Goodbye and Hello

It has been quiet here of late! In the past five months, I have posted only thrice; and October was the first month in the history of the blog in which I did not so much as whisper my voice. I began suffering, in late July, from some nasty eye pain, which proved difficult to diagnose or to treat, and course work at the University of Oxford (where I have begun an MPhil program) has occupied much of my time. Yet I have missed my modest podium on the internet, where a small number of commenters might gather to critique my thoughts, and have been plotting my return.

So here is the plan. In an adventurous spirit, I am launching an entirely new blog, and hope you will follow me there. Centanium will remain online, but will no longer be updated.

Continue to the new site ›››

What the World Was in Desperate Need Of

Another gadget to distract us from our fellow human beings, of course. What all have longed for, Samsung has delivered—or will soon deliver.

But surely I am not the only one who thinks the idea of a smartphone-watch hybrid is silly. The basic problem seems to be this: Make the screen large enough, and the device is useful for apps—but will feel badly out of place on the wrist. Make the screen small enough, and it may feel natural on the wrist—but what will you use it for?

Another pitfall may be battery life. Ideally, it would be enough to get you through an unusually long day without recharging. Yet if the screen is always illuminated, will that be manageable?

The camera seems superfluous to me. Perhaps time will prove me wrong, but I cannot see many people taking pictures on a watch.

I’ll end on an annoyingly moralizing note: I think the success of the smartwatch might well be a bad thing for our culture. The smartphone already has many people living in the digital clouds. At least it has to be pulled out.

I Shall Return

I intend to resume blogging in the coming days. Unfortunately, my eyes have been giving me a little trouble of late, and are still healing. Wish me luck—and pray for the ill everywhere.

On the plus side, I have a new computer coming tomorrow, which should lift my spirits. The partisans of Linux will scoff; the devotees of Apple will growl (menacingly, and with their lattes grasped tightly in their hands); but it is a Dell XPS 18 running Windows 8. I intend to write an extremely balanced review, in which I predict that it will cure cancer, raise the dead, and usher in a thousand years of peace.

PS. On a completely unrelated note (I haven’t resumed blogging yet, so I reserve the right to ramble), element 115 may be coming soon to a periodic table near you.

PSS. Should I blog on this bit of silliness, or should I let it pass?

Lord Acton on History

“For History must be our deliverer not only from the undue influence of other times, but from the undue influence of our own, from the tyranny of environment and the pressure of the air we breathe. It requires all historic forces to produce their record and submit to judgment, and it promotes the faculty of resistance to contemporary surroundings by familiarity with other ages and other orbits of thought.” — Lord Acton

From Lectures on Modern History, ed. Figgis and Laurence (1906), 33.

The History of the Decline and Fall of Paradise

Edward Gibbon, Memoirs of My Life (Penguin Classics), 169:

It was on the day or rather the night of the 27th June 1787, between the hours of eleven and twelve, that I wrote the last lines of the last page in a summer-house in my garden. After laying down my pen, I took several turns in a berceau or covered walk of acacias which commands a prospect of the country, the lake and the mountains. The air was temperate, the sky was serene; the silver orb of the moon was reflected from the waters, and all Nature was silent.

Here is what remains of that pastoral scene. Nature may still be silent, but the roads I suspect are not.

On the wall of the post office, beneath and to the right of the Swisscom logo, is an unassuming plaque that marks the place where Gibbon once lived. It is illegible on Google Street View, but TripAdvisor has a better view of it. [‡]

I hear there is a Starbucks nearby. The barbarians have won.

[‡] But nota bene: Gibbon did not actually move into La Grotte until 1784 (not 1783).

Early Gubernatorial Election Maps

I have added a great many new ones to the archive, and will simply post the links:

Another Side of George Washington

In 1797, James Monroe published A View of the Conduct of the Executive of the United States, in which he attempted to justify his conduct as minister to France. George Washington obtained a copy of that volume, which he annotated. Some of his more pointed comments put a smile on my face:

In the month of May, 1794, I was invited by the President of the United States, through the Secretary of State, to accept the office of minister plenipotentiary to the French Republic. (iii)

GW: “After several attempts had failed to obtain a more eligable character.”

It had been too my fortune, in the course of my service, to differ from the administration upon many of our most important public measures. (iii)

GW: “Is this adduced as conclusive evidence, that the administration was in an error?”

That the administration had injured me, was a point upon which I had no doubt; that it had likewise compromised its own credit, and with it that of the United States, was also a truth equally obvious to my mind. (xxx)

GW: “But not so in either case to an impartial and discriminating mind.”

Upon mature reflection, therefore, it appeared that I had but one alternative, which was to remain where I was, and proceed in the functions of my office, notwithstanding the embarrassments to which I might be personally subjected, or to retire, and in retiring, to do it tranquilly, without explaining my motives for it; or by explaining them, denounce the administration to the public. . . . Besides, it seemed probable that my retreat at that moment, in either mode, might have some influence in inducing the French government to adopt a system of policy toward us, which it was equally my duty and my wish to prevent. I resolved, therefore, to stand firm at my post. . . . (xxx) [‡]

GW: “Curious and laughable to hear a man under his circumstances talking seriously in this stile, when his recall was a second death to him.”

But I own also that my reluctance was diminished by the knowledge that the administration possessed the treaty with England, whilst Colonel [David] Humphreys was in America, and the presumption thence arising, that this objection was weighed and overruled before his departure. (xxxii)

GW: “‘And he wrote to his father, ending with this line, I am my lovely Nevia ever thine.'” [‡]

The appearance of the treaty excited the general disgust of France against the American government, which was now diminished by the opposition which the American people made to the treaty. (xxxv-xxxvi)

GW: “Who were the contrivers of this disgust, and for what purposes was it excited? Let the French party in the United States, and the British debtors therein, answer the question.”

But it was my duty to answer this letter, which I did without a comment; for it was improper for me to censure, and useless to advise. (xlvi)

GW: “When a rational answer and good reason cannot be given, it is not unusual to be silent.”

It being known that, with other members of the Senate, I had opposed in many instances the measures of the administration, particularly in that of the mission of Mr. Morris to France, and of Mr. Jay to London; from the apprehension those missions would produce, in our foreign relations, precisely the ill effect they did produce. (lx-lxi)

GW: “Unpardonable to appoint these men to office, although of acknowledged first-rate abilities, when they were of different political sentiments from Mr. Monroe, whose judgment, one would presume, must be infallible.”

Whether the nature of this crisis contributed in any degree to influence our measures, by repelling us from France and attracting us towards England, is submitted for others to determine. (lxiii)

GW: “As he has such a happy knack at determining, he ought not to have let this opportunity escape him.”

What would have been the condition of these States had France been conquered, and the coalesced powers triumphed, it is easy to perceive. (lxiii)

GW: “In turn, what will be the consequences of France overturning so many governments? and making partition of so many countries? One, it is supposed, is right—the other, wrong; from the actors in the Drama.”

And I now declare, that I am of opinion, if we stood firmly upon that ground, there is no service within the power of this republic to render, that it would not render us, and upon the slightest intimation. (123)

GW: “That is to say, if we would not press them to do us justice, but have yielded to their violations, they would have aided us in every measure which would have cost them—nothing.”

[‡] This quotation is not in Ford’s edition. It is supplied by The Papers of George Washington: Retirement Series, vol. 2, ed. Dorothy Twohig.

[‡] This annotation, and the quotation that precedes it, are absent from Ford. See the previous note for the source.

Generation Gap in Ancient Rome

“At home things were calm; magistrates had the same titles; the young had been born after the victory at Actium, and even most of the elderly during the civil wars. How many remained, who had seen the republic?” [‡]

From Tacitus, Annals 1.3.

[‡] Latin: Domi res tranquillae, eadem magistratuum vocabula; iuniores post Actiacam victoriam, etiam senes plerique inter bella civium nati: quotus quisque reliquus qui rem publicam vidisset?

Libertarian Free Will and Physical Determinism

Gene Callahan, in a comments thread at La Bocca della Verità, insists that science can tell us nothing even about the existence of libertarian free will. Responding to me, he writes:

No, libertarian free will has no connection to scientific determinism: science is an abstraction FROM the real world.

But suppose we discover (or think we discover) that the brain and body behave in a perfectly deterministic manner. [1] What would it mean for libertarian free will to exist in such a world? Libertarian free will, remember, posits that the self is (at least in certain circumstances) an “unmoved mover.” [2]

We all agree that, in ordinary cases, the motions of the body are correlated with decisions of the will. Someone who wants to reconcile physical determinism with libertarian free will thus has to bite the bullet and say that (a) we make free decisions, in the libertarian sense; (b) these decisions have no impact on the body, which is a clump of particles obeying macroscopically deterministic mathematical laws; and (c) by a remarkable coincidence, these decisions happen to be correlated almost perfectly with the motions of the body.

[1] Deterministic, that is, at the macroscopic level. This is in no way dependent on a deterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics.

[2] Libertarian free will obviously requires more than physical indeterminism. But the latter seems to be a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for the former.