Archive for October, 2016

Time travel

October 31, 2016

Books, says James Gleick in Time Travel: A History, are time machines. They transport us, carry us across the cosmos, bring long-gone authors and their thoughts to us, enable conversation across the aeons.

That’s how we want to think about Rebecca Goldstein’s Plato at the Googleplex, which we took out for a test drive back in August. We’ll fire it up again this week, reanimating and reimagining the old Greek as a time traveler. Goldstein might just as easily have written us back into his day, but this way we get the benefit of an imaginative critique of our time, our zeitgeist, from his perspective. In either direction, the trip is powered by imagination and “one preposterous premise.”

So here he is at Google headquarters in Mountain View, California… on a panel of child-rearing experts in Manhattan… revealing the shallowness of our notion of ‘Platonic love’… on cable news… in a cognitive neuroscience laboratory…

It’s really a terrific premise, and possibly the best imaginable approach to the pan-temporal conversation of humankind that is philosophy at its best. It’s a thought experiment to rival Plato’s cave, a glimpse of the intellectual forest that’s grown up from seeds planted two millennia ago in Greece. Wouldn’t it be fun to bring all the old philosophers to Mountain View? But of course that’s just what we do, when we open their books while we’re still writing ours.

Rebecca Goldstein at the GoogleplexHappy Halloween

6 am/7:11, 62/85/60, 5:50

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Power switch

October 27, 2016

Ronald Reagan once said “all the waste in a year from a nuclear power plant can be stored under a desk.” Tim Flannery points out that the waste from an average nuclear plant will fill a pool, in sixty years. Neither of these odd images quite conveys the enormity and persistence of the threat of radioactivity. It’s toxic and lethal, and it doesn’t go away.

The good news about nukes is that the clean and safe alternatives are eclipsing them. Wind and solar now possess a generating capacity comparable to nuclear in its heydey. That was before Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima.

Thoreau was right, we’ve taken our indefatigable solar “servant” for granted for too long, and shot the breeze too.  But these “profoundly disruptive technologies” are now poised to transform our economies and our lives. “Renewables do away with the concept of businesses and individuals as simple customers,” turning us into “prosumers (producer-consumers) who compete with the electricity utilities at the same time that they buy from them.” Healthy competition indeed!

Google Earth is kinda creepy, with its snooping capability, but it has a splendid solar silver lining: panel installers can give you a remote estimate, save a trip, and pass the savings along to you. Just one of the ways costs are cut when we tap the oldest power source we know. 
Elon Musk: “The sun radiates more energy to the Earth in a few hours than the entire human population consumes from all sources in a year.” We just have to capture and store it, and maybe Musk is about to show us how. If Tesla’s “Giga factory” can produce cheap and efficient batteries, that “would probably put the cost of owning an electric vehicle (EV) below that of a cheap, average gasoline-burner.” 
Wouldn’t it be nice if we used our free speech rights to talk up such possibilities in public, out on the quad and elsewhere? Instead, the only free speakers we tend to hear on our campus are the ones who come to tell us we’re on the highway to hell. Not so, Mr. “Open Air Preacher.” We’re on the road to a sustainability, if we keep our eyes open.

6 am/7:07, 66/77/50, 5:54
Happy birthday Older Daughter!

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American Philosophy

October 26, 2016

Bertrand Russell admits “the highest possible excellence” in William James’s contributions to the then-fledgling discipline of psychology, somehow missing its continuity with the rest of James’s philosophical work. Principles is philosophical to the core. Consider:

“The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct…”

To miss the philosophy in a passage like this, in a two-volume tome chock-full of similar wit and insight, is obtuse. It might be peevish and perverse. “The mind is at every stage a theatre of simultaneous possibilities… How different must be the worlds in the consciousness of ant, cuttle-fish,
or crab!” Or Yankee pragmatist and English patrician epistemologist!

Russell does give James his humane personal due, recognizing his “warm-heartedness and delightful humour,” and acknowledges that James persuaded him of the truth of radical empiricism and “would on this ground alone deserve a high place among philosophers.” He then goes on to mis-characterize the scope and intent of James’s pragmatism and Dewey‘s instrumentalism and naturalism, while again crediting the latter American’s personal character and generosity of spirit. But would any self-respecting Yank really have trouble answering a question like “Did you have coffee with your breakfast this morning?” Is the will to believe really no more sophisticated than Santa Claus? [James & Dewey on natural piety… Dewey’s natural religion]
The best diagnosis of Russellian resistance to common sense I’ve seen is in a charming new book by John Kaag, American Philosophy: A Love Story. It “hits the sweet spot between intellectual history and personal memoir,” writes a reviewer, a “transcendently wonderful love song to philosophy and its ability ‘to help individuals work through the trials of experience.'” Kaag hits the obtuse nail on the head:

“The point of American philosophy isn’t to be ‘right’ in any definitive sense of the word; such Cartesian certainty struck most American pragmatists as overly simplistic or just plain arrogant. The point of American philosophy is not to have a specific, rock-solid point, but rather to outline a problem, explore its context, get a sense of the whole experiential situation in which the problem arises, and give a tentative yet practical answer.”

That’s all too vague for Kaag’s Kantian love interest, and for Russell. But it works for me.

6 am/7:06, 46/83, 5:55

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Real value

October 25, 2016

We take time out today to consider free speech on campus.

Then, our next hopeful turn with Tim Flannery is to a post-peak future of declining oil dependency. We don’t have to wait for it to run out, to turn down the spigots. Building retrofits, hybridization and electrification, housing densification, new rail, light rail, are bicycle-friendly infrastructure will all contribute to dialing down demand.

Natural gas, long touted as the indispensable transitional bridge to a renewable future, is looking increasingly less attractive as better alternatives come on line faster than predicted. “Solar is anticipated by some to be globally competitive with coal by 2020.” And wind turbines, far from blotting the landscape, look to a lot of us like the surest sign of progress. But of course we all “see what we want to see” as long as we can, so we can expect continuing wind (and solar) resistance.

The big point is, “market-driven increases in global supplies of unconventional natural gas do not discernibly reduce the trajectory of greenhouse gas emissions or future climate change.” Gas is a bridge too far. We can’t trust it to get us where we’re going. We’re on our way to blasting through our carbon budget and bursting the bubble by 2028. The short-term skimming of profits in a parasitic and dying industry, “a  geriatric with hardened arteries,” is criminally short-sighted and (by the terms of the analogy) ethically maleficent. “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.” We may have to sue for malpractice.

In practice that means: divest from the old and invest in the new. Leave coal, oil, and gas in the ground, support high-sustainability companies and practices, buy (green) bonds, and recognize real value. Sun and wind are priceless. It’s not too late to stop squandering and start appreciating our most vital life-giving resources.
6 am/7:05, 50/74, 5:56

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Utility and revolution

October 24, 2016

It’s Bentham, Mill, and Marx in CoPhi today, three thinkers divided by their shared commitment to change the world and not simply understand it. “Simply”? Is the world ever simple enough to understand from a singular point of view? Of course not.

It should by now be clear to us all that our survey of philosophy’s history is not a quest for the holy grail of exclusive ideological purity, it’s an expanding conversation. None of these philosophers is going to be voted off our island of “Co,” which in the parlance of Stone contributor Robert Moor is an increasingly-interdependent network, a mutual dependence society, an Exarky. In his terms we could think of our study of western philosophy as akin to a through-hike on the Appalachian Trail. Nice twist on our peripatetic theme.

We all know what an endarkist looks like. America has practically mythologized the type. Most of our best-known nature writers were vocal proponents of endarky: John Muir tramping off with a crust of bread tied to his belt, Thoreau hammering together a cabin beside Walden Pond, Edward Abbey advising his readers to “brew your own beer; kick in your TV; kill your own beef.”

In the past, we may have called these people “rugged individualists.” They tend to internalize information and skills. They grow their own food, build their own furniture, distill their own whiskey. Truly endarkic people crave solitude and, perhaps less consciously, cataclysm, if only for the opportunity to prove their self-reliance.

The exarkic person, on the other hand, is utopian, the type who believes in improving systems, not rejecting them; who does not shy from asking for directions; who would rather rent or share or borrow a home than own one; who has no qualms uploading his digital memories to something called the Cloud; who welcomes the notion of self-driving cars. Exarks prefer a well-trained police force to a well-oiled firearm. They walk, nimbly, with a kind of holy faith, atop wires others have installed.

If Emerson, Thoreau, Muir, and Abbey were endarkists, Bentham, Mill, and Marx are exarks.
Marx said he was not a Marxist, much as Darwin was not a (Social) Darwinist. The best thinkers, though they may inspire others to embrace rigid ideology, do not submit to it. They start a conversation and would love nothing more than to continue it, like old Socrates in heaven. They start out on the trail, and secretly hope the trail doesn’t end. They want to understand the world in order to change it, but they resist the idea of oxymoronic permanent change.
Some questions for today: Is there more than pleasure and pain to utility, and more than utility to personal happiness and social flourishing? Is quality an issue or is “pushpin” – let’s just say football – really as good as poetry, from the standpoint of utility? Are philosophy and the good life for everyone? Is utilitarianism a coach potato philosophy? Is it softheaded and softhearted to seek the greatest happiness of the greatest number? Does “ought” imply “can”? Do our desires, for example the desire for food, come before or after “the calculation of pleasures and pains”? Do all desires deserve presumptive consideration, to be discounted only when shown to conflict with the greater good? Why does Russell say that questions concerning competition, property, and state ownership of land and capital are not “matters for philosophy”? What did Thoreau mean about “killing time” and “injuring eternity”? 
5:50/7:04, 54/77/47, 5:58

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Beyond the climate event horizon

October 20, 2016

The last disheartening presidential election debate of this interminable campaign is finally behind us – celebrate! Such a “nasty” forum, anathema to serious discussion.

Last night the climate got two whole seconds of attention. No hint that we face what Tim Flannery calls a climate event horizon, an atmospheric black hole, a “one-way trip into the unknown… abrupt, catastrophic and irreversible.” It could be triggered by any of several known unknowns, like a collapsing Gulf Stream, rainforest destruction, or large-scale methane release. Or, who knows? Our best climate models are unclear. As our guest the facilities manager said on Tuesday, that his office must be prepared for the most extreme days of maximum peak energy demand, so we must prepare for the worst imaginable scenario awaiting us just beyond the horizon.

What’s the best way to prepare for all those possible unknown triggers? Divestment. “Taking your money away from companies involved in extracting fossil fuels.” We still don’t know, at our school, how much of our money is still involved in extractcion. Our new governing board will soon be constituted. We need to make sure they know we want to know that. We need to be clear: keep it in the ground.

We do know some things. We know that politicians and lobbyists will do all they can to reinforce the knowledge deficit that forestalls sustained attention to climate science and commitment to climate action. We know that “climate skeptics hold greatest sway in the nations with the greatest investments in fossil fuels.” We know that science denialism and techno-fantasy are nothing new. Did you know that in the 1950s “American oil men wanted to use nuclear weapons to mine Alberta’s tar sands”?! Or that Rachel Carson was savaged by the chemical industry when she published Silent Spring?

We know that coal is still a huge factor in our overall electrical generation profile, on our campus and in our country, but that it’s begun a precipitous decline (a quarter by 2020).

We know that our worst politicians, like Australia’s, will always engage in “unconstructive behavior in international forums.”

And, the good news: we know that “consumers are more powerful than ever, and social media allows them to organize efficiently to express their displeasure” with polluters and deniers and liars.

So what’s stopping us?
On this date in 1892, Chicago threw a parade to dedicate the World’s Columbian Exposition. The Columbian Exposition was a world’s fair commemorating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’s arrival in the Americas… Gottlieb Daimler displayed a boat and an automobile powered by combustion engines: an exhibit that would inspire Henry Ford to come up with his own “Quadricycle,” his first car, which he successfully tested three years later.

Happy birthday John Dewey, who “said there was so much knowledge at universities because the freshmen brought everything they knew to college with them, and the seniors never took anything away.” WA

6 am/7:00, 72/78/49, 6:02

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Schopenhauer & Nietzsche

October 19, 2016
It’s Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in CoPhi, a sad and notorious pair of Teutonic misanthropes who wrote well and retain an enduring appeal among artsy elitists, alienated romantics, and those who feel shut out, underappreciated, and misunderstood – hence their particular attraction among a certain class of disaffected, anxious adolescent. Picture Dwayne in Little Miss Sunshine

James deplored “Poor Nietzsche’s antipathy,” and indeed Schopenhauer and Nietzsche were both full of contempt for much that most of us treasure. Bertrand Russell says Nietzsche’s repudiation of love is his least admirable aversion. The same may also be said of Schopenhauer, though he does seem to have loved his puppies. As for humans,

“There is only one inborn error, and that is the notion that we exist in order to be happy… So long as we persist in this inborn error… the world seems to us full of contradictions. For at every step, in great things and small, we are bound to experience that the world and life are certainly not arranged for the purpose of being content. That’s why the faces of almost all elderly people are etched with such disappointment.”

And yet, both had their moments of insight. Both can still inspire. Alain de Botton is Schopenhauer’s biggest fan, urging his kind of pessimism as a good fit for our times (vid) and finding deep consolation in bleak, terse aphorisms like To marry means to do everything possible to become an object of disgust to each other… Every life history is the history of suffering… Life has no intrinsic worth, but is kept in motion merely by want and illusion.

After spending a lot of time trying, yet failing to be famous, and trying, yet failing to have a good relationships, towards the end of his life, Schopenhauer eventually found an audience who adored his writings. He lived quietly in an apartment in Frankfurt with his dog, a white poodle whom he called Atman after the world soul of the Buddhists – but whom the neighbouring children called Mrs Schopenhauer.

 Maria Popova looks to Nietzsche for guidance in “how to find yourself and the true value of education,” and the recognition that “embracing difficulty is essential for a fulfilling life.”

“No one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life. There may be countless trails and bridges and demigods who would gladly carry you across; but only at the price of pawning and forgoing yourself. There is one path in the world that none can walk but you. Where does it lead? Don’t ask, walk!”

He’s right, we must each walk our path. But his pessimistic predecessor at least understood the wisdom of Schulz: if you cultivate your canine relationships you’ll never have to walk alone.

But they both lacked the wisdom of the Bard: This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long…

It’s the birthday of motion picture pioneer Auguste Lumière (1862)… he wasn’t much interested in pursuing further developments in motion picture technology, being more interested in medical research. He reportedly said, “My invention can be exploited … as a scientific curiosity, but apart from that it has no commercial value whatsoever.” WA

5:50/6:59, 62/89, 6:04

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Acid & extinction

October 18, 2016
Ocean acidification and animal extinction are Tim Flannery’s next subjects, neither presently offering much promise for the atmosphere of hope he’s seeking.  

Two hundred years ago the pH of the ocean surface was a tenth of a percent higher than today, meaning the oceans are 30% more acid, What does that mean for complex and delicate marine ecosystems? Nothing good. “The current rate of CO2 increase is the fastest in Earth’s recorded history,” so the oceans aren’t getting time to assimilate the change and absorb the acid.

It’s ironic, or even perverse, that we first began to learn about this problem while exploring the possibility of colonizing Mars. Does it make sense to dream of creating a new human habitat in an alien world before we’ve learned to manage our impact on the old home world? That’s a rhetorical question to which many will reply with a resounding No. I vote for boldly going, myself. We always learn more by going and doing, than by staying and fretting. But the irony and the perversity are palpable.

Will seaweed save the sea? Happily, its potential to reduce acidification and warming are huge. Unhappily, time is not on our side.

“How are the animals doing?” Not well, as Elizabeth Kolbert has documented. The extinction rate is 1,000 times too great, the prospect of species loss over 20% is real. “Though it might be nice to imagine there once was a time when man lived in harmony with nature,” Kolbert writes, “it’s not clear that he ever really did.” We’d better learn quick.

A little perspective: “a hundred million years from now, all that we consider to be the great works of man—the sculptures and the libraries, the monuments and the museums, the cities and the factories—will be compressed into a layer of sediment not much thicker than a cigarette paper.” Look on our works and despair, Ozymandias.

Or, we can get to work cleaning up our mess so we don’t leave a colossal wreck in the dirt for tomorrow’s archaeologists to dig up.

And we can divest. Leaving the oil in the soil may be our greatest work of all. How are we doing?

5:30/6:58, 72/88/65
Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick was first published as The Whale on this date in 1851. The novel begins with the famous line, “Call me Ishmael.” It continues: “Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation …” WA

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Kant and Hegel on Adderall

October 17, 2016
Immanuel Kant turned up in an unlikely place over the weekend: an article in the Times on Adderall addiction.  

It’s the briefest of cameos. A college student, cowed by an assignment, is offered an Adderall and begins a roller-coaster ride of focused intensity alternating with severe anxiety and depression.

My friend pulled two blue pills out of tinfoil and handed them to me. An hour later, I was in the basement of the library, hunkered down in the Absolute Quiet Room, in a state of peerless ecstasy. The world fell away; it was only me, locked in a passionate embrace with the book I was reading and the thoughts I was having about it, which tumbled out of nowhere and built into what seemed an amazing pile of riches. When dawn came to Providence, R.I., I was hunched over in the grubby lounge of my dormitory, typing my last fevered perceptions, vaguely aware that outside the window, the sky was turning pink. I was alone in my new secret world, and that very aloneness was part of the great intoxication. I needed nothing and no one.

I would experience this same sensation again and again over the next two years, whenever I could get my hands on Adderall on campus, which was frequently, but not, I began to feel, frequently enough. My Adderall hours became the most precious hours of my life, far too precious for the Absolute Quiet Room. I now needed to locate the most remote desk in the darkest, most neglected corner of the upper-level stacks, tucked farthest from the humming campus life going on outside. That life was no longer the life that interested me. Instead, what mattered, what compelled, were the hours I spent in isolation, poring over, for instance, Immanuel Kant’s thoughts on “the sublime.”

And that’s it, for the Sage of Konigsberg. He pops in just long enough to provide content for our protagonist’s chemically-compulsive studiousness, and exits. He doesn’t even get the opportunity to tell our focused young scholar to skip the pills, bite the bullet, and just sapere aude. If he’d been invited to hang around he’d also have asked if writing a paper on Adderall is an act the maxim of which you could will to be a universal law. He’d have said you should do your duty and ditch the pharmacological cheat.

We’ll ask about that ourselves today, in CoPhi. And we’ll ask what Hegel would say about all this too. Hegel on Adderall would be an experience, possibly to rival James on nitrous oxide. Some Hegelisms, maybe most, are easy to parody. But wouldn’t it be nice if we were, in fact, spiritual beings having the material experience of coming at last to a full consciousness and realization of freedom, if the real were the rational, if history made permanent progress?

On that last point, it’s nice to note that Peter Singer – no Hegelian, but he too speaks of an expanding circle of empathy and ethical inclusion – says the world is in fact becoming a better place. Our better angels may triumph in the end. Or not. “Inevitable” progress can crash, like students on pills.

6 am/6:58, 62/87, 6:06

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Atmosphere of Hope

October 13, 2016

We pick up a new text today from Aussie Tim Flannery. A decade ago his Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth gave early warning of the climate science denialism that’s since become so depressingly common among the loudest and least informed.

“As long as scepticism is based on a sound understanding of science it is invaluable, for that is how science progresses. But poor criticism can lead those who are unfamiliar with the science involved into doubting everything about climate change predictions.” Ironic, such selective skepticism from people who are generally so credulous about all manner of incredible conspiracy confabulation.

In Atmosphere of Hope, Flannery is back searching for solutions and finding real (though rapidly narrowing) promise for a renewed optimism based on the deployment of “exciting new tools in the making that could help us avoid a climate disaster.” Last December’s Paris climate agreement, recently engaged as more ratifying nations exceeded its “threshold for entry into force,” furnishes (let’s hope) some of the needed geopolitical tools. Next month’s election will determine whether those tools do actually get deployed.

“Digital connectedness,” also noted by Naomi Klein as an invaluable tool to multiply the climate movement’s growth and influence, “has brought new opportunities: for divestment, effective dissent, encouraging uptake of new technologies, and for legal action.” We begin at last to see the polluters’ profits in relative decline, as “clean power” more visibly rises. Flannery’s “third way” is to begin “creating our future out of thin air” by sucking the CO2 out of it. He insists this is realistic, not utopian. But we have to make it happen quickly, “we’re seeing the climate change before our eyes.”

Some of us are. Some of us are still just seeing what we want to see, not seeing climate change as a dire threat to our health and well-being, not seeing the melting glaciers and shrinking ice caps, not daring to imagine the impact of an inundated planet. Blindness is not hope.

6:15/6:54, 65/73/56, 6:12

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