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.

Walter Reed

March 6, 2007

Via the Sideshow: Walter Reed is not a VA hospital, but an army hospital, which belongs to a different system. This is important because a lot of people, including Gordo, are drawing the wrong lesson from the scandal and attacking the best health care system available to non-millionaires in the United States.

First, the VA is mind-bogglingly cheap. In 2005, the VA system cost $28.2 billion to operate; in 2004, it had 7.4 million enrolled veterans, for a per capita cost of $3,800. That’s still higher than the average of almost every country in the world, but is finally lower than this of Luxembourg, Norway, and Switzerland, unlike the general US average.

In contrast, Medicare and Medicaid cost $900 billion in 2005 and had 80 million enrollees, for $11,000 per capita. It’s expectable for them to cost somewhat more than the national average, because old people, who’re on Medicare, use more health services than younger people. But Medicare and Medicaid’s total cost divided by the USA’s entire population is already higher than the per capita cost of almost every public health care system in the developed world and almost as high as this of the VA system.

The VA is not only cheap but also good. On many indicators, the VA system is rated the best health care system in the US, largely thanks to a rebuilding effort in the 1990s produced by the system’s shocking state of neglect. The VA system reproduces many of the elements of good public health care: a focus on prevention, since enrollment is for life; a centralized database keeping track of who has gotten which tests and is suffering from what condition, since all VA hospitals are managed by the same system; efficient administration and a small paperwork burden, because of the centralized database.

That’s why, as Paul Krugman documents, opponents of public health care do their best to deride the VA system and instead promote bloated, inefficient programs extending Medicare, such as Medicare Part D. Walter Reed plays right to their hands, since it allows them to shift their argument from an ideological opposition to public health care, which is unpopular, to an attack on the government’s incompetence, which everyone likes to hear regardless of whether it applies.

The Teachers’ Union is the Source of All Evil in the World

February 27, 2007

Shelley finds a flowchart that documents how hard it is to fire a tenured teacher in New York, the idea being that if only the evil teachers’ union stopped demanding that teachers not be arbitrarily fired, the state of American education would be a lot better. Of course, as Mark Kleiman notes, in the South it’s already the case, and public schools stink even more than they do here…

Focusing on individual bad teachers misses the point. The point is that there’s a severe shortage of good teachers, which has gotten to the point that California has to accept teachers who flunk a tenth-grade-level reading test. Now, California’s schools are severely underfunded – per student funding in California is below national average even though housing prices are the highest of all states – but similar problems with teachers happen even with decent funding.

People who think the teachers’ unions are the source of all that’s evil in the world just focus on the wrong problem. There already exists a process for getting rid of bad teachers; it’s called not giving them tenure in the first place. And even if they’re fired, the state has to find an alternative teacher, typically a rookie who won’t necessarily be any better.

Look, you don’t need mega-pay to have good teachers. On average, schools in the US spent $8,300 per student in school year 2003-4, of which three fifths went to teacher pay and benefits. Stuyvesant’s per student spending is about the same (it was $8,200 in 2003 by a definition that leaves a small amount of spending out), so its teachers can’t be paid that much more, even though New York is hardly a cheap place to live in.

The American school crisis is mostly a low-income school crisis. Upper middle class suburbs like Westchester and Nassau Counties have non-selective public schools that do perfectly well. Part of it is because of an insane cash infusion, but that’s only true for some suburbs.

So it makes sense to ask how come low-income schools have teachers who stink. Is it because good teachers would rather get paid $40,000 a year to teach at a magnet school that produces Nobel Prize winners than get paid $40,000 to teach in a ghetto? Or is it because low-income schools naturally lack one of the most important control mechanisms, parental involvement (there’s a reason scripted learning works in low-income schools)? Or, is it really a funding question, with a few exceptions for glamorous places like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science.

Iran Has Secret Plans to Take Over the World

February 23, 2007

Michele Bachmann said that Iran has a plan in the works to split Iraq with another entity, in which it will take over the northern half of Iraq and turn it into a terrorist breeding ground. She refused to source that statement; my guess is that she knows that if she tells people God whispered it in her ear, people will realize how batshit insane she is.

Of course, there’s a broader principle here. Even a lunatic like Bachmann doesn’t make things up unless they’re part of radical right-wing dogma. She’s hardly the only creationist in Minnesota. There is a real Iran, and there’s the Iran various ideologues want there to be. For the extreme left, it’s thriving and governed by a popular regime. For the extreme right, it’s an omnipotent terrorist state preoccupied with nothing but killing Americans and spreading Jihadism.

For people like Bachmann, it’s self-evident that Iran is and has always been this sinister enemy. In the real world, Iran was part of the USA’s war on terror until Bush wrote it off as a member of the Axis of Evil; but in American right-wing fantasies, it’s always supported every Jihadist organization, even Sunni ones like Al Qaida. In the real world, Iran is plagued by a looming oil peak and rock-bottom regime support; in American right-wing fantasies, it’s capable of taking control of the northern and western half of Iraq – i.e. the Sunni and Kurdish parts, where it’s even more hated than the US.

Apply for Asylum in the US, Be Thrown to Jail Together with Your Kids

February 23, 2007

The US is the land of freedom and opportunity, as long as you’re not an asylum seeker. Lawmakers who’re more concerned with making sure absolutely no third-worlder gets in unless he really has to than with respecting basic human rights passed legislation to imprison asylum seekers and their families pending trial. Just on the off chance you’re not the type who clicks links,

In fact, nearly half of [Hutto Prison’s] 400 or so residents are children, including infants and toddlers.

The inmates are immigrants or children of immigrants who are in deportation proceedings. Many of them are in the process of applying for political asylum, refugees from violence-plagued and impoverished countries like Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Somalia and Palestine. (Since there are different procedures for Mexican immigrants, the facility houses no Mexicans.)

In the past, most of them would have been free to work and attend school as their cases moved through immigration courts. “Prior to Hutto, they were releasing people into the community,” says Nicole Porter, director of the Prison and Jail Accountability Project for the ACLU of Texas. “These are non-criminals and nonviolent individuals who have not committed any crime against the U.S. There are viable alternatives to requiring them to live in a prison setting and wear uniforms.”

But as a result of increasingly stringent immigration enforcement policies, today more than 22,000 undocumented immigrants are being detained, up from 6,785 in 1995, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Normally, men and women are detained separately and minors, if they are detained at all, live in residential facilities with social services and schools. But under the auspices of “keeping families together,” children and parents are incarcerated together at the T. Don Hutto Residential Center, as it is now called, and at a smaller facility in Berks County, Penn. Attorneys for detainees say the children are only allowed one hour of schooling, in English, and one hour of recreation per day.

“It’s just a concentration camp by another name,” says John Wheat Gibson, a Dallas attorney representing two Palestinian families in the facility.

In addition, there have been reports of inadequate healthcare and nutrition.

If you’re brave enough to venture to the comment thread, which features such gems as “The violence is here because of illegal aliens” (and still the 1990s saw both a massive influx of illegal immigrants into the US and a drastic drop in crime), go help Jenny respond to the xenophobes.

There’s certainly a big chunk of the population everywhere that sees foreigners as less than human. Forget unfounded statements like “Liberals are only about the right of icky people to do icky things”; the real outrage about liberals is that they support the right of people of the wrong nationality to have basic human dignity. Ironically, a US population that by and large believes in offering illegal immigrants legal status – in Texas it’s 59-35 – has no trouble with treating immigrants like subhumans.

Although this attitude isn’t restricted to the US, in the US it’s worse than in most other areas of at least the developed world. People in Germany and France and Norway watch American movies, travel to neighboring countries often, and have friends from more than one country. In the US outside a few big coastal cities like New York or Los Angeles, a person can live his whole life not knowing that there exists a world outside US borders. It’s The Gods Must Have Gone Crazy on a larger scale.

It’s of course not ignorance alone that has produced this. Israelis, who know very well that there exists a world outside their country, abuse foreigners all the time, for example by needlessly strip-searching at the airport. But Israel is somewhat of a special case; evidently, Germany, which is overall a lot less into immigrants’ rights than the US is, doesn’t commit those atrocities, or at least hasn’t in 60 years.


February 22, 2007

I’m not going to skewer the radical right’s attempt to relativize Wikipedia in full; better bloggers than me have already done so. But looking at Conservapedia’s mathematics entries is a good reminder that polemical hacks don’t usually produce any useful knowledge.

The combined knowledge of Wikipedia’s NPOV editors has produced a page about the prime number theorem that explains in length how the theorem relates to the Riemann zeta function and how the Riemann hypothesis implies a better estimate, and derives some explicit bounds. The first section, comprising only a small part of the article, says,

Let π(x) be the prime counting function that gives the number of primes less than or equal to x, for any real number x. For example, π(10) = 4 because there are four prime numbers (2, 3, 5 and 7) less than or equal to 10. The prime number theorem then states that the limit of the quotient of the two functions π(x) and x / ln(x) as x approaches infinity is 1. Using Landau notation this result can be written as

\pi(x)\sim\frac{x}{\ln x}.

This does not mean that the limit of the difference of the two functions as x approaches infinity is zero.

Based on the tables by Anton Felkel and Jurij Vega, the theorem was conjectured by Adrien-Marie Legendre in 1796 and proved independently by Hadamard and de la Vallée Poussin in 1896. Both proofs used methods from complex analysis, specifically the properties of the Riemann zeta function and where the function was non-zero.

Meanwhile, the editors of Conservapedia, constrained by the requirements of a radical ideology that displays every radical pathology in the book (for a really egregious example of symbolism, check out the Conservapedia policy on British vs. American spelling), have produced the following article:

The Prime Number Theorem is one of the most famous theorem in mathematics. It states that the number of primes not exceeding n is asymptotic to $latex \frac{n}{\log n}, where log(n) is the logarithm of (n) to the base e.

The number of primes not exceeding n is commonly written as π(n), and an asymptotic relationship between a(n) and b(n) is commonly designated as a(n)~b(n). (This does not mean that a(n)-b(n) is small as n increases. It means the ratio of a(n) to b(n) approaches one as n increases.)

The Prime Number Theorem thus states that π(n)~n / log(n) .

In other words, the limit (as n approaches infinity) of the ratio of pi(n) to n/log(n) is one. Put a third way, n/log(n) is a good approximation for π(n).

Section Break

Gauus [sic] conjectured the equivalent statement that π(x) was asymptotic to Li(x) defined as:

\mbox{Li}(x) = \int_2^x \frac{dt}{\ln t}.

In fact, for large x this turns out to be a better approximation than π(x).

Now, you might say I’m just picking and choosing, and other articles could be better. In fact, I’m picking and choosing here in Conservapedia’s favor; the prime number theorem is one of the few mathematical entries that even exist on Conservapedia. I could compare the articles on the Langlands program, or local rings, or global fields, or the Riemann hypothesis; on those subjects there is no Conservapedia article. Conservapedia doesn’t even have an article on mathematics.

You might also say that Conservapedia is a young project, so I shouldn’t be comparing it to a 6-year-old encyclopedia. Alright; the news on Conservapedia go back a month, so just compare the math there to the math posts I’ve put up in the month of February. On 2/1, I put up a basic concepts post that could make it to an encyclopedia. That took me maybe an hour net to write; how come the Conservapedia editors can’t come up with something better than a few stubs in a month?

Mark CC’s takedown is a good read; Conservapedia complains that Wikipedia doesn’t use “elementary proofs.” But Mark makes a slight mistake about elementary proofs:

There is currently an entry on “Elementary Proof” on Wikipedia, but to be fair, it was created just two weeks ago, most likely in response to this claim by conservapedia.

But that’s trivial. The important thing here is that the concept of “elementary proof” is actually a relatively trivial one. It’s sometimes used in number theory, when they’re trying to pare down the number of assumptions required to prove a theorem. An elementary proof is a proof which makes use of the minimum assumptions that describe the basic properties of real numbers. And even in the case of number theory, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone seriously argue that an elementary proof is more rigorous than another proof of the same theorem. Elementary proofs might be easier to understand – but that’s not a universal statement: many proofs that make use of things like complex numbers are easier to understand than the elementary equivalent. And I have yet to hear of anything provable about real numbers using number theory with complex numbers which can be proven false using number theory without the complex – proofs about real numbers that use complex are valid, rigorous, and correct.

The concept of elementary proof is fairly relative. In number theory, it means no complex analysis, and Mark’s assessment is entirely valid. But in other subjects, it can mean something slightly different. When I took advanced group theory three semesters ago, my professor, an arithmetic geometer/number theorist, told me that to him, “elementary” in a group theoretic context meant no cohomology. There are certainly deeper techniques than just complex analysis; suffice is to say that if someone discovers a proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem that utilizes complex analysis but only at the level of the prime number theorem, his proof will likely be considered more elementary than Wiles’, which uses modular forms, Iwasawa theory, and other state of the art gadgets.

Real Oppression

February 20, 2007

Sheelzebub’s post about Christian bigots is a good reminder of how detached from reality a majority that feels dispossessed can be. I’m not making any apologies here: people who rant about how the US (or Europe) oppresses whites, Christians, men, “decent people,” and so on are idiots. Plain and simple.

In Saudi Arabia, Christians are not allowed to build churches. The state tolerates their religious practices as long as they’re confined to their homes, but does not allow them to practice Christianity in public. The same applies to any religion but Islam; Indian migrant workers have no hope of finding a Hindu temple to worship in. That’s oppression.

In the US, Christian children are allowed to pray in school iff they aren’t led or dragooned by teachers and pray during recess. Occasionally, when the Christian majority will abuse its powers and find an opportunity to pray that excludes religious minorities, the ACLU will file suit; if the religious minorities in question are lucky, they won’t be harassed or persecuted by angry Christian mobs. That’s oppression, too, but Christians aren’t the ones who are being oppressed.

Portraying one’s group as oppressed regardless of the facts has a long history, going all the way back to countless ancient populist struggles. Hitler didn’t rise to power by promising to abuse non-Aryans, but by promising to protect Aryans from outside humiliation and inventing a communist repression of Germany that didn’t exist. Just because you don’t get everything done your way doesn’t make you oppressed; it makes you less than an absolute dictator.

If you want to convince me you’re actually oppressed, you have to do better than rant about the evil ACLU/patriarchy/hegemony/Jewish conspiracy. If all you can give me is a heartwrenching anecdote, then all I can give you is an “Oh, that sucks” sympathy. Look, women and minorities are at best severely underrepresented in legislatures and routinely discriminated against in employment, and at worst confined to their homes and ghettos respectively. Gays are legally discriminated against and legally harassed. The religious groups that claim to be oppressed are often the ones that are perpetrating those persecutions.