Halfwit on Blogs

This is my commentary on other people's stuff -- particularly blogs of people I know. Every post title should be a link to the blog I'm commenting about.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Banning the Niqab/Burqa (full face veil)

Banning the Niqab/Burqa (full face veil)

Of course, having an exposed face for an ID photo implies that whoever's supposed to check your ID can insist you expose your face for them to do the check. Depending on the details, this could be more onerous than it sounds. Can the woman be refused service at a college cafeteria if she doesn't unveil to the person swiping meal cards?

I'm not seriously arguing against the idea here -- I think it's perfectly reasonable for legally required IDs to actually function - which means you can show the ID, and the viewer can confirm that you're the person who should have that ID.

But it occurs to me that it's not a terrifically unreasonable thing to accommodate. It's not overwhelmingly onerous to check identity by other means. For example, the ID card could have her signature, and an officer could ask her to sign something to compare with. Or the ID card could have her fingerprint. Or a retinal scan. Or a voiceprint.

You get my point -- it's not necessarily an unreasonable burden to accommodate someone's chosen public appearance. And religion totally aside, I rather feel like if I really want to walk around dressed like a masked super hero, I should be able to. Who's it harm?

Now, wearing something to obscure your appearance while committing a crime (to avoid getting caught) is a different thing (and I wouldn't get all up in arms if such an activity caused the crime to be viewed more harshly), but I think that's not a serious consideration in this particular case. (Unlike the Ku Klux Klan masks.)

I do like LTG's thought about which trumps which -- freedom of speech vs. freedom of religion. It's not ultra-clear to me that they conflict with each other so much, or at least not in a unique way. But perhaps that's because as a non-lawyer, I don't know what freedom of religion really implies beyond "you're free to conduct yourself as you (or your religion) dictate, so long as it doesn't impinge on anyone else's rights, such as their rights of expression, religion, property, etc." (I feel like this is something that law students must go over in some introductory constitutional law course.)

It therefore seems to me that most "freedom of religion" conflicts are between an individual or small group's practice (e.g. praying five times a day, smoking peyote, not saying the pledge of allegiance) and an institution's need for conformity. And the gist of freedom of religion is that, if the conformity isn't required to preserve the rights of society at large, the religious practicer wins. In other words, religious practices should be accommodated where possible, even when they're not yours and you don't understand them.

(Somewhat luckily, the establishment clause might be interpreted to defend lack of religion -- someone _not_ practicing a religion should be accommodated as well, in their "right not to practice religion", if you will. I am sympathetic to that right, and frustrated when a sort of ecumenical "we all worship the same god really, just in different ways" notion is invoked to demand _some_ religious expression from everyone, or excuse some suitably genericized institutional religion.)

Freedom of speech/expression seems to fall along much the same lines -- the right of the individual pressured to conform trumps the conveniences of social "harmony", excepting fundamental unravellings of society (e.g. libel, "Fire!" in a crowded theater).

So when might the two come in direct conflict? The only way I can come up with is an artificial notion of religious practice, like "my religion requires of me that I not expose myself to the utterances of women". I'm reasonably sure that such "rights of avoidance" don't hold up as a general principle (fundamentally, they are too much like "it's inconvenient for me to suffer the expression of others"), although I could be wrong. (And specific cases, like obscenity, seem to undermine my view.)

[I should add the caveat that the right to avoid things is often upheld on its own -- you're allowed to live like a hermit, be a conscientious objector, go to a private club that doesn't allow women, etc. But when that desire to avoid things comes into conflict with someone's desire to express that same thing _in a public forum_, the two parties conflict. That is the situation where the "right to avoid" loses to the right to express.]

Friday, January 15, 2010

Comment on Alyssa Rosenberg: Leather & Lace

  • tags: no_tag

    • I absolutely agree with you that the super-powers naturally represent empowerment, and give license for a woman to dress however she wants.

      I think the issue is how often writers create characters who want to dress in thongs, and incidentally are 6 foot tall, blonde, and improbably proportioned.

      Where's the women in giant mechanical robo-suits? Where's the butch, pear-shaped tough grrls? Where, even, are the nudists for whom leather/lycra/latex feels artificial?

      Like many such cases, I don't think this is a universal complaint (I'm sure many people can name comic book characters in each of the categories above), as much as an issue of proportion (of current super-heroine population) and evolution of longstanding characters.

      I think some characters feel like their (super-)empowerment leads naturally to their liberated sexiness, and others feel like their outfit is dissociated from and enervates their power. Their is a fine line between the postmodern trend of acknowledging the fictional nature of the story and sacrificing the character for fan service. The line seems to be crossed more and more lately.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Comment on Betsy Braddock--Porn Star - Ta-Nehisi Coates

  • tags: no_tag

    • There are threads to this conversation that totally resonate with me: characters you love being re-created as hoochie-mamas is both common and horrible (right up there with characters you love being killed off to prove someone's "edginess"). And, to a large extent, the babes are just gettin' babe-ier, and it's worse than it used to be.

      For me, the issue passed from "it's just the nature of the business" to "wait, this actually feels ooky" when Warbird's suit was drawn so thongy. I mean, she's the first feminist superhero! :)

      But there's another thread that seems to focus on comics, or geekdom, as the source of this upswelling (or swelling up). I think this ignores the broader trend of pornstar-ness becoming the norm in pop culture in general. I saw a woman leaving Target in tights and thigh-high boots the other day.

      TV, movies, fashion; there's a trend of impossible proportions and improbable exposure. Nerd-dom contains many fantasies of the feminine, from Trinity's (and Batwoman's) decidedly un-stiletto boots and narrower silhouette to Olivia Dunham's (and Jessica Jones's) cool strength to Pam Beesly's smile, as well as the fetish-gear cheesecake we've been talking about. Although she wore some pretty provocative costumes, Jennifer Garner won over the fans of (the TV) Alias precisely because of all the ways she ISN'T like Pamela Anderson.

      I'm not saying it's ok. I'm not saying it's less common than you make out. I'm saying the opposite. I'm saying it IS a problem, and it's EVERYWHERE.

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Regarding probability study posted on TheCitizens

Yow. I ignore the comments for weeks, and three or four interesting topics come up.

A) you may be interested in the Iowa Gambling Task experiments, one observation of which is (I'm paraphrasing here, so read some real research if you want to see what the studies really claim) that people can develop a sense of a probability from a smallish sample, _before_ they consciously recognize that they have such a sense. (Paraphrase 2: drawing from a deck of possible rewards/penalties, someone will start reacting negatively to a "bad" deck before they consciously decide it's a "bad" deck.)

B) [not actually chronological] LTG says "I am surprised any mathematician on this blog would expect children to have an intuitive grasp of probability. Adults sure don't...It is well known...that individuals tend...to treat a 99,999 to 1 chance...differently from...a 1 in 100,000 chance..."

This, and I really do not mean to offend, is because you are not a mathematician, particularly not a mathematician who has to teach non-mathematicians.

Mathematicians (especially in education) think about what is and isn't intuitive mathematics a great deal, because what _seems_ intuitive to us is clearly not to our students. And one big idea that's come out of this is the impetus to connect the language and structure of mathematics to the structures and intuition that "normal" people already have, rather than treat math as abstract and foreign.

So we talk about "number sense" and "proportional reasoning" and "intuitive probability" and part of what we mean is a non-linguistic concept of those things. The theory is that people have a sense of probability, both in the cases of extremely rare events and relatively common events, but:
a) your intuition can be misled, and a high-level, abstract argument lacks potency (e.g., because you've heard about miraculous recoveries from coma, your intuition is that is a reasonably likely event, and a doctor telling you it's a one in a million chance doesn't dissuade you.)
b) it is difficult to connect your intuition, in the many cases when it is right, to the abstract claims of probability, if they're couched in examples not relevant to your experience or in language you don't have other intuitive connections with (most people troubled by the Monty Hall problem didn't watch episode after episode of Let's Make a Deal; most people have never thought of what "1 in 100,000" means, in any concrete way, and usually don't have a reason to.)

Thus, while mathematicians cannot help but see that most adults' sense of probability is _solely_ intuitive, and unconnected to any attempts at probabilistic abstraction or language, and (therefore?) usually lacks _nuance_, we cling to the belief (well justified, really) that there is in fact an intuition there.

(I should point out that numbers are themselves language, as I'm using the phrase. I doubt that caused any confusion, but you can never be too careful on the interweb.)

C) I took Pombat's examples to just be illustrations of the way probabilities are bandied about in misleading ways, and not a claim about DNA evidence per se. For more examples of this and other grievous misquantification, John Allen Paulos' Innumeracy (and/or A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper) are excellent reading.

D) RbR's argument (and I know I shouldn't say this, but I just can't help it, so please forgive me) assumes facts not in evidence. A claim about the sensitivity of a forensic test is just that, independent of other factors. If a jury is deciding guilt or innocence, they are (or should be) weighing all the factors RbR suggests (which surely the prosecution would present) in their "reasonable doubt" analysis. But those other factors don't affect the accuracy of the test.

RbR's description also bears some resemblance to an example in Innumeracy, about a case in Los Angeles in 1964. (I'm not saying RbR is guilty of the probabilistic fallacy in that case, just that his description is similar to the set-up for the fallacy, and the story is a fun one, so I'm going to relate it.) Brutally summarized, the argument was: a pair of lawbreakers were seen with several "distinguishing characteristics" (blonde with pony tail with black man with beard in a yellow car). The defendants matched those characteristics. In this case, there was nothing else linking the defendants to the crime, but surely the chances that a couple would match all those characteristics were so small that this must be the couple in question, right?

So it was decided. Until the appeal, in which the defense pointed out that the relevant probability was not whether a couple would have those characteristics, but rather whether, out of the ~2M couples in LA, there was _another_ couple with those characteristics. (The probability that there was one such couple was actually a certainty, since the defendants were living proof.)

It turns out (and no one would suggest that this is intuitive) the likelihood of another such couple (given the prosecution's estimate of the relevant probabilities) is about 8%, which provided reasonable enough doubt for the California supreme court
to overturn the original verdict.

E) If anyone wants to talk more about math, probability, and math education, I'm very keen on it -- you could say it's my job. Email me!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Monday, June 29, 2009

Bipartisanship should be an effect, not a cause

Apparently, Congress and pundits favor "bipartisan" legislation, that is, bills you can get members of both parties to sign on to. Rhetorically I ask, but why? Surely we can all dispense with the naïve notion that the best solution, or the one most desired by the people, lies at the mean between the party positions. There are at least three reasons off the top of my head proving the preposterousness of that notion, and you can probably come up with more than me.

Really, bipartisanship is supposed to be a reflection of the value of a bill. The bill's not good because it's bipartisan; rather, the bill's inherently good, so good that people want to publicly support it, even if it's not what their party came up with. A bill might be bipartisan because a priori it's good.

Lack of bipartisanship is generally framed as a negative for the bill's originator: "Obama has failed to deliver on the promise of bipartisanship for his agenda." But there's a perfectly good converse view. If a bill's good, or popular -- the health care public option, for example -- opponents of the bill would be right to fear the lack of bipartisanship. If they're too dumb or stubborn to back what's good, then they're useless to their constituents.

An agenda setter should put good legislation out there, with no compromises solely to garner support from across the aisle. If it's good enough, and popular enough, then all the Congresscritters in vulnerable seats are under pressure to back it. Bipartisanship is an indicator that the bill was good in the first place; but it is only a correlated side-effect, not a necessary (or sufficient) condition for good legislation.

Monday, June 22, 2009

TNC cannot stop talking about slavery

If you read only 200 things Ta-Nehisi Coates writes this year, this should be one of them. Also, you will only have read about a fifth of the great stuff he writes.

Insightful, as always, but I don't think TNC is quite right here. Or perhaps he is overall, but some nuance is in order.

Specifically, I think there's a historical line that goes like TNC says "We tend to think", namely that slavery was kind of this regrettable cruelty that the world in general was tolerant of, until we got civilized and disavowed it.

But there is at least an acknowledgment, in the historical line I was taught, that America (like always) was exceptional. That line says, what with the explosion of cotton (which Eli Whitney's invention contributed to), the economy of the South became completely dependent on slavery as an economic fuel, kind of like we talk about being dependent on oil today. And that dependence shifted the culture, both toward a vigorous defense of the economic interests in slavery and toward dehumanization of slaves on a scale and to a degree beyond whatever the barbaric practices of yesteryear had been.

But that's just my impression from my history classes. I'm not sure there's a shared "American" conventional point of view on this.

Where I feel TNC has it right is that "we have never grappled with this," `this' being that most of the culture of America is formed from the fractious and unresolved shards that remain from centuries of dehumanizing black people, and the struggles both violent and nonviolent to erode and destroy them.

Again, referring to my own education, the mythology of America is the "melting pot" notion of disparate cultures coming together and peacefully sharing the opportunities of a new land. But this, it seems to me, is a gloss, a "and they all lived happily ever after" resolution of the unresolved issue that defines America. We (which of course is not really "we", since we weren't there, but the imagined "we" of this country) invented a new kind of racism, and have never been able to put that dire genie back into the bottle.

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Thursday, May 28, 2009


Regarding this:

I worry a little bit that enough research has been done about this:

Storm could irrigate the crops of all the suffering farmers in the midwest and California when the droughts of summer are destroying their crops.

I don't follow X-Men religiously anymore, and they sneak things like Spidey's organic webbing past me, so this may have changed, but historically (i.e., in the 80's-90's) it was explicitly established that Storm moves humidity around, but doesn't create it. If she irrigates the midwest, she does it by exacerbating the drought in California. In fact, she was essentially doing this as a local rain goddess when Prof. X recruited her.

My geeky trivium aside, I think it's weird when people complain about an amusing theoretical like this as being tired, overdone, or silly. Superheroes are cartoons -- superhero economics is a cartoon of economics. Most of us aren't economists, and thinking through simplified illustrations (including their shortcomings) makes key concepts clearer. Also, it's fun.