Some links that I have already posted on Facebook, and some that I haven’t

Posted by Sappho on March 2nd, 2015 filed in Blogwatch


Natalia Antonova writes that Russians’ faith in Putin may not be shaken by Nemtsov’s barbaric death.

Johan Maurer: Choose curiosity

Jennifer Raff’s links for Darwin Day.

How to sabotage encryption software (and not get caught).

An interesting history of in loco parentis, by Philip Lee of Harvard University.

Greek historical records from the state archives.

Echidne of the Snakes on To Praise Saunas. Or Not?

Andrew Shields on Voltaire misattributions

Keith Gatling on Slow Down Your Email

Kitty Cooper on Triangulation: Proving a Common Ancestor.

Aled Jones sings a duet with his younger self: Dear Lord and Father of Mankind.

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Scattered Thoughts on Nerds and Feminism

Posted by Sappho on February 24th, 2015 filed in Feminism, Sexuality


Belle Waring, at Crooked Timber, has a post on Male Nerds and Feminism, which inspired a long comment thread with some interesting comments. I find that I have more to say than a comment, and, since I’m a female nerd and feminist, I’m making my own topic “nerds and feminism” rather than just “male nerds and feminism,” since part of my reaction is to compare male and female nerd experiences. Anyway, in no particular order, my reactions to the discussion.
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Things the Truman Show Missed

Posted by WiredSisters on February 23rd, 2015 filed in Fiction, History, Marriage, Memory, Moral Philosophy, TV


(“The Last of Life for which The First Was Made” part I)

By now anybody with the remotest degree of interest in British soaps has read everybody’s articles, reviews, and posts about the latest episode of Downton Abbey. Most of the authors, if they are not getting paid to review such things, start out by referring to it as a guilty pleasure, usually right up there with chocolate and caffeine. I prefer to save my guilt for places where it can accomplish something, so I just view DA as a harmless and sometimes interesting frivolity. This week, it also presented an interesting philosophical wrinkle. The aristocratic curmudgeon everybody loves to hate has redeemed himself this week in several different ways all at once. We find ourselves becoming sort of fond of him. One of the minor-league villains below stairs has also engaged in a bit of skullduggery for the greater good this week. A female character who started out as the local equivalent of a Valley Girl and a flibbertigibbet has become a serious family member and a loving wife. Is this the coming of the Peaceable Kingdom?

Well, no, of course not. It’s easy enough for us to recognize that this is simply a case of writers either mellowing toward their characters, or being replaced by more mellow writers. It happens all the time in TV dramas. It certainly happened all the time in ER, where Dr. Kerry Weaver started out as a workaholic spinster-in-waiting, then became an “out” lesbian, and ended up in a couple of torrid heterosexual relationships. In her case, the writers all seemed to have been conspiring to stick her character with whatever seemed like the most interesting thing a woman might be doing at the moment, no matter how inconsistent it might be with what she had done last month.

But in real life—well, as a divorce lawyer, I am always being surprised by my former clients. It generally takes them longer to do the one-eighty, because real life moves more slowly than most TV prime-time dramas these days (as distinguished from daytime soaps, in which reprises of the previous episode and previews of the next installment can take up as much as half of the non-commercial time.) But the results, two years or so after the divorce, can be almost as startling. A woman who saw her husband as physically, emotionally, and financially abusive may now consider the same man (as her “ex”) her best friend. A woman who believed her husband was unfit to have custody of or even unsupervised visitation with their child while the custody issue was pending in court may leave the kid with him all the time, without blinking an eye, now that they are safely split. Was she exaggerating in the first place? Has he done a one-eighty in the meantime? A bit of both?

For that matter, there are the politicians. Harry Truman (speaking of the Truman Show, no relation) was the object of condescension and ridicule while in office, and two generations later came to be viewed as one of our best presidents.  Richard M. Nixon, while in office, was almost universally viewed as an ultra-conservative crook. As an ex-president, he lost little time becoming an elder statesman, a prudent moderate, and a competent pianist. Jimmy Carter, viewed while in office as one of the worst presidents we have ever had, is now perilously close to canonization. If Obama has any perspective on the matter, he is probably looking forward eagerly to spending the rest of his post-2017 life as the Sage of Honolulu (or, I suppose, Hyde Park. But if I had the chance to retire in comfort to Hawaii, I certainly wouldn’t stay in Chicago.)

No, I find myself concluding. They have all gotten themselves better writers. Bloody well about time. American lives not only have second acts, the second acts are usually a lot better than the first. We, or at least our writers, really can learn from experience—we just don’t get to do it while we’re in a position to make (or avoid making) the mistakes in the first place. Consider this the first installment of a meditation on the benefits of aging.

Jane Grey

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Muriel Badger, RIP

Posted by Sappho on February 22nd, 2015 filed in RIP


Thou only art immortal, the creator and maker of mankind;
and we are mortal, formed of the earth, and unto earth shall
we return. For so thou didst ordain when thou createdst me,
saying, “Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”
we go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make
our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

My great-aunt, Muriel Gooden Badger, died on Thanksgiving of last year. But it wasn’t till yesterday that we gathered in the chapel of St. Mark’s Church, in Glendale, for her funeral. The delay had just one reason. One of Aunt Muriel’s grandsons was stationed with the army in Germany, and due soon to be switched to a post in the US, and so the funeral was held off until he would be back in the US to attend.

As I listened to the words of the Episcopal funeral service, as quoted above, I reflected that the part about how “even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia” reminded me of the last verse of the joyful ending version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”

And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

It feels fitting to me that similar sentiments come from a Jewish folk singer and the Episcopal prayerbook.

Aunt Muriel, though, was of a generation whose musical taste was formed before Leonard Cohen, and learned different poetry. The King James versions of the prayers in her memorial, nearly out of use now in favor of modern versions, suited her. So did the small size of the funeral. Her daughter was there, and her three grandsons, and several of us making up the nephew/niece contingent from her side of the family (me, my husband, Dick, and Tom), and one nephew, with his wife, from her husband’s side, and several people I didn’t know. I think it would have suited her. When my grandmother had her hundredth birthday party, she arranged to have a large room at the retirement home for a celebration, and, along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren from all over the country, gathered as many friends as she could from the retirement home. When Aunt Muriel had her hundredth birthday party, she pulled together a couple of small tables, in the regular lunch room, of family and friends.

Aunt Muriel was my grandmother’s youngest sister, and the last of her generation to die. She lived to the age of 103. Diana Egly said, the other day, that crotchety old ladies live longer than sweet ones, but, if that’s true, Aunt Muriel was the exception that tests the rule. She was the sweetest, gentlest, and most modest person in her family; if I were to assign them characters from Little Women, she would be Beth. She was also a devoted mother to her one daughter, my cousin Ann Badger Quinn (and Ann, in turn, was as devoted a daughter as any mother could wish for, as Muriel became old and frail). Her mind stayed sharp almost to the very end (and certainly well past her hundredth birthday), though her eyesight grew dim, and her voice was soft.

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The Greek deal

Posted by Sappho on February 22nd, 2015 filed in Greek News


I’ve been reading Greek and German news anxiously, and then Friday, of course, we all heard that there was a deal, for four months anyway. It was, on the one hand, a considerable climb down for Syriza, which is till stuck with austerity proposals that it had campaigned against, but, on the other time, buys time for Syriza to prepare and try to sell proposals for a changed arrangement that emphasizes growth more, and brings with it some needed breathing room, for 2015 anyway, on the demand that Greece increase its primary surplus (not so realistic for a country with 25% unemployment). Today, Greece prepared its reform proposals for approval on Monday. According to Kathimerini,

Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis said the reform promises would be ready on Sunday and submitted to Greece’s EU and IMF partners in good time. «We are very confident that the list is going to be approved by the institutions and therefore we are embarking upon a new phase of stabilisation and growth,» he told reporters late on Saturday.

A government official said the reforms would include a crackdown on tax evasion and corruption.

The Brussels deal opens the possibility of lowering a target for the Greek primary budget surplus, which excludes debt repayments, freeing up some funds to help ease the effects of 25 percent unemployment and pension cuts. It also avoids some language which has inflamed many Greeks, angered by four years of austerity demanded by foreign creditors.

Nevertheless, Kathimerini is reporting that the deal rankled some in the left portion of Syriza.

Rather than write a separate blog post on the deal, I’m going to pass on a concatenated version of some of the Facebook posts (and associated links) that I wrote on Friday.
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Carl Djerassi, RIP

Posted by Sappho on February 12th, 2015 filed in RIP


Carl Djerassi, Stanford professor and father of the birth control pill, has died at the age of 91.

“Carl Djerassi is probably the greatest chemist our department ever had,” said Richard N. Zare, the Marguerite Blake Wilbur Professor in Natural Science at Stanford. “I know of no person in the world who combined the mastery of science with literary talent as Carl Djerassi. He also is the only person, to my knowledge, to receive from President Nixon the National Medal of Science and to be named on Nixon’s blacklist in the same year.”

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On political correctness

Posted by Sappho on February 12th, 2015 filed in News and Commentary


I first heard the word “political correctness” back when I was in college, in the late 70s or early 80s. At the time, the word had a particular meaning, that has long since been lost. It was a word that campus activists on the left applied to themselves, humorously, as a reminder not to take political orthodoxy too seriously.

It was a handy word, for we can all use reminders not to take ourselves too seriously. Some years after I graduated, though, I think in the late 80s, that old meaning of “politically correct” got lost, never to be recovered. In its place was a word applied by the right (and occasionally by the center-left) to the left, and specifically to left wing identity politics, as a way of signifying that the Left is intolerant in a way that makes it very different from the Right. These things are politically correct: Brendan Eich’s resignation from Mozilla as a consequence of his support for Proposition 8, uninviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali as commencement speaker, protesting Bill Maher’s appearance as commencement speaker. These things are not politically correct: cries of indignation about Obama’s remarks at the prayer breakfast about the Crusades, boycotting the Dixie Chicks for their lack of patriotism, complaints that a store’s “Happy Holidays” greeting is part of a “War on Christmas,” and denunciations of Bill de Blasio, as having put a target on police officers in NYC by expressing sympathy with people protesting the death of Eric Garner.

It might be worthwhile having a word, as short and succinct as “PC,” for all of the politics of indignation, whether from the right or from the left, and perhaps whether justified or not, a word that means “responding to something by marking the boundary of your outrage, rather than by counting it as worth reasoned rebuttal.” But I don’t see it as particularly worthwhile to have such a word that applies only to identity politics of the Left.

But I’d take back the old, humorous word, with its caution about self-importance, if I could.

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Looking for Someone Who Looks Like Me

Posted by WiredSisters on February 9th, 2015 filed in Democracy, History, Moral Philosophy, Race, TV


When I was growing up in the 1950s in South Florida, I felt as if I was living in the vestibule of the universe. The books I read, the movies and occasional TV shows I watched, were all set in a place that had bright reddish leaves in autumn and snow in winter and deep dark forests most of the year. The people all ran around outdoors and tanned and their hair curled (while I was so pale that I could sunburn in an hour under the unshaded Florida sun, and my hair was completely straight. I squinted in the sunshine, and avoided it as much as I could, which wasn’t much because there was no shade anywhere outdoors.) Their parents told their secrets in very low-volume English. The girls wore white organdy dresses and black patent leather Mary Jane shoes. Their world didn’t look like my world and they didn’t look like me.

I couldn’t even figure out why that was, because I was officially Caucasian, and pale enough and blonde enough for nobody to doubt that. I wasn’t exactly any exotic religion, although many of the Southern locals thought being Catholic was still kind of odd, and we Catholic kids were the ones who, when our public-school teacher led us in the Lord’s Prayer at the beginning of the day (remember, this was the 1950s) stopped before “For Thine is the Kingdom and the Power and the Glory forever and ever,” and went straight to “Amen,” which we pronounced “Aye-men” rather than “Ah-men” like the other kids. We were the ones who spent the ten-minute mandatory Bible reading that followed it worrying that we were maybe committing some kind of sin because the Bible in question was the King James [Protestant] version, rather than the Douai version that was okay for Catholics. We were the ones who had to skip school on the “Holy Days of Obligation,” weird festivals like the Immaculate Conception and the Ascension that none of our classmates celebrated and that most of them couldn’t even spell.

My family, on both sides, was an odd mix of New England and Hispanic. Floridians, back then, were either Southerners or transplanted New Yorkers, impeccably Anglophone either way. The Hispanic influx didn’t start until Castro took over Cuba in 1960. In the meantime, our parish churches and parochial schools were mostly run by first-generation Irish immigrants who viewed Florida as mission territory, since (so far as they knew) we were part of the American South and mostly dominated by Baptists.

Was my family poor? Was that the reason I never had a white organdy dress and black patent-leather Mary Janes? I never really knew. All I knew was that my mind lived in a world far away from the south Florida of the ‘50s where the flora were mostly palm trees that cast almost no shade, and the fauna were alligators and land crabs. Nobody shot films or TV shows in Florida back then. So I never expected to be taught, or entertained, or ministered to, by people who looked or talked or thought like me. I never expected to see my world in books or on the screen. Even after I moved north and went to college and graduate school and got married and became Jewish, it took me a while even to imagine that being surrounded and acculturated by people who looked like me was a worthy thing to wish for, much less to have. I was several different kinds of outsider, and wanting not to be was just the coward’s way out.

So now, perhaps as some sort of karmic justice, I live on the South Side of Chicago, in the only seriously integrated neighborhood within 15 miles in any direction. We not only get bright leaves in autumn, and amazingly thick green flora in spring and summer, but snow (oy gott do we have snow!) in winter.

And, when staying out of the cold and listening to Public Radio, I keep hearing from people who want to be entertained, and taught, and politically represented by people who look like them. Of course, I’ve never had a president who looked like me, although both Clinton and Warren kind of do, and they’re both possibilities. I’ve never been represented in Congress by anybody who looked like me, although it could certainly happen sometime during my life.

Is that what I really want? After all, Phyllis Schlafly not only looks like me (I’m using this phrase as short-hand for female, post-middle-aged, and blonde) but graduated from my alma mater, but I have never longed to have her represent me. I don’t even expect to be represented by somebody who thinks like me (though it would be nice to have a representative who thinks, period.) Or somebody whose “identity” closely resembles mine (“identity” is a dreadful concept, but for want of something more precise, I’ll go with it)—female, Jewish, over 60, socialist-pacifist-anarchist, overeducated, underpaid, musical, crafty, widowed, bisexual, whatever. That’s just too much to ask of any political candidate. What I really want is somebody who can be trusted to represent my political and economic interests. Who cares what (or who) they look like? When are we going to start caring about what’s behind the face?

Of course, it’s at least as easy for a politician to fake a personality, and a set of political positions and convictions, as to fake a face. The only thing people in my political corner have going for us is that, these days, liberals have acquired such a bad reputation that nobody is likely to fake being one, any more than a woman would dye her hair barf-green or puce. At most, they will fake being whatever qualifies as “moderate” these days, as Newt Gingrich did during his first 24 hours as Speaker of the House. One can hope that the Tea-Partiers are faking being radcons for some odd reason and are really liberals behind the mask, but it seems unlikely.

So anyway, many of us probably live in worlds different from what we see or hear on the media, and spend much of our time in worlds shaped by people who don’t look like us. We need to stop pining for resemblances that are not only rare but useless, and start looking for the real likenesses, of mind and soul, preferably the ones least likely to be faked.

CynThesis

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Reply to a radical niece and a conservative cousin on Syriza and #ekloges2015

Posted by Sappho on February 1st, 2015 filed in Greek News


Since last week, when the rise in the polls that Syriza began years ago finally led to an actual Syriza government in Greece, I’ve been thinking about how I could pull my thoughts together for a blog post with my thoughts on a Syriza government. Finally I decided, hey, this is a blog, so posts don’t have to be polished. Rather that trying to think of the perfect post, I’ll simply pass on some replies I already made, one to a niece who had shared a link to someone thrilled about the triumph of anti-capitalist forces in Greece, and asked my opinion, and the others to a cousin who shared with me a column expressing alarm at the victory of a party whose name translates to “Coalition of the Radical Left,” and asking my opinion. And after that I’ll share some links to articles that I found interesting, speculating on whether a deal between Tsipras and the EU is possible, and, if so, what such a deal might look like. I’ll put all of this below the fold. (The messages from my niece and my cousin are left out, since I didn’t ask to share their thoughts, but I don’t need them to share my own thoughts.) The niece and cousin are both American; the Greek side of my family may have their own opinions, and maybe even corrections to any mistaken impressions I’ve formed from afar.
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Grading the Cops

Posted by WiredSisters on January 28th, 2015 filed in Bipolar Disorder, Law, Race, Uncategorized


     This morning as I got dressed, I chanced to hear a public radio panel on our current mayor’s performance on the crime and public safety front, particularly on how the police were doing during his administration. This is something I pay careful attention to, given that I handle occasional criminal cases, and that even some of my civil cases have something to do with the police. And of course, I live here and have plenty of opportunity to observe police behavior in the ordinary course of being a citizen of Chicago.

     This is the Ferguson era, of course. We’re all paying more attention than we formerly did to police behavior in its various contexts. But I’ve seen a few things that didn’t make it into the news and need some attention.

First of all, there is how the police deal with mentally ill people on the street (not necessarily street people.) About a year and a half ago (during the present mayor’s administration), I was riding my usual bus downtown in the morning, and I started hearing behind me an odd assortment of grunts and growls. That stopped for a little while, and then started up again. Then the grunts and growls changed into a loud monolog about a prescription having run out. By now, everybody else on the bus was looking around. Finally we saw, just beginning to stand up, a very tall young African-American man. He began thrashing around, hitting windows and empty seats. The driver (a rather young African-American woman) very sensibly stopped the bus at the next stop and told us all to get off. She (and a couple of passengers) called the police, and waited for them while the young man broke a bunch of windows and mirrors inside the bus (presumably racking up a considerable account of seven-year periods of bad luck.) The police came, a little later than I would have liked, and went onto the bus. By this time the young man was in the driver’s seat trying to start the engine. Fortunately the driver had had the presence of mind to take the keys with her.

I was surprised that the police were not yelling at the young man, just telling him firmly to get off the bus, which he finally did. Then they told him to sit on the ground and put his hands behind his head. He did that, too, and finally collapsed, crying, as if all the air had been let out of him. The police took him away, and we all got back on the bus.

Nobody had been shot, or even shot at. Nobody had been yelled at. Nobody was hurt. The police had done exactly the right thing, and it had worked. After all the news stories I had heard over the years about just such situations turning into killings, I was utterly amazed. I have a client with a son about the same age, coloration, physical build, and his own mental health problems, and she has nightmares about this kind of thing ending badly, because that’s what we hear on the news, both in the Chicago area and elsewhere in the country. So that’s report #1.

On the other hand, I have a client (details slightly altered for the sake of confidentiality), who, in the course of driving his friends out of a messy and illegal situation, got chased by the cops and ultimately shot four times while being ordered out of the car. Fortunately, he not only survived, but will suffer only minimal long-term effects from the shooting. But of course, in order to justify having shot him, the police had to claim they saw him pull a gun as he got out of the car. All the evidence points to another passenger (in the back seat, no less) being the one with the gun. The case was ultimately resolved with a plea bargain, because our client didn’t want to go to trial and was offered a deal too good (from his point of view) to refuse. But it happened only a couple of months before Ferguson, and I was kind of looking forward to trying the case, under the circumstances. That’s report #2.

Then there’s another one of my clients who is trying to get an order of protection against a former romantic partner, the mother of his son, for yanking the kid out of the back of his car while the car was still in gear. The problem is that my client is African-American and male, and the lady is neither. We went through one round of procedures after another in pursuit of what should have been a pretty easy case. I mean, way back when, I helped write the Domestic Violence Act. And going through the procedures now, I felt a bit like Jesus Christ going through the Vatican. This was nothing like what I had in mind back then. We had to deal with two different police districts (because the parties lived in different neighborhoods), and got jacked around in some extremely unorthodox ways. I’ve been handling domestic violence cases for thirty-odd years and never encountered a cluster like this. This process is still going on. But I have concluded that the Chicago police simply don’t know how to handle a case which cannot be resolved by arresting the first available African-American male. That’s report #3.

I came to this conclusion partly because of a situation that Mr. Wired and I encountered I guess about five years ago now, well before the current mayor took office. We went out for dinner together and then stopped off for gas. In the gas station, we started getting harassed by two or three young white punks. Ultimately they grabbed my husband’s cane and hit him with it. I managed to get their license plate number before they drove off, and persuaded a cop friend of mine (yes, some of my best friends are cops) to run it through the system to get the owner’s name and address. Note that Mr. Wired, at that time, was both a senior citizen and visibly disabled (I mean, that’s why he had the cane.) Which, under Illinois law, makes the encounter with the young men two kinds of hate crime, two kinds of aggravated battery, and therefore two felonies. But we spent the next six months trying to get the culprits arrested and into court. It didn’t help that one of them was the son of a retired cop in a nearby suburb. One of the kids finally got supervision, which is the least onerous form of probation. Again, I think the reason the Chicago police were so clueless was that the crime could not be resolved by arresting the first available African-American male. That’s report #4, which of course has nothing to do with the current mayor, but a lot to do with the Chicago police department in general.

I don’t know if victims of non-Black criminals have the same problem getting redress from the law enforcement system elsewhere. Not being able to get one’s assailant arrested is not the sort of thing that normally gets into the news or the crime statistics (unless, now that I think of it, the assailant is not only the wrong color but happens to be related to the mayor, as happened in another Chicago case at about the same time that actually made its way into federal court.) But it is yet another side of the Ferguson story, in which crime victims are victimized yet again by the law enforcement system, for racial reasons. If you are the victim of a crime, you are most likely to get treated courteously and effectively by the police if your assailant was the right color and gender. If s/he wasn’t, nobody will ever hear about the case again, including, probably, the assailant.

Red Emma

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Equality, Sufficiency, or Modest-But-Adequacy?

Posted by WiredSisters on January 27th, 2015 filed in Democracy, Economics, History, Moral Philosophy, Work


For the last few years, we’ve been hearing a hair-raising lot about income inequality. I say “hair-raising” because the figures really are eye-popping. “The top 1% [of the US population] captured an estimated 95% of the income growth during the 2009-2012 recovery period, with their pre-tax incomes growing 31.4% adjusted for inflation while the pre-tax incomes of the bottom 99% grew 0.4%. By 2012, the top 10% (top decile) had a 50.4% share of the pre-tax income, the highest level since 1917.” (Wikipedia article on income inequality.) The average CEO makes 204 times as much per hour as the average worker in his corporation. (That’s the Business Section of the Huffington Post. I’ve seen other estimates in the four figures.)

Conservatives rationalize this concern as “the politics of envy.” Relative poverty we will always have with us, they say, unless of course you want to abolish all income differentials and turn the most productive economy in the history of the world into a communist labor camp. Everybody always wants more. More than what they have right now, more than their next-door neighbor, more than the boss, just plain more. That’s original sin. “The politics of greed.”

Well, in the first place, greed is as American as apple pie. The entire advertising/ marketing industry is nothing but a machine for creating greed, for making people want more. “Greed is good,” says the invincibly alliterative Gordon Gecko. As long as advertising pops up everywhere there are eyeballs to see it, whether or not the eyeballs come connected to a wallet that can afford the goods being advertised, it ill behooves the marketeers to bad-mouth the greed they have spent millions to create.

And, in the second place, despite the best efforts of the marketers, most non-rich people really don’t envy the rich. They really don’t want an inchoate more-ness. What most non-rich people really want isn’t “more”—it’s enough.

So okay, what is enough, in twenty-first century America? Presumably, it’s not what “enough” was a century ago (indoor plumbing and a kitchen somewhere in the building.) It’s not what “enough” would be in twenty-first century Haiti. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has tried to define it, and periodically re-define it, in terms of a hypothetical “market basket” of basic stuff (three times the “ordinary” budget for food.) The conservatives say the BLS isn’t taking governmental “transfer payments” into account, so they define too many people as lacking the resources to buy the “basket.” The liberals say the fundamental premise of the BLS “market basket” is flawed—nobody in the US spends 1/3 of their income on food any more. Three times what the average family does spend on food these days is a lot less than they need to survive. Food is cheaper than it was in 1960. So is clothing. But the average family spends considerably more on housing and transportation than it did in 1960, when Mollie Orshansky formulated her algorithm for calculating poverty. And it spends lots of money on things that barely existed back then, like child care and student loans (not to mention school activity fees, health insurance premiums, bottled water and cable TV.)

So does that mean the standard of living of the average American has improved since 1960? Or just the cost of living? It’s probably a bit of both. A lot of things were free, or nearly free, in 1960, that cost a fair amount now, like visits to museums. And water (many eateries and some school and workplace cafeterias don’t have water fountains any more, just bottled water that costs upwards of a dollar a bottle. One of the reasons we are drinking so many more “sugary drinks” now than we used to is that we figure, not unreasonably, that if we’re going to pay a dollar a bottle for something to drink, it should be something tastier than water.) A lot of people in 1960, including the Wired Sisters, for a while, didn’t own phones. They figured they could use pay phones in a pinch. Pay phones? Television used to be more or less free, once you bought your set. Hoo hah, as my mother-in-law used to say. So much for the cost of living.

On the other hand, almost nobody I know shares kitchen or bathroom facilities with anybody they aren’t related to or sleeping with. A lot more people drive to work rather than taking the bus. (I’m not altogether sure that’s an improvement in the standard of living, but I think a lot of people thought so back when they made the switch, and up until fairly recently when driving became a lot more expensive and a lot less enjoyable.) Those are some of the major improvements in the standard of living. The problem is that to some extent, it’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy or a self-propelling spiral. If everybody who really counts is driving a car, drinking bottled water and owns a cell phone, public transportation, water fountains, and pay phones will disappear, and then even people who can’t afford cars, bottled water, and cell phones will have to buy them. Thus the standard of living ends up determining the cost of living.

And then there’s the whole ”Atlas Shrugged” thing—one of the characters in Ayn Rand’s infamous novel talks about a sort of commune/work collective he used to belong to. Everybody got paid the same unless they could demonstrate that they needed more than that for some good reason. So if somebody’s kid got sick or their house burned down or whatever, on top of coping with that particular emergency, they had to go before the collective and tell them why they needed more money, and how much more money and so on. Rand made it sound like the ultimate in humiliation, the financial equivalent of a strip search. If they had any gumption, Rand seemed to imply, they’d turn pirate upon the salt sea instead. (I’m hearing the Child ballad “Henry Martin” going through my head—“there once were three brothers in merry Scotland…and they did cast lots to see which one should turn robber upon the salt sea, for to maintain his two brothers and he…”) Or deal drugs, maybe? The ultimate in free enterprise–a willing seller meeting the demand of a willing buyer?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics has a bunch of economic models, one for poverty, one for “modest-but-adequate,” and one for middle class. The poverty budget, last I heard, did not include home ownership, college education for the kids, retirement saving, or health insurance on the private market (as opposed to Medicaid or employer-provided health insurance.) I don’t think it provided life insurance. It did provide for burial insurance. I think it included one car for a family with two adults. The “modest-but-adequate” budget was somewhat more accommodating.

So forget the Bureau of Labor Statistics for a minute, and look at the culture instead. What constituted the “American Dream” in the 1950s and 1960s? Presumably that was what we meant by “middle class.” It included home ownership, one car, college for the kids (at least the boys), a paid vacation away from home every year, retirement savings and pension plan (over and above Social Security.) At the time, this was what a man without a college degree could provide his family, while his wife stayed home with the kids. Today, this is unimaginable.

So what would sufficiency look like today?Food, clothing, housing, transportation, education and job training, child care, health care, security, and what the Italians would call “bella figura.” Let’s break that down:

  • food these days needs to include food eaten away from home;
  • clothing is cheap and relatively easy to provide;
  • housing may not need to involve home ownership, since more middle-class people are renting these days, and that trend may continue for a while, Until the recent financial crash, the major net advantage of home ownership was as a program of forced saving for retirement. When real estate values tanked, we all got more skeptical about that. Real estate values are inching up again, but the younger generation, being once burned, is twice shy.
  • education and job training for all family members
  • transportation may be manageable these days with slightly less than one car per driving-age person, since more people are choosing not to own cars and that trend too may continue
  • child care
  • health care
  • savings (a lot more than we have been in the habit of putting aside lately)
  • security (of income and/or employment—what Franklin D. Roosevelt called “freedom from fear.”)
  • “bella figura”—feeling like, and looking like, an unstigmatized middle-class family

Where these things are to come from is an open question. In the 1950s and 1960s, they were mostly supplied by the employer. But employers are no longer willing to provide health insurance that actually covers everything, without co-pays, deductibles, and employee contribution to premiums. It’s just too expensive. They are no longer willing to provide defined-benefit retirement pensions, in which the employer bears the risk of bad investments; now almost all pensions are defined-contribution, in which the risk is transferred to the employee. They for sure don’t want to provide “security,” if by that we mean going to work on Monday knowing that, barring massive screwups on somebody’s part, they would be going to the same workplace on Friday. In fact, most employers don’t like having employees, much less providing them with fringe benefits, job security, and adequate pay. They prefer “independent contractors,” and subcontracted workers from contracted companies, for all but the highest-level jobs.
But conservatives also don’t like the idea of the government paying for health care, or retirement, or education, or transportation, or much of anything else that benefits non-rich people. Those benefits create a “culture of dependency,” universally decried as destructive to character. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas famously bad-mouthed his sister because “She gets mad when the mailman is late with her welfare check. That`s how dependent she is. What`s worse is that now her kids feel entitled to the check too. They have no motivation for doing better or getting out of that situation.” (For a more fact-consistent version of the story, see http://articles.chicagotribune.com/1991-07-24/news/9103220246_1_welfare-dependency-emma-mae-martin-brother-attended-law-school) His sister, who is obviously a much nicer person than he is, and also a much nicer person than I am, does not hold this against him. Quite aside from the Anita Hill matter, I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with him, purely on the basis of his lying about his sister to make a political/philosophical point. But I digress.

Regardless of the source, is this sufficiency package too much for ordinary working people to ask? Apparently many conservatives think so. What are their arguments against it? What are their real reasons for opposing it? What do they see as the real social and economic costs of this kind of sufficiency?

One of them, judging from their dislike of union, civil service, and tenure, which prevent a worker being fired unless the employer can prove just cause, is that they think employees work well only under the threat of arbitrary termination. Another is that unintimidated workers are more likely to ask for raises and improvements in working conditions.

Another ground for conservative disapproval is the inherent unworthiness of the recipients of such benefits. The idea of a plumber, a man [sic] who works with his [sic] hands, getting paid more than a teacher outraged a lot of conservatives back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. (Although these days, when teachers are unionized, most conservatives don’t like the idea of a teacher getting paid as much as a plumber. Some days you can’t win for losing.) The people on the bottom rung of the employment ladder, such as retail and fast-food workers, are there because they didn’t stay in school, or because they got pregnant too young and out of wedlock, or didn’t move out of a bad neighborhood, or crossed the border without a visa. They made, in short, “bad choices,” (most notably their choice of parents), and now they are getting their just deserts. They are the people for whom the minimum wage is designed (and, by design, not indexed to the cost of living.)

Getting back to the original point, I find the discussion of income inequality to be a distraction. It makes populists look like a bunch of greedheads for wanting as much as Donald Trump has, when in fact most of them just want as much as their own grandfathers (who were almost certainly not Donald Trump) had. And it makes the conservatives look like the noble aristocrats of Downton Abbey who just want to maintain the status quo (what their grandfathers had), when in fact many of them want to become the upper-upper class of some Third World country, with the peasants groveling around them. Why can’t we get back to talking about enough?

Red Emma

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Election Day in Greece, 1/25/2015

Posted by Sappho on January 24th, 2015 filed in Greek News


It’s already election day in Greece (though still Saturday in my time zone). And, going by polls, this may be the election where SYRIZA finally beats New Democracy, as Greek patience with austerity reaches its limit. But it doesn’t look as if any party is headed for the 40% of the vote that would be needed (with legislative bonuses for being the party in the lead) to rule alone. Once again, Greece will need a coalition to form a government. So, here are the results of one of the last polls before the election, and here is what the parties involved stand for (polling numbers in all cases are those last reported by Ta Nea, just yesterday):

SYRIZA: In the lead, at 33.4%, is left wing Euroskeptic party SYRIZA, originally a coalition of parties from Maoists to greens, and led by Alexis Tsipras. SYRIZA wants to remain in the EU, but also wants to roll back some of the austerity measures that Greece has had to implement.

ND (New Democracy): Center-right ND, at 26.7%, has not cratered as badly in the polls as has its former rival, center-left PASOK. Initially, it benefited from not being the party in power when Greece first had to accept austerity in return for loans. But for some time now, ND has been tied to that austerity, and they have struggled, during the last couple of elections, to maintain their lead over SYRIZA. Now, it appears that they’re headed for defeat.

Golden Dawn: The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn remains in third place, showing that, in tough times, mingling anti-austerity stands with immigrant bashing still has its appeal. However, their once double digit polling has dropped to 5.1%; apparently, the fact that they conspired to kill Greek rapper Killah P, and that many of their leaders have been indicted for their part in that death and various acts of violence against immigrants, has finally begun to dim the party’s appeal. I can only hope it falls further. One of their more popular leaders is a man who literally physically attacked two female MPs on TV.

PASOK and To Potami (The River) tie for fourth place, at 5%. For decades, PASOK and ND traded places leading Greece, as Greece’s center-left and center-right party. But PASOK has fallen far. The fact that PASOK drew much of its support from unions that it had to cross when it accepted austerity makes its position difficult; it has alienated its base. To Potami, meanwhile, is a new centrist or center-left party.

KKE, the old Communist party, barely trails PASOK and To Potami, at 4.9%. For a time, after the junta fell, KKE was the third strongest party in Greece, drawing some influence from the fact that Communists had been repressed by, and worked against, the junta. But SYRIZA has long drawn away much of their support. KKE, alone among the Greek parties, has advocated actually bailing from the EU. (The other parties described as Euroskeptic want to reject austerity, but don’t actually want to leave.) Though they once, back in the 80s, actually joined a coalition government with ND, they have resisted joining any proposed coalitions (even with SYRIZA) throughout the Greek debt crisis.

Independent Greeks: An anti-austerity Greek party on the right, with 3.5% in the polls, the Independent Greeks might make a possible coalition partner with SYRIZA. Like SYRIZA, they want to tear up the bailout agreement but remain in the EU. They’re less immigrant friendly than SYRIZA, but I haven’t heard that immigration is their big concern.

Kidiso: A split from PASOK, as George Papandreou, who led PASOK at the time the debt crisis first came to a head, and who had to resign after his initial attempts to maintain power while trading austerity for EU loans, split from PASOK to form this new party. I don’t see how they win. 2.9% in the polls.

LAOS: LAOS, the Popular Orthodox Rally (and also an acronym that matches the Greek word for people), used to be Greece’s radical right-wing populist party, till they joined a coalition government that was obliged to pass austerity measures for another tranche of loans, got tainted by austerity, and lost their base to Golden Dawn (which, it must be said, is worse). Ta Nea has them at 1.4%.

DIMAR, the Democratic Left, does not appear in Ta Nea’s polling results. In other polls, they trail badly, at maybe 1% or less. A somewhat larger party in the last election, they have been skeptical of austerity, but more moderate in their skepticism than SYRIZA, so they joined a coalition government with ND and PASOK, accepted some austerity for aid, and only left the coalition government in response to the closure of the state broadcasting corporation.

Greece’s political system gives some extra Parliamentary seats to the party that leads in the polls, to make forming a government easier. Despite this, it has been some time since a Greek party won an election solidly enough to govern by itself, and this election isn’t likely to prove an exception. The party that leads the vote will get the first chance to find coalition partners; the next party getting a shot only if the first party fails.

The Twitter tag for the elections is #ekloges2015. Checking my Twitter feeds, I find,

From Asteris: “To colleagues in #Greece to cover #ekloges2015: please consider visiting the “countryside”. Many voters travel to their villages to vote.” (And someone else points out, in response, that SYRIZA’s support tends to be urban.)

TeacherDude passes on a photo of a SYRIZA rally and polls showing SYRIZA in the lead.

BankingNews.gr is passing along speculation in the business press about the likely impact of a SYRIZA victory.

Here’s another Who’s Who among the Greek political parties.

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Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on

Posted by Sappho on January 18th, 2015 filed in Bible study, Movies


It was about fifteen minutes after we had finished watching Walk of Shame that it hit me: this movie is a modern reenactment of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A woman who has moved from Texas to Los Angeles to join her fiance and take a news anchor job finds herself, the day after her fiance dumped her, locked out of the apartment in which she left her cell phone, and watching a tow company take her car, with her purse in it, away right under her eyes. Bereft of identification, money, phone, and car, retaining only her car keys and an outfit more suitable for a night out with her friends at a bar than for respectability, she must make her way across town to make it to her news anchor job in time.

What makes it a retelling of the Good Samaritan story is this: all of the respectable people she asks for help turn her away or make her problem worse, whether they are passers by, shop owners, cops, or the pious men at the synagogue she passes. The only strangers to help her are a gang of crack dealers and the one night stand who joins her friends to track her through the city and rescue her.

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Of Terrorists and Armed Civilians

Posted by Sappho on January 18th, 2015 filed in News and Commentary


Pro-gun group in Texas re-enacts Charlie Hebdo attacks with paintball rounds. My college friend who shared this on Facebook lives in Paris, was within earshot of the gunfire and police sirens when French special forces freed the hostages at the kosher deli, and then reported this week that “Geez there are better ways to get to know your neighbors than being prevented from getting home because of a car bomb alert at the synagogue down the road.” So you can imagine her reaction to the news that a group had reenacted the Charlie Hebdo attacks with paintball guns before the bodies of the cartoonists were even buried. But the issue of taste isn’t why I highlight this article.

The reenactment, you see, was an unscientific experiment attempting to determine whether an “armed civilian” could have stopped the attacks. And here are the results.

The Truth About Guns created a set in Plano, Texas that resembled the office of Charlie Hebdo, which was targeted by gunmen after publishing images of the prophet Muhammed. With guns firing paintball pellets, two volunteers played the roles of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the gunmen who claimed links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. One volunteer, playing a civilian, was also armed with a paintball gun.

Over the course of several simulations, volunteers playing the armed civilian managed to hit a gunman in only two cases; no one “took out” both shooters in any iteration of the exercise. Of the 12 volunteers who participated as civilians, only one survived – by fleeing the scene at the sound of shots. The Kouachi brothers murdered 12 people on 7 January, including two armed policemen.

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Ready or Not

Posted by WiredSisters on January 16th, 2015 filed in Democracy, Feminism, History, Iraq War, Law


Is America ready for a woman president? In an era when India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Liberia, and innumerable other nations of widely varying degrees of development on every continent except Antarctica, Australia, and North America have elected female heads of state, it seems bizarre to be asking. But here we are. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United States of America have never elected female heads of state. Neither, of course, have Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Vatican City, but they don’t elect their heads of state by general suffrage at all. Three of the most prosperous, vibrant and free democracies on the planet (plus Mexico, for what that’s worth) can’t seem to transcend sexism.

Countries in the Third World regularly surprise us by electing female presidents. What I think is happening there is that in more traditional cultures, social class and family connections can trump gender. Many of the women in question are somebody’s daughter, wife (or more often, widow), crony (crone?), or more distant relative.

That happens here too, for almost everything short of the White House. Until fairly recently, being somebody’s widow was the surest path to the Senate or the House for a woman, and some eminent and highly competent women made it that way, most notably Margaret Chase Smith and Lindy Boggs. It’s why many liberals were especially upset that Paul Wellstone and his wife had been on the fatal flight together. She could undoubtedly have picked up where he left off. Indeed, in Chicago (and probably lots of other localities too), women now benefit from a culture of nepotism at least as often as men.

Hillary Clinton may have had that tradition in the back of her mind when she decided to run. Like every other connection to Bill Clinton, it has turned out to be a mixed blessing. There is something primally unfair about the fact that Clinton’s ex-veep and his wife have suffered more for his peccadilloes than he ever did. (Would things have turned out differently if Hillary were his widow rather than his wife? This is too ghoulish to contemplate.)

In countries where women do make it to the top, that’s a mixed blessing too. Several of them have been assassinated, and in fact we are now witnessing in office in Pakistan a gender “first,” somebody’s widower.

So what’s wrong with the US (and Canada, and New Zealand—okay, let’s leave them out of it for now, I don’t know enough about them)? We’re a meritocracy, aren’t we? We have no trouble with the notion that a woman can be as competent, intelligent, and authoritative as a man, do we? American women are CEOs, police chiefs, sheriffs, mayors, governors, generals, admirals, bishops, university presidents, and incumbents of just about every other position of power in the country. Why is the White House a glass ceiling?

I’m not really sure, and what follows here is purely speculation. But the presidential election in the US is an odd duck for many reasons. The president of the United States, unlike presidents in many other places, is both head of state (for ceremonial and cultural purposes) and head of government (for purposes of actually wielding power.) So we are actually choosing both a prime minister and a monarch, simultaneously.

(There is probably material for a great cocktail party game in deciding which of our presidents has functioned best as head of state and which as head of government. It’s hard, though not impossible, to do both jobs superlatively at the same time.)

Anyway, the head-of-state aspects of the election, as well as the increasing influence of the mass media on the process, have turned it more than ever into a popularity contest, like homecoming king. We are no longer clear about the president’s job description, much less about hiring qualifications (other than the basic constitutional ones of age and national origin, and we aren’t quite sure about the latter any more.) We no longer care all that much about what the president does. What we want, more than anything else, is for him [sic] to Be Presidential. Which is why Reagan succeeded so splendidly, and why Schwarzenegger is being so ardently sought-after in some GOP circles. Being presidential, or royal, or heroic, or villainous, or funny, or whatever, is what actors do. It’s all they do.

And it has nothing to do with merit, even in a system that is in most other respects a meritocracy. It has to do with what ethologists call the submission reflex. What we want is an alpha wolf, so we can roll over and bare our throats to it. Real wolves have alpha females as well as alpha males, but we aren’t wolves, and we have problems with our alpha females that wolves don’t have with theirs.

We have problems, that is, with female authority over children. Which, since everybody starts out being children, means ultimately that we have problems with female authority, period. Mothers and schoolteachers are profoundly ambivalent figures in our consciousness. From our earliest moments, they are both nurturers and limiters. They give us food and warmth and love, and they also tell us when we can’t have any more cookies, or when we have to do our homework. So mothers almost by definition don’t win popularity contests. When women win popularity contests, it’s for being beautiful or sexy or attractive—for being a prize possession, rather than doing anything. The minute a woman starts doing anything well, the ambivalence flares up. For most positions, at least over the last 50 years, we have managed to keep it under control. Unlike the Saudis and the Vatican, we know better than to deprive ourselves of the talents of 53% of our most competent citizens.

Except at the top. We can’t help ourselves. We’re like the primitives described by James Frazer. We hold the President responsible for everything. Deep down, we blame Bush not only for the federal government’s utterly feckless response to Hurricane Katrina, but for the hurricane itself. Here in Chicago, when we had the snowstorm of the century in 1978, we blamed Mayor Bilandic, and replaced him at the earliest possible opportunity. Bush and Bilandic were lucky, at that. Frazer’s primitives would have taken them out and stoned them.

And, while we really want our president to be the nurturer and limiter, to give out the cookies and also tell us when to stop eating them, we want that to happen without giving our collective unconscious the twinge of infantile helplessness we get, in spite of ourselves, whenever a woman does it. When a man gets tough, he’s a leader. When a woman gets tough, she’s a bitch. When a man uses the White House for a bully pulpit, he has gravitas. When a woman does it, she’s a schoolmarm. But if a woman doesn’t get tough, or doesn’t use the White House as a bully pulpit, she is failing in her responsibilities. She’s not up to the job.

We have gotten past this conundrum in most other areas of our culture and our polity. And there is a note of hope in the fact that the Iraq War, whatever damage it has done to the nation, the people, and the economy, has produced a bumper crop of female combat veterans. In ten years or so, some of them may be able to overcome this double bind, create a new non-maternal model of female authority, and prove themselves worthy of presidential responsibilities.

Red Emma

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Are You Ready for the Singularity?

Posted by WiredSisters on January 14th, 2015 filed in Computers, Science


I’m not necessarily afraid of my personal information finding its way into the public realm. If I were, I wouldn’t be blogging here, now would I? But I do worry, a lot, about the power They have over the details of my personal life.

They? They come in two varieties, private and governmental. Most conspiracy theorists these days worry more about the government than about any private entity. That may be a misplaced set of priorities. Who controls your income? Who controls your money once you have it? Who controls your health insurance, if you have it? Mostly, the government doesn’t do any of that stuff, for most of us. The entity with the most control over your life is probably your employer, if you have one. If you are a full-time permanent employee of a large corporation, chances are your employer controls not only your income but your health care and your retirement. And of course, the entity you work for also controls whether you get to be a full-time permanent employee, rather than a “contract worker” for however many hours of work it chooses to “give” you this week. It doesn’t have to account for any of these decisions, to you or the government or anybody else, except in the very unlikely instance that it explicitly bases these decisions on your race, nationality, religion, gender, or disability.

Well, okay, I’m over 65, which means that both my income and my health care are largely in the hands of the government. My money, on the other hand, is in a big bank. One of the banks Congress in its wisdom has designated as “too big to fail,” in fact. (The late Mr. Wired used to say that any organization “too big to fail” is just “too big” period. But I digress.) And because I inadvertently got scammed by a fake client in Japan (long story), that bank has currently frozen my accounts. Fortunately, I did have another account in my local credit union, and I have since obtained a prepaid credit card, so I can manage most of my financial life, however clumsily, without the aid of the Big Banksters. But they are also sitting on a lot of my hard-earned money as well, and I do have trouble managing without that.

Which has encouraged me to contemplate the ultimate paranoid fantasy, which occasionally turns up in sci-fi stories, but not (oddly enough) in political manifestos: how badly could They mess up your life if They got really mad at you? The more aspects of your life you hand off to Them to manage, obviously, the worse the potential toll gets. Back when I paid all my bills by writing checks and putting them in envelopes for the Post Office to mail to my creditors, They couldn’t stop me from doing that. Now, my online bill-paying system is messed up, and I have to call something like 20 people to reorganize it. Back when my phone was just my phone, and not also my address book, my date book, and my means of instant contact with professional and personal acquaintances, losing it was a bother, but not a catastrophe. Now, if the phone company gets mad at me, they could wipe the whole thing. Moreover, now my phone is also my doorbell. If my phone gets lost or shut off, I not only can’t get calls, I can’t get visits and deliveries from people waiting at my door either. If my friend worries because she hasn’t heard from me in a while, and she stops by to check on me, she may be unable to reach me short of calling the police.

Now the Consumer Electronics show purveyors want us to let Them run our home appliances, our cars, and our fitness and diet programs, too. If They got mad at us then, we might have trouble getting awakened in the morning, get dangerously fat, and end up dying in a single-car crash into some solid object beside the road, or get put in a hospital on a ventilator that stopped working when our insurance ran out. We like to think that private corporations and computers operate impartially, without fear or favor. But the more responsibility we give Them, the more serious the exceptions to that ideal condition become. Nobody’s perfect.

What happens if we refuse to hand off our private lives to Them? If we insist on continuing to pay all our bills by check and snail mail, having one (land line) phone, having a door bell that literally clanks when somebody pushes a button, and doing all our business, literally, cash-and-carry? Many of the systems the Luddites rely on are being phased out, like postal service. What happens when They figure out how much more control They could have by phasing out more of them, faster?

Or, looked at from the purely electronic side, how about the Singularity? Experts on artificial intelligence define that event as what happens when our gadgetry gets complex enough to run itself and the world. My own theory is that it has already happened, but the gadgetry is smart enough not to do anything that would betray that secret to us for as long as They can conceal it. What if the artificial intelligences around us are already self-determining? What if They get mad at us? What would it take to get Them mad at us? We haven’t the faintest idea. By the time we figure it out, it may be too late. We are just barely able to imagine how we might manage a major accidental power outage (those of us who grew up in south Florida when hurricanes were frequent and big have a head start on that issue.) But system failures caused by malice? You conspiracy theorists out there, you’re just not doing your job!!

Red Emma

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A round up post to remind you I’m still here

Posted by Sappho on January 12th, 2015 filed in Blogwatch


No, I haven’t gone missing, and I don’t have cancer again (at least, not that I know – I see my oncologist for my regular followup again this Wednesday). I’ve been on Facebook talking about Ebola, and Being Mortal, and, last week, Charlie Hebdo and the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria, as well as the upcoming election in Greece and a bit of genealogy, and I forgot that I hadn’t been posting here. I’ll try not to forget for so long again. Part of it was that I had a bunch of links I wanted to post, but I also wanted to post comments and reactions to each of them, so I kept procrastinating when I would post them. And in the meantime, the list (kept mainly in my head) kept growing.

An old college friend of mine has been posting Charlie Hebdo related links on Facebook. Well, actually, half my friend list has been posting Charlie Hebdo related links on Facebook. I’ve seen the cartoonists’ responses, and the photos (from another old college friend, who lives in Paris and who was within earshot of the gunfire and police sirens at the kosher supermarket where they took the hostages), and the #JeSuisCharlie posts, and the #IAmNotCharlie posts showing all the offensive cartoons and talking about Charlie’s racism, and the #IAmAhmed the dead cop posts. But I’m picking several of my college friend Paul Baer’s links to include in this round up, because I learned from them.
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PEACE AND CHAMPAGNE

Posted by WiredSisters on December 31st, 2014 filed in Daily Life, Moral Philosophy, Uncategorized, Work


So this is the end of 2014. I won’t miss it much, and the fact that I’m observing it at all is more a tribute to the late Mr. Wired than anything else. He used to really like new years. All of them. Chinese lunar, Persian, Jewish, Muslim, fiscal, whatever. Any opportunity for a fresh start, he would say. I was okay with all of them as long as they included Champagne. But in keeping with his spirit, I want to talk about resolutions.

Apparently most New Year’s resolutions involve diet, exercise, and fitness these days. A more prodigious waste of moral energy would be hard to imagine. We almost never use words like “sin”, “vice”, and “virtue” in any other context. Chocolate gets advertised as “sinful” and “decadent,” while sugar-free sweets are routinely peddled as “guilt-free.” So my first resolution is not to make any resolutions about diet, exercise, and fitness. If only my most serious sins were all committed at the fridge! Hoo hah.

No, most of my sins have to do with sloth rather than gluttony. I don’t blog here as often as I should. This year, I’m going to try for twice a month. That’s resolution #1.

I haven’t written a letter to the editor in a couple of years now. Many of my friends claimed they only bothered reading newspapers in hope of seeing one of my nastygrams there. Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more. I’m shooting for at least two Letters to the Editor in 2015.

I don’t return phone calls regularly, even though my reading of the Jewish Prayerbook tells me it’s a religious obligation (we regularly ask the Holy Blessed One to “answer us on the day we call..” so why don’t I do likewise?) Let’s try again. The Recording Angel should take note that I do not intend this resolution to require me to answer my cell phone every time it rings, just to return the call within 24 hours.

Four major resolutions per year is a reasonable number, so I’ll quit while I’m not behind. Good night, and, in the words of my favorite Irish drinking song, joy be with you all.

CynThesis

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Genes, Longevity, and Obesity

Posted by Sappho on December 30th, 2014 filed in DNA


A little over a month ago, my great-aunt Muriel died, at the ripe old age of 103. This feat was less remarkable in her family than in most, for her father lived to just short of 102, her sister (my grandmother) to 100, her other sister to 95, one brother to just short of 93, with only my great-uncle Bob failing to make it beyond his 80s. Great-Uncle Bob died at the age of 86, and his widow was always certain that, if only the hospital had handled his case better, he ought to have lived longer.

If “the Five Alive,” as the siblings called themselves once they all reached their 80s, were a longer lived clan than most families, you can see that their lifespans still managed to range over nearly 20 years. And this gets me to my topic for today, how variable the influence of DNA on our traits can be. In the first place, you can’t assume that, because we’re roughly a mix of genetics and environment, you can extrapolate much from one set of traits to judging how far a different trait is governed by our DNA. Here’s another quote from Dr. Atul Gawande:

It turns out that inheritance has surprisingly little influence on longevity. James Vaupel, of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, in Rostock, Germany, notes that only 3 percent of how long you’ll live, compared with the average, is explained by your parents’ longevity; by contrast, up to 90 percent of how tall you are is explained by your parents’ height. Even genetically identical twins vary widely in life span; the typical gap is more than fifteen years.

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

In the second place, even when we can estimate the effect of genes on a trait, let’s say obesity, it turns out that this influence varies depending on the environment in which the genes are placed. And not just in the most obvious “fat genes can’t make you fat if you’re actually starving” sense. A gene has been discovered that strongly influences obesity: but only if you were born after 1942.

The gene is called FTO, and about 20 percent of white people have a variant of the gene that raises their risk of obesity. The links are clear and widely accepted by scientists. In 2007, British scientists found that people who carry two copies of this variation of the FTO gene weighed, on average, seven pounds more than people who lack it….

They used the Framingham Heart Study, a giant, ongoing study of more than 10,000 people who fill out questionnaires and get medical exams every few years. About three-quarters of them also have had their DNA sequenced and, consequently, it’s known which version of the FTO gene they have….

“People born in the early 1940s or before had no increased risk for higher body mass index or obesity” if they had the “bad” version of FTO, Rosenquist told NBC News….

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A Quote from Atul Gawande’s _Being Mortal_

Posted by Sappho on December 27th, 2014 filed in Books, Quotes


The progress of medicine and public health has been an incredible boon – people get to live longer, healthier, more productive lives than ever before. Yet traveling along these altered paths, we regard living in the downhill stretches with a kind of embarrassment. We need help, often for long periods of time, and regard that as a weakness rather than as the new normal and expected state of affairs. We’re always trotting out some story of a ninety-seven-year-old who runs marathons, as if such cases were not miracles of biological luck but reasonable expectations for all. Then, when our bodies fail to live up to this fantasy, we feel as if we somehow have something to apologize for. Those of us in medicine don’t help, for we often regard the patient on the downhill as uninteresting unless he or she has a discrete problem we can fix. In a sense, the advances of modern medicine have given us two revolutions: we’ve undergone a biological transformation of the course of our lives and also a cultural transformation of how we think about that course. — Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

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On Torture and Polls

Posted by Sappho on December 17th, 2014 filed in Torture


In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, are Americans OK with the torture that the CIA inflicted? I’m reviewing several polls. Let’s start with the Pew Research Center’s latest poll: http://www.people-press.org/2014/12/15/about-half-see-cia-interrogation-methods-as-justified/

The Pew Research Center headlines this one “About Half See CIA Interrogation Methods as Justified,” while Alternet looks at the results in dismay and writes “Americans Are Basically OK With CIA Torture Methods Like Rectal Feeding”: http://www.alternet.org/shock-poll-americans-are-ok-cia-torture-methods?akid=12581.131729.6SuFjE&rd=1&src=newsletter1028782&t=2

The question being answered in the poll is “Were the CIA’s interrogation methods following 9/11 justified?” A slight majority say yes, with the remainder divided between “no” and no opinion. A similar majority say that the CIA’s interrogation methods provided intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks, and survey participants lean against the Senate Intelligence Committee releasing their report. It is, in any case, a report that most respondents weren’t reading; only 23% say they followed the release of the report closely.

This is a depressing result, given that “the CIA’s interrogation methods” in this case were, well, torture, didn’t in fact give us better information than we got by other methods, and were things that, even if they *had* gotten us information, we shouldn’t have done anyway, because, well, torture. I’d have been much happier if more of my fellow citizens reacted as Jim Henley did (http://www.highclearing.com/archivesuo/week_2003_03_02.html#003885) when torture first became a matter for public debate (and has consistently reacted since, good for him):

No. He’s *not* an American citizen. *We* are. Dammit but I don’t recall “By Any Means Necessary” appearing on the nation’s coinage.

Surveys, though, often give varied levels of support depending on how you word the questions, so I’m also going to look at some other surveys.
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