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Showing posts from February, 2014

Voynich Manuscript

Back in 1912 a Polish book dealer, Wilfrid Voynich, purchased an odd manuscript from Jesuits in Rome. The Jesuits of the Villa Mondragone were in need of cash and so were selling off some of their holdings, including this old 15th century book.


Voynich kept it until his death in 1930. It is now in the possession of the Yale Library.


Based on the illustrations, (see above), Voynich inferred that this was supposed to be a medical or pharmacological text from that period. but he didn't recognize the language. Neither has anyone else since. The "Voynich manuscript" has become a standing challenge to cryptoanalysis. indeed, it is so difficult to decipher that one hypothesis is that there was no purchase from the Jesuits at all, that the whole thing was Voynich's hoax, and that the text-like symbols are nonsense. But carbon dating supported his account and the 15th-century origin.


There is another theory, that it is an older hoax, perhaps some Renaissance-era prankster s…

The Bells of St. Mary's

The motion picture academy is givingout its big awards this weekend, but I've been thinking recently about the sappy old movie, Bells of St. Mary's.


Bing Crosby, as Father O'Malley, is in charge of a parochial school. One of the students, Patsy, is failing (a course taught by Sister Mary Benedict, played by Ingrid Bergman, who here is simply the sexiest nun in Hollywood nun-portrayal history). O'Malley helps Patsy out, even ghost writing an essay Patsy has to submit, because Bergman's sticking to her high standards.


The essay is supposed to be about "my favorite sense," and the Sister expects some students to write about why they love various sights, others about why they love various sounds, smells, etc. But under O'Malley's tutelage, Patsy comes to understand that the idea of "common sense" is our faculty of combining the reports of all those special senses into one rounded perception of the world about us. Its a very good exposition …

The Back Office at Goldman Sachs

I see from a recent "Heard on the Street" column that the investment bank Goldman Sachs has an operational unit that it calls "the Federation."


As explained in the column, the Federation combines range of back office activities that do not generate revenue themselves but are nonetheless of great significance: accounting, legal, compliance, risk management etc.


Goldman Sach's management committee is apparently divided three ways: representatives from sales and trading, reps from investment banking, and those from the Federation. The HOTS column cannot help but make Star Wars references here (a powerful organization known simply as the Trade Federation is manipulated by Sith Lords, an important plot point in the three prequel movies.).


Personally, I would have made Star Trek references instead. The Federation of Planets, after all, constitute the good guys of that universe, not puppets of the bad guys.


Still, to each his own.


Anyway, the news content of the …

Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy

My recent reading has included Eri Hotta's book of the title and subtitle above. Eri Hotta, a Japanese woman who has been educated, and been an educator, just about everywhere -- the US, the UK, Israel, etc. looks like this:


Parts of the book are based upon a diary kept by Kafu. Kafu was a very distinguished man of letters, though by 1941 his own prime as a writer/editor was passed. he had founded an important literary magazine in 1916.


At any rate, by 1941 his writing energies seemed to have been going almost exclusively into his own journals. But he was a keen observer of the world around him, and keen on listening to the people there and their stories. This is something he wrote,  in the summer before the attack on Pearl Harbor.


In Hankou, [China], this young soldier and his comrades broke into a house of a physician who had two beautiful daughters. The doctor and his wife begged the Japanese soldiers not to touch the girls, offering them all the gold and silver they had. Bu…

Clarence Darrow

The Jan/Feb issue of THE FEDERAL LAWYER includes a review, by Nicholas J. Patterson, of a recent biography of Clarence Darrow, the renowned early 20th century trial lawyer.


The review discusses the Steunenberg/Haywood murder trial briefly, and my thoughts while reading it stuck on that.


Frank Steunenberg had been the Governor of Idaho from 1897 to 1901. (The officeholder received a two-year term in that state in those days, so this entailed one re-election.) Though he was elected largely through labor support, near the end of his second term he took management's side of a labor conflict, asking President McKinley to send federal troops into Idaho to break a miners' strike.  He did not seek a third term in the 1900 election, and seems not to have continued to be active in politics in the years left to him.


In 1905, Steunenberg died. Somebody -- probably former miner Harry Orchard -- had rigged explosives to the gate outside his home, in such a way that the explosives would go…

On Reading Dante II

Yesterday I discussed an incident from my teen years when a neighbor lady (NL) interrupted my effort to provide an impromptu exegesis of Dante's Divine Comedy.


Today I'll see if I can finish that exegesis.


Well, Dante was writing at a time when the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor were engaged in a struggle for power. He used the three afterlife destinations to suggest his own take....


That's when I was interrupted. I'm not sure where I would have gone from there, or how effectively, at 14: but here is my effort to finish the thought more than 40 years later.


He used the three afterlife destinations to suggest his own take on the power struggle.


His take, roughly, was that the Church should renounce any claim to temporal power and be a more purely spiritual organization. It could do this by making clear its subservience to the Holy Roman Emperors in temporal matters.


On a related point, Dante was not happy with the behavior of the Italian city-states, which were aut…

On Reading Dante I

I remember when I was in high school I became interested in Dante's DIVINE COMEDY.


(For those of you who may be curious, I was reading the Sayers/Reynolds translation, which preserves the terza rima scheme of the original verse.)


This was a matter of some consternation to various kin and neighbors, who thought I could not possibly understand such a book and it could only hurt my lil' teenage mind to try.


One neighbor lady (whom I will shroud in anonymity hereafter -- the initials NL shall be enough) somberly sought to discuss the book with me. The conversation went something like this:


NL: What do you think the book is about?


CF: (staggered a bit at the vastness of the ground a proper answer would cover): Well, Dante was writing at a time when the Papacy and the Holy Roman Emperor were engaged in a struggle for power. He used the three afterlife destinations to suggest his own take....


NL:  No no, you're missing the point. His point was the kind of life you make for your…

The Sense of Beauty

Can we agree that there are shifts in artistic taste, that is, shifts in what is considered beautiful, over time? I'll try to describe them in broad brush terms here. This will be part of the broader project of uniting my Moore-ish breakthrough in ethics (really in axiology) on the one hand, and the still-powerful historicist/Jamesian memes at large in my skull on the other. We should be able to talk about beauty in historical terms. 



If we try, we notice at once that there is an underlying battle between connoisseurship and novelty. Suppose that we are living in a time when the impressionistic style is dominant in the world of painting. The smart people are the ones who know something about impressionism, who have developed and shared with one another standards that determine which painters are doing it best, etc. A recognition of beauty arises and is understood within this universe of discourse.



BUT ... there is also an innate human drive for novelty. Eventually the relevant …

John Bishop, Believing by Faith (2007)

John Bishop, a professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland, wrote Believing by Faith a few years ago in order to present an updated view of William James' observations on the will to believe. In his honor, I've begun this entry with the coat of arms of that University.


Bishop's book is subtitled, An Essay in the Epistemology and Ethics of Religious Belief, a nod in part to an essay by William Kingdon Clifford, published in 1877, simply titled "The Ethics of Belief."


Many people have since written on the cluster of issues on which Clifford and James took contrasting positions back in the 19th century, so Bishop is both returning to the source and replying to a lot of the subsequent cluster of commentary.


I won't get into the particulars of what Bishop adds to the debate. I'll only say that Bishop's preface is intriguing. It describes the book he was trying to write before he ended up writing this one.


"My initial motive was to write o…

The Lyrics of "Live Like You Were Dying"

Back in 2004 Tim McGraw recorded the song "Live Like You were Dying."


As a way of marking the one-decade anniversary of this song, I'd like to admit that a couple of the lines have confused me for years. I could use your help understanding them.


In the first couple of verses, the song seems easy to follow. Two men are talking, and one tells the other about his diagnosis. The doctors have (recently? or a long time ago and mistakenly? that isn't clear) given him the news that he would die soon. "I spent most of the next days/Looking at the X-rays."


Then we get a couple of lines about a man crossing items off of his bucket list. "I went sky diving, I went rocky mountain climbing, I went two point seven seconds on a bull named Fu Man Chu."


Then the speaker -- presumably still the old man -- shifts to the more characterological consequences of the news. As he was doing those things, he found he was loving deeper and speaking sweeter, and giving fo…

Europe's Hamilton Moment

The United States came into existence through the success of the rebels in a war in which they -- the aforesaid rebels -- fought with the aid of inflated money ("not worth a continental") and potentially destabilizing debt.


The political compact we know as the U.S. Constitution came about largely because of that fiscal and monetary crisis. It came about because of the vision and energy of Alexander Hamilton, who brought Madison and Jay into the fold so together they could write magnificent advocacy known as The Federalist, and who was then charged by the first President with the gigantic task of getting the new Treasury underway.  


Today, many of the nations of Europe are heavily in debt. They have sought a higher degree of unity in part as a reaction to that indebtedness, and thus new unity includes a single currency, a European Central Bank., and closer cooperation among the finance ministers of the nations that share this currency.  This has led some Europeans to wonder…

After the Super Bowl

I inscribe here my miscellaneous thoughts on this year's Super Bowl, a shockingly lopsided 43 to 8 Seahawks' victory. 
Queen Latifah started things off vigorously with her take on America the Beautiful.


Then Renée Fleming did an awesome job with the Star Spangled Banner.  Opera fans know her as a great diva. If you don't think you're likely to catch her performing in that capacity on stage, you might take a pick from this very partial discography. She is featured in each of the following CDs:


Handel Arias Decca 2003/2004Requiem (Verdi) Philips 2004Haunted Heart Decca 2005Sacred Songs Decca 2005Homage – The Age of the Diva Decca 2006Strauss: Daphne DeccaFour Last Songs by Richard Strauss Decca 2008Verismo – Arias of Puccini, Mascagni, Cilea, Giordano, Leoncavallo Decca 2009Dark Hope Decca Records 2010Poèmes – French songs, Decca 2012

But back to the game. The best thing you can say about the Denver Broncos is that they were right in the thick of it, right up until ...…

Napoleon and Contingency

Just a quick book note today. The Simms book, EUROPE, is a very ambitious effort to put between two covers a discussion of the modern history (mostly the old-fashioned sort of history -- politics, war, and diplomacy) of the named continent.


The book gives to this convoluted subject matter, ranging from the fall of Constantinople in 1453 to headlines in the early 21st century, fewer than 700 pages. Excluding the lengthy source notes gives you just 530 pages.
Personally, I'm a sucker for Big Picture books like this.


Anyway: one of the themes of Simms' book is contingency. There was nothing inevitable, Simms tells us, "about the defeats of Charles V, Louis XIV, Napoleon, and Hitler."
Charles V was the King of Spain, and the Holy Roman Emperor, at the time when Spain was conquering much of the New World. Charles' big defeat was in his efforts in his Imperial capacity to suppress the Protestant Reformation. (He did keep it out of Spain, though!)
Louis XIV, France&…

Meta-Ethics

From ethics to meta-ethics. Ethics is the branch of philosophy that asks how we should act, what we should consider to be good or bad/evil, meta-ethics is the branch of philosophy that asks about that activity.


So "how should I act?" is an ethical inquiry, and "what does it mean to ask how I should act?" is a meta-ethical activity.


I've outlined in recent posts here what I consider a breakthrough in my own understanding of ethics.


Here I'd simply like to apply some meta-ethical labels to the view that results.


As I've noted, a good name for this type of view given traditional taxonomies would be"teleological intuitionism." What does that mean?


It means that the view is intuitionist in that it relies upon an inferred human capacity [or "faculty" if you like] for the direct recognition of intrinsic goodness.


 It is teleological in that there is an end, the increase of the amount of intrinsic goodness in the world, and all other go…