(Roughly) Daily

“The reason I talk to myself is because I’m the only one whose answers I accept”*…

 

Robinson-DemocracyTruth_img

One of the stranger rituals performed by the media in the Trump era has been to keep an obsessive count of the president’s lies since he took office. By September 2018, TheWashington Post reported, he had already passed the 5,000 mark, including a new one-day record of 125 on September 7. The Poynter Institute’s nonpartisan fact-checking project PolitiFact keeps a running list, and The New York Times did likewise throughout 2017.

There is a certain pointlessness to these exercises. Anyone who has paid even the slightest attention to Donald Trump should recognize that, since long before his presidential campaign, he lies as easily as he breathes. He says whatever he thinks will get him what he wants, and whatever he thinks he can get away with. But if there is nothing truly revelatory about the number of Trump’s lies, keeping track of them still serves a variety of symbolic purposes for the commentators who repeat the steadily mounting figures with gleeful outrage. One is simply to underline the extent to which this is not a normal presidency. Another, far more debatable, is to hold up Trump as a symptom and symbol of what is often called the “post-truth era.”…

Princeton historian David Bell, reviewing Penn historian Sophia Rosenfeld’s Democracy and History: a Short History

Not only does she make short work of the “postmodernism is to blame” argument; she provides the historical background necessary to understand our current truth crisis. That a crisis does indeed exist, Rosenfeld has no doubt. But it is not one that came upon the Western world from nowhere, like a meteor strike vaporizing a peaceful pastoral landscape. Instead, it broke along an epistemological fault line that has existed in modern democratic regimes since their founding: Who has the authority, in a democracy, to determine what counts as truth—an elite of the supposedly best, most intellectually capable citizens, or the people as a whole?…

Rosenfeld cannot resist mentioning the Trump lie count at the start of her book. But rather than treat it as a shocking sign of the new “post-truth era,” she uses it to note the obvious fact that truth and democratic politics have “never been on very good terms.” If we are now living in an age of unprecedented mendacity, what was the Nixon administration? For that matter, no less an American icon than George Washington complained, at the end of his presidency, of the “ignorance of facts” and “malicious falsehoods” with which hostile newspapers had tried to destroy his reputation.

Rosenfeld also insists (borrowing, yes, from Foucault) that different societies exist under different “regimes of truth.” Not all truths are self-evident, and not all facts are easily verifiable, so societies need particular evidentiary standards and forms of authority to determine where truth lies. These can change from place to place and from era to era; they are rarely (if ever) stable or uncontested, but continuities are still discernible.

Our own regime of truth dates back to the 18th century, when a host of Enlightenment thinkers challenged established churches and rulers. They insisted that no single individual or institution should “hold a monopoly…on determining what counts as truth in public life” and disputed the idea—long promoted by absolute monarchs—that good rulership involved keeping most information secret and lying when necessary to protect the state. They put a premium on the values of openness, transparency, sincerity, freedom of expression, and unfettered debate. In short, they created the “truth culture of the transatlantic Enlightenment.”…

How does truth fit into democracy?  Read in full at “An Equal Say.”

* George Carlin

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As we contemplate context, we might recall that it was on this date in 1825 that the U.S. House of Representatives elected John Quincy Adams to the Presidency.  The election of 1824 had been contested by four candidates from the Democratic-Republican Party: John Quincy Adams, Andrew jackson, William Crawford, and Henry Clay.  Jackson won a plurality of the popular vote, and a plurality– but not a majority– of the electoral college vote… so the race went to the House of Representatives.  Per the Twelfth Amendment, the House considered the top three vote-getters in the electoral college.  That eliminated Clay, who threw his support to Adams– who prevailed.

After the election (the first in which a president did not receive the most popular votes; so far the only race settled in the House), Adams named Clay to the coveted post of Secretary of State– deemed “the corrupt bargain” by Jackson, who went on to form (what evolved into) the Democratic Party.  The Democratic-Republicans became the National Republican Party (AKA, the Anti-Jackson Party), then the Whig Party.

lossy-page1-220px-JQA_Photo.tif source

 

 

Written by LW

February 9, 2019 at 1:01 am

“In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt”*…

 

russell

Bertrand Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture.

 

Dismayed at the Nazification of Germany, the philosopher [Bertrand Russell] wrote “The Triumph of Stupidity,” attributing the rise of Adolf Hitler to the organized fervor of stupid and brutal people—two qualities, he noted, that “usually go together.” He went on to make one of his most famous observations, that the “fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”

Russell’s quip prefigured the scientific discovery of a cognitive bias—the Dunning–Kruger effect—that has been so resonant that it has penetrated popular culture, inspiring, for example, an opera song (from Harvard’s annual Ig Nobel Award Ceremony): “Some people’s own incompetence somehow gives them a stupid sense that anything they do is first rate. They think it’s great.” No surprise, then, that psychologist Joyce Ehrlinger prefaced a 2008 paper she wrote with David Dunning and Justin Kruger, among others, with Russell’s comment—the one he later made in his 1951 book, New Hopes for a Changing World: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” “By now,” Ehrlinger noted in that paper, “this phenomenon has been demonstrated even for everyday tasks, about which individuals have likely received substantial feedback regarding their level of knowledge and skill.” Humans have shown a tendency, in other words, to be a bit thick about even the most mundane things, like how well they drive…

But what exactly is stupidity? David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, told interviewer Steve Paulson, for Nautilus, stupidity is not simply the opposite of intelligence. “Stupidity is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting [a problem] right,” Krakauer said. “In fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.” Intelligence, on the other hand, is using a rule that allows you to solve complex problems with simple, elegant solutions. “Stupidity is a very interesting class of phenomena in human history, and it has to do with rule systems that have made it harder for us to arrive at the truth,” he said. “It’s an interesting fact that, whilst there are numerous individuals who study intelligence—there are whole departments that are interested in it—if you were to ask yourself what’s the greatest problem facing the world today, I would say it would be stupidity. So we should have professors of stupidity—it would just be embarrassing to be called the stupid professor.”

Stupidity, and what to do about it: “The Case for Professors of Stupidity.”

* Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity” (1933)

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As we get smart, we might spare a thought for Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin; he died on this date in 1921.  A scientist and geographer, he combined biological and historical fact to arrive at his theory of Mutual Aid.  While an army officer in Siberia, he studied the native animals, made geographical surveys, and examined the effects of the Ice Age in Asia and Europe.  His investigation of the structural lines of mountain ranges revised the cartography of eastern Asia.

But Kropotkin is probably better remembered as a revolutionary.  He wrote a series of articles against social Darwinism and its tenet of the benefits of competition.  Kropotkin argued that sociability characterized animals; thus, he held, cooperation rather than struggle guided the evolution of man and human intelligence.  These beliefs led him to propose a decentralized, “communist” society– a form of anarcho-communism, his championing of which led to his 41 year exile from Russia.  He returned in 1917, but was disappointed in the Bolshevik form of state socialism (the centralization– and totalitarian quality– of which violently conflicted with his belief in decentralization, freedom, and voluntary cooperation).

220px-Peter_Kropotkin_circa_1900 source

 

“Not too big, not too small… just right”*…

 

dimensions

Dimensions.Guide is a comprehensive [and free]reference database of [thousands of] dimensioned drawings documenting the standard measurements and sizes of the everyday objects and spaces that make up our world. We offer our resources to professional designers, students, and the public alike as a way to enhance our global collective awareness of the parameters and dimensions of the things around us…

For example…

Screen Shot 2019-02-02 at 3.24.06 PM

Browse at Dimensions.Guide.

* The Goldilocks Principle

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As we size it up, we might recall that it was on this date in 1921 that Charlie Chaplin released the first feature-length film in which he both starred (as “The Tramp”) and directed, The Kid.  Chaplin also wrote and produced the film.

Widely considered one of the greatest films of the silent era, it was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

 

Written by LW

February 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The years teach much the days never know”*…

 

Hoover Dam

On the western flank of the Hoover Dam stands a little-understood monument, commissioned by the US Bureau of Reclamation when construction of the dam began in 01931. The most noticeable parts of this corner of the dam, now known as Monument Plaza, are the massive winged bronze sculptures and central flagpole which are often photographed by visitors. The most amazing feature of this plaza, however, is under their feet as they take those pictures.

The plaza’s terrazzo floor is actually a celestial map that marks the time of the dam’s creation based on the 25,772-year axial precession of the earth…

Hoover diagram

Alexander Rose, Executive director of The Long Now Foundation, on the star map of “Safety Island,” a Hoover Dam feature that has baffled visitors for decades: “The 26,000-Year Astronomical Monument Hidden in Plain Sight.”

See also “Coventry Doom,” the story of a 15th-century “doom mural” (depiction of the Last Judgement) that remained hidden in plain sight for centuries.

* Ralph Waldo Emerson

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As we watch our step, we might send unearthed birthday greetings to Mary Douglas Leakey; she was born on this date in 1913.  An archaeologist and  paleoanthropologist, she made several of the most important fossil finds subsequently interpreted and publicized by her husband, the noted anthropologist Louis Leakey. For every vivid claim made by Louis about the origins of man, the supporting evidence tended to come from Mary’s scrupulous scientific approach.

220px-Mary_Leakey source

 

Written by LW

February 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“A unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”*…

 

meme

Is there any way to intervene usefully or meaningfully in public debate, in what the extremely online Twitter users are with gleeful irony calling the “discourse” of the present moment?

It has come to seem to me recently that this present moment must be to language something like what the Industrial Revolution was to textiles. A writer who works on the old system of production can spend days crafting a sentence, putting what feels like a worthy idea into language, only to find, once finished, that the internet has already produced countless sentences that are more or less just like it, even if these lack the same artisanal origin story that we imagine gives writing its soul. There is, it seems to me, no more place for writers and thinkers in our future than, since the nineteenth century, there has been for weavers.

This predicament is not confined to politics, and in fact engulfs all domains of human social existence…

Justin E. H. Smith rages against the machine.  Come for the righteous indictment of algorithmic culture; stay for the oddly redeeming conclusion: “It’s All Over.” [TotH @vgr]

But we might recall that Socrates (as reported in Plato’s Phaedrus) railed against the new technology of his time– writing– and its corrosive effect on memory.  Several readers of Smith’s essay have suggested that it is similarly “conservative.”  Smith engages those criticism here.

Pair with “The Age of Post-Authenticity and the Ironic Truths of Meme Culture.”

[image above: source]

definition of a “meme” in Richard Dawkin’s The Selfish Gene (1976)

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As we muse on meaning, we might send epistolary birthday greetings to Marie de Rabutin-Chantal, marquise de Sévigné; she was born on this date in 1626.  A French aristocrat, she is the most celebrated letter writer in French literary history.  Those letters– over 1,100 survive– as celebrated for their vivid descriptiveness and their wit.  Mme de Sévigné’s letters play an important role in the novel In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust, where they figure as the favorite reading of the narrator’s grandmother, and, following her death, his mother.

Check them out at the Internet Archive.

200px-Marquise_de_Sévigné source

 

Written by LW

February 5, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Climate change isn’t an “issue” to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call.”*…

 

climatechange

“Whitening” the ocean (to reflect more solar radiation) by widely dispersing films, foams, floating chips, or other reflectors– or by towing icebergs from the Arctic down to lower latitudes, so the whiteness of the ice would reflect the sun.

 

The 1990s were a critical decade for action on climate change, as world governments prepared to finalize the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement by 37 countries to limit greenhouse-gas emissions. They were also a decade when oil companies poured millions of dollars into government lobbying and public relations, trying to persuade the world there was little to worry about. In 1997, with the Kyoto accord almost complete, Mobil, the major American oil company, published an advertisement in the New York Times and the Washington Post: “Let’s face it: The science of climate change is too uncertain to mandate a plan of action that could plunge economies into turmoil,” it said. “Scientists cannot predict with certainty if temperatures will increase, by how much and where changes will occur.” Around the same time, Exxon CEO Lee Raymond argued in a speech to the World Petroleum Congress that “the case for so-called global warming is far from airtight.” (In 1998, Exxon and Mobil would join in a $73.7 billion deal, the largest corporate merger in the world at the time.)

Recent reporting by the Los Angeles Times and others revealed, however, that Exxon’s rhetoric ran counter to its own internal conclusions about the risks of climate change, as the company reengineered oil platforms and pipelines to account for the rising sea levels that both top executives and the publicity department claimed didn’t exist. Today, even as Exxon endorses the scientific consensus on climate change, supports emissions limits, and even backs some form of carbon taxation, the company exudes a vague optimism, regarding the climate problem as something they can build their way out of…

Perhaps our best guess at the kind of solutions Exxon may have in mind can be found in an obscure 1997 study on the topic of geoengineering. During the peak of Exxon’s obfuscation, the company’s top climate scientists, Brian Flannery and Haroon Kheshgi, along with two other scientists who didn’t work for Exxon, coauthored a chapter in a book called Engineering Response to Global Climate Change. Using dense, technical language, they outlined more than a dozen planetary-scale fixes to global warming. Not every idea was their own—some were borrowed, at least partially, from prior scientific literature—and the scientists also cautioned that the proposed solutions were not necessarily ready to be implemented. “Geoengineering may well have unintended and unforeseen consequences,” they wrote.

Indeed, geoengineering was considered fringe science in the 1990s, not least because there was still widespread hope that carbon emissions could be reduced through global agreements like Kyoto. (President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the accord in 2001.) It would take a decade before Scientific American declared that climate intervention had “gained respectability,” and almost 15 years until the United Nations’ climate-research body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, would begin publishing assessments on geoengineering options. That’s because while some of the ideas featured in the Exxon study were straightforward (planting trees, for example), a lot of them were quite insane…

Destroying the earth to save it?  Review several of the oil giant’s visionary “solutions”: “Giant Mirrors. Ocean Whitening. Here’s How Exxon Wanted to Save the Planet.”

* Naomi Klein

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As we head for the hills, we might spare a thought for Robert McCorkle Netting; he died on this date in 1995.  A geographer and anthropologist, he pioneered the field of cultural ecology.  Among the many findings from his extensive field work, he argued that worldwide, small farms succeeded where large-scale agricultural enterprises tended to fail, the household being the most effective management unit.  His methodology has been widely adopted, and his textbook, Cultural Ecology, is widely used.

nettingrobertthm source

 

Written by LW

February 4, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I don’t like the ALPHAbet. I’m going to wait for the BETA version.”*…

 

alphabet zoomable version here

 

The chart shows how the letters used to write English (and many other languages) evolved from Proto-Sinaitic, through Phoenician, early Greek and early Latin, to their present forms. You can see how some letters were dropped and others ended up evolving into more than one letter…

From Matt Baker of UsefulCharts, this chart traces the evolution of our familiar alphabet from its Proto-Sinaitic roots circa 1850-1550 BC.  As Kottke observes, it’s tough to see how the pictographic forms of the original script evolved into our letters; aside from the T and maybe M & O, there’s little resemblance.  Helpfully, Baker also produced a video:

* Anthony T. Hincks

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As we follow the thread, we might spare a thought for John Butler Yeats; he died on this date in 1922.  An artist many of whose works are displayed in the National Gallery of Ireland, he was the father of poet William Butler Yeats (and his accomplished siblings Lily YeatsElizabeth Corbett “Lolly” Yeats and Jack B. Yeats).

202px-william_butler_yeats_by_john_butler_yeats_1900

W. B. Yeats, by his father J. B. Yeats [source]

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Self-portrait, J. B. Yeats [source]

 

Written by LW

February 3, 2019 at 1:01 am

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