Prof Volokh on the Slippery Slope

Speaking of slippery slopes (and I was, see below), Prof Volokh has a good article on a slippery-slope argument seen in a recent court decision involving the Google. It is notable for a great illustration of the following caption:

Camel (A) sticks his nose under the tent (B), which collapses, driving the thin end of the wedge (C) to cause monkey to open floodgates (D), letting water flow down the slippery slope (E) to irrigate acorn (F) which grows into oak (G).
It's unfortunate he couldn't work a snowball in there somewhere.

The Right Not to be Offended … by Amazon

You've probably noticed that search engines like Google's and Amazon's offer alternate searches in case you've misspelled a word you've entered. It's extremely useful for us fumble-fingered typists and poor spellers. Amazon also adds a bit of commercialism to the algorithm: if a significant fraction of users search for "B" after searching for "A", they'll eventually offer up "B" as an alternate for people searching for "A".

Sometimes that doesn't work out too well, when the folks perusing your site are of a certain obsessive persuasion. From the NYT today:

Amazon.com last week modified its search engine after an abortion rights organization complained that search results appeared skewed toward anti-abortion books.
Oh no! What happened?
Until a few days ago, a search of Amazon's catalog of books using the word "abortion" turned up pages with the question, "Did you mean adoption?" at the top, followed by a list of books related to abortion.
Gasp! Outrageous! Obviously, this can not stand!
Amazon removed that question from the search results page after it received a complaint from a member of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, a national organization based in Washington.
One complaint, and Amazon leaps into action! Because people who search on the word "abortion" shouldn't be forced to see the word "adoption"! It's insensitive. Or something.

The "Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice" has its website here. And, true enough, you'll see "Pro-faith", "Pro-family", and "Pro-choice" on that page, but the word "adoption" is nowhere to be seen. It does show up (for example) on their FAQ, where they claim to be for it.

Or rather they're equally open to you choosing it. "Whatever!"

Unless, apparently, you happen to see it on an Amazon search page.

Because that's bad:

"I thought it was offensive," said the Rev. James Lewis, a retired Episcopalian minister in Charleston, W.Va. "It represented an editorial position on their part."
Perfect. Censorship demanded by religious fanatics. Gee, we've never seen that before.

Of course, Amazon has a lame excuse, which also has the minor advantage of absolute truth:

Patty Smith, an Amazon spokeswoman, said there was no intent by the company to offer biased search results. She said the question "Did you mean adoption?" was an automated response based on past customer behavior combined with the site's spelling correction technology.

She said Amazon's software suggested adoption-related sources because "abortion" and "adoption" have similar spellings, and because many past customers who have searched for "abortion" have also searched for "adoption."

A million geeks think at this point: Duh!
Ms. Smith said the "Did you mean adoption?" prompt had been disabled. (It is not known how often searches on the site turn up any kind of "Did you mean..." prompt.)
Amazon, of course, is free to do whatever it wants with its search engine. Including putting a bold magenta notice on it: "Offended by something you see? Let us know, we'll disable it! We're huge wusses!"

But the reactionary forces still are rearing their ugly heads:

Customers, however, are still offered "adoption" as a possibility in the Related Searches line at the top of an "abortion" search results page. But the reverse is not true.
That's the way it works for me, I just checked. And why is that?
Ms. Smith said that was because many customers who searched for abortion also searched for adoption, but customers who searched for "adoption" did not typically search for topics related to abortion.
Apparently, Amazon is going to continue making automatic related searches available based on the actual search patterns of its customers, without second-guessing the politics involved. One cheer for Amazon.

But the folks at RCRC are still a little miffed.

Still, the Rev. Jeff Briere, a minister with the Unitarian Universalist Church in Chattanooga, Tenn., and a member of the abortion rights coalition, said he was worried about an anti-abortion slant in the books Amazon recommended and in the "pro-life" and "adoption" related topic links.
Here's Jeff's page, by the way. Fave quote: "Cyndi Lauper is my favorite theologian." No, I'm not making that up. Go look.

Anyway, if Jeff is "worried" about an "anti-abortion" slant when looking at "pro-life" books on Amazon, then I think … well, he must be worried all the time about just about everything. (Jeff, when you search for "vampires", you're going to see some references to fangs and blood. Just letting you know ahead of time.)

"The search engine results I am presented with, their suggestions, seem to be pro-life in orientation," Mr. Briere said. He also said he objected to a Yellow Pages advertisement for an anti-abortion organization in his city that appeared next to the search results, apparently linked by his address.
Jeff would prefer that he lead his life sheltered from "pro-life" suggestions and advertisements. His is a delicate soul, apparently.

Or is he really more worried that other people might be exposed to such suggestions and advertisements? Maybe. Unitarians, in my experience, are pretty much "that's cool" type folks, but apparently pro-life suggestions and advertisements are enough to turn them into censorious Ayatollahs.

Web software that tracks customers' purchases and searches makes it possible for online stores to recommend items tailored to a specific shopper's interests. Getting those personalized recommendations right can mean significantly higher sales.

But getting it wrong can cause problems, and Amazon is not the first company to find that automated online recommendations carry risks.

The "risks" seem to be that easily-offended people, might see something that offends them, and (ignorant of the technology involved) assume a political motivation where none exists. Certainly Amazon would prefer that not happen.

But (equally certainly) if Amazon bows to pressure to tweak its search results and sidebar ads in response to pressure groups, it will find itself on a very slippery and steep slope. Hope they keep that risk in mind, too.

(Link to the NYT article via the Corner.)


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:34 AM EDT

The Americanization of Emily

[Amazon Link] [2.0 stars] [IMDb Link]

Gosh, they don't make movies like this any more.

Black and white, that is. Don't be fooled by the DVD box.

I kind of remember watching this as a young 'un. Not as good as I remembered. Paddy Chayefsky wrote the screenplay, and it is oppressively satirical, without actually managing to be funny. Nobody ever told Paddy "show, don't tell." The action, such as it is, only exists to support Paddy's dialog, and is often inexplicable. Julie Andrews and James Garner fall in love—why? James Coburn suddenly turns into a martinet—why? Garner finds it necessary to "cure" Julie's mother of her denial of her husband's death (in an unbelievably facile way)—why?

Although the movie the movie is tediously pacifistic, the horror of war is kept safely off screen. We only see one guy killed at Omaha Beach, and that turns out to be a mistake.

If you have to watch one 1964 B&W satirical anti-war movie, though, this would be a good bet. Oh, wait


Last Modified 2012-10-25 8:23 AM EDT