Chasing Josh, Reading Laudan, Watching Fights

Looks like Josh is out-posting me pretty thoroughly so far. Well, he's more opinionated than me, and he's got less nuclear family to not neglect (one cat and some beer vs. a 6-month pregnant wife, 4.5 year old daughter, and some beer and wine), so, ipso facto, he has more blog posts than me.

I've also helped Josh by commenting on two of his posts, so not only does his blog have more original content, it has more readers, too.

Unfortunately, unlike Josh, I've been busy with non-class stuff that would take more time than I'm willing to spend blogging about. Either that or it would end up not doing to topic justice, as I would have to skimp on the details. Animal language, innumeracy, gaiety, bilingualism, alleged Mexican vote fraud,... Josh's got it all. Me? I've got an initial explanatory post, this meandering, self-absorbed silliness, and a mediocre political piece that has already been corrected and improved upon by none other than Josh, the bastard. He did say I made a good point (the bit near the end of my post wherein I spake unkindly of public school), though, so give me some credit.

Now I'm improving his google cachet by linking to all but one of his posts. Well, I don't like to do things half-assed, so: the only other post.

Josh, you're welcome.


Some non-horribly derivative (though still entirely derivative) content: I'm currently reading Truth, Error, and Criminal Law, by Larry Laudan (the "famous" philosopher and historian of science), and, strangely enough, its subject matter overlaps somewhat with my own professional interests, in this case, signal detection theory (link goes to a site of unknown quality that includes a java applet SDT tutorial that looks nifty). The book concerns the extent to which, and manner in which, criminal law functions as a truth-finding system. In laying out the basis for his investigation into criminal law's epistemic bona fides, Laudan distinguishes between material and probatory innocence and guilt. Material guilt and innocence are matters of fact, whereas probatory guilt and innocence (findings of guilt and innocence) are matters of inference from evidence.

Laudan argues, correctly it seems to me, that, insofar as criminal law functions to find the truth with regard to a criminal case, error reduction and and error distribution are central to the issue. Errors here are cases in which material guilt is paired with probatory innocence and cases in which material innocence is paired with probatory guilt.

On reading the early section describing this general schema, I immediately thought of signal detection theory. If you followed the SDT link above (or if you already know about it), you can see where I'm going with this. In the simplest signal detection task, each trial in a perception experiment either has a physical signal present or not, and the subject has two response options - signal present or signal absent. Errors here are cases in which the physical presence of a signal is paired with the signal-absent response and cases in which the physical absence of a signal is paired with the signal-present response. In SDT lingo, these are called misses and false alarms, respectively (non-errors are called hits and correct rejections).

In a simple perception task using, say, a pure tone signal, all of the relevant probabilities are either determined by the experimenter

Pr(signal) = 1 - Pr(no signal)

or readily calculated conditional probabilities

Pr("signal-present" | signal) = Pr(hit)

Pr("signal-absent" | signal) = Pr(miss)

Pr("signal-present" | no signal) = Pr(false alarm)

Pr("signal-absent" | no signal) = Pr(correct rejection)


Pr(A | B) = Pr(A & B) / Pr(B)

Now, the utility of a signal detection analysis depends, in no small part, on the fact that Pr(signal) and Pr(no signal) are determined a priori. The associated probabilities in Laudan's analysis of criminal law are Pr(material guilt) and Pr(material innocence), which are clearly not known, much less conciously determined, a priori (at least let's hope they're not).

The utility of signal detection theory is that these probabilities can tell us about sensitivity independent of decision bias and decision bias independent of sensitivity. Without the baseline stimulus frequencies, though, SDT is a much more limited tool.

It will be interesting to see what Laudan does with his SDT-like schema given the limitations the subject matter places on his data. Based on the Abbreviations and Acronyms Used page, he will be employing two ratios:

= true acquittals / false convictions


n = false acquittals / false convictions

It seems reasonably likely that whatever numbers Laudan uses as estimates of the number of true/false acquittals/convictions will be biased, though, since we don't know the truth of a case - we only know what a jury (or judge, depending on the legal tradition) decides about a case. Okay, we don't only know what a judge or jury says. It's possible that we may be confident of someone's guil but, for a variety of reasons, the case doesn't make it to trial. In any case, who knows how good the numbers are?

As I said, it will be interesting to see what he does. More later, when I find out.


I started this post before UFC Unleashed started on the TV (that's TEE-vee) this evening. Progress on these last couple paragraphs has been halting and irregular. The tally tonight, as of 9:39 Eastern Standard Time (actually, Indiana Stupid Time), is two guillotine chokes, one rear naked choke, and one bloody face (no victor yet, though it's looking pretty lopsided [update: round two, though fairly close, likely went for bloody-faced Georges St. Pierre, so it's not as lopsided as I thought it would be {update 2: bloody-face had a good third round, and BJ Penn looked pretty tired at the end, so... the decision goes to St. Pierre, which surprised me, as the next pay-per-view has, as its main draw, BJ Penn vs. Matt Hughes, and the "prize" for winning the Penn-St. Pierre fight was a (rematch) fight with Matt Hughes. Sounds like a mystery. More later...]).

Among the reasons I love the UFC is the eloquence of those involved. Just now, one of the announcers (I think it was Joe Rogan) described the bloody-face fighter as "wincing his eye." Some months ago, during the third season of The Ultimate Fighter, Tito Ortiz said, in describing the mental aspect of the fight game, that "it's like chest."

They pays 'em to fight, not to talk. The fighters anyway. I don't know what Rogan's problem is.


Regular Writing, Political Regulation, and An Irregular Preview

The only way I'm going to manage to post on a regular basis is by simply forcing myself to post on a regular basis, whether or not I have much of anything to say. I know this because I had a fantastic composition teacher as a freshman at Warren Wilson College who instructed me to write single page (or longer) non-fiction essays on topics of my choosing for every single class (and who, sadly, is nowhere to be found on the website (and, I am ashamed to admit, I can't remember his name, so I can't even mention his name in a display of appreciation)). It came to be very easy for me, but it was tough to begin with, and it has been tough ever since, to write on a regular basis. Somehow, I have the feeling that posting to my very own blog can provide the motivation I need to start writing on a regular basis again. We'll see.

I should point out that, as an academic, I do write quite a bit on an irregular basis.

Anyway, here goes.

I was washing some dishes earlier and listening to 'Marketplace' on the local NPR affiliate and thought about responding to this bit by Marcellus Andrews on the immorality of capitalism and how it's to blame for the Katrina tragedy. I suppose that's as good a topic as any, so here are some selected quotes from the piece, which appear in italics, interspersed with my thoughts.

Katrina claimed so many because the people of Louisiana and the good ole US of A pretended that safety is a private good instead of a public good.

In this country, safety is just one more thing for sale if you have the bucks.

Craziness seduced us into thinking that way, despite the fact that no one of us is rich enough to buy a functioning levee system for a city of half a million people.

Is safety a 'good' at all? I suppose in relation to dangers like natural disasters, you could make the case that it is, but whatever problems arise from this are irrelevant to the failure of the levee system in New Orleans. In fact, the levees protecting New Orleans were designed to withstand a category three storm, and Katrina was category five. Someone(s), somewhere(s), made a (series of) decision(s) about precisely how to build the levees, and they simply were not built for a storm like the one that hit. It has nothing (directly) to do with philosophical considerations of economics and public vs. private safety.

Levees, schools, hospitals, police and highways are public goods that we buy together with our taxes because we use them together.

It's not the case that everyone agrees that these are public goods that should be paid for collectively, and they certainly aren't used equally by everyone, nor should they be.

We killed New Orleans when we turned our backs on the fundamental definition of economics as the accumulation of wealth in the service of freedom. A truly moral economy provides freedom from fear as well as freedom from nature's wrath.

It's delusional to think that 'freedom from fear as well as freedom from nature's wrath' are attainable. Also, it's not at all clear to me what Mr. Andrews believes 'moral' means, nor why something like an economy should, or how it even could, be 'moral.'

Katrina also taught us that some things, like safety, community, and decency, can only be bought in bulk.

This goes against the premise laid out earlier in the commentary, it seems to me. Either safety can only be 'bought in bulk,' or it's available selectively to those with the money to buy it individually. It can't be both.

Clearly, Mr. Andrews is a proponent of plentiful social spending. He states as simple, unargued fact that schools, among other things, are a public good. I can't help wondering, though, if more of New Orleans poor had had the opportunity to avoid the pointlessness of so much of public school by, say, getting more or less immediately marketable vocational training, would they have had the money to get out when the storm hit?


A preview of what's (likely) to come:

- ruminations on how studying math (calculus, probability theory, differential and difference equations, linear algebra) has changed the way I look at the world, and how odd it has been to be more or less fully aware of those changes as they took (and continue to take) place

- weekly commentary on Spike TV's awesome The Ultimate Fighter. Best. Reality show. Ever.

- continued attempts to keep this from being some kind of god-awful personal journal

- music commentary, discussions of music old and new, foreign and domestic, strange and disturbing

- political commentary and, probably, rantings as I continue to slide into the netherworld of classical liberalism (I like to laugh at myself as much as at anyone else, so why not?)

- 'science' posts, as indicated in my first post, wherein I present to the uninitiated that which I find so interesting about what I study. These will not be limited to hot-off-the-presses research, as I think some of the most interesting papers in my field (and likely in any field) are old ones. Foundational literature often has a sort of timelessness, and can provide new insights on repeated readings, so expect a discussions of a wide variety of old and new ideas regarding language, speech, percep ... ah, read the earlier post (or the blog subtitle) and you'll see what they'll be about.

- thoughts on the history and philosophy of science

- commentary on books I read, as I read them, which will, in all likelihood, have much in common with the 'to come' items presented in the previous two bullet points

- corrections of things posted earlier. Like this:

When I wrote "spilling copious e-ink", I should have written "spilling copious amounts of e-ink". And it should have said "Okay, that's probably plenty of links to pharyngula."

That's all for now.