“Layered Composition” by Mark Francis, exhibited at London Mathematical Society, De Morgan House, Russell Square, London, December 2016.
View of Tower Bridge and the City Hall precinct from an office tower in the City of London.
2017 yas been the year of Initial Coin Offers, or ICOs. Some US 4 billion has been raised by ICOs this year. Nor, for the first time, an ICO has been advertised on the London Underground.
Christmas Tree by James Merrill, from here.
People who have passed on during 2017, whose life or works have influenced me:
- Kenneth Arrow (1921-2017), American economist
- John Berger (1926-2017), British writer and art critic
- Chuck Berry (1926-2017), American musician
- John Clarke (1948-2017), New Zealand & Australian comedian
- John Charles Rowell Fieldsend CJ (1921-2017), Zimbabwean Chief Justice
- Jerry Fodor (1935-2017), American philosopher
- Joel Goodman Joffe (1932-2017), South African lawyer and defender of Nelson Mandela at Rivonia trial
- Ahmed Kathrada (1929-2017), South African democracy activist and political prisoner
- Liu Xiaobo (1955-2017), Chinese writer and democracy activist
- Peter Luck (1944-2017), Australian TV journalist
- Maryam Mirzakhani (1977-2017), Iranian & American mathematician
- Rory O’Donoghue (“Thin Arthur”, “Flash Nick from Jindavick”) (1949-2017), Australian comedian
- Josh Parsons (1973-2017), New Zealand philosopher
- Raymond Smullyan (1919-2017), American logician and taoist
- Timothy Stamps (1936-2017), Zimbabwean doctor and Minister for Health (1986-2002)
- Herman Toivo ya Toivo (1924-2017), Namibian freedom fighter and politician
- Tony Vinson (1935-2017), Australian sociologist
- Vladimir Voevodsky (1966-2017), Russian & American mathematician
- Heathcote Williams (1941-2017), British poet, writer, playwright, actor
- Daniel Yankelovich (1924-2017), American pollster and market researcher.
Past editions of Transitions can be found here.
Listening to the string quarters of Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), his Basque composition student Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (1806-1826), and those of Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), we can hear the influence of musical ideas. I thought it interesting to list their quartets in the order they were composed. (In the list below, each quartet is prefaced by the composer’s initials.). Arriaga’s three quartets were published in 1824, but may have been written well before. It is interesting that Cherubini had only written one string quartet before meeting Arriaga, while after Arriaga’s three were written, Cherubini then wrote another five.
1814: LC Quartet No. 1 in Eb major
1822 October: Arriaga moved to Paris from Bilbao
1824: JA Quartet No.1 in D minor
1824: JA Quartet No. 2 in A major
1824: JA Quartet No.3 in Eb major
1825 Spring: Mendelssohn’s father took his son to Paris to visit with Cherubini, and while there Mendelssohn may also have met with Arriaga
1825: FM Octet in Eb major, Op. 20
1826: Death of Arriaga
1827: FM Quartet No. 2 in A minor, Op. 13
1829: LC Quartet No. 2 in C major
1829: FM Quartet No. 1 in E-flat major, Op. 12
1834: LC Quartet No. 3 in D minor
1835: LC Quartet No. 4 in E
1835: LC Quartet No. 5 in F
1837: LC Quartet No. 6 in A minor
1837/9: FM Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2
1838: FM Quartet No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 44, No. 3,
1838: FM Quartet No. 3 in D major, Op. 44, No. 1
1842: Death of Cherubini
1847: FM Quartet No. 6 in F minor, Op. 80
1847: Death of Mendelssohn.
In his latest weekly column in New York magazine (scroll down), Andrew Sullivan presents a rebuttal to the religious views of the late Norman Geras:
What I draw from that is the same I draw from Pascal’s inability to complete his own comprehensive defense of Christianity (he left behind fragments that are now known to us as The Pensées). It is definitionally impossible to understand what cannot of its very nature be understood. If God is God, then God is beyond our understanding, beyond ideas, beyond words themselves. It is a categorical error to attempt to summarize all of “godness,” as it were, with precision or confidence. There are only “hints and guesses,” as Eliot put it. Much of what has gone wrong with religion, in my view, is the attempt to nail it down, to turn the scriptures, for example, into literal truth (an insane exercise) or to construct an infallible Magisterium of the Truth, with a capital T. In the end, this is absurd. Religion is simply a way of life, lived under the influence of some kind of revelation; a practice, not a doctrine. Orthodoxy is to religion what ideology is to politics — a necessary reflection, perhaps, but an abstraction nonetheless. It is only when we leave ideology and orthodoxy behind that politics and faith can begin. The rest, as someone once said, is silence.”
A group of about 40 people, from babies to great-grandparents, in a joyous private ceremony in a cafe behind the Cathedral, and including visitors from Israel, the USA, and Australia, and also a local Catholic priest. Live music, mostly secular carols, provided by a violinist and an electric pianist.
Meanwhile, outside the Cathedral a choir of about 30 people sang traditional Christmas carols to a crowd of 200 or so.
The philosopher Jerry Fodor (1935-2017) has just died.
Here is a brief reprise by Stephen Metcalfe in The New Yoker of Fodor’s compelling critique on modern Darwinism. For some reason, Fodor was ostracised by many philosophers and biologists for this critique.
“Neo-Darwinism is taken as axiomatic,” he wrote in “What Darwin Got Wrong,” co-written with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, a cognitive scientist, and published in 2010. “It goes literally unquestioned. A view that looks to contradict it, either directly or by implication, is ipso facto rejected, however plausible it may otherwise seem.” Fodor thought that the neo-Darwinists had confused the loyalty oath of modernity—nature is without conscious design, species evolve over time, the emergence of Homo sapiens was without meaning or telos— with blind adherence to the fallacy known as “natural selection.” That species are a product of evolutionary descent was uncontroversial to Fodor, an avowed atheist; that the mechanism guiding the process was adaptation via a competition for survival—this, Fodor believed, had to be wrong.
Fodor attacked neo-Darwinism on a purely conceptual and scientific basis—its own turf, in other words. He thought that it suffered from a “free rider” problem: too many of our phenotypic traits have no discernible survival value, and therefore could not plausibly be interpreted as products of adaptation. “Selection theory cannot distinguish the trait upon which fitness is contingent from the trait that has no effect on fitness (and is merely a free rider),” he wrote. “Advertising to the contrary notwithstanding, natural selection can’t be a general mechanism that connects phenotypic variation with variation in fitness. So natural selection can’t be the mechanism of evolution.”
“What Darwin Got Wrong” was greeted with dismissive howls—and it is possible Fodor got the biology wrong. But he got the ideology exactly right. Fodor was interested in how the distinction between an adaptation and a free rider might apply to our own behavior. It seems obvious to us that the heart is for circulating blood and not for making thump-thump noises. (Fodor did not believe this for was defensible, either, but that is for another day.) Pumping is therefore an “adaptation,” the noise is a “free rider.” Is there really a bright sociobiological line dividing, say, the desire to mate for life from the urge to stray? The problem isn’t that drawing a line is hard; it’s that it’s too easy: you simply call the behavior you like an adaptation, the one you don’t like a free rider. Free to concoct a just-so story, you may now encode your own personal biases into something called “human nature”.
Once you’ve made that error, the nonfiction best-seller list is yours for the asking. Everyone loves a mirror disguised as a windowpane: you tell whatever story your readership wants to hear, about whatever behavior it wants to see dignified. So the habits of successful people have been made, over the past thirty years, into derivatives of the savannah and the genetic eons, and “natural selection” has been stretched from a bad metaphor into an industry. Nobody was better at exposing this silliness than Fodor, whose occasional review-essays in the L.R.B. were masterpieces of a plainspoken and withering sarcasm. To Steven Pinker’s suggestion that we read fiction because “it supplies us with a mental catalogue of the fatal conundrums we might face someday,” for instance, Fodor replied, “What if it turns out that, having just used the ring that I got by kidnapping a dwarf to pay off the giants who built me my new castle, I should discover that it is the very ring that I need in order to continue to be immortal and rule the world?”
Stephen Metcalf : Jerry Fodor’s Enduring Critique of Neo-Darwinism. The New Yorker. December 12, 2017.