Saturday, May 13, 2006

Google Bombing

I have sucessfully google bombed myself.

Google bombing is now in the dictionary, by the way.

Stencilismo: Photos of San Francisco

As I prepare the last fairly long entry before I skip town, I would like to make some recognition of all the interesting stencils that you can find on the sidewalks of San Francisco, throughout the Mission District, where I live.

Sometimes the stencils are political,

and sometimes they are advertising,

But more often they are little pieces of art.

And sometimes there is even hand-drawn graffiti made to look stenciled.

All of these photos were taken in an area bounded by 17th and 24th Streets to the north and south and Bartlett and Dolores to the east and west.

Friday, May 12, 2006

The Economics of Prostitution

John Allen Paulos at the Who's Counting? column on the ABC News website has an interesting article on the economics of prositution:

Making simplistic but more or less plausible assumptions and applying the tools of economic model-making, they searched for the answer to a puzzle: Why is it that prostitution is so relatively well-paid?

Before getting to why this is, they document that in diverse cultures and over many centuries, prostitutes have indeed made much more, sometimes several multiples more, than comparably (un)skilled women would make in more prosaic occupations. From medieval France and imperial Japan to present-day Los Angeles and Buddhist Thailand, this income differential has persisted, although its size depends on various factors....

[I]f wives are valued highly, would-be prostitutes are giving up a lot by becoming prostitutes and will require more money to do so. And if wives have few privileges, would-be prostitutes aren't giving up much to become prostitutes and thus need less inducement to do so.

I had never thought of this before I read the article, but perhaps some of the stigma of prostitution is because it makes the women who participate less marriageable.

From both an economist's and biologist's point of view, I suppose, part of the value of having a child is in the likelihood that the child will pass on her (and therefore your) genes. Anything that severely curtails her chances, like prostitution, would then be a Bad Thing. (On the other hand, your self-interest would encourage other people's daughters to become prostitutes, so that yours has pick o' the gene pool.)

Of course, this presumes that prostitutes have less children than the same women would have were they not prostitutes, which may or may not be true. I suspect that the children of prostitutes, however, tend to lead shorter and less, uh, fruitful lives, so encouraging prostitution my not have an effect on the number of grandchildren, but on the number of great-grandchildren.

An alternate idea is that prostitutes have just as many, or slightly more, children, but that their mates are of lower genetic quality. The main problem with this idea is that it assumes that men who patronize prostitutes are unable to have sex otherwise, meaning that the process of sexual selection is, to a large degree, pushing their genes out of the population, rather than being otherwise acceptable but more promiscuous men.

I am almost certainly over-simplifying. It's fairly obvious from the declining birth rates of post-industrial countries that, on aggregate, people prefer to have fewer children lead more comfortable lives, even to the point where reproduction is below replacement level. This is a broadly true finding, and appears independent of many cultural attributes: Japan, Australia, Russia, Germany, Italy, France, the U.K., Canada and the U.S. all have birth rates below replacement level, meaning that they rely (or don't) on immigration to keep the population constant.

The value of a child, then, for long-term gene survival purposes seems fairly low, once it's clear that the genes are likely to survive the next generation. That is, post-industrial economies are fairly safe, with a few exceptions, so the chances that a child will survive long enough to reproduce are very high. There is consequently little value in having more children, past the one (or two for the cautious) to continue the bloodline. If this is true, my initial thought about prostitution lowering the "value" of a woman would be false today, though not historically.

Of course, the most important factors could be things I haven't thought of. I'm probably also conflating the value of marriage and of children in amateurish ways. But I'm an amateur everything, so it's allowed. I don't have the skills or specialized knowledge to properly explore this, which is unfortunate because there's a lot of inherently interesting material here.

Article via 3 quarks daily.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The Ethicist misunderstands the situation

In the most recent installment of Randy Cohen's column in the New York Times Magazine, the first question he chooses to answer is, uh, curiously easy:

I am an administrative assistant who is required to open and log all incoming mail except that marked "confidential." But some mail not so-marked is clearly personal, and I feel guilty reading it. My boss shrugs off my discontent. Is it ethical to read other people's mail just because it arrives at a place of business?
Anonymous, New York

Cohen, in part, replies:

Your boss's legitimate interest in tracking business correspondence does not allow him to violate the privacy of his employees, even those imprudent enough to receive personal mail at work....

Even unmarked mail is entitled to privacy, both legally and ethically. As soon as you realize that you are perusing a personal letter (possible clue: it includes a vivid description of a someone's anatomy and yours is not a doctor's office), stop reading and forward the letter to the co-worker.

The Easy Answer

Perhaps Cohen doesn't know this, but opening mail addressed to someone else is a felony. It seems to be that an ethical obligation to follow the law, even if we rate it as only a secondary duty, is clearly in force here. Furthermore, no one can compel felonious action without risk of clear and immediate harm if one does otherwise, so the boss is clearly in the wrong on this count as well.

Playing More or Less Fair

I am not a lawyer, but can imagine a tendentious legal argument1 that by taking this job, the employees are waiving their right to privacy. Let's assume this is true somehow, so that we are in the same position that Cohen puts himself in.

There is an operative issue in the ethics of this situation: Whether the employees know that non-confidential mail will be opened. If the rule is clear, i.e., it is repeatedly and publicly stated that any mail not labeled “confidential” will be opened and logged, then it seems that the burden to label private materials fall on the sender. Writing those 12 extra letters isn't particularly difficult, and there's no real way to put the burden of determining private materials on the employer.

Also, the correspondents have an opportunity to warn one another of barriers like this. After all, who has personal correspondence with someone they don't know?

More than anything else, I'm not sure how Cohen has anything to say about this at all. The boss is clearly wrong. He could and should have closed this one with one paragraph.

1 Tendentious because this is not a civil right, but a felony. If you can “give up” your right to not be the victim of a felony, we have even more problems as a society than I thought.

I make an analogy like this: We all know that of all postal employees, a very small number go crazy and shoot their co-workers. If every new hire knows that they may be shot and killed on the job before they agree to the job, and agree anyway, they've clearly waived their right to not be killed by a fellow employee.

Because the new employee tacitly consented to it, see?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

A Real Foreign Language

Among things that didn't happen yesterday: Mario making gphoto2 work. So the picture of me and Aimee Bender will have to wait until my new workaround/toy arrives.

In the meantime, Der Spiegel has a fascinating article on the Pirahãs of the Brazilian Amazon:

...But the language of the forest dwellers, which Everett describes as "tremendously difficult to learn," so fascinated the researcher and his wife that they soon returned. Since 1977, the British ethnologist at the University of Manchester spent a total of seven years living with the Pirahãs -- and he's committed his career to researching their puzzling language. Indeed, he was long so uncertain about what he was actually hearing while living among the Pirahãs that he waited nearly three decades before publishing his findings. "I simply didn't trust myself..."

His findings have brought new life to a controversial theory by linguist Benjamin Whorf, who died in 1914. Under Whorf's theory, people are only capable of constructing thoughts for which they possess actual words. In other words: Because they have no words for numbers, they can't even begin to understand the concept of numbers and arithmetic.

The full article is available here.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Obsidian Wings on Ethics

Since I'm on an ethics kick, what's one more post?

Hilzoy at Obsidian Wings offers an excellent primer on ethics:

We all perform actions. And whether or not we reflect on the kinds of actions we think we should perform, the kinds of principles we think we should live by, or the kinds of persons we think we should be, we will end up performing some actions and not others, living in accordance with certain principles, and developing a particular character. It will be true of one person that she ruthlessly pursues her own interests; of another that she drifts along, allowing her actions to be determined by the preferences of those around her; of another that she tries to preserve her image of herself as 'virtuous' only as long as it is not too inconvenient to do so; and of another that she tries to respond to others with generosity and honesty and respect, even when this is difficult. Even someone who tries to live by no principles at all—say, by flipping coins instead of making choices—still lives by the principle of allowing her actions to be determined by chance....

It is hard to understand other people, and the difficulty increases as their experiences become more remote from one's own. And it is easy to wander around blithely passing judgment on people whom one has not made the slightest effort to understand. Such judgments are usually glib, shallow and disrespectful. But this shows only that we should try to understand other people, to develop the capacities of empathy and imagination which this requires, to realize that understanding other people takes effort and hard work, and to be aware of the possibility that our views about other people are not always right. To throw up one's hands and decide that understanding other people is just impossible is, I think, just a way of avoiding this task. It also lets people who don't bother to try to understand others off the hook, by taking their failures to be inevitable, not the result of insufficient effort or imagination.

I'm jealous. More can be found here.

Coming up tomorrow: A picture of me and Aimee Bender! (Hey, I'm a book nerd—what else can I say?)

Monday, May 08, 2006

Newspapers Alter Headlines for Google

If papers like the New York Times essentially have one headline for their print version and another for the web, is this a step towards the disentanglement of print writing and online writing? And if so, is this good or bad?

"Week in Review," April 9, 2006:

Some news sites offer two headlines. One headline, often on the first Web page, is clever, meant to attract human readers. Then, one click to a second Web page, a more quotidian, factual headline appears with the article itself. The popular BBC News Web site does this routinely on longer articles...

In the print version of The New York Times, an article last Tuesday on Florida beating U.C.L.A. for the men's college basketball championship carried a longish headline, with allusions to sports history: "It's Chemistry Over Pedigree as Gators Roll to First Title." On the Times Web site, whose staff has undergone some search-engine optimization training, the headline of the article was, "Gators Cap Run With First Title."


In journalism, as in other fields, the tradition of today was once an innovation. The so-called inverted pyramid structure of a news article—placing the most important information at the top—was shaped in part by a new technology of the 19th century, the telegraph, the Internet of its day. Putting words on telegraph wires was costly, so reporters made sure the most significant points were made at the start.

Yet it wasn't all technological determinism by any means. The inverted pyramid style of journalism, according to Mr. Schudson, became standard practice only in 1900, four decades or more after telegraph networks came into use. It awaited the rise of journalists as "an avowedly independent, self-conscious, professionalizing group," confident of their judgments about what information was most important, he said.

The new technology shaped practice, but people determined how the technology was used—and it took a while. Something similar is the likely path of the Internet.

The title for the article, suitably, was wonderful: "This Boring Headline is Written for Google."

Sunday, May 07, 2006

On Caitlin Flanagan

Before these past seven days, I had never heard of Caitlin Flanagan. I haven't heard of a lot of semi-important to important personages in the journalism world, so this might be no surprise at all. She's a writer for the New Yorker, writes about books for the Atlantic, and in sum has far more credentials than I am ever likely to accrue.

Lindsay Beyerstein has an excellent takedown of Flanagan's recent article for Time, in which she posits that Democrats are driving working women out of the party because they have infinite disdain for housewives and “traditional families.” Lucky, Beyerstein is on the case:

Allow me to suggests an alternate hypothesis: Flanagan doesn't command respect because she's a lightweight and a hypocrite.

Flanagan is so self-centered that she mistakes personal insecurity for consensual reality. Since when has the Democratic Party rejected the traditional family? All politicians heap praise on home, hearth, and parenthood. Marriage is practically mandatory for anyone seeking higher office.

Distinguishing Basic and Secondary Moral Values

I have little to add to Beyerstein's critique, except this: Flanagan commits the common sin of confusing basic and secondary moral values.1 I am going to use a very simple example, based heavily on one of Peter Singer's in “Famine, Affluence, and Morality”:

Suppose I am walking to work one morning. As I walk by a school, a teenager begins insulting me rather viciously: I look frail, have poor skin, poor taste in clothes, and so on. I never feel threatened, ignore him as best I can, and continue on my way.

On the way home from work that evening, I stop by a local pond. As I sit there, a teenager runs by me on the bank of the pond. It is the same person I saw this morning!

All of a sudden, he gets distracted, still running at full speed. He is not looking where he is going, and he hits his head on a low-hanging tree branch, falling face-first into the water. He does not move after a short time, and if I do not help him, it is clear that he will drown.

Because I recognize him as the insulting teenager, I let him sit there. He drowns, and I walk home.

I am clearly morally remiss here. This is true regardless of his insulting, indeed intentionally unpleasant, behavior that morning.

This follows Singer's second premiss: “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, we ought, morally, to do it.” In my example, we have two consequences to weigh by Singer's “calcuation,” one implied: the bad I can prevent from happening (a teenager drowning), and whether I am sacrificing anything of comparable moral import by doing so, such as my self-esteem, the shoes I might ruin in wading into the pond, and so forth. Any loss I might sustain is nowhere near the bad I have the power to prevent; therefore I am obligated to save the teenager.

The error expressed in the example, where I confuse the weight of two wrongs, is exactly the same error that Flanagan makes.

I am a 44-year-old woman who grew up in Berkeley who has never once voted for a Republican, or crossed a picket line, or failed to send in a small check when the Doctors Without Borders envelope showed up. I believe that we should not have invaded Iraq, that we should have signed the Kyoto treaty, that the Starr Report was, in part, the result of a vast right-wing conspiracy. I believe that poverty is our most pressing issue and that we should be pouring money and energy into its eradication. I believe that allowing migrant women and children to die of thirst in American deserts is a moral transgression that will stain us forever.

[T]here is apparently no room for me in the Democratic Party. In fact, I have spent much of the past week on a forced march to the G.O.P...

Here's why they're after me: I have made a lifestyle choice that they can't stand, and I'm not cowering in the closet because of it. I'm out, and I'm proud. I am a happy member of an exceedingly "traditional" family. I'm in charge of the house and the kids, my husband is in charge of the finances and the car maintenance, and we all go to church every Sunday.

Time magazine, May 8, 2006

Flanagan clearly knows that the Republicans support a number of positions that she finds wrong: the positive action of the war in Iraq, for example, as well as negligence with regards to poverty and the deaths of migrants. But she feels that Democratic “contempt” is sending her on a “forced march to the G.O.P.”

Doing so, then, weighs the nebulous and intangible wrong of contempt more than that of the very real “ allowing migrant women and children to die of thirst in American deserts.” This is seriously flawed, as my example is meant to illustrate.

One could say that Flanagan is not making this calculation, however, as she refers to herself as a Democrat still. Even if I grant that point, she still weighs them closely enough—and sympathizes with those women who make the errant calculation—that her sense of basic moral values is seriously compromised.

Flanagan, I suspect, would make a terrible triage nurse, treating patients in order of unhappiness rather than likelihood of survival.

Flanagan's errors are far from unique. Indeed, they're very common. Most people who are single-issue voters in this country are acting irrationally, even if we accept without question their underlying assumptions—presuming, of course, that voting at all is a rational choice. (Environmentalists, human rights activists on the left and right, and millenarian Christian groups comprise the exceptions I can think of straight away.) Indeed, it's very possible that most voters are acting irrationally, even if we don't try to argue for each individual's discrete ethical values. Think of it this way: Anyone who voted for Bush in 2004 because they didn't want to "undermine America's troops" committed the same error as Flanagan above. It was clear even then that many innocent Iraqis had died because of Bush's actions, and that many more would, yet these lives carried little weight with Bush voters.

So let's have one more experiment for today. Take the pond story above, but instead of insulting me, let's have the teenager insult the military, and especially the active duty troops.

Does the conclusion change when I refuse to help him?

A Disclaimer that Applies to All Ethics Postings

I have exactly zero formal training in philosophy. I'm an autodidact, and, as hard as it is to admit, not particularly expert in this field, though I have read a lot of books. Also, I like to argue. I write about ethics because I'm interested in ethics, and I do my best to make solid arguments.

All I can say in my defense is that I like understanding why I am wrong.

1I am giving Flanagan the benefit of the doubt, and presuming that in fact she does not believe that “don't be snobby” is on par with “don't kill.” I have no evidence other than my own experience and intuition that she is making the errors I attribute to her, though I don't believe that my thesis is indeed controversial.

As I am not a relativist (obviously), I feel free to say this: If Flanagan were being ethically consistent, I believe she would be an abhorrent person.