Letters to the editor

11 million Net addicts? Who says? Plus: China espionage; undergraduates' righteous rage; sexist claptrap from Mr. Blue?

By Letters to the Editor
Published August 31, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

11 million Net addicts? Come on!


Although data gathered by virtually any means can be illustrative or suggestive, it is a basic premise of statistics that only a randomly -- as distinct from arbitrarily -- selected sample of the population can be interpreted as representative of that population. The Greenfield/ABC study did not do this and thus can only describe the frequency of Internet addiction among those persons who happened to chance across that part of the ABC Web site.

The intuitive fact is that compulsive Internet users spend more time online and thus are more likely to have come across the survey, thus skewing the results upward by an unknowable degree.

-- Gabriel Rossman

I think I have to say that anyone who takes the latest Internet addiction poll at face value is more than a little crazy. As Benjamin Disraeli pointed out, statistics are one of the three types of lies.

Even though I've only recently finished my only statistics course, I also choked when I read the description of how this survey was conducted. The first thing that was hammered into me was that in order for the results to be meaningful, the survey had to be conducted properly. This survey, I must say, is an exercise in how NOT to do a sample.

First, the survey doesn't take into account all Internet users, as it should. Instead, it takes into account those that were on ABCNews.com during that time period. Mistake No. 1. Mistake No. 2 is that those people most likely to take time out of their day and actually answer the survey are people who want to do so -- a greater proportion of which probably qualify as addicts. A professional could probably point out some less glaring mistakes.

Greenfield is a doctor and therapist, not a statistician. I suggest next time he decides to do a survey like this, he actually consult someone with more knowledge in the field than he. And to those who are actually using these numbers for anything worthwhile -- think again.

-- Patrick Lougheed

Burnaby, British Columbia

Espionage without evidence

One area of Jeff Stein's interview of me regarding the FBI's investigation of China's intelligence practices needs clarification.

Although your article made it appear that I am a critic of the FBI's handling of some areas of the Wen Ho Lee investigation, in actuality my criticism was directed at the critics of the FBI. In my opinion, it is they who are operating on some dangerously false assumptions. As far as I can tell from news accounts, the FBI has done a very good job in a case in which it is very unlikely that there exists a treasure trove of incriminating information for anyone to uncover.

Because of the way China conducts its intelligence operations, a knowledgeable counterintelligence official would not expect a wiretap of an espionage suspect to produce a "smoking gun" of any sort. For example, there will be no call from a Chinese intelligence officer to the suspect to say, "Bring your stuff and meet me in the park." The Chinese don't have their intelligence officers do the nitty-gritty elicitation of such information, they don't ask agents to bring "stuff" with them and if they ever meet in the park it almost certainly will be one located somewhere in China, not the United States. Neither would one expect to find proof of espionage activity by searching a suspect's computer for large amounts of classified information, since the Chinese typically do their collecting only in small amounts.

I think what's happened in this case is that, in their haste to assign blame for the investigation's apparently not turning up any convincing evidence, some people have seized upon the idea that those areas in which there were problems coordinating everyone's efforts administratively must have been precisely the same areas where important evidence was just lying there for the taking. These important considerations are lost upon critics of the FBI in Congress and elsewhere, and there has been a tendency to seize upon a couple of administrative snafus and draw the erroneous conclusion that these must have been "blunders" that somehow completely spoiled an otherwise very promising investigation.

As one of our country's former officials most familiar with both China's and the FBI's practices, I do not see any blunders at all. The FBI naturally tries to collect as much information about an espionage suspect as possible and will try to leave no stone unturned, but in a Chinese case the FBI's expectations regarding what it is likely to find out through techniques such as a wiretap are limited and quite realistic.

-- Paul D. Moore

Editor's note: The story has been updated in the archives to reflect Moore's clarification.

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Make black the night



If engineers could harness the power of undergraduate self-righteousness, we wouldn't need plutonium.

I sympathize with Shaffer's lingering rage. I've still got chips on my shoulder for fellow students who, eight years ago, out-flanked my own left-wing identity, calling me a patriarch, a homophobe and a racist.

This smoldering anger might be unique to liberalism -- the politics of high-horse theory, where it's easy to get knocked off.

-- Jason Ross

I read your article in Salon with great interest. It shed some new light on my Oberlin experience.

I arrived in '89, after the events of your story took place. I remember standing in line at Dascomb Hall one evening waiting to eat dinner, and seeing a flyer for a forum with the question, "What is the role of the oppressor in the struggles of the oppressed?"

At that time, as a freshman, I hadn't yet learned Oberlin logic, so my mind instantly rejected the question's bizarre tautological formulation -- naturally, I thought, the role of the oppressor is to oppress; that's why we call it "oppressor."

This poster, and your experiences with "activism" at Oberlin, exemplify the Obie approach to complex, multidimensional problems relating to race, sex and class. People simply attempt to position themselves as righteously as possible within the campus hierarchy of suffering. You yourself note some of the dynamic: "Generally, those of us whose sole claim to oppression was gender had only white males on whom to take out our anger (and I took mine out in spades)." So why on earth did you expect anything different from your fellow activists?

-- Matthew Davis

Santa Monica, Calif.

If he really loved you ...

Concerning Mr. Blue's response to the woman whose friends told her that her lover's wish to go to Alaska alone meant he didn't really love her: "This is the advice of women friends, right? I can't believe a guy would hand you such nonsense."

Oh please, spare me the irrational-woman shtick. I know plenty of men who would offer bullshit advice too, probably along the lines of, well, he probably doesn't want you along in Alaska because he's taking another woman. Believe me, Mr. Blue, women have no corner on the market for stupid love-life advice -- which, despite the fact that your column is usually on target, your comment goes to show.

-- Ami Berger

Class will tell


As a liberal Democrat, it sticks in my craw to defend George W. Bush, but I must take issue with some of the comments in Mr. Conason's column. Yes, he should come clean and admit his youthful indiscretions. And the attitude that "incarceration is rehabilitation" in drug-related offenses is so incredibly short-sighted that that alone makes me question his concept of compassionate conservatism.

However, society must draw a distinction between those who suffer from the disease of addiction and those who prey on them. Possession of a drug for personal use is one thing; possession of drugs to sell is another. Treatment is the preferred option in the former, punishment (yes, punishment) is merited in the latter case.

Our prisons are already too crowded for judges to send casual users to jail. The bottom line is that we should stop building more prisons and start building treatment centers. We may find that other crime rates like property crimes decrease when addicts who steal to support a drug habit get real rehabilitation.

-- Mark Gribben

While I will admit that seeing the phrases "Compassionate Conservatism" and "incarceration is rehabilitation" in the same paragraph is breathtaking in its apparent hypocrisy, I hope this frenzy will not distract us from other issues we should be pondering.

Yes, if this forces us to look at drug sentencing and making it fair and rehabilitative, then great.

However, I am way more concerned about whose pockets Bush's hands are in than I am about what he may have eons ago put up his nose. I think being in a position to buy an election reeks.

-- Diane Addante

Naperville, Ill.

Throughout my four years at a small, private, "Ivy League" Texas university, there were plenty of occasions for me to witness peers snorting, popping, inhaling and, though rarely, injecting. These privileged prepsters "experimented" without the help of a petri dish, however most did get aid -- that monthly stipend from mom and dad. The trustafarians and silver spoon-fed, along with wayward suburban youth, decadently "blew" ma and pa's generous handout rather than raise cash through petty theft or prostitution. Their pecadillos did not go unnoticed by the higher-ups. Each year the administration caught and expelled a few conspicuous (aka brainless) users. However, not one was shipped to the Huntsville or Beeville penitentiary for their "youthful indiscretions."

After graduation, I lived for two years in the "drug infested" part of town while I worked at a neighborhood community center. What disturbed me most about living there was not the graffitied walls or the liquor store on every corner. What made me seethe was the glaring social injustice between the rich and the poor. Here, police were suspicious and unforgiving. Here, a bunch of guys hanging out, wearing the same colored T-shirt and giving themselves a name was not a fraternity but a gang. And these kids' "youthful indiscretions" sent them directly to county jail. According to the Texas criminal justice system, as well as Gov. George W. Bush, these drug users were criminal, not immature.

Like Joe Conasaon, I too hope that George W.'s past does more than stir a national debate about whether the press should let a political candidate's sleeping dog lie. To me the interesting story is why being poor in this country is a crime.

-- Ann Heppermann

Flagstaff, Ariz.

I am from a small town in the South. Several years ago, the son of one of the wealthiest people in our town -- who was in turn the son of the founder of the town's main industry -- was busted with enough cocaine in his possession to fuel Hollywood for years to come. It was cut and dried. He was holding and driving under the influence. He was given six months of house arrest in the family mansion. Within days, I read of a young man who was an employee of that same family's plant. He was sentenced to five years in prison for possession of one ounce of marijuana. Can you seriously ask the question, "Are our drug laws biased against the poor?" Get real.

-- Ed Zaitz

Joe Conason's "Class Will Tell" is right on the mark. In his excellent book, "Drug Crazy," author Mike Gray observed that "over 90 percent of the drug-trafficking defendants in the nation's courts are now African-American. By the time Ronald Reagan left office, the prison population had not only doubled in size, it had changed complexion." Today, the population has quadrupled since Reagan left office.

Due to the endless anti-drug laws, supported by both Democrats and Republicans, the United States has more people incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses than anywhere else in the world.

The war on drugs is clearly not working. Incarcerating people for addictions is inhumane. One day, we'll look back and see it as our nation's "Les Miserables" and we'll wonder, with disbelief, how our elected officials could be so cruel.

-- Sandy Shapiro

We have computers -- why aren't we productive?


You should also be aware that the macroeconomic measurement of production is very poor and often counterintuitive. These effects have been known for some time and are too often ignored. Examples are:

1) The unit of production for clerical work is the man-hour. This makes it impossible to improve clerical productivity by any technique. It will always take an hour to work an hour. Clerical work includes much more than secretarial work. Finance, science, engineering, medicine and similar service tasks are measured this way. The impact of computers on this section of the economy cannot be assessed using current measurements.

2) The unit of production for shipping is often the ton-mile. Computers often enhance shipping productivity by eliminating redundant shipments, creating more efficient least-distance routing, etc. This reduces ton-miles. So by present measurement techniques the use of computers reduces production and thus reduces productivity. The buyers of these systems would be surprised to learn that the more they reduce shipping costs the worse the reported productivity impact.

It will take a considerable time and significant revisions of the production measurements before you can make meaningful macroeconomic statements. The underlying production measurements have become too inaccurate to assess productivity changes in many economic sectors.

-- Robert Horn

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