How to Use Data Uselessly

August 26, 2011

Here is an article about how “New Yorkers Get Married (And Divorced) Less Than Most of the U.S.” based on a Census Bureau report on marriage and divorce in 2009. The article begins:

Thinking of getting married young and then getting divorced? You really ought to move to the South or West.

Woo hoo! Now we can sniff derisively at cultural conservatives who pontificate about their superior family values, right? Unfortunately, no. The report, which gives statistics for marriage and divorce in 2009, does make it clear that people get married younger in the South and West. But the divorce figures are presented in an unuseful way and the low “divorce rate” in the Northeast is somewhat misleading. The way the report uses the term, a state in which 1% of the population was married and 100% of the married couples got divorced would have a lower divorce rate than a state in which 90% of the population was married and 2% of the married couples got divorced: the former would have a “divorce rate” of 1% while the latter would have a rate of 1.8%.

“Fine,” you might say, “Just divide the number of divorces by the number of married couples.” Unfortunately, you can’t do that, since the report does not give what seems to me to be an absolutely vital figure: the number of married people. Without knowing how many people are married in a given state (per capita), one cannot make meaningful comparisons between states based on the sheer number of divorces (per capita). This is aggravating, since the way the Census Bureau did their study, they have these numbers; they just didn’t bother to include them.

The report does give the number of men and women who entered opposite-sex marriages in 2009, but that is next to useless in interpreting the number of divorces in the same year. For example, in Maine, out of 1000 men, 13.5 got married and 13.0 got divorced. Does that mean almost every marriage in Maine fails? No. It is more likely that the demographics of marriage are changing in that state: those 13 divorces likely came from a relatively large pool of men who were already married, and that pool didn’t getting many newcomers. You can conclude almost nothing from those two numbers about how likely a given marriage in Maine is to fail.

To make sense of divorce rates, a more relevant question would be, “What percentage of marriages in Maine end in divorce?” That question is a bit sloppy, though, and can’t be answered since we do not yet know what will happen in the future to couples who are currently married. We instead have to ask a question like, “Among people currently living in Maine, what percent of marriages that began in the 1990s ended in divorce within the next 10 years?” In their survey, the Census Bureau could have collected the data needed to answer that question, or one like it, but they didn’t.

The report does give information on the duration of current marriages, and that is closer to useful than sheer numbers of marriages and divorces in 2009, but is still not all that useful. For example, the median duration of current marriages in the South is higher than it is in the Northeast (see Figure 7 of the report). Is that because they stay married longer before getting divorced? Or is it just that they are marrying younger so there are more couples around that have been married for a long time? You can’t tell from the report, even with the age-adjusted version in Figure 8 (which prevents the data from being skewed by having a population that is generally older or younger, but doesn’t prevent the data from being skewed by people getting married earlier or later).

There is a way that the Census Bureau’s data almost is useful by accident: it also gives numbers for how many people were widowed, so we can ask, “What ends marriages in a given state—divorce or death?” (Every marriage eventually ends with one or the other.) In New York, for example, for every 9.1 women who got divorced, there were 9.3 who were widowed, while in Utah, for every 10.8 women who got divorced, there were 4.7 who were widowed. That suggests that in New York, marriages tend to be ended by death while in Utah, marriages tend to be ended by divorce, but you can’t be sure, since there is an unreported number of women who were married but died themselves. Or, maybe Utah’s population is skewed towards young people by the high fertility rate, so young couples greatly outnumber old couples and they haven’t had the chance to die yet. Again, you can’t tell from the report.

I mean, come on: us hoity-toity Yanks are trying to be judgmental about our slack-jawed neighbors, and the Census Bureau’s report just doesn’t deliver.



April 27, 2011

I realize that Obama’s birth certificate is already blogged out, so I’ll chime in on something else that’s also already been beaten to death: the overuse of -gate. Now, courtesy of the Freepers—who predictably (though not unanimously) dismiss the long-form birth certificate as a forgery—we have “Certifigate”. Yay.

At least some of them are honest:


Then we just “move the goal posts” hee hee hee

Where is your original passport? Where are your college records and financial aid info? etc.

The New Oscar

February 9, 2011

I don’t normally get into the Academy Awards, but with the newly added John Wilkes Booth Award for Sanguinary Achievement in the Field of Theatrical Criticism, I’ve got Oscar fever. The nominees:

  • Manohla Dargis, for her honest portrayal of “Little Fockers” in The New York Times.

  • Ben Brantley, for his vicious attack on “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” This might seem a peculiar choice by the Academy, owing to the fact that this is a Broadway show, but it is nevertheless a worthy contender. (You can’t fool me, Mr. Brantley: I know that you only hate the show because you are an elitist with a poorly rendered French accent who hates rock, comic books, and action. Why must you killjoys rail against a story that, at its core, is about fighting back against an evil atheist global warming scientist who’s in bed with a giant out of control government and colluding with the press? Cry as you might, this show will run for two decades. Glenn Beck said so. Oh, and unions are bad.)

  • A.O. Scott, for his his role in “The Last Airbender”’s commercial and critical failure. It is hard to believe that it came out within the last year.

  • Gene Shalit, for his depiction of “Funny People.” (This review is not from within the last year, but has been granted a waiver on account of Gene Shalit’s anachronistic clothing.)


Hating PG&E for All the Wrong Reasons

February 1, 2011

The recent NYTimes article “New Electricity Meters Stir Fears” describes the opposition that Pacific Gas and Electric is facing in their installation of wireless smart meters, which give hour-by-hour electricity usage information to PG&E. They have faced opposition from Tea Partiers and lefty (like me!) vaccine-rejecting homeopathic-remedy-buying aromatherapy huffers (not like me!) over health and privacy concerns.

I’m not especially sympathetic to any of the parties involved.

The health issue

Many object to the meters on the grounds that, by wirelessly transmitting usage information back to PG&E, they pose a health hazard. According to the article, at a recent hearing on the issue, someone requested that everyone in the audience turn off their cellphones out of consideration for those people in the audience who are electrosensitive (short for “electromagnetically hypersensitive”). I would love to have been a smartass in attendance. “Hi. I’m hypersensitive to pseudoscience, so if everyone here could turn off their pseudoscience I would really appreciate it. When people don’t, I suffer symptoms like holding my head in my hand and having an interior monologue that consists entirely of shouted obscenities. Thanks.”

I don’t fault these invidividuals for fearing electromagnetic radiation (EMR). They probably don’t know much of the science behind EMR, and it is arguably wise to fear, to some degree, things we don’t understand. (E.g., I consider myself a scientifically literate individual, but I nevertheless do not have a solid understanding of what would happen if I attached jumper cables to three car batteries in series and pressed the clamps against my temples—perhaps the voltage would be too low for me to feel anything, or perhaps it would be quite unpleasant. Until I learn more about what 37.8 volts across the temples is like, it is wise for me to avoid doing this and rational for me to fear what might happen.) But that fear should be directed into learning more about it before automatically mobilizing against it. After learning more about it—and by learning, I mean learning, not just reading what some crystal peddler has to say about it—if they are still concerned about EMR, then by all means they should picket and wail and ask people to turn off their cellphones out of consideration for the electrosensitive. But if they can’t be bothered to learn the science of EMR, they should STFU.

Now, it is not fair to say that there is no scientific basis for worrying about EMR. Some EMR is unquestionably harmful (UV light and X-rays, for instance), so wavelength and intensity need to be taken into consideration. (Of course, we understand why EMR at UV and higher frequencies/shorter wavelengths is harmful: it is ionizing radiation, so it can break chemical bonds, damaging DNA and so on.) The only known biological impact of cellphone signals (which have wavelengths on the order of 25cm) is that they are converted to heat when they are absorbed by body tissue, which warms the tissue. Of course, that effect will be slight, since the amount of heat delivered by a cellphone signal would be insignificant compared to, say, the heat you’d get from sitting next to a cat. But the fact that we don’t know of any other mechanism by which such signals could be harmful does not not mean they are not harmful, so let’s give the EMR-fearing crowd the benefit of the doubt on the potential for a non-negligible biological effect.

What I want to know is, if they’re so worried about EMR, why do they do so little about the EMR exposure that is within their control? If I don’t want to expose myself to UV, I wear a hat and long sleeves. Protecting oneself from wireless signals is not much harder. They could make Faraday cages in their homes. They could wear tinfoil hats and metal mesh clothing that would reflect most the of wireless communication signals that hit them. (Of course, such a suit will also reflect from the inside, but the amount deflected would vastly outweigh the amount reflected from the inside.) Why are the electrosensitive not wearing these, if their symptoms are so bad?

To be fair, a few people who believe they are electrosensitive actually do line rooms of their homes with foil and wear metal mesh hoods that make them look like beekeepers. If these individuals don’t want a wireless transmitter attached to their house, I say we let them opt out.

My own opposition to them wirelessly transmitting hourly usage information is that it’s a waste of electromagnetic spectrum. It’s just bad form to use wireless for this when the house is already tethered by wires to the rest of the world.

The privacy issue

If someone is providing a resource to you, I don’t see the basis for demanding that they don’t know how much they’re providing to you. If you don’t want PG&E to know how much you’re consuming from hour to hour, then you have a few options:

  • Form a utility to compete against PG&E.
  • Stop using electricity.
  • Go off the grid.
  • Install an energy storage device to obscure your actual usage pattern.
  • Make toast at 3am to throw them off your electron trail. Take that, The Man!

Some opponents raise the concern that the information could fall into the hands of hackers. That, however, is a separate issue. If I buy something from an online merchant, they’re going to ask for my credit card information and address; I cannot call that an invasion of my privacy. I might nevertheless worry that they will get hacked. But the solution is to improve security, not to stop them from asking for my credit card information—after all, they can’t be expected to send me stuff for free. Likewise, the power company should not be expected to give me electricity for free, and for them to charge different rates at different times—a good change, since it will discourage use at peak hours, when generation is dirtiest—they need to know power consumption at a finer level of granularity than a monthly reading.


Like I said, there is a legitimate use for tracking electricity usage on an hour-by-hour basis: it allows the price of electricity to increase when demand is higher. This provides an incentive to use less electricity when demand is highest, which is good, since increased demand is met by relying more heavily on the most polluting forms of electricity generation. Now, one could have meters that simply track peak vs. off-peak, but hourly tracking would allow for prices to more fluidly change based on demand. Yet, reading PG&E’s website about SmartMeter, I see nothing about this aspect of hourly metering.

They emphasize several specious reasons for why smart meters are necessary. The first is that it helps the consumer understand their electricity usage better, and thus reduce it; this is bogus because it would be cheaper and more effective for them to issue a Kill A Watt sort of device to each customer. (Providing people with hour-by-hour total usage information is not very helpful—all it will show people is that they use more electricity when they’re home than when they’re not, without suggesting what the big offenders within their home are beyond the utterly obvious.)

Another reason they cite is some kind of green smart grid efficiency thing. But how does hourly metering of individual residences allow their network to operate any more efficiently than, say, continuous metering of distribution transformers (the last transformers between the main grid and your home) would?

They also say that it will help them better respond to power outages. Again, what does hourly metering of individual residences get them that metering of distribution transformers doesn’t?

There might very well be a good answer to these questions (perhaps metering distribution transformers isn’t feasible, say), but PG&E doesn’t offer such an answer.

The right reason to hate PG&E

To PG&E’s credit, they pulled out of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in response to the Chamber’s resistance to action on climate change. But that must have just been a PR move, because the notion that PG&E has any concern whatsoever for the public interest is refuted by the $46 million they spent lobbying for Proposition 16 in California, which was basically evil and thankfully defeated. PG&E dishonestly promoted Prop 16—the “Taxpayers Right to Vote” act—as giving taxpayers more say about utilities. What it actually would have done is require a 2/3 majority in order for a municipality to set up its own utility to compete against PG&E. Such a utility might be created because the people in that community want to buy clean energy, or because they just want lower rates than what PG&E charges. A 2/3 majority is hard to get in general; it would be impossible to obtain in this case: PG&E, as a private entity, could spend all they want campaigning against such a utility, while the municipality, being a public entity, could not spend any money campaigning for it. For attempting to have their monopoly built into California’s constitution, PG&E should be treated an enemy of the public interest.


Science at The Washington Post

September 19, 2010

Here is a flawed op-ed in the Washington Post by The Post’s director of production planning, Hugh Price, on carbon sequestration. I harbor no ill feelings towards Mr. Price—he’s trying to be part of the solution—but I don’t see why newspapers find it so difficult to consult with scientists on scientific issues. Seeing such poorly researched ideas get such a wide audience makes me apoplectic, because once incorrect information like this gets released into the wild, it’s impossible to stamp out, like the canard about volcanoes emitting more CO2 than humans.

The piece suggests that the solution to the problem of atmospheric CO2 could just be to make huge piles of plant material as a means of sequestering carbon. It’s not a new idea, and as the author is apparently unaware, a lot of thought has already gone into this idea and why it may or may not work. The big issue, as the author correctly puts it, is that “to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, the plant material has to be prevented from decomposing.” Here is where the piece takes a horribly bad turn, betraying the author’s inadequate efforts to research the idea: “Any gardener knows that compost heaps must be turned regularly. Without access to oxygen, bacteria cannot break down plant material.”

Actually, as one can learn by Googling “anaerobic decomposition”, without access to oxygen, many bacteria and other decomposers (like fungi) can and do break down plant material, and the by-products include carbon dioxide and methane, the latter being a far more potent greenhouse gas than the former. Yes, it is generally advised to keep compost heaps aerated, but it is because it yields superior results, such as not having an odor that induces involuntary emesis.

So, that’s basically why the idea of just making piles of plant matter hasn’t gone farther than it has. But why look into the matter when you can just speculate? “The biggest problem with this approach may be that it’s so low-tech. No green-technology subsidies are required, so there may not be a natural constituency for it…” The second sentence is bizarre, because of course subsidies would be required; the author even seems to understand this in the previous paragraph: “We sometimes pay farmers not to grow crops to sustain prices; should we pay them to grow otherwise useless crops and stockpile them?”

The anaerobic decomposition show-stopper is not the only scientifically deficient aspect of the op-ed. These statements in particular are also dubious, but I have to head to work:

  • “Some of the 20th century’s improvement in crop yields may be due to higher concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere.” Conceivably true, but only because it’s qualified by saying “some”. (Personally, I would argue that the 20th century’s improvement in crop yields is almost exclusively due to the 20th century.) Just because plants need CO2 does not mean that they grow faster if you throw more CO2 at them; there are exceptions, but by and large, they have all the CO2 they need, and it’s competition for nitrogen, sun, water, and land that limits their growth. But that’s just my impression—for an authoritative answer, ask someone who studies plants. And if you want to know about carbon sequestration, ask someone who knows something about carbon sequestration.

  • “Piles of plant material are not like ordinary landfills, of course. There is no need to worry about toxins leaching into the water supply.” Not clear. Would you go out into the woods, grab a bunch of mushrooms, and eat them? If not, then why trust the ooze that leaches out of a pile of rotting vegetable matter that is being decomposed by bacteria and fungi? These might be natural products, but they would be in unnatural concentrations.


East Meets West

August 15, 2010

Central Asia’s religious right has learned well from America’s religious right. Remember when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson said that the U.S. got what it deserved on 9/11, that the ACLU and feminists and gays and so on had brought on God’s wrath? The Taliban have now said the same thing about the recent floods in Pakistan, but with moderate Muslims in place of liberals. (See Pakistan Vies With Islamists to Aid Flood Victims, Taliban suspends attacks in flood-affected areas, Pakistan floods: Taliban suspend attacks.)

Anyhow, I’m glad to see MSF is there. They rock my world.


Zero Mosque Ground

August 15, 2010

Displaying the sort of naivete typical of Northeastern elites, I had assumed the ruckus over the Cordoba House Ground Zero Mosque Islamic Community Center (hereafter called the CHGZMICC) would mostly pass and be forgotten by the time I might sit down and write about it. After all, what could be a more straightforward matter of religious freedom than someone wishing to use private property for religious purposes (provided they comply with zoning laws and pay their taxes—um, scratch that bit about the taxes)? Surely, someone whose notion of property rights is so broad that one can do anything they like on their own property, even if it harms others (e.g., the right to pollute), must also believe that people should be able to practice whatever religion they like on their private property. Surely, someone who feels it is a miscarriage of justice when a court prevents the construction of religious structures on public property would find it a double-miscarriage for the government to prevent the construction of religious structures on private property. Obviously, the notion that the Federal Government should intervene to stop construction of the CHGZMICC would subside after even the most cursory reflection. Sadly, I was wrong. I thought I was pretty open-minded about how closed-minded folks on the right could be, but apparently I have a lot to learn.

Aw, who am I kidding? Of course I expected this, from the conservatives at least. By and large, they stand up for their own rights and freedom, but are blind to the rights and freedom of others (notwithstanding their fondness for “wars of liberation”). This is why they seem unable to distinguish defense attorneys from the defendants they represent (as when Liz Cheney’s Keep America Safe vilified lawyers who had represented detainees), and why they can’t understand organizations like the ACLU that have a curious record of applying Constitutional principles to unpopular causes. They’re happy to ring the property rights bell when it’s their property, but that bell is silent on this issue, and Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio wants the building currently standing at the future site of the CHGZMICC to be given landmark status as a legal basis for blocking the project. (See, some 9/11 debris hit the building, which makes it sacred. Ground Zero itself is so sacred that it has had to remain a hole in the ground for ten years or so. Likewise, since the 9/11 first responders got some of the dust in their lungs, they are sacred too, which is why the GOP heroically protected them from the Democrats’ attempted 9/11 Health Bill.) They cry “states’ rights” when its their state’s right to ignore the Constitution, but that phrase is taking a (much needed) vacation while they decry the US Government’s lack of intervention. (The rationalization for federal intervention is that 9/11 affected all Americans, so all Americans should have a say on whether or not the mosque gets built.) And the freedom of religion shawl that they wear when they want to put a Ten Commandments monument in a courthouse is made from Spage Age fibers that allow them to give lip service to religious freedom while still saying that Muslims should not be allowed to build the CHGZMICC; e.g., to reconcile his professed support for religious freedom with his desire to block the CHGZMICC’s construction, Rick Lazio risibly claims that “This is not a matter of religion”; Newt Gingrich similarly says, “This is not about religious liberty.”

Of course, opposition to the CHGZMICC does not emanate from a central coherent source—it comes from many disparate, mostly incoherent sources. So, just as it is unfair to lump all Muslims together with the 9/11 hijackers, it would be unfair for me to lump all critics of the CHGZMICC together with the likes of Rick Lazio and Newt Gingrich. The most nuanced opposition to the CHGZMICC comes from the Anti-Defamation League. They acknowledge the legal right of the CHGZMICC’s backers to build it at the proposed site. They call for it to be built elsewhere, though, since it would hurt the feelings of 9/11 families. As Michael Barbaro writes in The New York Times:

Asked why the opposition of the families was so pivotal in the decision, [ADL national director Abraham Foxman], a Holocaust survivor, said they were entitled to their emotions.

“Survivors of the Holocaust are entitled to feelings that are irrational,” he said. Referring to the loved ones of Sept. 11 victims, he said, “Their anguish entitles them to positions that others would categorize as irrational or bigoted.”

Everyone is entitled to feelings that are irrational. The question is whether those feelings should be indulged. Certainly, there is no legal right to demand that others indulge them (and the ADL is not claiming otherwise). But as an ethical matter, would respecting those feelings be the right thing to do (as the ADL is claiming)? That is, far and away, the most subtle question to arise from this debate. I think Paul Krugman’s response gets straight to the point:

So let’s try some comparable cases, OK? It causes some people pain to see Jews operating small businesses in non-Jewish neighborhoods; it causes some people pain to see Jews writing for national publications (as I learn from my mailbox most weeks); it causes some people pain to see Jews on the Supreme Court. So would ADL agree that we should ban Jews from these activities, so as to spare these people pain? No? What’s the difference?

(I would add that some 9/11 families support the CHGZMICC.)


With the partial exception of the ADL, critics of the CHGZMICC conflate Muslims in general with the 9/11 hijackers. Consider the National Republican Trust PAC’s video (which could be mistaken for a Jerry Bruckheimer movie trailer): “On September 11th, they declared war against us, and to celebrate that murder of 3,000 Americans, they want to build a monstrous 13-story mosque at1 Ground Zero. This ground is sacred. …” Who are “they”? Al-Qaeda, or every Muslim on Earth? (And 13 stories in New York City’s financial district is “monstrous”?) If I’m to believe GOP Trust, every Muslim is issued a balaclava and an AK-47. As a sign at a June protest declared: “All I need to know about Islam, I learned on 9/11.”

Of course, the Islamic world is more complex than that. I am not going to trot out the “Islam is a religion of peace” line, but there is definitely a struggle within the religion between moderate and radical elements, and the United States has an impact on that struggle. Unfortunately, our approach so far has lacked tact, and we are doing more to further the cause of radical Islam, by making ourselves a recruitment tool. You could think of our actions as being to Islamic radicals what the “Ground Zero Mosque” is to Republicans on the campaign trail.

As for what might be more tactful, consider the recent flooding in Pakistan: Hard-Line Islam Fills Void in Flooded Pakistan, Floods stir anger at Pakistan government response, Pakistan Vies With Islamists to Aid Flood Victims. We are basically sitting on our asses while “Islamic charities with ties to militant groups” are the only ones helping the flood victims. We’re doing a little bit, but it’s out of step with the hundreds of billions we’ve spent on killing people in the region. There is far more we could be doing, rather than just letting Islamic militants turn the flood into a PR bonanza.

Even though the opponents of the CHGZMICC won’t succeed in stopping it, they are still aiding Islam’s radical elements. As J Street’s Jeremy Ben-Ami puts it:

What better ammunition to feed the Osama bin Ladens of the world and their claim of anti-Muslim bias in the United States as they seek to whip up global jihad than to hold this proposal for a Muslim religious center to a different and tougher standard than other religious institutions would be.

I wouldn’t normally sink to the level of accusing opponents of helping the terrorists, but the case has to be made in response to the accusation that it’s the other way around, that allowing the CHGZMICC to be built will invite further attacks. They’re welcome to present some evidence that jihadists gain not from the perception that the United States is anti-Muslim, but from the perception that the United States is nice to Muslims.

Religion X

Were the hijackers’ religious beliefs central to their actions? Sure. But are we going to adopt the principle that if an atrocity is committed in the name of Religion X, then no member of Religion X may build a church near that site? If we did, we’d have to stop Christians from building churches near clinics where pro-lifers have murdered abortion doctors. After the firebombing of a black church by members of the KKK, we would have to stop the congregants from rebuilding their church, on the grounds that it would be an affront to the memories of the victims to allow a Christian church to be built on that site, since the perpetrators were Christian. But we don’t do this. We do not ask that Christian churches not be built in order to protect the feelings of people affected by such violence. Sarah Palin does not tell Christians that building churches is “UNNECESSARY provocation; it stabs hearts.”


Some, like Rush Limbaugh, argue that we could use zoning laws to block the construction of the CHGZMICC. From his show:

Zoning laws tell churches where they can and can’t go all the time. There’s a group out there called the Alliance Defense Fund. The last few years they’ve been running all over the country suing cities and counties and states over churches being turned down by zoning boards, and they have not yet won a case, I don’t think. So zoning laws already dictate where you—the First Amendment’s got nothing whatsoever to do with building a church wherever you want to put one.

Actually, as his friends at the ADF could tell him, the First Amendment’s got a lot to do with being able to build a church where you want to. Yes, zoning laws might prevent a church from being built in a particular location, because, say, an area is zoned for office space; however, a church can never legally be denied the right to build strictly by virtue of it being a religious institution, much less on the basis of which religion it is for. (There is at least one instance where a zoning board had a “no church” zone, but I know of no instance where that was not later found to be illegal.)

Anyhow, which side of the issue is he on? In one breath, he’s implying that we should use zoning laws to block the CHGZMICC, and in the next, he’s plugging the ADF, which opposes such uses of zoning laws. (It is true that the Alliance Defense Fund has been “running all over the country suing cities and counties and states”, but in their long list of cases, I found only one case where it involved zoning laws preventing construction of a church; more of their cases involve suing cities, counties, and states for giving rights to gay people or preventing prayer in schools.)

If he does wish to use zoning laws to block the CHGZMICC, can he be more specific? The fact that the facility has a mosque, as opposed to a church or synagogue, is not a legitimate zoning consideration, so he must have something else in mind. Did I miss something, and this is actually going to be Rauf’s Ground Zero Mosque and Dildo Shop?

Somewhere else

A typical refrain from CHGZMICC opponents is that Muslims can build their mosque anywhere else, just not “at” Ground Zero, but mosques around the country face opposition too. Perhaps these are just disjoint sets of people? No, as co-chairman of one of the community boards, Michael Connolly writes in a NYT letter to the editor: “The same people who came to our community board meeting in May saying they didn’t oppose the project—just the location—and would support it if it were anywhere else in New York were back again at our July meeting carrying signs that read: ‘We won in Staten Island and we’ll win at ground zero. No mosque.’”

From Laurie Goodstein’s NYT article:

At one time, neighbors who did not want mosques in their backyards said their concerns were over traffic, parking and noise—the same reasons they might object to a church or a synagogue. But now the gloves are off.

In all of the recent conflicts, opponents have said their problem is Islam itself. They quote passages from the Koran and argue that even the most Americanized Muslim secretly wants to replace the Constitution with Islamic Shariah law.

I’m as happy as anyone to discredit religions based on what their texts say, but is this a legal basis for interfering with the practice of a religion, that its adherents want to legally impose their religious rules on everyone else? If so, I have some important intelligence: there are religious groups operating within our borders that have already infiltrated our government and started imposing their religious viewpoints on others in ways that oppose the Constitution! We must tear down their houses of worship immediately to prevent further damage!

This would be like

Opponents of the CHGZMICC like similes. Most involve Pearl Harbor—e.g., “Putting a mosque at ground zero is like putting a Shinto shrine at Pearl Harbor,” or “‘Ground Zero’ Needs a Mosque Like Pearl Harbor Needs A Sushi Stand!”—but some inevitably go the Nazi route. Gingrich says that the CHGZMICC “would be like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum.”2 If putting a mosque near Ground Zero is like putting a Nazi sign next to the Holocaust Museum, then would putting a mosque anywhere else be like putting a Nazi sign next to something other than the Holocaust Museum? Also, Gingrich should commit to who the Nazis are: is it Obama, secularists, or muslims?


The opponents of the CHGZMICC are helping Islamic extremists by perpetuating the myth (or non-myth?) that the United States has a specific bias against Islam and by undermining the efforts of moderate Muslims, and trying to underminine the Constitution by breaking the symmetric treatment it guarantees for different religions. These same people accuse the secularists—the people who feel the government must not show favoritism towards a particular religion—of being on the side of the terrorists, and of being a threat to the American way of life. Ergo they suck.


You liberals might be “correct”, but the conservatives are right. You see, opposing this mosque (and others) does indeed undermine religious freedom, and that’s exactly why we need to oppose it. Since “America was targeted for attack on 9/11 because we are the brightest beacon of freedom and opportunity in the world,” we can protect ourselves by dimming that beacon a bit. We can let Canada or some other country we’ve never heard of be brighter than us for a while—just until this whole terror thing blows over—and the terrorists will go after them instead, like moths to a freedom flame.

Newt Gingrich gets it: “There should be no mosque near Ground Zero in New York so long as there are no churches or synagogues in Saudi Arabia.” See, when it comes to religious freedom, the United States should achieve parity with Saudi Arabia. Since the terrorists hate freedom, that will make them love us, thus securing our safety.

What’s so great about the First Amendment, anyway? “But the freedoms enshrined in the Constitution are what makes the US so great.” No, what makes this country great is that we live here. That’s what makes us number one. The Constitution is a living document; i.e., it can die. So, ‘tis but a sandy foundation upon which to build our number oneness. On the other hand, as Confucius say, “No matter where you go, there you are.” When we’re number one because we live here, our bestitude is built upon the bedrock of being a tautology. The logic is irrefudiatable.3


0 Many people are demanding to know where the $100 million for the project is coming from. I’m fine with that demand, so long as the same demand is also made of Catholics and Mormons. For all I know it’s coming straight from King Fahd himself, and if that bothers people, maybe they shouldn’t go out of their way to give him so much of their money.

1 When I first read that the CHGZMICC will be “at” Ground Zero, I thought they meant it would be at Ground Zero together with the shops and whatnot that will go in there eventually, but it is actually two blocks away (though admittedly the site was chosen for its proximity to Ground Zero). Must everything within two blocks of Ground Zero fall under the Ground Zero brand? The Ground Zero Marriott, the American Ground Zero Stock Exchange, St. Peter’s Ground Zero Church, Bed Bath & Ground Zero, the University of Ground Zero, …?

2 Of the Axis powers involved in similes, why do the Italians not make the cut? “Putting a mosque at Ground Zero would be like putting a Catholic church in Ethiopia!” I suppose it’s an imperfect analogy—not nearly as good as the Nazi one.

3 Sarah Palin’s “refudiate” is of itself not worth the noise that it caused. Had she simply said “Oops,” I would have been happy to move on. But as her diction betrays, words were never a significant part of her diet, so expecting her to eat them now would be unreasonable. Comparing herself to Shakespeare, though, “durst make too bold herald of my tongue,” even if it has been a fortnight and odd days.

“‘Refudiate,’ ‘misunderestimate,’ ‘wee-wee’d up.’ English is a living language. Shakespeare liked to coin new words too. Got to celebrate it!”

I hate to wee-wee on her parade, but the distinction between forming neologisms with intent and good sense as opposed to mere bunglery is an important one; it is the difference between good medicine and malpractice, if English is a living language. When Shakespeare used “inaudible”, for instance, the audience could probably figure out that he meant “not audible”. And when he used “obscene”, perhaps that was less familiar to the audience, but it was at least straight from Latin.

To be fair, when Sarah Palin wrote “refudiate”—as in, “Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate”—most could probably figure out that she meant “repudiate”. So it was peculiar that she corrected herself by deleting her original message and replacing it with a similar one calling on New Yorkers to “refute the Ground Zero mosque plan”. This is paradoxically better and worse English: better because it is English, and worse because it is less likely to communicate what she is trying to say.



August 10, 2010

Stanley Fish’s recent column, Plagiarism Is Not a Big Moral Deal, is astoundingly weak. His thesis is not simply that plagiarism is not a big moral deal, it is that plagiarism is not a moral deal at all—in the words of his currently missing subtitle, “Appropriating the words of others is not a moral or philosophical transgression. It’s a professional one.” He finds that rules against plagiarism are more akin to the arcane rules of golf—with golf representing academia, more or less—than anything “culturally universal”.

Professor Fish does make a valid point: in judging plagiarism to be unprofessional, there does not need to be any underlying moral basis—it is enough that the profession has deemed it unacceptable. But he overreaches when he claims that plagiarism is wrong solely for this reason, and that there is no moral or philosophical basis for condemning it.

First, to dispense with an obvious but incorrect rebuttal, plagiarism at its base is not a matter of stealing, even though that is how it is most commonly portrayed (and often involves something akin to stealing). If I told someone, “I’ll give you $100 if you let me turn in that old essay of yours in my English class,” and they accepted, there is no “theft” or “stealing”: they sold me the privilege of calling that work my own. It is, nevertheless, plagiarism.

Rather, the fundamental issue with plagiarising material is that you are lying about its provenance when you call it your own. If you made a copy of a Zakir Hussain album and sent it to a friend with a note saying, “Here’s the latest by Zakir,” that would be copyright infringement, and one could argue about whether that’s a moral offense against nature or merely a violation of a rule our society has adopted. However, if you made a copy of that album and sent it to a friend with a note saying, “Here’s my latest album,” that would be straight up lying (unless you are Zakir Hussain, of course). Even if one adopts the view that lying is not intrinsically immoral, one must concede that it violates social notions of right and wrong that are not remotely confined to “specialized contexts of practice entered into only by a few.”

Of course, not all instances of plagiarism are that audacious, but Prof. Fish makes no effort to distinguish such cases from, say, the inability to format citations correctly. If one does acknowledge that the distinction between these is relevant, one has to admit that there are different reasons these things are wrong. Citing incorrectly is a breach of convention, but taking other people’s material wholesale and slapping your name on it is a willful act of deception, and knowingly lying to people violates fairly broad social norms, not just some arbitrary set of rules that academics have adopted.

He goes on: “Now if plagiarism is an idea that makes sense only in the precincts of certain specialized practices and is not a normative philosophical notion, inquiries into its philosophical underpinnings are of no practical interest or import.” I disagree, but mostly because I reject the premise. Basically, willful plagiarism is a form of dishonesty, and the philosophical underpinnings of the ethics of dishonesty seem quite germane. Since it is reasonable to punish dishonesty, these are practical issues. Here is such a philosophical question: when and how does including someone else’s work within your own cross the line into dishonesty? If I write, “Methinks the lady doth protest too much” without attribution, I’m committing several grave sins (getting the quote wrong, being trite, probably not even understanding what it means, and being an ass), but plagiarism is not one of them. If I take some Sean Hannity book, though, and replace the book jacket with a smug picture of myself in front of a flag and my own byline, I’m committing an egregious (not to mention incomprehensible) act of plagiarism. There’s a lot of middle ground there. Some of the boundaries between those two extremes might come down to a matter of arbitrary convention, but it doesn’t seem arbitrary, for instance, to say that putting your name on a work in the public domain is still dishonest.

“It follows that students who never quite get the concept right are by and large not committing a crime; they are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into.” I’m sorry, but when students cut and paste or transcribe great swaths of other people’s work and put their name on it, it is not because they never quite got the concept right; they know they are not supposed to do that, and they are being willingly deceitful. “It’s no big moral deal; which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that plagiarism shouldn’t be punished—if you’re in our house, you’ve got to play by our rules—just that what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.” The idea that dishonesty is bad is not just “our rules”; it is bad according to social norms that are much broader than our “little insular world”.

Even if we hypothetically accept that claiming authorship for work that is not your own is not intrinsically bad but is simply prohibited by arbitrary academic conventions, when a student (or professor) knowingly violates that but claims not to, it is an act of dishonesty, and the moral problems with that dishonesty go beyond the confines of academics. To put the issue in starker light: suppose I have a job at a central KFC plant, and the Colonel’s Secret Recipe is long, complex, and arbitrary; I cut corners and skip 75% of the ingredients, but deceive my manager into thinking I’m following the recipe. In skipping the steps, I only violate the company’s internal rules about how to make chicken, but in deceiving others into thinking I’m actually doing my job, I am violating the broader social convention that dishonesty is wrong.

Fish wastes a lot of time on the idea that, since the notion of “originality” itself has been drawn into question, plagiarism might not even be a coherent notion. “R.M. Howard makes the point succinctly ‘If there is no originality and no literary property, there is no basis for the notion of plagiarism’ (‘College English,’ 1995).” Both Fish and Howard are mistaken. Even if there is no such thing as originality, there is still such a thing as plagiarism. Consider the following examples. A blues guitarist writes a song that seems to him to be original (but is just fooling himself—it is really a mishmash of ideas by Muddy Waters, Frank Zappa, Carla Bley, and Menudo, which in turn were a mishmash of other ideas), records the song, and sells it. That is not plagiarism. On the other hand, suppose he goes to the concert of another blues guitarist (also not original despite thinking otherwise) with a microphone, records the songs played by that other guitarist, and sells them as an album under his own name, complete with liner notes saying that he wrote and performed the songs. That is plagiarism. Whether or not there is such a thing as originality does not change that. Or, consider a group of students who have just been taught how to calculate the derivative of a function, and they are given a few problems as homework, along with the instructions, “Do the problems yourselves; do not copy someone else’s work.” Suppose Student A does the work on her own and turns it in, but Student B copies another student’s work and turns it in. Student A has not plagiarized, but Student B has; yet, in each case, there is nothing original about the work.


Obligatory Liberal Rant Against HFCS

May 2, 2010

The Corn Refiners Association continues to have image problems with high-fructose corn syrup, and food giants are catching up to the hysteria with products like Pepsi Throwback and Simply Heinz, which are sweetened with sugar. Fortunately for HFCS producers, their declining US sales are offset by increasing sales abroad (such as in Mexico).

I’ll admit that I will buy organic ketchup over ketchup sweetened with HFCS, largely based on the precautionary principle: on one side, you have people saying there’s no difference, that sugar is sugar, and on the other side, you have people with data that says otherwise: if rats given water with HFCS are getting obese, while a control group given water sweetened with sugar is not, that’s some cause for concern. Even if there is a difference, though, most people are missing the point: if you replace HFCS with sugar, you’re still eating a lot of sugar. The healthy choice is to replace the HFCS in our diets with confirmation bias rather than other sugars.

Anyhow, let us assume that HFCS and sugar are indeed nutritionally interchangeable. I still have no pity for the Corn Refiners Association. Perhaps they are being hurt by consumers irrationally preferring ordinary sugar over HFCS, but those same consumers were irrational to be eating these unhealthy foods in the first place. Sometimes the winds of irrationality blow your way, and sometimes they don’t. (One could argue that the consumers are rational to be drinking soda, because it brings them pleasure, but by the same token, their exodus from HFCS could be seen as rational because it makes them feel better about themselves.)

Also, HFCS is the leading reason for sugar creep: caloric sweeteners showing up in foods where they don’t belong. I can understand HFCS in ketchup, since ketchup is traditionally made with sugar, but I begrudge the presence of HFCS in salad dressing, yogurt, dill pickles, crackers, canned vegetables, peanut butter, bread, tomato sauce, tonic water, apple sauce, bacon, and beer. Strangely, the Corn Refiners Association trumpets the fact that HFCS is used in many ways that have little to do with sweetening. Food technology is not inherently evil, and has brought great things like pasteurization, but (haven’t I ranted about this somewhere already?) in the presence of market forces, it has often resulted in worse food. Control over the composition of our food could potentially be a good thing, but in practice it has often left us with food that does not taste as good and is less nutritious: our tomatoes, for instance, are now less flavorful, since they have been bred to endure shipment and have a long shelf-life, rather than being bred for flavor. Or with beer: since HFCS is so cheap, it makes sense economically for a brewer to use HFCS as the source of sugar instead of the usual grains, but I doubt it makes sense zymurgically.

(On the topic of HFCS being cheap, the Corn Refiners Association want you to understand that HFCS is not subsidized. It’s just the corn production that’s subsidized, you see, and producers of HFCS have to pay the same artificially low price for corn on the open market that everyone else does.)

I also can’t stand the Sweet Surprise ads:

  • They’re smug.

  • They set up straw men, by misrepresenting the position of the anti-HFCS mob. The ads present them as stumped when asked to explain what’s wrong with HFCS, when in reality they could launch into a diatribe. Not everything in that diatribe would necessarily be accurate, but it would be a diatribe nevertheless. (Perhaps they would go after the mercury content. Perhaps they would bring up obesity. Or, perhaps they would take a swipe at the Corn Industrial Complex.)

  • The ads say that HFCS is natural. Who do they have working for them, that smartass who says that everything is natural, because humans are a part of nature? Natural should mean that some hippie living in the woods can make it while high—you know, oatmeal soap and the like. It should not mean something that cannot be made without help from Dow. And conflating natural with good is oversimplifying to begin with.

  • They stress that it’s “fine in moderation.” True enough, but since our current consumption of HFCS is excessive, consuming it in moderation would mean eliminating many HFCS-loaded foods from our diets, such as the HFCS-sweetened “juice” and cereal featured in two of the ads.

    (On their website, they make their case for moderation by cherry-picking some foods that have HFCS in very low quantities, like bran cereal, and saying, “You’d have to eat 87 bowls of this cereal to exceed the daily allowance of added sugars from HFCS.” They do not give the figure for, say, Fruity Pebbles or Pepsi.)


Red Badge of Carnage

May 2, 2010

There have been several news stories over the past couple days about the Cub Scouts introducing a “video game merit badge.” More accurately, there is a Video Games belt loop, and a Video Games academic pin. This is not as new for the Scouts as people are making it out to be; for the Computers academics pin, one of the 11 requirements (of which you must complete 5) is already “Practice a new computer game for two weeks. Demonstrate an improvement in your scores.”

A Video Games belt loop or academics pin is not necessarily a bad thing, any more than a TV belt loop or DVD Rental academics pin is necessarily bad. It’s all a matter of implementation. The apologists say that the boys are going to be playing the video games anyway, so we might as well endorse and reinforce that behavior with a slight nudge in a direction we want. Unfortunately, I find the choice of requirements for the loop and pin to be a bit on the lame side. They have very little in the way of steering kids away from excessive use, and a lot in the way of turning kids into consumers.

Belt loop requirements

Complete all three.

1. Explain why it is important to have a rating system for video games. Check your video games to be sure they are right for your age.

This requires you to parrot the point of view that the rating system is useful. Perhaps it is, but one can make fairly strong arguments against it. While in theory, the ESRB ratings are supposed to help parents make informed decisions about what games are appropriate for their kids, in practice, their usefulness to parents is minimal—they rarely tell you anything that isn’t already obvious from the game’s title and packaging. Super Wacky Fun Ball? Rated E for Everyone. Grand Theft Auto (or any other felony)? Rated M for Mature. Their psychological impact is greater. “This game is for grown ups. Only big kids and grown ups get to play this game.” For parents, there is the subtle pretense that a rated E label means that the game is appropriate for kids, the same way that putting a cartoon character on a cereal box suggests that the cereal is appropriate for kids. It is marketed with kids in mind; that is not the same as being good for them.

We only have to look to movies to see how badly ratings systems can work. The Milagro Beanfield War is rated R, I guess because they use the F-word a few times, but the recent Bond movies are PG-13 (you can get away with a lot of violence as long as you don’t also show the consequences of that violence). That’s worse than having no ratings system at all. Also, the existence of the MPAA ratings seems to have a negative impact on the quality of movies to begin with, because of the incentives it sets up; directors basically get the message that they can make their movies really violent and still pull off a PG-13, but if they make a smart movie like This Film Is Not Yet Rated (a more in-depth critique of MPAA ratings) they get an NC-17.

2. With an adult, create a schedule for you to do things that includes your chores, homework, and video gaming. Do your best to follow this schedule.

Here’s a schedule that fits the bill:

3–6pm Video games
6–6:45pm Eat dinner
6:45–7pm Wash dishes
7–8pm Homework
8–10pm Video games

And “do your best”? The last time I “did my best” was when I was making an excuse for failure.

“Sometimes doing your best is not good enough. Sometimes, you must do what is required.” —Winston Churchill

“Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” —Yoda

3. Learn to play a new video game that is approved by your parent, guardian,or teacher.

Buy something.

Academics pin requirements

To earn the academics pin, you must first earn the belt loop, and complete five of the following requirements. I have put the Video Games requirements alongside my proposed Soft Drinks and Web Porn requirements.

Video Games Soft Drinks Web Porn
With your parents, create a plan to buy a video game that is right for your age group. With your parents, create a plan to buy 4 cases of soda that is right for your age group. With your parents, create a plan to join a pornographic website with age-appropriate material.
Compare two game systems (for example, Microsoft Xbox, Sony PlayStation, Nintendo Wii, and so on). Explain some of the differences between the two. List good reasons to purchase or use a game system. Compare two soft drinks (for example, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mountain Dew, and so on). Explain some of the differences between the two. List good reasons to purchase or drink a soft beverage. Compare two porn sites (for example,,, and so on). Explain some of the differences between the two. List good reasons to join or visit a porn site.
Play a video game with family members in a family tournament. Have a family soda chug-off. Download porn with family members in a family porn-downloading tournament.
Teach an adult or a friend how to play a video game. Introduce an adult or a friend to a soft drink. Show your dad where to get the good stuff.
List at least five tips that would help someone who was learning how to play your favorite video game. List at least five tips that would help someone fit more soft drinks into their diet. Give your dad tips on how to find the good stuff on his own so that he doesn’t have to embarrass himself asking you again later. (If you give a man a fish…)
Play an appropriate video game with a friend for one hour. Share a two-liter bottle of a healthy sugary drink with a friend. Download appropriate porn with a friend for one hour.
Play a video game that will help you practice your math, spelling, or another skill that helps you in your schoolwork. Drink a soft drink that will improve your strength, endurance, or lung capacity. Visit a porn site that will help you practice your math, spelling, or another skill that helps you in your schoolwork.
Choose a game you might like to purchase. Compare the price for this game at three different stores. Decide which store has the best deal. In your decision, be sure to consider things like the store return policy and manufacturer’s warranty. Choose a soda you might like to purchase. Compare the price for this soda at three different stores. Decide which store has the best deal. In your decision, be sure to consider things like the store return policy and manufacturer’s customer satisfaction guarantee. Choose an adult DVD you might like to purchase. Compare the price for this DVD at three different stores. Decide which store has the best deal. In your decision, be sure to consider things like the store return policy and manufacturer’s warranty.
With an adult’s supervision, install a gaming system. With an adult’s supervision, install a soda fountain. With an adult’s supervision, install a webcam.