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

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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

Read the rest of this entry »

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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

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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.

CynThesis

 

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#Ferguson and police reform

Posted by Sappho on August 21st, 2014 filed in News and Commentary, Race


Yesterday I talked about the push to get police to wear body cams. Today I want to round up some of the other discussion I’ve seen about things that may have contributed to the problems in Ferguson, and what reforms are possible.

There’s a word in German, Schlimmbesserung, that describes an attempted improvement that actually makes things worse. My more conservative friends and family, who look on reform proposals with caution, may find their predisposition confirmed when they hear that one of the complaints put forth in the wake of the Ferguson shooting and protests concerns the unintended effect of some old Progressive reforms. Brian Schaffner, Wouter Van Erve and Ray LaRaja, at the Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post, suggest a reason why Ferguson’s government is so much whiter than its population, as they discuss How Ferguson exposes the racial bias in local elections, and how old Progressive reforms designed to shelter local elections from partisanship (holding local elections at a different time from national elections and making all races non-partisan) have made it harder for voters with less income and education to become informed about local elections, and increased racial disparities in voting in municipal elections.

Josh Vorhees at Slate, on the other hand, points to a reform that followed on the Rodney King beating that is no Schlimmbesserung: the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 allows a “consent decree” for a troubled police department that “would mandate a specific set of reforms that would then be overseen by an independent court-appointed monitor.” Such a process, Vorhees reports, turned the troubled Los Angeles Police Department around. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign web site, Stephen Rushin, expert on criminal law and police reform, discusses whether structural police reform litigation should be initiated in Ferguson, Missouri.

Also at Slate, Boer Deng argues that Smart Policing Takes Good Training, Not Just Diversity. The ending, though discussing research that’s still in the pilot stage, sounds plausible to me:

Officers and police departments are often “indifferent to hostile” to lessons about diversity, says Lorie Fridell of the University of South Florida, who conducts police training throughout the country. “I think the way we’ve been teaching the subject in this country has been wrong,” she says, because what education there is often begins with the assumption that police are explicitly racist, and many therefore reject it. Fridell and her colleagues have developed a curriculum to address implicit bias—prejudices a person might consciously reject, but reflexively influence their behavior—which, studies show, can trigger excessive violent action in police work. Schlosser and his colleagues at the Police Training Institute are piloting another. Both report anecdotal successes (e.g. when officers report using the training to diffuse a difficult situation or stop them from acting on unwarranted reflex), but longitudinal studies have not yet been done. The relative newness of these ideas speaks to the gap in crafting better policing policy. That will require a change not just to composition but also to policing culture.

This report matches my own experience with diversity training. When I was in college, the research in implicit bias that Fridell references hadn’t yet happened. But I did go through a diversity training workshop, that I remember as just awful, and I remember what worked better. The workshop, purely voluntary, was held at one of the coops, and assembled an assorted group of mostly left leaning students eager to learn about prejudice. And it began by asking us to talk about the biases we had about other groups; I remember leaving the workshop more convinced than ever that I was not racially biased, and darn it, why was I spending all this time talking about biases that I didn’t have? Far more compelling was a demonstration that Phil Zimbardo did in his introductory psychology class, as a demonstration of the difficulties of eye witness testimony, where he had us look at a picture really quickly and then report afterwards on what we had seen; a large portion of our class, when asked to remember something they’d seen very quickly, shifted a weapon that the white man had been holding to the black man’s hands. Bias is, of course, not always implicit or at all subtle, but, let’s face it, even the most overtly racist people are reluctant to see themselves as overtly racist, and even people who are not overtly racist may still have biases that show up in implicit association tests.

The big topic of discussion and debate, though, has been the militarization of police. Here’s an old Wall Street Journal essay by Radley Balko, who has been on this issue for some time, on the Rise of the Warrior Cop.

Since the 1960s, in response to a range of perceived threats, law-enforcement agencies across the U.S., at every level of government, have been blurring the line between police officer and soldier. Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

Wired reports that the Pentagon has mounted a vigorous defense of a program that’s now taking some heat, to turn over excess military equipment to police departments.

We don’t push equipment on anybody. This is excess equipment the taxpayers have paid for and we’re not using anymore. And it is made available to law enforcement agencies, if they want it and if they qualify for it.”

The ACLU has a Militarization of Police page.

And a commenter at Rod Dreher’s blog, a police officer for more than sixteen years, offers his perspective.

On a final note, if you’re following #Ferguson on Twitter, Vox has assembled a list of useful accounts to follow, of journalists, reporters, and protesters, to which you can subscribe.

Also, Ferguson Library Offers Learning for Students in Limbo.

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On Police and Body Cams and #Ferguson

Posted by Sappho on August 20th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary, Race


I don’t remember his name. I don’t remember exactly how I knew him. Was he a Stanford student, with the odd-for-a-Stanford-student ambition of becoming a cop? Someone that had connected with me and other students through a political demonstration? Or just someone about the same age as us who sometimes wandered on campus hoping to chat up a pretty woman? I’m not sure why he came to my table that day, in the coffee house at Stanford, whether he was there to flirt or there simply hoping for a sympathetic ear. But I remember that I knew him, and recognized him when he joined me, and I remember what he said.

He said that his friends didn’t understand why he wanted to be a cop, that they saw cops as the enemy. But he meant to make a difference. He had high hopes for community policing. He thought that black cops, like himself, could help build bridges between his community and the police.

It’s been thirty years, and right now those bridges are looking pretty darn shaky. “I cannot believe I still have to protest this shit,” reads the sign of a woman whose photo my friend Andrene posts on Facebook. At Slate, Jamelle Bouie writes about why there will be another Michael Brown.

To residents of Ferguson, in other words, the situation is simple. Michael Brown was executed by an angry cop. You can hear their shock and fear in a video recorded just after the shooting. “They killed him for no reason … they just killed this n—er for no reason,” said one man. “Do you see a knife? Do you see anything that would have caused a threat to these motherf–kin’ police? They shot that boy because they wanted to shoot that boy in the middle of the motherf–kin’ day in the middle of the motherf–kin’ street.”

And I find myself wondering, what, after all these decades, will make a change? The moral uplift to a dysfunctional black community approach that some conservatives push at times like this won’t do it; black leaders have been preaching responsibility for my whole life (yes, including Jesse Jackson) and longer. Workshops on unlearning racism don’t seem to do the trick, either. And having reached the point in breaking down barriers where we can elect, and reelect, a black president still hasn’t made a change, not here.

So I find myself thinking back to my old professor Phil Zimbardo, and his prison experiment, and his situationist approach. How do we change the situation? How do we change the incentives?

One approach is to watch the watchers. The ACLU offers an app to let smart phone users secretly tape police (it hides, to prevent cops from seeing that you’re recording them if they take your phone, and it lets you upload your tape to a secure ACLU server for legal analysis).

The ACLU’s app is a good thing, but better still is to have that watching built into the system. And so, amid all the depressing news to come out of Ferguson, Missouri, the one bit of good news that I see is the advance of an idea that has already been tried elsewhere with good effect, body cams for police. I signed a Change.org petition urging the Ferguson police department to put body cams on all cops. There’s now a GoFundMe project to buy body cams for the Ferguson police department. And the other day, the Ferguson police department pledged to outfit officers with vest cameras. The Wired story reporting this says

In Rialto, California, the entire police force wears cameras of this kind. They record all interactions the officers have and they’re about the size of a pager. In the first year of their use in Rialto, use of force fell by 60 percent and citizen complaints by 88 percent. The Rialto police chief explained, “When you talk about putting a camera on somebody, human nature is going to dictate that you’re going to mind your p’s and q’s and you’re going to be on the best behavior. At the same time, I think it’s had an impact on citizens. If they know you’re wearing a camera, they too will be on their best behavior.”

German Lopez, at Vox, writes that body cams have a potential to be a win-win solution, protecting both citizens from police abuse and police from false accusations. Indeed, a 2012 survey of police officers reported that an overwhelming majority wanted body cams.

Here’s a report by the Police Foundation, a non-profit foundation dedicated to helping police be more effective at their jobs, on the success of the field experiment by the Rialto Police Department in the use of body cams for police.

Here’s a report by the ACLU on how rules can be developed for police body cams to prevent abuse and accommodate privacy considerations.

Here’s an article by Reihan Salam at Slate on why body cams are good for us and good for the police.

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You see little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun

Posted by Sappho on August 19th, 2014 filed in Race


One of these days, I shall have to find, for my Stanford co-op friend Ruth, who shared her old Stanford photos with me, that old notebook, the one that’s still packed in the garage where Joel boxed everything when he had to get the house cleaned before I could come home, while I was being treated for cancer, and then I can share with her that review Andre Braugher wrote of that play, when he was nineteen, and falling in love with theater, and, when it disappointed him, really, really pissed off. I can share that, because I copied it from the Synergy house journal, when I went back for my 25th reunion. Or maybe I can tell her where to find it, since it’s now the year of her 30th reunion and she’s back in the San Francisco Bay Area. I can tell her which year of the Synergy journal to look in, and what pen name she used. It’s easy to find when you know where to look.

What I can’t share with her, since I never had them in my hands for more than a few days, are his angry poems. “In one ear and out the other,” he said, in disappointment, when I had trouble telling him which particular ones I liked or disliked, or even remembering the lines clearly, for I don’t have his gift for words. What I remembered then, and remember still, is simply an emotion: Anger.

But I’ve been thinking of those poems a lot, this past week, as Ferguson descends into chaos, and the Tweets come, about people teargassed, or a photographer arrested, or a strange photo of police advancing on a crowd with guns drawn. Most of all, I’ve been thinking of them as, with yet another unarmed black man dead, reported by multiple witnesses (not just his friend) to have had his hands up when he was shot, I find that, yet again, we get the same old far right attempt to paint him as a thug, by mining his social media presence for rap lyrics and photos where he looks “tough.”

I don’t know whether Michael Brown stole the rellos or whether he didn’t. There are grainy stills of a young man of about his build who looks as if he might be pushing his way out of the store after some petty theft. There are clips circulating showing a snippet of that surveillance video that suggests that Brown did, after all, pay for the rellos. There’s a video of the store’s lawyer, stating that the store never called the police about any theft, and surrendered the tape only after police requested it. I do know that, if he did steal $50 worth of rellos, being shot in the street when you have your hands up and are trying to surrender isn’t the right penalty for that act. So we get people like Matthew Vadum writing about rap lyrics and gang signs, trying to make him out to be a “thug” who liked performing “thug music.”

I have a nephew who’s just Michael Brown’s age. He’s tall and strong and black, and he’s headed for college and has a girl friend and wants to be a screenwriter. And don’t I know that, if he had been shot unarmed in the street, these people would be mining his social media for every “nigga” and “homie” and every sign that he might just possibly have been somewhere where pot was smoked, to paint him a thug?

But you don’t know my nephew. And you don’t know most of the others I’m picturing now in Michael Brown’s place, if they’d run into the wrong cop at the wrong time, and been suspected of one petty crime or another, and seemed, who knows why, to be making the wrong move. Not the guy who bent my ear at the coffee house at Stanford about how he meant to become a cop, or the one who worked swing shift as a computer operator while his wife worked days as an administrative assistant, or the one who eagerly volunteered for my professional association. And, if you’re the kind who thinks that anyone shot by a cop must have been a thug, you won’t believe it could happen to “one of the good ones,” as I, looking at the statistics showing that cops shoot unarmed black men way more often than they shoot unarmed white men, can’t believe that it only happens to young men suicidal enough to bum rush a man with a gun (can black men really be that much more likely than white men to stupidly charge men with guns, while they themselves are unarmed?).

So, let me give you someone to whom you can put a face. Here are some photos of him. He’s accomplished. He has a degree from Stanford, and he was acknowledged as the Most Outstanding Theater Student when he graduated from Juilliard, and he has been nominated for an Emmy eight times and won twice (maybe this year will make the third win. He has been married for twenty-three years to the same woman, and is said to be a good father to his sons. Is he enough “one of the good ones” for you?

Now picture him at nineteen, as I can remember him, a big, strong black man with a shaved head, over six feet tall. Here are some photos of him. Picture him young. Imagine that we had then, as we do now, cell phones and photos of ourselves everywhere. Those moments that I remember, and you don’t, because only a few of us had access to the Arpanet (precursor to the Internet) then, and we didn’t use it to share selfies, are instead broadcast everywhere. Those angry poems that I remember reading and that you’ll never see? They’re up on SoundCloud. And you can check Instagram and Twitter and find selfies of Andre, and photos snapped by his friends in all kinds of poses. Do you think, then, that you’d never be able to find a photo of him, striking a pose or playing a part, that looked tough? Never a word that you could use against him? I sure don’t.

None of us is that good. None of us could meet that standard. Even if we’ve never stolen a pack of rellos, even if, heck, we’re among those who never smoked pot in our teens (and I’m not, I didn’t steal but I surely toked), haven’t all of us struck a not so angelic pose or sung a set of not so angelic lyrics? I know I have. I’ve sung “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and I’ve sung “The Nights The Lights Went Out in Georgia,” in the role of that little sister who don’t miss when she aims her gun, and I’ve sung the part of the doomed prostitute going back to spend her life beneath the Rising Sun, and I’ve sung the role of Sam Hall, the unrepentant murderer about to be hanged, and I’ve acted the role of Lady MacBeth. And because I’m small, and female, and white, I can be sure that if I’d ever been shot in the street when I was young, no one would have dragged out my songs to make you think me a thug who deserved that shot.

But they would have for Andre, if he’d been the one shot. I’m sure of it.

Links:

Jaea Lee at Mother Jones on Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?

Campaigns for #MikeBrown #Ferguson

Jamelle Bouie at Slate on The Militarization of the Police

Radley Balko at the Washington Post on After Ferguson, how should police respond to protests?

Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker on A Movement Grows in Ferguson

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Ten years after Dad’s death

Posted by Sappho on August 17th, 2014 filed in Family


On August 8, 2004, Dad died of multiple myeloma, after living with it for seven years. A little over a week ago, I passed the ten year anniversary of Dad’s death.

It’s a time of anniversaries of deaths, as this year also makes the thirty year anniversary of the accidental deaths of my friend Joan and my college boy friend Brian. And the thirty year anniversary of the murder of Bibi Lee, whose death probably wouldn’t stick in my mind if it hadn’t come so close on the heels of Brian’s death, since I didn’t actually know her, but, since she was killed not long after Brian died, my memory of the aftermath of his death is tangled with a memory of friends at Stanford, who knew her friends at Berkeley, putting up posters in that doomed search for her.

I’ve been thinking of them all this summer, as the anniversary of Joan’s death passed in June, and the anniversary of Dad’s death passed just now. I remember Joan playing Dungeons and Dragons with her paladin; because she had trouble speaking due to cerebral palsy, her sister had made her cards with drawings of the various actions her character could take. And I remember her playing with her rabbit, and a moment when, arguing with her sister, she said a few words more clearly than she’d been able to in the past, and her sister stopped, mid-argument, to marvel at how well she had spoken. And I remember talking till dawn with Brian, and biking with him, and lying with him in a park in Palo Alto, and a phone conversation with him, shortly before he died, in which he talked to me about Elie Wiesel’s Night.

But this week, in particular, I have been remembering Dad. Last Sunday I arrived at the discussion we have before meeting for worship, to find that it was, as we do once every month or two, on an article from Western Friend, and this time it was from their issue On Pride. It struck me that talking about pride was fitting for a discussion two days after the anniversary of Dad’s death, because Dad was in some ways the embodiment of pride.

You know the song “C’est moi” from Camelot?

C’est moi! C’est moi, I’m forced to admit.
‘Tis I, I humbly reply.
That mortal who
These marvels can do,
C’est moi, c’est moi, ’tis I.

Whenever I hear that song, I think of Dad. Not that it was his favorite song; he preferred (and would sing) Che gelida manina. But he had a boastfulness to him, a charming and humorous boastfulness that you couldn’t help smiling along with, won that, I think, served him well in his career and with women.

“Is it a famous scientist?” he would ask us, when, in Botticelli, one of us was thinking of someone whose name began with “G.” And the right answer was always, “It’s not Denos Gazis.” Once, when he told me he had flown in a seat next to a famous ball player, and gotten his autograph for one of my younger brothers, he said that he had offered his own autograph in return.

When I last saw him, he told me again the story of his life. It was a story that moved from one marvelous accomplishment to another:

“In Greece,” Dad would say, “to be a lawyer was not much, to be a doctor was something, but to be a civil engineer, that was the person who was most admired. And so I decided to study civil engineering. And people said that I was not ready to take the test for the university in Athens, but I took it anyway, and scored at the top. I jumped down several steps at once when I ran to tell my mother. Then, after I had graduated, and was working, a friend met me in a street and said he was going to take a Fulbright exam. And I said, why not? So I went with him, and took the test, and won, and went to study at Stanford.”

And from there the account continued, to how he impressed people at Stanford, and at Columbia, and when he went to work as a traffic scientist, first for General Motors and then for IBM.

Or, as he described his childhood once (and this time I recorded the words):

Modesty forbids me to tell you how impressed my teachers, and schoolmates, were with my performance. Suffice it to say that my teachers told my mother that ‘a student like Denos comes around once every thirty years — maybe’. And when I had a reunion with my schoolmates after many years, I generally found one of their grown up children waiting to meet ‘that genius Gazis that my father has been talking about all these years.’ But enough of modesty!

There have been times, at work, when I’ve found myself channeling Dad (“I am your best support engineer,” I told a new boss once, and my coworkers laughed). Usually I’m lower key. But thinking of Dad has led me to thinking of what kinds of pride are useful at work (toot your horn and tell people what you’ve done), and what kinds of humility are needed (acknowledge other people’s accomplishments and be accurate, not over optimistic, in your estimates of what you can get done when).

I wrote a number of posts about Dad as he was dying and shortly after his death, so here are some of them:

Nunc et in hora mortis (as Dad’s death was approaching)

Traffic theory and music (memories of Dad)

… I pictured a little comic, for the younger generation of the family (only I’d be pretty clumsy at drawing it). It is called, “How Grandpa Denos made cars go faster,” and it has a page with a sketch of the Lincoln tunnel, all jammed up with cars. And, “We watch the cars here” (right before the upward slope part of the tunnel). And then it shows Grandpa Denos at a computer (if it were what really happened, it would be a huge computer with punch cards, but I am picturing this as drawn for kids to young to know about punch cards, so Grandpa Denos sits at a PC), which tells him what the cars are doing, and there are all the little pictures of the car, the car with holes, and the little car pulling a ladder. And, see, the computer tells us how many cars we can let in the tunnel, and still have them move fast enough. The end. Well, at least it has cars and trucks in it, right? …

Good Friday (remembering how Dad died)

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You took your life as lovers often do

Posted by Sappho on August 15th, 2014 filed in Bipolar Disorder


The day after Robin Williams’ death, my husband, who lives with bipolar disorder shared an article in the Washington Post, about Suicide contagion and social media: The dangers of sharing ‘Genie, you’re free’. I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favorite songs, Don McLean’s song for Vincent van Gogh, the one that so deftly evoked van Gogh’s paintings, and then hits you with the phrase, “You took your life as lovers often do.” A touch too much glamour for suicide? Or simply an expression of how much we lost? Or both?

Nearly ten years ago, my husband, one day, started sending me text messages about how I should publish his poems after his death. He had taken it into his head that killing himself would make him the next Sylvia Plath, finally appreciated in death as he never had been in life. I called his psychiatrist, she talked him into going into the hospital, and he left the hospital with a new diagnosis, but depression but bipolar disorder, and a different cocktail of medications.

Kay Redfield Jamison has argued, in Touched By Fire, that there’s a link between creativity and bipolar disorder. It’s a controversial claim, like the claim that computer professionals like myself have a link between skill at our profession and being somewhere on the autistic spectrum. But, whether because Jamison is right, or because our minds select vivid examples, we all know the cases (depressed or bipolar) that illustrate her point: van Gogh, Plath, Hemingway, Woolf. On a good day, they may remind someone like my husband that he has gifts as well as an illness. And on a bad day, well, on one very bad day he sat looking at his wrists, considering how best to cut them, and preparing to become Sylvia Plath.

I think of the song “Vincent,” and I realize how many of my favorite songs have some connection to suicide. They long for death, like the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song 4 + 20, or they try to cajole the suicidal to hang onto life, like Billy Joel’s Second Wind or Phranc’s Life Lover. They imagine with dread what it would be to lose someone you love to suicide, like Patti Smith’s Redondo Beach, or linger with regret on things left undone to connect to a friend who killed himself, like Judy Collins’ Song for Martin, or dwell on the release that suicide could provide, like the theme for M.A.S.H., Suicide is Painless.

And they are, most of them, at least partly wrong. Vincent didn’t take his life because he loved; he took his life because he was ill (and also a creative genius). Perhaps Judy Collins might have said something to help Martin, and it’s important to do what we can to help our friends and family who struggle with mood disorders, but sometimes the illness takes even those who know they are loved. And suicide is never painless, not for those who are left behind. But they appeal to me because, I suppose, they’re also at least partly right, as they speak to me about the things that can drive us to want death, and the sorrow and regret that death leaves in its wake.

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McWhorter explains why Obama sometimes drops his g’s (and why, in general, Presidents of either party adopt a “warm” vernacular style)

Posted by Sappho on August 13th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary


For a President Today, Talkin’ Down Is Speaking American. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

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Geneticists respond to Nicholas Wade

Posted by Sappho on August 11th, 2014 filed in DNA, Race


From Science Insider: Geneticists decry book on race and evolution

A best-seller by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade about recent human evolution and its potential effects on human cultures has drawn critical reviews since its spring publication. Now, nearly 140 senior human population geneticists around the world, many of whose work was cited in the book, have signed a letter to The New York Times Book Review stating that Wade has misinterpreted their work. The letter criticizes “Wade’s misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies,” and is slated to appear in the 10 August issue of the Book Review. It’s available online today.

… The list of signatories reads like a who’s who of researchers in the field and includes such well-known geneticists as Evan Eichler of the University of Washington, Seattle; David Goldstein of Duke University; and Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona.

So I checked the list of signatories, and have things to say about a few of them (in alphabetical order).

First, to understand the significance of these particular people signing the letter complaining about “Wade’s misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies,” it helps to remember the structure of Wade’s book. The first half of the book is devoted to arguing that “race” is, in some sense or other, biologically real. In making this argument, Wade references research by population geneticists who include the four people to whom I’ll introduce you. Then, in the second half, Wade heads off into some scientifically dubious speculation about how, now that he’s established that in some biological sense or other, “race” is “real,” it’s now reasonable to suppose that durable biologically based psychological differences between the races are the basis of sweeping differences in civilization, such that Africans are more tribalistic, and Chinese more authoritarian, than Europeans, who, let’s be honest, for all that Wade insists that he isn’t racist, seem to get the qualities that we most prize.

Esteban Gonzalez Burchard of University of California, San Francisco: Esteban Gonzalez Burchard, together with his colleague Neil Risch (on whom more below), is noted for his research on the significance of race and ethnic background in medical research. In this context, Burchard has argued for a certain analytic value to the category of race, which makes him exactly the sort of person that, Wade would like us to believe, ought to be in Wade’s corner, if not constrained by political correctness. Here, for instance, is what geneticist Bryan Sykes, in his book DNA USA, has to say about Burchard.

Esteban is a pulmonary physician and an expert on asthma. Mountain had recommended we meet because in his research Burchard had been using the chromosome paintings to try to understand the very different frequencies of asthma in blacks and Latinos. In fact, his interest in the way gene pools blended went much further back, and he had been a principal author on several important scientific papers on the impact of race and ethnicity in clinical practice that I had read. He had experienced more than his fair share of adverse reaction to his claim that there were genetic differences between races, something that professional geneticists had tried to play down for fear of being condemned as eugenicists. I have said, and written, in the past that my research with mitochondrial DNA showed that race has no genetic basis, but now I think that was an oversimplification….

Wade, in his earlier career as a science writer for the New York Times, has noted a paper co-authored by Burchard, Risch, and a couple of others, on the use of race in medical research. Here is the paper: Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease. It defends the use of race in medical research, for the purpose of “genes underlying susceptibility to common diseases or influencing drug response.” And Wade explicitly references Risch and his work in A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, as part of his case for the biological reality of race.

Joanna Mountain of 23andMe, Inc.: As I’m sure anyone following my blog knows by now, 23andMe does personal genomics that includes an analysis of the likely ethnic composition of your ancestry (in my case, no surprise, the largest components turn out to be Balkan and UK & Ireland). Another of Wade’s big arguments in the “race is real” portion of the book that argues for the general reality of race is the fact that companies like 23andMe can sort our DNA into different ethnicities. Wade goes on at length about this, making it a key point in his argument. Joanna Mountain, a population geneticist with degrees from and experience on the faculty of Stanford University, is the head of research for 23andMe.

Jonathan Pritchard of Stanford University & Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Wade’s argument is that human evolution is “recent, copious, and regional.” Whose research is he leaning on, here? Pritchard’s. See, A Map of Recent Positive Selection in the Human Genome, an article of which Jonathan Pritchard was one of the co-authors.

Neil Risch of University of California, San Francisco: As I’ve said, Wade uses Risch’s medical research to make his argument for the reality of race. But one may, like Burchard and Risch, consider race to be “real” in the sense of being a category that can be useful in studying the genetic variation that influences susceptibility to particular diseases or response to particular drugs without then agreeing with the use Wade makes of this “reality” to give his own race his favorite psychological characteristics. As it happens, Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed Neil Risch about race and genetics. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there about his medical research and how he uses admixture analysis, but the part that’s relevant to why he would sign a letter criticizing Wade’s new book is here:

One last question. Your paper on assessing genetic contributions to phenotype, seemed skeptical that we would ever tease out a group-wide genetic component when looking at things like cognitive skills or personality disposition. Am I reading that right? Are “intelligence” and “disposition” just too complicated?

Joanna Mountain and I tried to explain this in our Nature Genetics paper on group differences. It is very challenging to assign causes to group differences. As far as genetics goes, if you have identified a particular gene which clearly influences a trait, and the frequency of that gene differs between populations, that would be pretty good evidence. But traits like “intelligence” or other behaviors (at least in the normal range), to the extent they are genetic, are “polygenic.” That means no single genes have large effects — there are many genes involved, each with a very small effect. Such gene effects are difficult if not impossible to find. The problem in assessing group differences is the confounding between genetic and social/cultural factors. If you had individuals who are genetically one thing but socially another, you might be able to tease it apart, but that is generally not the case.

In our paper, we tried to show that a trait can appear to have high “genetic heritability” in any particular population, but the explanation for a group difference for that trait could be either entirely genetic or entirely environmental or some combination in between.

So, in my view, at this point, any comment about the etiology of group differences, for “intelligence” or anything else, in the absence of specific identified genes (or environmental factors, for that matter), is speculation.

These are just the people that I, as a layperson, recognized and whose connection to Wade’s arguments I could make right off the top of my head. Jennifer Raff, who unlike me actually has some relevant professional knowledge, points out others whose research Wade had cited approvingly in his book. She also takes issue with Wade’s reaction, in which he suggests that most of the signatories probably never read his book and were reacting to someone else’s slanted description of it.

Further, I suspect that more people on that list have read his book than he believes, simply because I’ve talked to them. In fact, Jerry Coyne, one of the signers of the letter has read it twice. (I encourage you to read his thoughts on the subject at the link above).

I can see why they’re angry

“There was a feeling that our research had been hijacked by Wade to promote his ideological agenda,” Nielsen says. “The outrage … was palpable.”

There is, after all, a huge difference between pointing to evidence (which does actually exist) that human vary geographically and that, while some of that variation is due to genetic drift, some of it is also driven by different selective pressures, and claiming evidence (which doesn’t actually exist) that cultural differences are driven by evolved cognitive and behavioral differences between different populations. As Jerry Coyne says, in that blog post Jennifer Raff recommended reading (and which I recommend, too), quoting Sarah Tishkoff, another signatory of the letter, whose research in regional variations in lactose digestion had also been used by Wade in support of his claims,

And Sarah, whose team did the work on lactose tolerance, damns the book in just a few words (I’ve bolded the money quote):

Tishkoff also acknowledges that natural selection has created biological differences that vary with geography. For example, her team discovered mutations that allows some African populations to digest lactose. But she scoffs at the idea, proposed by Wade, that natural selection has shaped cognitive and behavioural differences between populations around the world. “We don’t have any strong candidates for playing a role in behaviour,” she says.

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Comparing my ethnicity estimates from the big three personal genomics companies

Posted by Sappho on August 2nd, 2014 filed in DNA, Genealogy


I got my Ancestry DNA results. So, here’s a comparison of the ethnicity results from 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and AncestryDNA, with comments. I posted as a Facebook post first, for those family members who may be following my genealogy posts on Facebook but not clicking through to my blog posts, so all of you who read it on Facebook can ignore this post. The rest of you can read on.

First, I’ll give you my comments on the differences between the three estimates, and then you can scroll down to see all three actual breakdowns.

There’s two ways that you can look at the differences that you find between the companies in ethnicity results from DNA. One is to look and the differences and ask, which company is most accurate. Here, for instance, ISOGG (the Intenational Society of Genetic Genealogy) has a chart by ISOGG member Tim Janzen comparing the companies (for ethnicity, he judges 23andMe to be the most accurate). Or you can ask which is doing best by which ethnicities (it’s possible that, say, one company gives better results for one ethnicity and one for another, depending on what reference groups they have). But what interests me is, what do the variations tell me about the process of estimating ethnicity from your DNA.

The first thing is that trace regions vary a lot from one test to another. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to trace our Native American ancestry, because 23andMe shows it, now, for all of us, and Doug McDonald, in his analysis of my DNA gave me an 80% of having some Native American ancestry (but very faint, he said), but mainly because, if we have it, it’s the one trace ethnicity that *has* to have gotten into our family tree within a documented historical time frame. European settlers only arrived on this continent in the 17th century, so there’s a hard time limit here. If it’s not Mary “Little Dove” Hyanno, and it’s real, it has to be someone a lot like her (17th century, and probably Wampanoag like our possible ancestor Mary “Little Dove,” given where I’ve traced Alice Leonard Moore’s ancestors). Not so with the Sub-Saharan African ancestry that 23andMe gives us, which may, if real, mean some 17th century captive African ancestor brought to this continent, but which could also, given that Africa’s been interacting with Europe all along, be very old.

But that Native American ancestry goes away on FamilyTreeDNA, for the simple reason that FamilyTreeDNA doesn’t show trace ancestry, but sticks with larger percentages than what 23andMe shows. It also goes away on AncestryDNA; perhaps AncestryDNA’s Central Asian is the same DNA element that 23andMe has interpreted as Native American? Other trace regions come and go, depending on which company I look at (the same is true for the free Admixture calculators in DIYDodecad or on Gedmatch).

The second difference is that neighboring European regions turn out to be hard to tell apart, and different companies interpret the regions differently. 23andMe, correctly, shows me as having a lot of British & Irish (but probably underestimates my French & German ancestry – Carey shows more). FamilyTreeDNA shows no British (though it turns out they do have that category), and instead shows me as having lots of Scandinavian and Western European. There is no way I have lots of Scandinavian ancestry (really, this is my mother’s side, so there can’t be an accident here about who my parent is). But if you think about British history, you can see why British DNA wouldn’t be all that distinguishable from a mix of Scandinavian and Western European DNA. Ancestry, meanwhile, separates British and Irish DNA (which may be overly optimistic, given that it’s apparently hard even to reliably distinguish British DNA from Scandinavian, and I actually doubt, given our paper trail, that I have as much Irish ancestry as British).

The third difference is that the estimates vary wildly in how much Middle Eastern (or West Asian, for AncestryDNA) DNA they give me, and how they categorize it. I suspect the reason for this is that I’m half Greek, and Greece is really close to the Middle East, so you can either look very Middle Eastern or not all that much, depending on the reference groups (apparently FamilyTreeDNA had a significant reference group from Asia Minor, which is, after all, right next to Greece).

On the other hand, everyone agrees that I’m overwhelmingly European. Even if I use an admixture calculator that isn’t designed for people of European ancestry, like EthioHelix, I still wind up overwhelmingly European if I use a calculator with any European element at all. (And if I use one without a European element, like the all African version of EthioHelix, it picks the most European-like element it can find, in this case North African, and gives me a majority of that element.) At the same time, everyone agrees that I’m not entirely European (though they vary a lot in how much non-European they give me, mainly because of that highly variable Middle Eastern element).

Now, for those of you who want to read the actual estimates, here they are.
Read the rest of this entry »

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More News and Whatnot

Posted by WiredSisters on August 1st, 2014 filed in Health and Medicine, Law, Living Wills, End of Life, Terri Schiavo, News and Commentary


We have an entry, sort of, in the Paranoia Sweepstakes. It wasn’t actually submitted to me or the blog, but it’s just too good to ignore. And after all, the Sweepstakes aren’t like the Nobel Prize, in which some official body has to nominate candidates. The Wired Sisters make the rules, and the Wired Sisters hadn’t thought about that particular issue until just now, when, in reading my email, I came across this story in the Daily Kos:

Rep. Michele Bachmann has a new theory about the unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America who have come in large numbers to the southern U.S. border: they are future victims of a liberal plot to use unwilling children for medical experiments. (For details, see http://www.dailykos.com/story/2014/07/31/1318109/-Michele-Bachmann-Obama-keeping-migrant-kids-so-U-S-can-perform-medical-experiments-on-them?detail=email#) It’s hard to imagine an entry that could beat this, but OTOH, I don’t have an address to send the prize to, so I’m willing to wait until the official deadline to declare a winner.

On a distantly related note, in yesterday’s mail, I received a voter registration card for the late Mr. Wired. He has been gone for two years now, and would get a major kick out of the card. I took it down to the office of the Board of Election Commissioners (which he used to call the Board of Electioneers), and the first thing they asked me was whether this was a change of address. I told them I didn’t think so, and if it was, I don’t know the new address anyway. Chicago, of course, has pioneered for more than a century in upholding the civil rights of the vitally impaired. For details, see Recount of the Living Dead.*

Have a good weekend, y’all.

CynThesis

 

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News and Other Items of Interest

Posted by WiredSisters on July 31st, 2014 filed in Computers, Daily Life, Economics, Health and Medicine, Iraq War, Law


  • “Medical Billing and Coding: Interested in the Health Care Field?”
    This is one of the things that pops up in my email at least a couple of times a week. What raises my eyebrows about it is the idea the billing and coding are part of the “health care field.” That makes about as much sense as the other notion going around these days, that the pharmaceuticals used for execution by lethal injection are exempt from disclosure under either “medical confidentiality” or as part of the “justice system.” As one astute analyst pointed out some years ago, access to health insurance is not the same as access to health care, any more than having car insurance will get you to the grocery store.
  • On the other hand, I have pretty much stopped worrying about Big Brother’s snooping into my personal data, since the stuff filling my spam box now rests on the assumptions that I am not only a single Christian male with bad credit, erectile dysfunction, and a dog, but am also African-American.
  • The crisis in the Middle East, at least according to one astute analyst, has arisen because Hamas, the pseudo-government of Gaza, could find no other way to resurrect its street cred in the Arab world (after their proxies in Egypt and Syria got the crud beat out of them) than by attacking Israel to provoke a counter-attack—the same tactic Saddam Hussein used at the outset of the First Iraq War. “We can’t rely on our friends unless we activate a common enemy”? If Israel did not exist, it would have to be invented. Or maybe it was?
  • Speaking of which, I’m still waiting for conspiracy theory entries. Where are the paranoids when you really need them? For instance, is it possible that the world is actually controlled by
  • a network of condominium boards of directors, whose intricate maneuvers are intended to keep the condo market from falling? I should be finding out soon, now that I’m on one.
  • Or do current events reflect the sinister hand of the Ailurophile Conspiracy? The Wired Cat passed away last week, after a long (for a cat, anyway) illness. I miss her a lot. But since I’m going to be out of town for a while next month, I won’t be getting another cat till I get back. I mean, it’s just rude to bring a critter into your household and almost immediately leave her alone for a couple of weeks in the dubious care of a cat-sitter. Which brings us to the Ailurophile Conspiracy. Have you noticed that it is now no longer possible to just pick up a stray cat or kitten on the street and take it home, or allow it to inveigle you into taking it home? Now you have to pay for the privilege, to a shelter acting as a middle-person by picking up, neutering, and caring for stray cats until some gullible ailurophile comes along with a few dollars to spare. Has the proliferation of cute cat/kitten videos online created this market? Is it an economic artifact like the market for bottled water and the ever-rising price of admission to museums that used to be free? Shouldn’t the money be going to the cats themselves? This requires further research, perhaps by the Animal Law Committee of the Chicago Bar Association, of which I was a founding member.

It’s been a long month. Time for vacation.

CynThesis

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It all depends on your reference groups

Posted by Sappho on July 28th, 2014 filed in DNA, Genealogy


I’ve now gotten tested at FamilyTreeDNA as well as 23andMe, and am waiting on results from Ancestry. Sometime later, when I have all three results, I’ll probably write a post on how my ethnicity results compare between the different companies. But in the meantime, Gedmatch has a new calculator that I can use to show the importance of reference groups.

In order to sort your DNA and tell you your expected ancestry proportions, all admixture analysis software, whether the calculators supplied by personal genomics companies or the ones you get from free software like DIYDodecad or the analysis done by Doug McDonald, uses reference groups. These are groups of people of known background who can be used to estimate everyone else’s admixture percentages. (Of course, the people in the reference group are at least a little admixed, too, because everyone is admixed. But the group as a whole will vary in ways representative of the area it’s drawn from.)

It matters what reference groups you pick. For instance, soon after I got tested at 23andMe, they put out a new version of their Ancestry Composition that gave a lot of us (me included) trace amounts of Native American and Sub-Saharan African that weren’t there before; someone explained in the forums that they had shifted their European sample from a group of white Utah residents (that possibly had some trace Native American and Sub-Saharan African DNA) to a European-born sample. Later, they did further revisions that refined the breakdown of Asian and Sub-Saharan African ancestry; I noticed that our trace amounts of non-European ancestry (and those of some of my DNA cousins) also crept up with those revisions. For another example, FamilyTreeDNA has me as more Middle Eastern than 23andMe does; the reason appears to be that FamilyTreeDNA’s Middle Eastern sample tilts more toward Asia Minor than 23andMe’s does (so probably Greeks in general look more Middle Eastern on FamilyTreeDNA than on 23andMe).

Now, given that the people doing the admixture calculations tend to wind up with a lot more samples from people of European ancestry than from people of any other sort of ancestry, other groups wind up less well served by the reference groups. There have been efforts to counter that. I know that 23andMe has a project that offers free DNA analysis to certain people of African ancestry, and the other companies may have recruiting efforts of their own. And there have been efforts to create free admixture calculators that tilt less European.

One such is the new EthioHelix admixture calculator, recently added to Gedmatch. It comes in four versions. There’s an Africa only version (no non-African reference populations included). Here is how I (with known ancestry evenly split between Greece and Western Europe, the Western European part mostly from the UK and Ireland, with some French and German) come out in EthioHelix K10 Africa only

East-Africa2 34.75%
Mbuti-Pygmy 0.12%
North-Africa 64.72%
Omotic 0.41%

This makes some sense, since if you have only Africa to work with, North-Africa is the closest proxy available to Europe. (I’m surprised, though, that I got as much East-Africa2 as that.)

Now, what do I look like with the one that’s designed for people who are a mix of African and European ancestry, EthioHelix Africa K10 + French? (The French reference population, here, is used as a proxy for all of Europe.)

North-Africa 18.76%
Hadza 0.56%
French 78.71%
Omotic 1.97%

Evidently, this calculator interprets my mostly English side as entirely French, and my Greek side as an admixture of French and North African.

Now, let’s see how I look in EthioHelix K10 + Japanese (designed for people of mixed African and Asian ancestry, with Japanese being a proxy for Asian).

Omotic 5.98%
Mbuti-Pygmy 0.75%
East-Africa 1.22%
Khoi-San 0.74%
West-Africa 0.29%
Biaka-Pygmy 0.32%
North-Africa 72.67%
Japanese 18.04%

Finally, here’s what I look like in EthioHelix K10 + Palestinian (designed for people who are a mixture of African and Middle Eastern ancestry):

East Africa1 1.20%
Mbuti-Pygmy 0.18%
Khoi-San 0.92%
Hadza 0.89%
Biaka-Pygmy 1.06%
Palestinian 89.25%
Omotic 6.50%

(Here I’m overwhelmingly Palestinian because they have no North African in this calculator, and, whether you’re looking at Western European or Balkan DNA, Palestinian DNA is a better match for it than Sub-Saharan African.)

EthioHelix, of course, says flat out that it isn’t designed for my particular ancestry mixture. But subtler differences in reference populations can explain why one company gives different ancestry results from another. And other people may be less well served by admixture analyses that parse my ancestry just fine.

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