Saturday, July 30, 2005

Two posts by young members of Free Culture

Lessig Blog has two posts by young members of the Free Culture movement, one depressing and one heartening:

Andy Scudder writes about a student photographer he knows who wanted to be able to control whether people could print out the photos she posted on the Internet. I find this incredibly depressing. I'd taken to believing that the current wave of intellectual property extremism would eventually be overturned by sheer demographic pressure as the next generation came of age and took the reins. But if the hip-hop generation doesn't understand that art exists to be remixed by others, then who will? If, nearly a century after the collages of Picasso and Ernst, educated young artists are sympathizing with totalitarian, centralized control over the tools of creative production, then we're really losing the war.

More hopeful is Nelson Pavlosky's account of his experience growing into the Free Culture movement. Maybe the kids will be alright after all. I guess the lesson here for technologists would be that if we create systems that, like peer-to-peer networks or blogging software, permit creative people to observe the benefits of decentralization and freedom, then they can be awakened.

Splenetic ranting (feel free to ignore)

It's way early Saturday morning and I'm banging around my apartment dealing with a bout of insomnia, so I might as well post this. Fair warning --- I'm going to be writing more about my reactions to this subject than the subject itself. Navel-gazing ahoy.

Nomadic Thoughts has the link rundown for a recent trans-blog dustup, about Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, & Steel, between Crooked Timber, Brad DeLong, and a bunch of anthropologist types at Savage Minds. I wrote some slightly lengthy comments on the first post in the controversy, though I now realize that this was stupid of me. My summary of the debate:

  • Ozma of Savage Minds writes: "Jared Diamond is wrong, and the reason people like Guns, Germs, & Steel is that they're racists."
  • Brad DeLong writes:: "No, you're confused about Jared Diamond's ideas. And we like the book because it's well-written, and makes a striking argument about an important question."
  • Kerim of Savage Minds writes: "Well, it's stupid and maybe even morally wrong, even to ask that question."
  • Henry of Crooked Timber writes: "No, it's just a different question than the one you'd investigate."
  • Ozma repeats, in comment threads on the above posts, over and over again, that "Jared Diamond is wrong, and the reason people like Guns, Germs, & Steel is that they are racists." She doesn't address any of the objections, evidently subscribing to the theory that vociferous repetition is the key to winning arguments.
  • Kerim repeats, in comment threads on the above posts, that either Diamond's question is immoral, or that he's not really asking a different question, or that the reason people like Diamond is that they mistakenly believe he's asking a different question. His position keeps changing, so that as one position is refuted he moves to another one and claims he held that other position all along; in this fashion, he cannot be proven wrong, nor can anybody engage in productive debate with him.
  • Throughout all of the above, several anthro types insist that (1) Diamond's theories are old hat, and (2) they have been thoroughly debunked. They fail to present evidence or argument for these two points, insisting that they are common knowledge among anthropologists.[0] (Yeah, OK, you supercilious jackasses; we have crackpots in computer science too, but when somebody claims that, for example, they've invented an algorithm that can compress all strings, we can concisely explain exactly why that claim is a crock, in terms that anybody with a little math background can understand; and you should be able to do the same.)

Reading all this got me pretty mad. As those who've known me for a long time can attest, there's almost nothing in the world that makes me madder than bald-faced nonsense. My reaction to nonsensical statements is usually much more intense than, for example, my reaction to immoral or insulting statements. Allow me to elaborate slightly. When I read an argument that's completely unsound (as opposed to one that's wrong, but defensible), it strikes me like a blow to the head. I literally feel a bolt of dull pain pulse between my temples (and I do mean literally, not "metaphorically, but with such intensity that I feel obligated to describe it as literal"). I get a surge of adrenaline-fueled fight-or-flight response, and often feel the need to get up and pace around the room. I find myself wishing that I were omnipotent, solely so that I could obliterate that argument from the face of the Earth, because the very fact that a human being has the effrontery to make such an argument, and to expect other people to believe it, is an insult to all of creation. In short, nonsensical arguments send me completely off the deep end. I'm not claiming that this is a sane reaction, but it's how I react.

Ozma and Kerim's original posts were bad enough, but as I read their replies, and the replies of some others, I could not avoid smacking myself on the forehead, just to make the pain stop. Ozma, especially, seems to embody a perfect storm of rhetorical incompetence: she's unable to understand Diamond's argument, she's unable to coherently explain her objections to (her mangled understanding of) Diamond's argument, and she's unable to handle critical responses to her own arguments. She's also a new professor at the U. of Alberta, and I sincerely pity her students.

In retrospect, it's pretty obvious to me that Ozma and Kerim are fractally wrong, i.e. so wrong that arguing with them will lead to an infinitely recursive regress of wrongness on every sub-point of debate. I should have recognized this before I invested time in commenting, but somehow I mistakenly thought that since (a) I liked Diamond's book, and (b) I wanted to understand the objections to it, that there was some value in sinking my time into this debate. Stupid me.

p.s. Lots of anthro types seem to have some pretty absurd notions about biology. Two examples:

  1. I compared the difference between Diamond-style hypotheses of ultimate causation, and anthropological hypotheses of proximate causation, to the distinction between evolutionary and developmental biology; and I suggested that, as with "evo-devo", there might be gains to merging the two. Ozma followed with the absurd statement that "evo" was "in retreat", which is absurdly incorrect --- evolution is stronger than ever. She then had the amazing temerity to refer to this bizarre misconception in the Crooked Timber thread, evidently believing that it was a point in her favor rather than evidence of her disconnection from reality and willingness to spout off about subjects that she's completely ignorant of.
  2. "J Thomas" wrote, in a comment, that Darwin "got evolution all wrong but at least said evolution was going on". Ahem. Biology has advanced a great deal in the past century and a half, but Darwin was fundamentally right. It would be accurate to say, "We know a great deal more than Darwin; in their daily work, modern biologists rely on modern theories that are not directly attributable to him." But it is a complete distortion to say that Darwin "got evolution all wrong", and only somebody who was supremely misinformed could say otherwise. (UPDATE 31 July: J Thomas has clarified, so I retract this; see comments.)

This, combined with some disparaging comments by Kerim about "biological/deterministic" reasoning, leads me to believe that anthropology in general (or at least a certain sub-community thereof) has some real problems with the theory of evolution. Given that the theory of evolution is simultaneously one of the greatest intellectual achievements of humankind, and the engine driving one of the most productive and exciting scientific disciplines today, this doesn't speak well of these anthropologists.

UPDATE 31 July: I was too hasty in inferring too much about anthropologists and evolution from what I read. See comments for further discussion.

[0] OK, they did present two references. However, closer examination by commenters --- including myself --- revealed that one is totally irrelevant to Diamond's thesis, and the other seems to be based on significant misreadings of the conditions necessary for Diamond's thesis to be valid. Also, the anthro types never explain in the first place how these citations supposedly demonstrate that Diamond's arguments are either old hat or thoroughly debunked --- they simply point to the footnote and say "See?" This might be acceptable if the citations themselves were not so weak, but as it is...

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Debating conservatives on single motherhood

Brad DeLong points to Brad Plumer's post debunking the conservative allegation that liberals aren't talking about the relationship between poverty and family arrangements (specifically, single motherhood). Plumer writes a bunch, but I want to remark to the following section near the end:

One other thing: insofar as the fact of single motherhood itself is actually a "problem" (and I'm not convinced it is, but let's suppose...), there are basically two remedies. One, we can try to reduce the number of divorces by, say, making divorce harder to do, though that seems like a terrible option. Divorce is often very necessary, quite obviously, since even the best marriage counseling can't prevent every unhealthy or violent relationship. . . . [deletia]

So let's look behind door #2. And door #2 is... reducing out-of-wedlock births in the first place. This seems like a pretty unambiguously decent policy goal . . . the tried-and-true way to reduce unintended out-of-wedlock births involves teen-pregnancy prevention programs that emphasize, yes, condoms and other "icky" items. (Hell, they can teach abstinence too, since that seems to work, though "abstinence-only" programs pretty clearly do not.) Measures to reduce subsequent pregnancy, like "second-chance homes" for teen mothers, or home visiting programs, seem to have had some success. Oh, and abortion—which, at the moment, is effectively unavailable to a good number of low-income women. But these are all pretty well-known liberal policy goals, I daresay.

Plumer's obviously speaking to a liberal audience, so these will, indeed, be the two obvious options. But to social conservatives, there are actually a whole array of other options. Social conservatives genuinely believe that the "liberal" media's "glorification" of promiscuity is a significant cause of teen pregnancy. They also blame the decline in government sponsorship and acknowledgment of Christianity. Some of them blame the general climate of "moral degeneracy" stemming from the widespread acceptance of "immoral" behaviors, including, for example, homosexuality. These beliefs imply an array of other policy options: censorship, state-sponsored Christianity, and persecution of homosexuals [0], to name a few. Liberals, of course, believe these policy options would be ineffective, immoral, and unconstitutional, not to mention laughable. However, if one were (unlike Plumer) trying to convince conservatives, one would have to address and refute these ideas, rather than assuming that "our" policy options are the only ones.

[0] For those who wonder how homosexuality could possibly have anything do with single motherhood --- it's not supposed to make a whole lot of sense. You have to stop looking for objectively observable chains of causation, and think like a social conservative: when a culture is virtuous, good things happen; when a culture is sinful, bad things happen. Homosexuality is sinful, and single motherhood is bad. Ergo, when a culture accepts homosexuality and other forms of deviancy (pornography, pagan religions, interracial dating, women's suffrage, etc.), single motherhood increases.

Of course, I shouldn't paint with too broad a brush --- for any particular deviant behavior B and bad outcome O, plenty of enlightened social conservatives either don't believe B is deviant, or don't believe that B causes O. And many others believe on a gut level that B causes O, but also feel obligated to cook up some random gimcrackery about a chain of causation (which usually shatters under scrutiny) --- e.g., "If homosexual culture were not perverting all these men, they would stay straight, get married, and be good husbands to all these single mothers." Rarely does this form of conservative thought rear its head with the bare-naked stupidity of Jerry Falwell's statement that the September 11th attacks were caused by "pagans, abortionists, feminists, gays, lesbians, the ACLU and the People for the American Way." But if you poke around in most conservatives' worldviews, you will find this style of reasoning as a background assumption, against which their otherwise inexplicable blatherings become at least more explicable, even though they remain incorrect.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

M. Yglesias on judges, prisons, and crime rates

In part of a larger post at TAPPED, M. Yglesias makes an interesting point w.r.t. judges who are "soft on crime" and crime rates:

On a wonky note, "soft on crime" judges who let factually guilty people get off on technicalities actually don't impact crime rates at all. The way the criminal justice system actually works is that governors and legislatures appropriate funds to create enough space in prison for X number of people. Parole boards and prosecutors then use their discretion to ensure that the prison beds stay full. Faced with overcrowding, people don't serve their full sentences and people accused of relatively minor felonies get generous plea bargains. As prison capacity expands, prosecutors start driving harder bargains. Aggregate incarceration rates do impact violent crime but the fate of any particular offender doesn't change the incarceration rate; budget decisions made in state capitals are the real causal drivers.

I never realized this before, but it makes perfect sense.

Random searches on subways

When I first heard that New York City had responded to the London bombings with random searches on its subways, my first thought was: "Great. More unconstitutional government surveillance of dubious security value." The Times has a closer examination of the legal issues.

Slippery-slope arguments are, of course, rather suspicious in general. However, these subway searches continue an ongoing slide, over the past few decades, down a long slippery slope w.r.t. accepting government surveillance of its citizens, and I find this incredibly dangerous because the potential expansion of surveillance seems limitless.

The trend has accelerated in recent years, accompanied by an additional dash of terrorism-induced stupidity, in which invasive security "precautions" are embraced without any regard for their effectiveness. The TSA confiscates tweezers, police harass people for taking pictures of tourist attractions, Congress mandates a comprehensive national ID database with "files" on practically every adult American, and the vast majority of Americans just nod. It must be done, in the name of stopping terrorism!

Where do we draw the line? I think that as long as terrorist attacks continue (and they will continue), a majority of Americans will never draw a line. It seems entirely conceivable that at some point in the not-so-distant future, Congress will pass a law mandating random searches of people's houses; and a Federal judge will uphold it (because the ransacking occurs with a fixed frequency that is not up to the discretion of individual officers); and nearly all the members of Congress who voted for the bill will be re-elected.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Post-deadline bookmarks cleaning

  • Nathan Newman's interesting (though, I think, much too hopeful) take on Supreme Court nominee Roberts.

  • Nathan Newman again, on the unsound economics of protesting against more housing in Brooklyn. The exorbitant housing prices (and manifold absurdities that follow from them --- apartment brokers, etc.) are, of course, the biggest drawback by far of living in early 21st-century NYC. It seems obvious that the right thing to do, from a public policy perspective, is get lots more housing built. Protesting against a reasonable plan to build more housing is just perverse.

  • Speaking of Brooklyn, here are some parrots.

  • Why bicoastal liberals look down on conservatives in Red America: Sorry, but this kind of shit simply does not happen in Seattle or New York.

  • How to generate "Pink Noise" (apparently, "pink noise" is a pleasant-sounding featureless noise useful for blocking out the sounds of the world).

  • Alina Stefanescu points to some notes on first responders to terrorist attacks.

  • Two Economist stories, on physical mobility and social mobility in America. Incidentally, this isn't entirely related, but I recall reading somewhere that some philosopher(s?) once theorized that meritocracy was a bad idea, because under a meritocracy all the smart/talented people would eventually gather in the centers of power and associate and interbreed only with themselves, producing a permanent ruling class; whereas under an aristocracy based on heredity or some other arbitrary notion, mediocrity and failure would be inevitable, thereby ensuring that the ruling class would fall periodically. My memory on this point's pretty vague, so I don't remember where or when I read it; possibly the idea dates back to antiquity.

  • A handy Greencine list from markhl: The "New" Korean Cinema. I particularly recommend Save the Green Planet! and Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter... and Spring, although the latter's only for the extremely patient.

  • Joi Ito on Korean bloggers. What's most disappointing to me, here, is that the bloggers in Korea (one of the most wired nations on Earth) are embracing the most closed, proprietary blogging systems. This isn't surprising, though: Asian-Americans tend to use Xanga rather than Blogger or LJ for their personal blogs, and Koreans overwhelmingly to use MSN Messenger for IM, and the Korean localization of KDE is a joke. But I should stop complaining; if I really want things to change, I should learn more Korean and translate KDE.

  • Speaking of closed systems, The Complete New Yorker will only run on Windows 2000/XP, and Mac OS 10.3+. Translation: "We think that you'll only want to read 80 years of New Yorker articles for the next 5 years, which is when WinXP will no longer be officially supported by Microsoft; also, nobody who uses Linux reads the New Yorker." Grrr.

    Q: Why can't they just give us PDFs? A: Piracy. Q2: Won't the protection on these things be cracked soon after release anyway? A2: Yes, but this way, you can ease the jitters of ignorant suits, give hackers something fun to do, and shaft legitimate users all at the same time --- what's not to love?

p.s. Regarding my previous post, it looks like Google has finally recomputed its indexes, so my reasons for moving no longer hold. I'll continue to use this blog, for now.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

Preparing for my job search, and Google frustrations

I doubt very much that this prof's attitude prevails in most hiring committees.[0] However, my ongoing war to make Google forget my real name is not going well, as you can all verify [1], and to play it safe I've decided to take drastic measures. I'm taking down this blog later this month; hopefully, Google will manage to erase it from their cache and search results in the few months between July and the fall application season.

I am also going to be on total blogging hiatus until July 19th (the reason for this date should be pretty obvious to the programming language researchers out there). At that date or thereabouts, I will resume at my new personal blog, I Sub Rosa. Point bookmarks, aggregators, and whatnot, if you use such things, to that URL, since this one will stop working in a week or two.

Let's see if Google chases me there...

[0] If I were less busy these days, I could dissect this essay in more detail, but I'll just have to exercise some self-control.

[1] Incidentally, as far as I can tell, I have succeeded in scrubbing the web of all direct links that use my real name in the link text. Interestingly, however, this doesn't actually take this blog off search results for my name, which leads me to believe that Google uses historical page data when computing the relevance matrix. This could be a design feature, or a bug that pops up due to persistence of stale page indexes.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Happiness and utilitarianism

A recent cross-blog thread about what happiness means:

  1. Will Wilkinson: responding to some erroneous statements in Richard Layard's recent philosophy book Happiness.
  2. Brad DeLong replies, defending the notion of happiness-maximization.
  3. Will Wilkinson rejoins, dissecting the concept of "happiness" as it is normally understood.
  4. Julian Sanchez weighs in, noting that certain abstract philosophical notions of happiness don't map very well onto actual human psychology.
  5. Brad DeLong comments, without much explanation, that he finds the objections to happiness-maximization unconvincing.

Of course, longtime readers (all three of you) know that the theory of happiness is a longstanding concern on this blog, and I come down roughly on the side of Wilkinson and Sanchez --- one, two, three, four.

Friday, July 01, 2005

M. Schwimmer's post-Grokster law exam question

Best blog post today (via Copyfight): Martin Schwimmer's Trademark Blog has a law school exam question:

Client is computer and software vendor. It wishes to introduce its new computer featuring a CD-RW drive and MP3 management software with the advertising slogan: "Rip, Mix, Burn Your Own Custom Music CDs."

Client is a consumer electronics manufacturer. It invents a video recording device. It wishes to say in its advertising that its product allows the user to 'build a library' of his or her favorite shows.

Clients ask you if the advertising actively induces infringement.

IMO the very fact that these are hard questions reveals that the Supremes' ruling on Grokster wasn't nearly as favorable towards innovation as some people (e.g., Kevin Drum, simultaneously wrong and supercilious as usual) have been implying.

Related: SCOTUSblog sub-page for Grokster; previous post/link roundup on Grokster.