Saturday, April 10, 2004

and yet it moves

John Zimmer over at Letters From Babylon has a very interesting discussion about science and the interpretation of scripture. I would like to respond, not to his main point, but to an example he misuses. To quote:
The Bible often speaks of the sun as if the sun were moving and the earth standing still. We find this same type of language in much poetry and in our continued use in everyday speech of such words as “sunrise.” Our best methods of science have shown that the sun only appears to move about a stationary earth; and that instead it is the earth that rotates on its axis to cause night and day to come...
This example itself illustrates a serious type of failing in interpretation. In brief, let me say that the sun does indeed move and there is no error of any kind in speaking of it that way. I don't mean that the sun likewise orbits the center of the galaxy or orbits the center of mass of the solar system, what I mean is that the sun does in fact move through the sky each day.

The statement that the sun moves isn't in any sense figurative or non-literal. It isn't imprecise. It's just a statement of simple fact. On the other hand it is also a statement of simple fact that the sun stands still and the earth rotates around it (although this statement itself is imprecise as the earth and sun actually both rotate around the center of mass). These statements only seem to contradict themselves if one applies an obsessively formalistic view of meaning, a view which is no longer held by any linguists or philosophers or anyone else who studies meaning.

Consider the following two contradictory sentences about a chess piece:
The bishop can only move diagonally across the board.
The bishop can be made to move in any direction by the application of a suitable net force.
The sentences syntactically contradict each other, yet they are both true. This is possible because the word "move" means something different in each sentence. In the first sentence it means "a legal game move" and in the second sentence it means "physically move" but that is by no means the only difference between the two sentences. These sentences take place in two entirely different paradigms.

A paradigm is a set of concepts and the relationships that exist between those concepts. The paradigm of chess involves a two-dimensional surface partitioned into sixty-four squares, a set of pieces, a set of legal moves for those pieces, and a set of consequences of those moves. The physical pieces are not relevant; they could just as well be images on a computer screen. For players with a very good memory, none of the chess objects need be physical at all; the game can be played entirely in the head. By contrast, the paradigm of the physical world involves hard things that take up space and move under physical laws (which are quite different from game rules but that's a whole 'nother topic). The fundamental reason that the two sentences can seem to contradict each other yet both be true is that they were talking about two different things. One sentence made use of the concepts "bishop as a chess piece" and "legal chess move" while the other sentence made use of the concepts "bishop as a physical object" and "physically moves". Both concepts of the bishop happened to have the same extension, they both referred to the same actual object (which isn't the same as a physical object, but that's a whole 'nother topic).

So now let's look at another interesting pair of sentences. You are sitting at a computer monitor. It is black except for white circle and the circle is moving across the screen. What is really happening, of course is that the pixels are being illuminated in the right sequence to give the illusion of motion. Nothing on the screen is actually moving. So both sentences are true:
There is a circle moving across the screen.
Nothing on the screen is moving.
Like the previous example, this one can be explained by the different paradigms to which the sentences appeal. In one paradigm the screen is its own world and the images we see on it are real objects. In the other paradigm we are concerned with the underlying physical facts. Both paradigms are equally valid or useful. If you are playing a game then you use the first paradigm. If you are programming a 3d rendering system, you use the second.

By now, it should be clear what I'm going to say about the sun moving. When someone talks about the sun moving, he is simply using our normal every day paradigm for dealing with astronomical bodies: they are lights that move across the sky. This paradigm is perfectly valid and useful in the contexts in which it is used. In this use, the sun is just a bright light, and its physical structure is not relevant. To take sentences spoken in this paradigm and evaluate their truth under the paradigm of physics is to do violence to the intentions of the speaker.

In order to understand what someone is saying you have to understand the paradigm they are using. It isn't reasonable or fair to impose a different paradigm on their statements even if you think that your paradigm is somehow more accurate or fundamental. And although the paradigms of science are more accurate than non-scientific paradigms it isn't at all clear that they are more fundamental. But that's a whole 'nother topic.

UPDATE: fixed the attribution in response to a comment.

Friday, April 09, 2004

don't go wobbly now

People seem to be greatly worried about what's going on in Iraq right now and I don't understand why. Isn't the resistance we are seeing now exactly what people expected from the beginning? I know I did. I know all my liberal friends did (One of the most hypocritical features of the leftwing whining in the last year is the way they agonized over each minor incident as though it were the end of the world, even though things were going far better than they had predicted). So now comes the real resistance, the resistance that everyone should have been expecting all along. And we have to deal with it. That's what the military is there for.

Did we forget why they were there? Did we start to think that they were just there to build schools and give toys to children and show the Iraqis what nice guys American's are? Then why did they have those assault rifles? No, those American military folks are over there to kill the enemy. They've had a period when business was slow, but that's just because the enemy was in hiding (a case of being so good at business, business went away). But now that the enemy has come out into the open, they can be efficiently dispatched. And that's a good thing.

I don't want to sound too callous. Of course I care about the soldiers and marines who will die in this conflict (or be maimed). I regret the poor foolish Iraqis who get caught up in this and get hurt or killed. Of course I wish we could avoid the inevitable civilian casualties. I, like most Americans, want peace, not war. But we are at war and we need to prosecute it as efficiently as possible. We need to exploit our strengths, and one of our strengths is overwhelming firepower, so it is to our advantage when the enemy comes out into the open as they are doing now. This is a sign of their desperation, not of our defeat, and it is counterproductive to be talking about defeat at this point.

This isn't trouble. The Germans and Japanese in WWII were trouble. The Chinese in the Korean war were trouble. It has been so long since America has seen real trouble, and they are so condition by the press-inflated reports of trouble that began in Vietnam that we tend to get panicky over what are really quite minor events. The only way we can lose here is the way we lost in Vietnam, that is by having our will sucked away by the traitors in our midst. They are the real danger here, not that neurasthenic pipsqueak Sadr.


Atrios is calling for Condoleezza Rice to be prosecuted for perjury. I always suspected this was one of the reasons for the effort to get her to testify under oath. Not that the panel explicitly expected Rice to commit perjury, but just that no one is completely consistent in everything they say so if the Democrats can get lots of hours of high-level administration officials testifying under oath, they have a good chance of finding something that they can at least claim is perjury. They want to do this, not only to damage the administration, but as payback for what happened to Clinton when he actually did commit deliberate, premeditated perjury.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

reading assignment

If you are at all interested in the why's of terrorism, take the time to read this article by Lee Harris. It's the best account I've heard yet.

Thanks to One Hand Clapping for the link.


Donald Crankshaw at Back of the Envelope has a really good article on Galileo. One of my pet peeves is the way people today treat Galileo's own polemical account of the dispute as the actual history. There a lot of modern myths about the history of science, all taught uncritically as historical fact. For example consider this script, familiar to most people with a modern scientific education: In the beginning there were the Greeks, who were wonderful scientists and scholars. Then came the Christians of the Middle Ages who ignored science and had no curiosity about the natural world because they only cared about authority. Then during the Renaissance real science came back and the Church lost it's grip on European thought and all was good again.

There are several problems with this script. First, it neglects the long period (about half a millennium) between the Roman conquest of Greece and the rise of the Church. The Romans didn't have much scientific progress either, so if the early Christians were unimpressive in this area, they were only continuing the Roman traditions. Second, during the golden age of Greek science, there was a large secure, wealthy class who had leisure to engage in philosophy. During the early days of the Church, they were slightly distracted by barbarian invasions. Plato is great reading, but he takes a back seat to protecting your family from being butchered and enslaved. Third, the revival of science actually began some time around the twelfth century, well before the Renaissance, when the Church was still powerful. Most people aren't aware of this because the Renaissance authors were a bit miserly with their citations, giving the illusion (to casual historians) that several centuries of learning sprang out of nowhere. Fourth, the Church (in it's many organizations) was still extremely powerful and influential well into the eighteenth century. Galileo, Newton, Pascal and many other great scientists of that era were devout Christians.

wise-guy comments

I just got this comment to another post:
Just checked out La Shawn's site by following your link. Wow. Great site. She's way better that you, Doc!
I should add that she's also cuter and sweeter than me. But I'll bet big money I could out bench press her. ANY TIME, La Shawn. You just name the time and place.

Kennedy's timing

By now, everyone has heard of Senator Kennedy's speech where he said Iraq is Bush's Vietnam. I think the timing is interesting. With the Fallujah operation and Sadr's rebellion happening at the same time, Kennedy went public to tell everyone what a failure Bush is and to openly compare the situation to Vietnam where America was (according to the liberal revisionism) defeated by guerilla resistance. So what are Sadr and the Fallujah rioters hearing here? They are hearing one of the most powerful Americans in the opposition party telling them:
You are causing trouble for Bush! Keep up the riots and the resistance and I will do my best to exploit this violence to defeat Bush. We Americans can't handle the trouble you are causing us, keep it up and we will retreat. Kill more Iraqis, blow up more buildings, loot more clinics, kill more American soldiers; do all of that and I will use it. I will tell America to flee and abandon the people of Iraq to the thugs like we did in Vietnam, in Lebanon, in Mogadishu. Like we did the first time we invaded Iraq. Like my own brother did in Cuba at the Bay of Pigs. We, the Democratic party have a long history of using the violence of thugs as an excuse to flee and leave the innocent to the mercies of those same thugs. We're on your side. Help us defeat Bush in this election and we'll give you what you want: a free hand to murder, rape and pillage.
Is this an accident? I don't think so. I don't think Kennedy or Howard Dean or John Kerry can be so dense that they fail to understand that when they carp about every problem and display horror at every death, they just encourage the thugs in Iraq to cause more problems and death. No, I think they are doing it deliberately. Each prediction of failure leads to more trouble and each bit of trouble leads to more predictions of failure. They are involved in an implicit conspiracy with the enemies of civilization.

UPDATE: Removed Iran as one of the examples of the US abandoning people. I was mixing this list up with another list I compiled -- Democrat foreign policy victories.

Barber and Rice

La Shawn Barber is all over the people who have trashed Condoleezza Rice. Go get 'em!

I'm one of the many people who would kind of like to see Bush name Rice has his running mate this time around. Not that I have anything against Cheney politically, but his heart condition really troubles me. I hate to disqualify someone for a job for something like that, but the whole point of a vice president is to be there in case the president is killed or incapacitated, and you don't want someone with a heart condition in that role.

Ms. Rice is articulate, intelligent, female, and black --the Democrat's worst nightmare (kind of like La Shawn). She puts the lie to the Democratic propoganda that blacks and women need the Democrats to succeed. There are problems with a Rice VP, of course. She hasn't been a governor. That's pretty important experience for a president. She hasn't run for office before and she could turn out to be lousy at it. More importantly from my perspective, I believe she is pro-abortion and is socially liberal in other areas. I'm not interested in helping the Republican party to gain power just to have power. If they aren't working towards good ends, I'm not supporting them. But it sure would cause some fun panic in the Democratic party...

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

incoherent ideas

The idea of a round square is incoherent --it doesn't make sense-- but that doesn't mean you can't talk about round squares or even reason about them within limits. You could, for example write a science fiction story where people discovered a way to make round squares and used them to travel in other dimensions. You can infer things about round squares: if there were any such things as round squares then they would be closed figures so that if any line segment intersects a round square in two points, then the parts of the line segment between the two points would be in the interior of the round square.

So if the idea is incoherent, how is it possible to think about round squares and even reason about them? We can't actually reason about incoherent ideas, not directly at least. What we do is reason about an abstraction related to the incoherent idea. For example when I stated the "fact" about a line segment intersecting a round square in two points, I wasn't really reasoning about round squares, I was reasoning about convex closed figures. Circles and squares are both convex closed figures, and when I try to imagine a round square, I can't imagine any reason not to assume it would also be convex and closed.

The science fiction story involving round squares is similar. When we read the story, the word "round square" is represented in our imagination with an abstraction, a shape with fuzzy outline that we can imagine appearing in the story. We don't have to know what one actually looks like any more than we have to know what the face of the dimension traveler looks like. Just as the hero is a vague abstraction, so is the round square.

The point of this is that just because you can think about something, that doesn't mean it's real. In fact our ability to abstract complex ideas can hide the fact that the idea is incoherent. For example consider a set of dice. Normal dice have six sides and each side is a square, but there are other kinds of dice. Four-sided dice are made with four equilateral triangles. Twelve-sided dice are made with pentagons. Unless you know about the Platonic solids, I could probably convince you that sixteen-sided dice are made with hexagons. I could get you to imagine a figure made up of sixteen identical six-sided figures. But there is no such thing. Still, I could talk about them in great detail and possibly even make up an entertaining and believable story about them by exploiting the human tendency to think in abstractions.

Time travel is an incoherent idea that is used in just this way, to invent entertaining stories. We (meaning the sorts of people who like speculative fiction) have all read about events in the past that we would like to have witnessed, or that we would like to change. We have all sometimes thought how much more exciting life was in other times. We have all had times when we made mistakes or missed opportunities and thought that if we had only known then what we know now things would be different. Time-travel stories exploit these things for entertainment value. But the idea of time travel, attractive as it is, is incoherent. I'll explain in a future post exactly why it is.

sputter... sputter...

Much as I admire Andrew Stuttaford's taste in food and restaurant reviews, I must take exception to his appalling taste in science fiction:
Reading a good book twice is easy, it's reading a bad book once that's the challenge. Let's take Battlefield Earth, for example...
On the contrary, Battlefield Earth was a great book. Dare I suggest that Mr. Stuttaford is confusing the book with the movie? Why yes, I believe I do so dare: Mr. Stuttaford, you really must stop watching movies and then pretending that you have read the book. It's unbecoming for a man of your stature.

UPDATE: Mr. Stuttaford assures me that he did in fact try to read the book. I suppose I should take the high road and pretend to believe him. I'll think about.

consumer complaint department

dgci complains about people complaining about Google's new proposed email:
OK, let me get this straight. The service isn't even available to the general public yet, and these idiots are whining about Gmail "invading their privacy".
Here's a clue for you...if you're that concerned about it, DON'T USE IT. Don't even SEND mail to anyone with a Google address. Filter mail FROM Google addresses to the Trash Can. There's a novel approach for you. No one is forcing you to sign up for it or to use it.
So what's the principle here? If my apartment complex announces that next month they will reduce the rec-center hours, would it be OK for me to complain or would dgci tell me I should just move out if I don't like it? No one is forcing me to live there, after all. On the other hand, I could complain and if enough other people complain, maybe they will change their minds. Then I don't have to move, all the other people who don't like the change won't have to move, and the apartment complex won't have to go to the expense of filling all those vacant apartments. It's a win/win situation. Since when is it not a good idea to express your consumer preferences to a company?

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

the Times covering Falluja

I meant to post this last week, but got distracted. The New York times had this line in their front-page story about Falluja on Friday:
In the morning, a team of American officials rushed to a meeting with Falluja's mayor and top clerics."
So why was it the American's who are "rushing"? People in Falluja rioted against an occupying force with overwhelming military superiority, and it is the people with the overwhelming force who are "rushing" to supplicate the mayor? Why isn't the Falluja mayor "rushing" to try to head off a retaliation? Why aren't the top clerics "rushing" to assure the Americans that they can calm the population down?

I really can't answer this from the New York Times coverage because I don't expect them to be truthful. Were the Americans really flustered and panicky as the article implies or is this just some NY Times reporter trying to make Bush's government look flustered and panicky? In the first case the administration needs to be criticized for pandering to violent extremists. In the second case the reporter needs to be told to keep his political activism out of his work. I tend to believe it's the second because it was just a one word throw-away with no backup or details. Any time two people meet quickly after an unexpected event you can describe one of them as "rushing" to the meeting, making that person look like the supplicant. You don't need any facts, just a careful word choice.

Monday, April 05, 2004

the Kos crisis

I've just added a link to the Daily Kos on my page. This is to help offset the loss of traffic he will suffer from being delinked from John Kerry's web site. If just one percent of my readers visit his site, it will mean a traffic bonus for him of nearly one person a week, ignoring dups, of course. That's four per month, or a solid 52 per year. I'm not looking for gratitude here (although a thank-you note would not be taken amiss); I'm doing this for the overall good of blogdom.

Now I don't mean to give the impression that I approve of what he said to get himself thrown into the outer darkness of Democratic politics. In fact I believe the Kerry campaign did the right thing in publicly delinking him. Just as Bush would have to delink anyone who said something hateful about Iraqis, Kerry ought to delink people who say hateful things about Americans. It's not just what the person says, but the stereotypes he enforces about his side of the political aisle. This isn't about blogs, it's about politics. Just as Kerry would (hopefully) refuse the endorsement of an extremist organization, so he should symbolically refuse the endorsement of an extremist blogger.

But it's different for bloggers of course. Any blogger who delinks Kos over this is a weenie. And I mean that in the strongest terms. Blogging is a conversation. You don't stop talking to someone just because he says something you don't like. Heck, Atrios gives me more stuff to write about than any two of the good guys. I may start annoying Kos now too, although it won't be as much fun without the trackbacks. Further, blogs are unedited and often quickly written. That means you have to cut some slack for occasional rough language or poor judgment.

P.S. As of a second ago, all of the words "blogdom", "blogosphere", "delink", "delinked", and "delinking" have been added to my spell checker. I hope I'm not permanently approving improper usage.

UPDATE: I updated this post to actually make the point I started out to make.

timing in Iraq

I have yet to see anyone mention the astonishing coincidence in timing of the two ongoing operations in Iraq: the Fallujah rioters and the Baghdad coup attempt. Could it be that Sadr, in his lust for power has allied with the godless Baathists? Would it hurt his base if it came out that he has? Of course it's also possible that Sadr has been planning this attack for some time and has just taken advantage of what he views as good timing because of the Fallujah incident. If so, he's an idiot. Fallujah will not take up a significant proportion of America's military attention, and neither, I predict will Sadr's uprising. The primary danger here, as Robert Penfield emailed to Instapundit, is that the media will be able to exploit this opportunity to cause us to lose Iraq like they did Vietnam.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

smoke screens

Sen. Kennedy accused President Bush of having created "the largest credibility gap" since Watergate. Hmm. There's so much to say. This is the guy who, while drunk, drove a drunk woman (not his wife) "home" from a party, ended up with the car under water, and used his political connections to avoid prosecution for manslaughter. This is the man who defended Clinton, but can't seem to recall that particular episode of a president with low credibility. This is a man who calls tax cuts "spending" and who calls taking money from one group of people and giving it to another "economic policy". This is a man who always hated George Bush, but we are supposed to believe that his concern is that he "can't trust him". George Bush, who by the way, went to extreme efforts to befriend Kennedy when he came into office, only to be constantly slapped down for his efforts at bipartisanship. This is the Kennedy who can't even call someone else a liar without lying:

1. Claiming that Bush mislead the American people into the Iraq war. Never mind that Bush had the authority from Congress to go to war already. He didn't have to take a vote from the American people. So even if he did lie to the American people (and he didn't), it would have been to keep his polling numbers up for political reasons and had nothing to do with the war. This whole claim is a fabrication of the left wing media.

2. He blames the loss of jobs on the tax cuts. No one could be that stupid so this has to be a deliberate lie.

3. He accuses Bush of not saying how expensive the Medicare plan was without mentioning that he himself wanted a much more expensive plan.

4. He accuses Bush of not fully funding his education package while failing to mention that the plan was supposed to be a Bush concession to bipartisanship which was never even remotely honored by the Democrats who responded by blocking, slandering and attacking Bush at every opportunity. And Kennedy was the ring leader in all this.

Don't lose sight of what's going on here. This is preemptive attack. The Democrats have for my entire lifetime relied on dishonesty to get elected. They have been the party of the special interests, which means "against the general interests", and their success has relied on their ability to control the media and lie to the American public about what they are about. Teacher's unions give them a lot of money so they invent a need for smaller class sizes (so we need even more teachers) and lie about the reasons the education system is failing. Abortion providers give them a lot of money so they lie about their concern for the unborn while blocking any attempt to protect them. Trial lawyers give them a lot of money, so they slander the companies that are being extorted by these lawyers to help justify the extortion.

But it's not just the money; they have to lie about what they really believe too. They can't come out and say how much they really despise the traditional America or admire socialist dictators. They can't say that they value human strangers less than they value their pets or that they think most of us are too stupid to be trusted to make our own decisions. Of course they happily take money and political aid from people who openly say all of those things, but they can't say it themselves.

But now, the Democrats are in a tough spot: the internet and talk radio and FoxNews are exposing them. Their lies and deceptions and playing of both sides is getting harder to maintain and may soon come crashing down on them. So what is their defense? Easy, when you are a liar, your first defense is to lie. You accuse your opponent of all the things you are guilty of. The purpose isn't to really convince people that George Bush is a liar, it is to weaken the force of the accusation itself. Here is what Kennedy and Kerry and Atrios and Kos want to accomplish by their slander: when someone accuses a Democrat of lying, they want the person to say, "Yeah, yeah. The Republicans accuse the Democrats of lying, the Democrats accuse the Republicans of lying. It's all just politics. You can't believe any of it." It's a smoke screen.

The leftist bloggers are doing the same thing when they talk about the rightwing media. They don't really believe it. No intelligent, aware person could possibly believe that the media is not strongly in favor of the Democratic party. What they really mean when they say the media is pro-Bush, is that it isn't as venomously partisan in its opposition to Bush as they would like it to be. You can see this when they post specific complaints rather than general attacks. They are angry that every editorial isn't calling for Bush's impeachment or that articles don't give enough time to the talking point they think favors the Democrats more. This is just more smoke screen, "Sure, the Republicans think the media is liberal and the Democrats think the media is conservative." It's all a ploy to obscure the facts. We will find out in November if it worked.

Thanks to Atrios for the link.

let page this stand as a warning

This is what happens when you let an engineer with no aesthetic sensibilities play around with HTML. Someone should have been there to take the keyboard away from me before I was able to inflict this color scheme on you, the innocent reader. Is there no end to the evils that can be done in the name of HTML? I don't know. But I do know that part of the blame for this page should go to La Shawn Barber, who got me starting to think about changing the page. If not for her enthusiasm, I probably would have left it forever in the bland state of highly-saturated and inoffensive coloration in which I found it. Blogger beware!

Seif al-Islam Gadhafi -- democrat or opportunist?

As reported by the Volokh Conspiracy and Instapundit a son of Moamar Gadhafi (formerly Momar Khadafi) named Seif al-Islam Gadhafi is urging the Arab world to partner with the US instead of fighting it. He makes several surprising democratic and pro-Western statements. I'm amazed, astounded and thrilled, just like the circus banner promises. Can this be for real? I did some quick internet research to try to find out who this guy is. There is surprisingly little information available on such an intriguing character, but here is what I found out:

Seif Gadhafi was involved in the settlement negotiations over the Pan Am 103 bombing and heavily lobbied for Libya to accept the terms. He's also head of the organization that is making the payments. Many consider him the likely successor to his father, but he declines to consider himself that way. He's been at odds with the old-guard socialists in Moamar's government, lobbying for liberalization and democratization before. He was instrumental in the appointment of Shukri Ghanem to prime minister. Shukri Ghanem is a free-market economist educated at Harvard. Seif himself was educated in Switzerland and Austria where he studied economics and engineering. Currently he is studying for his Ph.D. in global governance at the London School of Economics. In an interview with the BBC over Libya's selection to head the UN Human Rights Commission, he admitted that Libya has a poor record on human rights.

All of that is good news. Here is the bad: he helped ransom hostages held by Islamic guerrillas in the Philippines. This makes him look like a political opportunist to me. People of principle don't encourage terrorists by giving them money for their terrorism. On the other hand you could view this as a case of well-intentioned bad judgment. Likewise, he says that Libya has a form of democracy, even though it is a communist dictatorship where working for wages is considered identical to slavery. That's not a good sign.

But genuine or not, Seif al-Islam Gadhafi seems to be an influential voice of moderation in the Arab world, and I hope the Bush administration is doing their part to make him successful. I'll take insincerity with real reforms over the current situation any day.

Here is where I got my information: