God of the Machine – Page 54 – Culling my readers to a manageable elite since 2002.
Aug 122002

My mom and dad, better known to readers of this blog as “Aaron’s father,” took me and Lisa out to dinner the other night. (Tocqueville, and it was excellent, thanks. Started with a yellowtail sashimi/tuna hamachi thing, then a scallop with foie gras, then sturgeon with white truffle foam, and a chocolate souffle cake with mint ice cream for dessert. Get your parents to take you there.) Dad thoughtfully waited until the sturgeon to reveal his agenda. He objected to my description of my upbringing as “ACLU-Creative-Playthings-crypto-Communist-marginalized-Jewish.” Not the whole phrase, and not even the excess of hyphens; just the crypto-Communist part.

My parents are not now and never have been members of the Communist party. One of my father’s uncles voted for Wallace in ’48 — now that’s crypto-Communism — but the family, my father not least, scorned him for it for decades. It is true that when I insisted, in sixth grade, on plastering my school with McGovern for President posters, that they drove me down to Democratic Party Headquarters on supply runs, and didn’t even complain, as I recall. But that isn’t quite the same as advocating the violent overthrow of the government, even secretly. So I have removed the offending adjective, even though Dad said a substitution of “pinko” would have been acceptable.

And Dad, as for that place where I called you a moral relativist, I’ll be happy to discuss it. Over dinner. Real soon.

Aug 102002

The great computer scientist Edsger Dijkstra is dead of cancer at 72. He was probably best-known for his shortest-path algorithm and classic paper, “Goto Statement Considered Harmful,” but to Dijkstra computer science owes such concepts as structured programming, synchronization, semaphores, deadly embrace, guarded command, and many, many more. He once advised a researcher looking for a topic to “Do only what only you can do,” which is the best career advice I ever heard from anyone. At least read his obituary; you might also have a look at his collected papers. Many can be read by non-programmers with profit, such as this one, on the scientist’s relation to society.

Aug 092002

Susanna Cornett over at Cut on the Bias decided, one fine day, to pick a fight with the evolutionists. (Gene Expression replies in detail; Susanna rebuts, in somewhat less detail.) Her jumping-off point was the recent discovery of a couple of hominid skulls that don’t fit the current view of human evolution. A paleontologist says, “This really exposes how little we know of human evolution and the origin of our genus Homo.” Susanna writes triumphantly: “But wait! I thought we knew all that! It’s been taught for years as immutable truth.”

Not exactly. Virtually all biologists agree that natural selection is true; but they ardently disagree about the mechanism and the path. An analogy from the history of calculus might be helpful. When Newton and Leibniz discovered calculus they based it, theoretically, on infinitesimals, quantities that are arbitrarily small, but not zero. Bishop Berkeley pointed out, correctly, that the concept of an “infinitesimal” is logically incoherent. It wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that Weierstrass put calculus on a proper foundation by defining limits rigorously. But that didn’t stop people from using calculus in the meantime: it worked, it solved problems that no other method could solve as quickly, or at all. Same with natural selection. It solves too many problems to be thrown over every time some new morphological evidence shows up that’s difficult to classify.

Susanna continues: “Ive been taught, as a social scientist, that you look at behavior, or evidence of various sorts, and ponder about it until you come up with an explanation. Then you devise a test to see if your explanation fits.” I doubt whether this is true even of the social sciences — von Mises and the Austrian economists, for example, argued that economics was deductive — but physical science assuredly does not work this way. It was not pondering the facts that brought Copernicus to advocate heliocentricity. Copernicus’s model, before Kepler, actually fit the facts worse than the Ptolemaic model. But it ditched all the secondary and tertiary epicycles. It was simpler. I don’t know exactly how Descartes arrived at the central insight of mechanics, that a body in motion remains in motion unless acted on by an external force; but it was not by “looking at behavior.” Aristotle, on the other hand, watched horses pull carts, and concluded that constant velocity requires a constant force, which is plausible, intuitive, and false.

But if Susanna likes tests, I propose that she devise one for the validity of intelligent design. What evidence would persuade her that intelligent design is false? I won’t presume to answer for her, but if I advocated intelligent design, my answer, I think the only consistent answer, would be, “No evidence.” For nothing, in principle, is incompatible with the miraculous. And a theory that can accommodate any evidence is not a scientific theory.

(Update: Susanna points out that she has a further post on the subject and accuses me — but very nicely! — of “piling on.” It might look that way, although I hadn’t read the Charles Murtaugh post on which I was supposed to be piling, and I certainly griped about the testability of ID and the all-inclusiveness of God theories, just as Razib did. But the bit about forming scientific hypotheses — that was mine, all mine, dammit!)

Aug 062002

Theodore Dalrymple, discussing academic British anti-Semitism, thinks so. I’m not so sure. Dalrymple says, “Socialist and anti-Semite alike seek an all-encompassing explanation of the imperfection of the world, and for the persistence of poverty and injustice: and each thinks he has found an answer.” Well, all-encompassing explanations are pretty popular all over the spectrum; I myself spend half my waking hours looking for them. Evangelical Christians find theirs in godlessness, and my friends the Objectivists find theirs in altruism.

Dalrymple continues, “The liberal intellectual who laments the predominance of dead white males in the college syllabus or the lack of minority representation in the judiciary uses fundamentally the same argument as the anti-Semite who objects to the prominence of Jews in the arts, sciences, professions, and in commerce. They both assume that something must be amiss a conspiracy if any human group is over- or under-represented in any human activity, achievement, or institution.” The same objection to Jewish prominence also manifests as good old-fashioned envy, which drives resentment politics both left and right. Genteel academic anti-Semitism is the poison of choice in Britain, whereas in America there’s a long tradition of vulgar backwoods Jew-hating of the Ku Klux Klan/Father Coughlin variety. (Pat Buchanan is the latest lightning rod for this sort of thing.) In short, Dalrymple understates the cultural factors. But the piece is interesting.

Oh God. Do I sound like a liberal? Somebody please slap me.

Aug 042002

As imperceptibly as grief
The summer lapsed away —
Too imperceptible, at last,
To seem like perfidy.

A quietness distilled,
As twilight long begun,
Or Nature, spending with herself
Sequestered afternoon.

The dusk drew earlier in,
The morning foreign shone —
A courteous, yet harrowing grace,
As guest who would be gone.

And thus, without a wing,
Or service of a keel,
Our summer made her light escape
Into the beautiful.

–Emily Dickinson

Aug 032002

If Iraq doesn’t yet have nuclear weapons, don’t we owe Menachem Begin and the Israelis some thanks for bombing their enriched uranium reactor — purchased for oil from the French, God bless ’em — in 1981, and setting back their acquisition program at least five years? This is some of the thanks the Israelis got at the time (from Newsweek, 6.22.81):

But beyond Israel there were angry charges that Begin had resorted to the attack to assure his own re-election later this month and that Israel, a country that has refused to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, had gone too far by attacking a country that had signed. Begins action offered an ominous precedent for the superpowers — and for wrangling smaller nations in pursuit of the bomb. There is an enormous — and dangerous — arrogance, said Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, a Republican moderate who called Israels attack one of the most provocative, ill-timed and internationally illegal actions taken in that nations history.

Well, jeez, since Iraq signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and all…

Aug 022002

Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, by Martin Amis. Talk Miramax Books, 2002. 306 pp (small ones). $24.95.

Q: What do twenty million victims of Stalin’s Great Terror and Martin Amis’s sister have in common?

A: They’re dead.

And they both get a lot of ink in Martin Amis’s new book. And that’s about it. Wherein lies the problem. Amis keeps trying to explain the Great Terror, the largest mass slaughter of all time going away, in personal terms, when there’s really nothing personal about it. To begin with the obvious objection: Stalin’s policies were essentially a logical continuation of Lenin’s, yet the revolutionary atheist intellectual and the insecure ex-seminarian bureaucrat were not alike, personally, at all. Lenin veered off the strictly collectivist path with the New Economic Policy, but Stalin had his occasional zigs and zags as well, most notably in 1936-37, with a brief economic liberalization that he actually called “perestroika.” Stalinism is consolidated Leninism. Amis acknowledges this objection, once, in a footnote, without ever really answering it.

[Martin] Malia [author of The Soviet Tragedy]…dissents from [the view that nobody was keen on collectivization of agriculture in the late 1920s, which Amis calls, mistakenly, “the consensus view”]; he sees Collectivization as structural to the Lenin-Stalin continuum, and he is eloquent. “For a Bolshevik party the real choice in 1929 was not between Stalin’s road and Bukharin’s; it was between doing approximately what Stalin did and giving up the whole Leninist enterprise.” The question remains: how approximately do we take the word “approximately”?

He loads the dice, but even here Malia wins on points.
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Aug 012002

A buddy of mine keeps telling me the Internet is the great engine of human freedom, bringing capitalism and representative government to all. Not if the Saudis have anything to do with it. (Link courtesy of Charles Johnson, who I guess is my hero today.) And here’s an article (pdf format) on what big fun it is to surf the web in Cuba and China.

Toys are nice, but ideas rule the world.