Using Many Minds

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

A former contributor to the programming Q&A site, Stack Overflow, explains why he no longer participates in the "community" there. He summarizes his reasoning as follows:

There are a number of reasons why I stopped contributing to StackOverflow. I am disquieted by its poor pedagogical value, I think its scoring system is fundamentally broken and rewards the wrong things, and I think its community lacks maturity even while it becomes more and more pointlessly authoritarian. So what would I recommend as an alternative?

How about learning? You know, that thing that puts information in your head that you can apply later at need. Use Google. Use Wikipedia (if you must). Use RosettaCode for code examples. (Contribute there too!) Engage with other users of the tools you use in the form of user groups, mailing lists, web forums, etc. Learn foundational principles instead of answers to immediate questions.
Michael Richter's piece both reminds me of why I have always limited my participation in online discussion groups, and summarizes some of the things I have observed in such groups over the past couple of decades of using the Internet. His "recipe that all such 'community-driven' approaches almost, but not quite, invariably follow" particularly reminds me of the latter. In fact, I think it, along with the observation that the site's points system is flawed, might go a long way in explaining why so many online communities fail.

Recall the glib Internet-age maxim that "many minds are better than one". This turns out to be false unless these minds think independently. Schemes like the Stack Overflow points system are imperfect attempts to harness such minds but, because there is no shortcut when judging the talent or integrity of others, they end up falling short. Those who yearn for prestige learn how to game the gamification system, so to speak. And then, because small minds need to control people to gain an illusion of efficacy, they start wielding power over others. When this happens, the crowd is less like a meeting of independent minds and more like a mob. The forum suffers as a result.

Some of the alternatives Richter suggests arguably would suffer some of the same pitfalls he notes at Stack Overflow, but I don't take this as being necessarily a reason not to avail myself of them (any more than I would completely avoid Stack Overflow, which has helped me on occasion). Rather, as at any other time one considers advice from others, one must be aware of the limits of his knowledge and seek out more than one answer, particularly when his question is about an area he knows little about. This is no substitute for learning more for oneself, but it can prevent one from falling for bad advice or failing to get good advice. One acquires real knowledge by means of differentiation and integration. But when one must consult others, one's best protection lies in making sure they are as independent of one another as possible, at least until one is better-equipped to judge the advice itself or, better yet, no longer needs it at all.

-- CAV


Who Laid Waste to the Humanities?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Thomas Sowell, commenting on a recent editorial alleging that conservatives like to "trash" the humanities, offers the following rebuttal:

[Leftist] professors have trashed the liberal arts, by converting so many liberal arts courses into indoctrination centers for left-wing causes and fads, instead of courses where students learn how to weigh conflicting views of the world for themselves. Now a professor of English, one of the most fad-ridden of the liberal arts today, blames conservative critics for the low esteem in which liberal arts are held.
This reminds me of numerous similar comments made by Ayn Rand on that score decades ago, such as this one:
The disintegration of philosophy in the nineteenth century and its collapse in the twentieth have led to a similar, though much slower and less obvious, process in the course of modern science.

Today's frantic development in the field of technology has a quality reminiscent of the days preceding the economic crash of 1929: riding on the momentum of the past, on the unacknowledged remnants of an Aristotelian epistemology, it is a hectic, feverish expansion, heedless of the fact that its theoretical account is long since overdrawn -- that in the field of scientific theory, unable to integrate or interpret their own data, scientists are abetting the resurgence of a primitive mysticism. In the humanities, however, the crash is past, the depression has set in, and the collapse of science is all but complete.

The clearest evidence of it may be seen in such comparatively young sciences as psychology and political economy... [bold added]
That noted, Rand was clear that ordinary Americans -- her "man on the street" -- felt an understandable, but mistaken contempt for philosophy and the humanities as such, based on a passing familiarity with their twisted, modern versions. Rand was always careful to note the value of these fields, as she did with the title of her famous West Point address, "Philosophy: Who Needs It". Not all conservatives seem to hold this realization, and some even seem eager to cash in on the disaffection. Sowell is not among them, but I think there is room for him to criticize some of his conservative brethren.

-- CAV


Acting Like Something Matters

Monday, March 30, 2015

Anyone who thinks that policemen are the only target of the thugs unleashed nationwide by communist-led activists and their media apparatchiks in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting is wrong. Video of a brutal attack on the St. Louis MetroLink shows an adult male (pictured) -- This is no man. -- using the incident as an excuse to attack someone who refused to let him use his cell phone. It is law and order, and the reasonable expectation of being free to mind one's own business, that are the real targets. (Emboldened criminals and their abettors are just useful idiots.)
According to the 43-year-old victim, a man in his early 20's asked to use his cell phone. When the victim declined to let the suspect use his cell phone, the suspect sat next to him and asked what he thought about the "Mike Brown situation." When the victim responded that he had not thought much about it, the suspect began punching him in the face, according to the police report. "I think it was disgusting that no one [helped]," the victim said. "People were sort of laughing and smiling about it. No one offered to help and no one attempted to call 911."
A popular slogan among the protesters and their sympathizers is "Black lives matter."

The media made sure (first link above) that Michael Brown's actual moral character received little attention, so let's set that aside for the sake of argument. If lives, black or otherwise, matter, the things that make them possible matter. These things include property rights, the ability to sit on a train without fear of being attacked, law and order, and respect for other human beings as individuals. The attacker, his immediate accomplices, and the cowards who smiled and laughed -- all seem, by their actions, to think that none of those things is important. It's easy to say, "Black lives matter," but understanding what that really means and then acting like it takes effort.

There is a strong case for police and municipal government reform, but our society's problems don't stop there. Nor are government officials the only people who must be held accountable for their actions. I think the declarations of open season on policemen (vice actual reform) and the canonization of Michael Brown are manifestations of a soft bigotry of low expectations or crude pandering. The problems these exacerbate are not confined to rough parts of town or to members of one race. Until we all start insisting on civilized behavior from each other and doing what we can to promote law and order, we will continue our descent into barbarism.

-- CAV


3-28-15 Hodgepodge

Saturday, March 28, 2015

They Won't Stop ObamaCare This Time, Either

I agree with Barton Hinkle that the Supreme Court "should have killed Obamacare when it had the chance", when it ruled on the constitutionality of the individual mandate. That said, I agree with his analysis of the current challenge to the legality of some of the premium subsidies. Among other things:

[T]here is also good evidence to support the other view. For instance: Another section of the law limits individual eligibility to buy insurance to those who "reside ... in the State that established the Exchange." If that excludes federal exchanges, then nobody will ever be eligible to buy insurance on a federal exchange.

In that case, why did Congress provide for such exchanges at all? Did Congress mean something else -- or was this a another drafting error? And if this was a drafting error, then what does that say about the plaintiffs' contention that the wording of the five-word phrase is intentional?
Whatever the outcome of this case, wishful thinking will prove no substitute for principled, disciplined opposition to this improper law.

 Weekend Reading

"Seeing yourself objectively, and with detachment is an effective method for resolving whatever conflicts or issues you may face." -- Michael Hurd, in "Laugh Yourself Well" at The Delaware Wave

"My experience has shown that alcoholics tend to take this misguided philosophy [of altruism] to heart." -- Michael Hurd, in "Why Not to Call an Alcoholic 'Selfish'" at The Delaware Coast Press

My Two Cents

Upon reading Michael Hurd's column on the mental health benefits of humor, I sound myself thinking, "Oh, yeah! That makes lots of sense." The point about humor coming from and helping maintain the kind of perspective that mental health requires seems obvious after reading that piece.

Literary Alchemy

At Futility Closet is a satirical list of terms that could, "like machinery in factories", according to C. L. Pitt, turn a Gothic romance into a sentimental novel and vice versa. My favorite word substitution: the "assassins" in Gothic novels could be replaced by "telling glances".

-- CAV


Friday Four

Friday, March 27, 2015

1. It was sprinkling on the way in to Pumpkin's gymnastics class this week, and she was trying to catch raindrops in her mouth. She told me that she likes to do this, and then said that being in the rain is "like getting lots of tiny kisses".

2. With four vaccines in trials, news of a fifth may not sound like a big deal, but a new, inactivated whole-virus Ebola vaccine offers several advantages over the others:

The advantage conferred by inactivated whole virus vaccines such as the one devised by Halfmann, Kawaoka and their colleagues is that they present the complete range of proteins and genetic material to the host immune system, which is then more likely to trigger a broader and more robust immune response.
The vaccine is reported to be safer than the others, as well.

3. Two amusing things you can do on the web, one useful, that I ran into this week are: (1) Get insulted by Martin Luther (Just call me, "a real masterpiece of the devil's art".); and (2) get your website reviewed by an actual drunk since, "Your website should be so simple, a drunk person could use it."

The proprietor of the second web site claims that he is having to turn down lots of work.

4. Many see the subtle, languid playing style of Arsenal's Mesut Özil as laziness, but they are wrong, and one sports writer shows why:
Some of Mesut Özil's best play simply goes unnoticed. His movement for Arsenal's first goal against West Ham on 14 March was outstanding[.] Özil picked up the ball in a position you would expect from a number 10. Most players would turn and immediately look for one of the two runs clearly available to the players in front of him. Özil knows better. Özil knows that this quick ball into the channels is exactly what West Ham expect, so instead makes a short pass to Giroud to link the play. Özil peels off his marker Alex Song safe in the knowledge that when he gets it back from Giroud, Aaron Ramsey will have run through a split defence and the through ball is on.
Özil's vision took four defenders out of that play.

I recently watched him lay off a ball I was sure he'd shoot. The play ultimately resulted in a goal, anyway -- from an Aresenal defender who suddenly found himself with the ball and one-on-one against the opposing goalkeeper. I like the way one of his former coaches described his genius: "[T]here is no copy of him – not even a bad one. He is the best number 10 in the world."

-- CAV


Rubio Would Save Roots of ObamaCare

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Presidential hopeful Marco Rubio mistitles a recent Fox News op-ed. "My Three Part Plan for the Post-ObamaCare Era" might sound good to those who merely oppose the so-called Affordable Care Act, but it will disappoint anyone who realizes that government meddling in any part of the economy is incompatible with freedom and prosperity (i.e., someone who supports free individuals and free markets):

Third, we must save Medicare and Medicaid by placing them on fiscally sustainable paths. Without reforms, these programs will eventually cease to be available for those that need them. I believe we must move Medicaid into a per-capita cap system, preserving funding for Medicaid's unique populations while freeing states from Washington mandates. Medicare, meanwhile, should be transitioned into a premium support system, empowering seniors with choice and market competition, just like Medicare Advantage and Part D already do.
This part of Rubio's plan may look like an aberration, but it follows a proposal to mix needed loosening of government control of insurance companies with what he calls "federally-supported, actuarially-sound high risk pools". Controls breed controls as the precedent for government intervention leads to calls for more of the same to "correct" for market distortions caused by earlier "corrections" of the market. That's how we got the ACA in the first place and staying that course can only rid us of it in name or saddle us with something even worse.

This reminds me of something I said about Paul Ryan a few years back:
[Paul] Ryan, who imagines that such programs as Social Security and Medicaid can be "reformed," ... is no capitalist. (Otherwise, he'd be clear that the best way to "encourage" competition is for the government to stop manipulating the economy altogether, and would speak of phasing out instead of reforming entitlement programs.)
We can just about swap the names out, here.

Perhaps Senator Rubio could have gone with, "My Plan to Tee Up My Democratic Successor", but I'm open to other suggestions.

-- CAV


Bushed GOP Seeks Alternatives

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Dick Morris sizes up possible rivals to Jeb Bush for the 2016 Republican nomination. The good news is that Bush seems much weaker than you'd think from media coverage. The bad news is who might emerge from the rest of the current list:

Setting aside the poll's stragglers, we have to view the candidacies of Walker, Rubio, Carson and Cruz as a unit, together getting 33 percent of the vote. Some voters may prefer one or the other, but their support is, at the moment, likely interchangeable. The winner of this four-way contest will emerge to challenge Bush -- and the former Florida governor is vulnerable.
Until he announced his candidacy at Liberty University, I had some cautious optimism about Cruz -- not that that would have lasted long. Of the rest, I can't support Carson and am leery of Rubio. I might be able to offer qualified support for Walker.

It may be too late -- or too early yet -- for a decent, secular, limited-government candidate to emerge from the Republican Party. I haven't abandoned hope altogether for a not-completely-unacceptable alternative to emerge -- and I could revise my estimate of Cruz, Rubio, or Walker with more information -- but so far, I expect to abstain from voting for President yet again.

-- CAV