Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stories of Centaurs and Dragons

Should a traveller, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted; men, who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies.
On reading this in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, it occurred to me that Hume had of course never had a chance to read much of the writing concerning certain distant nations that one read in the US between about 1970, or to see its widespread reception as simple truth.

Widespread, but not at all universal. Herbert Simon wrote, in Models of My Life, of a trip to Sweden in 1969:
... But the meeting with Jan Myrdal, and his significant other, was fascinating. Myrdal had written an excellent book, A Chinese Village, about peasant life in the People's Republic of China--with a distinct Maoist slant but descriptively accurate. That is, it sounded just right for peasants. More recently, he had been in Albania. Without blinking, he told me, "Some of the peasants had poor land in the mountains, others much better land in the valleys. So they held a great meeting, and they all agreed voluntarily to make exchanges in their lands, so they all would be equal."
    Now here I applied the Travel Theorem. I had never been to Albania, but I had encountered peasants, in the United States and Mexico, and even in Germany and France. And I had read accounts of many peasants in many lands at many points in history. The probability of Myrdal's statement was far too low to be rescued by a single eyewitness statement.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Linux Cruft

This past week, I dealt with some machines, all running Red Hat Enterprise Linux 6, which had numbers of updates to be applied. The first one took some doing, for at times the update process would stall with a message about incompatible libraries. Eventually, I narrowed the problems to three packages:
  1. fprintd, a program to allow for authentication via fingerprint
  2. gd, a program for creating and rendering images
  3. matahari, a package for system monitoring and management
Now, this server, running on a virtual machine (VM), has no fingerprint reader; we don't render images on it; and we don't use matahari. But rather than get mixed up in effort to remove them, I worked around the difficulties and got all but gd upgraded.

Along the way, I had a look at the packages installed--scripting languages and databases never used, Java servers never thought of, fonts for rendering Swedish or Tamil or Uighur, etc.--and thought, "Why?" As I remember it, this was the first Linux VM we set up, and I think that a co-worker simply clicked the boxes to install everything, while I nodded or shrugged. Everything turned out to be quite a lot. We have become more selective lately: this machine and another of about the same vintage have more than 1600 each, a slightly later one has about 1350, the most recent two machines are around 700 each.

When I first installed Linux, it was with the use of packages downloaded over a modem connection and copied on to 1.4 MB floppy disks. Creating a half dozen of those probably took about the same time it takes to download a 600 GB ISO image from Red Hat now. One was necessarily more selective about the packages. I don't miss those days of 60 MB hard drives, or foot-high stacks of floppies, though.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

That Depends on Whom You Ask

This also must be confessed, that the most durable, as well as justest fame, has been acquired by the easy philosophy, and that abstract reasoners seem hitherto to have enjoyed only a momentary reputation, from the caprice or ignorance of their own age, but have not been able to support their renown with more equitable posterity. It is easy for a profound philosopher to commit a mistake in his subtile reasonings; and one mistake is the necessary parent of another, while he pushes on his consequences, and is not deterred from embracing any conclusion, by its unusual appearance, or its contradiction to popular opinion. But a philosopher, who purposes only to represent the common sense of mankind in more beautiful and more engaging colours, if by accident he falls into error, goes no farther; but renewing his appeal to common sense, and the natural sentiments of the mind, returns into the right path, and secures himself from any dangerous illusions. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present; but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed.
David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section I, Of the Different Species of Philosophy (1748)

A century and a half later, Charles Saunders Peirce wrote
To erect a philosophical edifice that shall outlast the vicissitudes of time, my care must be, not so much to set each brick with nicest accuracy, as to lay the foundations deep and massive. Aristotle built upon a few chosen concepts--such as matter and form, act and power--very broad, and in their outlines vague and rough, but solid, unshakable, and not easily undermined; and thence it has come to pass that Aristotelianism is babbled in every nursery, that "English Common Sense," for example, is thoroughly peripatetic, and that ordinary men live so completely in the house of the Stagyrite that whatever they see out of the windows appears to them incomprehensible and metaphysical.
"Preface to an Unwritten Book", 1897-1898, collected in Charles S. Peirce: The Essential Writings,  Harper and Rowe 1972. To be sure, Peirce goes on to write of the insufficiency of Aristotelianism, though also of the difficulties encountered by its would-be successors.

Friday, March 31, 2017

San Luis Obispo

Tuesday and Wednesday we visited with friends in San Luis Obispo. On a walk around their development, Stoneridge, we admired the flowers and plants, many of which we could not identify:

(Bird of Paradise)

(Hens and chicks--many times the size of those I remember from Ohio.)

(Pencil cactus over hens and chicks)

Our friends picked us up at the Santa Barbara, train station and took us  to Chaucer's Bookstore on State Street.  We managed to come away with only four more books to haul back to Washington.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

In a Superior Civilization

The other day, I pulled from the shelf a copy of August Frugé's A Skeptic Among Scholars, a memoir of his work at The University of California Press, and happened on a passage from one of the authors he worked with, Rico Lebrun:
The real drama is in the fact that personal drama produces nothing of merit whatever. Many professors have struggled even harder than Cézanne, and for the wrong reasons. In a superior civilization someday, we should have a Pantheon for them: "He was an ass and toiled as if he had the obligations of a hero." Who knows how many of us may yet belong to that legion?
 (Rico Lebrun, Drawings.)

But what of us too idle to qualify for that Pantheon?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

After the Warm February

Shortly after the magnolia blossoms came out, we had a cold snap. The blossoms turned brown and still hang on the trees. The middle of the first full week of March was warm, then the weekend was cold, and Monday night it came on to snow. In the city the snow was a good deal mixed with sleet and cold rain, so that every shovelful weighed as if it were six or eight inches, not one or two. In the yards there was snow up against flowering bushes and trees:

A good deal of the snow remained this morning

and for that matter tonight. But the forecast calls for a return to seasonal temperatures (about 58 F) on Saturday.

Sunday, March 12, 2017


Yesterday in Friedell's Cultural History of Modernity, I ran across a passage on Flaubert:
But he is in this again utterly opposed to Romanticism: for he rejects all stylization, idealization, tidying-up of reality, rejects rose-colored glasses, and shows men in their smallness, meanness, vulgarity, indeed their contemptibility; his heroes are not heroes. He depicts his world with the same thoroughness and coolness with which an entomologist regards an anthill or a beehive: he writes not one subjective line. He said himself: "The author must be in his work like God in the the universe: everywhere present and nowhere visible." But does not the artist also resemble God in loving his creations as a father his children? Doubtless; and so it is with Flaubert. The unheard-of novelty of his scientific, unsentimental method of observation concealed from his contemporaries, and from Flaubert himself, that as with every other artist his creative principle was an understanding love.
 This reminded me of Yeats on Synge:
 Whenever he tried to write drama without dialect he wrote badly, and he made several attempts, because only through dialect could he escape self-expression, see all that he did from without, allow his intellect to judge the images of his mind as if they had been created by some other mind. His objectivity was, however, technical only, for in those images paraded all the desires of his heart.
 (Ch. XIX of "The Tragic Generation" in Autobiographies)