Saturday, October 15, 2022

The Elon Musk raree show


The way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a snake on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a young woman, and the way of Elon Musk with Twitter are high and low mysteries - the last of them falls under the mystery of the confidence man in American history and lore. I have changed my mind about the Musk and twitter thing. I thought it would be a disaster, and I still think so, but it will also be a free comic spectacle as well. Musk's 44 billion dollar purchase can be justified, financially, in two ways - either Twitter stock goes up tremendously, or he finds, down the daisy chain, a greater fool, a crypto pseudo billionaire as high on coke as, uh, it is rumored, the purchaser is.


In this economy, that isn't going to happen. So what will happen? Here's where the comedy starts. Musk has decided he is a deep philosophical type, and so I could see him opening twitter to the army of Trump. But what I can't see is the advertisers who are twitters source of real funding going for this demographic. Switching from Disney channel (communist and gay!) to Depends Underpants (blessed by Fox) is not gonna pay the bills. Of course, a lot depends on whether some hungry corp sees the possible steal here. Say Instagram develops a bloc note service that essentially copies twitter, with a few bows to IP rights.

Given Musk's history of getting away with larceny, even if he comes out poorer, I can't imagine he will lose his shirt. Leave that to his cult members. Anyway, as a regular twitter person, I'm experiencing that wonderful thing - free contempt and joy. Usually you pay for your contempt - karma is real - but in this case the universe is offering a free raree show, so why not take a ticket?

Thursday, October 13, 2022

Reflections on Sherlock Holmes

 I like reading to Adam at night, before he goes to sleep. It is a ritual which satisfies Adam – he follows the story until he is sleepy, which puts together the two great ends of tale-telling, the enjoyment of following an event as it unfolds itself and is unfolded by the observer, and the enjoyment of being slowly induced into closing your eyes on the way to unconsciousness – and it satisfies me, as I get to try out all kinds of voices, from Huck Finn drawling Southern to Sherlock Holmes nasal British.

Sherlock Holmes has delighted me since I was eleven or so – about a year older than Adam. I’ve read them over countless times. There’s a certain paradox here, since the stories are motivate by the need to solve a human problem, and end on the solution to the problem – which would seem to close them up and make the reader averse to a second reading, not to mention a fifth or seventh. This is the mystery of the mystery – why it transcends, in some small way, its neatly tied two fold structure as problem-solution.
Of course, reading these stories always involves being irritated by the same things that irritated you before – it awakens that irritation again. Certain stories are, really, partners to the reader – even the irritations are dear. For me, the irritation is Holmes’ infamous use of the term deduction.
There are whole books on this subject. Eco and Sebeok’s collection, Dupin, Holmes, Pierce: the Sign of Three, is probably the best. I explained, to Adam, that deduction is something like proving from a given, while what Holmes is doing is an induction, or an inference from probability based in experience. Adam listened and nodded, but the nod was the here comes sleep nod rather than the I get it nod.
Of course, reading Sebeok, I want to retreat from my sophomoric objection. Sebeok makes a good case that Holmes’ guessing – although Holmes claims he never guesses – is illuminated by C.S. Pierce’s notion of retroduction, or hypothetico-deduction, or abduction.
There is quite a literature on the inspiration for Holmes’ method – the human model that Doyle converted into the fictitious device. But for a philosopher, as important is the method itself – philosophers do like a method. Methodus – the Greek for pursuit, which brings us back to the function of “following.” Method is natural to narrative, although how we follow, tripping from topic to topic, is still a misty matter. Holmes’ soliloquies about his method are quite pretty:
“The ideal reasoner ... would, when he had once been shown a single fact in all its bearings, deduce from it not only all the chain of events which led up to it but also all the results which would follow from it. As Cuvier could correctly describe a whole animal by the contemplation of a single bone, so the observer who has thoroughly understood one link in a series of incidents should be able to accurately state all the other ones, both before and after.”
I like to think that this is true. It is fundamentally monism, or its contemporary descendent, connectionism. When Holmes winds himself up and delivers these maxims, he seems like one of the Greek sages whose best hit bits are quoted in Diogenes Laertes.
He also seems a bit like Lichtenberg. Take another Holmes quote:
From a drop of water ... a logician could infer the possibility of an Atlantic or a Niagra without having seen or heard of one or the other. So all life is a great chain, the nature of which is known whenever we are shown a single link of it. Like all other arts, the Science of Deduction and Analysis is one which can only be acquired by long and patient study, nor is life long enough to allow any mortal to attain the highest possible perfection in it."
That is a grand view. I relate it to this jotting by Lichtenberg, in his scribble book, when he is considering the vibrational psychology of Hartley (the 18th century predecessor of today’s neuro-philosophers).

“Suppose a pea is blown into the sea at Helvoet [in the Netherlands] and suppose my brain is something like the sea, then you may suppose that there will be an effect on the coast of China. This effect would be strongly modified, however, through every impression made on all the other objects in the sea, through the wind that pushes on it, through the fish and ships that plow through it, through the vaults that break open the shoreline. The form of the surfaces of a land, ist mountains and valleys, etc., is one with a written history of natural signs of all ist changes, every grain of sand is a letter, but the language is mostly unknown to us.”
The adjacency of the largest and the smallest, of the murder that ends a human life and the most trivial thing, a fingerprint, that “proves” who did it, is where crime overlaps with metaphysics. And I suppose that this is one of the reasons that I keep returning to Sherlock Holmes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

christ's shoutout to BLM

 I am greatly enjoying Wolf Hall at the moment. And loving, as well, the takedown of Thomas More, at least as seen by Thomas Cromwell, who is seen by Hilary Mantel. Mantel was born a Catholic and had obviously fought against her Catholic heritage – so much so that certain writers in the pious journals have implied that she relies too much on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, a ferociously anti-Catholic book.

I view Mantel’s view of Cromwell’s view of More through Cold War eyes, for it was in the sixties that More became a pop martyr, a truth teller. And, indeed, nobody can deny that More was burnt. Nor deny that he himself burnt – books and Protestants. He had one suspected heretic held in stocks at his own house.
All of which leads us to More’s great antagonist – not Henry VIII, who was merely a king. I’m talking about William Tyndale. The first translator of the Bible, whose translation was the go to crib for the 80 people assembled under King James to translate the Bible. This is not just a matter of the Bible: rather, Tyndale’s was the democratic spirit, re-emerging in common life. In a dispute with a priest who told Tyndale “we were better off to be without God’s law than the Pope’s”, Tyndale replied that he defied the pope’s law and added: “if God spare my life, ere many years I wyl cause a boye that dryveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.” (the story is in Foxe – receive it under that caution).
This remark is not simply a bit of casual repartee, but at the heart of democratic culture. It has since been the aim of those who believe in democracy to cause the boye or girl who dryveth the plough to know more of the secrets of the CIA, more of the sources of money that go into the laws, more of the background considerations of the wheelings and dealings of the Justices, more of the inner workings of corporation honchoes, than any powerful heretic burner would like.
Alas, the ethos of “need to know” is accepted all too docilely by the citizens in our quasi-democracies. As a sign and symbol of this retreat in America, I would point to the tragic decline of knowledge of the Bible.
When I grew up, the Bible was not only in every hotel room but was actually read by high and low. It informed the prose of our culture, both as it came out of the mouths of people and as it poured into media. I was given my first bible, with a nice red cover, when I was six, I believe. I was promptly scolded by my Mom for writing my name in it in my utterly henscratching handwriting. I thought at the time and think now that I did no wrong, there.
If you look at the Hollywood portrayal of Americans – and of religious Americans – you will notice that none of the scriptwriters seem to have more than an impoverished Dummies guide to the Bible knowledge of the text. This reflects a great and sensible diminishment of knowledge of the Bible by those who supposedly are all about it, as for instance Fundamentalist Christians. American Christianity, of course, has long been something other than Christianity, as Jesus’s vita, ending in crucifixion and resurrection, has been replaced by Horatio Alger's Christianity, with Jesus preaching feel good messages that will help you in business as you get rich rich rich. In order to believe the latter, you have to very much cherrypick a few messages from the New Testament and add to it the Gospel as spoken by Ronald Reagan, or Donald Trump.
However, down at groundlevel, it used to be that there was some genuine knowledge of the psalms, the prophets, the histories, the vita, even Paul’s letters. Now, it is a mouthful of rightwing slogans and some knowledge of Revelations, a book that should never have made it past the Nicene Council.
What would Tyndale say about his ploughboys now? Perhaps: wake up! “ Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.” You know, Christ’s shoutout to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022

The skin of the judge


The  third branch of government, the judiciary, has long been the feudal instance in the democratic or quasi-democratic nation-states. It is a system framed by, on one end, cages for people, and on the other end, retainers of the worst and the dullest, otherwise known as Your Honor.


I am aware that this feudal instance might work as a bulwark not only against the power of the masses, but against the oppression of the minority. Sometimes, these things overlap. In the United States, for instance, the brief flare of juridical liberalism was one of the great cogs in the machine that battered down apartheid – although it then acted as a great cog to re-Jim Crow the country by caging millions of African-Americans. In same way, the Court is now caging women in their own bodies, merrily making up precedents for its misogyny oujt of quotes from witchhunters and defenders of wife-rape in the 17th century.


My favorite quote about judges and the judiciary from a  16th century comes from a Hugh Latimer sermon, perhaps his most famous sermon. Hugh Latimer is famous as a martyr under “bloody Mary.” He was burned to death nearly five hundred years ago, on October 16th, 1555 with Nicholas Ridley. History today gives a nice short account:


“Ridley went to the pyre in a smart black gown, but the grey-haired Latimer, who had a gift for publicity, wore a shabby old garment, which he took off to reveal a shroud. Ridley kissed the stake and both men knelt and prayed. After a fifteen-minute sermon urging them to repent, they were chained to the stake and a bag of gunpowder was hung round each man’s neck. The pyre was made of gorse branches and faggots of wood. As the fire took hold, Latimer was stifled by the smoke and died without pain, but poor Ridley was not so lucky. The wood was piled up above his head, but he writhed in agony and repeatedly cried out, ‘Lord, have mercy upon me’ and ‘I cannot burn’.”


This man to be burnt was a great sermon-maker, and this is his sermon about judges. It has the whiff of the pyre about it – Latimer was always primed for the flames, that’s how he lived.


“Cambyses was a great Emperor, such another as our master is; he had many Lord deputies, Lord presidents, and Lieutenants under him. It is a great while ago sith I read the history. It chanced he had under him in one of his dominions a briber, a gift taker, a gratifier of rich men, he followed gifts, as fast as he that followed the pudding, a hand maker in his office, to make his son a great man, as the old saying is, Happy is the child whose father goeth to the Devil.


  The cry of the poor widow came to the Emperor’s ear, and caused him to flay the judge quick, and laid his skin in his chair of judgement, that all judges, that should give judgement afterward, should sit in the same skin. Surely it was a goodly sign, a goodly monument, the sign of the judge’s skin: I pray God we may once see the sign of the skin in England. Ye will say peradventure that this is cruelly and uncharitably spoken: no, no, I do it charitably for a love I bear to my country. God saith, Ego visitabo, I will visit. God hath two visitations. The first is, when he revealeth his word by preachers and where the first is accepted, the second cometh not. The second visitation is vengeance. He went a visitation, when he brought the judge’s skin over his ears. If his word be despised he cometh with his second visitation with vengeance.”


The second visitation I identify with the terrible swift sword in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. I hope that chopping time isn’t coming, but with the SCOTUS poised to issue any ruling it pleases and be obeyed, I think the established order is near a breaking point.

Elia meets Karl Marx at the South Sea House

    When Charles Lamb, a scholarship boy at Christ’s Hospital, was fifteen, one of his patrons, Thomas Coventry, had a discussion with a...