Sense and reference

A couple of readers confused about my post on definitions.

If we change the sense of a turn, we may change its reference as well. (Not always: if we change the sense of X from "the evening star" to "the morning star," X still refers to the same thing!)

But we have not changed any of the facts about what X used to refer to. So if we were to change the sense of the term "cat" to "a large, leaping Australian marsupial," it would henceforth refer to what we now call kangaroos. But that does not mean that the non-human mammal currently living in my house will suddenly have a pouch! Similarly, if we define a new mathematical symbolism, call it Mnew , that is the same as ours (which we can call Mold) for the first use of number, but every subsequent time it is mentioned, its value goes up by one, so that in Mnew, 2 + 2 = 5, since the second '2' means what '3' means in Mold. That 2 + 2 = 4 is always true in ordinary arithmetic, whatever symbols we choose to employ for the concepts involved, so, we are saying the same thing when we say "II + II = IV", or "dos más dos es igual a cuatro." But in Mnew we are talking about different concepts when we write 2 + 2 = 5. The fact that in this different language the symbols don't mean the same thing as in Mold, and different propositions turn out to be true, should not be very surprising if properly understood.

Nor does the fact that the definition of a term is merely conventional mean that there is no correct or incorrect applications of the term! Given our current definition of "cat," it is correct call the creature who haunts all our waking hours with its meows a cat, and incorrect to say it is a kangaroo. Thinking again about other languages should make this obvious: it is correct to call our hosted mammal 'cat' if we are speaking English, but not if we are speaking Spanish or Russian! If I say "ore" in Yoruba, I am talking about my friend, but if I then switch to English, and say "Ore is metallic," it does not make it true that my friend is metallic.

Statistical analysis of agent-based models

I have observed that, when one writes a paper using one's own agent-based model, it is now common practice to perform statistical analysis of the output of the model.

This is like hiding an Easter egg under a shrub so that your paper can "discover" it there in its conclusion.

Worst use of "methodology", 2017

FBI profiler commenting on a series of murders: "They were all done with the same methodology."

Read into Things

A few weeks ago I walk into a coffee shop. I have a book in hand, and as I lean in to look at the menu, I place my book on the counter. The barista observes innocently, "Hey! Another customer came in with a book earlier. Is there a book sale going on around here or something?"

Merry on Rome and America

I don't think I have ever been cited this much in an essay.

What Is a Planet?

Fights over the best definition of a term are often a quagmire: there is no "correct" or "incorrect" definition in the same sense that there is a correct answer to what 2 + 2 equals. Instead, definitions are either more or less useful. If someone tries to define "animal" as "any entity in the physical universe," that definition is not wrong in the same sense the answering "5" to the 2 + 2 problem is wrong. The right attack on that definition is to point out that it renders the word "animal" less useful than does the currently prevailing definition.

"Common usage" is one factor in deciding how we should define a term. All other things being equal, we should defer to common usage. But common usage is not a trump card that defeats all other considerations.

For instance, when Copernicus forwarded his heliocentric model of the solar system, he was, among other things, offering a new definition of "planet." For many centuries before him, "planet" meant "a celestial entity that wanders among the fixed stars." The planets, under that definition, were the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. And please note: so long as we accept that definition of "planet," that list is correct. (Yes, it is incomplete, missing other "planets" that would only be discovered with telescopes.)

Copernicus's system changed that definition to "major celestial objects orbiting the sun." At the time he did this, his new definition certainly violated common usage! But it would not have been a cogent complaint about his work to say, "But Nicolaus, 'a wanderer amongst the fixed stars' is THE definition of a planet!"

The Real Meaning of "Due to Chance"

Sometimes, people have become so enamored with statistical methods they have hypostatized the terms used in such analysis, and have taken to treating ideas like "chance" or "regression to the mean" as if they could be the actual causes of events in the real world.

The analysis of probability distributions arose largely in the context of dealing with errors in scientific measurements. Ten astronomers all measured the position of Mercury in the sky at a certain time on a particular evening, and got ten different results. What should we make of this mess?

It was a true breakthrough to analyze such errors as though they were results in a game of chance, and to realize that averaging all the measurements was a better way to approach the true figure than was asking "Which measurement was the most reliable?"

This breakthrough involved regarding the measurement error in a population of measurements as being randomly distributed around the true value that a perfect measurement would have reported. The errors were "due to chance." And also, we could perform a statistical test to see which deviations from the perfect measurement were most likely not due to chance, and perhaps were the result of something like a deliberate attempt to fix the outcome of a test.

The phrase "due to chance" is just fine in the context of this statistical analysis: it means something like "We don't detect any causal factor so dominant in what we are analyzing that we should single it out as the cause of what occurred." But what it does not mean is that a causal agent called "chance" produced the result! No, it means that a large number of causal factors were at work, and that there is no way our test can isolate one in particular as "causing" the outcome.

In the context of measurement error, the fact that Johnson's measurement differed from Smith's, and from Davidson's, was caused by Smith's shaky hands, and Johnson having a smudge on his glasses, and the wind being high at the place Davidson was working, and Smith having slightly mis-calibrated  his measuring device, and Johnson being distracted by a phone call, and Davidson misreading his device, and... so on and so on. So long as lots of causal factors influence each measurement, and none of them dominate the outcome of the measurement, we can treat their interplay as if some factor called "chance" were at play: but there is no such actual factor!

A Fixed Roulette Wheel

In the comment section of this post, Bob Murphy asks how I would respond to a paper beginning:

"Abstract: It is well-known that players at the craps table are said to have a 'hot hand' after several advantageous rolls. The rollers themselves often report subjectively feeling 'in the zone' during streaks of successful rolls. However, using both Monte Carlo simulations and Bayesian inference models, we conclude that such 'patterns' are illusory and provide no operationally useful betting opportunity."

The idea is sound, but I think the point Bob wants made can be illustrated even better with an example from Willful Ignorance, a book which Ken B. recommended to me, but now seems to be willfully ignoring! (Sorry, Ken, I could not resist that joke.)

The author tells the story of George, a bright inventor who has figured out how to hack a casino's roulette wheel so that it produces a winning number he wants on command. So he could, say, produce one hundred 26s in a row, and clean up by continually betting on 26. But George is a lot smarter than that: he has seen the movies where people are beat up in the back room of the casino for doing that sort of thing. What he does instead is to grab a random number generator app for his phone, and have it randomly pick a number between 0 and 37 (with 37 representing 00), and then cause that number to "hit" on the wheel. (And of course he has several different accomplices win, rather than winning himself, and only on a few spins an evening.)

Clearly, this is no longer a "fair" roulette wheel, at least for George and his friends or for the casino. (It still is fair for the other players! Their chance of winning is unchanged by George's scheme.) On whatever occasions George decides to use his device, the outcome it is not due to "chance,"* but is being deliberately selected.

But no statistical test applied to the pattern of winning numbers will detect anything but chance at work. If Gilovich, Tversky and Vallone used the method of their famous hot hand paper on this wheel, they would have to conclude that George's idea that he could beat the wheel was just an illusion! (Of course, if researchers had more knowledge, specifically, the knowledge of who George's accomplices were, they could detect the scheme by analyzing those players' winning percentages.)

The point of the story is that there can be real causal factors at play in a situation that will not be revealed by the obvious statistical tests. A statistical test that concludes "No significant effect was found" should be a piece of evidence in the trial of a hypothesis, and not the verdict of the trial.

* A side note: "chance" is not properly speaking the cause of anything. At the quantum level, as Ken pointed out, we perhaps find truly random events. But that is just to say that it is possible that, for instance, an excited electron dropping back to a lower atomic orbital is a causeless event. It does not mean some pagan god called "Chance" made the electron shift orbits. And at the macro level, "chance" is just the name we give to a situation in which a myriad of causal factors are at play, and it is beyond our ken (b.) to sort them all out.

A problem with Computer Science education, at present

The approach of giving students "little" problems, and rewarding students who are able to "solve" the problem as rapidly as possible with a high grade, teaches an "anti-pattern": hack your way as fast as possible to any program that can solve the problem you have been assigned.

A skilled software engineer does not approach a "customer" (which customer might actually be his boss, or a marketing executive, etc.) request in that way at all: instead, given X has been requested by "the customer," a skilled software engineer resists fulfilling the request as fast as possible, and instead begins to think:
  • Is it really necessary to program anything at all to fulfill this request? Perhaps some existing capability in the system actually already satisfies the customer request, if only the customer is educated on how to properly use that capability.
  • Is the request so hard to fulfill, and its fulfillment of such marginal value, that the customer should just be advised, "You don't really want us to program this: it will cost too much."
  • Is the request one that can be met by simply installing some third-party library or a commercially available application? If so, it would be wasteful for the developer to write a program to fulfill it.
  • If it turns out that, after considering all the above points, there really is some in-house programming necessary to satisfy the customer request:
    • Are there likely to be similar requests in the pipeline, so that it will be useful to program a generic capability rather than simply one that fulfills the current request?
    • How can the code to fulfill this request be made an integral part of a coherent software system, rather than simply being an isolated chunk of code?
The "solve this isolated problem as fast as possible to receive an A" method of giving CS students "actual" work to do does not teaching them anything at all about how to address the real-world software engineering questions listed above.

Given the semester-oriented nature of modern university education, I don't think there is an easy solution to this problem. But at least keeping the above points in students' minds, even if we have to assign "mini-problems," might help.

No, I Don't Believe Probability Judgments Are "Subjective"

Tom was, I think, worried that this is what I was suggesting. Then he got what my claim is. But in case others misapprehend it...

1) There are no judgments whatsoever that are "purely subjective." Any judgment is an attempt to assert something about the world. Although Oakeshott's arguments on this point (in Experience and Its Modes, chiefly) are more robust, I think M. Polanyi's arguments in Personal Knowledge are still very good but also more accessible. If I claim that "The odds of that coin coming up hands are one in two," I am saying something about the world "out there," rather than commenting upon some "purely personal" state of my own.

2) As such, there are better and worse judgments about what the probability of some event is. If all I know is, "Tom is flipping a fair coin," then the correct probability to assign to "The coin will come up heads" is .50. One way to defend my claim here is to note that anyone else having only the same knowledge as me about the situation can assuredly win money from me in the long run if I choose any other probability while they choose .50.

3) But that perfectly correct probability judgment, given my state of ignorance about the flipping, will become decidedly mistaken should my knowledge of what is going on change: for instance, suppose I suddenly gain the superpower of instantaneously being able to assess all the forces acting on a coin at the moment it is flipped so as to "see" whether any particular flip will come up heads or tails. If I gain that superpower, my correct assignment of probability to "The coin will come up heads" is either zero or one, depending on what I "see."

4) And finally, even if I have that superpower, should the casino in which I am betting become suspicious, and only allow me to bet on coin flips from another room (so that I can't gauge the forces at play in the flip), my correct probability judgment reverts to .50.

So, the objectively correct judgment of the probability of some event occurring depends on how much knowledge we have when making that judgment: if all we know is that Joe is a 50-year-old American male, we might be correct in judging that the probability he will live to 80 is .50. (I just picked .50 as a plausible number: I'm not looking this up in the mortality tables at the moment!) But if we then learn he is planning on committing suicide tonight, we would be correct in revising our estimate to, "Well, his probability of living to 80 is pretty close to 0."

Hot Streak Length

The critics of this model claimed "It implies a streak length of one."

Well, it doesn't:

import random

SHOTS = 50
in_streak = False
hot_streaks = 0
hot_total = 0

print("Shooting with hot streaks:")
for shot in range(1, SHOTS):
    hot = (random.random() < .5)
    if hot:
        hot_total += 1
        if not in_streak:
            in_streak = True
            hot_streaks += 1
        make = (random.random() < .66)
        in_streak = False
        make = (random.random() < .33)
    mark = 'X' if make else 'O'
    print(mark, end='')
print("Average hot streak length = " + str(hot_total / hot_streaks))

print("Shooting without hot streaks:")
for shot in range(1, SHOTS):
    make = (random.random() < .5)
    mark = 'X' if make else 'O'
    print(mark, end='')

And the output is:

Macintosh:statistics gcallah$ ./
Shooting with hot streaks:
Average hot streak length = 2.0
Shooting without hot streaks:

What the model actually codes, and was meant to code, was the possibility that a player could be genuinely "hot" for some period, but if the hot streak might end at any moment, then the streak has no predictive value, and "feeding the hot hand" will not help a team.

The Internet Is a Wonderous Place!

I have programed for 30 years now. I have published dozens of articles in professional software engineering journals. I have written programs used to trade tens of millions of dollars of securities each day. I teach computer science.

And today Ken B. informed me that if I set a random variable once outside of a loop the result will be different than if I set it anew each time around the loop!

Great Minds Think Alike...

"probability is indeed a degree of certainty..." -- Jacob Bernoulli

"It is most certain, given the position, velocity, and distance of a die from the gaming table at the moment when it leaves the hand of the thrower, that the die cannot fall other than the way it actually does fall... Yes it is customary to count the fall of the die... as contingent. The only reason for this is that those things which... are given in nature, are not yet sufficiently known to us." -- Jacob Bernoulli

"Probability, in its mathematical acceptation has reference to the state of our knowledge of the circumstances under which an event may happen or fail. With the degree of information which we possess concerning the circumstances of an event, the reason that we have to think that it will occur, or, to use a single term, our expectation of it, will vary."  -- George Boole

Probability is about our knowledge...

and not a fixed feature of the world "out there."

A couple members of the commentariat I have complained that in this model, it is necessary to have "inside knowledge" to beat someone who thinks the odds are 50-50 on any given shot. Now, I don't care whether you want to call what "Gene" knows in that model "inside knowledge" or not. Either way, that is missing the more important point: "the odds" change with our knowledge of a situation.

To illustrate: imagine I ask you to predict the odds that an American, male, 40-year-old will live to be 78? Well, if that is all the information you have, you should answer "Even odds." (I looked that up, but from here on out my odds are all just plausible-sounding guesses.)

But now I tell you, "Oh, and he's a heavy smoker."

Oops, better revise that forecast: say, 2-1 against.

But then I add, "And so were all of his deceased male relatives that we can identify, and they all lived to be at least 90."

Aargh, now the odds are 2-1 in favor.

However, I finally add "By the way, he has terminal pancreatic cancer, and the doctors only give him a month to live."

Now you had better revise your odds to 1000-1 against.

Supposing that my guesses after the first odds I gave are accurate, your answer each step of the way was "correct," given the knowledge you had at hand. When we know more about a situation the odds change. And it doesn't matter at all whether this is "inside knowledge" or not.

This applies even to something as seemingly straightforward as a claim that, in a flip of a fair coin, the odds are 50-50 of getting heads. If we could somehow see all the forces at work in a particular flip, we would be able to state with certainty, "This toss is going to be heads (or tails)." And, in fact, it turns out that with practice, a person can learn to flip a coin so that it almost always comes up in its original orientation, or vice versa. If all we know is that we have "a person" flipping a fair coin, it is correct to say the odds are 50-50 for getting heads. But if we learned we were dealing with one of these skilled coin flippers, and we had a reason to think he was trying to produce heads, we would instead be correct to say that the coin would come up heads with near certainty.

An application: the above considerations are why a simple mastery of the odds of drawing various card hands are not enough to make one a top poker player. The top players have of course internalized that knowledge, but they have gone much further: they have learned to read the "tells" of less skilled players, so that they can see from the reaction of an amateur whether he has just completed his full house or not. Once they can do that, the formal odds of his having drawn the card he needed become irrelevant: they know whether or not he got it. This is not "inside knowledge": the tell was right out in the open, for anyone to see. But only someone practiced at looking for it will recognize it as information to be used in betting.

Not Surprised Rob Got This Wrong, but

et tu, Ken?

Because it is trivial to show that the hot streaks in my first program on this topic are real, and can be bet on successfully by anyone who knows they exist, and it only takes a couple more lines of code:

SHOTS = 100
MISS_BET = False

gene_stake = 100
kr_stake = 100
gene_bet = MAKE_BET

make = 0.0
print("Betting with hidden hot streak mechanism:")
for shot in range(1, SHOTS):
    hot = (random.random() < .5)
    gene_bet = MAKE_BET if hot else MISS_BET
    if hot:
        make = (random.random() < .66)
        make = (random.random() < .33)
    if gene_bet == make:
        gene_stake += .97
        kr_stake -= .97
        gene_stake -= 1.03
        kr_stake += 1.03

print("Gene's final holdings = " + str(gene_stake))
print("KR's final holdings = " + str(kr_stake))

KR, thinking the outcome is 50/50, are willing to "make book" and take bets on either side, so long as they get a house "vigorish" of 3 cents per bet. But Gene can "see" the hot hand taking place, and bets on the hot (and against the cold) hand.

And here is the outcome:
Betting with hidden hot streak mechanism:
Gene's final holdings = 114.03
KR's final holdings = 85.97
172-16-30-10:statistics gcallah$ ./hotstreak2.pyBetting with hidden hot streak mechanism:
Gene's final holdings = 128.03
KR's final holdings = 71.97
172-16-30-10:statistics gcallah$ ./hotstreak2.pyBetting with hidden hot streak mechanism:
Gene's final holdings = 126.03
KR's final holdings = 73.97
172-16-30-10:statistics gcallah$ ./hotstreak2.pyBetting with hidden hot streak mechanism:
Gene's final holdings = 130.03
KR's final holdings = 69.97
172-16-30-10:statistics gcallah$ ./hotstreak2.pyBetting with hidden hot streak mechanism:
Gene's final holdings = 134.03
KR's final holdings = 65.97
172-16-30-10:statistics gcallah$ ./hotstreak2.pyBetting with hidden hot streak mechanism:
Gene's final holdings = 118.03
KR's final holdings = 81.97
172-16-30-10:statistics gcallah$ ./hotstreak2.pyBetting with hidden hot streak mechanism:
Gene's final holdings = 128.03
KR's final holdings = 71.97
172-16-30-10:statistics gcallah$
KR lose every single time, by a lot!

What's especially weird here is that the "George" whom Rob accused me of maliciously deleting the mention of is an instance of just the sort of thing I programmed here: Weisberg's example has George use a random number generator to pick a number to come up on his rigged roulette wheel. For the person who doesn't know George can rig the wheel, the pattern of numbers that "hits" looks completely fair: there is absolutely no way to tell it from a truly random wheel. But George, having more knowledge of the causal process at play, can win as often as he wants to.

Now, I don't think Rob can really read, so its no surprise that he missed that his own example makes the point I am making. But Ken???

Either The Supreme Court was doing just what I claimed...

Or Clarence Thomas doesn't really know anything about how the Supreme Court works:

"As Justice Clarence Thomas points out in his separate opinion (joined by Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch), when the Court reviews a stay, it is essentially assessing whether lower-court rulings will be ultimately reversed on the merits. There would be no reason for the Supreme Court to narrow the lower-court stays of the travel ban if the justices were of a mind to concur in the lower courts’ reasoning."

So Josiah, please take this up with Justice Thomas.

TGV on Hot Hands

Tversky, Gilovich and Vallone wrote a famous paper "debunking" the idea of a "hot hand." When they did so, they conflated two very different questions:

1) Is it sensible to feed the ball to a player with a "hot hand," since he has a greater chance of making his next shot? I.e., is there predictive value in this phenomena?

2) Is the impression that players have that sometimes they are "on" and sometimes not an illusion? I.e., does the phenomena exist at all?

The findings of their paper, if accurate (and recent research suggests they are not), would show that there is no predictive value in hot streaks, whether or not they really exist. But by defining "hot streaks" as simply being this predictive value, the authors, without any basis for doing so, also claimed that players' perception of being "on" at certain times is just an illusion.

So any reader complaining that my recently posted model "does not follow the TGV definition" of a "hot hand" is simply demanding that I make the same mistake that TGV made!

That is ridiculous: My disputing the TGV definition of a hot hand cannot be refuted by insisting I use the TGV definition of a hot hand!

UPDATE: And by the way, in this post, I quite deliberately created a model in which:
1) Hot streaks are statistically undetectable; and
2) Hot streaks offer no predictive leverage for a player's next shot.

So it was somewhat stunning to see criticisms of my model based on the fact that in it, hot streaks are statistically undetectable, and offer no predictive leverage for a player's next shot.

Since 1) and 2) were the whole point of my model!

A Simple Model of Real But Random-Looking Hot Streaks

This model is not supposed to be realistic!


Before every shot, a player enters either the state "hot streak" or "cold streak" with probability 1/2.

A player on a hot streak has a 2/3 probability of hitting a shot during that streak.

A player on a cold streak has a 1/3 probability of hitting a shot during that streak.

We can program this, and know with certainty that there are periods when the player has a 2/3 chance of making a shot, and periods when he has a 1/3 chance... and yet it does not help us at all in predicting the next shot. (From the outside, not knowing if the streak is "on" or not, there is always a 50% probability that the next shot will go in.)

Here is a Python program implementing this algorithm and also implementing another loop with a simple 50% chance of hitting for comparison:

import random

SHOTS = 50

print("Shooting with hot streaks:")
for shot in range(1, SHOTS):
    hot = (random.random() < .5)
    if hot:
        make = (random.random() < .66)
        make = (random.random() < .33)
    mark = 'X' if make else 'O'
    print(mark, end='')

print("Shooting without hot streaks:")
for shot in range(1, SHOTS):
    make = (random.random() < .5)
    mark = 'X' if make else 'O'
    print(mark, end='')

And here are some runs of the program:

Fisher on Scientific Judgment

"The Natural Sciences can only be successfully conducted by responsible and independent thinkers applying their minds and their imaginations to the detailed interpretation of verifiable observations. The idea that this responsibility can be delegated to a giant computer programmed with Decision Functions belongs to the phantasy of circles rather remote from scientific research." -- Ronald Fisher

Thanking Ken B. for his Willful Ignorance...


Ken recommended the book Willful Ignorance to me. It arrived today; I randomly* opened it up and found a section on "The Ignorance Fallacy." In the section, the author, Herbert Weisberg, discusses the "hot hand fallacy." After a quick review of the evidence, he writes:
So, it appears that streakiness is just a myth. Or is it?

Let us accept for the moment the hypothesis that pure randomness can plausibly explain almost any hot hand streak in sports or games. Does that necessarily imply that such streaks do not really exist? Consider that there are a great many factors, most not measurable, that might influence any individual outcome, such as one particular game or at bat... What the research certainly tells us is that if such factors exist, they must be haphazard enough to appear essentially random.
And this is precisely what I have pointed out a number of times in the past: the findings "debunking" hot hands are all entirely consistent with the actual existence of hot hands. For instance, athletes who are "hot" often report that during their streak, they felt a sense of heightened awareness, and say things like "the baseball appeared as big as a grapefruit to me."

Let us trust these athletes self-reports for a moment, but further posit that such periods of heightened awareness appear and disappear in an unpredictable fashion. Then athletes' reports of having a "hot hand" would be entirely accurate, but also be compatible with the analysis showing that the data matches a random process.

By the way, a great example of something that appears random but is actually deliberately caused is the random number generator in your favorite programming language. It took careful design on the part of many engineers to make seemingly random numbers pop out of your computer!

* Or was I guided? Perhaps by the "hot hand" of... Satan?

The worst IT book EVER!

Man, I feel so cheated. I bought a book by some Polya fellow that claimed it would explain "How to Solve IT."

But I'm 50 pages in, and the guy just can't stop banging on about mathematics; not a peep about IT yet!

"Self-Plagiarism" Versus Good Engineering Sense

I've always had a problem with the notion of "self-plagiarism": I suggest it is just an artifact of IP law, and not, like "other plagiarism," a matter of honesty.

If Joe gave me idea X, and I publish it as my own, I am lying, and failing to give Joe proper credit.

But if Genet gave Genet + 1 idea X, does it really make any sense to say that Genet + 1 is lying in saying that the idea was his?

Well, no, it obviously doesn't. The only purpose of the strictures on "self-plagiarism" is to enrich copyright holders at the expense of an author being able to re-use his own ideas.

And all of my training as a software engineer rebels against this concept: as an SE, you want to re-use code at every chance you can!

UPDATE: A quote on code re-use:
Code reuse

Only suckers start from scratch. In fact, today I took out some code I wrote over the summer, changed five lines, and started it running again. Woo hoo. It was sitting there in a code repository waiting for a chance to live again. Smart developers reuse code as often as they can. That was one of the main goals of the open source movement. It wasn’t freedom; it was laziness. If we reuse our code, we save a gazillion hours of work.

"Procedure" and "Data Structure" - A Distinction without a Difference

"The inner coming-to-be or genesis of substance is an unbroken transition into outer existence, into being-for-another, and conversely, the genesis of existence is how existence is by itself taken back into essence."
- Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit (paragraph 42)
What happens in computer programs?

Classically, an algorithm is a well-defined procedure that takes input and returns output. The input is some piece of data. You know, a number; or string. The procedure turns this number into another number; or a string into a number. Or whatever.

Literarily, a crystallized objective object comes in. Upon it acts the action of a thousand rapid hands too quick to see. Finally, fresh out of the fire, the result pops out, separate from its furnace, like a piece of toast from the maw of the toaster.

Briefly, Data. Process. Data.

We didn't come out of the womb knowing this pattern though. We had to be taught. A teacher had to guide our hands, pointing, "Look! Those numbers! That's data. That sentence! It's data too." Then we saw the process of the data's transformation. It changed from this data, to that data. And this change, our teacher called, "Procedure." And we saw the names, that they were very good.

And so we learned a pattern. To call this or that, a "data structure" or a "procedure." We followed our teacher in not calling a number a "procedure." Otherwise, we would really confuse things. And we would get a slap on the wrist ... for being wrong about the pattern we have learned.

Once we recognize that we were taught these things, that we entered into a pattern, we might begin to wonder whether we should take our pattern with the upmost seriousness. Shall we step out of our pattern to see what is real in it and what is mere habit?

And so we invite ourselves to consider our concepts as they are, uncommitted to where our results may lead us (say lead us to a slap on the wrist), and our old rules have left our mind for the moment. Uncommitted inquiry.

In other words, let us enter into the world of philosophy.

Let's look at something very "obviously" a piece of data: the number five. What is it to a computer? ( Really, what is it to a programmer? Computers don't really regard things. )

Five is something such that if it is next to a plus sign and another number, it returns the sum.

We might as well have the following.

def 5 (op, summand):
     if(op == '+'):
           if(summand == 1):
                 return 6
           if(summand == 2):
                 return 7

The same goes for multiplication and other operations that the processor is designed to do when it "sees five."

And this procedural knowledge, "what to do," is the entirety of the number five to a computer program.

The same goes for all numbers. And the same for all data. For a computer has to know what to do with the data. But it needs the data to tell us what precisely this is. And so data itself tells the computer what to do. Thus data is procedure.

On the reverse side, "what to do" must be stored someplace in a computer. That is, a procedure is also a thing within a computer program. A piece of hard data.

Thus data and procedures don't seem all that different. The shocking thing occurs when we consider a description of an algorithm with this insight, "Data is processed into data." The "data" part processes the "is processed into" part. And the result is a process. Movement upon movement! This is enough to make one's head spin. Each part seems the mover and the moved simultaneously. And we realize we can no longer look at the computer program from the world of computer programming. For computer programming has static things which are acted upon.

And we come down from this wild experience, tired; our movement and thought we ease -- we make for ourselves an arrest in our experience. But with wonder at how vast our world is; how limited the world of computer programming is. But we like our old game, and we enter into it again, but with the awareness that procedures and data are merely distinctions without a difference.

Statistically Significant Harm Caused by Statistical Significance

I have argued before that the great importance placed on α = .05 in statistical studies is an attempt to replace educated judgment with a technical decision. But that decision itself is arbitrary: there is no particular reason to choose .05 over .04, or .06, or any other number less than .50.

It turns out it is even worse than I thought: an education that focuses on such a cutoff leads "researchers to interpret evidence dichotomously rather than continuously. Consequently, researchers may either disregard evidence that fails to attain statistical significance or undervalue it relative to evidence that attains statistical significance."

Education in statistics, at least as it is too often taught today in schools, makes one worse at likelihood judgments.

A Big Data Problem

"Suppose we are constructing a prediction of some measured response in terms of 20 characteristics...  a common event in machine learning. How large is 20-dimensional space? If we divide each predictor's range into quartiles, the 20-dimensional space is divided into 420 different sections. If you have a billion individual cases, on average there will be only one case every thousand sections. Hardly an empirical base to build upon with confidence!" -- Stephen M. Stigler, The Seven Pillars of Statistical Wisdom

Come again?

Journalists are supposedly taught to keep sentences and paragraphs short, so that their writing is easy to follow. How, then, did the following come about?

"However, Jazz management opted not to risk losing Hill in free agency without a suitable replacement after he declined their attempts to sign him to an extension during the season, trading Oklahoma City's lottery-protected 2018 first-round pick to the Minnesota Timberwolves for Rubio before the July 1 deadline to use salary cap space remaining from last season."

I've read that three times now, and while I understand it involves three teams, two players, and a draft pick, I really don't understand much more than that.

Bleg: Does Skype have the worst user interface ever?

OK, I have "Pending contact request"s on Skype. The obvious thing to do would be to make that message itself a link to the dialogue where you accept the request.

But Skype did not do that.

A second best would be have an option on the "contact" menu called something like "Accept pending requests."

But Skype did not do that.

A third best might be to double click on the contact from whom one has the pending request, and then get a button or something to accept the request.

But Skype did not do that.

I have searched Skype help for "pending" and "accept": nothing. Searching for "request" explains how to send a contact request. I asked both of the people who sent me requests if they know how to accept requests, and neither of them has any clue. I have googled, but every result I get seems to describe some earlier version of Skype because the "Accept" button they talk about is not where they say it should be.

What, exactly, did Skype do to enable the acceptance of pending requests? I have been searching for two days, and have no idea! Whatever they did, they have hidden the feature with the extreme cunning and stealth.

Or, in other words...


PS: I may have figured out what is happening. It may be the case that I sent these people contact requests (although I don't recall doing so), and they haven't accepted. But this would have been so easy to clarify on Skype's part: "You sent a pending contact request" or "You received a pending contact request."

PPS: That weren't it! I checked, and the gentlemen in question don't have contact requests.

Did you know...

Fortran was updated less than 10 years ago?

Being a developer

A nice post from my friend Scott Johnson on being a developer.

The identitarians are not always wrong!

I have often asserted here that no ideology could ever gain any traction if it did not contain at least some partial truths. So, for instance, libertarians are certainly correct in asserting that any attempt at economic regulation tends to get captured by special interests.

Similarly, although the racial and sexual "identitarians" often spout nonsense, they are certainly correct in thinking thay mainstream discourse often "priveliges" certain groups.

For instance, Netflix captioning, when a person is speaking a European language, almost always reads, "Speaking Russian," "Speaking Italian," etc.

But when almost any non-European language is being spoken, the captioning reads, "Speaking in native language."

I see similar reports on athletes from Africa: "Olu speaks five African dialects." Because, you see, there is a single language, called "African," and Ga and Ewe and Twi and Fante and Wolof and Swahili and... are all just "dialects" of that language.

Historical research? Why, I once watched a TV show!

Another sad tale of crappy popular history of science related by Thony.

Here's the quote that I really love, when Stuart Clark "cites his sources":

"I first heard the story when it was told by Carl Sagan in his masterpiece TV series, Cosmos."

Clark is writing an article on the history of science, and his "research" into the accuracy of what he is reporting consists in having once watched a TV show where he heard this story.

Imagine someone doing a popular science show this way, and reporting, say, "Perpetual motion machines are perfectly possible: I saw one on a TV show once!"

Truth in Chains

I am not a libertarian. And I am not particularly a fan of Tyler Cowen.

I point these things out so that perhaps my condemnation of this sort of egregious dishonesty will seem a little stronger. Nancy McLean is a liar who is willing to double down on her lies once she is caught. This sort of thing can't be condemned in enough places.

This took longer than I thought it would...

But version 2.0 of Trump's travel ban passed Supreme Court muster 9-0.

As I said, version 1.0 was designed to take all the heat and get struck down, while version 2.0 was the one that was actually going to go into effect.

Hayek and Oakeshott on Rationalism

is now published at Voegelin View.

It will be out in book form next year, along with many other great essays on rationalism and Ryle, Wittgenstein, MacIntyre, Voegelin, Polanyi, and more.

Well Begun Is Half Done

Old aphorisms stick around for a reason.

When I get a book to review, I create a new file, and enter the book's bibliographical information in it.

When I start a new page of lecture notes, I just put in the outline of the book chapter I have to talk about.

And so. Just so there is a file, with something in it.

Once I get the above first step accomplished it really is all downhill from there. It is the blank page that terrifies!

These are the worst stories ever

As I reentered the world of software development, I kept hearing about "user stories," and wondering what these were. Apparently, some new way of having users describe the software they needed had been developed: it was on my to-do list find out what this was.

I am currently reading a book about agile development, and came across a few of these "user stories." Here is what I found:

  • Customers can view the portal landing page in browser
  • Customer can create draft mortgage application
  • Customer can get list of existing mortgages
Wow, those sure are dramatic "stories." They are what, back in the Middle Ages, we would have called "informal requirements."

What has been gained by calling them "stories" eludes me.

Living the hallucination

In this extraordinary post, I found this extraordinary quote:

"you’re seeing [white, male] people who really expected to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days."

The authoress is living in an hallucination, in which being a white man means that you always get your own way and are always told you are wonderful!

What the authoress has apparently done is notice that, in the course of history, certain white men, say, Henry VIII, or Peter the Great, or Louis XIV, largely got their own way, and were most often told they were wonderful, at least within their own realm. She then has concluded that this has been the usual condition of white men in general!

She apparently has failed to notice that most of the people these monarchs were bossing around and "getting their own way" with were... white men. She has apparently failed to notice that the lot of the average white male has not been to live as an absolute, divine right monarch, but to have been ordered around, in the first years of his life, by his own mother and his elementary school teachers, i.e., by women, who often would tell him he is not wonderful at all. Then he goes off to upper school, and perhaps university, where he is bossed around yet more, and told again that he is not so wonderful. Then he goes to work in a factory, or an office, and is bossed around for another forty years, and informed how not wonderful he is whenever he asks for a pay raise. The idea that such a life would lead one to expect "to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days" is literally insane: as I said, she is living in an hallucination.

And her whole rant was prompted by a few white men criticizing her interpretation of Lolita. (I haven't read Lolita, and have no opinion about whose interpretation is correct.) But here is something else she hasn't noticed: the history of the intellectual life in the West has basically been centuries and centuries of some white men telling other white men that they have no idea what they are talking about... and then being told the same in return. Now, I think it is great that this sphere has opened up to include more women and non-white people. But once you start to play this game, you are going to get told by someone, or many someones, that you don't know what you are talking about! That's the way the game works. If you enter this arena, and then whine about "white male privilege" every time you are criticized, you are like someone who has asked to join a boxing league, and then breaks down in tears because "the other boxers keep hitting me!"

A Divine Image

"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.
"Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble--and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.
"Ideology--that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early or late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations."
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
The Gulag Archipelago

What Is Rationalism?

This is one of the themes of the volume Lee Trepanier and I are now editing. (Some of the pieces from this have already been published at Voegelin View.)

Here is a first cut at addressing the question.

The mortgage-interest tax deduction

I see this claim a lot:

"The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes."

But the claim is false. Making mortgage interest tax deductible was a one time windfall to those who bought houses before it was known that the interest would be made tax-deductible. Once that's fact became known, it was included in the house price. Today, homeowners pay more for a house than they would if the mortgage interest was not tax-deductible: in fact, the price is higher by the present value of the stream of future deductions, at least in equilibrium. Thus, there is no net benefit for homeowners. (Of course, if the deduction were repealed, house prices would drop, so repeal would certainly hurt present homeowners.)


"The difference between slaves in Roman and Ottoman days and today's employees is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss." -- Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

Oakeshott on "Skin in the Game"

Besides antifragility, another theme Nassim Taleb has been stressing of late is "skin in the game": the idea that people who face the consequences of their actions are more likely both to learn and to behave responsibly, than people who are shielded from such consequences.

Of course, Taleb is smart enough and educated enough to know that this is not an entirely new idea, and that he is expanding upon the intimations of earlier thinkers here. Even so, it was interesting to see Michael Oakeshott sound this motif so clearly in "Rational Conduct":

"And politics is a field of activity peculiarly subject to the lure of this 'rational' ideal. If you start by being merely 'intelligent' about a boiler or an electrical generator you are likely to be pulled up short by an explosion: but in politics all that happens is war and chaos, which you do not immediately connect with your error."

The plumber you call to fix your boiler has "skin in the game": if all he possesses is an abstract theory about boilers (what Oakeshott calls being "merely 'intelligent'") he will suffer the consequence of his lack of practical know-how himself, sooner or later, and most likely sooner. But the theoretical politician enamored of "regime change" can successively wreck the nations of Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and still regularly secure $250,000 speaking fees.

On Interventionists and Their Mental Defects


Not a madman, just a courageous man.

Don't put your shortcuts everywhere

I've got all sorts of vim and bash aliases and key mappings on my usual machines. Every once a while, though, I have to work from my PythonAnywhere account. I tend not to move all of these shortcuts to that account.

Why? It's good to have to use the raw commands once in a while so you remember what they are: After typing "gpushm" often enough, I would forget it expands to "git push origin master," if not for my no-shortcut account!

And the reason you don't want to forget the raw commands is that you never know when you will be forced onto an unfamiliar machine, and have no choice but to use them.

The most annoying bot-blocker ever

Has got to be the "Click all images containing X" from Captcha.

The images are small, blurry, and often ambiguous.

We are asked, "Click all images containing cars." One image shows a pickup truck. Should we click that?

We are asked, "Click all images containing mountains." One image has a faint blue smudge on the horizon. Is that mountains, or clouds, or a camera artifact?

And so. Pretty much every single time I am presented with this verification barrier I wind up just guessing on a few of the images.

More horrifically wrong pop history of science

This time, from Neil deGrasse Tyson, as described by Thony.

And, once again, there is nothing ideological I can see in any of NdGT's colossal historical blunders.

I think that many scientists and mathematicians just don't consider history a serious subject, so when they go to talk about history... they just make up whatever story suits their purposes.

Spread the game to everyone, everywhere

An ad on TV for the PGA says that the mission of its members is to "spread the game of golf to everyone, everywhere."

Why? Should the world become entirely wrapped in golf courses so that we can accommodate 7 billion people teeing off at once?

If someone believes in, say, Christianity, or libertarianism, or communism, I can see why they would want everyone else to believe in it as well: they think the world would be a better place if everyone did. But does anyone "believe" in golf in this way? The world would be a better place if only everyone played golf?

Amazing fact of the day

While listening to DevOps Café, I came across the fascinating claim that well over 95% of the worlds computers have never had a human logon to them, and will go through their entire useful existence without anyone logging on. (For instance, they are a rackmounted Web server, that was configured by an automated process, monitored automatically, and, when they fail, will simply be thrown away, not repaired.)

(Of course, Keshav will note that this is not really surprising at all, and that for a person of his intelligence, the surprise only comes when you combine this with the fact that 87% of these servers have the number 666 in their network names.)

From Art to Purpose


Consider the lilies. They neither spin nor toil. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like them.

Isn't the natural, worriless springing forth of order beautiful?

Don't you want to experience this beauty more fully?

Well, consider the lilies!

The Purpose of Art

To believe that art exists for
a purpose is to be confused.
For those who do not see this,
I would ask you to ask yourself,
"What is the purpose of a landscape painting?"

And your inventing mind might invent a legitimate purpose
for that painting:
It could alleviate melancholy.
Maybe enchant the cubicled mind.

But to all these legitimate purposes we could add another:
our rectangular painting could serve as a dinner plate.

If you say that being a dinner plate is very different than being art,
I rest my case. For it is something like a prose article,
mascarading as a poem.

It's the culture

I have on several occasions noted that the really important thing about mass immigration is not whatever economic impact it might have, but its cultural impact. No culture can survive long periods of mass immigration: ask the North American Indians, or the Maori, or the Romans circa 300 AD.

In any case, The American Conservative has an excellent piece up on how mass immigration is affecting England. An excerpt:

"The keys, then, to England’s successful, if very limited, history of immigration were the small scale and gradual pace of entry; a confident, well-defined, and long-established national culture; and the ability and willingness of the newcomers to integrate fully into that culture."

And even multiculturalists admit what I am saying: 'British multiculturalist Bikhu Parekh concludes quite reasonably, given that mass immigration of itself destroys cultural consensus, "it is not clear what immigrants are to be assimilated into."'

Hayek and Oakeshott on Rationalism

Is almost done: comments, please!

The Rachel Dolezal of Monkeys?


Um, perhaps the monkey on the left's claim to be "black" is a little cultural appropriation, hey?

The Strange Career of the Word "Conspiracy"

From ESPN:

Barrie: It won't. If I was in to conspiracy theories (maybe I am), I'd say DJ didn't try too hard to make the cut so he could get in work at Erin Hills this weekend, while the rest of the tour was at Muirfield Village.

So a plan one makes completely on one's own is now a "conspiracy"?

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

Scott Adams, as noted here on occasion, is a very bad philosopher. But when it comes to things he has actually studied in depth, like cognitive dissonance, he is often brilliant.

I was recently able to use his heuristic for detecting cognitive dissonance to understand a bizarre response to something I said to a friend: I mentioned to him that a certain program he was involved in was actually racist.

Scott has noted that a "tell" for cognitive dissonance is a completely over-the-top misrepresentation of what the person causing the cognitive dissonance said.

So, my friend (who is not a racist) was faced with a tough choice: he could address the criticism I actually made, but that would mean admitting he had been duped into supporting a racist program (despite not being a racist), since there is no way to deny the program is racist, once you actually follow the argument showing that it is.

Or, he could hallucinate that I had said something else entirely.

Now no one likes to admit that they have been duped. And thus, the response I got back? "Oh, so you are saying that I am responsible for racism!"

My suggestion that he was unwittingly supporting a racist program was hallucinated into a claim that he himself was the creator of racism!

This absurd disconnect between what I said and what he claimed I said is a sure sign that cognitive dissonance is being suppressed by an hallucination.

PS: Every time I try to spell the word "suppress," I have to try about five variations before I get it right!

A Genius at Work

For my forthcoming paper "Hayek and Oakeshott on Rationalism," I have been re-reading their works, and just finished "Economics and Knowledge." Although my paper votes for Oakeshott in evaluating the two thinkers' views on rationalism, I have to say that "Economics and Knowledge" is an absolutely brilliant paper: perhaps among the ten greatest papers ever produced in the social sciences. Hayek just brings wonderful clarity to the problem of what, exactly, equilibrium analysis does and does not accomplish.

Blog Title

I walked up to my friend Trishank at work today, and said, "You antifragile chaos monkey, you!"

It stuck in my head as a catchy phrase the rest of the evening, and thus... voila!

A Huge Problem with the Popular History of Science and Mathematics

Is that it is often presented by scientists and mathematicians. And they often don't give a hoot about what the actual facts were. E.g., I just saw mathematician Bruce Edwards claim, in a lecture on proofs, that Hudalrichus Regius found that 2^11 - 1 was not a prime 'using Roman numerals.'

Immediately I wrote my friend Thony to check out what appeared to me to be a far-fetched claim. I heard back:
European university mathematicians were already using Hindu-Arabic numerals in the 12th century. They were introduced into commercial arithmetic by Fibonacci in the 13th century. By the 16th century they were in common use. As Ulrich Rieger (his real name) published his results in his Rechenbuch, which was a textbook for teaching the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals I very much doubt (being polite) that he did his calculations in Roman numerals.
So, Edwards was roughly four centuries off in his wild guess about when a European mathematician would still have been using Roman numerals, and the proof in question actually appeared in a book for teaching Hindu-Arabic numerals!

I've seen this frequently: scientists and mathematicians just don't take history seriously, and appear to simply make up whatever "facts" they want to suit the story they wish to tell.

And note: This is pretty clearly not a case of deliberate distortion of history for ideological purposes.  It is a case of just not bothering to check the facts.

"The Thing" went away

Whatever "it" was that led to the recent spike in hits to this blog seems to have crescendoed, and then wandered off to do something else. What weird behavior!

The Antifragile Chaos Monkey

I just read about how great Amazon US-EAST crash of April 21, 2011 brought down most of their customers who depended on that zone, including big one's like Reddit and Quora. But Netflix remained up. How did that happen?

It turns out that Netflix had made themselves "antifragile" by employing a tool they called "Chaos Monkey." What Chaos Monkey would do was to simply regularly and randomly "crash" various Netflix servers. ("Crash" is in quotes because when it is being done on purpose by the machine owner, it is not clear whether it really should be called a crash or not.)

By continually crashing their own servers, the Netflix engineers could keep on learning how to keep uncrashed portions of their network up and running in the face of part of the network going down. And so when Amazon US-EAST crashed, Netflix ran on, unfazed.

This is what Nassim Taleb is talking about when he says a person or organization that tries to keep all fluctuations damped down becomes fragile, and very vulnerable to a big fluctuation. The companies that tried to keep all of their servers up and running all the time went completely out of operation when Amazon crashed from under them. But the company that kept itself ready with lots of little crashes could handle the big crash.

  • If you run on a treadmill, the first time you step unevenly on a pothole, you tear a ligament.
    But, if you run on uneven surfaces, your ligaments are stronger, and you can handle the new stress.
  • If you try to keep from ever feeling down with anti-depressants, the first time you get really walloped by a crisis, you commit suicide.
    But, if you learn to deal with lots of smaller ups-and-downs, you are more prepared for a big one.
  • If you are a central bank that tries to keep growth constant and prevent all downturns, you set the economy up for a big crash.
    But, if you accept lots of small downturns, you clear out bad investments in small doses and may avoid big crashes.
I could keep going, but you get the idea, I suspect.

More economic nonsense from David J. Anderson

"The driver actually picking up the machine at the warehouse, driving at your home, and unpacking it for you is a transaction cost. Perhaps the same person, or another person, a plumber, installs it for you... All of this time and effort for delivery and installation is part of the transaction cost of buying the washing machine... The net effect of all these costs it is to inflate the final price paid by the consumer without actually increasing the value delivered." -- Kanban, p. 94

Right, so an uninstalled washing machine sitting in a warehouse is just as valuable to me as the same washing machine installed in my basement and ready to use. It's a wonder anyone bothers delivering and installing anything! Amazon could sell me books, and just leave them in the warehouse, with a note on them saying I own them. That would forestall "inflating" the price of my books quite a bit!

The funny thing is that on some level, Anderson knows he is spouting nonsense, since on the very next page, he acknowledges "It is true that the washing machine without delivery or installation is of little value..." Exactly: that is why delivering and installing it adds to its value.

I suspect that what is confusing Anderson is his notion that certain parts of the manufacturing process "add value," while others don't. But that is looking at things as though the Marginal Revolution of the late 1800s had never occurred. There is no substance called "value" that is ladled into products as they are manufactured. Instead, the materials being worked upon are transformed at each stage of the production process, and those transformations either result in the consumer of the product valuing it more highly, or they do not. If they do, then speaking loosely, we could say that they "add value." If they do not, then they simply should not be performed.

And since I, as a consumer of washing machines, most definitely value a machine in which I can actually wash my clothes inside my house much more than I value one sitting in a warehouse in which I cannot wash anything, then the delivery and installation steps "add value." In fact, that is why people pay for those steps to be performed.

One of the most amazing results of number theory

The prime numbers are not spaced evenly along the number line. What is the biggest gap between prime numbers?

There is no such "biggest gap." If we take the number, say, 3455324898588757997446990653578956897469994337854, we can always find a gap between prime numbers at least that large! (And I just typed a very large, completely random sequence of digits: this result holds for any number whatsoever!)

Covfefe Ops

Prediciton: "Dev Ops" will soon be replaced as a trend by "Covfefe Ops."

Something rotten in the state of Blogger

Here are this week's stats:

Clearly, that spike was automated, and not real readers. But what is going on? And why do the bots keep visiting "Central Planning Works," rather than fanning out across all posts?

Kan't Ban

David T. Anderson is the guru of the Kanban movement for managing software projects.

But a competent economic analyst he is not. He divides economic activities into those that "add value" and those that are "wasteful." But activities that do not add value to a final product (and are known not to add value) are not the activities of an economic producer at all: they are called "consumption" or "recreation." (The whole idea of "adding value" in production is itself questionable, but let's not go into that.)

For instance, he talks about staining a wood fence for a customer:
This involved a trip to Home Depot. There was also some preparation work required on the fence: some repairs, some sanding, and trimming plants... To allow access for painting. None of these activities could be described as adding value. The customer does not care that I have to make a trip to Home Depot. The customer does not care that this activity takes time. In fact, it is annoying, as it delays the start and the end of the project. (Emphasis mine.)
No, unless David intends to stain the fence with air or dirt, the trip to Home Depot does not "delay the start of the project." It is the start of the project. And neither does the customer "care" that the staining takes time: the customer would much prefer that David could stain the entire fence merely by thinking about it being stained. And the customer surely would be very annoyed if David simply stained right over the plants growing along the fence, rather than trimming them back, or failed to sand, so the stain would not take.

What Anderson is doing is simply arbitrarily designating certain costs as "not adding value" and then pointing out that the customer would like those costs minimized. But the customer would also like the costs that Anderson claims do add value to be minimized. In fact, the ideal production process takes no time and is completely costless. Until we can achieve such a process, all work that is required to deliver the final product "adds value." Any work that does not add value should not be reduced, as Anderson suggests, but completely done away with. (In fact, that Anderson talks about minimizing this work, instead of eliminating it, demonstrating that somewhere inside he knows his distinction is arbitrary.)

When it comes to producing software, Anderson distinguishes between things like meetings, that are "waste," and actual coding, which "adds value." Again, the distinction is completely arbitrary. Imagine we have a software-generating AI that can simply listen to humans holding a meeting about a piece of software, and then write the code. In that case, the only part of the production process involving humans would be meetings! The customer does not "care" about the meetings, but, in fact, doesn't "care" about the coding either: the customer only cares about the final product doing what he wants it to, however the product came about.

Short of having such an AI, the question is, "Are the meetings being held helpful to producing a better software product?" If they are, they are "producing value." (Again, this is not really an accurate way to speak: production processes do not ladle out little dollops of value here and there into a product.) Think about a half-hour meeting where one software engineer discovers that his colleague has already written and debugged an algorithm that he was going to spend the next week writing and debugging. That meeting was "worth" a week of coding, since the first programmer is now freed up to code something else for the next week.

And if the meetings are not helping to produce a better product, they should simply be dropped.

Educators, open source your test material

I've heard from several professors that they don't like to put their course material in publicly accessible places, because then students will merely memorize that material, and be able to pass the course without any real understanding of what is going on.

That's true for a single professor posting her material from the past couple of semesters, which she hopes to re-use again in the next few semesters.

But what if an entire department established an open source repository of all of their test and homework material? Then the faculty would have access to a pool of thousands of possible test questions and homework assignments.

And what about some student who went and memorized all of this material? Well, such a student deserves an A!

In other words, the way to handle the problem of students looking up previous tests and homework assignments so that they can gain an edge in their course is not to try to hide that material (which, as my colleague admitted to me, doesn't work, since students find a way to share it anyway), but instead to overwhelm the students with so much publicly available material that any student who memorizes all of it is good to go.

Building software tools

How much time one should spend building the software the customers want, versus how much time one should spend building tools to better enable one to build the software the customers want, is simply a special case of how "round-about" one should make any production process.

My friend Howard Baetjer noted this many years ago, but it seems it is still not widely recognized in the software industry.

Puzzling blog post puzzle

And just why do so many of my recent posts have "puzzle" in the title?

Another page hit puzzle

I don't really look at these stats too often, so that's why when I occasionally do, I am so puzzled by what I see. For instance, this month, most of the top posts have gotten a thousand or so hits. But this post, from 7 years ago, has 47,000 hits this month! Say what?! It's not even a very interesting post.

What the heck is going on here? Is there some way someone could be routing spam through one of my blog posts? That doesn't seem possible, given what I know about blogs, but I ask because I don't really track how these things work, and I can't understand why one of my old, relatively uninteresting posts could suddenly be generating so much traffic.

A linguistic puzzle

I am watching a Hindi language movie. In the opening scene, a board showing the train schedule at a station is shown.

The headings on the board are all in English: "Track", "Train", "Departure", etc. But all of the entries on the board are in Hindi.

Why would anyone design a train schedule board in this fashion?

A passenger who can only read English can read the headings but not the actual train information. A passenger who can only read Hindi can read the train information, but not the headings. And anyone who can read both could read the board if it was written entirely in one language or the other.

So what could be the motivation for this mixed language board?

Traffic puzzle, part II

It seems I do have a lot of new links to this blog, but they are being recorded as coming through this site.

But what is that site? And why are my hits showing up as coming from it, rather than the actual blogs that are linking here?

Man, this software stuff is confusing!

The falsity of the "they're just reading" response

In response to my post "The Most Rapid Alteration of Human Behavior in History," A couple of readers essentially responded, "They're just reading," and sent me links to items like the photo above.

First of all, before the photo above was taken, reading had been gradually spreading amongst humans for many thousands of years. Nevertheless, the spread of literacy did represent a profound change in people: we remember far less than our preliterate ancestors did, instead relying on external documents for our memory. No less a figure than Socrates worried about this change, and apparently that is why he never wrote anything.

But the photo I used in my post (the one linked to above) was taken, not several thousand, but only a dozen years after the invention of the smartphone.

Furthermore, the behavior of smart phone users is pretty different from that of newspaper readers. True, for some time people have read newspapers while waiting in line, or riding a train. But as far as I recall, newspaper readers did not:

  • Read the newspaper while biking down a busy NYC street.
  • Drop their newspaper under a bus and die while trying to retrieve it.
  • Go on a dinner date and spend most of their time reading the newspaper.
  • Read the newspaper throughout an entire three-hour lecture that they paid many thousands of dollars to attend. (I see about half of all students at university lectures continually using their smart phone throughout the lecture.)
  • Cause 1.6 million accidents a year by reading the newspaper while driving.
  • Walk into walls, pools, and bears because they were reading the newspaper.

Now I don't deny that any of these things might have happened very rarely with newspapers (or books, etc.) in the past. But newspapers did not cause 1 in 4 car accidents, and while every few months I might encounter someone reading the newspaper while walking down the street, today, in NYC, about half the people I see out walking are also on their cell phone.

So, when you convince me that newspaper reading was causing similar problems to the above, then I will believe that nothing new is happening.

Now available for pre-order on Amazon

Our new ebook, The Idea of Science.

Why Are We Discussing the "Probability" of Something That Happened?

This is bizarre -- when illustrating how dominant the Warriors were during the NBA regular-season, Ben Alamar chooses to discuss their "win probability"... rather than, say, their actual number of wins! Statistics have become more real to him than actual events!

Dynamic Programming, the video

Greedy Choice Versus Dynamic Programing

To give a mini lecture on when one can use a greedy algorithm and when one must resort to dynamic programming, I had a little cross disciplinary breakthrough: we can make the greedy choice (and thus use a greedy algorithm) when there is no opportunity cost for doing so. When are choice does come with opportunity costs, the greedy choice won't work.

I hope to post the lecture later.

"Contacting" Amazon

On their Kindle publishing site, Amazon has a "Contact Us" button. (It is at the bottom left on this page.)

Is it just me, or does the "Contact Us" button just lead you around and around more web pages, with no ability to contact anyone at all?

UPDATE: I finally found a link leading to an actual contact page!

Philosophy of Nature

My review of Paul Feyerabend's Philosophy of Nature is now published at British Journal for the History of Philosophy.

Blog readership puzzle

Here's the chart of hits per month for La Bocca:

The puzzle is, I have no idea what caused the liftoff in readership a year ago, or why it has climbed with three distinct peaks as it has. And when I look through my referrals, the main source of traffic seems to be, not a link from some big name blogger, but Google.

The Garden in May

The relevance of van Bavel

As you may know, I am currently reviewing Bas van Bavel's The Invisible Hand? for History: Review of New Books. As I am reaching the end of the book, I am ready to write the introduction for my review!

Van Bavel's work might best be characterized as "applied history." (Students of Michael Oakeshott will recognize that this means van Bavel, while doing serious historical research, is primarily dealing with the "practical past," i.e., the past viewed as providing lessons for present choices.) The context in which this work is set is the ongoing debate over optimal economic policy. For a time, from the collapse of the Soviet Union until about a decade ago, it seemed that this debate might be settled: neoliberalism had triumphed, and the best political economy prescription clearly involved a heavy dose of free markets. Certainly, there was debate at the margins: Should healthcare be publicly provisioned? How big a welfare state should one have? What is the proper role for central banks and international economic institutions like the IMF? And there were always heretics like Marxists and Catholic social theorists who demurred from this consensus, but they were like flat earthers or creationists, and could be safely ignored.

But then came the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and all that had seemed settled was at play again. The response to the crisis by free-market advocates most typically ran along these lines: "Yes, the crisis was bad, but it was the result of crony capitalism, not of true free markets. If the central banks and the international economic institutions had not gotten in bed with the big banks, this all could have been avoided." And there is, I think, a good deal of truth in this response.

But van Bavel's work provides a very important counter-response. Van Bavel's main thesis is that open markets work well, for a time, at producing wealth and lifting all boats. But with the rise of factor markets, meaning market dominance over the allocation of land, labor, and capital, there arises an increasingly wealthy financial elite, and that wealth gives them an increasing influence over social conditions in general. In particular, this elite becomes more and more able to bend the legal system of their society to serve their own interests. In short, unfettered free markets produce crony capitalism as their probable (at times van Bavel seems to suggest inevitable) outcome, much as consuming crystal meth, while providing a boost for a time, sooner or later produces a collapse in health.

Van Bavel backs his thesis with extensive evidence from three case studies: Iraq between 500 and 1100 CE, Northern Italy from 1000 to 1500, and the Low Countries between 1100 and 1800. He also touches, much more lightly, upon other instances of market societies, such as England, the United States, early modern China, and the Roman Empire.

My next post on this topic will be the conclusion of my review.