Wednesday, 22 December 2010

On the Ethics of Outing

Apparently there's been some recent rumbles about outing Lindsey Graham.   Graham  has been an opponent of things like repealing DADT,  gay adoption, gay marriage and has supported constitutional amendments to prevent gay marriage.  I don't know whether or not it's true that Graham is gay, but I think the question of outing someone like Graham raises an interesting moral issue.

There's a pretty strong utilitarian case that can be made for the outing. As a legislator Graham was taking steps to severely restrict the rights of gay people.   Some would argue that if an action is within the law and helps to stop such injustices, the justification is obvious.   Would we have paused in revealing that a legislator had, say, had a child out of wedlock if that act was all that stood in the way of successful passage of civil rights legislation?  Nonetheless, there's something unseemly about blackmail even if the blackmailing is done to bring about positive ends.   So, I think that we stand on much firmer moral ground if we can show that the information is information that the voters deserved to know all along or at the very least, is information the person shouldn't have assumed would be protected by ordinary privacy considerations.

So to what extent is privacy deserved or reasonably expected in this matter? Arguably, sexual orientation is relevant to voters if that legislator is going to be making decisions about gay rights related legislation.  That's not to say only gay people people are qualified to legislate on gay rights but it help voters determine something of the background of the legislator that may help them to make assessments. We wouldn't contend that the fact that someone was a teacher is irrelevant if we anticipated their being called on to vote on education legislation.  We presumably wouldn't think a person's ethnicity irrelevant and out of bounds if we anticipated their voting on immigration legislation.  Why should a person's sexual orientation be out of bounds if they're going to be voting on gay rights legislation?  Politicians often proudly parade their families when they're campaigning because they clearly believe that that component of their private life is relevant to voters and they're okay with it.  Candidates typically reveal a great deal about themselves and a great deal is also revealed about them, what makes one's sexuality so special that it should be off the table?  I'm not suggesting candidates should release lists of lovers, but it's not obvious that one's sexual orientation so obviously should be off the table when so much about a candidate isn't.

Over and above the question of whether a person's sexual orientation is something voters have a reasonable expectation to inquire into, there's another question about what this sort of situation reveals about Graham's character, i.e., does it reveal a duplicitous or hypocritical nature? Presumably such moral failings, if present, are relevant to voters because they speak to character and trustworthiness. To many, a gay legislator's failure to support gay rights legislation is obvious hypocrisy, I'm willing to be a bit more charitable.  There isn't a logical contradiction, I suppose, in embracing homosexuality and opposing gays in the military or gay marriage. It would be an odd position to take but I suppose it is possible; one might make the arguments that conservatives often try to make, i.e., it's all about semantics and troop cohesion.  I don't find those defensible positions, but I'll acknowledge that  if one sincerely holds them it's possible to take those positions, be gay and not be a hypocrite. It's more problematic, though, to my mind, to try to argue that preventing homosexuals from adopting is permissible.  It's hard to understand such a ban as emanating from anything other than a view that being a homosexual is wrong and that to expose a child to gay people is to jeopardize their wellbeing.  So, insofar as a homosexual person opposes adoption by homosexuals, I believe that s/he reveals himself as a hypocrite.  And, I'd argue that blatant hypocrisy is something that voters deserve to know about.

There's also an extent to which we all believe that public figures insofar as they voluntarily took up public life have given up some of their rights to privacy.   People get incensed about outing gay people, but they don't seem to get nearly as incensed about the media releasing all kinds of other information about people's private lives.   There's a gossip section in the Washington Post that discusses where politicians and actors eat dinner in DC, what they ordered, whom they went to dinner with and even how much they tipped or what it cost.  Those certainly are facts about people's personal lives that are truly irrelevant to what they're doing as legislators but we don't hear people complaining that such privacy violations are unacceptable.  We eat it up when Eliot Spitzer gets caught with a prostitute or John Edwards gets caught in a hotel late at night.  So why are people so much more inclined to find gay outing unacceptable? I wonder if  this inclination to believe that homosexuality warrants special privacy considerations also suggests an inclination to view it as more shameful than some of these other acts. I can't imagine people becoming upset with someone "outing" someone as being straight.  It would be unlikely that such revelations would be met with angry rebukes that whether or not the person is inclined to sleep with members of the opposite sex is his/her business alone.  Perhaps the portrayal of this kind of outing as a terribly vindictive or cruel act serves to perpetuate the view that being gay is very shameful and closet worthy.

Just to be clear here, I'm not arguing that the sexual orientation of everyone is everyone else's business.  I'm arguing that it may be everyone's business if the person in question has deliberately chosen to be a public figure who will be casting votes on the matter.  I should also clarify that when I speak of outing in the above, I refer to the act of revealing someone's sexual orientation.  I think that all people, even public figures, have a right to privacy when it comes to particular details about their sex life. Of course, that right to privacy isn't absolute, and the privacy about such matters might be reconsidered if they reveal the person to be lying in some other area of his/her life.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Be Careful What You Wish For, GOP

So, it seems we're indeed getting the conflicting judgements on the constitutionality of the new health care plan's individual mandate as many anticipated.  Today, a  Virginia judge ruled the mandate unconstitutional.

I thought that people long ago stopped thinking that only those things explicitly spelled out in the constitution are things the government is allowed to do. I wish we could all, conservatives included,  just acknowledge this instead of engaging in ridiculous Commerce Clause and highway funding subterfuge.  But let's set that aside.

The important thing about the individual mandate, to my mind, is that at worst this is a tax but at best, if you're a tax and government hating conservative, it's something far less intrusive.  If it's a tax, it's hard to argue that the government lacks the authority to impose it.  But let's suppose it isn't a tax, let's suppose we can draw some clear and distinct line between a requirement to fund government and having the gov't obligate a citizen to purchase a service, as state governments often do in the case of auto insurance.

Insofar as it isn't a tax, because it's requiring us to buy a service on the free market rather than fund a government program, conservatives should, IMO,  think long and hard about opposing it. There's a good reason that this kind of plan was once the darling of conservatives -- it leaves the door wide open for market forces.  Presumably the government could have gone a far more radical route, just make medicare wide open or effectively wide open.  In that case, we could have had real discussions about socialism, but what we probably couldn't have had is an objection based on concerns about the constitutionality of the plan. We'd have funded it with taxes and it's hard to see what case could be made to block it.  Obama has opened up the door to a constitutional challenge only because he's too moderate, not because he's too liberal or the plan is too intrusive, but only because the plan isn't obtrusive enough.  But what conservatives should know, should they manage to win this case, is they've forced the hands of proponents of health care reform. The only workable solution to the cost problem, should an objection like this ultimately succeed, would then have to be one in which the government is involved far more directly so that the funding for the program will pass muster as a tax.   (Although, I must say that I can't imagine the SCOTUS holding up a ruling like this if only for the reasons mentioned, i.e., it seems the lesser of two "evils" in which the greater already clearly passes constitutional muster.)

ETA: Ezra Klein makes the same argument that I do! And see this October article to which he links.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

You Keep Using that Word ...

"Liberal" has been a dirty word in America for some time. But the actual meaning of the term seems to keep shifting rightward while politicians continue to struggle to avoid being tagged with it. Consider an example from a blog posting published in the paper edition of Friday's Washington Post

Jennifer Rubin observes that the Democratic Party of Virginia had the audacity to choose , in her terms, an "ultra-liberal" to lead the state party despite the results of the midterm elections.  Apparently, this was a sign that the Democratic Party didn't get it; the clear message of the midterms was that America will have no truck with the Democratic Party's liberal ways.  Setting aside the question of whether the midterm results indicate a rightward trend (and the deep disdain I hold for political agents who shape policy and pick candidates by identifying the easiest road to victory),  I was fascinated by the choice of the term "ultra liberal" to describe Brian Moran. Why is Moran an ultra liberal? Does he want to nationalize the banks, mandate a 30 hour work week, institute single payer healthcare, establish a national day care program, increase welfare spending, legalize drugs? Well, actually, turns out this "ultra liberal" has twice won a  "Friend of Business" award from the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, hardly a bastion of Marxism, and is a  gun rights advocate.  Furthermore, he is, at best, ambivalent about gay marriage.

Nevertheless, Rubin calls him an ultra liberal because he opposes off-shore drilling and supports organized labour. (Despite the BP oil spill this summer, opposition to offshore drilling is now a hallmark of radical leftism?) So that's all it take then, if you don't think unions are evil and that oil companies should be allowed to drill wherever they please, then you're not just a liberal, you're an "ultra liberal".

I wish that I had the time and energy to better document this attempt to marginalize as radical leftism any and all positions that don't toe the shifting conservative party line. This is less ballsy than the GOP's frequent use of "socialism" to describe a health care plan that was remarkaby similar to that championed by prominent conservatives in the not too distant past, but pretty remarkable nonetheless.  Small wonder that people that people scarcely bat an eye when people describe the NYT or CNN or even the Washington Post as liberal.  Language evolves, of course, but the question of how we're using "liberal" is particularly important because there seems to be some consensus on both sides of the aisle that it denotes the boundaries of what counts as reasonable policy and debate.

ETA: As further evidence of how far we've moved to the right and how the meaning of "liberal" has changed, consider the various progressive policies that Richard Nixon implemented or pursued.  (For example, this is a decent outline: link)  Or try googling "Nixon more liberal than Obama"

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

On the Incoherence of Blaming God (h/t Anselm)

Last weekend a Buffalo Bill called out God when he muffed an easy catch.  I was amused by this twist on the typical, "thank God for the victory".  This is "God has let me down".  But it did lead me to consider attempts to blame God and/or question God's wisdom and, along the lines of the old ontological argument for God's existence, I came to the conclusion that such attempts are incoherent.  Here's why: blaming God or contemplating doing so is to consider the possibility that God has acted incorrectly, i.e., is imperfect and is responsible for some imperfection, Imp1.  In modal terms, it's to consider a world, Wi, in which Imp1 has occurred and in which God is responsible for Imp1.  But God is, by definition,  perfect and so incapable of acting imperfectly, i.e., there is no world in which God has acted imperfectly.  So, either Wi doesn't exist or the agent responsible for Imp1 in Wi is some agent other than God.  Any attempts to blame God must fail as there can be no world Wi in which God is responsible for an imperfection. 

Of course, we're inclined here to respond, "but of course we can consider the possibility of blaming God, just as we can consider the possibility of blaming any moral agent".  What this response overlooks is that God is unlike other moral agents insofar as perfection is part of the very essence of God, i.e., God is perfect not just as a contingency, because God has failed to make any mistakes, but because being perfect is a property that God has by definition of 'God'.  This is not an argument that blaming God is a moral or theological failing, but it's a conceptual or semantic error insofar as it requires assuming that A could do X when the very definition of A entails that X is impossible.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Matthew 23:24

I'm not a fan of the new TSA policies regarding body scans.   I remember when people used to joke about the possibility of TSA eventually just having everyone fly naked but recent events reveal how difficult it can be to parody the DHS or TSA.  So, I'm pleased to see that there  is a line that the the populace is willing to draw when it comes to exchanging freedom for security, but I have two thoughts.

First, this whole thing would actually be rather easy to fix. The answer is image distortion and the fix has been proposed  (and, oddly, rejected) already.  Why not just fix it?  Secondly, where were these proponents of liberty and fighters for human dignity when people were being humiliated at Abu Ghraib, when prisoners were being waterboarded, in response to warrantless wiretapping, when it came time to respond to indefinite detention,  when execution (w/o trial) orders for US citizens  (not to mention foreigners) were being written? Maybe it reflects America's puritan roots or something but why do body scanning images and pat downs around one's privates trigger a populist uprising when people have been largely silent in the face of far more significant assaults on dignity and freedom?  I suppose it's not that surprising that people really only care about their own liberty and dignity, not the general principles, but here's hoping we retain some of the indignation and refusal to take it any more when it's someone else's freedom at stake and when they stand to lose even more than an economy class ticket to Omaha.

ETA: In retrospect, I think that this post probably goes too far in trivializing the extent to which the TSA may be violating civil rights.  I think the potential for abuse here is fairly significant, that significant abuses may have occurred and the fact that this kind of privacy violation may become so incredibly common place is very worrisome.This video  helped to convince me that TSA violations are *not* simply at one relatively innocuous end of: a spectrum of civil rights violation.  Rather, that this kind of thing can happen to such a person in such a circumstance but may instead serve to devalue privacy at a fundamental level:

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Bush on free market ideology

Bush's recent memoirs contain more discussion of his decision to intervene dramatically in the markets in the face of the economic crisis facing the nation in 2008.   Bush comments: "It flew against all my instincts. But it was necessary to pull the country out of the panic. I decided that the only way to preserve the free market in the long run was to intervene in the short run."  He also says, "The lesson there is that I had to set aside an ideology."  It strikes me that Bush is playing a little fast and loose with his ideology here, wanting to recognize that he'd done the right thing without acknowledging that insofar as it was the right thing it refutes the ideology.  He doesn't get to just set aside his ideology and pick it up again, untarnished, when the dust has settled. 

Sometimes people set aside principle or ideology or fundamental beliefs because there's a competing interest at stake.  I might believe it's wrong to eat meat but set aside that principle when I'm visiting someone's home or when I'm starving, but in those cases, I'm setting aside the principle in favor of a competing interest, e.g., being respectful of my hosts or believing that my life trumps the life of a chicken.  However, something very different is going on in Bush's case.  

The ideology that free market proponents embrace involves a claim that markets work best when the government leaves them alone; that is the beauty of the invisible hand doctrine.  But if Bush is recognizing that the market system would have failed profoundly without intervention, that seems not so much a momentary abandoning of a principle for the sake of some other pragmatic consideration, it's a recognition that the ideology itself is just simply incorrect.  In fact, economies don't work best when government leaves them alone, sometimes they'll fail spectacularly when you leave them alone.  So, again, I think Bush and other people who will simultaneously advocate for free market ideology and TARP-style interventions owe us a clearer account of the economic ideology they embrace.  They've acknowledged , I'd contend, that free market principles are wrong.  This isn't a "setting aside", it's the recognition of a profound and fundamental flaw.  In the face of such evidence, it's incoherent to simply pick up the ideology and resume.  

This is more like a football coach claiming that the West Coast offense is the very best offense but abandoning that offense whenever playing a team with a good defense or whenever falling behind by two or more TDs, claiming, "I had to stop playing that offense or we'd get too far behind and it's hard to use the West Coast offense when you're far behind.  You see, the only way to save the West Coast offense was to not use the West Coast offense."  That would be an incoherent claim as would be carrying on with the pro-West Coast offense ideology.  A more coherent observation would be "The West Coast offense is very effective for some situations and in others it isn't -- here are places and times in which it's imprudent to rely on it."

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Bush and Torture

Apparently GWB's memoirs include an acknowledgement that he okayed torture and attempts to justify it by claiming that it saves lives, British lives in particular.  It also appears that the British are taking some exception to that claim.  Setting aside the intriguing question of whether he's acknowledging war crimes, this points to something that's always bothered me about the torture debate, i.e., the fact that so much of it seems to hinge on the question of whether or not it's effective.  Imagine someone proposing, oh, i don't know, something crazy like having poor people eat their children and trying to demonstrate that that would bring down poverty rates and/or dependence on government welfare programs.  Surely, we'd reject the argument as absurd, not because we're skeptical about whether or not it would actually bring down poverty rates or welfare dependence, but because the proposed solution is an affront to human decency and a violation of fundamental human rights.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

No Voting = No Right to Complain ???

At election time I often hear people assert, "If you don't vote, you don't have any right to complain".  I find this a bit bizarre.  Suppose someone were having a dinner party and before the dinner party they sent around an email saying, "Please indicate whether you'd prefer spaghetti or lasagna".  Further suppose that it really mattered nothing to me, or that I forgot to respond or that the email went to my junk folder or whatever.  Now if I then arrived at the dinner party and got a plate of spaghetti that was disgusting and inedible, surely my failure to have voiced a preference of lasagna over spaghetti doesn't compel me to simply eat the disgusting plate of food while those who had actually stated a preference would be in a position from which to legitimately object .  That argument would make no sense to me.  Similarly, the "no vote, no complain" argument, that just seems utterly arbitrary to me.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Payrolls and Baseball Success

There's been a lot of buzz about the teams in this year's World Series because each has a relatively small payroll.  Given the recent success of other low payroll teams, it's interesting to consider how strongly correlated payroll size and team success are. To get a quick sense, I took the Pearson r number for 2010 total team payroll and 2010 total regular season wins.  In the case of payroll and wins, the number was a relatively small .35.  Compare that to a value of .66 when one considers total wins and average age, or .38 when one correlates total wins with the age of the oldest player on the team. In other words, someone using only the age of the oldest player on the team to predict success in 2010 would have been more successful than someone who used payroll size.   (Data sources: payroll:, age data:, win totals:

ETA:  Data and calculations link

Friday, 15 October 2010

Hitchens's Wager (Pascal's Wager Revisited)

I've been reading about some of the recent debates that Christopher Hitchens has been having or will be having with people like his brother and Tony Blair. Apparently the debate or discussion focus has shifted from a direct question about God's existence to the practical effects of religious belief.  I'm not sure if the debate is supposed to have anything to do with the question of God's existence, but let's suppose, for the sake of argument that it does.

If it does, one might contend that it's an odd claim, i.e., whether or not a belief  X has good practical effects isn't what should inform whether or not we believe it.  We should believe X based on whether or not we have evidence for X.  If I believe that my wife is cheating on me that may end up having negative practical effects that could harm our marriage, but nonetheless, I should base my belief in this matter on the evidence that I have, not the effects that I want to see.    Similarly, can one actually choose whether or not to have a belief based on anything other than evidence?  For example, it seems that I can't choose whether or not to believe that Ottawa is the capital of Canada, it's just something about which I have knowledge based on evidence.  You can offer me $1000 if I'll stop believing it, but I'll only be able to pretend I don't believe it, I won't actually be able to stop believing it.

However, it's worth thinking about American pragmatism in this regard.  Pragmatism sees belief as something other than just the degree of psychological certainty we have with respect to some proposition based on some reliable epistemic process. Rather, belief can be a matter of the will.  It's not unreasonable, according to pragmatists,  to choose to believe X even if we don't feel certain about it.  William James gives the mountain pass example. A climber is caught in the mountains and must get down before night fall.  He doubts his ability to jump a chasm but convinces himself that it's possible, despite a lack of evidence and in choosing that belief actually manages to give himself the requisite confidence to make the jump.  Bas van Fraassen is a voluntarist with respect to belief  contending that one can choose to believe X over Y even if one doesn't feel as certain about X as they feel about Y.  Of course, this all hearkens back to Pascal's Wager. Pascal famously argued that even if you don't feel very confident in God's existence, you should choose to believe in God anyway because there's not much to lose in so believing and much to gain if you actually do believe.  Decision theory shows us the way.  Pascal assures that we can simply act as if we find the belief compelling and it will become compelling.  But the key is that we choose what to believe, not because of the evidence we have at hand but because of the positive benefits of holding the belief.

So, now let's consider Hitchens's discussions of the effects of religious belief.  We might actually consider this as reworking of the decision theoretic data that's factored into Pascal's wager.  In fact, if religious belief has a significantly detrimental effect overall and if, in fact, the probability of an afterlife is very small (although one might contend if the overall benefit is infinite, because one would live forever, than it can become almost vanishingly small and still be reasonable, but let's set that aside), then the wager comes out the other way.  If the effects of believing aren't negligible, then belief itself, in the absence of solid data for or against may well compel us to reject the belief rather than accept it. 

Sunday, 26 September 2010

On Self Esteem and Coaching

Today and yesterday I attended a hockey coaching clinic.  It was mostly an excellent course, but things deteriorated badly at the end of the day when the presenter gave a presentation on "self esteem and positive coaching".  It began with a caricature of the nasty old coach who berates his players loudly and angrily in full view of everyone.  As the presenter noted, we'd object to this kind of behaviour from our boss, so it's odd that we'd do it to children or allow people to do it to our children.  Fair enough, but the presenter then argued that unlike the nasty coach, we should each strive to be a "self esteem" focused coach (SEFC).  SEFC is a man or woman who identifies something positive each of his players have done in every single game, and finds encouraging things to say at all times, even when his team is losing by a huge amount, by reminding them that the point is not to win but to have fun.

I've spent a fair amount of time watching and participating in kids' sports and I've met a few SEFC; they usually bug me.  I tried, not very successfully, to explain what bothers me about SEFC by mumbling something about kids being good at detecting bullshit and that this kind of false praise can backfire and trivialize.  (This was met with loud murmurs of disagreement steered at me and various anecdotes about nasty coaches or beloved coaches that always found time for a positive word for the kids. )  Here's what I wish I had said, "The SEFC disrespects the game, the truth and the players."  Here's why:
  • The SEFC disrespects truth:  If most everything, including the most trivial accomplishment or act, is praiseworthy, then how do we distinguish between the truly remarkable and the expected, required and mundane?  Or worse, what of praising something simply because we want the kids to feel good, not because the act is praiseworthy?  Praise inflation is like monetary inflation because it devalues our words and praise.   To put it another way, the SEFC, insofar as s/he is focused solely on using his/her words to make kids kids feel good, spews bullshit, and as Harry Frankfurt argued, bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies are.
  • The SEFC disrespects children: The assumption that kids are tender flowers that require contrived compliments regardless of whether or not they've been successful or done anything praiseworthy is extremely patronizing. 
  • The SEFC disrespects the game: Insisting that having fun is distinct from winning a game and fully independent of success in the game trivlalizes what the kids are doing. Imagine going to work and finding that something you'd been working on was irrevocably destroyed but then having someone try to cheer you by telling you that the project was a joke and hadn't meant anything to anyone in the first place -- it was just busy work that they'd had you working on to keep you amused.  If we think results don't matter at all, that only feelings of pleasure somehow unrelated to whether one has won or lost, why enroll kids in sports in the first place, why not just take them on picnics or to the movies?

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Religion and Politics

There was a good article, "A religious test all our political candidates should take", in last Sunday's Washington Post about, essentially, religious bias or the potential for it in politics.  The article noted that John F. Kennedy's famous speech about his Catholicism helped to push  the view that a person's religious beliefs are politically irrelevant.  However, this notion of religion being a private matter changed at some point.  Politicians in the US, it's very atypical elsewhere, I believe, wear their religion on their sleeve and we've come to expect candidates for office to give us some sort of "testimony".  An atheist would be very unlikely to gain office in the US, so the US electorate expects politicians to embrace a traditional, from a US perspective, religion and politicians like to use their religion to gain political points.

The article contends that while it may be tempting to go back to relegating religion to the private sector, that that may not be prudent.  As a matter of fact, one's religion has profound implications for one's views on morality, the government's role in enforcing it,  and authority.  So,  rather than letting the candidates simply make pietistic feel good statements about his/her religion, we need to be asking candidates how they would resolve possible tensions between the dictates of their religion and their church and their rights and responsibilities as leaders. 

I would add, and perhaps it's implicitly stated in the article, religion has the further potential to have profound implications on a person's views of ontology and epistemology as well. In fact, if a person is serious about his/her religion it will have a profound effect on their actions in the political realms even when there is no explicit conflict between church dogma and legislation.  For example, one's views on the acceptability, or non-acceptability, of divine revelation as a legitimate means of coming to have knowledge might affect one's views on the breadth of the school curriculum.  One's interpretations of Christ's demands to love one's enemies might affect one's perspective on foreign policy and willingness to launch attacks.  Or the flip side might be that one's views that all non-Christians (non-Muslims), are doomed to hell and/or that this life is nothing but a painful precursor to an eternity of bliss may also affect one's willingness to attack another nation.  One's views that Christ's return to earth is imminent might affect one's willingness to implement long term environmental policy requiring short term pain.  If one's religion postulates a lower role or traditional role for women, one might be less likely to pursue Equality in the Workplace legislation.  So, not only should we concern ourselves about explicit points of conflict but we should also try to understand how religion might affect the politician's entire worldview and the policies s/he might enforce.

Religious convictions are convictions on matters that are of fundamental importance.  (In fact, I'd contend that we all hold religious beliefs of some sort, insofar as assumptions, even working assumptions,  about the nature of humankind, whether we're alone in the universe, whether there's a higher power, legitimate means of coming to knowledge, on the sorts of things that exist, are all, in some sense religious beliefs, insofar as they're profoundly important and usually embraced with a measure of faith. )  In America, however, we've sort of come to the worst of all possible worlds.  We don't ignore religion in political discourse, but we allow it to operate only at the level of platitudes.  As the article suggests, if religion really means something , let's ask hard questions about what it means.  These fundamental convictions may very well mean something important and candidates owe us an account of what they think they mean when the rubber hits the road.  Now, I also think that for very many politicians religion isn't operating at a profound metaphysical level, their religious practice is more or less a social activity and/or a comforting set of rites and rituals.  Nonetheless, if that's the only role it's serving, candidates should  be clear about that.

Friday, 10 September 2010

Terry Jones

When I read about and when I see this Terry Jones book-burning Quran guy I'm impressed with a sense that he's like a classic internet troll.   Yet despite all that we've learned from internet discussion boards we're feeding this guy rich tasty food like calls from the Secretary of Defense and non-stop media coverage as if he mattered and weren't some obscure mindless pastor of a tiny fundamentalist church.  If anyone thinks this kind of attention will put an end to anti-Muslim hysteria, they haven't learned a thing from the internet.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Football Musings

I've been watching a bit of World Cup this weekend.  I know it's denigrated by many Americans, but I've come to enjoy the aesthetics of the game and I appreciate the athleticism involved.  It helps, perhaps, that I coached my son's soccer teams for a couple of seasons. 

One thing that I observe, possibly because of my ignorance, is the relative paucity of data in soccer.  Sports like baseball, (American) football and basketball, in descending order, are discretizable into distinct units of play.  And especially in baseball, each of those units have a very crisp set of data that can be collected regarding that event.  Ice hockey is more like soccer insofar as it involves more continuous play, and less frequent scoring as compared to basketball.   But play recommences with a faceoff each time, wich a measurable outcome, and the fact that there's much more scoring and many more shots on goal, and the relative frequency of power playes, means that there are many more data that allow us to analyze the effectiveness of players and teams.  Soccer is different, I suspect.  It's not as easy to quantify the effectiveness  of particular players, and, indeed, the relatively large number of ties means that it may be more difficult to even quantify the effectiveness and potential of particular teams too.  I believe that that makes it harder to predict success and failure as well.  It would be interesting to compare the accuracy of expert predictions in sports like baseball and (american) football  to the accuracy of soccer predictions.  Does the alleged paucity of data cash itself out in terms of decreased insight into what will happen?

I wonder, though, if this characteristic of soccer helps to explain why it has never achieved the same level of popularity in the US.  Appreciating soccer is more like appreciating art and Americans, well North Americans, have always been a little more Philistine-like in this regard.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


I've tried to write a few words about what I found disappointing about the finale and, in some sense, the entire final season of Lost.   To me, the show appealed as a piece of science fiction, a mystery and a quirky "things aren't really as they appear" narrative along the lines of the Twilight Zone.  It wasn't, originally,  about the characters or relationships.  Note that the writers were actually going to kill off Jack in the second episode.  The show took great delight in having beloved characters die without warning.  This wasn't Brothers and Sisters or Friends.  So, I felt disappointed in the authors retreating to that storyline in the end.

I think that what distinguishes good science fiction from fairy tales and silly flights of fancy, is that good science fiction will tell a compelling and complicated but always consistent story about a state of affairs in which the laws of nature differ from ours or which may or may not be true in our world.  The good science fiction explores how those deviations from reality  explain the kinds of things that go on in the sci fi world.  Good science fiction doesn't require suspension of disbelief once you've understood and accepted the fundamental differences between our world and the sci fi world under consideration.   So in good science fiction, obligations to give or allow for compelling and reasonable explanations remain.  Lost appeared to be doing that for some time, exploring a world which didn't necessarily differ radically from the real world and in which the strange departures would make sense as we learned more about the basic differences between our world and Lost world.

Secondly, it also worked as a mystery and as a quirky "nothing is as it appears" story.  Of course, mysteries are interesting exactly insofar as they invite us to read/watch/listen along as potential clues are offered up and we simultaneously test our own ability to extract and reconstruct the data to explain the strange goings on.   A mystery isn't fun to read if the mystery can't be explained with the information that has been shared with the audience along the way.

Somewhere along the way, Lost  pulled a bait and switch.  It gave up on being a compelling mystery/sci fi story and turned it into a story about relationships and people finding happiness. The writers thumbed their noses at those of us interested in what had seemed to be a compelling and fascinating mystery involving science and  metaphysics.  After throwing out all kinds of mysteries and situations requiring explanation, it just gave up and said, "Oh yeah, we were just telling a story about people" and relationships.   The mysterious island, well, it's still mysterious and the final episode has some implausible hokum in which the island can be turned on or off with some wine-stopper like plug, less compelling or interesting than the fairy tales one might read to a four year old.  For some reason, the writers assumed instead that what viewers would care about would be mawkish, inexplicable and irrelevant reunions of people who'd already died.  As one commenter put it,

 They [writers] couldn’t have proved them [those who argued that the ending would be a big cop out]  more right if they’d had Jesus and Krishna themselves make an appearance on the island and tell Jack that, “everyone will go to a warm, lovely place that they made together to be together to remember that they were together somewhere for some reason, because that’s what people have been wasting their time for six years to find out.”

I feel as if I were reading a fascinating mystery novel in which lots of strange things happen and along the way various protagonists die only to have the book end by ignoring the obvious questions that the mystery had raised and instead telling some silly story about all the characters getting together in heaven and being really happy about seeing each other.  Any one of Jimmy Kimmel's endings would have been better.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Tea Party and pick and choose freedom

Leonard Pitts wrote an article a little while ago about a poll of Tea Party participants and argued that the "poll offers strong evidence that, contrary to the denials of tea party enthusiasts, President Obama's race plays a big role in their outrage. Indeed, researchers found a significant correlation between racial resentment and tea party zeal."  Pitts argues that their alleged concerns over taxation and deficits and socialism are as appropriately or more appropriately made at either of the two Bush presidencies and that this fact and the poll respondents' views on racial questions suggest that what's really at issue here are concerns about race.  I've seen other similar arguments which note that what concerns people is not just Obama's race but the fact that homosexuals and Latinos have made significant strides in this administration.   But those arguments overlook, I think, the fact that GWB's administration elevated people like Colin Powell, Condi Rice and Alberto Gonzalez to very high positions of power.  So, I've tried to keep sort of an open mind here. 

Nonetheless, recent events give further pause.  If you were pro-freedom and pro-markets, wouldn't you be pro-immigration, e.g., like super  libertarian, Bryan Caplan.  (see, for example, link 1 or link 2).  But even if you're not pro-immigration, at the very least if you're a Tea Partier, you're opposed to big government, right?  You don't want the government to be able to pull people over and demand papers, that kind of stuff happens only in totalitarian regimes that scoff at the notion of individual liberty.   But the Arizona Tea Party called people to action to support this immigration bill.  (link 2)  The Tea Party, or an important Tea Party member, also insists that driver's license tests should be English only.

 There's a strange notion of freedom operating here, no worries about government overstepping power when it's going to start going around asking for ID papers or forcing you to speak English to get a driver's license.   In light of these clarifications on what kind of  curious notion of freedom the Tea Party supports, I find Rand Paul's objections to the 1964 Civil Rights Act particularly jarring.  The Tea Party will  not only let these other assaults on freedom go but even encourages them and yet draws a line, or at least Paul does, at standing up for the rights of business owners to refuse to serve black people or draws a line by sticking up for rights of employers to refuse to make accommodation for people with disabilities (Paul also disagrees with the Americans with Disabilities Act).    So, it's not wholesale freedom that the Tea Party supports, not a freedom for disabled people to access the workplace or freedom of all people to be able to access the same services as white people, or even a freedom from demands for papers, it's a more limited notion of freedom, a freedom for the rich and empowered to continue doing whatever they want, the freedom to maintain the status quo however unfair or unjust it may be.  Screw their ad hoc notion of freedom and bigotry wrapped in talk of patriotism, I think Pitts may be on to something.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Tea Party-surprised at the surprise

I've been a bit surprised at some of the surprised reaction to a recent poll revealing the kind of people that make up much of the Tea Party movement.  It seems some have been working under the assumption that Tea Partiers are all illiterate Kentucky hillbillies and were surprised to learn that the "18 percent of Americans who identify themselves as Tea Party supporters tend to be Republican, white, male, married and older than 45" ,  are more educated than the general public and "are more likely than the general public to say their personal financial situation is fairly good or very good". I suppose that proves one shouldn't make hasty generalizations from a couple of really hilarious Daily Show clips.

But, why would anyone be surprised that an ultra conservative "movement" is made up of the most conservative people in the country — well to do, white, old Republican male heterosexuals? It stands to reason that the group fighting change the hardest is made up of those in the most advantaged group in society. (Incidentally, I'm also not very surprised to learn that Tea Partiers are more likely than the general public, and Republicans, to say that too much has been made of the problems facing black people.)

What also surprises me is that some seem to be interpreting this information about who makes up this "movement" as a reason to take it more seriously. Doesn't it suggest just the opposite, i.e., effectively dispelling the notion that the Tea Partiers reflect the voice of "the common people"? That a bunch of old rich white straight male conservatives are willing to fight tooth and nail — and aren't above enlisting Fox News demagoguery to do so — against change and economic justice isn't a reformation or a revolution or even a populist movement, it's nothing more or less than business as usual.

Update: Note, for example, how Rush is trying to portray the Tea Party movement: first time that "common average ordinary everyday citizens" have "risen up" "since the Civil War", i.e.,  a narrative of "the people are rising up," rather than the more accurate "the elites who've always held power will do whatever they have to do to retain control".

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Individual Mandate Penalties

Austin Frakt argues that the penalty for not buying health insurance under the Affordable Care Act is not too low, as some, including me, have argued. The problem, of course, is that if we disallow the practice of rejecting or penalizing people with pre-existing conditions the amount these people will pay for their insurance won't actually reflect the risk of payout they present to the insurance company. To compensate, people with less risk will have to overpay given the amount of risk of payout they present to the insurance company. So, being greedy people as we are, why would anyone overpay like this? Well, that's where the penalty comes in. (The other fact, of course, is that those without insurance are getting a free ride insofar as emergency rooms are still obligated to treat them, so it's only fair that they pay some kind of penalty to reflect this free ride.)

But, my concern is that the penalty might not be adequately high. Health insurance in the US is so expensive that a $600 penalty is small beans compared to the cost of a year of coverage. So I worry that low risk people won't buy insurance leaving a smaller pool of people sharing a heavily disproportionate amount of the costs. Nonetheless, based on coverage and penalty rates in Massachusetts, Frakt argues that the penalties under ACA are adequate. He may well be right and if he's right, I wonder why. There are a few possible explanations:

a) The $600 is greater than or equal to the amount that they're, effectively, overpaying. I don't think that's the case, but would need more data. And, of course, the more people that participate in the plan, the closer this comes to the actual overpayment. (And, yes, arguably, insofar as any comparable health care insurance will have to compensate for the effective subsidy for pre-existing conditions, the person is not really overpaying at all, i.e., one is really only overpaying if they could have received the same good or service elsewhere for a lower price. )
b) People actually tend to be slightly irrational consumers. The typical consumer would rather overpay by X and get some real value in return than pay a penalty of Y and get nothing in return even if X is more than Y. In the former case, it feels less like we're just wasting our money.
c) Another explanation, one that I prefer, is that people simply perceive it as a fair obligation despite the fact that they recognize they're overpaying. They willingly take on the overpriced insurance just as many people willingly pay taxes despite realizing that the direct benefit they receive from the tax is less than the amount they pay out. But insofar as this is true, the penalty could work against us. There's a discussion in Freakonomics about a day care that experimented with charging a small penalty to parents who showed up late. The effect of the penalty was to increase tardiness. The reason is that people perceived the penalty as simply a, quite affordable, fee for extra babysitting and no longer felt a moral obligation to show up on time.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

On Individual Mandates

It's interesting, and perfectly sensible really, that conservatives, recently and in the early 90s were in favour of an individual mandate. After all, what's better if you're a conservative, a tax to fund health care or a mandate to buy it and thereby ensure the market continues to play a central role in delivery of health care? And really, I don't understand how a mandate to buy insurance would be unconstitutional when income taxes or a requirement to register for the draft aren't.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act

Glenn Greenwald discusses the "Enemy Belligerent Interrogation, Detention and Prosecution Act" today. As Greenwald notes:

It's probably the single most extremist, tyrannical and dangerous bill introduced in the Senate in the last several decades, far beyond the horrific, habeas-abolishing Military Commissions Act. It literally empowers the President to imprison anyone he wants in his sole discretion by simply decreeing them a Terrorist suspect -- including American citizens arrested on U.S. soil. (Link to relevant passage from the bill.)

This is a great example of what bothers me about the increasingly spineless Republican party and much of modern day conservatism. The GOP will scream bloody murder about rights and freedom when it comes to something as innocuous, IMO, as mandated health insurance while at the same time giving away the most fundamental rights of the American people. (And what happened to McCain? He wasn't always this evil? Maybe he sold his soul to get the nomination in '08.)

Friday, 26 February 2010

Olympic Metrics

I don't mind using medal counts as a metric for Olympic success, and I fully acknowledge that Canada badly failed in their "Own the Podium" campaign, but I think that the heavy focus on medal counts misses a lot of information. Clearly a fourth place finish is far superior to a fortieth place finish but we don't see that in medal counts. Another problem: sports like hockey or curling award only two medals, while most others, like short track speed skating, award large batches of them. If country A has an excellent hockey program, at best it's rewarded with two medals, if country B has an excellent short track speed skating program it can result in 8 or 10, but it doesn't seem to follow that country B is 4 or 5 times better at winter sports than is country A. I've thought of a few other simple metrics that would help communicate additional information.

a) Average percentile or ordinal/athlete: Take the average of the sum of the ordinal of the finish of all participants from a given country. Or if that would bias too heavily to sports with fewer participants, use percentiles. DNF or DQ count as one place lower than the last qualified finisher.

b) Average percentile or ordinal/event: Same as (a), except that we factor in breadth of participation so that breadth of qualification and participation is factored in. If a country has no participant in an event, we count that as a last place finish. If a country has two or more participants in an event, we take the average of their ordinals or percentiles.

c) Sport counts rather than medal counts: Given a metric for success in an event, e.g., best percentiles or most medals, we then identify a finish/sport. That number is then used to measure overall success. So, for example, a country finishes with two golds in hockey, they get 1st in hockey. They finish with 4 medals in short track but another country has 5 (with some weighting for ordinal, of course), they get second in short track, etc.

I don't think these need replace medal counts, but I think they'd be useful supplementary metrics. Next step, calculate these for the 2010 Games. (Don't hold your breath.)

Friday, 19 February 2010

Short tournaments

Short tournaments are notoriously bad for choosing the best team. I read an article a few months ago on the likelihood that a soccer game will select the best team and the fact of the matter is that a single game isn't a very good experiment. (short summary) In light of this I've been thinking about the optimal setup for a very short tournament of the sort necessitated by the Winter Olympics, assuming we want the tournament to be maximally likely to "choose" the best team. The article considered, among other things, intransitivity as an indicator of the effectiveness as a game, i.e., if Team A beats Team B which beats Team C which beats Team A then we have an intransitivity. A lot of intransitivity suggests the games aren't very good at selecting winners.

I suspect the intransitivity will be lower in hockey, not because the games are better experiments but because the difference in relative ability is much greater between teams. But, there are also tiers of skill levels, I suspect. If we consider games between the top 5 or 6 teams in the tournament I suspect we'd see close scores and fairly high intransitivity. So, in a good tournament, I think the thing to do is to have early knockout of bad teams and allow for more games between the really good teams. I don't suspect that the best way to set up the tournament is to have a long round robin (3 games/team) after which zero teams are eliminated. If Norway loses 8-0 to Canada, they should immediately move to a consolation pool, the US shouldn't then be forced to waste time playing this team. But this tournament eliminates zero teams after the round robin, although they do give the top four teams a bye through one of the playoff rounds. It will have Russia and the US and Canada wasting a lot of time, three games, on potentially far lesser skilled teams and then move to single elimination games in the playoffs. I think it's a very poorly designed setup if our goal is to be able to crown the truly best team.

x-posted to blogspot.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Who am I, the word allah?

Yesterday I read an article about Sarah Palin believing that her selection as VP candidate was part of God's plan. What caught my eye was the claim, by chief McCain strategist Steve Schmidt, that she was "very calm -- nonplussed". I find 'nonplussed' an odd clarification of 'very calm', given the meaning of 'nonplus' as "to cause to be at a loss as to what to say, think, or do : perplex". I suspect that he was making the not uncommon error of using 'nonplussed' to mean 'unrattled' or 'unfazed', but I'd expect a bit better from a chief strategist of a presidential candidate for the GOP.

I also read a post about the word 'Allah' in the NYT blog section yesterday. It was interesting and informative, but what I found puzzling was its failure to distinguish between use and mention. In a couple of instances the author used the expression 'word Allah' without indicating clearly he was talking about the actual string of characters, with quotes or italicization, as opposed to the concept 'Allah' denotes. Stated thusly, without single quotes or italics, a reasonable interepretation is to think 'word Allah' refers to a god of words, or something, e.g., Who are you to tell me how to use this word, the word Allah? Again, people often fail to make the distinction clear, but in an article/blog about word usage in the NYT written by a Pulitzer Prize winner, I'd expect a higher standard. And the errors are still there today, maybe I'm missing something?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Another NPR WTF moment

On the way in to work this morning I heard a discussion on the radio of some similarities between the movie Avatar and the popular song Tik Tok by Kesha. It was an interesting discussion of the two works as consisting mostly of a "mashup" of various pop cultural references and genres, etc. I don't know whether that's true, but what did strike me was a comment about the song. The reporter says "This is not a good song in my opinion but it sounds enough like a good pop song so that you can't quite tell the difference".

It reminds me of an illustration Raymond Smullyan once used to illustrate the verification principle. He writes about a concert pianist who used to note that the difference between European and American critics was that European critics would write things like "he played too slowly during this part of the piece", etc., while American critics would write things like, "he didn't play with enough moonshine". (Sorry, don't have a reference handy.) What in the world could it be for a song to sound like a good song but fail to be a good song for reasons that one cannot perceive?