Tuesday, February 27, 2007


We all know that Huffy Crew readers and writers are much smarter than the average member of Congress. The question is: how much smarter? I scored 100% on this Sunni-Shiite quiz; let's see what y'all can do.
Via Volokh.

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New Environmentalism, Incrementalism and Pragmatism

Every time I visit my local Whole Foods, I see Greenpeace activists milling around outside, signing people up to fight in the war for the environment. None of these activists has approached me yet, but if they did, I would have to restrain myself from giving them a long lecture and a swift kick in the behind. With its opposition to nuclear power and genetic engineering, Greenpeace actually hurts the environment more than it helps it. It is the epitome of "romantic environmentalism," a movement against which Stewart Brand is fighting, as described in this article in the New York Times. Brand was a Merry Prankster who kept on going, fighting for innovative and positive change and continually rethinking his positions. He is the opposite of the dogmatic, left-over hippies that refuse to rethink their positions in an era of new threats and challenges.
The most important thing about people like Brand is that they really get the point of the '60s and '70s: it's not about the specific thoughts of one era, but the ability to challenge establishment thinking regardless of who controls the establishment. I've been criticized before for arguing that we should be pragmatic in seeking change and should work through incremental steps if that's what's needed. I certainly believe that that is true, but the other side of that perspective is that one step is not enough. Any incremental step must be followed by more. The beauty of this perspective lies not only in its ability to promote progress, but also that it gives us time to evaluate our progress and consider new alternatives.
Indeed, the praise I heaped on Brand as well as the condemnation I shot at the birkenstock-wearing masses echo his own words:
"The romantics are moralistic, rebellious against the perceived dominant power, and combative against any who appear to stray from the true path. They hate to admit mistakes or change direction. The scientists are ethicalistic, rebellious against any perceived dominant paradigm, and combative against each other. For them, admitting mistakes is what science is."

This is from his article in Technology Review.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Spare a talent for an old ex-leper?

The Sheriff and I (and perhaps others among you) have always enjoyed Foucault's description of Jose Luis Borges' "Chinese Encyclopedia" from the opening passage of The Order of Things. In order to delight the uninitiated and to bring a knowing smile to those already hip, it goes a little something like this:
This book first arose out of a passage in Borges, out of the laughter that shattered, as I read the passage, all the familiar landmarks of my thought—our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography—breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other. This passage quotes a "certain Chinese encyclopedia" in which it is written that "animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) suckling pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (l) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off look like flies."
Old curmudgeons will never cease pointing out that Borges' encyclopedia is fabricated. Fine, fine. Perhaps the world isn't so radically relativistic. However, I had a similar chuckle today when reading an article by a fellow graduate student. He describes religious associations of the Ptolemaic period in Egypt and the various membership fees involved. One chart in particular lists the rules of the association in descending order according to the fines attached to the offense in question. Some outrages appear rather obvious -- "not giving money to a poor member," "threatening an office holder," "absence from funeral" -- but here are the top 5:

1. Adultery with a member's wife
2. Beer or wine fraud
3. Office holder hitting a member
4. Hitting an office holder
5. Accusing of leprosy

Specifically, the penalty for adultery is 30 times greater than that for "insulting a member," and accusing someone of being a leper is considered 10 times as bad as an insult. (Indeed, it's qualitatively different from a normal insult altogether.) And I can't claim to know what "beer or wine fraud" means.

Friday, February 23, 2007

$225.82 for All!

I found this webpage (on the internet) that shows you the value of your/any blog. It computes a blog’s estimated value by multiplying the number of hits a particular blog gets by "the same link to dollar ratio as the AOL-Weblogs Inc deal.”

According to the value-calculating webpage, www.washav.blogspot.com is worth $2,258.16. I say we sell the blog to AOL (should be easy) and split the money equally amongst washav's 10 contributors. Or maybe we should just donate all of it to Sam Brownback's presidential campaign.

Curry’s blog performs a bit more impressively; thinkprogress.org is worth $5,172,315.48.

In sad, related news, www.ISeeFamousPeople.com is worth exactly nothing, but after all, it’s not really a blog.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Perhaps it will be beaten tomorrow...

...but as of right now this is the worst article linked to on Arts and Letters Daily, ever. It is perhaps one of the worst articles ever written. Not only is it devoid of any real argument, since it's based on a false premise, but it's also completely mean-spirited. Titled "Censoring students at Oxford? That is so gay," its argument runs roughly thus: A student at Oxford complained about people in the Common Room using words like "poof" and "gay" to describe bad shots made during a pool game. The "executive" of the Junior Common Room then sent out an email that said:
‘JCR members have raised concerns after groups have been overheard in the Games Room and other communal areas of college using terms like “gay” and “poof” as joking insults. Please be aware that using language like this is unacceptable and extremely offensive, even if you are not being intentionally malicious and think you are being ironic or witty in some way. It creates an uncomfortable atmosphere in the college.’
Your basic call for politeness, right? According to the author of the aritcle, Maria Grasso, this actually constitutes "self-censoring," "enforcing an official dogma," "infantilization," a "pernicious...attempt at thought control," "intolerant censorship," and an action by the "campus thought police."

Do libertarians honestly have nothing better to do? This whole piece is absurd. First, and most importantly, there is absolutely no threat of coercion made in the email. It is an expression of concern about a way of speaking that is insulting to many people. One such person (he is named -- Andrew Godfrey) would prefer that such talking cease. Sending out an email is one way to promulgate his request for civility. Second, let's not dress this up as suppression of a deep, nuanced topic that can only be resolved by careful discussion. Grasso summons the ever-useful example of Mill's On Liberty (gag) and later argues that "prejudice – which is a more serious matter than banter around a pool table – can only be effectively challenged in open debate, through reasoned argument." She speaks reverently of the University's atmosphere of questioning, skepticism, experimentation. We're talking about the use of the adjective "gay" here. It's not questioning the divinity of Jesus, or arguing for socialism, or whatever the hell John Stuart Mill thought should be left to debate in the public sphere. It's just fucking insulting.

Grasso can't help but goad on those hand-wringing fags, though. Her final paragraph states: "The campus thought-police have no right to tell us how to think, speak or behave, and certainly not when we are just hanging out with friends and playing pool. They should bugger off and stop being so gay." Ha, you showed 'em, Maria! Maybe next time you should write an article about how outrage over "nigger" and "beaner" is just so much PC claptrap. That's the problem with these types of libertarian arguments: They don't like to hear oppressed groups asking for some respect, just asking for it, not enforcing it, and they treat them as either below contempt or an affront to freedom as we know it. They have ceased criticizing censorship (since there simply is no censorship in this case) and rather enforce their own rudeness. My guess is that Maria Grasso doesn't even have a problem with gay people. Maybe she even knows a gay person! She was just confronted with a deadline and had to throw some libertarian garbage together in time. This is basically the worst form of the South Park strategy: Make fun of people, not because they're hypocritical or power-mad or insufficiently libertarian, but actually because they're asking for respect as a minority. It's just mindboggling.

The only thing more mindboggling is that this woman found this nothing bit of fluff from Oxford and somehow made a 1200 word article out of it. And that I'm actually wasting my time commenting on it now. Watch for this strategy, though. I see it more and more and it insults my intelligence.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Real debate: Religion

Rather than deplore the absence of true debate in our time, I would like to refer my dear readers to a beautiful example of honest and aggressive debate conducted in e-epistolary form and reprinted using digital technologies: Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and renowned atheist, and Andrew Sullivan, "conservative" homosexual Catholic and author of The Conservative Soul. I've read Harris' book and loved it, and his sarcastic wit and clear thinking come through perfectly in this debate. Sullivan is honest and, for me, embodies many of the better aspects of religion: tolerance, caring, and wonder. In the debate thus far Harris has come through as the more articulate of the two, while Sullivan has lost his way a few times but is nonetheless determined to keep moving.
On the topic of Harris' book, I believe I saw some criticism of his tolerance of certain buddhist practices and other mysticism. Harris' point, I think, is that we simply do not know the limits of human cognition and so on, so we really cannot discount mysticism wholesale. Moreover, he expresses (correctly, in my belief) the wonder that even non-believers can experience at certain times and places, including that brought forth by the use of psychedelic drugs. As a soon-to-be neurology PhD, Harris understands that the brain is able to shift into some pretty interesting modes of thought and experience, and I think any cogent defense of atheism will have to accept that some weird shit happens in our brains and thoughts.
Finally, although I haven't had occasion to listen to it, this debate from NPR looks really great. The question being considered was "Is America Too Damn Religious." Pretty racy for public radio, no wonder those bastard conservatives want NPR defunded. [cite Stanley Fish here]

Monday, February 19, 2007

Funny stuff

Two amusing things from very different arenas:

The band Deerhunter, who are quite good, have a great Myspace page where they've included a section called "Actual Testimony" (from their live shows). Read all of them, but I was especially tickled by this bit: "The lead singer came out with a some lacy women's sleep dress and a shirt that said 'I am not Anorexic'. And this is him. He kept on false fellating the other band members. And he got a boner twice. The girls behind me said we were 'witnessing the destruction of a human being.'" At which point the lead singer feels the desperate need to interject and says "(i got a boner? what the fuck is this kid talking about??? mom, if you are reading this: i totally did not get a boner.)" Oh me, I love that.

Also, although this nickname has been around for about 1 year, I had no idea of its existence: apparently The National Review's Johah Goldberg is not-so-affectionately referred to on the blogosphere as "Doughy Pantload." And now people have started referring to him as (snicker) Doughbob Loadpants. I tend not to read the smaller liberal blogs, mostly because they're too wrapped up in petty issues (usually involving Ann Althouse's stupidity in some way). I do read atrios and digby occasionally. Maybe this is an incentive, because I laugh at "Doughy Pantload" every time I read it or even think about. And I just lost the game. Goddamnit.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Very late thoughts on Caché

I remember when several of the Huffy Crew blogateers saw Caché at the Tivoli. I was not cool enough to see it then, but I just watched it tonight on a rental, and I must say, it's great. A few questions, though: Everyone talked about how the final shot reveals so much... Did I miss something? (Spoilers here, for those who care about such things.) Majid's son meets Pierrot outside the school, they exchange what looks like friendly talk, and part ways. Are we supposed to assume that they know each other? That they were working together all along with the tapes? Even though there was no clear resolution I loved the effect. Being the typical moviegoer I expected someone to come out of the darkness when Georges goes to sleep in his final scene and kill him or something. Instead we get a flashback (dream?) followed by the school shot. The actor playing Georges was fucking fantastic. I'll never forget that nose. At first you have mild sympathy for him before realizing he's an asshole and a liar. All his scenes are completely bizarre. His interactions with his wife, his son, Majid, Majid's son at the end...totally surreal. There's not a realistic moment in the whole movie, but I think that's supposed to be the point. Here are my main questions: Does anyone remember the Iraq footage, where they quote the Italian woman? I thought there must be some significance there... Also, when Anne and Pierrot have their talk after Pierrot comes home from spending the night out: this made absolutely no sense to me, I realize that Pierrot was insinuating something about his mother and her boss, Pierre, but her reaction was just weird. (The Pierre/Pierrot pairing makes me think we're supposed to understand some sort of subconscious message/familio-romantic anxiety.) Overall, I loved the long takes and the odd camera focus. It brought attention to all the various passers-by, the people in cars, on bikes, at the nearest table, etc. One of the more atypical movies I've seen in a long time.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Huffy Crew Idea Report #1

This Huffy Crew Idea Report will be the first in a series that aims to collect and discuss ideas we're thinking about now that we weren't thinking about before. This is a group project, so contribute where you see fit. For me, this is to be a project in which thought and history come together as the calling-out or naming of priorities and mindsets - a task a little like Nietzsche's genealogy, I think. I mean this only in the sense that, while these ideas are emphatically not novel or newly-produced, their relation to us and our interest in them bears the trace of a turn of the mind and revaluation of values.

The Military-Industrial Complex

This one I leave up for grabs (in other words, for debate). I don't know that the MIC ever completely fell off the politico-theoretical radar, but something tells me that its centrality with regard to the study of American foreign policy is a new thing, related most obviously to the Iraq war. Of course, I haven't been paying serious attention to political affairs for very long, but hear me out. This morning, it occurred to me that the problem of journalism following 9/11 was this: That they were unprepared for reporting an historical conflict. The distinction I am making is between an historical conflict and an immediate one, and in every sense the treatment of 9/11 was as an instance of the latter.

An historical conflict is one which requires a knowledge of the history of power in a region; an immediate conflict calls for the understanding of ideologies, beliefs, and emotions as they play out in the immediate present. Was it the Cold War that inured us to the idea of an ongoing immediate conflict? Likely it was; but think of Clinton, who was, by my account, an utterly immediate President. His crises were of the immediate sort - most obvious were the sex scandals, which called for just the sort of psychological and emotional analysis that characterize affairs of immediacy. But think as well of Clinton's rhetoric, his "I feel your pain" compassioneering, which went a long way towards keeping Americans convinced that affairs of political importance belong to the electorate rather than to silent cabals and hidden powers.

Clinton kept our attention upon affairs in the present; he was probably not the first public figure in recent years to do so, but he did it so well that it's worth calling him archetypal. Of course, there were secret cabals and hidden powers, but to root them out requires political archeology - rooting and digging and, above all, an historical understanding of affairs. Historical affairs are not necessarily more difficult than immediate ones; or at least, they are both impossible when thought of in the extreme, only in different ways. The problem with historical insight is that it is never-ending: there are always more players and situations of power than can be counted. Immediate insight is impossible insofar as the motivations of actors are unknowable in the final instance. As it happens, I think, totalitarianism prospers by making all affairs immediate, and by seeking to rewrite the narrative of history as an ongoing conflict of emotions, worldviews, beliefs - in short, according to unvarying, all-encompassing attitudes. It is worth noting that the popular understanding of our "terrorist enemy" follows this narrative; so does any description of a conflict as a purely ideological one, or a clash of beliefs or passions. To take seriously the notion of the MIC and its centrality with regard to current political affairs is to engage in serious historical investigation. We have, I think, begun to reclaim this sort of historical insight; but only after 4 years of war revealed to us a situation of irreducibly historical import.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

One more step towards global domination!

I'm proud to announce that one of our bloggers has "made it": see this post by Satyam on Thinkprogress. That not enough? See this link to aforementioned post by Atrios. Even John McCain quakes in his boots when confronted by the journalistic dominance of Huffy Crew veterans. Hooray!


Right-wing literary agent Lynn Chu and the President's own Salacious Crumb John Yoo have what is perhaps the worst New York Times op-ed I've ever read in the Feb. 12 issue. It's not that this piece is full of arguments which I disagree with, which is of course true (to an extent--see below), but that it's effectively a "nanny-nanny-boo-boo" asserting nothing new and supported by the lamest assortment of White House talking points and non sequiturs. I really don't understand why the Times editorial board thought it worthwhile to award their precious space to this shite, except perhaps that they have the secret intention to reveal, with each published Yoo piece, the fact that there is no cock of power and authority which he will not graciously admit into his welcoming rictus.

It's obvious from the piece that Yoo and Chu's leitmotiv is that nothing could be better than a world in which George Bush is free to teabag a helpless Congress on every important issue. They scoff at the legislature's attempt at "micromanagement," and they describe both the (limited) efforts of Congress to halt the surge and the public's frustration with the war as "bluster" (couldn't they find a thesaurus?), as if it were all an annoying sideshow impeding their Duce from issuing his sublime pronouncements. (The truth of the matter is that any halfwit, conservative or liberal, can see that the White House has waged this war with absolutely no external intrusions and has had about as much success as a three-legged cat trying to bury a turd on an iceburg. Parting with supreme executive command at this point could only be difficult for sycophants and other fascist pageboys like Bill Kristol.)

The rest of the article is not worth responding to, insofar as it's an amalgamation of bad rhetoric induced by gentle Tony Snow handjobs ("If we falter now, it will be read as a 'defeat,'" "the world would begin to doubt American strength") and bald-faced lies and distortions ("[the Democratic Party is] so bitterly averse to the ideals of democratic nation-building").

The real hope we can take away from this shabby exercise is that nowadays such rantings are viewed as a form of pathology, or at least as an example of "waiting until the due-date to write it." Personally I think Yoo has already been sufficiently discredited as a hack, even among libertarian circles; see for example these posts at Eugene Volokh's blog at the time of the publication of Yoo's last piece. However, in a way Yoo and Chu are right: Congress does possess the power to check the President's war plan, they just won't do it for fear of backlash in one form or another. The mistake is to think that this is because, unlike the common mob, congresspeople have a better understanding of what's "overall best" for the country; i.e. whereas most fickle Americans ("tire[d] of the war and engage[d] in overheated accusations of bad faith," as Yoo and Chu write) want to withdraw sometime soon, our wise political leaders see the "big picture." No. No. No. I submit that U.S. politicians don't give a shit about Iraqis (especially since withdrawing our major forces from Iraq is the best thing to do for their overall safety). Nor are they worried about a "defeat" in Iraq signalling a setback in the war on terror. (Our military bases in Iraq, which are a sure thing no matter what, will ensure against this.) They're really concerned about losing a vote or two in the 2008 elections, and so, as Chu and Yoo say, they "would rather sit back and let the president take the heat in war than do anything risky." In other words, they would rather let more Iraqis and Americans die than risk a dip in the poll numbers. People should realize that the Democrats' stalling on Iraq doesn't have anything to do with their "privileged knowledge" about the issue but rather about what they think is politically feasible (in the worst possible sense, not the pragmatic sense). Democrats' timidity is a testament to the power of the right-wing noise machine, not to the validity of its claims.

Monday, February 12, 2007


There has been much criticism--from the right--of Mitt Romney's "flip-flop" on abortion and gay rights. Consider this excerpt from a New York Times article on right-wing presidential candidates:

"[O]n a fundamental matter like the life of a fetus, some social conservatives say, the turnabout by Mr. Romney is worthy of skepticism.

'I know people can change, but sometimes when people want to be president, they speak of a change that has not occurred,” Mr. Wildmon said. “I like to go with a person whose words match their actions.'"

Romney explains his case as follows:
"Mr. Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has tried to explain his conversion on abortion rights, from support to opposition, with a made-for-television story: As he listened to a Harvard researcher discussing stem-cell science, and the destruction of embryos, he saw the antiabortion cause in a new light.

At some recent conferences for social conservatives, Mr. Romney has used a line that some conservatives find credible: 'On abortion I was not always a Ronald Reagan conservative. Neither was Ronald Reagan.'"

So social conservatives do not trust Romney because he changed his position. Let's rephrase that: social conservatives don't agree with someone who was convinced by their arguments. Now, were I Stanley Fish, I would have something much more complicated and profound to say about this. But since I'm not, I will say this: this seems very illogical. I know that there is a huge chance that Romney is acting or lying, but shouldn't his "made-for-television story" be considered a success by these people?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Bigger Picture

Marxist historian Robert Brenner has an interesting and thorough account of the 2006 elections at New Left Review. His piece attempts to fit the Democratic victories in the House and Senate into the bigger picture of the major political, class, and economic trends of post-Roosevelt America. Unsurprisingly (for a leftist) he argues that unionization levels and the power of organized labor have determined much of U.S. policy. In other words, the decline of unions exists in an indirect relationship with the growth of corporate power. In particular, the American South is a paradigm of the New Republican spirit in that it has high economic growth, low unionization, and has reacted "positively" to the Republican strategy of an ideology of rugged individualism, racism, suburban family values, and Christianity. Thanks to the power of this configuration, Democrats have had to respond defensively, shifting to the right while tacitly relying on the support of minorities and the working poor. This rightward shift has allowed Republicans to consider policies they never would have thought possible (and indeed, Eisenhower and Nixon didn't countenance them): the dismantling of the U.S.'s few remaining holdouts from the New Deal/Great Society welfare era, such as Social Security. Brenner sums up thus:
In this sense, today’s Republican right has also represented a break beyond postwar Republicanism, up to and including Reagan, in a double sense—its focus on directly attacking the New Deal–Great Society settlement, and its insistence on pushing for stepped-up military aggression, under conditions in which American geopolitical hegemony was already at a historic peak and the payoff for military interventionism on an extended scale appeared marginal. In terms of its programme and its central social base it has brought the agenda of Barry Goldwater, considered extremist in its time, into the us mainstream.
Note that this is the precise opposite of Andrew Sullivan's argument: That the Republicans lost in 2006 in part because they abandoned the "Goldwater conservative values" of small government and low spending. Brenner insists that we are effectively living in the age of Goldwater. He also claims, contra enthusiastic Democrats, that their victory in 2006 was a de facto one that benefited from opposition to the war, not from support for any Democratic agenda.

There is potentially much to disagree with here. The typical story is that reaction against the welfare state came from its failings, exemplified by the 70s' economic recession, and that people simply realized that progressive policy hurts growth. Brenner does not, however, believe this, says that the 70s were a period of international capital crisis across the board, (which fits in neatly to a Marxist account of the "fits" of capitalism), and claims that many lower income people welcomed Republican tax cuts because the income tax brackets were becoming too regressive, not progressive (i.e. the rich weren't being taxed enough for social programs, and the burden was falling on the poor). Like many leftists, he also sees Clinton, the DLC, Rahm Emanuel, and the Blue Dog Democrats as reactionary forces that continue to dismember what little remains of a real progressive streak in the Democratic Party. I'll leave it to you to read exactly what he says about that and formulate your own thoughts.

This kind of reading was refreshing overall for its detached perspective. After the November elections there was a lot of rhetorical wrangling from both sides over what the results "meant" about conservative or liberal ideology--whether people had given up on the Republicans because they weren't "conservative enough," whether there was a progressive shift on the horizon, etc; as if declaring the matter to be one way or the other would resolve the issue. Brenner believes it's neither, and he presents an historical, clear-sighted view of why. Perhaps you could find a long-term account like this one in the Atlantic or another well-respected magazine, but usually never in blogs, hired columnists, pundits, and newspapers, which seem constantly blinkered by the epiphenomena of the moment. (For example, assaulting Nancy Pelosi's reputation before she even lifts a finger on official House business; the importance of the non-binding anti-surge resolution, etc. Even the idea of the war overall, I would say, is not enough. Democrats are naturally going to focus their policy around criticizing the war [while doing nothing about it, of course] but they shouldn't be fooled into thinking that the war explains everything in American politics.) Not that there aren't important battles to be won over ephemeral issues, but it's nice to take a step back every now and then. I heartily recommend this to everyone.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


Yesterday I knocked on the door of the squash court I had reserved and began to tell the two men inside that their time was up. As I spoke, I realized that the two men were Senator Carl Levin and Representative Sander Levin, delegates from my home state of Michigan. It was too late to stop, and both of the men graciously began to leave the court. Somehow I gathered enough wit to tell them they could finish their game. Since they only had two points left, they finished quickly; both thanked me for allowing them to complete their game as they left the court.
I realize that the actual implications of this individual incident are few, especially because the incident transpired between well-to-do white people, but it's reassuring to think that people in America are not kidding when it comes to equality. Although a membership at my gym costs about $90 a month, anyone can join and anyone can kick off US Congressmen when their time is up. We have to remember what an accomplishment that is.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Philosophōn prosōpa

Thanks to Crooked Timber, I have enjoyed these great photographs of philosophers by Steve Pyke. Be sure to look at the new batch as well as the old; familiar faces abound: Appiah, Rorty, Cohen--and he spelled Roger Scruton's name wrong (a jab at the old conservative?). I find the original series much more impressive; you get all the liver spots, stray hairs, and ridiculously huge glasses perched over droopy eyes. Several of these guys were seriously superannuated at the time of the photoshoot and would die shortly afterward: A.J. Ayer, H.L.A. Hart, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, for example. CLR James passed away the following month. When Pyke blurs his photography it creates a weird effect: Rawls looks positively Boris Karloff-like, while John Searle might as well be a minor character in The Grapes of Wrath. For me it's hard to look at these people and not think what great company they would have been.