Thursday, September 30, 2010

Does a thief's race influence how bystanders react to his crime in progress?

Here's a completely unscientific and sensationalistic but still thought-provoking hidden-camera experiment on that question:

"I know this is weird, but . . . you wouldn't happen to know whose bike this is?"



ADDED: If your bike ever gets stolen, read this story, and remember to check CraigsList!

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Suicide and gay shaming through online privacy invasion at Rutgers University

A search for [Rutgers suicide] — not on the whole web, but restricted to blog posts only in the past 24 hours — returns over 8,500 results right now. The same story is also on the front page of Memeorandum, a website that automatically generates a list of the top news stories being covered by both traditional journalists and bloggers.

This is the story that's getting so much attention:

The death of a Rutgers University freshman stirred outrage and remorse on campus from classmates who wished they could have stopped the teen from jumping off a bridge last week after a recording of him having a sexual encounter with a man was broadcast online. . . .

A lawyer for [Tyler] Clementi's family confirmed Wednesday that he had jumped off the George Washington Bridge last week. Police recovered a man's body Wednesday afternoon in the Hudson River just north of the bridge, and authorities were trying to determine if it was Clementi's.

Clementi's roommate, Dhraun Ravi, and fellow Rutgers freshman Molly Wei, both 18, have been charged with invading Clementi's privacy. Middlesex County prosecutors say the pair used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a live image of Clementi having sex on Sept. 19 and that Ravi tried to webcast a second encounter on Sept. 21, the day before Clementi's suicide. . . .

Collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a fourth-degree crime. Transmitting them is a third-degree crime with a maximum prison term of five years.
Whether or not Ravi and Wei end up receiving any criminal punishment, they've already been punished in the media: the New York Times is prominently displaying yearbook-style headshots of them.

The Times reports:
Rutgers officials would not say whether the two suspects had been suspended. But in a statement late Wednesday, the university’s president, Richard L. McCormick, said, “If the charges are true, these actions gravely violate the university’s standards of decency and humanity.”
More details of what happened:
Ravi's Twitter feed on [September 19] referred to seeing his roommate have sex with another man in their room on the Piscataway campus, classmates said.

"Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay," Ravi said on his Twitter page in a Sept. 19 entry posted at 6:17 p.m.

Two days later, Ravi posted another entry directing his nearly 150 Twitter followers to iChat, an internet messaging service with a live video feed.

"Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again," Ravi wrote in the Sept. 21 post.

Ravi's Twitter feed has since been taken down. But the entries survived in a cached version of the page still available through Google's search engine this afternoon. . . .

Prosecutors said Ravi and Wei set up a camera on Sept. 19 and broadcast live images of Clementi having a "sexual encounter." Ravi is also accused of trying unsuccessfully to broadcast a second sex scene Sept. 21.
Clementi wrote this on September 22 as a status update on Facebook:
"Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
I'm interested in how an incident like this becomes a major story in both the mainstream media and blogosphere, even though it might seem to be a strictly local story that's affected a relatively tiny number of people. What is it about this story? Suicide? Homophobia? Using internet technology to bully and invade someone's privacy? Don't all those things happen all the time?

Well, none of the elements are new, but they intersected dramatically enough to grab our attention. So it's understandable that the news and blogs are covering this so widely.

But I wish the shaming of gays weren't something we passively accepted as just-the-way-young-people-are, until something like this happens. It shouldn't take a death to make homophobia temporarily worth expressing concern over. Virulent homophobia — especially among youths, who tend to have low inhibitions about broadcasting their bigotry and a strong interest in building up their reputations by tearing down their peers' — is a huge, national problem whether or not it ever kills anyone.

Tony Curtis dies at 85

Here's the New York Times obituary.

I had no idea he had such a rough childhood:

Tony Curtis was born Bernard Schwartz on June 3, 1925, to Helen and Emanuel Schwartz, Jewish immigrants from Hungary. Emanuel operated a tailor shop in a poor neighborhood [in the Bronx], and the family occupied cramped quarters behind the store, the parents in one room and little Bernard sharing another with his two brothers, Julius and Robert. Helen Schwartz suffered from schizophrenia and frequently beat the three boys. (Robert was later found to have the same disease.)

In 1933, at the height of the Depression, his parents found they could not properly provide for their children, and Bernard and Julius were placed in a state institution. Returning to his old neighborhood, Bernard frequently found himself caught up in gang warfare and the target of anti-Semitic hostility; as he recalled in many interviews, he learned to dodge the stones and fists to protect his face, which he realized even then would be his ticket to greater things.
Skipping ahead to the end of his life:
His final screen appearance was in 2008, when he played a small role in “David & Fatima,” an independent budget film about a romance between an Israeli Jew and a Palestinian Muslim. His character’s name was Mr. Schwartz.
I admit I've seen only one Tony Curtis movie, but it's one of my favorites:
Under Billy Wilder’s direction in “Some Like It Hot,” another 1959 release, Mr. Curtis employed a spot-on imitation of [Cary] Grant’s mid-Atlantic accent when his character, posing as an oil heir, attempts to seduce a voluptuous singer (Marilyn Monroe). His role in that film — as a Chicago musician who, with his best friend (Jack Lemmon), witnesses the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and flees to Florida in women’s clothing as a member of an all-girl dance band — remains Mr. Curtis’s best-known performance.
Everyone should watch this movie!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Women make less money than men on average, but how much (if any) of this is due to sexism/discrimination?

Last week Christina Hoff Sommers had a New York Times op-ed about the gap in men's and women's pay. The headline: "Women Don't Need the Paycheck Fairness Act." Sommers writes:

AMONG the top items left on the Senate’s to-do list before the November elections is a “paycheck fairness” bill, which would make it easier for women to file class-action, punitive-damages suits against employers they accuse of sex-based pay discrimination.

The bill’s passage is hardly certain, but it has received strong support from women’s rights groups, professional organizations and even President Obama, who has called it “a common-sense bill.”

But the bill isn’t as commonsensical as it might seem. It overlooks mountains of research showing that discrimination plays little role in pay disparities between men and women, and it threatens to impose onerous requirements on employers to correct gaps over which they have little control. . . .

[F]or proof, proponents point out that for every dollar men earn, women earn just 77 cents.

But that wage gap isn’t necessarily the result of discrimination. On the contrary, there are lots of other reasons men might earn more than women, including differences in education, experience and job tenure.

When these factors are taken into account the gap narrows considerably — in some studies, to the point of vanishing. A recent survey found that young, childless, single urban women earn 8 percent more than their male counterparts, mostly because more of them earn college degrees.

Moreover, a 2009 analysis of wage-gap studies commissioned by the Labor Department evaluated more than 50 peer-reviewed papers and concluded that the aggregate wage gap “may be almost entirely the result of the individual choices being made by both male and female workers.”
I agree with all of that. I don't have much of an opinion on the bill, since I haven't studied the provisions. I just want to focus on the underlying premise: that there's a significant discrimination-based gap in how much men and women are paid.

Over the weekend, the New York Times ran several letters rebutting the op-ed. If you know how these discussions tend to go, and if you're familiar with the NYT's letters section, you might be able to guess what the top letter says. Linda D. Hallman of the American Association of University Women (AAUW) writes:
The wage gap is real. Our 2007 report, “Behind the Pay Gap,” which controlled for factors flagged by Ms. Sommers, like education and experience, found that college-educated women earn less than men with comparable backgrounds.

The latest analysis Ms. Sommers cites, which shows young women outearning young men, needs to be viewed with a skeptical eye. The average American woman still earns 23 percent less than her male counterpart earns, a gap that is widest among older women and smallest among younger women.
Now, let's break down the main talking points from that letter:

1. The AAUW did a study that took into account Sommers's points, and they found that the gender gap is still "real" — women earn "less" than men.

2. "The average American woman still earns 23 percent less than her male counterpart earns."

3. The gap is "widest among older women and smallest among younger women."

Point 3 indicates that the gap is shrinking over time. It's easy to imagine that this trend would continue and eventually there'd be little or no gap, even without controlling for other factors.

How about points 1 and 2? If you read those in quick succession, you might go away with the impression that there's been a rigorous study that controlled for all the variables and still found a 23% pay gap between American male and female workers.

But that's not what Hallman says in her letter. She says the AAUW controlled for variables and found a gap . . . of unmentioned size. She says these are the same "factors flagged by Ms. Sommers" — implying that their report should allay the concerns Sommers expressed in her op-ed. Shortly after making these statements, she says there's a 23% gap.

But that 23% gap is before controlling for any variables. So that statistic is simply repeating the shortcoming that Sommers called out in her op-ed.

I wanted to see if that study Hallman links to did a better job of clarifying how much of the gap is actually due to gender itself, rather than other factors that happen to be correlated with gender. The link goes to an "Executive Summary" and a "Full Report" (which are both PDFs).

I don't see anything in the summary about controlling for variables. It simply reports the uncontrolled figures as if they're the definitive word on the "real" gap. We're supposed to see these statistics and immediately perceive sexism in how much employers pay their employees. But the gap alone doesn't demonstrate there's any sexism at play — it could result (in whole or in part) from benign factors that are correlated with gender.

So, how about the full report? I haven't read the whole thing — it's 45 pages, not counting the end materials. But they clearly found a lot of explanations for why there is such a gap, many of which they attribute to men's and women's different choices.

Here's one example of a factor, which I've taken almost at random: the report tells us that among full-time workers, men work longer hours than women (45 and 42 hours a week, respectively). This is also true among part-time workers (22 and 20 hours a week worked by men and women, respectively). Only 9% of female full-time workers work over 50 hours a week, compared with 15% of male full-time workers who work such long hours. (This is from page 15, and there's a relevant graph — only about full-time workers — on page 17.)

A little later, the AAUW gives us this conclusion, in a green, bold-faced heading:
A large portion of the gender pay gap is not explain by women's choices of characteristics.
Under that heading, the AAUW claims to support the conclusion:
If a woman and a man make the same choices, will they receive the same pay? The answer is no. The evidence shows that even when the "explanations" for the pay gap are included in a regression, they cannot fully explain the pay disparity. The regressions for earnings one year after college indicate that when all variables are included, about one-quarter of the pay gap is attributable to gender. That is, after controlling for all the factors known to affect earnings, college-educated women earn about 5 percent less than college-educated men earn. Thus, while discrimination cannot be measured directly, it is reasonable to assume that this pay gap is the product of gender discrimination.
Well, 5% is much smaller than the gap invoked in the NYT letter: 23%.

Now, you could sensibly respond: "But even a 5% difference in pay based on gender is unacceptable." Of course it would be unacceptable is women were paid 5% less than men due to their gender.

However,  even this controlling-for-variables statistic does not give us grounds to conclude that if you're a woman, you get paid 5% less than you would have if only you had been born male.

After all, how could the report have reached such a definitive conclusion? It firmly says "The answer [to whether a man and women who make the same choices will make the same money] is no," and this is proven by "the evidence." That presupposes that the AAUW in fact looked at all the relevant evidence. But the best anyone can do when they're studying such an immensely complex societal question is to control for some variables. It's an open question whether there are other relevant factors out there that the study ignored.

For instance, I said that the report looks at hours worked by full-time workers and hours worked by part-time workers. OK, that's nice. But there's some more information I'd like to know, which I don't see in the report's discussion of hours: how much more likely are men to work full-time rather than part-time? This question isn't answered by telling us how many more hours the full-time male workers work than their female counterparts. (As I said, I haven't read the whole report, so perhaps I'm wrong that the report fails to consider this factor. But you would think they'd mention it in the section about how many hours full-time and part-time workers work.) [UPDATE: Detailed discussion of this point in the comments. It's a little more complex than I thought when I was writing this post, but I still believe the report hasn't fully considered the distinction between full- and part-time workers.]

Now, what are all the variables the study failed to take into account? I don't know! And we're probably not going to find the answer to that question in the report; naturally, the report is going to talk about the things the researchers did study rather than talk about the factors they failed to study.

Thomas Sowell explains in his book Economic Facts and Fallacies (page 61):
Ideally, we would like to be able to compare those women and men who are truly comparable in education, skills, experience, continuity of employment, and full-time or part-time work, among other variables, and then determine whether employes hire, pay, and promote women the same as they do comparable men. At the very least, we might then see in whatever differences in hiring, pay and promotions might exist a measure of how much employer discrimination exists. Given the absence or imperfections of data on some of these variables, the most we can reasonably expect is some measure of whatever residual economic differences between women and men remain after taking into account those variables which can be measured with some degree of accuracy and reliability. That residual would then give us the upper limit of the combined effect of employer discrimination plus whatever unspecified or unmeasured variables might also exist.
In other words, the size of the gap attributable to gender discrimination might be 5%. Or it might be less than that. It might be 2% or 1%. It might be zero. It might even favor women. We don't know the answer.

If you're interested enough in this question to have read this far, I highly recommend buying Economic Facts and Fallacies and reading the chapter called "Male-Female Facts and Fallacies," where Sowell brilliantly explains many of the factors that account for the gender gap.

IN THE COMMENTS: LemmusLemmus draws an insightful analogy:
Sowell is right, of course. Just ascribing residual variance to your favourite factor, such as sexism, is the statistical equivalent of the God of the Gaps argument. [link added]

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Fake outrage over the deficit from the Pledge to America (and everyone else)

Dan Drezner and Megan McArdle notice that the Republican Party's Pledge to America repeats the same incoherent set of positions we've been getting from the Democratic and Republican sides for decades:

1. We can't raise taxes.

2. We can't cut military or entitlement spending.

3. We have to reduce the deficit.

As Drezner says: "Good luck with that."

McArdle has a good rebuke to Tea Partiers who claim to be passionately opposed to the high deficit:

That's sort of like saying, "I want to be a size 6 and run marathons. I just don't want to do the part where I stop eating and go running."
ADDED: This is the Paul Krugman column that Drezner mentions (and agrees with. Krugman says:
In essence, what [the House Republicans] say [in the Pledge to America] is, “Deficits are a terrible thing. Let’s make them much bigger.” The document repeatedly condemns federal debt — 16 times, by my count. But the main substantive policy proposal is to make the Bush tax cuts permanent, which independent estimates say would add about $3.7 trillion to the debt over the next decade — about $700 billion more than the Obama administration’s tax proposals.

True, the document talks about the need to cut spending. But as far as I can see, there’s only one specific cut proposed — canceling the rest of the Troubled Asset Relief Program, which Republicans claim (implausibly) would save $16 billion. That’s less than half of 1 percent of the budget cost of those tax cuts. As for the rest, everything must be cut, in ways not specified — “except for common-sense exceptions for seniors, veterans, and our troops.” In other words, Social Security, Medicare and the defense budget are off-limits.

So what’s left? Howard Gleckman of the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center has done the math. As he points out, the only way to balance the budget by 2020, while simultaneously (a) making the Bush tax cuts permanent and (b) protecting all the programs Republicans say they won’t cut, is to completely abolish the rest of the federal government: “No more national parks, no more Small Business Administration loans, no more export subsidies, no more N.I.H. No more Medicaid . . . No more highway construction. No more homeland security. Oh, and no more Congress.”

"What will future generations condemn us for?"

That's the excellent question asked and answered by a piece in today's Washington Post by Kwame Anthony Appiah.

In my post on the death of Senator Robert Byrd, I quoted this Metafilter comment that tried to draw a lesson from Byrd's membership in, and subsequent renunciation of, the Ku Klux Klan:

I imagine that you (and the rest of us), should we have the opportunity to examine our actions today in 70 years, would be taken aback at some of the things we did and believed, things that appeared to us at the time to be obviously, manifestly right. And here's the kicker: we don't know what those things will be.

We may not want to admit it, but on some issue we are all Robert Byrd. Let's just hope we have the grace, as did Byrd, to realize what that issue is when the time comes.
That comment is phrased as if it's a foregone conclusion that it's going to be a long, long time before we can even perceive what these issues are.

Well, Appiah's article gives some basis to be a little more optimistic. Specifically, he gives "three signs that a particular practice is destined for future condemnation":
First, people have already heard the arguments against the practice. The case against slavery didn't emerge in a blinding moment of moral clarity, for instance; it had been around for centuries.

Second, defenders of the custom tend not to offer moral counterarguments but instead invoke tradition, human nature or necessity. (As in, "We've always had slaves, and how could we grow cotton without them?")

And third, supporters engage in what one might call strategic ignorance, avoiding truths that might force them to face the evils in which they're complicit. Those who ate the sugar or wore the cotton that the slaves grew simply didn't think about what made those goods possible. That's why abolitionists sought to direct attention toward the conditions of the Middle Passage, through detailed illustrations of slave ships and horrifying stories of the suffering below decks.
Appiah gives 4 current practices that he imagines that we'll look at in the future and ask: "What were people thinking?"

Can you guess what Appiah thinks these practices are? Remember, the Metafilter commenter didn't just say it'll be a long time before we succeed in putting an end to the practices, but that it would be a long time before we were even capable of reasoning our way to a conclusion about what the practices are. If you can come up with even one of the same answers as Appiah before clicking the link in the next paragraph, that would suggest that the Metafilter commenter was too pessimistic; we actually can answer these questions today.

After you've thought about it, read Appiah's answers.

ADDED: Feel free to put your own answer in the comments, either before or after reading the article.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Unfree speech in Pakistan and the bravery of Umar Cheema

A 34-year-old journalist named Umar Cheema (who writes for a Pakistani newspaper but has also worked for the New York Times) was kidnapped from his home in Islamabad, Pakistan and taken to a remote area where he was beaten, stripped naked, and otherwise humiliated. They then dumped him by the side of a road 100 miles from Islamabad.

That New York Times article reports:

At one point, while he lay face down on the floor with his hands cuffed behind him, his captors made clear why he had been singled out for punishment: for writing against the government. “If you can’t avoid rape,” one taunted him, “enjoy it.” . . .

His ordeal was not uncommon for a journalist or politician who crossed the interests of the military and intelligence agencies, the centers of power even in the current era of civilian government, reporters and politicians said.

What makes his case different is that Mr. Cheema has spoken out about it, describing in graphic detail what happened in the early hours of Sept. 4, something rare in a country where victims who suspect that their brutal treatment was at the hands of government agents often choose, out of fear, to keep quiet.

“I have suspicions and every journalist has suspicions that all fingers point to the ISI,” Mr. Cheema said, using the acronym for the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, the institution that the C.I.A. works with closely in Pakistan to hunt militants. The ISI is an integral part of the Pakistani Army . . . .
NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof says on his Facebook page:
Sometimes I'm just embarrassed by the contrast between American "journalists" like Glenn Beck or our gossipy reporting on celebrity shoplifters -- and the real, courageous journalism done by some foreign journalists. Reporters abroad have to far gutsier than us. Take my brave friend Umar Cheema of Pakistan: [link to the article] And a word to readers from Pakistan's military and ISI: don't mess with Umar.
Of course it's terrible what happened to Umar, but his heroism is an odd basis to put down American journalism. He only had the opportunity to be so brave because the Pakistani press is muzzled by the government, and intransigent reporters face brutal, covert punishment.

By all means let's celebrate Umar. But let's also denounce the Pakistani system and celebrate the freedom of speech we usually take for granted.

Kristof has a complaint but no real alternative. Since people aren't perfect, you can count on the results of freedom being messy and annoying and less-than-ideal. If some of the consequences of free speech are that the most popular talk-show hosts aren't as reasoned and nuanced as you or I would like, and that reporters cover the trivial hijinks of celebrities . . . so be it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Music Friday: Fort Wilson Riot plays "Love Song for Mabee Burlingham (Pieces of the War Part 1)"

I blogged a couple months ago about Fort Wilson Riot's new album and current tour. (Full disclosure: Jacob Mullis, who's half of FWR, is also my former bandmate.)

I love their new video -- a stripped-down, black-and-white, live-in-the-studio performance of the second-to-last song on their new album, "Love Song for Mabee Burlingham (Pieces of the War Part 1)":

(Thanks to "jamie" for posting it in the comments of the previous post.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Rats and opossums in Brooklyn, and central planning

I love the over-the-top writing style of this news article:

In a bizarre attempt to outwit Mother Nature, city officials introduced beady-eyed opossums in Brooklyn years ago to scarf down rats running amok in the borough, according to local officials. . . .

Not only do wily rats continue to thrive, but the opossums have become their own epidemic, with bands of the conniving creatures sauntering through yards, plundering garbage cans and noshing on fruit trees.

They've even taken up golf . . .
Sometimes the government just hands out ammunition to libertarians.

I mentioned before that I've been reading Thomas Sowell's Economic Facts and Fallacies. In the book's introduction, he lays out a few of the overarching fallacies that explain why many government policies go wrong; he calls one of them "the chess-pieces fallacy." He got this name from Adam Smith's description of a theorist who "'seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board.'" Sowell elaborates:
Unlike chess pieces, human beings have their own individual preferences, values, plans and wills, all of which can conflict with and even thwart the goals of social experiments. Moreover, whatever the merits of particular social experiments, experimentation as such can have huge economic and social costs. (8)
Apparently, this fallacy doesn't just apply to human beings.

(Photo of opossum by David Hoffman.)

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Kausfiles has found a new home.

Mickey Kaus is now blogging on Newsweek.

And he finally has comments! And he says he'll actually respond to them:

kausfiles on Newsweek won't be quite the same as kausfiles on Slate. My early New Year's resolution is to be a lot more interactive (e.g. responding to comments), a bit less insidery, and a lot more Instapundit-y--emulating the wildly popular Tennessee blogger who posts lots of short links to worthy articles by others. Please let me know how I'm doing.
Here's a news article about it (via),* which includes some background on the odd trajectory of Kaus's career.

This is good news for the blogosphere.

* In the spirit of blog evolution heralded by Kaus's post, I'm going to start using this more minimal "via."

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mexico's drug violence and journalistic self-censorship

A typically appalling account of Mexico's drug wars by the New York Times quotes a chilling front-page editorial in the Mexican city of Ciudad Juarez, which has been so ravaged by the violence that there's been an exodus from the city. It's a common gimmick for an editorial to pretend to address someone ("An Open Letter to ____"), but this is the first time I've seen one that literally addresses a group of people — the drug lords — as a genuine form of communication:

“We want you to explain to us what you want from us . . . . What are we supposed to publish or not publish, so we know what to abide by. You are at this time the de facto authorities in this city because the legal authorities have not been able to stop our colleagues from falling.”
I noticed the article because one of my friends recommended it on Facebook, which showed up in my feed as: "[Friend's Name] likes 'Mexico Paper, a Drug War Victim, Calls for a Voice.'" My friend remarked on the vacuous cheeriness with which Facebook's jargon has pervaded our content sharing:
When you "recommend" a NYTimes article, Facebook treats it as a "like." "Like" is not the right term for my regard for this article.

How the iPhone helps a blind person...

. . . see?

From that blog post (via):

I have seen a lot of technology for the blind, and I can safely say that the iPhone represents the most revolutionary thing to happen to the blind for at least the last ten years. Fifteen or twenty years brings us back to the Braille ‘n Speak, which I loved in the same way, so have a hard time choosing the greater. In my more excitable moments, I consider the iPhone as the greatest thing to have ever happened to the blind, and it may prove so. . . . The touchpad offers the familiar next/previous motion which the blind need, since speech offers one-dimensional output. Adding the ability to touch anywhere on the screen and hear it adds a whole other dimension, literally. For the first time, the blind can actually get spacial information about something. In the store, Mom could say “Try that button” and I could. Blind people know what I mean. How many times has a sighted person said “I see an icon at the top of the screen?” Now, that actually Means something. . . .

The other night, . . . a very amazing thing happened. I downloaded an app called Color ID. It uses the iPhone’s camera, and speaks names of colors. It must use a table, because each color has an identifier made up of 6 hexadecimal digits. This puts the total at 16777216 colors, and I believe it. Some of them have very surreal names, such as Atomic Orange, Cosmic, Hippie Green, Opium, and Black-White. These names in combination with what feels like a rise in serotonin levels makes for a very psychedelic experience.

I have never experienced this before in my life. I can see some light and color, but just in blurs, and objects don’t really have a color, just light sources. When I first tried it at three o’clock in the morning, I couldn’t figure out why it just reported black. After realizing that the screen curtain also disables the camera, I turned it off, but it still have very dark colors. Then I remembered that you actually need light to see, and it probably couldn’t see much at night. I thought about light sources . . . . First, I saw one of my beautiful salt lamps in its various shades of orange, another with its pink and rose colors, and the third kind in glowing pink and red.. I felt stunned.

The next day, I went outside. I looked at the sky. I heard colors such as “Horizon,” “Outer Space,” and many shades of blue and gray. I used color [cues] to find my pumpkin plants, by looking for the green among the brown and stone. I spent ten minutes looking at my pumpkin plants, with their leaves of green and lemon-ginger. I then roamed my yard, and saw a blue flower. I then found the brown shed, and returned to the gray house. My mind felt blown. I watched the sun set, listening to the colors change as the sky darkened. The next night, I had a conversation with Mom about how the sky looked bluer tonight. Since I can see some light and color, I think hearing the color names can help nudge my perception, and enhance my visual experience. Amazing!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Jimi Hendrix died 40 years ago today.

Jimi Hendrix -- widely considered the greatest guitarist in rock history -- died on September 18, 1970 at the age of 27.

Here he is on the Dick Cavett Show:

Hendrix's statement about politics reminds me of my blog post about why art is more important than politics. Back when I posted that, I found it interesting how the comments (on my blog and elsewhere in the blogosphere) had a very consistent reaction. Almost everyone responded by defending politics as something worth caring about. Well, of course politics and government policy matter. Everyone knows that. Why do they matter? Because, as many people explained in the comments, these things can profoundly affect people's lives. But music also affects people's lives, and often in more profound ways.

Hendrix is remembered as the greatest rock guitarist of all time not because he was more adept than anyone else at moving his fingers along a fretboard (countless guitarists have surpassed him at this), but because he had the most profound effect on how we make and hear music.

Here he is playing "Little Wing":

The Kronos Quartet playing "Purple Haze":

Hendrix playing "The Wind Cries Mary" at the Monterey Pop Festival:

Friday, September 17, 2010

Baby monkey riding backwards on a pig

(Here's the original video.)

I found this from Metafilter, where one commenter proclaims:


Thursday, September 16, 2010

Did the journalists who reported on the Koran burning threat understand what they were doing?

Matthew Yglesias offers some common sense about why Terry Jones, the pastor in Florida who threatened to burn the Koran, is (or isn't) such a big deal:

[I]t's kind of nuts, isn’t it, that we have the general in charge of an ongoing war commenting on some guy in Florida being a jerk. Even nuttier is that he might well be right that this episode will endanger the lives of Americans soldiers. But that really raises deeper issues about Afghan society and the wisdom and nature of America’s engagement with it. The essence of a digital, globalized world with billions of inhabitants is that there’s always going to be some jerk somewhere doing something ridiculous. “Guy in Florida deliberately trying to antagonize Muslims” can’t become a global news story every time it happens.
In the Bloggingheads clip below, Sarah Posner -- a reporter who specializes in religion -- asks why the mainstream media became so fixated on a pastor who has only about 50 congregants. She hypothesizes that the problem is that most of the reporters who covered the story aren't enough . . . like her! That is, they don't specialize in religion, so "they don't know how to evaluate the influence of a particular person."

While I share her incredulity that this became an international news story, I find her explanation hard to believe. Her own passing remark that Jones has only 50 congregants is not beyond the ken of any competent reporter. If anything, you'd expect a generalist reporter to have an especially high standard for when one pastor's statements are a real story.

For instance, Matthew Yglesias is not a reporter, let alone one with a religion beat. Like me, he's a 29-year-old opinion blogger. He and I can easily see these points, and I don't think this is because we're so extraordinarily perceptive or have any expertise about religion. I don't believe that the reporters at the New York Times and the Washington Post lacked the capacity to do what Yglesias and I and so many others (including Dave Weigel and my mom, Ann Althouse) did when we wondered: Wait a minute -- how is this a major news story?

What seems to have been going on for a long time is that the MSM feels that a story is automatically newsworthy as long as it involves religion at all -- completely aside from any normal metrics of newsworthiness. Their standard seems to be based entirely on subject matter, not whether the events are likely to have any broader consequences.

Of course, the Koran burning would have had international consequences if Jones had followed through with it -- but only because of the media's own coverage.

Like it or not, symbolic burnings are pretty commonplace. People burn effigies, flags, love letters, sacred texts. It happens. And usually, it's not very exciting. Think of any kind of object, and there's probably someone somewhere burning it or fecklessly threatening to burn it -- despite, or because of, whoever might be offended if they found out. Normally, major news outlets wouldn't even think of paying any attention to these shenanigans, even if the burned object symbolizes something important.

Here's my point: a symbolic burning doesn't, by its own unaided momentum, inexorably alter anything else in the outside world. This is as true of a pastor burning a Koran as it would be of anything else. The media coverage to date has surely inflamed the Islamic world far more than if the pastor had burned the Koran and the media had ignored it.

As is so often the case, the news coverage itself becomes the story, but the news media rarely admit it. Normally, this is a fairly benign quirk of journalese: Bill Maher has noted that journalists reflexively avoid the first person (singular or plural).

In this case, however, more self-awareness on the MSM's part might very well have saved lives. Now that the story is out there, even though Jones called off the burning, it can be used as a terrorist recruiting tool. We'll probably never be able to pinpoint a causal link from the Koran burning media circus to a specific victim of terrorism, but that doesn't mean there won't be any such causation.

I hope that MSM reporters are pausing to think about what this whole episode means about their own role and responsibility. Reporters don't just neutrally reflect the world; they're willful actors who affect the world. To assume that their effects are always for the better can be fatal.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"HarryReid @ladygaga There is a vote on #DADT next week. Anyone qualified to serve this country should be allowed to do so"

That's a Twitter post for the ages.

The Washington Post -- with the headline, "Gaga speaks, Reid acts on 'don't ask, don't tell'" -- gives the context:

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday a vote to repeal the military's ban of openly gay and lesbian soldiers had been planned for next week before the singer made waves with a plea during a daytime talk show.

The pop star known for flashy performances and eccentric style called on Reid to repeal the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy in an interview with Ellen DeGeneres that aired Monday.

Reid's campaign and Gaga traded talking points on Twitter after the lawmaker announced the vote. Reid told Gaga repealing the measure was the right thing to do.

Campaign spokesman Kelly Steele said Reid does not take cues from Gaga.
Actually, Reid had announced his intention on Monday, the same day the Ellen Degeneres show aired in the afternoon. So I doubt he made the announcement because of her.

And it's hard to imagine a sillier political forum than a pop singer's Twitter feed. This little interchange won't determine the outcome of any legislation. But Lady Gaga could affect some of her 6.3 million Twitter followers, and that's important.
ladygaga God Bless and Thank you @HarryReid, from all of us, like u, who believe in equality and the dream of this country. We were #BORNTHISWAY.

Scientists keep getting things wrong. Should we stop believing in science?

"Plenty of today’s scientific theories will one day be discredited. So should we be sceptical of science itself?" That's the teaser for a short, worth-reading article (via Arts & Letters Daily). Here's an excerpt:

Physicists, in particular, have long believed themselves to be on the verge of explaining almost everything. In 1894 Albert Michelson, the first American to get a Nobel prize in science, said that all the main laws and facts of physics had already been discovered. In 1928 Max Born, another Nobel prize-winner, said that physics would be completed in about six months’ time. In 1988, in his bestselling “A Brief History of Time”, the cosmologist Stephen Hawking wrote that “we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature.” Now, in the newly published “The Grand Design”, Hawking paints a picture of the universe that is “different…from the picture we might have painted just a decade or two ago”. In the long run, physicists are, no doubt, getting closer and closer to the truth. But you can never be sure when the long run has arrived. And in the short run—to adapt Keynes’s proverb—we are often all wrong.

Most laymen probably assume that the 350-year-old institution of “peer review”, which acts as a gatekeeper to publication in scientific journals, involves some attempt to check the articles that see the light of day. In fact they are rarely checked for accuracy, and, as a study for the Fraser Institute, a Canadian think-tank, reported last year, “the data and computational methods are so seldom disclosed that post-publication verification is equally rare.” Journals will usually consider only articles that present positive and striking results, and scientists need constantly to publish in order to keep their careers alive. . . . Historians of science call this bias the “file-drawer problem”: if a set of experiments produces a result contrary to what the team needs to find, it ends up filed away, and the world never finds out about it.
Despite all this and more, the author concludes the article by saying we should be generally credulous of science. Isn't this an outrageous paradox?

He thinks there's no other choice, since not to believe in science would be not to believe in anything, which would be paralyzing. "[S]cience is the only game in town."

Well, not really. If you're a professional scientist, it's certainly not that simple. You don't have a binary choice between "believing" or "not believing" in "science." You should be aware of enough of the complexities of your field that you can be more or less skeptical of different claims, using some kind of epistemic sliding scale.

And if you're a layperson, you usually don't have to believe in scientific theories at all in order to lead a productive life (as long as you're familiar with enough of the basics not to be embarrassed if they come up in conversation). But what if you're facing a specific problem and your best hope of a solution depends on science, such as taking medication? Well, you still don't need to be completely credulous about science in general or even the scientific claims behind that medication. You can take a gamble that the scientists are more likely than not to be right. This just means you think the odds that the medication is effective are greater than the odds of any other method you know of (including doing nothing); it doesn't mean you believe the odds that it's effective are 100%. You can use a working assumption that scientists are getting things right, based on your hunch that this usually turns out to be true -- but you can, at the same time, be skeptical of your own hunch. This needn't lead to paralysis. On the contrary, this semi-skeptical attitude can make it easier to move on once we discover, as we're sure to from time to time, that we were believing in bad science.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Funny stuff on the internet

1. "The Four Levels of Social Entrapment" (Hyperbole and a Half). One of my Facebook friends has changed her profile photo to the panel that says, "I'd love to hang out, but I have to go sit in my house by myself . . ."

2. Smug theology (XKCD).

3. A website about things customers say to web designers. My favorite:

"Can you make the site loader slower? We want it to feel more elegant."
4. Questions Begged by the Banner in My College Admissions Office: "Where Great Futures Begin!!" (McSweeney's).

UPDATE: I find it interesting that almost all the clicks are on #2. Just one person clicked #4, and no one clicked #1 or #3! Why is that?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Can you improve your blog comments by using esoteric terminology?

Robin Hanson, the blogger of Overcoming Bias, strongly endorses this idea by Eli Dourado about how to keep a high level of quality in your blog's comments section:

On small blogs, people typically comment when they have something to contribute or ask that is relevant to the post. These are frequently of high quality. … On more popular blogs, this positive commenting dynamic is confounded by the presence of eyeballs. Every post is read by many thousands of people. For the self-involved who could never attract such a large audience on their own, this is an irresistible forum for expounding pet hypotheses, axe-grinding, and generally shouting at or expressing meaningless agreement with the celebrity post-authors.

The first step, therefore, to higher quality comments is “be more niche.” Discourage your marginal readers with technical language, obscure references, and lengthy posts. Your marginal readers are not of high value anyway, and driving them away is an excellent way to improve the average comment of your inframarginal readers.
(I'm going to refer to these as Hanson's views, since I have the impression that Hanson is at least as enthusiastic about them as Dourado is. Overcoming Bias is the more popular of the two blogs, so the point is more relevant to Hanson -- and, indeed, he does seem to put this advice into practice.)

People are rarely as explicitly elitist as Hanson is here, though his reasoning is often used -- at least in other contexts.

I empathize with him in wanting to keep out certain commenters from your blog. (As you know if you've ever posted a comment here and read my notice, I've occasionally had to ban commenters.) But it's an open question how to identify which commenters should be excluded. The most obvious way is to judge the comments as they come in and delete them if they're not the kind of contribution you want. This is more aggressive but also more fine-tuned than what Hanson is describing. His approach is passive-aggressive, but that's not the main problem with it.

The problem is that he presupposes that the people whose comments he and his readers would benefit from reading are those who either already have a certain high-level education (which is strongly correlated with socioeconomic status) or have taken the time to absorb his blog's idiolect. Of course, I just used an esoteric term of art -- it's hard to avoid. But we should reach for these terms only when they allow us to express our thoughts more clearly, not as invisible barriers to keep out a poorly defined group of people we imagine are beneath us.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Do different languages create "fascinatingly different Ways of Looking at the World"?

Nope, says linguist John McWhorter in a review of Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages by Guy Deutscher. (Here's an excerpt from the book.)

"As cool as it would be if grammar were thought, the idea is a myth — at least in any form that would be of interest beyond academic psychologists."

McWhorter recognizes that differences in language lead to some differences in thought — just not fascinating or profound differences. A couple examples:

Speakers of languages with gender are more likely to imagine — if asked on a survey, which typically they never are — feminine nouns talking with higher voices than masculine ones. So, your French friend, if you woke her up in the middle of the night, would be more likely to imagine a table — feminine la table — talking like Meryl Streep than you would. OK — but is this “a way of looking at the world”? Does your friend think of tables as ladies? Ask her — she doesn’t.

Or — many languages have a word that covers both green and blue. Call it “grue.” Their speakers distinguish blue and green very slightly less quickly than English speakers do. Is this a “world view”? I can only quote my erstwhile UC Berkeley colleague Paul Kay with Willett Kempton here: “If the differences in world view are to be interesting, they must be sizeable. Minuscule differences are dull.”

Saturday, September 11, 2010

President Obama on the September 11 attacks

"We are one nation — one people — bound not only by grief but by a set of common ideals. . . . [T]he sense of responsibility we felt for one another that day was not a fleeting passion, but a lasting virtue. This is a difficult time for our country. It's often in such moments that some try to stoke bitterness, to divide us based on our differences, to blind us to what we have in common. But on this day, we are reminded that at our best, we do not give in to this temptation. . . . So let us grieve for those we've lost, honor those who have sacrificed, and do our best to live up to the shared values that we have — on this day and every day that follows."

My post on September 11, 2008: "Do you see what's happening?"

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Debating welfare: "There is a predestined [bottom 20%] of the population."

Here's Thomas Sowell, in 1980, in a lively exchange about welfare with a state welfare official named Helen Bohen O'Bannion, who turns out to be a perfect liberal foil for the conservative Sowell:

A particularly revealing moment: When Sowell discusses skyrocketing rates of teenage pregnancy and children out of wedlock (throughout the US but especially among blacks), O'Bannion quips that she isn't "making [welfare recipients] have illegitimate children." She seemed to assume, a priori, that a benevolent government program can only improve disadvantaged people's lives, and can't itself encourage the kind of behavior that causes them to be so disadvantaged in the first place. Sowell retorts: "Oh, you don't have to do that — you simply subsidize it."

For a more up-to-date and rigorous account of how the United States' expansion of welfare beginning in the '60s created perverse incentives with predictable unintended consequences (especially miring blacks in poverty), I highly recommend the chapter entitled "Why Are You Talking About Blacks on Welfare?" in John McWhorter's book Winning the Race.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Why are young men often passionate about religion and war? Can women put an end to war?

John Horgan takes 18 seconds to recount the 3 phases of circumstantial religious belief in his life (via Bloggingheads on Facebook):

That's part of a discussion of why young men are often passionate about both religion and war. This segues into a discussion of whether war is inevitable and what factors make war less likely:

Here are the social factors that make war less likely, according to Thomas Hayden (who bases this on the empirical research he did for his book Sex and War):

1. A low ratio of younger (18-34) men to older men.

2. More women engaged in civic life. (This has to be a widespread engagement, not just having a few token women in highly visible leadership positions.)

3. More education for girls.

4. Less unemployed men.

5. "Family planning."

With the exception of #1, those are all good things anyway. What a novel concept: caring about women . . . and men! Let's try it!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Radiohead in concert -- amateur video, professional audio

A group of Radiohead fans went to a recent show in Prague "on a mission to capture the band playing using as many different angles as possible." Radiohead found out about this and provided the audio so that the fans could piece everything together into proper videos.

Here are a few of the songs. You can see them all here.

I am a bit shocked by how much they've turned their backs on their great '90s albums, The Bends and OK Computer.

"2 + 2 = 5"


"All I Need"

"Nice Dream"

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why do we care more about the miners in Chile than the flood victims in Pakistan?

We have a bias in favor of "specific" victims.

"We are much less interested in helping a victim – we only want to help the victim," Jonah Lehrer says in that blog post. He correctly calls this "deeply irrational." It makes no sense to distinguish between people who are "specific" and those who aren't. Everyone is a specific individual!

Lehrer quotes a new study that asked people questions to try to determine how much they used analytical thought as opposed to hunches. The more analytical people showed less of an emotional bias in favor of specifically identified victims:

Individual differences in analytic (“rational”) processing style moderated the effects of different request types on donations to a Zambian relief fund. Less-analytic processors donated more to a single identified victim than to requests describing statistical victims or a combination of both; more-analytic processors showed no differences.
Lehrer also notes:
[T]he floods in Pakistan have received far less attention than warranted, in part because most of the stories focus on the vast scope of the disaster, and not on individual tragedies.
There are a couple ways that the "focus on the vast scope" could diminish people's caring. Lehrer means it causes us to view the victims as faceless and indistinct. But that wouldn't seem to fully explain the disparity: we are seeing photos of specific victims in the flood, not just statistics.

Another factor is that, even if we understand that the flood is taking an enormous human toll, the huge scale (it's said to have affected 20% of Pakistan, which has a population of 170 million) makes it seem so unmanageable that we instinctively throw up our hands. Trying to solve the problems seems hopeless. With the trapped miners, there's a discrete mission that needs to be accomplished, and we can imagine instantly feeling joyous once it's over. Despite the suffering and anxiety, the miners can eventually be reunited with their loved ones, and everyone will have a new perspective on life. With Pakistan, the best imaginable success would be to gradually mitigate the enormous damage; saving everyone or nearly everyone is out of the question. It's similar to why movies with happy endings are so popular.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Does, or should, your taste in music express your personality?

Penelope Trunk has a couple wry observations about how people perceive your taste in music:

[1.] People judge other people by their playlists. (Which is why Ramones t-shirts outsell Ramones albums ten to one.) . . .

[2. P]eople have positive impressions of people who like jazz. This is surprising to me because people do not have positive judgments toward blog posts that are like jazz—complicated and difficult.
Her link on the "people who like jazz" sentence talks about a 2008 study of how musical taste is correlated with personality. Over 30,000 subjects were asked questions to reveal their personality traits and their opinions of about 100 music genres. One of the researchers explained how the findings defied stereotypes:
"One of the most surprising things is the similarities between fans of classical music and heavy metal. They're both creative and at ease but not outgoing.

"The general public has held a stereotype of heavy metal fans being suicidally depressed and of being a danger to themselves and society in general. But they are quite delicate things."
Back to Penelope Trunk -- she says she wants to choose her playlists to have more "focus":
I like to think that I know myself well enough to present a consistent and insightful portrait of myself. And when Eva, from Songza, emailed me to see if I’d put together a playlist that they could use on their music streaming site, I said sure. . . .

When I sent my song list to Eva I asked her to analyze me. I said, “I bet you read song lists like I read resumes, so can you tell me what you see?”

She said she usually doesn’t see such a wide a range of songs on one list.

On a resume, lack of focus is bad. And in a life, doing many different things at once is bad.
But one of the great things about listening to music is that it's not like making a resume: you don't have to worry about the impression you're making on anyone else. There are many situations in life where you can't afford to simply "be true to yourself" (as we were talking about the other day). Choosing what music to listen to is not one of those situations.

I'll repeat what I've said before, paraphrased from Ben Folds:
You should choose the music you listen to entirely based on what you want to listen to, regardless of whether it's a reflection of your personality.
There's no need to worry about whether the person who likes Bach can also like Pantera.* Like whatever you like, and everything else will fall into place.

* I decided to link to Pantera's song "I'm Broken" because the title reminded me of the researcher's comment that metal fans are "delicate things."