Coming Soon:

The following books by Robert Paul Wolff are available on Amazon.com as e-books: KANT'S THEORY OF MENTAL ACTIVITY, THE AUTONOMY OF REASON, UNDERSTANDING MARX, UNDERSTANDING RAWLS, THE POVERTY OF LIBERALISM, A LIFE IN THE ACADEMY, MONEYBAGS MUST BE SO LUCKY, AN INTRODUCTION TO THE USE OF FORMAL METHODS IN POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY.
Now Available: Volumes I, II, III, and IV of the Collected Published and Unpublished Papers.

NOW AVAILABLE ON YOUTUBE: LECTURES ON KANT'S CRITIQUE OF PURE REASON. To view the lectures, go to YouTube and search for "Robert Paul Wolff Kant." There they will be.

To contact me about organizing, email me at rpwolff750@gmail.com




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Saturday, June 30, 2012

THE BAGUETTE

While I am in France, I have devised a morning walk to take the place of my four mile contitutional in Chapel Hill.  I walk along Boulevard St. Germain, past Brasserie Lipp, Cafe Flore, and Les Deux Magots, until I come to its end, just across the Seine from Place de la Concorde.  Then I turn right and make my way back along the quais, past the Assemble National, the Mint, the Musee D'Orsay, the Academie Francaise, the Louvre [across the river], and Place St. Michel, back to our little apartment.  Before returning home, I walk up rue Monge to the Keyser bakery, which is open even at 7 a.m., to get a fresh, warm baguette for breakfast.  This delicacy, among the best breads in the world, costs just one Euro 10, roughly $1.40 at today's exchange rate.  By way of comparison, a soft, flabby, tasteless Whole Foods knock-off of the French baguette in Chapel Hill costs maybe three times that.

How on earth do they do that?  Simple.  The state subsidizes the price of bread in France.  Why?  Well, it all goes back to the French Revolution, when the new government instituted bread subsidies, at a time when bread was a principal part of the diet of the masses.

I realize that I am being hopelessly romantic, but this just seems to me the way a state is supposed to act.  What I wouldn't give to be a citizen of a country whose people understood this notion and endorsed it.

Friday, June 29, 2012

OMNIUM GATHERUM FROM PARIS

1.    Susie and I set out yesterday morning at nine a.m. for Gare St. Lazare, to catch the 10:20 train to Vernon and Giverny.  It took us twenty-five minutes to snag a cab, and another agonizing thirty-five minutes in Paris traffic to get to the station, so I was very fearful that we would miss our train and have to cancel the trip.

Gare St, Lazare is enormous, and rather hard to negotiate if you don't already know it, as I did not.  I found some automatic ticket dispensing machines, but completely failed to decode them.  The line at the one ticket office wound around two stanchions and clearly was not going to move much before our train left.  Finally, in despair, I said to Susie, "Look, no one seems to be taking tickets.  Let's just get on the train and buy tickets when the conductor comes around.  If that is not allowed, they can throw us off at the first stop, but that is our stop anyway, so what the hell."

We climbed onto a very modern, very attractive, very crowded train and found seats pretty much as the train pulled out.  It turned out there was an intermediate stop -- Mente La Jolie -- but no conductor came through, so I figured there would be a turnstile at Vernon which would stamp everyone's tickets on the way out. We would have to pay up and talk our way through as clueless tourists.

No turnstile at Vernon.  We just got off the train and joined the long line for the shuttle bus to Giverny.  In wonderment, I said to Susie, "We just traveled from Paris to Vernon for nothing.  What on earth is going on?"

Four hours later, we took the shuttle bus back to the train station, where I dutifully bought two tickets [one-way] to Paris -- ten Euros each, once it was established that we are indeed senior citizens.  I slid the tickets into a bright yellow box which stamped them, as instructed by various signs, and when the train came, we got aboard.  Once again, no one asked for our tickets at either end.  Had I not bought the tickets, we could have made the entire round trip free.  I still do not know what was going on.  But is this anyway to run a railroad?

2.   I have for several days been engaged in a death struggle with France Telecom to get our TV set to work properly.  We pay 34 Euros a month [$42] for the privilege of not getting more than about six stations, and I decided the time had come to sort things out.  I shan't go into details -- the struggle is ongoing as I write -- but along the way, as I was doing my six kilometer walk this morning, I imagined myself trying to explain to a service technician in French what is wrong.  [My French is nowhere near good enough to have such a conversation with any confidence that I am communicating succssfully.]  Now, I do know that "brancher" means roughly "to plug in."  If you want to tell someone not to unplug an appliance, "Ne pas debranchez" ought to do it.  How would I say, I asked myself, that something was plugged in the wrong way -- clearly a possible cause for my inability to get the TV set to work properly.  Would I say, "Le TV est malbranche [acute accent on the final e]"?

And then, since I am stll nominally a philosopher, I of course thought of the 17th century proponent of Occasionalism, Father Malebranche.  "Hmm," I thought.  "Malabranche.  malbranche.  Do you suppose he was called Malebranche because he had his wires crossed?"  Just a thought.

5-4

I returned from Giverny to discover that Obama had scored a huge political victory with the Supreme Court's upholding of the Affordable Care Act.  The decision was, in several ways, rather odd, and I will leave it to those far more knowledgeable than I to parse it and explicate it.  But the political significance is, I think, unambiguous and of major importance.  I actually believe that ths decision will very materially aid Obama in his quest for a second term.  We shall see.  For the time being, it is enough to savor the relief and the pleasure.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

TIME ZONES

When I arise in the morning in Paris, it is barely past midnight in Chapel Hill.  For the most part, this bizarre disarrangement of the normal order of things is manageable, but every so often, something is happening in the United States that really matters to me, and then I must hang about all day until the East Coast pulls itself together and gets up.  Today is one of those days.  Some time not too long after ten a.m. in Washington, the Supreme Court will announce its decision in the Affordable Care Act case. An enormous amount hangs on the decision of this deeply flawed collection of geezers, but I cannot know what they have decided until some time after four in the afternoon Paris time.  You would think that some techie would figure out how to get over this lag, but no.  What to do?

Well, I have just read Linda Greenhouse in the NY TIMES [the TIMES helpfully posts the new day's edition shortly after midnight, so that it will be available for me when I arise -- well, all right, not so it will be available for me -- I mean, I know all about post hoc ergo propter hoc and all that, but the effect is the same].  She knows more about the High Court than anyone, and she says they are going to uphold the law.  God, I hope she is right.

But there is no use snivelling, so today, Susie and I will pass the long hours before Paris catches up with Washington by going to Giverny to see Monet's famous gardens.  This is one of the principal out-of-Paris tourist attractions in the northern part of France, and for Susie, who was a botanist and has been a fanatic gardener all her life, it holds an irresistible appeal.  Giverny, the village in which Monet lived and painted, is in the town of Vernon west of Paris, a forty-five minute train ride from Gare St. Lazare.  We shall take the 10:20 train, spend the day at Giverny, catch the 4:53 or 5:53 back [depending on when Susie can tear herself away], and log onto the internet shortly thereafter to find out what the Supremes have done.

Not a bad way to spend time while waiting to find out whether disaster has struck.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

WHAT FUN

My blog post about E. O. Wilson's book has already triggered an interesting series of comments.  I followed the link to Richard Dawkins' extremely negative review, and then read with enjoyment some of the many, many comments attached to it.  This is, for me, pure fun. I don't have anything at stake in this fight, so I can just sit back and enjoy it.  I have read with great pleasure books by both Dawkins [THE ANCESTOR'S TALE] and Wilson, and I simply have no idea which of them is right.  Dawkins thinks Wlson does not understand the mathematics in the 2010 paper Wilson co-authored with two mathematicians, and the commentators to Dawkins' review think he doesn't understand it either.  I am tempted to look up the paper and see whether I can understand it!  Anyway, I welcome comments, both from amateurs like me and from any pros out there who may be reading my blog.

WHAT HAVE I BEEN READING?

There are, to the best of my knowledge, three English language bookstores in Paris, all within walking distance of our apartment.  The closest, and by far the best known, is Shakespeare & Co., on a Left Bank quai cattycorner across from Notre Dame de Paris [our neighborhood church.]  As readers of my Autobiography will know [Volume One, Chapter Three], I spent a good deal of time hanging out there in the Spring of ’55, when it was called Le Mistral.  The second, also quite well known among Americans in Paris, is The Village Voice [no kidding!], on rue Princesse in the 6th.  The Village Voice, which is more of a real bookstore and less of a tourist magnet than Shakespeare & Co., hosts readings by visiting English language authors, several of which Susie and I have attended.  The third is a tiny second hand bookshop on a back street up behind Odeon, which Susie and I discovered when we were wandering around one day after seeing a movie at one of the three cinemas in the Odeon area.

Several days ago, I walked to the little secondhand bookstore, where I found a serviceable Dave Brown schlock spy story, which occupied me for a day [not bad for 2 Euros.]  Then Susie and I went to rue st. Julien le Pauvre to have a bite at an English style tea house we favor, after which we walked around the corner to Shakespeare & Co. to look for something to read.  I bought another schlock spy book, by Steve Coonts, but Susie, whose tastes are somewhat more elevated than mine, opted for E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Social Conquest of Earth.  The Coonts took me all of two days, and there I was again looking for something to read.

Despite having spent a curious and informative afternoon with E. O. Wilson in his Harvard office a quarter of a century ago [Autobiography, Volume Two, Chapter Five], I have long been suspicious of the field he fostered, Sociobiology, while remaining quite impressed by his extraordinary work on ants.  But pressed for something to read, I decided to try his new book.  To my surprise and delight, I found it engrossing and utterly charming.  Or at least that was my reaction to the first three-fourths of the book, but I will get to that in a bit.

The subject of the book is the evolution of eusociality in animal species, including homo sapiens, and the transformation of eusociality into culture in humans.  Wilson defines eusociality as “the condition of multiple generations organized into groups by means of an altruistic division of labor.”  “Altruism” here has a quite specific meaning, namely behavior that does not increase, or even decreases, an organism’s probability of reproducing.  Such behavior is extremely common in ant colonies, in many, if not most, of which there are so-called “worker ants” and “soldier ants” whose actions contribute to the “queen” ant’s ability to reproduce, even though they themselves do not, indeed perhaps cannot, reproduce.  Wilson has been studying ants all his life, and has an endless supply of fascinating examples drawn from the thousands upon thousands of species and genera of ants.  [In the 1950’s, when my sister was doing her doctorate in Biology at Harvard, Wilson was one of her fellow graduate students.  Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould were the star students, of course, and Wilson was very much the odd man out, since in those days no one who was fated to be anyone studied so-called “social insects” – ants, termites, and bees.]

You can see the problem that altruistic behavior, thus defined, presents to an evolutionary biologist.  How on earth can natural selection select the genes that code for altruistic behavior, when such behavior has no reproductive edge, and may even greatly diminish or even eliminate the probability that the organism bearing those genes will reproduce at all?  In theory, such genes should be selected against and disappear from the genome as soon as mutations produce them. 

According to Wilson, evolutionary biologists have been debating and investigating this question intensely for several decades, and Wilson is once again the odd man out.  The dominant explanation is something called “inclusive fitness,” according to which what natural selection selects for is the number of genes that are passed on globally – i.e., by any organism – rather than for the reproduction of any one organism carrying that gene.  The idea [see Richard Dawkins’ influential book, The Selfish Gene] is something like this:  If brother ants on average share fifty percent of their genes [because of the mechanisms of chromosomal reproduction], then one of them will improve the chances of its genes being passed on to the next generation if it takes a less than fifty percent chance of failing to reproduce in order to up the chances of its brother reproducing [by feeding it, for example, or protecting it from a predator] by more than fifty percent.  Cousins will be less likely to sacrifice for one another, and so on for even more distant relatives.  Ants don’t know any of this, of course, but natural selection operates as though they do.  Elaborate Game Theoretic models have been developed to defend this explanation for the evolution of “altruistic” behavior in eusocial species.

Against this theory, which he claims has proved to be both mathematically and experimentally disconfirmed [in this book he does not give details], Wilson offers a theory of group selection, according to which it is not individual organisms but groups of organisms – colonies, nests, extended families – that compete against one another with natural selection determining which group – and hence which assemblage of genes – survives and reproduces most successfully.

The real delight in the book is Wilson’s repeated extended comparisons of hominid evolution with ant evolution.  There are a variety of animal species that have developed eusocial behavior:  ants, of course, and termites and bees, and naked moles [who knew?], and a rare species of shrimp [this one is a real outlier, as we shall see], and, of course, the pre-hominids and hominids leading to homo neanderthalensis and homo sapiens.  From his extensive study of and reflection on these instances of eusociality, Wilson comes to the conclusion that there were three facts about the early hominds – “preadaptations,” as he calls them – that prepared them for the possibility of making the leap from eusociality to culture [which is the real subject of his book.]  Rather unexpectedly, these are: first, the shift from an herbivorous to an omnivorous diet, which is to say the regular hunting for and eating of meat;  second, the possession of flat, soft appendages [i.e., fingers, as opposed to talons or claws] suitable for working materials like stone, shaping them, and manipulating them;  and finally, the successful mastery of controlled fire.  It is this last that has forever barred highly intelligent creatures like dolphins or octopi from ever evolving culture.

There is much, much more in the first three-quarters of the book, all of it fascinating, and some of it – the occasional autobiographical bits – quite charming.  Here is just one passage that gives something of the flavor of Wilson’s authorial voice:

“[I]n 1967, I received a piece of fossil metasequoia amber that two amateur collectors had picked up in a New Jersey stratum of Late Cretaceous age, about 90 million years old.  Present together were two beautifully preserved worker ants in the transparent amber.  They were almost twice as old as the most ancient ant fossil previously known.  As I held the piece in my hand, I knew I was the first to look back into the deep history of one of Earth’s two most successful insect groups.  It was among the most exciting moments of my life (and I can understand if the reader does not appreciate my reaction to a fossil insect.)  In fact, I was so excited that I fumbled and dropped the piece.  It fell to the floor and broke into two fragments.  I froze and stared down in horror, as though I had just bumped into and shattered a priceless Ming Dynasty vase.  However, fortune continued to favor me that day.  There remained one undamaged ant in each fragment, and each could be polished separately.”  [pp. 121-122.]

And so it goes, until, on page 232, things turn horribly wrong, and the book more or less falls apart.  The elaborate and fascinating discussions of ants and termites, hominids and homo neanderthalensis, have all been the merest prolegomenon to Wilson’s real subject, the evolution of culture.  The final one-quarter of the book is devoted to a discussion of the evolution of language, cultural variation, morality, honor, religion, and the creative arts.  And here, despite having a number of quite interesting things to say [about color perception, for example], Wilson wanders outside the sphere of his indisputable mastery and reveals his limits. 

Discussing the famous debate between B. F. Skinner and Noam Chomsky in 1957, Wilson completely breaks tone by quoting an extremely technical passage from Chomsky’s review of Skinner’s book, which he then mocks, as if to say, “How can jargon like this possibly tell us anything about language?”  Now, Wilson has for more than two hundred pages been skimming over some equally technical stuff in evolutionary biology, repeatedly saying that he is simplifying it for a non-specialist audience, but instead of quoting any of the many quite lucid informal explanations Chomsky has given of his influential theories, Wilson adopts a know-nothing attitude that would do credit to an evangelical Christian.  I was so affronted by the passage that had it not occurred late in Wilson’s exposition, I would have simply thrown down the book in exasperation and refused to continue reading.

So, I warmly recommend the first three-quarters of Wilson’s new book as an engrossing and extremely informative treatment of a rich subject.  I you can find a second-hand copy in which the last sixty-five pages have been torn out, so much the better.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

REPORT FROM PARADISE

Susie and I had dinner Friday evening with Anne Berry and Philip Minns, two old friends who live in the Paris suburb of Sevres.  Anne and Philip are both professional simultaneous translators, a profession which I cannot even imagine being able to pursue.  We were discussing the Socialist Party victory in the parliamentary elections, and I remarked that France once again had a socialist government after two decades.  Philip then told me something of which I was completely unaware.

France, like America, has four levels of government -- the city or municipal level,what we would call the county and state levels, and then the national level.  As in America, elections at the various levels are staggered, occurring in different years. When Francois Mitterand, the last Socialist President, was in office, he actually faced a hostile majority in the National Assembly and right wing administrations at the lower levels, right down to some of the major cities.  But Francois Hollande not only now has a majority in both the National Assembly and the mostly ceremonial Senate, he also has Socialist governments at every other level of the French political system.   France is, at least for the next several years, officially a socialist country.

So what is it like living in paradise?  Well, the weather has been awful for months, putting a damper on Fete de la Musique, and last nignt Spain eliminated France from the quarterfinals of the Europe Cup, so the sans-culottes are not dancing in the streets.  Indeed, Susie has observed, as we sit in our little cafe, that the current fashion among French women is skin-tight leggings under very short skirts, so perhaps "sans culottes" is not an entirely appropriate term.

It is, of course, a trifle early to form a reasoned judgment concerning the new government.  The second round of elections for the National Assembly was only seven days ago.   But as one who has spent most of the last three-quarters of a century having private fantasies of democratic socialism, I cannot help but have hopes.

The local opinion is that taxes will go up.  If they are imposed on the more affluent to pay for social services for the poor, I say let them go up.  I pay two sorts of taxes on my little apartment, and I consider every Euro of them a Euro well spent.  Now, if Holland can only somehow browbeat Angela Merkel into allowing a modest rate of inflation and moderating her calls for austerity in the face of economic recession.  That really would be something to cheer about.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

ANOTHER ODD FACT ABOUT PARIS

Like many other classical music lovers, I have long since grown accustomed to being able to locate a classical music station on my radio in almost any part of America.  It all started for me in the 40's as a boy in New York City with WQXR, which may have been, for all I know, the original classical music station.  It was the norm for WQXR to play entire classical works -- a Beethoven symphony, a Mozart quartet, even -- God help us all -- A Mahler symphony [although that required a health warning that older listeners might expire before Mahler got to the last movement.]  When I went off to Harvard in 1950, I discovered to my delight that during the end-of-semester "reading period" [when slackards read all the stuff they were supposed to have read during term, and the rest of us crammed for finals] the Harvard radio station put on what they called a "classical music orgy" -- a two week twenty-four hours a day bonanza of classical music, arranged chronologically from medieval plainsong to Stravinsky.  The announcer might say, at 4 a.m. [when I was doing my studying] "and here now are the symphonies of Beethoven," whereupon the station would literally play all nine symphonies in order!  Chapel Hill has a splendid classical music station with a hefty serving of early music as well as more popular items from the classical and romantic periods.

When Susie and I bought our Paris apartment, an essential element of our decorations was a Bose radio and CD player, on which I confidently assumed I would be able to locate the Paris classical music stations and program them into the radio's pre-set buttons.  Some tedious scanning of the bandwidth did indeed turn up two stations that seemed to be playing classical music -- 91.7 and 101.1 FM.

But when we turned those stations on, we made a horrible, astonishing, incomprehensible discovery.  THEY ONLY PLAY SNIPPETS.  The announcer promises a Haydn quartet, to be sure, but only plays one movement.  He starts playing a Monteverdi madrigal, and then breaks into it for some useless discussion with a fellow announcer while the madrigal continues in the background.  In eight years, I have never heard either station play a major work from start to finish!  It is as though they think their listeners are incapable of the concentration required to listen to a complete work of music.

I have no idea what the explanation is for this mystery, and I welcome comments from anyone who is more knowldgeable than I.  There is no doubt that when Susie and I attend an early music concert at a church or recital hall, an audience appears who seem quite capable of sitting through entire works, without the interpolation of chit chat designed to take the sting out of music that lasts for more than three minutes.

Susie notes that at least one of the classical music stations also plays jazz.  Now really!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

THE NEWS FROM PARIS

The dismal weather has lifted, and exactly one day early, summer has arrived in Paris, just in time for Fete de la Musique tomorrow evening.  I cooked cuisses de canard the other night, and this evening I will make lovely large crevettes rose [big shrimp].  Yesterday evening we went across the street to have pizza and watch France get creamed by Sweden in soccer.  Oh well.  As a one-time Brooklyn Dodger fan converted to a Red Sox fan, I am accustomed to disappointment.

Today, Susie and I had an errand in the ritzy part of town -- Boulevard Haussmann, in the 8th arondissement, right up the street from the very up-scale department store Printemps.  We were wearing our matching Obama 2012 T-shirts, and I am happy to report that if the election were held in Paris, Obama would win by a landslide.  Everywhere we went, cab drivers, doormen, elegant young Parisiennes all gave us the high sign.  Unfortunately ...

While we were in Western Massachusetts, we attended a concert by Aston Magna, the early music group whose summer concerts we went to faithfully for twenty years when we lived in Pelham.  Once again I was struck by the paradox that this rural backwater has early music that far outshines anything we have heard in Paris.

Paris is at the moment engaged in replacing the underground electricity lines throughout the city, so everywhere one turns, there are deep trenches where sidewalks used to be, and green barriers directing foot traffic around the holes.  Our street is now finished, since yesterday a group of men arrved with a big truck full of hot tar and proceeded to re-tar the sidewalk across the way from our apartment.  I view every municipal improvement as a direct consequence of the fact that Paris has a gay socialist mayor -- silly of me, I know, but it is such a delight to encounter little squares in Paris named after former members of the Communist Party.  The realities of capitalism in the seats of power and poverty in the banlieus do not change, of course.

Monday, June 18, 2012

GLOOMY THOUGHTS ON A RAINY DAY IN PARIS

Eighty years ago, with the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the Democratic Party, adopting a number of the policy planks of the Socialist Party [but of course not acknowledging as much], began a successful effort of more than three decades to put in place a structure of protections for working class families that is now usually referred to as The Welfare State.  Social Security, a federally enforced minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Aid to Dependent Children, workplace safety regulations, unionization protections, Medicare, and Medicaid, among other initiatives, fundamentally transformed the life experiences of hundreds of millions of Americans.  It was not socialism.  Indeed, one of its purposes was to weaken the appeal of socialism and thus protect capitalism from its own destructive tendencies.  But it made a long and good life possible even for those who did not inhabit the upper reaches of society.  It is easy to forget that two generations ago, the aged were among the poorest segments of the American population, living lives extended by medical advances but made miserable by poverty and neglect.

From the beginning, these laws, regulations, and government institutions were opposed by conservatives, who fought them in Congress and challenged them in the courts.  For at least forty years, it has been the stated goal of the Republican Party to dismantle the Welfare State, component by component, and as the decades have passed, they have achieved some of their goals, on occasion aided by the Democratic Party itself.  Ronald Reagan’s first significant act upon assuming the presidency was to fight, and eventually to break, the air traffic controllers’ union, a success that accelerated the decline of unionization in America.  Workplace safety laws have been weakened, the minimum wage frozen so as not to keep pace with inflation, and under the guidance of Bill Clinton, “welfare as we know it” was ended.  This last “reform” had a less than feared effect during the boom years of the 90’s, but in the present deep and continuing recession, the absence of financial support for the poor is causing widespread, albeit mostly unreported, hardship.

In the next ten days or so, we face the threat of a Supreme Court reversal of the Affordable Care Act, with consequences whose severity is only now being recognized.  This threat is widely recognized as only the first battle in a campaign to undo judicially the last eighty years of welfare legislation, returning us to the conditions that obtained when FDR took office.

These legislative and judicial assaults have of course been coupled with a massive increase in income and wealth inequality, of a sort never before seen in this country.  The present tendencies threaten to turn America into a Banana Republic, with permanent high unemployment, stagnant wages for all but the fortunate few, and the complete transformation of our politics into a Plutocracy.

Nothing that I have just written is in the slightest new or original, of course.  But living at the moment in a country that has just elected a socialist president and legislature brings home to me how appalling the United States has become even by capitalist standards.  I am under no illusion that Barack Obama and the present-day Democratic Party offer Americans a truly progressive path beyond “vulture capitalism” [to invoke on of Rick Perry’s more felicitous phrases].  But Obama and the Democratic Party will, if they are in power, protect Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, support and extend necessary reforms to the capitalist health care system, raise the minimum wage, enforce workplace health and safety standards, impose some measure of regulation [albeit insufficient] on finance capital, and undertake to create jobs by economic stimuli.  With working class Americans under siege, that is not nothing, by a long shot.

One can, of course, hold out for the complete collapse of capitalism, as a precursor to a socialist transformation.  But no one of whom I am aware has explained how that transformation would emerge from the chaos and misery of the collapse.  Perhaps I am too much the victim of the history through which I have lived, but I fear that fascism would be a likelier successor than socialism to a total collapse of capitalism.

These are not happy times, even for someone my age who can expect to die before the worst happens.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

ELTON MAYO, HAWTHORNE, AND WESTERN ELECTRIC

I too have some doubts about the necessity for random choice of the students in the Pilot Program, but since that method will achieve exactly what I was aiming for anyway, I am happy to accede to the wisdom of my betters.  Now, however, things get really interesting.  Dania will select a control group of sixty students from the remaining 120 or so -- also randomly.  In the coming year, we will interview each first-year student who decides to leave Bennett, whether from our group or the control group.  We will then be able to match students who leave from the control group with students who stay in our group, according to economic condition, family problems, love interest, acdemic troubles, and any other factors influencing the decision to drop out.  We will, of course, do everything in our power to keep our sixty students in school.  By the end of a year, we ought to have a pretty good idea whether we are actually making a difference, and -- what is even more important -- why we are making a difference.

There is, of course, a possibility that we will succeed in keeping more students in school simply because we are paying attention to them, regardless of the details of the program I have devised.  This might be called the Elton Mayo or Western Electric effect, for reasons I shall explain momentarily.  But unlike Elton Mayo, I don't care.  All I care about is keeping those students in school and seeing them graduate with a good degree from Bennett.

Who on earth was Elton Mayo?  In the late 19th century, a chap named Fred W. Taylor made a big splash with a theory of scientific management of industrial enterprises that was supposed to rationalize production and increase profitability.  In the 1920's, the Western Electric Company recruited a social science researcher named Elton Mayo to apply these theories to its Hawthorne plant.  Mayo and his associates interviewed the workers, analyzed the layout of the floor where teams were assembling electrical units, studied the rate at which the piecework was proceeding, and then made some minor adjustments to the lighting.  Lo and behold, production went up.  Then they left, and production slumped to its previous level.  It took them a while to realise that their success had nothing to do with their scientific analysis or the adjustments they had made to the lighting, and everything to do with the fact that the exploited, underpaid, regimented workers were so grateful that anyone was paying attention to them.  [That is my language, of course, not theirs.]

But I really do not care whether the precise details of my pilot program are the cause of such success as we may achieve.  Indeed, it would not surprise me at all to discover that any program that requires the faculty to pay close attention to the students and take responsibility for their success or failure will work just as well.  If we succeed in dramatically raising the retention and graduation rates, and if other schools, replicating our efforts, find that alternative programs embodying these elements work even better, I will be delighted and consider myself to have been vindicated.

The entire effort is premised on my conviction that every young woman admitted to Bennett is capable, under the right circumstances, of completing the undergraduate program and graduating.

Friday, June 15, 2012

THE OLD PHILOSOPHER LEARNS A NEW TRICK OR TWO

I have often remarked that I do not consider myself a scholar.  It goes without saying that I also do not consider myself a research scientist.  But my lack of research credentials was brought home to me rather abruptly by Dania Francis, the young advanced doctoral student whom I recruited, at the suggestion of the head of the Spencer Foundation, to assist me with the formulation of what is apparently called a “research protocol” for my new  project at Bennett.

I had decided to select sixty of the incoming one hundred eighty-three Bennett Freshwomen for the Pilot Program I shall be running in AY 2012-2013.  For various reasons, I wanted a representative sample of students, as determined both by their high school GPS’s [that is “grade point average” for my foreign readers] and by their status as either in-state North Carolina students or out-of-state students. 

The Excel spreadsheet of the incoming students provided to me by the “Office of Enrolment Management” is organized in descending order by GPA, so, since I was selecting a third of the class for my Pilot Program, I thought the cool way to choose them would be simply to go down the list, tagging every fourth name.  This produced a representative selection of GPA’s and, as I anticipated, close to a representative sample by geographic origin.  Pretty good, yes?  I then divided the sixty students thus selected into ten groups by simply opening a new field in the spreadsheet called “Group,” and then going down the list of sixty students [still arranged, of course, by GPA] and marking the fields numerically, 1 through 10, in order, thus producing ten groups, each of which had a range of GPA’s.  I checked, and they also had a scattering of in-state and out-of-state students.  Along about now, I was feeling pretty good about myself, thinking that I could do this without the help of a graduate student!

With mock modesty, I explained all of this to Dania, expecting her to exclaim, “But that is exactly the way it should have been done!”  Fat chance.  She looked at what I had done and said quietly, “I think you should choose the students randomly.”  “But,” I replied, “My way has produced a selection that almost perfectly mirrors the entire class.”  “Yes,” she replied, “but there may be hidden variables.  I think the Spencer Foundation would prefer a random selection.”

Well, all of this was in aid of getting money from the Spencer, and my ego is not so large as to stand in the way of a grant, so I said, “How would you do that?”  “Very simple,” she said [rather like explaining rain to a child], “we just assign them numbers 1 through 183, and then generate a random number sequence that selects sixty of them.  Then we do the same thing to group them in ten groups of six each”  [I hope I have that right.]  She drove back to Boston from Amherst, and had it all done by the next day.

I reported all of this to Mike McPherson, President of the Spencer.  Here is his reply:  Sounds great. It's a good sign that she immediately recognized the need to use random assignment, since that option is available.”

Pretty clearly, I have a lot to learn.

NOUS SOMMES ARRIVEES

Well, we are here, via London and the Eurostar.  We have spent some time in our favorite cafe, and are still unpacking.  Sunday is the final round of parliamentary elections in France.  Then we will know what sort of majority the new Socialist government has.  Once I am settled in, I shall report on things at Bennett College and resume my commentary on the passing scene.

Friday, June 8, 2012

BOB AND SUE'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE

Tomorrow at dawn, Susie and I leave for Amherst, MA, and then for Paris.  We shall return on July 15th.  I will of course continue to blog from Paris, where I will arrive just in time for the second round of parliamentary elections.  I know that Europe's socialist parties long ago gave up the dream of socialism, but it is still comforting in my dotage to spend time in a country whose new president actually calls himself a "socialist."

 One of the lovelier ideas of Paris' openly gay socialist mayor is fete de la musique, an event that occurs on the first night of Summer.  Everyone in Paris comes out into the streets and amateur soloists, duos, trios, combos, and quartets play music in every square and on every side street of the central city.  Place Maubert, our little square, is home to three or more duelling rock bands, each with a full set of amps.  Place des Vosges, the very ritzy and lovely old square in the 4th arrondissement, last year saw performances by everyone from Paris' gay men's choir to a quartet playing late Beethoven quite creditably.  Down by the Seine, one can hang over the railing of a bridge and watch the upper crust, attired in formal dress, assemble on a river boat for a dinner-dancing cruise.

Several years ago the mayor decided that those Parisians who could not afford an August trip to the Riviera nevertheless deserved a beach, so he trucked in sand, got some beach umbrellas, and turned the banks of the Seine into beachfront.  The attitude of the French to public spaces seems to be the polar opposite to that of Americans.  Two years ago, a number of "vertical gardens" sprang up around Paris.  These are lovely botanical displays of growing plants, not cut flowers, that rise up the side of a wall rather than spreading out horizontally.  Susie and I went here and there to see some of them, guided by an article in the 5th Arrondissement newsletter.

My gig at Bennett College is developing nicely, and in a few days, I hope to be able to tell you about it in more detail.  Now back to a few last minute packing chores.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

HUMOR, AND OLD TECHNOLOGY

It has come to my attention that gentle humor and irony do not do too well in the medium of the blog.  I think for them to be effective, one must make eye contact with one's interlocutor.  Too often, well-meaning commentators seize on what was, from my point of view, a throwaway line or gentle bit of humor, rather than on the central idea of a post.  I fear my remarks about Homer, Google, and my granddaughter Athena have fallen victim to that difficulty.  As Marshall McCluhan observed  a long time ago, the medium is the message, or, as Aristotle argued somewhat earlier, form dominates matter.

As I prepare for five weeks away from home [leaving at dawn the day after tomorrow], I am reminded once again of the virtues of old technology.  This time I am not speaking of the standard typewriter or the fountain pen, but of two other instances of old technology whose virtues have proven themselves once again.

Susie and I live in a third floor condominium whose principal feature is a large porch or balcony, on which Susie has established a virtual arboretum of plants and flowers.  I am very much an indoor person, but she loves the outdoors, and so leaves the door to the porch open as much as she can.  Not surprisingly, we get flies.  What to do?  Well, it turns out that quite the most effective fly-killer available is old-fashioned flypaper.  The young among my readers may not even know what flypaper is, but anyone who grew up in the 1930's, which is to say before air conditioning, will be familiar with it.  Flypaper is a ribbon of extremely sticky paper that unrolls from a little cardboard tube and is pinned with a thumbtack to the ceiling or the underside of a high cabinet.  It is impregnated with something irresistible to flies, and they are drawn to it, fatally.  The slightest touch with a foot or a wing sticks them to the paper forever.  Over the period of several weeks, we accumulate so many dead flies on the flypaper that I must get up on a ladder, take it down, and replace it with another fresh piece.  Disposing of the old fly paper can be tricky, since it continues to stick to anything it touches.  I am quite convinced that nothing modern science could think up would get rid of flies as quickly and decisively as old fashioned flypaper.

The drive out to Bennett in Greensboro seems to be putting a strain on my back.  I have a forty year history of back trouble, and have spent my share of time with chiropractors and even the odd acupuncturist.  When we lived in Massachusetts, I built an indoor swimming pool into our home [or, to be exact, had it built] and for years found that regular swimming kept the back trouble at bay.  My regime of morning walks seems to be equally effective.

But after several trips to Greensboro last week, my back grew tired, and, as they say, compromised, and I could feel the old trouble threatening to return.  Once again, what to do?  There are any number of powerful medications. of course, as well as a variety of treatments -- heat, cold, electrostimulation, chiropractic adjustments.  But instead of these expensive and often quite invasive interventions, I took myself off to a medical supply store and for twenty dollars bought a firm back support pillow, identical to one I used for many years in Massachusetts.  Magically, on the drive home, my back felt fine, and getting out of the car, instead of the occasion for some pain, was entirely without incident.

I am not a Luddite, or an impossible old fogey, as I hope this blog has demonstrated.  But it is pleasant now and again to discover that there are some everyday problems that have long since been very nice solved.  Now if the transition from capitalism to socialism were just that easy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

THE GAUNTLET IS FLUNG DOWN

Just when I am thinking of chucking this whole blog thing because of my depression at the failure of the Wisconsin recall effort, "Pied Cow" issues a challenge that I cannot in honor ignore.  My last post was an idle jeu d'esprit, triggered by finding my late father's public library bookmark.  At the close of my fond reminiscences, I remarked that some day my little granddaughter Athena [who is, at three, already completely conversant with an IPad] might have a chip implanted in her brain that would make even Google unnecessary as a source of information.  It was a throwaway line to exit a post, but Pied Cow is having none of it.  What do I think of such a prospect? he asks.  What are the moral dimensions and implications of such a possibility?

Well, I am too distraught to read the news online, and since it is drizzling steadily, I cannot go for my daily four mile power walk [which I actually completed yesterday in fifty-seven minutes, a personal best], so until it is time to start packing for a one month stay in Paris, I think I owe it to Pied Cow to do a bit of armchair philosophizing [is there any other kind?]

As a philosopher, I feel a certain obligation to reflect on this question with some sense of historical perspective, so let us begin with Homer and the great tradition of the oral epic, which is to say the lengthy narrative poem memorized by a bard and proclaimed to audiences as a way of preserving and transmitting the collective history of a people.  When I was a lad at Harvard, there was a very distinguished scholar named, if memory serves, Albert Lord, who was said to be the world's leading expert on the Serbo-Croatian oral epic.  [Who even knew the Serbo-Croatians had oral epics?]  Sure enough, Google in seconds tells me that my memory is correct.  This is, of course, directly relevant to the subject of this post.

Committing an enormously long epic to memory and declaiming it or singing it on state occasions [the inauguration or the interment of a king, for example] is a tremendous feat, one that requires a prodigious memory and years of apprenticeship to an established bard.  Lord observed that the repetition in oral epics of ritual phrases ["wine dark sea," in Homer's case, for example] was, among other things, a sort of mnemonic crutch to help the bard keep his or her place and master the epic.

One can easily imagine the reaction of the traditional bards when someone got the dangerous idea of writing the epics down, so that they would be available to anyone with no more training than was required to learn to read.  "Oh well, sure, if you are going to do that, what's the big deal?"  Rather like lazy wannabe pianists who bypass years of practice by buying one of those electronic keyboards that let you, with the press of a button, supply an entire bass accompaniment while you pick out the tune with your forefinger.

Much the same reaction was provoked, I would imagine, by paper, by ink, by movable type, by the printing press, and by the typewriter.  I am old enough to recall the disdain with which serious writers like myself greeted the word processor [the very phrase, "word processor," is appalling, as though writing were nothing more than making sausage.]  I wrote my doctoral dissertation with a pen in longhand, and the physical act of pushing the pen across the page was inextricably linked to the shaping of my ideas.  Eventually I graduated to a standard typewriter, but I never made the move to an electric typewriter, and to this day I find it vaguely dishonorable to write as I am now doing on a computer keyboard. 

Each of us -- epic bard, medieval manuscript scribe, goose quill pen sharpener, fountain pen filler, typist, word processor -- thinks of the physical technique of his or her youth as the standard of rigor and moral worthiness, and views all of the more recent technological innovations as enticements along the path to Hell.

Which brings me to Google. 

In an earlier age, a considerable part of formal education consisted of nothing more than committing large numbers of facts to memory -- the emperors of Rome or kings of England or presidents of the United States, in their proper sequence, the periodic table of elements, even what was called, when I was in high school, the "bead tests" for chemical elements.  [Beads of different substances, when heated over a Bunsen burner, give off different colors, and as part of my high school chemistry course, I had to memorize those color indicators.]   I can recall, as a young man, hearing of scholars whose considerable claim to academic fame consisted of having laboriously constructed a concordance to the works of Spinoza or Shakespeare or the Bible, something that can now be done with a click of a mouse on a computer.

Those of us who periodically suffer what are generously referred to as "senior moments" use Google the way Homer used "wine dark sea," as an aid to memory.  If I know enough to know what key words to put into Google to come up with Albert Lord, can I not be said to know who Albert Lord is as truly as if I were able to call that item of information from my brain?  Is there really something valuable about being able to run off all those English kings in sequence, when Google will put the list before me more quickly than I can call it to mind?  I can still recall the Boy Scout oath ["On my honor, I promise to be trustworthy, loyal, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent" -- I almost got thrown out of Boy Scout camp in Pennsylvania at the age of twelve for refusing to say "reverent"], and I can name the sixteen principal points of the compass in less than ten seconds ["North, North Northeast, Northeast, East Northeast, East, East Southeast, Southeast, South Southeast, South, South Southwest, Southwest, West Southwest, West, West Northwest, Northwest, North Northwest, North"  whew.]  But this seems to me no more impressive than being able to pat your head and rub your stomach at the same time [or, to quote Lyndon Johnson, to walk and chew gum at the same time.]

Well, suppose it does come to pass that little Athena some day has a chip implanted in her brain that she can activate by her thoughts and that will do for her, anywhere in the world, what Google now does, what Katherine Hepburn and her team did in Desk Set, and what Homer and the Serbo-Croatian bards did?  Will this be the end of human civilization, the attack of the clones, the fulfilment of the dark vision of I, Robot?  Somehow, I doubt it.  Athena will be the same charming, bright, quirky person she is now.  And she will know, in an instant, all of the kings of England.

But she probably will not write longhand with a fountain pen.  Nothing is perfect.

Monday, June 4, 2012

HOW THE WORLD HAS CHANGED

One of the oddest things that remained after I had finished settling my father's estate in 1981 was a courtesy bookmark from the Vleigh Branch Library of the Queens Borough Public Library.  Vleigh Place was a little street perhaps a quarter of a mile from our home that sticks in my mind because of its unusual name.  The bookmark, a piece of decorated cardboard six inches long and an inch and a half wide, lists the hours of service -- 1-9 on Monday, 10 - 9 on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 10 - 5:30 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.  It was the inscription printed on the back that entranced me when I read it for the first time a few moments ago:

                           "GET THE FACTS BY PHONE -- RE 9 - 1900"

"Next time you need information fast, just telephone the Queens Public Library.  Professional librarians, using a collection of 500 reference books of the handbook of statistical information type, will quickly supply the answer you need.... whether it be on business statistics, spelling, politics or sports, or as technical as 'how do you convert temperature from Fahrenheit to Centigrade?'

This is just one more way the Queens Public Library puts its extensive reference facilities within easy reach of the entire borough of Queens.  Make note of the number RE 9 - 1900."

There is a hilarious old Katherine Hepburn/Spencer Tracy movie in which Hepburn plays the super-efficient head of a TV station's research department and Tracy plays the techie called in to install a new [enormous, card-spitting] computer to take its place.  Needless to say, Hepburn, rather like John Henry, defeats the machine, and she and Tracy fall in love.

How much quieter and simpler my father's world was!  Today, all that information and vastly more is available on a computer or a cell phone, and with the right cellphone, one can simply ask the phone and it will tell you the answer.   Google has just informed me, in roughly fifteen seconds, that the movie I recall so fondly is Desk Set, 1957. 

I imagine by the time my granddaughter, Athena, is old enough to drive, she will have a chip implanted in  her brain that will obviate the onerous necessity of typing an inquiry or even speaking it.  The thought will be enough.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

WHAT IS TO BE DONE?


I caught a bit of an interesting discussion on cable TV yesterday in which one of the commentators was talking about the attitudes of the Occupy Movement participants toward established political parties and the rules and regulations of voting, law-making, and such.  The thrust of this man's comment [I never caught his name] was that the Occupy folks are completely disenchanted with both parties and view Capitalism itself as the root of our current problems [rather than particular laws regulating Capitalist institutions and behavior.]  Instead of devoting their time and energy to political campaigns, he said, the people in the Movement to whom he talked had decided to commit themselves to direct action to make changes in the world around them.

This got me thinking, once again, about a very large question that has absorbed my attention for much of my life:  How do the fundamental economic and associated institutions of a society change, and what, if anything, can individuals do to influence the direction of that change?

It will not come as a surprise to the readers of this blog that whenever I think about this question, my first impulse is to return to Marx and remind myself of what he had to say, for all that he wrote a century and a half ago in a different country. 

Marx's thought about this question was deeply influenced by the ideas of the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, who conceived of the economy as a system, on the analogy to the physical system of nature, governed by general laws that operate more or less independently of the wishes and beliefs of particular individuals.  Marx liked to talk of the "laws of motion of Capitalist economy," invoking Newton.  He understood, of course, that this was at best an analogy.  Economic actors are persons with consciousness, desires, intentions, and beliefs, whereas physical objects have none of these characteristics.  Nevertheless, his study of the early capitalist economy of England convinced him that large structural changes, such as the transition from Feudalism to Capitalism, are the quite unintended result of the interaction of countless particular actions and decisions rather than the outcome of deliberate programmatic planning.  He wrote dismissively of people like Proudhon, Fourier, and Saint Simon, whom he called "Utopian Socialists" because they substituted wishful fantasies for rigorous analysis.

One of Marx's most powerful insights was that Capitalism is constantly changing, evolving, developing.  Marx identified three great tendencies or directions of change, all of which he thought would drive Capitalism in the direction of Socialism.  These major tendencies were, First, the irresistible concentration and centralization of capitals, leading to huge firms that would dominate entire industries;  Second, the corresponding unification of the Working Class, whose concentration in ever larger associations of workers would be the unintended by-product of the centralization of capitals; and Third, an ever more exacerbated succession of booms and busts, caused by the fratricidal competition of capitalist firms, which would end in a world-wide crash out of whose ashes Socialism would emerge.

In my opinion, Marx's fundamental approach was absolutely right.  He denied that Capitalism was simply rationality writ large [the view of the apologists for Capitalism], but instead was a particular socio-economic formation in a constant process of change, and he correctly identified ever-greater centralization of capital as the dominant tendency.  He was wrong about the corresponding unification of the Working Class, and although he was right about ever greater financial crises, he was wrong to think that in such crisis the Working Class would take control of the economy and society and carry through the final establishment of Socialism.

In my essay, "The Future of Socialism," which is on box.net and soon will be published by the Seattle University Law Journal, I went into a good deal of detail about exactly how I think fundamental changes are growing within the "womb of the old order," to quote Marx's evocative phrase.  The pessimistic conclusion of that analysis is that utopian projects for the transformation of Capitalism are no more likely to succeed now than they were in Marx's day.

I expect that governments will continue to become more skillful, by fits and starts, at managing the booms and busts of contemporary Capitalism.  I also expect that inequality will continue to grow as Capital finds that it can wrest profits from the economy despite the progressive immiseration of an ever-greater proportion of the working population.  It is possible, I suppose, to view such abominations as the Citizens United Supreme Court decision as evidence of the desperation of a Capitalist managerial class ever more fearful of a popular uprisings, though even a congenital optimist like me finds that rather fanciful.

But of one thing I am, unfortunately quite convinced, namely that small-scale, local, people-to-people actions will not, and indeed cannot, accrete into a force producing a fundamental change in the socio-economic organization of modern Capitalism.

What then is to be done? as Lenin famously asked.  It is, I suppose, an evidence of my advancing age that when I ask that question, my mind turns to Dylan Thomas' greatest poem:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Friday, June 1, 2012

PROGRESS REPORT

My new project is moving along nicely, complex though it is.  I obtained a database of the incoming class of 2016, and have now chosen the sixty students who will participate in the Pilot Project.  One of the oddities of academic record keeping, with which I am fortunately familiar from my UMass days, is that several of the young women have High School GPAs higher than 4.0.  How is this possible, you might ask.  It seems that when colleges calculate GPAs, they add a point to the grades in Advanced Placement courses, so an A in AP Math, for example, is factored into the GPA as a 5, not a 4.

This, I discovered when I was running a program for minority students from Springfield, MA, has the unfortunate consequence of systematically disadvantaging students at "majority minority" high schools, where AP courses are less often offered.  Thus, no matter how talented and motivated a young Black or Latino student at such a school may be, he or she has very little opportunity to rack up a stellar GPA.

As I observed in my Autobiography [Volume Three], this is only one of the many hidden ways in which minority students are structurally discriminated against.  In general, I have found, senior administrators are quite ignorant of such details  -- their pay grade is too high for them to trouble themselves with the minutiae of day-to-day data assemblage.  They just read the executive summaries and look at the pie charts.

I am aware that I have not been blogging much lately.  My mind is entirely taken up with this new project.  Not only is it very much harder to change the world than merely to think about it;  changing the world even a little bit is also a great deal more absorbing.  Exactly how I design this program will have a real effect on the lives of the sixty students and ten faculty who participate in it, whereas what I think about Syria or the Unemployment Rate or even the recall of Governor Walker is entirely epiphenomenal.

Needless to say, I was greatly cheered by the Appellate Court judgment that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, although my son, who is vastly knowledgerable about such things, tell me it is a complex and not entirely positive decision.  [He was quoted to this effect in a NY TIMES story yesterday.  Can you imagine the pride I feel when I reflect that I once read the entire three volumes of The Lord of the Rings to this brilliant, handsome, accomplished man?]