Thursday, August 11, 2005

TV Confessions

I got sucked into the new season of 24; I hope I'm not the only one. Even if you haven't been following 24, you might have come across the associated advertisement that Channel 7 has been running: the one where Kiefer Sutherland, on behalf of the show's producers, reminds the great TV audience that American muslims are right behind the war on terrorism.

I haven't seen too much comment on the ads, apart from some fairly predictable comments in the Age Green Guide along the usual lines - "it's all too silly for words." That's not an opinion I share; I think the ad is inadequate and there are quite a few more announcements I'd like to see the put to air. Here's one that ought to have preceded most of the episodes I've seen so far:

"Tonight's episode of 24 features scenes depicting the successful use of torture to extract information from unco-operative subjects. The producers of 24 would like to remind viewers that no reputable authorities regard the use of torture as an effective means of obtaining truthful information. Our writers were just too lazy to come up with anything better."

Things to Come

If you're looking for indications of how liberal democracy, Australian style, is going to shape up once the coalition has whipped the dissidents, sorry political terrorists, within its ranks into line, you could do worse than to take a look at this report from Monday's Age and SMH:

Companies and individuals should be able to secretly donate up to $10,000 to political parties, says a Liberal Party federal director.

The Liberal Party wants the threshold at which political donations must be publicly disclosed lifted from $1,500 to $10,000 - and for more donations to be made tax deductible.

... Brian Loughnane says it's time the threshold was lifted to a level similar to the STG5,000 ($A11,600) allowed in Britain and $NZ10,000 ($A9,000) in New Zealand.

"It's been over 20 years since the threshold for disclosure of political donations was first introduced at $1,000. It's 13 years since this was lifted to $1,500," Mr Loughnane told a parliamentary inquiry into the 2004 election.

"Obviously the current $1,500 has been eroded by inflation and in our view that was way too low anyway."


Mr Loughnane said it was ridiculous to assume that someone donating $10,000 or less was trying to buy influence, when most were simply paying to attend party functions.

Their privacy should be protected, he said.

"The fact that somebody attends a political function of itself I don't believe requires public disclosure," Mr Loughnane said.

"I think people are entitled to participate in the activities of political parties but have an element of privacy."


... Mr Loughnane said the current disclosure provisions worked well, with the exception of the actual limit.

"If the threshold level was raised to $10,000, based on last year, 88 per cent of donations would still be publicly declared," he said.

"At a point where 88 per cent of all donations are disclosed, we believe there is still a very very transparent funding system in Australia."

I can't remember ever paying much more than about twenty bucks to attend a political party function - usually a local ALP Branch fund-raising barbie (salads provided, BYO everything else unless you want to find yourself eating standard industrial BBQ Snags washed down with cask red) or the ever popular quiz-night. On top of the admission you might find yourself shelling out an extra couple of bucks to be in the draw for an autographed copy of the recently-remaindered memoirs of a former local mayor, usually described as "a valuable contribution to Labor history which provides a fascinating, insiders' view of the machinations of local politics." All up, I'd be pushed to shell out even $100 a year on political party donations. To get to $10,000, I'd have to attend 500, if you ignore buying the occasional token ticket in a raffle you have no desire to win. Somebody's running some pretty swank party fundraisers out there, aren't they?

I'm no big fan of the "nothing to hide, nothing to fear" argument but I remain a little bemused by Loughnane's concern for the privacy of closet supporters of political parties. Not his own party, I'm sure - in the current political climate I can't see any reason for people to feel that attending a Liberal Party function has to be done as furtively as paying a visit to the Daily Planet. It's obviously ALP, Democrat and Greens supporters he has in mind; people who might find themselves embarassed socially or have their careers jeopardised if it became widely known that they didn't have the nous to get on the side of the conservative ascendancy. Perish the thought that Mr Loughnane's position has anything to do with the inconvenience of collecting a lot of untraceable used bills, finding a brown paper bag big enough to hold them all and then organising a discreet rendezvous where the whole parcel can be passed over.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Science of Nitpicking (2)

(Introducing BS-95 and BS-99)

Last Wednesday, in the first post in this series, I introduced a simple test of whether an op-ed article was a complete piece of bullshit. Basically, if , starting at the beginning of the article, you come across five bullshit statements or arguments in a row you can write the article off as complete bullshit with the statistician's much beloved 95% confidence. Seven in a row takes you to 99% confidence.

Over the past few days I've been looking to try this test out on a promising candidate and, via EP in a comment at Larvatus Prodeo, I got onto Pamela Bone's impassioned piece in Monday's Age. The opening paragraph looked promising:

Feminist debate here - what little of it there is - seems to be mainly about whether Big Brother is empowering to or patronising of young women. Many of the same young women would rather die (metaphorically speaking) than own the title of feminist.

What are the claims made in this paragraph?
  • There's not a lot of feminist debate here;

  • The debate that there is seems to be mainly about Big Brother

  • Many young women don't want to be identified as feminists.

That's three candidates for the status of bullshit claim packed into two sentences. If you want to go to the implied subtext - that feminism in Australia has vanished up its own bum and hence, become irrelevant to the next generation of should-be-feminists, you have five claims which might all possibly be bullshit, plus the questionable argumentative technique of letting the sub-text do all the work.

So, you could be 95% confident that this article is complete bullshit if you could demonstrate that:
  • There's a lot more feminist debate around than Pamela Bone has noticed;

  • Very little of it is in fact about Big Brother

  • At least as many young women are willing to identify as feminists as those who don't;

  • Feminism hasn't vanished up its own bum;

  • Feminism is still relevant, here and now.

Unfortunately, that demands a little more knowledge of the current state of feminism in Australia than I can claim. So, although I'm inclined to count the three explicit claims of the first paragraph as bullshit, it's necessary to read on a little before I can claim the five in a row I need before I'm entitled to dismiss it out of hand and move on to more informative reading.

In other places women are dying, literally, for the feminist cause. Did Western feminists in the 1970s - so silent these days! - think they had it hard? They had to put up with scorn and ridicule from the media and hostility from conservatives who said they were out to destroy the family. But no one, so far as I can remember, was murdered.

A few examples, of many, of what women in some countries are up against: in northern Afghanistan in May, three women workers at a microcredit organisation (which gives loans to women to start up small businesses) were stoned to death by warlords; in India, a woman social worker in Madhya Pradesh state had her hands chopped off by a man furious because she was counselling villagers against child marriage.

Well, that pretty much buggered things up; after a neat little segue in the second paragraph, we get some reported fact, and the simple "five specious claims in a row" test is out the window.

It's for situations such as this that I've devised the BS-95/BS-99 scoring system. It works like this:
  • Count all the questionable assertions of fact, possible errors of argument etc in the article;

  • Nitpick away at them and count all the errors;

  • Consult the BS-95/BS-99 scoring table (Table 1) to determine how confident you can be that the article is complete bullshit.
Table 1: BS-95 and BS-99
No. of Questionable Assertions/InferencesBS-95BS-99

It's probably appropriate to slip in a few words here on the BS-95/BS-99 table. It's the product of a couple of hours of futzing around with a spreadsheet of cumulative binomial probabilities. Assuming that any claim I question has at most a 50% probability of being true (the nominally unbiased position), I calculated the probabilities that, in an article with five substantive claims I could refute at least one of them, at least two and so on. BS-95 represents the number of claims you need to refute to be 95% certain that you're reading (or have just read) a piece of complete bullshit. BS-99 represents the number of refuted claims which entitles you to claim 99% certainty. It's in the nature of the test that you can't claim 100% certainty and that's the way it should be. So there.

As you can see from the table, there's no point trying for a BS-95 if you have fewer than 5 questionable claims to deal with and BS-99 doesn't work below 6. Now let's see if we can apply BS-95 to Pamela Bone's article. A promising place to start is here:

A YouGov poll published in London's Daily Telegraph last month found that 32 per cent of British Muslims believed that "Western society is decadent and immoral and that Muslims should seek to bring it to an end". But men were far more likely than women to say this.

Here's the question that was actually put to the poll respondents:

Which of these views comes closest to your own?
  • Western society is decadent and immoral,and Muslims should seek to bring it to an end, if necessary by violence 1%

  • Western society is decadent and immoral,and Muslims should seek to bring it to an end, but only by NON-VIOLENT means 31%

  • Western society may not be perfect,but Muslims should live with it and not seek to bring it to an end 56%

  • Don't know 11%
So, Bone's claim that 32% of British Muslims want to bring decadent, immoral Western society to an end appears to be supported by the poll results: as long as you're prepared to lump the 31% who believe that this should happen by non-violent means in with the much smaller number (1% or roughly five and a quarter respondents out of a total of 526 (unweighted) or 527 (weighted). It's possible that this little detail got lost at the subbies' desk but the end result is patently inaccurate and misleading in a rather alarmist way. Are men "far more likely than women" to hold this view? On that score, the YouGov report (PDF) of the poll results is silent. All we have to go on is the Daily Telegraph report:

Among those who hold this view, almost all go on to say that Muslims should only seek to bring about change by non-violent means but one per cent, about 16,000 individuals, declare themselves willing, possibly even eager, to embrace violence.

Yet again, far more men than women and far more young people than their elders evince this kind of hostility towards the world around them.

You might wonder how 1% of a 527 respondent polling sample can have 16,000 members. The answer is simple; in his report of the poll results the Telegraph's Anthony King is freely projecting the percentages to the Muslim population as a whole. It's a pretty sloppy article, and worthy of a BS-95 check in its own right. Back to Bone, in The Age:

As well, the proportion of Muslim men who said they felt no loyalty to Britain (18 per cent) was more than three times higher than the proportion of women who said the same.

Once again, here are the poll questions:

Turning now to wider issues,how loyal do you think most Muslims living in Britain feel towards Britain?
  • Very loyal 28%

  • Fairly loyal 48%

  • Not very loyal 10%

  • Not at all loyal 8%

  • Don't know 6%
How loyal would you say you personally feel towards Britain?
  • Very loyal 46%

  • Fairly loyal 33%

  • Not very loyal 6%

  • Not at all loyal 10%

  • Don't know 4%

[emphasis added]

Here's the Telegraph report:

... YouGov asked respondents how loyal they feel towards Britain. As the figures ... show, the great majority say they feel "very loyal" (46 per cent) or "fairly loyal" (33 per cent) but nearly one British Muslim in five, 18 per cent, feels little loyalty towards this country or none at all.

If these findings are accurate, and they probably are, well over 100,000 British Muslims feel no loyalty whatsoever towards this country.

The proportion of men who say they feel no loyalty to Britain is more than three times the proportion of women saying the same.

Whoa, Hold on there! Where did that 18% total of people who feel little or no loyalty come from? In the second question, where respondents are asked about their own loyalties, as distinct from assessing the loyalty of others there are 6% of respondents who are not very loyal and 10% who are not loyal at all; that's a total of 16% over the two categories, not 18%. The 18% figure appears to come from adding up the not very loyal/not at all loyal percentages for the previous question where respondents weren't asked about their own feelings of loyalty, but how loyal they reckoned everyone else was. It's like conducting a poll on stupidity and inferring that most people think they are stupid, based on their responses to a question something like this:

Which of these views comes closet to your own:
  • Most people are stupid;

  • A lot of people are stupid;

  • Some people are stupid;

  • Few people are stupid;

  • Don't know.

Note too, that in the Telegraph report, there's no mention of how many Muslim men say that they feel no loyalty to Britain. But somehow, when it gets to Bone's turn in this little game of Chinese whispers, we have a definite figure: it's that wandering 18% again.

Now, the results so far:

Claim: 32% of British Muslims want to bring decadent, immoral Western society

Misrepresentation. Firstly, it's 32 percent of the poll respondents and extrapolation to the general population of British Muslims has to be approached with caution. It ignores the distinction between respondents who want it done peacefully and the much smaller number who are prepared to contemplate violent means. Verdict: bullshit. Count it towards the BS-95 score.

Claim: men were far more likely than women to want this.

Questionable, but not refuted on the available information. So it can't be counted towards the BS-95 score.

Claim: 18% of Muslim men said they felt no loyalty to Britain.
On the available information, this is bullshit, so we count it towards the BS-95 score.

Claim: That 18% of men was more than 3 times as high as the percentage of women who felt no loyalty to Britain.

Questionable, but not refuted on the available information. So it can't be counted towards the BS-95 score.

Blimey, this is getting to be a long piece isn't it? And we haven't even got the count of all questionable assertions and arguments in yet. So much for the idea of coming up with a quick, simple way to rate the bullshit content of an op-ed piece. On the other hand, I may have inadvertently stumbled on a scrupulously thorough and fair way to do it. It's bloody tedious, though. Right now, I think I'll take a break and come back to this after I've had time for some sleep.

Update (Thursday, 11 August): Anthony King, referred to above as "the Telegraph's Anthony King is professor of government at Essex University.

After reviewing the spreadsheet of binomial probabilities from which I derived the BS-95 and BS-99 scores, I've decided that Table 1 needs to be revised. A lot.

I'm getting well and truly sick and tired of putting in so much bloody time on what started out as not much more than a half-arsed throwaway idea.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Blaming St Anselm

I started out last Thursday morning the proud owner of two second-hand, out-of-warranty and out-of-date PCs, thinking that, with a little work, I could I could up-grunt the less obsolete of the two so that it would remain more or less serviceable until the next time I'm offered an out-of-warranty PC with bugger all resale value which I might as well have. 24 hours later I was down to one half-working PC and the realisation that it probably hadn't been a good idea to begin the job thinking "Well, this might not be a good day for making major life decisions or writing thoughful, analytical posts for the blog, but I'm probably up to a few hours of tinkering around with a Phillips' Head screwdriver."

Things started out promisingly enough. Thursday afternoon I opened up the more clapped out of the two PCs, unplugged the hard-drive and slid it into the drive bay of the new box. I then put the bay back in the box, did a bit of work with the Phillips head to secure it and transferred the cables from the existing hard drive to the newly installed one. This is pretty much the same procedure I used when I got the older machine to replace a completely dead one.

I plugged in the monitor, keyboard and mouse and turned on the power. Boot, boot, boot: up came the award BIOS, found the hard-drive and there was the GRUB boot loader telling me I had a choice of booting up Fedora Core 2 and bugger all else and if I didn't make up my mind which one within ten seconds it was going to be Fedora, like it or not. I hit the enter key, and there was some more boot, boot, boot right up to the "Checking for new hardware" message. A couple of bits of hardware had gone missing - a modem and the video card - so I discarded those and let Fedora pick up on the new stuff, like the new video card it had to deal with. All very smooth and cool, just like last time. Then it was back to the last of the boot, boot, boot.

Which all went fine, right up to the point where the PC tried to load the X-Windows GUI, couldn't find the monitor and reverted to text mode, which it was handling without any problems at all. No big drama, thinks I. Had this happen before, got it sorted in a lot less time than it took Zeppo Bakunin when he gave it a try with a Windows hard-drive because the hard-drive on his newly bought second-hand desparation clunker was completely useless. Now where are those mental notes I made on how to sort this? Uh-oh, looks like they found their way into the old cerebral round file. Oops.

No big problem; I had a command line, I could use "man" to find the answer, couldn't I? "man X" I typed and paged quickly through the output to the "See Also" section; "XProjectTeam(7x), XStandards(7x) ..." Nup, nothing promising there. Dimly, I was starting to remember that last time I'd used some program called "xsetup" or "xconfig" or something like that to set up the GUI from the command line. "locate xsetup", I commanded. Nothing. "locate xconfig", I tried. Nothing there either. How about "locate xcfg". Again nothing, except the first stirrings of an ugly, slightly panicked realisation that things weren't going all that well. For the sake of my sanity, I needed to find someone to blame, and I needed to do it quickly.

And so to bed, where I lay in the half-dark running through a list of likely suspects in my head. Single mothers perhaps? Had their malign influence somehow bollixed my new PC? Could the evil spirit of single-motherhood have somehow crept out of its usual haunts in the stews of underclass land to lay its blight on my life, just as it lays its blight on the national economy and our entire social fabric? However appealing, that notion seemed a bit of a stretch. The root of the problem was probably to be found elsewhere.

Eventually, I wrenched my mind away from this profitless train of thought to something else; Mark Bahnisch's off-hand comment at Larvatus Prodeo that St Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God

... [is] useful mainly for giving you an enormous headache in first year philosophy before you suddenly see how easy it is to refute.

There might be a post in this, I thought, once I have a working PC again and, by hook or by crook, I'd have one Friday. Even if it meant putting the Fedora hard-drive back in its old box, while I sorted the new one. Personally, I've never been convinced that refuting the ontological argument for the existence of God is quite the philosophical walkover that Mark's comment suggests. In addition, if someone trots it out in a discussion, they're unlikely to consider themselves refuted if all you have to say is something like "That's pretty much St Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God and any first year philosophy student could tell you what's wrong with it." It invites the question "Can you tell me what's wrong with it?" And there you are, in deep discourse doo-doo because of course you could, back in the days when you were a first year student cutting your philosophical teeth on St Anselm, but you've forgotten precisely how that easy refutation went.

St Anselm's argument went something like this:
  • God is the only perfect being we can imagine.

  • If God did not exist then it would be possible to imagine a being who is more perfect than God: one who is in every respect like God except that she exists and God doesn't.

  • That's pretty much a contradiction - we can't assert that God is the only perfect being imaginable and then go off imagining something more perfect so:

  • God must exist.

It's pretty clear that something has gone wrong here but it's a bugger to put your finger on what it is. So much so that the ontological argument has been repeated a few times in the history of philosophy; Descartes trotted one out and Berkeley produced an entire metaphysics which purported to show that we needed God to keep an eye on the forests so that the trees could be confident that when they fell over, they really fell over. The ontological argument is an obstinate little bugger. You think you've got it refuted and it just picks itself up and crawls away to hide in the dark for a couple of centuries. It's a philosophical cockroach.

It doesn't help that explaining what's gone wrong usually requires a discussion of the principles of logic. You can refute St Anselm's argument, to the satisfaction of logicians at least, by trying to frame it in the languge of formal logic with all those upside down As and backward Es. But that's really only a preliminary step towards explaining the error in ordinary language. And if the argument is being advanced by someone who is logic-blind - the usual case - it's a complete waste of time. They'll invoke something like "higher rationality" or run the old "Well logicians only set up the rules that way for their own convenience" line.

Soothed by the contemplation of my own brilliance, I finally slept. Friday morning I was ready to resume work, thinking "Let's get this done so that I can get the St Anselm piece written. But if things aren't working by 11:30, I'll have to stop because there's that too long neglected little bit of unpleasant personal business to take care of this afternoon."

Half an hour later, the new PC was refusing to boot completely. Bugger, bugger, bugger, bugger! No point cursing the situation; it was time to swallow the little pride I had left and go to the fallback position: put the hard-drive back in the old box.

Once that was done, in went the connections for the monitor, keyboard and mouse and I hit the power switch, confident that within a few minutes I would have a working PC again. OK, so it was the one I wanted to replace but half a loaf is better than no bread or something. Boot, boot, boot, here's GRUB so hit the enter key to bring up Fedora Core 2. Beautiful. And here's the Award BIOS again because the Linux kernel just crashed. Boot, boot, boot and let's go round again a couple more times just to confirm that things are utterly and irredeemably stuffed.

So, things looked irredeemably stuffed, eh? Why not try booting from the installation CDs, I thought. We'll get that St Anselm piece written yet. I changed the BIOS settings, fed the installation CD into the machine and away we went; whatever was wrong, it was on the hard-drive. As soon as I figured out what it was, I could fix it. But right now I'd reached the time limit of 11:30 am, so figuring it out and fixing it would have to wait until later.

It's looking a lot like cut-to-the-chase time; obviously I now have a working PC again, or you wouldn't be reading this. The too long neglected bit of personal business got done and I actually got a couple of amusing moments out of it. And sometime in the next couple of days I may feel up to taking a look at the new PC to see whether it's true that, with a little help from St Anselm and the single mothers, it's been turned into a box o' junk.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Thanks, but No Thanks

Zeppo Bakunin just brought this little item to my attention. It's from the employment pages of The Age:

Are you a team player who enjoys working within a down to earth yet highly professional team? An opportunity now exists for a passionate customer service professional to join an Australian organisation infamous for their cutting edge designs & superior service ... With your highly developed communication skills you take pride in going that extra mile and being recognised for your commitment and hard work ...

It's easy to see that an organisation whose designs and service standards have made it infamous would be crying out for good customer service people, but I find it hard to imagine that they're going to attract anyone who's actually passionate about the job. Unless perhaps, there's a passionate customer service professional out there who's thinking that maybe it's time for a sea-change and reckons a good dose of complete disillusionment might be just the thing to push them along a bit.