Sunday, February 26, 2006

Theodicy and its opposite

Devout people often attempt to address the Problem of Evil, or specific instances thereof (e.g., the manifold cases of cruel and inhuman violence advocated in the Bible) by claiming that their god's actions are above human judgment. Since a god's actions are above human judgment, our judgment that these actions are evil holds no weight: the actions are just and good, even though our judgment declares them not to be.

Obviously, this belief is socially toxic. Once convinced that your own moral judgment can be overridden by a higher authority --- not through moral persuasion, but by simple invocation of the fact that the speaker possesses greater authority than you do --- it becomes all too easy for you to defer similarly to worldly figures in positions of authority.

But that's not why I'm writing. I'm writing to point out, for the record, a flaw in this argument that has always seemed utterly obvious to me, but which I rarely (never?) hear said explicitly, and which doesn't seem to occur to most religious believers.

Let us grant, for the sake of argument only, that all the humanly observable events in the Bible occurred in reality, rather than in fiction. How would you know that your god had better moral judgment than you do?

More concretely: How do you know that your god is not, in fact, a demonic superpowerful alien who gets off on tormenting and deceiving people, but who merely claims to be good?

Once you contemplate this question for about ten seconds, it becomes obvious that the only way to distinguish between a righteous deity and a malevolent, deceitful one is to exercise one's own intellect and moral judgment. If tomorrow, a mysterious, brilliantly shining light appeared over Manhattan, performed a number of miracles, and then ordered everyone, in a profoundly booming voice, to abduct and rape children, then I dearly hope that you would not follow its orders, because you would know that you were right and the shining light was wrong.

In short, no being can demand that you defer to its moral judgment. In fact, once you become an adult, you are morally obligated to refuse to defer to someone else's moral judgment. If you permitted yourself to defer to someone else's moral judgment, it would also be possible for you to be deceived into deferring to an evil or amoral being, which is unacceptable.

Here are some bogus counterarguments, and their refutations:

"God created the universe, and therefore has authority to make moral judgments within it."

First of all, the denizens of the Bible have only God's word that he is responsible for creating the universe. This could be a lie. Second, the power to create something does not imply higher moral judgment with respect to that creation, as the many children of abusive parents know. God could be an abusive parent. The only way to distinguish between an abusive creator and a benevolent one is to exercise one's own moral judgment.

"God is all-powerful, and has the authority to make moral judgments."

This is just a generalization of the previous point. First, it could be a lie that God is all-powerful. Second, being all-powerful (or "X-powerful" for any X) indicates only that God possesses an ability that you do not. It says nothing about whether that power is being exercised for good or evil, which one can only determine by exercising one's own moral judgment.

"God is all-powerful. Formally, for all X, God can do X. Instantiating, let X = 'determine the rules of morality'. Therefore, God can determine the rules of morality."

A clever twist on the above, but flawed in nearly the same way. Let Alice be an omnipotent God, for whom the above holds true. Now consider Bob, the "almost-omnipotent God" for whom the following statement holds: for all X, where X is not 'determine the rules of morality', Bob can do X. Now, how do you distinguish Alice from Bob? It's impossible in general, because "determining the rules of morality" is not an operation that has any observable effects. If you have evidence that some deity is Alice, then you have equal evidence that it is Bob. Therefore, you have no basis for believing that you should defer to this being. Only your own moral judgment remains.

"God is all-knowing, and must have higher moral judgment than you."

First, again, you only have God's word for this; it could be a lie. Second, even if this fact is true, knowing what is good is vastly different from doing what is good. It is possible for an omniscient being to know what's good, but prefer to do evil. And, once again, one can only distinguish between a good omniscient being and an evil omniscient being by exercising one's moral judgment.

"God can send you to Hell, and therefore is the final arbiter of good and evil."

Stalin could send people to the gulag, but that didn't make him moral. If a being possesses the power to damn people to eternal suffering, and that being is evil, then the morally right action is to defy that being, and the highest act of heroism is going to Hell.

(I would also claim that willingness to damn people to eternal suffering for acts committed in a finite lifetime amply demonstrates that the being is evil, but that's independent of this argument.)

"God did [insert good thing here], therefore God cannot be evil."

First, one can easily do a mixture of good and evil, and still be evil or amoral. I bet many evil dictators in history have been kind to their pets. Second, even raising this argument essentially proves my point that one must exercise one's own moral judgment. If you really believed that God's moral judgment overruled your own, then it wouldn't really matter what you think is good. The fact that you feel obligated to bring up an example that you judge to be good shows that you believe in your own moral reasoning more than any authority.

Now, again, in all of the above, I am granting arguendo the reality of some subset of the fictions in the Bible. I don't actually believe in these fictions, so I don't really have to consider the problem. But religious people who endorse the evil in the Bible (or any fraction thereof), even as a matter of allegory, do have this problem. All religious people suffer from unjustified belief, which is an intellectual failing. However, over and above that, I will always regard their refusal to judge their gods as a moral failing.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Larry Davis = embarrassment to Washington State

EDIT 2:47 p.m.: Added transcription and link to audio, replacing paraphrase.

Interview on NPR's "The Conversation" today: Larry Davis, Executive Director of the Washington State Board of Education, explained why he doesn't support increasing high school math requirements thusly:

Ross Reynolds: Should higher-level math requirements apply to everybody?

Larry Davis: Count me in the group that questions whether that's appropriate or not.

RR: Really? Why's that?

LD: Well, I'll use myself as an example. I'm one of those folks who just, just has total distaste for math. And in high school, nobody could answer the question, when and why am I gonna use this? And what I do for a living now, and it's what I should be doing, I crunch words for a living. I don't crunch numbers. And I, just, my case example and that's my bias, is that I don't need this higher-order math in order to do what I do. And, and it's, I don't like being told, as an individual, that I gotta take something that I question whether I'll actually need.

RR: Well, I think I felt like you did at one time, Larry Davis, but the more I got into doing journalism the more I realized that understanding the world often requires understanding math to a certain degree, particularly statistics and understanding how numbers can be used or misused. And I'm kind of surprised to hear you say that, as the Executive Director of the Washington State Board of Education. Don't, couldn't you use higher math education to not only think about words, but think about the way that education is working, but with a higher understanding of that?

LD: Um, anything is possible. I'm not gonna give you a definitive answer, because I'd have to take some higher math in order to see what the outcome of that would be on my job.

RR: Right. Larry Davis. Thanks for joining us today, I appreciate it.

LD: You're welcome, thank you.

RR: Larry Davis, Executive Director of the Washington State Board of Education.

Attention voters of Washington State: kick this empty suit out of the State Board of Ed. at the soonest opportunity. You owe it to your children.

BTW if you care to hear the whole show, which makes a pretty good case that students do need a better grasp of math, it'll be online at KUOW's website after 2:05 p.m. it's available from KUOW as an MP3. The outrageous passage above starts at 22:05 and runs till 23:30.

p.s. I also confess that I'm a little mystified at how one could even justify opposition to increasing high school math requirements from two courses to three. What, exactly, are students taking instead? In high school, I took an English course, a social studies course, a math course, and a natural science course every single year. Plus, I always had a slot or two left for electives and, er, gym. Had I not been taking those courses, I really don't know what else I would have taken. What do opponents of mathematics propose that students should be taking instead? Additional credits of gym?

p.p.s. Obviously, increasing math requirements alone won't solve the problem. It would help a little: being exposed to more hours of mathematics education marginally increases the chance that more bits of math will "click" for any given student, and therefore more students will understand a slightly larger amount of math, which is a good outcome. The problems of mathematical education, however, go much deeper than number of hours. Unfortunately, the biggest problems, in my opinion, are weak teachers and widespread cultural hostility to math, neither of which admits easy solution.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Richard Cohen = fucking(moron3)

This article in WaPo fills me with rage.

Unsurprisingly, the blogs are all over this, which assuages my fury somewhat. SciAm blog notes that, on a national level, abandoning math education will cripple the competitiveness of our labor force on the international market. Pharyngula notes that, from a selfish perspective, an individual student who abandons math is closing off a whole array of potentially fulfilling (and lucrative) options for one's personal growth and career. And M. Yglesias probably has the most cutting reply:

Less esoterically, there's simply no way you can write about the budget, or tax policy, or Social Security, or whether or not the health care system suffers from too much "adverse selection" unless you understand some math. You can't really write about anything sensibly unless you grasp the difference between a one percent change in something and a one percentage point change or whether or not 100 milion dollars is a lot of money relative to the size of the federal budget or the American GDP. Sadly, Cohen is more-or-less correct to say that an inability to grasp these kinds of mathematical concepts does not, in practice, seem to impede one's career as a political journalist in contemporary America. But that says a lot more about the poor state of journalism than it does about the value of algebra.

Part of the problem with our national press corps is that most journalists are just stupid. Contrast the coverage of the Federal budget with the coverage of Cheney shooting someone in the face. One reason the latter's been covered more effectively than the former is that journalists are too dumb to figure out the budget (and too lazy to spend the effort to do so), but any idiot can understand somebody getting shot in the face. Hence, any idiot can be a journalist, a state of affairs that Cohen wishes to preserve, for transparently self-serving reasons, and in spite of the terrifying consequences for society.

I also want to comment on the following paragraph:

Gabriela, sooner or later someone's going to tell you that algebra teaches reasoning. This is a lie propagated by, among others, algebra teachers. Writing is the highest form of reasoning. This is a fact. Algebra is not. The proof of this, Gabriela, is all the people in my high school who were whizzes at math but did not know a thing about history and could not write a readable English sentence. I can cite Shelly, whose last name will not be mentioned, who aced algebra but when called to the board in geography class, located the Sahara Desert right where the Gobi usually is. She was off by a whole continent.

By writing this paragraph, Cohen confirms once again that he is a fucking moron. Nobody actually capable of thinking clearly could write the above paragraph, because it contains two extremely bad errors of reasoning. First, it confuses memorization skills with reasoning skills --- note how Cohen denigrates mathematically inclined children specifically for not having memorized geographical or historical facts. Second, it makes the following implication: "There exist children who excel at math, but do poorly in most other subjects; therefore English is a higher form of reasoning than math." But consider the converse statement: "There exist children who excel in English, but do poorly in most other subjects; therefore math is a higher form of reasoning than English." An obligation falls to Cohen either to deny the premise of the latter (which is untenable: there are children who excel in English but do poorly in most other subjects), or differentiate it from the former claim. Of course, Cohen does neither, because he can't see his own glaring error of reasoning. (Or else he can, but he doesn't admit it, which makes him a con artist rather than a fool.)

This leads me to my next point, which is the intrinsic ludicrousness of the claim that writing is the highest form of reasoning. I love writing and I love reading, but no finer device was ever invented for deception, obfuscation, sloppy thinking, and straight-up nonsense than natural language. The proof of this is Cohen's column, which is a mile-high pile of crap, but is written in a sufficiently entertaining style that many readers will not be put out by the glaring errors of fact and reasoning within it.

People who study reasoning --- i.e., logicians --- rapidly abandon natural language and develop formalized notation using algebraic rules. (Note that "algebraic" here denotes something broader than high school algebra.) In formal logical systems, one is forced to state one's premises and rules of inference explicitly; and, given an explicit enough derivation for a conclusion, one can usually determine via syntactic inspection alone whether the reasoning is valid. The tools of formal logic are so useful that non-logicians in philosophy have adopted aspects of them more generally. In fact, formalizing Cohen's argument above would make it immediately clear how silly it was.

And, of course, formal logic forms the foundation of computer science as well. Incidentally, as a computer scientist, I can state definitively that Cohen's claim that computers cannot reason "even a little bit" is utterly bogus. Friends of mine have written software with greater reasoning abilities than your average Washington Post columnist (which, granted, is not a very high bar).

Natural language is a useful tool, but its highest virtues are as a system for coordinating action, performing social grooming, and producing aesthetic effects. As a tool of reasoning it's deeply flawed, although it certainly has its place.

Finally, I want to say one further thing about learning and effort in general. Everything worth doing has its difficult spots. I am currently working on a very large proof, and it's a major struggle for me to focus and make forward progress. (Hence the blogging.) From observing myself and the grad students around me for over six years, I have found that the factor that really distinguishes people who achieve great things from people who don't is their ability to exert productive effort continuously through those difficult patches. For grad students, I am probably around the median in this respect; peers of mine who got tenure-track offers at top-35 research universities are almost certainly above the median; peers of mine who dropped out of grad school are probably below the median. The same holds at all levels of ability and achievement.

And when you're in a rough patch, a variety of factors can help you through it. One of those factors is social pressure. If you create a climate in which it is simply accepted that plenty of people "can't do math" and that math is "useless" then --- guess what? --- you will increase the fraction of people who give up as soon as they hit a rough patch. They will sit down to do their homework, stare at the problems, and when they come to a hard passage in the problem, they will give up, rather than exercising their ingenuity. To the extent that society accepts and promotes the utterances of jokers like Cohen, students will be encouraged to do exactly this. For this reason, it is not only stupid, but actually evil for the Post to publish Cohen's writing. But then, blithely promulgating stupidity and evil is pretty much par for the course for the Op-Ed page of a major American newspaper.

p.s. A while ago, I proposed an alternative that would improve our national Op-Ed pages immensely. Of course, nothing like that proposal will ever come to pass, because journalism's a corrupt old-boy network where a long career cranking journalistic prose on deadline puts you first in line for the cushy columnist jobs.

Monday, February 13, 2006

Random bitching about email software

Notice to all email software developers: one of the primary functions of email is to pass around URLs. You may not like it, but it's simply a fact of life. I'd guess that 90% of the email that I send or receive contains some form of URL, even if only in the sig. Therefore, any email client that "helpfully" word wraps URLs at 80 characters (or any other fixed width), when sending or forwarding or doing any other operation on email, is utterly broken. Designing email software with this misfeature is like designing a cell phone that sometimes randomly hangs up the phone when somebody says the word "hello". It's like designing an automobile that sometimes randomly stalls when it's at a red light that changes to green. It is, in short, completely absurd.

I use a mixture of Pine, KMail, and GMail for my email clients, and none of these has ever word-wrapped a URL on my behalf. Bless you, Pine/KMail/GMail developers. However, I still receive a fair amount of email, via mailing lists especially, that contains word wrapped URLs, and I am so freaking pissed at those anonymous software developers, somewhere out there, who are responsible for all the times that I have had to copy and paste bits of these URLs manually into a web browser. Come on! As Stephen Colbert would say, you're on notice.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Of China, search engines, heroism, and capitalism

Full disclosure: I might end up working for Google at some date in the future. I believe that this didn't much affect my conclusions in what follows, but you should judge for yourself.


I'm somewhat late to the party on this, but there's been a lot of outrage lately at Google's decision to submit to state censorship of its search results in China.

Notice my phrasing: Google's submission to state censorship by the Chinese government. I don't mean, by this construction, to absolve Google of blame, but I think Google's critics haven't been clear enough about what they are requesting.

Google has three choices. Door number one: it could comply with Beijing's demands. Door number two: it could cease all operations in China, ceding the market to its competitors. Door number three: it could refuse Beijing's demands and continue operations in China, thereby transforming its China operations into an unlawful radical political organization, and its employees in China into de facto dissidents.

Most of Google's critics have not stated which door they prefer, but I take it that a lot of them would prefer to see what's behind door number three. Google would thereby call China out, leading to a political confrontation. Would China take the international PR hit that would come from shutting down Google China? I don't know for certain, but I suspect they would. In the grand scheme of things, Google's not a big deal for an entity like the Chinese government.

I could then imagine some grand and surreal pageant wherein Larry or Sergey flies incognito to China, equipped with a laptop and a stack of Linux boot CDs, and ducks into a shady cybercafe. The Google founder, brandishing a fistful of thousand-dollar bills, convinces the cafe owner to shoo all the other patrons out. He then reboots all the cafe's machines, loading them up with proxies that tunnel surreptitiously back to Google HQ in Mountain View. He tells the owner to get out of town forever before the secret police come, for he is deputizing the cafe into an impromptu replacement for It is an absurd and symbolic gesture only: a couple dozen cybercafe machines cannot possibly serve the load for; the response is sluggish to nonexistent; but for an hour, a day, lives! And when the secret police come, these machines broadcast to the world, via live webcam, the stuttering, half-a-frame-per-second, pixelated video of the Google founder, being led away in handcuffs, and --- the compression artifacts make it hard to see, but --- is that a hood over his head? The repercussions of this quintessentially twenty-first century event resonate for decades to come, for this is just the beginning...

Well. The vision dims, the lights go out, the door shuts. I step backwards into reality.

Door number three is by far the most interesting door. It's the door that would open in a Bruce Sterling novel. However, reality is not, despite some indications, actually a Bruce Sterling novel. The tale I've just spun is entertaining partly because it is so unlikely. I may wish, on some level, that Google had decided to be heroes, but mostly in the same way that I wish all people were heroic more often --- which is to say, I wish it without any strong expectation that that the wish will be fulfilled. And, of course, sitting safely behind my laptop in a country where, for the moment at least, I am in no danger of being jailed merely for posting something on the Internet that offends the government, I would certainly enjoy the spectacle of Google taking on China. Still, my wish to be inspired and entertained collides with my realism, and I am unsurprised that these things do not come to pass.

So what, then, of "Don't be evil"? I think the astonishing fact that people swallowed this bromide testifies to how devoutly they wish that capitalism possessed more benevolence and less efficiency than it actually possesses. Post-millennial Americans, especially, crave heroes while simultaneously being so wedded to capitalism that they cannot accept that capitalism alone cannot produce certain kinds of heroism. The two virtues of capitalist heroism, insofar as capitalism specifically engenders any heroic virtues at all, are (1) cleverness and (2) the relentlessly single-minded pursuit of the satisfaction of a market demand. Alas, the English language has no stirring and pithy name for the latter virtue, but I do believe it can be a stirring sight, in the right circumstances.

Nevertheless, it is emphatically not capitalism, but something else, that breeds the reckless altruism required, for example, to stand alone before a column of tanks armed with nothing but a briefcase and one's sense of human dignity.

Now, of course, human beings living under capitalism do possess qualities beyond those of capitalism itself --- contra Marx, economics is only one of many interlocking systems which, in combination, knit our characters together. But businesses, although composed of human beings, are not human beings. A business is a social organism with a particular mission which is, barring exceptional circumstances, neither explicitly political nor altruistic. This doesn't absolve the individual human beings who run the business of their moral culpability, but it does tell us how to calibrate our expectations of businesses in general.

If we want to alter the course of politics in China --- or, for that matter, anywhere else --- then we should look primarily to governments and other political organizations, not businesses.


So much for door number three. Let's have a look behind door number two. What if Google were simply to cede the Chinese search engine market to its competitors?

We can answer that question by looking at the behavior of Google's most credible competitors, Microsoft and Yahoo. Consider the much-invoked comparison, probably first suggested by Sid Karin on the interesting-people mailing list, of image searches for "tiananmen" on both and Here's "tiananmen" on (i.e., Google USA) as of 10 Feb 2006:

And here's "tiananmen" on on the same day:

Well, it's pretty damning. So, suppose Google pulls out of China. Microsoft and Yahoo, you can have this market. What does that future look like? Microsoft hasn't launched its image search in China, but conveniently Yahoo has. Here's "tiananmen" on Yahoo USA's image search the same day:

And here's "tiananmen" on Yahoo China:

I can't read Chinese, so I can't tell if Yahoo's message actually informs the user that the search result has been censored, or opts for the more Orwellian claim that no images match that search term. However, it seems clear that Yahoo's doing no better than Google here. Where are the hundreds of headlines, and the massive outcry among the chattering classes, about Yahoo's censorship? Where are the calls to boycott Yahoo, the satirical cartoons, the bitter debates on online forums?

One might argue that Yahoo never claimed to do no evil. Well, OK, but I don't believe that such an omission really absolves them of guilt. And this answer doesn't address the uncomfortable fact that removing Google from China doesn't actually improve the lot of Chinese Internet users, who will simply be forced to use some other search engine that's also censored, and perhaps more severely.

A better answer, then: the fact that somebody else will perform some evil is no excuse for becoming implicated in that evil oneself. So, only evil companies may operate in China; let China be served by evil companies, and let us keep our hands clean.

This idea has some emotional appeal, and even some merit, but one must choose carefully where and when to apply it.

Some cases are clear. Should one provide census machines to the government of Nazi Germany, as IBM's German subsidiary did in World War II? Of course not, at least not knowing what we know today: no conceivable use of these machines could accomplish anything but evil. No matter that somebody else might build similar machines. Let the blood be on their hands.

Other cases are less clear. Should one provide a censored search engine to Chinese Internet users? Well, can one conceive of uses of a censored search engine that would accomplish non-evil, or even positively good things? In fact, such uses seem not merely possible but probable.

As evidence for this, observe that the vast majority of American Google users search with the SafeSearch censorship feature enabled. This censorship can be turned off, but my point is that people find even the censored product non-evil enough that they still use it, and most cannot be bothered to turn it off. I, for one, use Google constantly, and it seems ridiculous to believe that depriving Chinese users of a similar (albeit more heavily censored) service would somehow advance the cause of freedom.

Furthermore, the presence of more search engines in China seems like a positive good in itself. First, more search engines means more labor for the censors, which makes censorship more costly, which means that there will be quantitatively less censorship, or at least less comprehensive enforcement of censorship, than there would be otherwise. Second, for the foreseeable future, Internet filtering technology will always be imperfect. Multiple engines, with their different underlying algorithms, will inevitably censor things in subtly different ways, and so having more engines increases the likelihood that any given piece of information will leak through at least one of their sieves. Therefore, the Chinese government is fighting a losing battle, and the presence of more search engines may, in some small way, accelerate the day that the censors admit defeat.

I am not naïve enough to believe that these considerations were the only ones spoken of when Google's executives were mulling over the decision to comply with the Chinese government's demands. In fact, I don't believe that they even seriously considered the option of pulling out of China completely. But the bottom line is that, upon reflection, I can't say with any certainty that Google should have pulled out of China.


So door number two closes --- which I regard with much more ambivalence than the closing of door number three --- and we are left with the sad compromise of door number one.

In walking through this door, Google still commits itself to a series of gambles. Google's betting that its brand will survive the negative PR from collaborating with the Chinese government. It's also betting that the Chinese government will be placated by relatively modest concessions, and will not demand deeper, more cutting compromises that, whether acceded to or refused, would diminish the payoff from its current bet. If, for example, the Chinese government demands all of Google China's search logs, then Google will face these three doors again, only the stakes will be even higher and the likely price even steeper. Will Beijing come to collect this pound of flesh someday? I really don't know.

In the meantime, Google's critics will continue to blame them for failing to come up with a neat and tidy solution to an ultimately intractable problem. Without outrage, nothing ever gets accomplished, so I can't exactly blame those who are outraged, but nor can I agree with them. There are some merits to Google's argument in defense of its decision, just as there are merits to the argument that they should act differently. In the end, this issue won't have a clean resolution as long as China remains unfree.