Progress

https://pixabay.com/photos/australia-sydney-city-port-4338882/

Letters to the Sydney Morning Herald during the planning of the Sydney Opera House:

“Faced with the nightmare illustrated in your columns, some 25th century Bluebeard’s lair, its ominous vanes pointed skywards apparently only for the purpose of discharging guided missiles or some latter-day nuclear Evil Eye, words fail.”

— W.H. Peters, Sydney, Jan. 31, 1957

“To me, the winning design suggests some gargantuan monster which may have wandered over the land millions of years ago. It certainly is right out of place beside the dignity of the Harbour Bridge.”

— M. Rathbone, Kensington, Jan. 31, 1957

“This whale of a monument to the clever ugliness of ‘modern’ art will be a constant eyesore. Its over-finished roof with many curved surfaces all covered with white tiles will be a glaring monstrosity. Could not the suffering which it will cause be more equitably distributed by constructing the fins in such a way that they will act as giant megaphones and thus keep residents on the north supplied with the dying screams of melodramatic sopranos?”

— J.R.L. Johnstone Beecroft, Feb. 1, 1957

“With all respects to so-called modern art, I feel that the design is completely unbefitting our foreshores. Perhaps the judges had in mind the installation of a Big Dipper on the peak of the roof to help the opera company balance its budget.”

— Jack Zuber, Kingsgrove, Feb. 1, 1957

In 2003 Danish architect Jørn Utzon received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honour. The citation read, “There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world — a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.”

Youth and Genius

Mathematician Norbert Wiener entered university at age 11 and earned a doctorate at 17, but he was 7 years old before he learned that Santa Claus does not exist. From his 1953 memoir Ex-Prodigy:

“At that time I was already reading books of more than slight difficulty, and it seemed to my parents that a child who was doing this should have no difficulty in discarding what to them was obviously a sentimental fiction. What they did not realize was the fragmentariness of the child’s world.”

In his 1909 autobiography Memories of My Life, Francis Galton remembers a boarding school to which he was sent at age 8:

“In that room was a wardrobe full of schoolbooks ready for issue. It is some measure of the then naïveté of my mind that I wondered for long how the books could have been kept so fresh and clean for nearly two thousand years, thinking that the copies of Caesar’s Commentaries were contemporary with Caesar himself.”

In Fragments of Genius, his 1989 survey of the feats of idiots savants, Michael Howe notes that a study of 8-year-olds who were exceptional chess players showed that they were perfectly normal in other spheres. “And the transcripts of interviews in which highly gifted young adults talk about their childhoods, supplemented by interviews with their parents, are full of testimonies to the extreme ordinariness of the individuals, outside their particular area of special talent.”

Different

The following story is true. There was a little boy, and his father said, ‘Do try to be like other people. Don’t frown.’ And he tried and tried, but could not. So his father beat him with a strap; and then he was eaten up by lions.

Reader, if young, take warning by his sad life and death. For though it may be an honour to be different from other people, if Carlyle’s dictum about the 30 millions be still true, yet other people do not like it. So, if you are different, you had better hide it, and pretend to be solemn and wooden-headed. Until you make your fortune. For most wooden-headed people worship money; and, really, I do not see what else they can do. In particular, if you are going to write a book, remember the wooden-headed. So be rigorous; that will cover a multitude of sins. And do not frown.

— Oliver Heaviside, “Electromagnetic Theory,” in The Electrician, Feb. 23, 1900

(When asked the population of England, Thomas Carlyle had said, “Thirty million, mostly fools.”)

The Case of the Speluncean Explorers

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Cave_explorers_(1041198910).jpg
Image: Wikimedia Commons

In the year 4299, five cave explorers are trapped by a landslide. To stay alive they decide to engage in cannibalism, choosing the victim by throwing dice. When the four survivors are rescued, they’re convicted of murder and face a mandatory sentence of death. After a public outcry, the “Supreme Court of Newgarth” takes up the case. Its five judges subscribe to five different legal philosophies, with the result that two vote to affirm the convictions, two vote to overturn them, and one recuses himself. As this is a tie, the original conviction is upheld and the four explorers face death.

Harvard philosopher Lon L. Fuller presented this story in 1949 to contrast various legal philosophies prevailing in the 20th century, primarily natural law and legal positivism.

But in the ensuing years, dozens of further hypothetical judgments have been offered by writers from perspectives ranging from historical contextualism to process theory. Frank Easterbrook wrote in 1999 that Fuller’s essay combines “a timely consideration of contemporaneous debates with a timeless quality that continues to entice students and scholars to think and write about [it] some half a century later — and will doubtless engage our successors well into the next millennium.”

Fuller had written, “The case was constructed for the sole purpose of bringing into a common focus certain divergent philosophies of law and government. These philosophies presented men with live questions of choice in the days of Plato and Aristotle. Perhaps they will continue to do so when our era has had its say about them. If there is any element of prediction in the case, it does not go beyond a suggestion that the questions involved are among the permanent problems of the human race.”

(Lon L. Fuller, “The Case of the Speluncean Explorers,” Harvard Law Review 62:4 [February 1949], 616–645.)

Podcast Episode 355: The Auckland Islands Castaways

https://books.google.com/books?id=SP8BAAAAQAAJ

In 1864, two ships’ crews were cast away at the same time on the same remote island in the Southern Ocean. But the two groups would undergo strikingly different experiences. In this week’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast we’ll tell the story of the Auckland Islands castaways and reflect on its implications for the wider world.

We’ll also consider some fateful illnesses and puzzle over a street fighter’s clothing.

See full show notes …

The Paradox of the Just Law

How can a just law have a claim on our obedience? Murder is wrong, regardless of what the law says about it; we expect people to refrain from murder because it’s wrong, not because it’s prohibited or punished. I’d be offended if someone suggested that it’s only respect for the law that’s restraining me from committing murder. But this suggests that we don’t have an obligation to obey laws that prohibit murder — a morally conscientious person should never find himself obliged to submit to them.

“The more just and valuable the law is … the more reason one has to conform to it, and the less to obey it,” writes legal philosopher Joseph Raz. “Since it is just, those considerations which establish its justice should be one’s reasons for conforming with it, i.e., for acting as it requires. But in acting for these reasons one would not be obeying the law, one would not be conforming because that is what the law requires.”

(Note, though, that Raz says the paradox is only apparent — see his full paper here.)

(Scott Hershovitz, “The Authority of Law,” in Andrei Marmor, ed., The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Law, 2012.)

Justified Killing

Self-defense is widely accepted as a valid reason to use deadly force. But why is it valid? Most other kinds of killing arouse strong moral and political controversy: capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, suicide, war, even the killing of animals. But debates about self-defense tend to accept its basic legitimacy. Even those who oppose national self-defense as a justification for war may accept the same principle in a conflict between individuals.

“Not only is self-defense uniquely uncontroversial as a form of killing, but the lack of controversy persists despite the absence of any plausible account as to why it is justified,” writes philosopher Whitley R.P. Kaufman in Justified Killing (2009). “The strength and unanimity with which the assumption that killing in self-defense is morally and legally permissible is held suggest that there must be some powerful and persuasive rationale justifying such killing. But if there is such a rationale, moral philosophy has yet to find it.”

Making a Point

In another case of press repression which succeeded only in creating a martyr, the editor of the Swedish newspaper Stockholms Posten, Captain Anders Lindeberg, was convicted of treason in 1834 for implying that King Karl Johan should be deposed. He was sentenced to death by decapitation, under a medieval treason law. When the King mitigated the sentence to three years in prison, Lindeberg decided to highlight the King’s repressive press policy by insisting upon his right to be beheaded and refusing to take advantage of the government’s attempts to encourage him to escape. Finally, in desperation, the King issued a general amnesty to ‘all political prisoners awaiting execution’, which applied only to Lindeberg. When the editor stubbornly insisted upon his right to execution, the government solved the problem by locking him out of his cell while he was walking in the prison courtyard and then refusing him re-entry.

— Robert Justin Goldstein, Political Censorship of the Arts and the Press in Nineteenth-Century Europe, 1989

(Thanks, Jason.)

The Asch Conformity Experiments

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In a 1951 experiment, social psychologist Solomon Asch placed each of 50 college students in a room with 6 to 8 confederates and showed them two cards like the ones above. Which line on the second card is the same length as that on the first card? In the first two trials the confederates gave the obviously correct answer, and the subject, who was placed near the end, did also.

But after this point the confederates began to give a clearly wrong answer, and continued to do so for 12 of the 18 trials. Asch found that only 23 percent of the subjects stood up consistently against this social pressure; 4.8 percent agreed with the confederates throughout, and the rest agreed with the incorrect majority in only some trials.

Asch wrote, “That intelligent, well-meaning, young people are willing to call white black is a matter of concern.”

The Garden of Eden

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lower_East_Side_in_Adam_Purple%27s_Garden_1984..jpg

When a building was razed in 1973 on Eldridge Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, local resident Adam Purple cleared the lot, gathered manure left by horse-drawn carriages around Central Park, and designed a garden laid out in concentric circles around a central yin-yang symbol. As nearby buildings were torn down he added further circles, until the garden filled 15,000 square feet with corn, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, asparagus, black raspberries, and strawberries.

The city bulldozed Purple’s lot in 1986, but Richard Reynolds’ London-based blog now documents similar “guerrilla gardening” initiatives around the world.