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Showing posts from September, 2012

More on the Definition of Philosophy

I wrote here last week about William James' discussion of what "philosophy" means in the early pages of his last book.  I paraphrased his views somewhat, saying that "James believes that philosophy is only thinking about the world in an exceptionally rigorous way.” 

A friend wrote and questioned the validity of this paraphrase. In one of my direct quotes from James, after all, I have him referring  to exceptional men’s “imagination,” not their “rigor.” My friend finds this significant because if we define philosophy by the “rigor” of one's thought, we suggest that any intelligent person, by dint of application, can make a contribution to philosophy. 

On the other hand (says further my inquisitive and analytical friend) to say that philosophers are distinguished by “imagination” implies that some faculty of which some people have far more than others is required. 

So which is it: are philosophers a specialized caste, naturally as well as institutionally?, or is an…

Shakespeare and Opera

I'm working on something for Just sheet music about the large portion of the operatic canon that has Shakespearean inspiration.

Consider this a preview. One of the operas I plan to highlight is Le Marchand de Venise (1935), by French composer Reynaldo Hahn and librettist Miguel Zamacois. I've just described Hahn as a "French" composer advisedly. Though he was born in Venezuela in 1874, he arrived in Paris at the age of three, and stayed there through two world wars, dying there in 1947. Indeed, one reference book calls Hahn "one of the most fragrantly Parisian of composers."

I'm not sure that isn't a misprint. Wouldn't "flagrantly" have been a more natural turn of phrase?  Nothing in the context supports the notion that it's an intentional pun. But, hey, follow the above link and decide that for yourself.

The opera involves the usual compressions: the five acts of the Shakespeare original are turned into three, and some characte…

The Twin Paradox

I recently read a book, or much of a book, called The Philosophy of Physics, by Tim Maudlin.

I say "much of it" because, quite frankly, I couldn't follow it and gave up on it well before the end.

But there were parts that I believe I did understand, and on the basis thereof I can say that this was a good book to read so soon  after reading Ratcliffe. Ratcliffe, as you may remember, had a quite idiosyncratic take on Euclidean and non-Euclidean geometries. It was an eccentricity that for me rather vitiated his efforts to contribute to cosmology.

Anyway: back to Maudlin. In one portion of the book he considers at some length the "twins paradox," a puzzle arising from, and often commented upon in the context of, the theory of relativity. 
Here it is in my understanding, not his. An astronaut takes off for a distant spaceport, travels at near the speed of light, so time slows. Comes back. He is now only, say, 1 year older than he was when he left. His stay-on-earth t…

Context for Nietzsche

Somebody recently asked me what was Germany "going through" during the peak of Friedrich Nietzsche's literary productivity. I thought it was an oddly worded question, but I'll answer it anyway. 

Nietzsche was born in 1844 and died in 1900, his  years of flourishing were the 1880s, the decade of
THE GAY SCIENCE, THUS SPOKE ZARATHUSTRA, BEYOND GOOD AND EVIL, THE CASE OF WAGNER, etc. The end of that decade saw his descent into incoherence and madness.

For social/political context, let's back up a bit. In 1871 Prussia, under the leadership of the Hohenzollern family and their minister, Otto von Bismarck, declared the creation of the German Empire, comprising the northern German-speaking states (Austria was deliberately excluded). This was what would later be known as the Second Reich, following upon the death of the Holy Roman Empire early in the 19th century, the so-called First Reich.

The 1870s as a whole is remembered for the Kulturkampf, a deliberate attempt …

Schweitzer on Bach

I've recently completed a read of Albert Schweitzer's book on J.S. Bach, and will here offer a brief observation.

The Germany of Bach's prime, especially the 1730s and 1740s, had its own music critics. Among these was a fellow named Johann Adolph Scheibe, the son of an organ builder and the kapellneister of the King of Denmark, who edited a magazine called Kritische Musikus.

Scheibe saw himself as the literary champion of a distinctively German style of music, one that would break away from the Italian models. The Italian influence was toward artifice and complexity. The German impulse was toward naturalness and simplicity, to Scheibe's way of thinking.

This theory made it "impossible for him to do justice to Bach," Schweitzer wrote. Bach was much too complicated, and thus too Italian, for his taste. Although of course acknowledging Bach's talents (because Scheibe was not altogether an idiot) he did conclude that Bach, tragically, had fallen "from…

Some Problems of Philosophy

The opening two paragraphs of William James' last book, Some Problems of Philosophy are presented below.

"The progress of society is due to the fact that individuals vary from the human average in all sorts of directions, and that the originality is often so attractive or useful that they are recognized by their tribe as leaders, and become objects of envy or admiration, and setters of new ideals.

"Among the variations, every generation of men produces some individuals exceptionally preoccupied with theory. Such men find matter for puzzle or astonishment where no one else does. Their imagination invents explanations and combines them. They store up the learning of their time, utter prophecies and warnings, and are regarded as sages. Philosophy, etymologically meaning the love of wisdom, is the work of this class of minds, regarded with an indulgent relish, if not with admiration, even, even by those who do not understand them or believe much in the truth which they pr…

Pop Neurology as Pseudoscience

I wrote in early August of Jonah Lehrer, and of the circumstances that led to his departure from The New Yorker.

Briefly, he invented Bob Dylan quotations with which to fortify his thesis in his book, Imagine, about the neurology of imagination and creativity (two terms he uses as synonyms).

I said in that post that I hoped this scandal would prove "a setback for the cause of contemporary neuroscience or for its prestige with the broader public." It now appears I may have had that wish granted.

My evidence is a piece in a recent issue of The New Statesman, "Your Brain on Pseudoscience: The Rise of Popular Neurobollocks." (For those who don't know the Anglicism, "bollocks" literally means "testicles," and is used as a general term of exasperation. One of the Urban Dictionary's definitions for it is "unfathomable rubbish," which seems to fit.)

Steven Poole, the author of this article, couples Lehrer with Malcolm Gladwell and …

The Tonight Show, Classics

Again, jokes from the classic days when Johnny Carson ran the show.

On May 27, 1975, Johnny was offering suggestions for tourism: "Are you familiar with a beach down in San Diego called Black's Beach? They celebrated the first anniversary of a law that callowed nude bathing down there. And they had a great opening ... A hundred nude guys pushed this big cake out onto the beach, and a fully clothed girl jumped out."

On June 22, 1983, he offered tourists checking out LA a handy tip: "If you're walking along Hollywood Boulevard, and you see a sign that says, 'good workout with the latest equipment,' it is not necessarily a health club."

On April 7, 1989, he was in more of a newsy mood: ""I saw a shocking statistic today. Do you realize that by the time the average child in this country is eighteen years old, he will have seen Madonna's underwear 20,000 times?"

Accounting and Pragmatism II

Continuing yesterday's thought under the appropriate visage of Hugo Chavez: Tom told me, "The preferred shares the government received did not represent an ownership position. Preferred shares are a type of debt instrument not equity." I was flabbergasted.

The chief difference between preferred shares and common shares is that preferred shares don't vote.

Preferred shareholders have to be bribed in certain ways for the denial of the franchise. The chief bribe is that, in the event of a bankruptcy/liquidation, the preferred shares are in a position just a notch better than the common shares. But both types of shares are at the bottom of the pile relative to anything else, relevant to any form of debt.

The fundamental equation of accounting, after all, is this:

Assets - Liabilities = Equity.

Those are non-overlapping categories. If you sell a bond, you have incurred a liability. If you sell a share of stock, common or preferred, you have redistributed the company…

Accounting and Pragmatism I

Are accounting rules of any broader significance than just something for accountants to follow? do they themselves constitute data for the science of economics? or are they arbitrary, subject to erasure and thus re-writable at will?

I've been thinking about this recently because of an argument I got into at a message-board site about the Bush adminsitration's bait-and-switch over the TARP legislation of 2008.

As some of you will of course remember, the crisis-created coalition of Bush and Pelosi sold to the public and both houses of Congress a Troubled Assets Relief Program. The idea was that the government would buy up certain positions of the Wall Street banks, positions that typically involved both assets and liabilities, and that in the circumstances of the crisis involved way too much of the latter, too little of the former.

But even as Congress was voting on TARP, on October 3, 2008 [a month before Obama's election, and less than a week after Congress had rejected…

Rome: An Empire's Story

Greg Woolf's new book, Rome: An Empire's Story, says this about Numidia, which presented a threat to the growth of Rome in the 2d century BC, and about its King: Jugurtha.

"The lack of political consensus in Rome meant that it was always possible for him [Jugurtha] to find some supporters among the Senate, and as he murdered  and intrigued his way into a more and more powerful position at home, he protected himself from the complaints to the Senate by bribing prominent figures. Sallust puts into Jugurtha's mouth the famous description of Rome as 'A city for sale and ready for destruction just as soon as it finds a buyer.'

"By 118 Jugurtha had murdered one heir to the throne and was at war with another, in 112 he ignored a senatorially mediated partition of the kingdom and two Roman embassies, killed his brother (massacring a group of Italian merchants in the final siege of Cirta), and survived both a Roman invasion and a summons to Rome. Eventually Rome c…

Western Mass. Business Expo

I check with some regularity with the event calender of BusinessWest, sometimes with an eye to a story that will work for the Agawam weekly paper.

In that way I became aware of a Western Mass Business Expo to be held October 11 (the second Thursday of that month) at The MassMutual Center in downtown Springfield.

I probably won't be able to pitch that as a story unless there is a more specific Agawam/Feeding Hills connection. But there will be "hundreds of exhibitors," so chances are I can work the micro-local angle Jenn likes.

Here's to you, Jenn!   I'm always thinking.

The Static Universe: Conclusion

I've been writing here of late about the disappointment I felt upon reading Hilton Ratcliffe's book, The Static Universe. Not only does it fail to make much of a case against the Big Bang Theory, but it tries to do so at the expense of all of modern geometry, going back to the great Gauss himself.

The key line of argument comes late, in chapter 8. One might say Ratcliffe has buried his lede although, this being his lede, it may be natural to try to bury it.

In chapter 8, after praise for Gauss' simple life, teaching skills, and generous spirit, we learn that he had one weakness, an "obsession with the abstract." That would seem to be a job requirement for a geometer, but by calling it an "obsession" Ratcliffe has established to his own satisfaction that it is a weakness.

After working on global cartography, Ratcliffe tells us, Gauss succumbed to his eagerness to abstract and "presented his scientific progeny the gift of Differential Geometry ..…

The Static Universe, Part II

As I indicated in yesterday's post, I was disappointed by Ratcliffe's book, The Static Universe: exploding the myth of cosmic expansion (2010).

He fails to make his case, even to a will-to-believer like me, and he mixes up his case with a polemic against all of modern geometry, going back as far as Carl Friedrich Gauss. [Gauss is the rightwardmost figure in the photo above, a still of the afterlife of great mathematicians as represented in the stage show Fermat's Last Tango.]

The wrongness of the paths followed by modern cosmology, then, has its origin prior to the mid-point of the 19th century, when Gauss started working on non-Euclidean space.

As some of my readers may have learned at school, Euclid's geometry rests in large part upon the following axiom: "If a line segment intersects two straight lines forming two interior angles on the same side that sum to less than two right angles, then the two lines, if extended indefinitely, meet...."
This is know…

The Static Universe, Part I

I recently purchased The Static Universe: exploding the myth of cosmic expansion, through amazon.

I've long been suspicious about the Big Bang Theory (not the TV show, which is very funny, but the actual BBT), and I have suspected that some re-worked version of the Steady State Theory will have its innings again.

So I thought this work might have valuable nuggets of fact and argument that could shore up that ignorant prejudice.

The author is Hilton Ratcliffe, a distinguished astrophysicist who was one of the co-discoverers of the CNO nuclear fusion cycle on the surface of the sun. (This is a cycle involving carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen.) He is a member of the Astronomical Society of Southern Africa and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, as well as a fellow of the Institute of Physics, a British institution. So I guess he travels a lot!

So: heretical science from someone who could easily have sat on his laurels as a member of the establishment but chose to defy it instea…

Thinking about Labor Unions

This is my first post-Labor Day post, so we'll write about the subject that comes to mind. Desi Arnaz.

It is a fact, to be condemned or welcomed at your leisure, that labor unions represent a shrinking portion of the labor market pie. Despite (or because of?) the protection of union activity in the private sector, the role of unions there has been in decline for decades. In the 1950s one in every three private sector employees was a member of a union. By 2011, only 6.9%, roughly one out of every 14 were union members.

Here's a link for that 6.9% figure, in case fact checkers are reading. I think reporter Greenhouse rather buried his lede, though: that critical figure doesn't appear until the fifth paragraph.

Anyway: some conservatives talk about this decline almost as if it is karma. Unions are, in their view, inherently suspect operations, and they are shrinking because of their own cosmic badness.

I disagree. Further, I'd like to tell a story I have told before…

Albert Schweitzer

"Mysticism may be either primitive or developed. Primitive mysticism has not yet risen to a conception of the universal, and is still confined to naive views of earthly and super-earthly, temporal and eternal. The entry into the super-earthly and eternal takes place by means of a 'mystery,' a magical act. By means of this the participant enters into communion with a divine being in such a way that he shares the latter's supernatural mode of existence....But when the conception of the universal is reached and a man reflects upon his relation to the totality of being and to Being in itself, the resultant mysticism becomes widened, deepened, and purified."

The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle

Kantian philosophy of religion

"One must hope and indeed one can hope, and such hope is practical. For it honeys the rim of the cup of duty."

That's Vincent McCarthy, part of his effort to explain philosophy of religion by one Immanuel Kant.

McCarthy certainly has a way with words, on Kant's behalf or on his own. I love "honey" as a verb.

McCarthy's book is called "Quest for a Philosophical Jesus," a name that politely parodies the English-translation title of a more famous book by Schweitzer. You can read large parts of it for free through the magic of Google Books.

The subtitle is perhaps more specifically revealing about the contents: "Christianity and Philosophy in Rousseau, Kant, Hegel, and Schelling."