Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Reasons for Becoming Disturbed

I originally wrote this entry on October 8, 2004, and published it on

Today, RoboGeek (David Herron) has written some of his "Disturbing thoughts on Iraq & the war".

Frankly, I'm not sure if this is a case of being disturbed or confused. I only get disturbed when I see something that's not right. I get confused when I don't know what's right.

In any case, I posted a comment there and I'd like to quote it again here.

The main purpose of Iraq and Afghanistan invasions are strategic. Any battle with "terrorism" is of perfunctory importance since those invasions (which by themselves help bring terror to invaded populations) have nothing to do with the roots of terrorism (which are to be found elsewhere) particularly when "terrorism" is properly defined. What is more, such invasions only extend terrorism and afflict large populations with it.

In fact, there is no consistent definition of "terrorism" given by any of the last four U.S. administrations I've lived under. So, to expect a battle with "terrorism" when it has hardly been defined is not a realistic expectation. (Often, anyone opposing the will of the U.S. foreign policy is in danger of being called a terrorist.)

To understand the situation, I think it is more important to see what the real, strategic intentions of the two invasions are and what they have brought to the invaded. The moral questions are then easy to settle.

Finally, to learn more about Wahhabism, I highly recommend Hamid Algar's Wahhabism: A Critical Essay. Algar took his Ph.D. in Cambridge and has been a professor of Islamic and Near Eastern Studies in Berkeley since his mid-20s. Besides several European languages, he reads and speaks fluent Persian, Arabic and Turkish.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Ranked-Choice Voting in San Francisco

I originally wrote this entry on September 8, 2004, and published it on

Golden Gate Bridge

I'd written earlier about the mathematics of elections, with particular attention to Condercet or ranked-choice voting. Now, Professor Lawrence Lessig has pointed his readers to a demo for San Francisco's upcoming ranked-choice voting experience.

I wonder whether a reduction in the number of available rankings (say from the number of candidates for an office to only three choices, as has been done in San Francisco) diminishes the probability of cyclic ambiguities.

San Francisco's ranked-choice voting system was passed as proposition A in March 2002, and the first ranked-choice vote for local offices will be held during the November 2nd, 2004 election. It will be a great time to look and see how Condercet voting does in practice in Northern California.

In the text version of the official San Francisco ranked-choice voting demo, we read:

The Department of Elections cannot predict the date on which it will begin the process of elimination and transfer. The Department will do so as soon as possible, after all provisional and absentee ballots are processed. The Department intends to report final election results no later than 28 days after election day.

The "28 days" of waiting for election results seems awefully long. It could be that old counting machines are used for a physical implementation of the various elimination algorithms. As I wrote earlier, some computing power and already-implemented algorithms could help with the counting and the elimination process in ranked-choice voting in cases of result ambiguities.

The Mathematics of Elections

I originally wrote this entry on September 1, 2004, and published it on

Should software and servers matter in breaking election ambiguities?

Well, it all depends on what sort of ambiguity we're talking about.
Here, I'm certainly not talking about hanging chads. I'm talking about
ambiguities that may arise because of the election method used.

Some election ambiguities require computational power, others may take
you to the Supreme Court. Let's focus on the first type of ambiguity,
for the moment.

The mathematics of elections is quite simple when everyone has
a chance to vote only for one of the candidates, i.e. when no allowance
is made for the voter to fully specify and assign his or her
preferences to each and as many of the candidates as he or she wishes.
In such an election, all we need to do is add the votes for each
candidate. Whoever has more votes wins. No puzzling ambiguities are

Kenneth Arrow, the distinguished Stanford economist, who has also
written the forward to the anniversary edition of Chester Barnard's
classic (about which I've written earlier) has a famous theorem
(Arrow's Impossibility Theorem) which effectively says there are no
ideal methods for elections.

Arrow gives several criteria for "ideal" elections, the most
controversial of which is the "Independence from Irrelevant
Alternatives Criterion" (IIAC).

IIAC says, effectively, that removal or addition of a candidate should
make no difference unless that candidate was or will be the winner
(against all other candidates).

Arrow shows that it is impossible for an election method to satisfy all
of his criteria. So, according to Arrow's theorem, even if voters had a
chance to fully specify their preferences, it would make no difference.

The trouble is that the IIAC is not necessarily a valid criterion.

As noted in, IIAC is too strong a criterion and near-ideal election methods do exist. The Condorcet election method is one such near-ideal election method:

The proper method of counting ranked
votes is called the Condorcet election method, named after the French
mathematician who conceived it a couple of centuries ago. The main idea
is that each race is conceptually broken down into separate pairwise
races between each possible pairing of the candidates. Each ranked
ballot is then interpreted as a vote in each of those one-on-one races.
If candidate A is ranked above candidate B by a particular voter, that
is interpreted as a vote for A over B. If one candidates beats each of
the other candidates in their one-on-one races, that candidate wins.
Otherwise, the result is ambiguous and a simple procedure is used to
resolve the ambiguity.

Well, it is the resolution of this ambiguity at a national (or any
other large-scale) level that may require some use of computing power. discusses Basic Condercet (BC) and Schwartz
Sequential Dropping (SSD) for resolving the ambiguity. It includes a
software implementation for the SSD method for solving cyclic

BC method drops the weakest defeat (from the cyclic series of
defeats) until there's a candidate that is unbeaten. This may cause
strategy issues. Parties may have clone candidates, i.e. multiple
candidates running for the same party.

The SSD method has been described in, where links to software and other useful information can also be found.

Personally, the Beatpath Winner (BW) method appears to me to be
adequate in resolving cyclicity in a Condercet voting result. It's
equivalent to the SSD method of resolving ambiguities. In the BW method
of resolving cyclic ambiguities, if A defeats B through a "path" (chain
of defeats) and B defeats A through another path (in the cycle), the
two paths (chains) are compared to see which one has the weakest defeat
in its sequence of defeats. The candidate which has the strongest
defeat paths (chains) against all other candidates is the winner.

Condercet method of elections seems like a very reasonable
method. The reason it has not been popular in the U.S. is probably
because people are very conservative and don't want surprises.
Furthermore, the strategy outcomes are hard to predict. It really
unleashes a marketplace for votes and makes results much more difficult
to predict. Another reason could be that Condercet will be truly bad
for the two-party system. Finally, with more parties having a chance,
there is also the question of political stability. In the absence of
political stability, economic stability may also be a rarity. So, I
would expect there may issue some arguments from institutional
economists against Condercet.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

War's equal sides?

I originally wrote this entry on August 11, 2004 and published it on

Rarely (note, I'm not saying "never") does war have equal sides, whether measured in force or moral weight. Often the side with the smaller force (note, I'm not saying man-power) is fighting on its own territory and has basic moral arguments on its side.

Aphrodite of Melos. The statue was found on the Aegean island of Melos, in 1820. Its height is 2.4m, and is dated as early as 3rd century BC and as late as 150 BC.The sculptor is unknown. Louvre, Paris.<br /><br />

On the inequality of warring sides' force or moral weight, when it does happen, I have always recommendded a repeated reading of the History of the Peloponnesian Wars by Thucydides with particular attention paid to the Melian dialog. In fact, many believe the Melian dialog to be the best part of Thucydides' almost journalistic report of Athens' wars. (The dialog was extracted for inclusion in W.H. Auden's collection of the Greek classics. Auden's selected passages from Thucydides end with the defeat of Athens in Syracuse. If Auden selects something, it is definitely worth reading as I discovered on my way to live and work in China back in 1990-1991.)

Melians lived on the small island of Melos. They posed no real threats to Athens. Athens attacked the Melians because Melos' elders wanted to remain neutral in Athens' wars. When Athens won the battle, after a long resistance, it massacred the male population and took the rest to slavery.

. . . the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.

Imperial wars are rarely equal, from either moral or force perspectives. However, if one lives in an empire, one needs to have a very superb moral imagination and a proper emotional education to be able to relate to the suffering of others.

What is in a title?

I originally wrote this entry on August 9, 2004 and published it on

Well, if you're impatient to know jump to the last three paragraphs . . . Otherwise, read from here for much more interesting material.

Every morning in Wall Street and other places in America, respectable men and women begin their day reading The Wall Street Journal as the most excellent source of business news.

These respectable men and women do not always have the time or the inclination to read whole stories, cover to cover. Who is to blame them? (On August 2, 2004, the European edition of the Financial Times reported that Americans were now spending an average of some 10 hours a day consuming various types of media. There's now even an organization that promotes turning TVs off.) In any case, society has made it the case that time is a scarce commodity.

We, the respectable men and women who still read papers, often rely on the able hands of the editors to summarize the stories in appropriate titles and subtitles. The editors oblige by composing the comfortable headings, never disturbing the prejudices of the readers with inconvenient details that the writer may have delt with in putting the story together.

As for myself, while I have the printed edition of the Journal delivered to my home every morning, I generally read the online edition assuming I have time. Sometimes, but rarely, I do get to read the printed edition, which has a slightly different format. For some reason, I can see stories I like much better on the printed edition.

I became partial to the Journal while I was taking one of my electives in the Graduate School of Journalism at UC Berkeley: Social Reporting. I'm not sure if they still offer this course at Berkeley but back in 1992-1993, this was taught by one professor McDougal. Professor McDougal had worked for the Journal as a younger man, had left it and declared himself socialist and written about his adventures in the Monthly Review, a socialist, semi-academic magazine from New York which I'm surprised to see still in publication.

McDougal was famous for his high-profile departure from the Journal. He had a nice home in Berkeley and was generally a very good professor of journalism and writing although he was not always happy with my unconventional views or my writing style. He was the one who introduced us to the real Journal, i.e. the special reporting in the first and forth columns of the A1 page. He showed us why it was the "best paper in America."

Now, back to the main topic of this Weblog: Titles.

While McDougal introduced us to the WSJ, Tom Goldstein, who was then the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Berkely (and then the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia) taught us something else: Writers rarely chose the titles of their articles. What is more, they often lost paragraphs to their editors or other influential members of the editorial board who may even go as far as changing or embellishing the story as they liked. This was just part of the politics of writing and publishing in a paper. Goldstein introduced me to A.J. Liebling.

Well, I think I may have seen a good example of all this politics and machination in the WSJ today (August 9, 2004). This afternoon, I decided to take the printed WSJ out the trunk of my car and read it while having a late lunch at a Thai restaurant. On page A1, in the left-most column there was an impeccably reported story by John Carreyrou with a rather questionable title. The story should probably be titled "The French Patriot Act" but it is titled "France Moves Fast to expel Muslims Preaching Hatred" with the following subtitle "In Bid to Pre-Empt Terror, Nation Targets 8 Imams; Law Hits Legal Residents: Sent to Turkey After 28 Years."

I recommend that you read the full story and then decide whether this is a good title. That's if you have time . . . which you probably won't . . . in which case, you'll be left with the title ringing in your head. Good work ! ! !

Yes, I do wonder how many people will read the text past the title--a job well done by reporter John Carreyrou but with a misleading heading.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Quote of the Day

Speaking on the Holy Land Foundation for Relief and Development mistrial, as declared by a federal judge in Dallas:

"It seems clear that the majority of the jury agreed with many observers of the trial who believe the charges were built on fear, not facts," said Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. "This is a stunning defeat for prosecutors and a victory for America's legal system."