Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Tim Carmody on Aliens

If you read one essay about the brilliant metaphors in a classic action movie and how they can help us appreciate the future, let it be Tim Carmody's recent piece on Aliens as a story about technology. Here's a taste.

What I love about Aliens is that it juxtaposes these massive, romantic themes with a much more prosaic view of tech, and of space. In Aliens’ future world, space is just a place where people work. There’s two borrowed phrases from Ridley Scott’s Alien that are important here: “truckers in space,” and “the used future.” The tech is sloppy, it’s everyday, it’s ugly, it’s pragmatic — it’s craven. What saves Ripley from drifting through space forever isn’t the love of the gods: it’s a deep salvage team, who are pissed off that they broke into the ship’s hull for nothing because there’s a live human inside.

Despite having watched the entire movie a month ago, this piece makes me want to watch it again. The themes of technology vs. biology that he explored here sound much more nuanced and developed than what I soaked in while watching it.


Monday, December 29, 2014

Dear person who shared a Daily Show link

Perhaps you are reading this post because you shared a Daily Show segment in an attempt to win an argument, and saw this link shared in response. Here's what you don't seem to understand.

The Daily Show exists as a comedy show. It is not a news program. But wait, you say, the quote-unquote comedy segments on the show are more real than the legit journalism you see elsewhere.

Nonsense, and I will prove it to you.

The tactics used by The Daily Show to produce its segments fail the most basic media ethics guidelines. Its producers lie and ambush peoples to trick them into getting on the show. Its editors surgically remove sentences from the middle of paragraphs to create foolish statements. Its reporters sit guests down to marathon four-hour interviews to produce gaffes,

If Fox News was doing this, you would be outraged.

Let me share some specific examples. Peter Schiff appeared in a segment last year on the minimum wage. The Daily Show gave a softball interview to pro-minimum wage advocate Barry Ritholtz, where they allowed him to do re-takes on answers they liked but he messed up.

Anti-minimum wage advocate Schiff cited specific examples where they edited out his smartest response, such as showing that The Daily Show doesn't pay its own interns a minimum wage, and instead focused on something they could smear him with, which was when he said someone with severe mental disabilities would probably be unable to sell their labor for the minimum wage.

Schiff was foolish to expect a fair treatment, despite being promised one, but that still doesn't let the show off the hook for misrepresenting people and turning serious arguments into cartoons.

Back in 2008, Conservative author Jonah Goldberg had his interview with Jon Stewart chopped up haphazardly as Stewart attempted relentlessly to win the argument.

But if you think this is just about conservative causes, look what happened this year with the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the segment about their criticism of a diner that gave a discount to people who pray before they eat. This was one of their own sponsors and generally a left-wing group. Here's how they describe the treatment:

As the terms of being interviewed, Dan and other "Daily Show" interviewees sign away any rights, including giving the "The Daily Show" the right to edit the interview any way they want, such as showing Dan answering one actual question with another answer. It's comedy, not news. Dan was interviewed by an in-your-face host for almost two hours. The spin on the segment, aired last night, was not just unsympathetic, but this time, frankly, not very funny. The punchline to Dan was: "You're a dick." 
Dan's point, made repeatedly during the interview, but not used, was: "If you think the Civil Rights Act is petty, then our complaint was petty." 
It's time for a quick reminder about why FFRF does not consider such illegal promotions as petty, and why, on behalf of complainants around the country, we contact restaurants, recreational facilities and ballparks that illegally reward believers with discounts in violation of the Civil Rights Act.

So once again, the actual thrust of their argument was cut out in order to present a goofy narrative.

Think of Daily Show segments as comedic propaganda, made to amuse people and assure them that their existing viewpoint is correct. If you are so desperate to prove your point that you have to turn to these kinds of tactics to find support, you have pretty much shown the opposite is true.


Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Idiot hunting" is fighting for space

For four glorious years I've been using the term idiot hunting to describe the tactic in discourse where people seek out the very worst arguments of their intellectual opponents and present them as typical arguments of that group. I came up with the term for it myself, although Urban Dictionary shows others had already been using the same term to describe pretty much the same thing before I ever thought of it.

But since then I have learned of another term, Kevin Drum's Law, which has a lot of overlap, although it is more Internet-focused. In Drum's own words:

If the best evidence of wackjobism you can find is a few anonymous nutballs commenting on a blog, then the particular brand of wackjobism you're complaining about must not be very widespread after all.

For examples that are both idiot hunting and Kevin Drum's Law, see Twitter users who thought a Japanese earthquake was payback for Pearl Harbor, far-left blogger PZ Myers say a few stupid blog comments tell us all we need to know about a certain online community and Twitter users who were upset that people were concluding the Royal baby was a boy because it turned out to be a boy.

In all cases, we learned nothing about what typical members of specific groups actually believe, and instead reminded ourselves that yes indeed, sometimes people say stupid things online.

There's also another term I've seen, but unlike "Kevin Drum's Law" I don't think it has much staying power. That is the Weak Man argument, a cousin of the straw man argument. It sounds eerily like Idiot hunting, although one is a verb and the other is a noun, in that it selects actual examples of real arguments, but unjustly presents them as typical.

I honestly think "weak man" lacks the pizazz that "straw man" and "idiot hunting" have going for them. It is just two common words that blend easily into sentences.

But then again, I'm clearly biased towards "idiot hunting."

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Merry Christmas

Despite what you may have heard, Santa is a traditionalist.

Credit goes to

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Blocking traffic is not free speech

I've witnessed a lot logic-straining defenses of the anti-police brutality protesters who are purposely blocking traffic. The main argument seems to be that the people being inconvenienced by the blocked traffic don't have it as bad as victims of police brutality.

I'm sure that's true, but it's beside the point. The same argument could be made for gut-punching strangers or rioting as a form of protest. Why do they feel it's necessary to victimize innocent people? What about people in the back of an ambulance snarled by the traffic they caused?

For what it's worth, one of the things I hated about Cliven Bundy was that he conspired to block traffic as part of his crusade against the government. Ever since a professor at college used it as an example of an act that would not be protected as free speech, I've always brought up that blocking traffic on a highway is an illegal form of a protest because of its actions, never because of its message.

I was hoping to see the ACLU speak against this tactic, but so far I haven't seen the group make any criticisms. However, I did see two cases were the ACLU specifically said people do not have the right to block traffic. There was a Tweet earlier this month:

As well as a timeless webpage where it reminds protesters of their rights. That page specifically says 

Marchers may be required to allow enough space on the sidewalk for normal pedestrian traffic and may not maliciously obstruct or detain passers-by.

Later, it says:

The First Amendment covers all forms of communication including music, theater, film and dance. The Constitution also protects actions that symbolically express a viewpoint. Examples of these symbolic forms of speech include wearing costumes, engaging in sit-ins, or holding a candlelight vigil. However, civil disobedience is generally outside the realm of constitutional protections and may lead to arrest and conviction. Therefore, while sitting in a road may be expressing a political opinion, the act of blocking traffic may lead to criminal punishment.

So just in case anyone wanted to know, the ACLU is not defending this tactic and while it is not criticizing it either, it has been listing it as an illegal tactic worthy of criminal punishment.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Calm down about church tax exemption numbers

A 2012 study that calculated the totality of tax breaks American churches receive each year is making the rounds again in my social circle, and once again people are using it to make simplistic assumptions, such as that church tax exemptions are costing America X each year.

The actual study reported $71 billion annually, but openly left out some factors. Washington Post-turned-Vox contributor Dylan Matthews tacked on tax exemptions for religious donations to bring the number up to $82.5 billion.

Matthews also mentioned another hidden cost:

Of course, these subsidies do more than reduce revenue. Property tax exemptions, in particular, distort real estate construction decisions and allocate more land to religious entities than would otherwise be the case, which drives up rents for everyone else (especially since religious groups tend not to buy property in high-density, skyscraper-style developments and instead get a whole lot of land for themselves).

Well, it goes the other way too. I'm reminded of something Scott Sumner wrote earlier this year, that economics is not accounting. The 2012 study was published by the humanist Free Inquiry, a publication with an ax to grind and not known for having talented economists on hand to evaluate papers, and it was authored by a sociologist - a discipline I believe tends to gloss over important economic concepts.

The authors of the report listed the $71 billion figure as "subsidies" and while I generally disagree with labeling tax breaks as subsidies, I'm willing to let it go. The main issue I have is with other people interpreting this figure as a measure of what churches would have paid in taxes had it not been for the tax exemption.

That is to say, we shouldn't assume that a change in the tax laws would not be met with changes in human behavior. This is called static forecasting and it's problematic. It assumes, for example, that church leaders would not find tax shelters, would not register as another type of non-profit organization, would not close down churches, would not move to smaller properties, or any other form of rational responses to a new spike in their annual expenses.

In Dylan Matthews' addition, it assumes that people wouldn't donate to other causes once the tax break is gone.

The aggravation gets worse when people try to claim specific things the money could be spent on, such as this post saying it could have gone to funding food stamps. They are assuming that all of the money would have gone to the federal government, even though the study authors were clear that some of the breaks were for state and municipal taxes.

I don't have a problem with religious tax exemptions, as they resemble non-profits a lot more than they resemble for-profit organizations. I am also willing to listen to arguments about why the tax exemptions should be removed. That being said, advocates of the idea need to come up with a dynamic forecasting model before they try to tell me what the actual tax revenue would be.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Taxes must be mandatory

It's so easy to focus my blog entries on that foolishness of my intellectual opponents while ignoring absurdities from my comrades. It's a bad habit, in fact, so hopefully writing about something stupid I hear from a vocal minority of libertarians will help me make amends.

Some people argue that all taxes are a theft on the public by the government. Those people are wrong.

I'd like to dismiss this is a tiny fringe view, but sadly it's not. Ayn Rand expressed a related view, that all taxes should be voluntary. I find that equally absurd.

A civilized society needs a government to exist, and in turn that government needs resources to exist. In primitive times people paid the government in in-kind payments like chickens and turnips, but now we have money and that makes for a much better way to pay for our government.

Max Weber said the state is a monopoly on force for legitimate purposes. I don't buy it that in a free society people would pay taxes voluntarily, myself included. That's a classic free rider problem and claiming it would magically go away out of patriotism or some other form of loyalty to pie-in-the-sky silly optimism.

Enforcing tax collection is a legitimate action of the state, and I don't often say this, but if someone doesn't want to pay taxes than they should leave. Our nation can't function without them.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

False confidence in false accusations

It's boringly common for rape prevention activists to claim that false accusations are so rare that we should assume accusations are true, even to the point of making accused rapists social pariahs when they haven't been convicted of a crime.

So here comes Scott Greenfield with a big dose of problem for that narrative: it's unproven, and by its very nature, almost impossible to prove. He links to Jack Chin, who cites even more people:

A widely cited review of the literature suggests that a more accurate conclusion of reliable studies is between 2 and 10%. But CUNY Dean Michelle Anderson published an article the conclusion of which on this point seems solid to me: "In fact, there is no good empirical data on false rape complaints either historically or currently . . . As a scientific matter, the frequency of false rape complaints to police or other legal authorities remains unknown." A more recent National District Attorney's Association study reviewing the same literature, while debunking absurdly high estimates from some unreliable studies, agreed: "Of course, in reality, no one knows—and in fact no one can possibly know—exactly how many sexual assault reports are false." We (and by this I mean the public at large, people involved in the educational system, and the legal community of prosecutors, defenders and judges) rarely know the accused or the complainant and never know the truth; we can only make decisions based on the evidence in the particular cases. There is no rule of thumb to rescue us from that situation of uncertainty.

Well then, let those reports be cited every time a rapid activist tells us that false rape accusations are so rare that we behave as if they don't exist, and that questioning a self-described victim's story is an evil act on par with committing a rape.

Monday, December 15, 2014

GMO labeling debate in two panels

This is pretty much everything that needs to be said about GMO labeling.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Weaseling around federal gun laws

I was all set to write a simple post about a series of bills filed by state legislators that declare federal law doesn't apply to them, much the same way local food supporters in Maine attempted to use municipal ordinances to overcome state and federal law. I was ready to declare it stupid, then pay myself a big compliment for overcoming my own biases and taking a nuanced position against my own allies.

Instead, I found a complex issue that reveals a lot of hypocrisy and double-standards. For the most part, this is about exploiting loopholes and weaseling around federal laws that themselves only exist because of a loophole.

Here's what Washington Post wrote about these bills:

Two types of bills are the primary vehicles for the movement, both based on model legislation introduced in statehouses from Tallahassee to Juneau. 
The first type holds that federal laws do not apply to firearms manufactured and sold within a given state, relying on the Constitution’s interstate commerce clause. It says Congress can regulate trade between states, but says nothing about trade within states. 
Under Utah law, for example, guns made, purchased and used in the state are exempt from federal laws. Commonly known as the Firearms Freedom Act, versions of the law have been debated during 78 legislative sessions across 37 states in the last decade. 
The other approach says gun regulation falls outside the scope of the federal government’s power, making it state territory. Such bills, often known as the Second Amendment Preservation Act, usually say state officials cannot enforce federal gun laws or limit the ability to do so, and some bills have tried to impose penalties on officers who help federal officials.

See the trick now? The federal gun control laws were written by abusing the commerce clause, the section in the Constitution that gives congress the power to pass laws on things that could effect trade between states. The commerce clause has long been twisted and stretched to justify the passage of virtually any federal law.

So some law makers are turning this around by saying, if we have guns manufactured within our state that never cross the border, than the commerce clause is irrelevant and the federal gun restriction is invalid.

Will that stand up in a federal court? No, but the sentiment is great. They are cheating the cheaters and playing the same stupid weasel game as the federal lawmakers.

So what about the second type of bill, where state lawmakers restricting their own agencies from cooperating with federal agencies who are enforcing federal gun laws? Well, this is clearly a weasel tactic, but it's nothing new.

Liberal states have been banning their police agencies from cooperating with federal immigration authorities for years, including my home state of Massachusetts. It's a practice I don't like one bit in any context, even though I want to see less restriction on immigration and gun ownership. If you're going to take a stand against one, you have to take a stand against the other.

State lawmakers can not overrule federal lawmakers, and these tactics are pretty lowly, but let's not pretend they are any worse than the existing laws on the books.


Thursday, December 11, 2014

No, GTA is not a game about killing prostitutes

Clueless critics of the Grand Theft Auto series, without fail, attach importance to the idea that the game involves murdering prostitutes. This is somewhere between an urban legend and a red herring, and four years ago I summed up neatly why it's wrong.

Grand Theft Auto games notoriously allow players to murder prostitutes, a point never missed by its critics. However, the games have never suggested players do so - they merely present an open world where people can shoot anyone, if they so choose. In the same vein, someone can draw a swastika in MS Paint or write racial slurs in a word document. The games also feature taxi drivers and there's nothing stopping a player from getting a ride somewhere then shooting the driver to "get their money back," but that point is never made to demonstrate how violent the games allow people to be.

This is pretty simple. The game has an open-world environment and a city filled with different people, and the player can choose to kill any of those people. Since some of those people are indeed prostitutes, yes technically, the player can kill them. The people who make this point are clueless about the game. Often they appear to be clueless about games in general and aren't worth responding to.

But then this article came out, where a "senior journalist" from video game website Polygon glossed over this fine detail and whine about the social justice ramifications of GTA games and how they prominently feature the murder of prostitutes.

This is something we absolutely should be talking about. It's one thing for games to portray the slaughter of soldiers and gangsters and even vanilla members of the public. It's another to show us victims being kicked in the teeth, and then pretend this is not worth talking about.

The entire piece rests of a foundation of sand, and Campbell takes his false premise and heaps more and more onto it. He informs us that all prostitutes are desperate, trod-upon victims of society. This is a false notion but not one worth exploring here, because even if that was universally true, his starting premise would still be false - that the game somehow encourages the murder of prostitutes, instead of a game that tolerates the murder of civilians in general.

Campbell attempts to address this issue, and by address I mean he tosses a half-baked conclusion out the window of a speeding car, fails to justify it, and resumes polishing his false premise.

I know a lot of people desperately want to believe that killing a prostitute in GTA 5 is the same as killing any other character, but it's really not. Unlike gangsters or cops or business dudes or hot dog vendors, prostitutes, as a class, are despised, marginalized and abused in real life, all the time. This means that GTA 5 takes its pleasure in humiliating and abusing victims of humiliation and abuse... 
My point is that this portrayal of them reinforces hard ideas about the worthlessness of prostitutes, in ways that are unique to this class of characters in the game. My point is that it is deeply distasteful to gleefully portray victims being shat upon by privilege.

Please note that homeless people are not mentioned even once in his entire piece, even though they exist in the game and fit his definition of a marginalized group in society. But then again, there's no legends in the popular culture about killing homeless people, and fewer social justice credits for defending homeless men than for female prostitutes.

Keep in mind, this was posted on a world-famous video game website, and the author is supposedly an expert on video games. That doesn't make any sense at first blush. The only way it makes sense is if one realizes that this is a Gawker Media website where social justice advocacy comes before anything else.


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

We're all guilty when it comes to bad thinking

When we read about bias and critical thinking there is always the temptation to think of them in terms of other people. Straw men arguments are made by the people we disagree with because their real arguments are too weak. Our intellectual opponents are unable to consider evidence that challenge their world view. It's the wrong people who are blinded by their emotions.

That is completely missing the point. Bias and illogical thinking are the natural state for human beings, all human beings, and that includes you, yes you.

Ahem. That is to say, it includes me. Not merely you the reader, but me. I accept that I can never completely overcome my own biases, but I can chip away at them and catch myself when I slip into comforting thought processes.

Steve Novella perfectly sums this up when he reminds us that the Dunning-Kruger effect isn't just for other people. If you're unfamiliar, the Dunning-Kruger effect shows that most people with low skills overestimate their ability in those specific realms, while people with the highest skills tend to underestimate their ability.

Think about some area in which you have a great deal of knowledge, in the expert to mastery level (or maybe just a special interest with above average knowledge). Now, think about how much the average person knows about your area of specialty. Not only do they know comparatively very little, they likely have no idea how little they know, and how much specialized knowledge even exists. 
Here comes the critical part – now realize that you are as ignorant as the average person is every other area of knowledge in which you are not expert... The Dunning-Kruger effect is not just about dumb people not realizing how dumb they are. It is about basic human psychology and cognitive biases. Dunning-Kruger applies to everyone.

Ponder that one and while you do, try to think of what subjects you have very little training in. How would you really score on a test on that general knowledge in that subject? For me, I can think of a few social sciences that I've commented on but have never really studied.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The problem is people in general

There are a lot of complaints about specific groups of people that, upon closer examination, are really just complaints about human beings

As a member of the mainstream media, I take to heart the serious problem of false stories getting more attention then the corrections that set the record straight. This is a major problem that I think about a lot, and during my stint as a newspaper editor I fought my publisher (and lost) to give front page space to corrections.

However, I've noticed a similar issue among social media shares. I have a lot of Facebook friends who breathlessly shared news stories like Mike Daisey's accounts of labor abuse in a Chinese factory that made Apple products. Those same friends didn't say much, or anything at all, when it was revealed to be a lie.

The same is true for Rolling Stone magazine's story about a fraternity organizing a planned mass rape at the University of Virginia story. It appears an activist made up a story at a Take Back the Night rally and then kept the lie going when a reporter wanted to write about it. It's not a slam-dunk, Rolling Stone has not officially retracted the story, but has admitted it screwed up and numerous claims in her story have been disproved.

Again, the same people who shared that story are now mute. If you inadvertently helped spread a false story, aren't you honor-bound to make sure the correction gets the same amount of attention, if not more?

In a way, my friends have become the editors of their own newspapers with complete control and no profits to worry about, and yet they are making the same mistake. Perhaps they either lack an interest in issue a correction, don't want to admit they were wrong or lack the zeal they had for the false narrative.

There's a big possible lesson here. Maybe the reason newspapers fail to give as much attention to corrections is not that there is some flaw in the people that run them, but that they are staffed by mere human beings.

Look at Paul Piff's study where he had two people play part of a game of Monopoly and randomly gave one of them more starting money and an extra die to move around the board faster. He reported that they seemed oblivious to their advantages and credited their win to strategy and merit.

A lot of commentators used this study to condemn rich people who believe they earned what they have, but Piff's real conclusion was that people are malleable. After all, these weren't actual rich people but everyday people who were randomly put into a special category. The bad behavior on display was from people in general, and the only thing that made them special was that they were placed into a particular position.

This extends to the Wall Street workers who traded bad loans and helped cause the recession, politicians who give favors to special interest groups who give them money and police officers who shoot black suspects. When you judge a group of people negatively, check to see if the real issue isn't that mere human beings were placed in special set of circumstances.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Lynch mobs never have due process

Racists are bad so anything we do to them is acceptable, right? Such as posting their personal information online (doxxing) and contacting their employer to demand that they be fired. That's exactly what the website Getting Racists Fired is doing.

But like all vigilante actions, eventually innocent people end up getting splattered. That's because lynch mobs don't necessarily go after guilty people. No, they go after the accused, and one of the first innocent causalities was Brianna Rivers, a normal everyday person with an angry ex-boyfriend.

Scott H. Greenfield doesn't make the lynch mob comparison, perhaps because it's become something of a cliche, but he does compare it to another social ill: revenge porn sites, where people share nude photos, often of ex lovers who they believe wronged them. The site is under both "Getting Racists Fired" and "Racists Getting Fired, and Greenfield uses the other name:

So RGF is, without a doubt, inherently evil. No, it doesn’t matter that you think she deserved it. No, lying about someone being a racist to harm her is still lying, no matter how truly you believe she (or he) deserves to be harmed. 
The point here is that angry people on the internet are nothing if not imaginative in finding methods of accomplishing the goal of causing people we don’t like harm. If it’s not naked images, it’s racist comments. And if it’s not racist comments, it will be something else. Don’t ask me what, as my mind doesn’t go there, but I’m sure others already have nasty ideas brewing. 

The vigilante website has responded by changing the guidelines for submissions. That's still going to end up harming innocent people, as there will always be ways to fool the gatekeepers. Ask yourself, are you really against doxxing in principal, or just against doxxing certain people. If not, you have some soul-searching to do. 

Whatever new form this crowd-sourced revenge approach takes, please do your part for justice and refuse to join in.


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Idiot hunting skewered

Brilliant satirical Salon parody Twitter, SalonDotCom, sums up Idiot Hunting in a mere 15 words.


Monday, December 1, 2014

Remember when we decided culture doesn't cause violence?

I wondered if I was the only one witnessed the argument that our culture encourages rape and heard echoes of the debate over rap music and violence.

Brendan O'Neill reveals thought the same thing, as revealed in his excellent essay on militant political correctness that has created "Stepford students" on university campuses. Please keep in mind Mr. O'Neill is writing for a British audience, so "fag-end" means a ruined end, such as the frayed end of a rope, when you read his paragraph:

When I told them that at the fag-end of the last millennium I had spent my student days arguing against the very ideas they were now spouting — against the claim that gangsta rap turned black men into murderers or that Tarantino flicks made teens go wild and criminal — not so much as a flicker of reflection crossed their faces. ‘Back then, the people who were making those censorious, misanthropic arguments about culture determining behaviour weren’t youngsters like you,’ I said. ‘They were older, more conservative people, with blue rinses.’ A moment’s silence. Then one of the Stepfords piped up. ‘Maybe those people were right,’ he said. My mind filled with a vision of Mary Whitehouse cackling to herself in some corner of the cosmos.

With all the work he and his wife did trying to censor rap music, Al Gore may be primed for a comeback on the coattails of "rape culture."