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Showing posts from January, 2014

Desire Satisfactionism

Utilitarianism tends to retain whatever appeal it has by an illicit back-and-forth between two quite different positions, a corporeal hedonism on the one hand and a more evanescent ethical satisfactionism on the other.

As Nozick emphasized with his hypothetical "experience machine," we value more in life than pleasure. We value more in life than any set of internal states of our own body/mind, states that could be produced by a machine. We value doing and achieving X, not just the illusion that we did it and achieved it.

Heck, this is the moral of the Matrix movies. Even beyond the Cartesian stuff, the point is that if the machines that had taken over the world and confined all humans in tubes were nice enough to give all those humans the most pleasant fantasies, the situation would still be an oppressive one whence revolutionaries would rightly seek to free us.

So we naturally make the move away from hedonism or any hedonistic reading of utilitarianism toward desire sat…

A Link Farm for Burton Lifland

Burton Lifland, a very important figure in bankruptcy law, indeed the closest thing the world of bankruptcy jurisprudence has ever had to a 'rock star,' died unexpectedly on Sunday, January 12, 2014.

I've written an obituary for him already, at the AllAboutAlpha site.

Here I'll simply bring together some of what is being said about his passing around the blogosphere.

Some have been satisfied with a minimal acknowledgement of his passing.

But the Wall Street Journal's Law Blog goes further, listing some of the most high-profile cases over which he presided, including the bankruptcies of Johns Manville and R.H. Macy.

Dealbook, The New York Times' sponsored blog on financial issues, stresses Lifland's involvement in the ongoing liquidation of the legal entities once associated with federal prisoner Bernard Madoff. Here's some more on that aspect of Lifland's career from another source.

Unsurprisingly, many of Lifland's rulings have created a sti…

Annual Dilbert Post

Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, has said that there are only nine news stories, constantly re-written.

Every year at about this time I like to check the newspaper with his list in mind, to see if he is right. I'll start with his wording unmodified by examples.
This year, I did my checking in the middle of this month, so these entries may seem a little dated. Just a little though. Anyway, the template is:










Does that breakdown hold for the news of mid January 2013?

1) Extreme weather.

 Drought in California raising alarms, seen as fire threat.

2) Idiots kill innocent people.
Always too easy. Leaving war and terr…

Breakthrough, continued

G.E. Moore died in October 1958, just days after my own birth. That's a neat little irrelevant connection with which to return to my discussion of Moore's approach to ethics and how its embrace feels like a philosophical breakthrough for me.  

Moore's approach, in a few words, is to understand good as a direct observable though non-natural property of events and experiences, a property not reducible to anything else.

A quick qualification of that. Goods come in two classes, as we intuitively experience them, intrinsic and instrumental. We pursue instrumental goods so that we may secure and increase the intrinsic goods. A crude example: we eat nutritional foods so that we may survive so that sometimes we may savor dessert. So it is strictly intrinsic good that is the simple irreducible property. 

This suggests, to revert to the Jamesian terminology I quoted yesterday, that with regard to intrinsic goods we have a "special intuitive faculty" of recognizing good when …


I believe I've made a breakthrough in my development of a personal moral philosophy.

It involves the acknowledgement that one of my favorite essays of William James, the fellow for whom this blog is named, is at best seriously flawed. A crucial piece is missing. Further, I have decided that the best available supplier of that missing piece may be a philosopher who was a contemporary of James, but hardly a friend or pragmatist colleague. The philosopher G.E. Moore.

Well, I suppose we can consider this part of what is implied in the word "Refreshed" in the title of this blog.

In The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life, James writes that various "marks and measures of goodness" have been brought forth by philosophers, without any of them giving rise to consensus.

"Thus, to be a mean between two extremes; to be recognized by a special intuitive faculty; to make the agent happy for the moment; to make others as well as him happy in the long run; to add to …

Europe 1914

A detail from Max Hastings' new book, CATASTROPHE, about events leading to war, a century ago this year.

A fellow named John Redmond, who had a reputation in the forefront of the independence movement for Ireland when the year 1914 began, forfeited that by preaching Anglo-Irish unity in the face of the Huns.

John Redmond, leader of the Irish Home Rulers, made a supremely enlightened conciliatory gesture when he declared in the House of Commons: 'there are in Ireland two large bodies of Volunteers. One of them sprang into existence in the South. I say to the Government that they may tomorrow withdraw every one of their troops from Ireland. I say that the coasts of Ireland will be defended from foreign invasion by her sons, and for this purpose armed Nationalist Catholics in the South will be only too glad to join arms with the armed Protestant Ulstermen in the North.' Redmond sat down to deafening applause, but he proved to have thus forfeited his status a the standard-be…

A Lost Opportunity

SPOILER ALERT -- I'm going to disclose a major plot twist in a movie now in theatres, so if you plan to see AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY, with  Meryl Streep, and you want the various twists and turns to come as so many surprises to you DON'T READ ANY FURTHER!!!

Indeed, if you want to read further you'll have to scroll down a bit, past the movie poster.

The film was quite dark, with flashes of humor and a lot of great acting. But what struck me was the theme of incest. Two of the characters are portrayed as deeply in love with one another, as exhibiting the sort of sweet young romantic feelings that we always applaud at movies -- that many people go to movies to celebrate. There is only one couple in the film who could be described that way.

We understand through most of the film that they are first cousins. In fact, we understand that so early in the film that this isn't even the plot twist I was warning about. It is something of a given. Ivy and "Little Charles," …

Words of Wisdom about a Whore

That headline may get me some clicks.

A facebook friend recently shared these words of wisdom about our language, and I can't do better today than to quote them:

The English language is like London: proudly barbaric yet deeply civilised, too, common yet royal, vulgar yet processional, sacred yet profane. Each sentence we produce, whether we know it or not, is a mongrel mouthful of Chaucerian, Shakespearean, Miltonic, Johnsonian, Dickensian and American. Military, naval, legal, corporate, criminal, jazz, rap and ghetto discourses are mingled at every turn. The French language, like Paris, has attempted, through its Academy, to retain its purity, to fight the advancing tides of Franglais and international prefabrication. English, by comparison, is a shameless whore.

The words are those of Stephen Fry, in THE ODE LESS TRAVELLED (2005).

If all is well

If all has gone well, as you are reading this I have begun a mini-vacation in North Carolina.

So for today let us simply contemplate the flag of that state.

 That the flag of North Carolina shall consist of a blue union, containing in the center thereof a white star with the letter N in gilt on the left and the letter C in gilt on the right of said star, the circle containing the same to be one-third the width of the union. The fly of the flag shall consist of two equally proportioned bars; the upper bar to be red, the lower bar to be white; that the length of the bars horizontally shall be equal to the perpendicular length of the union, and the total length of the flag shall be one-third more than its width. That above the star in the center of the union there shall be a gilt scroll in semi-circular form, containing in black letters this inscription "May 20th, 1775," and that below the star there shall be a similar scroll containing in black letters the inscription: "…

One Ambiguous Sentence

From a David Foster Wallace story:

"Firm Doctors Telephone Poles."

If you get it, you can stop reading here. If not, I'll help.


When I first read that sentence, I saw "telephone" as the verb. Obviously doctors -- apparently those with a certain unwavering deliberativeness in their manner -- were calling Polish people on the phone.

It took awhile for the other way of reading it to occur to me. But "telephone poles" together could be the object of the sentence. Presumably, there are business entities somewhere that repair and maintain old and broken telephone poles. They "doctor" such poles.

Just thought it worth recording here.

Speculation on Futures

On December 27th The New York Times ran a long piece by David Kocieniewski under the headline, "Academics Who Defend Wall St. Reap Rewards."

The article constitutes an elaborate and somewhat indirect charge to the effect that two particular academics, Craig Pirrong and Scott Irwin, are sell-outs. Pirrong is a professor of finance at the University of Houston (that is his photo above) and Irwin is at the University of Illinois.

Both gentlemen (I know Pirrong slightly, he's been a source of expert commentary for me on a couple of stories I worked on, and I like him -- take that as disclosure of bias if you like) -- both gentlemen are of generally free market orientation. This does not necessarily make them defenders of wall street, since much of wall street thrives as a consequence of very non-free-market activities.

You can't really blame Kocieniewski for the headline., I guarantee he didn't write it. But he is responsible for the general slant of the piece.  Ko…

My three 2014 Calendars

For my week-by-week desk calendar through 2014, I will rely on an unflashy but serviceable volume from American Express. As with last year's Amex calendar, there are factual tidbits on each page about various destinations where I can presumably enjoy a debt-financed vacation with my Amex card. The earliest pages tell me various facts for example with reference to Mykonos, in Greece, the red dot in the map you see here.  I learn in this way that Mykonos is home to the a neighborhood known as Little Venice, "whose waterfront houses with their colorful balconies recall the quarter's Italian namesake."

While Mykonos gets January, the site of this year's winter Olympics, Sochi in Russia, gets February. Events will be clustered in two distinct parts of Sochi, "a coastal cluster for indoor ice events and a mountain cluster for skiing ... in Krasnaya Polyana."

Separately, my month-by-month wall calendar for the new year is entitled "Railroads: Illustration…

For Downton Abbey Fans

Here's the lego version of the abbey itself and its characters.

I don't care at all about the show, I've never seen an episode and have no plans to.

The matter only flits across the stage of my theatre of awareness now because I have belatedly discovered that Simon Schama dislikes it.  "Cultural necrophilia" and all that.

You'll notice if you follow the link that he wrote that disapproving essay two years ago. The Abbey lives on.

Vegetation and Intelligence

A recent issue of The New Yorker contains an article by Michael Pollan on the intelligence of plants.

I've learnt as a consequence that between 2005 and 2009 there existed a professional entity known as the Society for Plant Neurobiology. The title is intriguing. Plants don't have nervous systems, so in a literal sense there can't be a plant "neurobiology." But the society was created n 2005 by botanists who believe, in Pollan's paraphrase, that the "electrical and chemical signaling systems [that] have been identified in plants ... are homologous to those found in the nervous systems of animals."

The scientists within this Society are wary of association with the 1973 book The Secret Life of Plants and the hucksterism they believe it represents.
The SPN changed its name to something less intriguing in 2009, possibly (Pollan's article suggests) as a result of government pressure. The federal subsidizers of promising scientific research didn&#…

A Student of Sidney Hook Dies

Barbara Branden, perhaps best known as the author of The Passion of Ayn Rand (1986), and as co-author, with then-husband Nathaniel Branden, of Who is Ayn Rand? (1962), died on December 11th.

The actress Julie Delpy played Barbara in a TV movie based on The Passion of Ayn Rand, and sharing that name, which aired in 1999. No less of a legend than Helen Mirren played the titular protagonist.

Given the above two paragraphs, you may well see the headline above as odd. But as Branden tells us in The Passion, and  as many of the obits have mentioned, BB did study philosophy with the Marxist/pragmatist/and eventual neocon Sidney Hook, at New York University. She defended Hook in conversations within the Randian circle as someone who was committed to reason.

I'd rather write about Hook than about Rand any day. In the era in which BB knew him, Hook was known as the author of Toward the Understanding of Karl Marx (1933)and  From Hegel to Marx (1936).

The aim of both of those books, and of…

The Tate-Polanski Marriage

On January 2, 1968, forty-six years ago today, film director Roman Polanski married actress Sharon Tate, pictured above.

Later that year, Polanski would direct the supernatural thriller Rosemary's Baby, starring Mia Farrow.

That movie was very successful, and it is a reasonable speculation that it seemed to the newlyweds a harbinger of a long and happy marriage to come.

Alas, Tate would die in the summer of '69, a victim of the Manson family.
I have nothing profound to say about this, just that it is a reminder of what a great classical author called the tearfulness of things.