Category Archives: Ranting

The DoD Loves Complex Charts

As you know, Bob, I’m mildly obsessed with how to display data visually. Displaying data well is tough, especially when you’re talking about complex data. When I have to design a chart for some crazy-ass set of data, I often look at how others have done the same thing, and I keep tabs on blogs that cover chart-making in detail. I also like to collect examples of how to do it badly.

Thankfully, as I’ve mentioned before, the DoD is a great source of bad charts.

A Chart of Afghanistan Stability

Look at that thing! Click on it and behold it in its full splendor! Some of the data is color-coded, but there are multiple secondary labels per color. Those secondary labels are on top of the chart, partially obscuring words and the connecting lines. The light green is unreadable, and the light blue isn’t much better. Most of the nodes in this graph are blocks of text, except when they’re not. I know this is a working draft, and I know the chart’s designers are trying to convey a lot of information, but good grief this is bad.

(via TPM)

Oh, Authors, Why Must You Be Crazy on the Internet?

If I linked to every incident of an author being crazy on the Internet over a bad review, I’d be here all day, but this one is a perfect shining diamond of such crazy. It’s the platonic ideal of an author going insane over a bad review, and will be studied by future cockroach scholars as they comb through our lost civilization trying to understand why we spent so much time on the Internet being stupid.

At Amazon, L.B. Taylor gave a bad review of “Electra Galaxy’s Mr. Intersellar Feller”, an SF romance by Candace Sams. The first comment, by “Niteflyr One”, accuses Taylor of hating the author. Niteflyr One, of course, is the author Candace Sams.

What’s that? A sock puppet right out of the gate? That’s a classic move, the Queen’s Gambit of authors responding to bad reviews. But it gets better! She claims her response was just a social experiment! (“Here’s a run-through of the events of this experiment, for that’s what all this was ‘really’ about.”) The lurkers support her in email! (“For some time now, I’ve been getting messages from more equitable reviewers, agents and editors that this person (Taylor) was ‘known’ in the industry for having some very angry, almost hateful opinions…”) Godwin’s law in action! (“I’d liken their collective attitude to Gestapo tactics, but I don’t think anyone who left comments on the list on behalf of Taylor would know what I was talking about, let alone be able to spell it.”) I don’t actually mind the bad review! (“For those of you who don’t know…I was a police officer for almost ten years. I’ve been called things in languages from all over the world. Taylor and her webspinners hardly bother me.”) All of you people responding negatively are in on it and are out to get me! (“She responded just as I thought one of these nasty little reviewers would…she ran, hid and called out her little army of nothing-better-to-do malcontents.”)

And that’s only one comment! She ran through the whole Kubler-Rossian spectrum of wankery in one sitting.

What’s icing on the cake is her awesome claims. Thrill! to her claim that editors are responsible for the bad books, not authors. (I blame Joss Whedon fans for this defense.) Exclaim! when you realize that she points to Harriet Klausner as a model reviewer, the same Harriet Klausner whose reviews are typically nothing more than plot summaries that may or may not get the plot points right. Marvel! that she thinks that people who post bad reviews on Amazon then buy it in ebook format to sell illegally. Swoon! as she sneers how a sneer is the weapon of the weak.

But none of that can hold a candle to her calling in the Internet FBI. Seriously!

Candace Sams gives up around page 18, but who knows? Maybe she’ll be back!

It’s Not the Name, It’s the Persona

James Chartrand is a well-known blogger in certain circles through his articles for Copyblogger and his web design and copyrighting company, Men With Pens. Yesterday James admitted on Copyblogger that he’s really a she. She’d adopted a male pen name to make it easier to land freelancing jobs.

You know the punchline, of course: it worked.

There was no haggling. There were compliments, there was respect. Clients hired me quickly, and when they received their work, they liked it just as quickly. There were fewer requests for revisions — often none at all.

Customer satisfaction shot through the roof. So did my pay rate.

This shouldn’t surprise you. Sexism, both overt and subtle, is still rampant. Women make less money than men for the same jobs. One recent study showed that having blind auditions for orchestras, where the reviewers didn’t see the candidate and did not know the candidate’s name, increased womens’ chances in the first round by 50%. For the final rounds? 300%.

Many women writers have used a male name or obscured their gender by using their initials. It’s especially widespread in science fiction and fantasy, where Andre Norton, C.L. Moore, C.J. Cherryh, James Tiptree, Jr., and J. K. Rowling all used a variant on their name so no one would know they were women.

James has taken a lot of heat for this. Not all of it has been from people who want to deny the sexism her experience highlights. Jessica Wakeman, writing at The Frisky, rails against James deciding to “pass” and calling her an Uncle Tom for not fighting the sexism directly, and in doing so shows that she and the point of Chartrand’s experience aren’t even in the same zip code. Wakeman deliberately co-opts racial terms to make her point, which is troubling to begin with, but her point makes no sense. “Chartrand just contributed to the stereotype that male copywriters are more talented than women copywriters,” she writes, which is the exact opposite of what Chartrand has done. Like James Tiptree, Jr., Chartrand ‘fessing up to being female shows that females are indeed as talented as male ones. Like the blind audition study, Chartrand has shown the unspoken gender bias that’s going on every day.

If you’re going to be down on James Chartrand, be down on the persona she created. She not only used a masculine name, she went out of her way to sound as super-manly as possible. As Amanda Hess pointed out, Chartrand’s company is named “Men With Pens”. Chartrand described her lone female employee, Taylor Lindstrom, as “the team’s rogue woman who wowed us until our desire for her talents exceeded our desire for a good ol’ boys club.” She illustrated her blog posts with pictures of naked ladies, and chided mommy bloggers to give more weight to male voices. It’s as if every morning before writing she tied a red bandanna around her head, nodded sagely to her poster of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and downed her usual breakfast of whiskey and cigars. She responded to the sexism she was experiencing by creating a sexist persona.

That’s the real problem with James Chartrand’s story. It’s both a good anecdote about the sexism women experience and a cautionary tale about a woman who decided she had to be a man’s man to get ahead. I’m not disappointed that James Chartrand chose not to fight the sexism she experienced. I’m disappointed she decided to perpetuate it herself.

How To Generate Scientific Controversy

1. Pick something that is regarded as true by the vast majority of scientists in the field and claim that it causes something bad.

2. Demand that scientists prove a negative by showing that the good thing doesn’t actually have bad results.

3. When people point out that the facts don’t back up your claim, ignore them. As those people get angry and shouty at you, smugly say, “They’re persecuting me! They’re so closed-minded that they won’t let anyone ask questions!” Bonus points for saying that science is now a religion.

4. If more patient scientists perform studies that undermine your claim, or if you manage to get the government to modify the good thing to fix what you were complaining about, move the goalposts!

Let’s see what we can do with this. I know: child safety seats! Properly used, they dramatically decrease kids’ injuries in car wrecks. They’re hella effective. So let’s claim that they really aren’t. In fact, their five-point harness can kill. See, the chest latch rides up and the two shoulder belts tighten until your kid will choke to death.

More rational types may point to reports from the U.S.’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the American Academy of Pediatrics describing how much good child safety seats do. It doesn’t matter! They haven’t checked to see if the shoulder belts could strangle your child, or even chop off their heads.

Once I get a celebrity or two behind my cause, I’ll be able to put others on the defensive. The NHTSA will have to perform tests to try to prove that child safety seats don’t strangle babies or chop off their heads. Their test results will probably show no such problem.

That’s okay. We know the real danger is that the car seats don’t install properly. It was nice of the NHTSA to look into the strap-strangulation problem, but our work is far from done.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go shower.

Update: Since people have asked, I’ve laid out a plan to monetize the controversy.

Perhaps Microsoft Could Hire Count von Count

Today is Windows 7 day. How exciting! I began wondering why Windows 7 was called Windows 7 and started trying to count versions to figure out the numbering scheme.

Why, how simple!

Let’s see. If we consider consumer-oriented versions of Windows, then 95 could be version 4, 98 would be 5, ME would be 6, XP would be 7, Vista 8, and Windows 7 would be 9. Hm, that can’t be right. Maybe we should restrict our numbering to the versions using the NT kernel. Then Windows 2000 could be 5, XP could be 6, Server 2003 could be 7 — or maybe we should skip that and make Vista 7, so that Windows 7 could be 8.

Geez, this is hard. I feel like I’m trying to explain the timeline of pre-Tribulation eschatology. Maybe Microsoft can clear things up.

I’ll say up front, that there are many ways to count the releases of Windows and it’s been both a trip down memory lane and quite amusing to read all the different theories about how we got to the number “7.”

Anyway, the numbering we used is quite simple.

Oh, excellent! Do explain.

The very first release of Windows was Windows 1.0, the second was Windows 2.0, the third Windows 3.0.

I’m with you so far.

Here’s where things get a little more complicated. Following Windows 3.0 was Windows NT which was code versioned as Windows 3.1. Then came Windows 95, which was code versioned as Windows 4.0.

But I thought Windows 3.1 was Windows 3.1, and Windows NT was a completely different beast! At least Windows 95 as Windows 4.0 makes a kind of sense. I bet Microsoft then counted Windows 98 as Windows 5.0 —

Then, Windows 98, 98 SE and Windows Millennium each shipped as 4.0.1998, 4.10.2222, and 4.90.3000, respectively. So we’re counting all 9x versions as being 4.0.

What the what what what? 4.10.2222? They’re just pulling numbers out of a hat now.

Windows 2000 code was 5.0 and then we shipped Windows XP as 5.1, even though it was a major release we didn’t’ want to change code version numbers to maximize application compatibility.

So Windows XP was a major change, but they gave it the version number 5.1. This is adding support to my Numbers From a Hat theory.

That brings us to Windows Vista, which is 6.0. So we see Windows 7 as our next logical significant release and 7th in the family of Windows releases.

Oh, man. This is the quite simple numbering scheme? Where you have a major release that you number as 5.1 instead of 6 just because? Though given this rule, I’m sure Microsoft will number their Windows versions consistently going forward.

So we decided to ship the Windows 7 code as Windows 6.1 – which is what you will see in the actual version of the product in cmd.exe or computer properties.

In three years I can’t wait for them to release the new version, which will also be called Windows 7.

Jeff Sessions, My Pro-Rape Senator

Dear Senator Sessions,

I am stunned and appalled at your vote against SA 2588 to H.R. 3326, the 2010 Defense Appropriation Act. The amendment would prevent government contractors or subcontractors from receiving federal funds if they require their employees to submit to arbitration if they are sexually assaulted while on the job by other employees. In short: your vote against this measure is a vote for companies escaping culpability in rape cases. Shame on you.

This amendment was driven in part by Jamie Leigh Jones’s experiences. As a 21-year-old working for KBR/Halliburton in Iran, she claims to have been gang raped after sipping a drugged drink. Guards following KBR orders confined her to a shipping container; she was freed only after she managed to call her father, who involved Texas Representative Ted Poe. Hers was one of several rapes involving KBR personnel. KBR claims none of the raped women can sue KBR due to arbitration clauses in their contract. Even worse, KBR has continually delayed arbitration in these cases, preventing due process.

In your speech on the Senate floor, you claimed that arbitration is a fair substitute for a court case, and that it can be better and less expensive for employees. Consumer Reports, a non-partisan advocate for individuals, vehemently disagrees. As Consumer Reports points out, arbitration involves a third party selected by the corporation. No public record is kept. There is no accountability; there is no transparency. It substitutes private corporate decisions for public decisions by a jury of peers, and subverts the justice system that you, as a former U.S. Attorney, once swore to uphold.

Furthermore, you said that the Congress should not be involved in writing or re-writing contracts. This is not a re-write of contracts; this is a statement of who the U.S. Government will do business with. The Congress has the power of the checkbook, and can decide where that money goes and why. The amendment did not specify how contracts should be written; it specified that contracts should not be let to companies hiding from their employees behind the shield of arbitration to prevent rape victims from suing them. If this is untenable, then so is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has prevented the government from doing business with companies that discriminate on the basis of race or gender.

On your website, you state that, like me, you are a Christian. Christ’s concern was for the downtrodden. He broke bread with the tax collectors and the prostitutes, not the religious leaders and the politically powerful. On this issue you have sided with the corporation over the individual, with Halliburton over Jamie Leigh Jones.

In your remarks during Judge Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings, you stated that empathy was a bad thing for a judge to have. Based on your vote on this matter, I can only assume that you think empathy is a terrible thing for a Senator to have as well.

I have a two-year-old daughter. Because of your vote, I cannot imagine her working for the federal government as a contractor. Your vote signals that you accept corporations covering up rapes as a matter of course. You have two daughters; I am appalled that you are comfortable with this behavior, and can only hope that you would feel differently if it were your daughters in this situation.

As a father and as a Christian, I can only say again: you should be ashamed of your vote. It betrays the very values you claim to hold.


Stephen Granade

This turned into a long letter, and was far more reasoned than I would naturally have been. My first reaction was to write a letter that read, in its entirety, “Senator Sessions: Fuck you.” That a man who has two daughters could sleep comfortably at night having said, “Hey, you got raped and your employer tried to cover it up, but that’s okay” enrages me beyond belief. With this vote, Sessions (and his compatriot Senator Shelby) have shown that they are hollow men incapable of empathizing with women.

Propaganda and Teaching Intelligent Design

The thing about Intelligent Design is that it’s non-science masquerading as science. Its claims can’t be used to predict anything and are not falsifiable. It’s not a theory that can be improved over time. Its domain is religious and philosophical.

That doesn’t stop its ardent supporters from wishing very hard for it to be science. It was designed to supplant evolution, which is very much a scientific theory. Christian creationism was clearly religion and not science; to hide this fact, supporters filed off the serial numbers, removing explicit references to the Christian God and giving creationism a new name and a shiny science-y gloss.

William Dembski, a big proponent of Intelligent Design, is a professor of philosophy at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. This summer he taught three courses on Intelligent Design. Note the requirements for the undergraduate and masters classes.

AP410: This is the undegrad [sic] course. You have three things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 40% of your grade); (2) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 40% of your grade); (3) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 2,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).

AP510: This is the masters course. You have four things to do: (1) take the final exam (worth 30% of your grade); (2) write a 1,500- to 2,000-word critical review of Francis Collins’s The Language of God — for instructions, see below (20% of your grade); (3) write a 3,000-word essay on the theological significance of intelligent design (worth 30% of your grade); (4) provide at least 10 posts defending ID that you’ve made on “hostile” websites, the posts totalling 3,000 words, along with the URLs (i.e., web links) to each post (worth 20% of your grade).

Why the requirements that students troll science-oriented blogs and other websites? If you’re a teacher, your goal should be to help students understand the material and demonstrate mastery of it. Having students write about the class topic is a long-accepted way of doing that; maybe that’s what Dembski is after. But that’s unlikely — both classes already have an essay requirement. And these “website posts” are going to be about 200 to 300 words or so, bite-sized chunks that won’t give the students room to really develop their theses.

Maybe Dembski wants his students to show that they can handle rhetoric and discussion, and can debate their points logically. But if so, why send them to the internet? Trying to learn good debate through blog comments is like trying to learn journalism from the Weekly World News.

That leaves propaganda as the most likely purpose for the assignment, which serves no pedagogical purpose. Dembski is cynically using students to advance his cause, with no real benefit to them. At least grad students learn useful skills when they do research for their professors. Worse, he’s sending them into a hostile crowd. This will help foster an us-versus-them mentality. “See?” Dembski can say, “they don’t want to talk rationally to you. They hate the truth,” leaving aside that he sent them there to troll.

Dembski has betrayed the teacher-student pact. He’s using his position of power to further his ideological ends in a craven manner. Shame on him.

Mark Edmundson Demonstrates Boredom

Writing in The American Scholar, Mark Edmunson has a common complaint: boring people can be very difficult to get rid of. The problem is, he spends some 5,000 words trying to decide what motivates a bore and in the process put me to sleep.

There are a couple of things you can get from an article such as Edmunson’s, from interesting facts about the subject to entertaining anecdotes told in a strong auctorial voice. This article lacks all of that. It meanders along, combining overwritten stories from Edmunson’s life with quotes from people like Graham Greene and Groucho Marx. One paragraph in particular caught my eye.

In his essay on talkativeness, Plutarch suggests that the bore, despite appearances, may often be out to win the esteem of the victim. The words are an offering. They come as something like a sacrificial tribute. Whatever the surface flow may be, the subtext reads like this: I care about your judgment; I want your esteem. I want to show you how smart I am, how learned, how good. Schopenhauer, Lord of Pessimists, seems to concur on this view: “Vain people are talkative, and proud, taciturn,” he says. “But the vain person ought to be aware that the good opinion of others, which he strives for, may be obtained much more easily and certainly by persistent silence than by speech, even though he has very good things to say.”

Summing up: bores want to show you how smart and learned they are. To prove it, here’s support from Plutarch and Schopenhauer!

The whole essay could have ended after the second paragraph, where he brings up the obvious rebuttal and dismisses it. I happen to agree with him: he should have defended himself better, or found coping strategies that allow him to escape. But I could be misreading Edmunson’s objectives. This essay could just be an extended example of the “show, don’t tell” dictum. Why read something exciting or entertaining about boredom when you can instead be bored by it?