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Showing posts from November, 2015

Dying for the telephone company

"The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on it’s behalf… It is like being asked to die for the telephone company…. The shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both." -- Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice, Which Rationality?

Rationalism in International Politics

E. H. Carr critiqued it at a crucial moment in Europe's history.

Americanity

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If you doubt that "Americanism" is a religion, watch the beginning of a football game. A huge religious icon (the American flag) is spread across the field. Everyone puts their hands over their hearts (similar to making the sign of the cross) and then sings a religious hymn ("The Star Spangled Banner"). The singer is surrounded by a coterie of "monks": Marines, Navy SEALs, paratroopers, etc. Then, like a great spectacle in the coliseum from pagan times, two groups of warriors do battle, interspersed with ads touting consumption (the chief sacrament of Americanism) and the mystical ecstasies that can be achieved by total devotion to one's subcult (favorite team).

Every time Nick Rowe writes a macro post...

you should contemplate it very carefully... you will always learn to think about he macroeconomy more deeply.

In Which I Knock the Bottom out of Niall Ferguson

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Here.

Noah, lost at sea

Noah Smith is trying to defend empiricism in economics, but when it comes to empirical facts about the history of science... well, those we can just make up to suit our purposes! And so he writes:

"Our most spectacularly successful leaps of theoretical insight - Newton's Principia, Einstein's relativity stuff, Mendel's theory of inheritance - were all very closely guided by data. The general pattern was that some new measurement technology would be invented - telescopes, plant hybridization experiments, etc. - that would provide some new unexplained data. Then some smart theorists would come up with a new theoretical framework (paradigm?) to explain it, and the new framework would then also explain a bunch of other stuff besides, and so people would switch to the new theory."

Now, I haven't studied the history surrounding Mendel much, so I am not going to comment on it (imagine that: choosing not to write about something because one doesn't know much abo…

One-book-itis

One-book-itis is a malady that strikes amateurs in an academic field (e..g. history) when their reading in that field, on a particular topic, is largely restricted to one strong defense of a controversial position about that topic. The amateur simply doesn't know the field (e.g. history) well enough to realize that:

1) Of course any competent professional historian can marshall a strong case for any position he puts forward: he wouldn't put a case forward unless he could marshall strong evidence for it, and his entire professional life has been spent learning how to make the historical case for proposition X strong.

In particular, what the amateur overlooks here is that their champion for this controversial position is in a dialogue with other professional historians. And whatever view he is disputing, those others themselves put forward good cases for the view he is disputing: if they hadn't, he wouldn't even bother disputing it!

2) The professional discussion is nua…

Applications for Agent-Based Modeling

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Hat tip to Leslie Marsh for bring this to my attention:


The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages

A few quotes from the work with the above title by Richard C. Dales:

"The really important thing to be noted, however, is the rapidity with which the scientists of the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries learned to differ with Aristotle..." (quoting Lynn White).

"The striking thing about this [twelfth] century is the attitude of its scientists. These men are daring, original, inventive, skeptical of traditional authorities although sometimes overly impressed by new ones, and above all steadfastly determined to discover purely rational explanations of natural phenomena."

"Despite the fact that many excellent illuminating studies of medieval science, as well as the texts of the works themselves, have been published in easily accessible volumes during the past fifty years, it is not unusual to find even well-educated people abysmally ignorant of the subject. Unfortunately this does not inhibit them from writing authoritatively about it."

My review of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britian

To appear soon in History: Review of New Books.

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Floud, Roderick, Jane Humphries, and Paul Johnson. The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Volume 1: 1700-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.
This work is an excellent survey of the important region and period of economic history that was Britain’s industrial revolution. It consists of fifteen essays by a variety of top scholars, each taking up a different aspect of the overall subject: nutrition, international trade, technology, ideology, agriculture, transportation, regional variations, occupations, labor markets, finance, social mobility, and political economy. With such a wealth of information on hand, a short review can only sample a few of the abundant offerings in the volume.

Rational heating

Houses used to have radiators. These were "irrational," as it was hotter near the radiator than on the other side of the room. What people wanted was uniform heat over the entire house.

Except, if they have any sense, that's not what they want. Some people will find the uniformly heated room chilly, while others find it stifling. When we had radiators and fires, one could move closer to the heat source, or further from it, and set one's own room temperature. Now we must all have a single temperature, like it or not.

My thermostat is a Presbyterian

I have said before on this blog that if we wish to ascribe thoughts about chess to a chess-playing computer, we should, for the very same reasons, ascribe thoughts about home heating to our thermostats. It is nice to see that one of the founders of the discipline of artificial intelligence agrees with me on this point:

'In 1979 McCarthy wrote an article[22] entitled "Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines." In it he wrote, "Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs..."'

Of course, McCarthy thinks thermostats have beliefs about home heating and Big Blue has beliefs about chess, while I think neither is true, but we agree that the evidence should lead us to decide both cases the same way. (It is like we agree on the proposition, "If Joe is guilty, then Bill is guilty too," but disagree on whether Joe is guilty.)

Lost in the Medicine Cabinet

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13-digit ISBN required, without hyphen

Every time you see a message like this from a web site, a programming angel falls from the sky and is imprisoned on earth until he can get the programmer who wrote that code to stop being a lazy so-and-so. Do you realize how easy it is to strip a hyphen out of a string of text?

Programmers: accept any reasonable format, and change it for the user into the format you need!

Absolute elsewhere in the stones of your mind...

I was in the waiting room at my chiropractor's office. I had a book to read, but the scene playing out in front of me caught my attention:

There was a girl of about seven sitting directly across from me, with a book in her lap. Her mother sat at right angles to both of us, phone in hand, studying the screen and typing. The girl asked, "Mommy, can I read to you?"

Her mother grunted something that might be interpreted as a yes. The girl began reading and the mothers face remained fixed on her phone, her fingers still typing. Every 30 seconds or so, the mother would look up, and give her daughter about a one second glance. At one point, she corrected the girls pronunciation of "Himalaya."

The girl mentioned yetis, and read that they were "apple-like creatures." I was puzzled by this for a moment, and then realized that she had read "ape-like creatures," and did not know that the dash meant that she should break her pronunciation at that point.…

George Will, Bullsh*&^er

As described here.

It is shocking how often the lie that Obama uses the first person a lot in his speeches has been repeated, given how often it has been shown to be false.

Germaine Greer speaks sense

here, but as a trans activist quoted in the article noted, speaking sense is "out of date."

Bonaventure on the Trinity

I have sometimes had commenters remark that my metaphysical interpretations of the Trinity surely must be completely novel, and have nothing to do with any traditional idea about it. Well, here is Ettienne Gilson, commenting on St. Bonaventure's ideas on the Trinity, from about 800 years ago:

"Now, it is clear that within such a substance [as a necessary being] the origin holds the place of principle; the exemplar, of means; the final cause, as its name indicates, of end; and as it likewise appears that the Father is the Principle and the Holy Spirit the End, it follows that the Son is the Means. Thus the Father is the original foundation, the Holy Spirit the completion, and the Son the mental word..." -- "The Spirit of St. Bonaventure"

If we absorb the above, we can see that, for instance, Mises's work on praxeology has a trinitarian basis, even though he would have hated to have heard this!

Hipster "multiculturalism"

At my Italian class, one student, a thirty-something hipster with scraggly beard, skinny arms, and nervous hands, was corrected by the instructor: a woman author is a "scrittrice," not a "scrittore."

In response, he rolled his eyes and mumbled something about how sexist this all was.

Entire languages are subject to condemnation if they do not live up to the standards of the twenty-first century Brooklyn hipster!

(Interestingly, the same fellow often corrects the instructor on basic language points, e.g., "That's not reflexive!" in a case where Italian uses a reflexive verb but English doesn't. Even the logical structure of the language is not up to snuff in his eyes.)

Macro Themes

On my fourth round of teaching macroeconomics, I am really able to tie much of the course together around the theme of "upholders of Say's Law" versus "Keynesians" (with "Keynesians" acting as a synecdoche for "all general glut theorists").

For instance, I was just teaching the chapter of our text on unemployment. When we discussed structural unemployment, I told the class about how the general glut debate initially launched in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. "The defenders of Say's Law were not idiots: they saw that there were idle resources. But their explanation was that after 20 years of fighting, the European economy was structured around war: it would take time to change factories for making cannons into factories for making sweaters."

And then I explained how a similar structural explanation was offered for the recent housing-led downturn. And I noted that the Keynesians needn't deny that these structural imbalance…

The Laffer Curve Is No Joke

I have seen a number of pieces from the American left mocking the very idea of the Laffer Curve, as though it is idiotic to think that lowering taxes could ever raise tax revenue. But pretty much every trained economist would admit that there is such a curve; the only question is where its maximum lies.

Consider:

"One great success was the Commutation Act of 1784 which reduced tea duties from 119% to 12.5%, successfully killing smuggling and enhancing the public revenue, a never to be forgotten lesson." -- Julian Hoppit, "Political how are an British economic life, 1650-1870," from The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume I, p. 360, emphasis mine.

Lionel Robbins Discusses "History"

I didn't have a book to bring to the gym at work today, so I scanned the shelves of my (shared) office and plucked from them Lionel Robbins' A History of Economic Thought. Now mind you, I have no axe to grind with Robbins, and the remarks of his I will highlight below have little bearing on any practical current debate. I only note them to show how very wrong even major thinkers often are when they wander outside their area of expertise.

I started with Robbins' second lecture, on Plato and Aristotle. The first sign of trouble was when Robbins says that in The Laws, Plato has a "fascist conception" of the best society, rather than a communist one as in The Republic. So Robbins is trying to line thinkers of 2400 years ago with the political parties of his day, a completely hopeless task that falsifies the past.

Next up: "Before the Renaissance Plato was not at all well know, whereas "the Philosopher" (Aristotle) was appealed to by most of the writer…

Was It the Government That Was (Chiefly) Responsible for the Low-Fat Diet?

Nutrition science is (apparently) seriously revising its recommendations for the amount of fat we should have in our diets. In response, many of my libertarian Facebook friends have been posting things like, "See: never pay attention to government nutritional guidelines."

But was it really the government that drove these recommendations? My impression -- and I have not studied this history in any depth, so this is only an impression -- is that this was more a matter of nutrition scientists jumping to plausible conclusions with too little evidence at hand. Studies showed that the presence of cholesterol in the blood had a positive correlation with heart disease. Therefore, people should lower their cholesterol intake. This hypothesis proceeded on the sensible idea that if we suffer from having too much of X in our bodies, we should put less X into our bodies.

But nutrition and physiology are very complex subjects, and it seems that this plausible idea was not tested sufficie…

Algorithms and Their Implementations

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As I taught my students the Sieve of Eratosthenes, I described the sieve verbally, then I had them "run" the sieve on paper, then program it in Visual Basic. And as I did so, I contemplated, "What is the sieve itself, apart from its implementations?"

This of course is but one more version of the problem that Plato and Aristotle grappled with, on the relation of the forms to their particulars. Plato's approach was to regard the particulars as inferior "copies" of the forms, which tended to lead to a contempt for the world of particulars, and Gnostic ideas like the creation of the sensible world by an evil demiurge. On the other hand, Aristotle emphasized the particulars, leading him to posit a God who was so totally removed from the world that He did not even know it existed.





The problem, it seemed to me as I contemplated this matter, is that each view is one-sided, and treats the algorithm and its implementations as though they could be pulled apart.…

Psychology

The scientific study of the psyche, undertaken by people who generally do not believe that the psyche exists.

Bryan Caplan Explains the Liberal Attitude Towards Religion

I was at the NYU market process colloquium one day when Caplan was presenting. I challenged his notion of rationality, saying that his own view lacked the resources to say why worrying about material well being is rational, while following Biblical injunctions on behavior is irrational. (Something he nevertheless held to be true.)

Caplan's response was along the lines of, "Oh, so we're supposed to be following the dictates of a bunch of desert shepherds from 3000 years ago?" (I quote from memory, but I certainly do not have the essence of Caplan's response wrong.)

The first thing I will point out is that Israel Kirzner, who is an orthodox rabbi (and many times the economist that Caplan is), was sitting next to me in that room. So Caplan was quite deliberately mocking Kirzner's life choices, and in a forum in which he knew Kirzner could not respond. (Kirzner is, of course, too self-possessed and too much of a gentleman to even show a response to Caplan's …

Teaching Programming Without a Net

This morning I did something I had never done before: I wrote a program in front of an audience.

I had assigned my introduction to programming students the Sieve of Eratosthenes as a problem. I had already written a sieve  in Visual Basic based on Stepanov and Rose's guidelines. But I wanted my students to implement a much simpler version -- they are beginners, after all!

Today, for the first time, I came to class, quite deliberately, without having written the program I was going to show them in advance. I told them, "I want to show you how a programmer thinks through a problem like this."

And I programmed the whole algorithm live, describing each step, and using the Visual Studio debugger to examine what was going on. It was a bit nerve wracking: what if I froze up, and couldn't think of what to do next?

But we got through it, and the students loved it. I will be doing this again.

PS: Having gotten them through the sieve, I need one more algorithm for them to code…

The Segregated Pop Charts?

I've mentioned this before, but I am always befuddled by claims that Michael Jackson was "the first" black artist who could score hits with white audiences. I was reminded of this again when I happened to be pointed to Billboard's list of number one pop singles. Take the year I first started listening to pop music, 1970, and consider that the United States is about 13% black, so it is just about impossible to reach number one on the overall pop chart if you are selling only to black record buyers.

What I see for that year is that black artists occupied the number one spot 19 out of 52 weeks: almost 40% of the time. And it was not one "crossover" artist: it was five different ones. And me, a white kid in the suburbs, owned records by all five.

The previous year, 1969, I count black artists at number one 20 out of 52 weeks. And again it is five different artists, with only two overlaps with 1970 (Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Sly and the Family Stone). An…

The promise that the study of the brain is "on the verge"...

of explaining how the brain "produces" consciousness...

is a check that has been "in the mail" for 250 years now!

If People Are Willing to Pay a Lot for It...

it must be bad?!

That's what town rankings like this one always seem to imply: they penalize towns for being pricey. But towns are pricey precisely because they are desirable places to live!

When Law Goes Private...

it turns out that it favors the wealthy even more than does state-made law!

Who could have imagined that in a market for law, the people who can pay the most for law get the law they want?!

The terrible assumption made in the optimistic case for an anarcho-capitalist justice system is that what people will want to pay for in private law is perfect justice, so far as it can be achieved.

Why in the world should that be the case? Large corporations will pay for law that will favor large corporations. Lawsuits based on corporate malfeasance will be increasingly hard to win. Intellectual property law will be strengthened, tremendously. The few dollars you have to spend on "private defense agencies" are peanuts compared to the billions upon billions large corporations will be able to spend.

And, as in any market, the consumer will win: corporations will get exactly the laws they want.

What should be jettisoned from Scholastic philosophy

"Dedicated as they were to the understanding of faith, our theologians accepted without criticism a great deal of ready-made philosophical and scientific knowledge that had no necessary relation to Christian revelation -- and, be it noted, these are precisely the dead and antiquated parts of their work, which we have absolutely no reason to preserve." -- Etienne Gilson, "Historical Research"

I have been trying, apparently without success, to convince the Thomists at Ed Feser's blog of this point, especially concerning the clearly antiquated doctrine of the division of life into non-sentient plants and sentient animals. Forget that this division totally ignores fungii, which are neither plants nor animals, it is also entirely dependent upon "movement" being defined as "movement at the pace at which humans move." Plants move around plenty, just more slowly than we do. And this antiquated division must classify single-celled organisms as "a…

My response to Walter Block

Is online here at Cosmos and Taxis.

Wikiphobia

I was looking at a paper published in the Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, and I found this passage:

"[The South Sea Company's] first act happened to be the successful conversion of 9 million pounds of government debt into company stock. For this service the government undertook to pay interest at 6%.""

This left me a little puzzled: just what was the government paying 6% on, if its bonds had been converted to South Sea Company stock? I wrote a friend who is an expert on the history of money and banking, and he agreed that the passage is confusing, and said, "The Wikipedia entry on the South Sea Company is better."

So, between a peer-reviewed book from Cambridge and Wikipedia... Wikipedia wins!

And high school teachers are still advising their students never to use it.

Sigh.

The Distributist Definition of the Capitalist State

"The two marks, then, defining the Capitalist State are: (i) that the citizens thereof are politically free: i.e. can use or withhold at will their possessions or their labor, but are also (ii) divided into capitalist and proletarian in such proportions that the state as a whole is not characterized by the institution of ownership among free citizens, but by the restriction of ownership to a section markedly less than the whole, or even to a small minority. Such a Capitalist State is essentially divided into two classes of free citizens, the one capitalist or owning, the other propertyless or proletarian." -- Hillaire Belloc, The Servile State, p. 16

The truth about the "subjectivity" of value judgments

Reading Frances Woolley's post about throwing away pumpkin seeds led me to contemplate this point.

By noting that "waste is a value judgment," Woolley seems to imply that it is "merely subjective," and therefore beyond dispute.

The fact that we can, and do, successfully challenge these judgments by others, and sometimes get them to change their mind, shows that this is not the case. But the confusion is understandable: the claim that value judgments are not subjective is often conflated with the notion that everyone whomsoever in any circumstance whatsoever ought to make the same judgment. So, a waste nanny might badger all others about how awful it is for them to throw away their seeds. And that is clearly a mistake.

The truth lies in between: it is either a good idea or a bad idea for me to save and toast my pumpkin seeds. It is not a matter of my whims. But whether or not it is a good or bad idea depends on my "particular circumstances of time and plac…

Neuroscience: Uncovering the "secrets of consciousness"?

An actual neuroscientist (at least one in training) is honest about where things stand. The findings:
We have no f*%king clue how to simulate a brain.

We have no f*%king clue how to wire up a brain.

We have no f*%king clue what makes human brains work so well.

We have no f*%king clue what the parameters are.

We have no f*%king clue what the important thing to simulate is. So, we are just about there, hey?

And note that this person is still a materialist, and still thinks we are dealing with a "machine" that thinks. S/he is just honest enough to admit that we have no clue how that "machine" operates.