To Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, Concerning Ukraine

Vladimir Vladimirovich! You recently wrote an essay claiming that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. A people are defined by common history, values, aspirations and material circumstances: the four Aristotelean causes. Let us consider your claims in this light.

In the year 800, The Roman pope Leo III crowned Charles son of Pepin – Charlemagne – as King of the Romans. In 988, Basil II of Byzantine consecrated Vladimir Sviatoslavich, Vladimir the Great, the first Christian ruler of the Rus. Both introduced Christianity and an image of Roman heritage to vast reaches of the north.

Romans marched into the future with minds fixed on the past. For Romans, preserving the glory of Aeneas was worth any genocide. Lust for power became ritual, symbolized in the image of the four rulers – Augustus and Caesar of east and west, each with a dagger for the next. “Might makes right” is the watchword of those who would reduce people to the residue of history, and that to the acts of the bold and ruthless. Even the Romans, however, came to incorporate other causes into their understanding of a people.

On the brink of its collapse in the west, Roman rule was transformed by Christianity. Theodosius, last Emperor of both east and west, repented publicly for a massacre his soldiers had committed; he was the first Christian prince to acknowledge the supremacy of conscience over might. Byzantines, and after them the Rus, contended with the judgement of the afterlife as well as the glory of the past. Republican Romans had acknowledged common values, but understood them as the legacy of history. The acceptance of Christianity by the Romans was the acceptance of transcendent values, which weren’t simply the effects of founding experience.

A thousand years after Theodosius, Byzantium fell. Its scholars escaping sewed new life in the soil of Charles’ old kingdom, in Italy. The inner eye began to see a self whose form was dynamic. Pico’s God speaks to Adam: “Thou … in accordance with thine own free will, in whose hands we have placed thee, shall ordain for thyself the limits of thy nature.” People started, gradually, to look forward as well as back. After much bloodshed, citizens of Zurich and Munich, Vienna and Milan, Paris and Utrecht can share a heritage without sharing a nation, which is a shared, sacred past; for they can share a future together. The children of the Renaissance became conscious of the constitutive power of their own aspirations.

With the rise of capitalism — and the socialist reaction it evoked — people’s collective identities came to include a consciousness of shared material circumstances. People’s individual material circumstances will always be different, but collective identity has come to embrace a sense that a people must share each other’s burdens.

Vladimir Vladimirovich! Charlemagne sits in stone outside the Cathedral of Notre Dame, where, Mandelstam writes:

 … римский судия судил чужой народ

 … Romans gave laws to alien nations

Theodosius was an alien to the law of David and of Moses. Yet he could repent after the example of David. Vladimir the Great gave up rule in his own name to rule in the name of holy wisdom. You have said Russians and Ukrainians are one people, consecrated by Vladimir, your namesake. If you invade Ukraine, hundreds of thousands may die; millions will suffer. Even so, the past will not give you the unity you imagine.

Accept the fruit of the seed from Byzantium, which sprouted in Italian soil. Accept the aspirations of the people of Ukraine to live in their own country, just as Germans and Dutch accept each others contract. Do not force the people who remember Vladimir Sviatoslavich to live and die for the past. If you do, you will just pile more stones on the wall that divides you. History will show your violence; no values will condone it; the Ukrainian people will aspire to resist your tyranny; and when one side kills another they bear no common burden.

The past is not everything — for a nation, its life in the minds of the people is everything. Live in peace: the future is also sacred. It bears the name of freedom.

Israel and Palestinians

Do rights appertain to individuals or peoples?

At the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the question of the Palestinians, and their descendants, who were driven from the land during Israel’s founding. It would seem that, forced to leave their homes during war, they should have the right to return when war ends. It would also seem plausible that, by admitting as citizens a majority which is opposed to the existence of the state of Israel, the state would cease to exist, or at least could not function as a democracy. Surely the Jewish people are entitled to a state which gives them a home? And, if so, surely, if the question is one of existence, that state may defend itself even if it must take measures which otherwise could not be justified?

Perhaps there is a way out of this dilemma. Suppose that Israel were to grant the right of return to a certain number of descendants of Palestinian refugees every year, with the limit chosen with regard to practicality, but high enough to ensure that all who chose to could return in a reasonable time frame (a decade, say). Returnees would get temporary residency. They would be required to take a civics class, and to complete (age appropriate) civil service, being supported by the state so that they weren’t indigent. At the end of this period, if they choose to, they could take an oath of allegiance to Israel, and become citizens.

The payoff for a peace counted as just by many now divided would be enormous: an Israel incorporating and at peace with Palestinians would be a secure Israel; it would dominate the region economically and militarily, and could assume a larger role on the world stage. But who, really, could tread this path?

Currently, radical leadership enjoys widespread tolerance among Palestinians, because those who might have the impulse to moderation would seem to have no choice. If this force majeure were removed, perhaps moderates may come to be determined for the preservation of Israel, rather than its destruction. Surely a devout Muslim or Christian can chose to accept citizenship in a state which provides – and must remain institutionally constituted to provide – a home for the Jewish people. Terrorists might infiltrate the process, taking sham oaths in the hope of causing mayhem. But their enemies would not only be Jews, but all – certainly the great majority – who commit themselves to this journey in good faith. The wedge between people would divide not Jew from Palestinian, but the reasonable from the fanatic.

No one chooses the heritage they are born into. As we become adults, we can chose to accept or reject this heritage; in either case we assume responsibility for it. Those who have held Mosaic law to be sacred may recognize in this principle the doctrine of original sin. The Jewish people has survived centuries of persecution because, generation after generation, individual Jews have chosen to affirm their identity as Jews. We may inherit nationality and religion, but nations and religions are grounded in individual choices.

Is it not reasonable for Jews to give Palestinians a choice to live at peace within a common domain, and to have a say in the functioning of the institutions which govern that domain? The mass nationalism of the 19th century, from which Zionism, also, sprang, is a creation of – and even more a reaction to – the European Enlightenment. In her book, Renaissance Man, Agnes Heller points out that the Renaissance, part of the common history of both Christians and Jews in the west, was the first cultural context in which people felt empowered to choose their pasts. The Enlightenment, whatever else it brought, was in part a step back from the disorientation this power of choice brought with it. The Muslim philosopher Ibn Rushd’s (Averroes) vision of a single, common, pure intellect grows through the Middle Ages like an underground root to sprout up in modern empiricism, and flower in Kant. From here, it was a short step to the violence of Romantic nationalism, which expresses human purpose not just as intellectual, but through the grasp of the deep heart to choose something both personal and common: a Nation.

The outburst of nationalism equipped societies poorly to deal justly with their neighbors. Zionists should be ware their image in history’s mirror.

My perspective is not existentialism – that people have identity separate from their allegiances. It is relationalism: individuals and the common identities that bind them do not exist separately, but individuals and commonalities act on and constitute each the other. Living together can be prescribed by our heritage. Living together, with human choices, can also forge new commonalities.

Currently, possible politics are dominated by an essentialist perspective: people are defined unilaterally by their formal identities. This is a mistake, and a tragedy. Essentialism points the way to a world in which each group must war against others; and within every group, there will be subgroups, which must similarly establish a hierarchy. For if our identity is given to us essentially, and it determines the law we live under, any choice to cooperate can only be, at best, a temporary, utilitarian strategy, and not an expression of principle. Politics predicated on the basis of an original Hobbesian war of all upon all is destined to return there.

States do not always spring from nations. The United States of America is home to a nation defined – in aspiration at least – by its acceptance of the covenant of a common state. Perhaps the United Nations, calling for two states in Palestine, got it wrong. Perhaps Israel can be home to a Jewish nation, but need not be exclusive to it.

Retracings from the high valley above Taos


From the ski lodge there is a trail to William’s Lake in the valley beneath Wheeler Peak, the southernmost stand of the Sangre de Cristo range. Beyond the clear lake, under the peaks’ deep slopes, nestles a higher valley. On the near side as I approached, I came upon a pond, strangely perched, undergirt by stone. Our common weight led the drainage through a lower path to which the pond seemed unconnected, save perhaps by overflow through dry October grasses, fall of the year’s unveiling of our nature’s morbid state.

The starry messenger had lit these stones for 20 million years, as best I know, but the pond’s origin was more recent. Ice and rain, wind and roots purchased the shape from the upthrust rock not long ago, though perhaps longer than my life, or the life of any person who yet has been.

The pond, full of bright green algae and other water weeds, was our mother, framed by night’s ice. From that silt we came, though in another place, among the rocks or among the waters, or where they meet, to speak it right. 

The red peaks spoke, but the pond, with its own will, bloomed in this high nook, transforming what the rock had meant, and rightly so, for it had its freedom, which is ours as well. Wandering from that pond, we bear our debt: that the valley of death is, and shall be, the valley of life.


The next phase entails some confusion. The woman at the base had made us our morning coffee. She suggested we walk to Williams Lake. Her husband had proposed to her there. My friend having descended, though not yet wanting to part my thoughts from the mountain valley, I followed him down on my bike. She was still there when I got back and caught site of Andy, who was waiting. I sat down with him, and he reminded me. If I wanted coffee, I should order now, because she was closing.

She had closed, in fact, for it was 2 past 2, but she hadn’t cleaned the expresso machine, and made me a latte, gracefully. She asked about the falls. I saw no falls, or perhaps what I saw could be called a falls, but it was October, in a dry year. I bought cider as well, a Pellegrino for full measure, and also filled my water bottle, before heading again up the mountain.

The trail that had led to the lake turned aside there to climb the peak. But there was a common way to the higher valley where I had found the pond. I imagined that others who have seen it have written other words, of which I am unlearned, save for our common language that wells from us and wets the grasses.

The trees’ shapes recalled fish to mind. I swim a middle sea. I speak a middle tongue from a middle place, for this is where I am best at home. The starry messenger speaks now with the double voice of Linden trees that grow far away, yet the past, also, is in the middle place. To move beyond the middle is to return, for nature likes to move in cycles.


I seek a path onwards. We are individuals, and nature is not. Will we always swim the middle sea? Will we set foot on land, evolve, speak, quarrel, destroy ourselves? Have we not done so already? We cannot return.

Finitely we arose, and do not tread the same paths: the finite must diffuse. And yet life is something that overflows lips minds limbs. It is not the paths and not the falls or the mountains, or even, perhaps – no – it is the living however short their span. It is easy to wander.


The next phase will be to be more definite: we are not ruined, but we overflow. We are conditioned by extension, but we do not live of extension, or by extension, or for extension. The layers of light like quartz veins in ore that gleam in the heights tell us of the planet’s core. Yet carbon and water are the mantle’s grease, as it throws up islands – continents – that float on the lava’s ocean. We stand like spirits on the lava’s ocean, listening as the ocean tells us of ourselves.

Finiteness finds its ground in the ancient phases: earth for solid, water for liquid, air for gas, and fire for change and life. Each form is a phase, each phase is a form. There is no difference, but the one passes in the common report, the other passes only as imagined things pass.


Time has come down to hunger and companionship. They do not get along. But they have to travel together. We will quarrel and compete, will travel and be replete. Consume as we must, consume as we are, we gnaw at the ends of time, like the mouse who ate its way into Andy’s nuts. The magpie followed us up the trail. I advised Andy to be friendly to the magpies, but it wasn’t in his nature. Indeed, they can be annoying, I admit as much.

Time itself is annoying. I admit as much. All these things that change: we swim here like fish. Why be irascible? Time itself is an abstraction. But all things must change, though nothing changes in extension.


Let me retrace my steps. I write in the twentieth year of the millennium. I have packed my bike and driven to town and the pleasures of our civilization – expensive food served for rich tourists even during the plague.  Our nation is disunited. We sharpen the arrow that time points to nowhere. 

“In the people united” – what does it mean? Madison’s majestic royal we the people; it found its life in the understood expression. Our breadth was our brawn. Now we narrow, when we should overflow.

“These truths we hold to be self-evident?” These truths we hold. That should have been enough, or had a better phrase attached. Self-evidence is not the psalmist’s mighty fortress. It is a machine – it is that which must have an outside purpose. And has that purpose not misled, picturing might as righteousness? We are on the road to being a people, and always will be, until we are no more. All our roads must lead through the middle of America, even as we, also, swim in the middle sea. If someone asks us, who is that third person who walks beside you? Let it be that we shall answer “companionship” and not “hunger”.

Apropos software patents


There are two ways software can be novel: it can be a new way to do something, whose embodiment is a software program, and it can be a new way to get a computer to do something (which itself isn’t necessarily novel).

In the first case, the computer might be a practical necessity, but the process must be novel even if it were performed by an army of accountants. In the second, the process could be mundane, but involved elements which no expert before knew (or could easily have known if they set their mind to it). In the latter case, the process itself is not properly patented, but the elements that make it novel.

Thoughts on “Value” of Inflation and Unemployment

Inflation is like overeating, whereas unemployment is like starvation. Obviously, the latter is worse. The best circumstance is that you have plenty of money, but put it to good use — eat well and exercise.

Unfortunately for the Fed, it controls the amount of money, but not the amount of exercise, which depends on how well trained the workforce is, what the incentives are to work, the state of the infrastructure, the state of the global economy (is there anyone to play with, or do I have to work out on my own?).

The focus on inflation is a symptom of the public’s lack of trust in government, and ultimately, their lack of trust in themselves.

Is Justice Roberts a Mystery?

I just read Linda Greenhouse’s article on John Roberts. My take is this: when justice Roberts was a youth, and some of his peers were wearing “question authority” pins, Roberts, were he the pin-wearing type, would have worn a “question lack of authority” pin.

He has upheld the authority of government whenever possible, and is very persnickety about questions of the standing necessary for plaintiffs to challenge its authority. He has upheld the right of people (shareholders) to authorize collectives (corporations) to speak on their behalf.

I think his reference to the duty of the court to find a law constitutional if there is any possible interpretation that doesn’t rule it out was not just a political calculation, but an expression of a strongly held principle.

Why don’t tornados dig holes?

It seems like we are off to another record year for tornados. When I see pictures of tornado devastated land, everything above ground is ripped up, but the ground itself is always pretty much intact.

If a tornado were to strike a desert, one would expect sand to be redistributed pretty extensively. Perhaps not actually creating holes very often, as that would require a counterintuitive overall lowering of entropy. But certainly sand dunes would not be in at all the same places once the tornado passed.

This doesn’t seem to happen in the areas where tornados actually strike. I suspect that the surface tension of the water in the rain-soaked ground binds it together so that it can’t be lifted (except as a very heavy, elastic whole). I wonder if architects have thought of taking advantage of this effect? Perhaps turf roofs together with vents designed to allow rapid pressure equalization would allow many more structures to remain standing….

Binocular Beauty or Do It Right the Second Time

I was taken to the dogshed by my lead developer the other day. We have been building a web service api, and a javascript analytics client, both at the same time. He’d been grumbling about the service interfaces for some time; I’d resisted changing them. Finally, I noticed he was getting more and more sullen. It turned out that he was not just annoyed but really upset about the interfaces.

Certainly, they could be improved. As he said, they were “RPC-style” interfaces, despite our stated goal of following REST principles. Indeed, I had cooked them up in 45 minutes one evening. They did support the client fairly succinctly, but would almost almost certainly break if we made any design changes, or tried to write a second application (which we will soon).

So I gave him the go ahead to rewrite the interface. He spent the day writing it anew along REST principles. I haven’t reviewed it yet, but I’m sure its much better; also, having created it, he’ll be much more productive writing the client.

So why did I drag my feet? Because I believe in Doing It Right (or putting in significant effort to get it right) the Second Time. Not the first time, and not the third. In particular, for an interface, thinking hard about what the best abstractions are is best done in conjunction with writing the 2nd client. Its often worth *not* doing for the first client, even if this means parts will have to be rewritten.

This isn’t a hard rule (note that I caved to my developer rather than argue). Also, for tasks you have already done before and know how to do, by all means do them right. But for new, exploratory work, it is nevertheless a good tenet. The intuition is the same as for pairwise testing and binocular vision. To tell the difference between phenomena and epi-phenomena often requires more than one perspective; much more rarely, for the main outlines at least, does it require more than two.

Socio-Economic Content In Sex-Ed

My older son’s school offers sex-ed in two tranches: at the end of fifth grade, and in seventh grade. The first part seems to have explained the biology fairly well, and let him at least talk about sex — so pretty good, I would say.

The school also has some policies regarding sexual behavior. For instance, certain types of clothing are not allowed, as they are deemed inappropriately erotic for young teenagers. Fine. But does the justification for this rule follow from anything they are taught in class? I would venture to say — almost certainly not.

And yet, would it be that difficult to add a bit of socio-economic (or cultural) content to sex-ed? It is not hard to grasp that, if monogamy and promiscuity are the extremes of human sexual strategy, they make uneasy neighbors. Also, we needn’t teach Freud (or not very much) to illuminate how social structure is built out of units — like couples and families — whose glue is often sexual relationships.

Tolerance is taught; but prudence seems to be only taught in terms of the dangers of unsafe sex, and the need to respect oneself and others. Nothing is said about why a social system (such as a school) might want to constrain even safe sex. Or, on the other hand, why a larger society might be more stable if its members follow diverse strategies. (Or individuals follow mixed strategies.)

Beyond economics, there is a great opportunity to teach how sex fits together with culture, but I don’t suppose that many schools will be wading into that soon. Nevertheless, for young minds starting to think not only about sex, but to think for themselves in general (though not necessarily at the same time as speaking — alas a difficult art), tools for thinking about their own sexuality on the basis of their biology are good. They should also be given tools to think about how their sexuality is part of how they relate to their community, and economics could provide a “neutral” framework for this discussion.