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Plus ca change ... meme chose!

July 23rd, 2014

Recent events in Vancouver civic politics echo similar stories from four and thirty years ago!

Implications of the Free Will Debate?

July 23rd, 2014

At Templeton's BQO site, Alfred Mele asks What Are the Implications of the Free Will Debate for Individuals and Society? But before looking at the content, let me comment on that title.

Sometimes titles are imposed by editors, but the chance that that one was put forward (or at least approved) by the author certainly reduced my expectation of learning anything from the article - and that reduced expectation turns out to have been appropriate.

The debate, being an extended event or occurrence, may have consequences, but since it is not a proposition it can't have any implications, and confusion between these two concepts permeates the article - with significant impact on its conclusions. (Often such language is used without adverse consequence - a newspaper editorial on the "implications of a trade agreement" for example may legitimately use the word "implications" as a colloquial substitute for "expected consequences". But in the context of this particular philosophical discussion the distinction is crucial.)

It may well be that, as some researchers claim to show, a belief in "lack of free will" may be associated with (and so perhaps even in some cases be a cause of) behaviour and opinions deemed to display a lack of self control.  And, if true, the fact of the debate having those consequences might imply that there are reasons to avoid it and instead to just encourage people to believe in the existence of  "free will" regardless of whether or not it is actually true - and this might apply even if the propositions established in the debate actually imply that all commonly held definitions of the term "free will" are either incoherent or refer to something that does not exist.

The research on consequences of the debate so far is not conclusive so I won't address the question of whether or not it might be a good idea to promote the existence of "free will" even if it doesn't exist (which of course also raises other questions as to the morality of claiming to serve the common good of our peers by deliberately misinforming them). Rather, I will just deal with whether the author has proposed a meaningful definition for something that does not not exist.

And he has not.

(I will continue this post with more on that later)

 

Mathematics, Mathematicians and Desire

July 17th, 2014

On Monday I attended the Math Ed Ph.D. defense of my former colleague Veda Roodal Persad, but although I had had some earlier discussions with Veda I have to admit that I hadn't actually seen and read the full thesis, so any comment here is based solely on the oral presentation. The subject was Mathematics Education, and the topic was 'Mathematics, Mathematicians and Desire'.  Veda's background is in Statistics and her teaching approach to both statistics and mathematics was always pretty much straightforward, so I was a bit surprised to see her interest in approaching Math Ed from the perspective of a Lacanian psychoanalytic cultural criticism. This is something I know absolutely nothing about so my understanding of what is really intended by many of the words may be completely wrong. But on the face of it (with conventional understanding of the words), who can disagree that desire is the source of motivation without which we cannot expect people to put in the effort required for real progress?

Veda took particular  inspiration from Lacanian scholar Mark Bracher who said "Insofar as a cultural phenomenon succeeds in interpellating subjects - that is in summoning them to assume a certain subjective disposition - it does so by evoking some form of desire or by promising satisfaction of some desire" and who then categorized desire into four forms:

  • Passive Narcissistic Desire is desire to be the object of another's  love, attention, and emulation ("I want to be recognized by mathematics and its community as a mathematician")
  • Active Narcissistic is desire to emulate or become the other (I want to be a mathematician - ie to be like those who wear that label")
  • Active Anaclytic is desire to have possess or use the other as a source of jouissance or pleasure ("I want to possess mathematics as a source of enjoyment - eg pleasure in knowing things and exercising skills")
  • Passive Anaclytic desire is to be possessed in service of the jouissance of the other ("I want to be desired by mathematics as a means of adding to its glory")

The audience had little trouble understanding the first three and how they can  be encouraged and used to contribute to even a beginning student's engagement with mathematics, but the last one caused one of the examiners to ask "How can mathematics desire? That's like saying this coffee cup can desire something". Now the second sentence there is a bit odd since there had been no objection to the idea of mathematics-as-a-community seeing the subject as a worthy object of emulation as a "good mathematician", but the idea of a beginning student actually being "needed" as a source of satisfaction even by the mathematics community, let alone the abstract discipline, is perhaps rather more challenging. Perhaps one could see the community as needing the satisfaction of  having resolution for an outstanding problem, but it is hard to see that as motivating for beginners - even though it certainly worked for three and a half centuries on those at a level capable of understanding the issue of Fermat's Last Theorem. Nonetheless, Veda insisted, and I found myself agreeing, that this is a potential source of engagement even for beginners. In fact, even without the math-as-a-community interpretation, there is a real sense in which mathematics as a body of knowledge can "desire" satisfaction from anyone at any level. (I use scare quotes here because perhaps the attribution of emotion to a non-human entity is really only metaphorical, but more on that later).

Of course, regardless of whether mathematics is really capable of "desire" , the passive modes of desire represent feelings of the subject, so wishing to feel desired or needed by the object (either human or otherwise) is a possible emotional state for the subject even if the object is not actually capable of having any such feelings. So we can ask what are examples of feeling needed by mathematics and whether such feelings can be stimulated in an early learner. I think not only that they can, but also that they provide the most powerful (almost addictive) attraction for the learner to the subject. The situation for mathematics is similar to that for poetry or music where artists often describe a work as demanding to be written. Most mathematicians have similar experiences of an idea, pattern, or proof demanding understanding and I think that if we could tap more into the power of creating and drawing attention to that experience at an early age then we might get many more potential addicts hooked on mathematics.

P.S. Re the coffee cup: even without emotions doesn't the handle need to be held and the cup to be filled?  One can say that calling these "needs" is merely metaphorical, but at one level (perhaps legitimately called psychopathic) the attribution of emotions to other humans is also metaphorical since it is only those of the self that are known directly.

Save Us From the Parasitic Drones

July 17th, 2014

There is a plague upon the  Earth! Every day of our lives your blood and mine is being sucked by a growing army of parasitic drones. You may barely notice their effect right now, but if the drones are not stopped your children and grandchildren will be condemned to lives of servile poverty.

If it weren't for the constant brainwashing with which we are flooded by their propaganda machine it would be obvious to all of us that a new and fairer tax scheme is needed in order to halt the increasing dominance of our societies by the parasitic drone class of  Non-Working Rich. But Robert Reich's tax proposals don't go nearly far enough. We urgently need now, in every country of the world, to limit the extent to which wealth can be passed to those who haven't in any way earned it.

My own (as yet incomplete) proposal for a universal asset transfer tax is intended to be both transparent and almost impossible to evade. It would tax any transfer of assets between individuals as income on both sides based on a declared value whose artificial reduction to avoid tax would be discouraged by the provision that the state would always have the option to acquire the asset for a price equal to whatever value was declared by its recipient. In order not to unduly slow down the economy, transfers between corporations for the purpose of economic production, purchase of materials, and more effective business structuring might be treated differently (although some sort of lower rate Tobin tax might still actually be useful to control volatility), and then there might be a need to disqualify some such transfers as merely re-formulations of personal transfers for the purpose of tax-avoidance.

Sexuality by Choice

July 16th, 2014

I never felt comfortable with "Born This Way" as I had no objection to people being gay by choice. So even though I have no actual skin in the game, I am happy to read Brandon Ambrosino in the New Republic saying Macklemore's "Same Love" Sends the Wrong Message About Being Gay.

Atheocracy

July 16th, 2014

I don't know if I should be called an atheist so I'm certainly not an atheistocrat but I'm sure as hell against all forms of theocracy so I'm happy to identify as an atheocrat. I had thought all  loyal citizens of the USA were supposed to accept such atheocracy as part of their constitution, but according to the  Catholic News Agency (via Ophelia Benson), American Bishop James D. Conley of Lincoln, Nebrasca deplores the "secular tendency towards atheocracy".

Thank you bishop for inventing a label I can live with.

Is Math "Hard"?

July 16th, 2014

A math major talks about fear - YouTube

A commenter objected to the statement that "math is hard" and I had to respond as follows.

Some math is hard is and some is not. Memorizing 3+4=7 is not hard, but *proving* 1+1=2 took 162 pages of Russell and Whitehead's Principia Mathematica in 1910, and the Fermat-Wiles theorem took 350 years from conjecture to proof (and defeated some of the greatest names in mathematics in the interim). Perhaps what she should have said is that *interesting* math is hard, but that's so obviously what she meant that the qualifier is unnecessary. Indeed *nothing* that's not hard is worth putting any effort into. (Breathing, at first sight, is not hard and it is only by seeking to perfect it and so "making it hard" that yoga teachers give its attention any value.)

The "problem" of Richard Feynman

July 13th, 2014

3quarksdaily points to this bit of nonsense about Richard Feynman (which in turn re-opens a number of earlier versions of the same "news").

What a pile of crap! Feynman was certainly "guilty" of occasional meanness, and of self-mythologizing to an almost absurdly grand (and completely unnecessary) extent, and also apparently of making sexist jokes in lectures (which, unlike some of those linked to from this article, I *do* consider a major issue!), but "pretended to be an undergraduate to get young women to sleep with him"? Oh come on! Let me see now - "Hi, I'm an incredibly handsome professor and future Nobel Prize winner, wanna fuck?" vs "Hi, I'm a kinda cute but dim and immature version of you, wanna fuck?" And, oh horror of horrors!, he went to bars and asked sex workers whether they were in the business of selling reality or fantasy before doing business (but soon discovered that that kind of sex was not what he wanted).  I don’t approve of the way he felt he had to denigrate the sex workers in his own mind before posing that question, but do these people have any idea how badly they have missed the real point (about how sexist the world was half a century ago - and about how some of the worst aspects of that attitude do still persist (esp. in the IT world) today)?

P.S. Whenever a stranger offers to buy me  a drink (or food, or anything else), unless the invitation includes others, or is made in the context of some evident specific celebration on their part or apparent need on my part, then I assume they want sex (or something else) in exchange (and if in doubt I try to make clear to them whether or not that is actually an option before accepting the offer).

Update: scientificamerican.com has taken down an earlier post on this issue as being not up to their "quality" standards - but apparently only because it failed to be sufficiently slanderous, as it has now been replaced by another article which makes a number of the same good points but includes a more explicitly dishonest portrayal of what Feynman did with regard to students (dishonest by using language which any uninformed reader would interpret as referring to doing sex-for-grades exchanges without any evidence other than his own admission of doing the opposite by underplaying his status in his dealings with prospective sex partners)

By far the most serious allegations against Feynman from the point of view of “Science Outreach” are those about his use of sexist humour in his lectures (which were almost dismissed by Julia Lipman in 1999 and have been totally ignored in the most recent bit of excitement). His choice of stories to include in his popular books is also unfortunate – but more because of the “clear and present” danger of misinterpretation in a way that will not just reflect badly on him but might indeed discourage potential future female scientists (rather than from what they actually say).

The fact that he may have sometimes been, in the terms of his time, a “cad” in personal relationships (which, despite not having seen any convincing evidence, I find plausible on the basis of his manifest personal vanity and narcissism) may indeed be of interest in a general biographical context – and also as an example of why it is not a good idea to designate him, or anyone else, as the ultimate hero. But it is not actually supported by the content of either his sex-with-students or B-girl stories. That he chose to tell those stories may convey something to be concerned about, but the actual content does not. And anyone who does not admit that is being either dishonest or incompetent.

An interesting counterpoint to the critical articles is provided by the transcript of interviews with Jenijoy LaBelle  who knew him at Caltech (through an initial meeting that some might find "creepy" but which she just found amusing) and whose tenure battle he supported in the 1970s. (But perhaps LaBelle herself would be dismissed as a character reference by those who consider any sexual relationship between a faculty member and student to be "predatory" even if there is no actual instructional relationship between them.)

Further update (2014-07-16): I just read a relevant post by Saramoira Shields at 'mathematigal' who links to some places where PUA types seem to take support from his stories (a connection that was also noted earlier by others)  and replied with

From the assholes (PUA types) you link to I can see that it is true that some of Feynman's stories do contribute (through what I consider gross, but quite predictable, misinterpretation) to some of the nastiness you have experienced. I am not surprised by that, and I consider his use of those stories to have been exceedingly ill-advised, stupid, and wrong. But I do not agree with those who interpret the behaviour he describes as misogynistic. I don't think he hated or even dismissed women relative to men, but "merely" that he was so involved in his own "cleverness" that his vain narcissism blinded him to any adverse consequences of his actions or their re-telling.

 

Just Say No to Copyright Term Extension

July 12th, 2014

Howard Knopf is right of course in his objection at EXCESS COPYRIGHT: Just Say No to Copyright Term Extension - Why More is Less: My Views on #TPP.

But I would go further. No copyright on any work should ever be extended beyond that which was in place at the time of its creation.

Not only is it obvious that no such extension of copyright can add any incentive to the creation of the work, but the extension is also actually an act of theft - first from the public whose rights are given away, but also from the creator (and any previous owner) who sold the work for a price based on the copyright term in effect at the time of the sale.

Who are the Authoritarians?

July 10th, 2014

Are the Authoritarians Winning? by Michael Ignatieff | The New York Review of Books is a disappointingly vapid piece by Michael Ignatieff in which he reviews a number of recent books about the global situation.

Authority is just a matter of effective control - which always resides somewhere. Any government is based on a claim of authority and the only difference about a democracy is that the authority is claimed by the electorate. To limit the scope of its authority is merely to reassign that authority to individuals - which in a "liberal" democracy means to the wealthy.

Ignatieff's most telling comment is this: "While the liberal state was never intended to enforce distributive equality, it was always supposed to keep the power of big money from suffocating competition and corrupting the political system."

The opening conditional adverbial clause of that sentence is the key. Contrary to Ignatieff, distributive equality (properly defined) is, in my opinion, the only fair goal for any state or government. Anything else is just the facilitation of theft by attempting to mitigate its consequences. So how is distributive equality to be defined and achieved? My answer is as follows:

First, it does not mean that everyone always has the same access to comfort regardless of effort. And while talent is not earned it may take some time for people to accept that it does not somehow justify increased reward, so I am not going to make having reward independent of talent be an objective at this time. But in the meantime we should at least be able to get majority support for the idea that, although luck might also be a factor, it should not be actively enhanced by the state. So inheritance of property should ideally be out as a source of inequality. Everyone should receive, at an appropriate age, an equal share of the then current national (or eventually global) wealth as their rightful inheritance - perhaps by choosing between either three equal instalments at ages 15,25, and 35 or a single lump sum at age 21. This should be paid for by a combination of 100% death duty with a simple uniform tax on wealth and wealth transfers (including gifts) - to be adjusted as necessary so as to meet the needs for financing the legal system, protection of persons and property, publicly funded infrastructure, and social services for those unable to make a go of it on the basis of their inheritance, as well as to provide the ongoing provision of inheritances to those attaining the relevant age(s). The wealth tax should cover at least all costs of  the legal and property protection systems (including "national" defense). And the transfer tax should apply to all exchanges of property and labour, including gifts. Both should be based on declared values with no item of property to be either insurable or protectable via the law for more than its declared value - perhaps with a forced exchange to the state at the declared value as a possible consequence to discourage under-valuation, and the transfer tax should be applied to the greater of the declared values of the two sides of the transaction. The transfer tax might also include a progressive element based on the total of all transfers to or from an individual over a standard time interval (eg a year, as with current income tax).

This is simple effective and will work.  I will allow 48 hrs yrs for the submission and consideration of suggested changes, but at the end of that period it will need to have been put into effect globally - or I will be forced to express my severe annoyance.

Remember, you have just 48 hrs yrs, so get any comments or objections in as soon as possible!

What if it were true?

June 28th, 2014

Kennan Malik provides a fairly nuanced response to Nicholas Wade's recent book (advocating the idea of cognitive differences between races), and (of course) I think he is right to join those who condemn the second half of Wade's book. But despite the nuanced approach he takes to the first half (about the existence of race as a biological concept) I still think Malik falls into the trap of using incompletely convincing arguments to deny even the possibility of things that we all hope are false turning out to actually be true when he comes down in the end against the possibility of defining "race" in biological terms as "plausible but mistaken".

The problem with saying "those who think that ‘race’ is nothing more than a social construction and those who think it a natural category are both mistaken" is that it presumes to know what *all* of those who think it a natural category actually mean.

There are (probably several) perfectly good scientifically meaningful (and useful) concepts which coincide where applicable with the colloquial socially constructed concept of "race". I can't think of any that provides a *complete* classification of humanity into a finite number of subsets but such a classification is not necessary in order for a concept to be useful. Malik has acknowledged one such use in the assignment of medical treatments, and despite the lack (so far) of any convincing evidence it is not inconceivable that there may be statistical links to social propensities and cognitive skills as well. Of course, given our apparent inability to respond appropriately if such links really exist, it may well be inadvisable to look for them, and any claim of their existence would require an especially high standard of proof in order to be taken seriously. In fact, to look for them at all may be harmful and should not be encouraged, and for someone like Wade (who should know better) to claim to have found them on the basis of superficial analysis is just plain evil.

In the meantime though, I think there may well be value in addressing the question of how we should deal with such links in the (perhaps very unlikely) event that they do turn out to exist.

Science and Philosophy

June 26th, 2014

Some late comments on Richard Carrier's blog post re 'Is Philosophy Stupid?' raise interesting questions about the relationship of science to philosophy.

While I have always been inclined to share Richard's view that science (aka "natural philosophy") is actually a branch of philosophy, I am now tempted to question that identification.

To me a "science" is just any teachable method for making successful testable predictions. Although the predictions may be stochastic in nature, the criterion of testability is intended to restrict attention to predictions of a kind (such as "this needle will point into that range on the scale") about which it is almost impossible to imagine any sane person questioning whether the predicted outcome actually happened. (Often in practice we use less apparent predictions expressed in terms of theoretical constructs, but in principle everything should be reducible to counting unambiguous objects or events.)

As such, science is a practice which happens to be useful for achieving practical goals, but so is walking and I don't think anyone would think of walking as a branch of philosophy (even though it might well be a practice that helps clear the mind in support of some kinds of philosophy).

Philosophy is, for me, much harder to define but I think it has to include some beliefs re truth and/or value, and I think there is a subtle difference between making a prediction and claiming that the prediction is "true".

The belief that scientific predictions do represent a kind of truth is a philosophical position, and the stronger position that there are no others has (by what I consider an offensive abuse of language) been called "scientism".

By profession I have been a scientist - but by philosophy I am not so sure.

On the other hand, if science does coincide with natural philosophy then what's left for the philosophy departments is just the non-natural kind (supernatural and unnatural).

Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy | Sean Carroll

June 23rd, 2014

Sean Carroll says that Physicists Should Stop Saying Silly Things about Philosophy, but physicists are not the only culprits.

Some of the best philosophers have been at least as critical of "philosophy" as the most strident of physicists. And some of the seemingly objectionable quotes from physicists come in response to the loud claims by some (often unemployed) philosophers that we "need" their expertise for some reason or other. Although I enjoy and see value in the study of how our understanding of various "deep" questions has evolved (or not) over time, I do not need the advice of a professionally trained philosopher to help me decide even moral questions - let alone issues of natural philosophy. In my opinion, the discipline of philosophy would be better served by an attitude common among my mathematical physics colleagues - namely pride in the belief that what we do is "useless" from a crudely materialist perspective but still of great aesthetic value to those who appreciate it.

P.S. I don't think it was fair to elide "completely useless" into "uninteresting or unimportant". And the most famous comment re usefulness was in fact (intentionally) open to a wide range of interpretation since many species of birds would now be extinct but for the interest of ornithologists (even though those birds need neither ornithologists (nor aerodynamicists) in order to actually fly).

What's in a Gift Horse?

May 17th, 2014

Two quite distinct sources in my news and info feed coincidentally raised the issue of looking askance at philanthropy at the same time this week.

On May 11 Nassif Ghoussoub's 'Piece of Mind' on the dark side of philanthropy addresses the issue of possible undue influence by donors on research directions in the higher academic world, and one day later Benjamin Soskis at 'The Atlantic' writes about the importance of criticizing philanthropy in the context of K-12 education "reform".

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin honoured - Telegraph

May 12th, 2014

It's nice to see Google continuing to honour female figures in science.

Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin is the latest such, and it is no adverse reflection on Dr Hodgkins that her status as the only female British Nobel Prize winner might have been taken a couple of years earlier by another British female crystallographer, Rosalind Franklin, but for the rampant and unrepentant vivism of the Nobel committee and the unfortunate early death of Dr Franklin (who would have surely taken the place of Maurice Wilkins in 1962 had she not died at the young age of 38 - just 4 years before the DNA structure was acknowledged).

Critical Economics Goes Viral

May 1st, 2014

There's been plenty of critical analysis of modern capitalism especially since after the latest crash so the I am curious to see why Thomas Piketty's version is getting so much attention.

Does Net Neutrality need Usage Based Billing?

April 30th, 2014

It may not be surprising that many of those shocked by recent news reports of a threat to 'Net Neutrality' are the same ones who object most strongly to 'Usage Based Billing', but it is nonetheless a bit odd.

After all, if people paid for internet service on the basis of how much of it they used then they would be in a much stronger position to object if the services they want (as opposed to those their ISP wants to sell) were provided at a reduced speed.
I have said before that I wouldn't mind UBB if it was done on a pay-as-you-go basis rather than imposed via effective entrapment by billing after the fact for use that the consumer is not in a good position to effectively monitor, and that was largely because what I want is mostly niche products - not in great quantity but with high unthrottled data rates for what I do want.

But in the long run there may be light at the end of the tunnel - opening out into a world of universal free unlimited bandwidth. How can this be? Well right now the infrastructure of our connectivity is by fixed cables, phone wires and optical fibres, but once there are enough wireless-capable smart and fast devices distributed around us then perhaps a peer-to-peer wireless network might be able to compete effectively with the current service providers - at least for those needs where the latency introduced by multiple short hops might be sufficiently offset by lots of distributed local caching (as in bitTorrent?). Of course, live phone calls and videoconferencing (and interactive gaming?) might never be freed from the need for an industrial-strength provider to handle the long hops. Interestingly it seems to be exactly the mass media products that ISPs now want to give preferential treatment which would be most effectively dealt with via the P2P alternative, so let's hope that someone like Netflix is able to keep that option open.

Are Climate Claims for Burning Renewable Trees a Smokescreen?

April 30th, 2014

This article (series) in The Tyee brings up, and actually slightly confounds, two important questions.

One is the issue of carbon "credits" in advance of the sequestration that they are purported to buy. This points up what to me has always been the second and fatal flaw in the whole carbon credit business which is the fact that it virtually begs for abuse. (The first but perhaps not quite fatal flaw being the idea of giving away free initial emission permits to current heavy industrial emitters)

The other question is about long term sustainability independent of the economic pricing and incentives issue, namely just is it possible to generate combustible biomass at the same rate it is consumed? Or is this just the beginning of a process of burning up every scrap of tissue on the planet just as the pre-coal use of wood as a fuel led to the destruction of forests all over the world and in some places like Easter Island has probably already been a cause of civilizational collapse.

Militant Ideology

April 25th, 2014

Ahmed Humayun at 3quarksdaily writes of The Shadow of Militant Ideology over Islam. He thinks that "it is clear that the greatest danger of militant ideology is posed to Muslims living in Muslim majority societies", but although that may well be true of specifically Muslim kinds of militancy I think it is a mistake to see the militant tendency as a specifically Muslim problem. The present situation in the Ukraine is surely evidence otherwise, and the danger it poses is global.

P.S. I was drawn into commenting at 3QD by Humayun's use of the term "muslim lands" which commenter 'joe mooney' correctly objected to as an "unfortunate term which speaks to a narrow tribal, mindset that is exclusive". The problem with "lands" is that it is so often used to imply exclusive ownership by an ethnicity or religion, often in the sense of something which must be held on to permanently at all costs, and so itself becomes one of the strongest emotional components of a militant ideology.

Karl Polanyi Explains It All

April 17th, 2014

Interesting observation from someone who wrote in 1944

Contrary to libertarian economists from Adam Smith to Hayek, Polanyi argued, there was nothing “natural” about the free market. Primitive economies were built on social obligations. Modern commercial society depended on “deliberate State action” by and for elites. “Laissez-faire” he writes, savoring the oxymoron, “was planned.”

via Karl Polanyi Explains It All.