Monthly Archives: October 2005

Mail – Judging the Judges

My good friend Jess Kaplan, who practices law in Sacramento, has just sent me an interesting item (written before Harriet Meiers withdrew herself from consideration) about confirmations of judicial appointments. One might assume that qualifications like a high-level clerkship, outstanding academic credentials from prestigious institutions, experience on the bench, an extensive body of written work, and so forth, would grease the wheels, but it appears that exactly the opposite is the case. In the author’s words, “The less sterling a candidate’s record, the more likely Congress is to confirm.”

Readers can find the article here.

Mind over Matter, Part I

For many years I have been curious about consciousness. It is something that most people never think much about, but when you begin to wonder about it it is hard to let the subject go. Consciousness is at the same time the most familiar phenomenon there is, and the oddest of all. We give it up every night and regain it each morning, without wondering how such a change might be possible. We know that consciousness is bound, somehow, to our bodies (and, we assume, not to the ordinary objects of the world), but we cannot begin to imagine how such a binding might be arranged. Consciousness can be aware of itself, but unconsciousness cannot, and so we do not see the “edges” of our consciousness, as we can demonstrate by trying to observe ourselves in the act of falling asleep. Our experiences of our lives in the fleeting present, and of the memories that are all we have of the past, are dependent for their very existence upon our our consciousness.

As reader of these pages will know, I follow quite closely the conversation at Bill Vallicella’s Maverick Philosopher website. Lately Bill has treated his visitors to a good hard look at the philosophical treatment of several aspects of consciousness, such as qualia, dualism-vs.-physicalism, and intentionality. I highly recommend his site to any readers who are curious about the various views that animate this discussion; Bill’s blog is a rara avis in philosophical discourse: simultaneously scholarly, engaging, and accessible. He also attracts a respectable ensemble of readers and commenters.

Things Have Changed

It is 4:58 p.m. on Thursday, October 20th, 2005. I am sitting In John F. Kennedy International Airport, in the gleaming new Jet Blue terminal, waiting for a flight to Long Beach, California. I’m flying there for the weekend to help my parents move. They are no longer young, and their health is not what it was, so they are leaving the house they have lived in since the early ’90s for a residential facility that will be a good deal less demanding.

I’ll be back In New York City on Sunday evening.

I am sitting in a surprisingly pleasant bar/restaurant, having arrived almost two hours before my flight is to depart. Looking around me I see twenty-two high-definition television screens, one of which is almost the size of a single bed. One of the screens is displaying moment-by-moment coverage of Hurricane Wilma, which satellite observations have determined to be the most intense storm ever to have been noticed in the Atlantic Basin. The satellite image is superimposed on a computer-generated map of the southeastern corner of North America, and is colored a lurid orange at the center of the storm. This is where Doppler radar observations show the highest wind velocities. Wilma is cruising through the Yucatan Channel on its way to visit a familiar type of destruction on southern Florida.

Nasrudin and the Wise Men

This story, one of the enormous body of Mulla Nasrudin folk-stories, is taken from The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin, by the late Sufi writer and teacher Idries Shah.

The philosophers, logicians and doctors of law were drawn up at court to examine Nasrudin. This was a serious case, because he had admitted going from village to village saying: ‘The so-called wise men are ignorant, irresolute and confused.’ He was charged with undermining the security of the state.

‘You may speak first,’ said the king.
‘Have paper and pens brought,’ said the Mulla.
Paper and pens were brought.
‘Give them to each of the first seven savants.’
They were distributed.
‘Have them separately write an answer to this question: “What is bread?” ‘
This was done.

The papers were handed to the king who read them out:
The first said: ‘Bread is a food.’
The second ‘It is flour and water.’
The third: ‘ A gift of God.’
The fourth: ‘Baked dough.’
The fifth: ‘Changeable, according to how you mean “bread”.’
The sixth: ‘A nutritious substance.’
The seventh: ‘Nobody really knows.’

‘When they decide what bread is,’ said Nasrudin, ‘it will be possible for them to decide other things. For example, whether I am right or wrong. Can you entrust matters of assessment and judgement to people like this? Is it or is it not strange that they cannot agree about something which they eat each day, yet are unanimous that I am a heretic?’

Standard Equipment

Some years ago anthropologist Donald E. Brown published a book called Human Universals. Its argument is that there are cultural traits that can be found in every human society – universal characteristics that, because they are manifest in all cultures throughout history and in all environmental settings, clearly must represent innate features of human nature. Such an idea, of course, flies in the face of the “progressive” intellectual fashions of the past century, fashions that persist to this day, as discussed in a previous post.

Dr. Brown has compiled a list of these ubiquitous human traits; you can read it here.

Which Came First.

Alright, I’ve had it.

Once again today I heard someone say “it’s a chicken-and-egg thing”. This refers, of course, to that stale old chestnut “Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” This trite saying is supposed to be an example of an impenetrable mystery, but it is nothing of the sort. The least understanding of biology, given a moment’s thought, easily resolves the question.

How does speciation occur? Is it by some creature starting its life as one species and ending up as another? Obviously not. New forms of life arise through mutation, through the imperfect transfer of genetic information from parent to child. So in this example something that was not-quite-a-chicken laid an egg containing the world’s first chicken.

Which came first? The egg. Move on.

Glad THAT’s Settled.

We can stop arguing about the existence of qualia, thanks to Sony.

Somebody should send Daniel Dennett one of these.

Happy as a clam

This weekend I was up in Wellfleet, MA, for the annual OysterFest. Lots of small towns the world over have shindigs like this to celebrate a local product, but this isn’t just any local product. These are Wellfleet Oysters, and they are magnificent.

Wellfleet is a lovely old fishing village on the slender outermost stretch of Cape Cod, and since its founding hundreds of years ago it has been renowned for this matchless mollusc. For two days each October the town’s picturesque main thoroughfare is closed to traffic, and epicures come from far and wide to sample the bodacious bivalve in every conceivable form – baked, grilled, fried, stewed, and, best of all, just as Nature made it: succulent and beckoning on its nacreous and razor-edged half-shell.

Wellfleet Harbor’s clean, cold, salty waters and 12-foot tides provide the ideal environment for raising these incomparable invertebrates, and as good as Wellfleet oysters are when ordered at Manhattan’s fancier tables, to savor them in their eponymous hometown, only hours or even minutes after they have been roused from their briny slumber, is enough to make one wonder whether there mightn’t actually be a divine Plan after all.

Thank you Bill Keezer

Bill Keezer, who maintains several interesting blogs, has graciously added waka waka waka to the blogroll of his site Bill’s Comments. Bill is an open-minded, well-educated, intelligent, questioning Christian, and is just the sort of person that people like me, who are agnostic but intensely curious about what the spiritual truth of the world might turn out to be, need to have around. He also, as a trained scientist, provides a valuable perspective on how thinking people can reconcile science and religion, a project that is not going well in this country, to say the least.

In the post in which he lists recent additions to his blogroll, Bill refers to this site as “a serious blog by a philosopher”. I’m flattered; although I am curious and have read and brooded a lot, I have no formal training in Western philosophy, and am very aware of my amateur status in comparison to the real pros like Bill Vallicella, who have devoted their adult lives to the effort while I was off making records. But who am I to argue?

A serious blog by a philosopher.”

I like the sound of that, and I shall try to live up to it.

The Third Rail Touched

I have already posted about Steven Pinker’s excellent book The Blank Slate, a salvo against the modern denial of innate human nature. In today’s Wall Street Journal Charles Murray, who as one of the co-authors, in 1996, of The Bell Curve was pilloried by the Left for suggesting that there might be inherent statistical differences among human genetic groups, has returned to the battle with an essay arguing that subsequent study has buttressed his position.

He has kept a low profile since his ruthless persecution by the Thought Police nearly a decade ago, but the recent tar-and-feathering of Lawrence Summers for suggesting that innate sex differences might have something to do with the low numbers of women at elite levels in science and mathematics was more than he could bear in silence. It is brave of him to speak up again, because he is sure to get little but contumely and derision for his efforts. I encourage all to read this essay, and to try to do so with an open mind.

Shining Star

Here is a remarkable image. It is the blazing surface of our Sun.

Each of the small granular regions in the picture is roughly the size of Texas. The Earth would fit comfortably within the large sunspot in the center.

Although they appear black in this image, sunspots are dazzlingly bright, as bright as lightning. It is only by contrast to the surrounding photosphere that they seem dark.

It is easy to look at such an image and marvel at it as an unusual and strangely beautiful visual phenomenon without making a deeper effort to establish a mental connection between our local context and what is being depicted here. Dwell for a moment on the scale of the scene in this photograph, both in relation to our Earth and to the Sun itself.

It is interesting that the picture can be taken in as somehow representing an object of comprehensible size.

“As above, so below.”

Rats, Panhandlers, Really Bad Smells, and Now This

According to the news media, Gotham is once again in the “crosshairs of terror”. The problem this time, apparently, is a 19-martyr posse of fanatical suicide bombers with Metrocards. Al Qaeda the F-train ridah.

This news has little effect around here other than to give those who tend to become anxious something to become anxious about. My own parents lived through the Blitz in London, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let something like this bother me. I’ve been riding these subways, at all hours of the day and night, for 30 years. I’m used to staring death in the face.

They’re going to intimidate New York City?

That’s done.

Well, that’s about it – I’ve reposted everything I could find from the old site.

To recap, here’s what happened: this domain was previously hosted by a cheap-o hosting company called It had gotten good customer reviews, was a great deal ($5.95 a month) and gave me everything I needed.

At first the proprietors were engaged and helpful. Once I was up and running, though, they became somewhat aloof, especially when things started breaking.

First I noticed that I couldn’t send emails to some domains (, for example). This turned out to be because reverse DNS lookup was failing. I wrote the support staff about it, and got a response weeks later that said something like “um… yeah, we’re working on that…”

Next the cPanel application that provided a user interface for managing the site went dead – an expired license file. I wrote to the hosts again, but by now they were radio silent.

I started thinking about how I might get my content backed up and out of there, but before I could do anything the whole website vaporized.

So BACK UP YOUR CONTENT, ye bloggers.

Surveying the damage

Well, it appears that the new location is becoming visible to the Web. As the smoke clears I am beginning to put things back together. Many thanks to my friends over at Maverick Philosopher for all the help and moral support.

I have copies, kindly cached by Google, of a lot of the old content (thanks, Sam, for the tip), but it is going to take a little while to get it all reassembled.

waka waka waka has had a terrible accident.

We can rebuild it. We have the technology.

We’ll be back very soon.