Friday, August 26, 2016

Upvotes

Lelia just upvoted about a third of my Quora answers.  Just when I thought I could walk away any time...

Natural Things

More evidence that the belief that nature is self-correcting (to what end?), rather than merely changing endlessly, is an essentially religious belief.  (Thanks to Maggie's.)

I'm going to bet my spam email from Christsupplements about Jesus's 3 tips for curing disease is only going to make me even angrier.  Except to be fair, they are only selling something, not trying to control the culture in ways that affect me.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

It's A Rule



A man was visiting Belfast for the first time.  An Irish friend warned him that it could be dangerous to be the wrong religion in some neighborhoods.  He described which places it would be best to claim to be Catholic if asked, and which places to be Protestant.

The visitor found it confusing, and reached a neighborhood where he realized to his distress that he didn’t know which answer to give.  Worse, a rough-looking young man had fixed his gaze and was bearing down on him from across the street.  “Now then!  Are you Protestant or Catholic?” he asked, grabbing him at the collar.

“I’m – I’m Jewish” came the answer.

The other man smiled appreciatively, drawing his fist back.  “Begorra, I’m the loockiest Palestinian in all Ireland.”

*********

The joke only partly intersects with the topic, which is that we are not supposed to make generalisations about groups of people.  It's an American rule, or it was. Insulting generalisations are supposed to be right out. It has been gradual.  Comedians made jokes about "women drivers" on the Ed Sullivan Show when I was young, but people only do that ironically now. (I think.  Maybe somewhere...)

It was perhaps naive of me to absorb the rule and think that it should apply generally.

I am not talking about mere name-calling, which I think is self-defeating.  When I see the word libtard, Shrillary, or Dhimmicrat  I just pass on to the next comment.  Low chance of anything worthwhile surrounding it.  I first encountered that kind of thing in 6th grade, when Norman Ranfos said "Goldwater in '64.  Bread-and-water in '65," and even then sensed it was relying on accidentals about the person rather than anything real.  Even when done cleverly, it pales rapidly.

Yet it persists, and I get the same pattern whenever I point it out. People who would cut their tongues out before they would call a black person shiftless or even an Oriental person the more-neutral inscrutable will very off-handedly refer to supporters of a candidate or cause with some terrible insult: that many of those are meth-using child-abusers, or uneducated boobs, or hypocritical haters or -ists of many sorts.  The pattern is 1)  someone makes a general comment about a group, 2) I call that out as unfair, 3) The claim is dismissed as ridiculous 4) I am accused of making the argument personal.  I actually do see some of the point of that, but still believe the argument is strong - and necessary.  Yes, you were making a general comment, without thinking of anyone in particular, and I did indeed laser focus back on you in specific. It certainly feels like an escalation.  But only to people to already agree with you, who are similarly oblivious. That general comments can and should be taken personally has been established for decades by blacks, Jews, elders, and women drivers who happened to be present when offensive remarks were made.

Weeeellll, people get their backs up when go at them personally and sometimes don't acknowledge the justice that they should.  Yet I have seen people instantly and sincerely apologise over some stereotypical attribution (often clumsily and making it worse - it's not all that gratifying to be considered some equivalent of "one of the good niggers" - but one has to appreciate the humility of making the effort). I don't often see it now, and it is far worse this election cycle. I'm seeing insults about even-up against Trump and Hillary, but it's not close in referring to their voters. I am seeing really bigoted stereotypes about Trump supporters, who are in fact a pretty varied group, so far as I can tell. When I challenge these (and I usually make only a mild comment publicly to create a little social pushback, reserving my sterner comments for private or at least more circumscribed audiences) I get some version of the pattern response. Most commonly, the excuse is "But you clearly don't understand how really, really bad Trump is," or "but the generalisation is true, they really are like that."

All of you can fill in the blanks from here where I would go with this as a logical argument.  But I don't really expect anti-Trumpsters to be all that logical, any more than the Trumpsters, or the Trump-neutrals, or anyone else.  So I step back and look at what else is happening here.  Most people accept the American rule of no stereotypes.  Talking about it would lead to instant arguments and disagreements, but those would occur precisely because Americans now generally accept this principle. Why then, do people believe that some of their statements, which to all logic should fit under the rule, are exempt from the rule?

I don't think I ever considered that.  In my OCD/Aspergery/simple stubbornness way, I stayed focused on the mere illogic and my annoyance with that.  While true, it isn't likely to lead to any further understanding.  A moment of stepping back, and three or four theories came to me quickly.

My current favorite: the need to make tribal declarations and signaling that one is a nice person overwhelms logic instantly. Observing that, I can think of quick examples where that applies to others as well, from other political points of view.  Birds chirp to indicate where they are.  Dogs urinate to mark their territory. It has actually been a main topic around here that human beings do much the same, largely without noticing it.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Modern Astrology

I was much interested in astrology and other pseudosciences starting in about 8th grade. Handwriting analysis - graphology, we elegantly called it, was the basis for my complete redesign of my cursive penmanship, expressly crafted to show my immense intelligence and creativity with my epsilon e's and delta d's. (Combining that with my already terrible fine-motor coordination resulted in an amazing abomination of wring.)  It may have been the summer after freshman year that I tossed Linda Goodman's Sun Signs into the trash, though i fear it was later.  My interest had waned, at any rate, especially after learning that I was not actually an Aries, as I had long claimed, but a boring old Taurus.

One large factor was reflecting on the supposed characteristics of my Sagittarius girlfriend, later my fiancee and wife.  Sagittarius, you see, was an archer, and people born under that sign are supposed to have some traits which could at least be stretched to fit that type.  No one who has every known Tracy has put the word "archer" in the same sentence with her. The final straws:  I was no fire sign, and she was no huntress of any description.

Still isn't.

Years later I took an interest in astronomy, especially when camping at Lake Ossipee during the summer and looking south over it on August evenings.  I could see why many of the constellations and gotten their names, including some of the zodiac. Scorpio does have visible pincers, with only a minimum of squinting.  Gemini looks like two of something, human or not.

But Sagittarius doesn't look remotely like an archer.  It looks strongly like...a teapot.  If they had had teapots in the Arabian desert, they would have leapt to that conclusion immediately.

Here's the thing:   a teapot is actually a very good symbol for my wife.  So maybe there's something to this astrology thing after all, just off by a few millennia.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Small Sample Size on Iran 1953

The CIA-assisted coup in Iran in 1953 was referenced in Mistakes Were Made (but not by me). I hadn't thought about it in a long time, but I remembered something, and pointed out that it lacked a longer perspective and opposition context.

As an aside, commenter Richard Johnson provided a link that showed that narrative was even worse than deserved. Short version: The CIA certainly tried to assist, and loved to claim that they had indeed been key; also, the Muslim fundamentalist opposition loved to claim that it was the American CIA which had done them so wrong. But what spooks actually accomplished was probably not that decisive: some cartoons in newspapers, a few million dollars trying to gather some rent-a-mobs and another few million in bribes.  I'm not sure you could turn a gubernatorial race in a small state with that, and you certainly couldn't count on it being permanent.

The same historical example just came up again in my reading of Chuck Klosterman's book But What If We're Wrong? (Quick Review:  Great concept, great start, otherwise disappointing, with a few memorable lines per chapter.  Browse the beginning if you find it.  No more.) Klosterman used it as a Howard Zinn type of example of something that was previously denied and generally unknown, but now simply everyone knows is true. You know how I am about any claim that simply everyone knows is true.

Yesterday it showed up on the Wikipedia main page, as 8/19 is the anniversary of the coup.  I admit that three occurrences is a small sample size, and there is a coincidental aspect to my encountering the first two examples now, neither of which were written this year.  Yet I still think there is something afoot.  As events play out in the Middle East, there is a type of mind that reflexively wants to instruct the common American opinion, always ready to say "Well, you know, the US bears some of the blame for this.  You should remember what bad things we have done in the past."  They just believe there is a lesson to be taught, and it should be taught at every opportunity.  It is not the mere balancing act of trying to get some of both sides into a discussion, because there would then be statements inserted from time-to-time about benefits to the Middle East that have originated in the West, especially America. They believe that theirs is the minority view which they must valiantly proclaim against an oppressive majority culture, even though they are now the holders of power.  Mere dominance is not enough, apparently.  Opposers must be crushed.

All groups do this, of course, though not on this issue, where the sermonising comes only from one side.  But I have certainly heard conservatives, including (especially?) religious conservatives do the same, reflexively lecturing on points of history.  In accordance with the pattern I have often noted, liberals tend to fire the first shot, often not realising that they are igniting controversy, because they are just helpfully pointing out what they learned in freshman history.  Conservatives are less likely to initiate, but they lie in wait for the unwary, prepared to escalate quickly.

Japanese Men's 4 x 100m

All the big news was Usain Bolt winning his 9th gold medal in the sprints (I can't embed that video), and the Americans being disqualified for an ever-so-slightly premature handoff. But there is other interesting news here.  Runners of West African descent have dominated the sprints for decades.  But the Japanese team took the silver.  If you watch the video, it was close to even-up among the top six teams at the final baton exchange.  The Japanese anchor runner, Asuka Cambridge, surged equally with Bolt at the beginning, until the Jamaican hit top speed and pulled away from the pack. The American team and the Canadian team, composed entirely of blacks of West African descent, did gain on him at the end, but he ultimately held on.

It is important to note that this is a team event.  Cambridge is half-Jamaican, so if we were inclined to be dismissive we could regard him as a one-off exception based on that.  The 20-year-old phenom Yoshihide Kiryu I heard about briefly 2 years ago, and one could possibly write that off as a single exception as well, the lone outlier in a fairly populous and highly-competitive country.  But Japan has two more, Ryota Yamagata and Shota Iizuka, who ran the first two legs.  They look to my eyes to be very slightly behind everyone else at the halfway point, but not by much. The Japanese may depend on outliers (as if all 100m specialists weren't outliers to begin with) for medal hopes, but they are not outclassed entirely.  The other teams in the finals were Great Britain - which has one runner of mixed Iranian and Moroccan descent among the West African others - Trinidad & Tobago, and China.

The Chinese team, which finish 5th-6th is also rather obviously not of West African descent, but they also have an enormous pool of 1.3B people to draw on, and a wink-wink forced breeding program of athletes.  (Yao Ming was not accidental. Though he seems to have become a very decent individual after it all.) Still, they're worth noticing. The Asian teams also favor a type baton pass, developed originally by the Japanese, that creates a marginal advantage.

One genetic advantage of West Africans is a greater concentration of fast-twitch muscle fibers. Many Jamaicans have a strong version of the ACTN3 gene, intensifying this. Kenyans and neighbors who live at high altitudes above the Great Rift Valley have more slow-twitch fibers, which is advantageous in distance running. But those distance runners have some other genetic advantages as well, including narrow ankles and calves, without loss of thigh strength, and this highlights an important point.  Genetic "advantage" is real, but can be an elusive thing. Ashkenazi Jews have enormous numeric and verbal advantages, but their visual-spatial abilities are a tick below average.  In some settings they will stand out, in others, they are just regular guys. Since the basic muscle-fiber difference was discovered in the 1970's there has been some refinement in the understanding, plus a lot of crap from fitness "experts."

There is more than one way to skin a cat.  Improved oxygen-processing or lung capacity are also genetic advantages that other groups can parlay into distance running.  It wasn't that long ago that there were Caucasian sprinters, especially Russians, who were medal hopefuls. Advantages can be slight, and there can be other ways of navigating to the top. I don't know what it is the Japanese have got going on.  There may some specifics, or it may be a subtler advantage that they have a significant population with no major athletic negatives to draw from.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

Your Vote Doesn't Count, But It Matters

If you want to help out with world hunger or justice for some neglected group, your little bit of effort counts.  Even if you changed very little in the world that day, some person did get some food, or some quantity of food got shipped to a needed place, or some forgotten person got attention for their cause, or maybe over time got some distance toward getting better lawyers.  Some tangible thing that improved the world happened because you leaned and strained against the wall hoping to push it over.

Voting isn't like that.  Elections are binary.  If your candidate wins or loses by two votes your vote counted for nothing.  People oohed and aahed over Florida 2000 illustrating how every vote counts, but it doesn't.  If you lived there and you voted, nothing would have been different if you had stayed home.  Even if you are a person of influence, how many minds are you changing, exactly? Even the big hitters, such as Rush Limbaugh or Stephen Colbert, are mostly talking to people who already agree with them.  They might move the dial on turnout a bit.  They might influence their listeners toward or away from a candidate enough that, multiplied over an audience of millions, they moved a large-sounding amount of votes.  Most of those votes, however, will be in states that end up being decided by hundreds of thousands or even millions of votes. Did they nudge things that much?  Even at the secondary of influencing the influencers, did they change things?  Rarely, if at all.

The week's preacher at camp last week was Will Barnett of Highrock church in Acton, MA. He mentioned in his opening sermon how we agonise and become obsessed with individual decisions, even feeling very focused and close to God while we are going through the decision process. But when the decision is made, we drift away a bit, relax a little. Right now the nation is focused on an electoral decision.  Christians are deeply conflicted about which previously-unacceptable option they are going to embrace.

The decisions which have greater practical, measurable results follow the same pattern.  Shall I ask this woman to marry me?* Will I take this job and move across the country or stay here?  Is this a good time to have a child? We are focused, we do seek God's direction, we implore Him to speak to us.  It was one of my earliest lessons in my 1970's Jesus Freak days, living in a community of guys who were not only frantic about whether they should move to Michigan or Washington, but whether they should buy their gas at the Shell station or the Mobil station across the street.  Because you never know, God might have a plan for you to strike up a conversation with a person at one or the other, and you would be able to bring a witness, and that might be their best chance of being saved.  Ever. Even in my dim, baby-Christian days I had some sense that there was something wrong with this.  God was not letting you walk off the Michigan cliff, waiting for you to get with the program and listen to him and go to Washington, God was saying Michigan or Washington, Shell or Mobil?  Eh.  You need to treat your wife better. 

Will drew us back to the "Virtue Ethics" aspect of the decision-making process. The point is not a manic focus on God for a couple of weeks, or even a full year, asking Him for that one right decision.  The point is that we need to become better people, so that we make better decisions as a natural consequence of our character.

Okay, no one wants to hear that, least of all me.  I've done that extended-fasting, shall-I, shan't-I type of decision-making a few times in my life.  It's fine.  It's a good thing.  Just not as good as taking some step to improve my character, so that this decision and all subsequent decisions are made by a wiser person.

The upshot of such a change in approach is that God may be teaching each of us a different lesson. So you might vote for Hillary, while George stays home for the first time in his life, and Janice writes in John Kasich anyway, dammit. And all may be right.

We should be grateful for exactly these sorts of decisions that God sends to us.  The November election is a practice version of a decision that has real consequences. Jesus is letting us have a sandbox to play in every election, where we can try out the various lessons and build our little castles for practice.  Because your answer is going to have no effect on anything.  This is a test. Rejoice!  Most lessons in the Christian faith are expensive, considered worth it only in retrospect.  This one is cheap. Use this opportunity with joy.

*Today is our fortieth wedding anniversary.

Two Posters, One Rant

The biggest problem with the denizens of Bullshit Mountain is they act like their shit doesn't stink. If they have success, they built it.  If they failed, the government ruined it for them. If they get a break, they deserved it.  If you get a break, it's a handout and an entitlement. It's a baffling, willfully blind cognitive dissonance... Jon Stewart
The appeal of such hate speech is that it doesn't look like hate speech at first, so people can continue to think well of themselves while subscribing to it.  It describes an attitude that is present in a mild form throughout humanity. Few people think like this this all the time, and even they not with anything near this intensity.  I know a person who has an enormous degree of resentment which spills out into her politics, angry at people who don't work as hard as she does, and have no obvious disability, but buy nice things with money they get from government and charity.  Yet even she acknowledges that she is lucky in many ways, and recognises that people besides herself might deserve better than life has dealt them.  I know a few others that display more of this attitude that Stewart deplores more than I like to hear.  They put up posters of their own on FB or drop comments at work, many of them unfair.

The group of people I hear this from the most are a subset of Mental Health Workers at the hospital; that is, people who work very hard for not very good money, putting their safety in danger daily and enduring regular verbal abuse, who nonetheless act very kindly to difficult people. While most of the patients they deal with are rather obviously sick and not capable of behaving much better in the moment, there are others - indeed, there are always one or two on any unit at any given moment - who act entitled, as we used to say. They do not seem to be incapable of working, yet they receive benefits in aggregate which are not much less than the hospital workers make. Worse, they have an attitude about it.

Those workers are the people I know who come closest to fitting Stewart's description.  And they aren't very close.  I would like for you to imagine who the people are that Jon Stewart hangs around with every day.  I have no knowledge, but I'm guessing that he doesn't spend a lot of time with the small contractors and appliance repairmen who grouse unfairly about people on welfare and exaggerate how many of them there are. If he actually knew them, he might have more sympathy with them and moderate his words.  He might say "Y'know, Americans overestimate how many undeserving people receive benefits. And most of us aren't grateful enough for the breaks we've received in life." That would be true, and fair. But he would rather paint them in black-and-white.

I searched around for how different the perceptions are among the various American political tribes on the matter, to see if there were any justification for Stewart's cartoon. There's no justification. He doesn't know such people, he just makes them up on the basis of what he reads, and the teensy subset of people who write in to criticise him. His readers don't see it as hate speech, they see it as "strongly-worded," or whatever.

Exercise:  in Stewart's quote, take out the phrase "the government" and put in one of the racism/sexism/homophobia-type words. You might play with the last sentences about "corporate entitlements" or "patriarchy" or whatever if you want to really tighten it up, but it works okay just as it stands.  Imagine any public figure making that statement and the amount of retraction and backpedaling they would have to do the next morning over complaints of their hate speech.  Which would be fair, BTW.  It would be a terrible thing to imply about some group, deeply unfair.  It's one thing to read someone ranting like that in a comment section or typing along on some blog even more obscure than mine, but people with any audience are held to higher standards, and should be.

It's just a lot more fun to hate, I guess, to imagine that the people who disagree with you are not just wrong, not just insensitive and a bit hypocritical, but flat out evil.  Life is simpler that way.

Second Poster: I have been seeing variations for the last three months on the theme of The Reason That I (am a liberal/ don't support Trump/ am not a conservative/ am voting for Sanders) is that
I love my Mexican friends.
I want gay people to be respected.
I think everyone should have the opportunity....

Well aren't we special, then, loving so much and being such nice people. The implication being, then , that the people who aren't like you are...not as righteous as you are.  They don't just disagree with you, they are, by double reverse, not good people.  I wouldn't bring this up if it weren't Christians who were posting it so much. There are half-a-dozen places in the Gospels where Jesus makes it pretty clear that this sort of thinking yourself better than others is a very grave sin. No, no, I don't think I'm better than those others, or more loving or anything.  It's just that...

Yeah you do.  That's what you said, and you meant it.  You just don't like to be called on it.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Prejudicial Selection In Action

People strongly self-select according to age, and if my FB feed is an indicator, they are not very shy about it, albeit humorously.  Kids these days...

In social settings people select somewhat by sex, though this gets complicated by selection by marital status as well.  It's not simple, but you can see it happening at parties, at work, in professions.  Human beings group together by intelligence and education, and by religion, nationality, hobbies, and region of the country. I'm sure I'm forgetting some. I see it in my own choices.  I may choose by race or ethnicity somewhat, but it's way down the list.

So, of course grouping according to race and to sex is going to be more pronounced at colleges. Human beings can't associate with everyone all at once and break off into groups, usually with soft edges, but identifiable.  At college, they associate by field of study somewhat, or by other common activity such as band, theater, sports team, religious or political organisation.  But most of the main dividing lines used in our society are not applicable on campus: a large percentage of people are 18-23, they have fairly similar intelligence and (obviously) very similar levels of education.  Most are single, most of those are seeking some sort of romantic or sexual connection; they don't have a profession just yet; their hobbies may not be practicable on campus; the ebbs and flows of sexual and romantic energy complicates many interactions...

And we haven't even gotten to personality considerations and social skill.

Hyperawareness of race and sex are thus to be expected at college.

Vacation

Back from camp, with ideas in my head but no time to write.  Coming up, Why your vote doesn't count, but it matters, which may get some title about practicing virtuous decisions; Why colleges are a terrible place to look at what is happening in terms of racial and sexual prejudice; and something about Chuck Klosterman's book What If We're Wrong?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Cities and Thrones And Powers, Rudyard Kipling

I am generally not fond of poetry, but I liked a good deal of what Kipling put out in Puck of Pook's Hill, which I just read for the first time. I like it better than Shelley's "Ozymandias," which treats a similar theme.



Cities and Thrones and Powers
  Stand  in Time's eye,
Almost as long as flowers,
  Which daily die:
But, as new buds put forth
  To glad new men,
Out of the spent and unconsidered Earth
  The Cities rise again.

This season's Daffodil,
  She never hears
What change, what chance, what chill,
  Cut down last year's;
But with bold countenance,
  And knowledge small,
Esteems her seven days' continuance,
  To be perpetual.

So Time that is o'er-kind
  To all that be,
Ordains us e'en as blind,
  As bold as she:
That in our very death,
  And  burial sure,
Shadow to shadow, well persuaded, saith,
  "See how our works endure!"
 
There is an explanatory note:  
 
The  date in the heading – A.D. 406 – is significant.. It is the year the 
Roman legions were withdrawn and Britain was left on her own to face the
 threat of Anglo-Saxon invasion. Though spoken by a Roman serving in 
Britain, there are obvious references to the situation in England 1500 
years later.