Saturday, April 30, 2005

Annals of male objectification, April 2005 edition

Yes, gentlemen, it's that time again: your intrepid blogger has surfed upon the mighty Internet and brought home the delectable shark fins of insight into how ladies objectify us. You may recall some of the previous installments. Today the time has come, inevitably, to talk about dicks.

(Minor sociological observation: In my experience, most women consistently say "dick", whereas most men tend to say "cock" when not in mixed company, although this could be a Northeastern regionalism, or my acquaintances could just be crude. In any case, I shall use the female convention here, as I am investigating how women talk about men.)

Novelist Sara Donati points to Smart Bitches' remarks (annoyingly, you will need to have JavaScript enabled and click the "More, More, More!" link to read in full) regarding the treatment of dicks in romance fiction. The SBs' comments also provide an enlightening window into the way women talk when men are not around. Of course, in this case, men are around, but that's the great thing about the Internet.

Now, no woman to whom I've ever taken a fancy reads "genre" romance fiction (or, at least, none have admitted it), and most of you are probably in a similar position. So, why should you care how romance novels talk about men? Well, as far as I can tell from reading about romance novels --- and I am speaking, here, specifically of the trashy ones --- romance novels occupy a position in the feminine mediaverse similar to hardcore porn's position in the masculine mediaverse: not everybody consumes it, but since it is usually a guilty pleasure, its audience indulges in satisfying those basic, but vaguely embarrassing, erotic desires that would be elided or sublimated in more "elevated" entertainments. In other words, if you're eating french fries, you might as well pour cheese and gravy on top. So the product possesses a certain bracing clarity: whereas, in "literary" fiction, you must root around for subtextual hints as to the hero's masculinity, which will probably admit multiple problematic interpretations if the author knows what (s)he's doing, I'm guessing that a romance novel will just say that the hero's a manly man who reeks of manliness, and here's why, and doesn't it just get you all hot and bothered? And the way the novel says such things reveals what qualities its audience believes a "manly man who reeks of manliness" should possess.

And I don't believe that those who consume hardcore porn or romance novels differ much from the population at large --- everyone indulges in some shallow pleasures, and I don't see why people who choose these would be especially unusual --- so those basic desires reflect on everybody. Not all men, or even most of them, prefer bleached blonde women with enormous fake breasts. But the fact that mainstream American porn so frequently features bleached blonde women with enormous fake breasts says something about the collective erotic subconscious of American men.

So, down to brass tacks. Clearly, according to the Smart Bitches who read Trashy Books, the average romance novel hero has a really big dick. Frequently, they're so large that they cause the heroines pain at first:

Most romance novel heroes are huge. I guess the impression is magnified when the heroines (especially in historicals) are often virgins, but even if the heroine has had some experience, the hero almost always turns out to have a much bigger schlong than the ex-husband or boyfriend. And sometimes the size becomes downright ludicrous, like Sinclair in MaryJanice Davidson's Undead series, whose dick is apparently as big around as the bottom of a beerglass. Linda Howard has also written about heroes with massive members. Their dicks are so huge, that even in the relatively rare instances when the heroine isn't a virgin, the colossal cock still causes the heroine pain. (This may not be true of all her books--I've read only ten or so Linda Howard novels and I haven't picked up any new ones in about five years.) Even geek heroes like Simon of The Real Deal has a wang of monstrous proportions--it's so big that it's a source of concern for him, in fact, another aspect of the book that had me rolling my eyes and busily marking the book down yet another point.

The SBs and other self-conscious readers may roll their eyes, but the authors use these details because there's an audience that craves them. And these preferences carry over, to some extent, to the real world, as the SBs also point out:

A large survey conducted by Psychology Today magazine in 1993 found that women seem evenly divided: half want big schlongs, the other half don't care about size or like smaller penises.

It would be interesting to see the breakdown for the latter half, but I suspect there are rather few who prefer smaller penises.

Furthermore, the general drift of the comments is: in real life, the ideal dick shall be large, but not so large that it hurts. Given that women give birth, I suspect the latter criterion leaves quite a bit of headroom (ha, ha). And even when it hurts a little, the salutary psychological effect of size can compensate, at least for some women. (Which makes me curious: is it the visual effect, or the tactile heft, or merely the abstract Platonic concept of Largeness Itself that's the turn-on? Or is it tied in with a more general streak of masochism, wherein the pain itself adds to the pleasure? Of course, it must differ from woman to woman, and there are probably elements of all of the above, but I'm curious about the average case. Inquiring minds want to know.)

Some commenters at SBTB even resent the very suggestion that penis size might not matter; "Monica" writes:

One thing I find interesting is how protective women are of the male ego vis a vis their own bodies.

We are forever trying to stuff ourselves into some body mold to be more appealing. Just read our magazines!

While we stroke their fragile male egos.

We tell them that it's their personality that counts. We reassure them that size doesn't matter. Lord, we freakin' fake orgasms rather than tell him he sucks (or doesn't suck it enough) in bed and he'd best get to figuring it out if he wants to stay there!

One thing about romance is that it is liberating. Men have unabashedly held up a standard where the female body is to measure up.

Check out where they give prominent women numerical ratings of their desirability!

Romance is the one place where we get to do the same across the board, hold men up to unattainable physical standards. The heroes are fine as hell and hung big. They have tight abs, tight asses and heads full of hair. Back hair is non-existent as are love handles.

Read 'em men, and know how it feels when we check out the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue and know we'll never measure up either. Read 'em and weep.

Now, having a rather robust ego myself, I find this level of resentment kind of sad --- I can only conjecture that Monica's had some lousy partners in her life --- but I agree completely that what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Bring on the objectification, I say, and not just in romance novels. Fair is fair.

Lastly, it's worth noting that among the great apes, humans have exceptionally long and thick penises relative to our body mass. Given that we evolved via sexual reproduction, it would be pretty surprising if women's preferences ran counter to this anatomical freakishness.

Hence: do not deceive yourselves, men; size matters, and bigger is (up to a point) better. I actually find it amazing that men even bother to wonder whether size matters. How could it not matter, at least somewhat?

On the other hand, of course, one has to keep perspective. Partners worth having will, by definition, have a reasonable ordering of priorities, and crude anatomical features must rank relatively low in any reasonable ordering (and I mean this for both men and women). Unless your genetic provenance is incredibly unlucky, it's probably best to worry about your non-anatomical features, which, apart from being more meaningful, are also under your control to a much greater extent.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Why technology journalists should understand technology

A friend just pointed me to this CNET article describing a security hole in the Trillian IM client for Windows. It's a standard buffer overrun defect --- these are criminally common in software, and this one would probably be easy to fix if Trillian were written properly. But I want to comment on Matt Hines's article, which contains the following paragraph:

Cerulean co-founder and CEO Scott Werndorfer said the buffer-related vulnerability is of "extremely low risk." In an e-mail sent to CNET on Friday, he said that attackers would need to construct an entire fake IM software client for the sole purpose of sending a malicious request to a Trillian user. That person would then have to actually accept that message request in order for the attacker to take advantage of the flaw, he said.

If I'd written this article, the next paragraphs would read:

However, Werndorfer is lying. Numerous open source instant messaging clients and libraries are freely available on the Internet, and any malicious programmer could simply download one of these, change or add a small amount of code --- perhaps even a single line --- and obtain a working exploit. The exploit would then circulate rapidly through the cracker underground, so that even unskilled "script kiddies" would have access to it. It is true that users would have to accept the message, but in practice a large fraction of users will accept a cleverly crafted message. Consider, for example, whether any teenager you know would reject a message from "SecretCrushOnU".

In fact, the only mitigating factor in this case is that Trillian is much less popular than the IM clients offered by AOL, Yahoo!, and Microsoft. Attackers would be able to compromise a relatively small number of targets, which somewhat reduces the motivation to exploit Trillian's defects.

So why doesn't Hines write something like the above? I suspect that he's too ignorant of the technology, and too lazy to pick up the phone and call someone who isn't. Or maybe Hines wrote the right article, and his editor trimmed it. Either way, CNET should be embarrassed, particularly since they market themselves as specialists in technology news.

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Xanga feeds suck ass

Warning: obsessive web standard geek ranting follows. Skip if this sounds boring to you.

My unparalleled array of procrastination techniques includes intermittently hacking on a home-grown news aggregator for KDE. One of my friends uses Xanga, and I've gotten sick of reading his posts in a web browser. I figured that in the year 2005, a major blog host like Xanga would have some kind of XML-based feed for their users' readers, so I'd just subscribe to that.

If you look at a Xanga blog, you'll see no links to a syndication feed (no RSS, no Atom, no XML), but some Googling reveals that Xanga does publish an undocumented feed for every user. For any URL

there exists a corresponding URL

where something that resembles an RSS 0.91 feed resides. But the feed's busted, in two different ways:

  • The <item> tags are not beneath the <channel> tag, as they're supposed to be, but beneath the toplevel <rss> tag, as they would be in a RSS 0.9 feed. This is a bona fide validation error in violation of the RSS 0.91 spec.
  • All Xanga posts are marked with a date, and optionally can be marked with a title. It would be natural to use each entry's date and title as, you know, its date and title in the feed. Instead, Xanga feeds use the post date as the title! To pile further silliness upon silliness, the date isn't written using any standard date format like RFC822 or ISO 8601, nor is it even formatted YYYY/MM/DD hh:mm:ss (which would at least make alphabetic sorting equivalent to chronological sorting). Instead, it's formatted using MM/DD/YYYY hh:mm:ss tt.

    Omitting the date and providing junk as the title are technically legal within the RSS 0.91/0.92/2.0 standards (which are sucky standards to begin with, but that's a whine for another day). However, doing this can be pretty annoying for any RSS processor that wants to do anything more sophisticated than list the headlines in some random order.

To compensate for these problems, I added two goofy hacks to my aggregator. First, in RSS 0.91/0.92/2.0 feeds, I hunt for <item> tags at toplevel when they're absent under <channel>. Second, I try to parse a date from the title when no date is provided. Now, anybody who's hacked on a web browser will no doubt laugh at this, because web browser developers have to deal with the heinously deformed HTML that people throw on their web pages, and the above looks trivial in comparison. But the point of XML syndication was that aggregators weren't supposed to have to do this sort of thing, which is why Xanga's brokenness is irksome. It's especially annoying because both of the above problems could probably be fixed by a programmer at Xanga in about fifteen minutes, thus saving news aggregator authors the world over many hours of collective time.

On the other hand, in all likelihood, Xanga doesn't really want people to aggregate their users' posts externally. They'd much rather you sign up for Xanga, and use their built-in subscription system. Which, I suppose, is fine, as long as all your friends use Xangas and nothing else. Grrr. I hate software that tries to lock you into its gated community.

Incidentally, LiveJournal, which is built on a similar business model, provides well-formed feeds in a variety of flavors.

Adobe just couldn't help themselves

Adobe Acrobat Reader now processes covert JavaScript bugs in PDF files. Lovely. I always thought PDFs were nice, safe, "passive" data; now I learn they're "active", a potential vector for bugs and viruses. What possessed Adobe to embed JavaScript in PDFs, and to allow that JavaScript to be automatically processed on opening a PDF, and to give that JavaScript access to the network by default? It's like the Greatest Hits of Microsoft Office Design Mistakes, the tribute album by Adobe.

(Note: the link above points to a third party software vendor's implementation of PDF bugs, but Adobe created the JavaScript embedding feature that enables this surveillance. And, as this article points out, Adobe sells Policy Server, which essentially implements PDF surveillance on steroids, for a higher price.)

For the time being, you can disable JavaScript in the preferences, but it's enabled by default, which means, of course, that the vast majority of users will remain vulnerable.

I hereby propose the First Law of Proprietary Software: As the version number approaches infinity, the probability that the vendor's interests diverge from those of the user converges to one. Or, in other words: eventually, all proprietary software screws the user, somehow.

Implicit and explicit censorship in academia

Printculture reports on a talk by Jodi Dean, wherein Dean spoke about her thoughts as an academic who deleted some white supremacist comments on her blog:

It is of course a fairly extraordinary gesture to have to actively delete someone else's writing and ideas, one caught up in a history of state-sponsored censorship and violence that left academics generally like to imagine themselves as opposed to. And so the lesson here, as Dean pointed out on Friday evening, is twofold:

  1. Your sense that you don't do things like silence people is, if you're a teacher, sustained by an immense institutional network that silences certain kind of people for you; and,
  2. That may not be a bad thing. Or at least, it is fairly clear that without such silencing whatever discourse does happen in academia would not exist as such.

I'd go even further. To me, it seems obvious that all discourse (and not merely the academic kind) depends on the implicit silencing of some speech acts. We should be careful to consider which speech gets silenced, and how; but we shouldn't feel particularly guilty about the mere existence of some silencing.

Somewhat related essay by the ever-fantastic Clay Shirky: A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy.

Guess when Atrios linked here?

I normally hate meta-blogging, but this is sort of funny. (Graph courtesy of SiteMeter.)

Of course, if I'd wanted to retain some of that traffic, I would have posted firebreathing conservative-roasting prose daily in the week following the big hit, instead of perversely going silent for a week and then finally posting about some abstract philosophical problem that my friend's brother posed.

Racing the answering machine to answer

Most answering machines are hardwired to pick up after four rings. This design decision is evil.

It is evil because it has the unintentional consequence that whenever the phone rings, and you are home, you must scramble to pick up the receiver before it does. Before answering machines, humans, and not technology, controlled the pace of life in their homes. You could finish whatever you were doing --- complete the sentence you were typing, or politely excuse yourself from a conversation, or rinse the toothpaste from your mouth --- and then walk to the phone in a leisurely and dignified manner. With answering machines, when the phone rings, one must immediately drop everything and dash madly to receive the call before the fourth ring ends (usually about twenty seconds). Humans have surrendered to technology.

(Yes, you can let the answering machine pick up, and return the call later; but in fact this merely forces the problem onto the other party. Eventually, somebody must race their answering machine to pick up the phone.)

This is madness. Answering machines should have a toggle of some kind that controls how many times the phone rings. The elderly, or the handicapped, or people who live in larger residences, or people who just value their dignity, should be able to set the ring count higher to allow more time to get to the receiver. But selectable ring counts are a feature found only on the most high-end answering machines.

And don't even get me started on cell phones. The sophistication of the software and hardware dispersed throughout cell phone system is astounding --- my cell phone alone could probably have run the Apollo moon mission --- but I can't do something as bone-headedly simple as telling my voice mail to pick up after six rings instead of four.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Why scientists don't do science outreach

PZ Meyers points to a study showing that most scientists do not perform activities for outreach to non-scientists, and that only a very small fraction (about 3%) do so very actively --- where "very actively" means "six or more times per year", which doesn't even seem that active to me

Well, in fact, this is a subject near and dear to my heart. The reason behind the lack of outreach is obvious: there are almost no institutional incentives for professional scientists to work on outreach activities. From grad school, through postdoc work, through faculty hiring, through tenure review, you win funding and professional advancement based almost solely on research output within your discipline. If you want to do outreach activities, that's fine, but you'll see few career benefits from doing so. Therefore, in practice, the people who end up doing non-negligible amounts of outreach tend to be one of the following:

  1. people who don't land tenured research positions, and choose an alternative career path;
  2. people in the tiny minority of superprolific superstars who can publish lots of research while also doing lots of outreach on the side; or
  3. people who have invested the ten to fifteen years (grad school + possible postdocs + six year tenure clock) of tunnel-vision research needed to land a tenured position, and now have the freedom and security to do whatever they want.

Regarding the third category, one would think that there are many tenured professors out there, and there are. So why don't more of them do outreach? Well, after you've spent a decade being driven to do research and little else, habits form and harden. Also, the long pre-tenure career track selects people who care passionately about research, and therefore prefer to spend their time doing research instead of other activities. In practice, therefore, few tenured professors dedicate much time to outreach. By that time, the die has been cast --- although some tenured professors do get fired up and fighting. It helps if somebody pokes them with a sharp stick (think Ed Felten vs. the RIAA, or biologists who take down creationists).

Now, in the grand scheme of things, this system makes some sense: the American scientific/economic/military juggernaut gets incredible value from the specialization of labor wherein its research universities' primary role is to generate basic scientific research. Contra the popular perception of academia as an inconsequential playground for the effete, American universities are highly optimized for this mission, and accomplish it more effectively, and on a larger scale, than any other institution in human history.

By contrast, the benefits of having a bunch of scientists running around proselytizing laypeople are less obvious (although if you're reading this, then you probably agree that those benefits are substantial). From this point of view, having scientists spend their labor on outreach is actually a form of inefficiency that should be weeded out. And, if we view the arena of competition at the level not of individual scientists but of university departments, all incentives point towards improving efficiency in this respect. A department gets funding, develops a reputation, and attracts top grad students and faculty candidates primarily by having a record of strong research.

So, whatever the long-run costs of isolating science from public life, the short-run features of the competitive landscape drive scientists, and the institutions that employ them, away from outreach. Fortunately, we are not bound by the gradient descent algorithm of natural evolution. We have brains, and we can think further ahead than one step, or even change the landscape. I think that there's a growing sense, at least within computer science, that if we do not school the public sphere, the public sphere will school us. So I'm optimistic that my discipline, at least, will change course, though the change will come more slowly than I'd prefer.

Monday, April 18, 2005

Tu quoque, the cost of thinking, and belief formation

My friend MS has a brother in the Peace Corps who recently commented on the tu quoque fallacy:

I remember that some years ago the NYTimes magazine ran a Peter Singer article that talked about the moral obligation to give to charity ("Famine, Affluence, and Morality"). What was most striking to me was not the article so much as people's reactions to it, a large number of which were along the lines of, "Well, how much does he give to charity?"

Now, to me, this response illustrates a certain presupposition about normative statements that I think is ridiculous, namely that I can't say that something is good unless I do it myself.

Why is that? I mean, isn't whether or not something is good independent of my actions? I'm not God, I certainly do not bestow the moral property of goodness upon actions by performing them, so what is the relevance of my behavior to the 'objective' judgment of whether an action is good or bad?


Whatever the reason though, none of them need relate to the moral worth of that action, and I think we are petty, defensive, and ultimately miss the point when we interpret normative statements this way.

In practice, Vishnu is absolutely right that people usually invoke tu quoque (and ad hominem more generally) as a cheap way of dismissing an argument without dealing with its substance.

However, sometimes such dismissal is entirely rational; this becomes apparent when you stop thinking like a philosopher and start thinking like a computer scientist (or, I suppose, a behavioral economist, though I'm not one of those so I'm just guessing).

When somebody comes to you with a proposition intended to alter your behavior, they are asking you to expend effort not only in changing your behavior, but also in figuring out whether their reasoning is sound and consistent with your principles. But thoroughly investigating any nontrivial proposition in life can require that you re-examine the entire edifice of your belief structure, and all the empirical evidence available to you, in order to test the validity of that proposition. Therefore, figuring out the "right answer", or even an approximately-correct provisional "right answer", requires a lot of thinking. Computation costs. Only saints and lunatics have the time and energy to do this whenever people confront them with a proposition.

So, before investing this labor, people pre-screen propositions with some cheap, fallible heuristics that work well in practice. One of those heuristics is to examine the past behavior, reputation, credentials, etc. of the person who's bringing you the proposition. If Alice tells Bob that he's morally obligated to behave a certain way, at least one of the following must be true:

  • Alice behaves in the way she advocates. In this case, there is no tu quoque problem, though there may be other reasons for Bob to reject Alice's argument.
  • Alice is too weak, too evil, or both, to behave in the way she advocates. In this case, Alice now has a hard philosophical problem. Morality does not require one to do the impossible; if Alice wishes Bob to change his behavior, she must demonstrate that the weakness/evil in herself is not a reflection of universal human limitations. If she cannot explain why Bob can be stronger and/or less evil than she is, she cannot convince Bob to alter his behavior.
  • Alice does not believe that Bob is morally obligated to behave the way she advocates, but she is trying to deceive Bob into believing he is. In this case, Alice's argument may be sound, but if so then it is so only by accident (presumably Alice has a reason for disbelieving her own argument). Now, intuitively, "accidentally true" statements are much rarer than statements that are "true by construction" (one can easily formalize this intuition in most logical systems; exercise left to the reader). Therefore, it is unlikely to be worth Bob's time to bother pursuing Alice's line of reasoning.

I'm simplifying a bit in the above, but basically Alice has a long row to hoe unless she modifies her behavior (or suffers from a special disability that exempts her from this obligation, which raises further problems that I won't get into here). Pile on the fact that, empirically, the deception case is pretty common in the Hobbesian world we inhabit, and tu quoque starts sounding like a great strategy for pre-screening ideas. Think of the car salesman who's never bought the brand of car he sells; he'd better have a pretty good story about why you should buy what he's selling even though he doesn't.

This "computational cost" effect in belief adoption partly explains why it's so much harder to convince people of truths that demand change than truths that support their status quo. Beliefs that fit in with our existing beliefs cost little to adopt, so we just accept them. Beliefs that demand change require lots of thinking, so we pre-screen them more aggressively using incomplete heuristics like tu quoque before even giving them a fair shot. It's not fair, but if you want to change the world, you'd better hold yourself to a much higher standard than if you just want to go along to get along.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

In which Jonah Goldberg performs feats that bend the laws of space and time

Brad DeLong observes as Jonah Goldberg shoves his foot so far down his mouth that it comes out his ass, wraps around, circumnavigates the globe, goes back into his mouth, and lodges firmly in the empty space in his upper cranium:

But Krugman also notes that engineers and other faculty in the hard sciences are also disproportionately liberal. It's not just in the humanities. Good point.

What he - Mr. Prize-Winning Economist - neglects to mention or consider is that engineers in the private sector make good money. Ditto many scientists. Indeed, I don't have the data to back this up handy, but it would hardly surprise me to find out that the most liberal members of the science faculty are probably the least likely to be able to find work elsewhere. I'm sure there's a market for private-sector biodiversity experts, but something tells me it's smaller than the market for electrical engineers. Never mind when the last time a Marxist hermeneuticist got a job with Union Carbide.

Observe my jaw, like that of all my computer scientist friends, dropping to the floor at superluminal speed. Computer science is arguably the science and engineering field in which it is easiest to be well-compensated in the private sector. Yet it is an empirical fact that only the brightest undergrads go to top grad schools, and of those only the brightest of the brightest Ph.D's get top faculty positions. Getting a lucrative private-sector position out of grad school is almost considered a consolation prize (particularly if it's a development position, as opposed to a "purer" research position that more closely resembles an academic post). Being successful faculty at a top-tier school requires a comprehensive mastery of the discipline (including strong teaching, research, and interpersonal skills, not to mention massive raw brain power) that no industrial position does. If these faculty decided to go into private industry, they would kick ass and take names, and they would make a bundle of cash along the way. Indeed, many do: top professors remain highly sought-after by private industry for well-paid part-time consulting work; and then, of course, there are professor-initiated startups.

And yet the faculty at top CS departments remain largely liberal. (Although they obviously do not conform to Goldberg's bizarre caricature of "Marxist hermeneuticists" --- erm, I thought we were talking about liberal scientists, not far-left-wing culture critics?)

Now, having said that, let's try to get away, for a moment, from the fact that Goldberg's statement is outrageously false. Let us also set aside the sloppy thinking that lets him slide from all science and engineering faculty, to "biodiversity ecologists", to "Marxist hermeneuticists" (incidentally, if one of my friends started exhibiting this kind of thought process, I would be seriously concerned --- and this is not hyperbole --- that (s)he had suffered severe brain damage).

Let's consider, rather, Goldberg's supremely asinine arrogance in how he constructs this argument. Goldberg clearly does not know a goddamn thing about science and engineering academia. I repeat: he does not know a goddamn thing about science and engineering academia. He does not know enough to make educated guesses; he does not know enough to have even the faintest throb of a gut instinct. But he's an expert in the ape-man grunts that constitute current conservatarian ideology ("Private sector good! Academia bad! Money good! Liberal bad! Oook ook!"), which enables him to deduce, a priori, the probable truth about any given subject. And he's an expert in the low, low standards of punditological writing, which permit him to describe his total ignorance with the phrase: "I don't have the data to back this up handy", as if there were some wealth of both statistical and anecdotal evidence and he just didn't have enough research assistants to compile it at the moment. Hence, he feels comfortable smearing liberal academics in science and engineering fields as unemployable jokers.

Now, this would merely be an occasion for a hearty laugh at the village idiot's expense, if not for what it represents in its broader media context. The fact is, Goldberg doesn't care in the least whether what he says is true and well-reasoned, and neither do his backers and readers. Goldberg's function is not to say things that are true, nor is his function to present a reasoned argument. Goldberg's function is to spew forth some roughly grammatical stream of words that appear to reinforce conservatarian ideology, so that his readers can listen, nod, and feel vindicated in their beliefs.

And --- this is what's really maddening, all the outrages I've brought up wouldn't matter in the least except for this point --- virtually all right-leaning commentators, running the gamut from David Brooks to Rush Limbaugh to Glenn Reynolds, whether consciously or not, perform roughly the same function, and they're wildly effective. The entire right-wing movement is like a hovercraft floating on the perpetually roaring whirlwind of sub-rational, self-reinforcing nonsense that gusts through the minds of its adherents. It goes on and on and on, and nobody stops the people who feed it; most of the time, nobody with a prominent voice even stands up to them and calls them on their nonsense. For writing this column, and numerous other pieces of garbage like it, for filling people's minds with offal, Jonah Goldberg will never face judgment; he'll die peacefully, with a fat bank account and a kid gloves obituary.

UPDATE (8 April): Urp. This post got linked by both Pharyngula and Atrios. This is way more attention than I ever bargained for. This is only worth remarking upon because, as one dissenting commenter noted, I did not provide much in the way of hard data in my previous post, and I should explain why. It's because, under normal circumstances, barely anybody reads this blog aside from myself and my friends, and more than half of the latter are also grad students in computer science, for whom the empirical evidence of liberal predominance in CS academia is confirmed every day by firsthand experience.

So, for the broader audience that may read this post: I should make absolutely clear that I do not have any systematically gathered, statistically sound evidence that CS academics are liberal. My assessment is purely based on the informal data-gathering implicit in living, working, and breathing in CS academia. As a grad student, I interact extensively with both present and future faculty in my own department, as well as with present and future faculty from other institutions at scientific conferences. And although, for the sake of professionalism, everybody largely avoids political outspokenness in professional contexts, the prevailing political climate nevertheless inevitably seeps through, in jokes and other informal social interaction. And that climate is, alas for Goldberg and his ilk, definitely liberal. To be more precise, it exhibits considerable ideological diversity, but along a spectrum with strongly progressive liberalism at one end and libertarianism at the other, and with more people on the liberal end. The fraction who subscribe to National Review-style "conservatism" is vanishingly small.

The question of why CS professors tend to have this distribution of political beliefs is an interesting question, and I'm not going to speculate about the reasons right now. But Goldberg's explanation --- they can't get jobs, those worthless liberal loonies --- well, as I've already said, it's ludicrous.

Lastly, it is probably worth further clarifying one other point. As Nicholas Thompson wrote in the Washington Monthly a while ago, even top Republican strategists have agreed for decades that scientists, as a bloc, are so liberal that it's not even worth trying to win them over. That scientists are liberal is not something that Goldberg disputes. What Goldberg insinuates is that scientists are liberal because they are unemployable.

And with that, I have wasted far too much of my life rebutting this b.s. I have some code to write.

META-UPDATE (10 April): I was going to compile a list of reciprocal links to everyone who linked to this post, but that grew impractical. Instead, I set up the hack invented by BoingBoing for using Technorati's automatic link tracker; for example, here's the list for this post. Technorati's tracking gets most blogs, though it isn't perfect --- for example, it omits DC Media Girl, a blog which I've never heard of, but which generated a fair number of referrers.

Also, if anybody's still reading, thanks to all, in comments and other blogs, for the positive response. Truthfully, I have mixed feelings about the level of vitriol on display above --- as my friends know, I tend to slip into a vindictive mode in my writing pretty frequently, and I often wonder if it's healthy. I mean, I believe my anger was justified, but I also hope that people mostly responded to what is true or thoughtful in the above, rather than taking cheap satisfaction in the anger alone. Well, OK, this is the Internet, so some number of people will inevitably do the latter, but I hope that what I write is more satisfying to people looking for the former. It's hard to judge.

OK, enough navel-gazing. Metablog mode off.

Monday, April 04, 2005

A note on affirmative action and university admissions

Brad DeLong points to UC Berkeley chancellor Robert Birgeneau's call for the repeal of Prop. 209. In general I agree; however, I would like to point out one fact that is, perhaps, not as dispositive as it may originally appear. Birgeneau writes (emphasis added):

Proposition 209 assumed that considering race or ethnicity in the admissions process would allow undeserving students into Berkeley. But it is significant that the graduation rates of African Americans before and after the proposition's passage have stayed virtually the same. Far from weeding out students who could not succeed, the elimination of race as a consideration in admissions has actually prevented many of California's most able students from the opportunity of a Berkeley education.

Now, that the graduation rates of African Americans remained the same does indicate exactly what Birgeneau says: that many able students are being denied opportunity. However, this is actually a trivial observation, because of two empirical facts:

  • The pool of qualified applicants to any truly top-tier educational institution vastly exceeds the number of open slots.
  • The information available to admissions committees constitutes a highly noisy and imperfect channel.

These facts are definitely true, for example, of the [EDIT: my school]'s computer science graduate program, and, to only a slightly lesser extent, also of [my school]'s undergrad CS major (to which students must apply; admission is highly competitive). Therefore, the job of an admissions committee at a top institution is not to select "the best qualified N applicants" for some suitable value of N, as some naïve commentators on affirmative action seem to assume. Rather, there is some broad equivalence class of applicants who are "probably good enough" --- the committee usually doesn't have enough information to be more precise than that [0] --- and the committee's job is to pick a subset of this class of students that embodies some desirable balance. For a graduate computer science program, this would mean ensuring that you admit students whose expressed primary research interests are in a variety of subfields; that students do not all come from the same handful of undergraduate institutions (and especially that only a very small fraction come from your own undergraduate program); and, most likely these days, that your students come from a variety of personal/cultural backgrounds. It seems to me that these concerns, including the last one, are are all entirely appropriate when you're trying to compose an incoming class.

But the fact remains that, no matter which subset you pick, you will always have to reject a whole bunch of students who could probably have succeeded in your program. So this particular aspect of Birgeneau's statement is rather trivial. Graduation rate can function as a sanity check that you are not reducing the quality of the acceptance pool. But it's also important to realize that any "sane" acceptance strategy --- including the pre-Prop-209 strategy --- will inevitably have "prevented many of California's most able students from the opportunity of a Berkeley education", and repealing Prop 209 will not change this fact.

Fortunately, because America has many excellent universities, and because no two admissions committees will make exactly the same decisions, it's basically the case that (setting aside the very serious issue of financial hardship) anybody who's in the top equivalence class can get a very high-quality education.

It's also worth noting that, at top undergraduate programs, the empirical effect of affirmative action is roughly as follows: the fraction of qualified African Americans, Latinos, and middle Americans who get accepted increases; the fraction of qualified whites, Asian-Americans, Jews, and bicoastal urbanites who get accepted decreases. It's rather telling that the complaints against affirmative action almost always focus on the racial/cultural components of this selectiveness, and not the geographical components. I might take the meritocratic moral outrage of white conservatives from middle America somewhat more seriously if they complained as vociferously about the tremendous advantages that Nebraskans and Montanans enjoy over New Yorkers and Angelenos as they do about the advantages of African-Americans and Latinos over whites. As it is, it's pretty clear that most of them have no greater social good in mind, and speak purely from self-interest.

[0] OK, this is only true to a first approximation. If you want to be more precise, there are basically two equivalence classes at the top end. (A) Superstars, whom you must admit because they're just too good to refuse. At the undergraduate level, these are the 4.0 GPA varsity letter athletes who have also won Westinghouse or written W3C specs or played at Carnegie Hall or published a bestselling novel before they graduate from high school. (B) People who are "good enough", among whom you choose in order to create a balanced incoming class. These are the students who "merely" get stellar grades and have lots of extracurricular activities. The number of people in category (A) is so small as to be relatively insignificant in the grander scheme of things.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Carp considered harmful

Another MeFi post; you can read the thread yourself for lessons on the inadvisability of releasing foreign fish into local waterways (hopefully, the brackish East River suffices to kill this particular specimen, but carp are tough bastards and it's not inconceivable that it could somehow fight its way upstream to fresher waters), but I just want to note the following paragraph from an article linked in the thread:

To make matters worse with the carp, the silver variety can leap as high as 10 feet out of the water if surprised by a passing boat or jet ski. Gaden said more boaters are suffering broken noses and other injuries when they're hit by jumping carp.

I cannot help but feel a bit of schadenfreude at the poetic justice of a jetskier/motorboater's getting bashed in the face by a jumping carp whilst roaring about on the lake. Both obnoxious foreign invaders with no respect for their environment, and both shocked out of their senses by the sudden appearance of the other --- their mutual bonk is as sweet and fitting as a bride and groom's climactic wedding kiss.

Friday, April 01, 2005

Further evidence I am in the wrong field

If I were a neurobiologist, I could get paid to tickle rats:

[Bowling Green State University in Ohio psychobiology professor Jaak] Panksepp has studied rats and found that when they "play," they often chirp-a primitive form of laughter, according to the scientist. In an article to be published tomorrow in the journal Science, he makes the argument that animal laughter is the basis for human joy.


In a 2003 study Panksepp and Bowling Green State University neurobiologist Jeff Burgdorf demonstrated that if rats are tickled in a playful way, they readily chirp. Rats that were tickled bonded with the researchers and became rapidly conditioned to seek tickles.

So much for that whole "laughter is uniquely human" thing.