Tuesday, September 30, 2008


The “bailout” vote in the news

I only want to say two things about Monday’s vote in the House of Representatives: one is something about the vote itself, and one is about the media coverage.


NPR talked with Representative Jim Marshall (D-GA), who voted in favour. They recorded their conversation just as the final tally came in, so they got his reaction to the result in real time. What impressed me was his attitude toward the vote. NPR’s Melissa Block noted that he voted for it against strong opposition back home and with a tough election looming.

JM: I’ve been persuaded by all of the experts not that this is necessarily the right plan, and not that it has in it all of the right features, but that it is necessary that we act in order to avoid incredible damage that could occur... and probably not get a lot of credit for that because if the pain is never perceived, then people tend not to give you credit for having avoided it.

MB: You said this is not politically easy, this vote today; that might be an understatement. You were quoted as saying, in a private meeting with some of your colleagues, “I’m willing to give up my seat over this.” Is that an accurate quote?

JM: That’s an accurate quote. I was trying to persuade my colleagues to support this bill. The phone calls that people are receiving, I think, are understandably very angry — I was off the charts angry when I first heard about this, when I first saw the Treasury’s proposal, and I can understand people being just livid. I don’t want to help out one whit the irresponsible people who have dragged us into this, whether it’s the borrowers, or the lenders, or the investors, or the Wall Street crowd. I don’t care who they are; I don’t want to help them out. But this is something that’s going to affect our overall economy — and an awful lot of people that I represent — in a very very bad way, and so although it’s very unpopular, I’ve got to take a different view, and take my licks if that’s what I get.

Here’s someone taking a stand for what he honestly thinks is the best thing for his constituents. Whether I agree with his decision or not (I don’t, in fact), I admire what he’s doing. He says that he’s listened to the arguments, he’s heard what the experts have to say, and he believes that it will be a disaster for his constituents if the bill doesn’t pass. Given that, and knowing that his constituents don’t feel the same way, he has to go against their desires, despite the political consequences for him, and vote in their best interest.

I normally think that our representatives in government have a responsibility to vote as we want them to vote, but that’s mitigated by the understanding that in a representative democracy we’ve delegated the choice and given our representatives our collective proxy... and that sometimes they may just have to do what they think is best, to the best of their abilities and knowledge. We hope we can trust them to do that.

I certainly think I would trust Congressman Marshall to do that, in general. I hope he’s re-elected in five weeks.


On ABC World News with Charles Gibson, they had a segment in which one of their financial reporters (I didn’t get her name) spoke as the Voice of Doom about the market decline that afternoon. I wish I could find the video on their web site, but it doesn’t seem to be there. It was truly a sight to behold.

She went on at length about how the market plunged and people lost all this money, how it was heartbreaking to see someone’s retirement investment just get lost, gone in an instant, just like that, and so on. She was in a state of panic.

This is exactly the sort of irresponsible “reporting” that makes people act out of fear instead of sense. They’re relying on people like that reporter to give them information that will put things into perspective and guide them... and instead they get what amounts to, “Oh, my God, the sky is falling! You’re losing all your money and it’s never coming back! Oh, my God!”

The reality is that with securities, no one loses (nor gains) anything until they sell... and that markets go up and down every day, day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. Even if the value of your $10,000 investment is now only, say, $7,000, it’s jarring, it’s worrisome, but you have not actually “lost $3,000” as long as you hold onto the stock and there’s a chance that its value will go up again.

There’s a time, clearly, when we decide to cut our losses and sell the securities despite the low value, and then, indeed, we lose the money. But now is not that time, for the most part, and our retirement has not yet been trashed. The sky has not fallen. Don’t panic.

I thought better of ABC News.

Monday, September 29, 2008


¿Cómo se llama usted?

Some weeks ago, U.S. News & World Report columnist Liz Wolgemuth wrote about whether having an unusual name can affect your career prospects:

While a bizarre first name rarely says much about the individual who carries it—serving instead to lay the parents out like an open book—will Zuma, Apple, or Kyd have trouble being taken seriously in the working world?
Liz cites blogs that raise the question, and asks, “Would you mind letting Sage Moonblood manage your money?” Her advice on the issue mirrors the Internet philosophy of being conservative with what you give and liberal in what you accept:
If you’re a parent, consider the professional ramifications of your child’s name. But if you’re an employer, focus on performance.

Commenter #2, a man who is himself named Sebastianalexander, says that an unusual name is, indeed a problem — and he speaks from personal experience. But he opened his comment with this:

While we all strive to be nonjudgemental and open minded, based on name alone would you hire Shaquinella Jackson or Jane Goldstein as your defense lawyer? It’s a silent decision we all make quite often and we do what we honestly know is best.

My response to that, which I gave in the comments there and have meant to blog about here since, is that I don’t judge people on their names alone. Sure, I’ll note an unusual name, a “strange” name, and will sometimes shake my head in wonder. But when it comes to choosing someone to hire or befriend, no, I won’t consider that as a factor. I mentioned that when I talked about what I look at in résumés.

I do wonder why parents give their children names that they’ll have to spend their lives repeating (“Sorry, I didn’t get that... what did you say your name was?”), spelling, and explaining. And, as Liz says, some names certainly appear to assume that their owners will go into entertainment, rather than, say, law or medicine. Still, as Liz’s commenter #1 points out, we may soon have a president called Barack. And if you’re looking in the phone book for a defense attorney, you’re more likely to see “Jackson and Goldstein, LLP”, and not see the given names at all.

But, here, let’s have a quiz. Suppose you were looking for that defense attorney, or someone to get financial advice from, or otherwise just someone to trust. Decide something from the names before you look at the links... and then think about whether anything changes afterward. Would you put your trust in Epatha, or Lynette?

You can’t judge people by their names.

What do you expect of Tawanna Smith, and of Angela Reddock?

You can’t make assumptions based on people's names.

Sunday, September 28, 2008


Going to the candidates’ debate

I watched Friday night’s “debate”. I hadn’t planned to, but I did. What I saw was actually better than I’d expected: a set of core questions that each candidate had two minutes of uninterrupted time to address — and they generally did address the questions at hand, despite not having known in advance what they would be (though none were real surprises), and time with each question to discuss and rebut. It was almost like a proper debate, certainly more so than others in recent years.

I was very surprised by Senator McCain’s manner. Senator Obama came across as confident, secure, and presidential, while Senator McCain just appeared to be lame, not at all in control and not specific enough in his answers. I was puzzled.

Then I read James Hanley’s analysis of what purpose the debates serve (written Friday morning, but I hadn’t had time to read it and it sat in a browser tab until Saturday), and he hits the problem exactly with this:

That stuff just doesn’t give you any idea who would be a more capable president, so it doesn’t help anyone make an informed decision.

And of course the mass media almost solely focuses on who “won” and who “lost” the debates, treating them as wholly self-contests, with little regard for what they really reveal—if anything—about a candidate’s presidential qualifications. And winning is a wholly relative term, based on how the candidates are expected to perform. You don’t have to do well to win, you just have to do better than expected, which means that if you’re expected to be a clueless dolt, you can win just by not misprouncing “nucular” too badly. That’s why we get the candidates’ campaigns doing their best to create very low expectations.

Well, yes, of course. That’s it. High school debate teams “win” or “lose” their debates on how they’ve put together and conducted their arguments, and they are assigned different sides of an issue to debate. In those debates, the participants score points, and we tally them... but that’s not what these debates are supposed to be about.

These are supposed to be telling us where the candidates stand on the issues of the day, and giving them a chance to challenge each other’s stand right there in front of us. And, in fact, this debate did much more of that than most others have done.

And yet as soon as it was over, I started seeing things pop up in the news media and in the blogs... telling us who “won” on each question, and overall. But it’s not a question of winning and losing; it’s a question of giving you and me the information we need in order to choose between them in the election. Senator Obama might have appeared more in control of the question about the economy, but if you don’t agree with his plan, that’s what matters. Senator McCain may have succeeded in beating Senator Obama up for being willing to “sit across the table” from Iranian President Ahmadinejad, saying that doing so “legitimizes” everything the latter has said... but if you think that’s a ridiculous bucket of hog-spittle, has he “won” that question?

If we really want informed voters, both the voters and the news media have to stop trying to bring everything down to a check mark in one column or another. It’s not black and white, it’s not sound bites, it’s not a zero-sum game.[1] It’s a complex set of issues, and we have to think about them. And the media have to help get us the information we really need to think about.

Laugh about it, shout about it,
When you’ve got to choose;
Every way you look at it, you lose.

— Paul Simon, “Mrs Robinson”


[1] Well, the election is a zero-sum game, of course. But the issues, and the candidates’ and voters’ views on them aren’t.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


The economic bailout

On Tuesday, there were U.S. Senate Banking Committee hearings with Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson, and Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke — hearings aimed at analyzing the Bush administration’s “bailout plan” for the Wall Street investment firms.

As I heard it, the best bit was the exchange between New York’s Senator Charles Schumer and Secretary Paulson, which exchange I will summarize here, in my own words, not theirs:

Senator Schumer wondered if “only” $150 billion, rather than the $700 billion (or more) that they’re asking for, would be enough to get the recovery started, and then we could revisit the issue somewhere around, oh, say, 1/20/09, just to pick a date at random, and see how we’re doing. Hey, for all we know, that might do the trick, right?

Secretary Paulson said no, it wouldn’t, because this is really about greed market confidence, and anything short of an obscene shitload the full amount would not instill the required confidence. And we have to act while Bush is still in office quickly, to avoid cutting him out of the windfall a meltdown.

Don’t’cha know.

Friday, September 26, 2008


XLe CarnavaXL des Mathématiques, #40

Carnival of Mathematics logoI came upon hosting this edition of the Carnival of Mathematics by accident: I asked our august organizer, AXLon XLevy, what had happened to the 40th edition, and he repXLied that he’d had troubXLe finding hosts, and had had no host for it. Did I, he asked, want to host it beXLatedXLy? How couXLd I decXLine?

WeXLXL, then, of course I had to decide whether to caXLXL it the 40th or the 41st. ShouXLd we skip the number that had been aXLXLocated to the missing one? Or should we just caXLXL the missing one “XLate”, and retain its number?

I chose the XLatter, as you can teXLXL. And in honour of that, I’ve scattered a few Roman numeraXLs about this introduction. They’re weXLXL hidden, but I’m sure you’XLXL find them, mathematicaXL adepts that you are.

One more important bit before we bXLast off: AXLon stiXLXL needs hosts, and the hosts need posts, and the posts need authors, and... well, you see the point, yes? PXLease voXLunteer to host a CarnivaXL of Mathematics in the very near future, by sending emaiXL to Alon Levy <alon_levy1@yahoo.com>. And if you write any mathematicaXLXLy oriented posts, submit them to a future carnivaXL using the handy submission form. Thanks muchXLy.

Talking of hosts, the next, 41st edition of the Carnival of Mathematics will be hosted by the folks at the Nazareth College Math Department, in Rochester, NY. Their blog is called “360”, and it’s not officially connected with the college, but it soon will be officially connected with this carnival. Thanks for hosting!

And now... it’s show-time, foXLks!

We’ll start with two items from Mark Dominus, of The Universe of Discourse: Factorials are almost, but not quite, square, and its more expository (and very geeky) follow-up, Factorials are not quite as square as I thought. I’ve always found anything about factorials to be interesting — factorials and Fibonacci numbers; I wonder what the “f” connection is — and you have to like any blog whose domain name is a reference to Adventure.

Skeptic’s Play, by someone called just “miller”, has a two-part item about a tricky dice problem. Part one is Generating functions, and part two is Factoring dice. And look: Fibonacci numbers! Is this eerie, or what?

In Jon Ingram’s blog, Lessons Taught; Lessons Learnt, we get a look at the first book of Euclid’s Elements, including a graph of the relationships between all the propositions, and a discussion of why Jon thinks the Elements are still worth reading: Exploring Euclid’s Elements. And, connecting us back to miller’s previous item, I note that Jon starts his post by mentioning a blog called God Plays Dice.

Back to Fibonacci numbers for a moment, I couldn’t resist including an item from the next Carnival of Mathematics host, the 360 blog, which posts about Fibonacci mileage, observing that for a Fibonacci number Fn (for n > 5 or so), Fn miles is approximately Fn+1 kilometers. The comments carry it a little farther, as well.

Next, Barry Wright III, in 3stylelife, gives us Probability of a Majority Winner (Unit Interval Model). Barry connects mathematics to the U.S. presidential election (but not to dice, nor any f-words).

In The Endeavour, John D. Cook tells us about Binomial coefficients. This kicks off a series of John’s writings on that and related topics, so be sure to click through, and click through, and....

Speaking of a series, we’ll finish with a couple of ongoing post series. The first is by Mark Chu-Carroll of Good Math, Bad Math, giving an introduction to encryption. He’s tagged them all with the category “encryption”, so you can find them that way, but here’s the series so far:

  1. Preamble: Encryption, Privacy, and You
  2. Simple Encryption: Introduction and Substitution Ciphers
  3. Rotating Ciphers
  4. Introducing Cryptanalysis
  5. Transposition Ciphers
  6. Introduction to Block Ciphers
  7. DES Encryption Part 1: Encrypting the Blocks
  8. Modes of Operation in Block Cryptography (with an important correction here)

And then editor’s prerogative lets me finish with my own series of posts on paradoxes and other mathematical oddities. That first post points to all the others (and I’ll update it as I add more). The series so far:

  1. Paradoxes
  2. Zeno’s Paradox
  3. Russell’s Paradox
  4. The Liar Paradox
  5. Paradox: 1 = 0

And as a post-scriptum, I’ll add an article from the New York Times. It’s not a blog, but it should be of interest to readers of this carnival: Gut Instinct’s Surprising Role in Math :

One research team has found that how readily people rally their approximate number sense is linked over time to success in even the most advanced and abstruse mathematics courses. Other scientists have shown that preschool children are remarkably good at approximating the impact of adding to or subtracting from large groups of items but are poor at translating the approximate into the specific. Taken together, the new research suggests that math teachers might do well to emphasize the power of the ballpark figure, to focus less on arithmetic precision and more on general reckoning.


And with that, we’ll see all of you next week at 360. If you submitted an entry after about 12 September, look for it there.

Thursday, September 25, 2008



On Monday’s Morning Edition on NPR, we got to hear a clip of Senator Schumer using a very strange verb:

Frank [Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), chair of the House Financial Services Committee] wants the bill to limit executives’ compensation at the financial firms getting bailed out. He also wants a special tax on those making over $1 million a year to help offset the cost of the bailout.

Another leading Democrat, New York Sen. Charles Schumer, seemed to throw cold water on Frank’s wish list during an appearance on Fox News Sunday.

“We will not Christmas-tree this bill,” Schumer said. “The times are too urgent. Everyone has their own desires and needs. It’s going to have to wait.”

“To Christmas-tree”. Yes, verbing continues to weird language.

Pointers to this fortnight’s blog carnivals:

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


Paradox: 1 = 0

In the first part of the paradox series, I listed four categories of paradoxes. Let’s look at an old favourite today, which falls in one of the categories I haven’t given an example of yet.

We have a proof that 1 = 0:

  1. Let x and y be positive numbers such that   x = y
  2. Square both sides:   x2 = y2
  3. Subtract y2 from both sides:   x2 - y2 = 0
  4. Factor x2 - y2:   (x + y)(x - y) = 0
  5. Divide both sides by x - y:   x + y = 0
  6. Since x = y, substitute x for y:   2x = 0
  7. Divide both sides by 2x:   1 = 0
— Quod Erat Demonstrandum.

The flaw, of course, is in step 5: if x = y then x - y = 0, and we’re dividing by zero in step 5. (But note that because I made x a positive number, there’s no division by zero in step 7.) Since division by zero is not well defined, everything after that point is invalid. That puts this into category two:

It actually is not true, because it’s based on a false premise (that seems true, or that’s been lost in the weeds).

There are many variations on this, “proving” slightly different things, but they all involve dividing by zero. When we use an invalid premise — here, the premise that division by zero is legitimate — we can claim to deduce anything from it. That’s because of how conditional statements work.

Put mathematically, if P and Q are statements, and P is false, the statement if P then Q is always true. But that doesn’t mean that Q is true — if P is false, we can say nothing at all about Q, either way — and that’s the part that people often miss.

We’ll come back to that point later in this series.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


Texting and going don't mix

I’m catching up on some news reading that I hadn’t gotten to for several days, and I find a couple of related items that just made me smack myself in the head in a gesture reminiscent of the old “I could have had a V8!” adverts:

  1. California Bans Texting by Operators of Trains
  2. As Text Messages Fly, Danger Lurks

The first item tells us that in the aftermath of a horrible train wreck that killed 25 people and that appears to have been caused (they’re not certain yet) by the engineer’s sending text messages when he should have been driving the train, the state of California has “temporarily banned the use of all cellular devices by anyone at the controls of a moving train.”

To which I say, “Temporarily?” WTF?

More and more states are forbidding drivers to use their hands to futz with their mobile phones while they’re driving cars, and there’s even a question about banning this stuff when one is driving a train?

Let’s look at this carefully:

  1. The engineers of trains aren’t just sitting at the controls of vehicles for their own use: they are being paid for it. They’re being paid to do a job. They need to do that job. Using mobile phones, for any purpose, is not part of that job.
  2. The engineers of trains arent just carting themselves around. They’re responsible for the lives and safety of hundreds of people and millions of dollars of property that doesn’t belong to them. They have a responsibility to pay attention!

The second item gives us the most profound and unexpected bit of rocket science we’ve seen in... in... well, probably ever: that doing something that takes your attention away from what you’re supposed to be doing is... distracting:

Texting while driving, or simply while crossing the street, is increasingly recognized as hazardous. “Texting automatically removes 10 I.Q. points,” one expert said.

“10 I.Q. points”? What’s that about? No, no, it’s far worse than that. It’s not that it makes you less intelligent; it’s that it takes your attention away from what you’re supposed to be doing. A dog can cross the street and avoid the cars, because it’s paying attention. A human with two PhDs and an I.Q. of 150 can walk out in front of a Chevy Suburban because she’s paying more attention to her text messages than to the traffic.

The fact is, though, that people are walking out in front of cars, that they’re driving their cars while trying to do the two-thumb dance, that they’re piloting commuter trains and not watching the signals.

Though there are no official casualty statistics, there is much anecdotal evidence that the number of fatal accidents stemming from texting while driving, crossing the street or engaging in other activities is on the rise.

I’m reminded of an old The Far Side cartoon, where a cat is pouncing on a cluster of birds. The birds are all flying away to safety, except for the one who’s listening to his Walkman.

Pay attention!

Monday, September 22, 2008


Résumé “headlines”

Someone sent me this résumé advice as a curiosity, and curious I found it, indeed:

Instead of putting your name and objective at the top of your resume, try this technique. Make a single sentence headline about yourself that is so intriguing or funny or descriptive or unique or creative that it breaks through the clutter and gets read.

On the surface, it sounds like reasonable advice, but for two snags. I should start by noting that interviewing prospective hires is a small part of my job, and not something I’m doing all the time. Perhaps someone who does it constantly would have a different view. Or perhaps the view would be different for someone in another industry.

So, that said, the first snag is that I don’t start by looking at the applicant’s name, or other such information that’s likely to be heading the résumé. That’s not the most important stuff on there, and I also wouldn’t want to take even the small risk that things like the name or address would prompt me to pre-judge the applicant.

No, the first thing I look at is what your goals are and what you’ve done already. And for those, I don’t need nor want something cute or catchy, but something clear and concise, something that really tells me why you’re here and what you want to do, and what skills and experience you bring with you. I will say that this should certainly be “unique”; it’s of no use to say, “This is a great company, and I’d really like to work here.”

The next thing I’ll do is go to Google and see what I can find about you, so make sure there’s something out there that shows off your professional credentials. I’ll look over some of your publications, and I’ll note where they were published, how mature the work was, and how clearly it was communicated.

The rest of it — education, references, name, hobbies, or “headline” — comes later, and means far less. References, in particular, are things I usually find pretty useless. You have to have them, of course, but unless you’ve specifically picked references I’m likely to know personally or professionally (if you’ve really done a good job putting your résumé together, you have, but I rarely see that), I’ll have to go looking for references on my own, anyway, and that’ll wait until I’ve already decided that you’ve made the first cut.

The other snag is the list of examples of “creative” headlines, which includes these:

I married the prettiest girl in my small town high school, proof positive I can sell myself; just think what I can do for the widgets of ABC.

Voted “most likely to succeed,” when I should have been voted “most likely to help ABC develop killer products.”

I was MVP for a state championship team in high school, voted on by my peers.

If I saw these, my response would be, “WTF?” I’d think of the first two as negative points, attempts to be cutesy at the expense of real substance. For the third, I would wonder why you thought that mattered at all. Even the best of the suggestions would be no better than neutral for me.

Again, maybe that’s because I don’t do this day in and day out, and my eyes are not just glazed over by one more résumé.

So do any of my readers interview job candidates regularly? Do any of you have comments that agree or differ? Would the catchy headlines truly catch your eye and make you look further, saving this applicant from being stacked on the endless heap?

Sunday, September 21, 2008


“Stone” pickup truck

Seen last weekend on the Long Island Expressway:

Faux-stone pickup truck on the LIE

Saturday, September 20, 2008


Unlock your door over the Internet?

Bruce Schneier posts an item about this gadget, a door lock that allows you to lock and unlock it over the Internet:

The CEDIA expo in Denver has been wowed by some cunning gear designed by Schlage which makes door locks that can be wirelessly set or opened via the Internet, from a mobile phone or a computer.

Each of the battery-operated locks have keypads that are locked and unlocked with 4-digit access codes. Users who forget to lock a door and want to enter their code remotely can hop onto a Web portal or use software added to their mobile phones.

Schlage says the wireless signals sent to the locks are encrypted. Kit for the lock, which includes the lock and the wireless bridge to communicate with it will set you back $299. There’s a $13 monthly fee to use the applications that let the locks be controlled remotely.

Bruce notes that it’s probably not the best idea, and commenters have varying opinions. My first thought was that it’d be OK for locking the door (in case you forgot to), but not secure enough for unlocking. Further thought modified that a bit.

First, I’ll note that the fact that it’s “encrypted” is pretty meaningless. We don’t have details of the encryption, so we don’t know whether it’s done right in the first place. But even if it is, that would only prevent simple snooping from discovering the code, and one needn’t snoop. A four-digit code is just too easy to crack with brute force — only 10,000 codes to try, and fewer than that if you eliminate (or leave for last) the ones that most people will consider “insecure” and won’t use (such as 1111 and 1234).

On the other hand, given that monthly fee, we can assume that your mobile phone doesn’t just talk to the lock directly over the Internet. If there’s an intermediary application (server) involved, it can enforce various rules, require authentication of the device that’s trying to unlock it, put in delays when too many wrong codes have been tried, summon the police when it detects suspicious patterns, and so forth.

The reason a four-digit PIN is adequate to protect your ATM card is that these sorts of restrictions are used for it. One must have the card in hand, which is equivalent to identifying the mobile phone and only allowing access to specific ones. The bank can lock the card out after a few invalid attempts, preventing any attempt at a brute-force attack. If this can do that as well (and the encryption is adequate), then it’s good enough — it’s probably easier to pick the key lock than to try to break the wireless code.

Then, too, how many of you use wireless garage-door openers, and leave the interior door to the house unlocked? I haven’t looked at newer openers, but the old Sears system I’ve looked at uses nine three-position switches to set the code. That only gives about 20,000 possible codes (39 = 19,683), easily exposing it to a brute-force attack as well. And we know for sure that there’s no lock-out system, so it’d be easy enough to connect a transmitter to a computer, and have the computer cycle through all possibilities until the door opens. With a nine-switch code and one try per second, it’d take a little less than five and a half hours to try all the codes, putting the average expected time to crack the code at around two hours and forty-four minutes.

We don’t think of that as much of an exposure, but we should. We’re more afraid of something that works over the Internet, but we shouldn’t be. Unless the Internet-based system gives the caller feedback on success or failure (something that’d be pretty silly, since the only feedback that matters, which the real user sees, is that the lock operates) there is no value in trying to hack the lock from any distance. Sure, theoretically someone in Kuala Lumpur could open your door, but why would they try, and how would they know when they succeeded?

So it really only matters to someone who’s nearby, and for that it’s probably as secure as is any other way of getting into your house.

The real question that remains, then, is this one: Why would you pay $13/month to use this thing?

Friday, September 19, 2008


On foreign policy and moose

On Thursday’s Morning Edition, NPR aired items about McCain and Palin in Michigan and Obama in Nevada (pronounce the first “a” as in “dad”, not as in “pa”, if you want to wow the Nevadans). In the Michigan segment was this bit, from a “town hall meeting” in Grand Rapids:

NPR’s David Greene: One question at last night’s town hall came from Kimberly King:

Kimberly King: Governor Palin, there has been quite a bit of discussion about your perceived lack of foreign policy experience. I want to give you your chance: If you could please respond to that criticism and give us specific skills that you think you have to bring to the White House to rebut that or mitigate that concern.

Sarah Palin: Well, I think because I’m a Washington outsider, that, uh, that opponents are going to be looking for a whole lot of things that they can criticize, and they can kind of try to beat the candidate, here, who chose me as his partner to, um, kind of tear down the ticket. But as for foreign policy, you know, I think that I am prepared, and I know that on January 20th if we are so blessed as to be sworn into office as your president and vice president, certainly we’ll be ready, I’ll be ready, I have that confidence, I have that readiness. And if you want specifics, with specific policy or countries, go ahead and, and you can ask me, you can, you can play Stump the Candidate if you want to. Um. But we are ready to serve.

Right. In other words, “No, Kimberly, nothing specific. Sorry. But I have that readiness, bless me, I do.”


Suppose you were, say, having your kitchen re-done from the ground up, and someone wanted to do the design and contracting for you. Only, she’d never designed a kitchen before, never contracted with builders, and wasn’t really even aware of what sorts of cabinets and countertops were available, except for that time she flipped through a catalogue while she waited at the Home Depot. But, she assures you, being an outsider is actually a benefit, and if she’s blessed with your business she has that confidence and readiness.

Ya think you’d hire her?

I certainly wouldn’t.

But let’s not forget that George H.W. Bush got elected with Dan “Potatoe” Quayle at his side. Anything can happen. So let’s be clear about why the country and the world will be better off if we’re “blessed” with Barack Obama in the White House, and make sure that that gets at least as much press.


While we’re at it: I’m getting irritated by how the media, even NPR, are going on about the “moose hunter” and “hockey mom” stuff, just parroting advertising copy from the McCain campaign. It’s not news and it’s not relevant, and by continuing to cover it, even in an attempt to add humour, they’re giving credibility to it and acting as sock puppets for the campaign. (On the other hand, NPR also added this stand-up routine of Woody Allen’s, from 1960. Funny, if a bit dated.)


Oh, and also while we’re here, we should give link love to The Palin Truth Squad. Lovely satire up front with real, important information behind it; click forthwith.

Thursday, September 18, 2008


Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act of 2008 (S.3325)

Yesterday, I sent the following to my Senators, Charles Schumer and Hillary Clinton, about the Enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights Act of 2008, currently up before the Senate as S.3325:


I’m writing about pending legislation, S.3325, “To enhance remedies for violations of intellectual property laws, and for other purposes.”

It’s section 506a with which I take exception:

“the Attorney General may commence a civil action”: The Department of Justice should not be in the business of suing in civil court on behalf of copyright owners. It’s the copyright owner alone who should be responsible for that, as is currently specified.

Allowing the Department of Justice to file civil copyright-infringement suits does not provide protection for the small copyright owners (on whose behalf the DoJ will not likely be working), and opens the door to influence by large industry, which can press the executive branch to do its job for it — a job that it has already proven that it can do on its own.

“Imposition of a civil penalty under this section does not preclude any other criminal [...] remedy”: This amounts to a form of double jeopardy, wherein the Attorney General pursues a civil action and then takes criminal action as well. This is all the more reason that the AG should stick to the criminal side, and it should be left to the copyright owners to bring civil suit.

This bill is supported by some of the “good guys”; it was introduced by Democratic Senators Patrick Leahy (VT), Evan Bayh (IN), and Dianne Feinstein (CA), as well as Republicans Spector (PA), Voinovich (OH), and Cornyn (TX), from whom I’d expect to see this sort of thing, and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) have signed on as sponsors.

The rest of the bill, which increases penalties and the like, is fine, but the part that allows the Justice Department to get involved in civil suits on behalf of the RIAA and its kin is misguided.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008


A great find: Tweed's in Riverhead

The Tweed sign.While on Long Island this past weekend, I found a really pleasant restaurant: Tweed’s Restaurant and Buffalo Bar, in Riverhead, NY. The place is named for Boss Tweed, the notorious New York Democratic Party head in the mid-1800s, eventually jailed for the corruption he was widely known for. According to the restaurant’s history, Tweed and other New York politicians often came there and stayed at the associated hotel.

We knew none of that, of course. We just parked on Main Street and walked along, seeking a place for lunch on Sunday, and Tweed’s looked inviting.

When we opened the door, we were greeted by a large, friendly, mustachioed man who seated us. He and our waiter took our drink orders, and as those arrived the first gentleman returned with a glass of single malt Scotch whiskey. The restaurant.“Here,” he said, “have a taste of this,” and he told us about some folks from Scotland who’d been there the previous night, and how they all tasted some varieties and decided that this was the best. It turned out to be a shot of Lagavulin that he’d given us to try.

And he turned out to be Ed Tuccio, the owner of the place, the restaurant and hotel (and, as waiter Brian told us, “half of Riverhead” as well). Brian was a friendly as Ed was, and seemed genuinely to like working there and to enjoy their food himself. The bar.  On the right, Andrew, Ed, and Brian.And he did a great “Louis Armstrong growl” as Andrew, who was playing tunes on the piano, played Wonderful World and we both sang along a bit (Brian far better than I).

The decor is friendly, as well. The walls sport items associated with bison (including a huge bison head, purported, according to the web site, to be from an animal shot by Teddy Roosevelt) and with the history of the restaurant and the area. There are old maps, old photos, posters, and framed newspaper clippings. It’s neither too bright nor too dark, though we sat by the window, in the brightest part of the place.

We had sautéed soft-shell crabs and a wrap filled with local duck, crispy onions, cabbage, and an Asian-style sauce; both were delicious. Brian also highly recommended cod, and bison rib-eye steak. The bison.What we didn’t know then, but discovered from the web site, is that their chefs were trained at the Culinary Institute of America, making the wonderful cooking no surprise at all.

During a break from his playing, Andrew told us about Ed’s bison farm, just a couple of miles north of the restaurant, so we took a drive up there after lunch, and had a look. Not at all what one expects to see on Long Island.

What a great meal, nice atmosphere, and friendly people! I certainly want to go back there.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008


The Liar Paradox

More on paradoxes, and getting back to the Greek philosophers, we have Epimenides, from Crete in the sixth century BC: “All Cretans are liars.” At least that’s what he’s purported to have said, and that statement, or ones like it, have formed the basis for logic puzzles for centuries (“On an island live two tribes. Members of the Tutu tribe always tell the truth, while members of the Lolo tribe always lie. ...”).

Of course, the statement attributed to Epimenides doesn’t cause any contradiction: it’s not nailed down well enough. It’s possible that Epimenides is a liar, and that there’s another Cretan who isn’t. And, of course, a liar doesn’t have to lie all the time. But here’s the classic, bullet-proof formulation of the liar paradox:

This sentence is false.

It should be clear that if the sentence is true, then it’s true that it’s false. And if it’s false, that means it’s true. So we have a nice, tight contradiction.

The problem here is that we’re trying to fit well-defined rules onto human language, which is inherently not well defined — not well defined at all. If we try to put something like it into symbolic logic, we’ll wind up with something obviously nonsensical (something like P := ~P). In natural language, it appears to make sense, but it’s really just as nonsensical.

In other words, what the Liar Paradox points out to us is that it’s possible to write sentences in plain English that look fine, but make no sense.

It’s quite easy, in fact: George Bush has written a lot of them.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Risk: reality and imagination

Some friends and I were talking, the other day, about being stuck behind school buses in the mornings, about how the buses stop at each street or at each house, about how parents wait with the children. And about how that’s different from “before”, and whether the change makes sense.

When I was in grade school, I walked or took the public bus(!) through third grade (I was riding the public bus by myself from the age of six, paying the fare and knowing which stop was mine), and rode a school bus from fourth grade on. I walked half a mile to the grounds of another school, where some twenty kids met, hung around, engaged in horseplay, and waited for the bus to our school. There were never adults around, and we never thought there should be.

More importantly, our parents never thought there should be.

Today, we worry. We don’t want the kids walking to a bus stop in the mornings, lest they be hit by cars. We don’t want them left alone, lest they be snatched. We worry about attacks, kidnappings, sexual assaults, murders, and we lock things down to protect ourselves, our children, our families.

Does it really make sense? These things do happen, to be sure, but they happen so infrequently that the chance of something happening to you is vanishingly small. Yet you want to be sure, and, indeed, my quoting statistics that show how unlikely it is means little when it’s your child who’s been abducted, or worse. So you do everything we can to make sure.

That may be a sensible approach for a group as small as a family, but it doesn’t scale up. It simply doesn’t work to take the same precautions in our society as a whole as we do in a small group. The level of control needed is too great. The effect on personal liberties is too severe. The effort and manpower required is too large.

And so with terrorism. We are, by the nature of it, terrified of terrorism, something we remind ourselves each year on 11 September. But it doesn’t make sense. Consider this, from the Australian Sydney Morning Herald:

And yet the study reveals that almost 40 per cent of voters believe the Government should be doing more to prevent terrorism, whereas only 10 per cent believe it’s done too much.

There’s just one small problem with all this. Australians, like people in most countries, have a hugely exaggerated impression of the likelihood of terrorist attacks. Actually, make that two small problems. The other is we have an exaggerated impression of governments’ ability to prevent attacks.


None of those events gives us a realistic idea of the probability of an attack. Transnational terrorism across the world leads to an average of 420 deaths a year. With a global population of 6.6 billion, that’s not a big risk.

The chance of being killed in a road accident is very much higher. Australia’s annual road toll is four times that figure for the whole globe. And in the US, 10 times as many people are killed on the roads each year as the number killed in the unprecedented and unrepeated events of September 11.

Even the chance of contracting HIV/AIDS would be much higher. But modern politicians are much more in the business of pandering to the public’s misperceptions — and exploiting them for their own ends — than they are of setting us straight on the facts of life.

In a study of terrorism prepared for the Copenhagen Consensus project by Professor Todd Sandler, of the University of Texas, and two other economists, they conclude that “guarding against terrorism can use large resources for little reduction in risk”.

What’s more, defensive measures against terrorism “may simply change the focus of attacks (for example from hijacking to kidnaps) and even increase attacks by creating new grievances”.

Mull that over and let it sink in. And note that Americans are not significantly different from Australians in this regard. Now look at some of the main points repeated:

  1. People want the government to do more to prevent terrorism...
  2. ...yet the government’s efforts against terrorism are largely ineffective.
  3. ...yet the government’s efforts against terrorism are very costly.
  4. ...yet the risk is very low to start with, much lower than things we do every day and consider safe.
  5. Politicians take advantage of our fear; it’s in their best interests to keep us afraid.

The key to thinking about this rationally is to understand that our perception of risk increases with the surprise and drama of the situation, and decreases with familiarity. We’re used to car crashes (high familiarity, low surprise), and a single crash only kills one or two people (low drama), so we downplay the risk in our minds. We’re not used to bombings; they’re unexpected, and they sometimes kill a large number of people. Moreover, the media add to the drama by showing us the sort of graphic pictures that are usually absent from coverage of the typical auto fatality. All that makes us mentally multiply the risk, well beyond reality.

What’s needed is a cost/benefit analysis to put things into perspective and show what’s worth doing... and what’s not. We’re talking about protecting lives, here, so the cost question is fraught. Still, it’s clear that we’re not willing to spend unlimited resources to save a single life, so there’s some analysis that we can do.

Think about securing your house. Here are a set of things you could do, in approximate order of cost (I’m sure you can think of others; feel free):

  1. Be careful about locking the existing locks.
  2. Install better locks.
  3. Get a dog.
  4. Install an alarm system.
  5. Hire night-time security guards.
  6. Hire full-time security guards.
Of course, we’ll each do our own cost/benefit analysis, and we’ll use the results to decide what to do. I could say that protecting my house protects my life, so no cost is too much. But none of us would actually decide it that way — none of us are likely to hire guards. We’d assess the risk, and pick a choice that’s the right balance between how much we think we can reduce the risk compared with how much money we’ll spend doing it.

The same goes for “homeland security”; we can throw the entire national budget at it, but not everything we do gets us much reduction in risk, and we have to consider the value of what reduction we do get, as well as the value of public perception, against the cost of the effect on civil liberties and the benefits of what else we might spend the money (and other resources) on.

And it’s the cost/benefit analysis that’s largely missing, as we do random searches of subway riders, keep watch lists that have so many names that they’re worse than useless, make people take off their shoes at the airports, and hassle the tourist who’s trying to take photos of his visit to the United States.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


Parallel lists

A kosher meatpacking plant in Iowa, the largest such plant in the country, has been in the news lately for non-kosher labor practices. In the latest round, they’re accused of violating child-labour laws. In the version of the report on National Public Radio’s news, the reporter said that their employment of under-age workers is “illegal because the children are exposed to dangerous chemicals, power machinery, and often work longer hours than permitted.”

Lists have to have parallel structure to make them easier to understand, but that’s a rule that’s violated more often than labour laws are. One can almost think of it mathematically: you ought to be able to “factor out” the common bits, or, alternatively, to factor them back in. Each item in the list should make sense if it’s attached to the “factored out” part by itself.

Let’s put NPR’s list in bullet form, to highlight the point:

It is illegal because the children are exposed to
  1. dangerous chemicals.
  2. power machinery.
  3. often work longer hours than permitted.
Item three is the odd one out: it doesn’t make sense when you stick it onto the introductory phrase.

So let’s back up:

It is illegal because
  1. the children are exposed to dangerous chemicals.
  2. the children are exposed to power machinery.
  3. the children often work longer hours than permitted.
There, that makes sense. We can still factor “the children” out, of course. And pulling it back to this point also shows us that “exposed to power machinery” is a somewhat awkward or unclear way to say it. Is it that they’re actually operating the power machinery? Or are they working in the area while someone else is operating it? The Times article tells us this:
The complaint charges that the plant employed workers under the legal age of 18, including seven who were under 16, from Sept. 9, 2007, to May 12. Some workers, including some younger than 16, worked on machinery prohibited for employees under 18, including “conveyor belts, meat grinders, circular saws, power washers and power shears,” said an affidavit filed with the complaint.

Then here’s another try:

It is illegal because the children
  1. are exposed to dangerous chemicals.
  2. operate power machinery.
  3. often work longer hours than permitted.
And putting it back into narrative form, their employment of under-age workers is “illegal because the children are exposed to dangerous chemicals, operate power machinery, and often work longer hours than permitted.”

We need to think about this when we’re writing presentations, where we often use bullet-lists and they’re often not written to be parallel. For example, this bullet list is from a recent presentation I attended:

  1. Identify business problems
  2. Discover and leverage existing activities
  3. Ongoing communication
  4. New technology evaluation
Please excuse “methodology” and “leverage”; I didn’t write the slide. The point is that the first two bullets are active — they have verbs and they tell us what the speaker is proposing to do — and the last two are passive — they don’t have verbs; they’re just noun phrases.

I’d rewrite the slide this way (leaving the business-speak alone, much as I’d like to change it):

  1. Identify business problems
  2. Discover and leverage existing activities
  3. Communicate regularly [with whom?]
  4. Evaluate new technology [for inclusion?]
That reads better, and it also points out that the last two bullets are missing something: without some specified target, they’re just empty phrases that mean nothing. Of course, that’s often why we write them the original way. “Ongoing communication” is clearly a good thing, and we want to avoid having to be too specific about it. But it makes for a weak presentation, and anyone who’s paying attention will see that.

It’s easy to say, when someone goes on about something like parallelism in lists, that it’s just unnecessary pickiness and “You understand what I’m saying.” But this parallelism thing isn’t just a random rule; thinking about this — and stuff like it — leads to clearer, more effective communication. Isn’t a better presentation worth it?

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Limiting the speed of cars?

Kent Sepkowitz, a medical doctor, suggests, in a New York Times op-ed piece, that speeding kills and that we can solve the problem easily — that “there’s a simple way to prevent speeding: quit building cars that can exceed the speed limit.”

There’s one thing you can be sure of in life: when someone claims to have a “simple” solution, their plan is neither simple nor a solution. Such is the case here, as well, though Dr Sepkowitz has some valid points. Here’s what he gets right:

  1. “Speeding is [a factor in] 30 percent of all traffic deaths in the United States — about 13,000 people a year.”
  2. “There is [a] relationship between speeding and alcohol.”
  3. “Americans insist on the inalienable right to speed.”
  4. We could use toll-road information to compute a lower bound on drivers’ speeds, and ticket them accordingly. Indeed, I, too, have always wondered why we don’t, and I suspect, as Dr Sepkowitz does, that item 3 is the reason, and that “the public outcry would be deafening.”

So what does he get wrong?

First, and most obviously, he conflates speeding — exceeding the speed limit on a particular road — with exceeding some global maximum speed to which we could limit cars. To be sure, both are dangerous and the latter is worse. But the statistics are based on the former, and governing the maximum speed of cars would not have the effect he’s suggesting that it would.

A great many fatal collisions in which speed is a factor happen at speeds well below any reasonable maximum — say, when someone is driving 60 MPH where the speed limit is 35. We do not have the infrastructure to prevent cars from speeding, in that sense.

Speeding is not a priority for the NHTSA because, while it’s a factor in (not “the cause of”) a great many traffic deaths, it’s often a contributing factor, not the primary one. Coupled with drinking, it’s the drinking that’s the real problem. Similarly for driver inattention, impatience, sleepiness, and other factors. When we look only at cases where speed exceeded 75 MPH, the hard limit Dr Sepkowitz proposes, the case is even stronger. Which will prevent more deaths on the whole: mechanically limiting car speeds to 75 MPH, or getting everyone to wear seat belts? It’s the latter, and that’s why the seat belts are a higher priority.

It’s also not correct to say, “Speeding, after all, substantially reduces fuel efficiency due to the sheering force of wind.” It’s not that simple; if it were, we could maximize fuel efficiency as well as safety by limiting everyone to 20 MPH — and I’m quite sure that even Dr Sepkowitz wouldn’t accept that. No, given a particular combination of engine design, body design, and road, there will be a speed that optimizes fuel efficiency. That speed might be less than or greater than the speed limit, depending upon what the limit is for that particular road. “Speeding” does not use fuel inefficiently. Driving at 85 MPH probably does.

There are also good reasons to have headroom, to be able to go faster at certain times than one might normally allow. Probably, the suggested 75 MPH limit handles those cases acceptably.

All that said, I don’t mean to imply that I think Dr Sepkowitz has a bad idea here — only that it’s not as good as he thinks it is. He’s right that there’s no good reason to have cars that can go faster than 75 MPH or so on the American roads. Just because it doesn’t solve the whole problem doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth a go.

On the other hand, many of us remember the period when speedometers were limited to a maximum reading of 85 MPH — even if the car could actually go much faster. It didn’t last. Dr Sepkowitz is quite right: “Americans insist on the inalienable right to speed.”

I’ll also note that speed limits are much higher in parts of Europe — and are famously absent on sections of Germany’s Autobahn — without higher fatality rates. The roads are built for the high speeds, and the drivers are used to different habits. Training is important. It’s interesting to be riding in the left lane of the Autobahn, passing cars in the right lane as though they were standing still... and realizing that the “slow-pokes” in the right lane are going 85 MPH (130 KPH).

If you think Americans would object to having their cars’ speed mechanically limited, go suggest it to the Germans.

Friday, September 12, 2008


Inhaled, contrary to ban

When we first learned of Sarah Palin, I noted, in passing, that she’d tried marijuana and said she didn’t like it. Bill Clinton, of course, famously told us that he hadn’t inhaled when he smoked up. Barack Obama’s also admitted to a doobie or two in his salad days, and even George Bush has some puffing in his past.

We’ve arrived at a time, over the last 15 years, where the people we’re calling on to run things grew up in generations that simply did that. I think of my high school and college classmates — doctors, professional photographers, small-business owners, bank managers, police officers, scientists, lawyers, actors, ministers, military personnel... yes, there are some of all of those in the mix — and I know that most of them smoked weed at one time or another, some once or twice, some occasionally, some regularly and often.

Now, they and others a bit older and a bit younger, folks in their 40s and 50s, are the ones who are out there as community leaders. And, you know, I almost feel that I’d trust them less if they hadn’t been part of it, back in the day.

True to that, we seem to be worrying less about minor drug use, though there’s still some criticism to be heard. There might be something to worry about if one is still getting stoned in the office, right before a big meeting with customers, or union leaders, or whatever. Otherwise, what we did 20 years ago shouldn’t matter, and doesn’t seem to. Who knows?: maybe we’ll eventually be able to see that keeping weed illegal is just silly.

We’ve also seen our first wave of presidents and candidates who haven’t served in the military, and who, in fact, went out of their way to dodge it — again, just as many in my generation did during the Vietnam years. Bill Clinton left the country, and participated in anti-war protests; George Bush got an appointment in the National Guard and then ducked out of that; John Kerry did serve, and then protested the war when he came back; Barack Obama hasn’t served nor been called to. We need to accept that that, too, is a common situation with the new generations of our country’s leaders.

And now I think, as I read more about the level of connectedness and information sharing that’s common today, what political campaigns will be like 20 years from now. How will politicians of that day deal with the resurfacing of old Facebook profiles and Twitter logs? Will proudly calling oneself a “[obscene gerund] redneck” at 18 be a political liability at 48? When there’s a dense and detailed Twitter record of one’s daily comings and goings, moods and thoughts, what will happen to one’s public face?

Perhaps it will just be so much information that it will equalize everyone. Maybe if no one can be completely clean, we’ll stop worrying about the smudges.

Roll another one
Just like the other one
You’ve been holding on to it
And I sure would like a hit
Don’t bogart that joint, my friend
Pass it over to me


[The title phrase is an anagram of “tetrahydrocannabinol”.]

Thursday, September 11, 2008



There’s no Carnival of Mathematics again this time, because Alon has been having trouble finding hosts for it. Of course, when I asked him about the missing #40, he nudged me to host it. Of course, I said yes (change gender as appropriate). So expect to see that next week or so, and:

  1. If you have mathematics stuff to write about, do it, and submit it to the carnival at the BlogCarnival link. The submission form is always ready to accept entries, and they’ll be considered for the next carnival.
  2. If you’re willing to host a future Carnival of Mathematics, please send Alon email — he tells you how in this post — and volunteer. You get to spend time putting together the carnival collection, and as a reward you get about seven extra blog hits that week. What could be bad?

Now, the pointers to this fortnight’s blog carnivals:

Video crime tips: more on technology in public life

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how the NYC police are accepting crime tips by text message. Well, in a new development, they’re now accepting snapshots and video recordings, as well:

The image could be a unique tattoo on the forearm of a suspected criminal in a robbery, or a shot of a license plate of a car fleeing a hit-and-run accident, Mr. Bloomberg said.

“We are also working to enable the Real Time Crime Center to send photos out to all patrol cars in the area of a crime,” he said. “We hope to have that up and running next year.

“This technology should put a scare into every would-be criminal,” the mayor said, adding that the chance of “getting caught in the act is now better than ever.”

I wonder about two things, with this plan:

The first is how they’ll deal with the inevitable fake evidence, something passed quickly through Photoshop or the like. If you want to hassle someone, this makes it nice and easy to get the police to do it for you. Of course, one could always have phoned in fake information, so it’s not a new attack. It’s just that we tend to give more credence to a picture than to the thousand words that it’s worth.

The second is what they’ll do with the video tips when the criminals they expose are the police themselves. One hopes they’ll take a tip sent to them as seriously as one posted to YouTube. We’ll have to see.

In any case, I think this is a wonderful idea, and I’d like to see more jurisdictions adopt it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008


Is a man’s stoop his castle?

I have an assortment of comments about a New York Times article about a man in Brooklyn who was ticketed for drinking beer on his stoop.

Kimber VanRy on the steps of his building, where he received a summons for drinking in public.Perhaps you who don’t live in the northeast U.S. don’t understand the concept of a “stoop” as we have it here. The photo accompanying the article (which I've linked as a thumbnail to the right) shows what the stoop is: the set of stairs leading up to the front door, and the landing atop it. But it can’t really convey the feeling of it. One’s stoop is part of one’s home. It’s a bridge between indoors and outdoors, a buffer zone between the house and the street, part of one’s sanctuary that one shares with friends and neighbours and deliverymen. On a hot night, one sits on the stoop and catches a breeze. One chats with folks. The kids play stoopball with their spaldeens. One may entertain visitors on the stoop, never moving them inside, and no slight is intended nor perceived. Romances may play out on the stoop.

Yet, as a bridge, it is certainly somewhat public. The world can see what goes on; there are no secrets on the stoop.

But invade someone’s stoop and you’ll have them to answer to. “Who’s that guy? What’s he doing on our stoop?” “You get offa my stoop right now, before I call the p’lice!”

No, it’s out there, in front of the world, but it’s not part of the world. No one really considers the stoop to be public property.

And that is the crux of the issue:

The city’s open-container law prohibits anyone from drinking an alcoholic beverage, or possessing and intending to drink from an open container containing an alcoholic beverage, “in any public place.” The law defines a public place as one “to which the public or a substantial group of persons has access, including, but not limited to,” a sidewalk, street or park.
“I think this is a real gray area,” said Mr. VanRy, an international sales manager for a supplier of stock film footage, video and music. “I don’t think I was doing anything wrong.”


Mr. VanRy will contest the summons at a court appearance in November by pleading not guilty. He questioned the notion that his stoop is considered a “public place” as defined by the law.

And addressing my comments above:
Steve Wasserman, a lawyer with the criminal practice of the Legal Aid Society, questioned the wording of the law, adding that legal arguments could be made that a stoop is not a place that a “substantial group of persons” can gain access to.

“This is an open question,” he said of the law. “There’s also a larger constitutional question, if a piece of your private property were being treated as if it were a public place. You couldn’t get arrested for drinking that beer in your kitchen. Now you’re sitting on your stoop. The stoop may be more like your kitchen than your sidewalk.”

Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia University Law School and an expert in property and local government law, said Mr. VanRy’s summons illustrated the thin line between private and public property. “It’s quite possible to be on private property and in public at the same time,” he said.

But apart from the technical matter of whether the stoop is public or not, there’s the issue of the discretion of the police officers.

Paul J. Browne, the Police Department’s chief spokesman, said in statement about Mr. VanRy’s summons: “The officer observed a violation. The subject has a right to dispute it.”
And this:
Indeed, last year, a State Supreme Court justice in the Bronx ruled that an apartment building lobby qualified as a “public place” in relation to the open-container law. A police officer had confronted a man who was drinking a beer in the lobby of a building on the Grand Concourse, and Justice Joseph J. Dawson ruled that the officer had probable cause to arrest him.
And this:
Mr. VanRy’s stoop does not have a gate and is set back from the sidewalk by a few feet, and the officer told him that if he were behind a gate on his stoop, he would not have received a ticket.
The point here is whether there was really any value in the officers’ enforcing this law. One might say that it’s their duty to do it, but that’s not really true: police officers exercise discretion all the time, deciding what to push on and what not to, and that’s as it should be. There’s clearly value in addressing situations of unruly behaviour and other problem situations. Was there value in stopping a guy from quietly quaffing on his stoop, regardless of the technicalities of how the space might be classified? I think not.

The details of Mr. VanRy’s tale have fascinated his friends, neighbors, the four lawyers who sent e-mail messages offering advice and Brooklynites who read about the incident on local blogs. The officer who gave Mr. VanRy the summons asked him, for example, what brand of beer he was drinking. “I thought it was strange why it mattered,” Mr. VanRy said.
We might think that the officer had a preference for Brooklyn Lager or Chelsea Checker Cab Blonde, and ticketed Mr VanRy for his dubious choice of Sierra Nevada. More likely, it mattered because the officer was trying to determine whether what was in the bottle was alcoholic. But, really, does it matter so much? If Mr VanRy was lounging peacefully on his stoop, did it make a difference that he was drinking Sierra Nevada and not O’Doul’s Amber? He’d technically be OK with Arizona Green Tea with Ginseng and Honey, but not with Mike’s Hard Iced Tea; fine if his grape juice was Welch’s, yet culpable if it came from Mondavi.

Does that make any sense?

If the problem is that people get drunk and become disorderly or violent, we should address the problem behaviour, not the number of organic molecules in their drink. The troubles with approaching it the wrong way are that it’s capricious (you can be ticketed if you stand on the wrong side of the door frame), it hurts too many harmless and innocent people (the vast majority of people drinking a beer at home will not present any problems to the community), and it doesn’t work (one can down a couple of six-packs and then sit on the stoop drinking lemonade, but one is still, as the Brits say, pissed as a newt).

There are certainly times when prior restraint is in order, but those cases should be identified carefully. If a situation is likely to become volatile, we should do what’s necessary to keep it under control... and that might mean restricting alcohol consumption. But those should be special decisions, not everyday procedure as the cops cruise the streets.

We should get rid of such silly laws.

A final note:

In Mr. VanRy’s posting that night to a message board at www.brooklynian.com, he made a point of mentioning the other officer in the police car, who, Mr. VanRy wrote, “was playing Tetris on his iPod the whole time.”
I’m reminded of a time a few years ago, when some friends and I left a restaurant in Cold Spring after dinner, and sat on the pier for a while, enjoying the Hudson River. As we left the pier we passed a town police car. They’re equipped with Windows laptops, and the officer inside was playing FreeCell.

Well, what else does a Cold Spring police officer have to do at 10:30 on a weeknight?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Russell’s Paradox

For the next element of the paradox set, we move to set theory, and to the British philosopher and mathematician Bertrand Russell. Russell died in 1970 at the age of 97, in the general area where the eccentric and sometimes disturbing television series The Prisoner was filmed — perhaps a fitting place for a philosopher to be. But about 70 years earlier, he had identified a mathematical situation that we call Russell’s Paradox.

There’s a popular framing of Russell’s Paradox in more easily understandable terms involving a town barber, so I’ll present it that way first:

There’s a town that has one barber, a man who lives in the town. In this town, it is the case that the barber shaves all those men, and only those men, who live in the town and do not shave themselves.

Who, then, shaves the barber?

Now, this doesn’t quite capture what Russell devised, but it’s close enough to understand what’s going on. We have a self-referential situation that appears to make sense, but it leads to a contradiction:
  • If the barber shaves himself, then he is being shaved by the barber. But the barber shaves only those men who do not shave themselves.
  • But if he does not shave himself, then he must be shaved by the barber. So he must shave himself.

Often, the barber puzzle comes with trick wording that gives the puzzler an out. Perhaps the barber is a woman, or a child, or someone who lives outside of town. But I’ve worded this version to eliminate that hedging, so how can we resolve this?

The answer is that we can’t, that this is an example of the third category of paradox:

It has exposed an inconsistency in the logic system, and adjustments are necessary.
That is, we’ve created a system — the town, with the specified set of rules — that is not consistent. Such a system can’t really exist without an exception to make it consistent. This, for example, will work:
There’s a town that has one barber, a man who lives in the town. In this town, it is the case that the barber shaves himself and all other men, and only those men, who live in the town and do not shave themselves.

On to a bit about sets, and the real formulation of Russell’s Paradox. Things get very geeky at this point. Give it a try, if you like, or come back tomorrow for something lighter.

Here’s a set, which we’ll call S:
  S := { A, B }
It has two elements, called A and B.
We say that A is an element of S, and we write it thus: A ∈ S.
A set that contains some of the same elements as S is a subset of S. { A } is a subset of S, and we write it this way: { A } ⊂ S.
It’s also the case that { B } ⊂ S, that S ⊂ S, and that {} &sub S (this is the empty set, which we also denote as Φ).

Now, we can make a set of anything, even a set of sets. So the set of all subsets of S is
  { {}, { A }, { B }, { A, B } }
We call this the power set of S, and denote it as P(S).

We’ll also note that if we have a well defined formula f that operates on a set S, we can construct a new set, T, of the results of applying the formula to all the set’s elements:
  T := { f(x) : x ∈ S }

Having the concept of a set of sets, and a way of defining sets, we can observe that it’s possible for a set to be an element of itself, or not (note that we’re talking about element here, not subset; every set is a subset of itself, but “most” sets are not elements of themselves). For example, suppose we define Q to be the set of all sets that are sets of sets. In other words, W ∈ Q if and only if W is a set of sets. Looking at the set S from above, we see that it is not an element of Q, but its power set is (P(S) ∈ Q).

What about Q itself? Well, Q is a set of sets, so it’s true that Q ∈ Q. That is, Q is an element of itself. That’s not true of the other sets we’ve seen: S ∉ S, for example.

So, then, let’s create a new set R, of all sets that are not elements of themselves.
  R := { A | A ∉ A }
Russell’s Paradox looks at whether or not R ∈ R, and arrives at the same contradiction as we did with the barber:

  • If R ∈ R, then by the definition of R, R ∉ R.
  • If R ∉ R, then by the definition of R, R ∈ R.

Bertrand Russell thus showed an inconsistency in naïve set theory — an inconsistency that was corrected by some of the axiomatic set theories that followed several years later. Zermelo-Fraenkel is the standard form of axiomatic set theory used today.

Monday, September 08, 2008


“God is my dictator”

Maybe you’ve seen the recent New York Times article, In Palin’s Life and Politics, Goal to Follow God’s Will. Maybe that doesn’t scare you as much as it should. Maybe you figure that following God’s will is a good thing, and that such a goal speaks well for one. So maybe you’ll disagree with my take on it:

Such a statement should result in 100% disqualification from public office.

Yes, that’s severe. But here’s why:

When one takes public office, one works for the people; one swears to serve the people and to abide by the constitution. If “God’s will” and the people’s will and the constitution intersect, following the first might work for a while. But there will come a time when they diverge, and by ignoring the will of the people and the constitution because one follows a higher power, one is reneging on one’s oath and responsibility as a public servant.

“The churches that Sarah has attended all believe in a literal translation of the Bible,” Ms. Kincaid said. “Her principal ethical and moral beliefs stem from this.”

There will come such a time because no two people agree completely on what “God’s will” is. Different people believe in different gods. Different people read and believe different scriptures. Even of the Christian Bible, there are differing translations and differing opinions about what it means — there are many, many interpretations. There is no “literal translation” without interpretation. When one says that God’s will is in control, one actually says, “My interpretation of what God’s will is, that’s what’s in control.”

In the address at the Assembly of God Church here, Ms. Palin’s ease in talking about the intersection of faith and public life was clear. Among other things, she encouraged the group of young church leaders to pray that “God’s will” be done in bringing about the construction of a big pipeline in the state, and suggested her work as governor would be hampered “if the people of Alaska’s heart isn’t right with God.”

And there’s a great deal of confirmation bias in one’s interpretation. One tends to interpret God’s will in support of one’s own sensibilities. That’s fine in many contexts, but it doesn’t work at all for developing public policy. The rigidity of a “what’s right with God” argument is not appropriate here. One must be willing to debate and compromise, to take other opinions into account. No supreme master can be involved, not in a democracy.

She also told the group that her eldest child, Track, would soon be deployed by the Army to Iraq, and that they should pray “that our national leaders are sending them out on a task that is from God, that’s what we have to make sure we are praying for, that there is a plan, and that plan is God’s plan.”

Taking that beyond honest attempts at conforming to God’s will, one can also manipulate any situation to one’s own will by invoking God’s. For any situation, there’s something one can quote and use to claim that God’s will supports one’s own plan.

When one works from God’s will, one is protected from influence by public opinion, by science, by advice from legislators or judges, by discussion with other world leaders, by new information of any kind or from any source. One is protected from influence even by the constitution, as when Mike Huckabee said that we need to change the constitution to conform to God’s standards. One has the answer, a priori, and no other answer is possible.

If you still think it’s a good thing for public policy to be set according to God’s will, I suggest that you consider a time — a time which has already come for many, over the last seven and a half years — when God’s will as interpreted by those in power differs dramatically from how you see it. Will it be a good thing then?

“God is my dictator," does not a democracy make.

An additional note: this is quoting from the article about Sarah Palin, because that's what was in the NY Times, but it is not about Ms Palin in particular. It applies in general to the intrusion of religion into government.

Sunday, September 07, 2008



For some light, Sunday blogging, let’s have a look at a petit peeve of mine. Yes, yes, I know, but it’s my blog, and I get to be peevish if I want to, capiche?

And what is it that I’m often peevish about? Language, claro. This time, though, it’s not about English; it’s about how people sprinkle dreck from other languages into their English, all willy-nilly and such. Maybe when we do that, it separates us from hoi polloi, makes us seem ein bisschen above the next guy. Or maybe it just gives us naches.

Ethnic groups do it a lot, sticking bits of their native/ancestral languages in amidst the English (or sometimes the other way ’round). It comes naturally there, of course. Listen to Latinos in New York City, and you’ll hear what we call Spanglish. Listen to Orthodox Jews, and you might need subtitles to follow it, as Hebrew and Yiddish (which are, in case you don’t know, entirely unrelated to each other) are just normal parts of speech.

That’s not what peeves me.

It’s that I prefer that it be done correctly. It bothers me when people pretend to stick phrases in, and they get them wrong — sometimes a little wrong, sometimes vastly so. There is, for example, the old “please RSVP,” from people who don’t know that the “SVP” part is already an abbreviation for the French s’il vous plait, which means... “please.”

There are two sehr common ones I want to pick on here. The first is the faux-Spanish no problemo. A Google search on that phrase (in quotes, so it finds it intact) yields about 1.5 million hits, including — yes, get this — a Wikipedia entry for it.

The thing is, the word for “problem” in Spanish is feminine[1] ends with an “a”, and the phrase should be no problema (2.3 million Google hits on that one) or ningún problema.

OK, now that you can speak Spanglish sin ningún problema, we’ll hit my second whine: introducing a follow-up about a subject as “part deux” (almost 3.5 million Google hits). The problema I have with this one is that it doesn’t put enough of the phrase in French: I want the whole “part two” thing to be in French, or else it sounds inane. That’d be partie deux, literally, as partie is French for “part”. Except I’m told that that’s not the idiom, and the phrase really should be deuxième partie (literally, “second part”, and that gets a whopping 7.6 million hits).

OK, well. That’s it for today. Zei gesund.

[1] As Simon points out in the comments, it is masculine, despite the ending.