Greek Symbols

I have released an iPhone app called Greek Symbols. It lists the greek letters and their names. I use it when I encounter them in math books. It's for sale for $1 here:


The app store approval process went very smoothly for me. No pain, no problems, and it only took them a couple days. Some people have bad experiences and complain online. Some other people try to judge the app store based, in part, on the non-random sample of app store experiences people choose to post online. That doesn't work well because many of the people with good experiences don't care to say anything. But I'm saying something: Apple's app store approval process has treated me very well so far.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


I agree!

I understand it well. Not perfectly, but enough I have no questions to ask. Nothing is confusing me and needs clarifying. Basically I get it.

I don't have any criticism of it. That's because it's good. Whether something merits criticism is not an attribute of me.

I don't have anything to add. No new ways to approach the material, no further applications, no new ideas that build on it. This is primarily because it's pretty complete already; the author didn't leave much for me to add. Secondarily, it's because while I do understand it well, I'm not beyond it. It's at my level, not beneath me, so that's why I don't have more advanced stuff to add.

So, there is this narrow no-reply zone. It takes some pretty specific stuff to get into the zone. Most ideas in the world are either advanced or confusing enough I'd have questions, or at a low enough level I'd have criticism or improvements. With all those things I can have a discussion. But there is this little window where I end up not replying at all. I'd like to discuss, but I just can't find anything to say.

It seems like a shame. Material exactly at my level would be good to engage with, right?

Now, there's a couple things about this situation that I've noticed are a little strange.

This no-reply zone is small, but I reply to less than 5% of the philosophical emails which I receive and generally agree with. How can that be?

And second, it's not just me. Most other people seem to have larger-than-expected no-reply zones. And not just that. By some strange coincidence, their zone coincides with my zone. Time after time, I see some post that, unfortunately, is right in the middle of my no-reply zone, so try as I might I can't reply. But it's really interesting and I want there to be discussion of it. And then no one else replies. At first I thought it was just bad luck, but then I started counting and I noticed that happens on around 50% of philosophical posts that I generally agree with.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (12)


This video is in favor of the US Armed Forces.

Some would say it is a bad video because "I like my country" is a symmetrical argument. Other people in other countries use the same kind of argument, but with a different conclusion.

But they are missing something: the US armed forces is good. There are asymmetries, e.g. its exceptionally humane treatment of prisoners, its exceptional skill, and its exceptional efforts to avoid collateral damage.

How can they miss these things? There is no shortage of information about them. To say that someone is using a really bad argument, when no argument is specified and plenty of correct arguments are well known, is dishonest.

The people who enjoy this video knows the USAF is not the same as other militaries. (And they would readily agree that certain specific militaries come close in some ways, and perhaps are even superior in regards to certain specific traits. Meanwhile most militaries are much, much worse.) They aren't blind patriots but rational ones.

Some people might still press on. The video should give those good arguments, they'd insist. It should be more educational. This argument has a certain symmetry to it. It applies equally well to all other kinds of fan videos, e.g. sports fan videos, anime fan videos, and movie fan videos. Why should movie goers be allowed to enjoy a movie without always trying to educate and argue about why it's a good movie? Why are sports fans allowed to hold up signs and cheer for their team without giving any arguments? To say that being a fan of the military is bad because fans are bad, but that being a fan of a sport is not bad in the same way, is a very bad argument.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (2)


Symmetry in general means that something stays the same in the face of some transformation. (This is a bit broad. Some symmetry is trivial and boring, and other is important. Anyone know a good statement which captures which is which better?)

Symmetry is a major concept in physics, in the form of conservation laws. For example, one says that total energy in a closed system stays the same when physical processes of all sorts take place.

Symmetry is also a major concept in philosophy. Philosophers watch out for symmetrical arguments or types of arguments (which argue equally well for the other side as the one they claim to support, or for all sides).

Symmetry also has an important role in aesthetics (in many cases, but not all, symmetrical things are more beautiful).

I think symmetry has a major role in math too, but I don't know the details.

Thus, symmetry is a concept with a lot of reach. It's an important concept.

What other fields is symmetry important to?

One reason symmetry may be important is that it's related to arbitrariness. Arbitrariness is the situation where all the choices look the same to us: they are symmetrical in every regard we know is important. And good explanations need to avoid being arbitrary. In general in philosophy, good explanations *break symmetry* in some way. But what does that have to do with physics, which has laws stating it's impossible to break certain symmetries? Or what does it have to do with aesthetics, where symmetry is often preferred?

Here's a bit more detail on symmetry. The best known kind is rotational symmetry. You take a picture and rotate it and get the same picture.

Conservation of momentum states that if have some total amount of momentum, and then you go forward in time (meanwhile doing whatever you want), then you have the same total momentum again. For example, consider two asteroids in deep space. Both are floating along. Then they collide, little pieces go flying everywhere. If you add up the momentum of all the pieces it's the same as the momentum from before the collision.

The general pattern is you have some thing, then you do some transformation process to change the thing in some significant way, but some key aspect stays the same.

With arguments, suppose you have an argument against X. Then you change it in some way, and now it's an argument against Y, but *everything else important stayed the same*. The symmetry is in the structure and logic of the argument, and the asymmetry is in its conclusion. For example, suppose I say it's bad to vote democrat b/c democrats are politicians and politicians are scumbags. This is a very bad argument because it's symmetrical with republicans or democrats as the targets. When we change it to "it's bad to vote republican b/c republicans are politicians and politicians are scumbags" the internal logic makes just as much sense before, it's exactly as compelling as an argument, only the conclusion has changed. So how can it support one of its possible conclusions over another equally valid one? It can't. So it fails.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)


some people want to reform the military -- make gays completely welcome.

these same people claim US society in general is homophobic and must reform.

so, question: shouldn't the military be the last thing to reform?

why would you screw with such a mission-critical system, where life and death are on the line, which is in active use, when you haven't even gotten your changes to be implemented and prove their merit in a lower pressure scenario? shouldn't we reform things piecemeal, starting with easier and safer changes? then continue if we have success, and not if we don't (assuming in advance which reforms will be successful is irrational. we should be open minded and pay attention to how well it actually works).

are people who don't know anything about sane methods of reform qualified to reform anything at all?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (3)


The word 'fallibility' has two different meanings. One is that we can't be absolutely sure of anything. The other is that mistakes are common. These meanings are both the same kind of thing, but the first is much narrower than the second. I embrace the truth of both meanings.

Sometimes fallibilists argue that math cannot have certainty because performing a proof is a physical process, and during physical processes things can go wrong (e.g. i could be drugged to unconsciousness and then awake with tampered memories such that I thought I'd completely the proof correctly when I hadn't). This argument is correct, but it is only an argument for the first, lesser meaning of fallibility. Although it gives an example demonstrating the possibility of a mistake, it does not show that mistakes are common.

A similar kind of argument is made by fallibilists with inductivists. We may point out that, as a matter of logic, inductive conclusions do not deductively follow from their premises, and therefore they are fallible. Again, this is an argument for fallibility in the first sense -- error is possible -- but it does not say whether error is common or not.

One result of this situation is that some people are converted to fallibilism but only in the first sense. When they encounter people who embrace fallibilism in the deeper sense, they become confused because these people discuss fallibilism but in a different way than they understand it. There can be further confusion because both groups identify themselves by the same label, "fallibilists", and may then wonder why they are disagreeing so much.

The more thorough meaning of fallibilism is required for most important fallibilist arguments. This is known to many anti-fallibilists who claim fallibilism is stupid and useless because not a lot of interesting truths follow from it (they have in mind the more limited meaning of fallibilism). And emphasizing that error is possible could be deemed misleading if it is in fact very very rare and perhaps even negligible.

Here are some examples of how the stronger meaning of fallibilism leads to important conclusions the weaker meaning does not:

Should parents take seriously the possibility that, in the face of a disagreement, their child might be in the right? If mistakes are common, including mistakes by parents, then yes they should. This is a clear implication from the strong meaning of fallibilism. But on the other hand if the parent having made a mistake is only a very remote possibility, one in a million, then one could considering taking a different attitude.

Should lovers who think they won't end up with broken hearts take seriously the possibility that their knowledge of how to avoid being hurt may contain a mistake? That depends if mistakes are commonplace or extremely rare. If the rate of making mistakes like that is one per hundred million couples then it's not worth worrying about. If it's one per two couples then it'd be crazy not to think about it a lot.

When a person seems to misunderstand my argument, should I believe he is doing it deliberately (perhaps because he sees that it refutes his position)? If mistakes in understanding arguments are extremely rare, then it would follow that it's usually deliberate. But if mistakes are common, then I shouldn't take it to be deliberate.

In general, when I disagree with someone, is he mistaken, am I mistaken, or is he a bad person? If mistakes are common, either of us could be mistaken. If mistakes are extraordinary rare, then I may have to conclude he is a bad person who wants to adopt mistaken ideas due to bias or some other factor. This is especially true if I have multiple disagreements with him. If mistakes are very rare, can he really be innocently mistaken on all those issues?

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (4)

Atrocious Burke Scholarship

The Portable Edmund Burke edited by Isaac Kramnick states on page xxviii of the introduction that:
Beginning in 1929 and 1930, Burke's reputation was subjected to the most serious assault on it since the radical crew of Wollstonecraft, Priestly, Paine, William Godwin, and others had finished with it one hundred and thirty-five years earlier.
This is false. Godwin did not assault Burke's reputation. Here is a well known quote by Godwin about Burke:
Whilst this sheet is in the press for the third impression, I receive the intelligence of the death of Burke, who was principally in the author's mind, while he penned the preceding sentences. In all that is most exalted in talents, I regard him as the inferior of no man that ever adorned the face of earth; and, in the long record of human genius, I can find for him very few equals. In sublety of discrimination, in magnitude of conception, in sagacity and profoundness of judgement, he was never surpassed.
This was followed with a bit of criticism; Godwin considered Burke to be one of the best men ever, but flawed. There is no way to take it as an assault on Burke's reputation. Godwin also praised Burke on several other occasions.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)

Duty and Property Rights

Consider the following approach to land ownership:
One has a right to land if he performs the appropriate duties for that land, and only as long as he continues to perform them.
This is a strange idea, today. What duties come with a house? We have a very different system, and it's not easy to even imagine most other systems. (One system we are familiar enough with to imagine is communism. But even that is hard. People vary wildly in how the imagine it, and all but one of the contradictory views must be mistaken. Some see it like We The Living, Anthem or 1984, and some imagine it as paradise, and others imagine everything in between.)

In our system of property rights, if you own a piece of land then it's yours, forever, to do whatever you want with. You can leave it sitting there, empty, or anything else. You have no duties. Except not exactly: you must pay property taxes. And you must abide by zoning laws and building codes. Properties can be declared "blighted". Properties can be confiscated if the Government wants to build a highway through them, or sometimes even if a stranger comes to your property and commits a crime there. And if you build a business you must abide by anti-discrimination laws, get a business license, and get permits to sell various things. If you wish to practice medicine on your property or sell alcohol, for example, that's heavily regulated.

So land owners do have duties, in a way. He must help pay for the upkeep of his cities. He must keep his property from being blighted. And he must follow various laws. If he does not do these things, he can potentially forfeit the right to his property. Still, we don't really think of these things as duties.

We also have an idea that the way to gain ownership of natural resources is to put them to good use. This doesn't come up a lot in America anymore only because so much stuff has already been claimed. Using a resource appropriate is a similar idea to duty. To say you can own an oil well but only if you use it by drilling it and selling the oil, and to say you can own an oil well only if you do your duty to drill it and sell the oil, is very similar.

Feudalism focussed on duties more. A lord gained certain privileges (ownership of land; right to tax his serfs; etc), but to maintain them he had certain duties (to protect his serfs in wars; to offer them justice in their disputes; to feed the poor; to help support the local church; etc). This system is not altogether without merit; both the lords and the serfs gain some benefit from the arrangement.

Emphasis on duty as I've described is a conservative attitude. That is not to say all conservatives would favor it or that it's their only option. But what I can say is that it's illiberal. Duties contradict the liberal ideals of maximizing freedom, tolerating diverse lifestyles (including ones that do not perform various duties), and an emphasis on people's rights.

I believe that the laissez faire style of capitalism, which eliminates duties, (thus going beyond the somewhat minimal duties we have today) is the best.

I do not believe the vast majority of libertarians, liberals, capitalists, or anyone else, could give a compelling argument against duty. You are welcome to try in the comments.

Elliot Temple | Permalink | Messages (0)