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Journal: These are the things in my head at night 7

Journal by Daniel Dvorkin

Then-PFC, now-SGT Bergdahl may in fact have deserted his post. There are certainly credible accusations to that effect, and if so, then he should be tried and convicted for the crime. But it's a whole lot easier to investigate those charges with him here, and we don't let the Taliban mete out justice for us.

The military idea of "taking care of your own" has a lot of different aspects. Holding the line and leaving no one behind are obvious; less obvious, perhaps, is that our people are ours. Loon or no, deserter or no, even traitor or no, whatever else Bowe Bergdahl may be he is someone who raised his right hand and took the oath, and that means that whatever reward or punishment he receives is ours and ours alone to give.

It astonishes me sometimes, having at this point been out of the service several more years than I was in it, how strong and pure those ideas still are in my head: how much "us" the profession of arms still is to me, and I suppose always will be. I'm a civilian and happy to be one now, but both the infantryman and the medic are still very close to the surface. The latter is concerned mainly with bringing back the wounded--and the former is ready, willing, and perhaps even eager to kill anyone who stands in the way of that mission.

Whatever else we did, whatever else we may do, we had to bring him home.

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Journal: 2+ port router+asterisk server? 14

Journal by drinkypoo

I need a new system on which to run asterisk, bonus points if I don't have to configure it from scratch. I'd like to spend less than $200 (ideally I'd pick up something used if necessary for $100) but I have storage devices available, whether CF, SD, USB, or what have you. It can have wireless, but it doesn't have to because I have a routerboard for that. I have found my pogoplugs to be unreliable at best.

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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.

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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: Anti-parochial

Journal by http

I just modded up a foe for presenting a point I don't like well. Nietzsche's got my back.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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."

"Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit, Kill the Wabbit!" -- Looney Tunes, "What's Opera Doc?" (1957, Chuck Jones)

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