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Semiformalishmaybe

Served with a side of Parsimony

Concrete example: Why does "DELETE FROM table" in SQL delete all tuples in that table? Someone might reasonably complain about that, particularly if they're just learning SQL. They might say that "DELETE FROM table WHERE (clause)" is reasonable, but it's rude to have non-claused deletes delete everything. Reason is really parsimony over the whole SQL language - precedent: "SELECT * FROM table" and "SELECT * FROM table WHERE (clause)". (If they *really* don't know SQL, they might say "ahh, the * means everything", but this means select all parts of the tuple, not select all the tuples -- "DELETE part1,part2 FROM table" would really not make sense (although if we imagine allowing SQL over the predenormalised abstraction of an object, it might make sense there)). The answer to the initial question is that "DELETE FROM table" deletes all tuples because it is conformant with the broad shape of the language - one of the nice things about SQL is that it follows a reasonably consistent grammar, where each statement tends to take arguments in the same shape. In sum, it has strong parsimony.

Importance of formal introduction to systems like this: in some cases the big shape of a system isn't visible unless it's pointed out, and one of the quirks of the way people think is that when they see a fault in something, they jump on it like a pitbull, investing that complaint with their ego so they won't back down even if they later see the big shape of the system and come to understand on some level that the system makes sense the way it is. Ego is a big problem in this way - one can either hope to teach people to learn to back down gracefully (a difficult virtue to achieve), to be disinclined to make judgements/statements of things where they don't know enough to make them at a strength where their ego is staked (another reasonably difficult virtue), or one can hope to reach people with good introductory materials on every topic where they're likely to work. I suppose one could also go directly at ego itself - try to have the educational system do enough cultural shaping to keep people's egos limited - one could either do this directly (frequently ask the student what they think about X, and then compare that naïve impression with academic consensus), or make a particular effort to focus on topics that shatter egos (psychology is really really good for this).

Really good teaching makes clear the intuitions underlying a system of thought. A careful mind has a reasonable chance to construct these from observation and reflection. As is the case with so many potential pitfalls of thought, ego is an element within ourselves we need to strive against.

Parsimony in engineering (as in the SQL case): interesting relations to parsimony in the sciences, in history, in other fields of human endeavour.

It seems Kiva Channukah is a reasonable replacement for Té Café, although it doesn't have that "living room with some people I kindasorta know" feel. The seats are less comfortable, and the irritating crazy "I must read my books aloud loudy (aloudly?) and I will tell you no if you tell me to STFU" guy is here too often. They have decent food though.

Very irritated that I wasted all that time this weekend with that failed software upgrade. At least the rollback went smoothly.

I woke up much earlier today than I expected (seasonal shifts take some time for acclimation). Maybe by the time I head home it'll be dry enough for me to have another good jog. I'm still alternating between the Really Lazy Loop and the Less Lazy Loop. It'd be great to be able to get back to the more interesting loops if I could get back in shape enough. On the rare times in the past where I've really felt energetic, I've added one or two(!) loops of one of the nice forest trail loops that starts and ends at Hobart/Bartlett.

This might be a rephrasing of something I've said before (I honestly don't tend to remember much of what I blog, it's just a process of scraping a few things off the top of my head at any given moment)...I've been trying to understand what it is about PZ Meyers that creates such a broad difference in tactics when talking about religion - while I share with him a commitment to the sciences, and want some form of atheism to win in the end, he offends me (in a way that Richard Dawkins, generally but not always, does not). I'm coming to think that what it probably is is that for me, while Atheism is a big deal, it's not the only deal - to me, "what comes next?" is a very important question, and one for which we should be preparing for in detail. I don't trust that the point of "god or no god" will directly make a lot of difference to human behaviour (except for the people who pledge to go crazy without a father figure in the sky - "without god I would rape and murder and jaywalk and ..."). I have enough other commitments in what I want from society that I weigh as strongly as atheism, and have seen enough distinct atheist philosophies (some of which I feel are reprehensible, some ok, and some I rather like) that it'd be hard for me to see an all-out assault on every form of religion would be prudent - In the end, I think we should do our best to convince everyone, over many generations, and we should do our best to have our own notion of virtue and to learn as much as we can from other ways society have organised, adopting ideas, practices, and the like as prudent in forging new societies. PZ's embrace of cathartic insults, inappropriate broadening of faults of individuals to groups, and other sloppiness are far from the kinds of virtue we should build - we do not need to restrain ourselves to saying things that people of other perspectives would like to hear (no doubt they cannot do the same for us without being false to their perspectives - I am at peace with the idea that from a Christian or Muslim perspective, I am damned, likewise with many other possible perspectives - they can write me into their worldview as they like, as we all do with each other), but by applying sloppy thinking in this struggle, we fail to marginalise styles of thought (and fail to correct or expel their thinkers) that then risk coming into play in whatever better society or movement we would build. Imagine if we managed collectively to convince America that some glob of ideas that included an atheist/agnostic foundations were to be held and religion were mostly gone here - I wouldn't want our standards for discussion over substantive issues of that possible future to look like those we see from PZ Meyers today - I'd rather them be the occasionally-blunt-but-polite sort of dialogue we normally see from Richard Dawkins and people like him (Aside: I may not always like Obama's politics (being far to the left of him), but I respect that he appreciates nuance). Some leeway should be given to PZ because there are people against whom he argues who don't make honest arguments, playing directly for the win with everything said shamelessly retracted whenever disproven, only to be said again in the next discussion with someone else, but even in those cases his tactics and habits are as bad as can be imagined. Sadly, in the secular sphere we're still as human as anyone else - we naturally gather around the clan chief who says things that sound decisive, and so PZ's become rather popular because he's a troll "on our side". Suitably philosophical people should be shouting "whoa, slow down there!" and steering people away from gut instincts - better virtue is possible, and it's those virtues and care with our values that we should hope will define us should we win in the end (one knows very little about a movement or society if all one knows is that they're atheist - I and hopefully many others in our movement would prefer to live in a strongly Abrahamic world than in a Randian/Objectivist one, as just one of many possible "what happens next?" type questions). We should at least partly judge these movements that would change the world by how they govern themselves - how do they handle disagreement, how do they make decisions, what do their leaders look like, how thoughtful/careful are they.

Defining and then living virtue is one of our highest tasks.

Comments

big shape from the opposite angle

I like your notion of trying to communicate the big shape of a thing to prevent people from jumping on perceived faults which are really misunderstandings. But on the other side of the coin, people have a hard time appreciating "big shape" without context -- we generalize from examples much better than we can understand the general picture by itself. So i think there's a delicate balance to strike..

One might also argue that the design of an interface can be improved to try to communicate general structure. Like in your SQL example, perhaps instead of DELETE we could say DELETE ROWS. Then something like "DELETE ROWS FROM table" sounds much more dangerous.