Utopianism, Scientism and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

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

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

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

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

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

Reality Redefined

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

No, reality is whatever we define it to be.

Login (or Software Design) Failed

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

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

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

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

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

The World of the (1939) Future

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

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

Dumb Enemies

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

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

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

Another software engineering glitch in Cormen et al.

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

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

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

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

Seriously guys, WTH?

The Recurrence Relation of Pascal's Triangle

Start here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pascal's Triangle

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

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

100            010           001

And so on.

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

The Axiomatic Formulation of Probability

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

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

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

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

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

Liberalism: A Neutral Arbiter?

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

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

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

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

Campaigns (Wisely) Ignore Reason

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

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

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