Blargh Blog

Monday, December 27, 2004

Religion in America

I just don't get it.
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes
But if I talk about God my record won't get played Huh?
Well let this take away from my spins
Which will probably take away from my ends
Then I hope this take away from my sins
And bring the day that I'm dreaming about
Next time I'm in the club everybody screaming out
Jesus Walks

Those are the words of Kanye West in his song Jesus Walks.

And what happened? The album with that song on it, The College Dropout, sold millions of copies. Then Kanye was nominated for 10 Grammys, including one for Album of the Year for College Dropout and one for Song of the Year for Jesus Walks. In other words, people really liked the song about Jesus and about religion not selling, so it has sold really well and been nominated as the best song of the year.1 Ahh, the irony.

And then what to my wondering eyes should appear? Why, it's a petition from a part of the religious community who is complaining that the secular awards-show establishment is not going to give The Passion of The Christ the Oscar it deserves because they would never let a religious production win. Round and round we go.

1See here for other issues surrounding Jesus Walks



Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer
had a very shiny nose1.
And if you ever saw him,
you would even say it glows2.

All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names3.
They never let poor Rudolph
join in any reindeer games4.

Then one foggy Christmas Eve
Santa came to say:5
"Rudolph with your nose so bright6,
won't you guide my sleigh tonight?"

Then all the reindeer loved him
as they shouted out with glee7,
Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer,
you'll go down in history8!

1Like a light bulb.
2Like a flaslight.
3Like Pinocchio.
4Like Monopoly.
5Ho, Ho, Ho!"
6See note 1.
8Like George Washington.


Saturday, December 18, 2004


You may have noticed that my post count has been down the past week or so. You can expect it to continue to be low for the next few weeks -- on account of the coming of winter and all. I'll try to make an occasional good post, but I certainly won't be at post-a-day levels.

Enjoy any celebrations that you may be having, and try to remember the upholsterers while you're celebrating. Because without them, there would be no upholstery.


Thursday, December 09, 2004

A Singular Nation?

Matt Weiner of Opiniatrety wonders about sports team "nations": do they get the singular or the plural? Is it...

Steeler Nation or Steelers Nation?
Raiders Nation or Raider Nation?
Eagle Nation or Eagles Nation?
49ers Nation or 49er Nation?
Ram Nation or Rams Nation?
Patriots Nation or Patriot Nation?
Red Sox Nation or Red Sox Nation?

Form your own opinions, then go see his Google-informed opinion.

Have you gone and returned? Now, you can take a look at a few examples that I found where the plural has a clear advantage:

Jets Nation (352) over Jet Nation (29)
Browns Nation (116) over Brown Nation (19)
Chiefs Nation (32) over Chief Nation (6)

Note: I included the name of the city in the searches to minimize false positives. This only significantly reduced the number of hits for 'brown nation' and 'chief nation', and evidence suggests that the cases that were left out were almost all irrelevant.

It may not be a coincidence that the plural is more common when there are many unrelated hits for the singular form. To my ear, the singular sounds weird in all three cases due to the meaning of the team's name. You need to use the plural for it to sound like you're talking about the sports team.


Monday, December 06, 2004

Philosophers' Carnival #6

The latest Philosophers' Carnival is up at Melbourne Philosopher.
Related: Philosophers' Carnival #5
Philosophers' Carnival #4

[Special: a behind-the-scenes glimpse at how Blargh Blog is made! "I'm concerned about having to come up with a clever carnival themed post every few weeks for an indefinite period of time, so with this post I'm exercising a strategic deescalation."]


What do you do when life deals you lemonade?

(a multiple choice question)

a. Drink it
b. Save it
c. Sell it
d. Make lemon ice
e. Other (specify) _________________


Sunday, December 05, 2004

Comparison and choice

There are lots of ways to manipulate a gamble that influence whether people will choose to take a chance at it. You could frame the problem in terms of gains or losses, separate a one-part gamble into a multi-part gamble, change a loss for losing the gamble into a cost for playing the gamble, or emphasize the opportunity of getting the best possible outcome or the threat of getting the worst possible outcome. All of these manipulations change the way that a gamble is described while leaving the probabilities and the net payoffs unchanged. Even though the gambles are equivalent, people's willingness to play varies.

There's another manipulation that can get more people to gamble: changing the payoffs so that people might lose money. How does that work? Let's look at an example. Here are the original choices (pick A or B):

A: a certain gain of $2
B: a 7/36 chance of gaining $9 and a 29/36 chance of no gain
Not surprisingly, most people (67%) chose option A, which has a higher expected value than B ($2 vs $1.75) and less risk. Some people are given this alternative gamble instead:

C: a certain gain of $2
D: a 7/36 chance of gaining $9 and a 29/36 chance of losing $0.05
C is the same as A, while option D is strictly worse than B, since you're risking the loss of a nickel rather than the loss of nothing, and there's no compensating benefit. Now, the difference between the expected values of B and D is only about $0.04, so you might suspect that D wouldn't be much less attractive than B. But (if I hadn't tipped you off) would you ever have predicted that more people would choose D than B? A majority, 60%, chose D rather than C, which means that roughly 27% of people would take D but not B.

What's going on? Slovic et al. (2002), who conducted this study, explain the results in terms of evaluability. Some features are difficult to evaluate. For instance, is 20,000 entries an impressive number for a dictionary to have? How should I know? So if people get asked how much they are willing to pay for a dictionary with various features, things like whether it has a torn cover end up being more important than the number of entries that it has. But if people are given a choice between two dictionaries, one with 10,000 entries and one with 20,000 entries, then the 20,000 entries seem like a lot and people are willing to pay more for that dictionary, regardless of any superficial damage to its cover. It is not earth-shattring that, if the features are hard to evaluate, you judge one option by comparing it to the other options that you're given.

What's more interesting is that people seem to make these sorts of comparisons even when the features aren't as hard to evaluate as the 20,000 dictionary entries. For instance, in another study, people who were given a choice between a nice pen and a mug as their reward for participating in a study split pretty evenly between the two. People who were given a choice between a nice pen, a mug, and a cheap pen overwhelmingly chose the nice pen. Even though people have plenty of familiarity with pens and mugs, when that cheap pen is around to use as a standard of comparison, the nice pen starts to look a lot better. In some circles, a big deal is made out of the fact that most voting systems don't satisfy independence of irrelevant alternatives, but it turns out that even individual decisions between everyday objects are not always so independent.

Slovic et al. argue that people do the same sort of evaluation-by-comparison thing even for money. Is $9 a big prize? It doesn't look so spectacular when you're only comparing it with the $2 gain, but compared with the $0.05 loss it's a lot of money. So making the gamble strictly worse by turning no gain into a $0.05 loss actually makes it more attractive to people because the $9 gain starts to look better by comparison.

Slovic et al. study reported in:
Slovic, P, Finucane, M, Peters, E, & MacGregor, D G. (2002). Rational actors or rational fools: implications of the affect heuristic for behavioral economics. Journal of Socio-Economics, 31, 329–342.


Reasoning at Mixing Memory
Naive Realism


Friday, December 03, 2004


Pardon my odometer-gazing, but my StatCounter © has informed me that the Blargh Blog has passed two remarkable milestones.

- Millenium: If it was getting one page view a year, my blog would have had to exist for over a millenium to get this many views.

- Feet: I can no longer count the number of page loads on my hands. Using binary, I can count up to 1023 without any tricks (no half-raising a finger or crossing fingers or anything like that). Make two fists to get 0. Raising your right pinkie adds 1, raising your right ring finger adds 2, raising your right middle finger adds 4, your right index finger adds 8, ... , and your left pinkie adds 512. So you get 1023 when you raise all your fingers (that's 1,111,111,111 in binary), and any number between 0 and 1023 by raising the right combination of fingers. (Warning: use discretion when counting 4, 128, or 132 among polite company.) Now I suppose that I have to move on to my feet. If I can get my toes flexible enough to raise and lower each one independently of the others, then I could count over a million without going beyond my appendages.


Thursday, December 02, 2004

A Precarious Pinnacle: The Scientific Method

Sometimes people don't explore the slopes, perhaps because they seem too complicated or treacherous to risk venturing out. They might be slippery! But staying at the tippity-top, in the clouds, ignorant of the messy details below, could leave you in a particularly precarious position once you get a glimpse of the imperfect and potentially unstable ground beneath your feet. As I wrote before,
To avoid slipping down, though, people often try to remain firmly planted on the apparently flat, and thus safe, ground at the top of the slope. Often far more unstable than it appears, this ground may erode and crumble beneath your feet, sending you tumbling towards the bottom with little chance to grab a handhold on the intervening slope.
Richard Chappell helped name the phenomenon, and now he has brought up a much better case than my original example of tax rates. He quotes an article by Phil Mole, Nurturing Suspicion: what college students learn about science*, which suggests that science is a bit like laws and sausages:
What happens when students never learn about the historical development of science--when they never comprehend the significance of the scientific method? They leave their science classes with a highly idealized, intellectually impoverished view of science that is highly vulnerable to attack. When they encounter modern cultural criticisms of science in "science and society" classes, they have no larger perspective to balance against these claims. They never learned that great scientists have often been fantastically wrong and never learned about the role of bias in developing scientific theories. As a result, any evidence that scientists do have bias, or that they sometimes make mistakes, causes them to question the validity of the entire scientific enterprise. In Christopher Hitchens's memorable phrase, "utopia becomes the subconscious enabler of cynicism." If students initially learned anything about the complex social history of science, they would have some intellectual armor against the ideologically charged claims of modern science critics.
Even if the scientific process isn't always pretty, it works rather well. You just have to get down and dirty and familiarize yourself with some of the messy workings of the process in order to be inoculated against efforts to turn any instability into an avalanche. (Pardon my metaphor soup.)

*Link didn't work before but now it seems to (Updated 12/3)
Related Posts:
Introducing the idea of the precarious pinnacle
2. Statistical innumeracy in the press corps
3. Truth and lies: Logic puzzles vs. actual people


Extended Blogroll

Matthew Yglesias as himself
Matthew Yglesias is still himself
Obsidian Wings starring Edward, Hilzoy, Sebastian Holsclaw, and Von, and Slartibartfast, and Charles Bird
Crooked Timber starring various
Political Animal starring Kevin Drum
Ezra Klein is Ezra Klein
Tapped by various
Battlepanda starring Angelica
Dadahead is the Dadahead
The Reality-Based Community featuring Mark Kleiman and colleagues
Bradford Plumer aka Brad Plumer
Democracy Arsenal starring various
Left2Right with various contributors
Michael Bérubé starring Michael Bérubé
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal starring Brad DeLong

Rightish & Libertarianish
Agoraphilia starring Glen Whitman and Tom Bell
Unqualified Offerings with Jim Henley
The Volokh Conspiracy starring Volokh, et al.
Right Reason starring various
The Fly Bottle starring Will Wilkinson
Happiness and Public Policy also starring Will Wilkinson
Positive Liberty starring Jason Kuznicki, and now with Ed Brayton, Jonathan Rowe, and Timothy Sandefur
OxBlog starring Patrick Belton and David Adesnik

Social Scientifical
Edge* with a new host each month
Mixing Memory featuring Chris
Cognitive Science Reading Group orchestrated by Chris
Cognitive Daily by the Mungers
Happiness and Public Policy starring Will Wilkinson
Marginal Revolution starring Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok
Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal starring Brad DeLong
This Blog Sits at the Intersection of Anthropology & Economics starring Grant McCracken

Philosophy, et cetera starring Richard Chappell
The Ethical Werewolf featuring Neil Sinhababu
Meaning of Life TV* starring Robert Wright, et al.
Fake Barn Country starring Brown people
PEA Soup starring various
Desert Landscapes brought to you by University of Arizona
Certain Doubts starring Jon Kvanvig and friends
Orange Philosophy by the people of Syracuse University
Left2Right with various contributors
Philosophers' Carnival starring You?
Enwe's Meta-Blog by Enwe
Philosophical Weblogs* written by David Chalmers

Literal-Minded starring Neal Whitman
Language Log by Mark Liberman, Geoffrey Pullum, and colleagues
The Maven's Word of the Day* from the people who brought you Random House

Fafblog!! starring Fafnir, Giblets, and Medium Lobster
The Onion* as itself
The Daily Show* with Jon Stewart

Blog Maverick starring Mark Cuban, TV's The Benefactor
Football Outsiders* starring Aaron Schatz, et al.
The Sports Economist starring Skip Sauer
Sabernomics featuring JC

Similarly Named
blarblog starring Zeke
Blaahg by S
the art of blar starring Jonelin
Blargh! © Meg Hopper
The Blarg featuring Nathan118
What the Blar starring Kylie
eweeee whoooo blar! (the emu comes crashing down) starring miichan00
Blar kat! starring Mike
Blar! starring Michelle
The Blargh starring Brooke

Possessing Excellent Taste in Blogs
age of dissent starring xpyre
Dialectic of the University of Newcastle Philosophy Club
E. G. starring David
Majikthise starring Lindsay Beyerstein
Epideixis boasting the contributions of MH, Samuel Douglas, and Rowan Blyth
Scottish Nous starring Scott Hagaman
Mixing Memory (the reading group) by Chris

More More More
Arts & Letters Daily* produced by Denis Dutton
Blog Bites

*Warning: Not a Blog!



- I've added a list of recommended posts to my sidebar. If you're new to the blog, those are the ones that I'd recommend browsing through.

- I'm about to add a more comprehensive, extended blogroll, which will be linked from the sidebar. The links in my sidebar will reflect my judgment, taste, fancy, and whim. Some links may end up rotating between my extended blogroll and the sidebar in order to keep my sidebar at a reasonable length.

- Soon, I will be linking posts to related posts, posts to categories, and categories to posts. Links to categories will appear on my sidebar! A sample of things to come:
Related: A Note to Our Readers


Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Too Hot For TV!!!!!

The networks are finally showing some discretion about what they'll air. Some things are just not acceptable for network television. The internet has no such standards, so if you'd like you can go here to see the ad that was kept off the airwaves of both NBC and CBS. From the United Church of Christ, the ad proclaims "Jesus didn't turn people away. Neither do we." "No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you're welcome here." NBC and CBS may want ratings and ad revenue, but they still have the basic human decenty to refuse the money of a group that wants to spread such a controversial message.

Via Josh Marshall.