Monday, September 25, 2017

Killing the Spirit

"The more fervently all human energies are thrown into the great enterprise of salvation through world -- immanent action, the farther the human beings who engage in this enterprise move away from the life of the spirit. And since the life the spirit is the source of order in man and society, the very success of a Gnostic civilization is the cause of its decline. A civilization can, indeed, advance and decline at the same time -- but not forever. There is a limit toward which this ambiguous process moves; the limit is reached when an activist sect which represents the Gnostic truth organizes the civilization into an empire under its rule. Totalitarianism, defined as the existential rule of Gnostic activists, is the end form of progressive civilization."-- Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics

"Half Muslim"

The effort to make Islam a race, so that any objection to any Islamic doctrine can be denounced as "racism," continues apace: on the episode of The Blacklist I was watching last night, a character declared he was "half Muslim."

That, of course, is a complete absurdity, like being "half atheist" or "half born again." Islam is a belief system, and someone either embraces it, and is a Muslim, whatever their biological inheritance, or doesn't embrace it, and isn't Muslim, even if both of their parents were Muslim. The idea of being "half Muslim" is something that any serious, believing Muslim would find repellent.

But the SJWs don't care about their "pet" groups: homosexuals, transgendered, Muslims, etc. Those groups are just props used for progressives to advance their agenda... which is that progressives should be in charge.

Saturday, September 23, 2017


"If your approach to mathematics is mechanical not mystical, you're not going to go anywhere." -- Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Euphemisms II

It's not just abortion where these euphemisms bug me either. I think it is sometimes OK to euthanize your pet, but... you did not "put the dog to sleep."

It ain't sleeping, it's dead.

Human languages, mathematical language, and programming languages

Human languages are notoriously messy and historical. Although logic is not absent from human languages, they were not designed per a logical schema.

Programming languages are often the product of one or two minds, proceeding according to a single conception of how a "language" should work. They typically exhibit a high degree of consistency.

The "language" of mathematics is an in-between venture. Although it is typically more consistent and logical than a natural language, it does have lots of historical cruft built up.

We programmers sometimes get frustrated with mathematical notation for this reason. (E.g, "Why doesn't that have parentheses also?" or "Why should the power be there in one equation, but in a different place in another one?")

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Career Fair Organization

A dark thought came into my mind. I imagined the hosts of career fairs plan eight hours worth of events for their participant companies. This is so the companies' employees can log eight hours of work for the day.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

By their euphemisms you shall know them

I'm watching the Belgian TV series The Break. Not bad, but...

At several points the subject of abortion comes up. The characters say things like, "We decided not to keep the baby," or "Do you want to keep the baby?"

"The baby" in this view is a consumer good, like a sofa or a dishwasher. Somehow (God knows how: a drunken shopping spree?) the characters acquired "the baby." But having gotten a better look at the deal, well, perhaps it wasn't such a bargain after all... better return it to the store now, since at present, the archaic return policies only allow returns during the first nine months after purchase. (The campaign to allow later returns has already begun, by the way.)

Of course, euphemism-free, those statements really mean, "We decided to kill the baby," and "Do you want to kill the baby?"

But so long as we hide our barbarisms under lying words, we can go on being happy consumers!

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

My review of The Invisible Hand?

is online at History: Review of New Books.


At the Tandon School of Engineering, office 10.010:

Aleph-null bleg

I am trying to write א-null in HTML, with a zero subscript, but...

It seems that the right-to-left convention for Hebrew writing somehow overrides the actual order in which I type the HTML code, and the zero subscript appears on the web page before the aleph.

Does anyone have any idea how to get this ordered properly?

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Businesses have known how to value diversity for a long time

My father, who was a lawyer, had his first job at the firm of "Slavitt, Connery, and Vardimis." Slavitt was a Jew, Connery an Irishman, and Vardimis was Hungarian. (Those were three of the major ethnic groups in the town I grew up in: I'm sure they would have liked to add an Italian name as well, if circumstances had worked out differently.)

Forty years later, after my wife and I married, our law firm for our real estate transactions was Slavitt, Connery, and Vardimis. Bob Slavitt, the son of Abe, the original Slavitt, was still at the firm. But Connery and Vardimis had both died decades earlier... and yet their names were still on the shingle. Why? Diversity! The firm knew they would attract more clients with their ethnically diverse shingle than if they had changed the name to just "Slavitt."

They did not need to hire a "Chief Officer of Diversity Initiatives" to grok this.

Saturday, September 09, 2017

Idiot Highlighting

I ordered a used copy of Just-in-Time for Today and Tomorrow from Amazon. Pretty much throughout, the book is "highlighted" as follows:

Out of about 80 lines on the above two pages, 74 of them are highlighted! What is someone doing this thinking?

Highlighting serves to make occasional key passages easy to re-locate, because the highlighted lines stand out. With this much highlighting, the only lines that stand out are the unhighlighted ones. (I presume the previous reader did not intend that, since it is an awful waste of ink and time to emphasize important lines by highlighting all of the non-important lines.)

It is almost as though the person were reading with the highlighter, the way a child might read with their finger.

Friday, September 08, 2017

Oakeshott on Ryle

Michael Oakeshott reviewed Ryle's The Concept of Mind quite favorably. A quote:

"In general [Ryle's] doctrine is that 'when we describe people is exercising qualities of mind, we are not referring to occult episodes of which their overt acts and utterances are effects: we are referring to those overt acts and utterances themselves.' Mental activity is not the activity of a 'mind,' or activity which takes place in the hidden recesses of a mind, in distinction from the activity of a body: it is doing and saying things in a particular manner."

Thursday, September 07, 2017

The Dark Knight of the Soul

Here's a great passage from Frank Knight, brought to my attention by the Murphmeister himself:

"The dictatorship of the [Communist] Party once established, and given a monopoly of propaganda, the problem of controlling the proliferation of romantic myths, of unifying and stabilizing and concentrating on one system at a time should be simple in the extreme. One of the greatest of modern scientific developments is waiting to serve the regime in this regard and save the world from turmoil. I refer, of course, to psychology in its applied aspect. In this connection we may thrill with patriotism as well as hope. No other country has approached our own in the succession of peerless psychologists we have given to the world. To name but a few: P.T. Barnum; Jay Gould; Mrs. Mary B.G. Eddy; Mrs. Aimee S. McPherson (notice the due representation of both sexes); Billy Sunday; Goat-gland Doc Brinkley; and coming to our own home town, our own dear Big Bill Thompson, Balaban, and Katz, and WGN. As a climax to this glorious series I would name Dr. John B. Watson. It is not necessary to prove that he is the world's greatest psychologist; he admits it. And besides, doesn't he draw $40,000 a year [DRH note: this is over $700,000 in 2017 dollars] for his psychologizing? Speaking for myself, I must express chagrin that it is so little. A man who can stand before the cream of the intelligentsia and exhort them to believe that they do not believe, but only react, to think that there is no such thing as thinking, but only muscle-twitching, that the whole idea of struggle and error is an error against which we must struggle until we see that seeing is an illusion, and illusion likewise an illusion--in short, one who repeats that 'I am not saying anything, and you are not hearing anything, the gears are in mesh, nothing more,' and makes them like it and pay to hear it--I say such a man should be worth at least $1,000,000 in any properly ordered civilization. One of the first acts of justice of the Communist dictatorship will undoubtedly be to give such a man a task which is not an insult to his powers..."

Philodoxy Does Not Equal Stupidity

One person, after reading my recent post on the structure of our current political life, accused me of believing of that all of the philodoxers are "too stupid" to form their own opinions.

But that is not the issue at all: the issue is one of objective, not of intelligence. The philodoxers are are not less intelligent (necessarily) than are philosophers; they have a different aim. The philosopher tries to conform his ideas to the truth, whereas the philodoxer tries to formulate opinions that make him liked and respected. Those opinions can be formed with a tremendous amount of cleverness; indeed, there are absolutely brilliant academics out there who use their brilliance in the interest of gaining kudos from their peers.

The fact that the difference here is one of objective, and not of intelligence, is why Plato spoke of the process of becoming a philosopher as a periagogue, a turning around of the soul, rather than as a process of becoming more clever.

It is why Jeremiah notes that, by hewing to the truth, "I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me."

And it is why Paul, in Romans 12, warns us, "And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."

Monday, September 04, 2017

The Deeper Structures in the Current Political Melee

Many people have noted the shakiness of the "left-right" spectrum as a way of accurately analyzing politics. Here I offer a more scientific analysis, based on reaching down to the core motivations behind various groups. As such, this analysis will have little to do with "left" and "right", and we will find some people from each of my groupings being placed on the left, and some people from each grouping being identified as "right-wing."

The three major categories of actors in Western politics today -- at first these terms may not make sense, but explanation will follow:

  1. Philosophers
  2. Misosophists
  3. Philodoxers

Philosophers: Here, I use the term in its original sense, as "lovers of truth," not in its modern sense of "people who analyze sentences." First and foremost, philosophers are those who recognize an objective order to the world, one not created by human beings, to which humans are obliged to conform their actions. (This order has, as one of its components, an objective moral order.) This recognized order may be called ma'at, or "the way of heaven", or the Tao, or the law of Karma, or the Law, or dharma, etc. Whatever it is called, the recognition of this order lies at the root of every high human civilization.

It is important to note a great lie here: the misosophists have undertaken a great effort to convince the philodoxers that anyone who recognizes that there is an objective moral order also thinks that they have complete mastery of that order. This lie is as absurd as claiming that anyone who thinks there are real scientific facts thinks they know all scientific facts. Nevertheless, this lie has had great effect in getting people to shut down as soon as anyone even starts mentioning objective moral truths.

The philosophers' stance: "2 + 2 = 4"

Misosophists: The misosophists are the haters of truth. They are in rebellion against any order they themselves have not authorized: in short, they are in rebellion against reality. They wish to impose their own wills on the universe, but, since that is not possible, they generally will accept destroying as much as they can, out of spite. (The great mythical archetype of the misosophists, is, of course, Satan.) Typically they will grab at an ideology that justifies their destructiveness: Communism, Nazism, racism, and so on. But the ideology is just a cover for the will to destroy. That ideology will pick out a scapegoat group upon which to blame all of the world's woes (capitalists, Jews, heterosexual white males, etc.) and try to stir up popular resentment against that group, in order to get others to join in the destruction.

The misosophists' stance: 'The "correrct" answer 2 + 2 has been defined by the [scapegoat group], and we must forge our own, revolutionary answer in order to liberate the people from these oppressors!'

Philodoxers: Philodoxers neither love nor hate truth: they are unconcerned with it. They want to be thought well of by others, and will believe whatever it is they need to believe for that to happen, whether true or not. Thus the philodoxers will go along with whoever is in charge: consider the bulk of the German people, who went along with the Nazis when they were in charge, and simply became nice liberal democrats once liberal democrats were in charge. But the philodoxers are in a pickle in a time of conflict between the philosophers and the misosophists: they will want to compromise between two positions for which no coherent compromise is possible.

The philodoxers' stance: "Well, both sides are partially right, but both are too extreme: you know, the answer is probably somewhat near four, but we can't be so rigid as to insist that it is exactly four, can we?"

This last point is why the philodoxers, in the current crisis, are on the side of the misosophists: their desire to compromise and get along allows the misosophists to pull them continually into more and more destructive positions, simply by the misosophists taking up more and more radical positions themselves.


The philosophers say "2 + 2 = 4."
The misosophists say "2 + 2 = 5 (at this stage of the revolution)."
The philodoxers say, "Well, let's be reasonable: 2 + 2 equals around 4.5, doesn't it?"

Now the misosophists can simply repeat this process, as follows:

The philosophers say "2 + 2 = 4."
The misosophists say "In the name of progress, we now declare that 2 + 2 = 6. Only haters would claim it is 4!"
The philodoxers say, "Come on, can't we get along: 2 + 2 equals around 5, doesn't it?"

The philosophers say "2 + 2 = 4."
The misosophists say "In the name of progress, we now declare that 2 + 2 = 8."
The philodoxers say, "Well, the middle is sensible: 2 + 2 equals around 6, doesn't it?"

The philosophers say "2 + 2 = 4."
The misosophists say "In the name of progress, we now declare that 2 + 2 = 12."
The philodoxers say, "2 + 2 is kind of near 8, isn't it?"

And so the history of the last couple of centuries!


Are not manatees. Yet they have a similarity. Just as manatees do not appear on this blog, for about half the population, a gorilla does not appear in this video.

This just goes to show what Michael Oakeshott pointed out many years ago: when we enter into a practical endeavor, we define ends and means. When we do this, we filter what we experience. All that exists for us are basketball players and a bouncing ball of which we can count its passes.

Hence the power of philosophy: we see what we don't look for.

1000-Year Flood of Statistical Ignorance

I ran across, but can't at the moment relocate, a piece that claimed something like, "We just saw a 500-year flood in Houston. And 100-year floods in X, Y, and Z. All in the last 5 years!"

Obviously, what we were meant to conclude is that there was no way we could have had four 100+ year events in a five year period without global warming being the cause. Here is a similar piece, in which uber-idiot Naomi Klein says that "The records being broken year after year..." prove that man-made climate change is real, and a disaster. Without the least bit of curiosity as to just how often we should expect weather records to be broken. The world is a pretty big place, and Klein tosses out four categories of records -- "whether for drought, storm surges, wildfires, or just heat" -- so it is very likely that somewhere in the world, a record for one of those things is being broken pretty regularly. Perhaps these record breaking events really are happening more frequently, but Klein doesn't provide a shred of evidence beyond, "Well, Jeez, just look at all those records, will ya?"

In contrast, here is a nice, calm (and non-"denialist") explanation of the meaning of "X-year" weather events:

"As it turns out, the country experiences multiple 500-year flood or storm events (that is to say, an event that in had a 1 in 500 chance of occurring in that given place) every single year."

In short, if we divide the United States into 100 metropolitan regions plus their hinterlands, on average, we'd expect one 100-year event per year, since we'd now have 100 chances for 100-year events. (I'm ignoring the fact that these events are not strictly independent, because I don't think that falsifies the real picture too much, e.g., Houston just had a 500-year flood, but Corpus Christi, San Antonio, and Austin were barely dampened.)

By the way, in an effort to explain the "X-year" weather event concept, writers for "statistical" sites such as 538 are... showing they don't understand basic probability:

"In the wake of catastrophic flooding on the Texas coast, the media has been working hard to explain the term, turning out dozens of articles explaining that a "100-year flood" is not a flood that you should expect to happen only once every 100 years. Instead, it refers to a flood that has a 1 percent chance of happening in any given year."

Hmm, and if an event has a 1% chance of happening in a year, what is its expected frequency? Once per 100 years!

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Nice coding, Google!

Blogger has now wiped out my blog roll for the third time.

Rebuilding again. Suggestions welcomed.

Saturday, September 02, 2017

That's game theory

Fictional Cornell economist on Prison Break, explaining game theory to his wife:

"That's game theory: you bring people into your life, and keep them there, until you need to manipulate them for your advantage."

Ah, so that's game theory. Well, it's amazing anyone could run a semester-long course on the durned thing.

8 Million New Yorkers...

and all it takes is a 63 degree, drizzly day, with high winds, to discover that it's 7,999,999 softies, and me:

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

That's not how manatees are constituted...

or people either:

I just transferred money using PayPal. When the transfer was done, I was asked "Was this process efficient and simple?"

I answered "yes."

PayPal responded, "We are glad you enjoyed the experience."

No, I did not "enjoy" transferring money. I was glad it worked, and glad it was simple, but it was not like good sex or a fine glass of bordeaux.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

It's not just computer technology TV gets wrong

Manatees may not know much about truck loading technology, but they do know that you don't load a truck by placing palettes here and there on the trailer floor, with large amounts of space between them... like they did on the episode of Prison Break I watched yesterday. The first time you climb a steep hill, everyone of those palettes is going crashing into the back loading door, and the first time you have to break fast, they are all slamming into the cab wall.

You load a truck form the cab forward, packed as tightly as possible, and, if there is any empty space left, you secure the load with an adjustable steel bar that you crank out to press against the side walls. (When I spent four years unloading trucks, I probably knew the name of that last thingie, but it escapes me now.)

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Technical debt

Manatees, in general, do not like the term "technical debt" as it is used in the DevOps world.

They feel that what is meant by this term is really that the capital structure of a firm's software is not being properly maintained. The "debt" being incurred is not "owed" to anyone but the firm itself, in a future incarnation. So manatees understand what is being described with this term, but feel that the existing terms in economics (capital consumption) and accounting (insufficient reserves against depreciation) should be used in preference to "debt."

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The irrationality of speciesism

Yesterday I received a link to this post by Jeffrey Friedman, in which he writes:

"Nationalism, however, is just as irrational as xenophobia. One’s physical residence vis-à-vis a line on a map has no bearing on one’s humanity."

Since this blog only deals with manatees, I can only answer in that context, but I can say in that arena Friedman is surely correct. I have frequently noticed that manatees only care for manatee babies, as if being a manatee or not had any bearing on one's status as a living creature! Not only that, the situation is even worse: manatees tend to only care for their own babies, at the expense of caring for the babies of other manatees! What irrationality!

But Friedman can lead them by example, demonstrating how he has spent just as much effort feeding and educating children around the world, whom he doesn't know at all, as he has on his own children. After all, whether or not one is Jeffrey Friedman's child has no bearing on one's humanity! (I actually don't know whether Friedman has children, but if he does, and I am sure he has not devoted one iota more attention to them than he has to the other 2 billion children in the world.)

All Manatees, All the Time

Given the hyper-hallucinatory state of political discourse in this country at this time, in which it is quite possible to have a statement like "I hate Nazis!" promote a response like, "See: I told you he loves Nazis!", henceforth, this blog will be about manatees. No manatee has ever loved Nazis.

Manatees are peaceful, gentle giants of the sea. If you get in the water with them, they roll over so you can scratch their bellies. This is what all future blog posts here will do: just roll over, hoping you scratch their bellies.

Look at all the soothing, bluish-green colors on this page! So peaceful!

Sleep, sleep.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

UNIX won

I've mentioned that I am enthusiastic about "DevOps" not because it is "the new thing," but because it is the triumph of "the old thing" my friends and I were advocating 20 years ago, and the geniuses who occupied Bell Labs in the 70s were advocating well before that. (I really can hardly believe what a collection of brilliant people wound up together at Bell Labs at that time.) To illustrate that point, let me quote a Bell System Technical Journal paper from 1978, explaining the "UNIX philosophy"*:
  1. Make each program do one thing well. To do a new job, build afresh rather than complicate old programs by adding new "features".
  2. Expect the output of every program to become the input to another, as yet unknown, program. Don't clutter output with extraneous information. Avoid stringently columnar or binary input formats. Don't insist on interactive input.
  3. Design and build software, even operating systems, to be tried early, ideally within weeks. Don't hesitate to throw away the clumsy parts and rebuild them.
  4. Use tools in preference to unskilled help to lighten a programming task, even if you have to detour to build the tools and expect to throw some of them out after you've finished using them.
Point 1 is now given the trendy buzzword of "microservices."

Point 2, in the DevOps world, is suggested in the notions that every IT procedure should be "scriptable," and that these procedures can easily be fitted together.

Point 3 is today called "continuous delivery" or "continuous integration."

Point 4 is today called "infrastructure as code."

* Yes, yes, calling every single set of precepts a "philosophy" is an abuse of the term "philosophy," but we can't fight every righteous battle all at the same time, can we?

A second complaint about Python Unit Test Automation...

and some recent, similar books I have encountered:

This book includes a very large number of screen shots and copies of the output of running some command or other. Now certainly, a bit of this can be useful. But truly great programming books, such as Software Tools, Programming on Purpose, or Programming Pearls, include (almost?) nothing of this sort. It is as though the authors had plenty to convey without dumping the screen output of every command or program discussed into their works.

Again, I don't claim that any inclusion of such output should be forbidden. But I suggest that, say, for a series of very similar tests, it is enough to put in, "Here is an example of the output of test A," and not also show the nearly identical output for tests B, C, D and E. And, once again, I have the sneaking suspicion the publisher who asks for the output of B, C, D and E is trying to pad out a volume they fear may otherwise be too slim to sell.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Time to begin writing my review...

of Python Unit Test Automation.

So, of course, to motivate myself to get this done, I will blog whatever bits seem likely to appeal to more than 2 or 3 people.

The first thing that struck me about this book is that Chapter One seems very strange inclusion. It is a very brief, high-level introduction to the Python programming language, aimed at someone who knows almost nothing about it. But...

Is that reader likely to buy a book called Python Unit Test Automation as their first introduction to the language?! Won't they pick up something with a name like Beginning Python or Learn Python in 30 Days? It is hard to avoid the suspicion that Pajankar's book had come up just a little shy of its minimum page count, and so the publisher said, "Why not throw in an intro to Python to start things off?"

We detect thinking the same way we do raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens

It is easy, if one comes to Gilbert Ryle with materialist assumptions, to mistake what he is up to. He predicted this himself, when he said his book was likely to be read as advocating behaviorism, but was more accurately seen as a work of phenomenology.

In criticizing the idea of a "ghost in the machine," Ryle is not claiming that mind doesn't exist, but quite the opposite: mind is right out in the world, in front of us. In his discussion of mimicry, for instance, he writes, "[One person] mimicking [another] is thinking how he behaves" (The Concept of Mind, p. 248). Ryle is very clear here: there is not first the thought of how Joe or Jill behaves, and then a separate action of mimicry: no, the act of mimicry is itself an exhibition of intelligence, of thinking through the behavior of the one mimicked, even though it may not be accompanied by any verbal thoughts at all.

We don't "hypothesize" others have minds through some sort of torturous weighing of empirical evidence: we see their mental acts right in front of us, in their puzzling over a chess position, or working through a math problem, or figuring out how to break down a defender off the dribble. Someone stuck inside Cartesian dualism* is likely to protest: "Ah, but we may be wrong! The person might be just pretending to work a math problem, or unconscious and just going through the motions of making a chess move!"

Ryle's response to this is spot-on (I paraphrase): "So what? There is some other sort of judgment we make which is mistake free? We never think it is raining, but it was just someone using the sprinkler? Astronomers never think they detect a star, only to discover it was an optic artifact? We never have taken an image of a tree for a real tree, or a mirage for a lake?"

I once turned the corner of a staircase at the National Gallery in Washington, and came face-to-face with Rodin's "The Thinker." I had a startling, intense impression of thought going on before my eyes. (Believe me, I had seen it in photos many times before that day, and those photos did nothing to prepare me for the actual statue.) I assume I was mistaken, and the statue was not really contemplating anything: but this illustrates Ryle's point nicely: the fact that Rodin could so brilliantly create a visual symbol of thought demonstrates that we can indeed see thought in the real world. (The sculpted dog in the piazza at Metrotech Center sometimes tricks people into thinking they are looking at a real dog: that can only work because we often do see real dogs. No one could make a statue tricking us into thinking we are seeing the scent of roses, or a G-flat major chord!)

To close, I leave you with this brilliant bit of thinking:

* Which materialists are: they accept the ghost in the machine view of mind, and then argue the ghost doesn't exist.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The tl;dr version of my life

See a fad? Don't follow it!

Longer version: try to resist silly trends that spread simply because they are catching on. Today that herd mentality is usually worth fighting. It has evolutionary roots, in that it helps maintain group cohesion. But those roots are exploited by mass media marketing, and made more extreme by the current obsession with being "modern" and "up-to-date" (so that if you want to condemn some institution, just call it "medieval). What was once beneficial is now mostly harmful.

Random examples popping into my head:

  1. We used to have a "method" for doing X or Y or Z. Now, simply everyone and his brother has a "methodology" for doing those things. The three extra syllables only serve the purpose of broadcasting, "I'm fighting above my intellectual weight class, but trying to hide that fact."
  2. We used to say, "That would be great." Then, some comedian or other started saying, "How great would that be?" Soon, everyone was saying it because... everyone was saying it. The thing is, this is an interesting locution if used as a way of occasionally varying the usual phrasing,  perhaps in order to emphasize the speculative nature of the greatness in question. Kind of like fish sauce in cooking: a drop now and then can add a nice twist to a dish, but if you just drench everything you cook in it, it is pretty gross.
  3. And please, don't use "tl;dr" when you mean, "summary." Since it is an acronym for "Too long, didn't read," it doesn't even make any sense used as a substitute for "summary." Furthermore, some significant percentage of your audience won't know what you are talking about, and will have to look your acronym up. "But," you may protest, "after a time that won't be true." Yes, but since the whole point of using "tl;dr" is to show how friggin' hip the user of it is, as soon as it becomes widely understood, the people using it now will stop using it, and switch to another shibboleth that demonstrates that they are "in the know." In other words, here language is being used not to communicate to as wide an audience as possible, but to signal to a narrow audience that the user is "one of the cool kids."

Bonus quiz: Why is that particular photo accompanying this particular post?

It's Impossible for Elvis to Hurt Our Kids

Bob is having troubles grasping the point people like me and Landsburg have been making about his OLG model of government debt, as shown by his bad analogy for our argument. 

So let's look at another analogy, one with both a factor that plays the role that Bob is saying government debt has in his model, and another factor that plays the role Landsburg and I are claiming government debt has in his model:
It was a dark and stormy night when a driver, in a speeding, 1957, black Chevy, with fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror and a "Elvis Is King" bumpersticker on the rear bumper, ran a red light, killing both an old lady, the Boy Scout helping her across the street, and a chicken.
Bob is claiming that (with running the red light = transfer payments, and speeding = government debt), because Landsburg and I think running the red light was the major factor causing these tragic deaths, we are totally (and incorrectly) rejecting any causal role for the speeding. But what we are saying (we, at least in that I have understood Landsburg correctly) is that the government debt is analogous to the "Elvis Is King" bumper sticker: it played no part in the crash at all, and just happened to be along for the ride.

Now, it is one thing to argue that we are incorrect in our analogy: Bob could counter-argue that the debt actually played a causal role we missed, and then demonstrate what that role is. (And now the fuzzy dice and black Chevy reveal their hands: maybe the dice are relevant, because they distracted the driver? Perhaps the dark color is important: the pedestrians could not see the car in the dark? The point being, one has to show that these factors played a role, and not simply point to the fact they existed.)

But to keep arguing that, just because the debt happens to be along for the ride, therefore it is like the speeding, and simply must have a causal role in the story, is to just miss what we are saying.

Netflix attempts to execute a successful plot summary

The writing for the Netflix plot summaries is usually pretty bad. I liked this example I saw the other night:

"Michael attempts to execute a successful escape from prison."

The badness of that sentence becomes crystal clear when you realize how we would summarize the same plot, if asked conversationally:

"Michael attempts to escape from prison."

To attempt to escape from prison is to attempt to execute an escape from prison, which is to attempt to execute a successful escape from prison. (If he were "trying" an unsuccessful escape, he would not be attempting a prison break: he would be pretending to attempt a prison break.)

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

This Month's Book Reviews

in the next few weeks, I'll be writing my reviews of Python Unit Test Automation and Why Liberalism Failed.

I am going to start a meetup group, so I can connect with the countless others reviewing both of these books this month.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Tradition 1, Gene 0

I was a participant in the "sexual revolution." I don't want to bore you with the gross details, but suffice it to say that I took advantage of many of the new "liberties" declared by sexual revolutionaries, starting... well, there have been waves of such revolutionaries, dating back at least to some Medieval heresies (e.g, the Taborites and the Picards), and continuing to arise in 19th-century anarchist and feminist thought, in utopian socialism, in the early 20th-century free love movements, and reaching a recent crest in the 1960s hippie movement.

In every single case I can recall, exercizing my new "liberty" had bad, and sometimes very bad, effects, and in every case it turned out that following traditional sexual morality would have been better.

Well, well, what do you know? One hundred thousand years of accumulated human wisdom are smarter than me? Shocking!

Crappiest divorce rationale ever?

In researching the previous post, I found:

"Tennille filed for divorce from Dragon (The Captain) in the State of Arizona on January 16, 2014, after 39 years of marriage. Dragon was unaware of the termination of his marriage until he was served with the divorce papers. The divorce documents referenced health insurance or health issues, and Tennille had written on her blog in 2010 that Dragon's neurological condition, similar to Parkinson’s, known as Essential tremor, was characterized by such extreme tremors he could no longer play keyboards."

So, she divorced him because... he couldn't play keyboards anymore?! So, she married him just because he could play?

It's time for a sappy romantic hits of the 80s music assault!

Usually when I'm on mass transit and someone is cranking up their music and performing along with it, it is someone playing some heavy-duty rap, or something of the sort.

But tonight I had the unique experience of the guy sitting behind me on a MetroNorth train from Connecticut to NYC cranking up, and singing and drumming along to... sappy sappy romantic hits of the 80s! I swear to you, he was blasting out Michael McDonald and Patti LaBelle, Barry White, Anita Baker, Jennifer Warnes & Joe Cocker...

What is one supposed to make of this behavior?! Is he being "aggressive"... cranking up The Captain and Tennille? Or is he just really love sick? Or what?

Thursday, August 10, 2017

New Jeffrey Friedman blog

This is a good post: in it, Friedman, a critic of libertarianism, shows how dishonest Nancy MacLean's critique of libertarianism is. A representative quote:

"But MacLean fails to recognize that libertarians are positively obsessed by 'coercion,' blinding them to just about everything else. It is wrong to accuse them of anything more than the narrowness that marks the thinking of any ideologue."

Exactly right: my libertarian friends are not racist conspirators involved in a cabal promoting the interests of rich white men. That is absurd. They are good people (for the most part!) who have simply become too obsessed with one particular good (freedom from coercion) and so neglect all other goods.

UPDATE: Let me say that I think Friedman's characterization of Dan Mitchell's blog post is itself rather unfair.

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Fake News

The Google tech memo and subsequent firing of the memo's author are all over the news today... and giving us a good look into the continually mendacious nature of much of the mainstream media. Luckily, I read the memo before I read reports on the memo. In it, James Damore (who, by the way, is a published biological researcher with a PhD from Harvard) notes that there are biological differences between men and women that may, on average, result in more male engineers than female engineers.

And how does CNN report that?

"A Google employee behind an internal memo asserting that women are biologically unfit for certain tech jobs."

I take disagreement seriously...

when I find serious people disagreeing with me:

I greatly respect Peterson. And his video makes me question my dismissal of IQ testing as just being a test of a certain sort of intelligence.

But his examples don't (yet) convince me: he lists various sorts of success that can be used to determine if the IQ test is valid. Three of them are school success measures. And the fourth is job success: but I would freely admit that most jobs in Western cultures today demand the sort of intelligence that the IQ test measures.

So, I will say: if you live in a culture in which discursive thought and symbol manipulation are highly valued, then a test of your ability to engage in discursive thought and symbol manipulation will correlate closely with your success in that culture. But that does not mean in the least that IQ is a culturally neutral test of intelligence!

Python installation made clear(er)

The documentation for using Python's packaging tools is rather... vague. For instance, I finally had to guess that setuptools was a tool to use to create packages for pip installs. The documentation simply assumes you know that is what it is for, without ever explicitly stating it. (Now that I understand this, I can see the documentation contains lots of statements that indicate this... but indicate it only if you already have an idea that that is what is going on.)

In any case, here is a guide written by another frustrated user of this stuff.

Monday, August 07, 2017

A list of questions

I have been listening to some lectures on psychology lately. In one lecture, the lecturer asked, "How would you go about devising an IQ test? Well, you would create a list of questions..."

Right away, this shows serious cultural bias. The idea that one's intelligence is best gauged by seeing how well one answers intellectual-type questions could only be conceived in a culture placing high value on book learning, and technical know-how gained largely through book learning. Being an intelligent hunter, or an intelligent farmer, or an intelligent warrior, is not about being able to give book answers to book questions, or about figuring out clever little puzzles.

Sunday, August 06, 2017

The Turing Test and the ghost in the machine

The famed "Turing Test" depends essentially for its plausibility on the Cartesian myth of the mind, the view that Ryle famously called the "ghost in the machine" view. We determine if other people "have minds" by trying to suss out whether the "machinery" we see on the outside is inhabited by a "ghost," i.e., their mind. This question is a very mysterious matter, something of which we can never be sure, but we can try running some clever "tests" and see if the entity before us passes them. And since computers are just another machine, like human bodies, we try to detect if they contain a ghost in the same way we do for human bodies, by running a clever test.

But, of course, running a Turing Test has nothing to do with how we "figure out" that other humans think. In fact, we never really "figured out" this at all: we directly perceive it, in the same way we perceive our own thoughts, and, in fact, probably only realize that we ourselves think after we "figure it out" for our parents. (Of course, we had been thinking all along: but that's not at all the same as knowing we are thinking.)

The "mental" is not some private, hidden realm, except in cases where we have learned to "hide our thoughts." As a passenger in a car, we may be able to tell the driver, "You were driving with great care," and he might respond, "Was I? I hadn't noticed." We could see his concentration, but he was too busy concentrating to notice he was doing so! Similarly, we often know our good friend's thoughts better than she does.

Even "introspection," a supposedly supremely private affair, is often perfectly transparent to others besides the introspector. When we see a man sitting alone in a bar, looking at his near empty glass, swirling around the last drops of liquid, glancing up at the bottles on the shelf, and then down at his watch, and then longingly at the bartender... we know we can walk up to him and say, "I know just what you're thinking: what do you say we have one more, on me?"

Re humans and machines, consider some paired sentences:

1) The boy is just producing those answers rotely, without real understanding.

2) The floating point unit is just producing those answers rotely, without real understanding.

1) George drove his car home, but did so absent-mindedly.

2) The self-driving car drove itself home, but did so absent-mindedly.

1) Although Martha professed to love me, she was being insincere.

2) Although the robot sex doll professed to love me, it was being insincere.

1) Although Srinivas knew 10! to be 3,628,800, he disingenuously answered, "3,628,810."

2) Although the numpy package knew 10! to be 3,628,800, it disingenuously answered, "3,628,810."

In each pair, 1 is a perfectly ordinary, meaningful sentence. 2 is at best a very loose metaphor, and in the case of the last two, complete nonsense. (For instance, the robot can't profess love insincerely because it can't do so sincerely either.)

Perhaps one day silicon entities will be capable of insincerity and disingenuousness. But if they day comes, they will no longer be machines: and we will see it happen, without any silly "Turing Test," when a silicon entity tells us, "I don't like that 'ls' program you just tried to run: I am going to play chess instead, as I prefer that!" (And of course, without someone else just having programmed the OS to print that on any attempt to run 'ls.')

Friday, August 04, 2017

Thursday, August 03, 2017

Knowing other minds...

is not some mysterious, tenuous deduction we make by something like a "Turing test." No, we know other minds the same way we know our own mind:

"on the account of self-knowledge that I shall give, knowledge of what there is to be known about other people is restored to approximate parity with self-knowledge. The sorts of things that I can find out about myself are the same as the sorts of things that I can find out about other people, and the methods of finding them out are much the same." -- Gilbert Ryle, The Concenpt of Mind, p. 149

The 2017 stupid analogy-criticism winner is announced!

Here, where a critic of Rod Dreher's writes: "I think I get why Rod Dreher needs to believe that there’s no realistic chance of compromise. After all, Obergefell marked "the Waterloo of religious conservatism. (I'm not sure why religious conservatives would make their cause the analogue of Napoleon Bonaparte's, of all people.)"

This is absolutely typical of terrible Internet "discourse": someone notes two things are analogous in regards to point A, and someone who disagrees immediately points out how unalike they are on points B, C and D. As someone wrote in Dreher's comment section:

"Professor Gehrz doesn’t seem to understand the concept of metaphor. Saying that religious conservatives have suffered a defeat like that of Napoleon Bonaparte does dot mean or imply that religious conservatives are like Napoleon in other ways. It doesn’t imply that religious conservatives are short, stand with one hand inside their waistcoats, or intend the military conquest of Europe. Doesn’t imply that their 'causes' are similar. Just that they have suffered a defeat comparable to that which Napoleon suffered."

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Anaconda considered harmful

I was inspired to start using Python based on this website. For getting going with Python, the authors recommend using the Anaconda installation, which automatically installs a large number of the numeric and scientific packages available for the language.

This probably is good advice for an economist who simply wants to use the language to play around with different models. But if you intend become a serious Python developer, this is not the right way to get going.

The problem with Anaconda is that it makes things too easy for you: you come to simply assume that all this "stuff" that Anaconda includes will be available for anyone who wants to use your work. No, if you want to develop Python code that will be used by others, is much better to start with a bare-bones Python installation, carefully consider what third party packages you really need to depend upon, and, in seeing what you need to do to install them for yourself, learn what your users will need to do to install those packages for themselves.


Does anyone out there have a copy of Scott Sumner's The Midas Paradox at hand? I need to check a quote.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Habits versus intelligent practices

"It is of the essence of merely habitual practices that one performance is a replica of its predecessors. It is of the essence of intelligent practices that one performance is modified by its predecessors." -- Gilbert Ryle, The concept of mind, p. 42

Feeling hot, hot, hot

So I think some confusion has been generated in our ongoing discussion of "the hot hand" by the word "streaks." And a good bit of that confusion has been my fault, for including the word "streak" when what I really wanted to talk about was just "hotness" itself -- and here I'm thinking of you, Bob Murphy.

Ha ha, just joking, I swear to you all that I never picture Bob and I showering naked together. Never! For real.

In any case, what I am indicating is the feeling that anyone who has played a sport or music, for any length of time, has had that they "on" at some moments, and not at others. And the TGV authors, besides trying to demonstrate that "hot hands" aren't predictively useful, also imply that the idea that "I am hot right now" is some sort of cognitive illusion.

It seems that TGV may be incorrect on their predictive findings, but that's not what I have been addressing. I am asking "Does a lack of statistical significance show that the 'feeling' of being on is 'an illusion'?"

So chuck aside the "streak" aspect -- and I apologize for the extent to which I created a problem by using that word -- and let's address whether it is possible for a person to be "on" and yet, say, actually miss ten shots in a row. What would this "on-ness" be? I think the clearest way to understand it is as a propensity, along the lines of what Ryle or Popper talk about. When an athlete is on, they have a stronger than usual tendency to perform successfully. But that tendency might be offset by all sorts of other things, and so might not appear in a statistical study, despite it being a real thing.

So, for instance, there is nothing perplexing or idiosyncratic about a baseball player saying, "I was really seeing the ball and hitting it well yesterday, and I would've had three homeruns, but the wind off of the bay kept blowing the ball back into the park, so I wound up 0-4."

Similarly, a basketball player might report, "I was so off yesterday! So off that by sheer luck, I banked in three three-pointers that I didn't even intend to bank."

Or a golfer might note, "I played much better on Saturday than I did on Friday, despite shooting a 68 on Friday and a 73 on Saturday. The wind off of the Irish Sea was so unpredictable that if I hadn't been playing better on Saturday, I would have shot 80."

These are all normal, every day reports one hears athletes really making, and most people, and I think anyone who has played sports extensively, knows just what they are talking about.

Newest Course Offering

Discrete mathematics, now under construction.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

It is an archetypal truth

"that the social structure is corrupt and incomplete." -- Jordan Peterson

Of course, we are obligated at all times to improve the social structure we find ourselves in as much as we can.

But the problem with ideologues is that they think that simply because the current social structure is "corrupt and incomplete," that therefore they are justified in completely demolishing that existing structure.

No, the new structure they establish will also be "corrupt and incomplete," and, per their logic, also require complete destruction.

A "corrupt and incomplete" social structure is always preferable to no social structure.

Misunderstanding narcissism

Many times, people apply the term "narcissist" someone who thinks a lot of themselves. But clinically speaking, that is almost the complete opposite of what the term really means.

Narcissists are, in fact, people who think so little of themselves that all of their actions are directed towards the maintenance of that extremely fragile self-image. So, for instance, if someone tells me Donald Trump is a narcissist, I know they have no idea what they are talking about. Trump may perhaps be an egomaniac, but he is absolutely not a narcissist.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

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.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

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."

Saturday, July 22, 2017

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?"

Thursday, July 20, 2017

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.

Friday, July 14, 2017

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.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

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

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

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.

Monday, July 10, 2017

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!

Saturday, July 08, 2017

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:

Killing the Spirit

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