Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Bernard-Henri Levy, Roman Polanski, and child rape

The French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy has made this petition, signed by him, Salman Rushdie, and others:

Apprehended like a common terrorist Saturday evening, September 26, as he came to receive a prize for his entire body of work, Roman Polanski now sleeps in prison.

He risks extradition to the United States for an episode that happened years ago and whose principal plaintiff repeatedly and emphatically declares she has put it behind her and abandoned any wish for legal proceedings.

Seventy-six years old, a survivor of Nazism and of Stalinist persecutions in Poland, Roman Polanski risks spending the rest of his life in jail for deeds which would be beyond the statute-of-limitations in Europe.
This is in addition to a petition by over 70 major figures in the movie industry, including Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Terry Gilliam, and Woody Allen.

Bernard-Henri Levy's petition has already been thoroughly dissected by my mom -- who asks Levy why he, as a philosopher, would take this position. Another philosopher, A.C. Grayling, shows the right way to address the Polanski case as a philosophical issue.

As my mom points out, Levy's use of the word "plaintiff" should be noted and resisted. He uses "principal plaintiff" as a synonym for "rape victim."

As Grayling points out, references to the "statute of limitations" are irrelevant. Even if it applied to rape, the statute of limitations can't possibly apply to someone who's already been convicted, which Polanski has. All a statute of limitations can ever do is bar a prosecution (or lawsuit) from being brought against someone in the first place. It's based on the delay between the illegal act and the initiation of the court case; it has nothing to do with when he's actually punished.

That legal point is aside from the inequity of suggesting that the long lapse of time since Polanski's crimes should weigh in his favor, considering that Polanski himself caused the lapse by hiding from justice.

This must be pretty well-tilled soil at this point, but of course Polanski's artistic accomplishments have no bearing on how the legal system should treat him. Yet the petition signed by Scorsese flatly states: "It seems inadmissible ... that an international cultural event, paying homage to one of the greatest contemporary film-makers, is used by police to apprehend him."

Polanski's defenders also point out that he's lost family members through the Holocaust and, unrelatedly, the Manson family. At least this observation, unlike the fact that he's made great movies, has some loose connection to a legal concept: some of his defenders have invoked "mitigating factors." But as with the statute of limitations, this argument is wrong both legally and morally. As a legal matter, mitigating factors can at most reduce a sentence; they don't transform a convicted felon to an innocent person.

Regardless, the fact that two very infamous groups of murderers have killed Polanski's loved ones is a horrible coincidence. But no one can explain why the notoriety of those killers should have any effect on what happens to Polanski now. All that's left, then, is that he's been extraordinarily burdened by traumatic deaths in his family. You could say the same of Vice President Joe Biden, but I don't think anyone wants to give him license to go on a crime spree.

I have a hard time fathoming what's going on in the minds of people like Bernard-Henri Levy. I assume they either don't have children or don't have empathy. What parents would accept leniency for a man who, at the age of 44, raped their 13-year-old daughter? (Or for that matter, their 13-year-old son, for it's hard to see how the gender could legitimately affect the legal outcome.)

Bernard-Henri Levy and Salman Rushdie might be considered top-tier public intellectuals, but they've failed to understand some basic facts about society. In order to have a functional society, we need for this to be the case: that if you rape a child, you are going to sleep in prison.

Monday, September 28, 2009

War photography and violence

This New York Times piece on war photographers taking photos of dead or mortally wounded American soldiers ends with a "wholly unexpected" comment from photographer Don McCullin:

“I feel I totally wasted a large part of my life following war. I get more pleasure photographing the landscape around my house in my twilight years.

"Have we learned any lessons from the countless pictures of pain and suffering? I don't think we’ve learned anything. Every year, there’s more war and suffering."
But is that last statement true? Steven Pinker wrote this essay saying it's actually the opposite:
Violence has been in decline over long stretches of history, and today we are probably living in the most peaceful moment of our species' time on earth. ...

Conventional history has long shown that, in many ways, we have been getting kinder and gentler. Cruelty as entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, conquest as the mission statement of government, genocide as a means of acquiring real estate, torture and mutilation as routine punishment, the death penalty for misdemeanors and differences of opinion, assassination as the mechanism of political succession, rape as the spoils of war, pogroms as outlets for frustration, homicide as the major form of conflict resolution -- all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. But, today, they are rare to nonexistent in the West, far less common elsewhere than they used to be, concealed when they do occur, and widely condemned when they are brought to light. ...

The decline of violence is a fractal phenomenon, visible at the scale of millennia, centuries, decades, and years. It applies over several orders of magnitude of violence, from genocide to war to rioting to homicide to the treatment of children and animals. And it appears to be a worldwide trend, though not a homogeneous one. The leading edge has been in Western societies, especially England and Holland, and there seems to have been a tipping point at the onset of the Age of Reason in the early seventeenth century. ...

On the scale of decades, comprehensive data again paint a shockingly happy picture: Global violence has fallen steadily since the middle of the twentieth century. According to the Human Security Brief 2006, the number of battle deaths in interstate wars has declined from more than 65,000 per year in the 1950s to less than 2,000 per year in this decade. In Western Europe and the Americas, the second half of the century saw a steep decline in the number of wars, military coups, and deadly ethnic riots.

Zooming in by a further power of ten exposes yet another reduction. After the cold war, every part of the world saw a steep drop-off in state-based conflicts, and those that do occur are more likely to end in negotiated settlements rather than being fought to the bitter end. Meanwhile, according to political scientist Barbara Harff, between 1989 and 2005 the number of campaigns of mass killing of civilians decreased by 90 percent.
Since McCullin purported to base his view that war photography is futile or counterproductive on empirical evidence, I hope he'd change his view if presented with this contrary evidence. But it wouldn't be surprising if he didn't. People reflexively refer to any kind of social problem as an "increasing" problem, and this tendency seems to be more powerful than statistics. Pinker lists a few factors that cause people to make this mistake:
Partly, it's because of a cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples. Scenes of carnage are more likely to be relayed to our living rooms and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.
So, ironically, war photography itself feeds into the belief that war photography is ineffectual.

More from Pinker:
Partly, it's an intellectual culture that is loath to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society. Partly, it's the incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better. And part of the explanation lies in the phenomenon itself. The decline of violent behavior has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead. As deplorable as they are, the abuses at Abu Ghraib and the lethal injections of a few murderers in Texas are mild by the standards of atrocities in human history. But, from a contemporary vantage point, we see them as signs of how low our behavior can sink, not of how high our standards have risen.
Pinker's essay only observes that there has been a decline; he doesn't try to explain it. He ends by saying:
With the knowledge that something has driven [violence] dramatically down, we can also treat it as a matter of cause and effect. Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we might ask, "Why is there peace?" From the likelihood that states will commit genocide to the way that people treat cats, we must have been doing something right. And it would be nice to know what, exactly, it is.
There's no way war photography could be the main answer to Pinker's question, since he's talking about a trend that's been underway since long before photography existed. But the fact that people are willing to look at the reality of war in vivid detail might have played a small role in the progress we've made.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Runners-up for the best songs of the first decade of the 2000s

As promised, I'm going to list the 100 greatest songs of the 2000s. But first, here are 100 runners-up, in no particular order…

(Click here for the whole list.) 

Goldfrapp — "Caravan Girl"

The New Pornographers — "My Rights Versus Yours" — WATCH

Grizzly Bear — "Southern Point" — LISTEN

The Weepies — "Nobody Knows Me at All" — WATCH

Solange — "I Decided" — WATCH

MGMT — "The Youth"— WATCH

Regina Spektor — "Better" — WATCH

Death Cab for Cutie — "Title and Registration" – WATCH

Esperanza Spalding — "I Adore You" — LISTEN

Dirty Projectors — "Cannibal Resource" — LISTEN

Radiohead — "Everything in Its Right Place"

The Thrills — "One Horse Town" — WATCH

Rilo Kiley — "I Never" — LISTEN

Lady Gaga — "Paparazzi" — WATCH

The Postal Service — "Such Great Heights" — WATCH (cover by Iron & Wine)

Rufus Wainwright — "Shadows" — LISTEN

The Apples in Stereo — "Energy" — WATCH

Phoenix — "Lisztomania" — WATCH

of Montreal — "The Repudiated Immortals" — LISTEN

Yeah Yeah Yeahs — "Runaway" — WATCH

Hot Hot Heat — "Talk to Me, Dance with Me"

Elliott Smith — "Son of Sam" — WATCH

The Notwist — "One with the Freaks" — LISTEN

Black Eyed Peas — "Boom Boom Pow" — WATCH

Alicia Keys — "Karma" — WATCH

Dido — "White Flag" — WATCH

The Dodos — "God?" — LISTEN

Spoon — "The Two Sides of Monsieur Valentine" — WATCH

Death Cab for Cutie — "Tiny Vessels" — LISTEN

Lali Puna — "Small Things" — LISTEN

The Bird and the Bee — "Love Letter from Japan"

St. Vincent — "Your Lips are Red" — WATCH

Radiohead — "2 + 2 = 5 (The Lukewarm.)" — WATCH

Iron & Wine — "Boy with a Coin" — WATCH

Clue to Kalo — "Seconds When It’s Minutes" — LISTEN

Herbert (feat. Dani Siciliano & Shingai Shoniwa) — "The Audience" — WATCH

Sufjan Stevens — "All Good Naysayers, Speak Up! Or Forever Hold Your Peace!" — LISTEN

Christina Aguilera — "Beautiful" — WATCH

Bosque Brown — "White Dove" — LISTEN

Yeasayer — "2080" — LISTEN

The Dresden Dolls — "Good Day"

Modest Mouse — "Float On" — WATCH

Arcade Fire — "My Body Is a Cage" — LISTEN

Hanne Hukkelberg — "Ease" — LISTEN

Styrofoam (feat. Ben Gibbard) — "Couches in Alleys" — LISTEN

The Go! Team — "Ladyflash" — WATCH

Monsters Are Waiting — "Crazy Love" — LISTEN

1990s — "See You at the Lights" — LISTEN

Wilco — "I'm the Man Who Loves You" — WATCH

John Mayer — "Daughters" — WATCH

Camera Obscura — "Let’s Get Out of This Country"

The Shins — "New Slang" — WATCH

Psapp — "Hi" — WATCH

Cut Copy — "Feel the Love" — LISTEN 

Amerie — "1 Thing" — WATCH

David Byrne & Brian Eno — "Strange Overtones" — WATCH

Lenka — "Trouble Is a Friend" — WATCH

Decoder Ring — "Traffic" — LISTEN

Foo Fighters — "The Pretender" — WATCH

Beck — "Lonesome Tears" — WATCH

Andrew Bird — "A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left"

of Montreal — "The Party’s Crashing Us"— LISTEN

Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings — "100 Days, 100 Nights" — WATCH

Spoon — "The Way We Get By" — WATCH

Goldfrapp — "Ride a White Horse" — WATCH

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah — "Is This Love?" — LISTEN

Estelle (feat. Kanye West) — "American Boy" — WATCH

Jason Mraz — "I'm Yours" — LISTEN

The Strokes — "Someday" — WATCH

Death Cab for Cutie — "Transatlanticism" — LISTEN

Norah Jones — "Sinkin’ Soon"

St. Vincent — "Actor out of Work" — WATCH

The Sea and Cake — "Left Side Clouded" — WATCH

OutKast — "B.O.B. — Bombs over Baghdad" — WATCH

Animal Collective — "Peacebone" — LISTEN

Sara Bareilles — "Bottle It Up" — WATCH

Jenny Lewis — "Black Sand" — LISTEN

nine inch nails — "all the love in the world" — LISTEN

The Postal Service — "We Will Become Silhouettes" — WATCH

Goldfrapp — "Monster Love" — LISTEN

TV on the Radio — "Dreams"

Ms. John Soda — "Hands" — LISTEN

The Temper Trap — "Sweet Disposition" — WATCH

Arcade Fire — "Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels)" — WATCH

M. Ward (feat. Zooey Deschanel) — "Never Had Nobody Like You" — LISTEN

The Strokes — "Hard to Explain" — WATCH

of Montreal — "Forecast Fascist Future" — LISTEN

Rihanna — "Disturbia" — WATCH

Radiohead — "Optimistic" — WATCH

Death Cab for Cutie — "Soul Meets Body" — WATCH

Bruce Springsteen — "The Rising"

MGMT — "Electric Feel" — WATCH

Sophie Ellis-Bextor — "Murder on the Dance Floor" — LISTEN

Amy Winehouse — "Rehab" — WATCH

Franz Ferdinand — "Jacqueline" — LISTEN

My Brightest Diamond — "Golden Star" — LISTEN

Green Day — "Wake Me Up When September Ends" — LISTEN

Broken Social Scene — "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" — WATCH

St. Vincent — "Black Rainbow" — LISTEN

The Postal Service — "Brand New Colony" — LISTEN

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Does it matter how much salt Mayor Bloomberg puts on his food?

The New York Times reported yesterday:

HE dumps salt on almost everything, even saltine crackers. He devours burnt bacon and peanut butter sandwiches. He has a weakness for hot dogs, cheeseburgers, and fried chicken, washing them down with a glass of merlot. ...

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has become New York City’s nutritional nag, banning the use of trans fats, forcing chain restaurants to post calorie counts and exhorting diners to consume less salt. Now he is at it again, directing his wrath at sugary drinks in a new series of arresting advertisements that ask subway riders: “Are you pouring on the pounds?”

But an examination of what enters the mayoral mouth reveals that Mr. Bloomberg is an omnivore with his own glaring indulgences, many of them at odds with his own policies. And he struggles mightily to restrain his appetite. ...

[H]e is obsessed with his weight — so much so that the sight of an unflattering photo of himself can trigger weeks of intense dieting and crankiness, according to friends and aides. ...

Under his watch, the city has declared sodium an enemy, asking restaurants and food manufacturers to voluntarily cut the salt in their dishes by 20 percent or more, and encouraging diners to “shake the habit” by asking waiters for food without added salt.

But Mr. Bloomberg, 67, likes his popcorn so salty that it burns others’ lips. (At Gracie Mansion, the cooks deliver it to him with a salt shaker.) He sprinkles so much salt on his morning bagel “that it’s like a pretzel,” said the manager at Viand, a Greek diner near Mr. Bloomberg’s Upper East Side town house.

Not even pizza is spared a coat of sodium. When the mayor sat down to eat a slice at Denino’s Pizzeria Tavern on Staten Island recently, this reporter spotted him applying six dashes of salt to it.

A health tip sheet from the mayor’s office tells New Yorkers to “drink smart” by choosing water, even though Mr. Bloomberg has a three- to four-cup-a-day coffee habit.

“I can count on two hands the number of times I have seen him drink water,” said one dining companion ...
This does seem to support Megan McArdle's theory that elites who profess concern over the supposed obesity epidemic are really just projecting their own eating disorders onto the masses.

On the other hand, I find it a little disturbing that the Bloomberg piece is even considered a news story. It reminds me of how people love to point out that Al Gore and Thomas Friedman don't do the best job of minimizing their own carbon emissions. But how does that undermine their ideas about what's in store for the planet? Whether you agree or disagree with their views on climate change, their personal habits are a distraction from the real issues.

We have clashing expectations for politicians. It's politically poisonous for them to show any enthusiasm for arugula, endives, or dijon mustard, yet they're not supposed to eat too much fast food. The article is illustrated with a photo of Bloomberg eating a slice of cheese pizza (part of a whole "slideshow" of Bloomberg eating food), but people would be more critical if the mayor of NYC didn't go around eating pizza. If he had an impeccably healthy diet, people would criticize him for being a fanatical health nut trying to impose his personal regimen on the whole city.

The Bloomberg article is currently one of the "most blogged" and "most emailed" NYT articles. Of course, part of why so many people are talking about it is that it's just funny, and it lets bloggers use headings like: "Bloomberg to NYC: 'Stop Eating All My Salt.'" But are people truly concerned about Bloomberg's hypocrisy?

I suspect we're quietly gleeful at the chance to see our elected officials show that they're flawed, human, impetuous. It might not be far off from what happened to Bill Clinton, John Edwards, Mark Sanford, et al. For some reason, we're vaguely titillated by the idea of a politician who's unable to resist temptation.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

For the annals of "unconvincing Facebook alerts"

There's a Facebook application called iLike, where you can make a list of your favorite music and get alerted when one of your favorites is going to play a concert in your town. This message from iLike just arrived in my inbox:

"George Harrison posted a concert near you!"

Monday, September 21, 2009

Beth Rickey (1953 - 2009)

The Washington Times has this wonderful obituary, which chronicles the little-known Beth Rickey's efforts to expose the full extent of David Duke's racism. Excerpt:

Beth Rickey, perhaps more than any single person, helped stop the meteoric political rise of neo-Nazi David Duke. People today may forget what a political force Duke had become in Louisiana back then. With three weeks remaining in the 1991 race for governor, Duke had been in a statistical dead heat in the polls against ethically challenged former three-term governor Edwin Edwards. And Duke had the momentum.

What Duke could never escape, though, was all the evidence that he truly was a neo-Nazi, rather than what he claimed to be: a next-generation Reaganite conservative with a long-ago tawdry Ku Klux Klan past that he had thoroughly put behind him. Much of that evidence was unearthed by Beth Rickey.
The whole article is worth reading for its dramatic details about how she accomplished this.

The Washington Times (a conservative site) reports that Rickey died earlier this month of a mysterious illness because she had run out of money for health care. A social worker had actually found a philanthropist who was willing to help her, but he couldn't reach her in time to save her life.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Article Skipper: Will the United States stay the world's top superpower?

Yes, argues Josef Joffe in Foreign Affairs. (Free registration is required to view the full article.)

Inspired by Mickey Kaus's old blog-post format, here's my haphazard dissection of the article:

1. Wordiest passage: Joffe takes over 1,000 words (everything under the article's first subheading) to make the following point: People have been predicting America's decline for 50 years, but it hasn't happened, so we should be skeptical of current predictions of decline.

2. Most unsupported yet intriguing assertions:

a) [U]nless China is not of this world, society's chickens will come home to roost, demanding to be fed or freed.

b) [I]t may take a liberal, seafaring empire to turn national interests into international public goods.

c) Who would actually want to live in a world dominated by China, India, Japan, Russia, or even Europe, which for all its enormous appeal cannot take care of its own backyard? Not even those who have been trading in glee and gloom decade after decade would prefer any of them to take over as housekeeper of the world.
Would Europe really be so bad?

3. Most thoroughly supported assertion: China is very unlikely to overtake the United States as the world's superpower. (And since China is widely considered the most plausible contender to bump the US from the #1 spot, it seems likely that we'll stay #1.) For example, this is one of his many convincing arguments:
China will grow old before becoming rich, as Mark Haas, a professor of political science at Duquesne University, has noted. According to Goldman Sachs, by 2050 the Chinese economy will long have overtaken the U.S. economy, with a GDP of $45 trillion, compared with the United States' $35 trillion. But by then, the median age in the United States will be the lowest of any of the world's large powers, except India. The United States' working-age population will have grown by about 30 percent, whereas China's will have dropped by three percent. The economic and strategic consequences will be enormous. China's aging population will require a shifting of resources from investment to welfare, thus reducing China's growth. And as the economic pie shrinks, a growing number of pensioners -- 329 million by 2050 -- will demand a larger slice. This will necessarily cut into the share for the People's Liberation Army.
4. Biggest understatement:
The United States was far from universally loved under President George W. Bush.
5. Biggest self-contradiction: First, Joffe gives statistics to show that Europe is far behind the United States:
In all instances of declinism, economic failure serves as Exhibit A. But current figures show the U.S. economy to be worth $14.3 trillion, three times as much as the world's second-biggest economy, Japan's, and only slightly less than the economies of its four nearest competitors combined -- Japan, China, Germany, and France. ...

Today, there is only one challenge to the dominance of the U.S. economy: the European Union's aggregate GDP of $18 trillion. But the more appropriate comparison may be with the 16-member eurozone, which has a common monetary policy and a rudimentary common fiscal policy -- and a collective GDP of $13.5 trillion, less than that of the United States. But an unwieldy conglomeration of 27, or even 16, states cannot be a strategic player.

The United States also comes out ahead among major powers in terms of per capita income ....

The gaps become exorbitant in the realm of military power, where the United States plays in a league of its own. In 2008, it spent $607 billion on its military, representing almost half of the world's total military spending. The next nine states spent a total of $476 billion, and the presumptive challengers to U.S. military supremacy -- China, India, Japan, and Russia -- together devoted only $219 billion to their militaries. The military budget of China, the country most often touted as the world's next superpower, is less than one-seventh of the U.S. defense budget. Even if one includes among potential U.S. adversaries the 27 states of the EU, which together spend $288 billion on defense, the United States still outweighs them all -- $607 billion compared to $507 billion.

Nor can any other great power boast the United States' naval strength, a measure of a state's ability to project power quickly and over great distances. In 2005, as Robert Work, a defense analyst and now undersecretary of the U.S. Navy, has shown, the U.S. Navy commanded a naval tonnage exceeding the world's next 17 fleets combined. ... China, India, Japan, Russia, and the EU put together could not conduct a major war 8,000 miles from their shores, as the United States has done twice in Iraq and once in Afghanistan in recent years.
But then he says:
Europe -- although it bests or equals the United States in terms of population, economic size, and military might -- no longer has the mindset that once made it the master of the world.
Huh? I thought he already spent several paragraphs explaining that Europe pales in comparison with the United States' economic and military power. Admittedly, they seem to be close with respect to GDP. But his statement that Europe "bests or equals the United States in terms of ... military might" makes no sense given his earlier statements.

He goes on to argue that what really puts the US ahead of Europe is our "warrior culture":
The armies of European countries are no longer objects of national pride and no longer serve as ladders for social advancement, nor are they the principal agents for promoting the national interest. ... The EU takes pride in being a civilian power that expands by force of example, rather than by force of arms.
That seems like a perfectly reasonable point, but he should have simply claimed that culture matters as well as -- not instead of -- the raw numbers on the economy and military.

6. Least inspiring burst of patriotism:
As the twenty-first century unfolds, the United States will be younger and more dynamic than its competitors. And as a liberal empire, it can work the international system with fewer costs than yesterday's behemoths, which depended on territorial possessions and had to conduct endless wars against natives and rivals. A Tyrannosaurus rex faces costlier resistance than the bumbling bull that is the United States.
7. Most genuinely inspiring bursts of patriotism:
a) The speed with which Barack Obama captured hearts and minds around the world after his election in November 2008 represented a rare moment in the annals of the great powers -- a moment of relief at having a U.S. president who made it possible for the world to love his country again.

b) The United States' choice of its role, in addition to its vast material riches, made it the twentieth century's indispensable nation. While acting on its own interests, it twice saved Europe from itself, and then saved it a third time, during the Cold War, from the Soviet Union. In the interwar period -- again, obeying its own economic interests -- the United States sought to blunt what John Maynard Keynes called "the economic consequences of the peace" by pumping dollars into Europe's economies. Although the Dawes and Young Plans, two U.S.-led economic assistance programs after World War I, were surely designed to make Europe safe and profitable for U.S. investments and exports, they also promoted recovery in Europe, as the Marshall Plan did a generation later. Much has been said about the splendid institutional architecture the United States put in place after World War II, from the United Nations to NATO, and from the International Monetary Fund to the Organization for European Economic Cooperation. But the point needs repeating: to find profit for itself, the United States provided for others.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Siskel and Ebert's review of Ghost

This is making me miss him.

Siskel, that is.

Why is it so hard to put a number on Americans without health insurance?

George Will and Megan McArdle take issue with the Census Bureau's figure from 2008 that 46 million Americans are in need of health insurance. They also disagree with President Obama's statement in his speech to Congress last week that there are "more than 30 million American citizens who cannot get coverage." Will estimates that there are "perhaps 20 million persons who are protractedly uninsured." McArdle suggests that a better statistic would be "more than 15 million" Americans.

Anthony Wright has a good response on TNR. I pretty much agree with him and frankly don't have much to add to what he says.

The debate over these statistics can be a red herring. There's a reason why conservatives and libertarians are taking a different stance on how to interpret the statistics than liberals. You can't interpret the data without expressing your ideology. If you're a liberal, you're likely to view the number of Americans without insurance as a crucial fact, maybe the most important fact in the whole health-care debate. If you're a conservative, you're likely to see that statistic as a smokescreen covering up the reality of the situation.

For instance, Will thinks the statistics are misleading because they gloss over the transitory nature of being insured. He says the 46 million figure is just

a "snapshot" of a nation in which more than 20 million working Americans change jobs every year. Many of them are briefly uninsured between jobs. If all the uninsured were assembled for a group photograph, and six months later the then-uninsured were assembled for another photograph, about half the people in the photos would be different.
But Will bizarrely implies that his observation only mitigates the problem. It's arguably worse than the statistics suggest, since a "snapshot" fails to convey the fact that people who are insured right now need to worry about whether they'll be insured in the future. Wright points out: 
When just looking at a two-year period, far more people--nearly 1 in 3--find themselves uninsured.
It's understandable that opponents of health-care reform want to make the number of uninsured seem as insignificant as possible by quibbling over which ones we should really be counting. (Illegal immigrants? Legal immigrants? Poor people who aren't on Medicaid? Households making $75,000? $50,000?) It might be comforting, as Wright puts it, "to "think of the uninsured as a discrete population, one that can be marginalized." But the real problem is much broader: our health care is contingent on something as unreliable as employment, with only an incomplete safety net for Americans in need. Those of us who feel strongly that this is a grave problem aren't going to have our minds changed by the pseudo-statistical debate over how many uninsured Americans actually matter.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Why "slippery slope" is not a fallacy

"[New York] City seeks ban on smoking in parks and beaches."

I'm not complaining -- I like this slippery slope. But it is a slippery slope.

A proposal to reduce errors in books

This article neatly explains the problem (via Arts & Letters Daily):

How bad is the problem of printed errors? Well, start with newspapers. In 1936 a study of Minneapolis papers found that about half of all articles contained mistakes, and most studies since then have shown very similar results -- not just in Minneapolis. An analysis of such surveys, produced by the American Newspaper Publishers’ Association in 1980, concluded that half of all printed news stories included some sort of error. ...

Book publishers mostly rely on their authors to ensure accuracy; dedicated fact-checking departments now rarely exist except at some magazines. The New Yorker’s checkers are justly renowned for their tenacious scepticism, but even they err sometimes. One reader was annoyed to find himself described as dead, and requested a correction in the next issue. Unfortunately, by the time the correction appeared, he really had died, thus compounding the error. This tale illustrates not only the drawbacks of printed media, but also the role that readers can play in overcoming them -- even if things did not quite work out in this instance.
The author's solution:
Earlier this year Amazon caused an outcry by deleting electronic copies of some books from its customers’ Kindle reading devices when it emerged that the editions were illegal bootlegs. But would anyone object if electronic copies were replaced, by remote control, with corrected versions? Such updating would be far less expensive than printing and distributing a new physical edition, though no publisher has yet announced plans to do any such thing.
The article ends with this sentence, in all seriousness:
An error in the printed version, and in an earlier online version, of this article has been corrected online.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Is "loser" a male noun?

This article in the British Globe and Mail takes aim at TV commercials made at the expense of fictional inept men:

Silly men. You can’t take them anywhere.

If they’re not messing up your house, running into glass doors or trying in vain to outsmart an air freshener, you’ll find them eating the inedible or falling down for no reason whatsoever.

At least, that’s what some advertisers would have you believe. More and more marketers are trying to tap into the overwhelming buying power of wives and mothers at the expense of their other halves. Dads are dumb, boyfriends are bumbling and husbands are utterly hopeless as brands strive to relate to women by showing men as especially goofy or incompetent.
[Update: The article used to include YouTube clips of commercials like that, but the videos have been taken down.]

When the piece was discussed on Metafilter, some commenters questioned whether the anti-man bias in commercials is really a problem worth worrying about. Well, you might object to these commercials on feminist grounds: they're upholding traditional gender roles in which women are better than men at taking care of the home (the implication being that they belong in the home). But can you expect to be taken seriously if you actually feel sorry for the men? Sample sarcastic comment on Metafilter: "WILL MEN EVER GET FAIR TREATMENT?!?!?!?"

My response: It's important to criticize sexism wherever it shows up. There's plenty of sexism-against-women and sexism-against-men, and it should all be fair game for criticism and commentary. The notion that sexism-against-men should get a pass implies that men should just "take it" — because hey, they have pretty much all the advantages, right? Not really, but that isn't my only problem with this. It also implies traditional gender stereotypes: men are tough, women are fragile; women need to be protected from unfairness, but a real man doesn't complain about sexism.

The broader problem is that if some sexism is considered acceptable, that undermines the fundamental principle that it's simply wrong to treat people differently based on gender (except when there's a particularly compelling reason).

There's also circular reasoning going on when we laugh off any observation of sexism-against-men on the grounds that everyone knows it's not a serious problem. If it's never pointed out because doing so is considered socially unacceptable, then of course you won't see the evidence of it! But if it's not a serious problem, then what's the problem with pointing out the little evidence that exists (e.g., the ads with bumbling men)? We should be suspicious of anyone who adamantly insists that we not look at the evidence of ____.

A commenter called "grobstein" responds to another commenter who suggests that ridiculing inept women should be more offensive, because we're still living in a "Man's World." Grobstein's response:
It's not a Man's World. It's Some Men's World. The most powerful positions in society are still filled disproportionately by men, but it's a big mistake to regard this as the dominance of "men" generally. The worst positions in society are also disproportionately filled by men. Men are much more likely to be the victims of violent crime, to be incarcerated, to commit suicide, and to be lonely and friendless at any stage of their life. Men are more likely to drop out of school at most stages. …

[W]hen you target men monolithically, you're not only targeting the winners of sexism — you're targeting a huge boatload of losers. If you say it's okay to portray "men" as buffoons (etc.) because they benefit from sexism, you're saying it's okay to heap punishment on a huge crowd of human beings who are losing. … "Loser" actually is a curious expression — it has no inherent gender, but it's almost exclusively applied to men. If you are a man and your life is in bad shape, and you're not achieving anything, you are a target of contempt.

Let's not build our sexism-free utopia on the backs of the worst-off.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Hume's key to aesthetic judgment

David Hume said, in his essay "Of the Standard of Taste":

One obvious cause, why many feel not the proper sentiment of beauty, is the want of that delicacy of imagination, which is requisite to convey a sensibility of those finer emotions. This delicacy every one pretends to: Every one talks of it; and would reduce every kind of taste or sentiment to its standard. But as our intention in this essay is to mingle some light of the understanding with the feelings of sentiment, it will be proper to give a more accurate definition of delicacy than has hitherto been attempted. And not to draw our philosophy from too profound a source, we shall have recourse to a noted story in Don Quixote.

It is with good reason, says Sancho to the squire with the great nose, that I pretend to have a judgment in wine: This is a quality hereditary in our family. Two of my kinsmen were once called to give their opinion of a hogshead, which was supposed to be excellent, being old and of a good vintage. One of them tastes it; considers it; and, after mature reflection, pronounces the wine to be good, were it not for a small taste of leather, which he perceived in it. The other, after using the same precautions, gives also his verdict in favour of the wine; but with the reserve of a taste of iron, which he could easily distinguish. You cannot imagine how much they were both ridiculed for their judgment. But who laughed in the end? On emptying the hogshead, there was found at the bottom an old key with a leathern thong tied to it.

The great resemblance between mental and bodily taste will easily teach us to apply this story. Though it be certain, that beauty and deformity, more than sweet and bitter, are not qualities in objects, but belong entirely to the sentiment, internal or external; it must be allowed, that there are certain qualities in objects, which are fitted by nature to produce those particular feelings. Now as these qualities may be found in a small degree, or may be mixed and confounded with each other, it often happens that the taste is not affected with such minute qualities, or is not able to distinguish all the particular flavours, amidst the disorder in which they are presented. Where the organs are so fine, as to allow nothing to escape them; and at the same time so exact, as to perceive every ingredient in the composition: This we call delicacy of taste, whether we employ these terms in the literal or metaphorical sense. Here then the general rules of beauty are of use, being drawn from established models, and from the observation of what pleases or displeases, when presented singly and in a high degree: And if the same qualities, in a continued composition, and in a smaller degree, affect not the organs with a sensible delight or uneasiness, we exclude the person from all pretensions to this delicacy. To produce these general rules or avowed patterns of composition, is like finding the key with the leathern thong; which justified the verdict of Sancho’s kinsmen, and confounded those pretended judges who had condemned them. [If] the hogshead had never been emptied, the taste of the one was still equally delicate, and that of the other equally dull and languid: But it would have been more difficult to have proved the superiority of the former, to the conviction of every bye-stander. In like manner, [if] the beauties of writing had never been methodized, or reduced to general principles; [if] no excellent models had ever been acknowledged; the different degrees of taste would still have subsisted, and the judgment of one man been preferable to that of another; but it would not have been so easy to silence the bad critic, who might always insist upon his particular sentiment, and refuse to submit to his antagonist. But when we show him an avowed principle of art; when we illustrate this principle by examples, whose operation, from his own particular taste, he acknowledges to be conformable to the principle; when we prove that the same principle may be applied to the present case, where he did not perceive or feel its influence: He must conclude, upon the whole, that the fault lies in himself, and that he wants the delicacy, which is requisite to make him sensible of every beauty and every blemish, in any composition or discourse.
It's easy to object that aesthetic taste is unlike physical taste in many ways. Few would doubt that. But I still find Hume's analogy useful — not so much as a logical proof, but as a vivid illustration of a basic truth.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dumb choices

I have one tip for making healthier choices: Anyone who recommends eating Froot Loops as a "smart choice"? Don't listen to anything they tell you to do.

How could Froot Loops (which consist of over 40% sugar) have possibly gotten this green check mark as a stamp of approval in a new program to help supermarket shoppers figure out what the "smart choices" are?

Here's an attempted explanation (all these quotes are from the New York Times story in the first link):

Dr. [Eileen] Kennedy, who is not paid for her work on the program, defended the products endorsed by the program, including sweet cereals. She said Froot Loops was better than other things parents could choose for their children.

“You’re rushing around, you’re trying to think about healthy eating for your kids and you have a choice between a doughnut and a cereal,” Dr. Kennedy said, evoking a hypothetical parent in the supermarket. “So Froot Loops is a better choice.”
Even if you agree with that advice in that particular context, that's just what's needed: context. Not everyone is a parent shopping for their young children. Universal, binary advice -- eat this, don't eat that -- doesn't give you any context. [In the comments: Is she even right about her contrived hypothetical?]

But this might be the biggest problem:
[Kennedy] said ... research showed that, while shoppers wanted more information, they did not want to hear negative messages or feel their choices were being dictated to them.

“The checkmark means the food item is a ‘better for you’ product, as opposed to having an x on it saying ‘Don’t eat this,’ ” Dr. Kennedy said. “Consumers are smart enough to deduce that if it doesn’t have the checkmark, by implication it’s not a ‘better for you’ product. They want to have a choice. They don’t want to be told ‘You must do this.’ ”
So the message is: if it doesn't have that label, it's not one of the smarter choices. Doesn't that mean a food with no label at all can't possibly be one of the smarter choices? A commenter on MetaChat draws our attention to this point from Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food:
Avoid food products that make health claims. For a food product to make health claims on its package it must first have a package, so right off the bat it's more likely to be a processed food than a whole food.
Of course, the "smart choices" program
“was paid for by industry and when industry put down its foot and said this is what we’re doing, that was it, end of story.”
That account comes from Michael Jacobson, executive director of an advocacy group called the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which "was part of a panel that helped devise the Smart Choices nutritional criteria, until he quit last September." He adds:
“You could start out with some sawdust, add calcium or Vitamin A and meet the criteria."
A better policy would be to just tell everyone to read the aforementioned In Defense of Food and Mark Bittman's Food Matters.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Is it morally wrong to care too much for your children?

This is a valiant attempt to try to ease the tension between utilitarianism and actual human behavior:

Joshua Greene seems to want to have his cake and eat it too: defend utilitarianism while accepting the fact that parents lavish money on their kids that could, from an objective utilitarian viewpoint, be better spent on less fortunate people in the world.

His clever move is to suggest that utilitarianism is an "ideal." We accept that people will never reach the ideal because their extreme concern for their children is so deeply rooted. But the ideal is nevertheless an important goal to aspire to.

If we accept that it's a matter of degree, not of strict compliance with binding rules, that raises the question how close it's reasonable to want people to get to the ideal. It's easy to accept one of his examples: parents who are considering buying an $800 stroller for their child should instead buy a perfectly adequate $200 stroller and donate the $600 they save to charity.

But that example dodges the more uncomfortable questions you raise once you start pursuing this line of argument. For instance (to loosely use another of Greene and Joshua Knobe's examples), instead of paying for your child to go to their top choice of college, you could send them to a cheaper, inferior college (or even no college at all), saving thousands of dollars, and donating the money to a charity that does lots of good for suffering people -- say, Doctors Without Borders. It's easy to imagine that an objective and purely utilitarian observer would prefer the inferior college and the massive donation to a humanitarian charity. But it's impossible to imagine significant numbers of real people actually making that kind of decision.

One particularly revealing thing about this exchange is that Greene himself admits that he would hardly follow a utilitarian regimen of being stingy with his children to allow for morally magnificent levels of philanthropy. Why isn't he convinced by his own "ideal"?

I admit that I share Greene's cognitive dissonance. I habitually analyze ethical questions as if utilitarianism were true. Yet if I were a parent, I would knowingly spend extraneous resources on my children that could have led to objectively better consequences if donated to strangers. (And aside from having children, I'd say the same thing of spending for myself.) I don't mean this to be a remotely surprising commentary on my own character; I'm sure the same thing is true of everyone I know.

Even if you make some sacrifices that are laudable on utilitarian grounds, you'll never even come close to doing all you could to maximize net utility. Is there any point to an ethical commandment that no one ever follows?

IN THE COMMENTS: "Jason (the commenter)" adds:

What is the utility of utilitarianism?

I think the speakers minimized the problems associated with individuals following utilitarianism by focusing so much on parents and their children. You'd also have to stop giving special treatment to your relatives, spouse, friends, et cetera.

I suspect if enough people behaved this way the fabric of society would collapse. Of course, they'd be so free of passion they'd probably cease to exist after a generation. Why would utilitarians have kids in the first place?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Flow, boiled down to 8 rules

In a footnote to this post by Ann Althouse (my mom). When someone asked AskMetafilter for examples of psychological "rules of thumb," I gave a shot at boiling down Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's Flow into one rule:

You will be happiest if you do an activity that poses appropriately increasing challenges allowing you to continually engage with the activity and apply your increasing level of skill to effectively tackle the challenges.
(That was my off-the-cuff version; I left out some of the elements.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Everything either causes or prevents cancer.

Read all about it in the Daily Mail. (Via Metafilter.)

Some of the carcinogens are awfully bad news for some people:

being black causes cancer

height causes cancer

left-handedness cause cancer

working causes cancer
My favorites are the things that both cause and prevent cancer. A few examples:
coffee both causes and prevents cancer

beer both causes and prevents cancer

wine both causes and prevents cancer

being female causes cancer ... but being male causes cancer
(The site is very rough -- many of its sources don't support its assertions. But the site developers admit that it's a work in progress and invite you to flag the mistaken links.)