Monthly Archive for June, 2011

Is “Legal Reasoning” an Oxymoron?

Our reader Jonathan Campbell has an excellent post on a bizarre example of legal “reasoning”. A defendant fires 95 shots into the woods; his friend fires 5. A man in the woods is hit by a bullet and dies. The defendant is 95% certain to be the killer (in other words, he is the killer beyond a reasonable doubt), but he is acquitted because the nature of the evidence is “statistical” and therefore cannot be the basis of a conviction.

This tends to confirm my suspicion that a legal “education” consists primarily of having your capacity for logic beaten entirely out of you. As Jonathan points out, all evidence is statistical in exactly the same sense that this evidence is. I put a bullet through your heart and you take five minutes to die. Did the bullet cause your death? Well, not certainly — there’s some small chance that you died of a heart attack that would have killed you anyway, thirty seconds before the bullet was able to finish its job. Is there a high probability I caused your death? Yes. Did I do so beyond a reasonable doubt? Yes. Is the remaining doubt of a statistical nature? Yes. So if there were any consistency in the law, of course I’d be acquitted. And of course I would not be. Which means, as has been noted in this space before, that the law is an ass. So, perhaps, are a substantial fraction of its practitioners.

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In a Fit of Pique

For God’s sake, don’t let your children subscribe to Sirius/XM.

Since May 4, when Sirius rearranged all its channel numbers, my radio has been badly confused. If I punch in station 23, it goes to the station that’s currently 23 for a while, then jumps to the station that used to be 23, etc. And certain stations, which according to the Sirius website are part of my standard package, are completely inaccessible.

Given my past experience with XM customer service, I knew this was not going to be an easy fix, so I’ve been putting off making the call. Today I had some spare time. Sure enough, I’ve spent over TWO HOURS on the phone with these people being alternately put on hold, lied to, put on hold, lied to some more, and put on hold again.

They claim the missing channels are missing because they’re “premium” channels not included in my package. Except that their website clearly identifies these channels as standard channels that *are* part of my package. They tell me that they’re instituting a fix at their end which requires me to leave my radio on for fifteen minutes before it takes effect; this gives them a convenient excuse to hang up and not be there fifteen minutes down the line when nothing has changed. When I complain about how long I’ve been on hold (the automated system always says the wait time is “about eight minutes” before stranding you for half an hour), they give me a direct number to call to bypass the queue. I call that number and am told that no, this number is only for radios installed on airlines or boats. I complain that I’ve just waited twenty minutes to get this message. They give me a *different* number to call, promising me that there is currently no wait at that number. Thirty five minutes later, I’m still waiting.

Ah, but what about just using the form on their web site? Well, you see, that form will not allow me to submit a query unless I give it the serial number of my radio — a serial number that it insists is wrong, even though I have *copied and pasted* it from the “My Account” section of their own damned website. Therefore my query cannot be submitted.

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Dakota Winds

thune ethanol

Here is Senator John Thune (R-SD), speaking on the floor of the United States Senate:

Ethanol producers have been ripping us off for a long time, and they’ve come to rely on that for a source of income. So it’s only fair to let them rip us off a little longer.

I’m quoting from memory, so I might have the wording slightly off, but that was the gist of it. Oh, wait, here’s the exact quote:

We have a lot of folks who made investments, you have people across the country whose livelihoods depend upon this. I think it makes sense, when we put policy in place and we say it is going to be in place for a certain period of time, that it be honored.

As you can see, my parapharase was accurate.

Senator Thune speaks in the great tradition of his institution. Back in 1848, senators by the score made exactly the same argument for preserving slavery. A lot of folks had invested in slaves, you know. And their livelihoods depended on it.

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Blind Spots

beatlesThe other night at dinner, I was asked whether, when the Beatles came to the US in 1963, I had had any sense that something really big had happened.

Well, I was pretty young in 1963, probably too young to think about such matters. I remember having little interest in the Beatles, but being being very aware that they were something very big. Everyone was aware of that. But unless I am mistaken, pretty much nobody realized that we were witnessing something really big and lasting. More generally, I doubt that anyone at the time had any inkling of the long-term significance of rock ‘n’ roll. We knew it was popular, but we had no idea it would change the world. I’m not sure that in 1963 anyone knew that it was possible for music to change the world.

This led to the more general question: How quickly are great cultural watersheds recognized for what they are? In the few areas I know something about, I think the answer is “usually pretty quickly”. I remember 1910 even less vividly than I remember 1963, but I am pretty sure that it wasn’t long between the appearance of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and the realization (at least among people who care about this sort of thing) that poetry had changed forever. In mathematics, at least in the past century (and I’m pretty sure for several centuries, or even millenia, before that), major paradigm shifts have generally been recognized very quickly. When a Serre or a Grothendieck upends the mathematical world, the mathematical world quickly knows it’s been upended.

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voevodsky-80thVladimir Voevodsky, one of the world’s best and most influential mathematicians, has stirred up a bit of a hornet’s nest with a video lecture suggesting the possibility that the Peano Axioms — the standard axioms for arithmetic — might be inconsistent.

Since the Peano Axioms are known to be consistent, it’s tempting to dismiss the whole lecture as either a prank or a shocking display of ignorance. The latter temptation is buttressed somewhat by Voevodsky’s bold misstatement of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, which plays a central role in the lecture. On the other hand, Voevodsky is smarter than almost anyone else on earth, which earns him the benefit of the doubt — maybe what he’s saying is subtler than it seems. On the other hand, some of those in the “shocking display of ignorance” camp are among the few people in the world who might be as smart as Voevodsky.

To believe that the Peano Axioms are inconsistent, Voevodsky must reject all of the known proofs that they are consistent. In particular, he must reject the simplest and most convincing of all those proofs, which goes like this:

  1. The Peano Axioms, and therefore all of their logical consequences, are true statements about the natural numbers,
  2. A collection of true statements cannot contradict itself.
  3. QED.

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The Honor Roll

On May 17 of this year, these fifteen World War II veterans were awarded the French Legion of Honor medal for their service in France. They were cited for their courage and their contributions toward the French liberation. Third from the left, in the light blue jacket, is my Dad.

Words like “awe” and “gratitude” cannot begin to describe what I feel toward these people, whose sacrifices secured the unprecedented safety, prosperity and freedom that have graced my life and so many others of my generation. In the world they created, those sacrifices have become (for people like me) unimaginable.

These are the giants who cleared my path through life. I’m glad to see them honored, though no honor can ever be enough.

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The High Price Of Wi-Fi

routerOne of my weaker columns when I wrote for Slate was a highly unsatisfactory stab at why some hotels charge for wireless and others don’t. Today my wife, who had never seen that column, asked me the same question, and I think my off-the-cuff answer was probably better than anything I said in Slate.

So here’s my new stab at this:

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