Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Why do people say "colorblindness" is racist?

The Church of Rationality lists a few possible reasons why people so often express this odd view. My favorite point:

You're not much of a punk rock insider if you like the Ramones. Everyone likes the Ramones. If you're an expert concerning some Portugese band whose whole output consists of flexidiscs published with Greek fanzines in the late 1980s, then we're talking. Likewise, you're not much of an anti-racist if you're simply against racism. Even the conservatives are against racism these days. You'll have to offer a little more. The more extreme, the better.

Monday, August 29, 2011

If Mitt Romney doesn't "know" global warming is mostly caused by humans, is he "against science"?

Paul Krugman's latest column is headlined:

Republicans Against Science
Krugman writes:
Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor and ambassador to China, isn’t a serious contender for the Republican presidential nomination. And that’s too bad, because Mr. Hunstman has been willing to say the unsayable about the G.O.P. — namely, that it is becoming the “anti-science party.” This is an enormously important development. And it should terrify us. . . .

In the past, Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts, has strongly endorsed the notion that man-made climate change is a real concern. But, last week, he softened that to a statement that he thinks the world is getting hotter, but “I don’t know that” and “I don’t know if it’s mostly caused by humans.” Moral courage!
So, Mitt Romney says he doesn't know. Is this uncertainty "terrify[ing]"?

The full Romney quote is: "Do I think the world's getting hotter? Yeah, I don't know that but I think that it is." So his basic conclusion is: "I think that it is," but he qualifies this with "I don't know." Isn't this appropriate for a layperson who's deferring to scientific consensus?

I've been reading Richard Feynman's book The Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. Here's what Feynman said about uncertainty:
It is necessary and true that all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses as to what is going to happen, and you cannot know what will happen, because you have not made the most complete experiments. . . .

Scientists, therefore, are used to dealing with doubt and uncertainty. All scientific knowledge is uncertain. This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this. We know that it is consistent to be able to live and not know. Some people say, "How can you live without knowing?" I do not know what they mean. I always live without knowing.
Remember, Feynman said this about all scientific conclusions, including ones about much simpler questions than how much the billions of people in the world are contributing to climate change. And he was describing the level of doubt that even scientists should have about their own fields of expertise, let alone the appropriate attitude of a layperson. Feynman said this isn't some weird defect in science, but it's essential to science. If Krugman is terrified at the idea of not "knowing," maybe he's the one who's against science.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Well, that turned out to be nothing.

For me, at least. As far as I can tell.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Walgreens price-gouging bottled water in anticipation of Hurricane Irene

This afternoon, a Walgreens in Manhattan was selling small bottles of water for $5.49 each:

Walgreens price-gouging bottled water

(Photo by me.)

IN THE COMMENTS: We discuss whether price-gouging is good or bad.

Keep an eye on Hurricane Irene with these web cams.

Times Square

Empire State Building

Charging Bull (near Wall Street)

Chelsea Piers (begins with ad)

Somewhere in Lower Manhattan

Grand Central Terminal before Hurricane Irene hits

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(Photos by MTAPhotos.)

Overheard at brunch

Roger Ebert has written that only in movies does someone go to a bar and just order a "beer" without being more specific. He calls it the movies' "Generic Drinker Syndrome." Well, I overheard this today at brunch in Yaffa Cafe:

Customer: "I need something to drink. Alcohol."

Waiter: "Mimosa? Beer?"

Customer: "Anything."

Going to Whole Foods in NYC last night while everyone is stocking up for Hurricane Irene

[UPDATE: Some of the photos were missing before. They're all here now.]

On the way there, you see the subway has been closed:

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I went to Whole Foods at around 9 p.m. last night, and people had taken almost all the bottled water:

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And bread:

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And chips:

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You can tell that blue corn is the least popular kind of chips. "We'll only eat them if we have to." If this is what it looks like when there's a mad rush for chips, how do blue corn chips ever sell under normal conditions?

Blue corn: the least popular kind of chips

Thursday, August 25, 2011

We're From the Government and We're Here to Help — Hurricane Irene Edition

This is the New York City government's idea of how to protect me from Hurricane Irene, which is expected to move up here on Sunday or Monday:

I'm in a "hurricane evacuation zone" because I live on a certain street in Manhattan's Greenwich Village.

If I lived just 3 short blocks away (one-tenth of a mile, according to Google Maps), I wouldn't be in a "zone."

(If you live in NYC, you can look up whether you're in a zone here, though I ended up getting this information by calling 311 since that website is extremely slow.)

What does it mean for me to live in a "zone"? If the city issues a "hurricane evacuation order," the government will order me to leave my home "immediately" and either (a) stay in an area that's not in a "zone" (which, again, could be as close as 3 blocks away) or (b) go to a "hurricane center." Where's the closest "hurricane center"? Oh, between 192nd and 193rd St. In order to get there, I'd need to travel almost the whole length of Manhattan.

There are 8 million people in this city. Can you imagine what the stampede coming from Manhattan and the Bronx to converge on that hurricane center would be like if people took these rules seriously?

Now, possibly the biggest risk from the hurricane is flooding. Fortunately, I don't live on the basement or ground floor of my apartment building; I live on the 3rd floor. So I'm not very worried about my apartment getting flooded. But if there is a "hurricane evacuation order," and if I happen to have a friend who lives in a non-zone — even on the basement or ground floor — the government will tell me to stay at that apartment instead of my own.

[ADDED: Some people have suggested that the zones might make sense if there's a significant difference in elevation between the area in the zone and the area outside the zone. Well, I walk to and from those areas almost every day, and it's pretty much a flat expanse of land.]

What's really going on here is that the government is trying to signal that it is taking the hurricane very, very seriously — so seriously that it has a plan for evacuating a large portion of the city. The truth is, that's impossible. So the government makes up some arbitrary rules, as if the hurricane is going to carefully observe these neat distinctions between the various streets of Greenwich Village.

Why can't the government show that it cares by releasing general advisory guidelines, and then let individuals use their own judgment based on their specific circumstances?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Steve Jobs on life and death

"No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

"Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary."

Steve Jobs has resigned as CEO of Apple.

Dick Cheney kept a resignation letter in a safe the whole time he was Vice President.

He reveals this in his memoirs, which are coming out next Tuesday. Only Cheney, President Bush, and one staffer knew of the letter's existence.

Cheney's reason:

"[T]here is no mechanism for getting rid of a vice president who can’t function."
He also makes this tantalizing statement about his book:
"I didn’t set out to embarrass the president or not embarrass the president."

Blogger of the Day: Lynda Barry, great cartoonist

Lynda Barry's blog is called The Near-Sighted Monkey, named after a recurring character. (via)

I love her octopus dictionary page.

Barry will be teaching a course at my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin - Madison, in spring 2012.

Here's a very long, recent interview with her, and a shorter, older interview.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Judge Richard Posner on economic recovery and the deficit

This whole article is well worth reading.

A sample:

The problem is not the level of the debt but its growth. In the seven years between 2000 and 2007 (the last year before the financial crisis that triggered the current depression), the public debt grew in real (that is, inflation-adjusted) terms by 56 percent, the consequence of reckless spending and tax cuts by the Bush administration. Between 2007 and 2012 (the debt in fiscal 2012, which ends September 30 of next year, is of course an estimated number), a shorter period, the nation’s public debt will have grown by another 134 percent. . . . These annual rates of growth vastly exceed the rate of the nation’s economic growth even in prosperous times, and if they continue will bankrupt the federal government.
Unfortunately, even when the economy recovers, and tax revenues increase, the federal deficit will continue to rise because of the rapid growth of entitlement expenditures—primarily Medicare and Social Security and, because of the health-reform law, Medicaid. . . .
[T]he deficit, politics aside, should be manageable. But it’s worth pointing out that anything that takes money out of the economy, such as reducing federal spending or increasing federal taxes, will exacerbate the current depression. Consumers will have less money to spend, and this will discourage employers from hiring. So the reforms that I have been discussing should be phased in gradually over a period of years.
But it’s not clear that we have enough years. . . .
Posner concludes that we're in "a quandary. I don’t see a way out of it. I hope others do."

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Fact-checking the Washington Post's Fact Checker

Ben Smith at Politico says (a) Biden did call Tea Party activists "terrorists," and (b) the Washington Post's Fact Checker isn't checking facts.

Is Obama willing to question his own assumptions?

Mickey Kaus poses the question (all links and emphasis are from Kaus's blog post, not added here):

The president is in a situation in which virtually none of his considered beliefs – in Keynesian economics, in the power of redistributive populism, in coalition politics, in his own oratorical skill – is being affirmed by the real world. It’s like the period Thomas Kuhn talks about in his famous Structure of Scientific Revolutions, when scientists are working along within the old “paradigm” but the data start coming back funny. Most scientists just ignore the discordant data and keep plodding along. A few start to question the “paradigm.” You’d want a President in tough times to be one of the latter, no? You’d expect someone like Obama to undertake some reevaluation. As Bret Stephens noted recently, genuinely smart people know what they don’t know – or in this case they know what they used to know but now aren’t so sure about anymore. 
Take Keynesianism. I’ve always assumed that Keynesian remedies – e.g. government deficit spending–worked. Certainly deficit spending seemed to work for Ronald Reagan in the early 1980s. And Paul Krugman may well be right that the only problem with Obama’s stimulus is that it wasn’t big enough. But you can’t say that anymore with certainty, can you? The data – big stimulus, weak recovery – hardly reinforce the paradigm with anything like inarguable clarity. And there are some respected economists – Kenneth Rogoff, and Greg Mankiw, to name two – who question whether the classic Keynesian paradigm still holds in the current slump. Has Obama read them? Consulted them? No need to make a show of it like Carter. He can do it quietly. But has he? 
Or is it possible that Obama is … what did they call his predecessorintellectually incurious?
So many of our seemingly rational beliefs are a matter of faith. The word is often used synonymously with "religion," but it also describes people's beliefs on economics, government, society — almost everything. If you know someone has a belief today, it's extremely likely they'll have the same belief next week, no matter what happens tomorrow. I haven't gotten any sense that President Obama is an exception to this general rule.

He isn't entirely to blame for this; our whole political culture is also to blame. We insist on politicians having "convictions," which means never changing their minds — the opposite of "flip-flopping," which is always bad. Imagine if Obama came out and said:
Look, the stimulus was an experiment in Keynesianism. The point of an experiment is that you don't know in advance exactly what the results are going to be. We can now see that results of this experiment were pretty poor. So it's time to try a different approach.
But he could never say this, because it would reveal weakness, which is supposed to be worse than being consistently wrong.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Do smartphone patents inhibit innovation?

The New York Times reports:

In a recent blog post, David Drummond, Google’s chief legal officer, wrote that a modern smartphone might be susceptible to as many as 250,000 potential patent claims, depending on how broadly those patents and claims were interpreted.

“The trouble is that in this industry so often a patent is not a clearly defined property right, but a lottery ticket of uncertain value,” said Scott Stern, a professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “That uncertainty can carry a lot of risk and cost.”
In addition to all that complexity, randomness, and waste, patent law shifts money around in ways that appear unrelated or even opposed to innovation:
This patent gold rush . . . is diverting money for innovation from industries crucial to the economic future of the United States, analysts say. Patents were created as an incentive for innovation, giving inventors a temporary right to commercialize their ideas, without others copying them. While the recent blockbuster patent deals may make sense for the companies, analysts say, they are fed largely by legal considerations — asserting patent claims or defending against claims — rather than economic ones. 
So the very innovation patents were intended to encourage, they say, suffers in the patent wars. “You’d much rather see Apple spend some of that $4 billion on new inventions, and Google invest that $12 billion to generate new knowledge,” said Josh Lerner, an economist at the Harvard Business School. “It’s a transfer of wealth from innovators to bondholders and stockholders who have no motivation to innovate. It’s disturbing.”
So, when these observations make for a good article, the New York Times is willing to point out how a government policy can have unintended consequences that are contrary to the policy's original purpose. Patent law is only one of many examples of how this can happen; the economist Thomas Sowell has practically based a career on calling out such policies. I hope the New York Times editorial page writers are keeping this lesson in mind too, instead of just assuming that wherever the free market fails to work perfectly, legislation or regulation can make it better.

Monday, August 15, 2011

"Almost Everything is Unconstitutional"

Matthew Yglesias lists the 10 "weirdest ideas" in Texas Governor Rick Perry's book Fed Up!

(I wish there were a simple way to indicate that the exclamation mark is part of the book title, not my own punctuation of the whole sentence.)

Saturday, August 13, 2011

2 surprising pay gaps

1. Single men earn less money the heavier they are, while single women earn more money the heavier they are. (This is after controlling for several factors, including education, age, and whether they're raising young children.)

This might seem to counter the "perception that obese women are discriminated against in the job market far more than obese men." But as economist Marina Adshade notes in her blog post, these facts might be due to the fact that heaviness is a more severe liability for women than for men in the dating market. Thus, heavy women have a stronger incentive to earn lots of money for themselves.

Clearly, being on the higher-income side of a pay "gap" doesn't necessarily show that you have an unfair advantage over the people on the lower-income side.

2. Lesbians earn more money than straight women. The gap is about 40% before controlling for any of the factors that might contribute to the gap. And there are many such factors:

[L]esbian women are better-educated on average, are more likely to be white, live predominantly in cities, have fewer children, and are significantly more likely to be a professional. But even when you control for these differences, the wage premium is still on the order of 6%.
Here's a very important insight from that second link, a post on a blog called Offsetting Behavior by economist Eric Crampton (I've changed Crampton's brackets to parentheses to be clear that I'm still quoting him):
[I]f correcting for the observables reduces the wage gap between lesbians and heterosexual women from around 40% (the paper cites average hourly wages of $18.70 for lesbians and $13.34 for cohabiting non-lesbian females) to around 5%, odds are pretty high that there are a bunch of unobservables also correlated with job performance that aren't captured in the wage regression.
More broadly: if you think it's implausible that employers love lesbians so much that they pay them extra for no good reason, then shouldn't you expect the same when looking at the male-female pay gap?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Michael Moore calls on Obama to prosecute the CEO of Standard & Poors.

Michael Moore says on Twitter:

Pres Obama, show some guts & arrest the CEO of Standard & Poors. These criminals brought down the economy in 2008& now they will do it again
And Eugene Volokh has the perfect blog post heading:
You’d Think Anti-Establishment Filmmakers Would Have a Bit More Interest in Preserving a Strong First Amendment

Mitt Romney points out that "corporations are people."

That's what this ThinkProgress article tells us in its headline. Yes, it considered this observation such big news as to warrant a headline. ThinkProgress also embeds this video of Romney's comments, which he made in a heated exchange with hecklers at a presidential campaign stop:

 

ThinkProgress transcribes part of the video:

ROMNEY: There’s various ways of [preserving Social Security and Medicare’s solvency]. One is we could raise taxes on people. That’s not the way . . . 
AUDIENCE: Corporations! Corporations! 
ROMNEY: Corporations are people, my friend. 
AUDIENCE: No they’re not. 
ROMNEY: Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. Where do you think it goes? 
AUDIENCE: It goes into your pocket! [I'm not hearing the word "your" in the video. There are multiple people yelling at once, and it sounds like someone says: "In their pockets." — JAC] 
ROMNEY: Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. Human beings, my friend.
ThinkProgress says this was a "damaging" campaign stop for Romney.

Well, I'm sorry, but Mitt Romney is right.

A corporation — like a government — is a set of concepts and phrases and rules that people have invented to allow themselves to organize and do stuff. I don't understand why the Left insists that "corporations" aren't "people."

And I don't see how this is "damaging" to Romney. When I see him spontaneously and cogently defend himself against people trying to shout fallacies over his speech, this raises my opinion of Romney.

UPDATE: Jonathan Chait at The New Republic wrote a similar blog post:
The controversy du jour seems to be Mitt Romney's claim, in response to hecklers, that corporations are people . . . 
There is a controversy over whether corporations are people from the standpoint of law, with implications for free speech and other policy areas. That is not the point Romney was making. Romney was saying that taxes on corporations are in fact borne by people. Romney probably wouldn't admit that these are people who partially or completely own corporations, and thus far richer in the aggregate than the general public. But the fact is that they are people. Raising taxes on corporations is simply raising taxes on a certain category of people.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Is it effective to argue that homosexuality "isn't a choice"?

Julia Galef (who prolifically blogs about rationality and skepticism on several sites, including Measure of Doubt, Rationally Speaking, and the Rationally Speaking podcast) has a post in 3 Quarks Daily called "Pushing the right beliefs, for the wrong reasons." It's about the general problem of how to balance one's desire to make good arguments with the desire to succeed in winning over your opponents.

She gives a lot of examples, but I want to focus on what she says about sexual orientation:

[I]f you take the approach of convincing someone with the evidence that is more convincing to him personally, but which isn’t the real reason you believe the claim in question, then you’re setting yourself up for failure if that evidence turns out to be false. So, for example, I know a lot of people who make the case against discrimination of gays by arguing that homosexuality is innate. And judging from the ubiquity of that argument, it does seem to be one of the most persuasive arguments for gay rights as far as the general public is concerned.

Yet while I agree that the evidence is overwhelming that homosexuality is innate, I’m loath to make that argument, because in my opinion that’s not the real reason we shouldn’t discriminate against homosexuals. The real reason, as far as I’m concerned, is that it’s none of our business if consenting adults want to sleep with each other, as long as they’re not hurting anyone else. By making the “homosexuality is innate” argument, I’d be staking my anti-discrimination case on an empirical question which, if it unexpectedly turned out to be false, would seriously undermine what is actually a very worthwhile case.

But it’s possible that’s a risk worth taking. . . . I’m not at all certain where to draw the line on the spectrum of persuasion, from smiles at one end to lies at the other. But at the least, I think it’s important to recognize that there is often a tradeoff between a good argument and a persuasive one, and to ask ourselves what our goal really is: improving people’s beliefs, or improving the processes of reasoning that they use to arrive at their beliefs?
I agree that this is often a tough tradeoff, but I wonder why the sexual orientation issue even presents this dilemma.

The question of what causes homosexuality may be interesting for academic or scientific purposes. But I don't understand why anyone sees the need to debate it in the context of a political discussion.

How is it anybody's business what actually contributed to a stranger's sexual and romantic and emotional attractions and commitments to another stranger?

People are going to find these activities either acceptable or unacceptable based on the consequences that flow from those activities — not based on what caused them.

Homosexuality and bisexuality and heterosexuality should be accepted whether they're caused by biology or upbringing or culture or even free choice. They should be accepted because they are clearly good things, not because of an esoteric, endless debate about their origins. They're good things because they lead to happiness and human flourishing and security.

Not all sexuality is acceptable. For example, pedophilia is unacceptable, immoral, and illegal. Now, I don't know why pedophiles are the way they are. And for purposes of any legal or political or moral debates, I don't care. All we need to know is that pedophiliac acts have harmful consequences. Whether those acts can be attributed to "nature" or "nurture" or "free will" is beside the point.

Of course, some people view homosexuality similarly to pedophilia, as a "deviant" "lifestyle" that shouldn't be tolerated. We should fight against this attitude, but not the part of the attitude that calls homosexuality or bisexuality a "lifestyle" or a "choice." Why would anyone want to devalue the words "lifestyle" and "choice" by insisting that they not be used to describe anything positive? Why would anyone (especially those who consider themselves "liberal" or "libertarian") condition their acceptance of others' sexual/romantic behavior on the idea that the behavior isn't a "choice"? Choice is not a bad thing. Choice is part of freedom. To be clear, I'm not saying that "homosexuality is a choice." I simply have no idea if it is, and I don't see how this question is of any concern to anyone (outside of academia or idle curiosity). And I know that people of all sexual orientations — especially bisexuals! — at least choose to act on their leanings. And there's nothing wrong with that.

It's popular, but hopeless, to insist that we keep our "morality" separate from government policy. It's easy to say, but no one follows it. The same people who say this about gay rights (and abortion) will advance their other views by saying things like: "Health care is a moral issue!" "The environment is a moral issue!" "Poverty is a moral issue!" These statements are almost always meant to suggest that the government should be involved in health care, the environment, and poverty, not that it should stay away from these issues.

You can't order people to selectively turn off their morality. People are going to exercise their faculties of moral thinking whether you'd like them to or not. What you can do is try to change their moral views.

I do like Jonah Goldberg's solution. Here's my rough paraphrase of his argument (from 2002):

(1) It is simply not clear how much of homosexuality is a choice vs. environmental vs. inborn. Maybe it's all of those things. Who knows?

(2) But even if it's actually a choice or environmental, we still don't really know anything about how people become gay.

(3) So, for practical purposes, people are essentially born gay.

From this, Goldberg concludes:
The crux of the issue is that for all practical purposes, it doesn't matter how so-called "waverers" became gay. Because they are that way now. And unless conservatives are going to endorse some pretty draconian and, more to the point, unenforceable policies, gays aren't going to go away or be "cured."
Despite everything I've written above, I do basically assume that people are either gay or bisexual or straight, and they don't have a choice in the matter. But this is just an assumption, not a firm belief, and it isn't the reason I'm accepting of gays and bisexuals.

Supporters of gay rights are mistaken if they believe that having this debate is going to clinch their position. They're not thinking about things from the other side's perspective. Someone who's committed to the belief that homosexuality will cause the downfall of civilization won't be heartened by knowing that homosexuality is genetically rooted. (In fact, contrary to popular belief, a perception that behavior is innate usually leads to more stigmatizing, since the supposedly bad behavior is seen as an ineradicable part of the person who does it.)

The reason gays should be accepted isn't that they have no choice in their sexual leanings or behavior. Again, that would call into question how to deal with bisexuals; even if you think they have no choice about their preference for either gender, they do have the option of only acting on their attraction to the opposite sex. (In fact, bisexuals might find this the far easier option, since there are so many more available mates of the opposite sex than of the same sex.) The only way to bring about acceptance of homosexuality and bisexuality is to make the case that they are affirmatively good for the same reasons heterosexuality is good.