Saturday, October 21, 2006

Women Who Plant Trees

Posted by olvlzl

From: Oxfam Exchange, Fall 2006

Trees not only produce life-sustaining crops like avacados and bananas, but they also provide much-needed shade for coffee and other staple plants, and they prevent erosion- which means that trees are a key to economic growth and a greener world By Chris Hufstader and Andrea Perera

In the misty hills hear the Zimbabwe border, a small group of women review the plans for the nursery in their village, Mukudu. “The hills are steep here, and we want to control erosion. So we are encouraging people to plant fruit trees,” said Justina Nicolao, a 41-year-old mother of six. She and her team are working with the local development group, Kwaedza Simukai Manica Association (KSM), funded by Oxfam. KSM trains workers how to plant and maintain fruit trees, while teaching them how to read and write as part of a “functional literacy” program. Not only has the program helped farmers increase their harvests and reduced erosion, but since women lead the nursery program women are more involved in village affairs and are increasingly seen as leaders in their community.

Ecuador: The indigenous Kichwa people faced a crisis. Once-beautiful Lake Imbakucha was clogged with silt and polluted by chemical runoff from nearby farms. Clean water became scarce. Harvests were dropping off. A project funded by Oxfam launched an effort to replant the hills with trees and grasses to reduce runoff and clear out the streams feeding the lake. Within three years, come communities have doubled the amount of available water, and a network of nurseries is providing employment for women growing trees and plants for organic gardens. Ana Lucia Tocagon, a 20-year-old participant in the project, said that the increase in water was remarkable. “One summer we... had to ration it, with one sector receiving water one day and another sector the following day. Now we have water all day.”

This Fall edition isn’t up on their website but there is a lot of other information about Oxfam America’s programs. An impressive number promote women’s empowerment through agricultural and environmental projects.

Blog War Note

Hadn't meant to bring up again the, uh, well, blog war that began with one of the earlier guest posts I did on this blog but that was before I read Echidne's little post last night.

There is actually that curious bit of flame an anonymous person sent me earlier in the week, taunting me over the publication on line of the complete works of Charles Darwin. The assumption is , despite literally everything I've ever posted on the subject and any rational inference from anything else I've ever posted, that I'm a creationist. Goes to show you what depending on secondary sources, of the most dubious reliabilty, can lead to. Friends always go with primary sources when possible, taking into account that evolutionary science has developed more than slightly since Darwin's death.

Now to really blow the minds of my antagonists and as a model of great debating style let me also call your attention to one of my favorite writers, one of Darwin's friends, Thomas Huxley. Especially look at his non-technical writings. They're fun.

They Want You To Vote In The Dark

Posted by olvlzl

One of the odder things in the weeks before the election is the general agreement among our establishment, including the press, that the Baker-Hamilton findings shouldn’t be released now because they might have an effect on the election. What ever could the reason for that be. Are they afraid that the findings won’t reflect reality, don’t they trust these two stalwarts of the establishment to tell the truth and so deceive the voters? If they don’t have any confidence in their material then that would certainly justify not publishing. If that’s it then how do they feel confidence in hinting at a release just after the election? If they have failed in collecting the information they should resign and announce their inability.

But that is certainly not their reason. Whatever these two release would be treated to the full measure of awed reverence that any product of the DC power structure is given. If it was pure bilge it would be treated that way and it is certain that whatever gets published will not be entirely devoid of facts. So it must be something else.

This reluctance to give The People information about the most important issue facing the country today so they can use it during the election is proof of something quite disturbing. It is a corrupt deal between the power elite and the media. It’s nothing less than a repudiation of government by the People. Baker saying that he wants "to take this thing out of politics" makes that clear. Politics is the process of self-government, it’s not some indecent act. Politics, ultimately, is the only justification for the public life of Baker and Hamilton, the only reason that anyone should pay attention to whatever this group of eminent people produce.

Our elites don’t believe that before they perform the most important act of government, casting an informed vote, The People are entitled to the best possible information. This is just another symptom of the fact that the elite doesn’t think the people have any business governing themselves. The facts of the War in Iraq are absolutely the kind of thing that a Voter should use in making up their mind.

If Baker and Hamilton are afraid that they will be criticized, too bad. This isn’t all about them. If they have reliable information about this war they have no right to keep it hidden until after The People could have used it. Jefferson was right, a government is only legitimate if it acts with the consent of the governed. An uninformed public cannot give legitimate consent, the government that results from ignorance cannot be legitimate, it will produce a disaster.

How dare these two hacks withhold any facts from the Voters. How dare the alleged news media endorse that decision. The media purports to exist for the purpose of informing the People so they can govern but here we see their real purpose, to shield the elite from information that could result in their replacement. Anyone calling themselves journalists who have supported this decision should be known for what they are, shills for secret government.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Elections, Schmelections

News from Maryland:

The FBI is investigating the possible theft of software developed by the nation's leading maker of electronic voting equipment, said a former Maryland legislator who this week received three computer disks that apparently contain key portions of programs created by Diebold Election Systems.

Cheryl C. Kagan, a former Democratic delegate who has long questioned the security of electronic voting systems, said the disks were delivered anonymously to her office in Olney on Tuesday and that the FBI contacted her yesterday. The package contained an unsigned letter critical of Maryland State Board of Elections Administrator Linda H. Lamone that said the disks were "right from SBE" and had been "accidentally picked up."

The disks delivered to Kagan's office bear labels indicating that they hold "source code" -- the instructions that constitute the core of a software program -- for Diebold's Ballot Station and Global Election Management System (GEMS) programs. The former guides the operation of the company's touch-screen voting machines; the latter is in part a tabulation program used to tally votes after an election.

Three years ago, Diebold was embarrassed when an activist obtained some of its confidential software by searching the Internet. The company vowed to improve its security procedures to prevent another lapse.

Popcorn. I need some popcorn. And a good seat. Too late for anything more.

On Blog Wars

I don't do those, usually. Partly because I'm not smart enough to come out on top, but mostly because I find my time better spent fighting other battles. It's sad, in a way, because a good blog war is a thing of beauty and loads of fun, too. But the outcomes tend not to be good for political movements or for the people who get trampled in these arguments.

Well, ok. I don't do blog wars because I'm a cowardly goddess.

Why am I even writing about this?

Scary Dog Blogging

In anticipation of Halloween, I present you Henrietta the Hound:

On the Statistics Primer Posts

I stayed up a few nights trying to think of a way to give the gist of the statistics used in surveys without lying or doing violence to the theories. I didn't end up with any very brilliant ways of doing that. Not very surprising, of course, but then I always try to reinvent the wheel.

Those of you, my dear readers, who are statistics geeks can see where I skate on a fairly thin eye and get off just before the ice cracks. But I think I avoided any outrageous lies. I hope I avoided them.

The problem is in approaching the whole field as someone who hates statistics might do. Statistics is actually not difficult, but it can be tedious, and that turns a lot of people off. So I tried not to be tedious but that came at a cost of being a bit eellike. If you want a slower pace and firmer instruction, try one of the online statistics courses. Like this one.

The final post in this series will talk more about the confidence intervals in surveys in situations where the study doesn't use simple random sampling (like drawing names from a hat). It will also return to some other things that you should worry about in reading survey results.

Statistics Primer. Part 5: Constructing a Confidence Interval for the Sample Proportion

At this point it's probably not possible just to jump in and read the posts separately unless you've had statistics already. If you are a statistical virgin, go and read the four earlier posts in this series first. The links to them are at the bottom of this post.

As a reminder, our goal is to learn to understand confidence intervals.* For example, political polls might say that Bush's approval is 36%, give or take 3%. Or a poll might tell us that 52% of people prefer candidate A over B, give or take 6%. Where do these numbers come from?

The previous post started the necessary explanations. The 52% or 36% figure is simply the proportion of people in the poll (the sample) who expressed a certain opinion. The other stuff, about giving or taking three or six percent, has to do with the sampling distribution of this sample proportion, and its size depends on the sample size (how many people were asked) and the inherent variability in the population (and in the sample).

Put another way, the 36% Bush approval rate, give or take 3%, is really an interval ranging from a low value of 33% to a high value of 39%. It's centered on the sample proportion and extends a certain distance in each direction from it. Like this, visually:

I------sample proportion------I

Or like this, for a smaller interval:

I---sample proportion---I

We call this interval a confidence interval when its length is derived from the sampling distribution for the sample proportion. Think of it this way: You are a blind-folded archer shooting funny kinds of arrows at a dartboard. The tip of each arrow looks like a staple or like the confidence interval I have drawn above, and you are to shoot lots of these staples to the dartboard. After you finish, you can take your blindfold off and go and check how many of your staples actually cover the bull's eye on the board. If you used really, really wide staples (say, a mile wide), you will cover the bull's eye every time, but you haven't really shown any precision at all. On the other hand, if you use very narrow staples you are going to miss the bull's eye a lot. The very wide staples allow us to be very confident in the knowledge that we have hit the bull's eye. The narrow staples would give us a lot more precision but less confidence. Some sort of a compromise is needed to get both.

The compromise statisticians use is like tying the staple length to the size of the dartboard, very roughly. In our case the dartboard is the sampling distribution for the sample proportion, and our knowledge of that sampling distribution allows us to specify a level of confidence first and then to make a staple of the necessary length to get that level of confidence.

The task is made much simpler by one remarkable result in statistics, called the Central Limit Theorem (CLT). This theorem shows that the sampling distribution of the sample mean, and the sample proportion, too, has one particular form if the sample we use is large enough**. Thus, if we learn the probabilities of this one distribution we can apply them to a whole lot of problems. Not all problems, mind you. But a large chunk of the more common problems.

This probability distribution is called the normal distribution or the Gaussian distribution (by its inventor) or the Bell Curve. The last name comes from its shape, as the distribution looks like a jingle bell viewed from the side. It has all sorts of neat characteristics.*** For example, the mean, the mode and the median are all identical and fall right below the peak of the bell. The two sides of the distribution are mirror images of each other. Here is a picture of the normal distribution****:

Ignore the blackened area for the time being. It's not part of the picture but a way of looking at probability calculations.

Note that there is an infinite number of these distributions, one for each possible value of the mean and the standard deviation, so some will be further to the right or to the left, and some will be fatter than others. To make things easier, statisticians usually show one specific normal distribution, called the standard normal distribution (as I have done above), and calculate the probabilities from that. The standard normal distribution has zero as its mean and one as the length of its standard deviation. So the horizontal axis here can be viewed as measuring the variable (say the sample proportion) in units equal to the length of the standard deviation of the sampling distribution. We can apply the standard normal distribution probabilities to any normally distributed variable by using linear transformations, but it's not necessary to go there right now.

The normal distribution is a probability distribution. For every possible value of the variable on the horizontal axis (say, the sample mean or the sample proportion) the area under the curve shows the corresponding probabilities. That's what the blackened area in the above picture demonstrates: the probability that this variable has a value between the mean and half a standard deviation above it. Note that the total area under the curve but above the horizontal axis equals one or 100% because it's certain that something happens and the values here cover all feasible ones.

Now, the normal distribution has certain very nice characteristics, shown in the picture below:

(This picture uses the general Greek letters mu and sigma for the mean and standard deviation of whatever distribution we are looking at. Mu is that thing which looks like the letter u with a long tail in the front. Sigma is the letter which looks like number six. If this bothers you, just pretend that the mu is zero and the sigma one)

The percentage areas marked in the picture are probabilities. For any normally distributed variable the following is true: If we move two standard deviations up from the mean and two standard deviations down from the mean the interval we have created corresponds to the probability of 0.954 (add up all the areas under the curve between the two chosen values on the horizontal axis) . Likewise, if we move three standard deviations up from the mean and three standard deviations down from the mean the interval we have created corresponds to the probability of 0.998. (What about trying to find an interval corresponding to probability 1 or certainty? Here we meet a slight snag as the normal distribution has tails which go on to infinity, so such an interval would range from minus infinity to plus infinity.)

See what I'm getting to here? Suppose that I wanted to find an interval length in the sampling distribution of a sample proportion which corresponds to the probability of 0.95. How many standard deviations would I need to go out from the mean towards each tail to get an area of that size under the curve? We already know that two standard deviations gives us a fairly good rough approximation of it, but if I want to find the exact value I can get it from precalculated tables in statistics books and even on the net. The value we need is 1.96 standard deviations. In a similar manner the number of standard deviations each side of the mean that would give us the probability of 0.99 is 2.576.

Ok. I'm skipping quite a lot of mathematics here and some statistics, too, but I hope that the basic idea is clear, and that idea is that we can create the confidence interval (the staple in the arrow example) using this way of thinking:

First, calculate the sample proportion.

Second, calculate the standard deviation of the sample proportion. It is found as follows: Multiply the sample proportion by its complement and divide this product by the sample size. Then take the square root of the result.*****

Third, multiply this standard deviation of the sample proportion by the numerical value corresponding to a given significance level in the standard normal distribution. For example, if we use 0.95 as the significance level, then we multiply the standard deviation of the sample proportion by 1.96

Fourth add the product from the third step to the sample proportion to get the upper limit of the interval. Subtract it from the sample proportion to get the lower limit of the interval.

The traditional choices for confidence levels are 0.90, 0.95 or 0.99, or the same in percentages(90%, 95% or 99%). What do these mean? Return to the arrow-shooting example. Suppose that you are blind-folded and shoot a staple-tipped arrow a hundred times to the dartboard. You then take the blindfold off and check the results. If you used a 0.95 staple, you should find at most five staples totally missing the bull's eye. If you used a 0.99 staple, at most one out of the hundred arrows should have missed the bull's eye.

Translated into statistics, what this means in the case of a 0.95 confidence level is that if the same study design was used a hundred times to draw samples of identical size, and if a confidence interval was created from each sample proportion, at most five of these confidence intervals would not include the true unknown population proportion.

Note that the interval is wider if we want to be more confident. It is also wider if the standard deviation of the sample itself is large or if the sample size is small. All this makes sense, as we should have a wider interval when there is more variation in the sample and/or when the sample is smaller.

We are going to finish this post with an example. But before that I need to talk about a concept which you often see when polls are discussed: The margin of error or MOE. For example, a poll might tell you that the margin of error is plus/minus three percent. If the poll consisted of only one single question with yes-no type answers, the MOE would equal the confidence interval as we have calculated it here, i.e., it would give us the amount to add to and subtract from the sample proportion.

But most polls have several questions. Clearly, the confidence intervals can't all be the exact same length. So what is the MOE in these cases?

It tends to be the longest possible confidence interval we could get in a particular study. Usually the studies use the 0.95 level of confidence for getting this. Think about the calculations I outlined above. If we have fixed the confidence interval at 0.95 and if we have a sample of a given size, what could we change to make the interval as long as possible? Suppose that we ignore the actual value of the sample proportion we get in any particular question and just replace it by 0.5. It turns out that this value makes the standard deviation of the sample proportion as large as it ever could be. So using this trick allows pollsters to give us just one margin of error for the whole study, when in reality each question has a different confidence interval. But this MOE is most likely an overstatement. Viewed from a different angle, the only real information it gives us is the sample size (as both the confidence level and the proportion used in the calculations are set to equal certain constants). The sample size is usually provided separately in any case.

Time for an example. It's from a recent poll, to be found here. The MOE for the whole study is given as plus or minus 3.1%. Let's pick one specific question from this poll, the one where the 1006 respondents are asked if they approve or disapprove of the Congress. The percentage numbers are as follows:
Approve 16%
Disapprove 75%
Not sure 9%

I started by taking out the people who were not sure. What polls do about this lot varies, but it's usually best to omit them from the analyses. That left me with 915 answers and the approval rate within this sample of 915 of 17.6%. The disapproval percentage is now 82.4%. I want to make a confidence interval for the disapproval rate among those respondents who express strong opinions. So the first step is to calculate the sample proportion, which is 0.824. The second stage is to calculate the standard deviation of this sample proportion. We find it by first multiplying 0.824 by 0.176, then dividing the product by 915 and finally by taking the square root of the whole thing. This gives me 0.0126. Next, I find how much to add to and subtract from the sample proportion to get an interval by multiplying 0.0126 with 1.96, the number of standard deviations that is associated with the 0.95 level of confidence. The result is 0.0247, or 2.47%. The 0.95 level confidence interval is then found by adding this to 0.824 and then by subtracting it from 0.824. We get, after rounding, an interval from 0.85 to 0.80.

A couple of comments: First, I did a lot of the calculating in my head so double-check. Second, note the difference between the 2.47% here and the MOE for the whole study which is given as 3.1%. The difference comes from the fact that the sample proportion here is quite far from 0.5, and so the standard deviation of the sample proportion is quite a bit smaller than the maximum possible value for this. Third, I claim no special significance for the choice I made about those who are not sure. You could experiment by putting them into the "approve" group or the "disapprove" group and see what happens to the results.

* I talk about finding confidence intervals for the sample proportion in this post, but everything applies to the sample mean just handily, except for the exact formula of the standard deviation of the sample mean which for the sample mean is just the sample standard deviation divided by the sample size.
**The CLT says something more than this. Google it if you are interested. Usually the "large enough" a sample is quite small, though prudent people want the sample size to be at least thirty. For binary data of the type we get with polls the requirement is that there are at least five answers counted as 1 and five answers counted as 0.
***It is a continuous distribution, though, and that means that the sample distribution of the sample proportion is only approximately normal, because we are using a continous distribution to approximate a discrete one. It's not very hard to find the exact sampling distribution for the sample proportion and to use that to find the probabilities needed. This is what is done with small sample studies anyway. But the extra work is unnecessary as the probabilities start equaling those we get from the normal distribution when the sample gets bigger.
****The vertical axis is marked probability density in the picture, because continuous probability functions are called probability density functions in geeky company.
*****This is the shorthand formula for the standard deviation of the sample proportion. In an earlier post I used a pedagogical aid to get the value, but this formula gives it much faster.
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

The Curious Case Of The Wholesale Firings

That is about all I have so far on this story:

The House Appropriations Committee has let go about 60 private contractors who made up most of an investigative unit that was auditing billions of dollars in government spending, including the $62 billion federal relief package for Hurricane Katrina, the panel's spokesman said Thursday.

The investigators, attached to the committee's Surveys and Investigations division, were released during the past week, committee spokesman John Scofield said. He said that the quality of the unit's work had been questioned by leaders of the Republican-controlled committee, including some Democrats, but he declined to say who.

The shake-up — which leaves only 16 full-time employees in the investigative unit — comes about a year after the Appropriations Committee's chairman, Rep. Jerry Lewis, R-Calif., launched the Katrina review by saying the unit would "conduct a wide-ranging assessment and analysis of disaster spending." At the time, Lewis said the unit had a tradition of "comprehensive" reporting

Where are you, Sherlock Holmes? I need some help here.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

We All Envy You

From the New York Times:

President Vladimir V. Putin has a penchant for making pithy, acerbic, sometimes coarse comments. On Wednesday a microphone inadvertently left on during a brief appearance with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel captured his views on the sex scandal involving Israel's president.


Kommersant's version — citing the remarks in Russian — was cruder. "He turned out to be quite a powerful man," the paper's reporter in the official Kremlin pool, Andrei Kolesnikov, quoted Mr. Putin as saying. "He raped 10 women. I never expected it from him. He surprised all of us. We all envy him."

What kind of a feminist analysis should I do on this? That Russia has a long way to go, perhaps? And so does this world?

Perhaps it's adequate to note that Mr. Putin identifies with the rapist and not with the rape victims.
Mr. Putin gets the Cooties Award, First Class, for this "joke".

How To Become A Columnist In A Major Newspaper

You put on your wingnut hat with two large blue, red and white wings and a picture of George Bush inside a large heart in the middle*. Then you take a keyboard, set your tongue in the middle of your mouth and start banging away.

This conclusion I have drawn from a large and careful study of the U.S. media, and from some recent products of this process of picking columnists. Here, for your enjoyment, is Jonah Goldber, a card-carrying wingnut columnist, on the topic of the Iraq war:

The Iraq war was a mistake.

I know, I know. But I've never said it before. And I don't enjoy saying it now. I'm sure that to the antiwar crowd this is too little, too late, and that's fine because I'm not joining their ranks anyway.

In the dumbed-down debate we're having, there are only two sides: Pro-war and antiwar. This is silly. First, very few folks who favored the Iraq invasion are abstractly pro-war. Second, the antiwar types aren't really pacifists. They favor military intervention when it comes to stopping genocide in Darfur or starvation in Somalia or doing whatever that was President Clinton did in Haiti. In other words, their objection isn't to war per se. It's to wars that advance U.S. interests (or, allegedly, President Bush's or Israel's or ExxonMobil's interests). I must confess that one of the things that made me reluctant to conclude that the Iraq war was a mistake was my general distaste for the shabbiness of the arguments on the antiwar side.

It's shabby to favor war that would stop genocides or starvation? What happened to the values-party? Ok, I guess.

Goldberg then continues getting himself further and further into a real mess:

But that's no excuse. Truth is truth. And the Iraq war was a mistake by the most obvious criteria: If we had known then what we know now, we would never have gone to war with Iraq in 2003. I do think that Congress (including Democrats Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Jay Rockefeller and John Murtha) was right to vote for the war given what was known — or what was believed to have been known — in 2003. And the claims from Democrats who voted for the war that they were lied to strikes me as nothing more than cowardly buck-passing.

"If we had known then what we know now." How about not using that silly excuse just once. How about asking instead what we really knew then? How about reminding our wingnutty selves about the situation as it was, about Osama bin missing still being missing, about the war in Afghanistan still unwon, about a zillion other important things that were going on. And we threw away all that and went busily after Saddam Hussein, like children playing war. Without any plan for the war's aftermath. Without anyone with any knowledge about the country we were going to invade. Shia. What is that? Who are the Kurds? Where is the oil? What about the fanatic Islamists which were kept suppressed by Saddam? Nah, let's just create some pictures of the Iraqis giving us flowers and us giving their children candy and let's cut out the children's corpses after the suicide bombers hit them.

But this is not how the wingnut columnists write about the opposition. Nope. The opposition is very stupid, very naive and a fanatic lover of all things communist. Even today.

One day I, too, can become a columnist! When I learn to phrase my conclusions like this:

According to the goofy parameters of the current debate, I'm now supposed to call for withdrawing from Iraq. If it was a mistake to go in, we should get out, some argue. But this is unpersuasive. A doctor will warn that if you see a man stabbed in the chest, you shouldn't rush to pull the knife out. We are in Iraq for good reasons and for reasons that were well-intentioned but wrong. But we are there.

Excuse me while I go and bang my head against the garage door. En route there I will burn all my manuscripts and make myself a wingnut helmet with patriotic streamers.
And the jockstrap. Forgot about the jockstrap...

Olbermann's Most Recent Special Comment

You can read the transcript and watch the video here. The video is also available here.

Olbermann is single-handedly bringing back that old way of giving speeches, the spine-tingling one. I'm all for it.

A Moot Point

I'm learning more and more about the English language via politics. Here is Michael Steele, candidating to be a Senator:

Asked whether he thought Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided, Steele said: "What's that got to do with anything? I'm a Senate candidate. My opinion on that is moot," according to the article.

Pressed further, he is quoted as saying: "Do not think you're going to define me on that question; don't even go there. That is nowhere near defining who I am. It's not even a piece of defining who I am. ... Trying to define me on this issue is ludicrous." ("Separate pitches to state Chamber," Baltimore Sun, 10/18/06)

Who cares whether the question defines him? His views on abortion will affect whom he votes into the Supreme Court, and that, in turn, will affect the lives of millions of women in this country. How dare he belittle those women and their lives!

Of course he is a candidate for the anti-abortion brigade. They are spending money on his campaign. I wonder if they know he finds the whole point moot?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

On Hos and Manly Seed

Can you imagine that these topics are in a Republican election ad? I couldn't, either, but they are. The Carpetbagger report has the information:

"Black babies are terminated at triple the rate of white babies," a female announcer in one of the ads says, as rain, thunder, and a crying infant are heard in the background. "The Democratic Party supports these abortion laws that are decimating our people, but the individual's right to life is protected in the Republican platform. Democrats say they want our vote. Why don't they want our lives?"

Another ad features a dialogue between two men.

"If you make a little mistake with one of your 'hos,' you'll want to dispose of that problem tout suite, no questions asked," one of the men says.

"That's too cold. I don't snuff my own seed," the other replies.

"Maybe you do have a reason to vote Republican," the first man says.

An ad about abortion, and the only appearance of a woman is as a voiceless whore. How about that, you Republican values-nuts? And the question of abortion is framed as something black men decide on. "My own seed"!

This is insulting on so many other levels, too. Vomit-inducingly insulting, racist, sexist crap.

Consumer Discrimination Based on Religion

Pam Spaulding on Pandagon has written a post about the connections between the pro-life pharmacists' refusal to dispense the contraceptive pill in some localities and these news from Minnesota:

Imagine you're returning from a trip with a bottle of French wine to celebrate your wedding anniversary. At the airport, you drag your bags out to the taxi stand in the cold breeze. As the cab pulls up, you hoist your suitcases, eager to get home.

But when the driver spots your wine, he shakes his head emphatically. The Qur'an prohibits him from accepting passengers with alcohol, he tells you. OK, so you'll take the next cab. But the next driver waves you off, and the next.

Scenes like this have played out hundreds of times at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport over the last few years. About three-fourths of the 900 taxi drivers at the airport are Somali, many of them Muslim. In September, the Star Tribune reported that one flight attendant had been refused by five drivers, because she had wine in her suitcase.

Taxi drivers who refuse a customer, except for safety reasons, must go to the end of the taxi line.

They face a potential three-hour wait for the next fare. Muslim drivers asked for an exemption, and officials of the Metropolitan Airports Commission proposed color-coded lights on cab roofs to indicate whether the driver would accept a passenger carrying alcohol.

I can see the similarities in the two cases. Both the Christian pharmacists and the Muslim cabdrivers insist that their religious preferences should override the needs and desires of their customers, and both insist that this should happen without costing them anything in lost income. I also agree with Pam that this trend should be nipped in the bud, for if we don't do so, what's the consequence? A world where you never know who will refuse to serve you and for what reason.

The article I quoted above makes the same point:

In some other cities, "Chapter Two" has already begun. Muslim cab drivers elsewhere, for example, have refused to transport blind customers with seeing-eye dogs, which they say their religion considers unclean. On Oct. 6, the Daily Mail of London reported that two cab drivers had been fined for rejecting blind customers. In Melbourne, Australia, "at least 20 dog-aided blind people have lodged discrimination complaints" after similarly being refused service, the Herald Sun reported.

In Minneapolis, Muslim taxi drivers have repeatedly refused to transport Paula Hare, who is transgendered, KMSP-TV, Channel 9, reported this month.


And what if Muslim drivers demand the right not to transport women wearing short skirts or tank tops, or unmarried couples? After taxis, why not buses, trains and planes? Eventually, in some respects, our society could be divided along religious lines.

"After taxes, why not buses, trains and planes?" In fact, this may already be happening:

A city bus driver who complained about a gay-themed ad got official permission not to drive any bus that carries that ad, according to an internal memo confirmed Tuesday by Metro Transit.

Transit authorities call it a reasonable accommodation to the driver's religious beliefs.

Treating customers in a discriminating manner is nothing new, of course. Blacks are still sometimes refused service in restaurants and young black men may find getting a cab late at night difficult. But these acts of discrimination are against the law. If we make religious discrimination against consumers legal, how long will it be before some church will declare that the separation of the races is a basic doctrine, say? And I can certainly imagine some Muslim cabdrivers refusing to give rides to women who travel without a male guardian.

My Shallow Thought For The Day

I have the most excellent commenters. This conclusion is based on reading lots and lots of blog comments all over the blogosphere recently. You really are the cream of the crop.

Deep Thought Of The Day

From Digby:

This will, I predict, be the latest fad: bipartisan nothingness. Now that the Republicans have successfully moved the political center so far to the right that they drove themselves over the cliff, we must stop all this "partisan bickering" as if the Democrats have been equally partisan and therefore can ask for and expect the right to meet them halfway, which they never, ever do. That means we must let their most heinous ideas congeal into conventional wisdom, let their criminal behavior go unpunished, clean up the global disaster they've created, do the heavy lifting to fix the deficit they caused. While we're fixing things, they'll count their ill-gotten gains, catch their breath and gear up to trash the place all over again.

Modern bipartisanship can be simply defined as Democrats repeatedly getting taken to the cleaners by Republicans. Until the rules of the game are changed it will remain so whether Democrats are in the majority or not. That pathetic Charlie Brown with the football ritual is what Joe Lieberman is running on and what Joe Klein is angling for with his Blankslate Obama love-fest. (Norquist called it date rape but that's too kind -- the Liebermans and Kleins love being in the spotlight giving wingnuts lapdances. They enjoy every minute of their rightwing orgy --- they just don't want to take responsibility when they turn up with wingnut transmitted diseases.)

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Sauron and the Hobbit

A new meme on the Iraq war has been born, courtesy of Rick (the Dick) Santorum. It's based on Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy in which small and fun-loving hobbits took on the evil power of Sauron and won.

Sauron scanned his realm with an evil eye, called the Eye of Mordor, and Santorum has obviously been reading these anti-Christian books in recent weeks, because he used the books' vocabulary to explain to all of us what is going on with Iraq:

In an interview with the editorial board of the Bucks County Courier Times, embattled Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum has equated the war in Iraq with J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." According to the paper, Santorum said that the United States has avoided terrorist attacks at home over the past five years because the "Eye of Mordor" has been focused on Iraq instead.

"As the hobbits are going up Mount Doom, the Eye of Mordor is being drawn somewhere else," Santorum said. "It's being drawn to Iraq and it's not being drawn to the U.S. You know what? I want to keep it on Iraq. I don't want the Eye to come back here to the United States."

Do you think the United States is well compared to the hobbits? George Bush as a hobbit? Perhaps, but hobbits are not very macho, you know.

It's sad that Santorum finds the flypaper solution a good one, given that we put the flypaper up in someone else's house and now those people are dying in large numbers. I wouldn't think this is very Christian, either. But what do I know, I'm just a pagan goddess.

Most Americans don't like the Iraq war anymore. The most recent poll puts the percentage of those who oppose the war at 64%. More women (70%) than men (58%) oppose the war. Does this mean that all those war opponents want the Eye of Mordor on them?

Well, Bill O'Reilly says that people wouldn't hate this war so much if the evil press hadn't chosen to talk about all those headless corpses whith marks of torture on them found in scattered dumps in Baghdad every morning. Sauron been busy, I guess.

O'Reilly Knows Best

Bill O'Reilly is not only a conservative wingnut pundit, he is also an obstetrician. And a gyneocologist. And he knows best, so don't worry your little head over any of that silly women's lib crap:

From the October 11 edition of Westwood One's The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly:

O'REILLY: All right, "Culture War" segment. Here we go. Ms. Magazine is running "We had abortions" articles, and they're asking for American women to identify themselves and discuss their abortions that they had. All right, now, you can decide whether that's poor taste, whether that's bad -- to me, it's a very, very personal issue. I don't think I'd want the world to know what I'm doing or on any kind of surgical procedure, but I understand there are people who feel pro-choice is under siege, and they have to step up or whatever. So, I'm kind of on the sidelines on that.

Now, they're asking celebrities. So far, four celebrities have come up and done it -- Amy Brenneman, plays Judging Amy; Kathy Najimy, she was in -- what was that? -- Sister Act movie and Veronica's Closet on TV; Gloria Steinem, of course, the founder of Ms. Magazine; and Carol Leifer's a comedian, Jerry Seinfeld's ex-girlfriend. Anyway, they all said they had abortions, and I guess they're proud; or I don't know what they are.

Anyway, it makes me a little queasy. Since 1973, there have been 40 million legal abortions in the U.S.A., and it's the law of the land, and it may not be the law of the land, unfettered, much longer because the Supreme Court's hearing a whole bunch of stuff. South Dakota, as you know, has voted to outlaw abortions unless the mother's life is in danger, which is never the case, because you can always have a C-section and do those kinds of things. And partial-birth abortion, obviously, is the big, big issue for what the United States Constitution says because you have to protect life, and after 26 weeks, there's life, whether you cede it or not, it's true -- scientifically speaking, of course.

Glad to know that the woman's life is never in danger.

What have we done to deserve Bill O'Reilly? Tell me, and I will atone.

The Wingnut Nobel Peace Prize

Goes to.....Sam Walton's ghost! For building the Wal-Mart empire. So says John Tierney in his latest column in that liberal rag, the New York Times:

I don't want to begrudge the Nobel Peace Prize won last week by the Grameen Bank and its founder, Muhammad Yunus. They deserve it. The Grameen Bank has done more than the World Bank to help the poor, and Yunus has done more than Jimmy Carter or Bono or any philanthropist.

But has he done more good than someone who never got the prize: Sam Walton? Has any organization in the world lifted more people out of poverty than Wal-Mart?

My tummy hurts so much from laughing at it. Steve Gilliard took it all much more seriously and gave a proper response:

Wal-Mart doesn't alleviate poverty, it spreads it like a virus.

How? In China and the developing world, it demands greater and greater price savings on factory owners, who have to use repressive methods to keep their employees. It's so bad, the Chinese government has allowed Wal Mart workers to unionize.

In the US, Wal Mart' s predatory pricing forced Rubbermaid to close, and forces other suppliers to ship work overseas to meet Wal Mart's pricing demands.

Every contract, Wal Mart demands greater savings from producers, demanding cost cutting. Most of the brand names sold in Wal Mart are substandard products with the same brand name. Snapper refused to sell to Wal Mart because of that practice.

Wal Mart's low wage policy is the worst in the retail industy, they spend more on commercials than actual health care for their workers. Certainly people in Chicago and Maryland didn't feel that Wal Mart was lifting people out of poverty, having passed bills concerning health care and wages.

Yesss. Add to all this the fact that microlending schemes encourage independence and self-determination and put power into the hands of very ordinary village people, most of them women, by the way, who were earlier quite powerless and often even scorned. Wal-Mart, on the other hand, prefers its workers meek and without other options.

Wal-Mart makes its owners very rich, true. But it doesn't encourage the type of moral and spiritual growth in them as the microlending schemes do to their participants. Think about the way the poor have no collateral to offer for these loans, so the need for it is replaced by personal reputation and honor. And almost all loans are paid back! This is because the loans are evaluated in a group of locals who already have had microloans themselves, and the social knowledge, support and perhaps pressure, too, are used in place of money as a collateral. I can see problems in this system but compared to the traditional banking system those problems are nothing. It's important to remember that microlending schemes have largely helped women who have no access to traditional credit in most developing countries.

Funny Tierney. Here is someone who can really be called a capitalist getting a Nobel and Tierney doesn't like it, because he can think of worse capitalists.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Bob Herbert on Misogyny

Finally the M-word has been pronounced in the mainstread media. Finally. Here is Bob Herbert on the school massacres and their real nature:

In the widespread coverage that followed these crimes, very little was made of the fact that only girls were targeted. Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews.

There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime.

None of that occurred because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts. The startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls.

The disrespectful, degrading, contemptuous treatment of women is so pervasive and so mainstream that it has just about lost its ability to shock. Guys at sporting events and other public venues have shown no qualms about raising an insistent chant to nearby women to show their breasts. An ad for a major long-distance telephone carrier shows three apparently naked women holding a billing statement from a competitor. The text asks, "When was the last time you got screwed?"

An ad for Clinique moisturizing lotion shows a woman's face with the lotion spattered across it to simulate the climactic shot of a porn video.

Yes. Now sit back and watch people not discussing this at all or veering off the topic into something else: school safety, guns, better mental health care. The topic is like a soap bubble; you see it, reach for it and pop! it's gone. What was it we were talking about again? Or it's like something you see from the corner of your eye and can't quite make out.

I've been told that the news reporting about the school massacres in other countries did focus on the fact that the victims were selected on the basis of their sex. This suggests that we could talk about it, too. If we really made an effort. Thanks are due to Bob Herbert for trying.

Wingnut Views on Feminism

A very revealing set of posts about Halloween costumes today at the Corner (a wingnut group blog) of the National Review Online. It begins with an anti-feminist post by Mona Charen where she makes it very clear that she doesn't understand sarcasm. But the truly interesting is the next post by Jonah Goldberg:

For the record, my daughter will be a princess this year. Last year she was a cowgirl. In the future she wants to be a "doggy-doctor," a cowgirl again, and a witch. She has plenty of ideas on the subject and feminism hasn't entered into any of them as yet.

Being a cowgirl is not feminist? How many cowgirls do you remember from the old Wild West movies? How many female "doggy-doctors" were there before the second wave of feminism? Was it Jerry Falwell* who said that feminism would make women leave their husbands and turn to witchcraft? You get the point. Mr. Goldberg doesn't seem to realize how very much his daughter owes feminism already.
It was Pat Robertson. Thanks,mba.

Some Angry Music

Which I like a lot.

Statistics Primer: Part 4: Sampling Distributions

The time has come to make a clearer link between the messages of my previous posts. One of them talked about the concept of probability and one about the sample mean, sample proportion and sample standard deviation. We are now going to build on those two posts to bring them together into a fruitful marriage of sorts.

To begin with, cast your mind back on the two disciplines: statistics and probability theory. How do they relate to each other? Think of this example: I have a deck of 52, cards, half of which are red and half black. If I randomly draw five cards from this deck, how likely is it that all of them are red? Now that is a question in probability theory. We know what the population (the deck of cards) looks like, and we wish to learn what the sample (the hand of five cards) might look like. Statistics reverses this way of thinking. For example, suppose that you have a deck of 52 cards, but you have manipulated the deck so that it no longer has exactly half red cards. You give me a randomly drawn hand of five cards and my job is to try to figure out from the hand I have what the deck proportions of red and black might be.

In short, statistics uses probability theory "in reverse".

We need one additional pair of terms to get going, and that is the pair of "a variable" and "a constant". A constant is exactly what it sounds like: a number which has a specified constant value. For example, if we calculate the sample proportion of people who love chocolate to be 0.95, then that is a constant. A variable is then not a constant. If we have a sample of annual incomes for Americans, and these incomes vary from zero to, say, 200,000 dollars, then "annual income" is a variable with many different values depending on which sample observation we select.

Variables can be quantitative, as in the previous example, or they can be qualitative. An example of the latter would be the religion of a person in a poll about voting. It can take many different values (Catholic, Evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Other, Atheist). These are qualities, not quantities. But remember, we can count proportions to get quantitative data on them.

Quantitative variables are of two main types: continuous and discrete. A continuous variable is one where the following question will be answered in the affirmative: If you take any two values of the variable, is there always a third possible value between the two? Heights and weights are continuous variables. Check this: If one piece of chocolate weighs 2 oz. and another 3 oz. it's clearly possible to have a third piece which weighs something between 2 and 3 oz. The number of visitors to a store selling chocolate on one weekday on the other hand, is a discrete variable. Check this: If the store had 20 visitors one Monday and 21 on another Monday, is it possible that it had, say, 20.75 visitors on some other Monday? The answer is negative (unless we are averaging over the visitor numbers but then we are talking about something different).

The next stage in our adventure is a magic trick. We are going to take the sample statistics such as the mean, the variance and the standard deviation, all constants, and we are going to transform them into variables! Well, not really, but something a little like that. How is this trick carried out?

Let's go back to the example of a deck of 52 playing cards. This deck has been manipulated by someone so that it doesn't necessarily have 26 red cards and 26 black cards as the usual decks do, and we don't know the true proportion of, say, red cards. Earlier I suggested that one hand of five playing cards has been randomly drawn from this deck. This sample could be used to make a point estimate of the proportion of red cards in the deck. Suppose the hand contains three red cards and two black ones. Then the proportion of red cards in the sample is 0.6. This is a constant, right?

Suppose now the evil person who messed up the deck takes these cards pack into the deck, reshuffles it, and deals out another five cards. The new sample has two red cards, so the sample proportion is 0.4. The cards are returned to the deck again, and yet another hand of five cards are dealt out, with three red cards (a sample proportion of 0.6 again). And so on. What is going on here?

Note that we now have a variable, the sample proportion of red cards. It can take more than one value in the experiment. Imagine the dealing-out of five cards continued for, say, a hundred times. We'd then have a large number of sample proportions, and we could use those numbers to figure out the average of all these proportions! We could even calculate a variance and a standard deviation for the sample proprotion! Layers upon layers, you might say. First we had one single sample proportion and one single sample standard deviation. Now we have a whole distribution of sample proportions and we have a standard deviation for the sample proportion itself!

The title of this post has to do with sampling distributions. This is a fancy name for showing us all the possible values and their probabilities that, say, a sample mean could take in this sort of repeated sampling. Or the sample proportion. Or the sample standard deviation. So a sampling distribution is a probability distribution for a sample statistic. If we bring in the heavy artillery of mathematics, it turns out that we can derive explicit formulas for the measures of central tendency and dispersion of these probability distributions. Quite wonderfully, it turns out that the average (or the expected value, as it is properly called) of all sample proportions is....voila! the population proportion! The very thing we wish to estimate! The same is true for the sampling distribution of the sample mean. It averages (in the expected value sense) to the population mean in this sort of repeated sampling (dealing out the five cards over and over from the deck).

The formulas for the variance and the standard deviation of the sample proportion and the sample mean are not quite as intuitive, but they make sense after some thought. Take the sample variance and divide it by the sample size. You get the variance of the sample mean/proportion. If you need the standard deviation, take a square root of the whole thing. So these measures of dispersion get smaller the larger the sample we use. Makes sense. Think about the deck example, but with ten cards dealt out every time. The proportion of red cards in these bigger samples is not going to vary as much from the true unknown proportion in the deck as it will in the smaller samples.

We are almost ready to start playing with real examples of polls. There's only one missing link, and that has to do with the question of probabilities in the sampling distributions. How do we know how likely each possible sample mean or proportion is in the repeated sampling? That is the topic of the next post in this series.

The crucial point of this post in the series is the following: When we take a sample and use it to make estimates about the unknown population characteristics of, say, voter preferences between candidates, we think of this sample as coming from a distribution of many possible samples. This means that the sample proportion we get is a variable. It has a mean and a variance of its own, and the variance, in particular, affects the trust we can place in our estimates.
This is a wonderful toy to play with. It lets you see the sampling distribution appear.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

Sunday, October 15, 2006

New England Asters

Burn purple in dead leaves.
Cold coals draw day moths
Orange bellows.

A. W.

Thought For The Day

Senator John Warner R-VA, the man who heads the Senate Armed Services Committee, was the sixth man to marry Elizabeth Taylor. Did he vow to be her husband till death did them part? If he did, did he really believe it? And do you sort of get the feeling that this explains a lot about how the military affairs of the United States have been conducted recently?

Liar is a liar is a liar is a liar.....

Posted by olvlzl

That cheating survey in the news today is causing a lot of hand wringing and you can see why. Sixty percent say they cheated on tests, 28% stole things from stores, 23% from a relative... shocking. It’s even more shocking, 27% said they’d lied on at least one question on the survey itself. And 92% said that they were actually better than a lot of the people they knew.

But, wait. That 27% who said they lied on the survey itself, maybe they lied about lying on the survey but told the truth to all the other questions. Or maybe they lied on every other question except the one the one about lying on the survey. What does that mean?

And, more generally, the surveyors were relying on these young liars, cheaters and thieves telling the truth about any of this. The entire survey was based on faith in their testimony. What are the implications of trusting these people to tell the truth on this survey? How can they know if any of them were telling the truth about any of it? Did they take these possibilities into consideration? You would think that the Josephson Institute, dedicated to the highest in teenage ethics, would want to clear up these questions before they issue another of these surveys or perhaps to issue a warning that their results are of unknown reliability.

More importantly, now much more unquestioning reporting of this phony news is there going to be on TV than there was for last week’s Lancet study. The one which actually looked at hard documentation and used standard and recognized methods to compile their evidence and to analyze it?

If you asked the media people responsible for covering both of these stories if they gave a flying fig as to if what they said about them was accurate or responsible, what would an HONEST response show? Judging by their continued actions, it would be pretty discouraging.

How Many Dope Slaps Does It Take?

Never having given an award, not that I remember, here's my nomination for a little award a dope slap of double-dipping hypocrisy. From Frank Rich's column.

“The hypocrisy, the winking and nodding is catching up with the party,” says Mr. Tafel, the former Log Cabin leader. “Republicans must welcome their diversity as the party of Lincoln or purge the party of all gays. The middle ground — we’re a diverse party but we can bash gays too — will no longer work.” He adds that “the ironic point is that the G.O.P. isn’t as homophobic as it pretends to be.” Indeed two likely leading presidential competitors in 2008, John McCain and Rudy Giuliani, are consistent supporters of gay civil rights.

Hard to say where the award belongs, Tafel for his and his Log Cabin hypocrits for supporting the Republican Party as it demonized gay people or Tafel for his hypocrisy for lying that the Republican Party is not "as homophobic as it pretends to be". Hells belles, Tafel, didn't you go to high-school. The biggest and most violent homophobes were mostly in the closet too. You just decided that your personal interest lay in joining their pack of queer bashers. And I'm not going to speculate just what that interest consisted of.

As for the point about McCain and Giuliani. John McCain and Rudy Giuliani are both presidental contenders but since Rudy has no chance of getting the nomination - living with two openly gay men while being kicked out of his house because his wife got tired of his multiple affairs, to more than one woman. At a time. That we know of. He's probably going to stay in the log closet on gay bashing.

John McCain. Well, he's not the brightest pebble on the beach but he can count. He can get the nomination and he'll do a quick count of head and find, as have all those other Republicans, that there are a hell of a lot more queer bashers in the G.O.P. than there are G.L.A.D. members so, it's good bye Log Cabin Club just as soon as he's done with you. How many times of having this done to you does it take? You people are denser than elm logs.

Republicans dedided a long time ago that their future lay with bigots. It still does and it will for the foreseeable future.