Ernest Davis: Letters to the Editors

New York Times Book Review, Sunday, August 18, 2013

To the Editor:

Robert D. Kaplan, in his review of Balance: The Economics of Great Powers From Ancient Rome to Modern America (Aug. 4) writes that Diocletian "set a precedent by voluntarily abdicating the throne several years before his death." It was not a precedent that was much followed. Diocletian's partner Maximian abdicated with him, and then regretted it and made two unsuccessful attempts to regain the throne. Vetranio, who ruled for nine months, abdicated in favor of Constantius. Otherwise the Roman emperors after Diocletian, like those before him, died in office or were forcibly overthrown.

Diocletian's abdication itself had a precedent in the abdication of Sulla from the position of dictator in the last century of the Roman Republic 400 years earlier.

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NY Times, Op-Ed, April 26, 2012

Expand Minds, Not the NYU Campus by Ernest Davis, Patrick Deer, and Mark Crispin Miller. Reprinted in While We Were Sleeping: NYU and the Destruction of New York.

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Times Literary Supplement, April 4, 2012

Sir ---

Peter Thonemann in "Miracles of survival" (March 30) underestimates the degree to which the works of the great Greek mathematicians are remembered and honored in current mathematics. It is certainly not correct to say that they "live on anonymously". In mathematical research papers and textbooks written yesterday, you can find references to the Euclidean metric, Euclidean spaces, the Euclidean algorithm, the Pythagorean theorem, the Archimedean property, Archimedean solids, Platonic solids, Diophantine equations, the circles of Appolonius, Ptolemy's theorem, and Pappus' theorem.

Ernest Davis
Professor of Computer Science
New York University
New York, NY 10012

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Times Literary Supplement, November 11, 2011

Sir --

J.C. (NB, November 4) objects to the saying "Like a fence, a character cannot be strengthened by whitewash," on the grounds that a fence is strengthened by whitewash. But the saying is correct. Whitewash preserves or protects a fence, but certainly does not make it stronger.

Ernest Davis
1 Washington Sq. Village
New York, NY 10012

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New York Times Book Review, Sunday, August 7, 2011

Writing Behind Bars

To the Editor:

Oscar Wilde's jail sentence was catastrophic for his writing, and it is almost obscene to suggest otherwise, as Tony Perrottet does in his essay of July 24 ("Serving the Sentence"). It is true that in the three years of imprisonment he wrote De Profundis, but in a comparable period before his arrest, he wrote Salome, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Ernest Davis
New York

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Times Literary Supplement, October 1, 2010.

Sir --- Stephen Hennigan writes ``the most famous fictional creation of Robertson Davies is Dunstan Ramsay, not `Dunstable' " correcting a supposed error in The Cambridge History of Canadian Literature (September 17). Hennigan's correction is mistaken. Ramsay's given name is Dunstable; he changes it to Dunstan in mid-life.

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New York Times Book Review, Sunday, June 20, 2010.

Smarter

Response to Review by Paul Bloom of "The Invisible Gorilla" by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons

The statistic quoted in Paul Bloom's review of "The Invisible Gorilla", that 63% of Americans consider themselves more intelligent than the average American, is remarkably unimpressive. First, assuming that few people made the mistake in the opposite direction, this means that 87% of respondents got the answer right, and only 13% got it wrong, which is not too bad. Second, the 37th percentile on IQ scores is 95 and the 50th is 100, so this corresponds to a misjudgment of one's IQ score by 5 points; a pretty small error. Third, even when a person's answer is wrong, it could well be a reasonable judgment. People's experiences of themselves and of other people is subject to all kinds of sampling biases that would be difficult to correct for, even if (hypothetically) their thinking was perfectly unbiased and entirely realistic. Fourth, intelligence is a vague quality with many aspects, and people undoubtedly tend to value those forms of intelligence that they themselves possess. So it is probably literally true that most people are more intelligent, and more ethical, and have a better sense of humor, and so on, than the majority of other people, on the scale in which they themselves evaluate those qualities.

The experiment that I would like to see done would be to ask university professors whether they consider themselves more intelligent than the average university professor. I fear that the figure would be considerably higher than 63%.

I found out 11 months later that the true figure for college professors is 94%! (To be precise, 94% consider themselves a better-than-average teacher among their colleagues.) See "Not can but will college teaching be improved,'' by K. Patricia Cross, New Directions for Higher Education, Spring 1977, 17:1-15; and Are You as Good a Teacher as You Think, Paul C. Price, Thought and Action, Fall 2006, 7-14. Thanks to Adrienne Morck Lisan for the references.

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The New Republic: November 14, 2005

(from the days when The New Republic printed letters rather than maintaining a blog)

[This is the version I wrote, not the edited version printed.]

To the editors:

Noam Scheiber (in TRB 10/24) makes the off-hand, casual recommendation that Democrats prove their bona-fides on the war on terrorism by endorsing a plan to bomb Iranian or North Korean nuclear plants if necessary. This is blood-chillingly irresponsible. Bombing North Korea might well provoke a response that would destroy Seoul or Tokyo. Bombing the nuclear sites of Iran, some of which are presumed to be located near large and ancient cities like Isfahan, could cause huge civilian casualtes; destroy works of art and architecture of immeasurable artistic and historic value; and unite the population of Iran behind its government and thus destroy any chance of internal reform. That a columnist for TNR would consider such criminal folly to be a central part of the "war on terrorism" shows how deeply Bush-think has infected political discourse.

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The New Yorker: January 6, 2003

[The version I wrote. The editors at the New Yorker almost reversed the meaning of my letter, from saying that this was less worrisome than it seemed to saying that it was more worrisome.]

I entirely share in Hendrik Hertzberg's outrage at the administration's steady assaults on civil liberties and privacy, of which the proposed projects of the Information Awareness Office are the latest, though by no means, to my mind, the most serious. However, most of the phrases that Hertzberg cites as unwelcome, Orwellian (or PhilipDickian) "gifts to the language" are in fact well-established technical terms in the jargon of artificial intelligence (AI) research. In particular, "truth maintenance" is just a bookkeeping scheme in which, when a program calculates a results from some inputs, it records that the results depend on the inputs. "Biologically inspired algorithms for agent control" sounds like something out of Michael Crichton's "Prey". In actual fact, though, "biologically inspired algorithms" are a category of techniques for seeking solutions to complex problems; the connection to biology is always metaphorical, and generally a rather far-fetched metaphor. "Agent" in this context means little more than "computer program". The slogan "Knowledge is power" is a quote from Sir Francis Bacon: "Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est."

Twenty-five years ago, in an article entitled "Artificial Intelligence meets Natural Stupidity", my teacher Drew McDermott warned the AI community against its tendency to give grandiloquent names to simple ideas. Now that this kind of terminology is giving the creeps to the editors of the New Yorker, his warning becomes even more cogent.

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The New Republic: January 22, 1996

To the editors

Robert Wright (TRB, Dec. 18) cites a 1976 statistic that cases of fatal abuse were 100 times more likely for children not living with two natural parents, and uses this as evidence of the destructive effects of divorce. This argument confuses common cause with cause-and-effect. People who are evil enough to kill children are not generally the kind of people who have long-lasting marriages. But this does not prove that anyone would be better off if they were compelled, by law or societal pressure, to remain in their first marriage.

``The failure of modern liberalism to deal seriously with complex moral issues'' is a figment of Wright's imagination. A serious, engaged, and important debate goes on as to when it is better, for everyone involved, for partners in a troubled marriage to stay together or to divorce, and what their moral responsibilities are in this situation. It is not a sign of moral frivolity to decide that certain extreme solutions --- in particular, the legal prohibition of divorce and remarriage --- are not worth considering or debating.

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The New Republic: July 4, 1994

To the editors:

Jonathan Rauch's "The Hyperpluralism Trap" (June 6) may have a real point to make, but Rauch buries it under a mass of sloppy argumentation. First, the environmental laws that have led to the very substantial improvement in our air and water and the protection of many species over the past twenty years perfectly fit Rauch's principles for good governmental action. Their benefits are universal and long-term. Moreover, as is consistently shown in opinion polls, they are in general supported by a broad societal consensus. Rauch's sneer that they "reflect the priorities of people who buy BMW's and brie more than the priorities of people who buy used Chevies and hamburger" is an insult to the intelligence of the latter, and is way off the mark.

Second, hyperpluralism is not like hyperinflation. There is little evidence that the kind of positive feedback that drives inflation is operating in the growth of groups. Certainly, hyperpluralism cannot share the most striking feature of hyperinflation: its unboundedness. One can print quadrillion dollar bills, but there is a reasonable limit to the number of groups that any individual will join, and to the percentage of income that he will send them.

Third, lobbying is not necessarily bad. Lobbying for bad things is bad; lobbying for good things is good. If Rauch thinks that a balanced budget is a good thing, he can certainly find a lobbying group that will push his point of view. Lobbying for a clean environment and for civil rights has in general been a good thing. If not for the groups that lobbied hard for these goods, I very much doubt that we would have gotten them from the quiet wisdom of an undisturbed government, let alone from a Tammany Hall.