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October 31, 2014

Declaration and Constitution Built Upon Philosophical Radicals Locke, Spinoza, Epicurus and Lucretius



(p. C7) In Mr. Stewart's telling, the central tenets of "philosophical radicalism" worked their way into the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution by a kind of ideological stealth. When, for example, Jefferson referred in the first paragraph of the Declaration to "the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle" a nation, he wasn't just offering a palatable conception of deity to his religious or nominally religious readers. He was drawing on a radical tradition stretching back to John Locke and especially to the Dutch rationalist Baruch Spinoza, who himself had drawn on the ancient Greek philosophers Epicurus and Lucretius.


For the full review, see:

BARTON SWAIM. "How Radical Were the Founders?; Was America's revolution driven by political philosophers, or practical men reacting to events?" The Wall Street Journal (Sat., July 26, 2014): C7.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date July 25, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'Nature's God' by Matthew Stewart & 'Independence' by Thomas P. Slaughter; Was America's revolution driven by political philosophers, or practical men reacting to events?")


The book discussed in the quoted passage is:

Stewart, Matthew. Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2014.






September 10, 2014

Cardinal Explained to Emperor that It Is OK to Lie to Heretics



Notwithstanding the assurances that the pope, the council, and the emperor had given him, Hus was almost immediately vilified and denied the opportunity to speak in public. On November 28, barely three weeks after he arrived, he was arrested on order of the cardinals and taken to the prison of a Dominican monastery on the banks of the Rhine. There he was thrown into an underground cell through which all the filth of the monastery was discharged. When he fell seriously ill, he asked that an advocate be appointed to defend his cause, but he was told that, according to canon law, no one could plead the cause of a man charged with heresy. In the face of protests from Hus and his Bohemian supporters about the apparent violation of his safe-conduct, the emperor chose not to intervene. He was, it was said, uncomfortable about what seemed a violation of his word, but an English cardinal had reportedly reassured him that "no faith need be kept with heretics."


Source:

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: this quote is from somewhere on pp. 167-168; I bought the Kindle version which does not give page numbers correctly and I can't recover pages on this one from Google books; I would guess it is all on p. 168.)






September 8, 2014

Zionists "Risk Their Lives for an Idea"



(p. C1) . . . , without hesitation or (for the most part) complaint, proudly responding to the call-up, Israelis stand ready to defend their nation. They risk their lives for an idea.

The idea is Zionism. It is the belief that the Jewish people should have their own sovereign state in the Land of Israel. Though founded less than 150 years ago, the Zionist movement sprung from a 4,000-year-long bond between the Jewish people and its historic homeland, an attachment sustained throughout 20 centuries of exile. This is why Zionism achieved its goals and remains relevant and rigorous today. It is why citizens of Israel--the state that Zionism created--willingly take up arms. They believe their idea is worth fighting for.

Yet Zionism, arguably more than any other contemporary ideology, is demonized. "All Zionists are legitimate targets everywhere in the world!" declared a banner recently paraded by anti-Israel protesters in Denmark. "Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances," warned a sign in the window of a Belgian cafe. A Jewish demonstrator in Iceland was accosted and told, "You Zionist pig, I'm going to behead you."


. . .


What is it about Zionism that elicits such loathing? After all, the longing of a dispersed people for a state of their own cannot possibly be so repugnant, especially after that people endured centuries of massacres and expulsions, culminating in history's largest mass murder. Perhaps revulsion toward Zionism stems from its unusual blend of national identity, religion and loyalty to a land. Japan offers the closest parallel, but despite its rapacious past, Japanese nationalism doesn't evoke the abhorrence aroused by Zionism.

Clearly anti-Semitism, of both the European and Muslim varieties, plays a role. Cabals, money grubbing, plots to take over the world and murder babies--all the libels historically leveled at Jews are regularly hurled at Zionists. And like the anti-Semitic capitalists who saw all Jews as communists and the communists who painted capitalism as inherently Jewish, the opponents of Zionism portray it as the abominable Other.



For the full commentary, see:

MICHAEL B. OREN. "In Defense of Zionism." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., AUG. 2, 2014): C1-C2.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date AUG. 1, 2014.)






September 6, 2014

Future Pope Showed an Interest in the "Higher Forms of Piracy"



(p. 158) A decade older than his apostolic secretary Poggio, Baldassare Cossa had been born on the small volcanic island of Procida, near Naples. His noble family held the island as its personal possession, the hidden coves and well-defended fortress evidently well suited to the principal family occupation, piracy. The occupation was a dangerous one: two of his brothers were eventually captured and condemned to death. Their sentence was commuted, after much pulling of strings, to imprisonment. It was said by his enemies that the young Cossa participated in the family business, owed to it his lifelong habit of wakefulness at night, and learned from it his basic assumptions about the world.

Procida was far too small a stage for Baldassare's talents. Energetic and astute, he early displayed an interest in what we might call higher forms of piracy. He studied jurisprudence at the University of Bologna--in Italy it was legal studies rather than theology that best prepared one for a career in the Church--where he obtained doctorates in both civil and canon law. At his graduation ceremony, a colorful affair in which the successful candidate was conducted in triumph through the town, Cossa was asked what he was going to do now. He answered," To be Pope."



Source:

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.






August 14, 2014

Dogs, and Movie About Dog, Banned in Iran



(p. D6) In Jafar Panahi's new movie, a writer in Iran smuggles his pet dog into his home inside a tote bag. The film, "Closed Curtain," addresses Iranian lawmakers' recent ban on dog-walking in public, part of an effort to curb perceived Western influences including keeping pets. For two decades, Mr. Panahi has captured such vagaries of life in his native country.

"Closed Curtain," which won the best screenplay award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2013, opens at New York City's Film Forum on July 9. It is Mr. Panahi's second film since December 2010, when Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Court banned him from making movies for 20 years.



For the interview with Panahi, see:

TOBIAS GREY. "An Iranian Director's Best Friend." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., June 27, 2014): D6.

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date June 26, 2014, an has the title "Iranian Director Flouts Ban on Filming.")






August 13, 2014

"In the Name of God and of Profit"




Writing of the period of the mid to late 1300s in the area of Florence:


(p. 114) The surviving archive of a single great merchant of this period, Francesco di Marco Datini of nearby Prato--not, by any means, the greatest of these early capitalists--contains some 150,000 letters, along with 500 account books or ledgers, 300 deeds of partnership, 400 insurance policies, several thousand bills of lading, letters of advice, bills of exchange, and checks. On the first pages of Datini's ledgers were inscribed the words: "In the name of God and of profit."


Source:

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.






August 5, 2014

"A Unique Moment in History . . . When Man Stood Alone"



(p. 71) . . . , something noted in one of his letters by the French novelist Gustave Flaubert: "Just when the gods had ceased to be, and the Christ had not yet come, there was a unique moment in history, between Cicero and Marcus Aurelius, when man stood alone." No doubt one could quibble with this claim. For many Romans at least, the gods had not actually ceased to be--even the Epicureans, sometimes reputed to be atheists, thought that gods existed, though at a far remove from the affairs of mortals--and the "unique moment" to which Flaubert gestures, from Cicero (106-43 BCE) to Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), may have been longer or shorter than the time frame he suggests. But the core perception is eloquently borne out by Cicero's dialogues and by the works found in the library of Herculaneum. Many of the early readers of those works evidently lacked a fixed repertory of beliefs and practices reinforced by what was said to be the divine will. They were men and women whose lives were unusually free of the dictates of the gods (or their priests). Standing alone, as Flaubert puts it, they found themselves in the peculiar position of choosing among sharply divergent visions of the nature of things and competing strategies for living.


Source:

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






August 3, 2014

Locke and Smith Showed How Economic Life Has Moral Value



(p. 241) Andrzej Rapaczynski discusses "The Moral Significance of Economic Life" in the most recent issue of Capitalism and Society. His abstract summarizes the argument (p. 242) compactly: "Much of the modern perception of the role of economic production in human life--whether on the Left or on the Right of the political spectrum--views it as an inferior, instrumental activity oriented toward self-preservation, self-interest, or profit, and thus as essentially distinct from the truly human action concerned with moral values, justice, and various forms of self-fulfillment. This widely shared worldview is rooted, on the one hand, in the Aristotelian tradition that sees labor as a badge of slavery, and freedom as lying in the domain of politics and pure (not technical) knowledge, and, on the other hand, in the aristocratic medieval Christian outlook, which--partly under Aristotle's influence--sees nature as always already adapted (by divine design) to serving human bodily needs, and the purpose of life as directed toward higher, spiritual reality. . . . As against this, liberal thinkers, above all Locke, have developed an elaborate alternative to the Aristotelian worldview, reinterpreting the production process as a moral activity par excellence consisting in a gradual transformation of the alien nature into a genuinely human environment reflecting human design and providing the basis of human autonomy. Adam Smith completed Locke's thought by explaining how production is essentially a form of cooperation among free individuals whose self-interested labor serves the best interest of all. The greatest "culture war" in history is to re-establish the moral significance of economic activity in the consciousness of modern political and cultural elites." Capitalism and Society, December 2013, vol. 8, no. 2, http://capitalism.columbia.edu/volume-8-issue-2.


Source:

Taylor, Timothy. "Recommendations for Further Reading." Journal of Economic Perspectives 28, no. 1 (Winter 2014): 235-42.

(Note: italics, and ellipses, in original.)






August 1, 2014

The Unintended Consequences of Requiring Monks to Read



(p. 28) The high walls that hedged about the mental life of the monks--the imposition of silence, the prohibition of questioning, the punishing of debate with slaps or blows of the whip--were all meant to affirm unambiguously that these pious communities were the opposite of the philosophical academies of Greece or Rome, places that had thrived upon the spirit of contradiction and cultivated a restless, wide-ranging curiosity.

All the same, monastic rules did require reading, and that was enough to set in motion an extraordinary chain of consequences. Reading was not optional or desirable or recommended; in a community that took its obligations with deadly seriousness, reading was obligatory. And reading required books. Books that were opened again and again eventually fell apart, however carefully they were handled. Therefore, almost inadvertently , monastic rules necessitated that monks repeatedly purchase or acquire books. In the course of the vicious Gothic Wars of the mid-sixth century and their still more miserable aftermath, the last commercial workshops of book production folded, and the vestiges of the book market fell apart. Therefore, again almost inadvertently, monastic rules necessitated that monks carefully preserve and copy those books that they already possessed.



Source:

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.






July 27, 2014

New Details on Babylonian Version of Noah's Ark



the-ark-before-noah_BK2014-06-05.jpg

















Source of book image: http://britishmuseumblog.files.wordpress.com/2014/01/the-ark-before-noah_544.jpg



(p. C8) Mr. Finkel, a curator of cuneiform inscriptions at the British Museum, details his own long-standing fascination with the ark and that of his British Museum predecessors. First among these was George Smith, who in 1872, at age 32, deciphered a clay tablet that demonstrated that 1,000 years before the likely composition of the Book of Genesis, ancient Babylonians had been brooding over the same story of divine retribution that we find in the biblical account of Noah. So great was Smith's shock that, on confirmation, he began to run about the room tearing off his clothes.


. . .


The tablets containing what we now know as the Epic of Gilgamesh were unearthed in the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal, who was an avid collector of texts. His famous library was torched in 612 B.C., but, as Mr. Finkel points out, "fire to a clay librarian" is not the disaster it is to one who studies works on paper. Fired clay tablets endure, and nothing, Mr. Finkel assures us, can equal the thrill of digging one out from the earth like a potato.

But the most important tablet of Mr. Finkel's career didn't come from the ground. It was delivered to him in 1985 by a man named Douglas Simmonds, who brought in a number of cuneiform tablets collected by his father, a member of the Royal Air Force in the Middle East at the end of World War II. One of these--an iPhone-shaped tablet--had what was recognizably the first lines of a Babylonian flood narrative, but the rest was illegible at a superficial glance, and Simmonds was reluctant to leave the tablet at the museum for analysis. It wasn't until 2009 that Mr. Finkel was able to borrow this treasure and undertake a meticulous study, which revealed an "instruction manual for building an ark" in the tablet's 60 lines.


. . .


So then what was the Ark Tablet for? It is puzzling that it contains no narrative, listing rather shape, size, materials and their quantities. Attractive though it may be to think it was a hand-held guide for the boat builder, Mr. Finkel suggests instead that it served as an aide-mémoire for an itinerant storyteller. The detail is explained by audience demand: No one wants to be put on the spot with difficult "how" questions when facing an audience who knew all about building coracles. Ancient audiences, it seems, were as intrigued--and as skeptical--about the ark as we are.



For the full review, see:

JANET SOSKICE. "Make Yourself an Ark; A newly deciphered tablet suggests the best shape for an ark: not a wooden box but a circular coracle made of reeds." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 17, 2014): C8.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 16, 2014, an has the title "Book Review: 'The Ark Before Noah' by Irving Finkel; A newly deciphered tablet suggests the best shape for an ark: not a wooden box but a circular coracle made of reeds.")


The book under review is:

Finkel, Irving. The Ark before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood. London, UK: Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd., 2014.






July 21, 2014

How De Rerum Natura Aided the Early Italian Renaissance



I am interested in how the dominant ideas in a culture change. Greenblatt's The Swerve discusses how some early Renaissance Italians sought lost and forgotten works from antiquity to broaden their ideas. In particular it emphasizes the rediscovery of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura.

I am not as unreservedly enthusiastic about Lucretius as Greenblatt is, but The Swerve includes much that is thought-provoking about a place and time that I need to better understand.

In the next few weeks I will quote a few of the passages that were especially memorable, important or amusing.

Book discussed:

Greenblatt, Stephen. The Swerve: How the World Became Modern. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.






July 11, 2014

Catholic Church Banned Infinitesimals from European Classrooms Taught by Jesuits



InfinitesimalBK2014-06-05.jpg















Source of book image: http://static01.nyt.com/images/2014/04/08/science/08SCIB/08SCIB-superJumbo.jpg



(p. C9) Mr. Alexander's narrative opens in the early 17th century, when Catholic Church administrators in Rome, following a campaign by Euclidean stalwart Christopher Clavius, banned the infinitesimal from the classrooms of Jesuit schools throughout Europe. Instructors' teachings and writings were monitored to enforce strict adherence to the classical Euclidean geometrical tradition. Mr. Alexander portrays the church's reactionary stance not as a huff over mathematical philosophy but as a desperate counterattack against existential threats: Euclid's rules-based structure offered the church a model with which it hoped to rein in a restive flock, roiled by economic and political currents and by an ascendant Protestantism. Martial metaphors abound in the author's telling: "war against disorder," "enemies of the infinitely small," "forces of hierarchy and order." This was no friendly debate.


For the full review, see:

ALAN HIRSHFELD. "The Limit of Reason; In the 1700s, the idea of an infinitely tiny quantity was so unsettling that the Church banned it from classrooms." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., May 3, 2014): C9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 2, 2014, and has the title "Book Review: 'Infinitesimal' by Amir Alexander; The idea of an infinitely tiny quantity--the foundation of calculus--was so unsettling that in the 17th century the Church banned it from classrooms.")


The book under review is:

Alexander, Amir. Infinitesimal: How a Dangerous Mathematical Theory Shaped the Modern World. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.






June 4, 2014

"Religious Muslims Generally Insist on the Literal Truth of the Quran"




(p. A16) There are few role models for former Muslims, . . .

One group . . . is Ex-Muslims of North America, . . .

Members of the group, founded last year in Washington and Toronto, recognize that their efforts might seem radical to some, and take precautions when admitting new members. Those interested in joining are interviewed in person before they are told where the next meeting will be held. The group has grown quickly to about a dozen chapters, in cities including Boston, Chicago, Houston, New York and San Francisco.

One of the group's founders who was at the conference, Sadaf Ali, 23, an Afghan-Canadian, said that she had once been "a fairly practicing Muslim."

During childhood, she said, "I was always fairly defiant." As she grew older, she struggled with depression, and she thought that praying more and reading the Quran would help. She became more religious and looked forward to a traditional life. "I thought my life was sort of set out for me: get married, have children," Ms. Ali said. "I might go to school. I'll have a very domestic life. That's what my family did, what my forefathers did."

But as a university student, her feelings began to change.

As I started to investigate the religion, I realized I was talking to myself," Ms. Ali said. "Nobody was listening to me. I had just entered the University of Toronto, and critical thinking was a big part of my studies. I have an art history and writing background, and I realized every verse I had come across" -- in the Quran -- "was explicitly or implicitly sexist."

Quickly, her faith crumbled.

"So in 2009, I realized there probably is no God," she said. "What is so wrong in having a boyfriend, or having premarital sex? What is wrong with wanting to eat and drink water before the sun goes down during Ramadan? What is so wrong with that? I couldn't handle the cognitive dissonance anymore."


. . .


The members of Ex-Muslims are adamant that they respect others' right to practice Islam. The group's motto is "No Bigotry and No Apologism," and text on its website is inclusive: "We understand that Muslims come in all varieties, and we do not and will not partake in erasing the diversity within the world's Muslims."

But they are equally adamant that it is still too difficult for Muslims inclined to atheism to follow their thinking where it may lead. Whereas skeptical Christians or Jews can take refuge in reformist wings of their tradition, religious Muslims generally insist on the literal truth of the Quran.

"I would say it's maybe 0.1 percent who are willing to challenge the foundations of the faith," said Nas Ishmael, another founder of the Ex-Muslims group who attended the conference.



For the full story, see:

MARK OPPENHEIMER. "Leaving Islam for Atheism, and Finding a Much-Needed Place Among Peers." The New York Times (Sat., MAY 24, 2014): A16.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date MAY 23, 2014.)






April 6, 2014

Some Geographical Clusters Are Due to Chance (It Is Not Always a Miracle, When Good, Or the Environment, When Bad)



HandDavidStatistiician2014-04-04.jpg











David J. Hand. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. 12) Your latest book, "The Improbability Principle," aims to prove that extremely improbable events are in fact commonplace. Can you explain that a bit? Things like roulette wheels coming up in strange configurations or the same lottery numbers hitting two weeks in a row are clearly very rare events, but if you look at the number of lotteries and the number of roulette wheels, then you realize that you should actually expect these sorts of things to happen. I think within the statistical community people accept this. They're aware of the impact of the law of truly large numbers.


. . .


You also write that geographical clusters of people with diseases might not necessarily be a result of environmental issues. It could just be a coincidence. Well, they could be due to some sort of pollution or infectious disease or something like that, but you can expect clusters to occur just by chance as well. So it's an interesting statistical problem to tease these things out. Is this a genuine cluster in the sense that there's a cause behind it? Or is it a chance cluster?



For the full interview, see:

Chozick, Amy, interviewer. "'The Wonder Is Still There'; The Statistician David J. Hand on Eerie Coincidences and Playing the Lottery." The New York Times Magazine (Sun., FEB. 23, 2014): 12.

(Note: ellipsis added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the interview has the date FEB. 21, 2014, and has the title "David J. Hand's Lottery Tips.")


Hand's book is:

Hand, David J. The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day. New York: Scientific American/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.






February 14, 2014

Louise Carnegie Expressed Pompous Sanctimony While Leaving the Drudgery to Others





Andrew Carnegie's fiancée Louise:



(p. 294) "I certainly feel more in harmony with all the world after having been in communion with you, my Prince of Peace. I say this reverently, dear, for truly that is what you are to me, and I am so glad the world knows you as the Great Peacemaker." "What ideal lives we shall lead, giving all our best efforts to high and noble ends, while the drudgery of life is attended to by others. Without high ideals, it would be enervating and sinful. With them, it is glorious, and you are my prince among men, my own love."


Source:

Nasaw, David. Andrew Carnegie. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

(Note: underline in original.)

(Note: the pagination of the hardback and paperback editions of Nasaw's book are the same.)






February 8, 2014

Organic and Kosher Chicken Have as Much Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria as Regular Chicken



(p. D3) . . . after a trip to Israel for his sister's bat mitzvah, Jack Millman came back to New York wondering whether the higher costs of kosher foods were justified.

"Most consumers perceive of kosher foods as being healthier or cleaner or somehow more valuable than conventional foods, and I was interested in whether they were in fact getting what they were paying for," said Mr. Millman, 18 and a senior at the Horace Mann School in New York City.

That question started him on a yearlong research project to compare the prevalence of antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria on four types of chickens: those raised conventionally; organically; without antibiotics, and those slaughtered under kosher rules. "Every other week for 10 weeks, I would go and spend the entire Saturday buying chicken," he said. "We had it specifically mapped out, and we would buy it and put it on ice in industrial-strength coolers given to us by the lab, and ship it out."

All told, Mr. Millman and his mother, Ann Marks, gathered 213 samples of chicken drumsticks from supermarkets, butcher shops and specialty stores in the New York area.

Now they and several scientists have published a study based on the project in the journal F1000 Research. The results were surprising.

Kosher chicken samples that tested positive for antibiotic-resistant E. coli had nearly twice as much of the bacteria as the samples from conventionally raised birds did. And even the samples from organically raised chickens and those raised without antibiotics did not significantly differ from the conventional ones.



For the full story, see:

STEPHANIE STROM. "A Science Project With Legs." The New York Times (Tues., November 5, 2013): D3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date November 4, 2013.)


The academic article on E. coli in different types of chicken, is:

Millman, Jack M., Kara Waits, Heidi Grande, Ann R. Marks, Jane C. Marks, Lance B. Price, and Bruce A. Hungate. "Prevalence of Antibiotic-Resistant E. Coli in Retail Chicken: Comparing Conventional, Organic, Kosher, and Raised without Antibiotics." F1000Research 2 (2013).






October 24, 2013

Puritan Slavery



ForAdamsSakeBK2013-10-22.jpg












Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.






We are taught in elementary school that the roots of America lie in the religious Puritans and Pilgrims. But I believe that there is something to Russell Shorto's argument that we under-appreciate the contribution of the secular libertarian Dutch of New Amsterdam. In this continuing debate, it is useful to have an accurate history of all sides.



(p. A11) The great Puritan divine John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, probably wouldn't make it through Allegra di Bonaventura's book without suffering a cardiac episode. Set principally in the seaport town of New London, Conn., "For Adam's Sake" provides an astonishing worm's-eye view of Winthrop's beloved Bible Commonwealth in the throes of its ghastly unraveling, even as it narrates an intimate history of racial slavery in early New England through the entwined lives of five families (the Winthrops among them).

Many readers will be surprised to learn that slavery flourished in colonial New England--albeit on a smaller scale than on the plantations of the antebellum South. And they might be forgiven their incredulity: "New Englanders in the nineteenth century," Ms. di Bonaventura writes, "studiously erased and omitted inconvenient and unsavory aspects of their region's collective past in favor of a more heroic and wholesome narrative of their own history." Such acts of moral cleansing all but obscured the lives of enslaved New Englanders well into our own time.



For the full review, see:

KIRK DAVIS SWINEHART. "BOOKSHELF; Not Your Parents' Puritans; Slavery flourished in colonial New England. Yet the Puritans' erasure of its signs have obscured their crimes well into our own time." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., Aug. 5, 2013): A11.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date Aug. 4, 2013.)


The book under review is:

di Bonaventura, Allegra. For Adam's Sake: A Family Saga in Colonial New England. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2013.


The relevant book by Russell Shorto is:

Shorto, Russell. The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America. New York: Doubleday, 2004.






September 30, 2013

Among 1890s Wall Street Elite, "It Was Fashionable to Be Anti-Semitic"



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Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.






(p. A11) J.P. Morgan may well have been the most powerful banker who ever lived. Certainly he was the most powerful American banker. But the banking world that he and his firm dominated was a short-lived one, lasting only from the 1890s to the Depression of the 1930s. Susie J. Pak explores Morgan's world, especially its social aspects, in "Gentlemen Bankers," and the exploration is very interesting indeed.


. . .


In Wall Street at the time, there were two groups of private banking firms; those with Jewish partners and those with gentile ones. And while they did business together, often forming syndicates to handle large underwritings, they led separate social lives. They belonged to different clubs, stayed at different hotels and resorts. They didn't attend the weddings of one another's children. The reason, of course, was anti-Semitism. But as Ms. Pak notes, it had nothing to do with the ancient, religiously motivated anti-Semitism typical in Europe. This latter-day anti-Semitism was essentially social in character: To be blunt, it was fashionable to be anti-Semitic.

In earlier decades of the 19th century, affluent Jews had mingled socially with their gentile neighbors. They had been among the founding members of such old-line clubs as the Union Club (est. 1836) and the Union League Club (1863). Jesse Seligman, a partner in the well-regarded Jewish banking firm of J. & W. Seligman, was vice president of the Union League Club in 1893. But when he put his son up for membership that year, he was rejected. "Those who voted against him," a biographer of the Seligman family wrote, "said they had nothing against him personally; they objected to his race." His stunned father resigned from the club. He died the next year, aged 66; some said the incident contributed to his death.



For the full review, see:

JOHN STEELE GORDON. "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Gentlemen Bankers' by Susie J. Pak; In the age of J.P. Morgan, the sons of Jewish bankers attended Ivy League colleges, but were excluded from the myriad social and athletic organizations." The Wall Street Journal (Fri, August 30, 2013): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date August 29, 2013, and has the title "BOOKSHELF; Book Review: 'Gentlemen Bankers' by Susie J. Pak; In the age of J.P. Morgan, the sons of Jewish bankers attended Ivy League colleges, but were excluded from the myriad social and athletic organizations.")


The book under review, is:

Pak, Susie J. Gentlemen Bankers: The World of J.P. Morgan, Harvard Studies in Business History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013.







September 10, 2013

Margaret Thatcher Funeral: "Suddenly from the Crowd a Great Roar"



ThatcherSupporterWithSign203-09-02.jpg "A supporter of Margaret Thatcher holds a banner outside St. Clement Danes church in London." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.



(p. A15) The funeral of Margaret Thatcher was beautiful, moving, just right. It had dignity and spirit, and in that respect was just like her. It also contained a surprise that shouldn't have been a surprise. It was a metaphor for where she stood in the pantheon of successful leaders of the 20th century.


. . .


At the end of the funeral they all marched down the aisle in great procession--the family, the queen, the military pallbearers carrying the casket bearing the Union Jack. The great doors flung open, the pallbearers marched forward, and suddenly from the crowd a great roar. We looked at each other. Demonstrators? No. Listen. They were cheering. They were calling out three great hurrahs as the pallbearers went down the steps. Then long cheers and applause. It was electric.

England came. The people came. Later we would learn they'd stood 30 deep on the sidewalk, that quiet crowds had massed on the Strand and Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill. A man had held up a sign: "But We Loved Her."

. . . When they died, Ronald Reagan, John Paul II, and Margaret Thatcher were old and long past their height of power. Everyone was surprised when Reagan died that crowds engulfed the Capitol; people slept on sidewalks to view him in state. When John Paul died the Vatican was astonished to see millions converge. "Santo Subito."

And now at the end some came for Thatcher, too.

What all three had in common: No one was with them but the people.

Margaret Hilda Thatcher, rest in peace.



For the full commentary, see:

PEGGY NOONAN. "DECLARATIONS; Britain Remembers a Great Briton; Margaret Thatcher's coffin stood over he crypts that hold the tombs of Nelson and Wellington. It mattered." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., April 20, 2013): A15.

(Note: the online version of the story was updated April 22, 2013 (I did not see any update in the part I quoted above), and has the title "DECLARATIONS; Noonan: Britain Remembers a Great Briton; Mrs. Thatcher is with Wellington and Nelson now.")






July 3, 2013

Amish Break the Golden Rule



(p. 237) If we apply the ubiquity test--what happens if everyone does it?--to the Amish way, the optimization of choice collapses. By constraining the suite of acceptable occupations and narrowing education, the Amish are holding back possibilities not just for their children but indirectly for all.

If you are a web designer today, it is only because many tens of thousands of other people around you and before you have been expanding the realm of possibilities. They have gone beyond farms and home shops to invent a complex ecology of electronic devices that require new expertise and new ways of thinking. If you are an accountant, untold numbers of creative people in the past devised the logic and tools of accounting for you. If you do science, your instruments and field of study have been created by others. If you are a photographer, or an extreme sports athlete, or a baker, or an auto mechanic, or a nurse--then your potential has been given an opportunity by the work of others. You are being expanded as others expand themselves.


. . .


. . . as you embrace new technologies, you are indirectly working for future generations of Amish, and for the minimite homesteaders, even though they are not doing as much for you. Most of what you adopt they will ignore. But every once in a while your adoption of "something that doesn't quite work yet" (Danny Hillis's definition of technology) will evolve into an appropriate tool they can use. It might be a solar grain dyer; it might be a cure for cancer.



Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added.)






June 29, 2013

"Self-Reliant" Amish Depend on the Technologies of the Outside World



(p. 230) The Amish are a little sensitive about this, but their self-reliant lifestyle as it is currently practiced is heavily dependent on the greater technium that surrounds their enclaves. They do not mine the metal they build their mowers from. They do not drill or process the kerosene they use. They don't manufacture the solar panels on their roofs. They don't grow or weave the cotton in their clothes. They don't educate or train their own doctors. They also famously do not enroll in armed forces of any kind. (But in compensation for that, the Amish are world-class volunteers in the outside world. Few people volunteer more often, or with (p. 231) more expertise and passion, than the Amish/Mennonites. They travel by bus or boat to distant lands to build homes and schools for the needy.) If the Amish had to generate all their own energy, grow all their clothing fibers, mine all metal, harvest and mill all lumber, they would not be Amish at all because they would be running large machines, dangerous factories, and other types of industry that would not sit well in their backyards (one of the criteria they use to decide whether a craft is appropriate for them). But without someone manufacturing this stuff, they could not maintain their lifestyle or prosperity. In short, the Amish depend on the outside world for the way they currently live. Their choice of minimal technology adoption is a choice--but a choice enabled by the technium. Their lifestyle is within the technium, not outside it.



Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.






June 25, 2013

Limited Choice Is Cost of Amish Community Closeness



(p. 230) . . . the cost of . . . closeness and dependency is limited choice. No education beyond eighth grade. Few career options for guys, none besides homemaker for girls. For the Amish and minimites, one's fulfillment must blossom inside the traditional confines of a farmer, tradesman, or housewife. But not everyone is born to be a farmer. Not every human is ideally matched to the rhythms of horse and corn and seasons and the eternal close inspection of village conformity. Where in the Amish scheme of things is the support for a mathematical genius or a person who might spend all day composing new music?


Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added.)






June 21, 2013

Amish "Are Big Boosters of Genetically Modified Corn"



(p. 222) The Amish use disposable diapers (why not?), chemical fertilizers, and pesticides, and they are big boosters of genetically modified corn. In Europe this corn is called Frankenfood. I asked a few of the Amish elders about that last one. Why do they plant GMOs? Well, they reply, corn is susceptible to the corn borer, which nibbles away at the bottom of the stem and occasionally topples the stalk. Modern 500-horsepower harvesters don't notice this fall; they just suck up all the material and spit out the corn into a bin. The Amish harvest their corn semimanually. It's cut by a chopper device and then pitched into a thresher. But if there are a lot of stalks that are broken, they have to be pitched by hand. That is a lot of very hard, sweaty work. So they plant Bt corn. This genetic mutant carries the genes of the corn borer's enemy, Bacillus thuringiensis, which produces a toxin deadly to the corn borer. Fewer stalks are broken and the harvest can be aided with machines, so yields are up. One elder Amish man whose sons run his farm said he was too old to be pitching heavy, broken cornstalks, and he told his sons that he'd only help them with the harvest if they planted Bt corn. The alternative was to purchase expensive, modern harvesting equipment, which none of them wanted. So the technology of genetically modified crops allowed the Amish to continue using old, well-proven, debt-free equipment, which accomplished their main goal of keeping the family farm together. They did not use these words, but they made it clear that they considered genetically modified crops appropriate technology for family farms.


Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: italics in original.)






June 17, 2013

Amish Factory Uses Pneumatics in Place of Electricity



(p. 219) The Amish also make a distinction between technology they have at work and technology they have at home. I remember an early visit to an Amish man who ran a woodworking shop near Lancaster, Pennsylvania. . . .


. . .


(p. 220) While the rest of his large workshop lacked electricity beyond that naked bulb, it did not lack power machines. The place was vibrating with an ear-cracking racket of power sanders, power saws, power planers, power drills, and so on. Everywhere I turned there were bearded men covered in sawdust pushing wood through screaming machines. This was not a circle of Renaissance craftsman hand-tooling masterpieces. This was a small-time factory cranking out wooden furniture with machine power. But where was the power coming from? Not from windmills.

Amos took me around to the back where a huge SUV-sized diesel generator sat. It was massive. In addition to a gas engine there was a very large tank, which, I learned, stored compressed air. The diesel engine burned petroleum fuel to drive the compressor that filled the reservoir with pressure. From the tank, a series of high-pressure pipes snaked off toward every corner of the factory. A hard rubber flexible hose connected each tool to a pipe. The entire shop ran on compressed air. Every piece of machinery was running on pneumatic power. Amos even showed me a pneumatic switch, which he could flick like a light switch to turn on some paint-drying fans running on air.

The Amish call this pneumatic system "Amish electricity." At first, pneumatics were devised for Amish workshops, but air power was seen as so useful that it migrated to Amish households. In fact, there is an entire cottage industry in retrofitting tools and appliances to run on Amish electricity. The retrofitters buy a heavy-duty blender, say, and yank out the electrical motor. They then substitute an air-powered motor of appropriate size, add pneumatic connectors, and bingo, your Amish mom now has a blender in her electricity-less kitchen. You can get a pneumatic sewing machine and a pneumatic washer/dryer (with propane heat). In a display of pure steam-punk (air-punk?) nerdiness, Amish hackers try to outdo one another in building pneumatic versions of electrified contraptions. Their mechanical skill is quite impressive, particularly since none went to school beyond the eighth grade. They (p. 221) love to show off their geekiest hacks. And every tinkerer I met claimed that pneumatics were superior to electrical devices because air was more powerful and durable, outlasting motors that burned out after a few years of hard labor. I don't know if this claim of superiority is true or merely a justification, but it was a constant refrain.



Source:

Kelly, Kevin. What Technology Wants. New York: Viking Adult, 2010.

(Note: ellipses added.)






May 11, 2013

The Process of Picking a Pope



SaintsAndSinnersThirdEdBK2013-05-04.jpg

















Source of book image: http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/images/full13/9780300115970.jpg



(p. C3) The popes appointed by the German Holy Roman Emperor Henry III in the early 11th century were . . . unconventional but . . . edifying. Determined to purge the corruptions of Rome, Henry personally appointed four outstanding popes, reformers to a man, all of them Germans. The greatest of them, St. Leo IX (1049-1054), arrived in Rome as a barefoot pilgrim and was the first pope to travel widely through Europe, stirring local bishops to tackle corruption and undertake renewal.

Henry III's German popes ended the tradition that the Bishop of Rome had to be a local man, and medieval conclaves chose popes from the small but international College of Cardinals. Exceptions to this rule were seldom a success.

The most notorious case was St. Celestine V (1294), an 85-year-old hermit and visionary from Naples chosen in the hope that an "angelic Pope" would free the papacy from its financial and political entanglements. But the old man was hopelessly incompetent and easily swayed by forceful politicians. After only six months, he was badgered into resigning by Cardinal Benedetto Caetani, who succeeded him as Boniface VIII and promptly imprisoned him.

The experiment of electing a non-cardinal was tried again in 1378. After a run of seven French popes based in Avignon, the Roman mob demanded an Italian. Sixteen terrified cardinals obliged by electing Urban VI. A distinguished administrator as Archbishop of Bari, Urban VI was unhinged by his elevation. Aggressively paranoid, he alienated all supporters and appears to have murdered five of his cardinals. The French cardinals elected a rival pope, who returned to Avignon, starting a schism that would last a generation.



For the full commentary, see:

EAMON DUFFY. "When Picking A Pope Was A Perilous Affair." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., February 16, 2013): C3.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the date February 15, 2013.)



Duffy's related book, is:

Duffy, Eamon. Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes. Third ed., Yale Nota Bene. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.






April 8, 2013

Darwin's Worry About Gradual Evolution of Eye



Darwin and others have worried about whether an eye could have evolved gradually. The issue is whether the earlier gradations leading up to the eye would have given any survival advantage. Matt Ridley's column, quoted below, argues that Darwin need not have worried.


(p. C4) Davide Pisani and colleagues from the National University of Ireland have traced the ancestry of the three kinds of "opsin" protein that animals use, in combination with a pigment, to detect light.


. . .


. . . , the anatomy of eyes shows every gradation between simple light-sensitive spots and full cameras. The detailed genetic evidence of descent with modification from a single common ancestor further vindicates Darwin and has largely silenced the Intelligent Design movement's use of the eye as a favored redoubt.

After the duplications that led to working opsin molecules, there seems to have been a long pause before complex eyes appeared.

The first lensed eyes that fossilized belonged to the trilobites which dominated the Cambrian oceans after 525 million years ago.



For the full commentary, see:

MATT RIDLEY. "MIND & MATTER; A Relief to Darwin: The Eyes Have It." The New York Times (Tues., November 3, 2012): C4.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the commentary has the November 2, 2012.)






December 24, 2012

Williams Made Providence a Sanctuary for the Persecuted



RogerWilliamsAndTheCreationOfTheAmericanSouldBK2012-12-18.jpg















Source of book image: http://d.gr-assets.com/books/1320716933l/11797348.jpg





I have not yet read Barry's book on Roger Williams, but I did enjoy and learn from his earlier The Great Influenza book.



(p. 12) Williams struck overland, through snow and bitter cold, "wch I feele yet," he reminisced later in life. He survived because he had help. "The ravens fed me in the wilderness," he said, comparing himself to the scriptural prophets sustained by bird-borne morsels, though his "ravens" were Indians. With their assistance, he reached the upper bend of a bay that would be named for its inhabitants, the Narragansett. There, Williams bought land from its native proprietors and established a settlement he called Providence, to honor the divine assistance given to him and other Christians on their flights from persecution.


. . .


Next, Williams refused to take an oath of fidelity to Massachusetts, on the grounds that anything sworn in God's name for worldly purposes was corrupt.

The authorities in Massachusetts were so outraged that having failed to arrest Williams, they tried to obliterate his new settlement. He went back to England to get a charter to protect his colony on his own terms: with a "hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world." In several publications, he argued that the individual conscience should not -- could not -- be governed, let alone persecuted. If God was the ultimate punisher of sin, it was impious for humans to assume his authority. And it was "directly contrary to the nature of Christ Jesus . . . that throats of men should be torne out for his sake."

Barry shows how controversial these beliefs were at the time, and in this way reinforces the standard image of Williams as an early proponent of liberty of conscience.



For the full review, see:

JOYCE E. CHAPLIN. "Errand in the Wilderness." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 26, 2012): 12.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs was added; ellipsis internal to quotation was in original.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 25, 2012 and has the title "Roger Williams: The Great Separationist.")


The book being reviewed, is:

Barry, John M. Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty. New York: Viking Adult, 2012.






November 19, 2012

Econometric "Priests" Sell Their New "Gimmicks" as the "Latest Euphoria Drug"



The American Economic Association's Journal of Economic Perspectives published a symposium focused on the thought-provoking views of the distinguished econometrician Edward Leamer.

I quote below some of Leamer's comments in his own contribution to the symposium.


(p. 31) We economists trudge relentlessly toward Asymptopia, where data are unlimited and estimates are consistent, where the laws of large numbers apply perfectly and where the full intricacies of the economy are completely revealed. But it's a frustrating journey, since, no matter how far we travel, Asymptopia remains infinitely far away. Worst of all, when we feel pumped up with our progress, a tectonic shift can occur, like the Panic of 2008, making it seem as though our long journey has left us disappointingly close to the State of Complete Ignorance whence we began.

The pointlessness of much of our daily activity makes us receptive when the Priests of our tribe ring the bells and announce a shortened path to Asymptopia. (Remember the Cowles Foundation offering asymptotic properties of simultaneous equations estimates and structural parameters?) We may listen, but we don't hear, when the Priests warn that the new direction is only for those with Faith, those with complete belief in the Assumptions of the Path. It often takes years down the Path, but sooner or later, someone articulates the concerns that gnaw away in each of (p. 32) us and asks if the Assumptions are valid. (T. C. Liu (1960) and Christopher Sims (1980) were the ones who proclaimed that the Cowles Emperor had no clothes.) Small seeds of doubt in each of us inevitably turn to despair and we abandon that direction and seek another.

Two of the latest products-to-end-all-suffering are nonparametric estimation and consistent standard errors, which promise results without assumptions, as if we were already in Asymptopia where data are so plentiful that no assumptions are needed. But like procedures that rely explicitly on assumptions, these new methods work well in the circumstances in which explicit or hidden assumptions hold tolerably well and poorly otherwise. By disguising the assumptions on which nonparametric methods and consistent standard errors rely, the purveyors of these methods have made it impossible to have an intelligible conversation about the circumstances in which their gimmicks do not work well and ought not to be used. As for me, I prefer to carry parameters on my journey so I know where I am and where I am going, not travel stoned on the latest euphoria drug.

This is a story of Tantalus, grasping for knowledge that remains always beyond reach. In Greek mythology Tantalus was favored among all mortals by being asked to dine with the gods. But he misbehaved--some say by trying to take divine food back to the mortals, some say by inviting the gods to a dinner for which Tantalus boiled his son and served him as the main dish. Whatever the etiquette faux pas, Tantalus was punished by being immersed up to his neck in water. When he bowed his head to drink, the water drained away, and when he stretched up to eat the fruit hanging above him, wind would blow it out of reach. It would be much healthier for all of us if we could accept our fate, recognize that perfect knowledge will be forever beyond our reach and find happiness with what we have. If we stopped grasping for the apple of Asymptopia, we would discover that our pool of Tantalus is full of small but enjoyable insights and wisdom.



For the full article, see:

Leamer, Edward E. "Tantalus on the Road to Asymptopia." Journal of Economic Perspectives 24, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 31-46.






October 16, 2012

No Amount of Econometric Sophistication Will Substitute for Good Data



(p. 234) Using a powerful method due to Singh, we have established a relationship between God's attitude toward man and the amount of prayer (p. 235) transmitted to God. The method presented here is applicable to a number of important problems. Provided conditional density (1) is assumed, we do not need to observe a variable to compute its conditional expectation with respect to another variable whose density can be estimated. For example, one can extend current empirical work in a variety of areas of economics to estimate the effect of income on happiness or the effect of income inequality on democracy. We conjecture that this powerful method can be extended to the more general case when X is not observed either.


For the full article, from which the above is quoted, see:

Heckman, James. "The Effect of Prayer on God's Attitude toward Mankind." Economic Inquiry 48, no. 1 (Jan. 2010): 234-35.






September 25, 2012

"Science Is Weakest in the Lands of Islam"



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Source of book image: http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1327925578l/10379376.jpg



(p. 18) The upshot was, while the Greek works in particular were disappearing in Europe, they were being preserved in Arabic to be retranslated later into Latin for a rebirth of "lost" knowledge. This is one half of the point the author makes frequently in the text and, in boldface, as the book's subtitle.

The other half is that contrary to some doubters, the Arab interest in learning extended well beyond translations: thinkers working alone or in observatories and houses of wisdom were conducting original research during "the world's most impressive period of scholarship and learning since ancient Greece." Accordingly, al-Khalili writes that ­al-Mamun stands as "the greatest patron of science in the cavalcade of Islamic rulers."

Sometimes al-Khalili, like a lawyer who suspects a jury of unyielding skepticism, strains to give stature to the leading lights of Arabic science in the Middle Ages. But modern historians of science agree that more attention should be given to the Arab contribution to the preservation and expansion of knowledge at this critical period, and the author has done so in considerable detail and with rising passion.

But that was then, and al-Khalili is obligated to end on an inescapable but deflating note: science today is in a chronic state of neglect in the Arab world and the broader Islamic culture of more than one billion people. Al-Khalili spreads the blame widely, citing inadequate financing for research and education, sclerotic bureaucracies, religious conservatism, even an ingrained fear of science. The Pakistani physicist Abdus Salam, perhaps the greatest Muslim scientist of the last century, won a Nobel Prize in 1979 and did what he could to promote a scientific renaissance among his people, without success. "Of all civilizations on this planet, science is weakest in the lands of Islam," Salam said in despair. "The dangers of this weakness cannot be overemphasized since the honorable survival of a society depends directly on its science and technology in the condition of the present age."

By recounting Arabic science's luminous past, al-Khalili says, he hopes to instill a sense of pride that will "propel the importance of scientific enquiry back to where it belongs: at the very heart of what defines a civilized and enlightened society."



For the full review, see:

JOHN NOBLE WILFORD. "The Muslim Art of Science." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., May 22, 2011): 18.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date May 20, 2011.)


The full reference for the book under review, is:

al-Khalili, Jim. The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance. New York: The Penguin Press, 2010.






March 13, 2012

Upper Class "Have Lost the Confidence to Preach What They Practice"



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Source of book image:
http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-K9jKNHD0vwE/Tzn4yKgEtII/AAAAAAAAC8Q/2wZqk1Hl1V4/s1600/murray-coming-apart.jpg




(p. 9) The problem, Murray argues, is not that members of the new upper class eat French cheese or vote for Barack Obama. It is that they have lost the confidence to preach what they practice, adopting instead a creed of "ecumenical niceness." They work, marry and raise children, but they refuse to insist that the rest of the country do so, too. "The belief that being a good American involved behaving in certain kinds of ways, and that the nation itself relied upon a certain kind of people in order to succeed, had begun to fade and has not revived," Murray writes.


For the full review, see:

NICHOLAS CONFESSORE. "Tramps Like Them; Charles Murray Argues that the White Working Class Is No Longer a Virtuous Silent Majority." The New York Times Book Review (Sun., February 12, 2012): 9.

(Note: the online version of the review has the date February 10, 2012 and has the title "Tramps Like Them; Charles Murray Examines the White Working Class in 'Coming Apart'.")







December 18, 2011

When Christopher Hitchens Will Visit Nebraska



HitchensChristopherAfterTreatment2011-11-10.jpg











"Christopher Hitchens, after being released from the Texas hospital where he was treated for esophageal cancer." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




A few times I have had the pleasure of seeing Christopher Hitchens interviewed. His wit is always wonderful and he skewers much that deserves skewering. I admire his perseverance at being productive, even as he battles a difficult cancer. And I admire him for sticking to his reasoned principles, even when it might be easier to accept Pascal's Wager.

I have enjoyed the few reviews by Hitchens that I have read. I have purchased, but not yet read, two of his books---when I have read, I will write.

ADDENDUM: I wrote the above words back on November 10th, scheduled to run today. Yesterday I saw in the paper that Hitchens died on Thursday, December 15, 2011.



(p. C1) HOUSTON -- Christopher Hitchens, probably the country's most famous unbeliever, received the Freethinker of the Year Award at the annual convention of the Atheist Alliance of America here on Saturday. Mr. Hitchens was flattered by the honor, he said a few days beforehand, but also a little abashed. "I think being an atheist is something you are, not something you do," he explained, adding: "I'm not sure we need to be honored. We don't need positive reinforcement. On the other hand, we do need to stick up for ourselves, especially in a place like Texas, where they have laws, I think, that if you don't believe in Jesus Christ you can't run for sheriff."

Mr. Hitchens, a prolific essayist and the author of "God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything," discovered in June 2010 that he had Stage 4 esophageal cancer.


. . .


(p. C5) On balance, he reflected, the past year has been a pretty good one. He won a National Magazine Award, published "Arguably," debated Tony Blair in front of a huge audience and added two states to the list of those he has visited. "I lack only the Dakotas and Nebraska," he said, "though I may not get there unless someone comes up with some ethanol-based cancer treatment in Omaha."



For the full story, see:

CHARLES McGRATH. "A Voice, Still Vibrant, Reflects on Mortality." The New York Times (Mon., October 10, 2011): C1 & C5.

(Note: ellipsis added.)






November 4, 2011

"Whatsoever a Man Soweth, That Shall He Also Reap"



PlantThiefSign2011-08-07.jpg "A gardener's recipe for vengeance at the Sixth Street and Avenue B Community Garden in Manhattan." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 20) At the 700 community gardens sprinkled through the city like little Edens, the first commandment should be obvious: Thou shalt not covet, much less steal, thy neighbor's tomatoes, cucumbers or peppers. But people do.

"This was an inside job," Holland Haiis-Aguirre, a key-holder at the West Side Community Garden, said after she arrived at her plot on July 24 to pick a "big, beautiful, full-sized cucumber" that she and her husband had tended from infancy. Instead, she found a denuded vine; her prize cuke apparently was in someone else's salad. "So frustrating," she wailed.


. . .


Sally Young shrouds her 18 heirloom tomato plants in bird netting, but it is not birds she is trying to outwit. Claude Bastide, who grows aromatic herbs, had his spearmint and rosemary plants stolen early in the season. He responded with a sign: "Dear Plant Thief: If I catch you stealing my plants, I will boil you alive in a cauldron filled with poison ivy and stinging nettles until your flesh falls off your bones!"



For the full story, see:

ROBIN FINN. "Peck of Pilfered Peppers in City Gardens; Tomatoes, Too." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., August 7, 2011): 20.

(Note: ellipsis added.)

(Note: the online version of the story was dated August 5, 2011, and had the title "Pilfered Peppers in City Gardens; Tomatoes, Too.")



Source of the title of this blog entry: The Bible, Galatians 6:7-9 (King James Version).







June 30, 2011

Laron Syndrome Villagers Free of Cancer and Diabetes, Suggesting Longevity Breakthrough



LoranSyndromeCancerDiabetesGraphic2011-06-05.jpg











Source of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. A6) People living in remote villages in Ecuador have a mutation that some biologists say may throw light on human longevity and ways to increase it.

The villagers are very small, generally less than three and a half feet tall, and have a rare condition known as Laron syndrome or Laron-type dwarfism. They are probably the descendants of conversos, Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal who were forced to convert to Christianity in the 1490s but were nonetheless persecuted in the Inquisition. They are also almost completely free of two age-related diseases, cancer and diabetes.

A group of 99 villagers with Laron syndrome has been studied for 24 years by Dr. Jaime Guevara-Aguirre, an Ecuadorean physician and diabetes specialist.


. . .


IGF-1 is part of an ancient signaling pathway that exists in the laboratory roundworm as well as in people. The gene that makes the receptor for IGF-1 in the roundworm is called DAF-2. And worms in which this gene is knocked out live twice as long as normal.

The Laron patients have the equivalent defect -- their cells make very little IGF-1, so very little IGF-1 signaling takes place, just as in the DAF-2-ablated worms. So the Laron patients might be expected to live much longer.

Because of their striking freedom from cancer and diabetes, they probably could live much longer if they did not have a much higher than usual death rate from causes unrelated to age, like alcoholism and accidents.


. . .


A strain of mice bred by John Kopchick of Ohio University has a defect in the growth hormone receptor gene, just as do the Laron patients, and lives 40 percent longer than usual.


. . .


The longest-lived mouse on record is one studied by Dr. Bartke. It had a defect in its growth hormone receptor gene, just as do the Laron patients. "It missed its fifth birthday by a week," he said. The mouse lived twice as long as usual and won Dr. Bartke a prize presented by the Methuselah Foundation (which rewards developments in life-extension therapies) in 2003.



For the full story, see:

NICHOLAS WADE. "Ecuadorean Villagers May Hold Secret to Longevity." The New York Times (Thurs., February 17, 2011): A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story is dated February 16, 2011 and has the title "Ecuadorean Villagers May Hold Secret to Longevity.")



LoranSyndromeManAndChildren2011-06-05.jpg









"A 67-year-old man who has Laron-type dwarfism with his daughter, 5, and sons, 7 and 10." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.






June 14, 2011

Salem Issues Psychic Licenses to Protect Public from the Untrained



StathopoulosLoreleiSupportsFewerLicences2011-06-02.jpg "Lorelei Stathopoulos is concerned Salem will lose its "quaint reputation."" Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. A11) SALEM, Mass. -- Like any good psychic, Barbara Szafranski claims she foresaw the problems coming.

Her prophecy came in 2007, as the City Council was easing its restrictions on the number of psychics allowed to practice in this seaside city, where self-proclaimed witches, angels, clairvoyants and healers still flock 319 years after the notorious Salem witch trials. Some hoped for added revenues from extra licenses and tourists. Others just wanted to bring underground psychics into the light.

Just as Ms. Szafranski predicted, the number of psychic licenses has drastically increased, to 75 today, up from a mere handful in 2007. And now Ms. Szafranski, some fellow psychics and city officials worry the city is on psychic overload.


. . .


"Many of them are not trained," she said of her rivals. "They don't understand that when you do a reading you hold a person's life in your hands."

Christian Day, a warlock who calls himself the "Kathy Griffin of witchcraft," thinks the competition is good for Salem.

"I want Salem to be the Las Vegas of psychics," said Mr. Day, who used to work in advertising and helped draft the 2007 regulations. Since they went into effect, he has opened two stores, Hex and Omen.


. . .


Now, talk has started about new regulations that would include a cap on the number of psychic businesses, but the grumbling has in no way reached the level of viciousness that occurred in 2007, when someone left the mutilated body of a raccoon outside Ms. Szafranski's shop and Mr. Day and Ms. Stathopoulos got into a fight.



For the full story, see:

KATIE ZEZIMA. "Witchy Town's Worry: Do Too Many Psychics Spoil the Brew?" The New York Times (Fri., May 27, 2011): A11.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story is dated May 26, 2011.)



DayChristianSupportsCompetition2011-06-02.jpg "Christian Day, who owns two shops, thinks competition is a good thing." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.







January 13, 2011

Witch Tax Rebellion in Romania: "We Do Harm to Those Who Harm Us"



(p. 16A) MOGOSOIA, Romania--Everyone curses the tax man, but Romanian witches angry about having to pay up for the first time are planning to use cat excrement and dead dogs to cast spells on the president and government.

Also among Romania's newest taxpayers are fortune tellers--but they probably should have seen it coming.


. . .


Romanian witches from the east and west will head to the southern plains and the Danube River on Thursday to threaten the government with spells and spirits because of the tax law, which came into effect Jan. 1.

A dozen witches will hurl the poisonous mandrake plant into the Danube to put a hex on government officials "so evil will befall them," said a witch named Alisia. She identified herself with one name--customary among Romania's witches.


. . .


. . . spiritualism has long been tolerated by the Orthodox Church in Romania, and the late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, had their own personal witch.

Queen witch Bratara Buzea, 63, who was imprisoned in 1977 for witchcraft under Ceausescu's repressive regime, is furious about the new law.

Sitting cross-legged in her villa in the lake resort of Mogosoaia, just north of Bucharest, she said Wednesday she planned to cast a spell using a particularly effective concoction of cat excrement and a dead dog, along with a chorus of witches.

"We do harm to those who harm us," she said. "They want to take the country out of this crisis using us? They should get us out of the crisis because they brought us into it."



For the full story, see:

ALISON MUTLER. "Witches Curses Over Paying Tax." The Denver Post (Thurs., January 6, 2011): 16A.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Curses! Romania's witches forced to pay income tax.")


If you prefer a briefer version of the witch story, you may consult:

The Associated Press. "A Tax on Witches? A Pox on the President." The New York Times (Fri., January 7, 2011): A9.

(Note: the online version of the NYT article is dated January 6, 2011.)





December 5, 2010

A Key to Scientific Truth: Nullius in Verba ("On No One's Word")



(p. 68) . . . scientific understanding didn't progress by looking for truth; it did so by looking for mistakes.

This was new. In the cartoon version of the Scientific Revolution, science made its great advances in opposition to a heavy-handed Roman Catholic Church; but an even larger obstacle to progress in the understanding and manipulation of nature was the belief that Aristotle had already figured out all of physics and had observed all that biology had to offer, or that Galen was the last word in medicine. By this standard, the real revolutionary manifesto of the day was written not by Descartes, or Galileo, but by the seventeenth-century Italian poet and physician Francesco Redi, in his Experiments on the Generation of Insects, who wrote (as one of a hundred examples), "Aristotle asserts that cabbages produce caterpillars daily, but I have not been able to witness this remarkable reproduction, though I have seen many eggs laid by butterflies on the cabbage-stalks. . . ." Not for nothing was the motto of the Royal Society nullius in verba: "on no one's word."



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: first ellipsis added; italics and second ellipsis, in original.)





November 11, 2010

Toricelli Experiment Dispoved Aristotlelian Theory that a Vacuum Was Impossible



(p. 8) Florence, in the year 1641, had been essentially the private fief of the Medici family for two centuries. The city, ground zero for both the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, was also where Galileo Galilei had chosen to live out the sentence imposed by the Inquisition for his heretical writings that argued that the earth revolved around the sun. Galileo was seventy years old and living in a villa in Arcetri, in the hills above the city, (p. 9) when he read a book on the physics of movement titled De motu (sometimes Trattato del Moto) and summoned its author, Evangelista Torricelli, a mathematician then living in Rome. Torricelli, whose admiration for Galileo was practically without limit, decamped in time not only to spend the last three months of the great man's life at his side, but to succeed him as professor of mathematics at the Florentine Academy.


. . .


(p. 9) . . . , Torricelli used a tool even more powerful than his well--cultivated talent for mathematical logic: He did experiments. At the behest of one of his patrons, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, whose engineers were unable to build a sufficiently powerful pump, Torricelli designed a series of apparatuses to test the limits of the action of contemporary water pumps. In spring of 1644, Torricelli filled a narrow, four-foot-long glass tube with mercury--a far heavier fluid than water--inverted it in a basin of mercury, sealing the tube's top. and documented that while the mercury did not pour out, it did leave a space at the closed top of the tube. He reasoned that since nothing could have slipped past the mercury in the tube, what occupied the top of the tube must, therefore, be nothing: a vacuum.


. . .


(p. 10) Torricelli was not, even by the standards of his day, a terribly ambitious inventor. When faced with hostility from religious authorities and other traditionalists who believed, correctly, that his discovery was a direct shot at the Aristotelian world, he happily returned to his beloved cycloids, the latest traveler to find himself on the wrong side of the boundary line between science and technology

But by then it no longer mattered if Torricelli was willing to leave the messiness of physics for the perfection of mathematics: vacuum would keep mercury in the bottle, hut the genie was already out. Nature might have found vacuum repugnant for two thousand years, but Europe was about to embrace it.



Source:

Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. New York: Random House, 2010.

(Note: italics in original; ellipses added.)





October 13, 2010

Athiests Score Highest on Test of Religious Knowledge



ReligionTestGraphf2010-10-01.jpg






















Source of graph: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.




(p. A17) Americans are by all measures a deeply religious people, but they are also deeply ignorant about religion.

Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life.

On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith.

Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons. The results were the same even after the researchers controlled for factors like age and racial differences.

"Even after all these other factors, including education, are taken into account, atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons still outperform all the other religious groups in our survey," said Greg Smith, a senior researcher at Pew.

That finding might surprise some, but not Dave Silverman, president of American Atheists, an advocacy group for nonbelievers that was founded by Madalyn Murray O'Hair.

"I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people," Mr. Silverman said. "Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That's how you make atheists."



For the full story, see:

LAURIE GOODSTEIN. "Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans." The New York Times (Tues., September 28, 2010): A17.





October 9, 2010

Ayaan Hirsi Ali Risks Her Life to Speak Freely about Islam



AliAyaanHirsi2010-08-29.jpg





Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Source of photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.







(p. 14) As a Somali native who was raised as a Muslim and grew up to become one of the most outspoken critics of Islam, you fled to Amsterdam and served in the Dutch Parliament before fleeing again, to America. What kind of security do you have here? "
I don't go from A to B without being escorted by people who are armed. But please, let's not talk about my security.







In your new book, "Nomad: From Islam to America," you urge American Christians to try to talk to American Muslims about the limitations of their faith.
We who don't want radical Islam to spread must compete with the agents of radical Islam. I want to see what would happen if Christians, feminists and Enlightenment thinkers were to start proselytizing in the Muslim community.

That could be dangerous for the proselytizers. .
It may be, but in the United States we have a police force and the rule of law; we can't just say something is dangerous and abstain from competing in the marketplace of ideas.



For the full interview, see:

DEBORAH SOLOMON. "Questions for Ayaan Hirsi Ali; The Feminist." The New York Times, Magazine Section (Sun., May 23, 2010): 14.

(Note: bold in original versions, to indicate questions by Deborah Solomon.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated May 21, 2010.)





September 11, 2010

Vatican Made Bellarmine a Saint in 1930, but Still Says Galileo Erred



GalileoBust2010-09-01.jpg "A bust of Galileo at the Galileo Museum in Florence, Italy. The museum is displaying recovered parts of his body." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A9) As a heretic he could not be given a proper church burial. But for years after his death, his followers in the circle of the grand dukes of Tuscany pushed to give him an honorable resting place.

Nearly a century later, in 1737, members of Florence's cultural and scientific elite unearthed the scientist's remains in a peculiar Masonic rite. Freemasonry was growing as a counterweight to church power in those years and even today looms large in the Italian popular imagination as an anticlerical force.

According to a notary who recorded the strange proceedings, the historian and naturalist Giovanni Targioni Tozzetti used a knife to slice off several fingers, a tooth and a vertebra from Galileo's body as souvenirs but refrained, it appears, from taking his brain. The scientist was then reburied in a ceremony, "symmetrical to a beatification," said Mr. Galluzzi.

After taking their macabre souvenirs, the group placed Galileo's remains in an elegant marble tomb in Florence's Santa Croce church, a pointed statement from Tuscany's powers that they were outside the Vatican's control. The church has long been a shrine to humanism as much as to religion, and Galileo's permanent neighbors include Michelangelo, Machiavelli and Rossini.


. . .


Even today, centuries after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, the pope's theological watchdog, had Galileo arrested for preaching Copernicanism, the church has never quite managed to acknowledge that his heliocentric theory is correct. (For his part, Cardinal Bellarmine was made a saint in 1930.)

Pope John Paul II reopened the Galileo case in 1981, and in 1992 issued his committee's findings: that the judges who condemned Galileo had erred but that the scientist had also erred in his arrogance in thinking that his theory would be accepted with no physical evidence.


. . .


. . . as recently as last fall, at a news conference introducing an exhibition of historic telescopic instruments at the Vatican Museums, the director of the Vatican's Pontifical Council for Culture, Monsignor Gianfranco Ravasi, referred without blinking to "the errors committed by both sides" -- indicating both the church and Galileo.




For the full story, see:

RACHEL DONADIO. "Florence Journal; A Museum Display of Galileo Has a Saintly Feel." The New York Times (Fri., July 23, 2010): A1 & A9.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the article was dated July 22, 2010.)





August 1, 2010

Jefferson "Was Experimental and Had a Lot of Failures"



JeffersonianGardeningA2010-07-12.jpg"In the vegetable garden at Monticello, his home in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson sowed seeds from around the world and shared them with farmers. He was not afraid of failure, which happened often." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


Steven Johnson has written an intriguing argument that the intellectual foundation of the founding fathers was based as much on experimental science as on religion. The article quoted below provides a small bit of additional evidence in support of Johnson's argument.


(p. D1) NEW gardeners smitten with the experience of growing their own food -- amazed at the miracle of harvesting figs on a Brooklyn rooftop, horrified by the flea beetles devouring the eggplants -- might be both inspired and comforted by the highs and lows recorded by Thomas Jefferson from the sun-baked terraces of his two-acre kitchen garden 200 years ago.

And they could learn a thing or two from the 19th-century techniques still being used at Monticello today.

"He was experimental and had a lot of failures," Peter Hatch, the director of gardens and grounds, said on a recent afternoon, as we stood under a scorching sun in the terraced garden that took seven slaves three years to cut into the hill. "But Jefferson always believed that 'the failure of one thing is repaired by the success of another.' "

After he left the White House in 1809 and moved to Monticello, his Palladian estate here, Jefferson grew 170 varieties of fruits and 330 varieties of vegetables and herbs, until his death in 1826.

As we walked along the geometric beds -- many of them planted in an ancient Roman quincunx pattern -- I made notes on the beautiful crops I had never grown. Sea kale, with its great, ruffled blue-green leaves, now full of little round seed pods. Egyptian onions, whose tall green stalks bore quirky hats of tiny seeds and wavy green sprouts. A pre-Columbian tomato called Purple Calabash, whose energetic vines would soon be trained up a cedar trellis made of posts cut from the woods.

"Purple Calabash is one of my favorites," Mr. Hatch said. "It's an acidic, al-(p. D7)most black tomato, with a convoluted, heavily lobed shape."

Mr. Hatch, who has directed the restoration of the gardens here since 1979, has pored over Jefferson's garden notes and correspondence. He has distilled that knowledge in "Thomas Jefferson's Revolutionary Garden," to be published by Yale University Press.



For the full story, see:

ANNE RAVER. "A Revolutionary With Seeds, Too." The New York Times (Thurs., July 1, 2010): D1 & D7.

(Note: the online version of the article is dated June 30, 2010 and has the title "In the Garden; At Monticello, Jefferson's Methods Endure.")





December 24, 2009

Heretics to the Religion of Global Warming



SuperFreakonomicsBK.jpg















Source of book image: online version of the WSJ review quoted and cited below.



(p. A19) Suppose for a minute--. . . --that global warming poses an imminent threat to the survival of our species. Suppose, too, that the best solution involves a helium balloon, several miles of garden hose and a harmless stream of sulfur dioxide being pumped into the upper atmosphere, all at a cost of a single F-22 fighter jet.


. . .


The hose-in-the-sky approach to global warming is the brainchild of Intellectual Ventures, a Bellevue, Wash.-based firm founded by former Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Nathan Myhrvold. The basic idea is to engineer effects similar to those of the 1991 mega-eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in the Philippines, which spewed so much sulfuric ash into the stratosphere that it cooled the earth by about one degree Fahrenheit for a couple of years.

Could it work? Mr. Myhrvold and his associates think it might, and they're a smart bunch. Also smart are University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner, whose delightful "SuperFreakonomics"--the sequel to their runaway 2005 bestseller "Freakonomics"--gives Myhrvold and Co. pride of place in their lengthy chapter on global warming. Not surprisingly, global warming fanatics are experiencing a Pinatubo-like eruption of their own.


. . .


. . . , Messrs. Levitt and Dubner show every sign of being careful researchers, going so far as to send chapter drafts to their interviewees for comment prior to publication. Nor are they global warming "deniers," insofar as they acknowledge that temperatures have risen by 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit over the past century.

But when it comes to the religion of global warming--the First Commandment of which is Thou Shalt Not Call It A Religion--Messrs. Levitt and Dubner are grievous sinners. They point out that belching, flatulent cows are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than all SUVs combined. They note that sea levels will probably not rise much more than 18 inches by 2100, "less than the twice-daily tidal variation in most coastal locations." They observe that "not only is carbon plainly not poisonous, but changes in carbon-dioxide levels don't necessarily mirror human activity." They quote Mr. Myhrvold as saying that Mr. Gore's doomsday scenarios "don't have any basis in physical reality in any reasonable time frame."

More subversively, they suggest that climatologists, like everyone else, respond to incentives in a way that shapes their conclusions. "The economic reality of research funding, rather than a disinterested and uncoordinated scientific consensus, leads the [climate] models to approximately match one another." In other words, the herd-of-independent-minds phenomenon happens to scientists too and isn't the sole province of painters, politicians and news anchors

.


For the full commentary, see:

BRET STEPHENS. "Freaked Out Over SuperFreakonomics; Global warming might be solved with a helium balloon and a few miles of garden hose." The Wall Street Journal (Tues., OCTOBER 27, 2009): A19.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





October 11, 2009

Dutch Were Too Busy Trading to Build a Church



NewAmsterdamPrint2009-09-26.jpg "Print of New Amsterdam by Joost Hartgers, 1626." Source of caption and image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A15) The financial collapse of 2008 and the Great Recession have had, not surprisingly, a major adverse impact on the economy of the country's financial center, New York City. There have been over 40,000 job losses in the financial community alone and both city and state budgets are deeply dependent on tax revenues from this one industry. There has been much talk that New York might take years to recover--if, indeed, it ever can.

But if one looks at the history of New York there is reason for much optimism. The city's whole raison d'être since its earliest days explains why.

The Puritans in New England, the Quakers in Pennsylvania, and the Catholics in Maryland first and foremost came to what would be the United States to find the freedom to worship God as they saw fit. The Dutch--who invented many aspects of modern capitalism and became immensely rich in the process--came to Manhattan to make money. And they didn't much care who else came to do the same. Indeed, they were so busy trading beaver pelts they didn't even get around to building a church for 17 years.

Twenty years after the Dutch arrived, the settlement at the end of Manhattan had only about a thousand inhabitants. But it was already so cosmopolitan that a French priest heard no fewer than 18 languages being spoken on its streets.


. . .


Deep within the heart of this vast metropolis--like the child within the adult--there is still to be found that little hustly-bustly, live-and-let-live, let's-make-a-deal Dutch village. And the creation of wealth is still the city's dearest love.



For the full commentary, see:

JOHN STEELE GORDON. "Opinion; Don't Bet Against New York; The financial crisis has been devastating, but the city has reinvented itself many times before.." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., Sept. 19, 2009): A15.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





August 22, 2009

"The Evidence of His Eyes Overturned 2,000 Years of Accepted Wisdom"




GalileoShowsVenetianSenators.jpg". . ., the Italian astronomer shows the satellites of Jupiter to Venetian senators in this 1882 illustration." Source of illustration and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.


(p. A9) A mathematician and experimental physicist, Galileo, however, immediately recognized that what he could see of Venus, Jupiter and the moon through his telescope offered crucial evidence that the sun, not Earth, was the center of our solar system. The evidence of his eyes overturned 2,000 years of accepted wisdom about cosmology in which philosophers had conceived the night sky as a system of crystalline spheres.

Moreover, Galileo quickly shared his observations with scientists throughout Europe by openly publishing his data.

"He wrought a change so fundamental for science and for humanity," says Munich astronomer Pedro Russo, who is global coordinator of the International Year of Astronomy. "For the first time, we realized we were not the center of the universe."

But his insistence on contradicting traditional cosmology led to his arrest and trial by the Roman Catholic Church. He was forced to recant his views and imprisoned for life. The Vatican did not formally admit that Galileo was correct until 1992. Now Vatican authorities are planning a statue in his honor.

During his life, Galileo is known to have built at least 100 telescopes, mostly as ornate presentation gifts for his patrons -- the powerful Medici family of Florence. Only one is known to survive with its optics intact -- the humble device now on show at the Franklin Institute.

"We assume it was personally used by Galileo," says Paolo Galluzzi, director of the science museum in Florence, which loaned the telescope for the exhibit. "Only this one was found among his property at his death. We believe that this is one of the major tools of his work."


. . .


"Science is fundamentally about establishing truth for yourself," says Dr. Pompea in Arizona. "People can make observations, take data and establish for themselves the nature of the universe. They don't have to take it from someone else or read it in a book."

Like Galileo, "they can see it."



For the full story, see:

ROBERT LEE HOTZ. "Galileo's Discoveries, 400 Years Later, Still Open Eyes
Astronomer's Telescope, on View Outside Italy for the First Time, Helped Expand Perceptions of the Universe." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., APRIL 10, 2009): A9.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


GalileoGalilei2009-08-12.gif










"Galileo Galilei." Source of image and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited above.






August 20, 2009

Penn Government Protects Us from "Little Old Ladies Baking Pies"



StCeciliaFishFry2009-08-12.jpgStCeciliaFishFryTables2009-08-12.jpg





"After a state crackdown forbidding the sale of homemade pies, members of St. Cecilia Catholic Church in Rochester, Pa., proceeded with their annual Lenten fish fries anyway. The pie flap helped draw healthy crowds." Source of photos and caption: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.








(p. A1) ROCHESTER, Pa. -- On the first Friday of Lent, an elderly female parishioner of St. Cecilia Catholic Church began unwrapping pies at the church. That's when the trouble started.

A state inspector, there for an annual checkup on the church's kitchen, spied the desserts. After it was determined that the pies were home-baked, the inspector decreed they couldn't be sold.

"Everyone was devastated," says Josie Reed, a 69-year-old former teacher known for her pumpkin and berry pies.

. . .

The disappearance of Mary Pratte's coconut-cream pie, Louise Humbert's raisin pie and (p. A10) Marge Murtha's "farm apple" pie from the fish-fry fund-raisers sparked an uproar that spread far beyond the small parish.

. . .

(p. A10) The ruckus at St. Cecilia's could lead to changes in Pennsylvania state law. State Sen. Elder Vogel Jr. has drafted legislation aimed at allowing nonprofits, including churches, to serve food prepared at home. That would cover fish fries held during Lent. "Once again, you've got the heavy hand of government coming in," he says. "These ladies bake pies, out of the goodness of their hearts."

Sen. Vogel, who sits on the state legislature's agriculture committee, says state officials seem willing to change the law. "They have more work on their hands than going after little old ladies baking pies."

The inspector's warning to St. Cecilia's carried no fine. But the inspector has raised some hackles by telling the women that the state would allow them to bake pies for sale in their own kitchens, if they paid $35 to have them inspected as well.

"Well, that's just ridiculous," says Ms. Humbert, 73, one of the parish bakers. She has been bringing raisin pies to the church for more than a decade and says she thought the women's kitchens "are probably a lot cleaner than some restaurants," but might not meet "nitpicky" requirements.

Ms. Pratte, 88, has been attending St. Cecilia's since she was a girl. She missed a step and spent two and a half weeks in the hospital earlier this year. She said it would be "kind of hard" to get to the church to do any baking. "I'd rather just make them at home," she says of her coconut-cream pies. Others say it's difficult to bake good pies in a strange oven.

Thanks to the publicity caused by the crackdown, the St. Cecilia's fish fries attracted more visitors than ever before.



For the full story, see:

KRIS MAHER. "Pennsylvania Pie Fight: State Cracks Down on Baked Goods; Inspector Nabs Homemade Desserts At St. Cecilia Church's Lenten Fish Fry." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., APRIL 10, 2009): A1 & A10.

(Note: ellipses added.)





July 22, 2009

The Conflict Between Science and Faith



Professor Krauss is a physicist at Arizona State University.

(p. A15) My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

-- J.B.S. Haldane


J.B.S. Haldane, an evolutionary biologist and a founder of population genetics, understood that science is by necessity an atheistic discipline. As Haldane so aptly described it, one cannot proceed with the process of scientific discovery if one assumes a "god, angel, or devil" will interfere with one's experiments. God is, of necessity, irrelevant in science.

Faced with the remarkable success of science to explain the workings of the physical world, many, indeed probably most, scientists understandably react as Haldane did. Namely, they extrapolate the atheism of science to a more general atheism.

While such a leap may not be unimpeachable it is certainly rational, as Mr. McGinn pointed out at the World Science Festival. Though the scientific process may be compatible with the vague idea of some relaxed deity who merely established the universe and let it proceed from there, it is in fact rationally incompatible with the detailed tenets of most of the world's organized religions. As Sam Harris recently wrote in a letter responding to the Nature editorial that called him an "atheist absolutist," a "reconciliation between science and Christianity would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions."



For the full commentary, see:

LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS. "OPINION: God and Science Don't Mix; A scientist can be a believer. But professionally, at least, he can't act like one." The Wall Street Journal (Fri., JUNE 26, 2009): A15.

(Note: italics in original.)





July 2, 2009

If the Medici Had Not Intervened, Galileo "Would Have Been Killed"



(p. D7) The Franklin Institute and its aspiring blockbuster, "Galileo, the Medici & the Age of Astronomy," are something of an odd couple -- a circumstance explained, like so much else, by history.


. . .

Meanwhile, the exhibition leaves provocative questions -- about the nexus of church and state, as well as science and faith -- unanswered. If Galileo was still a court favorite, and science was so revered in Florence, why weren't the powerful dukes able to prevent his 1633 trial, heresy conviction, and sentence of house arrest?

Galileo's patrons did, in fact, intervene on his behalf, Filippo Camerota, vice director of the Institute and Museum for the History of Science and one of the exhibition curators, said in an interview. "If the Medici were not there," Mr. Camerota said, "he would have been killed." Good to know.



For the full commentary, see:

JULIA M. KLEIN. "Exhibition; What Galileo Saw." Wall Street Journal (Tues., APRIL 28, 2009): D7.

(Note: ellipsis added.)





May 19, 2009

Bacon Died Experimenting and Hegel Died Contradicting Himself



(p. C32) The philosopher Francis Bacon, that great champion of the empirical method, died of his own philosophy: in an effort to observe the effects of refrigeration, on a freezing cold day he stuffed a chicken with snow and caught pneumonia.

As a philosopher dies, so he has lived and believed. And from the manner of his dying we can understand his thinking, or so the philosopher Simon Critchley seems to be saying in his cheekily titled "Book of Dead Philosophers."

. . .

Mr. Critchley recounts that Voltaire, after decades of denouncing the Roman Catholic Church, announced on his deathbed that he wanted to die a Catholic. But the shocked parish priest kept asking him, "Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?" Voltaire begged, "In the name of God, Monsieur, don't speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace."

Hegel, who, as much as any philosopher, Mr. Critchley says, saw philosophy as an abstraction, while he was dying of cholera, moaned, "Only one man ever understood me ... and he didn't understand me."




For the full review, see:

DINITIA SMITH. "Books of The Times - Dying and Death: When You Sort It Out, What's It All About, Diogenes?" The New York Times (Fri., January 30, 2009): C32.

(Note: ellipsis between paragraphs was added; ellipsis in Hegel quote was in original.)


The reference to Critchley's book, is:

Critchley, Simon. The Book of Dead Philosophers. New York: Vintage Books, 2009.





April 25, 2009

God's "Perverse Appetite for Burning Down the Buildings Erected in His Honor"



(p. 22) Humans had long recognized that lighting had a pro-(p. 23)pensity for striking the tallest landmarks in its vicinity, and so the exaggerated height of church steeples--not to mention their flammable wooden construction--presented a puzzling but undeniable reality: the Almighty seemed to have a perverse appetite for burning down the buildings erected in His honor.


Source:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.





April 14, 2009

Steven Johnson's The Invention of Air



InventionOfAirBK.jpg














Source of book image: http://stevenberlinjohnson.typepad.com/photos/uncategorized/2008/09/10/invention_final_81908.jpg


Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, about the determined entrepreneurial detective work that uncovered the cause of cholera, is one of my all-time favorite books, so I am now in the mode of reading everything else that Steven Johnson has written, or will write.

The most recent book, The Invention of Air, is not as spectacular as The Ghost Map, but is well-written on a thought-provoking topic. It focuses on Joseph Priestley's role in the American Revolution. Priestley is best known as an early chemist, but Johnson paints him as a poly-math whose science was of a piece with his philosophy, politics and his religion.

Johnson's broader point is that for many of the founding fathers, science was not a compartment of their lives, but part of the whole cloth (hey, it's my blog, so I can mix as many metaphors as I want to).

And the neat bottom line is that Priestley's method of science (and polity) is the same broadly empirical/experimental/entrepreneurial method that usually leads to truth and progress.

Along the way, Johnson makes many amusing and thought-provoking observations, such as the paragraphs devoted to his coffee-house theory of the enlightenment. (You see, coffee makes for clearer thinking than beer.)


The book:

Johnson, Steven. The Invention of Air: A Story of Science, Faith, Revolution, and the Birth of America. New York: Riverhead Books, 2008.






March 21, 2009

The Values of the Belgian Diamond Market


DiamondTradeOrthodoxJews.JPG "Orthodox Jews have been at the center of Antwerp's diamond trade since the late 19th century, when they fled Eastern Europe." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


Markets will work better when a critical mass of participants hold certain core values, including those of tolerance and honesty.

(p. A11) ANTWERP, Belgium -- Teetering on their bicycles or strolling amiably while chattering into cellphones in Yiddish, Dutch, French, Hebrew or English, the Orthodox Jews of this Belgian port city have set the tone of its lively diamond market for more than a century.

Hoveniersstraat, or Gardener's Street, is the backbone of the market, where four-fifths of the world's uncut diamonds are traded. It winds past the L & A Jewelry Factory and the office of Brinks, the armored car company, and on to the World Diamond Center just opposite the little Sephardic synagogue. On any given day but Friday, it is sprinkled liberally with Orthodox Jewish diamond traders, many of them Hasidim.

. . .

Ari Epstein, 33, is the son of a diamond trader, whose father emigrated from a village in Romania in the 1960s. "It's a typical shtetl environment," he said, wearing the yarmulke with a business suit. "It's live and let live. Most important is to do business together and to be honorable."



For the full story, see:

JOHN TAGLIABUE. "Antwerp Journal; Belgian Market's Luster Dims, but Legacy Stays." The New York Times (Tues., January 6, 2009): A11.

(Note: ellipsis added.)


DiamondBelgianMarket.jpg













"The market employs about 7,000 and creates work indirectly for another 26,000." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





February 12, 2009

"A Splendid Birthday Present" for Charles Darwin


WhyEvolutionIsTrueBK.jpg












Source of the book image: http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/34510000/34519930.jpg


(p. A13) . . ., on Feb. 12, biologists the world over will celebrate Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Throughout the year, at festivals galore marking his bicentennial, "On the Origin of Species," a mere 150 years old, will be hailed as one of the greatest works in the history of the sciences.

. . .

Mr. Coyne begins with a succinct account of what is at stake. "Life on earth evolved gradually beginning with one primitive species -- perhaps a self-replicating molecule -- that lived more than 3.5 billion years ago; it then branched out over time, throwing off many and diverse species; and the mechanism for most (but not all) of evolutionary change is natural selection."

Darwinism is thus a claim with several basic components, and the book is structured by carefully exhibiting the evidence for each. Making that structure explicit allows readers to recognize just where they are in the argument. As they follow Mr. Coyne's parade of evidence -- his discussions of the fossil record, of vestigial traits, of the ways in which living things constantly make novel use of the bits and pieces they have inherited, of the distribution of plants and animals -- the components of Darwin's thesis are sequentially supported. We have a list of things to be shown, they are shown and the truth of evolution is established.

. . .

Yet will any defense of Darwin, however painstaking and lucid, succeed in substantially modifying the public-opinion survey results? Mr. Coyne has seen the opposition first-hand, recounting his experience of talking to a group of businessmen about evolution and eliciting the reaction: "Very convincing -- but I don't believe it." This sort of skepticism is often rooted in a sense that Darwinism somehow discredits morality -- a perception that Mr. Coyne argues against, cogently, in a brief final chapter. But he does not seem to appreciate the depth of popular hostility toward Darwin.

. . .

Whether or not he succeeds in bringing Americans en masse to learn to love evolution, he has offered Darwin a splendid birthday present.



For the full review, see:

PHILIP KITCHER. "Bookshelf; Following the Evidence." Wall Street Journal (Thurs., JANUARY 29, 2009): A13.

(Note: ellipses added.)

The reviewed book is:

Coyne, Jerry A. Why Evolution Is True. New York: Viking, 2009.


A classic paper on whether the speed of a scientist's acceptance of evolution was related to the scientist's age, is:

David L. Hull, Peter D. Tessner and Arthur M. Diamond. "Planck's Principle: Do Younger Scientists Accept New Scientific Ideas with Greater Alacrity than Older Scientists?" Science 202 (November 17, 1978): 717-723.




February 11, 2009

Socialist Guyanese Government Welcomed Jonestown



(p. W3) We expect our killing fields to be marked a certain way, and with at least a certain rhetoric of rectitude. At Jonestown, in Guyana, there are no markers, no memorials noting what took place, no manicured clearings to mark how the site looked 30 years ago, when more than 900 Americans died there in a still hard-to-imagine moment of mass suicide and outright murder.

. . .

The Guyanese government had tried to develop a new and proud independent identity for the country that would serve as a model for postcolonial development -- and initially welcomed Jim Jones as a blow to the American forces of imperialism. After the massacre, the country's leaders opted to absolve themselves of the events, pointing to the Americans as if they had landed from Mars.

. . .

The idea of colonizing the interior, whether it be for its mineral promise or for imagining a new social reality and set of possibilities for future generations, has long enchanted -- and frustrated -- post-independence Guyanese politicians.

No political leader was more adept at exploiting the idea or realizing its failure than Forbes Burnham, who led the country from independence in 1966 until his death in 1985. His aspirations to create a unique Guyanese path to socialism -- through a top-heavy program of massively nationalized industry and agriculture in the interior -- aggressively chased off foreign investment.

Mr. Burnham welcomed not only Jim Jones but other soi-disant radical movements into Guyana, turning the country into an ideological Disneyworld for the charismatic and the disaffected in the late '70s. After the Jonestown massacre, he hatched a clandestine scheme with a Christian evangelical group associated with Billy Graham's son Franklin to repopulate the site with anti-Communist Hmong tribesmen exiled from Laos. Like most of Mr. Burnham's pipe dreams of developing the bush, it failed.

In 1978, Mr. Burnham's unpopularity was growing and his overconfident austerity economy was failing. Guyanese-style socialist development meant not only nationalization of foreign companies but strict laws against exports, which led to crippling food shortages.




For the full commentary, see:

ERIC BANKS. "Essay; The Legacy of Jonestown; Thirty years after the murder-suicides in Guyana, the country struggles with memories of the event." Wall Street Journal (Sat., DECEMBER 13, 2008): W3.

(Note: ellipses added.)






January 5, 2009

Christian Care "Replaced Roman Hygiene with Frequent Prayers and Infrequent Baths"


Hager discusses the medical practices of Paris' Hôtel Dieu lying-in maternity hospital in the 17th century, that led to widespread, and often fatal, childbed fever:

(p. 114) Every day the senior doctors would arrive on their rounds followed closely by a gaggle of students. They would pull the women's covers down, pass hands over their abdomens, point, prod, and discuss. Although the physicians' wigs were carefully powdered, their hands were generally unwashed. Christian care, which emphasized purity of the soul over that of the body, had replaced Roman hygiene with frequent prayers and infrequent baths. In Paris the privies and slaughterhouses (as well as the hospital wards of the Hôtel Dieu) dumped their waste into the Seine, then drew drinking and washing water from the same source. Bedding was washed infrequently. Lice and fleas abounded.


Source:

Hager, Thomas. The Demon under the Microscope: From Battlefield Hospitals to Nazi Labs, One Doctor's Heroic Search for the World's First Miracle Drug. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007.




December 22, 2008

Resilience is Key to Surviving Disasters (and to Successful Entrepreneurship)


I believe that resilience is a key characteristic of successful entrepreneurs. Amanda Ripley has some plausible and useful comments on resilience in the passages quoted below.


(p. 91) Resilience is a precious skill. People who have it tend to also have three underlying advantages: a belief that they can influence life events; a tendency to find meaningful purpose in life's turmoil; and a conviction that they can learn from both positive and negative experiences. These beliefs act as a sort of buffer, cushioning the blow of any given disaster. Dangers seem more manageable to these people, and they perform better as a result.    . . .

. . .    A healthy, proactive worldview should logically lead to resilience. But it's the kind of unsatisfying answer that begs another question. If this worldview leads to resilience, well what leads to the worldview?

(p. 92) The answer is not what we might expect. Resilient people aren't necessarily yoga-practicing Buddhists. One thing that they have in abundance is confidence. As we saw in the chapter on fear, confidence---that comes from realistic rehearsal or even laughter---soothes the more disruptive effects of extreme fear. A few recent studies have found that people who are unrealistically confident tend to fare spectacularly well in disasters. Psychologists call these people "self-enhancers," but you and I would probably call them arrogant. These are people who think more highly of themselves than other people think of them. They tend to come off as annoying and self-absorbed. In a way, they might be better adapted to crises than they are to real life.



Source:

Ripley, Amanda. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why. New York: Crown Publishers, 2008.

(Note: ellipses added.)





December 9, 2008

I Was Wrong: Apparently the U.S. Auto Industry Does Have a Prayer


PrayingAutoIndustryMiracle.jpg"PRAYING FOR A MIRACLE.   S.U.V.'s sat on the altar of Greater Grace Temple, a Pentecostal church in Detroit, as congregants prayed to save the auto industry." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.

The process of creative destruction, requires that failed businesses be allowed to fail, so that the resources (labor and capital) devoted to the failed businesses, can be devoted to more productive uses.

The Danny DeVito character in "Other People's Money" makes this point in a speech near the end, in which he says that the Gregory Peck character has just delivered a "prayer for the dead" in calling for continued support for a dead business that is technologically obsolete.

On a more personal level, we have always bought cars from Honda and Toyota, because we sincerely believe that they build better cars than Detroit does. By what right does the government force taxpayers to prop up companies whose products have been rejected in the marketplace?

When the economic and moral arguments for bailout fail, all that is left for a failed industry is prayer (and politics)---one more reason to believe that the opportunity cost of prayer, is high.

(p. A19) DETROIT -- The Sunday service at Greater Grace Temple began with the Clark Sisters song "I'm Looking for a Miracle" and included a reading of this verse from the Book of Romans: "I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us."

Pentecostal Bishop Charles H. Ellis III, who shared the sanctuary's wide altar with three gleaming sport utility vehicles, closed his sermon by leading the choir and congregants in a boisterous rendition of the gospel singer Myrna Summers's "We're Gonna Make It" as hundreds of worshipers who work in the automotive industry -- union assemblers, executives, car salesmen -- gathered six deep around the altar to have their foreheads anointed with consecrated oil.

While Congress debated aid to the foundering Detroit automakers Sunday, many here whose future hinges on the decision turned to prayer.

Outside the Corpus Christi Catholic Church, a sign beckoned passers-by inside to hear about "God's bailout plan."



For the full story, see:

NICK BUNKLEY. "Detroit Churches Pray for 'God's Bailout'." The New York Times (Mon., December 8, 2008): A19.

(Note: The photo of the top appeared on p. A1 of the print edition of the December 8, 2008 NYT; also, the online version of the article has a date of Dec. 7 instead of the Dec. 8 date of the print version.)

PrayingAutoIndustryMiracle2.jpg"Worshipers at Greater Grace Temple, a Pentecostal church in Detroit, prayed on Sunday for an automobile industry miracle." Source of the caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.




December 7, 2008

In Amsterdam: Expecting the Spanish Inquisition


Gregorius.jpg



A cartoon of the cartoonist who calls himself Gregorius Nekschot. Source of the photo: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. W1) Amsterdam

On a sunny May morning, six plainclothes police officers, two uniformed policemen and a trio of functionaries from the state prosecutor's office closed in on a small apartment in Amsterdam. Their quarry: a skinny Dutch cartoonist with a rude sense of humor. Informed that he was suspected of sketching offensive drawings of Muslims and other minorities, the Dutchman surrendered without a struggle.

"I never expected the Spanish Inquisition," recalls the cartoonist, who goes by the nom de plume Gregorius Nekschot, quoting the British comedy team Monty Python. A fan of ribald gags, he's a caustic foe of religion, particularly Islam. The Quran, crucifixion, sexual organs and goats are among his favorite motifs.

Mr. Nekschot, whose cartoons had appeared mainly on his own Web site, spent the night in a jail cell. Police grabbed his computer, a hard drive and sketch pads. He's been summoned for further questioning later this month by prosecutors. He hasn't been charged with a crime, but the prosecutor's office says he's been under investigation for three years on suspicion that he violated a Dutch law that forbids discrimination on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation.

The cartoon affair has come as a shock to a country that sees itself as a bastion of tolerance, a tradition forged by grim memories of bloody conflict between Catholics and Protestants. The Netherlands sheltered Jews and other refugees from the Spanish Inquisition, and Calvinists fleeing persecution in France. Its thinkers helped nurture the 18th-century Enlightenment. Prostitutes, marijuana and pornography have been legal for decades.

"This is serious. It is about freedom of speech," says Mark Rutte, the leader of a center-right opposition party. Some of Mr. Nekschot's oeuvre is "really disgusting," he says, "but that is free speech."

. . .


Mr. Nekschot, who calls the investigation "surreal," says, "Not even Monty Python could have come up with this." (His pen name, Gregorius Nekschot, is a mocking tribute to Gregory IX, a 13th-century pope who set up a Vatican department to hunt down and execute heretics. Nekschot means "shot in the neck" in Dutch.) Some Muslim groups have voiced dismay at his arrest as well. The head of an organization of Moroccan preachers in Holland said authorities seemed "more afraid" of offending Islam than Muslims.

. . .

The cartoonist blames his woes on what he calls Holland's "political correctness industry," a network of often state-funded organizations set up to protect Muslims and other minority groups. One of these, an Internet monitoring group known as MDI, says it received dozens of complaints about the cartoonist's mockery of Islam and first reported him to the prosecutor's office in 2005.

"We're not sure what he does is illegal, but there is a possibility that it is not legal," says the group's head, Niels van Tamelen. Many of the complaints, he says, came from followers of a controversial Muslim convert called Abdul-Jabbar van de Ven.

Mr. Van de Ven caused an uproar after the 2004 murder of Mr. Van Gogh, when he seemed to welcome the killing on national TV. He said Mr. Wilders, the anti-immigrant legislator, also deserved to die, preferably from cancer. Mr. Nekschot, appalled by the outburst, caricatured the convert as a fatwa-spewing fanatic.



For the full story, see:

ANDREW HIGGINS. "Why Islam Is Unfunny for a Cartoonist; The arrest of a controversial Dutch cartoonist has set off a wave of protests. The case is raising questions for a changing Europe about free speech, religion and art." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., JULY 12, 2008): W1 & W6.

(Note: ellipses added.)




November 24, 2008

Founder of Experimental Science Received Prison as His Reward


(p. 53) Where men had once said, 'Credo ut intelligam' (understanding can come only through belief), they now said, 'Intelligo ut credam' (belief can come only through understanding). In 1277, Roger Bacon was imprisoned for an indefinite period for holding these opinions. Free and rational investigation of nature was to come hard in the clash between reason and faith which would echo down to our own time.


Source:

Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo's Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World. Back Bay Books, 1995.





November 20, 2008

A Succinct Account of the Rise of Anti-Semitism


James Burke, writing of the ninth-century AD (the century of Charlemagne's death in 814 AD):

(p. 32) It was at this time too that anti-Semitism, previously rare, began to increase. Money-lending, which was forbidden by the Christian Church, was permitted under Jewish law, and the Jews, prevented from owning land, turned to the new business currency. Many of them grew rich and were resented.


Source:

Burke, James. The Day the Universe Changed: How Galileo's Telescope Changed the Truth and Other Events in History That Dramatically Altered Our Understanding of the World. Back Bay Books, 1995.




October 23, 2008

Based on Past Experience, the Renaissance Was Impossible


(p. 26) Even the wisest of them were at a hopeless disadvantage, for their only guide in sorting it all out---the only guide anyone ever has---was the past, and precedents are worse than useless when facing something entirely new. They suffered another handicap. As medieval men, crippled by ten centuries of immobility, they viewed the world through distorted prisms peculiar to their age.

In all that time nothing of real consequence had either improved or declined. Except for the introduction of waterwheels in the 800s and windmills in the late 1100s, there had been no inventions of significance. No startling new ideas had appeared, no new terri-(p. 27)tories outside Europe had been explored. Everything was as it had been for as long as the oldest European could remember. The center of the Ptolemaic universe was the known world---Europe, with the Holy Land and North Africa on its fringes. The sun moved round it every day. Heaven was above the immovable earth, somewhere in the overarching sky; hell seethed far beneath their feet. Kings ruled at the pleasure of the Almighty; all others did what they were told to do. Jesus, the son of God, had been crucified and resurrected, and his reappearance was imminent, or at any rate inevitable. Every human being adored him (the Jews and the Muslims being invisible). The Church was indivisible, the afterlife a certainty; all knowledge was already known. And nothing would ever change.

The mighty storm was swiftly approaching, but Europeans were not only unaware of it; they were convinced that such a phenomenon could not exist. Shackled in ignorance, disciplined by fear, and sheathed in superstition, they trudged into the sixteenth century in the clumsy, hunched, pigeon-toed gait of rickets victims, their vacant faces, pocked by smallpox, turned blindly toward the future they thought they knew---gullible, pitiful innocents who were about to be swept up in the most powerful, incomprehensible, irresistible vortex since Alaric had led his Visigoths and Huns across the Alps, fallen on Rome, and extinguished the lamps of learning a thousand years before.



Source:

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age. New York: Little, Brown & Co., 1993.

(Note: italics in original.)




September 23, 2008

Montezuma Tried Appeasement with Cortes


ConquistadorBK.jpg










Source of book image: http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/26910000/26912572.jpg

(p. A 13) Cortés was a man of deep contradictions. A devout Catholic, he was horrified by the sights and sounds of Aztec worship: its human sacrifices and cannibalism, its skull racks, its idols draped with human body parts, its priests with their blood-clotted hair. But he was not above massacring his enemies or burning them at the stake. He was genuinely dazzled by his first sight of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, with its tidy fields and gleaming stone causeways, a city of nearly a quarter-million people that was, he wrote in a letter to the Spanish king, more beautiful than any in Europe. Even so, he was ready to destroy it all to feed his desire for gold and to bend the Aztecs to his will.

If Cortés was a man of contradictions, Montezuma was not. Studious and conscientious, he had been trained for Aztec priesthood before becoming emperor in 1503 -- the same year that Cortes set out from Spain for America. Montezuma believed in the rightness of his own convictions but also, it appears, in the importance of an open mind. As Mr. Levy shows, he always looked for ways to dispel a crisis by placating the feelings of all concerned. He would have made a fine college president. From his first meeting with Cortés in November 1519, though, he was desperately overmatched.

Montezuma hoped that, by giving Cortés magnificent gifts of gold and silver, he could make him go away. He made him want to stay instead. The Aztec ruler never quite shook off the suspicion that Cortés might be the Aztec god Quetzelcoatl returning home according to ancient prophesy -- a suspicion that led Montezuma to want to treat the intrusive Spaniards as guests rather than a threat.

Cortés exploited Montezuma's weakness without scruple, squeezing one concession after another out of him until, though outnumbered by more than 1,000-to-1, Cortés made him a hostage. When Montezuma had lost all credibility with his people and was no longer useful, Cortés cast him aside. Montezuma died a broken man -- although probably not, Mr. Levy argues, at Cortes's order. It is more likely that Montezuma died from wounds inflicted by his own subjects. When they saw him appear in chains and appeal for calm, they had bombarded him with stones and arrows. His weakness, they understood, had betrayed them to the Spanish.



For the full review, see:

ARTHUR HERMAN. "Bookshelf; Spain Says Hello." The Wall Street Journal (Thurs., July 10, 2008): A13.

The reference for the book, is:

Levy, Buddy. Conquistador. New York: Bantam Books, 2008.




August 4, 2008

Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Hero of Freedom, RIP


I heard last night that Aleksander Solzhenitsyn had died late that on that day, August 3, 2008.

Like all of us, he had his flaws. But he had strong moral courage in standing up against the enslavement of the masses by the communist tyranny of the USSR. For that he paid a huge price, partly in the form of the years of forced labor in the prison camps that he carefully documented in his massive The Gulag Archipelago. (I must admit that I never read The Gulag, although I believe my father, to his credit, read every page.)

I remember my mentor Ben Rogge reading The First Circle and highly recommending it to us. The book's title is based on Dante's Inferno which describes the nine circles of hell, where each successive circle assigns increasingly horrendous eternal punishments, for those guilty of increasingly terrible sins. In the first circle, good people born before Jesus, are allowed to pursue their interests much as they had on earth. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, for instance, engage in eternal dialogue.

In Solzhenitsyn's version, Stalin allows a group of scientists to have better living conditions, and somewhat more freedom than ordinary Soviet citizens, so long as the scientists make progress on projects that enable Stalin to extend his power.

One of the revelations in the book is that those who imposed the tyranny, had motives that were not always evil. One bureaucratic candidate for villainy, for instance, did bad things, in order to protect his family. At the top there is Stalin, but he is portrayed as insane.

The point is one that Rogge often made---people are pretty much the same everywhere. What mainly explains the differences in different societies are different institutions that provide differing incentives and constraints.

It is a fitting tribute to Solzhenitsyn that the first unabridged English translation of The First Circle will soon be published.

I salute Solzhenitsyn for his insights, and even more, for his courage at standing up against an evil system.




August 1, 2008

William Manchester Shows the Darkness of the Dark Ages


WorldLitOnlyByFireBK.jpg









Source of book image: http://www.cs.princeton.edu/~aahobor/Lucy-Day/Images/Covers-50/A-World-Lit-Only-by-Fire.jpg

William Manchester was better known for other books, but I recommend A World Lit Only by Fire. It is not always pleasant reading, but it is often fascinating, and sometimes amusing or edifying. Unlike some historians, who are afraid to call the Dark Ages dark because they are afraid to make value judgments, Manchester details just how 'brutish, nasty and short' life was during the centuries from 400 AD to 1000 AD (and to a large extent even up to 1600).

He also exposes the failings of institutions and historical individuals who are now revered, including martial Popes who lived ostentatiously with funds extracted from starving peasants, and Protestant 'reformers' who burned books and murdered those they considered heretics.

Only a few hundred years separates us from the times that Manchester chronicles. It is useful to contemplate how far we have come, and how far we may fall, if we do not recognize and defend the values upon which civilization depends.

Reference:

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance, Portrait of an Age. Back Bay Publishers, 1993.




July 2, 2008

The Radical Islamic Threat to Free Speech


AliAyaanHirsi2.jpg

"Marked for death: Ayaan Hirsi Ali." Source of caption and photo: online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

(p. A15) Criticism of Islam, however, has led to violence and murder world-wide. Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for Muslims to kill Salman Rushdie over his 1988 book, "The Satanic Verses." Although Mr. Rushdie has survived, two people associated with the book were stabbed, one fatally. The 2005 Danish editorial cartoons lampooning the prophet Muhammad led to numerous deaths. Dutch director Theodoor van Gogh was killed in 2004, several months after he made the film "Submission," which described violence against women in Islamic societies. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a former Dutch member of parliament who wrote the script for "Submission," received death threats over the film and fled the country for the United States.


The violence Dutch officials are anticipating now is part of a broad and determined effort by the radical jihadist movement to reject the basic values of modern civilization and replace them with an extreme form of Shariah. Shariah, the legal code of Islam, governed the Muslim world in medieval times and is used to varying degrees in many nations today, especially in Saudi Arabia.

Radical jihadists are prepared to use violence against individuals to stop them from exercising their free speech rights. In some countries, converting a Muslim to another faith is a crime punishable by death. While Muslim clerics are free to preach and proselytize in the West, some Muslim nations severely restrict or forbid other faiths to do so. In addition, moderate Muslims around the world have been deemed apostates and enemies by radical jihadists.


For the full commentary, see:

PETER HOEKSTRA. "Islam and Free Speech." The Wall Street Journal (Weds., March 26, 2008): A15.




April 17, 2008

"Frustration Opens the Door to Religiosity"


SayyidPrayingCairoMosque.jpg "Ahmed Muhammad Sayyid, center, praying at a Cairo mosque, has drawn religion closer after many disappointments." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. 1) Here in Egypt and across the Middle East, many young people are being forced to put off marriage, the gateway to independence, sexual activity and societal respect. Stymied by the government's failure to provide adequate schooling and thwarted by an economy without jobs to match their abilities or aspirations, they are stuck in limbo between youth and adulthood.

"I can't get a job, I have no money, I can't get married, what can I say?" Mr. Sayyid said one day after becoming so overwhelmed that he refused to go to work, or to go home, and spent the day hiding at a friend's apartment.

In their frustration, the young are turning to religion for solace and purpose, pulling their parents and their governments along with them.

. . .

The wave of religious identification has forced governments that are increasingly seen as corrupt or inept to seek their own public redemption through religion.

. . .

(p. 11) Depression and despair tormented dozens of men and women in their 20s interviewed across Egypt, from urban men like Mr. Sayyid to frustrated village residents like Walid Faragallah, who once hoped education would guarantee him social mobility. Their stifled dreams stoke anger toward the government.

"Nobody cares about the people," Mr. Sayyid said, slapping his hands against the air, echoing sentiment repeated in many interviews with young people across Egypt. "Nobody cares. What is holding me back is the system. Find a general with children and he will have an apartment for each of them. My government is only close to those close to the government."

. . .

Mr. Sayyid's path to stalemate began years ago, in school.

Like most Egyptians educated in public schools, his course of study was determined entirely by grades on standardized tests. He was not a serious student, often skipping school, but scored well enough to go on to an academy, something between high school and a university. He was put in a five-year program to study tourism and hotel operations.

His diploma qualified him for little but unemployment. Education experts say that while Egypt has lifted many citizens out of il-(p. 12)literacy, its education system does not prepare young people for work in the modern world. Nor, according to a recent Population Council report issued in Cairo, does its economy provide enough well-paying jobs to allow many young people to afford marriage.

Egypt's education system was originally devised to produce government workers under a compact with society forged in the heady early days of President Gamal Abdel Nasser's administration in the late 1950s and '60s.

Every graduate was guaranteed a government job, and peasant families for the first time were offered the prospect of social mobility through education. Now children of illiterate peasant farmers have degrees in engineering, law or business. The dream of mobility survives, but there are not enough government jobs for the floods of graduates. And many are not qualified for the private sector jobs that do exist, government and business officials said, because of their poor schooling. Business students often never touch a computer, for example.

On average, it takes several years for graduates to find their first job, in part because they would rather remain unemployed than work in a blue-collar factory position. It is considered a blow to family honor for a college graduate to take a blue-collar job, leaving large numbers of young people with nothing to do.

"O.K., he's a college graduate," said Muhammad el-Seweedy, who runs a government council that has tried with television commercials to persuade college graduates to take factory jobs and has provided training to help improve their skills. "It's done. Now forget it. This is a reality."

But more widespread access to education has raised expectations. "Life was much more bearable for the poor when they did accept their social status," said Galal Amin, an economist and the author of "Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?" "But it is unimaginable when you have an education, to have this thought accepted. Frustration opens the door to religiosity."


For the full story, see:

MICHAEL SLACKMAN. "Generation Faithful; Dreams Stifled, Egypt's Young Turn to Islamic Fervor." The New York Times, First Section (Sun., February 17, 2008): 1 & 11-12.

(Note: ellipses added.)


YoungAndJoblessMapGraph.jpg Source of graphic: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.





November 14, 2007

Religiosity Inversely Related to Per Capita GDP

 

  Source of graph:  Pew Global Attitudes Project report summary cited below.

 

I ran across the graph above while looking for other information at the Pew site.  The graph is consistent with my belief that science contributes to economic prosperity, and that science and religion are in conflict. 

But of course many questions can be raised, such as:  how did they measure religiosity? 

Here is there answer to that question:

Religiosity is measured using a three-item index ranging from 0-3, with "3" representing the most religious position. Respondents were given a "1" if they believe faith in God is necessary for morality; a "1" if they say religion is very important in their lives; and a "1" if they pray at least once a day.

 

Source: 

"World Publics Welcome Global Trade -- But Not Immigration."  Pew Global Attitudes Project, a project of the PewResearchCenter Released: 10.04.07 dowloaded from: http://pewglobal.org/reports/display.php?ReportID=258

 




July 8, 2007

Dubai Is "Turbo-Charged Free-Market Capitalism"

 

DubaiCamel.jpg   Dubai skyline.  Source of photo:  online version of the WSJ commentary quoted and cited below.

 

(p. A9) Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates, represents turbo-charged free-market capitalism at its purest -- sometimes crass, often over-the-top, and always in motion. Home to more than 1.2 million people, more than 80% of whom are resident aliens, Dubai is as much a multicultural melting pot as New York City was in its late 19th century heyday. And like New York then, Dubai teems with winners and losers, the rich and not-so-rich, and immigrants who often find that life in the glittering metropolis is cold, hard and unfair. But the government maintains order, spends billions on infrastructure and is dedicated to establishing the city-state as a global capital of, well, capital.

. . .

Seeing Dubai as an economic model for other parts of the Arab world is admittedly a challenge: Like Singapore, it has the virtues of a small ruling class, a tiny population and not much territory, and that is not something Egypt or Syria could emulate. But as a cultural model, or an attitude, it does offer an alternate vision of the future, one with its own excesses and vices for sure, but still free of the divisiveness and religious conflict that has become the assumed status quo in other parts of the Middle East.

Dubai should not be written off as little more than an Arab Las Vegas. It deeply challenges the assumption that Muslims, Christians and Jews cannot find common ground and work together to construct a shared future. Dubai is proof, not perfect, but real, that they can.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

ZACHARY KARABELL. "City of Dreams." The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., March 17, 2007):  A9.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)

 




June 20, 2007

Chichen Itza May Have Lasted Longer than Other Mayan City-States Because of Its Free Trade

 

  The guide told us that this area of pillars at Chichen Itza, in the Yucatan of Mexico, is thought to have been a market area.  (Photo taken by me on April 8, 2007, at the excursion to Chichen Itza arranged for the Association of Private Enterprise Education.)

 

Usually we think of the Catholic Church's great damage to knowledge being its persecution of Galileo and attempted suppression of heliocentricism.  But the suppression quickly failed and nothing permanent was lost.

A greater harm to knowledge may have been done when, in the name of the inquisition, countless Mayan manuscripts were burned by the Spanish conquistadors.

Evidence was destroyed that likely would have helped us understand how the Mayan society worked.

For example, we were told on our visit to Chichen Itza that one hypothesis has it that Chichen Itza lasted 300 years longer than all other Mayan city-states because it was the only city-state dominated by cosmopolitan merchant and entrepreneur culture--an hypothesis that I find highly congenial.

Unfortunately, much of the evidence that might have confirmed, elaborated, or refuted this hypothesis, was destroyed forever.

 




June 13, 2007

A Public Choice Theory of the Absence of Evidence of the Exodus of the Israelites

 

   The excavation of a fort from roughly the time and place of the biblical exodus of the Israelites from Egypt.  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

The economic theory of public choice is often viewed as having begun with Buchanan and Tullock's The Calculus of Consent.  The theory seeks to explain the behavior of government, and government officials, as arising from the same self-interested motives as are used by economists to explain the behavior of free markets, firms, and consumers.

 

It didn’t look like much — some ancient buried walls of a military fort and a few pieces of volcanic lava. The archaeologist, Dr. Zahi Hawass, often promotes mummies and tombs and pharaonic antiquities that command international attention and high ticket prices. But this bleak landscape, broken only by electric pylons, excited him because it provided physical evidence of stories told in hieroglyphics. It was proof of accounts from antiquity.

That prompted a reporter to ask about the Exodus, and if the new evidence was linked in any way to the story of Passover. The archaeological discoveries roughly coincided with the timing of the Israelites’ biblical flight from Egypt and the 40 years of wandering the desert in search of the Promised Land.

“Really, it’s a myth,” Dr. Hawass said of the story of the Exodus, as he stood at the foot of a wall built during what is called the New Kingdom. 

. . .  

Recently, diggers found evidence of lava from a volcano in the Mediterranean Sea that erupted in 1500 B.C. and is believed to have killed 35,000 people and wiped out villages in Egypt, Palestine and the Arabian Peninsula, officials here said. The same diggers found evidence of a military fort with four rectangular towers, now considered the oldest fort on the Horus military road.

But nothing was showing up that might help prove the Old Testament story of Moses and the Israelites fleeing Egypt, or wandering in the desert. Dr. Hawass said he was not surprised, given the lack of archaeological evidence to date. But even scientists can find room to hold on to beliefs.

Dr. Mohamed Abdel-Maqsoud, the head of the excavation, seemed to sense that such a conclusion might disappoint some. People always have doubts until something is discovered to confirm it, he noted.

Then he offered another theory, one that he said he drew from modern Egypt.

“A pharaoh drowned and a whole army was killed,” he said recounting the portion of the story that holds that God parted the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape, then closed the waters on the pursuing army.

“This is a crisis for Egypt, and Egyptians do not document their crises.”

 

For the full story, see: 

MICHAEL SLACKMAN.  "North Sinai Journal Did the Red Sea Part? No Evidence, Archaeologists Say."   The New York Times  (Tues., April 3, 2007):  A4.

(Note:  ellipsis added.) 

 

 A female skelaton buried near the fort (above).  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited above.

 




June 5, 2007

Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin "Really Enjoyed the Montessori Method"

 

MOM-Web-Cover-2007-02.png MOM-Web-Brin-2007-02.png   Source for the image of the Moment issue cover, on left: http://www.momentmag.com/issue/index.html   Source for the image of the first page of the article, on right:  online version of the Moment article cited below.

 

Sergey, who turned six that summer, remembers what followed as simply “unsettling”—literally so. “We were in different places from day to day,” he says. The journey was a blur. First Vienna, where the family was met by representatives of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which helped thousands of Eastern European Jews establish new lives in the free world. Then, on to the suburbs of Paris, where Michael’s “unofficial” Jewish Ph.D. advisor, Anatole Katok, had arranged a temporary research position for him at the Institut des Hautes Etudes Scientifiques. Katok, who had emigrated the year before with his family, looked after the Brins and paved the way for Michael to teach at Maryland.

When the family finally landed in America on October 25, they were met at New York’s Kennedy Airport by friends from Moscow. Sergey’s first memory of the United States was of sitting in the backseat of the car, amazed at all the giant automobiles on the highway as their hosts drove them home to Long Island.

The Brins found a house to rent in Maryland—a simple, cinder-block structure in a lower-middle-class neighborhood not far from the university campus. With a $2,000 loan from the Jewish community, they bought a 1973 Ford Maverick. And, at Katok’s suggestion, they enrolled Sergey in Paint Branch Montessori School in Adelphi, Maryland.

He struggled to adjust. Bright-eyed and bashful, with only a rudimentary knowledge of English, Sergey spoke with a heavy accent when he started school. “It was a difficult year for him, the first year,” recalls Genia. “We were constantly discussing the fact we had been told that children are like sponges, that they immediately grasp the language and have no problem, and that wasn’t the case.”

Patty Barshay, the school’s director, became a friend and mentor to Sergey and his parents. She invited them to a party at her house that first December (“a bunch of Jewish people with nothing to do on Christmas Day”) and wound up teaching Genia how to drive. Everywhere they turned, there was so much to take in. “I remember them inviting me over for dinner one day,” Barshay says, “and I asked Genia, ‘What kind of meat is this?’ She had no idea. They had never seen so much meat” as American supermarkets offer.

When I ask about her former pupil, Barshay lights up, obviously proud of Sergey’s achievements. “Sergey wasn’t a particularly outgoing child,” she says, “but he always had the self-confidence to pursue what he had his mind set on.”

He gravitated toward puzzles, maps and math games that taught multiplication. “I really enjoyed the Montessori method,” he tells me. “I could grow at my own pace.” He adds that the Montessori environment—which gives students the freedom to choose activities that suit their interests—helped foster his creativity.

“He was interested in everything,” Barshay says, but adds, “I never thought he was any brighter than anyone else.”

 

For the full story, see:

Mark Malseed.  "The Story of Sergey Brin; How the Moscow-born entrepreneur cofounded and changed the way the world searches."  Moment Magazine  (February 2007).

 




March 10, 2007

Many Muslim Newcomers Did Not Embrace Dutch Tolerance

   Source of book image:  http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/12210000/12213853.jpg

 

Two key moments in Ms. Hirsi Ali's life stand out. One is her arrival in the West, a moment she considers to be her "real birthday." On the day her husband shows up at the refugee camp in Holland to claim his rights, Ms. Hirsi Ali finds that she can say "no" to a man stronger than she is, thanks to the protection of a democratic state, a protection made visible, in this case, by the presence of Dutch policemen. She thus experienced an imperative that to most of us is a mere abstraction: Individual freedom needs the rule of law.

The second pivotal moment in her life, Ms. Hirsi Ali says, was the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S. She understood what drove Mohamed Atta and his co-hijackers; she once shared their values and had known people like them in the Muslim Brotherhood. "Every devout Muslim who aspired to practice genuine Islam," she writes, "even if they didn't actively support the attacks, they must have at least approved of them." With 9/11, Ms. Hirsi Ali's religious doubts erupted into defiance of what she had known while growing up.

From that day onward, Ms. Hirsi Ali became a public voice in the Dutch post-9/11 debates. Eloquently, she made bruising, sometimes inflammatory, arguments. Islam was backward, she said, and needed its Voltaire. She declared that, considered by modern standards, the Prophet was a "pervert" because he had married a 9-year-old girl. Elected an MP for the market-oriented VVD Party in 2003, she became a politician in the grand, passionate style, breaking with Dutch habits of consensus and accommodation.

A nation of 16 million people, with a Muslim minority of about one million (mostly Moroccan and Turkish immigrants), the Netherlands was at the time (and is still) trapped by its carefully nurtured sense of tolerance and hospitality. The trouble was that its newcomers did not necessarily embrace tolerance, women's rights, free speech and other core Dutch values. Ms. Hirsi Ali knew that she was courting danger by openly addressing such concerns. Nonetheless, she pushed ahead and began working with director Theo van Gogh on "Submission," the film about the mistreatment of Muslim women. When van Gogh was murdered on Nov. 2, 2004, the police found a knife stuck in his body -- the weapon was holding in place a letter threatening Ms. Hirsi Ali.

 

For the full review, see: 

LUUK VAN MIDDELAAR.  "BOOKS; Out of Europe How a prominent African refugee confronted Islam -- then fled to the U.S."  The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., February 3, 2007):  P12.

 

Reference to the book: 

Ayaan Hirsi Ali.  INFIDEL.  Free Press, 2007.  (353 pages, $26) 

 




October 15, 2006

German Opera House "Falling On Its Knees Before the Terrorists"

   "A scene added to “Idomeneo,” shown in a 2003 rehearsal, includes Muhammad and other religious figures."  Source of photo and caption:  online version of the NYT article cited below. 

 

(p. A1)  BERLIN, Sept. 26 — A leading German opera house has canceled performances of a Mozart opera because of security fears stirred by a scene that depicts the severed head of the Prophet Muhammad, prompting a storm of protest here about what many see as the surrender of artistic freedom.

The Deutsche Oper Berlin said Tuesday that it had pulled “Idomeneo” from its fall schedule after the police warned of an “incalculable risk” to the performers and the audience.

. . .

Political and cultural figures throughout Germany condemned the cancellation.  Some said it recalled the decision of European newspapers not to reprint satirical cartoons about Muhammad, after their publication in Denmark generated a furor among Muslims.

Wolfgang Börnsen, a culture spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservative bloc in Parliament, accused the opera house of “falling on its knees before the terrorists.”

 

For the full story, see:

JUDY DEMPSEY and MARK LANDLER.  "Opera Canceled Over a Depiction of Muhammad." The New York Times  (Weds., September 27, 2006):  A1 & A12.

(Note:  ellipsis added.)




September 28, 2006

A Tale of Two Churches: Russia Has an Entrepreneurial Tradition Too

 

Two old and exotic churches, St. Basil's in Moscow and Kizhi in the Russian north, survived the Soviet era and are invariably depicted in brochures and books to suggest the distinctiveness of Russian culture.  Both feature the tent roofs and onion domes that dominated the skyline of medieval Russia.  But each bears mute witness to a very different tradition:  one, imperial centralism; the other, entrepreneurial regionalism.  Both are embedded in Russia's history; the conflict between them may well determine Russia's destiny.

St. Basil's, looming over Red Square, is an enduring symbol of theatrical autocracy; the Kizhi church, of frontier inventiveness.  Authoritarian centralism has been growing recently under President Putin.  But he also is fond of Kizhi and brought its new priest with him on his last trip to New York.

. . .

Tolerance was implicit in the northern tradition of dvoeveria:  the simultaneous belief in both the old pagan spirits and the new Christian God.  Medieval petroglyphs of the Kizhi region freely intermixed symbols of both.  Peasants in the region were not enserfed.  The northern region lost much of its independent power when Moscow sacked and subdued Novgorod.

. . .

Many more people have seen St. Basil's on Red Square than Kizhi on an island in Lake Onega -- and most see Russian history in terms of autocratic power in Moscow rather than creativity amid adversity in the regions.  Kizhi is the supreme monument to this forgotten tradition that continued to unfold as the vast Russian domain spread north to the Arctic Ocean and across the Pacific to Alaska in the 17th and 18th centuries.

No one knows who was the architect of either monument.  But Russian popular folklore suggests that the creator of St. Basil's was forcefully either blinded or drowned to assure that it could never be duplicated.  In contrast, the creator of Kizhi is said to have simply thrown his ax into the lake and lived on peacefully as a holy man in the northern forests.

During that time, Moscow autocrats looked out from the closed front porch of St. Basil's to see the enemies of central power drawn and quartered publicly in Red Square.  By contrast, the Kizhi church was wider and open to the sky -- and where local people gathered to solve practical problems, facing a vista of lakes and forests.

Much of the renewed vitality in Russia today is coming from young people in the regions.  Their hopes for a more participatory and accountable political and economic future depend on the kind of open community that created Kizhi -- not the closed circles that cling to St. Basil's.

 

For the full commentary, see: 

JAMES H. BILLINGTON.  "MASTERPIECE; Two Churches, Two Russias; One born of authoritarian centralism, the other of entrepreneurial regionalism."  Wall Street Journal   (Sat., September 16, 2006):  P18.

 




September 14, 2006

Iranian Cartoon Exhibit Ridicules Jews

  "Visitors to the Palestinian Contemporary Art Museum in Tehran Thursday viewed entries in a contest for cartoons ridiculing the Holocaust." Source of caption and photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.

 

I believe in free speech, which includes freedom of expression in cartoons, and art, even when that freedom produces results that I find distasteful, outrageous, or evil. 

What is strange, is the hypocrisy of some radical Islamists, who cause death and destruction in rioting over Danish cartoons depicting Mohammad, but who only smile at cartoons attacking Jews.

 

The Iranian cartoon exhibition attacking Jews, is documented in:

MICHAEL SLACKMAN.  "Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art as Reply to Danish Cartoons."   The New York Times   (Fri., August 25, 2006):  A1 & A8.

(Note: the online version of the article has the title "Iran Exhibits Anti-Jewish Art.")







July 31, 2006

"Capitalism has Not Corrupted Our Souls; It has Improved Them"


Source of book image:  http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0226556638/sr=8-1/qid=1153708722/ref=pd_bbs_1/104-2835260-2878345?ie=UTF8

 

Deirdre McCloskey's unfashionable,  contrarian and compelling manifesto in favor of what she calls the bourgeois virtues starts with an uncompromising "apology" for how private property, free labor, free trade and prudent calculation are the fount of most ethical good in modern society, not a moral threat to it.

The intelligentsia -- in thrall for centuries to religion and now to socialism -- has for a long time snobbishly despised the bourgeoisie that practices capitalism.  Ms. McCloskey calls such people the "clerisy."  Their values and virtues, like those of the proletariat and the aristocracy, are widely admired.  But almost nobody admires the bourgeoisie.  Yet it was for anti-bourgeois ideologies, she notes, that "the twentieth century paid the butcher's bill."

As Ms. McCloskey explains:  "Anyone who after the twentieth century still thinks that thoroughgoing socialism, nationalism, imperialism, mobilization, central planning, regulation, zoning, price controls, tax policy, labor unions, business cartels, government spending, intrusive policing, adventurism in foreign policy, faith in entangling religion and politics, or most of the other thoroughgoing nineteenth-century proposals for government action are still neat, harmless ideas for improving our lives is not paying attention."  By contrast, she argues, "capitalism has not corrupted our souls.  It has improved them."

 

For the full review, see:

MATT RIDLEY.  "Capitalism Without Tears; Fashionable thinkers sneer at the free market and its practitioners, but economic liberty may actually be a force for personal goodness."   The Wall Street Journal  (Sat., July 22, 2006):  P10.

(Note:  in the passage above, I took the liberty of correcting a misspelling of "Deirdre.") 

 

The full citation to the McCloskey book is: 

McCloskey, Deirdre N.  The Bourgeois Virtues:  Ethics for an Age of Commerce. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2006.  (616 pages, $32.50)





March 23, 2006

Jefferson Believed: "redemption lay in education, discovery, innovation, and experiment"

Source of book image: http://images-eu.amazon.com/images/P/0060598964.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg

(p. 43) Jefferson was not a man of the Enlightenment only in the ordinary sense that he believed in reason or perhaps in rationality. He was very specifically one of those who believed that human redemption lay in education, discovery, innovation, and experiment. There were many such in the American Revolution. Thomas Paine spent much of his career designing a new form of iron bridge to aid transportation and communication. Dr. Joseph Priestley, another man who fled royalist and Anglican persecution and who removed himself from England to Philadephia after a "Church and King" mob had smashed his laboratory, was a chemist and physician of great renown. Benjamin Franklin would be remembered for his de- (p. 44) ductions about the practical use of electricity if he had done nothing else. Jefferson, too, considered himself a scientist. He studied botany, fossils, crop cycles, and animals. He made copious notes on what he saw. He designed a new kind of plow, which would cut a deeper furrow in soil exhausted by the false economy of tobacco farming. He was fascinated by the invention of air balloons, which he instantly saw might provide a new form of transport as well as a new form of warfare. He enjoyed surveying and prospecting and, when whaling became an important matter in the negotiation of a commercial treaty, wrote a treatise on the subject himself. He sent horticultural clippings from Virginia to the brilliant French consul Crevecoeur in New York, comparing notes on everything from potatoes to cedars. As president, he did much to further Dr. Edward Jenner's novel idea of cowpox vaccination as an insurance against the nightmare of smallpox, helping Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse of Boston---the initiator of the scheme in America---to overcome early difficulties in transporting the vaccine by suggesting that it lost its potency when exposed to wamth. Henceforward carried in water-cooled vials, the marvelous new prophylactic was administred to all at Monticello. (Not everything that Jeffrson did on his estate was exploitation.) For a comparison in context, we might note that Dr. Timothy Dwight, then president of Yale and to this day celebrated as an American Divine, was sternly opposed to vaccination as a profane interference with God's beneficent design.


Christopher Hitchens. Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (Eminent Lives). New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005. ISBN: 0060598964




February 22, 2006

Solow's Wit (But Not Wisdom): Treat Schumpeter "Like a Patron Saint"


(p. 195) As Robert Solow wrote acidly in 1994, commenting on a series of papes on growth and imperfect competition, "Schumpeter is a sort of patron saint in this field. I may be alone in thinking that he should be treated like a patron saint: paraded around one day each year and more or less ignored the rest of the time."

Schumpeter was a most unwelcome guest at the neoclassical table. Yet it was hard for the mainstream to reject him out of hand, since Schumpeter was such a celebrant of capitalism and entrepreneurship. He thought it a superb, energetic, turbulent system, one that led to material betterment over time. He hoped it would triumph over socialism. He just didn't believe it functioned in anything close to the way the Marshallians did, and he was appalled that economists could apply an essentially static model to something as profoundly dynamic as capitalism. Schumpeter wrote presciently, "Whereas a stationary feudal economy would still be a feudal economy, and a stationary socialist economy would still be a socialist economy, stationary capitalism is a contradiction in terms." Its very essence, as the economic historian Nathan Rosenberg wrote, (p. 196) echoing Schumpeter, "lies not in equilibrating forces, but in the inevitable tendency to depart from equilibrium" every time an innovation occurs.


Source:

Kuttner, Robert. Everything for Sale: The Virtues and Limits of Markets. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.





January 7, 2006

"How Great Thou Art"

(p. 1A) SAGO, W.Va.--Twelve coal miners who were trapped underground for more than 41 hours after an explosion were found alive late Tuesday night, triggering a joyous celebration among relatives here.

"Oh, my God, oh, my God," gasped Anna McCloy, a 25-year-old mother of two whose husband, Randal, 26, was among the missing.

"They're alive. I can't believe it. They're alive."

Around her, townspeople were singing the hymn "How Great Thou Art."

The elusive miracle was credited to God. Later, when the real tragedy was learned, the same people who credited God with the miracle, inconsistently blamed human beings for the tragedy.


Good luck finding the article quoted above--as far as I can tell, the Omaha World-Herald has deleted this article from their online archive. The Omaha World-Herald credits the source of the article as having been The Washington Post. The citation to the hard copy of the Omaha World-Herald version is:

"A Miracle: 12 Miners Found Alive." Omaha World-Herald (sunrise edition, Weds., Jan. 4, 2006): 1A & 2A.




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