## Twelve Pieces of Classical Music, for Jim

"Das Bunte Leben" (Wassily Kandinsky)

The number twelve is a lie; I just wanted to hook you.

More than a year ago, my friend Jim asked what pieces I would recommend to someone who’s just starting to listen to classical music. I didn’t want to rely solely on my own opinions, so one night I discussed it with Leslie, Fran, and Henry over dinner (you don’t have to know who all these people are to follow the story — the point is, they like classical music too and I knew the list would be better with their input).

While Jim had suggested ten pieces as a round number, I think he knew that we wouldn’t be able to keep it to ten, and we didn’t. We came up with twelve, or fourteen, or fifteen, depending on how you count.

• Mozart: Flute and Harp Concerto in C major

Ernst Märzendorfer (conductor), Nicanor Zabaleta (harp), Karlheinz Zöller (flute), and the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. (Record label: Deutsche Grammophon.)

• Dvo?ák: Symphony No. 7

István Kertész (conductor), London Symphony Orchestra. (Record label: Decca)

• Beethoven: 5th, 6th, and 7th Symphonies

5 & 7 with Carlos Kleiber (conductor) and the Vienna Philharmonic.

• Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 1

Van Cliburn (pianist), Kirill Kondrashin (conductor). Or: Lang Lang (pianist) and Daniel Barenboim (conductor).

• Bach: Chorale “Sheep May Safely Graze”

Karl Richter (conductor), Munich Bach Choir.

• Chopin: Préludes, opus 28

Ivan Moravec (pianist).

• Stravinsky: The Firebird

Leonard Bernstein (conductor), New York Philharmonic.

• Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5

Mstislav Rostropovich (conductor), National Symphony Orchestra. (Record label: Deutsche Grammophon)

However, an alternate here was Prokofiev’s “Romeo & Juliet” with either Rostropovich and the National Symphony Orchestra (1982) again, or Osmo Vänskä (conductor) and the Lahti Symphony Orchestra.

• Mussorgsky (orchestral arrangement by Ravel): Pictures at an Exhibition

Gustavo Dudamel (conductor), Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

(But maybe add Sviatoslav Richter’s towering 1958 live performance of the original piano version of the piece in Sofia, Bulgaria.)

Adrian Boult (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra.

• Brahms: Symphony No. 1

Wilhelm Furtwängler (conductor), North German Radio Symphony Orchestra (sometimes abbreviated as “NDR” because in German their name is “Norddeutscher Rundfunk Sinfonieorchester”).

An alternate here was Mahler Symphony No. 1, with Klaus Tennstedt (conductor) and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Daniel Barenboim (conductor), Samuel Magad (violin), Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

And I had listed Puccini‘s opera “La Bohème” off in a corner of the paper where I was taking notes, though I’m not sure the group ever considered it. Well, hey: editorial privilege for the win! I’m mentioning it here. There’s a wonderful recording with Georg Solti (conductor), Placido Domingo (tenor), Montserrat Caballé (soprano), and many other wonderful singers. However, I haven’t listened to many recordings of that opera, so I don’t know what else is out there.

Enjoy, Jim!

## Why not to sign the anti-Stallman petition on GitHub.

There’s a petition circulating that is essentially a public indictment of Richard Stallman.

More than half of the initial signers are people I know and respect, and have for a long time. They care a lot about ethical behavior in general and about free software in particular. Normally, I expect to be able to sign most petitions they would sign, but this one I’m not on board with.

One reason is that it simply doesn’t make a good case for a lot of its charges. In the sources the petition cites, I searched for anything that would support the claims of “bigotry”, “hate”, and “intolerance”, and didn’t see it. The primary sources are there — you can read them yourself and make up your own mind, of course.

It’s true that Stallman has expressed opinions and positions that are widely condemned, and that people feel hurt by them; some of those people are my friends. Had the charges been insensitivity and absence of any serious attempt at empathy, who could deny it? Cherry-picking certain distinctions that are important to him but not to others while ignoring ones that are important to others? Absolutely. But what petition says is different, and it’s a difference of kind, not of degree. Bigotry, hate, and intolerance are not what Stallman exhibits — and yes, I do think that distinction should be important to all of us. (I was talking about this with some friends yesterday, and paraphrased something one of them said this way: “There’s no necessary correlation between being hurt and being right.”)

The second reason is the explicit call for blanket ostracism. Having portrayed Stallman as some kind of monster (which he is not), the petition says:

These sorts of beliefs have no place in the free software, digital rights, and tech communities. …

There has been enough tolerance of RMS’s repugnant ideas and behavior. We cannot continue to let one person ruin the meaning of our work. Our communities have no space for people like Richard M. Stallman, and we will not continue suffering his behavior, giving him a leadership role, or otherwise holding him and his hurtful and dangerous ideology as acceptable.

Free software is a big place. It includes Trump voters and Warren voters; it includes people who believe that women shouldn’t control their own bodies; whoever you are, it includes people you strongly disagree with on multiple important things. Empirically, it’s a kind of fallacy to say that Stallman doesn’t belong anywhere in the movement that he is more responsible than anyone else for creating.

I realize that for the petition’s authors and signers this is a question of their fundamental values, in which case they may find that empirical point irrelevant. But the call for ostracism from free software is still unjustified by what the petition itself presents. Indeed, although the very first sentence calls him a “dangerous force”, and the above-quoted excerpt says he must not “ruin the meaning of our work” (how is he doing that?), the striking thing is that the ideas of his that the petition focuses so intently on have gotten little uptake.

Stallman’s vision of free software succeeded because it was a good idea. His persistent articulation and demonstration of it helped, especially at the beginning, but in the long run it succeeded because others saw it was a good thing and made the cause theirs. Stallman does not own it. Where his other ideas — the ones cited by the petition — have not succeeded, it’s because people have not liked them. (The majority of his ideas are fairly standard progressive positions, by the way; those are starting to get some uptake now, and of course that’s because many people, not just Stallman, favor them.)

I noticed that many long-active people in free software have not signed the petition, and I’ve talked to several of them about it. One common reaction I heard is that it “goes too far”. While that’s true, that’s not the point I’m making here. Rather, the problem is that the petition has category errors of real significance, both about Stallman and about what to do when someone expresses opinions one disagrees with and even feels hurt by.

This petition does not display the values it claims to represent.

Disclaimers and disclosures: This post reflects my personal views only. It does not reflect the position of any company or organization I am affiliated with. I’ve been a member of the Free Software Foundation for a long time, remained one throughout the period following Stallman’s abrupt resignation in late 2019, and have had both personal informal contact and professional contact with the FSF. I have made a few light edits to this post since first publishing it; the edits merely clarify and do not change the substance.

## Actual comment from a LaTeX document that I am writing now.

% So, why are we not using \appdxsection here?
%
% Sit down, my child, and you shall hear a tale.  A tale of terrible
% danger and of great deeds by heroes who fought that danger but were
% ultimately defeated.  This is not a story with a happy ending.  Your
% father and I debated for a long time about whether you were old
% enough to hear it.  We eventually decided you were still too young,
% but you sneaked into my computer and are now reading it anyway, you
% little rascal!  Fine.  If you're old enough to break into the liquor
% cabinet, you're old enough to get drunk, as the saying goes.  (No
% one ever actually said this.  I just made it up.  But I'll bet that
% by this time next year it's trending on Twitter.)
%
% Anyway, here's the deal:
%
% If we just use "\appdxsection{Foo}\label{appdx:foo}" here, then the
% first appendix's name will be something like "Appendix G".  In other
% words, the section numbering that we've been using so far will
% continue right on in to the appendix letters.  If the last
% non-appendix section was Section 6, then the first appendix will get
% named for the 7th letter of the alphabet.
%
% That sucks, but we all know what the solution is, right?  Just do:
%
%   \setcounter{section}{0}
%
%   (And actually, you can even combine that with another command,
%   "\renewcommand{\thesection}{\Alph{section}}", so that subsections
%   within the appendix get lovely appendix-y names like "A.1", "A.2",
%   "A.2.1", etc.)
%
% Ah, but there's a problem:
%
% Now if you say "Section \ref{appdx:foo}" anywhere in the document,
% the ref's *link* will actually point to the page where -- you
% guessed it -- Section 1 is!  So while the reference's text would
% look correct (saying "Appendix A" or whatever), if you click on it
% it mysteriously jumps to Section 1, and if you hover over it, in
% Evince or in any other PDF reader that supports preview popups, you
% see a popup showing Section 1's header.
%
% I don't have a solution for this.  Or rather, I finally decided to
% stop shaving the LaTeX yak and just do it manually, with a regular
% unnumbered section that has "Appendix A:" in its title explicitly.
%
% Sometimes the dragon wins.


## So this happened.

I decided to try out this lossless text-compression demonstration site by Fabrice Bellard. It uses GPT-2 natural language generation and prediction to achieve compression. As sample text, I used the first paragraph of Donald Trump’s recent rally speech in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (I figured if anything can compress well using predictive machine learning, surely Trump’s speech patterns can.)

Here’s the compressor site, with most of the input and all of the output showing:

The output looks like a short string mixing Chinese and Korean because the compressed text is represented as a series of Unicode characters (encoding 15 bits of information per character — which makes the compression ratio displayed, 804/49, a bit misleading, since the characters on the bottom are twice as large as the characters on the top: 402/49 would be more more accurate, and still quite impressive).

Anyway, I naturally thought “Hmm! What would happen if I were to paste this presumably random Chinese/Korean output into Google Translate?”

“I am a prisoner, and I am in a state of mind.”

Aren’t we all, Internet? Aren’t we all?

## Don’t Cover For, Just Cover: How to Report on Trump

Have you noticed how Trump consistently says that “we can’t let the cure be worse than the problem“? (emphasis mine)

The usual stock phrase ends with the word “disease”. But Trump avoids the stock phrase, probably because he doesn’t want someone quoting it back at him sarcastically at the peak of the COVID-19 death toll. So in order to avoid reminding his listeners that it is, in fact, literally a disease we’re dealing with here, he twists a common saying.

Since Trump’s use of language is so frequently odd anyway, journalists rarely call out his misdirections or try to explain them. But even worse, they often cover for him. There was a particularly dramatic example of this recently:

On The Daily podcast with Michael Barbaro, New York Times journalist Maggie Haberman played audio of Trump saying “I don’t want the cure to be worse than the problem itself” (he always phrases it this way — he never says “disease” in that phrase) and then she did a really interesting thing. She repeated it back for the audience, but with the phrase corrected to its standard form:

“— in his words, the cure can’t be worse than the disease.”

(Here’s a transcript.)

Haberman wasn’t adding any information by rephrasing the President. She wasn’t summarizing a longer or more complex thing Trump said. She wasn’t providing needed context that the listener might not have. She just repeated Trump, with one important fix — and called her fixed version “his words”.

What is going on? It’s not a simple accident. The day before, Michael Barbaro himself did the same thing. He played audio of Trump using the same odd phrasing on a different occasion, and then Barbaro followed it up by similarly fixing the President’s words, albeit with “illness” instead of “disease”. (transcript here)

It’s as though the journalists know something is wrong, and instinctively want to fix it, so they generously clean up after the President, instead of simply pointing out how the President consistently mis-phrases a traditional saying. (Foreign journalists have noticed this tendency of American reporters to edit the President and thus mask what he’s actually saying.)

I’m not suggesting that reporters should indulge in speculation about the President’s motivations in behaving like this, even when those motivations are pretty clear. Instead, I’m suggesting that journalists should point out when something odd is going on — help the audience see patterns. As reporters, they’ve heard Trump use this strange phrasing multiple times; they know full well what is going on. But any given audience member might not have heard all those instances, and thus might not spot the pattern.

Instead of unconsciously correcting Trump, and thus normalizing him, just report on him and help people be aware of patterns. Listeners can come to their own conclusions about what the patterns mean, but no one is in a better position than journalists who cover Trump professionally to point out the patterns in the first place.

Don’t cover for.

Just cover.

## Ethics Enforcement Via Software Licenses Considered Harmful.

Update (2019-11-25): Audrey Eschright has made a link roundup of “pieces I’ve been reading on the topic of modern free and open source software practices, licensing, and ethical concerns.” Thanks, Audrey! (Thanks also to Sumana Harihareswara, whose tweet alerted me to this fine development.)

Update (2019-10-23): Christie Koehler has written a great piece on this same topic: Open Source Licenses and the Ethical Use of Software. It’s much more in-depth than my treatment below; I highly recommend Christie’s post if you’re looking for a thorough examination of this trend.

I just wrote this in an email, and then realized it was basically already a blog post, so here it is. (Disclaimer: in this post, as on this blog generally, I’m speaking only for myself and not for my company or our clients.)

There’s been a lot of talk recently about creating software licenses that include an ethical-use-only clause. Here’s one example among many. There has even been talk about modifying some existing free software / open source software licenses to include such clauses. If I stopped to dig up source links for everything I’d never get this post done, but if you’re active in this field you’ve probably been seeing these conversations too. Feel free to supply links in the comments.

According to the current definition of free and open source software, such licenses would no longer be FOSS. Some people react to that by saying that maybe we need to update the definition of FOSS then, but that’s backwards — you can’t change a thing by changing what labels you call it by. The current definition of FOSS would still exist, and would still mean exactly what it means, whether one calls it “FOSS” or “broccoli” or “gezornenplatz”.

But even ignoring the nominalist arguments, I think these ethics-scoped licenses are, sadly, an unworkable idea on substantive grounds.

In practice, these kinds of clauses are time bombs that people either don’t hear ticking, in which case they get an unpleasant surprise later, or do hear ticking, in which case they avoid using any software under that license.

The conversations I’ve seen around these licenses seem to start from the position that all (ahem) reasonable people agree about what is ethical. But in fact there are serious and deep disagreements about what is ethical — even among people who would never have expected that they might disagree with each other, there are usually latent disagreements lurking. Here are a couple of examples, just to show how easy it is for this to happen:

1) Some people believe that copyright infringement is immoral. They think that copying without authorization, or at least doing so at scale, harms artists and other creators, and is thus unethical. Other people believe that putting restrictions on copying is inherently immoral — that no one should have a monopoly on the distribution of culture and information. (Note that this is wholly independent of attribution, of course — that’s a separate concern, and both sides here generally agree that misattribution is unethical because it is simply a type of fraud.)

So what happens when someone puts out a license with a clause saying that one may not use this software as part of a system that performs unauthorized copying? Sure, the license will mean it means and will be variably enforceable depending on the jurisdiction. But what I’m getting at is that there is no consensus at all, especially among the kinds of people likely to be pondering these questions in the first place, about whether the restriction would be ethical.

This example, far from being contrived, actually touches the proposed license referred to earlier. That license bases its “do no harm” clause on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in which see clause 27(2) — a clause that I do not agree is ethical and that, depending on how it is interpreted, may be in fundamental contradiction with free software licensing.

Next example…

2) Many vegetarians and vegans feel that killing animals for meat — and doing medical testing on animals, etc — is immoral. Most of those people live surrounded by meat-eaters, so they often don’t bring this up in conversation unless asked about it. But it’s only a matter of time before someone releases a license that prohibits the software from being used for any purpose that harms animals.

(To be fair, it looks like maybe that was really a click-through download EULA rather than the underlying software license, at least based on this archived page. It’s a little hard to tell — this was all around 2008, and the license is no longer easy to find on the Net. Which I think is likely to be the fate of most ethics-scoped licenses in the long run.)

Formally speaking, these kinds of ethical-use-only clauses violate both the Free Software Definition and the Open Source Definition. In the FSD, they prevent the software from being used “for any purpose”. In the OSD, they constitute a “field of use” restriction.

Now, you can make any license you want, and if you hire a good lawyer to do the drafting it may even be enforceable in some circumstances. But there is much less consensus around the world about what is “ethical” than many people wish. If this practice were normalized, we would quickly have software licenses that prohibit the software from being used in a system that encourages people to change or abandon their religion, or from being used to educate women, etc.

“Fine”, I hear you say. “I don’t have to use their software, then. But people who agree with my ethics will be free to use the software I release under licenses that enforce those ethics.” Except that no one will: the software won’t be adopted, except maybe by your friends. Anyone seriously thinking of using that software in production will run away as fast as they can from a license clause that opens them up to liability based on some judge’s interpretation of what constitutes a violation of someone else’s ethical guidelines. These licenses may look great on the runway, but they’ll never fly.

I think the FSD and the OSD (which are essentially the same idea expressed in different words) got it right the first time. Free software licenses accomplish some wonderful things, both for individual freedom and for non-monopolistic collaboration built around free-to-fork code. However, FOSS licenses can never provide a generally enforceable framework for ethical behavior. Attempts to make them do the latter not only fail (because the software won’t be widely adopted with non-FOSS license terms anyway) but also reduce the licenses’ effectiveness at doing what they were originally designed to do.

## SOLVED: ‘apt-get dist-upgrade’ error when going from Debian 9.x (“stretch”) to 10.0 (“buster”).

Thanks to user lamayonnaise in this Reddit, I was able to solve the problem described below, which I encountered when upgrading a Debian GNU/Linux box from old stable (9.x, a.k.a. “stretch”) to new stable (10.0, a.k.a. “buster”). I’ve also seen this when upgrading from ‘stable’ to ‘testing’ — presumably the solution below would work there too.

Here’s what the problem looks like — full transcript, out of consideration for search engine indexes:

root# apt-get dist-upgrade
Building dependency tree
You might want to run 'apt --fix-broken install' to correct these.
The following packages have unmet dependencies:
guile-2.2-libs : Depends: libtinfo6 (>= 6) but it is not installed
libedit2 : Depends: libtinfo6 (>= 6) but it is not installed
libllvm7 : Depends: libtinfo6 (>= 6) but it is not installed
libncurses6 : Depends: libtinfo6 (= 6.1+20181013-2) but it is not installed
libreadline7 : Depends: libtinfo6 (>= 6) but it is not installed
E: Unmet dependencies. Try 'apt --fix-broken install' with no packages (or specify a solution).
root#


Hmmm, that doesn’t look good. I tried following the advice given there, but it didn’t work:

root# apt --fix-broken install
Building dependency tree
Correcting dependencies... Done
The following packages were automatically installed and are no longer required:
guile-2.2-libs libncurses6 libpython3.7-minimal libsasl2-modules libzstd1
Use 'sudo apt autoremove' to remove them.
The following additional packages will be installed:
libtinfo6
The following NEW packages will be installed:
libtinfo6
0 upgraded, 1 newly installed, 0 to remove and 1326 not upgraded.
47 not fully installed or removed.
Need to get 0 B/325 kB of archives.
After this operation, 534 kB of additional disk space will be used.
Do you want to continue? [Y/n] y
apt-listchanges: Can't set locale; make sure $LC_* and$LANG are correct!
perl: warning: Setting locale failed.
LANGUAGE = (unset),
LC_ALL = (unset),
LANG = "en_US.UTF-8"
are supported and installed on your system.
perl: warning: Falling back to the standard locale ("C").
locale: Cannot set LC_ALL to default locale: No such file or directory
Setting up libpam0g:amd64 (1.3.1-5) ...
locale: Cannot set LC_ALL to default locale: No such file or directory
Checking for services that may need to be restarted...awk: error while loading shared libraries: libtinfo.so.6: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
Checking init scripts...
awk: error while loading shared libraries: libtinfo.so.6: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
dpkg: error processing package libpam0g:amd64 (--configure):
subprocess installed post-installation script returned error exit status 127
Errors were encountered while processing:
libpam0g:amd64
E: Sub-process /usr/bin/dpkg returned an error code (1)
root#


Okay, hmmm, what about trying the same but with apt-get instead of apt? Let’s see:

root# apt-get --fix-broken install
Building dependency tree
Correcting dependencies... Done
The following packages were automatically installed and are no longer required:
guile-2.2-libs libncurses6 libpython3.7-minimal libsasl2-modules libzstd1
Use 'sudo apt autoremove' to remove them.
The following additional packages will be installed:
libtinfo6
The following NEW packages will be installed:
libtinfo6
0 upgraded, 1 newly installed, 0 to remove and 1326 not upgraded.
47 not fully installed or removed.
Need to get 0 B/325 kB of archives.
After this operation, 534 kB of additional disk space will be used.
Do you want to continue? [Y/n] y
apt-listchanges: Can't set locale; make sure $LC_* and$LANG are correct!
perl: warning: Setting locale failed.
LANGUAGE = (unset),
LC_ALL = (unset),
LANG = "en_US.UTF-8"
are supported and installed on your system.
perl: warning: Falling back to the standard locale ("C").
locale: Cannot set LC_ALL to default locale: No such file or directory
Setting up libpam0g:amd64 (1.3.1-5) ...
locale: Cannot set LC_ALL to default locale: No such file or directory
Checking for services that may need to be restarted...awk: error while loading shared libraries: libtinfo.so.6: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
Checking init scripts...
awk: error while loading shared libraries: libtinfo.so.6: cannot open shared object file: No such file or directory
dpkg: error processing package libpam0g:amd64 (--configure):
subprocess installed post-installation script returned error exit status 127
Errors were encountered while processing:
libpam0g:amd64
E: Sub-process /usr/bin/dpkg returned an error code (1)


Nope.

All right, then. Let’s do it manually:

I’m not sure it was necessary, but at this point I ensured the locale by checking that the uncommented line “en_US.UTF-8 UTF-8” was present in /etc/locale.gen, running the command locale-gen as root, logging out and logging back in, and confirming the locale with locale -a.

Again, that locale dance may not have been necessary. What was necessary were the next steps:

Visit the Debian package pages for libtinfo6 and libpam0g, download the amd64 versions (using the sha256sum command to check the downloaded files against the SHA256 fingerprint listed at the bottoms of the Debian package pages), then install them manually:

root# dpkg -i libtinfo6_6.1+20181013-2_amd64.deb
root# dpkg -i libpam0g_1.3.1-5_amd64.deb


Those commands succeeded, and I confirmed that the packages were now installed:

root# apt-get install libtinfo6
Building dependency tree
libtinfo6 set to manually installed.
0 upgraded, 0 newly installed, 0 to remove and 1325 not upgraded.
root# apt-get install libpam0g
Building dependency tree
0 upgraded, 0 newly installed, 0 to remove and 1325 not upgraded.
root#


Now the box was in working order again, and I could finish the dist-upgrade:

root# apt-get dist-upgrade
[...zillions of lines of package names omitted...]
1325 upgraded, 390 newly installed, 19 to remove and 0 not upgraded.
Need to get 41.7 MB/1,155 MB of archives.
After this operation, 1,054 MB of additional disk space will be used.
Do you want to continue? [Y/n] y
[...zillions of lines of success omitted...]


## Four Arguments for Elizabeth Warren.

I’ve been “All In For Warren” for a while now. I expect a lot more people to join us after tonight’s debate :-), but just in case you’re still on the fence, here are four brief arguments Why Warren:

• She’s making the other Democratic candidates better. She’s offering so much vision that the others are picking it up. The longer she stays in the race, the better the eventual nominee will be. (I think it will be her anyway, so this item is more of an insurance-policy argument.)
• She has the right enemies. Seriously, ask yourself: can you name one enemy of Joe Biden’s? No, you can’t. When Joe Biden walks into a room, his goal is for everyone in that room to like him. That is not what we need in our next President. Elizabeth Warren has the enemies you’d hope she would have.
• She understands what is needed, and she’s proposing to actually do it. Most candidates understand what is needed, but they don’t dare propose to actually do it, because they can’t afford to scare off the big-dollar donors. Elizabeth Warren decided not to pursue big-dollar donors from the beginning. That’s freed her up to offer up a spot-on diagnosis of how scaled-up capitalism has captured the state and made its values the state’s values, and she’s saying what needs to be done about that. She doesn’t mind offending the people who pushed us into unsustainable inequalities of wealth, power, and dignity.
• If she’s campaigning for President, then we’ll probably have a better Senate too. The best presidential campaigns have coattails. Elizabeth Warren’s will be particularly long, because she’s offering so much for other candidates to grab on to.

Want to help? Come on in, the water’s fine!

## How about a Numeracy Editor?

Do any news organizations have a Numeracy Editor?

For fifteen years, the New York Times had a Public Editor, whose job was to visibly uphold journalistic ethics. The Public Editor would publicly discuss errors, biases, or gaps in the paper’s coverage. (Some other news organizations continue to have a public editor position, though I think it’s not widespread.)

I’d like to propose something narrower: a Numeracy Editor. The Numeracy Editor’s job would be to help reporters and columnists use numerical and statistical reasoning well.

I’ve been pondering this idea for a while, and finally decided to write about it after reading Vatsal G. Thakkar’s excellent NYT Op-Ed Bring Back the Stick Shift a couple of weeks ago. It’s a good piece, but at one point it veers into unexpected non sequitur in an attempt to use statistics to support its argument:

Backup cameras, mandatory on all new cars as of last year, are intended to prevent accidents. Between 2008 and 2011, the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled, but the backup fatality rate declined by less than a third while backup injuries dropped only 8 percent.

The more you read that, the less it means. For a three-year period, the percentage of new cars sold with backup cameras doubled from whatever it was before — without knowing what it was before, this doesn’t tell us anything: the result of doubling a very miniscule percentage would still be a miniscule percentage, for example. Meanwhile, during that same three-year period, fatalities due to backups declined by some amount (less than a third) from whatever the rate was before — again, we don’t know. So does that decline represent a greater decline in backup fatalities than should be expected from whatever percentage of cars on the road newly have backup cameras? Or a smaller decline? There is no way to say. Also, we don’t know what percentage of cars driving on the road are new cars, which is highly relevant here.

If the author was trying say to that fatalities should have declined more, this paragraph does not support that case, but it doesn’t support any other case either. It throws some statistics into the air, as if to see how the wind catches them, but they don’t connect to each other and they have no bearing on the question at hand. As my friend Tom put it, it’s just a “number casserole”.

I certainly don’t mean to pick on on Thakkar — again, I liked the piece — or on the New York Times. This sort of thing happens in many publications; you can see it all the time, in the regular reporting just as much as in opinion editorials.

But given that this was the New York Times Op-Ed page — a forum that presumably takes quality control and editorial standards seriously — it’s worth asking: how did such a problematic paragraph make it through the filters? I think the answer is that there is no editor whose reputation are self-respect are on the line when numerical clunkers slip through. A few grammatical or spelling errors and someone’s job is in danger, but even glaring errors of statistical reasoning are currently costless.

I get that journalists and their editors tend to have backgrounds in language, political science, history, and other fields that don’t emphasize math. And that’s fine: this isn’t an “everyone should learn more math” argument. There are only a finite number of days in anyone’s life, there isn’t time to learn everything, and people make the choices they make for reasons. That’s exactly why a Numeracy Editor is needed: it would be her job to own this problem, and along the way help journalists learn the math they need. The writers would start to be more careful just knowing that someone is watching. A Numeracy Editor would have caught the problem in that Op-Ed right away, and once spotted, it’s easy to explain; the conversation with the author can take place before publication, as with any other kind of editing. Many errors of numerical or statistical reasoning are easy to understand once they’re pointed out (although there are also subtler cases, such as Simpson’s Paradox, that occur in real-life, policy-relevant situations and need to be watched for).

Unlike Public Editor, Numeracy Editor need not be a public-facing role. The main point is to help writers and other editors use math appropriately and to prevent mistakes. If the editor also wants to conduct a public discussion about using numbers and graphs in journalism, that would be a great public service too, but it’s a bonus. The role could do a lot of good purely behind the scenes.

Numeracy Editor should be an easier position to hire for than the broader role of Public Editor has been, because it doesn’t require nearly as much journalistic experience (the Numeracy Editor isn’t making hard judgement calls about how much anonymous sourcing is acceptable in a story, for example) and because the advice it provides would be less controversial.

Anyway, I don’t run a newspaper; all I have is this blog. I’d love to hear from anyone who works in or near journalism what they think of this idea.