Thursday, April 21, 2011

Truth and Falsehood

"Let [Truth] and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse in a free and open encounter?"
- John Milton, Areopagitica

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Perhaps the most civilised man who ever lived

That's how someone once described Cicero. I'm reading Anthony Everitt's superb biography of Cicero. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

R H Coase: 100 not out

Ronald H. Coase turned 100 last December. He's one of my favourite scholars because his ideas are both simple and profound at the same time, and because of his ability to express them with elegance and clarity. I also admire his intellectual courage: virtually all his ideas, which are now so widely accepted by his peers, began as intellectual heresies. Some 20 of the famous Chicago School of Economics, including Director, Friedman and Stigler, invited Coase to Chicago to discuss one of these ideas, which has come to be known as The Coase Theorem. Stigler recounts what happened:

We strongly objected to this heresy. Milton Friedman did most of the talking, as usual. He also did much of the thinking, as usual. In the course of two hours of argument the vote went from twenty against and one for Coase to twenty-one for Coase.
And despite his advanced age, Coase is still at it. He has a new book coming out later this year entitled How China Became Capitalist. In a fascinating interview with his coauthor Ning Wang, Coase discusses some of the ideas in the new book - and much else besides.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Fit for the King

The 400th anniversary of the King James Version (KJV) version of the Bible is being celebrated this year. Lawrence M. Vance has written an excellent background article on it. The King James Bible Trust, whose patron is Prince Charles, was formed specially to commemorate it. And Christopher Hitchens' latest Vanity Fair column is devoted to it.

The title page of the first edition reads like this (I've modernised the spellings and punctuation):


Containing the Old Testament,

Newly Translated out of the Original
tongues: & with the former Translations
diligently compared and revised, by his
Majesty's Special Commandment.

Appointed to be read in Churches.

Imprinted at London by Robert
Barker, Printer to the King's
most Excellent Majesty.

ANNO DOM. 1611.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Write-down Comedy

I recently happened to be reading, at random, some pages from The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand (her best work of fiction, in my opinion) and I found some myself chuckling at some rather good jokes. Now, we don't think of Ayn Rand as a funny writer (of the ha-ha variety, I mean). Philosophical, combative, polemical, controversial, even implacable perhaps, but never funny. And yet she was. Here are a few jokes from Chapter 3 ("Gail Wynand"), randomly selected of course, in keeping with the random motif:
  • The Banner was permitted to strain truth, taste and credibility, but not its readers' brain power.
  • When a newspaperman received an invitation to call on Wynand, he took it as an insult to his journalistic integrity, but he came to the appointment. He came, prepared to deliver a set of offensive conditions on which he would accept the job, if at all. Wynand began the interview by stating the salary he would pay. Then he added: "You might wish, of course, to discuss other conditions--" and seeing the swallowing movement in the man's throat, concluded: "No? Fine. Report to me on Monday."
  • The succession of his mistresses was so rapid that it ceased to be gossip. It was said that he never enjoyed a woman unless he had bought her--and that she had to be the kind who could not be bought.

Real Power

Yesterday, the 16th of April 2011, was the 48th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail. It contains some of Dr. King's most memorable words:
  • Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
  • Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.
  • I wish you had commended the Negro sit-inners and demonstrators of Birmingham for their sublime courage, their willingness to suffer and their amazing discipline in the midst of great provocation. One day the South will recognize its real heroes. [...] There will be the old, oppressed, battered Negro women, symbolized in a seventy-two-year-old woman in Montgomery, Alabama, who rose up with a sense of dignity and with her people decided not to ride segregated buses, and who responded with ungrammatical profundity to one who inquired about her weariness: "My feets is tired, but my soul is at rest."
  • Never before have I written so long a letter. I'm afraid it is much too long to take your precious time. I can assure you that it would have been much shorter if I had been writing from a comfortable desk, but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?

    If I have said anything in this letter that overstates the truth and indicates an unreasonable impatience, I beg you to forgive me. If I have said anything that understates the truth and indicates my having a patience that allows me to settle for anything less than brotherhood, I beg God to forgive me.
But today something struck me in response to the following passage that I'd never thought about before:
  • I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity.
Here's the thought: Just as we often mistakenly ascribe to time power that it does not really possess, so we unwittingly surrender power that we really do.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

The indomitable spirit

You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.
- Maya Angelou

Monday, April 11, 2011

Jamie's Classroom

For anyone interested in teaching and learning, Jamie's Oliver's new TV show is fascinating. Robert Winston, in particular, is good, very good. I think the secret, if secret it be, is really just one thing: passion.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

The Spirit of the Western

Imagine you're a Hollywood studio executive.

A director walks in with a pitch, his eyes delirious with excitement. A western, he says. A cartoon. No, not 3D. Just Johnny Depp and a host of other unlikely lads and lasses to play the characters. The lead character being...a chameleon. Family friendly, good for both the kids and the parents. But not condescending or patronising to either audience.

As the tottering pile of improbables mounts, your mind reaches the inescapable conclusion: Impossible.

And quite right, too. Except, somehow, Gore Verbinski and his merry men (sorry, merry persons) have contrived to do just that and created the best movie I've seen this year: Rango.