December 25, 2007

Ho Ho Ho!

Where's my cookie?!

December 15, 2007


I'm currently finishing up grading and doing laundry before heading off to California on Monday. My internet access will be spotty until I'm back in the SB, so I'll see you all in about three weeks.

December 14, 2007

Drivers, Start Your Crashes

What's that? A political post? Well we can't have that at the top of the page! For those that have an Xbox 360 or PS3 and didn't know, the demo for Burnout Paradise is ready for you to download a month before the game comes out. I hear it's very good.

For those hoping to get a Wii for the holidays (yeah yeah, it's for someone else I'm sure), Nintendo and Gamestop are now offering rain checks which Nintendo says will be honored by January. Since right now getting a Wii is as much divine grace as seeing Mary in your Cheerios this might be a good deal for the Wii-less, though it's not quite as satisfying to unwrap. Link.

Is It Fair? Do You Like It?

Ezra's got a post up about the possibility of switching from an income tax to a consumption tax. He makes the point that a consumption tax has positives and can indeed be made progressive if that's what you wanted from it. This is, of course, spawning out of Mike Huckabee's support for such a tax. Link.

Ok, I'm not an economist, but it seems to me that you could make any tax more progressive and fair, but that's now why Gov. Huckabee is supporting the change. Like so many calls for altering the tax system, Steve Forbes' Flat Tax proposal came to my mind, the argument is always that the change should be made because it's simple. We're told that the current tax code is over complicated and taxing in a different manner will eliminate such confusion. This is simply wrong. There's no reason an income tax *must* be complicated, but there is a very good reason why *ours* is: time. Any system of taxes can be very simple if you refuse to add any exceptions or modifications of the original tax assessment. But what invariably happens is that over a few decades the tax system is used for a variety of noble and not-so-noble goals and the system gets cluttered. If you're really interested in simplifying the tax code a committee could review the Code looking for unneeded sections to be eliminated or multiple sections to be combined into more uniform and readable language.

But conservative calls for a change to the tax code are rarely about actual simplification; they're about shifting the tax burden. As Ezra says, a consumption tax could have higher tax rates for higher levels of consumption and as the comments say you could pair that up with exceptions/incentives to help people with specific issues. That'd be fine. What we should be wary of any attempts to reduce the proportion of income paid by the affluent in taxes.

Incidentally, I can't watch at work, but here's Warren Buffett supporting a consumption tax. Link.

December 11, 2007

First Day

Well, technically today is the second day of my new job, but yesterday was just orientation with no actual connection to my normal day to day activities. I've seen some oral arguments today and got to organize my office a bit, but I probably won't get to do anything of real substance for another month. Until then I'll just try to, you know, learn the law...and stuff. It is nice to come to work again and feel like I'm doing, or will be doing soon, important work. Oh, and I suppose it's nice to know I'm getting paid too. So hooray for finally pushing through the bureaucracy and becoming productive again!

Values on both sides

Say you have a certain statistical tool S. You give a population a certain test, you crunch the resulting data, and out comes a number, one for each person. In certain cases R, the numbers line up in a normal distribution -- a lot of individuals clustered near the mean, smoothly tapering off towards the extremes.

Then you go and apply S to another population, P. Now things are way off -- the population's clustered around a much lower mean, maybe the distribution looks weird, and so on.

Suppose further that P is a significant part of the total population you're interested in measuring using S. Say, around 12%. And suppose, furthermore, that the mean of P is in the lower third standard deviation of the distribution for R.

Then you have to make a choice between two basic hypotheses: Either individuals in P are significantly lower than individuals in R in terms of whatever it is S is supposed to measure. Or P is a crappy way of measuring this whatever it is -- it's gotten the distribution spectacularly wrong.

How to decide between these two? Well, if you already think that individuals in P are significantly lower than individuals in R in terms of whatever it is S is supposed to measure, then you embrace that hypothesis, and don't really consider whether or not S is working right, because it does indeed appear to be working right.

But then, of course, you can't point to S to argue for the claim that individuals in P are significantly lower than individuals in R in terms of whatever it is S is supposed to measure. That would be blatantly circular.

Back in October, James Watson -- misogynist and Nobel laureate co-discoverer of DNA with Crick and Franklin -- said something rather racist:

[Watson] is "inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa" because "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really", and I know that this "hot potato" is going to be difficult to address.

Pretty indefensible, right? How can anyone think that Africans are less intelligent than `us'? (I'm not even going to get into the assumption that the intersection of `us' and Africans is the empty set.)

Well, thank the internets, someone has risen to Watson's defence.

Watson's claim in his recent interview with Charlotte Hunt-Grubbe that intelligence testing shows lower scores in Africa than Europe is likewise, entirely supported by the scientific literature.

Then there are citations to a bunch of studies that all say about the same thing: on standard IQ tests, the mean throughout Africa is between about 65 and 75. That's apparently right around the current definition of `mental retardation'.

The situation is an instance of the one I described above. Test in Western nations, and you get a mean around 100 (by construction). Test in Africa, and you get a mean in the third standard deviation. Africa's population is about 888 million, which is around 12% of the world's 6 billion. These results are incompatible with a worldwide standard distribution of IQ -- if the standard deviation for the African data sets is the same as the standard deviation for the Western data sets, about twice as many people are in the third standard deviation as should be.

So we have to choose between two hypotheses: either Africans are less intelligent than Westerners (that's highly simplified, but again, bracketing the spectacularly racist assumptions here) or IQ tests are not a good way of measuring intelligence.

There is a long attempt in that post to argue for the negation of the second hypothesis -- that is, that IQ tests are, in fact, a good way of measuring intelligence. The argument comes down to two points: First, IQ test scores correlate with other IQ test scores, and second, IQ test scores correlate with economic success. The first is useless -- the fact that all these tests measure the same thing doesn't imply that they don't all measure the same artificial statistical construction. And the second only implies that IQ tests are a good way of measuring intelligence if economic success is a good way of measuring intelligence. And that's only plausible if you think that rich people are more intelligent than poor people. The possibility that economic status has an effect on IQ scores is never considered.

It all comes down to racism, classism, and the intersection of the two. If you already believed that Africans and poor people are less intelligent than `us', then you won't see any problems here. IQ tests must measure intelligence, because they get the results we expected for intelligence. If you think that the idea that Africans and poor people are less intelligent than `us' is offensive on its face, then you're as liable as before to think that this IQ test business is a load of crap.

Which makes this an excellent example of the way ethico-political values show up as background assumptions when reasoning from evidence to theory. We have the same sets of evidence, but different background assumptions concerning race, class, and intelligence. Based on these assumptions, we reason to very different -- indeed, incompatible -- theories. Without these background assumptions -- if our reasoning process was truly `value-free' -- we would have no way of reaching any conclusions beyond statistical correlations between different metrics.

However, where I am willing to embrace the role my values play in my reasoning, the defender of Watson, it seems, does not.

December 09, 2007

Zalta's logical truths that are not metaphysically necessary

In this post, I want to summarise the argument of Zalta's paper `Logical and analytic truths that are not necessary' for non-logicians who still know a little bit about modal logic.

The basic idea is as follows: Zalta identifies certain sentences which, first, are logical truths, in that they are true under all interpretations; but, second, they are not metaphysically necessary, in that they are not true at all possible worlds under at least one interpretation.

Zalta's argument focusses on definite descriptions. I want to use a simpler language: a standard sentential language L with a single unary operator @. If p is a wff of L, then informally, @p means p is true at the actual world.

More specifically, give L countably many primitive sentential constants p1, p2, p3, ..., and build the wffs of L using the standard logical operators ^, v, -, -> and the unary operator @ on the pi. A world W is a total function {pi : i in N} -> {T,F}, ie, an assignment of truth values. An interpretation A is an ordered pair , where D is a set of worlds and W0 is in D. Informally, W0 is the actual world under A. `p is true at W under A' is defined in the usual recursive way for the standard logical operators. `@p is true at W under A' is true if p is true at W0 under A. For purposes of order of operations, @ is stipulated to be of the lowest order, ie, it is evaluated after all other operators when there is ambiguity. `p is true under A' is true if p is true at W0 under A. `p is necessary under A' is true if, for all W in D, p is true at W.

p is logically true if, for all interpretations A, p is true under A. p is necessarily true if, for all interpretations A, p is necessary under A. Zalta goes to great pains to show that his semantics are entirely standard for languages which involve rigid designators; the only difference here is that the language is much simpler than Zalta's primary example.

For some q, let Q be the sentence

@q -> q

Informally, Q says that, if q is actually true, then q is true.

1. Q is logically true.

Q is logically true iff for all interpretations A, Q is true under A. Choose an interpretation Q. Q is true under A iff Q is true at W0 under A. Q is true at W0 iff either @q is false at W0 or q is true at W0. @q is false at W0 iff q is false at W0. So Q is logically true iff q is false at W0 or q is true at W0. So Q is logically true iff either q is false or q is true at W0. Since W0 is total, either q is false or q is true at W0. Hence Q is logically true.

2. Q is not necessary.

Q is necessary iff for all interpretations A, Q is necessary under A. Q is necessary under A iff, for all W in D, Q is true at W. Q is true at W iff either @q is false at W or q is true at W. @q is false at W iff q is false at W0. Hence Q is necessary iff for all interpretations A and all worlds W in D either q is false at W0 or q is true at W.

Hence Q is not necessary iff there is some interpretation A with some W in D such that q is true at W0 and q is false at W.

Let A be an interpretation such that q is true at W0 and false at all other W in D and let W != W0. Then q is true at W0 and q is false at W. Hence Q is not necessary.

3. There are logical truths which are not necessary.

The `counterintuitive' gap arises because of a difference in scope between necessity and logical truth. Logical truths must be true at all actual worlds under all interpretations. It does not look at any worlds besides the actual world in each interpretation. Hence the actuality operator @ is inert with respect to logical truth: @p is logically true iff p is logically true.

It is with respect to necessity that @ is doing some work. Necessity does not just consider the actual world of each interpretation. It considers the full `multiverse' of each interpretation. Necessity is actually much broader than logical truth, in the sense that it takes more into consideration. Indeed, necessity implies logical truthhood, but as 3 shows, the converse is not true. In my experience, metaphysicians think exactly the opposite -- that logical truthhood implies necessity, but not vice-versa.

This version of Zalta's example show why metaphysicians should want necessity to be the broader notion in a very clear way. Q said that, if q is actually true, then q is true. If this were necessary and q were actually true, then q would itself be necessary. That is, if logical truth implies necessity, then rigid designation makes every true sentence necessary. Modality collapses, and every `multiverse' consists of a single possible world.

If modal metaphysicians wish to retain the equipment of rigid designation or actualism and any robust notion of possibility, then they must deny the inference from logical truth to necessity, at least with respect to statements that might involve rigid designation or reference to the actual world.

Yet, as Zalta points out, this creates a serious problem for metaphysical methodology. That a modal statement is self-contradictory -- is logically false -- does not imply that it is a necessary falsehood -- necessarily not the case. It implies only that it is not necessarily the case.

Zalta's paper is `Logical and analytic truths that are not necessary', J Phil (Feb. 1998: 85.2), pp 57-74. JSTOR link

December 08, 2007

Lipton's examples of projectivism

Peter Lipton was a Cambridge philosopher of science who recently died. In 2004, he gave the Medawar lecture before the Royal Society (published as `The truth about science' in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society' (2005: 360), pp. 1259-1269). In his lecture, Lipton distinguishes between three positions on scientific realism. His two examples to illustrate the third, `projectivism', are some of the best I've come across.

When I see the grass to be green, I am not hallucinating; nor can I see whatever colour I want to see. The colour I see depends in part on what is going on quite independently of me. Nevertheless, on the Lockean view, colour is defined in part in terms of human response: for an object to be green is for it to be disposed to produce a certain kind of experience. Thus although we see colours as being ‘out there’ in the objects, there is a sense in which that perception is in part a projection of the inner experience.

When a bridge is constructed, it cannot be built in any way one likes: the world constrains what materials and designs are possible. At the same time, a bridge is dependent on human activity: it is a human construct, if anything is. In that sense, a bridge is a joint produce of the human world and the world quite apart from human activity. Similarly, although that analogy will only go so far, on Kant’s version of projectivism, the properties that science attributes to the world are real, but are joint products of the things in themselves and the organizing, cognitive, descriptive activities of scientists.

This sounds familiar

From a comment on an article in the Chronicle of higher education:

MIT does not really tenure for excellence in research. Like other top-of-the-top universities, MIT tenures for reputation of excellence in research. (Forget about teaching or service; neither factors into the equation.)
This means two things: First, cutting-edge research, risky research, or what the corporate-types like to call “thinking outside of the box” is not viable when faced with a grueling tenure process, based so heavily upon peer review that—in order to garner outstanding reviews—one must cater to the preconceptions of one’s peers at other top institutions. Thus, much like that Other university up the road, MIT is forced poach its very best scholars who first proved their genius elsewhere, because the tenure process does not allow its own junior faculty the time or intellectual flexibility to excel at that level.

What does this have to do with gender (or race)? Well, peer review might claim to be an “objective” analysis of research, but any psychologist or sociologist worth their salt will tell you that evaluation of one’s peers is a social process. And look at the gender and racial breakdowns of these “peers.” White to a man. MIT’s unyielding adherence to reputation can and will only reproduce the social circle (white, male) of those called upon to evaluate the reputation. Meanwhile, there is a myopic and simple-minding insistence, pervasive throughout the institute, that this tenure process is somehow “objective” (tossing out a century of social science on the impossibility of such a thing), which leaves the Institute unable to address the problem.
Only after women and minorities (and white men with numbers of women or minorities in their social circle) have broken into other top and just-below the top institutions, and occupy positions of power in the profession, will they then advocate for those in their social networks in tenure cases at MIT. And only then will MIT’s tenuring process be physically able to recognize these one-time outsiders as worthy of tenure.

Most of the other comments are simply odious. For example, the way the next comment flatly denies that sex and gender play any role any the tenure process and raises the specter of -- oh noes! -- people getting things they don't deserve. The commenter is, evidently, completely ignoring decades of research that the same CV is consistently rated as less impressive when there's a woman's name at the top. S/he certainly misses the entire point of the previous comment.

Yes, these data show that the number and percentage of female faculty receiving tenure at MIT is increasing slowly. However, by themselves, these numbers do not prove that gender discrimination took place. In order to prove this, it would be necessary to provide evidence that female tenure candidates achieved the research record necessary to attain tenure, but were turned down because they were women (i.e., because of their genitalia or feminine attributes) .... It seems logical to believe that the vast majority of highly educated people would not turn down a candidate that has achieved the necessary record of accomplishments for tenure because of their genitalia or femininity. The flip side of this is whether a candidate without the necessary record of accomplishments should be granted tenure because of their genitalia or femininity so the percentages improve more quickly and become more equal? Those who use identity politics to try to leverage power and resources for individuals who may not merit them would say yes.

Now, I actually don't agree entirely with the first comment. S/he says that an objective evaluation is impossible. I think that an objective hiring process is possible. Or, to be more specific, an evaluation in which the consideration of candidates' races and genders and the fact of historical and ongoing discrimination against members of certain races and genders are considered specifically at certain points, would be more objective than the current system. When it comes to junior faculty, for example, measures could be taken to make sure the initial stages are completely anonymous (or as anonymous as possible), and gender, sex, and racial identity could be used to choose between candidates considered to be of the same quality by the initial stages.

December 06, 2007


I know a bit about Photoshop and digital image manipulation, though certainly not that much. But I don't think that's the reason why this blew me away:


Blog Readability Test

I'm not sure whether I trust the algorithm they're using, but it's certainly a fun tool. Link.

In case you're wondering, we here at the Ra were rated at a high school reading level. While I'm sure Noumena's posts would sky rocket the rating if judged on their own, I'm ok with the rating. I think it's a nice balance between smarty pantsocity and writing in a cogent manner. Anyone find some interesting results? Feel free to post them in the comments!

Oh The View...

Thanks Atrios. Link.

Kathleen Pender: Victims of predatory lending are junkies

To be fair, she didn't say it. She just quoted some risk analyst favourably immediately after saying that `subprime borrowers ... made bad, greedy or uninformed decisions.'

Pender's piece is on a proposed rate-freeze to prevent thousands of families from being forced to default on their subprime mortgages. The freeze would prevent the rates on these loans from rising for five years. (I'm not sure whether that's up to five years, or five years whatever happens.)

Beyond unsavory comparisons and non-argument insinuations that this is some sort of inappropriate bailout, subsidy, or other government interference in the market, Pender has some arguments, presented in the form of rhetorical questions. We'll take a look at a selection below the fold.

How do you define a subprime borrower?

Pender argues that there's no perfect definition. I think the point is supposed to be that an arbitrary decision has to be made, to decide who to help and who to not help. But so what? We have all kinds of arbitrary decisions built into our laws and policies -- what side of the street people are to drive on, how old you have to be to consent to sex, to drink alcohol, to vote. It seems weird to think that, because the decision to drive on the right or the left is arbitrary, there's something wrong with laws requiring drivers to stay on the right side of the road.

Maybe the argument is, instead, that however the line is drawn, there will be lots of people close to it on the other side, and shouldn't we help them too? Then the comparison is to Medicaid and the status of the working poor. But this is no reductio of the rate freeze. It just suggests that something more sophisticated might be needed -- a system of rate freezes whose caps and lengths are determined by family income, for example.

Is this simply prolonging the pain? "Some people who would qualify for this supposed assistance are probably better off defaulting," Whalen says.

Now, fortunately, I have never had to default on a loan or declare bankruptcy. And I don't know these things in great detail. But I do know that defaulting on one's mortgage or declaring bankruptcy basically means your ability to get credit is destroyed for a long, long time. So a family that defaulted or declared bankruptcy would lose their house as well as their access to credit, leaving them with basically no resources to turn to in case things got even worse -- say, unemployment in an uncertain economy, or a severe injury or illness with no health insurance.

Remember that your credit rating isn't just used to determine your access to credit. Landlords will often insist on running a credit check on a potential rentor, especially in middle-class neighbourhoods of large cities.

Perhaps some borrowers with subprime mortgages would be better off defaulting. But it's hard for me to imagine who these people like me. At the very least, the statement needs to be parsed out in much more detail.

Will this make it harder to borrow in the future? "The American way is, a deal is a deal. Not a deal is a deal until it hurts and then we'll change it. If the government forces one side to break a contract, it could easily have unintended consequences. Lenders might not be there the next time," Shoven says.

I don't see how the government is forcing one side to break a contract here. Defaulting, I would think, amounts to breaking the contract: I agreed to pay you back X amount of money, and now I'm not going to. Capping loan rates for a period of time seems more like modifying the terms of the contract: I agreed to pay you back X amount of money, but now I'm only paying you back Y amount of money instead. And I suspect that, in most cases, the latter is preferable to the former for lenders, as it means they're still collecting interest on the principal rather than just getting a house whose market price has seriously dropped since the loan was made.

People choose ARMs [adjustable-rate mortgages] because they are gambling that interest rates won't go up or because they can qualify for a bigger mortgage with an ARM than a fixed-rate mortgage. That lets them buy a larger house or take more cash out of their existing house.

Or because of racism.

Were some misled? Undoubtedly. Suing or prosecuting brokers or lenders who made false statements seems like a better remedy than a blanket rate freeze that treats all lenders and borrowers the same.

Mutatis mutandis for racism, presumably. But how will suing and prosecuting brokers or lenders who made subprime loans on a racist basis help the families who took these loans?

The junky analogy is especially disturbing once race is factored in. The finance `industry' is one of the most powerful sectors of the American economy. Just how does that industry see Black and Latin@ people?

December 05, 2007

The Politics Of Game Reviews

You may or may not be aware that Gamespot's Jeff Gerstmann, the publication's most senior editor and well respected games journalist, was recently fired. It is widely believed that his termination was directly tied to Gamespot receiving pressure from video game publisher Eidos after Gerstmann negatively reviewed one of their big holiday games. In response, N'Gai Croal has written a piece on the parasitic relationship between game publishers and the enthusiast press that covers their products. It's a good read, as his stuff frequently is, for anyone interested in the workings of the industry. Link.

December 04, 2007

Someone That Doesn't Like Rock Band

Link. The guitarist for Sleater-Kinney (a band whose name I have heard but know nothing else about) was given the opportunity to play Rock Band as a precursor to a possible promotion of the product. She didn't end up getting the promotional gig, but didn't seem to like the game anyway and has written up her thoughts on it for Slate. Though she definitely has an interesting point of view, she exemplifies for me every person who just doesn't understand the game.

It's an argument that I've heard a million times since Guitar Hero became popular: "Why not just learn to play an instrument?" Though she only touches on that point obliquely, the very basis of the article in comparing the game to being in a real life band rests on the assumption that the two things are even worth comparing. Nobody thinks to compare Splinter Cell to the reality of being a spy, or Gran Turismo to what it's like to be a real race car driver. Games are not a stepping stone to real world achievement. Some people might be inspired to take up the guitar after playing Rock Band or Guitar Hero and others may learn a thing or two about rhythm from playing the games, but that is beside the point. People play these games because it's fun to play them, particularly to play them together.

There's a snobbery that I find a little annoying and a little pitiful when people critique these games for not being "real" or for their "fakery". It's as if video games are fine when it's all weird plumbers in fantasy kingdoms but if they trod on your backyard, bringing most of the fun and hardly any of the hard work to the masses, they've somehow offended you personally. Moreover, the fun these masses enjoy is somehow less legitimate. Not every game is fun for every person, and that's fine. Some people, like Ms. Brownstein, don't even like video games, which is fine too. But Rock Band doesn't fail because it fails to provide the details of real life. It's fun for precisely that reason.

December 01, 2007

Robert Jensen roundup

Robert Jensen's Getting off, a male feminist critique of pornography and masculinity, has been the subject of some discussion on the feminist blogosphere over the last few days. Here are some links to get you started:

My first post mentioning Jensen, which links to this review and excerpt.

If you can get the feministing server to work (it's been really shaky lately), you can read the review that started the latest round of discussion.

Hugo recently finished the book, and the first
two parts of a three- or four-part review are up, with the others likely to follow early next week.

Amanda has a review of her own, which partially responds to both of the above blogger reviews.