I’m Now Officially an Ex-Blogger

March 14, 2007

I wanted to wait a day or two with this to avoid being in the embarrassing situation of posting a serious post right after announcing my exit. But I’m dropping off the blogosphere, entirely. I’ll keep reading a few blogs, comprising a subset of my current blogroll, but I’ll probably not comment except by email, and certainly not keep posting here or on Appletree.

The one exception is that I committed to hosting the Carnival of the Godless here on April 1st, and I intend to stick to that commitment. So this is actually my penultimate post.

Everything I said in my almost-exit post still holds, except that this is final. I’ve gotten my book count from 6 to 9 since I last complained about not reading, and frankly those last four days have felt so good, so relaxing, that I almost feel dumb for not having quit earlier. I’m not going to Yearly Kos or any other blog-based event, unless it’s non-boring (i.e. unless it shows me the back of my own ear).

If you still think I post good stuff and should stay, there are other places for you. The big one is of course Majikthise, hands down the best blog on the sphere, with a blogger who’s one of the few people who have made me feel dumb in comparison. 3QD similarly has highly intellectual posts about every issue known to (wo)man. But other than that, the treasures are among the small players.

- A short list of global injustices includes slavery, genocide, malnutrition, gaming consoles, and the fact that Stentor’s Debitage isn’t getting more traffic (recent highlight: conservative moral relativism).

- Lynet’s Elliptica is a lot like this place, only without the news-related rants you can get off Google News and the bitter impatience (recent highlight: laughing at Luskin).

- If you know Feministing, think of Bean’s A Bird and a Bottle as like Feministing, only fluffless, incisive, and massively underrated. As an added bonus, Bean is the only blogger I know who talks about the Abu Ghraib-style abuses occurring in domestic US prisons (recent highlight: girls in custody).

- The anti-fundamentalist, anti-stupid posts on Skatje’s Lacrimae Rerum are a gem, and the longish comment threads tend to only generate more gems. Plus, Skatje’s a conlanger, so it’s even better (recent highlight: a tragedy in one act).

- Tyler DiPietro’s Growth Rate n lg n is what I strived to be back when I was blogging on UTI (recent highlight: John Hawkins and the predictability of recurrences).

- Jessica and Jenny claim to be Just Dreadful, but in fact they show how spontaneous feminist blogging should look like (recent highlights: Jenny on the Phoenix New Times and Jessica on a failed abortion and an undiagnosed pregnancy).

- Bruce’s Crablaw is how (soft-core) libertarianism should be: focused on reckless government waste, investment in the future, and stupid restrictions on personal habits (recent highlight: Maryland’s truck nuts bill).

- Katie is more than just a Liberal Debutante – she’s a burgeoning ecology/feminism/science blogger who’s not delusionally infatuated with any of the three and who’s about to start doing some serious paleontology blogging (recent highlight: Guatemala sinkage).

- The East Asian blogging and the simple explanations of arguments I intended to engage in can be found on Battlepanda (recent highlight: Gore the energy hog).

- In my almost 7 months of blogging, I didn’t nearly link to Eteraz and its highly reflective posts about Islam and Middle Eastern politics as much as I should have (recent highlight: the future of Islamic theocracy and political liberalism).

- If you think liberals are historically ignorant and therefore need to be softer toward fundamentalists, give Accidental Blogger Ruchira ten minutes to set you straight (recent highlight: informed choice or Dawkins’ deluded?).


Lived Experience

March 14, 2007

Lynet‘s point about the difference between different applications of lived experience is strong enough to require me to clarify my general anti-anecdote position. To summarize the original bone of contention, I said just taking women’s (and minorities’) word for it whenever they say something offends them is akin to taking pro-Israeli Jewss whenever they say criticism of Israel is illegitimate. Lynet responds,

You seem to have some concern that anyone could pick a particular word or phrase, claim to be offended by it, and demand that it not be said. One point that needs to be noted is that such a demand is considerably more reasonable when the word or phrase in question is not necessary in order for some particular statement to be able to be said at all. Thus, for example, demanding that no-one criticise Israel for fear of being anti-Semitic stifles an important viewpoint, and should be disallowed. On the other hand, asking that people not refer to women as ‘cunts’ only stifles an important viewpoint if you really do think that the word ‘cunt’, with all its implications, is best way to get your viewpoint across.

I suppose in this case a better analogy of “cunt” is to “apartheid.” It’s not really necessary to invoke the word “apartheid” in reference to the situation in Israel; I manage to criticize the occupation perfectly well without having ever used it, except for one instance in which a South African UN official said so. The term itself is offensive to many people, including many who oppose the occupation, precisely because it has a strongly delegitimizing connotation. Since so much of Zionism is concerned with the very legitimacy of Israel, comparing it to such a pariah state as South Africa under apartheid touches a nerve.

In fact, I don’t use the word “apartheid” for the same reason I don’t use “cunt”: precisely because it’s so emotionally loaded. I strive for factual arguments, which is why I tend to avoid touching people’s nerves. But at the same time, I defend people who use the word “apartheid” against accusations of recklessness or anti-Semitism. Just because a group claims to be oppressed doesn’t give it the right to control anyone else’s vocabulary.

The “claims” part is crucial; although it’s possible to separate oppressed from non-oppressed groups, in practice the left tends to separate the two based primarily on political alliances. In cases of serious oppression, such as legal discrimination or economic and social inequality, there are ways to separate the two without any a priori assumption about who is oppressed and who isn’t.

And that brings me to my main point. Lived experience in such matters as gender and race is very useful as a motivating example. Betty Friedan’s research into the condition of housewives began with an observation about herself and her college class.

But just as motivating examples in mathematics aren’t proofs, so are motivating examples in social policy not evidence. The problem is that people routinely get offended over frivolities, and, in a suitably radicalizing context such as a consciousness raising group or a housegroup, turn them into very deep and utterly wrong theories about the world. Susan Brownmiller’s theory of a rape is a good example of this on a large scale.

Part of this stems from confusion between legal reasoning and scientific reasoning. The law is inherently based on anecdotes, both in its reliance on eyewitness testimony and the common law system’s emphasis on precedents. A sexual harassment lawsuit’s success depends on whether the plaintiff can produce several women independently claiming harassment by the same person or witnesses to a single act of harassment.

But that’s not a good basis for social policy. Social policy should inform the law, not the other way around. Even branches of feminist and antiracist movements that aren’t overtly policy-related are in the realm of social science, which has more statistical standards of evidence.

And that brings me back to claims that the word “cunt” is oppressive based on women’s lived experience. Lived experience is only the first step; it has to be followed with rigorous inquiry into the evidence that underlies it. For example, is there any longlasting psychological trauma associated with “cunt” (or “apartheid”) the way there is with “nigger”? Is there any evidence that in general, gender-neutral language promotes less sexism given that e.g. China is perfectly sexist even though spoken Mandarin is almost entirely non-sexist?

That, ultimately, is what matters. Anecdotes can give powerful indications a trend may hold, just like motivating examples in math can give strong evidence for a theorem that will take a hundred years to prove. But there’s a reason conjectures need to be proven to be considered full-fledged theorems.


Niche Blogging

March 13, 2007

The blog advice posts tend to emphasize the need for a niche, a specialty. Katie talked to me for over an hour trying to convince me to just find one and blog about it. The problem is, I’m not into that kind of thing at all. Or, rather, I could be, but I’d have to switch niches every two weeks to avoid getting insane. Talking to people who take the time to read my posts is worthwhile, but I don’t think they’d give me a lot of time for that at Bellevue.

My posts are an eclectic mix of math blogging, heterodox feminism, dystopian warnings of the religious right, economic policy, and Middle Eastern politics. All of these interest me just enough to have a small community of commenters interested predominantly in them – e.g. Foxy, Bean, Tyler, Bruce, and SLC respectively. So I can’t neglect any of them, which again deprives me of the niche. Being right tends to help matters, but in more serious politics it’s only an impediment.

Which again brings me to why I’m probably hours away from writing that post I owe Lynet and then officially saying I’m done. I have 33 blogs on my roll that cover among them all the topics I talk about, only generally in more detail and without segueing to entirely different issues. There’s no room for a math/secular/feminist/policy/ME blogger; that’s what feeds are for. And if it’s the writing style that counts, isn’t that independent of the particular issues covered?


Priorities Meme

March 12, 2007

This is something I’ve been intending to do for a while. It goes back to a discussion thread here about political quizzes; I’m genuinely interested in looking at people’s political views. A big part of it is priorities, which is what I want to start with at this time. Simply put, what political issues do you consider the most important?

You only have a finite number of total priority points, for lack of a better term. You can divide points among issues however you want; the interesting part is the ratios, not the absolute numbers. For example, here I’m using 100, but if you feel like using a different scale, go ahead. The idea is to list the issues you evaluate politicians, political movements, etc., based on.

If you want, you can put a position next to each issue. And finally, you can give multiple slates of answers if you follow more than one country’s politics. Obviously, EU integration is a higher priority in British and German politics than in American politics, while health care is a lower priority.

In the US, my priorities are,

Abortion – 15
Iran – 15
Eavesdropping and domestic spying – 13
Iraq – 9
Health care – 7
Immigration – 6
Free trade – 5
Farm aid – 5
Gay rights – 4
Budget balancing – 4
Stem cell research – 4
Climate change – 3
Welfare – 3
Education – 2
Alternative energy – 1
Taxes – 1
Affirmative action – 1
Military spending – 1
Minimum wage – 1

All of these track the gamut of acceptable political opinions. All other things being equal, I’d rather see a pro-life President who’s for dismantling the national security state entirely than a pro-choice President who supports a police state. But the gamut on abortion is wider than the gamut on civil liberties in the US, so abortion gets 15 points to civil liberties’ 13 even though only the latter is the subject of serious dystopian fiction.

If you respond to this on your blog, let me know by email, comment, or trackback. I’m not blogwhoring; I’m genuinely interested in archiving people’s political priorities.


Zionism and the Left

March 12, 2007

Three eons ago, I wrote something here about how both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian politics originates in the left. On 3QD I expanded this to a full-blown article about how Zionism ceased to be considered left-wing, for reasons that have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

This is important insofar as it’s always important within the left to sort groups into oppressed and non-oppressed. This is also useful in segueing into the post I promise will come very soon about lived experience; part of the appeal of lived experience is that once a group has been determined to be oppressed, it gets to define its own experience in left-wing circles.


Yearly Kos Ticket for Sale

March 11, 2007

As I said in my previous post, I’m becoming increasingly sure dropping out of the blogosphere is a good thing (well, after I finish the posts I owe people). As such, I see no reason to attend Yearly Kos, which means I have a $100 registration for the convention that I have nothing to do with. At least I haven’t reserved a flight ticket or a hotel, which would cost me another $739.

It goes like this: if you want to attend the convention, feel free to use my ticket. It’s only $100, down from $225 currently available. I burned $50 on it yesterday at a fundraiser, but that out of my own personal stupidity, so there’s no point in inflicting that cost on anyone else.

So you can freely get a ticket from me for less than half the minimum price. But the catch is that usernames for convention registration are based on email addresses, so there’s no way for me to transfer the registration to an account you solely control. I can give you the password and promise I won’t reset it unless you ask me to, but I can only give you my word.

So a possible solution is that I’ll give you the password and you’ll pay me only once you’ve received your badge at the convention. Once you have a badge, even if I shut you out of the account it won’t matter.

Any takers?


Post-Slump Links

March 11, 2007

Since every hour that passes I’m more certain I’m not going to keep blogging, here are a few good links for your perusal:

Stuart Staniford of the Oil Drum explains carefully why the Saudi production decrease is due to peak oil rather than a voluntary reduction. The minutiae of the Saudi production curve are more consistent with a post-peak slump rather than with a voluntary reduction meant to give Saudi Arabia the power to flood the market at any given time.

C. L. Hanson notes that the two basic principles of relationships – that people have the right to say no to sex and that people shouldn’t sleep with anyone but their partners – are incongruous. As such, she talks about how cheating can save relationships.

Stentor rebuts market-based arguments against environmental legislation. He explains specifically that air pollution needs to be curbed collectively since air is naturally a shared resource. This isn’t an especially novel argument – the tragedy of the commons is a recognized market failure – but some libertarians’ hostility to it requires repeating it more than should be necessary.

Melissa Franklin, Harvard’s first tenured female physics professor, speaks at a conference about women in science that has just given her an award. She recounts experiences ranging from students’ crying because they couldn’t finish their problem sets to sexual assault.


That’s It for Me, I Suppose

March 10, 2007

I’m seriously contemplating dropping off the blogosphere. At the very minimum, I’m going to start purging the big bloggers from my ‘roll – there’s never any good discussion on most of them anyway – and concentrate on talking to people who actually take the time to listen. Because, frankly, there’s no point.

A blogger can have forty times my traffic and still be politically irrelevant. The supposed purpose of political blogs is to exert influence; a good rule of thumb is that if your name isn’t Markos Moulitsas, Josh Marshall, Glenn Reynolds, or Michelle Malkin, you’re failing to do that.

I suspect there’s an underlying “It’s fun” reason for every blogger – it’s certainly there for me. Not being a real masochist, I can’t in good faith call the ritual that is participating in any of a number of low-grade echo chambers as fun. The people who run those echo chambers don’t want discussion; they want fellation. I can understand how the notion I’m willing to do that can arise, since after all I used to be in a fairly long-term online relationship, but I don’t do that anymore; any blogger who wants me to fellate her needs to first know me in real life fairly well.

I could write endless sarcastic posts about the rules of the echo chamber. In their most exaggerated form, they appear as radical pathologies; make no mistake about it, even echo chambers that begin as non-radical invariably radicalize, mostly due to the effect of extremism. But even in their weaker forms, they are deeply pathological, turning serious political and social discussions into exercises in hive formation. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a market for anti-blogosphere blogging. I still write to an audience.

I’m not doing this because Ilyka Damen is an ageist. I get age-bashed fairly regularly, albeit less than I used to (I attribute that to stopping reading blogs that tolerated that sort of behavior, incidentally). The reason Ilyka got a post of her own is that I decided a fair amount of time ago that I shouldn’t take shit from people just because they publish their bile on blogs I read regularly.

Nor am I doing this strictly because of traffic concerns. That my traffic’s down by a third from a month ago is immaterial; even then it was about two and a half orders of magnitude less than what I needed to make a difference.

To make an understatement, I’m behind on my reading. I should have read 19 books by now in calendar 2007 to be on track to go through 100 books this year; I’ve read 6. But even that isn’t why I’m doing this – I was horribly behind on my reading even when I was on UTI and spent maybe three hours a day on the blogosphere.

It’s not any of those; it’s that there’s no point. Amanda likes to say that she bans people who bore her. I have to take her word for it when she implies that hordes of ideologically uniform commenters don’t bore her. But they bore me. In fact, the only thing more boring than that is what passes for outreach or serious left/right debate, which typically involves regurgitating simplistic talking points or holding pissmatches about non-issues.

On to more practical concerns. I signed as the Carnival of the Godless host this April 1st; I intend to make good on that. Likewise, even if I drop off the blogosphere entirely, I’ll keep managing the Carnival of Mathematics, since if there’s one part of my blog I’m going to keep, it’s the math.

The Galois theory series has about three posts left: compound extensions, including the proof that two Galois extensions of K whose intersection is K are linearly disjoint; roots of unity and cyclotomic extensions; and the original motivation of the theory, solving polynomials by radicals. None of those is terribly important theoretically, not for the level of number theory I’ve written about.

The radical pathologies series is far more incomplete, with six more pathologies to go, including several fairly important ones (namely, paranoia, theoretical thought, and schismaticism). Fortunately, my overview post has some basic outlines on each; the individual posts flesh the arguments out more, but the overview is good enough for a lot of purposes.

I still owe Lynet a clarification on lived experience and everyone a post on Jews and oppressed groups. The latter is probably going to make my next 3QD post, regardless of whether I shut down Abstract Nonsense and withdraw from Appletree or not. The former is going to become a post here, again regardless of this blog’s fate. People who take their time to respond thoughtfully to what I say deserve at least that.

I’m going to keep fleshing out Eternal Night. I haven’t gotten any further responses to it; if it remains that way, I’ll go back and make wholesale changes based solely on the one I’ve received. I started writing it before I had a blog.

And I still have my two email addresses (plus my two university emails), of course. If you want to alert me to a post of yours, or something like that, feel free to use them.

UPDATE: it’s probably worth mentioning that you shouldn’t ask me which blogs I specifically refer to when I attack echo chambers. I’m not going to go into specifics, for reliability reasons. I can think of a few blogs that are clearly white and a few that are clearly black, but there’s a gigantic gray area of blogs I keep changing my mind about based on ephemera; all I know is that the mean remains a very dark shade of gray. But for what it’s worth, if you’re too small to maintain an echo chamber, I’m not talking about you.


Consonant-Level Links

March 10, 2007

See the above post (soon) for an explanation of the motivation of this roundup’s theme. But for now, suffice is to say that people with 500 hits a day need links more than people with 5,000.

Kristjan Wager delves into John Hawkins’ dishonest column in greater detail than I did; he not only looks at the study in question and shows how the numbers compare with Hawkins’ point, but also proposes a hypothesis explaining the observation.

Jessica Dreadul links to two reproductive rights-themed news pieces, one about Chile’s lowering of the age barrier to parental consent to emergency contraception and another about an attempt to prevent pharmacists from arbitrarily denying women in Georgia EC.

On The Politburo Diktat, there’s a long, engaging thread about the war on Iraq and whether the US is irrevocably doomed and has nothing better to do than cut and run.

Shelley reports a breakthrough in research into curing hearing loss. While her lab is trying to cure deafness by infecting ear cells with benign viruses, another lab has achieved results by directly compensating for a deficient protein.

Bean notes that one group of people in the US who are especially impacted by the nastiness of the prison system are the mentally ill, who are often tortured with solitary confinement.


Georgia Violates Separation of Church and State

March 10, 2007

The Georgia Board of Education approved a new slate of classes, which purport to teach the Bible as literature and as a historical source, but will almost certainly become state-funded sermons.

Senate Majority Leader Tommie Williams, the Republican who sponsored the plan, said the Bible plays a major role in history and is important in understanding many classic literary works.

“It’s not just ‘The Good Book,’” Williams said. “It’s a good book.”

Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, a nonpartisan civil liberties group, has said the Georgia policy is the nation’s first to endorse and fund Bible classes on a statewide level.

The bill approved overwhelmingly in the Legislature was tailored to make it clear the courses would not stray into religious teaching, Williams said.

The measure calls for the courses to be taught “in an objective and nondevotional manner with no attempt made to indoctrinate students.”

In theory, it’s a good idea. There are a lot of works with obvious ideological tones that should still be taught for their historical value; in the West, they include the Bible, the Qur’an, the Communist Manifesto, and the two Treatises of Government. But teaching just the Bible smacks of religious favoritism, since other scriptures, even those that are very relevant to a modern American, are excluded.

And further, in practice, classes will invariably become sermons. Even assuming that most Christian teachers can teach the Bible impartially, which is doubtful, there will be immense pressure on them to preach. Georgia has a large contingent of fundamentalists, who make a ruckus every time someone offends them by teaching evolution. In the land of anti-evolution stickers, I don’t expect Bible classes to remain impartial for more than a day.


Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Sexism

March 10, 2007

When I hear the words “Political correctness,” I think about pointless exercises in choosing the precise word and mannerisms to use in every situation, elevated above substance. James Dickson’s Michigan Daily article about feminism certainly lowers the bar; to Dickson, political correctness includes saying that when a woman says no to sex she means no and that people shouldn’t excuse sexual assault on the flimsy excuse that boys will be boys. Dickson complains,

In their laudable desire to eliminate rape, campus feminists have created a climate of fear that doesn’t acknowledge that no one supports rape besides rapists. To shift the blame from rapists to some supposed rape culture is an act of magic, not logic.

The climate of fear he talks about isn’t some “Every man is a rapist” trope or even a guilt-based campaign treating men as five-year-olds. The poster he complains about is, by his own admission,

“If you do one or more of the following things:

� use words like ‘pimp’ and ‘player’ to praise sexually exploitative men

� blame women who have experienced sexual assault for indecency, stupidity, for ‘asking for it’

� think ‘no’ means ‘yes’

� excuse sexual violence because ‘men can’t control themselves’

YOU ARE CONTRIBUTING TO RAPE CULTURE.”

In trying to sound like a serious rape fighter who happens to emphasize its nature as a crime, Dickson manages to miss the mark almost every sentence. He talks about how rapists and sex criminals are reviled; but that holds only in stereotypical cases where it’s impossible to accuse the victim of having consented. In all other cases, “She asked for it” can be used effectively as a defense in criminal trials (see e.g. here).

Dickson further manages to mangle his own anti-rape proposal by calling for installing more street lighting throughout Ann Arbor. It’s not hard to find statistics about where women get sexually assaulted and their relationship to the perpetrator; in the US, the NCVS has fairly thorough data. Averaging the surveys from 2003 through 2005 reveals that 5.1% of sexual assaults in the US occur on the street, compared with 62.7% that occur at or near the victim’s home or the home of an acquaintance of hers.

One of the advantages of campaigns encouraging women to speak out is that causing women to report rape more is likely to help in two ways. First, as far as I can tell, the reporting rate for rape is negatively correlated with the rape rate, probably due to a deterrence effect. And second, the more rapes are known, the more political capital there is for other anti-rape policies.

Dickson’s article is one that makes a lot of sense, if you accept certain premises about rape that, while common among conservatives and plain old sexists, are not true. The premises’ centerfold is the stereotypical rape, which features a victim who’s very clearly more a virgin than a whore and a perpetrator who barely knew her if at all and is not considered a good guy in general. That rape is the easiest to come down against both in the media and in court, but is a fairly rare specimen.

In all other cases, a lot of things that should be too irrelevant to note are considered mitigating circumstances. If the perpetrator knew the victim well, especially if he’s a partner or former partner, people such as Dickson are likely to consider it within his rights to demand sex. If the victim was drunk, they consider the rape her fault. If the victim has a history of consensual sex – or, more precisely, if the defense manages to make such a history public – they consider her a tramp. At the end, they firmly oppose a small minority of rapes and excuse the rest.

That, ultimately, is what is called the rape culture. It’s not so much rape itself as the barrage of ifs and buts coming from people like Dickson, for whom the mildest campus activism is extreme political correctness. Dickson himself manages to avoid saying such phrases as “She asked for it,” but still can’t help deriding a poster attacking that attitudes.

There are two kinds of people who use the words “Extreme rhetoric” to refer to posters attacking attitudes that apologize for rape. One is rank misogynists, who blame working women for every social problem and think rape is bad except when it happens in real life rather than in the media. The other is radical feminists, who would like you to believe the jump from mild anti-rape rhetoric to refusing to have sex with men as a matter of principle is smaller than it actually is. And Dickson doesn’t at all strike me as a radical feminist.


Dog Bites Man; Conservative Pundit Abuses Statistics

March 10, 2007

Tyler DiPietro fisks conservative pundit John Hawkins who’s clueless about science, but leaves fisking his statistical claims to me. I’m always happy to oblige; the claim in question is that liberals are more racist than conservatives. I hate to disappoint Tyler, but Hawkins isn’t making an error in mathematics, but in basic reasoning. He quotes a study saying,

White Republicans nationally are 25 percentage points more likely on average to vote for the Democratic senatorial candidate when the GOP hopeful is black…In House races, white Democrats are 38 percentage points less likely to vote Democratic if their candidate is black.

The most shoddy part of the quote is the ellipsis, which covers several paragraphs in the relevant article. The 25% and 38% figures are not meant to be compared; after all, the 25% figure applies to Senate races while the 38% applies to House races, in which different dynamics might be in play.

In addition, just comparing white Democrats to white Republicans is somewhat misleading, since Democrats also have a significant black and Latino vote. In the 2006 election, a sixth of the Democratic House vote was black and 10% was Latino compared with only 2% and 5% of the Republican House vote respectively.

The remainder of Hawkins’ point about racism is a short screed about how Republicans are the party of Lincoln whereas Democrats had a Dixiecrat contingent. Not surprisingly, Hawkins stops short of looking at Democratic versus Republican behavior sometime in the 1960s, when the Dixiecrats defected to the Republicans after LBJ did something to help black people.

Incidentally, the other point of Hawkins refuting which Tyler left to me – namely, that conservatives contribute to charity more – is something I talked about a while ago. In a nutshell, charity is meaningless. If you have 200 dollars to burn, the best way of spending them is contributing to politicians who help the poor; for a billion dollars every four years you can elect a President and a Congress that will push through programs that will increase federal payments to both the real (i.e. third-world) poor and the US poor by 30 billion dollars a year each.


Fight the RIAA

March 9, 2007

Gordo has an important post about how the mafia the RIAA is using the Copyright Royalty Board to put independent music stations out of business so that the only music available will be this produced by an RIAA record label. The CRB has adopted the RIAA’s suggested royalty levels, 0.08 cents per listener per song effective retroactively from 2006, which often works out to a higher number than a webcasting station’s total income. Worse, this figure is slated to rise sharply, reaching 0.19 by 2010.

Radio Paradise‘s Bill Goldsmith notes, “This royalty structure would wipe out an entire class of business: Small independent webcasters such as myself & my wife, who operate Radio Paradise. Our obligation under this rate structure would be equal to over 125% of our total income. There is no practical way for us to increase our  income so dramatically as to render that affordable.”

And Radio Paradise is perhaps the most-successful webcaster in its class!  For most operators, this rate looks as if it would be >150-200% of total revenues.

Save Net Radio is circulating an online petition to Congress to repeal this stifling nonsense. Make sure you sign it.


Ageist of the Week

March 9, 2007

Ilyka Damen demonstrates how some people can’t help but display class-A irrationality, regardless of age. In a thread on Feministe, she said,

[Link] I am always being told that I should cut you a break because you are young, Alon, but this isn’t a youth problem. This is a reading comprehension problem. I am not “doing” anything to helpless, innocent words, and what I am talking about cannot in fact be applied to “any word or phrase.”

The youth part comes into it in that you’re currently at that stage where anything that can’t be shown to you by mathematical formula is suspect. Perhaps you will grow out of that in time. Until then, regarding your objection that I do not “talk about it empirically,” that is because I am more inclined to “talk about it personally,” possibly because I am not a think tank.

Circulate this to anyone you know who hangs around the same blogs she comments on: Ilyka Damen is an idiot who, by her own admission, is so shoddy that thinktanks are more intellectually serious than she is.


Magic Squares and Algebraic Number Theory

March 9, 2007

Foxy asks whether it’s possible to have a 3*3 magic square all of whose entries are square integers. It’s fairly elementary to show that in a 3*3 magic square, the common sum is three times the middle entry. So let’s say the entries of the magic square go [a^2, b^2, c^2; d^2, e^2; f^2; g^2, q^2, h^2]; we want to have, for example, a^2 + h^2 = 2e^2.

This alone is very restrictive, since it requires (a^2, e^2, h^2) to be an arithmetic sequence, a sufficiently special situation that unless a = e = h, the next term in the sequence will never be a square (no, I can’t prove it; I’ve tried). So to find such magic squares whose entries are not all the same, it makes sense to start bashing through the Diophantine equation a^2 + h^2 = 2e^2.

First, the easy part: we can assume a, e, and h are coprime; otherwise, divide by their greatest common divisor. If e is even, then 2e^2 is divisible by 8, in which case it’s impossible for a and h to be odd since odd squares are equivalent to 1 mod 8, so that a and h are even and the three numbers are not coprime. So e is odd, from which it’s easy to show that so are a and h.

Now, when we have sums of two squares, the most natural environment to study divisibility is Z[i], the ring of Gaussian integers. We get (a + hi)(ahi) = 2e^2. As a and h are odd, a (+/-) hi is not divisible by 2, so both a + hi and ahi must be divisible by 1 + i. That condition isn’t a problem: (a + hi)/(1 + i) = (a + hi)(1 – i)/2 = (a + h)/2 + i(ha)/2, and similarly (ahi)/(1 – i) = (a + h)/2 + i(ah)/2.

It now makes sense to write x = (a + h)/2, y = (ah)/2. Conversely, a = x + y and h = xy; as a and h are odd, this means that x and y have opposite parities. Since dividing once by 1 + i and once by 1 – i factors out 2 on the right-hand side, this turns the equation into (x + iy)(xiy) = e^2, or x^2 + y^2 = e^2.

Here is where things get nightmarishly complicated. Any common factor of x and y divides a, e, and h, so x, y, and e are coprime. Consider the primes of Z[i] that divide x + iy; none can be in Z because that would imply a common factor of x and y. But all primes in Z[i] that have no associate in Z have norm equivalent to 1 or 2 mod 4, where here 1 + i is impossible because 1 + i divides x + iy iff x and y have the same parity. So right off the bat, e is the product of primes equivalent to 1 mod 4.

Further, each distinct prime factor after the first of e gives exactly two choices of x and y. To see what I mean, first consider the case when e is prime. Then e = (r + is)(ris), so e^2 = (r + is)(ris)(r + is)(ris). There are two ways of grouping them into x and y, but the one that sends the first two to x + iy factors e^2 as e*e, i.e. x = e and y = 0. Hence there’s only one way, the one that sends (r + is)^2 to x + iy. If e is divisible by an additional prime and breaks as (r1 + is1)(r1 – is1)(r2 + is2)(r2 – is2) then once the decision to send (r1 + is1)^2 to x + iy has been made, it’s possible to send (r2 + is2)^2 or (r2 – is2)^2 to x + iy. This easily generalizes to further prime factors, but not to repeated factors.

This means that e can’t be prime because then the eight elements of the magic square around it will all be either a^2 or h^2, making it impossible for the other magic square conditions to hold. Now, using capital letters to denote squares, we get that the magic square is [A, B, 3E - A - B; 4E - 2A - B, E, 2A + B - 2E; A + B - E, 2E - B, 2E - A].

The above considerations show that E must be divisible only by primes equivalent to 1 mod 4 because it’s sandwiched between A and 2E – A. But by the same token, 2E – A is sandwiched between 4E – 2A – B and B, so it must similarly be divisible only by primes equivalent to 1 mod 4; similar considerations apply to A, which is sandwiched between 2A + B – 2E and 2E – B.


Carnival of Mathematics #3 is Up

March 9, 2007

The third Carnival is up on Michi’s Blog, complete with algebra, topology, and a lot of math teaching. There’s less computer science than before, but it simply makes me feel less stupid for not knowing Haskell. There’s even a HUHO-themed post that explains why payday loans are a bad idea.

Carnival of Mathematics #4 will be posted on EvolutionBlog on March 23rd. Send submissions to Jason Rosenhouse at rosenhjd at jmu dot edu or to me at alon_levy1@yahoo.com or use the submission form (which surprisingly few people seem to do).


Union Politics

March 8, 2007

Ezra approvingly quotes a commenter who says unions are important because, among other things, they lobby for greater worker protections. After reading Ezra’s quote, I started thinking of how labor organizations could lobby in a non-union structure and realized there’s a striking analogy to other movements. I said,

Actually, there’s no reason unions have to combine the roles that in the pro-choice movement are filled by two distinct organizations, Planned Parenthood and NARAL. Women who get abortions aren’t expected to pay dues to NARAL; women who file sexual harassment lawsuits don’t get told to pay NOW a percentage of the settlement; wrongly incarcerated people don’t have to pay ACLU membership fees to be represented.

A better way of organizing labor is to have two distinct organizations, albeit with the natural understanding that they’re going to employ the same kind of people and support the same kind of policies. The PP-like organization should focus exclusively on good works, such as class action lawsuits, strikes, and pay negotiations, and should be funded out of membership dues. The NARAL-like organization should lobby politicians and endorse like-minded candidates, and be funded by calling up supporters and asking them to cough up money.

The NARAL-like mode of action makes sense even from a purely union-side perspective. A pro-labor political organization can call up people and ask them to contribute without asking them to risk firing. People contribute to NOW and NARAL despite the free rider effect; why doesn’t a new organization, or for that matter the AFL-CIO, solicit donations?


Blog Against Sexism Day: When Objectification Hurts

March 8, 2007

The story about the law student who was denied employment because a forum for pseudonymous sexists objectified her, discussing her sexually without her knowledge and consent, is making its rounds through the blogosphere. The best take comes from Jill, who documents how the forum’s members cyberstalked her to the point that she had to skip classes for fear of being targeted for harassment or worse.

The objectification in question revolves mostly around a contest run on the forum, “Hottest girls at top 14 law schools.” The contest featured photos of the women, taken by the women or by sex-obsessed forum members; Jill reports how forum members openly talked about masturbating to her picture, photographing her with camera phones, and sexually assaulting her. All of this are beyond objectification; they’re actually hurtful, as the law student who was denied employment will attest.

The first ground rule is that if objectification involves cyberstalking, threatening to rape, or any similar form of harassment, it’s sufficiently wrong that there’s grounds to crack down on it (not to mention illegal). But even when it doesn’t, the power relation involved matters. This very blog features anonymous or pseudonymous commenters who say very unsavory things about politicians and political parties they don’t like. So it’s useful to start exploring the disanalogies between entering Jill into an online beauty contest involuntarily and bashing politicians.

A good standard to apply in many cases is libel law. In the US, there are a lot of exceptions to libel, based on a variety of grounds. It’s always acceptable to say anything about public figures, because they’re assumed to have exposed themselves to valid and invalid criticism, and because they have the power to contradict most statements said about them. If I refer to George W. Bush as a dictator, he can choose to inundate the airwaves with “I am not a dictator because ___” messages; Jill can’t do anything of that sort.

And more importantly, if I refer to George Bush as a dictator, or even to Ann Coulter as a male, then s/he will not be really affected even if my points go unaddressed. Ann Coulter is a public figure whose persona is familiar to many people on her own terms. Even in the unlikely case my slander became the top result on Google, she’s sufficiently public not to be affected. As Elizabeth Edwards noted, when Ann Coulter called John Edwards a faggot she was hurting gays more than she was John Edwards.

In contrast, talking about Jill sexually behind her back has an immediate effect on her, because of the different power situation. She will have to answer to potential employers, who will likely Google her name and find the libelous statements written about her on the forum. The forum is big enough that a thread about her that many people will hold against her through no fault of her own is sixth on Google when one searches for “Jill Filipovic.”

The same goes to the idiots who declared publicly they wanted more pictures of Jill, preferably taken without her knowledge, to masturbate to. Masturbating to a scene involving no person in particular of course doesn’t objectify anyone. Masturbating to a person who consents is not problematic; masturbating to porn falls under consent, since porn stars are assumed to know that the photos or films of them will be used for masturbatory purposes. In contrast, masturbating to someone who doesn’t consent is in the same category as masturbating to the picture of a nine-year-old. It’s not in itself illegal, but once you start discussing it, you should expect people to consider you at best a deviant and at worst a criminal.

I don’t wish to condone vicious attacks on Ann Coulter’s looks or shallow fat jokes about Dick Cheney. But they’re merely idiotic, exposing the shrillness and juvenility of those who make them. Starting a non-consensual beauty contest that gives potential employers the impression the women depicted consented to anything of that sort hurts people by severely defaming their character.

The reaction of the forum’s owners is far from encouraging. In response to a Washington Post article exposing the forum’s misdeeds, the owners thought slander was their right.

Another Yale law student learned a month ago that her photographs were posted in an AutoAdmit chat that included her name and graphic discussion about her breasts. She was also featured in a separate contest site — with links posted on AutoAdmit chats — to select the “hottest” female law student at “Top 14″ law schools, which nearly crashed because of heavy traffic. Eventually her photos and comments about her and other contestants were posted on more than a dozen chat threads, many of which were accessible through Google searches.

“I felt completely objectified,” that woman said. It was, she said, “as if they’re stealing part of my character from me.” The woman, a Fulbright scholar who graduated summa cum laude, said she now fears going to the gym because people on the site encouraged classmates to take cellphone pictures of her.

Ciolli persuaded the contest site owner to let him shut down the “Top 14″ for privacy concerns, Cohen said. “I think we deserve a golden star for what we did,” Cohen said.

I’m not sure whether admin Jarret Cohen (yes, I’m Googlebombing) was serious when he said that. The phrase “Golden star” is used sarcastically lately, to indicate that someone performed a trivial act but is asking for special dispensations for it, as in, “Bush thinks he deserves a golden star for finally submitting to the law.” What kind of idiot not only thinks he deserves a golden star for not letting his own site be a hornet’s nest of hurtful objectification but also mocks himself by using that specific phrase?

That is sexism, plain and simple. I’m not aware that being female lessens one’s right to privacy. Such contests violate that right in ways that the most vicious attacks on public figures can’t. I realize that there are a lot of people who believe rights only apply to men – hence, pro-life politics – but these are best kept as far away as possible from where they might actually cause damage.

Bean’s Blog Against Sexism Day gender equality checklist specifically calls for shutting down the forum in question. But the problem is not the forum specifically; it’s with a general system that accepts, nay, encourages men to go out and objectify women, preferably in the most hurtful ways possible, on pain of being branded effeminate. The forum is just one nasty example of that general principle, just as lynching was one nasty example of segregation.


Why the US Needs Prison Reform

March 8, 2007

Bean’s post about one of the fringe benefits of the prison-industrial complex – namely, that inmates are counted in the census for reapportionment purposes even though they can’t vote – leads me to the subject of prison reform in the US, which I haven’t addressed yet even though I should have.

The US has the highest incarceration rate in the world – about 700 per 100,000 people, give or take. Now, you’d think that it’s what’s deterred crime, causing the US to have a survey crime rate half of 23%, while the USA’s incarceration rate has increased by more than 50% since 1991 and gotten about the same reduction in crime.

Looking at the actual breakdown of inmates suggests that the USA could easily slash its prison population. A significant percentage of admissions is for drug offenses; indeed, about 9% of new admissions are for mere drug possession without proven intent to sell. Including people who are counted as drug dealers even though they are not – two college students sharing a joint are considered to engage in dealing – yields an even higher figure.

It gets worse. Black people comprised 17% of drug users and 37% of drug arrests in 1998. In general blacks use cocaine more than whites, but the margin is far lower for powder cocaine than for crack cocaine. And, as you can imagine, sentences for crack cocaine are harsher: a 1986 law set the minimum amount needed for a mandatory sentence at 500 grams for powder cocaine versus 5 for crack.

Almost all people sent to prison would be in the workforce and likely unemployed if released. The US has a labor force of 153 million, so adding 2 million inmates to the number of unemployed increases the unemployment rate from 4.6% to 5.9%. Among blacks, the labor force’s size is 17.5 million, so adding 900,000 black inmates increases their unemployment rate from 8%, lower than the white rate in France and Germany, to 13%. Although the USA still has a better black-to-white unemployment ratio than the comparable minority-to-white ratio of every European country I’ve checked, much of it derives from throwing black people to jail, where they don’t enter unemployment or labor participation statistics.

Not surprisingly, black civil rights groups consider prison reform an important priority. And not surprisingly, everyone else doesn’t. For white conservatives, disenfranchising large numbers of black people whose sole crime is private use of a substance Congress believes it has the right to tell people not to use is a good way of holding power. Once that dynamic is in place, they can rationalize giving ex-felons the right to vote as just a Democratic ploy to get more votes.

White Democrats, in turn, have mostly given up on doing anything for black people. The Clintons have spearheaded the technique of talking the talk and then supporting harsher drug laws that benefit nobody; sadly, Obama is so bad at black politics that Clinton is once again the black people’s candidate despite having done nothing to earn their support.

One of the fringe benefits of having a large prison-industrial complex in the US is that once incarceration rates come down to sane levels, a lot of the overcrowding problems, which contribute to insanely high rates of prison rape (by one estimate, 21% of male inmates experience sexual assault, of which 7% experience rape). Of course, another contributor to prison rape is the cultural attitude that doing anything for inmates is weak on crime.

When you think about it true, cruelty toward criminals isn’t required for being tough on crime. It’s after all how things work in foreign policy: typically, the best results come from policies based on diplomacy rather than naked aggression. It’s the same with crime. Giuliani credits New York’s crime drop to his broken windows policy, but in fact that drop started several years earlier, correlating with Dinkins’ assuming office and implementing less glamorous programs, such as community policing. No harsh sentences are needed; increasing arrest rates is what deters criminals.

This already produces several components of the high incarceration rate of the US, all of which can be manipulated to reduce it to normal levels without increasing the crime rate.

First, the drug war doesn’t do anything good. Drug abuse is a public health problem, not a crime. That’s how people who snort superglue or drink excessively are treated; why are cocaine and marijuana treated so differently? Dealing is something else, but unless you can catch the people who actually run the show, there’s no point; unfortunately, the US seems intent on not doing that.

Second, 10-year sentences should be reserved to very serious criminals. If you’re not a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist, a serial violent offender, or an important crime boss, you shouldn’t get more than a single-figure sentence. Even if you take an economic view of crime wherein criminals respond to harsher sentences, it’s not linear. There’s a huge jump between 0 and 1 year, which is far greater than the difference between 7 and 8. The difference between not getting arrested and getting arrested and not prosecuted is likely to be greater than the difference between getting 7 years and getting 8 years.

Third, the two most serious crimes, murder and rape, are in most cases committed by someone known to the victim. As such, they respond better to policies aimed at defusing volatile situations, such as gun control, encouraging women to report rapes, and programs aimed at reducing domestic violence, which comprises 14% of all serious violent crimes and 35% of serious violent crimes committed by non-strangers.

Fourth, the justice system should be reformed to allow accused people the resources needed to mount competent defense. Public defenders who fail to clear a person later shown to be innocent should at the minimum face a hearing in which they’re likely to be disbarred if they fail to pass a reasonable person standard; this is true regardless of any plea bargain. Similar standards should apply to DAs who keep prosecuting people they know to be innocent. Furthermore, public defenders’ salaries should be increased in order to encourage promising lawyers to not always take the prosecution’s side in criminal trials.

Some of the problems inherent in the justice system are problems of the common law system. The overreliance on plea bargains, which encourage innocent people to plead guilty if they have incompetent counsel, creates an assembly line justice system. But that’s mostly a question of counsel competence, when it comes right down to it. What’s more, if it’s considered good enough to throw a criminal who pleads guilty to jail for 5 years, it should be good enough to throw him for 5 years if he pleads not guilty and is convicted. Punishing people for exercising their right to a fair trial isn’t very consistent with civil liberties.

However, other problems in the US have nothing to do with the common law system. Mandatory minimums are a recent innovation of politicians who are more interested in looking tough on crime than in being tough on crime; as such, they can be safely scrapped. Elected DAs are under immense pressure to convict; Britain and Canada do just as well with appointed prosecutors.

And fifth and finally, giving black people harsher sentences should be considered racial discrimination. The military lets minorities complain of discrimination or harassment, and, if the complaints check out, punishes the offending officer or at least blocks his promotions. The same rules should govern the justice system. Judges who discriminate in sentencing and lawyers who discriminate in jury selection don’t belong in court. Racial disparities go beyond laws; the same law is applied more harshly against black people, both in sentencing and in the decision to incarcerate.

Incarcerating more people is not the solution to anything. Abortion is something that should be made more rare if only because it’s a less pleasant experience than using birth control. But incarceration is not merely unpleasant, but a serious loss of liberty. It should be reserved for when it’s necessary rather than for when a politician wants to tell racist constituents that he’s cruel to black people.


Just to be Sure:

March 8, 2007

I hope you’re not letting my less constructive commenters deter you from commenting.

Or, rather, I hope you are and the relative paucity of comments lately is not an indication that I have fewer regular readers.


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