Showing posts from October, 2020

Plato on Oligarchy

Plato was no fan of democracy, but he got this one right.    ‘We must describe’, says Plato, ‘how timocracy changes into oligarchy … Even a blind man must see how it changes … It is the treasure house that ruins this constitution. They’ (the timocrats) ‘begin by creating opportunities for showing off and spending money, and to this end they twist the laws, and they and their wives disobey them …; and they try to outrival one another.’ In this way arises the first class conflict: that between virtue and money, or between the old-established ways of feudal simplicity and the new ways of wealth. The transition to oligarchy is completed when the rich establish a law that ‘disqualifies from public office all those whose means do not reach the stipulated amount. This change is imposed by force of arms, should threats and blackmail not succeed …’ Popper, Karl R.. The Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton Classics) . Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.  Citizen's United super-cha

Popper, The Open Society and its Enemies: Report from initial contact.

I have the habit of slogging through the front matter of books, and my edition has no fewer than three prefatory essays, not counting the preface and the introduction.  One point I found amusing: it seems his students liked to refer to the book as "The Open Society by One of its Enemies."  This is a reference to the fact that the author of a book on the essential need for open criticism was himself fiercely intolerant of it when the target was his own work.  Such is the nature of man and life. Since I happen to be simultaneously reading Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy I thought it interesting to compare the chapters each devoted to Heraclitus.  I think that Karl Popper is somewhat limited by his polemical purpose (trying to establish a history of what he calls 'historicism', or seeing ineluctable outcomes in history), but my overall impression is that his prose is leaden, at best workmanlike.  By contrast, Russell is sparkling, sometimes discursiv

Bad Influence?

Once again William Connolley has set me on a path I hadn't really intended to take, in this case reading Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy.  Well, it seems that it is a really good book, not only entertainingly written but full of fresh insights.  Not long ago I took a course in Ancient Greek Philosophy, and while Pythagoras got some ink, he was definitely consigned to the minor leagues by my prof and the author of my textbook. Russell puts him and his mathematical and mystical notions at or near the center of all subsequent thought, especially Plato, the Christian philosophers, and even Newton.  Russell, unlike my teachers, was a mathematician, and this allows him to see threads of thought hidden from the enumerate. The influence of geometry upon philosophy and scientific method has been profound. Geometry, as established by the Greeks, starts with axioms which are (or are deemed to be) self-evident, and proceeds, by deductive reasoning, to arrive at theorems th

Shrunken Heads

 Bizarre fact department: Perhaps nothing is more unexpected about our brains than that they are much smaller today than they were ten thousand or twelve thousand years ago, and by quite a lot. The average brain has shrunk from 1,500 cubic centimeters then to 1,350 cubic centimeters now. That’s equivalent to scooping out a portion of brain about the size of a tennis ball. That’s not at all easy to explain, because it happened all over the world at the same time, as if we agreed to reduce our brains by treaty. Bryson, Bill. The Body (p. 70). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.  That is pretty weird, but is it just coincidence that agriculture was invented and spread the world about that time? The resultant simplification in ways of making a living might have made some brain size reduction an advantageous evolutionary development.  The brain is a very hungry organ, and consumes a whole lot of nutrition. It might also explain Republicans. 

Hating on Liberals

 A core of Donald Trump's support seems to come from those motivated by a visceral hatred of liberals.  Some of this comes from the long campaign of right-wing media, but there must be a more fundamental motivation. The past several decades have been brutal to Americans without college degrees.  As good union jobs in manufacturing and other industries have dried up, they have lost income, lost jobs, and suffered the associated social disintegration documented in Deaths of Despair: divorce, family collapse, drug addiction and suicide.  White Americans without college degrees were not the only or the first victims of this, but they are the core of Trump's support. Liberals used to see themselves as champions of the working class, but they have gone on to more fashionable causes: Blacks, gays, and immigrants.  Immigrants have been used for at least two hundred years to suppress worker wages and destroy unions.  Blacks are rivals for the kinds of jobs the white working class can co

Book Review: A New History of Life, by Peter Ward and Joe Kirshvink

  A New History of Life: The Radical New Discoveries about the Origins and Evolution of Life on Earth At the present moment, we are concerned about the rise of CO2 in the atmosphere and its disrupting effects on planetary temperature and life.   It is a reasonable fear.   Of the ten or so mass extinctions in our planet’s history, most have involved greenhouse gas events as major perpetrators. In the long run, though, the problem may be in the other direction. The long-term prediction for carbon dioxide is that it will continue in the same trend it has shown over at least the last billion years—a slow but inexorable decrease. The lowering levels are because of both life and plate tectonics: as more and more CO2 is used to make the skeletons of organisms, especially in the oceans, CO2 is consumed. If these skeletons stay in the oceans, the skeletally confined CO2 (now in calcium carbonate) will recycle. But plate tectonics makes the continents ever larger, and an increasing amount of

Book Review: To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

  To Sleep in a Sea of Stars, By Christopher Paolini This is a space opera in something like the old tradition.   Paolini apparently hit the big time with his young adult Eragon series, which I haven’t read, and this, apparently, is his first adult work.   It features a few varieties of menacing and sometimes interesting aliens, some interesting technology/magic, and a lot of bang-bang action. It held my attention pretty well for the first 400 pages or so, but this is a long book, 878 pages, and I found the climatic long drawn out space battle a bit tedious.   I can see this as a Netflix series.

Nobel Women

 Andrea Ghez became only the fourth woman to win a Nobel in Physics.  All the Physics Nobels this year were for black holes.  Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna won Chemistry for CRISPR gene editing - quite likely the most consequential discovery of the Twenty-First Century, so far.  Congratulation to them and their fellow winners, especially Roger Penrose.