Showing posts from September, 2015

Investigating a Murder Versus Getting Someone Convicted for a Murder

I want to make clearer my distinction between research and advocacy: It is similar to the difference between investigating a murder and trying to convict a particular of a murder.

The murder investigation may still go wrong, of course, and arrest an innocent man. And the person trying to get a defendant convicted may be absolutely correct in their conviction that the accused really is guilty. And we may all be happy if they get the conviction, and, say, a serial killer is put away.

Still, the distinction is important to keep in mind. And it is important to remember that in advocacy, people are not searching for the truth: they are promoting a point of view. (They may be promoting it because they think it is true, or they may not.)

The Planet Without Laughter

Courtesy of Keshav, a very interesting story from Raymond M. Smullyan.

From the Vaults

Programmers who just don't care

I'm trying to import a tab-delimited quiz file into Blackboard. I get this message:

"A parse error occurred on line 1. Processing of other questions continued uninterrupted."

The first problem with this message is that it is a lie: Blackboard failed to process any of the questions at all and produced no quiz.

The second problem is: "A parse error occurred..." A parse error? He couldn't be bothered telling me exactly which parse error, information that might help me to fix the parse error? And the programmer who was parsing my file almost certainly knew exactly what the error was at that time he detected it. For instance, perhaps he found a tab instead of a question type at the beginning of a line. In that case, he should have given the user feedback like, "Question type missing at beginning of line 1."

Very simple. Very helpful. But this joker couldn't be bothered.

And then he delivers the coup de grâce: "Review logs for details."

Two Halves of One Coin

The great Patrick Deneen on why separating Catholic social teaching and Catholic morality is nonsense.

More on First Reality and Second Reality

Let us imagine a land called Aqua. Aqua is a desert land, but because water is so important to these desert people, their culture centers around its worship. And in Aqua, there are legends of a place, far across the desert, where water is abundant. (Somewhere, over the rainbow...)

Over the centuries, various Aquans attempt to cross the barren desert and find this place where water is plentiful. And, at long last, a few hardy pilgrims succeed. They find a place with a great lake, and, for the first time, some Aquans are able to plunge into a large body of water and swim. They directly experience immersion in water, the movements necessary to swim, the feedback one gets from the water as to when one is swimming well or poorly, what it is to flounder in the depths and nearly drown, and so on. And this immersion is a transformative experience for those who undergo it.

Those experiences are first reality.

Naturally, when these pioneers return to Aqua, they try to communicate their experie…

The Wonders of Word

I was teaching a class on Microsoft Word today. I came to my office early and spent 45 minutes prepping the document I was going to work with. One of the things I would be showing the students was spell checking, so I deliberately introduced a number of errors into my document, which happened to be a paper I wrote. I spell checked it and everything worked as I expected. I posted the document to Blackboard, our online teaching tool.

Then I brought the document up live, on my smart board, in front of the class, and went to show them how to spell check it. (They also had the same document on their workstation so they could spell check along with me.) I launched spell checking, on a document I knew for sure had many errors in it, and immediately received the message:

"Spelling and grammar check complete. You're good to go!"

And so did every student! Aaaaagh!

Luckily I recovered my composure and said, "Let's Google this problem." We searched for "Word won&…

Was the Planned Parenthood videomaker "lying"?

I have been puzzled by what abortion advocates have meant by saying that the infamous PP videos are "lies," so when I saw someone promoting this view on Facebook, I asked directly what was meant by this. I was pointed to this webpage.

The page seems to center on two contentions:

1) The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) "selectively edited" the video to show the parts that made PP look worst.

Well, duh! This is a self-proclaimed advocacy group. Did abolitionists feature lots of stories of salves being treated kindly when they penned anti-slavery tracts? Do anti-fox-hunting groups feature foxes tearing out the throat of a little bunny when they make a video?

No, abolitionists highlighted the worst stories of slave mistreatment. Anti-hunting groups show hunted animals cowering in fear, or dying painfully. They are advocacy groups! Anyone who didn't already know we were being shown the worst bits (from PP's perspective) in the excerpted videos should call me, b…

"Refuting" Aquinas by citing his motivation

In a discussion thread, someone claimed all disapproval of any sort of volutary sexual activity is based on "superstition." I asked if he had ever read Aquinas's analysis of sexual ethics.

"No," he replied, "but Aquinas was trying to prove that the Catholic Church was right, so who cares?"

And Kepler was trying to prove Copernicus was right about heliocentrism, so who cares about his arguments? And that Darwin fellow, who was trying to prove evolution by natural selection: best ignore him as well.

Why Galileo Preferred Copernicus

He preferred Coperican orbits to Ptolemaic because... well, let's have him tell us:

"If God... had wanted the planets to execute spirals... he could have easily brought it about... "[But] what would God have preferred: that the planets should fly about in composite, ever-changing, and irregular curved motions... or that each should describe a circle, uniform and regular as possible...? There is no one who philosophizes soberly who would not affirm the latter opinion and altogether reject the former." -- quoted in Howard Margolis, It Started with Copernicus, p. 91

So, a major reason for Galileo's scientific choice here was his contemplation of what God would have preferred.

Callahan on Block on Callahan

Not some kinky threesome: instead it is a preview of my forthcoming paper in Cosmos and Taxis, where I respond to Walter Block's critique of my paper, "Liberty Versus Libertarianism":


Professor Walter Block has done me the honor of penning an extended critique of portions of my paper, “Liberty Versus Libertarianism.” His response which addresses my comments on the work of the professor himself, and on his mentor, Murray Rothbard. A vigorous attack being a much more complimentary response to a paper than is a placid indifference, my thanks are sincere. Nevertheless, I think Block has misunderstood the essence of my thesis, particularly in his contention that I am only arguing “utilitarian” points, and I contend that his reply would have been more cogent had he paid more attention to the other parts of my paper. In writing this response, I hope that I can motivate a mind as sharpas Professor Block’s to actually engage with my entire argument, and …

What About You Go Work for Some Group You Agree with?

Poor Alana Shultz: she apparently went to work for a synagogue that teaches members not to have sex before marriage, had sex before marriage, got pregnant, got fired, and is now suing the synagogue.

Hey, maybe I can work for AA and go in to work smelling of gin every day? Work for Geisinger Health System and smoke cigarettes, even in my own home? As Geisinger rep Marcy Marshall says, "We're not denying smokers their right to tobacco products. We're just choosing not to hire them."

So why can't the synagogue just "choose not to employ" people who have sex before marriage? Because discrimination against smokers is actively encouraged by our elite class, while discrimination against almost any form of sexual activity is now legally forbidden.

Making a cake versus re-boxing a cake

The people who embraced the "Islamaphobia" narrative concerning Ahmed Mohamed do not seem to have a clue what several electronics experts who have examined his "homemade" clock are actually saying. For instance, James Vincent writes, "Ignoring the fact that it is fine to say you 'made' something even if you didn't smelt all the original materials (would you tell a child off for saying they made you a cake using ready-made cake mix?)..."

Nope. The contention being made – – and I don't know if it is true or not, but it at least seems plausible – – is that Ahmed simply cracked open an existing digital alarm clock and put its innards into a pencil box, and then brought the pencil box to school. This is not like making a cake from a ready-made mix and then saying that you made it; it is more like taking a cake out of the box the bakery put it in, putting it in your own box, and then saying that you made it.

And why would this be significant? W…

From the Vaults...

Eating Is Immoral!

Or at least I assume that Donald Boudreaux would impute such a view to Pope Francis, if he encountered a talk in which Francis said that gluttony is immoral.

Deontology and Utlitarianism

Deontology and utilitarianism are both abstract conceptions of ethics, and therefore, partial and defective. Their plausibility derives from two factors: 1) They each get at part of the truth: it is true, as deontologists insist, that principles are an important part of ethics. And it is true, as utilitarians contend, that the consequences of one’s actions are an important part of ethics. 2) Each approach is able to benefit from the defective nature of the other: so long as rationalism is understood as the only possible approach to ethics, then, to the rationalist, deontology appears to be the only alternative to utilitarianism, and vice-versa. So deontologists can strengthen their appeal by pointing out the obvious defects in utilitarianism (it ignores principles), while utilitarians do the same by noting the obvious defects in deontology (it ignores consequences). It is like a war between one’s right leg and left leg over which is the essential limb in walking: each leg can correctly …

My name is Gene Callahan, and I am…

reading Malcolm Gladwell.

There, now you all know: I hope by going public, I can finally put the shame behind me.

In any case, the book is Outliers, and it is about what I expected: a very readable but probably overhasty and overgeneralized survey of a bunch of serious research.

But this passage definitely caught my attention:

"[Practical intelligence] is procedural: it is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it. It's practical in nature: that is, it's not knowledge for its own sake... And, critically, it is a kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. To use the technical term, general intelligence and practical intelligence are 'orthogonal': The presence of one doesn't imply the presence of the other." (That last bit is a little sloppy: what he really means to say is that the presence of high analytical intelligence does not imply the presence of hi…

Left Terrible Bugs in the Program? Issue a Stern Warning to the User!

I just found this in a test creation module of some course management software:

"If students are in the process of taking a test or have already taken a test, questions cannot be changed except for minor text editing, for example to correct typos. Attempting to change the number of points for a question, adding or removing answers, adding or removing feedback, or changing attached files could invalidate existing test attempts and corrupt the entire assessment and its Grade Center entries."

Weeeeeell, programmers, if the user doing this could "corrupt the entire assessmen"... perhaps the user shouldn't be allowed to do that?

Who Pulls John Gray's Strings?

My review of John Gray's most recent book is online at The American Conservative.

The Two Uses of the "N-Word"

The "N-Word" has a sense 1 and a sense 2, like many words in any language do. The sense 1 usage, the way it would be used by a southern lynch mob, is quite rightly condemned.

But there is a sense 2 for the word. Some recent events in my life illustrating it:

1) I was riding the NYC subway. Four private school teens (or so I judged by their uniforms) were sitting across the aisle from me, engaged in animated conversation. I did not do a genealogical survey of their ancestry, but I'd guess that between the four, they might have had a couple of black grandparents and a couple of black great-grandparents. (In other words, they all looked pretty white, but any one of them might have claimed, "My grandma was black," and it would have been believable.) As they conversed, their constant term of endearment for each other was "n*&&^r": "Yo, n*&&^r, no way you got 98 on that test." All four will probably wind up at Ivy League or equiva…

What Were They Thinking?

Microsoft Office checks for updates and offers the opportunity to install them when the user starts an Office program: "Yes, now that I've finally sat down to work, I would like to delay another five minutes while you download and install some software!"

What about checking when the user exits an Office program, i.e., when they are done working and the computer will be free for a while?!

More on Say's Law

Preparing to teach macroeconomics today, I read the following:

"It is worthwhile to remark that a product is no sooner created than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value. When the producer has put the finishing hand to his product, he is most anxious to sell it immediately, lest its value should diminish in his hands. Nor is he less anxious to dispose of the money he may get for it; for the value of money is also perishable." -- J. B. Say

Two things came to mind:

1) "affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value."

But the point that Malthus and Sismondi were making was that the producer might have been mistaken about what the "full extent" of the market value of his product would be, so that he could only sell at a loss... at which point he might decide to sit on the product and hope for a price increase. This can be translated as: Say's Law holds under conditions of g…

Research versus advocacy

In an online discussion, someone recently asked me, "Well, if the Singapore government is so interventionist, why do they rank near the top of the Index of Economic Freedom?"

"Do you think that index is research into economic conditions in different countries?" I replied. "It is a piece of propaganda, intended to demonstrate a pre-existing conclusion: more laissez-faire == more prosperity."

A lot of ideologically driven "research" is like that: the "scholars" doing it are not setting out to find out anything. Instead, they want to martial support for what they already believe. Have you ever seen a Marxist professor publish a paper entitled, "In that instance, the capitalists were actually pretty cool"?

I have begun doing a research into distributism, to see if it is a workable economic program. I don't know the answer; I hope it is, but if it turns out it doesn't work in practice, I would much rather find that out th…

How to Choose Your References

I am working on a paper with a co-author. Last revision, he took out section X that was referenced by section Y. I thought Y needed to reference X, so I put it back in. But this meant getting all the works cited in section X back in the bibliography. So I scanned it for references, and to my happy surprise found three: Gracia, Graham, and Greenwald. This meant that the three references I needed would all occur together in the earlier version of the bibliography, and so could be copied and pasted as one unit!

Lesson learned: for each section of your paper, carefully plan your references to that the authors' last names all fall in the same narrow section of the alphabet. E.g., if you have already referenced Trotsky in the section on communism, you'll just have to find someone other than Marx for a definition of class conflict.

Advanced work: In fact, going even further would probably be a good idea: Arrange all references alphabetically throughout the paper. In section 1.1, you c…

Universities' Strange Obsession with Research

My math tutor is great: I spend a couple of hours banging my head on some dense mathematical text, and he shows up and explains it to me in about two minutes. And although he hasn't finished his PhD yet, he was recently hired as an adjunct by a top New York university because of his outstanding teaching reviews.

His own research? I have no idea about it; why should I care? I am not asking him to train me as a mathematics researcher, just to help me grasp the ideas I need for my work. Focusing on publishing when hiring faculty makes sense for positions at research universities where training graduate students who are going to specialize in the field, i.e., do their own research, is the main responsibility. But for faculty at liberal arts schools teaching microeconomics I, or calculus, or intro to chemistry, or basic Italian, it makes no sense at all. What does it matter to any student taking Calculus I how often the lecturer has published?

The Empirical Truth of Revelation

"The experience of transcendence, as previously defined, is a movement of the soul that may culminate in an act of transcendence. In the optimal case, as it brings to acute consciousness the relation between God and man, it will reveal the presence under God as the truth of human existence. An experience of this type would in any case be of importance to the person suffering it; but if the description were exhaustive, if the experience did not contain an additional factor, it would not be a constituent of history. The historian would have no occasion, for instance, to attach relevance to such an experience unless he were writing the biography of a person to whom it occurred--and quite probably he would never write the biography because persons plagued by such oddities would be devoid of historical interest... This additional factor that makes the experience historically relevant is the truth of order that it reveals with a obligatory force for every man. The obligatory force the…

Beating about the Bushes

Jeb Bush should adopt the campaign slogan, "Not as bad as my brother."

It would win my vote.

Oh, a Bulls&*t Artist!

Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.

Dole Office Clerk: What?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.

Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a *bullshit* artist!
-- History of the World: Part I

Although mathematics presented a problem for establishing the sovereignty of doxa in Western culture, there was an even bigger problem: philosophy. Mathematics, after all, could be roped off as a specialized area that need only concern mathematical geniuses, too difficult for the average person to bother with. But ordinary people, back in the day, used to actually read philosophers. And the problem was that all of the best philosophers, almost without exception, if they paid serious attention metaphysics, wound up arriving at the conclusion that there is some unifying intelligence grounding the universe that we directly perceive. Parmenides, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle all arrived at this conclusion despi…

The Revival of the Polis

Russell Arben has a nice piece on Front Porch Republic on the city as the proper locus of communitarian concerns. A key passage:
In his wonderful and too-little read second book, The Good City and The Good Life, Daniel Kemmis hardly made any explicit reference at all to communitarianism or republicanism or any other type of philosophical orientation–and perhaps, exactly because he didn’t, going back to that book provides an insight to civic developments which those of us often too enamored of theory miss. His discussion of citizenship and the “civic wholeness” that a proper relationship to one’s local natural and social environment–one’s polis, in other words–effectively closes off any of the grand cultural narratives which came to warp much communitarian thinking, instead grounding the pressing need to belong in one’s locality: “states and nation-states are abstractions to which we cannot easily apply any of the key concepts discussed here: not wholeness, not presence, not grace, an…

Back in the day...

even when they were unemployed, men wore ties:

(Photo from The American Conservative.)

It reminds me of the photo at FEE of Mises, Hazlitt and Read at a barbecue in Hazlitt's backyard, and all three have three-piece suits on.

Mocking Mathematics

It's a common theme in TV shows and movies to see people positively boasting that they are "terrible at math." This is interesting: you don't see anyone boasting that they are terrible at reading, or terrible at choosing breakfast.
But mathematics displays the reality of objective, transcendental truth. And this is a serious threat to the world of doxa, of mere opinion. So it is best to portray it as something only an elite few can possibly understand.

A New Day...

And a new semester. So, my apologies I haven't been blogging much: my focus has been on getting my classes going. I'll be around more anon.

Visual Studio: Evaluation

Visual Studio (VS) is really huge and complex. But it does a lot for the programmer. (Sometimes way too much: I had a student assign a variable name to the wrong field, so her code was trying to fetch the text of a label instead of an input box. When we changed the name of the label, VS automatically changed the code to match the new name, keeping her initial error in place!)

I have had my students build a mini-calculator in a window with buttons and input fields in their first week of programming. That's not bad: it would take me a few months to get them there without something like Visual Studio. And it now supports Python! I may give my agent system a GUI interface using VS.

That's *Exactly* Who They Want!

I was talking with a friend who works for [MAJOR INVESTMENT BANK X]. He said he had just interviewed a very bright fellow from [AFRICAN COUNTRY Y]. He asked the young man what his career goal was. The young man replied "I want to be president of Y."

My friend said, "Well, that is a great goal, but don't mention that to people at future interviews. Say something in the nearer future, like, 'I want to be a stock analyst.'"

I was perplexed. I told my friend, "I'm pretty sure your bank would love to have the president of Y on their payrol!"

Open a bar in Brooklyn!

The Basic Dualism in the Psyche

"Autonomous man can order himself and society either by orienting himself toward transcendence or by emancipating himself as a world-immanent existence. In Augustinian language: Man can live either secundum Deum or secundum hominem." -- Eric Voegelin, What Is History and Other Late Unpublished Writings?, p. 32

The Weirdness of University Computer Science

I am looking over some syllabi of introduction to programming courses for ideas, and something that is stunning is that typically, 60% or 70% of a student's grade is based on written tests, while only 20% or 30% is based on... programming!

It's like "teaching" someone to swim by making sure they can answer questions about swimming.

Not Getting It

I was talking with someone who had recently sent a child off to university. He mentioned that he had told a colleague that he had cried a lot since his daughter had left home.

His colleague replied, "Why have you been crying a lot? Don't you know it is good for her?"

Um, could there possibly be a stupider take on this? The problem my friend was having was not that he thought college was bad for his daughter, but that he missed her.

Now compare atheists who say, "If Christians really believed in heaven, they would not cry at funerals."

Oh Microsoft!

My experience with Microsoft products is that they are typically as "helpful" as a three-year-old working on the car with you: occasionally they really do help, but most of the time their well meaning efforts are just in the way. For instance, they seem terrified that if they do not fill in a default name for every form, field, file, project, button, slider, and so forth, that the user will be come completely disoriented, freeze up, and be unable to continue. But because there is always a default, you can easily miss the fact that you have not chosen the names, and windup working with "Button1," "Slider1," "Form1," and "WindowsProject1." And, I would suggest, these are examples of names that you would never, ever want to give to your buttons, sliders, forms, and projects! If there is a manual of horrible naming out there, certainly naming a button "Button1" is in it. (You want to name it after what pressing it causes, e.g., …

Plato Had No "Doctrine" About "Ideas"

Eva Brann makes the point I have been trying to about "Plato's philosophy":
My subject, as proposed, is “Plato’s Theory of Ideas.” Whether that subject actually interests you, or you think that it ought to interest you, you will, I imagine, regard it as a respectable topic. And yet I have to tell you that every term in the project is wrong-headed. Let me therefore begin by explaining why that is.

First, Plato’s Theory of Ideas is not a subject at all. I mean that it is not a compact mental material to be presented on an intellectual platter. Plato himself refrained from making it the direct theme of any of the twenty-five or more dialogues which he wrote. Instead, the ideas appear in the context of conversation, incidentally, and in scattered places. He gives the reason directly in a letter:

"There is no treatise of mine about these things, nor ever will be. For it cannot be talked about like other subjects of learning, but out-of much communion about this matter,…

Strange ci-tations cita-a-ate

On this Wikipedia page, I find the following strange citation:

"George Clooney to Receive Cecil B. DeMille Award at Golden Globes 22 hours ago". IMDb. 1 September 1973. Retrieved 16 September 2014.

OK... Clooney is to receive it... 22 hours ago?! And in 1973.... when he was 12?!

I haven't clicked yet to see what this is about. Wanted to send it to you all first.

Looks What's Happening on the Streets...

Would outright rebellion be justified today in the United States?

If the answer is "no," it is not because our current government is perfectly just or even largely just. The United States essentially leads the world in incarcerating its own citizens. Our police forces shoot more people per day than the combined forces of England and Wales shoot per year. We routinely launch wars of choice against nations we find somewhat offensive. The political state of the country is so far gone that people are regarding Donald Trump as a possible president.

But the answer is still no. Why?

One very strong reason is that any such rebellion today stands about a 0% chance of actually making things better, and absent that condition, rebellion is never justified, since every rebellion holds the possibility of making things much, much worse. The U.S. is not today Syria... but it could be tomorrow.

Documentary nonsense

So, I thought I'd try the documentary on Alexandria offered on Netflix.

First I learned that "Alexander united the Greek city-states." Um, did the writers mean that his father, Phillip, conquered them?

Next, the film shows Alexander's conquests as including the whole Persian empire, after which he "finally" had to conquer Egypt. Oy vey!

Then, the narrator describes Hypatia, who made "monumental breakthroughs in geometry and astronomy." Well, she clearly was an important thinker, but what "breakthroughs" did she achieve? There really doesn't seem to be any record of anything like a breakthrough by her.

And finally, as I feared at this point, the narrator misdescribes the death of Hypatia and finally blames a Christian mob for the destruction of a basically intact library at Alexandria, which is almost surely complete nonsense.

Don't rely for "historical" documentaries for your knowledge of history!