Misc: September 2007 Archives


September 28, 2007

The NYT covers the kabuki theater over the new citizenship test. Predictably, those opposed to immigration said the old test was too easy and those in favor say the new test is too hard:
The redesign of the test, the first since it was created in 1986 as a standardized examination, follows years of criticism in which conservatives said the test was too easy and immigrant advocates said it was too hard.

The new questions did little to quell that debate among many immigrant groups, who complained that the citizenship test would become even more daunting. Conservatives seemed to be more satisfied.


In a statement today, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, one of the groups consulted in shaping the new test, denounced it as "the final brick in the second wall." The group said the test included "more abstract and irrelevant questions" that tended to stump hard-working immigrants who had little time to study.

But several historians said the test appeared to be fair.

"People who take this seriously will have a good chance of passing," said Gary Gerstle, a professor of American history at Vanderbilt University. "Indeed, their knowledge of American history may even exceed the knowledge of millions of American-born citizens."

John Fonte, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, called the new test "a definite improvement." But he said it should have included questions about the meaning of the oath of allegiance that new citizens swear. "I would like to see an even more vigorous emphasis on Americanization," he said.

This whole debate is a little hard to take seriously because the test only has 100 questions, all of which are published in their entirety along with the answers. In order to pass, you need to get 6 right out of 10 chosen by the examiner (this is unchanged from the previous test.) Whatever the questions, this doesn't exactly require deep knowledge. Given this format, it's pretty hard to take seriously objections that it's somehow too hard to pass. I'm pretty confident with a day or two to prepare I could pass a similar test on the history of Burkina Faso, or for that matter, Epsilon Eridani.

On the other hand, given this format it's pretty hard to get excited about claims that it's somehow too easy to pass—that somehow we're passing people who don't understand American civics—even with the old test. A test with 10,000 questions rather than a hundred would be a lot more plausible. It would at least preclude memorizing all the questions.


September 26, 2007

Mrs. G. was singing Frére Jacques earlier tonight and it reminded me of the generally incorrect English translation. As Landes points out, "sonnez les matines" is an imperative "ring the morning bell", not, as commonly translated "morning bells are ringing." The idea here is that this is an instruction to whatever monk is responsible for ringing the bells calling the other monks to morning prayer.

I seem to have lent out my copy of Revolution in Time, so I had to resort to Wikipedia, which goes on in some detail:

Given that some maintain that nursery rhymes have serious themes when they are examined in detail (this might not always be true, however[2][3] ), one might infer some morbid undercurrent to the French version of this song. Admittedly, if the song originally was created to commemorate some negative event, it might have greater cultural resonance and be more likely to be incorporated into the canon of cultural elements that are transmitted from generation to generation. Once a memetic unit like this song reached sufficient familiarity and social penetration, it presumably would continue to be passed on as part of a tradition even though its original meaning had been forgotten. If one subscribes to this line of reasoning, one might expect Frére Jacques to refer to a well known figure and a well known event.

Another piece of evidence that appears to support a dark interpretation of this song is the fact that in some places such as Austria, it was at one time commonly sung in a minor key, rather than a major key, giving the song the quality of a funeral dirge.[4][5]

In this vein, some have suggested that this verse might not refer to sleep, but to the death of a friar or monk, or perhaps a member of one of the religious military orders. For example, it is widely believed in France that the renowned Frére Jacques de Molay of the Templar Knights, who was executed in 1314, is the subject of the Frére Jacques song.[6][7] This claim should be probably approached with an air of caution, because there are many alternate interpretations. For example, the poet Jean-Luc Aotret has written a poem suggesting that the subject of Frére Jacques is the excommunicated Franciscan poet Jacopone da Todi (1236\u20131306).[8][9][10]

OK, then.


September 21, 2007

Via cilogear makes packs, a link to empirical work on how to dig out someone who was buried in an avalanche. Money quote:
To prevent the problem of digging straight down to the victim and creating a non-workable hole, we determined that it was essential to clearly define the excavation area before digging. This area, called the "starter hole," should be excavated first, preferably starting on one's knees. Once this hole is up to the rescuers' waists, then the next level can be excavated. Without this starter hole, rescuers tend to get "tunnel vision" and lose the opportunity to create a hole that will be workable when the victim is reached.


Via Crooked Timber Philippe Van Parijs tries to figure out a fair way for everyone to communicate using English. The basic point is that it's a lot easier for people to communicate if we all speak the same language, but it's a much higher burden for those who don't speak English to learn it than it is for native English speakers to, well, do nothing. Is there some way to balance this burden? Incidentally, there's some sort of analogy here to the transition from IPv4 to IPv6, but the incentives are in a different direction—the established players all have IPv4 addresses, it's those who by definition are less established who would likely benefit the most from IPv6.


September 12, 2007

In Slate, Daniel Engberg argues for/covers Alan Weisman (The World Without Us)'s argument for smaller families as an environmental move:
Oh, if we all just disappeared. According to The World Without Us, Alan Weisman's strangely comforting vision of human annihilation, the Earth would be a lot better off. In his doomsday scenario, freshwater floods would course through the New York subway system, ailanthus roots would heave up sidewalks, and a parade of coyotes, bears, and deer would eventually trot across the George Washington Bridge and repopulate Manhattan. Nature lovers can take solace in the idea that the planet will thrive once we've finally destroyed ourselves with global warming. But Weisman takes the fantasy one step further: Let's not wait for climate change, he says. Let's start depopulating right now.

Instead of burning down our numbers with oil and gas, we might follow the advice of the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, who tells Weisman that everyone in the world should stop having kids all at once. Weisman isn't up for quite so drastic a measure, but he makes his own pitch, moderate in comparison: Let's cut the birth rate to one child per couple, for a few generations at least. The population would dwindle by about 5 billion people over the next century, he says, ensuring the habitability of the Earth for the 1.6 billion who remained. At that point, they could all reap the rewards of a more spacious planet, sharing in "the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful." It seems like a notion from the fringe, but Weisman's book has become a mainstream best seller. Could population control be the next big thing in green culture?

There are of course two ways of looking at preserving the environment: as something that's good in itself or as an instrumental good—who wants to live in a world where the environment is so destroyed that all you get to eat is soylent green? If you subscribe to the first theory, then sure, the lower the human impact the better. On the other hand, if you subscribe to the second theory, then it's much less obvious that a reduced population is a good thing. Those people who weren't born yet would presumably have taken some pleasure in life and now they won't. Now, obviously the people who are born will have a higher quality of life, but this kind of reasoning runs us right into Parfit's "How only France survives". I don't have a good answer to what the right population of the Earth is, but I don't see Weisman/Engberg's argument as particularly dispositive either.

Of course, it could easily be that Weisman subscribes to the first theory. I haven't read his book but I heard him being interviewed on NPR and got the distinct sense that he took some pleasure in contemplating a world without humans.


September 10, 2007

In his article explaining why he would rather have a Blackberry 8830 than an iPhone, Magid writes:
In the iPhone's place, I'm now using a BlackBerry 8830 that I borrowed from Sprint, and I have to say that, on balance, I prefer it to the iPhone. I miss the iPhone's great Web browser and the way it implemented Google maps, but I'm much happier with the true 3G network from Sprint and BlackBerry's physical keys. I find myself typing messages on the BlackBerry and making fewer mistakes, though I do miss the iPhone's software that corrects mistakes as you type.

The biggest difference is Sprint's true 3-G broadband network which is not only faster but seems to work in more places. And, unlike the iPhone, the BlackBerry is able to display Word files, PDFs and some other attachments, making it a lot more practical to use to review business documents.

Obviously, everyone has their own opinion about whether they like the on-screen keyboard or not, but this stuff about PDFs and Word files is just wrong. The iPhone will display both Word and PDF files. Kind of hard to take the rest of Magid's comments seriously when he gets something like this wrong.


September 9, 2007

Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained argues that belief in witchraft, magic, etc. is not adequately explained by people's search for explanations for bad things that happen to them:
In the past, anthropologists sometimes suggested that this may be because people were not very good at understanding natural correlations or the work of random variables. In some groups, most cases of disease or death are ascribed to witchcraft. Surely, the argument goes, statistically aware people would notice that more or less everybody catches some disease at some point, that not all operations are always successful, and that in the long term we all will die. Failing to appreciate these contingencies, people resort to magical explanations for events that are in fact perfectly ordinary. This is what we generally mean by superstition." People see patterns and causes where there is just chance.

However, anthropologists know that people the world over are in fact rather good at detecting statistical regularities in their environment. Indeed, even the simplest techniques depend on such detection and this has been the case for as long as humans have been around. Early humans could not successfully maintain a rich food supply as foragers unless they could detect which fruit and tubers could be found where, with what frequency, in what season. People cannot hunt animals without without detecting which habits and behavior are true of a species as a whole and which apply only to particular exemplars, and so on. So it seems difficult to maintain that contingencies and random events are not generally understood.

I don't find this very convincing. It's absolutely true that people are extroardinarily sensitive to patterns. But like many evolution designed mechanisms, it's messy and heuristic. In particular, it tends to detect patterns that aren't there. This is well-known, as in for example the gambler's fallacy. It's absolutely true that if the detector didn't work at all, that would be a problem, but it's not clear that it needs to work perfectly. That said, it's possible that the particular set of built-in biases it seems to have aren't the optimal ones; that depends on the cost of seeing patterns that aren't there compared to the cost of missing patterns that are there.

It's also interesting to note that in the West, people make the same kind of attribution errors about bad outcomes, but they blame them on science and scientists instead of witches (cf. mercury/autism, fluoridation, EMF, cancer clusters, etc.) Of course, given the amount the average person knows about science, scientists might just as well be witches.


September 2, 2007

Over at Volokh, Ilya Somin recently asked:
I recently bought a digital camera, and used it to take numerous photos on a trip abroad. To my considerable annoyance, after I returned I learned that digital photos are formatted to be 4.5x6 inches rather than the standard 4x6. As far as I can tell, after calling up several photo shops, my only two options are either to 1) have the pictures cropped to 4x6 (which might eliminate important material, or 2) pay a fairly high price ($0.39/photo, even for a Ritz member like me) to have Ritz Camera develop them in 4.5x6 (the other shops I called don't develop in 4.5x6 at all). I realize that I could manually crop the photos on my computer. But that's not a realistic alternative because there are too many of them and I'm not good at cropping. I bet that many VC readers probably know more than I do about digital cameras (not a high bar to clear, to be sure). So here's my question. Is there any way I can do one of the following:

1. Have the pictures resized to 4x6 WITHOUT cropping of either the automatic or manual variety - and at a reasonable price.

2. Have them printed at 4.5x6 at a price significantly lower than Ritz's (20-25 cents/photo or less would be acceptable).

I suspect that I'm not the only person who has encountered this problem with digital photos. So I'm hoping that someone more savvy about digital cameras than I am has come up with a good solution.

His commenters then spend a bunch of time explaining to him that you can't convert 4.5x6 to 4x6 (a ghastly aspect ratio by the way) without either (1) letterboxing (though in this case it's pillar-boxing) or (2) cropping or (3) changing the aspect ratio, which you don't want to do. It doesn't take any knowledge whatsoever of digital photography or photography at all to convince yourself of this. Just imagine the image as printed on a rubber sheet and think about what happens when you stretch it in any one dimension. You can't simultaneously have the same framing that you originally wanted without also introducing image distortion. In this case, the distortion is quite bad, because 4.5 is 12.5% bigger than 4, and a 12% shrink is very noticeable.

Here's a demo of what this all looks like with a picture that's vertically rather than horizantally oriented.

OriginalLetter-boxedCropped (centered)Resized

Somin then follows up with another post that suggests that he still doesn't get it:

Thanks to all who responded to my bleg on digital photo resizing. Pursuing one of the suggestions offered by commenters, I have downloaded a digital photo resizing program. Unfortunately, the resizing options are listed in terms of pixels rather than inches (i.e. -640x480 pixels instead of 4x6 inches). My question for you experts out there (or just those whose ignorance is less profound then mine): What pixel option should I choose to resize digital 4.5x6 photos to the standard 4x6, so I can then print them out in 4x6 size without cropping (my original objective)?

As previously noted: this means he has to pillarbox, not resize. Resizing won't do anything for him. Moreover, this can't be done by typing in pixel options. He needs to make a canvas with a 4:3 aspect ratio and then copy and paste a smaller version of the 1.5:1 aspect ratio image onto it.

I do find it a little puzzling that Somin seems to find this so hard to grasp. Is aspect ratio simply a difficult concept? Are people so dazzled by PhotoShop that they don't think about what they're actually asking the computer to do? I'm trying not to make generalizations about a legal versus technical education, but this seems like sort of a basic concept. I don't get it.