Showing posts from 2018

“Robot” is a nonsense category

The Communications of the ACM recently ran an article titled, “How can we trust a robot?”

Thinking about the article led me to realize that the category "robot" is itself a piece of nonsense, drawn from science fiction, and having no basis in computer science.

We exist in a world in which computer programs control many real world outcomes. Often, those programs direct the operation of physical peripherals to achieve those outcomes. A payroll program that prints checks directs the operations of a printer. Is it therefore a "robot"? Should we ask the question, “How can we trust a payroll program?”

Well, of course we should, but not because it is some special entity called a "robot," but because this program will determine how much employees get paid, and if the program contains bugs, they will get paid the wrong amount. And whether we should trust it depends not on whether it conforms to "social norms," as the ACM article contends of "robots,…

No one plays against “odds”

Sports writers have become so enamored of "statistics" that they have come to imagine that teams and individuals are actually engaged in contests with statistical constructs, rather than with other teams.

For instance, when UMBC recently beat number one seed Virginia in the NCAA Men's Tournament, one sports site wrote that UMBC's victory “proved even the longest of odds aren't totally insurmountable.”

But David did not defat "odds": he defeated Goliath. And UMBC did not "surmount" any "odds": they beat the Virginia basketball team. 

That Virginia team was stocked with players stronger and more athletic than those on UMBC. And no doubt it is rare for a team physically outmatched, like UMBC, to beat their opponent.

But UMBC was not playing against, say, 125-to-1 (or whatever other odds Las Vegas, etc., had set for the game). They were playing against the concrete players on Virginia. And what they beat was not 125-to-1, but those particu…

Dear Lord,

We beseech thee,In thy infinite goodness,
Restore our prayer app to its proper working: It is through the app programmer’s fault, His own fault, His own most grevious fault, That these infernal bugs did enter the app; But through thy divine grace, And the gift of thy new Python debugger, It may come again to praise you, Without crashing, In a blessed instantiation: As it was in the loop initialization, Is in the loop invariant, And shall be at the loop termination, Amen

He did it his way...

"The concept of infinite God, the the divinity of the soul, of the link between the affairs of man and God, the concepts of moral good and evil, are concepts involved in the distant history of man's life that is hidden from our eyes, and those concepts without which life and I myself would not be, and rejecting all this labor of mankind, I wanted to do everything by myself, alone, anew, and in my own way." -- Leo Tolstoy, Confession

Elevating your English

I was once in a conversation in the UK that turned, believe it or not, on the differences between American and British English. One of my English friends remarked that it was so strange that we would refer to the apparatus in tall buildings as an “elevator“, when after all, it goes both up and down.

I looked at him with my head slightly cocked to one side. “And what do you call them over here?”
He thought for a second, and then responded, “Oh yeah…”
I think the reason for the bias toward the upside is that is what struck the first users of lifts as remarkable: getting something to plunge rapidly downward from a high floor of a building had always been fairly easy. It was lifting things up that hit people as the true achievement.

Now Emu86 has a nice website explaining it..

as well.

Or, at least we've got a start on one. Why not join in and add more!

That cute Docker whale

I was thinking how nice and friendly he looked, until I noticed...

Docker had scooped out his brain, and was using the cavity to carry crates!
He's not smiling because he's happy: he's smiling because he's been lobotomized!

How Did Patriarchy Get Started?

The most recent "woke" opinion holds that all differences between men and women are merely "social constructs," and, in particular, the fact that we find more men than women in leadership roles is a result of the social construct called "patriarchy."

So, once upon a time, men and women were completely equal in all respects. And then... well, that's my puzzle: just how is it that, from this position of complete equality, men managed to place themselves in charge?

A "woke" person might answer, "Well, they tricked women!" But that would imply that men were better at trickery (and its detection) than were women. Which violates the fundamental woke premise that men and women are completely equal in all respects.

The answer "Because men were physically stronger," again, completely invalidates that fundamental woke premise.

So, "woke people," exactly how did patriarchy come to be?

The Genius of G.K. Chesterton

These are perhaps the greatest three sentences ever written on modern politics:
"The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected."

Agile and the Division of Labor: Your Comments Sought

A new paper I am working on for Cutter Business Technology Journal. Comments welcomed! Even from rob!

Hey, Whose Blog Is This?

I just came across it, and it doesn't look very active!

Well, since I was able to hack in and post, let me point you to this nice DevOps site that is under construction.

The Golden Age of the Barbarians

James C. Scott closes Against the Grain with a chapter entitled "The Golden Age of the Barbarians." In it, he notes how geographically insignificant was the area controlled by states, up until perhaps 1600 CE. For millennia after the rise of the first states, the vast majority of the globe's population lived outside of states. But among those non-state peoples, a few took on special status as "barbarians": they were the non-state people at the periphery of a state. They were the "dark twin" of the "civilized" people who lived within states, and their lives and their economies were deeply intertwined with those of their state-dwelling counterparts.

At times, they interacted with their neighbor states simply by raiding. But this risked destroying the state which was producing the agricultural surplus that was the target of their raids. More often, they sought to achieve a more stable arrangement: in return for agreeing to abjure raiding, they…

Speaking of Codswallop

Someone just brought this ball of dung to my attention.

A quote:

"Hoffman has spent the past three decades studying perception, artificial intelligence, evolutionary game theory and the brain, and his conclusion is a dramatic one: The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality."

Well then, you know what, Dr. Hoffman? All of those bones that are said to be "evidence" for evolution? They're probably not bones at all, but maybe crayons, or roller skates, or jellyfish! That thing you think is a "brain"? Maybe it's really just a pumpkin, or maybe it doesn't even exist! I bet your "studies" of perception were based on measurements: well, your own theory says your perception of those measurements was "nothing like reality": you'd better throw them all out.

It's hard to figure out if people putting out such rubbish are so stupid they can't see that their own theory makes nonsense of the idea of e…

The "collapse" of early states

James C. Scott disputes the usual formulation of the disappearance of early states as "collapses." He writes "it is... essential to emphasize what such events do not necessarily mean. They do not necessarily mean a decline in regional population. They do not necessarily mean a decline in human health, well-being, or nutrition, and, as we shall see, may represent an improvement. Finally, a 'collapse' at the center is less likely to mean the dissolution of a culture than its reformulation and decentralization." (p. 186)

Why, then, the frequent narrative of collapses? Scott claims it is because "What in fact were lost were the beloved objects of classical archaeology: the concentrated ruins of the relatively rare centralized kingdoms, along with their written record and luxuries" (pp. 186-187).

The State and Slavery

"As with sedentism and the domestication of grain that also predated state formation, the early state elaborated and scaled up the institution of slavery as an essential means to maximize its productive population and the surplus it could appropriate." -- James C. Scott, Against the Grain, p. 155

Scott present a number of facts highlighting the importance of slaves in early states:
"the most valuable cargo of Malay traders in insular Southeast Asia were, until the late nineteenth century, slaves" (p. 156)."Slaves represented a clear majority -- perhaps as much as two-thirds -- of Athenian society" (p. 156)."Imperial Rome... turned much of the Mediterranean basin into a massive slave emporium... By one estimate, the Gallic Wars yielded nearly a million new slaves..." (pp. 156-157). But note: slavery pre-existed the state.

Early states and coerced labor

"Each of the earliest states deployed its own unique mix of coerced labor, as we shall see, but it required a delicate balance between maximizing the state surplus on the one hand and the risk of provoking the mass flight of subjects on the other, especially when there was an open frontier." -- James C. Scott, Against the Grain, pp. 152-153

Early statecraft

"The imperative of collecting people, settling them close to the core of power, holding them there, and having them produce a surplus in excess of their own needs animates much of early statecraft... The means by which a population is assembled and then made to produce a surplus... is less important... than the fact that it does produce a surplus available to non-producing elites." -- James C. Scott, Against the Grain, p. 151

There are two problems I see in this passage:

1) The "needs" of the people are regarded as a fixed amount of goods, and they have to be "made" to produce more. Now, undoubtedly taxes and other coercive measures might make people produce more than they otherwise would, but also they might have already been producing a "surplus" that attracted state formation in the first place. My point here is simply that there is no obvious criteria for what constitutes a surplus, other than "what the state can take," which, of …

Karl Popper Was All Wet

Induction is easy! Just place your scientific theory on one of these machines, and out will pop "Verified" or "Unverified"!

Kaizen and Sorting Yourself Out

For those who are feeling lost and overwhelmed, Jordan Peterson has the psychotherapeutic schtick, "sort yourself out." By this he means pay attention to where you can improve, and then improve it. Soon you'll be able to do things that you never imagined you could do.

Never once does Peterson mention Kaizen or DevOps. But isn't it pretty much the same thing?

Are farmers "more advanced" than hunter-gatherers?

We often view the hunter-gatherer lifestyle as "primitive," and see the adoption of farming as an "advance" over it. But James C. Scott notes that this conclusion is not obvious if we look at the cognitive skills necessary to cope in those different ways of life:

"It is no exaggeration to say that hunting and foraging are, in terms of complexity, as different from cereal-grain farming as cereal-grain farming is, in turn, removed from repetitive work on a modern assembly line. Each step represents a substantial narrowing of focus and a simplification of tasks." (Against the Grain, p. 90)

In fact, hunter-gatherers had the whole toolkit of early agriculturalists (since they were harvesting wild grains), plus tools for collecting, trapping, hunting, building weirs, netting, and more.

Why states don't arise in wetlands

James C. Scott notes that states did not arise in wetland regions, and that is no accident:

"wetland societies... were, and remained, environmentally resistant to centralization and control from above. They were based on what are now called 'common property resources' -- free-living plants, animals and aquatic creatures to which the entire community had access. There was no single dominant resource that could be monopolized or controlled from the center, let alone easily taxed... A state -- even a small protostate -- requires a subsistence environment that is far simpler that the wetland ecologies we have examined." (Against the Grain, p. 57)

Productivity is a flow, not a stock

I just noticed that it is February, and I already can see I will publish at least seven book reviews this year, already tying my best year so far (2016). If I keep my pace up, I should be able to knock off between 15 and 20. This is happening as I am limiting the number of book reviews I take on.

And I did this following the kanban idea of limiting work-in-progress, to create flow and avoid waste. I realized that the economic distinction between stocks and flows in economics can clarify what is going on here.

Too many people, including me a year ago, confuse having a large stock of jobs in progress with productivity. In this view, to be productive is to be busy. If I was juggling six book reviews, "Boy," I thought, "I sure am productive!"

But productivity is a flow, not a stock! What matters is not how many things you are up to, but how many finished products* are coming out of your "workstation." And perhaps paradoxically, we can often increase our flow

Native American global warming?

In terms of long-term impact on the environment, James C. Scott notes that the harnessing of fire and its use over the last 400,000 to alter the landscape might "overwhelm crop and livestock domestication" (p. 38). In fact, Native Americans were such prolifigate users of fire that its "volume in North America was such that when it stopped abruptly, due to the devastating epidemic that came with the Europeans, the newly unchecked growth of forest created the illusion among white settlers that North America was a virtually untouched, primeval forest" (Against the Grain, p. 39). In fact, the cessation of the CO2 output from such burning may have caused the Little Ice Age!

Now That's Some Global Warming for Ya

"Then, around 9,600 BCE, the cold snap broke and it became warmer and wetter again -- and fast. The average temperature may have increased as much as seven degrees Celsius within a single decade." (James. C. Scott, Against the Grain, p. 43)

The high end of present global warming predictions seems to be around four or five degrees Celsius in a century: that pales compared to seven degrees in a decade!

Scott on the Fragility of Early States

"Extrinsic causes -- say, drought or climate change... -- may in fact be more important overall in state collapse, but intrinsic causes tell us more about the self-limiting aspects of early states. To this end, I speculate on three fault lines that are by-products of state formation itself. The first are the disease effects of the unprecedented concentrations of crops, people, and livestock together with their attendant parasites and pathogens... More insidious are two ecological effects of urbanism and intensive irrigated agriculture. The former resulted in steady deforestation of the upstream watershed of riverine states and subsequent siltation and floods. The latter resulted in well-documented salinization of the soil, lower yields, and eventual abandonment of arable land." (Against the Grain, p. 31)

This is my bread and butter

I am now reviewing Against the Grain by James C. Scott. The first thing I wish to note, relative to this review (but which won't actually make it into the review itself): some twerp named William Buckner decided to slander Scott on the website Quillette, where he wrote.

"It’s not often that you see a 50-year-old paper repeatedly referenced in mainstream publications, but you can find mentions of Lee’s work pretty much everywhere today. In the Guardian, the New York Times, the London Review of Books, the Financial Times, and Salon, among others. Much of this attention has to do with two recently published books, Against the Grain by James C. Scott and Affluence without Abundance by James Suzman, both of which are informed by Lee and Sahlins’s conception of hunter-gatherer affluence."

OK, the first significant thing here is that Buckner cites a bunch of reviews of Scott and Suzman that happen to cite Lee and Sahlin, but he never actually cites Scott or Suzman. He simpl…

Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World

My review be done!

Philosophy of Science in Practice

My review is online at Computing Reviews. (ACM membership required.)

Berkeley's understanding of Christian belief

One of the most fascinating aspects of Pearce's work is how he unravels Berkeley's view of the truth of Christianity. Berkeley holds that both in ordinary and scientific language, "assent without ideas is a widespread phenomenon" (152). We assent to language that does not correspond to any idea when such assent enables to get on better in the world, e.g., we use the languages of "forces", even though we have no idea corresponding to "a force", because by doing so we are better able to predict the motion of objects in space. Similarly, to say, for instance, that one "believes" in the doctrine of the trinity is to assent to having one's life shaped by such a notion, and the "truth" of such language consists in the fact that those who truly assent to have their lives shaped by it thereby lead better lives. Or, as Pearce puts it regarding another belief, "The doctrine of the divinity of Christ produces a practical, interp…

Rationalism in software engineering

So, I've now come full circle, back to software engineering, after detouring through studying rationalism in economics, politics, philosophy and urban planning. And I have realized that long ago I had recognized the rationalist mistake in my own field of software engineering. It was present in the words of the critics of UNIX for not being designed according to some grand, theoretical blueprint, and instead being "hacked" together to fit the needs of the Bell Labs researchers. But even more so, it was present in the waterfall modelers and software managers requiring "complete specifications" before any coding starts.

One goal of this effort was to be able to hire really dumb programmers, whom one could pay very little. As T.S. Eliot might have put it, "They were dreaming of systems so perfect that no one had to be intelligent." But the dream is impossible to achieve: it was like the Soviet Union's five-year plans that would envision all economic …

Berkeley and Peirce

Interestingly, Berkeley anticipated C.S. Peirce's division of signs into indices, icons, and symbols, as he contended that one idea can suggest another "by likeness [icon], by necessary connexion [index]... or by arbitrary convention [symbol]." (The Theory of Vision Vindicated)

(The correspondence is not exact, however, since Berkeley includes a fourth category he calls "geometrical inference".)

God's language

Kenneth Pearce (Language and the Structure of Berkeley's World) argues that, for Berkeley, "bodies" are linguistic constructions built up from our phenomenal experience, and that causal talk, in everyday life and in physics, is an extension of that sort of operation. But Berkeley does not therefore dismiss such talk. The reason is twofold:
First of all, to model things this way is useful: it helps us "in the pursuit of happiness, which is the ultimate end and design... that sets rational agents at work" (204).But these ideas are also true, in an important sense: they reflect the underlying reality of "the regular ordering of ideas instituted by God, i.e., the linguistic or grammatical structure of the divine language of nature. Our talk about bodies aims to capture the lexicon of this language, and our talk about causes, laws, and forces aims to capture its syntax" (204).

How do you want to get there?

We jumped in a cab in front of our apartment. We told the driver, "Newark Airport, please."

He asked, "How do you want to get there?"

I answered, “By cab.”

Dancing intelligently

Is not to do two things: first, to have an “idea“ about dancing, and then secondly to execute that idea.

Instead, it is doing one thing, namely dancing, in an intelligent manner.

(In this post I am, of course, simply practicing thinking as Gilbert Ryle does.)


In a segment from BBC's program The Hunt, I learned of a quite amazing animal: portia, a spider-hunting spider.

In the clip, you can see a portia approach another spider, twice her size, and then, stop and carefully think about the best approach route to take her prey. She finally picks a route that will take many, many minutes to complete, and which involves her being out of sight of the prey for a great deal of the route. And faced with unfamiliar spiders, they improvise new tactics. Furthermore, they are social, and recognize other individuals of their species.

Scientism defined

"all reality that did not bend or reveal itself through the orthodox method [of the physical sciences] was a priori defined as subjective fancy." -- Colin Cordner, "Eric Voegelin and Michael Polanyi on Science and Philosophy," forthcoming in Tradition Versus Rationalism.

That's a nice, concise definition or you!

My review of Why Liberalism Failed...

is online at The American Conservative.

Canadian Goose Arctic Program

I was walking in NYC one day this fall when I was surprised to see several people nearby, wearing identical jackets, with patches claiming that they were participants in the "Canadian Goose Arctic Program." Maybe the Canadian goose was in trouble, despite its ubiquitous presence on golf courses?

Then I saw a few more participants, and then a few more. Soon I was seeing them everywhere. Apparently, there were hundreds of participants in this program, and they had all descended on New York City!

But when I asked my friend about this, he told me, "It's not a program, it's a brand."

"What?! Why would someone buy a jacket carrying such an idiotic patch, you know, given they aren't in any such program?"

"Not only do they buy them," my friend explained, "they pay $400 a jacket for the privilege of wearing the idiotic patch."

All just so one can be sure one is "fashionable"!

Nagios, oh Nagios!

Typical open source install mess: first, their instructions are wrong, and I had to spend ten minutes researching why one of the commands they told me to run was failing.

But once it ran, it then spent 20 minutes seemingly installing half of the open source software in the world. Folks, having this many dependencies just about guarantees future messes down the road: how in the world are the dozens of packages I just installed all going to be kept in sync?

And what about just coming as a Docker image?

Financial “independence“

From a woman born in the 60s: “Women of my generation were told the most important thing was to be financially independent, so we weren't relying on a man. But almost none of us became financially independent: instead, we just came to rely on a corporation instead of a man to support us."

Two-Population Social Cycle Theories

has been published online in Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology.

The Stupidity of "Regulating" Banks to Prevent Meltdowns

"The move took place mostly because of the overbureaucratization of the system as paper shufflers (who think work is mostly about paper shuffling) overburdened the banks with rules -- but somehow, in the thousands of pages of additional regulations, they avoided considering skin in the game." -- Nassim Taleb, Skin in the Game, p. 13