Wednesday links

Zach Weiner explains very succinctly why it’s so hard to be a pacifist, Eve Tushnet reads about single mothers, John Wilkins doesn’t believe politicians have mandates, some guy named “Zippy Catholic” decides that women’s suffrage and abortion rights are inseparable (and therefore women’s suffrage must go!,) Laura Flanders and Eve Ensler have never talked to each other about their vaginas and don’t plan to start,  this map does a terrific job of encapsulating the results of the 2012 US presidential election, xkcd is hilarious, and Jim Goad can think of ten good reasons not to assassinate Barack Obama.

The political history of the USA in two charts

This chart was published in 1880, in a book called Conspectus of the History of Political Parties, by Walter R. Houghton.  In July, Susan Schulten put it on her blog, Andrew Sullivan mentioned it on his, and I put it up on Tumblr.  Here it is full-size.

This was today’s xkcd comic.  Click on it for a zoomable version.

I think the chart from the Houghton book is more elegant, but this one is nice also.


Time and cartoons

In the comic books, Superman is quitting his day job as a newspaperman.  The company that publishes the Superman titles, DC Comics, explains that, as part of an effort to make the character more relevant to “the 21st century,” he will become- a blogger!  Evidently the part of the 21st century they want him to be relevant to is the part that ended about 6 years ago.

Nina Paley summarizes the history of the Levant in 3 minutes and 32 seconds of animation.

Despite what you’d expect from a webcomic with its name, Doghouse Diaries rarely deals with dogs.  Yesterday’s strip is therefore in rare company.

Neither Zach Weiner nor Randall Munroe is at all impressed with the level of statistical discourse in mass media.


Random words

The other day, Bruce Schneier posted a note about “Recent Developments in Password Cracking.”  At the end, he mentioned: “Finally, there are two basic schemes for choosing secure passwords: the Schneier scheme and the XKCD scheme.”  The xkcd scheme, as some of you will recall, is laid out in this cartoon:

Much of the discussion on Bruce Schneier’s blog has included expressions of doubt that many users of the xkcd scheme are actually choosing the words randomly.

I use the xkcd scheme sometimes.  Here’s how I try to ensure that I’m picking the words randomly.  I have a telephone directory; fortunately, they still print those where I live.  I go to, a site which indexes the 86,800 most common words in the British National Corpus in numerical order by frequency.  I close my eyes, open the telephone directory, and put my finger down on the page.  I open my eyes and see the last four digits of the number nearest my finger.  I put that number into Wordcount’s “by rank” search box and find the corresponding word.  I repeat the process to come up with four random words.

So, for example, the number sequence 6841, 1131, 4508, 1967, yields this word sequence in Wordcount:

hatred interested lecture beneath

Say the word “hatred” makes me uncomfortable.  Sometimes you will come up with a word you dislike, such as a curse word or an ethnic slur, or with a word that is too long, or one that is difficult to remember.  Well, there are more numbers on the telephone directory; repeating the process, I come up with 4300.  The 4300th most common word in the British National Corpus is “bench.”  So, the password can be either:

bench interested lecture beneath


interested lecture beneath bench

My usual practice when one of the first four words is problematic in some way is to put its replacement at the end, but since “interested lecture beneath bench” sounds like a series of words that might possibly appear in some bit of writing somewhere, I would choose “benchinterestedlecturebeneath.”

There are other ways to have fun with  You can look for little bits of unintended poetry in the sequencing.  One of my favorites is the sequence of words from #5595 to #5598, “touching shallow charming fuck.”  That tells the whole story of a bittersweet romance.  Or #44631 to #44634, “uneaten reticulum, oxidative fungicide.”  I can’t say that sounds like an appealing meal. Or #5844 to #5848, “publish solar petitions hurried Gabriel.”  Or #50 through #56, “so no said who more about up.”  Punctuate it as “‘So, no,’ said who?  More about up!”  A familiar story is told succinctly from #85 to #88: “See first!  Well, after.”  Punctuation can make a great deal of #100 through #164: “Got much?  Think, work- between go years; er- many, being those before right, because through- yeah?  Good- three make us such.  Still, year must last, even take own, too.  Off here come both- does say ‘Oh, used, going “‘Erm- use government day, man!'”  Might same, under ‘yes,’ however, put world another want?  Thought, while life again, against Never, need old look home.  Something, Mr Long.”  I grant you, it doesn’t make sense, but it keeps sounding like it is about to mean something.  And several of the sub-sequences in there sound so good that it really is a shame they are gibberish.

The smallest and the largest

In 1968, designers Charles and Ray Eames released a short film called “Powers of Ten.”  Here it is:

Here’s a tribute to the film that appeared as xkcd #271:

There’s something I occasionally wonder about.  People sometimes say that hearing about the scale of the universe at its largest makes them feel small and unimportant.  On that scale, the earth figures as a minuscule portion of a solar system that is itself a minuscule portion of a galaxy that is in turn a minuscule portion of one of countless clusters of galaxies in the universe.  When I hear that remark, I think about the scale of the universe at its smallest.  Tiny as our world is in comparison with the deepest reaches of the sky, how large do we bulk in comparison with the smallest units of the submicroscopic world?

This flash animation from Cary and Michael Huang, released a couple of days ago as a followup to a similar project they put out in 2010, takes us from the Planck length, which is evidently the smallest size a thing can be, up to what theorists currently suspect is the total size of the universe, which extends at least 7000 times as far as we will ever be able to see.  The latest theories hold that the total size of the universe might be about 1.6 times 10 to the 27th power meters.  That theory may be as mistaken as all the previous theories about the same thing have been, but it’s the best we have going at the moment.   So, if that theory is correct and you were to lay humans end to end, the number of them you would need to stretch from one end of the universe to the other would be 28 digits long.  The Huang brothers note in their animation that the total height of all living humans is much shorter than that, of course; in fact, if we were all to lie down end to end we would only reach about 1o million kilometers, only about 1/15 of the way from the earth to the sun.  Even if all 100,000,000,000 humans who ever lived were to be reincarnated and join us, we would still reach less than 15 billion kilometers, which would barely get us from one side of the Solar System’s Kuiper Belt to the other.

So, compared to the largest scale of structure in the universe, we are indeed quite small.  But let’s take a moment and look at the smallest scale of things in the universe.  The Eameses stopped their exploration at the level of the proton.  In 1968, there wasn’t much point in trying to delve deeper.  Since then, science has made advances.  The Planck length is 1.6 times ten to the minus 35th power meters; so, if you laid the shortest possible objects end to end, the number of them it would take to stretch from one end of your body to the other would be 36 digits long. A 36 digit number is of course bigger than a 28 digit number, vastly bigger.  So our size is much closer to that of the entire universe than it is to that of an object that exists on the scale of the Planck length.  The 2010 version of the Huangs’ flash animation illustrated this dramatically, with a human symbol standing well to the right of the center of the zoom bar. If contemplating the scope of the universe as a whole makes us feel small and insignificant, does contemplation of the Planck length make us feel large and mighty?

Perhaps it does.  If it doesn’t, I can think of two possible reasons.  First, it might be that the feature of astronomy that gives people the feeling of smallness and weakness is not the size of the structures astronomers study, but the fact that those people don’t understand what astronomers are talking about and don’t feel confident in their ability to figure it out.  That sense of smallness is not likely to be relieved when the conversation turns from light-years and dark energy to yoctometers and the quantum foam.

Second, it might be the legacy of monotheism.  When we visualize the universe on the largest scale, we imagine ourselves to be standing outside it, taking it in at a glance.  To minds formed under the influence of a belief in an all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present Creator God, such a visualization is clearly an imitation of God.  In such an imagination, it shows an awesome power to zoom in and find individual humans, to number the hairs on their heads (between 50,000 and 200,000, according to the Huang brothers) and keep an eye on the sparrow.  On the other hand, to look up from the level of the Planck length may not suggest much to such a mind.  It’s true that medieval theologians like Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas developed ideas about angels as one-dimensional beings who had the power to assume visible form as the situation required; to those titans of Scholasticism, the idea of two-dimensional strings vibrating at the smallest levels of scale in the universe and forming the basis of the physical world might have been extremely interesting.  Still, to the extent that people think about angels today, it’s in terms that neither Albertus nor Thomas would have recognized as rational, or even as Christian.  Aside from a few eccentric philosophers like Massimo Cacciari and the late Mortimer Adler who maintain an interest in the Scholastic conception of angels, the only people who bring them up nowadays seem to be those who believe that the souls of holy people become angels.  For the Scholastics, this would have been rank heresy.  They believed that angels represented an order of creation separate from humans, who may operate within time and space on occasion, but who are not generally subject to the passage of time or extended in three-dimensional space.  Humans, they held, were destined either to be resurrected in perfected bodies, as Jesus had been, or to be cast into Hell.  In either case, we would continue to be three-dimensional beings of something about a meter and a half in height.  I can’t see what motive believers in the Hollywood-derived conception of the afterlife would have for attaching any special significance to a view of the universe that looks up from the smallest scale, and indeed they do not seem to be excited about the submicroscopic world.

Did astrology originate in cities?

I wonder if the first astrologers were city-dwellers.  True, archeologists have found evidence that people who lived before the rise of cities paid close attention to the orbit of the Moon and identified constellations, and have argued that the orientations of temples and other religious structures from those days suggest that they attached a religious significance to the movements of heavenly bodies.  Those activities are hardly surprising; farmers need a calendar to plan their year, as hunter-gatherers also need to plan their expeditions for times when game will be relatively plentiful and fruit ripe for the picking.  Still, it might not be too much of a stretch to look at a society that invests heavily in maintaining and publicizing its calendar and to see a suggestion of something like what the western branch of organized Christianity used to call “natural astrology,” a set of ideas about ways in which heavenly bodies might influence the earth’s weather and various medical phenomena related to the transmission of disease.

Quite distinct from natural astrology are the various studies to which the Western Church used to refer as “judicial astrology.”  That’s the part that includes horoscopes, sun signs, and the like.  The difference matters when considering the origins of astrology; we have very ancient documents relating to the movements of heavenly bodies that seem to have some special significance and that predate the earliest references to judicial astronomy by centuries.  So, I’ll use the terms.

It is sometimes said that our earliest evidence of judicial astronomy comes from Mesopotamia, but that is misleading.  The nation state didn’t exist in those days; Ur and Lagash and Akkad and Babylon and the other urban centers that rose and fell in that region interacted with the political and economic systems of the countryside around them in a variety of ways, but in other ways they remained quite distinct.  It is in such cities that we find the first documents describing judicial astrology.

If astrology did arise in cities, it arose in a social environment where markets were familiar.  Its entire history would have taken place amid money, contracts, and production for exchange.  That calls into question the assumptions that we discussed last year when this xkcd appeared:

Not to be confused with "selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works," which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.

Some people fall into the assumption that, because markets promote something called “rationality,” they must therefore favor every form of reason and disfavor every form of unreason.  However, the rationality which comes from markets is in fact something of a very narrow sort.  A month after our discussion, we noted that Shikha Dalmia had put it very well: “Markets don’t reward merit, they reward value.”  Dalmia summarizes the views of economist Friedrich Hayek:

In a functioning market, Hayek insisted, financial compensation depends not on someone’s innate gifts or moral character. Nor even on the originality or technological brilliance of their products. Nor, for that matter, on the effort that goes into producing them. The sole and only issue is a product’s value to others. Compare an innovation as incredibly mundane as a new plastic lid for paint cans with a whiz-bang, new computer chip. The painter could become just as rich as the computer whiz so long as the savings from spills that the lid offers are as great as the productivity gains from the chip. It matters not a whit that the lid maker is a drunk, wife-beating, out-of-work painter who stumbled upon this idea through pure serendipity when he tripped over a can of paint. Or that the computer whiz is a morally stellar Ph.D. who spent years perfecting his chip.

As markets are neutral as to the virtue or vice of economic actors, so too are they neutral as to the truth or falsity of the ideas that those actors bring as products for sale.  If falsehoods are in demand, falsehoods will sell; if truths are not in demand, their bearers will go begging.  The mouseover text for the xkcd represents a nod to this fact, and an attempt to wriggle out of its implications: “Not to be confused with ‘selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works,’ which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.”  That won’t do, since it assumes that we can assign a fixed meaning to the expression “works.”  An investment advisor who believes in astrology may not be any likelier than other advisors to beat the market, but s/he may very well use that belief to “make a killing,” if s/he attracts clients who strongly value such a belief.  In that case, astrology would not “work” in the sense that quantitative analysts officially recognize, but it would make the advisor every bit as rich as it would if it did meet their definitions of success.  As for whether it makes the clients rich, well, Fred Schwed answered that one in 1940:

Once in the dear dead days beyond recall, an out of town visitor was being shown the wonders of the New York financial district.  When the party arrived at the Battery, one of his guides indicated some handsome ships riding at anchor.  He said, “Look, these are the bankers’ and brokers’ yachts.”  “Where are the customers’ yachts?,” asked the naive visitor.

Clearly, markets have not dissolved belief in astrology, any more than the continued non-existence of the customers’ yachts has discouraged people going to brokers and bankers.  If the practice of judicial astrology first arose in cities, it may in fact be a by-product of market society.  Perhaps we might find that judicial astrology began, not simply as a more elaborate version of a natural astrology that had long been a feature of rural life, but as an attempt to understand market interactions and the power of the market.  In that case, it would qualify as a school of economics.  One may wonder whether judicial astrology would be the most absurd such school in practice today.

Charitable speech

Today’s xkcd:

The late philosopher H. Paul Grice tried to make some of these rules explicit; his most famous attempt to do this can be found in his essay “Logic and Conversation,” published in his book Studies in the Way of Words (Harvard U.P., 1989 and 1991, pages 22-40.)  Grice there lays down a set of rules in the form of a series of maxims.  Grice begins with an overarching maxim that he calls the “cooperative principle”: “Make your contribution such as it is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange in which you are engaged.”  He breaks the requirements of the cooperative principle down into several maxims.  So, one ought to be truthful, one ought to provide the listener with enough information to make it easy for the listener gather one’s meaning, one ought not to provide the listener with so much information that it is difficult to gather one’s meaning, one ought to provide information that is relevant to the conversation, one ought to express oneself clearly.

As Carole J Lee points out in her article “Gricean Charity: The Gricean Turn in Psychology” (Philosophy of the Social Sciences, 2006; 36(2), 193-218,) what Grice has given us in these maxims are not “universal norms of conversation” (203.)  Still less, despite their phrasing, are Grice’s maxims commands that he would have insisted we follow.  Rather, they are a sketch of the expectations that listeners tend to bring to a conversation.  One tends to expect that a speaker will behave according to the maxims.  When a listener finds that a speaker is systematically violating one or more of the maxims, that listener might react with laughter.  That laughter shows that the listener, relying on the maxims, had constructed a different meaning than the one the speaker intended.  Or, the listener might react with distrust or frustration, if reliance on the maxims has led him or her to a dead end.  A charitable listener will bring these expectations to a conversation, assuming that each speaker is displaying the competence the maxims outline.  To refuse to give a speaker credit for following Grice’s maxims is to fail to show that speaker the charity that makes cooperative communication possible.

In the strip, the hairless stick figure is frustrated by the hairy figure’s decision to “interpret an obviously sympathetic ‘I’m sorry’ as an apology.”  Hairless seems to be frustrated that Hairy is not giving him* credit for following Grice’s maxims.  The maxim of quantity requires that each speaker provide just that information the listener needs; the “Why?” in “Why? It’s not your fault” suggests that he is leaving out something essential, something which his sarcastic reply might supply.  The maxim of relevance requires that each contribution to the conversation bear on the topic at hand; that Hairy would react to a conventional expression of sympathy as she does would suggest that she does not regard Hairless’ sympathies as relevant to a the topic of her mother’s misfortune.  This rejection of Hairless’ expression of sympathy might well strike anyone as rather harsh.

Grice acknowledges that all of the properties that his maxims enjoin are complex.  For example, he says of the maxim of relevance: “Though the maxim itself is terse, its formulation conceals a number of problems that exercise me a good deal: questions about what different kinds and focuses of relevance there may be, how these shift in the course of a talk exchange, how to allow for the fact that subjects of conversations are legitimately changed, and so on.”  Of course, different cultures conceive of relevance in vastly different ways, a fact that serves as the starting point for many studies which question the usefulness of Grice’s maxims as a guide to the analysis of conversational behavior around the world.**

To the extent that Grice’s maxims are an attempt to outline the expectations listeners have of speakers, it is unsurprising that they do not lay injunctions upon listeners.  If we were to complement them with a set of maxims that outline what speakers might reasonably expect from listeners, perhaps the first maxim would call for charity.  That charity would be as multidimensional, and no doubt as culturally specific, as the properties Grice’s listeners expect from speakers.  We might break our maxim of charity into several sub-maxims to give an idea of what the dimensions of this charity might be.  First, assume that the speaker is performing his or her communicative project competently unless s/he provides evidence to the contrary.  One might refer to Grice’s maxims in defining competent communicative performance.  Second, assume that if the speaker has failed to perform his or her communicative project competently, any failures are as small as possible.  So, if a speaker provides a logically invalid argument, a charitable listener might look for the simplest available premise that can be added to make the argument valid.  Third, assume that the speaker is a person of goodwill.  Under this assumption, one should try to find the least obnoxious possible interpretation for any unclear passages.

In the strip, Hairy has been uncharitable to Hairless, albeit in a rather subtle way.  Hairless’ sarcastic response is of course a grossly uncharitable one.  Grice was interested in sarcasm, which he saw as something that happens when when “the maxims are flouted.”  What Hairy flouts in a subtle way is what Hairless responds by flouting in a massive way, the requirements of charity as I have tried to formulate them in the paragraph above.  When speakers think that their listeners are refusing to follow these requirements, they often do respond with anger.

Two examples come to mind.  Recently, I took part in a discussion thread on one of my favorite websites, the mighty Language Log.  One of the mighty Log’s most distinguished authors, linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, posted a little piece about a newspaper columnby a writer named Kathleen Parker.  Parker opens with a story about a brief encounter among a group of about ten strangers sharing an elevator at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.  Parker was among this group; apparently she had not seen any of the other riders before.  Two riders did know each other, a woman and a man.  The woman spent the moments of the elevator ride shouting at the man.  In the course of her diatribe, the woman called the man a “motherfucker” several times.  By the time this pair left the elevator, the woman had made it clear that the man was her son.  Parker describes the discomfort that she and the other riders displayed while in the sharing the elevator with the shouting woman.  She goes on to allow that coarse words are not in themselves particularly dangerous to the moral health of society, giving as an example of her willingness to tolerate them her relaxed response to a fellow guest at a very proper tea party who called sometime golf champion Tiger Woods an “asshole” in an incongruously “refined accent.”  Still, Parker claims, “Lack of civility in words bleeds into a lack of decency in behavior… An “MF” here or an “FU” there might not constitute the unraveling of society, but each one uttered in another’s involuntary presence is a tiny act of violence against kindness, of which we surely could use more.”

There are any number of things one might say about this column.  It’s interesting that the word “motherfucker” has come to be so frequently used as a symbol of obscenity without any evocation of the meaning of its root words that a mother could unselfconsciously  apply it to her son.  It’s puzzling what Parker means by a “refined accent”; she does say that the tea party guest was British, and evidently she was using what we used to called Received Pronunciation.  But obscenity is now so common a feature of the speech of Britons of all classes that I cannot imagine any vulgar word being incongruous when spoken in any British accent.

What Professor Nunberg in fact chooses to do with the column is to accuse Parker of veiled bigotry.  Noting that Parker’s response to the woman at the tea party had been to say that it would be all right for the woman to curse so long as she used her plummy accent while doing it, Nunberg says: “Now I can come up with at least five contexutal parameters that explain why the public harangues of the elevator expletiviste were obnoxious and offensive in a way that the English (one assumes) woman’s wasn’t. But the posteriority of the initial vowel of the epithet isn’t one of them.”   This is a failure of charity on Professor Nunberg’s part; Parker’s use of the story to show her own relaxed attitude towards a non-threatening use of taboo words makes it clear that she was joking with the woman at the tea party.  Lest we think that Professor Nunberg is himself joking, and merely pretending that he doesn’t see Parker’s joke, he goes on:

Why should it be? Would the incivility of the first woman’s rants have been tempered if she had called her son an asshole in an accent like Emma Thompson’s? Would the tea party lady’s reference to Tiger Woods be more offensive if the woman had sounded like Wanda Sykes? While we’re on the subject of vulgarity — and insolence — can we linger for a moment on the smug suburban gentility of that word refined? You’re left with the unsettling implication that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one’s lips depends, in part, on how thick they are.

Where does Professor Nunberg find this remarkably ugly implication?  He seems to find it in Parker’s telling of the story of the elevator ride.  Quoting key bits of the story, he comments:

The race and class of the woman and her companion weren’t specified, but readers might have been able to divine those attributes from the particular word Parker chose to report (or was that the only vulgarity the woman used?), helped along by the setting at Broadway and 168th Street and the mentions of the separated father and in particular of the young man’s “baggy drawers,” which presumably were intended to convey some relevant information. (If it had been an upper-middle-class white woman screaming “motherfucker” at a phat-pantsed white preppie, communicative cooperativeness would have obliged Parker to mention that fact lest the reader draw the wrong conclusions.)

None of the markers Professor Nunberg mentions in this paragraph is at all strongly correlated with race and class in New York City in 2011, as commenters on the post pointed out.  Your humble correspondent mentioned a couple of items showing that, while “Motherfucker” may have originated among African Americans in the early twentieth century, it has been in general use among whites and others for decades.  Professor Nunberg himself added to this list, strengthening my point (perhaps inadvertently.)  Another commenter pointed out that Broadway and 168th is in the middle of Spanish Harlem, so that if that location tells us anything about the woman’s ethnicity it would suggest either Puerto Rican or Dominican heritage.  Still others have pointed out that New York Presbyterian has more than one Manhattan location.  One might also mention that Manhattan is rather a compact place, so a wide variety of ethnicities may be found in any of its hospitals.  In the column, it is quite clear that “the “[mention] of the separated father” was “intended convey some relevant information,” and it is also clear what that information is.  It is when the woman in the elevator mentions the man’s father that it becomes clear that she is his mother, and so it is when Parker quotes that line that she provides the punchline about the woman’s use of “motherfucker.”  “Baggy drawers” or “phat pants,” like the use of “motherfucker” as an all-purpose obscenity, likely originated among African Americans and doubtless once was seen almost exclusively in African American communities, but one needn’t spend much time among young American whites to see that those days are long gone.

I appended many comments to this thread.  Here are links to all of them, in the admittedly unlikely case that you are interested: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.  I’ll copy the last one, because in it I finally got around to saying what I’d been trying to say all along:

@Daniel: 1. “This post doesn’t really need any more comments, but”- Yes, I sympathize. It’s as hard to stop as it is to stop eating a salty snack. An angry, angry salty snack.

2. “”drawers,” which I definitely associate with AAVE.” The structure of this debate seems to be, S1: Parker reports (item.) I associate (item) with African Americans. Therefore, Parker wants her readers to associate the people she is denouncing with African Americans.” In reply, S2: “I don’t associate (item) with African Americans.”

The least involved premises we can add to S1’s assertions to make them into a logically valid argument would surely be “I am the sort of reader Parker had in mind when she wrote her column, and she should have known that I would associate (item) with African Americans.” In the absence of any data about what Parker’s readers think of when they think of these various items or about what she has reason to expect from her readers, we have no reason to suppose that these premises are true.

3. “Rhetorically, that is clearly implying that the British lady did not have context or delivery issues.” Let’s remember the context and delivery Parker describes in her opening vignette. She was on an elevator, which is to say, in a confined space. A person entirely unknown to her joined her and several others in that confined space. For a few moments, this unknown person shouted obscenities. Anyone might feel uncomfortable in that situation.

By contrast, Parker met the British lady (if British and lady she in fact was***) in a situation where she was free to move about. Parker and this second person were introduced and participated in a conversation. In the course of that conversation, the second person used a word that often classified as objectionable. Parker did not object to it. In fact, she made a little joke to forestall objections.

What, then, is the simplest explanation of the difference between Parker’s response to the two situations? Is it that person 1 was of a different ethnicity than person 2, and that Parker is hostile to the ethnic group person 1 represents and friendly towards the ethnic group person 2 represents? Or is it that she would rather engage in a conversation at a social event with someone who clearly poses no threat to her than be trapped in an elevator with an angry stranger?

Granted, Professor Nunberg does make a nod in the original post to  “at least five contexutal parameters that explain why the public harangues of the elevator expletiviste were obnoxious and offensive in a way that the English (one assumes) woman’s wasn’t.”  His remarks before and after that, accusing Parker of “nudge-nudge allusions to race and ethnicity… the way people intimate someone’s Jewishness by saying they’re ‘very New York'” and of implying “that the acceptability of allowing a naughty word to cross one’s lips depends, in part, on how thick they are” does not leave much opportunity to put serious weight on these contextual parameters.

I’ll quote a bit from my second-to-last comment as well, since in it I brought up the points I’m making here about charity.  In particular, I mention that a listener who is charitable to a speaker in one way may have to think ill of that speaker in another way:

@Peggy: “Keith M Ellis: “The whole point of dog-whistle racism is its deniability.” The whole point of accusations of dog-whistle racism is their unfalsifiability.” That’s going a bit far, surely. One ought to be charitable to people with whom one disagrees; one form of charity is to assume that when a logically defective argument can be made valid by the addition of an unspoken premise, the speaker has omitted the simplest possible premise that can achieve that result. So, suppose I ask you “Are the sidewalks wet?” and you reply, “They must be- it’s raining.” You’ve then made an argument that could be presented thus: (Premise) It’s raining. (Conclusion) The sidewalks are wet. By itself, this argument is invalid. The simplest way to make it valid is to add, as a second premise, “If it’s raining, the sidewalks are wet.” It would be an uncharitable listener who refused to make so small a cognitive leap in the course of a conversation.

Likewise, if one were to encounter an invalid argument that could most readily be made logically valid by the addition of a racist idea as an additional premise, it would be charitable to consider the possibility that the person making the argument has simply omitted that premise. I could mention some newspaper columnists who in fact do precisely that on a regular basis.

I’d extend that maxim of charity beyond the logical structure of arguments to the emotional response people exhibit to various stimuli. If, for example, Parker were usually happy when she was required to share a confined space with white people repeatedly shouting obscenities, but unhappy when an African American did the same thing, and she spoke as if no explanation was necessary for this difference in reaction, then charity to Parker would warrant the assumption that she was right, that the reason for the difference was in fact so simple that anyone could find it without an explanation. Charity to such a speaker might lead us to suspect the speaker of race prejudice.

Again, the column under consideration obviously does not meet this description. However, it is far from rare for people to exhibit emotional reactions to stories about misbehavior among African Americans that are not only grossly disproportional to the reactions the same people exhibit when they have heard similar stories about people of other ethnic backgrounds, but which also kick in long before any evidence is presented showing that the stories are even true. When that happens, it is neither irresponsible nor unfalsifiable to claim that racism is at work.

The more I thought about this exchange, the stranger it seemed to me that someone as learned as Professor Nunberg could take Parker to task for seeing a threat in a situation where she was confined in an elevator with a stranger.  Granted, the idea that this represented a threat to civility in general is a bit underargued, but once one describes the situation it is hard to see what need there is to attribute Parker’s anger to racial prejudice.  Yet shortly after, I noticed a news item describing an equally distinguished academic replicating Professor Nunberg’s behavior with some precision.

Evidently there is a woman named Rebeca Watson who writes a blog that is popular among atheists and other irreligious folk.  In June, Watson attended a conference at which her fans were well represented.  Very late on one of the nights of this conference, Watson found herself alone in an elevator with one of these fans, a man who made an awkward pass at her.  Watson declined the man’s offer, and said on her blog that it made her uncomfortable.  She gave it as an example of the wrong way for a man to approach a woman.

That, one would think, would be that.  Were one to think so, one would be reckoning without Richard Dawkins.  Professor Dawkins took it upon himself to post the following, as comment #75 in a thread on P. Z. Myers’ blog:

Dear Muslima

Stop whining, will you. Yes, yes, I know you had your genitals mutilated with a razor blade, and . . . yawn . . . don’t tell me yet again, I know you aren’t allowed to drive a car, and you can’t leave the house without a male relative, and your husband is allowed to beat you, and you’ll be stoned to death if you commit adultery. But stop whining, will you. Think of the suffering your poor American sisters have to put up with.

Only this week I heard of one, she calls herself Skep”chick”, and do you know what happened to her? A man in a hotel elevator invited her back to his room for coffee. I am not exaggerating. He really did. He invited her back to his room for coffee. Of course she said no, and of course he didn’t lay a finger on her, but even so . . .

And you, Muslima, think you have misogyny to complain about! For goodness sake grow up, or at least grow a thicker skin.


First, I would point out that Professor Dawkins has far more demands on his time than I do, so the fact that he would enter such a discussion shows that he uses his time even more foolishly than I do. In fact, even before the rise of the internet, Dawkins used to send unsolicited mail to people containing precisely these sorts of gratuitous insults.  Some years ago, I read a magazine profile of a Harvard graduate who became a spokesman for Creationism.  One day he opened his mail to find a letter from Richard Dawkins, whom he had never met, telling him that he was either an idiot or a villain, more likely a villain.  I can’t recall the man’s name, since I’d never heard of him before or since.  But for some reason Richard Dawkins wanted to send him hate mail.

Second, if Dawkins were as obscure a figure as am I, his remark would have been forgotten the moment comment #83 appeared in the same thread, from “Forbidden Snowflake”:

Dear Richard,

What right have you to bemoan the teaching of creationism in your country while people are dying of malaria in West Africa?
Seriously, this “you have no right to complain about your problems as long as there are bigger problems somewhere in the Universe” is nothing but a silencing tactic.

But of course Professor Dawkins is world-famous.  And he tried to defend his remark, making it much worse, and again, making it still worse.  So, there’s been a great deal of controversy.

Professor Dawkins’ invocation of Muslim women who live in countries where genital mutilation is practiced and severe form of Islamic law obtain might be expected to trigger anger from readers who identify with Rebecca Watson and assume that the professor is sharing information which he assumes to be relevant.  If one were charitable to him, assuming that he was so competent a communicator that the relevance of the information to Watson’s post is likely easy to find, the premise one might supply would be that Watson is self-centered and unconcerned with the sufferings of such women.

Unsurprisingly, Watson’s defenders have responded in kind.  Gawker quotes blogger Jen McCreight:

[It] makes me want to cry a little when you live up to the stereotype of a well-off, 70 year old, white, British, ivory tower academic. But let me spell it out for you instead of just getting mad (though I’ll do that too):

Words matter. You don’t get that because you’ve never been called a cunt, a faggot, a nigger, a kike. You don’t have people constantly explaining that you’re subhuman, or have the intellect of an animal. You don’t have people saying you shouldn’t have rights. You don’t have people constantly sexually harassing you. You don’t live in fear of rape, knowing that one wrong misinterpretation of a couple words could lead down that road.

Gawker quotes Watson’s expansion on McCreight’s remarks, then asking: “Can it really be that Dawkins has never been exposed to insults as odious as the ones mentioned by Ms. McCreight? As a jump-starter of the modern atheist revival, doesn’t Dawkins probably get a lot more threatening hate mail than all of his critics combined?” Considering that he’s a man who lives in the UK, I’d be willing to stake any amount of money on the proposition that Professor Dawkins has been called a “cunt” quite a few times  in his life, and considering the amount of hate mail he gets I suspect that he’s been on the receiving end of the other words and claims frequently as well.  Of course, words that have an association with a specific group wouldn’t have the same force when applied to someone outside that group, so Professor Dawkins is no contender for the title of Most Aggrieved.  McCreight’s choice of words is still unfortunate, however.

At any rate, surely this whole matter calls for charitable reading.  Only by dint of a most uncharitable reading of Watson’s original remarks could Professor Dawkins have thought it was appropriate to come at her in the way he did.  A charitable reading of Dawkins’ words would not leave him looking at all good, but might have kept his critics from responding in anger when pity would have been not only more suited to the quality of his thought in this matter, but also more likely to inspire in him some feeling of embarrassment.

*Hairless stick figures in xkcd often turn out to be male, hairless ones female.  Also, author Randall Munroe uses the first person singular to refer to Hairless in this strip, so I’m assuming it represents him.

**Some early examples of these studies are mentioned in Mary Louise Pratt, “Ideology and Speech Act Theory,” Poetics Today, vol. 7 no 1 (1986,) pages 64-65.

***She in fact was.  I’d forgotten the relevant bit of Parker’s original column and was distracted by a side discussion in the thread about other properties of the tea party guest.

Pie charts and bar graphs

For some reason, hundreds of people looked at this old post of mine one day a couple of weeks ago.  It consists almost entirely of this image, borrowed from

I have no idea what drew so much traffic to this item, but evidently the joke resonates with the Zeitgeist.  Here’s the latest Partially Clips:

These may remind you of an xkcd from last year that consisted of self-referential charts and graphs, or of this joke.

“The economic argument”

Last week there was an xkcd strip that bothered me for three reasons.  Here’s the strip:

Two of the three things that bothered me about it were raised in this comment in the forum, more forcefully than I likely would have done.  So I’ll take the liberty of quoting “woodrobin”:

1. Dowsing is used by oil prospectors, as well as people looking for places to dig water wells. Less often these days, but it’s still used. Does that mean it works? No. Does people not using it mean it doesn’t work? No. Very few people use horses to pull plows, except the Amish and people in developing countries. Does that mean that horses can’t pull plows?

2. Health care cost reduction. That was funnier, taken seriously, than the original joke. When was the last time you ran into a doctor, hospital or insurance company that was interested in cost reduction through treatment? Any treatment, scientific or otherwise? Doctors and hospitals want to make money, and insurance companies have figured out it’s easier to save money by denying coverage for treatment, either in whole by canceling coverage, or in part by excluding anything “experimental” or “unproven.” In other words, it’s cheaper to exclude entire types of health care than to consider or cover them, whether or not they’re quackery notwithstanding.

“woodrobin” goes on to make two more points, about irrational practices that are in fact quite common in financial planning and military operations.

I would add one thing to woodrobin’s point 1, that people who defend dowsing usually claim only that it is a good way of finding water that is near the surface.  Most oil prospecting these days is concerned with deposits that are deep underground, so no method of shallow surveying is going to “make a killing” for anyone in that area.

My third objection hinges on the word “eventually” in the caption.  In the long run, the caption seems to say, market competition tends to eliminate irrational practices.  That may well be true.  However, that long run can be very long indeed, and in the interval those irrational practices can be reinforced by any of a wide variety of social forces.

Moreover, the rationality that competitive markets enforce is not the rationality Plato talked about in The Republic, not a single process that must culminate in a vision of unmixed truth and untainted justice.  Rather, it is the rationality Max Weber had in mind when he said that modern society traps its members in an “iron cage of rationality.”  Economic agents respond to the incentives of the market and develop ever more efficient ways of meeting the demands of other economic agents who have purchasing power.  Whether those demands accord with the sort of truth and justice Plato hoped to discover has nothing to do with it.  The mouseover text on this strip reads “Not to be confused with ‘selling this stuff to OTHER people who think it works,’ which corporate accountants and actuaries have zero problems with.”  The distinction between making a killing selling financial advice based on astrology to suckers who think astrology works and making a killing selling financial advice based on astrology because astrology really works may have made perfect sense to Plato, but it seems awfully tenuous from the viewpoint of someone like Weber.


Funny Times, May 2010

It’s always been my habit to go to ground during the summers, so it isn’t much of a surprise that I’ve fallen behind in my “Periodicals Notes.”  Not that anyone has complained, but I’ll be catching up a bit over the next few days.  First up is May’s Funny Times

There’s an installment of Lloyd Dangle’s Troubletown that I thought was hilarious when it first appeared back in February.  It’s about the political movement known as the “teabaggers,” Americans of a rightward bent who have been vocal about their opposition to the Obama administration.  Dangle is mystified that the teabaggers have been the object of so much publicity.  My favorite line from the comic is “600 people showed up for their convention.  That’s almost as many as the Sheboygan High School science fair!” 

Matt Bors has a good comic about privacy, I was reminded of it by this recent xkcd

Jon Winokur’s “Curmudgeon” compiles quotes about money, including this from Brigid Brophy: “Whenever people say, ‘We mustn’t be sentimental,’ you can take it they are about to do something cruel.  And if they add, ‘We must be realistic,’ they mean they are going to make money out of it.”  Not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, but she does have a point.  So did Mary Gordon, when she wrote: “The use of money is the purest act of faith; no anchorite who has followed a vision into the desert has acted on an idea as far-fetched as our belief that if we put a dollar in a machine we will be drinking a Diet Coke in a minute.”  Andrea Dworkin is a name you don’t expect to encounter in a humor column, but she’s here: “Money talks, but it speaks with a male voice.”  Given Dworkin’s personal history as a woman who was once forced into sex work to escape an abusive partner, I can’t imagine laughing at that line, but I can certainly take it seriously.

Some would say that laughter is the ultimate form of seriousness.  If so, Dave Maleckar’s “Hundred Word Rant” may have hit on a way to take sex work seriously.  Arguing that people who like to cook should not open restaurants, he concludes thus: “You probably like sex, too.  You may be very good at it.  That doesn’t mean you should start doing it for money.”