Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Three Poem Drafts


My foe was wise in dark and ancient art,
and so I learned that strange and eldritch way,
a witch's brew from stormy-shadowed heart
when madness rules and thought begins to fray;

I cast a curse upon his evil deeds,
a horror formed of death and hate and time;
I cast it like a sower casts his seeds,
like poets that with art foreshadow rhyme,

and doom I brought upon his kind and race,
a torment like to hell and like to shame;
I cast a pox and plague upon his face
and malice like a devil on his name.

For long we cast enchantments back and forth
that burned like raging flame and froze like ice
from ageless sea of white in arctic north,
and oft my cunning mind sought new device,

but greatest of them all was endless death
that flowed around and through him like the sea,
and then I rasped my last and mortal breath;
at last I found my foe and he found me,

for in a mirror hostile filled with woe
reflected back at me his face I know.

The Echo

The echoes call from hill to hill in game,
in chant, that never stays the same,
that moves like cats in pride through day and night,
now here, now there, now swiftly lost to sight,
and games the echoes play from hill to hill,
enchantments void of stays or quiet rests
like motion-capture of some choice of will,
now here, now there, now of the void a guest,
and what is this, the song that I have heard?

Like bird that calls on high,
where falls the day gone by,
this is the song that I have heard:
a voice cries out, "Word, word, word, word, word, word."

My Love, You are a Cumbrous Boat

My love, you are a cumbrous boat
that rides, or rather parts, the wave;
and all the barnacles that coat
your hull are sent to cuprous grave.
As vast as titan, large and vast,
you lumber over storm and glass;
behind you disappears your past,
and all is foam where'er you pass,
and truly you could be at sea
an aircraft's landing-strip and home;
your eyes like some bright ecstasy
are where the fighters nest at home.
My love, you are a cumbrous boat
that barges through the ocean fog,
which circles you like endless moat,
and you, as graceful as a log,
are on the sea like floating isle;
beside you Moby Dick turns pale;
you roll around in planet-style,
as big as mountain, big as whale.
And how impressive are your sails
that whip around in canvas sheets,
which shine at sea like slime of snails
and flap in wet and noisy beats.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Vice and Virtue in Sikh Ethics

 I have been looking for a good discussion of Sikh virtue theory for ages now, and I have finally found one: Keshav Singh's "Vice and Virtue in Sikh Ethics", which is short but beautifully clear introduction to the essential concepts: 

Part of this ethics, I will argue, is a theory of vice and virtue that is not only of historical and religious interest, but holds up to Western theories in plausibility and systematicity.

According to this theory, there is a unity of vices – in other words, there is a sort of master vice in virtue of which all other vices are vices. This master vice is the vice of haumai, which is a central ethical concept in Sikhism. On the view that emerges, haumai is the source of human beings’ separation from an ultimate reality in which we are radically interconnected, both metaphysically and ethically. The five primary vices are all forms of haumai, and all stem from a false sense of self-importance. Vice, then, comes down to the failure to recognize the importance of others. The corresponding picture of virtue is that virtue consists in a recognition of the importance of others, through the recognition of an ultimate reality on which all are One. While the vicious person is, at the extreme, a kind of ethical solipsist, the virtuous person is an ethical universalist, treating all others as bearers of the same value she herself has.

Highly recommended, if you have an interest in either virtue ethics or comparative philosophy. 

Communion and Skandalon

 Needless to say, there have been more than a few things said about the current discussion among bishops over 'eucharistic coherence', and whether highly public supporters of abortion access who are Catholic, like President Biden, should be refused communion. There are a few principles involved:

(1) To partake directly of the Eucharist requires that one not merely be Catholic but also have properly confessed your sins recently. Repentance of grave sin is a precondition for communion. The Church has been clear for years that public support of access to abortion, itself a grave sin and a violation of human rights in Church teaching, is a sin that requires such repentance and confession. Strictly speaking, this shouldn't be an issue; politicians who continue publicly to support abortion access should not be going up for communion to begin with. What is more, one of the things you are supposed to do is avoid taking communion if it could cause scandal, skandalon, which in this context means putting a stumblingblock in front of others by misleading them as to what is sinful or not. Yet again, politicians who publicly support abortion access should not be going up for communion at all, because it misleads people as to what Catholic teaching on the subject is. There are plenty of Catholics who, though entirely innocent in themselves, don't go up for communion because they are in some kind of irregular public situation that could cause confusion to others; a relatively common case is of people who are in unusual marriage situations. Politicians don't get special privileged access to the sacraments; they get them only according to the same rules as everyone else. And what is more, it is the Catholic position that partaking of sacraments in ways inappropriate to them is always dangerous for one's own soul.

(2) In unusually public cases that could mislead people as to Catholic teaching if ignored, priests and bishops have full authority to prevent people from partaking sacraments. That's their primary function: to uphold Catholic doctrine and to maintain and protect the sacraments. They are not there to be vending machines. Everyone has the right to have their own judgment about whether their decisions are reasonable and prudent; all Catholics have the right to write a letter to their own bishop and give their reasons for why they think it a bad idea, if they do. But there is no question whatsoever that they have the right and authority to make such a decision.

(3) The Eucharist is a public sacrament; that is, one can participate indirectly in it simply by being prayerfully present at Mass. Denying someone communion, which implies affirmation of the faith and morals of the Catholic Church, is not (as I saw someone claim) denying them the real presence of Christ. Precisely because it is the real presence, anyone has access to it just by going to Mass or Adoration, without receiving.


A great deal of what one finds on the subject is much like what we get with this Jeffrey Salkin article. Salkin (who unlike a number of people I have seen is at least upfront about the fact that he is not Catholic, and avoids most of the more stupid arguments) basically gives three arguments for why he thinks denying Biden communion is a bad idea.

(1)  "[I]t seems foolish to deny access to the body of Christ to the most visible Catholic political leader in the world." This is the reverse of the actual situation; the only reason that the question even arises is because he is so visible and people like Salkin keep trying to hold him up specifically as a Catholic. In other situations, it wouldn't even arise (the individual would just have to answer to God, or, if it were a definitely public situation, it would be between the individual and their priest or bishop). It's mostly an honor system. The only situation in which this would even be on the table is in a very public and visible case, in which scandal is a serious danger. As the most visible Catholic political leader in the world, President Biden has an even greater responsibility not to act in a way that would mislead people about Catholic faith and morals.

(2) "[T]his cannot be good for the church — not at a time when it has experienced profound losses." I confess myself wholly baffled by this kind of argument. Why would anyone care about something like this? The sacraments are part of the integral structure of the Church; decisions about them should be based on considerations about whether they are in danger of being abused or in danger of being received in a manner inconsistent with Catholic faith and morals. Nothing else matters on a point like this, and it is absurd to expect anything else to matter on something like this.

(3)  "[T]he denial of Communion to President Biden smacks of inconsistency at best and hypocrisy at worst." This could very well be, although Salkin's argument is not very good. (Sexual abusers are not supposed to receive communion, either, until they repent of their sins, and this is already known.) What raises the question here is a prominent Catholic engaging in very public and continuing support of what the Church regards as a sinful practice on a matter on which the Church has already been quite clear. This is not, contrary to Salkin's implication, a common situation. It is, in any case, irrelevant; while obviously consistency would be better, the exact lines are a matter of judgment call, and it is the judgment call of the bishops as to where they will be laid. You can think them wrong; it's certainly true that these are days in which we are repeatedly faced with bishops who are neither very saintly nor very intelligent. But that they aren't following some strict rule in handling these matters is irrelevant because there is no such rule, and however one may impugn their motives, it is irrelevant because there is no doubt at all that it is their call, and theirs alone to make. And, frankly, I find you can always tell when someone has no serious argument on a religious topic when they start accusing people of hypocrisy, an accusation so over-used that it has by now almost reached the point of self-parody.

My suspicion is that this has mostly come up just because the bishops are tired of Biden's Catholicism being used as political cover by the media. Of course, here as elsewhere, it will be the individual bishops who will decide how the rule should be enforced; people have a bad habit of thinking that rules magically go into effect on their own, but in reality, they have to be operationalized into real situations. There are bishops who would likely still allow him (and other Catholic politicians in similar situations) to receive, despite the majority, and how publicly will likely depend on what they think Rome would let them get away with. We will see if anything really comes of it.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Fortnightly Book, June 20

Somewhere around the year 1000, Leif Eriksson, often known as the Lucky, made landfall on the North American continent. Vikings before then had made it as far as Greenland, and Bjarni Herjolfsson is the first person recorded as having seen the continental landmass, a number of years, after having been blown off course by a storm. But during a voyage from Norway to Greenland, Leif and his men, also blown off course, actually landed, naming the land "Wineland" or Vinland, and met the natives. We have some brief historical record of this fairly close to the actual event in the Islendingabok, but the full story that we have is the version of the Vinland Sagas, which give us an account of Leif's voyage and several successor voyages.

There are two Vinland Sagas: The Saga of the Greenlanders and Eirik the Red's Saga, both of them thirteenth century works. They do not agree in all details, and are clearly based on various oral traditions, but coming from a people with considerable practice in ocean navigation, they give enough geographical and navigational details corresponding to the actual region to make clear that the Icelanders became familiar with all of the land around the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Exactly where Vinland itself was located among those landmasses seems to be disputed; part of the difficulty is that the sagas treat Vinland as a dangerous destination to try to reach, so they weren't particularly focused on giving precise directions to get there. We know from archeological evidence that there was at some point a Norse encampment at L'Anse aux Meadows, and a lot depends on how one thinks this fits into the very general descriptions we get in the sagas. My own guess is that Vinland was either Prince Edward Island or the part of Nova Scotia south of Prince Edward Island (depending on whether one interprets the sagas as indicating that it was on an island or near an island). Just a guess, but I'm reading Gisli Sigurdsson's Penguin Classics translation, and I notice that he draws the same conclusion.

Saturday, June 19, 2021


 Today, of course, is Juneteenth, the popular name that became standard for what was originally called Jubilee Day; officially the army had been enforcing the Emancipation Proclamation since it was issued in 1862, but Texas was quite distant and the Union had relatively little presence in the state for a while, so consistent actual enforcement did not happen until General Gordon Granger issued General Order No. 3 on June 19, 1865. The day began to be regularly celebrated in Galveston the very next year, and spread from there to other Texas cities quite quickly; it was a commonly recognized popular holiday, and has been an official state holiday in Texas for forty years now.

Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing
by James Weldon Johnson

Lift ev’ry voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light.
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, forget Thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Acapella, "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity; The Gods Themselves; The Complete Robot; Robot Dreams; Nightfall and Other Stories


Opening Passages: Since three of the works are short story anthologies, I'll just give the opening passages for the other two. From The End of Eternity:

Andrew Harlan stepped into the kettle. Its sides were perfectly round and it fit snugly inside a vertical shaft composed of widely spaced rods that shimmered into an unseeable haze six feet above Harlan's head. Harlan set the controls and moved the smoothly working starting lever. (p. 7)

From The Gods Themselves:

"No good," said Lamont, sharply. I didn't get anywhere." He had a brooding look about him that went with his deep-set eyes and the slight asymmetry of his long chin. There was a brooding look about him at the best of times, and this was not the best of times. His second formal interview with Hallam had been a greater fiasco than the first. (p.3)

Summary: In The End of Eternity, Andrew Harlan is a brilliant member of Eternity, a time-travel organization established at some point in our future (the 27th century, to be exact) that is capable of shifting through the centuries by means of a time machine, called a 'kettle', powered by our sun's nova at the end of its life. (We now know that our sun is not actually large enough to nova; the lower limit for a star to have mass enough to nova is a bit less than one and a half times the size of our sun. But it still makes for good story.) The Eternals are nominally an organization for allowing trading of essential items through time; that is the guise under which they interact with those centuries with which they interact. However, their real work is choosing among alternative Realities; if you can move through the centuries, you can change the later centuries by manipulating the prior centuries, and although doing this with any precision is difficult, Eternity has a great deal of practice at it. The Eternals guide their work on broadly utilitarian principles, aiming at avoiding large-scale suffering.

Several themes are interwoven throughout the work. (1) Manipulating Realities is shown to be quite damaging to the psyche, in that it degrades one's attitudes toward and relations with other people. Harlan's status as someone directly involved in this leaves him isolated, vulnerable, and resentful, creating a crisis that will put put himself and everyone else at great risk. (2) The Eternals, despite messing with Realities, fail to know a great many things about them. For instance, they can pass through the centuries all the way to the end of the solar system, and know that the human race consistently has gone extinct by the 150,000th century. They do not know why, however, because they know nothing about the centuries from 70,000 to 150,000 -- they can access the Eternity stations at those centuries, but they are somehow prevented from leaving them. (3) Over and over again throughout the centuries, in every Reality, societies reinvent the technology for real space travel. However, over and over again this technology leads to inevitable wars and conflicts, so the Eternals repeatedly change Reality to erase the technology from existence. One of the implications of the book is that the Eternals are, despite their intention, actively harming humanity by this particular manipulation; the suggestion is that perhaps the human heart longs not for Eternity but for Infinity, so much so that we must seek it out even at the cost of great suffering. (4) There is a mystery at the heart of Eternity, beside these things, which structure the story as an early form of time-loop story; the structure is handled quite cleverly, although after so many decades of time-loop stories since, not in a way that would startle anyone today. It is nicely done enough, however, that it is not surprising that The End of Eternity was one of the novels for which Asimov was originally most famous, for a long time a very popular one for book clubs and science fiction libraries -- and still perhaps my favorite science fiction time-travel story.

The Gods Themselves is about progress despite -- and sometimes because of -- stupidity. We begin in media res -- the first chapter is chapter 6, and we come back to earlier chapters later -- with Frederick Hallam lionized as the greatest scientist ever to have lived, having singlehandedly solved all energy problems with an inexhaustible energy source. We learn over time that Hallam is not, in fact, the great genius everyone thinks. He was a radiochemist, barely even a mediocre one, who happened one day to discover that a container of tungsten that he had often seen had changed; he gets into an argument about it with the much more brilliant radiochemist, Denison, who dismisses the matter with a disparaging put-down of Hallam's intelligence. While Hallam is in fact every bit of the idiot that Denison thinks, he has an immense capacity to be motivated by petty personal resentment, and he sets out obstinately, and without any regard for proportion, to prove that the tungsten has indeed changed. As it happens, it has turned into plutonium-186, an isotope that should not exist, and is later able to serve as a source of limitless energy. Hallam skyrockets into scientific superstardom, Denison's career dissolves into nothing -- not entirely naturally, because when the man generally recognized as the world's greatest genius has a grudge against you, it will inevitably harm your career prospects. Of course, Hallam is actually responsible for nothing attributed to him; he 'discovered' the change by accident, 'proved' that it was changed by handing it over to the lab technicians to test, and 'found' an application for it in the sense that some much more brilliant people suggested the possibility and he advocated it. Hallam's primary real talents are self-aggrandizement and leveraging his position to harm the careers of rivals and opponents. It may be all in scientific fields, but one of the things enjoyable about the book as an academic, even in another field, is that you know exactly the type of person of which Hallam is the slightly exaggerated and considerably luckier caricature.

One of the things Hallam 'discovers' is that the change is actually due to unknown aliens in an alternative universe, apparently one with a stronger nuclear force than our own, who will exchange tungsten for plutonium-186. Much of the first part, "Against Stupidity...", is concerned with a brilliant young physicist named Lamont whose career dissipates when he accidently gets on Hallam's bad side by suggesting, without any malice or intent to offend, that the aliens are the ones actually doing the hard work. Lamont in retaliation attempts to prove Hallam's 'invention' dangerous, but keeps finding himself blocked as the rest of the scientific community, at Hallam's instigation, treats him as a crackpot. He will manage to get a message across to the universe, receiving an ominous response in return; but he will fail entirely to unseat Hallam. People just have too much incentive to believe that Hallam has really discovered a limitless energy supply without consequences. 'Against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain.'

In the second part, "...the Gods Themselves..." we switch over to the alien universe. This part of the story has some of Asimov's very best writing. The aliens are extremely foreign but very relatable. There are two species, Hard Ones and Soft Ones; the Hard Ones seem to be dominant but have a benevolent and cooperative relationship with the Soft Ones. The Soft Ones feed by absorbing solar energy directly; the Hard Ones are more mysterious. The Soft Ones, so called because they can diffuse and flow, come in three types, Rationals, Emotionals, and Parentals. All three have to come together to reproduce. Oden, Dua, and Tritt are such a grouping, one that is treated as somehow especially important by the Hard Ones (and, indeed, they each show features that distinguish themselves from others of their kind), but they have difficulty producing. Part of this is that Dua is often stubbornly uncooperative, but it's actually a general problem: because the strong force is stronger in this universe, the stars have shorter lifespans and are dying. This includes the sun for their own planet, which puts out less and less energy, resulting in fewer and fewer successful matings. Thus, once having numbered in the millions, they are now down to a few hundred Hard Ones and a few thousand Soft Ones. A new Hard One named Estwald is said to be on the track of solving the problem, but the relations between Oden, Dua, and Tritt may result in a chain of events that will put an end to that.

The third part, "Contend in Vain?", which is the least successful of the three, returns us to Denison, who, having independently concluded that there was a potential danger with Hallam's method for limitless energy, arrives at the Moon in the vague hope of pinning it down and finding an alternative. The Lunarites are doing interesting research, partly motivated by the fact that they cannot exchange tungsten with the aliens (who don't realize that there is another inhabited body nearby). Denison, with the help of the Lunarites (although sometimes despite themselves), is able to find an alternative that does not rely on the aliens and that avoids the problem. I always find this part somewhat disappointingly written -- it comes across as more juvenile than the other two -- but it does provide a satisfactory intellectual resolution to the problem: Denison succeeds because he doesn't contend with stupidity; having grown wiser from his mistake, he overcomes not by direct conflict (which he would lose) but by providing a better alternative. It also, despite its faults, combines well with the previous two parts to make Asimov's best expression of a theme that is consistent across his writings, that scientific progress requires intuition, i.e., an ability to complete patterns in advance of the evidence, as well as reason.

The other three works I read were short story collections; it was fairly easy to do them all because there is a fair amount of overlap:

(1) In all three: "Sally"

(2) In TCR and RD: "Little Lost Robot"; "Light Verse"

(3) In RD and NOS: "Hostess"; "Strikebreaker"; "The Machine that Won the War"; "Breeds There a Man...?"

(4) In TCR and NOS: "Segregationist"

Of these, both "Sally" (about artificially intelligent cars) and "Hostess" (about a parasitic species feeding on human emotions) are classics, and "Light Verse" and "The Machine that Won the War" are both nice little tales of the sort that made Asimov famous.

Of stories that are distinctive to the collecctions, the best stories that do not involve either Susan Calvin or Powell and Donovan are "Nightfall" (in NOS), "It's Such a Beautiful Day" (in NOS), "Jokester" (in RD), "The Last Question" (in RD), and "The Bicentennial Man" (in TCR). "Nightfall", of course, is the short story that first made Asimov famous, and rightly so, because it is still one of the great science fiction stories of all time. A planet in a system with multiple suns never grows dark except during a solar eclipse once every two millenia or so. The time is approaching and, while there are worries about how it will affect the social fabric (because there have always been myths that the darkness brings madness), the scientists are excited -- there is even the possibility of discovering something really new about the universe, even something really unlikely, like the bold idea put forward at one point that the universe could, in principle, have maybe an astounding two dozen suns in a volume of space that could even be as big as eight light years across. And then the dark comes, unveiling the actual starry heavens. It's a story that's beautifully done. "The Bicentennial Man" is one of the most famous robot tales, about a robot who becomes human.

Of the rest of the classic robot stories -- that is, the ones with either Powell and Donovan or Susan Calvin -- the best are "Reason" (with Powell and Donovan) and "The Evitable Conflict" (with Susan Calvin). In "Reason", a robot in an extremely important and potentially dangerous position starts acting strangely when, reflecting on himself, he concludes that the one thing he can be sure of is that, since he thinks, he exists, and that by pure reason he can establish from this that he could not be made by a human being. In "The Evitable Conflict", Stephen Byerley, the world Coordinator (and someone who may or may not be a robot himself), is investigating an apparent set of problems with the Machines that coordinate human activity across the globe; a problem with the Machines could be disastrous for the human race, and might even lead to a final conflict pushed forward by people resentful of the Machines. But sometimes conflicts that seem inevitable are entirely evitable.

At the beginning of The Complete Robot, Asimov notes that when he started writing his robot stories, most of the stories that were already in existence were either Robot-as-Pathos or Robot-as-Menace stories. Asimov wrote his share of those, too; but one of the things he contributed was a different take on them entirely, in which the robot is neither a put-upon symbol of oppression nor a monster-in-waiting so much as an object of curiosity, what we might call Robot-as-Puzzle-Mystery. Asimov is a greatly underappreciated puzzle-mystery author even in the conventional mystery genre, but in the science fiction genre, blending robot story and puzzle mystery, he has no peer.

Favorite Passage: How could it be otherwise than this passage from "Reason":

'I have spent these last two days in concentrated introspection,' said Cutie, 'and the results have been most interesting. I began at the one sure assumption I felt permitted to make. I, myself, exist, because I think--'

Powell groaned. 'Oh, Jupiter, a robot Descartes!'

'Who's Descartes?' demanded Donovan. 'Listen, do we have to sit here and listen to this metal maniac--'

'Keep quiet, Mike!'

Cutie continued imperturbably, 'And the question that immediately arose was: Just what is the cause of my existence?'

Powell's jaw set lumpily. 'You're being foolish. I told you already that we made you.'

'And if you don't believe us,' added Donovan, 'we'll gladly take you apart!'

The robot spread his strong hands in a deprecatory gesture, 'I accept nothing on authority. A hypothesis must be backed by reason, or else it is worthless -- and it goes against all the dictates of logic to suppose that you made me.' (pp. 284-285).

Recommendation: All Recommended.


Isaac Asimov, The End of Eternity, Ballantine (New York: 1955).

Isaac Asimov, The Gods Themselves, Bantam (New York: 1972).

Isaac Asimov, The Complete Robot, HarperCollins (New York: 1995).

Isaac Asimov, Robot Dreams, Ace (New York: 1986).

Isaac Asimov, Nightfall and Other Stories, Ballantine (New York: 1969).

Friday, June 18, 2021

The Lectional Person

Human beings are rational in such a way as to be social in their reasoning; we see this in the fact that we often understand things better by treating them as quasi-persons. We do this, of course, with moral and juridical persons; we do this by personifying animals and inanimate objects, and so forth.

I think it's an important and relatively unremarked aspect of our reading that we read texts as if they were persons; the text is a lectional person. Of course, this is quite obvious if you read, say, an anonymous fictional work, which in some ways is not really much different from hearing a tale by a storyteller you do not otherwise know. We read texts as having a voice and coming from some where, as expressing a personality, and this is true even with works growing out of multiple redactions, like the Arabian Nights, which thus have no single author -- it's very natural nonetheless to read the text as if it were, in fact, expressing a single person.

This explains, I suspect, two common phenomena of reading. First, people often tend to read even obvious fiction as in some way autobiographical, and as expressing at least something about a real person's life. We see this in a lot of movies about writers (Being Jane Austen, Moliere, Tolkien are three I can name off the top of my head), in which their lives are treated as direct sources for their fictional works, despite this being immensely implausible. I think this arises due to the ambiguity between the lectional person of the text and the authorial person, in something like the way we might sometimes get confused about how the juridical person of a corporation sole (like the British Crown) relates to the person in that office (Queen Elizabeth II), blurring the lines between the two.

The second phenomenon is the very natural way in which we can think of our relationship with a text as being one of hospitality (Ricoeur) or, even more often, friendship. It's very remarkable how easily concepts like these, which are paradigmatic cases of person-to-person relationships, are transferred by analogy and metaphor to talking about texts. Your favorite novel is indeed a sort of old friend; a good new book is indeed a sort of welcome guest; we relate to the text as a quasi-person, as a person-for-the-purposes-of-reading like a juridical person is a person-for-the-purposes-of-law. The text is a lectional person.

There are other phenomena that may also be related to this, although I'm somewhat less certain of them, like the distress readers often feel at the denigration or deliberate destruction of books, or the fact that women, usually associated with more social and person-to-person interaction, are massively more likely to be serious readers than men. But regardless, I think the previous two points go quite far toward establishing the point.

Thursday, June 17, 2021


 I find this Aeon article by Kim Sterelny, on the origin of social inequality, to be utterly baffling. The 'egalitarian' society is represented by mobile foragers who (as the article explicitly notes) consist of tiny groups. This equality is slowly disrupted by the development of clans (i.e., extensive families acting as such) and skill specialization. These are, Sterelny says, "scaffolds of inequality", which begins to accelerate once people start settling down into villages and begin storing food.

One would expect from this the obvious conclusion: it is not really possible for us to have an egalitarian society anymore, because the only known cases require tiny mobile populations who don't specialize heavily, don't store food, and don't closely cooperate on a large scale. And that indeed seems to be the conclusion, with a bit of a crude tone-down thrown out at the very end: maybe, maybe, new "social technologies" can mitigate inequality, a hope that seems rather tenuous given that the article also explicitly notes that they are currently being used by people in power to surveil and control everyone else.

Sterelny's article, which is much more speculative in character than the author sometimes makes it sound, makes a common error by assuming 'equality' to be univocal, in this case across no less than three hundred thousand years. Mobile foragers are not 'equal' in any political or social sense that we would normally recognize, although one can identify things in which they would themselves recognize that they make no differences between people or groups. Stable farm-village life changes entirely what kind of 'equality' is even on the table. Market cities change it yet again. Nation-states change it again. The point is not that you can't identify ways in which one form has equality that you don't find in other forms; it's that you can do this for every form and all the kinds of equality are different. You have to have measurable wealth even to have a notion of relative equality in wealth; you have to have a society with a conception of juridical rights to have one in which everyone has equality in right before the law; equality and inequality in a feudal society simply do not mean the same thing as equality and inequality in a consumerist society. Equality and inequality are a matter of how people are related to each other; make a significant change in how people can be related to each other and you change what is relevant to discussion of equality and inequality. Sterelny is not describing changes in how egalitarian a society is; he's just describing changes in the form the society takes.

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The Slide Down

 One of the things my young self never really anticipated about getting older is just how much things really do get worse. Of course, this is partly counterbalanced, maybe even sometimes wholly counterbalanced, by the fact that some things definitely get better. But it's easier in youth to believe in indefinite progress because you haven't experienced the obvious deteriorations. I was thinking about this in the context of the internet. Pretty much all of the major Google features that I use occasionally -- search, Google Books, Blogger, are less usable than they were ten years ago. I started noticing a few years ago that often when when you'd search for a literary work that was definitely online, it wouldn't even show up on the first page. There's a lot of variation, of course, but there was a time when that almost never happened. I've never used the Stats function in Blogger all that much, but at some point they made a number of aesthetic changes whose primary contribution is to force me to do a lot more clicking to call up the stats that I once just had to glance at. Google Books was once clunky but serviceable for reading and searching; it's now less clunky and also somewhat less serviceable for reading and searching than it used to be, especially with older works. Blogger more sharply separated the HTML and Compose functions than they used to be; no doubt there was a reason, but the result was that where once I could do everything in either Compose or HTML mode without much difficulty at all, now I find, repeatedly, that I have to switch back and forth, back and forth, and of course it decides it has to mess with the HTML every time it switches from one to the other. To be sure, it hasn't all been deterioration; the Compose mode at one time was not very good at all, and it's much more useable today. But the problem is wider still. Online store websites haven't really improved in a while; indeed, they seem to be much clunkier to use than they were about ten years ago. Perhaps this is a matter of security, or (more probably) marketing, or (I often suspect) laziness, but the online stores with the websites that work best often seem to be those that found something that worked a long while back and have since then made only conservative changes.

One could perhaps explain this just by the crotchetiness of getting older (and it's true that I am much less patient with pretty much everything than I was in my spring lamb days), or by things becoming less familiar (and it's certainly true that I have more often the experience of 'I don't even see why anyone would have any interest in doing this, much less want to waste any time learning it'). But there are all sorts of advances that I can appreciate fully, regardless of how curmudgeonly or confused I grow in my ancient years. It's nonsense to say that nothing deteriorates in quality; you only have to look at flying to see that that's obviously false. And I think a lot of it is that we have a culture that puts pressure on everyone to 'do something', and while such a culture may be one in which bad things are more easily fixed, it's also one in which good things are easily ruined -- and I think in practice it's usually easier to ruin a good thing than to fix a bad one. Academic life is a lot like that -- administrators are always trying to prove that there's a reason for their salaries, and while they do sometimes fix things, most of the time they just make everything less effective. Student evaluations were useful when they were special-occasion things; then they became regular; then they became something that had to be done every term. The amount of evaluation of any sort I have to endure, for that matter, is far greater than anyone would actually need to figure out whether I'm competent to teach, and has steadily increased my entire career,  but is nonetheless not at all of a kind that would actually help either me or anyone else to do anything better; apparently there are things for which we 'have to show numbers' for some administrative purpose or other, never mind that there is no actual way to interpret most of them. More and more time and effort for things less and less useful: that is a slide down. 

And of course there are all sorts of ways I worry about the next generation: the increasing difficulty of getting jobs, the increasing difficulty of preparing for retirement, the increasing difficulty of home ownership, etc. These are all things that can be measured in various ways. Then there are more intangible things. Some of them I worry about quite a bit. In my Ethics courses, I have a few Discussion Board topics that I've been putting up for years. For grading purposes, the students just have to respond and it doesn't matter much what they say as long as it meets a few basic structural requirements. One of those longstanding topics is on Bentham's utilitarian view of infanticide (he thinks it should not be illegal, because it is often times the most merciful thing to do); and I have noticed across my teaching career that students have gone from almost uniformly shocked and horrified at this to an increasing number of students -- it has started tipping over into the majority in the past few years -- saying, in one form or other, "Well, he has a point." I have a sort of standing nightmare that I will have to spend the last decades of my life arguing that, as a matter of fact, it is indeed morally wrong to murder babies. I have been seeing things that could lead that direction for some time now, and they seem to be coming more often.

Of course, it's important to recognize that it's not all a slide down; the downslide can be and often is temporary; some things definitely improve. Downslide and upstep both are always part of the bargain. They've both been going on for much longer than I have been on this earth, and will both continue long after I have left it. And I have a Scandinavian streak in me that takes a sort of paradoxical cheer in the thought that things will get worse before they get better, and maybe will just get worse. If it's inevitable that the Wolf will devour the Allfather, it takes a bit of a burden off; if Ragnarok's guaranteed to come, well, then, you don't really have to worry about it much, do you? You can just focus on what you're doing now.