A Daily Diatribe by a Pompous Git

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Monday 24 March 2003

Some people's reaction to The Git studying philosophy is quite amusing. They can't see the point. Everyone has a philosophy, or philosophical viewpoint. After all, philosophy deals with religion, politics, science... Even the food one eats, organic versus conventionally grown, is more often than not a result of a philosophical viewpoint than anything else. While the physicists claim to be on the verge of developing a Theory of Everything, philosophers have been making similar claims for time out of mind (so to speak). Just as it would be foolish to reject all of modern physics for the hubris of some of its practitioners, it would be just as foolish to reject philosophy. Here's a practical issue arising from a philosophical problem.

The Problem of Democracy

It's widely acknowledged that applying democracy has a number of problems associated with it. Should voting be first past the post, preferential, or Hare-Clark? Should voting be compulsory for all, optional, or limited to those with an interest? But all these are trivial compared to a discovery by GE Anscombe in 1976.

Consider the following table of voting by five voters on three separate issues:

    Proposals
    A B C
  1 yes yes no
  2 no no no
Voters 3 no yes yes
  4 yes no yes
  5 yes no yes

As you can see, proposals A and C have been approved by the majority electors and so should be implemented. The first three voters, who constitute the majority, disagree with the results in the majority of cases and will likely be upset when the proposals are implemented.

The paradox only arises when a series of votes occurs -- not when voting on a single issue. It doesn't matter whether the votes occur simultaneously as in multiple referenda on issues, or a series of elections over time for political parties. The results may be chance, but no doubt could be easily arranged by a tyrant. In either case, the cumulative effect could well be a society that becomes more repugnant to the majority of voters over time.

The proponents of democracy make two major claims: that it is the best method of decision-making, because it satisfies the will of the majority, and that it is the most fair because it gives each voter's desire equal weight. Anscombe's paradox undermines both of these concepts. It should be noted that the paradox does not arise where the majority vote is 75% or more.

The question then arises, do we see such contradictions arising empirically, that is in real elections?

4. Empirical Cases

Case 1: Voting on Propositions

On November 7, 1990, California voters were confronted with a dizzying array of choices on the general election ballot: 21 state, county, and municipal races, several local initiatives and referendums, and 28 statewide propositions. We analyze here only voting results on the 28 propositions, which concerned such issues as alcohol and drugs, child care, education, the environment, health care, law enforcement, transportation, and limitations on terms of office.

The data are images from actual ballots cast by approximately 1.8 million voters in Los Angeles county (Dubin and Gerber, 1992). Voters could vote yes (Y), no (N), or abstain (A)--abstention being the residual category of voting neither Y nor N--with a proposition passing if the number of its Ys exceeded the numbers of its Ns, and failing otherwise. In Los Angeles county, 11 of the 28 propositions passed, but several of these were defeated statewide, and some of the defeated propositions in Los Angeles county passed statewide.

....

In the case of these three propositions, we also checked for a possible vote-aggregation paradox. The winning combination according to office (i.e., proposition) aggregation was YNY, but it was supported by fewer than 6% of the voters, placing it fifth out of the eight possible combinations. While not a full-fledged paradox, the poor showing of YNY illustrates how an unpopular compromise may defeat more popular 'pure' combinations (YYY was supported by 26% of the voters, NNN by 25%). The winning combination in this case was not only incoherent in the mathematical sense used earlier but also in a more substantive sense: it was pro-environment on two bond issues, anti-environment on the third, rendering policy choices by the voters somewhat of a hodgepodge that, as we pointed out, had little direct support.

-oOo-

From the Inbox:

Dear Git,

How amazing that you mention George Ewart Evans. His books were favourites of mine, too, and I still have most of them on my shelves. What a small world it is.

I wonder if you have read "Farmer's Glory" by A.G. Street? It's a beautiful, almost lyrical, account of the struggles of a small farmer amongst the changes that went on as the old traditional agriculture of England was phased out by mechanisation and big business, in the early part of the last century. It is set in quite a different part of the country, but is a marvellous book if you can get hold of it.

I guess "The Worm Forgives The Plough" is so famous that you MUST have read it but if by some chance you haven't, you are in for a treat. As well as the narrative there are some profoundly wise comments on the nature of leadership and authority ("the spring"), which have inspired me ever since I first read the book, probably more than thirty years ago.

Finally a more esoteric item: "Reuben's Corner" by Spike Mays. Less philosophical than the classic gems above, more of a personal memoir, it is of special interest to me because it covers that small area where Essex, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire meet, which happens to be where I come from. I grew up in the tiny hamlet of Gainsford End, which is only just off the large-scale sketch map of "his" villages that Mays provides in his book. Spike Mays died about five years ago, aged 80'ish; by then he was living in Steeple Bumpstead, so "the acorn does not fall far from the tree". Changed days.

I have no idea if any of these are still in print. Too lazy to click on Amazon to find out!

On oral history, I read a book once -- details long forgotten -- which claimed to pinpoint the exact spot in the New Forest where William Rufus was assassinated, based on verbal details handed down amongst the workers there. Reckoning that such a major event would be handed down from GRANDfather to GRANDson, the author thought just fourteen jumps took you back to the eleventh century. Far-fetched, but semi-plausible, I thought.

Stay well, keep studying the passing (human) scenery :-)

Best Regards,

Andrew Duffin

Yes, Farmers Glory is one of my favourites and my copy of The Worm Forgives the Plough fell apart. Fortunately, SWMBO purchased a hardback copy for my birthday about fifteen years ago and that is holding up well. I will keep my eye out for Spike Mays -- a new writer for me.

Oral history may well be transmitted more accurately than through book copying. A book copyist usually works alone and a copy-editor may well see dissimilar words as the same. A story-teller likes an audience and if the tale is a familiar one, if the the story varies in a significant way, will be told by his audience that he's changed something. It appears to be self-correcting under ideal circumstances.

Plate from AG Street's "Farmers Glory" -- a team of three horses pulling a plough.

Thought for the day:

History is a better guide than good intentions.

Jeane Kirkpatrick

Current Listening:

Alan Stivell -- E Langonned


Top

Tuesday 25 March 2003

From The Atlantic:

Caring for Your Introvert

The habits and needs of a little-understood group, by Jonathan Rauch

Do you know someone who needs hours alone every day? Who loves quiet conversations about feelings or ideas, and can give a dynamite presentation to a big audience, but seems awkward in groups and maladroit at small talk? Who has to be dragged to parties and then needs the rest of the day to recuperate? Who growls or scowls or grunts or winces when accosted with pleasantries by people who are just trying to be nice?

If so, do you tell this person he is "too serious," or ask if he is okay? Regard him as aloof, arrogant, rude? Redouble your efforts to draw him out?

If you answered yes to these questions, chances are that you have an introvert on your hands -- and that you aren't caring for him properly. Science has learned a good deal in recent years about the habits and requirements of introverts. It has even learned, by means of brain scans, that introverts process information differently from other people (I am not making this up). If you are behind the curve on this important matter, be reassured that you are not alone. Introverts may be common, but they are also among the most misunderstood and aggrieved groups in America, possibly the world.

I know. My name is Jonathan, and I am an introvert.

...

Are introverts misunderstood? Wildly. That, it appears, is our lot in life. "It is very difficult for an extrovert to understand an introvert," write the education experts Jill D. Burruss and Lisa Kaenzig... Extroverts are easy for introverts to understand, because extroverts spend so much of their time working out who they are in voluble, and frequently inescapable, interaction with other people. They are as inscrutable as puppy dogs. But the street does not run both ways. Extroverts have little or no grasp of introversion. They assume that company, especially their own, is always welcome. They cannot imagine why someone would need to be alone; indeed, they often take umbrage at the suggestion. As often as I have tried to explain the matter to extroverts, I have never sensed that any of them really understood. They listen for a moment and then go back to barking and yipping.

...

The worst of it is that extroverts have no idea of the torment they put us through. Sometimes, as we gasp for air amid the fog of their 98-percent-content-free talk, we wonder if extroverts even bother to listen to themselves. Still, we endure stoically, because the etiquette books -- written, no doubt, by extroverts -- regard declining to banter as rude and gaps in conversation as awkward. We can only dream that someday, when our condition is more widely understood, when perhaps an Introverts' Rights movement has blossomed and borne fruit, it will not be impolite to say "I'm an introvert. You are a wonderful person and I like you. But now please shush."

How can I let the introvert in my life know that I support him and respect his choice? First, recognize that it's not a choice. It's not a lifestyle. It's an orientation.

Second, when you see an introvert lost in thought, don't say "What's the matter?" or "Are you all right?"

Third, don't say anything else, either.

Full Story

The Git's son Thomas turned 18 yesterday. Funnily enough, he's an introvert, too. Mrs Git doesn't understand either of us.

Thought for the day:

I feel the same way about solitude as some people feel about the blessing of the church. It's the light of grace for me. I never close my door behind me without the awareness that I am carrying out an act of mercy toward myself.

Peter Hoeg

Current Listening:

Loudon Wainwright III -- Album II


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Wednesday 26 March 2003

Philosophy is: "The rational investigation of questions about existence and knowledge and ethics" according to my trusty little WordWeb dictionary and thesaurus. From it came religion, politics, mathematics, physics, biology and a host of other disciplines. Rather than those disciplines taking away from philosophy, philosophy continues to feed back into them and likely will continue to produce new areas to think about in the future. Just as particle accelerators provide the data for physics theorists, the minds of philosophers are the research tool for investigating questions about existence, knowledge and ethics, at a considerably lower cost than particle accelerators.

Most disciplines that have spun off from philosophy have theorists and experimentalists. Philosophers are super-theorists attempting to make sense of the theories of multiple disciplines and how they might relate to each other.

The practitioners of disciplines become ever more specialised with their own abstruse language, too difficult for the casual outsider to learn. The need for looking for a higher level of meaning remains for worthwhile new ideas almost always seem to come from outside the discipline. Thus, there is a need for at least some of those specialists to be trained in the discipline of philosophy. The Git finds it most gratifying to see this happening at the University of Tasmania.

Perhaps, like Adam Spence, they decided to take philosophy because: "Nobody ever failed philosophy", but the obvious enjoyment my fellow students are deriving from the subject is a delight.

Thought for the day:

It is the mark of an educated man to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

Aristotle

Current Listening:

Bryan Ferry -- In Your Mind


Top

Thursday 27 March 2003

The Git still has problems rendering some Movable Type websites with his web browser. For example, Dan Seto's page rendered like this:

Dan Seto's Movable Type powered weblog.

As you can see, the scroll button is at the bottom of the page, but there's more text below the lowest point The Git can scroll to. OS is WinXP and IE 6 -- not an unusual combination these days. This website will not be moving to MT until The Git can be sure it renders properly in the maximum number of browser/OS combinations.

-oOo-

A black hole is an object so massive that its gravitational field  prevents the escape of light, or anything else. The boundary between the object and the rest of the universe is called an event horizon. Inside the event horizon is called a singularity.

A Philosophical Phairy Tail

Once upon a time, about fifteen or twenty billion years ago, there was an object as massive as a universe. Unlike all the black holes we believe we know about, it decided it was time to explode and create the spacetime of universe we all live in. Or at least it would have if time existed back then. In order to do this, it had to ignore all the known physical laws we have discovered over the last few hundred years. After a while, it decided it was time to forget about its own abstruse physical laws and start using the physical laws we now know about.

This story is true because:

  1. Cosmologists are more intelligent than the average person and don't make things up.
  2. It's easier than believing the universe has always existed and matter spontaneously comes into being.
  3. It makes the Pope happy because the decision-maker is obviously God.
  4. The only cosmologists who count are American and if you disagree with them, the US might invade your country under the pretext that you have weapons of mass destruction.
  5. It makes more sense than believing that the same physical laws we observe apply throughout the universe.

Thought for the day:

The bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.

-- Galileo Galilei

Current Listening:

Spectrum -- Milesago


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Friday 28 March 2003

The real action at university is not in the lectures, but in the tutorials. While the school's Big Guns expound the current orthodoxy from the front of a lecture theatre, it's the school's graduate students' interactions that direct students' thoughts about the implications of what is being learned. The Git has great problems biting his tongue. His fellow students are mostly very young -- conditioned to shut up when a "grown-up" speaks -- so it would be all too easy to turn a tute into a mini-lecture. But we are there to learn from each other. The youngsters by definition cannot have the depth of experience of an Olde Pharte [1], but they bring fresh, new insights as well as the baggage of tired old, recycled stuff from their rote learning.

In history, The Git's fellow students are confronting the difference between being consumers of history and the expectation that we are now learning to be historians.

Alun Munslow

The study of the past has never been static. The practice of history has witnessed many shifts and turns in the way it is thought and undertaken. Since the 1960s, for example, the discipline of history has experienced a 'social science turn', a 'cliometric' or 'statistics turn', a 'women's history turn', a 'cultural history turn' and so on. These are not novelties that have not come and gone. Each has remained a significant way for historians to reflect upon and write about change over time. But, in all this one thing has apparently not altered. This is the epistemology of history. In spite of this rich variety of methodological developments or shifts and turns of interest, the foundational way historians 'know' things about the past' has been unchallenged. Despite the use of statistics, the new themes (society, women, gender, culture) and the application of fresh concepts and theories, there remain two steady points in the historian's cosmos: empiricism and rational analysis. As the product of the European eighteenth-century Enlightenment the empirical-analytical model has become the epistemology for undertaking the study of the past.

However, since the 1960s and 1970s something has changed at this epistemological level. Doubts about the empirical-analytical as the privileged path to historical knowing have emerged. This has not happened in history alone, of course. In all the arts, humanities, social sciences, and even the physical and life sciences the question is increasingly being put, how can we be sure that empiricism and inference really does get us close to the true meaning of the past? In history how can we trust our sources - not because they are forgeries or missing, but because of the claims empiricism is forced to make about our ability not only to find the data, but also just as importantly represent their meaning accurately? It is not an abstract or scholastic philosophical question to ask, where does meaning come from in history? Is it the past itself? Is its meaning simply ushered in by the historian. Is the historian merely the midwife to the truth of the past? Or is the historian unavoidably implicated in the creation of a meaning for the past. Does the past contain one true meaning or several? Is there one story to be discovered or several that can be legitimately generated? I think most historians today would agree on the latter analysis. The difference comes over the consequences of that implication, and what it does for truth. In other words is it the historian who provides the truth of the past as she represents it rather than as she finds it? This is the essence of the postmodern challenge, the turn to the narrative-linguistic and its implications.

Full Story

[1] My old friend Peter Nielsen insists that this is the correct spelling and in deference to his ability to survive innumerable heart attacks, strokes and a knife attack, will henceforth continue to follow his suggestion.

Thought for the day:

Since history has no properly scientific value, its only purpose is educative. And if historians neglect to educate the public, if they fail to interest it intelligently in the past, then all their historical learning is valueless except in so far as it educates themselves.

G. M. Trevelyan

Current Listening:

Jethro Tull -- Living in the Past


Top

Saturday 29 March 2003

The Git watches hardly any of the ongoing war porn on TV, but it's unavoidable other than by not entering the room when the TV set is on. One very noticeable characteristic of the commentary is that before the war actually commenced, the talking heads were all assuring us that the war would be over in a few days, because the Iraqis were going to welcome their liberation with open arms. As most countries' inhabitants have done since time immemorial, with the exception of France, the Iraqis have staunchly defended their country and this seems to surprise the American commentators. The Git's conclusion is that this must mean that the war by the US on Iraq is completely justified on the grounds that if the Iraqis had landed an invasion force in the US, presumably the American forces would have immediately laid down their arms and surrendered.

Thought for the day:

Persecution cannot harm him who stands by Truth. Did not Socrates fall proudly a victim in body? Was not Paul stoned for the sake of the Truth? It is our inner selves that hurt us when we disobey it, and it kills us when we betray it. 

Kahlil Gibran

Current Listening:

Nico -- The End


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