Friday, December 21, 2007

Review of Taming Democracy

Harvey Yunis' Taming Democracy: Models of Political Rhetoric in Classical Athens is a thorough discussion of political rhetoric in Ancient Athens.

Political deliberation was an important feature of democratic Athens, and the methods and goals of that deliberation was obviously of great import. Different rhetors had different approaches to how and why one persuades an audience do adopt a particular suggestion.

Yunis addresses Thucydides' (and Pericles'), rhetoric implicit in the famous funeral oration, Plato's Gorgias, Phaedrus, and Laws, which displays the evolution of his thought on Rhetoric, and Demosthenes more practical approach to mass persuasion.

Thucydides, Plato, and Demostheses played radically different roles in classical Athens and their approaches to mass rhetoric, and also thereby, mass education are readily apparent. Yunis does a good job spelling it all out.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

who would've thunk it?

This is one of the more interesting headlines I've seen in a while.

Friday, December 14, 2007


On Wednesday night, right near the Manhattan Bridge, I asked "D" if she would marry me, and she said "of course". That makes us engaged.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Some philosophy

It was good to see a piece as sophisticated and clear as Keith Burgess-Jackson's recent piece on torture in the daily press. The world needs more of that. What Burgess-Jackson did for "torture", someone ought to do for "cult" too. While I am not crazy about Romney, or any of the political candidates, for that matter, Romney is plagued with the idea that he belongs to a cult, particularly Mormonism. Perhaps Burgess-Jackson himself would sort this out (he appears to be a fan). Mormonism has had that reputation for a while. Yesterday Romeny had to give a dull speech that seemed to me was designed to placate the right, rather than dispel any myths about his religion.

Discussing whether Mormonism is a cult is akin to discussing whether waterboarding is torture. It depends what you mean by "cult" and it depends on Mormon practices, and all of that is independent of whether or not there is something morally, spiritually, legally, or socially problematic about cults in the first place. A good philosopher would do well to sort this out for the right-wing public.

Look, I recently had a conversation with a (Catholic) friend, M, who was musing why anyone would believe in a religion that someone just made up. I remarked that his sentiment was exactly what my people were thinking when Christianity started.

I am not sure it changed his mind much. And now that I think about it, the inability to change one's mind about religious matters does seem to be the hallmark of cultish behavior. But I got to say, if he ever ran, he'd probably have my vote for president.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Real philosophy in the news

Keith Burgess-Jackson's piece in today's Wall Street Journal is quite refreshing. It is rare that one sees a competent piece of philosophical analysis in a daily newspaper. The article on torture actually gives no view on what torture is, but expresses the frustration that a lot of thinking people feel when confronted with questions like "is waterboarding torture". The answer, and he expresses it well, is a matter of one's definition of torture. Now, once we have that, we still want to know whether all torture is bad, and if it is always bad, and why. The question is also completely divorced from the legal question of whether this particular form of treatment is legal, and it is further divorced from the question of whether it ought to be legal.

It is nice to see that there is a market for real philosophical analysis out there, and that someone is taking the time to disseminate it.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

TBOLC - some misc. notes

I sporadically took some notes about what life was like in TBOLC. The experience was pretty annoying, and I guess the following reflects that. It mostly seemed like a waste of time, just like BOLC II. The notes were sporadically written, and since I have no interest in thinking about TBOLC again, I have not bothered to edit them. So here they are.

--I finished BOLC II. That means that I now start the final phase of training in my officer basic course. I'm now back in Fort Eustis, Virginia. I drove up here from Fort Benning Georgia.

I stopped off in Charlotte, NC where I met up with "D" and we drove to Virginia Beach. It was a fun trip.

-- I have been in my final phase of officer training. To be honest, it really sucks. I have been sort of hesitant to write about this, but the army wasted most of the past three months of my life. The army's training environment is designed to do something, but I am really unsure what. They more or less keep you here for a while and treat you like a fourth grader, and that somehow makes you an officer.

It sort of makes me lose respect for people who have been through too many of these. I suppose now when I meet a general I will wonder what it was like to go to Army school after Army school and get treated like a child when you are middle aged, or older. I am pretty amazed that there are people who see this as a normal way of life. These schools breed immaturity. Perhaps their function is to keep you in the Army by making it difficult for officers to interact with adult civilians.

--Some stuff you should know: Everyone here cares about football. Not sure why, but they do.

--A typical day is as follows: you wake up at around 0430 or so. Show up at PT at 0520. Salute the flag at 0530. Do PT till about 0630. Shower, eat or do some extra working out till 0750. 0750 show up in the classroom and sing a rather stupid song that was pretty creepy even when I sang it each day when I was here in Fort Eustis as an enlisted soldier. 0800 till about 1130 we stare at power point slides and listen to lecturers of various levels of competence talk about whatever is on the slide he is showing. (Disclaimer: some of the instructors are technically competent, though still boring.) 1130 till about 1300 is lunch, followed by another three to five hours of more boring powerpoint slides. Then we are free for the rest of the day.

(Added note: The song singing stopped after a week or so.)

The tests are pretty easy. Make sure that your notes and the notes they give you are in order. Look them over the night before while you put them in order. Most of the tests are open book, so you just have to make sure you know how to find everything. I'd recommend a good hilighter.

The history assignment is pretty easy, as is the letter/memo writing. The history assignment requires reading an 85 page book and answering some dumb questions. No sweat. The memo and letter writing assignment was designed to show us how to write an Army memo. Of course Army memos are written a thousand different ways, and the FMs are not exactly consistent or up-to-date. My memo was graded by someone who was both annoying and not very adept with the English language.

Whoever it was inserted lots of commas where they didn't belong, and then took off a point for every comma he inserted. What an idiot. The ethics paper (and accompanying brief) at the end of the course was kind of useless too. I happen to know a lot about ethics, and ethics teaching, and I can assure you that the Army does not.

--Lucky dip is one of those team-building exercises. It lasts a day, and is not bad. A bit annoying, but basically there is a bunch of walking, and you have to accomplish some stuff. When you hear an "IED" give medical aid. When you hear "gas gas gas" you put on your masks. . . (test yours the day before, we had someone pass out because her mask did not work right.) These events are all timed. The final obstacle course is actually a bit fun. (It involves some water.) It was weird how the cadre kept telling us how much we needed to be hydrated, and how it will challenge us and stuff. eh. The whole things was actually kinda fun, though the PT was annoying, and so was a lot of the walking around.

--We had a dining in. Personally I thought it sucked. I actually didn't really think this dining in sucked, I just think that dinings in suck in general. Ours seemed fairly tolerable. I thought that a dining in resembled what would pass as a frat dinner of about 100 years ago - an event I certainly would not have wanted to attend. It is just not my thing. I assume that there are a lot of people who enjoy that, but I am not one of them. We put on a skit. I was in it. People laughed. If you like this sort of thing, it wasn't all that bad.

--Everyone with any rank, or anyone that ever had any rank on Fort Eustis thinks they need to give the TBOLC class a speech. They all think they are doing us some big favor, so they get us to class an hour early and give us a speech on leadership or whatever they want to talk about it.

Each and every one of the dozen or so people who have each wasted an hour of our time gave us the identical speech with the same advice that anyone who has been in the army for more than 5 minutes or so already knows - like listen to your PS, and don't walk in to a unit and change everything your first day. . . It is all just a way of boosting the egos of the speakers, making them believe they have some wisdom to pass on to new 2LTs. They don't. They are all so full of it, and themselves.

--We had a few days of some exercise (DDEPEX) that involved planning out a marshalling yard. It was OK. We ended up having to brief an Australian exchange Major who is in charge of something or other here. I am not sure how worthwhile the exercise was, but it was almost fun to do, and the briefing part was fairly painless.

--We had to fill out a stupid survey yesterday. It was a climate survey, so that brass could pretend that they are concerned about what goes on. They made us wait around after class for about two hours so we can spend about 30 seconds filling out a form. For some reason the 1SGT

spent 20 minutes after formation the following day accusing us of not being polite enough when the SSG came in to administer the survey. Apparently we wasted too much of HIS time in that three minutes it took him to give out the survey itself.

I have discovered that here when someone perceives that they are somehow slighted, they cry to their superiors. If someone nods off in class the instructors take it personally. If someone talks out of turn, whoever is in front of the room cries to the 1SGT or the CPT or whomever. The instructors here are quite childish. They mostly have the mentality of six year-olds. It is disappointing to see soldiers who are so incapable of dealing with the world that every perceived slight is grounds for wasting an hour of class time and have a slew of people bitch and whine like little girls. Sad. The Army is training its officers to be less mature, rather than more.

I've taught for years. My students sleep, send text messages, pass notes or whatever. If they ever get disruptive, I ask them to stop. I have had very little trouble. I do not get offended. TRADOC somehow breeds this kind of juvenile behavior.

--We had a class on the MTS system. That is the system that the Army uses to keep track of a lot of their vehicles and stuff. It was a pretty good day and a half of classes. So far the guy who taught it was the best instructor yet. He was genuinely concerned to just teach the material and not waste our time or his. He made sure to teach us everything that was pertinent, and I now have a good idea of how to use all the associated MTS equipment. The class was partly powerpoint and partly hands-on. If only all the classes were this good. I think the course could have been more extensive and had a better segment on using the hand-held scanner.

--Some Chaplain gave us a 4 hour bloc of instruction on combat stress and suicide prevention. It made me give suicide a real thought. It was awful. I am absolutely no better off now than when I started. I have no idea what to do if I have a stressed out or suicidal soldier. I cannot really identify combat stress any better than I was able to before hand, and we got this generic advice like: refer the soldier to a chaplain, or a mental-health counselor. As if that is always possible! The stress management was even worse. We didn't even get generic advice about how to
help soldiers.

Wasting half of my day today was the Army's way of telling soldiers and the public that they are doing something to help soldiers without having to actually do anything. Combat stress, combat fatigue and suicide are real problems, especially now in Iraq. Why can't the Army hire a real psychologist to teach a course on this stuff in a way that will prepare us, someone who can perhaps give real advice? Maybe some role-playing supervised by someone knowledgeable. Maybe tell us a list of things not so say.

I actually do care about my soldiers. I have known some of them for years. I can't believe how cavalier the Army is being about preparing me to take care of their mental health.

--We had a counseling class. It seems like it was one of those things that should be in BOLC II. The point was basically that you should counsel your soldiers. That class could have been streamlined.

--We spent a week on boats. We went to one pier for half of one day and saw a large ship, then the next day we spent at another pier taking a tour of various military ships. Then a third half of a day was spent looking at a motorpool. There was a test at the end of the week. The whole thing was not too bad. Even a bit fun.

This is in direct contrast to the week after that. First someone wasted a whole day of our lives explaining what an OPORDER is. Anyone who does not know that by now, should not be as far as they are in the army. It was dreary and tiresome. The following day some of us had to present an OPORDER with a sand table. More dreariness, especially since we heard the same one four times.

The day after that was even more unbelievable. We had about four SAWs and 240Bs and enough M16A2s. We had a class on how to disassemble them. Wasting our day explaining the M16 to us was another big waste of time. That is three days in a row of torturous redundancy learning things that any private with more than two weeks in the army knows. (Some people actually have not had much practice on the SAW and the 240B, so they did find it a bit useful to get to take it apart. Our civilians were pretty lost though.) The week was wrapped up with dismount drills. We learned how to get off of a truck. Thankfully I missed part of the last day doing something else somewhat Army related, but I was back in time for a written test on the past two weeks worth of stuff. It was a test designed for morons. I assume that the mode grade was 100.

--Last week was spent on Monassas Run. This is a practical field convoy exercise. It was actually somewhat realistic. The people who ran the exercise were somewhat annoying, but it was interesting running a real convoy. The whole experience might have been more useful if we were taught convoy procedures as part of our training here. We were not. So we were left to run these convoys making stuff up as we went along. Some of us followed doctrine and others were . . . more creative.

It is bizarre. We hear the following four phrases about 100 times each day:
1) "Who here knows they are going to Iraq? You know you better learn this, because you'll be needing it soon"
2) "We are not training you to be an expert on this, we are just familiarizing you. You will not be an expert. At your unit, the'll teach you this."

3) "Train as you fight."
4) "We train according to doctrine. Doctrine is very different from the way things actually are."

First, if I am going to Iraq I damned well better be an expert on something. No, I damned well better be an expert on anything I am doing. If TBOLC cut out the crap and stopped wasting my time, I could be an expert on a lot of things. And if there are people leaving for Iraq and Afghanistan next month, which there are, when will they have time to learn this stuff? And reservists and guardsmen certainly will not have time to learn this - ever.

Second, why doesn't doctrine resemble what soldiers are doing in theater?

Just a note: I am still waiting to find someone in this branch of the Army who actually has logistics experience in the field. Almost everyone in charge of anything here tells me that they are really from some other branch - mostly infantry. Why have I not met a 1LT who has recently been in Iraq or Afghanistan who can tell me what things are like? We were promised some repeatedly, but they never showed.

This place is full of people who are full of it.

--Speaking of time wasting, we had three days of out-processing. Out-processing involved spending about 40 minutes running from building to building on post getting signatures from offices whose sole purpose is probably to sign people's out-processing forms. The rest of the time was spend doing our own thing.

I guess wasting time is good for the active duty Army people. After all, it is like a day off.

You do nothing, and you get paid. I too did nothing and I got paid for it, but the Army is not my job and not my life. I really do resent the Army forcing me to do nothing and get paid. The Army I signed up for - the Army Reserve - implicitly promised that it would call me when there is a military need for me to be called, and when there is training that needs to be done. When I am not in training and not in war I want to be back home with my own life and my own job and not in the Army. I don't want to get paid to sit around.

--Bull Run was the main field exercise for TBOLC. It was perhaps the only useful thing we've done so far. After that exercise everything that we learned made sense. That should totally be extended to about a week instead of the three days. Moreover, everyone should have the opportunity to be both an OIC and NCOIC at least once. I happened to have had both, and they were both very useful experiences.

--The final course AAR was kind of a joke. You fill out these forms with the standard dumb questions like "were the course objectives laid out clearly before the course?" I am not sure what the point of questions like that are - and that question in particular. Again, it is the Army's way of showing you that they pretend to care. They don't. No wonder people think this branch sucks.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


I am finally done with TBOLC. My brief review is forthcoming. For now I will just say that I am pretty amazed I made it through. It was the worst pedagogical experience of my life.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Tests and a conference

Last Thursday I took the Army DLPT in Hebrew. I hope I did well. It was a long and tiring test. I rushed it so I could make it to another test in the T-school here at Fort Eustis.

Then I went to Indiana for the weekend. I never thought I would be in Indiana. I was at a conference in Notre Dame. It was a good conference. It was hard to adjust to being around philosophers again, after being in the Army this long. But before I got used to it I was back in the Army. I then spent the next week in the field. More about that another time.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Worth reading

This article by Ilan Weinglass is worth reading if you are concerned about the first amendment or terrorism and such.
Read it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Thursday, September 27, 2007

I can't believe. . .

. . . that this happened on my block. Just when you thought your neighborhood was free of losers, they show up.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


So much has been going on in the past few weeks that I really have not had much time to write. I went from Georgia to Virginia. I am now in TBOLC. I have a lot to say about BOLC II and TBOLC, much of it is not very nice, but I'll save that for another time. There have been ups and downs but now we are getting in to a routine, and we're doing something that can be construed as learning about out actual function in the military.

But today is September 11, and to be honest, I didn't do much to commemorate it. Neither did my neck of the army.

I'll have to write some more soon when I have more time.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Review of Why Johnny Can't Add

Morri's Kline's Why Johnny Can't Add was written in 1973 as an attempt to change the direction of mathematics education. Mathematics went through a small upheaval at the turn of the century with the foundational "crisis", the Bourbaki program, and related developments.

These developments inspired pedagogical reform that Kline felt made little sense. The book is an extended polemic against the pedagogical reforms that came to be known as "the New Math".

His argument is essentially that the New Math involves teaching abstract mathematics and a whole bunch of other things like set theory, group theory, arbitrary bases, and clock arithmetic, . . . to schoolchildren, at the expense of the basics.

The reforms insisted on abstraction, Kline argued for a more concrete approach to the teaching of mathematics.

For the record I am not convinced that Kline or his opponents were correct. I have no idea how mathematics is taught today, and I am pretty convinced that there are few good theories of education. But he did make a good recommendation. Kline suggests that we really need to treat mathematics education like a real science. That is we have to do real research in to what works in education. This needs to be taken more seriously than it is.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Jewish Services at Fort Benning

In the Army, Sunday is religion day. Regardless of your religion, you can pray on Sunday. That is when all the services are held. On Fort Benning there were various Christian services in various chapels and one Jewish Service. There was probably some Muslim service and I should assume a Bhuddist one somewhere in the neighborhood.

The Jewish service is held on Sand Hill. Sand Hill is the place on Fort Benning where all the basic training takes place. So if you are going to be in BCT in Benning, you will be spending a lot of time on Sand Hill.

I remember Jewish Services at Fort Knox when I did basic training there four years ago. There, there were usually 8-15 people. About half of them were Jewish. In basic training, most people go to some service just to get away from their barracks. Spiritual comfort is often beside the point. Basic trainees often went to their battle buddy's service, generally because it was something different to do. On Fort Knox, I remember seeing mostly privates in basic training, and one E-4 who took it upon himself to lead services while he was there and a major who spent time with the Chabad Rabbi who came by most Sundays to do part of the service.

On Fort Benning, which is a slightly larger base than Fort Knox, there were at least 75 people at each of the two services I attended. I did not have many free Sundays. I think about 70 of the 75 people were in basic training. There were about five of us who were eihter in OCS, BOLC II or some other school there. I did not meet anyone permanently stationed there.

I would guess (based on nothing more than looking at last names, general intuition, and guessing) that no more than 15 or 20 of the basic trainees there were Jewish.

Though there is a Jewish Chaplain on post, I did not see him. He was out for the two weeks I was there. People say good things about him. I sat next to some kid from Chaim Berlin on a flight who claimed to know him from Atlanta. Instead of the chaplain there were two lay leaders. One led services one week, and another led services the next week. They both did a good job, and they seemed to be very enthusiastic about it.

Though the praying was nice, I suspect that the real reason so many people choose the Jewish service was for the food. There was a nice selection of donoughts, bagles, cream cheese and OJ. If you are in Basic Training in a place like Fort Benning, these things will sound like real treats. They were to me at Fort Knox. One of the lay leaders made some joke about bagles without cream cheese being article 15 actionable.

The actual service lasted about 45 minutes. This was followed by some food, and some people who went outside and gave Hebrew lessons. They got to the first few letters. when I was there. Hebrew lessons are scheduled to follow the service.

Incidentally, I think that at least two of the cadre in my BOLC II company were Jewish. That strikes me as odd for some reason.

That was my experience with Judaism in Fort Benning.

Monday, August 06, 2007

more BOLC-II

There has been a lot going on in BOLC II. Most of the stuff we have done here is very standard training. We did combatives, as I mentioned. That is hand-to-hand combat techniques. It was uninteresting. We did basic shooting. Again, standard stuff. We had a 4 day pass, which I used to insert myself briefly in to New york, and then I left. We came back to a week in the FOB. I am now back for week 2 in the FOB.

A FOB is a Forward Operating Base. it si a mock-up of the type of thing that the US builds when it goes in to a country and sets up camp. It is a tiny little Army base. It actually sucks a lot. We had to do a land navigation exercize. I passed the first time, but it basically involved wandering around the woods a lot. A good chunk of it was in the dark. We also learned a lot of skills like how to "clear" a room (of people). There was a lot of shooting too: in rooms, from vehicles, in burms, on hills. . .

Some of the more gung-ho people here seem to love this crap. I don't. But I am doing the best I can, and putting up with this as well as anyone else, I suppose.
We have a ten-mile road march that will culminate this stay in the FOB and essentially our training for this part. We will then have a stupid week of form-filling, where we "out-process" this phase of training. I can't wait for this to be over. Then I have a few days off. Following that I am off to phase 3, which will be in Virginia.

Georgia is a very hot. The FOB in Fort Benning is even hotter. There is also a ton of humidity. The weather sucks.

Hopefully I make it through unscathed.

Thursday, July 19, 2007


So I figured I should give a little update on what I am doing here in Army school. We spent last week learning "combatives". That is, we were learning hand-to-hand combat. The point seems to be to take a bunch of people who have little or no experience with actually fighting, and give them a bit of the experience getting punched around and being aggressive. I am pretty sure it didn't work on me. I still do not have an aggressive bone in my body.

We spent this week learning basic rifle marksmanship, and US weapons systems. We all qualified on the M4 rifle. We also used "nightvision" equipment and shot off a bunch of rounds at night. It looks just like it does on CNN, with the greenish hue and flashes of light all over. But they are really neat, especially with the IR laser thingy.

We also used the M16/M203 grenade launcher, the .50 cal machine gun, the MK-19 really big thing that causes a lot of damage, and other weapons.

It is an interesting place. The people here are all good. Most are intelligent thoughtful people, each in their own way. I am learning a lo from them. I managed to get in to an excellent company. We have great staff, and I really seemed to have lucked out.

Nothing is too onerous yet, though there is still quite a bit to go.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Touro College

The fact that Touro College has been selling grades and degrees seems hardly surprising. I wonder if this will start making the school have standards. I'll bet anything that the chilul hashem involved will not cause anyone to change their positive opinion about Touro College.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Review of Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point

Malcom Gladwell's The Tipping Point is a famous book. It was not a great book, or even a good book, but perhaps a not bad book. Basically he took a bunch of famous and some not so famous incidents that seemed to involve a bunch of people and trends that seemed to emerge, and wrote about them and put them all in to a book, and tried to make a point. The point was that there is a system to understanding the "tipping points". I thought the point fell kid of flat, and was not really well argued. He took the lessons of the hipster Hush Puppie shoes, the sudden drop in crime in NY, the Bernie Goetz incident, the Zimbazrdo prison experiment, the success of Sesame Street and Blue's clues, teenage suicide in Micronesia, and a few other things and claimed that there is a time where trends hit a "tipping point" and they take off. There is also a special kind of people who make it happen, and it can only happen if the message is sufficiently "sticky".

As far as the drop in crime is concerned, I tend to be a fan of Leavitt and Dubner who attributes it to the legalization of abortion. Gladwell did not know of Leavitt and Dubner when he wrote the book, I presume.

Gladwell attributes all these tipping points to mavens, who are enthusiastic about products they are experts on, Connectors, who are really social people who know all sorts of people and Salesmen who love selling good products. These people are responsible for all the big tipping points in history.

There is an interesting example about the rule that 150 people seem to be a maximal community size.

He also has an interesting suggestion about a way to slow down the smoking epidemic that is so sensible that it is certain to never be adopted. He suggests that teens will smoke regardless of what adults do. So instead of trying to stop them from smoking, you should just get them to have too little nicotine so they won't get addicted. There is a reasonable belief that lowering the nicotine levels of cigarettes will stop people from becoming addicted.

As a whole I did not love the book. And while the examples are a mixture of the things everyone knows and some interesting well chosen anecdotes, the thesis of the book is not clear. It attempts to be a social scientific explanation of why some things take off and some don't, I don't see the causal mechanism that accounts for the success of say, the sales of the book The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. To tell me that suddenly mothers started coming to the readings with their daughters, just doesn't explain why it happened, or how it could be reproduced, or it could have been predicted from the nature of the books' audience. . .

It is a quick read, so you wouldn't be wasting too much time figuring out what all the hype was about. Maybe Blink, his other book, is better.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

France's role in the Rwandan genocide

Who would have thought that France had a role in the Rwanda genocide too. But apparently they did and the story just gets better and better.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

4th of July

This is my third military fourth of July. My first was in 2003 in Fort Knox during Basic Combat Training. We didn't do much but pass the time, and we had to watch Black Hawk Down. It was actually not a bad day. In 2004 I was in Advanced Individual Training in Fort Eustis, and I don't have any specific memories of the day, but I seem to recall it sucking. This time around I am on Fort Benning in Basic Officer Leadership Course II, and it is so far not bad. I to sleep in late, though I failed to take advantage and was up at 7:30. I went out with some of my classmates and we watched the Transformers movie, which was silly at times, but not too bad. I hope to attend a barbeque today with some friends in nearby Columbus.

So far school here is going well enough. We're still in the paperwork and briefing phase of the course. Nothing too exciting has happened yet.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

I'm here

I arrived in Fort Benning today more or less intact after three days on the road. I signed in, got a room, and I am fairly left alone. have to be at formation tomorrow morning, but otherwise Not much is happening. Fort Benning is rather large and hot. The accommodations are fine. So far so good. It all starts tomorrow.

Saturday, June 30, 2007

In Atlanta

I am now in Atlanta. I just drove in from Richmond, VA where I spent last night. The accents are getting thicker, the weather wetter. I am going to report in to Fort Benning tomorrow. I'll try to keep y'all posted on how things are going.

Friday, June 29, 2007

And I'm off

I am off to Fort Benning in a few moments. I do not know what to expect, but it should be fine.

I'll be back in 5 months, so goodbye to all you New Yorkers, I'll see you when I get back.

I hope to be blogging every now and then. I'll keep you posted on what goes on there.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Review of Capitalism and Arithmetic

Frank J. Swetz's Capitalism and Arithmetic is a translation of the Trevisio Arithmetic by an unknown Italian teacher of arithmetic. (The translation is by David Eugene Smith, and there is a thoughtful tribute to him in the book.)

The Trevisio was a rather ordinary book teaching students, mostly merchants how to compute using addition, subtraction, division, multiplication, basic fractions, and the like.

It is historically interesting because we find a lot of mathematical techniques whose import we may not have otherwise been aware. Granted, it makes dull reading if you already know arithmetic through long division, but it does give us a few interesting clues about the life and times of the book.

Mathematically, I never realized how important some of these computing rules, like "casting out nines", or "the rule of three" were. Culturally, we can see the influence on banking and trade on the style of arithmetic and other areas of life. By merely looking at the examples, we can tell what was important to the culture, and money was certainly important.

There is also a good chunk of analysis and historical background thrown in.

The book is probably of interest to people who study the history of mathematics education, and the history of old reckoning books.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Review of Wheelan's Naked Economics

Charles Wheelan's Naked Economics is pretty good as popular books on economics go. It is a very clear basic discussion of a number of the more important economic issues that effect individuals, countries, and the world. The basic lessons, as one would expect are about markets, and incentives. But there are also great discussions about inflation, deflation, interest rates, globalization, the IMF, the World Bank and a whole host of other things.

I thought the discussion of demystifying the fed was great, as I never really knew what exactly the fed does, and how it controls interest rates or the money supply? Wheelan really clears a lot up.

The book has no math, and no graphs or charts, but it manages to get it's point across pretty well. It is peppered with anecdotes about interesting economic thingies, and has a spate of good examples. I enjoyed the book.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Need more time

So much has been going on lately that there has been little time to write in this space. I have been very preoccupied with my two main writing projects. They are both coming along, albeit a bit slower than I had hoped. I went with my unity to VA for 5 days last week. That was a lot of fun, but some work as well. I finally got a real picture of how different things are on the officer side. I have also been spending a lot of time preparing for going to officer school. Mostly I have been saying goodbye to people who I won't see for another six months, though they mostly are people I only see every six months or so anyway. I had some sort of get-together for a lot of friends, sort of a good-bye party. My unit was kind enough to throw a joint good-bye party for me and someone who is retiring.

I have barely read the news in the past two months. I am sure that some things have happened that are worth commenting on, but I have had little time. Nor have I read too many whole books. I hope you will be hearing more from me soon, though it looks like lately I am getting less and less thoughtful, as I have less and less time.

Also, if anyone has any advice about life at Fort Benning, let me know. Thanks.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Review of Segal's Mathematicians under the Nazis

Sanford Segal's Mathematicians Under the Nazis is a long, meticulous and painstakingly researched book about the history of German mathematics, mathematical institutions, and mathematicians during the Nazi era.

The book does a good job of dispelling a number of impressions that one might have of Mathematicians and Nazis. First, there is one reading of Segal's book that can be construed as the history of the petty bickering among the mathematicians in Nazi Germany. German mathematicians quarreled incessantly. Many of them spent a lot of time jockeying for power. Almost none were above political quarrels or denunciations. Many of them got truly swept up in Naziism. Many had little problem with the initial full-scale of removal of Jews from universities. This was especially true in Gottengen, which was a mathematical powerhouse and also a bastion of right-wing activity. Segal traces much of this attitude to the idea of the good German university professor as a civil servant who was in some way beholden to the state.

Secondly, lest one get the impression that the German state was efficient, Segal clears much up there too. First there were many overlapping bureaucracies, all of which competed for resources, and all of which were driven to backstabbing to get ahead.

In the "total state" as Nazi Germany was, there was a push to make all the country's institutions hierarchical. That is, there would be a leader of each institution with a clear command structure. The Nazi state was interested in this, and other types of existing hierarchies mattered little to them. In an attempt to get ahead then, there were various mathematicians who attempted to ingratiate themselves as "fuhrer" of German mathematics.

One of the main contenders for this position was perhaps the most colorful character in the story. Ludwig Bieberbach, who was a rather respected mathematician, attempted to Nazify mathematics itself. In a series of articles, Bieberbach identified a style of mathematics that he thought was Aryan and another that was Jewish. Racially typologizing mathematics was part of a tradition that went back at least as far as Felix Klein, and was used by many, especially Oswald Spengler in his famous Decline of the West. This generated something of a small research program in "Nazi Mathematics".

Segal's book is rife with detail, and tells the stories of many of the Jewish and German mathematicians who were impacted by Naziism, like Courant, Landau, Suss, Blaschke, . . . The Book also details the many mathematical institutions in Nazi Germany, such as Nazi mathematics camps, and mathematics in concentration camps.

The book is long and detailed and was an enlightening read.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Worth seeing

I finally got out to do something relaxing. I saw The Black Book. It is a really good, suspense-filled WWII movie. Strongly recommended.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Class last week

This week, I had a discussion with one of my ethics classes about democracy. It was connected to one of the chapters in the text, and I thought worthy of some good philosophical discussion.

Just so you get a feel for the class: it has about 20 students, almost none of whom are humanities students. Mine may have been one of the only humanities classes they ever took. The students are almost all reasonably bright, and I would say that about 15 of them were not born in the US, and about 17 of them were male.

The discussion was about values that we might want to promote in a society. I gave a rough definition of involving a government where citizens are the authority, and the government is accountable to them, a government where individuals are sovereign, and have a say in the government, and where individuals are reasonably free and vote.

I then threw out the question "Is democracy good?" and I heard one or two "yes"es and one or two "no"s from the class. I asked one of the "no" students to explain. He began by going through a complaint that was essentially Plato's : who wants the masses to make decisions about what to do in a government? Too much democracy couldn't be a good thing, especially where it allowed the people to make many of the routine decisions for a society.

A second student worried that democracies cannot work on too large a scale (contrary to federalist #10) as people with too different an opinion (then the reasonable one, I presume) may end up with a say, as they may form too large a faction.

A third student thought that democracies would be good, if they weren't all corrupt.

A fourth student thought that democracy was good in theory, but if we look at it's history (which for him seemed to be the Iraq war and Nazi Germany ) it led to disasters.

A fifth student claimed that he had no opinion, as he did not care about politics.

A sixth claimed that it really did seem reasonable to have people from other countries vote in US elections, as they are impacted by US foreign policy.

. . .

And so the class went. It was a difficult task in class just clarifying minor points here and there, adding historical caveats and discussions, making certain crucial distinctions, and offering the obvious counterarguments to some of the more ridiculous claims.

Students had little problem airing their antagonism towards western political systems. Mind you, we were not discussing economics, just democracy. I did not ask what good alternatives might be, though there was agreement that all those kinds that are generally accompanied by mass slaughter were also unacceptable.

Perhaps there would have been some concession that though they did not like democracy, there was not better alternative. At the end of the class I was able to ask if there was anyone who wanted to offer a defense of democracy.

The class was silent. At that point we adjurned for the weekend. I left wondering a whole lot of things. Every critique of democracy is on the tips of all my students' tongues. There is little appreciation for the idea that in a democracy you have some control over your fate. There is little appreciation for the fact that most of them came from countries that had no democracies and they are here now, presumably
because it was a better option than their own country. There is little appreciation for the fact that the government is supposed to be them, not something imposed on them. . .

I guess we will see how the discussion picks up next week. I wonder how well I am reading the attitudes of my students. I wonder how well I am reading their education.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


I just realized that it has been a long time since I have actually written anything here. I suspect that the universe is conspiring against me. For the past few weeks I seem to have been plagued with an endless stream of very minor, but annoying medical problems: a minor head injury, a cold, a pulled shoulder, a tooth problem . . . Coupled with my obsessive reading and writing and teaching, I have not given my opinion to the world. Sorry world. I hope to resume my regularly scheduled posts in the very near future.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Liberals will always find ways to steal from the poor

You don't have to be Milton Friedman to know how stupid these left-wing fiscal policies are. Take the case of Albert Podell. Today's New York Times has this article on people who keep their homes looking so ugly that even millionaires are repelling women.

This is a man who has donated millions to NYU law school. It is also a man who mostly eats out and has traveled to 163 countries. So this is not a man strapped for cash. But when asked about his ugly apartment here is what he has to say:
Why does he live here?

“Ever hear the words ‘rent stabilized’?” says Mr. Podell, who’s paying $702 for a one bedroom in SoHo. “What do I need a fancy place for? A lot of people want to show off their wealth. It ain’t me, baby.”
Why the hell is a policy designed to help poor people pay rent going to support a man who has enough spare cash to make a $2.4 Million contribution?!? Is this what rent stabilization supposed to do?

No wonder there is a shortage of affordable housing for the poor. The rich lawyers who can figure out how to work the system get the $702/mo sweet houses in SoHo. Then they donate money to other rich people who are part of the same old boys network to learn how to do the same. The the truly poor who could use this apartment have to spend more on a non-rent-stabilized apartment in a worse neighborhood because all the good affordable houses are taken by rich pricks like Albert Podell. It is no wonder that Albert Podell donates to every democrat cause there is. They keep his rent down, so he can afford to take lots of trips and fuel his ego with NYU law centers named after him. He probably sits around wonders why the Republican party is doing nothing to help the poor in New York. The reason should be obvious. Whatever the Republican party will do, some clever NYU lawyer will find a way to steal from the poor.

And he will boast about it.

Most New York students pay more than that for housing. Most families on welfare are paying that much or more. Certainly people who have millions to throw around could afford not to claim they need a rent stabilized apartment.

If we get rid of rent stabilization the rich will have to pay actual market value for their SoHo, Upper West Side, Brooklyn Heights, or Park Avenue apartments, and the owners of the building will have to pay higher taxes on the income. So why do democrats complain that every one of Bush's tax policies has been designed to help the rich? Probably because it is true. But it is true because all these stupid policies are designed to help the rich, including these dumb do-gooder rent-stabilization laws.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

When is an anti-abortionist's birthday?

You would think that if one took the philosophical position of being anti-abortion, then their birthday would be a fairly irrelevant date. The relevant date would be the date that they were conceived, for that is the date that life starts. The date one is born is not that special for them. Yet I have never heard of anyone celebrating one year of life when the child is three months old. The relevant milestones are still in years from birth. So I wonder how seriously anti-abortionists take the idea that it is the day of conception as the day life begins.

Monday, March 19, 2007


The Army sent me to Syracuse for a few days. It was cold. It was pretty boring. But I survived. The Army wanted to give me and 19 others a very long lecture on safety. To their credit, we got to stay in a pretty nice place, and it wasn't a bad experience overall. The 19 others were good people, and I learned a lot from them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Gandhi he's not

Here is a paragraph from Monday's New York Times:
Issa Khalil, 25, broke in, agitated. “We never see anything good in our lives,” he said. He was arrested for throwing stones in the first intifada, the civil disobedience that began in the late 1980s and led to the 1993 Oslo accords with Israel. He was arrested again in the second uprising as the agreement faltered.

So let me ask you, since when was the intafada an act of civil disobedience? It is an armed uprising. And if someone gets arrested for throwing stones during some protest, by what rights is it an act of civil disobedience? I mean seriously, how do you throw stones during a civil disobedience? How does this propaganda get by the copyeditor?

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

My Very Army Purim

It has been a crazy week and I had almost no time to do anything that I needed to do. The weekend started on Friday when I spent the morning taking care of school things. Then in the Afternoon I had to pack up and head to Fort Totten and then from there to Fort Dix. As always, this was a rather lengthy process and we ended up getting in really late.

We got in and then there was some setting up and getting rooms and stuff like that. But eventually we got to sleep. Saturday was spent doing physical stuff. First the Leadership Reaction Course and then the Confidence course. The first got me kicked in the face a bit, an injury that put me out of commission for the last 20 minutes of the course and kept me in pain for the next day or so. I still have some residual sensitivity and trouble with chewing gum. But it'll pass.

The Confidence Course was just hard, but I managed, despite the pain to do all the obstacles. I am still sore. It'll take a few days to get the soreness out of my shoulders.

After dinner chow we got back to the barracks, where thanks to some weird circumstance, I had my own room. So I read the Megillah myself. I borrowed my father's. (It is a really nice one.) I am pretty out of practice, but I managed to make it through the whole thing without breaking my teeth. (That's more than I can say for the confidence course.) I was going to offer to read it for anyone who wanted, but one never knows what schedules will be like at these battle assemblies. So I thought that it was better that people do not rely on me for their megillah, and have me not show up. Besides I saw some Lubavitchers on Fort Dix on Saturday afternoon, I am sure they did the reading for the permanent party.

On Saturday night there the whole unit went out to the post bar and we had a goodbye party for our First Sergeant who was being promoted out of the unit.

On Sunday morning after a few hours of sleep we woke up at 04:30 and worked out for about an hour and a half. It was cold and painful, but it felt good at the end. We got changed, ate morning chow and then had a few ceremonies, cleaned up and left in the afternoon.

On the way back I got a ride with one of my Staff Sergeants. We stopped off on the New Jersey Turnpike for lunch. Outside of the Starbucks at the rest stop I saw this very religious-looking man waiting around for his family or for his coffee, I'm not sure. I instinctively wished him a happy Purim. and went back to my Sergeant who was picking out a good pair of polarized sunglasses.

When we got to the parking lot to be on our way, the religious-looking man was there as well with what I assume was his wife and two kids. He asked us if he can give me mishloach manot. I said that if he can do it soon, then "sure". So he went in to his car and gave us hamantashen and some orange beverage. My hispanic Sergeant was a bit puzzled by why a total stranger was giving us food in a parking lot, but he accepted it politely. I sort of explained that this was a holiday where we did this and we went along.

In the subway people were particularly polite, thanking me for my service . . . It is actually something that we appreciate, even though we may not show it.

I got to Flatbush to have the traditional Purim meal with my grandparents. I was walking through the streets (with "D") and everyone was dressed up in their Purim costumes. For the first time I really did not feel out of place in uniform in the streets. I played with my nieces and nephews till I had to go home and collapse out of sheer tiredness.

Review of Dennett's Breaking the Spell

There is an important but often overlooked piece of philosophical methodology. Generally one can ask the following question: Does X exist or not? Then a fight breaks out. Some philosophers say yes, some say no. Let us say that a good number of philosophers then say "no, there is no X" but there are a very large number of people who still disagree. Perhaps common sense disagrees. It doesn't change the fact that X might still not exist, but they are then left with a very important question: Why do so many people believe that X exists?

Daniel Dennett's book, Breaking the Spell tries to answer this question for the philosophy of religion. The main question we start with is about the nature of God and religion. Philosophers have taken to answering "no" to the question of whether or not God exists or religion is true. But then it is left to anthropologists and philosophers to solve the mystery of why most of us believe that it is.

There is a new trend at least for the past 10 years or so to try to marshal the resources of evolutionary biology, cognitive science, economics, and sociology, to come up with an answer that is more sophisticated than the ones given like Critias in Ancient Greece, or Marx or Freud. Pascal Boyer made a good attempt a few years ago. So have others. Dennett wrote a book that is meant to be both popular and thorough.

Much of what Dennett writes is repeated from others, though Dennett's is a very good synthesis. Dennett's book is also strongly polemical. He believes that religion is too harmful to just leave alone.

The argument goes something like this: Humans have a developed system for detecting intentional agents. That is, we know when we are dealing with a another person who is doing something on purpose, and we know something about others who know that we do things on purpose. So we are a species that is capable of positing agency and things like that.

Secondly Dennett makes a case for memes. Memes are the features of culture that are capable of being passed around. A meme can be a tune, a phrase, a language, a fad or whatever. Memes get passed around and replicated pretty much the same way that genes do.

So put this all together with evolutionary biology and you get a theory that says that humans are quite satisfied positing more intentional agents than may exist. Those may be our supernatural agents (and there is good cognitive science evidence which describes how circumscribed our religious conceptions may be). There is the possibility that these religious memes do enhance either our own (or even possibly) our group fitness and ultimately led us to the religious stage where we are today.

Naturally, religious people will not want their religions deconstructed the way he does, but the fact is, there is no principled reason to look at humans and religious phenomena any differently than anything else.

I am overall sympathetic to his project. I thought Boyer, however dense and dull the read was essentially right, though perhaps not comprehensive. Dennett's book is for more general audiences. But I

found the book mildly annoying sometimes. For one, Dennett is bit full of himself. He thinks he's got it all figured out. Now, he might, but coming off like that is off-putting. Also, there is no reason he had to spend the first 75 pages telling us that this is an important question to ask. If we didn't think it was a good question, we wouldn't bother reading the book. I really do not need to waste as much time as I did on not even getting to the question of the book.

That being said, this book deserves a wide readership, undoubtedly it needs a wider readership then it is certain to get. Read it.

(BTW, Leon Wieseltier's review in The New York Times is among the worst reviews ever written of a philosophy book. Dennett is not a religious person obviously, and it not very well informed about what religion is. But he does suggest in his book that when we do get around to studying religion from a properly scientific perspective it would have to be done by a person who has a real deep understanding of the religion. Wieseltier does not have the same methodological compunctions. His review reminds me of some rabbis and fundamentalist Christians I've encountered who have no problem dismissing evolutionary theory by insisting that their grandmother was not an ape. "I have pictures of her" QED. Wieseltier has no need to be competent enough to judge the science, or even think about science. He can just botch Hume, ignore the fact that science produces real results, and believe he has thusly refuted Dennett. Man, even when the Times is being conservative they screw it up.)

All is OK with my CF-M34

Yesterday I managed to drop my CF-M34 and I am happy to report that there is not a dent, scratch or problem. I was actually checking my email on the top of a flight of stone stairs and it fell out of my hand, on to the floor, down all the steps and crashed in to the wall at the bottom of the landing and I was able to just continue checking my email when I got to the bottom of the stairs.

Friday, February 16, 2007

A plea to you "normal" visioned folks out there

When I was young, my parents discovered I was somewhat colorblind. For the most part it didn't interfere with my life much. (Recently I discovered it would preclude my joining the bomb-squad.) But while it was sometimes annoying, I guess I just never noticed it.

Some of the most annoying repercussions of color-blindness has been for me in the areas of scientific reading. Way too often I have had to spend a long time squinting and carefully trying to figure out what a scientific graph or chart was trying to plot or illustrate when the authors were too insensitive to consider that they should not use only colors that color-blind people are unable to distinguish. The point of colors in graphs are to make it easier to grasp a larger amount of information, not harder.

This site does some great advocating for this. I wish more people would take it seriously. The site also has some great simulations of how color-blind people see colors. I think I have had hundreds of people over the course of my life ask me what color their shirt was. If I am feeling playful, I'd just say that I can't see colors and so their shirt is transparent. Generally I just say that it is hard to answer since I do not know how see colors. Generally I ask people to imagine an old TV that doesn't have all the colors, not quite a black and white one, but an early color one where there weren't 16 million colors. That probably approximates it. But It is a bit hard to explain, and you should all look at this site before asking me what color yourshirt is.

(Hat tip: Joseph A Ross in Nature.)

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Three articles

In today's NY Times there are three science-related articles that merit comment.

First, we have an article on facial recognition. The article perports to talk about humans and the fact that we tend to see faces in all sorts of things, like clouds, cinnamon buns and grilled cheese sandwiches. There was some talk about the neuro science behind the phenomenon and some minor remarks about the applications for facial recognition sofware. This article was praticularly light on the science, even by ScienceTimes standards. But the question I have, and I think this is a more important question is why are these so often religious figures who show up in toast, and not say, Jay Leno, or someone else equally recognizable. Where is George Bush? Where is Hitler? (Or Mohammed. (OK, we know why not him.)) Is it that these are the only ones that make the news that people look out for? Or is there a deeper connection? The fact that we tend to anthropomorphisize things is not surprising.

The second article is about Carl Sagan. Sagan was a great scientist and expositor of science. However, his widow is probably not a good expositor of anything. First, she wins today's award for "Most gratuitious reference to the US involvement in the Middle East". Here is a quote from the article:
In the wake of Sept. 11 and the attacks on the teaching of evolution in this country, she said, a tacit truce between science and religion that has existed since the time of Galileo started breaking down. “A lot of scientists were mad as hell, and they weren’t going to take it anymore,” Ms. Druyan said over lunch recently.
I am a bit confused. First, what does 9/11 have to do with teaching evolution? Is this a post hoc fallacy trying to get us to think they are related? Is it pointing out that the truce that existed in the Muslim world between science and religion till Galileo prevented terrorism? Is she saying that scientists were mad that religious fanatics flew jetliners in to the world trade center and they are mad as hell and not going to take that? (What have scientists done to protest that?) So in short, I have not idea what she is talking about. And if you think that this was just some random quote, read the whole thing. She keeps refering to the middle east, as if that was forefront on Carl Sagan's mind, and somehow science will save us from something.

Finally, there is an article about a young earth creationist who got a PhD in geosciences. Here is another case of the article missing the point, but is nontetheless interesting. The article clearly shows a debate regarding the qualifications of someone who fails to conform to the academic orthodoxy. Now, everyone knows, that writing a PhD is often an excercize in Uncle Tomming. (I am not including myself here. My PhD advisor might not be the most nurturing person in the world, but we do see eye-to-eye on my project, and he is pretty helpful.) Not all people in biology believe in every bit of evolutionary theory they are use in their dissertation. I have seen PhDs in bible studies that presuppose the documentary hypothesis where their author has personally told me they do not believe in it. I have spoken to people who write PhDs in ethics that no sane human can believe. But as a colleague has told me recently that 90% of a PhD is listening to your thesis supervisor.

It is clear that even the very debate on whether this person should be barred from teaching and stuff is hypocritical and academically self-righteous. The whole point of the system is not to perpetuate scientific dogmas, but to insure that the people who are granted research funds and podiums to teach, and lesiure time to pursue the research are qualified. Not only that, we constantly talk about diversity, and I can't imagine someone who will contribute more to the diversity of a geology department than someone who doesn't believe in it. Moreover, this person is undoubtedly qualified, and the system is designed to insure that he is eminently qualified. Every day when he walked in to his lab for the first year of his research, he was hit with jibes and softballs that he undoubtedly spent time thinking about and coming up with snappy comebacks to. By the second year, since he made it through that trial, when his labmates started to have to take him seriously as a geologist, they must have started with the harder and harder questions, forcing him to be better and better at presenting it, and refining his position and making him learn to argue for it better. That is how good research should get done.

Conservatives of any sort face the same pressures in political theory as creationists do in biology departments, or meat eaters in philosophy departments, or sane people in performance art. The list goes on. The academy should be a place where one's credentials speak for themselves. It should not be a place where we look to your religion, sexual orientation, or beliefs about anything. Sure the research that the person will do for the rest of his career might be unorthodox, and any university hiring him might want to ask "what sort of research will you be pursuing?" and "will it embarrass us" or "will any of it actually get in to academic journals?" or "will you be teaching anything non-standard as part of lower level classes in geology?" but that is it. I would of course ban him from teaching high-schools, as there the goal is to disseminate the scientific orthodoxy. Teaching "alternate theories" of science is for a place of research, like a university, where everyone understands the standard account.

I frequently worry about what I can present to my colleagues. I am sure I think quite differently than many of them. And of course when I look for a job I will have to kiss-up to the Man. But the very idea that people would think it makes sense to deny a sopt in a PhD program to a qualified applicant solely on the basis of weird beliefs about the going paradigm strikes me as antithetical to the core of honest scholarship.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The new Whole Food???

Now they think they are going to get everyone eating this stuff? Then again, it doesn't taste worse than most of that health food stuff.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Review of Williams' The Origins of Field Theory

L. Pearce Williams' The Origins of Field Theory is a good book on the history of how Field Theory in physics grew from its Newtonian beginnings to it form in Maxwell's equations. The Newtonian model is nicely laid out. Then it moves on to a discussion of electromagnetism using the naturalphilosophie of the time, especially the Kantian critique of Newton. (This was a lot more important than I had realized) Schelling's critique and then Oersted's contributions are then addressed. Finally, we come to the hero of Field Theory - Faraday. Faraday's electrostatic and magnetic lines of force, and their difficult births and acceptance, make up a good chunk of the book. It then concludes with a discussion of Maxwell famous synthesis and mathematization of Faraday's work which ultimately turned it in to the Orthodoxy of its time.
It was a good read. There were a few places I wish the author would have spent a bit more time working out the experiments for us. I forgot what some the apparatus that Faraday used was like. But beside this, it is a good simple read if you are interested in this sort of thing. There are practically no equations or anything to scare away the intelligent curious layperson, like me.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Jewish thinkers and the philosophy of history

Sometime in late 2003 I was walking around Jerusalem and wandered in to the old used book store near Machne Yehuda. I picked up a few books that were somehow very tangentially related to stuff I was interested in for my own research. They were books about the positivist account of history, historical laws, and historical explanations - they were from the 1950's. I bought them, and I only noticed when I got home that two of them were well marked up, and they had the signature of "Emil Fackenheim" on the inside cover. He had just died, so I guess someone sold off his library. Fackenheim was a formidable philosopher. He is most known for his "11th commandment post-holocaust" philosophy.

I then began to notice that there was a lot of interest in the philosophy of history at the time that Fackenheim was writing. He himself wrote a lot about Jews and their place in History, and things like that. What is more interesting though is that there were a whole lot of Jews at that time worrying about the same thing. Morris Raphael Cohen, another important Jewish intellectual at City College wrote a book on the philosophy of history - a book he thought was his most important. Berkovitz too was interested in the role Jews play in history.

This is something that I clearly don't have time to research, but there was an interesting moment in Jewish intellectual history where the most influential philosophical Jewish minds were concentrating on the same problem. I wonder why. Clearly many might have been thinking post-holocaust thoughts. Fackenheim and Berkovits were deeply interested in this. The question of Jewish existence and their role in the bigger scheme would have interested them. I suppose there was something of that question in the general intellectual zeitgeist when people like Dray and Gardinier were thinking about these things.

New Year Resolutions I forgot to post

1) Finish my dissertation.
2) Take fun trip as a reward to self for (1)
3) Give more charity to worthy causes
4) Work on other writing projects
5) Work on learning another language
6) Try to make some job moves (mil. and acad.)
7) Learn something about investing the little money I have

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Review of Garfinkel's Forms of Explanation

Alan Garfinkel's Forms of Explanation is a bit dated and I am not sure what to make of it.

Chapters 1 and 2 are certainly worthwhile reading. They offer the beginnings of an interesting discussion of contrastive explanations and one account of what it is to be a reductive explanation. There are actually many more kinds than Garfinkel describes, but no matter. His is interesting enough. Chapter 3 peters out to some warmed over naive Marxism/Rawlsian stuff. There for some reason he pulls a fast one and pretty much tells you he is going to conflate explanations and justifications, and you should live with it. I suppose one can't argue with that.

Chapter 4 he builds up to a position that can probably be paraphrased as "given that we live in a society (with relations between individuals) you can't explain the relations in society by appealing only to individuals.

The book ends with what we'd now call a pragmatic account of explanation. Garfinkel was probably not aware of the work by people like Achinstein on this very notion, or he just didn't bother mentioning it. And the real statement of pragmatic explanations was published about a year before by van Fraassen, and he was most likely not aware of that either.

I am hesitant to recommend this, but the book is about the question of explanation in the philosophy of the social sciences. There is not all that much out there on this topic and you can do worse, but perhaps skipping chapter three would make it less annoying to read.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

three museums

Today "D" and I went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Museum of Natural History, and the Science Museum. Long day. I'm tired.

Saturday, January 13, 2007


So I've been spending the past few days doing family-related things in London. My cousin got married to a girl from Goulders Green.

It has been interesting so far. I got to see the chassidic side of my family a lot, and I got to see a bit of London as well. I was quite excited to finally see the Rosetta Rock, and other things in the British Museum, as well as the Science Museum. Hopefully I'll get to take in a bit more tomorrow and Monday.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Busy Week

It has been a prety busy week, and I have not had much time to put in New Year resolutions, or other stuff. I am now in London for a cousin's wedding. I'll keep the world posted on my adventures here as they happen. So far I got in (with D) and we slept and then hit up the Science Museum and wandered around Oxford Circus (it is not a real circus, more like a traffic CIRCLE). I am struch by how much like New York London is. It is easy to see the cultural similarities and between us. If it weren't for the fact that London has such nice buildings, I'd swear I was in New York or Boston.