Well Begun Is Half Done

Old aphorisms stick around for a reason.

When I get a book to review, I create a new file, and enter the book's bibliographical information in it.

When I start a new page of lecture notes, I just put in the outline of the book chapter I have to talk about.

And so. Just so there is a file, with something in it.

Once I get the above first step accomplished it really is all downhill from there. It is the blank page that terrifies!

These are the worst stories ever

As I reentered the world of software development, I kept hearing about "user stories," and wondering what these were. Apparently, some new way of having users describe the software they needed had been developed: it was on my to-do list find out what this was.

I am currently reading a book about agile development, and came across a few of these "user stories." Here is what I found:

  • Customers can view the portal landing page in browser
  • Customer can create draft mortgage application
  • Customer can get list of existing mortgages
Wow, those sure are dramatic "stories." They are what, back in the Middle Ages, we would have called "informal requirements."

What has been gained by calling them "stories" eludes me.

Living the hallucination

In this extraordinary post, I found this extraordinary quote:

"you’re seeing [white, male] people who really expected to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days."

The authoress is living in an hallucination, in which being a white man means that you always get your own way and are always told you are wonderful!

What the authoress has apparently done is notice that, in the course of history, certain white men, say, Henry VIII, or Peter the Great, or Louis XIV, largely got their own way, and were most often told they were wonderful, at least within their own realm. She then has concluded that this has been the usual condition of white men in general!

She apparently has failed to notice that most of the people these monarchs were bossing around and "getting their own way" with were... white men. She has apparently failed to notice that the lot of the average white male has not been to live as an absolute, divine right monarch, but to have been ordered around, in the first years of his life, by his own mother and his elementary school teachers, i.e., by women, who often would tell him he is not wonderful at all. Then he goes off to upper school, and perhaps university, where he is bossed around yet more, and told again that he is not so wonderful. Then he goes to work in a factory, or an office, and is bossed around for another forty years, and informed how not wonderful he is whenever he asks for a pay raise. The idea that such a life would lead one to expect "to get their own way and be told they’re wonderful all through the days" is literally insane: as I said, she is living in an hallucination.

And her whole rant was prompted by a few white men criticizing her interpretation of Lolita. (I haven't read Lolita, and have no opinion about whose interpretation is correct.) But here is something else she hasn't noticed: the history of the intellectual life in the West has basically been centuries and centuries of some white men telling other white men that they have no idea what they are talking about... and then being told the same in return. Now, I think it is great that this sphere has opened up to include more women and non-white people. But once you start to play this game, you are going to get told by someone, or many someones, that you don't know what you are talking about! That's the way the game works. If you enter this arena, and then whine about "white male privilege" every time you are criticized, you are like someone who has asked to join a boxing league, and then breaks down in tears because "the other boxers keep hitting me!"

A Divine Image

"To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he's doing is good, or else that it's a well-considered act in conformity with natural law. Fortunately, it is in the nature of the human being to seek a justification for his actions.
"Macbeth's self-justifications were feeble--and his conscience devoured him. Yes, even Iago was a little lamb too. The imagination and the spiritual strength of Shakespeare's evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology.
"Ideology--that is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification and gives the evildoer the necessary steadfastness and determination. That is the social theory which helps to make his acts seem good instead of bad in his own and others' eyes, so that he won't hear reproaches and curses but will receive praise and honors. That was how the agents of the Inquisition fortified their wills: by invoking Christianity; the conquerors of foreign lands, by extolling the grandeur of their Motherland; the colonizers, by civilization; the Nazis, by race; and the Jacobins (early or late), by equality, brotherhood, and the happiness of future generations."
- Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn,
The Gulag Archipelago

What Is Rationalism?

This is one of the themes of the volume Lee Trepanier and I are now editing. (Some of the pieces from this have already been published at Voegelin View.)

Here is a first cut at addressing the question.

The mortgage-interest tax deduction

I see this claim a lot:

"The federal tax system gives us a handout, through the mortgage-interest deduction, to help us purchase these pricey homes."

But the claim is false. Making mortgage interest tax deductible was a one time windfall to those who bought houses before it was known that the interest would be made tax-deductible. Once that's fact became known, it was included in the house price. Today, homeowners pay more for a house than they would if the mortgage interest was not tax-deductible: in fact, the price is higher by the present value of the stream of future deductions, at least in equilibrium. Thus, there is no net benefit for homeowners. (Of course, if the deduction were repealed, house prices would drop, so repeal would certainly hurt present homeowners.)


"The difference between slaves in Roman and Ottoman days and today's employees is that slaves did not need to flatter their boss." -- Nassim Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes

Oakeshott on "Skin in the Game"

Besides antifragility, another theme Nassim Taleb has been stressing of late is "skin in the game": the idea that people who face the consequences of their actions are more likely both to learn and to behave responsibly, than people who are shielded from such consequences.

Of course, Taleb is smart enough and educated enough to know that this is not an entirely new idea, and that he is expanding upon the intimations of earlier thinkers here. Even so, it was interesting to see Michael Oakeshott sound this motif so clearly in "Rational Conduct":

"And politics is a field of activity peculiarly subject to the lure of this 'rational' ideal. If you start by being merely 'intelligent' about a boiler or an electrical generator you are likely to be pulled up short by an explosion: but in politics all that happens is war and chaos, which you do not immediately connect with your error."

The plumber you call to fix your boiler has "skin in the game": if all he possesses is an abstract theory about boilers (what Oakeshott calls being "merely 'intelligent'") he will suffer the consequence of his lack of practical know-how himself, sooner or later, and most likely sooner. But the theoretical politician enamored of "regime change" can successively wreck the nations of Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and still regularly secure $250,000 speaking fees.

On Interventionists and Their Mental Defects


Not a madman, just a courageous man.

Don't put your shortcuts everywhere

I've got all sorts of vim and bash aliases and key mappings on my usual machines. Every once a while, though, I have to work from my PythonAnywhere account. I tend not to move all of these shortcuts to that account.

Why? It's good to have to use the raw commands once in a while so you remember what they are: After typing "gpushm" often enough, I would forget it expands to "git push origin master," if not for my no-shortcut account!

And the reason you don't want to forget the raw commands is that you never know when you will be forced onto an unfamiliar machine, and have no choice but to use them.

The most annoying bot-blocker ever

Has got to be the "Click all images containing X" from Captcha.

The images are small, blurry, and often ambiguous.

We are asked, "Click all images containing cars." One image shows a pickup truck. Should we click that?

We are asked, "Click all images containing mountains." One image has a faint blue smudge on the horizon. Is that mountains, or clouds, or a camera artifact?

And so. Pretty much every single time I am presented with this verification barrier I wind up just guessing on a few of the images.

More horrifically wrong pop history of science

This time, from Neil deGrasse Tyson, as described by Thony.

And, once again, there is nothing ideological I can see in any of NdGT's colossal historical blunders.

I think that many scientists and mathematicians just don't consider history a serious subject, so when they go to talk about history... they just make up whatever story suits their purposes.