Monday, January 31, 2005

Odious’ wild rumour-mongering is, for a change, true: I have returned. And a delight it is, I must say, to be back where a spot in the sun actually deigns to warm the skin; where raindrops intrude into the air and not the reverse; where the North Star isn’t glaring balefully at me from an imperious height. But I oughtn’t to convey the impression that Alaska wasn’t wonderful. It was, and I have many stories worth telling.

Take, for instance, my whereabouts in the second week of December. I spent that week in Karluk, a very small and isolated Native Aleutiiq village on the west side of Kodiak Island. I and three others flew out to do some much needed repair on Karluk’s Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension.

It was built in 1888 and is one of the oldest standing churches in Alaska, but has suffered great neglect in the past few decades, as has the entire village.

The half-hour flight from Kodiak to Karluk was a great treat all by itself, the maps I had been salivating over coming to life below me: dozens of spider-fingered fjords piercing far inland into unfriendly-looking knots of snow covered peaks. The abundant spruce forests which carpet Kodiak’s north-eastern end thinned out and disappeared as we travelled west. We descended below the heights and flew down the Karluk River, over a forlorn cluster of buildings beside a tidal estuary, over a bluff crowned by a white church with blue onion domes and one surviving gold cross. We wheeled out over the ocean and swung back to land on a snowy dirt strip encircled by the starkest landscape I have ever seen. Only leafless alder bushes protruded above the snow, and nothing else darkened the mountains' whiteness until they fell in sheer cliffs into a slate-grey sea.

In former times, Karluk was one of the largest and most prosperous villages in the Aleutian chain, thanks largely to the rare blessing that all five salmon species spawn in the river. There were once several hundred inhabitants, a cannery, and a good harbour. But decades of slow decline culminated in a disastrous storm in the late ‘70s, which drowned most of the houses, drastically changed the river mouth, and eliminated the good harbourage. Supply ships became rare arrivals, and the place has such a history of accidents that few captains are interested in attempting to come to the town. “There’s good luck, there’s bad luck, and then there’s Kar-luck,” runs a local saying. The village was relocated two miles up the estuary, where it sits today, two rows of characterless government project housing and satellite dishes.

Our host in the village told us that Karluk’s fortunes worsened even further with the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, but in a way quite opposite from what most people would expect. With all sorts of agencies swarming to monitor the spill, any Native with a skiff suddenly found himself able to earn $5000 to $8000 per week. Nothing in their lives had prepared the people to manage such largesse: vast sums were squandered on alcohol and drugs; many who suddenly had the means to move away did so; divorce became an epidemic. If any money was invested in the village and everyday life, no one can tell. In 2000, the Juneau Empire pessimistically reported:

Karluk's very survival is in question. There are few jobs, and in the quarter century since ANCSA passed, the village has lost half its population. It's down to about 45 people now, and the school is in danger of closing because too few students are left. Only seven students attended last fall.

"When you take the school away, you do basically tell the village it's a dead village," teacher Jerry Sheehan said.

When I was there, we were told that the town’s population is 23, and half of those were away. The school is indeed closed.

The village’s decline has been reflected in, and connected to, the recent history of its church. In the old days, our host related, services were so well attended that the parishioners' hand-held tapers would start melting from the heat of their bodies. Every Nativity (Christmas) season, they happily practiced starring, an Alaskan Orthodox tradition in which a decorated, rotating wooden star is carried from house to house to accompany the singing of hymns (a practice which I saw in action in Kodiak). But when the town was relocated after the storm, the church was no longer adjacent, but two miles removed. There has not been a resident priest in decades. There was a very dedicated reader who continued simple services for years, but she moved away in the ‘80s. For a time the more devout people came to church on Sundays to venerate the icons, but even this small devotion fell by the way. The most recent service had been held in March (by Fr. Yakov, a Yupik hieromonk whose company I several times enjoyed, history's first Alaskan Native monk). When we arrived, the church had been leaking badly for several years, and it’s contents were in disarray. These two worldly afflictions were what we had come to repair.

(Since the church’s historic importance is great, many federal dollars could easily be had for its restoration. But such a pact would require that actual worship be discontinued, and the church be preserved as nothing more than a museum piece. The building’s guardians have wisely and bravely resisted this temptation.)

Working on the church proved far more pleasant than I ever expected outdoor labour in an Aleutian December would be. Weather forecasts, from both the radio and the Natives, were all stoic pessimism, but chilly winds and dry snow flurries were the worst that ever materialized. The clouds often cleared enough to see out across the Shelikof Strait to the big sunlit volcanoes on the Alaska Peninsula. From the rooftop we could watch the tide submerge the river mouth and flood the estuary, rising up above the window sills of a house which the big storm had deposited in the middle of the lagoon. When the tide was out, the collision of the river’s current with the ocean waves formed a beautiful standing breaker framed by black shingle beach and snow-laced cliffs.

Daylight, like everything else in Karluk, was in short supply, so we set up shop-lights in the bell-tower and worked late into the evenings. Since I have never been blessed with any healthy, sensible acrophobia, I had the privilege of perching out on the hard-to-reach spots; and quite a feeling it was to balance on a steep-sided tower as the mountains faded wraith-like into deepening darkness; the sea roaring three hundred feet below; all the world vanished except our little sphere of light, and the cross on the other tower gleaming gold in the night.

Cleaning and straightening the church was an ordeal, as years of neglect and moisture had bred a hideous frozen slime in the closet and attic. But we did unearth a few treasures. We found a hand-stitched American flag with forty-eight stars neatly placed six-by-eight, and a forty-ninth added off-centre and overlapping the others, a fitting commemoration of an addition as eccentric as Alaska. We found several square frames assembled from hundreds of large, hand-carved toothpicks (if you will), and put together in an intricate three-dimensional pattern, laced with holes, and all prickly points to the touch. I was told that they symbolize, quite aptly, the Crown of Thorns, and are placed on icons during Lent.

Most fascinating were the contents of the reader’s stand. There were many beautiful, ornately printed 19th Century service books in Slavonic. There was a stack of around two dozen notebooks, all filled with hand-copied transcriptions of services in someone’s personal transliteration of Slavonic, with a few services in Aleutiiq as well, an immense labour of devotion from some past reader’s hand. And the old parish register contained an understated reminder of Karluk’s persistent misfortune: a glance at the record of deaths saw the word drowned repeated over and over, “drowned… drowned… drowned…” beside almost half the names commemorated.

The Church of the Ascension contains one other marvel, which speaks volumes about the situation of both the church and Karluk. The front door has a large split in it, and across the carpet on the right side of the nave (Orthodox churches have no pews) is a line of enormous grizzly tracks, leading up to the reader’s stand. Three years ago, a bear had let himself in the front door and left again without causing any other damage. Our host considered the incident a vital warning. He said that the new, relocated Karluk had been placed in what had always been the bears’ territory, and that the bears were now beginning to take the church and old Karluk for their own. He intended to preserve the tracks as long as he lived as a reminder of what the village is losing by its neglect of its heritage and its Orthodoxy.

Karluk in 1938.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

I remember, vaguely, when the Berlin wall fell. It was a big deal to the adults around me, but I didn't really understand the situation, and wasn't really affected by it. I wrote something about being "very happy" in my journal, since that seemed to be what they wanted to hear.

But today I'm grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of a free, democratic Iraq. I acknowledge the difficulties present and future, and I'm happy to argue in the comments. But c'mon, people, this is a great day. Democracy now!

Sunday, January 23, 2005

Peculiar is headed to the sunlit Southlands, and may (or may not) be back blogging soon. I am trying to make some money, and may (or may not) be posting seldom.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Thursday, January 20, 2005

No release for Helios
From his daily drudge,
Nor for his horses, once Dawn
Leaves Ocean for Heaven.
His longed-for bed
Of much-prized gold
By Hephaistos' hands
Beaten hollow,
Carries him on wings
Above the water, deep asleep,
From the Hesperides
To the Æthiops' land,
Where horses and chariot wait
Till early-born Dawn comes,
And Hyperion's son
Must ride another course.


Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The cuttlefish are odd.
For ten days they painstakingly observed and filmed the intense mating competition between the females and their suitors, including large “guard” males, smaller “sneaker” males, who attempt to mate with females as the guard fights other males, and males who mimic the appearance of a female. In contrast to some other animals, whose ability to mimic is part of their genetic makeup, giant Australian cuttlefish use neural control to instantly change their skin patterning, posture, and tactics. According to Hanlon the cuttlefish can switch between a male and female appearance 10 to 15 times per minute.
Via Eurekalert. I don't need to draw the obvious parallel to primate behavior, do I?

But it does remind me:
This is an animal called the YENA, which is accustomed to live the the sepulchres of the dead and to devour their bodies. Its nature is that at one moment it is masculine and at another moment feminine, and hence it is a dirty brute.
--The Bestiary, T. H. White

It was Kokino who, as well as contributing specimens from his nets to my collection, showed me one of the most novel fishing methods I had ever come across.

I met him one day down by the shore putting a kerosene tin full of sea-water into his rickety little boat. Reposing in the bottom of the tin was a large a very soulful-looking cuttlefish. Kokino had tied a string round it where the head met the great egg-shaped body....

We rowed the boat out into the blue bay until it hung over a couple of fathoms of crystal clear water. Here Kokino took the end of the long string that was attached to the cuttlefish and tied it carefully round his big toe. Then he picked up the cuttlefish and dropped it over the side of the boat....

Suddenly he gave a little grunt...and grasping the line, he started to pull it in.... Presently, in the depths, a dim blur appeared as Kokino hauled more quickly on the line and the cuttlefish came into sight. As it got closer, I saw, to my astonishment, it was not one cuttlefish but two, locked together in a passionate embrace.
--Birds, Beasts, and Relatives, Gerry Durrell
Pamela Dean has given an interview at the Dusty Shelf.
I decided I wanted to write a book that would have the flavor I liked in those books, the fantastical setting, the mystery, the humor, and the huge sense of gigantic forces moving in the background, only imperfectly sensed by the characters, the reader, and maybe even the author. I also wanted it to have that quality that C.S. Lewis calls "joy." He describes this quality perfectly in his autobiography. He thinks it's connected to the human yearning for and partial recognition of God. I'm an atheist, but I recognize the numinous just the same.

In any case, I wanted the book I planned to write to have that flavor for ten-year-olds AND for thirty-year-olds AND for 90-year-olds. I wanted that flavor to remain through endless rereadings. I wanted to write the most rereadable book imaginable.
Dandies. On the whole, I'd rather be a fop. Or ne'er-do-well. Or maybe just a toff or a swell.

Via Manolo, in turn via Belmont Club.

UPDATE (and I'm sorry):

I Shan't be a Dandy!

I may be a fop or a ne'er-do-well
You may name me toff or swell
But a Dandy I shall never be
Were I dragged down into Hell!

With cravats and shoes have I paid my dues
To the deities of style
But no one shall me a Dandy call
Without a duel--or a cutting smile.

CHORUS (I may be a fop, etc.)

Oh the fairer sex is often vex'd
By my witty repartée
They giggle and blush with their pink cheeks flushed
'Tis a pretty little sight to see.


I know I'm there at all fashionable affairs
And I'm kitted up to the nines
But howe'er spiffily I'm dressed yet I ne'er shall confess
To a dastardly Dandy's crimes.


So you see although I'm quite the beau
A dude, a buck, a blade
Yet a Dandy I shall constantly deny
'Til in the ground I'm laid!

Monday, January 17, 2005

I enjoy playing GearHead, but that doesn't mean I'm going to build an "18-foot hydraulic mecha". Yes, this may be sour grapes.

Saturday, January 15, 2005

ARIANISM begins our list:
Deniers of God's only Son.
They claimed Him but a thing betwixt
And mocked the holy Three-in-One.

Th'eponymous Heresiarch
Prepared a great triumphal train;
God hurled him down into the dark
That Athanasius' word might reign.

Now I just need to write fifty more quatrains, do twenty-six woodcuts, and find a publisher willing to take a chance on a very odd children's book.
If you crochet, you can hold the yarn under your thumb with your hand in the yuk-su do hand position for practice.
Stepped outside today to take a run in celebration of being out of shape, looked around and thought, "Everything's nice and cold. And it looks a little damp. And also upside down." At which point my poor dumb body, which was doing its best breakfall, slammed the back of my head into the front step. Thinking about this during the run, I found that I have no idea how to fall on stairs. I know how to fall down them, from watching Chevy Chase, but not how to deal with a situation like I had today.

Friday, January 14, 2005

You are of course paying attention to Huygens, are you not? The probe, not the scientist. These pictures are immensely oojah-cum-spiff.
Homer is our hero? ("Moe is their leader"?)

Phillip Adams thinks that the Simpsons are "a never-ending version of Fahrenheit 9/11." I don't even know where to start. My impression is that the writers of the Simpsons tend toward the liberal end of the spectrum, especially culturally ("I will not use subliminal messagores", before the 2000 election). But they've always been willing to make fun wherever they see an opening. If George Bush senior has been mocked on the show ("Don't understand the cold drinks. Not my forte."), Bill Clinton has had some remarkably odd appearances ("You think you're not good enough for me, but you are. I've done it with pigs. No fooling! Pigs!" "Aw heck, Quebec's got the bomb.") If the Flanderseses get mocked, Homer, "our hero", is subject to constant humiliation ("Dance, rummy, dance!" "Lisa, I'll give you ten dollars for your rock." "Let's just do this and I'll go back to killing you with beer." "I've been secretly gaining weight to go on disability! Happy anniversary, honey!").

Homer himself is no paragon of anti-Republican beliefs. He's against higher taxes ("We're here, we're queer, we don't want anymore bears!"), homosexuality (until he moves in with those two guys and gets a shih tzu), he attends church, however reluctantly, drinks to excess, works at a nuclear ("It's pronounced 'nu-cu-lar'.") power plant, doesn't let Bart get an earring ("Sparkle sparkle!"), and joins the NRA, which takes offense at his misuse of firearms ("They're for self-defense, killing dangerous or delicious animals, and keeping the King of England off your back."). Lisa, the literal tree-hugger of the family, gets to clean off rocks with her toothbrush instead of baby seals, wants Homer to cook Pinchy so that she can enjoy the smell, is appallingly intolerant of meat-eaters, even in the future ("Because eating meat is wrong." "So very, very wrong." "When will people learn?" "I don't know. I just...don't know."). If Buddha helps people out from Heaven, God's up there too, along with Colonel Sanders.

In fact, at its heart I think that the Simpsons' philosophy is anti-authoritarian. Whether it's Mr. Burns (evil), Chief Wiggum (stupid), Principal Skinner (rigid), or Mayor Quimby (Kennedy-clone), no authority figure comes off well. That's not a political philosophy so much as a social one, and it's not one that either party is willing to adopt. If they're subversive, it's not because they're trying to bring down the Bush/Rove juggernaut (though they may take an occasional swing at it). It's because subversion is funny.

Quotes from memory, which is embarrassing, but is my excuse for any that are wrong. Original article found via the Bunyip.
The first poet was not a very good poet. The girl he had loved when he was a boy had inexplicably failed to throw him over for another man--failed, in fact, to betray him in any way. And because of this, he never truly fell in love with her, never succumbed to nympholepsy as he might have, had she dealt with him cruelly. Their relationship ended, without sighs and without tears. And his future relationships with women were not sour but playful, and so he had a great many enjoyable nights. He wrote sonnets to his lovers without any bitterness and without heat. But they were very well-crafted, just like his love-making; he was never known to put a foot wrong when dealing with a feminine ending. He wrapped his tastes in women and scansion and poetical kickshaws around him, but there was nothing inside, like the knot called the monkey's fist. He spent the last years of his life comfortably. He revised his poems and thought about his conquests, and died surrounded by step-children. He had been careful to father nothing.

The second poet wanted to see the city. And when he got there his money was taken and he fell in love with the second woman to take his clothes off (the first had betrayed him, properly, and they were now married, which helped him write, at least when he was away from her), and the first boy, too. And he wrote with a fever that nearly consumed him. The words around him were too weak to hold his thoughts, and so he made new ones, and new phrases of old words that made the light shine on hidden facets of them. And this was how he ate and drank (and he drank a great deal, then). And finally all the new words were old to him, and he was tired of the men and women and smokes and stews, and returned home, where he was neither playwright nor prophet. There his wife was cruel and distant, and his son dead, and his daughter had the wide-set eyes of a half-wit. He died of a cold, and left his wife their second-best bed.

The third poet ate when he could, and told his story (he only had one, but it was very long, and he added to it whenever possible) before peasants for bread and kings for gold. And slowly his eyes were covered over with white film, and he settled in a king's court to recite when called upon, and travelled no more. When he was about to die, a priest came to him and had him recite his story (which was very long, even edited) in full (which made it last nearly a week). He did so happily, his old mouth mumbling the rhapsodic verses, and lisping the great, wrathful speeches of great, wrathful men. He repeated himself, sometimes, without knowing it, and went into great detail about matters no one cared about but him. But the feet of his poem never stumbled, and they carried him through it, at which point he stopped and expected to die. In fact he died three days later, after spitting up the watered wine they brought him on his nurse. His apprentice, who had admired him greatly as well as thinking that he was a silly old man, took his name and wrote a poem that was a subtle satire on the man's great work, and colored it forever with the slightest tinge of foolishness.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Hyakujo, the Chinese Zen master, used to labor with his pupils even at the age of eighty, trimming the gardens, cleaning the grounds, and pruning the trees.

The pupils felt sorry to see the old teacher working so hard, but they knew he would not listen to their advice to stop, so they hid away his tools.

That day the master did not eat. The next day he did not eat, nor the next. "He may be angry because we have hidden his tools," the pupils surmised. "We had better put them back."

The day they did, the teacher worked and ate the same as before. In the evening he instructed them: "No work, no food."
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps

UPDATE: Tatyana adds:

So the origins of "He who doesn't work doesn't eat" of my childhood is not marxist?

Shocked, shocked.
A new Current Pick:
Once it had walls three miles round, with five or more gates; colonnaded streets, each a mile long, crossing in a central square; a theatre with seating for eleven thousand people; a grand temple of Serapis. On the east were quays; on the west, the road led up to the desert and the camel-routes to the Oases and to Libya. All around lay small farms and orchards, irrigated by the annual flood — and between country and town, a circle of dumps where the rubbish piled up.

The citizens of this county town, five days journey by road (ten by water) south of Memphis, called it Oxyrhynchus, or Oxyrhynchon polis, ‘City of the Sharp-nosed Fish’.

The fish was sacred: the Greek settlers after Alexander’s conquest adopted Egypt’s sacred animals alongside their own gods. The descendants of these settlers ran Egypt for a thousand years, right down to the Arab conquest. In their towns they spoke, wrote and read Greek; worshipped their fish and learned their Homer.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Sea gypsies.
The Salone nomads do not easily mix with other people. They do not participate in economic, social or even cultural development of the country they live in. Their society has different cultural values from those offered by modern society. They are locked in the value system that they believe to be their own.

The Salone nomads still hold on their own beliefs. They worship two spirit gods - the good and the evil. Shamanism is the central element during the spirit festival. The devotional offerings, at the festival, include pop corns, alcoholic drinks, honey, betel and flesh and blood of ducks, chickens, dolphins and turtles. They used to sing at the festivals. The talent of the Salone are very remarkable that they could sing songs at hand to the scenes, happenings and fact they see. One of their musical instruments is a drum made from monitor lizard (Varamas Spp.) skin.

The rites and rituals at the festival were done by the shaman, who involved not only at the festival but also during illness or at death. The Salone do not bury the corpse, instead they left on a scaffold stand and all the people of the village move to another island.
Via Homo Ludens.
Mr. Derbyshire states his feelings on Intelligent Design quite plainly. I happen to agree.
(1) ID is not just lousy science, but lousy religion. I dislike it at least as much for religious as for scientific reasons. I dislike it, in fact, for the same reasons, or at least the same KINDS of reasons, that I dislike the "Left Behind" books & movies, and unbelievers telling me that natural disasters like the recent tsunami "prove" the non-existence of God.

All that kind of thinking trivializes God. It belongs to the category of thinking that A.N. Whitehead called "misplaced concreteness." It shows a dismal poverty of imagination -- reducing the divine to science fiction (or in the case of the "Left Behind" books, to a combination of sci-fi and spy thriller). The ID-ers' God is a sort of scientist himself, sticking his finger in to make things work when natural laws -- His laws! -- can't do the job. Well, if that's your God, I wish you joy of him. My God is much vaster and stranger than that. Are we the children of God, or the children of Wrath? I think about that a lot; but I am certain, at any rate, that we are not the children of some celestial lab technician.

(2) Some readers have chid me for referring to ID as "flapdoodle." This was, they say, ill-mannered of me. Heaven forbid I should be thought ill-mannered! Me! I therefore beg you to strike out the word "flapdoodle" and replace it with one of the following, according to taste: balderdash, baloney, blather, bunkum, bushwa, claptrap, gobbledygook, hocus-pocus, hogwash, hokum, hooey, humbug, mumbo-jumbo, piffle, rigmarole, tripe, twaddle.
My stars, but I adore the "next blog" button:

The Triogram is commisioned to operate independantly of our thoughts, It is the exacted means by which infinte intelligence, Transcibes its messages of though betreen messenger and spectato it is also the means by which the delivery of the re-occurant event occurs.

Necessarily it is tapped into our brains by means with which we do not know how, and the purpose of the commision is to substitue our desires for further explorative comssions, Creatively examine the trigram for you most primary thoughts and you will discover the you that is behind your thoughts,

Messages recived are beneficial only if acted upon, and that is why it is necessary to regualtethe commsion within the standards of your interactive mindm the mind which is inside you , but know only the comission you set up it with yout thoughts and thought sugesstions.

Congruently the will the is commissioned to become our own is the will that is exercised by the primary mind of God. This mind is the interactive and intuitve mind. It is also the mind that regulates the time and spacial relations of matter and material objects.
The Believer's Guide. I have this sudden urge to drink Pepsi....
Sorry, but just too cool not to steal:

Ribosome Builder

Significant additions include a schematic simulation of translation elongation. This is a 3D animated simulation of one complete cycle of elongation on the ribosome, using structural models at atomic resolution. The simulation can be run by choosing the menu item from the Script->Other->Demos->Schematic Simulations menu. The simulation incorporates text, graphics, changing viewpoints, geometrical interpolation of rigid-body structural models and recorded movies of molecular dynamics trajectories. This type of simulation is expected to becoming increasingly useful in the future to investigate and communicate models of complex macromolecular systems.

For some reason I wanted to spell "ribosome" with an "h". Like "abhominable".

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Anyway, the Meno mélée. What really ticked me off was that the ex-whosit pointed out that the Meno is about trying to talk to difficult people and get your point across--trying to achieve real communication. Meno approaches Socrates aggressively: "Hey Socrates! Can you tell me if virtue can be taught? Or," blah-blah-blah and so forth. He's coming to challenge Socrates, and to flirt with him while he's doing it. The last thing on his mind is a real dialogue. And so we don't get one.

In high school we got a very brief glimpse at this dialogue. A photocopy of it was handed out to us in Social Studies, and we talked about it for fifteen minutes until the teacher abandoned that ship. But one of the students said something that has stuck with me. She was an actress, first and foremost, and she said that Meno's part was the worst she'd ever read. '"Yes, Socrates", "It is as you say", "Indeed"--that's all he gets to say,' she said. But that's the whole point. You've got this callow youth, who refuses to think for himself because "anyone talking to [him] could tell blindfold that [he is] a handsome man and still [has] admirers....Because [he is] forever laying down the law as spoiled boys do, who act the tyrant as long as their youth lasts." It's easy for Meno to charm a glib answer out of someone. He doesn't want to go through the hard work of contemplation. He wants his buffalo now.

Socrates isn't biting. He flirts with Meno, true, but keeps returning to the actual object of discussion, when Meno is clearly bored out of his mind. Socrates is trying to tell Meno something. And given Meno's later history, it's something that he well might listen to. How do you talk to someone who isn't interested? How do you convince someone of the importance of discussing something when they view discussion as inherently dull?

That's one interlocutor. The other, Anytus, is one of the men who accuses Socrates and puts him to death. He's convinced that these things under discussion are important, but he also feels that he knows the answer to the questions that Socrates is asking. "Any decent Athenian gentleman" can tell you about virtue: what it is, where to find it, and how much the instructors charge. Socrates is not so sure, but the subject is so important to Anytus that he can't hear anything contrary to what he already believes. And he makes it clear that he believes such questioning is malicious, foolish, and dangerous.

Meno and Anytus are both impossible to persuade or engage in dialogue. The one because he is incapable of belief, the other because he believes so strongly that he cannot bear to have his beliefs challenged. How do we get through to such people? How do we talk to people with who we disagree? This question is the same one that puzzles Socrates:
SOCRATES:Do you realize that what you are bringing up is the trick argument that a man cannot try to discover either what he knows or what he does not know? He would not seek what he knows, for since he knows it there is no need of the inquiry, nor what he does not know, for in that case he does not even know what he is to look for.

MENO: Well, do you think it is a good argument?

And of course it isn't. But how do we learn? That we recollect all knowledge seems like a "high-sounding answer", but doesn't fit with my own experience of learning. Nor does it aid us in persuading others to listen to us.

We don't really see someone listen to Socrates in this dialogue. We can see it in others, including Xenophon's Symposium, which involves another of Socrates' accusers. But this accuser doesn't leave the party with threats. He leaves, and as he goes he tells Socrates that "So help me Hera, Socrates, you seem to me to have a noble character."

I don't know if Xenophon meant his Symposium as a response to Plato's. It seems possible to me, but impossible to achieve certainty. But what we see in it is a group of men--clever, disputatious sorts, ranging from the very rich to the very poor, from fervent followers of Socrates to Lycon, one of his accusers, and who have a wide variety of jobs and experience. And yet they can argue calmly, at least in this arena, and learn from each other. The relaxed atmosphere of a party, with all the distractions of the most irritating jester in the world, a dancing girl, and a great deal of wine with which to "besprinkle" themselves, allows these men to discuss things of great import without becoming angry or bored.

How far from this ideal, then, the Meno discussion. I instinctively dislike the idea of a "ruling class", or that the ordering of every day lives is best left to men trained to order them. In unusual and unpleasant circumstances I can see occasional necessity for such. But living my life is something I do every day. I am willing to take advice on parts of it, but the whole of it is mine to manage and no one--no one--has as much experience at it as I do. I am an expert at, if nothing else, living my life.

The predominant assumption at the Meno discourse was that the men and women of this country were clearly incapable of managing their lives, given recent political decisions. How, then, it was asked, do we persuade them that they are wrong? Moreover, how do we persuade them that their certainty (and this certainty was most derided) about morals is founded on unsteady and untested principles, and all their answers about life must be abandoned for the Socratic questions? The answer to which we were expected to glean from the Meno, that we, as intellectuals (and once more my resistance to scare quotes prevents their application), might teach those around us that we are their betters, and ought to run their lives. A more repugnant discussion I have seldom had.

All this snide, supercilious whispering about the plebians' lack of self-reflection, when that same mirror might very profitably be held up to the self-satisfied men around that table, drove me quite mad. The assumption that I share any political view is enough to drive me half-way up the wall; the assumption that I share that of a worn-out, intellectually dishonest, moustachio'd would-be Plato (and remember that "if you offer Plato a dish of figs he will take them all"!) asking questions in a tone which tells you that he has the answer behind his back, soon to be produced for the edification of--you, is enough to have me pacing furiously about the ceiling. So you think that you can run the "unquestioning masses" (I quote!)lives' for them? That they are the ones who need a moment of self-examination? Physician, go f--- yourself.
Post drunk? Check.
Publish sober? Err.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Alice wonders 1) if the existence of God is self-evident, and 2) why she gets carded. College has taught me the answer to both questions.

1) No.

St. Anselm thought so. He created the ontological argument for the existence of God, which became quite famous and is not as silly as one might think at first glance:
Hence, even the fool is convinced that something exists in the understanding, at least, than which nothing greater can be conceived. For, when he hears of this, he understands it. And whatever is understood, exists in the understanding. And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For, suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.

Therefore, if that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, exists in the understanding alone, the very being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, is one, than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence, there is no doubt that there exists a being, than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality.

We could pick this argument apart, and see how it fails and at what it succeeds, but why? Let's just cheat, and go to St. Thomas Aquinas for his take:
Perhaps not everyone who hears this word "God" understands it to signify something than which nothing greater can be thought, seeing that some have believed God to be a body. Yet, granted that everyone understands that by this word "God" is signified something than which nothing greater can be thought, nevertheless, it does not therefore follow that he understands that what the word signifies exists actually, but only that it exists mentally. Nor can it be argued that it actually exists, unless it be admitted that there actually exists something than which nothing greater can be thought; and this precisely is not admitted by those who hold that God does not exist.
Quite. I assume, of course, that what she's thinking of examining is the philosophical argument. There are other takes on the self-evidence of God's existence. The most common nowadays is the faith which arises from long exposure to it. The common theistic arguments of the day (and the most common of them is the argument from design, and to those who chose to fight their on either side I say "a pox on both your houses"!) are recited unchallenged, and the believer presumes a belief that is untested and therefore unready for disputation. I am not here questioning its truth; I am merely making the obvious statement that if one is born and raised into a mind-set, that mind-set is often believed to be the default. Other beliefs are summarily dismissed because the person does not accept that someone could truly feel that way. This inability to understand another also emerges in political discussions. Once again, this does not mean that the view is wrong (a conclusion which might result from a strange application of the argument from authority), but simply that it is at best right opinion. That is, it resembles one of the statues of Daedalus.
If you have one of his works untethered, it is not worth much; it gives you the slip like a runaway slve. But a tethered specimen is very valuable, for they are magnificent creations. And that, I may say, has a bearing on the matter of true opinions. True opinions are a fine thing and do all sorts of good so long as they stay in their place, but they will not stay long. They run away from a man's mind; so they are not worth much until you tether them by working out the reason....Once they are tied down, they become knowledge, and are stable. That is why knowledge is more valuable than right opinion.
I recently attended a seminar in which the Meno was discussed, and if I were the sort of person who used scare quotes, well, discussed would have a dozen nesting pairs (properly alternated). The (ex--very, very ex-) tutor who led the discussion was the sort who asked questions to which he had an answer prepared, in the hopes of congratulating those who agreed with him and discouraging the dissenters. He also clearly viewed this meeting as an opportunity to flirt with such women as might be easily persuaded that his mental abilities made up for his other shortcomings. Accompanying him was a woman who was intent on telling us that she was a successful lawyer, and who clearly had not done the reading. I am not a stickler for the idea of avoiding outside sources, but one does not bring up the amygdala when discussing Plato. Anyway.

2) The bartender is flirting with her. Or has just been scared out of his wits by the Alcohol Server Class required by the state (which hideous bureaucracy is generally the idea of the hospitality industry itself, rather than imposed from without). He probably had just been told how many years in prison he could get if she turned out to be an undercover ATF agent, and what would happen to him in there. The word "shiv" may have been thrown around. So he plays it safe for the next month or so. The manager will probably back him up (I would have when I was a manager, and I wouldn't have been trying to be a jerk. Really. You've just got to cover your employees when they're trying to do the right thing, no matter how silly you think it is). So carry the passport, and ask him to remember you for next time. He should be able to do that (if he refuses, it's not for legal reasons but indolence. Then is he being a jerk).

Saturday, January 08, 2005