Jens 'n' Frens
Idle thoughts of a relatively libertarian Republican in Cambridge, MA, and whomever he invites. Mostly political.
"A strong conviction that something must be done is the parent of many bad measures."
-- Daniel Webster
Monday, July 01, 2019 :::
Every silver lining's got a touch of grey.
There's been some consternation in the past couple of weeks about recent improvements in the ability of computer algorithms to produce fake videos that look real. I'm more — well, let's call it "optimistic", but you can choose your own labels.
The Grateful Dead
Certainly there's a long and accelerating history of technology improving the ability of people to provide evidence, to fake evidence, or to expose faked evidence, such that crimes and hoaxes alike are uncovered years after the fact. In that, this isn't new. People's faith in evidence, I think, tends to be a bit too credulous over all, but also to lag behind new technology — we trust what was good evidence a generation ago, and we're more skeptical of what was dubious then, but maybe not as much as we should have been. This particular edition is new, but the issue isn't. People will learn, eventually, to be skeptical of video evidence. This is undoubtedly a good thing.
We have seen numerous cases in the past couple years of videos that go viral, and shortly thereafter a new video providing more context essentially refutes the apparent significance of the initial video. This, too, is a new manifestation of an old problem; videos have really only been going viral on social media for a decade, but Jon Stewart in particular was notorious for taking videos and editing them selectively, and twenty years ago I received the advice that it was better to give interviews to newspapers than TV precisely because people expect the newspaper interview to be edited, and will take video as complete truth. It's been more than 25 years since NBC was exposed for construing videos of trucks exploding as showing that the trucks were unsafe, rather than as showing that NBC new how to put a car bomb on a truck.
I'm somewhat sad that security camera videos will be less reliable than they used to be; those tend not to require a whole lot of context that would be in dispute. If a security camera shows that a person was in a particular place at a particular time, that's usually all that's needed; if video shows that someone is breaking into a car, that person can try to explain why, but the factual disputes that security cameras resolve tend not to rely on context.
In most contexts, though, people put too much stock in deracinated videos, and the skepticism people learn to give them may be worth making them even less reliable than they are now.
::: posted by dWj at 12:23 PM
Monday, July 09, 2018 :::
I probably enjoy sports differently from many Americans, but would posit that one of the reason that many Americans like our football better than soccer is well-captured by the kurtosis of changes in win-probability graphs. Look at these games from fivethirtyeight.com :
This is, in fact, a pair of games that is somewhat generous (in the relevant sense) to soccer, in that the former in particular is unusually high-scoring. What you see in the graphs is ten jumps with regions of gentle drift in between. Compare this to the chart from advancednflstats.com :
This is, in fact, a game that is somewhat ungenerous (in the relevant sense) to football, in that it is a particularly close game. It is still a much more continuous graph; there are occasional "big plays", but the eleventh-biggest moment of the game has much more impact on the final result than in soccer.
One can advance arguments about information sets or the like (and perhaps a graph based on an active live-betting market would better make the point), but there's no plausible way the most expert of soccer observers could enrich the practical state-space of soccer enough to appreciably smooth down the soccer graph; possession and field position count for something, but not very much. Soccer advocates occasionally snark that the problem that soccer is low-scoring could be solved by multiplying the goals by 7 as football (more or less) does, but this confuses the issue of "scoring" with the more fundamental issue: even in a football game with 18 points between the two teams (7 times the average total score of world cup matches this year) will have meaningful progress toward points that is far less ephemeral than exists in soccer.
::: posted by dWj at 1:29 PM
Monday, June 11, 2018 :::
A closely divided Supreme Court wrestled Wednesday with a case challenging the legality of President Trump’s travel ban, which restricts travel to the U.S. for foreign nationals from five Muslim majority countries.
This version of the story is from the Washington Examiner
The liberal justices peppered Solicitor General Noel Francisco with questions surrounding a hypothetical president suggested by Justice Elena Kagan.
A reasonable analogy, assuming that Jews in that world are disproportionately involved in terrorist attacks and calling for the destruction of the US and whatnot and that Israel is one of several Jewish countries. But I've been wondering about another analogy a little bit further afield.
Kagan posed the example of an anti-Semitic president who made derogatory comments on the campaign trail about Jewish people, which was a veiled reference to Trump’s comments about Muslims while campaigning for president in 2016.
Once assuming the presidency, under Kagan’s example, the president then asks staff to make recommendations and issues a proclamation banning people from Israel from coming to the U.S.
This is an “out-of-the-box type of president” in the hypothetical, Kagan said, before asking what a reasonable observer were to think about such an order.
Suppose a legally unsophisticated presidential candidate appealing to legally unsophisticated voters makes gun violence a key part of his platform, regularly declaring on the stump that we need to eliminate guns. Perhaps he denigrates gun owners, making a reference to their "clinging" to their guns. He gets elected, partially on this basis, and assembles his advisers to start preparing legislation banning guns.
The head of his legal team tells him, "actually, we can't ban guns altogether because of the Second Amendment."
"Really? I assumed my opponent was making that up."
"No, it's right there between the first and the third. Also the Supreme Court has ruled that it isn't just decorative, and we have to operate within that interpretation."
"I don't want to evade my constitutional duties, but I really want to prevent gun violence. It's the right thing to do, and it's part of the reason I was elected. What options do we have? Can we ban especially dangerous or scary-looking guns? Can we restrict ownership by especially dangerous people? Can we increase enforcement of laws that are already on the books to prevent dangerous people from getting guns?"
"Well, if you hadn't mentioned guns on the campaign trail, you could do any of those. Alternatively, if you had campaigned on those proposals but had added that you didn't want to ban guns altogether, they would be okay. But since you said you wanted to ban guns, you can't really do any of those. Any change you want to implement will have to be made in such a way that a court won't think your real goal is to ban guns."
Is my legal adviser off-base? Or is it true that a politician who want a policy as close to X as possible without violating the law can get a policy substantially closer to X if he knows what his constraints are?
::: posted by Steven at 11:26 AM
Sunday, March 26, 2017 :::
A somewhat common rhetorical trope among Republican politicians in the last decade has been the suggestion that certain cabinet-level departments should be closed down; insofar as this is a realistic proposition, it's not that the government wouldn't, say, safeguard its nuclear weapons, but that that would be moved to (say) the department of defense in a reorganization. Certainly it seems like the number of cabinet-level departments is rather more than you would be likely to create if you were starting from scratch, even assuming the government was going to try to do all the things it tries to do. Some changes suggest themselves going from the status quo backward — the Commerce Department and the Labor Department should probably be re-combined, with most of the Labor department however going to Justice, and putting VA under defense or HHS would make some sense (it should certainly be viewed as part of the defense budget) — but it might be worth thinking how one would start over from scratch, just as a normative guide.
The initial four departments seem like a good place to start; having some sort of Department of Justice, especially in an age without private prosecution of criminal laws, seems like a no-brainer for any sort of government. Likewise, a national government should have a Department of Speaking Softly and a Department of Carrying Big Sticks, though I think there's an argument for combining them. I'm not as confident that a Treasury department per se is as clear; if you're going to have some sort of centralized management of financing etc. in the executive branch, it might well be part of a general Department of Administration, and it's perhaps worth noting in that context that what is now the Bureau of Land Management was part of the Treasury Department until the fifth cabinet position was created, so perhaps that's how it was viewed at the time — the department that managed assets and liabilities that weren't obviously directly within the bailiwick of some other department. Going from that direction, I'm not sure I see an obvious case for a fifth department. Perhaps the "Treasury" department should be divided up somewhat by the type of asset being managed and for whom, e.g. whether it's fairly open for use by the public (highways, parks) or not.
::: posted by dWj at 1:22 PM
Monday, February 20, 2017 :::
My favorite presidents, in order:
- Benjamin Franklin (I know somebody is going to nitpick about this one, but I don't care)
- Harding, partly for scaling back the presidency post-Wilson and tarnishing it through scandal, but mostly for dying in office
- John XXIII, just to troll the anti-Catholics
- The band that performed "Lump" and "Peaches"
- Justin Amash (give it a few years)
- Jonathan Bush, who has been the president of a publicly-traded company (which I used to work for) for nearly a decade, despite his complete inability, as far as I could tell, to keep his most interesting thoughts to himself
::: posted by Steven at 11:59 PM
Thursday, January 19, 2017 :::
I consider myself a mild opponent of the death penalty. I don't consider it inherently unjust -- it may even be more just, in some cases, than the alternatives -- but I don't see that the government particularly needs this power, and I don't think the government should have powers that it doesn't need.
To reemphasize, though, I don't believe that capital punishment is always unjust, and I do think that rule of law is more important. If I were called to be on a jury for a capital crime, I might be a harder sell than some, but if it were clear to me that the defendant was guilty and that those who committed crimes like his were typically -- nearly always -- sentenced to death, it would seem wrong to me not to sentence the defendant to death. If he committed what was, reasonably, a capital offense, and he could have known it was a capital offense, he should not benefit unduly from a stroke of luck that I was seated on his jury and not someone else's. If Dylan Roof had not been sentenced to death this week, I would have to be more resolutely persuaded that the death penalty should no longer exist. If the death penalty had been banned nation-wide and Roof had been sentenced to life, I would not have a problem with that sentence. But if the death penalty is available for premeditated murder with a minor aggravating factor, how could we plausibly not apply it to someone who not only murdered nine people in cold blood but befriended them before doing it? In my mind, to let Roof live would mean either reserving capital punishment to the rarest of mass murderers and traitors or to nobody at all.
On the other hand, the one niggling idea in the back of my brain in favor of capital punishment is as a prophylactic against excessive clemency. For example, I'm not sure Saddam Hussein should have been tried by a court, as though his "crimes" fit within the jurisdiction of an impartial judiciary, but I do think he had to be hanged to allow Iraq to move forward from the despotism of a madman to... well, at least not a despotism that could ever be run again by the same madman. If a knock against capital punishment is that it can not be reversed, if applied in error, a point in favor of its rare application is that it can not be reversed. This should not be an issue in a country in which executive clemency can be reasonably expected to be unavailable to those for whom capital punishment may be warranted. I don't believe the commutation of sentence of Chelsea ("the traitor formerly known as Bradley") Manning by itself moves us from being in a country sufficiently ruled by laws that capital punishment is unnecessary to a country in which it may be necessary, but it certainly does not move us in the right direction.
UPDATE: Obviously, the same applies to the FALN terrorist.
::: posted by Steven at 12:50 AM
Saturday, December 24, 2016 :::
A scene from the TV show Bones ("The Santa in the Slush"), edited down some:
BOOTH: You got that sad little girl look on your face after you've been with your dad.
BRENNAN: He wishes we could spend Christmas together with Russ.
BOOTH: Well, do it.
BRENNAN: They're both in jail. It's impossible.
BOOTH: You know they have a trailer at the jail, mostly for conjugal visits. You can give him what he wants for Christmas. Pull a few strings.
BRENNAN: I'm not a string puller.
BOOTH: I've seen you pull some strings.
BRENNAN: My father is a murderer and a thief.
BOOTH: Well, murderers and thieves, they get Christmas too. In fact, it's kind of the point.
::: posted by Steven at 10:52 PM