Sunday, December 30, 2012

Creeping ever lower on the destination list

Apparently Chicago has gotten a lot worse since I went to school at UI there,(*) and it wasn't exactly wonderful then.

To put it in perspective, the sum deaths of all the mass murders since about 1982 in the whole country just about equals Chicago's total in this past year.

A little background helps get a view of the situation. The city is in deep financial trouble, so of course they lay off police. (Sinecures are vital, safety personnel aren't.)

And you tend to get more of what you reward:

The Chicago school superintendent, Ron Huberman ... who created highly regarded information-retrieval and accountability systems for the police department and the city's emergency response center in previous city jobs, has now applied his passion for data analysis to Chicago's violent kids. Using a profile of past shooting victims that includes such factors as school truancy rates and disciplinary records, he has identified several hundred teens as having a greater than 20 percent chance of getting shot over the next two years. The goal is to provide them with wraparound social services. (The profile of victim and perpetrator is indistinguishable, but targeting potential victims, rather than perpetrators, for such benefits as government-subsidized jobs is politically savvy.) The program will assign the 300 or so potential victims their own "advocates," who will intercede on their behalf with government agencies and provide them with case management and counseling.

Adam Smith is supposed to have said that "Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent." Perhaps the people driving these sorts of programs can't wrap their minds around more than one thought at a time and have settled on "mercy is a good thing." Or maybe they really believe that "This time it has to work because I'm in charge, and only I know how to do it right."

So gangsters get their own lobbyists, and nobody's mind boggles.

Come to think of it, does mercy mean anything if there's no law? How do you waive punishment if there's no punishment to begin with?

Maybe there was a little solid wisdom in the old mores that looked askance at bastards. As a rule of thumb: "No daddy=less discipline" and possibly some background of impulsiveness. (I gather that children of widows do better than children of the unmarried or divorced, though the numbers were taken from the larger society and not the ghetto.)

(*) When I was at UICC a debate raged about admissions standards. "Evil" people said raise them, "good" people said keep them low so lots of local "talent" could benefit, and the "unpersons" said go ahead and keep them low but spend the money on remedial education before the low scorers move into the regular college course tiers.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Where's the antimatter?

While it is cool(*) to see people I know in the news the headline is a little frustrating. "UW-Madison Researchers Help Explain the Scarcity of Anti-Matter"

The problem at issue is that in the Big Bang model both matter and antimatter should have been created equally, but probing around tells us that the universe is currently made of matter. So what happened? There must have been something slightly asymmetric between the two that made the anti-matter vanish faster. Such asymmetries exist, but so far don't seem big enough to make the difference.

The Daya Bay experiment found a "mixing angle" that defines the rate at which different kinds of neutrinos transform into each other. That turned out to be unexpectedly large, which has physicists all excited. It was a very good piece of research.

Maybe this could be the cornerstone of a model that lets us explain the missing antimatter. But we're not there yet and it is premature to say so.

(*) There's something a little odd about that "cool" feeling, though: as though extra glory reflected on us bystanders because "our people" were in the official news. I've been a little contemptuous of the folks who act as though they became real when they appeared on TV; it is a little disconcerting to find the same impulse so close to home.

Hobbit 1

My better half and I went to see it in 3D. It was the first 3D movie I've seen. I was too young for the first generation of 3D; the only thing from the second generation that showed up in town when I was around was some soft-porn thing; and I've not been so flush with time (or cash) that I get to movies much lately. (I think there was another 3D generation somewhere in there somewhere.) 3D was a nice touch (though I wish I could have worn my glasses!), but not essential.

Verdict: it was fun, and gorgeously filmed.

Jackson had to try to make the interior changes in Bilbo dramatic, which made for somewhat uncharacteristic displays of courage. But he got the riddle sequence just right. The dwarves' comic relief isn't needed when there hasn't been any tension to relieve just yet. On the other hand the integration of parallel material (e.g. who was the Necromancer) to tie in with LOTR works fine. The goblins seem uncharacteristically hapless on their own bridges--which could have been finessed if the audience had been shown earlier just how strong dwarves were. (And the mountain creatures should not have been anthropomorphic!)

Still, a good time was had by all, and I have no problem recommending it.

I look forward to the eventual release of a director's cut, which should be shorter.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas!

Schedules unexpectedly shifted to allow all the family to be together for a while today, with a guest as well. It was good to see people looking to encourage each other.

Most of the "present" money went to charity this year, and a large number of the gifts were descriptions of what would be received later, in work or things not available at this season.

The snow is deep outside (my back attests to that) and the sun bright and the cookies all too tempting.

Merry Christmastide to all!

And if you want to see how a science fiction writer handles the Nativity, check out John C. Wright's post.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

New and reminders

Efficiency is excellent in its place, but though with a short brush I can efficiently scratch any itch on my back, it is more fun when the lady I love does it for me, even if it takes longer and misses a spot or two. We were made to give and receive and not to hold, and to serve each other. How far this service should have gone is an interesting field for speculation, but not very likely to be fruitful; our broken souls are too eager to take advantage of any hint that someone else should be doing for us. It's too easy to conclude we're entitled to the gifts and excused from the giving, and pass from there to trying to demand or compel (fueling a love of power?) the gifts. Someone wrote that everyone knocking on a brothel door was looking for Jesus; perhaps similarly those hungry for power are too.

A week from now, plus or minus a day, traditionally commemorates the "Holy Innocents", when men reacted with evil to good news and hope. Newtown is an obvious reminder of that, but the newspaper tells of many more innocent lives ruined, sometimes more horribly, day after day until the heart is sick of news of "Rachel"s weeping for or abusing their children.

Jesus was born one of us, which means he lived in a body that was always partly growing and partly dying, and which was symbiotic with mere bacteria. He didn't just need Mary's milk to keep him alive, but also a host of the lowest of the low. The author of life came not just to die but to start dying from the get-go, and to depend on the most primitive things in his creation to stay alive: the more we see the more amazing the divine condescension was.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Curing boredom

A literature review on boredom tries to find what, in this ill-studied field, we know about boredom and what to do about it.
They found that attention seemed to be linked to boredom, whether it was or wasn't called out explicitly in the experiments themselves. When people are unable to engage their attention in the task at hand, they start to feel bored. When tasks are too simple to require focused attention, people can't find a suitable point of engagement and not enough effort is expended to maintain the focus on the activity at hand. Trying to process an overwhelming environment with limited attention can also make people bored because their attention is being pulled in different directions.

My first reaction to this is: boredom is God's way of telling you to exercise your creativity. Find something to exercise your mind!

On second thought, when people are stuck with tasks that are boring, there is probably a structural issue and managers should go read Sayers on good work.

On third thought, sentry duty at 3:00 is both important and irreducibly boring--until it suddenly isn't boring.

And then again, some of the boredom they find arises when the task is too complicated, not too easy. So it isn't just a matter of locating enough Epsilons to fill the necessary roles.

And still again: Two kids in the woods; one bored and cranky while the other is a bird lover avidly watching for his favorite birds. "Genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains?"

So maybe there is something important we can Oh look, a squirrel!

Friday, December 21, 2012

Couch potatoes

BBC hosts this evocative picture in a story about Boeing testing WiFi broadcasts in their aircraft. They used potatoes because potatoes had similar dielectric response as people at these frequencies, and the potatoes "never get bored."

When the WiFi is finally working in the jets, the picture in the seats will be quite similar.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Story of a Soul by Thérèse of Lisieux

I've heard of this off and on for a long time, and figured Advent would be a good time to tackle it.

Her style is far more effusive than is fashionable, which may make reading her a little harder than it should be.

I don't care much for invoking Mary or relying on departed saints to keep tabs on us. I remain to be persuaded that being a nun is more holy than being an aunt. I'm dubious of the notion of hoping for suffering. There should be suffering aplenty without hoping for it. True, it is one aspect of our relationship with Christ, but IIRC Jesus asked "Take this cup from me."

But her "Little Way" is first and foremost a way of faith, and I kept being reminded of Luther. We are all little, though our tasks may be large.

From time to time I thought she was overstating her suffering, but that's forgivable.

God calls us in different ways, but this little "doctor of the church" is worth reading. Just don't expect showers of roses.


It isn't everybody who gets to have their name turn into a verb.

I watched part of the confirmation hearings. I remember the "sound bite" questions that never gave him a chance to reply. I remember Kennedy and Metzenbaum making a big stink about some cases he'd decided, and I decided to look a few up myself. One of the complaints was that Bork had accepted a finding about lead in the workplace. It turns out he was procedurally required to accept the findings, something the two lawyers accusing him already knew.

I'd had a passing familiarity with the dishonesty of politicians before, but I was paying attention that day and I acquired a gut sense of just how much they'd be willing to lie about.

From then on my default assumption was that whatever Kennedy or Metzenbaum said should be assumed false unless proven otherwise.

I don't know if Bork would have been a good Supreme Court justice or not. I vaguely recall him saying something that struck me a little off a decade or so ago. But his accusers were liars.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Are we any good at hard choices?

Early speculation about Adam suggested he was schizophrenic (now they say Asperger, though his pattern doesn't match any of the many Aspies I know).

There was a report a few years back suggesting that schizophrenia was rarer some centuries ago, and that possibly the disease had an infectious component.

The suggested vector for the disease is man's best friend, the noble cat. We have some indications that toxoplasma can make changes in the human brain as well as that of mice, so perhaps we have extra reasons to worry. This isn't certain. But wash carefully, OK?

Suppose we knew it to be true that toxo caused schizophrenia, and in some people turned them into mass killers as a result. Would we turn medieval on cats?

Muddy the waters a bit. Suppose toxo was sort-of symbiotic (like gut bacteria that help us digest food) and had mood regulator effects that tended to suppress human violent impulses in most cases, and only drove people kill-crazy in a few. The net effect would be positive--fewer murders--but the dramatic incidents would outweigh the benefits, because the mechanism is so creepy. It wouldn't be like the horrific traffic accidents that we accept as a side-effect of driving; it would be much more horrible. Even the beneficent effects would seem creepy.

And that creepy horror would extend from the mostly-beneficent toxo to the cat.

What do you think people would do? What would you do?

Sunday, December 16, 2012

New (to me) and reminders

We had a guest preacher this weekend: Pastor Matthews from Monrovia. He touched briefly on the massacre Friday. I realized one reason I'd never be a good pastor: I try to make connections from my life to the other's experiences. Part of that is trying to make the other person feel that I understand; but part may be trying to establish my own bona fides--which isn't necessary. Pastor Matthew refrained from that. Liberia has seen much worse than Newtown, but he didn't say a word.

At the Saturday morning men's Bible study, I was looking around the tables and realized that the story about the draft in WWI applied to the chuch. A blind man and a handless man were drafted. They helped draw water at a training camp: the handless man guided the blind man who drew the water. Raised to life but still not healed, each has a gift the others need. We need eyes tuned to see the gifts we get from God through each other, and not their failures.

One of the guys joked that Eph 2:7 said that God likes to show off. I thought about it a minute, and realized that 1 Peter 1:12 was relevant: angels long to look into such things. All who love God want to know Him more and better. He's teaching out of love, not showing off.

The discussion of 8-10 brought up the usual discussions: Forgiven; now what? Surely not just to sit around and be forgiven. Forgiven, and now the parable of the talents applies. We've all been given something more valuable than money: time. What do we invest our time in?

Of making many blog posts there is no end, and much reading wearies the body. And sometimes the spirit, if you're not careful.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


Perhaps I should address what I think about contraception. You should already have determined that I oppose the use of abortion as birth control.

The answer is: that contraception is complicated.

I grew up in an era where there wasn't any question. It was in the air I breathed, so to speak, even in Africa: There's nothing wrong with contraception, especially for poor people. I didn't learn that from my parents (we never actually had the talk and they actually cared about the poor people), but the magazines and newspapers and books were all pretty unanimous. You can figure from that that I didn't hang around with a lot of Catholics or Muslims and that I stayed immersed in US media. For almost all the time Tom and I were the oldest of the kids in our compound, so there were no older teens to learn misinformation from.

The Pill made a big noise, of course, but I wasn't all that interested in the debates. I wasn't married, I was too shy for a girlfriend, and I didn't want kids, and that was that. Which meant, of course, that I didn't think there was anything problematic about contraception.

I eventually met a lady and she married me and said she wanted kids. Um. OK, fine.

Over five children and thirty years later it finally started to sink in how important this was and how valuable children were. A lot of things started to make more sense. Too soon old, too late smart.

Along the way I heard a lot more about the Pill and how it had changed America. Whether the commentator was celebrating or decrying the changes, each agreed with the others that the technology had changed culture. It was easy to see that some of those Sexual Revolution cultural changes had been disasters. But looking back at it now, I'm not quite as convinced as those pundits were that the Pill was the turning point. Several trends converged with the new technology to create a perfect storm.

At any rate, the next step came a few years ago when I decided that our church was failing the youth (and many of the adults) by failing to clearly explain what the faith was about, so I wrote a short book. (They weren't interested.) Part of the book was the history of the church and another was what made the denominations different. I'd read about other denominations before, but this was the first time I was trying to understand them empathetically rather than analytically, so that the kids would see the other sides' positions. (I know, once again too soon old and too late smart.)

The Catholics made a big deal about contraception, and I decided to learn why. There were surprises: In 1930 Anglican bishops decided there were sometimes grounds for using contraception. 60 years later Anglicanism had changed so much that not using contraception was deprecated in all the better circles (bad for the planet you know). Wow.

Another surprise was that the Catholic (and earlier, most denominations') position was more sensible than I thought. I would not have been persuaded had I read about it 30 years before, but I'd learned a few things about sex and children and value since then, and their understanding of sex made more sense.

The key seemed to be openness to life. I agreed that was central.


It did not logically follow that sex always had to be open to the prospect of babies. And in addition, it was not hard to find cases where pregnancy would be very dangerous in one way or another, or there was disease, or where pregnancy could result in crippling problems; some quite close to home.

In consequence I tend to side with those Anglican bishops; at least the first generation of them.

The question that they and I face is how common are those grounds? People are notoriously prone to turning rare excuses into commonplaces, and I’m not immune to the temptation to self-justification. I don't have a clean answer to that, except that I'm pretty sure the extremes are incorrect. With 5 children I suppose we've lived a middle ground on that spectrum.

I'm not sure that was right. Nor am I staying up nights worrying that was wrong. I am worried when I see contraceptive use running to barren extremes around me.

So far I've been considering contraception within marriage.

I gather some unmarried Catholic girls and boys, understanding that premeditation makes a sin worse, would decline to prepare contraception and wind up pregnant. On one hand they are kidding themselves (pretending that flirting with sex isn't premeditation), and on the other they might take advice from Luther and sin boldly and repent thoroughly(*).

I don't want to see contraception pushed as a cure for social ills, and I worry about its moral hazard that encourages non-marital sexual activity. I won't go into why that’s been a disaster.

And the effort to compel people to support contraception against their religion is a serious imposition.

On the other hand, I do not want to see contraception banned either. The technologies (with some abortifacient exceptions) seem to serve legitimate ends.

If by some magic power I could turn back the clock and talk to those Anglican bishops, I don't know how I would advise them.

(*) "Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong (sin boldly), but let your trust in Christ be stronger"

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Contra Libby Anne and abortion

I was sent this link at Patheos explaining how Libby Anne decided to switch her views on abortion. I found this difficult to deal with: sorting through the references is extremely unpleasant, and much is kept obscure.
My journey began one blustery day in October of 2007 when I came upon an article in the New York Times. This article completely shook my perspective. It didn't change my belief that abortion was murder or my desire to save the lives of unborn babies. Instead, it simply completely overhauled my tactical focus and made me realize that the current efforts of the pro-life movement are extremely backwards.
The first thing I learned from that New York Times article shocked me: it turns out that banning abortion does not actually affect the abortion rate.

The source for the article was the Guttmacher Institute, which has been turning out reports on abortion and birth control for years. It therefore proved rather hard to try sort through the pile of papers to track down little details like how they calibrated their surveys and what their systematic errors were. In fact I never found those little details. So I will have to try to do it for them.

The first thing to realize is that when abortion is banned, you can only estimate the rate instead of counting hospital statistics. The latter is subject to typographical errors and similar slippages, but the former has to be estimated from other factors. Those connections to other factors are not known exactly, and the degree to which you don't know these represents a systematic uncertainty. For example, the rate of maternal injuries after a particular type of abortion is apt to vary from place to place, and if the injury is known to be associated with abortion and is concealable, you may not even have accurate statistics on that. Some other practice, such as FGM, may increase or decrease injury rates. So you can estimate that from thus-and-such an injury rate there must have been X many abortions, but that has to be accompanied by an estimate of your uncertainty.

The second thing to realize is that when you want to make such estimates, you should try as hard as possible to calibrate your estimators, preferably with a known rate but in lieu of that, cross-calibrate with as many other estimators as you can. Without that you have no confidence that your calibration is correct. As seen below, it isn't clear how they calibrated their estimates.

This is their report on the incidence of abortion in Nigeria.

Methods: Experienced physicians conducted interviews at a nationally representative sample of 672 health facilities in Nigeria that were considered potential providers of abortions or treatment for abortion complications. The data were used to estimate the number of abortions and to describe the provision of abortion-related services.

This isn’t enlightening. Nor are the references to UN reports, which are typically tables of numbers without sources.

Tracking down references (such as this one used to justify an estimate that half of non-physician abortions result in complications requiring physician assistance) turns up stomach-churning euphemisms like "menstrual regulation by vacuum aspiration." It also turns up "Regional variations in the estimated abortion rate are high" in the Philippines. Likewise in Nigeria, the rate they estimate for abortions varies by about a factor of 4 from the more Western South and the Muslim North.

This variation can be interpreted two ways: the abortion rate depended strongly on the culture, or their methods have a systematic error of up to a factor of 4.

Mexico is a candidate for partial calibration. Guttmacher estimates 533,000 abortions in 1990 and 875,000 in 2006, or about 33 per thousand women. Johnston references the number of abortions in Mexico during this time (again using some of those unreferenced UN sources), and ends with a number of about 13000, or rate of 2.2 per thousand! (even if you double that (I don't know his method either) that’s still quite a factor away from Guttmacher!). Then the laws changed to allow abortions under some circumstances in some areas, and the measured rate was about 40,000/year. This does not measure exactly the same thing, but it does not fill me with confidence in Guttmacher’s numbers, which would predict 70,000 in Mexico City without any magnet traffic from districts with more restrictions.

From the Mexico numbers I cannot get a clean estimate for the systematic error, but there’s a factor of 15 between what was able to be measured and what they estimated. Another group quotes higher numbers than the Johnston's numbers but lower than Guttmacher's. If I assume that Mexico City did not attract anybody from neighboring areas for abortions (which is a whale of an assumption), then Guttmacher's numbers are 75% too high. (If it did attract from outside, their numbers are even farther wrong.)

In consequence, the chart on the Economist's site referencing Guttmacher's numbers is misleading at best.

In the USA, the abortion rate shows several interesting features. The Guttmacher estimates are always higher than CDC measurements by at least 20%, so in countries where abortion is legal we can estimate their systematic uncertainty at 20%. The other relevant feature is that over 7 years from 1973 to 1980, the number of abortions went up linearly starting at 615,000 until it more than doubled at 1,298,000. The population grew too, but not at that rate, so we are looking at a change in demand for abortions: it grew when the procedure became legal.

Making abortion legal changed the culture as well as the law.

The executive summary is that their claim that abortion laws do not affect abortion rates is not supported by their results. I am not claiming that they are getting their numbers out of thin air, but I am claiming that they have not represented their results in ways that would pass muster in hard science.

Therefore I am confident that the claim accepted by the author of the original post

I was shocked to find that the countries with the lowest abortion rates are the ones where abortion is most legal and available, and the countries with the highest abortion rates are generally the ones where the practice is illegal. It's true.
is not proven, and almost certainly not true.

Suppose the Guttmacher numbers for Nigeria were only 75% wrong, and not a factor of 4. Then their very numbers contradict their claim: two different cultures have wildly different abortion rates in the same country with the same laws. In the US changing the law created demand.

Then the author takes up birth control vs abortion, using another Guttmacher study looking at Europe, presumably on the theory that this means they don't have to correct for different cultures. One major problem with this is that the culture is exactly the critical point at issue. A minor problem is that the East and Western cultures have some serious points of difference. And since the same countries that restrict birth control also ban abortion, and thus the Guttmacher estimates for abortion rate cannot be relied on (as described above), they cannot reliably compare countries with easy abortion and those that ban it to study the effects of birth control availability. The only appropriate way to do this is to study it using the uncertainty estimates that they leave out.

The author riffs on this finding thusly:

The cause of abortions is unwanted pregnancies. If you get rid of unwanted pregnancies the number of people who seek abortions will drop like a rock. Simply banning abortion leaves women stuck with unwanted pregnancies. Banning abortion doesn't make those pregnancies wanted. Many women in a situation like that will be willing to do anything to end that pregnancy,

It is hard to know where to begin with this. To start with, "wanted" isn't a simple binary state. The "many women" is a variable fraction which will change depending on the culture those women are embedded in. Unwanted pregnancies come from sex (in this country mostly unmarried), and the rate of unmarried sex likely to result in unwanted pregnancies will depend on things like the cultural attitude towards birth control. The rate of unmarried sex is "elastic" in the economic sense. (I'm not addressing married birth control here.)

The author also claims that "I realized that the only world in which opposing birth control made any sense was one in which the goal was to control women’s sex lives. After all, birth control allows women to have sex without having to face the "consequences" of sex."

That isn't correct either. Whether you believe their doctrine or not, Catholics (and not that long ago almost all other Christian groups) consider sex without openness to life to be disordered, and that breaking the connection between sex and babies is to reject God's gift. This was true for both men and women, so the author's invidious limitation of restrictions to women is also false. Do not bother trying to cite that 98% statistic: it is a misrepresentation of a misinterpretation, playing "telephone" with a dubious study.

Given that an important part of sex is mental, it shouldn't surprise anyone that sex with birth control is going to be different than sex without. If nothing else, there is a sense of adventure associated with the latter. Setting aside the claims for spiritual differences, there are real psychological differences.

The first generation of the Pill used very high hormone doses, and IIRC it did in fact prevent implantation and did act as an abortifacient. Current generations use smaller doses, and it is plausible that their abortifacient component is smaller. UIDs, on the other hand, seem to be so toxic that sperm, ova, and any resulting embryos don’t survive—it is abortifacient.

The section on how many spontaneous abortions there are, and how hypocritical pro-life groups are when they don’t worry about that, is also pointless. You can entirely eliminate spontaneous abortions by sterilizing women, and the logic of the section suggests that pro-lifers should conclude that is a good thing. No.

The author says there are so many spontaneous abortions that consistent pro-lifers should hold fundraisers for research to "save the zygotes." This is a straw man, of course: First because anybody who knows any biology at all knows it is impractical, and second because there is a world of difference between dying from a defect and murder. Purpose matters. Many people go to hospice to die, but we don't want nurses putting cyanide in their IVs.

She notes a study that makes a prediction about abortion rates:

According to Dr. Jeffery Peipert, the study's lead author, abortion rates can be expected to decline significantly—perhaps up to 75 percent—when contraceptives are made available to women free of charge. Declaring himself "very surprised" at the results, Peipert requested expedient publication of the study, noting its relevance to the upcoming election.

I flat out don't believe that contraceptives are so expensive that 75% of the abortions would go away if contraceptives were free. The key phrase here is "relevance to the upcoming election." This smells of buried assumptions (such as effectiveness in the lab vs how people actually use things).

Mea maxima culpa. As pointed out by bs king below, the study dealt with implants, and not the usual pills or condoms. I was fed up with the Guttmacher misdirection and annoyed by the red flag of political utility, but that is no excuse for not examining the study. Implants are more idiot-proof, and if they were pushed more strongly and paid for by others more young women would doubtless use them, and fewer would get pregnant. That could well reduce the abortion rate, and it is quite reasonable for Libby Anne to cite this as a desirable possibility.

In a different post the author claims that studies have proven that abstinence-only sex education fails.

Who shall I believe, the study compilers or my lying eyes? I'm old enough to have seen the changes for myself. The "sexual revolution" meant that many more people began having sex outside marriage, and the VD rates prove it. The culture used to deprecate extra-marital sex. People did it anyway; it caused problems. Now the culture encourages it. Many more people indulge, and the problems are vast.

So what do parents try to do to change the culture? The first step is to teach their own children at home, of course, but the second is to try to make sure the schools don't condone extra-marital sex. This is what the abstinence-only classes are trying to do. Since school boards are supposed to be under local control, you'd think this was possible, but apparently it isn't supposed to be allowed.

Some jibber that "You can’t turn the clock back." If the culture has taken the wrong turn (and wrt sexual attitudes that seems glaringly obvious(*)), you have to try to change direction. Parents, faced with a popular culture largely out of their control, try to change what they can. If they succeed with the first steps, perhaps we can have changes in the entertainments, and then changes in behavior. We do not expect perfection, but improvement. We know it can be better.

Do you doubt that cultural changes matter? Look at Guttmacher's own notes on Nigeria. The Northern culture has a much smaller abortion rate than the Southern. The abortion rate in the US rose with time, as it became culturally acceptable. The VD rate skyrocketed when people starting believing they were entitled to have sex. Culture matters.

(*) The fraction of children without fathers is skyrocketing, the fraction of couples who can commit long enough to raise children is low, the fraction of ever-adolescent men is catching attention, a sexual economy that exploits women (give it away when you're young, and when you're older the men want the young ladies instead), the barrenness, the perpetual pressing of boundaries because the ordinary does not satisfy: all point to something deeply unhinged. Little seems to encourage prudence or self-control or courage.

Ethnic division

AVI has a post with a question on "racial consciousness" in the US, and what changes are in view. He thinks there's a rise in "white consciousness" and worries that it will be bad for the country. I incline to agree, but think it needs to be subdivided a bit further than race. Red white≢ blue white; hispanic subcultures are not the same, and so on.

We have a problem: what is an American? The legal definition involves people living within certain borders or descendents of same or those who successfully apply to be citizens. But that definition by itself is a fairly frail reed when you want to provide the sense of "we're all in this together" that you need to keep a nation together. If you don't have that sense, you don't have a willingness to defend each other or sacrifice (in taxes) to pull each other up after disasters. (We also need to understand what we mean by a good citizen--Grim has been discussing that.)

Quite a few people (at least 2%) are sufficiently uninterested in the "all in this together" that they molest other citizens. We say "they're just bad people" and lock them up, but the attitude, though not usually criminal, is widespread.

So how do you get unity?

You can appeal to tribal loyalties; we're all basically white, or Protestant, or something. Except that we aren't, of course, so appeal to tribal loyalty splits rather than unites. That doesn't stop people who see temporary political advantage, and we've already got problems with ethnic tribalism.

You can appeal to ideology: we're the people that believe in liberty and democracy and that this country has the best exposition of liberty. Except that we don't teach that very much anymore, and without breaking a sweat I can find people who don't believe the country is good and others who don't value constructive liberty (though they're fine with liberty of entertainment).

You can point out enemies abroad and say we have to unite to oppose them. Except that never works for long; eventually somebody always sees political advantage in allying with the enemy.

So we stick with the legal definition and cross our fingers that nobody presses the matter too hard.

We're being pressed hard. It has been worse (1861), so there's no guarantee of failure, but it looks bleak.

To try to avoid further splintering we have a kind of compact that we won't talk about certain topics which highlight differences between ethnic groups. We seem to fear that the harsh light of knowledge will not bring peace but a sword, so we don't want to know certain things, and if we're compelled to see them, we construct a narrative that makes it less harsh.

What is likely to happen if we do notice that ethnic crime isn't driven by "poverty" or "an oppressive system" but their own subculture?

I suppose the first question is what can we do about it if we find that it is true? Cultures don't change in a flash, and having a government in the censorship business is not safe. We can stiffen rules of behavior, require schools to teach rules of civics and manners, quit worrying about disproportionate imact, demand a single language, and so on.

That isn't going to make the subculture feel any more a part of the rest of the country. It will almost certainly make it worse in the short term, and we already have plenty of demagogues hard at work to take it from there. It will put the rest of the country into an asymmetrical relation to that subculture, which isn't so good for "we're all in this together." A lot of people from other subcultures will take that as an opportunity to consider themselves personally superior, and we know how that plays out.

Is that going to be worse than what we have now? If we keep pretending and kicking the can down the road will the problematic subcultures and their demagogues fade away? I don't believe the trends point to a "fading away," but apparently a lot of people do, or want to.

I'm certain, though, that nuance and careful analysis will go out the window either way: if we keep pretending then there is no analysis and if we stop pretending the shouting will drown out the thinking.

Friday, December 07, 2012

"Multiple media used tied to depression"?

Quick quiz: if the study had found no correlation, would anybody have heard of their study?

I can't read their article (the UW doesn't have an online subscription), and so I can't say anything concrete about their methodology. There were 319 participants and when interviewed Becker spoke of a "clear association."

Participants were asked how many hours per week they used two or more of the primary forms of media, which include television, music, cell phones, text messaging, computer and video games, web surfing and others. For the mental health survey, the researchers used well-established measures, although the results do not reflect a clinical diagnosis.

The headline suggests otherwise. Clarification: I mean the "not reflect a clinical diagnosis I wonder if the same person wrote the story and the headline.

"We don’t know whether the media multitasking is causing symptoms of depression and social anxiety, or if it’s that people who are depressed and anxious are turning to media multitasking as a form of distraction from their problems," said Becker.

I vote for option 2. I know that when I'm stressed I often do a lot of "context switching," doing a little of this and jumping to do a little of that.

Putting the cat(fish) among the pigeons

In southern France catfish (which can grow to 4-5 feet long) lunge out of the water to catch pigeons by the river Tarn. I watched the video: it looked as though they didn't always get a firm grip on the bird; but not for want of trying. Since catfish can live out of the water a little while, this isn't quite as difficult as it would be for other fish.

Startling, and somewhat disquieting. "The Coming of the Terror" by Arthur Machen, anyone?

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Courtesy, Part 1

I don't know if I can parse out meaningful distinctions between etiquette, courtesy, and manners, so I’ll have to lump them. However, I don't want to bother with meaningless rules like those for how to set the table.

To be clear: the table setting in the West is arbitrary and meaningless. I understand that in Japan certain placements of the chopsticks are associated with funerals and funerals only, and that it is therefore bad luck to use them that way at any other times. Setting the sticks properly is a kind of courtesy in which you avoid inadvertent injury to your companions. It therefore isn't as arbitrary as which side of the plate your desert fork sits by, which has to do with a formal dining scheme that almost nobody knows much less uses. Quick quiz: are you supposed to change the fork-holding hand when cutting food? Answer: I don't remember either, and I couldn't care less.

The implementations of courtesy vary: shake hands or bow? Some of this probably comes from what the culture value. Respect? Bow. Acceptance as equals? Shake.

There seem to be courtesies of respect, of benevolence, and of separation. These are due to peers, superiors subordinates, strangers, and the commons.

Maybe I should clarify. We don't have a lot of official social ranks here (children and parents form a universal exception), but unofficially there are plenty. Our ideal is that we are peers outside the context of our organizational or economic roles. But think about how you and your boss act when you come in for a performance review. You stand, he directs you to sit down and make yourself comfortable. You do, but don't slouch as you might at your own desk. Little courtesies.

We have customs of courtesy to the commons as well: you probably remember "Don't leave a mess for somebody else." You don’t know that "someone else," they're simply other people who share the same common good. It is an application of the silver rule that proscribes doing to others what you don’t want done to you. You don't want people slowing your bus trip by walking in front of the bus when they get off, so you don't do it yourself. I'm not sure every culture has a courtesy of the commons. I know plenty of people who don’t, though some are fairly courteous to people they meet.

I gather that in crowded New York this is a kind of courtesy of separation, where rather than demand that everyone entering your personal space spend the energy to acknowledge you, you pretend they are not there. (Or maybe I'm wrong and they're just very rude.) I never was any good at pretending the Talibe weren’t there, so I wound up essentially saying "no" to them—which is terribly rude.

Rudeness, or the perception of rudeness, seems inevitable when different customs of courtesy intersect.

But. . .

It isn't obvious that the courtesies of different cultures always have parallels with each other. I don't know of anything in Arab culture that resembles the Western chivalry to women. The American courtesies of welcome are very important, but those of hospitality hardly compare with the Arab's.

Of course sometimes courtesies are relevant only within the tribe, and often must not be extended to enemy tribes; something you can see in history books and pre-election family gatherings.

You might expect that in a "diverse" society people would learn each other's courtesies, but it seems instead that we lose them, or perhaps only display them within our tribes.

If they matter, and I believe they do, then what?

Courtesies must be taught--the fact that there are no universal procedures proves that. To get along we need to train all our children in our own courtesies, and in the confidence of them (ignore Connelly and Heesacker, though that is kinder than they deserve) and learn what those of our other cultures are. What are the specifically North Mexican courtesies (and are the peasant ones different from the upper class?), or Inner City Black? Anybody know? That Mexican link says courtesy is important but doesn’t say how it works.

When I was riding the bus to work last year, a rowdy bunch of high-school kids boarded. The girls were making rude gestures over the heads of the unsuspecting passengers before them, and one of the boys was emboldened to start to almost dump his soda on them. I turned and told the girls to settle down and be polite. They snarled that they had the right to do what they pleased, which I of course denied. Nobody else made a move or a sound to support me or chastise the girls. I'm not sure why nobody else spoke up; perhaps because they couldn't be bothered, or they figured I'd already done it, or they thought I was out of line, or because they were afraid to because the kids were black.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Benevolent Sexism

This article is all over the net. "Why is Benevolent Sexism Appealing?" by Connelly and Heesacker. Since all that people cite is the abstract, I thought I should delve a little deeper since I have access to the paper.

"Despite benevolent sexism's negative consequences for women and its perpetuation of gender inequality, women and men alike might be motivated to possess benevolently sexist beliefs because they are associated with increased life satisfaction through diffuse system justification."

Let me see if I can unpack that. I'm a layman in this field (this is from Psychology of Women Quarterly), but if I assume some distant relationship to English I can guess at the jargon.

  • "diffuse system justification" ≈ something is indirectly suggesting that the world is running more or less OK ("In general you find society to be fair")
  • "increased life satisfaction" ≈ people feel good about themselves and their lives
    In terms of validity, the authors found that the Satisfaction with Life scale was positively correlated with happiness and positive affect and inversely correlated with negative affect. In addition, Lucas, Diener, and Suh (1996) found that the scale was positively related to other measures of well-being, including self-esteem and optimism, among students.
  • "benevolent sexism" you have to read the article, and a few others apparently, to figure out. It is held up in opposition to "hostile sexism" ("Women seek to gain power by getting control over men" was the given example) Their definitions come from Glick and Fiske, whose abstract has to be seen to be believed.
    Abstract: The authors present a theory of sexism formulated as ambivalence toward women and validate a corresponding measure, the Ambivalent Sexism Inventory (ASI). The ASI taps 2 positively correlated components of sexism that nevertheless represent opposite evaluative orientations toward women: sexist antipathy or Hostile Sexism (HS) and a subjectively positive (for sexist men) orientation toward women, Benevolent Sexism (BS). HS and BS are hypothesized to encompass 3 sources of male ambivalence: Paternalism, Gender Differentiation, and Heterosexuality. Six ASI studies on 2,250 respondents established convergent, discriminant, and predictive validity Overall ASI scores predict ambivalent attitudes toward women, the HS scale correlates with negative attitudes toward and stereotypes about women, and the BS scale (for nonstudent men only) correlates with positive attitudes toward and stereotypes about women. A copy of the ASI is provided, with scoring instructions, as a tool for further explorations of sexist ambivalence.

    Perhaps I'm missing something, but it looks as though the Glick and Fiske dislike "Paternalism", differences between sexes, and reproduction. Paging Darwin on line 2.

  • "gender inequality" ≈ the sexes are not equal, or the sexes are not identical in all roles. Both concepts appear and blur together.
  • "negative consequences" refers to alleged ill effects "such as heightened feelings of incompetence and self-doubt", which would certainly be an ill effect if the finding was justified. I cannot access the full report, but I'm skeptical, since it contradicts my own observations. But read their abstract yourself:
    Four experiments found benevolent sexism to be worse than hostile sexism for women's cognitive performance. ... Experiment 4 showed that impaired performance due to benevolent sexism was fully mediated by the mental intrusions women experienced about their sense of competence. Additionally, Experiment 4 showed that gender identification protected against hostile but not benevolent sexism. Despite the apparently positive and inoffensive tone of benevolent sexism, our research emphasizes its insidious dangers.
    I added the highlighting. They seem to be concluding that holding the door for a woman is worse for her job performance than accusing her of being manipulative.

The first five sentences of the famous paper are:

In 2010, Blayne Bennett, president of the Network of Enlightened Women (NeW) at Arizona State University (ASU), appeared on the local morning news show, Good Morning! Arizona. Bennett promoted her chapter's Second Annual Gentleman's Showcase, an event honoring the 10 most chivalrous men at ASU. A "gentlemanly act" ranged from opening a door for a woman to lending a "damsel in distress" money for printing. "I get to read the nominations people submit, and I get a huge grin on my face the whole time," Bennett told the program's host (Beardsley, 2010).

When asked what might be contributing to a lack of chivalry on campus, Bennett responded, "The radical feminist movement has really kind of put us in a Catch-22. . . . Men are told that if they're chivalrous, it could be demeaning to women. . . and women are told we need to be really independent and self-sufficient. . . . But when we asked the campus, we got a different answer. Women want to be treated like ladies."

Connelly and Heesacker's view of the world is much grimmer than Bennett's: "Given that women live in a hostilely sexist environment, benevolent sexism's flattery might be particularly effective in coaxing women to accept the status quo." and "By highlighting how a warm female nurturer complements a strong male provider, benevolent sexism implies that society is fair and functions as it should in part because of balanced and seemingly well-designed gender roles."

However, this reasoning does not imply that benevolent sexism is beneficial overall or should remain unchallenged. Fischer and Good (2004, p. 439) argue that the anger and distress caused by awakening feminist consciousness are inherent in "the longer term, growthful process of developing a healthy resistance to injustice." Although questioning sexist attitudes and behaviors may detract from some aspects of subjective satisfaction, only by challenging such prejudices can we hope to create an egalitarian society free of intolerance and its many harmful consequences.

Happiness must be secondary to living a good life, in other words. Oddly enough, I agree with that sentiment, but I object to their implicit definitions of a good life, which has no reference whatever to virtue.

Let me grab a famous razor and guess that kindnesses that make everybody happier are probably good things. Since I'm skeptical of the alleged ill effects, and I noticed that happier men and women seem to reproduce, no matter whether you study the matter from the point of Christian chivalry or "survival of the fittest", this pair wrote rubbish, to describe it kindly.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Brothers raising each others' children

I'm trying to remember where I read about this. There was a Nigerian folk story, and I recall reading about it somewhere else.

The idea is that after a few years the child is sent to be raised by his uncle and aunt(s), and the uncle reciprocates.

It isn't quite the same thing as sending the kids to be raised by the rich uncle--that's not so uncommon; I know at least one such.

I understand that the noble Brits of the Middle Ages used to send their kids to be sort-of servants to the higher and mightier so they'd learn manners and how to be good companions/side-kicks. That's not quite the same thing either.

Does anybody remember anything like this?

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Even in distant lands, some things don't change

From the Heritage in Monrovia, via AllAfrica I learn that student protests are alive and well as University of Liberia students stormed the General Auditing Commission's offices to demand the reinstatement of 40 employees dismissed in a "peculiar and dehumanizing" manner who were "breadwinners for many people."
"What Mr. Kilby has done to poor people who are mothers and fathers is bad because many of those dismissed suffered to acquire the kind of education they have only to be declared redundant in such malicious manner," Mr. Williams among other things stated in a rather dejected tone.

It can be recalled that when he took over the GAC as its new head, AG Kilby vowed to restructure the Commission, a pronouncement his critics termed as 'witch-hunt'. The GAC administration has said the prevailing economic situation and its accompanied budgetary constraints prompted it to initiate what GAC called a cause saving and restructuring review of the operations of the Commission. This process, the administration averred, has resulted into both staff and logistics reduction across the board.

To hear the other side:

AG Kilby admitted that he has hired four new directors from the United Stated States of America and promoted four persons internally within the GAC.

Among other things, he added: "These are people who we feel will accelerate the process of trying to clean up the back-loge we have because they have 20 plus years experience who can get on governmental accounting and get us going forward."

Four new directors? Directors? Does he mean "auditors?" American auditors would be terribly expensive, but also far less likely to have family or crony ties. He probably means Liberians who were living in the US. I'm not sure the words he uses mean what he thinks they mean.

n his formal communication dated November 14, 2012 and addressed to the Acting Chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Accounts, Audit and Expenditure, Senator Isaac Nyenabo, a copy of which is in possession of this paper, AG Kilby begged for the committee to give him more time to enable him package 'meretriciously' documents requested by the Committee, an excuse the committee accepted for fairness in the hearings.

The students were yelling "Ah...o say! Kilby must go back to where he came from. Kilby die today we will bury him today." What was the grievance that earned such a threat?

In a followup story we learn that

Mr. Kanneh wants President Sirleaf to immediately dismiss Mr. Kilby for undermining her government's promise of creating 20,000 jobs annually for young people in the country.

According to Konneh, SUP, in collaboration with the Liberian student community would ensure that Mr. Kilby is dismissed for proving the president's vision on the contrary.

"We are calling on all youth groups in the country to join us in this fight to denounce this wicked act of Mr. Kilby. If you refuse to join us the next group could be your husband, wife, brother, sister and uncle," Mr. Konneh noted.

Sinecures for new graduates are scarce. (Most graduates are in business administration not entrepreneurs! and law.)

An editorial claims that "out of a budget of a little over US\$6million, US\$5.3million is being expended annually on salaries, lest to mention the over 25 janitors at the GAC some of which receive US\$1600.00 on a monthly basis while auditors are paid US\$400 to US\$700." and that the audit reports from his predecessor were mostly denounced by the EU funding agencies that wanted to see where their money was going.

I'm sure you can think of several events in the USA in the past few weeks that have the same focus.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Is there any "there" in the EU?

I've wondered off and on whether there was any developing sense of EU/pan-European identity, something that would help the nations hold together in mutual sacrifice in a crisis. Since I only met scientists and engineers, and since the elites run the European newspapers just as ours do here, I really have no clear picture of what the common man thinks.

From The Global Journal you find an interview with Professor Jürgen Habermas in which Fukuyama asks him about this directly.

But isn’t the weakness of current European identity due to the fact that it has been described in such largely negative terms, i.e., to be a European means to be against war, against national selfishness, etc., instead of in positive terms, e.g., "I am proud to be member of a European civilization that represents X or Y" as positive values? And if so, how do we define those values and what kind of education project is necessary to give them meaning?

Jan Werner Müller, a younger professor of political science at Princeton university, recently rebutted the frequently heard accusation of the "failure of European intellectuals" with an argument that I find convincing. The expectation that the intellectuals should construct a "grand European narrative," a European "identity," with the aid of a new founding myth remains captive to a "nineteenth-century logic," he argued. After all, the now well-studied history of the "invention" of national consciousness by historiography, the press, and school curricula during the nineteenth century, in view of its horrible consequences, does not provide an inviting example. We in Europe are still coming to terms with forms of ethnonational aggression – as is shown, even within the EU, by the example of Hungary. This is why I think it is sufficient to cite a couple of concrete demographic and economic statistics to remind ourselves of the diminishing weight of Europe in the world and to ask ourselves whether we must not pull ourselves together if we want to remain in a position to defend our cultural and social forms of life against the leveling force of the global economy – and, most importantly, to maintain a certain amount of influence on the international political agenda in accordance with our universalistic conceptions.

That's scary. Habermas seems to miss the point. Whether "European intellectuals" ought to be the source of the "grand narrative" isn't quite the issue: I'm not sure that class has done a bang-up job of designing "narratives" in general and some of the narratives of the last century were pretty vile. But the point isn't that "nineteenth-century logic" is passe or that Mussolini's mythic vision of Italy was evil. The point is that there needs to be some positive center for identity or there's no cohesion, and that the positive vision needs to be taught somehow, either implicitly through the culture or explicitly through schooling. It is not sufficient to "cite a couple of ... statistics to remind ourselves." The children must learn what is positive about their land before they understand statistics and start to worry about needing a passport for hitchhiking across the continent.

The tribe and nation are extensions (a little attenuated) of the family. Unless there's some species of love involved, the construct is fragile.

At some level the EU and the US are rivals (explicitly on their part), but we're part of the same culture and same economy and I'm not looking forward to the disintegration of the EU.

Thursday, November 22, 2012


This evening I read my mail, checked two sites, and looked at Facebook for the first time in a week on my better half's suggestion.

The web isn't a great place to count blessings, as my previous post probably proves. I need a little quiet time for that.

This wasn't a quiet day, which is one of the blessings. 3 of the kids, an old friend, and 5 visitors (Chinese students at UW who wanted to see what an American Thanksgiving dinner was like) plus the better half and I around the table--make that two tables. We had to empty the living room to set up. We have a small house as houses go in this county, but it is bigger than those I grew up in.

I have to fast for the blood work tomorrow, but I'm still so full of lunch that it would be hard to eat.

The email revealed no catastrophes at work, the weather was beautiful and warm (63!), traffic was smooth when I picked up the students.

And this morning I was meditating on the difference between Jesus' "Whoever is not with me is against me" and His message to the disciples "Whoever is not against you is for you." The first is a warning of judgment, but the second is an encouragement and reminder that the power of God works in many ways, and the one who welcomes a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet's reward.

I think it is time for a little quiet and thanks. God bless you all.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

When the crunch hits, what then?

You don't need any gift of prophecy to see that there's going to be a very serious economic crunch, and soon. If it is more than a year out I'll be very surprised.

The crunch was coming no matter who was elected--if we wanted to avoid it we should have picked different representatives years ago. I judge that the policies and priorities of the Democrats have made things worse than they should have been, and that too much power was handed to the unelected. Still, some things came from the society as a whole and not the political elite: sky-high divorce rates, plummeting birth rates, borrowing for pleasures and not for production, an eroding sense of integrity (numbers would be hard to come by, but I suspect that the upper echelons of the business world have ethics as bad as in the Gilded Age), lassitude, an irritable sense of entitlement, and so on.

We're very tribal, explicitly parsing ourselves out by ethnic groups (except whites, who aren't supposed to play that game). But because of that divorce rate and family fragmentation, most of those tribes aren't very resilient against calamity: cousins who aren't quite related anymore are not so likely to take you in and share resources when you can't pay rent.

That leaves the churches and Uncle Sam to help out, and Uncle Sam's record of tolerating alternative loyalties hasn't been very good recently. So who gets the big slices of the diminishing pie? California has one answer (the Praetorian Guard), but their big test hasn't come yet. Will benefits to the "hispanics" (which flavor?) or "asian" (which flavor?) or teacher's union be paid first?

Look at India for how affirmative action quotas become entrenched and cheated and battled over--and then look at how immigration offices here are told to automatically waive fees for "hardship" on appeal by particular favored groups. It is no secret that having the wrong ethnic mix can be proof of discrimination, and the circle of associations affected by that presumption seems to be growing larger--it isn't just universities and businesses trying to sell to the Feds. Do you cut back on the number of asian students in order to increase the number of black students? So far, yes, but what happens when the asian-ancestry groups start wielding clout?

I suspect the tribal divisions will dominate the pie-division. I could be wrong on that: sometimes people will band together, especially if there's a common enemy.

Either way--tribal divisions or a common enemy--the state is already on the path to control of the economy, which always means favors for the connected and interminable rules and taxes for everyone else. It needn't mean war, or even civil war (who would be fighting for which territory?), but it would mean loss of liberties.

Who would support such a thing? Besides -redacted to avoid dispute, but he sponsored CFPB-.

You might be surprised, but you might not. The link is to a 1941 article "Who goes Nazi?" about the kind of people who gravitate to that kind of thing. The article (go read it!) shows its age. There are new types that appear today. Think of the OWS types: some of them would be down with a neo-N government if it used their language, and others might fight it. (I suspect that the anarchist type would support it at first.)

One of the article's assertions is that when the barbarians seem to be ascendant, character matters. It matters in the crunch time. I don't remember seeing much about good character in the kid's school books, nor in the large swaths of the pop culture that I can't avoid.

But focus on character turns up here and there in the culture. "With great power comes great responsibility." And the churches are still preaching. And by definition I don't hear much from the ordinary people who don't get the microphone. I wonder what the crunch will show.

Whatever happens, ten years from now we'll be saying "We obviously should have done X."

In a science fiction short story I read years ago, a man asked the rhetorical question: why would people fight and die to support one group of parasitical kings instead of another. The why is complicated, but look at the vampires that rule Detroit and marvel at the support they continue to have from the subjects they flatter. Tribalism.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Who picked the vanity plate?

A stubby little grey car of very recent vintage aggressively weaved through traffic this morning, hitting well over 75mph as he shot past me on the right. (Don't ask how I got that estimate, OK?)

The plate said Eeyore 1. Conflicting messages... was he trying to compensate?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Correlation is not causation, but

it would be sweet if the causation suggested by this correlation were true.

Chocolate consumption and Nobel Prizes probably share some boring kind of common factor like a country having enough surplus capacity to allow for appreciation of fine food and for supporting the kind of "impractical" research that leads to the breakthroughs celebrated in Nobel Prizes and undreamed of new industries.

However, I will suggest to the PIs that it might be worth the experiment to see if more chocolate leads to more science discoveries.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Seafaring "cavemen"?

If they've dated tools correctly (a big if) that they found on Crete, then somebody was making tools there 170,000 years ago. That's pushing the boundaries of modern humans; the ones most active about then seem to have been the Neanderthals. There's no land bridge to Crete as far as I can see; and the big refilling was about 5,000,000 years ago. So whoever got to Crete went by water.

I don't trust dates on stone tools very far, but it is wild to imagine a group of Neanderthals on a raft or canoe. Maybe the Neanderthals were the smart ones after all.

I gather the latest claim is that humans and Neanderthal didn't interbreed. If the reporter didn't screw the story up again it sounds like the researchers contemplated a kind of blurring between groups, with North African sharing more genes with Neanderthals via a common ancestor than South African. And then then North Africans were the ones that left for greener pastures. Which suggests far less mixing in Africa than I'd expect: wouldn't a group that wasn't averse to migrating migrate in different directions?

Coals to Newcastle?

This short news story from Minneapolis is odd. McHarding Degan Galimah is charged with smuggling arms into Liberia. (Odd name too: Scots-Liberian?)

The warring factions in Liberia quit fighting but never did turn in their AK47s and grenade launchers, which presumably are still hidden in odd corners in the county. Is this a new faction or subfaction needing machine guns? Or are these civilian small arms for the otherwise relatively defenseless (and violent crime is quite common) "middle class"? The picture associated with one story suggests the latter. Big difference.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


Have you been hearing some of the vote fraud whispers?

I won't link to them. You can find them easily enough. Districts with nearly 20,000 Obama votes and not one Romney vote. Think about that a moment: not even one ballot error? To be so error-free requires a little assistance, though in an all-black inner city area Romney supporters are pretty rare. There were counties in Colorado with more voters than residents. Something wrong with the census, maybe? It probably wasn't military ballots from overseas; they'd be legal residents, and in any event they're often effectively disenfranchised because many states haven't fulfilled their obligations.

Just because you failed to win a state you expected to doesn't imply fraud anywhere.

Was there fraud? You bet. They voted in Chicago too. Did fraud change the outcome of the presidential race? Probably not. I'd guess most of the effort went into local races.

Are we going to hear about any convictions for fraud?


  • In an area with almost no fraud, you won't hear about what isn't there.
  • In areas with a lot of fraud, you also won't hear about it, partly because of shielding by the powers that be and partly because it is part of the water people swim in.
  • Only in areas with previously little fraud would you be at all likely to hear about it, and even there I doubt there'd be enough evidence to convict anybody, especially if they're careful to do their work without witnesses. Somebody will blab (3 can keep a secret if 2 are dead) but that won't be good enough to convict anybody with any connections.

Clowns or sleight of hand?

Donald Sensing seems to know whereof he writes about court martial (not) of Petraeus and Allen. Some of the news reports are frankly unbelievable. 30,000 email messages? No way. The reporter got the number wrong, or the content wrong, or both; and the lie goes round the world while the truth is lacing on boots.

An FBI agent becomes so besotted with Kelley that he sends her shirtless photos of himself and tries to work up the investigation into a big deal. A pair of broke "socialites" hobnob with generals, who offer help in a custody battle.

A biographer seems to be spilling info about secret CIA jails in Benghazi. And somehow she lost her drivers license too?

Who is writing this stuff?

That soldiers, and especially officers, attract women is not exactly startling news. Nor that they reciprocate the interest. I seem to recall an old story about a fellow named Samson who couldn't keep secrets from his lady either.

This story(ies) doesn't seem like a deliberate distraction; not with the Benghazi leak to tie it back in. So I conclude that it is mostly real, albeit seriously garbled in the usual "first reporting" style. Perhaps Petraeus was doing a "Publish and be damned!" and letting everything explode.

He was running the CIA. Neither confirm nor deny.

Monday, November 12, 2012

There's probably no good solution

This is West Washington Avenue looking out the window.

Traffic headed from upper right to lower left T's off at the capitol, and the city planners would rather have it go around an outer loop instead of the somewhat congested inner loop.

The dashed lines outline a dedicated bicycle lane.

Therefore two auto lanes and one bicycle lane turn into 4: 2 auto lanes turning right, 1 auto lane going straight at the capitol loop, and 1 bicycle lane going straight.

The bicycles in the right-most lane have to cross two lanes of automobile (and truck) traffic in half a block. The layout seems nicely designed to crush bikes.

Cyclists are not supposed to ride on the sidewalk, but sane ones do.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Update on excommunication

A German reader kindly sent me some links describing updates on the revolt against paying church taxes in Germany. OK, a few people doesn't constitute a revolt. Yet.

One is an opinion blog post which describes the Catholic church in Germany as non-transparent and sometimes competing with private companies. I'm not convinced he has all his facts straight (I'm tolerably sure most of the USCCB opposes abortion, and perusing a couple other posts on his site suggests the presence of an agenda) but it is another precinct heard from and interesting.

The other is a a 2006 ruling on canon law which seems to this (non-canon-lawyer: I'm not even Catholic) reader to mean that a request to leave the church must be made to the "competent authority of the Catholic Church"; which sort of leaves the German state out of the loop.

Zapp seems to have won his case, which has been going on for 5 years, btw.

I'm not German and have no say in this, but a little friendly advice from across the pond: don't be afraid to try the American scheme in which churches fund themselves with no help from the state. Phase it in. If the Apostle Paul could ask that Christians distinguish themselves in giving, surely mere bishops and preachers can do it now and then too. Not all the time though, please.

Monday, November 05, 2012

Review before elections

AVI's laconic but timely post had me looking up an old post or two of my own. Pre-election I was trying to guess what kind of presidency his would be.
I judge Obama unsuitable for the office, on grounds of character, experience, and philosophy; but I don't believe him to be the devil incarnate. There ought to be some good arising from his presidency, and it would be a useful exercise to try to figure out what it might be.

Most of my subsequent musings were predicated on the assumption that he would be active instead of passive, and are consequently worthless. I also wasn't expecting such a thorough sweep of House and Senate, with results that make drunken sailors look stingy. All in all, he was worse than I expected.

The worst president we've had in these states was Jefferson Davis: nobody else is even close. My grasp of the doings of earlier presidents has a few gaps, but I think there's no question that Obama was the worst of the past century. Even if you are a devout Keynesian and statist, he was a limp flop with a taste for cronyism.

Our national competitors like him fine, but I don't find that a hopeful endorsement.

I decline to predict tomorrow's outcome (OK, I predict Dane county will elect the Democrat to the House. In other breaking news, water is wet.). Polls with 9% response rate are going to have huge systematic errors. They cite 3% or 5% statistical errors, but I'd go with systematic errors of 28%: the 1/sqrt(12) that you get from the uniform distribution. Which is to say I don't trust them at all and the real vote for a candidate could be anything from 4% to 96%. My gut says there are a lot of yellow-dog Democrats (and Republicans) out there, but you couldn't prove there are more than 4% from the polls.

I promised to weigh the campaign material that arrived, but other family members ditched part of it on arrival, so I can only say there were less than about 16 cards. However, we received something on the order of 50 phone calls for either surveys or "please vote for X" in the past two weeks; all but about 4 being robocalls and about a third of them in the middle of supper.

No matter who gets elected, the worst economic trouble is yet to come. And even more certain than death and taxes--"Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust."

Putting things in perspective

The Obama campaign is having a big rally downtown today, two blocks from my office.

I would rather go to an Obama campaign rally than have a root canal done. I would rather have a root canal done than have a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.

One advantage of working from home is that lunch is easy.

Sunday, November 04, 2012


From Discover magazine there’s an interesting story about turning off habits. Earlier research suggested that infralimbic cortex was involved with habits. A team at MIT decided that slicing and dicing the "ILC" was too crude, so:
They turned to optogenetics. This revolutionary technique takes light-sensitive proteins from around the tree of life, and uses viruses to introduce them into an animal’s neurons. By choosing the right protein, and targeting the right part of the brain, scientists can now excite or silence a chosen group of neurons with astounding precision, using little more than flashes of coloured light.

Working with supervisor Ann Graybiel and optogenetics founder Karl Deisseroth, Smith filled his rats' ILCs with halorhodopsin – a protein that comes from salt-loving microbes, and silences neurons when hit by yellow light.

They then trained them to turn one way in a simple maze. A flash of light could turn off neurons in the ILC, so:

Then, Smith inactivated the rat's' IL, while they were running through the maze. The effect was dramatic: almost immediately, they behaved as if they had never acquired their habit in the first place.

Whoa! Then they trained them for a new habit, and were surprised to discover that the rats not only lost the new habit, they recovered the old one.

So the ILC is responsible for maintaining habits. (Which is scary: some habits are kind of important. Want to relearn how to drive?) Also, apparently habits aren’t forgotten, but remain around like unused subroutines in an old program, until the ILC calls it from a list of possible "actions".

I know we're supposed to cultivate mindfulness, and doing things automatically is deprecated, but sometimes I'd like to contemplate other things while automatically locking up at night. Their methods sounds kind of shotgun.

Misspellings are in the original

Friday, November 02, 2012

All is not lost

Even in Madison.

The city's Vending Oversight Committee considered and rejected a proposal from a (vegetarian) vendor to require all food carts to offer vegetarian options. Sanity from an unexpected source.

I wasn't present, so I don't know if they suggested that he'd be smarter to keep the business for himself.

FWIW, quite a few carts do have vegetarian dishes: there are a lot of vegetarians in the county. I don't eat much from carts, but when I do it is usually an Ethiopian lentil/potato dish from Buraka's stand on Library Mall.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Summarizing marriage advice

Eldest Daughter and Maggie’s Farm both recommended 16 Ways I Blew My Marriage (two of them). His advice: Don’t stop holding her hand; don’t call names; don’t stop being attractive; don’t stop having fun together; don’t stop kissing her, and so on.

Quite a few of these are consequences of some simple principles.

  1. You don’t know when you are going to die. What do you want her last memory of you to be? A kiss, maybe? Not being a slob or of angry words?
  2. She wants to feel she can trust you. Around other women, dealing with the children, etc.
  3. She likes to feel wanted. Though I’m given to understand that proving this can be overdone.
  4. Try to keep alert to what she needs. "But the game is on!" or "I’m posting on the blog" don’t quite cut it
  5. If you give up a sense of entitlement, everything is a gift. Best if both of you feel that way; something to figure out before you get married

For better or for worse, an adventure, with surprise traveling companions along the way.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Common culture (low)

I decided to address From Dawn to Decadence again when I heard that Barzun died.

He has some lively lines, and interesting asides.

When secularism came to prevail, Bible reading disappeared among the majority, and with it the background of ideas and allusion common to all. In this role, the only ecumenical replacement one can think of is the daily newspaper's comic strip.

That's a bit dated. The daily newspaper is a little less common than it used to be, and I'm not sure what TV shows everybody watches. I'm told that for news it is FOX vs the rest (except for those of us who get news online), but once the news is over what I don't know what people look at.

We've managed to get political divides, racial divides, language divides--lots of AVI's tribes. I wonder what bits of culture they have in common. I guess some sports bridge the divides, but they provide a rather limited common language.

Language divides aside, do the groups even tend to like the same comics? Doonesbury and Mallard Fillmore play to different political affiliations. I found Boondocks pretty obscure, but I suspect I wasn't the target audience. Did anybody not like Calvin and Hobbs? (You're not limited to what your newspaper has; literally thousands of different strips are online and those who've invested in a smartphone can read their favorites after reviewing facebook.)

There's a topic for some sociology students (if they can resist the temptation to survey only college students!): figure out the favorite comic strips past and present as a function of age, political affiliation, race, religion and religiosity, educational attainment...

Although it's a scary thought that perhaps the only things our tribes have in common are a liking for football and Fox Trot. There's not enough for a common language there.

Polls on racism

Althouse has a post linking the AP-sponsored study on politics and racism. From the AP story:
Overall, the survey found that by virtue of racial prejudice, Obama could lose 5 percentage points off his share of the popular vote in his Nov. 6 contest against Republican challenger Mitt Romney. But Obama also stands to benefit from a 3 percentage point gain due to pro-black sentiment, researchers said. Overall, that means an estimated net loss of 2 percentage points due to anti-black attitudes.

"Racial prejudice" vs "pro-black sentiment" Are these things different somehow?

The survey questions are also available, and they include gems like:

RAC11. How well does each of these 
           words describe most blacks?
   Extremely well
   Very well
   Moderately well
   Slightly well
   Not at all
   Refused/Not answered

How is a rational and honest person supposed to answer that? "I know a few friendly and a few non-friendly and quite a few I've never gotten to know, with more being X than Y" doesn't fit in their grid anywhere.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

More CO2

I just thought of another source of CO2: soda. The information below is matched in other places, but I don't have a definitive reference.
The normal human body breathes to eliminate CO2, producing 200cc per minute that has to be eliminated at the same rate.

One can of soda contains up to 1000cc of dissolved CO2, most of which is absorbed into the blood stream by the intestines.

The Lungs are presented with the extra CO2 to eliminate by increased minute volume leading to increased respiratory effort.

A normal individual won't have a problem with this extra CO2, as the extra CO2 absorbed via the intestinal track will signal the central chemoreceptors to "immediately" increase the respiratory rate.

Hmm. If the CO2 is quickly absorbed then as a wild guess that would mean 10 minutes or so of increased CO2 blood levels. Does that mean 10 minutes of reduced initiative? Don't let Bloomberg hear about this aspect of "Demon Sprite!"

It wouldn't be hard to repeat their experiment with the subjects constantly sipping soda, provided the tests didn't last a long time. Blood tests of CO2 level are apparently not that easy, and drinking doesn't play well with wearing a mask to measure breath CO2 levels.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Smoke-filled rooms

Some of those smoke-filled rooms wound up nominating better candidates than the primary system. Whether this is random chance, or a defect in the primary system, or a deterioration in the quality of candidates over the years is an interesting question that I won't attempt to answer. It doesn't appear that the primary system removes the influence of special interests.

At any rate, the observation about the smoky rooms is a bit ironic in light of some recent research on the effect of CO2 levels on judgment. (Yes, they worried about impurities in the CO2 they added to the room's atmosphere.) Received wisdom said there was no impact of CO2 concentration on human performance, but there'd been a partial study that suggested maybe there really was.

At LBNL researchers asked volunteers to take tests in a room that had three possible levels of CO2 concentration: 600, 1000, and 2500 ppm (human contribution is not substantial). They were tested on:

  • Basic Activity Level (number of actions taken)
  • Applied Activity (opportunistic actions)
  • Focused Activity (strategic actions in a narrow endeavor)
  • Task Orientation (focus on concurrent task demands)
  • Initiative (development of new/creative activities)
  • Information search (openness to, and search for information)
  • Information usage (ability to utilize information effectively)
  • Breadth of Approach (flexibility in approach to the task)
  • Basic Strategy (number of strategic actions)

The results? Some things (Information Search) showed no particular effect. Others (Initiative) showed pretty dramatic changes.

Image above is taken from the paper by U Satish et al. "Funding for this research was provided by Collaborative Activities for Research and Technology Innovation (CARTI), which supports research in the areas of air quality and water resource management. CARTI, part of the Syracuse Center of Excellence located in Syracuse, New York, is supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency under award EM-83340401-0." Or in other words, they get the credit for this and not me.

There is strong evidence that in schools, CO2 concentrations are frequently near or above the levels associated in this study with significant reductions in decision-making performance. In surveys of elementary school classrooms in California and Texas, average CO2 concentrations were above 1,000 ppm, a substantial proportion exceeded 2,000 ppm, and in 21% of Texas classrooms peak CO2 concentration exceeded 3,000 ppm (Corsi et al. 2002; Whitmore et al. 2003). Given these concentrations, we must consider the possibility that some students in high-CO2 classrooms are disadvantaged in learning or test taking.

In eight studies within commercial aircraft, mean CO2 concentrations in the passenger cabins were generally above 1,000 ppm and ranged as high as 1,756 ppm, and maximum concentrations were as high as 4,200 ppm (Committee on Air Quality in Passenger Cabins of Commercial Aircraft 2002).

They worried about people wearing respirators, though other work suggests that blood CO2 levels don't change much. Car and pickup atmospheres are hard to predict (vent open, window open a crack, smoking, bad exhaust--who knows?) but they suggest that there might be some effects.

I suggested to my supervisor that our next meeting be on the Memorial Union terrace, to make sure we were as alert and productive as possible.

Italian disasters

As could have been readily predicted, Italian scientists on their disaster body are quitting. That was an easier prediction than earthquakes.

An Italian court had found the six scientists and government official guilty of manslaughter for saying there was little risk.

The devil is in the details. The situation was that there'd been some minor quakes, and an amateur whose earlier predictions had all failed had managed to get attention and was warning everybody that disaster was at hand. By tradition people lived outdoors for a while to avoid aftershocks or the big tremor the small ones were leading up to. The panel assessed the risks and found them small, and apparently insisted on this extra hard because of the amateur. Some people who usually camped in the streets at such times decided to stay home, and got crushed when the quake hit after all.

Nature reports in considerable detail, and describes the famous evaluation meeting. Even Boschi now says that "the point of the meeting was to calm the population. We [scientists] didn't understand that until later on."

In press interviews before and after the meeting that were broadcast on Italian television, immortalized on YouTube and form detailed parts of the prosecution case, De Bernardinis said that the seismic situation in L'Aquila was "certainly normal" and posed "no danger", adding that "the scientific community continues to assure me that, to the contrary, it's a favourable situation because of the continuous discharge of energy". When prompted by a journalist who said, "So we should have a nice glass of wine," De Bernardinis replied "Absolutely", and urged locals to have a glass of Montepulciano.


Two of the committee members — Selvaggi and Eva — later told prosecutors that they "strongly dissented" from such an assertion, and Jordan later characterized it as "not a correct view of things". (De Bernardinis declined a request for an interview through his lawyer, Dinacci, who insisted that De Bernardinis's public comments reflected only what the commission scientists had told him. There is no mention of the discharge idea in the official minutes, Picuti says, and several of the indicted scientists point out that De Bernardinis made these remarks before the actual meeting.)

It sounds to me as though scapegoats were sought. And found. And convicted. There's an automatic appeal, but at this point I would not offer the Italian government my expert opinion on the time of day. Too risky.

Monday, October 22, 2012

I can run but not hide

I had no intention of "live-blogging" the debate. I still don't.

But I heard part of it (Afghanistan, Israel phone call, Iran) while waiting for my better half.

For anybody who knows anything about doings in the area, it was painful to listen to. The best you could hear was half-truths. On the Afghan forces question both men pretended the real question didn't exist and lied about the Afghan military's ability. Obama had to defend his record, so he told most of the lies.

I know there are things you can't say when you're president (Afghanistan is really two or three countries, not one.) And you can't expose fallback negotiating positions (though I remember that happening a few election debates ago(*)!). But why not use the opportunity to show your understanding of the complexity of events?

(*)Though I can't recall who did it. I think it was Reagan, but I can't swear to that.

UPDATE: After sleeping on it: it was a newspaper that uncovered and published our negotiating strategy. Reagan was the one who said "The Shah did our bidding," which has to rank as one of the most horrible blunders in any debate I've heard.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ten Universal Principles: A Brief Philosophy of the Life Issues by Robert J Spitzer

As the subtitle says, this is a survey with particular emphasis on life issues: euthanasia and abortion.

I've been appalled at the sloppy thinking pervading our culture, and have been trying to put together some things to try to help at least the church kids to think clearly through the noise. I heard about this book and figured "Why re-invent the wheel?" (Executive summary: I think it needs tweaking for my target audience.)

The 10 principles are

  1. Complete Explanation. The best opinion or theory is the one that explains the most data.
  2. Noncontradiction. Valid opinions or theories have no internal contractions. A real being cannot both be and not be the same thing, in the same respect, at the same place and time.
  3. Objective Evidence. Nonarbitrary opinions or theories are based on publicly verifiable evidence.
  4. Nonmaleficence. Do not do unto others what you would not have them do unto you. Avoid unnecessary harms; if a harm is unavoidable, minimize it.
  5. Consistent Means and Ends. The end does not justify the means.
  6. Full Human Potential. Every human being (or group of human beings) deserves to be valued according to the full level of human development, not according to the level of development already achieved.
  7. Natural Rights. All human beings possess in themselves (by virtue of their existence alone) the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and property ownership; no government gives these rights and no government can take them away.
  8. Fundamentality of Rights. The more fundamental right is the one which is necessary for the possibility of the other; where there is a conflict, we should resolve in favor of the more fundamental right.
  9. Limits to Freedom. One person's (or group's) freedoms cannot impose undue burdens upon other persons (or groups).
  10. Beneficence. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you

One common thread is that most societies get around applying inconvenient principles by redefining people. A slave is not a full human, savages are primitive and therefore not as valuable as we sophisticates, the peasant is an Epsilon and the magistrate an Alpha, the unborn baby is a lump of cells, and so on. If you insist that a human is a human whether awake or asleep (first few principles) then Roe v Wade is unconscionable, violating pretty much all the above principles, as well as being based on bad science and as far a prior law goes, on nothing but eagerness to permit abortion. Althouse learned that it was also guided by a fear of overpopulation!

He doesn't address the point that Principle 7 (Natural Rights) is in fact denied by many states and political parties. Some people believe that all rights do come from the state/collective, and the observation that this attitude leads to innumerable evils does not dissuade them.

I'm afraid I'm not terribly patient, and I began to get a little tired of seeing the same example each time, but it is useful to see what a train wreck Roe was and how disastrous its implications are.

After running through these principles Spitzer addresses himself to why dialog about this sort of thing has been problematic. He suggests a classification by how people define happiness for themselves, a four levels of happiness scheme that is quite old.

  • Level 1: desire for externally stimulated or physical pleasures and possessions
  • Level 2: desire for ego gratification and control
  • Level 3: desire for other's good, making a difference for good
  • Level 4: desire for the ultimate or perfect.

Needless to say, the values of one level aren't going to make a lot of sense to the others and what persuades one won’t persuade others.

Spitzer has a side note here on how to try to guide yourself up to Level 3: think carefully about what is important, and write a "personal creed" explaining why you are here and what you intend to accomplish, and review it daily.

He ends the book with proofs for the existence of the transmaterial, starting with one that begins from the nature of doubt. It requires careful attention. He references but doesn’t address Godel's discoveries here. The others are based on the nature of various desires (for beauty, justice, love, etc), all of which demand a transmaterial touchstone.

The book is short (134 pages) and clearly written. It requires a little concentration, and I'm still puzzling over whether it all works for high-school age kids. (Some can easily master all; most will easily master some.)