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Showing posts from January, 2017

Credit Theresa May With Some Guts

When the US was obsessing about the then-still-not-exactly President Trump and his tweets about Congressman John Lewis, I tuned it out, and tuned in instead to the politics of the Mother Country.

The Bank of England's Governor Mark Carney on Jan. 15 said that the country's consumer spending has held up well since the Brexit referendum, a fact that seems to have surprised him. Consumers are "entirely looking through Brexit-related uncertainties." Stiff upper lips and all that?

More important, Prime Minister May gave an important address about the direction her government will take in executing the UK's exit from the EU.

There have been talk of a so-called "soft Brexit," which would presumably entail retaining many of the benefits of membership in the EU while throwing off the liabilities. The leaders of other European nations had made clear their displeasure at that idea, and there developed a consensus that it wasn't going to happen. May acknowledg…

And, Yes, the Landings Were Real

Those Apollo moon rocks continue to yield grist for the mill of science.

A new UCLA study re-jiggers estimates of the age of our satellite, increasing her estimated age by 100 million years or so.

When I was in school the dominant theory was that the moon and the earth emerged at the same time. Presumably the one cloud of dust that congealed to become a planet somehow congealed in a bi-modal way to become both planet and satellite.

But recent work has brought another view into prominence.  The earth is at least 4.5 billion years old. The moon is somewhat younger, perhaps about 4 billion years old. When the moon formed, the earth was considerably more solid than a dust cloud, but a good deal more molten than the Earth we know. This premise leads to creative theorizing about how that happened.

The dominant theory at the moment is that the moon formed as the consequence of a collision between the earth and something else, a "planetary embryo" called Theia about 4 billion years…

Shkrelli: What's his status nowadays

I  recently read an article about the cancellation of a planned appearance at UC Davis of alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and Martin Shkreli.  Seems like a classic instance of "heckler's veto."

 I don't care about MY especially. The references to MS in this story piqued my interest, though.

You may remember that Shkreli, pictured above, was formerly a pharmaceutical CEO, accused of jacking up prices of life-saving drugs unconscionably and of committing securities fraud in the process. He was arrested by the FBI a little more than a year ago, December 2015.

It struck me when I heard about this UC Davis thing that it has been a long time since I had heard anything more about the proceedings. I gather he has been out on bail pending trial ever since. But this seems like a fairly long time to pass without any news.

There once was a time, not long ago, when I would have been following the case in detail, and I'd know about discovery motions, evidentiary exclu…

Russell's Theory of Names

Suppose I am trying to understand what some other person believes. This other person believes something that seems very odd to me, but he/she speaks my language, and appears to speak it competently, and in some respects at least is a rational person.

Is there anything we can say in general about the kind of explanation that might put me in some sympathy with apparently irrational views in such a case? I think there is, and that Bertrand Russell's theory of names will get us to it. Russell said that people often confuse the words we consider "names" with what he called logically proper names, both when we use them and when we hear them.

The classic example is drawn from the Superman mythos. Lois Lane at some point believes:

1) That Clark Kent is not strong
2) That Superman is strong.

Assuming further that I am part of that world, and I know that the reference of the two propositions is the same. So I regard (1) as the logical equivalent of the negation of (2). I'm …

Near the Palace of Nestor

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 th…

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…

Thoughts on Hillary Clinton's Career

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 not…

Monica Crowley's Plagiarism

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 …

Locke, Body, and Soul

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 s…

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 child…

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…

Rationality: A Jamesian Thought

In a Facebook philosophy group one participant asked the others: "What are your thoughts on being a truly rational person?"

I liked my own answer so much I thought I'd reproduce it here. It is direct from the Jamesian playbook.

Rationality consists of two very different pulls: one toward the general and one toward the particular.

We always get a sense of rationality when we learn that two different-seeming things are in some respect the same. When the orbit of the moon is explained by a law that also covers the fall of an apple, or when electricity and magnetism turn out to be the same force. The rational impulse is toward the general.

On the one hand, we have a natural fear of vagueness and so of generality. We want to know the particular workings of things. "Let's be specific." That too is a rational drive.  The encyclopedia is as rational a phenomenon, even as  much an ideal of rationality, as the concise governing law.��������������������������������…

A self evident truth

"Whatever was born, must die."

That sounds like a self-evident truth to me, heartless though it might be to illustrate it with a photo of cute newborn puppies.

Let's call our above statement T. Let's also observe at once that in contrast to many of the propositions that are bruited about as self-evident truths, it can't plausibly be considered a tautology.

T, above, is very different from, say, "a triangle has three lines." The latter can be understood as meaning, "that which we call a 'triangle' has three lines" so the question of a possible exception doesn't arise.

T doesn't read like "that which we say has been 'born' must die."

I make a ponderous point of this because the synthetic/analytic distinction has come under heavy criticism in philosophical circles for decades now. If I recall correctly, Quine -- who is number 1 on the list I posted here yesterday -- made his reputation with an essay on the subje…

English speaking epistemologists

According to Leiter Reports, the most important English-language world epistemologists since 1945 have been:

W.V.O. Quine  (Condorcet winner: wins contests with all other choices)2. Alvin Goldman  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 131–1003. Roderick Chisholm  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 145–90, loses to Alvin Goldman by 117–904. Wilfrid Sellars  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 142–80, loses to Roderick Chisholm by 110–1065. Timothy Williamson  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 148–100, loses to Wilfrid Sellars by 122–1186. Ernest Sosa  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 152–95, loses to Timothy Williamson by 123–1077. Tied:
Fred Dretske  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 156–78, loses to Ernest Sosa by 121–90
Edmund Gettier  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 160–78, loses to Ernest Sosa by 114–1059. Donald Davidson  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 158–53, loses to Fred Dretske by 120–9310. William Alston  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 164–70, loses to Donald Davidson by 99–9611. Tied:
Laurence BonJour  loses to W.V.O. Quine by 164–64, loses to Willia…

Berkeley on Calculus

As is well known (at least in certain nerdy circles), the immaterialist philosopher George Berkeley sharply criticized Isaac Newton, and the branch of mathematics Newton had founded, in 1734. Berkeley's book of that year, THE ANALYST, said that calculus depends upon presuming that an "infinitesimal" is something at a certain point in one's reason, then assuming it is nothing at another point. That is internally incoherent.

Berkeley thus earned himself a place within the usual story about calculus. The story goes -- Newton proposed certain rough-and-ready ideas, not yet fully developed. He developed them just far enough, and just deep enough, to figure out orbital mathematics. But he left holes in his reasoning. Berkeley saw the holes and called Newton out on this. Subsequent theorists re-worked the foundations to render this branch of mathematics safe from Berkeleyan assaults.

That, as I say, is the usual story.

In 1987, a fellow named David Sherry wrote an article…

String Theory Defended (I Told You I'd Get Back to It)

Happy New Year!

On Christmas Eve Day, I mentioned a recent book, Why String Theory? by Joseph Conlon. I said I'd discuss its philosophical significance this week. Here we are, at the start of a new year, and we can start 2017 off with something weighty.

String theory is often presented as a "theory of everything" or ToE. This is both its charm and (in many minds) its downfall. These fundamental strings winding through X dimensions might allow for a geometrical description of all the particles, and the forces, enumerated in modern physics courses. The bestiary of different subatomic particles has become confusing and crowded -- the strong demand of human minds for conceptual order requires some clean-up work there.

As to forces, the "force left out" is always gravity. The other forces -- strong nuclear, weak nuclear, electromagnetic, have all made their peace with one another through the magic of quantum mechanics. Gravity remains aloof. One big goal of string …