William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Page 395 of 645

Welcome Back BYTE!

BYTE is back!

It was the winter of 1979. Allen Ordway, Brian Grenke and me sat at a table in the Algebra teacher’s room. We were typing in a Basic program, carefully inputing each line number, from the back pages of BYTE magazine onto a brand new TRS-80 computer.

The print on the pages was microscopic. It contained hundreds and hundreds and even more hundreds of lines of code. We took turns typing it all in over several days. All the data was saved on a tape recorder-like device that hooked up to the computer. What a miracle! All that typing saved on a cassette. BYTE

When finished, it turned out to be some kind of shooting game. A small “tank” would bounce back and forth on the bottom of the screen, and whenever the space bar was pressed, a “missile” would launch towards these blocky objects at the top. If the blocky object and missile intersected, points were added to a running total at the top.

What fun! We could go into the code and tinker with it. Make the tank bigger, or the missile slower. Ever better, we could give ourselves extra lives.

My triumph was to take a column from BYTE and use what I had learned from it to create a spoof program, whose purpose was to mimic the command line of the TRS-80 (this was long before the days of computer GUIs). Then, when some unsuspecting soul would try to type in his programs (for course credit), the TRS-80 would at first behave and process the commands normally, but after a few lines the machine would begin to insult the user. These insults were taken personally and caused more than one freak out.

And then there was Jerry Pournelle’s columns, whose columns I didn’t always follow but which I always read. Plus, all those ads for all that stuff which I just had to have, but which I had to wait until Halloween of 1985 to get. This was a Commodore 128, purchased at a Kansas City toy store when I was TDY from Kadena AFB, and which had 128 full kilobytes of memory, thank you very much.

BYTE is back! But only, so far and possibly forever, on-line. Jerry Pournelle is back. Of course, Pournelle has carried on Chaos Manor on his own site for many years, but it’s nice to seem him back under the old banner.

Missing are the pages of tightly packed lines of code. Well, code is one of the cases where if you have to ask how it’s done, you’ll never learn. You just have to go out and figure it for yourself, liberally borrowing from working code.

The look and feel of BYTE is there: the website has decidedly old-school feel to it. The editor Gina Smith has included Tips and How-To columns, with titles like, “Disconnect the HP TouchPad the Correct Way”, “Check How Long Your Computer Has Been On”, and “How To Resize Large Photos in OS X with GIMP.” As some geeks say, “Meh.”

The real fun is always in the reviews. BYTE doesn’t quite reach the level of independence and objectivity of, say, Consumer Reports, but they’re more authoritative and trustworthy than going to some fanboy’s site. Usually.

Controversy already! In the first issue, Demetrius Mandzych had the poor sense to take on Apple. If you’re a die-hard Steve Jobs follower, I advise you to avert your eyes from what follows.

Mandzych said,

Consumers need a wakeup call. So does the press. Stop giving Apple or any other company a free pass. Companies are beholden to shareholders, not customers. They care only about the money they make this quarter, this year, what have you. They are for-profit enterprises, after all.

The reaction was, as you might guess, about sixteen miles past vehement. Mandzych’s piece was poorly written, but what fun to see the Apple-natics react like fans at a wrestling match arguing over which spandex-wearing mat-grabber is best! The beset upon Smith was forced to line-through the entire column and prefix it with a long explanatory note of “How sorry, lesson learned, etc.”

Head on over to BYTE.

Appeals Court Confirms TSA X-Ray Strip Search Validity

The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit has confirmed that criminals and suspected criminals have more rights and more protections under the Fourth Amendment than do citizens who want to fly.

Judge Douglas Ginsburg, in Electronic Privacy Information Center v. TSA, wrote that (pdf) airport searches are different than evidence searches. Airport searches fall under the legal, but not necessarily moral, category called “administrative” which require no evidence or suspicion of wrongdoing on the person or persons undergoing the search.

Whereas criminal searches require sufficient suspicion of wrongdoing, in some cases suspicion strong enough to require a warrant from a court before a search can be conducted. It is Judge Ginsberg’s opinion that as long as a criminal does not fly, he can be assured that he will not suffer unreasonable search and seizure.

Unless that criminal happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time and runs into one of TSA’s “Viper” or “THOR” teams, which are mobile, non-airport bands of armed agents stopping citizens in any old place. Judge Ginsburg did not mention the Viper and THOR teams.

Judge Ginsburg commented on the X-Ray and backscatter machines that irradiate citizens in an effort to search for non-suspected armaments, which are defined as “nonmetallic, chemical, biological, and
radiological weapons, and explosives, in all forms.” Judge Ginsburg showed no appreciation of the extreme, indeed undefinable, breadth of “all forms” of weapons.

The Judge also appeared to have no recognition that the “studies” conducted by the TSA that purportedly demonstrate the safety of the irradiation searches could be flawed and that it is possible that harm to some is possible.

The Electronic Privacy Information Center did not do a stellar job in arguing their case. EPIC had the good idea to invoke the Muslim religion’s proscription on third-parties viewing nude Muslim females, but they forgot to bring a Muslim woman with them to court. Judge Ginsberg accepted the TSA’s counter argument that if they couldn’t find a Muslim to complain, that therefore none existed.

The Judge found adequate protection of privacy in that the software which displays the nude bodies of passengers obscures their faces, is not capable of storing the images, and that the agents themselves are forbidden (but who checks?) to take pictures of the images.

What the Judge failed to see was that after a person has been irradiated, he still might be forced into a pat down or strip search. Given that no diagnostic instrument (such as X-ray machines) can ever be perfect, these instruments will give false indications of concealed weaponry, thus triggering more invasive searches.

The argument EPIC should have used was that these more invasive searches are not warranted by the evidence of these “false positives”, thus sufficient suspicion for invasive searches does not exist. Precedent for this argument exists in “lie detector” screenings for spies. We have hard, empirical evidence on the frequency of false positives, which could have been demanded from the TSA, and on the number of true positives—i.e., the number on bona fide bomb- or biological-weapon carrying terrorists the TSA has actually identified. Which is 0 or close to it. And let’s not forget those actual baddies the TSA missed.

The Judge also found it convincing that TSA searches were not unreasonable because he was impressed that passengers had a choice to which invasive search passenger’s preferred: x-raying or pat down. This is a distinction only a lawyer could love. It is like arguing that a man was not murdered because his assailant offered the victim a choice between a gun and a rope.

The TSA did come in for a spanking, but of the “Oh, you naughty boy” type. EPIC argued that TSA did not give the public any chance to chime in on the nature of the searches and that the TSA, in a willy-nilly manner, invented whatever rules they liked. The TSA concurred and effectively said, “Why, of course we did not announce. We’re the TSA.”

This was, finally, inadequate according to the Judge who said, “the TSA has not justified its failure to initiate notice-and-comment rulemaking before announcing it would use AIT scanners for primary screening.” But he still let the TSA have their way because, and I quote, not to would cause a “disruption” in airport screening. We musn’t have one of those!

Meanwhile, we still ask: where is the left? Nothing but crickets heard. It is enough to drive one to distraction.

Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. — Benjamin Franklin

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Update Although funny, I removed the analysis of this parody from the original article. Do read this (real) analysis by a lawyer.

Some Common Global Warming Fallacies

The level of debate on global warming is shriekingly poor. Not that I have any hope of convincing the world to reject bad logic, but here are some of the more common fallacies making the rounds.

  1. The Consensus Appealing to “the” consensus is a form of the appeal-to-authority fallacy, but it is more so a stacking-the-deck fallacy. It works thusly: the IPCC goes out among the credentialed and asks, “Doest thou agree with me?” If the answer be “Aye”, the person is added to the Nice list; if it be “Nay”, the unfortunate is entered into the Persona Non Grata ledger. The IPCC then reports that there is a consensus among its membership, and that because this consensus is a consensus, its conclusions are beyond question.

    But “the” consensus is not a consensus of all climatologists. Your own author, for example, despite offering his services repeatedly—to be remunerated at the same rates as the rest of the Aye-sayers: he has to eat, after all—has never had his offer accepted. “The consensus” is therefore not a consensus in the plain English meaning of the word.

    Actually, of course, even some who say Nay make it onto the Nice list, but their views are not accorded equal weight with those of the leadership. See Judith Curry’s interesting post on “the” consensus for more on this (suggested by an anonymous reader).

  2. You’re no climatologist! The grandfather of all fallacies, the appeal to authority. This one generates more hilarity than any other. This fallacy occurs when a point made by a person outside “the” consensus is said to be invalid because the person making the point is not a “genuine” or “real” climatologist.

    First, if this fallacy was not one, then how can we explain that the IPCC could include so many non-genuine, un-real climatologists? A great chunk (even a majority?) of its members are economists, biologists, etc. Should we disbelieve what they say because these people are not genuine climatologists?

    An example of hilarity: musing on climate-gate, academic philosopher Gary Gutting writes in the New York Times,

    Some non-expert opponents of global warming have made much of a number of e-mails written and circulated among a handful of climate scientists that they see as evidence of bias toward global warming. But unless this group is willing to argue from this small (and questionable) sample to the general unreliability of climate science as a discipline, they have no alternative but to accept the consensus view of climate scientists that these e-mails do not undermine the core result of global warming.

    But, Gary, dear boy, just think: if you’re dismissing the claims of critics because they are “non-expert”, how then could you, as non-expert as they come, judge the IPCC’s claims to be valid? How can any non-expert “accept the consensus view”? I am an expert: I do not accept “the” consensus view. My expertise surely trumps yours. Therefore, you must believe what I say. If you retort that more experts take the opposite view than mine, and that therefore you choose to believe that what they say is true, then you have reduced truth to a vote. (Via Bishop Hill, via Randy Brich).

    This fallacy is pervasive and almost always used in Gutting’s form by civilians anxious not to learn any physics, but who are keen to shut up the other side.

    A person’s lack of credentials can be, and often is, relevant to why that person uttered a falsity, but it is irrelevant to proving the fallacy.

  3. The asinine comparison Technically known as the non sequitur, this one is most popular with politicians and pundits, and even the occasional academic philosopher. Examples here are legion. This is usually evidenced by calling somebody a “denier,” as pathetic a ploy as exists.

    It has also been used, in peer-reviewed publications, to compare disbelief if global warming as comparable for support of slavery. Whenever you hear we must not listen to the nay-sayers because we must “Save the planet,” or its many variants, you are hearing this fallacy.

  4. The economic fallacy See this post for complete details. The gist: the source of funding to the person who makes a statement is irrelevant to whether that statement is true or false. The source of funding could be, and often is, relevant to understanding why the person uttered a falsity, but it is irrelevant to proving the falsity.
  5. What you say hasn’t been peer reviewed! Yes, the appeal-to-authority in disguise. A statement is not true because a busy editor and two reviewers (who first look if their own papers are quoted in the paper under review) have said it is. Similarly, a statement is not false because it appears on a web site (and only reviewed in the comments).

    Again, a person’s failing to submit a statement to “peer approval” is, and often is, relevant to why that person uttered a falsity, but it is irrelevant to proving the fallacy.

The Horrible Dangers Of Third-Hand Smoke

Mark Twain smokingAll countries have been known to periodically lose their minds. France in 1789 banned religion by the point of a blade, Russia in 1917 banned freedom by the barrel of a gun, and China in the later half of the twentieth century began its rigorous program of banning life itself for a good many of its citizens (both before and after it had begun).

The US of A is no exception to insanity, for in 1920 the country wrote into its very foundation a ban on alcohol. American was not to the only land to bar booze, of course, but it was there the effects of proscription were most spectacular.

Notice that all these lapses into madness happened some while ago, time enough for memories to grow dim—and time for the forces of nuttiness to regain strength. As appears to be happening with the movement against smoking.

Iceland, for instance, has declared cigarettes a drug, and citizens now need a physician’s prescription to smoke. Elsewhere, smokers receive the kinds of looks once reserved for lepers.

Everybody knows that smoking cigarettes regularly often leads to poor health. People think they know that merely standing by a smoker will cause them to fall into poor health. This is “think they know” because what they know isn’t necessarily so.

The evidence of the effects of “second-hand” smoke is weak and exaggerated—much as were the effects of drinking a century ago. Daniel Okrent in Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition reminds us that many white-coated doctors used to claim that any drink, no matter how small, was bad news for the body, thus it should be banned.

There is a kind of logic in disparaging second-hand smoke. Smoke if you want, but don’t you dare endanger others! The problem is that some claim, via poorly made statistical arguments, that second-hand smoke is just as evil as first-hand smoke. Many must feel the exaggerations they make fall within the “better safe than sorry” category.

Yet these arguments, poor as they were, convinced, and the battle over second-hand smoke was won—bans are in place nearly everywhere lest smokers contaminate the pure. So what does a military do after beating the enemy? It either demobilizes or it seeks new enemies to conquer.

Militant doctors chose the latter option and have invented the category of “third-hand smoke.” This is the smoke that is transfered to innocent third parties (and places) from people who do not smoke themselves, but who were, however briefly, in the presence of a smoker. Make sense?

It does to an anti-tobacco crusader with the Dickensian name of Winickoff, who lead wrote a peer-reviewed article in Pediatrics entitled, “Beliefs About the Health Effects of ‘Thirdhand’ Smoke and Home Smoking Bans.” Notice the favorite word of zealots appears.

No attempt is made by Winickoff et al. to prove the horribleness of third-hand smoke in this paper; it’s evilness is taken for granted. He merely wants to see if others believe as fervently as he does. Understand: this article is just a survey of civilians and their opinions of third-hand smoke.

I flatter myself that I am somewhat informed about the important matters of the day, plus I have been working in and around hospitals these last eight years, but I had never heard of so-called third-hand smoke until last week. Thus I suspect that many or most of those Winickoff surveyed had no prior knowledge of this subject.

Winickoff apparently also thinks so and instead asked people whether they agreed with the statement, “Breathing air in a room today where people smoked yesterday can harm the health of infants and children.” He uses agreement with this how-can-you-answer-anything-but-yes question as confirmation the person “believes” in third-hand smoke.

Thus loading his dice and, after tossing and—quelle surprise!—making his number, Winickoff begins by telling us that “Of 2000 eligible respondents contacted, 1510 (87%) completed surveys” and 61% of those who answered agree third-hand smoke is bad, and 93% that second-hand smoke is bad. (I’ll let the reader confirm the math.)

He then inputed his numbers into a weighted “multiple logistic regression model” which spit out many small p-values to the effect that, yes, those that hated third-hand smoke were likely not smoke in rooms that might later be occupied by children. Conclusion: third-hand smoke is bad, especially for the children!

But there can be no quod erat demonstrandum because nothing was proved; indeed, nothing was asserted. Strangely, he calls this finding “novel.” But, ever weirder, he could not confirm that “belief” in second-hand smoke was associated with people not smoking around children.

Winickoff is thus claiming that people fret about third-hand smoke, but not second-hand smoke. The statistics tell him this is so. Onward marches science!

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Although it isn’t relevant, I do not smoke cigarettes and never have. Nor I have ever received money or any consideration from any tobacco company, or, to my knowledge, any of their affiliates. Whereas Doc Winickoff has received plenty of bucks to express his view.

I was unable to locate Winickoff’s email and could not offer him a chance for rebuttal.

Thanks to reader Brad Tittle for bringing this subject to my attention.

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