Thursday, 22 December 2011

oh, eh, can you see ....

Their crappy musicians dominate the pop charts with their bland mindless music (link), its citizens cockily believe they live in the "greatest country in the world" (link), nationalistic logos (link, link, link, link) and a quest for world dominance pervade its sports culture, and, most telling of all, one has to cross the border in order to experience real winter weather. Clearly, Canada is the new USA.

Friday, 16 December 2011

On Hitchens

I'm sorry to hear of the passing of Christopher Hitchens. There are a number of good obits, including one from David Frum, that do a good job of celebrating the man and describing what he accomplished. I'm happy to acknowledge that in terms of writing skill he was in a league with the likes of George Orwell, as his glowing New Statesman obit contends. But Hitchens's legacy will always be stained, in my eyes, by his outspoken support of the Iraq war and the responsibility he bears for contributing to the "clash of civilizations" rhetoric and perspective in which responding militarily to the attacks began to trump all else.

Hitchens's writings, including his set of "discussions" with Noam Chomsky, from those weird post 9-11 months are worth another read today. I think Hitchens correctly called out Chomsky and some others on their inclination to rationalize the Sept. 11 attacks. (link to the set of exchanges between him and Chomsky: 12345)  But it's also interesting and useful to read his farewell article from The Nation today. In it he declares, as if it's a sort of reductio ad absurdum, that, "I have come to realize that the magazine itself takes a side in this argument, and is becoming the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden." I'm not sure that that is an accurate portrayal of The Nation at the time, but if so aren't we at least somewhat inclined to say, "well, bully for them"? In the hindsight that a decade's perspective, trillions of additional dollars in debt, an efficiently executed assassination in Pakistan and legislation like the troubling National Defence Authorization Act affords us, isn't it hard to deny that The Nation was right to worry that the actions being put in place by Ashcroft et al might well present a deeper threat to the American way of life than anything OBL could ever hope to summon up?

Update: interesting anecdote with a similar conclusion: link

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Louis CK

Louis CK decided to self produce, release and distribute his latest video for $5/copy. He released the video last Sunday, December 10, and has thus far sold 110 000 copies. So far he has earned less than he would have if he just had some big company produce the video, and, obviously he has put far more effort into it than he would have had he just had a big company produce it, but, the advantage is that he was able to sell the video for a lot less money, users would have had to purchase an "encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use". He made decent money, and he still owns the rights to the material. 

This should be the value add of the internet, i.e., elimination of the middleman in terms of distribution. And CK's experience should be encouraging for all artists. When you don't treat your customer as an adversary and offer quality things to them at a reasonable price, people will pay real money for digital content on the internet even if those things would be cheaper/free via bittorrent or by grabbing a copy from a friend. 

Update: Write up in the Globe and Mail

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Oh, Fox

I stumbled across this little Fox News gem this morning: "Team Obama's Immigration Hypocrisy". The article contends that there's a contradiction between the Justice Department opposing state laws requiring police to demand proof of legal presence and the State Department encouraging police to ensure that foreign nationals be granted consular access upon being arrested. The author contends that Justice Department objections to things like the Arizona immigration law imply that the State Department must abandon efforts at Vienna convention compliance when it comes to the arrest and detainment of foreign nationals. "If it [the Obama administration] ... truly believes... that authorities should not be checking the citizenship status of local lawbreakers, than the State Department should withdraw its 'Consular Notification and Access' manual, and stop telling local police officers to comply with the Vienna Convention by checking the citizenship status of criminals".

But this objection completely paves over the differences between legal and illegal presence and citizenship. The majority of non-US citizens in the US are here legally; as such there's all the difference in the world between inquiring into citizenship status and requesting proof of legal residence. I'm regularly asked about my citizenship status and I never interpret this as a question about whether or not I'm in the country legally. The objection also incorrectly conflates what is being asked of the police in these two instances. In the first case it's a requirement to insist on proof of legal presence, whereas in the second it's an attempt to ensure that persons be given the means to avail themselves of their rights under international law. The State Department isn't requiring police to demand proof of citizenship. Conflating the state immigration laws with the State Department efforts is like arguing that offering a guest a snack or a meal is no different from tying him down and force feeding him. The State Department is trying to ensure that non-citizens have an opportunity to contact their embassy, i.e., upholding fundamental legal rights. State immigration laws in practice and intent are something quite quite different.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Silberman on the health reform law

Earlier this month a federal judge, Laurence Silberman, ruled in favour of the Obama health reform law. Notable here, though, was that one of the judges, in a 2-1 decision, was a Republican (Reagan) appointee and a fairly well known as a staunch conservative. He makes the point that health care is somewhat unique in terms of things bought and sold in the marketplace:
It suffices for this case to recognize, as noted earlier, that the health insurance market is a rather unique one, both because virtually everyone will enter or affect it, and because the uninsured inflict a disproportionate harm on the rest of the market as a result of their later consumption of health care services.
It's an important point, a point that's consistent with the evidence that the US spends far more on health care and receives far less. It's not in our interests to simply let the markets have their say when it comes to health care, because those decisions affect society quite profoundly. It's a lesson most of the world learned some time ago, it's just sensible to divorce health care from the rest of the market. That's why staunch conservatives in Canada or Europe have no problem also supporting universal health care.

David Brooks on Penn State

David Brooks wrote an article this week accusing those of us who condemned Joe Paterno et al at PSU of a hypocrisy of sorts. Brooks points out that people often fail to meet their moral obligations, fail to help people who need help and ignore situations in which someone is clearly being victimized. He makes a couple of interesting claim. The first is an argument that our indignation is based on a belief that we'd do better:
First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.
But this is an odd claim, isn't it? Why must our indignation be based on a belief or assumption that we'd have done better? Moral indignation isn't based on the assumption that we would have behaved better, it is based on an observation that someone failed to meet a clear moral obligation and didn't when the repercussions for doing so were very high. It's possible to separate out the moral indignation from claims that we'd have done much better, those are different things. It's odd, in my mind, to suggest that we have no right to be troubled by significant moral failings unless we can establish conclusively that we'd have done better were we in the same position. Moral indignation should be a function of what we believe the moral obligations to be, not data about the extent to which those obligations are met.

Brooks makes a second claim that this reaction is because of a failure to have a sense of our own sinfulness and shortcomings:
In centuries past, people built moral systems that acknowledged this weakness. These systems emphasized our sinfulness. They reminded people of the evil within themselves. Life was seen as an inner struggle against the selfish forces inside. These vocabularies made people aware of how their weaknesses manifested themselves and how to exercise discipline over them. These systems gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.

But we’re not Puritans anymore. We live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it — like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey.
This allegation of failure to recognize personal evil and shortcomings isn't consistent, though, with the facts that we've observed in this case. In fact, people did hold these people responsible. Rather than seeking reasons to be gracious and forgiving, people put the blame squarely on the participants and those who failed to report him. I'm not sure why those facts call for bemoaning the loss of the good old days when people knew everyone was rotten. There's been no attempt at all to deny human rottenness here, on the contrary. No need to pine for the days when we were all self-loathing Calvinists.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Canada gets nastier

Yesterday, someone pointed me to a recent G & M article observing that Canada is becoming, well, in the words of the article, a lot less like Ken Dryden and a lot more like Don Cherry. I found this interesting because I'd read/viewed a couple of things in the last few days that had me thinking along the same lines.

1) The first item was a blog post by Tasha Kheiriddin argues that much of the blame for the "present crisis" lies with "the 99%". She argues that "when people think it’s perfectly OK to take out mortgages they can’t afford, ... , you reap what you sow."  And there follows the obligatory tale of how she pulled herself up by her bootstraps so screw all those greedy lazy people who could make it work if only they'd try. Ultimately, according to her, everyone is equally responsible for our present crisis. The criticism is flawed for a few reasons, let me note a couple.  For one thing, it misrepresents the mortgage crisis. Yes, by definition almost, many people took on bad mortgages, but to present this as a reflection of pure greed or indolence or stupidity completely ignores the context. As a matter of fact, it was the actions of the banks that created a huge price bubble, a bubble that was downplayed by many experts including Greenspan and every mortgage broker in the country. People were regularly being reminded that housing prices were historically incredibly sound. It was the price bubble, not simple greed or stupidity that caused people to take on bad loans. People were led to believe that housing was becoming increasingly unaffordable and were willing to grasp at straws because of concern that they'd lose the opportunity forever as house prices continued to appreciate and that they were likely to be able to soon refinance on better terms. This is exactly the BS that mortgage brokers and realtors throughout the country were pushing, backed up by a plethora of financial experts. This isn't to deny personal responsibility; but to present this as simple greed or thoughtlessness is to completely ignore what was going on. Secondly, the crisis in which we find ourselves isn't just a simple matter of greed by everyone. In fact, the point that these people are making is that wealth has dangerously accumulated at the top and that this doesn't bode well for economic recovery or deficit reduction unless we implement fundamental changes. Truisms about everyone being greedy completely miss the point. If "the 99%" stopped being greedy it would do nothing to fix anything, it might actually hurt things insofar as it would result in less economic activity.

2) The second item that left me concerned about the tone of debate was a CBC "interview" of an OWS participant, Chris Hedges, by CBC's Kevin O'Leary. In it O'Leary says to, the very articulate and coherent, Hedges, "Listen, don’t take this the wrong way, but you sound like a left-wing nutbar." and then later quibbling with Hedges over whether he'd said 'nutcase' or 'nutbar'.  To be fair, Hedges denounced "corporations" in general when he apparently actually meant investment banks, so there was some confusion but nonetheless, is this really what journalism on the CBC has come to? 

(Parenthetically, I observe that Hedges gives credit to Canada for maintaining regulations on the banks, a point frequently made. Canada also regularly gets credit for the Herculean deficit elimination effort they mounted in the 90s. Both those things happened under Liberal governments, it's too bad they've been reduced to a tiny shadow of their former selves.)

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Carlin and the American Dream

George Carlin's 2005 classic on the American Dream ("you have to be asleep to believe it") has been making the rounds again recently. In it he rails against the fact that the country and the politicians are bought and sold by the big corporations. It's a (very depressing) comedy routine so his case is overstated, or at the very least I'd like to conclude something other than his complete despair, but it's also easy to find ample evidence of the way the moneyed are able to exert influence that significantly undermines real democracy and reform. Here are two recent examples:

1) The Montgomery County Council recently considered a resolution asking Council to spend less on wars and more on social programs. This is hardly a controversial position. Polls show, for example, that a majority of Americans believe the US should not be involved in Afghanistan. The Council was prepared to support the motion 5-4. But for some mysterious reason, after LockMart, as we affectionately refer to them in these parts, began talking with county officials, the resolution was withdrawn for "lack of support".

2) Another example involves my home and native land. It seems Trans-Canada has been using lobbyists to get close to State Department officials who have been cheerleading their efforts to get approval for a pipeline from the tar sands deep into the US, possibly circumventing environmental regulation scrutiny,  and helping them find loopholes to avoid public scrutiny over attempts to make the line exceed usual pressure constraints.  In the end, their money and lobbyists have given them far more access to the public officials who make the decisions than the pipelines opponents have had.

A more glaring example, of course, was the health care legislation that this administration pushed through. The efforts to appease the medical insurance and pharmaceutical lobby first ensured a result that was far less effective than it might have been had we simply found a workable compromise between intelligent liberals and conservatives unimpeded by corporate interests. 

(note also his prescience wrt Social Security)

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Hitler comparison?

I'm not inclined to shed any tears for Hank Williams, Jr. losing his ESPN gig, but it irks me a little that most news reports are claiming that he compared Obama to Hitler or even that he was saying Obama was like Hitler.  If one watches the interview (link), (which will also confirm that Williams, Jr. is a bit weird and creepy and not very articulate), what he says is that Obama golfing with Boehner is like Hitler golfing with Netanyahu.  That's not a great comparison, but it in no interesting way says that Obama is comparable to Hitler or like Hitler. If I were to say that hot is to cold as black is to white, or as sweet is to salty it would be odd for anyone to infer that I was claiming heat is like sweetness or comparable to sweetness except insofar as both have opposites.  What Williams, Jr. did was completely different than the sort of actual Hitler comparisons that we've observed at Tea Party rallies in which Obama was portrayed with a Hitler moustache or some such.

Wednesday, 31 August 2011

The Tar Sands

There have been various protests about the proposed pipeline into the US from the Alberta tar sands. The protests, I suspect, have little to do with concerns about the pipeline and much to do with concerns about the environmental degradation that results from the oil extraction process in the tar sands. That's a legitimate concern. We're morally culpable when our purchases support immoral practices. For example, it's wrong, even illegal, to buy products that have been stolen, especially to the extent that we know the object in question is stolen.

Yet I've read two articles ("Open Up Canada’s Oil Lifeline" and "Top NASA climate scientist arrested at White House") in which the following argument is made: "The Canadians will develop this product and sell it with or without us as trading partners." and "... officials maintained that even if the U.S. refuses the pipeline, Canada will just sell their oil elsewhere". But how can these facts have any bearing on the objection that the oil is produced in an unethical fashion? If a shoe company exploited child labour, clearly it would remain illegitimate to buy shoes from them if we discovered that a market for the shoes existed even if we didn't buy the shoes. If I know that X is doing something unethical when producing Y, and I buy Y or facilitate the production of Y, I'm a participant in the unethical action and morally blameworthy. That seems like an obvious ethical truism, but apparently it bears repeating.

Update: David Frum produces another variant on the "well, it won't do any good" argument: link.

Saturday, 20 August 2011

On Grade Redistribution and FoxNews

This article: "College Students in Favor of Wealth Distribution Are Asked to Pass Their Grade Points to Other Students" seems to be generating far more discussion than it should. The article is about a student, Oliver Darcy, who is proposing that students with high GPAs contribute their GPA to students who are struggling. Of course, most people find the suggestion absurd. I believe that the way the argument is supposed to works is that since it's absurd to consider redistributing the grades that we earned it follows that it's also absurd to share the money we've earned.

But the problem is that he's making a category error. The absurdity of the grade redistribution suggestion doesn't lie in the fact that it's absurd to redress inequities, it resides in the fact that it's conceptually incoherent to "redistribute" a metric to something that the metric doesn't actually measure. A grade is a measure of the quality of work that an agent has done, it's meaningless to ask someone to share part of that metric with someone else who hasn't done that work.  It would be like asking someone who is 6'5" to give some of the 6'5" measurement to people who are 5'6" or like finding out that my car got 50 mpg on the way to work this morning and then asking me to share some of that number with people who drive less fuel efficient cars. In both cases we don't even understand what it would mean to assent to such a "redistribution". I can't share the metric, or the value of the metric in some particular instance, as a metric is not a resource. Of course, I can, in some instances, share the things that the metric measured or that which caused the metric to register a high value. I could devote some time to helping struggling students, I could offer a ride to work to people who own gas-gazzling cars, those are coherent suggestions. If Darcy had gone around campus asking gifted students to offer time to help struggling students so that they might improve their grades, that wouldn't have struck anyone as absurd since it doesn't involve a fundamental category error.  Of course, then he would have missed his chance to be on FoxNews. 

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Tea Party and the Credit Rating downgrade

I watched some of the discussions from the talking heads this morning wrt the decrease of the US credit rating and I've read some crap from the TP trying to blame the downgrade on Obama's "lack of a plan" (see McCain on "meet the press" this morning). Not sure why anyone would buy that for even a second. S&P made it pretty clear that the problems with the political process were the cause. Read the press releases and listen to what David Beers of S&P said when asked what the key thing was that drove them to announce the downgrade:  "Our observations about the political process for much of this year and the extraordinary difficulty that the parties have had to come up with this agreement and come to a consensus...."  (link) Note that it's not debt level, it's the political process that motivated the downgrade.

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Tea Party Theology and Economics

There was an interesting article in today's WaPo about the Tea Party and the challenges that John Boehner faces in working with them. I found a short story at the end of the article telling. It describes a meeting at a chapel of three South Carolina Tea Party Republican congressmen:

At one point, Duncan said, Mulvaney picked up a Bible and read a verse from Proverbs 22: “The rich ruleth over the poor, and the borrower is servant to the lender.”
“It’s telling me to really be bold, to really fight for structural changes,” Duncan said.
“Mulvaney snapped the Bible closed. And I said, ‘Guys, that’s all I need to see,’ ” Duncan said. “Tim said, ‘Yep.’ And we stood up and walked out.”

I found it fascinating. It's one thing to be engaging economists from the Chicago school of economics in discussions over Laffer curves and the like, at least we're all presupposing relevance of data and empiricism. But how does one reason with and negotiate with men who reject context and economic theory and reality in favour of simplistic readings of 14 word aphorisms written a few thousand years ago. "That's all I need to see". Pretty much says it all. I guess maybe the Democrats need to just dig into the book of Proverbs to fight back on this one. Personally, this reminds me of Prov 26.9.

Tea Party and the Shock Doctrine

I was reading John Boehner's description of Tea Party objectives recently. Consider the following from an interview with John Boehner:

Speaking on conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s show this morning, Boehner agreed that failing to raise the limit before the deadline would be devastating, and said the “chaos” plan won’t work when asked by Ingraham what’s motivating the recalcitrant Republicans:

BOEHNER: Well, first they want more. And my goodness, I want more too. And secondly, a lot of them believe that if we get past August the second and we have enough chaos, we could force the Senate and the White House to accept a balanced budget amendment. I’m not sure that that — I don’t think that that strategy works. Because I think the closer we get to August the second, frankly, the less leverage we have vis a vis our colleagues in the Senate and the White House.  (source)

The objective is nothing less than to deliberately cause "chaos" in order to manufacture a means of forcing their views on an American public held hostage. One Tweeter that I follow claimed that this is terrorism. Setting aside what should and shouldn't count as terrorism, it does strike me that the strategy that they've laid out clearly follows the shock doctrine as described by Naomi Klein. From the Wikipedia article, "The book argues that the free market policies of ... Milton Friedman have risen to prominence in some countries because they were pushed through while the citizens were reacting to disasters or upheavals. It is implied that some man-made crises, such as the Falklands war, may have been created with the intention of being able to push through these unpopular reforms in their wake." And what do we have here? A completely contrived crisis with the intention of pushing through unpopular reforms. The big difference here is that the perpetrators are telegraphing their passes, letting us know that they're quite intentionally creating a crisis, telling us why they're doing so and what they hope to thereby accomplish and yet we still seem largely unable to respond. In  TP democracy, it's not the will of the people that guides government policy, [poll: 19% want spending cuts only, (markup link)] it's the positions of those willing and able to break things and then hold the citizenry hostage.

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Franken and Minnery and Focus on the Family

Much to the delight of many of us, Al Franken "eviscerated" a Focus on the Family representative, Tom Minnery, during the recent hearings on repealing the Defense of Marriage Act. Minnery's testimony included this line: "children living with their own married biological or adoptive mothers and fathers were generally healthier and happier". Franken points out that the study he used to justify these claims is making claims about nuclear families and the definition they use of "nuclear family" does not exclude gay married couples. To quote from the study, "A nuclear family consists of one or more children living with two parents who are married to one another and are each biological or adoptive parents to all children in the family."

But the study, is entitled "Family Structure and Children’s Health in the United States: Findings From the National Health Interview Survey, 2001–2007" and included data gathered in the US from 2001-2007, as the title suggests. In that time period, only one state in the US, Massachusetts, allowed gay marriage and that state only allowed it since 2004. So, while the strict definition of "nuclear family" as defined in the study may include any family that had married parents, in fact, the data collected really must almost entirely involve nuclear families that include a married mother and father. In that sense, Minnery's claims are  legitimate even if he wasn't explicitly quoting the study's definition of "nuclear family". Insofar as it makes claims about nuclear families, it's, in fact, making claims about families consisting of one or more children living with two opposite-sex parents who are married to one another and are each biological or adoptive parents to all children in the family, because, with a tiny exception, the only people who could be married during the time period under consideration were opposite sex couples.

Of course, Minnery wants us to conclude that same-sex marriage is undesirable based on the data and I doubt the data allows us to draw such an inference. In fact, there's good evidence to the contrary. See, for example, "US National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study: Psychological Adjustment of 17-Year-Old Adolescents" which showed "According to their mothers’ reports, the 17-year-old daughters and sons of lesbian mothers were rated significantly higher in social, school/academic, and total competence and significantly lower in social problems, rule-breaking, aggressive, and externalizing problem behavior than their age-matched counterparts in Achenbach’s normative sample of American youth". So Minnery is almost certainly wrong about the undesirable family ramifications of same sex marriage. He may even be a bigot, I don't know. But I don't think it's fair, at all, to suggest that he completely misrepresented or lied about what one could conclude from the study in question.

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Wisdom of Markets

I tweeted on this this morning and probably it came out trollish, but I'm somewhat genuinely puzzled by the fact that conservatives proclaim deep faith in the wisdom of markets and yet, completely contrary to what the market is alleging, conservatives are also trying to stir up deep panic about the US debt. If the markets, the wise, omniscient markets, are shrugging off such concerns, why aren't conservatives? Not that it's such a starting claim, but if forced to hypothesize, I'd say it's evidence that this "panic" about the debt has lots to do with politics and very little to do with economics.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

On the "he was only joking" defense

Louis CK defended Tracy Morgan's anti-gay ranting last week, noting that his own comedy routine includes a potentially offensive joke trivializing and justifying rape.  He argues, among other things, that Morgan wasn't serious, he was just joking around.

I think good comedy is often comedy that will say things that shock or that involve some departure from norms. But that doesn't mean, I don't think, that comedians have carte blanche, that there's no accountability for what they say because they're comedians and these are jokes and none of it is true. If comedy routines were nothing but fiction reflecting nothing of actual beliefs, they'd cease being funny. Comedians are funny insofar as they speak the truth or point to something that is true. They make us laugh because they are speaking the truth clearly and bluntly, or saying things that we'd never dare say but sympathize with to some extent, or because they say things that are obviously false but, as such, thereby illuminate something that is true. This is the huge difference between Louis CK's rape joke and Morgan's "kill my gay son" joke. In the case of CK, the rape joke is obviously absurd and thereby illuminates the stupidity of a rape mindset, i.e, the notion that somehow one's desire for sex trumps another's personal security. But Morgan wasn't articulating a position that was obviously false and funny because it illuminated the absurdity of the position he was articulating, it seemed to those in the room that he was being quite serious. It also failed because it didn't have a ring of truth, it wasn't a dark place but one that we'd also been to. We didn't think, "yeah, i'd never say it out loud, but I'd want to kill my son too if he were gay and started talking effeminately." Rather, we, or most of us, I think, thought, "wow, that's really terrible and disgusting and sad, and if that's your dark place, you need serious help."

In any event, here's a good interview with CK: link. And here's a great discussion of it from Ta-Nehisi Coates: link, which makes, I think, similar points to the ones I'm making. And finally, here's a discussion of whether CK really should get away with a rape joke: link.

Thursday, 16 June 2011

A review of Google Music

I asked for a tryout for the Google Music Beta and just recently received my invite. I really like the basic idea of the system, i.e., storing music on "the cloud" rather than on your laptop or on some external hard drive or a stack of CDs filled with mp3s in your basement, and then going through the transfer process with a new computer, etc. Google Music also doesn't require syncing a phone and computer and music player as one has to do when using Itunes on an iPod or Iphone and on a computer.
Another nice feature is that they offer a nice selection of free tunes as well, if desired.

However, the initial description isn't completely forthright, and feels like a bait and switch. The earliest description had led me to believe that I'd simply be able to store my music as mp3s and download them  to any device I wanted and use any software that I wanted. However, it seems that that's not the case. Rather, one can download to other devices but they have to be Android devices, and, unsurprisingly, I guess, there's a limit to the number of devices. One can also download to a computer, i.e., laptop or desktop, but it seems that on your laptop only the Google musicplayer can be used to play the downloaded music. So, it seems that  Google Music commits users to Google software or a Google OS. As such, insofar as one doesn't want to make a lifelong commitment to using Google products, it offers no solution at all as a storage medium, I'll still have to store all my MP3s on a hard drive somewhere. I guess they're not being evil, but they're no better than Apple's nearly useless proprietary music software and formatting.

(oh, and one other odd glitch, gtalk won't display the current song title when one is playing music with the Google music player.)

Tuesday, 31 May 2011

San Francisco Circumcision Ban

San Francisco is going to put a circumcision ban on the ballot in November.  Unlike other recent cases of gov't meddling in San Francisco, e.g., the "happy meal" restrictions, I think this is a sensible law to consider. It's the kind of situation in which the government really can play a useful protective role in a potentially physically abusive situation. It's hard to think of circumcision as abuse mostly because it's so common, but given the intense pain that it causes and the lack of any clear medical justification, a very strong case can be made that it is, in fact, abusive.  Of course, some would argue that there are medical benefits associated with circumcision, but, as noted in the linked article, these data are unclear and not adequate to have resulted in medical associations recommending it.

Sometimes there are good health reasons for circumcision but the actual bill provides for medical exceptions: "A surgical operation is not a violation of this section if the operation is necessary to the physical health of the person on whom it is performed because of a clear, compelling, and immediate medical need with no less-destructive alternative treatment available, and is performed by a person licensed in the place of its performance as a medical practitioner"

Some will object that this violates freedom of religion. But it's hard to take such arguments seriously. We don't allow other kinds of abusive actions in the name of freedom of religion. Nobody gets to cane their children and point to Bible passages about sparing the rod and spoiling the child. Religious freedom doesn't trump freedom of children to be kept free of intense unnecessary pain. We don't let religious practice trump child welfare considerations in the case of female circumcision.

I'm not sure that the ban is a good idea, but I think that whether or not it's a good idea turns on the question of whether or not clear medical benefits exist, not the fact that it's common or that it's an important religious practice. Without the existence of demonstrable medical benefits, those factors should only motivate the need to protect children from well-meaning parents who might have their sons circumcised for the wrong reason.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Conservatives and Relativism

I remember that conservatives used to portray liberals as peddlers of relativism. But it seems to me that conservatives have become much less staunch defenders of objective truth, resting content with their own version of relativism. A few examples that I've recently encountered: (1) It's interesting to observe O'Reilly in his 2007 interview with Dawkins. O'Reilly doesn't attempt to offer any evidence for his religious beliefs simply "because they help him as a person" and "they're true for me". Dawkins takes him to task for his nambly pambly milquetoast relativism (starts around 2:20).  (2)  I was struck by a similar impression in reading the article "Transgender Clownfish Controversy". A conservative organization objects to the teaching of the possibility of more than two genders as this "does not represent the values of the majority of families in Oakland" as if the truth and facts and what we're to teach are defined by parental values rather than objective facts.  I suppose it has all gone downhill ever since the Bush administration plunged into Marxist "reality construction" with their infamous "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality" (see this old post)

Thursday, 19 May 2011

Ben Stein's Elitism Defence of Strauss Kahn

Ben Stein has written what I think is a really atrocious call for "perspective" on the Strauss-Kahn case, "Presumed Innocent Anyone". Despite the title, it's not an article about a failure to presume legal innocence, it's just a set of odd attempts to cast aspersions on the allegations in the case based, it appears, on the fact that Strauss-Kahn is rich and powerful and his accuser is a hotel maid. Most of his points are laughable but I'll pick out a few of my favourites:

1) "Can anyone tell me any economists who have been convicted of violent sex crimes? Can anyone tell me of any heads of nonprofit international economic entities who have ever been charged and convicted of violent sexual crimes?"   He's likely innocent because he's an economist or because he's head of the IMF.  By the same argument, I suppose, we needn't have bothered attempting to prosecute OJ Simpson (can anyone tell me of any sports broadcasters who'd been charged and convicted of violent murders?) or Martha Stewart (can anyone tell me of any home decorating gurus convicted of insider trading) or the Menendez brothers (can anyone tell me of any wealthy suburban kids who'd been charged and convicted of violent patricide and matricide?)

2) "The prosecutors say that Mr. Strauss-Kahn "forced" the complainant to have oral and other sex with him. How? Did he have a gun? Did he have a knife? He's a short fat old man. "  Given the account of the struggling that went on and the fact that this is alleged to have occurred in a large suite, this point doesn't make much sense.  But note that he's 62, not 82,  and 5'7", about 3" taller than the average US female,  and his pictures suggest he's not obese or anything, but quite burly. We know nothing of the size of this maid, but I wouldn't be surprised to learn that she weighed less and was shorter. Also, note that the charge is attempted rape, not rape, due, in part by the account given to the fact that the maid was partially successful in fighting him off.

3) "People accuse other people of crimes all of the time. What do we know about the complainant besides that she is a hotel maid? I love and admire hotel maids. They have incredibly hard jobs and they do them uncomplainingly. I am sure she is a fine woman. On the other hand, I have had hotel maids that were complete lunatics, stealing airline tickets from me, stealing money from me, throwing away important papers, stealing medications from me. How do we know that this woman's word was good enough to put Mr. Strauss-Kahn straight into a horrific jail?"  We should likely ignore her, or give him some super duper benefit of the doubt, because she's a maid and there have been instances of maids behaving poorly? I would add that history is replete with examples of rich, powerful people behaving poorly, but I don't think that this constitutes extra evidence of Strauss Kahn's guilt, any more than examples of hotel maids, other than the accuser, behaving poorly gives good reasons to think him innocent.

4) But then Ben Stein stops with all the subtlety and lays his cards on the table, this is not a case of rape it's really a case of the poor unjustly attacking the rich.  How do we know this? Because news articles have mentioned that Strauss Kahn was staying in a $3000/night hotel room.  "In what possible way is the price of the hotel room relevant except in every way: this is a case about the hatred of the have-nots for the haves, and that's what it's all about."  (emphasis added)

ETA: Jon Stewart comments on same.

Saturday, 7 May 2011

2011 Canada Election Results under AV

A few weeks ago, I tried to do some analysis of how the outcome of the 2008 election might have changed under alternative vote. Today I ran the same process using data from the 2011 election (I used preliminary results where the verified results weren't yet ready) and voter second choice data (see slide 5 in the gallery section) from a slight more recent survey than the one I used in the 2008 analysis.  The Procedure and Politics blog did a similar analysis recently, I'm rerunning the most recently updated numbers using the script developed earlier.

Here were the results in this updated simulation. See the earlier 2008 analysis for a description of the methodology.

PartyOriginalIn AV Sim% Seats won% Seats AVPopular Vote

In this scenario, the Conservatives do not attain a majority, they get 22 fewer seats, (I'm reading slightly different reports on final numbers of seats so there may be a different of a seat or two based on validated final results).  The Liberals pick up 14 and the NDP picks up 11. The BQ drops down to a single seat. Also note that while the percentage of seats won more closely mirrors popular vote for the three largest parties in the AV case, that's not true for the BQ, their seat percentage more closely ties with popular vote in FPTP.  This is a good reminder that AV isn't necessarily of much utility to some smaller fringe parties with heavily concentrated support in relatively diverse ridings.

The ridings that changed in the calculations I ran:

District NumberNameWinning PartyRecalculated
12009South Shore--St. Margaret'sConsvNDP
35016Don Valley EastConsvLib
35017Don Valley WestConsvLib
35022Etobicoke CentreConsvLib
35043London North CentreConsvLib
35048Mississauga East--CooksvilleConsvLib
35072Pickering--Scarborough EastConsvLib
35079Sault Ste. MarieConsvNDP
35081Scarborough CentreConsvLib
46014Winnipeg South CentreConsvLib
59031Vancouver Island NorthConsvNDP

Data is available here: link (see the "WithAV" tab for the numbers w/ the changes)

Sunday, 1 May 2011

A proposed criterion for what counts as semantic in the Semantic Web

Last year Richard MacManus introduced the Modigliani test as a "semantic web tipping point".  His argument was, "The tipping point for the long-awaited Semantic Web may be when you can query a set of data about someone not too famous, and get a long list of structured results in return."  This would represent significant progress in the implementation of semantic web technology and, to be sure, structured data would be very helpful in realizing an effective implementation of the semantic web. Being able to integrate this information from disparate sources is exactly the sort of thing that the implementation of the semantic web is supposed to help us realize.

However, this example as a semantic web tipping point gives pause because realizing it doesn't, to my mind, necessarily require too much in terms of semantics. Similarly, many alleged examples of semantic search leave me unsatisfied. Consider a recent discussion entitled "Exploring the Semantics of Yahoo Direct Search" -- the discussion points to the categorization of results and the ability to auto-complete queries and/or hint at the results they might produce. But none of these things seem particularly semantic or at least not necessarily semantic.

Of course, "semantics" is notoriously vague and under-specified in the context of semantic web and semantic search discussions.  It certainly doesn't mean the same thing as what we're discussing when we consider, say, the semantics of first order logic.  Rather, it usually means something vaguer like implementing the concepts that tokens denote rather than the tokens themselves in search and in representation. But even given this vague notion, I think that there's a relatively clear criterion, (one that, I might add, many extant alleged semantic search and semantic web implementations fail to meet), that will allow us to pass over the linked data vs. RDF debate and jump to the very crux of the matter with respect to semantics. I propose that a representation and query system is semantic to the extent that it's able to identify correct or useful query responses despite the fact that some terms in the query or salient query disjunct are not present in the response.  That, to my mind, is a fair and interesting test of the extent to which the system is implementing the concepts that tokens represent rather than just the tokens themselves.

The condition is, I realize, neither necessary nor completely sufficient* to establish the presence of the implementation of semantics, but it is a fairly strong and reliable indicator. It's difficult to realize this condition without being able to do some reasoning about the concepts in the query. As such, I would suggest there are really a series of "tipping points" or at least types of queries and responses that realize this condition that would suggest we're well on the way to realizing a truly semantic web.  Here's a set of example queries, or query types, and the kinds of results they'd need to meet the criterion.
  1. Synonyms: To my mind, the simplest search implementation that would meet the criterion and have a legitimate claim at implementing semantics is any system that will recognize synonyms. Simple implementation of synonyms is implemented in Google already at present. Synonym recognition doesn't require extensive understanding of meaning but it does require some sort of semantic model for supplementing search. An example, searches for 'car parts' that return results containing phrases like 'automotive parts' or 'auto parts'.
  2. Subclass:  Search engine users have high expectations of search engines in terms of natural language understanding. However, they tend to be very forgiving of the fact that state of the art search engines are for the most part completely incapable of doing any sort of subtype reasoning, although natural language questions do involve this.  Why shouldn't we expect a query on, say, "graph traversal algorithm AND scripting language" to be able to identify documents discussing a depth first search algorithm written in perl?  Querying over subtypes is a far better test for the implementation semantics and has the potential to make the querying system far more powerful as an information retrieval tool. Simple examples include queries such as 'heart disease drug' and getting results withouth 'heart disease'  or "drug" but containing instead, for example,  'Myocardial infarction' and "aspirin". Or we might imagine queries for 'vegetable side dishes for poultry' returning documents lacking those terms but returning references to green bean casserole recipes to accompany turkey.  Of course, it's worth noting that such semantic search tools exist already and don't require the maturity of the more formal semantic web to be realized. Consider for example, a search for 'heart disease drug' in Search Medica or a search for 'meat with vegetables' in Yummly.
  3. Instances: We can also imagine a search system that allowed us to search 'NHL team bankruptcy' and returning documents about, say, the Buffalo Sabres financial plight of some years ago even if the document failed to contain the phrase 'NHL team', i.e., based on recognition that 'Buffalo Sabres' is an instance of NHL team. Or, why shouldn't we expect a search tool to allow us to query "SCOTUS judges Harvard" and be able to retrieve documents containing references to Harvard and particular SCOTUS judges?
  4. Another useful kind of subsumption reasoning is the recognition of parthood. This would be particularly useful for queries referring to geographical entities, e.g., in travel queries, "find airports in Northeastern USA".  Other examples include a search for 'baseball teams in Southern United States' that recognized that references to, say, Alabama, are relevant or queries on 'cancer treatment in Canada' that recognized references to British Columbia as potentially salient.
  5. Negation reasoning: Another particularly useful test for semantics is the ability to do actual conceptual negation in a query. For example, I often like to search for soup recipes that don't include meat. However, searches for 'soup NOT meat', typically only return references without "meat", but again it would be most useful if they also left out "chicken", "beef" etc.
  6. Common sense/rule following: In a recent article about the ITA Software acquisition, a Google VP, Jeff Huber,  asked  "How cool would it be if you could type ‘flights to somewhere sunny for under $500 in May’ into Google and get not just a set of links but also flight times, fares and a link to sites where you can actually buy tickets quickly and easily?" This, I would argue, is an excellent "tipping point" query for the semantic web. While linked data is required for such a query, it wouldn't be sufficient. Recognizing which locations satisfied 'somewhere sunny' would indeed be indicative that the system is implementing semantics.
There are, of course, lots of improvements to be realized in search that don't meet the criterion I've spelled out. Improvements in ranking and categorizing and search suggestion and result extraction may, in fact, be of as much utility as improvements that implement these kinds of semantics. I just wish we'd stop using "semantics" for any kind of addition of structured data to documents or results.

*To the sufficiency question, there are some query response systems that meet the criterion I propose but which fail to be "semantic" in any reasonable sense of the term. As mentioned, stemming variants wrt the query probably aren't good examples. Nor are search tools that allow us to constrain dates and values, e.g., a Craigslist search that allows one to specify a maximum price (or age) or a newspaper archive search allowing me to constrain dates. Any satisfaction of the criterion that is realized almost solely via arithmetic, probably doesn't.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

On Blocked Shots

In the NHL a big deal is often made about blocked shots. After watching the Caps nearly lose Brooks Laich to injury last night I wondered again why teams put such emphasis on them.  For one thing, players lack the padding to safely block such shots so they regularly incur injury from doing so. Secondly, the shots blocked are typically low percentage outside shots. Thirdly, the player takes himself out of the play when going down to block a shot. A number of times in the NYR-Washington series I've seen a player simply skate around a player who had gone down to block a shot. (These people aren't Bobby Orr in terms of their ability to spring up after blocking a shot.)  Since the NHL records this stat, I used it to do a Pearson correlation calculation between the total shots a team had blocked and points accumulated during the season:


Unsurprisingly, to my mind, total blocked shots doesn't track at all with point scoring success, the Pearson correlation number is actually negative, -.1428. Of course, this isn't definitive proof of its ineffectiveness, no one claimed it was a key to the game and maybe the stat gathering is bad or maybe some teams block only key shots while other teams do a lot of ineffective shot blocking. Nonetheless, it remains difficult for me to see why people think this is a laudable thing for a hockey player to do.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Tax Increases

Almost half Tea Partiers want to increase taxes on those earning over $250K/year.  More than 60% of independents do, and 75% of self declared moderates. Why in the world are the Democrats not doing a better job holding the GOP's feet to the fire on their insane "we'll fix the deficit w/o tax increases" position. This could be a no-brainer political win for them one would think. My assumption is that they're afraid to put corporate donations at risk.

ETA: Another poll in the same vein: 80%+ dislike Ryan's medicare plan.

AV Voting in Canada?

A recent post in "On Procedure and Politics" pondered the effects of AV voting in Canada.  I was intrigued by the possibility and tried to run a simulation, using data from the '08 election and 2nd choice preferences as stated in a poll as discussed in an article linked in the aforementioned post. 

Using the stated second choice preferences from the survey, I attempted to roughly simulate an AV election in the following way:
  • For each riding result, consider the percentage of vote received, PVR,  of the party with the most votes. If PVR >= 50%, stop and go on to the next party.  If PVR < 50%, move to the next step.
  • Of all the candidates in the riding remaining for consideration, identify the candidate, C, with lowest percentage of votes
  • Redistribute the votes of C according to the poll preferences in the survey.  For example, if the candidate with the fewest votes represents the NDP, we'd give 56% of their votes to the Liberal candidate if the Liberals have a candidate remaining in the riding, because 56% of NDP voters identified the Liberals as their second choice in the poll.  If a particular party in the preference list of C's party has already been removed from the list or didn't run a candidate, redistribute that party's share of C's vote according to the preferences for that party.  For example, if the party/candidate with the lowest total is the NDP, 9% of their votes should go to the BQ. But if there is no BQ candidate or the BQ had been removed from consideration, we redistribute that 9% according to BQ preferences.
  • Remove C from the list of candidates in the riding.
  • Recalculate total votes, T. If 21% of NDP voters don't have a second choice, we remove those votes from the total.
  • Identify the party with the most votes after the redistribution, determine their PVR, given their new vote total and the total votes. If their PVR is >= 50%, we're done, otherwise repeat the aforementioned process but with C removed from the list of candidates.  Continue until we have a party with a PVR >= 50%.
Here are the results under that scenario (in the spreadsheet, ridings in which the AV implementation results in a change in the winning party have a "1" in the "Changed" category).

Original: New:
Cons 143 131
Lib 77 92
BQ 49 42
NDP 37 41
Ind 2 2

Note that the Conservatives lose a number of seats, enough so that a Liberal + BQ or Liberal + NDP coalition exceeds the Conservative seat total.   Also noteworthy, neither the Conservatives nor the BQ pick up seats in this scenario.  This is because relatively few people select them as their second choice.  Here is a list of ridings in which the winning party changed.

Province Riding Winning Party Recalculated Winner
New Brunswick Saint John Cons Lib
Nova Scotia West Nova Cons Lib
Nunavut Nunavut Cons Lib
Ontario Kitchener Centre Cons Lib
Ontario Kitchener--Waterloo Cons Lib
Ontario London West Cons Lib
Ontario Mississauga--Erindale Cons Lib
Ontario Oak Ridges--Markham Cons Lib
PEC Egmont Cons Lib
Quebec Ahuntsic BQ Lib
Quebec Brome--Missisquoi BQ Lib
Quebec Haute-Gaspesie… BQ Lib
Quebec Jeanne-Le Ber BQ Lib
Quebec Laval BQ Lib
Quebec Saint-Lambert BQ Lib
British Columbia Surrey North Cons NDP
Nova Scotia South Shore--St. Margaret's Cons NDP
Quebec Gatineau BQ NDP
Saskatchewan Saskatoon--Rosetown--Biggar Cons NDP

The data can be found at link.  See the "assumption2" tab.  Also, the script is easy to rerun using different assumptions about second choices and the like, so I'd be happy to try other variations in second choices, etc.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Responsibility to vs. Responsibility For

Chuck Grassley posted a tweet yesterday claiming, "Reports of Gaddafi using Cluster bombs Nato'stimidity to stop means "blood on" Nato hand for every legles kiod. That is what clusters do". This tweet: "@ By that reasoning, there's blood on your hands for each murder in DC on a night you failed to have been out crime fighting." was my clumsy attempt to respond in fewer than 141 characters. This post is my attempt to clarify what I was trying to say.

Grassley's contention that NATO has blood on their hands if kids are hurt by Gaddafi cluster bombs seems to assume the following principle: "If an agent fails to take steps to prevent an event that they may have been able to prevent, they are morally responsible for that event." I think that it's widely accepted that moral agents have an obligation to take steps to prevent undesirable events from occurring. I think the extent of one's obligation is determined by a number of factors including the need to respect autonomy of other agents, the relative costs of interceding, the anticipated negative utility of the negative action in which one is considering intervening and the likelihood of the intervention's success. (This is the sort of analysis Peter Singer alludes to, pointing out that obviously we have a strong obligation to intercede when, say, we can save a child from drowning by sacrificing our shoes.)  I don't want to subject Libyan intervention to this sort of analysis here, I simply want to note that there is, in my opinion, a very important difference that Grassley may be paving over here. Even if one can make a case that an agent has an obligation, even a strong one, to prevent X, shouldn't we distinguish between being morally responsible for X and failing to prevent X? Arguably, one can't be morally responsible for X unless one has played a fairly direct causal role in X. That's not to say one isn't morally blameworthy for failing to prevent X, but I think it remains useful to distinguish between an obligation to prevent X and being responsible for it. This distinction does, admittedly, get a bit blurry when the obligation to intercede is extremely obvious. If I won't sacrifice my shoes to rescue a drowning child, it doesn't seem odd to suggest that I'm responsible for her death to some important extent, but I think here we're simply confusing the strong responsibility to intercede with the responsibility for the death.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

The Debt Ceiling

Over on Yglesias this morning there's what appears to be a reasonable suggestion regarding the debt ceiling debate:

As long as we’re taking hostages, I don’t see what’s stopping Democratic Senators—who, after all, constitute a majority—from starting to talk about what concessions they’re planning to demand in exchange for a debt ceiling increase.
That would be the ideal negotiating framework. White House demands clean debt ceiling increase, House majority demands big spending cuts, Senate majority demands partial repeal of Bush tax cuts, and we all compromise on just doing the damn debt increase.

But there's a simple reason it won't work. One side, or one vocal and demanding subset of one side, doesn't really care if the debt ceiling is raised, just as they were eager to see the government shutdown.  Trying to negotiate in this context is like playing a game of chicken against a suicidal guy with a car accident obsession; you can't assume he shares your interest in avoiding a wreck if at all possible.

Monday, 11 April 2011

The Curious Case of the Toys at Meadow Lane Park

There's a park near our house that is filled with lots of plastic outdoor toys, many of them quite expensive to buy new.  The interesting phenomenon is that they're just left there, and don't seem to get stolen, or if they do get stolen, the rate of new arrivals appears to far exceed the rate of departing toys. 

This fascinates me. I like to interpret it as evidence that communities can share without turning greedy, and even a hopeful sign that private property isn't as integral to a functioning society as we typically assume. But my panglossian take on this has suffered a blow recently. I've talked to some who deem the park's trove of toys an eyesore and argue that it's just become a de facto refuse dump for those unwilling to dispose of their old unused toys properly. I don't think it's quite as bad as all that, such toys aren't so hard to get rid of, we've had some and put them by the side of the road and had them snapped up quickly, i.e., people are perfectly happy to take such toys if they're offered up. So, I'd like to think that it really is a positive indicator of human decency and willingness to share.