Archives July 2013

The 95% Textbook

I’m a big fan of consensus, at least when it comes to figuring out whether something is true or not. If your doctor tells you have, say, ALS, well, that doctor might be wrong. But if you seek a second or third opinion, and those doctors independently come to the same conclusion, then the odds are that the diagnosis was correct. If you’ve ever participated in an interest-based community, be it crocheting or motorcycle racing or The Walking Dead fans or parakeet breeding or whatever, you’ll know that enthusiasts in these communities often have heated discussions on all sorts of topics, and will hash out the issues at length. So when it gets to the point where most everyone who knows the subject agrees on the answer to some question, that answer is most likely correct.

By way of counterexample: in the series Black Adder II, episode Potato, Blackadder has chartered the ship of Captain Rum, and discovered that there’s no crew:

Blackadder: I was under the impression that it was common maritime practice for a ship to have a crew.

Rum: Opinion is divided on the subject.

Blackadder: Oh, really?

Rum: Yes. All the other captains say it is; I say it isn’t.

So I wondered, what if we wanted to write an utterly uncontroversial textbook on some subject, to introduce elementary or High School students to the subject. Uncontroversial because we’re not interested in presenting the controversies at the cutting edge of research; just present what’s been learned about the subject so far.

Read More

Orson Scott Card Wants You to Forget How Much He Hates Gays

Remember the heady days of 2008, when Orson Scott Card wrote:

How long before married people answer the dictators thus: Regardless of law, marriage has only one definition, and any government that attempts to change it is my mortal enemy. I will act to destroy that government and bring it down, so it can be replaced with a government that will respect and support marriage, and help me raise my children in a society where they will expect to marry in their turn.


The dark secret of homosexual society — the one that dares not speak its name — is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.

If America becomes a place where the laws of the nation declare that marriage no longer exists — which is what the Massachusetts decision actually does — then our allegiance to America will become zero. We will transfer our allegiance to a society that does protect marriage.


homosexuality is a pathological condition of the sexual system.

And back in 1990:

Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those whoflagrantly violate society’s regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.

The goal of the polity is not to put homosexuals in jail. The goal is to discourage people from engaging in homosexual practices in the first place, and, when they nevertheless proceed in their homosexual behavior, to encourage them to do so discreetly, so as not to shake the confidence of the community in the polity’s ability to provide rules for safe, stable, dependable marriage and family relationships.

Good times. No, wait, not good times at all. What’s the expression I’m looking for? What a gigantic douchebag. Yeah, that’s it. And he’s been at it vocally and for a long time.

So anyway, for those who hadn’t heard, a movie version of Card’s novel Ender’s Game is coming out, and a group is calling for a boycott, what with Card being such a raging homophobe and all.

So here’s what Orson Scott Card told Entertainment Weekly (emphasis added):

Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.

With the recent Supreme Court ruling, the gay marriage issue becomes moot. The Full Faith and Credit clause of the Constitution will, sooner or later, give legal force in every state to any marriage contract recognized by any other state.

Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute.

For one thing, while I think the tide has turned on gay marriage, the issue is far from “moot”, as Card says. I’ll give him credit for recognizing that he’s on the losing side; I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he’s motivated by wanting people to see a piece of art that he had a hand in, and not because he stands to make money from it.

But really. That last paragraph. No. Just no. He doesn’t get to fight against gay rights for more than a decade, and then, when it’s clear that his side is losing, try to pretend like it never happened.

I’d argue that since gay-rights activists aren’t calling for him to be thrown in jail for having sex the way he likes it, they’re already showing him more tolerance than he himself has shown.

I’m sorry, but “why aren’t you more tolerant of my intolerance?” won’t wash. If you want people to play nice with you, you first have to play nice with them. And just for the record, “playing nice” includes things like not saying they must be the way they are because they were abused as children, and also not calling for them to be thrown in jail because you don’t approve of their partners.

(via Towleroad)

Now, I confess that I’m somewhat torn: I did enjoy Ender’s Game tremendously (first the novel, and then the short story that it was based on). It’s not all that political (as I recall, it leans more toward libertarianism than what’s called “conservative” in modern American politics), and I don’t remember any gay issues, or any sex-related issues at all. That book was written by pre-brain-eater Orson Scott Card.

And normally, I’d be content to leave it at that: I try to keep the artist separate from the work, and accept that people with political views I strongly disagree with can still write stories that I like.

But Card has been so extreme, so vitriolic, for so long, that he’s retroactively tainted my enjoyment of what he wrote back when he wasn’t yet a hate-filled ugly bag of mostly bile.


One of the things I learned in math is that a polynomial of degree N can pass through N+1 arbitrary points. A straight line goes through any two points, a parabola goes through any three points, and so forth. The practical upshot of this is that if your equation is complex enough, you can fit it to any data set.

That’s basically what happened to the geocentric model: it started out simple, with planets going around the Earth in circles. Except that some of the planets wobbled a bit. So they added more terms to the equations to account for the wobbles. Then there turned out to be more wobbles on top of the first wobbles, and more terms had to be added to the equations to take those into account, and so on until the theory collapsed under its own weight. There wasn’t any physical mechanism or cause behind the epicycles (as these wobbles were called). They were just mathematical artifacts. And so, one could argue that the theory was simpler when it had fewer epicycles and didn’t explain all of the data, but also was less wrong.

Take another example (adapted from Russell Glasser, who got it from his CS instructor): let’s say you and I order a pizza, and it comes with olives. I hate olives and you love them, so we want to cut it up in such a way that we both get slices of the same size, but your slice has as many of the olives as possible, and mine have as few as possible. (And don’t tell me we could just order a half-olive pizza; I’m using this as another example.)

We could take a photo of the pizza, feed it into an algorithm that’ll find the position of each olive and come up with the best way to slice the pizza fairly, but with a maximum of olives on your slices.

The problem is, this tells us nothing about how to slice the next such pizza that we order. Unless there’s some reason to think that the olives on the next pizza will be laid out in some similar way on the next pizza, we can’t tell the pizza parlor how to slice it up when we place our next order.

In contrast, imagine if we’d looked at the pizza and said, “Hm. Looks like the cook is sloppy, and just tossed a handful of olives on the left side, without bothering to spread them around.” Then we could ask the parlor slice to slice it into wedges, and we have good odds of winding up with three slices with extra olives and three with minimal olives. Or if we’d found that the cook puts the olives in the middle and doesn’t spread them around. Then we could ask the parlor to slice the pizza into a grid; you take the middle pieces, and I’ll take the outside ones.

But our original super-optimal algorithm doesn’t allow us to do that: by trying to perfectly account for every single olive in that one pizza, it doesn’t help us at all in trying to predict the next pizza.

In The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver calls this overfitting. It’s often tempting to overfit, because then you can say, “See! My theory of Economic Epicycles explains 29 of the last 30 recessions, as well as 85% of the changes in the Dow Jones Industrial Average!” But is this exciting new theory right? That is, does it help us figure out what the future holds; whether we’re looking at a slight economic dip, a recession, or a full-fledged depression?

We’ve probably all heard the one about how the Dow goes up and down along with skirt hems. Or that the performance of the Washington Redskins predicts the outcome of US presidential elections. Of course, there’s no reason to think that fashion designers control Wall Street, or that football players have special insight into politics. More importantly, it goes to show that if you dig long enough, you can find some data set that matches the one you’re looking at. And in this interconnected, online, googlable world, it’s easier than ever to find some data set that matches what you want to see.

These two examples are easy to see through, because there’s obviously no causal relationship between football and politics. But we humans are good at telling convincing stories. What if I told you that pizza sales (with or without olives) can help predict recessions? After all, when people have less spending money, they eat out less, and pizza sales suffer.

I just made this up, both the pizza example and the explanation. So it’s bogus, unless by some million-to-one chance I stumbled on something right. But it’s a lot more plausible than the skirt or football examples, and thus we need to be more careful before believing it.

Update: John Armstrong pointed out that the first paragraph should say “N+1”, not “N”.

Update 2: As if on cue, Wonkette helps demonstrate the problems with trying to explain too much in this post about Glenn Beck somehow managing to tie together John Kerry’s presence or absence on a boat, his wife’s seizure, and Hillary Clinton’s answering or not answering questions about Benghazi. Probably NSFW because hey, Wonkette. But also full of Glenn Beck-ey crazy.

Horrible Acts Too Horrible to Release

In the AP’s story about the Milwaukee diocese having to release its records of priestly sex abuse and shuffling priests around to protect Holy Mother Church, one part jumped out at me:

Listecki, who succeeded Dolan in Milwaukee, said Tuesday in his weekly email to priests, parish leaders and others that he hoped releasing the documents would allow the church to move forward. But he also warned that descriptions of abuse can be “ugly.”

“I worry about the reactions of abuse survivors when confronted again with this material and pray it doesn’t have a negative effect on them,” he wrote.

which I think translates to “the things we did to those people are so horrible, we don’t want to hurt them further by releasing the details of our horrible actions to the public.”

This deserves to be the the prime textbook example of a self-serving rationalization.

And here I thought confession was supposed to be good for the soul.