Thursday, May 31, 2012

Mental Illness And Violence

The TV and movie emphasis, and therefore the conventional wisdom, is that people with a mental illness are more likely to commit violent crimes.

The actual answer is that there is only indirect causation.  Some illnesses lead to a slight increase in violence (mania, autism) - almost entirely reactive rather than planned violence - and some result in much lower rates of violent crime.  There are two additional ways in which illness affects the rate of violence.  Increased substance abuse leads to increased crime; there are higher rates of substance abuse associated with mental illness.  So if the illness is leading to more SA, then there will be higher crime. Next, lack of income means that mentally ill people live in worse, more violent neighborhoods.  We tend to revert to level of acceptable violence around us anyway, and being surrounded by violent and intimidating people gives more opportunity for violent response.

But if one factors out the substance abuse and the neighborhood, those with psychiatric illnesses actually have a lower rate of violent crime than the general population.  That doesn't make for good movies with frightening psychopaths or mad scientists, but it is true nonetheless.

I'll have more to say on this.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Charles Taylor

Taylor was sentenced to 50 years, which is a good thing.  Reading over his wikipedia history, I was reminded again how often African nations get involved in each others' wars.  Apparently it is not enough to ravage your own countryside with torment, rape, and destruction of crops, but sending your soldiers to fight in some neighboring conflict just seems natural as well.

My first instinct is to despair.  Whatever can we do, even if we were to devote unlimited resources, to such a place as Africa?  We don't talk about it because what is there to say?  Bush did more than any other president to offer real help - yet I wonder if we have anything to show for it?

My second thought is that this is how all of life is, we just notice it clearly in Africa. Little that we do has large effect, and we make little dent in the evil of the world.  Still, we persevere, because it is how we are made, and the right thing to do, and one never knows which will be the the pivotal act that brings good to many.

The Hasidic legend is that the world is sustained by thirty-six righteous men, who are the pillars of the universe, but are not aware who they are. Myth, of course, and yet perhaps not so.  It does describe something about the real God to us, and He apparently likes to do things in much that way.

So be of good cheer and firm resolve this night.  You may be one of the thirty-six.

Express Lanes

(Hmm.  Dr. Cauble has not returned my book, The Road More Traveled, which I recommend.  I just noticed that.)

Highway lanes that cost more came up in work conversation today.  Four people immediately noted how irritating it was that rich people could bypass the ordinary difficulties of life by using them.  Mere money shouldn't provide such an entitlement.

Yet all of them understood immediately that I thought it was a great idea.  Let 'em pay.  They can even give me the finger if they want.  Fork over the money and we taxpayers will laugh and wave.  In fact, the book above cites that it is not just rich people who use those lanes, but everyone does sometimes.  When private toll roads are quicker, even poor people will use them occasionally.  At the cost of a few dollars, you can even think of it as an inexpensive luxury.  If you have ever comfortably passed a mile or two of stopped traffic, you know what a thrill it is.  I'm rich!  I'm free!

Our immediate, default position is to resent people who have more than us.  We can get over it with a little reasoning, but the initial irritation is hardwired.  It is left over from hunter-gatherer days when someone with more really was taking advantage, and needed to be watched and contained.  It is part of our lizard brain, not our human brain, to respond like this.

The political implications of this should be sinking into you now.

Child Control

A young woman in the hospital lobby was having trouble getting her son, about four, to mind what she said.  She is deathly skinny, slightly Goth - the boy in profane black T-shirt, already hyperkinetic.  "Don't walk on your tiptoes!  Heels first!"

Seems like misplaced priorities.  At a minimum, what in the world is inappropriate about a four-year-old boy experimenting with different ways of walking just because they are fun, and he is sick of sitting still in a hospital lobby?  A waste of energy to get him to stop that.


Junket Rennet Custard, the growing up dessert!

I remember getting queasy when I learned years ago what rennet is - enzymes from mammalian stomachs.  Knowing now that the origin of nearly all foods, particularly traditional food, is uncomfortable to modern sensibilities, it doesn't sound bad at all.  Everything you eat is something you really wouldn't want to eat, if you think about it too hard. Shellfish? Eggs? Radishes?

You can still find it in stores, so someone is buying it.  It had an unusual texture, which I almost liked, but always retained slight suspicions of.  My granddaughters are being brought up as such thoroughly retro girls - think Doris Day - that perhaps they would take a shine to it.  I was hoping to find a YouTube of that commercial, but no such luck.  I can still sing it, of course.  I can always still sing you the commercial to anything.

Traveling Wilburys

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


The 2009 Eurovision Song winner. In America, boy-band types don't know how to play gypsy fiddle. I should follow this event some year. The staging and choreography is usually quite elaborate, rather like a fireworks display, even if Europop is generally a little bland for my taste.

For the record, the song this replaced on the Finnish charts was "Nälkämaan laulu, Urhous-Remix," a modern politicised version of a poem by this guy.

Hard to figure out Finnish popular culture, I think.

More Conference Behavior

People use the Q & A time for their soapboxes, and as an opportunity to upbraid the speaker for not mentioning their favorites.  “What would you say is the impact of…” or even “I notice that you didn’t mention…” No actual question, hoping to elicit important new information from the expert, occurs. 

The speaker’s most acceptable answer is “I was planning on covering that in detail in the afternoon breakout session,” letting the questioner know that yes, I do get it about animal rights, or the need for light rail, or whatever, with the added benefit of complimenting her that she is spot on by elevating that topic to the top shelf.

Folks tend to remember it more when it is a religious topic being “injected” into the conversation, and I have some sympathy.  There are times when it is clearly forced, and we all inwardly groan.  Yet I also notice that lots of other issues are “injected” without the audience generalising about the speaker’s group.  That, I imagine, comes from the presence of an installed narrative and confirmation bias.

Friday, May 25, 2012


I have always disliked the portion of interviews with famous persons when they are asked if they would, in retrospect, make different choices.  It seems a favorite question to ask politicians, for example.  Two things irritate: First, the answer is rather obviously “yes” for every sentient being.  Of course we would act differently if armed with what we know now.  Even on those events which we believe we got largely right and say cheerily “I wouldn’t change a thing,” we would change something, even if it were only to invite more people to watch us succeed.  Second, the politician essentially answers “no,” despite knowing that this cannot be a correct answer.  It’s a trapping question by the interviewer, designed to extract an “I told you so,” and they deftly sidestep it.  You could hear it in the later comments of both Bill Clinton and George Bush, and I could barely stand to listen.  Both would speak – and I have heard businessmen, sports figures, and military figures do the same – in terms of making the best decision they could on the basis of what they knew at the time, and not looking back or second-guessing.  They were obviously being evasive, but they simply had to because of what would be made of even the mildest admission. 

Something similar came up in my own field which causes me to reconsider.  A psychiatrist whose judgment I greatly respect restated the issue in a subtle way which made all the difference.  To my comment about looking back into the past and doing something over (regarding a discharge with a semi-bad outcome), he rather twinkled and asked “You mean if I knew the future, would I make today’s decisions differently?”  That is a logically equivalent construction, yet it feels very different.  He is a man accustomed to making difficult decisions, and I suddenly wondered if these leadership types, these “deciders,” are naturally forward-looking, while the interviewers – and all of us trained in humanities and social sciences – are natural reviewers instead.

For the record, I still believe the politicians are being evasive and politically cautious in those comments.  But I no longer think that is necessarily the whole story.  The difference between the people who want today’s information yesterday, versus those who want tomorrow’s information today (and can leave yesterday behind) may be far more profound and thoroughgoing than I had thought.

Additional note.  In the few areas that I am required to make decisions and be competent, I am much more of a forward-thinker, shrugging off what I may have gotten wrong in the past.  Not entirely, but enough to notice.  Yet in the areas where I am free to contemplate and have no real consequences, I am entirely backward-looking.  I pick up a chance stone and examine it, looking for oddities, and the process is congenial to me.  Nearly everything I write here stems from that process of reviewing.


We are having all the babies (and their parents, naturally) in our immediate experience over this Sunday.  Six minimum, maybe eight - though people with babies cancel at a higher rate than other couples.  Plus one woman pregnant with her first - you are also welcome, Bethany, should you be in town.

Nothing makes my wife happier.  "Any day I can hold a baby is a good day."  Kyle is heading for the exits and hoping to be on the other end of town.  I can't understand why a 16 y/o boy wouldn't want to spend his time with babies and people in their late twenties.

It's Towel Day

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Right-Wing Crazies

China had a civil war from about 1927-1949.  We supported Chiang Kai-Shek and the Koumintang, though at some distance.  The left at home and abroad has accused the US of propping up any right-wing strongman we could find rather than letting events in other countries take their natural course, but in this instance we clearly did what they believe should be the general rule.  We even engineered a cease-fire in 1946 that worked greatly to Mao’s tactical advantage, and let the Soviets supply the Chinese Communists with the captured artillery from the Kanto Army of Japan after WWII.  Which was of course, the leftist version of “letting events take their natural course,” not only in China but throughout Latin America, Africa – hell, Eastern Europe, SE Asia.  What’s left?

The outcomes of wars can change over such things. It’s not really worth spending a lot of energy piecing that out (unless you find alt-history entertaining), because reality isn’t decently linear and predictable, as literature has the good sense to be.

But, perhaps Chiang would have lost anyway, or some division of China other than Mainland vs. Taiwan and some islands may have resulted.  Perhaps even had we given him considerable support, things would have turned out much the same as now. 

Or the world could look entirely different, couldn’t it?  The right-wing crazies of the time had the cry of “Unleash Chiang Kai-Shek!”  This was an entirely possible strategy at first – we were discouraging the resumption of hostilities in hopes of ending bloodshed - but as the years went on and it became clear that we weren’t going to do any such thing and Chiang’s support gradually diminished, it became faintly, then fully ridiculous.  By the time the satire Bored of The Rings came out, Beard and Kenney, along with their other mockings of American conservatives, included the phrase entirely as a joke to illustrate a crazed dead-ender.  Recently, Brad DeLong, attempting to show his superiority to Marc Rubio and Jeb Bush by correcting their history on this point, gets the history dead wrong himself.  I know, we’re all shocked, really. The intertubes are so difficult to get to, and so unnecessary when one already knows the Preferred Narrative.

Well, Mao’s count of his own people exterminated – excluding those killed in the Chinese Civil War – is now up to 80,000,000. Eighty. Million.  I remember when Carl McIntire’s  crew picketed outside William and Mary Hall in the early 70’s, when the Chinese Table Tennis team was playing because of some diplomatic gesture by the US. (“Ping Pong Diplomacy” was what the whole trend was popularly called.)  Placards displayed claimed that Mao had killed more Christians – 8,000.000 - than Hitler had Jews.  We rolled our eyes.  Everyone knew that was a ridiculous inflated number.  And we knew that because…well, right wing crazies always inflated numbers…and were a lot of the problem themselves by making the reasonable communists so suspicious of us because we had nutcases that could queer the do at any time…and everyone knew that Hitler was worse than anybody…and older Americans in general always believed the worst about communists…not like we open-minded young people who were willing to see the good in others.*

So. As with the USSR, the right-wing crazies were dead-enders, sputtering, uncool people with old-fashioned haircuts and clothes - and didn't have the right music. Yet in retrospect, they seriously underestimated how bad things were.

*Not that young people today would ever do that, thinking themselves more open-minded…

A Sheltered Girl

Nurses today concluded that a young woman who is not especially resourceful, who looks puzzled and helpless when confronted with a new problem, may have been “sheltered” growing up.  Does that word have an identifiable meaning anymore?  She has a mental illness and abuses drugs, and she may be a timid and uncertain sort by personality.  Surely these are sufficient explanations without having to drag in a concept from an earlier era, when girls could actually be physically kept away from much of life.  If books from a century ago have any accuracy, people could control the influences on their children, so that an eighteen-year old might actually have met few boys, read or heard nothing about the seedier side of life, and been waited on by servants enough so that basic life skills were not learned.

Not that one had to go to such extremes in order to qualify for the adjective “sheltered,” but you take my point.  My wife may have grown up in as “sheltered” an environment as existed outside of the wealthiest circles in the 1950’s and 60’s – and it wasn’t very sheltered. Mass communication, if nothing else, has shattered that.

This particular girl is sexually active, has been a dancer for some years, and her parents drink too much. Not our traditional picture of “sheltered.” 

What, then, could these nurses have meant?  The girl is a freshman at the state university and did not thrive, which is probably a stereotypical enough example of “oh some girls are too sheltered and can’t handle…” that the descriptor occurred rather automatically from the context rather than the girl’s actual behavior.  She is upper-middle-class and is certainly in a new element on an acute psychiatric emergency unit, but who wouldn’t be at 19?  Yet if they mean “Has not been held real-world accountable for her actions” there may be something to it.

I wonder if they were saying more about themselves – a little self-soothing about the harshness of their early lives and some pride at having survived and become competent?  Or the reverse, of having felt a little unready for the world when they were young themselves, wishing they had been taught more or given more tools by their parents.  Some resentment of wealth and privilege, and even satisfaction that such had not protected the girl. There are other possible motives.  But the more I write, the more convinced I am that the nurses who are 10-30 years older are talking about themselves and some narratives about how life works than they are describing the patient.

Update:  I have already had a comment that a freshman girl encountering alcohol/drugs is in a similar position to the "sheltered" girl of a century ago.  She doesn't know what she doesn't know.  Could be.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

For The Title Alone

No Oil For Pacifists is already a stunningly good name for a blog, but for those who missed it on the side bar, the new post at that site, Liz Warren's Authentic Cherokee Gefilte Fish may actually top that for naming.  It is a fine post, BTW, but obviously nothing could live up to that title.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Supportive Community

There is a Jewish holiday Lag BaOmer, known variously as a scholar's holiday, a mystical holiday about the revelation of the Zohar, a remembrance of the Bar Kochba Rebellion - lots of stuff.  I had never heard of it.

Yevamot 62b in the Babylonian Talmud directs us to treat each other with respect.  A man should love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself. 
The following tale is included.
It was said that Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples from Gabbatha to Antipatris; and all of them died at the same time because they did not treat each other with respect. The world remained desolate until Rabbi Akiva came to our Masters in the South and taught the Torah to them. These were Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Elazar ben Shammua; and it was they who revived the Torah at that time. A Tanna taught: "All of them died between Passover and Shavuot". Rabbi Hama ben Abba or, it might be said, Rabbi Hiyya ben Abin said: "All of them died a cruel death."
The Talmud speaks of 12,000 "pairs" of students and not of 24,000, ostensibly in order to stress the lack of unity of which they were guilty. Discussion of other understandings here.

I note the story, about events in roughly the time of Jesus, is about a community which was founded in order to save the world by its example of caring for each other.  It is has been much on my mind in the last year, and I have mentioned recently, that this concept is far more present in the teaching of Jesus than we usually give credit for in America.  In the west we focus more on getting doctrine or practice correct, or getting people saved, or doing individual good works out in the world, or influencing culture. 

I first wondered if this were an idea very much in the air in that culture and that time, with different manifestations showing up among the Jews and the early Christians.  But it took very little thinking about history, especially church history, to realise that this belief in the example community is the rule, and our individualistic ideas the exception.

The Story of Roger and Elaine

I still think it is Dave Barry's best.

Time Travel

James mentioned recently (it could have been Texan99, but I really think it was James) that he sometimes has the disquieting experience of people speaking as if some science fiction concept were science fact.

Had one of those today. Another social worker - these people have graduate degrees, remember - mentioned that one of the common worries about time travel isn't really true. One doesn't change history when one goes back, one goes into a slightly different dimension* (commonly called an SDD, I imagine, in the jargon of the experienced), so your own real time isn't affected at all. He seemed quite serious about this. I replied talking offhandedly about science fiction and the various possibilities that had been written about. I was careful not to bluntly announce that this only happened in fiction, yet repeat the point several times that writers created these ideas. I don't know if it stuck.

*Don't you just hate it when that happens?

I Started A Joke

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Homeschooler's HS Graduation

I went to the graduation of a young friend at the homeschool co-op centered at an Assemblies of God congregation.  The pastor's address to the graduate started with "You're in it to win it," and how God wants you o be successful, and there's a specific plan for you.  I thought Yep. That's a typical AG approach.  Catchy cliche, theology veering close to New Thought but drawing back.

I soon got worried that the evening was going to go insanely long.  I had originally worried that it might be only a few graduates, rather an embarrassingly small affair, but there were three dozen - larger than the graduating classes of my sons' Concord Christian Academy years.  So I got nervous when there was going to be a short video about each child, narrated by the parents. It didn't turn out to be that bad.

People just naturally get carried away telling you about their children anyway, and they aren't always very conscious of their audience, unaware that it's going to be fairly standard and obvious you were happy and amazed when you first brought Elizabeth or Zachary home, and how it seems like just yesterday - or how that's going to sound the twentieth time through.  That is the hive approach I described in Conference Behavior - the inside references and the obligatory verbal rewards to tribe members, all delivered with the complete innocence of folks who haven't even considered that it's not universally appreciated.

Next, as the size of a group dwindles, the presenters start feeling they have more and more leeway as to how long they can go on about each child.  I have sat through HS sports award presentations that were nearly unendurable, as the coaches go on about the development of each girl and her wonderful character and the important bonding experiences the team went through...the boys' coaches do less of this, but still too much.

Third, I think Evangelical parents are extreme in that.  My standard example is morning dropoff for a very small Christian elementary school.  We waited in line, and each child was to stay in the car until we got to the dropoff point, where the door could finally be opened, the teacher greet the child and hoosh him into the building, and the next vehicle come forward.  Except some mother waited until they were at the head of the line to kiss their child goodbye and say a few words of encouragement, often looking directly into the child's face and delivering a little speech.  It's not just inefficiency, that it caught them by surprise every day and (face palm!) I could have kissed her many times and given five little speeches while were were crawling forward in line, but that they wanted the last thing that happened to Nathan that morning before going away from the nest to be an expression of how much his mummy loves him. It's somehow just not as valid if it's not the last image in the child's head.

Then a few nice words might be exchanged with the teacher as well.  It can make you homicidal.  This approach to parenting persists through highschool - no, college too, come to think of it.  Lots of nonevangelicals do it too, of course, but I think it's worse over here.  It may be a cost we have to bear, a side effect of the intense theology of the individual's importance to God, and the importance of every moment and action to God.

But this set of parent videos held to a much higher standard than that.  They kept it to 90 seconds each.  Sure, there were cliches and the same childhood pictures with different heads on them...but they were 90 seconds each.  This is a disciplined group of parents.  I like them.

A few culture notes.  One can sense the influence of earlier eras at Christian schools more than at secular ones, and that apparently goes double for homeschoolers.  The dream of the 50's/80's is alive in Auburn...Auburn...Auburn.  There is plenty of the 00's and 10's as well. The accusation that Christian kids are not connected to the current era has always been just silly.  But other times are allowed into the atmosphere whereas only the 60's can get away with that intrusion in most of society.  I would approve, except I would choose different eras - different centuries, actually. 

Related to the presence of the different eras, one could also see a very strong American culture continuity.  This is the group where most kids have two parents, where there are Eagle Scouts (and Royal Rangers, of course) and concert pianists and perennial robotics teams and competitive shooters/ice skaters/dancers and Young Marines and working with all manner of disadvantaged or hurting people.

Magical Thinking - Rating

The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking:  How Irrational Beliefs Keep Us Happy, Healthy, and Sane by Matthew Hutson

Not recommended.  I put it down halfway through.

My first criticism is that he is vague and imprecise, to a degree that damages the book.  He recounts charming bits of research revealing that human beings have irrational preferences based on magical thinking.  For example, given the choice between identical sport coats, we prefer the one that has belonged to a loved one, as opposed to one owned by a serial killer.  We think there is something inherently more valuable about the piano John Lennon used to write "Imagine" than an identical model that he did not own.  Yet Hutson never tells us how strong these preferences are over all these research tidbits:  We prefer A over B, and that's magical thinking, and he moves on.

Except that it matters.  Enormous preferences for irrational reasons, whether they increase our risk or cost us money, are important for human interaction.  Slight preferences are merely curiosities.  Hutson often does not even give an approximation. 

I understand that readers of popular nonfiction often don't like a lot of numbers (each equation in the text is supposed to cut sales in half), leaving the author with a difficult choice if he is to make a living. But that's not my problem.

Second, I expected that he wasn't going to like prayer and theism much, but that is a fairly minor annoyance.  Nonbelievers generally get some important understanding simply wrong, but sometimes have valuable things to say nonetheless.  They are outsiders, they have a different perspective.  Hutson does something more problematic still:  first he writes as if he considers prayer to be the same thing as having positive thoughts, or wishes, or sports fans' superstitions, and jinxes about events; then he explains quite clearly in a few sentences that prayer is actually something different, in that it is asking a supernatural agent to act, rather than relying on the power of the thoughts themselves; then he reverts to treating them the same as positive thoughts again, without explanation.  So he gets it, but then refuses to deal with the difficult bit.  I can follow an argument that finds many similarities between the two, and can accept that there are some who perceive no difference and give reason for that.  They are wrong, but usually consistent and understandable.  Hutson is too busy hurrying on to his main point that optimism and self-confidence can have positive effect, so go ahead and keep those magical thoughts.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Public Policy

I am not going to identify this speaker from yesterday’s conference, as his professional knowledge is excellent, and I don’t want anyone googling him to be put off as if his information might not be valuable.  In the area of risk assessment for violence among the mentally ill he is well worth attending to.

It is his considerable ability to accept surprising and counterintuitive information within his specialty and apply it practically that makes him a good example for my purpose, in fact, for once he was outside his specialty – and not very far outside – this seemed to vanish.  The overall homicide rate among young men went up at the same time as handgun sales, and went down when handgun sales declined.  His remarks seemed to rather vaguely imply that if we didn’t market, glorify, and produce handguns at such a rate, we would have fewer homicides. Perhaps he thinks that the decline over the last two decades was in fact the result of some change in advertising or production or cultural attitudes, though he didn’t mention any data there.

That spike in the 80’s coincides quite nicely with the introduction of crack cocaine to the streets.  That seems more likely to me.  There were more young men who suddenly felt a need to protect themselves or threaten others, so they bought handguns.  Making them less easily available, or even unavailable, might have reduced the number of homicides somewhat.  Other means of protection and threat are less efficient – which is why people buy guns.  But I doubt strenuously that with the amount of money at stake, territory to defend, and desperation of the addicts that the homicide rate would have been much less.  People would get guns at higher price, or used other weapons.

There were a few other issues where the good doctor’s opinion was a rather unimaginative version of the default position of non-radicals on the left, and all were public policy issues.  He is capable of imaginative and counterintuitive thought, as he ably demonstrated, yet once out of the area where he has to apply serious application of the little grey cells to earn his daily bread and understand complicated issues, he just falls into tribal mode.

If he, then me.  Such shortcuts in thinking are how we all get through in the world.  Yet they mislead.

I may do a post or two on violence, BTW, as there are different ideas running around in my head, plus info to share that might not be generally known by those who don't have to keep up with these things.