Facebook and “hate speech”

I don’t use Facebook and don’t want to use it. However, it’s the 500-pound gorilla of social networking, and as it goes, other sites are likely to go. This makes Facebook’s concessions on suppression of speech disturbing.

“Hate speech” is a term with no coherent meaning, used by pressure groups ranging from radical leftists to Islamic fundamentalists to denounce the words of others. One group demanded that Facebook “recognize speech that trivializes or glorifies violence against girls and women as hate speech and make a commitment that you will not tolerate this content.” Facebook has responded that “content that should be removed has not been or has been evaluated using outdated criteria.” The demand for non-tolerance of “trivialization” of violence is particularly alarming. If someone comments that a person has been unjustly convicted or excessively punished, the people who want blood are apt to claim that the comment trivializes the crime. Will Facebook delete pro-leniency remarks under pressure?

There’s no defense against a charge of “hate speech,” because it means whatever the accuser wants it to mean. Rationally, you’d think that it’s the people calling for harsher penalties who are motivated by hatred (which may or may not be justified, depending on the particulars). But hate speech doesn’t mean speech expressing hatred; it means speech that a pressure group hates.

Since I’ve repeatedly engaged in “hate speech” of my own about Facebook, I can’t say I’ll withdraw any further from it than I already have. I can say, though, that if other sites which I use start to create a chilling atmosphere for discussion, I’ll be less inclined to use them. These days I favor Dreamwidth and wish more people whom I know posted there. Other venues I sometimes use include special-purpose forums and mailing lists; and in spite of Andrew Cuomo’s smear campaign, Usenet hasn’t been completely killed. WordPress keeps a mostly hands-off policy with regard to blogs, as far as I can tell.

Who needs Facebook?

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US Constitution: Banned in Batavia

A teacher at Batavia High School in Batavia, Illinois, has been disciplined for informing students of their constitutional rights. Education News reports:

A high school social studies teacher in Batavia, Illinois, faces disciplinary action for informing students of their Fifth Amendment rights in connection with a survey asking about illegal drug use. The survey, ostensibly aimed at assessing the needs of students at Batavia High School, was distributed on April 18. After picking up the survey forms from his mailbox about 10 minutes before his first class of the day, John Dryden noticed that they had students’ names on them and that they asked about drinking and drug use, among other subjects. Dryden, who had just finished teaching a unit on the Bill of Rights, worried that students might feel obliged to incriminate themselves—an especially ticklish situation given the police officer stationed at the school. Since there was no time to confer with administrators, he says, he decided to tell his students that they did not have to complete the forms if doing so involved admitting illegal behavior.

Dr. Jack Barshinger, the school superintendent, issued a cowardly set of innuendos to justify the action. While hiding behind confidentiality to avoid giving any facts or making any concrete charges, he stated: “What the BPS101 Board does not, and will not support, is any employee giving students false impressions about the motivations of those who come here every day to try to improve the lives of the students entrusted to our care.” Without saying a single thing about what Dryden did, he implies that Dryden misled the students. What falsehood did he suggest? That the Constitution applies to high school students? That admitting to illegal acts could endanger them? That the students should take their own safety into account rather than blindly obeying the school?

He concludes by hypocritically declaring that “the best interests of the students must, and will, always come first.” Apparently he thinks ignorance is what’s in their best interest. That’s a disgusting position for a so-called educator to take.

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Wishes vs. facts

Wanting to tweet a link on a positive theme, I looked for a speech which Davy Crockett had supposedly made to Congress about the importance of staying within Constitutional limits regardless of how sympathetic you might feel to the beneficiary. It’s easy enough to find citations, such as this one from the Foundation for Economic Education. I noticed, though, that none of the pages I found gave a date for the speech. The FEE article just says he gave it “one day”; some pages mention secondary sources, but I couldn’t find any earlier than the second half of the 19th century. (Crockett died in 1836 at the Alamo.)

Chasing down various links, I eventually found this page, which looks like a plausible summary. In Crockett’s time, speeches in Congress weren’t meticulously transcribed, so we can’t get a definitive answer by checking Congressional Record. However, the inconsistencies in the account, the lack of a date, and the lack of contemporary citations all cast strong doubt on the story.

Libertarians would like the story to be true. It’s nice to have a famous historical figure to quote in support of your views, and that makes some people abandon normal caution. The supposed speech is quoted in full on the Cato and Lew Rockwell sites, among others. Maybe the people who posted it would have been more skeptical if they had been less eager to have it be real. When you close your eyes to questions, though, there’s a serious cost. The more obvious cost is to your credibility; if you’re caught in a falsehood, even an inadvertent one, you won’t be trusted as much next time. The more important cost is internal; if you skimp on judgment when you want something to be true, you undermine your own ability to think and trust yourself.

Whenever you see opinions on a question of fact divided along political lines, it’s certain that people on at least one side (not all of them, but enough to skew the numbers) are going by wishes rather than evidence. It’s very often both, since people will respond in kind to what they think the other side is doing.

Avoiding wishful thinking and sticking to verified facts can be hard work and sometimes make you unpopular, but it’s better than blindly following the crowd.

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Complex matters in an imaginary world

I have a confession to make. Even though I graduated from MIT a long time ago, I’ve never really “gotten” imaginary numbers — till now. I understood the arithmetic of them, but I could never get a real sense of why. This gave me a lot of trouble in my electrical engineering courses. Today I was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ space opera Pirates of Venus, which has this amusing line: “I saw that argument was useless and said no more; there is no use arguing with a man who can multiply anything by the square root of minus one.” That got me thinking about my old frustration.

I’d gotten as far as thinking that imaginary numbers would be less confusing if we called them “orthogonal numbers” instead; they’re no more imaginary than real numbers, but it’s useful to conceive of them as a number line that’s orthogonal to the primary number line. A complex number is a vector in the two-dimensional plane, and addition and subtraction are no problem. But why should the square root of -1 be i? The standard answer is so that you can solve equations that otherwise would have no solution. But why do they need solutions? There’s no solution to dividing a number by zero, and we don’t invent a new class of numbers just so we can do that. (Infinities aren’t numbers.)

Doing some web searches, I came across a page which provided the key: Multiplication by i really means rotation by 90°! Look at the results of repeated multiplication by i on the complex plane and it works. Multiply 1 by i and you get i (1 on the vertical axis). Multiply again by i and you get -1 on the horizontal axis. Keep going and you get –i (-1 on the vertical axis) and then you come a full 360° back to 1.

But wait! If you want to rotate just 45°, shouldn’t that be multiplication by i/2? That gives you a result at 90°, not 45°. But then I realized that multiplying by i/2 doesn’t mean half as much rotation; it means half as much of the rotated result. To rotate 45°, you must need to multiply by the square root of i. What is this square root? Using ordinary algebra, it comes out as (i + 1) / sqrt(2); and using ordinary trigonometry, this is the 45° position on the circle.

It’s annoying, though, that this scheme requires an exponential progression of complex numbers to describe a linear progression of rotation. So the log of a complex number ought to be useful, since it describes a quantity which is proportional to the amount of rotation. What base log would work most cleanly?

Well, we can relate a complex number on the unit circle to an angle θ by the formula cos(θ) + i sin(θ). That’s basic trigonometry; read 1 as x and i as y if it helps. Then θ is the log that we’re looking for. Radians are easier to work with than degrees, so the log of a full circle’s rotation should come to 2π, or any integer multiple of it. It seems that logs of this kind won’t be unique. So we want a base, let’s call it x, such that xθi = cos(θ) + i sin(θ). Go through some messy calculations, and x comes out to be about 2.71828. Mathematicians like to call it e. So it all comes together, and the strange-looking equation “ei = 1″ makes physical sense as the description of a full circle of rotation.

It’s really not that (pardon the pun) complex an idea, and I’m sure some of you are flabbergasted that I never got it, but somehow it had never been explained to me properly. (And some of you were lost by the second paragraph. That’s OK; it balances out.) I suspect a lot of people would get it more easily if imaginary numbers were called “orthogonal numbers” or almost anything else, and if multiplication by an imaginary number were explained as rotation rather than as satisfying a mathematician’s need for completeness. Then you’ve got a tool for dealing with real physical systems like the interaction of wave phases, rather than a toy.

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Spohr’s “Die Letzten Dinge”

Let’s look at Spohr’s music some more.

One of my favorite works of his is Die Letzten Dinge, an oratorio whose title translates literally as “the last things,” but more meaningfully as “the last judgment.” It predates Mendelssohn’s Biblical oratorios but has the same kind of feeling, being more concerned with drama and human reactions than with deep the religious feelings of Bach or the doubtful inquiry of Beethoven. It’s direct and forceful, presenting sharp contrasts between the ideas of God as a loving redeemer and as a mass executioner. It may not make much sense, but it makes for very effective music. Occasionally it loses momentum, but the problems are minor.

The opening is a baroque overture in form, though definitely Spohr’s in style, introducing some motifs which are used repeatedly through the work. Part 1 is stage-setting, but it includes some fine music, particularly the opening chorus, “Preis und Ehre ihm,” and the closing piece for soloists and chorus, “Heil, dem Erbarmer Heil!”

A stern Sinfonia opens Part 2, followed by an equally stern aria by the bass. Then the music turns ominous as soft drum rolls cut off the closing cadence, and the bass announces the coming of the world’s end. There’s a sharp contrast in the duet, “Sei mir nicht schrecklich in der Not.” The tenor announces the final hour and the climactic moment is the chorus, “Gefallen ist Babylon, die Grosse!” It gives the full force of the orchestra and chorus to describing how Earth’s inhabitants want to die but can’t, then sinks into a quiet, ominous passage as the dead rise. At the end, the storm fades into the distance and the tenor sings unaccompanied, “Es ist geschehen.” It’s easy to imagine a cityscape lying in ruins. This is followed by the unexpected contrast with the beautiful quartet and chorus, “Selig sind die Toten.” The wrap-up isn’t quite up to the same level, but it finishes with a lively fugue.

Musically, the oratorio isn’t very difficult, and it could be a good choice for choral societies to perform. The recording which I have is a Philips CD With Gustav Kuhn conducting the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart and the Südfunk Chorus.

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A sequence of gods

How plausible do I find it that God exists? Well, “God” is a poorly defined term, corresponding to many different ideas. Let me recast the question in terms of some specific hypotheses. (There’s a peculiar idea floating around that to qualify as an atheist, you have to have decided beyond all possibility of further argument or evidence that there can’t be a deity. The people who offer this definition are projecting their own faith-based mode of thinking onto others. Atheism is non-acceptance of the existence of a deity, not non-consideration of arguments for one.)

Could an intelligent being have created the universe? A cheap way out is to answer that the universe is everything that exists, so no creator can lie outside it. But let’s take “universe” to mean the space-time bubble we know about, the limits of the remnants of the Big Bang and of what the best instruments can detect. There’s no telling what lies outside it, if anything. I find the hypothesis that an intelligence created it less implausible than the one that it just popped out of a fluctuation in the vacuum state, which isn’t saying much. But it’s all a matter of idle speculation; there’s no convincing evidence for or against it.

Could this intelligence be one that knows about every detail of the universe and can intervene at will? This is much more of a stretch, but I can’t rule it out a priori.

Does this all-knowing, all-powerful intelligence care about the inhabitants of our planet, and does it purposefully allow so much suffering that can’t be attributed to anyone’s choices? That just doesn’t make sense.

Does it care about what people think of it, and does it reward and punish people eternally for their beliefs and religious practices or lack of them? That’s insane.

Did this being create everything from the planet through the human species in six days, plant consistent evidence to the contrary, drown almost the entire world’s population, kill tens of thousands of Egyptian kids on account of their Pharaoh’s policies, enact death penalties galore, and order the massacres of Jericho and Ai? There are limits even to insanity.

More dubious stuff from FairPoint Energy

In my posts of February 20, 23 and 25, I wrote of my problems with getting switched to FairPoint energy without my consent. I thought I’d had it all straightened out and was rid of them, when today I got a letter starting, “Thank you for choosing us as your energy supplier. We are proud to provide you with an electricity plan that offers significant benefits…”

The letter gave the number 866-984-2001 to call if I had any questions. That number gave me four options, none of which were really right. I picked the one about having trouble, which got me repair service. They switched me to another number, where I had to talk to an idiot who asked if I wanted to add FairPoint service when I just said I wanted to get rid of it. The third person I talked to was helpful, though, and processed cancellation of my account. However, there should have been no account to cancel.

The act of involuntarily switching people to another service provider is called “slamming,” and it looks from here as if that’s what FairPoint is doing. If not, it’s serious incompetence. The last person I talked to sounded as if she’d been getting a lot of these calls.

I think it’s time for me to contact the Public Utilities Commission. I just hope this doesn’t result in my power or Internet service (where I’m stuck with FairPoint) suddenly being termina

The lessons of Reversi

Lately Reversi has become one of my favorite computer games. I’ve never played it against a human and don’t own a physical Reversi set, but I have three different applications for playing it against the computer. My favorite is Kiss the Machine Reversi. At its Intermediate level I can beat it 70% of the time, at Advanced level about once in eight. Beyond that it has Expert, Master, and Guru levels, where I’ve found it untouchable.

Here’s some history of the game. It’s also known as Othello, but that’s a registered trademark, and the game itself is in the public domain, so nearly all computer implementations are called Reversi.

If chess is abstract war, Reversi is, in a sense, abstract trade. With each move, you get something from your opponent, then your opponent gets something from you. Your opponent’s stones are the resources on which you build your success, and if you try to grab too much too early, you dry up your own opportunities and lose. You win by focusing not on how much you have, but on how good your position is. If you take control of the corners, you have a corner on the market, so to speak, and you’ll generally win. If your opponent can push you into making a bad acquisition, you’ll lose.

With so many games that are models of conquest and destruction, Reversi is refreshingly different. A game is short, so it makes a nice three-minute break.

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Dealing with internal checkpoints

I’ve never had to deal with a federal internal checkpoint, but it could happen anywhere in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, and they are set up now and then in New Hampshire’s tourist areas, so it’s important to be prepared. I don’t have practical experience other than actual border crossings, and I’m no lawyer, so I’m linking to hopefully reliable sources here rather than offering my own advice.

The ACLU has a reasonable-looking page on “What To Do If You’re Stopped By Police, Immigration Agents or the FBI.” Key points are that you have the right to remain silent (but you should say out loud that you’re exercising that right) and that you have the right to refuse a search. I’ve turned that page into an EPUB file and put it on my iPod. Ken White at Popehat advises that not saying anything is very often the wisest thing to do. An innocent error or an attempt to cover up what you think is none of the government’s business can result in your being prosecuted for making false statements. The first question may be innocuous, but it’s better to stop there than to balk at “Are you running guns to terrorists?”

At an internal checkpoint, it appears from several web pages I’ve seen that the best approach is this: Decline to answer any questions, no matter how many times they’re repeated. Ask, “Am I being detained?” If not, then ask, “Am I free to go?” If you don’t get a straight answer, keep asking. If you’re asked to pull over for an inspection, you do have to pull over, but you don’t have to consent to a search. Ask, “Do you have a search warrant for my vehicle?” and don’t accept any substitute for one. If they pull a gun on you or physically assault you, though, don’t be an idiot; it’s no longer a question of law but of facing an armed and dangerous person with lots of backup. In doing all this, it’s best to maintain an attitude of calm confidence in your rights and not be belligerent about it. Stories I’ve seen indicate that this will almost always get you waved through after a while. Please note, this is neither legal advice nor advice from my personal experience. It is the approach I plan to take if I ever have to, based on my current knowledge.

This doesn’t apply if you’re actually crossing the border. There, you’re basically screwed if they want to screw you, though the odds are in favor of nothing happening. The best approach there seems to be to have a simple explanation of your trip planned out in advance, to be able to say exactly where you’re going, and to let the driver do all the talking. Avoid saying anything that sounds as if you’re crossing the border for paying work. Mentioning music often rouses suspicions that you’re planning to use drugs and do paying gigs, but making up a story to avoid mentioning it may be more dangerous. (If you are doing a paying gig, you need better advice than this.) This paragraph is from personal experience, but nothing more than that.

Having a lawyer’s phone number readily at hand is a good safety measure and can increase your confidence when you’re at a checkpoint. If you think you’re being racially profiled, you can call the ACLU profiling hotline at 855-737-7386.

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