Saturday, June 30, 2007

New China Labor Law

China enacts new labor law to quell unrest. Here's the basics of the law
The law, enacted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress over the objections of foreign investors, requires employers to provide written contracts to their workers, restricts the use of temporary laborers and helps give more employees long-term job security.

The law, which is to take effect in 2008, also enhances the role of the Communist Party’s monopoly union and allows collective bargaining for wages and benefits.
Notice who is fighting against workers rights in china? Is it the evil gerontocracy, the old party bureaucrats behind the Tiananmen massacre? Nope, its the big multinationals, including no doubt, the people who make all your cheap plastic crap. Their motivation is the same as it always is, and the threat they lorded over the CCP is the same.
Companies argued that the rules would substantially increase labor costs and reduce flexibility, and some foreign businesses warned that they would have little choice but to move their operations out of China if the provisions were enacted.
I really hate the term "flexible labor force." Fortunately, the NYT gives us a sense of what this term really means.
Passage of the measure came shortly after officials and the state news media unearthed the widespread use of slave labor in as many as 8,000 brick kilns and small coal mines in Shanxi and Henan Provinces. It was one of the most glaring labor scandals since China began adopting market-style economic policies a quarter century ago.

The police have freed nearly 600 workers, many of them teenagers, held against their will in factories owned or operated by well-connected businesspeople and local officials.
As the article points out, the new law won't do any good unless it is enforced. China has lots of good laws on the books about the environment and labor, but no one pays any attention to them. Also, none of this is a substitute for the ability to form independent unions. Right now the only union allowed in China is run by the communist party, and it refuses to engage in any collective bargaining, doesn't allow strikes, and doesn't help individual workers with grievances.

Friday, June 29, 2007

two infinite games

Falling sand game


Living with war

I'm living with war in my heart every day

I was thinking about the Clash song "Something about England" as I walked to the grocery store today. The short version of the song: Mick asks about the persistent xenophobia of the English. Joe, in the persona of an old homeless man, responds by giving a history of the 20th century from the point of view of class, ending like this.
But how could we know when I was young
All the changes that were to come?
All the photos in the wallets on the battlefield
And now the terror of the scientific sun
There was masters an' servants an' servants an' dogs
They taught you how to touch your cap
But through strikes an' famine an' war an' peace
England never closed this gap
The thing that strikes me the most about the song was that if you lived in England in those times, history happened to you. The US is at war, but history is not happening to a lot of us. History is not happening to me. But it is happening to a lot of other people.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Choosing a school

Periodic commenter Bridgett points us to the Ruffing School, a Montessori school one town over from where we are moving. Caroline has been going to a Montessori school for 3-6 year olds, and we've liked it a lot. But is Montessori education good for the bigger kids? One of Maria Montessori's slogans was "follow the child." As Molly put it, "does that work for algebra? You can't wait for the child to express an interest in algebra." So here are some notes on Montessori education for bigger kids.

The middle school at Ruffing has two levels, one for sixth graders and one for seventh and eighth graders. (The latter I guess follows Montessori's philosophy of multi-age classrooms.) Wikipedia says Montessori schools generally don't assign homework, but this school clearly does. Heck, Caroline has even been given some homework. They also have separate teachers for Spanish, band and gym, which is a good sign. The school has been around since 1957 and teaching middle school since 1977, which is also a good sign. Looking for a certain amount of longevity in your alternative educational institution rules out the freakier places. Ruffing doesn't have much else on line, and this is not so good. "Montessori" isn't governed by copyright, trademark, and there seems to be a lot of variation in the movement. In particular, I can't find any information about the training of the teachers who work there.

As I understand it, the centerpiece of Montessori education is giving children a large block of time to explore at their own direction a prepared environment filled with activities that allow the children to learn concepts or skills. This explains the conversations I had with Caroline picking her up from school. Generally, when I asked her what she did at school that day, she would say "activities."

"Well what activities"

"Oh, just activities."

Later I was able to figure out that "activities" included something called "nuts and bolts" and something called "braiding." At the end of this year, Caroline came back with a "name tracing" book, in which she had traced her name a couple dozen times. We were told this is quite an accomplishment. This page emphasizes that the materials for the activities are self correcting. The child can perceive the problem without being corrected by the teacher, and thus is drawn into solving it on her own.

So will this work with a 12 year old learning algebra? Well, there was this fascinating study in Science which took advantage of a nice experiment in nature. A school district in Milwaukee servicing mostly poor and minority students had some Montessori schools and some regular schools. Since more people wanted to go to the Montessori schools than they could handle, students were admitted by lottery. So we have effectively a randomized trail. Students who applied to the Montessori schools but didn't get in are the control group; the students who did get in are the experimental group. Notice that both groups have already been selected to have parents that take an active interest in the kids education.

Results: the Montessori schools did better. They did better on academic skills, and a lot better on interpersonal skills. At age 5, children were told stories about kids behaving badly and were far more likely (43% versus 18%) to discuss these using concepts of justice and fairness. More fundamentally, the Montessori kids did better at tests of their concept of other minds. Eighty percent of the kids passed a test where they had to recognize that another person had a false belief. The kids from the other schools performed at chance level (50%).

But what about the older kids? Well for the 12 year olds studied, the academic advantage disappears. Kids in both groups performed similarly on basic skills. The Montessori kids, though still performed better on community and social skills, and also, interestingly, used more sophisticated sentence structures and creative stories.

The charts for the science article are below. Note, though the strong and somewhat misleading graphic rhetoric of the charts. They converted all the test scores to a single measure (z) where 0 is the statistical mean for each test, and then represented the scores using thick bars to represent deviation from the mean. Thus even if the Montessori kids are only scoring slightly better than the regular kids, they are still represented by a bright line going up rather than down.

Also note that the chart for the 12 year olds simply omits the data where the two groups were comparable.

The first graph has 16 data points, and the second has 8. Tufte would claim that you shouldn't even use a graph here, just a chart.

I'm going to have to return to this later. Here is a collection of links to empirical research.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Popular Confucianism in China

The Economist (masthead slogan: "Oooh, look at me, I read The Economist") has a short article about the rise in popularity in China things like of books and T.V. shows that explain Confucianism. Yu Dan, for instance, seems to be a combination of Oprah Winfrey and Mencius, with more emphasis on the Oprah part. Yu Dan is presenting the public with a kinder, gentler Confucius, which I imagine is a lot like the Confucius I have been getting from the New Confucians coming to the institute at the East West Center.

The second article I linked, from Danwi, to is kind to Yu Dan. The Economist, that bastion of Western liberalism, is more careful to bring up the drawbacks to Confucianism, especially for the CCP, which has been attempting to use Confucian loyalty to shore up power.
But Stephen Angle, a Fulbright scholar at Peking University and a philosophy professor at Wesleyan University in America, argues that Confucianism may not be as useful to the party as it thinks. For a start it has little to say about one of the party's biggest worries, the tension in urban-rural relations. More important, a gap in Confucian political theory should alarm a government seeking to hold on to power in a fast-changing environment. “One big problem with Confucianism”, says Mr Angle, “is that it offers no good model for political transition, except revolution.”
Confucianism offers essentially three checks on the power of rulers. First there is the moral suasion of the texts themselves. Second, if the ru, the scholar-officials, sense that the Emperor is taking the wrong path they are obligated to remonstrate with him. After that there is not much you can do until the Emperor gets so bad, so heinous, that he no longer counts as the emperor, and a "rectification of names" can take place, where the title of emperor is violently removed from an impostor and put on a worthy. One of my co-participants in the seminar, a Chinese immigrant, summarized the problem with the propagandists for the kinder, gentler Confucius quite nicely: "The thing is, in the end, we know this system simply didn't work."

new moving map

Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

ok, this is my new moving map, with the bikability of some roads marked and the correct location of the schools and bus stops.

Monday, June 25, 2007

moving map

moving map
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

So this is a map of the area we are moving to. The milk jug and apple is a Trader Joe's that has a regular farmer's market out front. The purple thumbtack is a Montessori school. The dollar sign is my workplace, and the houses are places for sale we are considering.

Molly, do I have all the locations right? When you said there was a bus every hour, did you mean a bus along Detroit Rd?

[This post is really just aimed at my immediate family.]

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Battlestar Paper Part III

Here is the third and final part of the rough draft of my Battlestar Paper. Part 1 is here, part 2, here. This is all fairly light in terms of what is possible with philosophy and popular culture. I'll have a review out soon of this book, which will get deeper.

“Are You Alive?”: The Half-life of the Unjust as Seen in Boethius and BSG

The first line spoken in the reenvisioned BSG is “Are you alive?” The question is unsettling: it is asked by a robot (a Six) to a human being (a Colonial officer sent to meet with the Cylons at the remote Armistice Station.) Clearly if anyone is not alive here, it is the robot, right? Yet the Six is asking this question of a human, and when he, tremblingly, says, “Yes,” she says “Prove it,” and gives him a long open-mouth kiss, as two centurions look on stoically, their eyes going “wrrrrom wrrrrom,” before the whole station is annihilated in a Cylon attack. This opening scene is mirrored in the episode “You Can’t Go Home Again,” when Starbuck, marooned on a planet without oxygen, finds a Cylon raider that has crashed. Opening a hatch, she finds living tissue underneath. Realizing that the spacecraft has no pilot, but is itself a robot, Starbuck whispers with wonder, “Are you alive?”

The Cylons and the humans have difficulty recognizing each other as alive. They don’t fail to recognize each other as organisms of some kind. They each see that the other can bleed. But they don’t recognize the other as a living person. This brings out another important theme in Western philosophy, the question of what it means to be a person. This issue touches both on ethics, which as we’ve seen is the study of right and wrong, and metaphysics. Metaphysics is the study of existence, what existence is, and what sort of things can be properly said to exist. When humans and Cylons fail to recognize each other as persons, they are making an ethical decision, because they are saying they don’t have ethical duties to the other side. It is also a metaphysical decision, because they are putting limits around a category of reality. Reality contains persons, but it also contains some other things like look like persons but aren’t really, because they’re robots. (Or, if you are a Cylon, because they are not robots.)

One philosopher who took seriously the connection between ethics and metaphysics in understanding the idea of a person was the Roman philosopher and theologian Boethius. Boethius was a senator, and proud of his Greco-Roman heritage. But he was also a Christian, a monotheist who believed the world was a product of an all-loving, all-powerful, and all-knowing God. A major project for him was reconciling the wisdom of Greek philosophers like Plato with Christian teachings. Boethius also was in a position to think seriously about the nature of a tyrant. The Roman Empire had essentially collapsed and broken in half. The western half, where he lived, was ruled by a barbarian, the Ostrogoth Theodoric. Theodoric persecuted Boethius, believing him to be a traitor. At the time Boethius wrote his greatest book, The Consolations of Philosophy(3), he was under house arrest, waiting to be executed. The opening problem for that work is “how could a just God allow this to happen? Why do I suffer while a tyrant like Theodoric prospers?” Boethius’s answer looks to his Greek heritage, to Plato and his treatment of the tyrant. Boethius accepts Plato’s psychological vision, and raises it to a metaphysical level. The evil person, for Boethius, is not only enslaved, he isn’t even really human. In fact, he hardly exists at all. Thus an explanation of God’s ways to man: the tyrant does not really prosper. In fact, at the moment that Theodoric’s thugs break into Boethius’s house and club him to death, Boethius is better off than Theodoric.

Boethius begins this remarkable argument by agreeing with Plato that a villain like Baltar or Theodoric has no real power, even with they hold an office like President of the Twelve Colonies or King of the Goths and Italy. Boethius’s focus is on happiness. He argues, like Aristotle (384–322 BCE) that the goal of life for all people is to be happy. Why does Baltar sleep with every woman he can? Because he thinks it will make him happy. But happiness is also identical with goodness. Things that seem to bring you happiness, like wealth, power, fame, or pleasure, will only hurt you in the end without goodness, for all of the reasons we saw with Plato’s tyrant. Baltar’s lusts only bring him misery, because he pursues them so dishonestly. True pleasure, and thus true happiness, can only be obtained in honest relationships, the sort of friendships Plato shows the tyrant can never have. But now wait, power is the ability to get what you want. People want to be happy, and men like Baltar are simply not happy. Therefore they have no real power. Thus Boethius writes, “They fail in their quest for the supreme crown of reality, for the wretched creatures do not succeed in attaining the outcome for which alone they struggle day and night” (75).

This much is in Plato, but Boethius goes farther. The evil person isn’t even really human. The Colonial officer Armistice Station may be right to say he is alive. The Cylon raider may be alive in the way a smart horse or dog is alive. But Baltar isn’t really alive, not in the sense of being a living person and not as long as he continues his path of deception. How could this be? Human nature, according to Boethius, is to be good. We were all meant to be reunited with God. But evil men fail to realize this nature. “What follows from this,” Boethius says “is that you cannot regard as a man one who is disfigured by vices” (78).

Now here’s the weird part. Evil people in fact cease to exist altogether. Something ceases to exist if it looses its nature. Think about a Viper that gets blown apart by a Cylon missile. After the explosion, something still exists. Wreckage is flying everywhere. But the Viper doesn’t exist anymore, because no one can use it to do what a Viper does, fly around and shoot things. The Viper, in being blown apart, has lost its nature. But a person who has fallen into injustice has also lost her nature. She is no longer achieving the ends of a person, just as the wreckage of the Viper no longer serves the purpose of the viper. Thus evil people cease to exist. As Boethius says, “You could say a corpse is a dead man, but you would not call it a man pure and simple; in the same way, I grant that corrupt men are wicked, but I refuse to admit that they exist in an absolute sense” (76). And thus we have a lovely justification of God’s ways to man. In fact, God did not create a world where the unjust tyrants rule while good men suffer. Quite the opposite. He created a world where the unjust fade away while the just achieve their true nature.

I think it is pretty clear that Plato’s conception of the tyrant is present in the characterization of Baltar on BSG, but can we go farther, and say that Boethius’s radical claims are also present in the show? Well, I doubt that any of the writers have read Boethius (although they may have read Plato) or were thinking at this level of abstraction. But whatever the writers’ intent, the show winds up displaying Boethian themes. Evil in the world of BSG is not a simple dark force opposed to the noble warriors of goodness. Evil men like Baltar are clearly weak and pitiable and the nature of humanity itself is questioned. Who is alive, the humans or the Cylons? A lot of questions remain unanswered in the series, but I think we will find in the fourth and final season that humans and Cylons prove they are alive by acting justly. Remember how Six asked the Colonial officer to prove he was alive: she kissed him. If Boethius is right, it is though love that we show that we are alive. The gods lift up those who lift each other up.


(3) In this essay I will use the Oxford World Classics edition of this text. P.G. Walsh, trans. 1999. Boethius: The Consolations of Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Numbers in parentheses after quotations refer to page numbers in this edition.

Update: advice and edits are no longer needed. I've gone through it all with the editors.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

My Battlestar Paper, Part 2

Here is the second part of my paper "What a strange little man": Baltar and the Image of the Tyrant, for a volume meant to introduce total novices to philosophy through the show Battlestar Galactica. Part 1 is here.

“I Don't Have to Listen. I'm the President”: The Weakness of the Tyrant as seen in Plato and Baltar

Plato’s most famous description of the life of the tyrant comes in his book The Republic,(1) a sprawling masterpiece that is meant to answer the question “why be just?” but on the way develops sophisticated theories about the nature of knowledge, art, and existence itself. The crux of Plato’s answer to the question “Why be just” is that the soul of the unjust person is out of balance. His soul is ruled by its crudest desires, and stifles any part of itself that is capable of perceiving what is best in the world. The culmination of this argument is Plato’s description of the tyrannical man, a person whose soul is like a city governed by mad dictator. The picture he paints winds up looking a lot like Gaius Baltar. The interesting thing is that right now Plato is only talking about a man whose soul, internally, is like a tyrannized city. Plato further imagines the disaster that would ensue if a person with a tyrannized soul actually became the tyrant of a city, externalizing the injustice in his breast. The resulting picture approaches Baltar’s presidency.

If you asked an average fan why Baltar is the bad guy, they would probably say because he betrayed his people to genocidal robots (a practice most ethicists frown on.) Plato would have you look at his soul. He begins by asking us to think of the part of ourselves that comes out when we sleep, the part that makes you have dreams of doing things that appall you when you wake up and remember them. This part of us, Plato says, “doesn’t shrink from trying to have sex with a mother, as it supposes, or with anyone else at all, whether man, god or beast. It will commit any foul murder, and there is no food it refuses to eat. In short it omits no act of folly or shamelessness” (571d). When you are asleep, this part of your mind gets its way, with horrifying results. Now imagine someone who lets this part of their mind rule their waking life. (Perhaps you don’t have to imagine too hard.) When you first meet this person, you might think they are a free spirit, because they do what they want when they want, but really they are enslaved, because every other aspect of their self has been subordinated to the task of satisfying whatever desire has bubbled to the surface currently.

When Plato needs to give a name to the part of the soul that rules in the tyrannical man, he calls it lust. This is a strange move. The soul is full of desires that can get us in trouble, desires for money, fame, power, drugs, even food. Like lust, these are not bad in themselves, but are ruinous if you let them run your life. Plato probably picks on lust merely because he is not a fan of the body and its biological functions, and lust is very much a bodily sin, unlike the desire for fame, and makes a better candidate for the ruin of tyrants than the other cardinal sin of the body, gluttony.

Odd though it is, Plato’s choice of lust to be the tyrant of the soul of the tyrannical man fits Baltar to a T. Baltar’s sexual exploits are the root of most of his problems, beginning with selling out the human race to the sultry Cylon Caprica Six. For the rest of the series, he is played like a fiddle by a mysterious image of Six which only he can see. She wears preposterously revealing outfits, leans on his shoulder, whispers in his ear, and gets him to advance the Cylon agenda, chiefly though his candidacy for president. But it is not just the Sixes who keep Baltar under their spell. We know he was sleeping with at least one other woman during his first affair with Caprica Six, because in the opening miniseries we see Caprica catch them together. (Baltar does a spectacularly poor job of talking his way out of it.)

According to Plato, once the soul of the tyrannical man comes to be dominated by lust, all sorts of other vices follow, and low and behold we see these in Baltar as well. Lust is not alone in his soul: it rules over a swarm of other desires, all of which must be sated, at great cost. Thus, the man with the tyrannized soul becomes a liar and a thief to satisfy all these wants. Baltar, to appease his inner Six, lies and says that he needs a nuclear weapon to make a Cylon detection device. Later after he falls under the spell of another Six he has rescued from torture, he has the nuclear weapon smuggled to her, which she promptly uses to destroy a colonial ship, the Cloud Nine, signaling the human’s location to the Cylons. But again, it is not only lust for Six that drives Baltar to lie. He also refuses to reveal that Boomer is a Cylon, out of simple fear of what she will do if he does.
But most importantly, Plato says the man with the tyrannized soul will become a traitor. If he is an ordinary man with no one else to betray, he will betray his parents. “he’d sacrifice his long loved and irreplaceable mother for a recently acquired girlfriend he can do without…for the sake of a replaceable boyfriend in the bloom of youth, he’d strike his aged and irreplaceable father, his oldest friend” (574b). If the man with the tyrannized soul has more power, he will betray his city: “he’ll now chastise his fatherland, if he can, by bringing in new friends and making the fatherland, and his dear old motherland (as the Cretans call it) their slaves” (575d). And, we can add, if he is a scientist in charge of the interplanetary defense mainframe, he will let space robots annihilate his species.

The man with a tyrannized soul is also a coward: “what about fear? Aren’t the tyrannical city and man full of it?” (178a). Baltar lies to Boomer about the results of her Cylon test because he simply can’t face her. More importantly, every lie Baltar tells gives him a new reason for fear. He has a standing fear that Roslin will discover that he has betrayed the human race. As soon as he is president, he has to order Adama to stop the investigation into the destruction of Cloud Nine, because he knows it will lead back to him. Strikingly, Baltar’s cowardice is very much driven by his self centeredness. In the miniseries, when he realizes he has let the Cylons infiltrate the Colonial defense mainframe, his first response is to be afraid for himself: what if people find out I was involved with this? Once it is clear that the whole planet is under attack, his only thought is a trembling “How can I get out of this? How can I save my own personal hide?”

One of the saddest facts about a person with a tyrannized soul is that he never has any friends, only allies or enemies. “If he happens to need anything from other people, isn’t he willing to fawn on them and make every gesture of friendship, as if he were dealing with his own family? But once he gets what he wants, don’t they become strangers again?...someone with a tyrannical nature lives his whole life without being friends with anyone, always master to one man or a slave to another.” Baltar certainly lives this way. The only person he has a relationship with is his internal image of Six, and even she is using him, his master, really. Once president, he takes with a pair of statuesque women, but they never even speak on camera, appearing to the viewer more as concubines than partners. Felix Gaeta works as his assistant, but only because he has to. Baltar clearly has a lonely existence.
Simply put, Baltar is not empowered by his perfidy. We think that life would be easier if we could just lie to people, rather than tell them the ugly truth that they are a murderous robot, but really each lie makes our own lives worse. (Baltar should have followed the wisdom attributed to Mark Twain: “Always tell the truth, that way you don't have to remember anything.”) Baltar isn’t made happy for pursuing his desires, either. He simply spends his energy and is left wanting more. Thus Plato says “The tyrant soul also must of necessity always be poor and unsatisfiable” (578a).

But there are worse things that can happen to a man than for him simply to act badly. He can act badly and get away with it. “I do not think we have reached the extreme of wretchedness,” Plato says after describing the man with the tyrannized soul. More wretched still is “the one who is tyrannical, but doesn’t live a private life, because some misfortune provides him with the opportunity to become an actual tyrant” (578c). If the man with the tyrannized soul succeeds in remaking the world after his own inner darkness, there is nothing to hold back his misery. If there is no social order, the tyrant will be so afraid of being killed by his own slaves that he will pander to them constantly. He lives “like a woman, confined to his own house” (759c). The tyrant may have thought he was acquiring power by ascending to the top of the social heap, but once there, he finds his only option in life is to work to stay there.

Similarly, Baltar thinks he gets power when he becomes president. In “Lay Down Your Burdens, part II,” when Adama tells him he isn’t listening to the evidence of an internal threat that led to the destruction of Cloud 9, he replies “I don't have to listen. I'm the President.” And as I already mentioned, as soon as he gets into office, he surrounds himself with beautiful female advisors who don’t seem to be chosen for their political acumen. But by the next season, we find that Baltar has to listen to everyone. He must pander constantly to the Cylons and if he didn’t fear an assassination attempt from his assistant Gaeta, he should have, because Gaeta tried. And like Plato’s tyrant, Baltar can’t go out in public like a normal person, for instance to the graduation ceremonies for the New Caprica Police, for fear of being attacked. Baltar’s success is entirely illusory. Thus, as Plato says, “the real tyrant is really a slave, compelled to engage in the worst kind of fawning, slavery and pandering to the worst kind of people” (579e).

There is one aspect of Baltar that does not fit Plato’s image of the tyrant, and that his is durability, a trait noted on a couple occasions by the people in a position to know him best. The first thing Baltar’s inner Six says to him, when she initially appears to him in the Miniseries is, “You know what I love about you Gaius? You’re a survivor.” The fact that they are on a raptor shuttle fleeing the genocide is testament to the truth of her statement. In the season three episode “Torn,” Gaeta explained his take-home lesson from working as an underling for the most hated surviving human: “If there was o¬ne thing I learned about Baltar, it was his extraordinary capacity for self-preservation.” Again, events in the show back the evaluation of Baltar: Gaeta was predicting that Baltar had been plotting a path to Earth to save his own hide, and low and behold, he was.

Plato doesn’t mention the idea of the tyrant as survivor, but I think this is a point where the BSG characterization is richer than Plato’s. The philosopher Julia Annas complained in her book An Introduction to Plato’s Republic(2) that the tyrant Plato portrays in The Republic is not particularly realistic, because there is no way such a madman could stay in power very long. The fact is, though, that such people do manage to seize and hold power, Baltar’s namesake Gaius “Calligula” Caesar is a classic example. Some reports out of North Korea make Kim Jung Il fit this model. The portrayal of Baltar in BSG at least gives us some hints about how this is possible. Baltar’s fearful and self-obsessed nature means he always has an escape plan.

1 Plato. c350 BCE/1997. The Republic. In Plato: The Complete Works, edited by J. Cooper and D. S. Hutchinson. Indianappolis: Hackett. Following academic convention, I will refer to all passages from The Republic by their “Stephanus number”, an odd looking combination of numbers and letters which actually refers to the original position of the passage in a complete edition of Plato published way back in 1578 by the Renaissance humanist Henri “Stephanus” Estienne.

2 Julia Annas. 1981. An Introduction to Plato’s Republic Oxford: Oxford University Press

Friday, June 22, 2007

My Battlestar Paper, Part 1

One of the things I have to do while I am here is finish the first draft my Battlestar paper. For no particular reason, I've decided to post the sections of it as I finish them. Below is the intro "teaser" section. Comments welcome. [Updated to fix typos]

What a Strange Little Man: Baltar and the Image of the Tyrant

A Tale of Two Baltars: From Chair Swiveling to Prayers and Sniveling.

Baltar spent most of the original series of Battlestar Galactica sitting in a huge chair atop a 20 foot pedestal, in an otherwise empty, circular room aboard a Cylon base star, which he commanded. He was lit primarily from below—indeed, he seems to have chosen to keep a flood light between his knees. In “Gun on Ice Planet Zero,” when his subordinate Lucifer enters, he is facing the blank back wall, and turns his chair slowly around to address them. The set is preposterous: how does he command a military operation from up there? What if someone needed to show him a map? What does he do on that perch when not addressing his henchmen? Is his day filled by pressing the fingertips of his two hands together and laughing maniacally?

Actually, questions like those are misguided. The writers of the original BSG hired the late character actor John Colicos to play a classic melodramatic villain, a type he had played with great brio before on countless TV shows like Star Trek and Mission Impossible. Melodramatic villains don’t need to make too much sense: their purpose is to thrill the audience with their image of power and freedom from petty conventional morality. (Think Ming the Merciless.) In “Gun on Ice Planet Zero,” Baltar ruthlessly runs his troops into the ground in order to convince Adama that he has more power than he actually does. This image of power and freedom can actually lead the audience to identify more with the villain than the putative hero of the story. This happens especially in slasher movies, where monsters like Freddy Krueger or the Firefly family in House of 1000 Corpses and Devil’s Rejects become the real focus of the narrative.

Now consider Gaius Baltar in the reenvisioned Battlestar Galactica episode “Final Cut.” Although he has been given the first name of the infamous roman emperor more commonly known as Caligula, this Baltar does not look like he should be issuing cruel commands from a high throne. He’s dawdling in a corridor of the Galactica hoping to be noticed by reporter D’anna Biers, who has just finished interviewing a crewperson, Anastasia “Dee” Dualla, for a special on life on Galactica. Baltar’s pride is wounded because Biers hasn’t asked to interview him, but it would be beneath him to ask for an interview, so he has to pretend to just be milling around. Meanwhile, he is being goaded and manipulated by hallucinations of Six—the hypersexual Cylon woman whom he helped to sabotage the Colonial defense computers, leading to the near total genocide of his own people. The hallucinatory Six often tries to wheedle Baltar into advancing the Cylon agenda or embracing the Cylon god. This time she wants him to do the interview with Biers, presumably because his political career is useful to the Cylons. When Biers finally approaches him, he acts like he doesn’t know her and says he has to talk to his aids to check his schedule. (As far as the audience has seen, he only has one assistant, Mr. Gaeta, a bridge officer assigned to help him by Commander Adama.) After he parts awkwardly from the scene, D’anna remarks to Dee “What a strange little man.” This Baltar is hardly likely to impress audiences with his dark power. He is still the great Judas figure, the man who betrayed the human race. But he is also cowardly, vain, easily manipulated, and a prisoner of his passions.

The change in the portrayal of Baltar—apparently initiated by actor James Callis and picked up by the writers—isn’t just a clever bit of television. It represents a deep philosophical difference in the way evil is conceived. Ethics has always been a central concern of philosophy, no matter where or when it has been practiced. Ethics is the study not of how things are, but of how they should be, typically with a focus on the right thing to do or the right kind of person to be. Western philosophy has been particularly concerned with the question “Why should I do the morally right thing?” After all, don’t nice guys finish last? The Western religions try to answer this question by holding out the promise of heavenly reward, but even then the annoying tendency of nice guys to finish last poses a problem: why would an all powerful, all knowing and all loving God allow the unjust to prosper and the good to suffer?

One of the first answers put forward by philosophers in the Western tradition is that the lives of evil people are only superficially desirable. They accrue the trappings of power, but have weak souls, pinched by misery. You may think that the bad guy is the old Baltar, an imposing figure who swivels his chair to the camera to deliver his pitiless orders, but really he is the new Baltar, a sniveling coward who would prostrate himself in prayer before a strange god just to appease the ghost of an old girlfriend. Two thinkers who pursued this tactic of reenvisioning the villain as less enviable are the ancient Greek philosopher Plato (427-347 BCE) and a Roman philosopher with a big long name, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c.480–c.524 CE), generally just known as Boethius. For Plato, this point is crucial for justification for being moral; for Boethius, the explanation of God’s ways to man. Both were particularly focused on the image of the tyrant: a powerful person who gets what he wants, and who wants a lot. Both wanted you to see that the tyrant is not someone we want to be, and in fact, the more apparent power they have, the less we should envy them.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

"Irony's the refuge of the educated"

Slate has a bunch of testimonials on the passing of Richard Rorty. Most are kind and vague. "Rorty was a pragmatist. if you liked Dewey, you'd have loved Rorty. He will be missed." Simon Blackburn actually plays the philosopher and offers some disagreement. ("Friends are dear, truth is dearer still") He hits the two points that bugged me most about Rorty, the claim that the word "reality" serves no purpose, and the insistence that we look ironically on our own ethical beliefs.
An earlier generation of pragmatists eventually discovered that reality has its uses, but I think Rorty never followed them.

Rorty did not draw the naive conclusion that everything is relative, or that everything is illusion or mirage or social construction. Those ideas buy into the same worship of truth as realists do, but lament our inability to get at it. The right response is to abandon the whole dialectic: to skip free, inventively, creatively (fold Nietzsche into the mix as well), and always aware of the provisional nature of any saying, always with an ironic detachment to the businesses of living. It is an attractive vision, up to a point, but almost designed to irritate serious investigators, or those whose welfare depends upon their activities. You do not want the folderol, hey-nonny-nonny tendency in charge of the crime squad when you are under unjust suspicion of being the murderer.
Whenever I hear Ian scream "Irony's the refuge of the educated/always complaining but they never quit/" I think of Rorty.

In the meantime, I'm in graduate school again! I am sitting alone in a small room eating vending machine food for dinner and not making progress on the paper I am trying to write!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Happy Second Birthday, Joseph Hinshaw

Joey at SYR airport
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Kids these days

The U Hawai'i college radio station is playing an amazing mash up of Henry Mancini "Streets of San Francisco" and the Jackson Five "Blame it on the Boogie." Music today is so exciting, and I feel so left out of it sometimes. Maybe there will be a good college station in Elyria, or maybe we'll finally set things up so it is easy to listen to web radio around the house.


The NEH institute just watched Shower, a sentimental movie about a modern, Westernized man who returns to his father's traditional bathhouse and rediscovers the true community of his roots before it is demolished to make room for a new development. It is a movie you've seen a lot before, with pubs or barber shops playing the role of the bathhouse. The regulars are eccentric and lovable, and the proprietor is good and solving problems and healing relationships. The movie was well done, though, and in the context of modernizing China, a fairly bold political statement. The ending is especially nice, because it manages to avoid a lot of the easier resolutions.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Man Must Conquer Nature: 人定胜天

Man Must Conquer Nature: Ren Ding Sheng Tian
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

The tourist material at the Three Gorges Dam--the parks, monuments, and signage--are filled with the sort of pro-industry rhetoric one associates with the Mao era. I didn't realize how much of an atavism the place was, though, until I saw this sign, at Scenic Spot 82, which repeats one of Mao's slogans most profoundly associated with the environmental destruction of that era: "Man must conquer nature." The sign itself offered a slightly different translation:


Judith Shapiro makes a lot of this kind of rhetoric in Mao's War Against Nature. The slogan is even more hubristic in the original, because the word for "nature" is actually 天, which is more commonly translated "heaven, as I discuss below.

In fact, with this slogan, Mao announced his domination over reality itself, much like the anonymous Bush administration official who derided the "reality based community"

Really, I'm just doing this to see if I can post Chinese characters

天人合一: Tian ren heyi.

The standard translation of this ancient saying is "Harmony between man and heaven," however a lot of people, including our institute leader Roger Ames, have major problems translating the first character, 天, as "heaven." Roger describes this as a tragic mistake first made by early Jesuit missionaries to China who were imposing Christian ideas on Confucian philosophy. Nevertheless, there a pretty straightforward reason for using translating 天 as "heaven": 天 both means "sky" and refers to an important cosmological principle in Chinese thought. Roger thinks this surface similarity is seriously misleading, because 天 is not at all transcendent. 天 did not create the world, it is coconstituted with it.

The imminent nature of 天 has actually lead some people to use "nature" as a translation. According to Robert Weller, early Chinese translations of Darwin actually referred to "天 selection" for natural selection. This would make 天人合一a strong environmentalist slogan: "harmony between man and nature." Roger resists this in his translation of the 中庸on the grounds that 天 is not separate from human action. Of course, viewing humans as a part of nature is a perfectly good environmental and Darwinist stance. In any case, according to Weller, ziran (自然)has been the standard translation for "nature" since the 1920s. "Mother nature" is translated "da ziran" (大自然), "great nature."

Now I'm in Hawaii

I get back from China and only have a week to spend with my family before I am on the road again. Now I'm in Hawaii at an NEH summer institute on Chinese history and philosophy. I've got a lot of stuff I need to accomplish here. Right now, though, I just want to blog the opening lecture, to process it for myself and because some people have mentioned that they liked conference blogging.

So the head of the show here is Roger Ames, a leading scholar of Confucian thought, head of the East West center, editor of Philosophy East and West, etc. One of the central conceptions of all his work is that Chinese philosophy, and Chinese culture in general, is radically alien to the west in ways we can learn from. On one level, I appreciate this a lot. I've seen other talks, mostly by analytic philosophers, who seek to "legitimate" Chinese thought by trying to show that it is just like modern western thought. "Look, here's an argument for consequentialism that looks just like one in Mill." The problem with this mode of legitimation of any alien tradition is that it immediately makes whatever it "legitimates" completely boring. I always want to know "what can this culture offer me that is new.

Ames's work runs into the reverse problem: an exaggerated, sometimes pointless exoticizing. A lot of that was on display in his lecture this morning. The talk wasn't always well organized. He began by saying he was going to present a philosophical argument, but about halfway through, he said "I guess we won't get to my thesis until tomorrow." I can basically parse what he said into three sections, though: (1) a general argument for studying Chinese culture today, (2) a basic framework for understanding language as a force that shapes culture (3) a bunch of really big claims about how Chinese culture and language is different than Indo-European culture and language. I'm basically on board with him until (3).

The motivation for (1) is the fact that everyone talks about today when they talk about China: the explosion of growth. Ames framed this discussion with the question "what does China want?" which I pretty much loathe. I mean, feminists have finally managed to get people to stop saying "what do women want?" You think we'd be able to drop attributions of intention for similarly large groups.

He did well with the annoying framing question, though. We saw some of the usual stories of colossal growth: in the 80s there were no skyscrapers in Shanghai, now there 58 billion skyscrapers, etc. We also saw the statistics on the downside of growth that I have grown familiar with. Six thousand people die a year in mining accidents.* Sixteen of the 20 most polluted cities on Earth are in China. By the government's own admission, there are 76,000 riots over land expropriation a year.

The question Ames asked was basically: what do the Chinese hope to buy with this growth. He was emphatic to assert that the Chinese do not want to become America, and said this specifically in reference to American liberal democracy. [Hey, you know who I'd really like to see become an American style liberal democracy? America.] What China wants from this growth is expressed in the traditional Chinese slogan "hexie shehui": harmonious society.

So far so good. So how do we understand the cultural differences between China and the US? Ames's orientation came out in his point (2): a culture's attitudes, right down to popular understandings of ontology and ethics, are encoded in ordinary language. I'm ok with this, if it is taken more in the sense of Orwell in "Politics and the English Language" than in some radical Sapir-Warf way. Ames discussed how this has both syntactic and semantic elements. The grammar of a language encodes a logic and a metaphysic, and here he quotes Nietzsche approvingly. Important categories like person come out in the semantics of a language.

Ok, so far so good. But finally we get a sequence of claims about what makes the Chinese language unique, and I find a lot of these to actually be kinda empty. For instance, Ames places a great deal of emphasis on the idea that the Chinese have a process metaphysics. Everyone there is really A.N. Whitehead. As a result, Chinese philosophical terms should be translated with gerunds. We don't have human beings, but human becommings. We shouldn't talk of virtuous character, but virtuosity in action. I worry that this is a distinction without a difference. I recall in graduate school hearing about "feature placing languages," languages which instead of talking about objects would describe features taking place in the world. "Oh, there is some telephoning going on by the restrooms." The thing is, these gerunds play the same role in the language games as nouns. Whether you order tofu or a process of tofuing, the same thing comes to your table. So what's the big deal? (Waiter, I distinctly ordered undetached rabbit parts!)

Ok, so I had questions at the end of the talk that I didn't get to ask, so I'm posting them here.

1. You draw some comparisons between Confucian ethics and care ethics, specifically with regard to the emphasis on family and the relational notion of the self. Does this mean that the problems that care ethics faces transfer over to Confucianism? Specially, I'm thinking of the need for an ethic of strangers and the problem of justice in the family. The need for an ethic of strangers is fairly straightforward. Care ethics says I should be partial to my own family. But do we even need an ethic to do this? I don't need philosophy to tell me to love my children. I do need ethicists to teach me to love the children of strangers far away though, because they are deserving of care, yet I have no inclination to care for them. Isn't it really going to be impartial reason that helps me see that children far away are just like my own? The need for justice within the family is even more troublesome for care ethics. Care ethics is supposed to be feminist. It is supposed to challenge the patriarchy. But if we are simply standing by our families, we have no grounds to challenge their patriarchal structure. Really, it is liberal notions of equality that let us say no to male domination.

Oof, that was a long question, good thing I didn't ask it in class. Ok here is a shorter one:

In your translation of the Zhongyong, you make a big deal about saying that "cheng" should be translated as "creativity" rather than "sincerity" or "integrity" as it has traditionally been translated. Part of your argument for this is based on the fact that the Zhongyong is expanding the meaning of cheng in radical ways. But doesn't this actually mean that you should continue to use the older meanings reflected in the traditional translations? Consider an analogy: Plato introduced the idea that knowledge is recollection. The word he used for knowledge is episteme. Suppose a translator, seeing Plato's doctrine of recollection, decided that "episteme" should be translated "remembering." Wouldn't this make hash of Plato's argument? Socrates is now trying to convince an incredulous Meno that "remembering" is "recollecting." How could Meno not agree? The substance of Plato's point has been removed. So aren't you doing the same thing?

*checking this number lead me to this interesting page, which tries to minimize Chinese mining deaths by measuring them in deaths per person hour worked, in which case they are only 41% higher than the US. A better measure of safety and efficiency, though is deaths per million tonnes extracted. The US death rate is .15 per Mt. The page I linked to gives the chinese rate as 2.9 per Mt. Smil in this book says the number is closer to 5 per Mt.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Stay at home dads only work 80 hours a week

According to a NPR piece I just heard on the radio, stay at home dads do less housework than stay at home moms. Stay at home dads do 80 hours a week of work. Moms do 96 hours of work. I'll link to the story when it appears on the web site.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Go look at the blog for my China Class

Dear Internet: The first couple posts from my China class are up on the class blog. I call your attention especially to this post by Steve and the reply from Kate about Chinese and American modes of ecotourism.

This was a big issue for us during the trip. As environmentalists, many members of the class wanted badly to see an environmentally friendly mode of tourism develop in China which would aid in the preservation of important natural areas. Our experience at the Stone Forest Geopark, however, indicated that people in China had very little interest in developing Western style parks or engaging in outdoorsy activities like backpacking and camping. This has lead to an interesting, but nascent, discussion of ecological sensitivity vs. cultural sensitivity. The first round of the online discussion is up, and I encourage you to check it out.

Life on the Yangtze

Like the St. Lawrence, the Yangtze is not really a river, but a "seaway," with all aspects of the river ecosystem pushed out by the needs of shipping. You don't see many people fishing on the river. This visit I only saw one fishing boat, although last time, when I spend more time and covered a longer stretch of the river I saw more. Mostly what you see is this:

Coal Hoppers and Barge

Coal, the blood of the current Chinese economy. Small hoppers of coal line the banks of the Yangtze. Dump trucks bring the coal, typically from small, independently run mines with poor safety standards. The kind of mining disaster that makes national news for weeks if it happens in West Virginia happens every day in China.

Concrete reinforced banks add a lot to the sense that the Yangtze is a highway.

Concrete reinforced banks

To deal with erosion after the flooding caused by the new dam, the government put nets over the steeper banks of the river and coated them with concrete. Most of this will be under water when the dam is fully operational. In case you forget how high the water will be by then, there are constant reminders

Flood marker

Officially, the flooding has forced the resettlement of 1.1 million people, including 13 major cities and about 25 thousand hectares of farmland. (This according to the handy yellow technical guide given to tourists by the government.) Most of these people are moved to brand new relocation cities built a little farther up the river bank. About 10% are moved to entirely new provinces. The consensus seems to be that those 10% are totally fucked.

The relocation cities are quite a sight. They all have built docks at 175 m. above sea level, but since the river isn't there yet, you see huge foundations of the docks.

Dock foundation with barge

This is the dock for Fengjie. For some reason water was gushing down the side.

Water from dock foundation

Since the river hasn't reached the permanent dock, temporary docks were built and the current level. Generally there is no way to get from the dock to the city other than climbing a buttload of stairs.


Out student Kate was traveling with a broken leg, which made the steps loathsome. Fortunately for Kate the oversupply of labor in China sometimes meant that she had alternative ways to travel.

Kate gets a ride

Cross posted at the class blog.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Orson Welles, Melville, Zeppelin

Orson Welles, Melville, Zeppelin. Via unfogged

Ancient Engraving at the White Emporer City

Ancient Engraving at the White Emporer City
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

The White Emperor City is a historic site spared by the three gorges flooding and now operating as a tourist destination. It appears as though many artifacts that would have been destroyed by the flooding were moved to the temple, but the guides were not very informative. There were many exhibit halls featuring ancient artifacts including lots of engraved stones like this one. However, the tour guide would only show us recently painted, rather cheesy murals depicting great scenes from classical Chinese history like the Duke of Zhou turning over the throne to the rightful heir. We got the potted legend of the great leader, and walked right past real history.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

A sign you should move

Originally uploaded by Stephen Robinson2007.

All along the Three Gorges you see big signs marking the 175m level, which is how high the water will be once the dam is fully operational. Sometimes the signs can be subtle clues that you may have to relocate.

Photo by Steve.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Strange rocks

Strange rocks
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

The placement of strangely weathered or patterned rocks is an important part of the Chinese garden aesthetic. The patterning of the rocks is supposed to reflect the flow of qi in the area it is from. Placing it appropriately in the garden is also meant to be a reflection of the qi in the garden.

Photo sharing

Photo sharing
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Periodically in China, people would ask to take our picture, I think because white folks are simply a novelty. This happened most to Dan, the tallest member of our group.

This woman came up to me in the Temple of Heaven and asked to take my picture. At first I thought that she must simply want me to take *her* picture, and only some kind of self absorption would make me think she wanted to take mine. But no, she wanted her picture taken with me. So I asked to take her picture.

She is actually holding up the peace sign with her right hand, but you can't see it, because I was too flustered to zoom out.


Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Many people in Beijing wear surgical masks to deal with the pollution. Presumably it helps with the particulate matter. You saw the masks mostly on people who had to work outdoors and people riding bikes. This woman wore one to the Forbidden City, along with a strange visor/headband combo.

Anything to preserve a tree

Anything to preserve a tree
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Mark Elvin, in his book on the history of the environment in China, Retreat of the Elephants, notes that the Chinese protect individual trees with the same enthusiasm that they decimate whole forests. All the trees in the formal gardens we visited in China reflected this. The gardeners go to great length to avoid pruning or cutting down trees, often resorting to elaborate metal scaffolding to support huge trunks that are essentially growing horizontally.

Back Alley Opera

The next act we saw in the alley was a bit of traditional Chinese opera, in costume. The youtube video wasn't working last time I checked, but I should be finished soon.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Beijing stand up

Beijing stand up
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

On a stage on the second floor of a building looking out onto an alleyway full of bars with open air seating near a fancy shopping district in Beijing, two guys perform a stand up routine that no one listens to. I couldn't understand what they were saying--because, no Mandarin--but it had the exact same rhythm as really broad borscht belt comedy. They even banged a gong for punchlines.

I'm Back!

Caroline's Rock looking over Tiger Leaping Gorge
Originally uploaded by rob helpychalk.

Hey, we've been in China, mostly around the three gorges region and hiking in Tiger Leaping Gorge, in the foothills of the Himalayas. Here is me and Caroline's Rock at Sean's Guest House. For an explanation of Caroline's rock, click this picture:

Introduction to Caroline's Rock

More pictures coming to this set. Right now all the pictures are of me and the rock.