December 31, 2004

"Don't pour boiling water on the frogs. Let them cook slowly."

The tsunami flooded some of the coastal lowlands, temporarily. The worry about global warming is that the rising seas will flood the coastal lowlands gradually, for a very long time.

We will of course send emergency aid, and theologians will puzzle about the strange ways of God, who sends disasters of this size. (They have the smaller disasters covered already.)

At the same time, politicians who worry only about what will sell can be very sure that only a disorganized minority of voters think far enough ahead to make global warming into a viable issue. With a wall of water trembling above his or her head, the Average Voter still wants to hear "No new taxes."

You may say "intellectually challenged" until you turn blue. I say "stupid."

Posted by shea0017 at 10:53 AM

December 30, 2004


mantegna solomon.jpg

This etching by Mantegna, from the Met, illustrates this story:

16 Now two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 One of them said, "My lord, this woman and I live in the same house. I had a baby while she was there with me. 18 The third day after my child was born, this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there was no one in the house but the two of us.
19 "During the night this woman's son died because she lay on him. 20 So she got up in the middle of the night and took my son from my side while I your servant was asleep. She put him by her breast and put her dead son by my breast. 21 The next morning, I got up to nurse my son-and he was dead! But when I looked at him closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn't the son I had borne."
22 The other woman said, "No! The living one is my son; the dead one is yours."
But the first one insisted, "No! The dead one is yours; the living one is mine." And so they argued before the king.
23 The king said, "This one says, 'My son is alive and your son is dead,' while that one says, 'No! Your son is dead and mine is alive.' "
24 Then the king said, "Bring me a sword." So they brought a sword for the king. 25 He then gave an order: "Cut the living child in two and give half to one and half to the other."
26 The woman whose son was alive was filled with compassion for her son and said to the king, "Please, my lord, give her the living baby! Don't kill him!"
But the other said, "Neither I nor you shall have him. Cut him in two!"
27 Then the king gave his ruling: "Give the living baby to the first woman. Do not kill him; she is his mother."
28 When all Israel heard the verdict the king had given, they held the king in awe, because they saw that he had wisdom from God to administer justice. 1 Kings 3

I always thought that the point of the story was that Solomon had found a way to determine who had given birth to this child. Now it seems to me that he has invented a way of determining who should raise the child. He has rejected an unanswerable question and replaced it with one that can be answered.

String theory says there are 11 dimensions. When pressed to explain that, physicists say: in two dimensions, there is more freedom of movement than in one dimension. In three dimensions, there is more freedom of movement than in two dimensions. Just extend that thought to 11 dimensions. Wisdom is sometimes about finding unexpected freedom of movement in a situation that had seemed totally constrained.

Posted by shea0017 at 6:33 PM

Two ways of thinking about moral thinking

One might try to solve a moral problem by defining issues: finding some plausible set of concepts and using those to guide information gathering. One says, "Long and short term consequences matter here" or "This is a case in which the rights of two people come into conflict" or "The only question to answer here is: 'Does this behavior amount to cruelty?'" One might also say: "This is a list of the people who need to meet on this issue. They need to meet for at least an afternoon, and the relevant issues are whatever issues they identify."

Similarly, one might try to teach ethics by discussing the issues raised by particular cases, or one might encourage students to go talk to those in the middle of ethically charged situations and see what comes up -- in conversation and in reflection afterward.

Two facts are worth thinking about, in deciding how to proceed: (1) it is a familiar fact of experience that one sometimes cannot maintain certain views and perspectives in the presence of certain people, and that other views and perspectives rise to the top when certain people are in the room. (The provision in our legal system that people charged with crimes may confront their accusers takes notice of this fact.) (2) Many meetings on virtually any topic will elicit some consideration that none of the participants thought of before coming to the meeting.

The place of such procedural questions: who meets, for how long, under what rules -- in the discipline of practical ethics strikes me as one of its central issues.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:44 AM

December 28, 2004

Justice flows like a small river - a stream really

When a Minnesota Supreme Court panel removed Harvey Ginsberg from the bench, they noted that he had three diagnosed mental illnesses that prevented his functioning as a judge. They awarded him a pension of $75,000 a year for his 13 years of service and suspended his law license for one year. Ginsberg is 51; he has been behaving in odd ways for some time. The court has left door open for Ginsberg to be fully rehabilitated. The panel even noted that he could not function as a judge “now or in the foreseeable future:” the way back to a judicial role is not totally blocked.

What’s wrong with this picture? In one way, nothing. A group of people who are in a position to have maximum empathy with the defendant evaluate his conduct and settle on a penalty that preserves the public order, prevents him from doing further damage to himself and his reputation, and leaves open the possibility of renewal for a talented and accomplished person. So far as I can tell, this is the kind of decision we should all applaud. Justice has worked itself out in humane ways.

When my friend Mary was in prison for crossing the line at the School of Americas, she met a lot of women imprisoned on drug possession charges, far from their children, for long sentences. I wonder how many of these women had anybody take the trouble to count their mental illnesses. I wonder how many of them had put in some years of public service, one way or another, that might warrant a pension. I wonder who was caring about making a path back to dignity and full citizenship for these folks. In most cases, I think, the separation from their children at a distant prison made the path back to motherhood very rocky.

Brecht’s Threepenny Opera contains the epitaph for the U.S. system of justice: “There are those who live in darkness, and there are those who live in light. One sees those who live in light; one doesn’t see those who live in darkness.”

Posted by shea0017 at 12:11 PM

December 27, 2004

The city on the rock

city on rock.jpg

They used to think this was by Goya. Now they think it is a pastiche, by followers of Goya. Whoever did it, it is one powerful image, like the pictures that come when you close your eyes at night. Pictures like this make me feel about the world the way Plato thought about it -- that there are realities behind it that show through some kinds of objects.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:54 PM

Power floats around

Two stories in the news today remind us about how little we can predict. In Ormsby, Minnesota, the Strib tells us, a farmer is developing custom soy beans, selected for tofu-taste, selling to an international market. Nobody before had thought of making tofu taste better by growing better tasting soy beans. Ormsby has 153 inhabitants.

A piece in the New York Times discusses detractor ads, like a famous campaign against Ipod batteries (they lasted 18 months, cost $250 to replace). One detractor is sometimes equivalent to 100,000 endorsements, in ad-think. Apple addressed the Ipod problem, responding to one $40 commercial.

The economy and the changing social, moral, political environment put natural selection pressures on many small, isolated operations: technology users, farmers, peace groups. In the current environment, they cannot stay the way they were and survive. But oddly, for the first time in history, the groups -- and individuals -- under pressure have access to global information and global communication. It's as if a frog whose pond was drying up had access to all the frog genes in the world, to improve himself, and all the travel agencies in the world, to find another pond.

We are getting set up for an increase in the speed of change, and for a new sort of bewilderment: change can come from directions we didn't expect. (Meat and cheese marketing depend on tofu tasting a certain level of bad -- at least in America. Improve tofu, and the chessboard looks way different.) Also, the potential resilience of individuals and communities under pressure has recently gone way up. That's good news, if their goals are humane, and bad news, if their goals are destructive. The first rule of homeland security has to be: "Don't force terrorists to evolve."

Posted by shea0017 at 9:59 AM

December 26, 2004

A meditation for the folks in smelly holes this Christmas

I think of those in the prisons at Guantanamo, the prisons of Afghanistan, the prisons of Iraq, held without access to counsel, sometimes in places that don't show up on any Red Cross map, shamefully abused by guards and interrogators. Our country is doing this, and nobody seems able to stop it.

I have two questions. Why is there not an outraged shriek from the peace officers and the judges? These are decent folks, many of them, doing hard work with courage and integrity, and somebody is robbing them all of their dignity -- because the only thing that gives a police officer or a judge dignity is his or her place in a reliable and just system of law.

One more question: how long can the jury system survive in this odd new legal twilight zone? When I was being questioned as part of jury selection, everyone seemed very concerned to make sure that I would evaluate the case on the evidence, in conformity with the judge's instructions about the applicable law. Juries will do that, if they trust that the law will be applied, that the prison guards won't turn rogue -- if they are convinced that the court in which they serve is not at all like Nazi courts in the 30s. But if that trust is lost, if juries begin to think that their job is to protect the accused from the system, that strange wrinkle in common law, jury nullification, may become a central fact of legal life. Juries may undertake to do justice themselves, apart from the system.

So much runs on trust.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:45 PM

December 25, 2004

Bob the Beaver sees the star in the east

There were animals at the stable in Bethlehem that fateful day, but likely not a beaver. There should have been a beaver there. Beavers are the animal, besides people, that when they don't like their environment completely remake it. They are little furry ecological revolutions. They don't look fierce.

We don't know much about Jesus, but clearly he brought the beaver idea to Israel. We all swim in the pond behind the dam he made.

Such a cute little guy.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:49 AM

December 24, 2004

"You can't be a little bit pregnant."

My debating partner in high school won us a couple of rounds with this line. It's a good line. It points to the difference between the logic of "dead" and the logic of "red."

Yesterday in the Strib, there was an article on cloning cats. The article tells of a woman paying $50,000 for a clone of her deceased pet cat. David Magnus, co-director of the Center for Bio-ethics at Stanford, is quoted as saying, "It's morally problematic and a little reprehensible. For $50,000, she could have provided homes for a lot of strays." I like the "morally problematic" part of this quote, though one might also say, looking at the needs of children around the world, that it is morally problematic to give $50,000 to provide homes for stray cats. (And, looking at the political structures that reliably produce misery in children, over an over, it might seem morally problematic to give $50,000 to suffering children -- or to anything but political reform and birth control initiatives.)

What I don't get is Magnus' claim that what the woman did is "a little reprehensible." This sounds to my ear like "a small atrocity" or "a minor instance of genocide" or "mildly cruel." Something has gone wrong logically here.

I think this is the sort of thing people shouldn't say. Misunderstandings about the real limits on conduct are as dangerous as misunderstandings about sex. Our language gives us tools to navigate our lives. The corruption of moral language gives us ways of hiding from what we are doing.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:08 PM

"I don't want to get into that..."

Any useful ethics should be partly about how to stay out of messes, no-win situations, circumstances in which, with the best will in the world, all you can do is dig the hole deeper. (The holidays rub our noses in such situations.) These situations are like what happens to rafters when then get stuck in whirlpool; all their usual survival strategies just make things worse. There's also something to be said ethically about how to behave in messes and how to get out of them, but the most useful advice is about how not to get into them. (I suspect that any ethics that hasn't acknowledged that messes set its major task hasn't arrived on the playing field.)

In the column printed today in the Strib , Carolyn Hax, the best practical ethicist I know about, responds to a guy who wants to know how to get his girlfriend back. Her answer: "Don't get into that." "Let go. You don't want her back unless she's sure, and you won't know she's sure unless she comes to you of her own free will. I'm sorry." With imagination, one can foresee all the misery this course avoids. The more he works, the more reason he has to think that her coming back is purely the result of his work, and the more reason she has to think that. Perhaps "working to get her back" could be successful sometime, but it sure looks like a whirlpool, like a patch of quicksand.

One of the reasons I like Carolyn Hax's work so much is that she is keenly aware of the hazards of her profession. People write asking how to do something: how to get dates, how to win back the lost girlfriend, how save the creaky relationship. It is like going to a witch for a potion or an amulet, to write to Carolyn for a fix. And Carolyn, bless her, has read her witch stories very carefully. She knows that people are often standing at the edge of a mess, asking how to get into it. She frequently has the good sense to tell people: "Don't get into that."

Posted by shea0017 at 12:36 PM

December 21, 2004

How we start matters

Course management systems like WebCT and Vista start with the idea that the point of teaching is to deliver content, evaluate performance, and facilitate communication. Once those goals are set, the system can become unbelievably complicated -- delivering more and more content, different kinds of content, to variously situated recipients; evaluating more kinds of performance and amalgamating evaluations into meta-evaluations; facilitating communication between folks who could never ordinarily meet, allowing them to draw pictures, etc. And all of these systems develop bugs, that need to be debugged with -- more complexity. Or they succeed so well that they overload computer capacity. It is easy to forget that all of this complex evolution arose out of a quite simple and very controversial and likely just plain wrong view about what teaching is about. But by now, things have gotten so advanced that nobody has time to worry about those initial premises that started the whole juggernaut rolling.

Peter Geach tells about a math prof who began a lecture, "Let x be the number of trains that leave the station each day." One student frantically waved his hand, "But professor, what if x isn't the number of trains that leave the station each day?" We need more of that sort of spirit, in all enterprises into which money is to be poured.

Posted by shea0017 at 4:07 PM

December 20, 2004

"The just man justices"

Some lines from Hopkins, quoted before:

Each mortal thing does one thing and the same:
Deals out that being indoors each one dwells;
Selves--goes itself; myself it speaks and spells,
Crying Whát I do is me: for that I came.
Í say móre: the just man justices;
Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

I quote just this much because the whole poem is so rich one might miss this bit, and the paradox in it is a very important ethical thesis. One generally thinks that justice is a virtue of self-abnegation, of pulling back or holding back or sacrificing to make room for others. To my knowledge, no one except Hopkins has said that -- at least for some people -- the most extreme expression of the self IS justice. That's worth a moment of pause.

Posted by shea0017 at 2:18 PM

December 18, 2004

The blog has a sort of baby

There's a new blog on the block, "Philosophy in Movies and Television." It will surface provocative bits in movies and television. I will write it. The address is: Ad majoram gloriam Dominum.

Posted by shea0017 at 6:58 PM

They have to show us these things

I usually don't criticize the Star Tribune, our local Minneapolis paper, for the same reason I don't criticize oatmeal. It is what it is, and basically it does its job pretty well. There's something slimy about second-guessing the people who do the day to day, necessary work, on deadline, reliably. This morning though, the Strib let me down. On an inside page in the A section was a story about a billboard in Cuba criticizing U.S. treatment of prisoners. There was a picture showing that a swastika was involved but showing nothing of substance about the billboard. In the same paper, there's an account of Jamal al Harith's testimony before a Council of Europe panel about his two years of systematic abuse in Guantanamo. Just to say it again: this guy was kept for two years, without access to a lawyer, and then released because the government couldn't make a case against him in honest court.

Connect the dots: if the Strib finds claims of prisoner abuse credible enough to report them repeatedly as news, it must in consistency find that the message of the Cuban billboard is a legitimate statement that has a place in moral discourse of this planet. If this is a legitimate statement, the people of Minnesota deserve to see a decent image of it. The little blurry picture they printed is the kind the tabloids do for monkey-children and Elvis statues on Mars. If the blurry picture was all they could get, that should have been explained.

Why fuss? The Cubans are on to something. In a world in which the superpowers and mega-corporations hold lots of cards, the bullied and abused retain the power to shame. It's about the only legitimate power they have, short term. And that power can only be exercised when the media make responsible decisions about who has a claim to be heard, and who is just running off at the mouth. One can document over years, using exclusively the Strib's own pages, the case for a moral analogy between American bullying and Nazi bullying. That mural has a place on the front page of the Strib, in living color.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:51 AM

Your first kiss, your first quadratic equation...

Minneapolis Public Schools are sending homework packets home for the holidays. They went out late, without warning, 35-40 pages of miscellanious exercises. Hardly anybody is exactly cheering.

Steve Peha from North Carolina is quoted in today's Strib: "Over the typical two week Christmas vacation, there's hardly enough time to forget anything useful." Patty Kendall, a parent, says, "I believe that they should stay in the habit of doing some sort of assignment every day." Both are pretty clearly right.

The Hebrews insisted on the Sabbath, sacred time. It is hedged around and protected. From Exodus:

Remember that thou keep holy the sabbath day.
Six days shalt thou labour, and shalt do all thy works.
But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God;

Thou shalt do no work on it, thou nor thy son, nor thy maidservant,
Nor thy beast, nor the stranger that is within thy gates.

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them,

And rested on the seventh day, and sanctified it.

Early on in Hamlet, when we are beginning to get clued in that something is rotten in Denmark, Marcellus says:

Good now, sit down, and tell me, he that knows,
Why this same strict and most observant watch
So nightly toils the subject of the land,
And why such daily cast of brazen cannon,
And foreign mart for implements of war;
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-labourer with the day:
Who is't that can inform me?

In the spirit of kids being let out for Christmas vacation, we have the remnant of old tradition of sacred time. When public institutions honor and acknowledge that tradition, they proclaim everyone's solidarity. We all need a break. We all need not to worry for a while. To re-affirm that sacred space and sacred time are sacred, or to nibble them away, for pretty good reasons --- that's teaching too, big time, places in the heart teaching.

When schools make homework half as good as kissing, kids won't forget in two weeks, and we won't have to send home extra packets over the holidays. Let's work on the problem from that angle, and keep our muddy little hands off 4000 years of human tradition, just possibly ratified by You Know Who.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:02 AM

December 13, 2004

The real true rhino

Albrecht Duerer undertook to document a rhinoscerous, to lift himself above that herd of fanciful artists who merely expressed themselves at the rhino's expense. (Thanks to Ernst Gombrich, Art and Illusion, for the example.) This is the result:

Durer Rhino.jpg

I have been thinking recently about documentation as part of the process of seeing, knowing, being a private thinker with public responsibilites and ambitions. Many people make an effort to document their lives, ("I saw a rhino yesterday"), and the standards for this activity are not at all clear. We say: documentation should be objective, in one breath. Albrecht's rhino fails the test. But in the next breath we acknowledge that any effort to nail the rhino would be objectivity-challenged in some way: a choice of still photo versus a video, a male rhino rather than a female, from this distance rather than closer in -- the highest resolution photo begins to look like a bundle of interested choices, and we start to lose track of our standard. And yet there is a way in which documenting a life differs from emoting about a life.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:42 PM

December 9, 2004

A new kind of hero

A piece in today's New York Times chronicles the career of Clifford Ross, 52, inventor of a kind of photograph combining old analog technology and digital technology to produce unprecedented image quality. The story traces a bit of his intellectual history, from an early love of Tom Swift, through a dalliance with abstract painting, a series of Babar the Elephant movies, some work photographing the ocean waves generated by big storms, to this photo project, inspired by the urge to document his experience with a particular mountain.

A couple of parts of this story stand out. First, Ross has resources, and he uses them to pursue his interests. He is the kind of hero that an affluent society produces -- a person who gets to have a quirky take on things. He does what he has energy to do, however strange it may be. Second, Ross collaborates: he camps out with the experts until he has learned what he needs to know to do something new. His accomplishment is only possible in an information age, when the barriers between disciplines are permeable. And finally, Ross is willing to make use of new and old technology in combination; he has overcome the prejudice for the latest thing and the crippling assumptions about progress that weigh down other thinkers. He is willing to ask what good idea an old technology might embody, and what might have been lost when progress moved past it.

This sort of story gives me hope -- more than almost anything. This kind of hero is new, and the possibilities he or she can open up are not on any chart. They can't be predicted in advance.

Keep an eye out for guys and gals like Ross.

Posted by shea0017 at 9:56 AM

December 7, 2004

Pieces of culture that belong together

This image of the foolish virgin by Martin Schongauer:


reminds me of the last few lines of Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay:

The world stands out on either side
No wider than the heart is wide;
Above the world is stretched the sky,—
No higher than the soul is high.
The heart can push the sea and land
Farther away on either hand;
The soul can split the sky in two,
And let the face of God shine through.
But East and West will pinch the heart
That can not keep them pushed apart;
And he whose soul is flat—the sky
Will cave in on him by and by.

And both address this strange fact of humans being empty.

Posted by shea0017 at 1:08 AM

December 6, 2004

Great folks


Mulford Sibley died a few years ago. He was the fellow in the U of M Poli Sci Department who worried about past life recall and telepathy and trance mediums. He did a good book on life after death, written for high school students. He held court in a department in which various ideas about proper method came and went. Nobody's ideas about proper method, I expect, were broad enough to give trance mediums a voice in academic conversations. He held the space in the department open for new ideas, partly by being the strangest guy around.

Some day, the real North Central evaluation committee will come to the University of Minnesota. They will walk through, department by department, asking, "Where's Mulford?" And the Mulford count will be the University's ranking, quite precisely.

Posted by shea0017 at 2:51 PM

December 4, 2004

A kind of perfection


I found this in the Nazi section of a site called It is such a perfect use of sentimental composition, of a psychological language of reassurance and normalcy and legitimacy and comfort.

I am always suspicious of Nazi metaphors and references -- they are usually cheap and inexact. But there is a lot to learn from them about mass seduction and the psychology of trust-building.

Compare this:


Posted by shea0017 at 10:41 PM

The games we play...

Dear Friends

Dear Friends, reproach me not for what I do,

Nor counsel me, nor pity me; nor say

That I am wearing half my life away

For bubble-work that only fools pursue.

And if my bubbles be too small for you,

Blow bigger then your own: the games we play

To fill the frittered minutes of a day,

Good glasses are to read the spirit through.

And whoso reads may get him some shrewd skill;

And some unprofitable scorn resign,

To praise the very thing that he deplores;

So, friends (dear friends), remember, if you will,

The shame I win for singing is all mine,

The gold I miss for dreaming is all yours.

E.A. Robinson

Tommy Thompson, resigning, says in passing that he cannot understand why terrorists have not gone after the food supply -- it would be so easy. For a moment, Thompson went off-message, became a poet. Why is this off-message? Well, as long as we restrict our "homeland security" awareness to courthouses and airports, it seems feasible that the country could both provide adequate security against terrorist attack and wage one or more expensive wars abroad. But if homeland security involves superintending the rebuilding of the butter packaging plant in New Ulm, screening Taystee Bread Company employees, ....

I wish Mr. Thompson hadn't said what he said. There's always the small chance that the particular terrorist group with the right resources is still trying to get somebody on a plane with funky shoes. You don't want to do these folks' thinking for them. At the same, it seems to me like all the poetry and play are getting squeezed out of government, to be replaced by Message Central with speakers in Defense and State and Interior. There will be no more Freudian slips and no more hanky panky.

When Temple Grandin builds a slaughterhouse, each cow is encouraged to think only of the comforting back end of the cow in front of her, right up to the last moment. That's the most humane way -- to manage cows.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:42 AM

December 3, 2004

The child will play in the adder's nest

Isaiah sees a holy mountain where children blunder into adders' nests and are still safe.

At a recent workshop on the blogosphere, presenters showed how they use blogs in their teaching: inviting students to post questions and opinions, and respond to those of others, in public space. Much of the web teaching technology available (WebCT, Vista, Blackboard) exists primarily to create a private and protected space for student interchange. There was lively conversation about whether such protection was necessary; whether students take unnecessary risks by writing in public.

I think about this. The barriers to publication, and the limits to distribution of early publications, in the past, protected people in various ways -- from the full force of hostile or malicious response, and from establishing an indelible record of opinion and response that might foreclose later options. (Folks in the McCarthy era learned that professing fashionable left-wing politics in one decade could make one a pariah in the next.) As it becomes easier and easier to leave a permanent mark in the public world, and easier and easier for interested persons to track down someone's entire intellectual history, it becomes harder for people to leave their past behind or to make safe mistakes in their youth.

And we are still some distance from Isaiah's holy mountain.

Posted by shea0017 at 11:52 AM

December 1, 2004

Not How Bears Are, But Better


Occasionally, a drawing makes one wish the artist had been around to consult when the animal was designed. This is what Leonardo would have made a bear into.

Posted by shea0017 at 10:27 PM