Sunday, July 31, 2011

Storm and Conquest

Stephen Taylor's Storm and Conquest: The Clash of Empires in the Eastern Seas, 1809. An entertaining, instructive, and moving read. Highly Recommended. Suitable for Young Adults and especially for those with an interest in Military History, Napoleon, Maritime History, the Indian Ocean, India, or the British Empire. A non-fiction book in the spirit of C.S. Forester (Mr. Midshipman Hornblower), Patrick O'Brian (the Jack Aubrey novels beginning with Master and Commander), or Alexander Kent (the Richard Bolithio novels beginning with Richard Bolithio, Midshipman).

Storm and Conquest recounts the tribulations of the East India Company and the British Navy 1808-1810 in the Indian Ocean during which more than half dozen Indiamen were lost to hurricanes, nearly half a dozen British warships were lost to the resurgent French navy and more than 2,000 sailors and civilians lost their lives to battle and mishap. At a time when Great Britain had a population of some 12 million, it would be the equivalent to the US losing some 50,000 people in a conflict in a two year span.

Storm and Conquest reads like Livy's account of the Romans, losing time after time to the Carthaginians at sea, yet bullheadedly returning to contest with their foe once more, eventually winning by dent of deliberate habit.

There was all the East before me

From Youth: A Narrative by Joseph Conrad.
There was all the East before me, and all life, and the thought that I had been tried in that ship and had come out pretty well. And I thought of men of old who, centuries ago, went that road in ships that sailed no better, to the land of palms, and spices, and yellow sands, and of brown nations ruled by kings more cruel than Nero the Roman and more splendid than Solomon the Jew.
I am reading a rather excellent account of the maritime conflicts in the Indian Ocean during the Napoleonic wars, Storm and Conquest: The Clash of Empires in the Eastern Seas, 1809 by Stephen Taylor. Highly recommended.

Conrad, a hundred years later, caught some of the maritime magic of the Indian Ocean.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

To come down the China Sea before a fair monsoon with stun'-sails set alow and aloft

Regretably, an England now passed. From Youth: A Narrative by Joseph Conrad.
This could have occurred nowhere but in England, where men and sea interpenetrate, so to speak—the sea entering into the life of most men, and the men knowing something or everything about the sea, in the way of amusement, of travel, or of bread-winning.

We were sitting round a mahogany table that reflected the bottle, the claret-glasses, and our faces as we leaned on our elbows. There was a director of companies, an accountant, a lawyer, Marlow, and myself. The director had been a Conway boy, the accountant had served four years at sea, the lawyer—a fine crusted Tory, High Churchman, the best of old fellows, the soul of honour—had been chief officer in the P. & O. service in the good old days when mail-boats were square-rigged at least on two masts, and used to come down the China Sea before a fair monsoon with stun'-sails set alow and aloft. We all began life in the merchant service. Between the five of us there was the strong bond of the sea, and also the fellowship of the craft, which no amount of enthusiasm for yachting, cruising, and so on can give, since one is only the amusement of life and the other is life itself.

It is not something that can be picked up and studied in one's spare time.

h/t Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale. Page 77.
Seamanship, just like anything else, is an art. It is not something that can be picked up and studied in one's spare time. Indeed, it allows no spare time for anything else.
The need for focus and practice in order to achieve excellence, recognized 2,500 years ago.

Courage is the beginning of victory

h/t Lords of the Sea: The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy by John R. Hale. Page 43.
Pindar rightly called the battle of Artemisium the place where the sons of Athens laid the shining cornerstone of freedom; for courage is the beginning of victory - Plutarch

Friday, July 29, 2011

Consent of the governed

Denish D'Souza, What's So Great About America. Page 114-116.

D'Souza has an intriguing discussion as to both the 3/5s issue in the constitution as well as an explanation of Lincoln's views on race and slavery. At first blush this discussion seems disingenuous but on reflection, I wonder if he doesn't present the most logical argument I have seen for squaring the circle between the private actions and thoughts of these classical Liberal founding fathers and the actual words of the constitution.

Starting on page 114 he summarizes the issues, logical conundrums and competing philosophical and commercial views.
The deference of Jefferson and the American Founders to popular prejudices strikes many contemporary scholars as an intellectual and moral scandal. Some, like John Hope Franklin, suggest that popular convictions simply represented a frustrating obstacle that the Founders should have dealt with resolutely and uncompromisingly. But in a democratic society, the absence of the people's agreement on a fundamental moral question of governance is no mere technicality. The case for democracy, no less than the case against slavery, rests on the legitimacy of the people's consent. To outlaw slavery without the consent of the majority of whites would be to destroy democracy, indeed to destroy the very basis for outlawing slavery.

The men gathered in Philadelphia were in a peculiar predicament. For them to sanction slavery would be to proclaim the illegitimacy of the American Revolution and the new form of government based on the people's consent; yet for them to outlaw slavery without securing the people's consent would have the same effect. In practical terms as well, the choice facing the founders was not to permit or to prohibit slavery. Rather, the choice was either to establish a union in which slavery was tolerated, or not to have a union at all. Any suggestion that Southern states could be persuaded to join a union and give up slavery can be dismissed as preposterous. As Harry Jaffa puts it, had the founders insisted upon securing all the rights of all men, they would have ended up securing no rights for anybody.

Thus the accusation that the Founders compromised on the Declaration's principle that "all men are created equal" for the purpose of expediency reflects a grave misunderstanding. The Founders were confronted with a competing principle, also present in the Declaration: governments derive their legitimacy from the "consent of the governed." Both principles must be satisfied, and where they cannot, compromise is not merely permissible but morally required.

The American Founders found a middle ground not between principle and practice, but between opposition to slavery and majority consent. They produced a Constitution in which the concept of slavery is tolerated in deference to consent, but not given any moral approval in recognition of the slave's natural rights. Nowhere in the document is the term "slavery" used. Slaves are always described as "persons," implying their possession of natural rights. The Founders were also careful to approve a Constitution that refuses to acknowledge the existence of racial distinctions, thus producing a document that transcended time.
Even so, the test of the founders' project is the practical consequence: did the founding strengthen or weaken the institution of slavery? The American Revolution should be judged by its consequences. Before 1776, slavery was legal in every part of America. Yet by 1804 every state north of Maryland had abolished slavery either immediately or gradually; southern and border states prohibited further slave importations from abroad; and Congress was committed to outlawing the slave trade in 1808, which it did. Slavery was no longer national but a sectional institution, and one under moral and political siege.

Abraham Lincoln not only perceived the founders' dilemma, he inherited it. The principle of popular rule is based on Jefferson's doctrine that "all men are created equal," yet the greatest crisis in American history arose when the people denied that "all men are created equal" and in so doing denied the basis of their own legitimacy. Lincoln had two concrete choices: work to overthrow democracy, or work to secure consent through persuasion. Conscious that he, too, must defer, as the founders did, to prevailing prejudices, Lincoln nevertheless sought to neutralize those prejudices so they did not become a barrier to securing black freedom. In a series of artfully conditional claims - "If God gave the black man little, that little let him enjoy" - Lincoln paid ritual obeisance to existing racism while drawing even racists into his coalition to end slavery. Lincoln made these rhetorical concessions because he knew that the possibility for securing antislavery consent was far better in his time than in the 1780s.

Commenting on the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln said of the founders: "They intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what respects they did consider all men created equal—equal in certain inalienable rights. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality, nor yet, that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit." By working through rather than around the democratic process, Lincoln justified the nation's faith in the untried experiment of representative self-government. In vindicating the slave's right to rule himself, Lincoln also vindicated the legitimacy of democratic self-rule. Thus it is accurate to say that Lincoln gave America a "new birth of freedom."

Lincoln's position came to be shared by Frederick Douglass, who had once denounced the Constitution but who eventually came to the conclusion that it contained antislavery principles: "Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered," Douglas said. Slavery, he concluded, was merely a "scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building is completed."
Speech on the Dred Scott Decision by Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Is it real?

H/T Rick O'Leary.

Don Schrello's criteria for assessing the value of a new venture:
1.Is it Real?
2.Can We Win?
3.Is it Worth it?

- Don Schrello, 1974, Product Evaluation and Planning Seminar

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests.

Driving my son to work this morning, we are discussing the proper role of government and the constant ebbs and flows of limitation and expansion.

On returning, and just before getting started on work, I do my quick run through of news and blogs and come across Representative Government by John Stuart Mill, last read probably sophomore year in college. What seemed so dry and theoretical then now seems rather pertinent. Within the essay there is this powerful quote that frequently gets summarized or even bowdlerized but is intriguing in its original context. Emphasis added.
But there are still stronger objections to this theory of government in the terms in which it is usually stated. The power in society which has any tendency to convert itself into political power is not power quiescent, power merely passive, but active power; in other words, power actually exerted; that is to say, a very small portion of all the power in existence. Politically speaking, a great part of all power consists in will. How is it possible, then, to compute the elements of political power, while we omit from the computation anything which acts on the will? To think that because those who wield the power in society wield in the end that of government, therefore it is of no use to attempt to influence the constitution of the government by acting on opinion, is to forget that opinion is itself one of the greatest active social forces. One person with a belief is a social power equal to ninety-nine who have only interests. They who can succeed in creating a general persuasion that a certain form of government, or social fact of any kind, deserves to be preferred, have made nearly the most important step which can possibly be taken towards ranging the powers of society on its side. On the day when the proto-martyr was stoned to death at Jerusalem, while he who was to be the Apostle of the Gentiles stood by "consenting unto his death," would any one have supposed that the party of that stoned man were then and there the strongest power in society? And has not the event proved that they were so? Because theirs was the most powerful of then existing beliefs. The same element made a monk of Wittenberg, at the meeting of the Diet of Worms, a more powerful social force than the Emperor Charles the Fifth, and all the princes there assembled. But these, it may be said, are cases in which religion was concerned, and religious convictions are something peculiar in their strength. Then let us take a case purely political, where religion, so far as concerned at all, was chiefly on the losing side. If any one requires to be convinced that speculative thought is one of the chief elements of social power, let him bethink himself of the age in which there was scarcely a throne in Europe which was not filled by a liberal and reforming king, a liberal and reforming emperor, or, strangest of all, a liberal and reforming pope; the age of Frederic the Great, of Catherine the Second, of Joseph the Second, of Peter Leopold, of Benedict XIV., of Ganganelli, of Pombal, of Aranda; when the very Bourbons of Naples were liberals and reformers, and all the active minds among the noblesse of France were filled with the ideas which were soon after to cost them so dear. Surely a conclusive example how far mere physical and economic power is from being the whole of social power.
To me this whole paragraph is insightful and speaks a truth rarely acknowledged - ends are achieved to a large degree based on the differential in will power. Most of the other factors contributing to success are details and footnotes: relevant and necessary but not the strongest predictors of success. And while I endorse this as a general principle, there are of course exceptions. The French army in advance of World War I became enamoured of the idea of "elan", the vigorous spirit, and pinned their hopes for martial effectiveness on elan rather than training and numbers which was the focus of their future enemy. Will can't guaranty victory, but ceteris paribus, it is the differentiating factor.

Out of the whole paragraph quoted above, it is that one sentence "One person with a ..." which is cited. Yes, it is very quotable. But it seems to me that the meat is in the sentence that follows:
They who can succeed in creating a general persuasion that a certain form of government, or social fact of any kind, deserves to be preferred, have made nearly the most important step which can possibly be taken towards ranging the powers of society on its side.
Isn't that what all our debates are about? Creating a general persuasion, often independent of the facts, towards harnessing the powers of society?

A side train of thought: this is coupled with the Swiss philosopher Helvetius' epigram "When I speak I put on a mask. When I act, I am forced to take it off."

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Be it never so bad or decried

H/T Nicholas Basbanes, A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World.
For certainly there is nothing which renders a Library more recommendable than when every man finds in it that which he is in search of, and nowhere else encounter; this being a perfect maxim, that there is no book whatsoever, be it never so bad or decried, but may in time be sought for by some person or other. - Gabriel Naude (1600-1653), Instructions Concerning Erecting of a Library.

Friday, July 22, 2011

One is bowled over by their originality

An essay Why Bother with Marshall McLuhan? by Alan Jacobs.

McLuhan has been lurking in the background of my reading and thoughts for probably a couple of decades. He is probably most famous for the assertion that the medium is the message. I have shied away from any serious reading of his work in part because the small sampling I did seemed to indicate intriguing but incoherent thought and partly I avoided him because he seemed to be too popular. As a rule of thumb, I am prone to believe that those who are the toast of the chattering classes are probably not legitimately rewarding to read. Not a universally true rule but one that is usefully accurate.

This essay fills in some of the blanks and confirms that it was proper to be skeptical but also makes the case that there is some value of selectively investigating some of McLuhan's work.

Some of McLuhan's prognostications:
Pope has not received his due as a serious analyst of the intellectual malaise of Europe.... Supported by the Gutenberg technology, the power of the dunces to shape and befog the human intellect is unlimited.

Art is always one technology behind. The content of the art of any age is the technology of the previous age.

The medium is the message.

The global village.

Mysticism is just tomorrow’s science dreamed today.

Jacobs description of the issue with McLuhan is:
It is easy to come to dismissive conclusions when dealing with a thinker as distinctive as McLuhan. W. H. Auden once wrote of Kierkegaard that he
is one of those writers whom it is very difficult to estimate justly. When one reads them for the first time, one is bowled over by their originality (they speak in a voice one has never heard before) and by the sharpness of their insights (they say things which no one before them has said, and which, henceforward, no reader will ever forget). But with successive readings one’s doubts grow, one begins to react against their overemphasis on one aspect of the truth at the expense of all the others, and one’s first enthusiasm may all too easily turn into an equally exaggerated aversion.
McLuhan is also one of those writers, and the difficulty of estimating him justly is exacerbated by his one-time status as an international intellectual celebrity, appearing regularly on bestseller lists, jetting from place to place to give lectures to adoring crowds, appearing on television talk shows, and running an institute devoted to his own ideas at the University of Toronto.
I think Jacobs is on the mark when he comes to the conclusion that the value of McLuhan is more in his role as a catalyst to others' thinking rather than as a consistent and articulate conceptualizer himself.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

They thought there was plenty of simple thieving too

Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, page 906. Sound like today?
A case can be made for describing the Monroe presidency . . . as the first great era of corruption in American history. Indeed, the word itself was used with increasing frequency. Many Americans came sincerely to believe that their government, both administration and Congress, was corrupt, and this at a time when, in Britain, the traditional corruption of the 18th-century Walpoleian system was being slowly but surely extruded from public life. . . . by corruption Americans of the 1820s did not mean simply the use of bribes and stealing from the public purse. They also meant the undermining of the constitutional system by secret deals, the use of public office to acquire power or higher office, and the giving of private interests priority over public welfare. But they thought there was plenty of simple thieving too.

Equal sharing of miseries

This spring I visited my Mother and family in the UK. While there, Sally and I toured Chartwell, Winston Churchill's home. In the nearby town, there was a pub/restaurant down a little alleyway and on the walls of the alley in faux graffiti style were a number of quotes from Churchill including this which is a perfect example of his remarkable ability to cut to the heart of the matter.
The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess

What an incredibly different world we live in from that which existed such a comparatively short time ago. This gruesome account of a beheading is from Charles Dickens, recounted in his Pictures from Italy, published in 1846. There are so many elements to this account that boggle the mind. The casual brutality. The fact that it apparently was a quotidian event. That a tourist could take this in as if it were a jazz festival that happened to be on while visiting the city. The fact that one of our most accomplished story-tellers could so easily have this as part of his portfolio of experiences. On and on.
The beheading was appointed for fourteen and a-half o’clock, Roman time: or a quarter before nine in the forenoon. I had two friends with me; and as we did not know but that the crowd might be very great, we were on the spot by half-past seven. The place of execution was near the church of San Giovanni decoll├íto (a doubtful compliment to Saint John the Baptist) in one of the impassable back streets without any footway, of which a great part of Rome is composed - a street of rotten houses, which do not seem to belong to anybody, and do not seem to have ever been inhabited, and certainly were never built on any plan, or for any particular purpose, and have no window-sashes, and are a little like deserted breweries, and might be warehouses but for having nothing in them. Opposite to one of these, a white house, the scaffold was built. An untidy, unpainted, uncouth, crazy-looking thing of course: some seven feet high, perhaps: with a tall, gallows-shaped frame rising above it, in which was the knife, charged with a ponderous mass of iron, all ready to descend, and glittering brightly in the morning sun, whenever it looked out, now and then, from behind a cloud.

There were not many people lingering about; and these were kept at a considerable distance from the scaffold, by parties of the Pope’s dragoons. Two or three hundred foot-soldiers were under arms, standing at ease in clusters here and there; and the officers were walking up and down in twos and threes, chatting together, and smoking cigars.

At the end of the street, was an open space, where there would be a dust-heap, and piles of broken crockery, and mounds of vegetable refuse, but for such things being thrown anywhere and everywhere in Rome, and favouring no particular sort of locality. We got into a kind of wash-house, belonging to a dwelling-house on this spot; and standing there in an old cart, and on a heap of cartwheels piled against the wall, looked, through a large grated window, at the scaffold, and straight down the street beyond it until, in consequence of its turning off abruptly to the left, our perspective was brought to a sudden termination, and had a corpulent officer, in a cocked hat, for its crowning feature.

Nine o’clock struck, and ten o’clock struck, and nothing happened. All the bells of all the churches rang as usual. A little parliament of dogs assembled in the open space, and chased each other, in and out among the soldiers. Fierce-looking Romans of the lowest class, in blue cloaks, russet cloaks, and rags uncloaked, came and went, and talked together. Women and children fluttered, on the skirts of the scanty crowd. One large muddy spot was left quite bare, like a bald place on a man’s head. A cigar-merchant, with an earthen pot of charcoal ashes in one hand, went up and down, crying his wares. A pastry-merchant divided his attention between the scaffold and his customers. Boys tried to climb up walls, and tumbled down again. Priests and monks elbowed a passage for themselves among the people, and stood on tiptoe for a sight of the knife: then went away. Artists, in inconceivable hats of the middle-ages, and beards (thank Heaven!) of no age at all, flashed picturesque scowls about them from their stations in the throng. One gentleman (connected with the fine arts, I presume) went up and down in a pair of Hessian-boots, with a red beard hanging down on his breast, and his long and bright red hair, plaited into two tails, one on either side of his head, which fell over his shoulders in front of him, very nearly to his waist, and were carefully entwined and braided!

Eleven o’clock struck and still nothing happened. A rumour got about, among the crowd, that the criminal would not confess; in which case, the priests would keep him until the Ave Maria (sunset); for it is their merciful custom never finally to turn the crucifix away from a man at that pass, as one refusing to be shriven, and consequently a sinner abandoned of the Saviour, until then. People began to drop off. The officers shrugged their shoulders and looked doubtful. The dragoons, who came riding up below our window, every now and then, to order an unlucky hackney-coach or cart away, as soon as it had comfortably established itself, and was covered with exulting people (but never before), became imperious, and quick-tempered. The bald place hadn’t a straggling hair upon it; and the corpulent officer, crowning the perspective, took a world of snuff.

Suddenly, there was a noise of trumpets. ‘Attention!’ was among the foot-soldiers instantly. They were marched up to the scaffold and formed round it. The dragoons galloped to their nearer stations too. The guillotine became the centre of a wood of bristling bayonets and shining sabres. The people closed round nearer, on the flank of the soldiery. A long straggling stream of men and boys, who had accompanied the procession from the prison, came pouring into the open space. The bald spot was scarcely distinguishable from the rest. The cigar and pastry-merchants resigned all thoughts of business, for the moment, and abandoning themselves wholly to pleasure, got good situations in the crowd. The perspective ended, now, in a troop of dragoons. And the corpulent officer, sword in hand, looked hard at a church close to him, which he could see, but we, the crowd, could not.

After a short delay, some monks were seen approaching to the scaffold from this church; and above their heads, coming on slowly and gloomily, the effigy of Christ upon the cross, canopied with black. This was carried round the foot of the scaffold, to the front, and turned towards the criminal, that he might see it to the last. It was hardly in its place, when he appeared on the platform, bare-footed; his hands bound; and with the collar and neck of his shirt cut away, almost to the shoulder. A young man - six-and-twenty - vigorously made, and well-shaped. Face pale; small dark moustache; and dark brown hair.

He had refused to confess, it seemed, without first having his wife brought to see him; and they had sent an escort for her, which had occasioned the delay.

He immediately kneeled down, below the knife. His neck fitting into a hole, made for the purpose, in a cross plank, was shut down, by another plank above; exactly like the pillory. Immediately below him was a leathern bag. And into it his head rolled instantly.

The executioner was holding it by the hair, and walking with it round the scaffold, showing it to the people, before one quite knew that the knife had fallen heavily, and with a rattling sound.

When it had travelled round the four sides of the scaffold, it was set upon a pole in front - a little patch of black and white, for the long street to stare at, and the flies to settle on. The eyes were turned upward, as if he had avoided the sight of the leathern bag, and looked to the crucifix. Every tinge and hue of life had left it in that instant. It was dull, cold, livid, wax. The body also.

There was a great deal of blood. When we left the window, and went close up to the scaffold, it was very dirty; one of the two men who were throwing water over it, turning to help the other lift the body into a shell, picked his way as through mire. A strange appearance was the apparent annihilation of the neck. The head was taken off so close, that it seemed as if the knife had narrowly escaped crushing the jaw, or shaving off the ear; and the body looked as if there were nothing left above the shoulder.

Nobody cared, or was at all affected. There was no manifestation of disgust, or pity, or indignation, or sorrow. My empty pockets were tried, several times, in the crowd immediately below the scaffold, as the corpse was being put into its coffin. It was an ugly, filthy, careless, sickening spectacle; meaning nothing but butchery beyond the momentary interest, to the one wretched actor. Yes! Such a sight has one meaning and one warning. Let me not forget it. The speculators in the lottery, station themselves at favourable points for counting the gouts of blood that spirt out, here or there; and buy that number. It is pretty sure to have a run upon it.

The body was carted away in due time, the knife cleansed, the scaffold taken down, and all the hideous apparatus removed. The executioner: an outlaw ex officio (what a satire on the Punishment!) who dare not, for his life, cross the Bridge of St. Angelo but to do his work: retreated to his lair, and the show was over.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Intellectual self-abasement

A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson, page 156.
It can be argued that, in the long run, civilization has benefited from the intellectual self-abasement of [the eight and ninth] centuries. Much of the ancient world survived because of the intense reverence of a handful of men for the literary relics of the past. Monks put the preservation of the surviving texts above their own lives, and regarded their reproduction as infinitely more important than their own creative labours. . . . The monks argued that the more copies they succeeded in making, the more likely it was that one at least would survive; and they were right. In the eighth century, the scriptorium of St. Martin of Tours transcribed a fifth century Livy; the copy survived, the original is lost.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Unintended consequences

Weird History 101 by John Richard Stephens, page 111.

Theoretical thinking so often seems to be plagued by wretched ideas clothed in good intentions. I wonder if someone has ever compiled a dictionary of iron clad laws which could serve as a filter for "good" ideas. In this case the known law that if you make something cheaper and easier it will be used more. Much misery might be avoided.
One of the more memorable symbols of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror that followed is the guillotine. This instrument of execution is named for a member of the Revolutionary assembly, Dr. Joseph Guillotin, who in 1789, lobbied the French government for the adoption of a humanitarian form of capital punishment. However, he did not invent the contraption that came to bear his name, nor even design it. Earlier versions had been occasionally used in Scotland, England, Germany, Italy, and Southern France from the thirteenth century through the mid-seventeenth century. . . . The well-known French version was actually developed by Dr. Antoine Louis at the behest of the Legislative Assembly, who ordered him to come up with an apparatus that would meet Dr. Guillotin's criteria. The result was initially called the louisette and la petite louison, but guillotine eventually won out.

Prior to the advent of the guillotine, decapitation was a privilege reserved for the aristocracy. At Guillotin's encouragement, this relatively painless method of execution was adopted for all criminals as something of a democratic killing device. It was adopted in 1792 - just in time for the Reign of Terror during which 35,000 to 40,000 people lost their lives, including Queen Marie Antoinette. The architect and and mastermind behind the Terror, was Robespierre, who wanteed to eliminate the corrupt and aristocratic elements from French Society. All this backfired on himwhen other government leaders began to feel death breathing down their necks. Robespierre and his supporters were sent to the guillotine and were among the last to die in the Reign of Terror that they created.

Madame Ducrest, in her book, Secret Memoirs of the Court of the Empress Josephine, mentions how Guillotin also came to regret his creation, saying:
M. Guillotin, a learned physician, had invented . . . the instrument of death which he deemed best calculated to abridge the sufferings of the culprits condemned to forfeit their lives by the sentence of severe but just laws. His invention was laid hold of for the purpose of dispatching a greater number of victims. That was the expression used by a member of the Convention.

M. Guillotin, whom I have known in his old age was inconsolable for what he considered as an involuntary blemish in his existence. His venerable countenance bore the impress of a settled gloom, and his hair of snow whiteness afforded a clear indication of his mental sufferings. He had aimed at relieving the sorrows of human nature, and he unintentionally contributed to the destruction of a greater number of human beings. Had they been been put to death in a less expeditious manner, the people might have been soon wearied out by those executions, which they showed the same eagerness to behold as they would have done a theatrical representation.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Used and Rare

Have just finished Lawrence and Nancy Goldtsone's Used and Rare, their account of the initial introduction to book collecting and their subsequent education in the arcana of book collecting.

An engaging work. Chatty, accessible and pleasing. They start out as established readers who move beyond traditional new bookstores and start haunting used book stores. In the process they become intrigued as to why one used book might be $10 and another $1,000.

Along the way, they move up the biblio food chain, tentatively and with trepidation buying a first edition, venturing into the inner temple of rare and antiquarian books.

While quiet and to some small degree arcane, it is a pleasing journey they make. Much is learned along the way. They engage with most of the significant issues: why do some books survive and others don't, why are some books best sellers when they appear but fall from popular attention later, similarly why are some books critically received but garner no popular following, what motivates a collector to pay ten times the received price for a collectible book?

It is actually, and unintentionally, kind of an intriguing investigation into the details and mechanics of Hayek's The Use of Knowledge in Society often referred to as the Knowledge Problem - in a macro economy, how can any planner know enough to properly set the price for a good? Hayek's position was that it could not be done except by the aggregate unconscious decisions and choices of people in a free market. The Goldstones show in detail why that is the case. The last couple of chapters are particularly pertinent.

I spend a lot of money on books but rarely much per book. I am more interested in the content of a book than its collectability. My reading tastes only marginally overlap with those of the Goldstone's. All that said, everyone knows the thrill of the hunt and the satisfaction when you finally find that particular book you have been seeking.

A pleasant book.

Friday, July 15, 2011


From Loose Cannons, Red Herings, and other lost metaphors by Robert Claiborine.
Draconian, draconic. Around 620 B.C., the Athenian lawmaker Drakon introduced what was said to have been the first written code of laws in Greece. A later Greek writer described it as "written in blood": practically every crime was punishable by death. Within a generation or so the code was much softened, by Solon, but nearly twenty-five centuries later we still speak of draconic or draconian legislation or government.

An assertion that cannot be falsified by any conceivable evidence is nothing more than dogma

From Dan Garner's Future Babble, page 236.
An assertion that cannot be falsified by any conceivable evidence is nothing more than dogma. It can’t be debated. It can’t be proven or disproven. It’s just something people choose to believe or not for reasons that have nothing to do with fact and logic. And dogma is what predictions become when experts and their followers go to ridiculous lengths to dismiss clear evidence that they failed.

Modern elite behaviour is objectively maladaptive in a strictly biological sense

Clever Sillies - Why the high IQ lack common sense by Bruce G. Charlton.

Discusses (in different terms) the contest between heuristic decision-making and conceptual abstract problem-solving. Both are excellent and necessary capabilities but horses for courses. You have to match the right decision-making capability to the proper form of problem.

An interesting and incendiary article but at least sourced. I am surprised he has not utilized the research of the fellow with a Greek last name who has done some quite excellent work documenting the fact that experts tend to have a higher error rate than non-experts (and whose work I can't place my hands on at the moment). Some of the ideas advanced:
The over-use of abstract reasoning may be most obvious in the social domain, where normal humans are richly equipped with evolved psychological mechanisms both for here-and-now interactions (e.g. rapidly reading emotions from facial expression, gesture and posture, and speech intonation) and for ‘strategic’ modelling of social interactions to understand predict and manipulate the behaviour of others [16]. Social strategies deploy inferred knowledge about the dispositions, motivations and intentions of others. When the most intelligent people over-ride the social intelligence systems and apply generic, abstract and systematic reasoning of the kind which is enhanced among higher IQ people, they are ignoring an ‘expert system’ in favour of a non-expert system.
But getting answers to problems in science involving human social behaviour is something which is already done very well by evolved human psychological mechanisms [13], [14], [15] and [16]. In this situation it is difficult to improve on common sense, and – even without being taught – normal people already have a pretty good understanding of human motivations, incentives and deterrents, and the basic cause and effect processes of society. Because psychological and social intelligence expertise is so widespread and adaptive; in order to advertise his intelligence the social scientist must produce something systematically-different from common sense, something novel and (necessarily) counter-intuitive. And because it goes against evolved psychology, in this instance something different is likely to be something wrong. So, the social scientist professional deploying abstract reasoning on social problems is often less likely to generate a correct answer than the average member of the public who is using the common sense of evolved, spontaneous social intelligence.

In the human and social sciences there is therefore a professional incentive to be perversely wrong – to be silly, in other words. And this is indeed what we see. The more that the subject matter of an academic field requires, or depends on, common sense; the sillier it will be.
Because, as well as political correctness being systematically dishonest [33] and [34]; in relation to absolute and differential fertility, modern elite behaviour is objectively maladaptive in a strictly biological sense. It remains to be seen whether the genetic self-annihilation of the IQ elite will lead-on towards self-annihilation of the societies over which they rule.

Somehow Rudyard Kipling's The Gods of the Copybook Headings comes to mind. He acknowledges the presence of the Gods of the Market Place (fads and fashions) but pays obeisance to the Gods of the Copybook Headings (immutable deep truths that last forever).

Charlton's essay is worth mulling over. Some other sources on related themes.
Principles or Expediency? F. A. von Hayek

It's Hard to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future by Ronald Bailey

How Accurate Are Your Pet Pundits? by Philip E. Tetlock

While I think Charlton is probably right about the dynamics as to why conceptual thinkers generate such a large portion of nonsense, I suspect he undervalues that nonsense. For innovation to occur, we need to constantly vary the factors and equations. Abstract conceptual thinking generates a rational for trying new things, which, while likely to be wrong, does provide the occassion to be right.

I visualize it as such:

In normal times, one is always faced with some portfolio mix of routine decisions that occur daily (which route should I drive to work?) and uncommon novel decisions (which university should I attend?) The first class of decisions can usually be answered with experiential heuristics. I have driven to work so often, I know all the alternatives and what affects the selection of those alternatives (weather, day of the week, time of day, etc.) I can make the decision almost without thinking. The second category of decision requires deep thought, research and reflection; abstract and conceptual decision making.

Uncommon but traditional problems are usually addressed via indirect heuristics, i.e. through reading and storytelling. I may never have been lost in the wilderness but by reading Coral Island, Hatchet, Mysterious Island, etc. or by having heard stories from someone who has, I have at least some prototype decision-making heuristics even in the absence of my own experience.

Likewise, novel but common problems arise all the time. How will the internet change how children research and write papers, what will the ubiquity of cell phones do to people's capacity to concentrate? These are novel circumstances for which we do not have much data. We cannot accurately predicate how we ought to make decisions, all we can do is pay attention and gather that data.

In some circumstances, principally where there is deep tradition and continuity, decision making is dominated by heuristics (particularly linguistic heuristics).
In other circumstances, change is so prevalent that abstract conceptual decision making is appropriately the dominant mode of decision making.

Friday, July 8, 2011


You never know where you are going to find an interesting idea. From the National Endowment of the Arts' report, Age and Arts Participation is this fascinating nugget which makes sense but which I never really considered.
A century ago, many Americans did not know exactly how old they were, so they often would round off their age to the nearest five years, a phenomenon that demographers call “age-heaping.” As late as 1910, for example, the U.S. Census listed 24 percent more 20-year-olds than 19-year-olds.

The fact that that aspiration can exist at all is remarkable

How the 'Harbrace Handbook of English' Changed the Way Americans Learn About Writing: The University of Tennessee's John C. Hodges Created the Best-Selling Textbook of All Time by Brooks Clark, Cari Wade Gervin

An interesting essay in its own right but also intriguing for the connection to a number of things I am engaged with at the moment. Growing up peripapetically overseas, my formal exposure to English grammar and style might be characterized as mixed. Strunk and White and Fowler were the more dominant exposure but that mostly later in high school and college. I believe we used Harbrace Handbook at the Oil Company School in Libya in the late sixties but that was only for a year and a half.

I am currently reading Simon Baron-Cohen's The Essential Difference about the empathetic mind and the systemizing mind. The author of the Harbrace Handbook, John C. Hodges, seems a leading example of the systemizing mind, particularly with his focus on real world data. Hodges starts with the question, What are the problems with grammar evinced by my students? How refreshingly pragmatic.

Which leads to one of the other elements in the article. The overweening interest on the part of latter day scholars, not on the enablement provided to students by having access to a consistent and workable guide but rather a disabling obsession with equity and a desire to unshackle individuals from the constrictions of grammatical rules.

Hodges sought to free people from the constrictions of their own ignorance so that they could effectively pursue their dreams in a broader society. Our modern scholars seem committed to courses of actions whose consequence is to limit their victims to ever smaller arenas of achievement. The smaller the arena, the less an individual can achieve.
Studies in theoretical linguistics and new ways of thinking about grammar in the 1950s—especially works by C. C. Fries and Noam Chomsky—began to trickle down to the English-teaching establishment. Other concerns about equating correct grammar with correct usage had been bubbling up for years, according to an essay on the history of grammar in U.S. schools by Martha Kolln and Craig Hancock.

In 1963, at the annual conference of the National Council of Teachers of English, the council issued a statement that was the discipline’s equivalent of the atomic bomb. It reads, in part: “In view of the widespread agreement of research studies based upon many types of students and teachers, the conclusion can be stated in strong and unqualified terms: The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing.”

As the 1960s wore on, scholars such as Peter Elbow promoted a student-centered classroom, suggesting activities like journaling and peer review to improve writing skills. Elbow writes, “[T]he process of learning grammar interferes with writing: It heightens your preoccupation with mistakes as you write out each word and phrase, and makes it almost impossible to achieve that undistracted attention to your thoughts and experiences as you write … For most people, nothing helps their writing so much as learning to ignore grammar.”
Reading this in the same week as the detailed Governor's report on the widespread and systemic cheating on the part of teachers and administrators at Atlanta Public Schools almost forces one to leap to a cause and consequence conclusion.

Having spent time tutoring APS children in reading, I have a visceral rage at the arrogance of both those long ago academics preening themselves over their sophisticated ideas as well as rootless teachers sacrificing the education of children to their own career interests. Bleh. A pox on all of them.

An ability to empathize and communicate is such a critical foundation underpinning any hopes of viability and success in a modern, connected, global, and changing economy that any trends, academic fads, and base behavioral abdication ought to be smothered and cast out.

The final point I take away from the article is a more positive one. For all that we fall far short of where we wish to be in educational outcomes, Clark and Gervin remind us of the miracle of what as been achieved.

In the first two decades of the past century, perhaps fewer than 10% of the population completed high school and perhaps only 10% of that 10% received a truly sterling, classical education. It is easy to gloss over the fact that we now take it for granted that everyone should be educated at least to a high school level and that we expect that education to be of the high level that was once reserved for the 1%. The fact that we fall short of that aspiration is a constant spur to improvement. The fact that that aspiration can exist at all is remarkable.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The basic test that any proposal in any arena must pass

The Failure of Al Gore Part Deux by Walter Russell Mead.
To make the case for a proposition like this, one needs to make the following argument: that the cost of inaction is unacceptably high, that the proposed measures are both feasible and effective, and that there are no easier or cheaper methods of accomplishing the goal. This is no special set of high hurdles invented for the purpose of frustrating the greens; it is the basic test that any proposal in any arena must pass.

Pluralism and serendipity

From Matt Ridley's essay Trial and Error:
Innovation and discovery come from pluralism and serendipity, not command and control.

Cultural and Biological evolution

Ridley's summary of Darwinism; Replication, Variation, and Selection prompts a thought. If this is a proper summary of the process of biology, what are the correspondents in terms of culture?

My nominees. For Replication, it would be communication in all its forms, spoken and written as well as art and music. Communication permits the handing down from generation to generation a body of knowledge and wisdom which facilitates survival.

For Variation, I think the analog would be trade or exchange. New goods and new ideas disrupt the status quo and are introduced at a faster rate than if everything had to be invented here.

For Selection, perhaps the analog is Freedom. Freedom expands the range of influencers on survival from a small number of leaders to the maximum of the population. All those independent forces of decision-making are actually forces of selection. One of the consequences of moving from a system of narrow, centralized decision-making to a system of broad inclusive decision-making is that predictability goes down and surprises (innovation) goes up. Totalitarian regimes (centralized decision-making) can be extremely brutal just as laissez-faire systems of decision-making (where everyone gets to decide). The difference is not in the brutality of decision-making. All decision-making disappoints or harms someone. The difference is in the effectiveness in terms of long term survival.

Culture is itself dominated by the Darwinian trio

From Matt Ridley in an essay, Determined to Be Different.
Culture is itself dominated by the Darwinian trio of replication, variation and selection.
The result was a self-reinforcing cycle of exchange and specialisation: the more people exchanged, the more they specialised and vice versa.

As a result, the human lifestyle moved with increasing speed away from individual self sufficiency and towards mutual interdependence, shared innovation and collective intelligence.

Today nobody even knows how to make a pencil (the person who mines graphite does not know how to fell trees), because the knowledge is stored among brains rather than in them.

History plainly shows that the bigger the exchange network, the more rapid the rate of technological change. Conversely, if people are isolated from exchange networks, their innovation rate slows – as happened in China under the Ming empire, for example.

If societies are completely isolated, innovation may even go into reverse and technologies start to be discarded – as happened in Tasmania after it became an island 10,000 years ago.

The implications of this way of seeing human society is that the bottom-up evolution of human technology and society is inevitable, inexorable and potentially infinite, but its rate depends on the degree integration of human minds into a collective brain by exchange networks.

Or to put it another way, human prosperity depends upon ideas having sex. The internet, by connecting human minds all over the world, can only accelerate innovation.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Restatement of the obvious

George Orwell.
Sometimes the first duty of intelligent men is the restatement of the obvious

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

There really was a set of encyclopedias behind the bar at Jimmy's

Two interesting articles juxtaposed. Jian Xueqin is discussing the nature of learning (and the role of creativity and emotion in learning) and how and whether the best Chinese schools achieve a desired outcome:
In his book The Social Animal, David Brooks outlines the four-step learning process that teaches students to be creative: knowledge acquisition (research), internalization (familiarity with material), self-questioning and examination (review and discussion), and the ordering and mastery of this knowledge (thesis formulation and essay writing).

However, this isn’t a linear process, Brooks points out, which means that the learner ‘(surfs) in and out of his unconscious, getting the conscious and unconscious processes to work together – first mastering core knowledge, then letting that knowledge marinate playfully in his mind, then wilfully trying to impose order on it, then allowing the mind to consolidate and merge the data, then returning and returning until some magical insight popped into his consciousness, and then riding that insight to a finished product.’

‘The process was not easy, but each ounce of effort and each moment of frustration and struggle pushed the internal construction project another little step,’ David Brooks continues. ‘By the end, (the learner) was seeing the world around him in a new way.’

But what permits our brains to turn a chaotic sea of random facts and knowledge into an island of calm understanding? Believe it or not, it’s our emotions that permit us ultimately to become creative thinkers. In his book The Accidental Mind, the neuroscientist David J. Linden explains how emotions organize our memories:

‘In our lives, we have a lot of experiences and many of these we will remember until we die. We have many mechanisms for determining which experiences are stored (where were you on 9/11?) and which are discarded (what did you have for dinner exactly 1 month ago?). Some memories will fade with time and some will be distorted by generalization (can you distinctly remember your seventeenth haircut?). We need a signal to say, “This is an important memory. Write this down and underline it.” That signal is emotion. When you have feelings of fear or joy or love or anger or sadness, these mark your experiences as being particularly meaningful…These are the memories that confer your individuality. And that function, memory indexed by emotion, more than anything else, is what a brain is good for.’

What this means is that memories are ultimately emotional experiences, and that effectively learning must involve the learner emotionally. The very best US schools are seen as such because they inspire their students to be curious, interested, and excited; China’s very best schools gain their reputation by doing the opposite.
Meanwhile Joseph Bast, head of the Heartland Instute, a think tank, describes his own less than orthodox educational path.
During my first year at U of C, I fell head-over-heels in love with the Great Books. The late Professor Roger Weiss was chairman of the undergraduate "Political Order and Change" sequence and adopted me and a bunch of other freshmen. I did great academically, took an extra course in the third quarter (economics), got a 3.8 GPA out of 4.0, and then made a fateful decision, to “take a year off to read all the background readings that the professors had recommended.” I got a job as a groundskeeper on campus, then switched to janitorial work when a permanent (union) position opened up there. I spent the best year of my life reading Das Capital and all sorts of other fascinating books on the lawn outside Regenstein Library. That summer I bought a used 60-volume Great Books of Western Civilization from an older couple in Hyde Park and it's been a constant companion ever since.

The following fall, I met with my guidance counselor to re-enroll, and was told (to my shock and surprise) that having "dropped out," I lost my scholarships. From that point forward, I would have to work full-time and go to school part-time. I didn't mind. I worked as a janitor in Regenstein Library, one of the world's great research libraries, and even better, I was assigned to work in the Special Collections department, where 200-year-old books were mine for the browsing. I starting taking two courses and kept working full-time. I especially liked courses in philosophy and the history of social thought . . . Spinoza, Hobbes, the German sociologist Georg Simmel, Scottish Enlightenment, Utilitarianism, etc.

. . .

For the next six months I worked part-time for the newly created Heartland Institute while taking my usual two college courses. Then it was summer break. To graduate, I had one course left to take . . . an economics course . . . and an "incomplete" to finish in Russian Civilization III, which just required submitting a paper. I never did take that course, and the professor lost the paper that I foolishly slid under his office door and somehow neglected to make a copy of. Heartland soon became a 60-hour-a-week obsession, as it remains to this day. So today am still degree-less, despite having spent nearly nine years on campus, eight of them taking courses.

Looking back, I think I got the greatest education available in America during the 1970s and 1980s. It was at times a total intellectual immersion, so intense that I remember walking into a telephone pole while debating with myself the differences in how Kant, Hegel, and Adam Smith defined human nature. The professors were amazing, the classes small, and there was no hint of political correctness. There really was a set of encyclopedias behind the bar at Jimmy's, to settle arguments in the smokiest bar and grill in the world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

They disliked children while they were children themselves

From Florence King's With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look at Misanthropy, page 162, discussing Ayn Rand and Ambrose Bierce.
It was not simply that Rand and Bierce came as adults to dislike children (they did), but that they disliked children while they were children themselves, and resented being children. I know the feeling well; it's hard to be a misanthrope when you're that short.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Endeavor to see things as they are, not as they ought to be

Misanthrope though he might have been, Ambrose Bierce did have a chunk of hard won wisdom.
Be as decent as you can. Don't believe without evidence. Treat things divine with marked respect -- don't have anything to do with them. Do not trust humanity without collateral security; it will play you some scurvy trick. Remember that it hurts no one to be treated as an enemy entitled to respect until he shall prove himself a friend worthy of affection. Cultivate a taste for distasteful truths. And, finally, most important of all, endeavor to see things as they are, not as they ought to be.

Progress and success

Progress is measured in relative terms, success in absolute terms.

Welcome to our brave new world

From a commenter, Lars Porsena, on Ann Althouse's blog post about a 6th court decision that defies logic. It is wonderful for a blogger to have intelligent commenters.
Yesterday the 6th Circuit ruled that "inactivity is activity." Today it's "discrimination is equal protection."

..and bombing does not equal

Welcome to our brave new world.