Tuesday, 29 April 2008

From the Mailbag


Here is a neat little philosophical conundrum for you. A desktop dictionary gives the following definitions of “uncle” and “aunt.”

Definitions [A]
(1) the brother of one’s father or mother
(2) the husband of one’s aunt
(1) the sister of one’s mother or father
(2) the wife of one’s uncle

The sequence of terms in “father or mother” versus “mother or father” is different in the two definitions, but since the conjunction “or” is commutative, the meaning is unaffected. And let’s also ignore the question of whether to use “the” or “a.”

What is interesting is that these two definitions interlock with and depend on each other. (Is there a technical term for this?) One subset of what an uncle and aunt are is given by alternative (2) in each definition, according to which an uncle and aunt are any husband and wife of each other. So are Prince Charles and Camilla my uncle and aunt? They seem to fit the definition (meaning (2) in each case), although I don’t see where the term “one’s” attaches to.

In my opinion, definitions [A] are defective. A proper wording would be

Definitions [B]
(1) the brother of one’s father or mother
(2) the husband of one’s aunt (in sense 1 of “aunt”)
(1) the sister of one’s mother or father
(2) the wife of one’s uncle (in sense 1 of “uncle”)

Expanded, this becomes

Definitions [C]
(1) the brother of one’s father or mother
(2) the husband of the sister of one’s mother or father
(1) the sister of one’s mother or father
(2) the wife of the brother of one’s father or mother

I do not know whether it is only my desktop dictionary that defines “uncle” and “aunt” in the incoherent way of definitions [A].

Maybe other languages—or genealogists—have distinctive wordings for senses (1) and (2) of “uncle” and “aunt.”

Mark Spahn (West Seneca, NY)

Note from KBJ: Interesting missive, Mark. There are, as these definitions show (however imperfectly), two types of uncle and two types of aunt, and I can see why someone would say that there is a morally relevant difference between the types. My mother, for example, has one brother and eight sisters, all of whom (except the sister who died in infancy) have married. I thus have (or have had) many uncles. But only one of them—my mother’s brother—is related to me by blood. Whether that should matter to me is debatable. In fact, it does. Does it matter to anyone else?

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr on Capital Punishment

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, applicable to the States through the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, see Robinson v. California, 370 U. S. 660, 666 (1962), provides that “[e]xcessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” We begin with the principle, settled by Gregg, that capital punishment is constitutional. See 428 U. S., at 177 (joint opinion of Stewart, Powell, and STEVENS, JJ.). It necessarily follows that there must be a means of carrying it out. Some risk of pain is inherent in any method of execution—no matter how humane—if only from the prospect of error in following the required procedure. It is clear, then, that the Constitution does not demand the avoidance of all risk of pain in carrying out executions.

(John G. Roberts Jr, Baze v. Rees, 553 U. S. ___ [2008] [brackets in original])


If this isn’t the best album ever made, then Ozzy Osbourne isn’t God.

Addendum: Check out the opening guitar licks of “The Ultimate Sin” and “Never Know Why.” They are headbangers’ delights.

Monday, 28 April 2008


Here is a paragraph from my journal, dated 12 March 1979:

Gasoline is constantly increasing in cost: 68.9¢ now; about a year ago, 56.9¢. About all I can do to overcome the price is to always drive gas-efficient vehicles and avoid extraneous outings.

I added the following comment 20 years later (on 12 March 1999):

The price for regular unleaded gasoline—the cheapest grade—is now 91.9¢ per gallon at my local Texaco station. I have seen it as high as $1.20 per gallon during the past twenty years.

I’m more surprised by the price nine years ago than I am by the price 29 years ago.

Bush-Hatin’ Paul

Paul Krugman¹ describes President Bush as “deeply unpopular.” Did President Bush become “deeply unpopular” before or after his second election as president? There is no doubt in my mind that if President Bush could run for a third term, he would defeat either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.


¹“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 a scene from yesterday’s 94th Liège-Bastogne-Liège (in Belgium).

A Year Ago



The United States Supreme Court (by a 6-3 vote) has just upheld Indiana’s voter-identification statute against a constitutional challenge. It is mind-boggling how anyone could oppose such a law, when there are so many illegal aliens running around. I hope other states follow Indiana’s lead.

Addendum: Here is the New York Times story.


Stanley Fish has forgotten Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Evidently, it’s only the smearing of progressives that troubles him.

Addendum: Fish’s protest against linking Barack Obama to William Ayers suggests that, at some level, he understands just how important the issue is to the American people. We do not want our presidents associating with unrepentant terrorists.

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Education is by far the most important, and most ignored, domestic issue facing America.

It is not merely an issue of class and race but reaches across all races and classes, and involves the American ideal of adolescence itself.

Starting with the invention of “teenagers” in the 1950s, America has created a youth culture so devoted to hedonism that all except our most elite public and private high schools have become a global joke.

Everyone interested in America’s future should see the documentary “Two Million Minutes,” which contrasts the way American teenagers spend their precious high school minutes with the way their Chinese and Indian contemporaries are forced by their parents and society to work hard to master difficult mathematical and scientific skills.

When Indians highly educated in science and math take our information-technology industry away from us the way China has taken away our manufacturing, what will America produce then—clones of Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus?

Fred White
Baltimore, April 22, 2008

Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) on Rationalist Morality

The morality of the Rationalist is the morality of the self-conscious pursuit of moral ideals, and the appropriate form of moral education is by precept, by the presentation and explanation of moral principles. This is presented as a higher morality (the morality of the free man: there is no end to the clap-trap) than that of habit, the unselfconscious following of a tradition of moral behaviour; but, in fact, it is merely morality reduced to a technique, to be acquired by training in an ideology rather than an education in behaviour. In morality, as in everything else, the Rationalist aims to begin by getting rid of inherited nescience and then to fill the blank nothingness of an open mind with the items of certain knowledge which he abstracts from his personal experience, and which he believes to be approved by the common ‘reason’ of mankind.

(Michael Oakeshott, “Rationalism in Politics,” in his Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, new and expanded ed. [Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1991], 5-42, at 40 [footnote omitted] [essay first published in 1947])


Steve Walsh sent a link to this story about United States Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who is the bane of progressive law professors. They hate that he is law-abiding. To them, law is just politics.

Sunday, 27 April 2008


Yesterday, in German-themed Muenster, Texas, I did my fourth bike rally of the year and my 425th overall. For the fourth Saturday in a row, the weather was gorgeous. Yes, it was windy, but you come to expect that in North Texas at this time of year. The main thing is that it was warm and sunny. I love sunshine. (Five years in Tucson spoiled me.) The wind shifted from the south to the north overnight, which meant it was less humid than usual. I made it to Muenster in plenty of time for the 11:00 start. I found my home boys in short order and rolled to the starting line with them. There were thousands of people lined up on Muenster’s main street. The sidewalks were lined with spectators. I’ll post an image or two soon, perhaps this evening.

Joe had a flat within the first three miles. One of those old-fashioned square nails went through his rear tire, puncturing his tube. Phil, Randy, and I wanted to repay Joe for the many times he’s ridden away from us, but, being morally better than he is, we stopped to wait for him (and even to help him). I do not exaggerate when I say that well over a thousand cyclists went past us as we stood in the grass next to the road. I joked that we would pass many of them back, and we did. Once we got going again, we flew. It was great fun, riding through the rustic pastures and forests of North Texas with my home boys. Up and over the hills we climbed, first into Rosston and then into Forestburg. We stopped at a rest stop about 30 miles in.

By this time, we had a headwind, but it wasn’t as bad as I feared. I felt strong as a bull and did a lot of work at the front. I wasn’t showing off; I just like being on the front. If nothing else, it minimizes the likelihood of accidents. I also find that when I’m at the front, I get to set the pace. Sometimes it’s hard to follow another rider’s pace, especially when it’s an erratic rider like Joe, Phil, or Randy. We stopped again in Bulcher, which is near the Texas-Oklahoma border. Just as we were about to depart, Phil decided that he had to use the porta-potty. Tack on another 10 minutes for negligence brought on by senility. The final stretch, into Muenster, is always hard, even when there’s a tailwind. There are many small hills and some false flats. I thought we would have a tailwind during this stretch, but it was a crosswind. The four of us stayed together the rest of the way (okay, until the final mile, when all hell broke loose) and chatted at our vehicles before heading out onto the highway. I stopped in Gainesville for bean burritos. I listened to three of my CDs yesterday: Pat Metheny’s Travels (1983) (second CD), Golden Earring’s Moontan (1973), and Led Zeppelin III (1970). Let’s just say that there was some serious rockin’ goin’ on in North Texas yesterday.

Statistically, I rode 18.8 miles the first hour (tailwind), 17.4 the second (crosswind and headwind), and 16.4 the third (headwind). I averaged only 14.85 miles per hour during the final 29:53 of the ride, by which time I was getting tired. I ended up with 17.15 miles per hour for 60.0 miles, which makes this my fastest Muenster rally since 1995. My fastest ever was 21.22 miles per hour, in 1991. I have no idea how I did that. Then again, I was much younger. (Did I ever tell you that youth is wasted on the young?) My maximum speed yesterday was 44.7 miles per hour; my maximum heart rate was 161; my average heart rate was 132; and I burned 2,299 calories. I don’t count it as a windy day in my log unless the average wind speed is 10 miles per hour or more at DFW Airport. Yesterday it was 8.6 miles per hour. So while it was windy, it wasn’t very windy. Believe me, I’ve seen worse.

My average speed has increased on every ride I’ve done this year. (I’ve been on the bike eight times.) Each week, I get stronger. If I play my cards right, they’ll be offering me a ride in the Tour de France this July. Whether I accept it depends on (1) how much money they offer me and (2) whether I am the team leader. By the way, I woke up this morning with influenza (or at least flu symptoms), even though I had a flu shot in December. Go figure.

Addendum: Here is Pat Metheny’s “Extradition.” Here is Golden Earring’s “Are You Receiving Me.” Here is Led Zeppelin’s “That’s the Way.”

Addendum 2: Here are the six home boys (from the left: Joe, Randy, Mike, Phil, KBJ, Mark) at the start. Mike and Mark rode shorter courses. Joe’s taco-fish shirt is rumored to be 30 years old. He washes it every fourth time he wears it, whether it needs it or not. Note that Randy is already tired. You probably noticed that I’m not wearing cycling gloves. I’ve never worn cycling gloves. Cycling gloves are for wimps. Here is Randy breaking the law. While we were replacing Joe’s punctured tube, Randy walked over to the fence to urinate. What a scofflaw! I should have made a citizen’s arrest for urinating in public. Thank God he didn’t have to go number two. Here is our first (of two) rest stops, between Forestburg and Saint Jo. That’s Phil in the center, wearing the Texas Wheels jersey. Phil is the oldest home boy, and he rides like it.

Twenty Years Ago

4-27-88 . . . The hapless Baltimore Orioles are 0-20. It’s hard to believe. You’d think they’d win a game by accident, for God’s sake. The Os can break the major-league record for consecutive losses at the beginning of a season with a loss tomorrow. Go Orioles! [The Orioles lost 21 games in a row.]


I paid $3.459 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline at a Shell station along Interstate 35 yesterday (near Denton, Texas). What’re y’all payin’?