The Closet Moderate: September 2010

Thursday, September 30, 2010

"If it saves even one life then it's a good law."

This post's title is a quote from Bostonist, that sets a high bar for idiotic oversimplification or terrible use of sarcasm. I mean, really... any law? Despite what mommy told us, human life is not priceless.


If it were, we certainly would not be allowed to banter about over-the-top assertions like this using a toxic material filled computer sucking up electricity produced from mined coal and dumping asthma inducing particles into the air while sipping our cappuccinos and ignoring the homeless guy asking for change outside. We're making trade-offs at every moment between our comfort and other's health and lives.

But we all know that, right? Surely the intent here is that the life of a pedestrian, cyclist, or driver is worth the potential inconvenience of not texting. We could be even kinder, and at Closet Moderate we're nothing if not kind, and impute that Bostonist means the value of every life cut short by a texting related accident is worth the cost in lost texting-related efficiency. But can we please say something like that? I'm happy to accept some limits to personal liberty in exchange for some amount of security and safety for all. I'm even happier to have a reasoned debate about what gains would balance what limitations. That debate should never include platitudes like this line. Especially when followed by the one bit of data provided, which directly contradicts everything else. It's maddening enough to make me think Bostonist has to be joking. But that just opens up a whole discussion about what a terrible humorist the writer is.

Now here's an example of this discussion done right.


Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Throw clichés under the bus

Back in '08, it seemed like every politics article contain that vulgar formulation "throw [x] under the bus." Lately, "teachable moment" has gotten nearly as common. "Under the bus" had, at least in its infancy, the pleasure of sounding novel and interesting. "Teachable moment" was always a politicians' nonsense phrase, but lately I've even heard normal people say it.

The problem with clichés is that they take the place of original thought. I know not everyone is capable of coming up with original pithy phrases, but they should at least refrain from adding to the mental ossification such phrases cause.

What turn of phrase pisses you off lately, gentle readers?


Thursday, September 23, 2010

Causation and Journalism

This is who we are now:
Newser's Michael Wolff notes that the more a candidate seems to lack "gravity," "probity," and "confidence," the better he or she seems to do this cycle. (I'd add: when the media points out their lack of such qualities, the reaction from people who support these candidates is to say to themselves, "See? The media is attacking US. Let's spit in their eye.") "Can anybody be president," he wonders? Wolff suggests that wackiness cuts through the clutter.

I've got a different thesis. Wackiness will always cut through the clutter. But the difference this cycle is that wackiness has been MAINSTREAMED. Hecklers and provocateurs have been mainstreamed.

Then the question becomes: How did we get here?

The answer is
, apparently, "reality television."


Monday, September 20, 2010

On scales and competition

Not only will we be bringing you reprocessed and irrelevant bloggy news, but also half-formed musings that may or may not be of any interest! That, dear reader, is our commitment to you. Enjoy!

One question we scientists like to ask is: why can't you think more like us? What are you, stupid? But seriously, I've been wondering what is it about the scientific way of dissecting a problem that is so alien to us as layfolk. One big issue is that of scale. As a registered scientician, I am happy to think about things being a trillion times bigger as other things, and I am willing to say that if something is twice as big a something else, they are basically the same size. Why are these ways of thinking, which can be so helpful when dealing with huge ranges of scale, strange concepts before you spend a lot of time doing physical science, and/or operating a sliderule?

I think it has to do with competition. In the real world a lot of what you encounter is under intense competition. Biological organisms, for one, have gone through the Darwinian wringer, and have all come out rather similar. I mean, yes, we are black, white, short, and tall, but even Dikembe Mutumbo, for all his epic scale, is not, by any stretch, even 1000 times taller than me. He's not even twice my height! From an astronomer's perspective, he is pretty much my size. But if I told him that, well, he might take me for a walk in the cake. So, with that in mind, we have learned to group similar things together and tease out their subtle differences. It is that razor's edge of competition that makes all the difference in our world. Same goes for products on the market: I can't buy a car that drives 10 million miles an hour, because if I could no one would be selling Honda Civics. It's those few extra horsepower, or few thousand miles of reliability, that separates the Toyotas from the Studebakers.

These rules just don't apply in subatomic physics, or in outer space. Just because one black hole is the mass of the sun, doesn't mean another one can't be a billion times heavier. They aren't in some kind of competition, they don't pass on their black hole genes to their black hole babies, and there is no one saying "well, I'll buy the billion-times-as-big black hole for the same price!" and putting the solar-mass black hole company out of business. A particle can be any mass, speed, or flavor it damn well pleases, as long it obeys the basic laws of physics.

What this all means is that our typical tools for comparing objects in the terrestrial, day-to-day world aren't much use to us when examining objects that aren't under the rules of competition. And so it makes a lot of sense that we need to stretch our brains to understand exponents, logarithmic scales, power-law distributions, and order-of-magnitude calculations. I find these ways of thinking about the world endlessly rewarding, and now I think I understand better why it takes a long time to wrap one's head around them.


Good managers and bad teams

As a part of our commitment to you, the reader of The Closet Moderate, we plan to blog more around here. As a result, the posts will likely be more bloggy -- i.e., ill-informed and amateurish. In that vein, here's a thought that's been rattling around in my head the past few months: Jerry Manuel of the New York Mets is a good manager.

Now, this is hard for a Phillies fan to admit, but let's look at the monstrosity that is the New York Mets and figure out what's wrong with them. Terrible pitching. Players who don't play as a team. Injuries. Two of these are the general manager's fault, as he is the one who signs the players. Injuries are really nobody's fault, but a truly magnificent team like the Phillies can overcome them. So, on its face, what has Manuel done wrong? Nothing.

Now let's look at what the Mets do right. Small ball. They've been stuck with a stadium larger than any seen since the dead-ball era, so the American League-style game (three-run homers) is out. Instead, the Mets have actually gotten good at stealing bases, sacrificing, moving runners, and generally playing old-time baseball. And it works: they're 44-30 at home this year.

This is a manager's job: take the people and the stadium he's given and make it work. Manuel has done this. Yes, he'll still not be back next year, because the Mets' ownership are (lucky for Phillies fans) morons. But the real scapegoat for the past few years' failures in Flushing should be the general manager, Omar Minaya, who signed all of these terrible players. So, if the Mets know what's good for them, and the want to take advice from an ignorant bloggard who hates their team, they should fire Minaya and re-sign Manuel.

Also, fire Mr. Met. That guy's ridiculous.


The Role of Lifetime

A rare look behind the scenes of a new film, directed by David Mamet, starring Danny Devito: