Sunday, July 31, 2016

Being offended at the drop of a hat is not a virtue

I just saw someone greviously upset on social media because, while a black fellow had won the Texas high school spelling bee, no one was reporting on this.

I apologize for not being properly offended, but I don't know who won any of the other 49 states' spelling bees this year either. These sort of contests generally only makes the news when there is something really unlikely about the winner, so that a fifth grader winning a high school level contest makes the news, or someone who just learned English two years ago. But really, the person complaining can't possibly want the press to treat a black person winning the same way it treats someone who just learned English winning, can he? That would be really offensive, and a true cause for complaint.

Ezra Klein, Phoney baloney

Ezra Klein is apoplectic about Donald Trump's recent statements on the Khans. He is sputtering about how no previous president or presidential candidate would have ever done anything so horrible.

Now, I think Trump's remarks were ill-considered, and I have endorsed Jill Stein for president. There is no doubt the Trump spouts a lot of nonsense, and some of it is mean-spirited.

But we have had presidents who owned slaves and moved them in and out of the capitol so they would not become free, who owned slaves and impregnated them, who imprisoned people who criticized their policies, who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Filipinos in order to make them "Christian" when they had been Catholic for several centuries already, who imprisoned thousands of people in concentration camps based solely on their ethnic origins, who authorized the destruction of entire cities containing hundreds of thousands of innocent women and children, who lied us into wars, who authorized the use of torture, and who have killed thousands of noncombatants in drone strikes.

But to Klein, all of that is apparently just the way the cookie crumbles. However, when Trump says something mean, that, that is an unimaginable depth of moral degradation! Mr. Klein, have you no shame?

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Manent's thesis

As I am nearing the end of Manent's very interesting book, I want to try to summarize his thesis. (I am, of course, reviewing the book, and would need to do so soon anyway.)

The topic which Manent wishes to explore is that of the relationship of French Muslims to the French nation as a whole, and vice a versa. And the first thing I want to note about this topic is how many people will reflexively reject the idea that there is any such topic worth discussing. "French Muslims," they will say, "are no different then any other French person: they are rights-bearing individuals who are citizens of the French nation, and more importantly, of Europe. And even to suggest that there could be some issue of the relationship of the French nation as such to the Muslim community as such is probably an indication of racism or Islamaphobia."

But Manent sees such a response as a symptom of an ideological delusion, a deliberate refusal to look at reality. France is an historical entity, not an abstraction, and to be French is much more than to simply possess certain rights. And Muslims do not see themselves as atomic individuals adrift in a French sea of other atomic individuals, but as members of a community of believers, the Ummah, who together share a moral way of life. Thus, the secular liberal response of denying there can even be an issue of how the nation of France relates to its Muslim population is doubly false, and starting from a false view of a situation, one typically only makes a further botch of it, like one who is trying to operate on his pet frog, with his eyes closed, while repeating to himself that the frog is actually a pocket watch.

On the occasions when secular liberals are even able to admit that France might have a "Muslim problem," a typical solution recommended is that France's Muslims must "Westernize." But Manent dismisses this as a fantasy: the "modern Westerner" these Muslims are advised to transform into is himself only an abstraction, and not a concrete identity anyone could actually live. And Muslims themselves generally shown no inclination to achieve the status of the spiritually empty, cosmopolitan modern consumer. For the most part, they seem to actually prefer to be part a community grounded in shared moral precepts. Furthermore, as Manent points out, this request is hardly fair to Muslim immigrants who were not told, when they came to France, that they would have to surrender their way of life as part of their move.

Manent's solution to the problem posed by the Muslim community existing inside the French nation, stated quite generally, is that first of all the French must reacquaint themselves with their existence as a national community, something they have been busy denying. Then the French nation can come to recognize the existence of another community within its borders, one characterized by a different way of life. At that point, the true nature of the problem to be addressed comes into view: the question is how these two communities can establish friendly relations, so as to permit them to coexist peacefully within a single nation-state.

I will look at more of the particulars of Manent's solution in another post, but I want to bring one of them up here, to give you a flavor of what they are like. Manent recommends that the French government forbid foreign funding of mosques and Islamic schools within France. To make up for this loss of funding, he suggests that might be appropriate for French governmental entities to help fund such activities as mosque-building. The idea is that of a friendly compromise: the French nation would be saying to its Muslim population, "You are welcome here, and welcome to continue your own way of life here, but only on the condition that you break ties with foreign governments that may have the aim of undermining the French nation. And in return, we will make up some of the funding that you forgo in order to show your loyalty to France, in order to show our friendliness to you."

A proposal like this will no doubt drive many secular liberals up the wall, since it runs counter to so many of their "principles." It does, however, have the advantage that it might actually work.

Friday, July 29, 2016

Specifying a transition matrix

The Python library numpy allows its users to create a matrix from a string representation. So I can enter a transition matrix for a Markov chain like this:

".95 .05 0 0; 0 0 1 0; 0 0 .95 .05; 0 0 0 1"

OK, that's not bad, but I would like to allow my users to just specify the actual transitions, and not have to fill in all of those zeroes. So I'd like to have something like:

0 -> 0 = .95
0 -> 1 = .05
1 -> 2 = 1.0
2 -> 2 = .95
2 -> 3 = .05

And so on. But of course I don't want to do string parsing to interpret a table like the one I just presented. Maybe I want tuples like:

[0, 0, .95]
[0, 1, .05]
[1, 2, 1.0]

In any case, I'm just mulling this over at present, and looking for ideas.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Avoiding Programmer's Block

Similar to avoiding writer's block, sometimes you just need to start coding. Now, this should not mean simply hacking with no goal in mind. But occasionally, the overall design of some module just doesn't become clear until you start coding parts of it, at least for me. This is happening for me now in trying to code certain agent-based models as Markov chains. I wasn't getting a clear picture of how the overall module would work (although I knew it would), so I just began coding a single function at a time. And gradually, the entire picture has become clearer and clearer.

Integrated Development Environments

Folks, UNIX is the ultimate IDE. That is what it was written for!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Free Trade Is Great

In general.

But we do not live "in general." We live in particulars. And free trade may not be so great in a particular case. An example:

If I had been the king of the United States in 1985, I would have been worried about the fate of Detroit. Yes, the U.S. auto industry has become sclerotic, and things had to change. But I would have worried about the impending death of a great American city. What I would have done is declare a tariff on foreign automobile imports, set high enough in year one to protect Detroit's current sales, and then declining over, perhaps, 20 years, so that at the end there was no tariff at all. This gives the people of the city time to adjust their lives to the new reality. Other Americans would have paid somewhat more for cars during that period, but it would be worth it... to protect the common good of American society.

Of course, I made myself king in the above scenario. An obvious problem is that in reality, once the tariff was established, there would have been intense lobbying to keep it in place. But these practical difficulties are merely indicators that our politics has lost the sense of seeking the common good, and are not a problem with judicious trade regulations themselves.

I'm liking Nassim Nicholas Taleb more and more

I've been following him on Twitter, and now I found this:
What's a IYI?

Intellectual Yet Idiot: semi-erudite bureaucrat who thinks he is an erudite; pathologizes others for doing things he doesn't understand not realizing it is his understanding that may be limited; imparts normative ideas to others: thinks people should act according to their best interests *and* he knows their interests, particularly if they are uneducated "red necks" or English non-crisp-vowel class.

More socially: subscribes to the New Yorker; never curses on twitter; speaks of "equality of races" and "economic equality" but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver; has considered voting for Tony Blair; has attended more than 1 TEDx talks and watched more than 2 TED talks; will vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable; has The Black Swan on his shelves but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence; is member of a club to get traveling privileges; if social scientist uses statistics without knowing how they are derived; when in the UK goes to literary festivals; drinks red wine with steak (never white); used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed; takes statins because his doctor told him so; fails to understand ergodicity and when explained forgets about it soon later; doesn't use Yiddish words; studies grammar before speaking a language; has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen; has never read Frederic Dard, Michael Oakeshot, John Gray, or Joseph De Maistre; has never gotten drunk with Russians and went breaking glasses; doesn't know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba; doesn't know that there is no difference between "pseudointellectual" and "intellectual"; has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past 5 years; knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation.

But a much easier marker: doesn't deadlift.
I especially like this one: "speaks of 'equality of races' and 'economic equality' but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver": I always love being lectured on racism by white liberals who have known about five black people in their lives, each of whom had a graduate degree. I always want to take them into the illegal, after-hours hip-hop club in Sunset Park I was in at 5 AM a few months ago, and watch them shit themselves.

Hat-tip to Leslie Marsh.

My Presidential Endorsement

I know you've all been waiting!

Given Trump's disappointing VP pick, I now support Jill Stein for president. I think a number of her positions are foolish, but I said peace would be my top priority, and I am sticking with that declaration. And Stein is now, to me, clearly the best candidate in that regard.

What impertinence!

"Those who speak only the language of individual rights will never treat a social or political problem pertinently." -- Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism, p. 79

Democratic Schizophrenia(?) on Illegal Immigration

On the one hand, Democrats are always portraying themselves as champions of illegal immigrants, contrasting themselves with the mean Republicans who actually want to enforce our immigration laws.

On the other hand, they never seem to recommend actually repealing all immigration restrictions, thus establishing "open" borders (with perhaps some restrictions on the entry of felons, etc.), which would seem to be the best, easiest fix for the plight of illegal immigrants. (I'm not saying it is best for the United States, but perhaps it is best for people who want to immigrate here but cannot enter legally.)

This is kind of weird... unless the Democrats' actual goal is to have a large client population of disadvantaged people ready to support them, where it is precisely their difficult circumstances that Democrats are counting on to cement their support for Democrats..

Calling reader Scott

Can you contact me by email? (gcallah at mac dot com) Thanks!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The great game of complaint

"This ridiculous tyranny [of appearance over reality] affects our Muslim citizens as well, forcing them, too, to live on this artificial stage, the vanity of which is as evident to them as to anyone. It is true, as I said, that their first movement is often take advantage of this arrangement, and to enter into the role that is offered to them. In doing so, moreover, they are only participating in the great game of complaint that has for sometime been the preferred vocal register of the constituent groups of our society... In any case, the transformation of the public conversation into a tearful quarrel has deleterious consequences for society as a whole and for each of its parts consequences that are all the more serious for those parts that are more distant from the heart of national life." -- Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism, pp. 75-76

Politics as a mise on scène

"By their determination to lay down the law concerning social perception and the words that translate them, our governments are increasingly abandoning actual political action. They proceed as if social life were a spectacle and as if the parts of the body politic were objects the perception of which were subject to command: politics becomes a mise en scène. Through ever more emphatic words and gestures, they go to great lengths to command us not to see." -- Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism, p. 75

It is interesting to contemplate what we are "commanded not to see" here in the United States. For instance, although black people in New York City commit homicide at roughly 30 times the rate of white people, and a white person is many times more likely to be killed by a black person than vice-versa, we are constantly being told about how dangerous it is to be black, due to white racism.

And merely to point out these facts, which really anyone living in New York senses already, is to risk a charge of racism. We are being commanded not to see. I recently received a post on social media about how some black guy left the house to play Pokemon Go, but wound up spending all of his time worrying about being a victim of racist violence. The very same day, I saw three black teenagers walking through my mostly white neighborhood, playing the game with no apparent worries about being subject to violence... and rightly so. Incidents like the one in Howard Beach, where a group of whites beat one or more black strangers, are so rare that they are remembered thirty years later. These black teens are at far less risk of violence in my neighborhood than they would be in most black neighborhoods in the city.

This would be a farce if it were harmless, but it becomes a tragedy when black neighborhoods receive less policing due to charges of racism against cops, with the result that more black people are killed. Playing make-believe about real social problems guarantees that they won't be solved.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Computers on TV

If they don't want to bother getting what characters say right, why not just completely make things up? Why use real software engineering words, but use them to spell nonsense?

Here is Reid from Criminal Minds:

"C++, which is a programming language that uses hexadecimal code..."


Not getting the trade argument

Libertarians love their abstract analysis of the benefits of free trade. And that analysis is not wrong: just partial and incomplete.

But what they are doing is essentially this: they are coming up to a guy who lost his factory job nine years and hasn't been able to find more than part-time work since. He lives at home with his elderly parents, whom he cares for, because they certainly can't afford outside care. His wife left him to move 500 miles away to a city where this is work. His brother gets by through running a meth lab up in the hills. His town is a dilapidated wreck, unemployment is 30%, the jobs there are pay little, most kids are born out of wedlock, and more people died last year from drug overdoses than from natural causes.

And libertarians are telling him that free trade has worked out great... "Because look how cheap your flat-screen TV is!"

Turning a probability vector into a state

The problem I faced was in programming a Markov chain application, I wanted to turn a probability vector into an actual state of affairs. Here is what I came up with:

This seems to do the job, but is there an easier way?

UPDATE: As soon as I looked at this again, I realized I did not need to create a map or do two loops:

Saturday, July 23, 2016

And an Example:

A plain fact that methodological individualism will block us from seeing or accepting:

"The facts authorize us -- no, they oblige us! -- to say that Islam as such, Islam understood as a meaningful whole, is in motion, that it strives and struggles, in a world [where] it is an actor on the stage of history that must be taken very seriously. Thus the world in which we must live and act is a world marked by the effort, the movement, the forward thrust of Islam." -- Beyond Radical Secularism, p. 39

How Adopting Methodological Individualism Makes It Harder to Understand the Social World

A friend of mine had mentioned on social media how puzzling the geopolitical events of the past year were for him. I could explain his perplexity with a single phrase: "methodological individualism."

The idea(s) behind methodological individualism, however they are put, turn out to be false or vacuous. It is just not true that the only good explanation of social events individual, or that the only "final" explanation is individual, and so on for any exclusionary version of methodological individualism. Turn out to be not individualism at all: the fact that individuals mean something in social explanations is not particularly controversial, and doesn't really distinguish any methodological anythingism from any other one, except perhaps extreme holism.

And it is not simply false but innocuous: It is actively harmful to to anyone trying to understand human social affairs. As Pierre Manent puts it:

"As I've said, our political regime and our way of life invite us to reduce all spiritual masses to the individuals that constitute them. Finally, however, however much we may desire to see everywhere only rights-bearing subjects and individuals seeking their own interests, we run into a number of great collective facts that are decisive for world affairs." -- Beyond Radical Secularism, p. 40

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?

Well, if I were the president of Dunlop, I suppose I might think that.

"Mexicans Are Rapists"

"Ban Muslims."

You probably think Donald Trump said the first of these things, and proposed the second. I would think that too, if I only listened to the media, because I see these claims being made again and again.

Mexicans Are Rapists

Let's look at the first one. What did Trump actually say? Here is the best I can do at reconstructing the original quote in a couple of minutes of Googling:

"Mexico isn’t sending their best people. They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists."

He's complaining about illegal Mexican immigrants. And he begins by saying "Mexico isn’t sending their best people."

OK, it is very weird to talk about Mexico "sending" immigrants our way. But note: he is very specifically differentiating "their best people" from the illegal immigrants from Mexico. Mexico, this implies, has lots of excellent people: but those aren't the ones illegally immigrating here.

Secondly, the rest of the sentences are clearly an elliptical way of saying, "Some of them bring drugs. Some of them are rapists." Because what he adds after that is "Some of them are good people."

This was certainly an inflammatory way of talking. Someone more careful would have been sure to add the "some," and then would have made the caveat "Most of them are good people."

So yes, Trump says things he perhaps shouldn't*, to get attention and get people riled up. But he never claimed that "Mexicans are rapists."

Ban Muslims

I see this a lot: "Trump proposed banning Muslims."

What the hell is "banning Muslims" even supposed to mean?

In any case, what he actually proposed, and what he continues to propose, is to suspend immigration from some Muslim countries until tighter security procedures can be put in place. Now, you might think that is a good idea, or you might think it is a bad one, but it is a lot different than the notion of "banning Muslims."

But Trump says these things a couple of times, and it takes work to look up his original words. The media repeats thousands of times the distortions that he wants to "ban Muslims" or that he claims "all Mexicans are rapists," and that effectively drowns out whatever he really said.

You might consider why the media is working so hard to distort what Trump actually says.


* "perhaps": Because I don't know if an outsider who wasn't willing to shock people could possibly have won the GOP nomination.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Self Plagiarism

The topic came up vis-a-vis Donald Trump Jr.'s speech that came close to verbatim quoting of F. H. Buckley's essay from The American Conservative. So what is "self plagiarism," and is it important?

I contend that, while plagiarism is a matter of not giving credit where credit is due, and thus a real ethical offense, "self plagiarism" is almost entirely a product of intellectual property law. The problem is that when Publisher B publishes your words that were already published and copyrighted by Publisher A, Publisher B risks legal sanction.

In that obeying the law is a good thing in general, as is avoiding getting those we transact with into unnecessary trouble, we should want to avoid self plagiarism if there is any possibility of legal problems. But in the case of Trump and Buckley, The American Conservative seemed thrilled to be getting this publicity: editor Dan McCarthy was busy tweeting stories about the kerfuffle. Buckley, in fact, didn't even use the exact same words, but instead rewrote them a bit. And Trump didn't mind, and The American Conservative didn't mind, so... tempest in a teapot.

Brendan O'Neill on the insanity of today's politics

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Avoiding writer's block

One of my Facebook friends mentioned that he had trouble getting going on writing projects, because he wasn't able to picture how to structure them. I advised him that I thought he was going about this backwards. I told him:

Just start writing. Don't worry about structure at all. Chuck ideas into a document. Once it is full of ideas, print it out. A couple of days later, take it to a café or diner, and look at it while you have a coffee. Make arrows to show where one idea should be moved earlier or later. Then go back to the computer and move the paragraphs where your reading showed they should go. Pretty soon the structure will be obvious: then you just write a few connecting sentences, and you are done!

It's like flipping around the duck-rabbit picture: instead of thinking "I have to have a structure so I can write," you think "I have to start writing, so I can discover what the structure is."

Saturday, July 16, 2016

R. R. Reno on the logic of hyper-discrimination awareness


"This dynamic operates most visibly at our universities, where well-off, mostly white liberals—the post-Protestant WASPs—rule. The legitimacy of this elite depends upon its commitment to 'include' the 'excluded.' It goes without saying that an Ivy League administrator must manage the optics very carefully to sustain 'marginality' among the talented students who have gained admission. 'Microaggression' and other key terms in the ever-­evolving scholasticism of discrimination thus play very useful roles. They renew the threats of discrimination and exclusion, and this reinforces the power of liberal elites. Their institutional ascendancy is necessary to protect and provide patronage to the 'excluded.' I’m quite certain that if political correctness succeeds in suppressing 'microaggressions,' we’ll soon hear about 'nano-­aggressions.' The logic of solidarity in marginality requires oppression, and solidarity in marginality is necessary in order to sustain liberal power."

Just so: all the talk of "white privilege" and "microaggressions" and so forth is the ideological superstructure by which the current ruling class fosters belief in the legitimacy of its rule.

The terrible part of all this is that the people from minority groups who are duped into being pawns in the ruling class's game are being terribly harmed: who do you think will do better in life, a black student who spends his time at university getting a masters in computer science, or one who spends his time learning how to be hypersensitive concerning the least slip of the tongue anyone around him might make about his heritage?

Thinking of holding your next conference at the UN?

May I recommend a high-security federal prison instead? You'll feel much more free to move around, and there will be far fewer grumpy security guards.

I gave my talk in the morning, thankfully because I finally gave up on the conference when I saw our lunch arrangement: it involved standing in the sun in 95° weather for 10 minutes to pass through another security checkpoint -- you never know, someone might've magically appeared inside without having gone through the previous security checkpoints! -- and then being trapped in a special lunch-eating area, consisting of tables all also placed in direct sunlight.

As a person of paleness, I believe that this is blatant discrimination: the UN obviously was trying to give me a case of skin cancer by the time I finished eating!

Messed up fact of the day

I am inside the UN General Assembly building at the moment, attending a Python conference. I just went to buy a T-shirt, and was told I had to order it online, and then go pick it up off the table in front of me. Why? Apparently, no one is allowed to exchange money inside the UN!

I guess they think they are a church of some sort, and took the lesson of the moneychangers in the temple to heart.

Friday, July 15, 2016

No, Mickelson does not have to "defy the odds"

Here: "None of this means Mickelson is doomed; it only means that he'll have to defy the odds."

This statement reflects the modern tendency to assign the mathematical formulas of probability the same role as "Fate" played in the classical worldview, or witchcraft does for the Zande.

There are no "odds" working against Mickelson simply because the 36-hole leader at Royal Troon has only won The Open two out of eight times. Mickelson is only competing with the other golfers on the course with him: all he has to do is to keep scoring better than they do, and he will win. He does not, besides beating them, also have to defeat some divine being called "the odds." If eight out of the previous eight 36-hole leaders had gone on to win, that would not make Mickelson's task one bit easier, and if zero out of eight had won, it would not make his task one bit harder. (All of this, of course, is barring the possibility that Mickelson has adopted the same mystical belief in the power of "the odds" that this sportswriter has: that might present some psychological barrier to Mickelson winning, but it would be that belief, and not "the odds" themselves, that stood in his way.)

The common good versus liberal rights

Following up on our discussion of the "three languages of politics," let's explore the difference between an approach to politics focused on the common good versus one focused on individual rights.

Imagine a new Hitler is rising to power in some imaginary polity where governance is still understood in the classical style, as the enterprise that is concerned with the common good. The leaders of that polity will be concerned chiefly with shutting this threat down, by whatever means prove necessary to do so. Now, preserving the common good requires the leaders to use the least disruptive means possible for overachieving that aim. Perhaps having him quietly meet in accident when evening will be for the best, or somehow insuring that his access to media outlets is blocked. Perhaps his party can simply be outlawed.

On the other hand, in a liberal polity fully committed to "individual rights," there will be great concern for the new Hitler's "right to free speech." This right is a trump card, and if honoring it requires the polity accept utter ruin in the wars this new Hitler will eventually start, well, so be it! Can't violate his first amendment rights, after all.

Pierre Manent on "Europe"

Here. A nice sardonic quote:

"The people, unhappy with government, and the government, unhappy with the people, both turn their faces toward the promised land of Europe, a new, post-political way of being, in which each would finally be rid of the other."

The United States will be saved from a race war by...

In the real world, racial tensions are rising, but luckily, soon enough no one will be living there. Our savior?

Pokémon Go. And its successors.

How to "Report" the "News"

One major network was talking about Pence tonight, and said he had signed into law a "religious freedom" bill, which many businesses understood to be anti-LGBTQ.

Just put religious freedom in scare quotes, but not anti-LGBTQ, and you've essentially told people what to think about the story with only a couple of punctuation marks.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The margin of error of the margin of error

I know I have talked about this before, but I am getting ready to teach statistics in the fall, so a good chunk of my summer will be spent thinking about the subject. And thus my thoughts turn back to how poll results are reported.

We see a new poll come out of Florida that shows Smith leading Jones, 52.9% to 47.1%. If the "margin of error" in the poll is ± 3%, someone is surely going to tell us that the race is a "statistical dead heat." But the "margin of error" means no such thing: it tells us that if we have taken a truly random sample of the population, and see Smith polling at 52.9%, then in 95% of such cases, Smith's true percentage is between 55.9% and 49.9%, and likewise Jones's is between 50.1% and 44.1%. So in reality, Smith could be up by over 11%, and it is far, far more likely that Smith is up than it is that Jones is up, given this poll result.

If, at the next week, polling shows Smith at 53.1%, and Jones at 46.9%, we are likely to hear that "Smith has taken a decisive lead." In fact, it is quite likely that we are just seeing a random jiggle in the pulling numbers because:

1) In the best case, we are, after all, dealing with a random sample and so we do not expect to exactly hit the true population percentages each poll. That is why we have a confidence interval, after all.
2) There is some incalculable possibility that our sample is not truly random, because we have introduced bias of which we are unaware.
3) Even if we have managed to poll a truly random sample of our population, our good fortune can be negated if there is some systematic bias in who refuses to respond to our questions. Perhaps, for instance, the supporters of Jones are particularly antisocial people, and really hate talking to pollsters.
4) Lastly, people may lie: for instance, the supporters of Smith might be conspiring to make Jones feel overconfident.

So the fact that the polling for some race has inched to one side or the other of what, after all, is an arbitrary confidence interval -- there is no particular reason except custom for us to use 95%; we easily could have chosen 93% or 97% instead -- is of very little significance. But it is reported as though some decisive change in the race has occurred.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Our three languages of politics

Classical: This view was dominant from classical antiquity up through the Christian Middle Ages. It understood the purpose of politics to be seeking the common good. Furthermore, this common good was understood to be objective, and perceivable through reason, by anyone whose psyche was oriented towards seeking it.

Liberal: Arising with thinkers like Hobbs and Locke, this view became dominant by the 19th century, and is still prevalent today, although it has been seriously challenged by the third view described below. In this understanding, the purpose of politics is to maximize each individual's ability to do whatever they want, constrained only by the requirement not to interfere with other individuals trying to do the same. (What that constraint ought to mean in practice is very nebulous, and explains why there are so many bickering varieties of liberalism.) There is no objective common good, only an objective common bad: the war of all against all. Its discourse consists mostly of discussion of rights, which are trump cards when played against any other consideration of what political action ought to be achieving.

Postmodern: This view is strongly represented today in identity politics. It seeks to unmask liberal claims about rights as being in reality merely tools of the powerful to oppress the weak. (Given its roots in Nietzsche, this view's predilection for siding with whatever groups in society are less powerful is rather curious, and hard to justify. And I don't mean that it is hard to justify concern for the oppressed: I mean that is hard to justify this in Nietzschean terms!) "Property rights" are really just a tool by which the rich can oppress the poor. "Sexual morality" is really just a tool for oppressing sexual minorities. "Free speech" is a trick that allows oppressive modes of discourse to continue without opposition.

Much of the confusion and inability to have genuine discussion characterizing today's politics stems from the fact that actors on the political stage are speaking three different languages, so that speakers of one of these languages are often saying things that are incomprehensible to speakers of either of the other two.

From my descriptions, you would not be wrong in guessing that I find the first of these views to be the most coherent. But we certainly cannot move back to an understanding of politics that existed in 400 B.C., or 1300 A.D. History proceeds dialectically, and if we achieve a new common language, it will be one that draws on the best of all three traditions for its vocabulary. Liberals, for instance, have done magnificent work in bringing to light the benefits and the spontaneous nature of markets. Postmodernists are often correct in claiming that something advertised as morality is really just a thin disguise worn by self interest.

And of course, my categories above are inspired by Alasdair MacIntyre's work, especially Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry.

The ruling elite

All societies that have ever existed have had some sort of ruling elite. Even the most egalitarian groups of hunter gatherers have elders, or a chief, or something along those lines. Any group, faced with the choice to migrate east, west, north, or south, faced with a disappearance of food where they are, that had everyone just wander off which ever which way, is no longer with us. It is mere fantasy to think we can do away with such a class.

The problem with the current ruling elite is not that we have one, but that it is a degenerate ruling elite. They have lost the view of the common good.

And of course all ruling elites are self interested: what we can hope for is one that tempers its self interest because it believes that the common good exists, and that it has a duty to seek it.

Brendan O'Neill on "Racism"

"The belief that racism lurks everywhere, in every nook of society, in every Leavers' heart, in every white person's historically determined sense of entitlement, in every movie that doesn't have 50% black actors, in every university curriculum that has more white philosophers than black ones, in the mind of every white kid who twerks or wears dreadlocks, in every policeman's soul, in every poor neighbourhood that isn't cock-a-hoop about the arrival of more migrants -- that's the true prejudice of our age. The idea that people are innately, unwittingly racist, the overblown concern with racism, the incessant hunt for racism -- all of this now plays the role racism once played, in differentiating the racially enlightened from the racially backward."

Saturday, July 09, 2016

A Confession: Why I REALLY Support Trump

Of course, of course, the true reason has to do with my racism and xenophobia, as with every single other Trump supporter. But my problem is actually even worse than that. To help you understand, let me describe my day for you.

I woke up at 8 to go to class, showered, and ran out to catch a cab. The driver was Pakistani. Of course, as a racist, I would like my world to be 100% white. But, as you will see, this mark of 50% was actually a high point in my day!

On the way to work, we talked and bonded over our mutual dislike of NYC bicyclists. Our at least appeared to bond: as a xenophobe, I was of course terrified the entire ride, and I pretended to laugh along with him just to cover my fear.

Once at work, I ran down to the cafeteria to grab an egg sandwich and coffee before class started. At that hour, there was only me and the five-person cafeteria crew there, a crew 100% Hispanic, and 100% foreign born.

The entire year I've known these people, I have hidden the abject terror I feel being around foreigners, and they actually greeted me with, "Hola, Señor Eugenio!" In fact, I speak with them in Spanish all the time, the better to cover up my horror.

Next it was upstairs to my classroom, where I was conducting an independent study, with only only four students, three Hispanic, and one black… and me! To make matters worse, the one black student also happened to be Jamaican, so foreign-born as well! You can just imagine the seething hatred and gut-wrenching fear I felt the entire time we shared the classroom, especially as they departed and said, "Great class Professor Callahan! Hope to see you in the fall!" Can you imagine: threatening me as class ended!

Then it was off to see one of the two Bangladeshi students with whom, all on my own, and for no pay, I have been running an independent project, teaching them Python and Django. Given my racism and xenophobia, it might make no sense to you that I would do this, but it will all come clear at the end of this post. We decided to get lunch together and discuss our project, so I suggested a new south Indian restaurant that had opened up a block away.

We got there, and what do you know: all four of the people working the lunch shift were Indian. Outnumbered five-to-one!

From there I took off for the spa down the street. Perhaps because of the composition of the neighborhood, the spa happens to have about a 75% black clientele. So what do you know: a few minutes later I found myself literally climbing into a giant bathtub with six black women, and once again, me, the only, lonely white person. (The spa clientele also happened to be 90% female today, I know not why.)

From there I jumped on the subway to head home, and was again a minority. When I got off the train, five hours had passed since lunch, so it was time to get some more food. I popped into this place:

You may have guessed by now: once again, I was the only white person in the place, but now with like ten black people. I was such an insignificant minority that I might not even get my own slice on one of those demographic pie charts: I'd probably just have to share with "Other," and be all squished in together with who knows what shade of people.

But the full horror of my situation only came home to me when I arrived, well, at home, and realized... I am the only white person, out of five, living in my own apartment! I am a 20% minority even once I lock the door behind me in order to shut out the frightening, non-white world outside. Aaaaaaaah! Aaaaah!


And that is why I need Donald Trump: although I am a racist and a xenophobe, I am really, really terrible at being those things, and constantly screw them up. But Trump, I know he's a winner, and I'm sure somehow he can get me out of this terrible fix!

PS: This is a very typical day of mine, not arranged with this post in mind. It was actually not until I was leaving the Soul Spot that this post occurred to me.

Just click on the thing that says the exact opposite of what you want to do

Bad user interface design:

In the blogging app I have on my phone, if I want to throw away a blog post I have started, I have to click… Save! Then I get another menu with an option to "Discard." "Save" is precisely the opposite of the thing I want to do!

Of course the most famous example of this is Windows, where in several versions, if you want to stop your computer, you have to click a menu that says… "Start"!

How to Slant the News

The Daily News headline reads, "Rudy Giuliani says that black children are the 'real danger' to their communities, not police."

What did Giuliani really say? Even in the News's excerpted quote, it is clear the above headline is a deliberate lie: the "real danger" to the black community is "that black kid who is going to shoot you,"

"Kid" and "child" do not have the same denotation! I can say to my thirty-year-old friend, "Hey kid, what's up?" "Hey child, what's up? is not at all an equivalent expression. Willie Mays was the "Say Hey Kid." If he had been called "The Say Hey Child," that would have been an insult.

"Child" is applied to people up to puberty or so. "Kid" really applies to anyone who is young compared to the speaker: "He's just a kid at this game."

So when Giuliani says there is a threat from "black kids," this could mean someone 20 or even 25 years old. When the Daily News distorts that into "children," it makes it seem like Giuliani thinks black five-year-olds are a big threat.

Friday, July 08, 2016

Nice Scott Adams post on Comey


Adams is correct. The Romans understood this well: no one could be prosecuted for any crime while holding office

Thursday, July 07, 2016

How I Chose My Candidate; What Would Change My Mind


Candidate A: Marries a lot; has weird orange hair; says mean things and won't apologize for them.

Candidate B: Lies a lot; has weird "Paid for by Wall Street" stickers on everything; wrecks foreign countries, costing millions their lives, and won't apologize for it.

Hmm, let me see...

I'd Change If:

I will alter my choice if my candidate picks a mainstream, war-loving Republican for his running mate.

But given he doesn't want to be assassinated, I'm guessing he won't do that.

Is Birtherism Racist?

First of all, separate the titular question from two different questions:

1) Is Birtherism dumb?

Yes, I think it is. There is little question that Obama was born the USA.

2) Are some Birthers racists?

Of course. Some opposition to Obama is driven by racism. But not that much of it. How can I assert that? Most people who are driven nuts by Obama would have been enthusiastic about voting for Colin Powell in 2008 or 2012. And most of those people were even more virulent in their opposition to Bill Clinton. (I was actually around in the 1990s, so I remember! Think about it: Clinton was actually impeached. Nothing remotely like that has happened to Obama.)

Opposition to Obama is driven chiefly by the fact he is a liberal, not by his race. However, it is very convenient for Democrats to write off all opposition to their president as racism: now they don't have to make any argument, just engage in name calling!

(By the way, I supported Obama's election in 2008 and 2012. I am not an "Obama hater" trying to excuse my own opposition to him! But I know many people who fiercely oppose him, and I know they would have voted for Powell in a heartbeat. And many of them disliked Clinton even more than they dislike Obama.)

So, on to:

3) Is Birtherirsm racist?

Once we have handled 2) it should be obvious that the answer to 3) is "Don't be stupid."

People try to discredit the politicians they oppose. Both Democrats and Republicans do this, Christian Democrats and Christian Socialists do this, Conservatives and Labourites do this. They find semen stains on a dress left by the politician. They laugh at how the politician can't check out at the grocery store. They question whether he dodged military duty. They contend that maybe he isn't really legally qualified to hold office. They call him a racist. They say he is "dog whistling."

Folks, just like Geico saves you 15% or more on your car insurance, smear attacks are what partisans do. It's not pretty, and we may wish it were otherwise, but when accusation like this are flung at a black politician by members of the other party, that's not racism! That is partisan politics. What actually might be a wee bit racist is the notion that black politicians alone should be exempt from this rough-and-tumble.

Criticizing a Particular Judge = Racist?

Bob Murphy's correctly notes the extreme silliness of people like George Will crying "Racist!" when Trump claims that one particular Mexican-American judge may be prejudiced against him, but simultaneously themselves claiming that most Hispanics are anti-Trump.

By the way, I think the true genesis of Trump's statement is pretty obvious: he is creating a narrative that will explain in advance why he lost that lawsuit, if in fact he winds up losing it. It is a PR tactic, not "racism"! It may be unfair to that judge, or perhaps not... maybe he really does have it in for Trump, I have no idea.

But Trump's statement will certainly appear racist if you already have confirmation bias telling you he is a racist. As Adams points out, Trump has never discussed race during this campaign at all, except to say things like, "People of all races love me!"

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

How could that happen?

The NY Times recently reported that "Mr. Trump has used bankruptcy laws to shield him from personal losses while his investors suffer."

So the NY Times is against the existence of bankruptcy laws? Because this is what every bankruptcy does! They have phrased this to make it look as though Trump is doing something dirty and underhanded, but that is only the case if every single bankruptcy is dirty and underhanded. And I don't think the NY Times believes that.

"Free trade" can be zero-sum

When what is meant by "free trade" is domination of the world by corporate elites.

Kevin Carson explains.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

The Elements of Style

Is a really, really awful book. If any of you are recommending it to anyone as a style guide, you really ought to just stop.


"The question of causation lies outside of statistics." -- Michael Starbird

Contra Hume, our idea of causation stems directly from our experience of acting in the world. Look at the monkey above: he is not puzzling over causation. He knows that if he smashes the nut with the rock, he will cause it to yield its delectable innards.

The problems of causation dealt with in statistics are problems of detecting causation when the link between cause and effect is obscure. And then statistics can only provide evidence of causation, and never demonstrate it. There has been a strong correlation between which conference wins the Super Bowl and how stocks do that year. But nobody whatsoever believed for a minute that Super Bowl results were causing stock price movements, despite an 80% success rate in prediction.

We only feel confident we really have identified "the cause" of something when we can grasp the causal mechanism involved. And causal mechanisms are something we can directly perceive. (Again, see the monkey above.)

Monday, July 04, 2016

The Wrong Way to Teach Introduction to Programming

I've been asked to teach introduction to programming twice, once using Microsoft Visual Studio and once using Alice.

It is hard for me to imagine a worse approach to introducing students to programming. These are both massively complex environments, and in order to get anywhere with either, the student is going to spend 95% of his or her time coping with the environment, and 5% learning computer programming. It is as though, in teaching children to use vehicles, instead of starting with a tricycle, we put them behind the control panel of an aircraft carrier, because "it has so many built-in capabilities" that a tricycle lacks.

Put the students in a simple interactive interpreter, and actually teach them to program a step at a time:

Please, Stop Saying "Discrimination!" as if It Decides Anything

If you want to get married in a Catholic Church, the first question you and your marriage partner will be asked is, "Is at least one of you Catholic?"

If not, you will be shown the door.

That is blatant discrimination against non-Catholics. I also happen to think it is perfectly OK discrimination against non-Catholics, as have most people in the U.S. for most of U.S. history.

If someone establishes a scholarship fund for Filipino-Americans who want to study nursing, and the conditions for the award require that one must have at least one Filipino parent, that is blatant discrimination against non-Filipinos. I also happen to think it is perfectly OK discrimination against non-Filipinos, as have most people in the U.S. for most of U.S. history.

If you want to marry your sister, you will be denied a marriage license, I believe everywhere in the U.S. That is blatant discrimination against people who want to marry their siblings. I also happen to think it is perfectly OK discrimination against people who want to marry their siblings, as have most people in the U.S. for most of U.S. history.

Saying "That's discriminatory!" does not settle either the morality or legality of some action. The relevant question is always, "Is that just discrimination or unjust discrimination?"

Why the Pay Tyler Cowen the Big Bucks

Don't want to be attacked by an alligator? As a solution, Cowen recommends "staying away from alligators."

Sure, that might work for the present, but what about once the gators acquire high-powered rifles? That strategy will fall apart pretty quick then.

Friday, July 01, 2016

THAT will never happen!

I recall how, a year or so ago, when there were discussions of LGBTQ rights on blogs, the defenders of each new "step forward" would mock religious freedom concerns, saying things like, "Come on, it's not as though anyone is going to try to force clergy to perform gay weddings."

Oops! The lizard-person governor of Virginia just vetoed a bill that had the sole purpose of asserting that clergy could not be forced to participate in gay marriages. While doing so, he declared religious freedom "an oxymoron."

Memes, memes, they're good for your heart

Readers wonder, "Gene, you used to hate the word 'meme,' but now you use it. What happened? Sincerely yours, Confused in Tehachapi."

Here's the explanation: the original meaning, formulated Richard Dawkins, which had to do with some half-baked, pseudo-scientific notion of ideas being like genes, has been almost entirely wiped out by a new one, which is roughly, "Any idea that spreads quickly, without much examination."

And that new usage turns out to be quite handy!

Zeno for the computer age

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