Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Rescuing Aristotle and the Church

Last night, we started watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey on DVD. Still waiting to finish Episode 1, the narrative has problems. The error in beatifying Giordano Bruno as a martyr to science was quickly pointed out by others. (See “Did Cosmos Pick the Wrong Hero?” by Corey S. Powell, Discover magazine online here and “Why Did Cosmos Focus on Giordano Bruno?” by Josh Rosenau at the National Center for Science Education here.) Part of that false narrative included a swipe at Aristotle which no one else caught. Aristotle always takes a lot of criticism, mostly by misunderstanding and misattribution. 

Reviewing Episode 6: Deeper and Deeper Still, (which is still in my future), Jennifer Ouellette of the LA Times wrote:
“Anyway, the notion of atoms dates back to an ancient Greek philosopher named Democritus, who first proposed that it just wasn’t possible to keep dividing matter into smaller and smaller bits; at some point, you would reach the smallest possible piece, which he dubbed “atomos” (“not to be cut”). His contemporaries, including Aristotle, didn’t take Democritus seriously, and why should they? They didn’t have the tools to probe such a small scale. But eventually modern physics proved him right.” ("Cosmos’ recap: Deeper and deeper still" April 14, 2014 5:20 AM here.)
First, the physical reality of atoms was doubted by serious scientists such as Ernst Mach as late as 1900. The concept was considered a convenient construct. The reality of very small particles was easy to accept because lenses and microscopes revealed them. However, the concept of “atom” raised unsolvable problems. Of course, those metaphysical objections go back to the Greeks. The problem was argued without resolution. 

What is between atoms? Nothing? “Nothing” is not a different kind of “something” but rather “nothing” truly “does not exist.” What then is between atoms? 

If nothing is between atoms, then why does it take any time at all for atoms go from one place to another? How do atoms interact across the void to form molecules? 

Nature abhors a vacuum. Every space must be filled with something.  If the void of nothing does not exist, and if all matter consists of uncuttable objects, how do we move at all?  
The clepsydra
from Cosmos (1980, page 179)
Obviously, we do move. Just as obviously, all matter is made of something, or perhaps four or five different kinds of something. The lack of a solution to such problems did not prevent social and material progress. And the atomic theory was supported by some evidence. Empedocles of Acragas used it to explain how the “clepsydra” worked. Ultimately, in the modern 19th century, John Dalton, Dmitri Mendeleev, and others put the idea of the atom to good use.

That being so, the discovery of the electron and eventually other subatomic existents defeated the idea of an ultimately “uncuttable” object. Now, we have fields and statistical probabilities. 
Detail of Raphael's School at Athens. 
Plato points to the sky, while
Aristotle reaches for the world.
Aristotle placed the Earth at the center of the universe for both logical and empirical reasons. A century later, Aristarchus of Samos put the sun at the center of our system. Archimedes attempted to settle question by measuring the parallax. He could not do it. He concluded that either the Earth is the center of the universe, or else the universe is far larger than anyone could imagine. We know now that the problem was his instrumentation. Fine as it was for the times, it was not up to the task. Friedrich Bessel achieved the first measurement of stellar parallax in 1838 using a spectroscope. Similarly, the rotation of the Earth on its axis was not proved by experiment until 1789 by Giovanni Battista Guglielmini and most dramatically demonstrated in 1851 by Léon Foucault. 

Aristotle’s embryology of the chick is one of the greatest experimental observations. He also knew that dolphins are mammals, breathing air, bearing their young alive and feeding them milk. 

In addition to being a careful observer, Aristotle attacked the philosophical (“scientific”) problems of his time by comparing and contrasting what others wrote before and then analyzing those against reason and fact. Even so, most of what we have from Aristotle was reconstructed. The great corpus of his original work was lost when the Macedonian royal family fought over his library and the scrolls were buried. Worms got to them. The damaged manuscripts were reconstructed with egregious errors. Other works from Aristotle’s students (primarily Theophrastus) were copied as if from Aristotle himself. 

The Catholic Church of the early Middle Ages found Platonism to its liking. In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas argued well for Aristotle. By the 16th century—ten generations later—Aristotle was not just the norm, but literal truth. It was the method of men who sought literal truth in one book. We see this today when fundamentalist Christians attack Darwin. Darwin's Origin opens with citations to others before himself who proposed theories of evolution. But fundamentalists take one book as their source and therefore another single book as their target. 

The Catholic church of the Middle Ages was very supportive of astronomy in particular and science in general. Despite our modern focus on Christmas, for Christians the most important day of the calendar is Easter: the first Sunday, after the first full moon, after the first day of spring. Calculating Easter required bringing the solar and lunar calendars into agreement. They called the practice computas. It was a mathematical prediction tested by observation—thanks to the astrolabe imported from Islamic Spain in the late 11th century. The churchmen of the Counter-Reformation would have been out of step with Catholic education of the 12th century.

As Dr. Tyson says: “To make this journey, we’ll need imagination. But imagination alone is not enough because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than we can imagine. This adventure is made possible by generations of searchers strictly adhering to a simple set of rules: Test ideas by experiment and observation. Build on those ideas that pass the test. Reject the ones that fail. Follow the evidence where it leads and question everything.”

It is a nice statement of the scientific method that works for television as it streams past you. Myself, to encapsulate the scientific method, I would have bulleted these points:
  • Ask questions.
  • Explain observations with logically consistent theories.
  • Test theories with different observations and new predictions.
  • Publicize your findings and your methods.

The rules can be variously stated. Those four mandates could be expanded to 14 steps. That is how truth works. It is why over 300 proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem have been published. 

As easy as it would be to excoriate Neil deGrasse Tyson, the series was written by Ann Druyan and astrophysicist Steven Soter, both of whom worked on the original CosmosA Personal Journey with Carl Sagan. Druyan was married to Sagan. Sagan was one of Soter’s dissertation advisors. 


Sunday, February 16, 2020

World War II Victory Dinner and Dance

Once again, the Texas Military Forces Museum and the Texas Military Forces Historical Foundation hosted their annual Valentine's Day Sweetheart Dance featuring the Sentimental Journey swing band with their front singers, the Memphis Belles. 

Just about all of the music was from the 1940s:
foxtrot, swing, jitterbug, and jive--and a waltz or two.
Sentimental Journey and Memphis Belles
play the Dorsey brothers, Glenn Miller, Harry James,
and Woody Herman, among others.
"Oh, Johnny" is a standard.

In addition to the photobooth, the dinner features
a silent auction. I won a 50-round blank fire with a
Thompson submachine gun.
Previously on Necessary Facts

Saturday, February 15, 2020


“Never complain. Never explain.” is the unofficial motto of the British royal family. It expresses the stiff upper lip attitude which is stereotypical of the people of modern England. I am not sure how much of that we Americans inherited. The continent was settled (invaded) by malcontents who formalized the political structure of their society with a revolution, opening the land to others of their kind. So, we tend to complain a lot and explain even more, whether anyone wants to listen or not. 

Two years ago, my colleague, CJ, posted a comment in response to The Origins of Technical Writing.”  I tend not to reply to comments, but I am working my way through the same sort of resistance on my present assignment.  CJ wrote: 
“I have a somewhat negative view of tech writing because they seem to just restate things verbosely. Sometimes there's a a button labelled Var Osc Mode. I look in the manual, and they've padded it: "The Var Osc Mode control toggles variable oscillator mode. " It's unlikely anyone who understands exactly what that means would not have understood by reading the button.” -- CJ December 18, 2017 at 7:08 AM
First, you never know who will be using your work and reading your explanations. That is why Scientific American follows the same inverted pyramid structure as The New York Times. The “5Ws and an H” provide an easy framework for the opening paragraph. From there, you have to explain from broad, general truths, down to the supportive details. When I write, whether it is about machinery, software, state government agency policies, numismatics, or astronomy, I want the reader to care about the consequences of this new information. 
 Second, you do not know how your invention will be applied, or how the reader intends to adapt the information. One of the consequences of technical progress is that scientific theories, new discoveries, and innovations find novel practices. Time-traveling back to 1920, how would you explain to an astronomer from Harvard that today's markets provide computer controlled telescopes to hobbyists for less than the relative cost of a trip in that time across the Atlantic by ship? The hobbyist astronomer today is not necessarily a computer programmer. 

Similarly, the clever search algorithm committed to Github could be used by a lawyer for a music publisher needing to search for studio performers who are owed royalty payments. The 21st century lawyer may well have learned programming in some earlier education, but without good internal documentation your routines will not become her methods.

Third, you do not know how your reader came to your language. English is the universal second language of Earth. I believe that by the middle of the century, Indian English will surpass the American vernacular in global popularity and therefore, ultimately, in technical writing. In the meantime, my focus is on North American English. I think about my readers who are immigrants from India, China, and Mexico. I write in the language they hear at work, on TV, and on the street. (See, Spoken American Grammar here.) However, my work is always grammatically correct because grammar provides the rules of language; and language determines how we think.

Fourth, you do not know the literacy level of your reader. English pushes the limits of vocabulary at almost one million words, having absorbed mulligatawny, moccasin, mullah, and mutton. I change the engineer’s “utilize” to everyone’s “use.” My worry is for the motivated but underpaid lone operator on a midnight shift. The engineer who knows how the Var Osc Mode functions is home asleep, enjoying the privileges of their false class consciousness as a white collar employee while someone else is on the front line and in the trench with a machine in a variably oscillating failure mode.

The reason that my user manual only defines var osc mode as “variable oscillating mode” and says nothing more is that the engineer does not consider it important enough to make time for me. I try to interview subject matter experts. They claim to be too busy. I recently had one engineer flat out refuse to put in writing what he just told me verbally, expecting me to have instantly memorized the pearls he was tossing. 

Recently, one of our field service engineers used MS Word Track Changes to make extensive notes in the margin. I thought that he could have just as easily put them into the body of the document in the first place. But the formatting failed when I cut-and-pasted them in. The previous engineer who designed the form must have invested many hours in tweaking MS-Word to get this to print out the way he wanted. It does look nice, printed on A4 paper. But it is unsupportable. The overbuilt formatting in the table cells is hard to use, hard to maintain, and hard to change. And in America, we use 8 ½ x 11 paper. That speaks to my role designing forms. 

The other side of that coin comes from the people who never got over the typewriter. They try to line up text using the spaces and tabs. I create a table and then turn the borders invisible. It looks nice; and it is easy to maintain. 

Moreover, our on-site technicians are as likely to use a tablet or a phone, rather than a desktop computer. I have been aware of that since 1990 when I published an article in Credit Union News about new platforms for computing. Hughes Aircraft was experimenting with a 1-inch screen worn on a headband. The little box projected a standard page. It would enable a technician to bring a service manual into a turbine engine without actually dragging a rack of manuals into the engine.

I came to technical writing by way of computer programming. I was on a database project at General Motors; and no one wanted to write the user manual. Having sold two small books and half a dozen magazine articles, I gave it a try. 

I never left programming completely. All computing is programming, even for Facebook. Through the 1980s, I tweaked the codes in WordPerfect and learned to set type with Donald Knuth’s TeX/LaTeX. TeX became SGML, the Standard Generalized Mark-up Language. SGML became HTML; and now we have XML, the eXtensible Markup Language, leading to YAML (yet another…). Most of the computer people I socialize with think that CSS is Cross-site scripting. But in my work, it is Cascading Style Sheets. We do not have them in MS-Word, but the concept is helpful when thinking about documentation across manuals and departments.

I can make MS-Word sit up and bark. And it’s a good thing that I can because the cliché that I hear when I try to explain how many extra hours, days, or months something will take is: “That’s OK. We have a budget for manpower, but we do not have any extra money for software.” 

What really do I get paid for is the Index. Back in 1966, when Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal, was released, I understood and appreciated the fact that the Index was written by a philosopher (Allan Gotthelf) following the epistemology of Objectivism. I have three copies of Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Over the decades of my productive working life, I have worn them out by reading them and marking them up. 


Thursday, February 13, 2020

New Plate and Stickers

Having retired from the Texas State Guard, the time came to change the messages on my car.

The State of Texas grants a long list of specialty plates for those who have served. Federal military veterans from all branches can display their highest honors with Bronze Star and Purple Heart among many others. Disabled veterans have their own serial numbers (DV-) as well as the message.

I designed and paid for the central bumper sticker:
I had a hundred run off and then distributed some to my buddies in the TXSG, donating the bulk of the inventory to our "Country Store" retail operation run by the T-4 (Logistics) shop.

The Barlett for President sticker came from a West Wing fan site, of course. I wish that I lived in that universe. We were enthralled by the characters who were working the most important jobs of their lives. Even most of the Republicans were admirable.

My goal here is to change the messages periodically. In the waiting file, I have "Who is John Galt" and " I (heart) Capitalism" among others.

The new license plate is a chemical formula for urea. It can be NH2-CO-NH2 or CO(NH2)2 or other representations. In 1828, urea was the first organic compound made in a laboratory entirely from inorganic components. (See Wikipedia here.) Among other achievements, its synthesis supposedly disproved the theory of vitalism. Vitalism posits that "life" is an ineffable and irreducible quality. I am not sure that I accept that, but I am sure that organic compounds can be found in stellar nebulae. I do not know how strings of hydrocarbons become living organisms. The empirical evidence is nonetheless unarguable.

To the right of Question Authority is "What do you geek?" It was a campaign from the City of Austin Public Library last year to promote a wide range of interesting and curious passions from a diverse array of representational patrons. (They were real people. I am just not sure that they were truly library patrons rather than professional models.) It now eclipses the little square which read "Bring them Back Alive" (a promotion of the American Automobile Association) though in Hungarian. The AAA gave them out in many languages.

Centralization and the Inverse Square Law
Politics and the Inverse Square Law
Gregory M. Browne's Necessary Factual Truths
The Problem of Induction: Karl Popper and His Enemies

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

A Good Place with Inadequate Philosophy

We enjoyed The Good Place. We watched it on disc and look forward to the release of Season 4. The show’s chatty dialogs on moral philosophy were pleasant and satisfying. The characters were engaging. We cared about what happened to them. It would be nice if The Good Place brought philosophy into the cultural mainstream something like what Star Trek’s original series did for science fiction. Like ST:OS, The Good Place had its flaws. 
Although the show namedrops several moral theories, it reverts back to Platonic altruism: your actions can be judged good if and only if (1) the goal is to benefit others and (2) you are not invested in the consequences to yourself.  
“Todd May and Pamela Hieronymi [are] the show’s philosophical advisors. While The Good Place hewed to the demands of a network sitcom—there was hugging and learning and quite a few jokes about farts—it also centered an ongoing debate about moral philosophy, from Aristotle up to the present day, and May and Hieronymi made sure the show stayed true to its grander ideals. Hieronymi, a professor at UCLA, introduced creator Mike Schur to T.M. Scanlon’s What We Owe to Each Other, which would become an onscreen bible for the show’s in-house philosopher, Chidi Anagonye. May, who teaches at Clemson, starred in a series of short videos explaining concepts like existentialism, utilitarianism, and deontology…” (Slate, 03 Feb 2020 here.
In addition to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, the show tossed out references to consequentialism and Scanlon’s contractarian  theory. Egoism did  not even get a nod. More deeply, the intention seemed to be to find one absolute standard for all contexts. Although I personally subscribe to Randian Objectivism as the best solution, always bringing all decisions to what is best for me, the fact remains that secondary theories such as contractarianism are useful and important. It depends on the context. And secondary theories can reflect back on primary considerations. It is not generally in your self-interest to habitually break your promises—unless you want to end your life as a hermit, even within a metropolis. 

My first class in criminal justice at Washtenaw Community College in 2005 was Ethics in Law Enforcement. Our professor was Ruth A. Walsh. Once the term was under way, we were given challenges to write about. Ms. Walsh expected us to apply all of the theories we were learning in order to analyze each problem from several viewpoints. Later, at Eastern Michigan University, working on my bachelor’s I tallied about 50 different theories to explain crime. That holistic approach to challenges in morality came in handy in my last class in graduate school (2010), Ethics in Physics.

I accepted that as a validation of the operation of necessary factual truths. At least 300 proofs of the Pythagorean theorem have been published. If an action is moral, then it can probably be justified not only by egoism, but by Kantian deontology, utilitarianism, pragmatism, and other constructs. If attempting that leads to contradictions, then one or more theories would be false on that point. In other words, moral theories are tools. You need to use the right tool for the right job. Do not use your screwdriver for a chisel. You would not use vector algebra to make change at the supermarket checkout, projecting quantities on a plane that reduces the unit vectors to zeroes, leaving only a one dimensional scalar. Just count the coins. 

Can you save the whales? Should you bother? The inverse square law says that I cannot be very effective at that (here). On the other hand, I recently twice spent $20 on five boxes of Girl Scout cookies for the office. Not only does bringing cookies make me popular with my colleagues, but the money supports a local organization that I approve of. And the acts had a contractarian aspect: my first wife was a Girl Scout; and she taught me to always leave a place better than you found it. That lesson prepared me to engage the same behavior when, as a member of the Texas State Guard, I was part of a group using the barracks of the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Texas Army National Guard, and Sea Star Base Galveston.

Modes of Survival