be a moral. By the end we will realize that life is just pebbles in the palm. “All we are is Dust in the Wind, dude”.

There will be literal pebbles. One will almost kill someone, or end a relationship.

Ann Leckie:

A digital entity decides to try embodiment. And not halfway, either, they want to do the whole thing from conception to death. Most digital entities who want to try meatspace just animate already existing machines, or hitch a ride for a while with a human or animal. The digital entity in this story will have to build the tank itself, to grow itself.

Factions both in meatspace and digital space try to make political and/or religious hay out of the entity's project and its results. Attempts are made to destroy the body and delete the entity's backups. The attempts are apparently successful, except for one thing they all forgot, that the entity didn't.

Cati Porter:

Classic opening. It throws us back to bedtime stories, fairy tales. The man could be anyone. We know nothing about him except maybe that he is ordinary, like any other man who has been born, has lived, has died.

The title makes me think of Jack and the Beanstalk with the beans in the palm, except these are pebbles, so (presumably?) will not grow anything.

But anything can happen in a story.

Could these be magic pebbles? Maybe.

I suspect this story takes place in a far away land and involves peasants and castles and bad things happening to ordinary people and maybe even good things happening to bad people. Or bad people who are ordinary in their badness, so much so that they don’t seem bad, just misguided. And maybe even some good people who are so ordinary that you don’t really root for them.

As to where the story goes from here I have no idea.

Rachel Swirsky:

This is a fantasy. The character died in 2010, at the age of 70. Much of the story takes place in his memories from his early teens, in the fifties, when he spent a lot of time wandering the country near his house. There was a creek that ran between houses, which he could follow from his house to others, and when he was eleven, something significant happened while he was skipping stones. It was not a major dramatic or traumatic event, but something that formed his life, a small disappointment that prepared him to understand the universe was indifferent to him.

The story is narrated after his death. The voice of the narration is a distant third person, with access to his mind, but a remote tone.

The story of the character’s life is one of disappointment. He is, emotionally, a version of the character from Death of a Salesman. However, in death, he has a chance that Willie Lowman didn’t – he can learn to see past what he felt and lost to something a little sweeter in the afterlife. A friend, perhaps. Or time to wander alone in the country of his childhood.

Aliette de Bodard:

This is going to be a poetic, lyrical story. There's an interesting contrast between the fairytale format, and the cold reality of a life as stated in the opening sentence. I'm assuming that this will be focused on what can be kept/gained from a particular lifetime. Also possibly might feature several iterations of the same lifetime, or rebirths or some other kind of mechanism for multiple lives?

Most of us agree that the first sentence gives the story a big-picture flavor: The story will encompass at least a whole lifetime and its meaning. It might have some fairytale aspects (Schwitzgebel, Porter, de Bodard). It might involve a perspective on a lifetime from a transcendent point of view, whether as a digital entity (Leckie), in the afterlife (Swirsky), or via a mechanism for rebirth (de Bodard).

Full story here!


Further Thoughts from the Contributors:

What I like about this line by Swirsky:

It sets up a traditional storytelling device with “once upon a time,” giving the reader a clue about the tone of what will follow. The rhythm of the sentence does likewise. The question it asks is interesting because it’s basically a subversion of the idea of what should grab the reader’s attention. This is a very obvious statement, albeit phrased differently than most people would phrase it. So, why is it important enough to say?

Diagnosis of our guesses (warning: SPOILERS) by Schwitzgebel:

Before getting into the what-we-got-right and what-we-got-wrong, two things:

(1.) This story is partly about first sentences! The second paragraph begins “The first few words of a story are a promise. We will have this kind of experience, not that one.”

(2.) In part two of the project, I'd guessed that “The One Who Isn’t” would have a smug, thinks-he’s-so-wise narrator. I was wrong. This story has that kind of narrator – more than any other story I can remember ever reading. It's delicious how annoying I find this narrator. And he totally got me with the pomegranate seed thing, the smartass. Grrrrr! (To be clear: My annoyance is at the artfully conveyed smugness of the narrator, not at Schneyer, who brilliantly crafted that narrative voice for this particular story.)

What we got right: Swirsky was right that there was a youthful memory about pebbles, with mostly symbolic significance (though the narrator falsely says that “the stones are not a symbol”). She was also right that there’s a kind of Willie-Lowman-like failed search for significance. Porter picked up on the ordinariness of the man – a token of all men. De Bodard was right that the story involves multiple lifetimes, including some reflection on whether anything is learned in rebirth. And I was right about the zoomed in / zoomed out perspective and “all we are is Dust in the Wind, dude” – the sophomoric seeming-profundity of that bullshit philosophy. I’m even going to give myself double credit for this, since at the end of the story, the narrator actually says “I’m atoms on the wind.”

What we got wrong: Contra Porter and me, the pebbles aren’t important to the plot of the story. De Bodard was wrong about its being poetical and lyrical; it’s unlyrical meta-fiction. Contra Porter, no fairyland castles. Contra Leckie, no digital entity re-embodiment.

Hey, we did really well, given how little we had to work with! De Bodard and Swirsky came surprisingly close to capturing the spirit of the piece, and I called it on the crappy philosophy. It’s hard to hold Leckie’s miss too much against her, given how boldly specific it was.

Group grade: 75%.

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