Some More Random Stuff

I guess a suitably random place to start is here:

♦  Programming for kids.

♦  Speaking of children and languages, here's an article about St. Tolkien's history of inventing languages, found on a website devoted to describing all of the languages of Middle Earth.

♦  On the topic of Inklings, St. Lewis wrote a propaganda essay, “The Norse Spirit in English Literature”, with the goal of reconciling Iceland to having been invaded by the British during WWII.  Although, probably the essay reflected his real beliefs, since he was a huge affectionado of Norse literature, as discussed in his autobiography Surpised by Joy, as well as the essay "First and Second Things" (which can be found in God in the Dock, or better yet in the more complete collection C.S. Lewis, Essay Collection and Stories, if you find a cheap enough copy.)

♦  Speaking of which, if you ever time travel back to the WWII era, and need to know who is likely to be a Nazi sympathizer (assuming you can't easily hop back to the future to check their wikipedia articles), here is your definitive guide.  Somewhat revealing concerning its assumptions about social class stratifications which no longer exist in the same form in contemporary America... yet I feel there is still something universal to be learned about totalitarian impulses, which can be extracted from this bundle of prejudices.

♦  Speaking of propagandists, a professional metaphor maker talks about tools of the trade.

♦  And a warning about the use of metaphors to explain science.  Of course, people often think they are getting rid of metaphors and talking literally, when really they are merely changing which metaphor they are using...

♦  A chemist blogs humorous descriptions of substances which no sane chemist should ever work with.  Some samples:

Sand Won't Save You This Time (about Chlorine Trifloride; here's a video.)
Dioxygen Difluoride


And if you liked being terrified by those, here are some more...

♦  If you prefer metaphorical explosions, here's a form of therapy where you insult and challenge the other person, so that they argue against you and thus become more positive and self-confident?  Pretty sure this is not for everyone, but sometimes reverse psychology can do wonders.  Not too surprisingly, it doesn't work properly unless you do it with love and humor.

♦  Sometimes a sense of conventional responsibility (avoiding risks) can make a person do terrible things (such as killing their own offspring through the sin of abortion).

In a similar vein, I'm reminded of a certain woman I knew in college, who was taught by her mother that it was "irresponsible" to marry someone and have kids, before you are in your 30s and have built up a successful career.  (Never mind that biology makes it easier to start a family when you're younger!)  Of course, she still fell in love with people and dated them in the meantime, breaking the heart of one of my friends along the way.

Perhaps we modern people could use to refocus our sense of duty a bit, away from guilt about lack of our own self-advancement, and more towards an old-fashioned sense of "doing the right thing" by other people?

♦  Another of my friends from college has a new blog about the intersection of ecology and theology.

♦  Speaking of theologians, did you know that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote a short book entirely on the question of whether the world could have been eternal?

♦  Speaking of ecology, an interview with Hayao Miyazaki.  (If you haven't seen any of his movies, you should drop whatever it is you are doing now, and watch one.)

♦  Speaking of St. John's College, I was recently besmazzled when I learned that a fellow alumnus (St. Ben Sasse) has managed to get himself elected to the U.S. Senate!  (He has also studied at some lesser institutions such as Harvard, Oxford, and Yale.)

In accordance with tradition, he remained silent for a year after his election, observing the institution.  Then he got up and delivered an insightful, nonpartisan speech describing some of the issues with the Senate as an institution.  (I was able to figure out his partisan affiliation from reading the speech, but it was reasonably subtle.)

I first encountered the speech as it was linked from Sun and Shield, and then when he started talking about Socrates, I said to myself "Could it possibly be???  A Johnnie in the Senate?  But we're so tiny and insignificant in the world's eyes!"  And then I checked his wikipedia page and sure enough, he had an M.A. from St. John's in Annapolis.  (The Masters is basically a condensed version of the undergraduate program).

♦  Arrow's Theorem says that there are no perfect voting systems involving at least 2 voters and at least 3 choices.  They always sometimes lead to paradoxical results.  An example of such a voting paradox arose recently in the 3rd circuit court of appeals.  Be sure to read this comment.  Be sure to scroll down to the comment by "L Pseudonymous" about hypothetical future judges Alpha, Beta, and Gamma...

Regarding the resolution of the paradox, I think for a court of appeals, issue voting makes a lot more sense than outcome voting.  In a legal system based on precedent, we want judges to be focussed on making the rules that make the most sense, not focussed on which parties should win in any given case.  It also makes it easier to determine what precedent is set in future cases.

It especially makes sense to separate votes on standing (i.e. whether the party is sufficiently affected by the situation to be allowed to sue) from the merits of the case (i.e. who is right about the law).  If there's no standing, the Judges have no jurisdiction and are required to dismiss the suit without considering the merits.  (That's because Article III of the US constitution only empowers Judges to decide "Cases" and "Controversies" between actual affected parties, not to issue advisory opinions on abstract questions of law.)

But what if a majority thinks there is standing, and a minority doesn't?  It doesn't seem reasonable that the minority shouldn't be allowed to have an opinion about the merits of the case, once the court has definitively (and precendentially) decided by majority vote that standing exists.  (The other rule would lead to perverse incentives: Judges would be tempted to find standing so that their opinion about the merits could be considered.)

One potential problem with issue voting in general, is that the power to decide which way the "issues" are listed, may determine the outcome of the case.  In fact I seem to recall it's a theorem, that any time there's a voting paradox, the person who decides which order the yes/no  questions are presented in (assuming people vote honestly) can always control the final outcome.   But the distinction between standing and the merits is so fundamental to US judicial proceedings (and the order to consider them in is also clear), that at least these two stages can be separated, without such ambiguity.

♦  An article about the eccentricities of J.H. Conway, one of the greatest living mathematicians.  Most famous among outsiders for his cellular automaton "Life", but he also made important contributions to Group Theory, invented Surreal Numbers (useful for the theory of games), and a bunch of other things.

♦  And on the topic of games, here's a free game you can download, invented by a group of radical Bayesians, to see if your probability estimates are properly calibrated.  It's like a trivia game, but you have to decide how sure you are that your guess is right, and the scoring system is designed so that honest play is the best strategy (but you don't need to understand why, in order to enjoy the game).

About Aron Wall

I am a Lecturer in Theoretical Physics at the University of Cambridge. Before that, I read Great Books at St. John's College (Santa Fe), got my physics Ph.D. from U Maryland, and did my postdocs at UC Santa Barbara, the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and Stanford. The views expressed on this blog are my own, and should not be attributed to any of these fine institutions.
This entry was posted in Links. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to Some More Random Stuff

  1. Philip Wainwright says:

    Both the 'programming for kids' and the 'metaphor maker' links go to the metaphor maker site. Feel free to delete this comment after correction

  2. Philip Wainwright says:

    The 'metaphor maker' doesn't seem to be doing anything good wrirers haven't done for millenia. I really doubt that any professional metaphor maker (ie technical writer) did or could have come up with 'paintbrush is a pump'. That was an insight born of struggling to understand how a paintbrush does what it does. It might even be a fact rather than a metaphor.

  3. quietfanatic says:

    Thanks as always for the interesting collection of links. I have a bug report though: the first link, about programming for kids, leads to the article about the metaphor maker.

  4. Aron Wall says:

    The link should be fixed now, thanks for pointing it out.

  5. TY says:

    I admire your range of random stuff that included the Arrow Impossibility Theorem. You noted:
    “Regarding the resolution of the paradox, I think for a court of appeals, issue voting makes a lot more sense than outcome voting. In a legal system based on precedent, we want judges to be focussed on making the rules that make the most sense, not focussed on which parties should win in any given case. It also makes it easier to determine what precedent is set in future cases.”

    And I agree. But I may add a quick note that even with issue voting, and absent dictatorship, unless every voter has what is called “single-peaked preference” (hence ruling out multi-peaked preferences) a clear majority preference on a single issue will not result. This voting paradox does not mean that the voter with the multi-peaked preference who throwing a monkey wrench in the process is inconsistent. His or her ranking at the individual level is still perfectly rational.

    This makes me bring in God in that the paradox will not occur if God is a voter who holds dictatorial power.

    Love to hear your comment.

  6. Aron Wall says:

    Well, it depends on what you mean by issue voting. If a case boils down to deciding several different issues (and everyone has already agreed which issues those are---something which cannot necessarily be counted on), and if each issue has only 2 choices*, and if each Judge feels sufficiently strongly about each issue as a legal matter so that on each issue they vote their honest opinion (not, e.g. based on who will win the case as a whole) then there are no voting paradoxes. But these are some strong assumptions, and they won't always apply. But in some cases it may be a reasonable social ideal to try to process cases in this kind of a way.

    *or a single dimension of choices with single peaked preferences

    As you correctly point out, the Arrow Impossibility Theorem does not apply to systems with dictatorships, so God (having a singular will) would not be incumbered by it. At least, not unless he starts taking our preferences into account... (which he does).

    Another interesting way to evade the assumptions of the Arrow Theorem is to use "cardinal utilities", i.e. each person ranks how much they like each outcome, and you can use that information. Then instead you have to worry about the Gibbard-Satterthwaite theorem, which says that (given nondictatorship, and 3 or more possible choices) any such system necessarily can be corrupted by strategic voting, when voters do not vote in accordance with their true preferences.

    However, in a high trust society (for example, an extended family deciding what to do over the holidays), honest communication allows one to avoid any paradoxes. The key is that each person must not overstate how strongly they desire their preferred outcome. This allows the group to select the outcome that maximizes utility for the whole group.

  7. TY says:


    Many thanks for the comments – always insightful -- which touch on some interesting and unsettled areas of individual and social (aggregate) choice, and you correctly referred to a cardinal measure (compared to ordinal) to get around the Impossibility Theorem that is derived from the ordinal utility.

    May I say with all sincerity, with your exceptional mathematical background as a physicists, this might be an area where you can make an immense contribution to Economics (Nobel level, even). You already know the stuff!!

  8. Aron Wall says:

    You do realize that I consulted Wikipedia before responding? :-)

  9. TY says:

    Aron, you're much too modest.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

My comment policy, including help with leaving LaTeX equations. Place these between double dollar signs, for example: $$\hbar = 1.05 \times 10^{-34} \text{J s}$$. Avoid using > or < since these may be misinterpreted as html tags.
If your comment fails to appear do NOT submit it again.  Instead, email me so I can rescue it from the spam filter.  You can find my email by clicking on "webpage".