Philosophy – Page 4 – God of the Machine
Apr 302003

It requires a certain type of mind to excite itself over “fragments of fragments,” but the normally sober baseball analyst Rob Neyer exults giddily over them in his column the other day.

The question at issue is how lucky the 2002 Detroit Tigers were. On the one hand, they lost 106 games. On the other, if you apply Pythagorean analysis to their run margin, they “should” have lost 112 games. So they were lucky. But on the third hand, as one of Neyer’s correspondents points out, they scored fewer runs than one would expect from their offensive components, and allowed more than would expect from the offensive components of their opponents, and they really should have lost 98 games. So they were unlucky.

But why stop there?

All hits, for example, are not created equal. If two players hit 120 singles, we consider those accomplishments the same. But what if one of the players hit 80 line drives and 40 ground balls with eyes, and the other hit 120 line drives? Would we expect them to match performances the next season?

No, we wouldn’t. We’d expect the guy with 120 line drives to outperform the guy who got lucky with the grounders.

That is just one tiny example, of hundreds we could come up with. And for the people who care about such things, finding the fragments of the fragments of the fragments is the next great frontier.

Ah, fragments of fragments of fragments. Perennial employment for baseball analysts! More work for Rob Neyer!

Neyer analogizes this process to pricing financial derivatives, which I happen to know something about, having worked as a programmer for several years for a software company that did exactly that. On slow afternoons the analytics boys would quarrel over whether to construct the yield curve using a two- or three-factor Heath-Jarrow-Morton model. Sure, with a two-factor model you might be able to price the bond to four decimal points, but with a three-factor model you can price it to seven! Eventually someone, usually me, would have to rain on their parade by pointing out that bonds are priced in sixteenths (of a dollar), and that the bid/offer spread dwarfs anything beyond the first decimal point.

In baseball granularity is not measured in sixteenths, but in wins. Since it takes about eight to ten additional runs for each additional win, any variance below five runs or so is a big, fat engineering zero. And I can assure Rob Neyer without even firing up a spreadsheet that a team’s line drive/ground ball ratio when hitting singles won’t get you anywhere near five runs. It’s barely conceivable that it could help you draft a fantasy team. Knock yourself out.

Hitting has been well understood since John Thorn and Pete Palmer published The Hidden Game of Baseball twenty years ago. All work since has been on the margins. The new frontiers in baseball analysis lie elsewhere. Pitching is still imperfectly understood, because its results are mixed with fielding, which, until Bill James’s new book on Win Shares, was not understood at all. Voros McCracken (where do you sign up for a name like that?) recently demonstrated that a pitcher’s hits allowed, relative to balls in play, is almost entirely random. That’s serious work. Fragments of fragments is masturbation.

The lesson here, which applies more broadly to the social sciences, is not to seek more precision than is proper to your subject. Fortunately Professors Mises and Hayek have already given this lecture, and I don’t have to.

(Update: Craig Henry comments.)

Mar 192003

One of my favorite examples of the Hayekian concept of “spontaneous order” is stairway traffic. In the subway at rush hour, when people are trying to get up and down the stairs in a hurry, two lines always form between the guardrails, and they are always on the right. Any idiot who tries to plow through on the left is forced to the right by the sheer mass of the traffic. The escalators, two bodies wide, work the same way. The stationary riders stay to the right, and the walkers to the left, the passing lane, as it were.

Hayek explains far better than I ever could why such rules arise. But why this particular rule? I theorize that it’s because in America we drive on the right and pass on the left. This hypothesis is easily tested: in England or Japan or any number of other countries, where they drive on the left and pass on the right, do they walk the opposite way we do? If so, that would suggest that spontaneous rules are formed by analogy with preexisting rules. If not, it’s time for a new hypothesis. Can any readers enlighten me on this score?

Mar 142003

It had to happen. Elizabeth Smart’s father, Ed, calls for “Amber Alert” — a program to notify the public of child abductions that is used in 38 states — to go national, at a cost of a mere $25 million. “There is no question that Amber Alert is a necessity,” says Smart, with the usual combination of good intentions and bottomless economic ignorance. “Having it saves children.” Since Amber Alert, by the reckoning of one of its proponents, has been responsible for the apprehension of 47 criminals, whereas America’s Most Wanted has nabbed 746, it might make more sense to call for a national law to broadcast it twice daily, or perhaps a special cable channel all local providers will be required to carry — all America’s Most Wanted, all the time.

Bad luck, it seems, confers instant moral authority. A hitherto obscure person, granted his day before the TV cameras, permitted to say anything he likes, demands — a new law! What could be more American? We need a name for this phenomenon, previously observed in anti-gun crusader Sarah Brady; Richard and Maureen Kanka, parents of Megan and Megan’s Law; and Linda Campion, the motive force behind a pointless New York law allowing relatives of crime victims to testify at sentencing hearings. (There are other instances I’m too lazy to look up, but Kaus says three is a trend.) Any suggestions?

(Update: Paul Dubuc proposes “tragislation.” Not bad at all.)

Mar 132003

Munitions manufacturers prosper because many countries want weapons. Philip Morris prospers because many people want cigarettes. Conservative talk radio hosts prosper because many people are conservative, and like to listen to them. Lobbyists prosper because many people want the government to act for their particular ends, and the government has the power to do so. (Campaign finance reform always fails for the same reasons.) McDonalds prospers because many people like Big Macs. Drug dealers prosper because many people like to take drugs. Demand precedes supply. A lot of bad legislation and litigation would be avoided if people could tell an effect from a cause. It’s really not that complicated.

Mar 092003

Roderick Long posts an excellent two-part series (here and here) on Ayn Rand’s epistemology and its resemblance to Wittgenstein’s, of all people. Objectivist epistemology has never quite satisfied me. Rand rightly rejects the false dichotomy of nominalism and essentialism, and I can go along with concept-formation as selective attention, but she loses me, and Long, with her claim that all concepts involve measurement omission, particularly since she never supplies an example of how one might measure a highly abstract concept like justice or, to set the bar even higher, existence. (Peikoff, in Objectivism: The Philosophy of Ayn Rand, recognizes the difficulty. He has a crack at “thought,” which he supposes to be measurable by its content, intensity, effort and clarity, among other things, but he is not notably persuasive.) Rand gets entangled in one of the classic utilitarian problems: if we’re going to measure, or in this case omit to measure, we need units. Sometimes they’re available, sometimes not.

(Update: Ian Hamet comments.)

Feb 222003

Well here’s a nasty little result. It turns out that the best way to select for optimum performance from a multi-racial applicant pool is to discriminate against the low-performing groups. You need not follow the rather daunting math to follow the reasoning: the greater the difference between a score and the mean, the likelier it becomes that the score was lucky. If you adopt a single cutoff, the members of low-performing groups who are admitted have a greater differential between their scores and the mean (for their groups) than others. Therefore, their results are more likely due to chance. Therefore, you need to set a higher cutoff for the low-performing groups to compensate for this fact. And therefore people who clamor for a single cutoff for all applicants are not advocating a meritocracy, even though they think so.

(Link from Gene Expression, who else?)

Feb 202003

My tiny corner of the blogosphere is abuzz with Christopher Alexander. Michael of the Blowhards has an excellent brief essay on him, with a link to Wendy Kohn’s more detailed treatment. AC Douglas also has a few remarks.

Alexander is a (now ex-) professor of architecture at Berkeley whose most famous books, The Timeless Way of Building and A Pattern Language, have inspired a sort of cult. He believes that the key to architecture lies in rules, or recipes, which he calls patterns. The same problems occur over and over, and the patterns, which he claims not to invent but to discover, are well-known ways of solving them. A Pattern Language consists of 253 of these, with photographs and descriptions. Alexander maintains that if you simply follow the patterns, beauty will come. He aims to demystify all of architecture, and to a great extent he succeeds.

His patterns range in breadth from city planning to room decor, and many of them are alarming in their specificity. Cities should contain no more than 9% parking space; political communities should be around 7,000 people (this is reminiscent of the 19th century socialist crackpot Charles Fourier, who recommended 500 as ideal); no urban downtowns should serve more than 300,000 people; most buildings should be no more than four stories high; terraces should be at least six feet deep; every room should have light on at least two sides. Sometimes Alexander buttresses his rather ex cathedra pronouncements with studies and arguments; sometimes not. “Nine Percent Parking” gives a fair taste of his style:

We [he has co-authors] suspect that when the density of cars passes a certain limit, and people experience the feeling that there are too many cars, what is really happening is that subconsciously they feel that the cars are overwhelming the environment, that the environment is no longer “theirs,” that they have no right to be there, and so on… Instead of inviting them out, the environment starts giving them the message that the outdoors is not meant for them, that they should stay indoors, that they should stay in their own buildings, that social communion is no longer permitted or encouraged.

We have not yet tested this suspicion. However, if it turns out to be true, it may be that this pattern, which seems to be based on such slender evidence, is in fact one of the most crucial patterns there is, and that it plays a key role in determining the difference between environments which are socially and psychologically healthy and those which are unhealthy. [Italics his.]

To begin with, nine percent parking is based not on “slender evidence,” but on no evidence. It is a “suspicion,” which becomes a pattern, which becomes a dictum. Here you catch a faint whiff of the crank.

Yet it is a very plausible suspicion, even if the particular number is bogus. Urban landscapes full of cars, like Los Angeles, are depressing. Most of Alexander’s patterns are very plausible, even the ones that never would have occurred to me, like “Zen View”: “If there is a beautiful view, don’t spoil it by building huge windows that gape incessantly at it. Instead, put the windows which look onto the view at places of transition — along paths, in hallways, in entry ways, on stairs, between rooms.” The man who writes this has meditated long and profoundly about why some buildings succeed and others fail.

Alexander generally begins with what people want. You might think that most architects would begin there, but in fact very few of them do. Instead they talk a great deal about form, function, structure, “machines for living,” and the like. Alexander’s solicitude is one of the sources of his unpopularity within his profession and his popularity in the world at large. The photographs in A Pattern Language are of warm, inviting, pleasant places, places that would be fun to live or play or work in. They are not of monuments, large buildings, or what one has been taught to regard as architectural masterpieces.

In Alexander’s cosmology, beauty in architecture consists of satisfying people’s desires, and those desires are immutable. He uses words like “healthy” and “alive” with abandon. As Michael Blowhard notes, it follows that architectural standards are objective, and artistic standards as well. There is a human nature, to which buildings will appeal more or less successfully. It follows further that Alexander is in on the secret. It is this assurance, more than anything, that infuriates his fellow architects, who fancy themselves artists and resent the suggestion that someone has not only encountered their problem, but solved it.

Now I’m all for normative thinking, provided it’s kept far away from the police power. Jane Jacobs, with whom Alexander is frequently grouped, takes pains to show how livable cities grow organically from people’s natural behavior, while top-down planning leads to disaster after disaster. This concerns Alexander not at all: only ends interest him. Some of his grander patterns must be enforced by law, and he does not shrink from doing so. In “The Magic of the City” he writes:

Put the magic of the city within reach of everyone in a metropolitan area. Do this by means of a collective regional policies which restrict the growth of downtown areas so strongly that no one downtown can grow to serve more than 300,000 people. With this population base, the downtowns will be between two and nine miles apart.

He thinks people ought to own their homes. Arranging this is a simple matter: “Do everything possible to make the traditional forms of rental impossible, indeed, illegal.” So you’re not surprised to read this testimonial from one of his former students in Kohn’s article: “Chriss answer to my doubts about The Timeless Way of Building was to say ‘Find out your psychological problem that prevents you from agreeing.'”

Alexander’s biggest fans are not architects but computer programmers. Unless you are a professional, you don’t have a clue how vast his influence is in the field. The most important book written about software in the last thirty years, Design Patterns, takes its form explicitly from A Pattern Language. The authors enumerate thirty “patterns” that make for elegant, robust, even beautiful software. (The mark of a successful new technology today is the appearance of a book on it called Patterns in ...) Software design patterns are very like Alexander’s: solutions for recurring problems in software development. Cities and software applications are both complex systems that must be broken down into components to be understood. Alexander’s ideas lend themselves more readily to software than architecture because a software architect can control every aspect of a project. He need not rule the world to enforce his chosen patterns.

So we’re left with an inhumane humanist, a brilliant crank, an immodest prophet of modesty. Even so, A Pattern Language is one of the most interesting books about architecture, and the world, that you’re ever likely to read.

(Update: AC Douglas comments. I also posted a slightly different version of this to BlogCritics, where there are a couple more comments.)

(Another: Chris Bertram discusses Alexander and kindly mentions me.)

Feb 172003

Eddie Thomas of One Good Turn, a normally sensible man, takes up the cudgel for Hegel. (Twice!) This makes two rational people, him and Andrew Sullivan, describing Hegel as “great” in the space of a week. Has the world gone mad?

Eddie is impressed by Hegel’s breadth, and it is true: his works include a Philosophy of Law, a Philosophy of Aesthetics, a Philosophy of Mind, a Philosophy of Right, a Philosophy of Science, a couple of Logics, a Philosophy of History, a History of Philosophy, and several odds and ends. This would impress me more if any of these works were intelligible. “We ought to contemplate what knowledge means if all anyone can hope for is to have hold of just one piece of the puzzle,” writes Eddie. Maybe so. Fortunately Hegel lost no sleep over this question.

Then we have this:

Hegel’s generosity as a philosopher is second to none. For him, as for Parmenides, all speech must be a speech about something, even if that something isn’t entirely clear to the one speaking. Thus, there are no utterly false philosophies; the trick is to rescue the insights that motivate those philosophies and set aside the ways in which such philosophies are partial. There is still a kind of condescension involved, in that Hegel tells everyone else what they really mean, but it is an approach far superior to the polemical approach that looks to “refute” all competitors.

If my choice is “polemic” or to be patted on the head and told not to worry, my argument is just another a datum in the historical world-consciousness, happens to the best of us, then I’ll take polemic, thanks just the same. Preserve me from such generosity.

This most generous of all philosophers buried his greatest German contemporary, Schopenhauer, with silence, in the customary way court favorites deal with their obscure betters, much as Goethe treated Kleist. German even has a special word for this, Radler, or cyclist, from the posture: bent back above, legs pumping below. Eddie writes that Schopenhauer was “resentful”; quite so.

I characterized Hegel’s philosophy as “the apotheosis of the State,” which Eddie disputes with an anecdote, from Knox, about Hegel toasting the French Revolution every year on Bastille Day. He spares his readers any quotations from the master himself. I will be less solicitous. Hegel wrote on the State as follows:

The State is the Divine Idea as it exists on earth… We must therefore worship the State as the manifestation of the Divine on earth, and consider that, if it is difficult to comprehend Nature, it is infinitely harder to grasp the essence of the State.

The State is the march of God through the world.

The State exists for its own sake… The State is the actually existing, realized moral life.

The really living totality, that which preserves, and continually produces, the State and its constitution, is the Government… In the Government, regarded as an organic totality, the Sovereign Power or Principate is the all-sustaining, all-decreeing Will of the State, its highest Peak and all-pervasive Unity. In the perfect form of the State in which each and every element… has reached its free existence, this will is that of one actual decreeing Individual (not merely of a majority in which the unity of decreeing will has no actual existence); it is monarchy.

…ultimate decision…absolute self-determination constitutes the power of the prince as such.

the absolutely decisive element in the whole…is a single individual, the monarch.

These are odd thoughts for a classical liberal.

Eddie says that my mocking Hegel for “proving” things like magnetizing iron increases its weight has nothing to do with his liberalism. True; but it might make a dent or two in his “greatness.” “If Aaron means that somehow he argues for these matters in an a priori fashion, I’ll let him supply the evidence.” Demanding that your interlocutor read Hegel is a shrewd tactic, even when arguing about Hegel; but of course he argued for these matters a priori. Does Eddie really believe these are lab results? A priori was the whole point. Any ordinary genius could induce Kepler’s laws from astronomical charts; only the greatest genius of all time could deduce them, without the benefit of any facts whatever. Hegel’s definition of heat may provide some insight into his method:

Heat is the self-restoration of matter in its formlessness, its liquidity the triumph of its abstract homogeneity over specific definiteness, its abstract, purely self-existing continuity, as negation of negation, is here set as activity.

Eddie warns us against the metaphysics of the scientists; he might also spare a thought for the science of the metaphysicians.

Hegel is one of the first allegedly serious thinkers to write nonsense, word salads with literally no meaning. (Parse the above passage on heat if you doubt me.) There is an excellent book to be written on nonsense, in which 19th century German idealist philosophy would figure prominently. Kant verged, in places, on nonsense; Schelling tipped over into it; and Hegel raised it to an art. Contemporary academics in the humanities, present company of course excepted, have no idea how much they owe to him.

“And I was just starting to think of these guys [me and Jim Ryan] as friends!” Eddie exclaims. We’re all still friends. Friends don’t let friends take Hegel seriously.

Feb 152003

Not Ayn Rand; Harvard Professor of Government Harvey Mansfield, in The Chronicle of Higher Education:

Harvard is afraid to look ambition in the face. To Harvard, ambition and the responsibility that accompanies it look elitist and selfish. (“Elitist” is the fancy, political version of “selfish.”) Harvard gives its students to understand that the only alternative to selfishness is selflessness. Morality is held to be sheer altruism; it is service to the needy and the oppressed. A typical Harvard student spends many, many hours in volunteer work on behalf of those less fortunate. But what he or she plans for his own life — a career — seems to have no moral standing. To prepare for a career is nothing but to make a selection under the regime of choice. It is careerism — a form of elitism and selfishness — that seems unattractive even to those contemplating it.

Selfless morality is fragile and suspicious: Who believes a person who claims to be unconcerned with himself? Yet mere selfishness is beneath one’s pride. Harvard is caught between these two extremes; it has lost sight of its virtue. It cannot come to terms with the high ambition that everyone outside Harvard sees to be its most prominent feature.

(Courtesy of Erin O’Connor.)