Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The New Palestinians

Judith Weiss over at Kesher Talk has a novel speculation on how the Palestinian problem is going to resolve itself.

From your lips to God's ears.

NH Woman Renounces Eccentricity

CONCORD – 1/31/06

Victoria Shouldis of Hillsboro announced at a press conference at the State House yesterday that she has “had it” with eccentricity and has decided to pursue a non-unconventional way of looking at life. “Vonnegut, Foucault, Joyce, I’ve tried them all. Judy Collins had it wrong with that sappy ‘Both Sides Now.’ Life is actually more like an icosahedron, and I’m sick of it.” When asked how she would celebrate this change in direction, Shouldis replied “I’m chucking that bottle of absinthe, buying a liter of White Zin, and going to see a production of ‘Cats.’”
Associates of Shouldis were quick to point out this is not her first attempt seek the center of the bell curve. “Vicky says things like this every few years. We don’t pay attention to it anymore.” Sources who wished to remain anonymous revealed that she has at various times bought Celine Dion CD’s, signed up for home delivery of Newsweek, and spoken highly of eating at Olive Garden. “It’s a pose,” one confided.” She can’t maintain it for more than a week or two. Eventually she has to walk past a used book store, and then she’s back to herself again.”

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Recovery From Delusion

There has been a lot of discussion over the last few months at Dr. Sanity, neo-neocon, Sigmund, Carl, & Alfred, One Cosmos, Dr. Helen, and GM Roper about liberal beliefs and their psychological foundations. I have encouraged and contributed to this discussion, which has focussed on the more extreme statements of prominent Democrats and liberals. Distinctions are made which often go unheard, if the comments sections are any indication. "Government can be a force for good" is not a delusional statement, and no one has made that claim. It might be right or wrong, but it's not crazy. "Abu Ghraib is as bad under the US as it was under Saddam," now, that's just nuts. Similarly, Bush stole the election...war for oil...squandered international support...crushing dissent... and all the other familiar attacks fall under a different category. They are not merely wrong, but fevered and overwrought. Those are fair game for commentary by mental health professionals, and speculating whether such things are the result of denial, projection, displacement, etc is intellectually valid. This is because these are ideas which could possibly be true, but have been found to be so devoid of supporting evidence that belief in them reveals something unhealthy about the thinking.

Alternative medicine provides a reasonable analogy. The initial consideration that magnets or copper bracelets or cabbage juice might provide treatment or relief of certain ailments is not delusional. Those beliefs may be odd or unlikely, but heck, stranger things have turned out true. They become delusional when the evidence is in and they are shown to not work, yet people believe in them anyway. At that point it becomes reasonable for a psychologist to consider why the belief persists in spite of adequate disproving evidence.

Many people who vote for liberals are not delusional, but simply inattentive or intellectually lazy. They might cynically believe that something is fishy about Republican motives, but don't bother much about it and get on with their lives. It is worth remembering that such people are likely to vote for sensible Democrats once they become available.

All that was just an incantation to nullify troll mind rays. My real point runs off at 45 degrees from this. It often happens that when people go back on their clozapine and stop hearing satellites beaming messages into their heads that their interpretation of previous events does not change. Oh sure, no one's out to harm my mother NOW, but they were a year ago. This is, needless to say, frustrating for families.

Beliefs that are not based on active hallucinations, but on misinterpretation of everyday events, can be more persistent. The group of Democratic voters I mentioned above, who are cynical and uninformed rather than paranoid, may never change their interpretation of the events of the last 6 years. They might start to favor Joe Lieberman- or Zell Miller-style Democrats, but still think the neocons were too ready to go to war in Iraq.

This will be fine. Conservatives, listen up. This will be fine. Getting people to rewrite their own narratives is very difficult, and only those people who live in the world of ideas and abstracts care very much whether they got it right 20 years ago. It still frosts conservatives that people would think that Gorbachev -- not Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II -- brought down the Soviet Union, but just live with it. What we want is for the Democrats to make sense again.

If we get to a situation where the Democrats are wrong but not paranoid, and start attracting the undecided vote back from us, that will be an enormous improvement over the current state of affairs.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Beliefs, and Where They Come From. (The Stork)

"Worldviews are more a mental security blanket than a serious effort to understand the world."
-- Bryan Caplan, The Logic of Collective Belief

A worldview doesn't cost much, except socially. Why shouldn't you have the one that makes you happy, instead of investing a lot of time into finding the one which accords best with reality? That is the logic behind the above. Hat tip, Arnold Kling over at TCS Daily

Recently, economist Jim Miller used the term moral free riding to describe adopting a precarious ideological position when it has little personal risk. George Mason University economics professor Bryan Caplan says that such free riding is the normal state of affairs. He argues that people are insulated from the consequences of their beliefs by the fact that the typical voter has a low probability of influencing the outcome of an election.

Caplan, in a book that eventually is to be published by Princeton University Press, argues that most people do not work very hard to arrive at worldviews that are logically consistent and factually supported, because the reward for rational beliefs is too small. He writes: "we should expect people to...believe whatever makes them feel best. After all, it's free. The fanatical protectionist who votes to close the borders risks virtually nothing, because the same policy wins no matter how he votes."

If you believe very strongly that there is a confederation of malign groups running your political opposites, then change your mind and decide that they're not so bad after all, what would change in your everyday life? You wouldn't likely change what your expectations for you childrens' schoolwork are, you would probably vacation in the same places, and eat the same foods. You would buy the same number of books, though a few titles might change.

The only thing likely to change would be what the people you frequently interact with think about you. Few of us have influence over enough people that our change of mind (or heart) would have much impact on the national scene. Collectively, what people in a democracy believe has an effect, and elections are made from the gradual accumulation of millions of tiny atoms. But for we atoms, why should we change our minds? Why not believe whatever we think will give us the most friends, or money,
or respect?

Trick question

Sir John Cowperthwaite: An Obituary You Missed

Samizdata provides a laudatory obituary on Sir John Cowperthwaite, who was apparently more important than any of us realized. Libertarians and free-marketers will especially cheer.

"Samizdata," BTW refers to the underground publishing done in the Soviet Union before its collapse. A very interesting site, this.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Overheard In Avebury

Inside the Avebury stone circle at the Red Lion the young people at the next table were having a discussion about the f-word. A tall young man with several piercings and alert eyes offered the opinion that it was the forbidden nature of the word that created its attractiveness to his juniors. He drew the common conclusion that if we did not forbid the word, it would soon lose its power. This is a variation of the “well if we just get all this talk about sex out in the open and not hush it up, we won’t have these problems anymore.” I have not often heard that in the last ten years, but it was a common refrain when I was younger. In popular culture, we seem to have talked about nothing but sex for several decades, and I have not noticed a decrease in sexual preoccupation, but an increase. So apparently being frank and candid was not quite the way to get back to the garden.

But I perked up my ears at the next part, as this lad had done more thinking than the average bear. “Take the word nigger,” he said. “Because you can’t say it, it’s become a worse insult. It used to be just coarse and stupid; now it’s a real insult, much more cruel.” This is not blindingly profound, but it represents more exercise of the little gray cells than I had expected. Words of opprobrium do change in strength in inverse proportion to their use. The phrase “you suck” has nowhere near the insultive power it had when I was a boy. And I think the man from Avebury is correct: nigger is a worse insult now than it was then.

One word became more acceptable, one less, and their intensity changed accordingly. Though by giving good evidence for his minor point he undermined his major one. When a word is in common use it does not provide the contrast an uncommon one does. When you heard the n-word in the 1960’s, it was not immediately clear whether the speaker was being vicious or just stupid. Stupidity is now a very unlikely explanation. It was good that we forbade the word and gave it more power. By doing so, we removed a lot of the dilute racism from our discourse and concentrated it into the few individuals who really meant it.

What's Europe?

There are supposedly 49 countries in Europe. This includes Azerbaijan, for example. I guess FIFA and the CIA World Factbook can categorise countries any way they want -- who's going to stop them? But I can't imagine telling your truelove that you want to take her on a tour of European capitals and then booking flights for Baku and Yerevan. OK, I can imagine it, because in my family that would be considered humorous. What I mean is, I can't imagine still having the sweetheart afterward.

What do you call Europe? I imagine few Cypriots are reading this blog, so you can let your prejudices flow.

Peyton Place

2006 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Peyton Place. Grace Metalious lived as an adult in Gilmanton Iron Works, and folks in that part of NH believe the book is an expose about small-town NH. Well, sort of. Grace wrote the book as an adult, and the cynical behind-the-scenes look at what respectable families were like is certainly not a child’s vision even in the worst of circumstances. And maybe the folks in Gilmanton had guilty consciences or something.

But Grace DeRepentigny grew up in Manchester, on the corner of Beech and Blodget. She went to Straw School and to Manchester Central, as I did, but they didn’t advertise the connection to young people in those days. When she died in 1964 I was in 5th grade at Straw, and no one mentioned it.

The street names in Peyton Place are not uncommon for New England in general, but how they are placed and what sort of folk live on them is pure Manchester. My mother and aunt grew up playing with Grace’s younger sister Bunny – and later, my mother was Bunny’s probation officer when, as my uncle says, “she was caught peddling her butt downtown.” That uncle was a year younger than Grace, and as much as he noticed her at all, didn’t like her much. The DeRepentigny family was abusive and irrational. To use the current word “dysfunctional” would be too mild. In retrospect, given Grace and Bunny’s Borderline-y tendencies, it seems likely that they were sexually molested, as was later claimed.

There are two ways to frame the scandals in Peyton Place. What the nation wanted to read – and later watch – was that respectable people had skeletons in the closet. Such things usually sell well, and fit with the egalitarianism and underdog-rooting of our culture. They’re not so big as they think. Lo, how the mighty have fallen. But the same data looks different if you spin it from an abused child’s perspective instead of a cynical adult’s. Horrible people are being treated as if they’re respectable. To a child, abused and invisible, this would be the real outrage.

I think the latter framing is stronger in the book. The adult cynicism is not the core, but the later explanation imposed on the anger of a girl in her early teens looking out at an unfair world.

I have wondered if Cynthia and Jean were any part ofthe girls in Peyton Place who have these seemingly perfect lives and are clearly resented by the narrator.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Army Lets Convicted Torturer Skate

From Blackfive

Even with the plea-bargain angle, and the mitigating circumstances, this is unacceptable.

Making Padded Swords

PVC pipe, foam pipe insulation, and duct tape are the primary materials. Half-inch PVC is best for the younger ones, 3/4" as they get older. But be careful, because if you are making something longer than 36", that half-inch stuff can get whippy.

18-36" is best. As in all whapping games, your older or stronger children will have some advantage. They will have less advantage than in most other games, however. You can equalize things a bit by giving the younger child a longer, but lighter sword. Or you can make only one shield, and give it to the younger one.

Don't run the PVC all the way to the point of the sword. Leave about 4" that's just foam insulation wrapped with duct tape. Ditto the sword crosspiece, which should have a 1" foam overlap on each end. A pommel at the bottom is sufficient protection.

Wrap the duct tape in spiral fashion, overlapping it enough so that the final amount of tape is two layers. One layer tends to split. Three layers makes the sword stiff enough to really sting -- too much.

Kids can still get hurt with this, as with any game, but even bruising is unlikely. A stinging smack that brings tears to your eyes is usually about the worst of it. In winter, the cold stiffness of the "blade" is offset by the extra padding worn by the combatants.

I have seen people attempt scimitars, pikes, two-handed axes and the like. Why bother? These swords aren't going to look particularly authentic no matter what you do. They're for play, not reenactment.

About Those Postgraduate Voters

I remember people making some noise in the run-up to the 2004 elections about the breakdown of voters by education. Democrats considered it significant that folks with some postgrad study preferred Kerry 55/44/1. I don't blame them for trumpeting it, because whatever it means, it sounds great. Someone just brought it up again in another comments section.

The overall numbers: No Highschool Diploma split 50/49 for Bush. Not much for either side to cheer about there. HS Diploma 52/47 Bush; Some college, 54/46 Bush; College Grad 52/46/1 Bush/Kerry/Nader; Postgrad study, 55/44/1, Kerry/Bush/Nader, as above.

Since that time I ran across the statistic that just under one-third of those with some graduate school took Education. This puts a whole different light on the earlier statistic. Graduate students in Education have the lowest GRE's of any field of study. Their undergraduate GPA's in non-education courses were lowest in any field of study. Their SAT's were not only lower than those who went to graduate school in other subjects, they were lower than those who went on to no graduate school at all.

Advanced degrees in science correlate moderately well with intelligence measures. Other advanced degrees, less well. Grad school is more a measure of perseverence. Persistence is a good thing. It is probably a better quality to have than intelligence. But it is not the same thing.

Also, more than any other field (I am estimating), people in Education depend on government for employment. This would create a certain amount of self-interest in voting for parties that like federal funding of education. While it sometimes feels as if there's no longer any difference between Republicans and Democrats on that, that's just grouchiness on the part of deficit-hawk Republicans. There actually still is a difference. And as for perceptions, Democrats run way ahead of Republicans among educators. Classroom teachers run 61-39 Democrat. Education professors run 92-8 Democrat. Somewhere between that must be where those with some graduate study are. Call it 75-25 Democrat.

Now take those folks with graduate study in education out of the equation, because A) they're not as qualified (generally. Lots individuals with said degrees have superb intelligence), and B) they have a vested interest.

Well, Shazam! All of a sudden Bush is up again. 52/47/1. Huh. The moral of the story is, Kerry did best among people with no HS diploma plus people with some graduate study in Education.

Monday, January 23, 2006

The Four Yorkshiremen

Monty Python did the the best send-up of victimology more than 30 years ago.

I have heard it was based loosely on an actual conversation.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Teach Your Children Well

I will save you some trouble in educating your children. Don't bring them to an historical place, hoping they will develop some interest and want to learn about it. That does happen, but it is so serendipitous as to be unreliable.

Have them learn first, and then go, painful as that is for you.

We take a family trip in honor of each boy's highschool graduation -- their choice. In 1997, Jonathan chose England and Scotland. Note that Braveheart came out in 1995. Jonathan was very taken with being descended from William Wallace, and all things Scots in general. Our first two sons had grown up in a family oriented toward the medieval. We had gone to SCA events in elaborate costume, had read them dozens of stories with knights and dragons, visited Hammond Castle and the armor museum in Worcester, and made padded swords for them to engage in mock combat. I thought that the second son, Benjamin, would pick up enough history on the trip to aid him in subsequent history classes.

Fast forward four years. "How did the history test go, Ben?" Not bad. I think I got almost everything, except there was a question about Hadrian's Wall (disdainful voice) which of course only Doug knew about. My eyebrows went up, my eyes widened, and I shook in anger, remember the approximately $6K we'd spent on the trip. "You were ON IT! It's the border between Scotland and England and you and Jonathan played on it! Don't you remember?" Oh. Yeah. Sort of.

Two weeks later. Y'know, I think I'd like to see Versailles when we go on my trip.

Spend your money on the movie first, the academic lesson second, and the trip third.

Today's Linguistics Curiosity

River names are among the oldest in any region. New settlers seldom outnumber the old ones at first, and adopt the name already in use. This often gives us some clue as to where various groups of people lived, and when. The Indo-European root "D-n" for river gives us Danube, Dnieper, Donets, Dniestr, Don, and a dozen others in that Black Sea region. Of all the Indian names which persist in America, rivers far outnumber other features. Name-continuity happens less often with mountains because people do not particularly use mountains as they do rivers. Political features are often named intentionally by the inhabitants, and there is usually good reason not to remind everyone who the recent owners were.

Underground DSM-IV: Splitting

If one staff member moves to rescue an Axis II patient, someone else will lean toward punishment to an equal degree. In large groups the mathematics of balance is more complicated but the principle is the same: the group will balance its transference, which is driven by the patient. Moving to the extremes just increases splitting: shift wars, team vs. line staff, community vs. hospital.

Once everyone takes a deep Lamaze Cleansing Breath and remembers this, the treatment of the patient can procedd.

Gregg Easterbrook's The Progress Paradox

How Life Gets Better While People Feel Worse.

For the first 80 pages, Easterbrook hammers home how much better life keeps getting. Each cynic wants to deny it, searching for exceptions in education or international relations, but the list is impressive, and its supporting evidence powerful.

From 1900 to now, life expectancy almost double; percentage in upper-middle class or above went from 1% to 23%. Almost half of all men worked in primary labor – forestry, farming, and half of all wage-earning women worked as domestic servants – not even what we would call blue collar these days -- but now over 50% of each is white-collar.

Since 1950, houses twice as big for families half the size, and 70% own their dwelling. Life expectancy up 35%. Percentage of folks in war zones, down 80% worldwide.

Crime is down, disease is down, IQ’s are up (yeah, really) and education is better (yeah really). Divorce is down, teenage pregnancy down, drug use down. For those who find this impossible to believe there is a short answer: retrospective memory is inaccurate.

There is a different but related list over at No Oil For Pacifists

And yet – clinical depression is way up; anxiety disorders are up; people’s subject sense of well-being is slightly down, people’s hopefulness for the future is down.

Easterbrook suggests a dozen reasons, including unrealistic expectations; lack of sleep and exercise, less community contact, greater awareness of problems everywhere, the preference of intellectual elites for bad news and hopelessness, catalog-induced anxiety, and perceived want. He recommends the new “positive psychology:” cultivating forgiveness and gratitude and the other parts of hazzin’ a good attitude. OK, fine. The book starts to weaken here, and dribbles out altogether at the end, as he repeats his favorite complaints against SUV’s, health insurance insecurity, and the free market’s creation of losers. (He acknowledges, BTW, that market economies have created all the good things above, but keeps thinking there should be something, well, better. Great. Wake me when you find it, Gregg.)

All this we knew at some dim level. This next part is new. Easterbrook believes that stress and anxiety are the default positions for the human personality. The people who worried about the fire going out and listened for war drums over the hill survived; those who stopped to appreciate sunsets got eaten by something. We think relaxation should be our default mode, and when problems go away we should just naturally relax. Probably not. More typical is that we transfer our worry and stress to the next-largest problem. Relaxation has to be cultivated and learned for most of us.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Perfect Solution

From Clayton Cramer's site, via Instapundit, comes the news that France is announcing its willingness to use its nuclear arsenal against terrorist states.

It seems a perfect solution to me. France gets to show they do too matter. The rest of Europe and America express deep regret but do nothing. Iran gets a hand cut off. The nutcase jihadists have someone new to be upset at, but don't dare take their eyes off their American/British/Australian foes. When there's rioting outside of Paris, this time the French put it down in the same way they do in their colonies. Moderate Muslims pause to consider that maybe things have gotten too crazy. The Russians, French, and Chinese angle for the proper way to corruptly divvy up Iran's oil money. American and Western European leftists burst from contradiction.

I must be missing some downside here. Work with me.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Articles You Missed

Bruce Bawer, a gay leftist American lives in Europe a few years and has second thoughts. And third thoughts.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Building Better Brains

Daviess County, KY has a program to build better brains. Starting with the Class of 2010 -- that would be the Kindregarten class of 97-98 -- every student is taught and practices chess, every student studies a foreign language every year, and every child receives music lessons (usually keyboard piano). The idea is to simply build better brains, more neuronal connections, in every student.

Dance was quickly added in, which seemed non-academic to me at first, but does fit with the idea of building new motor and memory pathways.

So far, so good. Daviess County already had a pretty good school system when they started, placing at about the 60th percentile nationally despite having 35% of students qualifying for lunch assistance. More than halfway through the experiment, the district 7th graders are now just shy of the 80th percentile. (For comparison, the 10th graders are still just over 60). This number becomes even more remarkable when one considers...

Not all those tested in the project, called Graduation 2010, have been in the district the whole time. Like anywhere else, people move in and out.

Children entering kindergarten each year are about the same as before, at 60th percentile nationally.

The county had a tornado which did millions of dollars of damage to school buildings.


The superintendent who drove this whole idea has moved on to Fayette County, also in KY. Maybe your new masters won't have Asperger's. Maybe they'll have Kentucky accents instead.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Thinking and Culture

Albion's Seedlings has a fascinating review of the differences in how Western and Eastern societies perceive and evaluate things. Alphabets, spy planes, and tigers make it into the discussion of Richard E. Nesbitt's The Geography of Thought.

It's Not Just The Money

I spoke with another social worker yesterday, who mentioned that her political belief was that everyone should have guaranteed birth control, housing, food, and education. I didn’t press her on this – no point, really – but I know that her accompanying belief is that if we would just be willing as a society to pay for this we could do it. And that we should. I did mention offhand that housing projects didn’t seem to have worked out well. She agreed, and countered that perhaps smaller, scattered places would work better.

If it were only a matter of building some housing or passing out some pills, that would be fine. Conservatives rail over the unfairness of confiscatory taxation and grumble about giveaways, and quotes from Ayn Rand with some words in BLOCK CAPITALS are frequent on the right blogosphere, but in the main, we are culturally disposed to taking care of those who cannot care for themselves. Europeans might sniff at our hard-heartedness, and those Americans prone to look at Europe as a model may agree, but we are as generous a people as any, just different.

It's just that we have found that charity is more complicated than popularly supposed. Game Theory refers to that branch of mathematics in which decisions are interactive. (More complete discussion here). The actions of one person influences the actions of another, as in a game. The mathematics of social policy are always complicated. If it were just expensive, we could accept that. Americans pay for expensive things -- individually and collectively -- all the time.

Imagine a town which decides to have an Excellent School System. Evaluating the progress a few years later, it is discovered that 10% of the students are doing badly. Somehow the system "isn't working for them." This town committed to an Excellent School System studies the 10% who aren't making it somehow, identifies a few common themes, and adds some solutions to the system. Some children might have perceptual difficulties; some might be abusing substances; a third group is ill-prepared. Appropriate responses are put in place by the Excellent School System.

Measuring the progress a few years later, a puzzling thing has happened. More than 10% of the students are receiving the new interventions, and there is still a 7% failure rate. Hmm. Intervening in the system did not merely change the behavior of the 10% who were failing, it changed the behavior of some of the 90% as well. Some of those "fell back" into needing interventions.

Well, all right then, the problem was always 20% of the students, not 10, but we just didn't pick that up on the first pass. The evaluators of the Excellent School System study the 20% having the hardest time and reengineer their responses. It turns out that there were other kids having problems with drugs, or perception, or background, and they were just scraping by, always on the verge of failing.

Most people can predict what happens at the next evaluation. Almost 30% of the students are receiving some sort of intervention, and the failure rate is only down to 5%.

Eventually, all students are made to sit through drug education classes, instructions on how to improve their study habits, and testing to see what their learning styles and aptitudes are. But somehow, there are still some failing.

The interventions changed the system. Game theory. Conservatives would say that we have sapped some of the character out of the students, some of the drive and independence. Fear of failure, being challenged, brings out our better selves. Perhaps so. Take whatever theory you want. The important fact to note is that it didn't work, and the system is now different.

So, my social work buddies think we should guarantee housing. When one of the people in the new Guarantos molests a neighbor, what do we do with him? If some woman is selling drugs there, what do we do with her? Do we put them into some sort of lesser Guaranto? We certainly don't want to put them in a better one, or those folks who are tempted to drug or molest, but have being keeping themselves under control, will have incentive to offend. Heck, we don't even want to put the offenders into something as good for the same reason.

So they go someplace worse. What if they screw up there? What if they have kids, who didn't do anything wrong? Do we take them away? And the less people have to lose, of course, the less incentive they have for keeping with the rules.

I'n not advocating any punish 'em all, three-strikes rules for failing at education or at housing. I have seen enough people finally succeed after numerous tries to want to never take that away from anyone. Some drunks do sober up. Some criminals reform. I like living in a culture of second, third, and ninety-seventh chances. I'm not advocating any type of solution (not just now, anyway).

I just despise the mentality that if we just gave more funding to programs X, Y, and Z it would all come right, and the selfish bastards who won't pay up are ruining our society. That kind of simplistic thinking -- not poverty -- is what divides the country.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Big Bad Three

When editorialists and online commenters want to illustrate for you how bad Christianity is, and how much it has contributed to the misery of man, there are three examples that are trotted out: the Salem Witch Trials, the Inquisition, and the Crusades. Keep in mind...

Witch trials were more common -- ten thousand times more common -- in Europe, and increasingly common the farther east you went. As the colonies were still part of Europe, being the most western (that is, least witch-burning) portion fits the pattern nicely. Not only was there no correlation to strongly religious areas in European witch trials, there was a negative correlation. Execution of witches was most common in areas that still had strong pagan and folk superstitions. Salem was not even known as a particularly religious city in the New England Colonies. Following Hawthorne's self-hatred and Miller's anti-McCarthyite agenda, the idea that Christian extremism leads to witch-burning is firmly implanted in our mythology, but is false.

The Inquisition, insane as it was, was saner than the civil courts around it. A higher percentage of "heretics" tried in civil courts in Spain were executed. It may be sad, or even infuriating, that things were so bad that the Inquisition was a step up, but it was.

Western Europe played defense against Islamic expansion for almost 95% of the 7th-17th Centuries. In our current imagination, this is remembered as a series of aggressive Crusades by the West. The Romanians, who got slaughtered and had their heads put on pikes for our sake, remember the events a little differently.

Remember also that the Inquisition and Crusades were first used as criticisms against Catholics rather than Christians in general. When the individuals who had the temerity to name themselves The Enlightenment spun their version of European history into popularity, they were building on the considerable anti-Catholic spin that already prevailed from their upbringing. To steal an image from a recent post of mine below, the background music you hear when you read the words Salem, Inquisition, or Crusades promises more evil than the actual events deliver. Da-DUHH!

The Jews get a pass and are allowed to complain about any of it, because they really were screwed over at least once a century just about everywhere.

There have been no religious wars in Christendom since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. What people call religious wars in Europe are tribal and national wars that people tried to dress in religious clothing. Wolves don't hide in wolf's clothing.

Update: We treat not burning witches anymore as a moral improvement. It is actually only a scientific improvement. We no longer believe witches can accomplish those horrible things, so we don't persecute them anymore. People who we believe can do bad things to us from a distance -- disease, radiation, toxins -- we want to do bad things to. Because we consider their damage partial or minor we only sue them and fine them. If we thought they could kill our children we might get meaner. Part of the sneering against us is drawn from secularists treating the scientifc advance as a moral one. But notice the recovered memory of satanic cults hysteria from 10-20 years ago -- both religious and secular people went completely nuts with that, and sent some innocent people to jail over it -- not to mention destroyed families and reputations.

Proxy Value

One's view on abortion is a proxy for a other values – not that people on either side don’t sincerely hold their views, but that a whole array of our sort of people/not our sort of people issues come into it as well. In simplest form, being prochoice is seen as being for women, in some way. Being prolife is seen as being for churchy stuff. Given the wide difference among women and among churches, it rapidly gets messy. People resent being seen as anti X, just because they are for Y, when X and Y are not true opposites.

But this does explain why animal-rights activists, who by logic should be prolife extremists, tend to be prochoice. It's an Our Sort/Not Our Sort thing. This is intensified by the tendency of PETA folk to have few or no children, lining them up with the environmentalists. Their attempt at legacy is diverted to the entire planet. They don’t have the historically usual understanding about nurturance, and so adopt the faux-nurturance of Gaiaism. (four vowels in a row!).

Inhibitory Fibers

Bright, spacey children get tested to discover what's wrong. In my era, I kept getting hearing tests at the request of the school. When my son Ben was in school, this had escalated to fancy attention and neurological tests. Just daydreaming, friends.

One odd fragment of the testing was when the neurologist, reading the sleep-deprived EEG, noted that Ben would have trouble making his left and right hand do different things. Well, that explained why this musically talented child was unable to get very far on piano, so we switched to voice. Too late.

I found it a fascinating idea. I was a guitarist as well as a singer, and always claimed I had to work twice as hard to be half as good as everyone else. And that description of the neurologist's described my limitation. I was a decent rhythm guitarist, because the left and right hands had to do approximately the same thing. This has run around in my head over the last dozen years; I finally got around to researching it.

It seems there are inhibitory fibers which run between the two sides of the brain – intercallosal – which reduce “mirror movements,” in which the nondominant hand involuntarily picks up the movement of the dominant hand. Ben and I have a reduced number of these fibers, seemingly. I didn't discover any information on heritability, but we have a good anecdotal case to start with.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

How Liberals Got Crazy -- Ghost Dance Plus Saturation

I am taking two posts over at One Cosmos as my jumping-off point. First, because I’ve been thinking about both concepts and want to show what a clever guy I am. But more important, I think GB’s thoughts about crisis cults are very interesting, and have the potential to lead us to a fuller understanding of knowledge, interpretation, and belief. The topic deserves both discussion and elaboration by a dozen different thinkers and researchers, until one giant rises among us to unify the ideas and push human understanding a bit further.

Quick summaries for those who are too obstinate to go read the posts themselves. GB uses Bion’s concept of saturation of words as an analogy for words so overloaded with meaning that they no longer serve the purpose of clarifying a thought. They include so much added baggage that their simpler meaning is obscured. “Culture” would be one such word, which is why every anthropology and sociology text has to define it right up front so we’re all talking about the same thing. (They each define it differently, of course, recreating the problem over again). GB notes that many terms in our political discourse have become thus overladen, and are used by commenters on the left to give an impression of meaning rather than actual meaning.

The second post notes similarities between the more extreme pronouncements of the left, so hyperbolic as to be disconnected from observable events, and the crisis cults known to have developed in societies under enormous pressure, such as the Native American Ghost Dance, and the Cargo Cult. Otherwise reasonable and functional people co-develop a set of magical beliefs in an attempt to explain change. He cites as a modern example a fevered essay in the Huffington Post which likens the Bush administration to Medusa.


Instead of saturation, I use the analogy of a movie soundtrack. To convey tension, a high, sustained note will be played. Important events are identified by a louder Da-DUHH!, traveling will be underscored by something rapid, light events by something melodic. The music supports the action, or even tells us what to think, much as a laugh track or drum roll has a specific cued meaning.

Imagine if the soundtrack were wildly off, so that random events were pulsed underneath as important, and innocent conversations had this false tension injected into them by the violins. The movie would become difficult or impossible to understand. The meaning cues would compete against the actual words of the characters and pictures on the screen (Bergman would do this intentionally; Brecht may have started it on the stage). To achieve meaning from the film, one would have to ignore the scoring or impose tortured explanations on the script.

Not a tangent: something like this happens in schizophrenia, in which an impaired portion of the brain sends out false signals which the rest of the mind tries to organise into some coherent explanation. The delusional explanations of satellites beaming in voices are the mind’s attempt to explain the indistinguishable whispers. The whispers are real, in some sense. fMRI’s show the brain reacting to actual sounds and hallucinations in the same way. The mind then imposes some order on the unexplainable. They started when my brother moved back to town... yes, it’s my brother’s voice, calling me a faggot...he must want me to go crazy... he wants me out of the way... maybe it’s an inheritance... maybe he’s found that Dad’s property is really valuable... Delusions can develop in other ways, such as believing that the TV is giving you messages, but the phenomenon of misinterpreting events and then tying it to some explanation is common.

There are not only words, but people and places which have such a powerful soundtrack embedded in them that the simple meaning is obscured. Observing three people talking at church about heart attacks, one mentioned something about how Dick Cheney manages his illness. The other two, both quite liberal, stiffened at the name and looked wary, as if there were going to be some heretical attempt to humanize him. In a moment, they processed the content and relaxed. But in that moment, what they had heard was not about someone with a heart condition, but a comment about DICK CHENEY (Da-DUHH!). The soundtrack was playing so loudly that the script and the pictures on the screen were momentarily overwhelmed.

Political discussion is now a minefield for liberals. Sorry, mixed the metaphor there. Political discussion now has so many words with a built-in soundtrack that denotive meaning is overwhelmed. Constructions like Bushitler are not accidental. They illustrate what is really happening in some people’s minds. Conservatives are not immune to this. We have our own adjectives and nouns that carry their own accompaniment. But it is wildly out-of-control on the left.

Schizophrenics usually impose an explanation fairly quickly. The pressure of the unexplained mumbling is intolerable, and the human personality must fit it in somehow. Group delusional beliefs, even in the crisis cults, develop more slowly. It takes a lot of comparing notes, much trial and error, to reject theory after theory to arrive at something bizarre. Thus, as in the example in the second post, groups look at the success of competitors and theorize. There must be some special power in talk radio. We’ve got to get our guys doing that. They must be tampering with the votes. Bush must be silencing his critics. Maybe they’re being paid off, or (gulp) bumped off. Add in the words with their own soundtrack, like “corporate,” or “cabal,” and it’s not too hard to start finding conspiracies in the glove compartment.

Not all liberals develop these disconnects, of course. I will venture that most don’t. But because the change is gradual, and there isn’t a clear line between unrealistic and completely off the tether, many liberals are more than halfway from the simple explanation (Which is, George Bush and his administration are decent, bright, folk who disagree with you about what works in this world), and thus find the delusional explanations more plausible, even if they’re not fully with the program themselves. All the other psychological defenses, such as projection and displacement, only make it easier to move outward and harder to turn around and face the core. This also explains why people who are otherwise sane do not denounce the absolute whackjobs. It’s not that they just cynically want their votes (though that has its part), but that they can sort of, y’know, understand the points of those who think Bush is a fascist. It seems more important to attack the other side, y’see.. Even if Bush didn’t technically lie, he hyped, which is kinda sorta like lying, if you squint, and he cheated before about Florida – well nothing was proved, but his brother, y’know, and it looks fishy, and some people said... – so it’s not impossible that he lied, and at least that’s closer than saying he’s honest...

Perhaps an example from the Right will make it easier to see. When Pat Buchanan was running in the primaries years ago, Buchananites began to gradually believe he could win. If all the prolifers would just stand together...a lot of cultural conservatives would see Pat as their best choice...and we’re going to get a lot of crossover votes from union Democrats...and South Carolina is coming up next, that should help... Shortly after the NH primary, it became apparent that most of Buchanan’s votes were “Smack Bush 41" votes, and it all died down. Each of those little pieces, each of those theories, were overoptimistic but not crazy. Only in the aggregate did they add up to something impossible.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

About Those Generalizations

Setting up a new computer gave me more time to read than post. In several comments sections of the right-of-center blogs I frequent, visiting liberals often complain about the overgeneralization and echo-chamber quality of our blogs. I composed a lengthy essay partly acknowledging the justice of the accusation, but trying to make some distinctions about which generalizations are logically justified and which are a simple descent into stereotype.

I threw away the essay, decided not to be so defensively, and resolved to treat the world more objectively. I don't like it when liberals overgeneralize about conservatives, especially since they usually get it wrong, so it stands to reason that I should endeavor to exercise due diligence in objectivity. To cleanse the palate, I avoided all political discussion and reading this weekend, resolving to enter my very liberal workplace Monday with fresh eyes and ears.

Conservatives know approximately what happened to me this weekend. At Barnes and Nobles, I stayed away from the current events and even history, religion, and humor sections, browsing through my other frequent spots: linguistics, reference, and travel. The annoying voice of the man approaching my section, talking too loudly to his female companion, froze me. These people are nearly always very liberal, seeming to want to announce to other patrons what the Correct Beliefs are. Please, please, don't be a liberal. Be annoying about something completely unpolitical. I'm trying to get away from this and calm my fevered imagination. As he walked by, two aisles over but easily loud enough to be heard, he was saying "Have you read Vidal's book about that? It is just fantastic..."

Okay, fine. Try again. On the way down to my inlaws' today, we listened to some lingustics tapes from one of those Great College Courses. While switching from one tape to another, we only heard one part of one sentence on the radio: "...heightening fears that conservative Benjamin Netanyahu could be the next Prime Minister..." I roll my eyes.

Down at the inlaws', I take a nap, watch a little football and then talk a little football. There is a magazine on the coffee table. Newsweek. I saw only the cover. The cover is by definition the attitude summary of printed material. It is probably all you will see at the dentist's office while you're looking for "Smithsonian" or "Sports Illustrated." If you have a subscription, the cover is the part you will see one hundred times that week.

This cover? A picture of a somewhat angry George W. Bush, with a shadowy, sinister Dick Cheney behind him. "How much POWER should they have?" Something, something, ..."the Imperial Presidency." Now you know that they didn't have an angry Bill Clinton with a shadowy Al Gore on the cover when they brought 900 FBI files of their political enemies to the White House. There were no unflattering photos of Bill and Hillary when she was holding secret meetings about the government taking over the entire health care system, with headlines wondering how much POWER they should have.

For people who move in the public world of ideas, this is the environment. The default liberal assumption permeates the culture. I do not deny that default conservative assumptions probably permeate other parts of the culture. But the denizens of the political blogosphere are disproportionately those who inhabit this culture of ideas. Liberals seem generally, sometimes even comically, unaware that this is the atmosphere they breathe. And because they do not see it and even deny it, I don't see how they can be compensating for it when they approach issues. They may mean well and earnestly try to consider other points ov view, and be aware of some blatant bias which they are able to mentally discard or correct for.

But if you are not aware that politics is being framed for you in a hundred subtle ways every day, and thus do not make conscious efforts to counteract this, then your belief in your own objectivity and evenhandedness is an illusion.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Liberal Ghost Dance

The descent of respectable liberalism (think Hubert Humphrey. Heck, think Joe Lieberman) into a crisis cult is hypothesised at One Cosmos

Still The Posts Of The Year

Reviewing last year's news, I reread these posts from 10-4 Good Buddy, my 2nd son's site, recounting working at a Romanian orphanage this summer. They still bring both tears and laughter. Please enjoy.

New Quote Above

I shamelessly stole this from docdave today. I don't know if (where) he stole it. It's now a permanent part of my site.

Grant me the serenity to ignore the trolls,
the courage to debate with honest opponents,
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Information Bleg

Reflecting on Greg Kuperberg’s comment over at drhelen's, I have been wondering “what is it that people generally know?” We are often treated to surveys which report that only half of high-school seniors can locate the Civil War in its proper century, or can’t name the three branches of government, or don’t know at what temperature water boils. We tut-tut and complain that society is going to hell in a handbasket. Jay Leno asks random people on the street to name one of the 10 Commandments, and a giggling girl asks “Freedom of Speech?” Glenn Beck asks a woman what direction she will be traveling in if she is going north and takes a left, and she answers “north.” We shake our heads and wonder how the republic will survive.

And people believe contradictory things. They believe that dinosaurs existed but God made the world 10,000 years ago. They believe that global warming is definitely happening and definitely not happening, depending on how the question is asked.

This is not just the current generation that can’t get it right. I have been reading this type of article since the early 70’s, and suspect it has been ever thus. I have been reading how far behind other nations’ students Americans are for as long as I can remember.

And yet we are the world’s dominant nation in so many ways, aren’t we? Our everyday people perform more technical sophisticated tasks than any other. Outside of the Anglosphere, the average hotel clerk cannot solve the simplest unexpected problem, yet ours do it every day. I work with people who have amazing gaps of general knowledge, being unable to find their home state on a map or name who was president before George W. Bush. Yet these people learn CPR – a complicated task. They understand mental health law because their job requires it. They can estimate how much you should have to pay for a 1998 Arctic Cat. They go to flea markets and can tell you if such-and-such a bottle is valuable. They are intelligent people, but they don’t possess general information I would consider impossible to get by without. Can I conclude they are stupid? If they need to learn something, you can teach it to them, proving they are intelligent.

I googled around trying to find out what people actually do know. There is a Canadian sociologist, Sheldon Ungar, who has done some work about what people know about science. There is Hirsch’s book about what educated people should know, but that’s something else. I imagine there is a bestselling book in it for someone who wants to collect all the data of what actually is generally known.

Does anyone know of sources where such information is found? Secondly, what are your theories why Americans don’t know anything but are able to know anything?

Your New Masters Will Have Asperger’s

I gave both Jonathans the new Joel Garreau book Radical Evolution, and of course read it myself before passing it on. That’s the way we do things in my family. The book is divided into 3 sections: the Heaven scenario of all the ways that technical assistance and self-enhancement is going to cure diseases, make us brilliant, and provide for our needs Very Soon; the Hell scenario, in which one of these GRIN technologies (genetic, robotic, information, nanotech) runs amok and does something devastating to us Very Soon; and the Prevail scenario in which some things go wrong with the new technologies, but mankind muddles along anyhow, Like Always.

I could tell this was going to be worrisome when even the Heaven scenario had parts that I thought were bad for humankind. Ray Kurzweil, the prophet of everything will be more ducky than you imagined, is already an eccentric guy and will be signing up for every self-enhancement he can get his mitts on. Facing the possibility that none of us will want our own children to fall behind and fail to become uber-persons, the thought is that a whole lot of folks are going to be enhanced. A subset of us will rocket into superintelligence so quickly that they will be a dominant race. And that’s the Heaven scenario, remember.

There are lots of interesting possible discussions about this, including whether it is at all likely, which I will be posting on over the next few weeks. For the moment, my concern is the comments of the people making these decisions. In all three scenarios, the people inventing and controlling these technologies are strange in a specific way: they have symptoms of Asperger's Syndrome. According to this study reported in the NYTimes, that shouldn’t be very surprising.

My worry is not that they are statistically likely to have Asperger’s, and thus be difficult to work with for the folks around them. My concern is what I actually read -- the childishness of the philosophical underpinnings of their justifications. Like bright sixth-graders who get over-technical and have to correct things said in their presence (That years don’t have 365 days, but 365 days, five hours, 48 minutes, 45 seconds, for example), Asperger-y people get stuck on such things and cannot let them go. If you say something is teal, and they think it’s just a little too green for that, there is no reasoning with them about it. They will sound like they are reasoning, they will think in their own minds that they are reasoning. But some glitchy thing in their brain will be telling them it’s not teal, and that glitch is immovable.

Ray Kurzweil sounds frightenly like Weston in the last scenes of CS Lewis's Out of The Silent Planet. I always thought Weston was a poorly-written, bombastic fool, and Lewis himself acknowledged that it was hard to imagine such a buffoon inventing anything, let alone a spaceship. Lewis regretted making the character so unconvincing and exaggerated. Now, 60 years later, here he is, in the flesh. Lewis has again proven prescient as to what the natural extension of a train of thought will be.

This rigidity carries over to ethical and philosophical ideas. A single premise will be held in the face of all reason, for example: It’s better to live long than die young. This genetic flip will make people live longer. Therefore it is good. Any additional pluses or minuses may be given lip-service, but will ultimately carry no weight. A particularly chilling example from real life is from Jaron Lanier. Now Lanier is actually one of the reasonable, moderate, balanced voices from the high-tech crowd. When challenged by a clergyman at a conference that he and others were just boys playing with things they didn’t understand, he went back and thought about it. What he came up with is that the churches had failed to keep up with technology by not coming up with ceremonies for operations and other tech events. Apparently the fascination of all cultures with birth, death, marriage, and coming of age does not capture the essence of life. Essentially, Lanier is angry that the churches have not developed ways of blessing whatever the hell it is that scientists want to do.