Year: 2010

Which Wohltemperirte

Posted by – July 12, 2010

About halfway through GEB I decided that I should give this Bach stuff a day in court. I’ve long liked what I’ve known, but known relatively little. Fairly arbitrarily I had pre-decided to start with The Well-Tempered Clavier, which comprises two sets of 24 preludes and fugues (a pair of 24 pairs!). But covetousness always brings more pain: now you have to decide which recording to get. Wanting only a complete set and drawing on the expertise of some friends and the Internet, I came up with this shortlist (all played on the piano, due to no special prejudice):

  1. Edwin Fischer 1933-1936
    Fischer is an extremely big, maybe the biggest, name in the appropriate Germanic tradition. I think this is the most famous of all the recordings, and something of a default. It has authority, but I worried that it’s too old – perhaps by now the consensus on Bach recordings is more settled. Also, I suspect that the standard of top musicianship has been steadily rising.
  2. Glenn Gould 1963-1965 for Book 1, 1968, 1970 and 1971 for Book 2
    Gould is, of course, the big eccentric celebrity, by far the most intriguing as a person and, according to many, as a musician. He certainly cared as much about Bach as anyone, going so far as to revive his music in the Soviet Union on then-unusual tours there, and giving his all to make perfect recordings. But perfect by his own standards: notorious for both a large number of takes and singing along as he played, the recordings have passionate haters as well as lovers. Ultimately I deemed Gould insufficiently neutral, and neutrality is what my heart yearns for.
  3. Angela Hewitt 1997-1999
    Hewitt is probably by consensus the greatest living Bach performer. This recording is currently the most popular choice on eg. Amazon, and according to Wikipedia “the set has often been recommended as a ‘reference’ version”. I can’t find any complaints about it, and Hewitt is certainly the real deal: in 2007-2008 she undertook a six-continent world tour performing the entire Well-Tempered Clavier each concert.
  4. Angela Hewitt 2008
    The recordings I’ve mentioned so far took a long time to complete, but after the aforementioned world tour, Hewitt decided to re-record the whole thing in a week and a day in the Jesus-Christus-Kirche in Berlin. She said that after playing the work so many times on tour and becoming more and more acquainted with a new custom-build piano, she felt that she had a new, refined vision for the recording. Some people who have heard it prefer it, saying that it has a lighter, clearer tone. But I decided for now that I don’t want new, refined visions, thank you very much (as intriguing as it sounds). For neutrality!

I went with choice 3, fairly confident that I’d be completely unable to tell the difference between any of them.

Mathematico-philosophical opinions in Concrete Mathematics, Probability Theory and Principles of Statistics

Posted by – July 4, 2010

These books I recently bought together are curiously interconnected, to the degree that their introductions and various asides seem to be having a conversation (I’ve been popping in and out of each one, finishing none of them). The introduction to Concrete Mathematics sets the stage rather well:

It was a dark and stormy decade when Concrete Mathematics was born. Long-held values were constantly being questioned during those turbulent years; college campuses were hotbeds of controversy. The college curriculum itself was challenged, and mathematics did not escape scrutiny. John Hammersley had just written a thought-provoking article “On the enfeeblement of mathematical skills by ‘Modern Mathematics’ and by similar soft intellectual trash in schools and universities”; other worried mathematicians even asked, “Can mathematics be saved?” One of the present authors had embarked on a series of books called The Art of Computer Programming, and in writing the first volume he had found that there were mathematical tools missing from his repertoire; the mathematics he needed for a thorough, well-grounded understanding of computer programs was quite different from what he’d learned as a mathematics major in college. So he introduced a new course, teaching what he wished somebody had taught him.

The course title “Concrete Mathematics” was originally intended as an antidote to “Abstract Mathematics”, since concrete classical results were rapidly being swept out of the modern mathematical curriculum by a new wave of abstract ideas popularily called the “New Math.” Abstract mathematics is a wonderful subject, and there’s nothing wrong with it: It’s beautiful, general, and useful. But its adherents had become deluded that the rest of mathematics was inferior and no longer worthy of attention. […]

But what exactly is Concrete Mathematics? It is a blend of CONtinuous and disCRETE mathematics. More concretely, it is the controlled manipulation of mathematical formulas, using a collection of techniques for solving problems. Once you, the reader, have learned the material in this book, all you will need is a cool head, a large sheet of paper, and fairly decent handwriting in order to evaluate horrendous-looking sums, to solve complex recurrence relations, and to discover subtle patterns in data. You will be so fluent in algebraic techniques that you will often find it easier to obtain exact results than to settle for approximate answers that are valid only in a limiting sense.

Some deal! By the way, I believe the book more or less delivers on this promise, at the price of a ferocious amount of work and application on the part of the reader. There is an extremely large selection of problems, the solutions to all of which are given in an appendix (except the most difficult ones which were open questions in mathematics at the time of publication). I think anyone who worked through all of them, blood pouring from the forehead, would stand out with their sheer manipulative muscle.

The two works on probability are very much opposites in just such a hotbed of controversy: the correct mathematical formulation of the practical concepts of probability and confidence. Probability Theory is especially pugnacious, weighing in on this and numerous other matters. Its author, E. T. Jaynes, intended in it to bring together in a grand way a vision of Bayesian or inferential probability, but sadly died before the book was finished. It was edited into a publishable form by Larry Bretthorst, according to whom many sections of the manuscript concluded with “MUCH MORE COMING.” Jaynes’ death led not only to an incompleteness of the work, but also to a certain harshness in the various off-topic asides which a living author might have been persuaded to tone down. On the topic of mathematical courtesy:

Nowadays, if you introduce a variable x without repeating the incantation that it is in some set or ‘space’ X, you are accused of dealing with an undefined problem. If you differentiate a function f(x) without first having stated that it is differentiable, you are accused of lack of rigor. If you note that your function f(x) has some special property natural to the application, you are accused of lack of generality. In other words, every statement you make will receive the discourteous interpretation.


Emancipation Proclamation
[A statement guaranteeing the implications of the previous paragraph]

We could convert many 19th century mathematical works to 20th century standards by making a rubber stamp containing this Proclamation, with perhaps another sentence using the terms ‘sigma-algebra, Borel field, Radon-Nikodym derivative’, and stamping it on the first page.

Modern writers could shorten their works substantially, with improved readability and no decrease in content, by including such a Proclamation in the copyright message, and writing thereafter in 19th century style.

Other contrarian topics include “The Hausdorff sphere paradox and mathematical diseases”, “Counting infinite sets?”, “Bogus nondifferentiable functions” and “What is a legitimate mathematical function?” A less reverent editor would definitely have omitted these, but although they don’t really add anything to the subject matter of the book, they are a lot of fun and I don’t mind hearing Jaynes’ opinion on them. I want to quote just one more of these tangents, on the subject of probability in quantum physics:

Those who cling to a belief in the existence of ‘physical probabilities’ may react to the above arguments by pointing to quantum theory, in which physical probabilities appear to express the most fundamental laws of physics. Therefore let us explain why this is another case of circular reasoning. We need to understand that present quantum theory uses entirely different standards of logic than does the rest of science.

In biology or medicine, if we note that an effect E (for example, muscle contraction, phototropism, digestion of protein) does not occur unless a condition C (nerve impulse, light, pepsin) is present, it seems natural to infer that C is a necessary causative agent for E. Most of what is known in all fields of science has resulted from following up this kind of reasoning. But suppose that condition C does not always lead to effect E; what further inferences should a scientist draw? At this point, the reasoning formats of biology and quantum theory diverge sharply.

In the biological sciences, one takes it for granted that in addition to C there must be some other causative factor F, not yet identified. One searches for it, tracking down the assumed cause by a process of elimination of possibilities that is sometimes extremely tedious. But persistence pays off; over and over again, medically important and intellectually impressive success has been achieved, the conjectured unknown causative factor being finally identified as a definite chemical compound. […]

In quantum theory, one does not reason in this way. Consider, for example, the photo-electric effect (we shine light on a metal surface and find that electrons are ejected from it). The experimental fact is that the electrons do not appear unless light is present. So light must be a causative factor. But light does not always produce ejected electrons; even though the light from a unimode laser is present with absolutely steady amplitude, the electrons appear only at particular times that are not determined by any known parameters of the light. Why then do we not draw the obvious inference, that in addition to the light there must be a second causative factor, still unidentified, and the physicist’s job is to search for it?

In short, Probability Theory, in addition to being a strong and demanding exposition of Bayesian probability, is a font of unconventional, direct thinking. Principles of Statistics stands in contrast, being an absolutely straightforward textbook on the time-tested methods of frequentist probability. Despite this, its introduction happens to present an opinion on the philosophy of probability, dismissing efforts such as Jaynes’ work:

[The introduction first introduces frequentist probability and then various approaches to inductive probability, all stemming from the “principle of indifference” and finding problems in each one]

It has been reluctantly concluded by most statisticians that inductive probability cannot in general be measured and, therefore, cannot be used in the mathematical theory of statistics. This conclusion is not, perhaps, very surprising since there seems to be no reason why rational degrees of belief should be measurable any more than, say, degrees of beauty. Some paintings are very beautiful, some are quite beautiful and some are ugly; but it would be absurd to try to construct a numerical scale of beauty on which the Mona Lisa had a beauty-value of 0.96! Similarily some propositions are highly probable, some are quite probable and some are improbable; but it does not seem possible to construct a numerical scale of such (inductive) probabilities.

Here’s Probability Theory on the same subject:

For many years, there has been controversy over ‘frequentist’ versus ‘Bayesian’ methods of inference, in which the writer has been an outspoken partisan on the Bayesian side. […] In these old works there was a strong tendency, on both sides, to argue on the level of philosophy or ideology. We can now hold ourselves somewhat aloof from this, because, thanks to recent work, there is no longer any need to appeal to such arguments. We are now in possession of proven theorems and masses of worked-out numerical examples. As a result, the superiority of Bayesian methods is now a thoroughly demonstrated fact in a hundred different areas.

If books could fight… Of course, as far as I’m aware, statistical/probabilistic methods as taught at universities are, at least on a low level, still purely frequentist.

The combination of these very practical, mathematically demanding, hard-nosed but nevertheless somehow philosophical, personal and opinionated books is very intriguing – I hope I’m able to put enough work into them to extract for my benefit at least some of the immense work that has gone into them.

On gay marriage and unreasonable demands

Posted by – July 3, 2010

I’ve witnessed variations on the following dialogue more times than I can remember:

A: Gay marriage is a simple human rights issue. We can’t restrict a person’s rights just because they’re homosexual.
B: I agree that homosexuals should have the same rights as everyone else, and they do. Heterosexuals can’t have same-sex marriages either.

At this point A explodes with disbelieving fury, thinking that B is playing the fool. Surely B is disingenously twisting words! But after careful observation, I’ve come to the conclusion that B usually is sincere in his position. We have yet another case of communication breakdown… Let’s expand the dialogue (and the interlocutors’ capacity for mutual understanding):

A: The right to marry is society’s blessing on a loving and committed relationship, and homosexuals have as much a right to that as heterosexuals.
B: Maybe, maybe not – but even if they’re given the right, they still can’t have the kind of marriage heterosexuals have. It would make as much sense for them to demand the right to heterosexual sex between same-sex couples.
A: What do you mean? Are you suggesting that same-sex love is so inherently different from different-sex love that the concept of commitment doesn’t translate?
B: Well… yes.

At this point A again explodes with disbelieving fury, thinking that B is bigoted and prejudiced. We need to expand more – let’s take A and B into the past, to the murky, gender-warring 70’s-80’s.

A: The way men take advantage of women is an outrage comparable to slavery. Women are powerless and unappreciated in their own homes, in the workplace and society as a whole – and why? Pure sexism and prejudice!
B: Well, women just aren’t cut out for some jobs. Men and women are different, you know.
A: Different but equal! What job can’t a woman do?
B: Oh, I’m all for treating women right, but women aren’t going to do the dirty, dangerous physical jobs or be good at leading men. It’s biological.
A: What are you, a caveman? I just read an article about woman miners in the Guardian! Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister!
B: Sure, there are always exceptions.
A: Ugh, you always say that.

A’s position is that women are essentially equivalent to men, and even if they aren’t, to claim otherwise is to restrict the opportunities of those woman who are willing and able to do “men’s work”. B’s position is that stratification by sex is to be expected because men and women are so different. Some men are closer to the average woman and some women closer to the average man, but to demand women in general to be regarded as men is unreasonable, because people are used to their prejudices about men and women and find them useful. Back to gay marriage:

B: Anyway, same-sex couples already get civil unions or whatever. As far as I’m concerned, anyone can make any partnership contract they like, but I’m going to keep calling only different-sex marriages marriages.
A: What exactly do you find so threatening about the idea of gays marrying? Do you think it’s somehow a bad thing when a gay couple forms a stable family unit, like married couples?
B: Well, that doesn’t usually happen. Gay couples don’t have children and don’t have that incentive to stay together. The dynamics are completely different. Of course, it doesn’t harm anyone if they don’t stay together, and that’s exactly why it’s not like a marriage.
A: Some gay couples do have children, or would if it were easier. Do you just not care about them? And anyway, how is it your place to tell them what their relationships are like?
B: I’m just telling them what I consider marriage to be. And there’s always exceptions.
A: Ugh, you always say that.

Okay… so what do I think about all this? I actually rather sympathise with both viewpoints. Starting with the sexism issue, I think it’s foolish and destructive to equate a person with their sex and to be blind to the individual – but I, like everyone else, allow my first impression of a person to be coloured by their sex. To do otherwise would be to throw out useful information, and I don’t believe that can ever be a moral necessity.

Likewise, I don’t think the day will ever come when my abstract mental images of couples consisting respectively of two women, two men and a man and a woman are identical, and I don’t think the societal importance of those forms of partnership will be the same. Also, I absolutely believe that all three of these relationships are capable of any kind of commitment/meaning/crappiness or whatever else comes to mind when you think about couples. Whether all of those couples “deserve” the same word seems to me a strange question. Personally, I think they’re sufficiently different to justify different words, but if the gay people in my life get married and care about that word, I’ll use it about them. It’s kind of like the question of which word to use about black people – even if you don’t mean anything bad by using the word “nigger”, everyone else believes that you do.

So on balance: I support gay marriage on the grounds that I don’t want to offend people. As for the “social effects” of gay marriage, I have no idea, and I don’t know that it’s feasible or moral to legislate on such a basis – some of the complications of that question are explored rather well in this blog post by someone else.

Today I learned

Posted by – June 7, 2010

Guess what? For variables (a to z) ranging over the nonnegative integers, the set of positive values of this polynomial is the set of prime numbers:

(k+2) *
[1 – [wz+h+j-q]2 – [(gk+2g+k+1)(h+j)+h-z]2 – [2n+p+q+z-e]2 – [16(k+1)3(k+2)(n+1)2+1-f2]2
[e3(e+2)(a+1)2+1-o2]2 – [(a2-1)y2+1-x2]2 – [16r2y4(a2-1)+1-u2]2
[((a+u2(u2-a))2 -1)(n+4dy)2 + 1 – (x+cu)2]2 – [n+l+v-y]2 – [(a2-1)l2+1-m2]2
[ai+k+1-l-i]2 – [p+l(a-n-1)+b(2an+2a-n2-2n-2)-m]2 – [q+y(a-p-1)+s(2ap+2a-p2-2p-2)-x]2

Taistolainen parinvalinta

Posted by – May 24, 2010

Tutkin mahdollisuuksiani Matti Rossin kanssa analysoimalla Jos Rakastat -kappaleen sanoituksia. Kappaleessa on luettelo asioita joiden rakastaminen on alhaista – niiden rakastamisesta tulee siis miinuspiste, vihaamisesta plussaa – paitsi viimeisessä säkeistössä päinvastoin.

Jos rakastat kylmää kuuta

En ole varma tarkoittiko Rossi tällä kuuta taivaankappaleena vai kuutamona. Periaatteessa taivaankappaleiden liikkeet herättävät minussa myönteisiä tunteita ja kuutamokin on mukava, mutta molempien asioiden kohdalla löytyy paljon intoutuvampiakin asianharrastajia. (0 pistettä)

esineitä, kirjojen kansia,

Vihaan esineitä ja pyrin niistä jatkuvasti eroon. (1 piste) Tunnen voimakasta vetoa kirjoihin, mutta olen todennut tunteen vanhanaikaiseksi ja tukahduttamisen arvoiseksi – kirjan kansiin suhtaudun neutraalisti. (0 pistettä)

auton ovia, ihmisen kuorta,

Auton ovet kuten teknologisen maailman tuotokset yleensäkin ovat hienoja juttuja (-1 piste). En pidä ihmisen kuoresta, siihen liittyy liikaa onnettomia tunteita ja epätäydellisyyttä. Kuten Abso lauloi: tärkeintä ei ole ulkokuori vaan se mitä on vaatteiden alla. (1 piste).

en tule sinun kanssasi meren rantaan
enkä piirrä kuvaasi hiekkaan…

Onkohan pisteiden laskeminen turhaa jos yhdenkin em. asian rakastaminen laukaisee kieltoreaktion? Jatketaan kuitenkin.

Jos rakastat ikkunoita,

Ikkunat ovat ilman muuta hyödyllisiä ja Suomen oloissa jopa välttämättömiä. Tällainen rakkaus on tietysti luonteeltaan sellaista jota ei tule joka päivä ajatelleeksi, mutta ikkunoiden puute varmasti muistuttaisi siitä. (-1 piste)

hopeatuoppeja, soopeliturkkeja,

Molemmat kuulostavat vähän mauttomilta, mutta toisaalta se johtuu lähinnä siitä etten kuulu sellaiseen ökyilyluokkaan että voisin kunnolla nauttia niistä. Turkikset ovat kyllä mukavan lämpimiä ja voisin käyttää sellaista jos järkihintaan saisi, mutta annan kuitenkin itselleni näistä molemmista plussan. (2 pistettä)

nahkaselkäistä vieraskirjaa,

Yh, en pidä. En kyllä oikein edes tiedä miksi. (1 piste)

minä hymyilen sinulle kadun poikki,

Alkaa kuulostaa paremmalta!

mutta en lähde kanssasi hienoon paikkaan
syömään hanhenrintaa.

:(. En kyllä mielelläni käykään hienoissa paikoissa, paitsi jos joku muu maksaa.

Jos rakastat purjehtimista,

En. Vaatii liikaa pitkäjänteistä keskittymistä, tai jotain. Sivumennen sanoen tiedän kyllä vasemmistolaisia runosieluja jotka pitävät purjehtimisesta. Kannattaisikohan harkita uudelleen? (1 piste)

kaukomatkoja, Kanarian saarta,

Janoan nykyään ennemmin paikallaanoloa. Ehkä jonain päivänä taas huvittaa matkailla. Jos on vaikka liikaa rahaa. Kanariasta en tiedä juuri mitään. (2 pistettä)

pois sinä lähdet, ja minä pysyn täällä.
Ja muistelen sinua kaipaamatta,
aamua, jolloin tuuli puhalsi
hiuksissani, ja vei sinun kuvasi.

Ei nyt mennä vielä näin pitkälle! Ja mistä olet saanut kuvani?

Jos rakastat seteleitä,

Guilty as charged! Raha ylipäätään symboloi kaikenlaista arvokkaana pidettyä ja antaa positiivisia fiiliksiä. (-1 piste)

minä autan sinua luopumaan niistä
ja annan sinulle kaiken, minkä tahdot.
Mutta sydäntäni en anna…

Seksuaalinen vapautus sai ihmiset suhtautumaan myönteisesti paitsi tällaiseen vaihtokauppaprostituutioon, myös esim. seksin käyttämiseen poliittisen vaikuttamisen välineenä. Siitä tässä kappaleessa on kai yleensäkin kysymys.

Jos rakastat liikaa kirjoja,

No, liikaa ja liikaa. Muutama vuosi sitten olisin vastannut myönteisesti, mutta nyttemmin tavaranvihani on voittanut tämän rakkauden (kyllä! Joskus viha voittaa rakkauden). Kirjojen hankkiminen, kadehtiminen, omistaminen ja hiveleminen on edelleen ihanaa mutta tunnistan tämän heikkoutena itsessäni. Annetaan tästä nolla. (0 pistettä)

minä kysyn sinulta, miten käy minun,
kun tunnet minut kannesta kanteen.
Ja juoneni lakkaavat kiinnostamasta
ja muistat ulkoa kaiken…

Tämä edustaa jollain tavalla rakkauskäsitystä jota en jaa, mutten osaa/jaksa tarkemmin eritellä millaista. En kyllä usko että yhden ihmisen “juonet” voivat kiinnostaa ikuisesti (eikä tarvitse).

Nyt kappaleessa alkaa luettelo asioista joista on hyvä pitää, eli pitämisestä tulee plussaa ja sen vastakohdasta miinusta.

Jos rakastat pieniä tyttöjä,

En, ja joka muuta väittää on valehtelija ja panettelija! (-1 piste)

pieniä tyttöjä, pieniä poikia,

Tämähän menee pakkomielteiseksi. (-1 piste)

koiria, mummoja, vanhojapiikoja,

… (-3 pistettä)

salaattia ja sellerinjuurta,
lampaanpaistia, kevätaamuja,

Rakkaus on vähän vahva sana… Kaikki myönteisiä asioita, mutta sen verran vähäkestoisia ja vaihtelevaisia että annetaan näistä yhteensä yksi rakkauspiste. (1 piste)

kylmien asemien yksinäisiä miehiä,

Jaa-a. Ehkä “yksinäiset miehet” olivat ennen mukavampaa väkeä. (-1 piste)

minä tulen
sinun kanssasi merenrantaan
ja piirrän, piirrän kuvasi hiekkaan
ja piirrän, piirrän kuvasi hiekkaan
ja piirrän, piirrän kuvasi hiekkaan
ja piirrän, piirrän kuvasi hiekkaan

Lopputulos: 0 pistettä. Toivottavasti seuraavalla tärppää!

Liar’s quiz

Posted by – May 20, 2010

Multiple choice question: if you choose an answer to this question at random, what is the probability of choosing a correct answer?

25% 50% 0% 25%

(via reddit)

Pickup in Vicky Christina Barcelona analyzed by Roissy

Posted by – May 15, 2010

Back when I saw Woody Allen’s movie Vicky Christina Barcelona I wrote that it had some remarkable pieces of seduction technique. This has been confirmed by analysis by one of my favourite Internet hate figures, Roissy:

0:46 – 0:55 Juan’s body language is half his game. His gait is steady and slow, his face expressionless except for the flash of a slight wry smile. When he approaches, he takes his sweet time getting there. Also notice how he lets his gaze deliberately linger on the less attractive/less playful Vicky first, and then switches looking at Cristina. He knows, before he’s even said one word, who the potential cockblock is and how the process of disarming her takes precedence before anything else. Always address the less attractive/more anal retentive girls in a group first, unless it’s a mixed group of men and women, in which case address the men first.

Who’s going to buy a piece of crap like that

Posted by – May 14, 2010

Sometimes I feel like we really live out in the sticks. The other day a guy came around selling horse manure. What, horse manure? Yeah, you know, for fertilizing. Mom always bought some this time of year. I think it’s good for the rose bushes or something. Hey honey, are you buying this shit? Yeah, this guy is peddling crap in a van. I don’t know if we really need this shit. I mean, we don’t have to take this guy’s horseshit if we don’t want to. Okay man, how much you want for this shit?

It was 10€ a bag, three bags for 25€. We got three bags.

The ongoing march of materialism

Posted by – May 13, 2010

I got so excited about owning stuff that I put together an Amazon wish list. If you’re ever in the position of having to get me a present, anything here is very welcome (I’ll obviously be buying these up myself as well).

Economics as philosophy replacement

Posted by – May 13, 2010

I’ve found myself getting more and more interested in economics recently, and defending this interest somewhat sheepishly. Why is that? Up till recently I rather looked down on economics, mainly because it can’t really predict anything, and when it can its predictions seem very obvious (involving supply and demand curves of a maximum of two goods at once). And besides, it has to do with money, and everyone knows talking about money is boring and low status.

When I was young and even more stupid than now I was most of all interested in philosophy. The way I saw it, everything else came out of logic, which came out of philosophy, so I should certainly cover philosophy before getting to anything else. I did get a big kick out of some things, like the question of free will, utilitarianism, Mill’s concept of liberty, Kant’s ethics, Rawls’ justice, the recognition of some important fallacies and reasoning principles (no ought from is, no is from ought, Occam’s razor) and most of all, Wittgenstein’s linguistic solutions to philosophical problems (my term). And of course I’m still very interested in what you might call practical epistemology (thinking about the best way to get an accurate understanding of reality). Also, the craziness of what some people think about metaphysics has great entertainment value.

But none of those things have a great revelatory effect on most people, perhaps because they sound like opinions. They also don’t have much predictive power (except the reasoning guidelines, occasionally). Sounds like another discipline I know…

By the way, my interest in philosophy was finally quenched by being acquainted with contemporary writings in the field of environmental aesthetics (I believe the rest of philosophy is similar). Partly it’s a self-generating field: essays rebut other essays which claim that philosopher X believed Y, and once you’ve written enough, you can become philosopher Z whose opinions will be the topic of further “study”. Partly it’s a craft: an essay might consist of the careful application of someone’s theory to some practical issue or piece of art, some “surprising” result comes out and overall the essay is a pleasant thing to read, but it’s difficult to say what exactly has been discovered. There’s value in it, but there are seldom any actual discoveries. I don’t reject it, but I wanted (at that time in my life at least) something else.

So in short, I think I’m willing to give economics a break on the grounds that I gave one to philosophy. Economics deals with some difficult questions and comes up with numerous different but plausible solutions – and to be fair, some of it is already fairly well settled (which is not to say that politicians accept even the settled part, for some reason). I think it will be a lot of fun to learn.

The hidden systems

Posted by – May 11, 2010

What economic system do you live in? For readers of this blog, the answer is probably some blend of market capitalism, corporatism and socialism. It is defined by your interactions with the state: sometimes it gives you resources or subsidises your choices, sometimes it expropriates resources and taxes your choices, sometimes it does neither. All of the time it arranges things for the benefit of powerful institutions.

But that’s far from being the only economic counterparty you have (unless the state is completely socialist) – the state is only special because it has the violence monopoly, so in theory it can dictate anything it wants. In a free market system, you also have a counterparty in your employer, in the customers of your yard sale, in people who trade stocks with you (or your pension scheme) and so on. These are all market systems themselves, and free market theorists like to call the free market system “natural” because it seems to occur wherever there’s no coercion.

Margaret Thatcher famously said that there’s no such thing as “society”, but only individuals. That sounds like a rather pointless truism, but I suppose she had in mind something like the small-scale economic arrangements I listed in the previous paragraph, which are all free market and (supposedly) show by their existence that humans are inherently meant to operate in free markets. However, it seems to me that one of the most significant economic arrangements has been omitted here – that of families (ostensibly families are important to conservatives, but I think Thatcher may have been an exception). Families, it occurred to me, are instances of neither free markets nor coercion, and typically operate under some some kind of socialist syndicalism. For many or most people they’re also more significant than any other economic arrangement in their lives.

Let me address some obvious criticisms of that idea. Firstly: are families really both free and non-market? Most libertarians I’ve talked to would probably say that they are free markets, because they’re arrangements people freely choose in their own best interests. And if they don’t freely choose them, well, then it’s a system of oppression. I’m not unsympathetic to that viewpoint, but it strikes me as a rather too coarse a distinction.

If you’re a child in a family, the family supervises your life and determines your best interest for you, rather like an ideal communist state. But you probably don’t hold that against them (or you do when you’re a teenager, which is probably the brain’s way of saying that it wants to get out and control its own resources and make its own babies). Or if you’re married to someone, you may very well feel like a hostage, staying in an unpleasant situation for the kids, out of memories of love or because you don’t want to lose status or be poor. A libertarian might say that that’s still free choice, because you chose to get married and can choose to get divorced, but again, that doesn’t quite capture the entire situation. And even if only physical coercion counts, plenty of people in marriages still experience that or the threat of it.

If we accept for the sake of argument that families aren’t a form of coercion or instances of free markets, what are they? At first I thought that they were some form of socialism, but that’s not true for all families at least. Some families have a Soviet-style implementation where power is concentrated and one or both parents (or plausibly grandparents) decide for the benefit of all. Some have a more syndicalist system where everyone gets some kind of say in everything. Some hippie families have probably even tried anarcho-syndicalism. Some families live under despotism, where one person rules for his own benefit. In fact a market system family is one I haven’t really ever seen. Could it work? What other systems are there?

IRL Monty Python segment

Posted by – May 11, 2010

Every civilized country

Posted by – May 10, 2010

It’s a common tactic in national politics to state that since all civilized countries do X, so must Examplestan. There’s some variety in how useful it is: in big countries like the US it doesn’t mean anything, in small ones like Finland it’s practically law. However some small countries, like Poland, are very nationalistic and therefore don’t care. Other small countries, like the UK, consider themselves to simply be a special case in everything, so they also aren’t as affected.

Because politics is the mind-killer, there’s a considerable amount of myopia in declaring this type of universality, eg. Europeans consider the death penalty to be the height of barbarity, yet it is in use in the dominant culture of the age.

This occurred to me in particular with reference to the UK elections. Firstly, it would be “out of the question” to implement the UK electoral system anywhere else because it is so undemocratic, but the British have had it for a long time and are strangely ambivalent about it (also: monarchy).

Secondly, I only recently learned that each candidate has to pay a £500 deposit to stand, to be repaid if the candidate secures at least 5% of the vote. This has given me a new standard of respect for all the Monster Raving Loony Party members spending that much on a practical joke. There’s no way a Finnish politician could ever suggest such a plutocratic law and keep their career. According to this jubilant website, the BNP has forfeited at least £131,500 in contesting the present election. I guess they were able to afford it – the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (I think the main socialist electoral group) mustered 41 candidates at the cost of £20,500 just to stand. For these marginal groups, that must be one of their more significant expenses – not to mention that for major parties, the equivalent cost is zero.

Some civilized (non)universals with exceptions:

  • A national airline (US, which has antitrust laws)
  • Freedom of expression (Finland has special protection for religion, the Finnish flag and the pride of national and ethnic groups, the UK has hate speech and “antisocial behaviour” laws, Germany has banned holocaust denial and Nazi symbols, in Australia even drawn or written depictions of child pornography are illegal (except for Lolita, because no civilized country would ban a famous book like that)… you name it, someone’s banned it)
  • Legislation mandating disabled toilets (there are no exceptions to this, you really live in a shithole if you don’t have it)
  • Universal suffrage (criminals and people considered insane often excluded, stupidity is no obstacle)
  • Rule of law (surely a mistake, this doesn’t exist anywhere -Ed.)
  • continued on page 37

Books ordered today

Posted by – May 8, 2010

  • Concrete Mathematics: Foundation for Computer Science (Ronald Graham, Donald Knuth and Oren Patashnik)
  • Programming Pearls (Jon Bentley)
  • The Little Schemer (Daniel Friedman and Matthias Felleisen)
  • Principles of Statistics (M. G. Bulmer)
  • Probability Theory: The Logic of Science: Principles and Elementary Applications Vol 1 (E. T. Jaynes)
  • Coders at Work: Reflections on the Craft of Programming (interviews by Peter Seibel)
  • Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (Douglas Hofstadter)

Owning these books will make me smarter, right?

Fifties week

Posted by – May 3, 2010

We were burgled a couple of days ago in the middle of the night. Very unsettling to know how easy it was for someone to get in and root around the place. I immediately started having violent fantasies about catching the guy (sexist assumption).

He only took an axe (!) and my wife’s wallet before being disturbed, whereupon he fled. One consequence of this is that my wife doesn’t have cash, an ATM card or any debit or credit cards, so she has to ask me for money. Patriarchy reinstated! “How much do you want, honey? What, you going shoe shopping or something? Okay, but don’t spend it all in one place…”

Can’t pay for love

Posted by – April 29, 2010

Leonard Cohen is coming to Helsinki, boy oh boy! More specifically, to a massive sports arena named after its sponsoring beer company. Still, I thought I had a kind of emotional obligation to see the man at least once.

I go to the website they’re selling the tickets from. Good tickets are 90€. I’m incurably cheap, so that kind of shocks me, but it wouldn’t exactly break the bank. Okay, let’s make the plunge. Crappier tickets start from 60€ – but what would be the point if you can’t see the man up close? I vacillate for a while over it (I’m also horribly indecisive) and next thing I know, the best tickets are sold out already. I start to feel bad about the whole thing, forking over too much money to sit in a sports arena, looking at a jumbotron with thousands of others. I suddenly decide not to buy a ticket.

<bitter> So yeah, have a lot of fun, jerks. I’m talking to you, 58-year-old hags who couldn’t even name a Cohen album, let alone remember any words. Make sure to get lots of pictures with those camera phones. </bitter>

I don’t know, the transaction just didn’t feel right in the end. Of course the guy’s right to ask for however much he can get, and obviously there’s enough demand to justify that level of supply discrimination. That’s what money was invented for. But trying to decide to buy the tickets, I just couldn’t feel the joy in going. There are going to be something like 15 000 people at that concert – at those ticket prices, that’s over a million smackers. As whispers of beauty and tenderness flow one way, tens of thousands of hours worth of labour flow the other. It’s not the price that I balked so much as that vision. As the proles jump at the chance to pay for their football gods’ unimaginative excesses, as the religious tithe while the pope creeps around in gold and ermine, so would I be overpaying for a beloved poet, touched only by my money, hundreds of meters away in an arena. Is that as beautiful a moment as the songs are? What kind of love requires me to declare my own relative worthlessness so loudly?

Of course, it’s not love at all, it’s business. But when it comes to Cohen, love is what I want, and that’s what the songs have already given me. So I don’t feel too bad about the concert anymore.

I did get to see Randy Newman the other night. Thankfully that love is shared by few enough people not to trigger my emotional reservations, so I had a great time.