Thursday, December 31, 2015

Bourgeois Society

"To say that the market economy belongs to a basically bourgeois total order implies that it presupposes a society which is the opposite of proletarianized society, in the wide and pregnant sense which it is my continual endeavor to explain, and also the opposite of mass society as discussed in the preceding chapter. Independence, ownership, individual reserves, saving, the sense of responsibility, rational planning of one's own life -- all that is alien, if not repulsive, to proletarianized mass society." -- Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy, p. 99

Monday, December 28, 2015

Why Trump Is Popular

A very good analysis from David Frum, here.

I'd add that it's not so much his particular policies, as the fact he ticks off the "right" people.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Linear Programming Bleg

I am working on learning how to do linear programming in Excel; I would like to do this for my production possibility frontier model. Is there anyone out there who wouldn't mind mentoring me a little on this?

Some Macro Models

In Excel, posted to GitHub. Right now I have:
  • A real growth vs. nominal growth vs. inflation spreadsheet
  • A Keynesian Cross spreadsheet; and
  • A Production Possibility Frontier spreadsheet.
All of them are built on a minimal data entry paradigm; for instance, for the Keynesian Cross, you only need enter autonomous consumption, marginal propensity to consume, and intended investment, and the whole kit and caboodle recalculates from there. For the PPF, you just enter a maximum number of units, and everything recalculates: great for showing a collapsing or expanding PPF.

Models are not about "essentials"...

They are abstractions that highlight an aspect of the thing being modeled.

That is why I deny that, by making a model of a recession in which "recessions are not about output and employment and saving and investment and borrowing and lending and interest rates and time and uncertainty... the only essential things are a decline in monetary exchange caused by an excess demand for the medium of exchange," Nick Rowe has shown that in real recessions, those are the only essential things.

For instance, what about the proposition that "The Ptolemaic model of the solar system proves that it is not about rock-and-ice-and-gas planets orbiting a giant plasma orb: The only essential thing is pure circular movement"?

But perhaps the problem there is that that is not a good model. So let's say we get a better one: Newton's. Now we have a planet as a point mass, orbiting the Sun, another point mass. Is this the "essence" of the solar system? That doesn't seem right at all: these point masses aren't the essence of planets and the Sun. They are just an abstraction of one aspect of these bodies, among countless others they possess. And for different problems, a model based on the idea of point masses would be disastrously misleading: You don't want to try to land your spacecraft on Mars based on modeling it as a point mass, nor would humans survive long if the Earth were one!

In particular, one may question whether, in Rowe's model which purports to show that recessions are all about "an excess demand for the medium of exchange," there is really a medium of exchange at all. Consider this quote from Mises:

"Thus the 'money' of this system is not a medium of exchange; it is not money at all; it is merely a numéraie, an ethereal and undetermined unit of accounting of that vague and indefinable character which the fancy of some economists and the errors of many laymen mistakenly have attributcd to money. The interposition of these numerical expressions between seller and buyer does not affect the essence of the sales..." -- Human Action

Let us look at what role "mangoes" play in the model economy Rowe has created. In his barter economy, he makes mangoes the "numéraie," and shows how the "price" of apples and bananas in terms of mangoes makes no difference to what trades take place at all. But in what sense, then, are these "prices" at all? What possible actors would choose to evaluate their trades in terms of a "price" that made no difference to what they traded? If we want to look at "essences," I would suggest that the "essential" feature of any price is that it enables us to evaluate whether or not some exchange is worthwhile.

Rowe then proceeds to a model where apples are not traded directly for bananas, but each are traded for mangoes. Why don't actors simply trade apples directly for bananas in this economy? He says:

"This means there is a market in which mangoes are traded for apples (the 'apple market'), and a market in which mangoes are traded for bananas (the 'banana market'), but no market in which apples are traded for bananas directly. The reason is that mangoes are portable, but apples and bananas must be eaten directly off the tree, or they taste bad, and agents are anonymous so can't swap IOUs for apples or bananas. So the only way agents can trade apples and bananas is by using mangoes as the medium of exchange."

Rowe recognizes that, even in the case where apples and bananas can only be eaten directly from their trees, IOUs could suffice to permit exchange: each actor could signal, through whatever IOU mechanism they employ, "You can go eat 100 of my apples, if I can go eat 100 of your bananas." And he tries to foreclose this possibility by positing that "agents are anonymous." But what in the world can that mean? I just go and dump 10 mangoes out on the beach, and trust that somehow ten bananas will appear in exchange? No, if transacting agents are anonymous to each other, then they must have some exchange through which they are transacting, and that exchange must know the identity of each transacting agent. If I offer ten mangoes for ten bananas, then for me to have any faith that I simply haven't lost my mangoes, someone or something (e.g., a computer) must know exactly who has accepted my offer, and have some way to ensure that non-anonymous agent actually delivers. In which case, we could simply transact through IOUs, and skip the mangoes.

Finally, let us assume that, for some unknown reason, mangoes would actually serve as the medium of exchange in Rowe's model. A recession sets in when people suddenly desire to hold more mangoes than they previously had held, raising P above 1. But what could possibly cause such a price change except increased uncertainty about the future? Indeed, what could ever create the need for a medium of exchange at all, except uncertainty about the future?

Rowe's model is interesting, and I am glad he has forwarded it. But it does not prove what he thinks it proves.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Rational eating

I encountered an article recently -- I am not going to bother even looking it up and linking to it, because similar sentiments are a dime a dozen -- arguing that the American way of using a fork while eating is "inefficient," and thus should be replaced by a more European style.

But... what does "efficiency" have to do with table manners? If our goal, when sitting down at the table, was to simply get food as "efficiently" as possible into our mouths, we would just plunge our face down into our dish, the same way our dogs eat.

Civilized eating is precisely about checking our tendency to eat like an animal, and constraining our appetite according to cultural rules as to how we may eat. To evaluate our table manners based on whether the American way of eating with a fork is more or less "efficient" than eating with chopsticks, or one's fingers, is to completely misconstrue what table manners are about: they exist to reduce our "efficiency" in gobbling down our food, to turn our eating experience from that of a hungry animal gulping down whatever it can as fast as it can, to that of a civilized being constraining its eating according to social rules.

"You're so behind the times!"

Intellectually, the above is the equivalent of "You think differently than we do in my province!"

"The times" is just the province of the ages that we happen to live in.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Vanishing comments

All Blogger comments get emailed to me... and always wind up in my spam folder.

So I just go through the Blogger interface and approve all those that are not spam.

Except now I was looking in my mail spam folder, and I see comments in there that I never saw in Blogger! I don't know how this could happen, but it means some comments aren't appearing at all, and I have no idea why.

Especially, I saw Kevin Quinn and Prateek in my spam mail folder, but I can't find their comments anywhere in Blogger.

My apologies.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Incoherence of "Non-Discrimination" as a Foundational Principle

'Things are made more complex still by the inclusion, in all European provisions, of “non-discrimination” as a human right. When offering a benefit, a contract of employment, a place in a college, or a bed in a hospital, you are commanded not to discriminate on grounds of…there then follows a list derived from the victims of recent history: race, ethnic group, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and whatever is next to be discovered. But all coherent societies are based on discrimination: A society is an “in-group,” however large and however hospitable to newcomers.' -- Roger Scruton

Liberals All


"What’s a liberal? Someone who 'respects . . . individual existence' so much that he 'attempt[s] to leave as much moral and political space around every human person as is compatible with the demands of social life.' Liberalism so understood is 'the official ideology of the Western world.' It is the ideology of 'the free, self-fulfilling individual,' which is equally at the foundation of the thought of Milton Friedman and Karl Marx. For the libertarian and the Marxist alike, utopia, when it arrives, will be marked by perfectly individualistic spontaneity or the immediate and unobsessive gratification of personal preferences without authoritative guidance from social or relational structures, without the limitations that used to be associated with birth, personal love, and death."

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Devil

Satan continually tempts me into cleverness as a substitute for wisdom. To cover his tracks, he whispers in my ear that the preceding sentence is just a metaphor.

Paradise waits

"These people would have us believe that everything is as it should be and that paradise is just around the corner: The paradise of a society whose idea of bliss is leisure, gadgets, and continuous fast displacement on concrete highways." -- Wilhelm Röpke, A Humane Economy, p. 37

What a pageant!

A friend of mine remarked on Facebook, about Miss Universe: "Holding a pageant to rank the worth of human beings in 2015: what a funny idea!"

I think he has actually offered a great characterization of progressive politics: A pageant to rank the worth of human beings. Whoever displays the most concern and guilt wins!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Pas-ta Facts on the Left-Hand Side

Here: "[Pasta] was originally a failed Italian attempt to copy Chinese noodles..."

Sigh. Noah Smith apparently thinks "history" means whatever rumors he heard about the past when he was a kid. Because "Jeffrey Steingarten asserts that Arabs introduced pasta in the Emirate of Sicily in the ninth century, mentioning also that traces of pasta have been found in ancient Greece and that Jane Grigson believed the Marco Polo story to have originated in the 1920s or 30s in an advertisement for a Canadian spaghetti company."

So, something originating as a Canadian spaghetti ad is now a "fact" of the past... a.

As soon as someone calls something "reactionary"...

I stop listening:

"He adamantly refused to replace the primordial human distinction between good and evil with the pernicious ideological distinction between Progress and Reaction."

From a nice article here.

The "Problem" of Evil, II

"But I can easily imagine a world without evil! It would be perfect."

"No, it has a very grave defect: it is imaginary. No one can live and nothing can exist in an imaginary world!"

A world with only good and no evil may be like a world with only up and no down: purely impossible.

But until you can make your own universe, it is not appropriate to criticize someone else's!

Friday, December 18, 2015

The "Problem" of Evil

I don't really think there is such a problem. But I understand how worries about such a possible problem arise. And the best answer to those worries was written long ago:

Then the LORD answered Job out of the storm and said:

Who is this who darkens counsel
with words of ignorance?
Gird up your loins now, like a man;
I will question you, and you tell me the answers!
Where were you when I founded the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its size? Surely you know?
Who stretched out the measuring line for it?
Into what were its pedestals sunk,
and who laid its cornerstone,
While the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
Who shut within doors the sea,
when it burst forth from the womb,
When I made the clouds its garment
and thick darkness its swaddling bands?
When I set limits for it
and fastened the bar of its door,
And said: Thus far shall you come but no farther,
and here shall your proud waves stop?
Have you ever in your lifetime commanded the morning
and shown the dawn its place
For taking hold of the ends of the earth,
till the wicked are shaken from it?

In other words, are you able to create a better universe without what you see as this one's "problems"?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Threat of "All White" Elite Colleges

A progressive friend recently wrote me and said, "If affirmative action is ended, America's elite colleges will again be all white."

First of all, let me note that I am fine with "limited" affirmative action: if there is basically a tie between two students seeking admission to a college, I think it is OK to use minority status to break the tie.

But what I really want to remark upon is the amazing claim that only affirmative action prevents America's elite universities from being "all white." UC Berkeley is a pretty elite place, and affirmative action is illegal in the California. Here are its most recent enrollment statistics.

Say what?! Whites make up only 24.3% of the admitted students! Chinese students are at 19.5%, nearly the same level as whites, and this despite the fact the whites outnumber Chinese in California by about 22 to 1. South Asians are another 9% of the admissions: over a third of the number of white admittees, despite whites outnumbering South Asians in the state by roughly 40 to 1. The numbers are similarly disproportianate for other Asian groups, for instance, Koreans are around 5% of admittees, despite being only about 1/80 of California's population.

As a "person of paleness," my reaction to these figures is, "Bully for you, Chinese and Indian and Korean students! And white students: you don't have any 'right' to be admitted as 40% (the white portion of the population of California) of UC Berkeley's students: You want to get in? Study harder!"

All that being said, blacks in the U.S. have, of course, had a unique history of being discriminated against. And I think it is fine to try to address this fact. But let's do it by devoting resources to getting more black students ready for elite universities, not by admitting those who aren't ready.

Atheism: An Evolutionary Disaster


“It is a great irony but evolution appears to discriminate against atheists and favour those with religious beliefs,” said Michael Blume, a researcher at the University of Jena in Germany who carried out the study. “Most societies or communities that have espoused atheistic beliefs have not survived more than a century.”

An Easy Fix for All Crimes!

I just saw a prominent libertarian posting on Facebook: "We can easily fix the problem of illegal immigrants by abolishing borders."

Yes, and we can "fix" the problem of trespassing by abolishing property lines. And we can "fix" the problem of theft by abolishing all property rights.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Some terrible arguments for raising the minimum wage...

Are on offer here.

First, try this on for size:
Those against raising the minimum wage often argue that it will hurt young people the most and that they “need the experience” of working at the minimum wage. But notice that the youth unemployment rate in Germany is 7.8 percent, and in Switzerland, it is 8.5 percent. In contrast, youth unemployment is 15.5 percent in the U.S., even though the U.S.’s minimum wage (using Purchasing Power Parities exchange rates) is below that of these Germany’s and Switzerland’s $10 and $9.20 an hour respectively. In other words, both have higher minimum wages, but much lower youth unemployment rates. Their overall unemployment rate is also lower: 4.5 percent and 3.4 percent, respectively. The minimum wage makes no difference on unemployment.
Now, if we want to be naive empiricists, we'd have to say that Komlos is clearly wrong. A higher minimum wage makes a big difference in unemployment: it makes it much lower! But Komlos doesn't say that. Why? Well, he would admit, there are other factors affecting unemployment besides the minimum wage. But once one admits that, the game is over, as the minimum wage opponent can claim that absent those very same factors  Komlos is acknowledging, unemployment would be much higher in Germany and Switzerland than in the United States.

The next baddie:
Another luminary contending for the spotlight, the Florida whippersnapper Marco Rubio, currently the third runner up, had the brilliant hypothesis that, “If you raise the minimum wage, you’re going to make people more expensive than a machine.” Cashiers are already being replaced by self-checkout machines, but people still need a living wage, Marco!
Actually, I don't really see anything being worth called an "argument" here at all: just some flippant mockery of Rubio. How is the fact that low-wage workers are already being replaced by machines supposed to undermine, rather than support, Rubio's argument?! And how is the fact that people "need" a living wage supposed to prevent their replacement by an automated burger flipper if that living wage is set too high?

I am all for helping poor Americans. But minimum wages are an attempt to do so on the cheap (no additional tax dollars needed), and are a crude, blunt attempt at that.

Instead, let's ensure that every American can have a decent life whether they have a salary or not, and then let employers and employees negotiate any wage agreements that suit both.

The scientists who ignored Miller's evidence for the ether were not just correct in retrospect...

they were correct at that time.

That is the point Michael Polanyi (and I following him) are making about Miller's experiments. To note that they were correct in retrospect presents no evidence for determining good scientific practice. Consider someone who in 1700 believed that there were planets beyond Saturn because in an opium trance he had a vision of some outer planets. Maybe this was a "true vision," or maybe not, but in any case, it was not a good scientific reason for holding the proposition. And that is not because it is a vision -- we will see that visions are what inspire great scientists -- but because it is not a vision offering a rational, scientific explanation of previously unexplained phenomena. And thus the fact that in retrospect, that person turned out to be correct says nothing about how scientists ought to proceed in practice.

The scientists who were presented with Miller's evidence in 1926 did not have the luxury of saying, "Well, let's wait until 2015 and see what the evidence says then." They had to make a decision about their research agenda in 1926, not in 2015: Were they going to continue searching for the ether, or were they going to assume that relativity is true? Polanyi's point is that they made the call based on the fact that relativity was offering a higher-level rational vision of the universe than they had before relativity, an explanation of phenomena that encompassed items that hitherto had just been "brute facts": much the same reasons that Galileo and Kepler committed to heliocentrism well before all contrary evidence was explained away. And these were the right calls at the time, whatever transpired later.

Great scientists are inspired by visions that reveal a more rational ordering of the universe than had previously been suspected. Those visions are not infallible -- e.g., see Kepler on the Platonic solids* -- and must ultimately be accepted or rejected based on evidence. But the beauty of the vision is sufficient scientific reason to follow it, and to ignore at least some contrary evidence for at least some period of time.

* Kepler's model of the solar system as based on Platonic solids:

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The American View of the Irish, Circa 1870

Lest one think it was only in England we saw images like this, here is one from America, from a popular weekly:

The Difference Between Mises and Röpke

During the Second World War the city of Geneva had allocated garden plots along the line of the vanished city walls to citizens wishing to grow their own vegetables in a time of food shortages. This use of public land turned out to be popular; the city continued the allocation of plots after the war.

Röpke heartily approved of this undertaking, which both enabled people to obtain independently part of their own sustenance and provided the satisfaction of healthy achievement outside factory walls. When Ludwig von Mises came to visit Röpke at Geneva, Röpke took his guest to inspect those garden plots.

Mises sadly shook his head: “A very inefficient way of producing foodstuffs!”

“But perhaps a very efficient way of producing human happiness,” Röpke told him.
Perhaps needless to say, I am with Röpke here.

Our bizarre obsession with words

An English depiction of an Irishman.

Sitting in my landlord's backyard in England the subject of oats came up. I mentioned that there is a reason the Irish and Scots eat oats.

With great disdain in his voice, he remarked, "Well, the Irish eat oats because they're stupid!"

Then he looked at me in panic. I could see that, for the first time since I had known him, he had suddenly connected my last name with my ancestry. He immediately began trying to suck the words back into his mouth: "Of course, I'm joking! I'm joking!"

I smiled sardonically, and gave a little shrug. "Looks like rain tomorrow, hey?" I asked. The conversation moved on.

And if I wanted to obsess over such trivia, I could probably fill a notebook with hundreds of other "micro-aggressions" against my background: "You're Irish, so you must love to drink, right?" Wait a second, in fact, every St. Patrick's Day, I could walk around New York and record thousands of "micro-aggressions": "Ah, you're celebrating my heritage by getting drunk until you puke into the gutter! I see."

But really, come on: we live in a world where people are beheaded for the ethnicity or religion, where they are slaughtered in concentration camps for their ancestry, where they are blown up because they practice a different version of their religion from the people who blew them up. My ancestors lived as a subject population in their own land: they faced severe discrimination in ownership and voting rights, and were starved to death in vast numbers. These things, my friends, are macro-aggressions, worth complaining about. You know what micro-aggressions are? They are the little shit we should overlook, so we can try to get along peacefully.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Manners, not esotericism!

At the recommendation of a reader, I am reviewing Arthur M. Melzer's Philosophy between the Lines: The Lost History of Esoteric Writing (Chicago and London: University Of Chicago Press, 2014). Melzer is a Straussian who has latched onto Strauss's idea that philosophers commonly hid their "true doctrine" (their esoteric teaching) while giving lip service to common pieties. I must say that so far I find Melzer's case quite a stretch, as it seems to me he regularly interprets passages as evidence of esotericism that appear to have far more straight-forward readings.

For instance, Melzer quotes Erasmus criticizing Luther:

“For seeing that truth of itself has a bitter taste for most people, and that it is of itself a subversive thing to uproot what has long been commonly accepted, it would have been wiser to soften a naturally painful subject by the courtesy of one’s handing than to pile one cause of hatred on another…A prudent steward will husband the truth – to bring it out, I mean, when the business requires it, and bring it out so much as is requisite and bring out for every man what is appropriate for him – [but] Luther in this torrent of pamphlets has poured it all out at once, making everything public.”

Now, if I had run across this passage anywhere but in a book on esoteric writing, I would not have suspected for a single moment that such writing was what Erasmus was talking about! No, like a mother lecturing her teenager on criticizing all of Aunt Flora’s behavior in one go—better to “husband the truth… and bring it out so much as is requisite,” rather than give her the “bitter taste” of exposing all of her faults at once—what I would have thought was that Erasmus was lecturing Luther on was tact. And still, having encountered in a book on esoteric writing, I am still inclined to think Erasmus is talking about simple tact, and not esotericism at all.

The rationality of science

The great figures of the Scientific Revolution -- Galileo, Kepler, Newton -- were crystal clear on why science could be a rational enterprise: scientists were reading Nature, "the book of God"... and God being the supremely rational mind, naturally the book had a rational design, one that, with effort, our more limited minds could follow.

The major part of the history of the philosophy of science since the 18th-century has been the hunt to find some other, any other, basis for science's rationality. Once Hume destroyed the purely empiricist case for science, the search had an air of desperation to it. Instrumentalism, verificationism, falsificationism: all were attempts to patch up the whole Hume had noted.

All these attempts have failed.

Pundit = Shallow?

My friend Kenneth McIntyre takes apart David Brooks here. An excerpt:
The final question or concern is whether the book’s argument is ultimately unconvincing in the way that it is produced by Brooks. There is an old joke that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who classify the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t. Brooks is most definitely in the former class. We get the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues, along with Adam I and Adam II. (Adam I prefers the résumé virtues.) There is a contrast between utilitarian logic and moral logic, which leaves the reader unclear whether Brooks is aware that utilitarianism is an actual theory of moral action. (He may not think that it is a convincing one—I don’t either—but utilitarians offer their theories not as alternatives to moral life but as accounts of moral life.) There are the cultures of self-effacement and self-promotion, which lead to the characters “Little Me” and “Big Me.” There is the party of reticence and the party of exposure. There are the people who see themselves as the center of the universe and the people who see themselves as part of the universe. There are the moral realists (like Brooks, of course) who see us as we are and moral romantics who believe that humans are naturally good. Finally, there are those who live for happiness (the bad people) and those who live for holiness (the good people). This quasi-Manichean reduction of everything to a good side and bad side is one of the least realistic accounts of moral life that I’ve ever read, and it certainly suggests that Brooks has his own romantic illusions about the moral life.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Why scientists *cannot* "Revise what they know" in the face of every piece of adverse evidence

As Paul Feyerabend noted, all scientific theories are born falsified: at the very moment of their creation, there exist data that "falsifies" the theory. (See, for instance, Special Relativity and the Michelson-Morley experiment, or Copernican astronomy and the absence of visible stellar parallax.) But if the theory seems to solve enough other problems, and especially if it seems rationally satisfying, explaining a range of phenomena in an elegant manner, scientists will (correctly) ignore the "falsifying" data and plunge ahead using the theory, hoping that one day the recalcitrant data can be made to behave.

Wednesday, December 09, 2015

Einstein's special theory of relativity was "falsified" *thousands* of times

"But there yet remains an almost ludicrous part of the story to be told. The Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887... actually did not give the result required by relativity! It admittedly substantiated its authors' claim that the relative motion of the earth and the 'ether' did not exceed a quarter of the earth's orbital velocity. But the actually observed effect was not negligible; or has, at any rate, not been proved negligible up to this day... Moreover, an effect of the same magnitude was reproduced by D. C. Miller and his collaborators in a long series of experiments extending from 1902-1926, in which they repeated the Michaelson-Morley experiment with new, more accurate apparatus, many thousands of times." -- Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge, p. 12, emphasis mine

Polanyi notes that when Miller announced his results... the general community of scientists simply ignored him. They were already convinced that relativity was correct, and didn't care about its "falsification." And Polanyi contends they were quite correct to take this attitude.

Is there a theory that has been more thoroughly "falsified" than Popper's idea of "falsification" as the cornerstone of science?

Cosmos and Taxis call for papers

Jim Caton and I are editing a special Agent-Based Modeling issue of Cosmos and Taxis. Details are here.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Can "Shonk: The Movie" Be Far Off?

Here is a video of Shonk on hyperspheres, yet another media appearance which neglects to mention that he comments at this blog!

PS: Shonk, you win "Most Mathematician Outfit of 2015": we don't even have to wait for the rest of December!

Dynamic Medieval Science

From Thony:
Another point that Grant makes is that it’s very difficult to actually say what Aristotelian philosophy was as it changes constantly throughout the High Middle Ages. That Aristotelian Philosophy was some sort of unchanging, unchangeable monster cast in concrete by the Catholic Church with an injunction against all forms of inquiry is a myth perpetuated by people who believe in the Draper-White hypothesis of an eternal war between science and religion.

Let us look at a specific example of that process of change; in fact an area that would play a central role in the creation of modern science in the Early modern period, the laws of motion. Already in the sixth century CE John Philoponus criticised Aristotle theory of motion and introduced the concept of impetus. This stated that the thrower imparted a motive force to the thrown object, impetus, which decreases over time till the object stops moving. Via the Islamic thinker Nur ad-Din al-Bitruji in the twelfth century the theory was taken up and elaborated by Jean Buridan in the fourteenth century and through him entered mainstream Medieval thought. The theory of impetus played a central role in the early considerations of both Giambattista Benedetti and Galileo who developed the modern laws of fall. The seventeenth-century theory of inertia, Newton’s first law of motion is in reality a consequent development of the theory of impetus.

Also in the fourteenth century the so-called Oxford Calculatores developed mathematical quantified version of Aristotle’s theories, in particular deriving the mean speed theorem, which lies at the heart of the laws of fall. The Paris physicists took up this work and produced graphical representations of the mean speed theorem identical to the ones presented later by Galileo. To quote historian of mathematics, Clifford Truesdall:

The now published sources prove to us, beyond contention, that the main kinematical properties of uniform accelerated motion, still attributed to Galileo by the physics texts, were discovered and proved by scholars of Merton college…. In principle, the qualities of Greek physics were replaced, at least for motions, by the numerical quantities that have ruled Western science ever since. The work was quickly diffused into France, Italy, and other parts of Europe. Almost immediately, Giovanni di Casale and Nicole Oresme found how to represent the results by geometrical graphs, introducing the connection between geometry and the physical world that became a second characteristic habit of Western thought...
The last paragraph hits on an interesting point: science texts are generally just terrible on history. I think the problem is to some extent ideological, in that many of the writers want to believe the positivist story of science, but also is due to the fact that many people are not aware that historical facts are discovered by historians. So it is now "beyond contention" that advances still being attributed to Galileo were actually made in the 1300s: a newly discovered fact. I imagine that many writers of science textbooks think that historians start with facts and then weave "historical theories" around them, and so it wouldn't even occur to them that what was thought to be fact when they were in college has since been proven false.

Monday, December 07, 2015

Use your models, don't believe them!

Noah Smith complains:

"And to make it worse, most of the macro theories that economists take halfway seriously are too hard for intro kids, so they end up learning silly stuff like Mundell-Fleming and Keynesian Cross that no one even halfway believes."

But, believing is something one should never do with one's models: they are just models, and as abstractions are necessarily falsifications of the full reality being modeled. A road map is just lines on a piece of paper: it never follows each twist of a road, it doesn't show dangerous potholes, it doesn't let us know the road is now blocked by a slow-moving garbage truck. (Of course, interactive maps may show red dots when a road is backed up, but the basic point stands.)

This was a point we made when I was a partner in an asset-trading firm: our models were something we used, not believed, and as soon as they ceased to be useful, we abandoned them, and sought another useful model, without any silly concern about whether the new model was true.

And models can have many uses: they can help us make predictions, they can help us to isolate one factor operating in a complex situation, and they can help us to convey a certain view of the world.

When I teach macroeconomics, I use the Keynesian Cross for the latter purpose: I tell my students that the model is a highly simplified way of understanding what Keynesians believe goes on in a recession, and how they think we can get out of one. I stress that no one thinks that it captures even a tiny part of what goes on in a real economy. But, most of all, what I hope my students learn is what a model is, how to use it, and why it is necessarily limited.

The people in charge of Long-Term Capital Management apparently came to believe their model; why one should never do so can be seen here:

Sunday, December 06, 2015

The "Enlightenment"

"The term 'Enlightenment' is an ideological term with no utility in studying the structures of reality. But it has great utility in shutting off debate and preventing inquiry into questions about 'progress' or the roles and limitations of the natural sciences. It purports to describe that era when western civilization freed itself from the 'dark ages.'" -- Fritz Wagner

Friday, December 04, 2015

Tolkein's Trinity

"It seems that for Tolkien, the creation is envisaged in three stages—music, light, and being—corresponding in some way to the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Yet the whole Trinity is involved in every stage, and the Logos or Word, who is the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, can justly be called the order, harmony and meaning of the cosmos, revealed to the Angels but only expressed in creation through the Breath of God." -- Christopher Morrissey, "The Six Days of Creation: Tolkien’s Account," quoting Stratford Caldecott

Pope Francis on Ideology

"In ideologies there is not Jesus: in his tenderness, his love, his meekness. And ideologies are rigid, always. Of every sign: rigid. And when a Christian becomes a disciple of the ideology, he has lost his faith: he is no longer a disciple of Jesus, he is a disciple of this attitude of thought."

Monday, November 30, 2015

Dying for the telephone company

"The modern nation-state, in whatever guise, is a dangerous and unmanageable institution, presenting itself on the one hand as a bureaucratic supplier of goods and services, which is always about to, but never actually does, give its clients value for money, and on the other as a repository of sacred values, which from time to time invites one to lay down one’s life on it’s behalf… It is like being asked to die for the telephone company…. The shared public goods of the modern nation-state are not the common goods of a genuine nation-wide community and, when the nation-state masquerades as the guardian of such a common good, the outcome is bound to be either ludicrous or disastrous or both." -- Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice, Which Rationality?

Rationalism in International Politics

E. H. Carr critiqued it at a crucial moment in Europe's history.

Thursday, November 26, 2015


If you doubt that "Americanism" is a religion, watch the beginning of a football game. A huge religious icon (the American flag) is spread across the field. Everyone puts their hands over their hearts (similar to making the sign of the cross) and then sings a religious hymn ("The Star Spangled Banner"). The singer is surrounded by a coterie of "monks": Marines, Navy SEALs, paratroopers, etc. Then, like a great spectacle in the coliseum from pagan times, two groups of warriors do battle, interspersed with ads touting consumption (the chief sacrament of Americanism) and the mystical ecstasies that can be achieved by total devotion to one's subcult (favorite team).

Every time Nick Rowe writes a macro post...

you should contemplate it very carefully... you will always learn to think about he macroeconomy more deeply.

In Which I Knock the Bottom out of Niall Ferguson

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Noah, lost at sea

Noah Smith is trying to defend empiricism in economics, but when it comes to empirical facts about the history of science... well, those we can just make up to suit our purposes! And so he writes:

"Our most spectacularly successful leaps of theoretical insight - Newton's Principia, Einstein's relativity stuff, Mendel's theory of inheritance - were all very closely guided by data. The general pattern was that some new measurement technology would be invented - telescopes, plant hybridization experiments, etc. - that would provide some new unexplained data. Then some smart theorists would come up with a new theoretical framework (paradigm?) to explain it, and the new framework would then also explain a bunch of other stuff besides, and so people would switch to the new theory."

Now, I haven't studied the history surrounding Mendel much, so I am not going to comment on it (imagine that: choosing not to write about something because one doesn't know much about it!), except to note that it is a little weird to call plant hybridization experiments a "measurement technology." But with Newton and Einstein, Smith just doesn't know what he is talking about.

First, Newton: the telescope was what spurred on the Principia?! This is a bizarre contention. Perhaps it is true that discovering that Jupiter has moons played some small part in prompting Newton's new physics: I spent a year studying the scientific revolution in graduate school, and subsequently read the top scholarly biography of Newton, but while I don't recall those moons being mentioned as important in Newton's thinking, I won't categorically deny that they might have played a part. However, Kepler's conceptual breakthrough in realizing that the planets have elliptical orbits was much more important to Newton's physics, and it had nothing to do with telescopes. Kepler did rely on improved data collected by Tycho Brahe, but that data could have been handled with epicycles, and the idea of elliptical orbits might have been arrived at without that new data: it was abandoning the idea that celestial objects must move in circles that was the crucial factor here: a new idea.

But what is perhaps even more salient in this regard is that Newton's three laws of motion are not empirically verifiable as a whole: they really are a re-conceptualization of motion, and we need to assume at least one of them to empirically verify the other two.

With Einstein, Smith is on even shakier ground, and it is noteworthy that here he does not even try to suggest what new "measurement technology" prompted Einstein's breakthrough. And as far as "new unexplained data" goes, it is usually the negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment that empiricists indicate as the impetus for Einstein's special theory of relativity. But Einstein himself told Michael Polanyi that "The Michelson–Morley experiment had no role in the foundation of the theory... the theory of relativity was not founded to explain its outcome at all." In fact, it was Einstein's thought experiment considering what it would be like to travel alongside a beam of light that was the chief driver for developing the "relativity stuff."

So: oops! When it comes to history, scientific "empiricists" appear not to care about "the data" in the least!

PS: Since I do care about the data, I am prompting my friend Thony, who knows much more history of science than I, to correct me here if I have strayed from "the data."

Sunday, November 22, 2015


One-book-itis is a malady that strikes amateurs in an academic field (e..g. history) when their reading in that field, on a particular topic, is largely restricted to one strong defense of a controversial position about that topic. The amateur simply doesn't know the field (e.g. history) well enough to realize that:

1) Of course any competent professional historian can marshall a strong case for any position he puts forward: he wouldn't put a case forward unless he could marshall strong evidence for it, and his entire professional life has been spent learning how to make the historical case for proposition X strong.

In particular, what the amateur overlooks here is that their champion for this controversial position is in a dialogue with other professional historians. And whatever view he is disputing, those others themselves put forward good cases for the view he is disputing: if they hadn't, he wouldn't even bother disputing it!

2) The professional discussion is nuanced. Say the topic is the causes of some revolution. The "old" view was that the main cause was the decadent actions of the royal family. The "new" view is that it was due to the ascendancy of a propertied class in the towns.

The amateur reads a single book, making the case for the new view, and becomes its enthusiastic proponent: "Smythe-Williams crushes the idiots who think the cause was royal decadence." But if the amateur were to attend a conference where a panel of "new-viewers" and "old-viewers" discussed the issue, he would find widespread agreement among the panelists that both sides have a good case, and that of course the discussion is simply over a matter of emphasis.

A case in point that has come up in comments on this very blog: did Rome "fall," or was there a smooth transition from "late Antiquity" to "the early Middle Ages"?

Bryan Ward-Perkins and Peter Heather have each written books arguing for the "fall" side of things, and an amateur who has read either book might declare either one to be gospel, and claim that it "demonstrated" that the gradualists have been completely wrong. By contrast, a professional reviewing the books understands that they appear as part of a dialogue, and that of course they are stressing one side of the events that they feel their predecessors have under-emphasized, and recognize the validity of claims for the other side. As O'Donnell writes in his review just linked:

"[Heather] is well aware, e.g., of the work of C.R. Whittaker on the symbiotic relations and evolution of relations back and forth across the Roman frontiers, but I suspect that the general reader of this volume will benefit little from it -- it takes the sharp scholarly eye to notice that the qualification is being made and then dropped."

The amateur lacks the "sharp scholarly eye" necessary to notice the qualifications, which essentially say, "Of course the gradualists are not nuts, and there is a lot about this transition that was, in fact, gradual, but I think they have over-emphasized that side of things, and unduly neglected the sudden transitions that occurred."

And an actual scholar of the period in question can recognize the merit in the "more of a fall" case, and still demur:

"In the end, both books are too linear in argument, too much devoted to special pleading for a single line of argument to sustain victory on a crowded field of interpreters. Heather is the better narrative history for the reader who wants to know what happened, while Ward-Perkins does a better job of situating narrative in a context of interpretative possibilities. If there is an implicit moral to each book, Ward-Perkins's is that human prosperity and happiness are fragile things and need to be worked at assiduously, while Heather's is that immigrants can be very bad for a society. The present reviewer will still be numbered amid the Reformers [gradual transition] and not the Counters [sudden fall], but of the two he finds Ward-Perkins's message more persuasive."

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Scientific Achievement of the Middle Ages

A few quotes from the work with the above title by Richard C. Dales:

"The really important thing to be noted, however, is the rapidity with which the scientists of the later thirteenth and fourteenth centuries learned to differ with Aristotle..." (quoting Lynn White).

"The striking thing about this [twelfth] century is the attitude of its scientists. These men are daring, original, inventive, skeptical of traditional authorities although sometimes overly impressed by new ones, and above all steadfastly determined to discover purely rational explanations of natural phenomena."

"Despite the fact that many excellent illuminating studies of medieval science, as well as the texts of the works themselves, have been published in easily accessible volumes during the past fifty years, it is not unusual to find even well-educated people abysmally ignorant of the subject. Unfortunately this does not inhibit them from writing authoritatively about it."

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

My review of The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britian

To appear soon in History: Review of New Books.


Floud, Roderick, Jane Humphries, and Paul Johnson. The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain. Volume 1: 1700-1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014.

This work is an excellent survey of the important region and period of economic history that was Britain’s industrial revolution. It consists of fifteen essays by a variety of top scholars, each taking up a different aspect of the overall subject: nutrition, international trade, technology, ideology, agriculture, transportation, regional variations, occupations, labor markets, finance, social mobility, and political economy. With such a wealth of information on hand, a short review can only sample a few of the abundant offerings in the volume.

Rational heating

Houses used to have radiators. These were "irrational," as it was hotter near the radiator than on the other side of the room. What people wanted was uniform heat over the entire house.

Except, if they have any sense, that's not what they want. Some people will find the uniformly heated room chilly, while others find it stifling. When we had radiators and fires, one could move closer to the heat source, or further from it, and set one's own room temperature. Now we must all have a single temperature, like it or not.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

My thermostat is a Presbyterian

I have said before on this blog that if we wish to ascribe thoughts about chess to a chess-playing computer, we should, for the very same reasons, ascribe thoughts about home heating to our thermostats. It is nice to see that one of the founders of the discipline of artificial intelligence agrees with me on this point:

'In 1979 McCarthy wrote an article[22] entitled "Ascribing Mental Qualities to Machines." In it he wrote, "Machines as simple as thermostats can be said to have beliefs..."'

Of course, McCarthy thinks thermostats have beliefs about home heating and Big Blue has beliefs about chess, while I think neither is true, but we agree that the evidence should lead us to decide both cases the same way. (It is like we agree on the proposition, "If Joe is guilty, then Bill is guilty too," but disagree on whether Joe is guilty.)

Lost in the Medicine Cabinet

Saturday, November 14, 2015

13-digit ISBN required, without hyphen

Every time you see a message like this from a web site, a programming angel falls from the sky and is imprisoned on earth until he can get the programmer who wrote that code to stop being a lazy so-and-so. Do you realize how easy it is to strip a hyphen out of a string of text?

Programmers: accept any reasonable format, and change it for the user into the format you need!

Friday, November 13, 2015

Absolute elsewhere in the stones of your mind...

I was in the waiting room at my chiropractor's office. I had a book to read, but the scene playing out in front of me caught my attention:

There was a girl of about seven sitting directly across from me, with a book in her lap. Her mother sat at right angles to both of us, phone in hand, studying the screen and typing. The girl asked, "Mommy, can I read to you?"

Her mother grunted something that might be interpreted as a yes. The girl began reading and the mothers face remained fixed on her phone, her fingers still typing. Every 30 seconds or so, the mother would look up, and give her daughter about a one second glance. At one point, she corrected the girls pronunciation of "Himalaya."

The girl mentioned yetis, and read that they were "apple-like creatures." I was puzzled by this for a moment, and then realized that she had read "ape-like creatures," and did not know that the dash meant that she should break her pronunciation at that point. Her mother took no notice of the "apple-like creatures" roaming the Himalayas, and continued typing.

I am sure this mom is frantically enrolling her daughter in piano lessons and ballet classes and whatever else she thinks the girl needs to "get ahead." But the thing her daughter needs the very most, her mother's assurance that she is of some importance in the world, this mother cannot give her. Because she was doing something more important, like rescheduling the HR meeting that had been on for 10 AM Monday, and seeing if everyone could make it at 1 PM instead.

George Will, Bullsh*&^er

As described here.

It is shocking how often the lie that Obama uses the first person a lot in his speeches has been repeated, given how often it has been shown to be false.

Germaine Greer speaks sense

here, but as a trans activist quoted in the article noted, speaking sense is "out of date."

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Bonaventure on the Trinity

I have sometimes had commenters remark that my metaphysical interpretations of the Trinity surely must be completely novel, and have nothing to do with any traditional idea about it. Well, here is Ettienne Gilson, commenting on St. Bonaventure's ideas on the Trinity, from about 800 years ago:

"Now, it is clear that within such a substance [as a necessary being] the origin holds the place of principle; the exemplar, of means; the final cause, as its name indicates, of end; and as it likewise appears that the Father is the Principle and the Holy Spirit the End, it follows that the Son is the Means. Thus the Father is the original foundation, the Holy Spirit the completion, and the Son the mental word..." -- "The Spirit of St. Bonaventure"

If we absorb the above, we can see that, for instance, Mises's work on praxeology has a trinitarian basis, even though he would have hated to have heard this!

Hipster "multiculturalism"

At my Italian class, one student, a thirty-something hipster with scraggly beard, skinny arms, and nervous hands, was corrected by the instructor: a woman author is a "scrittrice," not a "scrittore."

In response, he rolled his eyes and mumbled something about how sexist this all was.

Entire languages are subject to condemnation if they do not live up to the standards of the twenty-first century Brooklyn hipster!

(Interestingly, the same fellow often corrects the instructor on basic language points, e.g., "That's not reflexive!" in a case where Italian uses a reflexive verb but English doesn't. Even the logical structure of the language is not up to snuff in his eyes.)

Macro Themes

On my fourth round of teaching macroeconomics, I am really able to tie much of the course together around the theme of "upholders of Say's Law" versus "Keynesians" (with "Keynesians" acting as a synecdoche for "all general glut theorists").

For instance, I was just teaching the chapter of our text on unemployment. When we discussed structural unemployment, I told the class about how the general glut debate initially launched in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. "The defenders of Say's Law were not idiots: they saw that there were idle resources. But their explanation was that after 20 years of fighting, the European economy was structured around war: it would take time to change factories for making cannons into factories for making sweaters."

And then I explained how a similar structural explanation was offered for the recent housing-led downturn. And I noted that the Keynesians needn't deny that these structural imbalances occur, but only need hold that they are just an aspect of (and perhaps even the trigger for!) a more widespread malaise that affects business in general.

Our chapter on supply and demand was similarly linked to this topic by noting that the diagrams imply instantaneous achievement of equilibrium -- in which case Say's Law must always hold! But what if the adjustments to changed conditions take time? What if they take years?

I daresay few groups of college freshmen will have Say's Law more on their minds than will my macro students!

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Laffer Curve Is No Joke

I have seen a number of pieces from the American left mocking the very idea of the Laffer Curve, as though it is idiotic to think that lowering taxes could ever raise tax revenue. But pretty much every trained economist would admit that there is such a curve; the only question is where its maximum lies.


"One great success was the Commutation Act of 1784 which reduced tea duties from 119% to 12.5%, successfully killing smuggling and enhancing the public revenue, a never to be forgotten lesson." -- Julian Hoppit, "Political how are an British economic life, 1650-1870," from The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, Volume I, p. 360, emphasis mine.

Lionel Robbins Discusses "History"

I didn't have a book to bring to the gym at work today, so I scanned the shelves of my (shared) office and plucked from them Lionel Robbins' A History of Economic Thought. Now mind you, I have no axe to grind with Robbins, and the remarks of his I will highlight below have little bearing on any practical current debate. I only note them to show how very wrong even major thinkers often are when they wander outside their area of expertise.

I started with Robbins' second lecture, on Plato and Aristotle. The first sign of trouble was when Robbins says that in The Laws, Plato has a "fascist conception" of the best society, rather than a communist one as in The Republic. So Robbins is trying to line thinkers of 2400 years ago with the political parties of his day, a completely hopeless task that falsifies the past.

Next up: "Before the Renaissance Plato was not at all well know, whereas "the Philosopher" (Aristotle) was appealed to by most of the writers on moral philosophy from Thomas Aquinas downward." This is a mangled version of something Robbins heard as an undergrad. In fact, for centuries, it was Aristotle who was not well known. It is true that when his works were recovered from Islamic sources, he eclipsed Plato in importance, and that only changed with Renaissance NeoPlatonism. But there was no period in which Plato was "not at all well known."

Robbins then goes on to offer the near-mandatory disclaimer that he doesn't agree with Aristotle on slavery. He says that "There were enlightened people...who were beginning to question the institution of slavery, and Aristotle... thought that as a moral philosopher he ought to give some justification thereof." Note that Robbins doesn't list any of these "enlightened people." I suspect that is because he doesn't actually know of any. And I suspect that is because there weren't any. And I have been told this by Garrett Fagan, who is a real historian of this period.

Further, for Robbins, this whole discussion is "all very lame and dull stuff," so he doesn't even bother with what Aristotle's argument actually is. If he had, he would have found Aristotle arguing that certain people naturally work well self-guided, while others need to take orders. Thus, Aristotle would have looked at the factory workers of Robbins' day and said, "Oh, I see you've devised a new form of slavery!"

Robbins continues by reciting the much-discredited idea that Medieval thinkers were enslaved to Aristotle and didn't think for themselves, a bit of nonsense refuted as easily as by glancing at the long lists of propositions from Aristotle that were condemned in the Middle Ages.

Our final flub comes when Robbins accuses Aristotle of having "a value judgment creeping in" to his economic analysis. So Aristotle, who would reject that whole fact / value dichotomy and hold that one certainly can derive an ought from an is, was just accidentally letting value judgments "creep in"!

This is only the first five pages of this chapter, and basically we have found one truly awful historical error per page.

Moral: Read real historians! Dabblers in history from other fields, and pop historians, tend to produce rubbish. (There are, of course, many exceptions, but they are in the minority.)

Monday, November 09, 2015

Was It the Government That Was (Chiefly) Responsible for the Low-Fat Diet?

Nutrition science is (apparently) seriously revising its recommendations for the amount of fat we should have in our diets. In response, many of my libertarian Facebook friends have been posting things like, "See: never pay attention to government nutritional guidelines."

But was it really the government that drove these recommendations? My impression -- and I have not studied this history in any depth, so this is only an impression -- is that this was more a matter of nutrition scientists jumping to plausible conclusions with too little evidence at hand. Studies showed that the presence of cholesterol in the blood had a positive correlation with heart disease. Therefore, people should lower their cholesterol intake. This hypothesis proceeded on the sensible idea that if we suffer from having too much of X in our bodies, we should put less X into our bodies.

But nutrition and physiology are very complex subjects, and it seems that this plausible idea was not tested sufficiently. Perhaps the real problem is a genetic predisposition to accumulate cholesterol in the blood, and diet has little to do with this. Or perhaps something else entirely!

In any case, government health agencies did pick up this low-fat ball and run with it, perhaps foolishly. (I would never deny that government bureaucracies often behave foolishly!) But the public choice explanations I've seen for assigning nefarious motives to this decision don't make sense to me: there are meat and dairy lobbies as well as grain lobbies, and it's not clear why even the grain lobby would be behind the low-meat-consumption guidelines, since it takes much more than a pound of grain to produce a pound of meat.

Scientific hubris and a naive faith in expert pronouncements seem sufficient to explain what happened here: Does anyone more familiar with this history than me know a reason why this is not so?

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Algorithms and Their Implementations

As I taught my students the Sieve of Eratosthenes, I described the sieve verbally, then I had them "run" the sieve on paper, then program it in Visual Basic. And as I did so, I contemplated, "What is the sieve itself, apart from its implementations?"

This of course is but one more version of the problem that Plato and Aristotle grappled with, on the relation of the forms to their particulars. Plato's approach was to regard the particulars as inferior "copies" of the forms, which tended to lead to a contempt for the world of particulars, and Gnostic ideas like the creation of the sensible world by an evil demiurge. On the other hand, Aristotle emphasized the particulars, leading him to posit a God who was so totally removed from the world that He did not even know it existed.

The problem, it seemed to me as I contemplated this matter, is that each view is one-sided, and treats the algorithm and its implementations as though they could be pulled apart. But the implementations are meaningless except as implementations of the form. We might understand this by saying that the "algorithm itself" is the generative source of the implementations. But it is not something different from those implementations, nor did it stamp them out, as though on an assembly line. We might say the implementations of the form are one in being with the form, and that they are begotten, not made by it.

Furthermore, we finite beings are only able to perceive the form itself through the implementations. There is simply no way to convey to anyone else what the generative form of the algorithm is without pointing them to the form fleshed out in an implementation, or, we might say, as humans, our only path to the generative source is through the source made flesh.

But we might further notice that we haven't completed our analysis of this matter just yet: neither the generative form nor its implementation are complete without the actual running of the algorithm, until we give it life by executing it, on paper, or in our head, or on a computer. The generative form is made fully real through its implementations by the power of executing it. But that power is also one in being with the form and the implementations: we might say the execution of an algorithm proceeds from its generative form and its implementation.

Somehow, this all reminds me of something, but I'm not sure what at the moment.

Saturday, November 07, 2015


The scientific study of the psyche, undertaken by people who generally do not believe that the psyche exists.

Bryan Caplan Explains the Liberal Attitude Towards Religion

I was at the NYU market process colloquium one day when Caplan was presenting. I challenged his notion of rationality, saying that his own view lacked the resources to say why worrying about material well being is rational, while following Biblical injunctions on behavior is irrational. (Something he nevertheless held to be true.)

Caplan's response was along the lines of, "Oh, so we're supposed to be following the dictates of a bunch of desert shepherds from 3000 years ago?" (I quote from memory, but I certainly do not have the essence of Caplan's response wrong.)

The first thing I will point out is that Israel Kirzner, who is an orthodox rabbi (and many times the economist that Caplan is), was sitting next to me in that room. So Caplan was quite deliberately mocking Kirzner's life choices, and in a forum in which he knew Kirzner could not respond. (Kirzner is, of course, too self-possessed and too much of a gentleman to even show a response to Caplan's infantile behavior. Me, on the other hand...)

The second is to note just how stupid Caplan's response is. Imagine he had used the Pythagorean theorem to prove something in his paper, and I had complained, "Oh, so we're supposed to be following the mathematical reasoning of some tunic-wearing Greek cult leader from 2500 years ago?"

Of course, mockery is all that people like Caplan and his fellow GMU ignoramus Tyler Cowen have in their arsenal: if they were actually to engage on these topics with a thinker like, say, Alasdair MacIntyre, they would be completely crushed. So, mockery it is!

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Teaching Programming Without a Net

This morning I did something I had never done before: I wrote a program in front of an audience.

I had assigned my introduction to programming students the Sieve of Eratosthenes as a problem. I had already written a sieve  in Visual Basic based on Stepanov and Rose's guidelines. But I wanted my students to implement a much simpler version -- they are beginners, after all!

Today, for the first time, I came to class, quite deliberately, without having written the program I was going to show them in advance. I told them, "I want to show you how a programmer thinks through a problem like this."

And I programmed the whole algorithm live, describing each step, and using the Visual Studio debugger to examine what was going on. It was a bit nerve wracking: what if I froze up, and couldn't think of what to do next?

But we got through it, and the students loved it. I will be doing this again.

PS: Having gotten them through the sieve, I need one more algorithm for them to code before I assign them their independent project. Any suggestions?

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

The Segregated Pop Charts?

I've mentioned this before, but I am always befuddled by claims that Michael Jackson was "the first" black artist who could score hits with white audiences. I was reminded of this again when I happened to be pointed to Billboard's list of number one pop singles. Take the year I first started listening to pop music, 1970, and consider that the United States is about 13% black, so it is just about impossible to reach number one on the overall pop chart if you are selling only to black record buyers.

What I see for that year is that black artists occupied the number one spot 19 out of 52 weeks: almost 40% of the time. And it was not one "crossover" artist: it was five different ones. And me, a white kid in the suburbs, owned records by all five.

The previous year, 1969, I count black artists at number one 20 out of 52 weeks. And again it is five different artists, with only two overlaps with 1970 (Diana Ross and the Supremes, and Sly and the Family Stone). And I owned records by two of the three acts that would not reach number one in 1970. (I don't recall owning anything by Marvin Gaye at that time.)

Black Americans have had a tough enough time, what with slavery and Jim Crow and lynchings, that we really don't need to make up slights that didn't exist.

The promise that the study of the brain is "on the verge"...

of explaining how the brain "produces" consciousness...

is a check that has been "in the mail" for 250 years now!

If People Are Willing to Pay a Lot for It...

it must be bad?!

That's what town rankings like this one always seem to imply: they penalize towns for being pricey. But towns are pricey precisely because they are desirable places to live!

When Law Goes Private...

it turns out that it favors the wealthy even more than does state-made law!

Who could have imagined that in a market for law, the people who can pay the most for law get the law they want?!

The terrible assumption made in the optimistic case for an anarcho-capitalist justice system is that what people will want to pay for in private law is perfect justice, so far as it can be achieved.

Why in the world should that be the case? Large corporations will pay for law that will favor large corporations. Lawsuits based on corporate malfeasance will be increasingly hard to win. Intellectual property law will be strengthened, tremendously. The few dollars you have to spend on "private defense agencies" are peanuts compared to the billions upon billions large corporations will be able to spend.

And, as in any market, the consumer will win: corporations will get exactly the laws they want.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

What should be jettisoned from Scholastic philosophy

"Dedicated as they were to the understanding of faith, our theologians accepted without criticism a great deal of ready-made philosophical and scientific knowledge that had no necessary relation to Christian revelation -- and, be it noted, these are precisely the dead and antiquated parts of their work, which we have absolutely no reason to preserve." -- Etienne Gilson, "Historical Research"

I have been trying, apparently without success, to convince the Thomists at Ed Feser's blog of this point, especially concerning the clearly antiquated doctrine of the division of life into non-sentient plants and sentient animals. Forget that this division totally ignores fungii, which are neither plants nor animals, it is also entirely dependent upon "movement" being defined as "movement at the pace at which humans move." Plants move around plenty, just more slowly than we do. And this antiquated division must classify single-celled organisms as "animals," since, seen under a microscope, they are clearly moving around, hunting, and so forth. But since plants evolved from such single-celled creatures, that would mean that at some point in their evolution, they "passed out" and lost sentience!

It is entirely understandable that Aristotle or Aquinas accepted this division. But today, we have a wealth of research showing us just how active plants are. Both Aristotle and Aquinas would have changed their view in the face of this research. It does their followers no credit that they will not do so.

Monday, November 02, 2015

My response to Walter Block

Is online here at Cosmos and Taxis.


I was looking at a paper published in the Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, and I found this passage:

"[The South Sea Company's] first act happened to be the successful conversion of 9 million pounds of government debt into company stock. For this service the government undertook to pay interest at 6%.""

This left me a little puzzled: just what was the government paying 6% on, if its bonds had been converted to South Sea Company stock? I wrote a friend who is an expert on the history of money and banking, and he agreed that the passage is confusing, and said, "The Wikipedia entry on the South Sea Company is better."

So, between a peer-reviewed book from Cambridge and Wikipedia... Wikipedia wins!

And high school teachers are still advising their students never to use it.


The Distributist Definition of the Capitalist State

"The two marks, then, defining the Capitalist State are: (i) that the citizens thereof are politically free: i.e. can use or withhold at will their possessions or their labor, but are also (ii) divided into capitalist and proletarian in such proportions that the state as a whole is not characterized by the institution of ownership among free citizens, but by the restriction of ownership to a section markedly less than the whole, or even to a small minority. Such a Capitalist State is essentially divided into two classes of free citizens, the one capitalist or owning, the other propertyless or proletarian." -- Hillaire Belloc, The Servile State, p. 16

Sunday, November 01, 2015

The truth about the "subjectivity" of value judgments

Reading Frances Woolley's post about throwing away pumpkin seeds led me to contemplate this point.

By noting that "waste is a value judgment," Woolley seems to imply that it is "merely subjective," and therefore beyond dispute.

The fact that we can, and do, successfully challenge these judgments by others, and sometimes get them to change their mind, shows that this is not the case. But the confusion is understandable: the claim that value judgments are not subjective is often conflated with the notion that everyone whomsoever in any circumstance whatsoever ought to make the same judgment. So, a waste nanny might badger all others about how awful it is for them to throw away their seeds. And that is clearly a mistake.

The truth lies in between: it is either a good idea or a bad idea for me to save and toast my pumpkin seeds. It is not a matter of my whims. But whether or not it is a good or bad idea depends on my "particular circumstances of time and place," and, perhaps most importantly, on the sort of person I am.

The good for Socrates may consist in tossing his pumpkin seeds and spending the time he might have spent roasting them in contemplating justice. The good for a couch potato might consist in getting up off of his butt and cleaning and toasting the seeds, since he was just going to be watching bad TV otherwise. And the good for a farmer might consist in saving the seeds for next year's crop. The fact that the good can vary from person to person does not make it a matter of whim!

Neuroscience: Uncovering the "secrets of consciousness"?

An actual neuroscientist (at least one in training) is honest about where things stand. The findings:
We have no f*%king clue how to simulate a brain.

We have no f*%king clue how to wire up a brain.

We have no f*%king clue what makes human brains work so well.

We have no f*%king clue what the parameters are.

We have no f*%king clue what the important thing to simulate is.
So, we are just about there, hey?

And note that this person is still a materialist, and still thinks we are dealing with a "machine" that thinks. S/he is just honest enough to admit that we have no clue how that "machine" operates.

Friday, October 30, 2015

More Office bleg

Well, I could not clear up my problems with Office 2011, so I upgraded to 2016... and at least one of my problems has migrated with me!

When I open a document in one of the Office programs, I somewhat regularly get a message "Could not create work file: check your free disk space." (I type the message from memory, so I may have a word or two wrong.)

Well, there are 350 GB free on my primary disk (and over 1 TB free on my backup), and today, the file I was opening was a Word document of about 100 KB, so unless a Word work file is roughly 3.5 million times the size of the actual document, I don't think the amount of free disk space is really the issue.

But does anyone have any idea what the problem really is? And how to make it stop?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Now everything's a little upside down...

I was watching Clear and Present Danger as my movie to fall asleep to. James Earl Jones is the dying director of the CIA, and he is lecturing Harrison Ford as to why, despite the dangers and difficulties, he had to push ahead and expose the corruption he had found.

Jones says, "When you took this job, you swore an oath. And not to me."

Ford nods.

"And not to my boss, the President."

Ford nods.

"You swore an oath to my boss's boss..."

Wow, I thought, a modern movie is really going to walk up the Great Chain of Being, and note that every ruler is ultimately responsible to...

"...the American people."


And what about the block headers?

Looking over the proofs for my forthcoming response to Walter Block, I saw a problem with one of the block quotes.

And then I realized that, in this case, every one of my block quotes was a Block quote!

This is not my beautiful code!

This is from the movie Clear and Present Danger. The code appears very clearly on screen about an hour and 30 minutes into the movie. What struck me about it was that, at first glance, it almost appears as if they took the trouble to put some real code up there. But once I looked more closely, it appears to me to be nonsense. It is like someone who had seen a lot of code imitated what it looks like, in the same way that one of my sons can imitate Tagalog without being able to speak it. Can anyone recognize this as any actual programming language?

Zeno for the computer age

If you wish to better understand Zeno's worry about the continuum, you could do worse than to consider loops in software. Case 1: You...