Monthly Archives: August 2015


Child-rearing and early childhood education are topics that sneak their way into Tamar Gendler’s course at Yale titled Philosophy and the Science of Human Nature.  Robert highly recommends the whole course.  If everyone were to watch this course, the world would be MUCH better off.

Here is one particularly good (they are all good) lecture that comes toward the end of the course.  The title of the lecture is “Censorship.”  What Gendler discusses centrally is the urge to censor that can be said to have its rooting in Plato’s warnings about allowing children too much exposure to the “wrong kind” of poetry.  To Plato, the children who were to be the leaders of society should not be exposed to fiction that demonstrates bad behavior.  This is because even though the human mind “knows” a story is fictional, the irrational portions of one’s mind (soul) are not well able to defend against these stories, and, ultimately, these stories result in the habituation of that bad behavior and the diminution of virtue. To Plato, this irrational part of the mind is to be strengthened early in the education process. Only then should children move on to the learning of rationalizing subjects.  Very Waldorf.  Very cool.

Of course, some people say that Plato was responsible for WWII, so let’s not get carried away . . .


The Paradox of Choice

Robert really likes this short TED Talk by Barry Schwartz.

Psychologist Barry Schwartz takes aim at a central tenet of western societies: freedom of choice. In Schwartz’s estimation, choice has made us not freer but more paralyzed, not happier but more dissatisfied.


The Machinery of Life

Robert is reading The Machinery of Life, by David S. Goodsell, which is thus far a remarkable book.  It describes the workings of cells at the nano (molecular) level, which is where all the scientific research action is these days, or so Robert is told .  When looked at at this level, everything begins to look very mechanical.  Thus, new medical research is all about creating mechanical “bots” that interact with cellular molecules.

Here is a brief summary of what he is learning in each chapter.

1.  Introduction. The principles that guide objects in everyday life– gravity, friction, temperature– are different at the molecular scale.  Molecules are so small that gravity is completely negligible. The motions and interactions of biological molecules are dominated by surrounding water molecules. At room temperature a medium-sized protein travels at 5 meters per second.  If placed alone in space, this protein would travel its own length in a nanosecond (billionth of a second).  Inside the cell is is battered from all sides by water molecules, bouncing back and forth, taking a “long time” to get anywhere. Imagine a person not being able to walk through a crowded room to get to the bar on the other side. The inside of the cell is similar, but molecules do not a goal in mind.  But motion is the cell, while slow compared to the potential speed of a protein, still occurs quickly compared to our world. Each molecule within a cell may encounter EVERY OTHER molecule within the cell in a matter of seconds. Each molecule keeps bumping around until it finds the right place (i.e., attachment with another molecule). This is molecular diffusion.

2. Molecular Machines. Almost everything in the human body happens at the atomic level. Molecules are captured, sorted, shuffled, packaged, transported. All within cells of a size of a few nanometers. Tiny molecular machines orchestrate all life. But molecular machines must be made of atoms, and atoms come in only a few shapes and sizes. Most cells are made with six types of atoms. Carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, phosphoruous, and hydrogen. Atoms may be connected in only limited ways. But the molecules uses lots of tricks to get to the end shape and result. So making molecular machines is like building machines with Tinkertoys or Legos. Molecular machines are made of (A) proteins, (B) nucleic acids, (C) lipids, and (D) polysaccharides. Each has a different personality (like wood, metal, plastic and ceramic). The basic personalities are manifested in (i) chemical complementarity and (ii) hydrophobicity. Complementery molecules bind tightly to each other. Complementarity results from (a) fitting together of molecules of complementary shapes, (b) hydrogen bonding between hydrogen atoms and oxygen or nitrogen atoms, (c) salt bridges that carry different electrical charges. These all act like fasteners. Hydrophobicity is the amount by which molecules interact strongly with water (hydrophillic) or do not interact (hydrophobic).

a. Nucleic Acids (Encoders). Nucleic acids play an essential role in the process of life. They encode information. They are composed of long chains of nucleotides. Each nucleotide has a specific arrangement of hydrogen-bond-forming atom that causes it to match with other nucleotides. For example, in DNA, the Adenine-Thymine and Cytosine-Guanine matchings.

b. Proteins (Workers). Proteins do work.  Some are motors, others are rods, nets, hollow spheres, and tubes. Many are catalysts. Like nucleic acids, they are chains.  But they are built with 20 types of amino acids (not merely, for example, 4 nucleotides, as is DNA). Some amino acids carry a charge, other are strongly hydrophobic. Some a big, some are small and can fit into tight corners. Some are rigid.  Some are flexible. By using these diverse amino acids, the proteins can be even more diverse.

c. Lipids. Lipids are tiny molecules that group together to make the largest structures of the cell. These are the fats and oils that aggregate to create huge sheets that are used to enclose cells, forming the primary boundary between the cell and the outside world.

Denial of First Person Exceptionalism

In Robert’s recent exploration of western philosophy, he’s learned that one of the fundamental cornerstones of philosophical thinking is that when one goes about trying to define concepts such as justice and morality, one must think abstractly about what is best for humanity as a whole. When thinking about how society can be best organized to allow humans to flourish, one must look past his or her own experience or position in life and ask whether a rule or a policy or an entire government structure is universally beneficial and not created out of self interest. The philosopher does not place any person in a preferred position to anyone else and neither should a system of morals. Each of the philosophical traditions that Robert has been examining reflect this denial of first person exceptionalism.

On some level it is a truism. If you want to define what the best way for people to organize themselves, then one must consider how it is best for ALL of humanity to organize itself. But it also seems to Robert that maybe what we see today in the realm of public discussion (i.e., the media and political process) is a a slipping away of people’s ability or desire or capability to step away from their own interests. To move away from merely fighting for personal advantage and to think more abstractly about what is really best. Today we are too embedded in the battle of political argument, of the dialectic in which every issue has two sides, each with a representative that needs to step in the ring and fight it out. We have all bought the idea that truth emerges from argumentative synthesis, not from logic, science, and thought.

Of course, this is not to say that a moral world would not include people fighting for their own interests. But public discussion of policy-setting should not be dominated by this activity.

Here’s a few excerpts from philosophers who have made the point that what is important is not any one particular person.

“And because the condition of man (as hath been declared in the precedent chapter) is a condition of war of every one against every one, in which case every one is governed by his own reason, and there is nothing he can make use of that may not be a help unto him in preserving his life against his enemies; it followeth that in such a condition every man has a right to every thing, even to one another’s body. And therefore, as long as this natural right of every man to every thing endureth, there can be no security to any man, how strong or wise soever he be, of living out the time which nature ordinarily alloweth men to live. And consequently it is a precept, or general rule of reason: that every man ought to endeavour peace, as far as he has hope of obtaining it; and when he cannot obtain it, that he may seek and use all helps and advantages of war. The first branch of which rule containeth the first and fundamental law of nature, which is: to seek peace and follow it. The second, the sum of the right of nature, which is: by all means we can to defend ourselves.

From this fundamental law of nature, by which men are commanded to endeavour peace, is derived this second law: that a man be willing, when others are so too, as far forth as for peace and defence of himself he shall think it necessary, to lay down this right to all things; and be contented with so much liberty against other men as he would allow other men against himself. For as long as every man holdeth this right, of doing anything he liketh; so long are all men in the condition of war. But if other men will not lay down their right, as well as he, then there is no reason for anyone to divest himself of his: for that were to expose himself to prey, which no man is bound to, rather than to dispose himself to peace. This is that law of the gospel: Whatsoever you require that others should do to you, that do ye to them. And that law of all men, quod tibi fieri non vis, alteri ne feceris.”

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, Ch. XIV, p.5

“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law without contradiction.”

Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 30.

“I must again repeat, what the assailants of utilitarianism seldom have the justice to acknowledge, that the happiness which forms the utilitarian standard of what is right in conduct, is not the agent’s own happiness, but that of all concerned. As between his own happiness and that of others, utilitarianism requires him to be as strictly impartial as a disinterested and benevolent spectator. In the golden rule of Jesus of Nazareth, we read the complete spirit of the ethics of utility. To do as you would be done by, and to love your neighbour as yourself, constitute the ideal perfection of utilitarian morality. As the means of making the nearest approach to this ideal, utility would enjoin, first, that laws and social arrangements should place the happiness, or (as speaking practically it may be called) the interest, of every individual, as nearly as possible in harmony with the interest of the whole; and secondly, that education and opinion, which have so vast a power over human character, should so use that power as to establish in the mind of every individual an indissoluble association between his own happiness and the good of the whole; especially between his own happiness and the practice of such modes of conduct, negative and positive, as regard for the universal happiness prescribes; so that not only he may be unable to conceive the possibility of happiness to himself, consistently with conduct opposed to the general good, but also that a direct impulse to promote the general good may be in every individual one of the habitual motives of action, and the sentiments connected therewith may fill a large and prominent place in every human being’s sentient existence. If the, impugners of the utilitarian morality represented it to their own minds in this its, true character, I know not what recommendation possessed by any other morality they could possibly affirm to be wanting to it; what more beautiful or more exalted developments of human nature any other ethical system can be supposed to foster, or what springs of action, not accessible to the utilitarian, such systems rely on for giving effect to their mandates.”

John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Ch. 2, p. 21

“My aim is to present a conception of justice which generalizes and carries to a higher level of abstraction the familiar theory of the social contract as found, say, in Locke, Rousseau, and Kant. In order to do this we are not to think of the original contract as one to enter a particular society or to set up a particular form of government. Rather, the guiding idea is that the principles of justice for the basic structure of society are the object of the original agreement. They are the principles that free and rational persons concerned to further their own interests would accept in an initial position of equality as defining the fundamental terms of their association. These principles are to regulate all further agreements; they specify the kinds of social cooperation that can be entered into and the forms of government that can be established. This way of regarding the principles of justice I shall call justice as fairness.

Thus we are to imagine that those who engage in social cooperation choose together, in one joint act, the principles which are to assign basic rights and duties and to determine the division of social benefits. Men are to decide in advance how they are to regulate their claims against one another and what is to be the foundation charter of their society. Just as each person must decide by rational reflection what constitutes his good, that is, the system of ends which it is rational for him to pursue, so a group of persons must decide once and for all what is to count among them as just and unjust. The choice which rational men would make in this hypothetical situation of equal liberty, assuming for the present that this choice problem has a solution, determines the principles of justice.”

John Rawls, Justice as Fairness, pg. 1.


SACRAMENTO, Calif. — An inmate involved in a bloody 1971 San Quentin escape attempt that left six dead has been killed by a fellow prisoner, corrections officials said Wednesday.

The slaying of Hugo Pinell, 71, triggered a riot Wednesday that grew to involve about 70 inmates at a maximum security prison east of Sacramento, said California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation spokeswoman Dana Simas.

“He was definitely the target,” Simas said. She would not give more information about the alleged attacker for his own protection.

Once Pinell was attacked in a California State Prison, Sacramento, exercise yard by his fellow inmate, “everyone else joined in,” Simas said, including members of multiple prison gangs.

Eleven other inmates were taken to an outside hospital to be treated for stab wounds, while other injured inmates were treated at the prison. No employees were harmed. Guards fired three shots and used pepper spray to break up the brawl.

Officials initially said about 100 inmates were involved and five hospitalized.

Forty-four years ago, Pinell helped slit the throats of San Quentin prison guards during an escape attempt that led to the deaths of three guards, two inmate trustees and escape ringleader George Jackson, who was fatally shot as he ran toward an outside prison wall, according to Associated Press stories.

Jackson was a Black Panther leader, founder of the Black Guerrilla Family prison gang, and author of the 1970 book “Soledad Brother,” written after he and other inmates were accused in the slaying of a Soledad prison guard in January 1970.

Guards testified that Jackson started the escape attempt when he pulled a smuggled 9-mm pistol from under his six-inch-high Afro hairdo and fatally shot two correctional officers.

Correctional Officer Urbano Rubiaco Jr. survived to later testify that Pinell used a knife made of razor blades embedded in a toothbrush handle to slash Rubiaco’s neck.

“He said ‘I love you pigs’ and then he cut my throat,” Rubiaco said. He was one of two guards taken hostage by 25 inmates who were released from their cells during the escape attempt.

Correctional Sgt. Frank McCray testified that he and other guards were blindfolded, bound and piled into a cell, where McCray said his throat also was cut while other guards were shot and strangled.

A jury eventually acquitted Jackson’s lawyer, Stephen Bingham, a grandson of former Connecticut Gov. Hiram Bingham, of smuggling in the gun.

Pinell and five other inmates became known as the San Quentin Six. Only one, 61-year-old William “Willie” Tate, remains in prison, at the Correctional Training Facility in Soledad.

The others were freed years ago: Fleeta Drumgo and Luis Talamantez in 1976, Johnny Larry Spain in 1991 and David Johnson in 1993.

Pinell was initially sent to prison in 1965 to serve a life sentence for a San Francisco rape. He was given a second life sentence for killing Correctional Officer R.J. McCarthey in 1971 at the Soledad prison.

He was given a third life sentence, all with the possibility of parole, for the San Quentin escape attempt after he was convicted of assaulting two correctional officers.

Prisoners remained locked in their cells as officers investigated Wednesday’s disturbance.

The prison commonly called New Folsom houses more than 2,300 maximum-security inmates in Folsom, a suburb about 25 miles east of the state capital.

Weekend in Town

The PIerces stayed in Oaxaca city this weekend.  Taking a breather after a long and busy week of school and other activities.

Yesterday, Saturday, we played tennis and swam at the Deportivo Oaxaca on an unusually temperate day.  Mira and Robert didn’t do too well on the doubles court against their Mexican (and, indeed aged) opponents. Then we were off to the city center for some adventure and dinner.  On the bus ride in to the city center, we saw a huge playground for the kids, which included an awesome merry-go-round.  So we jumped off for some swinging, climbing, zip-lining, and merry-go-rounding.  Then it was time to search for a children’s bookstore we had heard about. Well, we got sidetracked when we stumbled upon Krampus Baberia, combination barbershop and bar.  Robert was invited in for a few beers and a haircut. After Robert improved his appearance (and demeanor) we found Thai Lynn, a very small Thai restaurant. The owners run it only on the weekends and we were told that only one Norte Americano had ever visited before.  Good luck to the guys running Thai Lynn!

Then we had ice cream and snow cones in Lllano Park before heading home.  We never did find the bookstore.