Proposition 1

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in Environment

Proposition 1 is a water bond proposal. It appears that the argument in favor is that we need that water in the current drought, while the argument against is that it relies too much on dams that put wildlife conservation efforts at risk.

Is this a good idea? A bad idea? If I have any Californian readers left after my scarcity on the blog back when I was going through cancer treatment, feel free to weigh in.

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Proposition 45 and Proposition 46

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions

It’s getting close enough to the election that I should probably suspend posts about issues on which I won’t be voting, and instead try to figure out how I’m going to vote on all the propositions and down ballot races. (For any of my readers who are bored with politics, I’ll try to work in a post about genetic genealogy, triangulation of cousins, and tools like Genome Mate.) This year, we have six statewide propositions to vote on. I’ve already posted links to some general sources of information, so for this post, I’ll just link Ballotpedia on California ballot propositions in 2014. Let’s start with the two propositions related to healthcare, Proposition 45 and Proposition 46.

“Prop. 45 Attacks President Obama’s Affordable Care Act,” announces a flyer sent to my house. The flyer warns that “Right-wing groups will use Prop. 45 as a legal tool to dismantle Obamacare in California.”

On the face of it, this warning sounds plausible enough. After all, opponents of Obamacare have been pulling out all the stops to scuttle the law ever since it was passed: votes to repeal it in the House, lawsuits in court to have it ruled unconstitutional, attempts to use the debt ceiling vote to get Obama to surrender his signature legislative achievement. Why not a ballot proposition in California to dismantle it?

A look at the list of who supports and opposes Proposition 45 shows that the story isn’t quite so simple. The proposition, which “Requires changes to health insurance rates, or anything else affecting the charges associated with health insurance, to be approved by Insurance Commissioner before taking effect,” is supported by the sort of people you’d expect to want insurance rate changes regulated (mostly Democrats) and opposed by the sort of people you’d expect not to want an added layer of rate regulation (insurance companies). Whether or not you buy the argument that Proposition 45 will undermine Covered California, it’s not likely that this particular set of people intended for the proposition to dismantle Obamacare or Covered California.

The flyer’s not entirely wrong, though. Though Proposition 45 isn’t meant to undermine Covered California, some do fear that the proposition may in fact have that effect. Some Covered California board members have expressed concern about the proposition, and some newspapers have endorsed a No vote. The Los Angeles Times, for example, writes

Proposition 103 has saved consumers an enormous amount on auto, home and other policies while still allowing insurers to make a profit, so the idea of extending its purview to health plans is appealing. But now would be the wrong time to pass such a measure. Thanks to the state’s implementation of the 2010 federal healthcare reform law, buyers of individual health plans have a new ally that other insurance shoppers don’t: an independent state exchange, Covered California, that negotiates with health insurers for better deals. Although many people don’t shop for insurance through Covered California, insurers have to offer their Covered California plans to all state residents. Yet Proposition 45, which was written before Covered California opened for business last year, doesn’t acknowledge the exchange or any of the other major changes wrought by the 2010 law.

The paper believes that there are conflicts between the proposition, as written, and Covered California, and that we’re better off waiting to see how the new system works out before adding an additional layer of rate regulation.

I’m leaning toward a no vote right now, as “make one major change to the healthcare system at a time” appeals to the quality assurance professional in me (it’s easier, that way, to judge the effect of your changes, and know what you may need to tweak). But feel free to try to persuade me that I’m wrong (or right), since I haven’t voted yet, and I find figuring out how to vote on such propositions tricky.

Proposition 46 has a different set of complications.
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More on Ebola and travelers

Posted by Sappho on October 21st, 2014 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Health and Medicine

This seems like a good idea: U.S. to funnel travelers from Ebola-hit region through five airports.

Five airports sound like a large enough number to make it easy for humanitarian workers to travel as needed to help put out this wildfire where it started, and also enough that we don’t have to worry about the possibility that travelers from the Ebola stricken countries will lie about where they’re from and go underground where we can’t track them. At the same time, it’s a small enough number that we can hope that the people screening for Ebola at all five airports will be properly trained. The main lesson I take from what went wrong at Texas Presbyterian (besides the fact that the CDC’s Ebola guidelines for hospitals evidently needed the revision they just got) is that, even if we don’t literally need to send all Ebola patients to the four hospitals with the special rooms (those isolation rooms are more for airborne illnesses like SARS), our experience dealing with Ebola in the US appears thin enough that we’re best funneling everyone to a manageable number of people and train those people well. Sending travelers through only a few airports, and then sending anyone who does have Ebola to one of only a limited number of hospitals, sounds like a good policy.

This is darkly humorous: Rwanda is screening all travelers from the US for Ebola.

Here’s a Nature article on contact tracing, which has been the key to fighting Ebola, and has worked well in Senegal and Nigeria (both now declared Ebola free), and also appears to be working in the US. Unfortunately, in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, the healthcare system has gotten so overwhelmed that contact tracing is difficult.

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‘Cause there ain’t no cure, and there ain’t no pill for Ebola

Posted by Sappho on October 16th, 2014 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Health and Medicine

The parody’s an old one, a bit of black humor from the days when all known Ebola outbreaks had been deadly, sure, but short term deadly, beaten back in short order in the country where they began.

I got it in Zaire, and it made me ill,
‘Cause there ain’t no cure, and there ain’t no pill for Ebola
E-BO-L-A Bola

The doctor says I’m sick, and I won’t last long,
But at least I’ll survive till the end of the song – [break off and mimic dying]

The black humor hasn’t quite been funny to me for many months now, as I’ve followed the news of the epidemic, for I have family in Senegal. Senegal’s one of the worried well countries of West Africa. Despite sharing a border with Guinea, one of the three countries hard hit by the epidemic, Senegal has stayed free, so far, of the disease, beyond one imported case. Tomorrow, WHO is expected to pronounce Senegal Ebola free, a designation that requres that

a country must pass through 42 days, with active surveillance demonstrably in place, supported by good diagnostic capacity, and with no new cases detected. Active surveillance is essential to detect chains of transmission that might otherwise remain hidden.

The period of 42 days, with active case-finding in place, is twice the maximum incubation period for Ebola virus disease and is considered by WHO as sufficient to generate confidence in a declaration that an Ebola outbreak has ended.

Trying to protect itself from Ebola, Senegal has applied a controversial closing of its border with Guinea, despite warnings from WHO that border closings are ineffective. Senegal has also, while keeping its border closed, opened a humanitarian corridor at an airport to speed aid to stricken countries.

Some other countries have applied travel restrictions, with Kenya and South Africa instituting travel restrictions for the three afflicted countries of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, and Saudi Arabia turning down 7,000 requests for hajj visas for Ebola concerns.

Now that two nurses have caught Ebola in the US, the calls are starting for travel restrictions here. I’m seeing it from people like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage (whom I pretty much discount, as looking for any sort of cudgel to hit Obama), and I’m seeing it from some in The American Conservative (whom I take more seriously, as they generally strike me as people making an honest effort to reflect on policy from a perspective that sometimes differs from my own, rather than people looking to make wild claims about the treasonous motives of the Other Side).

How do I explain my mixed feelings in discussions of travel restrictions? Why I’m sympathetic with some and impatient with others? Well, I will try.
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November 2014 election information links, most of them specific to California

Posted by Sappho on October 14th, 2014 filed in California Ballot Propositions

The Secretary of State list of qualified statewide ballot measures (with links to the voter guide). ballot for Orange County, California

BallotPedia on California 2014 ballot propositions

League of Women Voters chart of organizational ballot endorsements on ballot measures in the November 2014 election

I’m just starting to look at these and make up my mind. Proposition 47 looks like a definite yes (reducing some drug possession offenses and minor thefts to misdemeanors), and as for Proposition 48 (another Indian gaming proposition), I generally vote for Indian gaming on Indian sovereignty grounds (plus these particular compacts were already approved in good faith by the Legislature. But I haven’t worked through the other propositions yet. If any of you have recommendations, feel free to speak up. I’ll probably blog more about the propositions later.

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Some links related to race and police work

Posted by Sappho on October 11th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch, Race

Ryan Gabrielson, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Eric Sagara at Talking Points Memo: Young Black Men Are 21 Times More Likely To Be Killed By Police than their white counterparts.

Dan Hopkins at FiveThirtyEight: Electing A Black Mayor Leads To More Black Police Officers

Alice Ollstein at Think Progress: Will The Nation’s Police Practices Change Post-Ferguson? Depends Who You Ask


Off With His/Her/Their/Its Head

Posted by WiredSisters on October 10th, 2014 filed in History, Law, Moral Philosophy, News and Commentary, Torture

Creepiness alert: this is going to be just what the title should lead you to expect. Sorry.
Public reaction to ISIS beheadings in the West seems to follow two trajectories: the political (those are our guys getting the axe!) and neurological (eeeeeeeeeeeuw!) But all of this is going on roughly in parallel with various screwups in the administration of the death penalty in the good ol’ USA. Perhaps we should look at them side-by-side.

The point of executions by “lethal injection” in the US was originally supposed to be painlessness, or at any rate the elimination of unnecessary pain, more or less in keeping with the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” But in fact, from the outset, we had, and generally still have, no way to know whether the guest of honor at a lethal injection is suffering any pain, necessary or otherwise. What we do know is that most of the time, watching such an execution is minimally traumatic for the rest of us. More recently, we have ascertained that, when the people administering the injection get it wrong, either in the contents of the injection or the process of getting it into a vein, the result can cause the condemned person considerable pain. And in the meantime, obtaining the necessary ingredients of the injection is getting more difficult, since those picky Europeans who make one of those ingredients for some reason don’t like selling it to prison systems.

On the other hand, beheadings are deliberately set up to be as horrifying as possible for the spectators, and almost always arranged so that there will be as many spectators as possible. For more on the political theatre of beheadings, see:

I spent a lot of my scholarly career reading up on the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe, especially England. Those guys were really into beheadings, mostly for the sake of political theatre. Ordinary criminals got hanged; criminals who pissed off the Establishment might get hanged, drawn, and quartered (for more detail, see “Braveheart.”) But high-class criminals got the axe, or, later on in France, the guillotine. Beheading was done with widely varying degrees of skill and decorum, from inept butchery to surgical delicacy. But neurological data seems to tell us that, done right¸ a beheading is as close to painless as executions get. In particular, a properly maintained and properly used guillotine is a genuinely humane way to die. At our present stage of technology, it may be the best one we’ve got.

I haven’t watched any of the ISIS videos, so I have no idea how much skill those guys exercise. I doubt that their primary goal is a painless execution, anyway. But even if they were using properly a perfectly maintained guillotine, our reaction would probably be the same—eeeeeeeeeeeeuw!. The guest of honor might feel no pain, but we spectators would be totally revolted anyway, just by the sight of a major body part being severed from the rest of the body. I suspect that a surgical amputation for life-saving purposes, under general anesthesia, would affect most of us the same way—the point isn’t why, or even how a body part is being severed, it’s the total gross-out of seeing it happen (Texas Chainsaw Massacre, anybody?). Which tells us that the main reason most of our legal authorities have insisted upon the search for “humane” methods of execution isn’t to spare the condemned person pain, but to spare ourselves a revolting sight. (And perhaps also to persuade ourselves that, despite using the death penalty, we are Nice People.)

I still want to know why the ISIS executioners wear masks. It seems to contradict all of the organization’s efforts to make the process not merely public but publicized and theatrical. If I were the Head Honcho of ISIS, I’d do the executions myself if I were physically up to it, or at least name one of my most prominent henchmen to do it for me, wearing a name tag in 72-point type so King Barack could read it without his spectacles. Can it be that, unlike John Hancock, even the Head Honcho of ISIS isn’t altogether sure they’re doing the right thing?

Red Emma

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Round up: this one heavy on links from The American Conservative, but with some liberal links as well

Posted by Sappho on October 8th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch

Conor Friedersdorf on How Christians Could Talk to America About Sex

Noah Millman on A Sign From Hashem? Don’t Know. Helping Others? … Couldn’t Hurt. (These two, combined, are an interesting discussion of sexual ethics.)

Quakers and Sex: A Call to Embrace Sexual Diversity (If Conor Friedersdorf, while not Christian himself, has an interesting take on what traditionalist Christians might have to offer if they expressed some of their concerns in a “Do Unto Others” form, this video, from a more liberal religious point of view, does a nice job of framing the liberal insight as “people differ,” rather than “every choice is equally good.” Every choice in my own life, even every mutually consensual choice, was not equally good; some were mistakes. Probably not every choice, even every consensual choice, is on average equally likely to have good results. But people do differ, and even those who think some sorts of sexual choices are much better than others would do well to acknowledge that people’s subjective experiences of those choices differ a lot.)

Daniel McCarthy on Was the American Revolution Secessionist? (An interesting take on the mixed consequences of the American Revolution.)

Gracy Olmstead on Why Cities Need Localists. (OK, I’m linking a lot of posts on The American Conservative in this round up. Though I’m neither conservative nor localist, I found this one interesting for the questions it raises, about whether cities are inherently less conservative or whether they’re simply less conservative because conservatives have leaned rural, and over what localism might have to offer cities.)

There comes a point in your life when you realize that the stuff that happens in your lifetime is also history. For me, that was the moment, when I was a kid, when my older brother came home and said “They’re comparing Watergate to Teapot Dome.” Nixon’s resignation was still a ways away, but I realized then that I was observing, as it happened, something that would later go into the history books. Then there comes a time, when you’re rather older, when you realize that something you lived through is past history, that Times Change and the college friend who went on to become a rabbi (Josh Marshall’s college friend, not mine, and his post), and who is now coming out of the closet as gay, would probably not be closeted if he came of age now.

Thoreau, at Unqualified Offerings, suggests that

… There’s a non-trivial percentage of Americans who believe putting any paperwork in the way of a person seeking to buy a firearm is tyranny, but putting more paperwork in the way of people trying to vote is sound policy.

Now, they might defend their stance by noting that keeping and bearing arms is a Constitutional right, but even if we leave aside the perplexing ambiguity in the relevant Constitutional language, voting rights are very clearly and explicitly protected in several parts of the Constitution and its Amendments. I’d say that any reasonable interpretation of the Constitution would accord at least as much protection to voting rights as gun rights….

And Ta-Nehisi Coates interviews Jordan Davis’s mother, Lucia McBath, about the guilty verdict in the trial of her son’s murderer, and what it’s like To Raise, Love, and Lose a Black Child.

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Yes Means Yes, Part Two

Posted by Sappho on October 5th, 2014 filed in Feminism, Sexuality

There’s a sequel to the story of my unfortunate experience with D’Kora, and this is where I get to another thread on Steve’s Facebook page, this one about a Camille Paglia article, and a comment someone made in that thread involving a quote from Spider Robinson.

All of us have our views about sex shaped by our own experiences, and these are the things I took away from my experience with D’Kora.
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Yes Means Yes, Part One

Posted by Sappho on October 5th, 2014 filed in Feminism, Sexuality

Last week, California passed a new yes means yes law, defining

(1) An affirmative consent standard in the determination of whether consent was given by both parties to sexual activity. “Affirmative consent” means affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity….

In other words, rather than taking the absence of “no” as implying consent for sex, universities are supposed to expect their students to take consent as meaning a clear yes. Silence, here, is not consent.

I’ve been reading people arguing about the law (mainly in the Facebook feed of speculative fiction writer Steven Barnes, who’s a big fan of the new law). Some of the argument is stuff about what exactly people think the new law means, a subject that I’m sure my co-blogger WiredSisters, with her legal experience, can address much better than I can. But one of the big themes in the argument, one that I’ve seen before in “yes means yes” discussions and that has always puzzled me, is the belief of some that sex proceeds best when, apparently, you don’t talk at all (because, spontaneity, and because, surprise, and because talking is such a buzzkill).

I’m not convinced that the law in question actually requires talking (Amanda Hess, at Slate, makes a good case that sufficiently clear and unambiguous actions could meet the law’s standard, even without words). But it puzzles me no end that anyone would find not talking at all before or during sex either the most normal or the most desirable way to proceed. So I wrote, in a comment, on Steve’s post about the “Yes means yes” law:

I’m puzzled. I can’t think of a single instance of sex in my entire life, either, that didn’t meet this standard (and it’s not like I’m talking the whole time). (For that matter, in the one case of non-consent in my life I quite explicitly said no three different times and pushed the guy away, and he kept coming.) Sure, at some points in the process the affirmative consent involves both of us actively initiating physically, and at other points in the process, we’ll be talking to each other. But we’ve pretty much always *both* affirmatively consented verbally *and* both been actively touching each other at some point before any of my orifices is penetrated. Is this really *that* unusual?

Only after I’d written the comment did I remember that it wasn’t strictly true. There was, you see, this one other time, that I had left out. And it was awful. So here’s a fuller account of my own personal experience with “no means no” (even if you don’t want to believe me), with “yes means yes,” and with how “silence means yes” feels, and why you might not want to try it at home. To preserve the confidentiality of all concerned (even the one person who really doesn’t deserve confidentiality, because I don’t want him finding me again in a Google vanity search), I’m using randomly generated Klingon names for everyone except myself. I’m also putting the whole story below the fold, so people concerned about reading anything NSFW can just not read it.
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Ebola and Software Quality Assurance

Posted by Sappho on October 3rd, 2014 filed in Computers, Health and Medicine, News and Commentary

Every so often, a story I was already following suddenly reveals an angle that actually relates to my area of professional expertise. So it is now with Ebola. The Los Angeles Times reports on the Dallas hospital’s mistake in initially sending the new US Ebola patient home from the ER,

Hospital officials now blame a technical flaw for the failure to relay the information about Duncan’s background to the doctors. In a statement, the hospital said an electronic records glitch between the nurse who questioned Duncan and the doctor who treated him led to the lapse. The nurse noted in Duncan’s electronic chart that he said he had arrived from Africa. But the information was not transferred to the doctor’s electronic medical notes. Officials say they are now using a new process to record and share patient information.

I can’t speak to any other adjustments that may need to be made to hospital processes, to make sure any new Ebola cases don’t slip through the cracks, but electronic records are something I understand. In particular, testing software is something I can understand. Here is how errors like the one described slip in to software systems, and what needs to be done to catch them before software goes live.

A failure to transfer critical information from the nurse’s area of the electronic record to the doctor’s can be a bug that was introduced when writing the requirements (the requirement telling the programmers which information needed to be visible to the doctor was improperly written), in the software design (the requirement was there, but it was missed when designed the software), or in the coding phase. Whenever it was introduced, this is what needs to happen for the bug to be caught in the testing phase:

  1. A thorough inventory of test cases. This should include testing every type of information you can enter in the system, and, if you have multiple roles (in this case, nurse and doctor), it should include the right test cases to cover how the doctor and nurse roles interact. One way that you miss this kind of thing in testing is that no one thought to test the case where the nurse enters travel information and the doctor checks for it in the chart.
  2. All test cases need to be executed at least once, of course, but they also need to be executed again if a change has been made that might break that part of the code. Another way that you miss this kind of thing is when it worked once and then got broken. This part can be tricky, since there’s a limit to how often you can test everything. Things that can help: Automation of basic regression, communication between development and QA (so you know when a change has been made that might break something that you’ll need to retest), prioritizing the most critical tests (so that if you miss a bug, at least you can hope it won’t be the one that will lead to a patient with Ebola getting released), and allowing sufficient time to test the release build (slip in lots of changes at the end and skimp on time for testing and you may have trouble).
  3. Test cases are generally written based on the design and requirement documents. But testers should also use their heads, and, if they see that the design and requirements documents missed an issue, flag the issue. If the nurse’s notes for travel aren’t visible to the doctor, and that behavior is consistent with the design and requirement documents, but you notice that this isn’t likely to be what’s actually useful, you’re being a good tested if you point the problem out.

Obviously, the more complex the system, and the more pressed for time people are when developing and testing it, the easier it is to miss these things. But you can see how important it is to learn best practices for not missing these errors.


America’s Unoriginal Sin

Posted by WiredSisters on October 1st, 2014 filed in College Life, Daily Life, Democracy, Guest Blogger, History, Moral Philosophy, Race

Many years ago, I worked with a Jesuit priest, who once told me that, after his first month of hearing confessions, he had ceased to believe in original sin. “Nothing original about it,” he told me. “Just the same damn things over and over.” I don’t believe in original sin either, at least not on the level of individuals. Collectivities, however, may be different. I believe every collectivity has the potential for a collective egotism (lately I’ve seen it called “groupishness”) that can be profoundly harmful to non-members and often to members as well. Every individual entity more complicated than a rock has an urge to self-preservation. That urge gets fulfilled by eating, reproducing, moving around, and self-defense. In the course of doing those things, the entity may, unavoidably, harm some other entities. This does not raise moral issues for most of us (for one of the more interesting exceptions, try googling “Jainism.”) But when a group does the same thing, the moral issues become more complicated.

Mr. Wired used to make the very useful distinction between prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice is the awareness of other people being, well, “other.” Different from oneself and other members of one’s group. Sometimes this awareness may include the feeling that the “others” are less-than one’s own group in various ways, or maybe even threatening to it. This is the homo sapiens collective version of the urge for self-preservation. Everybody has it, to one degree or another, about one or another “other.” There is nothing wrong with it.

But discrimination is acting on that prejudice. It’s wrong, anti-social, dangerous, immoral, and a Bad Thing. Mr. Wired did not add, but I do, that it’s wrong to shame people about having prejudices, which nobody can possibly help having, but perfectly okay to shame them about behaving in a discriminatory manner.

Over the last couple of years, the major trendy public discussion of prejudice and discrimination seemed to be around homophobia. People whose religion deems homosexual behavior sinful argue that (a) that’s not a prejudice, it’s a religious doctrine or even a divine commandment, and (b) therefore, those who believe such doctrines are not prejudiced, and (c) therefore, for supporters of gay rights to call those who believe such doctrines “bigots” is not only erroneous, but discriminatory. This discussion has died down a bit lately, partly because the facts on the ground, most notably various pro-gay-rights changes in legislation and judicial rulings, have made it less consequential.

And so we’re back to talking, once again, about America’s original prejudice, race. (Well, that’s not exactly the first prejudice to be brought to our shores by English immigrants, but it’s the oldest one that’s still around. The first may arguably be anti-Catholicism, which even gets favorable mention in the Declaration of Independence:
“For abolishing the free System of English Laws in a neighbouring Province, establishing therein an Arbitrary government, and enlarging its Boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these states” is a reference to the Quebec Act, by which, among other things, the British government guaranteed freedom of religion to Catholics in that province. But I digress.)

The institution of chattel slavery of Africans in the Western Hemisphere was, I think, what the crack in the Liberty Bell really symbolizes. The best and brightest of each generation keep wrestling with it in one form or another. We keep thinking we’ve overcome it. And then it returns in some new form. First we ended the international slave trade. Then we abolished the forms of chattel slavery. Then we abolished de jure Jim Crow. Now, a generation after that, we are just beginning to notice its current incarnations: mass incarceration, the War on Drugs, and the presumption of dangerousness applied to all African-American males and many African-American females. In the meantime, we’ve gotten less prejudiced about interracial romance and marriage, and workplace diversity. You win some, you lose some.

One of the more interesting subheads of the current discussion of prejudice and discrimination is “The Talk.” In this instance, it is the talk the parents of African-American children have with them at some crucial age, instructing them on how not to get perceived as dangerous, and, above all, how not to get shot by the police. Many of its practical details are similar to the instructions routinely given to people about to cross paths with wild predatory animals: move slowly, talk slowly and clearly, don’t do anything unexpected. As a taxpayer, I am disturbed by the notion that the police we train, and arm, and pay, to serve and protect us are in some contexts no better than feral dogs or grizzly bears. But if I had the raising of an African-American boy, I would give him pretty much the same advice.

There are other versions of The Talk, and probably the most common is the talk mothers give to their just-prepubescent daughters about how not to get raped. When I was growing up, girls got it at age eleven or so. Given the decrease in the average age of puberty and the increase in the sexualization of childhood since then, I shudder to think what age that talk is given at now. Judging from much of the current discussion of sexual assault on college campuses today, perhaps it isn’t given at all, which would explain a lot. It would explain why young women are only lately beginning to develop the caution my generation of young women grew up with, about being alone, or drinking too much, or displaying too much of oneself, with young men one doesn’t know and trust. As the mother of a friend of mine once told her, one of the basic requirements of good mothering is making sure one’s children know what to be afraid of. In the wrong hands, this can all too easily degenerate into conditioned paranoia. And even young people who follow whatever rules their parents give them may not be safe from harm anyway. We don’t always know what to be afraid of, and even when we do, we can’t always bring ourselves to say it. What mother would say to her daughter, “Don’t get too close to your stepfather”?

But, getting back to racism, Mr. Wired, despite his belief that prejudice is morally different from discrimination, also believed very strongly that the only way to overcome discrimination is to stop paying attention to racial differences, that color-blindness is the only way past any current incarnation of Jim Crow. He could point to the fact that people with blond hair and blue eyes were once objects of prejudice both in ancient and Byzantine Rome (where slaves and prostitutes were often Slavic imports) and Norman England (where of course the Saxons were the underlings), and now are not only accepted but eagerly imitated by people whose natural coloring is darker.

Is a color-blind society possible? Okay, scientifically speaking, “race” is nonsense. But it is a social reality, and unless we’re willing to wait a thousand years for nature to take its course as it somehow did with the Saxons, it has to be dealt with. Refusing to identify people by “race” on official documents doesn’t create an integrated society, it just makes it harder to see discrimination, much less to confront it.

And, even more important, would a color-blind society be desirable? I’m a member of several “minorities”—female, Jewish, elderly, Hispanic, bisexual, intellectual, independently poor, and mildly disabled. I would not be especially grateful to anyone who treated me as an honorary man, or an honorary Christian, or a potential marathoner. You get the idea. If all I am offered for giving up the various subcultures and “other” communities I belong to is a chance to be a second-class member of the majority, why on earth would I bother?

Quite aside from that, we have seen over and over again during the last century communities that lived side by side in complete acceptance, intermingling, and even intermarriage, for generations and even centuries, until some demonic genocidal outbreak destroyed them both—Jews in Germany, Serbs and Croats and Muslims in Yugoslavia, Hutus and Tutsis in Ruanda. The Hatfields and the McCoys, for that matter. It’s hard to trust current tranquility if you pay any attention to history.

The utopia I aspire to is one in which all of our differences are recognized, and none of them is used as a basis for a hierarchy. Maybe ISIS can make this happen, at least for non-Muslims. Some historians have suggested that Pope Urban had this sort of thing in mind when he declared the First Crusade, in which case ISIS could be right on track. World War II could be a salutary lesson for us, in that, while Hitler was persecuting Jewish atomic scientists, Roosevelt was enlisting the Tuskeegee airmen, and he was on the side that won. Churchill called that war a crusade, too. We Jews, of course, view the Crusades through somewhat jaundiced lenses, since one of the things the crusaders and their local admirers did before getting to the Middle East was slaughter Jews. But a war against the Martians could work to unite all humans, at least for a while. If I were president….

Well, in the meantime, what do we colorless people do about the persistence of prejudice and discrimination against people of color? At the very least, we need to recognize and work to overcome the perception of dangerousness, the almost instinctive fear of non-white male strangers that pervades the consciousness of even the most liberal of us (including some people of color, by the way.) The perception of dangerousness is, of course, closely related to the conditioned paranoia that often feeds into, or results from, The Talk. We need to be a lot more careful, and a lot better informed, about what we tell our children to be afraid of. And perhaps we also need to be more nuanced in how we tell our children to behave in the context of that fear. For instance, crossing the street to avoid intersecting with a bunch of unruly teenage boys (of whatever ethnicity, really) or men of color is likely to be perceived by them as a sign of disrespect. Even if they don’t take visible umbrage at it while you are around to see and hear them, it could have a really bad effect on their next encounter with people like you. Unless they are all visibly armed and actively chanting gang slogans, you may do more to improve the situation by following your current trajectory and saying “Hi,” as you pass them. They may surprise you by reciprocating your greeting. Maybe next time, you can even have a short conversation with them about the weather or the local sports team. One small step for an individual, one giant leap for a group.

Red Emma


Baffled our foes stand on the shore, follow they will not dare

Posted by Sappho on September 18th, 2014 filed in Music

A friend in Scotland posts to Facebook today that she just saw a teenager “wearing a kilt and a blue & white (Scottish national colors) football jersey emblazoned with the word YES. Oh, and he was grinning like a fiend.” A friend in England posts “Scotland – while I understand your want for independence, I do hope you’ll stay.”

While I wait to learn whether the Scots will vote for independence (the Princeton Election Consortium predicts No, but with a close vote, and perhaps some last minute momentum breaking toward Yes), I’ve been listening to some old Scottish songs. Skye Boat Song is a lovely ballad about the escape of Bonnie Prince Charlie, here beautifully sung in a collaboration by two women who met on Youtube.

I like sometimes to take a song and play it over and over, to work the lyrics into my memory. And so, as I played this one over and over, I was struck by the words “Baffled our foes stand on the shore, follow they will not dare.” This is, after all, a song about defeat. The hopes of the singer that “Yet for my sword, here in my hand, Charlie will come again” never materialized. And the song remembers that defeat, how “burned was our homes” and those “silently laid dead on Culloden’s field.” But it still adds a triumphant note to the escape; not only does Bonnie Prince Charlie escape the troops searching for him, but, as his bonny boat speeds into the roaring wind and rolling waves, thunderclaps rending the air, the foe don’t dare follow him, beaten by the storm that his boat braves. And it occurs to me how readily nationalist tales and songs weave triumphs even with the bitterness of defeat.

After all, think of our own Star-Spangled Banner. It comes out of a war in which we were humiliated (the White House burned) and in which, arguably, even once all our victories were counted alongside our defeats, it was really Canada that won the war. But, whether or not you can sing those notoriously difficult high notes, and whether or not you remember the name of the battle the song commemorates, you will, if you’re American, always remember that at the end of that perilous night, the flag did still wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

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Remembering Brian Sayre

Posted by Sappho on September 16th, 2014 filed in RIP

It’s been thirty years since Brian died. I can’t think of anything good to add to what I wrote about him five years ago, and twelve years ago, but here’s a memorial page that his friend Lee made for him.

A brilliant mind, a great spirit, and a dear friend.

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Noah Millman on Nicholas Wade’s book and on HBD

Posted by Sappho on September 15th, 2014 filed in Books, Race

Noah Millman has an excellent review of Nicholas Wade’s race book. I’ve been meaning to link it for about a week, but keep putting it off till I have time to say something about it. But, what the heck, I’ll just link it; it stands on its own better than anything I can add to it. A taste:

Color this reader skeptical. After walking through the scientific consensus on the course of human evolution since the exit from Africa, Wade proceeds, in the latter half of the book, to grand speculation about the course of human history, speculation that unquestionably implicates the sorts of political and moral questions that Wade earlier claims are not implicated by the science of human differences.

To pick the most obvious and least convincing example, Wade asserts a genetic basis for the tribalism that has undermined nation-formation in much of Africa and the Middle East, and he argues from this assertion that the Iraq War was predictably an act of folly since a modern Western democratic system could not simply be transferred to the tribal world of Iraq. Quite clearly, Wade does think there are moral and political implications to this science.

Now, the Iraq War was predictably an act of folly, and a modern Western democratic system could not simply be transferred to Iraq. But the assertion of a genetic basis for tribalism is neither necessary nor sufficient to make that case. As Wade acknowledges, societies can adapt in dramatically different ways from the same genetic substrate. Japan went from isolationism to openness and Westernization to fanatical nationalist militarism to quietistic consumerism and democracy, all within a century, without ever ceasing to be highly conformist, shame-based, and ethnocentric. And most importantly, Wade has no evidence for his contention that tribalism is hard-coded into some populations’ genes but not into others. To demonstrate that genetic differences were the crucial factor in political developments would require a level of knowledge about the genetic basis of behavioral differences that Wade knows we do not have, as well as the kind of robust ability to control for other factors that we are unlikely ever to have.

I do have a few words, though, on his accompanying post, HBD and Me

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2014 and All That

Posted by WiredSisters on September 9th, 2014 filed in Democracy, History, Uncategorized

1066 and All That is a book on English history by WC Sellar and RJ Yeatman. I mention it here because, among other historical facts it relates is one about the relationship between England and Ireland in the 19th century. As best I can recall, the authors tell us, the English set up a system for governing Ireland, which provided that the Irish were to have a parliament, but the English were to pass all the laws in it.

We Americans have no problem spotting the flaw in this setup. We have, in fact, worked fairly hard on making electoral politics transparent and responsive to the will of the people, between the 1940s and the 1980s or thereabout. The 1940s saw the courts ruling to abolish the “white primary”—the Southern electoral system in which the solidly Democratic South made its real selection of candidates during the Democratic primary, in which only whites were allowed to vote, and then grudgingly allowed multiracial voting in the general election, which could not possibly elect anyone but the winner of the Democratic primary. The argument of the party was that it was a private organization, like the Moose or the Elks, and therefore the courts could not tell it whom to allow to vote in its primary, much less whom to choose as its candidate. The courts, the party argued, could rule only on issues in the general election.. The courts, and most Americans in the rest of the country, had no trouble seeing through that argument.

The unfortunate events of the 1968 Democratic convention and the election following it called the attention of the American public to the method by which the national Democratic Party chose its candidates. The party’s presidential candidate that year had not won a single state primary. He was chosen by a process of steamrolling by party bosses that Chicagoans still remember. So in 1972, the Democratic Party changed its rules (and the Republicans followed suit over the next few years, though with less controversy and fireworks) to provide that every state had to have a primary, and that the primary elections would in fact determine the choice of national candidates. So far, so good.

Doesn’t all this progress mean we get to pat ourselves on the back about how much more democratic (note the small “d”) we are than, say, China, or Iran?

Not so fast.

Okay,yes, the citizens of Hong Kong are protesting, at this very moment, because the national government in Beijing insists that, while the Hong Kong locals can elect their leaders, Beijing gets to choose the candidates in that election. According to CNN, “The majority of Hong Kong citizens, namely, the 5 million qualified voters of the selection of chief executive in 2017, will be able to cast their votes to select the chief executive,” said Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying.

“Speaking at an event Monday to explain the NPC’s decision, he added: “This is the first opportunity — a very good opportunity — for Hong Kong to have one man, one vote — universal suffrage. This is something we should all feel proud of.”

“But that’s not how Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Occupy Central movement sees it. The group has vocally pushed for elections in which any candidate can run for chief executive. For weeks, protesters have taken to the streets. In a statement on its website, the group slammed Beijing’s decision as a move that stifles democracy and blocks people with different political views from running for office.
“Genuine universal suffrage includes both the rights to elect and to be elected,” the statement said. “The decision of the NPC Standing Committee has deprived people with different political views of the right to run for election and be elected by imposing unreasonable restrictions, thereby perpetuating ‘handpicked politics.'” Specifically, China’s powerful National People’s Congress Standing Committee voted Sunday to change the way Hong Kong picks its chief executive, ruling that only candidates approved by a nominating committee will be allowed to run.
“A top Chinese official made clear the candidates all must “love the country and love Hong Kong.”

And then there’s Iran. According to Wikipedia, “The politics of Iran take place in a framework of Presidential Democracy and theocracy in a format of Syncretic politics that is guided by an Islamist ideology. The December 1979 constitution, and its 1989 amendment, define the political, economic, and social order of the Islamic Republic of Iran, declaring that Shi’a Islam of the Twelver school of thought is Iran’s official religion.

“Iran has an elected president, parliament (or Majlis), and an “Assembly of Experts” (which elects the Supreme Leader), and local councils. According to the constitution all candidates running for these positions must be vetted by the Guardian Council (with the exception of those running for “Assembly of Experts”) before being elected.

“In addition there are representative elected or appointed organizations (usually under Supreme Leader’s control) trying to “protect the state’s Islamic character”.[1]”

Isn’t it great to be an American? Or at least a New Yorker? Lawrence Lessig, in Tumblr, remarks on Governor Cuomo’s refusal to debate the amazingly named (apparently it’s her real name, too) Zephyr Teachout because she hasn’t raised enough money to be allowed into the election. “It’s a fun way to be angry about the outrage of the governor refusing to debate. But I don’t think this is really about sexism. It’s about money-ism: Zephyr is not entitled to debate the governor not because she’s a woman, but because she’s a woman without money. (Of course that’s not unrelated.) And in this democracy, not to have money is not to be qualified.

“This is the same reality Buddy Roemer confronted in 2012. Roemer was the most qualified Republican running for president. He had been a governor, he had served three terms in the House of Representatives, and he had run a successful community bank — kind of a Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain wrapped in one. But Roemer had made money the issue in his campaign, refusing to accept contributions of greater than $100, and refusing PAC money. He was therefore not qualified to even debate the other candidates. Literally. At first, he was told he had to have 1 percent national name recognition to be allowed to debate. When he got that, he was told he needed 2 percent. When he got that, he was told he had to have raised $500k in the prior six weeks. Not to have money means not to be qualified.”

Other observers have told us there are actually two primaries in most election cycles: the money primary and the vote primary. A candidate who doesn’t win the money primary might as well not bother with the vote primary.

I’m not seriously suggesting we all move to Iran. Or even Hong Kong. But wouldn’t it be nice to have a democracy of our own?

Red Emma


Thoughts on Mark Driscoll’s “pussified nation” comments as William Wallace

Posted by Sappho on September 9th, 2014 filed in Feminism, Theology

“Ok so I’m a penis home… never heard that one before.” said one of my Facebook friends. So I clicked through to the article on the Raw Story about the Mars Hill mega-church closing several branches, and dismissing a pastor who called for the resignation of church founder Mark Driscoll, in the wake of the discovery of hundreds of inflammatory comments that Driscoll made years ago, under the Internet pen name of William Wallace II. Some are focused on the “pussified nation” post, others on the fact that he described women’s role as providing a home for a penis (and, naturally, most of us have broader ideas of what our lives are for), and another blogger ties the series of rants to Driscoll’s own hangups about sex and the problems in his marriage at the time he took on the William Wallace persona. I pick the pussified nation post, because it’s long, and rambling, and odd.

  1. I am, first, struck by just who Driscoll called “pussified,” here; it’s the “pussified James Dobson knock-off crying Promise Keeping homoerotic worship loving mama’s boy sensitive emasculated neutered exact male replica evangellyfish.” It’s the youth pastors who advise young evangelical men, and it’s the “men’s accountability group” where Johnny learns to “keep his urges under control.” This is the world that Driscoll, in his William Wallace II persona, denounced as “pussified” and overly cowed by feminism. Really?
  2. “take one to bed and make the Song of Songs sing again” is a nice turn of phrase. I’d like to rescue it from the rant in which it’s trapped, and stick it in a short story, or something.
  3. “the more hell looks like a good place because at least a man is in charge” reminds me of Satan in Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heaven.”

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Of nude photos and cloud security

Posted by Sappho on September 1st, 2014 filed in Computers

I see that the big news today is the fact that someone hacked the iCloud, stole nude photos of about a hundred female celebrities, and posted them to 4chan. I’m not going to link most of the articles; it’s on Buzzfeed, and you can easily Google it yourself. I will say that if you’re looking at nude photos of Jennifer Lawrence right now, you’re seriously wronging her. No snark here. The fact that you’re a public figure does not entitle the public to the contents of your private cell phone or laptop, and just because it was someone else who did the first breach of privacy doesn’t mean you’re not at fault if you compound the breach by sharing or even viewing the photos.

That said, since I have some professional interest in computer security, my own interest in this story is the computer security angle. What kind of a hole in security allowed the private nude photos of a hundred different women all to be stolen at once?

First things first. Did all of these women in fact have photos stolen and circulated, that they had only taken for private use? The answer seems to be, some of them did. Of the various women who have made statements (either directly or through their agents), some say the photos were taken for private use, some say the photos are fake, and one says the photos were taken years ago for use with her husband and had long ago been deleted.

Now, it’s possible that whoever did this hacked one celebrity’s laptop and used forensic software to recover deleted photos, while arranging for body doubles to pose for nude photos of others. But that multiplies entities more than we need to, in order to explain the security breach. I don’t know the details of exactly what the leak was in the iCloud that was exploited, and I don’t even have an iPhone myself, but I do have a Droid, which uses the cloud in a similar fashion, so I have some idea how this works.

When I take photos with my Droid, all of them, that’s every single one, gets uploaded to a private area of my Google+ account. I then get an email telling me that I have photos to view, and I view them and choose which ones I want to share. After I choose not to share some of the photos, the out of focus photo of a hedgehog viewed from behind that I took the other day at the STAR Eco Station in Culver City gets saved in two different places, until I think to delete it. One of those places is my phone. The other place is my private area of the cloud.

I’m not sure what happens (either for the Droid or for the iPhone) if I just delete the photo from the cloud and not from my phone. Does the phone later automatically back the photo up for me again, since there is no longer a backup? Maybe. At any rate, in order to delete the photo permanently, I need first to delete it from my cell phone, and then to remember that I have a copy out there on the cloud (which got put there automatically, without my thinking about it) and go delete that copy as well. Deleting the photo from my gallery on the phone will not delete it from the cloud (I might, after all, have wanted to free up space on my phone and save the back up). And “back up my photos on the cloud” is generally the default option for these things, one that you have to actively turn off if you don’t want your photos backed up.

So, here’s how someone could do this hack. Step 1: Find a security hole in the iCloud, one that lets you into the private areas of other users. (It’s possible that this security hole wasn’t even an actual leak in the iCloud itself, as people are really, really bad at picking passwords.) Step 2: Search for the female celebrities you want to embarrass, one by one. Since we generally use our real names on our cell phones, this part may not be too difficult. But it may be how the list came to have fake photos as well as real ones. Because, if you’re a hot female celebrity, it stands to reason that the cloud will contain, not only possibly your own private photos, that you perhaps took to share with your husband or your wife or your just-as-good-as-husband-or-wife, but other people’s staged photos, for their own personal use, of what they think you would look like naked. Some of those photos might also turn up, and get stolen, if someone searches the cloud for nude photos of you.

So, how do you protect yourself?

First, private is private, and if you didn’t share it, you don’t deserve to have it shared with the world whether you protected yourself or not. Having your cell phone photos backed up on the cloud is, after all, the default. And it’s no crime to have a personal photo of yourself that’s less clothed than the ones you display to the world. (In fact, I have such a photo on my cell phone right now. It’s a photo of myself in shorts and a sports bra, and it’s one of my cancer recovery shots. If anyone wants to hack me and share that photo, well, you won’t have proved anything bad about me, but you’ll have proven that you are an asshole. No, I’m not going to look for it on the cloud and delete it. I’m going to ask you to be honorable enough not to hack me.)

Still, given that the cloud can be hacked, there are steps you can take when you want to keep your photos private. To do this, you need to do two things: First, you need to pick a good password. Second, you need to make sure that your photos aren’t being automatically uploaded, whether to the iCloud, or to Dropbox, or to Google+. The Mirror has an article that describes the steps to turn off automatic backup on the various services. Of course, automatic backup is there because it’s actually a convenience a lot of the time. Just yesterday, my husband and I went to a wildlife refuge to look at birds. With automatic backup to the cloud, we were free to take any bird photos we chose, and know that we would still have them if our phones got lost, or broke and needed to be replaced. So, pick which you want, automatic backup or greater privacy, and toggle your settings accordingly.

The password is the tricky part. By now you’ve all heard, I hope, that you shouldn’t pick obvious, guessable passwords, like your middle name or your pet’s name. And you may know that there is dictionary based password cracking software that will crack your password if it’s a single word, that uses dictionaries in multiple languages, and that makes the obvious substitutions like 3 for e. So you need a more secure password, such as one based on a phrase, which uses upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters. And you need a different one of these, for every email account, social media account, bank or investment account, or account at your workplace (which often means multiple work related accounts, one to read your work email, another to submit your time sheet, another to handle your benefits, etc.). And you mustn’t write these passwords down and put them near the computer where people can find them. Soon, you find yourself in this situation.

There are several ways around this problem. One is to use a password safe to store all your hard to guess passwords, and make the password you use to access the password safe really good. Another is to write down all your passwords. Sure, you’re not supposed to do that, but seriously, a list of written down passwords can actually be more secure than having your passwords be ones you can actually remember, given that people are bad at remembering hard to guess passwords. Then take that list of passwords, the cryptic passwords to 401k or retirement accounts that you rarely access, and don’t put it by the computer, but store it someplace else. Or you can write down your passwords in encrypted form (encrypt them by hand, with the method of your choice, but probably something a little better than rotating all the letters by 13), and store that list somewhere. Or you can create passwords that are related to each other in some way, tying some method of coming up with a series of password generating phrases to something connected to the accounts for which each password is used.

You should also consider your security questions, those questions that are used to verify your identity if you need to reset the password on your account. An account is only as good as its security questions, since someone else who knows the answer to those questions can get your password by asking for it to be reset. So don’t use your mother’s actual maiden name, or the name of your actual high school (which is publicly listed on your Facebook account), or anything else that may be general information. You’re better off using “dragon” for the single memorable answer to all your security questions (but don’t actually use the word “dragon,” or any other that anyone has publicly suggested), than having an account that can be reset by anyone who knows your mother’s maiden name, the city where you got married, and the name of your high school. Though you could always pick a friend, and supply that friend’s mother’s maiden name, etc., for a bit of added security. Or, if you really want to be secure (at the loss of some ease in recovering your password), make up those security answers, make them cryptic, and lock them away in a safe somewhere, to be pulled out if you need them.

But all of this gets complicated, as the accounts for which we need passwords multiply (each with a different security policy). And meanwhile, more and more of our private information lives in the cloud: photos, contacts, maps of our every movement if we neglected to (or chose not to) turn location services off.

Welcome to the Panopticon.

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On twin studies, unrelated lookalikes, behavior and personality

Posted by Sappho on August 26th, 2014 filed in DNA

Razik Khan, in No two look-alikes, points out this New York Times article on examining the genetic component in twin behavior by comparing the personalities of people who simply look alike. Are identical twins similar in personality simply because they look alike, and people therefore treat them similarly? New research suggests that’s not all there is to it, because people who merely look alike are not as similar in personality as identical twins. From the New York Times article:

For Dr. Segal’s initial study, she asked Mr. Brunelle to send questionnaires to some of his subjects, and she received completed forms from 23 pairs of unrelated look-alikes. The questionnaires yield a score based on five personality measures: stability, openness, extroversion, agreeableness and conscientiousness. The participants also took the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale, a widely used measure in social science research.

As she expected, the unrelated look-alikes showed little similarity in either personality or self-esteem. By contrast, twins — especially identical twins — score similarly on both scales, suggesting that the likeness is largely because of genetics. Her results were published in the journal Personality and Individual Differences.

Here, via Razib Khan is the original study comparing twins and lookalikes. Khan also recommends Whole genome approaches to quantitative genetics, for a complementary approach investigating the influence of heredity on the same traits.

But, I want to highlight Razib Khan’s caveat at the end.

Relying on the body of twin research alone as a foundation might be a shaky basis for conjecture, but now this area is going multi-disciplinary, allowing for a stool with multiple legs. Of course all it is doing is confirming modest heritabilities for behavioral phenotypes.

While Khan closes with “God does play dice” (and includes a reminder that even much of the environmental component in our behavior isn’t subject to parental or governmental control), he is not reporting that research shows that the majority of our behavior is genetically determined.

One of the things that happens when discussion of genetics intersects discussion of politics is that, if you lean at all to the left in your politics (as I do), people who lean both conservative and hereditarian (in some cases more hereditarian than the science warrants) interpret any qualifiers you offer about the influence of heredity as a statement of belief in a blank slate, full stop.

I, for one, do not believe in a blank slate. I both believe that human nature in general is somewhat bounded by heredity (that we have somewhat different behavioral inclinations on average than, say, Neanderthals would have, had they survived) and that individual differences in personality and behavior are somewhat heritable. But I tend to expect the hereditary component of such things to be on the order of, say, 20-40%. And that in some cases there’s enough evidence both pointing to heredity and pointing to environment that it’s hard to say which is contributing how much. This is the case, for instance, with gender differences, where there’s a huge body of work pointing all over the place, as far as how large they are or aren’t and how far they are or aren’t culturally determined. (Partly this happens because your results depend on how you’ve defined the question. For instance, men on average are ready for sex on shorter acquaintance and with less commitment than women on average, but how far this is true depends hugely on how you’ve set up the experiment and what your operational definition of “interested in casual sex” is. Is it whether you’d have sex with an attractive total stranger right now? Whether you think, when asked in a survey, that you’d like to have sex with a hot relative stranger if certain risks and social judgments were removed?) But if I say, we don’t know how far gender differences are culturally determined, someone less feminist than me will often interpret this statement as me denying science and insisting, full stop, that it’s All About Culture.

Anyway, for the record, I tend to expect the heritability of our behavior to be about 20-40%. I think that sexual orientation is about 20-40% hereditary. I think that personality traits are about 20-40% hereditary, on average. I suspect that gender differences are about 20-40% genetically driven, and otherwise heavily influenced by culture. I’m open to adjusting my views up or down for the hereditary component of any given trait, or for the influence of heredity in general. But if you start to advance your argument by proposing that the only available choices are “mostly innate” and “not innate at all,” then I, as someone who sees, in what I’ve read about current research, a lot of support for modest inheritance of behavioral traits, will start to suspect that you’re making more of a political than a scientific argument.

That said, the links Razib Khan supplies are an interesting look at the influence of heredity, and are worth checking out.

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“Spoiler alert: This Ends Badly; Delete Before Opening”

Posted by WiredSisters on August 24th, 2014 filed in Moral Philosophy, Yizkor

Apparently journalists, and the public in general, are trying to discourage people from viewing the gruesome online videos of James Foley’s execution by the “Islamic State.” I’m always interested in the difference between Bad Guys who love publicity and those who insist on operating in maximum secrecy, so this is a great opportunity for all of us to think about it. On one hand, IS evidently really gets off on scaring their targets by publicly torturing and executing their victims. On the other hand, the executioner himself wore a bag over his head, though British intelligence says they have ID’d him anyway. Naturally, that ID began with his accent (Henry Higgins, call your office.) Bags and masks are conventional garb for executioners in many places, though I am surprised to find one in the Middle East. In many Western countries, executions have been carried out in some way that guarantees no single individual can be sure he actually shot the bullet or sent the lethal dose into the IV, and the names of the people personally involved are not released to the press. Apparently even the most bloodthirsty of us may be reluctant to actually carry the official title of Lord High Executioner. While I normally oppose the Argument from Repulsion (“Eeeeeeeeeeuuuuuuuwww” is not an argument), it is pretty interesting that such repulsion turns up even among IS. Never mind masks, why isn’t the guy with the sword wearing a name tag in 72-point type, so King George can read it without his spectacles?

So those who would discourage us from viewing the ghastly video footage are responding to a mixed message themselves. But it is a bit of a victory to deprive IS of their most explicit publicity, and I hope it works. It’s kind of Snowden-in-reverse. Our Bad Guys like secrecy, so let’s expose them. Their Bad Guys like publicity, so let’s ignore them. Sadism a la carte.

I’ve talked before about “may his/her/its/their name/s be blotted out.” The folks on Twitter who urge us not to view the Foley video are actually on the track to doing precisely that. Abu Kalashnikov [sic] seems eager to make up aliases, and that just makes it easier for us to forget all of them. Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Some of Foley’s friends and colleagues also urge us to remember Foley for the heroic contributions he has made to journalism, rather than for the ghastly manner of his death, and that’s a worthwhile enterprise too. I hope some graduate school of journalism takes his name and carries it on. Journalists have not always been my favorite people (“How did you feel, Mrs. Jones, when you saw your baby get eaten by the tiger” gets old pretty fast), but we all need to remember how important their job is.

Red Emma

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Plain Vanilla Battery

Posted by WiredSisters on August 21st, 2014 filed in History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Peace Testimony

Back in my first year of law school, I learned that “battery” meant “any unconsented touching” other than ordinary “jostling” in a crowd, and “necessary correction” of a minor child by a parent.. It can range from a surgeon cutting off your left leg when it was the right one that needed amputation, to a punch thrown in a barroom brawl. My fellow students and I spent the next few weeks parsing out the implications in a ritual similar to “medical student’s disease,” which afflicts the more sensitive with every symptom of every disease they happen to be studying at the time. “You grabbed my book—that’s battery!” “Only if you’re holding it at the time, nyah nyah.” Is it battery to pull out a chair you are about to sit down in, causing you to hit the floor instead? Tune into to Torts One next week and you’ll find out. (It’s definitely a tort, but not necessarily battery.)

Unfortunately, a law student party game was all the strict definition of battery was, or is, good for. Yes, the sovereign state of Illinois, and every other jurisdiction in the world, so far as I know, has some statute like “(a) A person commits battery if he or she knowingly without legal justification by any means (1) causes bodily harm to an individual or (2) makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with an individual.” Here, we call it “simple battery.”

As opposed to “aggravated battery” (or, among the cognoscenti, “agg. batt”) which goes on for eleven pages, and takes in all the imaginable combinations and permutations of special circumstances of time, place, manner, victim, and perpetrator which turn “simple battery,” a Class A misdemeanor, into various kinds of felony. People do get prosecuted, fairly often, for one or another species of “agg. batt.” But that usually happens where somebody gets seriously hurt. Some years ago, Mr. Wired, who was then both a senior citizen and a person with a disability, was set upon by a couple of young punks, and we spent months jumping through hoops to get them prosecuted, even though both senior citizens and people with disabilities are specifically protected under one of the agg. batt. statutes. Mr. Wired, fortunately, was not seriously injured. The good fortune was mostly that of the police, who therefore did not feel obliged to do anything about the crime. (In all fairness, that may have been related to the fact that the father of one of the perps was himself a retired police officer. Oh, and white.)

In addition to all the aggravating circumstances, Illinois, probably like most other states and First-World jurisdictions, has a whole catalog of special-purpose battery offenses, such as child abuse, elder abuse, domestic battery, and hate-crime battery. These can be and often are applied even where the victim can still walk away unmarked and unassisted. Every five or ten years, we discover a new category of victim and pass a new statute to protect him, her, them, or it. I am waiting eagerly to hear that the Supreme Court, having recently discovered that a corporation has a right to free exercise of religion, decides that it can also be the victim of one or another kind of battery. It’s only a matter of time.

I don’t mean to be sound flippant about this (not mostly, anyway.) I worked with the people who wrote and pioneered the enforcement of the Illinois Domestic Violence Act. I also spent a considerable amount of time in Juvenile Court implementing the laws against child abuse and neglect. Worthwhile endeavors, which need all the help they can get. But the particular statutes in question ought never to have had to be written. We should have been able to get the same bang for the buck from the battery statutes. Whoever you’re beating up on, it’s still battery. So why do we feel obliged to compose a new statute for every newly-discovered class of victims?

Because, whatever the law books, or even that most hallowed law book of them all, the Bible, may say, we all believe, deep down in our hearts, that it’s mostly okay to hit most people under most circumstances. Indeed, the statutes themselves make allowances for “reasonable direction of a minor child by a parent or person in loco parentis.” Child abuse is defined to include “excessive corporal punishment.” It’s okay for adults to hit children (in Illinois, only with the open hand, no fists, no belts, no extension cords.) It’s okay for children to hit other children, mostly. We are now starting to be sensitized to “bullying,” and in some places, to pass laws forbidding it. (In Illinois, the law mentions bullying only in the context of schools. Some other states take it more seriously.) But we presume that males in particular have a right to engage in “fisticuffs” with each other, and that “boys (and even men) will be boys,” i.e. non-lethally aggressive and violent. That right is sanctified by virtually universal non-enforcement of the laws against “simple battery.” The exceptions to that rule deserve, and get, their own special statutes, reflecting a bias against hitting somebody smaller, or in some other significant way weaker, than oneself.. A lot of parents try to raise their kids with the belief that it’s wrong to hit anybody, ever. That belief rarely survives third grade. Maybe it works in Scandinavia, but it rarely works here, even in the classiest neighborhoods.

Let’s talk about Scandinavia for a moment. A millennium ago, its inhabitants were some of the nastiest thugs you would ever not want to meet in a dark alley, the Vikings. Now they ban spanking of children, and their violent crime rates hover in the single digits. What happened in between? This deserves a longer look by some serious historians. I would venture to guess that some of what happened was a lot of emigration to the New World in the 19th century. ( That may have got rid of some of the heirs of the Vikings. Although in fact, many of them moved to Minnesota, where people are still a lot nicer than in the rest of the USA. Maybe their migration raised the average Niceness Quotient in both places? This is statistically possible, and obviously deserves further research.) Most Scandinavians apparently really believe it’s wrong to hit people, period. Fortunately for them, their weather discourages invasion from anyplace warmer, which is most of the rest of the world. How our current bout of climate change will affect this reality remains to be seen.

Even our most civic-minded law-and-order advocates probably wouldn’t want us to become like the Scandinavians. Many of them view our brethren from the frozen North as fundamentally un-American, a bunch of socialist sissies. There is not a fjord in our future. Interestingly enough, even the fundamentalist adherents of the religion founded by the guy who said “do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also.” (Matthew 5:39) tend to prefer the Marquess of Queensbury to Mahatma Gandhi. The Scandinavians, on the other hand, rarely go to church. Maybe they don’t need the Sermon on the Mount?

It may be that the people who write our laws (and certainly the ones who have actually read the Sermon on the Mount) are a different bunch from the ones who enforce them. Or it may be that the same bunch of people hold both opinions with equal fervor. Didn’t F. Scott Fitzgerald say that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”? (That’s assuming we do still have the ability to function.) The Jewish philosopher Maimonides says that the soul knows its own frailties and seeks its own remedies. Which may account for the fact that most pacifists I know have very nasty tempers, most of the anarchists of my acquaintance are really bossy, and the Quakers, whose primary liturgical expression is silence, are some of the talkiest people on the planet. And, most important, it accounts for the fact that the inhabitants of our Bible belt have more problems with liquor, sex, and violence than the rest of the country, and also pass more laws about them.

At any rate, we need to recognize that, whatever our law books and our Bibles say, we Americans believe in violence as a solution to many social problems. We are not yet up to making serious changes in that belief. We are not even up to being conscious of it. This needs further effort.



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