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Saturday, October 28, 2006 -- 10:18 am

I believe Aristotle made a comment at some point about how a being is happiest when living up to its potential. (Then again, perhaps I'm making that up. I'm having trouble thinking of what the Greek might have been for "happy", let alone "potential". ευδαιμων to me connotes something more like "prosperity" in a socially recognized sense, i.e., money, reputation, and a large family, rather than subjective bliss, and that would suggest an altogether different meaning for the statement than we normally expect. τελος seems to refer more to a specific goal to which something is innately driven, like a pregnancy or flying arrow, rather than stagnant and indeterminate possibility. It's hard to think of a developing object being able to choose between more than one τελος. I suppose I'll have to dig up the Greek at some point, because it suddenly sounds like we're trying to smear a classical patina over contemporary ideas, with predictably absurd results.)

If we were to accept such a comment, however dubious the provenance, it seems that we're immediately exposing ourselves to all manner of practical difficulties. A stoic would prefer to say, "To the extent you permit your happiness to depend on anything in the world around you, you'll never be assured of happiness, because such things are beyond your control," and there's a certain undeniable attraction in that. But even for the ascetic few who could embrace such an attitude, it proposes a pretty hollow life, empty in particular of family and friends. Nor would such a position be morally unassailable; I can imagine many who would charge these stoics with cowardice, insensitivity, or narcissism for sealing themselves within a world of contemplation and self-improvement, without a care for the world around them. So to the extent that we can identify our potential, the pursuit of it, by itself, is not enough to guarantee happiness.

Instead, like so much else, self-fulfillment seems to be an effort at compromise. We need to participate in the market economy to survive, and we need to attend to various errands and physical and emotional needs, if any effort at personal growth is to be realistic. But these things take time, and for some people they consume the entire day. So does that leave us to conclude that fulfilling our potential, and therefore achieving (pseudo-)Aristotle's notion of happiness, is unrealistic in modern life?

I'm not sure it does, if only because there's at least one fallacy lurking in this train of thought: the notion that participation in the market economy, and/or attendance to physical and emotional needs, have no overlap with any aspect of our innate potential. Some people (artists, for example, and counselors) manage to find a niche that satisfies more than one of these purposes. But it's also true that not all innate talents and predilections are equal in the eyes of the market. And doesn't this just drive us to the platitude that some people are happier with their place in the market economy than others? Isn't that unavoidable?

So much for tackling global happiness on a Saturday morning. It's time to get back to work.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 -- 10:27 pm

This is actually something that I came up with in junior high or high school, but I figured I might as well bring it up again, because it's in keeping with the general topics emerging in the course of these reflections.

Of course, you could extend the loop much further in order to make room for more of the humanities.

Or, for a very different take on the world:

Or, if you're feeling a bit Marxist today,

I suppose the flexibility at the end of the chain could be taken as evidence of its arbitrariness. But none of the choices really ring false. And to the extent that any of these versions are true, does it imply that to thoroughly understand one field, you have to understand them all? Put another way, does it imply that all knowledge is ultimately interconnected? And how much is that a statement about the world, as opposed to a statement about us and how our minds work?

Thursday, October 26, 2006 -- 10:16 pm

Clearly, an evening for short posts. I've been doing enough intensive analysis lately that these are necessarily less abstruse. But I wonder, as I brace myself to tackle the evening's load of dirty dishes, what impact the assumption of daily chores has on overall creativity and productivity? No one would want a return to enforced servitude. But I can't help but think that the landed gentry of centuries past enjoyed an unfair advantage over today's bourgeoisie. I would gladly spend far more hours on my projects than my work and errands permit. And I flatter myself that at least some of those voluntary labors would bring some (slight) social benefit. But at the moment that just doesn't seem to be in the cards. And so I balance toil and leisure, at the expense of sleep.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 -- 10:11 pm

I've complained before about how difficult it is to get hold of interesting and useful information. I've often complained that used bookstores are of limited value to me because the books I'm often interested in are typically the sort that people don't voluntarily part with -- rare grammars of long-dead languages and histories of forgotten republics are obvious examples. Absent some kind of estate sale, those sorts of things just aren't going to find their way into the marketplace easily.

But has anyone else had the experience of finding every single thing they order from an online bookseller turn out to be on backorder?

Thursday, October 26, 2006 -- 9:36 pm

It's a fairly common practice in today's judicial system to make lists of factors to consider in reaching a decision. Listing factors is unquestionably preferable to trying to make a decision in an ad hoc and unsystematic way. But the courts never explain the relative weight to be given to each factor, and whether the *lack* of a factor should count as a negative consideration, or as simply decision-neutral. So as a practical matter, if you're trying to argue a case, one side invariably argues that all of the factors are satisfied, and the other argues that none of them are. But if that were always the case, the list of factors would be redundant because they would all be closely correlated. And this state of affairs means that existing judicial decisions are not terribly helpful in formulating preventive advice.

Thursday, October 26, 2006 -- 9:31 pm

I know from personal experience just how sensitive cacao trees are to overfertilized soil -- I already killed a litter of them with last year's potting soil. But these guys needed bigger pots, and I put them in the blandest potting soil I could find, liberally mixed with peat moss. Peat moss which hadn't bothered anyone in the last six months. After 10 days, they're starting to wilt. Sigh. Maybe it's the pH.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006 -- 10:22 pm

A lot of people seem to have trouble with the concept of rules and procedure in a lot of contexts: civil and criminal litigation, employment matters, politics, investigations, and in fact in almost any formal decision-making situation. Where I see this most often is in situations where a party to litigation is not represented by an attorney, and attempts to rely on, well, force of rhetoric. But I find procedure fascinating as an exercise in epistemology. The best analogy is to math. When doing long division, or computing cube roots in a systematic way, we don't know the result in advance, and our only way of ensuring the reliability of the outcome is to master the steps of a known and proven process. Most people learn long division by rote, not understanding why we write numbers on a sheet of paper in the very specific spatial pattern we do. But without this process, we would be left to guess the quotient by trial and error -- simply hoping that our successive guesses more and more closely approximated the correct answer. Rules of inference play the same role in strict logical proofs.

I see rules of evidence and procedure as playing the same role in litigation, investigations, and deliberative processes of most sorts. It is fiendishly difficult to predict the accuracy (or fairness) of a conclusion, when we're operating with limited information, time, and resources. As a practical matter, we unfortunately cannot often hope for the absolutely fairest or most accurate outcome, and a decision simply needs to be made so that we can take action. (I'm aware of the slippery slope, especially in judicial and political contexts, and take no position of how resources should be expended on investigation and deliberation in any particular case. But anyone who has faced a deadline will recognize what I'm talking about.) So I find it interesting to look at the Federal Rules of Evidence (and the corresponding objections of relevance, competence, foundation, etc.) as a collection of principles for determining what kinds of documents and testimonial evidence are most likely to be reliable. Under the same paradigm, the rules of civil procedure are largely devoted to providing fair and orderly procedures for clarifying and resolving the parties' legal issues, and making sure that information is exchanged. Beyond the substance of the discussions, protocol also removes more insidious corrupting influences such as bias, discrimination, nepotism, favoritism, and retaliation -- and, often equally important -- the suspicion of same.

Other sets of rules, of course, such as rules of parliamentary procedure, may be designed to promote civilized discourse, rather than strictly to promote fair and accurate results; but most sets of rules have comparable measures. But I think it's worth considering whether civilized discourse itself promotes fair and accurate results. Arguments can be made on both sides here, with different sides enjoying different advantages depending on the specific facts at issue. But at the very least, it's fair to say that in the context of civil litigation, much time is wasted, and many issues confused, by resort to illogical arguments, ad hominem attacks, meaninglessly self-serving statements, and slurs (today I heard someone describe a witness as a "gorilla"). Such posturing does nobody any good, and certainly does not promote the search for truth.

Monday, October 23, 2006 -- 10:26 pm

It's fascinating to watch deliberative bodies at work. Each seems to have its own dynamic. Some seem to have a primary decision-maker, who listens to suggestions from all sides (or not) until he or she tires and utters a decision, which everyone accedes to. Some seem to be particularly protective of the democratic nature of the group, and want to make sure that everyone has a full say and a full voice in the process. Not inconsistent with the latter is the possibility that the group will circle endlessly and indecisively around a few unpalatable decisions, disdaining all of them as less than ideal. And then there is the fact that outside counsel is often unwittingly involved as a political pawn -- or proxy -- in an internal struggle over institutional politics. When I have more time to devote to the subject, it would be be interesting to chart the various relationships that are possible here.

Sunday, October 22, 2006 -- 10:12 am

New features on the site include a home-grown disclaimer, and a stab at setting up and accessing an e-mail account.