The Ashtray

(Or the Man Who Denied Reality)

[Amazon Link]

Back in the day, specifically my college days, I read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas S. Kuhn. In fact, it's one of the few books from that era that I still have on my shelves (I just looked: yeah, there it is).

You see, Caltech insisted that even us physics geeks had to take one course per term in non-stem fields: history, English, econ, … or philosophy. And even though I didn't (still don't) have the type of brain suited to deep thinking about questions that people have been thinking about for millennia without getting answers, I said: sure, I'll take that philosophy of science course.

So I read Kuhn, and I was far more impressed by his argument than I should have been.

Which was, loosely speaking: during normal, non-revolutionary periods, scientists operate within the dominant paradigm relevant to their research field. For example, Ptolemaic astronomers observed the heavens and hammered their findings into the Ptolemaic geocentric cosmos. With difficulty, of course, but, hey, science is not easy.

But along comes a revolutionary theory with a new paradigm, like Copernicus's, that does a better job of describing reality. (Although the theories, Kuhn said, were 'incommensurable'; you couldn't really refute or support one via appeals to the other.) Then we have a paradigm shift, adherents to the old theory either adapt or die, and the new paradigm establishes its dominance, usually without literal trips to the guillotine.

About the same time I was inordinately impressed by Kuhn, a grad student named Errol Morris was at Princeton, enrolled in the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, which Kuhn headed. They did not get on. According to Morris, Kuhn was a petty chain-smoking tyrant, forbidding him from attending lectures from other competing philosophers. And things culminated in Kuhn (allegedly) throwing this book's butt-filled titular object at Morris's head during a particularly heated "philosophical" discussion.

So Morris went on to become a famous documentary filmmaker instead of an obscure philosopher. But he still retained an interest, and (I think it's fair to say) kind of a grudge, and this book, safely published two decades after Kuhn's death.

It's a full-throated attack on the Kuhnian viewpoint, which Morris contends is a hopeless denial of human ability to apprehend reality and truth, crushed as we are by the weight of our dominant paradigms, only on occasion to escape, just to be recrushed by the next paradigm we just shifted to. Morris makes his philosophical case for (instead) the pursuit of truth "through reason, through observation, through investigation, through thought, through science".

Morris is a political leftie, and his book is kind of interesting also as a sidelight onto just how radically left academia was back then. He interviews the late Hilary Putnam, once a proud member of the Maoist Progressive Labor Party while a Harvard prof. And Noam Chomsky. And he tells of his arrest while blocking the entrances to the Institute for Defense Analysis near Princeton back in 1972. Et cetera.

If that were all, this book would be pretty grim and tedious. But there's a lot of humor too, some pop culture references. Since he's a filmmaker, Morris knows his flicks: there are long asides discussing particular aspects of Citizen Kane and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Numerous footnotes, not quite at the volume preferred by David Foster Wallace, but close. (One of the footnotes mentions Morris's fondness for, yes, David Foster Wallace.) And there are lots of offbeat illustrations, about one per page. My personal favorite:

Jean Léon Gerome 1896 La Vérité sortant du puits.JPG

By Jean-Léon Gérôme - Sergey Prokopenko, Public Domain, Link

We don't often do naked ladies here at Pun Salad, but it's art, so it's OK. That's "Truth Coming Out of Her Well". She's pissed.

I've seen a number of reviews that suggest Morris may be overstating his case in his eagerness to trash all things Kuhnian. I am (see what I said about my brain up there) not one to judge. But this is a relentlessly entertaining book, especially if you skim over all the philosophical navel-gazing.

URLs du Jour

2019-01-15

[Amazon Link]

  • Jonah Goldberg writes last week's G-File on Kamala Harris & Tucker Carlson: Common Clichés.

    About 20 minutes ago (my time), I caught some of Senator Kamala Harris’s road show on Morning Joe. If there were a platitude-eating fungus that rapidly reproduced, by the end of the segment, everyone would have died from the crushing weight of the world’s largest mushroom.

    I don’t really take offense at the platitudes, given that we are talking about a politician and also a U.S. senator running for president. What did bug me quite a bit, though, was how she oozed the sense that she was just nailing it. And no, this isn’t a sexist thing. I know we’re in the phase of the asinine conversation when we’re supposed to believe that finding a specific liberal woman annoying or unlikable proves that you hate all women.

    I reject all of this and all attempts to bully me into compliance. I belong to the school that says women are human beings, and that means they are distributed up and down the likability scale, just like men. I find Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likable, but not as likable as Amy Klobuchar, and more likable than Elizabeth Warren. And, just to establish a baseline,  compared to, say, the late Helen Thomas (the Stygian goblin who used to roost in the White House press gallery, her scaly talons glistening under the camera lights), they’re all so likable I’d join their cross-country Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants if it meant not sitting next to Thomas on a short flight.

    Anyway, former senator Bill Bradley had the same quality as Harris. He’d say something like “Elections are vital to democracy” and then stop talking, as if the audience needed time to absorb the shockwave of a truth bomb of such magnitude. I read somewhere that Bradley didn’t like to hear applause at the end of his speeches because he interpreted silence as a sign of the audience’s awe at his wisdom.

    Harris wasn’t that bad, but it was close.

    That's a long excerpt, sorry. Didn't know where to stop clipping. Or start.

    But Jonah's point about the similarity between Kamala's rhetoric and that of Tucker Carlson is spot on: they both embrace the all-too-convenient notion that "once good-intentioned nationalists control the knobs and buttons of the state, we’ll fix all of the problems with our culture." Uh-uh.


  • At the Boston Globe, Jeff Jacoby asks the musical question: Would MLK honor Angela Davis?. It's in response to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute's yearly honorary award, typically going to people like Vernon Jordan. But…

    This year, the institute blundered badly. It announced in December that the 2019 Shuttlesworth Award would go to Angela Davis, a Birmingham native and longtime political activist. The institute hailed Davis as a “civil rights icon” and claimed that she “has been deeply involved in movements for social justice around the world.”

    In reality, Davis is an extremist, an anti-Semite, and a communist stalwart. She was involved in violence, praised terrorists responsible for the murder of innocent victims, and defended some of the cruelest and most repressive regimes on Earth. To bestow upon Davis an award named for Shuttlesworth — a man who was targeted for assassination yet never abandoned his commitment to nonviolence — struck many of Birmingham’s civic leaders as scandalous.

    Read through for Jacoby's documentation of those charges. (I was equally outraged when the University Near Here saw fit to invite Davis for its MLK festivities ten years ago, but Jacoby's indictment is more complete than the one I made back then.)


  • [Amazon Link]
    On the occasion of the paperback release of Enlightenment Now (Amazon link at right, a very good deal at $12.19 as I type, you have simply no excuse for not buying it), Steven Pinker responds to his critics at Quillette: Enlightenment Wars: Some Reflections on 'Enlightenment Now,' One Year Later.

    You wouldn’t think that a defense of reason, science, and humanism would be particularly controversial in an era in which those ideals would seem to need all the help they can get. But in the words of a colleague, “You’ve made people’s heads explode!” Many people who have written to me about my 2018 book Enlightenment Now say they’ve been taken aback by the irate attacks from critics on both the right and the left. Far from embracing the beleaguered ideals of the Enlightenment, critics have blamed it for racism, imperialism, existential threats, and epidemics of loneliness, depression, and suicide.  They have insisted that human progress can only be an illusion of cherry-picked data. They have proclaimed, with barely concealed schadenfreude, that the Enlightenment is an idea whose time has passed, soon to be killed off by authoritarian populism, social media, or artificial intelligence.

    Never fear, says Steve: I was, and still am, right about everything. (You might find this sort of attitude to be arrogant and off-putting, I kind of find it charming.)

    Locals can go see Prof Pinker and his famous hair January 30 at the Music Hall in Portsmouth. Each 1-2 tickets include a (mandatory) voucher for the book, so that's actually a disincentive for people who already own the book, like me.

    Finally: You'd think the high-class site Quillette would have high-class commenters. You'd be wrong about that.


  • The irrepressible Jim Treacher analyzes the latest effort of a big company to show that it is woke: Gillette Tells Men They're Repulsive Creeps. Now Give Them Your Money, You Piece of Garbage.

    Are you a man? That is to say, are you a genetic male who also happens to identify as a "man," for some increasingly antiquated reason? If so, are you under the mistaken impression that you're not a rapist?

    Our society has come a long way in shaming men for behaving in any way that anybody anywhere doesn't like, and reminding men that we're all complicit even if we don't behave that way. But it's not nearly enough. The mere fact of maleness is shameful and problematic. Men and boys everywhere need to be reminded that we're evil. We must learn to hate ourselves as much as everyone else hates us. The patriarchy must be castrated.

    And who better to do it than a company that makes razors?

    I'm tempted to boycott, except I've got about a six-month supply of disposable Mach 3 razors in my bathroom cupboard. And a can of Foamy that lasts about that long too. Even if they could detect my boycott, it wouldn't have any effect until this summer. By which time this whole thing will have blown over, I hope.

    Or maybe I could just grow a beard. Another thing the heirs of King wouldn't notice.

    And wny stop at Gillette? Shouldn't I really boycott the entire P&G family? Toss my Oral-B toothbrush? My Crest toothpaste? My Tide pods? Mr. Clean Magic Erasers? All the Swiffers?

    Sorry, impractical. I'll have to signal my disgust some other way. Oh, right, I just did that.


  • As a Columbia prof, John McWhorter has had it with a certain ex-student's prose: What Trump's Typos Reveal.

    The president of the United States has many faults, but let’s not ignore this one: He cannot write sentences. If a tree falls in a forrest and no one is there to hear it … wait: Pretty much all of you noticed that mistake, right? Yet Wednesday morning, the president did not; he released a tweet referring to “forrest fires” twice, as if these fires were set by Mr. Gump. Trump’s serial misuse of public language is one of many shortcomings that betray his lack of fitness for the presidency.

    I subscribed to the late Richard Mitchell's Underground Grammarian newsletter for years. He liked quoting Ben Jonson:

    Neither can his mind be thought to be in tune, whose words do jar; nor his reason in frame whose sentence is preposterous; nor his elocution clear and perfect, whose utterance breaks itself into fragments and uncertainties.

    Ah, well, you can't say we didn't know what we'd be getting.

Toss Your Cookies

[Amazon Link]

Some sites (like the Boston Globe) are pretty nasty about letting you have access to a severely limited number of "free" pages. They do this by leaving web cookies on your computer so they can recognize your browser when it returns for more content.

You can try opening such sites in Incognito mode (or whatever the equivalent is in non-Chrome browsers), but they can detect that and give you a nastypage instead of the desired content.

For the same reason, extensions that allow you to reject cookies from selected sites also produce chiding messages: you must accept cookies to see our stuff!

You can probably search out and destroy these sites' cookies once they're on your computer by following the instructions for your browser. Here's what you do in Chrome, for example. Works, but there's a lot of tedious pointy-clicky.

My current workaround is (so far) working pretty well for me, a one-click solution: a Chrome extension called RemoveCookiesForSite. It simply displays a broken cookie, probably to the right of the title bar. Once you're viewing a site that insists on dropping cookies on you, just click on that. Voila, cookies gone without any fuss, and the site is none the wiser.

This may screw up the revenue models of some sites. Sorry! I'mRetiredOnAFixedIncome!