Saturday, February 27, 2021

Good Sense

 The first discourse of Descartes's Discourse on Method begins

Good sense is mankind's most equitably divided endowment, for everyone thinks that he is so abundantly provided with it that even those with the most insatiable appetites and most difficult to please in other ways do not usually want more than they have of this. As it is not likely that everyone is mistaken, this evidence shows that the ability to judge correctly, and to distinguish the true from the false--which is really meant by good sense or reason--is the same by innate nature in all men, and that differences of opinion are not due to differences in intelligence, but merely to the fact that we use different approaches and consider different things.

I remember my surprise on first reading this, something over forty-five years ago, and my admiration for the argument, combined with a feeling that something was wrong with it. This was long before anyone talked about the Dunning-Kruger effect. And really the Dunning-Kruger effect does not address Descartes's point as it affects the Discourse, for thoroughly intelligent persons of, before, and since his time have come to conclusions far different from his.

My old copy of The Discourse on Method and Meditations was lost in some move long ago, and I have just bought a used copy. The last time before yesterday that I saw the first sentence in print was in some Oracle documentation, in the days when one got a shelf's worth of printed manuals along with the software. The manual must have been Oracle Database Concepts, I think. Now all Oracle documentation is on-line, which for most purposes is much handier. But the pithy quotations at the beginning of chapters are no longer there.

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Down to Half Street

 Our car's inspection sticker expired on February 26. Early yesterday I drove to Half Street SW, for what I expected to be a quick and pro-forma check. It was not quite what I expected.

For one thing, I expected to make the usual turn from Independence Avenue onto Washington Avenue. But it turns out that the intersection is about a half block inside the Capitol security perimeter. I turned down 2nd Street, found no way east, and backtracked to 4th Street. The chain-link fences along 2nd looked unusually high, perhaps 10 feet, though I may have misjudged them because I was seated. A couple of men in military uniforms were walking down on the other side of the fence, probably National Guardsmen.

For another, the car failed inspection with a couple of unresponsive sensors. The inspector advised me to Google "drive cycle", a manner of driving that may help awaken the sensors on a car that has been long parked. (It had not been parked that long.) The internet, of course, had plenty of advice about drive cycles, and for once the advice offered did not differ wildly. My brother offered a version that was similar, but specified starting with an almost empty tank of gas. But the owner's manual offers a recipe that does not require leaving the curb. Better still, it offers a way to see whether the sensors are responding. I'll see about this on Wednesday, when it will be warmer.

Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Weather

 A year or a few ago, I described the then weather in Washington, DC, in an email to an Angeleno friend by saying that it could have been scheduled by the Los Angeles Tourism Bureau. I have since reused the quip, appropriately modified, for an acquaintance who has moved to Phoenix . But who would would use an account of her local weather to cheer me up?

My brother sends me updates on Michigan weather. It can be very cold there, so that even heavy gloves leave the fingers cold after enough time outdoors. There can be a great deal of snow, so that shoveling becomes exhausting, or the snow blower (when practical) runs low on charge. But we grew up together in northern Ohio and in Colorado, and he knows that I don't really mind cold weather and snow.

My brother-in-law lives in the Willamette valley, where it rains more or less all the time for about a third of the year. He could perk me up any time during those months by saying that it had been raining for weeks and the needles of the trees were growing moss. But he doesn't care for that weather, either and so ordinarily gets into an RV and drives to Arizona as soon as the Christmas tree is down.

I suppose that a friend from the states along the Gulf of Mexico could raise my morale with bulletins of the temperature and humidity from May through September. The heat and humidity of Washington, DC, can be impressive to some, though I tolerate them well enough. But New Orleans outside in June I could not enjoy, and no doubt the same would be true for St. Petersburg, Biloxi, Mobile, and Houston.


Friday, February 12, 2021

Not At All Disturbed

 The New York Times informs us that the French are concerned that American notions around race and gender are affecting the quality of thought in the French universities. I find myself not at all disturbed by the news. The jargon of French structuralism has colonized American English to the point that some government entities no longer solicit bids for "demolition" but for "deconstruction". A fair proportion of the liberal arts faculties think and write in terms worked out in the Paris during the third quarter of the last century. We Americans know something about foreign influences.

Is this a case of Foucault's pendulum swinging back?

Thursday, February 11, 2021

House Floats

 A fortnight ago, neighbors told me that the planned to make a "house float". They said that this is something people are doing in New Orleans this year. The pandemic does not allow for Mardi Gras parades with elaborately decorated floats, so people are doing up their houses in the elaborate fashion of such floats. I asked whether they would throw me beads when I walked by, but then our conversation was interrupted.

 Sure enough, their house was decorated this week, with a banner announcing the "Krew d'Eatay" and showing vegetables that I suppose might go into crudités. There were strings of pennants, and a cardboard cutout of a leaping cat. Then the snow and rain came on. The banner, pennants, and cat are put away, I hope to return.


Monday, January 25, 2021

Close Reading

 In a letter of January 4, 1950 to Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh wrote of Robert Gathorne-Hardy's book Logan Pearsall Smith that

The only way modern books are readable is by reading them between the lines. I see so many unconscious and conscious dishonesties in the book which is two books put together -- the Boswell and an apologia for his treatment of the final heir.

In the essay "Flashbacks", collected in At Century's Ending: Selections 1983-1984, George Kennan describes his duties in Riga during 1932:

I know the Russian language, and I, with two or three others, go thoroughly and systematically through the Soviet newspapers and magazines, reporting to our government on what they reveal of life in the Soviet Union. It is through these thousands of pages of small-type, poor-quality newsprint that I am obliged to form my first picture of the great Communist country that lies so near at hand and extends so far away to the east. I, like my colleagues, am appalled at the propaganda that pervades every page of this official Soviet literature--at the unabashed use of obvious falsehood, at the hypocrisy, and above all, at the savage intolerance shown toward everything that is not Soviet. ... And I am surprised to find how easy it is, if one looks carefully and thoughtfully, to perceive what does lie beneath these gray and brittle pages, and to realize that the meaning of the propaganda is not in the literal text but in the subtle changes that  occur in it from day to day--changes that every sophisticated Russian knows how to decipher and to interpret, as we ourselves, in time, learn to do.

 In "The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Descriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page", collected in The Hall of Uselessness, Simon Leys describes the method that made Father Lazlo Ladany's weekly China News Analysis "infuriatingly indispensable" (infuriating not to Leys, but to many of its western readers, who wished to think better of the People's Republic):

What inspired his method was the observation that even the most mendacious propaganda must necessarily entertain some sort of relation with the truth; even as it manipulates and distorts the truth, it still needs originally to feed on it. Therefore, the untwisting of official lies, if skilfully effected, should yield a certain amount of plain facts. Needless to say, such an operation requires a doigté hardly less sophisticated than the chemistry which, in Gulliver's Travels, enabled the Grand Academicians of Lagado to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and food from excreta.    

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The Johnsons

 Last year, I read Janet Lewis's novel The Invasions and enjoyed it. I had set it aside, and was not thinking about it, when I noticed in Journey to America, a collection of De Tocqueville's journals edited by J.P. Mayer, a passage of August 6, 1831, from the Sault Ste. Marie:

The Johnson family (conversation forgotten) at the camp of the Indian traders.

Now, the family of The Invasions spelled their name "Johnston". It is true that names are often misspelled, and that Tocqueville had difficulties with English orthography. Yet Johnson is not an uncommon name, and there could easily have been other Johnsons or Johnstons then living near the Sault.

If Tocqueville did speak with William Henry Johnston's family, it is curious that he did not record the conversation and make more of it, given the interest his journals show in the relations of the races. A family with a Bishop of Belfast as great-uncle, and a notable chief of the Ojibways as grandfather should have been worth recording. Sam Houston's brief marriage to the granddaughter of a Cherokee chief is mentioned in another notebook--but then perhaps Tocqueville had more time to talk with Houston.