Showing posts from September, 2016

It's Always Snowing There

World heavyweight champion Tyson Fury has tested positive for cocaine . As a result he may lose his belts. Come on, he lives in England. He just had to walk into the loo of his local pub a couple of times and that would be enough to produce a positive test.

Where did the idea that it is sinful to use "curse words" come from?

The Bible only says one thing about "cursing": Don't take the Lord's name in vain. If I say, "What the f*ck is that?" the Lord's name does not appear anywhere in that sentence. I think what has gone on here is a conflation of upper-class behavior with righteous behavior. Cursing is something done by dirty, sweaty, working men when they are angry. When a rich person is angry, he has other outlets: he forecloses on your house, or fires you. So, no need to curse!

Apple dictation weirdness

I spoke the following words: " I have reviewed at least three books on of the history of science..." The Apple dictation software put them into m y document exactly as above. But then it suddenly deleted a bunch of them leaving me with: " I have reviewed at least three books science..." Notice that the new sentence isn't even grammatical. What the heck could be going on? It "heard" all of the words, and then... decided it did not like some of them?

Introduction to Algorithms, Lecture Three

Here .

Many people have no clue how thermostats work

My tenant found the house too cold. I realized that the problem was that I had turned the furnace off at the start of the summer, and had forgotten to turn it back on. But when turning the thermostat up to 70 had produced no result, my tenant then turned it up to 85. Her view of the thermostat was that it was some sort of magical wish granter: if one wishes for 70, and one's wish is not granted, then perhaps wishing for 85 will result in a grant of the wish for 70. I don't mean to pick on her: many, many people seem to treat thermostats in this way. They walk into their office, and the temperature is 80. They would like it to be 70, but they want it to "get there fast," so they set the thermostat to 60.

Professors, Don't Let Your Students Grow Up to Be Proprietary Software Users

I am currently cutting over all of my course management to rely on open-source, text-reliant software and files. I have been through several course management tool cut-overs at several schools, plus experiencing the general difficulty of bringing one's accumulated knowledge and data forward from one position to the next, and with the last new course management tool I had to adopt, I had had it! Of course, you have to use whatever course management software your school requires: well, they require it, and the students are used to it. But you can just fill up the content area of that tool with links to your open-source repository, where the real meat of your course resides. To do this: A GitHub repository should take the place of your Moodle / Blackboard / Canvas / Whatever course module as the focus of where you collect your course materials. When you rely on GitHub for this function, you get: Complete portability of your accumulated course-specific files from one institut

Politics Is Not Only About Liberty

Or any other single good. As Eric Voegelin wrote: "The political interplay of [every functioning society] is patrician. It is based on the fact that one thinks a lot about what the others do, but does not say it; that one is always aware that in the society there is more than one good to achieve, not only the good of freedom, but also the good of security, the good of welfare, and that if I specialized in one or other of these goods, I could thereby bring the whole society into disorder, because I could destroy the balance between the realization of goods on which the society is based. . . . If I harden myself with a particular idea and pursue only this goal, this one good, then in reaction there arises the counterstasis, the counter-hardening, and with this the impossibility of social cooperation."

Will-ful Ignorance

Will Wilkinson thinks he's got the religious dead to rights : "It’s happening in all wealthy, liberal-democratic countries. The needs served by religious belief and participation seem to weaken as people become more prosperous and oriented toward individual self-realization." Religion is just something poor, backward people need: once people start devoting themselves to relentlessly pursuing material wealth and fulfilling their own egos, religion drops by the wayside. Who could have imagined? Well, except... "But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced th

The autonomy of physics

As with mathematics, physics should be free of interference by philosophers. And when I discuss Zeno's paradox of motion, I am philosophizing. In no way whatsoever am I trying to revise modern physics, or tell physicists how they should look at space, or inform them about what mathematical techniques they ought to employ. Physicists should use whatever models and techniques help to advance physics. And they certainly don't need a philosopher's advice to decide what those things are.

"Don't Shoot Him!"

The New York Times has on its front page for Sunday (we get the Sunday Times on Saturday in NYC): '"Don't Shoot Him!" Wife's Plea to Charlotte Police' This is incendiary. More relevant and less inflammatory would have been '"Drop the Gun!" Cop's Plea to Charlotte Shooting Victim'

The second person who pitched Trump to me...

Was the best sales person I know. Sometime in May, he said to me "It's all over." "The GOP nomination?" I asked him. "No, the election: Trump is going straight to the White House. Clinton is a horrible sales person." Watching her the last few months, I have to agree. If the Democratic Party was giving away a luxury villa overlooking the Mediterranean, we'd all sign up for it. But after Hillary pitched it to us for a half hour or so, we'd say, "You know, thanks anyway, but I really don't need a villa."

Any Maor Dude with Half a Pile of Uranium

Relevant to our recent discussion of the continuum: "The rate of decay of a radioactive substance -- in the amount of radiation it emits -- is at every moment proportional to its mass m : dm/dt = -am . The solution of this differential equation is m = m 0 e -at , where m 0 is the initial mass of the substance (the mass at t = 0). We see from this solution that m will gradually approach 0 but never reach it -- the substance will never completely disintegrate." -- e: The Story of a Number , p. 103 Here we get a clear glimpse into the problem of mistaking a formalism for reality. When he wrote this, Maor seems to have forgotten that this differential equation is just a model for radioactive decay, and not radioactive decay itself. Because the model implies that the amount of radioactive material present at any time changes along a continuum, and that it changes exactly according to this equation. (It could not do the latter unless it also did the former.) But, of course, the

Zeno was not worrying about specifications or formal systems

Reader Alex Small writes : "the fact that we can specify a process via an infinite list of statements does not mean that it is impossible for such a process to happen. There is an implicit assumption that the only physically feasible processes are those with finite specifications in some particular formal system." But this is mistaking what the Greeks were worried about. There concern was not with specifications or formal systems. There concern was with the nature of space . And they were puzzling over whether space, in reality , was infinitely divisible, or was it somehow chunky, or atomic. And some among them noted that, if it is infinitely divisible, that seems to create some problems, such as it seemingly making it impossible for things to get moving. The difference between worrying over this and worrying over specifications in formal systems might be clarified by my stating that I have no quarrel with the mathematical concept of the continuum at all. The fact

Does Accounting for Time Somehow Resolve Zeno's Paradoxes?

A commenter asks, "Isn't Zeno's mistake thinking that an infinite number of steps cannot be completed in a finite time?" Upon receiving this question, I realize that I have been making a mistake: I have been presenting Zeno's paradox as it usually, in my experience, is popularly portrayed (e.g., this is what Maor offers): to get to the finish line, a runner has to cover half the distance to the finish line. From there he still has to cover half the remaining distance to the finish line. And from there, he still has to cover… So, 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16... But that was not actually how Zeno presented the problem, and discussing this has convinced me that Zeno was correct to present it the way he did. In the common portrayal, the runner can get closer and closer to the finish line, but can never quite get there. However, this leads to the misapprehension that if we just made all of those steps happen in similarly decreasing amounts of time as well, the probl

Well, they're dressed like bandits, aren't they?

I walk into the college gardens, which is a nice little urban green space about a quarter of a block long. An older fellow is sitting on one of the benches. As I pass him, he asks "Do you work here?" "Yes." Him asking me twice more is not a propitious sign for the future course of the conversation. But once we clear up my employment status, he says, "I just want to let you know: I was in here the other night at 11." (OK, I am thinking, what are you doing hanging around our garden at 11 at night?) "And I saw something moving. I thought it was a cat. But then I looked more closely: it was a raccoon!" "I see." "It was a raccoon!" he repeats, clearly deciding that I am somewhat dense. "OK, and what would you like me to do about that?" "Well, you had better tell somebody." "I will, I will." And so I am telling all of you.

Gotta have a right for this, a right for that

At a faculty meeting recently, I was told that it is a "human right" of students to have a syllabus that tells them what is expected of them in a course.

Textbook speak

I just ran across the following problem in a business math textbook: "Joe, at age 35, decides to invest in a retirement account. He will put aide $2000 per year for the next 30 years. How much will he have at age 65 if his rate of return is assumed to be 10% per year?" Don't you love that "assumed to be"? It is: 1) Completely unnecessary. The authors could have just said "if his rate of return is 10% per year." 2) And it makes the answer indeterminate. Assuming a rate of return of i% doesn't make Joe anything! Only if his rate of return is i% will he make money!


Microwave, that is. I assume that there is an ideal cooking time for any particular dish one might put in the microwave. Furthermore, there is no reason to suppose that these ideal cooking times tend to fall particularly often on multiples of 60 seconds. But microwaves typically have a shortcut that allows you to choose some integral number of minutes for heating your food. 59 times out of 60 (if we round ideal cooking times to the nearest second) choosing this shortcut will be sub optimal.


"Philosophers" like Martha Nussbaum work hard to de-legitimize disgust as a moral guide. Now, our gut reactions to things are far from being an infallible guide to what we should really think about them. (But who ever claimed that they were?) But there is a huge difference between something not being an infallible guide, and something not being a guide at all. A New York City Subway map is not an infallible guide to getting around by subway in the city: sometimes a line is closed for construction and so forth. But still, it is a pretty good guide. In any case, John Loike agrees with this common sense position.

My review of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume I

is now online here .

How to Get Very Confused About Mathematics

I linked to this screed in my previous post (I am aware of it because a reader sent it to me). The focus of it is whether or not infinite sets "really exist." The author claims they do not. What he is asking here is an ontological question , about what entities really occupy our world and what ones are only imaginary. And that question may or may not interest someone. But it is completely irrelevant to mathematics! For mathematicians, the only relevant question about infinite sets is, "If we posit they exist, does that enable us to do better / more interesting / more fruitful mathematics?" And if positing them advances mathematics, why in the world should the mathematician have any concern over whether or not infinite sets "really" exist, whatever it would mean for them to do so?

Philosophy is irrelevant to mathematics, and vice-versa

Eli Maor notes that when mathematicians finally began to accept the idea of infinite series, they began to toss the notion of "infinity" around very casually, with very little philosophical rigor. Similarly, Leibniz certainly could not explain philosophically what he meant by an "infinitesimal." But so what? Employing them allowed him to develop calculus, one of the greatest inventions in the history of mathematics. Berkeley mocked the mathematicians occasional self-impotrance, but he had no intention of showing that their mathematical results were wrong. When he wrote, in The Analyst : "And what are these Fluxions? The Velocities of evanescent Increments? And what are these same evanescent Increments? They are neither finite Quantities nor Quantities infinitely small, nor yet nothing. May we not call them the ghosts of departed quantities?" His goal was not to dispute the usefulness of calculus, but to point out that mathematicians were putt

Algorithms, Lecture 2

Now online .

Testing the limits of my patience

To rehearse Zeno's "runner's paradox" briefly: A runner is faced with the task of covering the distance between the starting and finishing lines. We can simply designate that distance as one. (One what? Well, one "race distance.") To cover that distance of one, the runner must first cover one half the distance from the start to the finish. Having done that, he next must cover one half of the remaining distance, or one quarter of the original distance. Having done that, he next must cover one half the remaining distance again, or 1/8 of the original distance. So the runner must "complete" the infinite series 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16... before reaching the finish. In modern mathematical terms, we talk about "limits," and we find the limit of this infinite series, and see that it is equal to one. Does this solve Zeno's paradox? Clearly it does not: "A word of caution is necessary, however: the expression lim (n --> inf) 1/n =

The Night I Took the GREs

You did not know the GREs were sometimes held at night? Well, neither did I, until… Having reached adulthood sometime in my fifties, I am now a fairly calm and boring individual in the evenings. But in my wild youth, of which I am not proud, that was not the case. During that period, I scheduled myself to take the GREs. I didn't study: I figured I would take them once, see how I did, and only then see how much I needed to study. So I thought it was no big deal to head out to my favorite local bar the night before the test to play chess with my favorite bartender. But our game that night dragged on for quite some time, and through a fair number of pints. It was probably about 3 AM that I realized that I might be better off not sleeping at all than sleeping a little bit before the test. So we kept playing until about 6 AM, at which point I went home, lay down on the floor for about 10 minutes with my eyes closed, and then got up and took a shower. I got dressed and went straight off

Local maxima

Silas offers a good explanation for why dragonflies don't just "figure out" how to fly in the shade. I think it is on target... as far as it goes. My goal in this post and the previous one has not been to knock existing evolutionary explanations as incorrect. I am just pointing out that they leave a lot unexplained. (And we would expect as much in the average scientific theory.) For instance, wouldn't it seem a little easier for fireflies to make the transition from flying in sunlight to flying in shade and sunlight, than for creatures that don't fly and don't have wings to transition to creatures that do fly and do have wings ? It's as though your mechanic told you it was impossible to turn you plane that only flies in the daytime to one that can also fly at night, but definitely he could turn your car into a plane.

Murgh Methi comin' up!

I planted methi seeds last week, and my crop is coming along nicely:

What a Concert!

Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Paul McCartney all together on the same stage !

Solving procrastination problems

I always keep some book in Italian in the bathroom. The idea is that, if I don't bring anything else in, I will have to read some Italian at least once or twice a day. But of course, reading in Italian is still a lot more work for me than reading in English. So if anybody has left anything at all in English in the bathroom, I'm very likely to pick that up instead. ( Akrasia , you know.) But this week, I figured out how to solve this problem: I put a very dense book on statistics, which I really ought to be studying even more than Italian, in the bathroom. Now, I eagerly pick up the book in Italian as a way to avoid looking at the book on statistics!

Even Die-Hard Anti-Trumpkins Are Admitting Defeat

Josh Marshall tweets: "As we hurtle toward our Trumpist future, some of us can at least know we were in the resistance." Five steps of grief and loss: 1) He won't even get 20% of the GOP vote in any primary! (Denial) 2) OK, he's getting more than that, but once other candidates drop out, the remaining establishment candidates will easily defeat him! (Anger) 3) Hey, you "nice" Republicans, you'll come over and support Hillary, right? So that then he can't possibly win the general election! (Bargaining) 4) Gee, Hillary sure is a terrible campaigner, but at least she's still ahead, by a bit. (Depression) 5) OK, Trump has won, but at least I was in the resistance. (Acceptance)

Dragonflies and mosquitoes...

and the incomplete nature of evolutionary explanations. If you take walks in the country in the summer, you have almost certainly observed that you will get bitten by mosquitoes much more often in the shade than in the sunlight. Why? Well, the evolutionary explanation that I've heard (and it seems perfectly sound as far as it goes), is that a major predator of the mosquito is the dragonfly, and dragonflies only fly in the sun, so mosquitoes have evolved to fly in the shade in order to stay away from them. Excellent... But then why haven't dragonflies subsequently evolved to be able to fly in the shade, and go get the mosquitoes where they are? Again, I'm not saying that last question shows that the explanation on offer is wrong : I think it is most likely correct, as far as it goes. I am just noting that it leaves much unexplained.


Some guy named Sahil Kapur just tweeted, "Reality check: even if he wins every swing state in which is currently ahead, Trump will still lose the electoral college." The map accompanying the tweet shows the current (hypothetical) electoral college score as 272 - 266. Of course, this means Trump only needs to pick up a single state more to win. And given he has been flipping about two states a week for the past several weeks… So this is hilarious. A couple of months ago, the "Trump can't possibly win" choir was singing the refrain "Trump will lose in a landslide of historic proportions." Now, they are still giving us "reality checks" intended to support their original hypothesis, except the new song goes, "Well, he's still one state shy of victory, and states are big, right?"

Why Debate Internet Losers?

Well, Scott Adams explains why in the seond half of this post . Having eaten my antelope (see Adams' post linked above) I have yanked most of the previous content of this post and just can say it works nicely: I was on fire in the classroom today, and gave two of my best lectures ever. If you know how to do it, you can use someone's attempt at humiliating you to gain tremendous energy.

Why it is important to debunk the "Trump is a racist" stupidity

Donald Trump is a brash, crass, self promoter, willing to say very provocative things to get attention, and who has treated American politics as the stage for a reality TV show. But the idea that he is a racist, while a smart bit of campaign propaganda on the part of Hillary Clinton, is a stupid thing to actually believe. The many, many minority people who have worked with him over decades all testify to the fact that his businesses have been run in a colorblind manner, and that he gets along fine with people of all races. Now that it's clear that Clinton's propaganda ploy, while it was her best shot at winning, has failed, and that Trump will be the next president, it would be a very nice thing for people to drop this piece of stupidity. Why? Well, because if enough people come to believe this nonsense, massive rioting and inter-racial violence are the likely results of Trump's upcoming victory. And even if you wanted Clinton to win, I suggest you ought not to be plea

The Fat Lady Has Sung

Stick a fork in it. It's soup. Done and done. It's Miller time. The dishes are done, man! That's a wrap! The election is over, and President Trump will be taking office in January. Not only do we have Clinton's figurative ("basket of deplorables") and literal stumbles over the weekend, but now  National Review , the epicenter of #NeverTrump, has  run a piece telling conservatives, "Face facts: Trump is our best choice." We can expect 90% of the #NeverTrumpers to come around over the next couple of weeks, and sheepishly admit that by "never Trump" they actually meant, "almost never Trump, until it came right down to it." "Post-pivot Trump" remains calm and magnanimous, and wishes Clinton a speedy recovery. Because that is the character he always intended to play once "crazy Trump" locked up the nomination.

Through a Glass Darkly

Many people have a hard time accepting that, when it comes to politics, as in the rest of our practical lives, "we see now through a glass darkly." They wish for a "politics of perfection" (or "politics as the crow flies") that is simply not available in this world. For instance, David Gornoski suggests that , in politics, we should not "settle for hiring any person to represent you who leaves even one nonviolent person confined in a cell you yourself wouldn’t place there." With only a little extrapolation, we can see that this implies, "No one should accept any legal regime in which they disagree with so much as a single decision made by the legal authorities." But in a fallen world, no such legal regime is possible. Our choice is not between an imperfect legal regime and a perfect legal regime, but between an imperfect legal regime and no legal regime. Eric Voegelin lays out the reasons why : "The first of these reas

Algorithms, Lecture One

Here .

Affirmative Action?

As I have mentioned, I am teaching a graduate-level class in algorithms this fall. I was just looking over my class roster. Out of the 50 students in my class, 5 of them have European names. The other 45 all have South Asian or East Asian names. Let's say someone were to come to me and say, "Isn't this very unfair? The United States is 64% white: shouldn't roughly that number of slots be reserved for white students? Isn't it discrimination that only 10% of your class is white?" (I haven't seen the class yet, but I can say with fair confidence that at most 10% of the class is white: since many African-Americans have European last names, it could be less than that.) My response would be: "I think you are out of your mind: my students, most of whom are probably recent immigrants or foreign students coming from countries much poorer than the United States, have worked their butts off to get where they are. If white students want more of these slots,

The Death of the Library

I visited my new library last week... and there were almost no books. After talking to a librarian I know about this, I learned that many libraries are moving their books off site, to make room for… computers! So "library" now means "computer lab." I think this is an absolutely horrible development. You can't spend an hour browsing through books that are in a warehouse a couple of miles away from the library. And that browsing main lead to something you never would have found in a catalog search. (In second grade I ran across the Iliad that way, and fell in love with Greek myths. If it had been stored off site my whole life might have been different.) A true, related story: Wabulon (Walter Bloch), who used to blog here, is the son of two linguistic professors. He told me that he was in a linguistics book written by a colleague of his father, who re-told his father's story about how young Walter insisted upon grammatical regularity at a very early age

Apple, Always Improving Their Software!

I've been having serious problems with dictation on my desktop Mac: it works for about three days, after which it hangs. It would come up, and look like it was "listening," but it never put any words into any document or input field. I needed to reboot the whole system, and then it would work for three days again. So when Apple told me there was an OS upgrade available, I thought, "Let's hope they've fixed this dictation problem." In a sense, they did: after the upgrade, when I invoke dictation, it hangs instantly. It registers no input, the "Done" button does nothing, and of course, it is not an "application," so I can't kill it from the "ForceQuit Applications" dialogue box. But I do have a cute little icon of a nervous-looking microphone on my screen all the time!

I'm Regressing to Being Mean,

Mean to people who don't understand statistics but blab on about it all the time. For instance, Steve Sailer apparently does not comprehend "regression to the mean," and treats it as a cause of future events, rather than a tautology: "Still, Hillary is not a good candidate. Regression to the mean suggests she probably won’t have too many days worse than her Labor Day, but Hillary is clearly Trump’s best hope of being elected." So, once again: "regression to the mean" is a tautology . Tautologies can be useful, but they do not cause events in the real world. The truth of the statement "All bachelors are unmarried" does not mean that it is unlikely that John, a bachelor, will not get married next year! (It may be unlikely or not: the point is that this tautology has nothing to do with determining that likelihood.) Real world events "regress to the mean" because, if they don't, what was once the mean will cease to

Why Liberalism Implied the Growth of the State

The great Patrick Deneen shows that liberalism (not just modern left-liberalism, but classical liberalism too) always implied an ever-growing state .

Don't ask Ying for math help!

Asking an Asian student for math help is now a "microaggression."  Some thoughts: 1) First of all, they are best at math ! If you're just picking someone at random, you'd have to be nuts to ask anyone else. Unless, of course, the class has been running awhile, and you know who is doing well... 2) But what if the kid in your class getting the best test scores happens to be Asian? Can you still  not ask him or her for help? Do you have to wait a certain number of tests before you ask? 3) Most importantly, is it still okay to ask the Irish guy out for a few pints? Because it would really suck if that was off-limits now as well.

Argumentation ethics

Trying to come up with a deductive proof for the "correct" political system is pretty much like trying to come up with a deductive proof for where everyone should have dinner when they go out.

"The need for profit drives up costs"

I recently saw the claim that the government might be able to deliver health care more cheaply than the private sector because "the need for profits [in the private sector] drives up costs." And I have seen it a number of times in the past. Well, like Hayek, I am not adverse to the idea that modern Western societies are wealthy enough that we can afford to guarantee everyone some minimal level of health care, and that as a matter of equity we might want to do so. Probably the best way to do that is simply to issue health insurance vouchers to anyone making under $X0,000 per year. Of course this produces some market distortions, of course some people will spend the money foolishly on a scam insurance agency, etc.: but the world is not perfect, right? There aren't any perfect solutions. In short, I am not opposed to the goal of people who want to offer a base level of health care everyone in United States. But one's means should be suited one's goal, correct?

Crazy racist hangs out with the people he hates...

Receives gifts from them... And so Reuters cuts the feed:

Scott Adams, Philosophical Nitwit

Boberooni has implied that I got a man crush on Scott Adams. I will admit that I have learned a lot from Adams about persuasion. But I'm not in love, no no ! Adams, is, for instance, a terrible philosopher. Consider this gem : "As a companion to what I said on the Rubin Report, here is more scientific evidence that we are not rational beings. We are beings who rationalize after the fact." The problem with this position ought to be obvious... but it isn't, I guess, if you are a terrible philosopher. If "we," taken as a blanket statement, are not rational beings, then who cares what the "scientific evidence" says: it is just more rationalization after the fact done by a bunch of irrational beings who happen to (irrationally) have gained the title of scientist. Or are scientists magical aliens who are somehow immune to the laws that rule the rest of our "dumb human brains" for which "data and logic just don't exist"

A Measured Post About Measuring Value

Start here . You can work backwards from that post to earlier ones in the conversation, if you would like to do so. What to make of all this? First of all, philosophically speaking , Mises is correct: acts of valuation are not measuring anything. If I part with $40 for a steak dinner, I have not "measured" the value of the dollars or the dinner. I have made a judgment that I prefer the dinner to the $40, but a judgment is not a measurement. (I can of course, make judgments about measurements: "I think Bill is twice as tall as Joe." But that is not a measurement itself either.) In fact, I think we can go further, and declare we have no particular reason to endorse Mises' claim that acts of choice place "all values on a single scale." Consider Socrates, sitting in his cell awaiting death, with the opportunity to escape before him. Mises' claim seems to imply that if Socrates had merely been offered enough olive oil and retsina, he would h