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Journal: This should be one of those "I told you so" moments...

Journal by Timex

...but I won't say it, even though I'd be justified in doing so.

I was just looking through the beta for Slashdot (which I don't like, by the way) and saw a "Hall of Fame" page. I looked at it and this was one of the most popular stories of all time. It was posted when Obama was elected the first time.

It's kind of depressing, in that people were saying that Obama would not change all the things he promised he would, and the lemmings tried to shout them down. I said "depressing" because so many people, all of whom should really have known better, bought into the ideals that Obama sold to them. They honestly believed (and I daresay still believe, even now) that Obama would have the power to bring about all the changes he promised.

Well, it's been six years in. I think I am safe in stating that none of his promises have been kept-- none of them that were of any substance, anyway.

I can only hope that the process that we have in place will work as it should, and Obama will not see the end of the current term. He can't complain: he has his phone, he has a pen, and he knows how to use them.

User Journal

Journal: Lies, damned lies, and ... oh no, you're going there. 1

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

[cranky rant warning]

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics." It's coming up again with depressing frequency, being used as an argument instead of a snide observation.

Okay, here's the thing. Can you lie with statistics? Sure. Statistics is a branch of mathematics*, and math is a language; you can lie in that language as easily as in any other. Does this mean all statistics are lies? No more than all statements in any language are lies--and if you believe that, you've gone so far down the rabbit hole of anti-intellectual mysticism that you'll probably never find your way out.

Meanwhile, in the real world, and in the ever-expanding torrent of data we have about that world, statistics as a discipline is pretty much the only hope we have of understanding anything. The low-hanging fruit has been picked. The equations we learn in Physics 101 are as valid as they ever were, but they're not nearly enough. No matter how certain you think you are, no matter how many times you repeat your experiment and get the same result, if you don't do the statistical tests you don't actually know whatever it is you think you know. And if you do the tests--well, you may still be wrong, but you can at least quantify your uncertainty. And you have to do that, because you can always be wrong.

None of this is meant to defend the misuse of statistics, any more than as a writer I'd defend the misuse of natural language. People can and do wilfully misinterpret statistics, or cherry-pick them, or just outright make them up, and those are bad things. Guess what? They do that with every other kind of statement too. At least half of statisticians' job is fact-checking, and it's a charge we gladly accept.

So the next time you're tempted to say "lies, damned lies, and statistics," or "figures don't lie but liars figure," or "correlation does not imply causation" or any of its variants, or post the umpteen-thousandth link to "How To Lie With Statistics," and think you're being clever--please, just stop. Because one thing I am so sure of that I don't even need to put a p-value on it is that if you feel the need to resort to any of those lazy, thought-free responses, you don't know enough about the issue at hand to have an informed opinion, and the best thing you can possibly do for yourself and everyone else is to keep quiet.

*Opinions vary on this issue, but if statistics isn't exactly a branch of mathematics, we can at least say that math is the language in which it's written.

User Journal

Journal: Updates from Chez Timex 5

Journal by Timex

Things are going fairly well, I think.

I gave up playing WoW. I started playing SW:TOR, but found I didn't have time to play.

The only game I've been keeping up with lately is Second Life.

I've also been getting into Ingress lately. Does anyone else play? I like it because it gets me out of the house (even in these cold northeastern winter days) and I occasionally meet new people.

User Journal

Journal: beta beta beta 2

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

To whom it may concern:

A while back, I was invited to take a look at the Slashdot beta. I looked at it and quickly decided that it was too painful to use, and hoped (vainly, I knew) that it would die a quiet death. Today, when logging into Slashdot, I was greeted with this cheery message:

MOVIN' ON UP. You are on Slashdot Classic. We are starting to move into new digs in February by automatically redirecting greater numbers of you. The new site is a work in progress so Classic Slashdot will be available from the footer for several more months. As we migrate our audience, we want to hear from you to make sure that the redesigned page has all the features you expect. Find out more.

In other words, we have here all the signs of a corporate "beta" site that will be rolled out regardless of user reaction. Let me be quite clear: "all the features I expect" are already on Slashdot (what you're adorably calling "Classic"). It works. It's not broken. Don't try to "fix" it, because the proposed "fix" irrevocably breaks the entire Slashdot look and feel.

When the beta becomes the only option (and I know it's almost certainly "when" at this point, not "if") Slashdot will become a ghost town. You will have killed what was once one of the most lively, interesting, and important sites on the web. I've loved this site for fifteen years now, but I'm not going to make myself suffer for the zombie wreck of something that used to be great.

Sincerely,
Daniel Dvorkin
UID 106857

User Journal

Journal: beta beta beta 4

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

To whom it may concern:

A while back, I was invited to take a look at the Slashdot beta. I looked at it and quickly decided that it was too painful to use, and hoped (vainly, I knew) that it would die a quiet death. Today, when logging into Slashdot, I was greeted with this cheery message:

MOVIN' ON UP. You are on Slashdot Classic. We are starting to move into new digs in February by automatically redirecting greater numbers of you. The new site is a work in progress so Classic Slashdot will be available from the footer for several more months. As we migrate our audience, we want to hear from you to make sure that the redesigned page has all the features you expect. Find out more.

In other words, we have here all the signs of a corporate "beta" site that will be rolled out regardless of user reaction. Let me be quite clear: "all the features I expect" are already on Slashdot (what you're adorably calling "Classic"). It works. It's not broken. Don't try to "fix" it, because the proposed "fix" irrevocably breaks the entire Slashdot look and feel.

When the beta becomes the only option (and I know it's almost certainly "when" at this point, not "if") Slashdot will become a ghost town. You will have killed what was once one of the most lively, interesting, and important sites on the web. I've loved this site for fifteen years now, but I'm not going to make myself suffer for the zombie wreck of something that used to be great.

Sincerely,
Daniel Dvorkin
UID 106857

User Journal

Journal: Yeah, about that ...

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

Okay, so there's this quote that never seems to die. It's often attributed to Morgan Freeman, although I believe it actually comes from Henry Rollins; in any case, it doesn't much matter who said it. It just gets posted and reposted as a bit of snarky wisdom. Snarky it certainly is, but wise it's not.

First, the quote: "I hate the word homophobia. It's not a phobia. You are not scared. You are an asshole." There it is. Read it, enjoy it, revel in the snark.

Now, here's what's wrong with it. First, "phobia" is widely understood to mean "aversion" as well as "fear." Spare me the etymological arguments, please. Language evolves, and this is one of the ways in which it's evolved.

Second, yes, homophobes are afraid. Pretty much any time one large group of people hates another large group of people, fear is at the root of it. They're afraid, in some ill-defined but vehement way, that if gay people are allowed to be gay the way straight people are allowed to be straight, everything will fall apart. The foundations of their world will crack. The earth itself will turn to quicksand beneath their feet. Things Will Not Be As They Have Been, And Should Always Be. In the case of male homophobes who have a particular aversion to male homosexuality, they're afraid--in the words of another meme that is both snarky and wise--that gay men will treat them the way they treat women. And they're afraid, in a startlingly large number of cases, of the way they just can't ... stop ... thinking ... about ... gay ... sex ... and ... how ... terrible ... it ... is ... can't ... stop ...

Third, and perhaps most important, homophobes themselves deny they're afraid, and run away from the word "homophobia" at every opportunity. Try it: identify a homophobe as such, and there's a good bet you'll get an invective-laced tirade about how it's not about fear but about the disgust that every decent person should feel when thinking about such acts (... can't ... stop ...) and how it is the patriotic duty of every red-blooded patriot who knows right from wrong to stand up against the Gay Agenda ... etc. This is particularly acute, again, when male homophobes who have a particular aversion to male homosexuality (sorry, I can't come up with a good acronym here) are confronted with their homophobia, because, you see, fear is for girls. And fags, who might as well be girls. Because girls are icky. Not like us big, strong, healthy, muscular men with our strong arms and bulging pecs and ... can't ... stop ... where was I? Oh, right. Fear is unmanly.

So yeah. No one hates (and fears!) the word "homophobia" more than homophobes do, and for that reason if no other, it needs to stay in the language. Never stop shaming them. Never stop reminding them what cowards they are. Know their fears and exploit them mercilessly, crush them and see them driven before you, chase them back under their rocks where they belong.

User Journal

Journal: "America needs a white Republican President." 3

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

Opposition to Obama has nothing to do with race. ÂNope, nothing at all.

</sarcasm>

Okay, Republicans. ÂLook, I believe that most of you are not racist. ÂYou oppose Obama because you disagree with his policies, not his skin color. ÂYou'd rather have a Republican President because you're Republicans, and you're Republicans because you largely agree with Republican Party policies rather than out of a sense of tribal identity (I extend you that courtesy; please do the same) and you don't care what color this hypothetical Republican President, with whom you would agree far more than you do with Obama, might be.

I believe that, not least because the alternative -- that a majority of members of a political party that represents about a third of the American electorate is actively, maliciously racist -- is too grotesque to contemplate.

But there is, at the least, a substantial minority of your party that is actively, maliciously racist, that puts its racism on display as proudly as ever did the KKK wing of the Democratic Party of old. ÂFrom where I'm sitting, and where many Democrats are sitting, it looks an awful lot like this minority (I have to keep believing that) is steering the agenda of your entire party. ÂYou have to deal with these people. ÂYou have to exile them, shame them, chase them back under their rocks where they belong. ÂWe can't do it. ÂThey won't listen to us. ÂThey're your people, and that makes them your problem.

Or we can all keep going down the path we're on. ÂBecause, you know, that's working so well.

User Journal

Journal: Correlation, causation, and all that. 12

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

So this cartoon has been going around my Facebook friends list ... I'm going to try to explain what's wrong with it, and I'll try to be succint, but I don't know how good a job I'll do, so bear with me. The short and snarky version is found in my Slashdot sig line, "The correlation between ignorance of statistics and using 'correlation is not causation' as an argument is close to 1," but that's kind of unfair and certainly isn't all the discussion this subject deserves.

First of all, yes, "correlation is not causation" is strictly true. That is, they are not the same thing. If events A and B tend to occur together, this does not mean that A causes B, or that B causes A. There may be a third, unobserved event C that causes both, or the observed correlation may simply be a coincidence. Bear this in mind.

But if you observe the correlation frequently enough to establish significance, you can be reasonably sure (arbitrarily sure, depending on how many times you make the observation) that it's not coincidence. So now you're back to one of three explanations: A causes B, B causes A, or there exists some C that causes both A and B. (Two caveats: whatever the causal relationships are, they may be very indirect, proceeding through events D, E, F, and G; and the word "significance" has a very precise meaning in this context, so check with your local statistician before using it.) An easy way to check for A-causes-B vs. B-causes-A is by looking at temporal relationships. If you are already wearing your seatbelt when you get in a car crash, you are far more likely to survive than if you aren't, but you have to have made the decision to put the seatbelt on before the crash occurs--it's the fact of you wearing your seatbelt that causes you to get through the crash okay, not the fact that you get through the crash okay that causes you to have been wearing your seatbelt. Unfortunately, the temporal relationships aren't always clear, and even if you can rule out B-causes-A on this basis, it still leaves you to choose between A-causes-B and C-causes-(A,B).

An awful lot of what science does is figuring out what C is, or even if it exists at all. This is where mechanistic knowledge of the universe comes into play. Suppose that emergency departments in particular city start seeing a whole bunch of patients with acute-onset fever and diarrhea. Shortly thereafter, ED's in nearby cities start seeing the same thing, and then the same in cities connected by air travel routes. Patient histories reveal that the diarrhea tends to start about six hours after the onset of fever. Does this mean the fever is causing the diarrhea? Probably not, because these days we know enough about the mechanisms of infectious disease to know that there are lots of pathogens that cause fever, then diarrhea. The epidemiologists' and physicians' job is then to figure out what the pathogen is, how it spreads, and hopefully how best to treat it; while they're doing that, the "correlation is not causation" fanatics will be sticking their fingers in their ears and chanting "la la la I can't hear you," and hoping desperately they don't end their days as dehydrated husks lying on a feces-soaked hospital bed.

The point here is that in most cases, correlation is all we can observe. (Some philosophers of science, a la David Hume, would argue that we never observe causation, but I'm willing to accept "cause of death: gunshot wound to head" and similar extreme cases as direct observation of causal relationships.) Not every patient exposed to the pathogen will get infected. Of those who do, not all will show symptoms. Some symptomatic patients will just get the fever, some will just get the diarrhea. Some will get them at the same time, or the diarrhea first. Medical ethics boards tend to frown on doing controlled experiments with infectious diseases on human subjects, so you have to make what inferences you can with the data you have.

Even with all these limitations, correlation--in this case between exposure and symptoms--is still a powerful tool for uncovering the causal relationships. Most of what we know about human health comes from exactly this kind of analysis, and the same is true for the observational sciences generally. Astronomy, geology, paleontology, large chunks of physics and biology ... they're all built on observations of correlation, and smart inference from those observations. So if you want to know how the universe works, don't rely on any one-liners, no matter how satisfying, to guide your understanding.

User Journal

Journal: I'm not sure if Betteridge's law applies here or not. 2

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

Privacy and the Internet: Is Facebook Evil?

He's right that privacy in the modern sense is a new development--for most of human history, people lived with what we would now consider a near-total lack of privacy--but wrong, I think, to dismiss it on that basis. There are many, many modern ideas, such as democracy and equality before the law, that would have made no sense whatsoever to our ancestors; does that mean they're any less worth prizing?

Obviously I'm not particularly concerned about giving up my privacy by maintaining an online presence, else I wouldn't be posting this. But the combination of a traditional "village" level of everyone knowing everyone else's business with the speed and ubiquity of modern communications represents a third phase in humanity's development as far as privacy is concerned--the first having been the intensely linked small communities of nomads and peasants, the second having been the mass anonymity of the industrial age--and I don't think we have any idea how that's going to shake out yet.

User Journal

Journal: Jesus-hot 1

Journal by adolf

So I'm cutting up a Trinidad Scorpion Butch-T pepper with gloves on, and sprinkling it around a pizza that I am going to cook and eat. Grown in worm casings, it is said to be the hottest pepper in the history of anything, ever.

I didn't have a surplus of worm casings when I planted my plant, Trisha (yes, I name my ridiculous pepper plants). But I did have enough household compost to dig a big hole and replace it with the results from a worm-heavy cold-compost pile before planting the little girl in the middle of that pile of worm-digested food.

Therefore I suspect she's very well-fed; indeed, she's grown much larger than any other first-year pepper plant in the garden, without any purposeful chemical treatments or chemical fertilizer.

I've grown ghost peppers (bhot jolokia) for a few years, and I think I understand what I'm in for. The Scorpions have just started to ripen for the season and this is my first of them.

So I pick a deliciously-colored one, quickly sharpen a good knife, and chop it up finely with gloved hands. Still wearing the nitrile gloves, I scrape the minced pepper from the cutting board and sprinkle it onto the pizza. And I take the gloves off and throw them away, because I'm done handling it now -- right?

But seeing those tiny morsels of pepper on that slab of cardboard crust, tomato goo, and imitation cheese makes me think: Gee, how hot could it be?

So I gather up a tiny sliver from the surface of the pizza with my fingertips and eat it. Yep: It's hot. So hot that it has no redeeming qualities, other than just being hot. None of this was unexpected, though at least by comparison a Habernero has a strong and sweet citrus quality once one gets past the pain... But there was no redeeming quality to this pepper: Just pain.

Well enough, I say to myself. I set the oven to pre-heat the oven and go take a leak while I wait.

Twenty minutes later, my fingers are fine. My palette is fine. My throat is fine. My genitals are on fire.

It's not like I can buy these things at the market, so it's amusing to see how persistent this pepper is in casual use.

And, by God, I'm going to cook that pizza. And I'm going to eat it. And I'm going to handle each and every bite with dishwasher-safe, stainless utensils, and I am going to wash them with an enzyme-based detergent and then a bleach-based detergent -- nobody needs to experience this on accident.

I might even put a fresh pair of nitrile gloves on, just to make sure that nothing that goes in my face winds up somewhere other than in my face when I eat this pizza.

But the question is: Why? Why not just enjoy some bland, cheap, freezer pizza? Why, while I wait, do I suffer from a special kind of burning nasal distress every time I emit a tiny burp or belch, having eaten just the tiniest sliver of a pepper? Why can't I just admire Trisha in all of her visual Trinidad Scorpion Butch-T delight? (She is a very lovely plant, after all.)

Why must I torture myself by eating her fruit?

User Journal

Journal: Race is a social construct, again. 2

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

I thought it was already pretty well understood that "Celtic" is only meaningful as a linguistic grouping, but it seems the old idea of a separate "Celtic race" or "Irish race" is pretty strongly embedded, even now:

DNA shows Irish people have more complex origins than previously thought

This makes me think about wider issues. I don't know how many online discussions I've been in recently in which I've been solemnly assured that humanity is divided into three races. (Three shall be the number thou shalt count, and the number of the counting shall be three. Four shalt thou not count, neither count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out.) And people will go on believing this, even when genetic evidence makes it perfectly plain that there's no such thing as race, never has been and never will be. There are heritable phenotypes, some of which are clustered together as a result of geographical or historical accident, none of which are set in stone and almost all of which are continuous rather than discrete states. The weight we assign them is entirely cultural.

As always, Darwin puts it elegantly: "Man has been studied more carefully than any other animal, and yet there is the greatest possible diversity amongst capable judges whether he should be classed as a single species or race, or as two (Virey), as three (Jacquinot), as four (Kant), five (Blumenbach), six (Buffon), seven (Hunter), eight (Agassiz), eleven (Pickering), fifteen (Bory St. Vincent), sixteen (Desmoulins), twenty-two (Morton), sixty (Crawfurd), or as sixty-three, according to Burke. This diversity of judgment does not prove that the races ought not to be ranked as species, but it shews that they graduate into each other, and that it is hardly possible to discover clear distinctive characters between them."

User Journal

Journal: Because I clearly need to do this more often

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

Dear Internet:

Some aspects of your style of argumentation have recently caused me some concern, and I thought it would be best to address them now, before they get out of hand.

If I insult you, I am not necessarily using an "ad hominem" argument. This phrase (literally, "to the man") refers to a specific logical fallacy, that of assuming that when someone you dislike or consider beneath you makes an argument, it follows that the argument is wrong. "You're a moron, so I don't have to listen to anything you say" is an example. "Only a complete idiot would say what you just said, so you must be only slightly smarter than the average flatworm" is not.

In fact, it's probably best to stay away from Philosophy 101 lists of common logical fallacies all together. Just as not all insults are ad hominems, not all citations of experts are "arguments from authority." Not all "slippery slope" scenarios are fallacious. And for the sake of all you hold holy, if you don't understand in gory mathematical detail what correlation and causality actually mean, and the different uses of the verb "to imply" in different contexts, please stay away from any version of A Maxim I Will Not Utter Here, But Which You Can Probably Guess.

All that being said, there is one fallacy to which you fall prey on an alarmingly regular basis. If you disagree with what I say, you have the right--in some cases, the duty--to voice your disagreement. Free speech is a wonderful thing, and it is easier to exercise in the modern world than it has ever been before. By all means, speak up.

However, please make sure that when you're voicing your disagreement, you are disagreeing with what I said. Replying instead to what someone else said, or what you think I'm "actually" saying, or what you think I or someone else might say in the future, are examples of the "straw man" fallacy, and although I have not performed the analysis necessary to test this hypothesis, I strongly suspect that this poor overworked scarecrow is to be found in greater numbers in online discussions than any other type of fallacy ... which, now that I think about it, is a pretty impressive accomplishment.

Thanks for your attention to these matters. Hopefully now that I've explained the error of your ways, we can move on from here and enjoy friendly, well-reasoned discourse on a wide variety of topics.

Sincerely,
That Guy Who's Always Right On The Internet

The Military

Journal: It's a bug hunt.

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

I've said before that the expectations my generation of GIs had when we raised our right hands were shaped by two main forces: the flood of Vietnam movies that came out when we were in high school, and Aliens.* Given that the people who are now running things at the Pentagon went in about the same time I did (!) I can't help but think that the latter had a lot to do with the fairly smooth acceptance of women into combat positions over the last few years.

So it's just bizarre to me that a quarter of a century later, with a solid history of women fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, this kind of thing is still happening. And because video games will probably have just as much to do with shaping the current generation of recruits as movies did with previous generations, it's going to be a problem on the battlefield as well as the web.

*Whether it's a good thing or not that recruits report to basic training with their expectations shaped by popular entertainment is a separate issue. Just accept that they do.

FEAR OF A WOMAN WARRIOR -- The development of Aliens: Colonial Marines and comments from Epic Games' art director reveal a troubling attitude about strong women in games among some major developers.

Media

Journal: Because everyone knows Idiocracy was a documentary.

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

Show. Me. The. Data.

Dumb and Dumber: Study Says Humans Are Slowly Losing Their Smarts

The actual Trends in Genetics articles (paywalled, unfortunately; I urge anyone with access to read them) make it clear that this is not a "study" in any meaningful sense in the word, but rather a bit of unfounded speculation. Now, speculation is an important early step in the process of science, to be sure--but that speculation should be founded on observation, and the author offers none.

Unfortunately, this particular bit of speculation is (as I strongly suspect he knew it would be) a crowd-pleaser, playing as it does into the lost-golden-age mythology which has such universal appeal across all ages and cultures. (I speculate that it's something hardwired into the human brain, but I freely admit that I have no data to support this hypothesis, other than the observation that such a mythology exists.) An actual study would be a worthy project. This kind of sensationalism is just sad.

Original articles:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168952512001588
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016895251200159X

A very insightful critique:
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168952512001941

Author's response to critique, which consists largely of saying "Nuh-uh!":
http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0168952512002090

Facebook

Journal: Social media: B-O-R-I-N-G 5

Journal by Timex

Twitter? Yawn.
Facebook? Try screaming through the night, yawning.
Google+? Pft. Yawn.
Diaspora? BIG, disappointing yawn

That pretty-well leaves the Slashdot Journal. It almost feels like home.

Real computer scientists don't comment their code. The identifiers are so long they can't afford the disk space.

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