Friday, 31 October 2008

A two day slump

After several weeks when I have been quite fired up and positive, the last couple of days have seen something of a slump. Perhaps this was caused by delivering my third and final seminar presentation this week. But more likely it reflects events at home.

Once again I have been remindered of just how different people's narratives can be of how life is. And once again I have failed to realise that things I understand well are not so well understood by others. In respect of various things, I had assumed everything was well understood. I am genuinely shocked to discover that this isn't the case.

I am also genuinely shocked to discover that many views are held not on the basis of reciprocity. It is not clear to me why people don't have that sort of principle ingrained within them but it isn't the case - perhaps this is the main way in which the different narratives are generated.

But what does it mean going forward? Once more I feel very low about things and well worn out with it all. I am tempted to make radical changes - but probably won't

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Thoughts on an article and Antique dealing

I felt quite inspired this morning by the thought of the Taleb article for the Clare Market Review. Prior to departing for Birmingham, I had a quick 40 minutes of brain storming writing in which I outlined perhaps two-thirds of what I might have wanted to cover in the article - using the free flowing approach outlined in some of the writing guides I have been looking at. So almost every word spelt incorrectly - will I be able to unscramble it later?

The email I received yesterday from Jacob confirming the article plan enclosed a Tony Lawson article that is also intended for the first issue. This is 4000 words, which is quite considerably longer than I had thought articles would be, but I could definitely do something comparable. So I have sorted out some possible extra reading over and above The Black Swan, in particular, the paper from Taleb's website on the problem of the non-observability of probability distributions, and his fourth quadrant essay (the basis for the lecture he gave at LSE the other week)

There was a flurry of snow here last night and quite a good coverage on the Cotswolds which I passed over on the way to mum's. Today's car listening was dominated by Gallon Drunk - so often I return to their particular brand of swamp music

So today was vetting day at the NEC, prior to the start of the four day antique fair. As always I am keen to gauge the level of prosperity in the industry. Antique dealers are a notoriously negative bunch, but there is a clear sense that things are really tough at the moment (as one would expect). I had a long chat with Judy Pollitt, who is usually pretty upbeat, but even she was quite down about things. The fair was also up in arms about some proposed changes to next years stand plans. These were taken as being strongly negative to the second tier stands (of which mum's is one). Complaints from everyone. Mum gets somewhat stressed from this, but overall seems well set for the fair. But I am beginning to think I should suggest that maybe 2009 be her last full year.

A long chat later with Andy, the oriental dealer. He seems to be doing ok at the moment. He had a carved stone burial piece that I was very interested in - 11th century he claimed. But a bit expensive at £375 (which includes my trade discount)

A very negative end to the day however, with a series of complaints delivered and responded to. The excitement I felt early on largely dissappated as I was remindered yet again of some big differences in the way our lives are seen by each of us. Lots to ponder on again, and I can tell that I will find this pondering hard.

By contrast, the good news about the possible article was not shared - and the fact that it wasn't is also a source of some negative views on my part.

Another seminar presentation

The History of Science lecture starts with a brief comment from Professor Worrall noting the issues that have been raised over the last week, but responding by confirming his view that a detailed review of the data is vitally important. So today's lecture follows the previous pattern by largely following Kuhn's treatment. But our complaint to not about the lecture as such, it is about George's abilities in the seminar.

And unfortunately, today show no improvement on last week. The seminar is really terrible. Kyle did a short presentation on the data related to the planets - largely following Kuhn again (he hadn't been at last week's seminar and didn't know the full details of what transpired). I raised one or two questions with the aim of provoking some discussion. But once again, George launched into a couple of long digressions taking up perhap 25 minutes of the remaining time in our seminar. I asked one rather facetious question about why one of Kuhn's disgrams was the wrong way round, but this produced an absurd discussion of how the constellations had looked different to George when he was in southern Greece compared to northern. Total nonsense. So we remain unhappy about this seminar. Several people are pondering on sending further emails to John - myself included.

I had lunch in the Brunch Bowl with Victor. Talked about Kepler related studies, and what he might want to do when he finishes the course. As I rather expected, he is one of the current MSc students who most wants to develop a possible academic career.

Just after lunch I happened to come across the LSE Hedge Fund Society who had their stand up in Houghton Street. I had a long chat with the secretary and we are planning to do a series of talks. The first will be Nov 18th - probably on the impact of events like the credit crunch and Sept 11th on financial markets and hedge funds. Before Christmas I will also do a talk on the ten best hedge fund books. These presentations should be pretty straightforward to do and not take up much time. Might be fun as well. The Hedge Fund Society apparently has 600 members and its events are typically very well attended.

Spent the main part of the afternoon in the library reading some articles from the Journal of the History of Astronomy that I'd brought down with me. The library was very full - is this likely to be the pattern going forward? Later on I spent a hour or so in the MSc students' common room on the 4th floor. It is not practical to stay in the library for the entire gap between H of S and P of S it seems to me.

While there I got chatting to Jacob, who has decided to quit History of Science - mainly due to the experience to date with George. He surprised me by saying that he was involved in the re-launch of the Clare Market Review magazine that is scheduled for late this term and would I be prepared to write a paper on something to do with Nassim Taleb. I certainly would be! We will pass emails about this over the next few days

Tonight's P of S lecture is on Imre Lakatos. It spends the first 30 minutes looking at his life and philosophy of mathematics, even though these are not relevant for the course. However, I did find this bit very interesting. The second half hour presented the MSRP. It is only when you see a lecture on it that you realise just how clunky the approach really is.

Next up the Seminar and much to my surprise, I was not speaking straight away. Instead, Miklos wanted to spend the first half discussing the previous lecture. This inevitably resulted in a lot of people raising points that were directly relevant to my talk (prior to me speaking). I was not altogether happy about this, but there was nothing I could really do about it.

And we didn't really cover too much of what I had planned to say. I was very happy with my decision to largely ignore the paper itself and focus on developing a wider framework for understanding the paper - this seemed to get a good response from the others. But by the time I had finished it was just after 8:30 and few people wanted to ask any more questions or raise any more points. So my portion was only really 40 minutes out of the 100 we were there. Not what I expected at all.

So I have now finished seminar presentations for a while. Now to focus on the Taleb article and the remote plan I have to submit a paper proposal to that conference in the USA on Philosophy and History of Science that Miklos mentioned to me.

Heavy rain and sleet as I waited for the coach at Marble Arch. Turned to snow as we left London. This was quite deeply settled as we passed the Goring Gap. Seems rather early in the year for our first snow - does this imply a bad winter?

Sunday, 26 October 2008

When I'm not studying

The end of British Summer Time and the clocks have gone back an hour. An extra hour of sleep or an extra hour to study? Or maybe a compromise of lying in bed reading something vaguely philosophical - in today's case Ted Honderich's Philosopher A way of Life.

Alternatively there is the new John Peel book that I read a bit of last night. Oddly this collection of his writings is in alphabetical order rather than chronological. Not sure this is a good idea. Also, there is the suggestion that they have left out a lot of early writings they could have included from the late 1960s. This would be a shame - I for one rather like his Gandalf's Garden period. "Clouds are poems written in the sky . . . " Great stuff

While I work, I am, of course, listening to loads of music. Current favorite themes include a selection of "death metal" tracks - albums by Napalm Death, Nile, Carcass, etc. But also another collection of cds by Ravi Shankar, and some of the less well known Grateful Dead studio albums ("Aoxomoxoa", "Blues for Allah", "Wake of the Flood" etc). I am trying to download a recording of the 1966 Pico Acid Test which I am really looking forward to hearing.

But all this study has meant that I haven't done many jobs at home - the rest of the garage clearance and the decoration of Linda's study. Not sure when this will happen

And I remain very concerned about the health of Mum who is perhaps getting worse rather than better and has a really busy week coming up which she'll find very taxing.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Philosophy of Science Work

It was a cold and almost frosty morning. The heating comes on slightly later at the weekend and the house was still cold as I started work - sorting out the study plan for today and tomorrow. Mostly reading and taking notes on ideas on confirmation and more reading of Kuhn on Copernicus.

But first a trip outside to take some photos of the spiders' webs that are highly visible this morning. Not sure how good the pictures will look on this blog, but they look great on the PC.

And so to work - a day spent virtually entirely at my desk in our home office shown below. What a lot of books I seem to have (and you can't see the wall of books behind where I took the photo from!)

Most of the morning is spent on Howson's Hume's Problem: Induction and the Justification of Belief. This is a very interesting book in many ways. One the one hand, it believes that Hume's argument is correct (which I also think). But then seeks to argue that inductivism (as formulated within Bayesianism) is actually part of logic, following a suggestion from Ramsey that the laws of probability are laws of consistency. Hence inductivism occurs as part of remaining consistent about the degree of belief in hypotheses subject to changing evidence. Not sure I accept that.

I think large problems remain - in particular, I don't accept the view that science shows the success of inductive reasoning. Unless induction means something like the realist assumption of the regularity of nature, then I think this is simply untrue. This links back to the work I've been doing on Lakatos's meta-methodology for characterising methodologies of science. The sort of science we would expect to see if inductivism was the main methodology of science is the steady accumulation of generalisations covering wider and wider areas. What we would not see are radical revolutions that overthrow previous theories. For this would suggest that past theories were incorrect inductions and it is not clear how these could occur if the method of science generally is inductive.

My own view is based on the "no-miracles" argument for realism combined with a naturalist explanation via evolution and the acceptance of much of the Taleb thesis in The Black Swan. So the real world is a regular world, which is why some of our generalisations hold. But inductivism implies a false justificationism which will often prove incorrect in practice.

A break just after lunchtime to watch some football and try to avoid getting distracted by the new John Peel book that arrived this morning - a selection of his writings from the last 30 years of his life. I still really miss John Peel. Listening to some Peel show tapes recently has only emphasised this.

More work through the late afternoon - still focused on Howson's book. Now focused on probability approaches to inductivism.

It occurred to me that one way to re-cast some of this discussion would be to consider (again) the question of what picture of science would be generated from the model, were it to be correct. Howson has an annoying habit of simple asserting that inductive arguments are there in science all the time (a bit like Salmon in this respect and perhaps going back to the Broad quote about induction being the pride of science . . .). At a meta-level, we might suggest the "test" of inductivism by the assessment of whether, over time, and relative to the history of science, it does tend to produce the result that false hypotheses are probably false and that true hypotheses are probably true.

In this way, the problem of revolutions in science becomes more apparent. For any revolution is a case where inductivism is shown to have considered false hypotheses to be probably true - this is also closely linked to Taleb's turkeys!

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Working on another Seminar presentation

My next seminar paper (and last for some while) is for Philosophy of Science next Tuesday and is on some feature of Lakatos's paper on History of science and its rational reconstruction. So far, the various seminar teachers have given very dissimilar views on what they presentations should consist of. The most interesting view was given by Nancy Cartwright at her first Philosophy of Economics seminar (which I no longer go to). This view was that we shouldn't be aiming to work through the whole of the paper in a systematic manner - people can do this for themselves. Instead, focus on the things that interested you and which lead to some interesting problems. She was quite fired up about this point - get out there and make a claim . . .

And I really share this view - I want the MSc seminars to be something a lot more challenging than an undergraduate one would be. So far it is too early to say how things will develop in this. Partly, of course, this is because I have been giving the presentations!

So for Tuesday I have hit on a method of presentation that doesn't follow Lakatos at all! This will focus on a "theory - methodology - meta-methodology" model but will support the fundamental claim of Lakatos's paper that, at the meta level, methodologies can critique other methodologies via their accounts of the history of science.

I have just about finished my presentation but I am a bit concerned that this goes well beyond the Lakatos paper. I want to say that the class participants should have read the paper in detail and so I need not refer to it much. And this fits in with the Cartwright model for seminars. But I am still wondering whether it is the right way to go. Still, at the moment, I have no plans to do any other work on this topic (except maybe a index of my mark-ups from the actual article)

Looking forward to hearing the reaction to this way of doing things

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Two Seminar Presentations

Tuesday October 21st

Part of my early MSc planning was to try and do all my seminar presentations at the start of the course - mainly in case it turned out that I wouldn't be able to attend as much of the courses later on for work reasons. So today I was presenting to the History of Science Seminar and tomorrow to the Dissertation Seminar.

My topic today was the apparent motion of the sun, moon and stars per the two-sphere model and in line with Kuhn's exposition in chapter 2 of The Copernican Revolution. However I was unconvinced by this - why re-hash what Kuhn (and indeed John Worrall) had said? If the other participants had read and understood Kuhn, they wouldn't need my presentation. If they had read it and not understood it, then another presentation of it might not help much. So I had decided to widen my topic a little and cover a few new things - in particular, some ideas about measurement of various complication things, like the year or the lunar month.

But before I started, George, our class teacher, was seeking volunteers for the next few weeks. And as he tried to do so, two of the class participants raised exactly my points about the value of the topics being chosen. Like me, their objection was that it should be assumed that we can read and understand the book's technical details and so the seminars should be focused on the wider philosophical issues being raised. There followed a heated discussion on these issue which George was clearly unhappy addressing.

Eventually a halt was called and I made my 15 minute or so presentation. George was not impressed I felt. He seemed to have the idea that I should have ranged much further but that didn't fit with the title I had been given to work to. So George launched into a long talk of his own, which annoyed some other class participants who felt they were there for a seminar, not another lecture.

So afterwards, a few of us had drinks in the NAB cafe and discussed our thoughts on what had happened. As luck would have it, today was the first meeting of the staff-student forum for our course and we decided that we would raise the issue there. So an hour later, we were at the meeting and, at the appropriate point, I raised, in a general manner, that there might be some concerns about one of the seminars and how should we proceed. I didn't actually say it was John's History of Science course as this might be a sensitive issue, but Femke did! So a meeting has been arranged with John for Thursday with Caroline representing us.

I was booked in overnight at a hotel nearer to LSE - the County up on Woburn Place. So after the forum ended I wandered up there. Another really poor hotel (worse that last week's) but only £40 a night and near enough to LSE to walk to and from. So another afternoon spent reading.

Back to LSE for the P of S lecture - now this is a well organised course. Today Miklos is speaking on induction and Popper - something that I, of course, have studied extensively in the past. The explanation of the problem of induction was shorter than I might have expected and didn't really give an idea of the vastness of the problem. And we were soon onto Popper. I would have thought that given the importance of the problem of induction to all confirmation approaches, it would have been useful to spend more time on it. But maybe it will be addressed again when we start to move onto these other problems.

These days Popper has little influence in the LSE department and I did wonder whether the inclusion of a lecture on Popper was more for historical departmental reasons than anything else. For instance, very few exam questions feature anything Popperian - they are mainly on what you would call the "received" logical empiricist approach to P of S (which Kuhn as the main alternative). And of course this was one of the reasons why I was less interested in this course - not sure I wanted to go through the paradoxes of confirmation, "grue" problems, and Bayesianism again.

Afterwards we have our P of S seminar. A solution has been found to the large group - it turns out that the inter-collegiate students have their own seminar back at King's. So we will be a smaller group of just LSE people going forward.

No speaker doing a presentation today. Instead we start with any general queries on the lecture and then Miklos moves through a number of other issue he wanted us to focus on. This is what George is failing to do on the History of Science course. Much of the discussion takes points from the lecture and refers them back to Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery - for which there is an extract in the Course Pack. I made a number of contributions to the discussion which I thought were good points. But I didn't tackle the issue of how the problem of induction is a really huge one and has an enormous impact on many areas. I did enjoy the discussion though.

And next week I have volunteered to present something on Lakatos's History of science and its rational reconstruction - a paper I know very well. And with that seminar presentation, I will have done one for all my current courses and may not need to do another for some while.

There was a short continuation of the discussion about the H of S seminar. It turns out that Victor - one of the objectors from earlier today - is going to accompany Caroline to see John. And some of the others - myself included - will be sending in emails. Wonder what the effect of this will be.

Wednesday October 22nd

Not a great night's sleep. The central heating was going full blast and I rather overheated. But I was on the front of the building and having the window open was incredibly noisy. So slept rather restlessly and woke up with a stiff neck and a headache.

And so to my dissertation seminar. It is still only week three, so the idea that there would be well-formed ideas for my topics is perhaps a little unlikely. And when I sent my presentation to Miklos, he had commented that my slides were a somewhat eclectic mix of themes. But that it what I would expect at this stage and is nothing to be bothered about.

So I worked my way through my slides taking various questions and with Miklos occasionally wanting to pause and discuss something in more general if he felt it would help the others as they make their decisions on their own dissertations. Overall, I was pretty happy with how it went - another hug from Leonardo at the end - his way of showing he approves I guess!

A few of us went to the Garrick cafe for drinks afterwards. I had decided that I would not be attending the Nancy Cartwright Evidence lecture anymore, but most of the others were. We talked about feminist epistemology and Victor spent some time investigating the very stable spin that his drink bottle had on the table. Victor also made a few more detailed points about what I had said at the seminar. It seems he is also very interested in Kepler and was thinking of doing something on him as well - maybe about aesthetics. It could be a very interesting development for someone else to be doing somthing similar - some element of competition perhaps, but in a good way? Victor is speaking to next week's dissertation group which I am now really looking forward to.

Back home mid afternoon with the thought of collecting my PC which I had been led to understand was now clear of viruses and ready for collection. But it turned out it wasn't - yet more final testing needs to be done and they have no power today at Milton Park. Maybe tomorrow.

For the next few days I have no plans other than to study. Linda is visiting her parents this weekend, so no excuses for not getting a lot done.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Weekend work

Saturday October 17th

Today was a day dominated by a trip to Cambridge to see Emma. She has been back a college for a couple of weeks and seems to be doing more work this year than last! Like all parents, some of our concerns about the current economic situation are due to worries that Emma might not be able to find the work she wants in a couple of year's time.

So only 3 hours work first thing today - re-doing the Powerpoint presentation for next Wednesday as this is stuck (possibly lost) on my virus-hit PC that remains at the computer firm in Abingdon. I have also finished photocopying my H of S seminar presentation for Tuesday.

Sunday October 18th

Lots of "P of S" reading this morning - mainly from Noretta Koertge (ed) A House Built on Sand, a book on the so-called "Science wars"

I have also finally got round to reading Giere's Viewing Science - a historical overview of Philosophy of science and a very interesting presentation. I personally belong in the post-1960s "historical turn" of P of S and believe that P of S can be assessed via the history that it produces, a view of meta theory that I first came across in Lakatos. The logical empiricist programme remains something that I am less interested in (but which I suspect quite a portion of the course will be taken up with, as it is what philosophers of science spend their time doing it seems).

I haven't had an opportunity to argue in a seminar against inductivism yet - but I'm sure that can't be too far away.

I also read some of Salmon (ed) Introduction to Philosophy of Science - the chapter on induction for Tuesday's seminar. Our required reading also includes some of Popper's Logic of Scientific Discovery but I haven't bothered reading this. I would expect to still know quite a lot of this work - seems like ages since I spent a summer reading the collected works (at that time) of Popper. Wait a minute, it is ages ago (1982?) But all this is slowly re-building a framework for my understanding of P of S again

In the afternoon I got an email from Femke, the Dutch girl on my course, who has started a Facebook group for LSE Philosophy MSc students. I have joined and have a couple of new friends on Facebook taking my total to five I think.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

A day of work

Spent a few hours this morning working on next week's History of Science seminar. As expected, I have concluded that to simply work through Kuhn is a mistake. So instead, I am trying to focus a little more on some of the measurements that ancient astronomers were able to make to very high accuracy. When I was about 10 I became really interested in astronomy - perhaps my longest lasting lifetime interest and I remember coming across a book in Kenilworth library which included some discussion of observations made by ancient astronomers. And over the next four or five years, I made hundreds of observations of my own. So I am thinking about including something about how to measure, with the naked eye, the lunar month top great accuracy.

It would have been nice to have been able to produce a powerpoint presentation for next week, but so far I have been producing so many drawings than hand drawn ones will have to do. Today I just about finished what I want to say about the sun and am ready to start on the moon.

And during the day today, my copy of T..E. Heath's Aristarchus of Samos arrived. This is the book I got out of LSE library last week and it was a real surprise to find this still available, even if the cover is incredibly garish.

For the last few days I have been without my main PC as it succummed to a virus attack last weekend. The good news is that it seems to have been fixed ok but it still needs loads of testing apparently. No news on whether my old music files have been lost - all my downloads from and various other sources were on this machine.

The afternoon was mainly spent on finishing the book on intelligent design that I downloaded off the LSE library website last week. Not as good as Kitcher's Abusing Science, but not bad. It still looks to me like there is room for more work on this theme. Another possible thesis topic perhaps?

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Mark Rothko show

After meeting up with Fiona last week at LSE, we had made plans to see the Rothko show this afternoon. When she left Lloyds in the late Spring, her leaving present was a membership of the Tate Modern, so she could take me to the show for free. So after a morning at LSE, I wandered down along the Victoria Embankment passed the old offices of Smith & Nephew where I worked for four years and across Blackfriars bridge. Fiona and I met in the bookshop where I was trying to select a suitable Rothko book - the show collection not being the best I thought. Fiona acquired one of the sets of headphones that the Tate give out and, sure enough, I didn't have to pay.

Like Jackson Pollock, who was the subject of a major show a few years back that I went to, Rothko's pictures really have to be seen directly rather than reproduced. It is always a surprise to find out how big they are, yet at the same time to see how multi-layered the paint it. It is not something that is just slapped on!

The reviews of this show have generally been very favorable, seeking to counter the scepticism of those who are unimpressed by such seemingly straightforward pictures. But some of the success of shows like this is clearly linked to Rothko himself. His emphasis on the way his pictures were to be seen together is pretty unique among artists. And focusing on the meditative aspects of his work is very effective too

The main room of the show is extraordinary. Around a dozen of the Seagram murals in one room - the effect is breathtaking. I found myself frequently glancing up from the single picture I happened to be viewing and see three or four stretched out along a wall - quite magnificent.

But the highlight for me in some respects was the room containing a whole series of photographs taken in UV light of one of the pictures. These showed the incredibly intricate detail of the layers of paint - what gives the colour fields the hazy borders they all have (rather than a strongly demarcated line that you might think they would have. I would really like to have some prints of these pictures!

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the grey and black pictures from just before his death are symptomatic of his depression. These are much faster works and, in my mind, not so powerful as the reds and maroons.

As Fiona had listened to the show on the headset, we didn't really chat at all as we walked round - I think this probably was an advantage as I would probably have found it a little distracting otherwise. So we had a drink together in the member's bar which has a superb view across the river towards St Pauls. Fiona is just coming to the end of a six month period of not working and seems to have had an excellent time away from it all. And if I hadn't met Fiona in the summer, I would never have found out about the rich selections of TV shows that can be found on the internet awaiting download. This has had a major impact on our viewing habits!

Two more days at LSE

I remain somewhat unconvinced by the "Scientific Revolutions" course and associated seminar. I remember Elie Zahar's "Rise of Modern Science" course from the early 1980s as being an outstanding course. But this one looks a very faint comparison. John Worrall is closely tracking Kuhn's account of the Copernican Revolution and seems to be planning to take several lectures over this (5 or 6 maybe). This seems somewhat redundant as we are all quite able to read Kuhn ourselves I would have thought. I was looking at a website for a UCL course in History of Science and it did the entire history of science from Greek to Quantum theory in 20 weeks with Copernicus getting one week. I can't help thinking this would be better.

Our seminar today is focused on Lakatos's Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. We have a short paper read by Leonardo, an Italian student (who I was amazed to discover is 42. He looks about 30!). I had re-read Lakatos for this seminar and had a number of detailed points. This went ok, but I also have doubts about this seminar (yet we are only in our second week of term!). Next week I am speaking about the motions of the sun, moon and planets. This also is meant to track Kuhn and I am not at all convinced that this is worthwhile. I am thinking of widening my theme somewhat - not sure how yet.

Lunch with Femke, Mark and Victor in the Brunch Bowl - they are all still auditing lots of classes.

Given the late finish on a Tuesday post "P of S", I have decided to start staying up on a Tuesday night, so this afternoon I travelled across to Queensway where my cheap hotel was based. Very poor standard but only £35 a night! I spent the afternoon stretched out on the bed reading.

Back to LSE for an evening of Philosophy of Science and a new lecture room to accomodate the inter-colleagate students from King's. Tonights lecture continues to work through aspects of the history of P of S, especially the rise of "institutional" P of S in Universities in the early part of the 20th Century. Our seminar group remains too big. Caroline spoke about Giere's Viewing Science, a paper I had forgotton to print off and bring with me. Apparently it was on Moodle, but I have yet to really get to grips with this system.

It is definitely better to go to a hotel afterwards than it is to try and slog it home.

Wednesday is focused on the MSc writing seminar and today's presentation was by Miklos himself, discussing the things that interest him and trying to give us some idea about choosing our own topics. I have volunteered to speak next week to this seminar - though we are only two weeks in and I have nearly two years to complete my thesis.

I have continued to audit Nancy Cartwright's "Evidence" lectures and they do remain interesting - but I suspect that this won't be a course I end up doing. Lunch with Mark at the Brunch Bowl again. He is very interested in consciousness and we talked about Daniel Dennett. I will try and remember to photocopy the autobiography that he has had in the last couple of issues of "Philosophy Now".

And then off to Tate Modern to see the Mark Rothko show

Monday, 13 October 2008

Nassim Taleb lecture

So down to London just for the Taleb lecture this evening at LSE. As I went past the New Academic Building just after 6:00, there was already a queue forming so I abandoned plans for food and joined up with the rest. The main lecture room was soon filled and an overflow room was arranged.

The lecture was originally going to have been aimed at various philosophical issues related to probability, but it was apparent that credit-crunch related events had rather swamped this plan. So we got 20 minutes on probability and the remainder of the lecture on more current events. Taleb's prediction that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac had business plans susceptible to a "black swan" has clearly made him even more of a "sage" than he was before!

Taleb's main probability theme relates to social sciences and the impossibility of knowing the probability distribution that you are facing. This is especially important where the "impact" of the event is critical. He is referring to these as "fourth quadrant", his matrix being thin vs fat tails on one side, and simple vs complex payoffs on the other. The fourth quadrant is fat-tailed / complex payoff. The "real" fat tail remains invisible until it hits with a huge impact. Taleb had some stats related to higher moments of financial market distributions aimed at showing that very few events account for the majority of the fat tail.

His favortite model remains the turkeys being fed in the run up to Thanksgiving (or Christmas I suppose, depending on his audience). Just before the big event hits, turkey epistemology would have found it impossible not to conclude that the hypothesis "the farmer takes care of us" was true (via some form of probability and inductivism)

And once something is non-Gaussian, you don't know how it is non-Gaussian.

So with fat tails, there is no central limit theorem, no method for calculating variance, no applicable stress-testing as the past doesn't predict the future, no linear regression, all data is non-predictive, and this applies to all economic data. Things quickly look Gaussian in the middle but take an infinite time to reveal their non-Gaussian tails

And 99%+ of all social science is in the fourth quadrant - so economics has precisely zero precision in prediction yet "kills" by pretending that it does - "stop the doctors from killing more patients". Accept the humility of what we cannot know. That it is the best we have is no excuse.

He was especially angry at Bernache, of the US Federal Reserve, and especially his "new era of moderation" speech from a couple of years ago. But Taleb himself has no solutions to the current problems - "I can prevent the patient getting ill, but cannot cure the illness".

In answer to a question from an A-level student about studying economics, he replied "don't"! He briefly discussed his personal options strategies which turned out to be sell at the money, but long tails - something that in a past life I just didn't have the discipline to do.

And a final word - econometrics is a fraud. It has not delivered. GARCH is no better than simple and simple is no good. It is like trying to predict lottery winners by examining what clothes they were wearing when they bought their tickets!

I am now the owner of signed copies of both "Fooled by Randomness" and "Black Swan". An excellent evening

Weekend work

Linda and I have decided to have a quiet weekend at home this weekend. Linda has one or two clients coming to the house for Pilates sessions, but otherwise is pretty clear. Our big decision is to not go into Oxford. Instead, Linda is keen to cook a couple of meals in - something on which I totally approve!

My early weekend work is a re-read of the major paper by Lakatos - Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. Someone is presenting a paper on this to the History of Science seminar on Tuesday and I'd like to have some good points to contribute. I am quite in favour of the Lakatos approach to the "reconstruction" of the history of science. I am still reading the Lakatos-Feyerabend correspondence (mainly on the coach each time I travel to London). I do sometimes think it is too tolerant an approach and therefore approaches close to Feyerabend's own "anarchistic" position - an issue I may use in its favour in my dissertation.

And for my dissertation, I have been looking a little more into the career of E.A. Burtt - author of The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science, a key text for my planned thesis. There seems to be only one book directly about him so that will be essential reading. They don't have it in the library at LSE and I have bought it secondhand from the USA. That there is just this one book suggests that focusing on Burtt is a good idea as it isn't an area that is well covered already.

I have also been reading a short book on academic writing called How to write a lot - this is aimed at psychologists, but does have a lot of general relevance and I have already picked up a number of tips and good ideas (many of which were also in Watson's brilliant book Writing a Thesis). The dissertation is probably the most important part of the MSc course for me and I want to do a good job on it - and really enjoy it

My supervisor, Miklos Redei, sent me an email the other day with details of an academic conference in the USA next March. This currently has a "call for papers" and says it welcomes papers from Graduate students. Miklos suggests I send something off - afterall, it can't do any harm and who knows what might be the result. So I am thinking about suggesting something on the history of science tradition from Burtt and Koyre focusing on the metaphysical foundations of many theory changes. I have to submit a proposal of up to 1,000 words by December 1st. Wouldn't that be amazing if it got accepted?

And I am also thinking lots about questions such as: how to explain the credit crunch? I am looking into this from the standpoint of Taleb's Black Swans book. He is speaking at LSE on Monday and I am definitely planning to attend. Really looking forward to it in fact.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

What I learnt in week one!

So I have now finished my first week of lectures and seminars - how has it gone?

Well, it has been quite a shock in a number of ways. At the moment, more or less everyone is still "shopping around" the courses attending five or six before they have to select the three they want to focus on (by October 24th I think). So there is a high level of intensity at the moment from everyone as they rush around attending everything. I have much more flexibility as I have two years and so don't even need to make a decision this academic year!

The interplay between modern technology and the courses has been a very mixed area for me. This seems to be a period of rapid change for LSE with lots of material moving onto a new "learning module" with the rather strange name of "Moodle". Lecture notes, course guides, seminar schedules, papers to be read, etc all filter through Moodle to some degree (though some material remains on the so-called "Public Folders" - the previous system). So far, I have not got used to interacting with Moodle and on a couple of occasions have been lacking information that others have found. I am slowly getting better at this.

And these days, there is no hunting through the library for journal articles. Most of the course material is either available for download via Moodle or is prepared into a paper "course pack" which either the student union or the library have copied (typical price is £20 which seems a bit high, but they are big packs). Not sure whether I agree with this trend - it does mean that there is a much lower incentive to just look through the library. I intend to work my way through the Lakatos collection myself - who knows what interesting stuff might be lurking there which I wouldn't find otherwise?

LSE itself is not too dissimilar to how I remember it really. There are a few extra buildings (of which the main one is the very swanky "New Academic Building"). The library has been completely rebuilt inside and, to my mind, wastes an incredible amount of space with its huge spiral staircase (as does the NAB I think). Most students seem to work on the workstations in the basement - or at least these always seem to be taken. I haven't worked out that aspect of LSE IT yet and have no idea about how to use this stuff - indeed, it is not clear to me what kind of work they are doing. When I occasionally walk past such a workstation, it is usually Facebook that I see!

And the students still seem predominantly international (which was always one of the great attractions of LSE to my mind). The other day I was asked in the library whether I could help an African guy to take out some books from the Course Collection. His English wasn't very good but he seemed very pleased when it all worked out correctly. The single largest "ethnic group" seem to be Asian women - but I could easily be wrong about this!

For me personally, the age issue has loomed larger than it might have done. I had sometimes thought I'd be able to just "hang out" with some of my fellow course attendees but it has felt a little strange when I have done so. On the one hand, I do worry that they will feel negative about my presence on the course. On the other hand, at least my enthusiasm for my subjects is not looked on as really odd, as it is outside of college. In fact, that point is pretty important - one overriding feeling is just how "at home" I do feel in this sort of environment - in contrast to every other environment I find myself in.

Friday, 10 October 2008

A day to actually do some work

Travelling up to LSE three days in a row has had the effect of largely stopping me doing any actual work! On the coach to London, I have tended to continue reading the Lakatos / Feyerabend correspondence which I started last week. True, every so often there is something said that is relevant and which I should look at in more detail - but in the main, this is pretty easy reading. Attempts to read harder stuff have been affected by the difficulties in underlining or highlighting points while we are moving.

For and Against Method - the Lakatos / Feyerabend Correspondence - my current coach reading material

So the first task today was to knock out a 20 page presentation for my seminar to the dissertation group. Following that, it was time to tackle the main Lakatos paper - Falsification and the Methodology of Scientific Research Programmes. And while doing so, I managed to find the two volumes I have of the collected works of Lakatos - hidden on the bookcase in the corner of my study in front of which are a large number of cardboard boxes. On Amazon, these two volumes are over £20 each. So I do intend to be very ready for Tuesday's history of science seminar where we will be discussing this paper

And while on Amazon, I was really excited to find that Thomas Heath's Aristarchus of Samos is available in a paperback edition for £8.90. What a bargain. I sold two more books today - one on Chaos Theory and one on Hedge Funds - for £40. I would have been more than happy to have swapped the two books for a copy of Heath. Everytime I sell a book for £20+, I think about buying one or other of the two books on Kepler that I would most like.

A somewhat garish cover - but a real find. Can't wait to get it

Finally, one more highlight for the day - the "special edition" of Fripp and Eno's No Pussyfooting is now out. This includes versions of Heavenly Music Corporation played backwards and at half speed - there are not many recordings where that could be sensibly done. At the moment, it is the half speed version that has my attention.

I remember how impressed I was by this cover when I bought it on Vinyl back in about 1980

And I was even more impressed by the cover to their follow up, Evening Star (shown below) and which contains the quite extraordinary track An Index of Metals - one of my all time favourite pieces

Day three at LSE

Thursday October 9th

It is very noticeable that the journey to and from London is becoming a little easier each day. When I used to commute from Oxford to Hyde Park Corner every day, I was eventually able to develop a very suitable routine to help me cope with the 4 to 5 hours travel per day. It was clear that such commuting requires a certain detachment of mind. I remember being very impressed with a book I read on a life time spent commuting from Didcot to London - with the excellent title of "Notes from Overground". Stoicism is the main requirement of the long-distance commuter - the ability to become detached from the unique features of each day's journey and, instead, focus on the averages overtime. Once the distribution of the times of the journey is understood internally, so each day's journey loses its individual effects.

I am continuing the "power walk" from Marble Arch to LSE each day - a walk of just over 30 minutes. Today's stop off was at Camisa's, our favourite pasta shop in Soho and somewhere I have been going to regularly for over 20 years now. Then into LSE by just after 12:00

I have been sketching out the piece I am planning to do for the dissertation seminar in a couple of week's time, and spent some time this morning working through the Lakatos collection on the third floor - my objective, something that gives me further information on early Greek heliocentric theories. I settled on T.E. Heath's Aristarchus of Samos - a book I remember from one of the history of science courses I took 25 years ago. This is a really excellent book - I don't suppose it is still possible to buy a copy though as it dates from 1910.

And so to the first seminar in Philosophy of Economics with Nancy Cartwright. Oddly enough, this takes place prior to the first lecture (which surely is a mistake). I sat with Lily (who also attends most of my other courses) We have a short chat to introduce ourselves and I am surprised to discover that there is another person who is both part-time (but just starting her second year) and formerly involved in investment management.

We have a seminar discussion about the Stern report on climate change - I haven't done the reading for this but do remember that a critical point relates to the discount factor to be applied to the future. I remembered that this had been set very low, whereas empirical data suggests people have quite high personal discount factors (15% say). So I suggest that action to battle is doomed to fail due to the personal discount factors implying no one places much value of things in the future - 10 years plus, let alone 700 years.

I also think that each generation accepts the world as they find it and so the worse environment in the future won't bother them as much as it would us.

Afterwards I had a drink in the Garrick cafe with the lady in her second year (whose name I can't remember). She told me alot about her first year experiences (seminars etc) and we discussed financial markets. Then we both went off to hear the first Cartwright "P of E" lecture (after which I definitely had a much better idea about the various "value judgements" underlying work like Stern's). In fact, this was probably the most interesting lecture I have been to so far.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Day two at LSE

Wednesday October 8th

This morning's seminar is possibly one of the most interesting as far as I am concerned - PH445 Philosophical Research and Writing - Philosophy and History of Science. This is the seminar that aims to teach us how to do academic writing and is to help us write our dissertations. I am very excited about the dissertation but don't have to actually hand mine in till August 2010. So although I could probably write a pretty decent one now, I am very keen to pad it out and spend loads more time on it.

Our group is a pretty mixed bunch. There are two guys from San Francisco who did their first degrees at Berkeley - one of whom has one of the most irritating voices I have ever heard - another American, a Swede, an Italian guy, one Dutch girl, a German-French girl and an Italian girl, and two other UK guys (one of whom used to teach Philosophy A-level apparently)

As a result of today's seminar, I have volunteered to give the first student paper outlining what I might do my dissertation on. This is due in two weeks time, but I was able to sketch it out during the day today. This will be the plan to update Burtt's Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Science in respect of modern scholarship on Copernicus, Kepler and (to a lesser extent) Galileo.

Afterwards six of us went for a drink in the Garrick cafe during which one of the people actually suggested that I should be in charge of the History of Science seminar as the points I had made during yesterday's meeting were so interesting!

I attended a few minutes of the AGM of the LSE Hedge Fund but decided I wasn't really that interested in this. Then back to Connaught House for a Nancy Cartwright lecture on Evidence - not a course that I intend to do but I was at LSE anyway and most people are shopping around still.

Afterwards I saw a notice that said Nassim Taleb was speaking on Monday in the main theatre of the New Academic Building on the theme of Decisions, Probability and Belief: beware Mickey Mouse Probability. I will definitely be going down for this - my main concern is that it is a free, ticket-less event open to anyone and so I need to ensure I get there in time. While viewing this, I was joined by Femke, the Dutch girl on a few of my courses. We had a nice chat as we made our way towards the Library. She has already made a few contributions to seminars and I think she will be one of the fun people on the courses. Apparently she is very interested in mathematical logic (a course that I quickly rejected the idea of going to)

First day of classes, etc

Tuesday October 7th

So my first day of lectures and classes has arrived. First one, the 10:00 John Worrall lecture on History of Science, more particularly, on Scientific Revolutions, and even more particularly, mainly on Copernicus to Newton (though there is also a section on Darwin next term). Everything is very high-tec and not just because this is being held in the imaginatively named "New Academic Building". Each room has PCs and projector systems and the teacher simply logs on to the LSE system and finds their lectures on their own folders. I'm sure this has become standard everywhere by now, but it was the first time I've seen it in operation and I was quite impressed.

The lecture itself was ok - but this is a subject i already know alot about and I don't expect to be surprised by it too much.

Immediately afterwards is the associated graduate seminar in one of the rooms upstairs. Our tutor (who I think is called George) set about allocating some seminar topics and I have volunteered to speak in two weeks time about the motion of the stars, sun and moon as observed from earth. I also made a number of points during the discussion itself as we talked about Karl Popper. Next week's talk is on Lakatos and his MSRP - ages since I read that!

Then a long gap for the afternoon - 6 hours to fill before the Philosophy of Science module kicks off at 6:00pm. Lunch in what used to be the "Brunch Bowl" but now seems to have been recently rebranded, then off to the library for a few hours. I really need somewhere to doze and am wondering if the departmental post grad common room would be the best plan - not sure where that is though! I settled in near the Lakatos Collection on the third floor of the library and did spend an hour or so looking through these shelves - there could be lots of good stuff here which would be best found by looking shelf by shelf.

And finally it is 6:00pm and time for the Philosophy of Science lecture and seminar with my tutor Miklos Redei. Things start off poorly and don't really improve. The immediate problem is that a huge number of poeple have turned up - far too many for the lecture theatre that had been booked. Many seem to be inter-collegiate students from King's. Miklos is clearly somewhat surprised by this. The lecture is ok (a brief intro into some historical examples of philosophy of science from the history of philosophy) but then the same problem arises with the seminar where over 30 people turn up. This is next to useless for a seminar discussion - indeed LSE has a rule that the maximum number for a seminar can be 19. Above that and a second seminar has to be arranged. So the seminar is pretty unfocused - a random discussion of some of the issues raised in the lecture. No one had done the pre-seminar reading (I don't have the material for this either). So not a good start to this one.

So I left home at 6:30 this morning and arrived home at about 11:00. That is definitely a very long day!

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Two admin days at LSE

Thursday October 2nd

The first of two admin / departmental meetings today and the first early-start commuting run for me on the coach from Oxford. Now I have my student card I can get discounts on my travel, which feels a bit odd.

Our 10:30 meeting was for all the post graduates in the philosophy department and was mainly an introduction to staff, outlines of the different courses and their respective option choices, and some bits and bobs about things like the library, the careers service and councilling services. Apparently the latter includes a number of lectures directly relevant to MSc students, such as how to start your dissertation.

So this was the first time to see my fellow MSc students. First surprise is how many there were - maybe 45? Most seem to be doing the Philosophy and Public Policy course, but there are about 10 or 12 doing my course. Mostly guys from what I could tell off the tutor list. As expected, my supervisor is Miklos Redei who was tutor for this course last year. The male / female ratio is about 70:30 in the department as a whole - that is probably about the same as it was when I was last here.

After a couple of hours of presentations, we have 30 mins free before a department lunch in the Shaw Library. I just have time to wizz round some of the Freshers' Fair, joining the LSE Hedge fund society on the way! This seems to be run by some of the Asian students and does seem to have developed some good links with industry people - e.g. Man Group sends speakers to it.

This was only the second time I have ever been to the Shaw Library. We all try to mingle and talk to a few people. It turns out that I am not the oldest student after all. There is one guy in his fifties and a women in her late fourties. But they are doing different courses to me. I do feel a bit better for having met them though! I had a brief talk with John Worrall, who doesn't remember me from the early 1980s (as expected), but was able to tell me where all the people were that I knew then. Peter Urbach and Elie Zahar have both more or less dropped out of the academic circuit - apparently they are both "gentlemen scholars" now.

So the lunch went ok - I found a few people to talk to. But this side of things will, no doubt, be quite difficult, and not just because I am older than average.

Just time to have a change of books in the library and then home. Starting to feel more like a student now!

Friday October 3rd

I was quite tempted to stay home and work today rather than trail up to London for another departmental meeting, but though I was correct in thinking there wouldn't be much at the meeting that I did need, there were one or two hugely important things.

Perhaps most importantly, Nassim Taleb is speaking at the LSE at some point very soon - maybe next week. The rather flaky organiser of the Philosophy Society (the student group) wasn't entirely sure about the details though. I hadn't seen this society at the Freshers' Fair but it does seem an interesting one and they publish a regular magazine featuring the best essays produced by students - I thought that was pretty slick.

Hopefully Taleb will be on a day I am planning to be at LSE anyway, but I definitely want to see him regardless of when it is.

And so to the department drinks in the Underground Bar under the Three Tuns. This was awful! I only know one or two people from yesterday and I wasn't sure that any of them were there. So I'm afraid that I only managed about 30 minutes in the bar and then made a quick exit. A slow walk back to Marble Arch via a noodle bar in Chinatown and that was that. I was even able to sleep a bit on the coach home - the first time I've managed that so far, and a very important part of being able to cope with commuting again.