Bad Arguments: Illustrated

Via a visit to a real bookstore, found my way to Ali Almossami, an author and software engineer, who has done the public service of posting a free book on bad arguments.

Amusing examples and illustrations, covering some of the same ground I encountered implicitly in high school geometry and directly in a college logic course, using Copi’s text, nicely summarized over at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (and of course philosophized about at length).

For all these efforts, we seem to be drowning in bad arguments all the time (as it has ever been).



Opera Wednesday: Crespin

éIt’s been a while since I have curated any opera clips for you. Following a wild goose chase reference questions about U.S. performances of the Gounod rarity Sapho, I rediscovered its chief (perhaps only) gem, “O, my lyre immortelle” performed here by the late, and much missed French mezzo Regine Crespin.

And keeping with Crespin in French repertoire, but moving to Berlioz, here is the song “Le Spectre de la Rose” from Berlioz’ song cycle “Nuit d’été.”

Given the elegance and control, it’s possible to overlook that this was one of the grandest, largest voices in opera. And what words…you could take down the poem verbatim from this performance.

Finally, some gutsy Verdi–another side of this artist. (Sorry about the weird audio edit.) “O Don Fatale,” from Don Carlo.

Literary Steps

Came across this photo of great books steps at a university in Lebanon in a post on Brian Leiter’s philosophy blog. As a long time list-maker (who did a lot of it when I co-produced a show on world literature),  I’m always interested in choices of this kind.

Lots of these make sense to me, Gilgamesh is an inevitable and reasonable starting point.  I don’t read Arabic so can’t assess those titles. The others are mostly good company, whether literary monuments like Goethe or Dante, or core philosophy texts from The Republic to Thus Spake Zarathustra. And while I get while The Prophet, Steven Hawking, and even Toynbee are there. But the final step appears to be Bill Gates’ The Road Ahead has me a bit stumped, although acknowledgment of the digital age is valid, and perhaps what seemed like a tepid read 20 years ago or so has aged better than I would have predicted. But in the company of Descartes? Kant?  For reals?

I like the collection of books that the Kansas City Public Library built into its architecture too:

Photo by Dean Hochman, Flickr.

Lost Treasures on the Internet: Vol. I

Wandering around the Internet Archive Movie Image Collection, I came upon this nutty Betty Boop cartoon, which purports to be the Snow White story but soon evolves into a David Lynchian music video for St. James Infirmary. Either genius or completely off the rails; I’m not sure which now and wasn’t when I first saw it in a Smithsonian cartoon festival 30 years ago or so.

Judge for yourself.

From the Vintage Cartoon collection, where you’ll also find Popeye, Little Lulu, Woody Woodpecker, and Felix the Cat.  

Poetic Words: B. H. Fairchild

Found a ‘new & collected’ by a poet I’ve been following for years, and have been browsing it happily.  A lot of his works are about that most essential question, do you stay put in your life (geographically, psychologically, culturally, etc.) or do you light out to some other destination?


The Men
By B. H. Fairchild

As a kid sitting in a yellow vinyl
booth in the back of Earl’s Tavern,
you watch the late-afternoon drunks
coming and going, sunlight breaking
through the smoky dark as the door
opens and closes, and it’s the future
flashing ahead like the taillights
of a semi as you drop over a rise
in the road on your way to Amarillo,
bright lights and blonde-haired women,
as Billy used to say, slumped over
his beer like a snail, make a real man
out of you, the smile bleak as the gaps
between his teeth, stay loose, son,
don’t die before you’re dead. Always
the warnings from men you worked with
before they broke, blue fingernails,
eyes red as fate. A different life
for me, you think, and outside later,
feeling young and strong enough to raise
the sun back up, you stare down Highway 54,
pushing everything—stars, sky, moon,
all but a thin line at the edge
of the world—behind you. Your headlights
sweep across the tavern window,
ripping the dark from the small, humped
shapes of men inside who turn and look,
like small animals caught in the glare
of your lights on the road to Amarillo.

Commonplace Book: The Joys of Editing

Lovely piece by Rebecca Saletan in Poets & Writers about editing, including this precis of a key moment in editing.

At its best—and it is often this good—editing means getting to be such a friend, and entering into that strange and almost primal process of divining the shape the work is trying to assume. It was Matthiessen himself who gave me my first experience of being taken seriously as an editor, back when I was an assistant to the formidable Jason Epstein, and Peter was working on a collection of stories. One day he asked if I would look at one he’d been laboring over. Something was hampering it, but he didn’t know what. I read it and instantly saw—or rather, felt—what was off: The story was constructed on a hinge, and the hinge was stuck, much as an actual hinge might be.


This ‘hinge’ issue (for some reason I usual think of these as pivots) is one of the major things in writing. Odd that it gets relatively little attention in writing instruction (or did in mine at least). In an essay, a story (even in a blog post sometimes) how the cards get turned over to reveal a pattern–and the moment that comes clear–is so important, and tricky to get right, with implications for what comes before and after. To try a different analogy, it is when the water hits the shore, and whether it is a gentle lap, or a tsunami, how it was prepared for is what makes the piece work. It’s hard to see how to fix it yourself (forest and trees idea, since analogies seem to be on sale today), and therein lies one of the many advantages of working with a good editor (and keeping them in editorial enterprises).

Michael Frayn: Columnist

Before he came to fame as a novelist and playwright (one of a small elect who mastered both forms), Frayn studied philosophy and went on to be a newspaper columnist.  In 1964, at the height of debate about the pill, he wrote a wicked parody of theological musings about it–transposed to driving, and with the made up sect of the Carthanginian Monolithic Church, with their view of the natural way of things–which is to get bumped into from the back, while driving.

Of course, I don’t think the actual Catholic Church ever accepted The Box, (that is, The Pill).

Don’t Look Back

By Michael Frayn

It is with a close and warmly sympathetic interest that all men of good will, whatever their creed, are following the vigorous debate now going on within the Carthaginian Monolithic Church on the vexed question of rear-view mirrors. It has long been the teaching of the Church that looking backwards while travelling forwards is categorically and explicitly forbidden by God, since it was for doing this that He visited instant fossilization upon Lot’s wife.

In this context “looking back” has always been interpreted as frustrating the natural forward gaze of the traveler, whether by turning the head (visus interruptus), or by the interposition of a mechanical device such as a mirror.

Carthaginian Monolithic theologians claim that looking back is not only divinely prohibited, but can also be seen by the light of reason to be contrary to natural law, since it is patently interfering with nature to inhibit the inherent tendency of fast-moving objects to collide, and is frustrating the natural consequences of the act of driving—the possibility that an heir may succeed to the driver’s estate.

Moreover, they argue, there is a strong aesthetic objection to looking backward, since it must plainly detract from the spontaneity of the driving act, and they point out how much more insipid life becomes if the spice of the unexpected is removed altogether. It must in all fairness be pointed out that the keen interest of the monolithic clergy in preserving spontaneity and avoiding insipidity is entirely altruistic, since they do not themselves drive.

Those arguments notwithstanding, the Church has long recognized the need to prevent cars crashing into the backs of one another indiscriminately, and Monolithics are permitted to avoid it by abstaining from driving altogether, or by driving only during the so-called “safe period”, between midnight and 6 a.m., when the chances of being crashed into are greatly reduced.

Nevertheless, there is a sympathetic—indeed anguished—realization among many Monolithic leaders today that self-restraint alone may be inadequate to meet the situation. The question was less crucial in the days when the main effect of the doctrine was to prohibit Monolithics from sitting with their back to the engine in railway carriages. But the increasing popularity of the motorcar is putting an intolerable burden upon the accident wards of the world’s hospitals.

There is intense sympathy, too, for the great strain undergone by Monolithic drivers who have been run into from behind perhaps 13 or 14 times already, and who now scarcely dare to drive home to see their wives if it involves turning right, or pulling out to pass a parked car.

It is to this agonizing problem that “the Box” may provide an answer. “The Box” is a rearward radar scanning device which scientists are still testing. Monolithics believe that scanning aerial cannot be said to “look” back in the natural sense of looking, and that the radar screen does not deflect the natural forward gaze of the driver, like a mirror, but is a natural part of his natural forward view.

It is emphasized that even if “the Box” were to be accepted, it could never be used for merely selfish purposes, to avoid a crash simply because a crash was not desired, but only where a driver had already had three or four crashes, and there were genuine grounds for believing that another one might have serious effects upon his health.

All the same, some authorities doubt if the box could ever be an acceptable compromise. They believe that the safe period principle is more reliable—making absolutely sure that the road behind the car was kept clear by scattering perhaps nails or broken glass, perhaps small high explosives or napalm bombs.

Non-Monolithic observers can only look on at this debate with sympathy and understanding. They may be sure that it will be carried through with utter sincerity and a genuine sense of urgency, and that everyone on both sides will do his best, and play the game according to the rules.

Data Detox

Tipped by a friend, I just learned about “The Data Detox,” a sequential 8-day program for reviewing, cleaning up/deleting, and rethinking the data trails you leave (and people profit from and may exploit in other ways).

As you go through each day, the detox gives quick explanations of how data tracking works, and also explains the implication of decisions you have made (or not made when you just check ‘agree’). Related: the same group has a useful rundown on whether to stay on FaceBook or to go. Not a hard one for me, I was barely on in the first place.


Revisiting assignments from voice lessons of years ago, and was reminded of the glories of Gluck, as interpreted by the wonderful Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza.

Sort of astonishing to me that this aria is often tackled by beginning classical voice students (certainly where I first encountered it). Granted, it’s a workout for even breath control, but finding the right expressive character, one of gentle ardor, is even more challenging.

And here is Angela Gheorghiu, who perhaps pushes it a little to much into Verdian pathos (and needs the music, seriously?), but has, despite her quirks, a surpassingly beautiful vocal line.

O del mio dolce ardor
Bramato oggetto,
L’aura che tu respiri,
Alfin respiro.

O vunque il guardo io giro,
Le tue vaghe sembianze
Amore in me dipinge:
Il mio pensier si finge
Le più liete speranze;
E nel desio che così
M’empie il petto
Cerco te, chiamo te, spero e sospiro.

I will look for someone who does it in 17th century style one of these days, until then, these true opera stars will have to do.