Jan 052010

Stephen Toulmin died last month. He studied with Wittgenstein and was a reader, with Kolakowski, of Phil’s dissertation. Toulmin was probably best known for his 1958 book, The Uses of Argument, and for his seminal work on the philosophy of science. In a long and distinguished career, he taught at Oxford, Melbourne, Leeds, Brandeis, Columbia, Michigan State, Chicago, Northwestern, and USC. Here is the NYT obituary.

All three of us have been greatly influenced by a book that Toulmin wrote with Allan Janik in 1973 called Wittgenstein’s Vienna. A fasci­nating account of Viennese culture at the turn of the century, it is an indispensable book that everyone should read.

In 1997 Toulmin was honored by the NEH with the Jefferson Lecture.

Jan 032010

In an article for Wired, Uranium is So Last Century, Richard Martin touts the promise of thorium fueled nuclear fission. Unlike uranium, thorium is plentiful in nature and produces a “miniscule” amount of radioactive waste. It is also an effective breeder and lacks the weaponization potential of uranium. The tech­nology is called LFTR — for Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactor — and seems to be fairly well understood. There is a blog called Energy from Thorium, by Kirk Sorensen, which keeps up with the latest news and has useful links and discussion.

LFTR in 16 minutes

Like Polywell fusion, the development of thorium reactors could be funded at a small fraction of the anticipated cost of cap and trade. If we are serious about the threat of carbon-induced warming, then we ought to explore serious energy alter­natives.


Dec 142009

by William Wordsworth (1807)


Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood

THERE was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight,
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;—
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.

The rainbow comes and goes,
And lovely is the rose;
The moon doth with delight
Look round her when the heavens are bare;
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath pass’d away a glory from the earth.

Continue reading »

Dec 132009

by Mary Oliver


I rose this morning early as usual, and went to my desk
But it’s spring,

and the thrush is in the woods,
somewhere in the twirled branches, and he is singing.

And so, now, I am standing by the open door.
And now I am stepping down onto the grass.

I am touching a few leaves.
I am noticing the way the yellow butterflies
move together, in a twinkling cloud, over the field.

And I am thinking: maybe just looking and listening
is the real work.

Maybe the world, without us,
is the real poem.

Continue reading »

Dec 052009


Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888) was a composer and virtuoso pianist who lived in Paris and knew both Chopin and Lizst. He was an orthodox Jew, and the legend is that he died when one of his bookcases fell on him (also a hazard in academic life).

This is Alkan’s transcription of the first movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #3, in c minor. The piano plays both the orchestra and piano parts. I like how pianist Marc-André Hamelin, the master of this ferociously difficult repertoire, delineates the orchestral and solo voices. But the remarkable thing about this piece is clearly the extraordinary cadenza that Alkan wrote — it is bizarre and breathtaking.

The piano enters at 3:06, the cadenza begins at 11:34.


Live performance by Marc-André Hamelin at Wigmore Hall, London, June 1994


Nov 262009

Last week an unknown hacker — or inside whistleblower — distributed on the internet emails and documents apparently taken from the computers of the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia in England. The CRU and its director, Phil Jones, have been central players in promoting the theory of anthro­pocentric global warming that is endorsed by the IPCC. In conjunction with the Hadley Centre of the U.K. Met Office, they maintain HadCRUTv3, one of the main datasets of global temperature.

By now the purloined files have been disseminated throughout the internet, and have created quite a stir. The original zip file (62 MB) is here; when unzipped it contains about 160 MB of information, with over 1000 emails and 2000 other documents. The blogosphere has primarily focused on the emails, which include exchanges between Phil Jones and many leading climate scientists. There is now a searchable database of the emails and Bishop Hill provides a synopsis of some of the more interesting cases. The other documents — with data, code, and financial records — will probably have a greater impact over the long run. There are questions, for instance, about coding practice — see here. Evidence so far seems to indicate that all of this material is genuine; many recipients have confirmed the accuracy of emails, and as yet nothing has been disputed.

Continue reading »

Nov 122009

Golf Dreams is John Updike’s brilliant collection of stories and essays about the game of golf. In the title story, Updike describes a golf dream — a dream in which targets mysteriously recede, hazards materialize out of thin air, balls change into cylinders, and clubs develop an odd flabby appen­dage which prevents them from contacting the ball crisply. Nonetheless, he observes, the dreamer “surrenders not a particle of hope of making the shot.”

After all, are these nightmares any worse than the “real” drive that skips off the toe of the club, strikes the prism-shaped tee marker, and is swallowed by weeds some twenty yards behind the horrified driver? Or the magical impotence of an utter whiff? Or the bizarre physical comedy of a soaring slice that strikes the one telephone wire strung across three hundred acres? The golfer is so habituated to humiliation that his dreaming mind never offers any protest of implausibility. Whereas dream life, we are told, is a therapeutic cari­cature, seamy side out, of real life, dream golf is simply golf played on another course.

Updike himself had an 18-handicap — which probably meant more to him than being lauded by the NYT as “the most gifted writer of his generation.” He loved the game. In an essay called “The Bliss of Golf,”  Updike recounts:

I never touched a club until I was twenty-five. Then, on a shady lawn in Wellesley, a kind of aunt-in-law showed me how to hold her driver and told me, after one swoop at a phantom ball, that I had a wonderful natural swing. Since that fatal encouragement, in many weathers inner and outer, amid many a green and winding landscape, I have asked myself what the peculiar bliss of this demanding game is, a bliss that at times threatens to relegate all the rest of life, including those sexual concerns that Freud claims are paramount and those even more basic needs that Marx insists must be met, to the shadows.

The immensities of space, beside which even polo and baseball are constricted pastimes, must be part of it. To see one’s ball gallop two hundred and more yards down the fairway, or see it fly from the face of an 8-iron clear across an entire copse of maples in full autumnal flare, is to join one’s soul with the vastness that, con­templated from another angle, intimidates the spirit, and makes one feel small. As it moves through the adventures of a golf match, the human body, like Alice’s in Wonderland, experiences an intoxicating relativity — huge in relation to the ball, tiny in relation to the course, exactly matched to that of the other players. From this relativity is struck a silent music that rings to the treetops and runs through a Wagnerian array of changes as each hole evokes its set of shots, dwindling down to the final putt. The clubs in their nice gradations suggest organ pipes. . .

And the bliss of the swing. The one that feels effortless and produces a shot of miraculous straightness and soar. “I’ll take it,” we say modestly, searching about with a demure blush for the spun-away tee. Just a few shots a round keep us coming back; what other sport offers such sudden splendor in exchange for so few calories of expended energy? In those instants of whizz, ascent, hover, and fall, an ideal self seems mirrored. If we have that one shot in us, we must have thousands more — the problem is to get them out, to let them out. To concentrate, to take one’s time, to move the weight across, to keep the elbow in, to save the wrist-cock for the hitting area, to keep one’s head still, down, and as full of serenity as a Zen monk’s: an ambitious program, but a basically spiritual one. . .

The high point of Updike’s collection, in my view, is the short story “Farrell’s Caddie,” which, fortunately, is available on-line here. It is indeed short — so take a minute.

If you are wanting to learn how to play golf, this is probably the wrong book. Harvey Pennick’s Little Red Book might be what you need. But if you are wanting something more substantial, Updike is matchless. “Golf’s ultimate moral instruction,” he says, “directs us to find within ourselves a pivotal center of enjoyment: relax into a rhythm that fits the hills and swales, and play the shot at hand — not the last one, or the next one, but the one at your feet, in the poison ivy, where you put it.”


Nov 082009

by W. B. Yeats

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with a lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Oct 292009

During May and June I listened to the live webcasts of most of the Van Cliburn Piano Competition. I am not sure what to think about competitions in general — perhaps they are a necessary evil — but it was a good opportunity to hear wonderful young musicians and some remarkable performances. Early on, I was captivated by the music of 19 year-old Haochen Zhang of China, who eventually shared the gold medal. Here is his performance of the Beethoven Sonata in A flat, Op. 110:


In the semi-finals, Zhang programmed the complete Chopin Preludes, Op. 28. Here is the “Raindrop” Prelude:


and Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit from the finals:


Finally, so that you can see him ‘in action’ — although the sound is not as good — here is a video from his performance of Lizst’s Spanish Rhapsody:

For video and good sound both, it is probably better to use the Silverlight streaming webcast from the Van Cliburn site, which also gives access to the complete archives.

Zhang is currently touring the U.S., and is scheduled to perform at the University of Vermont on March 5.


Oct 222009

by W. B. Yeats

ALL the words that I utter,
And all the words that I write,
Must spread out their wings untiring,
And never rest in their flight,
Till they come where your sad, sad heart is,
And sing to you in the night,
Beyond where the waters are moving,
Storm-darken’d or starry bright.

Oct 212009

Several weeks ago I went on a binge reading about Polywell fusion. The brainchild of Dr. Robert Bussard, Polywell fusion is a variety of inertial electrostatic confinement, a combination of the inertial confine­ment (IFE) and magnetic confine­ment (MFE) ap­proaches to plasma con­tainment. The idea is to use a polyhedron of electromag­netic coils into which electrons are intro­duced. The electrons become concen­trated by the mag­ne­tic and electrical fields at the center of the device, creating a well of electro­static potential that confines the ions for fusion. Advantages claimed for this approach are that it does not release any radioactive byproducts, and that it is highly scalable. One conse­quence of the latter is that the time and expense required for development is considerably less than with, e.g., the Tokamak design. For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on Polywell fusion and the Talk-Polywell discussion forum.

In 2006, Dr. Bussard gave a talk at Google — primarily to solicit funding. This talk is interesting not only as an introduction to the idea of Polywell fusion, but also for Dr. Bussard’s remarks on aspects of the institutional culture of science.

Should Google Go Nuclear?

Low-level funding for Polywell fusion was provided to Dr. Bussard’s company, Energy Matter Conversion Cor­poration, by the Navy from 1992 to 2005. Funding was resumed in 2007, shortly prior to Dr. Bussard’s death. Last month, the Department of Defense announced a contract of $7,855,504 for “validation of basic physics,” to be completed by April, 2011.

We could fund thousands of such ideas for less than the cost of cap and trade.


Oct 152009

In the highly charged debate over climate change, overviews that are both balanced and informative can be hard to find.  Chip Knappenberger’s A Cherry-Picker’s Guide to Temper­ature Trends provides just such an overview of recent temperature trends. Knappenberger first charts all five main data sets*:


He then calculates trends from these data sets — using monthly data and going from September of each year through August 2009 – as simple linear least squares fits. He graphs each trend by starting year, with statistically significant trends (p < 0.05) being indicated by filled circles, and juxtaposes them to the average projected trend of the ensem­ble of climate models:


Continue reading »

Oct 012009

Steve McIntyre of Climate Audit seems to have broken the hockey stick for a second time. In Yamal: A “Divergence” Problem, he asks troubling questions about the Briffa tree ring chro­no­logies used in many recent reconstructions of temper­ature history. Here is Briffa’s response to McIntyre and McIntyre’s reply.


* For those new to this story, Bishop Hill’s The Yamal Implosion may be helpful.

Update, 11/09: Here is a Finnish TV program featuring McIntyre:

Sep 262009

We learn history not in order to know how to behave or how to succeed, but to know who we are.  –Leszek Kolakowski, from “The Idolatry of Politics”, 1986

We were saddened to learn this summer of the death of Leszek Kolakowski, the bril­liant Polish philosopher and historian of ideas. As a professor at Warsaw University, Kolakowski’s courageous criticism of Marxism in the 50′s and 60′s resulted in his books being banned and the loss of his job — and led to his emigration to the West in 1968. Kolakowski taught briefly at McGill University and at Berkeley before settling at All Souls College, Oxford. He was also on the Committee for Social Thought, at Chi­cago, and was a reader for Phil’s disserta­tion. Here is the NYT obit­uary.

In 1978, Kolakowski published his monumental Main Currents of Marxism, an ex­haus­tive analysis (beginning with Plotinus) of such notions as the labor theory of value, dialectical materialism, and the concept of class struggle. He claimed that Stalinism was not an aberration, but a natural consequence of Marxist utopian­ism. Kolakowski was an eclectic scholar whose interests were not confined to political philo­sophy; his books included: Positivist Philosophy (1971), The Presence of Myth (1972), Husserl and the Search for Certitude (1975), Bergson (1985), God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal’s Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism (1995), and The Two Eyes of Spinoza (2004). Nathan’s and my initial exposure to Kolakowski was through Tales from the Kingdom of Lailonia, satirical fairy-tales written while he was still in Poland. Phil recommends Metaphysical Horror (1978), a collec­tion of essays on the history of philo­sophy, and Nathan recommends Religion: If There is no God… (2001).

Like some of Kolakowski’s other recent writing, Modernity on Endless Trial (1990) is concerned with the direction of our intellectual culture. The preface illustrates his sure­ness of touch and self-effacing sense of humor:

The essays selected for this book were written on various occasions and in various languages between 1973 and 1986.  They do not purport to offer any ‘philosophy.’  They are, rather, semiphilosophical sermons in which I was trying to point out a number of unpleasant and insoluble dilemmas that loom up every time we attempt to be perfectly consistent when we think about our culture, our politics, and our religious life.  More often than not we want to have the best from incompatible worlds and, as a result, we get nothing; when we instead pawn our mental resources on one side, we cannot buy them out again and we are trapped in a kind of dogmatic immobility.  We might imagine our­selves to be treasure hunters in a forest, but we spend our effort on evading ambushes.  This is a net gain, of course, but not the one we were after.

Therefore these essays are not edifying.  They are rather appeals for moderation in consistency — a topic which I have been trying to look at from various angles for many years.

Since these texts were written separately and without any idea of them appearing together in one volume, some remarks might be repeated here and there.  This does not worry me much, for who — apart from myself, under duress — would be persistent enough to wade through the whole thing, anyway?  3/3/1990 [Modernity, preface]

Later in the book, Kolakowski talks about the significance of Kant:

I am not a Kant expert and no Kantian but, I should say, a Kant sympathizer — espe­cially where conflicts between Kantian and so-called historicist thinking are concerned, both in epistemology and in ethics.

…being human is not a zoological, but a moral concept.

The belief that good and evil are not determined in the context by historic accidents but precede all contingent facts is a precondition of any living culture.

["Why Do We Need Kant", Modernity, pp. 45-48]

It was characteristic of Kolakowski to acknowledge the legitimacy of a philo­sophical impulse or motif, but resist the tendency to hypostasize and mold it into an ideology. He advocated intellectual moderation. Phil tells the story of how Kolakowski once suggested that newly minted philosophy Ph.D.’s should immediately be made full professors and gradually work their way down — with a dock in pay for every book they publish.

There is not a lot of Kolakowski on-line. As an example of his polemical writing, you might be interested in his rejoinder to Edward Thompson from The Socialist Register in 1974:  My Correct Views on Everything. His more ruminative The Death of Utopia Recon­sidered, was delivered at The Australian National University in 1982, and con­tains the following:

The cultural role of philosophy is not to deliver truth but to build the spirit of truth and this means: never to let the inquisitive energy of mind go to sleep, never to stop ques­tioning what appears to be obvious and definitive. . .

Finally, there is available electronically an extract from The Alienation of Reason on The Culture of Logical Empiricism.

Kolakowski has become a national hero in Poland, celebrated as a spiritual father of the Solidarity movement. In the US, he was awarded the highest federal honor in the humanities, the Jefferson Lecture, by the NEH and in 2003 the Library of Congress named him the first recipient of the John W. Klug prize for lifetime achieve­ment in the humanities. He was a MacArthur award winner in 1982.

Sep 062009

Here are Shelley’s photos of our trip out west this summer. We were gone nearly ten weeks and travelled about 18,000 miles. The photos are arranged in albums. Click on an album cover to view the corresponding album. The right and left arrows on either side of the photos will let you step through the album.

The first album covers from near Gananoque, ON on the St. Lawrence River to Jackson Hole, WY. Our circuitous route took us through northern Ontario, crossing back into the U.S. at Sault Ste. Marie, down through Michigan into Indiana, and back up into Wisconsin where we picked up I-90 going west. We took a side trip down to Aspen, CO and then we headed north through the mountains.

Gananoque –> Tetons

The second album covers from the Tetons in Wyoming to Vancouver Island. We crossed the Teton range into Idaho, and drove up through Montana into the Idaho panhandle. We zig-zagged across British Columbia, with a small detour into Oroville, WA and a stay in Whistler, and then took a series of ferries to Vancouver Island.

Tetons –> Vancouver Island

Continue reading »

Jun 132009

It seems to me that cap and trade, as it is currently formulated, is probably a bad idea. Here are some of my concerns:

1) The benefit, as measured by the extent of the decrease in global warming, seems to be negli­gible. According to a recent analysis by Chip Knappenberger, reduction of U.S. CO2 emissions to 83% below 2005 levels by 2050 — which is the goal of the Waxman-Markey bill — would only reduce global temperature by 0.05° C. Even in the highly unlikely event that the entire world were to follow suit and reduce CO2 emissions by the same amount, the resulting reduction in global temper­ature by 2050 would still be less than 0.5° C. — see here. This analysis assumes the IPCC mid-range or high-range emis­sions scenarios; for low-range scenarios the temper­ature change would be even less. Knappenberger uses the so-called MAGICC simulator (the Model for the Assess­ment of Green­house-gas Induced Climate Change) which you can down­load in order to run the calculations for yourself.

Continue reading »

May 132009

It is important to have heroes.  When I was young Van Cliburn was one of my heroes. This performance, with Kirill Kondrashin in Moscow in 1962, came four years after his victory in the Tchaikovsky Competition — an event that precipitated a cultural thaw in the cold war.  Notice Nikita Khrushchev applauding at the end.

The thirteenth Van Cliburn Competition is May 22 to June 7 in Fort Worth — with live webcasts here.

May 092009

from the Duino Elegies by Rainer Maria Rilke

Who, if I shouted, among the hierarchy of angels
would hear me? And supposing one of them
took me suddenly to his heart, I would perish
before his stronger existence. For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror we can just barely endure,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us. Every angel is terrible.
And so I restrain myself and swallow the luring call
of dark sobbing. Ah, whom can we use then?
Not angels, not men, and the shrewd animals
notice that we’re not very much at home
in the world we’ve expounded. Maybe on the hill-slope
some tree or other remains for us, so that
we see it every day; yesterday’s street is left for us,
and the gnarled fidelity of an old habit
that was comfortable with us and never wanted to leave.
Oh, and the night, the night, when the wind full of space
feeds on our faces — for whom wouldn’t it stay,
yearned for, gently disappointing night
that wearily confronts the solitary heart.
Is night more easy on lovers? Ah, they only
hide their fate from themselves by using each other,
Don’t you know that yet? Throw the emptiness
from your arms into the spaces we breathe, so maybe the birds
can feel the expanded air, more ardently flying.

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