Saturday, August 11, 2018

Scalzi's Logical Fallacy

I'm going to take just a bit of time to illustrate for you a particularly prevalent celebrity logical fallacy.

If you're old enough, you may remember commercials like this:



"I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV..."

This is called a false appeal to authority. It's when someone presents an opinion by someone else who is in turn presented as a "trusted source"... a source who by education, training, and/or experience can give accurate information. In the advertisement above, Peter Bergman is not a doctor. Whatever the benefits of the product are, he's no more qualified to expound on them than any other paid spokesman or consumer. The qualifications he assert ("I play [a doctor] on TV") are irrelevant.

In the Vicks 44 commercial, Peter Bergman did not make that false appeal: the ad writers did. They chose a spokesman that many people in the audience would have seen in a medical setting, acting like a competent doctor. Bergman is there to gain the trust and acceptance of the audience due to this familiarity. Fundamentally, a false appeal to authority is an emotional appeal, not a logical one.

More and more, we've seen celebrities set themselves up as "authorities" on various subjects upon which they are no more competent than any interested amateur. This is a bit distressing, as it's one thing to point to a false authority, and quite another to set yourself up as one. You should, at the very least, know your own limitations...

...which brings me to John Scalzi:



Now, what he says about healthcare and a space force may or may not be true. It's not the purpose of this essay to determine that. What I am addressing is the fact that Scalzi is no more qualified to say it than you are.  The only part of this statement upon which he's an authority is "I FEEL".

Scalzi is indeed a science fiction writer. He has indeed won a Hugo award. It is not my purpose here to criticize his writing skills. But those skills do not translate into real-world expertise in either healthcare or military matters. Nor does his non-fiction writing give a hint of any hidden qualifications in these matters. And if he'd stuck to his qualifications and simply said, "I feel that the United States needs quality health care for its people far more than it needs a 'Space Force'", I wouldn't be writing this post.

So how can a presumably intelligent human being make such a mistake? I can speculate about two reasons. One is subliminally disingenuous. He is trying to persuade, and if a reader is balancing on the fence, perhaps adopting a false air of authority will pull the reader to his side. The second is that he may actually believe himself to be an authority. Reality can be a dangerous thing for fiction writers. It's not their stock in trade. They make up the technologies they write about. They make up the aliens, the politics, the conflicts, the resolutions. They may write on behalf of characters who are flawed but the authors themselves control those flaws... and strengths. A fictional character achieves what the author wants him to achieve because the author wants him to achieve it. Even the physics of science fiction bend to the will of the author. Whenever a science fiction writer utilizes "technologies" such as faster-than-light travel, he or she displays a willingness to set aside reality for the purpose of telling a story.

That's a lot of control. It's a lot of power. It's certainly seductive to imagine that one has as much control and power over the real world. Unfortunately the real world is not as accommodating as a word processor.

Scalzi does correctly state that his actual qualifications are that he writes science fiction. We know that this indicates a willingness to set aside reality for the purpose of telling a story. We also know that a false appeal to authority is an emotional appeal. And we know that intelligent people know their limits. I'm giving Scalzi the benefit of the doubt when I assume that he chose to step outside those limits. Whether what he says here is correct or not, such "qualifications" cannot gain him non-skeptical agreement on logical grounds.



By the way, this isn't the only logical fallacy present in this tweet, but I leave it as an exercise to the reader to identify the others. You shouldn't need an expert, as logic is something that can be practiced by any competent human brain.

Monday, June 25, 2018

Supreme Court: Free Speech Means Free Speech

A year ago, Emily Jashinsky reported in The Washington Examiner:
It's a little puzzling that this was reported in the Opinion section rather than as a straight news, because it's mostly straight news, and the small bit of opinion at the end of the piece is easily edited.

In summary, the case "Matal v. Tam" concerns a dance band ("The Slants") whose application for trademark protection was denied under a Lanham Act provision prohibiting the registration of trademarks that may “disparage ... or bring ... into contemp[t] or disrepute” any “persons, living or dead.” 15 U. S. C. §1052(a).

In a unanimous decision, the court upheld the First Amendment and declared the clause unconstitutional. The court unambiguously declared, "We now hold that this provision violates the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. It offends a bedrock First Amendment principle: Speech may not be banned on the ground that it expresses ideas that offend."

Here's the court's actual decision [PDF]

Never mind speech that might offend. Unambiguously offensive speech is protected.

And that's how it should be. As has been mentioned before, popular speech needs no protection, and cannot be the reason for the existence of the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. As stated by Justice Kennedy:
"A law that can be directed against speech found offensive to some portion of the public can be turned against minority and dissenting views to the detriment of all. The First Amendment does not entrust that power to the government’s benevolence. Instead, our reliance must be on the substantial safeguards of free and open discussion in a democratic society."
In their decision, the court holds that the trademarks people choose for their businesses is private speech, not government speech; and that it does not become government speech due to the issuance of a trademark. It is therefore protected, and the disparagement clause of the Lantham Act is therefore unconstitutional.

The court further opines, "We need not decide today whether respondent could bring suit under §43(a) if his application for federal registration had been lawfully denied under the disparagement clause." This is because the disparagement clause itself is unconstitutional and may not now be used as a reason for denying a trademark. In other words, the issue is moot.

--==//oOo\\==--

What the Examiner's story fails to mention is that the members of The Slants are Asian Americans who chose the name to "reclaim" it and strip it of its negativity. In my own opinion, denial of the trademark itself constitutes the government telling a group whether or not they should be offended by the labels they apply to themselves. I see this as being blatant patronizing. Can you imagine telling a Black rapper he can't use the "N" word because he should be offended by his own usage of it? Same thing. 

Thin-skinned opponents of Free Speech should count their blessings. Many countries, including Western societies such as those of the UK and Australia, have no such Constitutional guarantees of protection.

The defense against offensive speech are two-fold: 1. You don't have to sit and listen to it, and 2. You have the same right to voice your own dissenting opinion. Opponents of Free Speech would do well to heed the words of an English author on this subject (often attributed to Voltaire):
"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
-- Evelyn Beatrice Hall (1906)
I myself spent seven years in military service voluntarily defending this and other unalienable rights for people with whom I disagree on a great many things, so it warms my heart to see the Supreme Court affirm something that has been well understood from the very inception of this country until it was forgotten by ignorant academics who, to their everlasting shame, should know better.

As I mention above, this was decided and reported a year ago. So why am I blogging about it now? Because many of the people who were ignorant a year ago are just as ignorant now. And if it was shameful then, it's a bloody disgrace now. It's time to speak up and let others do the same.

Friday, June 15, 2018

North Korea

It astonishes me that people who ostensibly want peace are so stubbornly, obstinately opposed to it when it looks like they'll get it from someone they don't like.

I've never been a fan of Trump. You only have to look in the archives of this blog where I called him "unelectable". Obviously I was wrong on that point. But let's give credit where credit is due.


This has Trump opponents squirming, although by every objective measure... EVERY objective measure... Trump has earned the nomination solidly. Do not forget that this same prize was presented in 2009 to a former U.S. President despite having had no achievements warranting the award, as nominations for the award had closed only 11 days after he had assumed his office.

Trump, on the other hand, has Korea.

Now, we can cringe at his methods. But it's important to remember that previous efforts and previous methods failed... every single time. Albert Einstein is apocryphally credited with the observation, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results”. It's not lunacy to recognize lunacy and to take a different approach.

Trump's approach is outlined in a video, produced for an audience of one (Kim Jong-un), and presented at the beginning of the Singapore negotiations:


The New York Times decided to lampoon the approach with this opinion piece: Trump Made Kim a Movie Trailer. We Made It Better. Oh, if that were only true. But it's not. This edit was made by people who clearly don't understand... well... much of anything, and who allow their emotions and tribal politics to stand in the way of actual results. This attitude is exactly why none of the previous approaches have worked, so forgive me if I'm unimpressed by the flawed criticisms of those who have repeatedly embraced failure.

To understand why this video (and approach) is likely to work, you first have to understand who Kim Jong Un is, and understand what the end-game is. What is the actual goal?

Though Trump's opponents would like to cast him as simply a despotic tyrant, this falls far short of the full picture. Kim Jong-un did not subjugate his people. That was done decades before his birth, by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung; and it was carried on by his father, Kim Jong-il. Kim Jong-un was born into this dynasty in 1984, and was raised from birth to do the same. He has known nothing else. As the heir to a dynasty, Kim Jong-un does have the vanity which makes this sort of presentation effective.

North Korea development
compared to its neighbors
He is also someone who sees the vast difference in prosperity between his own country and that of South Korea and the rest of the world. He's not blind. And he actually wants that stuff. Again, the video targets those things that are important to him. He's the audience, not you. The fact that "you're not fooled" is a silly observation. It's not intended to fool you.

It's not intended to fool Kim Jong-un, either. And this is where it moves beyond mere propaganda.

The video tells the truth.

Although the options may not be as binary as depicted in the video, North Korea's present state isn't very far from the worst case as depicted. And South Korea's present state is very much like the best case as depicted. That's how effective sales pitches are done.. by showing the best possible outcome. By throwing away the nukes, opening the borders, and welcoming investment, North Korea can actually achieve exactly what the video promises. At the very outset of open relations and investment, labor costs in North Korea will be miniscule, and North Koreans can exploit that to raise themselves by their bootstraps, just as the South Koreans, Japanese, and many other Asian countries have already done. They will become prosperous and peaceful.

A taste of respect
Kim Jong-un wants Korea to be accepted into the family of nations. The way to do that is to do it. So we see the U.S. and North Korean flags side-by-side as a taste of the respect that Kim could have permanently should he change his ways.

This meeting in Singapore was intended to give Kim a realistic path to everything he wants in terms of material, culture, and respect. That path is peace.

And that's what we want, too. That's when we focus on our goals. If we were small and tribal, we'd insist on punishment being heaped on Kim Jong-un for the current state of affairs, and for the actions of his father and grandfather as well. But that will not get us to peace. So is it unfair to "let him get away with it" by casting a despotic ruler as "the hero of his people"? Well, think about it... if you're literally born into a position of ultimate power and you voluntarily decide to step back from that so that your people can benefit with jobs and money and comfort and prestige, then the label fits. And if you can persuade someone to do that, you deserve a Nobel Peace Prize.

Bad behavior hasn't gotten Kim anywhere. But good behavior must be rewarded, or you're just not going to get it. The commentators who opine that Trump is "giving away too much" fail to see the reality that Trump's not giving away anything that won't be returned. Opening North Korea to investment will yield profit. Not only will North Korea improve, but so will the investors. That's something that even Kim can see and our socialist-minded Left ironically can not.

If you look at that and still want to be small and tribal, so be it. But you're not proving your intelligence, and your derision is simply reflected back on you. You are easily ignored, as well you should be.

Nothing in life is guaranteed. This may not work. In part it depends on gaining the buy-in of small and tribal people. But it's far more likely to work than anything we've done so far.

Credit where due.

Bill Maher gets it. Watch this.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Consequences

Roseanne Barr tweeted a racist comment and her show on ABC was immediately canceled.

I'm fine with that. Since her show is on ABC, she's effectively an ambassador of the company, and they don't want to be associated with her any longer. That's their right.

Let's get this out of the way so we have context: the tweet in question was about Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman born in Iran who Barr compared to what you'd get if the "muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby".

As I was driving home from Charlotte today, a man named Anthony called in to WBT to remind us all what idiots sound like. He started with, "I gotta admit, when I read it, I chuckled a little and just moved on," and went downhill from there. The tweet, he said, might be offensive to some people, but he didn't find it to be offensive because he's "not in that demographic". He went on to decry the lack of "true free speech" because a person could be fired for speaking their mind. Only the "independently wealthy" can have "true free speech", according to Anthony, because only they don't have to worry about losing their livelihood. Anthony's not at all concerned with his seeming paucity of empathy or compassion. In his world, if you're not the butt of the joke, it's OK to laugh. But Anthony is extraordinarily concerned with "true free speech", and the fact that we are not immune from the ramifications of our actions.

Welcome to the real world that's always existed since Time began, Anthony. Free speech or not, you must face the consequences of your decisions.

Let me put it this way:

Just because you are not entitled to a pair of bulletproof shoes, that doesn't mean that you're not free to shoot yourself in the foot. Just be aware that when you do, you'll have a bullet in your foot.

And yes, there will be blood and pain and possible amputation, and you probably won't be able to work, and you might lose your house and car; all because you were stupid enough to shoot yourself in the foot without thinking about the pesky matters of cause and effect. And yes, someone who's rich enough just might be able to afford a pair of bulletproof shoes. But that's a rare individual, and you're almost certainly not that person.

Most of us who have studied the Constitution even a little are aware that the First Amendment doesn't absolve us of responsibility for what we say. We are aware that other people have rights, too; not just ourselves. And our rights are not limited to those that are enumerated in the Constitution.

Jerk
For instance, if while exercising of your freedom of speech, you show yourself to be a jerk, I might exercise my right not to associate with you. If I'm your employer and you loudly piss off my customers, I will fire you. Keeping you around is bad for business. You have the freedom to be a jerk. I have the freedom to fire jerks in my employ.

So if you freely choose to be a jerk, it is with the full knowledge that making that choice means that you are prepared to be treated as you yourself might treat any other jerk. That doesn't in any way negate the fact that it's truly your free choice.

The thing about true freedom is that it is dangerous.

It is not simply that you accept the consequences of your actions; it's that you are responsible for them.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Frogger and Lessons in Self Destruction

Back in the 1980s, when I lived in England, I would sometimes supplement my income and develop my programming skills by writing software for the TI-99/4a Home Computer. One of the programs that I wrote was a blatant rip-off of the arcade classic, Frogger. Parker Brothers later released an official version of the game, but in some ways mine was much better.

Not my version, but mine looked pretty close.
the center on mine was a grassy strip.
On the TI, Frogger was a very easy game to program. The TI-99/4a's capabilities included 32 moveable sprites, all with automatic motion and collision detection. And in Frogger, most of the objects on the screen aren't really animated... they just move. So there's not a whole lot for the programmer to do other than move the frog. That meant that after coding the basic rules, I had a lot of free memory.

So I decided to use it.

In my version of the game, instead of simply becoming an "X" or a skull and crossbones or boring instant dead frog upon a collision with a car, the frog's death was gloriously animated.

  • He flattened out. 
  • His eyes bulged a little. 
  • Blood oozed from his body in an expanding puddle, accompanied by a sound effect: "glug, glug, glug".

I worked for the better part of two days just getting that sound effect right.

Having completed the game, I had the neighbor's kids play test it for me. And after a long spate of testing, their scores were abysmal. So I watched them play.

They weren't even trying to win the game. Instead, they were deliberately sending their kamikaze frogs into the thickest traffic just to watch the poor creatures die. And then they'd do it again, and again. They'd end with a score of zero, and laugh uproariously. Seriously, I could have left all of the game mechanics out of it and just animated dying frogs, and they'd have loved it.

This wasn't what I intended.

The experience taught me a bit about game design. I should have made the winning condition even more entertaining. So with the few bytes I had remaining, I gave it a very nice animation if you succeeded in saving all of your frogs. Few players ever got that far, because killing the frogs was so damned easy and fun... and to learn about the winning condition you'd have to get past the deaths: something most players just didn't do. The result of saving the frogs was entertaining, too; but it wasn't easy.

If I had really wanted people to play the game as I intended, I would have had to change both the reward and the punishment. But I was pretty damned proud of that frog's death, and kept it in. Besides, I'd already gotten all the experience I'd needed from writing the program. A few people still bought it (I only sold a few of anything back then, really), and I imagine they happily whiled away the time killing frogs and gaining nothing.

This taught me a bit about human nature...

Why do people do self-destructive things? Because that's what people do when they believe that destruction is more entertaining than winning. And if winning is hard -- even if it's rewarding -- they go for easy entertainment, even if it means death. I've seen it happen many times over the years, and each time I think about my version of Frogger.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In Defense of Books

As I write this, I am literally surrounded by books. Yesterday, a millennial (and one of my own children!) announced to me that he had probably read his last book. There are so many media forms proliferating, he told me, that he was making a conscious effort to focus on the new rather than those that were on their way out.

The thing is, though, that books are not on their way out. Sure, the codex might be superceded. But the codex is simply a form of delivery. A codex is what we think of as a physical book... multiple pages bound on one side, that can be flipped through. But before that, books were delivered on scrolls. Before that, they were impressed into clay, or carved into stone. Today, they're delivered electronically. And we still read the books that were previously delivered on scroll, or clay, or stone. The form of delivery is not what makes a book. So here are just a few thoughts on why books themselves are not, nor will they become, obsolete.

1. Books are slow and deliberate in their creation. They deliver the distilled, deliberate thoughts of their authors. No other medium can match this -- not film, not a blog post, not a podcast, not a lecture, and certainly not any of the phone-friendly byte-sized forums.

2. Books are personal. They're usually not written by committee, and when they are, it's a small collaboration. Through a book you can peer inside another human brain.

3. Books endure. When you're reading the "The Gallic Wars", it is Julius Caesar himself who is speaking to you. No one else. It matters not whether the words themselves are written on a parchment or vellum scroll, a codex, or an ebook. The book itself is a form of expression that transcends its medium.

4. Books use language to its fullest. Books use descriptive language without crutches. The visuals and emotions are those that they impart through language alone. Because of this, a great author MUST tap into the universalities of human emotion and experience in a way that no filmmaker can begin to match.

5. Books take time to read. They are to be savored, not devoured. We dwell in them. There's no set length. There's nothing that flies by to be missed. This is time employed by the reader to build the world that is given in blueprint form by the author, and the reader related because he is invested in that creation. In itself, reading a book is a skill far more advanced than the mere interpretation of the printed words. It is an active engagement of the mind and imagination of the reader. And yet, it's not a difficult skill.

6. When an author elicits emotion from the reader, it is a deliberate act. It's not the instinctive response of an animal to the purity of a tone or a particular facial expression. It is a difficult and subtle craft to -- through words alone -- coax the reader into a particular frame of mind and Make. Him. Feel. It is this deliberate impartation of emotion that raises the craft of an author to Art.

7. Books -- particularly classic books -- are honest. They depict what is, as understood by the author. They need not check boxes for political expediency. As such, books are intellectually dangerous. This is why books are the first expressions of speech to be banned by those demagogues and manipulators who are vulnerable to the truth. Those things that are MOST dangerous to tyrants are the very same things that are MOST necessary to maintain our liberty. This is why it is the freedom of the press, and not that of guns, that is avowed in the First Amendment.