Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Hierarchy of needs

I was glad to read that they found the missing Utah boy scout, and I was amused by the following tidbit from the AP story: After downing bottles of water and eating all the granola bars carried by a group of volunteer searchers, the boy asked to play a video game on one rescuer's cell phone, the sheriff said.

Friday, June 03, 2005

Fun with language

The front page of today's Wall Street Journal has a piece on the increasing numbers of books that are returned to publishers when they don't sell. Quote:
In 2003, 34% of adult hardcover books were returned to publishers...That's more than one in three adult hardcover books that publishers edit, print, distribute, and market.
What I find odd about this sentence is its failure to distinguish between two different meanings of the word "book": the abstract intellectual-property sense in which a book is a long string of words (the entity that is edited and marketed), versus the individual, physical copy of the book (the entity that is printed and distributed and possibly returned.) The distinction is important here, because 34% of the physical copies is not the same as 34% of the published titles. It reminds me of this post from the great blog Language Log, which gives this example of the same phenomenon:
The Cambridge Grammar is careful in its scholarship and eleven pounds in weight.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Spreading the Gödel news

Mathematics doesn't get too much attention in the popular press, but Slate magazine today has a column about Gödel's incompleteness theorem, written by Jordan S. Ellenberg, and honest-to-goodness mathematician at Princeton. I see it's part of a series of columns called "Do the Math," although most of the columns are more about statistics and common sense than they are about serious theorems. Much like relativity and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, Gödel's theorem tends to capture the imagination of literary types and other armchair philosophers. Also like those other landmarks of 20th century science, it is easy to misconstrue. Ellenberg writes:
But what's most startling about Gödel's theorem, given its conceptual importance, is not how much it's changed mathematics, but how little. No theoretical physicist could start a career today without a thorough understanding of Einstein's and Heisenberg's contributions. But most pure mathematicians can easily go through life with only a vague acquaintance with Gödel's work. So far, I've done it myself.
This sounds right to me, although I'm not sure I quite understand Gödel's theorem myself, despite actually finishing Gödel, Escher, Bach. I think mathematical dilettantes should pay more attention to another eccentric genius who's work revolutionized mathematics in the last century, Georg Cantor. Cantor's set theory really is fundamental to all of modern mathematics, and his simple ideas about the differences between countably and uncountably infinite sets are both simple to understand and profound, yet little known by non mathematicians.

Thursday, February 10, 2005

I'm going to the opera!

New tactics from PETA:
They've spent years burning fur coats and tossing paint at people wearing them. But today, the Norfolk-based animal-rights group PETA tried something completely different -— handing out dozens of furs to homeless people at a Washington, D.C., shelter.
This makes a lot of sense to me. Fur is great for warmth, that's why animals wear it. And who needs a warm coat more than the homeless? If fur coats were to become part of the standard homeless uniform, that would probably be more effective than any advertising campaign PETA could dream up. Here's a quote from another story:
"I'm going to the opera!" joked Marie Ravix, snatching up a dramatic, long brown fur coat with delight as animal rights group PETA handed the symbols of sartorial luxury to the homeless poor.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Price Indexing

Tyler Cowen has a good post on proposals to freeze social security benefits (in real terms).

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Notes from someone who didn't watch the speech

I only caught the very end of the state of the union address, and I only read part of the transcript. Nevertheless I have a couple of comments.

  • Bush's stated intentions with regard to Social Security sounded a lot more reasonable than I expected. His descriptions of the problems in the system were pretty fair. He put the issue of limiting the growth in benefits in the forefront, and only later talked about private accounts. And he labeled those accounts as a way of making the system a better deal for younger workers in tandem with the necessary benefit reductions. I still think it's a bit misleading to use words like "bankrupt" to describe the Social Security problem, but overall I thought this was responsible rhetoric and better than some of what I've heard before from the administration on the topic. Now if he could just get this worked up about the current deficit...

  • The Democratic response from Sen. Harry Reid was such a pile of claptrap that it was difficult to watch. Here's an excerpt:
    Ding, dong. The sound of the Liberty Bell. Ding. Freedom. Dong. Opportunity. Ding. Excellent schools. Dong. Quality hospitals.
    Oh, wait, sorry...that's actually an entry in an essay contest for children under twelve from an episode of The Simpsons. But it's remarkably close both spirit and content to the remarks offered by Reid.
  • Tuesday, February 01, 2005

    Civics teachers needed

    I was surprised to read this morning about a study showing that American high school students are ignorant and ambivalent about the rights guaranteed in the first amendment.
    [W]hen told of the exact text of the First Amendment, more than one in three high school students said it goes "too far" in the rights it guarantees. Only half of the students said newspapers should be allowed to publish freely without government approval of stories.
    That last sentence is especially surprising. I'm concerned, but skeptical. If the study is accurate, it's interesting that this all takes place against a backdrop of a society that has adopted an increasingly expansive view of "rights" over the past decades. Perhaps this can lead to the erosion of support for more basic constitutional rights.

    Friday, January 28, 2005

    Democracy in Iraq

    Here is what the LA Times reports is going in Iraq now that President Bush has personally "planted the flag of liberty."
    At Medical City in Baghdad, doctors are dragging mattresses into their offices and bunking in vacant nursing-home beds, preparing for the possibility of widespread bloodshed.... Amid excitement and fear over Sunday's election, Iraqis are in a mad rush to prepare for an unprecedented three-day national lockdown. With insurgents vowing to disrupt the balloting and kill voters, U.S. and Iraqi security forces have imposed a lengthy set of emergency security measures. Starting Saturday, borders will be sealed and the airport will be shut down. Government offices and most companies will take a three-day holiday. Nightly curfews begin at 7 p.m. and last until 6 a.m....In addition, cars will be banned from roads unless occupants have special election badges, except in cases of medical emergency....

    Demand for gas, food and emergency supplies has spurred a price surge. Black-market prices for gasoline doubled from $1.30 a gallon last week to $2.70 a gallon Thursday. Potatoes that sold for 22 cents for a little more than two pounds on Monday sold for 55 cents Thursday. Long lines snaked out of bakeries selling samoun, a popular bread. Grocery stores were selling out of water, eggs, canned food and rice.

    Seriously, I hope the elections go well, and I have nothing but respect for those who plan to participate despite danger to themselves.

    Whither linguistics?

    Language Log's Mark Liberman has an interesting post on the fate of linguistics as a discipline.
    [I]t may help to view the past 150 years of intellectual history as a poker game. We [linguists] began with a bigger stake than almost anyone else at the table, and have been dealt a series of very strong hands. However, our field is now a marginal player, in danger of being busted out of the game entirely.
    He goes on to point out that, at least at Stanford, it is apparently easy to get a Ph.D. in "English" without having any exposure to the discipline of linguistics at all. Something seems very wrong about that. You can't get a degree in business without taking economics.

    What not to wear

    Most of us have had the experience of being under-dressed at a social function. It's especially embarrassing if you're Vice President of the United States. Here's Dick Cheney at the Auschwitz memorial service. (Click link for larger photo).

    Light blogging

    My blogging has been light the last couple of weeks. I've just started teaching a statistics class, and I've been preparing. Blogging will likely continue to be somewhat lighter for the next couple of months.

    Saturday, January 15, 2005

    Going down with the partisanship

    Speaking of Paul Krugman, a friend pointed out this site evaluating newspaper columnists on a "partisanship index." Krugman comes out the second most partisan of all, just behind Ann Coulter. This doesn't surprise me that much--I find Krugman's NYT columns so relentlessly partisan that I can hardly read them (and I hardly ever do anymore).

    It's weird. Before he took on the NYT column, Krugman was a first rate mainstream academic economist who was known for being outspoken in criticizing democrats as well as republicans. He also produced some of the best popular writing about of economics I know of...for example, check out this classic essay on the value of economic models, or this archive of his not-especially-partisan columns for Slate from the late 1990s. I never would have suspected when he took this gig that he would end up the democratic version of Ann Coulter.

    Wednesday, January 12, 2005

    Good Krugman

    Read Paul Krugman's article (PDF) on Social Security privatization from The Economists' Voice. It's amazing how much smarter Paul Krugman gets if you give him more than 700 words (although I could have done without some of the political attacks near the end). Excerpt:
    The bigger problem for those who want to see a crisis in Social Security’s future is this: if Social Security is just part of the federal budget, with no budget or trust fund of its own, then, well, it’s just part of the federal budget: there can’t be a Social Security crisis. All you can have is a general budget crisis. Rising Social Security benefit payments might be one reason for that crisis, but it’s hard to make the case that it will be central....

    Now it’s true that rising benefit costs will be a drag on the federal budget. So will rising Medicare costs. So will the ongoing drain from tax cuts. So will whatever wars we get into.... What we really have is a looming crisis in the General Fund. Social Security, with its own dedicated tax, has been run responsibly; the rest of the government has not. So why are we talking about a Social Security crisis?

    He also agrees with a point I've made before:
    Now let’s return slightly more to the world outside science fiction, and ask the question: can we really count purported savings several decades out as an offset to huge borrowing today? The answer should be a clear no, for one simple reason: a bond issue is a true commitment to repay, while a purported change in future benefits is just a suggestion to whoever is running the country decades from now.
    Tyler Cowen also agrees.

    Tuesday, January 11, 2005

    Going down with the ship

    So, finally some heads are rolling at CBS News after an independent panel concluded what everyone already knew: CBS continued to defend the bogus national guard memos long after they should have realized their mistake.

    I was completely fascinated watching the memo story unfold back in September. What still amazes me is the psychology of those defending the memos, both inside and outside CBS. It was pretty clear to me the memos were fake as soon as I read this post by Charles Johnson on his blog "little green footballs," posted less than 24 hours after the 60 Minutes story aired. That a random, obscure 1973 memo-for-the-files would be typed on a proportional-spaced machine is unlikely. But the idea that it would happen to come out looking exactly like a Microsoft Word document is beyond unlikely.

    Of course many CBS critics made claims that did not stand up under scrutiny--for example, that there were no typewriters in 1973 that could do proportional fonts, or that the Times Roman typeface did not exist. CBS defenders were able to successfully refute these and other claims. The problem was, many defenders seemed to take these refutations as evidence that the memos were genuine, and they failed to look carefully at the remaining arguments, or to fully consider the preponderance of evidence. Lesson: just because you're critics are mistaken about some things, it doesn't mean you are right.

    The reaction of CBS insiders was, to me, even more puzzling. They defended the memos for over a week, despite the fact that they were in the best position to know of the memos' shaky provenance. Their necks were on the line, questions were coming in from all over, and they didn't even bother to do any more than the most cursory investigation. That's just astounding. I'm just amazed at people's willingness to go down with the ship. I guess some people are more trusting than I am.

    The incident reminded me a little of when the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke back in 1998. Clinton sounded evasive to me (and to others) on the very first day when interviewed by Jim Lehrer, (e.g. "There is no improper relationship." Huh? That's a denial?). Within a couple of days information had leaked out about white house logs and other things that made it seem very likely that something fishy was going on. Yet as soon as Clinton shook his finger, many prominent democrats seemed willing to line up behind him without skepticism.

    I still think that the issues raised in the "little green footballs" post have never gotten the attention that they deserve (although the post is mentioned in the panel's report). For days afterwards the mainstream media was debating whether any typewriters in the 1970s had proportional spacing or "th" superscripts. But they almost completely ignored how colossally unlikely it would be that they would have exactly the same spacing as Microsoft Word.

    My favorite take on the situation came from David at cronaca.com, who compared the memos to forgeries in the art world:

    For after having given a listen to the memos' defenders (Kos thread here) and dismissers (Instapundit's list of links here), the picture that emerges is that while the memos might have been able to have been typed on an early-'70s typewriter, their overall appearance is both anomalous for the era and disturbingly consistent with the norms of our own.

    This is, of course, a classic red flag for art historians on the lookout for fakes: not just the anachronistic detail, but that more fundamental anachronism arising from the forger's inability to recognize (and suppress) the impress of his own time. And when I read attempts to explain how the memos could be genuine, they sound just like a tenaciously deluded owner of a painting, purportedly the work of some great old master, who points to one feature after another that can be paralleled in the master's oeuvre, while failing to see how they add up to a whole that is entirely modern in conception.

    Monday, January 10, 2005

    Optical harassment

    Slate has a cool piece on an attempt to use "science" to win at basketball. The idea is for fans to create the appearance of a moving background for opposing free-throw shooters (rather than just waving stuff around randomly). The piece includes this cool idea (which probably wouldn't be legal):
    Whitney suggests that it would be easy to create an improved version of the thunder stick that becomes more noticeable when waved in one direction. One such device might work by hanging LEDs inside a hollow tube with holes in it. When swung to the right, the LEDs would be visible through the holes, creating spots of light that would vanish when the stick went back to the left. As hundreds of fans shook the sticks wildly, the shooter would see something that looked like a flurry of snow drifting in one direction.

    Saturday, January 08, 2005

    Substandard standards

    Joanne Jacobs links to a pair of new reports from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation evaluating educational standards in English and Mathematics across the states. These standards have become more important since the passage of the No Child Left Behind act, and the foundation is none too pleased with the standards as they are now.

    I spent some time reading The State of State Math Standards 2005 (PDF) and it's pretty interesting. If you can't find any good reality programming on television, but you still want some entertainment that is both humorous and disturbing, you might want to check out this report. The standards requiring that probability be taught to Kindergartners are amusing, but the prize for "funniest standard" goes to Missouri-- the Show-Me-State requires that high school students be able to:

    Evaluate the logic and aesthetics of mathematics as they relate to the universe.

    At the end of the report is the following suggestion, which I think makes a lot of sense:

    A simple and effective way to improve standards is to adopt those of one of the top scoring states: California, Indiana, or Massachusetts. At the time of this writing, the District of Columbia was considering replacing its standards with the high quality standards from one of these states. That makes good sense. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. The goal of standards should not be innovation for its own sake; the goal is to implement useful, high-quality standards, regardless of where they originated.

    I think there is a general tendency for educators to want to reinvent the wheel. Most of the hardworking, dedicated teachers I know write all their own lesson plans basically from scratch. Wouldn't it make more sense for someone who was especially good at writing lesson plans to write them for everybody?

    The foundation reports that the new superintendent for the District of Columbia is, in fact, now planning to "simply jettison D.C.'s woeful standards and adopt the excellent schema already in use in Massachusetts." Good for him.

    Electric Avenue

    Todd Zywicki of the Volokh Conspiracy brings up an interesting issue reported today in the Washington Post: apparently hybrid cars are now clogging up the carpool lanes in Northern Virginia. These lanes may normally be used only by cars carrying 2, or sometimes 3 passengers, but hybrid drivers get a free pass.

    But all hybrids are not created equal. Compared to the Honda Civic hybrid, the Toyota Prius has a smaller gasoline engine and a much larger electric motor, which is connected to the drivetrain in a different way. This gives it significantly higher mileage, especially in the city.

    And now Honda is coming out with an Accord "hybrid" that has a huge 3.0 liter V-6(!!!) engine, plus a small electric motor that improves acceleration and fuel efficiency somewhat. I wonder if this 255 hp car will be allowed to use the carpool lanes, while more fuel efficient cars like the conventional Civic are shut out. According to the WaPo story, the "hybrid exemption is scheduled to expire in June 2006, and the HOV task force of Virginia transportation officials and experts urged...that state leaders not extend it."

    And some people question whether hybrids are really any better for the environment at all (an opinion which I am not qualified to evalulate).

    Zywicki also links to this classic Onion article: "Report: 98 Percent of Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others"

    Thursday, January 06, 2005

    Fake diamond

    Jared Diamond's new book Collapse, currently ranked number 3 on Amazon, has been getting some rather skeptical reviews in the blogosphere lately. I suppose his discussion of the downfall of Easter Island and the Norse settlements in Greenland are interesting enough, although one wonders how much to trust his interpretations given the obvious environmentalist agenda behind the book. And sure, maybe we have something to learn from these failed societies, although you can't help but notice that they were pretty marginal and atypical to begin with.

    But while I fully agree with all the criticisms expressed by Matt Yglesias (here, here, and here) and Tyler Cowen, they don't really express just how spectacularly bad the last part of the book is. It's just one specious argument, contradiction, or misuse of statistics after another. I almost can't believe this was written by the same man who wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel.

    Coincidentally, I also received Bjorn Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist for Christmas. I'm reading it with a skeptical eye, as Lomborg would probably want me to. The litany of environmental woes knocked down by Lomborg might seem like a straw man, but Diamond really brings it to life!

    There are so many problems with Diamond's arguments in the book's final chapter that it is difficult to pick one to focus on (kind of like how Diamond describes environmental problems!) Here's just one small example...on page 504 Diamond writes:

    The value of one statistical life in the U.S.--i.e. the cost to the U.S. economy resulting from the death of an average American...is usually estimated around $5 million. Even if one takes the conservative estimate of annual U.S. deaths due to air pollution as 130,000, then deaths due to air pollution cost us about $650 billion per year.
    First of all, I don't know where Diamond gets his "conservative" estimate. All the sources I find on the web put the number at closer to half that (for example here.) But worse, those who die are not "average Americans," they are overwhelmingly the sick and old. I'm not arguing that air pollution is good, but Diamond is grossly abusing the statistical methodology to make the problem look worse. The whole final chapter is similarly sloppy and misleading, and I'm thinking of doing a series of posts over the next days with some more examples.

    Sunday, January 02, 2005

    Objection...leading the witness!

    The latest issue of Legal Affairs has a piece on New Jersey's reform of procedures for having witnesses identify perpetrators:
    In 2001, New Jersey made two major changes to the procedures that govern all state and local identifications. It became the first state to take into account the decades of psychological research that had been devoted to these procedures.... The first was straightforward: To avoid leading the witness, the person running the lineup shouldn't know who the suspect is. The second was a bit less obvious: In a lineup, show the faces one by one instead of all at once to discourage guessing.
    I'd say these changes are long overdue. In fact, decades after double blind designs have become standard in medical research, I'm amazed that courts apparently still allow detectives to stand by as suspects are led into a lineup. The sequential approach is interesting too, for reasons explained in the piece. Also discussed is the phenomenon where people are more likely to mis-identify someone of another race than someone of their own race.

    I've long been puzzled by the seeming gold-standard status given to eye-witness testimony, as opposed to "circumstantial" evidence. A few years ago I would regularly shake my head when I would hear about court battles over DNA testing where the issue was whether jury could be told that the evidence provided a certainty of "one-in-a-billion" or merely "one-in-a-million." I mean, what do you think you get from an eye-witness...one in twenty? That might be optimistic.

    Perhaps the primacy of eye-witness evidence is a common law carry-over from pre-urban times when everyone knew everyone else in the village. People are obviously much more likely to correctly identify people they know rather than strangers.