Tweeting and the Public Sphere

I’m not sure if this is for real but it does seem that the philosopher Jurgen Habermas has a twitter page. See here. (Thanks to Paul Waldman for the tip).  Since Habermas is noted for his long and complicated sentences, it will be curious to see what he can do with 140 characters or less. I noticed that a recent thought bubble was a done in the form of a series of tweets:

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So You’re Thinking of Converting From Anglican To Catholic

In an extraordinary bid to lure traditionalist Anglicans en masse, the Vatican said Tuesday that it would make it easier for Anglicans uncomfortable with their church’s acceptance of female priests and openly gay bishops to join the Roman Catholic Church while retaining many of their traditions.The New York Times

Congratulations on deciding to make the switch!  If you’re a PC user who has just switched to the Mac and want to find out how to adapt your old working habits to the Mac OS, you’ve come to the right place.  Wait.  Sorry.  That was plagiarized from  But really, it’s not such a different concept.  In converting to Catholicism, you are really just switching over your “files” (ideas/customs/most profound expressions of faith) to your “Mac” (Catholic) “hard drive” (brain/immortal soul.)

Although it may feel that you’re entering a brand new world on your Mac with Catholicism, you’ll be happy to know there are some interface elements that should be familiar from Microsoft Windows the Anglican church.  For instance, you are clearly already experienced with suspending disbelief.  The Anglican church has no central hierarchy, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the first among equals.  Right.  That makes sense.  (I’m rolling my eyes.)  If you don’t think that’s weird, you are prepared for our notion of geography. Vatican City is in Rome, which is in Italy, but it’s actually its own city and country.  Pretty cool, right?  Similarly, once you start believing that communion is literally the body and blood of Christ, instead of a symbol, anything seems possible.  Life is way more fun when you are optimistic.

When confronted with something new, it can be tempting to think of the ways it is a lesser version of the old.  This will make you depressed.  Instead, like a new boyfriend who you need to stop comparing to your ex who was actually a lot cuter and knew how to take you to restaurants besides Thai Gardens lunch special, try to focus on the ways Catholicism is great for its own special reasons.   For instance, the Anglican church was founded by King Henry VIII, who, while mad hot on The Tudors, was actually a fat lard.  The Catholic Church was founded by Saint Peter, who wasn’t  fat and currently lives in heaven with Jesus and Peter Gallagher when he dies.

Besides Jesus H. Christ, history is filled with cool, famous Catholic people.  What’s that you say?  That’s because they were born before the Reformation?  Sorry, I can’t hear you. My Ludwig Van Beethoven cd is on too loud.

Some other smaller perks include being able to write a great autobiography, especially if you are from Ireland.  We get 50 cents off at Tasi Delight (with a valid Tasti Card), and all nail salons have a secret back room with secret colors that only Catholics know about, including Wafer White, Thorny Brown, and Vatican Velvet.  These are also the names of our secret racehorses that run in secret Catholics-only races.

Speaking of races, a lot of people considering the switch have been asking about our policy on black people.  We currently allow them.  But we’re working on it.

In conclusion, although it may feel like you’re entering a brand new world on your Mac, with Catholicism, you’ll be happy to know that there are some interface elements that should be familiar from Microsoft Windows. Because Catholicism is way better and you are going to love life a lot.

My Metropolitan Diary

Dear Diary,

This summer, I was reading my book on the steps in Union Square when one of the chess teachers came up and made me smell his cup of “tea.”  I’m pretty sure it was just gin.

Dear Diary,

One winter I was in the playground with my friends, and we wanted to make a snowman.  I scooped out a bunch of snow from the trash can.  I also scooped out a diaper filled with poop.

Dear Diary,

This summer, while waiting in line outside to sell books to the Strand, my line friends and I watched a homeless guy get in a fight with some garbage.  I thought nothing of it and went back to playing solitaire on my ipod, but the guy in front of me called the police, explaining that “he’s not really doing anything, he’s just scary.”  The police came, but by that point the homeless guy had moved down the block, so I didn’t technically see what happened.  But I imagine the homeless guy continued leading his life of grinding poverty, and the guy in front of me continued his life of being a complete jackass.

Dear Diary,

One time a girl in my high school met a guy on the subway, and she gave him a handjob.  True story.

Dear Diary,

Today I sat down next to a cute old lady on the M86 bus and smiled at her.  I didn’t realize I’d accidentally sat on a tiny corner of her Burberry Trench until she pulled it from under me, saying, “Watch it, fatty.”

Dear Diary,

A few years ago, I was waiting for the subway at Chambers street when I saw a rat run down the platform with a cheeseburger in its mouth.

Dear Diary,

Today I threw an empty soda bottle into a trashcan, and a rat jumped out at my face.

Dear Diary,

A few years ago I was running into the subway to get to school on time, and I was proud of myself to have picked a practically empty car.  As we rolled out of the station, I was filled with questions. Why is everyone crowded into that far corner away from me?  Why is the homeless guy next to me snoring so loudly?  And why is does that huge pile of human feces by the door have sneaker prints leading to my sneakers?

Dear Diary,

In the spring the ginkgo trees make my neighborhood smell like barf plus fart.

What Were They Thinking?


Everyone should have a hobby. Mine is collecting names of businesses that don’t make sense. Below are some real examples:

1. Icarus air Travel. Icarus only had one flight and it ended badly.

2. The Abelard School, a private academy. Abelard was best known for sleeping with a student.

3. Gandhi’s Fine Indian Cuisine. Gandhi was not a known to be a hearty eater or gourmand.

4. Mecca Jeans. Is it good idea to wear jeans at Mecca?

5. Ponce De Leon Federal Bank. Ponce De Leon supposedly went searching for the fountain of youth. Even though the story is not true, still that’s what his name means to most people. Would you trust him with your life savings?

Eclipse first, the rest also important to know about



 Sophie Pollitt-Cohen writes:

Today there was a total eclipse of the sun.  This should never be confused with a total eclipse of the heart.  The latter is categorized by getting a little bit lonely, a little bit tired, a little bit nervous, a little bit terrified, followed by falling apart.  In total eclipses of the heart, forever starts.  In total eclipses of the sun, the moon passes between the sun and the earth, thus covering the sun.  This can only happen during a New Moon, which explains why the entire cast is so pale.   It could also be because they blanche at the thought of being in a non-sucky movie.


Today’s eclipse was only visible in Asia.  In some places it lasted over six minutes.  One of the fastest Eclipses was born in 1764, and he ran undefeated his entire career of eighteen races.  He was the maternal grandson of the stallion Regulus, who every nerd knows is the brother of Sirius Black (Harry Potter’s godfather), who was killed by Bellatrix Lestrange (Tim Burton’s girlfriend).

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A Garden at Last for Kolakowski










I was sorry to hear from Jeet’s recent post that Leszek Kolakowski had died. As an undergrad I read and read again his penetrating collection of essays in Modernity on Endless Trial – an inspired title, I always thought. Fittingly enough for someone who was influenced by Kant, he shook me from some of my immature dogmas.

For instance, Kolakowski convinced me of the pointlessness of efforts to resolve and overcome doctrinal differences among the various Christian denominations, an insight that helped inform what became my commitment to secular pluralism.

He also helped me to question and resist lazy ways of speaking about left and right, as though these terms were static and self-evident. His essay “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist,” which Jeet has already reprinted in his post, should be required reading in Poli Sci 101.

And his amusing piece “The General Theory of Not Gardening” reminds us that intellectually we get what we project: whatever school of thought we are trained in shapes how we see the world and so much within it, and often to the exclusion of competing schools and methodologies. The essay in my view is a tacit argument for an interdiscipinary education. But perhaps for Kolakowski it was rather meant as a witty caution against too much learning, because, as he wrote, “it is much easier to have a theory than to garden.”

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Noblesse Oblige from Japan Tobacco














The Wall Street Journal has just translated from Japanese a hilarious interview with Hiroshi Kimura, ostensibly Japan Tobacco Inc.’s president and chief executive. Either we are being had by another Sascha Baron Cohen character, or the translator is a  wicked prankster. This is high comedy: 

… Mr. Kimura has a law degree from Kyoto University and joined the company in 1976 when it was still a government domestic monopoly called Japan Tobacco and Salt Public Corp. “I wanted to work for an international firm, and so Japan Tobacco initially wasn’t within my top 10 choices, but it helped that I liked tobacco,” said Mr. Kimura, who smokes two packs of cigarettes a day.

WSJ: What did you learn from your first job?

Mr. Kimura: … When I first joined I learned from a senior the [French] phrase noblesse oblige, which I understood to mean not shirking the responsibilities of your position. In my early days I was given many challenging tasks to stretch my abilities, which gave me the foundation to develop into the manager I am today.

WSJ: Who gave you the best business advice?

Mr. Kimura: Our customers. As a cigarette company, similar to makers of food or medicine, our products are consumed by our customers and have a direct impact on their lives. To meet their high expectations, we have to be constantly aware of the market pulse and make trusted and preferred products.

Leszek Kolakowski, RIP

Leszek Kolakowski
Leszek Kolakowski


The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski is dead. His dates are 1927-2009, meaning he lived through the most violent and tumultous period of Polish history: the Nazi conquest, the post-war liberation followed by Stalinism, the rise of the New Left and its crushing defeat in the 1960s (which sent him into exile), the triumph of Solidarity and the overthrow of communism.

I was not, on the whole, a fan. Of course his opposition to Stalinism was heroic and wholy admirable. But his approach to the history of ideas seemed to me too schematic and ahistorical. But I did like some of the wry, puckish essays in Modernity On Endless Trial, in particular “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”.

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Cleopatra’s Dessert and Shark Fin Soup








At a Brussels nuclear law conference in 2007, I gave a technical paper on intergenerational issues in nuclear waste economics. I argued for the prudence of applying a conservative discount rate when setting aside funds for future nuclear waste management so as to guard against contingencies. Recently I had the chance to look at my argument again with fresh eyes when I obtained a copy of the conference proceedings (published by Bruylant), and I was struck by one passage that may be of broader interest, especially given what happened between 2007 and now in global financial markets:  

“The fifth and final argument for [a conservative discount rate] is the possibility of some unforeseen event that could dramatically change the economic circumstances of one country or another. In Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s excellent recent book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, the mathematician and former trader argues that history is dominated by highly improbable, high impact events. He cautions that markets are poor predictors of war, for example, that government predictions are generally unreliable, and that the accuracy of a forecast ‘degrades rapidly as you extend it through time.’ Or as he cautions in a nutshell: ‘No one in particular is a good predictor of anything. Sorry.’

The  Asian financial crisis of 1997 led to rapid – and quite unforeseeen – devaluation of the Thai baht, the Korean won, and the Indonesian rupiah. Argentina’s economy, meanwhile, experienced hyperinflation in the late 1980s and then collapsed between 1999 and 2002. Japan actually experienced deflation and a zero interest rate policy between 2001 and 2005, quite at odds with economic predictions for the country two decades earlier (and also at odds with what one would expect of the world’s second largest economy). These examples give us pause, because Argentina, Japan and Korea have nuclear plants, and Thailand announced plans in June 2007 to build the country’s first nuclear plant. All will need [nuclear waste] repositories in time. But more within the spirit of Taleb’s argument, the better lesson is to recognize that we have no idea where the next financial crisis will occur.”

The last sentence was meant as a general warning, not a premonition. We may have recognized the lesson of that sentence for now – humility – but we’re likely to forget it again in the next bull market.

As for the title of this post, it comes from the fact that seemingly small human preferences at one moment in time – apparently marginal increments of utility or enjoyment – can have huge impacts on future generations. As Cowen and Parfit write (I quote them in my paper), “Imagine finding out that you, having just reached your twenty-first birthday, must soon die of cancer because one evening Cleopatra [the ruler of ancient Egypt] wanted an extra helping of dessert.” The example sounds far-fetched, right? But the issue is whether incremental forms of consumption and enjoyment at the expense of the environment today – widespread enjoyment of shark fin soup, for example – are set to have similarly dramatic and harmful impacts on future generations.

As the British economist F.P. Ramsey wrote in an important paper in 1928 (“A Mathematical Theory of Saving,”), to “discount later enjoyments in comparison with earlier ones … is “a practice which is ethically indefensible and arises merely from the weakness of the imagination.” Sadly, and ironically, Ramsey died only two years after writing those words, only 26 years old, and with the wisdom of someone who had lived much longer.

Tennis Vagabond: a story of tennis, evil and everything else








Sans Everything depends not only on its writers, but also its readers. Given the huge difference between daily site visits and replies to our posts it is clear that the vast majority of visitors to the site are content to read quietly, which is perfectly fine with us. We are also delighted, however, to have some regular readers who themselves have become a part of the blog through their regular responses, and in no case is this more true than with David Sachs.  His interests are as varied as our posts and then some, and he adds immeasureably to our ongoing conversation.

What Sans Everything readers may not know is that David has put together a highly original and very funny podcast entitled Tennis Vagabond, based on a novel he wrote called The Life on Court of Bacon O’Rourke (you can subscribe to the podcast for free). As David explained to me, “Tennis Vagabond follows the young tennis legend Bacon O’Rourke who travels the open road with whiskey in his flask and a racquet on his back, serving and volleying and drinking and toking his way across the land. This comic epic is, in short,  Jack Kerouac with a tennis racquet, and some serious bad guys. The story covers tennis and evil, sex and death, drugs and physics, and the dangers in commodifying that which we love. The bad guys in hot pursuit of Bacon and his underground tennis caravan include the mythical Tennis Illuminati (secret masters of the Game), and a down-and-out coach with a taste for detective novels, Zen quips, and funk music. God and the Devil make cameos as tournament umpires.” It also has a physics blog, a tennis blog and some memorable video extras (trust me: the strip tennis match is sure to hold the attention of people who otherwise don’t care for tennis).

Tennis Vagabond‘s mix of lowbrow and highbrow will appeal to many Sans Everything visitors, and it is also timely in its central message: “a parable of consumerism, commodification, and the progression of open-ended capitalism at a time when those things are being questioned.” But why tennis in particular? David’s answer: “I’m not too sure, but it worked. As Tom Robbins says about hitchhiking in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the Truth is there in anything, if you push it far enough (‘when it has been pushed far enough it contains everything else’).”

Congratulations, David, and we look forward to hearing of O’Rourke’s continuing adventures!