Saturday, January 27, 2007

I'm glad it's not just me.

I was going to write a post about this but I kept putting it off.

Oh well - maybe tomorrow.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

The statistics for visitors from the last 1324 minutes are not yet available.

Sitemeter (the free version, anyhow) sucks. The longer I've had it, the longer my lag time has gotten. While I'm suspicious this might be related to where I fit on their priority list, being a free user and all, I'm also thinking this demonstration of their concern (or capability - does it matter which?) doesn't constitute a very persuasive appeal to upgrade my service.

I'm not that thrilled with Activemeter either, however. Anybody know any good alternatives?

New blog of the day.

Came across one from the comments section of Lentenstuffe's blog. Lovely writing, from the British informal school. She's a hoot.

Representative quote:
“First they came for the hairdressers, I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a hairdresser.
Then they came for the Take Away owners, I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Take Away owner.
Then they came for me, but I had fucking starved to death with a 6ft afro”

So, I suggest you check out the serial insomniac at Stuff.

Since ZB's acquired this (temporary, I hope) most irritating habit of stuffing his fingers in his ears, squinching his eyes shut and shouting a litany of curses while he deletes my comments as quickly as I write them, I thought I'd quit banging my head against the proverbial wall and see who was saying what. Glad I did.

Pride is so unbecoming...

So, on Galatea's new blog, she posts the following haiku:

So few want the truth
I will take mine with candor
Never blanketed

To which I responded:

So few can balance
truth and sophistic critique
I’ll take flattery

Just thought I'd pretend to be highlighting Galatea's new blog, while really just showcasing my own supposed cleverness.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Land of the free...

Chalk one up against good ol' boy justice. Nah, there's negligible police and prosecutorial misconduct, right?

Sometimes I wonder which has cause more harm: evil-doers, or people who believe they are doing the noble thing? I'm confident not a single prosecutor or police officer believed they were convicting an innocent person - they just "bent the rules" a little to better protect the innocent, I'm sure.

It's a cultural epidemic, apparently.

I wonder how they would've felt if the person being convicted were a mountain gorrilla, instead of a (almost invariably) black man?

Empathy and shame are most peculiar things.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What is it about animals that makes this so sad?

I came across this today. Something about the innocence and trust of animals - kinship, but not so close as to trigger identification in a way that might get in the way [thinking about how people often seem more moved by the plight of animals than children].

If we're stewards, what kind of a job are we doing?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Nostalgic recycle: Axe-grinding Social Scientists

So, I haven’t really posted much lately – I’ve been busy, traveling, working etc. I decided that if my friends are going to continue visiting even when I’m dormant, however, I ought to put something out, in the spirit of being a good host and all. So, as I’m glancing through my laptop hard drive, I thought I’d throw a post or two up I was proud of. Here’s a blast from the past I wrote in response to this top-post by hiztoria. Just for a nostalgic diversion.

If science is one of the languages of racism, can we counter racism using only the language of ethics?

Scientists, knowingly or unwittingly, have provided empirical support for racist attitudes since undertaking the study of individual differences. From time to time, we look back and deconstruct the assumptions that led to those conclusions. Does brain size correlate with IQ? Well, yes it does. Does this make people with bigger heads invariably smarter? No, it certainly does not. The impact evolution has had on our brains relates to surface area, which has been magnified both by a larger head and by deepening of the sulci. Men tend to have bigger heads than women. We know, however, that men are not more intelligent than women in any meaningful sense at all. Tall people tend to have bigger heads, too. If the association were that strong, all our NBA players would be Mensa candidates, wouldn't they?

We cannot even agree on what IQ is, or how it is best measured. Cognitive psychologists have long debated a multiple-factor model of intelligence versus a single factor model (g). In either case, however, we are attempting to infer potential from a set of learned skills. Does individual experience impact a person's performance on an IQ test? Of course, just as cultural influences impact every person's unique set of individual experiences.

In a pragmatic sense, psychologists both recognize this and accept it; IQ is intended to predict academic performance. The academic environment is also culture-bound, and any attempt to accurately predict performance there will involve some preferential assessment of skills that generalize to that culture. Nowhere is this more evident than in the inflation of IQ scores across generations (which, coincidentally, keeps a lot of psychometricians busily employed norming new tests versions). People are not becoming, magically, more intelligent at all. We are, however, becoming more facile with abstract and symbolic tasks through everyday practice. These are the tasks you find on an IQ test. These are also the tasks we encounter with much greater frequency in our modern world, compared to our forebears.

I believe it is human nature for people to promote their own strengths, and by association, the strengths of groups they belong to. This is probably as deeply rooted as the drive to compete for scarce resources. We look to our own, first. It's naïve to believe that scientists will stop being blinded by their own biases, and stop finding flawed empirical justifications for these. Egalitarian idealists should continue in their efforts to debunk not the differences themselves, but the faulty reasoning that involves the interpretation of these differences. It was only 60 years ago that there was an institutional test that discriminated against people who weren't exposed to commercial advertising ("What's 99 and 44/100% pure?"). It made sense at the time [still does, actually, if you believe that cognitive priming is what constitutes "g." The assumption just doesn't take differential exposure into account. A pure measure of priming would involve an utterly novel task across everyone measured. Good luck coming up with that!]

But I think you're mistaken when you say "idealistic notions of human equality are not to be found in science." Science, in the sense that it involves data collection and analysis, is supposed to be blind to relative assignment of worth. Without science, all that's left is moral reasoning (which, in this case, seems preferable) and heuristic biases based on individual observations (which is the most primary rationalization for bigotry). Heuristic biases appear to be an aspect of human nature, and I'm afraid that no amount of wishful thinking will alter this. Without idealistic science, how would we form rational arguments that conflict with conclusions based on individual observation?

While I agree with your sentiment, I disagree with your conclusion. Even you say that "…it's human nature which drives toward group identity/divisions, culture being just the instantiated demarcation of that drive." While we can rail against the unfairness of human nature, it is unwise to act as though our nature were different. So long as there are observable differences between people that can demarcate groups, and so long as there are inequities in resources, we will have people jockeying to forward their interests above that of others. It's the idealistic social scientists that are trying to instill a sense of larger community and deconstruct those self-perpetuating barriers that maintain racism (or classism, or any of the other constructs people with resources invent or perpetuate to justify the status quo). They are the missionaries of your humanistic faith. I like to consider myself one of them.

But you're right, in that deconstruction of justifications for prejudice will not be enough, in the end, to combat unequal distribution of resources and institutionalized exploitation. Our nature is full of other characteristics we consider undesirable in this cultural context, though they could (arguably) be desirable in others. We quell these, utilizing our capacity for flexibility and adaptation to find preferable alternatives, despite their underlying presence. Perhaps we should start looking at the factors that are perpetuating the competitive atmosphere that allows this less desirable aspect of human nature to flourish (competition over cooperation). And that, I'm afraid, will have to be done by axe-grinding, idealistic social scientists.

Friday, January 12, 2007

About that whole adaptability/stasis thing...

I think it's strange to hear people making the appeal to moral intuitions as if they alone constitute an argument. There's some evidence to show that our inherent repulsion about things like this isn't very deeply grounded in some innate moral wisdom. Rather, it's often full of inconsistencies, and one finds that its roots are in memes long bygone (cf Peter Singer and infanticide). Flitcraft/AlexaBlue from this conversation.

Everything AlexaBlue says here is true. However, sometimes things seem inconsistent because we have not yet discerned an overarching theme that defines commonalities that aren't obvious. Easy to assume irrationality (or, I suppose, purely associative logic), but it strikes me completely discounting intuitive reasoning on the basis of observed inconsistency (as though this is magically free of bias) is arrogant.

Anyhow, I was thinking this is related to what I was arguing about Ghost's question. I can't formulate a cohesive opinion about the actual case under discussion, beyond wanting to validate "gut reactions" to some extent, which puts me into the default position taken by Archaeopteryx in the thread.

There is a certain arrogance reminiscent, however, to situations like forced sterilization of people with Down's syndrome, or compulsory education of native peoples in boarding schools, or arguments that black people ought not be provided a larger context (education) in which to view their lot, because they'd just find it depressing.

Not that the situations are equivalent on relevant dimensions, but that the discomfort we might feel is both valid, and worthy of consideration. The judgments we’re inclined to cast on these parents and doctors is akin to the judgments cast on this child by her parents and doctors. Though familiarity and kinship might certainly provide a clearer image of the picture, proximity can also be distorting, due to the manner in which ones best interest tends to compete with another's comfort, at times.

How would the conversation go if they wanted to give the girl a clitorectomy?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

So my daughter called this afternoon,

while I was waiting to board my plane at the airport in Spokane. In her typical, demanding tone, she explained she had an assignment due and needed me to pick her up at that moment so she could come over to use my computer (hers went belly-up the other day). She was quite unimpressed by the undeniable limits of geography.

I agreed to pick her up on the way to the airport, however. She came over, said hello to her brother (he’s been ill), and completed her assignment. We had dinner together (my son eating very little).

On the way home, she told be about a school assignment – she’d been told to write a letter to an adult she feels close to. Rather than choosing her mother, or me, she chose her brother – explaining, when she saw my puzzled look, that he’s 18 now, and 18 is an adult. Quite right. She asked me to give this to him, and I did – but I diverted it here for a minute first, and here it is.

Dear XXXX,

I couldn’t be happier to have you as a big brother. When I get trouble from people at school or from home, I know I can call you and you’d make it all seem alright. You make it alright. You make me laugh and occasionally bug me, but its all worth it. You’re important to me and I wish we could have more time together. I remember every single time we did something together. I remember, on my birthday last year, you took me shopping and spent almost all you money on me. I still sleep with that stuffed Snoopie! Hehe! When you moved out, things didn’t feel right. When things go wrong, I know I can talk to you because I know you’ll help me. I love you!! Youre the best big brother anyone could even ask for! I know we can get on each others nerves sometimes, but its our jobs, haha! Wherever you end up and whatever happens, you’ll still be my big brother and I’ll be your little sister, who is awesome, I might add!!! I love you!!!!!

XXXXXX X. ((your awesome little sister))

She's the one I was visiting the andrology lab about.

Andrology Blues

There was a time in my life when I became acquainted with a hospital "andrology lab". It's a very clinical place, where a nurse (who seems to have a perpetual, barely suppressed smirk on her face) leads you back to a nondescript room, distinguishable from all of the other hospital rooms by the presence of a rather broken-down (and probably very unsanitary) couch. After she hands you a plastic sample cup and instructs you to hand it to a laboratory assistant down the hall and around the corner (once a sample has been deposited therein), she asks, "Would you like visual materials?" and directs you to a nondescript portfolio containing a small collection of outdated popular soft porn publications, from which many of the (presumably most stimulating) pictures have been torn out.

It's a fairly depressing and sort of humiliating experience that does not predispose one to "perform", as it were, unless a peculiar mix of clinical atmosphere, cheap tawdriness and embarrassment is what does it for you.

So in order to make the experience more palatable, I decided to treat it like a date. Over the course of my adventures with fertility science, I kept a number of such “dates” with myself.

If it ever happens to you, I suggest bringing your own porn.

Oh, and don’t sit on the couch.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Same as it ever was...

Response to DawnCoyote's post on Wikifray.

My father remembers once, when he was a kid, it snowed in Sandy, Utah on the Fourth of July - enough to cover the ground (though of course it melted in short order).

The difficulty is, it's easy enough to point at an anomaly, or even a set of anomalies, and argue variously 1) I've never seen it, so it must mean the end of things as we know it, or 2) it's just not all that significant, when you take the long (like, thousands of years) view. Compounding this are the climate models that only seem to be doing a marginal job at prediction up to this point, and the disparity in dire predictions (ice age versus Venutian summer days).

But while I'm sympathetic to the people who (almost invariably rightly) want to resist catastrophization, there is a terrifying danger in routinely dismissing doomsayers - especially when they constitute the vast majority of reputable scientists who know a whit about climatology.

I think people fatigue easily when you confront them with an overwhelming problem they feel powerless to deal with – it’s a too-familiar scenario among us depressives that fosters learned helplessness. If you think about things like catastrophic climate change too much, it sort of saps your motivation to busy yourself in the pesky details of everyday life – like, going to work, paying bills, buying stuff etc. If you ignore them completely, you face an increasingly predictable situation in which you face true catastrophe unprepared.

So I guess I’m not surprised to see people coming down on all sides of this issue – it’s so human. On the other hand, the climate models seem to be saying that, if there’s anything productive to be done, it’s going to require a vast, coordinated effort. Given the variety of dysfunctional coping strategies being expressed and the manner in which this interferes with cooperative, organized response, the more thoughtful and educated among us are getting more and more depressed about the whole problem (when they allow themselves to think about it at all). Well, and those survivalists up in Montana are starting to make all kinds of sense to a much wider variety of people than I even anticipated – leading to a real-estate boom thereabouts, I’m sure, and inflationary pricing on things like water purifiers, solar panels and 50-gallon drums of wheat.

Perhaps most distressing to me is the smug attitude of some of the same Christians who seem almost happy about the perpetual unrest in the middle-east; it’s all happening just like they said it would, in the bible (as though predicting future catastrophes without timeframes would ever prove to be false – duh). This also interferes with effective problem-solving, though it does seem to vindicate the Mormons, who’ve been extolling the virtues of having a year’s supply of food etc. ever since they were starving in great numbers, out on what used to be an arid plain.

Oh, and believing that Jesus was coming again, well, like next week. I’m sure it was an attractive fantasy, given living conditions at the time.

While it’s encouraging to think (as B-A would point out with smug satisfaction, I’m sure) that humans, more or less, have been around for several million years, and there’s no reason to think we’ll be extinct very soon, the rational comeback is that there’s also no reason to think we can reasonably expect to survive in large numbers, should the dreaded catastrophe actually strike. Which it will – because even if the climate models prove inexplicably wrong, eventually a meteor will hit, or nuclear war, or something, if only we wait long enough (Evangelical Christians take heart!).

So, I try not to think about it too much. And though I try in small ways to behave in a responsible manner, I’m not over-estimating the miniscule impact I could have on any global phenomenon. It’s not like I can afford to quite driving, or anything, and as environmentally unconscionable as it might be – I like the air conditioning in my house.

I’m not sure that the current events, even in the face of likely impending catastrophe, really change things as much as it might seem anyway. Frankly, we’ve always lived on borrowed time, under the threat of our eventual personal extinction, and facing the real, rarely acknowledged possibility of widespread catastrophe.

Existentialism never made as much sense as it does right now. We should be trying to find solutions to problems, instead of ignoring them, and helping each other out as much as we can, because it is an intrinsically worthwhile set of activities to be engaging in. If there’s any hope for humanity at all, it’s that enough people will continue to view such things as inherently worthwhile, instead of being lulled into paralysis by the belief that destruction is inevitable (or might be a good thing), or denial.

As Vonnegut so aptly notes, we’ve just lost the luxury of not knowing what’s actually going on, which is no fun at all. It’s a good time to appreciate what we have, and busy ourselves trying to preserve it.

Same as it ever was.

Saturday, January 6, 2007

One more thought on Shadows

For SplendidIreny (et al)

IN THE END (from the movie Shortbus)
by Scott Matthews

We all bear the scars,
Yes, we all feign a laugh.
We all sigh in the dark,
Get cut off before we start.
And as the first act begins,
You realize they’re all waiting
For a fall, for a flaw,
For the end.

There’s a path stained with tears.
Could you talk to quiet my fears?
Could you pull me aside
Just to acknowledge that I’ve tried?
And as your last breath begins,
Contently take it in
‘Cause we all get it in the end.

(Chorus) And as your last breath begins,
You find your demons’ your best friend
And we all get it in the end.

We all get it in the end.
Yes, we all get it in the end.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

The holidays, and other unrelated thoughts.

I haven’t had time to write - it’s been a strange, and frantic time. Had a mini Christmas gift-exchange with my kids, and a departing houseguest, on the 23rd. Spent Christmas alone with my son – my daughter was with her mom. Christmas Eve, I let him open two presents early: first, a DVD – Southpark’s “Passion of the Jew” and two others (alas, they didn’t include the Mormon episode in this religious-themed selection), then, the fourth season of Family Guy. Twice during the latter he and I couldn’t stop laughing. First time, “I say, are those two pigs vomiting up there?” Second, an elaborate, pantomimed workup by Quagmire, ending in the spoken punch line; “…and that’s the hand that started all the trouble. Got your nose!” [the last to Stewie].

Christmas day, I watched him play with his new videogame system (a wii – he’s going to have to wait a little while for the PS-3), wearing my new sheepskin slippers (oh, you should be so lucky…) and robe. Southpark, Family Guy, Zelda, and new slippers – the stuff of Christmas. Someday I’ll buy an ebelskiver pan and complete the scene. Two days later, I was off (again) to New York for a few frantic workdays.

I was alone for New Year’s. It’s going to be a big year.

Mitt’s going to announce today formation of a “study group” examining a potential run on the presidency. I’m still saying a little agnostic prayer for a strong Democrat to emerge from the wings. The beauty of being agnostic is that you can still pray, to whomever or whatever strikes your fancy, if it suits you at that moment.

Congratulations to Boise State – the “U” is no longer the only mid-major to crack the BCS. These guys get to finish the season undefeated. Wouldn’t it be fun to watch them take on Florida? Or even Ohio State?

I still peruse the Fray occasionally – sometimes from my PDA, if I’m out and about. Ghost asked a seemingly superficial question that sparked a good discussion – about why the quest for immortality is portrayed as a villainous goal. My take (from deep within the bowels of the theoretical framework in which I’m trapped. Trapped, I say!): from the moment of birth, we are at our peak of adaptive potential. We spend the rest of our lives sacrificing adaptive potential for economical adaptation. In order to achieve immortality, we would have to artificially (perpetually) increase our cognitive potential, or become cognitively static – incapable of further adaptation (including memory formation).

This is a psychologically repugnant scenario – attempts to maintain an unnatural stasis are one way of defining or describing psychopathology. One component of characterological disorders is incorporation of other people into one’s psychological economy in the service of circumventing adaptive ego change (portrayed in metaphorical form by the various human-morphed monsters from literature and increasingly popular movies). Delusional thinking reflects cognitive stasis. Dementia reflects mnemonic stasis. Once a psychological or neurological mechanism becomes immune to external influence, the resulting molar behavior is pathological. Or, evil. So, the quest for immortality being invariably associated with villains reflects the pathology associated with psychological stasis. The other explanations offered involving resources etc. are all metaphors for the above (the manner in which stasis is perpetuated at the expense of others).

Oh, and I see the term “sociopath” is being misused (again). Diagnostic criteria (which completely suck anyway) aside, there is only one character I’m aware of that one could convincingly argue is sociopathic, and he hasn’t been actively contributing since before I came onto BOTF (though I was accused of being him, more than once). The looniest of the rest are variously narcissists or histrionic* (the latter indiscriminately attention-seeking, usually in an irritatingly dramatic way). Frankly, nobody should object to narcissists anyway – one of the paths to narcissism involves, in part, realization that you really do know more than the people around you. Narcissists are fun to debate with, and usually have interesting things to say. They’re nearly impossible to persuade, however, independent of the strength of your argument - which can be vexing. But what fun the Fray without curmudgeonly characters barking on in their superior tone about the various topics posed by articles (hah!) or presented on one of the “non-topical” boards?

On the other hand, on a board full of narcissists, people with more pedestrian neuroses feel like a breath of fresh air…

There are ways, some quite dramatic, one can effectively challenge a narcissist. Seems there are a couple players here and there who’ve got it down. They will never be forgiven for it.

Maybe I’ll write something some time about the difference between primary and secondary (compensatory) narcissism, or “hard” and “soft” narcissists.

Last thought (speaking of narcissists…): Christopher Hitchens was dead-on in his article against Saddam’s execution (potentially questionable motives aside). The death penalty dehumanizes all who participate, even passively. Besides, if one removes all of the colorful attributions and looks purely at behavior, intent and outcome, the man bears a distressing resemblance to some of our own, lauded leaders – something we should all be alarmed by, were we not so busily trying not to notice.

*Note - Fray personnae only. Not intended to reflect on the person behind the personnae. Usually.