Well Begun Is Half Done

Old aphorisms stick around for a reason.

When I get a book to review, I create a new file, and enter the book's bibliographical information in it.

When I start a new page of lecture notes, I just put in the outline of the book chapter I have to talk about.

And so. Just so there is a file, with something in it.

Once I get the above first step accomplished it really is all downhill from there. It is the blank page that terrifies!

These are the worst stories ever

As I reentered the world of software development, I kept hearing about "user stories," and wondering what these were. Apparently, some new way of having users describe the software they needed had been developed: it was on my to-do list find out what this was.

I am currently reading a book about agile development, and came across a few of these "user stories." Here is what I found:

  • Customers can view the portal landing page in browser
  • Customer can create draft mortgage application
  • Customer can get list of existing mortgages
Wow, those sure are dramatic "stories." They are what, back in the Middle Ages, we would have called "informal requirements."

What has been gained by calling them "stories" eludes me.

Living the hallucination

In this extraordinary post, I found this extraordinary quote:

"you’re seeing [white, male] people who really expected to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days."

The authoress is living in an hallucination, in which being a white man means that you always get your own way and are always told you are wonderful!

What the authoress has apparently done is notice that, in the course of history, certain white men, say, Henry VIII, or Peter the Great, or Louis XIV, largely got their own way, and were most often told they were wonderful, at least within their own realm. She then has concluded that this has been the usual condition of white men in general!

She apparently has failed to notice that most of the people these monarchs were bossing around and "getting their own way" with were... white men. She has apparently failed to notice that the lot of the average white male has not been to live as an absolute, divine right monarch, but to have been ordered around, in the first years of his life, by his own mother and his elementary school teachers, i.e., by women, who often would tell him he is not wonderful at all. Then he goes off to upper school, and perhaps university, where he is bossed around yet more, and told again that he is not so wonderful. Then he goes to work in a factory, or an office, and is bossed around for another forty years, and informed how not wonderful he is whenever he asks for a pay raise. The idea that such a life would lead one to expect "to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days" is literally insane: as I said, she is living in an hallucination.

And her whole rant was prompted by a few white men criticizing her interpretation of Lolita. (I haven't read Lolita, and have no opinion about whose interpretation is correct.) But here is something else she hasn't noticed: the history of the intellectual life in the West has basically been centuries and centuries of some white men telling other white men that they have no idea what they are talking about... and then being told the same in return. Now, I think it is great that this sphere has opened up to include more women and non-white people. But once you start to play this game, you are going to get told by someone, or many someones, that you don't know what you are talking about! That's the way the game works. If you enter this arena, and then whine about "white male privilege" every time you are criticized, you are like someone who has asked to join a boxing league, and then breaks down in tears because "the other boxers keep hitting me!"

A Divine Image

"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.
"Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble--and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.
"Ideology--that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early or late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations."
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
The Gulag Archipelago


What Is Rationalism?

This is one of the themes of the volume Lee Trepanier and I are now editing. (Some of the pieces from this have already been published at Voegelin View.)

Here is a first cut at addressing the question.

The mortgage-interest tax deduction

I see this claim a lot:

"The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes."

But the claim is false. Making mortgage interest tax deductible was a one time windfall to those who bought houses before it was known that the interest would be made tax-deductible. Once that's fact became known, it was included in the house price. Today, homeowners pay more for a house than they would if the mortgage interest was not tax-deductible: in fact, the price is higher by the present value of the stream of future deductions, at least in equilibrium. Thus, there is no net benefit for homeowners. (Of course, if the deduction were repealed, house prices would drop, so repeal would certainly hurt present homeowners.)

Slavery

"The difference between slaves in Roman and Ottoman days and today's employees is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss." -- Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

Oakeshott on "Skin in the Game"

Besides antifragility, another theme Nassim Taleb has been stressing of late is "skin in the game": the idea that people who face the consequences of their actions are more likely both to learn and to behave responsibly, than people who are shielded from such consequences.

Of course, Taleb is smart enough and educated enough to know that this is not an entirely new idea, and that he is expanding upon the intimations of earlier thinkers here. Even so, it was interesting to see Michael Oakeshott sound this motif so clearly in "Rational Conduct":

"And politics is a field of activity peculiarly subject to the lure of this 'rational' ideal. If you start by being merely 'intelligent' about a boiler or an electrical generator you are likely to be pulled up short by an explosion: but in politics all that happens is war and chaos, which you do not immediately connect with your error."

The plumber you call to fix your boiler has "skin in the game": if all he possesses is an abstract theory about boilers (what Oakeshott calls being "merely 'intelligent'") he will suffer the consequence of his lack of practical know-how himself, sooner or later, and most likely sooner. But the theoretical politician enamored of "regime change" can successively wreck the nations of Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and still regularly secure $250,000 speaking fees.

On Interventionists and Their Mental Defects

Here.

Not a madman, just a courageous man.

Don't put your shortcuts everywhere

I've got all sorts of vim and bash aliases and key mappings on my usual machines. Every once a while, though, I have to work from my PythonAnywhere account. I tend not to move all of these shortcuts to that account.

Why? It's good to have to use the raw commands once in a while so you remember what they are: After typing "gpushm" often enough, I would forget it expands to "git push origin master," if not for my no-shortcut account!

And the reason you don't want to forget the raw commands is that you never know when you will be forced onto an unfamiliar machine, and have no choice but to use them.

The most annoying bot-blocker ever

Has got to be the "Click all images containing X" from Captcha.

The images are small, blurry, and often ambiguous.

We are asked, "Click all images containing cars." One image shows a pickup truck. Should we click that?

We are asked, "Click all images containing mountains." One image has a faint blue smudge on the horizon. Is that mountains, or clouds, or a camera artifact?

And so. Pretty much every single time I am presented with this verification barrier I wind up just guessing on a few of the images.


More horrifically wrong pop history of science

This time, from Neil deGrasse Tyson, as described by Thony.

And, once again, there is nothing ideological I can see in any of NdGT's colossal historical blunders.

I think that many scientists and mathematicians just don't consider history a serious subject, so when they go to talk about history... they just make up whatever story suits their purposes.

Spread the game to everyone, everywhere

An ad on TV for the PGA says that the mission of its members is to "spread the game of golf to everyone, everywhere."

Why? Should the world become entirely wrapped in golf courses so that we can accommodate 7 billion people teeing off at once?

If someone believes in, say, Christianity, or libertarianism, or communism, I can see why they would want everyone else to believe in it as well: they think the world would be a better place if everyone did. But does anyone "believe" in golf in this way? The world would be a better place if only everyone played golf?


Amazing fact of the day

While listening to DevOps Café, I came across the fascinating claim that well over 95% of the worlds computers have never had a human logon to them, and will go through their entire useful existence without anyone logging on. (For instance, they are a rackmounted Web server, that was configured by an automated process, monitored automatically, and, when they fail, will simply be thrown away, not repaired.)

(Of course, Keshav will note that this is not really surprising at all, and that for a person of his intelligence, the surprise only comes when you combine this with the fact that 87% of these servers have the number 666 in their network names.)

From Art to Purpose

water-lilies-9.jpg



Consider the lilies. They neither spin nor toil. Yet Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like them.

Isn't the natural, worriless springing forth of order beautiful?

Don't you want to experience this beauty more fully?

Well, consider the lilies!


The Purpose of Art

To believe that art exists for
a purpose is to be confused.
For those who do not see this,
I would ask you to ask yourself,
"What is the purpose of a landscape painting?"

And your inventing mind might invent a legitimate purpose
for that painting:
It could alleviate melancholy.
Maybe enchant the cubicled mind.

But to all these legitimate purposes we could add another:
our rectangular painting could serve as a dinner plate.

If you say that being a dinner plate is very different than being art,
I rest my case. For it is something like a prose article,
mascarading as a poem.

It's the culture

I have on several occasions noted that the really important thing about mass immigration is not whatever economic impact it might have, but its cultural impact. No culture can survive long periods of mass immigration: ask the North American Indians, or the Maori, or the Romans circa 300 AD.

In any case, The American Conservative has an excellent piece up on how mass immigration is affecting England. An excerpt:


"The keys, then, to England’s successful, if very limited, history of immigration were the small scale and gradual pace of entry; a confident, well-defined, and long-established national culture; and the ability and willingness of the newcomers to integrate fully into that culture."

And even multiculturalists admit what I am saying: 'British multiculturalist Bikhu Parekh concludes quite reasonably, given that mass immigration of itself destroys cultural consensus, "it is not clear what immigrants are to be assimilated into."'

Hayek and Oakeshott on Rationalism

Is almost done: comments, please!

The Rachel Dolezal of Monkeys?

Ahem...



Um, perhaps the monkey on the left's claim to be "black" is a little cultural appropriation, hey?

The Strange Career of the Word "Conspiracy"

From ESPN:

Barrie: It won't. If I was in to conspiracy theories (maybe I am), I'd say DJ didn't try too hard to make the cut so he could get in work at Erin Hills this weekend, while the rest of the tour was at Muirfield Village.

So a plan one makes completely on one's own is now a "conspiracy"?

Understanding Cognitive Dissonance

Scott Adams, as noted here on occasion, is a very bad philosopher. But when it comes to things he has actually studied in depth, like cognitive dissonance, he is often brilliant.

I was recently able to use his heuristic for detecting cognitive dissonance to understand a bizarre response to something I said to a friend: I mentioned to him that a certain program he was involved in was actually racist.

Scott has noted that a "tell" for cognitive dissonance is a completely over-the-top misrepresentation of what the person causing the cognitive dissonance said.

So, my friend (who is not a racist) was faced with a tough choice: he could address the criticism I actually made, but that would mean admitting he had been duped into supporting a racist program (despite not being a racist), since there is no way to deny the program is racist, once you actually follow the argument showing that it is.

Or, he could hallucinate that I had said something else entirely.

Now no one likes to admit that they have been duped. And thus, the response I got back? "Oh, so you are saying that I am responsible for racism!"

My suggestion that he was unwittingly supporting a racist program was hallucinated into a claim that he himself was the creator of racism!

This absurd disconnect between what I said and what he claimed I said is a sure sign that cognitive dissonance is being suppressed by an hallucination.

PS: Every time I try to spell the word "suppress," I have to try about five variations before I get it right!

A Genius at Work


For my forthcoming paper "Hayek and Oakeshott on Rationalism," I have been re-reading their works, and just finished "Economics and Knowledge." Although my paper votes for Oakeshott in evaluating the two thinkers' views on rationalism, I have to say that "Economics and Knowledge" is an absolutely brilliant paper: perhaps among the ten greatest papers ever produced in the social sciences. Hayek just brings wonderful clarity to the problem of what, exactly, equilibrium analysis does and does not accomplish.

Blog Title

I walked up to my friend Trishank at work today, and said, "You antifragile chaos monkey, you!"

It stuck in my head as a catchy phrase the rest of the evening, and thus... voila!

A Huge Problem with the Popular History of Science and Mathematics

Is that it is often presented by scientists and mathematicians. And they often don't give a hoot about what the actual facts were. E.g., I just saw mathematician Bruce Edwards claim, in a lecture on proofs, that Hudalrichus Regius found that 2^11 - 1 was not a prime 'using Roman numerals.'

Immediately I wrote my friend Thony to check out what appeared to me to be a far-fetched claim. I heard back:
European university mathematicians were already using Hindu-Arabic numerals in the 12th century. They were introduced into commercial arithmetic by Fibonacci in the 13th century. By the 16th century they were in common use. As Ulrich Rieger (his real name) published his results in his Rechenbuch, which was a textbook for teaching the use of Hindu-Arabic numerals I very much doubt (being polite) that he did his calculations in Roman numerals.
So, Edwards was roughly four centuries off in his wild guess about when a European mathematician would still have been using Roman numerals, and the proof in question actually appeared in a book for teaching Hindu-Arabic numerals!

I've seen this frequently: scientists and mathematicians just don't take history seriously, and appear to simply make up whatever "facts" they want to suit the story they wish to tell.

And note: This is pretty clearly not a case of deliberate distortion of history for ideological purposes.  It is a case of just not bothering to check the facts.

"The Thing" went away



Whatever "it" was that led to the recent spike in hits to this blog seems to have crescendoed, and then wandered off to do something else. What weird behavior!

The Antifragile Chaos Monkey

I just read about how great Amazon US-EAST crash of April 21, 2011 brought down most of their customers who depended on that zone, including big one's like Reddit and Quora. But Netflix remained up. How did that happen?

It turns out that Netflix had made themselves "antifragile" by employing a tool they called "Chaos Monkey." What Chaos Monkey would do was to simply regularly and randomly "crash" various Netflix servers. ("Crash" is in quotes because when it is being done on purpose by the machine owner, it is not clear whether it really should be called a crash or not.)

By continually crashing their own servers, the Netflix engineers could keep on learning how to keep uncrashed portions of their network up and running in the face of part of the network going down. And so when Amazon US-EAST crashed, Netflix ran on, unfazed.

This is what Nassim Taleb is talking about when he says a person or organization that tries to keep all fluctuations damped down becomes fragile, and very vulnerable to a big fluctuation. The companies that tried to keep all of their servers up and running all the time went completely out of operation when Amazon crashed from under them. But the company that kept itself ready with lots of little crashes could handle the big crash.

So:
  • If you run on a treadmill, the first time you step unevenly on a pothole, you tear a ligament.
    But, if you run on uneven surfaces, your ligaments are stronger, and you can handle the new stress.
  • If you try to keep from ever feeling down with anti-depressants, the first time you get really walloped by a crisis, you commit suicide.
    But, if you learn to deal with lots of smaller ups-and-downs, you are more prepared for a big one.
  • If you are a central bank that tries to keep growth constant and prevent all downturns, you set the economy up for a big crash.
    But, if you accept lots of small downturns, you clear out bad investments in small doses and may avoid big crashes.
I could keep going, but you get the idea, I suspect.

More economic nonsense from David J. Anderson

"The driver actually picking up the machine at the warehouse, driving at your home, and unpacking it for you is a transaction cost. Perhaps the same person, or another person, a plumber, installs it for you... All of this time and effort for delivery and installation is part of the transaction cost of buying the washing machine... The net effect of all these costs it is to inflate the final price paid by the consumer without actually increasing the value delivered." -- Kanban, p. 94

Right, so an uninstalled washing machine sitting in a warehouse is just as valuable to me as the same washing machine installed in my basement and ready to use. It's a wonder anyone bothers delivering and installing anything! Amazon could sell me books, and just leave them in the warehouse, with a note on them saying I own them. That would forestall "inflating" the price of my books quite a bit!

The funny thing is that on some level, Anderson knows he is spouting nonsense, since on the very next page, he acknowledges "It is true that the washing machine without delivery or installation is of little value..." Exactly: that is why delivering and installing it adds to its value.

I suspect that what is confusing Anderson is his notion that certain parts of the manufacturing process "add value," while others don't. But that is looking at things as though the Marginal Revolution of the late 1800s had never occurred. There is no substance called "value" that is ladled into products as they are manufactured. Instead, the materials being worked upon are transformed at each stage of the production process, and those transformations either result in the consumer of the product valuing it more highly, or they do not. If they do, then speaking loosely, we could say that they "add value." If they do not, then they simply should not be performed.

And since I, as a consumer of washing machines, most definitely value a machine in which I can actually wash my clothes inside my house much more than I value one sitting in a warehouse in which I cannot wash anything, then the delivery and installation steps "add value." In fact, that is why people pay for those steps to be performed.