Probable Cause

Posted by Sappho on November 12th, 2020 filed in News and Commentary

Suppose the police come to your house to question you. It’s quickly apparent that they suspect you of sexual assault. You say “Lawyer,” and refuse to answer any more questions. Does your reticence in cooperating with the police investigation mean that you are guilty?

Suppose some anonymous troll on the Internet accuses you of molesting children. Another anonymous troll suggests that the local DA should impanel a grand jury to investigate. If you don’t want that grand jury impaneled, does that suggest that you know at heart that you are guilty, because a truly innocent person would want to be investigated and cleared.

On the other hand, suppose you report to the police that you have been sexually assaulted. Should police not even investigate your report unless you can prove beyond reasonable doubt, right from the start and without any assistance, that you were indeed sexually assaulted?

A common mental trick is to shift the standard that should be applied to open an investigation, depending on whether you like or mistrust the person who would be investigated, whether you’re a fan of the person making the accusation or of the person accused, and what would be convenient for you to believe. And we can’t, any of us, guarantee that we’re immune to such bias. But we can at least take this as a starting point:

Being investigated has a cost. Guilty people don’t want to be investigated, but neither do innocent people. Before anyone is investigated, there should be at least some evidence that there’s cause for investigation (that could include even one witness, whether victim or bystander – but not if you quickly discover contrary evidence such as multiple witnesses saying otherwise or the accused being hundreds of miles away). At the same time, nothing can be proven until it’s investigated, so “beyond reasonable doubt” can’t be the standard for anyone bringing forth an allegation to be investigated. Sometimes you have to emphasize one of these points, sometimes another, depending on which error someone is making.

This standard applies whatever the substance of the allegation someone wants investigated. Investigations should surely not require proof, but should still require evidence, not just bald assertions.

Comment now »

All Votes Count

Posted by Sappho on November 10th, 2020 filed in Election 2020

There are many important political issues ahead of us. I look forward to holding Biden accountable on some of them, when, as happens with all Presidents, he proves to be wrong. For now, though, the critical issue is this: that the candidate who won the election, decisively, by a 4.6 million lead in the popular vote, and by a large enough margin in the electoral college that we’d need to see more than one state shown to be off in its count by double digit thousands of votes for this electoral college result to change, be the candidate to take office. The millions of people who voted, fairly and according to the rules, for Biden, and whose votes were counted and found to be proper and legal votes while representatives of both parties got to observe the count, deserve to have their choice respected. Those who don’t like it can grump about their loss, as can Trump himself, and you can by all means, as we did when Trump was elected, organize protests when Biden issues executive orders that you don’t like. But a vote is a vote, our votes get to count just as much as yours do, and elections have consequences.

I get that people are confused on this point because they trust Trump, and Trump and his surrogates are screaming fraud. But the evidence for fraud is lacking. Let me look at the arguments:

1) Why did many down ballot Republicans do better than Trump? Because people *split tickets*. I’ve split tickets, myself, in the past. Some people like a lot of Republican policies but don’t like Trump’s character. Some people think that Trump has done a lousy job as President, but have enough disagreements with Democratic policies that they prefer divided government. Some people like their particular Representative or Senator.

2) Why has it taken so long to count?

a) It always takes a long time to count. That’s why the electoral college certifies the election in December, in case we don’t know the winner in November. It’s just that usually we know the winner even though votes are outstanding.

b) This year we had an unusually large turnout.

c) This year an unusually large number of people in many states chose to request absentee ballots, due to COVID.

d) This year, there was an unusually strong partisan skew in who voted in person and who voted by mail (no surprise, given the different messages going out about absentee ballots in the two parties). I’m old enough to remember when absentee ballots skewed Republican; clearly that wasn’t the case this time.

3) What about recounts? Well, Trump is absolutely entitled to recounts for those states that are within recount margins. It’s just that, at this time, it’s mathematically impossible for a recount in Georgia to swing the election to Trump.

4) “But there’s a difference between traditional absentee ballots and universal mail-in ballots.”

a) A couple of states (I think Oregon and Washington are among them) have done universal vote by mail for multiple elections now, and we do not have more vote fraud observed in those states than in states that require mail in ballots to be requested.

b) In any case, the only one of the swing states that automatically mailed out ballots to all voters was Nevada. Even if that act somehow caused double digit thousands of cases of voter fraud in Nevada, enough to swing the state to Trump, Trump still loses.

5) But what about Pennsylvania’s decision to allow ballots postmarked by election day to be received after election day? Doesn’t matter. Pennsylvania sequestered those ballots, so when AP news called the state for Biden, because his lead had crossed the threshold that would mean no automatic recount, none of the late arriving mail in ballots had been counted.

6) “But election officials wouldn’t let Trump supporters in to observe the count!”

a) Not true. At every ballot counting site, an equal set of observers from each side were admitted and allowed to observe. Some Trump supporters staged protests where they showed up and tried to be admitted as additional observers, and were not allowed in because doing so would have meant that the Trump side had *more* observers than the Biden side, and would also have crowded sites that were trying to space people out in a pandemic.

b) Reporters also observed, and the sites had cameras (the Philadelphia site is said to have had “more cameras than a casino”).

7) What’s the harm of allowing Trump his court appeals? Sure, Trump should get any recount to which he is entitled (if a state is within the recount margin a recount should go ahead), and both sides should have (and do have) an equal opportunity to offer grounds to challenge ballots. But there *is* harm in taking seriously accusations of widespread vote fraud when evidence of such has not been presented.

a) “When the 9/11 Commission did their autopsy on what went wrong, one of the things they pointed to was the slow pace of the Bush administration getting our national security team in place. And they said it impaired our ability to react.” (…/what-role-does-federal-agency…) It’s important to get the transition process going when it’s exceedingly unlikely that the result will change.

b) Some of the people who are being convinced, falsely, that the election is being stolen, are dangerous and violent. We already had a thwarted plot to attack the Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia. This is a horrible thing to do to people trying to do an honest (and not especially well paid) job, performing the important civic function of counting our votes. They deserve better.

And the majority of us who voted for Biden deserve to have our votes honored, as those who voted for other presidents have had their votes honored in the past.

1 Comment »


Posted by Sappho on October 31st, 2020 filed in Election 2020, News and Commentary

Let me look at a few dictionary definitions, supplied by Google as coming from Oxford Languages:

manly – having or denoting those good qualities traditionally associated with men, such as courage and strength. “looking manly and capable in his tennis whites”

masculine – having qualities or appearance traditionally associated with men. “he is outstandingly handsome and robust, very masculine”

There’s a reason that we talk about “toxic masculinity” and not about “toxic manliness” – the word “masculine” doesn’t inherently include any suggestion that a thing is good or bad, just that it’s a thing associated with men. So you can have positive masculinity – good and useful qualities that are traditionally associated with men, such as courage. You can have neutral masculinity – things with no particular moral weight that are traditionally associated with men, such as beards. But you can also have “toxic masculinity” – bad and hurtful things that are traditionally associated with men, such as excessive aggression, contempt for weakness, etc.

But I mean to post, not about the toxic variety of masculinity, but about manliness. Really, any ethical virtue may be possessed both by men and by women. So you can be a strong and brave and tough woman. But if we’re talking about good qualities traditionally associated with men, what makes these qualities both good and traditionally associated with men?

Isn’t it the central component of manliness “strength used in ways that protect the weak”? Because, though any given man may or may not be braver than any given woman, on average a man is larger and has more upper body strength than a woman. A manly man, then, is one who uses whatever strength and power he has in ways that protect and care for those who have less strength and power, and a not so manly man is one who uses his strength (physical strength) or power (social position and wealth) in less protective ways – one who is a bully, or one who is selfish, or one who skips out when there is trouble and leaves others to clean up his messes.

If manliness makes any sense at all as a moral quality that we ascribe to men, it has to mean that. Not who blusters the most about his own strength.

Comment now »

The Good Dad

Posted by Sappho on October 24th, 2020 filed in Election 2020

I saw the headline as I was scrolling on Twitter this morning, “Vote for the Good Dad this November,” with the tagline “It’s clear between Trump and Biden who is better.” And, as it is indeed clear, between Trump and Biden, who is the more fatherly figure, I clicked through, to get the mood boost of seeing a writer in The American Conservative endorsing Biden.

It’s not that I exactly agree that you should always vote for the leader who’s the best father. I voted, in the primary, for Elizabeth Warren, who, whatever her other merits, is not a better father than Biden. This morning, I phone banked for Katie Porter, a wonderful Representative who holds government and business officials alike accountable with her whiteboard, but clearly not a father.

And it’s important, up and down the ballot, to support candidates who can deliver for their constituents, fathers or not. As Katie Porter pointed out, when she gave us our GOTV pep talk this morning, local officials here in Orange County have done useful things with the COVID stimulus money that Congress voted for them:

  • Irvine gave rental assistance program for people whose hours have been cut.
  • Lake Forest helped business owners with expenses to keep their business going.
  • Orange County has put a ton of money into food assistance.
  • Down ballot races determine who’s on the ground to fight the pandemic and whether they’re doing a science first job

Still, the top of the ballot is also important, and on my November ballot for President, I got to choose between two men. Character matters in a President, and when I voted, I did indeed vote for the good Dad:

  • I voted for Biden, the empathetic guy who, like a good Dad, shared how he had overcome his own struggles with stuttering to help Brayden Harrington with his stuttering. Not for Trump, who, like a lousy Dad, mocks disabilities.
  • I voted for Biden, who, like a good Dad who doesn’t play favorites, promises to be POTUS for red and blue states alike. Not for Trump, who, like a lousy Dad who does play favorites, didn’t care about COVID as long as it was happening to blue states, and wanted to play the “I would like a favor though” game by suggesting that blue state governors owed him something in return for COVID aid.
  • I voted for Biden, the Dad who has faced unimaginable grief and still been there for the kids and grandkids that he has left.
  • I voted for Biden, who has shown that as POTUS he would, like a good Dad, act when America is threatened (already in his January COVID editorial on top of what needed to be done, prior experience with competence during the Ebola and swine flu epidemics), and not for Trump, who, after a half-assed shutdown of travel with China, was otherwise absent in responding to shortages of testing and PPEs, while our death toll mounted. And who still serves up happy talk in place of policy.
  • I voted for the engaged and empathetic and protective Dad, Biden, not the alternately absent and abusive Dad, Trump.

So I clicked through, looking for an endorsement, by a writer in the American Conservative, of the obvious good Dad, Biden.

No, wait, what? I clicked through to an article endorsing Trump as the fatherly candidate. On the basis of his COVID response. So much for turning doomscrolling to hopescrolling. This is a Mirror Universe view of what a good father does.

The writer applauds Trump’s photo op tearing off his mask, and his happy talk about COVID, because, hey, a good father encourages his children to take risks. And indeed he does – as my father and grandfather did when they encouraged me to work for a startup. A good Dad supports his children in taking risks for worthwhile reasons, as my Dad did when I followed my husband into a war zone to report back on what was happening there and what peace groups and relief workers needed.

But a good Dad sure as hell doesn’t encourage his kids to take pointless, reckless risks. He doesn’t encourage his daughter to get pregnant before she has the support she needs to care for her child. He doesn’t encourage his children to drive drunk and without seatbelts.

Modeling rejection of masks – the easiest and least intrusive of effective countermeasures to the disease that’s now the third leading cause of death in the US, isn’t being the good loving Dad who encourages his daughter to stretch her wings and take the risk of working for a startup. It’s being the Dad who encourages his kids to drive drunk and without seatbelts. And Trump, by resisting all countermeasures to COVID, save that one China border closing that forty other countries were doing at the same time – by being the “open everything up right away without masks or adequate testing or sufficient effort to help states who are short on PPE” POTUS, the “some day soon it will magically go away” POTUS, is being the Dad who encourages his kids to drive drunk and without seatbelts, in a car he didn’t bother to repair.

Vote, yes, for the good Dad this time. Vote for Biden.

Comments Off on The Good Dad

“Good genes”

Posted by Sappho on October 16th, 2020 filed in DNA

We all have good genes. We all have bad genes. How do I know? Because we all have many genes, and at least some of them are bound, in some environment, to have effects that we like, while at least some are bound, in some environment, to have effects that we don’t like. In some cases, the same genes that are “good” in one environment are “bad” in another environment. Or perhaps we only know of “bad” effects for a particular variant, but may never encounter the environment in which that variant is “bad.”

Given that I’m not dead yet, I can tell that at least some of my genes are good enough at their job to take me this far. Given that you’re still alive to read this, so are at least some of yours.

Comments Off on “Good genes”

When our understanding of reality is incorrect

Posted by Sappho on September 24th, 2020 filed in Books, Quotes

Furthermore, telemetry is what enables us to assemble our best understanding of reality and detect when our understanding of reality is incorrect.

The DevOps Handbook, Chapter 14

This quote from the DevOps Handbook comes from a chapter about how telemetry and information radiators can be used to find and fix problems quickly. But the words “when our understanding or reality is incorrect” caught my eye, because they raise broader questions:

How do you make sure you detect when your understanding of reality is incorrect?

How do you keep yourself honest and make sure you want to detect when your understanding of reality is incorrect, rather than just wanting to be proven right?

Are there any information sources that you find particularly useful, in terms of correcting you on those occasions where your understanding or reality is incorrect?

Comments Off on When our understanding of reality is incorrect

Our nemesis

Posted by Sappho on August 16th, 2020 filed in Books, Quotes

We carry our nemesis within us: yesterday’s self-admiration is the legitimate father of today’s feeling of guilt.

Markings, by Dag Hammarskjold

Comments Off on Our nemesis

On replacing Confederate statues with Dolly Parton, firing Colin Kaepernick, and criticizing Charles Murray

Posted by Sappho on July 11th, 2020 filed in News and Commentary, Race

Every so often, we’ll get a wave of discussion of something that’s stirring on the left. That something has various names: political correctness, Social Justice Warriors, a decline in civility, or cancel culture. The name doesn’t so much matter, as the fact that it will include two things:

1) Usually, built into the name is an assumption that this is a phenomenon of the left. We could, in theory, talk about an “illiberal left,” an “illiberal right,” and even, perhaps, an “illiberal center,” separating the word that describes the behavior that’s troubling from the place on the political spectrum of the person engaging in the behavior. But in practice, we don’t. If boycotting is part of “cancel culture,” then boycotting Goya Foods is “cancel culture,” but boycotting The Chicks isn’t. Even words like “civility,” in principle a neutral word, get used differently as applied to different points on the political spectrum. “Civility” that’s desired by people on the left is “political correctness.”

2) Lots of things are lumped together in a single word. Some of the people complaining may be concerned about one of these things. Some may be concerned about another. And the people who read them and make judgments on what they say may make different inferences about which of those things they mean. It would be better if we addressed specifically, and separately, issues that are specific and separate.

For example:

When and how should we remove statues from the public square? Which ones should be removed?

We all agree that it’s sometimes OK to remove statues – does anyone really want to condemn the people who removed statues of Lenin across Eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain fell? Call that statue removal erasure of history or somehow the equivalent of 1984? And we all have some monuments that we don’t want removed or damaged. For me, Confederate monuments can’t go away fast enough, and a statue of Frederick Douglas, or the monument to Emmett Till that gets frequently defaced by white supremacists, are high on my list of monuments that I don’t want touched.

And, finally, we have ideas about the process by which monuments should be removed – I say by local decision, and that neither state legislatures restricting the actions of cities nor mobs pouring into a community from outside, as in Charlottesville, to protest a local decision, should have a say.

And how alarmed should we be if people damage monuments without due process? (I say “not very alarmed,” as we already have local laws and authorities to deal with vandalism, and statue vandalism is far less likely to escalate into violence against people than, say, freelance vandalism of small stores operated by innocent bystanders, or of local churches.)

When should we try to get people fired? When should we be concerned about people getting fired for something that becomes public? This is an entirely different issue from what to do with statues. One may reasonably believe that Confederate statues should be removed as fast as possible, and that it doesn’t matter much if protesters pull them down, and find, say, the firing of Schor deeply troubling. And we could have a much better discussion of the thorny question of when people should or shouldn’t be fired if we didn’t muddle it together with the question of when statues should be torn down. All the more so because even if we just ask, “When should someone be fired based on a viral video,” the answer may not be altogether simple.

Is this a private figure or a public one? A governor has less grounds to complain about a viral hot mic moment than an insurance agent.

Does the behavior in the video have direct bearing on the person’s job? Then maybe the firing is sound. But wait, what if the behavior alleged has direct bearing on the person’s job, the person has a government job about which the public may legitimately be concerned, and we later find out that the video was deceptively edited? Then we get the case of Shirley Sherrod, fired for a speech in which she talked about having to confront her prejudices, to encourage others to do the same (and, for many of us, the first time we learned about Breitbart News, and the reason we distrusted Breitbart News from the get go, even though, perhaps, in hindsight, it was less thoroughly anti-Black then than it is now).

Is it possible we’re misreading an ambiguous gesture? (Please don’t go around getting private individuals fired for making the “OK” sign, now apparently a white supremacist gesture; many haven’t caught on to this change in meaning.)

Is the person doing something horrible enough that it may reasonably give a company pause about what this person may be like as an employee? If someone is, say, threatening people over a requirement to wear a mask, that might be a sign that person won’t be a good fit. Or maybe the final straw for a manager who was already seeing signs that this person wasn’t inclined to follow rules laid down for the good of everyone. On the other hand, what if that person who is doing something really horrible in public – threatening a grocery clerk who asked for a mask, or, several years back, marching in a crowd in Charlottesville shouting “Jews will not replace us” – was misidentified by people in a viral Twitter thread, and you wind up getting entirely the wrong person fired?

Does this person have a job where being fired for political missteps should be an expected part of the job? Let’s say you’re a highly placed Congressional staffer whose name most people didn’t know until your video went viral. Or Tucker Carlson’s top writer whose name most people didn’t know until you got caught being crudely white supremacist online. Whatever the line should be for firing people, surely it should be more lenient in this case than if you were a pizza clerk, even if none of the people involved was well enough known to the public at large to be fully a public figure.

Finally, if you think people are fired too easily for political speech, should we be revising laws regarding at will employment, remembering that most of us are at will employees?

Answer all of these questions, and you may find that, in some cases, your answer is, “Yes, this person should be fired.” And in other cases, “It’s a travesty that this person was fired.” And that may be fine, though if you’re fine with Colin Kaepernick being fired for expressing views some people didn’t like, and fine with the fact that Breitbart got Shirley Sherrod fired for views she turned out not to hold, I won’t include you among the people I listen to about “cancel culture.” But wherever you fall on getting people fired, the questions are surely different from those that apply to viral criticism.

Now viral criticism raises questions of it’s own:

When should we resist adding to a pile on, because someone has been piled on enough already?

When should we resist adding to a pile on, because the time we’d spend piling on is time we’re not spending promoting something positive?

When do viral videos draw attention to a problem that’s serious, and that people wouldn’t believe without the videos (such as white folks calling cops on Black people who are right where they should be and breaking no laws)?

When should we consider the possibility that the subject of a video needs particular care, because, perhaps, underage, or because, perhaps, possibly mentally ill? (Bear in mind, here, that if your standard includes “if a teenage girl sends a nude photo to her boyfriend and then gets punished when the photo is circulated to her whole school it’s her own damn fault,” you’ve undercut any argument that you might make to the left about leaving teenagers alone who, perhaps, gang up on someone and use racial slurs. People should be at least as free from being publicly shamed for consensual, whether or not unwise, sexual activity as for racist actions.)

What actions by private individuals should be left alone and not publicized?

What about public figures who sic crowds on private figures? Or worse, prominent people in government who sic a crowd either on a private person or small business (something Trump does all the time)?

But a standard that treats harsh and widely spread criticism per se as somehow illiberal is a standard that should be thrown against the wall. And people do this all the time.

If you want, for example, to oppose “cancel culture,” and the “cancel culture” that you want to oppose is “getting ordinary private individuals fired who have no platform to recover their reputation,” then you should vigorously resist any attempt to include, as the same sort of illiberalism, “using the word ‘racist’ to describe the proposition that Black people are genetically predisposed to have lower IQ than white people, and that anyone who doesn’t believe that is ‘anti-science.'” And people do, all the time, argue that the only “liberal” position is to allow that argument to be made everywhere and to be willing to counter it indefinitely by arguing even though you are weary with the argument. Ta-Nehisi Coates, for a time, debated the proposition, and then threw up his hands and said he would debate it no longer, and got criticized for refusing to consider, forever, the argument that people of his color were naturally less intelligent. Steven Barnes for years was willing to debate, on his blog, with far more patience than I could have shown in his shoes, and when he finally drew the line, and said, this argument isn’t allowed on my blog or on my Facebook page, he got people complaining about being censored. Count me out of any definition of “liberal” that says that being a prominent Black writer entails a moral obligation to politely debate, for however many years people want you to debate it, the proposition that Black people are just naturally less intelligent than white people.

At the very least, viral criticisms of the words and actions of public figures, of prominent books, of positions promoted by widely read columnists and public intellectuals, of what gets published in the New York Times, should not be included in “cancel culture” if you want people to take “cancel culture” at all seriously.

So, maybe define specifically what you’re upset about, and what you want to change? Because the answers to “what statues should we remove,” “who should get fired,” “what actions by private individuals should be too small for widespread public embarrassment,” “when is it OK to reveal someone’s name and what process should you follow to make sure you don’t get the wrong person,” and “what positions deserve to be described as racist” may be different answers. And if you want actually to persuade folks on the left to take your concerns seriously, rather than to provoke them into a position that you can characterize as “anti-free-speech,” then maybe getting really specific about what your concerns are and what lines you want to draw would help.

Obviously, if your name is Donald Trump, you want to double down on rallying the base so people will ignore the COVID-19 death count, and to believe that it’s “free speech” for you, the most powerful man in the US government, to threaten government action against Twitter, and “anti-free-speech” for Twitter, a private company, to criticize you. But if, instead, your name is Nicholas Christakis, chances are that, once we get down to specifics, we’d find at least some areas of agreement, even if we also wind up with areas of disagreement (I won’t predict which areas those will be, as I haven’t had that one on one discussion).

1 Comment »

On Reading/Talking with People with Whom I Disagree

Posted by Sappho on June 7th, 2020 filed in News and Commentary

I don’t mean, here, the cousin with whom I regularly argue about politics. I don’t mean the woman who went to my high school who does a yeoman’s job pulling our graduating class together and keeping track of people’s personal lives, and who differs with me on, say, gun rights.

I mean, how do I make the decision whether I want to follow Ross Douthat or unfollow Glenn Greenwald? I mean, if you, the cousin with whom I regularly argue about politics, suggest that I look at something, when am I going to take the time to look at it? And I mean, when, in my own space – my own blog or my own Facebook page – am I going to draw a line, and say, no, I’m not going to host this discussion any more? Here are some of my considerations:

  • Is this argument a Flat Earther argument? By this I mean, am I so convinced that it’s factually false, that I don’t see any use in spending time considering the possibility that it’s true. I have finite time. I don’t believe in hate reading (reading people just to get riled up at what they say). There are points of view that, even if I don’t agree with them, might contain some balance for my own point of view. Better to spend time reading those than ones that I don’t think worth serious consideration.
  • Is this position the moral/ethical equivalent of a Flat Earther argument? That is, is it arguing for something so ethically repugnant that I’m not actually prepared to change my mind? Again, I don’t believe in hate reading.
  • OK, let’s say Joe Schmoe is a Flat Earther, whether factually or ethically. Do I still have some reason, at least for a time, to read or engage Joe Schmoe? Possibly I do. Maybe I think Joe can be talked out of Flat Earther views, and that I’m the one who can do it. Maybe Joe is a powerful person, and I want to get an idea of his thoughts, to get a heads up on harmful policies that Joe might be pushing down the pike. Or maybe I just am interested, right now, in the sociology of who becomes a Flat Earther, and why? In any of these cases, I might give Joe Schmoe some of my time. But not an unlimited amount of time.
  • OK, let’s say Joe Schmoe is a Flat Earther, on some topic or other. Is Flat Earth nearly all Joe talks about now? Or does Joe talk about a lot of other topics, on some of which Joe is not a Flat Earther at all (whether Joe agrees with me, or offers a counterpoint that I might have missed).
  • OK, let’s say Joe Schmoe is a Flat Earther. Is Joe, at the moment, talking about a topic close to the one on which Joe demonstrably has Flat Earth views? If you bought into, or winked at, Birtherism, then I don’t believe you on issues related to race. You might, on the other hand, be dead wrong on astrology and still be insightful on race, because the topics don’t have much to do with each other.
  • OK, you’ve suggested something that I might want to check out, that might challenge my beliefs. Let’s say that it’s not, from my point of view a Flat Earther position. Or maybe it is and maybe it isn’t, but I won’t know until I check it out. Is is something I can read? Or is it a podcast or a video? I can read fast. I can’t view a video fast. If you give me something to read, I’m much more willing to check it out.
  • Finally, I have a limited amount of time and pick my topics accordingly. I’m not much interested in reading about GMOs right now, for instance, because I’m busy reading about other things. If I don’t read something you suggest to me about GMOs, no judgment of your source is implied. There are lots of topics I don’t have time to follow. I wish the people who do follow them well.

There’s lots of daylight between “people I disagree with” and “people who hold views I see no reason to consider as even possibly valid.”

Now here is someone I do read, both when I agree with him and when I don’t, giving an example of why it’s worth listening, sometimes, to people whom you consider dead wrong on at least some issues: David French, at the National Review, on

American Racism: We’ve Got So Very Far to Go

And the journey must continue step-by-step.

Comments Off on On Reading/Talking with People with Whom I Disagree

COVID-19 and Borders

Posted by Sappho on May 3rd, 2020 filed in Health and Medicine

Back in 2014, in connection with the Ebola epidemic in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, I said that I didn’t consider myself “open borders,” and that the need, sometimes, to put up border controls to stop epidemics from becoming pandemics was one reason why.

I was thinking, at the time, of Senegal’s decision to close its border to neighboring Guinea. This border closure was in some ways controversial at the time – critics said that Senegal had shut down its border so tightly that it was making it harder to get medical assistance to Guinea, which was needed, not just, obviously, for Guinea’s sake, but also because if you don’t put out the fire in your neighbor’s house, eventually it will spread to yours. And some negotiation was done, for Senegal to make adjustments that would make it easier for medical workers to go to and from Guinea, while still allowing Senegal to keep controls on its border. I’m not sure what the details wound up being – it has after all been six years – but I do recall that only one Ebola case reached Senegal, which was quickly isolated.

Now, of course, we face a pandemic far more contagious than Ebola, one that, though its case fatality rate is less, in fact has caused many more deaths than that longest Ebola epidemic, because it has spread to more countries, and the contagion proves very hard to check. And I find my thoughts about borders shifting in unexpected ways.

I still don’t consider myself “open borders” – to me that phrase implies that I’d be starting from a position that people have a right to cross borders, which my government should not only recognize itself unless there was some compelling reason to restrict entry (something like our First Amendment presumption for freedom of speech), but also promote internationally as something other governments must respect. And, well, no. The worst thing about the government of North Korea isn’t the fact that it keeps foreigners out. I do, in fact, think that legal immigration to the US is largely a good thing, and also that we need to welcome refugees. But “wide open to nearly everyone” doesn’t describe my starting point.

And I still think that, of course, border restrictions have a place when facing an epidemic that threatens to become a pandemic, or for countries that have managed to free themselves of a pandemic to prevent it from coming back.

But. Here’s the thing. What I have seen, during the COVID-19 pandemic was that, when the epidemic was largely in China, everyone applied border restrictions, and none of the usual folks objected. I saw Democrats and libertarians who hated Trump’s immigration policy in general raising no real objection to his border controls as applied to China in late January. Sure, there was a minor “let’s all go to Chinese restaurants” movement to make sure that fear of a disease coming from China didn’t spill over to ethnically Chinese people who hadn’t been in China at all recently. But that’s an entirely different thing from saying, Trump, drop this border restriction. People were fine with restricting travel from China who had otherwise objected to every damn travel restriction that Trump ever imposed. And with reason: everyone, as I said, was applying border controls. Italy, which would later suffer so, restricted travel from China at nearly the exact same time. In fact, Trump wasn’t even first past the post in applying this restriction.

So the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is to leave me unworried that people will prevent reasonable restrictions at a time of pandemic on open borders grounds. In contrast, I’ve seen how people who lean more toward closed borders are more of a problem than I had ever imagined they’d be, in time of pandemic. Because, from where I sit, it looks as if people whose priors are to favor more restrictions on immigration, in time of pandemic, place too much faith in border restrictions, once they’re established. And it doesn’t look to me as if this is confined to Trump himself. Rather, I think that people who see themselves as fighting unreasonable “open borders” people, and who think greater border restrictions are really important, proved to be under the mistaken impression that all you need to do, to stop a pandemic, is to shut down the borders.

And it turns out that’s not at all the case. By the time anyone – Trump very much included – thought to institute border controls with China, COVID-19 was already well out of China and spreading among the community in multiple countries. We just didn’t know it yet. That shouldn’t have been a surprise. Diseases have incubation periods. They have asymptomatic spread. That doesn’t mean border controls are useless. But it means that you have to understand what their use is: They buy time, by reducing the number of people coming into the country, and helping to make the number of people spreading the illness in your country small enough that test and trade can do its thing. For a disease like Ebola, which gets people really sick really quickly, that may mean that hardly anyone gets through, and its easy to isolate the people who do. For a disease like COVID-19, you need a much more vigorous test and trace program.

This we notably didn’t get. We didn’t get it in late January, when the World Health Organization was already warning about the dangers of COVID-19. We didn’t get it in February. Trump didn’t even acknowledge we faced a serious threat in the US until well into March. And even now, we’re not able to test and trace enough to contain the pandemic that we have.

At this point, I could go on a rant about everything Trump did wrong. But this post isn’t about Trump. It’s about borders. And that’s an issue that goes well beyond Trump as an individual. The US has handled the pandemic worse than some countries, with a starting position that should have allowed us to handle it better than we did. But we aren’t the only country that messed up. And other countries that messed up made the same mistake of slapping down border controls and then thinking that they had solved the problem. Now we’re in the position where states are in some ways finding the need to impose border controls on other states. If I were to leave California and fly to visit my mother, I would be obliged, on arriving in her state, to go into a fourteen day quarantine by myself (pack fourteen days of supplies on that plane flight, I guess), and could finally see her right about the time that I’d need to fly back to California to return to work.

My point is: yes, border controls have their place in limiting the spread of disease, but in order to actually make good use of them, we need not to have leaders who are irrationally invested in closed borders as a solution to everything. Otherwise we wind up without the tests, without the PPEs, but hey, we closed the border to China in late January, so let’s do a victory lap. And my sister in Brooklyn can tell you how well that worked out.

Comments Off on COVID-19 and Borders

“Ford to City: Drop Dead”

Posted by Sappho on March 25th, 2020 filed in Memory, News and Commentary

Remember that cheeky New York Daily News headline, back in the 1970s? I do. I was a teenager at the time, growing up in the NYC metropolitan area.

The headline, of course, was metaphorical. NYC was nearly bankrupt when Ford gave a speech denying federal assistance. But no one was actually on death’s door.

Now they are. Now we have a plague, and NYC is the canary in the coalmine, catching the wave that will come to the rest of the country in time.

Please let us not say to NYC, this time, “Drop dead.” Because it’s literal life and death we’re talking about now, and we’re all in this together.

Comments Off on “Ford to City: Drop Dead”

A Civics Lesson

Posted by Sappho on February 5th, 2020 filed in Democracy, Saints and Witnesses

Listen carefully to the Senate trial, my Trump supporting cousin told me. It will be a civics lesson.

And I, naturally, thought, what civics lesson can I possibly get from this trial? I have, after all, already studied civics in school. I have already read the whole Constitution, and returned to read sections again. But not only that. I’m past the midpoint of my life, and this is now the third time in my lifetime that articles of impeachment have been drawn up against a President.

But cousin, no snark now, I was wrong. I did get a lesson in civics during this trial, and I got it listening to a Republican Senator. I got it, moreover, from a Republican Senator whom I once considered to be, sure, devout and principled in his personal life, but an opportunistic weather vane in his public life. One whom I dismissed in 2012 partly for that reason (and also partly, to be sure, because I loved Obama, and was likely to vote for him no matter who ran against him).

Mitt Romney, just when I had reached the conclusion that partisanship would trump integrity every time, you proved me wrong.

1 Comment »

Bright eyes! How could you close and fail?

Posted by Sappho on February 1st, 2020 filed in Democracy, Music

Woke up this morning and remembered the Senate vote yesterday. Asked Alexa for a song for a sad morning.

Bright eyes of democracy, how could you close and fail?

You knew this vote was coming, the Trumpists say. Yes, of course I knew. I have long since seen how the rest of the Republican Party bends the knee. But that doesn’t make it less sad when it comes. I didn’t, after all, know how much abuse of power Republicans would stand for before Trump was elected. I’ve just seen the slow drip, drip of revelation since his election.

And this is the news. Trump’s defense team in the Senate did not rebut the evidence that he placed a hold on aid. They didn’t rebut the GAO finding that Trump broke the law by withholding the aid. They didn’t rebut the evidence that, while the aid was on hold, Trump pressed Zelensky to announce an investigation of Biden. (And an investigation of Biden for actions that were the public policy of the US government as a whole, and supported by Republican Senators at the time.)

Instead, multiple Senators voting against witnesses (the first impeachment trial ever without witnesses) said that, even if Trump did withhold aid and use it to push for an investigation for his partisan advantage, that wasn’t an impeachable offense, or even if it was an impeachable offense, it wasn’t something for which he should be removed. Leave it to the voters. Does that mean leave it to the voters and vote to censure him? No. Leave it to the voters and urge people to vote against him? No. It means, lol, nothing matters, when it comes to the President of the United States welcoming and encouraging foreign intervention in our elections. From a vulnerable foreign country that’s not well positioned to refuse Trump.

Don’t pretend that this is Trump fighting corruption. This is Trump epitomizing corruption. Shame!

I don’t know whether our democracy will survive. Maybe this is how it dies, a cut at a time, retaining the form of a republic but not the substance, as ancient Rome did.

But I know that democracy is worth fighting for.

How could the light that burned so brightly suddenly burn so pale?

I’ll do my best, this November, and also in the months before and after, to help revive that light.

1 Comment »

The Dwarfs Are For The Dwarfs

Posted by Sappho on January 25th, 2020 filed in Books, News and Commentary, Theology

If you’ve read the Narnia books, you may remember the point in The Last Battle where a group of dwarfs decide that “They won’t take us in again.” Having been deceived by a fake Aslan, they will trust no one any more. “The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

Aslan raised his head and shook his mane. Instantly a glorious feast appeared on the Dwarfs’ knees: pies and tongues and pigeons and trifles and ices, and each Dwarf had a goblet of good wine in his right hand. But it wasn’t much use. They began eating and drinking greedily enough, but it was clear that they couldn’t taste it properly. They thought they were eating and drinking only the sort of things you might find in a stable. One said he was trying to eat hay and another said he had got a bit of an old turnip and a third said he’d found a raw cabbage leaf. And they raised golden goblets of rich red wine to their lips and said “Ugh! Fancy drinking dirty water out of a trough that a donkey’s been at! Never thought we’d come to this.” But very soon every Dwarf began suspecting that every other Dwarf had found something nicer than he had, and they started grabbing and snatching, and went on to quarreling, till in a few minutes there was a free fight and all the good food was smeared on their faces and clothes or trodden under foot. But when at last they sat down to nurse their black eyes and their bleeding noses, they all said:

“Well, at any rate there’s no Humbug here. We haven’t let anyone take us in. The Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs.”

The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis

As The Last Battle is about Christ, in context the corrosive cynicism of the dwarfs is, in context, a refusal to see God at work, in reaction to having been fooled by a false god. But “grace builds on nature,” and I think the story works as well as a parable for the all too common failing of believing “everyone does it,” and blinding your eyes to the fact that honesty and good faith exist. Both in your personal life and in your political life, a “Dwarfs are for the Dwarfs” perspective that suspects that everyone is corrupt, and rejects the “humbug” that some people might be trustworthy, makes you more likely to be taken in, not less.

Comments Off on The Dwarfs Are For The Dwarfs

Gandalf on killing Gollum

Posted by Sappho on January 6th, 2020 filed in Peace Testimony, Quotes

Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.

Comments Off on Gandalf on killing Gollum

For the People

Posted by Sappho on December 7th, 2019 filed in Election 2020

Now that I have more time than I had earlier this week, I’m sharing a few thoughts on Kamala Harris’s exit from the 2020 race.

Summary of what I am going:

1) Harris the person: At a personal level, I really like Kamala Harris (though not only Kamala Harris!). And the things I like about Harris say something about what I’m hungry for in a President, whoever the candidate may be.

2) Harris and how her policies stack up: Harris had both strengths and weaknesses in the policy department.

3) Harris and the impact of racism on the Presidential race: Yes, of course racism has an impact. Yes, of course it isn’t the only thing. It’s easiest to see the impact of racism and sexism not through the lens of how an individual candidate fared, but through the long arc of history. And it’s important neither to understate nor to overstate the impact.

Now the detailed version:

Read the rest of this entry »

Comments Off on For the People

“You saw her bathing on the roof …”

Posted by Sappho on November 25th, 2019 filed in Bible study

There are several possible interpretations of the story of David, Bathsheba, and Uriah. But I am sure “God wants kings who abuse their power for personal gain” isn’t one of them.

Comments Off on “You saw her bathing on the roof …”

Talkin’ bout my generation

Posted by Sappho on November 6th, 2019 filed in Memory, News and Commentary

I’ve never felt like a Baby Boomer. I doubt I’m close to alone in this, among “Boomers” born after 1960. Sure, technically I’m still part of that demographic bubble, as the baby bust didn’t hit till a few years after I was born. But the cultural phenomenon people talk about when they describe “Baby Boomers” doesn’t track with my experiences growing up. I’ve always felt more like Generation X.

Baby Boomers are, we’re always told, the generation whose central experience is the decisions they made about the draft for the Vietnam War. I’m the generation that experienced the Vietnam War as the reason the father of a kid in my neighborhood was missing in action. The generation that went through high school and college during the time of the Boat People, and of the killing fields in Cambodia.

Baby Boomers are the generation that protested and protested and protested in college. I’m of the college generation that older Boomers criticized as careerist and politically apathetic. When we did have protests (and we did, and I was myself an activist), about apartheid or US policy in Central America, if our protests were of any significant size, we would get the description “reminiscent of the 1960s,” as if our protests were a 60s nostalgia party.

Baby Boomers were the generation celebrated in the Hair musical song “Age of Aquarius“. I’m the generation that heard older people singing “Age of Aquarius” and wondered why the heck there was a whole song about people born in the latter part of January and the beginning of February. I mean, it’s flattering that you think I’m all about harmony and understanding, but also puzzling.

I was in college during the time of Reagan, and my young adulthood spanned from Madonna’s “Material Girl” to the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Beginning political awareness in junior high school at the time of Nixon’s detente with the Soviet Union, I reached the latter part of my twenties seeing the fall of the Berlin Wall.

This is a very different experience from that of older Baby Boomers – and it’s mostly older Boomers’ experience that people describe when they’re explaining what shaped Boomers. I’m of the same generation as Obama, but I’m not really, in my life experience, of the same generation as Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Generation labels are like that. We stick broad labels on birth cohorts that last twenty years or so, and talk as if these described individuals. In the process, we lump together: changes that happen in all of our lives as we age (how many “Boomer/Millennial” differences are the same differences that applied to Boomers and their parents, when Boomers were young?), changes that happen over time through several generations (true for at least some changes in racial attitudes), and differences related to life experience (such as how it shaped people to grow up during the Great Depression). We lump together people of very different ages. And we lump together people whose generational experiences may not be well described by labels developed based on US history (do US labels really describe the generational experience of my coworker whose generation is “born just after Pol Pot fell to parents who lived through the killing fields era in Cambodia”?).

These descriptions may be useful as accounts of broad sociological phenomenon, but, even when they’re framed neutrally, and not in “how the Millenials ruined X” generation war terms, they still paint in way too broad a brush to match many individuals’ experiences.

I watched Watergate unfold on TV as a kid in junior high school, my first real political awareness being framed by Nixon’s “I am not a crook.” Hillary Clinton, a young lawyer, worked on the impeachment inquiry as part of the staff of the House Judiciary Committee special counsel. Are she and I really in any meaningful sense of the same generation?


You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road

Posted by Sappho on October 28th, 2019 filed in News and Commentary

I see that we’re arguing, once again, today about when we should go high when they go low, and when we should say, screw it, forget about going high. When it’s important to show respect, and when it’s patriotic not to show respect.

Can I make a meta point?

Wherever you want to draw the line, the most important respect that anyone owes Trump is not respect to the office of the presidency, but respect to Trump as an individual. Why, you may ask? Individual-1 isn’t an individual particularly deserving of respect.

Here’s why. Whatever the heck the minimum may be, that I owe any other human being, whether not he or she deserves it, for my own sake, or for the sake of others who might be harmed by the precedent I’d set, that standard is way more important than any respect I give due to someone’s station. And I have way more reason to give it to the undeserving, than to respect someone who abuses the power of his office, because he holds that office.

If, for example, I were tempted to mock Trump for being fat, I’d refrain, because that kind of mockery hurts other people who are fat, and who have done no harm. And because it’s not particularly connected to what Trump has actually done wrong as President, and if he’s to be mocked, he should be mocked for that, not for some physical characteristic that harms no one else. But I certainly wouldn’t feel obliged to refrain because of any respect I owe him as President – he’s done far worse than mock people for being fat, and mocking him for the real harm he’s done may be a useful tool in resisting authoritarianism.

And, though respect for an office even when you disagree with the holder makes sense, it’s less clear that such respect should apply when we’re talking about, not disagreement, but flat out abuse of power. While if we’re talking about the basic minimum regard that’s due an individual – such as, for example, due process of law should anyone charge Trump with any crime once he’s no longer in office – that’s not a thing you should lose if you don’t deserve it. It’s something that belongs to the undeserving as well as to the deserving, because without that, it doesn’t belong securely to anyone.

Comments Off on You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road

Mini round up: The computer security and tiny cars edition

Posted by Sappho on October 23rd, 2019 filed in Computers, Science

Bruce Schneier on the NordVPN breach.

Jim Baker, former general counsel of the FBI, on rethinking encryption.

Scientists taught rats to drive tiny cars.

Comments Off on Mini round up: The computer security and tiny cars edition

The Dust of Life

Posted by Sappho on October 13th, 2019 filed in Music, News and Commentary

Miss Saigon is playing this week at Segerstrom in Orange County. I have never seen it, and am not planning to see this show. Instead I’ve heard the soundtrack, have seen the opera on which it was based, Madame Butterfly, and the movie M. Butterfly, which takes the Madame Butterfly story in an entirely different direction. But it has been on my mind this week, in particular the song “Bui Doi“.

They’re called Bui-Doi
The dust of life

Conceived in Hell
And born in strife
They are the living reminder of all the good we failed to do
We can’t forget
Must not forget
That they are all our children, too

“Bui Doi,” Miss Saigon
Read the rest of this entry »

Comments Off on The Dust of Life