Feb 152003

Eugene Volokh complains that his C programs used to crash, and his JavaScript still does, because the languages distinguish comparison (==) from assignment (=). (Volokh, at 14 the world’s youngest law professor, also worked as a programmer for several years as a preadolescent.) On the one hand it’s a lousy idea to use the single equal sign for assignment. The best-known operator should be reserved for the best-known operation, which is comparison. Many other languages keep the equal sign for comparison and use other symbols (:=, .=, =:) for assignment instead. Java inherits much of its syntax from C, including the equal and double equal signs, with the annoying consequence that if we assign a boolean variable, say x, the value false, then in this code snippet:

if (x == true)

doSomething() will not execute, whereas in this one:

if (x = true)

it will. The second snippet, though shorter, contains two bits of business: we assign the value true to x, and we then evaluate x. In Java this is done right to left, so by the time we arrive at the if, x is true.
This is a smaller problem in Java, however, because Java is strongly typed. If x is a String, or an Integer, or anything but a primitive boolean, the line if (x = true) will not compile.

But annoying and confusing as this is, it still beats languages, like Visual Basic, that use the same symbol for comparison and assignment. Consider this legal statement:

a = b = c

Even if we assume an execution order of right to left this is ambiguous. It might mean “assign the value of c to b, then assign the value of b to a.” Or it might mean “assign true to a if b and c are equal, otherwise assign false to a.” No way to tell.

The first language, to my knowledge, to distinguish comparison from assignment was APL (A Programming Language) in the 1950s, in which a left arrow (<â €”) indicates assignment. There is a famous, perhaps apocryphal, story of Ken Iverson, APL's inventor, watching some hapless Fortran programmer increment a loop counter by typing a = a + 1. “But that’s false,” Iverson said.

Feb 152003

Special thanks to Oliver Stone for Comandante, his upcoming searing exposé of Fidel Castro. Besides the “revolutionary” mustache Stone sports for his scenes in the movie, making him look like the missing Ortega brother, one detail cannot go unmentioned:

Throughout, Castro wears his trademark green fatigues, but when the camera pans to his shoes it shows how times have changed: even a veteran revolutionary sports the ubiquitous Nike swoosh.

Fidel Castro, supporter of evil capitalist exploitation of Third World sweatshop labor.

Feb 142003

Megan McArdle always entertains and often instructs me, and is lovely and charming into the bargain, but she has a weird mental block about the spelling of words of a certain class, although she spells nearly everything else correctly. Please, the words are:


And that goes double for the rest of you. Thank you.

Feb 132003

Andrew Sullivan calls Hegel “one of the great liberals” (as in classical liberal) today. This is Hegel he’s talking about, theorist of the apotheosis of the State, official Prussian court philosopher and lickspittle to Friedrich Wilhelm III. Hegel, who proved, philosophically, that there was no planet between Mars and Jupiter, that magnetizing iron increases its weight, and that Newton’s theories of gravity and inertia contradict each other. What is Sullivan thinking? But he does provide me with an excuse to quote a mighty stream of invective from Schopenhauer, who knew Hegel personally, which no blogger can match:

Hegel, installed from above by the powers that be, as the certified Great Philosopher, was a flat-headed, insipid, nauseating, illiterate charlatan, who reached the pinnacle of audacity in scribbling together and dishing up the craziest mystifying nonsense. This nonsense has been noisily proclaimed as immortal wisdom by mercenary followers and readily accepted as such by all fools, who thus joined into a as perfect a chorus of admiration as had ever been heard before. The extensive field of spiritual influence with which Hegel was furnished by those in power has enabled him to achieve the intellectual corruption of a whole generation.

(Thanks to Karl Popper’s The Open Society for the material.)

(Update: Arthur Silber comments.)

(Another: Eddie Thomas, mirabile dictu, defends Hegel.)

Feb 122003

I must read the wrong blogs. Where are the Westminster roundups?

Here’s Best in Show, a Kerry blue terrier, Ch. Torums Scarf Michael (The Ch. stands for “Champion of Record.” The standards are complicated; you have to earn a certain number of points at American Kettle Club shows. All the finalists in Best of Show at Westminster are Ch.’s with plenty to spare.):

Ch. Torums Scarf Michael

“There are few or no blue or bluish animals,” wrote Thoreau, but this dog certainly seemed blue on my television, though less so in the photograph. Kerry blues have slight sway-backs, tails that line up with their back legs, and beards, which all conspire to present a remarkable S-curve as they trot. The animal was superb, and deserving, and yet I rooted for:

Ch Luxor's Playmate of the Year

This is Ch. Luxor’s Playmate of the Year, the Ibizan hound, pronounced, for some reason, “Ibethan” by all of the announcers, as though they’d acquired a collective lisp. She won the Hound Group this year in an upset, the first time ever for an Ibizan, and was a huge crowd favorite for Best in Show. Now you see why. Have you ever seen such a magnificent creature?

Finally, this year, after nearly a decade at the helm, Joe Garagiola, America’s preeminent disciple of the I-know-nothing-and-won’t-learn-lest-it-interfere-with-my-rustic-charm school of broadcasting, was given the sack. Pliant weatherboy Mark McEwen, his replacement, studied enough to tell most of the breeds apart without assistance. But like his predecessor, he said a lot of things like, “The dog knows this is best in show.” Why, of course he does. He looks around the ring, sees that the other dogs aren’t in his breed, or in his group either. What else can he figure?

McEwen even memorized a few fictoids for the occasion. When the Puli — the corded dog best known for the lame Super Bowl ad where a guy puts it on his head and pretends to be a Rastafarian — came out, McEwen told us that the plural of Puli is Puli. So I’m thinking, the plural of dreadlocks is — dreadlocks. (Alas, McEwen was wrong. The plural of Puli is Pulik, they’re Hungarian.)

APB to real dog experts: somebody please tell me why poodles are clipped like topiary, while every other breed makes do with a natural, if occasionally elaborate, hairstyle. My girlfriend needs to know. I can’t keep coming up empty on this question every year.

(Poodle Update: Erik Freeland writes: “Originally the dog was a water retriever. The clip had to do with insulation and water resistance. I am not sure if the modern clip is 100% the same as the original, but that I believe is the intent.” Maybe. But then why aren’t other water dogs clipped the same way? I’m still accepting suggestions.)

Feb 112003

I regularly argue for rule-based reasoning in ethics, on the grounds that without rules, there are, well, no rules. Jim Ryan thinks that between rules and anything goes lies some middle ground, which he calls “critical common-sense-ism.” This means reasoning analogously from cases that we already know to be true:

Its easy. You determine the cases about which you know the true moral judgments and that bear the closest resemblance to case X. For examples, if X is an abortion, then we determine whether X is more like ordinary murders or more like perfectly permissible medical procedures. Common sense tells us that its wrong to kill a child but also that its not wrong to scrape skin cells off of your skin. It depends on what the fetus is. If X is a welfare program, we determine whether X is more like robbing Peter to pay Paul or more like requiring Peter to do his duty to save a child who is drowning right before him. It depends on the program. Common sense can make its pronouncement, but only after we make fine distinctions and comparisons, and draw analogies and disanalogies between various cases were sure about and X.

Now there is no such thing as case-based reasoning, strictly speaking. Cases are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike. Jim himself has remarked elsewhere on the difficulty of deducing propositions from experience. “Critical common-sense-ism” replaces rules with rules. “It’s wrong to kill a child” is a rule. “It’s wrong to rob Peter to pay Paul” is a rule. What Jim really objects to is not rule-based reasoning per se, but one big rule, like “the greatest good for the greatest number” or “rational self-interest” or “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He proposes to replace one big rule with many little rules, like, say, the Ten Commandments. (In this respect “critical common-sense-ism” resembles all religious morality.) From here on I will call ordinary rule-based thinking “big-rulism” and Jim’s alternative “little-rulism.”

Little-rulism is an accurate description of how most people actually do reason morally, most of the time. Your best chance to convince somebody in a moral argument is to apply a known and agreed-upon little rule. (I speak from long and painful experience.) Jim has grander ambitions for little-rulism, however. He wants a revolution. He wants to overthrow the big-rulers.

What happens when two little rules conflict?

These deliberations depend on having our facts straight; we need to know the relevant facts in order to judge them. Whether the fetus is not importantly disanalogous to a skin cell is question that can be decided only if we know the pertinent biological facts. In the other case, we need to know whether the welfare program will support the indolent or be wasted and not help the deserving, and whether innocent lives will be saved, whether innocent people who are unable to support themselves will be kept from living in abhorrent conditions, whether they will be given more than that, how costly the program will be, how rich the rich are, etc. Saving a drowning person might be analogous to the welfare program. But it might be disanalogous if the people it helps are not in as dire straits as the drowning person, for example.

By relying on the analogies and disanalogies between the puzzling case and the many cases about which we know the right judgment, we can find out whether X is more analogous to cases of obviously wrong action or more analogous to cases of obviously right action. This will determine the judgment about X that our values commit us to. We need to know the relevant facts, in order to draw any conclusion.

Note first that big-rulers don’t have this problem. One big rule organizes the various little rules, each in its place. (Whether it does so correctly is a different question, of course.) We should also remember that the little-rulers aren’t reasoning from cases; they’re reasoning from little rules. Jim can’t really talk about “analogies and disanalogies between the puzzling case and the many cases about which we know the right judgment” and whether the case in question is more or less analogous to something else.

The following argument may clarify this point: It is wrong to kill innocent people, if we bomb Iraq we will kill innocent people, therefore it is wrong to bomb Iraq. (Morally wrong, I should note: we aren’t discussing policy for the moment.) No one who has graduated the fourth grade can rest in this argument. Yet the case of bombing Iraq does not fit the little rule that it is wrong to kill innocent people approximately, or even closely. It fits the rule exactly. In fact, for any little rule you formulate, a case will fit it either exactly or not at all. To take one of Jim’s examples, if a fetus is a person then the rule that it’s wrong to kill innocent people applies, exactly. If a fetus is like skin cells then the rule that it’s not wrong to scrape off skin cells applies, exactly.

This leaves me with three questions for Jim. First, why not, as a little-ruler, stop at the first rule? We have found a perfect fit. Second, if we continue to pursue the question, when do we stop? How many little rules must we examine? Finally, since all applicable rules will fit the case perfectly, how do we adjudicate among them, lacking “more” or “less” analogous as a standard?

(Update: Jim replies.)

Feb 102003

Mark Goldblatt attends an MLA conference and gives Professor Turtleneck the what-for:

As the session was winding down, I decided to ask a question. This is something I habitually do after such discussions; it’s sadistic act, the academic equivalent of shooting fish in a barrel, and it speaks badly of my character. I directed my question to Professor Turtleneck though it could as well have been addressed to virtually anyone in the room. Recalling his notion of a “state of semi-erudition” that characterized those who support President Bush’s war on terrorism, I pointed out that many of Bush’s supporters would characterize the antiwar movement in much the same way. “As an epistemological matter,” I asked, “how do you deal with the fact that each side sees the other as uninformed? You don’t want to make the claim that your knowledge is somehow privileged, do you?”

There was an awkward, slightly panicky pause after I asked this.

Professor Turtleneck began his response by saying he’d cut a lot out of the paper he’d read and then segued into an utterly irrelevant tap dance about Adorno’s own epistemological presuppositions. He was interrupted after a minute by a man sitting behind me, who called out, “You’re not answering the question! You can’t deny that you’re making a claim to knowledge here!”

“I’m not denying that,” Professor Turtleneck insisted. “I’m only saying that Adorno would say . . .”

If Turtleneck’s intellectual father, so to speak, is Adorno, then his grandfather is Marx, who theorized that everyone’s thought is determined by his class, and thus his opponents were merely bourgeois apologists. Only Marx himself, and possibly Engels, are exempt from this iron law.

His great-grandfather is Kant, inventor of the noumenal (“real”) world, as distinct from the phenomenal world, which we actually perceive. Nothing can be known about the noumenal world except that it exists, and even that much only if you’re Kant.

His great-great-grandfather is Plato, who held that an ideal version of everything exists in some region too bright for human eyes to gaze upon directly — unless they’re Plato’s.

Archimedes said that, with a lever and a place to stand, he could move the world. Like all of his illustrious predecessors, all Professor Turtleneck lacks is a place to stand.

We may conclude, incidentally, that regression to the mean is as much a rule in intellectual families as in actual ones.

(Thanks to the Blowhards for the link.)

(Update: Cinderella and Jim Ryan comment.)

Feb 092003

Justice Holmes, beloved of the left, beloved of the right (law-and-economics guru Richard Posner has edited the latest collection of his writing). It must be his looks more than anything: the height (6’3″), the big bristly white mustache, the Brahmin carriage, the steely gaze; he looks the very model of the modern Supreme Court Justice, at least as it must have been when Teddy Roosevelt appointed him in 1902. The name helps too: Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. Cognominal overload, but fun to say.

What it can’t be is his jurisprudence. The first thing to understand about Holmes is that he was a radical moral skeptic. He was seriously wounded three times in the Civil War, shot through the heart at Antietam, and the experience hardened his conviction that human life was insignificant and reason impotent. What mattered was duty.

I do not know what is true. I do not know the meaning of the universe. But in the midst of doubt, in the collapse of creeds, there is one thing I do not doubt, that no man who lives in the same world with most of us can doubt, and that is that the faith is true and adorable which leads a soldier to throw away his life in obedience to a blindly accepted duty, in a cause which he little understands, in a plan of campaign of which he has little notion, under tactics of which he does not see the use.

Ugh. This is from a speech, made Memorial Day at Harvard in 1895, that induced Roosevelt to nominate him to the Supreme Court.

“I hate facts,” Holmes frequently remarked; “the chief end of man is to form general propositions.” He was always careful to add that no general proposition is worth a damn. Concrete propositions are worthless, abstract propositions are worthless — not much ground left to decide cases on, is there?

His jurisprudence accords with his table talk. This is most readily observed in his famous 14th Amendment decisions. The 14th Amendment states, among other things, that “No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” This leaves the judge to decide what “privileges and immunities,” “due process of law,” and “equal protection of the laws” are. It’s tough to do this without making a moral judgment somewhere along the line, which leaves a skeptic like Holmes in some difficulties, as we shall see.

Holmes’s first, and most famous, 14th Amendment decision was Lochner v. New York, in 1905. In Lochner the majority held that a New York state law prohibiting bakers from working more than 60 hours a week violated the 14th Amendment. Holmes wrote a magisterial dissent, declaring that “the 14th Amendment of the Constitution does not enact Mr. Herbert Spencer’s Social Statics [i.e., laissez-faire capitalism].”

Except nobody thought the 14th Amendment enacted laissez-faire. Everyone agreed that the States had the right to exercise the police power to protect people’s health and safety. Chief Justice Peckham, writing for the majority, argued, reasonably, that restricting the hours of bakers, who didn’t work in notably dangerous conditions, bears no reasonable relationship to the people’s health and safety, and that one of a citizen’s privileges and immunities is to contract his labor freely. Holmes’s famous aphorism doesn’t bear on the case in the slightest. (Although I can find no contemporary testimony on this subject, Holmes’ fellow justices must have found his writing style, in its grand manner, its haughty demolition of straw men, exceptionally irritating. I know I would.)

This is the sentence that should be quoted from Holmes’s Lochner dissent, but is not: “General propositions do not decide concrete cases.” OK. Then what does exactly? “The decision will depend on a judgment or intuition more subtle than any articulate major premise.” Intuition. This is what remains after we abandon concrete and abstract propositions alike.

This opinion is one of the two linchpins of Holmes’s reputation on the left. The other is his dissent in Abrams v. United States in 1919. In Abrams five Russian-born anarchists who printed and distributed a pamphlet calling President Wilson a “dog” and exhorting the workers of the world to unite were convicted under the Espionage Act of 1917, which prohibited “disloyal, scurrilous and abusive language about the form of Government of the United States;” language “intended to bring the form of Government of the United States into contempt, scorn, contumely and disrepute”; and language “intended to incite, provoke and encourage resistance to the United States in said war [WWI].” A noxious law, upheld by the majority, and Holmes, along with Brandeis, properly dissented. Here is his reasoning:

Persecution for the expression of opinions seems to me perfectly logical. If you have no doubt of your premises or your power, and want a certain result with all your heart, you naturally express your wishes in law, and sweep away all opposition. To allow opposition by speech seems to indicate that you think the speech impotent, as when a man says that he has squared the circle, or that you do not care wholeheartedly for the result, or that you doubt either your power or your premises. But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out. That, at any rate, is the theory of our Constitution.

Cold comfort for the civil libertarian. Free speech, according to Holmes, is good because the best “test of truth” — a word that, given his philosophy, he is not strictly entitled to — “is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” That millions of American adults, having profited from two centuries of free speech, continue to believe in astrology, the healing power of crystals, and buying real estate with no money down might seem to put this theory in some doubt. Fortunately it is only the theory of Justice Holmes. The theory of our Constitution is that suppressing speech is itself tyrannical and the shortest route to further tyranny.

Holmes states elsewhere, in Gitlow v. United States (1925), why free speech, as opposed to freedom of contract, is protected under the 14th Amendment.

The general principle of free speech, it seems to me, must be taken to be included in the Fourteenth Amendment, in view of the scope that has been given to the word “liberty” as there used, although perhaps it may be accepted with a somewhat larger latitude of interpretation than is allowed to Congress by the sweeping language that governs or ought to govern the laws of the United States.

Speech is protected because it’s part of liberty, and other liberties aren’t because, well, they aren’t. As a legal argument this leaves something to be desired. Perhaps the moral skeptic is making moral judgments after all.

Buck v. Bell confirms one’s suspicions. Under a 1924 statute enabling involuntary surgical sterilization “for the protection and health of the state” the State of Virginia sterilized Carrie Buck, a supposed mental defective (who turned out not to be after all), without her knowledge. When she found out later she couldn’t get pregnant, she brought suit on 14th Amendment grounds and lost, 8-1, with only Justice Butler dissenting. Holmes, personally an enthusiastic eugenicist, wrote for the court:

We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

Plainly Holmes believes that the 14th Amendment does not apply to state eugenics because Holmes believes in state eugenics. One need not belong to the third generation of imbeciles to differ. More seriously, if “the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives,” then why does Holmes maintain that the 14th Amendment protects speech, or, indeed, any rights whatsoever?

Speech but not contract. Speech but not the reproductive organs. “All my life,” Holmes said, “I have sneered at the natural rights of man.”

(The son is lionized, the father is neglected. Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. was a physician, poet and essayist, professor of anatomy and physiology at Harvard Medical School, a pioneer of the bacterial theory of disease, author of the still-entertaining miscellany The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table and the greatest poem ever written about engineering, “The Wonderful One-Hoss Shay,” in which more wisdom can be found than in his son’s complete works.)

(Update: Jim Ryan thinks it’s possible to abandon rule-based reasoning without becoming an intuitionist, which he agrees is just another name for never having to give reasons, and argues for this here. I answer him here.)

(Another: The Man Without Qualities comments. He persuasively reads “The One Hoss-Shay” as being about the collapse of American Protestantism. And so it is, at the level of the tenor. At the level of the vehicle, however — the literal vehicle in this case — it’s about engineering. But this is yet another subject I can’t cover in a parenthesis. Walter Olson also comments.)

(Correction: Damien Sinnott kindly pointed out that Buck v. Bell was 8-1, not unanimous, and this has been corrected in the text.)