Monday, October 29, 2007

Women Are Shallow

Who knew? The fine people at Combe Incorporated, apparently. They're the makers of Just for Men. You may have seen the television commercials. Some of them have Walt Frazier and Keith Hernandez in them. Since basketball and baseball don't seem to be pulling in the dollars anymore, these two now make at least part of their daily bread telling men the nation over that women are so hung up looks that one won't date you if you have gray hair, and so stupid that if you get rid of the gray, the same women will suddenly be throwing themselves at you.

Don't get me wrong. I understand the pitch here - you'd need to be brain-damaged not to. This is a pretty clear example of a "show the need or problem" spot. But it's hard to see the problem as anything other than women are concerned primarily with looks, adamantly preferring men who don't show their years. (Maybe one should try Lynx {known as Axe in the US} body spray - any product that can, at least in their commercials, "beguile women to the point of dementia" {I love that description} should easily be able to get them to overlook a little gray hair.)

Maybe I'm alone in this, but commercials that claim their products are useful because they allow me to get around other people's negative traits don't work for me, and leave me with an unpleasant after taste. Perhaps I'm overly romantic in this regard, but who wants to be in a relationship with someone who you can't even let know your real hair color? But the shallowness really works both ways, and I guess that's where they lose me. I understand the idea of wanting an attractive partner, but in the land of commercials, that seems to be the only thing that matters. The men in these commercials color their hair so that they can get vapid, shallow women to notice them. While these aren't precisely "associated user imagery" spots, the idea IS for the target demographic to identify themselves with these men. But I can't bring myself to identify with insecure guys who go around chasing "hotties" in bars.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Laws of Variation

While it may not be accurate to say that an understanding of basic genetics is universal in modern America, most people can be expected to know the very basics, at least. This is more or less the exact opposite of Darwin's time, when DNA and chromosomes were pretty much unheard-of. One wonders what would have happened if the science of genetics had somehow managed to take root prior to mainstream naturalism coming to the understanding of the theory of natural evolution. I know that I've made this point before, but at the risk of belaboring it, I'll make it again: The realization that Darwin doesn't understand the concepts behind genetics is remarkable. But I suppose that many of us would be just as surprised by the apparent ignorance of a renowned physicist who died before Einstein revolutionized the discipline. So the idea that one could perform operations on guinea pigs, and have the effects of same passed on to the next generations of guinea pigs, while it seems bizarre to us today, couldn't be ruled out a century and a half ago.

One of the more interesting facts of Evolution, and one that always gave me a little trouble, was the idea of atrophy. It's pretty easy to understand why evolution giveth - it's somewhat less intuitive why evolution taketh away. But there is a section of the chapter named: "Compensation and Economy of Growth" that makes a simple point. Building structures takes energy. Organisms do not have an infinite supply of energy, and other materials, needed to develop an indefinite number of structures that don't actively contribute to a creature's chances of survival and/or procreation. Therefore, once something becomes superfluous, it is adaptive to take the energy and material that went into building it, and apply that to something more useful, instead. Even small shifts in resources can spell the difference between success and failure in the grand scheme of things, and so one can expect that nature will, to a degree, tend to favor alterations that make even modest reductions in "wasteful" expenditures.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Geekier Than Thou

The Independent Film Channel is running a film named Darkon, a documentary about a Baltimore-area LARP (Live-Action Role Playing {game}) next month. I'm dying to see this - basically to point and laugh, I'm somewhat sad to say. But check out the battle clip that follows the trailer on the IFC page - this is an impressively physical game, even if it doesn't seem that the participants approach it with much in the way of real skill. I expect that if more gamers did the LARP thing, the stereotype of the flabby Gandalf-wannabe would quickly fade.

What gets me about this, from what little I've seen so far (mainly the trailer and a commercial on IFC), is how seriously people take this. I was introduced to Role-Playing Games when I was in junior high school, and I've known a lot of gamers over the years, and I still can't wrap my brain around the level of emotional and psychological investment that people bring to the hobby. I guess that a lot of it has to do with a combination of escapism and wish-fulfillment - you may be Grondar the Terrible only in an (extremely) elaborate game of make-believe, but for the gamers, it still beats being a random choad who works in a big-box store for a living, lives in their parent's basement, and can't speak to what it's like to kiss someone. (Sorry. I guess I buy into the stereotype, too.)

Oh, yeah - check out the "Ye Olde Name Generator" link. It's good for a laugh - just a little at the gamers' expense...

Phear my 1337 geek-Name!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Monochrome Nation

Ya gotta love the politics of race. Senator (and presidential candidate) Barack Obama (D-IL) is calling for the dismissal of John Tanner, head of the Justice Department's voting rights division, for saying that election laws that impact the elderly don't have much impact on minorities. "[M]inorities don't become elderly the way white people do," Tanner said on October 5th. "They die first." According to Senator Obama, "Such comments are patently erroneous, offensive and dangerous, and they are especially troubling coming from the federal official charged with protecting voting rights in this country."

Justice Department spokesman Erik Ablin said, in defending Tanner, that Tanner had won a number of awards from African-American groups. Later on in the story, we are informed: "It is well documented that black Americans - particularly black males - have shorter life expectancies than whites. But blacks do live to become senior citizens." And the National Center for Health Statistics projected life expectancy of a Black person born in 2004 is given, and contrasted against that of Whites.

Maybe I slept in that day, but I don't recall just when the term "Minority" became the latest euphemism for "Black." Yet people, including the Associated Press, seem to treat it this way. Tanner's comments were erroneous - if for no other reason that there are minority groups that get to be just as elderly as Whites in this country. If offense is going to be taken at Tanner's statement, is should be because a high-ranking career official in the Justice Department appears to be too dim to realize that of all of the various minority groups that live in the United States, not all of them die significantly earlier than whites. But I guess that explains how one gets to be a spokesperson for the Justice Department, and not seem to understand that there's more than one minority group in the United States. When one considers that Tanner was speaking at the National Latino Congress - it's unlikely that he was referring specifically to African-Americans, even if he mentions the NAACP in his comments.

Friday, October 19, 2007

To Switch...

...Or not to Switch. That is the Question. According to the Associated Press, Comcast is controlling network traffic by hampering the sharing of large files online, and they are doing this by telling the computers involved that the other computer has requested that the transfer be stopped.

Each PC gets a message invisible to the user that looks like it comes from the other computer, telling it to stop communicating. But neither message originated from the other computer - it comes from Comcast. If it were a telephone conversation, it would be like the operator breaking into the conversation, telling each talker in the voice of the other: "Sorry, I have to hang up. Good bye."
The article makes it perfectly clear that Comcast is well within its rights to manage the traffic that flows over its network. But I, like other people interviewed for the article, don't like the way they go about it. I'm not comfortable with the idea that an ISP falsifies network traffic. More importantly, I don't like buying a service that comes with rules that I'm not told about, and aren't openly enforced.

I could call and complain to Comcast, or send them a protest e-mail. But I learned a really valuable lesson as a manager, earlier in my career - If there is a disconnect between what you're telling people to do, and what they understand they're being paid to do - they're going to ignore what you tell them to do. Does complaining to Comcast, while continuing to subscribe to their service create such a disconnect? And of course, if I do switch ISPs, does that also come with a commitment to switch BACK, if they clean up their act?

Switching ISPs is going to cost me more than it's going to cost Comcast - that much I'm sure of. I'm okay with that. Such is the way of things. I'm also certain that whomever I switch to likely has had the same idea, could very well be implementing it, and wouldn't tell me if they were. Again, c'est la vie. I could simply drop an internet connection entirely (good-bye work from home), and deal with the inconvenience, but would it do me any good? This becomes the big dilemma around such actions. They do very little in the way of driving change if undertaken alone, and are hard to organize and sustain in large groups. But I'll think about it anyway, and see if it can be a worthwhile action.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Natural Selection

This is a long and dense chapter - and if you are not inclined to be excited by long dissertations on the nitty-gritty of how species in the wild vary and change, I would recommend it as a strikingly effective sleep-aid. If this chapter isn't a form of Sominex applied to the printed page, I don't know what is. This isn't to say that the chapter contains nothing of interest - it does, and there are parts of it that are quite informative. But be prepared for a long slog, once Darwin gets some introductory material out of the way.

The capsule review: Variations arise within species (mutations, basically) - if a variation allows a population to become better adapted to the totality of the environment (note that this includes the other species present - and that changes in one species may make certain changes in another more advantageous) and thus survive to adulthood in greater numbers, that variation will spread - this is the process of Natural Selection. If a variation doesn't make a lifeform more robust, but increases its odd of successfully mating, or otherwise having more offspring than other forms, that variation will also spread - this is the process of Sexual Selection. Note that simply having an advantageous variation doesn't guarantee that a given specimen will survive, or out-compete its peers. A bird may have genes that make its feathers better insulators against the cold - this does it little good when a raccoon eats it in the egg. It gets a lot more complicated from there.

Now to back up to a very interesting point made early on. Semantics appears to be just as much an issue in Darwin's time as it is now, and we are told that people have many objections to the term "Natural Selection," one of them being that it implies that the altered species deliberately chose which new characteristics to adopt - and thus it cannot be applied to plants, since they have no volition. (Don't laugh too loudly - I've heard more idiotic things than that.) We are also told that some critics see Darwin's explanation of Natural Selection as describing Nature or evolution as an active force, with volition, and presumably a goal. Darwin says that personification of Nature in this way is unintentional, and to a certain degree, unavoidable. He mentions the way in which people commonly speak of gravity. Gravity is said to control the motions of objects in space, yet no one presumes that Gravity is an intelligent being, perched behind a drafting table with a protractor and a slide rule, calculating where it wants the Earth to be this time next month.

Darwin spends about a page comparing the human facility for shaping nature through various selective breeding techniques to the natural process of selection, and declares nature to be by far the better the better of the two. Given the understanding that Darwin much admired the skill and dedication that being a competent breeder requires, it's pretty clear that he stands in awe of the way that natural selection goes about its business - it's easy to see where people get the idea that he sees it as a deity from.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Who knew this was a worldwide preference, hardwired into the species?

In the new book "Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters: From Dating, Shopping, and Praying to Going to War and Becoming a Billionaire -- Two Evolutionary Psychologists Explain Why We Do What We Do," author Satoshi Kanazawa presents, as a "truth" that "Women with blond hair and large breasts are considered the most attractive, around the globe, because both are indicators of youth."

This brings up an interesting question, premised around the following: if (one) the reason why the blond mutation caught on in Europe is because blonde women stood out from everyone else, and thus were more often selected as mates, leaving their darker haired peers out in the cold, (two) naturally blond hair appears in all ethnicities from time to time (the blond mutation is not exclusive to Europeans), and (three) human males the world over find blonde women more attractive than other women - then why isn't blond[e] hair common in all ethnic groups, rather than just Europeans? It doesn't take a rocket scientist to look at pictures of people the world over and realize that outside of Europe, black and brown are far and away the most common hair colors, to the degree that blondness in some groups (like sub-saharan Africans, and their descendants worldwide) is considered either unusual (sometimes to the point of being freakish) or proof positive of mixed race. If there is a natural preference for light-haired women, why didn't those that carry the mutation become the basis for significant populations of blond[e]s everywhere?

It's interesting that Kanazawa has no truths that cover people who deliberately thwart what he understands as the universal desire for people to pass on their genes, either through remaining in exclusively homosexual relationships (and not having breeding trysts on the side) or simply intentionally not having children. "You have to remember that science is not personal. ... It's about generalizations; it's not about individuals or exceptions to the rule, although they exist," Kanazawa says. "Science cannot explain exceptions and anomalies." But until global media forms allowed the idea that blondes were more attractive than other women to spread worldwide, the European preference for them appears to have been an anomaly itself - yet Kanazawa has no qualms about elevating it to a truth.

Accurate or not, in the end, once the tempest in the political correctness teapot has spent itself, Kanazawa's book is likely, at best, to end up on the margins of scientific debate. Its basic premise, that many aspects of human behavior are biological instincts, centered around the drive to reproduce and pass on genes, tends to leave people feeling reduced to lust-addled automatons. It is this and similar feelings that fuel much of the emotional resistance to science that touches on human lives. This same premise also says that a certain amount of the in-group/out-group separation that creates so many winners and losers is biological, and impervious to social changes or human effort. Those who have been historically banished to the out-group fear that the in-group will either use such finding to justify unequal treatment, or worse, that it will be found that their out-group status is justified, and that they'll be willingly sacrificed for the "greater good." Kanazawa's assertion that "Laws are consistent with the desire to curb the human nature of other people," is of little comfort - no law has ever driven a behavior to extinction on its own, and there is always a nagging temptation to let nature take its course, rather than attempt to enforce unpopular statutes. Only authoritarian rulers seem to have the will to successfully drive wholesale changes in their societies overnight, using the rule of law as a bludgeon.

Kanazawa pleads with people to remember that it's nothing personal. And in doing so, he shows that while he might live up to opinions of him as brilliant scientist, he's certainly not a historian - where it's been shown time and again that everything is personal.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Propositions and Propaganda

Here in Washington, we practice a form of direct democracy in the form of binding citizen initiatives. It's tempting to say that we practice it, because we're nowhere close to getting it right, but I suppose that's true pretty much everywhere, and is really just the simple nature of the beast. One of the initiatives up for a vote in the next election is "Sound Transit (as in Puget Sound, meaning the greater Seattle area) and Regional Transportation Investment District Proposition Number 1 - Regional Roads and Transit System." The long and short of it is raising taxes to put in some new mass transit and roads infrastructure, with the aim of cutting back on congestion and the like.

Of course, there are people who support it, and people who are against it, and they're both planting signs like posies all over the place. One of the anti-"Prop 1" signs states that passage would double sales tax and car tab fees, but wouldn't actually help anything. You can argue all three points, but the first one is patently false - in the way that most people use language, anyway.

The sales and use tax will be raised by .1%. This small percentage isn't going to effectively double this tax. So I can only assume that as of this time, there is a sales and use tax of .1% earmarked for roads and transit projects. This would mean that the proposed tax increases would double the roads and transit taxes collected. This is, in fact exactly what critics of the plan say that it does. But that's too much to fit into a convenient and easy to remember sound bite. So what you wind up with is the somewhat misleading statement that it "Doubles the Sales Tax."

It's all semantic in the end, dealing with how you use the term Sales Tax. But I've always wondered about shortcuts like this. After all, it doesn't take more than a moment's thought to realize that there's no way on Earth that anyone would put to a vote a measure that doubles the entire sales and use tax. So why damage your credibility with such a statement?

Thursday, October 11, 2007


I tried watching the network news this evening. When I'm home on time, I try to catch it, because it's a relatively easy way to be a little informed about what's going on the world. Today, I lasted about 30 seconds. The opening story is about the removal of infant cold remedies from the market. Sure enough, they stuck a microphone in some lady's face, and she dutifully intoned a litany of fear for her children's lives and uncertainty over what medications, if any were safe.

You know, there should just be a giant amusement park fully of randomly scary stuff. Like Bruce Schneier's "Four Horsemen of the Information Apocalypse," along with unsafe products and shady lawyers. That way when people want to be scared, they can just go there, so the rest of us can watch the news to be informed.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Struggle For Existence

I take exception to the label of Darwinism, or Darwinist (as opposed to Darwinian), when applied to the theory of evolution. There is some evidence that these commonly pejorative and somewhat loaded terms are not contemporaneous to Mr. Darwin, and have mainly come about as a result of people applying certain evolutionary principles to other aspects of life and society. Chief among these borrowed lines of reasoning is "Survival of the Fittest," which we are introduced to early in the chapter. Although now strongly linked to Darwin in the public imagination, Darwin himself tells us that he copped the phrase from one Herbert Spencer. Somehow I think that the theory of evolution would be better off, if Darwin had come upon the sense to give it back before he went to print. Although the two terms are not now commonly thought of as synonymous, Darwin adopted Survival of the Fittest as a "more accurate, and [...] sometimes equally convenient" replacement for "Natural Selection." As one might have guessed, Natural Selection can be contrasted with the concept of artificial or intentional selection, the means by which mankind deliberately picks and chooses traits that are to our liking, and enhances these through our ability to control breeding in captive and/or domesticated populations. In any event, Survival of the Fittest is the intersection of the facts that populations in the wild are not static - they are subject to variations in both individuals and groups, and that whenever there is competition between organisms or limitations in the environment, a "Struggle for Existence" as Darwin labels it, that competition favors those that show the best adaptations for the environmental niche that they inhabit.

While many people interpret the phrase Struggle for Existence to indicate a dog-eat-dog world where the alleged "Law of the Jungle" rules, and it's every man for himself, this is a such a gross oversimplification that it borders on the willfully obtuse. There are three distinct facets to the Struggle for Existence, as Darwin explains it - competition within a species, competition between species, and mitigating the hostile effects of one's environment. While murdering one's neighbors in their sleep and looting their stored resources may win you points in the first category, it can actively torpedo you (and your whole group or species) in the other two, when you find yourself in a situation where your neighbors' skills (or genetic diversity) are required. Thus I find the common anti-evolutionary argument that adopting the Darwinian view of Evolution requires one to be murderously pseudo-Machiavellian, always on the lookout for any advantage that might allow one's genes to dominate humanity to be not only unconvincing, but laughably moronic.

Thomas Malthus is sort of a "guest star" in this chapter, as Darwin postulates that completely unrestricted life and breeding of any lifeform would (reasonably) quickly result in whatever it was outstripping the resources that it required to survive, resulting in a Malthusian Catastrophe of starvation and/or overcrowding. Since it's not possible for everything to live a full and (reproductively) productive life, this sets up a competition. In an "ideal" world with unlimited resources and lacking untimely deaths, every living species can manage to reproduce far faster than is required to maintain the rate of replacement, no matter how slow their natural reproductive cycles are. This level of geometric increase (I term I understand is also borrowed from Malthus) is held in check by the three facets of the struggle, which Darwin deals with over the rest of the chapter. Darwin simply discusses what is, either from his own or others' observations, or from some simple and effective experiments. He doesn't seem to bother putting forth the idea that this is how it SHOULD be. There is no discussion of fairness or justice, or of one population being somehow better than another. As he moves from competition with the environment, to competition with other species, to competition within species, we arrive at the meat of how species evolve, in the next chapter: Natural Selection.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

You Can't Say "You Can't Say That"

In a 5 to 4 split, the Washington Supreme Court has ruled that legislation allowing for sanctions against candidates who deliberately lie about their opponents while campaigning is an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.

"The notion that the government, rather than the people, may be the final arbiter of truth in political debate is fundamentally at odds with the First Amendment."
Justice James Johnson
I've never been one for "slippery slope" arguments, so I'm not going to start claiming that as of tomorrow, all sorts of libel and fraud will be commonplace, but as explained the Supreme Court decision, the statute prohibits any person from sponsoring, with actual malice, a political advertisement containing a false statement of material fact about a candidate for public office. I have difficulty with the idea that political speech is so important that candidates should be freely allowed to intentionally make false statements about challengers. The remedies, as the supreme court would have it, are challenges to the information by the person lied about, or a defamation suit.

Leaving the public to sort out the truth of every claim made about an candidate by an opponent doesn't strike me as a recipe for truth in politics. It seems more like an invitation to a shouting match, with each side raising the volume. And seems that it only help with easily verifiable facts, and things that can be proven one way or the other in time for the election itself - I would be unsurprised to find that there is an increase in the number of dubious claims in the final days of an election, when their isn't time for an exhaustive investigation to be completed.

Not being a lawyer, I don't know how a defamation suit would work in such a case. But it seems to me that if the intent of a candidate for public office is to demonstrate that they are more fit for the office than other candidates, how does lying turn such a position into defamation? I might have to ask around about this...

Monday, October 1, 2007

Variation Under Nature

When confronted with two populations of plants that look similar to one another, I do not have the foggiest idea as to whether or not these are different species, different varieties of the same species, or merely two groups of the same plant that just happen to have some immediately visible differentiation. This, I always surmised, is because I'm a layperson, and I don't know anything about biology. It turns out that my guess is nearly as good as anybody else's.

Mr. Darwin takes great pains, and a good number of pages, to make the point that when dealing with closely related forms, the definitions of "species" and "variety" are more or less arbitrary, and very much dependent on who you're speaking to. Related plants and animals lie on a continuum of variation. At one end are individual differences, like those between plants grown from different seeds. At the other end are the differences that mark the dividing line between species, chimpanzees and bonobos, for instance. Between these two extremes are varieties, groups recognized as distinct populations, but close enough that they're still the same species.

(Included, briefly, in all of this, are "monstrosities." Interestingly, Darwin presumes that a monstrosity exhibits "some considerable deviation of structure, generally injurious, or not useful to the species;" one wonders if he would find the many breeds of modern dogs that have had pretty severe defects bred into them as falling under that definition.)

In the end, where individual differences stop and varieties begin, and how far varieties go before transitioning into distinct species was, in Darwin's time (and perhaps to the present) essentially arbitrary, driven more by convention and preference than anything tangible. Where one naturalist sees several different species, another sees only a few, and some number of varieties. Some went so far as to dispense with varieties altogether - any variation more important than individual differences marked a new species, including some that weren't related to physiology at all, such as location of habitat. If Darwin is to be believed, and if I understand him correctly, these sorts would consider the Canadian Geese one finds in Seattle to be a different species than those found in London. According to Darwin, at this level, the term species loses its meaning, and "comes to be a mere useless abstraction, implying and assuming a separate act of creation." I'm curious as to the reasoning behind that conclusion, as Darwin does not explain any further.

It is in this chapter where Darwin begins to draw distinctions between evolution by natural selection, and the existence of species due to special acts of creation through hypothesizing what sorts of results one might find if some agency had directly created life on earth. Whether any idea of the immutability of species is always connected with this is unclear, although we may surmise that there were adherents in the creationist camp that held so - Darwin himself admitted to once having believed so, earlier in the book. In any event, the second part of the chapter deals with some observations about the relationships between genera, and their subordinate species. Its dry and fairly obvious stuff - a genera that has a broader range will have species that show more variation than a genera with a narrower range. (Although genera is the plural of genus, Darwin seems to use it as both the singular and the plural - it seems logical to assume that such was the common usage at the time.) But I suspect that it will come in handy in the next chapter: Struggle For Existence.