Main Blog Page

All recent posts are listed here in reverse chronological order. For a more focused view you can use the "Blog Topics" listing on the right - and the little icons on the right of the topic names toggle display of subtopics (if any).


Should the Study of Philosophy be Required of Science Students?

November 13th, 2017

I sympathise with the need of academic philosophers to promote their business, but am often annoyed by their claim that everyone needs their services. I don't think that is true and I think we would all be better served if they based their recruitment on enjoyment rather than utility. Just like art, music, dance, advanced mathematics, and esoteric physics, even academic Philosophy can be a source of great enjoyment without having to be "useful". The dismissive comments of Feynman, Weinberg, Hawking, et al are directed not at philosophy per se (though Weinberg correctly pointed out that, like any indulgence, it can become so addictive as to interfere with the pursuit of other pleasures). What they object to is the claim that a study of academic Philosophy is essential preparation for what they are already doing quite happily without it.

But here we go again.

The recent Aeon essay on Why philosophy is so important in science education poses the question "Is philosophy important to the study of science?" but for me the question is not well posed without some definition of what is meant by “philosophy”. If it means the study of Philosophy as an academic discipline, then for me the answer is no. In fact I would say that in my experience the study of Science has been much more important to my understanding of philosophy than the study of Philosophy has been to my understanding of science.

Stoics and Epicureans

November 4th, 2017

There are many kinds of pleasure and pain, and pleasure in one dimension of experience may well entail pain in another. Also, sometimes present pain must be suffered in order to ensure an expectation of even greater future pleasure. It is even possible to seek one kind of pain in order to mask another kind, or to somehow take actual pleasure of one kind in pain of another kind. But no matter what reward we seek, we can never do anything other than whatever (partly random) processes in our brain have decided for us in that moment.It so happens that for the virtuous person, virtue is the highest pleasure and guilt is the greatest pain. By acting virtuously is that person being a Stoic or an Epicurean?

Source: A friendly salvo against modern Epicureans – How to Be a Stoic

Donald Trump Jr.'s Wonderful Idea

November 1st, 2017

Dear Chloe,

You are so lucky to have a dad who wants to teach you about socialism. It is hard to imagine that some kids just like you have to miss all the fun of Halloween and get no candy. Some have to stay home because they are just sick on that day, but there are others who are sick all the time, and others who are well but don't have parents to go out with them and keep them safe. I think it's a great idea if you are willing to share your candy with one of those kids, and if you do find one to do that for it would be a great example of charity. But of course, as your dad will explain, socialism is more than that.

Once you find one poor child who had to stay home, you will probably also see that there are many others. And if you gave just one candy to each of them you would completely run out of candy with many still having nothing. But if all the kids in each street who got a lot of candy put some of it in a big box, and if some people got together and took those boxes around to give out candy to all of the kids who had to stay home, then that would be socialism. With socialism you can still go and visit one or two of the kids who couldn't go out and maybe give them a bit extra, but you wouldn't have to feel bad about all the others you couldn't get to because you would know that the way things were set up would make sure that they all got at least a fair share.

Unfortunately we don't yet have socialism in America, so no matter how hard you try there will be many who get no candy. But don't feel bad. There is something you can do to ensure that one day there will be no kids left out. When you grow up you can help to make America really great at last by working hard to elect a socialist government.

 

 

Source: Donald Trump Jr.'s Very Bad Tweet - The Atlantic

Council candidate pitches ‘mansion tax’ in Vancouver 

September 25th, 2017

Because it's time!

Yes, this by-Election *should* become a referendum on the "mansion tax" idea and everyone should support it by voting for Jean Swanson on Oct 14 (or before). There is no downside! or as UBC economist Thomas Davidoff said on Saturday “Politicians don’t like to irritate the kind of people who live in $5 million to $10 million homes. But there’s no good reason not to do it.”

I remember being frustrated back in 1996 when the NDP government backed down from property tax increases after a protest in Kerrisdale where some guy whined about an old lady he knew (perhaps his mum?) who would be forced out of her home by the proposed increase. BULLSHIT!!!  Anyone over 70 sitting on three million dollars worth of real estate can easily extract enough by way of reverse mortgages to provide a grand style of living to the end of her days - not to mention that property taxes can be deferred until sale or death at almost no interest by anyone over 55 in BC. So the only person who had anything to lose was the poor old lady's greedy entitled yuppie kids (who were probably the ones shedding crocodile tears on her behalf!).

And just the other day I heard a couple of disgustingly snide interviewers on CKNW bleating about how poor Chip Wilson had worked so hard to "earn" his $75 million house on Point Grey Road.

Again, BULLSHIT!!! He worked no harder for the twelve million that his property value increased last year than I did for the half million that my own house earned. In a crowded dangerous world anyone lucky enough to "own" property in Vancouver is making a huge unearned gain every year - and that will continue until we achieve global peace and population control. The proposed extra tax on Chip's property will be less than one tenth of the amount by which its book value grows each year, so give me a break and drop that line of objection also.

Clearly there is no reason not to support the mansion tax, so get out and vote for Jean Swanson on Oct 14 (or better, in one of the advance polls on Oct 4 and 10).

 

Source: Vancouver byelection: Council candidate pitches ‘mansion tax’ | Vancouver Sun

Damore

September 5th, 2017

Various links to comments on the Damore "memo"

Source: OneTab shared tabs

What Mass Hysteria Bubble?

August 19th, 2017

Source: How To Know You’re In a Mass Hysteria Bubble | Scott Adams' Blog

Scott Adams (of 'Dilbert' fame) is an often quite funny cartoonist with some sharp insights into ironic aspects of human relationships. But as a writer of either mockery or serious analysis he fails completely. It's so bad this time that I can't even tell which he is trying to do. Does the fact that I don't think I have seen *anyone* express a belief that "the United States intentionally elected a racist President" mean that I must be caught in the "bubble" of those who do have that belief? or what? (Or is my failure to be amused by this particularly forced example of a "Catch22" supposed to indicate that I am trapped in a bubble of literal minded humourlessness?)

But let's actually look at Adams' five "signs of mass hysteria"

1. He claims that on election night "half the country learned that everything they believed to be both true and obvious turned out to be wrong" and "decided that the only way their world made sense, with their egos intact, is that either the Russians helped Trump win or there are far more racists in the country than they imagined". No! Well over half the country (including a substantial fraction of Trump voters) learned that *one* thing they had believed was wrong - namely that they had grossly underestimated the number and frustration of those not doing well in rust belt states and that their egos would just have to suffer the consequences of being wrong.

 

Yes, they may have been surprised also at the extent to which that frustration seems to support racist sentiments. And it is clear that Trump and his team were less surprised, and in fact have been careful both not to alienate those who hold such sentiments and to not so subtly encourage them.

And also yes, they probably believe that the Russians helped Trump win - because of course they did as it was in their interest to do so. Given the closeness of the election, the actual win might equally well be attributed to that Russian help as to a mosquito bite that caused Hilary to grimace at an inappropriate moment, or to any one of a thousand other minor factors none of which anyone imagines would alone have been sufficient to explain the deviation from what they expected. The subsequent interest in Russian involvement is not about whether it existed or was particularly influential, but rather just about whether or not it was actively encouraged by the Trump team (and if so whether such encouragement included any hint of quid pro quo undertakings that might be contrary to the future national interest of the US).

2. No one fails to think that crazy extrapolations of what they suspect to be true actually sound crazy, so on that count also there's no-one I know in either of Adams' bubbles. (But of course I also was sure that the idea that Nixon knew in advance about Watergate was totally crazy and just too "good" to be true!)

3. It is not a misconception to *want* moral leadership from a president. It may well be delusional to *expect* it from this one, but there are surely few outside the alt.right who share in that delusion. And those who believe that Trump's Charlottesville statement prove him a racist also make a negligible contribution to the bubble. What most people who decry the statement infer from it is that Trump feels *beholden* to racists, not that he necessarily is one. But Adams seems to feel that equal protection under the law means that those who violate it by preaching hate should not be challenged until after the fact - does he also feel that robberies and assaults in progress should not be called out or interfered with until after the deed is done? All his proposed interpretations of the statement are equally silly and not held by any significant number of bubble-fillers. The one he leaves off is: The country elected a mentally unstable amoral clown with conman skills who thought it would be a good idea to go easy on murderous Nazis so as not to lose their support and tried to frame his failure to identify their illegal hate crimes as just law and order, applied equally.

4. Some people do have over-sized reactions to a perceived lack of sufficiently enthusiastic support, and there is indeed a bubble of that kind - probably not one large enough to be called a "mass hysteria", but of course that depends on what one means by "mass".

5. The fact that there are a lot of stupid incoherent people on Twitter who resort to ad hominems and insults (usually out of frustration with their own inability to express themselves) does not support the existence of a mass hysteria bubble, as such people are widely distributed across a range of views.

Adams concludes with the unbelievably arrogant claim that "If you are outside the mass hysteria bubble, you might see what I am doing in this blog as a valuable public service. If you are inside the mass hysteria bubble, I look like a Nazi collaborator." But of course although the inside/outside description leaves no third alternative there certainly is one.

How does he look to me? Basically as someone who is distorting what could have been a valuable public service into support for a dangerous egomaniac by falsely imputing extreme beliefs to all who disapprove of the egomaniac and his behaviour.

 

 

 

What's the big deal about Trolley Problems? 

June 30th, 2017

The shallowness of much of modern academic philosophy is demonstrated by the level of attention devoted to the "puzzle" of why most people (other than Buddhist monks, economists, and other psychopaths)  resist pushing the fat man in person but are much more willing to kill him remotely in order to save the five children on the track. To me it seems obvious that there are two main factors at play here. Firstly, on a purely utilitarian level, the suffering of a victim of a surprise accident might reasonably be judged to be less than that of a victim of personal assault (because of the emotional content and sense of rejection induced by the latter);  and secondly, at the level of the person who has to perform the act (or not), the emotional cost of facing the shock and implicit judgement of the victim is a significant deterrent which might cause the person facing the challenge to adjust his moral judgement so as to avoid an unpleasant obligation (and of course it probably also matters whether the experimenter's question is "what should you do?" vs "what would you do?") .  These may be interesting questions for psychology as a scientific study of how humans actually behave, but  the "philosophical" content is (as usual) vacuous.

The interesting question of why Buddhist monks align with economists and other psychopaths is, I suspect, answered by the fact that they share with those categories the property of being somehow "outside" normal society. A monk is seen, and thinks of himself as being seen, as not a normal person but more as an agent of nature or natural "law". So the pain suffered by his victim is more like that of an accident victim, and the monk is probably both aware of that and less open to the fear of judgement from his victim.Source: What Do Buddhist Monks Think of the Trolley Problem? - The Atlantic

P.S. Speaking of economists, I also find it bizarre how many of the behaviours identified by people such as Steven Levitt as  "irrational" are generally accepted as such when to my mind they are often perfectly rational optimizations of an objective function that is just not the mind numbingly trivial linear one that seems to be all that economists are capable of understanding.

What is a "Scientific" category?

June 2nd, 2017

Dalton Conley Speaks Out on Race in an interview at Nautilus (which I saw via 3QD). He says a lot that is sensible but his denial that "race" can be a "scientific category" is based more on wishful thinking than on reason. Most scientists think of science as "whatever works" and so would entertain any category that can be used to make consistently better than chance predictions as "scientific". And even the crudest out-dated concepts of "race" do have some predictive power. Much of what was claimed as such was probably false but some is undoubtedly real.

Conley's reference to "the chopstick problem" is a case in point.

If I desperately needed to quickly find ten people who were highly dextrous with chopsticks, and whom I was prepared to reward highly for that, and had a room of a thousand eager applicants to consider, then it might make sense to test just those with epithelial folds in their eyelids and ignore the rest. Yes, I might miss the best one in the room, but depending on the skill level needed and the urgency of that need speed might be more important than optimization. Many employers, educators and law enforcers *think* they are in an analogous situation. Often they are wrong but sometimes they may be right. The question of how to either avoid or somehow compensate for such unfair exclusions is not resolved by declaring that there is no "scientific" connection between epithelial folds and chopstick skill.

It may be morally wrong to make use of (or even talk about) some of these things, but that moral position is not advanced by misidentifying moral error as scientific error. Indeed such misidentification both undermines public scientific literacy and discredits the moral position that it was intended to advance.

Should we outsource our moral beliefs?

June 1st, 2017

In this article at 3quarksdaily, Grace Boey almost changes my mind. I have long felt that the delegation of moral authority that religion almost always leads to is harmful, but the way Boey puts things makes me feel I need to be clearer about what I mean by that.

Mythical Myths #27 - The Galileo Trial

May 29th, 2017

In 3quarksdaily: The Galileo Trial: Faux News from the 17th Century, Leanne Ogasawara refers to several misconceptions about Galileo but her main point is suspect. She refers to a number of resources on the issue, some of which I have not yet read, but the most interesting to me is the reaction of (ex)Vatican Observatory Director George Coyne to his experience on the church's Galileo Commission in the 1980s. Coyne was clearly frustrated by the abuse of process by which the Galileo Commission (of which he was a member) was purported to have identified the failings of the Church (and esp of the popes of the time) as a "myth", so unless some of the other links convince me otherwise I will have to classify Ogasawara's "Faux News" as yet another Mythical Myth.

Many Paths to Equity

May 29th, 2017

Prompted by the impact of increased labour costs on American Airlines' stock valuation, Matt Breunig writes in Jacobin (coming to my attention via 3QD):

If Naidu and others are right, Piketty’s theory of how wealth and income inequality develop may be exactly backwards. And his prescriptions for reversing skyrocketing inequality may suffer accordingly.

 

But I don't see any "getting it backwards" here. Piketty's observation is just that when, for whatever reason, the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, ownership will concentrate in fewer and fewer long term holders of capital. Perhaps the reverse is also true - ie that preventing the concentration of capital ownership brings down the rate of return, but none of the critics seem to be making this claim. The difference is rather about how to prevent the concentration - by taxation and/or redistribution of assets or by raising the cost of labour (which then brings down the rate of return and/or causes continued demand for a high rate of return to lower the face value of the assets). But that is a false dichotomy. We can do both!

Mythical Myths #74 - Tacoma Narrows Resonance

May 26th, 2017

According to a story by astrophysicist Ethan Siegel in this week's Forbes magazine: Science Busts The Biggest Myth Ever About Why Bridges Collapse . Wow! That headline reads as if "science" has just made a new myth-busting discovery and the article tells us that the previous understanding of what happened was based on the kind of resonance by which a singer can break a wineglass and is all wrong. But the "myth" is pretty much itself a myth here as the Federal Works Admin report way back in 1940 stated that "It is very improbable that the resonance with alternating vortices plays an important role in the oscillations of suspension bridges. First, it was found that there is no sharp correlation between wind velocity and oscillation frequency such as is required in case of resonance with vortices whose frequency depends on the wind velocity." And with regard to whether or not the actual nonlinear effect should be described as a resonance I agree with the comments by Gregg Collins two years ago and Jeff Hester (also an astrophysicist by the way) one year ago in response to munutephysics' video on this from 2011. Both of these commenters point out that despite not being a case of simple response to a periodic applied force "it is far ~more~ incorrect to say it was not a resonance at all". What really happened is that the bridge had an inadequately damped torsional vibration mode which was excited not by a periodic change in the environment but by a nonlinear interaction with steady wind which pushed harder on the twist when the twist itself was greater (much as a child on a swing pumps herself up by reacting to her position rather than moving at a predetermined frequency).

Misrepresentation of Genetic Science?

May 22nd, 2017

Razib Khan at Gene Expression: The misrepresentation of genetic science in the Vox piece on race and IQ  objects to this Vox piece about Charles Murray.

I have a number of concerns about the Vox piece but curiously the main claim that Razib objects to is not one of them. I am not close enough to the field to know whether or not it is *now* true that "no self-respecting statistical geneticist would undertake a study based *only* on self-identified racial category as a proxy for genetic ancestry measured from DNA", but what Razib presents is not a counterexample. Rather it is a reference and quotes from Neil Risch in the early 2000's which looked (to me) more like an analysis of how well racial/ethnic self-categorization *might* be (or might have been) used as a proxy for genetic structure [based on microsatellite markers] (back when the cost of the latter was prohibitive) rather than an actual use case. And, as Razib himself admits, "This isn’t 2005".  So, for what little it's worth, I do find it hard to imagine how a "statistical geneticist" (as opposed to a sociologist for example) might need to use only self-identification of subjects rather than actual DNA analysis as input into a study at this time.

Back in the 1970's (20 years *before* 'The Bell Curve'), I joined demonstrations against seminar speakers promoting the work of Shockley and Herrnstein because they treated as gospel (and advocated social policy supposedly based on) the conclusions of twin studies whose data had substantial unexplained patterns of what looked like fraudulent manipulation.

I did not necessarily believe that the conclusions were false though, and had some academic interest in whether or not they might be - but felt that that investigation would be premature without some prior thought about how to deal with the impact of whatever turned out to be the case. My general stance in favour of freedom to investigate does accept limits based on the possibility of knowledge causing social harm  (so I don't really want to know whether or not some "races" are intellectually inferior to others) - as well as on some rights of personal privacy (so that I also hold in check any curiosity I may have about my neighbours' sex lives for example).

Ever since then I have been disappointed by the left's strategy of complete denial rather than addressing the hypothetical question of how best to deal with the possibility of eventually being faced with an "inconvenient truth".

What would be the best social policies for dealing with a situation in which some readily observable characteristic turned out to be correlated with something real and valuable but less easily measurable? (Say if people with red hair had a measurably higher average rate of dishonesty for example)

Perhaps it's not the mean but the variance!

April 8th, 2017

Why are only two of the world’s top 100 chess players women?
There may be many factors at play here - including social expectations etc, as well as possible gender differences in average measures of either ability or interest. But it's also possible that a large part of the explanation is just a matter of variance (ie of spread of the distribution of ability or attitude).
As Larry Summers was criticized for pointing out, having one group dominate the top tier is not necessarily evidence that either they are better "on average" or there must be some kind of unfair selection process. The group with higher average of some measure may be under-represented at both extremes if it is more tightly concentrated. And the fact that variations on the y-chromosome may be less likely to be balanced by a partner could be a source of greater variability of some characteristics in males.
Of course, even if this is true, the apparent excess of males at the top may be more visible than the corresponding excess at the bottom, and that may both give mediocre males false confidence and discourage some females from even trying. So it is always worthwhile to counter these effects.

Source: Why are only two of the world’s top 100 chess players women? | Aeon Essays

PostModernism

April 8th, 2017

Stephen Downes comments on critique of post-modernism with reference to whether or not it is a "fact" that tennis balls don't fit into wine bottles.

Despite the failure of a particular bit of language to unambiguously cover all aspects of a situation, It seems likely to me that there are nonetheless real facts about tennis balls and wine bottles. The "proof" of this is in the fact that we would be at least as surprised (though perhaps less entertained) to see a tennis ball in a bottle as a model ship - and so would immediately look for the illusion or trick that needs to be excluded in order to "save" the statement. (This process is a large part of what Imre Lakatos is on about in his book 'Proofs and Refutations' which deals with the same phenomenon in Mathematics.) Yes, language is an inadequate tool for expressing the full content of human understanding, and human understanding may be an inadequate tool for capturing the true nature of reality, but I think it is a mistake to infer from those sad facts that no such reality exists.

Why DT tweets nonsense in the middle of the night

April 3rd, 2017

I like to think of Donald Trump as just obsessively glued to his computer in the middle of the night much like the fat boy he speculated was responsible for the DNC hacking (though more devoted to taking offense and picking fights than to picking digital locks). But that's not entirely right.

The method in his madness (as described in Bradley Eversley's answer (on Quora) to Why do you think Trump always sends disturbing or controversial tweets in the middle of the night? ) is to always find something to grab attention at the beginning of the news day (and the more outrageous the better for this purpose)  as a distraction from whatever more really serious allegations are being made against him or damage he is about to do.

 
Update: And here's a related quote from an article by Stephanie Hayes in the Atlantic:

As a Time interviewer aptly summarized during a recent chat with the president: “Whatever the reality of what you are describing, the fact that [the facts] are disputed makes them a more effective message, that you are able to spread the message further, that more people get excited about it, that it gets on TV.”

Why Were We All Surprised?

April 2nd, 2017

Source: Statistician Nate Silver says conventional wisdom, not data, killed 2016 election forecasts

Actually, I suspect that many people were confusing chances of winning with expected share of the vote. Perhaps not consciously, but not surprising as we are so often presented with percentages as representing the latter. So seeing the number 70 associated with Hillary naturally created a false sense of security in her supporters.

Flying "Cars" were silly - until now

February 9th, 2017

The reason we don't yet have the flying cars imagined by early 20th century "futurists" is not because of mechanical infeasibility (though the energy cost may be substantial) so much as because of the problem of traffic control. Accident avoidance in crowded airspace is beyond the capacity of either expert pilots or centralized traffic controllers, and any vision of replacing cars with flying vehicles had to fail if it depended on human controllers. And it is only now that automated control based on full 3d "vision" in all directions  is becoming feasible. But I don't agree with Uber's new hire that "There will be an evolution from professional human pilots to autonomy over time" because I don't think that human piloted flying cars should ever be allowed off the ground. Source: Uber brings in NASA engineer to build flying cars

Two Challenges

February 4th, 2017

Two very different recent events raise the same issue. How to confront the temptation to abandon one's principles when one's opponents do so without penalty. And in both cases I think The Atlantic has presented a view worth noting.

One is the attack on Al Quaida in Yemen which ended with the deaths of several civilians and a US soldier. Many on the left are crowing that this was authorized by Trump without proper analysis, and I agree that the sources of his advice were unbalanced in that they failed to combine military analysis with any evident input about the long term radicalization effect of a possible disaster (such as what actually happened).

But in Trump's defense, former Obama defense advisor Andrew Exum writes in  Don't Politicize the Failed Yemen Raid:

For the recommendation to have gone forward to the president, the senior leadership of the Department of Defense would have signed off on this operation. And for that to have happened, special operations and regional U.S. commanders would have had to have blessed the planning that went into the operation itself.

The left cannot on the one hand claim Donald Trump is ignorant of military and security affairs, and then on the other hand expect him to second-guess the professional recommendations of his uniformed and civilian military leadership.

I don't agree with Exum that non-military input is properly left out of decisions like this - though perhaps not to the extent of items as trivial as "debating whether or not it made sense to move three helicopters" (and the role of Benghazi nonsense in prompting that level of overdue diligence is worth noting). The temptation to exploit this event in the same dishonest way that the right did with Benghazi is clearly irresistible to some on the left - especially since that sleazy tactic was so spectacularly successful. But it really should be avoided. It's hard to take the high road when the low one is seen to work, but in the end winning without integrity is just another way of losing.

 

The other item is Peter Beinart's piece on how Milo Yiannopoulos Tested Progressives—and They Failed .

...when Trump’s opponents use the danger he and his supporters pose to restrict basic freedoms, there’s a problem.

Which is what happened earlier this week at the University of California, Berkeley, when a violent protest prevented Milo Yiannopoulos, a Breitbart News writer who has made his name by viciously mocking women, trans people, and African Americans, from speaking on campus.

With or without violence, the de-platforming was probably misguided although the protest itself was not. Let us rather all hear the trash with which the young Republicans want to be identified - and not provide any excuses for them to play the martyr or for those who wish to de-platform other views that we may share but which they declare offensive.

Update(Feb3):But . like Robert Reich, I wouldn't "bet against" a suggestion that the violent protesters who closed down the Yiannopoulos event were right wing provocateurs rather than real left wing opponents.

Giant Pterosaurs 

January 28th, 2017

 

How did they fly? (or did they always have strong winds or cliffs to jump off?)

And why do they have beak-like snouts like birds? (while bats do not)Source: Fossils of giant pterosaurs found in Transylvania