Saturday, November 08, 2014

If you don't like something, don't try to couch your position with self-contradictory statements and self-rationalization

So I saw this:

The logic employed by the second person seems to either contradictory or highly selfish. His position seems to be that: On the one hand, he doesn't get it and he thinks it's offensive (and he thinks that a lot of other people would find it offensive, too), but on the other hand, if it saves the lives of even a couple people, okay, but then to go back to his first position, it's offensive to him, so no.

First, off, let's recognize that his initial position is couched as in the false logic of argumentum ad populum.
"I just find it offensive, and a lot of other people would as well."
First, this is a relative statement. How many - exactly - constitutes "a lot of other people"? A majority of a population? Well, no. After all, if - in a city the size of Sydney (5.6 million) - you gathered 1,000 people to actively congregate in front of the pink-condom-covered pillar, that could easily be considered to be "a lot of people," despite it being a mere 0.00018% of the city's population. Conversely, if you were considering a tiny town of only 100 residents, "a lot of people" might well mean something approaching the majority (which could never approach anything more than a mere 10% of the hypothetical crowd of 1,000 around the condom-covered Sydney statue). So the phrasing, "and a lot of other people would [agree with me] as well," is a false argument in that it doesn't work to designate an objective measure, but merely refers (in a purely arm-waving fashion, since the person makes no attempt to bracket his statement) to an unknown quantity of people (likely merely presumed to exist by the speaker) that is implied to be of significant numbers (but - as we might argue in the case of 1,000 people gathered in a square in Sydney to be - not necessarily anything close to 1% of a city's population).

Second, even while there is truth in the statement that - in a city of 5.6 million people - you will probably find a large number (say >1,000) of people who are against covering a statue with a large pink condom, it does not mean much more than that in a city the size (and with the diversity) of Sydney, there will be many people who support almost any position that you propose. For example, if you did a poll on the number of people who believe that all English tourists should pay a 100 Australian Dollar tourist tax, there would likely be more than 1,000 Sydney residents who would agree with that decision. However, the fact that you can find 1,000 people in a city of 5,600,000 people means next to nothing. This leads us to the next point.

Third, while one might well find "a lot of people" who find a pink-condom-covered column to be offensive, it does not automatically follow that there aren't "a lot of people" who find a pink-condom-covered column to be affirmative. (And the first person in the clip is one who fits this camp; likely she, too, has "a lot of people" who support her position.) Furthermore, it does not automatically follow that there aren't "a lot of people" who don't give two shits either way. (The numbers of voters showing up to vote in elections where voting is not mandatory is an indication of the number of people who can't really be bothered to vote on their own futures - for whatever reason.)

Fourth, this appeal to the people is not what modern democracies are based upon. The tyranny of the majority is something that many Western democracies, including Australia (and the UK, where the second individual appears to be from), have structured their governments to try and avoid. Under modern democracies, the presence of a constitution that provides rights to all citizens cannot (in theory and in principle) be superseded by the mere will of the voting majority. It is from this that we get the rights of women, the rights of children, the rights of minority groups, etc. In this case, the point of covering a column with a pink condom was to promote HIV/AIDS prevention. HIV/AIDS affects a minority of the Australian population, with 85% of transmission occurring being MSM, and 63% of the cases being among those practicing MSM, which makes it roughly 0.001% of the national population who has HIV/AIDS. This population is a diminishingly small minority of the country, and one for whom protections against the tyranny of the majority ought to be considered. In short, to base public decisions that affect minority populations upon the actions deemed appropriate by a voting majority runs counter to one of the fundamental bases of Western democracies, to which (I imagine) this individual would likely state his personal support.

In sum, the mere fact that you have "a lot of people" who agree with you doesn't mean that your group is of significant size (see point one), it doesn't mean that it's representative (see point two), it doesn't mean that other groups aren't as big or bigger (see point three), and it's not the sole form of decision-making in Western democracies, especially when the protections of minorities are in question (see point four). What it does mean is that you've employed a fundamentally flawed argument.

But these are just four points that undercut the first part of his argumentation. The next thing he says is:
"If it stops a couple of people from getting HIV... brilliant."
This seems to contradict his previous point, since it appears that he is saying here that he does support the pink-condom-covered pillar. But in his next statement, he jumps back to stating that he's against it:
"[pointing to statute] No. That is so... wrong."
So, if he is a person who wants to save the lives of others, then his logic is self-contradictory, since his final stance - that he's against it - runs counter to his position that it could save lives. However, the fact that his final position is to be against it because it is offense to his sensibilities - despite his recognition that it could save lives - then he's saying that he places his personal sensitivities ahead of the lives that could be saved.

To me, it seems like he added his apparently self-contradictory statement as a means of saying, "I'm not really that bad of a guy." It's another example of the "But I'm not a bigot" mentality that I wrote about back in 2010 (and also discussed back in 2012):
In their recently published paper "But I'm no Bigot: How Prejudiced White Americans Maintain Unprejudiced Self-Images", Laurie O'Brien, Christian Crandall, April Horstman-Reser, and Ruth Warner delve into the means by which white Americans can harbor racial prejudice while still viewing themselves as "unprejudiced".
That the case here is of an Englishman in Sydney commenting on a monument covered over with a pink condom to raise awareness about a disease that overwhelmingly affects homosexual men, who (as a population of infected individuals) comprise a vanishingly small population within Australia, makes it slightly different in the performance of the individual's rationalization the he's not a bigot, that he's not prejudiced, etc. However, the same processes are effectively taking place. Putting in phrases like, "If it stops a couple of people from getting HIV... brilliant," appears (to me) to be evidence that this man understands that HIV/AIDS primarily is a disease that affects a group of people that are accorded minority protections (and - by many - special consideration), and this man appears (to me) to be using his phrase as stating that he's not there to be a bad guy. Even though his overall position is to remove the item that he finds so offensive that - even "if it stops a couple of people from getting HIV" - he's against it.

So, in sum, the second individual uses two flawed arguments to state his position that he's against a pink-condom-covered column (in a city and country in which he's not a citizen). I don't know whether he understands why his arguments are logically so flawed, but in my opinion, his position would have been far more logically consistent and - at least to me - valid if he had simply stated, "I find it offensive. [pointing to statute] No. That is so... wrong." All the other false justifications and attempts at self-rationalization merely serve to undercut his entire position. At least in my eyes.

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Waiting at government offices is stressful and frustrating. Especially when you have to do it twice over.

I hear that sharing frustrations with people can help you diminish your stress level. To that end, I've decided to write about what was a stressful and highly frustrating two days of waiting at government offices.

I spent much of Tuesday standing in a line at one government office, only to find out that I actually had to first stand all day in a different line in a different office before I could stand all day in the line in which I was initially standing. Why? Because I didn't file my paperwork on time, and so I needed to get a piece of paper from that office to give to the person at this office in order for this clerk to process the papers as normal. *Sigh.* It's really hard not to let frustration turn to anger, even though many people might interpret my state of frustration as a state of anger. (Nope: they are not the same; I actively avoid getting angry.) Since it was already past 2pm - and since Chilean government offices (just like Chilean banks) close at 2pm - I would have to try again the next day. On the plus side, she said that I could come directly to her station when I did get the paper, which would (at least) save waiting in line again at this office. (Ah, the small blessings that come from not getting angry at clerks, who can't change the rules that govern their actions, but can either cut you a break if you're nice to them or make things even more difficult for you if they feel like you're being overly bitchy and/or assholey.)

Side note: The need to go to a different government office in order to pay a fine for not doing a particular piece of paperwork in time was due to a misunderstanding and lack of communications due to presumed knowledge and expected actions due to that fundamental misunderstanding of how the Chilean governmental bureaucracy works. Every bureaucracy has its annoyances, but these can be minimized (at least for people like me) if I understand the internal logic of the particular system. Of course, being a foreigner, I don't know the things that I don't know to ask about (and being nationals, the people I talk to don't know that I don't know until it's way too late). Of course, one of the main annoyances about Chilean government is that some offices are grossly understaffed (i.e., the ones I had to go to), of which I had an inkling on this day, but which I would find out when I went to the other government building.

After returning to my apartment (frustrated, fatigued, and trying to figure out explanations to questions that I was pretty sure I was not formulating correctly), I decided that I should probably figure out what my visit would likely entail, and after a lot of figuring and guessing and asking and trying to figure out yet again what the heck is meant by certain legal phrases (because government websites - even those aimed at foreigners - are written by people who implicitly understand the bureaucracy, which means that there's a lot of assumed knowledge that requires additional searching and additional frustration), I finally started to pull together an idea of what I had to do. People - like me - who have to pay a fine to this government agency, need to first wait in line to get a piece of paper from a clerk that says how much is owed. Then I would have to go to the government-run bank and wait in line to pay that amount (I suppose this might be to minimize petty bribes, which is a good thing, I guess, but why you can't just pay directly with a credit card or debit card - which also would minimize petty bribery - is beyond me), from which you will receive a receipt of payment. (Why the automated banking system of the government-run bank couldn't tell the government clerks the same thing as the piece of paper, I don't know; I'm guessing that it's just an anachronism that has remained from pre-cmoputerized banking days.) Then I would have to go back to the same office, and wait in line (again!) in order present the receipt of payment from the government-run bank to the government clerk in order to get the piece of paper that the original government clerk said I needed to have before she could process my paperwork.

Or, to put it more basically, I would need to go to a government office, get a number, wait in line, get a piece of paper from a clerk that says how much I need to pay, go the the bank, get a number, wait in line, pay the amount listed on the paper, get a piece of paper that said I paid, go back to the government office, get a number, wait in line, get piece of paper that confirms that I payed the fine, go back to the original government office (where I was the day before), and go see the clerk I originally saw there in order to get the business done for which I had originally waited in line.

*Sigh* Don't get angry. Don't get angry. Don't get angry. After all, all bureaucracies have really frustrating aspects. The only thing that getting angry would do is to (directly or indirectly) hurt me. Better just wake up early. (Yeah, I suppose this is turning into a mantra.)

Today, I woke up at 6am after a stressful night. *Grogginess.* I left the apartment at 7am, and got to the correct government office at 7:50am. As I pulled up to the main entrance, I noticed that there was no line, and my spirits were buoyed; perhaps this wouldn't take so long after all. But no. When I went in, I was greeted by a line stretching out a side entrance. Following that line, I exited the lobby and found that it literally was already stretched almost to the end of the block. I got in line far closer to the corner of the next street than the entrance to the building and proceeded to wait for the doors to open. Starting at 8:30, the line slowly started to shuffle forward, and at about 9am, I got my waiting-room number: R122 (the monitors were showing R008, alongside three other sets of numbers, against which I would - apparently - be competing). Well, at least I would definitely have enough time to go and get a coffee. This option was far more tempting than waiting in an already-crammed waiting room; so I left in search of an open coffee shop.

Coffee shops in Santiago don't always open early. In fact, many small cafes don't open until 10 or 10:30, but I was able to find one in the main downtown plaza, had a coffee, and forced myself to try and relax. (Forced leisure is difficult, especially when you are in my head space.) During that time, I tried to channel my stress and frustration into something (somewhat) constructive, and I came up with an idea about how to minimize crowding in government waiting rooms that are obviously waaaaay too small to adequately handle the numbers of people waiting in them. I'll talk with the Office of Technology Transfer at the university to see if it might be of use or interest. Fingers crossed.

After stretching out a relatively small and quite expensive coffee for an hour, I went back to the waiting room, only to find that the number had gone up to R018. *Argh!* Well, off again outside I go! I found a couple of Indian textile importers down the street from the government office, some electronics stores, a whole gallery of handbag shops, another gallery of barbers and hairdressers, and yet another gallery of various levels of jewelry. I also noticed scantily dressed women who "just happened" to be standing at regular intervals along the street, doing nothing much more than stand and look at people. Apparently there were many goods and services on sale around the area.

I returned to the waiting room at 11:30 to find that the number had risen to D025. *Sigh.* Well, off again outside I go! Since I was near the old central plaza, the main cathedral, and a couple of old churches, I decided that I'd play tourist for a bit. To that end, I checked out the cathedral (lots of school kids on field trips, very few worshippers, and renovation work going on all around), as well as another stonking big church nearby (a nearly empty mass presided over by a priest who literally mumbled and stumbled through his holy litany) and then decided to get lunch (arroz con pollo at a small eatery tucked between two government buildings and looking out on a fountain).

Back to the waiting room at noon. In the intervening 30-ish minutes (yes, it was a very quick lunch, and a very quick look around the churches), the number had "rapidly" climbed to D055. Well, considering that the offices would close their doors at 2pm, I decided to stay (with the hope that things would continue along at the rate of the previous 1/2 hour, instead of at the rate of the initial 2 hours). However, at the back of my head, I knew that I had to *still* go the bank, wait there and then return to this same waiting room before going back to where I was yesterday.


During the next 1/2 hour, I played sudoku, and after one (somewhat) tough game, I looked up to see: D107! Well, I'd best get ready, then! My number was thrown up on the board at 1pm. Forward I stepped, and just as I looked for which clerk I needed to see, the D123 was called, and I was left in the lurch, not knowing where I was supposed to go. Luckily, the guard helped me out and one of the clerks said that I could see her after she was done with the person she was helping at the time. *Phew.* I was already having images of having to wait in line all over again, but luckily that didn't happen.

I then proceeded to wait nervously in front of the withering gaze of the hundreds of people stacked in the waiting room, with me seeming like I jumped the queue. Ah, well, screw 'em. I was supposed to be here, and anyway the clerk was finishing up.

I was called forward, and the clerk went through the papers and told me perhaps the best news of my predicament that I could have heard: there would be no charge for the paperwork I needed. This mean that that she would issue me the paper immediately. I therefore wouldn't need to stand in line at the bank, and I therefore wouldn't need to stand in line again at this same office. However, there was one catch. The paper she would issue me was an extension for only this day, which meant that I needed to go back to the first government office within the next hour (since they would close at 2pm), or else I'd have to come back tomorrow to get another copy of the piece of paper she was handing to me.

Three things went through my mind: "Yay!" "Crap." and "Fuck that." There was no chance that I would stand in line yet again, so back I biked to the offices I was at yesterday, and, there, I skipped the queue and went directly to the clerk who I met with the day before. (Hello, do you remember me? Yeah, I was the guy who did this, and who you told that, and I've come back with all the appropriate papers. Oh, and do you remember that you told me to come to see you directly? Yeah, I'm back. Hello again.) Luckily she did remember me, and after about 10 minutes, I was done.

Yeah, I know that I will likely have to wait at government offices again. But at least it won't be for a while yet.

Thursday, October 09, 2014

Support for SSM continues to grow, but unevenly. (Also, what constitutes a "large portion" of a population?)

I recently saw this graphic from YouGov about the various levels of support and opposition for same-sex marriage:

Pretty cool graphic. The accompanying text pointed out that "Americans who are likely to vote in the upcoming elections tend to support (48%) rather than oppose (39%) allowing gays and lesbians to marry." This confirms reporting about polls showing general support in the US population for SSM. And - unlike inter-racial marriage - the popular position is leading the legal position, as xkcd shows in another of his amazing graphs:

Pretty neat stuff, especially for data, graph, and map nerds like me.

And then... I read the comments...
Well, I made the mistake of reading the comments, and I found - at the end of one relatively short string of back-and-forth - a statement by "William," who (for some reason) couldn't understand how the non-discrimination language of the 14th Amendment worked to alter the 1st Amendment. (In brief - and remember: IANAL - the 1st Amendment disallows Congress from making state laws about the establishment and practice of religions. The 14th Amendment disallows any state from discrimination, even if it's religiously justified discrimination. There. Not too hard to understand.) This is what he wrote:
Where is the lack of equal protection? Gay people have equal protection. What gay people want is a special classification for their perverted behavior and for everyone to accept that perverted behavior. Acceptance of the homosexual perverted behavior will Never be accepted by a large portion of the United States.

Concerning sentences 1 & 2
Well... The first two sentences are a patent misunderstanding (whether deliberate or not) of why anti-SSM creates a lack of equal protections. Maybe William should go read explanations online (such as at Wikipedia).

Concerning sentence 3
The third statement (discounting the obvious and heavily biased point of view) is just a case of special pleading on his part. As Ricky Gervais points out:
Same sex marriage is not gay privilege, it's equal rights. Privilege would be something like gay people not paying taxes. Like churches don't.
I couldn't have said it more succinctly. But perhaps William just doesn't like Ricky Gervais. Well, the edited volume by Rimmerman and Wilcox has a better explanation as to why SSM isn't a "special classification" and isn't actually the conferral of special privileges:
Antigay groups insist that allowing gay couples to marry represents granting gay people a special right on top of the right they already have. ... The Family Research Council compares laws restricting marriage to opposite-sex couples to laws preventing cousins from marrying and laws preventing adults from marrying children... "since these restrictions apply equally to every individual" (Sprigg 2003).
          In other words, since a gay man could marry a woman and a lesbian could marry a man (as many gay people have done -- often resulting in unhappy and dysfunctional marriages), they have the right to marry. But for a person who is attracted to and capable of falling in love with someone of the same sex, such freedom or right is pretty meaningless. In fact, these restrictions do not "apply equally to every individual" but limit the ability of gay people only to protect their life partner relationships.
          People on death row, mass murderers, rapists, and child molesters can all get married as long as they are marrying someone of the opposite sex. Yet gay and lesbian people are denied this fundamental right because the people they love are of the same sex. Their right to marry someone of the opposite sex doesn't mean much; it doesn't allow them to marry the person they love.
(Emphasis mine. Emphasis in the original.)

Perhaps William would respond with some version of the slippery slope argument (since many anti-SSM arguments usually fall back on some version of the argument of, "Well, if we allow men to marry other men, then what's to stop plural marriage, incest, or bestiality?" I'll let John Corvino take this one.

Concerning Statement 4 (the real "Hunh?!?" statement to me at this time)
But it was the last statement that had me scratching my head: "Acceptance of the homosexual perverted behavior will Never be accepted by a large portion of the United States."

Ummm... But SSM is already accepted and supported by the majority of the United States population. This - by definition - means that SSM IS "accepted by a large portion of the United States."

A recent Pew poll shows a 54% majority in favor of same-sex marriage, and the anti-SSM position is only 39% and falling.

In other words, "the homosexual perverted behavior" that William contends will "Never be accepted by a large portion of the United States" is actually - right now, today, throughout the United States - accepted by the majority of the populace. This means that the largest portion of the United States supports "the homosexual perverted behavior" (or at least allowing people who are homosexual to get married to another person of the same sex).

Now, William could say that what he actually meant by "large portion" is actually some portion of the population that is smaller than the majority, but that is still "large." But that raises the question of when is a "large portion" no longer large? Based on nothing more than the idea of a pluarlity being a portion large enough to become a ruling party (and assuming a three-party system like in the UK), I'd argue that 33.333% (i.e., 1/3 of the population) is scraping the bottom of credulity for what it means to be a "large portion." (I could have used the Italian multi-multi-multi-party system, but that case is far more complex than the three-majority-party system of the UK.)

(As a side note, I'd extend the above logic to say that  anything less than 1/3 changes is no longer a "large portion," and it enters into "minority" territory, although I'd be generous and say that anything more than 1/10 makes a group a "sizeable minority," but a minority nonetheless. In other words, if a position is supported by less than 1/3 of the population, I'd argue that it's not a position held by a "large portion" of the population.)

Now time for a thought experiment!
Okay, now that we've got a cut-off of what a (semi-credible) definition of "large portion" actually might be (I'm saying that it's 1/3 of the population), we need to determine how quickly the anti-SSM position will fall below that threshold. We have data from Pew on anti-SSM polling, and it's apparent that - since 2009 - there has been a relatively linear trend (whereas before 2009, anti-SSM sentiment bounced around without any major trend). Now, given this strong trend since 2009, let's just assume that the popular trends of anti-SSM from the Pew poll continue along the paths of the that they have been on since 2009. (Yes, I am well aware of the problems of doing linear extrapolations into the future, but this is just a simple thought experiment.) Plugging the data into Excel, we get a linear trend for the anti-SSM from 2009-2014 has an R^2 of 0.9069 (which is pretty friggin' high, given that the maximum is an R^2 of 1), and using the regression equation, we get the following projection:

2015: 36.07%
2016: 33.44%
2017: 30.81%
2018: 28.19%
2019: 25.56%
2020: 22.92%

Yowzers. If the anti-SSM trend continues (and that's a big if, supported by nothing other than arm-waving conjecture), then it will be around 2016 that the portion of the US that holds William's position drops below 1/3 of the country, and - as such - it can no longer be counted as a "large portion." Furthermore, it will be sometime in 2020 that the portion of the US that holds William's position can no longer (at least in my books) be counted as a "sizable minority."

But what if I took the entirety of Pew's polling, and go all the way back to 1996? Well, the slope will be less steep, which does change the resulting percentages (but the R^2 drops to 0.8853, which - admittedly - is still pretty good):
2015: 40.73%
2016: 39.34%
2017: 37.96%
2018: 36.57%
2019: 35.19%
2020: 33.80%

So... not as drastic. If we assume (again, based on nothing) that the overall trend from 1996-2014 is actually the more realistic trend in the anti-SSM position, then William's position will only cease to be a "large portion of the US population" sometime in 2021 by this estimation. Still 7, years is still a lot faster than his contention of "Never."

Of course, there's a reason for this trend: a major generational shift. As Pew reports on this crucially important fact:
"Currently, 68% of Millennials favor [SSM], compared with 55% of Gen Xers, 48% of Boomers and 38% of the Silent generation."

Or, to put it another way the kids (aged 5-13) in the video below will become eligible voters in 2018-2026 (when the members of the Silent generation will be aged from 73-88 in 2018 and 81-96 in 2026):

Sunday, August 31, 2014

When symbology means something completely different to you

I saw that one of my friends changed his Facebook profile pic to this:

The first thought that came into my head was, "Well, so, too, were the dodo and the passenger pigeon..."

The next was, "...and shouldn't it read, 'You are the result' - unless the message is for a 3rd person plurality, which is strange given how signs accompanied by messages to "you" are generally meant for the 2nd person...?"

My thoughts on grammar continued with, "...and shouldn't it be '... evolutionary successes...' since evolution is a process requiring consistent - and relatively constant - successes in mating and survival...? I know that the sign could mean to use success in the uncountable form, but that would be incongruous, given how "results" is used in its countable form."

My thoughts then strayed back to the implications of the wolf, given the message, and it was something like, "...and what's the point of using a wolf... a species that has been extirpated in much of its native range, and is - in many ways - a prime example of a species that, despite it being the culmination of billions of years of evolution, has until recently been going the way of the dodo and the passenger pigeon?"

Maybe - as an ecologist with an evolutionary background and a great interest in grammar - I'm just thinking about this too much?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Apparently Russia and Canada can't agree on what belongs to Russia

NPR had a fun-with-maps story about how Canada's delegation to NATO tweeted the following map to show where Russia is (and isn't):
This was in response to Russia claiming that the Russian military convoys and vehicles that had entered Ukraine were just lost... or something similarly implausible.

However, look at the map that the Canadian delegation sent. It fails to label Kaliningrad as being part of Russia. By the way, here's a handy map showing you where Kaliningrad is:
Whoops! Apparently the GIS program that the Canadians were using didn't automatically include Kaliningrad as Russia. But the lack of recognizing Kaliningrad as part of Russia was apparently less important than showing that Crimea was Russian and that Abkhazia wasn't Georgian. This is the "corrected" map that Russia tweeted back to the Canadians:
(Never mind that almost the entire world doesn't recognize Abkhazia. Never mind that almost the entirety of the world doesn't recognize Russia's claim to Crimea, either.)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Mozart rap: Great advice for growing up

Wish I knew some of these things when I was a teen. Wish that I had followed up earlier on some of these things that I knew.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

When People Do and Don't Listen to Scientists

I saw the following on a friend's Facebook wall:

This reminded me of a talk that was given by Dan Gilbert back in 2007. As I summarized when I wrote about this, this is because:
Four features global warming lacks:

A face: understanding what other people are doing is so crucial that our brain has developed an obsession about human agency. This is why we see faces in the clouds, but not clouds in peoples' faces. Global warming is not trying to kill us, and that's a shame.
A violation of moral suasion: Visceral emotions are aroused by things our brains have been concerned: food and sex. NOT atmospheric chemistry. Societies are built around who you can sleep with and what you can eat, and not about how much you can consume.
A threat to the present: The brain is an exquisitely designed "get-out-of-the-way" machine. Only recently has our brain been able to think about the future and take actions againt a future event, which is why we use dental floss and invest in 401k plans. However, global warming is still in the "R&D" version.
Ability to see absolute changes: Because we are so bad at perceiving changes gradually, we are more likely to tolerate it since it was a day-to-day gradual change, not an abrupt one.
 While global warming lacks these things, ebola has all of them.
A face: ebola is carried around by people.
A violation of moral suasion: There are many social hangups about the sick, and some people (and societies) explain one's sickness as an outcome of one's past moral choices.
A threat to the present: Over and over again, one of the most prominent things that is said about ebola in its description is it's high mortality rate: up to 90% mortality. That's a pretty immediate threat to the present.
Ability to see absolute changes: One day a person is well, the next day that person is sick, another day and that person is dead; very, very absolute changes.
 So, yeah, when people are talking about global warming, who cares about what the scientists are saying? (Because global warming doesn't punch the "reactionary buttons" that we have evolved.)

Conversely, when people are talking about ebola, who cares about what the scientists are saying? (Because ebola punches - and punches hard - all of the evolved "reactionary buttons" that we have.)

Here's the video of Dan Gilbert's 2007 talk:

Monday, July 28, 2014

The difference between "few" and "a few"

It's one of the things that many non-native speakers of English get wrong: the distinction between few and a few. For example, let's take the following pair of sentences:
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were few signs that the final would include Germany.
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were a few signs that the final would include Germany.
What's the difference? While most native English speakers would immediately recognize the difference, to many English-language learners that I have encountered in the past, there is no discernible distinction. This could get them into a bit of a pickle in writing.

The simple explanation of the difference is that few means "almost zero" and is generally of a negating connotation, while in contrast a few means "a small amount, but definitely not zero" and is generally of a positive/additive connotation. Therefore, the above sentences would mean something like:
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were almost no signs that the final would include Germany. (i.e., It was unimaginable that Germany would make it to the final.)
At the start of the 2014 World Cup, there were some signs that the final would include Germany. (i.e., It was possible to think that Germany would make it to the final.)
As to why this distinction exists, it's partly because few is an adjective, while a few is a noun.

As an adjective, it implies that the expected value is vanishingly small. Therefore, if we initially had a high expectation that Brazil would reach the finals, the possibility that it wouldn't was approaching zero.

In contrast, as a noun, it implies that the actual amount was more than zero. Therefore, if we initially had an expectation that Germany would fail to go to the finals, our perception of that possibility would have been that it was greater than zero.

In reality, the number in question (e.g., the number of signs that Brazil wouldn't reach the finals) could be known or determined. The difference is how you interpret that number. For example, if we stated that the odds for making the finals of the 2014 World Cup stated on July 5, 2014 were:
Odds for World Cup semi-finals:
Brazil wins 80.09 %
Germany wins 19.91 %
Argentina wins 61.60 %
Netherlands wins 38.40 % 
It means that - on July 5th - there was an expected 19.91% chance that Germany would win their semi-final match to enter the finals against the winner of Argentina vs. Netherlands. This is almost a 1-in-5 chance that they would make it. And here is the crux in how our interpretations of the same number would change the meaning of the sentence.

If we had interpreted that 1-in-5 as a vanishingly small chance, then we'd use, "...there were few signs that the final would include Germany."

However, if we had interpreted that 1-in-5 as a distinct (if small) possibility, we'd use, "...there were a few signs that the final would include Germany."

... and that's basically it. Simple, no?

One additional note: The meanings for few and a few remain consistent when the thing your talking about is stated as a negative. For example:
There were few signs of Brazil not reaching the final.
Here, the direct implication is, "There were almost no signs of Brazil not reaching the final." After doing the trick in English of transforming two negatives into a positive, we have the implicitly understood interpretation of this statement as something like, "There were many signs that Brazil would reach the final." The use of a few leads to a contrasting sentence, similar to the examples using Germany:
There were a few signs of Brazil not reaching the final.
Here, the direct implication is, "There were some signs of Brazil not reaching the final," which is almost the direct opposite of the implication of the previous statement.

So, in short:

  • If you want to emphasize the near-zero quantity of something, use few.
  • If you want to emphasize the not-at-all-zero quantity of something, use a few.

Addendum: Of course, there is also the use of the few. However, as with most uses of the to convert an adjective into a noun (e.g., the elderly, the hungry, the poor, the tired, the wealthy, the powerful, etc.), it is referring to a distinct and defined (either implicitly or explicitly) group, usually of people. Thus we understand the recruiting phrase used by the US Marine Corps, "The few, the proud, the Marines," as referring to an implicit exclusivity that is associated with the culture of the US Marine Corps. Similarly, given the interchangeability of pronouns for articles, we can understand the following use of we few from the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V:
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
... and an excuse to post this lovely rendition of the St. Crispin's Day speech:

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Units Conversions: Square feet to square meters

Apartments in Chile - as in much of the rest of the world - are measured in square meters. However, in the US, they are measured in square feet. Since people get really used to the meanings of various measurements, seeing (or hearing) the same thing measured in different units provokes a different response (or sometimes just a sense of puzzlement).

One such measurement is living area. In Ann Arbor, I lived in a ~800 sq. ft., single-room cabin in the woods. To others who use square feet to designate living area, this has an intrinsic "feel" to it. To people in Chile (and much of the rest of the world), this means ... not much.

Sure, you can make quick back-of-the-envelope calculations to say, "Well, 3 feet is roughly 1 meter," but that fails (utterly) to account for squaring. Without a quick-and-dirty conversion factor, in order for Chileans to understand how big that cabin was, they'd have to take the square root of 800 (28.284) and then divide it by 3 (9.428) and then square it (88.888), which is kind of difficult to do on the fly.

However, there is an easier way. Using the handy site,, one can find that 1 square meter is equal to 10.763910417 square feet. To change this to a handy back-of-the-envelope conversion factor, just multiply square meters by 11 or divide square feet by 11 (a handy trick might be to multiply square feet by 9 and then divide by 100).

Ergo: My 800 square-foot cabin in the woods is roughly (9*800)/100) = 72 square meters (plus a bit). The actual answer is closer to 74 square meters, but this conversion is far easier (and far more accurate) than the one presented above.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Monday, July 21, 2014

Units Conversions: Chilean Pesos/Liter of Gasoline to US Dollars/Gallon of Gasoline

Well, living in Chile - and expecting guests to visit from the US - means that there are many things to get accustomed to. Including measuring things differently. Since Chile - like most of the rest of the world - uses the metric system, and the US - like few places in the world - chooses to stick to an arcane system of weights and measures (with its citizenry either blissfully unaware of any different reality or loudly proclaiming anything different to be just plain weird), it is necessary - from time to time - to stop and recognize that visitors don't have the luxury of time to get accustomed to what a particular measured value means. Sure, sure, it's easy to use back-of-the-envelope conversions for simple, everyday things:

"One meter is a little longer than 3 feet."
"One kilogram is a little bigger than 2 pounds."
"One kilometer is a little more than 1/2 mile."
"One hundred kilometers per hour is roughly 60 mph."
"One liter is a little more than 2 pints."

Sure, they're only kind of correct, but it lets visitors from the US get a grasp on the kinds of weights and distances that are discussed, and for the day-to-day kinds of uses, this sort of calculation puts the results in the correct range at least. So when you're buying stuff at the store, you can make a quick conversion from kilograms to pounds; when you're looking at walking distances in the city, you can make a quick conversion from kilometers to miles; etc.

However, less common conversions don't necessarily have such easy rules of thumb. One such is the price of gasoline. If you are going to rent a car in Chile, you're likely going to want to know how much you're paying for gasoline. But while you might know that one liter is roughly 2 pints (and - by extension - there being 8 pints in a gallon, that 4 liters is somewhat more than 1 gallon), combining that knowledge with an exchange rate is not that simple. What would be great is a simple unit conversion.

Well, the exchange rate between the US Dollar (USD) and Chilean Peso (CLP) has been relatively stable at between 540 CLP/1 USD (or 0.001852 USD/CLP) and 565 CLP/1 USD (or 0.00177 USD/CLP). We can use this in the following unit-conversion:

USD/Gallon = CLP/Liter
USD/Gallon = CLP/Liter * 0.26417205236 Liters/Gallon * USD/CLP
USD/Gallon = 0.26417205236x CLP/Gallon * USD/CLP

(Using 0.00177 USD/CLP to be conservative:)

USD/Gallon = 0.26417205236x CLP/Gallon * 0.00177 USD/CLP
USD/Gallon = 149.2497x USD/Gallon
x = 0.0067

Or, to give it a nice back-of-the-envelope-calculation value:

"900 Chilean pesos/liter is roughly equivalent to $6/gallon."

And - given that gas prices in Chile are ~830 CLP/Liter (~$5.50/gallon) - this back-of-the-envelope conversion rate is kind of handy. (I did write about Chilean vs. US gasoline prices before; general trends haven't changed too much.) By the way, did you know that the price of gasoline in the US is the lowest among OECD countries and non-petrostates?

Next: Unit conversions of square area.

NOTE: For people familiar with UK pre-metric weights and measures, these numbers may seem to be a little off. Remember that these conversions are for people from the US, where liquid measures are slightly smaller than the those used in the UK pre-metric. In other words, people who refer to the US system of weights and measures as the "imperial system" are technically wrong. (Unless they mean to say that the "imperial" refers to the US empire, and not the British one.)

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Spanish apparently doesn't have an adverb for "write" either

Having studied - and used - Spanish for a while now, I recently returned to a question that stumped me a few years ago: what is the adverb of "write"? Does Spanish have an adverb for write?

First a short lesson in Spanish grammar. Adverbs are (for the most part) formed from adjectives by adding the suffix -mente, which means something along the lines of "in the thought of the thing" (being derived from mentis, the same Latin root from which English derives mental). Therefore, the Spanish equivalent of verbally is verbalmente (which is formed from the adjective verbal and the adverb-making suffix -mente).

In other words: verbalizar (to verbalize) U+2192.svg verbal (verbal) U+2192.svg verbalmente (verbally)

So I thought that all I need to do is determine the Spanish equivalent of "written" and just add "-mente" to get the Spanish adverb of "to write."

In other words: escribir (to write) U+2192.svg escrito/ta (written) U+2192.svg escritamente (adverb of write)

It seemed to easy. It seemed so simple. It seemed so obvious.

But escritamente doesn't exist. Unfortunately.

What's the solution? To do the equivalent thing as in English: use adverbial phrases.

Ergo: escribir (verb) U+2192.svg escrito/ta (adjective) U+2192.svg por escrito/ta (adverbial phrase).

How... deflating.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Being a "Grammarist" (Again)

A year ago, Conde Nast published an article titled, "10 Best Small Towns to Live in America". A friend of mine recently put a link to it on her Facebook page, which was the way in which I learned of its existence.

The first thought I had was, "Hmm... The title indicates that the story is about best small towns that are living in America, and not about the best small American towns in which to live." The verb to live can be used as part of a verb phrase (i.e., to live in) or independently (i.e., to live in America), but it cannot do both things at the same time. Therefore, the syntax of the title requires the interpretation of "10 best small towns to live in America," or - to repeat my thought - that the story is about best small towns that are living in America. Which is an awkward concept, unless you're writing a piece of fiction, in which small towns are conscious entities.

Furthermore, as an adjective, "best" indicates the ultimate of something; it has no superior (as opposed to adjectives ending with "-er" or adjective phrases using "more"; never mind the Hawai'ian patois use of "more better"). Thus it requires the use of "the." Saying that it's a headline would be a good excuse, save for the problem that the whole point of abbreviated headline grammar is due to the exigencies of space-saving; something that is next-to-unnecessary when publishing online. So, to make the minimal number of changes, the title ought to read:

"The 10 Best Small Towns to Live in in America."

True, this title is grammatically correct, but awkward due to two different uses to which "in" has been used: one as part of a verb phrase ("live in") and one as part of a prepositional phrase ("in America."). Furthermore, if you don't like verb phrase constructions (i.e., if you hold on to the 18th Century English grammarian's notion of "correct" grammar mimicking Latin/Romance grammar), then the easiest "fix" is to change the word order (and grammar) to make the sentence mimic a Romance-language construction, thusly:

"The 10 Best Small Towns in which to Live in America."


"The 10 Best Small Towns in America in which to Live."

Of course, either of these constructions is rather awkward to the modern American reader, for whom the use of phrases like "in which" are dying (much like the distinction between who and whom). Therefore, another editing option would be to change the verb phrase (to live) for a single verb that has the same (or very similar) meaning and doesn't rely on being a verb phrase in order to hold that same meaning (I prefer "inhabit" among all the options):

"The 10 Best Small Towns to Inhabit in America."

Well, upon reflection, that just sounds awkward for a whole different reason: inherent meaning. While to inhabit and to live in do mean effectively the same thing, the feelings evoked by the words are different. To quote Winston Churchill - as quoted in by Romm in Language Intelligence - "All the speeches of great English rhetoricians ... display a uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage." The same is true with catchy headlines, I suppose.

Ergo, whilst it may behoove the author to adhere to appropriate grammar structure and diction whilst composing, a successful application of such adherence would obfuscate their topics of dissertation from those who desire to acquire the insights of said author. Or - to put it another way - don't be fancy when you don't have to be. So maybe a better title could be something like:

"10 Great American Small Towns to Live In."

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Misusing statistics: Just because a statistic feels right, doesn't make it actually correct

At the end of an article about the recent judicial decision about same-sex marriage in Arkansas, there was this disclaimer:
"I’m a lawyer, but there’s only a 2% chance I’m licensed in your state."

This statement is an apparent example of a statistic that just "feels right" as opposed to being accurate. Let me explain why.

In most of the United States, lawyers can only practice in the state in which they are a member of the bar. Lawyers who pass a bar examination for one state can become members of that state's legal bar, but this does not mean that they can practice law in another state (unless they are given special dispensation). For example, if you're a member of the California state bar, you can practice anywhere in California, but nowhere in Wyoming. This means that there are 50 unique bar associations (with most being state monopolies in practicing law, and a minority not, but effectively difficult for outsiders to practice law in that state).

Now, it appears that the blog author got their number by dividing 100% by the number of state bars (50), but this type of determination is methodologically wrong even as it simultaneously "feels right". It's methodologically incorrect, because it presumes that the US readership of the blog is equally distributed across all 50 states. In other words, if there are 50,000 readers of the blog, and the readership were equally distributed across all states, then there are 1,000 readers in each state; no more and no less. This means that there are 1,000 readers from Wyoming, constituting ~0.1% of Wyoming's population. It also means that there are exactly 1,000 readers from California constituting a relatively paltry ~0.003% of California's population. This assumption of equal readership is almost assuredly wrong. (However, without readership data, one cannot say for certain that it's wrong.)

Of course, using state-by-state population as a direct proxy of the blog's readership is not likely to perfectly map onto the proportion of the national readership held by any state, either (let alone the state in which the author is a member of the bar). If it did, then the likelihood for a US reader being in the author's state would be ~12% if they were a member of the California bar, but only ~0.2% if they were a member of the Wyoming bar. If we use the presumption that state population is a direct and accurate proxy for blog readership, and that the author was accurate in stating their 2% chance, then that means that we would be looking for a state with a population of 2% of the US population, or ~6.3 million people. Looking at the demographics of the US, there is no state with ~6.3 million people, but Missouri (~6.0 million, ~1.9% of the US population) and Tennessee (~6.5 million, ~2.1% of the US population) are the closest. But state populations are not likely a direct proxy for readership, either, which means that - even if the author is a member of the Missouri or Tennessee state bars - it's unlikely that the they represent 2% of the blog readership.

Indeed, there are many additional factors that determine the average readership rates of the blog, based on other characteristics which make the use of only a state-population's proportion of the national population to also be flawed (although likely more precise than the assumption of equal readership numbers across all states). For example, if there were a significant positive association between readership and liberalness in state politics, then the relative number of readers from California would be higher than 12% while Wyoming readership would drop below 0.2%. (Likely, too, the percent of readers from Missouri and Tennessee are also likely to be lowered from their population-based proportions of ~2%.)

The easiest way of determining the percent chance of the average reader to be a resident in the state the author practices law would be to use the readership statistics of the blog (making the assumptions that (1) use-trackers will adequately capture the rates of readership across different states, (2) the geographic distribution of the readership doesn't dramatically change during and after the data collection period, and (3) the likelihood of writing in with a legal question is equivalent across all readers of the blog). After a representative sample of the readership of the blog is collected, all that is needed is to divide the average number of readers from the state in the author holds bar membership by the average total US readership, and then there would be a far more accurate percent-chance to report in the disclaimer.

Of course, the sense and purpose of such a statistic would not be readily apparent to most people (for whom the 2% chance statistic makes better "gut sense"). For example, if 10% of the blog readership comes from the author's state, then reporting that number would have some readers (perhaps many readers) thinking that the author is a member of 5 different state bars, when in fact the number (10% in this example) is merely a reflection of the author's association with a particular state's bar (and thus the population of potential clients within that state) in a landscape of an unequally distributed readership population. In other words, the reported would be accurate, but potentially highly confusing, and - therefore - of dubious utility.

In sum, I'm making this long explanation, because the statement of "there's only a 2% chance" appears to use the analogues of the bad logic used by some creationists that use the "50-50 chance" canard to place an equivalence between the existence of God. If it's wrong to for creationists to misuse statistics, it's wrong for rationalist lawyers to misuse statistics, too.

Note 1: If there's no problem in doing so, you could just tell people which state bar you belong to. In that way, you don't need to resort to either incorrect-statistics-that-"feel"-right or correct-and-obtuse-statistics to describe what your statement of "there's only a 2% chance" is apparently trying to convey.

Note 2: It is perfectly possible that you've done the statistical calculation and that the readership from the state in which you practice law is *indeed* 2% of the total US readership of this blog, but the perfect coincidence with the "feel-good" nonsense statistic of 100%/50 states = 2% makes the statistic seem "fishy". (But not impossible.)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Spring in Ann Arbor, and the air contains many heady smells

It's spring, and I'm back for a visit to Ann Arbor.

As it's spring in Ann Arbor, it means that many of the trees are in full bloom. Including the callery pears and linden trees, and you get to smell the ... unique smell:

And according to the Ann Arbor tree inventory, roughly 2% of the trees in the city are these odoriferous trees (and roughly 4% are similarly odoriferous linden trees), with the greatest concentration of callery pear trees being found in the downtown near the farmers market.

Well, it's spring in Ann Arbor again. And the air smells like a fruitful spring, with all these comely trees.