Thursday, October 30, 2008

OMG! Robot dinosaurs

RJR pointed me towards this, perhaps the freakiest toy I have seen. I'm hoping it is sufficiently inaccurate paleontologically that my elder daughter won't want one. (I'm pretty sure that these things could not really wiggle their horns.) But if you want one you can go here.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Picturing Cambridge

Yesterday's thegrauniad featured a supplement of photos of Cambridge by Martin Parr. (He also took the pictures of the city that were used to cover up some of the boarding during the Grand Arcade project.) Some of these are interesting and certainly skillfully done. (You can see more of his work here on the Magnum site. I like his Bored Couples.) But the ones that represent the University in this new supplement are at best uninspired. Punting? Tick (twice). Bicycles? Tick (three times: one a pic of the Corpus Fellows' bike racks -- not sure if Mr Parr asked the Fellows' permission to use this one; the other two of people who mend or sell bikes). A don? Tick (Professor Beard holding forth enthusiastically). Students? Tick, well a few of them lying on the lawns outside King's, one of them reading the Penguin translation of a French version of the Camelot legend. Old staircase? Tick.

The photos as a whole do show that there is more to Cambridge than the university. But they depict the university in very boring and perhaps unrepresentative ways. The accompanying text also manages to enphasise the impression that there are two parts to the city that have little to do with one another. Parr speculates, at one point, when taken to the Arbury, 'a council estate in the north of the city', 'that most Cambridge dons had probably never been there'. Why on earth would he think that? Perhaps he assumes (as some students do) that we all live in our little college offices and venture out of the college gates only to go to a Faculty to lecture or perhaps to go the the Arts Theatre. We live here. And we live all over the city.

So I wondered: how would I want to picture the university? I think we might show something of the sheer amount of work that goes on here. It is not all lying on the lawn and deeps chats by the fire. A picture of the UL reading room on an October morning might be a start. It would certainly show a wide range of people working and researching there. Or a packed lecture theatre in the Law Faculty, an Engineering practical session, even a Faculty Board meeting at which papers are designed, PhDs awarded or not awarded and hard decisions made about where to cut back on spending. Go to a college on a Tuesday at 2am and see how many students are in the library working. (They won't be wearing boaters and college cricket sweaters, I'd guess.) Why not go to a college that isn't behind an 'ancient door'? Have a look at the art in Murray Edwards college or the new library being built at Fitzwilliam. Just something a bit different that would show that it's not all punts and May Balls and lawns.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Jam and stuff

Jam! I don't mean the nice kind, the kind Bob Marley insists upon in his confectionery [1] ,but the kind that snarl up motorways. In fact, I really mean the phantom jams (explained here by that nice Andrew Marr) that happen without any accident or breakdown. Individual cars, driving too close to each other, snarl up when one of them brakes quickly. It takes longer for them to regain their speed than it takes for them to brake sharply to avoid a crash so the effect of slowing ripples backwards and gets worse and worse until it ends in cars coming to a stop.

This week has been like that. I have lots of different things to do. Each one of them is manageable in itself. But they are just coming too soon one after another. So if I have to put the brakes on for any reason, even if it is just to stop getting myself into a tangle, then everything eventually comes to a stop and I am left with a big pile of stuff on my desk which seems to be getting ever bigger.

Here is the real source of the problem. I have too many different sources of stuff to do and they are not at all co-ordinated. What I need is some third party to filter the stuff and send it to me in a single and ordered stream. I would be very happy doing each thing as it comes in and then moving on to the next thing. But that's never going to happen. Sure, academic jobs are 'flexible', and we manage our own time and efforts but part of what that means is that there is no upper limit to the stuff you do and no one who can step between you and more stuff to do to say that maybe this next thing can wait and delay it popping up in the inbox... Just having to decide yourself that something can wait is another bit of stuff to do.

RJR introduced me today to the notion that we should 'prioritise low-hanging fruit'. That's OK if it's obvious how low each thing is hanging...

[1] How does Bob Marley like his doughnuts? Wi' jam in. My elder daughter classifies this as a 'Daddy joke'. I think that means it's not at all funny but gets told at every occasion it seems even remotely relevant.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An excellent piece of reasoning

I don't want to detract your attention from my ornithological excursus here, but since it's topical I thought I'd add another post today. I laughed out loud when I read the following reaction to the atheist ads to be put on some London buses, from a press release by 'Christian voice':
Bendy-buses, like atheism, are a danger to the public at large.
I feel like adding 'Discuss' at the end and suggesting it as an essay question for this year's exams. It combines metaphysics and ethics rather nicely, I think. Spare a thought though for poor Ken Livingstone and his bendy buses. First Boris Johnson and now Christian Voice. The ads are pretty mild by the way, saying only that there is probably no god so you might as well not worry about it and get on with enjoying your life. (But that might be ad-speak so you don't need to be able to demonstrate the truth of an absolute claim, a bit like the good old claims about Carlsberg...)

Gorgias 494a6: an ornithological note

At Gorgias 494a6 Socrates says that the life Callicles is attempting to promote as ideal for a human is instead the life of a Charadrios. The point is clear in general terms: not only is this not an ideal human life, it is in fact not a human life at all, which is a counter to Callicles’ claim that the life Socrates recommends is the life of a stone or corpse. (This is not the only instance of this tactic: compare Socrates’ claim in the Philebus that a life of pleasure without intelligence is the life of a mollusc.)

What bird is this? It is sometimes translated as ‘stone curlew’, for what that’s worth. LSJ s.v. say that it is probably the thick-knee or Norfolk plover, Charadrius oedicnemus. (Also known as Burhinus oedicemus, the Eurasian stone curlew.) They add that it was proverbially greedy, hence the reference in the Gorgias. (The bird also had yellow eyes and the sight of it was supposed to be a cure for jaundice – on which see also my post here.) That would be a sensible connection, I suppose, but it still seems a little thin. Dodds, who notes that evidence for the identification of the bird as a stone curlew can be found in D’Arcy Thompson’s Glossary of Greek birds p.311, ad loc. simply notes that it is a ‘bird of messy habits and uncertain identity’. I love this comment, but the more I think about it the odder it seems: Dodds must be certain enough about the identity of the bird to be able to comment on its habits, mustn’t he? And what is the implied contrast with ‘messy’: Are their tidier birds? More sanitary birds? Birds that take more care over their appearance? Anyway, Dodds goes on to tells us more about stone curlews: the stone curlew is a ‘twilight feeder, and has large bright-yellow eyes and inconspicuous plumage... when disturbed it runs rather than flies away’. It also tends to hide by crouching among stones.

It would help that the bird is somewhat timid, of course, because Callicles wants his ideal life to be one which includes courage, albeit courage in the service of unrestrained appetites. All in all, this is not a very noble bird and quite contrary to Callicles’ general lofty vision of his ideal person. What about the ‘messy habits’? Dodds is perhaps extrapolating here from the needs of Socrates’ argument which has been tackling Callicles’ conception of a good life characterised by the pleasure gained from processes of satisfying desires. Socrates infers that in order to enjoy pleasure there must be an antecedent lack to be satisfied. And after the process of satisfaction is complete, as Callicles agrees, the pleasure is over. So the lack must be generated again. In terms of the ‘leaky jars’ analogy being pursued at this point of the text, in order to fill up the jar again whatever was previously there has to be expelled. Perhaps these are the ‘messy habits’: for every time the bird spies and eats a tasty worm it also expels something to make room for the new morsel. If, on the other hand, it is a bird that spends its time running about after every little grub it can find, perhaps Socrates might have in mind the idea that rather than a life of grand pleasures, Callicles’ ideal might turn into one of constant petty pleasures, since every time a lack arises the person concerned will be driven to try to satisfy it, like someone constantly topping up a leaky jar.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


How you arrange the space you live in is both an indication of and an influence on your interior psychological life. No big surprises there, I suppose, since people have been saying that sort of thing for a long time. Still, I liked this piece in the Saturday grauniad because it had some sensible things to say about how that general thesis might play out in modern home-stylings.

I've always thought I'd like a pretty minimal kind of space, but on the other hand I can't do without having lots of books around me. Too much stark emptiness is a bit cold. Thinking a bit more, I think I have worked out that what really annoy me is clutter on surfaces -- tables, shelves, etc. These can have things on them, for sure, but they have to be neatly arranged and I have to be able to see the surface somewhere or other. Jumbled piles of stuff or -- worse -- piles arranged with smaller things underneath and holding up larger things just annoy me. I can't bear them, I mean, and find it hard to feel relaxed if I can spy something like that out of the corner of my eye. Of course, when the pile of stuff is someone else's then the problem is much worse; I can't just go over and bin what's not needed or rearrange what is. Instead I have to ask, beg, nag, and the like. And that often just makes that other person less inclined to cave in to my odd sensibilities. (Some 'handy' marriage and clutter tips can be found here. See, that's better now, isn't it?) The serious point is, however, that this is not just a whimsy on my part. I think it is a genuine and deep-seated bit of my psychology. Living around clutter doesn't make me acculturated; it just makes me constantly stressed.

There is a whole industry ready to cater to me, it turns out, which I discovered just be googling 'clutter'. And it's pretty clear that we are supposed to think that an uncluttered life is supposed to be some kind of ideal -- based again on the idea, I imagine, that a cluttered house is the sign of a cluttered and disorganised mind. Instead we ought to pine for an ideal of white furniture, bleached floorboards and one glass vase on a single glass table. (Try this site, for example. Yes, get rid of your crap old sofa and piles of magazines and you'll be a happy stylish person with plenty of time on your hands to pose in a white outfit with a smug look...) That's much too far, of course, and the grauniad article is surely to question whether it is really possible to live happily in that kind of environment. So I don't want an empty box to live in. I suppose I just what control over what clutter is there and how, precisely, it is cluttered...

Thursday, October 16, 2008


The interweb is a curious thing. I usually get around 60 unique 'hits' per day on this site (thank you) and that's probably more than you would expect. (The counter stats are here.) But yesterday I got more than 6500, mostly because something I wrote eighteen months ago, pointing to Richard Dawkin's relaxing hobby of computer programming had been taken up by Funny, huh? Surely you'd expect my most read post to be something more like the recent interesting commentary on Democritus B69 or Aristotle NE 1174b31–3...

Monday, October 13, 2008

Democritus B69

Was Democritus a hedonist? I’m not sure. But here is a Democritean gnomē that I think is worth thinking about carefully in that connection:
B69: ἀνθρώποις πᾶσι τωὐτὸν ἀγαθὸν καὶ ἀληθές• ἡδὺ δὲ ἄλλωι ἄλλο
“The same thing is good and true for all men. But what is pleasant differs from one to another.”
How much can we infer from this about Democritus’ conception of the relationship between the good and pleasure? It is easy to see why B69 might be taken as a statement of anti-hedonism: what is good hold universally for all people; what is pleasant does not. One might think that it follows that we must not identify pleasure with the good. There is certainly a contrast here between a pair of things which are supposed to be universal for all people – what is good and what is true – and something which is more variable – what is pleasant. In his discussion of the fragment Taylor draws some interesting parallels between this fragment and the more famous Democritean ‘reality’ v. ‘convention’ contrast in B9. [1] The idea, roughly sketched, is that just as we would be wrong to take the straightforward evidence of the senses as reason to think that things are in fact hot, cold, sweet, bitter and the like so we would be wrong to take what we find pleasant as straightforward evidence of what is good. Instead, the truth of the matter is that things are in reality atoms and void and to grasp this requires a degree of rational reflection in addition to, if not in contrast with, simple empirical observation.

Ought we to conclude that what we find pleasant is in fact misleading when it comes to thinking about the good just as what we perceive as hot might be misleading when it comes to thinking about reality most generally? Perhaps the analogue is this: the truth of the matter is that what is good should be grasped with a conception of the overall good of a life, which is a matter for rational reflection of some kind, and not driven solely by episodic perceptions of what is pleasant and what is not. Taylor, I think, is careful to note that the parallelism between the two trains of thought in B9 and B69 is not perfect and also makes this a point in Democritus’ favour; since he think Democritus’ overall epistemology eventually succumbs to a kind of self-refutation, it is better for Democritus if the ethical theory is not similarly vulnerable.

What is the precise import, in that case, of B69’s claim about what is pleasant? The first thing to notice, it seems to me, is that B69 is not after all incompatible with a full-blooded hedonist account of well-being; it merely asserts that, as things are, different people will differ in terms of whether they find some particular object pleasant. Take an example: Annie loves oysters and Bob hates them. This oyster is pleasant to Annie and not to Bob. But since Annie and Bob are both humans then there is one and the same good for both of them. All we are entitled to infer, I think, is that oysters are not the human good or, perhaps better, that the pleasure of eating oysters is not the human good. We are not entitled to infer that pleasure is not the human good. It may well still be the case that pleasure is the human good. But if that were so then Annie and Bob would perhaps pursue this human good by engaging in differing kinds of activities. Perhaps Bob loves chocolate and Annie does not. Nothing prevents us thinking that the pleasure Bob gets from chocolate is the same qua pleasure as that which Annie gets from oysters. In that case there is no reason to think that this pleasure – the one Annie gets from oysters and Bob from chocolate – cannot be the good.

There is still room for Democritus to say that there are some things we find pleasant but ought not to pursue but this too can be done on hedonist grounds. Perhaps Annie would be better acquiring a taste for chocolate since it is cheaper and more readily available. There are also other texts which make it attractive to distinguish between pleasure – hēdonē – and joy or enjoyment – terpsis – and it may be that Democritus did want to deny an identification of hēdonē with the good. But it is hard to make this distinction consistent with everything Democritus says. B191, for example, appears to call for a moderation of terpsis. But B69 does not by itself after all offer strong evidence that Democritus was not a hedonist.

[1] ‘Pleasure, knowledge, and sensation in Democritus’ Phronesis 12, 1967, 6–27 repr. in his Pleasure, mind and soul, Oxford, 2008.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Unreality TV

Charlie Brooker has made a Bigzombiebrother show to be shown soon on E4. It has a flash-y website here with lots of screaming and gunge.

For my money, Armando Ianucci's version of a reality show was at least as funny, even if it has fewer scenes of an undead Davina McCall. Here it is:

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Nifty gadget

This is an excellent add-on for your web-browser: the clever types at the Cambridge University Library have put together a toolbar for direct searching of all the catalogues and also some handy right-clicking action. Should save a few copy-pastes and keeping more windows open than I really need. Three cheers for them.

Monday, October 06, 2008

How to get a book deal

These days, one easy way is to do something extreme or bizarre, usually for a whole year, and then write about how it was challenging, absurd but overall a life-changing and positive experience. There are people who are living without using any plastic or someone who tried to live for a year following the commands of the Old Testament. The newest attempt is this bloke who is trying to live for a year as a perfect Kantian and was featured in today's guardian. Well, it turns out this just means that he is not going to lie for a year. (As RJR pointed out to me, Jim Carrey beat him to it, but hey ho. I don't suppose real life is quite so contrived and Immanuel would be the first to point out that being unable to lie and being determined not to lie are very different things.) Surely, though, it would have been more fun to do it properly and show what a weirdo a perfect Kantian agent would be if you tried to apply the whole business consistently and thoroughly?

Still, there ought to be a bit of mileage in this from the ancient philosophers. Trouble is, I don't have the resources of leisure or the extreme cognitive qualifications to cut the mustard as a top-notch Platonic or Aristotelian ideal agent. I could live in a barrel and do various shocking things to 'debase the currency' as a Cynic, but I don't think I could have a laptop to hand while I do it and be at all consistent. Ho hum. I don't buy the Stoic bunkum about a universal benevolent and immanent deity, so that's out too. Which leaves Epicureanism or the more crazy bits of ancient scepticism. Living as a Sextan Pyrrhonist for a year would make for a very boring book. You more or less do what you would do anyway, but just don't commit to any beliefs... It's supposed to be tranquil, but I'm not sure I buy that. Well, I suppose it would be a way of testing empirically Burnyeat's famous question, 'Can a sceptic live his scepticism?', but I can't see many publishers beating down my door for the end result.

So maybe that's not an option for me after all. What's left?


Some enterprising people in the Faculty have put together this promotional video for Classics at Cambridge. 

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Plus ça change...

1.  Our older daughter is still only 6 but has decided that she is a fan of McFly.  It could be worse, I suppose (she could be into R&B or some awful sub-genre of headache-inducing dumph dumph dumph dance music), but at this rate she'll be an emo by 9 and then by 12 have renounced all modern music and spend her time digging round ebay for rare vinyl.  Seems a bit accelerated to me, but then I'm old and grumpy.  And I think that nothing has been produced in popular music in the last 23 years that is better than The Smiths' The Queen is Dead.  (The Stone Roses' first album comes close, but is still a way behind.)


2. The kids at her school play StarWars in the playground (and still often say 'life-savers' rather than 'lightsabres') and the boys of 6 and 7 years old still want to be Luke Skywalker rather than Han Solo.  I wonder how old they will be before they see the light...