Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for December 28th, 2019

Leonard Bernstein offers a quick overview of musical evolution

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 5:29 pm

Posted in Music, Video

Why belief in reality is a dangerous mistake

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Most of us, most of the time, have the sense that we are connected to the real.  The immediate world around us, the objects and people, the buildings and the natural world seem unquestionably present.  Not only in the sense that we are experiencing them but in the sense that they exist independently of us out there in the real world.

Some, we imagine slightly crazed, philosophers may have doubted the existence of those objects and the real world and proposed that it is all a dream and a product of our subjective imagination.  We feel we know better.   Aside from moments of mental instability or those who have taken rather too many psychoactive substances,  we have an abiding sense that the world we experience is for the most part only too real.

This notion of reality is so close to us and so central to our culture that it is hard for us to imagine how it could be otherwise.  It has not always been so.  Our confidence in our access to the real is no doubt in part a product of the success of the Enlightenment and the remarkable achievements of science over the last three hundred and fifty years.  Philosophical realism – the idea that such an independent reality can be described by us – has within academic philosophy been supported by many in the analytic school.  I have argued however that it is a mistake.  A mistake that limits our ability to intervene successfully in the world and encourages division and conflict.

The idea of a reality that we can uncover through precise observation and reason is at the heart of the Enlightenment and enabled its advocates to champion human capacity over the authority of the word of God.  As children of the Enlightenment we are taught the story of Galileo with the metaphysical moral that by peering through his telescope he was able to observe the reality of the Jupiter’s moons and challenge the power and authority of the Church.  Reality though turns out itself to be theological notion.  For the real, like God, is not in the end observable.  Nor can we give an account of how our theories are able to reach through our experience and our particular context to describe an independent reality that we can identify as the ultimate character of the world.  Realists often imagine that they are the ones with their feet on the ground.  The ones without attachments to strange metaphysical frameworks.   Yet realism involves the presumption of something that accounts for all there is, supports our theories, is found everywhere, but is inaccessible and indescribable.  Such descriptions are strangely similar to those that have been used by monotheists to describe their god.  For a simple reason.  ‘The real’ is the god of the Enlightenment.

Of course, the vision of the early scientists and philosophers of the Enlightenment was a great and profound one that was to transform the circumstances of everyone.  Instead of the idea that the world was either unknowable or our knowledge of it came from a higher authority, the proposition that we are capable of uncovering the character of the world from our own observations and investigations was a liberating and transformational shift that propelled research and discovery.  It heralded a new age in which we could see human history as a continuous form of progress that gradually provided a more and more accurate account of the world.  It led to the great theories of science that seemingly uncovered the underlying laws that governed the universe and accurately described its development.

The problem is that the Enlightenment strategy of observing the world and applying reason to determine what is actually the case has uncovered its own limitation and failure, identifying our inability to describe reality. Once only a concern of those with an unusually rigorous turn of mind, it has more recently invaded much of our cultural space as a result of the widespread recognition of the importance of context. We have come to see our theories and accounts of the world as the product of a particular time, a particular culture, a particular language, a particular organism. It is no longer clear to us how these theories can escape their particularity and their context in order to describe the character of the world independently of those constraints.

In addition, the idea that we are able to accurately describe an independent reality requires a theory about how our theories and language are hooked onto the world.  Yet no such theory to support realism has been forthcoming, indeed there has been a shortage of any theories that lay out clearly the metaphysics required to make a realist account of the world possible.  At a commonsense level we assume our words refer to things out there in the world.  Providing an account of how they do so and what sort of things there must be to make this possible becomes more perplexing the more it is pursued.  Wittgenstein, close to the beginning of analytic philosophy, was one of the few to follow through the metaphysics required to make a realist account of language work. Critically however he concluded that any attempt to describe the relationship between language and the world must fail.  It must do so because such a theory would itself have to stand outside of language in order to catch sight of how language itself relates to the world.

Despite Wittgenstein’s identification of the impossibility of a realist theory of language, many philosophers of the analytic school have continued to pursue the realist project, though usually without making any serious attempt to develop an ontology that could make sense of how this could be achieved.  Instead a narrow piecemeal approach has often been adopted, as if in a scientific manner it is possible to make small inroads towards a bigger overall theory without needing to have in mind how the overall theory might be formulated.  All of which would be fine if it wasn’t for the problem that in principle, due to unavoidable paradoxes of self-reference highlighted by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus, such a theory cannot get off the ground. Not surprising therefore that the American philosopher Hilary Putnam, who had spent his career within the analytic school and was one of its leading proponents, concluded, ‘the project to describe the relationship between language and the world is a shambles’.

Meanwhile more broadly in Western culture there is increasing scepticism of the Enlightenment idea that we are progressing towards a better and more accurate theory of the world. Almost every humanities discipline, with the possible exception of some philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, has been absorbed with this question of perspective to such an extent that in some cases, sociology and anthropology for example, it has changed the very character of the discipline itself.  And now more widely in culture as a whole, post truth has invaded our news and politics highlighting our seeming inability to find an uncontentious frame for truth.

Given the profound challenges to the notion of the real why are some philosophers still so attached to it?  And why are most of us still convinced at an everyday level that we are able to access that reality?  There is I think a straight-forward explanation.  Despite the lack of a decent theory, and despite our increasing awareness of the impossibility of an objective account, we are inclined to think that without the notion of reality there is no explanation for the success of our theories and in particular of our scientific theories. Furthermore, realists often assume that the abandonment of the real has the consequence that anything goes, that each perspective is equally valuable.  The strengths and successes of the Enlightenment, our understanding of the world and our culture is imagined to be at risk if we give up on the real and with it the notion that there are correct and incorrect accounts of the world.

But we do not need the Enlightenment god ‘reality’ to make sense of the success of our theories, or to direct our future researches and investigations.  Any more than we need a religious god to make sense of the diversity and wonder of the natural world.  Our theories and our language are a means to intervene successfully in the world, we do not have to imagine that they are uncovering an ultimate truth, a transcendent reality, in order to be effective.  Heisenberg, the quantum physicist, who along with Einstein is perhaps the most influential scientist of the twentieth century, came to the same conclusion.  In his book, Physics and Philosophy, strangely – or perhaps on reflection not so strangely – largely overlooked by realist philosophers, Heisenberg gives up on the notion that science is the uncovering of an ultimate reality.  He argues: ‘We have learnt that exact science is possible without the basis of dogmatic realism’ and goes on to say that in the interpretation of quantum mechanics now central to contemporary physics and with which he is associated, the Copenhagen interpretation, ‘objective reality has evaporated’.

The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant started from the assumption of knowledge and the success of science, and attempted to create a philosophical framework that would account for how that knowledge was possible.  Our current predicament is the reverse.  We have to start from the assumption that we have no knowledge of an independent reality and formulate a theory that accounts for how nevertheless we are able to be so precise and effective in our interventions in the world. I have sought to put forward such an account.  It proposes that  . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life, Education, Science

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“Little Women” as a free ebook

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From Standard Books, who makes high-quality ebook editions of out-of-copyright works freely available in several formats:

  • epub—All devices and apps except Amazon Kindle and Kobo.
  • azw3—Amazon Kindle devices and apps. Also download the Kindle cover thumbnail to see the cover in your Kindle’s library.
  • kepub—Kobo devices and apps.
  • epub3—Advanced format not yet fully compatible with most ereaders.

I wanted to read again Little Women to reacquaint myself with the book, and Amazon has on its site only versions that cost $3-$5, which seems too much more a book for which the copyright has long since elapsed. So I took a look at the Standard Books list of ebooks, and there it is, now on my Kindle.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 12:28 pm

Posted in Books, Software, Technology

The problem with the Right is not that it’s wrong.

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Julian S. Taylor writes in Medium:

To a progressive liberal, the right of all adults to participate directly in their governance seems obvious, so how is it that the authoritarian regime seems to be in ascendancy the world over? Where is the general public gathering to be taught that they need autocratic direction? Where are average people persuaded that they are not actually human beings but instead animals in need of herding? Of course one need look no further than the nearest pulpit. Christ is The Good Shepherd and His flock is comprised of what many of us would call “humans”: humans who believe themselves to be sheep. Televangelist Joel Osteen tells seven million people every week “you’ve got to live an obedient life” and by that he means obedience to an all-knowing god. The motto of Kenneth Copeland Ministries is “Jesus is Lord.” A lord, of course, is the owner of the land and sovereign of all workers on that land. He collects the fruit of the workers’ labor and ultimately controls them. Oral Roberts was a faith healer meaning that members of his flock would come to him offering obeisance in return for the special gift that only he could provide. From these pulpits, the message spreads as each true believer carries their minister’s message to friends and associates. With this ancient and pervasive legacy, no wonder a sizable majority of people believe that a leader is essential to a healthy society. Those people proudly assert the philosophy of the right wing.

Various middle-of-the-road Democrats and Independents seek to express their belief that despite our differences, we are all intent upon the common goal of a functional democracy; but, of course, we do not all believe in democracy. The right and the left identify distinct poles. The words derive from L’États généraux of 1789: the French General Assembly of the Estates just preceding the French Revolution. In that gathering, those who believed that human beings had a right to govern themselves were largely gathered to the left of the president’s seat. Those who believed that humans were merely sheep who needed to be directed by a shepherd of some sort were gathered at the right of the president’s seat. Left versus Right defined those who favored democracy and those who favored monarchy.

By today’s standards the founding fathers of the U.S. were somewhere between left and right. They took their cues from the ancient democracies of Sparta and Athens which often restricted voting rights to an elite subset of the general population. For this reason, our founders suggested that white male landowners were best suited to govern. Fortunately, they provided for amending the Constitution and through that process, we have significantly expanded the voting population as the U.S. has moved consistently leftward over the past centuries.

Despite their firmly held beliefs, everyone on the left spends some time in doubt. It was U.S. voters who gave us “W” and Trump. It was U.S. voters who gave gerrymandering Republicans free reign to assure continuous Republican majorities. It was British voters who decided to Brexit when the U.K. was enjoying all the advantages of E.U. membership without the disadvantage of adopting the Euro. Every lefty knows that there are real rational people who seriously question whether democracy makes any sense at all; and every lefty wonders if that claim may actually be true. I regret to say that I, yes even I, a progressive liberal have occasionally despaired, writing in my 2006 novel The Flying Crossbeam

“[Politicians learned an essential lesson.] That virtue is not only insufficient, it is the heart of failure. That truth is not merely unnecessary, it is misleading. That the shepherd may not guide through reason, but only by sending dogs into the flock and calling repeatedly in a familiar voice.”

This is the hopeless cry of the doubting democrat and the legitimate proclamation of the right-wing autocrat. When Adlai Stevenson was told by an enthusiastic supporter that every intelligent American would vote for him, he responded, “Perhaps, ma’am — but unfortunately I require a majority.” Even Stevenson, an exemplar of the left, did not trust that people were qualified to vote wisely.

The ongoing question confronted by the left wing is how to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Democrats, GOP, Memes, Politics

A collection of good ghost stories

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Who doesn’t like a good ghost story, especially one set in modern times. Take a look at these from Ask Reddit. To get you started, here’s the first:

1. I was driving across country with my mom and sister. I was 16, my sister 20, my mom in her 50s. It was late, but we were well rested still and alert. We were driving along an interstate and needed gas and they needed to pee, so we stopped at the only rest stop in ~200 miles. There was a van full of teenagers on some road trip and a small grey compact car, like a Honda Accord or some shit, parked at the pump in front of us. Two men about 17-20 were standing outside the Honda in hoodies, statue fucking still. The teenagers were to our left.

When we got there everything felt wrong. There was a deep and unsettling feeling about the place and we’d not felt that way at any other rest stop. We’d been on the road for days and seen many rest stops at night and had never been afraid until then. My mom and sister went inside and I stayed in the car. I heard the teenagers say they were creeped out and couldn’t get the pump to work and they left in a hurry. I was mostly watching the car in front and the two men who had still not moved at all. Not an inch. They weren’t talking. They weren’t on phones. There was no light anywhere but the dim overhead lights on the gas station awning. They were just fucking standing there, still as stone.

My sister and mom came running back out to the car and when they got in, the two men slowly turned to look at us while not moving or pivoting the rest of their bodies, and I swear to fucking shit, we all saw the same thing – they had eyes dark as pitch and empty. Truly empty. Not black, not reflecting any light at all, just a fucking void.

We. Booked. It. We have not traveled in excess of 100mph before or since, but fuck, that day it was warranted. We drove until we were in the next city before we got out of the car again. And you know the worst fucking thing about it? Not the eyes, not the stillness, not that horrible feeling, not the weirdo in the gas station who kept telling my mom and sister “my mama will like you” over and over while mopping the same spot on the floor with a dry mop and an empty bucket.

It was the fact that we couldn’t find the place on any map. We knew exactly which spot on the interstate to look, and we couldn’t fucking find it on Google maps or any paper map we had. We even asked locals about the creepy gas station out on that stretch of road to confused looks, and “are you sure you weren’t traveling on [highway] and not [interstate]?” We’d traveled on that interstate since and there was. no. rest stop.

There are many more…

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 11:54 am

Posted in Daily life

‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’: Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence

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Authoritarian organizations rely on suppressing dissent, but sometimes it’s difficult. Brandon Ambrosino write this Politico piece back in September 2019:

t Liberty University, all anyone can talk about is Jerry Falwell Jr. Just not in public.

“When he does stupid stuff, people will mention it to others they consider confidants and not keep it totally secret,” a trusted adviser to Falwell, the school’s president and chancellor, told me. “But they won’t rat him out.”

That’s beginning to change.

Over the past year, Falwell, a prominent evangelical leader and supporter of President Donald Trump, has come under increasing scrutiny. News outlets have reported on business deals by Liberty University benefiting Falwell’s friends. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen claimed that he had helped Falwell clean up racy “personal” photographs.

Based on scores of new interviews and documents obtained for this article, concerns about Falwell’s behavior go well beyond that—and it’s causing longtime, loyal Liberty University officials to rapidly lose faith in him.

More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement.

In interviews over the past eight months, they depicted how Falwell and his wife, Becki, consolidated power at Liberty University and how Falwell presides over a culture of self-dealing, directing university resources into projects and real estate deals in which his friends and family have stood to make personal financial gains. Among the previously unreported revelations are Falwell’s decision to hire his son Trey’s company to manage a shopping center owned by the university, Falwell’s advocacy for loans given by the university to his friends, and Falwell’s awarding university contracts to businesses owned by his friends.

“We’re not a school; we’re a real estate hedge fund,” said a senior university official with inside knowledge of Liberty’s finances. “We’re not educating; we’re buying real estate every year and taking students’ money to do it.”

Liberty employees detailed other instances of Falwell’s behavior that they see as falling short of the standard of conduct they expect from conservative Christian leaders, from partying at nightclubs, to graphically discussing his sex life with employees, to electioneering that makes uneasy even those who fondly remember the heyday of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., the school’s founder and Falwell Jr.’s father, and his Moral Majority.

In January, the Wall Street Journal reported that in the run-up to Trump’s presidential campaign, Cohen hired John Gauger, a Liberty University employee who runs a private consulting firm, to manipulate online polls in Trump’s favor. Not previously reported is the fact that, according to a half-dozen high-level Liberty University sources, when Gauger traveled to New York to collect payment from Cohen, he was joined by Trey Falwell, a vice president at Liberty. During that trip, Trey posted a now-deleted photo to Instagram of around $12,000 in cash spread on a hotel bed, raising questions about his knowledge of Gauger’s poll-rigging work. Trey did not respond to requests for comment.

Jerry Falwell Jr. responded to more than two dozen written questions, defending his actions and criticizing the reporting of this article. “I fear that the true information I am sharing in good faith will simply not make any difference. And will only result in more questions,” Falwell said. He declined to answer subsequent questions.

The string of news articles over the past several months has had a minimal effect on Falwell’s leadership of Liberty University. As the namesake of the school’s founder, Falwell has never had his position seriously challenged. Liberty is thriving financially. Its enrollment has surged past 110,000 students—the vast majority of whom are enrolled online—and across its campus in the foothills of Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, the hum of backhoes and bulldozers is omnipresent as construction crews work to keep pace with the university’s swelling ambitions.

But these new revelations speak to rising discontent with Falwell’s stewardship. The people interviewed for this article include members of Liberty’s board of trustees, senior university officials, and rank-and-file staff members who work closely with Falwell. They are reluctant to speak out—there’s no organized, open dissent to Falwell on campus—but they said they see it as necessary to save Liberty University and the values it once stood for. They said they believe in the Christian tradition and in the conservative politics at the heart of Liberty’s mission. Many knew Jerry Falwell Sr. and remember him with clear affection. “The day that man died was the day I lost a father,” one current university official said. All count themselves as conservatives. Many are strong supporters of Trump.

I am a graduate of Liberty University, and my time there overlapped the tenures of both Falwell Sr. and his son. Over the course of my years of reporting on the university, the Falwells have granted me considerable access, including sit-down interviews in the offices of both Falwell Jr. and his brother, the Rev. Jonathan Falwell, who leads Thomas Road Baptist Church. I’ve written candidly about my time there as a student, reported about political divisions on campus and revealed that Trey co-owns a gay-friendly hostel in Miami.

Members of the Liberty University community are generally reluctant to go on the record. The school uses nondisclosure agreements to prohibit many university employees or board members from openly discussing what they’ve seen Falwell do. (“All trustees sign a confidentiality agreement that does not expire at the close of Board service,” Liberty’s attorney told board members in an email that was sent earlier this month after the school received inquiries from reporters on some of the issues outlined in this article.) Tenure and its protections are not available to Liberty faculty members outside the law school. If you teach or work at Liberty, you must get approval from Falwell’s office before you speak to the media. Talk to reporters without his approval—or publicly criticize him, even obliquely—and you could lose your job. If you’re a board member and do the same, you could get forced out, even if you have unimpeachable credentials in the Christian conservative movement.

“It’s a dictatorship,” one current high-level employee of the school said. “Nobody craps at the university without Jerry’s approval.”

“Everybody is scared for their life. Everybody walks around in fear,” said a current university employee who agreed to speak for this article only after purchasing a burner phone, fearing that Falwell was monitoring their communications. The fear is not limited to Liberty’s campus. Several people who lack any tie to Liberty but live in the school’s hometown of Lynchburg, Virginia, refused to go on the record for this story, fearing Falwell would take revenge upon them and their families. “Fear is probably his most powerful weapon,” a former senior university official said.

But even those who fear have their breaking points.

In speaking out, said one longtime current university employee with close ties to the school’s first family, “I feel like I’m betraying them in some way. But someone’s gotta tell the freakin’ truth.”

“We’re talking about the difference between right and wrong,” a current high-ranking university official said. “Not even ‘being a Christian,’ but being a good person, versus people who manipulate the system.”

PART I: The Kingdom

Long before his May 2007 death, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr.—the Baptist preacher who founded Liberty University and whose creation of the Moral Majority marked the emergence of white evangelical conservatives as a national political force—made clear how he wanted the empire he’d built to be divided when the time came.

His two sons, Jerry Jr. and Jonathan, had each inherited different aspects of their father’s persona. For Jerry Jr., the elder of the two by four years, it was the stomach for partisan politics, ability to throw an elbow and the savvy to court influential friends. For Jonathan, it was the calling to ministry, his easy way with people and charisma as a public speaker. Jerry Jr. would preside over Liberty University, and Jonathan would lead Thomas Road Baptist Church. Each son had worked under their father at the respective institutions; each knew well what those positions would require.

A bigger question remained: Who would  . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 11:48 am

Photo essay on Fordlandia, Ford’s planned city in Brazil

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A good example of the resilience of cultural memes to enforced change — and a fascinating article. The article begins:

Deep inside Brazil’s Amazon rainforest sit the dilapidated remains of what looks like an industrial town. One of the first things you’ll see upon entering is a water tower with a faded Ford logo.

That’s because almost a century ago, the founder of Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, turned that space of land into not only a business operation but a social experiment of sorts.

Here’s how Fordlandia, Ford’s utopian city and industrial town, was founded — and how it fell apart.

Lots of photos.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 11:22 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Memes

What We Owe Each Other: T. M. Scanlon’s Egalitarian Philosophy

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I’ve been watching The Good Place, and though for me it was somewhat slow-starting, it has gotten better and better and taken me into some moral philosophy reading. Martin O’Neill wrote in Boston Review in June 2016:

Some years ago, I had the privilege of studying in graduate school at Harvard under T. M. Scanlon—Tim, as everyone who knows him calls him. As of a few days ago, he has taught his last class as a full-time member of the Harvard philosophy department, where he arrived from Princeton in 1984. But, though he is freshly retired, he has, I hope and expect, not taught his last student. Because Scanlon’s intellectual contributions are important and enduring.

Scanlon is a modest man, so he might not appreciate my saying it, but he stands as one of the most powerful and insightful moral and political philosophers of recent decades. His largest book, What We Owe to Each Other (1998), develops and defends a distinctive approach to interpersonal morality, known as contractualism. Scanlon’s idea is that interpersonal morality—giving others their due—involves being able to justify your conduct to others. Doing right by other people means treating them in ways they cannot “reasonably reject.” More recent work includes a subtle account of the role and function of moral blame in Moral Dimensions (2008) and, in 2014’s Being Realistic About Reasons, a defense of a kind of moral realism, the claim that moral truths exist independently of humans’ beliefs and attitudes.

While Scanlon has been a system-builder in moral philosophy, his work in political philosophy, by contrast, focuses on particular values. His 2003 book The Difficulty of Tolerance includes an account of freedom of expression as well as insightful essays on toleration, human rights, and punishment, among other topics. Now Scanlon is at work on a book whose subject has concerned him for a long time, but which has in just the past five or so years emerged as a central axis of political debate: inequality.

Scanlon’s ideas about equality are philosophically significant. They also have the potential to inform how we ought to approach day-to-day politics.

To see how, it helps first to return to a long-running intellectual dispute over the value of equality and the meaning of egalitarianism. Before I crossed the Atlantic, I studied at Oxford, where, in the 1990s, two important figures of recent political philosophy, G. A. Cohen and Ronald Dworkin, found themselves pitted against each other. The sticking point was the nature and substance of egalitarianism.

In the debates between Cohen and Dworkin, it had somehow come to seem obvious that, whatever else might be said of egalitarian views, equality demanded equal distribution of something. The core question for egalitarians of this stripe was formulated with great clarity by the economist and philosopher Amartya Sen in 1979: “Equality of What?”

Dworkin’s answer was equality of resources. He argued that an egalitarian state should take no particular interest in individuals’ levels of subjective welfare (for which those individuals should take responsibility themselves) but instead should ensure that individuals have an equal claim to the resources needed to form and pursue their own plans and ambitions. The philosopher Richard Arneson, in contrast, endorsed equality of opportunity for welfare. His idea—which was later labelled “luck egalitarianism”—was that individual welfare levels should be a matter of distributive concern for egalitarians. But individuals need not be entitled to a particular level of welfare itself. Rather, individuals’ need equal opportunity to exercise choice and responsibility in their pursuit of welfare. Sen himself favored equality of capabilities, defined as opportunities to achieve particular kinds of valuable individual functionings or states. And Cohen, like Arneson a proponent of a form of luck egalitarianism, went in for a kind of hybrid objective or equilisandum—“access to advantage,” which combined elements of some of these other views.

To my mind, it wasn’t obvious who was correct. It was, however, obvious that all of these writers conceptualized the issues correctly: an egalitarian society distributed some good or other equally to all members.

But my secure sense of confidence, widely shared by political philosophers of my background and training, ran aground against the rocks of Scanlon’s understated resistance to the assumptions of the Oxford view. He argued that the concern with inequality is not some abstract interest in a particular kind of distributive pattern. (He also pointed out that this perspective provides easy grist for anti-egalitarians and those on the political right.) There is, on Scanlon’s view, a great deal more to the normative significance of equality. We don’t just want to see equal distribution of some thing. We want to live together, on terms of equal recognition, in ways that avoid interpersonal domination, prevent the emergence of stigmatizing differences in status, allow people to retain the self-respect that comes with seeing themselves as equal to others, and preserve the kind of background equality that can be a precondition for fair competition in the political and economic domains.

Scanlon’s account of equality isn’t simple; it resists capture in a one-line slogan. It is, one might say, frustratingly complicated. But that is completely right and proper, because the normative reality of our political lives just is frustratingly complicated. Our philosophical thinking about political values should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.


What if democratic societies followed Scanlon and thought about the value of equality as embedded in the character of social relations? Our governments would approach policy questions in a new way.

For example, imagine that you get to choose between two policies to equalize income. The first increases unionization rates, thereby driving up workers’ bargaining power and wages. The second leaves unionization rates low and doesn’t help workers gain bargaining power, but it does pay a wage subsidy in the form of a government transfer payment. This compensates for the bad outcomes of the labor market.

On the distributive model that we argued about at Oxford, we might be indifferent to the choice between these two policies. The decision would come down to empirical facts about which policy delivers more equal amounts of our salient good—whether resources or overall welfare.

So, to fill in some empirical assumptions, let’s further imagine a world in which the second policy, with low rates of unionization, is more economically efficient but involves the creation of jobs that are in some ways sites of domination, injurious to the self-respect of workers. An egalitarian who only cares about the distribution of one “master good”—e.g., welfare or resources—might say that we can then compensate workers for the welfare deficit they experience at work by appropriately increasing the level of their wage subsidy. What matters is just how well off people are left overall.

By contrast, a view such as Scanlon’s, emphasizing the irreducible egalitarian significance of people’s status and self-respect and their protection from social domination, will be much more reluctant to collapse everything into a calculus of overall economic outcomes. A more respectful work environment might therefore be a demand of equality, even if it incurs some cost in terms of economic efficiency.

The distributive approach to equality fits with a model of egalitarian public policy that is essentially compensatory in nature. It may be seen as just a brute fact that, in the economic arena, many people lack opportunities or suffer indignities and harm to their sense of standing and self-respect. A state concerned with promoting greater equality could then come along after the fact and redistribute goods or welfare toward those who have lost out in economic life.

But, on the social egalitarian model that Scanlon advances, ex post compensation is not good enough. Instead, a state concerned with equality must ensure, from the start, that people are able to pursue lives of robust, individual agency within the economic domain, with a secure sense of their standing as equals among others. Instead of being concerned only with redistribution, egalitarian public policy should incline toward predistribution, which aims to reshape economic institutions so that they foster egalitarian social relationships, as well as more evenly distributed economic rewards.

In the political domain, it has been interesting to see that social democratic parties in many places have lately been thinking hard about what an economic agenda focused on predistribution might look like. . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

It’s interesting to see the transition from (moral) philosophy to (political) practice.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 10:46 am

How an English Energy Crisis Helped Create Champagne

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Jai Ubhi writes in Atlas Obscura:

IN THE EARLY 17TH CENTURY, the kingdom of England was in the grip of the world’s first energy crisis. Decades of population growth, rapid urbanization, countless foreign wars, and myriad voyages of discovery to the New World under the capricious Tudors decimated the country’s forests and its timber supply.

King James I was terrified. No trees for timber meant no ships for the navy, and no navy meant leaving the country wide open and undefended against England’s enemies—which, at this time, was pretty much all of the rest of Europe. This lack of timber was nothing short of an existential threat to England itself.

A panicked Royal proclamation was swiftly issued in 1615 to stem the tide. It bemoaned the increasing dearth of good old English wood, “great and large in height and bulk” with “toughness and heart,” which is “of excellent use for shipping,” and it set out a series of drastic restrictions for its use for anything but absolutely essential purposes. In particular, the proclamation explicitly forbade that anyone should be so wasteful as to “melt, make or causeth to be melted or made, any kind, form or fashion of Glass or Glasses whatsoever, with Timber, or wood, or any Fewell made of Timber of wood.”

No timber as fuel to make glass? The country’s glass-makers were outraged. They had been burning timber for centuries to make their product: an almost alchemical process of using fearsome heat to melt a mixture of potash and sand. What on earth were they to do now?

While craftsmen around the country were up in arms about this new prohibition, the attentions of the London upper class were engrossed with a decadent new product.

English wine has long been maligned. The ancient historian Tacitus wrote that Britain was “hostile and unsuitable for the growing of grapes,” but it was his fellow Romans who brought their vines to Britain two millennia ago to sustain them in their drafty villas. A thousand years later, the Domesday Book listed 45 working vineyards in the country. And, in the 1600s, a new type of wine was being produced on the shores of England: refined and unique in character, to cater to the tastes of the affluent and upwardly mobile individuals who had flocked to the capital. And, for that, we turn to Christopher Merrett.

Sir Christopher Merrett was possessed by an insatiable curiosity. A librarian, gentleman scholar, physician and, in the terminology of the time, a ‘natural philosopher’, Merrett was one of the founding members of the Royal Society: the ‘invisible college’ where the greatest minds of the age investigated the minutiae of the known world. His output was extraordinary. He even produced an exhaustively comprehensive book attempting to list all the fauna, flora and minerals of England.

But it’s his 1662 paper, Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines, that has had the longest legacy. ”Our Wine-coopers of latter times use vast quantities of Sugar and Melosses to all sorts of Wines,” he wrote, “to make them drink brisk and sparkling and to give them Spirits.”

What Merrett was describing was the méthode champenoise, the act of secondary fermentation where still table wines are loaded up with sugar and molasses to get the yeast going again, then sealed in a bottle to produce an effervescent, bubbling concoction. It is a method made famous, as the name suggests, by the French in the Champagne region. But here is the first known description of making ‘sparkling’ wine⁠—and Merrett writing that British vintners had been doing this for years.

The problem with this new liquid, “brisk with spirits,” was that it generated an incredible amount of pressure. In a standard bottle of sparkling wine today, the internal pressure is at around six times that of atmospheric pressure—three times that of a car tire. That’s the equivalent to over five kilograms of weight pushing hard against every square centimeter of glass. Only an especially strong bottle could withstand this sort of pressure. Thankfully, England’s glass-makers were prepared.

After the royal proclamation a few years before, English glass-makers had reluctantly turned to coal. While wood was thought of as a noble fuel, across Europe coal was historically considered undesirable and dirty, and the act itself of mining it had been likened to to vandalism or burglary from the earth ever since Roman times. Even though it was well known that rich seams of coal ran across England, these were left largely untouched for centuries.

Nonetheless, once laborers started begrudgingly using this coal to heat their furnaces, they overcame their reservations. Sure, coal gave off fumes and toxins, but it also reached a much higher temperature than timber, creating stronger, more durable, and thicker glass. Over time, artisans honed new industrial methods to take advantage of this discovery. While European counterparts were still using wood, the Champagne bottle as we know it was born in the furnaces of England.

Not only did these new bottles help spawn an embryonic wine industry, but they became . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 10:30 am

Dinnerware and cultural meme evolution

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Lisa Kwon writes in Eater:

So much can be revealed about a family through their plates and bowls. Some tuck away their dishware in kitchen cabinets, while others allow them to sit in display cabinets that furnish homey dining rooms. But for many Korean families, no matter where the dishes reside, most of them are instantly recognizable: wide rimmed, milky white plates detailed with realistic images of flowers like hydrangeas, rhododendrons, and lilies. Forest green laurel motifs line the circumferences of every bowl, plate, and cup. The collection looks like a garden study painted onto thick bone china.

To many, the plates are visceral yet delicate reminders of growing up in immigrant homes. Mia Sung was born in Flushing, New York, and moved to New Jersey when she was four years old. It wasn’t until she was in middle school that she saw some of her family’s Portmeirion Group dinnerware — specifically, that familiar Botanic Garden line — in the homes of other Korean families. “I thought we were the only ones who had them, so when I started going to other people’s houses I thought, ‘Whoa… they have the same ones, too!’” Sung says. “But when I went to other non-Korean houses, I don’t recall seeing them there.”

On the other side of the country, Josh Kim grew up in Buena Park, a neighborhood in Orange County, California, that boasts one of the largest Korean populations in the United States. He can immediately conjure memories of his family eating from Botanic Garden plates and bowls. “We used the majority of them daily, but our family would know it’s a special occasion when my mom brought out the bigger, serving-sized ones,” he says.

Portmeirion Pottery’s Botanic Garden line, inspired by 19th-century nature prints, was launched by the England-based company in 1972. At the time, Portmeirion was headed by ceramicist and designer Susan Williams-Ellis, who took over in 1960 for her father Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, an architect and creator of Portmeirion Village in North Wales; Susan Williams-Ellis created the botanical line after several years of designing collections with varying abstract patterns. Her early collections, Malachite and Moss Agate, layered glazes of deep forest hues with bands of light green to resemble the prized gemstones. These made way for her most recognizable work of the decade, the Totem collection, which boasted embossed geometric shapes and spirals on cylindrical coffee pots, cups, and jugs. But by the 1970s, Williams-Ellis would focus on botanical subjects — the 1970s would also see a design called Magic Garden, a whimsical take on organic plant shapes — and never look back. Since its 1972 debut, Botanic Garden has never left the factory floor and remains one of the company’s most popular lines of crockery.

However, it was just within the last several decades that the British pottery line became the emblem of well-fed Korean families. John Lie, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley with an interest in East Asian culture, says the Portmeirion Group’s higher-end price point — the line costs up to $58 for one pasta bowl — was initially part of its draw. “[Modern-day] South Koreans were becoming more aspirational about tableware in recent decades, though even affluent South Koreans were surprisingly utilitarian in their choice of tableware,” he says. “The U.S. had been the source of status aspiration in South Korea, but its place at the apex began slipping when South Koreans found ‘class’ elsewhere, such as in English crockery.” Portmeirion’s line of pottery was a competitive choice for its veneer of prestige, as well as its durability. As quickly as a fad spreads, Korean families began to create demand for the United Kingdom crockery through word-of-mouth.

By 2009, Portmeirion reported that its sales increased by 31 percent in the Korean market over the first half of the year, helping the company grow profits by almost a third. Five years later, Portmeirion was on track to post record revenues for the fifth year in a row based on Korean demand.

“It’s quite a compliment that South Koreans buy our pottery because they were making fine porcelain when we were still painting ourselves blue,” said Portmeirion chairman Dick Steele in a 2018 interview with The Telegraph, referring to early English porcelain wares with hand-painted blue and white patterns that were inspired by Chinese decorative styles. In the same interview, Steele — who has overseen the growth of Portmeirion’s exports to South Korea for 12 years — confirmed that the country remained Portmeirion’s second-biggest export market.

After becoming a popular export to South Korea, Portmeirion’s dishware traversed the Pacific Ocean. Upon the passing of the Hart-Celler Act of 1965, which did away with longstanding racist immigration quotas, many Korean families were emboldened to start anew in the U.S.; generations afterwards came into the country to be closer to relatives and start new chapters themselves. With them came mementos and physical objects that reminded them of their roots. There was pride in being an American immigrant; a polished Botanic Garden plate put that prestige on display.

In Koreatown, Los Angeles, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 9:40 am

Posted in Business, Daily life, Memes

The Forest Green Rovers, the world’s first plant-based football club

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The Game Changers is an interesting documentary, and in editing it, some scenes had to hit the cutting-room floor. Some of those are now being released as standalones on YouTube. Here’s one:

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 9:33 am

Now that winter’s here, a summer fragrance delights

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Savannah Sunrise from Dr. Jon’s Handcrafted Soaps is a delightful summertime blend — Orange Blossom, Peach, Gardenia, Jasmine, and Honeysuckle. And the lather, thanks in part to this Maggard Razors 22mm synthetic brush, was exceptionally nice, though I imagine the revised formulation, Vol. 2, is even better.

Three passes with the incomparable Baby Smooth left my face … well, baby smooth, and a splash off Savannah Sunrise aftershave finished the job and started the weekend on a bright note.

Written by LeisureGuy

28 December 2019 at 9:05 am

Posted in Shaving

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