Thursday, June 30, 2022

Dealing With The Public

People can name their children whatever they want.  It's a free country, as we used to say.  But today's plaintive communication reminds us that our actions have consequences.  "...the hubris of Caleys, Caitlyns, Madelines, and Adelines assuming we know how to spell their names at the library desk when everyone knows there are approximately 54 different spellings..." If you give your child a name that people do not automatically how to spell, then the child will encounter the misunderstanding and slowing down of interaction with others. That is going to happen. "If you didn't want to go to Chicago, why did you get on the train?" as Garrison Keillor said in another context.

I recall a sendup from a decade ago of a supposed White Girl Magazine,  which had on its cover a teaser headline "14 New Spellings For Caitlyn!" It has always been with us, of course.  I went to elementary school with a girl whose name was pronounced Jo-Ann, but spelled Joan. Some of the teachers insisted on pronouncing it as "Joan," all year long. (Yes, remember what these teachers were like in the Good Olde Days, who were always right even when they were numb as a hake?) I don't know if her mother ever regretted it, but the poor woman has had a lifetime of people mispronouncing her name.  She resorted to Jo'an for a while in an attempt to signal to people which was correct - because all of us at school didn't have a clue from one year to the next.

It does affect other people.  It affects the children who have standard spellings, as they now have to spell their names anyway. There no longer is a standard spelling, regardless of history. You can do what you want, but the more friction you create, the more friction you're going to get.

Oh, Miss Mary

I still sing this in my mind at times.  There isn't much to it, actually, but the simplicity of it may be what attracts. Such things are part of why singing harmony just seems to be an automatic part of a song to me. Take any simple melody and lyrics - one must sing harmony.

There must be a Mary back there who gave the music some strong emotional association for me, but I have long since forgotten who.  I knew quite a few Mary's, as it was one of the common female names of my generation that are now less popular, like Debbie, Linda, Joanne, Susan, Barbara, Patricia, Kathy, Christine - and in my area that was heavily French-Canadian, Denise, Michelle, Renee, and Louise as well. But I can't think of any Mary's I was waiting to have come home.  Maybe I just like the alliteration of it.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Away From Shotgun Marriages

I will not comment much at the moment on this essay from the Brookings Institute New Mothers, Not Married: Technology shock, the demise of shotgun marriage, and the increase in out of wedlock births. Brookings has some notably liberal assumptions in its commentary here, especially at the policy stage, but they do seem to be trying to play straight with the data, which is good enough for me.  I can work with it, even if I disagree or think I see some missing pieces.

The basic premise is that the technology shock of increased availability to both abortion (a 12x increase) and contraception in the late 60s into the 70s was large enough that it changed the expectations of both women and men about premarital sex, pregnancy, and expectation of marriage.  The authors believe this is not the entire explanation, but covers a major chunk of it. The more usual explanations they regard as possible, but showing much less explanatory power when compared to the actual numbers.

Since 1969, however, the tradition of shotgun marriage has seriously eroded (see table 1 for the trend from 1965 through 1984). For whites, in particular, the shotgun marriage rate began its decline at almost the same time as the reproductive technology shock. And the decline in shotgun marriages has contributed heavily to the rise in the out-of-wedlock birth rate for both white and Black women. In fact, about 75 percent of the increase in the white out-of-wedlock first-birth rate, and about 60 percent of the Black increase, between 1965 and 1990 is directly attributable to the decline in shotgun marriages. If the shotgun marriage rate had remained steady from 1965 to 1990, white out-of-wedlock births would have risen only 25 percent as much as they have. Black out-of-wedlock births would have increased only 40 percent as much.

For reference, I think the expectation of marriage after unexpected pregnancy remained stronger in evangelical and conservative Catholic circles longer, though the trend away from it was there also - just slower and/or weaker. I do find talking with people of my own generation now that they have forgotten how most people, including they themselves, thought about what men and women (or boys and girls) were supposed to do if an unmarried woman became pregnant. They retrofit later ideas onto that society, believing that couples could have behaved then much as they did even twenty years later. There's that photogenic memory James was talking about again.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Pop Epistemology

Stuart Ritchie of the "Science Fictions" substack and author of a book by the same name, Science Fictions, How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth, which concerns it self with the replication crisis, bad science reporting, perverse incentives for scientists publishing, etc, has decided his next book is going to be about how to choose among authorities when there is contention in the popular culture. Attorneys who have seen dueling experts in the courtroom will likely appreciate the difficulty - though my experience is maybe they won't, as they are as likely as anyone else to choose a side beforehand and then follow whatever expert tells them what they want to hear. He chose the phrase "Pop epistemology," but doesn't like it.  He thinks it won't bring in the people who need to see it.

Ritchie thought there was a great deal of bad science during Covid, much of it motivated by wanting a particular answer or rushing to publish. He thinks using the credibility he has previously established to do something about that would be useful.  Looking forward to it.

Sunday, June 26, 2022

Hair Dryer Obsession

Scott Alexander Siskind, the psychiatrist who writes Astral Codex Ten relates the story of an agency he worked for splitting over the appropriate treatment for one of his patients. She had an obsession whenever she left the house that she had left the hair dryer on and worried the apartment was going to burn up. He suggested she simply bring the hair dryer with her whenever she left.  Problem solved. Some of his staff thought this was a great solution.  Others thought it inadequate because "he had not solved her underlying problem." If you have worked in the field you can picture the arguments easily, and even zip people you have known into one group or the other.

I am very much in the first group.  If there are underlying problems that need to be addressed, they are remarkably difficult to discern and define. The hydraulic pressure theory of anxiety and stress, which claims stopping up one leak will only cause another to burst out in another place just seems intuitively right to many people, but I just figure if that happens after a couple of leak-stoppages, we can look for the source of the pressure then - and we will have more diagnostic information to work with. I suspect that in many cases stopping the leak equals Problem Solved.

I say this a one who had OCD (still residual, but I hardly think about it now) and believes I would have had some obsession just from biology.  But odd factors in my environment likely influenced the content of the obsessions and compulsions. So I believe the second group is on to something. I just don't think they are right often enough.  Also, if you can make one of those hair dryer solutions you should just try it first, watching what happens.

I think this applies to social problems as well. Maybe there are always root causes somewhere, but I doubt it.  I think most of us have seen life problems resolve in almost humorously easy fashion with some adjustment when then smack our foreheads over, saying "I should have done this years ago!" Also, even when there are root causes I think we are overfond of assuming what they must be, based on what we think we can fix, rather than well-evidenced drivers of outcomes. Just because an associated condition is chronic does not mean it is a cause. It might also be an effect itself. Poverty, lack of school success, and unemployment come to mind as problems that are as likely to be carts as horses. Downstream effects of problems we dare not notice and name. There are few phrases as worrisome as "Well it just stands to reason..."

Illusion of Reason

"We give reason full credit for a decision that is the collective outcome of separate votes cast by cold personal self-interest, passion and social conformity, individual intuitions and hunches, and even our biological heritage." Razib Khan "Thanksgiving Squabbles are a Feature, Not a Bug"

Saturday, June 25, 2022

Post 8500: Hypocrisy. Yes, But...

Heather MacDonald over at City Journal makes much of Joe Biden suspending the federal gas tax for the moment to keep fill-ups from infuriating too many voters.  She tells us this is evidence that the carbon-reduction, climate-change, use-less-petrol sermonising over the years is not as important to Democrats as they claim, and a prime example of hypocrisy.  That is not untrue, but it is very typical of politicians in general.  They convince themselves that being elected is good for the country - so good, in fact, that temporary losses on this goal or that are unimportant.  They will find a way to fix it later. They are quite sure that they and their party (or even their wing of the party) will get back so much more if they can only remain in power, or take it. If the Other Guys win, it will clearly be a plague o'er the earth.  And so a tactical loss now will be worth it in the long run.

I believe them that this all started as legitimate intentions to do good, and honest commitment to some ideals. But that was years ago, or even decades. If they came into the party when it had already made many compromises and has not had any sharp reform, the intentions may have been poisoned even as they came on board stuffing envelopes and their own corruption now may even be the descendant of the corruption of others over a century ago. 

They slowly conflate what is good for their party, and even what is good for themselves personally with what is good for the whole country. The concepts become so associated in their minds that they can no longer separate them. 

They still might be the better party or better candidate.  Just because our guy has become dangerously narcissistic does not mean the opponent is more humble, or is wise in any way at all.  But when we see it in our own we have to find ways to cut ourselves free of the narcissists as soon as possible.  It cannot end well if it is allowed to continue. 


With what I have written about bureaucratic decay recently, and then inability of the electorate and the parties to intervene and restrain their own, let me propose a thought experiment: we accept it as a given that presidents can be too old, and express worry that last time was bad enough with Joe, Bernie, and Donald, but this next time might be four years worse. There is an election PR reason we want our candidates to look sharp and energetic, but is there an actual advantage to a healthy, physically inspiring president?  Is it still necessary? In some professions people go one quite well into advanced ages - writers, philosophers, popes and other ecclesiastical authorities. We are no longer asking them to get on a horse and lead us into battle. 

But they have so much to do!  They have a grueling schedule! Yet a lot of that schedule is useless stuff and photo ops anyway. But what if they die in office?  Or worse, become infirm and incompetent? Compared to...? Won't that become a crisis for the republic? Well, yes, it might. But the last 30 years are now running on family members: wives, senators' sons, presidents' sons; and political lifers, so that an internationally and nationally politically well-connected real estate developer looks like a refreshing outsider, running against guys who have been in Washington since the Garfield administration. As we deteriorate, we seem unable to cut ourselves free. Such a crisis might be our only way to make a change that is even 30% of what we need.  It would be a terrible thing if we have reached that point where only physical nature rescues us from our lack of resolve, but even worse if we are at that pass and cannot embrace it even now. Just a thought.

Hangover Description

Dixon was alive again. Consciousness was upon him before he could get out of the way; not for him the slow, gracious wandering from the halls of sleep, but a summary, forcible ejection. He lay sprawled, too wicked to move, spewed up like a broken spider-crab on the tarry shingle of morning. The light did him harm, but not as much as looking at things did; he resolved, having done it once, never to move his eyeballs again. A dusty thudding in his head made the scene before him beat like a pulse. His mouth had been used as a latrine by some small creature of the night, and then as its mausoleum. During the night, too, he'd somehow been on a cross-country run and then been expertly beaten up by secret police. He felt bad. (Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim 1954

Amis apparently had enough personal experience to refine the description.

Tolkien and the Eagles

 I had wondered this myself, but I didn't expect this answer.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Yokes - Ordered Liberty

Listening to the Great Books podcast about Schiller's "William Tell,*" I thought the interesting part I was going to bring here was his development of what is permissible to do to oppose tyranny and what is not. It is interesting as it is a central theme of Schiller's, exploring many possibilities from both practical and theoretical frameworks. Those of you interested in those questions will likely find it profitable to read up on Schiller or listen to the 30 minute podcast from National Review over the next two months, after which it will disappear from the front page. 

Yet another bit caught me up, when the discussion turned to the concept of freedom that Tell is striving to live under - or more precisely, have his people return to.  It is not the freedom to do whatever you want any time you want. The concept of Duty vs Inclination figures strongly, that is, what we should do, not just what we want to do. Johann was very big on duty as a guide to moral behavior.

Here's a fun discussion of it from The Atlantic - but don't get nervous, it's from 1905.

It reminded me of the Puritan ideal of ordered liberty, which contrasted with the other versions in colonial America, as outlined in Fischer's Albion's Seed. It surprised me, as Schiller was German, Kantian, and more than a century later. The Swiss may have been Calvinist, but it doesn't seem that Schiller is attempting this as an exercise in historical accuracy.  This idea of Ordered Liberty is clearly among the most important to his aesthetic thought quite on its own. So it is not merely a Calvinist ideal then, but was in the air in those centuries.

In the descent of that Puritan ordered liberty culture down to the present day many writers are connecting that Puritan ideal to modern busybodies from New England telling everyone else what to do, usually in contrast to the real freedom-loving Scots-Irish. Yet notice - the Scots Presbyters were also calvinist. What is happening then, among two stocks supposedly descending from the same philosophical base to very different practical notions?

First up, such simple formulations are usually self-servinbg rather than accurate.  They are often based on a real something, but don't carry the day.  Second, the various ideas of freedom kept much of the same vocabulary and did keep some central features, but they changed markedly over time.  In earlier Scotland one actually did have to come under the yoke of authority - but it was the authority of the clan, which you had at least some hope of influencing.  But after enclosure the power of the clan authority weakened, and after the move to Ireland and then on to America, where one had to carve out a space rather individually, clan authority weakened further.  It retained considerable usefulness for skirmishing and outright war. To the medieval mind, they would have looked more like "masterless men," not a good thing.

Well part of the American experiment is that maybe masterless men will do alright anyway, but it is an authority vacuum, starting not in Virginia but Gretna Green. 

In New England it was town authority, which if anything became stronger upon arrival in the Bay Colony. It looks mixed oppressive and liberated to us now, as the larger governmental authorities were distant and of little influence, but the town was a community which exerted authority over all who remained. The town could decide that an old widower must move in with a young family, as that would be better for his spiritual improvement. The town moved as a body to build schools, meeting houses, churches, improve ports and roads. The only escape was to move. So that was also a yoke that one must bear - but it changed in the colonies.  By the time NH, VT, and ME were settled there was more of people living out on the fringes, less answerable to the whole. This is still somewhat common in the rural and northern parts. The town used to be everything, but that is less true. Unfortunately, it has slowly had to give way to larger entities.

Both ideas descend from Calvinism, and from a generalised northern European idea of order, even a highly traditional order in contrast to the French Revolutionaries' method of starting everything from scratch. Yet both are still yokes, yokes that modified greatly in America but are still present in some form.

You may remember that it is my cynical view that if you believe you have no yoke or have cast it off, you likely just don't see and acknowledge the new one that replaced it. 

*Oh yeah, hanging asterisk. I read Schiller in German in college. Let not such things impress you, because I don't even remember what it was, never mind any lesson from it. It was required fourth-semester German and I passed the course.

The Ballad of the Shape of Things


Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Making Yourself More Stupid

I am researching a topic as part of a discussion with an old friend. At bsking's suggestion I have been reading from old Slate Star Codex discussions by Dr. Scott Alexander, who I greatly admire. I have found that I am wrong about at least one thing. 

In the midst of this he puts a marvelous quote, expressing an idea I have attempted to get across, but more fully and elegantly than I have

One who wishes to believe says, “Does the evidence permit me to believe?” One who wishes to disbelieve asks, “Does the evidence force me to believe?” Beware lest you place huge burdens of proof only on propositions you dislike, and then defend yourself by saying: “But it is good to be skeptical.” If you attend only to favorable evidence, picking and choosing from your gathered data, then the more data you gather, the less you know. If you are selective about which arguments you inspect for flaws, or how hard you inspect for flaws, then every flaw you learn how to detect makes you that much stupider.

It is from a longer essay by Eliezer Yudkowsky, who I had not head of writing for Rationality. It is good to remember that while sometimes we are just wrong, little harm comes of it, and life goes on - but at other times if we persist in what we call research while favoring an outcome whether it is true or not, we make ourselves more stupid the more information we obtain. Much of learning is unlearning, which is no fun. The language of the essay is a little woo, but I don't think it is inappropriately so, given the state of mind he is hoping we will attain.

Robin Williams and Elmo - Outtake


Unwanted Children

I think there is a binary being applied here that is not accurate. When the phrase "unwanted children" comes up, usually in the context of abortion but not exclusively there, the image is conjured of a child deeply unwanted, neglected or even abandoned, unloved and sad. That child is going to have a terrible life. That child is more likely to become a criminal, or unemployed...or something.  

It's just plain not true. Most people have hardships, sometimes quite bad, most kids turn out okay. We know stories in retrospect and apply our narratives with our usual confirmation bias. "Well, she was unwanted right from the start, it's no surprise that she got pregnant at fifteen so she could have someone to love."  Well yeah, or that kind of impulsivity and lack of planning could be genetic, seeing as that was loaded in at conception.  But if you have already made up your mind that it was "being unwanted," teh that's going to sound like crazy talk to you.

Are surprise babies less loved?  Do they have worse outcomes?  Maybe. There is a plausibility to it.  But it's not my observation. "Every Child a Wanted Child..." but would we say "Every Immigrant a Wanted Immigrant?" Aren't there some similarities in the arguments here? I have read viciously racist pro-choice arguments about how much better off we are with fewer black children. I don't conclude generalised racism from that, but it is toeing into the shallow end of "maybe it would be better if some children just weren't born." At a minimum people need to police themselves to be backpedaling away from that. And to notice how that is already happening with certain types of genetic information. The Netherlands has eliminated Down's Syndrome births.  It's worth wondering what's next. The "Unwanted" argument nearly always focuses on environmental factors, sure. It's what people are thinking, usually.  But the genetic part is showing up in practical outcomes.

Unless there is something else going on that is mucking up the issue.  I'll be coming back to that.

Look, I actually happen to know a great deal about unwanted children, because taking social histories or reading those of otherrs was a good part of my career.  I have seen some very grim ones, which cause you to jump to the conclusion that this is what ruined this child's life. Yet I also know plenty of people who later had terrible lives who were welcomed, adored, and well-parented their whole lives.  If you want to tell me that Unwanted=Worse Outcomes statistically, even when considering genetics, I might count that as plausible.  But statistically, most of them turn out okay anyway. Unwanted does not in any way equal Definitely Bad Outcomes. 

But perrhaps more to the point, starting with my family. My children from Romania were abandoned by their parents, dropped off at Casa de Copii* in Oradea. Son #5 came to us after his parents both refused to keep him.  Maybe they were all wanted at birth.  The last one very likely was. Yet down the line they became unwanted.

My brother and I were almost certainly wanted at birth. We were uh, less-wanted at 13 and 9. (I eventually learned I was not really a wanted in-law, either, not until I made a specific effort to step in with emotional support of a nephew. Well, that happens to lots of us. Not really germane here.) Many children start out unwanted or become unwanted in some real sense. It is hard. It likely does diminish outcomes for some. But most of us turn out okay anyway, even the ones from hellish backgrounds.

I had already started this post a week ago when a friend sent this tweet about twins who might have been aborted if Texas hadn't changed it's laws. It links to a Washington Post article about the mother and the babies - and the father, grandparents, local organisations, and a bunch else. It is a fascinating read and the WaPo clearly believes this is tragic, simply tragic, because the young woman's life is so hard (it is hard), and to their mind, the births so unnecessary. But Ian Haworth is right**. It's not tragic.  Death is tragic. Permanent injury is tragic. Starvation and neglect are tragic. If you look at it from the babies' POV, things seem to be going fine. They were unwanted, and you could define them as unwanted, but in reality, they look pretty wanted to me. Mom seems to be doing very well in a difficult situation. And we do still have the floor of "being born into a situation that is better than 99% of humanity has ever had and better than 90%+ of people even today."

Look at the article.  It has some familiar themes, about how hard life is for the young woman, and also but less emphasised, on the young man. She had plans, hopes, dreams, these are now delayed, possibly diminished, and maybe even destroyed. Her mother has rejected her. Real estate school and work have not precisely rejected her, but they became untenable.  She worries the boyfriend might reject her. It's hard for a journalist to write a human interest story focusing on the babies unless they are visibly hungry or huddled in a corner, so these stories focus on the mothers for storytelling reasons.

But is a lot of this actually about unwanted mothers, not unwanted children? I agree that unwanted mothers is a problem worthy of attention.  But it's not the same problem.  It may not be a full bait-and-switch from just talking about babies to just talking about mothers, but I think that the latter is getting added on to the scale. The stories may overlap and be related, but they aren't the same. The sympathy in the stories is with the mother during pregnancy. But I don't think "and those children are likely to have terrible lives because they are unwanted" is known to be true. 

There is an additional bit. I think the "unwanted children" narrative gained force when I was much younger because we also believed at that time that there were too many people and population was getting out of control. Also, we believed - even I believed - that environment was everything in child development. Couples from ethnic groups where people started expecting to see babies nine months and fifteen minutes after the wedding were saying "we want to wait until we are more settled/can afford it," and this began to be applauded. There was also increased freedom for women (and men) to say "Y'know, I just don't personally want children at all," which had been more allowed in Hajnal Line societies than elsewhere but was still considered suspect. It was therefore considered something good for Society to have fewer children, more carefully planned children, children that already had yards to play in and rooms of their own.  Less pathology. More emotional support. And have you seen how expensive college is these days? There was also a sense that it would be good if Society understood that not everyone wants children and that's okay. Well, that's a freedom issue, and a legitimate one, but it shouldn't be added as weight to measuring the outcomes for the children. How much do the many gradations of "being wanted" matter for actual development.  That's supposed to be the measure if we are talking about wanting. The other is about outcomes for the adults.

We see the world differently now.  Population replacement is the problem, not population explosion, whatever Bill McKibben thinks. We have a safety net built on people who aren't there, which is a big reason we encourage immigration, even illegal immigration. I am not at all convinced that long-delayed children have markedly better upbringings. Wealthier, sure.  One of the things that you learn from actual parenting is that  the main thing you need is simply energy. A friend at 25th (maybe 30th) highschool reunion chuckled that she had had three children, at 19, 21, and 22, and she and her husband had already started traveling, now that the youngest had moved out. Son #5, who was then a nephew, was just being born then. A few months ago I helped him move some furniture off one second floor and onto another.  So who's the smart one here? 

I tell young couples to have more children and worry about them less. They'll be fine.

As I also believe that genetic factors weigh much more heavily than the things we used to think important, I am less convinced that "unwanted" tells us as much about outcomes as we used to think.  It tells us more about mom's and dad's life. Certainly, I don't think that unwanted and less-wanted are binaries. No one does, really.  But some people talk as if they do when doing cultural and political advocacy.

*Romanian for "Mouth of Hell."

**I don't know who he is.  If he says or does terrible things, that doesn't change what he says here.  I'm not interested.