To Marc and Howie. Those of the first coherent explanations of friction I have ever encountered. That still leaves the question of Noam's beard.
Sunday, January 29, 2023
First idle thought: I have raised this question before but have never received a satisfactory answer. Can anybody explain to me how friction works? When I put on an undershirt in the morning, it slides easily over my body, but if I try putting it on after a shower and I am still a little bit damp it sticks to my skin. This, I take it, is a consequence of friction. But how does friction work? Why does a little water on my skin make the fabric of the undershirt catch and not fall effortlessly down?
Second idle thought: I met Noam Chomsky roughly 70 years ago when he came to Harvard to take up a Junior Fellowship. He was then a young, slender, clean-shaven handsome man, and he remained that way, at least to my way of thinking, over the next 65 years or so. When people asked me how I thought I differed from Chomsky, I would reply jokingly that he was better looking than I. But several years ago – I am not sure quite when – Noam stopped shaving and very quickly grew a full beard, so that in recent YouTube posted interviews, he looks like an old rabbi from an East European shtetl. Does anybody know why he did that? The difference is really quite striking.
Third idle thought: every night Susie and I eat at the bar in the Pub, which is one of the three dining venues here at Carolina Meadows. We are usually joined by retired general Jim Anderson, whom I have mentioned here before. The three of us were all born in 1933, so all of us turn 90 this year – Susie on January 16, Jim on April 3, and I on December 27. If I were to tell you that I had dinner last evening at a restaurant with three 90-year-olds, Your natural reaction would be how strange it was to be at the same counter with three such ancient characters, and yet that is not the way it feels to me at all. What unites us is not our age but the fact that we all like oysters. On Friday evenings, Carolina Meadows serves oysters on the half shell and they have a limited supply, so the three of us arrive early and among us eat almost half of all the oysters they have secured for the evening. The fact that we are all or about to be 90 does not come into it. It is very strange.
All of this is what I think about as I wait impatiently to find out what the Fulton County District Attorney means by the word "imminently."
Saturday, January 28, 2023
I had planned to ramble on about chat bots and the next 20 years and one thing and another, but I made the mistake of watching the beginning of the video that was released of the beating death of the young man and it upset me so much that I cannot think about anything else. I have nothing profound to say about it. I am simply crushed by the endless repeated evidence of the pointless cruelty that we show to one another. I can offer deep ideologically encoded explanations with the best of them but now I simply want to hide under the covers and shut out the world. We inflict so much suffering on one another, needlessly, endlessly, not even in the pursuit of what could be called rational self-interest. I do not want to find clever ways of talking about it, I simply want it to go away.
Friday, January 27, 2023
Ronna McDaniel just beat back a challenge to get reelected as head of the RNC. This pretty well means that the RNC winner take all primary rules will not be changed, which in turn means that Trump has a much better chance of being chosen as the Republican candidate in 2024. Which in turn means that the Democrats will win the presidency. You have to take good news wherever you can find it.
Wednesday, January 25, 2023
It is all set. I will begin my series of lecturees at UNC on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy on Monday, February 20. Six two-hour lectures are planned, but we shall see whether that much time is required for what I have to say. The lectures will be videotaped and posted on YouTube, probably in one hour segments. I am looking forward to it.
Tuesday, January 24, 2023
I lay down to rest after lunch today and nodded off to sleep with the television set on. I awoke to reports of classified documents found in Mike Pence's home. All that was missing were angels with harps singing "Nearer my God to thee."
Monday, January 23, 2023
I have, I think, made reference from time to time to what is called “senior moments.” By and large, it is proper names that I have difficulty calling up – at one time, as I have remarked, I simply could not keep in my mind the name of the great soprano Kathleen Battle. Yesterday I had a quite bizarre senior moment when I was talking with Susie. I was trying to recall the word that one uses for damage to the lining of the stomach or the intestine caused by stomach acid. I simply could not recall that word.
Then I remembered that in one of the 35 or so hour long lectures that I have posted on YouTube I use the word. I recalled that it was in the four lecture series on The Thought of Sigmund Freud. I recalled that it was in the first of those lectures. I recalled exactly where in the lecture I used the word. So I went to YouTube, called up the first of the Freud lectures, almost immediately found the place where I use the word and heard myself say “ulcer.” “That is it!” I cried and told Susie the word I had been trying to recall.
I mean, that is weird. What is going on in the brain that blocks my recollection of a particular word but allows me to remember exactly where I used it in a recorded lecture?
Saturday, January 21, 2023
There are still some details to be worked out, but it looks as though I may be able to record my lectures on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy and post them on YouTube. I will be starting probably in the second week of February so stay tuned.
Thursday, January 19, 2023
The comment about Addison's disease reminded me of an old story about the one televised debate that Kennedy and Nixon had in 1960. Apparently, one of the side effects of Addison's disease was that it gave Kennedy an artificial tan and a rather robust look, so although he was sick he looked well. Nixon, on the other hand, had thin skin. I do not mean that he was unnaturally touchy, I mean literally he had thin skin and the result was that even when he was clean-shaven, under the unusually bright lights used in early television, he looked as though he had a 5 o'clock shadow. It was also reported that when Nixon arrived at the studio for the recording of the debate, he banged his elbow as he was getting out of the car so he was in a little bit of pain. As a result, although he was quite healthy, he looked unwell.
This was the very early days of television and many people listened to the debate on their radios. Afterwards, it was reported that those who had seen the debate on television thought Kennedy had won the debate whereas those who listened on the radio thought Nixon had won the debate.
For some while after that, I use this as an example of the contrast between appearance and reality in politics.
Wednesday, January 18, 2023
Yesterday, I read an article about chat bots and the way in which they are forcing professors to change what they do in the classroom. I started thinking in a variety of ways about the subject and while I was doing that I received the following email from a reader of this blog.
Karl Marx, in his book "Capital," introduces the concept of "mystification" as a specific form of deception that is used by capitalists to obscure the true nature of economic processes and relationships. This deception, according to Marx, serves to justify the exploitation of the working class by the capitalist class and to conceal the source of capitalist profits.
Mystification, as described by Marx, differs from garden-variety stupidity, ignorance, and superstition in several ways. First, mystification is not simply a matter of individuals being unaware of certain facts or having false beliefs. Rather, it is a systematic and intentional manipulation of knowledge and information that serves to maintain the power and privilege of a particular social class.
Second, mystification is not limited to the realm of religion or superstition, but is a pervasive feature of capitalist society. It can be found in the way economic processes are presented, in the way commodities are marketed, and in the way the labor process is organized.
Third, mystification is not a passive state of mind, but an active process that requires the participation of both the ruling class and the working class. The ruling class uses various means, such as religion, ideology, and the media, to impose its own perspective on reality, while the working class, due to its lack of access to the means of production and to knowledge, is forced to accept this perspective as the only one possible.
Finally, Marx argues that mystification is not eternal, but that it can be overcome through the collective action of the working class. As the working class becomes more aware of the true nature of economic relationships and the source of capitalist profits, it can take action to overthrow the capitalist system and establish a more just and equitable society.
Mystification arises from specific social relations and economic processes, rather than from individual deficiencies or shortcomings.Mystification is perpetuated and reinforced by the dominant social and economic institutions and practices, rather than being a product of individual beliefs or behaviors.Mystification serves the interests of the dominant class, rather than being a neutral or benign phenomenon.Mystification can be dismantled and overcome through a critical understanding of the social and economic processes that produce it, rather than simply being a personal or psychological problem to be overcome.
Mystification is a systemic and intentional process that is built into the structure of capitalist society, whereas stupidity, ignorance, and superstition are individual and accidental phenomena.Mystification serves the interests of the ruling class by disguising the exploitation of the working class, whereas stupidity, ignorance, and superstition do not have a clear class bias.Mystification is a form of deception that is used to maintain the existing social relations, whereas stupidity, ignorance, and superstition are forms of misunderstanding that may or may not be used to maintain existing social relations.Mystification is a product of the alienation of labor under capitalism, whereas stupidity, ignorance, and superstition are not directly linked to alienation of labor.
Mystification is a deliberate and intentional process, whereas stupidity, ignorance, and superstition are not.Mystification is a product of the capitalist system and its institutions, whereas stupidity, ignorance, and superstition are not necessarily so.Mystification serves the interests of the ruling class by maintaining their power and control, whereas stupidity, ignorance, and superstition do not necessarily serve any specific interests.Mystification produces a false consciousness among the working class, leading them to accept their own exploitation and oppression, whereas stupidity, ignorance, and superstition do not necessarily have this effect.
Take a look at this and think about it. Later on today I will have a variety of things to say about the subject.
I just learned that I will be able to give a series of lectures in the next few months in the UNC philosophy department on the use and abuse of formal methods in political philosophy. As things now stand, I shall be giving six weekly two hour lectures. The department has found me a handicap accessible classroom and I am good to go. It will be fun to be back in the classroom yet again.
Here is the flyer I wrote yesterday announcing the lectures:
The Use and Abuse
Of Formal Methods in Political Philosophy
A series of lectures
by Robert Paul Wolff
In the past 100 years or so, the ancient disciplines of ethics and political philosophy have been significantly changed by the incorporation of formal materials introduced from logic, mathematics, and economics. Rational choice theory, collective choice theory, and Game Theory have all played a significant role in recent literature, perhaps most notably in the work of John Rawls.
Sometimes the introduction of these formal materials has made for greater precision and power in argumentation, but all too often the result has been confusion rather than clarity, and ideological rationalization rather than greater understanding. In fields as far apart as legal theory, nuclear deterrence theory, and political philosophy inadequate understanding of the formal methods has resulted in ideological rationalization of questionable normative claims.
The purpose of these lectures is twofold: First, to present the foundations of these formal methods with sufficient precision and clarity so that students can master them and really understand what they are about; and Second, to give examples of the ways in which these materials have been misused through inadequate understanding.
In the first part of the lectures, we will develop formally the concept of a utility function, distinguishing ordinal from cardinal utility functions, and we will explore some of the difficulties and complexities of these notions. We will then look closely at the so-called “paradox of majority rule” and examine in some detail Kenneth Arrow’s proof of a powerful theorem generalizing the Condorcet paradox. We will also go through a proof of an interesting theorem by Duncan Black concerning single peaked preference orders. We will then move on to a formal development of the elements of Game Theory as first developed by John von Neumann. Included in this discussion will be a formal development of the oft referenced but usually misunderstood notion of a zero-sum game. We shall, with any luck, also put to rest the confusions concerning the so-called “Prisoner’s Dilemma.”
In the second part of the lectures, we shall take a look at some of the misuses of this formal material. Our principal focus will be on a formal analysis of the central argument lying at the heart of John Rawls’s famous book, A Theory of Justice.
Saturday, January 14, 2023
I have had virtually no experience in my life of the inner workings of bureaucratic institutions, so I may be all wrong, but it seems to me that the current flap about classified documents found in Biden’s various homes and storage spaces is what they call in tennis commentary an unforced error. Let me explain.
The White House, as I understand it, has a staff of several hundred people whose job it is in one way or another to advance the president’s interests and make him or her look good. Last October, when the FBI conducted a search of Trump’s Florida estate, and found masses of classified documents that had not been returned and whose existence had been denied, it seems to me that someone in the White House – perhaps a high-ranking official or maybe just a low-level flunky – should have thought, “wouldn’t it be awful if some documents of that sort turned up in Pres. Biden’s storage spaces?”
It is obvious that if the documents were there, sooner or later they would become public and it would be infinitely better to find them now, announce publicly that they had been found and had been immediately returned, and, as they say, get on top of the story. I mean, how much brains does it take to think of that?
Since the president has endless resources to tap for such tasks the whole thing could have been done in a few days way back in August. Say what you will about Biden, his strong suit is supposed to be that he has been around Washington forever and knows its ins and outs. Why on earth did this not occurred to him?
Regardless of the report of the special counsel appointed to investigate Biden’s classified documents problem, I think it is now politically impossible to bring charges against Trump on that matter, at least until he has been charged with something else more serious. I repeat what I have said before: my hopes are placed on the Fulton County, Georgia district attorney.
Thursday, January 12, 2023
On August 15 last, shortly after the Mar-a-Lago documents case broke, I wrote “I remain convinced that Merrick Garland has evidence of some sort showing that Trump intends or intended to monetize those documents in some way.” It seemed obvious to me that the very first time in American history that a former president was charged with a crime, it would have to be something serious and not simply a matter of having some documents he should not have kept. Now, it may turn out that Merrick Garland has some evidence of genuinely treasonous behavior and is just keeping it very quiet, but I have to confess I have not seen the slightest evidence of it.
And now it turns out the good old Joe also took some classified documents home with them and stuck them in a closet. I know, I know, the cases are very different. Well they may be legally but politically the documents case is dead now unless Trump really did try to sell them and Garland can prove it.
I never placed much store in the documents case anyway. But the Fulton County, Georgia case is something else again. I would be willing to bet that the DA is going to indict Trump and a bunch of other people as well and with that phone call that we have all heard a million times, I suspect she will get convictions. The news is not all bad on a cloudy Thursday morning.
Wednesday, January 11, 2023
There are three dining venues in the continuing care retirement community where I live: the Pub, the Courtyard, and the Marketplace. Susie and I eat each evening in the pub and when we can, we sit at the bar where there are four places. Quite often, we are joined at the bar by another old guy named Jim. Jim is a retired Army general who taught for many years at West Point. All three of us turn 90 this year – Susie in a few days, Jim in March, I in December. Yesterday evening, Jim remarked that when he had his 90th birthday, he planned to celebrate it by going to Fort Bragg and jumping out of an airplane, accompanied by members of the Golden Eagles, the Army’s elite parachute team. I have to admit, I was impressed.
Tuesday, January 10, 2023
Perhaps it is merely the fact that the days are now a little bit longer and the depressing sequence of four-day weekends is over for a bit, but I am feeling a good deal more cheerful and my natural Tigger is returning. The special grand jury in Fulton County, Georgia has wrapped up its work and the fact that it has asked for its report to be made public suggests very strongly to me that they are recommending indictments for Trump and a number of his co-conspirators. We shall see in not too much time. The discipline maintained by Hakeem Jeffries in the House and the disastrous decisions by Republicans encourages me to believe that before this 118th Congress has completed its two-year journey, control may actually slip away from the Republicans.
I did want to make one observation about the comments concerning movies. I have always been rather put off by the snobbish attitudes of the super sophisticated European left-wing theorists. They all strike me as a bunch of upper-middle-class overeducated snobs who think that anything more than a raised eyebrow is an excessive response to the world. They are the sort of people who would consider a belly laugh a sign of intestinal upset. I have seen virtually all of the movies that Marc Susselman lists in his lengthy comment and I agree that we should simply allow ourselves to enjoy them without worrying too much about their ideological significance.
Nevertheless, I would like to point out that the very first movie on his list – The Wizard Of Oz – derives from a book by Frank Baum that was a satirical view of the late 19th century conflict over the gold standard (“oz” is of course the symbol for an ounce of gold.) The Midwestern farmers who are the heroes of the story had mortgages on their farms and the steady decline in the value of the dollar made their mortgage payments progressively less burdensome. The East Coast bankers, on the other hand, were creditors and pegging the dollar to the price of gold maintained the value of the mortgage money they were collecting.
I loved Herbert Marcuse and I admire the work of his colleagues at the Frankfurt Institute but I do not think it would have been much fun to live in the world that they sought to bring into existence.
Sunday, January 8, 2023
In June 2020, I wrote a blog post about intertextuality, one of my favorite things in literature. Yesterday evening Susie and I went to the movie shown here at Carolina Meadows (free, with complementary popcorn) and saw the new Downton Abbey movie. There is a lovely and extended homage to the great old Gene Kelly Debbie Reynolds movie, Singin’ in the Rain. If you have not seen the Downton Abbey movie yet, I strongly recommended. It is great fun in these difficult times.
On a totally different matter, I learned to walk 87 or 88 years ago – I do not actually remember precisely when – and since then like all other human beings I have been walking around without any difficulty. As a boy, I was a pretty good dancer, and I could even press up into a handstand and walk around on my hands – no problem. Now, because of my Parkinson’s, walking and even standing steadily upright have become problematic, and for the first time I am compelled to realize how extraordinary it is that we humans walk about on our hind feet without dragging our knuckles on the ground to steady us. It really is, when you think about it, an extraordinary feat of balance.
Friday, January 6, 2023
Forty-three years ago I proved a powerful and important theorem in the mathematical reinterpretation of Karl Marx’s economic theories. I was, I thought, the first person who had even thought to prove the theorem and I was extremely pleased with myself (although the advanced mathematics that I used to prove the theorem would have been easy for any undergraduate mathematics major at a decent college or university.) The next year, in 1981, I published my results in a journal article. John Roemer, a very gifted Marxist economist and mathematician, wrote a comment on my article in which he noted that a Spanish economist, Josep Vegara, had proved the same theorem several years earlier. I guess it is a pretty good thing to be the second person to prove an important theorem, but it is nothing like being the first person.
Fast-forward 42 years and once again I have been upstaged. Yesterday afternoon, as I was watching Kevin McCarthy’s ritual humiliation, I reflected that the real solution to the standoff would be for five or six Republican Congresspersons elected from districts carried by Biden to declare themselves Independents and vote for Jeffries, on condition that when they ran for reelection no Democrat would run against them in their districts. I knew it would take some more time before this became likely but it seemed to me eventually to be a genuine possibility. I decided to write a post on this blog about my idea. A little later, as I was watching the Ari Melber show on MSNBC he had on as a guest the irrepressible Michael Moore, who put forward exactly the same idea. (I am sure all of this has long since been widely discussed in the Democratic House leadership, but what the hell.) Moore added something that I did not know and had not occurred to me: apparently in every Congress of 435 members, as many as 10 or 15 do not make it to the end of the term, either dying or retiring or running for some other office or whatever. Moore predicted that before this Congress is over, Jeffries will be House Speaker.
On a brighter note, although my local supermarket has stopped carrying that to-die-for popcorn, they do, it turns out, carry candied popcorn that is almost as good and I finished most of a bag yesterday watching the fun.
Well, in 6 minutes the House convenes again. I must go.
Wednesday, January 4, 2023
Well, despite the fact that the supermarket did not have any more of that marvelous popcorn, it was a very pleasant afternoon. I enjoyed the giggles and smirks of the Democrats as the Republicans flailed around and revealed themselves for what they are. If I may adopt a new meme that has gained currency lately, the Democrats were in total array. I shall be watching again at noon today. I have no idea at all how this is going to end but it clearly will end badly for the Republicans.
On another more personal matter, I had a very useful zoom conference this morning with my neurologist’s physician’s assistant, discussing my Parkinson’s disease. I asked a number of pointed questions and got, for the first time, clear coherent answers. To summarize the conversation briefly, it turns out they have not a clue. They do not really know what causes Parkinson’s, what it is, whether the medicine I take helps, what my prospects are. They simply do not know. So I am going to stop asking and just go on with my life. I am so glad to be living in a time when medicine has advanced far beyond what could be offered to patients when I was just a child.
Monday, January 2, 2023
Well, it seems that my dreams are to be answered. Tomorrow, when the House of Representatives convenes, and each Representative, standing by his or her desk, announces in a loud voice a candidate for the office of Speaker, no one will get the 218 votes required. There will then be more rounds of voting.
This prospect poses for me a serious personal problem. During the run up to the holidays, a local supermarket started carrying cardboard tubes of candied popcorn that was to die for. Susie and I, but mostly I, consumed five of these in the course of a couple of days. My problem is twofold: is the supermarket still carrying this popcorn and do I dare buy some more of it to eat as I watch the chaos unfold? I think the answer to the second question is yes. If you cannot indulge when you are 89, what is the point of living to such an age?
The Republicans will have to be careful. There has been some talk that several of them may choose simply to reply “present” when their names are called. If twelve of them take that choice, then only 422 votes will be cast, and Hakim Jeffries, sitting there with 212 votes, will be the new Speaker.
As I have observed before, in these terrible times one must take one’s pleasures where one finds them.