Suburban Lion's Blog

2014/01/18

An unexpected political journey.

Filed under: Politics — Ryan Ruff @ 03:08

Prior to this year, I had never really thought about getting involved in politics.  Don't get me wrong.  I've always had strong opinions about political issues.  It's just that I placed higher priority on other topics.  My major areas of interest were mathematics, video games, education and the intersection thereof, so that's where I focused my time and effort.  I held the belief that if I could address the problems in education, that the political issues I cared about would eventually be addressed by having a more informed electorate.  However, a recent turn of events has forced me to reevaluate my strategy.  I'm no longer sure if the problems in education can be fixed without political action.

In the spring of 2013, I was working two part time jobs while finishing up my Masters in Education.  I was teaching math as an adjunct faculty member, while also serving as a lab manager for one of the campus tutoring centers.  I loved both positions thoroughly and found great fulfillment in watching students overcome obstacles to succeed in their educational goals.  Between these two positions and finishing up my thesis, I perhaps wasn't paying enough attention to the political wheels that were already set in motion.  The Virginia state budget for 2013 included a provision in response to the Affordable Care Act which limited the hours of wage employees to "29 hours per week on average per month".  At first, I didn't even think this would affect me.  My hours as a wage employee were already limited.  I didn't consider my work as an adjunct to count towards this limit, because the position was under contract per credit hour and not a wage position.  Little did I know that the Virginia Community College System was coming up with a formula to convert "credit hours" to "average hours per week" as a precautionary measure against being forced into providing healthcare for adjuncts.  Since both of my positions were for the same employer, this meant that sum of the "equivalent hours" worked in each position could not exceed 29 per week.  Essentially, my two part time positions had been rolled into one and my income was sliced in half.

Now, I don't blame my employer for what happened.  They were simply doing what any rational person or organization would do: control for risk in the face of uncertainty.  What frustrated me were the political games that lead to this situation.   There's a disconnect between the language used in the Affordable Care Act and that of the Virginia 2013 budget.  I'm no fan of the ACA, instead supporting a single-payer system, but at least it provided a "way out" by means of a fine.  The Virginia budget language does not.  The most plausible explanation of this, at least in my opinion, is a political game of "Red vs Blue".  The Republican controlled Virginia legislature seemed to be making an active effort to make the ACA as difficult to implement as possible.  After all, they stand to benefit from "Obamacare" developing a negative public image and what better way to make it look bad than by putting teachers out of work?  The Federal Government says one thing.  The State Government says another.  Employers then need to interpret this mess and don't even have a full picture to convey to their employees.  It's like a game of "telephone" gone horribly wrong.  The irony in all of this is that I already had health insurance to begin with.

As an underemployed recent graduate with staggering amounts of debt, I began searching feverishly for job in the midsts of an economic recession.  In between resume submissions, I started paying more and more attention to the Virginia Green Party's listserv.  I'd been following the listserv since I moved to the state 5 years ago, but never really had the time to participate actively.  With the lack of success in my job search, I found myself with the time to speak up about my political views.  Perhaps to the neglect of this blog, I wrote at great length about the issues I felt the party was facing.  In particular, I was very vocal about the need for better outreach to younger voters.

Last week I tweeted about attending my first meeting with the Green Party of Virginia (GPVA).  To say this meeting would "be interesting" might have been an understatement.  I found myself being nominated for, and elected to, the office of Press Secretary.  This came as something of a surprise to me because I don't really have any experience dealing with the press.  Normally a "Press Secretary" is someone with a background in journalism or communication, while my background is in education.  After further consideration, I started to wonder if my experience might be relevant than I had thought.  Maybe what the Green Party needs right now is education.  The party needs to educate voters about how they differ from the existing two major parties to establish name recognition among voters.  I feel like I'm stepping out of my comfort zone in this new position, but also recognize that the act of stepping out of one's comfort zone is precisely how we learn and grow as a human beings.

I look forward to this new position and am excited about the prospects of improving the Green Party's public outreach.  With 42% of Americans now identifying themselves as Independents, I think the timing is right for a 3rd party to stand up for common sense government policies that we can all agree on.  People just need to know that there are viable electoral options outside the false choice of "Red vs Blue".  There is a tremendous opportunity for the Green Party to make its name as a organization that places the people's interests above party politics, and I hope this is a message I'll be able to convey as the new GPVA Press Secretary.

I don't expect the content of my blog or twitter feed to change much during this time.  This has always been a collection of my thoughts on math, video games and education, with the occasional bit of politics thrown in.  Nothing said on this blog should be interpreted as being representative of the Green Party.  Official press releases will be published on the GPVA Website.

Fun side note to this story: the GPVA's new co-chair is also a math professor.  It's about time for more math teachers to step into the political arena and make a difference!

2012/09/27

Profile of an "undecided" voter: Nader, Arrow, Nolan, Flux, Aikido and Metagaming the Vote in 2012

Filed under: Math,Politics — Ryan Ruff @ 14:09

Hello! My name's Ryan and I'm an "undecided" voter.

No, it's not what you think.

I'm not undecided between these guys:

Obama Romney

There's no way in hell I'm voting for Romney.

I'm not an idiot as Bill Maher not-so-subtly suggested last week. (It's okay Bill, I can take a joke)

I'm undecided between these guys (and gal):

Obama Johnson Stein

Mathematician and author John Allen Paulos described the situation a little more elegantly:

I'd like to believe that I fall into the "unusually thoughtful" category and wanted to share my perspective.

FULL DISCLOSURE: This is my personal blog and obviously biased by my opinions. I'm a member of the Green Party and have made a "small value" donation to the Stein campaign. Despite my party membership, I try to vote based on the issues and not the party. I voted for Obama in 2008 and voted for Ron Paul in the 2012 GOP primary. While I'm not technically an "independent" due to my affiliation with the Greens, I'm probably about as close to one as it gets.

Let's start with a little historical background and work our way forward from there.

The Nader Effect

My first voting experience was in the 2000 election. I didn't like either Gore or Bush, and ended up gravitating towards the Nader campaign. His positions on the issues most closely aligned with my own, so I did what seemed like the most rational thing to do at the time. I voted for him.

After the election, Nader (and the Green Party in general) received a large amount of criticism from Democrats for "spoiling" the election. The Democrats argued that votes cast for Nader in key states like Florida, would have been otherwise been cast for Gore. The counter argument is that Bush v. Gore was decided by the Supreme Court, but I won't get into that.

From my perspective, my vote for Nader in this election could not be counted as a "spoiler". I was living in California at the time, and the odds of California's votes in the Electoral College going to Bush in the 2000 were negligible. My vote for Nader was completely "safe" and allowed me to voice my opinion about the issues I cared about. However, this notion of a "spoiler vote" forever changed how I thought about my voting strategy.

Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives

In the 1950s, economist Kenneth Arrow conducted a mathematical analysis of several voting systems. The result, now known as Arrow's Impossibility Theorem, proved that there was not ranked voting system that could satisfy the following conditions for a "fair" election system:

  1. It accounts for the preferences of multiple voters, rather than a single individual
  2. It accounts for all preferences among all voters
  3. Adding additional choices should not affect the outcome
  4. An individual should never hurt the chances of an outcome by rating it higher
  5. Every possible societal preference should be achievable by some combination of individual votes
  6. If every individual prefers a certain option, the overall result should reflect this

Arrow was largely concerned with ranked voting systems, such as Instant Run-off Voting, and proved that no such ranking system could ever satisfy all of these conditions. There are non-ranked voting systems that meet most of these conditions, such as score voting, but one of these conditions of interest that our present system doesn't meet is number 3. This condition goes by the technical name of Independence of irrelevant alternatives. The idea is that the outcome of a vote should not be affected by the inclusion of additional candidates. In other words, there should never be a "spoiler effect".

What I find interesting here is that the very mechanics of our voting system lead to a situation where the outcome of elections is controlled by a two party system. It forces citizen to vote tactically for the "lesser of two evils", while from my perspective both of those "evils" have gotten progressively worse. George Washington warned of this outcome in his farewell address:

However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.

Until we can address the issues inherent in our voting system itself, I'm left with no choice but to vote strategically in the election. My policy for voting is a tactic of minimaxing: minimizing the potential harm while maximizing the potential gain. It's with this strategy in mind that I turn to the options of the 2012 presidential race.

Quantifying Politics

In order to apply a mathematical analysis to voting, it is first necessary to have some way of quantifying political preferences. As a method of during so, I'll turn to the so called Nolan Chart. An easy way to find out where you stand on the Nolan Chart is the World's Smallest Political Quiz. Here's where it places me:

Here's where I'd place the 2012 candidates:

Note that this is my subjective opinion and may not necessarily reflect the opinions of the candidates themselves. It's also important to note that this is a simplified model of political disposition. There are other models, such as the Vosem (восемь) Chart that include more than two axes. If you were, for example, include "ecology" as a third axis, this would place me closer to Stein than Obama and closer to Obama than Johnson. The resulting distances to each are going to vary depending on what axes you choose, so I'm just going to stick with the more familiar Nolan Chart.

Since I'm politically equidistant from each of the candidates, my minimax voting strategy would suggest that I vote for the candidate that has the highest chance of winning: Obama. However, there are many more variables to consider that might result in a different outcome. One of those variables is something I call "political flux".

Political Flux

People change. It's a well known fact of life. Changes in political opinions are no exception. If you look at the stances that Obama and Romney have made during this campaign, and compare those to their previous positions, I think you'll see a trend that looks something like this:

Obama campaigned hard left in 2008, but during his term in office his policies have shifted more towards the center. Romney campaigned in the center while he was running for governor of Massachusetts, but has shifted more towards the right during his presidential campaign. These changes are highly concerning to me, because both candidates are shifting away from my position. Thus, while Obama is closer to me on the political spectrum, the fact that he is moving away from my position makes the long term pay-offs lower than they would be if he had "stuck to his guns". In turn, this makes the 3rd party candidates a more appealing option.

I might even go so far as to suggest that this "political flux" is the reason why these 3rd party candidates are running. Statistically, their odds of winning are too low to change the outcome of the election. However, they can influence the direction of the political discourse. The more people that vote for those candidates, the more likely that future candidates venture in those respective directions. This vote comes at a "risk" though, as those 3rd party candidates run the risk of "spoiling" the election for a less undesirable candidate. The level of this this risk varies from state to state due to the electoral college system.

The Electoral College

A popular vote is not enough to win the election. The president is selected by an Electoral College that gets a number of votes based on a (mostly) population proportional system. For some of these states, the polls predict a pretty solid winner and loser for the presidential race. For others, the state has a tendency to lean right or left. According to The New York Times, the following states are considered a "toss-up" in the upcoming election:

  • Colorado
  • Florida
  • Iowa
  • North Carolina
  • New Hampshire
  • Nevada
  • Ohio
  • Virginia
  • Wisconsin

If you are living in one of these states, the risks of voting for a third party are greater because your vote will have a higher chance of "spoiling" the election for one of the candidates. I happen to live in Virginia — one of the 2012 "battleground" states. I foresee a large number of attack ads in my near future. The big question is, is the pay-off worth the risk?

Aikido Interlude

For the past couple months, I've been studying Aikido — a martial art that might be best described as "the way of combining forces". The idea is to blend ones movements with those of the attacker to redirect the motion of the combined system in a way that neither individual is harmed by the result. As a lowly gokyu, I still have a lot to learn about this art, but I find some of the core principals behind it rather insightful from a physical and mathematical perspective.

The basic idea is a matter of physics. If an object has a significant amount of momentum, then it takes an equal amount of momentum to stop it. However, if you apply a force that is orthogonal (perpendicular) to the direction of motion, then its relatively easy to change the direction of motion. You don't block the attack in aikido. You redirect the attack in a way that's advantageous to your situation. You can see the basic idea in my crude drawing below:

The result of this is that many aikido techniques end up having a "circular" sort of appearance. In reality, it's the combination of the attacker's momentum and the orthogonal force applied by the defender that cause this. See if you can spot this in the following video of Yamada sensei:

So what does this have to do with voting?

Well consider my position on the Nolan Chart and the direction that the two major candidates are moving in. As much as I would like to shift the debate to the left, it would require a significant amount of political force and time to negate this momentum towards the right and even longer to push it in the opposite direction. It would be much more efficient to push "north" and allow the momentum to carry the political culture towards my general position.

In other words, voting for Gary Johnson might actually be the path of least resistance to my desired policies.

Metagaming the Election

Here you can start to see my predicament. Part of me wants to vote for Gary Johnson, because I think that doing so would be mostly likely to shift the debate in the direction I want it to go. Part of me wants to vote for Jill Stein, as doing so would help strengthen the political party that I belong to. Part of me wants to vote for Barack Obama, but only because doing so would have the greatest chance of preventing a Romney presidency. According to the latest polling data, the odds of Obama being re-elected are 4:1. Those are pretty good odds, but this is a high stakes game. It sure would be nice if there was a way to "have my cake and eat it too".

It turns out that there is.

I can metagame the election.

The idea of metagaming, is that it's possible to apply knowledge from "outside the game" to alter one's strategy in a way that increases the chance of success. In this case, I've decided to employ a strategy of vote pairing.

You see, I live in the same state as my in-laws who traditionally vote Republican. However, despite a history of voting GOP, they're both very rational people. Romney keeps shooting himself in the foot by saying things that are downright stupid. Screen windows are airplanes? Free health care at the emergency room? The more Romney talks, the easier it becomes to convince rational people that he's unfit to be president.

After many nights of debate, we've come to the realization that we're only voting for one of the two major parties because the other party is "worse". From there, a solution presents itself: "I'll agree to not vote for Barack Obama if you agree to not vote for Mitt Romney". This agreement is mutually beneficial to both parties involved. Without this agreement, our votes just cancel each other out. With the agreement, the net benefit to each candidate is still zero but now those votes are free to be spent elsewhere. The end result is that we each have a larger impact on the presidential election without altering the outcome.

With the vote pairing secured, I'm free to vote for Stein or Johnson at my own discretion. Both of these candidates agree on what I think is the most important issue: ending our "wars" (of which there are too many to list). They differ on a number of issues, particularly on economics and the environment. Personally, I think that the Greens and Libertarians need to meet half-way on the issues for an Eco-libertarian ticket. Jill Stein needs to recognize that the US Tax Code is a mess and needs reform. Doing so can help eliminate corporate handouts, many of which go to industries that adversely affect public health. Gary Johnson needs to recognize that laissez-faire economic policies alone will not fix our broken health care system or halt the impending climate change. I'm going to be looking forward to seeing debates between Stein and Johnson which I think will highlight the complexities of these issues and hopefully identify some possible solutions.

That's great, but what can I do?

You can enter a vote pairing agreement with someone of the opposite party. If you would ordinarily vote for the Democrats, you can click here to find out which of your Facebook friends "like" Mitt Romney. If you would ordinarily vote for the Republicans, you can click here to find out which of your Facebook friends "like" Barack Obama. Talk about the issues that are important to you in the race, discuss your objections to the other candidate, and if things go well, agree to both vote for a third party. If everyone did this, one of those 3rd parties might actually win. Even if it doesn't change the outcome, you'll know that your vote didn't "spoil" the election for your second choice.

If you want to go one step further, you can Occupy the CPD. Sign the petition to tell the Commission on Presidential Debates that you think we should hear from all qualified candidates and not just the two that they think we should hear from.

Finally, research the alternative parties and join one that matches your personal beliefs. Even you end up voting for one of the two major parties, joining a 3rd party and supporting that movement can have a significant effect on future campaigns. Here's a few links to get you started:

2012/03/12

Measuring Rational Behavior

Filed under: Math,Politics,Religion — Ryan Ruff @ 12:20

Is "rationality" a measurable quantity?

In a previous blog post, I discussed some common logical errors that often arise in political discourse. This led to a rather interesting discussion on Twitter about political behaviors and how to model them mathematically (special thanks to @mathguide and @nesa_k!). One of the questions that came up this this discussion was how to define "rational behavior" and whether or not this is a measurable quantity. What follows is my hypothesis on "rational behavior": what it is and how to measure it.

Please keep in mind that this is just a hypothesis and I don't quite have the resources to verify these claims experimentally. If anyone has evidence to support or dispute these claims, I would certainly be interested in hearing it!

Defining "rational behavior"

Before we can begin to measure "rationality", we must first define what it means to be "rational". Merriam-Webster defines "rational" as "relating to, based on, or agreeable to reason". The Online Etymology Dictionary describes the roots of the word in the Latin rationalis, meaning "of or belonging to reason, reasonable", and ratio, meaning "reckoning, calculation, reason". It's also worthwhile to mention that ratio and rational have a distinct mathematical definition referring to the quotient of two quantities. Wikipedia suggests that this usage was based on Latin translations of λόγος (logos) in Euclid's Elements. This same Greek word lies at the root of "logic" in English.

Based on these definitions and etymology, I think its fair to define rational behavior as "behavior based on a process of logical reasoning rather than instinct or emotion".

Even this definition is far from perfect. In the context of game theory, "rational behavior" often defined as the process of maximizing benefits while minimizing costs. Note that by this definition, even single celled organisms like amoeba would be considered to exhibit "rational behavior". In my opinion, this minimax-ing is a by-product of evolution by natural selection rather than evidence of "reason" as implied by the typical usage of the word "rational".

I should also clarify what I mean by "logical reasoning" in this definition. In trying to quantitatively measure rational behavior, I propose that it makes sense to use a system of fuzzy logic rather than Boolean logic. By using the Zadeh operators of "NOT", "AND", and "OR", we can develop an quantitative measure of rationality on a scale of 0 to 1. In logic, we say that an arguement is considered sound if it's valid and its premises are true. Since we're using the fuzzy "AND" in this model, the rationality measure is the minimum truth value of the logical validity and base assumptions.

Using this definition, we can also define irrational behavior as "behavior based on an invalid logical argument or false premises". I'd like to draw a distinction here by defining arational behavior as "instinctive behaviors without rational justification", to cover the amoeba case described above. An amoeba doesn't use logic to justify its actions, it just instinctively responds to the stimuli around it.

Rationalism and Language

There's an implicit assumption in the definition of "rational behavior" that I've used here, and that is that this requires some capacity for language. First-order predicate logic is a language, so the idea that "rational behavior" is language dependent should come as no surprise. In fact, the same Greek word "logos" from which "rational" is derived was also used as a synonym for "word" or "speech". The components of language are necessary for constructing a formal system, by providing a set of symbols and rules of grammar for constructing statements. Add a set of axioms (assumptions) and some rules for inference, and you'll have all the components necessary to construct a logical system.

A Dynamic Axiomatic System Model of Rational Behavior

A this point we can start to develop an axiomatic system to describe rational behavior. Using the operators of fuzzy logic and the normal rules of first-order logic we can create an axiomatic system that loosely has the properties we would expect of "rational behavior". It's very unlikely that the human mind uses the exact rules of fuzzy logic, but it should be "close enough". We also have to consider that the basic beliefs or assumptions of a typical person vary over time. Thus, it's not enough to model rational behavior as an axiomatic system alone, we must consider how that system changes over time. In other words, this is a dynamic system.

As we go through life, we "try out" different sets of beliefs and construct hypotheses about how the world works. These form the "axioms" of our "axiomatic system". Depending on whether or not these assumptions are consistent with our experiences, we may decide to keep those axioms or reject them. When this set of assumptions contains contradictions, the result is a feeling of discomfort called cognitive dissonance. This discomfort encourages the brain to reject one of the conflicting assumptions to reach a stable equilibrium again. The dynamic system resulting from this process is what I would characterize as rational behavior.

One particularly powerful type of axiom in this system is labeling. Once a person takes a word or label and uses it to describe him or herself, the result is the attribution of large number of personal characteristics at once. The more labels a person ascribes to, the more likely it is that a contradiction will result. Labeling also has powerful social effects associated with it as well. Ingroups and outgroups can carry with them substantial rewards or risks depending on the context.

Rather than rejecting faulty axioms when confronted with cognitive dissonance, some individuals develop alternative methods of reducing the discomfort. The general term for pattern of behavior is called cognitive bias. This behavior can take a variety of different forms, but the one that is most relevant to this discussion is the confirmation bias. One of the ways in which the human brain can reduce the effects of cognitive dissonance is by filtering out information that would result in a contradiction with the base assumptions. Another relevant bias to consider is the belief bias, or the tendency to evaluate the logical validity of an argument based on a pre-existing belief about the conclusion.

Whatever form it may take, cognitive bias should be taken as evidence of "irrational behavior". Not all cognitive biases are of equal magnitude, and some arguments may rely more highly on these biases than others. The goal here is not a Boolean "true" or "false" categorization of "rational" and "irrational", but more of a scale like the one used by PolitiFact: True, Mostly True, Half-True, Mostly False, False, Pants on Fire. The method of applying truth values in fuzzy logic makes it highly appropriate for this purpose.

Examples in Politics

Consider this clip from The Daily Show. Using this clip may seem a little biased, but it's important to remember that John Stewart is a comedian. Comedians have an uncanny knack for walking the fine line between "rational" and "irrational", providing an interesting perspective to work with.

In the first example, we have the issue of Rick Santorum and JFK. After reading JFK's speech on religious freedom, Santorum says that it made him want to throw up. In order to defend this statement, Santorum uses a good ole fashioned straw man argument by claiming that JFK was saying "no faith is not allowed in the public public square" when in fact JFK was saying "all faiths are allowed". I think Santorum's behavior here is a prime example of irrational behavior. Taking this position may very well earn him some votes with the deeply religious, but it's clear that Santorum has some problems finding consistency between his personal beliefs and the First Amendment. His position is not based on a valid logical argument, but on a physical response to the cognitive dissonance resulting from his conflicting beliefs. This example also shows the power of deeply held self-labeling behaviors like religion.

Mitt Romney made some headlines with his "NASCAR Team Owner" blunder. It would appear that Mitt Romney had gone to Daytona to try and score some points with "average Americans", but a slip of the tongue showed how out of touch he really is. To Romney's credit, his behavior here is about half-rational. His assumptions are probably something like this:

  • I want people to vote for me.
  • People vote for someone they can relate to.
  • Most people know someone who likes NASCAR.
  • I know someone who likes NASCAR.

It makes sense from a logical standpoint, but it turns out that the person who Romney knows that likes NASCAR just happens to be a
"team owner" instead of a "fan". This small detail makes it unlikely that people will relate to him, but at least the foundation of a logical argument is there.

This brings us back to Rick Santorum again. This time, Santorum calls President Obama a "snob" for "[wanting] every American to go to college". Not only is this comment blatantly false, but he's employing an ad hominem attack in lieu of a logical argument. This example draws a nice dichotomy between President Obama and Rick Santorum. The President is making a rational argument in favor of higher education which is well supported by evidence. By opposing this rational argument on a faulty premise, Santorum comes out of this situation looking mostly irrational. His behavior makes sense if you consider the effects of confirmation bias. Santorum believes that the President is trying to indoctrinate college students to become liberals. He believes it so thoroughly that he simply filters out any evidence that would contradict it. While most observers can hear the President say "one year of higher education or career training", Santorum doesn't. He hears the part confirms his beliefs and filters out the rest. I'd imagine that for Santorum, listening to President Obama speak sounds something like the teacher from the Peanuts cartoons: "one year of higher education wah wah-wah wah-wah-wah". To Santorum's credit, at least he had the mind to retract his "snob" statement -- even if only partially. This shows that the underlying mechanisms for rational behavior are still there, despite his frequent leaps of logic.

Conclusion

I hope I've at least managed to present a definition of "rationality" that's a little more precise than the everyday use of the term. I'm sure some people out there might disagree with the way I've rated the "rationality" of these behaviors. Different people have different experiences and consequently have different assumptions about the world. If we were to use multiple "rationality raters" and average the results, perhaps we might have a decent quantitative measure of rationality to work with.

Part of the problem with measuring rationality is the speculative nature of trying to determine someone else's assumptions. We can generally use what a person says as an indication of what they believe -- at least for the most part. It's also important to consider not only the statement, but the context in which the statement is made. In political discourse, we implicitly assume that politicians are being honest with us. They might be wrong about the facts, but this idea that they are honestly representing their own views is something that voters tend to select for. Perhaps this is why Romney is still struggling against Santorum in the primary. Santorum may have problems getting his facts straight and presenting a logical argument, but he has a habit of saying what he believes regardless of the consequences. Romney, on the other hand, says what he thinks will win him the most votes. Many voters do not vote "rationally", they vote according to how they "feel" about the candidates. Romney may be more "rational" than Santorum, but his calculated responses cause him to lose that "feeling of honesty" that Santorum elicits from voters.

In the next article, I'll attempt to explain the origins of rational and irrational behavior. I think the key to understanding these behaviors lies in evolution by natural selection. I would argue that both rational and irrational behaviors contributed to the survival of our species, and this is why irrationality persists into the present. Stay tuned!

2012/01/25

The Three Axioms of Political Alogic

Filed under: Math,Politics — Tags: — Ryan Ruff @ 07:43

I find it rather interesting that the foundations of both logic and democracy can be traced back to ancient Greece. Here in the US, we've taken the Greeks' idea of democracy and brought it to a new level, but at the same time our political discourse seems anything but logical. We owe to Aristotle the "Three classic laws of thought", which are as follows:

  1. The law of identity. Anything object must be the same as itself.  P \to P
  2. The law of noncontradiction. Something can't be and not be at the same time.  \neg(P \land \neg P)
  3. The law of excluded middle. Either a proposition is true, or it's negation is.  P \lor \neg P

It's worth while to note that these statements are neither verifiable or falsifiable, qualities true of any "axiom". An axiom is supposed to be a self-evident truth, that gives us starting point for a discussion. The universe described by these axioms is one where "TRUE" and "FALSE" form a dichotomy. These axioms don't handle things like quantum particles or Russell's paradox in which things can be both true and false simultaneously. Nevertheless, they provide a useful tool for discerning truthhood. Politicians, however, are more concerned with "votes" than "truths". The following "Three Axioms of Political Alogic" are the negation of the "three classic laws of thought", and generally indicate situations where a politician is distorting the truth for personal gain. Although, that could change if Schrodinger's Cat decides to run for office.

The Three Axioms of Political Alogic

#1: The law of deniability

Just because something is, doesn't mean that it is.

First order (a)logic:  \neg (P \to P)

Sometimes politicians don't have their facts straight, but that won't stop them from proclaiming that a lie is the truth. The most common form of this seems to be the denial of evolution and climate change, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence. When the majority of the population is poorly informed about scientific issues, its much easier for a politician to appeal to these voters by reaffirming their misconceptions than it is to actually educate them. Just ask Rick Santorum.

There's a corallary to this rule, and that is that if you repeat the lie often enough then eventually the public will believe you. The right-wing media repeatedly refers to President Obama as "Socialist" or "Muslim", despite neither being true, in the hopes of eventually convincing the public that they are true.

#2: The law of contradiction

Just because two positions contradict each other, doesn't mean you can't hold both of them simulatenously.

First order (a)logic:  P \land \neg P

Politicians seem to have a natural immunity to cognitive dissonance, allowing them to hold two contradictory positions without feeling any guilt or embarrassment. Republicans like to call themselves "pro-life" while simultaneously supporting the death penalty -- something I never fully understood. How can one be pro-life and pro-death at the same time?

President Obama's 2012 State of the Union had a few subtle contradictions worth noting. President Obama begins by praising the General Motors bailout and goes on to speak out against bailouts near the end. He also called out "the corrosive influence of money in politics", while he himself was the largest beneficiary of Wall St donations during the 2008 campaign. When you consider that this President has built his position on the principles of compromise and cooperation, taking both sides of the issue seems to be his way of encouraging both parties to work together. Unfortunately, this strategy hasn't really worked out that well in the past.

#3: The law of the included middle

You don't need to choose between a position and its negation. You can always change your mind later.

First order (a)logic:  \neg (P \lor \neg P)

Politicians try to appeal to the widest possible base of voters. Since the voters don't always agree with each other on a particular issue, you'll often find politicians changing their stance depending on which voters they're speaking to. This law is the "flip-flop" rule of politics. Mitt Romney is a popular example, having changed his stances on abortion, Reaganomics, and no-tax pledges. These changes make sense from a vote-maximization point of view. Romney's earlier campaign in Massachusetts required him to appeal to a moderate voter base. In the GOP Primary, he now needs to contend with the far-right wing voters. If the votes he potentially gains by changing stance outnumber the votes he'd lose from the flip-flop, then he gains votes overall. Likewise, President Obama has also "flip-flopped" on some issues he campaigned on now that he's actually in office -- like single-payer healthcare versus individual mandates. Again, the President is dealing with a change in audience. "Candidate Obama" needed to appeal to the general population, while "President Obama" needs to appeal to members congress. He's still trying to maximize votes, it's just a different type of vote that counts now.

Parting Thoughts

This post started with a joke on Twitter about politicians' inability to do basic math or logic. After giving it some thought, perhaps they're better at math than I originally gave them credit for. They may not be able to answer simple arithmetic problems, but when it comes down to maximizing the number of votes they receive they are actually quite skilled. They may tell bold faced lies and flip-flop all over the place, but they do so in such a way that gets them elected and keeps them there. If we want politicians to tell the "truth" then we to start voting that way. We also need to start educating others about how to tell a "lie" from the "truth", and I hope someone finds these "Three Axioms of Political Alogic" a valuable tool for doing so.

2011/08/06

Put a Former Dead Kennedy in the White House #istandfor #jello2012

Filed under: Politics — Ryan Ruff @ 01:57

Dear Mr. Stephen Colbert and Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow,

I understand that you are looking for suggestions for what to do with that money that I gave you. I'm sorry it's not much, but now that Congress fucked up America's credit rating I'm expecting my students loan rates to go through the roof. While it is no longer my money to spend, I think the answer for what to do with it lies in the very same reason why I gave it to you in the first place:

I would like you, Stephen Colbert, to turn the 2012 Presidential Elections into a Media Circus.

If there's one person that can do it, it's you, and I'm pretty sure you were going to do it anyway.

In fact, Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow has already started drawing much needed attention to campaign finance issues. As ABTT continues to create media headlines, it's benevolent ringleader can take this media coverage and convert it into Strategic Humorous Indoctrination Transmissions, or SHIT. Once the SHIT is produced, ABTT can seek volunteer monkeys to hurl the SHIT in every direction. The SHIT throwing will no doubt generate more media coverage, drawing new contributors to ABTT and providing the necessary resources to produce more SHIT. The next step is to find a presidential candidate that has what it takes to make our political leaders to look like a bunch of clowns. SHIT throwing monkeys are nice, but it just wouldn't be a circus without the clowns.

My first idea was to hijack the Republican primary with a write-in campaign. Put out a few advertisements suggesting that everyone write-in the name of their favorite Conservative pundit in the GOP primary. If the votes for rest of the Republican candidates are somewhat evenly split, a social media driven write-in campaign might be enough to make it "first past the post". Of course, there might be some potential legal and viability issues to consider with this approach. In the long run, perhaps this unnamed individual's talents might make him better suited towards influencing public opinion of the candidates than being one himself.

As an alternative, I'd like to suggest Jello Biafra (Eric Reed Boucher). Yes, that's right. The former Dead Kennedys front man: Jello Biafra. Jello has been involved in the Green Party presidential campaigns since 2000, and although he's hasn't announced any intention to run in 2012, there are some who think he should.

Now, hear me out here. The US Green Party is at a huge disadvantage in the upcoming election due to the Citizens United ruling. You see, like your pal Buddy Roemer, the Green Party takes issue with unlimited corporate contributions and candidates rely on small value donations from ordinary citizens. This means that Jello wouldn't be able to run on the Green Party ticket and still accept PAC contributions. This makes it practically impossible for any Green Party, or other 3rd party, candidates to compete with the corporate financed campaigns. For a 3rd party to influence the election at all, it needs to be the center of a media circus. This is where ABTT comes in. The ABTT doesn't have to support Jello, but rather it just needs to vilify him.

You see, Jello isn't really your "tip of hat" type. He's more of the "wag of the finger" type. He's the kind of guy that will suggest radical ideas like instituting a maximum wage, abolishing the military, or lowering the voting age to 5.. The media needs a crazy-socialist-liberal to keep the news interesting! Jello's political views should put him on the top of the "Threat Down", but most people have never heard of him or the Green Party. It's really too bad this is the case, because every superhero needs a supervillain and Jello would be a perfect arch nemesis for Steven Colbert. He even comes complete with built-in product placement and catchy potential campaign slogans like "Put a Former Dead Kennedy in the White House" or "There's always room for Jello".

If Jello were to run and selects a well-known Green Party figure as his running mate, like Ralph Nader, Cynthia McKinney or Howie Hawkins, the result could be a strong Green Party ticket. Jello's punk rock attitude and anarchistic tendencies could be just the thing to pick up the disenfranchised youth vote. Regardless of whether or not Jello can win the election, a voice like his is much needed to shift the course of debate in the 2012 elections.

The plan is simple. Musical guests are no stranger to the Colbert Report, so there would be nothing out of the ordinary about inviting Jello on to talk about "The Audacity of Hype". Ask him why he hates Obama and let the SHIT throwing monkeys do the rest.

For a little taste of Jello, check out the following videos:

Jello Biafra (public speech) - LIVE

Jello Biafra on Anarchism

Green Party 2000 Convention - Interviews with Key Figures 2

Jello Biafra on Net Neutrality & the COPE Act

Jello Biafra at Open The Debates Rally at DNC in Denver 2008

2010/10/01

Wake up Virginia District 4! Stop the hate!

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Ryan Ruff @ 09:07

/rant on

Earlier this week, the Virginian Pilot published an article entitled Forbes versus LeGrow: In God, only one trusts. Rather than focusing on the candidates' stances on political issues, the article focuses solely on the candidates' differing religious beliefs. Not only is this coverage thoroughly distasteful, but some of the comments added by readers demonstrate a sickening level of ignorance and intolerance. Voters in Virginia's 4th Congressional District need to look past religion this November. To do otherwise is to reinforce a culture of bigotry and hate that has plagued this great nation for far too long.

Allow me to start by correcting Mr. Forbes on the language used in the Declaration of Independence. The "Creator" referred to in the Declaration of Independence is not "God" as used in the Christian sense of the word. Rather, the word "Creator" is used here as a metaphor for "Nature". The Treaty of Tripoli clarifies this, explicitly stating that the US "is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion".

Secondly, Mr. Forbes swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Included in the 1st Amendment of the Constitution is the following:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion

Mr. Forbes has sponsored two bills which, if passed, would violate this Amendment:

  • H.Con.Res.274 attempts to reaffirm "In God We Trust" as a national motto
  • H.Res.397 falsely characterizes the founding of this nation as being religious in nature

By proposing this legislation, Mr. Forbes has made it clear that he has no intention to adhere to his oath to uphold the Constitution and is therefore unfit to hold office. Mr. Forbes also started a "Congressional Prayer Caucus", further blurring the line between church and state.

That's not to mention the fact that Mr. Forbes also participated in Glenn Beck's rally on 8-28-10, an event which was coincidentally held on the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s famous "I have a dream" speech and at the same location. Mr. Forbes attendance at this event is an implicit endorsement of Beck's platform. The issues with such an endorsement are too numerous to list here, so instead I'll point to this clip from The Colbert Report and leave it at that.

The real issue that I want to address here, are the reactions from the VA Democrats in the Pilot article. State Delegate Lionell Spruill says "I can't take him to churches as an atheist... That would hurt me." Really? Contrary to popular belief, atheists do not spontaneously combust upon entering churches. Spruill is not in danger of being physically hurt by bringing Dr. LeGrow into a church. Instead the issue seems to be that Spruill is afraid that supporting an atheist for office may harm his chances for re-election. This behavior is inconsistent with the Democratic party's platform, which says that the party is committed to "[e]nding racial, ethnic, and religious profiling" (emphasis mine). Heck, even the Republican platform condones this type of behavior. The US Constitution explicitly states that "no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States". It doesn't get much clearer than that.

Part of the problem is with constituents like Rev. Jake Manley Sr., who says in the Pilot article: "I could not vote for a man who doesn't believe in some power higher than his." Really, this is just a euphemism for "I could not vote for an atheist". This is religious profiling, and not even very subtle at that! If he had instead said "I could not vote for a Black/White/Mexican/Asian/Christian/Jew/Muslim" there would be public outrage! But for some reason, people think it's okay to engage in blatant discrimination against atheists. It's not.

My message to my fellow voters in VA-4 is to not let religion cloud your vision this November. Here we have an opportunity to replace an incumbent who has ignored his Congressional oath with a doctor who cares about providing people with medical care, better education, and a clean energy future. Vote with reason, your nation needs it right now.

/rant off

2010/05/03

An Open Letter To Barack Obama On National Day of Prayer

Filed under: Politics,Religion — Ryan Ruff @ 22:07

Dear President Barack Obama,

I'm writing today to urge you to reconsider your position on the National Day of Prayer. I was most displeased to hear that you will continue to acknowledge the National Day of Prayer, despite the recent Supreme Court Ruling of its unconstitutionality. I feel that Judge Crabb's ruling in this case was correct. While the White House argues that this ruling does not prevent you from issuing a Presidential Proclamation recognizing this day, doing so ostracizes a significant body of your constituents and contradicts the spirit of the Constitution.

I would like to say that I supported you in the 2008 election. During your campaign, you presented yourself as a man of reason and principle. Having moved from California to Virginia earlier that year, I felt like my vote made a difference for the first time in my life. This feeling was reaffirmed during your acceptance speech when you specifically thanked “non-believers” among other groups. As a atheist, this was the first time I had heard any President speak of “non-believers” in a positive light. I felt a glimmer of hope that CHANGE was possible.

Since then, that glimmer of hope has been gradually dying out. You promised to end the war in the Middle East, were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and yet the military occupation continues. You promised to end the arrests of medical marijuana users acting in accordance with state laws, and yet the DEA raids have continued. Dreams of single-payer health care were reduced to hopes for a public-option, and eventually turned into “be happy you got any health care reform at all”. You promised an environmentally conscious energy policy, but shifted your stance to support offshore drilling about a month before the BP oil spill. You continue to proclaim support for ending “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”, but I'm beginning to doubt that this will go through either.

In the times of old, people prayed for things that were beyond their control. People prayed for rain in periods of drought. When that didn't work, they offered virgin sacrifices. Nowadays these practices are largely obsolete. Instead of praying for rain, we build aqueducts and irrigation systems. Instead of praying for the sick to improve in health, we intervene with medical treatment. While some people continue to pray in times of desperation, I am not one of them. For myself and others like me, the act of prayer is considered an ineffective method for bringing about change. Actions consistently provide better outcomes than prayers. This is my request to you: instead of a Day of Prayer, proclaim May 6th as a Day of Action. The American people didn't elect you to office to “pray for change”, they elected you to “act for change”.

Make no mistake, such a declaration would undoubtedly draw heat from the religious community. Bear in mind that we atheists suffer through this discrimination everyday of our lives. Hate mail and death threats are no strangers to atheists who speak their minds. The separation of church and state is one of the founding principles of this nation, set forth in the Constitution that you have sworn to uphold, and I hope that you can set aside your personal views to uphold the rights of the “non-believers” who helped elect you to your present position. To pursue an appeal of Judge Crabb's decision is a waste of government resources. There are more pressing matters that need your attention.

Please Mr. President, use May 6th to bring us a real moment of “peace and goodwill” by withdrawing our nations troops from their posts overseas. Prove your commitment to treat everyone with “dignity and respect” by ending “Don't Ask, Don't Tell”. Show that the right “to love one another” extends to everyone, including those in the LGBT community, by making a motion to repeal the “Defense of Marriage Act”. Set an example for what it means “to understand one another” by not alienating non-believers with a “Day of Prayer”. Do these and show that CHANGE is not beyond our control.

2010/01/21

The Misunderstood Generation

Filed under: Education,Math,Politics,Religion — Ryan Ruff @ 14:30

I picked up Mark Bauerlein's The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future * or Don't Trust Anyone Under 30 (DG) yesterday and have been up all night reading it. Not because I enjoyed it, but because it made me angry. I should have anticipated this, considering how I'm 27 and the sub-title of the book is “Don't Trust Anyone Under 30”. I'm a part of the generation Bauerlein is talking about, and I consider this book a biased pseudo-scientific misrepresentation of myself and my peers.

It's important to note that I probably represent a fringe case within the generation. I read regularly and tend towards non-fiction literature. The fact that I bought this book in the first place is evidence that I'm an outlier. I play several musical instruments, saxophone and guitar being my favorites. I taught myself how to program in high school and designed websites for local businesses. I started out as a Math Major in college, but eventually double majored in Mathematics and Psychology because I was fascinated with learning how the human mind works. After graduating, I pursued another love of mine, video games, and landed a job as a programmer at a game studio. After a few years, I decided that I wanted to make video games that fostered the development of critical thinking skills. I enrolled myself in graduate school and started teaching remedial math. I'm also a complete technophile, love the latest gadgets and gizmos, and can't stand more than a day without being connected to the Net.

Bauerlein talks quite negatively of video games, and I don't think this criticism is well founded. There's a substantial amount of mathematics that can be found in video games. Gamer communities like the Elitist Jerks (http://elitistjerks.com) use spread sheets and simulation programs to mathematically optimize stats and equipment in World of Warcraft. These massively multiplayer online games are complex mathematical systems, complete with virtual economies and social interaction. “Casual” players might not experience the same depth of content, but the “hardcore” players participate in a substantial amount of meta-gaming and often reflexively analyze their performance to foster continued improvement. I think its unfair to devalue competitive video gaming as simply a leisure activity; I consider such play to be equally as intellectual as playing Chess or Go. I would also note the considerable amount of mathematics, science, and art involved in making the video game itself. From my personal experience, learning to play and create video games directly contributed to my interest in math, science and engineering. There are a myriad of video games that are trivial and superficial, but there are also games I would call “higher art” that challenged my perceptions about storytelling in an interactive medium. Bauerlein doesn't even address the topic of video games as “higher art”. He treats the entire medium as if it were completely devoid of any social value altogether.

What kinds of media does Bauerlein suggest in video games' place? A variety of gems including Harry Potter, Dante, Milton, A Christmas Carol, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, and the Bible. Bauerlein tries to portray the problem as a cultural war, but these repeated references to religiously themed works also reveal an ideological difference. These were probably intended as generic books and news sources, but the choices used show a pattern of right-wing religious bias. The whole argument is framed like a dichotomy between the conservative-religious-elders and the liberal-secular-youth, as personified by technology. It appears like Bauerlein is more upset about students not reading his culturally biased list of literature than he is about the real faults of our nation's education system.

These are bold claims, but there are good reasons to be skeptical of DG. The information is all second-hand, and no new research is presented. The data that is presented is not even organized into a coherent framework. It reads like series of disconnected statistics are piled on, one after the other, with no consistency in procedure. In themselves, they each sound like reasonable results. However, the data is mostly tangent to the central thesis about the role technology in producing these trends. It gradually turns into “proof by verbosity”, focusing largely on differences in cultural and ideological values which are not scientifically falsifiable hypotheses to begin with. The book repeatedly references “tradition” as an authority, as if the previous generation has some mysterious source of ancient wisdom. Science is conducted in the open. Clinging onto ideas out of tradition alone is not the way to foster progress.

There are a couple of points in particular that seem suspect. First, the inconsistency between falling rates of factual recall and increasing averages on IQ tests. Memorization skill and Intelligence are two entirely separate constructs. The obvious explanation for this phenomena is that the collection of information worth memorizing has changed but general problem solving ability hasn't. The largest drop in the included performance statistics seemed to take place after the turn of the millennium, which is also a bit suspicious given 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. It's difficult to compare data from before and after a major legislative change which mandates changes in how student performance is assessed and how teachers teach. There is not enough data here to rule out the interaction of other changes in the educational process as an alternative explanation. In a scientific study, the data should speak for itself. The data presented in DG shows that there is significant need for improvement in education, but it's not enough to indict technology as the singular cause of the problem.

Another point worth making is that DG suffers from a combination of selection and actor-observer biases. In defending Generation M, I'm partially guilty of this myself. I'm an intellectual person and tend to associate with like-minded people. Thus, I have a tendency to generalize the behaviors my peer group appears to the generation as a whole. I think Brauerlein is guilty of this also. He probably tends to associate with the intellectual types and may therefore incorrectly generalizes this intellectualism to his generation as a whole. The second fallacy here, is that there is also a tendency to attribute observed behaviors to personality traits instead of the situation. As Brauerlein acknowledges, it's not unusual for teens to go through a rebellious phase, and the technology usage might just be an expression of this. Consider another option: What if Gen M-ers are being honest when they say the information they're being taught isn't relevant to their lives? Certainly these questions merit additional consideration.

This is a commercial product, which is intended to sell copies, rather than a peer-reviewed study in a scientific journal. The reviews on book cover are all from popular media sources rather than the scientific community. Some of Bauerlein's statistics are certainly interesting, but I don't think they demonstrate anything close to a causal relationship between technology usage and intelligence. He doesn't bother to define “intelligence” and tends to use it interchangeably with “knowledge”. I would have also liked to see an effort to normalize the data and plot it over time in comparison to technology usage rates. He cites plenty of sources showing a deficiency in these skills, but there are still too many external factors to point to technology as the source of the problem. The fact that learners process web information differently than print materials just shows that the two mediums need different approaches.

The language of the book is highly emotionally charged and features numerous stereotypical persuasive devices. It identifies a common enemy for the readers to rally against, uses cultural references to which older readers would relate closely, and tries to make the readers feel like a part of something larger than themselves. Even the choice of title and cover art seems like it was designed to trigger an emotional response rather than promote rational intelligent discourse. I found it particularly interesting how Bauerlein tries to present jazz as a higher art form in opposition to modern rap and rock. The irony is that jazz was all about “breaking the rules”, reversing the established chord progression, and eventually laid the foundation for the modern music which Bauerlein seems to despise so thoroughly.

During my undergraduate study, there were times where I found myself relearning subjects from new perspectives. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem completely changed how I thought about mathematics and computing. The theorem states that any fixed formal axiomatic system will have statements that are neither provable or disprovable in that system. Math ceased being about prescribed procedures and memorization and turned into an exploration of how different sets of hypothetical rules might behave. It stopped being about blindly following the rules and instead tolerated the bending or even breaking of them. Part of me wished math could had been that way from the beginning. I wanted to provide the “past me” with a variety of different sets of rules and allow me to explore how they work in a controlled environment. That's precisely why I think Games have such potential as a educational medium. They don't need to be Video Games. Board, Card, Dice and Pen & Paper Games have very beautiful and complex mathematical structures lurking just below the surface of the rules.

My active rejection of the traditional values is different from a passive indifference as implied by DG. I might be a statistical anomaly in this cohort, but I don't think I'm alone. Brauerlein might reject the notion that the problem is in the situation and not the students, but my experiences showed me that many things presented as “facts” in middle/high school were quickly replaced by better models in college. Newtonian Physics became M-theory, Math became Meta-Math, and Technology Use evolved into Software Engineering. DG suggests that the curriculum is not “hard” enough, so maybe we just need to stop diluting the truth? I wish I had Logic and Set Theory as topics in grade school. I want “past me” to be allowed the opportunity to build a solid foundation for the “real” math I'll encounter in the “real” world. I don't want to “learn the wrong way now, learn the right way in college”. Why should I trust an authority figure that routinely hides the truth from me because “its too hard”?

2009/11/02

Health Care Limerick

Filed under: Health Care Reform,Politics — Ryan Ruff @ 17:50

A congressman went on a mission,

To uphold the insurers position,

He nearly just died,

His plan was denied,

'Cause stupidity is a pre-existing condition

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