Friday, September 30, 2016

It's Always Snowing There

World heavyweight champion Tyson Fury has tested positive for cocaine. As a result he may lose his belts.

Come on, he lives in England. He just had to walk into the loo of his local pub a couple of times and that would be enough to produce a positive test.

Where did the idea that it is sinful to use "curse words" come from?

The Bible only says one thing about "cursing": Don't take the Lord's name in vain.

If I say, "What the f*ck is that?" the Lord's name does not appear anywhere in that sentence.

I think what has gone on here is a conflation of upper-class behavior with righteous behavior.

Cursing is something done by dirty, sweaty, working men when they are angry.

When a rich person is angry, he has other outlets: he forecloses on your house, or fires you. So, no need to curse!

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Apple dictation weirdness

I spoke the following words: "I have reviewed at least three books on of the history of science..."

The Apple dictation software put them into my document exactly as above. But then it suddenly deleted a bunch of them leaving me with: "I have reviewed at least three books science..."

Notice that the new sentence isn't even grammatical. What the heck could be going on? It "heard" all of the words, and then... decided it did not like some of them?

Monday, September 26, 2016

Introduction to Algorithms, Lecture Three

Many people have no clue how thermostats work

My tenant found the house too cold. I realized that the problem was that I had turned the furnace off at the start of the summer, and had forgotten to turn it back on. But when turning the thermostat up to 70 had produced no result, my tenant then turned it up to 85.

Her view of the thermostat was that it was some sort of magical wish granter: if one wishes for 70, and one's wish is not granted, then perhaps wishing for 85 will result in a grant of the wish for 70.

I don't mean to pick on her: many, many people seem to treat thermostats in this way. They walk into their office, and the temperature is 80. They would like it to be 70, but they want it to "get there fast," so they set the thermostat to 60.

Professors, Don't Let Your Students Grow Up to Be Proprietary Software Users

I am currently cutting over all of my course management to rely on open-source, text-reliant software and files.

I have been through several course management tool cut-overs at several schools, plus experiencing the general difficulty of bringing one's accumulated knowledge and data forward from one position to the next, and with the last new course management tool I had to adopt, I had had it!

Of course, you have to use whatever course management software your school requires: well, they require it, and the students are used to it. But you can just fill up the content area of that tool with links to your open-source repository, where the real meat of your course resides. To do this:

A GitHub repository should take the place of your Moodle / Blackboard / Canvas / Whatever course module as the focus of where you collect your course materials. When you rely on GitHub for this function, you get:
  • Complete portability of your accumulated course-specific files from one institution to another: a school may deny you access to their course management system after you leave, but they can't deny you access to your own GitHub repository!
  • The ability to share the work you have done as broadly as you want. No one needs a University ID to view your GitHub repository.
As a substitute for PowerPoint and course management "external resource" links, rely on HTML files. PowerPoint allows you to include lots of images supporting your lecture? Well, so does HTML. Your course management software gives you the ability to link to multiple videos, audio files, external web pages, and so on, to give your students supplementary materials? Well, so does HTML. In fact, HTML was built to allow one file to link to other stuff.

What's more, all of the work I have done with proprietary formats has been subject to multiple crashes, cross-platform incompatibilities, and so on. That doesn't happen with HTML files. In addition, since HTML is text-based, it is easy for you or a programmer you hire to process and transform those files with simple Perl, Python, awk, or shell scripts.

The above doesn't mean you should never use proprietary software for your courses: there are times when a PowerPoint presentation may provide the "pop" you need bring out some point with some fancy animations or transitions. There are times when an Excel spreadsheet can be just the ticket for capturing how the parameters to some model affect its output. But you can store these files in GitHub as well! So, basically, if you go open source, you can incorporate proprietary whenever you wish. But the reverse is hardly true.

And here is my first effort following these precepts.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Politics Is Not Only About Liberty

Or any other single good. As Eric Voegelin wrote:

"The political interplay of [every functioning society] is patrician. It is based on the fact that one thinks a lot about what the others do, but does not say it; that one is always aware that in the society there is more than one good to achieve, not only the good of freedom, but also the good of security, the good of welfare, and that if I specialized in one or other of these goods, I could thereby bring the whole society into disorder, because I could destroy the balance between the realization of goods on which the society is based. . . . If I harden myself with a particular idea and pursue only this goal, this one good, then in reaction there arises the counterstasis, the counter-hardening, and with this the impossibility of social cooperation."

Will-ful Ignorance

Will Wilkinson thinks he's got the religious dead to rights:

"It’s happening in all wealthy, liberal-democratic countries. The needs served by religious belief and participation seem to weaken as people become more prosperous and oriented toward individual self-realization."

Religion is just something poor, backward people need: once people start devoting themselves to relentlessly pursuing material wealth and fulfilling their own egos, religion drops by the wayside. Who could have imagined? Well, except...

"But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs."

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The autonomy of physics

As with mathematics, physics should be free of interference by philosophers. And when I discuss Zeno's paradox of motion, I am philosophizing.

In no way whatsoever am I trying to revise modern physics, or tell physicists how they should look at space, or inform them about what mathematical techniques they ought to employ. Physicists should use whatever models and techniques help to advance physics. And they certainly don't need a philosopher's advice to decide what those things are.

"Don't Shoot Him!"

The New York Times has on its front page for Sunday (we get the Sunday Times on Saturday in NYC): '"Don't Shoot Him!" Wife's Plea to Charlotte Police'

This is incendiary. More relevant and less inflammatory would have been '"Drop the Gun!" Cop's Plea to Charlotte Shooting Victim'

Friday, September 23, 2016

The second person who pitched Trump to me...

Was the best sales person I know.

Sometime in May, he said to me "It's all over."

"The GOP nomination?" I asked him.

"No, the election: Trump is going straight to the White House. Clinton is a horrible sales person."

Watching her the last few months, I have to agree. If the Democratic Party was giving away a luxury villa overlooking the Mediterranean, we'd all sign up for it. But after Hillary pitched it to us for a half hour or so, we'd say, "You know, thanks anyway, but I really don't need a villa."

Any Maor Dude with Half a Pile of Uranium

Relevant to our recent discussion of the continuum:

"The rate of decay of a radioactive substance -- in the amount of radiation it emits -- is at every moment proportional to its mass m: dm/dt = -am. The solution of this differential equation is m = m0e-at, where m0 is the initial mass of the substance (the mass at t = 0). We see from this solution that m will gradually approach 0 but never reach it -- the substance will never completely disintegrate." -- e: The Story of a Number, p. 103

Here we get a clear glimpse into the problem of mistaking a formalism for reality. When he wrote this, Maor seems to have forgotten that this differential equation is just a model for radioactive decay, and not radioactive decay itself.

Because the model implies that the amount of radioactive material present at any time changes along a continuum, and that it changes exactly according to this equation. (It could not do the latter unless it also did the former.)

But, of course, the amount of uranium or plutonium or whatever present in some mass does not change continually. We cannot have 1.54957623 atoms of uranium in a rock: we can only have two atoms, or one atom. And once radioactive decay reduces the amount left to one atom, even that last atom will sooner or later decay, and we will have zero atoms of uranium left. And so, contra Maor, all of the uranium will eventually disappear.

Since we are typically dealing with a vast number of uranium atoms in any radioactive sample, modeling the decay process as though it were a continuous function is a useful fiction. But if we mistake the model for reality, we reach erroneous conclusions, such as "there will always be some uranium left in the sample."

I suggest that similarly, modeling space as if it were a continuum is a useful fiction. But if we mistake the model for reality... I leave the rest as an exercise for the reader.

Zeno was not worrying about specifications or formal systems

Reader Alex Small writes:

"the fact that we can specify a process via an infinite list of statements does not mean that it is impossible for such a process to happen. There is an implicit assumption that the only physically feasible processes are those with finite specifications in some particular formal system."

But this is mistaking what the Greeks were worried about. There concern was not with specifications or formal systems. There concern was with the nature of space. And they were puzzling over whether space, in reality, was infinitely divisible, or was it somehow chunky, or atomic. And some among them noted that, if it is infinitely divisible, that seems to create some problems, such as it seemingly making it impossible for things to get moving.

The difference between worrying over this and worrying over specifications in formal systems might be clarified by my stating that I have no quarrel with the mathematical concept of the continuum at all. The fact that in a formal system, something might be specified as taking an infinite number of steps, and that we then treat those steps as if they were completed, leaves me as serenely unperturbed as the Buddha under the bodhi tree*. We can have a model of space as a continuum, and if it proves useful, well, for a model, that's all that counts.

The issue here is not about our specifications or any formal system: it is about reality.

* Remember his big hit, "Don't sit under the bodhi tree / with anyone else but me / anyone else but me"?

Does Accounting for Time Somehow Resolve Zeno's Paradoxes?

A commenter asks, "Isn't Zeno's mistake thinking that an infinite number of steps cannot be completed in a finite time?"

Upon receiving this question, I realize that I have been making a mistake: I have been presenting Zeno's paradox as it usually, in my experience, is popularly portrayed (e.g., this is what Maor offers): to get to the finish line, a runner has to cover half the distance to the finish line. From there he still has to cover half the remaining distance to the finish line. And from there, he still has to cover… So, 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16...

But that was not actually how Zeno presented the problem, and discussing this has convinced me that Zeno was correct to present it the way he did. In the common portrayal, the runner can get closer and closer to the finish line, but can never quite get there. However, this leads to the misapprehension that if we just made all of those steps happen in similarly decreasing amounts of time as well, the problem would be solved. And to the misapprehension that Zeno just didn't get limits.

Zeno's presentation is more effective than the pop presentation, because it never gives those misapprehensions any footing to get started. The way Zeno presented the paradox, to finish a race the runner first must get halfway to the finish line. But before he can get halfway there, he first must get a quarter of the way there. And before 1/4, first 1/8, and so on. So Zeno doesn't merely contend that the runner can't finish the race (if space is a continuum). He makes the much stronger contention the runner can't even start it. For any "first move" the runner might make, there is a smaller first move that he will have to make beforehand. If space is a continuum there is no "minimal" first move that will ever get him going!

And positing that the runner can somehow leap past this barrier because all those teeny-tiny first steps will happen really, really fast ignores the fact that Zeno's critique of the continuum applies every bit as much to time as it does to space. If space is a continuum, then time must be one as well. And so in Zeno's model universe, time doesn't keep on ticking, ticking, into the future: no, time, also, can't get going at all, because for time to advance one second, it first has to advance half a second, but before that it must first advance a quarter of a second, and before that… So just as the runner can't get running in the first place, time can't get ticking in the first place either.

Of course, Zeno was not an idiot, and he knew things moved. He is arguing in the context of the Greek discussion of whether φύσις is a single, continuous thing of some sort, a plenum, a continuum, or if it is chunky, atomic. And Zeno is trying to demonstrate that if space/time really were a continuum, neither motion nor time would be possible. Thus, there must be a smallest unit of space (and time), and things move and time advances by multiples of that unit.* (And this, of course, really resolves the paradox, and seems to fit with the findings of quantum physics.) And I am pleased to report that Henri Bergson, unbeknownst to me before yesterday, reached a similar conclusion.

* We only have others' reports about what Zeno actually believed (none of his works survive), so I am being speculative in saying he was not arguing against motion per se, but against motion in a continuum. My interpretation is supported, I think, by Atomism and Its Critics**, and by the fact that it is from an anti-atomist, Aristotle, that we primarily get our report on what Zeno taught. Aristotle would be biased here, and could easily slip into reporting Zeno in a way to make him look as silly as possible, without consciously lying. (Confirmation bias.) But in any case, if what I claim is not what Zeno was arguing, it is what he ought to have been arguing!

** Holy crap, this book is expensive now! I'm sure I did not pay nearly that much for it.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Well, they're dressed like bandits, aren't they?

I walk into the college gardens, which is a nice little urban green space about a quarter of a block long.

An older fellow is sitting on one of the benches. As I pass him, he asks "Do you work here?"


Him asking me twice more is not a propitious sign for the future course of the conversation. But once we clear up my employment status, he says, "I just want to let you know: I was in here the other night at 11."

(OK, I am thinking, what are you doing hanging around our garden at 11 at night?)

"And I saw something moving. I thought it was a cat. But then I looked more closely: it was a raccoon!"

"I see."

"It was a raccoon!" he repeats, clearly deciding that I am somewhat dense.

"OK, and what would you like me to do about that?"

"Well, you had better tell somebody."

"I will, I will."

And so I am telling all of you.

Gotta have a right for this, a right for that

At a faculty meeting recently, I was told that it is a "human right" of students to have a syllabus that tells them what is expected of them in a course.

Textbook speak

I just ran across the following problem in a business math textbook:

"Joe, at age 35, decides to invest in a retirement account. He will put aide $2000 per year for the next 30 years. How much will he have at age 65 if his rate of return is assumed to be 10% per year?"

Don't you love that "assumed to be"? It is:

1) Completely unnecessary. The authors could have just said "if his rate of return is 10% per year."

2) And it makes the answer indeterminate. Assuming a rate of return of i% doesn't make Joe anything! Only if his rate of return is i% will he make money!

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Microwave, that is.

I assume that there is an ideal cooking time for any particular dish one might put in the microwave. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that these ideal cooking times tend to fall particularly often on multiples of 60 seconds.

But microwaves typically have a shortcut that allows you to choose some integral number of minutes for heating your food. 59 times out of 60 (if we round ideal cooking times to the nearest second) choosing this shortcut will be sub optimal.


"Philosophers" like Martha Nussbaum work hard to de-legitimize disgust as a moral guide.

Now, our gut reactions to things are far from being an infallible guide to what we should really think about them. (But who ever claimed that they were?) But there is a huge difference between something not being an infallible guide, and something not being a guide at all. A New York City Subway map is not an infallible guide to getting around by subway in the city: sometimes a line is closed for construction and so forth. But still, it is a pretty good guide.

In any case, John Loike agrees with this common sense position.

My review of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume I

is now online here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

How to Get Very Confused About Mathematics

I linked to this screed in my previous post (I am aware of it because a reader sent it to me). The focus of it is whether or not infinite sets "really exist." The author claims they do not.

What he is asking here is an ontological question, about what entities really occupy our world and what ones are only imaginary. And that question may or may not interest someone. But it is completely irrelevant to mathematics!

For mathematicians, the only relevant question about infinite sets is, "If we posit they exist, does that enable us to do better / more interesting / more fruitful mathematics?" And if positing them advances mathematics, why in the world should the mathematician have any concern over whether or not infinite sets "really" exist, whatever it would mean for them to do so?

Philosophy is irrelevant to mathematics, and vice-versa

Eli Maor notes that when mathematicians finally began to accept the idea of infinite series, they began to toss the notion of "infinity" around very casually, with very little philosophical rigor.

Similarly, Leibniz certainly could not explain philosophically what he meant by an "infinitesimal." But so what? Employing them allowed him to develop calculus, one of the greatest inventions in the history of mathematics.

Berkeley mocked the mathematicians occasional self-impotrance, but he had no intention of showing that their mathematical results were wrong. When he wrote, in The Analyst:

"And what are these Fluxions? The Velocities of evanescent Increments? And what are these same evanescent Increments? They are neither finite Quantities nor Quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?"

His goal was not to dispute the usefulness of calculus, but to point out that mathematicians were putting their faith in concepts that they could not philosophically justify. And thus they had no basis for knocking similar moves by others.

And even though, mathematically speaking, infinitesimals have been put on a more sound axiomatic basis, I don't think anyone in the 300 years since Berkeley wrote has offered a decent philosophical explanation of what their ontological status is supposed to be.

But again, so what? Mathematicians are doing mathematics, not philosophy, and they only need to justify their concepts mathematically, not philosophically. If a mathematical concept works to produce interesting and/or useful advances in mathematics, that is the only justification it needs!

Asking a mathematician to philosophically justify some piece of mathematics is a lot like telling your plumber, who has just fixed a bad leak, that he has to explain his work in terms of molecular biology before you will pay him. Or telling an NFL coach that his play calling is all wrong, because he hasn't taken the principles of metallurgy into account.

(And this is the complementary point to my previous post on this matter, noting that interesting mathematical advances, however useful they are mathematically, do not resolve philosophical problems.)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Testing the limits of my patience

To rehearse Zeno's "runner's paradox" briefly: A runner is faced with the task of covering the distance between the starting and finishing lines. We can simply designate that distance as one. (One what? Well, one "race distance.") To cover that distance of one, the runner must first cover one half the distance from the start to the finish. Having done that, he next must cover one half of the remaining distance, or one quarter of the original distance. Having done that, he next must cover one half the remaining distance again, or 1/8 of the original distance. So the runner must "complete" the infinite series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16... before reaching the finish.

In modern mathematical terms, we talk about "limits," and we find the limit of this infinite series, and see that it is equal to one. Does this solve Zeno's paradox? Clearly it does not:

"A word of caution is necessary, however: the expression lim (n --> inf) 1/n = 0 only says that the limit of 1/n as n approaches infinity is zero; it does not say that 1/n itself will never be equal to 0 -- in fact, it will not. This is the very essence of the limit concept: a sequence of numbers can approach a limit as closely as we please, but it will never actually reach it." -- Eli Maor, e: The Story of a Number, p. 29

That pretty much settles that: the notion of a limit actually expresses Zeno's paradox, rather than solving it. The runner can get as close to the finish line as we please, but can never actually reach it.

So imagine my surprise to find Maor, a few pages later, claiming:

"It is easy to explain the runner's paradox using the limit concept. We take the line segment AB to be of unit length, then the total distance of the runner must cover is given by the infinite geometric series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16… this series has the property that no matter how many terms we add, its sum will never reach 1, let alone exceed 1; but we can make the salmon get as close to 1 as we please simply by adding more and more terms. We say that the series converges to 1, or has the limit 1, as the number of terms tends to infinity. Thus the runner will cover a distance of exactly one unit... and the paradox is settled." -- p. 46

I admit I am flabbergasted: Maor is saying "So you are puzzled as to how the runner ever actually reaches the finish line (one)? Well, see this mathematical process that also never actually reaches the finish line? Right? Well, that explains it!"

Zeno knew that runners actually finish races, and that things actually move around. What he was pointing out is that there is something fishy about the mathematical idea of the continuum if we try to apply it to space in the real world. And I think the clear way to "settle" the paradox is not to fatuously point to a mathematical process that never reaches the finish line, and say it explains how the runner does reach the finish line, but to recognize that real space must not be a continuum. It is chunky, or, if you will, quantized. And real motion, although, like a movie, it may appear to be continuous, actually occurs in quantum leaps. That, my friends, actually gets around the paradox.

UPDATE: Philosopher Francis Moorcroft makes the same point as I did above:

"This reply, however, misunderstands what modern mathematics has shown. Mathematicians do use sequences such as 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + . . . but they say that they have a limit of 1, or tend to 1. That is, we can get nearer and nearer towards 1 by adding on more and more members of the sequence, but not actually arrive at 1 - this would be impossible because we are considering an infinite sequence. So far from providing an argument against Zeno, mathematics is actually agreeing with him!"

The Night I Took the GREs

You did not know the GREs were sometimes held at night? Well, neither did I, until…

Having reached adulthood sometime in my fifties, I am now a fairly calm and boring individual in the evenings. But in my wild youth, of which I am not proud, that was not the case.

During that period, I scheduled myself to take the GREs. I didn't study: I figured I would take them once, see how I did, and only then see how much I needed to study. So I thought it was no big deal to head out to my favorite local bar the night before the test to play chess with my favorite bartender.

But our game that night dragged on for quite some time, and through a fair number of pints. It was probably about 3 AM that I realized that I might be better off not sleeping at all than sleeping a little bit before the test. So we kept playing until about 6 AM, at which point I went home, lay down on the floor for about 10 minutes with my eyes closed, and then got up and took a shower. I got dressed and went straight off to take the test, which started at 8 AM.

I made great efforts to keep myself awake, which included coffee and whatnot. I reached the end of the test, and the computer offered me the opportunity to abandon this attempt, or accept it and see my score. Since this was just my trial run, I thought "What the heck: accept the computer's verdict."

I clicked the button that made this attempt official, and my scores popped up on screen:

Verbal: 790 (out of 800)
Math: 800 (out of 800)

(My analytic score arrived later by mail, and was six out of six.)

To this day, I blame my terrible verbal score on having spent the entire night drinking before going straight in to take the test.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Local maxima

Silas offers a good explanation for why dragonflies don't just "figure out" how to fly in the shade. I think it is on target... as far as it goes.

My goal in this post and the previous one has not been to knock existing evolutionary explanations as incorrect. I am just pointing out that they leave a lot unexplained. (And we would expect as much in the average scientific theory.)

For instance, wouldn't it seem a little easier for fireflies to make the transition from flying in sunlight to flying in shade and sunlight, than for creatures that don't fly and don't have wings to transition to creatures that do fly and do have wings? It's as though your mechanic told you it was impossible to turn you plane that only flies in the daytime to one that can also fly at night, but definitely he could turn your car into a plane.

Murgh Methi comin' up!

I planted methi seeds last week, and my crop is coming along nicely:

What a Concert!

Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Paul McCartney all together on the same stage!

Solving procrastination problems

I always keep some book in Italian in the bathroom. The idea is that, if I don't bring anything else in, I will have to read some Italian at least once or twice a day. But of course, reading in Italian is still a lot more work for me than reading in English. So if anybody has left anything at all in English in the bathroom, I'm very likely to pick that up instead. (Akrasia, you know.)

But this week, I figured out how to solve this problem: I put a very dense book on statistics, which I really ought to be studying even more than Italian, in the bathroom. Now, I eagerly pick up the book in Italian as a way to avoid looking at the book on statistics!

Even Die-Hard Anti-Trumpkins Are Admitting Defeat

Josh Marshall tweets: "As we hurtle toward our Trumpist future, some of us can at least know we were in the resistance."

Five steps of grief and loss:

1) He won't even get 20% of the GOP vote in any primary! (Denial)
2) OK, he's getting more than that, but once other candidates drop out, the remaining establishment candidates will easily defeat him! (Anger)
3) Hey, you "nice" Republicans, you'll come over and support Hillary, right? So that then he can't possibly win the general election! (Bargaining)
4) Gee, Hillary sure is a terrible campaigner, but at least she's still ahead, by a bit. (Depression)
5) OK, Trump has won, but at least I was in the resistance. (Acceptance)

Dragonflies and mosquitoes...

and the incomplete nature of evolutionary explanations.

If you take walks in the country in the summer, you have almost certainly observed that you will get bitten by mosquitoes much more often in the shade than in the sunlight. Why? Well, the evolutionary explanation that I've heard (and it seems perfectly sound as far as it goes), is that a major predator of the mosquito is the dragonfly, and dragonflies only fly in the sun, so mosquitoes have evolved to fly in the shade in order to stay away from them.

Excellent... But then why haven't dragonflies subsequently evolved to be able to fly in the shade, and go get the mosquitoes where they are?

Again, I'm not saying that last question shows that the explanation on offer is wrong: I think it is most likely correct, as far as it goes. I am just noting that it leaves much unexplained.


Some guy named Sahil Kapur just tweeted, "Reality check: even if he wins every swing state in which is currently ahead, Trump will still lose the electoral college."

The map accompanying the tweet shows the current (hypothetical) electoral college score as 272 - 266. Of course, this means Trump only needs to pick up a single state more to win. And given he has been flipping about two states a week for the past several weeks…

So this is hilarious. A couple of months ago, the "Trump can't possibly win" choir was singing the refrain "Trump will lose in a landslide of historic proportions."

Now, they are still giving us "reality checks" intended to support their original hypothesis, except the new song goes, "Well, he's still one state shy of victory, and states are big, right?"

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Why Debate Internet Losers?

Well, Scott Adams explains why in the seond half of this post.

Having eaten my antelope (see Adams' post linked above) I have yanked most of the previous content of this post and just can say it works nicely: I was on fire in the classroom today, and gave two of my best lectures ever. If you know how to do it, you can use someone's attempt at humiliating you to gain tremendous energy.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Why it is important to debunk the "Trump is a racist" stupidity

Donald Trump is a brash, crass, self promoter, willing to say very provocative things to get attention, and who has treated American politics as the stage for a reality TV show.

But the idea that he is a racist, while a smart bit of campaign propaganda on the part of Hillary Clinton, is a stupid thing to actually believe. The many, many minority people who have worked with him over decades all testify to the fact that his businesses have been run in a colorblind manner, and that he gets along fine with people of all races.

Now that it's clear that Clinton's propaganda ploy, while it was her best shot at winning, has failed, and that Trump will be the next president, it would be a very nice thing for people to drop this piece of stupidity. Why? Well, because if enough people come to believe this nonsense, massive rioting and inter-racial violence are the likely results of Trump's upcoming victory. And even if you wanted Clinton to win, I suggest you ought not to be pleased with that outcome when Trump actually does win.

The Fat Lady Has Sung

Stick a fork in it. It's soup. Done and done. It's Miller time. The dishes are done, man! That's a wrap!

The election is over, and President Trump will be taking office in January. Not only do we have Clinton's figurative ("basket of deplorables") and literal stumbles over the weekend, but now National Review, the epicenter of #NeverTrump, has run a piece telling conservatives, "Face facts: Trump is our best choice."

We can expect 90% of the #NeverTrumpers to come around over the next couple of weeks, and sheepishly admit that by "never Trump" they actually meant, "almost never Trump, until it came right down to it."

"Post-pivot Trump" remains calm and magnanimous, and wishes Clinton a speedy recovery. Because that is the character he always intended to play once "crazy Trump" locked up the nomination.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Through a Glass Darkly

Many people have a hard time accepting that, when it comes to politics, as in the rest of our practical lives, "we see now through a glass darkly." They wish for a "politics of perfection" (or "politics as the crow flies") that is simply not available in this world.

For instance, David Gornoski suggests that, in politics, we should not "settle for hiring any person to represent you who leaves even one nonviolent person confined in a cell you yourself wouldn’t place there." With only a little extrapolation, we can see that this implies, "No one should accept any legal regime in which they disagree with so much as a single decision made by the legal authorities."

But in a fallen world, no such legal regime is possible. Our choice is not between an imperfect legal regime and a perfect legal regime, but between an imperfect legal regime and no legal regime. Eric Voegelin lays out the reasons why:

"The first of these reasons is the just-discussed calculus of error. Since there is a discrepancy between true order and empirical order, enforcement is necessary in order to eliminate disobedience on the part of citizens contending that the content of the rule is not in accord with the Ought in the ontological sense.

"The debate about the justice of the law must remain within the forms of political criticism and political action through voting. If the existence of the society is to be preserved, the debate cannot be permitted to degenerate into individual decision and resistance.

"Force is necessary, second, because the question of truth in matters of order rarely permits a certain, unequivocal answer. The structure of a society, especially of a modern industrial society, is infinitely complex; which of the various possible policies concerning a specific problem is in agreement with the common good, and therefore should be implemented by law, will be a matter of pros and cons with no clear weight on one side or the other. The decision, when finally made, will contain an element of arbitrariness. Again, if the society is to survive, the debate cannot go on forever; and once the decision is made by the representative, disobedience on the ground that the merits of the measure are still open to doubt cannot be permitted."

The acolytes of the politics of perfection abhor this unavoidable arbitrariness in any actual legal regime, and thus dream of a world where all complexity has been banished. We could hardly find a clearer expression of this politics of perfection than in this essay by Murray Rothbard, where he argues: "In short, there exists another alternative for law in society, an alternative not only to administrative decree or statutory legislation, but even to judge-made law. That alternative is the libertarian law, based on the criterion that violence may only be used against those who initiate violence, and based therefore on the inviolability of the person and property of every individual from 'invasion' by violence."

We should just set ourselves thinking, and come up with the perfect legal code, "before enshrining it as a permanently fixed libertarian code or constitution." We will ignore the issue of how, with no central legal authority, we "enshrine permanently" any code or constitution!

Of much more central importance is the wildly loose use made of the concept of "violence" in this sort of scheme of perfectionism. Of course, almost every legal regime that has ever existed has outlawed simply walking down the street and koshing the next person you meet on the head. So in that sense, just about everyone is against "violence."

But the simple, straightforward definition of "violence" we use in everyday life certainly will not get us an anarcho-capitalist legal regime. For instance, if I lie down to sunbathe in a meadow that happens to be owned by Walter Block, he would contend that he has a perfect right to shoot me for doing so. In the ordinary usage of the word "violence," I did nothing violent, while he did. In order to get around this little problem, he re-defines my lying down in an open meadow as a "violent" act, and his shooting me as "self-defense."

Since even followers of Rothbard have their own preferences for what should be outlawed, we find that even amongst themselves they can't agree on what is "violent." Murray Rothbard likes the idea of copyright, and so he defines copying a work without permission as "violent." But Stephan Kinsella doesn't like copyrights, so he defines enforcing a copyright as "violent."

Walter Bloch likes the idea of open borders, so he defines restrictions on immigration as "violent." Hans-Hermann Hoppe doesn't like open borders, so he defines open borders as "violent."

Opponents of fractional reserve banking thinking FRB is violent. (It is "fraud," which anarcho-capitalists, to squeeze it into Rothbard's legal straightjacket, have had to call "a form of violence.") But proponents will, of course, find an effort to ban FRB to be a form of violence.

So, in order to get their preferred legal regime out of Rothbard's dictum, anarcho-capitalists have to redefine the word "violence" to mean... well, basically, they redefine it to mean "things I think should be illegal." And "non-violent" means "things I think should be legal." (Essentially the same magic trick goes on with similar attempts to conjure all valid law out of a single principle, e.g., advocates of "Anything that's peaceful" just define things they want to be illegal as "not peaceful.")

Rothbard suggests that if we just think clearly, we can come up with an unambiguously just legal regime, and, even with no central enforcer, it will be so blindingly obvious to everyone that it is correct that it will be "permanently enshrined" as an eternal constitution. And yet, even among the .1% of the population that are anarcho-capitalists, there are dozens and dozens of different ideas as to what this eternal constitution should contain. So although this tenth of a percent of the population who basically accepts Rothbard's idea can't reach any agreement amongst themselves as to what exactly it entails, they believe that getting the other 99.9% of us who think Rothbard is blowing hot air to overwhelmingly accept their personal version of Rothbardianism is a real possibility.

There is no more reason to think that is sensible to come up with a "permanently fixed constitution" then it is to come up with a "permanently fixed daily schedule for every person on earth." And the fact that there are just about as many suggestions for "permanently fixed constitutions" as there are people suggesting we need one is a pretty good indication of the plausibility of the idea.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Affirmative Action?

As I have mentioned, I am teaching a graduate-level class in algorithms this fall. I was just looking over my class roster. Out of the 50 students in my class, 5 of them have European names. The other 45 all have South Asian or East Asian names.

Let's say someone were to come to me and say, "Isn't this very unfair? The United States is 64% white: shouldn't roughly that number of slots be reserved for white students? Isn't it discrimination that only 10% of your class is white?" (I haven't seen the class yet, but I can say with fair confidence that at most 10% of the class is white: since many African-Americans have European last names, it could be less than that.)

My response would be: "I think you are out of your mind: my students, most of whom are probably recent immigrants or foreign students coming from countries much poorer than the United States, have worked their butts off to get where they are. If white students want more of these slots, may I suggest they get busy studying and not try to use government coercion to make up for their lack of effort?"

I have actually seen it claimed that any opposition to affirmative action is "racist." I am wondering if my rejection of affirmative action for students of my own race is racist? If I take this position, am I a "self-hating white"?

Or am I actually embodying the anti-racist ideal that people should be judged on their merits, and not on their skin color?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Death of the Library

I visited my new library last week... and there were almost no books.

After talking to a librarian I know about this, I learned that many libraries are moving their books off site, to make room for… computers! So "library" now means "computer lab."

I think this is an absolutely horrible development. You can't spend an hour browsing through books that are in a warehouse a couple of miles away from the library. And that browsing main lead to something you never would have found in a catalog search. (In second grade I ran across the Iliad that way, and fell in love with Greek myths. If it had been stored off site my whole life might have been different.)

A true, related story: Wabulon (Walter Bloch), who used to blog here, is the son of two linguistic professors. He told me that he was in a linguistics book written by a colleague of his father, who re-told his father's story about how young Walter insisted upon grammatical regularity at a very early age. (Walter mentioned neither the author nor the title of the book involved.)

A few years later, I was wondering around the library of St. Francis College in Brooklyn. I found myself in the linguistics section, and began to browse. One book caught my eye, and so I plucked it off the shelf. I flipped open to a random page, and found myself reading: "My colleague, Professor Bloch, related to me the story of his son Walter, who at the age of three, when corrected for saying 'brung,' replied 'sing-sang-sung' -> 'bring-brang-brung'".

Sweet serendipity!

Apple, Always Improving Their Software!

I've been having serious problems with dictation on my desktop Mac: it works for about three days, after which it hangs. It would come up, and look like it was "listening," but it never put any words into any document or input field. I needed to reboot the whole system, and then it would work for three days again.

So when Apple told me there was an OS upgrade available, I thought, "Let's hope they've fixed this dictation problem."

In a sense, they did: after the upgrade, when I invoke dictation, it hangs instantly. It registers no input, the "Done" button does nothing, and of course, it is not an "application," so I can't kill it from the "ForceQuit Applications" dialogue box.

But I do have a cute little icon of a nervous-looking microphone on my screen all the time!

Friday, September 09, 2016

I'm Regressing to Being Mean,

Mean to people who don't understand statistics but blab on about it all the time. For instance, Steve Sailer apparently does not comprehend "regression to the mean," and treats it as a cause of future events, rather than a tautology:

"Still, Hillary is not a good candidate. Regression to the mean suggests she probably won’t have too many days worse than her Labor Day, but Hillary is clearly Trump’s best hope of being elected."

So, once again: "regression to the mean" is a tautology. Tautologies can be useful, but they do not cause events in the real world. The truth of the statement "All bachelors are unmarried" does not mean that it is unlikely that John, a bachelor, will not get married next year! (It may be unlikely or not: the point is that this tautology has nothing to do with determining that likelihood.)

Real world events "regress to the mean" because, if they don't, what was once the mean will cease to be the mean.

If this is confusing for you, study this list. Between 1901 and 1919, the average number of home runs hit by the AL home run leader was close to 10. Then, in 1919, Babe Ruth hit 29 home runs!

If we believe, as Sailer apparently does, that "regression to the mean" causes things, Ruth should have regressed like a mad man the next year: his 1919 total was 190% above the mean, and 80% above the previous record of 16 home runs in a season.

Of course, the following year, Ruth hit 54 home runs (440% above the old mean!), followed by 59 the year after, and 60 a few years later (now 500% above the pre-1919 mean). In fact, except during World War II, when many of the best players were fighting instead of playing ball, the AL champion has never hit as few as 29 home runs again. And today, hitting 29 home runs in a season, which, remember, in 1919 was an extraordinary "outlier," is considered a nice, but not outstanding, home run total. (The last six years, the AL champions have all hit over 40 home runs.)

What this all amounts to is that the old mean of around 10 is long gone: something will remain the mean only if subsequent data happens to regress to it. If not, we get a new mean.

So Clinton's bad performance over Labor Day weekend may be a fluke... in which case we will "regress to the mean," and she will do better from now until November. Or, perhaps, as some observers suspect, Clinton is quite ill. In that case, her performance on Labor Day weekend might have been the best she will do for the rest of the race, as her health continues to decline. Invoking the pagan god "regression to the mean" does nothing to help us understand what will happen the next few weeks.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

Don't ask Ying for math help!

Asking an Asian student for math help is now a "microaggression." Some thoughts:

1) First of all, they are best at math! If you're just picking someone at random, you'd have to be nuts to ask anyone else. Unless, of course, the class has been running awhile, and you know who is doing well...

2) But what if the kid in your class getting the best test scores happens to be Asian? Can you still not ask him or her for help? Do you have to wait a certain number of tests before you ask?

3) Most importantly, is it still okay to ask the Irish guy out for a few pints? Because it would really suck if that was off-limits now as well.

Argumentation ethics

Trying to come up with a deductive proof for the "correct" political system is pretty much like trying to come up with a deductive proof for where everyone should have dinner when they go out.

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

"The need for profit drives up costs"

I recently saw the claim that the government might be able to deliver health care more cheaply than the private sector because "the need for profits [in the private sector] drives up costs." And I have seen it a number of times in the past.

Well, like Hayek, I am not adverse to the idea that modern Western societies are wealthy enough that we can afford to guarantee everyone some minimal level of health care, and that as a matter of equity we might want to do so. Probably the best way to do that is simply to issue health insurance vouchers to anyone making under $X0,000 per year. Of course this produces some market distortions, of course some people will spend the money foolishly on a scam insurance agency, etc.: but the world is not perfect, right? There aren't any perfect solutions.

In short, I am not opposed to the goal of people who want to offer a base level of health care everyone in United States. But one's means should be suited one's goal, correct?

And "eliminating profit" as a way of "reducing costs" is a nonsensical path to follow. First of all, suppliers in a market cannot raise their prices simply because their costs are high. Imagine a big flea market in Washington Square Park, where there are many people selling tie-dye T-shirts, generally for $10 each. You browse through the various offerings, and are surprised to find one vendor selling seemingly identical T-shirts for $15 each.

"Why do your shirts cost more than everyone else's?" you ask him.

"You see," he explains, "I'm a heroin addict, and I had to buy a $50 bag just to cope with coming to this flea market. So you see, my costs are higher than those of the other vendors."

Only those suffering from "idiot compassion" would be likely to pay this higher price because of this vendor's addiction. Higher costs do not elicit higher prices on the market.

The mistaken idea that higher costs do elicit higher prices is perhaps more understandable when we consider what would happen if the cost of dyes rose precipitously, so that every vendor at next month's flea market was unwilling to part with their shirts for under $15. If someone sees that vendors are still selling some shirts (though a smaller number), they might be tempted to say, "You see, the higher costs drove up the price!"

But we must break what is going on two parts. Higher costs certainly drove up the asking price for tie-die T-shirts: given the new cost of dye, defenders cannot get at least $15 dollars for their shirts, they would just as soon stay home. But those higher costs certainly did not compel anyone to pay this new higher price. In fact, what the lower sales volume reveals to us is that under the new market conditions, only those purchasers for whom tie-dye T-shirts were already worth $15 each are now in the market. In other words, it is not the higher costs that enable vendors to sell T-shirts at $15 each, it is the fact that these T-shirts are worth $15 to some people that enables them to do so.

To confirm this point, imagine that he died became so expensive that vendors could not sell these shirts for under $10,000 each. At that price, we would surely expect their sales to be zilch.

But an even more important is that profits are not cost at all. People who make the claim in the title of this post maybe thinking  of the cost of the capital necessary to provide healthcare, instead of profits. But government provision cannot eliminate such costs, although it may shift them around. If the rental cost for a building used to house a doctor's office is $10,000 per month, the government can either pay that same rent to the owner of the building, or it might seize the building outright, with no compensation. But in the latter case, the cost of providing the building has not gone to zero: it has simply been imposed entirely upon the former owner the building. Perhaps someone thinks such redistribution of costs is just, but it is fatuous to represent it as "lowering costs." Furthermore, even after seizing the building for no compensation, the government still ought to, if it wants to be economically rational, account for the opportunity cost of not employing the building in some other use.

But true profits (as opposed to payments to owners of capital goods) arise when someone discerns how to deploy existing resources more economically than they are currently being employed. Perhaps all of the existing vendors at the Washington Square Park flea market are using dyes produced by process X. But, through entrepreneurial alertness, I notice that dyes produced by process Y are cheaper than those produced by process X, can you create T-shirts equally attractive to those produced by the X process dyes, but instead are being employed in a less remunerative line of manufacturing. So I by the process Y dyes, produce T-shirts using them, and undercut my competition at the park.

Profits, therefore, far from being a factor "driving up costs, and therefore prices," instead are a factor driving down costs. And ultimately, the new conditions of supply created by the search for profit will draw more suppliers into T-shirt market, thus lowering prices.

And lest you think I am merely defining profit in some wacky, idiosyncratic way, let me quote Wikipedia: "Economic profit does not occur in perfect competition in long run equilibrium." Economic profits are not the returns to capital, which do exist in long-run equilibrium, or the evenly rotating economy. Profits are only earned  out-of-equilibrium, by better adjusting the (non-equilibrium) employment of the factors of production to more closely reflect consumer preferences.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Crazy racist hangs out with the people he hates...

Receives gifts from them...

And so Reuters cuts the feed:

Scott Adams, Philosophical Nitwit

Boberooni has implied that I got a man crush on Scott Adams. I will admit that I have learned a lot from Adams about persuasion.

But I'm not in love, no no! Adams, is, for instance, a terrible philosopher. Consider this gem: "As a companion to what I said on the Rubin Report, here is more scientific evidence that we are not rational beings. We are beings who rationalize after the fact."

The problem with this position ought to be obvious... but it isn't, I guess, if you are a terrible philosopher. If "we," taken as a blanket statement, are not rational beings, then who cares what the "scientific evidence" says: it is just more rationalization after the fact done by a bunch of irrational beings who happen to (irrationally) have gained the title of scientist.

Or are scientists magical aliens who are somehow immune to the laws that rule the rest of our "dumb human brains" for which "data and logic just don't exist"? (Adams phrases from the interview linked to in the post linked to above.) And is Adams himself the one other human being somehow blessed with the gift of rationally evaluating our irrationality?

Could it be that it is perhaps better to introduce a little nuance: maybe we all have our rational and our irrational aspects. Maybe we are like a struggling charioteer, constantly fighting to keep our irrational impulses at bay, and to pay heed to the dictates of reason? And perhaps many charioteers lose this battle, and might be called "slaves [to their passions] by nature"?

Plato and Aristotle are not the last word in philosophy. But at least we should strive to go further than they did, and not regress to a childish level of analysis of the human psyche which they surpassed 2400 years ago.

UPDATE: I watched a little further in the video, and it gets even worse; Adams says, "Let me prove [rational thinking and logic] don't exist: if they did, there would be only one religion."

It is hard to imagine how anyone could adopt a more more absurd position: Adams is going to "prove," "beyond any doubt," that rational thinking and logic don't exist! But for any such "proof" to exist, it must rely on... rational thinking and logic.

Saturday, September 03, 2016

A Measured Post About Measuring Value

Start here. You can work backwards from that post to earlier ones in the conversation, if you would like to do so.

What to make of all this?

First of all, philosophically speaking, Mises is correct: acts of valuation are not measuring anything. If I part with $40 for a steak dinner, I have not "measured" the value of the dollars or the dinner. I have made a judgment that I prefer the dinner to the $40, but a judgment is not a measurement. (I can of course, make judgments about measurements: "I think Bill is twice as tall as Joe." But that is not a measurement itself either.)

In fact, I think we can go further, and declare we have no particular reason to endorse Mises' claim that acts of choice place "all values on a single scale." Consider Socrates, sitting in his cell awaiting death, with the opportunity to escape before him. Mises' claim seems to imply that if Socrates had merely been offered enough olive oil and retsina, he would have been off for the boondocks. We can save Mises' claim by saying that Socrates valued obeying the laws of his polis more than an infinite amount of oil and wine, but that becomes an odd sort of "scale." No, we are better off here siding with Collingwood: ethical choices are of a different order than utilitarian choices: to judge something to be "right" is fundamentally different than judging it to be "useful."

But what about the argument of Bob's reader Chris, who writes:

"But if I prefer 1.51 ounces of Coke to 10 ounces of water and prefer 10 ounces of water to 1.49 ounces of Coke, is there any real problem in saying 10 ounces of water is worth 1.5 ounces of Coke (or whatever infinitesimal amount when I start to prefer one over the other)?"

Chris is correct here, if we interpret "real problem" in the right way: yes, as Mises notes, market exchanges do not measure value, and, in fact, there is no physical quantity present to be measured. But if we want to create an economic model in which we treat exchanges as if they measure some subtle substance called utils or "value," there is "no real problem." (And Chris is correct about the most likely way to generate such a model: capture changes in choice at the margin.) All models are false. But some of them are useful. The right question to ask about a model is not whether it is true, but whether it allows us to gain understanding of the phenomena we wish to explore by means of using it. And I suspect that models treating exchange as measurements of value can, indeed, help our understanding of economics. But the proof is always in the pudding.

By the way, this same analysis applies to Rothbard's rejection of the use of calculus in economics due to the fact that people choose discrete units of goods, and not continuously varying amounts of them. (Even when we seem to be choosing along the continuum, such as at a gas station, in fact we are merely choosing between very, very fine-grained discrete units: you can put 10.004 gallons of gas in your tank, or 10.005 gallons, but you can't purchase 10.00400000000000001 gallons.) So, philosophically speaking, Rothbard is correct.

But when it comes to modeling, so what? When I first came across Rothbard's argument (circa 2001), I was skeptical: it did not seem to me to be problematic to simply assume we could choose an amount of a good anywhere along the continuum. And then we would have a differentiable function.

I happened to be working for a mathematics PhD at the time: he was creating financial-market models, and I was programming them. I decided to ask him about this issue, but put my question into another domain, not knowing if he had a horse in the race concerning mathematical economics.

"Randy," I said, "let's say we are modeling the population of geese in a lake. Of course, there can only be an integral number of geese: but is it a problem to treat this number as though it were continuous, and then differentiate the resulting, continuous population-change function, so that we can get, say, an instantaneous rate of change for the population?"

He answered, "No, that is not a problem at all: absolutely standard to do that sort of thing."

Of course, one wants to remember that one is dealing with a model, and therefore, a useful fiction. It won't do to believe one's model is true, and head to the lake confident that one will find 47.348 geese swimming around in it. And neoclassical economists are sometimes guilty of this sin, and even worse, e.g., in the case of perfect competition, criticizing the real world for not living up to the unrealizable conditions characterizing the model. As Bob himself once memorably told me, "In in the model of perfect competition, it is as if the grocer wakes up in the morning and goes to his shop, only to find, to his surprise, that the supply and demand curves for milk themselves have changed the prices on all the cartons of milk on his shelves." (This is what it means for the grocer to be a price taker, and it is an assumption of the model that all market participants are price takers.)

That does not imply that we should not use the model of perfect competition, when it comes in handy: it means we should not believe it.

By their euphemisms you shall know them

I'm watching the Belgian TV series The Break . Not bad, but... At several points the subject of abortion comes up. The characters say...