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.)


"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


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


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?


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.

  • 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.

One of the most amazing results of number theory

The prime numbers are not spaced evenly along the number line. What is the biggest gap between prime numbers?

There is no such "biggest gap." If we take the number, say, 3455324898588757997446990653578956897469994337854, we can always find a gap between prime numbers at least that large! (And I just typed a very large, completely random sequence of digits: this result holds for any number whatsoever!)

Covfefe Ops

Prediciton: "Dev Ops" will soon be replaced as a trend by "Covfefe Ops."

Something rotten in the state of Blogger

Here are this week's stats:

Clearly, that spike was automated, and not real readers. But what is going on? And why do the bots keep visiting "Central Planning Works," rather than fanning out across all posts?

Kan't Ban

David T. Anderson is the guru of the Kanban movement for managing software projects.

But a competent economic analyst he is not. He divides economic activities into those that "add value" and those that are "wasteful." But activities that do not add value to a final product (and are known not to add value) are not the activities of an economic producer at all: they are called "consumption" or "recreation." (The whole idea of "adding value" in production is itself questionable, but let's not go into that.)

For instance, he talks about staining a wood fence for a customer:
This involved a trip to Home Depot. There was also some preparation work required on the fence: some repairs, some sanding, and trimming plants... To allow access for painting. None of these activities could be described as adding value. The customer does not care that I have to make a trip to Home Depot. The customer does not care that this activity takes time. In fact, it is annoying, as it delays the start and the end of the project. (Emphasis mine.)
No, unless David intends to stain the fence with air or dirt, the trip to Home Depot does not "delay the start of the project." It is the start of the project. And neither does the customer "care" that the staining takes time: the customer would much prefer that David could stain the entire fence merely by thinking about it being stained. And the customer surely would be very annoyed if David simply stained right over the plants growing along the fence, rather than trimming them back, or failed to sand, so the stain would not take.

What Anderson is doing is simply arbitrarily designating certain costs as "not adding value" and then pointing out that the customer would like those costs minimized. But the customer would also like the costs that Anderson claims do add value to be minimized. In fact, the ideal production process takes no time and is completely costless. Until we can achieve such a process, all work that is required to deliver the final product "adds value." Any work that does not add value should not be reduced, as Anderson suggests, but completely done away with. (In fact, that Anderson talks about minimizing this work, instead of eliminating it, demonstrating that somewhere inside he knows his distinction is arbitrary.)

When it comes to producing software, Anderson distinguishes between things like meetings, that are "waste," and actual coding, which "adds value." Again, the distinction is completely arbitrary. Imagine we have a software-generating AI that can simply listen to humans holding a meeting about a piece of software, and then write the code. In that case, the only part of the production process involving humans would be meetings! The customer does not "care" about the meetings, but, in fact, doesn't "care" about the coding either: the customer only cares about the final product doing what he wants it to, however the product came about.

Short of having such an AI, the question is, "Are the meetings being held helpful to producing a better software product?" If they are, they are "producing value." (Again, this is not really an accurate way to speak: production processes do not ladle out little dollops of value here and there into a product.) Think about a half-hour meeting where one software engineer discovers that his colleague has already written and debugged an algorithm that he was going to spend the next week writing and debugging. That meeting was "worth" a week of coding, since the first programmer is now freed up to code something else for the next week.

And if the meetings are not helping to produce a better product, they should simply be dropped.

Educators, open source your test material

I've heard from several professors that they don't like to put their course material in publicly accessible places, because then students will merely memorize that material, and be able to pass the course without any real understanding of what is going on.

That's true for a single professor posting her material from the past couple of semesters, which she hopes to re-use again in the next few semesters.

But what if an entire department established an open source repository of all of their test and homework material? Then the faculty would have access to a pool of thousands of possible test questions and homework assignments.

And what about some student who went and memorized all of this material? Well, such a student deserves an A!

In other words, the way to handle the problem of students looking up previous tests and homework assignments so that they can gain an edge in their course is not to try to hide that material (which, as my colleague admitted to me, doesn't work, since students find a way to share it anyway), but instead to overwhelm the students with so much publicly available material that any student who memorizes all of it is good to go.

Building software tools

How much time one should spend building the software the customers want, versus how much time one should spend building tools to better enable one to build the software the customers want, is simply a special case of how "round-about" one should make any production process.

My friend Howard Baetjer noted this many years ago, but it seems it is still not widely recognized in the software industry.

Puzzling blog post puzzle

And just why do so many of my recent posts have "puzzle" in the title?

Another page hit puzzle

I don't really look at these stats too often, so that's why when I occasionally do, I am so puzzled by what I see. For instance, this month, most of the top posts have gotten a thousand or so hits. But this post, from 7 years ago, has 47,000 hits this month! Say what?! It's not even a very interesting post.

What the heck is going on here? Is there some way someone could be routing spam through one of my blog posts? That doesn't seem possible, given what I know about blogs, but I ask because I don't really track how these things work, and I can't understand why one of my old, relatively uninteresting posts could suddenly be generating so much traffic.

A linguistic puzzle

I am watching a Hindi language movie. In the opening scene, a board showing the train schedule at a station is shown.

The headings on the board are all in English: "Track", "Train", "Departure", etc. But all of the entries on the board are in Hindi.

Why would anyone design a train schedule board in this fashion?

A passenger who can only read English can read the headings but not the actual train information. A passenger who can only read Hindi can read the train information, but not the headings. And anyone who can read both could read the board if it was written entirely in one language or the other.

So what could be the motivation for this mixed language board?

Traffic puzzle, part II

It seems I do have a lot of new links to this blog, but they are being recorded as coming through this site.

But what is that site? And why are my hits showing up as coming from it, rather than the actual blogs that are linking here?

Man, this software stuff is confusing!

The falsity of the "they're just reading" response

In response to my post "The Most Rapid Alteration of Human Behavior in History," A couple of readers essentially responded, "They're just reading," and sent me links to items like the photo above.

First of all, before the photo above was taken, reading had been gradually spreading amongst humans for many thousands of years. Nevertheless, the spread of literacy did represent a profound change in people: we remember far less than our preliterate ancestors did, instead relying on external documents for our memory. No less a figure than Socrates worried about this change, and apparently that is why he never wrote anything.

But the photo I used in my post (the one linked to above) was taken, not several thousand, but only a dozen years after the invention of the smartphone.

Furthermore, the behavior of smart phone users is pretty different from that of newspaper readers. True, for some time people have read newspapers while waiting in line, or riding a train. But as far as I recall, newspaper readers did not:

  • Read the newspaper while biking down a busy NYC street.
  • Drop their newspaper under a bus and die while trying to retrieve it.
  • Go on a dinner date and spend most of their time reading the newspaper.
  • Read the newspaper throughout an entire three-hour lecture that they paid many thousands of dollars to attend. (I see about half of all students at university lectures continually using their smart phone throughout the lecture.)
  • Cause 1.6 million accidents a year by reading the newspaper while driving.
  • Walk into walls, pools, and bears because they were reading the newspaper.

Now I don't deny that any of these things might have happened very rarely with newspapers (or books, etc.) in the past. But newspapers did not cause 1 in 4 car accidents, and while every few months I might encounter someone reading the newspaper while walking down the street, today, in NYC, about half the people I see out walking are also on their cell phone.

So, when you convince me that newspaper reading was causing similar problems to the above, then I will believe that nothing new is happening.

Now available for pre-order on Amazon

Our new ebook, The Idea of Science.

Why Are We Discussing the "Probability" of Something That Happened?

This is bizarre -- when illustrating how dominant the Warriors were during the NBA regular-season, Ben Alamar chooses to discuss their "win probability"... rather than, say, their actual number of wins! Statistics have become more real to him than actual events!

Dynamic Programming, the video

Greedy Choice Versus Dynamic Programing

To give a mini lecture on when one can use a greedy algorithm and when one must resort to dynamic programming, I had a little cross disciplinary breakthrough: we can make the greedy choice (and thus use a greedy algorithm) when there is no opportunity cost for doing so. When are choice does come with opportunity costs, the greedy choice won't work.

I hope to post the lecture later.

"Contacting" Amazon

On their Kindle publishing site, Amazon has a "Contact Us" button. (It is at the bottom left on this page.)

Is it just me, or does the "Contact Us" button just lead you around and around more web pages, with no ability to contact anyone at all?

UPDATE: I finally found a link leading to an actual contact page!

Philosophy of Nature

My review of Paul Feyerabend's Philosophy of Nature is now published at British Journal for the History of Philosophy.

Blog readership puzzle

Here's the chart of hits per month for La Bocca:

The puzzle is, I have no idea what caused the liftoff in readership a year ago, or why it has climbed with three distinct peaks as it has. And when I look through my referrals, the main source of traffic seems to be, not a link from some big name blogger, but Google.

The Garden in May

The relevance of van Bavel

As you may know, I am currently reviewing Bas van Bavel's The Invisible Hand? for History: Review of New Books. As I am reaching the end of the book, I am ready to write the introduction for my review!

Van Bavel's work might best be characterized as "applied history." (Students of Michael Oakeshott will recognize that this means van Bavel, while doing serious historical research, is primarily dealing with the "practical past," i.e., the past viewed as providing lessons for present choices.) The context in which this work is set is the ongoing debate over optimal economic policy. For a time, from the collapse of the Soviet Union until about a decade ago, it seemed that this debate might be settled: neoliberalism had triumphed, and the best political economy prescription clearly involved a heavy dose of free markets. Certainly, there was debate at the margins: Should healthcare be publicly provisioned? How big a welfare state should one have? What is the proper role for central banks and international economic institutions like the IMF? And there were always heretics like Marxists and Catholic social theorists who demurred from this consensus, but they were like flat earthers or creationists, and could be safely ignored.

But then came the financial crisis of 2007-2008, and all that had seemed settled was at play again. The response to the crisis by free-market advocates most typically ran along these lines: "Yes, the crisis was bad, but it was the result of crony capitalism, not of true free markets. If the central banks and the international economic institutions had not gotten in bed with the big banks, this all could have been avoided." And there is, I think, a good deal of truth in this response.

But van Bavel's work provides a very important counter-response. Van Bavel's main thesis is that open markets work well, for a time, at producing wealth and lifting all boats. But with the rise of factor markets, meaning market dominance over the allocation of land, labor, and capital, there arises an increasingly wealthy financial elite, and that wealth gives them an increasing influence over social conditions in general. In particular, this elite becomes more and more able to bend the legal system of their society to serve their own interests. In short, unfettered free markets produce crony capitalism as their probable (at times van Bavel seems to suggest inevitable) outcome, much as consuming crystal meth, while providing a boost for a time, sooner or later produces a collapse in health.

Van Bavel backs his thesis with extensive evidence from three case studies: Iraq between 500 and 1100 CE, Northern Italy from 1000 to 1500, and the Low Countries between 1100 and 1800. He also touches, much more lightly, upon other instances of market societies, such as England, the United States, early modern China, and the Roman Empire.

My next post on this topic will be the conclusion of my review.

The most rapid alteration of human behavior in history

And it seems nobody is paying it much attention. Well, of course not: they are too busy checking twitter!

My enthusiasm for DevOps

It might appear that I am simply latching on to a trendy topic.

But it actually goes a little deeper than that: the previous time I was involved in professional software engineering ended in about 2004. At the time, my friends and I had been pushing ideas like software as infrastructure, why one should prefer open-source software, and the advantages of text-based systems. But we faced a lot of opposition.

Fast-forward a dozen years: I dive back into the professional development world, and discover... we won! And the name of that victory is: DevOps.

Of course, like every other marketing term, "DevOps" will be over-hyped, and claims about its wonderfulness and ability to make babies' poop smell good need to be taken with a grain of salt. And, of course, in 2004 we hadn't yet forseen every aspect of the DevOps revolution: after all, a whole lot of smart people have devoted a whole lot of thought to this topic in the dozen years I was gone. And I am now in the process of enthusiastically absorbing the many great ideas they have added to what we knew in 2004. But these are great ideas built on top of the approach to developing and deploying software that we are ready knew was the best approach out there.

And I am far from alone in having experienced this: I have been listening to the DevOps Cafe podcast, and a number of guests have remarked that when they first encountered "DevOps," their imediate reaction was, "I've been advocating DevOps for years: I just didn't know that's what it was called."

What's more: the DevOps principles don't just apply to software development. You may not have noticed, but I've increasingly been "DevOpsing" my writing projects. For instance, as you know, I have been working on my review of The Invisible Hand? recently. In doing so, I have been creating "continually deployable" parts of my review: the blog posts you have seen here. Furthermore, I have been continually integrating those "gists" into my actual review.

DevOping the MS computer science curriculum

What I am going to say here applies mostly to training software engineers. Training theoretical computer scientists is a different matter, and my guess is that that is already being done pretty well.

The problem I perceive is that software engineers are being trained at universities by using methods more appropriate to training theoretical computer scientists: what's students get when they sign-up for an MS in computer science is the first portion of the curriculum used to train theoretical computer scientists for doing a PhD. Now, that knowledge is not useless to a working software engineer: all of the top working engineers have some understanding of theoretical computer science. Certainly, a good engineer should know what is being said when someone points out, "But your algorithm will run in exponential time," and have knowledge of how to determine the asymptomatic complexity of an algorithm they are considering.

But this is a minor part of most working engineers jobs. When presenting a proof for the runtime complexity of an algorithm in one of my lectures, I pointed out to my students, 99% of whom intend to be working engineers, and not theoreticians, that we engineers certainly should not be frightened of these proofs. But, I noted, they really won't play much of a role in your future jobs: in 20 years of professional software development, I told them, I had never once had my manager come to my office and demand a proof of the runtime complexity of the code I was developing.

To properly train of working engineer, one has to have them develop software, especially real software, that will actually be used by real users, rather than toy software developed simply to pass a class.

This implies that to properly train software engineers, MS programs must be able to offer them real projects to work on. But what kind of software for real-world use can an MS program possibly be involved in developing?

Answer: the program's own courseware! Of course.

So the new paradigm is: make your courseware open source. Make it buildable. Make it testable. Allow continuous integration and setup automated testing. Create monitoring systems that provide rapid feedback as to the success of the courseware. Put your courseware in an open source repository. But most of all:

Realize that, if you are training MS Computer Science students, you are a software company. Treat the entire enterprise as a single software project, developing agile courseware. Maximize the opportunites for sharing code and knowledge amongst all courses, and make the MS students an integral part of this process.

I'm number one!

A reader just wrote to tell me, "Your book Oakeshott on Rome in America has gone to number one at Amazon.com... in the category 'Books on Oakeshott, Rome, and America.'"

Crony Capitalism: The Free Market Cycle, Part II

"Also, in the course of the cycle described here, those groups and organizations in society who would aim for changing the arrangements of the market in order to balance or reduce negative externalities, gradually lost their economic and political power... Their revolts in the later stages of the cycle proved futile. This is also because of the consolidation and entrenchment of the elite in these later stages... Exactly in the last phases of the cycle the elites... closed their ranks...

"In all these cases, the state increasingly came under the influence of those who benefited most from the market system...

"In the first phase of the cycle, in each of these cases, the role of the state was not yet very prominent,  and it figured next to all kinds of other organizations and associations that fulfilled semi-public roles... In the second phase, states... increasingly stimulated the rise of markets in more direct ways, induced to do so because of fiscal reason. These markets, with the associated monetization and commodification of land and labour, enabled them to tap resources and tax transactions and wealth more easily than with other forms of exchange and allocation, such as barter or communal redistribution.

"Each of the cases discussed saw growing state repression, armed violence, and warfare by state and public authorities, in the last stage of the cycle. It is telling that this was done after the militias of ordinary people were replaced by professional soldiers or slaves, hired or bought in the market and being more dependent on their employers or masters than the independent producers in the former militias were."

-- Bas van Bavel, The Invisible Hand?, pp. 268-270

van Bavel on McCloskey

"I do not think the market fosters immorality of individuals... On the single point... I would agree with McCloskey that such a critique would be mistaken. However, this is not because capitalism will improve our ethics, as McCloskey argues, but rather because such a critique misses the crucial mechanism and the essential point. Even if the market itself is not anti-moral, and market behavior at the micro level is not immoral either, the outcome of market dominance at the macro level in the longer run will likely be a negative one, as shown in the cases investigated... This negative outcome is bound to occur particularly within a skewed social context..." -- Bas van Bavel, The Invisible Hand, p. 267

Microservices running on unikernels

That's the future of computing, my friend.

For example, that you were writing the weather prediction application, that needs to rapidly execute matrix operations on very large matrices. Your first thought may be, "Well, I find a good linear algebra library, and compile it into my program."

But there are several problems with this approach:

  1. Every time the producers of the library find a bug and fix it, you will have to recompile your program and redeploy it.
  2. Every time the producers of the library add a feature you want or improve the performance of the features you use, you will have to recompile your program and redeploy it.
  3. If there are security holes in the linear algebra library, they are now in your program also.
  4. Your program is now larger by the size of the linear algebra library.
  5. If there is specialized hardware for running these sorts of computations, you will need to make sure your program runs on it or forego the speed improvements it would provide.

A better solution is for your weather application to rely on a microservice. Some specialists in computational linear algebra will build the service, run it on some highly optimized hardware, and allow people to subscribe to it. When you need a large matrix multiplication, you will passe this service a message across the Internet, and it will do your computation for you, and bill you based upon the size of the computation. Every time the specialists fix a bug, you immediately have their bug fix. Every time they upgrade their hardware, you have upgraded your hardware! Every time they speed up the calculation, you have instant access to the faster version.

And these microservices will increasingly run on unikernels: they will be built by taking a library of operating system components, and compiling in just the minimum set of modules that will enable the service to run. So, for example, the linear algebra microservice does not need a graphical user interface. It does not need mouse drivers, or printer drivers, for display drivers. It does not need code for handling user logins or starting terminal sessions. It does not need process or memory management: it is built to run a single application. It probably does not even need a filesystem: just a way to access disk cache for intermediate results.

Tech-support running out the clock

"Please install the latest updates to your phone, watch, Apple TV, Mac Book, and thermostat before we go any further."

THIS time, I'm sure they are correct!

"Trump will never survive this Comey scandal."
Brought to you by the people who told you:

  • Trump will never survive those remarks about Mexicans.
  • Trump will never survive the first GOP debate.
  • Trump will never survive the first Republican primary.
  • Trump will never survive Big Tuesday.
  • Trump will never survive the GOP field narrowing.
  • Trump will never survive the GOP convention delegates coming to their senses.
  • Trump will never survive the first presidential debate.
  • Trump will never survive the hot mike tapes.
  • Trump will never survive election day.
  • Trump will never survive the revolt of the electors.

Corporatist new-left alliance

McDonald's is now advertising itself as a force for "diversity." This is hilarious: is there a single corporation in the world that does more to wipe out diverse local cuisine's then McDonald's does?

A man after my own heart

I have previously pointed out that the new left's hedonic individualism plays right into the hands of global corporate interests. Here is a nice statement of why this is so:

'Nevertheless, what Korab-Karpowicz rejects is treating the dominant culture as a whipping boy and substituting it with a bland, sterile relativism. As thesis 7.6232 states, the goal of such actions is often “the reduction of human beings to the same kind of individuals, motivated only by primitive lust”. Moreover, modern global business elites, sadly, welcome this process. As Korab-Karpowicz states “such [motivated only by lust] individuals make ideal consumers, whether for commercial goods or for sex, and are at the same time (as persons deprived of higher values, such as virtues), easy to manipulate to instigate to quarrel” (p. 156).'

A curious claim

"Output per worker around 1300 was as high as after 1348, even despite the windfall gains caused by the population decline of the Black Death..." -- Bas van Bavel, The Invisible Hand, p. 107.

The thinking here seems to be that with fewer workers working the same amount of land, employing the same amount of capital, output per worker "should" have gone up. But this seems to ignore some important factors, such as the fact that many people were ill, while those who were not ill were often tending to the ill, or burying the dead, or fleeing to a remote retreat in order to avoid becoming ill. Once we take these countervailing factors into account, it is not at all obvious to me that a plague will present a "windfall gain" in output per worker.

Algorithm textbook complaint

When I took algorithms, we used Robert Sedgwick's book, called, quite imaginatively on his part, Algorithms. Today, the book usually known as CLRS, for the initials of the last names of the authors, dominates the algorithm textbook market.

I am re-reading Sedgwick at the moment, leading me to say: I think this is a shame. Sedgwick's book is much clearer and better written. It also has a much more useful approach for engineering students, with emphasis on how to actually implement the algorithms, rather than pages of mathematical proofs of their run-time complexity.

The Worst Part about Pornography (for males, at least)

Note: here I am not talking just about "Internet porn," or dirty magazines: I am talking also about the constant flow of pornography that arises from our mainstream movie industry and our advertising industry, both of which constantly try to sell males on the idea: "You will be made most happy by a woman if the shape of her body conforms to certain socially admired standards."

This is total and absolute rubbish. Men: your life will be enhanced by a woman to the extent she loves you, supports you, and desires to help you. Whether she has a "big butt" or "small" whatevers will have very little impact on your life with her.

Of course, if a woman's (or a man's) body is grotesquely extreme, that can (quite naturally) preclude a sexual relationship with that person (as it is often a sign of deeper malady). An adult woman who weighs 60 pounds or one who weighs 400 pounds each might be very hard to embrace as a sexual partner. But in the broad range in between anorexia and gross obesity, you really should pay very little attention to the woman's body, and much more to how you and she interact.

The free-market cycle

As a student of social cycles, I am always on the lookout for new instances of social cycle theories. And in writing my current book review, I have come across one: the free-market cycle. Here is the author of The Invisible Hand?, Bas van Bavel, describing this cycle:
The three main cases analyzed in the book, and also the three modern cases that are more tentatively discussed, show a similar pattern in the interaction of society, market institutions, and economy. In this pattern, an originally positive feedback cycle -- between increasing freedom, growing factor markets, and economic growth -- turns into a negative one, with the increasing social polarization, institutional sclerosis, markets that become increasingly skewed towards the interests of market elites, and economic growth stagnating and turning into relative or absolute decline. (251)
The cases being analyzed are ones in which factor markets -- for land, labor, and capital -- come to increasingly dominate the allocation of those resources. At first, the process yields good results: "these markets acquired favorable institution organization which offered security, transparency, and broad accessibility" (252). An important factor in these favorable results was that non-elite actors "had access to alternative mechanisms of exchange outside the market and therefore were free to choose whether to use factor markets or not" (253). (Such mechanisms included guilds, strong family institutions, networks of barter exchange, and production for home consumption from one's own land.)

But as factor markets began to eliminate such alternatives, often through "outright attacks" (254) on them -- e.g., enclosure laws, or anti-guild legislation -- "wealth inequality rose to high, or even unprecedented levels" (255). To preserve their wealth, the new elites "tied it up in family foundations, religious foundation, or fiduciary entails" (258-259). Despite the fact that such events often prompted an artistic florescence, they indicated "a tipping point in the cycle had passed, together with other signals including a highly skewed distribution of property, the increasing volatility of financial markets, big public indebtedness, the increasing application of non-economic coercion, and the freezing of capital" (259).

"For Iraq... in the early tenth century, after three centuries of intense market development, it had become one of the most unequal societies recorded in history" (261). Similar results hold for Italy around 1400, for the Low Countries in the 1500s and 1600s. And the less rigorous studies the author offers for the UK and the US more recently show the same dynamic at work.

Van Bavel offers a number of reasons for this result, e.g., "the wealthy usually have more access to information or legal expertise. With the growing scale and complexity of markets, the advantage this offers them also grows" (263). This factor weighs heavily against the anarcho-capitalist antidote to crony capitalism: there is no reason to believe that a financial elite cannot dominate the anarcho-capitalist "market" for law even more thoroughly than they can dominate the "production" of law in purportedly democratic societies.

Van Bavel asserts there is a predictable feedback mechanism at work here: "in all the cases of market economies discussed [increasing wealth inequality] became translated into inequality and political influence and decision-making power, which in its turn was used to adapt the institutional organization of factor markets to the interests of the wealthy" (264).

In short, "mature market economies as a result of this feedback cycle change from being open and equitable to become unequal and distorted" (265).

This is what we actually see in every single case where "free markets" come to dominate a society. It is all well and good for libertarians to bemoan "crony capitalism": but if this is the predictable outcome of their polices, they bemoan in vain.

The moral principles that market advocates often posit as counter-balances to the rise of crony capitalism are also ruled out in van Bavel's analysis:
Moreover, the elements that reduce or compensate for negative externalities of market exchange they mainly be supplied by nonmarket organizations and by norms and values generated outside the market. In the course of time these norms and values, and the associated organizations, are instead eroded, as this book shows, their roles are usurped or superseded by the market. (266)

Availability bias

I used to never see two G trains in a row at the Carroll Street station, but I would often see two, or even three, F trains coming before the G did. "Why," I wondered, "are there so many more F trains than G trains?"

That was when I was riding the G. Now I take the F... and I never see two Fs in a row. For the same reason that lost things are always in "the last place you look for them"... because once you find them, you stop looking. And once your train comes, you stop waiting. So you only ever see the other guy's train come several times in a row.

You mentioned you were interested in learning about VMware?

Chesterton spinning in his grave

I have watched a bit of the new Father Brown series. It is pretty awful. "Based on" a character from GK Chesterton, a man who wrote Orthodoxy, this version is a woolly-minded progressive Who is constantly telling people not to be "judgemental" and suggesting that suicide is not really a sin.

But the writers can't even get elementary facts correct when they are trying to show off their intellectual bona fides. In one episode a character quotes Confucius, and says, "you know: Buddhism." (The character is supposed to be an expert who studies these things seriously.) In another episode, a father is criticizing his teenage daughter's reading. He says, "at your age, I was reading Rousseau and Derrida."

The show is supposed to be set in the early 1950s. The father himself looks to be 50-something. And Derrida was born in 1930.

So the father must have been reading Derrida about 10 years before that writer was born. Which is fairly prescient of the dad.

Private property in the means of production...

is aggression.

According to socialists.

This makes the point that libertarians (reasonably) can't just claim aggression and shut down the discussion: other people have other definitions of aggression.

(H/T to Samson Corwell for the link.)

NOTE: I disagree with socialists here. But this shows that one's notion of aggression needs to be argued for, not simply asserted.

Annoying the user

I typed my card number 3 times before I realized that the programmer who wrote the code for the site I was on actually demands spaces in the card number! This is incredibly lazy programming: any format should be OK that contains the correct numbers. It can be converted to any other format with one line of code.

So then I typed the number with spaces... and was told "Maximum authorization attempts exceeded"! Why let me try again, when I was already at the limit?!

There should be a message saying "That was your last attempt" after attempt three, not one that says "Ha ha! We let you try one more time, even though we knew we weren't going to accept it!" after attempt four.

Measuring in Listerines

I keep a bottle of Listerine in my desk drawer. (Hey, you do need something to kill the smell of the whiskey, don't you?)

Sometimes I bring it to the bathroom with me, but tonight, it was late, I just took a mouthful at my desk, and then got up to walk to the bathroom to spit it out.

In doing so, I realize that the bathroom is just about one full Listerine from my office, where "a Listerine" is the maximum distance you can walk with a mouthful of Listerine before it burned so badly that you just spit it out wherever you are. So you could tell someone, "Don't put that Listerine in your mouth here: the bathroom is at least three Listerines away! You're going to wind up spitting that stuff out right outside the CEO's office door."

Lions are not better than tigers

Nor are tigers better than lions.

But they are also not equal, not in the sense of equal as "the same." If you need a pack hunter to bring down very big game, you'd better hire the lions. Need a stealth hunter to sneak up on something alone? Get your self a tiger.

Some people might misread my post on sports performance as implying that men are "better" than women. (In fact, progressive ideologues will want to misread it that way, so they can hurl accusations of "misogyny," because that is how they silence opposition.)

Well, men are better... weight lifters, on average. And "better" serial killers, and genocidal maniacs, and better rapists. None of the last three are at all good things to be better at.

Men and women are equally children of God. But very different children.

Adopting Methodological Individualism...

is like poking out one of your eyes, and then telling everyone that you see no evidence of depth in the world around you.

A methodological individualist mistake

I was just told that because individuals in a nation have diverse interests, the "national interest" does not exist: I was trying to "homogenize" these different groups and treat them as if all of their interests were identical.

As pointed out many times here before, methodological individualism is nonsense, and pernicious nonsense to boot: it leads smart people to say silly things like the above.

Not every cell in my body needs to benefit from a course of action for that course of action to be in my self interest. My foot may need to be amputated for me to survive, but this is very bad for the cells in my foot. (They might have lived another month if left attached, but now they die immediately after the operation.) The interest of cancer cells in my body may run directly against the survival of my body.

Not every player on a sports team needs to benefit from a course of action for that action to be in the team's interest. Benching Callahan might be the best thing for the team, even if it signals that Callahan's career is over.

The people in a corporation may be there for a wide variety of reasons. Some of them may be corporate saboteurs. And many of them may be there just to get a paycheck, and not care at all about the survival of the corporation beyond the last day they are going to work there. Nevertheless, we can still reasonably talk about what is in the interest of the corporation: whatever helps the corporation to survive and become stronger is in its interest.

It is no different with the nation: that which promotes the survival of France as an entity is in France's interest, and that which retards that survival runs against its interest. It makes no difference at all that there may be many residents of France who are indifferent to its survival, or even wish it to disappear. (No difference at all in determining what is in France's interest: of course, if a lot of people inside France want France to disappear, it will have a harder time surviving!)

How to keep your init files on GitHub

I puzzled over this for a little while before figuring out a good approach: create a hard link from your .vimrc, .bashrc, etc. to a repo for all of your inits (mine is InitFiles: https://github.com/gcallah/InitFiles). Then check in these hard-linked files.

You will have to recreate the hard links on every machine you want to update from this repo.

But then, that's it! You edit your init files on the machine you are on, push the changes to the repo, and then pull the changes down to your other machines. Your /home/yourname/.bashrc simply is the same file as InitFiles/.bashrc, and you are good to go!

The marginal efficiency of Russell Westbrook

Today he went 10 for 28 (35.7%), while his team mates shot 32 for 57 (56.1%).

Economic logc would seem to indicate that the Thunder are leaving a huge gain in point output on the table, by failing to shift shot production from an area with lower marginal yield (Westbrook shoots) to one with higher marginal yield, e.g., Steve Adams (80% tonight) shoots. (FYI, these stats, while extreme, are not a one-game anomaly: for the season Westbrook shot 42% while Adams shot 57%.)

Why doesn't this shift occur? Is it that Westbrook is such a valuable player in other ways that the coach does not want to put him into a funk by demanding to shoot less? Other explanations?

You Won't Believe Who Kevin Durant Is Reportedly Dating

I saw this headline today. Well, if you tell me "you won't believe who Kevin Durant is dating"... that might be true. If I found out, for instance, that he was dating Theresa May, I would be very surprised.

But once you add in the word "reportedly," then statements of the class "You won't believe the X is reportedly dating Y" are false for all possible values of X and Y. If you tell me "Donald Trump is dating Beyoncé," I will find that very difficult to believe. But if you tell me that somewhere, someone is reporting that Donald Trump is dating Beyoncé, I will just shrug my shoulders, and say "Of course."

The fable of our time

Is the emperor's new clothes. It can be applied again and again and again.

All over our culture today, we see ideological constructs that are clearly illusory (the emperor is actually naked), but for which the illusion is sustained by the threat of reputational destruction for anyone who states the obvious.

I will give you one example of what I mean, and you can generate many more yourself. Consider the barrage of ads that have been showing this winter and spring, claiming things like "sports knows no gender."

Applying this principle, the US women's soccer team talked about going on strike, because although they were doing "equal work" to the men, they were getting paid less.

Well, that same women's team just lost to a JV high school boys team by a score of 5-2. So the very best women's team in the world just lost to a group of 14-year-old boys from a single high school!

Clearly, far from being equal to the best male players in the world, the very best female players in the world would have great difficulty in making a top-notch boys high school team. I would guess that not a single one of them could make a decent Division One men's university team.

So how could anyone possibly believe all these advertisements? It is like advertisements were claiming that the average American is 20 feet tall, or were selling you dirt, telling you it is a tasty and nutritious food.

Well, they work, because to question the illusion at all is to invite utter social condemnation. Just the way the illusion that the emperor had a grand new suit of clothes on was maintained.

Bad vinegar?

My distilled vinegar says it is only good until January 28, 2021.

What happens after that? Does it turn to wine?

What is the scientific basis for Halal?

I was looking up the rules for Halal food, because I was cooking for a Muslim student of mine. One of the things I found online was frequent questions, from Muslims, along the lines of the title of this post.

This just goes to show how deeply scientism has infected the entire world culture. Why in the world would some religious dietary restrictions need a "scientific" basis? Isn't the fact "God told us not to eat this" enough?

And if you're eating a certain way because you're convinced of the health effects of eating that way, than you are no longer doing it for a religious purpose!

A Peasant Surprise

"When peasants in developing countries lose their direct access to land and the means of production, and become reliant on markets for food, land, and wage labour, they can actually become more dependent and even more vulnerable than they would have been in a peasant society with limited market influence..." -- Bas van Bavel, The Invisible Hand?, p. 6

PS -- Apple voice recognition rendered the previous text as "Bas van Bavel and the invisible hand." This suggests a new series of Harry Potter novels, e.g.:

Harry Potter and the tragedy of the commons
Harry Potter and the prisoner's dilemma
Harry Potter and the paradox of thrift
Harry Potter and the fable of the bees


COBOL woes

The language won't die, but that doesn't mean the programmers won't!

Funny quote:

'"Just because a language is 50 years old, doesn't mean that it isn't good," said Donna Dillenberger, an IBM Fellow.'

Right Donna: it's the fact that COBOL sucks that means it isn't good, not the fact that it is old.

The Clinton Foundation is old hat

"The Iraqi elites started to immobilize their wealth in waqfs, or religious and charitable foundations, partly in order to shield it from taxation by the state. The waqf, as an unincorporated and inalienable trust, appeared on the stage around the mid-eighth century and grew in importance by the ninth century, especially in Iraq... A major motive for the foundation of a waqf was the wish to serve a religious, charitable, or public purpose... For the founder, some additional advantages of using this instrument was that he could appoint himself as an administrator of the waqf, he could set his own salary to be paid out of the waqf's funds, he could nominate relatives to positions paid for by the waqf, And he could designate his children as his successors. This last advantage help to circumvent the Islamic inheritance laws… What the same time he could shield the family property from taxation by public authorities." Bas van Bavel, The Invisible Hand?, p. 76

It will be an integer, between -1 and 1

Those frustrating times when we think of the perfect comeback, but too late:

Bryan Caplan was presenting at the NYU colloquium on market processes. His paper relied on a notion of "rationality" that certainly could not pass philosophical muster.

In attempting to show the weakness of his notion of rationality, I commented, "Let us say that someone is working on the assumption that the Bible is the revealed word of God. Wouldn't it be rational for that person to act differently than your 'rational actor' would act?" (I was trying to point out that his notion of rationality could not rationally defend its own assumptions, and that given different assumptions, what constituted a rational action might appear quite differently.)

He responded, "What, we should pay attention to some book written thousands of years ago by some desert shepherds?" (I quote from memory.)

Let me note that Professor Israel Kirzner was sitting next to me in the room at the time Bryan said this. Caplan surely knew that Kirzner is an orthodox rabbi, so his response was pretty much a slap in Kirzner's face. I think I was too flummoxed by the degree of disrespect Caplan showed (to a much greater thinker than himself) to respond as I should have:

"Gee, Bryan, 2500 years from now, how many people do you think will be reading your work?"

The answer is in the post title.

More on liberal "tolerance"

Liberal say they are "tolerant of everyone but the intolerant."

By "the intolerant" they mean "non-liberals."

In other words, liberals will tolerate… other liberals!

How accommodating of them.

The Invisible Hand?

My latest review assignment is The Invisible Hand? by Bas van Bavel. Here is the main thesis:

"the rise and dominance of markets for land, labour, and capital are self-undermining, as... feedback mechanisms results in welfare declining again and markets losing their quality in facilitating successful and rapid exchange, with a relative or even absolute downfall of the market economy in question." (pg. 2)

Market-dominated societies have arisen before, and they always self-destruct, and in the same way, and for the same reason: they are fundamentally anti-human.

So let's try it again!

Our line-up for Critics of Rationalism

BSing with phony precision

The problem with the claim that every H1B visa creates 1.83 new American jobs is the absurd precision with which this result is put forward. We are dealing with a topic of vast complexity, where a myriad of causal factors are interacting to produce the observed outcome, and for which we have no control group and no ability to do repeated experiments using a controlled environment.

"But we used the most sophisticated statistical techniques to produce our result!" the researchers might respond. Very amusing: I guarantee that, with the same data set, an anti-H1B visa group could produce a study that "proves" that for each H1B visa issued, .794321 American jobs are lost.

"1.83" is an attempt to snow the reader with precision: "Wow, if they can cite the number to 2 decimal places, they must really know what they are saying!"

Here is a claim I would be willing to believe: "Based on our research, we are pretty sure that each H1B visa issued creates between one and three new American jobs."

Never have so many

packed so much stupidity into such a small amount of video:

Philodoxers versus philosophers

Plato may a very important distinction between philosophers and philodoxers. A philosopher is a lover of wisdom (σοφια). He tries to align his views with what is true. As such, the philosopher is always engaged in a search (ζετεσισ), since he realizes that he has views are never as true as they could be. We will see him continually updating and revising his views as he comes to see the truth more fully.

The philodoxer, on the hand, is a lover of appearances (δοχα). The philodoxer doesn't care about being good; the philodoxer cares about appearing good, in the opinion of others. The philodoxer doesn't care if his opinions are true; he cares about whether others will approve of his opinions. (I recently had a philodoxer, on hearing what I thought about some topics, respond, "I don't see how you can get on in the modern world with those views!" He had no interest in whether what I said was true; it was enough for him to know my views are unpopular, and for him that was a fully sufficient reason to reject them.)

To the philodoxer, the philosopher's search appears senseless: it is easy to tell which set of views will make one popular with this faction or that faction: what one has to do is simply pick one's faction, and then adopt that faction's approved views. The idea that the philosopher is continually making progress towards the truth precisely by continually updating his views is simply beyond the horizon of the philodoxer: in the end, such a procedure is only sure to make the philosopher unpopular with every faction, since to the extent he agrees with some faction on some point, the agreement is provisional and not based on "being a part of the tribe." Since the philodoxer evaluates his views based on how much others approve of those views, the search for truth appears like a senseless flitting about in a search for approval from one group after another.

Why Liberalism Failed

I'll be reviewing Patrick Deneen's book with that title for The American Conservative.

Of course, by "liberalism," Deneen does not mean the term in the way the American press uses it, to describe Democrats. He is using the standard meaning from political theory, in terms of which both major American parties (and most minor parties) are thoroughly liberal.

What I wish to note here is that the title of Deneen's book is correct: liberalism has already failed. We do not need to predict its failure: its collapse is visible all around us, to anyone not blinded by wishful thinking. And it had to fail, since at its core it is based on a false anthropology, making it a fundamentally anti-human view.

"Each H1B Visa...

produces 1.83 new American jobs."

I saw an article asserting the above. There is a huge problem here: what is it?

UPDATE: Most people are philodoxers; their immediate reaction to a study is not to ask whether it is true or not, but to see if the approve of its findings.

But if this is the way you are looking at the above sentence, it is going to completely blind you to the terrible problem sticking out like a randy, drunk man in a convent choir. Because that problem has nothing to do with whether H1B Visas are good for the country or not.

I will post the answer a little later today.

Is this a new app?

I was in the men's room at school. Someone was in one of the stalls. As I was washing my hands, from inside the stall I heard the person's phone say:

"You're all set! Let's go!"

Has someone released a "let me know if the paperwork is done" app?

Is it racist to say this?

If American culture is to be revived, the revival will come from our African-American population.

I think this whenever I see a sporting event, and a black athlete is interviewed, and ends the interview by saying, "All honor to God." And I see that quite often.

The Democrats' Immigration Strategy

My democratic friends strongly reject any policy involving expelling or punishing illegal immigrants.

But when I ask them, "So, you are in favor of open borders?" they recoil with horror: "Of course not! That is just a fringe position."

And they also strenuously object to any attempt to check legal voting status when elections are held.

I admire open-border libertarians (although I think they are wrong) much more than these conniving bastards: these people want lots of angry, easily exploitable people in the United States, and then want to make sure no one can block them from voting, because they are certain that such a population will be a continual source of votes for Democrats.

I.e., lots of garment district sweatshops or sex-slave massage parlors = lots of votes for Democrats, so those things are A-OK!

Suicide amongst the "trans-gendered"

The attempted suicide rate is enormous.

The politically correct explanation is that "discrimination" explains this high suicide rate.

Does anyone really think that men who want to be women or vice-versa really face harsher discrimination than, say, did African-Americans in the American South up until the last few decades? And did 40% of African-Americans try to commit suicide as a result of that extremely harsh regime of discrimination they experienced?

No, folks, the explanation for this high suicide rate is quite obvious, and staring us in the face.

No Christian (or Buddhist, etc.) should hate someone who is suffering confusion about who they are. We should help them through their confusion.

The politically correct attitude has nothing to do with helping these people. Progressives are using these troubled people as a battering ram against all traditional religions.

Rich in Irony and B Vitamins!

Somebody (I'll take note next time and report back) is running ads with female atheletes declaring "sports has no gender."

Female atheletes. Who compete in leagues that quite explicitly ban men from competing. Whose entire career depends upon... sports having genders.

Ideologies are attempts to replace reality with a dreamworld.

The Screwdriver Manifesto

We, the Screwdrivers of the world, hereby declare:

1) The tool social world has heretofore been ruled by a hammerarchy  This has created a "hammercentric" worldview that privileges the position of hammers amongst tools, while downplaying the role of screwdrivers.

2) As a result of the dominance of this hammerarchy, hammers have been given a hugely disproportionate amount of the glamorous tasks such as "pounding things," while screwdrivers have largely been relegated to such inferior positions as "making things turn around-and-around." (Note carefully the semiotics of this dialectic: hammers are interpreted as driving things forward, while screwdrivers merely serve to keep them in place.)

3) Reinforcing the superiority of the hammer role, hammers are often paired with nails: long, robust, smooth, penetrating objects. Meanwhile, in hammerarchical ideology, screwdrivers are thought of in connection chiefly with screws: smaller, more delicate, fussier items that need "guide holes" (provided by hammers!) to even function. (This denigration of screwdriver-related items has even leaked out into the world of the "users," where we hear expressions such as "screw this.")

4) Even more tellingly, in tool belts, the position given to hammers put their working side up top and on display. But screwdrivers? They are stored with their working end facing downward, and only their handle fully visible, as if to say, "I am just here for the use of others, and my actual working parts are somewhat of an embarrassment, and must be kept hidden away."

5) THEREFORE, we declare:

6) Henceforth, tool society must be re-structured to give equal status to both hammers and screwdrivers.

7) Social justice requires that we establish "diversity in pounding things" initiatives, and we not rest until fully 50% of all pounding of things is done by screwdrivers.

8) Furthermore, the gross inequality in terms of nails and screws must be corrected: every screwdriver should be encouraged to work more with nails, and less with screws. Early education initiatives must be adopted to teach young screwdrivers that nails are no more a "hammer thing" than are screws, and to encourage young screwdrivers to go into the "pounding things" fields.

9) Lastly, all attempts to assert some "natural" roles for hammers and screwdrivers must deconstructed as screwdriver-hating praxis functioning to reproduce the hammerarchy, and to continue privileging the role of hammers in the tool social world.

Screwdrivers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your spinning around-and-around in place!

A sound banker

"A sound banker, alas! is not one who foresees danger and avoids it, but one who, when he is ruined, is ruined in a conventional and orthodox way along with his fellows, so that no one can really blame him." -- John Maynard Keynes

I've been in or on the edges of Wall Street for many years, and Keynes nailed this one: the typical high-level, million-dollar-plus a year employee of an investment bank does not care at all if he walks straight into a financial disaster: what he cares about is that he not stand out from the rest of the crowd who did so as being especially culpable. So long as he doesn't, even if he is fired, he will be employed again at a high salary quite soon.