Friday, August 31, 2012

Destroying the Truth to Save It

Some time ago I came across a comic book called, if I remember correctly, "The Big Lie." It was basically a Truther screed about how the attacks on the World Trade Center towers on September 11th, 2001 couldn't have happened as the official story says it did. The basic conceit of the story is that a CERN researcher whose husband died in the attacks figures out how to use the Large Hadron Collider to send herself back in time. She then runs to the World Trade Center, finds her husband in his office, and tries to warn him and his co-workers of the fate about to befall them. After about two pages of this, I found myself wondering why (other than the plot demanded that she go into detail about what happened so the other characters could "debunk" it) she didn't just pull the fire alarm or call in a bomb threat on either Twin Towers or the planes involved in the attack. After all, she was trying to save thousands of lives, and could even have stopped a war or two.

Which raises an interesting question. What is worth lying about? Since it's campaign season, politicians are crisscrossing the country (or at least the battleground states) making speeches and calling out their opponents. And there are a number of outlets that are fact-checking their words. And so, if you're up for a little digging, you can find any number of instances of where candidates do everything from tell the truth, but not the whole truth to outright lie like a rug. And, unsurprisingly, an entire cottage industry seems to have built up around being outraged that politicians would tell us anything but the unvarnished truth. Leaving aside my pet peeve of the general public's complicity in a lack of veracity in the political class, I have a question - if a politician honestly thought that they could save the nation, or the world, by being elected into office, would that be worth lying for?

While I'm not going to say that any of us would lie in the name of doing good, I will cop to that myself. If I thought that convincing someone of something that I knew to be false when I said it would save their life, I'd likely say "truth be hanged" and go for it. And in situations where someone else did the same thing, I'd likely be inclined to still think well of that person. (I'm too much of a Utilitarian to be more concerned with keeping my own hands clean than I am with the greater good.) The conventional wisdom is that when politicians lie, it points to a deeper (much deeper) character flaw. We see them as being dishonest and insincere in everything they do, and their reasons for wanting to be in office become suspect. But is that really an accurate way to look at things? Since the Republican National Convention has just wrapped up, let's look at Romney and Ryan. They've both said things in speeches that fact checkers have called out as clear falsehoods. But if the two of them really feel that the nation is in dire straits, and the best hope of fixing it is from the White House, why wouldn't we expect them to do whatever it took to get there? After all, Jimmy Carter, when he was President, told it like it was. See where it got him.

Of course, this isn't to say that every time a politician tells a lie to get into office, they they have noble motives. But it does, perhaps, say that even upstanding politicians are likely to be less than honest when it's on the line. Many people already subscribe to this idea on a partisan level - they're willing to give their own guy a pass when he's caught saying something untrue. Sometimes, they're even forthright enough to come out and say that they'd rather have their guy be in office, as opposed to squeaky clean. Maybe, if we're going to give the benefit of the doubt, we shouldn't limit it to only those people whose party affiliation matches our own. If we're going to recognize that there are more important things, at times, than telling the truth for its own sake, then we should be willing to entertain the idea that getting into a position where one can do some good might be one of those times. This, obviously, is a pale second place to what we should be doing, namely learning to collectively handle the truth, even when it's uncomfortable, and thus lessening the need for politicians to resort to distorting the truth as a campaign tactic. But perhaps being less ready to vilify people with whom we disagree will work as a first step.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Lest You Be Judged

The title of the posting was as inaccurate as it was provocative: Do Vegetarians And Vegans Think They Are Better Than Everyone Else? Is there ever a point in asking a question about such a large and diverse group of people, other than to invite generalizations?

And the end of the article was no better:

It's clear to me that Friedrich and Patrick-Goudreau believe not that they are better people than meat-eaters, but instead that their dietary practices are better for animals, and for our world as a whole, than the habits of meat-eaters. Why do many people so readily confuse these two things?
If Ms. King had set out to invite to groups of people to make generalizations about one another, she couldn't have chosen a better way to do to.

Of course, seemingly in deliberate spite of the many vegetarians and vegans who set out to defend their tolerance of others, many commentators claimed that they didn't see themselves as morally superior, but rather, more intelligent, more compassionate, more ethical, more consistent, et cetera.

But to a certain degree, Ms. King answered her own question within the text of her posting: "In answering my question in the negative, Friedrich and Patrick-Goudreau both point to their own meat-eating past. But they do strongly exhort others, through 'should'-type speech, to choose certain diets over others: diets that don't involve doing violent harm to animals. I understand this. Both work towards a more compassionate world for animals; their goals are just not compatible with an all-embracing 'live and let live' approach, as if one set of food choices were just as okay as another."

People commonly judge others by the choices that they make. To a degree, we exempt children from this - we are often told that there are no bad children, merely children who do bad things or make bad choices. But, once we become adults, that forbearance expires and choices become character. For many people, bad is as bad does, and without a specific exemption, when a choice is considered not okay, the person who makes that choice is viewed as morally lacking at best, and a deliberate agent of evil at worst.

Had Ms. King asked "Do Law-Abiding Citizens Think They Are Better Than Those Who Commit Crimes," despite the fact that this question, too, calls for broad generalizations, many people would have had little compunction about answering "Yes," and proclaiming themselves (likely incorrectly) just the sort of upright citizen who is entitled to understand their own moral superiority to those around them. Even when criminality is thought or even shown to be the result of mental disease or defect, many people are quick to apply the label of "bad person" to a perpetrator.

The simple fact is that as long as people make judgments about people in accordance with their judgments about the choices those persons make, pronouncing a judgment on someone's actions is going to be seen as a judgement of the actor, whether it is intended or not. And a negative judgment of another is often seen as betraying a sense of superiority on the part of the person making the judgement. The chicken-and-egg finger-pointing between vegetarians/vegans and their omnivorous brethren will not change that fact.

Kathryn Schulz's pronouncement that: "Even though we know better, it's remarkably easy to feel as if our own aesthetic judgments reflect reality and that, therefore, anyone of sufficient intelligence and sensitivity should share our view," is just as much in play here as it is in any other arena. People who feel their actions are guided by their knowledge of what is objectively best, rather than what is best for them, or simply what they find to be most appealing, are prone to look down on others, and people who feel judged rarely take the time to discern the judgmental from the tolerant. Hurt people hurt people, as the saying goes, and therefore the chain of anger and bitterness is likely to be eternal, regardless of who you are referring to, or what their habits, culinary or otherwise, are.

Broken Windows

There is a theory of law enforcement called "Broken Windows." The general analogy is that if you allow for things like broken windows, and other small cosmetic blemishes in a neighborhood, people will begin to feel that residents don't care, and soon more serious items will start appearing. This causes a viscous downward spiral which eventually results in a blighted neighborhood. In law enforcement, this is applied to a rigorous police response to petty crimes, so that criminals don't become comfortable with small acts, and start moving up to larger ones.

I wonder if the same thing applies to web-pages. Occasionally, I come across a page with a comments section where it is clear that there is little if any policing of comments for spam and other forms of random advertising. The immediate impression that I get is that no-one is looking after the page, and it's not worth commenting there myself, since it's unlikely to be read.

I would be interested to know if this is a widespread phenomenon, or something that only the more fastidious among us notice.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Side by Side by Side by Side...

I was reading a political blog, and the author of the post made a reference to Dragonlance, a series of Dungeons and Dragons-related fantasy novels that later became an official D&D campaign setting. This reminded me of a time, back when I was in college, when we had attempted to apply one facet of the game to the real world.

The concept of alignment in Dungeons and Dragons can be a tricky one for new players to grasp, and this was especially true in earlier versions of the game. While many people think of it simply as their character's moral outlook, it can be significantly more complicated than that, having overtones of basic personality, social outlook and even a degree of partisanship - the original alignments could all be thought of as secret societies, complete with a special language that all members learned. It operates of two axes, each with three values - Good versus Evil and Law versus Chaos, with each axis having a center value of Neutral. This made for nine discreet combinations. While the idea that you could divide every intelligent creature in a fantasy world into nine moral outlooks struck many people as unrealistic, it is still a somewhat useful system. When applied to real-world organizations and people, Socrates' axiom that people don't set out to do things they understand to be evil means that everyone tends to cluster in the Good and Neutral alignments, if you take them as they view themselves. Taken as others view them, however, and you have the whole board to play with.

In the context of the 2012 presidential race, President Obama, believing as he does in a muscular, activist government, can be placed at the intersection of Law and Good. In effect, the President believes that the way that you do the most good for the most people and the least harm to the least is through strong centralized governance. So we can list him as Lawful Good. On the other side of this, Governor Romney is playing the less government = more freedom = better outcomes for all involved. So we can likely get away with placing Governor Romney in the Chaotic Good camp for now. Of course, some people would list Governor Romney (and a lot of other politicians, for that matter) as Chaotic simply because of how often he seems to change his positions on things. (Which reveals one of the issues with the system, namely that different people would often have wildly differing definitions of what the alignment labels mean.) Broadly speaking, both the Democratic and Republican parties could be described as Neutral Good - at least in their own eyes. Both tend to feel that in certain areas, a robust government enforcing consistent rules is best - even if they disagree on what areas and what rules. On the flip side of the coin they each have identified places where they would really cut back on the rules and regulations. Naturally, these tend to be the ones the other side considers important. It's important to keep in mind that the political parties are Neutral to the degree that they have big tents, and thus must accommodate multiple competing viewpoints. Individual groups within (and outside of) the parties can diverge from this quite a bit. For example, both the TEA Party and the Occupy Movement could be broadly construed as Chaotic Good - even if they would likely describe the other as Chaotic Evil. While one is focused on dismantling the power of Big Government, and the other on doing away with the influence of Big Business, they're both looking for a change in the status quo that results in a more distributed power structure that gives more freedom to individual citizens.

Groups that fall into the categories of Lawful Neutral and Chaotic Neutral as somewhat rare, I think, as most groups like to think of themselves as advancing the cause of Good. But you could make the case that people who assign a moral imperative to notions of freedom, or anarchists for whom tearing down the existing order is more important than building a new one could be considered Chaotic Neutral.

In the real world, people and organizations only fall into the three Evil alignments in the eyes of their critics. Many Progressives, for example, tend to see Libertarians as Chaotic Evil. By the same token, advocates of small government tend to see their opposite numbers as Lawful Evil, promoting a set of laws designed to enrich some at the direct expense of others. But this isn't to say that people always view their political opponents as evil. It's entirely possible to recognize others good intentions, even while pointing out the errors of their ways.

Given the diversity of political thought, nine buckets into which to try to divide the opinions of millions of people are only marginally more useful than the three buckets of Liberal/Conservative/Moderate we normally use, especially when three or four of them are unlikely to be used. But it makes for an interesting thought experiement and tool for understanding how the groups both see and relate to one another.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Trouble with Infographics

Infographics have become a common means of presenting information to people in an easy-to-understand visual format. But this ubiquity doesn't mean that an infographic always means what a viewer might presume it to mean at first glance. Consider the following map of the United States.

Recently, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released this, and a number of other maps, showing what the summer climate has been doing recently. Unsurprisingly, the media quickly picked up on the dramatic story. During an interview with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Kai Ryssdal, senior editor of public radio's Marketplace program, made the following observation, "This has been, as you know, the hottest summer on record in a lot places in this country." On NPR's news blog, "The Two-Way," their piece on the heat starts out with "The all-red map tells the story."

But does it?

If you look at the same data on the regional map, you see plenty of the nation sweated through a warmer than normal July. But the heat wasn't record-setting in any single given region. The “118” that shows up on the national map is nowhere to be found on the regional one.
The statewide map is different again. We can see even more of the variation in the average temperature for July. And we see that across Virginia, it was hot – the “118” re-appears, although not so hot as to push the entire southeast region of the NOAA map into the red. In fact the mountain west seems to have a higher average temperature. We can also see that the “Near Normal” and “Above Normal” temperatures dominate states in New England, the Gulf Coast, the Southwest and the West Coast. People in these areas may have been surprised to learn that the summer had thus far been unusually warm.
And when you boil the data all the way down to the divisional level, the red spreads out to scattered parts of the country, but we learn that parts of Washington (like the Puget Sound area), Oregon, California, Texas and Louisiana had below normal average temperatures during July. (Don’t worry; we got ours over the first few weeks of this month.)

The contiguous states are divided into a total of 344 divisions. In all, 17 of these divisions, spread out over 12 of the 48 states, experienced record high average temperatures last month. While that means that a lot of people were looking for ways to stay cool, especially when you consider that Chicagoland is in one of the record-setting districts, many parts of the country, while warmer than normal, avoided pushing into new territory.
The culprit is, of course, averaging. Both spatially and temporally.

As an example, I've created a simple chart that measures a fictitious "Salamander Index" over a span of 15 years. The area being measured is divided into five separate regions - and the orange line on the chart represents the average value of all of the regions for that point in time. By year 15, the average is at record levels, yet, as you can see, only the East Region is in record territory; all of the other regions had scored higher on the index than that in the past – in some cases significantly so. In fact, although it isn't immediately evident from the chart, the South Region (the violet line), which spends much of its time above the overall average, is at slightly below its average level, as across all 15 years, the South Region scores an average of about 31.8.
So it's important to remember that while infographics, especially simple ones, make data easily digestible, they don't always provide as accurate a picture as it might seem at first glance.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


There was an story on NPR this morning, that posed the question of just how independent are ostensibly "independent" voters. How many of them are "secretly" partisan. What I was hoping for was an examination of the politics and social currency of political independence. The correspondent, Shankar Vedantam, interviewed a college student, who, like many independent voters, bemoaned the knee-jerk partisanship of the public at large, and held himself out as a free thinker in this regard, with a little help from his Baha'i faith, which explicitly forbids involvement in partisan politics.

From there, however, the piece became simply the latest in a number of stories about how many people who consider themselves independent actually appear to have strong partisan identities. But to do so, it seemed to conflate liberal with Democrat, conservative with Republican and moderate with independent. Thus, to the degree that the parties have staked out large (and mostly mutually exclusive) ideological territories, it seems that anyone who has any sort of ideological leaning one way or the other is going to appear partisan. You would expect the views of an Objectivist, for example, to line up with Republicans. That doesn't mean this person is deluding themselves when they say they don't identify with either party, nor does it mean they aren't "open to persuasion." But would you really expect any viable Democratic candidate to move far enough to the right to capture their vote?

And tracking voting patterns is just as likely to leave the impression that voters are partisan, especially if they are passionate about something that the major parties have made into a plank of their platforms. If a woman's political views are all over the map, but she feels strongly that abortion rights need to be protected, she's likely to vote for Democrats time after time, given the very strong correlation between party and public stances on reproduction issues.

Given that, only the experiment in which people rated plans where the partisan label of the plan was chosen by the researchers seems to be a worthwhile test of direct partisan loyalty. But, we knew that. This story, or some variation on it, seems to come up in every election cycle. You could almost set your calendar by it.

Therefore, a more interesting story would be about why the independent label is so highly sought after, and why so many independents feel themselves the intellectual superiors of their more partisan neighbors. While some partisan pundits (mainly on the right, if I remember correctly) have denigrated independent voters as unwilling to make up their minds as to what's right and wrong, for the most part, the American public seems to prize a certain level of free thinking in politics. Maybe next time.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Us and Them

Republican Representative Todd Akin is currently suffering from a potentially terminal case of foot-in-mouth disease, brought on by the following comment:

If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
Of course, the simple inaccuracy of that statement has something to do with it. And the idea that he was saying that there's such a thing as a "legitimate rape" (which strikes me as a singular oxymoron) also likely fed the flames. And let's not leave out the fact that in this case "legitimate" could also mean "actual" - if anyone read Akin's statement as being: "if you became pregnant, maybe it wasn't really rape," I'm pretty sure he moved to the top of their hit list.

But the real reason that this thing blew up like a powder keg is that Akin, intentionally or not, said: "If elected, I'm going to work to encode my personal understanding of morality into law, using something that I think is true specifically because it supports me in that." The first part of that, I think, people already understood. It was the second part that made people uncomfortable, afraid and angry.

Part of it is that the Republican Party is doing what it can to appeal to social conservatives, who, either because they continue to hope out hope, or simply have no other good options, keep turning to any Republican who promises to replace large sections of the United States Code with Conservative Christian dogma. And one thing that the socially conservative agenda is VERY good at is conjuring up nightmare scenarios for anyone who isn't a social conservative themselves - and for social liberals it deeply resembles a fate worse than death. While many Fiscal and pro-Business Conservatives have a certain Libertarian mindset, most Social Conservatives come across as controlling to the point of being authoritarian. And Akin's statement, regardless of what he actually meant by it, came across is playing right into that in the minds of many people. The imagined Conservative regime, with it's Americanized version of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vices, operates much like a police state from a bad 1970's glam-rock movie - complete with a jackbooted Gestapo singularly interested in stamping out Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll, along with anything else that wasn't acceptable to a typical 1950's churchgoer. Ned Flanders as Big Brother, indeed.

Of course, when one describes it as I just have, it's obviously a caricature. But it rarely feels that way in the moment. And that, I suspect is what is driving the increasing polarization of the nation. Each side has constructed an elaborately dangerous boogeyman around what they know of the other, and as fear is one of the few things that's really motivating to a mostly apathetic public, they portray it as lurking around every corner. Akin's misspeaking simply reinforced that.

And that's bad. It gets in the way of a dialog that sorely needs to happen. While people on all sides of the political divide often speak of solving the same problems, every passing day seems to reinforce the idea that one's political opposition is the primary problem that needs to be done away with. And as people people peddle rage, anxiety, ignorance and distrust in order to motivate their base of voters, they increase the discomfort, fear and anger of the other side. Tribalism and factionalism are rarely good things. History has shown us that. If we continue to push ourselves in that direction, we're asking for trouble.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


I've begun to wonder if "Tolerance" has gone from "sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one's own" to "proof that I am an upstanding and righteous person." Now, for the record, I don't consider myself to be so much a Tolerant person as an Indifferent one. (It's remarkable how easy it is to appear open and accepting when you can't be bothered to care.) This is mainly because most people no matter how much their beliefs and/or practices differ from, or even directly conflict with my own, they can't or won't normally do anything to injure me. I mean, I spent a half-hour one day in a bar in Seattle talking to a White Supremacist. He actually turned out to be a really nice guy, but even so, it's not like he was going to start his racial Holy War in a downtown bar on a Friday night.

Of course, we've made Tolerant and Intolerant, much like Racist, Bigot, Retard and Politician, into loaded terms that carry quite a bit more emotional baggage than is even close to being warranted, and so like many people, I tend to bristle for an instant when someone says: "You know what? You're an intolerant hater," until my brain kicks in and I find myself itching to say: "You know what? You're right!"

I think that one of the meanings that we've freighted "Intolerant" with, intentionally or not, is "coward." And many of us don't like to admit when something makes us uncomfortable or afraid. And when it comes to matters of belief and practice, many of us seem intent to framing things in a way that makes others uncomfortable, afraid or even downright terrified. But then we don't like to acknowledge the fact that we've done so. It's one thing when you're discussing some random topic with someone. But when you're discussing what you know to be a hot-button issue, it's worthwhile to seek an understanding of where the other person is at with it prior to going for the jugular. If for no other reason than when people feel threatened, they tend to go on the offensive.

We shouldn't need to prove something to each other all of the time. There's no advantage in playing an ever-escalating game of I'm smarter/braver/more tolerant than you are. But if that's the direction that we want to move things in, we have to stop making it an error to ever admit to a moment's weakness. Maybe we need less sympathy for each others beliefs and practices, and more for just each other.

Working for the Man

"Puritanism." Even though we as Americans are taught to be repulsed by it, many of us still define our lives by its supposed tenets. The idea that a moral life is one, not of work for the sake of productivity, but of simple toil for the sake of toil, lurks under every stone. When I was a child, I grew to love nothing more than to draw. I would spend hours designing and illustrating fantastic characters and costumes, and as I continued on, placing them into carefully penciled settings with as much detail as I could muster. (Which, granted, wasn't much, if you really look at it.)

My father frowned upon this. Artistry, no matter how intricate, was not work; it was not something worthy of an adult life. Rather it was a childish thing to be indulged in only when the real work was done. And, like an idiot, I learned to believe this. I do not spare myself a harsh judgement in this because looking back on it, I recall that my uncle, my father's bother-in-law was a professional illustrator with a well-paying job working for one of the largest retailers in the nation at the time. And I knew this - yet rather than counter my father's arguments with the living proof of my uncle's life and lifestyle, I dutifully sought out a line of work for which I could manage my distaste well enough to try to buy back the right to do what I loved. Eventually, that flame flickered and died, smothered by a joyless work-a-day world where the salary did not make up for the stressful and unpleasant nature of the work. The ashes cooled and blew away, and too late I realized that I had been mislead by well-meaning, but deeply flawed, parental advice. I had became a good "Puritan," working day in and day out, effectively in the role of a drudge, and taking the proceeds and attempting to buy back some enjoyment with them. (Of course, this is a misuse of the word "Puritan," as the Puritans were less about work and toil than they were about bring properly, and perhaps precisely, godly.)

Once, I was speaking to an acquaintance, an ex-boss (who was soon to be my boss again). He had been noting the difficulty of getting greater efficiency out of the many contingent staff that worked at the company. My own experience as a manager (I'd had his old job some time after he had left it) had taught me the answer to this. Work, I explained to him, expands to fill the time allotted to it because there is no intelligent reason why it should not. Many people who hire contractors, temporaries or whatever else you wish to call them, immediately put them into a direct conflict of interest. While managers want work to be done quickly and efficiently, for someone who is being paid by the hour, getting a week's worth of work done in four days results in one of the following sorry fates - either the worker is simply given more work to do, they must spend a day trying to look busy when they actually are not or they are dismissed and sent home, and lose a day's wages. Where is the benefit there? When I was a manager myself, I quickly learned that the best way to get people to work quickly and efficiently was to place my team meeting in the middle of the afternoon on Friday. Anyone whose tasks for the week were done was free to go home the moment the meeting ended. Within a couple of months, the team was creating, and sharing, innovative ways to shave a few hours from a forty-hour schedule, and by 3 o'clock on most Fridays, none of my team were anywhere to be found. (This is one of the benefits of having a salaried, rather than hourly, workforce.)

But the culture of paying people for an exclusive lien on their time rather than their output was deeply engrained, and I fought more than my share of battles with HR over this. The fabled (and slandered, I think) Protestant Work Ethic was showing its head again, in the idea that despite what we told people when they signed up, the 40-hour workweek was a minimum, and extra hours were to be extracted whenever they could.

But productivity is not the same as hours worked. Working is a means, it is not an end. Businesses are not monasteries, and labor is not a humbling experience, to be engaged in specifically to remind us that we are lowly. Work is supposed to create goods and services that ultimately enrich people's lives - or at least convince the buyer that they do. An application is an application, a toy is a toy and a washing machine is a washing machine. These things are not made better simply because more time is spent on them - even if to make them better requires that more time be spent.

The society that we were promised technology would bring, with its shorter workdays coupled with better overall standards of living, was thwarted by simple economics. Given that workers always come with a certain level of overhead costs, paying one worker for 40 hours is nearly always less expensive than paying 2 workers for 20 hours each. And as fiat money is an open door to inflation, the buying power of saved money is constantly degrading, making saving for the future more difficult. So the endless treadmill of work, still a necessity, is still held up as a virtue. Modern political rhetoric treats jobs as charity and, for many on the political right, the rightful primary target of taxation.

So rather than a society that encourages the pursuit of excellence by promoting the idea of making passions into professions, we are left with a society that views merely having a job, often one specifically designed to make money for someone else, as the most moral way in which to behave. While this is an attitude that employers might wish to promote, it does very little for the rest of us, and perhaps it is past time that we did away with it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

A Bit and All

If you haven't stocked up in irony lately, you should definitely check out this poor sap. Once the leader of a right-wing political party in Hungary that was widely regarded as anti-Semitic, he recently learned that his grandparents were Jewish.

It's quite dramatic with an incredible plot twist: One of the leaders of Hungary's Jobbik Party, which the Anti-Defamation League says is one of the few political parties in Europe to overtly campaign with anti-Semitic materials, has discovered that he is himself a Jew.

[...] in June, [Csanad] Szegedi conceded that his mother was a Jew. According to Jewish law, that makes Szegedi Jewish, too.
What strikes me as interesting about this is that it is, in effect, a self-imposed variation of the "One Drop Rule."
[...] meaning that a single drop of "black blood" makes a person a black. It is also known as the "one black ancestor rule," some courts have called it the "traceable amount rule," and anthropologists call it the "hypo-descent rule," meaning that racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group.
Now, this facet of Jewish law, I think, isn't quite that intense, given that it works down the female side of the family, and perhaps this is what allows the one drop rule to be unique to the United States. But still one wonders how many "unknowing Jews" there are out there, people who can trace their descent through their mothers and grandmothers to a Jewish woman, as well as why the gender differentiation is there.

I'm going to point out that of the news coverage, only NPR states flatly that Szegedi is Jewish. Even the Jewish Telegraphic Agency avoids refering to Szegedi as "Jewish." Instead they say that he has "Jewish ancestors" and "Jewish roots." Perhaps because Jewish law would effectively be a religious stricture, and Szegedi's "Jewishness" would be purely ethnic. So clearly not everyone buys into this.

I'm curious to know how much politics plays into this sort of thing. "Subordinate groups," as anthropologists would call them, are often keen to find powerful or well-placed people who can be claimed as one of their own. (And then perhaps then pressured into advancing group causes.) Perhaps this trait simply goes back father than we would have thought.

For his part, Szegedi seems to be embracing his new identity, although perhaps he doesn't have much choice in the matter.

Saturday, August 11, 2012


There are any number of advertisements like this one, on buses and billboard in and around Seattle, that have taken over from the constant drone of gold-purchasing outfits that filled the airwaves as the price of precious metals began to rise. In each, a regular person (or three) is shown holding a sign, with a dollar amount that ranges from just above $250 to not quite $10,000. And there is always a pithy caption, with something to say about the nature of the money.Some of them, like this one, don't mention the sources of the windfall at all. Others are a little more specific, mentioning "valuables" or "jewelry."

If the lottery is often characterized as a voluntary tax on people with poor mathematics skills, this ad campaign can be said to be promoting a voluntary fee on people who don't understand the relationship between the price of gold and expectations of inflation, especially given how the advertisements tend to characterize the situation as being akin to found money.

This is not, of course, to say that the whole of the gold-buying business, which now seems to have a participant on every corner, is simply about getting people to value the present over the future. But it has a certain level of appeal, in a time in which many people feel strapped for cash, that we should be wary of.

Well, Duh

Now that Mitt Romney has chosen Paul Ryan as his running mate, the world of social media seems to have sprouted no end of Democrats who feel that Governor Romney has snubbed them with this choice.

They were expecting?

This is one of the oddities of American political culture - many people on both side of the political divide seem to think that someone they have no intention of ever voting for should actually care about their opinions.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Campaign Collage

You wind up with a million of these things when campaign season rolls around...

Friday, August 3, 2012

Hmm... That Could Work...

So I found this interesting website, The basic concept (which has been done before) is this: you take a quiz and at the end of it, its tell you which candidate for President of the United States you're most in step with. It was an interesting exercise and it gave me an interesting idea for a thought experiment.

What if we conducted voting this way? You answer a series of questions, and your answers are compared to the candidates' platforms. While I'm not sure it would work particularly well at the start, it seems to me that you could refine the system into something interesting.