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Open PhD position in cognitive science with focus on dinosaurian cognition

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Illustration: Dinosaur head, LUCS logotype, and the text "Dino-cognition"A new PhD position in cognitive science with focus on dinosaurian cognition is open for application.

Last application date is March 1, 2020.

► Announcement  [in English]

► Utlysning  [på svenska]

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58 days ago
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ICE and complicity

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ICE rolled an armored military vehicle. with a gunner in the roof. through an immigrant community in Queens.

ICE dropped an estimated $5 million on 16 of these military vehicles as an "operational necessity for officer safety."

Sophie Haskins: Why I Quit GitHub:

"What am I trying to accomplish by quitting? Am I quitting because I believe it will have some impact on ICE itself, on GitHub's contract with ICE? How will it compare to what I think I can do if I stay and organize from within?"

For me, the answer to the latter question is: I don't know. I don't know if quitting has more impact on stopping these things. Folks are still working hard to make changes from the inside, and I didn't know that quitting going to have more impact than if I were to stay and fight with them.; I realized the impact wasn't my goal -- I wanted to quit because it's unethical to participate in crimes against humanity. I was choosing based on what I can stomach. Even if someone had advised me, "it wouldn't help to quit," I still would have done it. I don't want to be part of a company that contracts with ICE. [...]

For those considering quitting their tech job, you should examine how your company contributes to these things: who you sell technology to, how tech isn't neutral, how that non-neutrality works. If you're working with image (facial) recognition, that's literally a weapon.


People criticize tech companies for putting money above principle, but Github is holding on to a $100K ICE contract despite employee anger, and Facebook says it will continue to sell toxic political ads that are 0.5% of revenue. These are clear examples of putting principle first.

The problem is that employees and journalists have trouble accepting what principles the companies hold. Big tech is not lying about this -- look at their political giving, their tax avoidance, their senior hires, their boards, their products -- but there's a fair amount of denial.

If I sponsored CPAC, evaded taxes, had dinner with Trump, gave Ivanka an Internet freedom award, donated to Mitch McConnell, appeared on Sean Hannity's radio show to defend Alex Jones, and had frequent off-the-record meetings with Republican figures, you would say I'm right-wing.

You would also say this if I had Peter Thiel on my board, hired a former Bush administration official and the public mouthpiece of Trump's family detention program to run my office of public policy, or operated a massive for-profit video recruitment network for white supremacy.

Previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously, previously.

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141 days ago
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146 days ago
Maybe I should migrate my stuff to sourcehut..

Two Hawk Poems

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C Day Lewis's poem, ‘The Hawk Comes Down From The Air’ (1936), starts as Ted Hughesy avant la lettre:
The hawk comes down from the air.
Sharpening his eye upon
A wheeling horizon
Turning scrutiny to prayer.

He guessed the prey that cowers
Below, and learnt to keep
The distance which can strip
Earth to its black contours.

Then trod the air, content
With contemplation till
The truth of valley and hill
Should be self-evident.
The cowers/Below enjambment is a bit clumsy; and the third stanza has the feel of marking time that makes it seem more anticlimactic than it needs to after such a sweeping opening. But then the poem takes a turn for the twee:
Or as the little lark ...
I'll stop there, for a moment, to observe that I don't think there's a poet in the English tradition with the skill to prevent ‘or as the little lark’ coming off as soppy. Anyway.
Or as the little lark
Who veins the sky with song,
Asking from dawn to dark
No revenues of spring:

But with the night descends
Into his chosen tree,
And the famed singer ends
In anonymity.

So from a summer's height
I come into my peace;
The wings have earned their night
And the song may cease.
That ending, retrogressing from Hughes to Newman or indeed Newbolt, feels unearned. A shame, because it starts pretty well.

So: I took this poem, fed it into Google translate on an English-Dutch setting, then took the result and fed it back through the Dutch-English filter. What emerged is below. I prefer it to the original, I think.
The hawk comes down from the sky.
Grinding his eye
Wheeling a horizon
Test run prayer.

He recommended that to the cowering prey
Below, and learned to keep
The distances that strip
The earth for its black contours.

Then enter the air, the contents
With contemplation of
The truth of the valley and hill
Must of course be

Or  the Lark
Whose veins the sky singing,
Questions from dawn to sunset
No income of spring:

But with the night falls
In his chosen tree,
And the famous singer ends
In anonymity.

So from a summer height
I come into my peace;
The wings have earned their night
And the song may be present.
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191 days ago
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Microsoft's Hypocrisy on DACA


Microsoft’s president Brad Smith regularly tweets in support of the so-called Dreamers—the 800,000 people who were brought to America as children, and who cling to a precarious legal status. Microsoft sued the Trump administration over their cancellation of the DACA program in 2017, and Mr. Smith frequently calls on legislators to enshrine the program in law.

However, over the same period, Microsoft’s political action committee has given over $100,000 to members of Congress trying to dismantle DACA—including $10,000 in March to Mitch McConnell, the central figure preventing DACA legislation from getting a Senate vote.

Microsoft employees troubled by these donations aren’t even allowed to raise concerns about the company's political giving with their colleagues: they were recently told that such conversations could be considered harassment.

In the dissonance between his words and actions, Mr. Smith resembles another tweeter-in-chief who likes to create an alternate reality on social media.

In that mirror world, Microsoft is a champion of refugees, immigrants, women’s rights, climate science, diversity and inclusion in the workplace, equality for LGBT people, and election security. But the company’s political donations tell a conflicting story.

What makes Microsoft’s duplicity around DACA so galling is that the employees it puts at risk have no way to voice their dissent. The company’s ‘PAC 101’ sessions, the only venue employees have to confront management about the company’s political giving, are strictly limited to citizens and green card holders. So are the special ‘1:1’ sessions the PAC sets up to persuade prospective donors.

Meanwhile, thousands of Microsoft workers who hold an H1-B visa, as well as employees in the DACA program, are left guessing why Microsoft gives money to the politicians trying to deport them. There is no way to ask about how donations are made, or learn who is making them, without paying into the program.

This shameful contrast between word and deed has not gone unnoticed inside the company. For some time, a small group of employees has been working to defund the PAC by individually contacting donors, whose names are a matter of public record. Many contributors pay into the PAC by automated payroll deduction, and are unaware of where the political donations go, or how much the company’s giving diverges from its public rhetoric. Shown how executives are spending their money, they can sometimes be persuaded to stop paying in to the system.

Now there is evidence that management is pushing back.

Writing in a private Facebook group for Microsoft employees last Saturday, Kelly Eaton, the Director of Microsoft PAC, said that “employees who support the MSPAC and are being internally harassed for their support can escalate through HR channels or reach out to their management. [The] employee code of conduct does not tolerate harassment of other employees for participating in a voluntary organization.”

Eaton did not make clear whether she was referring to a specific incident, or to the defunding campaign more generally. She referred a request for comment to a press representative, who told me that Microsoft was not aware of any instances of harassment.

Confronted by employees on an internal message board over Microsoft’s political giving, Mr. Smith pleaded for them to be more understanding. But he ruled out following the example set by Apple and IBM and shutting down the PAC entirely, claiming that doing so would be bad for Microsoft.

One reason for his reticence may be a massive Pentagon contract. Microsoft and Amazon are finalists in the Pentagon’s joint enterprise defense infrastructure (JEDI) program, worth over 10 billion dollars. Both companies give copiously to members of Congress, and Mr. Smith may fear that turning off the political tap would give rival Amazon (who have been equally cynical in their political giving) the upper hand.

In the conclusion to his internal post, Mr. Smith concedes that “It would be easy to give up on the PAC and simply abolish it. Then no one would ever have to worry about internal or external debates about who the PAC is supporting.”

But for Microsoft’s thousands of foreign-born employees, it is more than a question of debate. It is a matter that affects their families, livelihoods and basic safety.

Like the President, Mr. Smith seems to find it easier to tweet than act on his words. But employees can hold him to the promises he makes on Twitter. They should continue the defunding campaign, and demand an end to Microsoft’s hypocrisy around DACA. In a key American industry where more than half of workers are foreign-born, there can be no room for cynical duplicity around immigration status. The stakes are simply too high.

Apple and IBM have demonstrated that a major tech company can thrive without a political action committee. It’s time for Microsoft to join them.

I will continue to follow this story. If you work at Microsoft and want to share developments with me, or be put in touch with others working on defunding the PAC, you can reach me on Signal at 415 610 0231. All conversations are strictly confidential.

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267 days ago
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The Need for Auto-Skepticism: Epistemic Modesty, Transphobia, and Philosophy

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René Magritte, "The Human Condition"
(photo from my recent visit to the Magritte Museum in Brussels)

The problem with many self-described “skeptics” these days is not that they are too skeptical but that they are not skeptical enough. Or so I’m going to try to argue here via a circuitous route through a current dispute about transphobia in academic philosophy with stops in ancient Greco-Roman, classical Chinese, and classical Indian philosophy.

Recently philosopher Jonathan Ichikawa posted a Twitter thread about a particular use of skepticism. Ichikawa’s thread includes the idea that skepticism is often linked with conservatism, an idea that is hardly new (although, I think, less true than is often supposed), but the more immediate context of all this is an ongoing … well, I’m not sure what to call it. “Discussion” is too tame, “kerfuffle” is too dismissive, and “internet shit-show that gives a peek at everything that’s wrong with my discipline” is, while not entirely inaccurate, not quite right. I’ll settle on “dispute” for now with the caveat that I leave this open to future revision.

The dispute has been going on for a long time, but a few recent items are this interview with philosopher Kathleen Stock and an essay by a trans woman on why she is leaving the discipline of philosophy. I have thoughts on both of these items, but they been discussed elsewhere and I trust readers are capable of listening, reading, and judging for themselves. My concerns here are more general.

Skepticism and Gender Dogmatism

I am a cis man. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person in philosophy. The idea that I can tell other people what their experience is seems to me to be, far from skepticism, perhaps a kind of epistemic arrogance.

Here’s a suggestion: the problem with transphobia and other forms of anti-LGTBQIA+ sentiment isn’t so much that people have the wrong beliefs about gender, but that they have too many beliefs about gender. The idea that a trans woman isn’t a real woman relies on some pretty concrete beliefs about gender, particularly what it means to be a woman. Much the same could be said about notions that lesbians and gay men can be “cured”, or that bisexual people don’t really exist, or that nobody can be asexual, or that intersex children are abominations, and so on. Such notions are usually founded upon some kind of gender dogmatism.

I don’t know whether gender is “natural.” I’m even less sure what that would even mean. But I’m pretty sure that trans folks are human beings worthy of whatever respect any other human being might deserve, or in any case I’d like to think the discipline would be better off if we treated our colleagues with the modicum of respect of acknowledging basic aspects of their identity. The idea that many trans folks in our discipline feel disrespected and harmed should start from the fact that many trans people have explicitly said this, but because this seems not to be enough for many so-called skeptics, let me put it this way: whether or not trans people are “really” the gender they say they are, we should respect our colleagues. And by “respect” I mean at the very least taking our colleagues’ experiences seriously by not outright denying their identities.

I don’t see why this is so hard. And if you need kind of argument here, try this: Imagine that one person claimed repeatedly that another person with a PhD in philosophy who is a philosophy teacher and researcher at a university was not really a philosopher. That would be pretty weird. I realize this actually happens, but notice that when it does, it’s often because the person making the claim has some definition of philosophy, often a pretty narrow one formed on the more extreme edges of specific camps, e.g., analytic, continental, etc. Notice also that I have not engaged in any sort of a priori attempt to define “philosophy” before I feel comfortable saying that the second person is a philosopher. Nor have I claimed that we should not ask metaphilosophical questions.

But this is merely an analogy. I want to reiterate again that I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans person in philosophy. The only evidence I have to go on is the testimony of trans people in philosophy. It seems odd for people allegedly interested in the truth to a priori reject what would prima facie appear to be a valuable source of evidence on the matter. (But one might object: isn’t this just what skepticism does? More on that soon.)

Maybe all of this reveals that categories like gender and “philosopher” are more fluid than we take them to be. Maybe it shows that such categories are in need of further conceptual analysis or deconstruction or whatever. I don’t know. But here’s my hypothesis: whatever one’s views about gender or metaphilosophy may be, telling other people what their identity is would seem to be a matter of great dogmatic faith in one’s own epistemic abilities rather than any kind of skepticism.

(Because my intended audience here is mostly philosophers, I should add the qualification that of course I don’t mean we should always respect the self-professed identities of other people: for instance, a person who clearly advocates white supremacist views but who denies being a white supremacist is not necessarily worthy of respect).

Contemporary Uses of Ancient Skepticism

That objection again: But that’s just what skepticism does! It discounts the obvious sources of evidence at the expense of others. That’s what Descartes did: he discounted the evidence of the senses at the expense of the evidence provided by “clear and distinct ideas.” Is it just good rational practice to subject new claims to the skeptical fire?

Ichikawa in the Twitter thread mentioned earlier questions this assumption and points out that such skepticism often serves to support the status quo. Ichikawa cites a passage from Sextus Empiricus about following “the tradition of laws and customs” as part of Sextus’s answer to the inactivity objection (how can skeptics act without beliefs?). I’m not disputing that Sextus said that or that many skeptics throughout history have been political conservatives on account of their skepticism. And I agree with Ichikawa that many self-described skeptics do indeed have the effect of maintaining the status quo.

But I would like to suggest two things: first, ancient and modern skepticism are very different animals, and second, it would be dogmatic to take Sextus too seriously here.

I’ve said more on the first point elsewhere, but when most philosophers these days talk about “skepticism” they usually have in mind the kinds of arguments you find in Descartes, Hume, or their intellectual descendants in analytic epistemology. While such arguments often borrow from ancient Greco-Roman skepticism, they are put to very different uses: modern skepticism is a move within a theoretical project of epistemology, while ancient skepticism was a way of life in the sense expressed by contemporary philosopher Pierre Hadot (while the Academics come closer to contemporary skepticism than the Pyrrhonian skeptics, I think Academics were practicing skepticism as a way of life, at least as they were represented by Cicero). Or, to put it more succinctly, modern skepticism is primarily (if not wholly) theoretical, while ancient skepticism is primarily (if not wholly) practical.

On the second point, skepticism does not logically entail conservatism. A fully purged Pyrrhonian skeptic could just as easily be what we’d call “progressive” once they stop trying to base their politics on anything like a fully worked out philosophical view. A contemporary Pyrrhonian might attack gender dogmatism, especially if such dogmatism is causing harm to oneself or others. Pyrrhonism’s target (at least in the version of Pyrrhonism we find in Sextus) is disturbance and its goal is tranquility, or the lack of disturbance. I dare say there is a great deal of disturbance created both on Twitter and off by gender dogmatism. Perhaps we’d be better off with fewer beliefs about gender.

An Academic skeptic may even have what Carneades called “persuasive impressions,” or something more than suspension of judgment and less than a full belief. Academics very well may form “persuasive impressions” about gender based on testimony from the experience of trans people or at least about the necessity of respecting one’s colleagues. And this can all be done with something less than full, dogmatic belief, something open to future revision.

Skeptical Progressivism?

But, one might object, doesn’t “progressivism” (or some other political philosophy) require some idea of what we are progressing toward? Doesn’t it require some coherent beliefs about the goals of politics? Can one act politically without political beliefs?

Skepticism, of both the everyday and philosophical varieties, is these days typically associated by its opponents with cynical dismissiveness and by its champions with hard-nosed rationality. But I think both views get it wrong, because they see skepticism as inherently directed toward others.

A lesson from the ancient Indian Buddhist philosopher Nāgārjuna is that skepticism is an internal affair. Once you turn skepticism back on itself to purge yourself of your internal dogmatisms, you are left with a kind of mental peace, a coolness of the mind. For Nāgārjuna (at least as I interpret him) a major cause of our suffering is attachment to philosophical views, even when it comes to Buddhism itself. The Chinese Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi and the classical Indian skeptic Jayarāśi show that skepticism might lead to a cheerful openness to new ways of being and thinking, unimpeded by our self-imposed cognitive straightjackets. For Zhuangzi, skepticism results in a freer and less dogmatic way of being in the world, and for Jayarāśi, the destruction of philosophical dogmatism (especially that of religious philosophers) leaves us free to delight in everyday experience.

I personally find great joy in the attitude that the universe doesn’t owe us anything, that we are imperfect creatures doing the best we can with what we’ve got. Imagine how dismal (and boring) it would be to believe that we have almost everything figured out already! I don’t see why this attitude can’t be applied to gender as well: human beings are complex and gender is a vastly complicated topic that has spurred a panoply of views throughout all of human history. It would be intellectual folly to claim to have figured out gender once and for all.

Neither is skepticism inherently conservative. Conservatives often rely on dogmatic beliefs that society and its inhabitants must be a certain way and know their place in some preordained order. Skeptical progressives would lack the dogmatisms that hold us back from trying something new, from listening to and taking seriously the concerns of people on the margins of societal power. Instead of asking, “Why?” skeptical progressives might ask, “Why not?” Skepticism, properly applied, is a form of openness to social progress, but without an a priori fixed idea of what this progress consists in or where it is headed; maybe this makes it a great deal more progressive than most dogmatic forms of progressivism.

Auto-Skepticism and Epistemic Modesty

Let’s call the idea that skepticism should be applied to oneself “auto-skepticism.” I’m not entirely set on this term. I may revise it later, lest someone think I’m implying that we should be skeptical about automobiles (maybe we should be, but it would require another post!).

So, my suggestion is this: skepticism should be applied as much, if not more so, to oneself than to others. Auto-skepticism is especially important for those of us who are in positions of social privilege. I’ve written about this before, but the problem is two-fold: a privileged person simultaneously has less access to evidence of what it’s like to be a marginalized person and more confidence in their epistemic authority about all matters (including the experience of marginalized people). It’s something like a Dunning-Kruger effect.

This seems especially true for someone like me. As a white, cis-het man I have been taught (usually implicitly) that I have a special epistemic authority to tell other people what their experience is: I’ve noticed over the years how easy it is for me to say dismissive things like, “It’s not that bad,” “You’re over-reacting,” “I’m sure they didn’t mean it that way,” “I’ve never noticed that myself, so it can’t be right,” and so on. This is something I’m working on. And I find that auto-skepticism is a useful tool in the process of reminding myself that my experience does not dictate reality.

Here’s some skeptical advice. If you find yourself tempted to think things like “trans people are just confused” or “trans women aren’t really women,” ask yourself some questions. What is your motivation for thinking so? Is it really an open-minded search for truth, or are there emotions lurking deeper (disgust, fear, etc.)? Why does this issue matter to you? What is your evidence in favor of these claims? Does this evidence trump the evidence of testimony of trans people? Where does the burden of proof lie in this case? What is the proper amount of epistemic modesty here? What are your own epistemic limitations, especially when it comes to experiences you’ve never had? Could these limitations be doing more work than you think? What are your reasons for thinking whatever you think about gender? Are these good reasons? Are your arguments actually good arguments? Are you overly attached to a particular view about gender? Does this attachment cause suffering to yourself or others? Might you be better off having fewer beliefs about gender? Might you experience a kind of peace of mind or intellectual freedom in relinquishing some of your beliefs about gender? Must one have beliefs about everything?

I can’t say what your answers to these questions will be. To say so would be uncouthly dogmatic. But I wonder if they are nonetheless helpful questions to ask oneself.

Do I turn this auto-skepticism on everything I have written here? Of course! Feel free to tell me where I am wrong. My own position contains blind spots, and I don’t see myself as having solved anything. At best I hope to have suggested some things to consider, things that may help some people turn their gaze inward to their own dogmatisms at least long enough to give some of our colleagues a moment of respite.

When it comes to lofty matters like the ontology of gender, it’s hard to know what to think. But in the meantime, I think a basic collegial respect is warranted. And if you require an argument in favor of treating people with basic respect, well, you may need more help than philosophy can give.
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295 days ago
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Katie West of Team Wicdiv is editing her new anthology of interesting voices about an equally interesting period in the development of the Internet.

I dunno how Katie would define it, but from about 1993 (Mosaic) to 2003 was the period when it was still possible to meet people who felt this whole thing was a fad, and a lot of people who felt it was the future. Around 2003, it stopped being both - neither future, nor fad, but present.

We all know what happens after this, but I think I agree it was a brief golden age, and I can’t wait to read the stories it describes.

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329 days ago
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