Sunday, January 22, 2017

Near the Palace of Nestor

Image result for pylos greece map

Archaeologists digging near the Palace of Nestor, at the southern tip of mainland Greece, have apparently excavated some fascinating contents from a 3,500 year old grave.

"Recently" in that sentence means the spring of 2015.

Three thousand and five hundred years ago means: the time of which Homer tells. The time which was already a distant heroic past to the classical Greeks.

So, what's the new finding? 

For roughly 70 years now, the scholarly consensus has told of the sudden unexplained death of a Minoan civilization on Crete, and the rise of a successor, Mycenaean, civilization. This in turn has suggested invasion and overthrow.

The rich new findings from this grave suggest that there was nothing that dramatic, that there was a period of overlap during which Minoan and Mycenaean worlds existed side  by side, distinct yet trading  and peacefully co-existing.

"In other words," writes the Smithsonian's reporter, Jo Marchant, "it isn’t the Mycenaeans or the Minoans to whom we [westerners] can trace our cultural heritage since 1450 B.C., but rather a blending of the two."

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Why I like this sentence

"The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify (by their own lonesome familiarity) to this feeling.”

That's Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums. 

It is carefully structured to seem structureless, a purposefully channeled stream of consciousness.

The aim of this sentence is to convey the sense of a lot of different thens coming together in a now. I'm passing this woods, I could be passing another wood, one near by grandmother's home. Or one I passed last week in the course of performing some grown-up errand Each wood is particularly itself, yet each looks like it could be the lost form of another, or any of those many others.

But why did I just repeat, in my own flat-footed way, what Kerouac had so marvellously said? Because great prose does that to you. 

I love the "forgotten song drifting across the water...."

This links the physical fact that sound does travel better over water than over land withe the nostalgia that most of us have for childhood days at a favorite beach or lakeside. 

I would say more about this sentence, but there is too much to say and no good stopping point once one tries to say it, so I'll arbitrarily stop here.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughts on Hillary Clinton's Career

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It may seem a perverse subject for meditation on inauguration day for Donald J. Trump, but I'd like to take a Big Picture look at the woman who conspicuously isn't the center of today's ceremonies, Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Think back on 2007, the early jockeying on the Democratic side, before any actual primaries or even caucuses had been held. HRC at that time was using the phrase "help make history." Support for her was helping to make history. She wasn't using the phrase "glass ceiling" much in that cycle, but the appeal suggested by the phrase was the same.

This would have been a perfectly sensible appeal for her to make, if the chief intra-party opponent had turned out to be Christopher Dodd or Joseph Biden, just another WASPy white guy. It might have been somewhat less sensible if the intra-party opposition had coalesced around, say, Joseph Lieberman or Bernie Sanders. But we'll get back to that.

A less hypothetical point is this: the notion that voting for HRC in particular would "make history" in a demographic sense ceased to be very germane when the intra-party opposition coalesced around ... Barack Hussein Obama.

HRC understood this. But it required her to make a mid-campaign shift in emphasis. She not only dropped the demographic stuff, she started making the appeal to experience, to the steadiness of the hands one wants near the red phone. She ran ads about the call that could come at 3 AM. Presumably she had been there when important 3 AM calls arrived in the residential portion of the White House, and that would make her hands steadier. With these new guys from nowhere, you never know.

Note that this isn't just a different campaign theme from the one she started with. Its the opposite theme.  The appeal to steady hands is always the appeal by the old crowd, to the one's who have been in power already. It is the appeal made for the perpetuation of a status quo by those for whom that status quo is a glass floor, not a ceiling.

HRC failed to secure the nomination that year. I think the reason may simply have been that the cognitive dissonance for this switch from one appeal to its opposite was too great for the party's base to absorb.

Flash forward: 2015-16. In the primary campaign this year, HRC makes little of the "woman card." She doesn't appeal to her demographic uniqueness until after she secures the Democratic nomination, and even then it was because Trump, calling such as yet unmade appeal the "woman card," forced her hand. She doesn't use it vis-à-vis Sanders at all, although of course there are others who do that for her.

At one debate, Sanders is asked how he would feel were he the one to prevent the first woman presidency in US history. If he had been Larry David (rather than simply someone who looks suspiciously like Larry David) he would have said, "so what would be the first Jew ... chopped liver?" But he didn't quite say that -- he gave a more muted form of that response.

Still, the demographic fact was not a big part of Clinton's repertoire. Perhaps she felt that she had been burned by it before, and this time she'd start and continue with the appeal to her steady hands. By this time, of course, he experience with ringing red phones was wider -- it wasn't that of a first spouse but that of a former Secretary of State. So she presumably thought this was a still stronger appeal against Sanders than it had been against Obama.

It was sufficient against Sanders, and she won the nomination. But ... his strength, despite the fact that he had been an utter unknown to most of the population of the US when the campaign began, may have indicated to cooler heads that the "steady hands" appeal of those standing on a glass floor had its limits in 2016.

The ending of my story you know. Perhaps none of it matters. An appeal coached this way versus one coached the other way. One might argue based on an old cyclical theory of American history that there was bound to be a rightward shove in this cycle, that the Republican nominee would inevitably win. Still, I am attracted to what seems to be an unusual thought: maybe Clinton's problem wasn't (1) that people didn't want to break that glass ceiling, still  less (2) that people thought she was over relying on that "card," but (3) that having learned the wrong lesson the last time around, she delayed making that appeal too long, and was too timid and defensive about making it when she did.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Monica Crowley's Plagiarism

Image result for monica crowley bio

The new administration is already notorious for one high-profile example of this: our new first lady used without attribution a passage from a speech once given by her precursor as FLOTUS.

Now, though, another example has popped up. Plagiarism may yet become a theme of the coverage of the dreary years to come. It is not the gravest of sins, but it may be a valuable symptom of what people do and don't consider important.

The POTUS-elect has named Monica Crowley, of Fox News, as director of strategic communications for the National Security Council. This appointment reminded people that Crowley is the author of a book, one with a cutesy title at that: What the (Bleep) Just Happened (2012).

CNN's KFile looked carefully at that book and found 50 examples of word-for-word copying, many of them quite extensive passages.

Here's one example. From the book, a passage criticizing Nancy Pelosi:

She also said that she was only briefed once—in September 2002—on the advanced interrogation methods.

At the time, Pelosi was the House Minority Whip and top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. She said that CIA briefers told her that "the use of enhanced interrogation techniques were legal" and added that waterboarding "was not being employed."

And from a Fox News article two years before:

Last year, Pelosi said she was only briefed once on the advanced interrogation methods,  in September 2002.
At the time, Pelosi was the House Minority Whip and top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. She said in May 2009 that CIA briefers told her that "the use of enhanced interrogation techniques were legal," and added that waterboarding "was not being employed."

Of course, Pelosi's comment could no longer be dated to "last year" when Crowley got around to the copy and paste job.   So she had to change that bit. After that she inverted two clauses and substituted dashes for a comma.  (If it were up to me, I'd go with the original structure and punctuation -- Crowley's originality here seems to have weakened the sentence.) In the following graf, and in the following two grafs I haven't bothered to include here, she didn't bother with face saving changes at all.

Personally intriguing to me is a bit of plagiarism at the expense of Investopedia, a publication to which I make occasional contributions myself.

Crowley took for a lengthy explanation of the "Keynesianism multiplier" an Investopedia comment by Andrew Beattie.

This is how she wrote it:

A critical part of Keynesian theory is the "multiplier effect," first introduced by British economist and Keynes protégé Richard Kahn in the 1930s. It essentially argued  that when the government injected spending into the economy, it created cycles of spending that increased employment and
prosperity regardless of the form of the spending. 
Here’s how the multiplier is supposed to work:
a $100 million government infrastructure project might cost $50 million in labor. The workers then take that $50 million and, minus the average saving rate, spend it on various goods and services. Those businesses then use that
money to hire more people to make more products,
leading to another round of spending. This idea was
central to the New Deal and the growth of the Left’s redistributionist state.

Here is the Investopedia explanation:

The Keynesian multiplier was introduced by Richard Kahn in the 1930s. It showed that any government spending brought about cycles of spending that increased employment and prosperity regardless of the form of the spending.  For example, a $100 million government project, whether to build a dam or dig and refill a giant hole, might pay $50 million in pure labor costs.  The workers then take that $50 million and, minus the average saving rate, spend it at various businesses. These businesses now have more money to hire more people to make more products, leading to another round of spending. This idea was at the core of the New Deal and the growth of the welfare state.

This doesn't leave a lot of room for doubt that she had the latter in front of her when she 'wrote' the former. The changes she introduces here are presumably due to her polemical purposes. Crowley calls Kahn Keynes' "protégé" because Keynes is a better known name, long demonized on the right, so the connection between the two men, implicit already in Investopedia, has to be driven home. She changes the term "welfare state" (not demoniacal enough?) to "the Left's redistributionist state." Otherwise ... she didn't even bother changing the numbers in the example.  

Crowley's book had no footnotes or bibliography, which makes this worse. With the scholarly apparatus, even if the word-to-word match up seems uncomfortably close, she could at least have pointed to a page on which she gave Fox News or Investopedia some credit. Here ... nada.  

UPDATE: Crowley is not taking the job after all. 

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Locke, Body, and Soul

Image result for catharine trotter cockburn

I've been reading WOMEN PHILOSOPHERS OF THE EARLY MODERN PERIOD (1994) a selection of texts from the 17th and 18th centuries edited (and with commentary by) Margaret Atherton.

The collection is rather hit or miss. The women selected have little in common other than sex, chronology, and a western European abode. But it does help fill out some of the history of ideas.

The collection includes for example a vigorous defense of John Locke's ideas about the human mind, written by Catharine Trotter Cockburn.

Defense against whom? Against Cartesians in general. More specifically, against a fellow named Thomas Burnet, who had written extensively against Locke from a Cartesian point of view.

One thought that strikes me here  is that by Descartes' time, the terms "mind" and "soul" had become synonymous philosophically. The mind is the immortal part of me if there is one, and if one wants to speak of it in a religious context one can call it the soul. This is in striking contrast with, for example, the old Platonic view that the mind is only one of the three parts of the soul.

Anyway: Locke made the following two points, which struck various Cartesian nerves: first, that if an omnipotent God wanted to make matter think, He could make matter think! There is no logical contradiction involved in saying "I am entirely made of matter and I think." Locke didn't think it true, he believed in an immaterial mind, but he thought it important to make that point about the possibility of thinking matter. Second, Locke said that it is not only possible, it is likely that there are times in the life of a mind when it doesn't think, when it is entertaining no thoughts at all -- as when its body is enjoying a deep sleep.

Cartesians in general, and Burnet in particular, found both points objectionable,. The essence of matter is contrary to the essence of mind thus (on their view) even a omnipotent Being couldn't make matter conscious. Further, that which is conscious must always be conscious, that is, it must always be thinking, although many of its thoughts, even for long stretches, may of course be forgotten.

Cockburn's pamphlet against Burnet, or at least the portion reproduced in this book, is largely aimed at defending Locke from critiques on these two points. And in its defense she says that just because something is "inconceivable" (such as a thinking lump of matter) doesn't mean it isn't so

"All the demonstration we can have from such difficulties [of conception] is of the weakness and scantiness of our knowledge, which should not make us forward in determining positively on either side, much less to establish the immortality of the soul on so uncertain a foundation."

That passage reminds me somehow of The Princess Bride.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Royal Bastards

The history of "illegitimacy" and its significance for royal or noble lines:

 The stigmatization as ‘bastards’ of children born outside of wedlock is commonly thought to have emerged early in Medieval European history. Christian ideas about legitimate marriage, it is assumed, set the standard for legitimate birth. Children born to anything other than marriage had fewer rights or opportunities. They certainly could not become king or queen. As this volume demonstrates, however, well into the late twelfth century, ideas of what made a child a legitimate heir had little to do with the validity of his or her parents’ union according to the dictates of Christian marriage law. Instead a child’s prospects depended upon the social status, and above all the lineage, of both parents. To inherit a royal or noble title, being born to the right father mattered immensely, but also being born to the right kind of mother. Such parents could provide the most promising futures for their children, even if doubt was cast on the validity of the parents’ marriage. Only in the late twelfth century did children born to illegal marriages begin to suffer the same disadvantages as the children born to parents of mixed social status. Even once this change took place we cannot point to ‘the Church’ as instigator. Instead, exclusion of illegitimate children from inheritance and succession was the work of individual litigants who made strategic use of Christian marriage law. This new history of illegitimacy rethinks many long-held notions of medieval social, political, and legal history.


I take this passage from the Legal History Blog, which in turn takes it from a new book by Sara McDougall, of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY.

I was going to say something about our new president today, but somehow thought this would be germane.

Friday, January 13, 2017

Shark Tank

I love Shark Tank. I think I've mentioned that before, even on this blog. Indeed, now that I've checked ... I wrote a post here that discussed the structure of the show. Today, I'll say something about the personalities.

Kevin O'Leary is the hostile stereotype of a capitalist, come to life and played at least somewhat for laughs. When Kevin decides that he has no use for a particular entrepreneur, he says "you';re dead to me." Not "I'm out" (the phrasing shared by all the other sharks in the same situation) but "you're dead to me."

Yet there is sometimes a "tough love" aspect to Kevin's snarkiness. I remember an episode in which two young men, who could not or would not offer many business plan specifics, were trying to sell equity in their computer password-protection system. Kevin (and Mark Cuban as well, IIRC) were interrupting them with hostile or sarcastic seeming questions. The two ladies on the panel, Lori Greiner and Barbara Corcoran, were trying to throw them lifelines, and criticizing Kevin's harshness.

But ... as the presentation would down, Lori and Barbara declared themselves out. Kevin was the last shark still "in" and the only one who offered them a deal.

The point? If you want someone to invest in you, you may have to perfect your shit-eating grin.

The two men with the password protection system turned down Kevin's offer, and exited the tank with their heads held high but sans working capital.