Saturday, June 13, 2009

is there anything you can't do with bacon?

It can turn boring lettuce and tomato into a fabulous BLT. It can top a boring casserole to turn it into a thing of wonder. Its grease can be used to fry some of the best eggs of all time. It can turn an ordinary cheese burger into a bacon cheeseburger. And now, it can be used for welding.

NOW and David Letterman

From Xrlq, wonder of wonders, NOW is actually criticizing someone for making sexually degrading remarks about a conservative woman and her daughter. Patterico and Allah also noted it. But I doubt that NOW has actually grown a spine as Xrlq suggests. I looked through their archives and there was nothing at all about the weeks of sexually degrading leftist hate visited upon on Carrie Prejean. That alone shows how politically biased this list is. They do criticize a few political personalities on the left for insensitivity on women's issues and they do criticize entertainers for sexually degrading remarks aimed at Governor Palin, but no political personality (I include commentators and reporters in that) on the left is criticized for making sexual attacks on women of the right. The two entertainers criticized for their attacks on Palin are David Letterman and Eminem. Frankly, David Letterman seems a lot less leftist than most in the New York entertainment business, and Eminem is grotesquely gynophobic, so I don't think you can give NOW too much credit on either of those.

By contrast, three conservative commentators are criticized for taking shots at women of the left: G. Gordon Liddy, Glenn Beck, and Bill O'Reilly. The criticism of Liddy is a good one --he was acting like a pig-- but the criticisms of Beck and O'Reilly are partisan (I first wrote "embarrassingly partisan", but after NOW's reaction to Clinton and to O.J., they obviously cannot be embarrassed). Beck was criticized for criticizing Obama for his affirmative-action stance in picking Supreme Court nominees. O'Reilly was criticized twice, once for comparing a woman to the Wicked Witch of the West and once for doing a Michael-Moore ambush on a leftist woman blogger.

When O'Reilly (actually a female producer) did the ambush, they called it "stalking" to make it sound like sexually violent behavior but I didn't see any criticisms of Michael Moore himself. If they really think that camera ambushes are bad, this would have been a good time to criticize Micheal Moore, just like they took the criticism of David Letterman as a good opportunity to remind everyone how mean some conservatives were to Chelsea Clinton (if Rush really called a 13-year-old girl a dog on the air then he should be ashamed of himself, but I doubt that NOW is reporting his remarks accurately). As to O'Reilly's allusion to "The Wizard of Oz", it was not very nice, but the woman it was directed at, Helen Thomas can throw around insults with the best of them and I don't see how calling a woman the Wicked Witch of the West is sexist since men are often compared to unflattering male fictional characters.

So, although NOW should be congratulated for being able to suppress their partisanship long enough to criticize a relatively conservative entertainer for making a statutory-rape joke about a fourteen-year-old daughter of a Republican, let's not get too carried away congratulating them their new-found integrity until they show that it can actually apply in more politically-charged circumstances.

UPDATE: foxfire in the comments has unearthed a link that discusses the alleged case where Rush Limbaugh called Chelsea Clinton a dog. What actually happened: Rush (or his camera crew) showed a picture of a dog when Rush wanted a picture of Chelsea. Rush claimed immediately that it was an error and apologized immediately and then apologized again a few days later, again claiming that it was an error. Furthermore, if it was a joke, it's hard to see how it was aimed at Chelsea since they hadn't said her name yet. As a joke it would be the joke of referring to the Bush's dog as a child --it would be a joke aimed at the Bushes. Even better, Al Franken who started this story about Rush was a producer of Saturday Night Live at a time when they did a skit that very definitely make fun of Chelsea's looks in a very mean way --and Rush criticized them for it.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

fiction: A Hole In the Sky: part 4


Finally Matt's warning registered on the furious J.C. and he looked out the windshield. "Are you sure?"

On the radio, deputy Preason was shouting over the wind, "... again, Frank. Did you say that the tornado has reversed direction?"

"Yeah, it's coming right for you and that other SUV," the voice from the helicopter said, "I'd get my tail out of there if I were you."

J.C. put the Scout into reverse and hit the accelerator, bouncing everyone violently in their seats.

"Slow down, Julius." his wife said crossly, "It only goes ten miles an hour, remember?" She tried to resume typing but the vehicle was bouncing too much.

"Yeah, but it pulverizes stuff!" J.C. had to shout as the howling grew louder. His high-speed reverse had the Scout bouncing so hard that he was barely in control of the vehicle.

"Get off the track!" Matt yelled a few moments later, "It's gaining on us!"

"Snap out of it, Matt!" Katrina yelled back at him, barely holding onto her notebook in the bouncing seat. "You have been on the edge of panic all day! Storms do not follow any track!"

She slammed her notebook shut for emphasis, but it was lost on Matt who was busy watching through the windshield as the dust cloud overtook them and enveloped the vehicle. The two who were not madly driving raised their windows as the dust began pouring in and Matt used his passenger-side control to raise J.C.'s window.

The windows dampened the wailing winds enough for them to hear the helicopter pilot again. He was shouting also, "I think it's going a lot faster than twelve miles per hour. That civilian SUV looks like a goner."

"This isn't a normal storm," Matt told J.C. earnestly, trying to hold on to his bouncing seat with his hands. "It was traveling a straight path before and our only hope is if we guess right that it is traveling a straight path now. Get out of this rut."

J.C. was looking over his should, backing up a fast as he could. With a quick glance at Matt he steered hard and they were suddenly careening to the left nearly up on two wheels. The Scout was built for stability, but the rear wheel that was nearly off the ground hit a boulder at just the wrong height and just the wrong time. The Scout tumbled, crashed onto its right side and rolled upside down for half a turn, finally coming to rest on its left side.

The three of them sat in shock for a moment with J.C. and Matt staring up through the moon roof at the onrushing storm.

Katrina screamed, "I told you to stay in the path..."

The radio was screaming as well, "... SUV has rolled and the storm is quickly overtaking it..."

J.C. was retracting the hydraulic suspension with one hand and opening the moon roof with the other. "We have to get out and rock it back up!" He shouted. They all felt a sudden pain in their ears from pressure change. Matt stared at him for a moment, thinking that they had nowhere near enough time for such an operation, but when J.C started unlatching his seat belt, Matt did also. "Come on!" J.C. shouted, retracting the steering wheel to give him room as Matt tried to squeeze out the small opening without falling down onto J.C. Then they felt the Scout begin to spin slowly on the ground and J.C. paused, beginning to realize how short their time was. When the vehicle started to scrape across the torn clay, both men gave up on the idea and started trying to buckle themselves back in.

"This is a heavy vehicle," J.C. gasped, tugging at his seatbelt. They skidded ever faster along the ground. "Now that we are on the ground we may be ..."

He stopped as the Scout hit something and flipped. Both men clicked their belts just before they would have been thrown from their seats. The Scout tumbled a couple of more times and they all felt a sinking feeling as it became airborne. There was a confusing set of sense impressions: the howling of the wind, the banging and pinging from objects hitting metal, the cracking sound of rocks hitting glass, the cloud of choking dust filling the interior, the gravel and rocks pelting them through the open moon roof. Then they were spinning violently, but only for a short time. And then they were falling, and that seemed to go on forever.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

the null-A hypothesis

Null-A stands for non-Aristotlean logic. It was, along with General Semantics, introduced by A. E. Van Vogt in a science fiction story in the 1940s. As I threatened earlier I am now beginning a series on the plausibility of null-A. This post will concentrate on one aspect of null-A --the fact that it is not restricted to two truth values. In fact, that seems to be primarily what is meant by "non-Aristotlean". I presume that it is intended to be analogous to non-Euclidean geometry.

So, just how plausible is it that adding more truth values to logic would increase our reasoning powers significantly (or at all)? I'll get to that after an introduction to logic and then some examples of real logics that have more than two truth values.

Logic 101a: the Syllogism
Logic is the study of forms of argument. It looks at how an argument is structured rather than at the content of the argument. For example the following two arguments are structured in the same way

Argument 1:
All men are mortal.
No mortal is perfect.
Therefore no man is perfect.

Argument 2:
All trees are blue.
Nothing blue is wet.
Therefore no tree is wet.
Now a person reading these arguments may notice that the first one seems reasonable and the second one seems silly, but that is because you are looking at the content. If you look at the form, you will see that they both follow the pattern
every X is a Y
no Y is a Z
therefore no X is a Z
This argument form is valid. What that means is that if the first two sentences (the premises) are true, then the last sentence (the conclusion) must be true also. But this is logic, so it doesn't say anything about whether the premises are true in the first place. Other argument forms similar to those above are not valid. For example
All men are mortal.
Some mortals are fools.
therefore some men are fools
regardless of what you may think of the conclusion, the conclusion does not follow from the premises. Often the non-validity of a form is shown by way of a counter example which can be easily seen to be false. For example the following argument has the same form as the one above:
All squares have corners.
Some things with corners are triangles.
Therefore, some squares are triangles.
The examples above are all syllogisms. The logic of Aristotle dealt entirely with syllogisms and their various patterns.

The logic of syllogism is a sort of class theory (except that it is not extensional like most class theories are). The descriptive terms of the sentences are viewed as classes and the rest of the sentence expresses some relationship of the classes. The relationships can all be expressed with the following relations:
A is contained in B
A is not contained in B
A overlaps with B
A does not overlap with B
The logic of syllogisms is essentially a list of the mathematical properties of these four relations on classes.

Logic 101b: the Proposition
Modern logic does not deal with syllogisms as such (although the sentences of syllogisms are included in propositions). Instead modern logic deals with abstract propositions in various combinations. You can think of a proposition as a declarative sentence. Each of the sentences in the examples above is a proposition, but so are
John went to the store.
John is married to Mary.
John and Mary went to the store.
None of these sentences could be part of a classical syllogism, but to modern logic they are just fine. Propositional logic has rules about combining propositions. For example, let P, Q, and R be propositions. The propositional logic has rules like
if "P or Q" is true, and "P" is false, then "Q" is true.
if "P" is false, then "P and Q" is false.
Propositional logic has logical operators. The three most common are "and", "or" and "not". The rules that go with the operators can be expressed in a truth table like this:
PQP and QP or Qnot P
Notice that "P or Q" is true if "P" is true or if "Q" is true, or if both are true.

This is just a taste of how different modern logic is from Aristotle's logic. So the word non-Aristotlean logic to describe the special logic of null-A is a little misleading.

Logic 201: Multi-valued Logic
What Van Vogt says disginguished null-A from Aristotlean logic is that it is a logic that recognizes more than true and false. Today, such logics are called multi-valued logics and there are several of them that are studied.

So how can there be something more than true and false? Well, sometimes you just don't know the answer. Suppose someone tells you the two sentences
B. John is at the store
C. Mary is at home.
Suppose you don't know where John is, so you cannot assign a truth value to B. But you were just over at Mary's house so you know that she is not at home. You can reliably say that the combination "B and C" is false. How do you know that? Well, by looking at the truth table above, you know that for the combination "P and Q", if "Q" is F, then it doesn't matter what "P" is, the combination is always false.

We can formalize this reasoning process by adding a third value to logic, let us call it "N" for Null (the name doesn't come from null-A, but from the programming language SQL).

The typical truth table for a three-valued logic is like this:
PQP and QP or Qnot P
You might find it interesting to see if you can justify the rules as an extension of the rules for two-valued logic.

Now let's consider B and C again. Suppose you know that there is a 50% chance that B is true and a 100% that C is true. What can you say about the truth of "B and C"? Questions like this are answered by probability. Most mathematicians and other people who work with probability think of it as a sort of measure on "outcomes". But you can just as well think of it as a multi-valued logic where true is replaced by a probability of 1, false is replaced by a probability of 0, and the values in between are intermediate values of certainty or uncertainty. Then you can make a logic based on probability. Obviously you can't make truth tables for an infinite number of truth values, but you can write formulas such as
p(P and Q) = p(P) * p(Q) (P and Q independent)
p(P or Q) = p(P) + p(Q) - p(P and Q)
p(P) = 1 - p(not P)
But there are other ways to have infinite logical values. Some propositions don't really have exact truth values, but the fuziness is not from uncertainty but from inexactness of language. Are roses actually red? Well, kind of. Let's say roses are 90% red. Are violets actually blue? Well, not really. Let's say violets are 30% blue. Then what can we say about the proposition
roses are red and violets are blue
? Well since the claim of the sentence is that both propositions are true this can't be any more true than the least true part of it, or 30%. On the other hand, the sentence
roses are red or violets are blue
is as true as the most true part of it, or 90%.

Such issues are the topic of fuzzy logic. Like probability, fuzzy logic has an infinite number of truth values from 0 to 1, with 0 corresponding to false and 1 corresponding to true. But in between those two extremes, the answers are a little fuzzy. Some of the formulas for fuzzy logic are
f(P and Q) = min(f(P), f(Q))
f(P or Q) = max(f(P), f(Q))
f(not P) = 1 - f(P)

Logic 401: Theory of Computation
Well, all of these multi-valued logics and more have have been around for quite a while and they don't seem to have generated any great advances in human understanding such as are postulated in "The World of Null-A". Why not? It should be pretty clear that while multi-valued logics may be convenient formalisms, and may be interesting in their own right, none of them are revolutionary advances in human thought. In fact, they don't add any additional reasoning power at all to the original two-valued logic. The most obvious way to see this is to notice that probability is almost always used as a mathematical theory rather than a logic, and that when people use probability theory they usually do so within a two-valued logic framework, saying things like
p(A or B) = p(A)+p(B)-p(AB)
which uses the old-fashioned true-or-false relation of equality. So probability can be viewed as a multi-valued logic, but you can do the same reasoning by putting a theory over two-valued logic. The same is true of 3-value logic and of fuzzy logic. Any reasoning that you can do with those systems, you can also do with normal two-valued logic and a bit of extra machinery.

There are some pretty general results about this sort of thing. Two distinct symbols is sufficient to represent anything that can be represented in any symbols, even an infinite (countable) number of symbols. Above a certain level, all systems of computation (or formal reasoning) are equivalent in power. Any system that is powerful enough to do general arithmetic is incomplete in the sense that there are true things that the system can say but cannot prove.

All of the above are results about computation, not about reasoning. They do not rule out the possibility that there may be ways of reasoning that get around the limitations. But whatever form of reasoning this is, it will not be a logic. Logic is about the form of reasoning; it is essentially computational and therefore subject to the limits of computation.

On a more general level, the purpose of logic is not to create insights or to produce knowledge; the purpose of logic is to check your reasoning. Logic cannot guide you to new thoughts except in the most mechanical sense; it can only tell you if your thought processes are well-founded after the fact, and then only within a fairly limited domain.

changes to the links

I've added John C. Wright's Journal to my sidebar. More significantly, I've finally removed Soxblog. Soxblog was the blog of Dean Barnett who died last year of complications arising from cystic fibrosis. He was one of people who made the internet worthwhile. I kept the link around for sentimental reasons, but I suppose it has by now gone from sentimental to maudlin. I do miss his wise and humorous writing, though.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

John C. Wright and null-A

In the 1940's A E. Van Vogt published a story called "The World of Null-A". There are characters in this story who practice a science/mental discipline called General Semantics which involves non-Aristotlean logic or null-A logic. There were some sequels to the story, and now another sequel by another author, John C. Wright called "The Null-A Continuum". I've just finished the "The Null-A Continuum".

I think I first looked up John C. Wright in a bookstore after reading a blog entry of his, and I think I probably reached the blog entry from Head Noises, but the details are now lost in the mists of time.

The first book of his that I read was "Orphans of Chaos". The book is a fantasy story that uses an ingenious device to meld various mythological traditions to each other and to the modern world. I enjoyed the book so much that I finished it, went back to the book store the next day for the next two, and would have finished the whole trilogy in a weekend if I could have found the second book. As it was, I bought the third book and then under great temptation managed to avoid reading it for several weeks until I found the second one. And I did read the last two books in one weekend.

The cosmology and magic system of those books is fascinating. It has some philosophical underpinnings and I suspect that Wright was consciously founding his magic on the idealist philosophy of Berkeley or Kant. I was actually planning to write a couple of posts analyzing the ideas in the Chaos trilogy, but then I moved and I'm afraid the books ended up in storage so I had no way to check my memory.

"The Null-A Continuum" is also very good if you like the A. E. Van Vogt style. I confess that although I liked A. E. Van Vogt, his null-A books are a bit disorienting. There is a Deus ex machina on every other page in the form of a previously unknown character with special powers, a previously unknown power that one of the characters has, someone who was dead and comes back, or something similar. The new null-A book by Wright follows this style with enthusiasm. Although I enjoyed it, I did find it a bit exhausting trying to keep up with all of the actors and their powers.

As an interesting aside, I suspect that "The World of Null-A" was part of the inspiration for Mr. Spock of Star Trek. The hero of "The World of Null-A" was not emotionless like Spock, but he did have special control over his emotions compared to normal people due to mastery of null-A, a form of logic. Null-A also gave him greater physical powers, greater powers of observation, and apparently miraculous insights. Null-A was also responsible for the ethics of its practitioners. The idea is that fully "sane" behavior is ethical behavior. Compare to Spock bringing up logic in defense of his own ethics, most famously in "it is logical that the one should sacrifice for the many".

Well, this is all just fiction, but is there any possibility that something like it could exist? Might there be some special way of reasoning that would give one almost magical powers of prediction and control over the natural world? The answer is an unqualified "yes" --it's called mathematics. But more to the point, is there such a system that could lead to the sorts of powers that null-A practitioners have in the book?

And more interestingly, is it actually possible that ethical behavior is more rational than non-ethical behavior? Could we come up with a reasoning system that would make us smarter, better people?

Here are three posts on three different aspects of null-A:
mult-valued logic
words and thought

UPDATE: after reading Wright's journal for a few days, it is clear that he is familiar with Kant. No mention of Berkely yet...

Monday, June 08, 2009

fiction: A Hole In the Sky: part 3


"Hey", J.C. said, "that looks looks like a Sheriff's SUV back there. A tan vehicle was coming very fast down the dirt road.

The new SUV was a few seconds from the lip of the valley when the CB squawked, "Matt Morely, this is Deputy Preason, come in."

J.C. picked up the microphone and answered "Deputy, this is J.C. Is that you coming up the dirt road? Over."

"J.C., I am approaching the site. I see a vehicle at the top of the hill and, ... holy mother of ... I see a trench dug out of the ground. Is that your vehicle at the top of the hill? Over."

"That is us. Look, this path is perfectly straight as far as you can see in either direction. Also, we have GPS coordinates of the path so you can map where it is going. Also, we have timed the movement of the tornado. It is moving about twelve miles per hour consistently."

"J.C., please give the coordinates and times you have and I will pass them on to dispatch. Over."

Matt showed J.C. his laptop screen and J.C. read off the information to the deputy. They could see the SUV stop as the deputy wrote it down and then relayed the information to his office.

while J.C. talked to the deputy, Katrina hopped in the back and opened her laptop, connecting her cell phone to it. She began furiously typing up more blog material and sending email to other bloggers about it. "What's the deputy's name again?" she asked Matt. He told her and she continued typing.

He had nothing else to do, so Matt brought up some GIS software and started playing around with the information. The sheriff's office would be looking at where the tornado was headed, so he backtracked to where it might have been. After he saw the back path, he sat still for a moment and looked back for the deputy. The tan SUV was just starting up the hill, several minutes away still.

Matt picked up the microphone, "Deputy Preason, this is Matt Morely. Over."

"Matt, this is Preason. Over."

"Deputy, I don't want to sound too crazy, but I've backtracked the tornado. If it has been keeping a steady path, then it would have been very close to Las Vegas at about the time of that airplane exploding." Matt stopped as J.C. got back in the vehicle and slammed the door. He pressed the button again, "Have they actually found evidence of a bomb or is the cause still unknown? Over."

"I have no information on that. I'll pass the question back to dispatch."

J.C. put the Scout in gear and started down the far side of the hill.

Mike said, "What are you doing?" at the same time as the CB squawked, "Matt, do not leave your current position. I'll be there in a few minutes."

J.C. picked up the microphone, "Deputy, the tornado is slow, but it is moving over some pretty tough terrain. If we don't get moving, we are going to lose it." He put the microphone back on the hook and flipped off the CB, giving Matt a quick grin as he plowed off after the storm.

"I don't think turning off the CB is going to stop you from being cited for failing to follow the orders of a law enforcement officer in an emergency situation or something like that." Matt said. "And heck, it's doing barely over ten miles per hour. We aren't going to lose it."

"We'll lose it if the deputy tells us, 'Thank you good citizens, now go about your business and let us professionals handle this'", J.C. said. "And that's just what was coming as soon as he got to the top of the hill. You know it as well as I do."

J.C. was driving in the wide, shallow trench dug out by the tornado. That looked like a bad idea to Matt since the tornado seemed to have taken mostly top soil and left the big rocks, but it did look sort of like a wide road. A wide road with a lot of big rocks. In the back, Katrina was furiously live blogging the adventure, trying to get in as much as she could before J.C. realized that she must be using the expensive satellite connection.

Matt turned on the radio scanner and began searching the emergency bands. After about ten minutes he found deputy Preason talking to his office. He could only hear one side of the conversation, "Look, Sheriff, this isn't a little bit of disturbed earth, it's a wide trench, a couple feet or more deep in some areas. I'm at the top of the hill and I've got eyes on the tornado now..." Matt poked his head out the window to look back, and sure enough, there was a Sheriff's SUV starting down this side of the first hill. He pulled his head back inside in time to hear, "Sheriff, this is not a mother ... this is not a dust devil. It completely tore up the old Agrivance site. There's nothing there any more." Another pause, "Skies are clear and blue everywhere except near the tornado. Like I said, this does not look like any storm I've ever heard of."

J.C. interrupted the one-sided argument to say, "How come he could not see the tornado until he got to the top of the hill? We first saw it from two or three valleys away."

Katrina leaned forward to look at the whirling storm. "Yeah, the top is a lot lower than it was. And it is a lot fatter too. And louder." She was right. The tornado had taken on a very distinctive funnel shape now and it was tearing up the ground even more violently at the top of the next hill. The sound was deeper now as well as louder. Katrina poked her head out the window to take some more pictures.

On the scanner they heard another voice, this one was talking over the sound of a helicopter. "... confirm the funnel-shaped cloud. ... It sure looks like a tornado, Sheriff."

There was a pause as the sheriff answered and then the helicopter pilot spoke again, "Yes, a huge trench going back at least a couple of miles. This is no prank, Sheriff; it's a genuine weather phenomenon although I've never heard of such a thing."

Mike picked up the microphone and reached to turn the CB on but J.C. knocked his hand away from the switch with a quick motion. "Hey, what are you doing? If that cop orders J.C. to stop again, J.C. is going to be in really big trouble."

"Trust me." Matt grinned. "Don't I always have your back?" He showed J.C. that he had Katrina's hair brush in his other hand, although J.C. wouldn't understand. Matt reached for the switch again and J.C. looked confused but didn't swat him away as he flipped it on. He began quickly scrubbing the face of the microphone with the brush as he pressed the send button.

"Deputy, I don't know if you can hear me. This tornado seems to be messing with the radio." J.C. flashed him a grin and Matt grinned back before continuing. "Have you noticed that nothing is coming out of the top of the tornado? There should be debris scattered all around but all I see is a clean trench. Could you ask that chopper to look at the top and see if anything is coming out?"

When Matt let off of the send button Deputy Preason answered immediately, "Matt, I don't believe for a second that you are having radio trouble." J.C. and Matt laughed. "There are going to be consequences for this, but I will pass your message on."

J.C. gave a theatrical shiver and said "Oh, man, are we going to get it!"

"You mean you are going to get it." Matt said, switching the selector back to the scanner. "Kat and I are just along for the ride. You are the one defying authority."

They heard Preason relaying the message to the helicopter pilot as J.C. responded. "Not any more, buddy. You just gave false information to a law enforcement officer about a crime in progress. I'll bet that makes you are conspirator."

They stopped as the helicopter pilot answered, "Yeah, I thought something looked strange about this --I mean more strange than just a tornado on a clear day in a state that never has tornadoes. I'm not getting close though."

"What false information?" Matt asked innocently. "The radio really was having trouble. Some nitwit was running a hairbrush over the microphone."

"This is golden," Katrina said from the back. "Hey, Matt, get the helicopter pilot's name. And the sheriff too. Or I guess I can look that up."

J.C. looked at her in the rear-view mirror, "Hey, are you connected?"

"I'm working, baby, don't interrupt me right now."

The helicopter pilot came back on the radio. "There's a spray of fine dust coming out the top, but none of the larger debris. It's like something in the middle of the cloud is pulverizing everything that goes through it."

J.C. was momentarily distracted by this news, but then he looked back in the rear-view mirror at his wife who seemed fully absorbed in banging at her keyboard. "Are you getting cell phone signal out here?" Katrina ignored him and continued typing.

"Somethings happening," the helicopter pilot reported, "It's changing shade a bit and ..."

"Kat!" J.C said loudly. "Are you getting a cell signal out here?"

"What, baby?" Katrina asked innocently as she continued to type.

The voice in the helicopter was continuing, "It seems to be slowing down, I'm taking a mark on a big boulder and lining up on the peak of a hill..."

"How are you getting on line?" J.C. sounded like he was getting upset, but Katrina continued to type away as though she were oblivious.

The helicopter observer continued over the radio, "OK, ... I ... yes, the tornado has started moving backwards along the trench."

"What?" Matt exclaimed. He sat forward to peer out the windshield.

"Are you using the satellite uplink for blogging?" J.C. was sounding really angry now.

"J.C., did you hear the guy?" Matt asked, but J.C. was ignoring him and glaring at his wife in the rear-view mirror. The tires bounced hard over a big rock that he didn't see.

"Just a minute, baby." she said. "I'm in the middle of something."

"Damn!" J.C. slammed on the breaks and reached back to try to grab Katrina's laptop.

She held it away from him, "Hold on! Hold on!"

"J.C.!" Matt shouted now. "J.C.! It's coming back!"

"Calm down, Matt" Katrina chided him, still holding her laptop out of her husband's reach. "It is not going to just turn around."

"It's coming back!" Matt shouted again, looking out the windshield in horror. The howling of the tornado waxed louder.


Sunday, June 07, 2009

pseudonyms in blogging

John Adler over at the Volokh Conspiracy has a post about an outing, where one blogger outed another blogger who was using a pseudonym. I'm not crazy about the practice of outing people who want to remain anonymous, and I like to think that it is for other than selfish reasons. Outing someone seems to me to be mean-spirited. The only reason to do it is because you want to cause some harm to another person. In that sense it is no different from humiliating someone or spraying them with water from a passing vehicle or punching someone in the nose who can't punch you back.

The level of harm in the cases is sometimes small, but it is still harm. Being good involves more than just not doing things that are really bad like rob, rape, and kill; it is also doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. And you wouldn't want someone to reveal your secret identity (if you had one for some reason), so you shouldn't reveal theirs.

Adler also says that he thinks pseudonyms can lead to bad behavior because you don't have to take the social consequences. I doubt that this is a big factor. The thing is that most people don't really think that their behavior is going to come back to haunt them anyway. The reason that we don't call someone stupid to their face is not because of fear of social consequences (I claim) but because of social inhibitions. When someone is standing right in front of you, looking at you, he is a human being, and you feel a natural inhibition to insult him just as you would feel a natural inhibition to hit him. Of course you can overcome such natural inhibitions, but most of us, in normal sitations, don't.

Then along comes the internet, and you are talking to a computer screen. And the computer screen isn't standing there looking at you. It doesn't have the audiovisual cues that create the inhibitions against conflict. Without the inhibitions, your behavior is controlled entirely by your judgment. And we all know that sometimes our judgment isn't what it should be.

What makes matters worse is that there is an asymmetry. You don't have the cues to prevent aggression, but you do have some of the cues which inspire aggression. You can feel threatened or insulted without having the person present who did the threatening or insulting. So you have the impulse to react aggressively without the inhibitions. Combine this with the fact that it is so easy to write something that appears insulting even when you didn't intend to be insulting and it is easy to see why so many internet conversations spiral so quickly out of control.

And that's why you should never hit the post button when you are upset.