At 30,000 feet: in 1/100th of a second

July 13, 2011

I find business travel of any sort disorienting.  Why am I here?  Just what am I doing in this place with these people?  Unmoored, my mind floats free of Earth’s gravitational pull and looses itself in philosophical maundering and pessimism.

I am in Carlsbad, CA, for the ESRI International Users Conference.  No clue?  Look here.  Yes, that’s what I do for a living, sort of.  And along with 1o,ooo members of the sometimes cultish fans cum users of ESRI software, I am here to try to learn something useful.  I’m even making a presentation.

On the flight out, I made sure to have a window seat, and my foresight was rewarded with some views of the Missouri River that looked like these below.  Floods, gotta love ‘em, they’re so grand.

I passed over arid hillscapes that were pricked here and there with giant white toothpicks – wind turbines – that seemed puny in comparison to the huge urban energy-suckers I saw.  I arrive in a new city, San Diego, and observe trucks, trains, planes, industrial zones, and crowds of people going to work – the human beehive.  It all seems so utterly pointless.  Why don’t they all just stay in their rooms, read a good book?  Is what they’re doing so great?

I recall a letter by V.I. Lenin in which he deplored the unplanned, chaotic and wasteful nature of capitalism.  Perhaps he and I share a similar visceral disgust with the nature of modern society.  Of course, his solution wasn’t as good as mine.  (Of course, I stole it from Pascal.)

On the flight, I read Freefall, an analysis of the financial debacle of 2007 by Stiglitz.  Perhaps he should read my post on the thieving state.  Well, he won a Nobel, but he is an economist after all…  I also finished reading River of Shadows, by Rebecca Solnit, which is a biography, sort of, of Eadweard Muybridge, the man who is famous for motion studies like these of horses:

and who also did many others of people which are not so widely known, such as this one of a woman simply getting into and out of bed:Obviously, Muybridge was onto something with his instantaneous photos of moving objects, and his work was an important precursor to the development of motion pictures.  Today, you can buy amusing flip-books of some of his studies that work wonderfully well.  In fact, he created an early zoetrope that combined magic lanterns with his motion studies to produce projected animations, and he was involved with Edison in creating the early kinetoscopes.  He was also an accomplished landscape photographer, and a bit of an eccentric.

Solnit’s book, however, indulges in much breathless metaphysical word-spinning at every possible opportunity, and is built on the conceit that Muybridge and Leland Stanford (it was his horse, and he paid for the initial work photographing it in those famous sequences) founded the modern world in the previously Wild West.  After all, the basis of modern civilization is Hollywood (Muybridge’s part) and Silicone Valley ([Leland] Stanford University’s part).  It’s pretty tiresome after a while, but the book rewards judicious skimming.

One of the most interesting parts to me was the connection with Ernest Meissonier, the successful French salon painter known for his large canvasses showing Napoleon in what appeared at the time to be photo-realistic detail.  (He was a favorite painter of Salvador Dali.)


Meissonier exerted tremendous effort in studying the movements of horses, trying to get the legs right.  Muybridge’s sequences of Stanford’s racer, Occident, laid to rest the momentous question of whether or not a horse ever had all four feet off the ground at once – they do – but it also showed how complex was the movement of the legs.  Messonier was upset: he’d got them all wrong, but he was a good sport about it.  In his portrait of Stanford, a photo sequence by Muybridge is just barely visible on the table at the right.

Global Warming: Save the hypothesis!

December 29, 2010

Christmas Day delivered a special present to critics of the AGW (anthropogenic global warming) point of view:  an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Judah Cohen – Bundle Up, It’s Global Warming.  One couldn’t ask for a better example of an intellectual house of cards being passed off as science than this wonderful essay.  Like George W. Bush, for whom the answer to any economic problem – slow growth, budget deficit, budget surplus, whatever…  was always to cut taxes, for Mr. Cohen, all observations lead to global warming as an explanation.

Anyone who seriously thinks about climate change understands that weather and climate are not the same, and that  just as a few cold winters don’t disprove AGW, neither do a few hot summers prove it (although that latter point is not often heard from AGW advocates!)  Nevertheless, the record cold in Europe and North America seems to fly in the fact of the AGW theory.  Why the freeze if the Earth is getting warmer?  So, Mr. Cohen leaps into the fray to answer just that question…Of course, one wonders why he feels he must address this ‘question’ if weather is not climate..?

Mr. Cohen is a forecaster for a firm ( that sells information, or rather, data, to firms that need to estimate their exposure to climate-based risks.  Certainly a reasonable service, but it’s not the same as science.  And like all forecaster/modelers, he must have an explanation for everything, or his credibility falters.  In this regard, he is like a conspiracy theorist, the type of person who has a theory that explains everything!  To leave any question unanswered is to invite a withdrawal of confidence.

Cohen presents a complicated explanation for how the earth can be warming and yet experience colder weather in the northern hemisphere.   It’s very logical, and even plausible…but it’s all speculative.  There is no proof for any of it, and he offers none.  It also happens to be derived from his pet theory that he has modeled and flogged before.  Time will tell if the Earth continues to behave in a manner that could be explained by his notion.  Meanwhile, his ideas offer no proof at all for the AGW theory, but simply constitute an example of “saving the hypothesis.”

Saving the hypothesis is the tactic one takes when observed phenomena seem to invalidate one’s theory:  Construct another theory to “save” the original one!  Blaise Pascal exposed this tactic brilliantly in his epistolary debates on the vacuum, although he did not give it that name.  Aristotle, and centuries of his successors said that Nature could not “tolerate” a vacuum, so all evidence that a vacuum can be created was explained away with new substances, ethers, compounds, etc. that we can not see or measure, etc. etc.  No matter what evidence one presented from direct observation, there was always a reason why one was not observing a vacuum.  So, today, no matter what the evidence – and the recent weather is not evidence of much of anything either way! – it must support the accepted idea that AGW does exist.

The crowd, Pascal, and the philosophers

June 20, 2009

weegee_coney blaise philosophers

I have been fascinated by Blaise Pascal for a long time.  He was a child prodigy; he invented an early mechanical calculator; he was an accomplished wit and satirist who skewered his opponents in religious controversy in his Provincial Letters; his scientific work on hydrostatics and the debate over the existence of a vacuum were as monumental for the future of physics as was his ground breaking work on geometry and probability theory for mathematics.  And, he was a mystic.

In the last week or two, a few exchanges here and there in my little corner of the blogsphere have brought him to mind once again; specifically his thinking about the role of The Philosopher (thinkers and intellectuals)vis a vis The People, aka The Masses.  In his very short introduction to Pascal (Pascal:  In Praise of Vanity, part of the Great Philosophers series) Ben Rogers teases out Pascal’s thoughts on this topic from his Pensées, that disordered bundle of notes and passages in his papers found after his death.

Sometimes I take Troutsky & Co. @ Thoughtstreaming to task for their leftist-Marxist assumptions about the nature of popular consciousness. I happen to agree with most of their policy prescriptions, but they often sound to me as if they believe that “everyone is just so damn stupid – if they’d just read more theory, or listen to us, they’d see the truth and revolt – but they are drugged (that opium, again…) by popular consumer culture and propaganda so they vote Republican, etc. etc…”  Sometimes these agitators of the Left sound almost as supercilious about The  People as William F. Buckley, that great pseudo-intellectual snob, sounded on a good day.  Pascal addresses just this conflict.

As Rogers reads him, Pascal detected in The Philosophers a “conceited intellectualism – a utopian rationalism – which he was determined to shake and unsettle.”  Even though Pascal assented to the Philosphers’ condemnation of popular vanity – the people don’t know the truth, they are diverted by stupid useless entertainments, they are driven by their passions rather than by analysis – he engages in a “constant swing pro to con” about them.  Some might call it a dialectic.

Thus we have shown that man is vain to pay so much attention to things which do not really matter, and all these opinions have been refuted.

Then we have shown that all these opinions are perfectly sound so that, all these examples of vanity being perfectly justified, ordinary people are not as vain as they are said to be. (#93)

For example, Rogers notes that the “sages” complain that the activities that people pursue are vain and trivial, distracting, and rule out all opportunity for reflection. Pascal responds that this is precisely their point.  As he puts it in a fragment on divertissement:

…those who hold that  people are quite unreasonable to spend all day chasing a hare they would not have wanted to buy, have little knowledge of our nature.  The hare itself would not save us from thinking about death and the miseries distracting us, but the hunting does so.  (#136)

How’s that for a demolition of the Situationist critique of compelled consumption/consumer culture?

Pascal’s thought is subtle and diffuse, but, in sum, he feels that The People have adapted sensibly to the pressures of life served up to them by God and the political order.  At bottom, there is a dark, pessimistic conservatism in his politics.  He says it is necessary for The People to be distracted, and lied to, because if they were told the bald truth about the injustice of society, they would rebel.  Pascal is not a rebel, though he is subversive!  He demolishes the pretentions of the Philosophers who try to demonstrate that the political order is just, and according to God’s law.  He knows it’s a sham.  The people sense this, and they know their relative powerlessness, so they adapt.

One need not endorse Pascal’s bleak realpolitick to accept the wisdom of many of his observations.  He is right – philosophers, sages, agitators, are often out of touch with the real life of the people, and they impose their tastes, views, and aspirations on them, dismissing other approaches to life as surrender to bourgeois hegemony, apathy, or some other political sin.  Thus, the possibilities for overturning the political order are slim to none.  History does not offer much support for the claim that it is eminently feasible.

Moreover, nobody is truly free.  We have free will, but it is limited.  We do not choose where or when we are born.  We cannot start from a blank slate.  We are raised in, and must move forward from the state of things as they are.

Most important, when “thinkers” start riffing on “false-consciousness,” cultural brainwashing, the evils of popular culture, the pernicious influence of the media, think of Pascal and his double-edged critique of “conceited” Philosophers.

More junk from me on Monsieur Blaise:

  • Pascal’s famous wager on the existence of God.
  • Further reflections on divertissement.
  • A note on Pascals most famous mystical passage.

Loaded Dice

December 14, 2007


Well, nice to hear from an atheist these days, especially in the NY Times. Eduardo Porter, in a column today discusses the tiresome God-talk of the candidates and mulls over Pascal’s wager.

As far as I’m concerned, the U.S. Constitution said it all for politics and religion in our country. It does not use the word “God,” and it says of religion only that there shall be no theological test for officeholders and that the government shall establish no official religion. End of discussion – candidates can believe in whatever cult they choose to. Even, as Gore Vidal calls it, the cult of the Bronze Age Sky Gods. (That’s you Jews and Christians, oh, Muslims too.)

Pascal is a strange figure in intellectual history. A brilliant scientist and mathematician, and a religious mystic. His wager is summarized here:

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is….

…”God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions.

… Which will you choose then? Let us see. … Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.

He tries to use game theory and probability – which he practically invented – to prove that only belief in God is rational. He has loaded the dice in so many ways – I’m not going to go into it here, but any atheist who has given half an hour of thought to it will find multiple objections to the rules of his game, that it is not a tenable argument at all. Yet, it continues to be debated! Why? Only because so many cannot abandon their belief in a “creator”.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 172 other followers