Saturday, April 29, 2017

Clearance Reading

Our shelves are full enough that it can be hard to place a new book. I look at shelves in the office upstairs, and see a number of books that I don't think we need to keep, but which I do think I should probably read before we get rid of them. In most cases they were presents, and I remember who gave them to me, and sometimes remember for which birthday or on which Christmas. It seems to me that I will have done my duty by the givers if I read the books.

So next week, when the current bus book is done, I will devote my commute to making space on the shelves. In all, there are six or eight books due for this treatment. One more might qualify, but is awfully heavy. Carpe Librum will accept them and might be able to sell them.

The last book that I read to get rid of was Perry Miller's The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century. It was not bus reading, requiring as it did too much concentration. I read it mostly sitting on the couch, and gave it away. The friend who took it must have backlogs of his own; I have never asked whether he read it.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The View from 1931

 I have been holding off from quoting Friedell, for there remain about one hundred and fifty pages unread in the third volume of his history. But a passage from the second chapter of the fifth book caught my eye:
Still there remained the theoretical possibility that proceeding in this direction one would someday be in a position to release and make use of the huge, but ordinarily bound resources of energy in the atom. It is estimated that the fission of a single penny's mass would release roughly thirteen and a half billion horsepower. The release of the "interatomic" energy would obviously result in a thoroughgoing revolution of all earthly relations. But here only the naive can suppose that this would also mean the solution of the social question. For since the "normal man", who admittedly is not normal, but who rules our economic life, is born and dies a thoughtless scoundrel, one can expect this sort of development of technology, like all those previous, to lead only to new forms of universal avarice and injustice. One  considers how two hundred years ago someone would have prophesied, knowing that humanity would have succeeded in making use of magnetic energy, electric energy, the solar energy that is stored in black coal, and the hydraulic energy stored in "white coal": what entirely obvious conclusions, and what a sublime social condition he would have inferred. In spite of this, all has become much worse, and Europe is split into capitalistic states, in which the majority are paupers, and Soviet states, in which all are paupers. No: through the use of atomic power, the rulers will simply become greedier, the poor poorer still, and both still hungrier, and war still more bestial. For the solution of the social problem we require a moral emanation, production of rays, and atom-splitting.

Egon Friedell, Cultural History of Modernity.

On the one hand, I agree that technological improvements do not as such imply social improvement. On the other hand, I imagine that if I were a large shareholder in Toshiba, I might laugh bitterly at the thought of nuclear energy enriching those already rich. And considering the course of WW II from September 1939 through August 1945, did the atom bomb make warfare more bestial, or just more efficiently destructive?

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Stories of Centaurs and Dragons

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

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

Friday, April 14, 2017

Linux Cruft

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

That Depends on Whom You Ask

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

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