Hello, Emacs!

April 11, 2011

This post was written and published from within Emacs, using Weblogger Mode.

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I’m not dead yet!

April 11, 2011

It’s certainly been a while since the last post. The first relevant change is that this is no longer the group blog of Patrick and Ashley. This is a natural consequence of there no longer being a Patrick and Ashley, except inasmuch as required by certain mereological outlooks. Ashley’s blog is [here], although she doesn’t seem to be much better at updates than I am.

My interests have also kind of gone metastatic since my last period of activity here. In 2008, I thought it more or less obvious that philosophy was the only discipline worth personally pursuing. I have since, ah, refined that position. Recently I have been spending most of my time studying mathematics and computer science, and will be beginning a Ph.D. program in biology next fall.

As such, I’ll try to constrain the topics of this space to the biological and mathematical, but excursions and digressions will probably be inevitable.  Part of the impetus for writing again is just to force myself to put 250 words on the page every day.  There seems to be a raft of evidence suggesting that the path to human excellence–in nearly any domain–is just repeated, mindful practice.  About 10,000 hours worth.  Johnson agreed:

“In an occasional performance no height of excellence can be expected from any mind, however fertile in itself, and however stored with acquisitions. . [The author] is at liberty to delay his publication till he has satisfied his friends and himself; till he has reformed his first thoughts by subsequent examination; and polished away those faults which the precipitance of ardent composition is likely to leave behind it. Virgil is related to have poured out a great number of lines in the morning, and to have passed the day in reducing them to fewer.”
Johnson: Dryden (Lives of the Poets)

This is not to say that I don’t write currently.  In fact, I write rather a lot, but in batch-mode and usually under conditions of duress.  The point here will be to write for my own sake.  One might wonder whether it isn’t a bit presumptuous to write in the aim of attaining a form of human excellence, and of course it is presumptuous to claim to have attained it, at least without overwhelming empirical support.  Rather, I hope that the admission of a desire to practice a craft that is not wholly within one’s grasp is a humbling act, especially when that craft is one upon which most of one’s ultimate pursuits depends.

The blog’s official status at this point is quasinymity– it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to link this blog with my meatspace identity, but it’s not obvious to me whether I should encourage that identification or not.  The looming concern here is that I might write something idiotic, something which might encourage someone with a controlling interest in my future as a working scientist–like say my advisor–to conclude that I have no such thing.  The fear of publicly declaring idiotic things is a healthy one to have, but let me illustrate with an example:

I have recently decided that it is high time I learnt to program in a more traditional language, and last week I went to a short course put on by the Cambridge computer science faculty called “C for absolute beginners”…

I should perhaps add that I’ve attempted to understand C and C++ in the past, and although I didn’t manage, it was a big help this time round that I had seen at least some of it before…

I don’t know where this is going to lead. It already felt pretty complicated when we learnt about file handling (things like processing the data from one file and copying it into another), and we didn’t get on to how one might plot graphs…

The author of this excerpt is Tim Gowers. Tim Gowers the Fields Medalist. You’ve just read Tim Gowers’s admission that the C programming language was beyond him.

I don’t mention this in order to wrest some ill-gotten sense of superiority from it.  Far from it: I’m deeply indebted to Gowers for his work on the Princeton Companion to Mathematics, which is a wonderful book that you can tell has benefited from his editorial eye on practically every page.  His “informal discussions” were also extremely helpful to me when I first studied real analysis and found myself wondering what its real purpose was.  I mention that post only to introduce the moral that I derived from it, which was impressed upon me strongly enough that I can recall practically the entire post, almost two years later: there is a kind of liberation in the admission of ignorance.  If Tim Gowers can admit to being bested by a C compiler, what do I possibly have to lose?

There is a famous story, possibly apocryphal, about Rutherford–already a Nobel laureate–enrolling in freshman chemistry in order to develop the background to interpret the Geiger-Marsden experiment.  So too, then, can Gowers the Fields medalist and computational complexity theorist take “C for absolute beginners.”  I don’t think myself a Rutherford or a Gowers, of course, but I do think myself capable of learning from their examples.


Tolstoy on Greek

August 14, 2008

From Troyat’s biography:

He sent for a theological student from Moscow to teach him the rudiments of the language. From the first day, the forty-two-year-old pupil threw himself into Greek grammar with a passion, pored over dictionaries, drew up vocabularies, tackled the great authors. In spite of his headaches, he learned quickly. In a few weeks he had outdistanced his teacher. He sight-translated Xenophon, reveled in Homer, discovered Plato and said the originals were like “spring-water that sets the teeth on edge, full of sunlight and impurities and dust-motes that make it seem even more pure and fresh,” while translations of the same texts were as tasteless as “boiled, distilled water.”

Sometimes he dreamed in Greek at night. He imagined himself living in Athens; as he tramped through the snow of Yasnaya Polyana, sinking in up to his calves, his head was filled with sun, marble and geometry. Watching him changing overnight into a Greek, his wife was torn between admiration and alarm. “There is clearly nothing in the world that interests him more or gives him greater pleasure than to learn a new Greek word or puzzle out some expression he has not met before,” she complained. “I have questioned several people, some of whom have taken their degree at the university. To hear them talk, Lyovochka has made unbelievable progress in Greek.” He himself felt rejuvenated by this diet of ancient wisdom. “Now I firmly believe,” he said to Fet, “that I shall write no more gossipy twaddle of the War and Peace type.”

Hat tip: languagehat.


Mortality and moribund languages

July 9, 2008

This summer, in addition to tutoring and general labrattery, I’ve been trying my hand at construction work (residential and commercial carpentry, for those to whom that means anything). While I understood that the work would be dirty, dangerous and demeaning, I did not anticipate it also wholly rotting my mind. Let me drop some Smith on you: Read the rest of this entry »


Licensing redux

July 7, 2008

Since the original post was accidentally published prematurely by my coëditor, I’ll take this post to look at some of the more common objections to licensing and argue that they’re lacking.

The first objection to parental licensing is the invocation of a “right to one’s children.” As Hugh LaFollette notes, any right one has to one’s children is far too limited to preclude a licensing regime. One has no right to abuse one’s children, and the law already allows that the state may remove children from parental custody in such cases. Licensing, moreover, is in many respects a less invasive remedy to the problem of parental incompetence than the current presumption in favor of the parent.

This argument, however, takes “competence” to be the quality in virtue of which successful parents are to be licensed and unsuccessful parents, to be denied. Lawrence Frisch, in his critical reply to Lafollette, offers four sufficient criteria by which parents may be found unfit to raise children:

  1. they may be ignorant a certain basic body of knowledge about the mechanics of childcare,
  2. they may be physically or mentally unable to act upon that knowledge,
  3. they may be unwilling to act upon that knowledge, or
  4. they may be willing at large, but lack the disposition or self-control to refrain from abuse when tried by circumstances.

While Frisch concedes that licensing programs may improve the lot of children cared for by parents of the first or second types (either by mandating that parents take the appropriate remedial actions or placing them in new homes), he doubts that parents of the third or fourth types will be meaningfully deterred from abuse by the kind of licensing regimes that regulate drivers, doctors and dentists.

The purpose of licensing in the traditional cases, Frisch argues, is to demonstrate the applicant’s possession of certain relevant knowledge, or the ability to perform certain tasks. Drivers’ tests have no predictive value to the state in identifying drivers most likely to prove extraordinarily dangerous. For a licensing program of LaFollette’s design to succeed, it must identify as likely to commit abuse parents who have never mistreated children. This feature, Frisch claims, stands at odds with the conventional purposes of licensing. He charges LaFollette with

hav[ing] shifted the focus of licensing from its traditional purpose of assessing knowledge to the realm of predicting future behavior and confronting issues of negligence and incompetence—areas in which licensing has no historical interest.

But the traditional concern in licensing for determining present competence, and not for predicting future performance, is primarily a problem with the state of the art of assessment. Examining applicants upon a body of relevant knowledge, or an array of tasks which simulate the specialized skills required in the licensed profession, just is the most reliable predictor of future performance, the tested knowledge and skills being indispensable to competent practice. Curiously, no one proposes for medical students the “wait and see” method of assaying competence that is current for parents; the claim that unlicensed proto-doctors have never actually injured a patient strikes us rightfully as ignorant of the elenchus.

If it became possible, perhaps under the purview of a mature and unified neuroscience, to develop licensing procedures which identified, with level of significance α, that a given parent would gravely abuse or neglect their children, how high would α have to be before the procedure should be administered? Alternately, if faced with a choice between medical licenses, and medical schmicenses which consisted in the licensing examination plus a time machine which allowed us to check for future malpractice, what is the argument for retaining licenses?


Parenting Licenses

July 2, 2008

Ashley and I were arguing the other day about some issues pertaining to state-issued licenses for parenting. In my experience, the proposal usually arises when one is confronted by acts of exceptionally bad parenting, and it must occur to us then that (a) public exhibitions of abuse and neglect are not at all uncommon, (b) many more acts of abuse and neglect are committed outside of the public sphere, and (c) the parents who do not scruple to casually abuse their children in public are liable for much worse in the privacy of their own homes. All told, about 900,000 children are abused or neglected every year, and 1,500 of those children are killed as a result. Despite this, parenting licenses have never received sustained political support, trailing far behind flag pins and gay marriage* in the national consciousness.

The case for parenting licenses is pretty unimaginative:

  1. Before undertaking activities in which an incompetent actor can quickly cause lasting harm, the state may insist upon a demonstration of competence.
  2. Parenting is such an activity.
  3. ∴ The state may insist upon a demonstration of competence in parenting.

Both (1) and (2) seem uncontroversial. We expect plumbers to obtain more training and certifications than we currently require of parents, and we do not conclude from this disparity that the regulatory burdens imposed upon artisans, doctors, lawyers or drivers are too high. Neither do many deny that the role of the parent affords the potential to inflict great harms upon children, including the diminished capacity to create and enjoy future relationships with others. With both premises in place, however, many people and many parents still balk at the conclusion.


*Whether or not the state grants you a marriage license is hardly a trivial panem et circenses issue when you find yourself barred from your partner’s hospital room or dropped from their health plan. I include it for the anxiety it commands from the perhaps 95% of the electorate for whom gay marriage has no practical impact. Put another way, there is no 9/11 of children and infants every two years owing to a lack of political action on gay marriage.


Hello world!

July 1, 2008

This is the group blog of Patrick and Ashley, two students of philosophy, science and useful arts.  Expect things to change rapidly at first.  Here, you see, it takes all the changing you can do, to keep in the same place.

Also, please let me know if (pace google) I was correct in my suspicion that I was not the first to turn to semantic externalism for blog titles.