Saturday, January 12, 2013

Criticism and the Graces

I very readily concur in your Opinion, Critophilus, that a Work of Criticism is the most difficult to be executed with a proper Taste of any literary Composition whatever. There is something so repugnant to the Pride of Mankind in general, something so detractive from the supposed Sagacity of every Reader to pretend to inform by the dry Method of Precept, that except an Author has all the Delicacy and artful Address imaginable, to seem to accompany the Judgments of those he writes for, rather than to lead them into Discoveries, in such a Performance, he will meet with that kind of contemptuous Treatment, which those good-natured People receive, who are ready to give their unasked Advice in the common Concerns of Life upon every Occasion. It is highly necessary therefore, in such kind of Writings, to sacrifice liberally to the Graces, without whose Inspiration Learning will there degenerate into Pedantry, and the Precepts even of Wisdom pass unrelished.

John Gilbert Cooper, Letters Concerning Taste (1757), Letter XIX

Small Favors

Well, the White House petition site is good for entertainment, if nothing else. One of the petitions that reached the threshold was a petition requesting the Obama Administration to begin building the Death Star. The petition was answered by Paul Shawcross, Chief of the Science and Space Branch at the White House Office of Management and Budget. It turns out, thankfully, that the Administration does not support building weapons capable of destroying entire planets or (which was perhaps more in question) putting the United States quadrillions of dollars into debt.

Slightly more seriously, you can also get the White House homebrewing recipe for White House Honey Ale and White House Honey Porter.

Friday, January 11, 2013

An Unexpected Journey

I finally got around to seeing The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey yesterday. A great deal of what people are saying about it is true. It's a bit padded -- the entire Azog storyline could have been removed and the Radagast bits cut down without much detriment, and almost certainly some improvement. Parts of it are simply cheesy -- the Great Goblin was just silly, and while there was something a bit fun about, the entire scene with Radagast and the orcs had something extraordinarily surreal about it as well, as if a fragment of some very strange movie had accidentally been inserted into this one. But there were also genuinely excellent parts. Martin Freeman is a near-perfect Bilbo, and handles the all-important riddle scene beautifully. I was afraid that the dwarves would be played too much for comic effect, but while there was some of that, it wasn't generally beyond the bounds of the sort of thing in The Hobbit itself, and they managed to do here what they failed to do with Gimli in LOTR: you can see very clearly that, whatever their quirks and comic weirdnesses, the dwarves are not people to be messed with. And there are other nice touches throughout. Fili and Kili are handled surprisingly well throughout. Thorin at several points shows special concern for Fili and Kili, which is exactly right, given that they are in fact the sons of his sister, and that they are his heirs. They also clearly took care to link their clothing and mannerisms to Thorin's. I think it is quite clear, in fact, that for all the dwarves both the costume department and the actors really went out of their way to try to get them right, but this is especially clear for Fili and Kili, who are, besides Thorin and Balin, the dwarves about whom we know the most. This sort of detail does a lot for the movie.

I think it's important to grasp the fact that Jackson is not, despite the title, making a movie for The Hobbit. He is making a prequel series for his LOTR movies, and using The Hobbit as the primary structure for it. The non-Hobbit material that attempts to stay fairly close to Tolkien, like the Council of the Wise, for the most part works, although there are things that could be done better. Given how this movie was structured, I suspect that the second will consist of two lines of plot: getting the dwarves from the Misty Mountains through Mirkwood to Erebor, and the assault of the Council of the Wise on the Necromancer. And, frankly, if the latter is handled well, it will be worth it. It would certainly be spectacular -- we know from side comments in The Lord of the Ring that the Council of the Wise were partly able to drive the Necromancer out through the use of Saruman's cunning war machines, his last great act for the good guys. In any case, that would leave the third movie actually to cover Smaug and the Battle of Five Armies, as well as getting home and final set-up for LOTR.

In a movie that is necessarily part of a series, a great deal depends on how the rest of the series goes. It's nice that we get the subtle Fili & Kili touches, for instance, because we actually know that Fili and Kili will die at the end, defending Thorin's body. If this is handled well, it will give this first movie a strength that can't be seen at present. In any case, it is, despite some odd choices, worth seeing.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

The Enfant Terrible of Natural History

Is Man a development of the beast? Why, certainly. Did you not know that you were a brute once? That when your bodily frame first came into existence, you had no right to be thought higher in the scale of creation, more precious in the sight of God, than the unborn young of an animal?...And if it should prove that our bodies, this slime we were formed from, is part of a coherent system of gradual biological evolution, we are still, as intellectual creatures, the enfant terrible of Natural History, a cuckoo's egg in the nest of bewildered Creation.

Ronald Knox, The Beginning and End of Man


I find myself largely neutral on gun control. I don't have a gun myself, nor can I currently imagine ever being in a position of owning one. I could probably count on one hand the times I've fired a gun, all in Boy Scouts, and all years and years ago. It just doesn't affect me. I have a lot of hunting friends and families, and have known people even here in the United States who really did depend on hunting for their food -- one of my friends in high school in South Dakota had to go hunting every year, despite the fact that she hated it, because they needed that extra little bit to take the pressure off. So I have no sympathy at all with the No Guns Ever crowd. But beyond that, I don't really have much of an opinion about the particular legal regulations used to keep order in this area of human life.

But I do have a pedantic streak in me, and even I, who have not touched a gun in something like twenty years, know what a semiautomatic is, and it gets annoying to keep coming across people who clearly don't yet insist on saying something about it. Semiautomatic does not mean 'scarier'. A semiautomatic rifle, for instance, is neither the most powerful, nor the most accurate, nor the most reliable rifle. There is one and only one thing that makes a gun semiautomatic:

It reloads automatically, but does not fire more than one bullet per trigger-squeeze.

While it varies considerably, for engineering reasons, semiautomatic weapons tend to be less powerful, less accurate, and less reliable (more likely to fail) than manual action weapons, in which the gun is reloaded by pulling or sliding something. Since they are self-loading and thus cut out loading time, semiautomatic weapons have a certain amount of convenience to them, which is why they are popular. But military snipers, for instance, almost universally use bolt-action rifles, with manual reloading: bolt-action rifles are usually better than semiautomatic rifles in power, accuracy, and reliability, and snipers can easily afford the tiny amount of extra loading time if it gives them an extra advantage in those three areas.

What is more, even though a semiautomatic weapon saves on loading time, this is really a very small amount of time. A pro with his favorite pump-action rifle is not going to be at any serious disadvantage in speed compared to most people with a semiautomatic. So, in other words, 'semiautomatic' is purely a term for how the gun is loaded (how the bullet is chambered); it tells us nothing else whatsoever.

It is, on the other hand, useful, as opposed to 'assault', which is a bizarre mish-mash category. MrD had some recent interesting posts about this category:

Assault Weapons Part 1: Battle Rifle to Assault Rifle
Assault Weapons Part 2: Assault Rifles vs. "Assault Weapons"
Assault Weapons Part 3: Gun Control

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Ought and Is

In my philosophical folklore post last week I asked about other tidbits of philosophical folklore, and commenter Ray Ingles gave one example:

The “is-ought fallacy” is another recurring ‘folk philosophy’ phrase – meaning “you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’”, after Hume.

This is a very interesting one, and it is undeniably common — even the exact phrase “you can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’” returns something like 48000 hits on Google, and when you start adding variations, the number explodes. The principle is sometimes called ‘Hume’s Guillotine’, a label that seems to go back to philosopher Max Black in the 1960s. Others call it ‘Hume’s Law’, the source of which I have not been able to trace, although it does seem to be both more recent and less useful, given that there are plenty of other things that have also been called ‘Hume’s Law’. As is often the case with things that reduce to a slogan, it seems to be used in very different ways. Here are some various formulations that often get thrown around when talking about the ‘Is-ought fallacy’ or ‘Hume’s Guillotine’:

You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’.
You can’t derive an imperative from an indicative.
You can’t derive value judgments from factual judgments.
You can’t derive normative claims from factual claims.
You can’t derive evaluative claims from non-evaluative claims.

But oughts, imperatives, and value judgments are all very different things. ‘Ought’ statements, for instance, are generally indicative statements. What adds to the confusion is that all of these, even if they are often true, seem to have obvious counterexamples, yet they are all treated as absolute statements. There are many intriguing puzzles here, and the question is sometimes even raised as to whether the use of the principle is self-defeating. As a friend of mine, James Chastek, once joked, “We can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is’; therefore we ought not to try.”

Perhaps we should go back and look at the source of this slogan, David Hume (1711-1776).

Read the rest of this post at the First Thoughts blog.

Jewel in the Night

Christmas Eve music a couple days ago from the International Space Station (it was Christmas Eve by the Julian calendar; they were celebrating it with the Russians):

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Lyric and Psalm, Eros and Prayer

There is an analogy to the psalm, consisting in the original poetic form of the lyric. The lyric poem is the confession that the soul itself utters about its innermost and most intimate experience. This most intimate experience is love. Of course, it is in its first sprouting the natural drive of sexual love, but out fo the Aphrodisiac cults the Greek spirit conjured forth eros. Hence, eros became in Plato the general expression for the soul, for all its most deep and tender, all its mightiest creations. What in the Greek spirit is eros is in the Jewish spirit prayer, brought forth and uttered in the psalm.

Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism, Simon Kaplan, tr., Scholars Press (Atlanta, GA: 1995) p. 373.


"Not to have read War and Peace and La Cousine Bette and La Chartreuse de Parme is not to be educated; but so is not to have a glimmer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics." C. P. Snow

I do have some glimmer of the Second Law, but I have never read War and Peace, or La Cousine Bette, or La Chartreuse de Parme, so I suppose that puts me in the Not Educated category. Given that I'm not really a huge fan of Tolstoy (I did like Resurrection, but it's very atypical Tolstoy), and that The Red and the Black largely disappointed me, I am unrepentantly uneducated. I hadn't even heard of La Cousine Bette; it turns out it's by Balzac, and I've only read short stories by Balzac (many of which are very, very good -- I especially recommend "The Atheist's Mass" and "The Succubus"). But having gone nearly half my life without even having heard of it, or at least in no way that ever stuck in my head, I doubt it will be leaping out at me from the shelf anytime soon.

Snow's Two Cultures idea, incidentally, is one of those things that take on a life of their own until they become obviously stupid. It made a certain amount of sense in Snow's own context; "The Two Cultures" idea grew out of Snow's criticisms of British education and Cambridge in particular. He did not propose it as a general thesis, and, in fact, in similar works from the same period contrasted the humanities-heavy educational approach of Britain with (for instance) German approaches to higher education. This gets expanded and generalized over time, and not in a very coherent way, since Snow is vague and arguably equivocal in how he uses key terms. But as a general thesis, assumed to be coherent, it always gets taken, and the result is simplistic nonsense uncritically parading as sociological insight.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

A Poem Draft for Epiphany


I heard the preacher speaking,
and of miracles I heard,
the wine of revelation
from the water of our words.
I heard of men and women
in their humble little ways
transfigured to the glory
of the Ancient One of Days,
first river-bathed and lustral
in the waters of the earth,
then drunken, full of Spirit,
with the Wine of heaven's birth;
of wisdom-seeking sages
who had sought the Good by star
and found it held by mother
where the Jewish people are,
the True in swaddled clothing,
as their wise philosophy
was turned, like wedding-water,
to that wine, epiphany.

This Holy Vow that Man Can Make

Lord, Who at Cana's Wedding Feast
by Godfrey Thring

Lord, Who at Cana’s wedding feast
Didst as a Guest appear,
Thou dearer far than earthly guest,
Vouchsafe Thy presence here.
For holy Thou indeed dost prove
The marriage vow to be,
Proclaiming it a type of love
Between the Church and Thee.

This holy vow that man can make,
The golden thread in life,
The bond that none may dare to break,
That bindeth man and wife,
Which, blest by Thee, whate’er betide,
No evil shall destroy,
Through careworn days each care divides
And doubles every joy.

On those who now before Thee kneel,
O Lord, Thy blessing pour,
That each may wake the other’s zeal
To love Thee more and more.
Oh, grant them here in peace to live,
In purity and love,
And, this world leaving, to receive
A crown of life above.

This Set Down

The Journey of The Magi
T.S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for Birth or Death?
There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Dove and Lamb and Babe Agree in Love

by Christina Rossetti

'Lord Babe, if Thou art He
We sought for patiently,
Where is Thy court?
Hither may prophecy and star resort;
Men heed not their report.' –
'Bow down and worship, righteous man:
This Infant of a span
Is He man sought for since the world began!' –
'Then, Lord, accept my gold, too base a thing
For Thee, of all kings King.' –

'Lord Babe, despite Thy youth
I hold Thee of a truth
Both Good and Great:
But wherefore dost Thou keep so mean a state,
Low-lying desolate?' –
'Bow down and worship, righteous seer:
The Lord our God is here
Approachable, Who bids us all draw near.' –
'Wherefore to Thee I offer frankincense,
Thou Sole Omnipotence.' –

'But I have only brought
Myrrh; no wise afterthought
Instructed me
To gather pearls or gems, or choice to see
Coral or ivory.' –
'Not least thine offering proves thee wise:
For myrrh means sacrifice,
And He that lives, this Same is He that dies.' –
'Then here is myrrh: alas, yea woe is me
That myrrh befitteth Thee.' –

Myrrh, frankincense, and gold:
And lo from wintry fold
Good-will doth bring
A Lamb, the innocent likeness of this King
Whom stars and seraphs sing:
And lo the bird of love, a Dove,
Flutters and coos above:
And Dove and Lamb and Babe agree in love: –
Come all mankind, come all creation hither,
Come, worship Christ together.

Before 1886

A Kingdom Not Human but Divine

The Three Kings
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Three Kings came riding from far away,
Melchoir and Gaspar and Baltasar;
Three Wise Men out of the East were they,
And they travelled by night and they slept by day,
For their guide was a beautiful, wonderful star.

The star was so beautiful, large, and clear,
That all the other stars of the sky
Became a white mist in the atmosphere,
And by this they knew that the coming was near
Of the Prince foretold in the prophecy.

Three caskets they bore on their saddlebows,
Three caskets of gold with golden keys;
Their robes were of crimson silk with rows
Of bells and pomegranates and furbelows,
Their turbans like blossoming almond trees.

And so the Three Kings rode into the West,
Through the dusk of night, over hill and dell
And sometimes they nodded with beard on breast,
And sometimes talked, as they paused to rest,
With the people they met at some wayside well.

"Of the child that is born," said Baltasar,
"Good people, I pray you, tell us the news;
For we in the East have seen his star,
And have ridden fast, and have ridden far,
To find and worship the King of the Jews."

And the people answered, "You ask in vain;
We know of no king but Herod the Great!"
They thought the Wise Men were men insane,
As they spurred their horses across the plain,
Like riders in haste, and who cannot wait.

And when they came to Jerusalem,
Herod the Great, who had heard this thing,
Sent for the Wise Men and questioned them;
And said, "Go down unto Bethlehem,
And bring me tidings of this new king."

So they rode away; and the star stood still,
The only one in the gray of morn;
Yes, it stopped, it stood still of its own free will,
Right over Bethlehem on the hill,
The city of David where Christ as born

And the Three Kings rode through the gate and the guard,
Through the silent street, till their horses turned
And neighed as they entered and great inn-yard;
But the windows were closed, and the doors were barred,
And only a light in the stable burned.

And cradled there in the scented hay,
In the air made sweet by the breath of kine,
The little child in the manger lay,
The child, that would be king one day
Of a kingdom not human but divine.

His mother Mary of Nazareth
Sat watching beside his place of rest,
Watching the even flow of his breath,
For the joy of life and the terror of death
Were mingled together in her breast.

They laid their offerings at his feet;
The gold was their tribute to a King,
The frankincense, with its odor sweet,
Was for the Priest, the Paraclete,
The myrrh for the body’s burying.

And the mother wondered and bowed her head,
And sat as still as a statue of stone;
Her heart was troubled yet comforted,
Remembering what the Angel had said
Of an endless reign and of David’s throne.

Then the Kings rode out of the city gate,
With a clatter of hoofs in proud array;
But they went not back to Herod the Great,
For they knew his malice and feared his hate,
And returned to their homes by another way.

For to Present that Rich King

Out of the Blossom Sprang a Thorn
(15th Century English carol, author unknown)

Out of the blossom sprang a thorn,
When God himself would be born;
He let us never be forlorn,
That born was of Marie.

There sprang a well all at her foot,
That all this world is burned to good,
When Jesu Christ took flesh and blood
That born was of Marie.

Out of the well sprang a stream
From patriarch to Jerusalem,
Till Christ Himself it took again,
That born was of Marie.

In winter when the frost Him froze,
A poor bedding our Lord Him chose;
Between an ox and an ass
God's Son born He was
That born was of Marie.

It was upon the Twelfth Day,
There come three kings in rich array
To seek Christ where He lay
That born was of Marie.

Three kings out of divers lands,
Swithe comen with hearts strong,
The Child to seek underfong,
That born was of Marie.

The star led them a right way
To the Child where He lay;
He helpeth us both night and day,
That born was of Marie.

Balthazar was the first king,
He broughte gold to his offering,
For to present that rich King,
That born was of Marie.

Melchior was the second king,
He brought incense to his offering,
For to present that rich King,
That born was of Marie.

Jasper was the third king,
He brought myrrh to his offering,
For to present that rich King,
That born was of Marie.

There they offered their presents,
With gold and myrrh and frankincense,
As clerks read in their sequence
In Epiphany.

Kneel we down Him beforn,
And pray we to Him that now is born,
He let us never be forlorn,
That born was of Marie.