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.