Monday, May 2, 2016

You're Different, and That's Bad

Last September, the Wall Street Journal conducted a video interview of Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, and posted it on YouTube. About a week and a half ago, someone posted the video to LinkedIn. In it, the Journal asks a bunch of everyday sorts of questions, like "Are you a morning person or a night owl," and "What's on your smartphone homescreen?" Nothing hard-hitting or that would have given you a idea to where The Software Giant's stock price might be going.  The comments that the video elicited from the LinkedIn community were what one might expect - praise for Mr. Nadella's "ordinary-person-ness," unflattering comparisons of Microsoft to other companies (and of Mr. Nadella to other CEOs), comments on how inspirational the video was, et cetera. But one comment, the most recent one at the time, stood out for me.

One of the questions that was asked of Mr. Nadella was: "Who's been the greatest influence on you?" Unsurprisingly, Mr. Nadella says: "My parents," followed by a brief description of the pair. Mr. Nadells described his father as an: "economist leftist Marxist." This triggered one viewer to remark: "Leftists have great evil. Guess he inherits great evil as well. No Jesus mentioned in his life."
It's to be expected that Mr. Nadella didn't have anything to say about Jesus - after all, none of the interview questions touched on religion, and Mr. Nadella is a Hindu. But I wasn't expecting someone to call him out for that (or his parentage), let alone in so sectarian a fashion.

Christianity, as a global religion, is far too large an institution for all of its adherents to be of one mind. And so once one moves beyond certain universal defining factors of the religion as a whole, it's not difficult to find differences of opinion about certain subjects.

One such difference of opinion has to do with whether or not Christianity (or even particular sects within it) can lay claim to be the sole source of spiritual and religious truths or even Truth, should one chose to look at it this way. It's a topic that can be a serious bone of contention, especially if it begins to expand outward from there. Because it's not difficult to meet people who would tell you that Christianity is the sole source of justice, morality and even "Good." It's one of the factors that lends the religion (or, perhaps to be more accurate, the entire group of religions) an air of intolerance in many people's eyes. After all, it can be hard to see a group of people as accepting of others after a comparison of non-believers to some of humanity's worst criminals. David Lim's comment fits neatly into that mold.

The United States, like most first-world nations, has a fairly extensive legal system, and one that's moderately well-enforced (given the sheer number of laws on the books, it's hard to imagine the country doing much "better" than that. And that's what tends to stand between people who see evil in political and religious differences and an escalating pattern of murders and reprisals. American Christians often see themselves as above the sort of actions that they have come to religious extremists of other faiths. So confident are we in our tolerance bona fides that The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom is legally barred from commenting on the United States.

But a reading of American history the rule of law is a more fragile thing than we give it credit for. We shouldn't forget that.

Friday, April 29, 2016

The Mirror

The NRA is, to a large segment of the American political Left, what Planned Parenthood is to the Right - An organization that lobbies for rights that result in thousands of unnecessary deaths every year, and that while claiming to want to reduce the body count is vehemently opposed to any binding legal restrictions and considers any talk of "reasonable regulations" to be a sinister ploy to erode civil liberties one incremental step at a time. As concerns these groups, Liberalism and Conservatism sees itself as representing a principled majority of the population, who are being stymied by a radical minority that stands by the status quo for it's own cynical reasons, supported by people who have been duped into acting against their own best interests and abetted by politicians who are afraid to do what they know is right.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016


I was reading The Atlantic, when I found an article about Luk Thep dolls. The headline and subtitle were, however, unfortunate: Big in Thailand: Fake Kids Middle-class women treat the “child angels” as though they’re real, taking them to get blowouts at salons and even giving them their own seats at restaurants.

Although short, it was an interesting glimpse into a religious practice that I'd never heard of, so I turned to Google to learn more. I found myself confronted with an avalanche of headlines, promising the same "wacky/bizarre foreigner" vibe that I had gotten from The Atlantic. But, as was the case with The Atlantic, not all of them delivered on it. Nikkei Asian Review even turned the tables a bit with their piece, noting the trend of hyper-realistic "newborn" and "reborn" dolls that quietly gained steam in the United States and Europe starting in the 1990s.

The Nikkei Asian Review article notes: "To critics, adults who own such dolls are objects of novelty, amusement or pity -- which is how the media have portrayed Thailand's luk thep owners." And even those that don't take the treatment all the way hint (or more) at it with their headlines - even the straitlaced Nikkei article is titled: "Thailand's 'child angel' dolls blur the line between spiritual and quirky."

There is a lot of what I've come to see as "point and stare" or "point and laugh" media in the world. A lot of it is reality programming of some sort or another, which appeals to media outlets because it's relatively inexpensive to produce when compared to scripted programming. But that doesn't explain why we watch it. Having to wade through a sea of articles playing up the "novelty, amusement or pity" angles to learn more than few sentences about the Luk Thep dolls, it seemed that the only reason that people presumed that anyone would read was the chance to reassure themselves of their own normality at someone else's expense. More's the pity.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

What's In A Number?

Every year, the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness conducts its One Night Count, during which volunteers go out and tally the number of people they find without shelter during the night. This year, the count found some 19% percent more people than last year, a number that local news outlets were quick to publicize. It had been the same story last year, when the count reported a jump of just above 20%.

On Google+, where most of the people whose posts I see are liberal, people bemoaned the increases, and pointed to a culture of ignoring the plight of the poor. On LinkedIn, where businesspeople make the community more conservative, people were asking if "generous" benefits to the homeless were enticing them to come, or if other cities were handing out one-way bus tickets.

Lost in the headlines and the resultant finger-pointing was a simple fact. The One Night Count is not a controlled, scientific census. It's a group of volunteers going out for three hours on a Winter's night in January and counting the heads they find. The raw numbers, which are the ones behind the headlines, don't take into account that the number of volunteers is not fixed, nor are the locations canvassed. When new people join the effort, and new neighborhoods are included, of course the numbers will go up.

The question is, does it matter? To the people wringing their hands on either side of the issue, the numbers serve their purpose, giving them a platform to undermine the liberal bona-fides of the Seattle area or portray the city government as profligate and uncaring about the effects on law-abiding homeowners/taxpayers. And the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness receives an annual boost of publicity every time a boost in the numbers is widely reported. Is it important that the conclusions people draw from the "dirty" data are almost certainly incorrect?

My Truth Reflex wants me to tell people that they don't know the story as well as they think they do. But for the past 8 years now, I've been on my guard against that very same reflex. And it's that guard that prompts me to reconsider. The fact that the data isn't controlled for factors like the number of volunteers or the number of neighborhoods isn't a secret. And people aren't really making important decisions based on that data - they're simply acting on their preconceived notions. Does telling them that their instinct for the size of the local homeless population has been misguided really do anything in that regard? I've come to doubt it. And so I quash the reflex, and put it back to bed. Maybe one day, it will be needed. But not today.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Quantum of Knowledge

Canada's Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, earned something of a standing ovation for being able to state a basic description of the difference between a classical computer and a quantum computer. In a Gizmodo article on the event, Jennifer Ouellette expressed dismay that this isn't common knowledge.

"Is there really any excuse," she asked, "not to know that light and matter have both particle and wave aspects; that the more you know about a particle’s position, the less you know about its momentum (a.k.a. the Uncertainty Principle); or the alive-and-dead superposition of states at the heart of the Schroedinger’s Cat paradox?"

Her explanation was less than charitable. "Yet the vast majority of the population can’t be bothered, avoiding most science like the plague —hard sciences like physics and math in particular."

We are better off, I think, when we understand that people do not know the things that we know because that knowledge is a luxury, rather than ascribing incurious natures to those around us. It is better that we advocate for improving people's lives such that they have the time and the resources to devote to the acquisition of knowledge for its own sake, than simply expect that knowledge that we view as being cheap or free will be perceived as such by everyone.