Friday, October 9, 2015

SCOTUS Back in Session

The Justices are back at work.

There are a number of fascinating items in the pipeline.

I'll mention in this entry just two that the Court has recently decided to hear: Bank Markazi v. Peterson, and FERC v. Electric Power Supply Ass'n.

Bank Markazi involves sanctions against Iran, and a blatant Congressional effort to interfere with ongoing litigation in the courts.

The FERC case asks whether the Federal Power Act, 16 U.S.C. § 791a et seq., gives that agency the authority to regulate the way that operators of wholesale-electricity markets match supply and demand in real time and through day-ahead markets.

The above link will take you to the Solicitor General's petition for cert in the FERC case.

In the sanctions matter it was the Iranian central bank that had to petition for cert. You'll find that petition here.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Triumph, by Enos B. Comstock

Image result for Enos Comstock Tuck

Enos B. Comstock, an American writer and illustrator of the early 20th century, may be best known for his TUCK ME IN stories. Thus, the above illustration.

But I find inspiration in another of his works, the following poem,


You see me here within this shallow shoal,
This graveyard of abandoned ships,
Where wrecking crews have taken toll,
And battered hulks make no more trips,

Stripped of my spars, my topmasts and my shrouds
You seek for romance here in vain:
The full-blown sails that kissed the clouds
Will never bear me forth again.

Come, let your fancy take you far away --
Behold me tossed on emerald seas,
I bow to meet the silver spray
And revel in the tropic breeze.

Or, match me with a hundred winter gales
No peril did they hold for me:
They lashed their fury at my sails
But I came home triumphantly.

And here I bide, to pass to slow decay,
The murky waters lap my keel.
But when ships pass on Judgment Day
Thus proudly will I make appeal:

"Waste not your sympathy on me:
I won my battles with the sea."

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Nietzchean Trolley Problem


I've discussed trolley problems before. This is a new version, in a new philosophical context. 

One common issue in the philosophy of religion is: does religious belief help people act morally? If so, how? 

Nietzsche famously contended that the "death of God" had great implications for morality, for the transvaluation of values, implications which he welcomed. Many theists accept that judgment, but dis-value what Nietzsche valued.  Many atheists and agnostics deny that there is any such implication.

One interpretation of Nietzsche's somewhat cryptic comments on the subject is that the idea of equality -- that my life is worth as much as yours, or in a variant that no quantitative comparison can or should be made between my life's value and yours -- is a religious presumption at heart. It depends upon the background notion that we are all alike creatures of the same Creator and it will not long outlast the death of that idea. 

In that spirit, Brian Leiter has recently written a paper on the connection of ideas in Nietzsche's work. You can download it via SSRN. Or read a précis on his blog at typepad.

Here's what may be the money quote (taken from that blog):

Consider the Nietzschean Trolley Problem (apologies for anachronism): a runaway trolley is hurtling down the tracks towards Beethoven, before he has even written the Eroica symphony; by throwing a switch, you can divert the trolley so that it runs down five (or fifty) ordinary people, non-entities (say university professors of law or philosophy) of various stripes (“herd animals” in Nietzschean lingo), and Beethoven is saved. For the anti-egalitarian, this problem is not a problem: one should of course save a human genius at the expense of many mediocrities. To reason that way is, of course, to repudiate moral egalitarianism. Belief in an egalitarian God would thwart that line of reasoning; but absent that belief, what would?

Saturday, October 3, 2015

That 1968 Vibe

On a SLATE comment thread, I recently wrote as follows:

Is it just me, or does all this have a very 1968 vibe for anyone else? Here as there, the incumbent President is a Democrat. In '68, of course, LBJ was eligible to run again, but was knocked out early. Let's ignore that difference for a moment and see what else lines up.
There are two Democrats each with a plausible claim to continue the incumbent administration, for those who WANT to see it continued. There is a former cabinet member (Attorney General or Secretary of State, as the case may be) on the one side, and the sitting Vice President on the other. The establishment of the Dems could live with either of them.  There is also a very non-establishment figure coming off from the flanks, with a surprisingly strong following in the base, call him Eugene or Bernie as you please. All very '68.
The signature domestic accomplishment of the incumbent is in the area of health care reform, Medicare/Medicaid. Overseas, of course, there is an endless tunnel of violence and escalation.  
Oh, did I mention that the former cabinet member/candidate has a famous family name, reminding voters not of the incumbent but of the Democratic President before that?  All very '68. Of course I wish Secretary Clinton a long happy life, so there are some respects in which I very much don't want this analogy to hold. 
The point though is, Humphrey/Biden emerged from that nominating process triumphant but weakened, and it all helped bring about the Presidency of Richard Nixon.

A fellow calling himself Guinnessmonkey replied:

What?  Where, exactly, are American soldiers currently dying by the thousands, 'cause I must have missed that.
Though yes, Bernie = Eugene.  That wing of the Democratic Party runs one every few years, particularly after the Dems have held the White House for two terms.  It makes them forget what it's like to have a GOP president (often because they're too young to remember), so they start talking in terms of ideological purity instead of electability.

To which I in turn wrote:

hat the overseas violence hasn't played itself out the way it did in the '60s doesn't really hurt the analogy. The more antiseptic killing through drones is sufficient to fuel the sort of resentment Bernie/Eugene can tap. 
Another key point: if Biden does get into the race, Hilary will surely move to the left. She's now positioned as a centrist, like her old "triangulating" husband. Or, for that matter, like Robert Kennedy, whose signature accomplishment as AG had been to put a prominent labor leader in prison. A bit of triangulation before the word, there. 
Anyway, IF Biden gets in, expect him to lock up the centrist support, and Hillary to move left to co-opt Bernie's support. Which was Kennedy's play-book in '68.  Her belated discovery that Keystone might be a bad idea is an example, but so far just a small step. 


I just wanted to share.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ten philosophical questions

Image result for philosophy

My personal view of the field, in ten questions. I'll work in traditional order, from Being through Knowledge, to Value.

1. Does the world consist of substances with attributes (that is, enduring things with various properties), or is that a misleading way of thinking?

2. If one accepts the substance/attributes dichotomy, what COUNTS as a substance? How many of them are there in the world? Are there an infinite number of substances, or could it all be boiled down to a smaller number? Three, as Descartes thought (mind, matter, God), or maybe just one?

3. In terms of the nature of a human being, are we each one substance with various attributes? Or are we two different substances that somehow interact? Or is a person an attribute of a trans-personal Substance?

4. If we end up with a view of the world in which humans consist of both mind and body: how DO they interact?

5. What do we mean by "truth" as a matter of common language. also, what SHOULD we take the word to mean, if we plan to reform our usage for precision?

6. What do we mean by "knowledge" as a matter of common language, also, what SHOULD we take the word to mean, if we plan to reform usage for precision?

7. Take a first stab and define knowledge as "justified true belief." How do we come to possess such JTB? In other words, how do we know? Or do we?

8. How should we live? is there a right way to act, aside from subjective reactions of the one or the many? If there IS a right way to act, how do we find out what it is?

9. Suppose there are two or more principles that tell us, reasonably, how we should act. Might they not come into conflict? How should we resolve instances of real or apparent conflicts?

10. How should society be organized in light of the principles developed in answering the previous questions?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Black Mass

A mugshot of Bulger taken after his arrest in 2011

I recently saw the movie Black Mass, based on the criminal career of Whitey Bulger and his protectors in the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

It was a fine movie, and as cineastes by now know, it features a subtle performance by Johnny Depp in the leading role. Surprisingly subtle, in that Depp's career has been built on characters he paints in very broad strokes -- Captain Jack Sparrow comes first to mind,

The one scene that sticks to my mind is a dinner at which Bulger and his two FBI buddies (Connolly and Morris, IIRC) are sharing barbecue, while the wife of one of the G-men is upstairs in her bedroom, feigning sickness.

Yes, there is an intense after-dinner confrontation between Bulger and Mrs. Connolly in this context, but that is not the bit I'm thinking of right now. The bit that sticks to my mind is at the dinner table, where Bulger tells Morris, who has been working at the grill, that the b-b-cue sauce he's using is delicious. Morris boasts it is a family secret. But after a little prodding, Morris admits that the key is "a little soy."

Aha! so he acknowledged having a secret and then gave it up! Bulger grills him about how easily he gave up the news about the soy, and seems to be on the verge of putting a price on poor Morris' head. Then he backs off, says it was all a joke, and everybody calms down ... a little.

I doubt it came verbatim from the book on which this movie is based. My best guess is that the scene was an homage to a similar tirade, and then a similar "I was only joking" resolution, assigned to Joe Pesci's character in the movie Goodfellows. In both cases, the mobster in question shows some insight (or, arguably, shows a startling lack of insight) by jokingly pretending to be what in fact he is, an out-of-control gangster. And in both cases, the 'joke' scene was followed by another scene, with a waiter in the older movie and with Mrs Connolly in the newer movie, that underlines the truthful character of that 'joking' self-portrayal.

Loved it both times, guys. But Depp gives it just a bit more oomph than Pesci.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mrs Falbo

Image result for sctv
What are you in for?


You should've used our friend, Mr. Apostrophe. He can turn manslaughter into "man's laughter." and they can't lock you up for that, can they?


Did anyone ever do this joke prior to Mrs Falbo? It sounded like a "meta" joke, when she did it, but that sort of implies somebody had done it without the meta at some earlier time.

Just curious.

By the way, I of course realize that the Mrs Falbo character is not among those in the SCTV collage I've reproduced here. Still: the train of association runs on its neurological tracks....