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John Holbo

For where desire, celestial, pure desire,
Hath taken root, and grows, and doth not tire,
There God a commerce states, and sheds
His secret on their heads.

Henry Vaughan, “The Star”

“And how does your commerce go, you strange guardian of the past?”

G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill

My partisanship post has blossomed into an extensive discussion of original intent, interpretation and the commerce clause. Maybe we could use a little more scholarship to go with that. (Who knows?)

Randy Barnett and Jack Balkin are big in this area, and their major papers are freely available on the web. (Here’s Balkin’s major statement, outside of his book. Here’s an old one by Barnett that makes his general framework clear. And here’s a recent response by him to Balkin on commerce.) But let me start with “Rethinking the Commerce Clause”, by Nelson and Pushaw. It’s not free online, but I want just to quote the opening: [click to continue…]

Pure Partisanship, The New Nonpartisanship

by John Holbo on April 8, 2016

Process hypocrisy isn’t exactly newsworthy, I know, but a few notes. [click to continue…]

Caricatures – Russell and Wittgenstein

by John Holbo on March 28, 2016

I’ve been trying to do caricatures in a new style. I did a few for the book but I’ve decided to continue the set. What do you think? Who should I do next?


Substantial Burden Test?

by John Holbo on March 24, 2016

“Doug Laycock retracts in Little Sisters”. That would have surprised me. Turns out: Ed Whelan thinks that Laycock ought to retract, because Whelan disagrees with Laycock. Less noteworthy. (Made me look!)

But I have a simple legal question. [click to continue…]

This Matt Labash profile of Mike “Murphestopheles” Murphy, lately of Right To Rise fame – is fascinating. (People said ‘Right To Rise’ sounded like a late-nite viagra infomercial. I thought it sounded like a zombie flick, and I think this post-mortem of Murphy confirms me in that intuition. Although I see the other point of view.) [click to continue…]

I forgot St. Patrick’s day. But I remembered all-Trump, all-the-time is dull. And some people like my pen-and-ink posts. So let’s celebrate a pair of illustrators named ‘Neill’, or nearly. [click to continue…]

Trolling Alone?

by John Holbo on March 18, 2016

A couple months ago I was listening to bloggingheads (or something) and I heard conservative columnist and author Matt Lewis trying to explain Trump in terms of Maslow’s Pyramid (hierarchy of needs). He wasn’t being seriously serious about it, but I got what he was getting at … until I realized I had Lewis’ intended point precisely upside down and backwards. [click to continue…]

So! How ‘Bout Those Primaries?

by John Holbo on March 16, 2016

On December 23 I bet my older daughter 5 cents Rubio would be ahead in the delegate count by March 15. She (and Belle) bet on Trump (unless someone got killed at one of his rallies before March 15.) My youngest daughter remains uninterested in politics.

UPDATE: since the 5 cents comes from the change dish by the door, which would equally have been the source of the daughter’s payment to me, had she lost, this is one of those ‘can my left hand give my right hand money’ puzzles.

I look at the world, there are so many issues, so many issues. Don’t just take regulation and energy and fracking. It’s all in Atlas Shrugged,” all of it. State of Colorado, Rearden Metal, how he made it with some magic kinetic energy.


P1: Colorado exists.
P2: Rearden Metal exists.
P3: Rearden Metal is magic.
C: Libertarianism?

Since the dawn of time, man has wondered: what are p-values? [click to continue…]

Cory Doctorow links to a nifty graphic design project: crowdsourced covers for public domain classics. If you know anyone teaching a relevant art class at the high school level, or above, I think this might make a fine class project. Everyone pick a title and go for it!

Cory: “I can’t figure out what license the new covers are under and whether anyone can use them as covers in their own collections of public domain books, or whether permission must be sought for each design.” I wondered about that as well. The info page doesn’t cover rights. I signed up to see what one would have to agree to. Answer: a CC license. (Cory will be gratified to hear it!) [click to continue…]

Oral Majority

by John Holbo on March 5, 2016

This Dahlia Lithwick piece on the Supreme Court abortion case, Whole Woman’s Health v Hellerstedt, is interesting in itself, and suggestive for the near future. We have an even 4-4 conservative-liberal split on the court but Thomas doesn’t talk, and Roberts, the Chief, regards it as his duty to be Chief. Roberts seems to care about being remembered as an effective Chief Justice more than he cares about being remembered as a reliable ideological partisan (like Scalia); this significantly constrains his self-presentation in oral argument. Anthony Kennedy is – Anthony Kennedy. Libertarian, hence mostly conservative, in that idiosyncratically reliable way of his. That leaves Alito, the rock-ribbed Republican voice on the court, if you will. On the other hand, we have Breyer-Kagan-Sotomayor-Ginsburg. Their collective partisan profile is moderate-left Democrat. They are much more judicially restrained than, say, Scalia. But the very fact that they do not espouse philosophically extremist positions – they are not judicial philosophical activists, to coin a phrase – means there are fewer cross-currents and counter-currents within their overall, moderate-left flow. They aren’t going to make bold, contrarian leaps; they’ll keep right on saying moderately liberal things, more or less in unison.

So we may see more cases in which the oral optics (pardon a synaesthetically mixed metaphor!) are: Republican Party (Alito) double, triple or even quadruple-teamed by the Democratic Party. Oral argument isn’t voting. It’s still 4-4 for voting, most days. I doubt Clarence Thomas is going to start voting with the liberals, even if he sees liberals dominating oral argument. I also don’t suppose Roberts will stand for seeing his partisan side being out-talked in some dramatic way. But his position constrains him. Possibly we will be hearing more from Thomas. That would be interesting, to say the least.

Scalia always had enough oral argument in him for any three Justices. Now it occurs to me that might have been literally the case.

I don’t really have a good sense about how the dynamics of oral argument feed into the obviously much more extensive, behind closed doors activities that result in decisions. But I’m sure it means something, if the character of oral argument shifts dramatically. What do you think?

First things first: thanks to everyone who dug deep (or shallow) to purchase (or just freely download) a copy of Reason and Persuasion, allowing us to enjoy evanescent ecstasies of semi-upward-mobility into the 5-digit sales range on Amazon for a period of some days now. Now please keep that Amazon aspidistra flying for the next several years running and we’ll have ourselves a standard textbook! (Sigh. I know. No hope. If I want sales like that, I have to update Facebook more than once every 4 years. And be on Twitter. Shudder.)

As I was saying: it is also fun to watch the (no doubt CT-fueled) evolution of the ‘customers who viewed this item also viewed’ Amazon scrollbar, associating our Plato book with all manner of comics and science fiction. I hope the present post shall further enrich that eclectic mix.

Back in December I posted about how I would like a history of semi-popular philosophy of mind, to complement the history of science fiction. Many people left genuinely useful, interesting comments, for which I am sincerely grateful. Today I would like to strike out along a semi-parallel line. Science fiction film, with its special effects, has a strong phenotypic and genotypic relation to stage magic. Georges Méliès was a stage magician. But sf is older than film; stage magic, too. We might enhance our sense of the modern origins of the former by coordinating with the modern history of the latter. I just read a good little book, Conjuring Science: A History of Scientific Entertainment and Stage Magic in Modern France, by Sofia Lachappelle, that doesn’t make the sf connection, but makes it easy to make. (It’s an overpriced good little book, I’m sorry to say. Oh, academic publishing. But perhaps you, like me, enjoy library privileges somewhere.)

It contains some nice sentences, certainly. For example: “While Robertson was presenting his phantasmagoria in an abandoned convent and professors of amusing physics were performing their wonders, scientific and technological innovations were impacting the world of the theater at large.” (118)

As I was saying: history of modern stage magic. I’ll quote passages, and comment, and supplement with relevant images. [click to continue…]

Monster Manual

by John Holbo on March 2, 2016

I enjoyed Maria’s D&D thread. So here’s a trivia question for you. Before there was the AD&D Monster Manual, what single popular work of imaginative fantasy contained all the following fabulous creatures: hydras, furies, nighthawks, giants, goblins, ghouls, titans, magi, monks, grand turks, dragons, wizards, cyclops – not to mention kludds and kligrapps, all lurking in Dens, found spread through a number of fantastic Realms and Provinces within a single Empire that is, as it were, a reimagined, multi-leveled parallel version of our own world? Answer under the fold. [click to continue…]

A little over a month ago Belle and I published the new edition of Reason and Persuasion, our Plato book. (She did the translations of three dialogues; I provided the commentary, illustrations and bookmaking.) Ta-DA! Well, actually it was more what one calls a soft launch. Since then I’ve got all the publication outlets squared away for the time being. You can get it on Amazon, in paper or in Kindle format. Making a workable Kindle version was an education in itself. Reflowable text and approximately 500 spot illustrations is a tough combo. It’s like practicing the fine art of flower arrangement in a sloshing bucket. It’s like trying to arrange all the little marshmallows inside the jell-o. But enough about my lifestyle choices. I set up Kindle matchbook so this thing that almost overwhelmed me is free if you buy the modestly-priced paper version. Good deal! I think the nicest-looking edition may actually be the fixed layout iBooks version (same as the GooglePlay and Kobo versions, if that’s how you like to play it.) Graphics are all very crisp.

As I was saying: we launched, and, since our lawyers told us we couldn’t use Harry Potter in the title, sales have been … modest. (Hey, it’s the fourth edition of a Plato book that is also available as free PDF’s. Did I mention: free PDFs?) We’ve been bobbing along in the low 6-digits, sales-wise, on Amazon. Checking Amazon rankings more than once a month is a thoroughly unhealthy form of fetish worship. Yet I confess to a moment of depression when we slipped below the 1,000,000-mark, albeit only briefly. Would it be too much to ask for the world to acknowledge that there are maybe not a million books better than mine? But then I checked Amazon UK and, like Spinal Tap in that scene in the film, was cheered to see we were charting! (Presumably 2 people bought the book in a matter of hours, producing this anomaly.) I screencapped, in case glory never came again: [click to continue…]