Thursday, October 16, 2014

Sci-Fi Short: Yardbird

A really solid sci-fi/paranormal short film from Australian director Michael Spiccia.  Though it doesn't have the most unique story line (with obvious parallels to the classic horror film Carrie), Yardbird is a really put together short with solid acting and beautiful cinematography.

Yardbird from Bridle Path Films on Vimeo.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Straw Man Fallacy

A straw man argument is an informal fallacy where an arguer distorts or misrepresents his or her opponent's position in order to more easily refute it. The obvious fallacy with this sort of argument is that the weaker, misrepresented position which is being refuted (the straw man) is not the actual claim being made.

Though the etymology of the term is unclear, a commonly stated origin is that it comes from the use of straw man dummies by the military to train soldiers. Though the dummy represents the enemy it is of course a far easier opponent to defeat than a real person.

The straw man argument has the following form:

Person A has position X.
Person B presents position Y (which is a distortion or misrepresentation of position X).
Person B then attacks position Y (the so called straw man).
Therefore position X is false.

Bob says "It would be a good idea to ban advertising beer and wine on radio and television. These ads encourage teenagers to drink, often with disastrous consequences. John replies "You cannot get people to give up drinking: they've been doing it for thousands of years."

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Arguments and Argument Analysis

I. Arguments
An Argument is an attempt to persuade someone of something by providing reasons for accepting a particular conclusion. The general form of an argument consists of a set of claims in which the supporting claims are known as the premises and the supported claim as the conclusion.

The process of drawing conclusion from the premises/evidence is called making an inference.

II. Argument Analysis
The analysis of an argument has two basic parts. 1) Identifying and reconstructing the argument so that it is clearly understood and free of rhetorical distractions. 2) Evaluating whether it is a good or bad argument.

A. Identifying and Reconstructing Arguments
Identifying whether a particular speech or text contains an argument is a matter of determining whether it falls within the definition of an argument. As stated above, an argument is an attempt to persuade an audience of a conclusion by offering premises in support of it.

With this in mind, we can see that many things within the realm of language are not considered arguments. These often include such things as questions, commands, many insults and compliments, descriptions, explanations and so on.

The latest annual inflation rate for the United States is 2.1% through the 12 months ended June 2014.

By itself, this is not an argument but simply a statement used to convey information.

In real world dialogues, it is often difficult to determine exactly what someone's argument is. Perhaps there is a sense that an argument is being presented but it's premises and/or conclusion are unorganized, implied or buried among other elements of the dialogue.

To cut out the clutter and clearly understand just what is being put forward, it is often necessary to systematically reconstruct the argument. When doing so, extraneous material, such as rhetorical flourishes, need to be eliminated. Also, premises and conclusions which are implied but not expressly stated need to be clearly written.

When reconstructing arguments, it is important to adhere to the principle of charity. This means that when seeking to understand someones argument, we seek to understand it in it's strongest, most persuasive form. To do this, we need to maintain a mindset of trying to reach the truth of the matter instead of one where we are trying to defeat an opponent.

One method of reconstructing arguments is to restate them in standard form. Arguments reconstructed in standard form have their premises listed in the order they occur in the reasoning process and the conclusion listed at the bottom. The premises are usually numbered P1, P2 and so on and the conclusion labelled with a C. A line, called the inference bar, is drawn between the last premise and the conclusion.1

P1  All humans are mortal 
P2  I am a human 
C  I am mortal

Identifying the Conclusion
When reconstructing arguments it is usually easiest to first identify its conclusion. This can often be done by carefully reading the passage or listening to the speech and trying to determine what point the author is trying to make. What is it they are trying to persuade you to believe?  Also, locating indicator words is a good way to locate the parts of an argument. Conclusion indicators include "therefore", "as a result", "hence", "thus", "so" and "which means". Note: though indicator words can be helpful in identifying the parts of an argument, they can also appear in context outside of arguments. As such, they should be thought of as a helpful tool but not a guarantee.

Identifying the Premises
To find the premises, ask yourself what reasons are given (stated or implied) which support the conclusion. Just as conclusion indicator words can help you locate the conclusion, premise indicator words may help you find the premises. They include "since", "as indicated", "because","as", "given that" and "considering that". As with conclusion indicators, these should be thought of as usefull tools, not guarantees.

B. Evaluating Arguments 
The goal of evaluating arguments is to determine whether they are good arguments or bad arguments. A good argument is one where the conclusion of the argument logically follows from its premises (proper form) and its premises are true (or plausible). A bad argument of course would fail to fulfill one or both of these criteria. It should be noted that a bad argument doesn't automatically mean the conclusion is false. It just means that the argument doesn't provide a good reason to accept the conclusion.

From this we can see that the evaluation of arguments has two parts: testing the arguments logical structure/form and testing its premises.

1. Testing an Arguments Logical Form
To test whether an arguments conclusion logically follows from its premises, we first assume that the premises are true so that we can concentrate solely on the inferences made. The two primary types of arguments are deductive and inductive.

A deductive argument is one in which if the premises were true, then the conclusion must also be true. This certainty is what distinguishes deductive arguments from other argument forms. A properly formed deductive argument is referred to as a valid argument. An invalid argument is one in which that even if the premises were true, it could still lead to a false conclusion
(More on deductive arguments here).

An inductive argument is one in which if the premises were true, then the conclusion is likely to be true. Hence, inductive arguments are inherently uncertain in that even if the premises were true there is the possibility that the conclusion is false. As such, inductive arguments aren't judged as being valid or invalid, but instead are considered either strong or weak, based on how probable it is that the conclusion is true.
(More on inductive arguments here).

2. Testing an Arguments Premises 
When is it reasonable to accept the premises of an argument? It seems this is a difficult question to answer and an area which many books on critical thinking tend to gloss over or completely ignore. But there are some general guidelines we can use to help us determine what is and isn't an acceptable premise. The following is an outline of acceptable premises taken from the book A Practical Study of Argument by Trudy Govier.

-Premises is supported by a cogent subargument.
-Premises supported elsewhere.
-Premises known a priori to be true.
-Common knowledge.
-Proper authority.
-Accepting premises provisionally.

Argument Analysis Summary 
1. Identify the argument
2. Reconstruct the argument in standard form
3. Evaluate the arguments logical form
4. Evaluate the arguments premises

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Incredible Lion Sculpture

Really amazing lion sculpture I found on Twisted Sifter by Turkish artist Selcuk Yilmaz. The article said it took him 10 months and consists of 4000 pieces of hand cut metal.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Christin Milloy's Infant Gender Assignment Nonsense

I've read some pretty silly articles from Slate before but this one still has me shaking my head in disbelief. A couple months ago the rag published an article by Christin Scarlet Milloy titled Don't Let the Doctor Do This to Your Newborn.

The article begins with a fictitious scenario in which a mother is recovering from labor, lying in bed holding her baby. The doctor comes in to perform some mysterious but standard treatment. The mother asks what the treatment is and if it's necessary. The doctor replies vaguely that it will help the child to be recognized and get along with the other children who've received the same treatment but that for 1 or 2 percent, there are terrible negative side effects which include depression, social ostracism, difficulty finding or keeping a job and suicide.

You might be thinking to your self, how horrible. Thank goodness parents of newborns don't actually have to face such a scary situation. But according to Milloy, the imaginary treatment described above is real. "Obstetricians, doctors, and midwives commit this procedure on infants every single day, in every single country. In reality, this treatment is performed almost universally without even asking for the parents' consent, making this practice all the more insidious. It's called infant gender assignment: When the doctor holds your child up to the harsh light of the delivery room, looks between its legs, and declares his opinion: It's a boy or a girl, based on nothing more than a cursory assessment of your offspring's genitals."

Milloy continues the crazy narrative with explanations on how, beginning with the doctors gender assignment of your baby, the child's life is "instantly and brutally reduced from such infinite potentials down to one concrete set of expectations and stereotypes, and any behavioral deviation from that will be severely punished—both intentionally through bigotry, and unintentionally through ignorance. That doctor (and the power structure behind him) plays a pivotal role in imposing those limits on helpless infants, without their consent, and without your informed consent as a parent. This issue deserves serious consideration by every parent, because no matter what gender identity your child ultimately adopts, infant gender assignment has effects that will last through their whole life."

And just to drive home the point that Milloy is actually criticizing the doctors declaration of a baby's sex and isn't just using the gender assignment thing as some sort of metaphorical critique, I present this quote. "Infant gender assignment is a wilful decision, and as a maturing society we need to judge whether it might be a wrong action. Why must we force this on kids at birth? What is achieved, besides reinforcing tradition? What could be the harm in letting a child wait to declare for themself who they are, once they're old enough (which is generally believed to happen around age 2 or 3)? Clearly, most children will still turn out like we'd expect, but it's unlikely the extra freedom would harm them. On the other hand, we do know the massive harm caused to some children by the removal of that freedom...Think carefully. Infant gender assignment might just be Russian roulette with your baby's life."

If this article was written anywhere else, I probably would of had to do some research to verify that it wasn't satire (sidebar: I just found this article in The Onion which could easily be interpreted as a satirical response to Milloy's article, if it weren't written over a year ago). But it isn't so I guess I should do more than just end it with "this is bat shit crazy."

First, instead of clearly writing what she is arguing for, Milloy instead chooses to heavily saturate the article with rhetorical ploys meant to emotionally persuade the reader. Some of the examples I've already quoted above include calling the doctor's declaration of sex an "insidious" act and comparing it to playing "Russian roulette with your baby's life". Yea, that's right. Milloy seems to believe that a doctor stating it's a boy or girl is analogically comparable to putting a bullet into a revolver, spinning the cylinder, putting it to the child's head and pulling the trigger.

Milloy uses a similar maneuver at the beginning of the article with the little story. She presents a mother facing a somewhat authoritarian doctor ominously wanting to perform a treatment on the new born which may result in long-term negative side effects. It is then revealed to the reader that the hypothetical treatment is actually real and occurs ever day in the form of infant gender assignment. The problem with this, of course, is that a doctor stating the sex of a child is not a treatment. It is, well, just a statement of what is observed. The word treatment implies the use of medical intervention against some sort of illness or injury. That term obviously doesn't apply here.

This leads me to my next point. When a doctor states the babies sex, he or she is simply stating the child's biological gender. It's hilarious how Milloy describes this as an insidious treatment performed without parental consent based on nothing more than a doctors opinion. I'm guessing that for all of human history, whenever a child was born, one of the first things the doctor, midwife or parents have done is to look between the child's legs to see if it was a boy or a girl. But according to Milloy, this very act is to "instantly and brutally" reduce a child "from such infinite potentials down to one concrete set of expectations and stereotypes, and any behavioral deviation from that will be severely punished."

Generally speaking, looking at a child's genitalia is a good way to determine biological sex. It should be noted though that there are exceptions to this rule. Intersex is the term typically used to describe individuals with a congenital anomaly of the reproductive and sexual system. It seems there are some disagreements as to what should be included in the term intersex and there hasn't been a lot of work done to collect statistical information. According to a 2000 study by Anne Fausto-Sterling, up to 1.7% of babies are born intersex. This statistic includes a wide range of major and minor disorders, some of which are apparent at birth (ambiguous external genitalia) and some which are not (external organs appear male or female but there are internal or chromosomal differences). A second often used statistic is that approximately 1 in 2000 babies are born with ambiguous external genitalia. I found this stat used in a lot of different places but could only find one article which cited it to a 1998 paper by Kenneth Kipnis and Milton Diamond called Pediatric Ethics and Surgical Assignment of Sex. Anyway, taking these two statistics together it seems we can conclude that just over 1% of babies born may have some sort of major or minor intersex condition which would not be obvious at birth.

So after eliminating the rhetorical ploys, what are we left with? It is still not entirely clear what Milloy's argument is. It seems as if she is saying something like:
Transgender and intersexed individuals experience higher rates of psychological distress and suicide. These problems are caused (or mostly caused) by being assigned the wrong gender at birth by a doctor. Therefore doctors shouldn't be allowed to declare the sex of a baby.
Again, there's a great deal of vagueness in Milloy's article which makes it difficult to restate her argument with complete confidence. This is apparent if you read through the comment section of the article where typically the few people that tried to defend her believed she was talking about infant gender re-assignment (when a baby is born with ambiguous genitalia and a doctor performs surgery on the child to make them look more like their assigned gender).

Anyway, the first premise, that transgenders and intersexed individuals experience higher rates of psychological distress and suicide, can be verified as true through available statistical information.

The second premise, that these problems are caused (mostly caused) by being assigned the wrong gender at birth, is where things go terribly wrong. I think it's more than a little naive to believe that the distress experienced by transgender people would all but go away if a transgendered child was given the ability to declare their own sex at a young age.

To demonstrate, lets do a little thought experiment. Imagine Milloy's world comes to pass and doctors cannot "assign" a child's sex at birth. A child is born, the sex has not been declared by the doctor and the parents even raise it completely gender neutral. At the age of three, the child, who is biologically a boy, declares that it believes it is a girl and the parents then allow her to wear dresses, play with dolls and do whatever other things little girls like to do. Now according to Milloy, the child has been spared the trauma of being assigned the wrong gender and therefore shouldn't experience the sort of psychological distress transgenders often do. Of course, this completely overlooks the elephant in the room. Namely that the child is still transgendered; identifying as a girl but having the biology of a boy. As such, she will still face prejudice from society at large and still have to deal with the confusion of having the body of a boy yet identifying as a girl. As such, I think it would be a safe assumption to believe that as a group transgenders would still have exceptionally high rates of psychological issues.

Though it's not addressed in the article, I think it can be assumed that Milloy is wanting more than just the banning of doctors declaring the babies sex. That alone would really change nothing. It seems that what Milloy really wants is for parents to also have to raise the child in a gender neutral way until the baby can decide for its self.

So how is all this to be carried out? Would there be laws making it illegal for doctors to declare the sex of the child? What would they put down for medical records? Would there be laws which forced parents to raise their child in a gender neutral way? If so, how would this be enforced?

Most importantly, how would raising children in a completely gender neutral environment effect those that do not have intersex issues? The truth is, we really don't know. While some so called experts say that it would allow a child to develop free of limiting gender norms, others believe that it can only cause confusion at a point in life when clarity is needed.

In the end I think it's plain to see that this is at best an ill-conceived idea on Milloy's part. But it does raise the interesting question of how we've gotten to the point that it could be taken seriously enough to be published in a major online news magazine.

Slate: Don’t Let the Doctor Do This to Your Newborn

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Critique of Ed Krayewski's NYPD Cops Put Pregnant Woman in a Choke Hold Over Grilling In Front of Her House

I'm a little disappointed in Ed Krayewski's post on titled NYPD Cops Put Pregnant Woman in a Choke Hold Over Grilling In Front of Her House

The blog post begins with reactive, angry, rhetorical language which attempts to preemptively group any potential critics as "police apologist" asking, did you think "Eric Garner should've just fucking complied with police if he wanted to live? Did you think Jahmiel Cuffee should've known better after his first eight marijuana arrests and done a better job hiding from the cops?" This, of course is to set the stage for what must be another obvious example of police abuse, but as I say bellow, this is anything but obvious. It would be nice if we could first read the story first without Krayewski's blatant attempts at Poisoning the Well.

The post then goes on to state "this story involves a pregnant woman, who was put in a chokehold by New York City cops, because she was grilling in front of her house." But when I read the linked New York Post story, I find the facts far less clear than presented. First, the police did not put Rosan Miller in a choke hold for grilling in front of her house. According to the NY Post article police were attempting to arrest her after she and her brother "started slapping at police" to prevent them from arresting her husband. Hmm, I don't know about you but that sounds a lot different than police rolling up on her for cooking some burgers on the sidewalk, snatching her up and tossing her in the cruiser.

Quoting the NY Post article, Krayewski then writes that the woman released photos that she said show the cop putting her in a chokehold. He then goes on to mention that chokeholds are banned by the NYPD but cops may consider the maneuver used a neck restraint. Here are the images released by Rosan which were taken from a cell phone video:

After reading the NY Post article and feeling Krayewski's post wasn't doing the story justice, I started to read articles put out by other news organizations. Strangely I found that they all included some or all of the above images (Huffington Post, Dailymail, Gawker) but where is the actual video from which they come? Could it be the video presents a less compelling story than the pictures?

The only article I could find which did provide the video was the NY Daily News. Here is a link to it so you can watch it for yourself.

Video of NYPD Officer 'Chokehold' on a Pregnant Woman

Though the still pictures may leave the impression that the officer may have used a chokehold, the video (at least in my mind) clearly shows the officer simply trying to control the uncooperative woman in order to put hand cuffs on her.

I haven't taken the time to write this criticism because I'm an apologist for police. On the contrary, I have been critical of law enforcement's decades long move towards becoming ever more militarized and less concerned with constitutional restraints (though this is largely the fault of law makers and judges). My criticism is with the unreasoned, emotional reaction this case has received by those in the media. I'm not trying to say that police didn't do anything wrong. I'm only saying that based on the so called evidence presented, there is nothing that demonstrably shows they did anything wrong.

Recently there have been a number of high profile cases where video taken by a bystander clearly demonstrates abuse by police. Krayewski writes about a number of these in his post. It is absolutely essential that journalist report these incidents to help shine a spotlight on the problem of police misconduct in hopes of curbing future incidents. But as terrible as these incidents might be, journalist still have a responsibility to judge each allegation independently (referring to opinion pieces) and to report the facts of the case completely and without bias. Though Krayewski isn't alone in his frenzied reporting (talking about you Gawker, and HuffPo), I expect more from Reason.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Bernard Pras: Anamorphic Art

This art is garbage...and it's awesome. Cool found object anamorphic piece by artist Bernard Pras. When viewed from the right perspective this pile of trash turns into a sculptural portrait of Ferdinand Cheval, a French postman who spent 33 years stacking stones to construct Le palais ideal.

Pras is well known for his anamorphic works. One of my favorite is the Dali installation, as he is a fitting subject for this sort of mind bending art.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Price of Education (revisited)

Back in 2011 I wrote blog entry on how the average cost of a four year degree had tripled in inflation adjusted dollars from 1980 to 2010. So has there been any change in the three years since? For the most part, not really.

The following table from provides the average tuition/fees and room/board charges from 1971-72 to 2013-14. The data is provides in inflation adjusted 2013 dollars.

As the bottom line indicates, over the last five years average tuition and fees increased another 27%. I seem to remember reading an article within the last year which indicated there was a slowdown in tuition increases which this data doesn't jive with, so I took a glance at the full report and found that there has been a trend of decreasing annual rate increases. The one year change from 2009-10 was 9.5%, 2010-11 6.5%, 2011-12 4.7%, 2012-13 3.1%, 2013-14 0.9%. Does this mean tuition has now leveled out and will just keep pace with inflation? Not necessarily. If you look at the data from my original post you find that annual rate increases do jump around. For instance, in 2008-09 the percentage change was 0.8% only to be followed with a whopping 9.3% increase the next year.

Even if education prices level out it is already an incredibly expensive investment and the young people who have to decide whether to make it are typically ill equipped to do so. Though many of them have financially experienced, caring parents who will help guide them along, it is probably true that just as many do not. And the complete lack of financial/accounting education in high school means that these youngsters typically have no ability to understand the long term effects of having this amount of debt.