Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Fun comic strips for the mathematicians among you

The power of money, and the power of perspective:

Source: Spiked Math

Presidential debates in a different world - "The Axiom of Choice":

Source: Spiked Math

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ad Hominem Your Momma! [Comics]

Ad hominem: A logical fallacy explaining itself -- definition in term.
Comic strips FTW! ;)

Source: Luke Surl

Monday, February 15, 2010

The Daily Show: Irony and Assertions on Global Warming [Video]

This clip from The Daily Show starts as a funny sketch on the recent massive snow storm hitting the United States. Then, it turns its attention to Global Warming.

Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the assertions made by folks that Global Warming has to be false, as it snows in Texas, are clearly ridiculous.

By throwing baseless assertions and making wild claims, the sketch illustrates how people reach faulty conclusions. From the logical fallacy post hoc ergo propter hoc (just because it happens after, does not mean it happens because of) to reaching general conclusions based on anecdotal evidence.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Unusually Large Snowstorm
Daily Show
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Exaggeration and hyperbole in news titles and their psychological impact

This sketch on The Daily Show demonstrates how titles of news items can be misleading, while being funny. I wrote back in Novermber 2009 on this subject, in a post titled How news headlines frame the discussion: rhetoric subtleties, discussing the power of titles.

it's always nice to find a popular demonstration.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The Blogs Must Be Crazy
Daily Show
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Here is my original post:
In this blog post The Last Psychiatrist looks at news headlines following the Ft. Hood incident, and asks us to guess by publication, which headline goes with what publication.

Political inclinations aside, it is an interesting example of how language shapes us, and how it can be used to bias our opinion one way or the other, establishing the frame for the discussion. Or if you prefer, to underline what we should look at by what the publication believes matters.

The author finds this especially important, as he believes most people only skim the headlines to begin with unless they are specifically interested.

In my experience, headlines often have little to do with what's actually written in the content, and in fact, can instigate beliefs contrary to reality which will persist for years.

One such example from my own experience relating to the 2007 Internet attacks against Estonia, what is now often referred to as "The First Internet War". A story came out when Estonia arrested one student for participating, but the title was that the Estonian student was behind the attacks, which is ridiculous, but a lingering belief.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Personal Story, Tactical Communication and Conversation Manipulation

[syndicated from my personal blog, here]

Going back home from meeting friends for a beer, I was excited. It's not often that I encounter something cool to do which also appeals to my youth's old tactical nature. When I do, I jump it! This is a story of how someone tried to manipulate me, and how I countered.

The two friends with me discussed a fascinating topic I didn't even know existed, and simply because I saw that I could do so, I decided to bring this topic to a larger audience, creating a mini-conference on the subject.

First on my list was to find a location, so I sent an email to a local academic who could be a good partner for this, and called a couple of other friends to get them on board, arranged for speakers, PR and other necessities.

The next day I received an answer with a phone number, and within a few hours had the academic in question on my cell phone. He asked me to call his land line, and I did. Our conversation was very easy-going and friendly in tone. Smiles splattered on our faces.

I told him I am excited to speak with him, as he obviously has more experience on this particular subject. I was differential as academic ego demands, showing him the respect he deserves, but in tone -- I remained an equal.

I made my case, and he cut in, asking "Can you explain what you have in mind? We ran a conference on this four years ago. Do you have something new to warrant an event?"

"No," I answered honestly in an interrupt of my own. He apparently didn't expect that, so I asked to continue my pitch, and then did.

A lot changed in the last four years, and even if not, in a university environment four years ia an eternity -- with many new students who would appreciate this event. I had better arguments than these, and as my purpose was cooperation rather than confrontation, I preferred to move on.

I explained how this topic is exciting, how it has direct impact on both higher education as well as real implications for daily life, governance, and the economy. I used two anecdotal examples to illustrate this, and my excitement probably dripped all over him, even over the phone.

"Well," he responded, "let me tell you about an idea I had."

Warning bells sounded in my head. "Happily, what's your idea?

He told me about an event he thought of, which sounded interesting. As he spoke I got about three ideas running in my head on the subject, but I listened quietly. "I would like to work with you, and if you can take some time to think of ideas for what we can do at this event, I'd appreciate us talking about them."

Stay on message

"Of course," I said, "I'd be more than happy to." And I was. "However", I continued with the same breath, "this conversation is about the first idea, so while I'd definitely like to discuss this with you further later, let's stick to the first one for now."

"Alright." he said, and we discussed a bit further, at which point he said "well, last year we ran a small event on this topic, and there was real innovation there which we could showcase. What will be new here?"

I explained a bit more on why I am excited, and why the topic is relevant, and how such an event can be beneficial. Then I decided to change tactics to show my resolve.

Stay on message, clarify position

"As you know, I am a security professional."

"Yes, that is where I know you from. Security, Internet, Cyber Warfare... Why does this subject interest you?"

"Truth be told," I happily jumped in, "I am excited. I learned to be a strategic person, but at heart, I am a tactical person, energized by excitement. I am excited about this topic, and I am willing to put the time into making this event happen. I will make it happen, but as I know of your vast expertise, I decided I must approach you first."

After more deliberation he asked me "What do you think of my event idea? I'd appreciate your opinion on ideas for it, and we can get back together on this after you think about it."

Alarm bells rang again.

"I already thought about it, and have three ideas so far."

"Oh, great! What are your ideas?"

I shared two, as my short-term memory had already erased the third. I told him as much, and I think he believed me, but it could be seen as a lure or a trick. We were extremely friendly. He asked me to email him the third one if I remember it. I promised to do so.

Stay on message

"I'd like however, to finish our discussion of my idea for now, as there is a time constraint."

When he heard I want to get it done within a month rather than a year, he was shocked. I told him how excited I am about the specific speakers I want to bring, and how one of them is leaving the country to join his new wife, and he is a major source of my energy for this. I mentioned how I understand if his events schedule is already closed for the coming year, but wanted to make sure and contact him first.

It wasn't my intention to go cold on him or play "girl negotiation" by appearing not interested, but rather to give him way out. But whether it was my excitement or the "girl tactic", or even the ego massage, it seemed to work.

He got excited about this speaker as well, and asked about getting him on video before he leaves. Then....


A trick I've never seen before, which unlike the ones used up to now, is purely manipulative from whatever perspective you may look at it.

"How about we both take a couple of days to think of our two ideas, then get back together and pick one?"

This is wrong on so many levels. To begin with, his idea is not on the agenda. Second, he assumes I am willing to give up on my idea. Third, he assumes it's one or the other, this is a false choice logical fallacy.

More importantly, with this trick he can potentially achieve four immediately obvious things. First, wipe the slate clean to run his arguments by me again. Second, put distance between the chats so that I have time to move from my strong position, and consider his, perhaps feeling uncomfortable turning him down again. Third, it puts the subject on the agenda. And fourth, potentially try to wear me down, as most people won't call again in two days, or in two months.

I didn't miss a beat.

"I would be happy to discuss your idea separately, it sounds very interesting and I'd be happy to work with you on it. However, my resources are limited and at this time I am only interested in working on this one."

I added my winning argument: "I believe that I can get very good PR coverage for this mini-event, and get cooperation with Famous-Non-Profit which will also be happy to cover a part of the costs."

He lighted up at the mention of PR. We spoke for a bit and he asked me for a few days to speak with his boss. A few days when I have only a month to get things going are critical, so I wasn't happy about it. But the request was reasonable. He threw the ball into my court though, so when I got off the phone, I sent him an email.

I detailed five good ideas for his event, mentioned I was happy to talk with him, and was looking forward to hear from him soon. I also attached my phone number.

As I said when I started this post, he really is a good guy, and very friendly. But he is also a politician. He is an expert communicator who interviewed people live for a decade as a journalist. So while I dislike manipulative behavior I recognize that for some, such behavior is more than acceptable. In fact, it is regular m.o. and needs to be expected as part of the game.

Thing is, even just a few years ago I would have gotten stuck after his first interrupt, and either ended up working on his event without realizing it -- or by being too friendly. Worse still, I could have mishandled the communication in a potentially offensive fashion. Some years ago more, and I wouldn't have been able to play the game, and would have taken offense.

Being able to switch gears into "I'm being manipulated", think fast on my feet with my responses, and keep the conversation on track for my purposes (also the stated agenda of the call) -- all while keeping the rapport going without losing one heart beat, got me very excited. The content of the call was suddenly secondary.

While I am extremely straight-forward and honest in my communication style to a point of bluntness, I am a work in progress and am always learning. And I must admit, when two professionals meet, the conversation is happening on a completely different level. I am just surprised he didn't read through me that I was on to every single trick, when I was able to deflect them all. Or maybe he did and kept throwing them at me anyway to try and outwit me?

The cynic in me may in retrospect reconsider the first thing he ever said to me, to call him back on land line, as a manipulative gesture to get me in a compliant mood. But that would be too paranoid -- wouldn't it?

There are a few issues to consider about this encounter:

1. What was his motive? Perhaps he confused me for a hungry young hot shot, and wanted to use my excitement for his own ends. Perhaps a clear-cut switch-a-roo to get me to work on his event, "stealing" me from mine. Thus, bringing the conversation to where he wants it.

Then again, maybe he was just trying to end the conversation non-confrontationally.

2. His main tricks, in order were: change subject, switch-a-roo, get back together in 2 days.

3. What can you do to counter such tricks? After all, you may not always have a quick wit about you, or know the specific tricks.

The answer is similar to holding your own in politics: Stay on message. Know what your message is and stick to it. Others may try to confuse you, throw you off, and introduce a red-herring such as sending it for discussion in committee. Stay on message.

4. More importantly, the conversation made it clear it is quite possible he has no political power on this front, and thus can't give me what I want anyway.

Which brings us to...

5. What is your goal?
I kept going as I wanted to convince him, and after a fashion, I did get the best possible alternative result. But why keep at it if it won't achieve my goal?

Two tricks such as he used can be excuses as part of natural discussion, at the third, why keep at it? By this time it is clear to both sides what's going on and no positive result can come out of it.

More importantly, my purpose is to achieve a goal, and if I am not going to, why stay on a call that is probably uncomfortable for at least one of the sides, and as sure as the sky is blue, wastes my time?

If my purpose is not adversarial, why treat the situation as a battle? Cooperative discussion is a much better approach. As no cooperation was likely to happen, keeping the discussion going was pointless.

In summary, it didn't work out. But you should not get me wrong, I have a lot of respect for the guy. But it was one of the more fascinating five minutes in my life these past few months.

Here are some articles I wrote on similar experiences I had:
I'm interested, but in you
Snap! Jazz music and mass hypnosis
WTF! Or, wow, this never happened to me before!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The West Wing - The Supremes [Video]

In this episode of the west wing (5x17), there is a quick scene where a new supreme court justice debates with Charlie Young (a character in the show) over the validity or invalidity of affirmitive action.

He deconstructs Charlie's argument and suggests a couple of better ones.

I couldn't find an embed version so you can view it from this post, but did find this clip on a Chinese site. Skip to 4:45 in the video time to see the scene:

Friday, February 12, 2010

Euphemism inflation

The Fallacy Files blog carries an interesting post on how euphemisms lose their power over time, and are soon replaced by new ones.
Here's a good example of euphemism inflation:

Decades ago, poor children became known as "disadvantaged" to soften the stigma of poverty. Then they were "at-risk." Now, a Washington lawmaker wants to replace those euphemisms with a new one, "at hope."
Euphemism inflation is the process in which euphemisms lose their value over time and must be replaced. William Lutz, in his book Doublespeak Defined of 1999, documented the use of "economically disadvantaged" as a euphemism for "poor". "Economically disadvantaged" is actually closer in meaning to "poor" than just plain "disadvantaged", since poverty is only one of many ways to be disadvantaged. However, the full phrase is quite a mouthful, so it's no wonder that "economically" was dropped.

When that euphemism wore out, "at risk" was introduced. Presumably, "at risk" is narrower in application than "disadvantaged", since it's usually only children who are "at risk". Poor adults would be included among the "disadvantaged", but it would sound strange to call them "at risk".
You can read more on this here.

Catch of the week: Avatar and statistics

Catch of the week goes to The Numbers Guy over at The Wall Street Journal, where he shows how Avatar is not the most watched movie of all time, as the movie industry counts by total sales, not accounting for inflating, rather than by ticket sales.
Barely a month into its theatrical run, "Avatar" set a record for world-wide ticket sales, topping $1.85 billion. That is a reflection of its wide popularity, and also a reminder of the quirky way that Hollywood crowns champions.

In recent decades, the agreed-upon benchmark for movie dominance has been box-office revenue, unadjusted for inflation. That means "Avatar," like the previous all-time leader, 1997's "Titanic," and prior box-office kings benefited in part from favorable comparisons. Since tallies of ticket sales aren't adjusted for inflation, rising ticket prices have helped pave the way for a number of more-recent films, including "The Dark Knight" and "Transformers," to land near the top of box-office rankings.

Of the top 25 grossing films of all time on's U.S. box-office ranking, 18 were released in the past decade. Adjust the totals for higher admission prices mainly due to inflation, and "Avatar" would be the only one of those 18 to make the list—at No. 24, as of Thursday. The film has grossed $564.5 million in the U.S. and Canada so far, putting it $36.3 million shy of "Titanic's" U.S. record. And "Avatar" is still drawing big crowds in theaters.

How media measure their audience varies widely, and each industry's standard plays a big role in determining how often headline-grabbing records are set. Videogame and book publishers tout units sold, which removes rising prices from the equation but still can create new chart toppers because of population growth.
For the full story, go to the WSJ article.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Colbert Report on Civil Law and Terrorism

In this sketch from The Colbert Report called Formidable Opponent, brought to my attention by my friend Jonathan Braverman, Stephen Colbert debates himself using some logical and some less logical arguments.

The debate is about the pros and cons of holding a civil trial vs. a military tribunal for 9/11 architect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.

He also emulates some pop culture reference I don't follow, where he plays a [probably] known attorney, claiming he is but a simple person (The Ides of March ftw!)

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Formidable Opponent - Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's Trial
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You can view this video directly here.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The West Wing: Mr. Willis of Ohio

I've been watching the first season of The West Wing in my free time this past month, and I like it. Back when I first watched it, I enjoyed the drama, the plot and learning about government. But more than that, it taught me while letting me have fun.

Most importantly, being engaged with the show which was smart, I felt smart. Or at the very least a part of the elitists. :)

Watching the show again (which so far works hard not to be too liberal or conservative) I can't help but be impressed with Aaron Sorkin's writing, and his incredible combination of ethos, pathos and logos.

This clip from the 6th episode of the first season, Mr. Willis of Ohio, is especially interesting as an idealistic and not realistic moment, where partisan politics is demonstrated in the reverse by a lovable every-day American and argumentation. Naturally, especially relevant in the last year since Obama was elected. But that's just on the surface.

Each episode has just the right plot combination of character development, building the "world" in a continuous story, and a stand-alone episode. It is also a good combination of idealism and realism, how to stick to your principles regardless of pragmatism, when your principles are counter-productive to your principles, and when practicality needs to come first.

Then, it displays arguments for and against varying issues, with a different ideological bias each time -- but always debating each other.

It frames it all with fun (friendship), respect (president's authority), and politics (everything else).

Personally, I find it interesting to see how the Internet changed our lives these past couple of decades, and how this change is reflected in the show.

I intend to keep watching this second time, and I certainly enjoy myself -- which is what matters when it comes down to it. Aaron Sorkin in a master manipulator, but unlike most of the rest of Hollywood, I allow him to manipulate me.