Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A bunch of racists gathered together

(The woman is Rosa Parks, by the way.)

Anarchism Refuted in Two Sentences


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

Self-interested bias

When I was young, my maternal grandmother was my ally in battles with my mother. ("The enemy of my enemy is my friend.")

Also, my grandmother hated mayonnaise, which my mother liked. Curiously, at about the age of five, I discovered that I hated mayonnaise as well.

In my twenties, with my grandmother in a nursing home, and no longer an effective ally, and with me living on my own, no longer so subject to my mother's whims, I reluctantly tried mayonnaise again. (Someone served me a sandwich already containing it.) Much to my surprise, I found that I loved mayonnaise!

Still, it was not until many years later that I saw what may already be obvious to you: "hating" mayonnaise was a weapon in my battles with my mother, and way to cement my alliance with my grandmother. (Who knows? Perhaps my mother actually hated mayonnaise, and only pretended to like it to bother my grandmother!)

The entire time I "hated" mayonnaise, I never suspected that I was not simply expressing my honest feelings about a food. In short, I was biased against mayonnaise, disliking it for reasons having nothing to do with mayonnaise itself, but which served my self-interest in some other way. ("Other" than avoiding a food I truly didn't like.)

This mechanism is not only at play in children. Let us say that John is a software engineer at a hot high-tech company in California. Let us further imagine that he holds a number of views that more closely align with those of Donald Trump than those of Hillary Clinton: perhaps he is skeptical of free trade, thinks that Russia is not necessarily our enemy, and that nation-building in the Middle East is a terrible idea. (Note: By choosing this example, I am NOT saying this phenomenon only occurs in Clinton supporters: someone living in a mining town in West Virginia who otherwise would be inclined to support Clinton will be just as likely to "discover" reasons they really support Trump.)

But pretty much from top to bottom, and especially top, everyone in his company despises Donald Trump, and regards anyone who would support him as a racist moron. Will John support Trump?

Unless John has an extremely high degree of self-reliance and fortitude, and maybe also a large trust fund, the answer is almost assuredly "no." But what's more, John will convince himself that the reason he, too, despises Trump has nothing to do with the climate of opinion at his company. To admit that it did would wreck his self image as an independent thinker who makes up his own mind on issues based upon evidence alone.

Instead, he sincerely will be convinced that, for instance, Trump's (very poorly put) comments on illegal Mexican immigrants* are sound evidence that Trump is a racist who hates all brown-skinned people. And it will be just as hard to convince him that this makes no sense as it would have been to convince me, at age ten, that I really liked mayonnaise just fine.

And let me reiterate that I absolutely am not suggesting that only Clinton supporters exhibit this phenomena: I focus on them only because, in the circles in which I move, Clinton supporters outnumber Trump supporters by about ten or twenty to one. Thus, I am more alert to the anomaly of the person whose views seem closer to Trump's nevertheless absolutely despising him than I am to the reverse situation.

* I think the way Trump phrased his infamous "they are rapists" remarks was either:
1) completely idiotic; or
2) a calculated effort to be inflammatory and thus attract attention.
Neither option puts Trump in a great light, although 2) might be partially excused as, "well, that's what it takes for an outsider to break through."

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Atomic Balm

It is extremely easy muddle together the scientific concepts of atoms and elementary particles, and the philosophical idea of atomism, and speak wrongly as a result. The worst example I've ever seen of this, which appears frequently in science textbooks (and which I have mentioned here before), runs something like:

"The ancient Greeks incorrectly thought that the atom was an indivisible entity. But modern science has shown that the atom can be further sub-divided."

This is such a crass error that it is almost unbelievable that it appears in so many textbooks. To understand what has gone wrong, consider the following analogy:

Joe moves to Brooklyn. He has heard reports of "the best bar in Brooklyn," one that has the best drinks at the best prices, served by the best bartenders. He spends a few weeks exploring, after which he dubs Bar X "the best bar in Brooklyn."

But couple of months later, he stumbles upon another bar, Bar Y, which has even better drinks at even better prices, served by even better bartenders. He therefore declares, "The best bar in Brooklyn does NOT have the best drinks at the best prices, served by the best bartenders."

Obviously, he is making a mistake: what happened is that he is awarded the title "the best bar in Brooklyn" too early. He should have awaited further pub crawling results before naming Bar X the best.

And this is just what happened in modern science: when chemists discovered elements such as hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, they thought that they had found the indivisible particles that Greek philosophers had discussed.

The chemists were wrong. A century or so later it turned out the things they had named "atoms" were not really atomic at all. So what actually happened was the 18th and 19th century chemists had jumped the gun, and awarded the title "the indivisible particles" too soon. They certainly had not "proved" the ancient Greek atomists incorrect!

But there are more subtle ways to go wrong on this topic. For instance, physicist Alex Small mingles the philosophical and scientific issues involved, and thus makes a couple of mistakes that, while less egregious than the above textbook gaffe, are errors nonetheless.

First, he says of Averroes' defense of Aristotle's idea that the universe must be a plenum, "Ironically, his defense of incorrect science was used to carve out a space in which science could eventually thrive."

However, modern science has certainly not proved Aristotle's idea here "incorrect." Yes, modern science relies on the idea of "particles." But, when examined closely, these "particles" appear as probability densities smeared out across space, hardly the atoms the ancient Greek atomists were talking about! But even more apropos here, consider the quantum vacuum:

"According to present-day understanding of what is called the vacuum state or the quantum vacuum, it is 'by no means a simple empty space', and again: 'it is a mistake to think of any physical vacuum as some absolutely empty void.' According to quantum mechanics, the vacuum state is not truly empty but instead contains fleeting electromagnetic waves and particles that pop into and out of existence."

So, according to this interpretation of quantum physics, Aristotle apparently turns out to be correct: Space is full through and through, with no absolutely empty void. Now, is it really correct to say is that the quantum vacuum confirms Aristotle's idea that space is a plenum? And what's more, does it show that space must be a plenum, which Aristotle argued? Well, to answer those questions, we are going to have to do philosophy: physics can't possibly tell us how to interpret what Aristotle was saying!

Small then adds:

"However, given the paucity of evidence for atoms during the time in question (my recollection is that evidence for them didn't really come into play until the 18th century) it is hard for me to treat older ideas for or against atoms as no [sic] more than wildass speculation."

But, as we have seen the evidence for "atoms" that came into play in the 18th century was not actually evidence for "atoms" in the Greek sense at all: the things that were identified as atoms then turned out to be not atomic! And perhaps we can call all philosophy "wildass speculation," but genuinely philosophical issues can't be resolved by physics, any more than they can be resolved by plumbing or free throw shooting. The ancient Greeks were engaged in sophisticated philosophical speculation about the nature of space itself, and whether it could possibly be a continuum. How the findings of modern physics relate to that speculation, if they do at all, is a philosophical question, one which no field theory or bubble chamber experiment can answer.


I was just using Apple's speech recognition software, and spoke the word "chemists." What the software put it in my document was "Qemists."

Apparently, that is the name of some electronic rock band. But is it really more common that people are talking about a band with a couple of albums and zero hits than about a profession that includes millions of people across the world? Weird choice!

Monday, August 29, 2016

Does Evolution Tell the Truth or Not?

Attempts to formulate a naturalistic epistemology are often anchored by the notion that undirected evolution would lead us naturally to have accurate beliefs. Some people have doubted this approach works, but let's say it does. It basically says that we perceive, say, tigers and lions as a threat to us because, well, they are a threat to us, and heights make us cautious because falling from a great height will kill us, we think sex is good because sex propagates the species, we seek out food because we really do need food, and so on.

Isn't it odd, then, that went evidence turns up for an evolutionary basis for religion, this approach is thrown right out the window, and the ubiquity of religion in human societies is explained by everything other than evolution leading us to accurately perceive a spiritual dimension to life? It is almost as though these researchers had had their minds made up about religion in advance!


The supposed endorsements for Trump I previously listed apparently don't check out: one was simply telling people NOT to vote for Clinton; in the other case (Ice Cube) he made a video that certainly APPEARED to endorse Trump, but now has taken it all back.

If we can just change the words…

One of Pierre Manent's themes in his recent work is that governments have become too weak to actually take decisive action to change some situation, so what they do instead is try to control the way the situation is discussed, and therefore perceived.

To offer an example of my own of what he is talking about: in the early 1800s, the British Empire set out to end the slave trade, and did so by energetic naval action over a period of several decades.

Today, faced with a similar situation, it seems more likely that modern Western governments would hector everyone to please stop referring to these people as "slaves," as it is mean-spirited and hurts their feelings.

I saw an instance of this tonight, in this unpleasant blog post. In order to show how nice and non-divisive Clinton supporters are, he calls everyone who supports Trump, or even has doubts about supporting Clinton, a "moron."

But what is more interesting for this post is the fact that he calls everyone who refers to "illegal immigrants" a "jackass." We have to say "undocumented immigrants" to be spared this person's ire.

Hmm, and why, exactly, have these people had trouble getting "documented"? Could it be because they are staying in the country… illegally?

Someone might think that all of these people should be given legal status as residents, under an amnesty, or something of the sort. But that requires recognizing that these people are currently here illegally. If you lack the guts to call for something like that, what you can do instead is… try to change the words. "Illegal" is a mean word, and hearing it might make these undocumented immigrants feel bad. Of course, changing what we call them does nothing to fix the real difficulty they are in. But it can make those lacking the will to act feel superior to others because they use "better" words to describe a situation they will not fix.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

"You can't create more land!"

The above nonsense claim is made as a part of a number of reformist economic proposals... such as this one: "And unlike capital goods such as cars or computers, you can’t produce more land..."

It is distressing to see someone writing on political economy who thinks that this blatant falsehood is an obvious truth. First of all, in the most simpleminded sense, it certainly is possible to create more land, and people have done so: just ask the Dutch, or the people who live in Battery Park City.

But that is only the start of how one can "produce more land." Let's say we are living in a town along a river running through a desert. The town has been growing, and we are running out of room for housing. But stretching along the river there are many farms, relying on the water from the river for irrigation. If we extend our irrigation system further out into the desert, farms can move out there, and more housing can be built along the river. We have "produced more land" by making land that was formerly useless productive.

Or perhaps there is an isolated valley in the mountains above our expanding town. The valley itself is lovely, but no one will live there, since crossing the mountains to commute down to the town is too difficult. We can build a tunnel through the mountain and suddenly the valley becomes a desirable residential site.

But perhaps the number one way we can "produce more land" is to build it upwards: in A high-rise apartment building or an office skyscraper are nothing more or less than multiple pieces of land (the floors) erected upon the original piece.

In short, we certainly can produce more land, and we do it all the time. Any political economy built on the notion that the amount of land is fixed, is rubbish.

Why Trump Is a Major Party Candidate

I was watching True Detective. Matthew McConaughy and Woody Harrelson had pursued a lead to a tent preacher's service. As they enter the tent, McConaughy looks around at the crowd of working class, rural, white worshippers, and then sardonically asks Harrelson, "What do you think the average IQ of this crowd is?" A way of saying, "What a bunch of morons!"

The members of the "sophisticated," urban, professional-class audience for this show are all supposed to laugh knowingly at that remark. As did the person with whom I was watching.

So I asked him, "Would you think it was funny if they entered a black Baptist church, and McConaughey made that remark?"

"No, of course not!"

"What about if they had entered a mosque, and McConaughey said that?"

"Oh... I see what you are saying."

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Tradition and the state

Amish communities have little need for noise ordinances. A town full of Orthodox Jews does not need to worry much about passing laws concerning public indecency.

It is when tradition ceases to handle such matters that the state is asked to step in and settle interpersonal conflicts.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Utopianism, Scientism and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

A. E. Van Vogt creates a future science of "nexialism," which rolled all of the sciences into one, threw in hypnotism and other persuasion techniques, and allowed practitioners great control of social situations.

Isaac Asimov, in his Foundation series, saw a field called psychohistory that could be used to predict and control social phenomena.

Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke also had utopian themes in their work, in which the ordinary trials and tribulations of social life are somehow overcome. And leading science fiction editor John W. Campbell had a great interest in "fringe psychologies."

But these men had a colleague who went further: L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics and Scientology. (Campbell, Van Vogt and another science fiction writer, Theodore Sturgeon, were all involved in founding Dianetics.)

I note this just because I find it interesting that Hubbard was basically trying to put into practice what his fellow writers merely had speculated about.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Reality Redefined

Reality is not something pre-existing that we must learn to deal with as best as possible. That would be inconvenient, and might impede our desires.

No, reality is whatever we define it to be.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Login (or Software Design) Failed

I only use my bank's online access to my account from QuickBooks. But every once a while, my bank decides to force me to update my password. And that I cannot do through QuickBooks.

Now, this gives me a problem: I have to remember each password for months without ever using it. But last time I had to update, I emailed myself a password clue, one only I should be able to decipher. And so I was all set.

And yet my login attempts failed again and again, until I had to call the bank! They reset my password, and it was only when I went back in and THAT failed that I looked back one step and realized what was happening: for some reason, Safari spell check had turned on about a week ago, perhaps when I did an update. My bank login ID is 'blahblahblahX' where it happens that 'X' turns it from an English word into nonsense. The bank's system puts the login on a single-field screen, so that 'Enter' bring you to the password screen.

But... Safari was also offering a spelling suggestion, which I had been ignoring, of 'blahblahblah.' And, it decided that the default action should be to override my spelling with theirs, so that pressing 'Enter' not only moved to the next screen, but also changed 'blahblahblahX' to 'blahblahblah': which is not my login! And since 'Enter' was also moving me to the next screen, I would never even see the change!

Is it possible to create a more user-hostile interface?!

The World of the (1939) Future

I am re-reading, for the first time in decades, A. E. van Vogt's novel, The Voyage of the Space Beagle. Although it is set in the far future, it is far more informative about the world of 1939 (its year of publication) than it is about the future.

"The future" of any period is always very much that period's future: it is an aspect of that bygone present, understood in terms of the hopes and fears of those living in it, as well as their conception of its potentialities.

Dumb Enemies

Taleb today tweeted, "Dumb enemies are a problem as they can be very hard to predict."

They are also very hard to argue with. This week, I had a discussion with a smart fellow with whom I disagreed. Within a couple of emails, we each understood the other's position, even though neither of us had changed our own.

With dumb people, it is not like that. They never get someone else's position, and they always misconstrue any argument that is problematic for their own. In fact, I'll be so bold as to say that that is what being dumb consists in: being so desperate to save one's own position that one mishears everything arguing against it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Another software engineering glitch in Cormen et al.

The authors of introduction to algorithms have a function that takes four arguments: an array, and three indices into that array, a low index (low), a middle index (mid), and a high index (high).

Of course, there is no computational reason to pass those three indices in any particular order: the computer doesn't care. So our only concern in deciding what to to order to pass them should be to make it easy for the programmer to remember the order and get it correct.

And what order makes that easiest? In a culture that reads left to right, I am pretty sure we should pass (low, mid, high). Right?

I spent a half hour looking for a bug, finally discovering it occurred because the authors decided the best order to pass these arguments in was (low, high, mid).

Seriously guys, WTH?

The Recurrence Relation of Pascal's Triangle

Start here.

Then, let's say we want to have three bits (k) on in a five-bit (n) word: how many ways can we do this?

Well, we can start by saying bit zero must be on or off.

If it is on, then we have 4 (or n - 1) bits left from which to choose 2 (or k - 1) on bits.

If it is off, then we have 4 (or n - 1) bits left from which to choose 3 (or k) on bits.

Thus, the number of ways we can choose k on bits from n bits equals the number of ways we can choose (k - 1) bits from (n -1) bits plus the number of ways we can choose k bits from (n - 1) bits. Or:

And thus we derive the recurrence relation for Pascal's triangle from an analysis of it as describing bit strings.

Why the theory of limits does not solve Zeno's paradoxes

Zeno noted that in moving from point A to point B, first you have to move halfway to B. Then you have to move three quarters of the way to B. Then 7/8 of the way to B. And so on, in an infinite series. And he wondered how anyone can ever complete an infinite series of moves.

What the mathematical theory of limits shows is that, IF one completes that series, one will be at point B. Well, Zeno already knew that! The theory supplies a formal way of solving what an infinite series comes to in its limit. That is something completely different from answering Zeno's puzzle over how we can complete such an infinite number of moves!

UPDATE: To clarify, when we calculate the limit, what we do is figure out what the final result would be IF we were to do every addition in an infinite series. We don't actually do the additions, because that would take forever. But the job of a runner trying to cross the continuum between the starting line and the finish line is not to figure out where he would get to if he actually completed the infinite series of moves necessary to reach the finish line. His job is to actually reach the finish line, not to figure out how far away the finish line is!

Pascal's Triangle

For a computer programmer, an interesting way to understand Pascal's triangle is to look at it as describing strings of n bits, where n is a row of the triangle.

The first and the last elements in the row, which are always one, are the number of ways to have all bits zero or all bits one, which is naturally just one way. The second element and the second-to-last element are the number of ways to have one bit on, and the number of ways to have all but one bit on. These are always going to be equal to the length of the string, or, in other words, the row number. That is because if your string is, say, three bits, you can have bit zero on, bit one on, or bit two on: three ways to have one bit turned on:

100            010           001

And so on.

This of course very easily makes clear that the numbers in row n will add up to 2n: that is how many numbers you can represent with a string of n bits!

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Axiomatic Formulation of Probability

When I first heard of the axiomatic formulation of probability, it was presented to me as "resolving" the dispute between the frequentist interpretation of probability and the subjective interpretation. (Interestingly, John Maynard Keynes was one of the leading proponents of the subjective interpretation, while Richard von Mises was a prominent champion of the frequentist interpretation. So Keynes had running disputes with both of the von Mises brothers.) And the Wikipedia page just linked to describes the axiomatic formulation of probability as a "rival" to the frequentist interpretation.

But to see the axiomatic formulation as rival to those other theories is a serious mistake (as Kolmogorov himself seemed to recognize -- see below). The frequentist and subjective theories of probability are concerned with the relation of probabilistic statements to the real world. They are essentially asking, "If we say, for instance, that the odds of rain today are 30%, what exactly do we mean, and on what basis do we mean it?"

What the axiomatic formulation does is simply set such philosophical questions aside, and formulate a probability theory as a purely abstract mathematical system arising from certain axioms, with no concern at all about how this system might be connected to the real world. And I think that this was the right direction for mathematics to take: mathematicians could focus on their strength -- developing a consistent formal system -- and leave the question of how it applies to reality to others.

As mentioned earlier, Kolmogorov himself recognized this, saying, "The basis for the applicability of the results of the mathematical theory of probability to real 'random phenomena' must depend on some form of the frequency concept of probability, the unavoidable nature of which has been established by von Mises in a spirited manner."

The type of mistake made in thinking that the axiomatic formulation of probability could resolve the dispute between the existing interpretations of how probability applies to the real world is a common one. It consists in mistaking the development of some formalism for as a solution to a vexing philosophical issue. People who think that the mathematical theory of limits solved Zeno's paradoxes are making this mistake. Similarly someone who claims that the development of different formalisms called "logics" empirically demonstrates that logic itself, philosophically speaking, is not unitary, is also making the same mistake.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Liberalism: A Neutral Arbiter?

The referee in a sporting event can be a neutral arbiter because the question of the rules themselves is not at play during the event: the referee's only job is to enforce a set of pre-existing rules, and not to decide what the rules should be. The process of deciding the rules inherently cannot be neutral, because certain sets of rules will favor one participant, and other sets other ones. For instance, adding a 3-point shot in basketball helped smaller, more skilled players at the expense of bigger, more physical ones.

This is why liberalism's pretense to being a neutral arbiter amongst different value systems was never a possible state of affairs. Any set of rules will favor one value system over others, and what liberalism has always meant is favoring liberal rules, rules hat privilege the liberal value system.

Take, for example, rules about public modesty. Liberals often try to present their preferred arrangement, which could be called, "Everyone dresses whatever way they want," as neutral, because, "If you want to dress modestly, you can, and if others want to dress provocatively, they can."

But this way of deciding the matter, regarding public presentation as purely a matter of individual choice, is liberal through and through, and privileges liberal values. Furthermore, it is quite extraordinary in terms of the history of human societies, in which it has almost always been the case that the way one dresses has been a matter of social choice, not personal preference. And this also demonstrates how liberals can create the illusion that their solutions are "neutral": they present them as if they were the default, and that any other solution would be some extraordinary imposition, when, in fact the opposite is the case: traditional communities have had, again and again, to have liberalism forced upon them through state force.

Campaigns (Wisely) Ignore Reason

Clinton's new anti-Trump ad is a good example. It shows Trump debuting his new clothing line on TV, each item of which turns out to have been made overseas. This supposedly shows he is a hypocrite on trade.

Of course, this makes no sense at all. It is one thing to think (rightly or wrongly) that we should have tariffs to keep manufacturing in the US. It is quite another, in the absence of such tariffs, to hold that Donald Trump should personally have squandered his investors' money in a futile effort to keep manufacturing in the US. In fact, it would be wildly irresponsible and perhaps criminal for the director of some enterprise to ignore making profits for his investors in order to make a political statement.

But despite the ad making no sense, it will work with many viewers.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Time for a change!

Some guy on Twitter said, "Democracy is by definition the antithesis of tyranny."

Well, tyranny has several definitions, but I figure he's using the common one, meaning an out of control government that does not respect citizens' rights or legal restraints.

So I respond, "Well, no: if the people rule without constitutional constraint, that is mob rule, a sort of tyranny."

His response? "Who is ruling without constitutional constraint?"

The question on the table was whether by definition tyranny is the opposite of democracy. But is soon as he realized he had lost on that topic, he immediately change the subject to the question of "Right now, is our current democracy a tyranny?"

Obviously a very different question.

It is impossible to have a rational discussion with someone who does this: it is like trying to shake hands with an eel.

A Song of the Past

Is now released on Kindle. And it's only $3.99! You probably should go buy it right away, since Austrians are predicting runaway inflation soon.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

I guess they know algorithms well, but...

The authors of Introduction to Algorithms (Cormen et al.) do not seem to  be much up on their software engineering. I suggest the foremost principle of software engineering is DRY: don't repeat yourself. Every time you repeat a bit of code, you double your maintenance worries.

These authors, while they are no doubt experts on algorithms, knowing far more than me on that topic, seem to pay little attention to the DRY principle. For instance, when they want to introduce students to a random quicksort, after having explained a basic quicksort, they write a whole new function that is identical to basic quicksort, except that it calls random_partition() instead of partition(). Shouldn't students be taught to just pass in a partition function to quicksort()?

Similarly, in dealing with heapsort, the authors suggest having max_heapify() and min_heapify() functions. Well, what about just writing heapify(), and passing it a comparison operator?

Yes, certainly these points are peripheral to studying the algorithms themselves. But in the process of teaching students basic algorithms, why in the world would we also want to each them crappy software engineering along the way?


"There never has been, there is not now, and there never will be a world without borders." -- Pierre Manent

An Interesting Overview of Manent's Work

Here, from Daniel J. Mahoney.

An important excerpt:

'I have noted the tendency of modern philosophy and social science to view human beings as “spectators,” incapable of true deliberation and action. Our neuroscientists work to explain consciousness away (and take great pride in that dehumanizing task), and our social scientists too often proceed as if human action did not depend on thinking and acting man. There is no place left for the freely deliberating and acting human being in the chain of social-science causality. Philosophies of history presuppose that grand historical forces “have made the choice for us.” “Things were decided by no one,” even as the “spectator,” in the form of the philosopher and social scientist, incoherently exempts himself from the chain of causality.'

This "incoherence" is found in every form of determinism I have encountered. For example, I have learned a good deal about persuasion, and our susceptibility to it, from reading Scott Adams. But when he says that we are "moist robots," or "programmable meat," he egregiously omits these very theories from being subject to their own application, because then they would immediately undermine any truth claim they might make: Adams himself must be simply "programmable meat," and anything he purports to present as "true" must simply be what his own lump of meat was programmed to present as such. And when he tries to deny he is making a truth claim, and says "The fun is seeing how well [my hypothesis] fits the data and predicts the future," he is actually relying on a truth claim that his hypothesis does (or does not) fit the data, and does (or does not) predict the future, the very sort of claims his theory says "programmable meat" is incapable of making.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The only label that matters

Some car company is running a diversity ad during the Olympics. Various Olympians announce they are "black," "a cancer patient," and so on. Ibtihaj Muhammad pops up on screen and says "Muslim."

The announcer finally says, "The only label that matters is Olympian."

This is supposed to be a warm expression of human solidarity. But it is actually a product of the ideology of human rights, and, as such, is actually massively disrespectful of the very diversity it is supposed to be honoring!

Because, according to the announcer, being Muslim does not matter whatsoever! (And this is what the ideology of human rights holds: religion is just a private whim, of no more importance than someone liking strawberry ice cream.) But to a devout Muslim, there can be nothing of more significance than their being a Muslim: There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is His messenger.

The "diversity" of the ideology of human rights is a sham.

UPDATE: And by the way, the "only label that matters" is rather elitist, isn't it? After all, that labels all the rest of us "non-Olympians," and, I guess, not worthy of attention.

Monday, August 08, 2016

The Law of Large Numbers

John E. Freund (Introduction to Probability) has been discussing topics like the "odds" that an airline flight from Chicago to Los Angeles will arrive on time. He says that if 688 of the last 800 flights have been on time, we can say the probability of this flight being on time is .86.

Then he asks, "When probabilities are thus estimated, it is only reasonable to ask whether the estimates are any good. The answer, which is 'Yes,' is supported by a remarkable law called the Law of Large Numbers... Informally, this law can be stated as follows:

"If the number of times the situation is repeated becomes larger and larger, the proportion of successes this will tend to come closer and closer to the actual probability of success."

Later on, he states this law formally:

"If a random variable has the binomial distribution, the probability is at least 1 - 1 / k2 that the proportion of successes in n trials will differ from p by less than k * (p(1 - p) / n)1/2."

What I wish to draw your attention to here is that the formal definition of the law refers entirely to elements of a mathematical model, and not to the real world. There exists a particular "actual probability of success" only because we have stipulated that we are dealing with a "random variable" that has a binomial distribution with a known value for p.

But events in the real world are not determined by "random variables," but by snowstorms and bomb threats and pilots calling in sick. (And if you protest, "But, those are random variables!" you're making the same mistake as Freund.) A random variable is an element of a mathematical-scientific model, not of the real world. And whether real world events in some particular situation are closely mirrored by some model employing a random variable was precisely the question Freund was supposed to be answering in the first place. Certainly, the question of whether some model closely mirrors the real world can't be answered by exploring the formal features of the model itself!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Appearance over reality

One of Manent's most interesting themes is that the modern state is actually rather impotent in terms of its ability to affect reality. What it focuses on instead is controlling appearance and opinion.

We see this in the response to Trump's remarks about the Khan family. Sure, just one president back, we had a guy who authorized his agents to place electrodes on the testicles of Muslim prisoners in order to torture them, and the current president regularly takes out a Muslim wedding party or school outing with a drone attack. But at least they do it while saying nice things about Muslims!

Saturday, August 06, 2016

The Church and the Ideology of Human Rights

"What is important for us to observe is that the Church has entered into a constant dialectical and moral debate with this [ideology of human rights]... We are obliged to note that this dialectical opening of the Church has not been repaid, the ideology of human rights having taken on a virulence in recent times that seems to be directed most particularly against the way of life that the Church recommends, protects, and promotes." -- Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism, p. 104

The curse of limitlessness

"Islam has sprung up in a Europe that has dismantled its ancient parapets, or has let them crumble. While speaking of nothing but roots, but no longer daring to be at home in their own countries, Europeans seek repose in movement, a movement that nothing can control or slow down. No border must be allowed to obstruct the free movement of capital, of goods, of services, of people, just as no law must circumscribe the unlimited right of individual particularity." --Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism, p. 111

Manent's Conclusion

Manent's conclusion is interesting, important, and controversial. Where can France, and the West more generally, find the leadership necessary to negotiate a workable, friendly relationship with Islam? The state, for all its bluster and its giant bureaucracies, is too weak: as Manent notes, it now operates chiefly in the realm of rhetoric and appearance, and typically fails to engage in meaningful action. The ideology of human rights tries to pretend that Islam, as such, does not exist, and only sees rights-bearing individuals, who happen, on some purely private whim, to read the Koran and fast during Ramadan. Manent's answer will surprise many and offend some:

"Now, it seems to me that what characterizes and distinguishes the Catholic Church within this configuration is, its calmness and equilibrium... The Catholic Church is the only spiritual force that approaches matters in such a way as to take into account the views of others in a deliberate and as it were thematic way. This is eminently the case in its relation to Judaism... The Catholic Church has not only searched its conscience in a very profound way concerning its responsibility for anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism; it has also reconsidered in depth its relation to the Jewish people... It is Catholics who most often have taken the initiative of these 'dialogues' in which one seeks, not only to facilitate coexistence between Catholics and Muslims, but also to give a positive meaning to religious plurality. The Popes themselves, John Paul II most especially, have gone as far as possible in developing the possibility of a perspective common to Christians and to Muslims." -- Beyond Radical Secularism, pp. 103-104

Friday, August 05, 2016

Little posting, because...

I am prepping to teach algorithms this fall at NYU, and it is a lot of work. But I can offer you this:

As part of my prep work, I am implementing each of the algorithms I will cover, from Introduction to Algorithms (Cormen et al.) In Python. My goal here is not to write efficient Python code, but to closely duplicate the pseudocode found in the textbook. I also include lots of print statements at key points in each algorithm, to help the students see what is occurring. In any case, the project is on GitHub here, and I am almost done with sorting. Comments welcomed.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

More Manent

From an interview here:

"The French are exhausted, but they are first of all perplexed, lost. Things were not supposed to happen this way. … We had supposedly entered into the final stage of democracy where human rights would reign, ever more rights ever more rigorously observed. We had left behind the age of nations as well as that of religions, and we would henceforth be free individuals moving frictionless over the surface of the planet. … And now we see that religious affiliations and other collective attachments not only survive but return with a particular intensity. Everyone can see and feel this, but how can it be expressed when the only authorized language is that of individual rights?"


"We invite catastrophe by falling for an ideological representation of the world such as the one that is ours today. We invite catastrophe by sincerely believing that the religious affiliation of a citizen has no political bearing or effect. We invite catastrophe by excluding from authorized debate on Turkey’s possible joining the European Union the fact that Turkey is a massively Muslim country. We invite catastrophe when we confuse the obligation to rescue a person who is drowning with that person’s right to become a citizen of our country. We invite catastrophe when, in the name of charity or mercy, we require old Christian nations to open their borders to all who wish to enter."

A book review for Bob Murphy

My review of Austrian economic perspectives on individualism and society: Moving beyond methodological individualism is now online.

"Moving beyond": See Bob, it's similar to getting out of your parents house, or giving up D&D. There comes a day when it's just time to move beyond these things!

Monday, August 01, 2016

Our five great spiritual masses

"The five great spiritual masses that determine the figure of the West are Judaism, Islam, Evangelical Protestantism (mainly American), the Catholic Church, and, finally, the ideology of human rights." -- Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism, p. 103

Manent's fifth "spiritual mass" indicates something I keep pointing out: enlightenment liberalism is a religion, it is in competition with traditional religions, and it is trying to win that competition. And it's most important weapon in seeking victory is its fanatical insistence that it is not a religion, but merely the conclusions of "reason," and that when it triumphs in the political sphere, it is most certainly not "imposing its values on others." No sir!

Killing the Spirit

"The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world -- immanent action, the farther...