Friday, September 30, 2011

The End of an Era

For the last year or two Fridays have been my most anticipated day of the week, not because they signify the beginning of another weekend but because David Bentley Hart's web column always arrives on Friday (though it usually only does so bi-weekly). It was just announced that his most recent piece -- an excellent précis on the limits of Method as such, especially with regard to modern scientific method and those who refuse to acknowledge its limits -- will also be his final web column at First Things. 

This terrible news was immediately softened by the happy news that he will now be a regular contributor to the print edition of the magazine, with an article on the last page of every edition, where he used to only be published in the magazine occasionally (seemingly about half the time). Presumably, and hopefully, the print column will be of greater length than his web column, given the greater infrequency of publishing.

In any case, the final piece really is quite fine work. Hart reminds us that the hard won precision and clarity of certain methods come at a price:
[M]ethod always remains only a perspective, however powerful it may be: a willful blindness to many things for the sake of seeing a few things with a special clarity.
He goes on to take the naïvely confident materialist -- who imagines that the triumph of modern science can discount, or even comment on, the existence of formal and final causes -- to task:
Even so, it would be worse than naïve to imagine that the sciences have thereby proved the nonexistence of final and formal causes. In fact, by bracketing such causes out of consideration, scientific method also rendered itself incapable of pronouncing upon any reality such causes might or might not explain. Now, of course, the typical reply to this observation (from the aforementioned Daniel Dennett, for instance) is to say, with some indignation, that modern science has in fact demonstrated the utter superfluity of final and formal causal explanations, because the sciences have shown that they do not need finality or formality to understand the processes they investigate.
That, however, is an empty tautology: Of course modern scientific method discovers the kind of reality it is specifically designed to discover; and even in cases where it finds its explanatory reserves overly taxed, it must presume that in future some sort of “mechanical” cause will be found to restore the balance, and so issue itself a promissory note to that effect. But, again, this may mean that it must also overlook realities that actually lie very near at hand, either quite open to investigation if another method could be found, or so obviously beyond investigation as to mark out the limits of scientific method with particular clarity.
After a long string of satirical or otherwise half-serious columns, Hart's final web column is a return to material that he is best known for, which I think is appropriate. I do hope, however, that the end of the web column is not the end of the satirical, whimsical, mercurial Hart, which his web column gave us access to. Much of that work is utterly brilliant in its own right and deserves the widest platform possible. 

In Defense of 'The Troll'

Urban Dictionary defines a troll as "One who posts a deliberately provocative message to a newsgroup or message board with the intention of causing maximum disruption and argument".

The etymology of this internet slang term seems to be a combination of the noun and verb definitions for the actual word "troll". The verb to "troll" refers to a fishing method where you let the line out with bait on it, and pull it behind your boat; one prominent feature of the internet "troll" is that he baits groups of people into arguments, often disingenuously, by "trolling" a controversial statement behind his proverbial internet "boat" and seeing who bites. And of course the noun "troll" refers to an unintelligent, ugly mythical creature that dwells in caves and under bridges and who has a penchant for disturbing unsuspecting passersby, so the correlation there needs no explanation.

The slang term has utility when applied to those who do, in fact, disingenuously attempt to stir up controversy and raise people's ire just to amuse themselves, or for some other end. For some reason, Rob Bell just leapt into my mind. But, like any pejorative term, "troll" can often be used excessively or inappropriately as a way to demean and dismiss those who disagree with you without having to actually engage them.

Moreover, genuine statements of honestly held opinions can be made with some desire to be provocative -- but not for the sole purpose of being provocative -- and I see no reason to classify these actions as "trolling", even though they closely resemble each other.

If there is some prevalent sentiment that someone genuinely disagrees with and they want to make that known, what else do you expect them to do? Simply not speak their mind? Happily accept the label of troll? What have they done to deserve such a label? The conundrum is obvious; any unpopular sentiment voiced to an unsympathetic audience, even if not for the express purpose of attempting to get a rise out of people, is often indistinguishable from trolling, from the perspective of the unsympathetic audience. At least at first blush. Within a community of posters or commenters, given enough time, it becomes easier to recognize those who like to raise legitimate points of concern or disagreement from those who simply enjoy annoying people by being confrontational and disagreeable. Outside of consistent online communities of known members, though, what sometimes appears to be trolling can occasionally be simple, honest dissent from a widely held view.

So I suppose this isn't a defense of actual "trolls" -- it is just and righteous to scorn and shun their actions at every opportunity -- but of those who sometimes are incorrectly labeled trolls because their actions can appear identical to those of true trolls.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Don't Occupy Wall Street, Please

There has been a small, extended protest called "Occupy Wall Street" where protesters go to Wall Street, hold signs, shout messages without the use of megaphones in unison, obstruct workers and such. They seem to be upset at the greed of Wall Street, imagining that that is the source of the country's financial troubles, especially the woes of the poor.

The whole thing seems fairly absurd to me. The message of the group of protesters is broad and nebulous, but generally seems to be grounded in leftist, soak-the-rich, populist sentiment. But Wall Street didn't create the conditions that led to it making lots of money; Wall Street didn't hold the government hostage and demand bailouts at gun point, the government gave it up without being threatened; Wall Street didn't create or sanction growing "income inequality"; contrary to pop-wisdom, making lots of money doesn't have to come at the expense of someone else; the vast majority of Wall Streets profits have been made legally with no shady dealings. The types of things that Wall Street typically gets blamed for, such as the insanity of derivatives and the mortgage crisis, were legal and were invested in by people off Wall Street with no complaints while they were profiting. Not to mention being supported and incentivized by the government. For these and many other reasons, making Wall Street a scapegoat is pernicious nonsense. If you want to occupy anything, occupy Pennsylvania Avenue. The President and Congress literally gave away your money to banks and financial tycoons without your consent (whereas Wall Street invested your money with your consent, for the most part, and it just didn't work out).

I recently confronted a rapper that I'm a fan of -- MURS -- who was tweeting in support of the movement. It was a brief exchange, as Twitter exchanges must be, but since it ended up being productive in ways that conversations like this typically aren't, I thought that I would re-produce it for posterity:

  • MURS: #occupywallstreet is still happening pls check and see what action is being taken for the 99% aka us.
  • Nathan Duffy: The 1% are not "us"? Who are they? If you won the lottery tomorrow would you still be part of "us"?
  • MURS: yes. Why do you feel I wouldn't?
  • Nathan Duffy: What separates [theoretical] you from the other 1%? Somewhere in the world there's someone who just won the lottery, yet you lump THEM in w/ everyone else in the top, so why can't I lump YOU who just won the lottery in with THEM?
  • MURS: I don't believe the 1% is about your income. I believe it is those driven by greed.
  • Nathan Duffy: If that's true then the % is much larger than 1% of the population.. it's more like 90% of it.
  • MURS: those with the income that are still driven by greed= the 1% but you right about the 90% that is the bigger problem!
  • Nathan Duffy: Fair enough.. Greed seems to be a human universal, I see no reason to single out Wall Street. Have an 'end greed' rally and I'm there!
  • MURS: true. I plan to visit and speak to them about exactly that. Still I support them taking action and making something happen, otherwise we would've never had a chat & that's what I believe will make change is when we all start 2 speak & find common ground.
  • MURS: thank u for engaging me sir.
  • MURS: a stand against greed. Is what #occupywallstreet represents to me. Shout-out @theillegit [ed: me] for helping me clarify that

For Murs the issue is simply greed, and Wall Street just happens to be a group of people who are good at being 'greedy'. I'm not a fan of greed, of course, but I would still disagree with the notion that people on Wall Street are especially or uniquely greedy. What if a trader on Wall Street donated 50% of his income to charity? Would you even know that he did? No, so greed is a matter that is largely inscrutable except within the complete contexts of individual's lives and actions, which only God has full access to. And is someone who is intensely greedy, but just happens to be poor, any better or worse than someone on Wall Street who is greedy? The poor may tend to have other vices than greed, but I would contend greed is just as prevalent throughout the classes, it just manifests itself in different ways. So if your problem is greed, why single out Wall Street? Take humanity at large to task.

Not that there isn't a substantial amount of greed on Wall Street. I'm sure that there is. My problem is A) the assertion that greed is unique to Wall Street and B) the notion Wall Street is primarily, or even largely, responsible for other people's economic misfortune.

Virtual Monkeys Write Shakespeare! - Giving Randomness a Boost

There is an old thought experiment, which I've read versions of in Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker [sic] and Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which imagines thousands or millions of monkeys randomly hitting keys on a keyboard and one of them producing a work of Shakespeare by chance. The point of the thought experiment was to show that it's possible for the appearance of design to arise from randomness without a designer. The thought experiment has now apparently been 'tested' in a virtual experiment that sets millions of virtual monkeys to smashing away at virtual keyboards.

But, given just how immensely, inconceivably improbable it would be for even a million monkeys banging on keyboards for billions of years to produce one work of Shakespeare, the authors of the thought experiments realize that they can't leave it at that. The conductor of the virtual experiment knows this as well -- even the most powerful processors running pure randomness algorithms at astonishing rates wouldn't be able to run enough iterations to ever realistically arrive at Shakespeare, much less the complete works of Shakespeare.

Their solution for salvaging the analogy on behalf of evolution is to introduce 'selection' into the process, which is aware of the result that is being sought. Of course, blind material processes would have no idea what end they were working towards, and so with even the slightest bit of critical examination the analogy falls apart swiftly and fully.

Reading the BBC article this becomes glaring. The program is not a virtual simulation of randomness only. It virtually simulates the random key-strikes of million of monkeys and then compares 9-character blocks of text to a known goal -- the complete works of Shakespeare -- and keeps the blocks of text that appear somewhere in the works and disregard the rest. Where did such an ability come from? Where does the knowledge of what the desired end is come from? And even if the end was known, how would a monkey, or even a team of extremely intelligent monkeys, know how to cross-check the 9-character blocks of text against the enormous database of information that is the complete works of Shakespeare? Surely this is far beyond the capability of any monkey, any group of monkeys or any human, for that matter. It certainly is not a blind, random process of nature. Dawkins and Dennett make similar adjustments to their thought experiments, claiming that evolution can and does do something similar (which David Berlinski similarly and acutely deconstructs).

A more accurate headline would read that "Millions of Virtual Monkeys Striking Keys Randomly Can Re-Create Shakespeare, After They Give the Results Over to a Super-Computer That is Already Aware of What the Works of Shakespeare Look Like Beforehand and Which Aids in The Reconstruction". Not nearly as exciting or interesting, is it?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Moneyball, Math and Poker

Since I haven't followed baseball closely since I was a teenager, I was oblivious to what the subject matter of Moneyball would be, other than the fact it was based on the true story of the general manager of the Oakland A's during a particular recent season. Having this fresh, untainted perspective made the film that much more enjoyable for me, I imagine, because I felt like I had actually learned something coming out of the theater.

The narrative depicts a kind of revolution in the way that baseball management and scouting are done within the organization of the A's. In 2001, coming off a successful season, the general manager Billy Beane (played by Brad Pitt), is forced to operate within a very limited budget and compete against teams like the Yankees who were spending three times as much and taking some of the A's star players in free agency, like Jason Giambi. Necessity is, in fact, the mother of invention, it turns out.

In looking to revamp his team on a limited budget, Billy goes to work seeking to make some deals with other teams, but without much leverage to work with. When a trade with a team goes sour because of the input of one of the team's statistical analysts in the room -- Peter, played by Jonah Hill -- Beane realizes that Peter is something of a genius that thinks outside of the box of typical management strategies (as Billy is looking to do), and recruits him to be his assistant. Using a highly math-based, statistical-analysis method of scouting and recruitment, Peter thinks he can help Billy rebuild a winning team on the cheap by finding players that are undervalued by traditional metrics.

Though their system is initially mocked as egg-headed, stuffy, and ineffective, there are underlying non-mathematical realizations about what wins game and what is valued in players, versus what should be valued in them, which are qualitative as well as quantitative. For example, Billy's system values walks and On-Base Percentage higher than most traditional systems, and cares much less about fielding in general (especially at the position of first base). This could be right or wrong, but it isn't merely a statistical data point; it's a view of what really produces runs and wins, and what is less important than most people think. Peter also uses statistics to analyze things like pitch distributions and, through Billy, advises players on the appropriate adjustments to make to their game. Younger "math-based" players in poker are often similarly unfairly criticized by the old guard, with the older players often seemingly oblivious to the fact that statistical analysis is a description of actions taken in the real world which reflect important realities, such as betting patterns.

Billy's staff is resistant to the change given their experience and knowledge of the game, but Billy is convinced of the soundness of Peter's insights, which are based on the work of Bill James. One exchange between Billy and his head scout plays out exactly as the dynamic between an old-school, live, intuitive poker player and a young, online, "math-guy" poker player (which is itself similar to the dynamic that took place when the stock market was similarly revolutionized, or so I'm told).

Billy and Peter's method is derided in the media when the team opens the season in poor fashion. But their vision for the team is being hampered by the team's Manager, Art Howe (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) who isn't playing the team the way that Billy wants him to. Once Billy pulls some strings, by trading certain players, Art is forced to go with the program, at which point the A's go on a phenomenal winning streak.

Realistically it's of course possible that the winning streak had more to do with some other variables than Billy and Peter's system, but within the narrative of the film their system is vindicated, just as the "math guys" and "quants" in the stock market and poker worlds were vindicated and changed the way the respective "games" were played. It isn't a perfect analogy, of course. There actually is a personal, intangible, psychological element to live poker that isn't present in baseball, but the significant correlation was interesting to me as a poker player.

For the record, Moneyball has more to offer than this short post suggests. The screenplay by Steve Zaillian (Schindler's List, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) and Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) is superb, and the cast is fantastic. I highly recommend it, even to those of you who have no interest in math or analogies to the poker world.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Troy Davis and The Death Penalty

Not to be a downer, but I'm pro-death-penalty and (more importantly) pro-justice-system, especially in cases where there is absolutely no evidence of racism or misconduct of any kind, as in the recent case of Troy Davis.He recieved a fair trial by his peers and numerous fair appeals in the light of questionable 'new evidence'. None of which was enough to satiate racial antagonizers and America-haters everywhere. From the NAACP and Al Sharpton to Ammesty International and Big Boi, many opposed his execution up to the last minute. But would they have done so if the facts were the same but the 'victim' was white? There's no reason to think that they would and ample reason to doubt it, casting negative racial aspersions on the entire movement's true motives. In the short run, being in favor of the death penalty is difficult. Emotions and even one form of reason ('killing this person won't bring back the dead or deter others') are fully on the opposong team. Regardless of the deterrent effect, it is logical to support the state's right to weild the death penalty and execute it when appropriate. Has a dead criminal ever been at risk of recidivism? No, and so the death penalty is completely competent at keeping specific criminals from committing further crimes themselves. Whether it keeps others from commiting crimes is a secondary consideration, if any. To quote Steven Pinker in The Blank Slate:
As Oliver Wendell Holmes explained, “If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ‘I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.’” This promise-keeping underlies the policy of applying justice “as a matter of principle,” regardless of the immediate costs or even of consistency with common sense.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Obama the 'Bad Negotiator'

There is a metanarrative being spun by the liberal media -- by which I mean the solid majority of mainstream newspapersonline sites, networks, cable news outlets and NPR -- that president Obama is something of a pansy, a capitulator, a bad negotiator, and one who generally kowtows to the Republican party (who narrowly controls one house of Congress). It's a fanciful suggestion with virtually no basis in reality, but it has been hammered on so relentlessly by the most influential parts of the leftist media, such as The Daily Show and Bill Maher's show, as to actually have gotten a purchase in the minds of the masses.

It's also something of a masterstroke. When liberal policies are massively failing before the world's eyes, when Keynesian madness is being exposed as the fraud that it is, what is the best way to divorce the results of the policies from the policies themselves? By pinning the problem on a personality.

Of course, the (sane, blessed) reality of the American political system is that power is kept in check, and no one branch can become too powerful. Thankfully the Constitution isn't yet so passe for this to not be the case. And, of course, this often means that the President isn't free to simply do as he pleases, which in turn means that (as always) there's some degree of truth to this lie. But what is actually happening is:

  1. Obama is sometimes forced to negotiate in order to get any kind of change, not because it's his desire to give up ground, but because he has no other choice given the confines of the system. But it's no more true of Obama's situation than any president with split Houses of Congress, and it was even less true during his first two years in office when the Democrats controlled both Houses.
  2. More often than not it's the right who gets the worst end of every deal, but the status quo is so strongly leftist that any small concession to the right looks rather massive to someone who doesn't recognize the standing  imbalance. A continuation of the extant policies of Washington is virtually always a continuation of strongly liberal policies -- and this has been true since FDR, with only a semblance of a reprieve under Reagan -- so that any modest deviation in a rightward direction appears, understandably, massive. In reality, the concessions to the right are always minuscule or imaginary (such as 'cuts' in the budget which are actually budget increases slightly lessened, say from 9 trillion to 8 trillion). 
  3. Obama actually did campaign on a promise to compromise and 'reach across the aisle' etc., so, to some extent, if he does look to make deals and give up some ground, he's simply keeping a campaign promise. Progressives voted for him knowing this was at least one element of his platform, and so they can't rightly complain even if he was often giving up ground (though he isn't). 

By complaining about Obama's negotiating skills and Republican obstructionism ad nauseum -- despite the relative irrelevance (or non-existence) of both -- the left gives itself what we call in the gambling world a 'freeroll'. If leftist policies and Democrat rule continue to result in predictable calamities, then the problem was Obama's personal flaws -- too willing to negotiate, too deferential, too weak etc. -- George Bush's legacy, and the Tea Party, not the actual policies of the left. If, however, we start to see some miraculous recovery in the economy, the narrative can quickly switch back to the soundness of the left's policies that have been implemented. With the latter being extremely unlikely to happen, it's wiser for the talking heads to focus on the excuses of the former.

In any case, none of this has any effect on how we conservatives view Obama. His policy agenda is disastrous, no matter how efficient he may or may not be at implementing it. It's just amusing the contortions the left will go through in order to retain fidelity to their obviously wrongheaded ideals.

By the left's own current refuse-to-give-ground-at-all-costs standard, Bill Clinton should be considered a terrible Democratic president, yet the left champions his record every chance they get (to some extent, rightly). Why? Because by giving ground, by being forced to work with a Republican Congress, by having his more progressive agenda somewhat thwarted, he actually got results. This is what happens when Democrats are actually forced to compromise and capitulate (or, better yet, when they're kept from doing anything at all), and this is precisely what is not happening today.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Patrick Leigh Fermor and Travel

After ideological opponents Christopher Hitchens and David Bentley Hart both recently eulogized Patrick Leigh Fermor (here and here, respectively) with high praise for his writing, I became determined to get a hold some of his work. This lead me to purchase Words of Mercury for my Kindle, which is an assortment of Paddy's [1] writings, taken from various sources, including excerpts from all of his other works. It sounded like it would function as a perfect introduction to his work.

Not being inclined to travel much myself, and never having enjoyed it much when I have, Travel Writing isn't a genre that I'm naturally drawn to, though I'm delighted by high-caliber prose wherever it may be found. Reading Patrick Leigh Fermor confirms what I already knew to be true: I'd much rather read splendid writings about someone else's adventures abroad than seek out my own. This is probably one part deficiency of character and one part simple preference, but reading Paddy's colorful accounts of his strange and eclectic travels make any travelling I've done -- and any I could conceivably undertake -- seem dull, drab and lifeless in comparison. Not exactly the best impetus to start travelling.

Most of the writings in this volume center around events in his life from the 30s and 40s, though some of the accounts were written from memory much later. Paddy traveled throughout Europe and especially the Mediterranean, and had encounters with the most compelling people and cultures. From blindly stumbling upon a remote cave along the coast of the Black Sea, filled with fishermen who he spends the night conversing, drinking, singing and dancing with, to an account of his year-long stay in a monastery in Normandy, to his recounting of his famed role in the abduction of a Nazi general on the island of Crete during the war, his adventures couldn't be more diverse and vibrant, and the prose itself is just as delightful and lively. [2]

While I thoroughly enjoyed the way in which Paddy's work transported me to other places, times and to encounters with different people, I still find myself disinclined to transport myself to other places. Not only would my adventures not be able to measure up, but I feel that travel in 2011 just isn't quite what it was (or had the capability to be) in the 1940s. Those remote corners of the globe are not so remote now, and many of the peoples he encountered, who had remained fascinatingly insulated from modernity, have since been molested by it. Excuses aside, though, I'm simply not an adventurer and am content with these vicarious excursions to far reaches of the globe and distant lands, with the likes of Patrick Leigh Fermor guiding me. 

[1] The informal name used for Leigh Fermor by the editors of Words of Mercury

[2] A few examples of the prose, as clipped by me, can be found here, here, here, here and here.