Friday, September 24, 2010

A few maxims of François, duc de La Rochefoucauld

"In the Age of Louis XIV Voltaire describes the Maximes of La Rochefoucauld" as one of the works which contributed the most towards forming the taste of the French nation and giving its feeling for aptness and precision", writes Leonard Tancock in the 1979 Introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of the Maxims.

Here are some of my favorites. I've done my best to remain true to some of the double meanings in the original...

19 - Nous avons tous assez de force pour supporter les maux d'autrui.

We all have sufficient strength to endure the trouble of others.

22 - La philosophie triomphe aisément des maux passés et des maux à venir. Mais les maux présents triomphent d'elle.

Philosophy easily triumphs over past and future evils. But present evils triumph over philosophy.

64 - La vérité ne fait pas tant de bien dans le monde que ses apparences y font de mal.

Truth doesn't do as much good in the world as its appearance does evil.

89 - Tout le monde se plaint de sa mémoire, et personne ne se plaint de son jugement.

Everybody complains about their memory, and nobody complains about their judgment.

110 - On ne donne rien si libéralement que ses conseils.

Nothing we give away as liberally as our advice.

129 - Il suffit quelquefois d'être grossier pour n'être pas trompé par un habile homme.

To be slow-witted is at times sufficient for saving oneself from a smart trickster.

231 - C'est une grande folie de vouloir être sage tout seul.

It's very foolish to want to be wise all alone.

238 - Il n'est pas si dangereux de faire du mal à la plupart des hommes que de leur faire trop de bien.

It's not as dangerous to harm the majority of the people as it is to do them too much good.

375 - Les esprits médiocres condamnent d'ordinaire tout ce qui passe leur portée.

Average minds duly condemn whatever goes past their reach.

421 - La confiance fournit plus à la conversation que l'esprit.

Confidence gives more to conversation than wit.

447 - La bienséance est la moindre de toutes les lois, et la plus suivie.

Propriety is the least of all laws, and the most followed.

458 - Nos ennemis approchent plus de la vérité dans les jugements qu'ils font de nous que nous n'en approchons nous-mêmes.

Our enemies are closer to the truth in their judgment of our character than we are ourselves.

496 - Les querelles ne dureraient pas longtemps, si le tort n'était que d'un côté.

Quarrels would not last long, were the fault on one side only.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Adam Smith on education

The Wealth of Nations, V.1.181

"...It is otherwise with the common people. They have little time to spare for education. Their parents can scarce afford to maintain them even in infancy. As soon as they are able to work they must apply to some trade by which they can earn their subsistence. That trade, too, is generally so simple and uniform as to give little exercise to the understanding, while, at the same time, their labour is both so constant and so severe, that it leaves them little leisure and less inclination to apply to, or even to think of, anything else.

"But though the common people cannot, in any civilized society, be so well instructed as people of some rank and fortune, the most essential parts of education, however, to read, write, and account, can be acquired at so early a period of life that the greater part even of those who are to be bred to the lowest occupations have time to acquire them before they can be employed in those occupations. For a very small expence the public can facilitate, can encourage, and can even impose upon almost the whole body of the people the necessity of acquiring those most essential parts of education.

"The public can facilitate this acquisition by establishing in every parish or district a little school, where children may be taught for a reward so moderate that even a common labourer may afford it; the master being partly, but not wholly, paid by the public, because, if he was wholly, or even principally, paid by it, he would soon learn to neglect his business. In Scotland the establishment of such parish schools has taught almost the whole common people to read, and a very great proportion of them to write and account. In England the establishment of charity schools has had an effect of the same kind, though not so universally, because the establishment is not so universal. If in those little schools the books, by which the children are taught to read, were a little more instructive than they commonly are, and if, instead of a little smattering of Latin, which the children of the common people are sometimes taught there, and which can scarce ever be of any use to them, they were instructed in the elementary parts of geometry and mechanics, the literary education of this rank of people would perhaps be as complete as it can be. There is scarce a common trade which does not afford some opportunities of applying to it the principles of geometry and mechanics, and which would not therefore gradually exercise and improve the common people in those principles, the necessary introduction to the most sublime as well as to the most useful sciences."

Of the two systems of morality

"In every civilized society, in every society where the distinction of ranks has once been completely established, there have been always two different schemes or systems of morality current at the same time; of which the one may be called the strict or austere; the other the liberal, or, if you will, the loose system. The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion."

This was written by Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, V.1.199, published in 1776.

"The former is generally admired and revered by the common people: the latter is commonly more esteemed and adopted by what are called people of fashion. The degree of disapprobation with which we ought to mark the vices of levity, the vices which are apt to arise from great prosperity, and from the excess of gaiety and good humour, seems to constitute the principal distinction between those two opposite schemes or systems. In the liberal or loose system, luxury, wanton and even disorderly mirth, the pursuit of pleasure to some degree of intemperance, the breach of chastity, at least in one of the two sexes, &c. provided they are not accompanied with gross indecency, and do not lead to falsehood or injustice, are generally treated with a good deal of indulgence, and are easily either excused or pardoned altogether. In the austere system, on the contrary, those excesses are regarded with the utmost abhorrence and detestation. The vices of levity are always ruinous to the common people, and a single week's thoughtlessness and dissipation is often sufficient to undo a poor workman for ever, and to drive him through despair upon committing the most enormous crimes. The wiser and better sort of the common people, therefore, have always the utmost abhorrence and detestation of such excesses, which their experience tells them are so immediately fatal to people of their condition. The disorder and extravagance of several years, on the contrary, will not always ruin a man of fashion, and people of that rank are very apt to consider the power of indulging in some degree of excess as one of the advantages of their fortune, and the liberty of doing so without censure or reproach as one of the privileges which belong to their station. In people of their own station, therefore, they regard such excesses with but a small degree of disapprobation, and censure them either very slightly or not at all."

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The Sokal affair

Physicist Alan D. Sokal's Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published in 1996 in the Social Text, an academic journal dedicated to cultural studies. Sokal is a leftist that has taught mathematics at the National University of Nicaragua during the Sandinista government.

"...the content of any science is profoundly constrained by the language within which its discourses are formulated; and mainstream Western physical science has, since Galileo, been formulated in the language of mathematics.100 101 But whose mathematics? The question is a fundamental one, for, as Aronowitz has observed, ``neither logic nor mathematics escapes the `contamination' of the social.'' And as feminist thinkers have repeatedly pointed out, in the present culture this contamination is overwhelmingly capitalist, patriarchal and militaristic: ``mathematics is portrayed as a woman whose nature desires to be the conquered Other.'' Thus, a liberatory science cannot be complete without a profound revision of the canon of mathematics. As yet no such emancipatory mathematics exists, and we can only speculate upon its eventual content.

We can see hints of it in the multidimensional and nonlinear logic of fuzzy systems theory; but this approach is still heavily marked by its origins in the crisis of late-capitalist production relations. Catastrophe theory, with its dialectical emphases on smoothness/discontinuity and metamorphosis/unfolding, will indubitably play a major role in the future mathematics; but much theoretical work remains to be done before this approach can become a concrete tool of progressive political praxis. Finally, chaos theory -- which provides our deepest insights into the ubiquitous yet mysterious phenomenon of nonlinearity -- will be central to all future mathematics. And yet, these images of the future mathematics must remain but the haziest glimmer: for, alongside these three young branches in the tree of science, there will arise new trunks and branches -- entire new theoretical frameworks -- of which we, with our present ideological blinders, cannot yet even conceive. "

Truth or dare? Sokal's book on the subject, Impostures intellectuelles, coauthored with Jean Bricmont, has apparently been making quite a stir in France. For an entry point to the debate pro and contra Sokal and Bricmont, replete with links to the writings of the actual protagonists, see here.

Friday, February 5, 2010

What is the difference between the AFT and the NEA?

The AFT (the American Federation of Teachers) and the NEA (the National Education Association) are the two largest nationa teacher unions.

"I suppose this is something I should know, but I don't, so does anyone out there know what the difference between the NEA and the AFT are?" That is the question asked by Matt Iglesias in his blog, and a number of well-informed readers of his blog obliged with a well clarifying picture of the two unions.

One of the readers of the Iglesias blog notes very informatively:

Historically the NEA viewed teaching as a profession and itself as a professional organization, similar to the AMA. It would help teachers take their place in society and from time to time assist in the peer-to-peer discussions that would occur when wages and working conditions needed to be adjusted.

The AFT viewed teaching, in its political and contractual interactions at least, as a form of hourly labor best thought of in the framework of an industrial trade union (and it is a member of the AFL-CIO).

From the 1940s through the 1960s most teachers thought along the lines of the NEA, and where teachers were organized they tended to join the NEA.

When the 1970s rolled around, stagflation hit, budgets started getting cut, and teachers bearing the brunt of the problems with city school systems, it became apparent that those in power considered teachers to be akin to janitors rather than doctors, and treated them accordingly. At that point the AFT started to grow and take membership away from the NEA. In reaction the NEA became more politically involved and active, but never as much so as the AFT.

Teachers are still highly educated, politically aware and active, and have some free time in the afternoons - so they have always been a good source of foot labor for the Dems. To the extent that the AFT is still more militant and more active, they are the ones that have the most influence on the Dems, but the NEA was still larger numerically last time I checked.


One difference is that the AFT, brought to national prominence by Albert Shanker, tends to act more like a regular union, going on strikes, etc., and the NEA more like a professional organization, less militant in its tactics. On the other hand, the AFT has been more willing to consider various accountability/curriculum reforms than the NEA. Certainly true under Shanker, who b/c almost a kind of neocon,this may have changed more recently. AFT tends to be more urban, NEA suburban.

Here's a link to a argument that they should merge that runs down some differences:

I'd say the Dems are in hock to both. AFT at the local level on issues of pay/work rules. NEA at the national level on the need to water down accountability reforms.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau - the contrarian genius

"It would have been better for the peace of France if this man had never existed", said Napoleon of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Or here is what Voltaire wrote to Rousseau about "The Social Contract":

"I have received your new book against the human race, and thank you for it. Never was such a cleverness used in the design of making us all stupid. One longs, in reading your book, to walk on all fours. But as I have lost that habit for more than sixty years, I feel unhappily the impossibility of resuming it. Nor can I embark in search of the savages of Canada, because the maladies to which I am condemned render a European surgeon necessary to me; because war is going on in those regions; and because the example of our actions has made the savages nearly as bad as ourselves."

A recent biography of Rousseau's life, by Leo Damrosch, apparently hits all bases. Damrosh himself summarizes it very nicely:

Rousseau was "...describing a state of nature that never existed, a political system that never could exist and an educational scheme that never should exist."

The first chapter can be read here. For a summary of the biography, please see Stacy Schiff's 'Jean-Jacques Rousseau' - an unruly mind in the NY Times.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Theodore Darlimple on the intimidating revival of the economist John Kenneth Galbraith

Theodore Darlimple is, if you do not know him, one of the most outspoken critics of the Liberal left. Here is a fragment from The Galbraith Revival, published in the City Journal.

...Here we reach the heart of the matter. Galbraith’s thinking about social and economic matters was always de haut en bas; his solutions emerged from the Olympian heights of his own ratiocination, to be applied to the clueless multitudes below. (No doubt his own great height, over 6 foot 8, accustomed him to looking down on people.) His literary style is symptomatic of his attitude, a true case of the style being the man himself. Hundreds of times, he uses question-begging locutions that intimidate with their orotund grandeur. I open a book of his at random and find the following: “The controlling fact is”; “This trade-off is present in all accepted thought”; “Nor should one wish otherwise”; “It has now been adequately urged”; “This is not a matter of choice; it is the modern imperative”; “It would, of course, be a serious error”; “This has long been recognized”; “All of this is to be welcomed”; “The lesson is clear”; “The solution is not difficult; it has the advantage of inevitability.”

The cumulative effect is to intimidate those who believe themselves not well enough informed to contradict so high an authority. We are far from the realm of Jane Austen’s light and ironic “It is a truth universally acknowledged.” When J. K. Galbraith enunciates a truth universally acknowledged, he does not want us to smile inwardly; he wants us to fear not being included in le tout Paris of correct, generous, and humane thought. What fool does not wish to be on the side of the inevitable?

I find Darlimple's observation pretty deft, de bas en haute, so to say. Darlimple's writing is brilliant, but at times, however, disappointingly uneven. The piece on the architecture of Le Courbusier - The Architect as Totalitarian, also published in the City Journal, I found to be too broad-stroked:

here is to be no escape from Le Corbusier’s prescriptions. “The only possible road is that of enthusiasm . . . the mobilization of enthusiasm, that electric power source of the human factory.” In his book The Radiant City, there is a picture of a vast crowd in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, with the legend, “Little by little, the world is moving to its destined goal. In Moscow, in Rome, in Berlin, in the USA, vast crowds are collecting round a strong idea”—the idea being, apparently, the absolute leader or state. These words were written in 1935, not a happy period for political thought in Moscow, Rome, or Berlin, and one might have hoped that he would have later recanted them.

For such insinuations, I would say, the evidence introduced is pretty flimsy. Or look at this paragraph:

When one recalls Le Corbusier’s remark about reinforced concrete—“my reliable, friendly concrete”—one wonders if he might have been suffering from a degree of Asperger’s syndrome: that he knew that people talked, walked, slept, and ate, but had no idea that anything went on in their heads, or what it might be, and consequently treated them as if they were mere things. Also, people with Asperger’s syndrome often have an obsession with some ordinary object or substance: reinforced concrete, say.

I don't know, Doctor Darlimple, that does not look to me like the right diagnosis. Pity - for Darlimple is an otherwise sparkling and outspoken intellectual critic.

Gideon Rachman, purveyor of doom at the Financial Times

How the bottom fell out of ‘old’ Davos - on the waning influence of the US and 'Old' Europe in a world of high rising East Asian countries.

When nations turn into hoarders - how much the world population growth depends on food supplies, and how much the latter depend on fossil oil energy

Why America and China will clash - about what's behind Google's recent decision to stand up to the Chinese government's tendency to suppress Internet access

America is losing the free world - how Barack Obama was turned down by high officials of brasil, India, South Africa and Turkey at the Copenhagen Climate summit. He writes: "...Revealingly, both Brazilian and Chinese leaders have made the same pointed joke – likening the US to a rich man who, after gorging himself at a banquet, then invites the neighbours in for coffee and asks them to split the bill."

More of his Financial Times columns here. Rachman also has an excellent blog.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Andrew Sullivan's ghost bloggers

Sullivan Ends Vacation Early To Respond To Ghostblogger Criticism - writes Michael Triplett.

"Any editorial views published as such on this blog are therefore mine and mine alone. But the content and counter-argument are generated by the collective mind of the readers, under-bloggers and the rest of the blogosphere. I think it’s cleaner and simpler not to clutter the blog up with bylines, and to retain its identity as one single narrative conversation. As long as you’re transparent about that, and we have been, I see no problem", writes Andrew Sullivan.

Not so, says lawprof blogger Ann Althouse, about ghost contributions by Sullivan staffers Patrick Appel and Chris Bodenner:

"I seriously believed I was interacting with Sullivan, a writer I have respected for maybe 20 years. I wouldn’t have bothered with Patrick (or Chris). I really don’t care what they think. If they insult me, they are to me like any number of bloggers who insult me and whose bait I don’t take. I would always take Sullivan’s bait, because Sullivan is important. Not to know whether it’s Sullivan or one of them makes a mush out of the whole blog. I’m not wading through all of this ghost-generated verbiage and guessing about what might be the real thing."

Scott Brown wins the Massachusetts election for the open senate seat

Journalist David Gergen had asked in the election debate if Scott Brown would be willing to "...sit in Teddy Kennedy's seat and [say] I'm going to be the person who's going to block [health care reform] for another 15 years." Scott Brown's memorable response might have won him the election right there: "With all due respect, it’s not the Kennedy seat, and it’s not the Democrats’ seat. It’s the people’s seat."

Shortly thereafter, we hear from Scott Brown supporters like Fred Barnes, who wrote that The Health Care Bill Is Dead:

"The impact of Republican Scott Brown’s capture of the Massachusetts Senate seat held for decades by Teddy Kennedy will be both immediate and powerful. "

And we hear from Kyle Trygstad

"Just two people -- John F. Kennedy and Edward M. Kennedy -- had been elected in the last 58 years to the Massachusetts Senate seat Republican Scott Brown won yesterday. The seat's legacy and Democrats' dominance in the state were no match, however, for the lethal mix of Brown's message and a poorly run campaign by Democrat Martha Coakley, as well as a shifting public mood..."

And from Rich Lowry:

"Scott Brown did the mind-blowing last night. He won the Senate seat formerly held by Teddy Kennedy, in the state that's the cradle of contemporary liberalism, after trailing by 30 points."

Also from progressive leaning Thomas Edsall, in his Ghost Story:

"The victory of Scott Brown in the fight for Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat shines a light on a trend in American politics that ought to deeply trouble progressives..."

So what was it in the end - did Scott Brown win Ted Kennedy's seat or did he win the people's seat?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Richard E. Nisbett on Educational Research

Intelligence and how to get it, W. W. Norton & Company, 2009.

From p. 67, Nisbett's thoughts of the state of affairs in education research:

"Despite the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on innovative educational programs, and the hundreds upon hundreds of studies evaluating them, the situation in educational research is scandalous. Research is mostly anecdotal, and most self-styled evaluators of educational programs are actually opposed to the experimental method, that is, providing one educational technique to children randomly selected from some population and providing a comparison technique to other randomly selected children. Very little research rises to the level of being scientifically acceptable.

"The situation is as shocking as it would be if pharmaceutical companies were to routinely peddle their medicines without having them backed by evaluation research that went beyond haphazardly giving the medicine to some individuals with a given illness and reporting the percentage of patients who got better (without knowledge of the percentage of patients who would have gotten better without any treatment at all). Only drug trials that identify a patient population and then randomly assign some patients to the treatment condition and some to the non-treatment condition or alternative-treatment condition count as adequate research. Yet this standard is almost never met in research on educational interventions.


''Recent research on schools has employed at least some form of control. In some studies, investigators get schools to agree to accept an intervention, for example, a new type of computer instruction for math, and then compare performance at those schools with that at schools that are similar on a predetermined set of criteria, such as social class and race of students, but that were not offered an intervention. This type of research is better than nothing, but not by much. It is susceptible to the self-selection problem: the schools that are offered the intervention may be systematically different in some unknown ways from those not offered the intervention. The problem is particularly acute when there is literal self-selection, that is, when only some of the schools offered the intervention accept it. The schools that accept the intervention may rate better on some of the relevant dimensions than those that do not accept it.

"Also inadequate are studies that simply report scores at schools before the intervention began and compare them with scores after the intervention began. These studies generally yield effect sizes that are substantially greater than those found by studies comparing the schools that had the intervention with presumably comparable schools that did not. An exception to this rule exists when gains after an intervention are extremely large - and discontinuous with what would have been expected if there had been no intervention. Under such circumstances a claim of effectiveness can sometimes be persuasive."

'World misled over Himalayan glacier meltdown'

Read the Sunday Times article on the latest screw-up at the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), who had claimed that the Himalayan glaciers were melting so fast that they could disappear by 2035.

"Glaciers in the Himalaya are receding faster than in any other part of the world and, if the present rate continues, the likelihood of them disappearing by the year 2035 and perhaps sooner is very high if the Earth keeps warming at the current rate.", had said the IPCC benchmark report of two years ago. The Sunday Times article tracks down how the claim ended up in the IPCC report.

But wait, it is actually worse: some of the glaciers are melting down, just at a much slower rate than advertised. By its incompetent overshoot, the IPCC has done a huge disservice to understanding Global Warming. It is unclear how the IPCC can recover its scientific reputation after this.

For more on Himalaya glaciers and their rate of meltdown - read about the observations made by satellites from space Himalayan Glacier Melting Observed From Space, a March 2007 story in Science Daily.

Mozart, Die Zauberflöte, Il Seraglio, and the sources of European Orientalism

Ibn Warraq writes about the venturing of European Enlightenment era art in to the spiritual territory of Orientalism, as reflected in Mozart's Magic Flute and The Abduction from the Seraglio.

"The [Enlightenment] Orientalists and their indefatigable intellectual curiosity, scholarship, and translations had incalculable consequences for the development of art, philosophy and politics in Europe, an influence passionately chronicled by Raymond Schwab in The Oriental Renaissance. Orientalists changed forever the intellectual and spiritual landscape of Europe, and allowed artists, writers, and composers to enter imaginatively and sympathetically into civilizations hitherto unfamiliar to Westerners, to accord the Orient dignity and respect, and to people European works with Orientals, seen as equals. It was in this intellectual and spiritual milieu that Mozart created some of his most sublime music. Perhaps Die Zauberflöte, Il Seraglio, and cantata K.619 can be seen as reflections in art of Orientalist research."

More of Ibn Warraq's writings can be found here.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Broken embraces

Alex O. Scott gives a pitch perfect review to the latest Almodovar movie, "Broken Embraces":

"...the most direct and striking dialogue the movie conducts with a filmmaker from the past is with Pedro Almodóvar himself. Aficionados will recognize “Girls and Suitcases,” bits of which turn up in “Broken Embraces,” most powerfully at the end, as a replica of “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” Mr. Almodóvar’s marvelous madcap comedy from 1988. Its appearance is not vanity or clever self-quotation. Rather, the director’s pastiche of his early, funny work becomes, in the context of this somber new film, a poignant reflection on aging and loss. To catch a glimpse of “Women” in the mirror of “Embraces” is to see how cinematic images can be both tangible and ghostly.

And also — literally in the case of Harry Caine and “Girls and Suitcases” — invisible to their maker, who is no longer the man he was. He has lost so much over the years. Every one of us has, and if Mr. Almodóvar has grown wise enough to understand that art is a dreadfully inadequate compensation, he is still generous enough to offer it to us anyway. "

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Islam and the Decline of Greek Culture

A good review of the literature on the subject of Islam, Greek culture and European Renaissance:

Islam and the Decline of Greek Culture: A Critical Look at John Freely's Book “Aladdin’s Lamp”

To be read carefully though - the review does sound a bit incensed about Islam.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Laplace, Napoleon and the hypothesis of the prime mover

This is a story nicely told by Augustus DeMorgan, the XVIIth Century mathematician famous for the DeMorgan Laws,

not (a or b) = (not a) and (not b)

not (a and b) = (not a) or (not b)

DeMorgan wrote this fragment in A budget of paradoxes:

"With the general run of the philosophical atheists of the last century the notion of a God was an hypothesis. There was left an admitted possibility that the vague somewhat which went by more names than one, might be personal, intelligent, and superintendent. In the works of Laplace, who is sometimes called an atheist from his writings, there is nothing from which such an inference can be drawn: unless indeed a Reverend Fellow of the Royal Society may be held to be the fool who said in his heart, etc., etc., if his contributions to the Philosophical Transactions go no higher than nature. The following anecdote is well known in Paris, but has never been printed entire. Laplace once went in form to present some edition of his "Systeme du Monde" to the First Consul, or Emperor. Napoleon, whom some wags had told that this book contained no mention of the name of God, and who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with—"M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator." Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy or religion (e. g., even under Charles X he never concealed his dislike of the priests), drew himself up and answered bluntly, "Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la." Napoleon, greatly amused, told this reply to Lagrange, who exclaimed, "Ah! c'est une belle hypothese; ca explique beaucoup de choses."

It is commonly said that the last words of Laplace were, "Ce que nous connaissons est peu de chose; ce que nous ignorons est immense." This looks like a parody on Newton's pebbles: the following is the true account; it comes to me through one remove from Poisson. After the publication (in 1825) of the fifth volume of the Mecanique Celeste, Laplace became gradually weaker, and with it musing and abstracted. He thought much on the great problems of existence, and often muttered to himself, Quest ce que c'est que tout cela! After many alternations, he appeared at last so permanently prostrated that his family applied to his favorite pupil, M. Poisson, to try to get a word from him. Poisson paid a visit, and after a few words of salutation, said, "J'ai une bonne nouvelle a vous annoncer: on a recu au Bureau des Longitudes une lettre d'Allemagne annoncant que M. Bessel a verifie par l'observation vos decouvertes theoriques sur les satellites de Jupiter." Laplace opened his eyes and answered with deep gravity, "L'homme ne poursuit que des chimeres." He never spoke again. His death took place March 5, 1827.

"The language used by the two great geometers illustrates what I have said: a supreme and guiding intelligence —apart from a blind rule called
nature of things—was an hypothesis. The absolute denial of such a ruling power was not in the plan of the higher philosophers: it was left for the smaller fry. A round assertion of the non-existence of anything which stands in the way is the refuge of a certain class of minds: but it succeeds only with things subjective; the objective offers resistance. A philosopher of the appropriative class tried it upon the constable who appropriated him: I deny your existence, said he; Come along all the same, said the unpsychological policeman."

Laplace's retort on the existence of God, "I did not have a need for this hypothesis", still resonates with me as the best answer to the question. But that is not the entire story that DeMorgan had intended to say... Here is DeMorgan's continuation:

"Euler was a believer in God, downright and straightforward. The following story is told by Thiebault, in his Souvenirs de vingt ans de sejour a Berlin, published in his old age, about 1804.


"Diderot paid a visit to the Russian Court at the invitation of the Empress. He conversed very freely, and gave the younger members of the Court circle a good deal of lively atheism. The Empress was much amused, but some of her councilors suggested that it might be desirable to check these expositions of doctrine. The Empress did not like to put a direct muzzle on her guest's tongue, so the following plot was contrived. Diderot was informed that a learned mathematician was in possession of an algebraical demonstration of the existence of God, and would give it him before all the Court, if he desired to hear it. Diderot gladly consented: though the name of the mathematician is not given, it was Euler. He advanced towards Diderot, and said gravely, and in a tone of perfect conviction: "Monsieur, (a + bn)/n = x, done Dieu existe; repondes!" Diderot, to whom algebra was Hebrew, was embarrassed and disconcerted; while peals of laughter rose on all sides. He asked permission to return to France at once, which was granted."

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

David Brooks, Avatar and The Messiah Complex

Read David Brooks' cronic of Avatar, the James Cameron 3D fantasy.

"Every age produces its own sort of fables, and our age seems to have produced The White Messiah fable.

"This is the oft-repeated story about a manly young adventurer who goes into the wilderness in search of thrills and profit. But, once there, he meets the native people and finds that they are noble and spiritual and pure. And so he emerges as their Messiah, leading them on a righteous crusade against his own rotten civilization."


"Still, would it be totally annoying to point out that the whole White Messiah fable, especially as Cameron applies it, is kind of offensive?

"It rests on the stereotype that white people are rationalist and technocratic while colonial victims are spiritual and athletic. It rests on the assumption that nonwhites need the White Messiah to lead their crusades. It rests on the assumption that illiteracy is the path to grace. It also creates a sort of two-edged cultural imperialism. Natives can either have their history shaped by cruel imperialists or benevolent ones, but either way, they are going to be supporting actors in our journey to self-admiration.

"It’s just escapism, obviously, but benevolent romanticism can be just as condescending as the malevolent kind — even when you surround it with pop-up ferns and floating mountains."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Oliver Stone's new Showtime documentary "Secret history of America" stirs trouble

Hitler? A scapegoat. Stalin? I can empathise. Oliver Stone stirs up history

Oliver Stone: "Hitler was a scapegoat"

"Stalin has a complete other story," Stone said. "Not to paint him as a hero, but to tell a more factual representation. He fought the German war machine more than any single person. We can't judge people as only 'bad' or 'good.' Hitler is an easy scapegoat throughout history and its been used cheaply. He's the product of a series of actions. It's cause and effect ... People in America don't know the connection between WWI and WWII ... I've been able to walk in Stalin's shoes and Hitler's shoes to understand their point of view. We're going to educate our minds and liberalize them and broaden them. We want to move beyond opinions ... Go into the funding of the Nazi party. How many American corporations were involved, from GM through IBM. Hitler is just a man who could have easily been assassinated."

Suffice it to say, he's playing with some powerful perceptions here.

Greg Gutfeld writes: "'Stalin, Hitler, Mao, McCarthy — these people have been vilified pretty thoroughly by history,' [Stone] told reporters, managing to slip non-killer Joe McCarthy into the mix, without causing a murmur.

"But hey, he's right about Mao, Hitler and Stalin — it's just so unfair the way things work when you kill millions of innocent people. But true to his blind allegiance to relativism, Stone claims that "we can't judge people as only 'bad' or 'good.' Hitler was an easy scapegoat."

"He's right: Finger-pointing is so judgmental. Case in point: Stone claims that conservative pundits will hate the show, maybe because conservative pundits hate excuses masquerading as empathy. Me? I don't care if Adolf's mommy never loved him or the maid made fun of his willy. I had similar problems and I didn't kill six million Jews — I think.

"But saying only conservatives will be upset by this, is really a slap in the face to progressives. For Stone assumes that — unlike right-wingers — the left will willingly accept his revisionist look at history's greatest killers.

"He's right: As embracers of all things relative, they are crackers to his cheese."

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Jeff Foust asks: Are astronauts close to extinction?

Read The Future of Human Spaceflight in the MIT Technology Review. It talks about the Augustine Committee, a panel chartered by the White House, which issued in Oct 2009 its report on the future of space travel. And the news is bleak: while the Chinese are preparing for manned missions to Mars,

"The [US] human space flight program... is at a tipping point where either additional funds must be provided or the [human] exploration program first instituted by President Kennedy must be abandoned, at least for the time being."

The current plan is to retire the space shuttle by late 2010, and use Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the International Space Station (ISS) until the Ares I rocket (see picture) and Orion capsule are ready. The estimated ready date for Ares I /Orion is 2017. The ISS takes $2-3 billion to maintain yearly, and funding for that is projected at this point until 2015 - when another $1 billion would be the cost of safely dumping it out of orbit.

Foust also writes that

"...Satellites launched on expendable boosters allowed the United States to achieve strategic dominance in space. And Cold War motives disappeared with the collapse of the Soviet Union."

I'm not so much concerned that another country might soon achieve dominance in space - but that a foe might be capable to bring down our satellite infrastructure, thus eliminating our advantage. Here is an analysis by Geoffrey Forden:

Forden writes: "...if the short term military consequences to the United States [of a theoretic sneak attack by China on US military satellites] are not that bad, the long term consequences to all space-faring nations would be devastating. The destruction of the nine satellites hit during the first hour of the attack considered here could put over 18,900 new pieces of debris over four inches in diameter into the most populated belt of satellites in low Earth orbit. Even more debris would be put into geostationary orbit if China launched an attack against communications satellites. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, the debris from each satellite would continue to “clump” together, much as the debris from last year’s test. However, over the next year or so—well after the terrestrial war with China had been resolved—the debris fields would fan out and eventually strike another satellite.

"These debris fields could easily cause a run-away chain of collisions that renders space unusable — for thousands of years, and for everyone."

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Life and Times of Mexico, by Earl Shorris

A very nice humanistic perspective on the Mexican society - today and in its history. Excellent travel companion if you plan to go South of the border! (Or if you would like to begin to understand our Spanish American co citizens.)

Kudos to Earl Shorris for an excellent work. I'm not even sure which part of the book I liked most - the one about Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata posing together famously in the Mexican Revolution, the part about the Lazaro Cardenias reforms in the 1940's, the part about the conundrum of Mexican education - or the part about Spanish conquest and subservience of the Mezzo America.
Or about the nascent feminism of Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz (1648-1695), who famously signed in blood her letter of submission to the Catholic Inquisition. Or, still more recent, the intellectual debates between Octavio Paz, Enrique Krauze on one side and Carlos Fuentes on the other.

Atul Gawande on the connection between farming and medical care

Atul Gawande is a Cancer surgeon at Brigham And Womens Hospital, a journalist for the New Yorker, a Harvard Associate Prof and a book author. Recently he published The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. If you'd like to understand the US health care conundrum, and what's at stake in the new health care legislation pending in Congress then Gawande's writings would be a good place to start.

Check out his New Yorker article titled Testing, Testing. It playfully makes a few cross references between the agricultural revolution started by the USAID in the 1900s, and - startlingly enough - the role of government in health care today.

"At the start of the twentieth century, another indispensable but unmanageably costly sector was strangling the country: agriculture. In 1900, more than forty per cent of a family’s income went to paying for food. At the same time, farming was hugely labor-intensive, tying up almost half the American workforce. We were, partly as a result, still a poor nation. Only by improving the productivity of farming could we raise our standard of living and emerge as an industrial power. We had to reduce food costs, so that families could spend money on other goods, and resources could flow to other economic sectors. And we had to make farming less labor-dependent, so that more of the population could enter non-farming occupations and support economic growth and development.

"America’s agricultural crisis gave rise to deep national frustration. The inefficiency of farms meant low crop yields, high prices, limited choice, and uneven quality. The agricultural system was fragmented and disorganized, and ignored evidence showing how things could be done better. Shallow plowing, no crop rotation, inadequate seedbeds, and other habits sustained by lore and tradition resulted in poor production and soil exhaustion. And lack of coördination led to local shortages of many crops and overproduction of others.

"You might think that the invisible hand of market competition would have solved these problems, that the prospect of higher income from improved practices would have encouraged change. But laissez-faire had not worked. Farmers relied so much on human muscle because it was cheap and didn’t require the long-term investment that animal power and machinery did. The fact that land, too, was cheap encouraged extensive, almost careless cultivation. When the soil became exhausted, farmers simply moved; most tracts of farmland were occupied for five years or less. Those who didn’t move tended to be tenant farmers, who paid rent to their landlords in either cash or crops, which also discouraged long-term investment. And there was a deep-seated fear of risk and the uncertainties of change; many farmers dismissed new ideas as “book farming.”

"Things were no better elsewhere in the world. For industrializing nations in the first half of the twentieth century, food was the fundamental problem. The desire for a once-and-for-all fix led Communist governments to take over and run vast “scientific” farms and collectives. We know what that led to: widespread famines and tens of millions of deaths.

"The United States did not seek a grand solution. Private farms remained, along with the considerable advantages of individual initiative. Still, government was enlisted to help millions of farmers change the way they worked. The approach succeeded almost shockingly well. The resulting abundance of goods in our grocery stores and the leaps in our standard of living became the greatest argument for America around the world. And, as the agricultural historian Roy V. Scott recounted, four decades ago, in his remarkable study “The Reluctant Farmer,” it all started with a pilot program."

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The missing evidence on Learning Styles

Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork have written a survey on Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence

The conclusions are summarized by Daniel Willingham in a Washington Post education blog post.

"... Another article was published reviewing the scientific literature on learning styles. It appeared in a journal called Psychological Science in the Public Interest, published by the Association for Psychological Science.

"This journal has an interesting premise. The editor recruits three or four top researchers to review the scientific literature on a complex topic of public import. The researchers must be knowledgeable, but not directly involved in prior research on the topic, so that they will be impartial.

"The straightforward conclusion matched the one that I have drawn in the past—there is not evidence supporting any of the many learning style theories that have been proposed.

"... The idea that we have in hand a learning styles theory that can be used to improve instruction is remarkably well ingrained. This should raise serious questions about teacher training."

A reader of Willingham's post retorts:

"If the research shows that learning styles is a load of crock, then I will accept that. However, my classroom is a lot more fun for all involved when I present material in a variety of ways. I teach elementary general music, and for any given concept I have a range of activities that include singing, dancing, moving, games, listening, playing instruments, and writing. My students are more engaged, and they have plenty of different chances to master the same concept. So while there might not be different learning styles, I see no reason to stop teaching as if there were. For my students and me, it works."

Does the lack of evidence on Learning Styles mean that teachers should stop presenting material in a variety of ways? Not at all. That practice should continue, because it ensures redundancy and cross-enforcement of the class material presented.

But the crux is that Learning Styles can not be used to excuse students from learning, let's say, more abstract math reasoning because they are not innately 'capable' to learn abstract math.

Daniel Willingham asks: Why does school reading not make better readers?

Willingham's blog post on the Washington Post is a good load of common sense.

"We have supposedly been in the midst of an educational back-to-basics movement since the 1983 release of "A Nation at Risk," a report by a national commission that said American society was in danger of deteriorating because of an eroding public education system.

"Why, then, have reading scores (as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test often called the nation's report card), been flat since 1971?

"One obvious answer is that even if we’re getting back to basics in school, kids read less and less outside of school. Think of all of the new technologies that compete for their time: they have ipods, video games, text messaging, instant messaging, cell phones.

"Who has time to read?

"Surprise! Americans read more now than they did in 1980. A lot more, according to an exhaustive study done at the University of California, San Diego.

"Why? More than ever, we are surrounded by printed words. We read text messages. We read web pages. We read instructions and information on computer games.

"But if we’re reading more, why is literacy dropping?

"If you think that reading is a skill, then practice should improve the skill. We’re reading more than ever, so why aren’t we better than ever at reading? The problem is that, as I’ve noted before, reading comprehension is not a skill.

"Decoding (that is, translating the letters on the page into sounds) is a skill. Practice is necessary for decoding to become fluent ( that is, fast and effortless). Once you’re fluent, the most important factor contributing to comprehension is background knowledge. If you know a bit about the topic, it’s much easier to understand...."

Yet what David Willingham writes is received with sneers:

"I'm sorry", writes reader heatherdc1980, "I can't take your comments about reading comprehension not being a skill seriously. [...] I'm not sure of your pedagogical training, but you will not find a single K-12 reading teacher or reading specialist who agrees with your view."

Which prompts Robert Pondiscio's retort - "Aye, there's the rub..."

On the contrary, while reading volume matters to a certain extent, and can be taught as a skill up to the 2nd or pushing it to 3rd grade - after which progress slows if less attention is paid to the actual reading material content and quality.

Too bad Willingham's and E. D. Hirsch's ideas are completely shunned by current State English language school standards, who make no attempt to specify any content to be included as reading material in K-12 curriculum.

Same observation is made by Sheila Byrd Carmichael et al. regarding the coming National Common Core Reading/Writing/Speaking/Listening Standards, in the Thomas B. Fordham foundation report Stars by which to navigate:

"...The [Common Core] drafters have done a praiseworthy job of defining essential competencies in reading, writing, and speaking and listening for success in both college and the workplace. They are also to be commended for not falling prey to spurious postmodern theories that disavow close reading and encourage interpretations of a text based solely on how it makes the reader feel. Further, the [Common Core] document properly acknowledges that essential communication skills must be embraced and addressed beyond the English classroom, which could lead to valuable collaboration among teachers and more consistent expectations across subjects.

"These skill-centric standards do not, however, suffice to frame a complete English or language arts curriculum. Proper standards for English must also provide enough content guidance to help teachers instill not just useful skills, but also imagination, wonder, and a deep appreciation for our literary heritage. Despite their many virtues, these skills-based competencies cannot serve as a strong framework for the robust liberal arts curricula that will prepare young Americans to thrive as citizens in a free society..."

Monday, January 4, 2010

"The Suicide of the East?", by Philip D. Zelikov

Philip D. Zelikov has a perceptive review of the Cold War events of the XXth century, and the dismembering of the USSR. The Suicide of the East? was published in the Dec 2009 Foreign Affairs. Here is an excerpt:

"...Archie Brown, one of the greatest living Kremlinologists and the author of The Rise and Fall of Communism, was paying attention to Gorbachev long before ordinary people had heard of him. Gorbachev was a model young Communist, carefully prepared for high office. He had been handpicked for the leadership by Yuri Andropov, then the head of the KGB. Andropov liked creative moves such as those by Kádár in Hungary, but he was also, as Brown writes, "an implacable opponent of overt dissent and of any development in the direction of political pluralism." Andropov had led the way in the choice to invade Afghanistan. Looking to Gorbachev, he wanted a first-rate modernizing Marxist to sustain the momentum against Politburo colleagues so senescent that, nostalgic for Stalin, they were still complaining about Nikita Khruschev even in the 1980s.

"Some historians are brilliant interpreters who offer provocative new syntheses of the record. Others, perhaps not so flashy, build up the bedrock of knowledge with thorough, careful scholarship. ... (Fortunately, the profession has room for both.) Brown has carefully assembled his facts when he importantly observes, of the 1985 selection of Gorbachev to lead the Soviet Union:

'The views of every member of the Politburo at the time of [Konstantin] Chernenko's death are known. It is, accordingly, safe to say that if anyone from their ranks other than Gorbachev had been chosen as general secretary, the Soviet Union would have neither liberalized nor democratized. . . . If Andropov had enjoyed better health, minor reform, stopping far short of what occurred under Gorbachev, might well have proceeded. If Chernenko had lived longer, nothing much would have changed while he was general secretary.'

"The Soviet empire did not end up crumbling from the outside in. It changed from the inside out, starting at the top. Gorbachev's initial reforms failed and even made matters worse, exposing problems and causing panicked hoarding as goods disappeared from shelves. Especially in 1987 and 1988, Gorbachev redoubled reform instead of backing away. What is more, instead of following the Chinese and Hungarian model of trying economic reform without democratization, he went for some political reform, too. The decision to seek legitimizing elections came simultaneously in the Soviet Union and in Poland. It was a deeply un-Marxist initiative. Marx and Engels had never had much use for democratic processes. Historical materialism was a doctrine of science, not political marketing."

Police, Adj.

The new film by Corneliu Porumboiu is warmly received by the American film critics. For a list of reviews, see here. The film was awarded the Un Certain Regard jury prize at Cannes earlier in May 2009.

I'll have to put it on my list of things to see this year, when and if it hits the cinemas. The film has stormed an entire critical debate about the true merits of Cinema Verite.

Alexander Zalben of writes:
"...You can take solace in the first ninety minutes, which puts [the protagonist] right in the middle of a police procedural, investigating a possible drug ring. I should maybe clarify, though. When I say police procedural, I don't mean the flashy lights, quick zooms, and punny quips of CSI and its ilk. I mean a quite literal procedural: lots of filing, filling out papers and reports, walking between offices, and lots and lots of waiting around, staking out suspects. Oh god, so much waiting around. And drinking tea. And just standing there. For minutes at a time.

This is, without a doubt, the most purposefully boring movie I've ever seen.

Then there's the second thing Porumboiu is interested in, language (the "adjective" half of the title)..."

The movie protagonist, Police Detective Cristi played by actor Dragos Bucur, is led to debate his boss Anghelache, dictionary in hand, about the merits of throwing the book at the suspect under investigation and about the meanings of words like Law and Police - as in Film Politist (Crime Thriller) and Stat Politist (Police State).

"Meticulously constructed, Police, Adjective foreshadows Cristi and Anghelache's showdown with several seemingly casual exchanges. In one, the young cop tells an older one that guys who are inept at one sport will also be bad at another. It's a "law," he says" (writes Mark Jenkins of NPR.)

And Alex O. Scott of the NY Times:

"[Cristi] deals with pushy or recalcitrant co-workers, trudges through days of surveillance work without changing his sweater and returns home for desultory conversations with his wife, Anca (Irina Saulescu), who matter-of-factly tells him that things are not working out between them and then continues as if nothing of consequence had been said.

At another point, as Anca, a teacher and something of a linguistic pedant, listens to a romantic pop song over and over on her computer, she and Cristi have a debate about images and symbols in literature. Why, he wonders, don’t people just stick with the literal meanings of words, and forget about all the fancy stuff. His position is a hyperbolically blunt statement of an impulse that drives much recent Romanian cinema, away from metaphor and toward a concrete, illusion-free reckoning with things as they are.

This can be called realism, but that sturdy old word is not quite sufficient to describe “Police, Adjective,” which is at once utterly plain, even affectless, and marvelously rich. Mr. Porumboiu’s style might be called proceduralist. Like Cristi writing his reports, Mr. Porumboiu scrupulously records details in a manner that only seems literal-minded because his technique is invisible, and his intelligence resolutely unshowy.

“Police, Adjective” tells a small story well. At the level of plot, it is consistently engaging, and the psychology of the ambivalent detective, a staple of film noir, is given a new twist in the character of Cristi. But the more closely you look, the more you see: a movie about a marriage, about a career in crisis, about a society riven by unstated class antagonisms and hobbled by ancient authoritarian habits. So much in this meticulous and moving film is between the lines, and almost nothing is by the book."

PS. The film can apparently be seen here. For a Google English translation of that page, see here.