Elusive concepts

Ayn Rand defined a concept as “a mental integration of two or more units which are isolated according to a specific characteristic(s) and united by a specific definition.” Really, though, most of the concepts in most people’s heads don’t live up to this standard. They’re often more like rough mental areas carved out by rather vague criteria. People do pretty well at concrete things like “person” and “rock,” but much less well with abstractions like “justice” and “beauty.” Ask people of different political views to define “terrorist” and see if they come up with coherent criteria, much less agree with each other.

Specific definitions aren’t the central point; they don’t dictate concepts. They can change as the relevant facts change. Twenty years ago, nearly everyone would have agreed that a book is a physical, printed object. Today we routinely apply the word to collections of bits. The change is reasonable; the content of a book is now often delivered as a collection of bits, and for many purposes it doesn’t matter whether we have the printed object or data in a computing device. The similarities are more important than the differences.

When definitions shift because people don’t have a clear idea of a concept’s distinguishing characteristics, though, it’s impossible to reason with any precision. What conclusions can you draw about terrorists as a class if you can’t say who is a terrorist and who isn’t? It becomes easy to draw different conclusions by changing criteria; if someone acting for a cause you support commits an act you’d otherwise call terrorist, your criteria might suddenly become much more restrictive. It’s not a conscious double standard but sloppy thinking.

It’s difficult to maintain full clarity on highly emotional issues, but developing good mental habits makes it easier. A key point is to ask yourself what conclusions you’d draw if certain things were different. Let’s say you support the threats by Boston’s Mayor Menino to ban Chick-Fi-A from the city because its president is against same-sex marriage. (This is hypothetical; I don’t suppose many people reading this blog do.) Would you also grant the right of mayors who oppose same-sex marriage to ban the sale of Kindles because Jeff Bezos has contributed to pro-legalization causes? A lot of inconsistencies are much subtler than this and harder to spot.

It’s a matter of ongoing mental exercise to treat concepts such as rights and freedom consistently regardless of our emotional responses to particular cases. When we don’t learn those habits, people can manipulate us easily.

“I’m an Unbeliever” lyrics

I’ve gotten two requests to post the lyrics for “I’m an Unbeliever,” so here they are:

I’m an Unbeliever

Words and Music: Gary McGath. Copyright 2012

“I’m an Unbeliever” is copyright 2012 by Gary McGath and Creative Commons License is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

You call me unbeliever, yes, you say it must be true. E/ / A/ B/
I don’t believe in anything, I don’t have faith like you. E/ B7/ B/ /
I bow at no god’s shrine and I am never known to pray, C#m/ / E/ B/
So I believe in nothing, or at least that’s what you say. E/ / A/ B/

You call me unbeliever, unbeliever I must be. E/ / A/ B/
I don’t believe in miracles like parting of the sea. E/ B7/ B/ /
I don’t think that the universe was made in seven days, C#m/ / E/ B/
So I’m an unbeliever and I sing no deity’s praise. E/ / B/ E/

You say I am amoral, since I don’t think good and ill
Are learned from ancient tablets someone brought down from a hill.
I don’t like executions based on so-called holy laws,
So I must be amoral, and I think I have good cause.

You say I stand for nothing, since I love no holy aim.
I won’t demand that wrong believers bow to any name.
I don’t like Inquisitions and the causes they stand for,
So I must stand for nothing, since I can’t stand holy war.

You claim I have no vision, since I don’t suppose that we
Can see by revelation what our reason cannot see.
By thought and observation I assess the facts I find,
So is it lack of vision that I trust in my own mind?

You think my life lacks purpose, since I think it’s up to me
To grow in understanding and find out what I should be.
I don’t believe some outside force can teach us what to do;
For that you call me faithless and I guess it must be true.

So call me unbeliever, if you think it is a flaw
That I don’t trust authority that hands down sacred law,
That I think human beings can distinguish right from wrong.
I’ll celebrate my faithlessness in music and in song.

I celebrate the power to discover and to find,
I celebrate creation by the striving human mind.
So call me what you want if that’s your judgment and your choice,
But as an unbeliever I will stand up and rejoice.

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First audio post: I’m an Unbeliever

Song blogging is one way to get an idea across. This is my own song, “I’m an Unbeliever,” with no connection to any better-known songs that might have titles something like that. Recorded at home using a Zoom H2. The lyrics have been polished a bit since the last time I inflicted it on people, and I’ve worked on the accompaniment.

“I’m an Unbeliever” is copyright 2012 by Gary McGath and Creative Commons License is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Download the MP3, if you prefer that to using the player.

Update: I’ve posted the lyrics.

The cycle of revenge

The “largest forced population transfer in human history” is one which not many people remember. I learned about it only recently, and I found more details about it in R. M. Douglas’s Orderly and Humane: The Expulsion of the Germans after the Second World War. According to Douglas, between 12 and 14 million people designated as ethnic Germans were compelled to leave Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Yugoslavia, sometimes under deadly conditions. The Allied powers encouraged and directed much of this relocation.

One reason this event isn’t often mentioned may be that it’s a story with no good guys. The expulsions were an act of ethnic revenge, an attack on people simply for their ancestry or language. Nonetheless, many of the ethnic Germans in eastern Europe, probably most, did support the Nazi government to varying degrees.

Another reason which Douglas mentions is the reluctance of historians to sound as if they agree with Holocaust revisionists on anything. There are people who claim that the expulsion of Germans was the full moral equivalent of the mass slaughter of Jews. Criticizing the expulsions doesn’t mean forgetting that the German government did far worse, but some scholars may be afraid of getting praise from disreputable quarters.

The events after World War II illustrate how injustice leads to revenge, revenge to injustice, and so on to cycles of retaliation. It’s worst when revenge allows serious fanatics to grab power, as Hitler did campaigning against the perceived injustices of the Versailles Treaty. When whole ethnic groups are blamed, the innocent aren’t separated from the guilty. We can see that today in some people’s reactions to the 9/11 attacks.

One of the things I find most disturbing about people is the way they’ll adopt a new position en masse without any compelling argument for it. It makes me wonder whether I can really know anything about them. Persuading them that they have a common enemy is one of the most effective ways to make them turn around that way.

Justice requires recognizing that individuals are responsible for their actions and that others don’t share the blame just because of their language, appearance, or national origin. Many people, though, are less interested in justice than in finding someone to strike out against.

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Campus bullying

Bullying is a significant problem on college campuses these days. Working at Harvard, I’ve run into some of it myself. I’m not talking about the crude, “Give me your lunch money or I’ll beat you up” kind of bullying, but intellectual intimidation. If you express views that are out of line with the orthodoxy, you can be subject to serious pressures. Not even the president of Harvard is safe; Lawrence Summers was driven out of that post in 2005 for raising the possibility (not asserting as fact) that statistically slight cognitive differences might contribute to the numeric differences between men and women in the sciences.

Even your private conversations aren’t out of the bullies’ reach. In 2010, Law School Dean Martha Minow castigated a student in public for failing to dismiss categorically — in private email — the question of whether there are racial differences in intelligence. When the defense of a scientific idea consists of “You’re forbidden to think about the alternative,” the only people who’ll think about the issue are the ones who challenge it, and no one will be equipped to rebut their claim that the old idea is mere dogma.

This month, Harvey Silverglate gave three out of five Campus Muzzle Awards to Harvard. I disagree in part with his assessment of the locking of the gates last winter in response to some Occupiers; if the purpose was “keeping the outside world from seeing a political demonstration,” it only kept people from seeing how tiny it was. The lockdown was a clumsy attempt to keep outsiders from camping out on campus without dealing with the problem directly, causing serious inconvenience to legitimate visitors.

As long as I’m employed at Harvard, it wouldn’t be a good idea for me to detail my own experiences in public, but I’ve encountered the bullying attitude myself. Let’s just say that a person I have reason to worry about recently addressed the words, “I’m for free speech, but …” to me.

Even as an unusually stubborn person with money to fall back on, I can feel worried. What must it be like for an undergraduate with very little experience and hardly any money, away from home in an unfamiliar culture?

High school students picking colleges to apply to should consider the atmosphere of intellectual freedom or its lack at the schools they consider. There’s no definitive ranking anywhere; obviously people will vary on how intimidating they think practices are. It will take research. If you apply to a military or religious school, you know up front that some ideas will be encouraged or frowned upon. Maybe it’s worth putting up with, as long as you know what you’re getting into. It’s the ones full of fanfare about “academic freedom” and “open exchange of ideas” where you have to look carefully. FIRE‘s website can be a valuable source of information.

If you run into academic intimidation, the best response is a firm, calm stance. If you seem afraid, bullies of any kind will take advantage of it. If you get angry, you’ll lose. Clearly (not belligerently) pointing out that what you’re encountering is intimidation will make them worry. It’s a common trick for bullies to play victim: by saying something they don’t like, they say, you’re creating a “hostile environment.” Remind them that you are simply discussing an issue, and they’re the ones trying to make you feel afraid. Most professors and administrators are chiefly concerned with keeping their jobs and not getting into trouble themselves; your best chance is not to look like either an easy target or a threat.

Easy for me to say, I know. But it’s the best advice I can offer, and if you can carry it out, it’s your best chance.

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Bypassing the campaigns

The differences between Romney and Obama are minor, mostly a matter of the particular interest groups they’re connected with. Asking which one I prefer is like asking whether I prefer arsenic or cyanide. I may cast a protest vote for Gary Johnson, but it’s not worth spending a lot of effort pondering whom to vote for in November, if anyone.

In present-day America, most people look at what favors they expect from a candidate, how they can most effectively get the unearned at someone else’s expense. There’s nothing I can do about that, but I’m not going to play the game, and I’m not going to sink into bitterness any more than I can help. Whatever I can do to maximize freedom for myself and other people who still value it, political campaigns aren’t the way to do it.

There are two other ways that people like me (and hopefully like you) can still do something for freedom: education and legal action. I can remind people of the inevitable consequences of everybody looting everybody, and I can point out news stories that may still shock some people. Both of these have personal value for clarifying my own thoughts, so I can keep at them even if I’m not obviously influencing anyone. Education isn’t an easy job. Bastiat’s broken-window fallacy, for instance, is easy to explain, but getting people to stop believing their favorite case is different isn’t. News stories can have impact, and I regularly mention some outrageous ones on Twitter, but people interpret them according to their own narratives, so using them to demonstrate principles can be hard.

For me legal action doesn’t normally mean going to court myself, but giving money to organizations such as the Institute for Justice and FIRE. In this area I can see positive results, so there’s a more concrete kind of satisfaction.

I can encourage activities which are doing some good, giving them positive publicity. Recently I found an article about organizations, including a group at Harvard, that monitor online censorship and gather detailed statistics about it. Simply knowing what the censors’ aims are — for instance, that the Chinese government is more concerned about suppressing organized activity than individual criticism — can be a first step toward overcoming them. Giving them a bit of thanks gives me a bit of hope.

Some might say these things aren’t a lot to hang hopes on, but giving up is never a worthwhile policy. Saying something is better than being silent or grumbling.

Choosing freedoms

In today’s society freedom is a scarce commodity. If I’m going to maximize my own freedom, I have to decide what form of it is most important to me. I have to make tradeoffs, giving some things up in order to have more of the liberty that I want.

For instance, we don’t have the freedom to travel as we choose, subject only to reasonable restrictions for the sake of safety. I can choose to continue flying from US airports and be subject to intimidation, humiliation, and the possibility of worse at the hands of the TSA, or I can give up some opportunities and keep myself outside their reach. I choose the latter. This might not be your choice, even if you’re equally outraged.

I think it’s outrageous that if you live in New Hampshire and work in Massachusetts, you pay income tax to Massachusetts, and if you live in Massachusetts and work in New Hampshire, you pay income tax to Massachusetts. Some people would refuse to pay the tax. I pay it, since if I refused it would just be taken from me one way or another, with extra pain along the way. It’s not a battle I choose. If you choose it, have a good lawyer or a quick escape route.

Whenever you exercise a disputed freedom, there’s some risk. For me, the freedom to speak out is especially important. I can’t be directly punished for it under American law, but I risk making enemies who might retaliate at me. I’ve posted cartoons of Muhammad, made no secret of my being a libertarian and an atheist, and declared plainly that office holders have engaged in wrongdoing. As a result I’ve sometimes been harassed. In my college days I was punched in the nose and the sweater I was wearing was set on fire. In Hollis, NH, I was banned from a town meeting and subjected to slanders for saying that the library trustees’ use of public funds to influence the vote was immoral. A pair of lunatics once ran a years-long harassment campaign against me. I take due precautions, such as having an unlisted phone number. I don’t want to give the wrong impression — on the whole I’ve lived a tranquil life — but there would have been fewer stresses (and far less enjoyment of life) if I’d just shut up.

The point is to care about some freedom strongly enough to take some risks for it. Without that commitment, you just become a pawn of others. It’s easy to slip into going along and getting along. Many people gladly sell their freedom for freebies. I wouldn’t mind that so much except that my freedom goes down the drain along with theirs. Worn down by pressures to conform and bought off by stuff at other people’s expense (while not noticing how much other people get at their expense), they end up grateful to their masters, but there’s nothing I can do about them. It’s the people who still care about some liberty who matter, those who, as Rand wrote, “have retained some sovereign shred of their soul, unsold and unstamped: ‘—to the order of others.’”

What freedoms do you choose? What are you willing to risk for them?

The anti-Agile manifesto

This post is a big shift from what I’ve been writing here before, but it’s my blog and I can do that if I want. :) Besides, I’m sure there are regular readers who are interested in this topic.

Lately I’ve been exposed more than I like to something called “Agile Development.” It’s a software development methodology which codifies the bad habits of many programmers. Its founding document is the “Agile Manifesto.” Its main tenets are brief:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Expressions like the last one nearly always mean “We don’t care about the items on the right.”

The first point is meaningless. Individuals are the ones who do the work. Processes are how they do it. They aren’t commensurable. Placing either one “over” the other just doesn’t mean anything. And really, today’s world is much too interactive for effective software development. Programmers need to be able to concentrate, not to be interrupted every five minutes with e-mail and instant messages and constantly shifted from one task to another.

The second disparages documentation. If you’ve ever tried to work with uncommented, undocumented code, you know what a pain it is. Working software that subsequent programmers can’t figure out doesn’t stay working.

“Customer collaboration over contract negotiation” actually does make sense, and it’s what attracts people to agile development. But watch out for everything else that comes with this package deal.

A plan for developing software should include allocating time and resources for responding to change, but just reacting to changes can’t replace planning.

The Agile line depends heavily on a straw man. If you don’t use Agile, its proponents tell us, you have to use Waterfall. Then we must have been using Waterfall all our lives, being ignorant of the glory of Agile. What? You’d never heard of it till the Agile people told you? Neither had I. Wikipedia tells us (as of this writing, the always-necessary caveat with that source) that “[s]ince no formal software development methodologies existed at the time, this hardware-oriented model was simply adapted for software development.[citation needed]” Adopted by whom? Citation needed, indeed. In the Waterfall approach, you gather all requirements, then you do the design, then you implement it, then you verify it, and finally you go into maintenance. There is no overlap; one stage must finish before the next starts. This seems to mean you don’t do any prototyping during the first two stages, and you don’t test the code until it’s completely written. You always do development this way, don’t you? No? I don’t either. Maybe those people doing secret government contracts are the ones who do. That would help explain why they cost so much.

Less formally, Agile means things like putting the emphasis on getting something that demonstrates some functionality over sustainable design. Agile advocates tend to say that planning for future refactoring of code is a waste of time. If you have to change data bases down the line, you’ll just throw the whole thing out and start over anyway. If the code was written on those assumptions, that will be all you can do.

In my long experience in software development, certain things are consistent, and they aren’t Waterfall. Managers want software rushed out, often on the basis of inadequate specifications. They want something now, and they’ll worry later about having something maintainable. Developers don’t like to comment their code and don’t particularly like to take the trouble of planning for flexibility from the start.

I do have to grant the strength of the third point again, the one that carries all the nonsense along with it. Software managers like to keep programmers in isolation. They’re afraid of what we’ll say to the users: things like “That’s a bad idea” or “It’ll take a long time to implement that for very little benefit” or “why not do this instead?” There’s a common saying among programmers: “I must be a mushroom. They keep me in the dark and feed me bullshit.” Grabbing on to an argument for actually talking to the users, and seeing their bad habits confirmed, they’re naturally attracted to Agile.

But we’re also the programmers who have to maintain the previous developers’ uncommented, unplanned spaghetti code, and that isn’t fun. We’re the ones who’ll have to deal with unexpected changes later on, and that will be hard if we wrote novella-sized subroutines that do everything. We should be pushing the idea of communicating with users without swallowing the whole package of bad design practices. Maybe that could have its own buzzword. Sensible Development, anyone?