Wednesday, May 25, 2005

On Tour

Things are going to be slow here until next Thursday. However, this time I rationalize my absence not with real-world distraction or my inclinations toward sloth. In fact, it is quite the opposite.

For the next week, I will be guest-blogging (along with Jonnybutter of Crush All Boxes) over at Total Information Awareness while Eric Martin is emptying his pockets in Las Vegas. It will take all of my energy to avoid driving away Eric's audience -- thus The Needle will go silent in the meantime.

Anyway, please feel free to join me at this home away from home. It's always great to see friendly faces during the away games.

Qualified Qualifiers

(I began this post pre-compromise. The existence of the compromise may make my specific observation moot (then again, maybe not). However, in the end, I felt the observation retained enough value to merit publication. So, while this might no longer be insight from the cutting edge of the news cycle, it will hopefully provide you with a chuckle. Here's hoping.)

Over the last decade or so, I've noticed an amusing trend in the way that the news from sporting events is being reported. You see, sports broadcasters and reporters face a unique problem. Despite the fact that there are an enormous number of sporting events each year, most of what occurs within these events is perfectly ordinary.

Now, I'm not trying to say that sports are boring. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. My wife, who is graciously enduring my NBA playoff obsession, could testify to this fact.

However, as exciting as these events may be, almost everything we witness has been seen before. Home runs, touchdowns, and blocked shots are all everyday occurrences. Each event has individual beauty, but they all mean pretty much the same thing. The same is true when you examine athletic performance in a more holistic fashion. It may be a big deal when a basketball player scores 40 points in a game, but how many times did that happen in the last season alone? And, there are many times when nothing truly special happens at all. Everyone might turn in a solid performance without any individual standouts.

So, if there's nothing special about an event to highlight, and it's your job to discuss the highlights of the game, you've got a problem.

Traditionally, this is where statistics come to the rescue. If you can somehow numerically demonstrate that something special or unique occurred during a game, you suddenly have something to talk about. Unfortunately, there are limits to the strategy because there is always a finite number of statistical categories to monitor. It is quite easy to exhaust these possibilities without discovering anything worthy of mention. Once you've done that, you're stuck.

Unless… you start adding qualifiers.

It works like this. Let's say you have a pitcher who strikes out 10 batters on a certain day. That's certainly a good showing, but it's hardly unheard of. However, if it turns out that this pitcher is a rookie and that he turned in this performance in his first start in the majors, you suddenly have something to talk about: "Bob Jones is only the eighth player in major-league history to strike out 10 or more batters in his first major-league start."

Of course, like many rhetorical tools, this device can be used for both good and evil. Certain qualifiers, like those in the above example, serve to highlight meaningful, yet hidden, achievement. That isn't always the case, like in this example:

"Bob Jones is the first player in major-league history to strike out 10 or more batters in his first major-league start on a Tuesday while facing a team based south of the Mason-Dixon line."

By adding these additional qualifiers, you can now label this event as unique. But, as this example demonstrates, unique doesn't equal meaningful. The qualifiers have to matter.

If you're wondering why I'm bringing this up, observe the following statement made by Sean Hannity on Hannity & Colmes recently.
And let me repeat for our audience, and nobody can contradict this: This is the first time in 214 years, the first time that judicial nominees who would otherwise, if given an up-or-down vote would be approved, are being denied an up-or-down vote. It has never happened before ever.
So, yeah -- there have been filibusters, and filibusters of judicial nominees, and nominees that never made it out of committee, and nominees that were "blue-slipped", and nominees that never even got committee hearings. But, the current situation, as qualified, is unique -- and therefore wrong.

To be honest, when you qualify something that much, I don't even know what the issue is anymore. Except that you're pissed-off about the current state of affairs. That part is crystal clear -- I just don't care.

To repeat: unique doesn't equal meaningful. It doesn't matter whether it happens on ESPN or FOX News. It might give you something to talk about, but it guarantees no gravitas. You have to provide that on your own.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

...But I Love the Internet


P.S. Personal best (so far): 322.9.

I Hate George Lucas

By the time this post has been injected into the blogosphere, many of you will already have plunked down your hard-earned cash in order to witness George Lucas's latest cinematic atrocity. I'm sure that I won't be far behind you. Despite my certainty that this film will once again redefine the maximum possible disparity between resource expenditure and product quality, I know that I will be unable to resist its siren call. Besides which, since it is sure to gross approximately $100 billion over the course of its existence, denying George Lucas my measly 10 bucks wouldn't affect him in the slightest. As much as I would like to hurt this man in some way, my hands are tied.

You see, like the title of this post says, I hate George Lucas. I realize that "hate" is strong language to employ and that it might shock some of you to see it in this context. But, as I search my soul with an open mind and an honest heart, I must admit that it is true. There are few in this world who can draw such emotion from me. I reserve it for the worst of the worst. George -- you win the prize.

Now, I don't hate him for assaulting us with The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Sure, they didn't endear him to me in any way. In fact, it's fair to say that these films were crushing disappointments. They looked pretty (for the most part) and each provided an exhilarating light saber battle for our amusement. Yet, they lacked plot, meaningful characters, believable dialogue, and -- worst of all -- the slightest hint of excitement. Rather gaping omissions, if you ask me.

But, I don't hate him for it. Lots of people produce great work early in their careers, only to stumble later. Paul McCartney was fantastic as a Beatle, but a chump as a Wing. Stephen King is rightly considered a legend of the horror genre, despite the fact that I quite regularly wipe my ass with the pages from Tommyknockers. Even Francis Ford Coppola, after giving us The Godfather, The Godfather: Part II, and Apocalypse Now, left us with Dracula and The Godfather: Part III. The presence of sin doesn't erase all acts of virtue. I may be disappointed by their fall from grace, but I won't condemn them for it.

No, my distaste with George Lucas is driven by something altogether different.

As most of you know, the recent Star Wars abominations were preceded by a re-release of the original trilogy (identified as the Special Edition). But, this re-release wasn't simply a crisp new print of the original films. Instead, George Lucas decided to produce new edits of the original films. Some of the changes were mere touch ups, erasing flaws introduced by the special effects of the era (no complaints here). Others allowed him to add scenes that had been cut from the original due to certain technical infeasibilities. He also chose to add in a fair amount of background to certain scenes, inserting alien creatures that had been unrenderable without CGI.

Some of these changes were OK, but most of them were not. In fact, most of them were laughable. But, again, I don't hate him for it.

This is why I hate him. There it is a very important scene in the original Star Wars with Han Solo and the bounty hunter Greedo. Apparently, Hans Solo owed money to the intergalactic gangster known as Jaba the Hut and Greedo had been hired to bring him in. During the scene in question, Greedo finally catches up with Han Solo. Because he's a rather unscrupulous character, Greedo makes it clear that he can be bought off. Han Solo pretends to negotiate for a few moments, but once Greedo lets his guard down, Han shoots him dead -- in cold blood.

From this scene we learn a lot about who Han Solo is. He is a ruthless mercenary with a checkered past, willing to kill those who would stand in his way. He is out for himself and no one else. This is important because, at the end of the film, after abandoning Luke and Leia to attack the Death Star alone, he returns at a crucial moment to assist in its destruction. Thus, Han is transformed from selfish rogue to selfless hero. How about that? Actual character development.

Unfortunately, this isn't how the scene plays out in the Special Edition release. I'll let the Star Wars databank speak for itself.
Greedo was an overzealous bounty hunter hired by Jabba the Hutt to collect on Han Solo. Greedo challenged Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina. At blaster point, the Rodian demanded Solo pay his debt to Jabba. Solo claimed he didn't have the money with him. Greedo had lost his patience, and opened fire. His shot missed; it was the last mistake Greedo would make. Solo opened fire with his powerful blaster pistol, ripping through the cantina table and the Rodian's chest.
That's right. In the Special Edition release of Star Wars, the version that truly represents George Lucas's vision, Greedo shoots first! Suddenly, Han's preemptive murder becomes an act of self-defense. So, while he may be a little rough around the edges, he's basically a nice guy who wouldn't hurt anyone (who wasn't a bloodthirsty killer attempting to vaporize him -- and could you blame him?).

This isn't just cleanup work. This isn't background enhancement. This is a dramatic modification of character that affects the entire rest of the movie. Han's selfish protestations that ensue no longer ring as true. His insistence upon payment for rescuing the princess are out of sync with the character now being drawn. And, worst of all, his act of redemption during the final moments of battle no longer signify an ethical rebirth. Instead, we're left wondering why it took so long.

Moreover, it erases one of the few thematic ambiguities of the entire series: that not everyone is purely good or evil. Some exist in the space in between, to be potentially drawn to one side or the other as they are influenced by those around them. Han didn't start off good -- he became good, won over by the nobility of his peers. That's a message worth learning.

But, George Lucas doesn't care. I have heard that he now believes that Han's cold-blooded murderer of his pursuer is too dark an event to be witnessed by children. Apparently, he was uncomfortable with children idolizing someone so distasteful. Thus, he "cleaned it up." Now, we can all watch the film without these troubling complexities. Wonderful.

So, that's my problem with the man. Sure, he hates actors, dialogue, and plot. He is completely subservient to the cross-marketing aspects of his production. He has completely lost touch with his creative roots. But, I could forgive all that if he could maintain an iota of respect for the characters that he once brought to life. However, those characters are as capriciously mutable as the background scenery, to be pasteurized in service of his arrogant impression of his audience. Star Wars was never Shakespeare, but within it there were moments that lifted it above typical sci-fi schlock. No longer. This mutation (and many others) demonstrate that he is no longer interested in producing anything but bubblegum cinematic drivel. So strong is this drive that he is willing to literally undo the past. That, I cannot forgive.

That's my case. George -- if you're out there -- you suck. You mercilessly eviscerated a great character and spat upon all those who loved him. For that, I grant no quarter. I promise that for as long as I live, I will revile you, body and soul.

Forever. Get used to it.

'tis the Season

I can't say that I'm too happy about this.

However, my wife took the same test, producing the following result.

So, I can't complain.

P.S. Eat your heart out, Mr. Pharyngula.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Going Nuclear

According to current reporting, the opening salvo in Bill Frist's attempt to eliminate the filibuster will be fired this morning. At this point, it remains unclear how this particular gambit will play out. However, whatever the result, it might be useful for us to all understand what is actually occurring. Unfortunately, the avalanche of rhetoric that we have all endured has done little to clarify the issues. I offer this post in a modest attempt to rectify this situation.

The first question worth investigating is how did we get here in the first place? While the claim that the judicial filibuster is unprecedented is, to say the least, overblown, the situation we currently face is undeniably unique. The sheer number of judicial candidates who are being held up by the threat of filibuster clearly indicates that something unusual is unfolding. What's going on?

Well, way back in November, Kevin Drum provided us with a little recent history. At one point, not long ago, controversial nominations rarely made it to the floor. Why?
For decades, the rule was this: if both senators from a judge's home state objected to (or "blue slipped") a nominee, he was out.
But then, the Republicans took control of the Senate. Once that happened, these rules began to change.
  • In 1998, for no special reason, Orrin Hatch decided that only one senator needed to object to a nomination. This made it easier for Republicans to obstruct Bill Clinton's nominees.

  • In 2001, when one of their own became president, Hatch suddenly reversed course and decided that it should take two objections after all. That made it harder for Democrats to obstruct George Bush's nominees.

  • In early 2003, Hatch went even further: senatorial objections were merely advisory, he said. Even if both senators objected to a nomination, it would still go to the floor for a vote.

  • A few weeks later, yet another barrier was torn down: Hatch did away with a longtime rule that said at least one member of the minority had to agree in order to end discussion about a nomination and move it out of committee.

  • In light of these changes, it is hardly surprising that Democrats are wielding the threat of filibuster so freely. At this point, it is the only remaining check on majority power available to them. So, it isn't that Democrats have become petty and anti-democratic. It is simply that the rules of the game have changed.

    Another criticism that has been leveled against the judicial filibuster is that it is an abdication of the Senate's constitutional obligation to "advise and consent." This argument is typically coupled with the claim that the filibuster creates a supermajority requirement for judicial confirmation -- a requirement absent from the Constitution. According to those who would make this argument, the Constitution requires an up or down vote on all judicial nominees, to be decided by a simple majority.

    However, according to Publius at Legal Fiction, this isn't quite right. While commenting on the Justice Sunday event from a few weeks ago, he noted the following:
    Though it seems reasonable, this constitutional argument won’t work. The Constitution does say “advise and consent,” the but it never defines “consent.” What is or isn’t “consent” is determined by internal Senate rules. In other words, the Senate gets to decide how it approves of everything from legislation to treaties to nominees.

    If you’ll remember, the GOP once pushed for supermajority approval to raise taxes. Even if that’s unwise policy, it is perfectly constitutional. The Senate gets to make its own rules. Currently, the Senate rules (agreed upon ex ante by a supermajority) contemplate filibusters, and the Senate therefore does not “consent” as a body if a filibuster is successful. It’s part of the rules and it’s perfectly constitutional. The Justice Sunday speakers were wrong to equate “consent” with an up-or-down vote – an up-or-down majority is merely one of many possible ways to consent.
    So, while it is amusing to see strict constructionists read meaning into our founding document, such an interpretation is pure fabrication. Quite a tasty piece of irony, if you ask me.

    The next point I will raise has to do with how the rule is actually being changed. Traditionally, amending Senate rules requires a two thirds majority -- 67 votes. Of course, if Republicans can't get 60 votes to close floor debate on a judicial nomination, they obviously aren't going to be able to get 67 votes to change the rule. So, how exactly are they going to change this rule? For this, we turn to Mark Kleiman.
    But it seems to me that the "nuclear option" question isn't really about the filibuster, or about judicial filibusters, at all. It's about cheating. The Senate, acting under Constitutional authority, has created rules for itself. Those rules include a provision that changing the rules requires a two-thirds majority. (Requiring a super-majority for rules changes seems to me sound, since otherwise there would be in effect no rules at all that a temporary majority had to respect.)

    The "nuclear option" involves the Vice-President, acting as the President of the Senate, making a clearly false decision about what the current rules are…
    What is actually going to happen is that Frist is going make a motion to the effect that the filibuster is "out of order." Then, in spite of the fact that the filibuster is clearly permitted by Senate rules, Cheney will agree. Therefore, it isn't that the rule will be changed -- it's that it will be willfully ignored. So much for the rule of law.

    Finally, I think that is important to note that, so far, no filibuster has actually occurred. That might seem strange to say, given all the discussion that we have had of late. But, it is in fact true. A filibuster, a real filibuster, occurs when, and only when, a senator or a group of senators takes the floor and holds it indefinitely. What we have seen thus far is merely the threat of a filibuster. The difference between a filibuster and the threat of one is enormous because a real filibuster requires a tremendous amount of commitment. Holding the floor requires that you ignore all other priorities. No other Senate business is conducted. Travel plans and fund-raising efforts must be tabled. It frequently isn't even possible to sleep in one's own bed. Therefore, the filibuster isn't just a count of 40 votes; it is a measure of the degree of opposition. You don't just raise your hand and get it done. You have to really want it.

    If you want to beat a filibuster, the same rules apply. You have to work, struggle, and endure. The thing is, though, you have the numbers. If both sides are equally committed, no filibuster can hold. The majority will eventually win. It might be hard, but it can be done.

    And, for me, that's really the bottom line here. All the talk about the unprecedented nature of the judicial filibuster or the so-called constitutional requirement for an up-or-down vote is just smoke and mirrors. The truth is that the Republican majority wants to install controversial nominations over the objection of a dedicated minority, and they want it to be easy. At the beginning of this post we saw how the rules governing judicial nomination have been changed in order to facilitate confirmation. Removing the filibuster is simply the next step on this path. Republicans want what they want and, by God, they're going to get it.

    Reasonable people can and do disagree about the filibuster from a policy perspective. That's an interesting discussion. If the debate was turning on that issue, I wouldn't have a problem with it. But, let's face facts. This is nothing more than an attempt to tilt the scales even further in the direction of the current Republican majority. In the process, long-standing tradition and the integrity of Senate rules are being assaulted. Say what you will about the filibuster; ends do not justify means. The "nuclear option" is a crime committed in broad daylight. Don't let anyone tell you different.

    Tuesday, May 17, 2005

    The Myth of Merit

    What would Monday [ed.: OK -- I guess it's Tuesday now. Sue me.] be without a little David Brooks bashing? Well, no Monday at all!

    According to the Pew study, 76 percent of poor Republicans believe most people can get ahead with hard work. Only 14 percent of poor Democrats believe that. Poor Republicans haven't made it yet, but they embrace what they take to be the Republican economic vision - that it is in their power to do so. Poor Democrats are more likely to believe they are in the grip of forces beyond their control.

    The G.O.P. succeeds because it is seen as the party of optimistic individualism.
    Is it just me, or has someone just hit David with the nonsequitur-stick? Honestly, if I hadn't seen these two paragraphs one right after the other with my own eyes, I would have sworn that they had been taken out of context. Don't get me wrong -- a portion of Republican success can be attributed to their ability to market themselves as optimistic individualists. But, let's not kid ourselves. Their ability to exploit fear, xenophobia, and religious intolerance has been at least as important, if not more so.

    However, this overreaching claim aside, David is within spitting distance of an important insight. The study that he uses to buttress his "optimistic individualism" assertion is, in fact, identifying a significant distinction between liberal and conservative worldviews. In short, conservatives believe that upward mobility is primarily driven by merit, while liberals do not.

    The importance of this distinction cannot be overstated, as it influences an individual's perception of nearly every policy initiative. George Bush's call for an "ownership society" would fail to resonate with his supporters if they did not first believe that the rewards of ownership would be distributed fairly. Progressive tax policy is resisted by those who see it as punishment for the hard-working and industrious and a payoff to slackers. And, of course, affirmative action is seen as the ultimate insult, as it reshuffles opportunity against supposedly objective measures of performance. In each of these issues, and many others, it is the perceived rejection of merit-based advancement that fuels conservative ire.

    The interesting thing about this phenomenon is how it seemingly manifests at all levels of economic experience. It's easy to see why the wealthy and successful buy into this theory; for them, it is merely the expression of the gospel of wealth. But for those who have failed to achieve economic success, it would appear to be a rather devastating personal indictment. If you have failed to rise up in a true meritocracy, what does that say about you?

    I suspect that there are a few factors that support lower class enthusiasm for the American meritocracy. First among these is its promise of economic mobility. As Brooks would say, it is an ideology of hope -- and here he is half right. But, there is a missing half that is just as important: control. No one is comfortable with the idea that they are completely at the mercy of their environment. Every single day we blithely ignore the role that chance plays in our lives. Despite the fact that tragedy strikes someone every day, we are surprised when we are the victim. Randomness is simply too disconcerting to be constantly connected with it; it must be suppressed for us to function in our daily lives. Abandoning the notion of merit-based advancement is an acceptance of the reality of chaos. Many would prefer to accept responsibility for their failure to achieve than acknowledge that there is nothing that they can do to guarantee success.

    Once an individual is completely entrenched in his belief that he controls his destiny, his hopes for success are further buoyed by the self-serving bias we all exhibit.
    The self-serving bias, for example, dictates that we tend to see ourselves in a more positive light than others see us: national surveys show that most business people believe they are more moral than other business people. In one College Entrance Examination Board survey of 829,000 high school seniors, 0 percent rated themselves below average in “ability to get along with others,” while 60 percent put themselves in the top 10 percent. This is also called the “ Lake Wobegon effect,” after the mythical town where everyone is above average. Lake Wobegon exists in the spiritual realm as well. According to a 1997 U.S. News and World Report study on who Americans believe are most likely to go to heaven, for example, 60 percent chose Princess Diana, 65 percent thought Michael Jordan, 79 percent selected Mother Teresa, and, at 87 percent, the person most likely to go to heaven was the survey taker!
    Belief in control doesn't lead to hope unless we believe that we are capable of exerting that control in a way that will lead to positive results. For better or worse, we tend to have an extremely optimistic opinion of our own capacity. Therefore, it is the confluence of these two factors, the desire for control and our self-serving bias, that leads many to accept merit as an explanation for one's station in life -- even when it reflects poorly on the individual. The alternative, acceptance of randomness and objective self-evaluation, is a pill too bitter for many to swallow.

    To circle back, Brooks is close to the truth. The concept of merit is attractive because it offers hope to many who would otherwise be left despondent by their economic standing. Unfortunately, the hope it provides has little rational basis. Marx called religion the opiate of the masses, but he might as well have said the same thing about the myth of meritocracy. As long as the myth is in place, few will be motivated to agitate against the current system. If all that stands between me and fantastical wealth is some hard work, why rock the boat?

    Democrats agonize over this population of poor Republicans who seemingly vote against their own economic best interests. Many point to the social/cultural issues as the key to this voting bloc. Of course, I agree -- but, I do not believe that these issues are limited to items like gay-marriage and Hollywood smut. The myth of meritocracy lives in this realm as well. However, unlike the traditional issues of the culture war, disabusing voters of this myth would not require that we abandon our core values. Quite the opposite. And it doesn't require that they give up hope. It merely means that hope lies in a different direction. We just have to lead them there.

    Friday, May 13, 2005

    Collective Conservation

    As natural resources go, there's nothing quite like petroleum. The largest reserves are situated in some of the most politically unstable regions on earth. Its extraction and transport involve significant environmental risks that periodically result in catastrophe. Once it reaches the market, its consumption plays a substantial role in urban air pollution and anthropogenic climate change. On the other hand, it is one of the most useful substances known to mankind. It is, by a wide margin, the world's most important source of energy (accounting for 37.9% of the total in 2002) and is an indispensable component in literally thousands of products we all use on a daily basis. Modern society, as currently constructed, simply could not exist without it. But, on the other other hand, it is nonrenewable. Sooner or later, it will run out.

    In the face of this impending crisis, two schools of thought have emerged. The first largely acknowledges the truthfulness of the claims I have just made and argues for conservation. The second, however, tends to deny the urgency of the problem. The environmental claims, they say, are overblown. They acknowledge that the increasing global demand for petroleum is beginning to stress our production capacity, but argue that the remedy lies in increased exploration and production. Our problems would be solved if we could only bring more oil to the market.

    This is, in my opinion, nothing more than denial. And, apparently, they are aware of this fact on some level. This is why discussion of conservation frequently devolves into attempts to indict the messenger. The line of attack generally follows a predictable arc: those advocating conservation are limousine liberals who shuttle themselves across the country in Hummers and private jets -- who are they to tell us to conserve? A great example of this phenomenon occurred during Sean Hannity's radio interview of Robert Kennedy Jr. last August. Rather than argue the case on its merits, Sean repeatedly attempted to extract a promise from Kennedy to refrain from future private jet travel. Of course, this is nothing but simple misdirection. Still, as a rhetorical device, it can be quite effective. Therefore, it's important to understand exactly how empty this claim is.

    First, let's put aside the demographic issue. The claim that conservationists spend a disproportionately excessive amount of their time on Lear jets fails the laugh test. To my knowledge, no one has attempted to produce any numbers to justify this assertion. Until they do, it isn't even worth consideration.

    The real issue is whether or not conservationists are being hypocritical by demanding a top-down solution if they are unwilling to independently reduce their own consumption. On the surface, this might appear to be true. But, a closer examination reveals the fallacy of that argument.

    A short while ago, in the context of a different discussion, I briefly addressed the phenomenon known as the collective action problem.
    The basic idea is that rational entities acting independently cannot address collective issues. For example, if all farmers in a town allow their cattle to graze all in the town commons, the land will soon be overgrazed and useless to everyone. However, they cannot choose to independently limit their grazing because others would simply take advantage of the situation by allowing their cattle to graze further. In such a situation, those acting on behalf of the group are punished while those acting on their own interests are rewarded.
    Conservation is a classic example of this problem. You and I might believe the benefits of reducing our petroleum consumption outweigh the costs. However, if we choose to lead by example, we pay a price for doing so. Oil consumption is directly related to the ability to generate and acquire wealth. Therefore, our voluntary act of conservation will be paid for with a reduction in our net worth.

    But, that is not all. Because we are using less oil, demand for petroleum will drop, leading to a price reduction (see supply and demand). Suddenly, those who have chosen not to conserve will be rewarded by these cost reductions. Some will simply choose to pocket the savings. Others will respond by increasing their consumption (and, in the process, undoing a portion of our hard work). Either way, the result will be an increase in wealth for non-conservers.

    In short, independent conservation impoverishes those who comply and enriches those who do not. Therefore, due to the correlation between wealth and power in our society, those who admonish the advocates of conservation to take the first step are, in truth, advising these advocates to reduce their political and social influence. That isn't exactly what you would call a good deal.

    No, the only way for the costs of conservation to be distributed fairly is through top-down regulation. Regardless of the method employed, it must be applied across-the-board -- no exceptions. Anything less creates incentives for noncompliance, making such a system unworkable in the long run.

    Now, I have no doubt that Sean Hannity would love to see conservation advocates voluntarily reduce their influence within society. I'm sure that he could care less as to whether or not such independent conservation led to a significant decrease in petroleum consumption. But, these advocates should make it clear that this is what is being asked of them. They should not be taken in by his rhetorical machinations, nor should they allow him to portray them as hypocrites. They are simply seeking an equitable distribution of the costs of conservation. Could anything be more reasonable?

    In the end, we are going to face the consequences of a waning petroleum supply. We will not escape the environmental impacts resulting from the exploitation of this resource. This transition will not be easy and will inevitably change the world we live in, perhaps dramatically. Therefore, as we approach our day of reckoning, it is important that we proceed with our eyes open. This is serious business and if we allow ourselves to be distracted by dishonest charlatans, we divert precious resources that would otherwise be devoted to achieving an equitable resolution. Those who deny, distort, and dissemble should be exposed for what they are -- and then, if possible, ignored.

    There is too much work to do.

    Thursday, May 12, 2005

    I Don't Believe It, but...

    ... the new Skeptics' Circle is up over at Pharyngula. Chock-full of nay-saying goodness.

    Looks Like I'm All Right After All

    Due to a rather poor showing during a previous evaluation, I offer the following in hopes of achieving some semblance of redemption.

    (World's Smallest Political Quiz via Respectful Insolence)

    Wednesday, May 11, 2005

    A Little Inside (Blog-)Baseball

    As regular readers are surely aware, I posted an entry titled What Am I, a Fucking Idiot? a few days ago and I now have a moderately amusing tale to relate. So, sit back and enjoy.

    But first, for those of you who are not intimately familiar with the lives of your average smalltime blogger, a little background.

    Those of us subsisting at the absolute bottom of the blogospheric food chain are, to put it bluntly, obsessed with generating traffic. Nothing dulls enthusiasm for this process more than realizing you are speaking to an empty room. Therefore, all of us down here are endlessly developing strategies to increase our exposure. Sometimes this involves badgering the a-list crowd with pleas for attention, but this rarely pays off (and frankly comes off as whiny and desperate). Other times, we submit our work to blog carnivals, or even host carnivals ourselves. If we leave comments on other sites, we make sure that our blog's web address is accessible. And, finally, when we post something inspired by the work of a fellow blogger, we always leave a trackback.

    Of course, there would be no science to this process if we couldn't somehow evaluate the success of these various techniques. Enter the referral log. With this handy tool, we can discover how many of the visitors made their way to our sites. So, if someone follows a link, a Google search, a comment posted elsewhere, or a trackback to my front door, I will usually know about it.

    Anyway, back to the story.

    The post in question was somewhat of an anomaly for me. The tone of my work is generally intellectual and measured, as opposed to angry and ranty (not that I have anything against emotive writing -- I just don't usually do it). However, I was pissed-off that day and it came out in the post. Nowhere was this clearer than in the post's title. I mean, What Am I, a Fucking Idiot? isn't exactly playing it close to the vest.

    After I published in the post, I faced a minor dilemma. As you may have noticed, I referenced a number of other blogs in the text of the post. Usually, this is when I start planting trackbacks in the hopes of luring a few unsuspecting readers my way. But, in this instance, I hesitated. As many of you know, these planted trackbacks would have the title of my post available for all to see. Thus, I would be essentially pasting a curse word on someone else's real estate. On a certain level, this really shouldn't be a big deal. This is, after all, the Internet. But, on the other hand, there it is etiquette involved (ill defined as it is) and, since these other bloggers are all people that I respect and admire, I didn't want to offend anyone.

    Of course, my bloodlust for traffic quickly overwhelmed any emergent sense of decorum within me. Besides, in show business, there is no such thing as bad publicity.

    OK, here's the funny part. None of the bloggers in question flinched as they became complicit in my slouch toward Gomorrah (or, perhaps more accurately, none of them noticed). So, I just relaxed and waited to see who would be drawn in.

    Now, I've left trackbacks before and I know what to usually expect. At best, you generate a handful of new visitors (and by handful, I mean about five). Sometimes, you don't get any visitors at all. This time -- well, I did better. I won't overstate the case here and I will remind you that this is all relative to my traditionally low numbers. But, I will say this. These trackbacks generated a substantial traffic increase for me. In fact, with the exception of a couple of days buoyed by carnival submissions, it was the highest one-day total -- ever!

    Conclusion: you are all a bunch of sick fucks. Sure, I spend hours and hours weaving together intricate and rational arguments, suffering to divine and develop insightful new perspectives -- all to fall on deaf ears. I break out the potty-mouth and you can't get enough. No wonder this country's going to hell.

    The question now is, do I ignore this data point and soldier on as if it never occurred, or do I start pandering to the evidently lowbrow taste of the unwashed masses? Do I maintain my standards, or do I go all Married with Children on your asses? I haven't decided yet. But, if you come back next week and this site has lost its PG-13 rating, you have no one to blame but yourselves.


    Tuesday, May 10, 2005

    Battling Confirmation

    About a week ago I promised that I would spend a little time talking about confirmation bias. Today, I shall demonstrate that I am a man of my word.

    First, though, I'd like you to take a look at this post over at A Gentleman's C (if you haven't already). The part I especially like is the discussion of the Wason four-card task.
    In this task, people are shown a deck of cards. Each card has a letter printed on one side and a numeral on the other. The task is to decide whether rule like "If a card has a vowel on one side, the number on the other side is even," is true. Four cards are dealt such that one consonant, one vowel, one even number and one odd number are showing. The person trying to test the rule is allowed to turn over two cards.
    If you follow the link, there is a nice graphic to help you visualize the situation. But, for those of you too lazy to click the mouse button (what the hell is wrong with you anyway?), let's imagine that the four cards you see are "E", "K", "4", and "7". Now, before reading on, decide which two cards you would turn over in order to determine whether or not the "vowel on one side means even number on the other" rule is true.

    Let me guess. You chose "E" and "4". Well, that's wrong. Here's why:
    The first choice is correct, and consistent with the logical rule modus ponens, or "mode of affirmation." The second choice is incorrect, and represents the logical error of "affirming the consequent." Why is choosing the 4 an error? It is because the rule says nothing about what should be on the back of consonants, so either a vowel or a consonant could appear on the back of the even number and the rule could still be true. The card that should be selected is the odd number, because if a vowel appears on the back then the rule is disconfirmed. This represents the use of the rule modus tollens, or "mode of disconfirmation."
    So, what, you ask, is the point of this little exercise? Two things. First, it's a great demonstration of confirmation bias. The selection of the "4" over the "7" perfectly illustrates the tendency to design tests that confirm pre-existing assumptions. Second, because almost everyone gets this test wrong, it helps to dispel the myth that confirmation bias is a problem of the slow-witted, and that the "intelligent" among us can easily avoid it. You can't -- no one can. And that is why it is an important phenomenon to be aware of.

    I cannot think of a single example where an individual would bother testing a hypothesis without first forming an opinion as to its truthfulness. The fact that we care enough to test it means that we care about the outcome. This isn't a flaw; it is merely a function of human motivations. But, the fact that we care about the outcome means that we will have a tendency to skew results in a favorable direction. This tendency is damned hard to avoid.

    The scientific community generally understands this dynamic and has developed systems to counteract it. When designing experiments to test a given hypothesis, it is not uncommon to consult with those who dispute the theory in question in order to ensure the possibility of disconfirmation. Peer review and experimental repetition also guard against the scientist's tendency to see the data that he wants to see. And, of course, a battery of statistical tools has evolved in order to objectively identify the significance of experimental results.

    Other communities, being less familiar with the phenomenon, have been less successful in addressing it. Law enforcement, for example, is a particularly egregious offender. Typically, investigations begin with objective assessments of the emerging evidence. However, once a theory begins to coalesce, the pursuit of conviction frequently overwhelms any aspirations of impartiality. Similarly, crime labs are rarely independent agencies and regularly perceive themselves to be an additional tool of the prosecution. It is not uncommon for testing to be conducted by those fully aware of the DA's desired outcome. Few within this system are deliberately attempting to subvert justice. Yet, as it is currently constructed, such subversions are more common than anyone in the system is willing to admit.

    But, it is unfair to single out law enforcement for its tendency to succumb to confirmation bias when it is so rampant in any pursuit of truth. Journalists, pundits, and bloggers regularly cherry-pick from the available data in order to tell the story as they see it. Advocates of various policy initiatives support their positions by presenting only the evidence that reflects favorably on their cause. And could we complete this discussion without at least tangentially referring to this administration's preinvasion assessment of the Iraqi WMD threat? The list is endless.

    Sometimes these misrepresentations are deliberate, no question. However, I suspect that they usually are not. They might fail to perform the due diligence required to avoid these mistakes, but this failure is driven by ignorance and a desire for expediency, rather than malice. For the most part, these people aren't evil -- they are simply human. And that is why the fix must be systemic.

    Why does confirmation bias occur? There isn't a definitive answer, but theories exist. Some suggest that negative processing is inherently more difficult than positive processing, and that we tend to select the path of least resistance. Disconfirmation requires a restructuring of our intellectual framework in order to accommodate observed data, while confirmation allows for easy assimilation. In other words, it's easier to believe what you already believe.

    Regardless of its origins, it is an unavoidable component of human investigations. Awareness of the phenomenon is helpful, but is not enough to eradicate it completely. The only escape is systemic -- as demonstrated by much (but not all) of the scientific community. Anything less is lip service.

    So, as you meander about the blogosphere, keep this principle in mind. We're all advocates of one sort or another. We (usually) aspire for truth -- but we are, in the end, only human. Anyone motivated enough to work in this medium has a stake in his conclusions. Some of us will successfully temper our bias and many others will not. In light of this fact, every reader would be well served by a healthy smattering of skepticism -- regardless of who they are reading.

    Even if they are reading me.

    Monday, May 09, 2005

    What Am I, a Fucking Idiot?

    The blogosphere, it seems, is already filled to capacity with the reaction to the latest effluvia from David Brooks and John Tierney. Publius, Kevin Drum, Brad DeLong (twice), and Barbara O'Brien have all appropriated their pound of flesh from this dynamic duo. So, I have little to add.

    But, I will add this.

    Brooks says the following:
    [Bush is] asking middle- and upper-class folks to accept benefit cuts so there will be money for the people who are really facing poverty…
    Now, Tierney's money quote:
    …Bush offered a progressive compromise last week to Democrats: protect the poor while moderating the growth of benefits for higher-income workers.
    Now, everyone remembers what Bush's "plan" actually is, right? It's to cut benefits for everyone making more than $20,000 per year. So, on what planet is $20k "middle class"? Are you kidding me?

    There are occasions when you can pardon a columnist for presenting a subjective interpretation that fails to comport with your understanding of the facts. There are times when someone get a little carried away with the fiery rhetoric and slightly blurs reality. This isn't one of those times. Annual income of $20k is poverty -- dirt-eating poverty. Suggesting anything else doesn't just put the truth at arms length, it relocates it into the next county.

    So, what you have here is either a couple of idiots or a couple of liars. I'm willing to listen to arguments for either conclusion, but I find it hard to believe that Tierney and Brooks are incapable of understanding what's actually being discussed. They are simply too intelligent in too many other contexts for me to buy the "idiot" explanation. Which, of course, leaves only one other option.

    That said, I've got to say, what must these two think of their audience to believe that they could get away with such a blatant and obvious falsehood? Sure, the majority of the population isn't up to speed on the details of the Social Security debate. And surely they could expect no challenge from those predisposed to endorse any policy proposal that slithers out of the White House.

    But, that leaves the rest of us -- what I would call a significant minority. Before our eyes, a presentation like this isn't just dishonest, it's insulting. I don't know about you, but I'm actually offended. I mean, did David and John really think that we wouldn't figure this out?

    Anyway, I know David is always handing out free advice to the Democrats, so I thought I would return the favor. The next time you want to serve me a shit-sandwich, at least put a little salt on it.

    Update: Krugman seems to be pissed off as well.

    Friday, May 06, 2005

    Why Government

    Nearly every modern political debate, when boiled down to its essence, is an attempt to define the proper role of government in a given situation. Be it Schiavo, Social Security, or steroids, on some level the participants are advancing their own personal theory regarding the appropriateness of governmental intervention. In a sense, all such questions can be reduced to a simple inquiry: What should government be doing?

    In service of their respective conclusions, participants in this discussion reach out in every direction. They will alternatively quote Enlightenment philosophers and religious doctrine. Some will attempt to tease meaning out of the Constitution, while others search for the truth in the writings of Ayn Rand. Of course, there is much to learn from those who came before us and such investigations can be quite enlightening. However, there is an underlying assumption that the answer lies somewhere in the words and ideas of our ancestors, and that we need merely to decipher and properly apply this hidden meaning in order to achieve resolution.

    I am not so certain. Perhaps the answer to our question can be so divined, but it is more likely that our divergent sourcing and interpretations will never converge, leaving us no closer to a conclusion than when we began. This makes for great debate fodder, but I find that it offends my empirical sensibilities. I'm not in this for the game -- I want an answer.

    And so, I've been considering an alternative methodology that I feel has some promise. Rather than relying on the pontifications of a bunch of dead white men, let's approach the question from an anthropological perspective.

    To do this, let's first change the question slightly. Instead of asking what government should be doing, let's ask why government even exists. What happened in our ancient history that necessitated the rise of such top-down societal management?

    When the human species arose in Africa, they began as hunter-gatherers, functioning in a manner not dissimilar from the wild primate troops that we can witness today. These early humans lived in a condition not far removed from a pure state of nature. Yet, even at this primitive stage, there surely were rules of conduct that governed the troop's members. However, the small size of these communities meant that bureaucratic institutions of rule enforcement were unnecessary. Hierarchies undoubtedly existed, and those at the top certainly wielded control of those below them, but all such interaction was conducted face to face.

    Then, about 10,000 years ago, humans started to give up their nomadic ways. As they learned to domesticate local plant and animal species, communities began to focus more and more of their energy on agriculture. While the productivity of these early farmers was still relatively poor, the shift did allow an increasing number of humans to subsist in a relatively small area. At first, this increased population density would not have demanded a shift in the social order. As long as the numbers remained low enough for high levels of intimacy to exist between members of the community, rules of conduct could be maintained through the direct application of interpersonal pressures.

    Soon though, the size of these communities began to grow. As the number of individuals increased, the levels of intimacy between them began to drop. The connection between family and close friends remained strong, but community members were now frequently exposed to individuals who were not well known to them. Eventually populations increased to the point that community members frequently encountered fellow denizens who were complete strangers. This was a radical shift from the experience of the hunter-gatherer, who might have gone months without encountering a non-familiar human. Suddenly, such an experience was an everyday occurrence. And it surely began to create problems.

    In small groups, where every individual is well known to everyone, there are high levels of accountability for behavior. Knowledge of transgressions against community norms circulate rapidly, making such transgressions extremely costly. You might be able to get away with cheating a fellow member of your clan, but if you are caught, all of your relationships will be affected by the existence of this sin. Moreover, for most people it is simply more difficult to cheat intimates, as opposed to faceless strangers. However, once these communities reach a certain size, these prohibitions against bad behavior start to fail. Individuals are no longer beholden to these informal constraints and are free to behave in a manner that serves their narrow self-interest.

    The solution to the failure of these informal constraints is to institute new, formal constraints. This is otherwise known as government.

    There is, I think, an object lesson in this tale of government's origin. Government, it appears, evolved to address a specific problem that arose out of increasing community sizes. Clearly, there were advantages to abandoning the hunter-gatherer lifestyle in favor of agricultural communities. Over time, with increasing population, these advantages became much more dramatic. Communities with larger populations had higher levels of technological innovation, which led to higher levels of productivity, which could in turn support an even larger population.

    But, increasing population brings with it its share of problems, the breakdown of informal behavioral constraints being merely the first. As we are now aware, large populations have a significant impact upon the environment, both with respect to resource exhaustion and production of waste. Also, the high population density of large communities increases the individual's vulnerability to infectious disease. These negative byproducts of increasing population must somehow be managed, as they threaten the very survival of the community. Without such management, the long-term advantages of dense population centers would be overcome by the costs. No large community could survive without it.

    Now, let's return to our initial question. What should government be doing? It should be managing the negative byproducts of communal existence, just like it always has. Anything that government does should be justifiable in the context of this simple rule. Anything that falls outside of this narrow mandate is probably an inappropriate application.

    Of course, the application of this rule isn't going to immediately resolve any public policy debates. Reasonable people can disagree about what necessarily constitutes a negative byproduct. Moreover, disagreements will arise regarding how we choose to manage the byproducts we agree on. That said, I do feel that reframing the question in this fashion allows us to jettison a tremendous amount of useless rhetoric. How would Jefferson, Locke, or Aristotle choose to apply government to a given problem? Who cares? Even if it were possible to divine answers to such questions, of what value would those answers be unless they were informed by our current understanding of the problem? Rather than attempting to justify policy by invoking the words of ancestors completely ignorant of the world we live in, why not simply address the problem directly? Given what we now know: Is the given issue a negative consequence of communal existence? Everything beyond that question is useless.

    People, it seems, are too willing to rely upon the wisdom of our ancestors. This wisdom has become imbued with a sense of infallibility that often becomes impossible to dispute. While I would not argue against the brilliance of many who have come before us, it isn't the final word. These men and women were limited by the information available to them during their era. It is fascinating to see them struggle to answer the questions of their time. But, the key phrase here is of their time. We live in a different world and we shouldn't be afraid of wrestling with the questions of our time. Our ancestors were smart, but so are we. And we will demonstrate that fact -- as long as we can recognize the question before us.

    Coming Soon...

    I hate to sound like a broken record, but the real world has kept me away from the blog for these last few days. I've got something in the pipeline, but it won't be up until this afternoon. If you can, check back a little later. As always, it will be worth your time.

    Sunday, May 01, 2005

    More Is Not the Answer

    In this post, I referred to increased worldwide oil production as an advantageous consequence of drilling in ANWR. In certain respects, this is undoubtedly true.
    [Drilling in ANWR] would increase the amount of oil on the global market and thus drive down the cost of energy and of other petroleum-based products. This would provide an economic boost to petroleum-based economies across the globe. The degree of impact revolves around the ultimate productivity of the project and is therefore open to question. However, at least some positive effect would be realized.
    Therefore, if all you are concerned about is having lower gas prices in the relative near term, ANWR probably looks pretty good. But, even if you ignore the environmental aspects of unabated oil consumption, there are good reasons to question whether or not increasing the oil supply is, in and of itself, a good thing. To explain this I'm going to have to introduce a couple of interesting topics: the Malthusian Problem and Peak Oil.

    First proposed by Thomas Malthus, the Malthusian problem describes a situation in which the rate of product demand growth exceeds that of product supply. It is most frequently used to explain our inability to eradicate hunger. The problem is that human populations have a tendency to increase at an exponential rate, while agricultural productivity does not. Left to their own devices, societies frequently find themselves at or beyond the limit of their production capacity. If an increase in food production is achieved, the population will simply grow and consume this extra production. Excess never lasts.

    Like food, oil is a critical component of modern society. And, like food, our oil consumption increases far faster than our oil production increases. Therefore, production increases merely delay in the ultimate day of reckoning. Gas prices might drop temporarily, but before you know it, they are right back where they started (if not higher).

    That brings us to the concept of Peak Oil. While I grew up concerned for the day when we would run out of oil, it turns out that there exists a more immediate problem. Extracting oil from the ground isn't like siphoning gasoline out of the gas tank. Instead, it follows a productivity curve. Initially, it produces oil at a certain rate. Over time, that productivity drops, slowly approaching the level at which it is no longer economical to continue operation. The amalgamation of oil well productivity across the globe allows us to generate a similar productivity curve for the Earth as a whole. Thus, it isn't that we will suddenly run out of oil, but rather production rates will slowly (hopefully) begin to fall.

    In this model, the problems begin when global oil productivity rates fall below the rate of consumption. It's hard to say exactly what will occur when this happens, but there are a few factors that will determine the severity of the consequences. The first issue is the rate of production decrease. Obviously, a slow decline would be less serious than an abrupt drop off. The second issue is the level of dependence when this event arrives. The more dependent society is upon oil, the more dramatic the ramifications of short supply.

    The problem with ANWR is that it makes both of these problems of worse. Due to the Malthusian nature of oil, the increased supply provided by ANWR will allow higher rates of consumption and, thus, a higher level of oil dependence. Putting ANWR online now, as opposed to sometime in the future, means that the inevitable drop in production will occur much sooner and will decline much faster. In the short run we will reap the benefits of cheaper oil, but at the cost of greater shock when the production ceiling is hit.

    In light of these facts, the ANWR project seems to be an endeavor of dubious value. Again, it is unquestionable that certain interests will benefit from immediately exploiting this resource. But, I fail to see how society at large will prosper. And, if that's the case, I can't see a reason to support it.

    I understand that we as a society need a steady supply of oil, and that this need creates certain problems with respect to those who would provide us with our fix. But, that's all the more reason to ensure that the solutions we pursue effectively address the problem. If they fail to do so, or if they make the problem worse, the consequences will be that much more severe. We can't address the issue of our oil dependence with canned solutions from a different era. This is a new problem and it will require new, innovative solutions. Nothing from our current bag of tricks is going to save us.

    Ultimately, we may or may not find a way to avert a crisis. However, one thing is for sure. ANWR is not the answer.

    In the Interests of Full Disclosure...

    I am:


    "You're a tax-and-spend liberal democrat. People like you are the reason everyone else votes for guys like Reagan or George W."

    Are You A Republican?

    Just thought you should know.

    The False ANWR Solution

    One of the central features of George Bush's energy plan has been the achievement of so-called energy independence. Of course, since the only significant source of foreign energy is derived from petroleum, what we are really discussing is foreign oil independence. Not that that would be a bad idea. The instability of the Middle East makes our reliance on their oil exports economically risky, to say the least. Moreover, our foreign policy is driven, at least in part, by our voracious petroleum appetites. Our concern over the free flow of oil has frequently led us to pursue policy tailored to achieve that narrow end while ignoring the long-term consequences of such actions. Much of the terrorist threat that we today face can be directly attributed to our pursuit of such short-term policy goals. Clearly, producing energy independence would pay dividends on many fronts.

    That said, there are many ways to skin a cat. And, to continue a rather morbid analogy, there are ways that actually get the skin off and there are those that don't. If it's a skinless cat you want, you want to make sure that you pick a method that can produce that result.

    Thus far, Bush has been promoting a two-pronged attack on our foreign oil dependence. First, he's pushing technological innovation designed to increase efficiency and develop new domestic energy sources. These are all excellent ideas and worth pursuing aggressively. Then, he endorses enhancing the domestic energy infrastructure. This is where things get a little bit more problematic. An increase in the amount of domestic energy produced by coal and nuclear power would indeed reduce demand for foreign oil. Unfortunately, the environmental consequences of such a shift mitigates the attractiveness of this option.

    As you are no doubt well aware, there remains one final aspect of the domestic energy infrastructure under discussion: increasing domestic oil production, specifically by tapping the ANWR petroleum reserve. This has been a controversial proposal for some time now, with most of the squabbling turning on the size of the reserve and the environmental consequences of the project. While these are issues that should play a role in our deliberations, they have, I feel, obscured a larger question: Will ANWR, under even the most optimistic productivity predictions, reduce our dependence upon foreign oil?

    Not likely.

    The key to this issue is realizing that petroleum is a global commodity. Kevin Drum pointed this out quite recently.
    But as long as we're on the subject, I want to pick a nit: short of either a major catastrophe or a dramatic scientific breakthrough, we will never reduce our dependence on foreign oil. Period. Oil is a global commodity, and even if we reduce our use of oil, the oil we do buy will come from the cheapest producers. And the cheapest producers are all in the Middle East.
    The reality is that our oil supply will always come from whoever is offering the best price. If ANWR oil is somehow less expensive than oil extracted in the Middle East, our dependence upon their oil will decrease. Otherwise, there won't be any change.

    That isn't to say that having ANWR up and running wouldn't be advantageous in certain respects. It would increase the amount of oil on the global market and thus drive down the cost of energy and of other petroleum-based products. This would provide an economic boost to petroleum-based economies across the globe. The degree of impact revolves around the ultimate productivity of the project and is therefore open to question. However, at least some positive effect would be realized.

    But, let's be clear: it is highly unlikely that our dependence on foreign oil will be affected by increasing domestic oil production at ANWR or at any other domestic location. That just isn't how the global oil market functions. So, there are reasons to like ANWR, just as there are reasons to hate it. But, if you were looking there for energy independence, look elsewhere. It simply isn't there.
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