Jun 282002

My Picture Left in Scotland

I now think Love is rather deaf than blind,
For else it could not be
That she
Whom I adore so much should so slight me,
And cast my love behind.
I’m sure my language to her was as sweet,
And every close did meet
In sentence of as subtle feet
As hath the youngest he
That sits in shadow of Apollo’s tree.

Oh, but my conscious fears
That fly my thoughts between,
Tell me that she hath seen
My hundreds of gray hairs,
Told seven and forty years,
Read so much waste, as she cannot embrace
My mountain belly and my rocky face;
And all these through her eyes have stopped her ears.

–Ben Jonson

Jun 282002

Ayn Rand herself, oddly, had nothing to say about determinism. She asserts in many places that man has free will, that he is a being of volitional consciousness, that he has one choice, to think or not to think, etc. etc.; but I have scoured the ouevre in vain for an actual argument. She left this task to her disciples, first Nathaniel Branden and later Leonard Peikoff. Branden took a stab at it in his article for The Objectivist Newsletter called “The Contradiction of Determinism,” arguing as follows: Determinists say everything is determined. But then it’s also determined that they’re determinists! So their argument can’t be valid. QED. You think I exaggerate?

But if man believes what he has to believe, if he is not free to test his beliefs against reality and to validate or reject them — if the actions and content of his mind are determined by factors that may or may not have anything to do with reason, logic and reality — then he can never know if his conclusions are true or false. [Emphasis in original.]

Of course the contradiction is imaginary. I may be determined by my chemical makeup — and surely that is quite real — to believe certain things, but those beliefs can still be true or false, no matter how much stuff Branden puts in italics. I sympathize with free will, but not with this argument.
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Jun 272002

Con Edison browned me out — a “low-voltage condition,” they call it — from 8:30 last night until about 7:00 this morning. Now I know what I pay the highest rates in the country for. Thanks! (I suppose it could be worse; it could be California.) I apologize to whoever tried to access this site, or any of the other sites I manage, and promise that, now that I’m an accidental ISP, I’ll buy a backup generator so this won’t happen again.

Jun 262002

The adulatory story about Bill Gates in this month’s Fortune repackages virtually every myth that Gates, and his handlers, have ever circulated about himself. We have:

1. Gates the genius.

Time spent with Bill in technology and business reviews is so valuable that Microsofties consider it a currency. They even have a name for it: Bill capital. The board regards his time as a strategic asset to be monitored each quarter.

Then how come nobody ever catches him actually saying anything clever?

2. Gates the programmer. “Gates now devotes most of his time to what he loves best: namely, communing with the geeks who actually build Microsoft’s products.” Communing maybe; programming, no. Gates was never a good programmer — it was Paul Allen who wrote most of the operating system for the Altair — and probably hasn’t written a line of code in twenty years. He quit programming for the same reason he quit the math program at Harvard: the unpleasant realization that there were people who were much, much better at it than he was.
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Jun 252002

Thomas Mallon, whom I generally like — he wrote Stolen Words, an excellent book on plagiarism that I’ve occasionally plagiarized myself — decides to have at The New York Times‘s “Portraits of Grief”:

[A]nyone depressed over his weight became a “gentle giant” and every binge drinker was the life of the party. As the Portraits accumulated over weeks and months, I began performing mental translations, from a sugary base 8 to a real-life base 10. The fifty-four-year-old vegetarian office temp, a bachelor with “strong opinions” who preferred “short-term jobs,” was, I would bet, an absolutely impossible man; but I would prefer to have known him rather than the bland reincarnation forced to share a page with the other murdered souls under headings like “The Joys of Fatherhood” and “Perpetual Motion.” If Rudolph W. Giuliani had perished in the attacks, as he nearly did, he would be remembered in the Portraits as a rabid Yankees fan who sometimes liked to put on lipstick.

Tim Noah, who excerpted this in Slate for those of us who don’t take The American Scholar, compares the Portraits unfavorably to the Times obituaries, which Mallon praises elsewhere. Surely this is unfair. It’s far easier to write of distinguished people, with real achievements, than of hundreds of more or less anonymous murder victims, especially when you get more space. And how hard is it to translate even Mallon’s own example from octal to decimal? The 54-year-old vegetarian office temp was so obviously impossible that I see no need to say so. No doubt you would get a fuller picture of the man having known him. Are the Portraits worthless on that account?

Go read them. Of the thirteen posted today maybe three are irredeemable treacle. Considering the assignment that’s a pretty good track record.