26 May 2009

Swallow A Camel, Strain At A Gnat

I don't know what to make of the great expense scandal playing itself out in Westminster. For those who aren't following, what I gather is this:

1. Like Congressmen, Members of Parliament are reluctant to vote themselves raises;

2. Like Congressmen, Members of Parliament want to make more money (at least for Congressmen, I think this is less greed than an assumption that everyone should get a raise every year, which explains a lot about the laws they enact);

3. Unlike Congressmen, Members of Parliament arranged to get more money by enacting incredibly generous expense reimbursement policies for themselves, which they were expected and encouraged to take advantage of to the farthest reaches, leading many (most? all?) to collect about 18,000 Pounds per year for things like dredging the moat around their castle;

4. Recently, Britain passed a Freedom of Information Act and now the public knows about the entirely legal expense scam.

So, this is something like the House bank scandal, but with more of a sense of a pox on both your houses, in that all MPs, no matter the party, seem to have participated with both hands.

On the other hand, this is a group that corporately has, over the last few decades, moved quite a bit of regulatory power, authority and responsibility to international bureaucrats in Belgium who never need to answer to the British electorate, so what's really the bigger scandal?

24 May 2009

Do The Boy Scouts Have A Vagina Monologues Merit Badge?

I don't usually blog stories from Instapundit because, seriously, who's going to see it first on the Secret Blog without having first seen it at Instapundit? Not even me, obviously.

But you should make it a point to read this story from insidehighered.com, trying to explain and propose responses to the recent decline of men on college campuses. It seems the problem is socially imposed pressure to perform hegemonic masculinity. The solution is more women's studies courses, so that men will feel free to be themselves rather than, well, men.

Oh, and be gay -- you know you want to.

How any man could resist that program is beyond me.

23 May 2009

Let's Commit Philosophy I: The Nature Of Mathematics

This post over at Thought Mesh raises to related philosophical questions that are fun to think about. The first is the nature of mathematics, which I'll discuss in this post, and the second is the nature of science (or the problem with Einstein), which I'll discuss in a post to come.

Alternate universes, the subject of AOG's post, is an example of a set of scientific speculations (time travel is another) that is allowed, but not compelled, by our current models of reality. One question this raises is the reliability of our models, which, in turn, raises the question of the nature of mathematics.

Is mathematics inherently tied to the nature of the universe, or is it just a really good modeling tool that, if done right, has not yet been inaccurate in our experience. Put another way, does putting two objects down next to two other objects have to result in four objects, or does it just so happen to work out that way?

We tend to assume that mathematics is inherently tied to the nature of reality for two reasons. First, as I've already said, because our experience doesn't include an example of where it doesn't. Second, because math has been usefully predictive. (Are these actually two different reasons, or just separate aspects of one reason? It is in any event useful to discuss them separately.)

The first reason seems compelling -- or, rather, feels compelling -- but is obviously problematic. We have, in fact, a rather small sample of different situation in which math has been a useful modeling tool -- those that can be experienced on Earth, with the tools available to us, over the last 10,000 years. How many different types of situations have we really been in, compared to the age and size of the universe. Plus, we're by nature connection seeking, satisficing animals. Once we've experienced an event, the fact that we can go back and show that the math works isn't really all that interesting. We can always find connections after the fact (connection seeking) and once we've found one tend to stop looking (satisficing). So that fact that mathematics conforms to our experience, as we've experienced it, might not be great evidence about the nature of mathematics.

The second reason, because it avoids the problem of looking backwards, seems the stronger. If we can use math to model unknown facts about the universe, and then test to conform them (Popper looks around triumphantly) then it is that much more likely that mathematics is inherently tied to the nature of the universe. But this, too, proves less than it seems. Because we also do make predictions based on mathematics that, when we test them, are disproved -- otherwise, we wouldn't bother to check, would we. In other words, science, in the Popperian sense, requires that we be skeptical that mathematics, or at least our ability to do mathematics, does accurately mirror reality. We don't accept our models until we confirm them.

So it seems that, speaking of Popper, our intuitive sense that mathematics is inherently tied to the nature of reality is unfalsifiable.

Does this matter? Actually, it seems to matter quite a bit. The rocket-sciences who gravitated to Wall Street over the last 15-20 years made billions with models of the financial market used to value options and derivatives without a history of performance or any tangible, real world, analog. The mathematicians and their banks all assumed that their mathematical models were tied to some underlying reality; that the constructs "really" had the value that the models suggested. We know how that turned out.

Now we're about to engage in an even more drastic economic experiment based on the assumption that global climate models can reliably reflect the future, a proposition that, to the extent it can be falsified, has been. Moreover, we not only have to consider whether mathematical models can model future climate, but also whether the people performing the modeling are doing so honestly and competently. Of course, every time you fly, you're also betting your life (albeit with much better evidence) that there is some relationship between mathematics and reality.

14 May 2009

All Taxes Are Regressive

One point that gets overlooked in all our debates about spending, taxing and borrowing -- and that is particularly germane to the debate over turning our economy upside down because of global warming -- is that we present-day Americans aren't nearly as rich as future Americans. Given that, and given our social consensus in favor of progressive taxation, why do we tax ourselves for their benefit? Aren't all taxes regressive, if time is considered?

It would have been nonsense for the US to have abstained from World War II because it couldn't be paid for out of tax revenue. We benefit, we're better off, it's entirely just that we should pay.

What other costs should we shove off on the future?

07 May 2009

Has Anyone Noticed...

That recently OJ has become the voice of reason at BrothersJudd, while the commenters have gone off the deep end?

(Posting will continue to be light through the end of the semester.)