damnum absque injuria

April 29, 2006

On Anonymity in Blogland

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 5:07 pm

As you probably know by now, Patterico got results. Not necessarily the results he would have wanted, but results nonetheless. Patterico’s one-time nemesis, L.A. Times Columnist/blogger/sock puppet Michael Hiltzik has been suspended, and his column and blog terminated, as a result of the infamous sock puppet incident. While some (read: me) might argue that the Tribune Co. should have canned Hiltzik years ago simply for being an asshat, apparently asshattery is not a hanging offense among L.A. Times journalists. Posting comments under pseudonyms, however, is. Per the editors’ note:

Hiltzik did not commit any ethical violations in his newspaper column, and an internal inquiry found no inaccurate reporting in his postings in his blog or on the Web. But employing pseudonyms constitutes deception and violates a central tenet of The Times’ ethics guidelines: Staff members must not misrepresent themselves and must not conceal their affiliation with The Times. This rule applies equally to the newspaper and the Web world.

That logic seems a bit strained, to say the least. Has any reader of this here blog, or of any other blog I’ve posted a comment on, been “deceived” by my handle? If so, how? Did my calling myself Xrlq cause you to honestly believe that my real name was “Xrlq,” or that I was some other person who I’m not? At most, my posting here under the name “Xrlq” should have led you to believe I am the same individual who calls himself Xrlq while posting comments or guest blogger entries at Patterico’s Pontifications, Captain’s Quarters, or anywhere else – which happens to be true (unless someone is out there spoofing my identity, in which case, he, not I, am the one doing the deceiving). Using a pseudonym is not equivalent to lying about one’s identity; it is equivalent to stating truthfully that you do not wish to disclose it. My refusal to disclose my identity is no more or less “deceptive” than any of the three unsigned editorials that the L.A. Times staff runs every day.

All this assumes, of course, that you are upfront about the fact that your pseudonym is a pseudonym. That’s not an issue if you call yourself something like Angry Clam, Armed Liberal, Atrios, Boi From Troy, Caltechgirl, Flap, Hesiod, Ith, Little Miss Atilla, Mean Mr. Mustard, Moxie, Patterico, Publius, Romanesko, Uncle, Spoons, Xrlq or Zombyboy, which no one in his right mind should ever confuse with anyone’s real name. Similarly, if you call yourself Beldar (what happened to him, anyway?), no one will assume your real name is Beldar, even if in reality, it almost is. Things gets a little dicier if you go with a pseudonym like “Leopold Stotch,” which is obvious to hard-core South Park fans but non-obvious medium-core fans, and indecipherable to anyone else. Where it really becomes a problem is when you pick a normal joe’s regular-sounding name, which could easily be your real name, but isn’t. If your real name is Samuel Clemens but you’d rather write under the name Mark Twain, great, but in that case, the least you could do is to disclose on your sidebar that your real name isn’t really Mark Twain – if only to protect the privacy of the Twain family, whose bratty son Mark already gets them enough flak as it is.into enough trouble as it is.

Paradoxically, in addition to being far too broad, the L.A. Times staff’s claim that “employing pseudonyms constitutes deception” is also overly narrow. I don’t know what Michael Hiltzik’s middle name is, or even if he as one, but assuming he does, what if it happened to be … oh, I dunno … Kosinski? If it was, then Michael Kosinski Hiltzik could argue that “MikeKosHi” is not a pseudonym at all, just a clever variation on his real name. Ditto for a series of comments by Mike, Michael, Mike H., MKH, M. Kosinski, etc. All that’s allowed, right? Technically, yes – but non-technically, no; it’s sock puppetry, just as the inappropriate use of an obvious pseudonym would be.

Finally, having the same rule apply equally to the newspaper and “the Web world” seems a bit overbroad in its own right. From where I sit, everything Michael Hiltzik did on the Golden State Blog was company business, but what he did on other people’s blogs, he did on his own time. Imagine that Hiltzik’s offense had been not the implicit lying of pseudonymy (according to the L.A. Times) or of sock puppetry (according to almost everyone outside the tent), but an outright fabrication. Does anyone seriously believe Jayson Blair would have been fired by the N.Y. Times if his Times stories had all been accurate, and the now-infamous creative writing that got him canned had all been confined to a personal weblog? And if not, why on earth should Hiltzik get in trouble for doing the same on other people’s weblogs?

In the end, I think the L.A. Times did the right thing in Hiltik’s case, but for the wrong reason. Ending Hiltzik’s Golden State Blog is a no-brainer; few L.A. Times staff writers get to have a company blog, so why hand that privilege out to the guy who’s arleady abused it? Dropping the column, suspending him and reassigning him seem reasonable enough also, for two reasons. First, while I disagree with the L.A. Times’s policy prohibiting its journalists from ever using pseudonyms, I do think that at some level, rules are rules. They may not be good rules, but regardless, Hiltzik knew about them, and should have followed them. Second, contrary to the implication of the editor’s note, Hiltzik’s misconduct was not confined to “the Web world” at large; some of it occurred on a web site owned and controlled by the L.A. Times, and all was done to promote his L.A. Times column, his L.A. Times blog, or both.

April 28, 2006

Experts vs. Advocates

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 7:55 pm

Today’s Dog Trainer Staff Writer Henry Weinstein illustrated once again the newspaper’s policy of identifying ideological biases of one side but not the other. Take a look at how he describes anti-death penalty activist Franklin Zimring vs. pro-death penalty activist Kent Scheiddiger:

Whichever way Fogel eventually rules on the challenge, an appeal is a virtual certainty, which makes it likely that there will no more executions until 2007 at the earliest, according to UC Berkeley law professor Frank Zimring, an expert on capital punishment.

“I think the smart money at this point would bet against any more executions in California in 2006, and I think it goes beyond that,” Zimring said.

Kent Scheidegger, legal director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a pro-capital punishment group in Sacramento, conceded it was “quite possible” there would be no more executions this year.

So in Timesspeak, anyone who opposes capital punishment is an expert, while any expert in supporting it is an advocate.

Meanwhile, here on the right coast, murder victim Angela Felton finally got the justice that continues to be denied to Terri Winchell.

Arizona Insanity Defense

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 7:22 pm

I like Arizona’s version of the insanity defense. While most states declare nutty criminals not guilty by reason of insanity, and apply the defense if the defendant either fails to appreciate the nature of his acts or does not know they are wrong, Arizona brands them “guilty except insane,” and applies only the latter test – not knowing the act was wrong.

MAD OR BAD? IN OVERSIMPLIFIED TERMS, that’s the question when a criminal defendant asserts an insanity defense — which is less often than viewers of “Law & Order” might imagine but too frequent for some state legislators. Last week, Arizona asked the U.S. Supreme Court to allow it to gut a definition of legal insanity that has been on the books since 1843.

“Asked the Supreme Court to allow it” sure sounds as though Arizona is the one appealing the sentence to the Supreme Court, doesn’t it? Actually, the opposite is true. Arizona prevailed unanimously on the first appeal, the Arizona Supreme Court denied certiorari (i.e., chose not to hear the case), so for Arizona to drop its defense now would have been insane. Also, as the editors later obliquely admit, the M’Naughton defnese has not been on Arizona’s books since 1843; it’s been off them since 1993. When that defense first found its way onto the books is not immediately obvious, but one thing is obvious: it wasn’t 1843, when Arizona belonged to Mexico.

The court should refuse.

Translated: the Court should affirm that time-honored, double-secret Executing Crazy People Amendment, which was ratified in 1843, but was inexplicably codified as Amendment 12 1/2. I’m sure it’s buried somewhere under Findlaw, but so far I haven’t been able to locate it. Its history is also a bit odd; while most Amendments must pass both houses of Congress by a supermajority and be ratified by a superdupermajority of the states, this one slipped thorough after being ratified by a simple majority of only one House – of the British Parliament:

In 1993, Arizona joined the list of states that tightened their insanity laws after the Hinckley acquittal. But it went to extremes. In providing for a verdict of “guilty except insane,” it removed one prong of a two-part definition of legal insanity promulgated by the British House of Lords in 1843 and incorporated in the laws of most of the United States.

Apparently, once a law is incorporated by most states, it can be amended or repealed by none, not even by those states that weren’t even U.S. territories at the time the double-secret amendment was passed. Neat.

Bet They Taste Like Crap

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 6:33 pm

DasaTech, a South Korean company, presents Robo-Dog.

April 25, 2006


Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 10:04 pm

FoxNews confirms that Tony Snow will be President Bush’s new press secretary. Excellent choice. It sucks for Fox, though.

UPDATE: The ballfest continues.

April 23, 2006

White House Press Secretaries

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 7:44 pm

Jay Rosen thinks no blogger sympathetic to the Bush agenda has had the balls to say this, so allow me to be the first. Scott McClellan was a disaster for that agenda. He was completely inept at explaining Bush’s policies, and embarrassingly bad at everything a press secretary has to do. Every day, he projected to the entire world a pathetic image of sad sackery – and with the presidential seal right there under his quacking face.

To say Tony Snow would be an upgrade would be the quintessential understatment.

UPDATE: Heh. Probably an unintentional heh, but heh nonetheless.

Good News From Iraq

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 9:59 am

We don’t have whatsisface anymore, but Michael Fumento is there.

April 22, 2006

In Defense of Fallacies

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 2:51 pm

Far too often, debates have been “won” simply by pointing to well-known logical fallacies, as if identifying a formal fallacy in an argument proved that the argument was wrong. It doesn’t seem to matter what the fallacy is. It can be affirming the consequent, denying the antecedent, slippery slope, poisoning the well, the archetype fallacy or whatever. They all seem to share a common thread: observing that an argument is fallacious in the formal, logical sense of the word, and fallaciously concluding that it should therefore be ignored altogether (or worse, turned into a a mini logic-lesson, as I myself have been guilty of on occasion).

This fallacious reasoning about fallacies is summed up nicely, albeit unintentionally, by this site, quoted approvingly by McQ, which has this to say:

A fallacy is a kind of error in reasoning. The alphabetical list below contains 171 names of the most common fallacies, and it provides explanations and examples of each of them. Fallacies should not be persuasive, but they often are.

Wrong. Fallacies should never be mistaken for conclusive proofs, but that doesn’t mean they should never be persuasive. Indeed, they often should be. Here’s why: the word fallacy, as used by logicians, does not mean the same thing that it typically means when used by laymen. A good lay definition of “fallacy” is as follows:

  1. A false notion.
  2. A statement or an argument based on a false or invalid inference.
  3. Incorrectness of reasoning or belief; erroneousness.
  4. The quality of being deceptive.

Obviously, anything that matches those definitions should never persuade anyone of anything, and is rightly described as an error in judgment when it does. However, none of these definitions match that of a logical fallacy, which merely means that the conclusion does not logically follow from the argument. In other words, all this definition means is that it is possible – not necessarily probable – that the argument can be true while the conclusion is false.

Take, for example, a criminal trial. Every one of them, without exception, involves inferential leaps which, however reasonable, would be deemed “fallacious” under the rules of geometric logic. The fact that the defendant’s fingerprints are on the gun and his DNA is found on the victim may be very damning indeed, but they are not absolute proof that he is the killer. Maybe both were planted. Maybe he did fired the gun before or after the murder, e.g., at the shooting range, and had consensual sex with the victim, only to have The Real Killer steal his gun, rape the victim while wearing one of Mike Nifong’s super-condoms, and then shoot her while wearing rubber gloves. Maybe the cops had access to the suspect’s DNA from some other source, and simply planted it at the scene. Maybe The Real Killer used a different gun, and the matches between the bullet and the barrel of this gun are the product of a bizarre coincidence. Even if the whole thing was witnessed by 10 people and captured on videotape, maybe all 10 of them are lying and the videotape forged. Maybe this, maybe that – a lot of things could have happened, which is why we only require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and not proof beyond any doubt whatsoever, as some bored logicians imply that we should. Case in point:

Poisoning the well is a preemptive attack on a person in order to discredit their testimony or argument in advance of their giving it. A person who thereby becomes unreceptive to the testimony reasons fallaciously and has become a victim of the poisoner. This is a kind of ad hominem.

[Prosecuting attorney in court] When is the defense attorney planning to call that twice-convicted child molester, David Barnington, to the stand? OK, I’ll rephrase that. When is the defense attorney planning to call David Barnington to the stand?

This is an excellent example of poisoning a well that should be poisoned. No, it doesn’t follow logically that if Barnington is a twice-convicted child molester, he must be about to lie on the stand now, which presumably is the conclusion this prosecutor wants the jury to draw. But does anyone seriously doubt that a twice-convicted child molester is more likely than the average witness to lie on the stand? If so, try this simpler example, instead:

[Prosecuting attorney in court] When is the defense attorney planning to call that twice-convicted perjurer, David Barnington, to the stand? OK, I’ll rephrase that. When is the defense attorney planning to call David Barnington to the stand?

Formally, this is precisely the same “fallacy” as appeared in the previous example. Just because Barnington has twice been convicted of lying on the stand, doesn’t mean he’s going to lie on the stand this time around. He might not. But then again, he might, and given his track record he’s a lot more likely to than the average joe, so it’s not unreasonable to ask a jury to take this into account. Yet if we were to follow this author’s reasoning to its logical conclusion, we’d have to ignore Barnington’s past entirely, on the theory that anything which doesn’t mathematically prove Barnington is lying should not be considered at all. That may be “logical,” in the most formal sense of the word, but it’s also insane.

The reality is that when discussing arguments on anything other than logical proofs, some “fallacies” are truly fallacious in the common dictionary sense – i.e., wrong – while others aren’t. Formal logic won’t tell you which; only a close examination of the merits of the argument will. Take, for example, a slippery slope argument on the Supreme Court’s annoyingly expansive view of the Commerce Clause:

If Congress can tell individual farmers how much wheat they can grow on their own land to feed their own families, it can regulate just about anything.

This is a classic slippery slope argument, based on the notion that A (Congress being allowed to regulate individual farmers growing wheat for personal use) will necessarily lead to B (Congress being able to do whatever it wants). It is a very reasonable inference to draw, and with 20-20 hindsight, it also appears to be mostly correct. Yet, as a logical proof, it fails. Certainly, it was possible that the Supreme Court could have ruled for the plaintiffs in Gonzales v. Raich (affirming Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause to prohibit medical marijuana) without overturning Wickard v. Filburn (affirming Congress’s power under the Commerce Clause to limit individual farmers’ wheat production). It would have involved some fancy footwork, mind you, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened. The Supremes could have distinguished the cases any number of ways, had they been so inclined. For example, they could have noted that the regulation at issue in Wickard was a fundamentally economic in nature, that it exempted small-scale private farms, and its that its principal purpose, if not its full impact on Mr. Filburn himself, was to regulate the interstate trade of wheat, and not purely intrastate, non-economic activities analogous to growing and smoking one’s own personal supply of medical marijuana. Or it could have finally pulled its institutional head out of its rectum and looked to the obvious intent of the law, noted that it was not to regulate interstate commerce but to use interstate commerce as a pretext for regulating something else, and invalidated the statute on that basis. Or they could do as they’ve done for racially restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer or abortion in Roe, and limited Wickard to its subject, which was wheat, not weed. Or they could have gone totally loopy and discovered a constitutional “right” to smoke weed, lodged right there in the emanations and penumbras of the Abortion Amendment. Or they could have done just about anything else.

None of these alternative scenarios were ever particularly likely, of course; indeed, anyone who predicted that the court would have done them might well have been dismissed as a crank. Rather, when Raich reached the court, nearly all serious legal scholars did precisely what bored logicians argue that they shouldn’t have done: assumed that the slope was very slippery, and confine their debate to which direction we’ll slip in. Either the Court would continue down the slope that Wickard started us down, or it would reverse course and slip down the other direction, taking Wickard itself along with it (either immediatley, or in a future decision). The notion that the Court would treat the two cases separately – even though everyone knew it technically could – was generally dismissed out of hand.

The real problem, I think, is not with the concept of a slippery slope argument, so much as the lame scenarios to which it is often applied. I for one oppose gun registration because I think it is wasteful, bureaucratic and annoying, but I do not share the belief common among my fellow gunnies that it will lead to large-scale confiscation, and certainly do not share the view that any checks at all should be prohibited because they could lead to registration. To argue that such a law will lead to broad-based confiscation (as opposed to merely acknowledging the theoretical possibility that it could) requires a Rube Goldberg of increasingly dubious inferences. The most intuitive path I can think of is this:

  1. Allowing government to run background checks will give it information that could be, and sometimes is, used to create a national registry.
  2. Most people who favor gun registration also support other laws that burden gun ownership slightly more – e.g., waiting periods or “gun of the month” laws.
  3. Most people who favor waiting periods or gun of the month laws, also favor other stupid, pointless exercises that burden gun owners even more – e.g., prohibitions on “assault” weapons.
  4. Most people who favor all of the above restrictions also support a law that burdens gun ownership in a way that really matters: they support restrictions on law-abiding citizens’ ability to carry concealed weapons for their personal self-defense.
  5. Most people who favor all of these restrictions also support, or at least cannot bring themselves to openly oppose, laws that bar ordinary citizens from owning a gun at all.
  6. Therefore, requiring instant background checks will lead to the disarming of the American people.

Or, if you prefer, here’s the abortion version of this reasoning:

  1. Most people who support laws treating fetal homicide as murder, think late-term, unborn babies are people.
  2. Most people who think late-term, unborn babies are people, also think it should be illegal for their mothers to hire hit men doctors to kill them.
  3. Most people who think late-term or partial-birth abortion should be illegal, also think mid-term abortions should be illegal.
  4. Most people who think mid-term abortions should be illegal, also think most first-term abortions should be illegal.
  5. Most people who think most first-term abortions should be illegal, think all abortions should be illegal.
  6. Therefore, laws criminalizing fetal homicide as murder will lead to a ban on all abortions.

Each of these individual arguments, taken by itself, is probably true. However, the conclusions are almost certainly not, because at some point, a majority of a majority of a majority of a majority becomes a minority, the issues become more complex than advocates on both sides of the issue let on, and the slope ceases to be slippery. And therein lies the real objection to these arguments: it’s not an objection to slippery slopes per se, but to the fact that a particular slope is being portrayed as though it were more slippery than it really is.

Similar arguments can be made about other logical fallacies. If, for example, a person attempts to poison the well with a false accusation, or with an insult unrelated to the credibility of the statment he is attempting to discredit, then his opponent should rightfully call him on it, not because he’s poisoning the well, but because he’s doing so improperly.

April 21, 2006

Strange Dreams

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 11:03 pm

Recently, I’ve been having some pretty wacky dreams. Not sure what they mean, if anything, but here they are.

  • On Tuesday night, I had spicy (not good, mind you, but spicy, which is the best you can hope for here on the Right Coast) Mexican food late at night. Big mistake. I slept fitfully and, for the most part, “dreamlessly,” which I understand to mean simply that you don’t remember your dreams after you wake up, not that they didn’t occur. I’m sure whatever I actually dreamed about early on was cool, but the only part I do recall was at the tail end. I dreamt that I was sitting in a pub quaffing Black and Tans, when the bartender turned on the evening news. A newsman was interviewing a prosecutor from Dumbass, South Virginia named Mike Hunt, who kept leaning toward the camera so that his face would fill up the screen. Mr. Hunt was very proud to be the first D.A. since Salem to try anyone for witchcraft. The reporter asked how he could tell, and he said “some guy with a rap sheet told me they were, and I believe him.” The alleged victim of said witchcraft, who was obviously drunk, chimed in and said “they turned me into Newt!” Newt Gingrich then appeared and said “well, you must have gotten better, then, eh?” Mr. Hunt then said “nevermind the Newt, we know they’re witches because they’re dressed like them.” The camera then cut to an attorney for one of the alleged witches, who protested that his client had not in fact been dressed as a witch voluntarily, she was merely dressed that way now because Mr. Hunt and the sometime Newt had dressed her that way, and also placed a false “witch” nose on top of her real one, to boot. Mr. Hunt conceded as much, but insisted that she and the other two hapless young ladies were, in fact, witches. After all, the Newt-victim had picked them out in a police line-up. The newscaster asked who else was in the line-up, and Mr. Hunt replied “Nobody, of course. These three were the witches, why waste anyone else’s time by asking them to stand in a line-up, too? Don’t be silly. The camera switched back to the anchor, who said “let’s hear what the locals have to say.” The camera trained on CalTechGirl, who said “Guilty, guilty, guilty. I don’t care if they did it or not, Dook sux!” Then I woke up, and lo and behold, the TV really was on. Mrs. X was watching Good Morning America, and the news crew was rambling on about some totally gay sport whose French-sounding name I can’t remember. Couldn’t have been too important.
  • On Wednesday night, I’d had a long day after not getting much sleep the night before, so I went to bed a bit earlier than normal. Usually I stay up to watch my favorite show, South Park, but this time I just couldn’t keep my eyes open that long. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, I dreamt that I was watching the show, possibly as a defense mechanism to keep me from waking myself up to watch the real thing. In the dream, the drawings looked about the same as they do in the real show, and the voices sounded about right, too, but rather than featuring any of the usual characters, the show featured a talking towel playing Jameserrico. Instead of the usual, witty plot, the show was totally stupid and the plot was centered entirely on a struggle between the towel and Oprah Winfrey’s private parts. As often occurs in the show, a female voice interjected “this show is completely gay!” only the voice was that of Mrs. Xrlq, not any of the characters in the show. Then the TV was eaten by a giant woman of Asian complexion, who looked a lot like Michelle Malkin and bellowed “See why I hate being called a South Park Conservative? That show is completely gay! Brian Anderson, you go to hell! You go to hell and you die!” I woke up in a cold sweat, and suddenly it hit me: it was midnight, I had slept through South Park, and I still wasn’t getting a good night’s sleep. Dammit. [Yes, Fatass, we are allowed to curse in the Bear Flag League.]
  • The next morning, just before the alarm went off, I dreamt that I was in some very foreign country called Ooga-Booga-Land, where everyone spoke some strange language that just happened to be perfectly comprehensible, sounding like ordinary English with an Ooga-Booga accent. The Ooga-Boogans welcomed me into their town as a guest, and offered me a plate of the local specialty, which consisted of fried, salted maggots. I gagged and said “I’m sorry, I can’t eat this.” In response, an Ooga-Boogan asked “Why not? Too much salt?”
  • The alarm went off, and I hit the snooze button. The dream appeared to pick up where it left off, with the Ooga-Boogans whisking away that disgusting dish, and I had mashed potatoes for lunch instead. When I’d finished eating, they handed me a laptop with WiFi, which worked remarkably well for a remote location in deepest, darkest Africa (or wherever the hell Ooga-Booga Land was, as I never got to see it on a map), with no power outlets for miles around. I headed on over to one of my favorite web sites, Glennerico’s Groovy Insights. The proprietors of the site, Glenn Frey and his sister Amber, had just exposed some knucklehead journalist at the Compton Chronicle who was lying through his teeth, pretending to be multiple people, and falsely accusing his opponents of everything under the sun while using a pseudonym. In response, the Chronicle suspended the knucklead in question for using a pseudonym. The alarm went off again, and I dragged myself out of bed and headed off to work, wondering what on earth the first half of this dream could have had to do with the second. Probably nothing, just one of those random dreams that jumps around randomly from subject to subject, I s’pose.
  • Last night I dreamt that the sensitivity police paid me a visit. They chastised me for repeatedly using the word “gay” as if it were a synonym for “bad,” a habit I was supposed to have outgrown upon graduation from junior high. I was tried, convicted and sent off to tolerance camp.

April 19, 2006

Computers to Become Obsolete?

Filed under:   by Xrlq @ 7:38 pm

Dean Esmay points to AjaxWrite, a fully-functional word processor that runs over the web, and wonders aloud if a Web 2.0 will render personal computers obsolete within a decade. It’s an interesting read.

My guess is that Dean may be right for those who live in large cities, where broadband is everywhere today, and will be swiftly replaced by broader-band tomorrow. Country bumpkins like me, on the other hand, are going to have to wait a bit longer than that, just as farmers did for traditional phone lines. Sure, we have satellite broadband, and that technology will continue to improve alongside other broadband options, but unless someone can find a way to fly satellites near the ground or accelerate the speed of light, satellite will have a pesky 1/2 second delay, which is a minor annoyance while viewing web sites, but which would render ordinary computer applications unusable.


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