Monday, 31 December 2007


I leave you this fine evening with an essay by Michael Tomasky.

Twenty Years Ago

12-31-87 We arrived in Detroit [at the Greyhound bus terminal] at 2:17 A.M. I recall bringing Keith Basherian [1958-1982] here in 1980 and 1981, but it was not part of my bus trip [from Tucson to Vassar and back] in 1987. The place was clean, and because of the early hour, not many people were moving around. Eli [Miller] and I found seats and settled back to rest. The bus to Saginaw was scheduled to leave at 7:30, more than five hours later. I tried to sleep, but it was near impossible with the hard plastic seats, lights, and hum of noise. Besides, I was still excited about going home. At six o’clock, with Eli asleep across from me, I heard an announcement about a bus leaving for Clare, Michigan. I recall looking at Eli’s ticket and assuming that he would be going north through Saginaw, with me. But the announcement piqued my curiosity, so I decided to check Eli’s ticket and ask the driver. Sure enough, Eli was supposed to be on that bus. With other passengers watching, I ran across the terminal, awoke Eli, and helped him carry his luggage to the bus. I explained that he was supposed to be on this bus rather than the 7:30 bus to Saginaw. He accepted everything I said on faith. As we parted, I shook his hand and gave him a big hug. He looked at me with those glassy eyes and thanked me.

That ended my friendship with Eli. Like other friends, he came into my life, touched it, shaped it, and left. But I got his address and promised to write. Our religious differences aside, we agree on many things. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to him and spending time with him. By eight o’clock I had boarded the bus to Saginaw. It wouldn’t be long now, I thought. I settled back to sleep. But in Pontiac a tall, blonde woman sat next to me. That ended any chance for sleep, because she was talkative and friendly. As it turns out, she’s forty years old, divorced, and has two adult children. An old hippie herself, her son is a conservative. This troubles her, but, as I explained, it’s only natural for children to rebel against the values, ideals, and attitudes of their parents. Since she was a pot-smoking, laid-back parent, the son naturally became authoritative [sic; should be “authoritarian”] and conservative. This seemed to interest her. We went on to discuss sexism, rock music, obscenity, parents generally, and colleges. She has enrolled in college to earn a degree. I hated to leave her in Saginaw, she was so funny and interesting.

As expected, Mom and Jerry were waiting for me. It was ten o’clock on Thursday morning, New Year’s Eve. They had Jared with them. Fortunately, the roads were clear of snow and ice. I greeted them with hugs and handshakes and we had a nice ride home, stopping in Vassar for cider. A funny thing happened while Mom and I were in the store (Uncle Ray’s). Earlier, on the bus, I had discussed obscenity with the blonde woman. She asked me what the “seven dirty words” were (the words that the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has ruled cannot be uttered on television), so I jotted them on my newspaper: “shit”, “piss”, “fuck”, “cunt”, “cocksucker”, “motherfucker”, and “tits”. We noticed that the list itself is sexist; it contains two references (“cunt” and “tits”) to the female anatomy, but none to the male anatomy. Two (“shit” and “piss”) are terms for excrement, one (“fuck”) the name of an action, and the others (“cocksucker” and “motherfucker”) hostile epithets. When Mom and I came out of the store, Jerry held up the paper and asked “What’s this all about?”. I died laughing. Can you imagine what he must have been thinking? When I explained it, he was even more amused.

Bush-Hatin’ Paul

Paul Krugman* says that on economics, there is “no common ground” between the Democrat Party and the Republican Party. That’s the way it should be. Come November 2008, Americans will decide whether they want a Nanny State or a Nightwatchman State.

* “Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults” (Daniel Okrent, “13 Things I Meant to Write About but Never Did,” The New York Times, 22 May 2005).


Here is an essay about Jacques Barzun, who is twice my age and still going strong.

Thomas Nagel on Censorship

Willingness to permit the expression of bigotry and stupidity, and to denounce or ignore it without censoring it, is the only appropriate expression of the enlightened conviction that the proper ground of belief is reason and evidence rather than dogmatic acceptance.

I find it a personal affront to be protected from the expression of such claims by others—thinking as a person with a mind of my own. But it is also an affront that the state should have the power to silence anyone—and therefore to silence me, if I were to start spouting equally contemptible nonsense. The censorship of a fanatical bigot is an offense to us all.

The same can be said about the pressures to control racially offensive and sexist expression in the United States. And here again I am not just talking about the more ridiculous excesses of political correctness, but about the prohibition of hard-core, intentional expressions of hostility. The situation where those who hold such opinions or attitudes are prevented from expressing them publicly seems to me extremely unhealthy, with its suggestion that the opposite, right-thinking view is a dogma that cannot survive challenge, and cannot be justified on ordinary rational and evidential grounds. The status of blacks and women can only be damaged by this kind of protection.

(Thomas Nagel, “Personal Rights and Public Space,” Philosophy & Public Affairs 24 [spring 1995]: 83-107, at 98-9)


James Drake sent a link to a Wall Street Journal column in which Plato is mentioned. I linked to it on my departmental blog.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Your article “At 60% of Total, Texas is Bucking Execution Trend” (front page, Dec. 26) states, “The rate at which Texas sentences people to death is not especially high given its murder rate.”

One of the prime arguments in favor of the death sentence, in my understanding, is its deterrent effect. The Texas experience clearly refutes that argument.

Nicholas Downey
Brooklyn, Dec. 26, 2007

Note from KBJ: The letter writer’s logic escapes me. Recent studies show that each judicial killing saves several innocent lives. Indeed, that the state of New York isn’t killing murderers may yet cost Nicholas Downey his life. Perhaps he should move to Texas. As for deterrence being an argument for capital punishment, let me say this: Deterrence is a bonus. We Texans kill murderers because they deserve to die, and justice consists in giving each person his or her due. If, in killing murderers, we save innocent lives, so much the better.

Note 2 from KBJ: Is the letter writer suggesting that, in order for capital punishment to deter, the murder rate must be zero? That’s preposterous. By that standard, public education is a failure if even one student can’t read. Not everyone is deterrable, just as not everyone is educable. But some are. Deterrence is for those who are deterrable; education is for those who are educable. Let’s call this the “If it doesn’t deter everyone, then it doesn’t deter anyone” fallacy. Maybe the letter writer is implying that the murder rate should fall rather than remain constant if capital punishment deters. That, too, is idiotic. The question is not what happens to the murder rate over time, but what the murder rate would be without capital punishment. If it would be higher than it is, then capital punishment deters. Let me illustrate. Suppose that, without capital punishment, the number of murders in Texas each year is 1,000, 1,000, and 1,000. Suppose that, with capital punishment, the number of murders in Texas each year is 800, 800, and 800. Is the letter writer suggesting that, since 800 murders are committed each year, there is no deterrent effect? By hypothesis, there is a deterrent effect. We have 200 fewer murders each year than we would have without capital punishment!

Note 3 from KBJ: Suppose, for the sake of argument, that (1) the only basis for capital punishment is deterrence and (2) the studies are inconclusive concerning the deterrent effect of capital punishment. We must make a decision under conditions of uncertainty. Follow my reasoning. Either capital punishment deters or it doesn’t. Suppose capital punishment deters. If we kill murderers, we save innocent lives. If we don’t kill murderers, we lose the chance to save innocent lives. In that case, it’s best to kill murderers. Suppose capital punishment does not deter. Then no innocent lives are saved no matter what we do. The decision to kill murderers dominates the decision not to kill them.

Note 4 from KBJ: It would be nice to have a two-by-two box diagram for this. On the left of the diagram, from top to bottom, it would read “Kill Murderers” and “Don’t Kill Murderers.” Across the top of the diagram, from left to right, it would read “Capital Punishment Deters” and “Capital Punishment Does Not Deter.” In box 1 (the northwest box), it says “Innocent Lives Saved.” In box 2 (the northeast box), it says “No Innocent Lives Saved.” In box 3 (the southwest box), it says “Innocent Lives Lost.” In box 4 (the southeast box), it says “No Innocent Lives Saved.” Thanks in advance to anyone who prepares such a diagram for me.

A Year Ago


The Fever

I watched the 17th of 156 Twilight Zone episodes yesterday evening. It aired originally on 29 January 1960, when I was two years old. I must have seen it in rerun, because I remember some of the scenes. It’s about a middle-aged couple from Kansas—Franklin and Flora Gibbs—who end up in Las Vegas as a result of the wife’s winning a contest. Franklin thinks gambling is immoral and stupid, but when an overbearing drunk forces him to put a dollar into a slot machine, which wins 10 dollars, he gets the fever. He spends the evening and following morning gambling, writing check after check for dollar coins to put into the machine. He slowly loses his mind. He thinks the machine is taunting him. When he puts his final dollar in, the machine’s arm won’t go down. Outraged, he pushes the machine over, calling it a monster and other bad names. Security guards escort him out of the casino. When he goes back to his room, not having slept for 24 hours, he tells his wife that the machine is coming after him. As he backs away from it, he falls out the window to his death. As he lies there on the pavement, the machine rolls up and spits out a dollar. Does anyone remember this episode? I enjoyed it.

The Year in Sports

I had a safe, successful, and enjoyable 2007 as far as running and bicycling go. I ran 160 days for a total of 527.33 miles. That’s an average of 3.29 miles per run. The shortest run of the year was 3.1 miles; the longest was 8.21 miles. (I ran two races back to back on 1 December: a two-miler and a 10K. I counted it as one race.) I rode my bike 25 times (all in rallies), for a total of 1,583.6 miles. That’s an average of 63.3 miles per ride. The shortest ride was 40.6 miles; the longest was 102.7 miles. All told, I engaged in 185 aerobic activities in 365 days, which is about one activity every other day. Think of it this way: Every two weeks, I ran six times and rode my bike once. I hope you had as good a year athletically as I did. If not, there’s always 2008!

Best of the Web Today


Sunday, 30 December 2007


I hope the title of this column is a rhetorical question. If it isn’t, we’re in big trouble.

Twenty Years Ago

12-30-87 Wednesday. Until last night, I hadn’t given much thought to my plans for the remainder of the week. I simply assumed that David [Schmidtz] and I would find other accommodations and spend our time sightseeing. But last night, David called Leigh Bernstein, a friend of his and an acquaintance of mine, and arranged to stay there for a few days. Her parents were also in town, so there wasn’t room for me. I took the news calmly, but all of a sudden I was worried. I had less than two hundred dollars to last four days and did not particularly want to be alone in the big city. Without David to share hotel expenses, it would be hard for me to make it until Saturday, when our airplane was scheduled to leave. So after David left for his morning interviews, I showered, packed my things, and left the hotel, leaving David a note and my hotel “key” (it wasn’t really a key; it was a piece of plastic, like a credit card). My plan was to find a cheaper hotel near LaGuardia airport, and in the process get off the island of Manhattan.

It was bitter cold outside. After making a few inquiries, I found a bus service to the airport, paid six dollars, and waited in a hotel lobby. Oddly enough, I was the only person on the bus. The driver, a middle-aged black man, struck up a conversation with me. He was particularly interested in Arizona—the weather, the topology, and the people. It sounded like he was planning for his retirement. As we neared the airport, I asked him about hotels. He pointed out a couple and told me which, in his opinion, was likely to be cheapest. I tried to give him a dollar when I got off, but he refused to take it. “You’re a student”, he said. It was that simple; I knew exactly what he meant. I put it in my pocket and thanked him. See? Not everyone in New York City is a money-grubbing, rude person. I was genuinely touched by this man. Perhaps he, too, was touched, because I treated him with respect and did my best to answer his questions about Arizona.

At some point during the bus ride, or shortly after I got off, it occurred to me that I might be able to leave for Tucson early. It would pose no problem for David, who had his own airplane ticket, and it would save me lots of money. I decided to ask. Sure enough, I was placed on standby for the next plane leaving LaGuardia for Pittsburgh. I was told that I would get a seat only if no ticketed passenger wanted it. Moreover, I would be on the same standby basis in Pittsburgh. But as far as I was concerned, the closer I got to Tucson, the better. If nothing else, hotels were bound to be cheaper in Pittsburgh than in New York City. During my wait, in a freezing, crowded US Air terminal, I saw Charles Griswold, one of the two interviewers from Howard University. We chatted for a few minutes. Griswold told me that, as far as he could see, he would be contacting me again. That’s good news. At least someone was positively influenced by my interviews.

This must be my lucky day. The plane was substantially overbooked, which means that some passengers with tickets were denied a seat. I occupied an even worse status; I had no ticket for this flight. But after half an hour of dickering with the passengers, offering them alternative flights and cash discounts, there was one seat remaining. I happened to be standing there, so I asked if [sic; should be “whether”] I could have it. The flight attendant told me to come aboard, with my luggage, so I did. I had, literally, the last seat on the plane. It was in the back. My companion on the flight was a young black man from Oregon, Floyd Jackson. I learned during our conversation that he’s a practicing psychiatrist. And get this: He did his residency and internship at Harvard and Yale. To top it off, he was a member of the 1984 United States Olympic team—in bicycling. I noticed that he was reading a newsletter on triathlons, so I inquired about whether he participates in them. He does. And he was a polite person to boot. This is a perfect example of how people should not be judged by their appearance. Here was a mild-mannered, ordinary-looking person who happened to be both intelligent and athletic. I enjoyed the conversation.

The flight to Pittsburgh took only an hour or so. When it appeared that I would have to spend the night there, I decided to call Mom and let her know of my revised plans. She asked if [sic] I could catch a flight into Detroit and visit her and Jerry for a few days. I tried this, but to no avail. Finally, after walking a mile to a Wendy’s restaurant for dinner (it was a clear, cold day in Pittsburgh), I called Mom again. This time she suggested a Greyhound bus ride. I had time on my hands and wanted to come home, so I called the bus terminal and made arrangements for a ride from Pittsburgh to Saginaw (for sixty-two dollars). An hour later I was in downtown Pittsburgh, waiting for the bus. Until today, I had a bad impression of Pittsburgh. I thought it was cold, dirty, and rundown. But what I saw this evening has changed my mind. The downtown area is beautiful. A large river flows through it (actually, three rivers, but I saw only one) and the banks rise majestically on each side. The place was amply lit. I saw riverboats docked on the side and plenty of fancy stores and restaurants. I’d like to see this place in the daytime.

When I got in line for the bus, I saw a short, old man in front of me. He looked Amish, and I later learned that he was. I asked him if [sic] he would watch my luggage while I made a telephone call. He said that he would. I called Mom, then returned to my place in line. “Thanks for watching my luggage”, I said. “Thank you for trusting me”, he replied. That cemented our relationship. I introduced myself, learned that his name was Eli J. Miller and that he was from Port Trevorton, Pennsylvania, and shook his hand. Eli was headed for northern Michigan to visit friends, so it appeared that we would be together for several hours. We sat together on the bus. The odd thing about Eli is that he has repudiated his Amish roots. He now calls himself a “Christian”. He thinks that the Amish have gone astray and have distanced themselves from God. One of the first questions he asked me is whether I am a Christian. “No”, I said; “I’m an agnostic”. This caused a look of consternation on his face, but it didn’t seem to affect our relationship. We became friends instantly.

As the bus rumbled along, we talked about the Amish religion, the difference between agnosticism and atheism, the relation between religion and morality, and certain doctrines that Eli holds. Eli, as I say, was dressed in traditional Amish clothing: denim jeans and overcoat, heavy boots, and a black, flat-rimmed hat. He had a long, gray beard and moist, sad eyes. But Eli was a proud man. He raised ten children, some of whom are Amish and some of whom are “just Christian”, has a wife, and is seventy years old. He lives a simple life in Pennsylvania. He plows his fields with a horse, heats his house with a wood stove, and eats basic foods. He seems to be in good shape, physically, and has an active and fertile mind. I loved our discussions. In Cleveland, where we had a twenty-minute stopover, we used the bathroom and ate. I treated Eli to a chicken sandwich and orange juice. Rather than thank me directly, Eli said that the Lord had blessed him by my presence. He prayed before each meal. When we reboarded, I leaned back in my seat to rest. It had been a long and volatile day, but I was pleased with the outcome.

Lewis and Clark

Turn that football game off! Learn some history. See here and here for a 1950 dramatization of the Lewis and Clark expedition. Pay attention, because there will be a test afterward.


Blitz, clothesline, chop block
Holding, offside, stiff-arming
Iowa caucus