Archive for February, 2009

Missing the point and obstinate about it

Mike Masnick illustrates the problem at techdirt in Appeals Court Allows ‘Classified, But Leaked’ Evidence To Be Used In Warrantless Wiretap Case.

The first error is in failing to distinguish between foreign and domestic affairs.

The second error is that of mislabeling. Wiretapping is different from traffic monitoring.

The tone is indicative of the bias involved. Words and phrases such as “ridiculous hoops” and “pretends” show how judgment is being presented on the straw man created by delving into motivations inferred from perception. There is also the self victimization about how he is told to “shut up” with “angry comments.”

It’s difficult to see how anyone who actually believes in the right to a free society could support a gov’t's ability to spy on folks without any check on that power.

Well yes, but this is hypocritical. The essay is, despite its flaws and errors, a check on the supposed power being complained about. It is in the general class of all of those protests screaming about the abuse of the first amendment all the while taking advantage of its protections.

Integrity is a first responsibility if we want to keep our privileges.

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Steyn: satire. ouch.

It is one of those essays where you can’t figure out whether to laugh or to cry or, perhaps, deny. Mark Steyn: The Incredible Bulk battles the Fat Cats – Latest superhero of Big Government replaces Bailoutman, Mister Stimulus and Captain Recovery. (OC Register).

the president in his address to Congress finally spilled the beans and unveiled our new hero in his final form: the Incredible Bulk, Statezilla, Governmentuan, a colossus bestriding the land like a, er, colossus. What superpowers does he have? All of them!

Is the new all-powerful Statezilla vulnerable to anything? Unfortunately, yes. He loses all his superpowers when he comes into contact with something called Reality. But happily Reality is nowhere in sight. There are believed to be some small surviving shards somewhere on the planet – maybe on an uninhabited atoll somewhere in the Pacific – but that’s just a rumor

Let us hope reality is found before it wakes up and wreaks vengeance.

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What does a “back door is OK’ approach tell you?

Tara Smith describes another example of ideology triumphant (over reason) in an Anti-evolution bill in Iowa.

For those who may be unfamiliar, in addition to “teach the controversy,” these “academic freedom” bills are one of the new tactics for creationists who want to introduce creationism into science classrooms via the back door by claiming that teachers need the protection to teach “the full range of scientific views” when it comes to evolution (in other words, to teach creationism/ID).

What is happening here is that an ideology that can’t make it on its own merits is being sold under false colors. Consider the implications of this phenomena.

If you have to be dishonest to sell your ideas you are taking the position that those to whom you are trying to sell it are too stupid to get the message truthfully and can be deceived because of this stupidity.

Also considers what it says about those who resort to these tactics. They are so fixated on their ideas that they are not only not willing to accept any doubts but they also cannot tolerate anyone not agreeing with them.

Jesus was faced with this conundrum and he allowed that which belonged to Caesar to be Caesar’s. In this case, it is not taxes that are an issue of government rather than religion, it is an issue of the interpretation of evidence that is a matter of science rather than religion.

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Rove on the straw man

In the WST, Obama’s Straw Men: Why does he routinely ascribe to opponents views they don’t espouse? Karl Rove describes several cases where an opposition is built from straw in order to make a point that doesn’t exist in order to sway a debate.

Lincoln offered careful, rigorous, sustained arguments to advance his aims and, when disagreeing with political opponents, rarely relied on the lazy rhetorical device of “straw men.” Mr. Obama, on the other hand, routinely ascribes to others views they don’t espouse and says opposition to his policies is grounded in views no one really advocates.

Mr. Obama’s persistent use of the device is troubling. Continually characterizing those who disagree with you in a fundamentally dishonest way can be the sign of a person who lacks confidence in the merits of his ideas.

Examples are provided. You can easily find your own. Or you can attack the observer, which is another fallacy being used to respond to observations such as Rove’s. If you are after honesty, be careful with integrity.

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The fox, the hedgehog, and media preference

Barry Ritholtz looks at a comment in an interview with Philip Tetlock in the post Experts, Crashes, Media, Skepticism about how to tell true expertise.

The most important factor was not how much education or experience the experts had but how they thought. You know the famous line that [philosopher] Isaiah Berlin borrowed from a Greek poet, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”? The better forecasters were like Berlin’s foxes: self-critical, eclectic thinkers who were willing to update their beliefs when faced with contrary evidence, were doubtful of grand schemes and were rather modest about their predictive ability. The less successful forecasters were like hedgehogs: They tended to have one big, beautiful idea that they loved to stretch, sometimes to the breaking point. They tended to be articulate and very persuasive as to why their idea explained everything. The media often love hedgehogs./blockquote>

What it appears Tetlock is saying is that ideologues tend to be more attractive to those seeking answers. The ‘media’ is looking for a definitive conclusion without qualifications or hesitancy.

On the other hand, better results in a ‘scientific’ vein often come from the non-ideologues or those who are self critical and carefully consider the limits of what they know and how they know it.

The key is in the manner of thinking, not in the mass of knowledge. A manner of thinking is more difficult to learn than a mass of facts as facts are easily found if your manner of thinking is such as to help you expose them.

Those looking for teachers who will accurately portray reality should look for teachers who are experts with the attributes Tetlock describes. A way to do this is to look for those who engage in logical fallacies and do not address the issues with an appropriate consideration for the measures supporting their point of view.

See also Tutorials on logic and argument: Fallacies and Constructing a Logical Argument – these will give you a structure for measuring arguments presented in a debate.

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Unintended consequences from trying to ‘do good’

Overlawyered describes what has happened to Thrift stores, the day after the CPSIA has taken effect to save children from hazardous substances.

One presumably unintended consequence will be to deprive nonprofit community and religious groups of millions of dollars in revenue with which they had pursued worthy causes.

Rather than invest in expensive testing procedures and staffing to handle the paperwork, many stores that used to provide inexpensive second hand children’s clothing have dropped that line. That ripples out to the thrift savvy parent who will now need to spend more on clothing and toys and have less for other things.

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Grok the basics of economics

ShrinkWrapped says it succinctly:

The economy is one of the most complex man-made structures ever built. It is a classic example of complexity arising from the application of simple rules on a very large scale. As with any complex system, it is impossible to accurately define all, or even most, of its parameters, and impossible to predict the effects of any single perturbation. Within limits, the economy has been a self-correcting system, as long as none of the basic rules are interfered with, ie, over time, markets are the single best tool for discovering prices and once prices have been established, supply and demand takes over and temporary downturns remain temporary. The business cycle includes recessions because humans are not rational actors (despite the most profound wishes of economics professors and modelers) and governments can worsen economic downturns much more readily than they can reverse them.

For lagniappe, a rundown on academic papers is also provided:

I long ago determined that the best Psychoanalytic literature was that which was written most clearly and concisely. If an author confused me, it was likely that the confusion had more to do with the author’s shortcomings as a writer than my shortcomings as a reader. I am not being immodest here; I simply recognized that I am pretty good at understanding what I read and when I can’t understand what I read it is usually the case that the author was confused or unnecessarily arcane. It is an unremarkable observation that most academic literature has minimal substance. Perhaps 10% will include real ideas of some originality, the majority will involve restating the obvious and corroborating other’s more original work, and a small but not insignificant percentage will be dross. The worst examples of academic nonsense typically involve papers which are almost purposely abstruse and laden with jargon rather than ideas. (Post-modern literary and art deconstruction offer classic examples on a regular basis.)

Each of these insights deserves consideration but this post connects the two as a means to describe an opinion about the latest bank rescue plan.

An example of a few simple rules creating a complex picture is fractals. Those rules define a focus and a philosophy or set of values for the system. It is generally true that a plan for a solution will be more effective and more efficient if it properly addresses and uses the underly precepts of the situation. ShrinkWrapped does not see this happening with the government’s proposed solutions to the asset value decline that has just occurred.

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Cynic or data nerd?

The Numbers Game is a book about the different ways in which numbers can mislead or lie. Seeking Alpha takes a look at the book and asks the authors a few questions in Can We Trust Statistics? about whether the book was a work of media criticism.

It starts by remembering that numbers are like words – surprise, surprise – they too can be ambiguous or even untruthful. Does that mean we junk them?

Of course not, no more than we can junk the language. It means we approach them with our wits about us and apply similar standards to those we’d use on, say, the language of politics.

The upshot is really that there’s no easy shortcut through the hard work of trying to understand numbers for yourself. Everybody has an angle, and no one — journalists emphatically included — is particularly reliable.

Most of the public seem to take numbers as facts even when they are measures. The issues of accuracy and precision and referent are not given much thought. That can lead to being lead.

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The good old days – comparing the decades

Women’s Day has an interesting pictoral and statistical comparison of living from 1950 to today. Check it out and consider just how good we have it today!

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“Worst Ever” and statistical manipulations

Bruce McQuain provides an example of the mis-use of statistical information in <a href=”http://www.qando.net/?p=529″>Lies, Damn Lies and Nancy Peolsi’s Charts</a>. There is a lot invested in trying to ‘prove’ doome and gloom for political ends that one needs to be very very careful in accepting claims made about fuzzy measures. Job losses are one such fuzzy measure. What makes it fuzzy is the lack of an appropriate standard and the definition of what is actually being shown.

The appropriate standard involves questions about whether measuring the absolute quantity or the quantity as a percentage. Whether it is employment or deficit, using absolute measures is often much more dramatic than using percentages because both the population and the budget have grown significantly.

The definition of the measure is important because it draws lines that may or may not be easy to see and may or may not be appropriate for the knowledge sought. With employment, you will have different results if you look at unemployment claims filed, actual number employed, surveys of employment, or service sector.

As Bruce indicates with several charts, politicians can lie with statistics. It is up to you to qualify what is presented to learn the quality of the arguments that use it.

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Stealth Bills and Who gives a dam’ what the cost is

Little Green Footballs takes notice of another example of the stealth bill. These are those seemingly innocent things that cover over their real agenda. Another Stealth Creationist Bill in Florida describes the ongoing effort to replace science with religion in the name being able to “teach the other side so you can have critical thinking.” Critical thinking should start by not comparing dissimilar concepts and ideas. What really takes the cake, though, is the values in place.

Notice that Wise is well aware his bill is likely to end up costing the state of Florida millions for legal defenses if they pass this bill, and it will almost certainly be struck down as unconstitutional. But that doesn’t even faze him.

It is obvious that integrity in science teaching is not the issue or biology curricula would be determined by what the universities and colleges want. The story also shows that there is little interest in the cost to society, either. There is something more valuable than tolerance and market demand in this issue that drives out reason and integrity.

That should be something to think about.

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The Rio Linda problem and police work: broken windows theory

Betsy takes note of a study on criminal behavior and policing in Testing the “broken windows” theory

The results, just now circulating in law enforcement circles, are striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the long-debated “broken windows” theory really works – that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.

The Lowell experiment offers guidance on what seems to work best. Cleaning up the physical environment was very effective; misdemeanor arrests less so, and boosting social services had no apparent impact.

It is the influence of your immediate environment, Whether it is a community or one’s own self, how you behave is influenced by how you feel and that is influenced by the immediate environment. The clothes you wear are an important choice in how you feel about yourself and how you approach the world. Reach out from there to your home and to your community.

It is also worth noting that social services did not fare well in these studies as far as crime goes. While such services are needed in a civil context, they are often rationalized as getting to the root of criminal problems. Whether it is in the local community or international community, the effort is more effective if focused on more tangible things.

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Qualifying conclusions

Gavin describes a trojan horse at RealClimate in On replication. The issue is about a mis-focus to either credit or discredit an idea. It is one where basic ideas, reason, and logic get usurped by a mechanical process that can yield misleading results.

the vast majority of papers that turn out to be wrong, or non-robust are because of incorrect basic assumptions, overestimates of the power of a test, some wishful thinking, or a failure to take account of other important processes (It might be a good idea for someone to tally this in a quantitative way – any ideas for how that might be done?).

In the cases here, the issues that I thought worth exploring from a scientific point of view were not whether the arithmetic was correct, but whether the conclusions drawn from the analyses were.

the bigger point is that reproducibility of an analysis does not imply correctness of the conclusions.

Where this essay has problems is in its title. It seems that claiming the issue is about transparency and replication is a misdirection. That leads to a suspicion that it is trying to dismiss calls for a transparency of data and process that would allow others to replicate the chain of steps that lead to a conclusion. That would be an attempt to sidestep the question “how did you come to that conclusion?” which has been an issue in the climate discussion.

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Torture. The innocent.

Concurring Opinions describes Why the Innocent Are Punished More Harshly Than the Guilty in the criminal ‘justice’ system.

The keys issues focus on the idea that pleading guilty is good. That puts pressure on the innocent to proclaim their guilt to relieve pressure and reduce punishment. Federal sentencing guidelines call this an “acceptance of responsibility” and many jurisdictions use this idea as a means of arranging a plea deal to reduce the costs of trial.

These factors lead to the rather perverse outcome that defendants who are innocent are punished more harshly than the guilty. The innocent defendant faces a terrible choice — either falsely admit guilt, in exchange for a lighter punishment, or defend his or her innocence but pay dearly if he or she loses. Innocent defendants are probably much more likely to choose the latter strategy. Timothy Cole turned down a plea deal for probation because he didn’t want to confess to a crime he didn’t commit. That’s a decision made on principle, one that an innocent person might very well make but rather unusual for a guilty person to make.

It is fortunate that not many innocent are subjected to this but it is a tragedy, both for the innocent and for society, when it does happen. It is a torture because it leaves permanent emotional scars and destroys lives. It illustrates how a values are corrupted by well meaning practice that has unintended effects. collateral damage, that was not properly considered.

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Stifling competition or stimulating efficiencies

An executive order was issued that restricted government contracts to union labor. There is pressure in the ‘stimulus’ bill for “American only” materials. Both of these actions artificially stifle competition by limiting the choices that can be made in the purchase of goods and service.

On the other hand, reports are that companies such as Wal-Mart, Amazon, and McDonalds are not receding but rather increasing sales. Worker productivity in the country as a whole has increased as many companies shed jobs and refocus their efforts on efficiencies and effectiveness.

What is it that makes the U.S. wealthy? Wealth is a result of being able to produce more with less. When that happens, food is less expensive, goods are less expensive, and people have more stuff to make their lives more comfortable and more healthy. The U.S. is wealthy because it has learned how to produce more with less and to be able to do this better than anyone else.

The recent economic brouhaha has, so far, been mostly a devaluation in the price of land and corporations. That makes a lot of people feel worse off because the dollar value for what they own in these areas has shrunk. They need to remember that they still own the same thing and to think about what that means over time. The actual value is in the ability of the land and the corporations to produce. Land produces living and working space. Corporations produce goods and services. As long as the living and working gets better and the production of goods becomes more efficient and less expensive, the value of owning land and corporations will remain.

It is said that the people of the U.S. have claimed a need for change. There is a choice. Is that change to be towards limiting competition and restricting available resources or is it to be towards an open market that will allow searching out improved efficiencies and effectiveness? That is the choice being faced as the politicians clamor to ‘solve the economic crisis’ and fix all our problems.

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Walking on water

Mark Steyn is not for you if you still wear your ObamaShades and tend to be moonstruck. This week he considers the idea that the Obama mythology could use some stimulus, “Far from walking on water, president seems all at sea.”

Some of us never expected him to walk on water. But we didn’t think he’d be all at sea taking on quite so much of it after a mere two weeks.

Reality has a tendency to do strange things to ideals that are on the fantasy side.

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Creeping wealth in the public sector

In both the public sector and academia and in the military as well the tale has been one of suffering service ameliorated by back end security. The suffering itself has been withering and the security has been growing and a result is another facet of the Social Security dilemma. Stephane Fitch describes the problem in Gilt-Edged Pensions.

The common presumption is that public servants forgo high wages in exchange for safe jobs and benefits. The reality is they get all three. State and local government workers get paid an average of $25.30 an hour, which is 33% higher than the private sector’s $19, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Throw in pensions and other benefits and the gap widens to 42%.

Four in five public-sector workers have lifetime pensions, versus only one in five in the private sector.

That’s a lot less than Social Security’s $11 trillion unfunded liability. But the feds have lots of wiggle room to lessen their burden by, say, raising the age at which you become eligible to draw benefits. Most public employees’ benefits, by contrast, are set in stone.

The pension problem has already bankrupt some communities. The actual employment salaries, especially for those public workers subject to overtime, is becoming an issue as local governments seek to deal shrinking budgets.

There will be some adjustments. The only question is when and by how much. Bush’s efforts to deal with Social Security early and small was defeated. Its defeat is still being defended by making an example of the asset bubble bursting (studiously ignoring the long term in order to make the point). Will lessons be learned or will they need a more harsh teacher?

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That thing about academia

The mixing of politics and science is a political issue in itself. The AGW alarmism is one example. Another, on the anti-war front, is the recent review of a Lancet study about the cost of war. Morrissey points out the basic issue in his essay about how the Discredited Lancet study gets even more discredited.

In short, Burnham won’t reveal how he arrived at those numbers, which makes his research completely useless. Scientific studies have to reveal their entire methodology in order for others to attempt to duplicate the study and its results. Without duplication, results cannot be confirmed, and most scientists reject them — unless they serve political rather than scientific ends.

The fact is that there are at least two major influences that tend to bias scientists in ways that lead to this sort of thing. One is the fact that the government is a major source of funding for scientific research and it is necessary for many scientists to sell their research to the government in order to remain employed. Another is a yearning for the basic idealism of peace, security, and a return to a garden of eden.

There is an accountability process in scientific inquiry. It is often messy and may take a while to have effect. As long as it continues to exist we can hope the truth will out. It just gets frustrating at the costs involved.

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The ‘root cause’ rationalization

One modern phenomena, a part of the moral equivalence issue, is that of fixing a the ‘root causes’ to fix a problem. For instance, see Address ‘Root Causes’ of Terrorism, Muslim Envoys Urge Obama (February 05, 2009, Patrick Goodenough, International Editor, CNS)

The need to identify and address the “root causes” of terrorism was stressed by several speakers, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict high on the list.

The “root cause” debate pits those who say that terrorism is the result of national issues – such as poverty and economic injustice, the Palestinian and Kashmiri conflicts, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – against those who argue that it is driven by a jihadist ideology rooted in Islamic teaching.

There is a lot of appeal to finding out what actually causes some problem so you can fix what is really wrong. The problem, especially where people and their emotions are involved, is the source of the problem is not always well defined or even definable and measurable.

An example is in psychotherapy. Freud became well known for his progress in tackling the root causes of misbehavior. Because of the imprecision of the Freudian approach and its limited success, another approach is often being used. This approach targets the end result and seeks to modify the problem behavior itself through training methods.

When it comes to rockets raining down on Israel, airplanes flying into buildings, or the whole suicide bomber business, a root cause approach has not shown any significant success despite many years of effort. Perhaps it is time for a more focused behavior modification approach. This approach has proven effective in crime – the broken windows campaign in New York City, for instance – and in war where those who misbehave are simply eliminated.

The GWOT may have had its success in preventing terrorist behavior because it has put a focus on improper behavior but this focus has been attacked in many ways. Spying on suspects has been condemned as a violation of privacy. Detention of active participants has been condemned as a violation of individual rights. Honor has been given to those who misbehave whether it is in the propagation of propaganda as truth or it is the celebration of crime or the celebrity of miscreants. Consider the ‘reporter’ who threw his shoes at the President as a case in point. Yon’s report described in the previous post Upside down. It doesn’t make sense provides another case to study.

It is perhaps a ‘root cause’, As long as misbehavior is accepted or excused or rationalized it will continue. If one cannot distinguish between unprompted attacks on civilians and a response to those attacks, between using civilians as military shields and the resulting casualties, then the root cause remains and the problem will persist. Effective and proper decisions must be made about what is right and what is wrong. When idealism meets reality, tough decisions must be made and costs paid.

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Upside down. It doesn’t make sense

Michael Yon, in an Instapundit exclusive report, says It’s Raining.

Thousands of terrorist rockets have rained on Israeli towns within range of Hamas-ruled Gaza, as the world mostly ignored the thunder.

The playgrounds in Sderot come equipped with bomb shelters, decorated with kid-friendly art.

The peak times for launch are when the kids are going or coming from school, and shoppers are in the open, for the greatest odds of casualties.

Yet world sympathy seems to rest with the terrorists, and Israel is condemned for ‘trapping’ the Palestinians inside Gaza and for any retaliation for the missile attacks.

It makes no sense to risk life and limb only to allow people who intentionally target children to talk through my pen. Not until they stop the terrorism. Those members of the press who transmute Hamas’s crocodile tears into ink only exacerbate the disease.

the British are investigating war crimes charges against Israel … A Spanish judge is also talking war crimes

And today, where is the equity? Why haven’t Hamas leadership been charged with war crimes for indiscriminate attacks on Sderot and other towns?

It is upside down. Defend yourself after extreme provocation and you are the villain? This same ethos of making the criminal a victim in seen in the ‘Home is my Castle’ debate in many communities that struggle with the idea that a home-owner should not suffer liabilities for what happens to burglars and others who invade his home with invitation or proper warrant.

Read Yon’s It’s Raining report and think about upside down thinking.

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