October 30, 2008

Voting Against Norm

There are plenty of reasons to vote against Norm Coleman for senator. He was chosen by Karl Rove to be one of the Bush administration's buddies in the Senate. He's a political windsock, going from being a Democrat when city elections required it to being a Republican thug in the Senate to swinging back toward centrist in time for the big local paper to give him this ringing endorsement:

Coleman didn't begin his Senate service as an agent of bipartisanship. But that's the note on which he wound up his six-year term and which he has sounded repeatedly in his reelection campaign.

In fact, Coleman almost wasn't elected senator at all. In 2002, Paul Wellstone would most likely have been elected to his third term in the Senate, despite just having voted against the popular-at-the-time Iraq war resolution. Norm Coleman was a failed gubernatorial candidate, having lost to a professional wrestler four years prior. If it hadn't been for a plane accident eleven days before the election and some gross misrepresentations of what happened at Wellstone's memorial, Coleman would probably have been a failed senatorial candidate as well.

Coleman is, at least professionally, a protect-marriage bigot. Despite his campaigning on a family values platform, his womanizing is well enough known that when Garrison Keillor referred to it in Salon, there was some murmuring about bad taste, but no stronger reaction. Despite having model/actress wife and a mistress, Coleman appears to feel entitled to more. Whenever his name comes up, stories like this and this are told of a grab-handy Norm. Put enough of these stories together, and you end up with a picture of a Coleman who likes to come onto women in no position to say no to him, those who have to choose between him and their jobs.

Coleman's sense of entitlement isn't limited to sex. He's currently in his third corruption inquiry of the year. This one involves a CEO suing over payments he says his company improperly made to be funneled to Coleman. The first was over who pays what for Coleman's DC apartment. Another was fueled by Coleman's campaign refusing to answer questions about who buys his expensive suits. Coleman seem to have earned his place on the most corrupt list.

Then we get to the campaign itself. Coleman has run an ad campaign so negative that voters not only said it was disgusting, but were actually motivated to vote for someone else. He has again used lies about people remembering Wellstone for his own political gain. He is again suing a political opponent in the last days of a race over advertising. And in a new low, even for him, he just tried to disaffiliate himself from an appalling piece of negative campaigning (a comic book mailer, ironically about rape jokes) while repeating all its allegations for the press.

In short, Coleman's political stance is determined by expedience, an expedience that includes both campaign support and personal gifts. He's made it a practice to run the kind of campaigns that divide a country already steeped in vitriol. And I wouldn't trust him to represent my interests in Congress any more than I would trust him in the smoky back room of a bar.

Vacation Over

The blog and I have had a little break from politics over the last couple of days. However, if I want to say everything I still have to say before the election, it's time for that break to end.

To ease me back into it, here are a couple more skits from Kids in the Hall, election-themed this time.

Gay Marriage:


I love these guys.

October 29, 2008

How Far Can You Coast on Charm?

Pretty far actually.

Best Kids in the Hall skit ever.

Second best:

The Goblin King

Fantasy Magazine has a column up about the 10 fantasy movies that make people think that fantasy is stupid fluff. I have no problem with fluff, and I'm rather fond of at least one of the movies on their list, but I did have to agree with the inclusion of Labyrinth.

I didn't like the movie when I first saw it, although having watched it again a few years ago, there are bits I like (love the creepy hands). Fantasy Magazine thought:

...the movie ended up as the tale of a Mary Sue who is totally misunderstood by her parents, God! and ends up ripping the heads off furry marionettes in the middle of a sexual awakening.

Now, while I'll admit that Sarah was an oppressively competent and admired little whiner, that wasn't my big problem with the movie. Since I was in my mid-teens when I watched the first time, I didn't figure out why I didn't like it until much later.

It's the ending. Specifically, it's the scene where Jareth proposes to Sarah and she turns him down.

I know, I know. It was necessary. I fully agree that she had to turn him down for the story to work, and I would have been creeped out if the fifteen-year-old had accepted. That's not the problem.

The problem is that she didn't even think about it.

How often does one meet a goblin king? How often does one defeat him? How often does he offer to lay his kingdom at one's feet? Sure, it's an offer that can't be trusted, but should that make the idea any less tempting? Shouldn't one take just a second to wonder what it would mean if it were something one could accept, just one little moment to imagine?

But no. She just takes the baby and runs. She never even looks back. Stupid girl. Stupid, stupid girl. Far too stupid to spend two hours of my life with.

At least there were muppets.

October 28, 2008

An Audience Divided

Sunday morning, I was out to brunch with the usual suspects. My friend Kelly peeked over his shoulder at the table of senior citizens directly behind him, didn't quite shrug, and started talking. "So, I was at a reading last weekend. Man, talk about dividing your audience."

His wife's eyes got big as she smiled and nodded.

One of the readers was a mystery writer. His detective was investigating the death of a woman with a stable of boyfriends. For this particular scene, he was interviewing one of the boyfriends.

Kelly paraphrased the boyfriend's dialog. "Then she pulled out the [moderately intimidating sex toy*], and I started screaming, 'Avocado! Avocado!'"

We laughed. The senior citizens ignored us.

Kelly nodded. "We howled with laughter. There was one other table that was howling too."

But nobody else in the audience understood what was going on. Kelly didn't mention it, but I'm sure they must have been looking at the maniacs at the two tables, trying to figure out what was so funny.

The author then went on to read the part of the story that explained what a safeword was. Once the rest of the rural and small-town Wisconsin audience fully absorbed that piece of knowledge, something clicked. Then they really looked at the two tables.

We all laughed again, because, really, how can you explain without implying there's something that needs to be explained. All you can do in that situation is smile. Shrugs and winks are, of course, fully optional, as suits your temperament.

As much as I laughed about my friends' uncomfortable situation, though, it's the author who I think was in the most unenviable position. Imagine writing that scene, knowing that you had to reach both parts of your audience--the readers who take this knowledge for granted and those who don't even know there's something to know.

Thinking about the reaction at the reading, I think this writer handled the whole thing perfectly. For the knowing few, there was the extra payoff of the absurd safeword to float them through an explanation of what they already know. For the blissfully clueless, the strangeness of "avocado" was a flag that they were about to learn something new about sex. They had the opportunity to brace themselves for the shock. The more I think about it, the more impressed I am.

I'm definitely buying this guy's book (as soon as I remember to ask Kelly who he is). Not only does he sound hilarious, but I suspect he has a lot more to teach me about writing.

Maybe even something about sex.

* Redacted only because, if you're Googling for that, this is not the story you're looking for.

October 27, 2008

The Contentious Propositions

I have a confession to make. I am utterly overwhelmed by the scope of the stakes in next week's election. I've been coping by narrowing my focus to local issues, where I feel as though I can make some difference. I have, maybe, but there's so much more out there that needs attention.

For example, there are two statewide propositions, one in Michigan and one in California, that need attention. One is the product of those who would make everyone else bear the burden of their narrow views of morality. One is an attempt to block this thoughtless, moralistic behavior.

Over at denialism blog, PalMD is disecting the case against Michigan's Proposition 2. Proposition 2 deals with human embryonic stem cell research. It would exempt Michigan from the kind of state-by-state battling that's marked the abortion debate by keeping anyone from passing laws that are more restrictive than the federal laws. Needless to say, some people aren't happy about this.

Every Sunday---early in the afternoon---anti-Prop 2 signs pop up like crocuses in March. Religious groups are making the usual arguments equating HESCs with little homunculi who are being murdered in the name of Science. But just in case going to church and hearing your pastor telling you how to vote is too subtle, there is the horrible, horrible beast---the Michigan Man-Cow.

Go take a peek at the horrid monster.

DrugMonkey is trying to find the rationale behind California's Proposition 8, but he's only finding rationalizations.

You will recall from your history books that even slavery and women's suffrage issues were surrounded by (crap) rationalizations. The argument was not "just because". And now, most Americans find the argument that other people should be chattel because of the shade of their skin or their place of origin wrong. Most Americans think that women are quite capable of voting in a way that will not RUINZ! our country. We have, as a population, shed many, many of our bigotries and mis-beliefs in the name of equality, democracy and civil rights. We look back and often sneer at those wrongheaded and ignorant views of past generations.

Well, I'm sneering at the H8rs right about now. What on earth is wrong with you people?

What, indeed. I've been married eleven years, but I'm surrounded by friends who have been in stable, committed, productive relationships years longer than that. Together, they've raised kids, renovated run-down city housing, created art, supported charities with money and time, worked through tough spots that have led to divorce in other couples. They've been an inspiration to so many of my generation, raised as we were by parents who didn't choose mates wisely or manage to stay together. They showed us that we could.

About half of them are married. The other half have never had that opportunity, not legally. That this opportunity is held just out of their reach by the shape of a couple of chromosomes is beyond ridiculous.

DrugMonkey is right. It's all about the h8, which is no basis for politics. Or much of anything else, for that matter.

Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival #5

Welcome to the fifth edition of the Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival: The Fallout Edition.

I'd like to start with a very special thank you to Representative Bachmann herself. After Bachmann's comments on Hardball, traffic to all editions of our humble carnival multiplied unbelievably. My blog has seen record traffic for the last week and a half.

Thanks, Michele, we couldn't have done this without you!

While this is the Fallout Edition of the carnival, I'd like to take this opportunity to remind the new Bachmann watchers that she existed before her Hardball appearance and that divisiveness is nothing new for her. Just one day before she became infamous, Bachmann used the issue of immigration to divide her constituents at a debate in St. Cloud.

"Without having some sort of a barrier at the border, we're going to continue to have the kind of problems that we've had with Olga Franco that we saw most recently in the tragic death of four children in the accident," Bachmann said, referring to an illegal immigrant whose minivan struck a school bus in Cottonwood, Minn. "These are preventable and we need to do that with sealing America's borders."

Dump Michele Bachmann has this and some other choice quotes. If you've got the stomach for it, you can watch that whole piece of the debate below.

Video bonus: Watch Tinklenberg almost do a spit take when Bachmann directly contradicts him on what his border security policy is. Note the laughter from the audience when he restates his position after she's done.

Note also her total absorption in the papers in front of her. This was not long before Hardball. Was she cramming for the final she blew so spectacularly?

She recognized the importance of immigration for farming in the past, but now she only wants to let in a few highly-skilled technical people. Thanks to Liberal in the Land of Conservative for the video. The whole debate is here.

How does Bachmann want to stop the icky immigrants from getting into her country? The Minnesota Monitor provides the answer. She wants us to be like one of the most militarized nations on the planet, one under a constant terrorism threat:

...the argument that fences don't work doesn't hold water. Look at Israel and Palestine. Fences work...

Of course, this isn't Bachmann's first foray into the issue of immigration. On the Issues has the text of a bill she co-sponsored to make English the official language of the U.S.

Throughout the history of the United States, the common thread binding individuals of differing backgrounds has been the English language.

Hmm. Don't anyone tell the Cajuns. Personally, I thought it had something to do with the values espoused in the Declaration of Independence and the rights guaranteed in the Constitution. I guess that's what I get for being one of those educated elites.

Now if Bachmann had wanted to educate herself about immigration before talking, she could have easily found this out: While there is a cost to the crime that is committed by illegal immigrants, there is no indication that that cost is a measure of anything more than increased population size. In fact, illegal immigrants may commit less crime per capita than citizens.

But Bachmann's not interested in facts. This is just a dividing tactic, a way to scare her constituents. If it were a major security issue for Bachmann, one of her first acts in office would almost certainly not have been voting against implementing the 9/11 Commission's recommendations on cargo inspections.

Now, onto what Bachmann's been up to since last week. Turns out, keeping track of where she stands on what she said, why she said it, and whether she meant it has been rather difficult. Nicole Belle at Crooks and Liars does an admirable job of noting all the twists and turns, along with the dodging and weaving.

First, she claimed she never said it. But she then did a 180 and re-asserted Obama’s views were anti-American. Then, after her Democratic rival Elwyn Tinklenberg raised $1.4 million from Americans disgusted by her neo-McCarthyism, she tried to fundraise off her outrage at Matthews and liberal blogs for twisting her words.

John Nichols at The Nation takes a closer look at one of Bachmann's favorite excuses for her "misunderstood" behavior: she's just an outsider under attack by the elites. He's particularly skeptical of her previous comparison of herself to Paul Wellstone, Minnesota's most beloved senator.

It was an easy comparison to make, as Wellstone was not around to defend himself.

And Bachmann continues to abuse the privilege by suggesting that she serves and speaks as a Minnesota "outsider" in the Wellstone tradition

Speaking of Wellstone, Todd Beeton at MyDD examines how Bachmann's Hardball performance may hurt Norm Coleman, who's locked in a very tight race to hang on to the Senate seat left vacant by Wellstone's death six years ago.

And Coleman seems to know this. On Sunday, on the same local morning TV news show during which Bachmann reiterated her comments about Barack Obama, Coleman tried to distance himself from them.

But distancing himself from her isn't so easy after he's been appearing by her side at McCain/Palin events throughout the state.

Of course, one doesn't have to have loved Wellstone to hate what Bachmann has chosen to stand for. Seth Coulter Walls at the Huffington Post reports on the bipartisan rejection of Bachmann's stance.

"Republicans who have never voted Democratic in their lives are sending me money because those kind of comments [made by Bachmann] are intolerable to them," Tinklenberg told the Huffington Post, adding that many of the donations have come with notes attesting to this fact. "That makes me feel good -- that they're rejecting this across the board. It's no longer a partisan thing, and it shows they're understanding finally we are all Americans, and we all need to come together to move forward and the issues we're facing. ... And it's certainly been reflected in the fundraising."

It's been reflected in Bachmann's fundraising too. Her campaign is being coy about the amount raised since Bachmann spouted off, claiming "hundreds of thousands of dollars." The Minnesota Independent checks on the amounts that can be verified and finds less than $30,000 in itemized contributions.

But a spokesperson for at least one of Bachmann’s contributors — Schwan Food PAC of Marshall, MN — tells Minnesota Independent his company isn’t happy with the congresswoman’s comments and indicates they will almost certainly be taken into account before making future contributions to her.

Demonstrating even further the scope of people repudiating Bachmann, A Christmas Story presents an open letter to her, including a stunning list of the people Bachmann has offended and injured.

I am just a working stiff, who wants to make life better for my family. I enjoy helping other people along the way, too. I care about life in my district, I care about life in my township, I care about life in my state. And I care about life in our country. Our district cannot boast about the things we once could declare as successful outcomes to the whole of the district.

Even the mainstream media, which has been remarkably "balanced" in its coverage of Bachmann's extremism, is starting to question the congresswoman's judgment. Ken Avidor at Daily Kos notes a local newspaper that is finally examining the Bachmann-Vennes-Petters "pardongate" in depth.

Dump Bachmann blog, the Minnesota Independent and other "new media" have been on this story for weeks... now the MSM has begun to write about Bachmann's pardon request for Petters associate Frank Vennes Jr..

There's one very important thing that we should all remember in the middle of the ever-so-satisfying Bachmann hating. She isn't doing this alone. (She's merely been the most inept at it.) Michele Bachmann gave one of the first speeches at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. She hasn't made as many television appearances as she has because Larry King really wants to spend his time talking to a first-term congresswoman from the Midwest.

Or, as Andrea Langworthy put it:

While McCain's had Sarah Palin doing his dirty work, bad-mouthing Obama, he's been able to keep his hands clean and not be blamed for mud-slinging. The practice dates all way back to the Garden of Eden. Eve wasn't the only one to take a bite of the apple but she certainly is the one who gets the most blame. The McCain camp sends Eve, Sarah "Pit Bull" Palin, from state to state to say biting things about Obama. Then, when asked about it by David Letterman, McCain just squirms in his chair and says, "There are a million words said in a campaign ... it's part of the political scene."

Now, Bachmann has given into the temptation of spreading falsehoods. Fortunately, many people in our nation did not take McCain’s stance after she appeared on Hardball.

Greg Laden also looks at the responsibility for Bachmann's act, with the tale of a brick and its consquences.

You see, all I was doing, as a dumb four year old kid, was taking what I sensed around me, but did not understand, to the next step. But the next step was too far. I took an issue that was probably small, or at least, already settled, misunderstood it, dressed it up in my mind, extended it's life and expanded its import, and then went and made a brick bomb and threw it at someone.

And although that's a rather somber place to stop, here is where we end the fifth Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival. You'll note that this edition doesn't contain any goofy stories about the congresswoman. It doesn't contain any funny pictures of the much-Googled (seriously) "Michele Bachmann Eyes," or as a friend of mine snarkily calls that sort of thing, "the wide eyes of calm."

We only have one more week until the election. The time to be amused by Bachmann's cluelessness is over. It's time to give up the ironic detachment and recognize just how angry we should be, and are, that someone like Bachmann--in fact, several people like Bachmann, just less silly--has been chosen to represent her district, her state, and her nation. It's time to, well, I'll just give Greg the last word here, since I think he said it best.

There are too many close calls for you or me to be comfortable. There are only two weeks left. You must now abandon other activities, put down the rake, turn off the TV, cancel the trip to the cabin, forget about organizing your stamp collection for a while!

Find a Democrat running for office. Give this Democrat fifty bucks ... a cheap price to save your ass from another four years of creeping oppression. Volunteer to work for the candidate. Phone bank, door knock, clean the damn kitchen in the campaign office while other people are phone banking. Whatever, just do something!

October 26, 2008

Why I Hate the Suburbs

From the local paper:

Although Anoka bills itself as the Halloween Capital of the World, city officials and some businesses are a bit spooked by a macabre-themed head shop that has opened a pumpkin's toss from City Hall.

Redrum -- which read backwards, spells murder -- opened in late September with a skull and crossbones above the door and red-stained razor blades dangling in the window.

Okay, so far, so good. If this were downtown or in Uptown or Dinkytown or on Lake Street or University Avenue, no one would notice. They might not go in if the shop didn't carry anything they were looking for, but at most, they'd snicker and move on.

"The kind of people it brings downtown we don't need," said Beth Lennartson, co-owner of A Girl Thing, a women's boutique a few doors away.

You mean people who buy things? Is there any other kind of people a business should concern itself with?

"This doesn't help our ladies that come down here," added co-owner Donna Texley.

You might be surprised, honey. But even if it doesn't, does your corner of the world exist only for your customers? Do you protest barbershops opening up? Those don't help your ladies either.

"Yes, we are the Halloween capital, but that is taking it too far," said Krista Rothmaler, who owns Krista Artista art gallery down the street. "My opposition to Redrum has to do with the fact that it is not very family-friendly."

Unlike boutique clothing shops and art galleries. Those are always so open to sticky-fingered younglings.

What actually gets me about all this is not the totally expected reactions. After all, I grew up in the suburbs--right up until I had a choice about where to live. No, what gets me is that Anoka is the Halloween capital. According to this article, they can't handle anything remotely morbid or weird and they don't like the sorts of people who love Halloween. How does that work?

Don't get me wrong. I think Anoka is a plenty scary place. I just don't think it's any scarier than any other closed-minded, repressive suburb.

October 25, 2008

Young Science

Psychology, sociology, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology, history, economics, political science.

Biological sciences, earth sciences.



Read one way, this is how sciences are commonly ranked on a Mohs scale of scientific snobbery. Real sciences, hard sciences, are at the bottom. Soft, squishy, fake sciences are at the top.

Read another way, this is both an inverted history of science and a ranking of the complexity of measurement.

A History of Complexity
Physics was one of the first sciences to be studied scientifically and the first science in which many of the fundamentals were discovered. Why? Because physics, at least the parts that most people learn, has the simplest subjects to test. Kinetics are visible. Pressure can be felt. Wave interaction is already present in our environments, ready to be observed.

Chemistry was harder. We can't see or feel the building blocks of matter. We can't see the bonds that create matter with its own discrete properties from two or more unrelated elements. We can't directly assess molarity. Chemistry had to build the tools to do the very basics, even as it determined what those basics were. That put it far behind physics.

Biological and earth sciences are more difficult yet. Not only do scientists have to study all the parts of complex systems in order to understand the systems, but they are also constrained in two important regards. They have to observe the system without changing it enough to make their observations invalid, and they have to exercise ethics in how they manipulate the system. These things can be done, but they require additional tool development, including the development of complex systems math, which makes for slower progress.

Then we come to our "squishy" sciences, the social sciences. All the difficulties of biological and earth sciences apply, only more so. These are studies of complex systems made up of complex systems. Observation of social phenomena is social phenomena itself. The ethics of personal and political interference are extremely touchy. The sheer number of variables that the math needs to be able to accommodate is intimidating.

Does that mean that the social sciences can't develop the tools they need? No, no more than the biological sciences can't. What it does mean is that developing these tools should be expected to take time. How long? I don't know. How long did it take physics to figure out how to observe the universe free of the interference of our atmosphere?

The Forgotten History
One thing that hard-science snobs like to point to as evidence that the social sciences aren't real science is the current influence of politics on the various fields. For example, in the current economic situation, people cite the influence of libertarianism on economics. Others have pointed to single-culture-centric definitions of mental normalcy.

Both are valid critiques of the state of the field, but they have no bearing on whether economics or psychology are sciences. Politics affect every kind of research. They always have, however pure someone might think their brand of science is. Cosmology has historically had some killer debates (literally) about theory, based on politics. It got over them with time. Do we judge genetics by eugenics or physics by the atom bomb?

The social sciences are very young, they seek to understand phenomena at several interrelated levels, and they face the additional challenge of having to ask the balls for permission before dropping them off the tower. This means that current results are of dubious universal applicability. It does not mean these are not "real" sciences.

Nor does it mean the people theorizing and testing with the limited tools at their disposal are not real scientists. Some of the people clinging to theories against all evidence may not be scientists, but the evidence against most theories is slim or mixed at this early stage of the game. It will take more work and more data from the empiricists to drive the irrational theorists out, just as it always has for every other science.

They'll probably do it faster if they're allowed and expected to sit with the big kids at the "science table" instead of being pushed away. They've earned more credit than they're usually given on that score, even if they do have plenty of work left to do. And it can only help to steep the kiddies in each field in a culture of rigor.

October 23, 2008

One Honest Libertarian

I made a mistake in presuming that the self-interests of organizations, specifically banks and others, were such as that they were best capable of protecting their own shareholders and their equity in the firms.

Alan Greenspan testified before Congress today and said the one thing that every other libertarian has avoided saying to this point. This financial crisis is the direct result of the failure of his philosophy.

I'd like to give him credit for his honesty, for his willingness to examine his own beliefs critically, but all I can really do is wonder how he's managed to stay so naive for so long.

Sure, the ideas that corporations behave like psychopaths and that CEOs are successful psychopaths are relatively new. However, any student of history can easily find examples of antisocial tendencies on the part of companies and of unchecked power that has had deleterious effects on trade. The credit scandal is nothing like unprecedented behavior.How does someone as bright as Greenspan has generally been considered to be miss this?

How does he miss the evidence of his fellow libertarians? Has he always been considered necessary by the people in power? Has he only ever seen the shark's smile and not its teeth?

Has he not met the libertarians of my generation--the arrogant tech boys who don't understand the amount of infrastructure necessary for them to do the one thing they know, the sheltered suburbanites dreaming of chaos, the recipients of public educations who consider themselves self-made, the swaggering idiots who think a piddly handgun will stop a determined crowd? Has he never seen the people attracted to his ideas?

What I'm saying to you is yes, I have found a flaw. I don't know how significant or permanent it is. But I have been very distressed by that fact...A flaw in the model that I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak.

A flaw. One. And he still doesn't know how significant it is. Mr. Greenspan, the varieties and vagaries of human nature are pretty fundamental. The flaw is the model.

We listened to this man for how long?

Update: If you want to know more about "the libertarians of my generation," Chris has a great post and a book recommendation up at denialism blog.

October 22, 2008

Chin Up, Shoulders Back, Aim for the Throat

Modified slightly from the discussion here.

This is my country and the regressive yahoos can take it from me when they pry it, etc. Especially since they don't have a clue what to do with it except strip it of every unique thing it's accomplished.

I'm not calling for optimism out of naivety. I know what the problems are. I know how bad our situation is. I also know the country is not going to stay the same. Countries never do. My choices are to give up on it and watch it move in the wrong direction, steered there by the underlying issues that have gotten us where we are, knowing I gave up, or to work to fix those problems and push the country in the direction I want it to go.

That's it. No more choices.

Despair is a luxury we can't afford right now. I know it's been a long time since it's appeared that there was anything to look forward to. I know you may be tired and dispirited. I'd buy you a beer and let you cry in it if I could.

But then I would remind you that there is work to be done. While we've been pushing for a long time, for the first time in almost that long, there are signs that the pushing can get something moving.

How long has it been since you've seen a majority of the electorate turn up its noses at negative advertising? How long has it been since most of the people you know don't automatically associate free-market capitalism with prosperity and an aggressive military strategy with security? How long has it been since you've seen someone turn to a wonk who speaks in multisyllables for reassurance? How long has it been since you've seen people perk up at a call to their own responsibility?

We have an opportunity that I haven't seen in my lifetime, but it won't do us any good if we collapse at the critical point. There's still fight left in the idiots who got us to this place. We have to find the fight in ourselves to keep them from winning.

Or, in the immortal words of Booger, "Buck up, little camper. We'll beat that slope together."

Nothing More to Be Said


October 20, 2008

The Cynicism of the "Realist"

I ran into another one yesterday. You know them, the ones who say, "Obama isn't perfect, you know. He's just not that different from McCain. I mean, I'll vote for him, but really...."

The next one gets swatted. Hard.

Aside from the fact that anyone with a brain can tell that there are big differences between Obama and McCain--of policy, of personality, of integrity--this statement is totally wrong in one thing. It reeks of cynicism.

This last one didn't think so. He said, "Don't confuse realism with cynicism StephanieZ. I do think there's a legitimate case to be made for picking the lesser of two evils in swing states, but as Chomsky notes one should do so without any illusions."

The lesser of two evils? If that isn't cynicism, what is it? It's certainly not realism.

How is it evil to suggest that more people should have access to affordable health care? How is it evil to say we need to understand the racial divide as a first step to closing it? How is it evil to suggest that our policies abroad are hurtful to the world and need to be changed? How is it evil to say that those who have profited from the last eight years need to help pay for them?

"But he's not perfect," I hear. Excuse me, but duh. Of course he isn't perfect. Neither is the situation he'll step into in January. Far from it.

Obama isn't perfect. He's progress.

Obama and his policies are progress that we desperately need right now. Every moderate to liberal politician we send to D.C. with him is forward motion. Each step we take in pushing those politicians to enact his platform is one step out of the mire.

That's right. This doesn't end with the election. We all still have plenty of work to do after that happens. We have to demand the changes we've been promised. Some of us will have to suck it up and pay our share where we haven't been. We have to tell each other that hatred is unacceptable. We have to fight the lies that will be told.

We have to fight the cynicism.

This last piece is critical. We've been wandering deeper into the mire for far too long. It will take us years to get out. We'll get tired. We'll find it all too easy to say that another hard-fought step toward the edge still puts us in the muck, so what's the difference? We'll have all the realism we can handle.

It's even possible that we'll forget what the dry land beyond the edge looks like, but we can never dismiss it as an illusion. That way lies cynicism--and the realism of the mire.

Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival

...#4 is up at Greg Laden's Blog. He rightly titles this edition, "We Told You So," and makes an admission:

A few weeks ago, Stephanie Zvan and I hatched a plot, I mean developed an action plan, to provide a weekly carnival of posts regarding Michele Bachmann. We quickly asked Radio Talk Show Host Mike Haubrich if he would join us in this effort, and he agreed.

Yep, the three of us, along with many local bloggers, including the tireless Dump Michele Bachmann blog, have been working to spread the news about just how atrocious Bachmann really is.

This week, without our help, she showed the world. The new edition of the carnival reflects all the attention it's bought her. To highlight a few of my favorites:

Brian Lambert reminds us that Bachmann's words on Hardball are neither isolated nor a fluke:

But Bachmann and her kind -- Sarah Palin, the Rovians running McCain's campaign, Sean Hannity, nine out of ten "personalities" on talk radio and nearly 100% of their listeners -- don't understand anything beyond the buzzwords, slogans, kill-phrases and hollow paeans to patriotism they hear on the radio and at CPAC conferences. More to the point, their reckless indifference to reality is now strikingly obvious to the general public.

Tangled Up in Blue Guy has had quite enough:

I am an American. I am proud to be an American and I am fucking sick if this goddamned attitude by these holier-than-thou ultra-right radical Republicans attacking the patriotism of those of us that actually think that this country should live up to our stated ideals.

The Vine faces the dilemma that all sane people do when looking at Bachmann:

Of course, common sense tells me that she’s such an obvious idiot that no one would listen to her, but then reality kicks me in the face and reminds me that, for some inexplicable reason, a bunch of people actually voted for her. WTF were they thinking?

The Minnesota Independent truly sums up the carnival's theme:

Following Rep. Michele Bachmann’s appearance with Chris Matthews yesterday, America is learning what many in Minnesota already knew, which is that putting Bachmann in front of a live microphone is like handing an excitable 15-year-old a bottle of gin and a loaded gun. The only question is when something unspeakable is going to happen.

And much, much more.

October 19, 2008

The Introvert's Bill of Rights

Shrinking Violet Promotions, whose blog is subtitled "Marketing for Introverts," are putting together a little list of awesome. They're calling it The Introvert's Bill of Rights. Some of my favorites:

8. Introverts have the right not to have to explain why they need down time or alone time.

14. Introverts have the right to screen phone calls or cut short exhausting phone conversations as needed.

16. Introverts have the right to listen for long periods of time.

19. Introverts don't have to raise their hand in class.

25. An introvert has the right to create a paradoxical public image, one that claims to reveal as little about themselves as humanly possible while doing the exact opposite.

See? Awesome. And they're still taking suggestions. I've thrown out:

Introverts have the right, when told, "You must meet so-and-so," to say, "No. I don't. But I might do it anyway."

Introverts have the right to be wildly social for a brief period without being congratulated for it and told they're doing "better."

Introverts have the right to smile without it being treated as an invitation.

Surely there are more. Why not add yours?

Thanks to Nathan for the original link.

October 18, 2008

Who Is Anti-American?

You've seen it, of course. U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann on Hardball. Just in case you haven't, just in case you usually feel Matthews is too obnoxious to watch, I'm going to post it again here, because this may be the most important video of this election season. I ask that you watch it.

It's tempting, seeing this, hearing this, to dismiss Bachmann as a crazy. She makes it easy, as she always does, with the startlingly wide eyes and the smiles at inappropriate times and the words. Oh, the words.

But dismissing her would be a mistake. Bachmann isn't trying to scuttle her campaign. She isn't quite insane. She's so wrong on so many counts that it's painful to think about, but she knows what she wants and she's doing what she thinks she needs to get it.

What does Bachmann want? She wants what her church wants, as evidenced by her pastor's endorsement. She believes that God has guided her life, not generally, but very specifically to this point. She wants to make the prosperity gospel an American reality. She wants the few who believe like her to see proof that they believe correctly. The only way for them to have this proof (to replace their faith) is to end up the ones on top.

With that in mind, Bachmann's positions suddenly make more...well, they look more consistent. She wants to take steps like drilling in ANWR to make the country more financially independent but supports the Bush plan to bring American-style (read Christian) democracy to a Muslim country. This isn't a conflict between isolationism and interventionism. It's keeping the money here to reward those who are sending others to fight heresy abroad.

She's a pro-lifer, because her church tells her she must be, but is happy to leave the health of everyone else in the hands of God. God will also provide, apparently, for transportation projects in Bachmann's district--if he so chooses. Bachmann won't. She's not interested in sharing, even with her constituents. For everything else, her votes make up a litany of denial.

It's with this litany that the point of Bachmann's Hardball appearance starts to become clear. Matthews didn't push her into saying anything she didn't believe. He merely asked enough questions that she did what she's been dying to do since the Republicans made her one of the voices of their party in September. She went off script and said what she really thinks.

Liberals, with their concern for more than the rich and the fundamentalist Christian, with their willingness to tax the chosen people, really are betraying America. They may be betraying only the America that exists in Bachmann's head, in her pastor's head, in the heads of those that follow the prosperity gospel, but this is still a betrayal.

They'll do whatever needs to be done to stop them. Investigation, sanction, slander, more? That's just fine. This isn't a class war that Bachmann and the others are fighting, after all. It's a religious war--in America.

And it doesn't get much more anti-American than that.

Fun With Numbers

Michele Bachmann may have done in her congressional campaign last night. Want proof? ActBlue, a site that raises money for Democratic campaigns, had about $4,000 in receipt for her challenger, El Tinklenberg, before Bachmann's appearance yesterday. They now have $141,000. Oops, I mean $142,000.

You can literally watch the money coming in--for a campaign that raised $1M in the first nine months of the year. Just click refresh. Or you can make it go up yourself.

$144,000. Whee!

October 17, 2008

Sensical Nonsense

Jessica has a post up at bioephemera about Turing tests and the Mechanical Turk, an eighteenth century hoax automaton. Good stuff. Go read. I'll wait.
And welcome back. If you read all the way into the comments, you'll have noticed that I said that any Turing test I administered would have to involve sensical nonsense. You'll also have noticed that someone had difficulty with the concept. Or maybe only pretended to have a problem. Either way, it's an excuse to talk more about a subject near to my heart.

'I'm sure I'll take you with pleasure!' the Queen said. 'Twopence a week, and jam every other day.'

Alice couldn't help laughing, as she said, 'I don't want you to hire ME -- and I don't care for jam.'

'It's very good jam,' said the Queen.

'Well, I don't want any TO-DAY, at any rate.'

'You couldn't have it if you DID want it,' the Queen said. 'The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday -- but never jam to-day.'

'It MUST come sometimes to "jam to-day,"' Alice objected.

'No, it can't,' said the Queen. 'It's jam every OTHER day: to-day isn't any OTHER day, you know.'

Lewis Carroll's work is perhaps the pinnacle of sensical nonsense, but we all do it. It certainly doesn't require a Humanities degree.

Think British rhyming slang. Think highly creative swearing. Think about the ability of any noun to stand in for XX in the statement, "Did you see the XXes on that one?" Think about teenagers. Have you seen the House outtakes where Jennifer Morrison and Lisa Edelstein deliver their lines in Valley speak?

To some extent, all communication relies on the willingness of both parties to understand and be understood. There's enough flexibility in language that even the most careful communications can be misinterpreted, not just deliberately, but also through the writer and the reader not working to reach the same place.

Sensical nonsense requires a commitment to understand each other that goes beyond regular verbal communication. It requires a certain shared culture, so that the shape and direction of a conversation don't have to be carried by the words. Instead, they can carry the words, so the words can be almost anything. For example:

Alternately, sensical nonsense can require the willingness to carry an extended metaphor beyond any reasonable limit and the trust that both parties are still talking about the same subject. It can require the tenacity to follow a conversation that takes sharp turns over the multiple meanings of a word, when a statement uses one meaning and the reply uses another. It can require the patience to filter through a stream of verbiage that does nothing more than express the identity of the speaker.

In short, sensical nonsense can be a lot of fun, but it's a lot of work. And it depends on so much beyond mere language that I have no idea how one would ever teach a computer to do it.

October 16, 2008

Getting Out More

...well, at least on the internet. Seriously, I read more than the three blogs I've been running around interlinking with for the last few days. What else have I been reading?

Will Shetterly is also talking, as is most of the country, about race.

In Florida in the early '60s—when I was marching with my family for civil rights, when we got anonymous death threats in the night, when we couldn't get fire insurance because word was out that the Ku Klux Klan would burn us down—the classifications of prejudice were precise:

He's also making pronouncements on the subject of endings.

There are two kinds of endings, abrupt ones and leisurely ones. When they work, they work for the same reason: they imply that characters' lives have been changed by the events of the story. That may be especially true of stories that restore the status quo—in the best of those stories, the world is restored, but the characters and their relationships have changed.

Kelly McCullough is writing about endings too, specifically happy ones.

...one human being’s lie is another’s necessary myth. Sometimes you’re in a place in your life where you need look no further than tomorrow to see how ugly the world can be and then that lie of happily ever after can be the myth that keeps hope alive long enough for freedom or healing or happiness to become truth.

K. Tempest Bradford is, in her inimitable style, offering a different sort of advice for writers.

All you authors out there, we need to have a talk. Sit down.

Tell me, if someone were to Google your name, or the name you write under, right now, would they be able to find you?

Reesa Brown and Kit O’Connell are starting a series on business advice for artists.

Presuming the words “business model” haven’t already scared off our artistic readers, how do you start approaching this topic? Well, the same technology that provides new means of telling stories and sharing art provides new means of deriving income from the stories.

Christopher Waldrop just really wants to know whether zombies are dead.

But there are only so many things you can do with a walking corpse. What made Shaun Of The Dead so damned funny was that the zombies were almost secondary to the drama of a guy reluctantly growing up, but that’s also why, watching it, I felt like it was the apex of the zombie genre.

Jessica Palmer doesn't just want to know things. She wants to know how we know things, and she features a project that can help us figure that out.

One of the hardest tasks I encountered as a professor was getting my students to recognize that all of their convictions - even assumptions as basic as "the world is round" or "the sun will come up tomorrow" - are built on a lifetime of accumulated experience. Sometimes the experience is direct: we've all seen the sun come up. But sometimes it's not.

And almost immediately after posting an apology for her lack of posts (and hours before McCain tried to use it against Obama), Muse in Vivo brings us back to politics by dissecting the idea that spreading the wealth is a bad thing.

Seeing as that ideal - of a full time worker being capable of maintaining a basic quality of life - is not exactly working out on its own, we as a society need to fix something.

Enjoy. I did.

October 15, 2008

Diversity Now

Riffing off the discussion of racist arguments here and on Greg's blog, DrugMonkey asked why ScienceBlogs looks so unlike the rest of the world. Shortly thereafter, Isis the Scientist took a bunch of us to task for advocating for diversity because it would make us feel better. (Utterly incomplete summaries of both posts. Read them and the comments.)

The conversation between Isis and her readers developed into a discussion of bottom-up versus top-down policies to increase diversity in science. After thinking about the matter further, I have to disagree with the dear Dr., and not just over the question of whether I'm "adorable." I want diversity yesterday, and I'm not willing to wait until we get candidates who meet the same qualifications as the current crop of scientists.

Setting aside the social justice issues as givens, I have two very selfish reasons for wanting the inside of science to look the same as the world outside.

  1. It will increase the general trust in science.
  2. It will produce better science.

I’ve been in (probably far too) many discussions about the image problems of science. You know the refrain: “Those arrogant, irrelevant, condescending elitists? Why should I listen to them?” You’ll keep hearing it as long as science looks and sounds like “them” instead of “us.” As long as science doesn’t look like them, people won’t believe it’s working fully in their interest. And they’ll be right.

As long as science doesn’t include some group, it will fail to ask questions of vital importance to that group. Remember how the health of middle-class white men was once assumed to be the same thing as general human health? Nor is it over. What do decision-making and communication studies using undergraduate subjects really tell us about everyone else? Even when they’re replicated more broadly, how does the fact that they’re tailored for this group affect the results?

The best way to fix both problems is to make sure that the inside of science looks as much like the outside world as we can make it. I want everyone on the inside, all the insides.

I want men and women and the transgendered in there. I want people of all ethnic backgrounds. I want immigrants, native-born and aboriginals. I want parents and the childless and the child-free. I want the inspired and the plodders. I want people who came to science as a second or third career and those who have never once wanted to do anything else. I want the specialists and the bumblebees flitting from discipline to discipline.

I want workaholics and part-timers and hobbyists. I want people of all sorts of sexualities. I want grand theorists and precision techs. I want introverts and glad-handers. I want the poor and the economically privileged. I want administrators and people who want to play in the dirt. I want believers and skeptics. I want those whose personal ambition drives them to compete and those who view science as a community endeavor.

I want the followers and the feather-smoothers and the punks and the gadflies. I want gamblers and people who take only solid odds. I want city kids and farm kids and suburbanites. I want popularizers and people who qualify their jargon for precision's sake. I want the disgustingly healthy and the disabled. I want the organized and those who will put ideas together because they pick up two seemingly unrelated papers when a stack tumbles to the floor.

I want everyone. I want people I don’t know I want.

The problem with having a limited outlook is that we don’t--we can’t--know what it is that we don’t know. None of us can know who will ask different questions than we do, important questions. None of us can know how different the world looks from even a slightly different angle, what connections others can see that we can’t. We need this information.

In science--in any endeavor that requires thinking--diversity is not just a nice idea. It's a qualification in its own right. And it's the one qualification that can't be fostered without reaching outside.

October 14, 2008

For the Hockey Moms

Because I know Palin has been such a disappointment to you. Just a little something to cheer you up.

Thanks to James for the surreality.

Four Thousand and Twenty-Seven

Not really, but too much:


Give cute instead:

October 13, 2008

Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival #3

It's discouraging (yet energizing) to be able to do a weekly blog carnival on the topic of why one U.S. Representative should be voted out of office and still have plenty of material each week. But Michele Bachmann just keeps providing reasons she needs to leave as soon as possible.

I also have a personal reason to want to see Bachmann go. When people ask me where I'm from, I have to tell them that I graduated from Stillwater High School (many, many years ago). The reaction I get may be distrust or it may be pity, but the words are always the same. "Isn't that where Michele Bachmann is from?"

Think I'm exaggerating? Check out this reaction to last week's carnival at Tangled Up in Blue Guy. In this case, all of Minnesota is being tarred with the Bachmann brush. The same thing happens in the comments at Wonkette, with barely more than a mention of her name. People are laughing at us because of Bachmann.

The latest statement by Bachmann that has the national onlookers up in arms (and falling down with laughter) is her statement that we don't need to worry about the environment and global warming, because the planet's already been saved--by Jesus. Seriously. Talking Points Memo keeps track of other Bachmann doozies that have caught their attention, as does The Progressive Puppy.

Back in Minnesota, at Tangled Up in Blue Guy, Mike is wondering why, if we have to deal with Bachmann representing us to the world, nobody here has seen her lately. The Fruit Fly notes that ever more people are asking the same question. Blue man in a Red district is also wondering where Michele Bachmann is, in particular, why her campaign was at a parade without her.

I've been in the Cokato Corn Carnival parade as a candidate. One steadfast rule of the Cokato Corn Carnival parade is that the candidate must be with the parade group.

Bachmann was AWOL.

Theories as to Bachmann's absence were abundant...

Perhaps the rain would have made her melt?

Perhaps the Congresswoman doesn't quite have this "vacation" thing down yet?

Bachmann playing absentee from her district is not new, but these days, she has a better reason than ever to avoid showing her face in town. The FBI arrest of local businessman Tom Petters is everywhere in the news. Frank Vennes was the point person for transferring large amounts of money from local Christian groups and charities to Petters' fraudulent investment vehicle--at the same time he was donating to Michele Bachmann's campaign, and at the same time she was working to get him a presidential pardon. But why let me explain it when The Fruit Fly has an excellent summary of the situation?

Bachmann has, of course, rescinded the letter that she wrote asking for Vennes' pardon, but the Dump Michele Bachmann blog has a copy.

Mr. Vennes is a truly unique man in that he is not asking for a pardon that he may achieve personal success. By the grace of God, this has been done. Mr. Vennes is seeking a pardon so that he may be further used to help others.

There is still a great deal of question as to who was using whom, but we can be pretty sure it wasn't God using Vennes to help others. Dump Michele Bachmann has some information that casts doubt on the her claims that Vennes was helping anyone. Greg Laden has footage from the ongoing coverage. Anomalous Data examines the double standard in allowable associations for Republican congressional candidates and Democratic presidential candidates.

In a first for this carnival, Bachmann herself tries her hand at blogging, parroting the claims of the Tax Foundation that Minnesota is among the top 10 states in being unwelcoming to business. Do be forgiving, at least about the formatting. She's new at this. (Actually, she's not, but considering that back in April, she was trying to put the brakes on a mortgage rescue proposal, she'd probably prefer that we forget that.)

Or if you're not in a forgiving mood after reading all this, Idiosyncracy presents another "top" 10 list for your consideration: the top 10 worst lawmakers in Congress.

Apparently the magazine said this of Bachmann, “One gets the impression that if, in the name of ‘traditional values,’ Bachmann could rescind the vote for women, she would. Her vacant, wild eyes recall a doomsday prophet, or one of Charlie Manson’s girls. Equal parts religious hack and party hack, she’s got spunk and not much else.”

Actually, Bachmann does have one more thing. I took a look at her voting record and discovered that she has the ability to say, "No." Of course, she says it consistently, no matter what legislation is involved and how many, even of her own party, think it's a good thing.

The good news is that we do have an alternative. A donation of time or money to El Tinklenberg, Bachmann's opponent, can help get Minnesota off that list. A donation now can be particularly effective, considering that the national Republican groups are starting to scale back their advertising purchases in Minnesota. If they're not backing Bachmann the way they did in 2006, it's because they know just how vulnerable someone this out of touch with reality and with the voters really is.

You can also help with the carnival. Volunteer to host an edition or submit Bachmann news. And check back in a week for the next edition. See what Bachmann has been up to...and where she's been.

October 12, 2008

What Is Race Good For?

Greg Laden posted a nice review of a traveling science museum exhibit on race and racism. His post touched on a couple of points of disagreement between him and the creators of the exhibit, but all the argument that followed was over this:

First, the parts we agree with: There is no such thing as race (biologically), race is a social construct used as a political and economic tool, even efforts to use race in a "positive" way such as in medicine or forensics are doomed to failure because of the lack of biological validity of the concept, and so on and so forth.

This brought out the racists, as has been the case every time I've seen a statement like this made, but unlike in the past, I got involved in the argument. I learned a lot doing so, and I want capture and summarize that here, for myself and others.

These get to be pretty important in any argument like this, especially for avoiding accusations of ad hominem attacks. These are the relevant definitions from the Websters Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged.

Racism: the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another, which is usually coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its right to domination over others. [emphasis mine]

Valid: based on distinctive characteristics of recognized importance: founded on an adequate basis of classification.

I emphasized "usually" in the definition of racism because belief in racial superiority is not necessarily part of racism, although it is important in explaining racism's negative effects. It is, however, the piece that people who defend the concept of race focus on when you use the first part of the definition to classify them as racists.

The Argument for Race
There were four main arguments made for the biological validity of race:

  1. Genetic testing allows for grouping by country of ancestor origin.
  2. Race may not predict the things it's been used to predict in the past, but it's an important proxy for genetics in medicine.
  3. Yes, assignment of humans to racial categories is an arbitrary procedure, but we use arbitrary names for parts of other continua. Why not race?
  4. You're just being PC, Marxist wankers.

I think we can ignore #4, but the rest were addressed in the discussion.

Where to Start
Most of the racists started with the assumption of race and told the rest of us to disprove it. However, as Greg pointed out, that's the wrong base assumption. We don't assume that each bird that we see that is slightly darker than its fellows or is missing a tail feather is a new subspecies. If we want to claim that they represent a group distinct from another group, we have to define the boundaries of the group and prove their validity.

We expect genetic variation. We expect changes in the frequency of alleles across types of environments, across distances from the point of origin of a mutation. Human history is in part a history of trade and conquest, so we also expect changes in frequency across trade routes and distances from trade routes, across distances from imperial centers.

The key word is "across." As noted before, people trade and fight and have sex and produce offspring with their neighbors. Greg likened this to a game of genetic telephone. What you hear at any two widely separated points may sound distinct, but there is a chain of changes between them. We can divide up our players, but why?

The burden is on the person wanting to impose categorization to show that the categories are valid--both accurate and useful. The existence of a distinct genetic population of humans is not an impossibility, but what we know of human history makes it quite unlikely.

Genetics of Origin
The racists brought up studies that showed that, starting from a knowledge of the region of origin of a test population's ancestors, researchers could find genetic markers that, in combination, could sort the test subjects into clusters by region of origin. This was given as evidence of the underlying genetic validity of race. There are three problems with these studies.

The first is a sampling problem. Remember that game of telephone? One of the racists in the thread suggested sampling whites from Sweden, blacks from Nigeria, and Asians from China. Researchers in one study cited excluded subjects who gave "other" for their race. If you cut out the parts of your sample that don't unambiguously fit into your racial mold, it's much easier to point to the remaining subjects as supporting it.

The second problem is related to how the genetic data was chosen. Researchers used a program for analysis that searched for sites among the hundreds sampled on the genome that could be used to sort the population into a specified number of groups. That means that sites that didn't covary weren't used in the analysis. Variation was again discarded on the path to finding distinct populations, and even then, the one of these studies cited in its entirety was not able to differentiate between two Asian groups without restricting their data further. Other studies that haven't discarded data have found that there is much more variation within races than between them.

Third, nothing about these studies suggested that there were any real-world correlates of any note to the genetic sites used to separate the populations, thus failing to demonstrate any importance in the differences that were found. Relying on self-reported data on origin, they did not even show that the genetics they were testing correlated to any traits typically used to sort people into races.

Race for Medicine's Sake
One of the more seemingly benign arguments for clinging to the concept of race is that it can provide a clue to underlying genetics that can be useful in diagnosing or treating disease. After all, we know that Ashkenazi Jews get Tay-Sachs and that Africans get sickle-cell anemia. Again, there are multiple problems with this argument.

Both Tay-Sachs and sickle-cell anemia are genetic disorders with well-defined mechanisms, but environmental factors play a role in many diseases. Many of the other disorders that are often linked to race, such as skin cancer and hypertension, do not have such well-defined causes. Limiting diagnosis and treatment advice based on race in these cases is risky at best.

Even among known genetic disorders, inheritance is not based on race as we know it. There are no races that all get one disease that no one else gets. The gene for sickle-cell anemia is adaptive in areas with high rates of malaria. This means that there are areas of Africa with almost no instance of the gene and areas of Europe and Asia with fairly high rates. Tay-Sachs is prevalent among one population of Jews but not others. It is also prevalent among Cajuns. French Canadians also have a higher than average prevalence, but the underlying genetics among Quebecers is different than among Cajuns, who share a mutation with the Ashkenazi Jews. As in the studies on population genetics, single genetic markers show very little correlation with race or point of ancestor origin.

Continua and Complexity
"Erm, okay," say the racists, finally. "Maybe the underlying genetics do vary smoothly. That doesn't mean they don't vary. We use arbitrary names for other continua, like color. Why not for races?"

While this is once again starting from the assumption that race has validity--that it already measures something--and thus, the wrong question, it does raise a couple of issues that are worth talking about. Color, an example used in the discussion, is provocative. The underlying continuum is smooth, but we do use divisions of it, frequently and successfully, in communicating with each other. Why can't we do the same with race?

The answer is complexity. To the extent that we agree on a definition of a name, saying that something is a particular color tells us what wavelength(s) it reflects or emits. What does race tell us? What is the underlying continuum that we're measuring?

Of course, we can't reduce humans to a single continuum of variability. We even have difficulty finding traits once considered to be racial traits that vary with geography in ways a racial model would predict. Skin color varies with average sun exposure as much as it does with any known pattern of migration. Analysis of skeletal remains, now and in the past, does not reliably indicate group identity. Facial features and body proportions are both too variable and too consistent across groups.

The continua that race tries to measure are not single, smooth gradations around the world. They don't always follow the same paths, so that if we overlaid one trait on another, the resulting map would look somewhat like plaid but much fuzzier. A third overlay, accounting for just one more trait, would produce an even more muddled map. Where do we stop and still see anything that look like groups without the groups being larger than an extended family--or even an individual? We would have to reduce the number of traits to the point that we would only be measuring trivial differences between us.

Still No Answers
The question I kept asking during the discussion is, "What does race tell us?" It still goes unanswered after all the debate. If someone wants to claim that race has biological validity, race has to not only be based on biological measurements that distinguish the categories used, which current racial classifications are not. It also has to tell us something about the biology of race that is nontrivial. Importance is a critical part of the definition of validity.

After this discussion, I'm much better aware of what race does not tell us. I'm still waiting to be shown what it does.

October 11, 2008

Common Wisdom

I'm not sure what's happening this year. Whatever it is, it isn't what happened four years ago, or eight, or more. The things that everyone knows about politics and elections are turning out to be false. This year.

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin had a debate. Everyone knew that the expectations had been lowered so far for Palin that it would be hard for her to lose. She was folksy. Biden spoke in long words and obscure allusions--the kiss of death. Everyone knows that should have cost him.

People ate it up. Biden won the debate.

Locally, Senator Coleman has been running nothing but attack ads against Al Franken. Everybody says they hate them, but everybody knows they work. So he runs them.

Except this time. Coleman is down in the polls and has decided to withdraw the ads. He says it's because we can't afford to be negative with the economy in shreds. It's because the ads are costing him votes.

I'm not sure what's going on. Voters are behaving differently, unprecedentedly--dare I say rationally? I'm completely confused, but I have only one question.

Can we keep it?

Update: As usual Comrade PhysioProf says far more succinctly, even with all the swearing.

October 10, 2008

Happy Things

Before I parse how badly I was lied to about investing and while I figure out how to miss someone I never knew (no, no link), I thought I'd take Mme. Piggy up on her idea for a gloomy day meme. In the interest of lowering my blood pressure, here are a few of the things that make me happy, in no particular order.

Boys in kilts
A particular pair of deep blue eyes
A sleek, loyal little black cat
Talking nonsense
Hashing out a new idea
Treating libertarians like my personal catnip mice
Fireplace weather
People who don't scare easily
Crisp, clean sheets
Lazy days and energetic conversation
Imposing order
Discovering I've written something that isn't crap
Dirt under my fingernails
Pop music with complicated rhythms and clever lyrics
Using personal space to herd pedestrians
The iPod shuffle function
A crispy, gooey, chewy oatmeal raisin cookie
Bare feet
Discovering that there are more of "us" out there
When the music is dancing to me
A big, unwieldy jigsaw puzzle
The bitter with the sweet
Throwing a little swing into the slack rope
Unabashed metaphor
Following along one step ahead
Years-long running jokes
Strong cheese
Finding the flaw in the argument
The silent shared smile
Information on demand
Looking behind the mask
Story, story, story

How about you?

October 09, 2008

What Is Rebalancing?

I am not a finance expert. I am not an investment expert. I am someone who pays attention when one of these people makes a suggestion that will affect my retirement investments, however, which means I rebalanced my 401(k) last week.

Yesterday, I was talking to someone who received the same advice I did. She said, "I haven't rebalanced yet. Maybe I don't understand, but it seems to me like a way to lock in losses."

She was right. She didn't understand. And if she didn't understand, despite having a background in math, someone reading this probably doesn't understand either. I think she got it after I explained it to her, so I'll throw my explanation out here too.

You can ignore this if you have your retirement investments in a target-date fund. They do the rebalancing for you. You can also ignore it if the idea of looking at what the stock market plunge has done to your money makes you queasy. If so, get into a target-date fund and forget about the money for a while.

In short, rebalancing between stocks and stable value (usually bond) investments means that when stocks grow, you squirrel away some of your gains in the stable value funds to protect them in case the market goes down. If stocks decline in value, bonds usually get more attractive to investors, so rebalancing is your way of using some of the bonds' increased value to buy stock on the cheap, while it's possibly undervalued.

Let's say you're an investor with 30 years to go before retirement. You set your investments up so new funds coming in go into 10% stable value, 40% large cap stocks, 30% small cap stocks, and 20% international stocks. At the end of a year in which all your investments are growing but domestic stocks have a large upswing in value, your actual funds might be 7% stable value, 42% large cap stocks, 35% small cap stocks, and 16% international stocks. If you rebalance to your original allocations, you move 2% of your funds out of the large cap and 5% out of your small cap to stick 3% in your more-protected stable value fund and 4% in international stocks, which can outpace domestic stocks in growth in the next year just by catching up to them in value.

The numbers aren't quite as dramatic, but that's more or less what I did at the end of 2007. That means I moved money out of stocks before they started falling in January. Last week, after the panic sell-off of stocks, I rebalanced again. I ended up buying cheap stocks. Sure, I did it before another round of panic, but it beat waiting until they were going up again.

If you have an investment adviser, by all means, ask them what you should do. If you don't, well, the advice I got was that now is the time to rebalance. What are you waiting for?

October 08, 2008

ScienceOnline'09 Update

Woo hoo! I'm happy to announce that I now have a co-moderator for the Science Fiction in Science Blogs session at ScienceOnline'09 in January. Peggy Kolm of, among other blogs, Biology in Science Fiction and Women in Science, will be joining me. Peggy is exactly the person I would have wanted as a co-moderator, had the choice been left up to me, and I was tickled to hear that she can make the conference.

The description for our panel has been updated a bit:

Science fiction has inspired curiosity and enthusiasm in generations of children. How can science bloggers draw on SF’s power to entertain and educate? What science can we find in fiction beyond the old multi-page calculations of rocket trajectories? What does the practice of science look like in SF? In the past, scientists like Asimov and Clarke were the ones writing SF. Who’s producing the good stuff these days, and what makes a good bad example? Many modern SF writers blog too. What opportunities exist for cross-promotion and educating the writers? And which bloggers are already doing it all right?

It is, however, still a work in progress, which is where we can use your help. A discussion page has been set up for the session. Go tell us what you want us to be prepared to talk about, whether it's a question you want to see answered, a writer you want talked up, or a field or discipline you want covered.

For that matter, just drop us a note to let us know you're coming to the session. It's an early one, and just knowing we're going to have an audience will help us both as we contemplate being verbal at that time of day.

October 07, 2008

Why Vaccinate? Fighting Mutants

It's flu vaccination season again, and we've all heard the excuses not to take the stick: It hurts. (briefly) I never get the flu. (yet) I don't hang around with old people or babies. (you never go out in public?) I'm healthy; I can take it. (better than you can take a needle, huh?)

We all know the reasons to be vaccinated too, or at least we know some of them. We know that, even if we're not vaccinated against the exact strain we're exposed to, vaccination can reduce the severity of the flu. We know that a barrier of vaccinated people is the best way to keep the flu virus from reaching vulnerable populations, whose bodies can be overwhelmed by the virus.

You may not know that getting vaccinated makes you a scifi hero. Why? You get to fight mutants.

Okay, you actually get to fight mutations, but it's still a heroic thing to do. You see, every time a copy of the flu virus infects one of your cells, it marshalls the cell to start producing more copies of the virus. Each of those copies has the potential to be a bad copy, a mutation. Once produced, a mutation may die on its own, your immune system may zap it, or it may infect another cell and start cranking out copies of the mutation.

These mutations, just like most scifi mutants, are bad news. Why? Because each bad copy that survives is one step further away from the strain of the virus to which people have some immunity. That makes the virus spread better, because it gets to more cells. So, if you don't get immunized and you get the flu, the flu virus you shed may be more likely to make someone else sick than the flu shed by the person you got it from.

Also, although it's an unlikely event, each mutation--or a combination of rapid mutations--has the potential to turn the flu into something no one's immune system recognizes. That means it can get into anyone's cells and multiply. That means people fighting to develop an immune response before the mutant virus kills them. That means pandemic.

Unlikely, as I said (the next pandemic flu is almost certain to come from animals), but not impossible. Why chance it when you can be a hero?

Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival

This is a new carnival, special to this election season. The purpose? To see Michele Bachmann fired as a Minnesota representative to the U.S. House. The reason? Do you know who Michele Bachmann is? Have you heard her speak? Did you see her kiss Bush? Ew!


Greg Laden hosted the first edition last week. Mike is hosting at Tangled Up in Blue Guy this week. I've been promised next week's slot, although I don't see it yet on the calendar. Tune in then, and I'll share my more personal reason for wanting her gone.