Saturday, December 30, 2006

facing facts: defeat by a shit-ass country

I decided not to blog the following item when I read it this morning. But here it is, hours later, and the thing is still on my mind. So, for the possible cleansing it might bring me, here's what's nagging:
David Kaiser, writing in the blog History Unfolding, has a piece today called Truth Marches On, which is about how we come to know more and more about what actually happened in the past -- if the event was important and if new information can be had.

As Kaiser points out, these conditions are fulfilled with respect to the termination of the war in Vietnam. He says:
It has been my good fortune to have begun life in a family obsessed with news, and then to have become a professional historian. One wondered, in the 1960s and 1970s, what the real story was about Vietnam, Watergate, the Kennedy Assassination, the Nixon pardon, and much more, and now, little by little, we can find out. At the same time, one must face a somewhat painful paradox: by the time the truth comes out, few people care about it, and if the topic (such as Vietnam) still has political implications, it may easily be shouted down. Today's New York Times includes two revelations about matters I have wondered about for decades.
Well I also wondered what the real story was, and I agree with Kaiser that when we finally get the facts we want, there aren't too many people who care.

When I read the paragraph this morning, I got stuck at the phrase "the truth comes out" since truth -- at least truth in the usual sense -- very rarely does finally come out. There are always further facts to emerge, further ways of looking at them, further significances to point out, and further rationales for differences of interpretation. I see the painfully slow emergence of facts as analogous to the method of exhaustion which Archimedes used to measure the circumference of a circle.

But that's not what I want to write about now. Only that the truths that Kaiser points us to are profoundly disturbing. They show Nixon's eagerness to rain death down on South Asia, killing Asians and indirectly bringing about the deaths of many of the Americans who carried out his orders. This we knew, though lacked proof back then. What's newly disturbing to me is Kissinger's toadying to Nixon, bringing the war to an end -- a necessesary end -- through deceitful "handling" of his boss.

Read the post and see if you see my point.

Image source: Guam to Nam, Operation Arclight: South Vietnam, 18 June 1965, by: Don Poss

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

a frightening prosperity

Steven Pearlstein of the Washington Post, my favorite economic columnist, has a good piece tying together income inequality and the global economy. He says much the same as the IMF and our own Federal Reserve tell us, but in a helpful, big-picture way, and, he avoids drawing simplistic conclusions. Here's the link and some excerpts:
Of Public Debt and Private Wealth
By Steven Pearlstein
Wednesday, December 27, 2006; Page D01

With Democrats about to take charge on Capitol Hill, we're going to be hearing a lot about the widening income gap between rich and poor. ... As [this great national debate] plays out, it's important to remember that there isn't one correct analysis or any silver-bullet solution.

In that spirit, I'd like to toss out an idea borrowed from a reader in Canada with no particular training in economics but an intuitive sense about the connection between trade flows and income inequality. The idea goes something like this:

In terms of the global economy, the elephant in the room for much of the last 25 years has been the large and persistent U.S. current account deficit (loosely, the trade deficit), which this year is likely to exceed $800 billion. Roughly speaking, the richest country in the world spends 106 percent of its income.
Here, Pearlstein points out that China, other Asian countries, the oil-exporters, and countries from which we buy commodities all have accumulated lots of US dollars. They know they can't sell the dolllars (convert to local currency) without causing havoc with their own economies so they repatriate the dollars by investing them in US Teasuries, stocks, real estate, etc. -- a lot of the investment being made trough hedge funds and the like. He also points out that the US stock markets are at all-time highs largely because of this foreign investment.
So what does this have to do with income inequality? Quite a bit, actually.

We've known for a long time that increased trade with low-wage countries depresses wages of workers who produce goods and services now imported. A trade deficit equal to 7 percent of economic output obviously magnifies that effect.

But as the trade deficit is depressing wages at the bottom, it is now boosting incomes at the top by significantly inflating the value of stocks, bonds and real estate -- assets whose ownership is concentrated heavily in the hands of high-income people. By buying and selling these assets, and borrowing against them, these people have been transforming their paper wealth into spendable (and measurable) income at a record pace. ...

It would be an exaggeration, of course, to argue that our large and persistent trade deficit is the major factor in rising inequality. ... But in the coming debate, we need to remember that [wealthy Americans] are the lucky beneficiaries of a runaway trade deficit and the bubble-prone economy it has created.
The following chart from the Bureau of Economic Analysis shows foreign investments in the US and US investments abroad. About it, BEA says "Foreign-owned assets in the United States were $12,702.5 billion at yearend 2005, compared with $11,547.4 billion at yearend 2004. The -$333.0 billion change in the net investment position from yearend 2004 to yearend 2005 was largely due to record private net foreign purchases of U.S. securities, including U.S. Treasury securities, and to the depreciation of most major foreign currencies against the dollar, which lowered the dollar value of U.S.-owned assets abroad."
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Saturday, December 23, 2006

coins and monetary history

You can read in the news, how coins are now more expensive to produce than their face value. The penny costs about $0.023 to make and the nickel $0.0573. The cause is a rise in commodity prices for copper, zinc (both used to make coins) and other commodities. Interestingly, it means that people have a monetary incentive to melt coins -- their components are worth more than the face value. As a result, the U.S. Mint has passed some regulations making it illegal to melt coins.

The English government had to face the same problem in the late 17th-century. At that time, silver coins were in short supply and the method used to manufacture them (workers hammering them out one-by-one) made them easy to clip. Clipping involved trimming off edges, melting down, and, when you had a sizable lump, selling the silver. The hammered coins came from the mint so uneven that new coins and clipped ones looked much alike. Since the clipped coins were exchanged at face value, unclipped coins gradually came to have more than face value. Astute money handlers carefully weighed the coins they obtained, hoarded them, and, as with clippings, melted them to sell.

The government dealt harshly with the coins melters when it caught them, but caught few. It also mechanized the manufacturing process to help solve the problem, giving the new coins a milled edge to make clipping obvious, but made too few of the news coins to make much of a difference and found, anyway, that they disappeared from circulation as people hoarded them.

This monetary problem was made worse by government expenditures on war with France. As one sources on the topic says,
England suffered through a monetary crisis in the 1690s. Under an onslaught of clipping induced by the Nine Years' War with France (1689-97), the nation's hammered silver coin rapidly dwindled in size, by 1695 falling on average to about 50% of its normal weight (from about 89% in 1686). At some point during that year, the general public lost confidence in hammered silver money. One result was a sharp rise in the price of the gold guinea to 30s. This attracted large quantities of gold from the continent and made it very attractive to melt down any remaining full-weight silver coin and export it to Europe to buy more gold for import into England. Uncertainty about the future value of guineas and hammered silver coin almost paralyzed England's fiscal system, which until then had relied very heavily upon these two types of coin. After a long and very tortured public debate, it was finally decided in 1696 to melt down all the remaining hammered silver and recoin it into new, full-weight milled specie. Though many had pressed for the official value of silver coin simultaneously to be raised (perhaps to as much as 8s or 9s per ounce), the government of William III opted to retain the existing rate. The actual recoinage operation that commenced in May 1696 resulted in a severe shortage of monies of all kinds, touching off a financial crisis that played a major role in inducing England the next year to sue for peace with France. {source}

I thought about all this when I saw the news article about nickels and pennies because it brought to mind Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle novels, a favorite of mine. In these books, one of his main themes is the emergence during the 17th century of paper money and letters of credit to augment precious-metal coins. He ties this (1) to the alchemists quest to turn base metal to gold: the bankers actually achieving this by making paper as valuable as gold, (2) to the emergence of stock exchanges, as credit instruments came to be bought and sold at discount, and (3) the transition from the turmoil of the 17th- to the relative stability of the 18th-century. He explained some of this in an interview about the second book of the cycle: Confusion:
Stephenson: To fuse means to melt; "con-fuse" means a melting together. When you say "I'm all mixed up" you're saying the same thing in simpler words. At least as far back as Chaucer, "confused" was being used in its current sense of being muddle-headed. The older, technical meaning of melting things together has become obsolete, but alchemists of the 17th century would have been comfortable with it.

Confusion de Confusiones is the title of a book written in 1688 by Joseph de la Vega about the Amsterdam stock market. It takes the form of a very long letter written by a Spanish Jew living in Amsterdam to his country cousins who are thinking about moving to the city. He describes the amazingly diverse tactics and schemes used by investors playing the market there. Even though there was only one stock being traded -- the Dutch East India Company -- they had bulls, bears, panics, bubbles and most of the other features of modern bourses. (There is a de la Vega family in The Baroque Cycle, but they are not meant as historical depictions of Joseph and his cousins. I just used the family name as a way of paying homage to this author.)

In The Baroque Cycle we have got confusion of a few different sorts: Not only alchemists melting things together, but also pandemonium in the markets, a re-coinage in England (which means gathering together and melting all the old coins) and the confusion of a war between France and her enemies.

Prior to the time I'm writing about -- let's say, 1618 to 1650 -- England and the Continent were in a Hobbesian state of war, chaotic and frozen at the same time. Starting around the mid-1650s, things settled down and there was a time of astonishing creativity and flux, which I attempted to capture in the first volume of this series, Quicksilver. What I'm trying to depict in The Confusion is its aftermath: a time when so much has changed, so fast, that things are all unsettled and out of whack, and settling, in a chaotic way, toward a new equilibrium.

Addendum: Reading the Baroque Cycle led indirectly to the research I'm now doing on John Collins, 17-century mathematician. Collins died in 1783 and therefore wasn't involved in the monetary crisis at century's end. But he held a number of government posts, one of them in the Farthing Office. While he was there, the government introduced a new version of this coin (worth a quarter of a penny -- farthing means fourth). There's a Wikipedia article on the farthing which explains.
copper farthing, 1674

Another addendum:

Another major theme of the Baroque Cycle is credit, not just credit in the sense conveyed by promisory notes, debtors and creditors, and the true value of coinage, but also credit in the sense of trust, confidence that promises made will be kept, honesty and fair dealing among individuals, institutions, and governments. Here is a prominent 19th-century British intellectual on the evils resulting when credit is undermined in this broad sense, when people lose this faith in the medium of exchange used for commercial transactions.

Thomas Babington Macaulay was a British reformer, politician, author, and all-round intellectual of the 19th-century. He wrote an extremely popular History of England in which he made little effort at scholarly detachment. In fact, he glories in celebrating favorites and in denigrating those he saw as selfish, illiberal, and opposed to progress. His prose is energetic and compelling. Here are a couple of paragraphs on the monetary crisis of 1695. Macaulay has described the practice of clipping and has given reasons why the government could not prevent it. Note the vigorous rhetoric: "But when the great instrument of exchange became thoroughly deranged, all trade, all industry, were smitten as with a palsy. The evil was felt daily and hourly in almost every place and by almost every class, in the dairy and on the threshing floor, by the anvil and by the loom, on the billows of the ocean and in the depths of the mine."
Great masses were melted down; great masses exported; great masses hoarded; but scarcely one new piece was to be found in the till of a shop, or in the leathern bag which the farmer carried home from the cattle fair. ... The evil proceeded with constantly accelerating velocity. At length in the autumn of 1695 it could hardly be said that the country possessed, for practical purposes, any measure of the value of commodities. It was a mere chance whether what was called a shilling was really tenpence, sixpence or a groat. ... There were, indeed, some northern districts into which the clipped money had only begun to find its way. An honest Quaker, who lived in one of these districts, recorded, in some notes which are still extant, the amazement with which, when he travelled southward, shopkeepers and innkeepers stared at the broad and heavy halfcrowns with which he paid his way. They asked whence he came, and where such money was to be found. The guinea which he purchased for twenty-two shillings at Lancaster bore a different value at every stage of his journey. When he reached London it was worth thirty shillings, and would indeed have been worth more had not the government fixed that rate as the highest at which gold should be received in the payment of taxes.

The evils produced by this state of the currency were not such as have generally been thought worthy to occupy a prominent place in history. Yet it may well be doubted whether all the misery which had been inflicted on the English nation in a quarter of a century by bad Kings, bad Ministers, bad Parliaments and bad judges, was equal to the misery caused in a single year by bad crowns and bad shillings. Those events which furnish the best themes for pathetic or indignant eloquence are not always those which most affect the happiness of the great body of the people. The misgovernment of Charles and James, gross as it had been, had not prevented the common business of life from going steadily and prosperously on. While the honour and independence of the State were sold to a foreign power, while chartered rights were invaded, while fundamental laws were violated, hundreds of thousands of quiet, honest and industrious families laboured and traded, ate their meals and lay down to rest, in comfort and security. Whether Whigs or Tories, Protestants or Jesuits were uppermost, the grazier drove his beasts to market; the grocer weighed out his currants; the draper measured out his broadcloth; the hum of buyers and sellers was as loud as ever in the towns; the harvest home was celebrated as joyously as ever in the hamlets; the cream overflowed the pails of Cheshire; the apple juice foamed in the presses of Herefordshire; the piles of crockery glowed in the furnaces of the Trent; and the barrows of coal rolled fast along the timber railways of the Tyne. But when the great instrument of exchange became thoroughly deranged, all trade, all industry, were smitten as with a palsy. The evil was felt daily and hourly in almost every place and by almost every class, in the dairy and on the threshing floor, by the anvil and by the loom, on the billows of the ocean and in the depths of the mine. Nothing could be purchased without a dispute. Over every counter there was wrangling from morning to night. The workman and his employer had a quarrel as regularly as the Saturday came round. On a fair day or a market day the clamours, the reproaches, the taunts, the curses, were incessant; and it was well if no booth was overturned and no head broken. No merchant would contract to deliver goods without making some stipulation about the quality of the coin in which he was to be paid. Even men of business were often bewildered by the confusion into which all pecuniary transactions were thrown. The simple and the careless were pillaged without mercy by extortioners whose demands grew even more rapidly than the money shrank. The price of the necessaries of life, of shoes, of ale, of oatmeal, rose fast. The labourer found that the bit of metal which when he received it was called a shilling would hardly, when he wanted to purchase a pot of beer or a loaf of rye bread, go as far as sixpence. Where artisans of more than usual intelligence were collected together in great numbers, as in the dockyard at Chatham, they were able to make their complaints heard and to obtain some redress. But the ignorant and helpless peasant was cruelly ground between one class which would give money only by tale and another which would take it only by weight. Yet his sufferings hardly exceeded those of the unfortunate race of authors. Of the way in which obscure writers were treated we may easily form a judgment from the letters, still extant, of Dryden to his bookseller Tonson. One day Tonson sends forty brass shillings, to say nothing of clipped money. Another day he pays a debt with pieces so bad that none of them will go. The great poet sends them all back, and demands in their place guineas at twenty-nine shillings each. "I expect," he says in one letter, "good silver, not such as I have had formerly." "If you have any silver that will go," he says in another letter, "my wife will be glad of it. I lost thirty shillings or more by the last payment of fifty pounds." These complaints and demands, which have been preserved from destruction only by the eminence of the writer, are doubtless merely a fair sample of the correspondence which filled all the mail bags of England during several months.
source: The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, Volume IV, by Thomas Babington Macaulay, CHAPTER XVII.

1948 farthing

British Isles in 1686

Sunday, December 17, 2006

be still and God may dance for you

At church this morning the priest urged us to be rather than do, meaning to be meditatively quiet -- present, attentive, open, and vulnerable -- rather than active, planning and accomplishing, making things happen. He said if we contemplate, God will dance before us. Nice image. It ties to the first reading in which the prophet Zephaniah tells the people of Israel that God "will rejoice over you with happy song, he will renew you by his love, he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival."

This translation of the Hebrew comes from the Jerusalem Bible. A more usual translation gives "rejoice over you with singing" instead of "dance with shouts of joy for you" but apparently the Hebrew word that translates into "rejoice" is "Yagil" which literally means "spin round in joy" and thus "dance joyfully."

As is often the case, the King James version sounds stately and poetic: "The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; ... he will joy over thee with singing." But it's not exotic since in the time of James I, "joy" could be used as a synonym for "rejoice."

The Online Parallel Bible has the verse in many versions, including 'celebrates over you,' 'make a song of joy over you,' and 'exult over thee with singing.'

I like the dancing image best, reminiscent, as it is, of the dancing god Shiva of India, the dancing Sufi dervishes of Islam, and the Christian Shakers.

Here's a modern version of the whole verse.
Zephaniah 3.14-20

Sing, O Daughter of Zion;
shout aloud, O Israel!
Be glad and rejoice with all your heart,
O Daughter of Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away your punishment,
he has turned back your enemy.
The LORD, the King of Israel, is with you;
never again will you fear any harm.
On that day they will say to Jerusalem,
“Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands hang limp.
The LORD your God is with you,
he is mighty to save.
He will take great delight in you,
he will quiet you with his love,
he will rejoice over you with singing.
In the passage, the prophet is speaking to the exiles in Babylon about their eventual return to Jerusalem.

Nbr />{click to view full size}
This plant is called the "Be Still" tree.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

daffodils at the end of autumn

We saw Mrs. Palfrey at The Claremont on dvd last night. Excellent movie. It deserves the praise it's been given. Sure it's sentimental and predictible; none the worse for that. Joan Plowright and supporting cast are marvelous.

But that's not my topic. At an affecting moment toward the end of the film the two principals -- Mrs. Palfrey and her young friend Ludovic Meyer -- help each other remember Wordsworth's poem Daffodils. It's a dramatic moment. She loves Mr. W. He's most fond of W. Blake. Both oh so Romantic. Here's the poem:
"Daffodils" (1804)

I WANDER'D lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milky Way,
They stretch'd in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed -- and gazed -- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

By William Wordsworth (1770-1850).

Watercolor of daffodils at Gowbarrow, Ullswater, in Wordsworth's Lake District of England. The artist, Susan Cooper, says: "The view inspired William Wordsworth to write his poem "daffodils" 200 years ago. I was in Grasmere for the day today (a day in April) and the Daffodils were out in profusion."

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some numbers

Descension and ascension

My bike commute is more down than up in the morning; the reverse in the afternoon when I come home again. Specifically, the USGS topographic maps for the area show elevation of 350 feet at my starting point and 90 feet at my destination, which I calculate to be an overall drop of 260 feet. Of course it's not as simple as that. I descend from 350 to 60, ascend to 200, descend to 80, ascend to 90, descend to 20, and finally ascend to 90. The ride home is more dramatic since I take a hilly route through the park: 90 down to 20, up to 85, down to 80, up to 200, down to 60, up to 340, down to 323, up to 380, and finally down to 340. Here it is in diagramatic form. The scale on the left is feet above sea level and the boxes are elevation points -- the ascents and descents of this journey of my working days. (I've left out the 27.5 ft. descent/ascent between street and garage where I park the bike.)
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I park the bike in the garage of the building where I work. The garage is in the lowest level of the building. I work seven stories up, on the floor that's next to the top one. Ignoring the elevators, I climb the stairs from sub-basement to fifth floor each workday morning. Mid-day, I almost always go down to the ground floor to pick up books from the Loan Division and then up to the sixth floor cafeteria and back to my office for lunch. Most days I go up and down a few floors to meetings. At day's end, I descend to the sub-basement again to claim the bike. Floors are 14 ft. apart (except from first to second, which is about 2 ft. more), and the total distance from bottom to top is 112 ft. This diagram shows the ups and downs of my stair-climbing day, leaving out the unpredictable one-floor-down, one-floor-up activity.

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

blog traffic

This blog was visited 56 times last Wednesday. I had 190 unique visitors for the week and pretty close to 1,200 over all of last month. I know this because I use a tracker to compile data from access logs. Just by numbers, you'd think I have something going here, a bit of actual popularity. Not really so. Very few of you just check in to see what I have so say. Most of you get deposited on the blog by Google searches, which lead you to specific posts. In a typical month between 40% and 50% of visits come from Google web searches and about 25% to 30% from Google image searches. Not too many of you return to read other entries since the log data show that typically only about 10% of the blog's visitors show up more than once in a given month.

The tracker shows me what people are after. Image searches for backhoes are very popular. So are ones for Picasso blue-period paintings and specifically the man with guitar. Google web searches (other than images) are frequently for aristocrats, celebrities, popular music, and seasonal topics. And many of you are looking for photos of Frisian horses. In the past week people arrived at the blog by searching these plus "boxing day," "brambles ." FREE LOAD CHELSOM LIGHTING CATALOGUE," "st. nicholas day," "The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism," "cat RESCUE mickey mousers," "ball joint," "lady warwick," "ASIA BOLTON 2006," "kopite definition," and "crows."

It interests me that about 20% of my recent visits have not come from searches but rather from a link given in a Dutch website where horses are discussed: I did a blog post about Guns, Germs, Steel, and ..... Friesians back in August 2005 and included an image of a white Frisian horse (the breed is mostly all black). The Dutch discussion list has had a really lengthy discussion on white Frisians, going back a year or so and still continuing. One person cited the photo in my blog post and many others, seeing the link, have clicked to see the photo and then give their two cents as to whether it's a genuine Frisian. Here's the photo itself:

I got it from a site, that doesn't give any information about the horse so I can't contribute to the discussion on the Dutch site (and anyway they write in Dutch, not English).


Addendum: I did some more checking, this time in Google Analytics and found a stat on "bounce rate." The data show that between 80% and 90% of visitors to the blog view the one page they seek and move on to another web page. They don't stay to read more of the blog. This is, of course, what you'd expect for folks looking for images of backhoes and Friesians. They also show that people who arrive at the blog spend an average of two and a half minutes looking at it before they move on. Again, not surprising.

One final stat: In October, high point of the wave of Friesian seekers, people seeking one single photo of a white horse accounted for a quarter of traffic on the blog, and, as I said, the photo was not even one of mine, but one I'd found via my own search in Google.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

a library director struggles with death and destruction

I'm crossposting this from my blog at work:

Anne Van Camp has a sobering post on RLG's HangingTogether blog. (Although RLG has merged with OCLC, RLG staff members, as OCLC employees, still run this blog.) If you follow the links she gives, you'll find a brief diary of recent horrific events written by Saad Eskander, Director of the National Archives and Library of Iraq. One brief excerpt from November 13th: "I spent the rest of the week trying to advise a number of my employees what to do, as they got death threats. The Sunnis, who lived in Shi'i dominated district were given an ultimatum to abandon their homes and the Shi'is, who lived in a Sunni dominated district, had to leave their homes. So far, two of my employees were murdered, the first worked in the Computer Department, and the second was a guard. Three of our drivers, who worked with us by contract, were murdered and three others were injured."

Here's the blog post:
Bad News from Baghdad
December 5th, 2006 by Anne

Yesterday I learned of the news from Saad Eskander, Director of the National Archives and Library of Iraq, as reported by Patricia Sleeman on the Archivists discussion list in the UK:


For security, I have closed the National Library & Archive since 22 Nov.
I will not reopen our institution until the security situation improves.
I am truly concerned aboput the safefty of my staff.

Best Regards


To read his fuller account of the events and disaster that caused this decision, you can read his recent diary posts on the Society of Archivists website under the “take a look” section. I first learned about this account from the Archives list and then saw that Amanda Hill at the Archives Hub blog picked this up as well in her recent post called Death Again.

These first hand accounts bring home the personal dimension and significance of the death and destruction that threaten both people and their cultural patrimony in this terrible time of war. The whole genre of eyewitness accounts of war and conflict is some of the most compelling archival evidence we preserve and continues to be an important subject for research. Last week, Richard Cox put an interesting post on his blog on a book Robert E. Bonner’s The Soldier’s Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the Civil War (New York: Hill and Wang, 2006), ISBN-13:978-0-8090-8744-0 And he asks the questions about why were these witnesses so compelled to write about their experiences? And while we have saved so much of this type of correspondence from the past, how well we are doing with today’s e-mail and blogs from our contemporary soldiers?

This photo of the National Library and Archives, Baghdad, was taken in June 2003.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Spinoza's opinion concerning God

I'm starting this now, hoping to finish it later. I know I can save as draft, but I'm not good at taking up and finishing off drafts.

I'm fascinated with Benedict de Spinoza. As aleady mentioned, I've been reading his letters, concentrating mostly on those with Henry Oldenburg. Oldenburg was secretary to the Royal Society. He conducted a vast correspondence, on his own behalf and on behalf of the RS. Much of it was with natural philosophers, mathematicians, and metaphysicians (all one group actually) on the Continent.

In writing to Spinoza, Oldenburg repeatedly asks for clarification of philosophy regarding religion. Spinoza had published one book on the subject and promised more. Because of opposition he was not able to publish further in his short lifetime. When he lived, governments and state churches had joint responsibility for controlling religious observance and belief and his arguments were seen as subversive to the state as well as to moroality and religion.

Oldenburg acknoledges that Spinoza's writings could be taken as subversive and he, Oldenburg, says he will keep secret anything that Spinoza wishes. However, Oldenburg must have known he could not keep this promise. Both men used personal couriers to convey letters when they could, but both must have known that spy networks made it pretty unlikely that their letters were secure. In addition, Oldenburg was official representative of an official body: the RS was chartered by King Charles II and had members of the King's court among its members. Holland, where Spinoza resided, and Oldenburg's England were both relatively free of religious persecution, but also relatively far from the toleration that would come in later centuries.

Like many in his time, Spinoza attempted to reconcile faith and reason. Unlike most others, he in effect discarded religion; kept God. He defended himself against impiety, immorality, and atheism, but also sought a way of life that was moral but without religious strictures. I think he was personally offended by unreason, credulity, and justification of faith via wonder, the miraculous, and awe.

Here is one letter he wrote Oldenburg out of many. I read it this morning over breakfast and decided it was worth blogging since it summarizes one main aspect Spinoza's thought and is unusually concise and clear in presentation. I've linked to my source. Also see this annotated version. both are translations from Spinoza's Latin.
Spinoza to Oldenburg. Nov. or Dec.,1675

Distinguished Sir, -I received on Saturday last your very short letter dated 15th Nov. In it you merely indicate the points in the theological treatise, which have given pain to readers, whereas I had hoped to learn from it, what were the opinions which militated against the practice of religious virtue, and which you formerly mentioned. However, I will speak on the three subjects on which you desire me to disclose my sentiments, and tell you, first, that my opinion concerning God differs widely from that which is ordinarily defended by modern Christians. For I hold that God is of all things the cause immanent, as the phrase is, not transient. I say that all things are in God and move in God, thus agreeing with Paul, [N1] and, perhaps, with all the ancient philosophers, though the phraseology may be different; I will even venture to affirm that I agree with all the ancient Hebrews, in so far as one may judge from their traditions, though these are in many ways corrupted. The supposition of some, that I endeavour to prove in the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus the unity of God and Nature (meaning by the latter a certain mass or corporeal matter), is wholly erroneous.

As regards miracles, I am of opinion that the revelation of God can only be established by the wisdom of the doctrine, not by miracles, or in other words by ignorance. This I have shown at sufficient length in Chapter VI [TPT06]. concerning miracles. I will here only add, that I make this chief distinction between religion and superstition, that the latter is founded on ignorance, the former on knowledge; this, I take it, is the reason why Christians are distinguished from the rest of the world, not by faith, nor by charity, nor by the other fruits of the Holy Spirit, but solely by their opinions, inasmuch as they defend their cause, like everyone else, by miracles, that is by ignorance, which is the source of all malice; thus they turn a faith, which may be true, into superstition. Lastly, in order to disclose my opinions on the third point, I will tell you that I do not think it necessary for salvation to know Christ according to the flesh: but with regard to the Eternal Son of God, that is the Eternal Wisdom of God, which has manifested itself in all things and especially in the human mind, and above all in Christ Jesus, the case is far otherwise. For without this no one can come to a state of blessedness, inasmuch as it alone teaches, what is true or false, good or evil. And, inasmuch as this wisdom was made especially manifest through Christ Jesus, as I have said, His disciples preached it, in so far as it was revealed to them through Him, and thus showed that they could rejoice in that spirit of Christ more than the rest of mankind. The doctrines added by certain churches, such as that God took upon Himself human nature, I have expressly said that I do not understand; in fact, to speak the truth, they seem to me no less absurd than would a statement, that a circle had taken upon itself the nature of a square. This I think will be sufficient explanation of my opinions concerning the three points mentioned. Whether it will be satisfactory to Christians you will know better than I. Farewell.

[Note N1]: See Acts 17:28. Cf. 1 Cor. 3:16, 12:6; Eph. 1:23.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

life is good (Saturday morning edition)

I'm fond of Saturday mornings. I rise a half hour or so later than usual. I make strong tea which I take sweetened with rich (soy) milk and toast which I drizzle with olive oil. I open Firefox and see what the week has brought in my two favorite cultural aggregators: Arts and Letters Daily and Arts Journal Daily. I like what I find.

This day for example ALD points me to articles on (a) the difference in average IQ scores of African-Americans and non-African-Americans, (b) how "macro" economics works (or doesn't), (c) what is it with Chinese culture and politics?, (d) the supposed fall of American conservatism, and (e) the question, "Why is the Universe Just Right for Life?" And AJ cites articles and reviews of Tom Stoppard's new play, Voyage, first in the “The Coast of Utopia,” trilogy, a massive undertaking.

All are interesting, generally witty, give information that's new to me, and stimulate thoughts -- I like thoughts to be stimulated.

First, from Reason Magazine, which I think is a bastion of libertarianism - a review article by Ronald Bailey on Closing the Black/White IQ Gap which outlines the work of two men: James Flynn and Charles Murray, arguing about whether Black/White differences result from nurture or nature and whether they (the differences) are declining. He concludes that neither man makes a persuasive case and gives his own opinion (libertarian I suppose) that "no matter who turns out to be right in the nature versus nature debate over why there is a gap in black/white IQ scores, the idea that we must strive to treat every person as an individual, not as a representative of some group or other, seems right to me." The piece reminds me of my experience in the 1970s "war on poverty" where it was my personal experience that main beneficiaries of this government program were middle-class members of minority groups. The poor benefitted to the extent these middle-class folk permitted -- some a great deal where they were altruistic, others not at all where they were exploitive. Some extracts:
What are the public policy implications of the black/white IQ test score gap? As a self-avowed socialist, Flynn is in favor of dramatically expanding all sorts of color-blind state interventions. For example, he wants government drop-in centers where parents of every race and class could bring their children for educational enrichment. He also said that he wanted to see more book clubs in the black community. Murray, on the other hand, does not believe that there is much evidence that government educational interventions beyond some reasonably adequate level can permanently boost IQ test scores. Murray’s preferred policy is to forget group averages and encourage private and public institutions to treat people as individuals.
Next, from InTheseTimes, an article on What We Learn When We Learn Economics, subtitled "Is a little economics a dangerous thing?" by Christopher Hayes, who makes things very simple: The objective is prosperity. Governments want it as much as individuals do. What can governments do to achieve it? The question has been kicked around for centuries. I like to think about its origins in the seventeenth century and its superbe treatment by Adam Smith in the next one, but Hayes focuses on the modern opposition of Keynseians and Chicagoists. He begins:
There’s a case to be made that the single most intellectually and politically influential neighborhood in the United States is Chicago’s Hyde Park. Integrated, affluent and quiet, the 1.6 square-mile enclave on the city’s south side is like a tiny company town, where the company happens to be the august, gothic, eminently serious University of Chicago. Students at the U. of C. sell T-shirts that read “Where Fun Goes To Die,” and the same could be said of the neighborhood, which until very recently had a bookstore-to-bar ratio of 5:2.
This doesn't have anything to do with the article, but it's a nice quote. The core of what he says:
Among elites in economics and politics the consensus was, as John Maynard Keynes had argued, that capitalism could only function with regular and robust government management. Indeed, so total was this consensus that in 1971 Richard Nixon announced a plan to impose wage and price caps in order to curb inflation, declaring, “We are all Keynesians now.” Just 25 years later, however, Bill Clinton, the first Democratic president to be re-elected since FDR, announced that the “era of big government is over.” He might as well have said, “We are all Chicagoans now.” [These Chicagoans told of] the inefficiencies associated with non-free-market solutions and the perverse incentives that made any social programs destined to fail. [And, through their agency,] arguments about the way the world should be were converted into assertions about how the world actually was. Or, to put in terms that economists favor, normative arguments became positive ones. [In sum:] a David Barry quote: “Democrats seem to be basically nicer people, but they have demonstrated the management skills of celery. Republicans would know how to fix your tire, but they wouldn’t stop.”
Third, from the New Republic, a review by Andrew J. Nathan of the book, Mao's Last Revolution, by Roderick Macfarquhar, which is about the difficulty, maybe impossiblity of understanding the Cultural Revolution which Mao inflicted on his countrymen. Best quote from this piece: "As soon as Mao was gone, his project was abandoned. China set course toward wherever one thinks it is heading: capitalism, market socialism, export-led mercantilism -- certainly toward a society obsessed with selfish wealth." With my bias toward seventeenth-century political economy, I'm interested in the idea that the current Chinese revolution is a type of export-led mercantilism. But Nathan's main point is that China can't be assumed to be Westernizing (in the Japanese or any other manner). He says: 'Hard as it is to believe after reading this masterful and sickening book, large parts of Mao's vision still live. The dominant voices among independent intellectuals in China today belong not to liberal democrats and human rights activists, but to so-called neo-conservatives and neo-leftists who believe that even though Mao's revolution failed (through a combination of his mistakes and Western cultural and economic subversion), the search for a distinctive Chinese model should continue. Some of these ideas even animate the current leadership's push for a so-called "harmonious society," which aims to use state control to repress social conflict and ease inequality. The Cultural Revolution was Mao's last revolution, but it may not have been China's.'

Fourth, from PhysicsWeb, another book review, Seeking anthropic answers by Andrew Jaffe. The book: The Goldilocks Enigma: Why is the Universe Just Right for Life? by Paul Davies. The aspect that caught my attention relates to evidence. There isn't enough of it, making discussion of this topic highly speculative. It reminds me again of the seventeenth century when men began to question premises on which were based the huge superstructure of abstruse thought that had been accumulating since (at least) the time of Aristotle.

An aside: One of my current reads is The correspondence of Spinoza by Abraham Wolf. Henry Oldenburg, secretary of the Royal Society, correspondended extensively with Spinoza. There's much of great interest, at least to me, in their exchanges, but, relevant here, Oldenburg takes Spinoza to task for his attempt, using algebra, to build a universal ethics -- one based on what Spinoza believed to be unshakeable, 100% self-evident propositions (or, as Spinoza had it, impregnable definitions). Oldenburg, with flowery politesse and infinite tact, says hooey. This and other aspects of the exchange show the difficulty that the new mathematicians and natural philosophers faced in attempting to introduce new patterns of thought, new procedures for testing truth, and new ways of communicating with each other (moving away from the ancient pattern of bi-polar debate -- as between lawyers in a court proceeding, which could be entertaining -- and that was often the point, but which was less likely to advance knowledge than the more collaborative model that was emerging to replace it).

So, reviewer Jaffe points out that physics hasn't provided data sufficient for answering the question that's the book's title -- or even deciding whether the question frames the subject in a way that permits answer. Jaffe concludes using an argument that I've treasured ever since I first learned of its expression by The Buddha. He, Jaffe, says: "We have circled round to something philosophers have been worrying about for longer than physicists: how can I be sure I am not just a "brain in a vat"? This strain of scepticism started with Descartes and was only quashed by Ludwig Wittgenstein and his followers in the last century. Wittgenstein famously said, "Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent", and perhaps, in the absence of better theories and data to support them, that is how physicists should treat anthropic questions." For a concise description of The Buddha's teaching on this see here.

The last of the ALD items that I investigated is The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism, an essay by C. Bradley Thompson. It's a polemic, opinionated and short on evidence, mostly in defense of Capitalism, with a capital C. (Thompson is the Executive Director of the Clemson Institute for the Study of Capitalism.) He says the conservatives' failure is that they no longer defend capitalism as a principle. This moral argument, he says, "is now considered by conservatives to be impractical and imprudent." Along the way, he gives this individualist credo: "Americans must remember what conservatives have forgotten (or never fully understood): that the United States was founded on the idea that individuals have unalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are valid only if individuals morally own themselves and are the proper beneficiaries of their own efforts. Each man is a morally sovereign entity. This is why no person is legitimately the master or the slave of another. But this principle, the principle of man’s rights, is the morality of egoism applied to a social-political context. Those who refuse to recognize and embrace egoism refuse to recognize and embrace man’s rights." What a leap from the first two assertions to the last two! The thought-connection I make is back to a theme that's occupied me since I immersed myself in Durkheim's writings a while back: civilization, civil society, social mores, collective ethics... all are no less significant than their individual, personal, egotistic counterparts, and probably older and thus more "fundamental" in evolutionary terms and thus significance to humankind.

Finally, the items from AJ on Tom Stoppard gave me hope. To my way of thinking, Broadway -- the New York Theater -- has been dominated by entertainment vehicles for some time, a kind of Disneyfication: form over content, extravaganza over thought-provoking dialogue. And here comes a new Stoppard to (maybe) turn things around.

In TT: Broadway's big week, Terry Teachout extracts from a WSJ review:
Tom Stoppard might just be a great playwright, and “The Coast of Utopia,” the trilogy of which “Voyage” is the first installment, may well prove to be a great work of art. That remains to be seen, at least by me, for I haven’t yet been to “Shipwreck” and “Salvage,” the second and third parts of “The Coast of Utopia” (they open on Dec. 21 and Feb. 15). I can already tell you, though, that “Voyage” is that rarest of theatrical experiences, a thrilling play that makes you think—hard.

What I like isn't just the "think-hard" attribute, but knowing that one of Stoppard's principal sources is a favorite author, Isaiah Berlin. Here's an except from a NYT with Stoppard (Playing With Ideas, by Daphne Merkin):
As has been the case with many of his other plays, “The Coast of Utopia” was inspired by Stoppard’s avid reading in a field that intrigued him. His interest can be sparked by an overheard remark, a newspaper article or a biography he’s read of Byron. “My life,” he once remarked, “is sectioned off into hot flushes, pursuits of this or that.” In his acknowledgment to the texts of “Utopia,” Stoppard cites Isaiah Berlin’s “Russian Thinkers” as well as E. H. Carr’s “Romantic Exiles” as his primary influences. (“Travesties” drew on Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, “Hapgood” on Richard Feynman’s writing on quantum physics and “Arcadia” on James Gleick’s book about chaos theory.) Stoppard — whose concerns resemble those of an Oxbridge don more than those of someone who chose not to attend university in order to pursue journalism — has always approached the intellectual backdrop of his plays with the zeal of an autodidact, sedulously researching historical facts and biographical accounts.

See also the review in New York Observer: Stoppard’s History Lesson: Russian Revolutionaries 101 and the NYT weekly mag review: Young, Restless and Russian, Devouring Big Ideas.

This photo comes from a NY Mag article called ‘The Coast of Utopia’ by the Numbers

This one comes from USA Today:

And from the NY Observer: