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Bush League

[ 9 ] November 19, 2010 |

You have to wonder what the Islanders are trying to accomplish in taking away Chris Botta‘s credentials. I maybe can see a Machiavellian logic in blackballing non-propagandistic reporters if you’re a really popular franchise, although I doubt that it’s actually productive. But when you’re the (distant) #3 team in a market’s #4 pro sport and you’ve lucked into coverage from a very popular blogger, instead of being grateful for your good fortune you want to punish hm? Over…nothing in particular? I think I can see why this team hasn’t won a playoff round in 17 years.


Your Anti-MarkZist Rant of the Day

[ 7 ] November 19, 2010 |

So I’ve been complaining a bit lately about Facebook’s “See Friendship” feature. Turns out it’s even worse than I originally thought.

See, it’s not just any two of your friends whom you can analyze with this feature, it’s any friend of yours and any friend of theirs.… which means not only your friends but also all their friends – many of whom may not be in your network – can see all your online moments with you and your pal.

Time Magazine has an article on the social implications:

The “See Friendship” feature was launched by Facebook developer Wayne Kao, who credited his inspiration to the joy of browsing through friends’ photos. “A similarly magical experience was possible if all of the photos and posts between two friends were brought together,” he wrote on the Facebook blog. “You may even see that moment when your favorite couple met at a party you all attended.”

The problem with that, according to the more than 3,800 users who have joined a Facebook group demanding to be given the ability to opt out of the feature, is that the couple might not want friends of friends seeing that moment. They might not even want many people to know they’re a couple. Barry Wellman, a University of Toronto professor who studies social networks and real-life relationships, thinks Facebook developers don’t understand the fundamental difference between life online and offline. “We all live in segmented, diversified worlds. We might be juggling girlfriends, jobs or different groups of friends,” he says. “But [Facebook thinks] we’re in one integrated community.”

In this era of “media convergence” — when GPS and wireless devices are colluding to make one’s offline location known in the virtual world — friendship pages allow you to see an event your nonfriend has RSVP’d to or a plan he or she made with your mutual pal. At best, “See Friendship” is an invasion of privacy (one disgruntled user likened the feature to having sex on a football field in broad daylight). At worst, “it brings cyberstalking to a new level,” says Kevin Wright, a professor of computer-mediated communication at the University of Oklahoma. “We’re just beginning to see the toll this is taking on people.”

And then there’s the already gnawing problem of Facebook, one this new feature will only exacerbate: seeing all the fun your friends are having without you. “You’re making a normally ambiguous situation very concrete,” says Wellman. “People don’t call you up and say, ‘Hey, we’re not calling you.'”

Another big win for the blogosphere

[ 18 ] November 19, 2010 |

Three days ago, LGM suggested that playing a football game with a (padded!!) brick wall on the end line of the field might be a dubious idea. Apparently this stunning insight “went viral” as the kids say, because this morning . . .

(The lawyers who were planning to sit in the east end zone to be first off the mark when filing PI suits can now use their strategic positioning to organize a class action for the benefit of everybody who bought tickets on that end of the field).

Update: Look at these ticket prices!

A friend reminds me that Chicago baseball fields seem to be magnets for horrible promotional ideas:

Disco demolition

Republican Fiscal Policy, Definied

[ 2 ] November 19, 2010 |

Shorter Mike Pence: Bush’s policy of cutting taxes for the upper classes to promote economic growth didn’t work, so for the sake of economic growth they must be permanently extended.

Well, that first part is certainly right. And Hoyer seems to be standing firm, amazingly enough.

If This is True…

[ 2 ] November 19, 2010 |

…one more reason to abolish the Air Force. [/Farley]


[ 102 ] November 18, 2010 |

In a major upset, the Dems seem to have actually decided to pursue the strategy on tax cuts that was always blindingly obvious.

I Demand That the Useless Stats I Remember Be Held Sacred!

[ 29 ] November 18, 2010 |

Not everyone is happy with the good news Paul mentions below.   Take not-blogger Murray Chass, who in a blog post online column claims that the dumb criterion that caused sportswriters of yore to determine that such durable immortals as LaMarr Hoyt and Steve Stone and Pete Vukovich were the best pitchers in the league should continue to be used because…nickels had pictures of bumblebees on them:

Just a few years ago a pitcher with a 13-12 record would never have been considered for the Cy Young award. But last year Zack Greinke won the A,L, award with 16 victories and Tim Lincecum won his second straight National League award with 15 wins.

The development, I believe, is directly related to the growing influence of the new-fangled statistics which readers of this site know I have no use for, a fact that sends stats-freak denizens of the blogosphere into a stats-freak frenzy.

“Look out, he’s at it again” the cry will go out, as if a carrier of the black plague were loose in the land. And a flood of e-mail messages will pour in to my inbox calling me vile names (they are only the best educated and articulate of responders) and telling me I don’t know what I’m talking about.

And also, Steve Carlton had a really good record with a bad team, which means that somehow King Felix should have won 18 games getting no support from a historically bad offense. So Hernandez shouldn’t win the award even though “he’s the best pitcher in the league.” And even though the obscure statistics that the sportswriters are using are “ERA” and “strikeouts” — using more advanced metrics, the Al Cy Young race is actually much less clear cut. All very convincing.

Chass is also outraged that his former employer is trying to inform its readers, particularly at the expense of St. Derek Jeter:

The Times has increasingly used statistically-based columns, often at the expense, I believe, of the kind of baseball coverage it used to emphasize. But Kepner’s use of “Total Zone Total Fielding” was the clincher, demonstrating that the Times has gone over to the dark side.

Kepner, the Times’ national baseball writer, used the statistic in reporting that metric men were critical of the selection of Derek Jeter, the Yankees’ shortstop, as the Gold Glove shortstop. The Total Zone formula, Kepner wrote, rates Jeter 59th, or last, among major league shortstops.

What’s striking is that Chass doesn’t even try to argue that the metrics are wrong or misleading, which isn’t surprising since anybody who saw the Yankees play this year knows that Jeter has terrible range for a major league shortstop. He doesn’t argue that the Times‘ audience isn’t interested. It’s just that he can’t be bothered to understand new research or even to make arguments based on anything but bare assertion, and if that’s all he wants to do that’s all any consumer of sportswriting should get. Let’s just say I think the Times‘s decision has been vindicated.

…here’s an argument from authority you won’t be seeing on Chass’ blog compendium of online columns.

Maybe humanity isn’t doomed after all

[ 5 ] November 18, 2010 |

Nowledge triumphs.

More from the Tinfoil Hat Brigade

[ 16 ] November 18, 2010 |

Here’s some more embarrassingly reported tripe on the purported health dangers of cell phones, this time from The New York Times. Since its publication about a week ago (Nov. 13), “Should You Be Snuggling with Your Cell Phone?” has been among the paper’s top e-mailed articles. Predictably, the dubious scaremongering of Devra Davis provides the inspiration for the piece; also unsurprising is the author’s reliance on the work of University of Washington bioengineering prof Henry Lai, who is usually rolled out on occasions like this to supply additional weight to the belief that low doses of non-ionizing radiation from electromagnetic fields (EMF) can provoke an array of health adversities. (Lai is among the small number of proper scientists who actually believe that the phenomenon of electromagnetic hypersensitivity [EHS] exists, despite all evidence to the contrary.)

I’ve discussed Davis’ work before, but Lai’s role in the debate is also worth noting. Here’s the Times:

Henry Lai, a research professor in the bioengineering department at the University of Washington, began laboratory radiation studies in 1980 and found that rats exposed to radiofrequency radiation had damaged brain DNA. He maintains a database that holds 400 scientific papers on possible biological effects of radiation from wireless communication. He found that 28 percent of studies with cellphone industry funding showed some sort of effect, while 67 percent of studies without such funding did so. “That’s not trivial,” he said.

The unit of measurement for radiofrequency exposure is called the specific absorption rate, or SAR. The Federal Communications Commission mandates that the SAR produced by phones be no more than 1.6 watts per kilogram. One study listed by Mr. Lai found effects like loss of memory in rats exposed to SAR values in the range of 0.0006 to 0.06 watts per kilogram. “I did not expect to see effects at low levels,” he said.

Of course he wouldn’t. And neither would virtually anyone else, since Lai’s rat studies from the early 1990s — which occupy a special place in the EMF literature — have failed to receive any subsequent confirmation. Numerous attempts have been made to replicate the results detected by Lai and his co-author, but none have succeeded. Any application of the weight-of-evidence standard would be sufficient to relegate Lai’s two rat articles to the far margins of the relevant scientific literature, and yet you can’t swing a dead cat without bumping into another credulous journalist willing to mention them. (These same journalists, by contrast, seem curiously unaware of Lai’s efforts to affirm the efficacy of Hulda Clark’s low-voltage “zapper”, which she claimed would rid the body of virtually any disease, including Alzheimer’s and AIDS. Lai’s willingness to accept money from and conduct research on behalf of known scam artist should be enough to give pause, even if the results of his peer-reviewed research had actually held up over time.)

As for Lai’s database of “400 scientific papers” and his claim that industry funding correlates positively with industry-friendly results? Well, these are the sorts of things that might sound impressive to readers but don’t actually carry any real meaning. As it happens, the half-century of literature on the health effects of electromagnetic fields (including cell and cordless phones) now runs into the tens of thousands of articles — covering the whole gamut of lab studies, animal studies, and epidemiological studies, as well as examinations of short- and long-term exposure at varying frequencies. Given that science is messy to begin with and that the results of small, preliminary studies are often challenged or disproved by larger, better-designed research, it’s not surprising that someone willing to pick cherries could bring up a list of published work (including his own) whose data and conclusions have nevertheless failed to thrive under additional scrutiny. Rather than worry about the “400 published papers” mentioned by Lai and the Times, it would be far better to look at the reviews conducted by the World Health Organization, public health and other government agencies around the world, as well as standards-setting organizations like the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation
Protection (ICNRP) or the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers
International Committee on Electromagnetic Safety (IEEE/ISCES), the latter of which has a brief, outstanding report — for people who get excited by this sort of thing — in the October 2009 issue of Health Physics (available as a .pdf here). The IEEE pays special attention to a literature review (the 2007 BioInitiative Report) conducted by a group headed by Lai himself; suffice it to say that the IEEE committee was not impressed with the effort.

Similarly, although the question of funding does matter, industry support for the research do not matter not nearly so much as the question of what the largest, best-designed and reproducible studies have discovered. As it stands, in spite of noise in the data, the weight of the evidence continues to support the conclusion that cell phones, cell towers, wi-fi networks or any other everyday electromagnetic fields pose no significant risk to human health.

If anyone has read this far in the post, you may be wondering why anyone should care about this. Personally, I couldn’t be bothered if people read articles like the one in the Times and decide to cancel their high-speed internet or throw away their iPhones. After all, the public health effects of cell phone hysterics are nonexistent compared to the perils caused by, say, people who refuse to have their kids vaccinated against measles. But while the species may be distinct, the fears of EMF and vaccines share the same genus. Moreover, bad science reporting on any particular issue is bad for critical thought in general, and it reinforces our shared misunderstanding of how the scientific community actually works. And if that’s not sufficient justification, remember that the condemnation of bullshit is its own reward.

Mental decency

[ 24 ] November 18, 2010 |

show trial

Glenn Greenwald as usual does an excellent job summarizing the Orwellian proceedings surrounding the detention and trial of Ahmed Ghailani.

One point that bears particular emphasis is that the government, or more precisely the Obama administration through its Department of Justice, made clear at the trial that Ghailani would not be released no matter what verdict the jury might reach. Despite this (and despite the fact Ghailani was convicted of a charge that by itself will result in a sentence of 20 years to life, to be served in a Supermax facility, i.e., under conditions of solitary confinement that are themselves somewhat difficult to distinguish from the torture to which Ghailani was subjected, and which made much of the evidence against him unadmissable), people like Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney denounced the proceedings as far too civilized for their taste:

Bad ideas have dangerous consequences. The Obama Administration recklessly insisted on a civilian trial for Ahmed Ghailani, and rolled the dice in a time of war. The Department of Justice says it’s pleased by the verdict. Ask the families of the victims if they’re pleased. And this result isn’t just embarrassing. It’s dangerous. It signals weakness in a time of war. The Ghailani trial was supposed to be a test case for future trials of 9/11 terrorists.

We urge the president: End this reckless experiment. Reverse course. Use the military commissions at Guantanamo that Congress has authorized. And, above all–accept the fact that we are at war


(The enemy in this war is unspecified, but I imagine it’s either Eastasia or Eurasia).

Speaking of Orwell, conservatives have special affection for this quote:

“First of all, a message to English left-wing journalists and intellectuals generally: Do remember that dishonesty and cowardice always have to be paid for. Don’t imagine that for years on end you can make yourself the boot-licking propagandist of the Soviet régime, or any other régime, and then suddenly return to mental decency. Once a whore, always a whore.”

Apparently they missed the italicized phrase.

Initial Thoughts on the Ghailani Verdict

[ 12 ] November 18, 2010 |

The conventional wisdom in the press today is that the conviction of Ahmed Ghailani on only one of 285 possible charges by a civilian court in New York will hobble the Administration’s case that justice can be brought to terror suspects in civilian courts.

Certainly Republicans have pounced on the opportunity to spin the verdict in this light. Of course, given that the single conviction of conspiracy carries a 20-year minimum sentence, it’s hard to see how justice isn’t being served here. However as Benjamin Wittes explains, that hardly matters from a political perspective.

Two other observations about this case and its wider relationship to the debate over humane treatment of detainees:

1) First, what the Republicans aren’t saying: the main reason why so few charges resulted in a conviction is that evidence gained by the US under torture is inadmissible. So what this verdict shows is not that civilian courts can’t successfully prosecute terrorists, but that fair trials in any court are stymied by a widespread policy of torturing detainees.

2) Second, there is a tremendous irony from a human rights perspective: Ghailani will likely serve his sentence in solitary confinement at a Supermax prison, with near-complete sensory deprivation, no access to human contact, and at most one hour of time outside his cell per day. According to a a UN panel”>1996 UN panel these constitute inhumane conditions and likely violate not only international law but also the US Constitution’s eighth amendment prohibition on cruel and degrading punishment. From a humane treatment perspective, he might have been better off remaining indefinitely detained at Guantanamo Bay than sequestered for 20 years in the US civilian prison system.

Poor Ireland

[ 1 ] November 18, 2010 |

If it only it had the rugged self-reliance of our red states, it would be fine.