Sunday, February 28, 2010


I found an interesting article about how the public's ignorance about how DNA matching works (and the FBI's work to ensure that it stays that way) when DNA is used to generate leads in cold cases by being compared to large databases.

The general gist goes like this. DNA matching works on markers - the more markers, the lower the probability that I've hit a coincidental match. The numbers that most people think of when they think about DNA matching (the FBI's standard numbers), say that the chances of a coincidental match are vanishingly remote - perhaps one in trillions. But that relies on 13 markets. Start bringing that number down, and the chances of a match start climbing. Got only five markers? Well, now you're in the one and about 1.1 million range. Sure that seems pretty small. But, if I'm applying that to a database of DNA samples and looking at any hits that come back - if there are one million samples in the database, I'm nearly assured of getting one hit - even if the actual perp isn't in the database at all. So in cases where there is no other evidence, and only a few markers, DNA isn't all that it's been cracked up to be. But, as the saying goes: They don't want you to know that. And therein lies the story.

Of course, the point could be made that if someone has their DNA in a national offender database, they must have done SOMETHING. (Although this is where I point out that in the United Kingdom, they take a DNA sample if they arrest you for causing a serious traffic accident.) It must be remembered, that the point behind the justice system is not simply putting bad people, or even people who have done bad things behind bars – it must be to sanction people for an individual bad act that they've been clearly connected to. Many people already have some difficulty in keeping "Has been arrested for a crime" and "Absolutely guilty" straight. We should take a hard look at law enforcement when they start attempting to undermine what should be legitimate questions, and muddy the water even further.

Swing - And A Foul

So I find this book - 11,002 things to be miserable about. Thinking "this could be amusing," I picked it up. What I found I had was a lesson in doing one thing well, rather than two things poorly. The book never seemed to make up its mind as to whether or not it was attempting to be serious or satirical. I'm not sure what one would do with a book that does nothing other than list a little over eleven thousand things that one should actually be miserable about, so it seems that satire is the way to go, and entries like Velvet Elvis paintings and Cupcakes bear this out. So I could have done without the actual downers, like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and Dying before your parents do.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Gambled, and Lost

The Value of Facts

In today's installment of "But You Already Knew That," NPR brings us a story of research that "suggests that facts may not be as important as one's beliefs" when it come to taking in new information. While the idea that people's receptiveness to new information correlates very strongly with how well that information fit in with what they already believe is about as shocking as the idea that water is wet, the idea that people tend to filter information through their value structure does lead one to wonder why.

Personally, I suspect that it's because people tend to want to see their values as being based on facts - therefore giving them both license and incentive to disregard facts that would contradict it. In other words, once a value structure comes to presume certain facts, those presumed facts become evidence that contradictory purported facts must be incorrect. Which leads me to my own Theory of How to Be Open Minded: keep one's values and one's facts separate. Which, by the way, is today's installment of "Easier Said Than Done." But you already knew that.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


Pretty, isn't it?
After a short Winter (I think it was a Thursday), Spring has come to the Puget Sound area. Which is a very good thing. Even though people around here tend to be utterly terrified of snow, the complete lack thereof makes everything that isn't an evergreen depressingly barren for a good third of the year. So the first springtime buds and blooms are a welcome sight.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010


I know that I'm going to get it for this. Such is the way of things.

So... I was reading around over at Slate, and found Amanda Marcotte's peice about this BBC piece about attitudes towards rape victims. In a nutshell, "A majority of women believe some rape victims should take responsibility for what happened, a survey suggests."

Of the women who believed some victims should take responsibility, 71% thought a person should accept responsibility when getting into bed with someone, compared with 57% of men.
Women say some rape victims should take blame - survey
Both articles contain the requisite hand wringing over this latest proof that people tend to "blame the victim," but when I read it, what occurred to me is perhaps we need new language to talk about such things. "Back in the day," as it were, blaming the victim was an affirmative defense - a man could win an acquittal in court if his attorney could manage to convince a jury that what was billed as a rape, was actually "consensual," with the target herself being the one in the driver's seat. (Unless, of course, the accused attacker was Black, and his victim White - but that's a tale of woeful injustice for a different day.) This is no longer the case - a man is unlikely to be able to beat the rap simply by casting a rape victim as a wanton. And the concept of blaming the victim has evolved along with it, seemingly to the point where anything other than casting the woman as completely helpless is somehow inappropriate. Marcotte goes so far as to insinuate that a woman who says that a rape victim bears some responsibility is excusing the rapist.

And that leaves us with a question - how does one say "I don't think that this is a safe course of action, and you may want to reconsider?" without appearing to "believe the victim had it coming" if she doesn't? Rape is nearly unique in this formulation. We accept, in many other situations, that a person my have a hand in increasing the risk to themselves, without, at the same time, absolving a perpetrator. Flashing a bit too much ready cash while in a sketchy part of town is considered a stupid thing to do - but a lawyer who presented that as an affirmative defense for a man who murders someone for their money would be laughed out of court. Not to claim an equivalency here, but Bernie Madoff's investors gave him their money willingly - we don't let that fact get in the way of understanding that they were deliberately defrauded by a criminal, nor do we allow that to lessen our understanding of his criminality - why would we for more serious crimes?

Whether or not it's logically possible to cast a woman as absolutely without responsibility and able to mitigate her own risk-taking behavior at the same time may be in question. But we can, and should, separate responsibility and blame. Doing something that carries a risk is not the same as bringing something down on one's head. We should be able to state that a behavior is risky, without having to hold someone who takes advantage of that as blameless or the victim of entrapment. We should be able to say that an absolute lack of any precautions doesn't lessen the culpability of a perpetrator, but at the same time, meets with our disapproval. That said, it's important that we don't see such a change as an opening to add insult to injury, or use words as a weapon under cover of "the truth hurts." The way we use English doesn't lend itself to such distinctions. Perhaps it's time to tweak it until it does.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Disbelieve With Me

What really disturbs me about the Tebows, and about many other people who think of themselves as religious, is their facile confidence that when things work out well for them, it was God's idea all along. As though other people don't suffer calamities in almost exactly the same circumstances -- or, worse, as though when other people suffer such calamities, that was God's plan, too. And there are plenty of new-age liberals with the same attitude: "Your cancer is back? Oh, dear -- it must be wrong with your spirituality." People seem unable to accept the world's frightful indifference[...].
William Saletan - commenting on "Focus on Your Family"
Mr. Saletan takes exception to the ease with which many people chalk up the myriad good and bad things that happen in the world to God's plan or correct or faulty spirituality. Fair enough. But this isn't a "facile confidence," it's a central tenet of their faith. Evangelical Christians and new-age liberals alike eschew a belief in "the world's frightful indifference," not because they can't accept it, but because they won't accept it. Their beliefs tell them that it's a patently false idea. One thing that I've noticed about many people's approach to not only faith, but it seems knowledge in general, is that we have an easier time understanding why people don't believe in the things that we believe in, as opposed to the fact that they believe in things that we don't. (In this regard, the supernatural and man-made global warming are in the same boat.) In another example, in this BBC Radio documentary about child sacrifice in Uganda, when the Ugandan Minister of Ethics and Integrity refers to consulting with Witch Doctors as "nonsense," Tim Whewell immediately assumes that he dismisses the whole idea of the spirit world, thinking it "made up." Instead, what the Minister is referring to is the idea that one should actually pay attention to the desires of Evil Spirits. When Whewell suggests that perhaps the Ugandan government should tell people that spirits don't exist at all, the Minister is scandalized by the idea that the government would disseminate such obvious disinformation. While the British documentarian doesn't seem to have much difficulty with the idea that people out in the bush believe in spirits, he seems genuinely impressed that the educated minister isn't more skeptical.

To a certain degree, it appears that we have come to expect a certain level of agnosticism from other people when it comes to those things that we don't believe ourselves (especially when we think of them as educated), rather than realizing that people with different belief systems are sometimes (if not often) going to have fundamental differences with us in the way they see (and interact with) the world. Someone who honestly believes that life events are directly tied to divine intervention or the practice of spirituality should be expected to behave as if that were true, and should be expected to espouse that if asked. Why do we expect them to express skepticism about such an idea, simply because there is a potential for people who find it preposterous to be in the audience? As I mentioned before, it's not just the supernatural that triggers this - pretty much any strongly held belief, especially those that inspire people to change their behavior (or not, as the case may be) can be suspect. I've come across religious people who seem to have great difficulty with the idea that anyone sincerely believes in the theory of evolution, for example.

Not being an academic, I find that I have to beat the English language about the head and shoulders to express this, but here goes: There seems to be a widespread, but unconscious belief in the idea that our individual worldviews are shaped by a perception of reality that is clear, objective and perhaps more importantly, shared (if not universal). Therefore, if we ourselves don't believe in something, not only must it not be demonstrably real, but others like us (even perhaps everyone else) must suspect to some degree its fundamental unreality. This leads us to the expectation that people are agnostic about, if not actually skeptical of, those things that we ourselves do not believe; and when people strongly profess a belief in things that we consider suspect, insincerity, denial or delusion must be at play. (Whew!)

The general confidence that people have in their own objectivity makes sense. But so does the ability to dial it back, if not turn it off, now and again. Doing so makes it easier to understand why other people see things in the way that they do, and to understand that they genuinely hold to those beliefs, often for different reasons than we ourselves would.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

One Twentieth of One Percent

So if you believe "John," supposedly an ex-Nigerian scammer who has come in from the cold (after having spent some time in the clink), about one in two thousand people who find e-mails in their inboxes promising free millions in exchange for helping an African general loot his nation for a fortune wind up sending money, to the average tune of about $7,500.00. He was interviewed by the Scam Detectives site in the U.K., in an occasionally emotional three-part series. It's an interesting enough piece, although there are no great insights to be shared. (But I did find the bit about "wash-wash" scams to be interesting, having never heard of them before.) While "John" does give a high level overview about ways that he would "worm his way" into a target's confidence, it seems like pretty everyday stuff - the sort of thing that any third-grader could come up with, given a few hours and a larcenous heart. Thus I was somewhat disappointed, as I'd been hoping to get a little better insight into how one could be connived into falling for what has always struck me as a blatantly transparent scam. (Although, I have a very suspicious heart - it's the downside of watching the six o'clock news and reading the paper.)

I guess it still strikes me as remarkable (unbelievable, actually) that one in two thousand people would actually believe that for the low, low, price of "$220.00 US Dollars," "FEDEX COURIER SERVICES" will send them package containing the proceeds from a "Confirm able BankDraft of $850,000 United States Dollars," cleverly disguised "as aBOX of Africa cloths." I have a hard time reading these things without bursting into laughter. Of course, not all of this scams are laughing matters, as credulity has sometimes lead to tragedy.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Again? But That Scam Never Works.

So I got another wonderful 419 scam e-mail last week. This time, the perp pretended to be a United Nations staffer. Although I hear that people still fall for these sorts of things, I have to admit that I find that utterly amazing. I don't know how anyone with half the sense Dog gave a cabbage would be taken in by these laughably transparent schemes, especially given the fact that they've been all over the newspapers, tv news, radio, and just about everywhere else you can generate an audience larger than three people.

But I have to admit, I'm entertained by the attempts.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

People Powerless

Jacob Weisberg tilts at the same windmills that Rick Shenkman tackled with a weekend article on Slate, and takes the same licks for being "a liberal elite." It's hard to be a serious watcher of American politics, and not come to the conclusion that one of the major problems with America is the Americans, and it seems that more people are willing to be critical of the American public as one of the primary, if unintentional architects of its own problems.

But until the American public itself ends its love affair with the idea that there's always a painless (at least for them) solution to any problem, we're going to continue to be susceptible to people, like Scott Brown, who assert that one can seriously rein in, if not eliminate, with government deficits "simply by cutting government waste." If you're even a casual follow of personal finance advice, you'll likely have heard (over and over) the idea that you can't very well tackle the inefficiencies in your household budget until you sit down and study it, and know where each and every expenditure is going. Let's face it, the Federal budget for the next twenty minutes, let alone the rest of the fiscal year, is likely complicated enough that you'd need an advanced degree in finance to even look at it without being driven completely insane. The idea that anyone, running as an "outsider" could know enough about it to be able to unequivocally state how to fix it seems silly on its face. (Besides, even if the problem were that simple, given the sheer amount of dollars that it entails, could any crusading member of Congress really tackle the problem on their own? Either a good chunk of Congress is in on the scheme and would vigorously oppose changes, or the waste would have to be VERY well hidden, and likely inextricably linked to necessary projects and services. The idea that ending it would be painless to the public is nonsensical.)

And so that leaves the question - how do you convince someone that they're part of the problem without shaking their understanding of themselves? The terms ignorant, unreasonable and inconsistent are considered insults, and not trivial ones, either. And that, I think is what drives a brand of populism that is able to, for all intents and purposes, both deny and take shelter in an overall lack of understanding How Things Work. While on the one hand, our problems are caused by a hateful elite that wishes to enrich itself at the expense of the noble masses, the realization that this elite exists, and that their plans are easily defeated with a simple donation to to vote for the correct crusading candidate makes one part of a heroic elite that understands what's really happening - a cut above the "sheeple" that buy into the misinformation that change means sacrifice or loss.

I don't have the answer to that question. I barely have a handle on knowing what I don't know. I think it will take a smarter man than I to infuse the nation with a new progressivism that reminds us that looking for villains isn't as productive as everyone pulling together.

The Panic Trap

Daniel Engber, over at Slate, has posted an interesting article that attempts to tackle the seeming hysteria over infant abductions, and explain how it's misguided, or even dangerous.

"Here's some perspective: Your baby's odds of getting snatched are considerably smaller—five times smaller, in fact—than her odds of being struck and killed by a lightning bolt."
Invasion of the Baby-Snatchers
Great. Now let's all sit back and watch as the nation's parents start hustling their children inside at the merest hint of rain.

While I appreciate articles like this, I really wonder what the point is. Does it really matter if the chance of a baby being abducted from a hospital is one in ten or one in ten million? Once the idea that this is a threat enters the public consciousness, nobody wants to be "that person" - the one who lost a baby - especially to something that a different choice of hospitals may have prevented. Parental investment in children these days is off the charts, as near as I can tell, and many parents are loath to do anything that smacks of risk. It's impossible to live in a society where "even one is too many" and not have people pull out all the stops over remarkably rare circumstances. But coupled with that is a level of judging that seems to make the stakes even higher than they already are. One of the things that I've noticed in the wired world is how quick people are to apply the label of "bad parent" to anyone whose children have less than stellar outcomes. Kid picked up by the cops for kyping a pack of bubble gum? Bad parent. Daughter knocked up at 15? Bad parent. Son threw a rock through a window? Bad parent. Baby injured in the home? Bad parent. Child snatched by a stranger? Bad parent. As invested as people are in their children, they seem just as invested, if not more so, in avoiding the label of "bad parent," and the social delegitimization that goes along with it.

In the face of this, the overwhelming majority of the article that Mr. Engber devoted to carefully explaining to us just how rare infant abductions are seems like a complete waste of otherwise useful bandwidth. I count about five paragraphs of "news you can use," starting with "So if baby-snatching was never much of a problem to begin with, why are health care administrators across the country so focused on its prevention?" Here we get into the economics of health care and health marketing. This is the good stuff. We all understand that the whole point behind sales and marketing is to manipulate us - and it's always worthwhile to see a new perspective on how and why.

But here it's wrapped in a quixotic call for reason and clear-headedness that, let's face it, is going to go unheeded. (It didn't take long for the "for good parents, no price is too high" crowd to start showing up in the comments.) One of the salient points of the No Brakes! articles (also in Slate) is that you can't simply reason someone out of a deeply-felt emotional reaction - especially when their peers are involved - teens or adults. So next time, let's get the lowdown on the art and science of luring families into being lifelong health-care consumers by laying bait for fretting mothers. Surely, there's more than five paragraphs worth of material that can be wrung out of that.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

No Bleat For Me

I understand that being called "a wolf in sheep's clothing" is intended as an insult. It implies that you're a dangerous predator, using subterfuge to avoid alarming your harmless and innocent prey, who are undeserving of being snacked upon. But I think that I'd rather be thought of as a deceitful wolf, than a sheep, thank you very much.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Can You Hear Me?

Researchers in the United Kingdom and Belgium have hit upon a way to use Magnetic Resonance Imaging to find out if someone who appears to be in a permanent vegetative state is conscious and aware of what's going on around them. The idea seems remarkably simple (even if the technology to implement it is not). Because thinking about different things lights up different parts of your brain, the researchers ask yes or no questions, after instructing the patient to think about one thing for yes, and another for no. Then they use the MRI to "read" the answers. Once they get this locked down, it could really help doctors with determining who's a vegetable, and who's not, more accurately than they can now.

As with all medical advances, this one has it's ethical concerns, but this is one that I hadn't really thought about:

[...F]or example - it is lawful to allow patients in a permanent vegetative state to die by withdrawing all treatment, but if a patient showed they could respond it would not be, even if they made it clear that was what they wanted.
Which raises an interesting question - could you, via a living will, opt out of the test if it becomes widely used? I suspect that I'd find it much worse to be locked into a completely non-functioning body, and if an MRI test could mean being kept alive for years on life support, I don't know that I'd want one. But that's a question for another day. (To be honest, I foresee a fight there, and it's not one that I relish having.)

In the meantime, here's to hoping that on the heels of this medical breakthrough comes another, perhaps one that would restore the pseudo-vegetative to some function and ability to interact with the outside world. Part of me sees such a thing as pie in the sky - a forlorn hope born of a level of frustration with the sheer unfairness of it all. (Even though I intellectually understand that fairness has nothing to do with it, the wish for happier endings dies hard. While the therapist in me has learned to be somewhat cold-hearted, the friend in me cries along with the wounded and suffers for being unable to make them whole again.) But were it not for people chasing what others have considered pie in the sky, we'd likely be nowhere near as far along as we are.