My sister

Posted by Sappho on September 4th, 2018 filed in Daily Life

On August 22, 2018, my younger sister Jessie had a severe fall and fractured her neck, and back, and broke her foot, and hit her head. She has had to have an operation to fuse her vertebrae and faces months of rehabilitation. Please hold her in the Light, pray for her, send good vibes her way, according to whatever your spiritual beliefs may be.

Jessie’s GoFundMe page

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Bang the Drum Slowly

Posted by Sappho on August 26th, 2018 filed in RIP

I meant to ask you, how when everything seemed lost,
And your fate was in a game of dice they tossed,
There was still that line that you would never cross
At any cost.

Emmy Lou Harris, in “Bang the Drum Slowly,” a song about her late father

Perhaps you’ll remember him like this: John McCain, war hero, political maverick and GOP standard-bearer, dies at 81

Or perhaps you’ll remember him more like this:

The party of Donald Trump began almost 10 years ago to the day, when John McCain tapped Sarah Palin to join his ticket.

As we watched McCain slowly approach his death of the same illness that killed Teddy Kennedy and my husband’s mother and grandfather, tributes to him poured in from across the political spectrum for our straight talking maverick and man of principle. But so, too, did criticisms. Some were crass and not worth hearing (foremost among these the petty sniping of President “I like people who weren’t captured” Bone Spurs, and those among his followers who seemed to think that McCain’s loyalty was owed not to his country but to his President). But others came not from people seeking blind loyalty to Trump but from people who regretted one or more of McCain’s policy choices.

“De mortuis nihil nisi bonum” is a rule best applied to the funerals of private individuals, and not to the obituaries that take the measure of public figures. A man like McCain wields great power over our lives for both good and ill, and it is fair, now that he is dead, to remember him as both the hero of Hanoi Hilton, who even at great cost refused to be released before his fellow prisoners and as a member of the Keating Five, cleared of wrongdoing but admonished for bad judgment. To be grateful for his deciding vote in preserving the ACA and regret his bad judgment in choice of Vice Presidential candidate.

Fair, too, to note that some of the tributes that come to him after death come from those who did not always show him the same respect in life. When Rove used push polls to suggest that McCain’s Bangladeshi daughter was an illegitimate black child, well, the appeal to racism had a reach that stretched beyond McCain’s family.

“The evil that men do lives after them,” says Marc Anthony in Shakespeare’s version of his funeral oration, “The good is oft interred with their bones.” I always found it an odd statement. Jane Austen’s “Human nature is so well disposed towards those who are in interesting situations, that a young person, who either marries or dies, is sure of being kindly spoken of.” strikes me as truer to how we usually speak of the dead. Not only the young but those who, like McCain, live to a ripe old age, are bound to be praised at the moment of death.

And yet perhaps there’s a touch of truth to Marc Anthony’s speech when it comes to public figures. They can do so much harm when they fail us that we sometimes, in mixed cases, remember most vividly their worst acts. And so Herbert Hoover is remembered far more for his central failure as President, facing the Great Depression, than for his relief work in Europe after World War I.

So don’t hush people speaking of McCain’s faults (though we’re allowed to disagree on what those faults are), or tell them they must wait till after his funeral to raise them. Part of the cost of fame and power is having people take your full measure, for good and ill, at the moment of death. But if there’s anything to be taken from “De mortuis nihil nisi bonum,” as applied to public figures, it’s that it’s good to remember the good as well as the bad, and that if “the evil that men do lives after them,” the good is not interred with their bones.

In McCain’s case, that good is not hard for me to find. There’s his moment of heroism as a prisoner of war in the “Hanoi Hilton.” There’s the grace under pressure of his concession speech to Obama on winning the Presidency “of the country that we both love.” There’s McCain’s persistence in opposing torture, with a moral force that no one could supply better than he, at a time when some Democrats wavered on the issue. There’s the fact that, when Michael Steele grew concerned about the results of his investigations, McCain was the one who could be trusted to put country before party and deliver the “dossier” to the FBI to review the truth or falsehood of the findings. There’s his rejection of birtherism at a time when too many Republicans played coy on the issue. There’s that vote preserving the ACA. And there’s the grace in defeat that led him to choose both the men who beat him in Presidential races to deliver his eulogies.

You may have a different list. You may also have a different list from me of McCain’s failings (for me, “Bomb bomb bomb Iran” was a low point).

The man was far more hawkish than I wanted in a President, and I’ll never regret voting for Obama over him. But at the same time, I never doubted his love for his country, and I never doubted that he had lines that he would never cross.

Here’s McCain roasting Obama at the Alfred E. Smith dinner (be sure to check out the part where he gets serious, around the 5 minute mark).

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The meaning of the word “racism”

Posted by Sappho on August 16th, 2018 filed in Race

There was a column, I think at the National Review, that I meant to respond to, but now when I Google and look for it I keep finding, instead, columns that are less thoughtful and nuanced than the one I remember reading, and that don’t contain words I was sure that I had seen there. So I’ll write my own post instead, about descriptive and prescriptive linguistics and the meaning of words, and how that applies to the meaning of the word “racism.”
Read the rest of this entry »

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Holy Fire

Posted by Sappho on August 9th, 2018 filed in California Wildfires

Some outside this area have been confused about why we have a Holy Fire.

No, the fire was not named to suggest any divine judgment on our communities. (And, by the way, if the wind starts blowing our way and brings the fire to my own home, it will also come to Saddleback Church, the megachurch led by Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Filled Life. It’s possible those evacuated already include attenders of that church.)

No, the place where the fire started was not named Holy Jim Canyon after a cult leader.

The man who gave the canyon its name was actually “Cussin’ Jim.”

So you can think of it as a Holy Fire in the ironic sense. As in, “well, bless that fire’s heart.”

But Holy Jim wouldn’t have used the word “bless.”

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Sandy Hook, Alex Jones, defamation

Posted by Sappho on August 9th, 2018 filed in Law, News and Commentary

OK, I am not a lawyer, and I don’t play one on the net. So I can’t say how the law does work here, just how I think it should work.

  1. Defamation is the action of damaging the good reputation of another. It strikes me that maintaining for years that the parents of children who have been shot and killed were making the whole thing up is damaging their good reputation.
  2. Damages: If you are subjected to death threats and have to relocate several times because someone spreads lies about your six-year-old son who died, it strikes me that damages are involved.
  3. “Public figure”: Normally, in the US, if you are a “public figure,” you have to prove “malice” in a defamation case, which can be hard. But what kind of public figure are the Sandy Hook parents? They’re not powerful politicians, like Hillary Clinton (who might reasonably have trouble if she were to bring a defamation case against people who falsely accuse her of having Seth Rich killed, even though the claim is bullshit, because – public figure). They’re not even the sort of “limited public figure” who chose to put herself in the public eye on a particular issue. Rather, they’re famous only because their children were killed.
  4. How many years did Alex Jones spread this lie in the face of ample evidence that yes, there was a mass shooting at Sandy Hook? To me, that looks like publishing statements with reckless disregard for whether they are true or false? And wouldn’t that be malice? At least enough malice for a case involving people who are only famous because fame was thrust on them when their young children were killed?

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#HolyFire and other links

Posted by Sappho on August 8th, 2018 filed in California Wildfires, News and Commentary

We live near #HolyFire though not near enough to be directly threatened at this time. Here is the Inciweb page for #HolyFire (as of 12 hours ago, 3399 acres and 2% contained).

There is, of course, an even bigger fire in Northern California. My cousin-in-law, who got involved with volunteer fire relief after a fire recently hit his neck of the woods in California, has been posting on Facebook that Upper Ojai Relief, the organization formed to provide relief after the Thomas fire, has been sending fire relief to Northern California.

Meanwhile, it has also been a bad year for wildfires in Greece. The increased severity of wildfires in both California and Greece raise questions about wildfires and climate change.

My friend Daniel Faigin recently blogged about Flaws in the American System and what he would change if he could. On a similar note, the Protect Democracy Project has some proposals on how to make American democracy more robust.

The date for reuniting all the parents and children separated at the border has come and gone, and it’s important to remember that over 500 children are still separated from their parents, in many cases because the parents were already deported without their children. The latest word, last week, was that the court pushed back on the government’s attempt to make the ACLU responsible for finding all the deported parents, ruling that the US government is responsible for finding the parents of separated children.

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Links from a few of my friends’ blogs

Posted by Sappho on July 26th, 2018 filed in Blogwatch

Smash diabetes! by Lance Christian Johnson

Sometimes, in order to save my seven year old son’s life, I give him gummy bears. A friend of mine once helped me out by giving him Cheetos. I’ve also given him cake frosting, which I had to do the last time we took a bike ride. I just told him to open his mouth as I squeezed it right out of the tube.

That’s Life: Peggy on the difficulties of her life during the past few years and how

God never promised us a peaceful and comfortable life. He promised that He’d be with us in the hard times, and that His ultimate plan for us is a good one…by His definition of good, not ours.

Keith Gatling on Avoiding Responsibility?

One of the things we discussed is how much the world had changed since we last saw each other. As an example I used one of our doctors, who is the father of a former student of mine. When I asked how his daughter was, he beamed and said that she was doing well…and was living with her boyfriend in Philadelphia. I mentioned how 30 years earlier the father would be grumbling about his daughter living with her boyfriend, rather than beaming.

I thought this was a good change. My friends, however, didn’t. They saw it as “kids these days” wanting to have sex with none of the responsibility. I didn’t want to turn what was an enjoyable time together into a debate, but I quietly vehemently disagreed with them.

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And all the rest is by the way

Posted by Sappho on July 23rd, 2018 filed in Daily Life

I wake up and check Twitter first thing. The President is threatening war with Iran, probably to distract attention from the upcoming Manafort trial.

I get off Twitter, go downstairs, and get a breakfast of a curried cauliflower dish. I tell Echo to play Dire Straits’ “Why Worry.”

One of the kittens brings me her ball. I throw the ball for her over and over again.

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ACLU Media call — SCOTUS Muslim ban ruling

Posted by Sappho on July 1st, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

A friend of mine attended an ACLU media call right after the SCOTUS ruling on the latest iteration of the Muslim ban. With her permission, I am sharing her notes on the highlights of the call:

ACLU Media call today (12:00 p.m. – 12:42 p.m.) — Highlights

1. This ban won’t last forever. Congress can overrule. SCOTUS can overrule itself.
2. This SCOTUS decision does not make all other Trump policies okay.
3. Decision shows that Constitution and Bill of Rights aren’t working.
4. Can’t mitigate harm this decision does to many people.
5. ACLU message to Dearborn Muslims: wish we could share better news, very disappointing. We stand by you and continue to fight.
6. Going forward: ACLU to read closely the Court decision and explore options, will continue to take Trump to court. People can lobby their legislators.
7. Muslims don’t just come from banned Middle Eastern countries. There are Muslims in Eastern Europe that aren’t banned. Is this a Muslim ban or an anti-Arabic ban? Muslims from Middle East are Muslims of color and not lighter skinned Muslim. Good point.
8. Court turned blind eye. Does this ban suggest the President has unlimited power? ACLU answer: No, prez does not have unlimited power. No court decision is endorsement of unchecked prez power. SCOTUS has historically failed to do its job properly; today is one such example.
9. Court has not recognized Muslim ban for what it is. We rely on court to protect our rights. Policy level, court, public opinion = ways to change status quo.

“This ruling will go down in history as one of the Supreme Court’s great failures. It repeats the mistakes of the Korematsu decision upholding Japanese-American imprisonment and swallows wholesale government lawyers’ flimsy national security excuse for the ban instead of taking seriously the president’s own explanation for his action. It is ultimately the people of this country who will determine its character and future. The court failed today, and so the public is needed more than ever. We must make it crystal clear to our elected representatives: If you are not taking actions to rescind and dismantle Trump’s Muslim ban, you are not upholding this country’s most basic principles of freedom and equality.”

History of U.S. Immigration Policies

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“It makes a difference to this one”

Posted by Sappho on June 28th, 2018 filed in News and Commentary

I don’t know whether we win this one. Between the upholding of Muslim Ban 3.0, the fact that Congress seems supine, and the difficulty of taking both houses of Congress …

… but I’m thinking “Do not go gentle into that good night”

And also about the story of the guy throwing starfish back into the sea and “it makes a difference to *this* one.”

Any victory won is better than not fighting. If we hadn’t fought, we’d still have Muslim Ban 1.0, and *none* of the separated children returned.

However good or bad our prospects, they can only be better if we resist than if we don’t.

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Suffer the Little Children

Posted by WiredSisters on June 18th, 2018 filed in Guest Blogger, Law, Moral Philosophy, Torture

That’s a mistranslation, of course.  Not a mistranslation from the Greek in which the Gospels were originally written, a mistranslation from the King James English in which most English-speaking readers were introduced to the Gospels.  It actually means “allow the kids to come sit on My lap, don’t stop them.”  But the suffering of children is actually what we’re dealing with right now.

As I understand the legalities of the situation, as officially explained by the government, most of the parents in this situation have been arrested (under a “zero-tolerance” policy) for misdemeanor violations of immigration law, for entering or attempting to enter the US without proper permission, and forthwith tried and sentenced to “detention,” usually for a matter of days or weeks.  Since those squishy-soft Democrats won’t let the government put their kids in jail with them, the kids have to be put someplace else.[1]  The fact that the kids and the parents usually do not know each other’s whereabouts, or when (or if) they will be reunited, is just a matter of normal bureaucratic fog in a very large, very complex system, rendered even more complex by the fact that the various parties speak two or more different languages (or, in the case of really young infants, no language at all.)  Eventually it will all be sorted out, and the parents and their children will be sent back to Honduras or wherever to live happily ever after until they get killed by some gang.

So that’s administration explanation #1: we’re just enforcing the law.  The kids are just collateral damage.

Administration explanation #2, officially, openly, and publicly made by Jeff Sessions among others, gets into the criminal law framework: we are doing this to “deter” other would-be migrants from south of the border from coming north and bringing their children with them.  We have always viewed “deterrence” as a legitimate goal of law enforcement, even when it means inflicting pain on people with perfectly good extenuating circumstances in order to deter less worthy defendants from misbehaving.  In a strictly constitutional framework, that would be at best suspect.  A good criminal justice system should look only at the effect of this punishment on this defendant.  Here, we are not only inflicting pain on the actual lawbreakers (and completely ignoring the fact that many of them may not even be lawbreakers, but merely people trying to exercise the internationally-recognized right to seek asylum from persecution), but also inflicting pain on their children, who have committed no crime at all and are therefore not lawful objects of deterrence.  Consistent with the repeated claims of the Hard Right that the victims of mass shootings and natural disasters are merely “actors,” the administration is using these children as actors, or even props, in security theater meant to intimidate unoffending residents of foreign countries into not darkening [sic] our door.  As to the parents, misdemeanants at worst and would-be asylees at best, this is cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.  As to the children, it is deprivation of liberty without due process of law, a violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment.

And finally, administration explanation #3, less officially, says that this gross violation of the human rights of the children[2] is a way to pressure the Democrats into giving the administration the highly restrictive immigration law it wants.  That’s not just cruel and unconstitutional, it’s downright cynical.  It is no different from the behavior of the criminal gangs the administration is allegedly trying to keep out—“Do what we want or we’ll kidnap your children.” Or “Do what we want or we’ll kidnap other people’s children.”

Well, there’s no point quoting the Bible to these people—the only part of it any of them seem capable of remembering is the part in Romans 13 where Paul says to obey the government because it is ordained by God.  Many biblical scholars believe the Letter to the Romans was written by Paul in jail. Presumably he didn’t get there by obeying the Roman government. It’s certainly not how he got his head chopped off some years later.  He probably wasn’t advising his fellow Christians to burn that little pinch of incense to Caesar, since it was ordered by the government, which was authorized by God.

God does not authorize the kidnapping and imprisonment of children.  Like Thomas Jefferson, I tremble when I reflect that God is just.


[1] In fact, a number of prison systems, not only in the modern industrialized countries of Europe and South America, but even among the barbarian hordes of the United States, allow incarcerated mothers to keep their infants and small children with them, at least for a year or two, so this is really a specious argument.

[2] Note, BTW, that the United States is the only country in the world that has not ratified the International Convention on the Rights of the Child—yet another downside of American Exceptionalism.

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Quote of the Day, from Sojourner Truth

Posted by Sappho on June 17th, 2018 filed in Quotes

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?

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Quote of the Day

Posted by Sappho on June 4th, 2018 filed in Quotes

Usually when we hear or read something new, we just compare it to our own ideas. If it is the same, we accept it and say that it is correct. If it is not, we say that it is incorrect. In either case, we learn nothing.

Thich Nhat Hanh

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Round Up: Immigrant kids ripped from parents, CA June primary, economics of Smaug, DNA IQ tests

Posted by Sappho on May 30th, 2018 filed in Blogwatch, California Ballot Propositions, DNA, News and Commentary

Houston Chronicle, Immigrant families separated at border struggle to find each other

Esteban Pastor hoped U.S. Border Patrol agents would free him and his 18-month-old son after they were arrested for crossing the southern border illegally last summer.

He had mortgaged his land in Guatemala to fund his sick toddler’s hospital stay, and needed to work in the United States to pay off the loan.

Instead agents imprisoned the 28-year-old in July for coming back into the country after having been deported, a felony. They placed the toddler in a federal shelter, though where, Pastor didn’t know. Three months later, in October, the father was deported — alone. His child, he said agents told him, was “somewhere in Texas.”

“I cried. I begged,” he said. “No one could tell me anything.”

Momastery: Emergency flash mob for the children on what’s old, what’s new, and a proposal for action:

But first, a summary on what we have learned. There are two separate issues being conflated in the news:

1) HERE IS WHAT IS NEW, AND UNDENIABLY HORRIFIC: Our government has changed its policy about families who cross the border, and it is resulting in families being torn apart.

Historically speaking, with few exceptions, the U.S. has treated immigration violations as civil — rather than criminal — offenses. Therefore, children have not typically been torn away from their parents even when the parents enter the legal system as a result of immigration violations. Families were, at worst, detained together, or they were released with notice to appear at a later court hearing.

However, the current administration has dismissed this historic practice as “catch and release” and in its place has established a “zero-tolerance” policy – subjecting “100% of illegal southwest border crossings” to criminal prosecution – even crossers who may be asylum seekers. So now, parents are ensnared in the criminal system, their children are immediately ripped out of their arms without explanation, and parents and babies are sent to different detention centers – often hundreds of miles away from each other….

(Here I’m going to note that many of the people indignantly defending the new policy with “They broke the law!” have themselves been ticketed for exceeding the speed limit, and would be shocked if one fine day, without warning, the civil penalty for this offense were converted to a penalty that included having their children ripped away and sent to an unknown location. And those who haven’t ever broken any law, including traffic laws, probably have family members who have exceeded the speed limit, and not lost their children for it.)

Daniel Faigin: June 2016 California Primary Analysis (VII): Recap and Summary summarizes and links to posts giving a very detailed look at the California primary ballot.

Jim Burklo: VOTIVATOR: How I’m Voting 6-5-18, Calif. Primary for a different take on the California primary ballot.

Stentor Danielson: Smaug, the greatest and chiefest of capitalists

Carl Zimmer at the Atlantic: Genetic intelligence tests are next to worthless

I called up Yaniv Erlich, the scientist who wrote the intelligence program, to ask him about his prediction. Erlich, I should point out, majored in computational neuroscience, got a Ph.D. in genetics, became an associate professor at Columbia, and is on leave from teaching to serve as the chief science officer at the DNA-testing company MyHeritage. I imagine Erlich’s mother is very proud of her boy.

I bring all this up because Erlich burst out laughing when I told him about my report and told me about his own.

“I also get that on the left side,” he said. “Everything is cool. Many smart people end up there.”

Erlich explained that he designed the program to make people cautious about the connection between genes and intelligence….

You see, we do know genes that correlate with intelligence, but they explain so little of the variance that your genetic IQ prediction is essentially meaningless.

And here is Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” sung in Yiddish.

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Something the Left and the Right Agree On

Posted by WiredSisters on May 4th, 2018 filed in Feminism, Guest Blogger, History, Theology

Once a Proctomorph, Always a Proctomorph

Should I start by defining essentialism, or defining proctomorph?  Proctomorph is the more useful word; you will have occasion to use it many times a week, maybe even several times a day if you drive a long commute.  It derives from the same root as proctologist or proctalgia, meaning the backside.  We are all more familiar with its anglo-saxon analog, which has actually been the title of a reasonably respectable book by philosopher Aaron James (Assholes: a Theory) Unlike the anglo-saxonism, proctomorph has both adverbial and adjectival forms, which can make it especially useful in more technical discourse.  It can be (has been) used in open court, on the record, without generating an objection (except perhaps from the court reporter.)  “Make America Proctomorphic Again” is a not-impossible locution.

Essentialism, on the other hand, is a word you may never have seen, much less used in ordinary conversation.  I particularly like philosopher Richard Twine’s definition: “Essentialism, in its most stripped down meaning refers to the belief that people and/or phenomenon have an underlying and unchanging ‘essence’. I like to work with a definition that refers to any statement that seeks to close off the possibility of changeable human behaviour.” As with Mexicans, or undocumented aliens of any nationality, who are all, irrevocably, “criminals,” and many of whom are also “rapists.”  Or as with predatory dominant males, such as Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski, both of whom have just been thrown out of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their deplorable records as sexual predators.

And then there’s the Proctomorph-in-Chief, who is in some quarters being considered for the Nobel Peace Prize for creating the conditions for a peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula.  As compared with his predecessor in office, who actually received that honor for—well, it’s hard to explain for what.  His detractors may claim he never deserved it because he was a Kenyan-born Muslim who—well, that’s hard to explain, too.  What I’m doing here is what judges are supposed to do when deliberating on motions for summary judgment: “view[ing] all evidence in the light most favorable to the movant’s [my] opponent.”

What I keep running across in my Facebook feed is stuff from #MeToo, a group I profoundly sympathize with.  I had to deal with sexual harassment before it was even a thing, before the phrase was even invented.  A boss who groped my thigh while I was driving him to a site for a photo shoot, a restaurant owner who grabbed my breasts while I was waiting for a seat, that kind of stuff.  I found it annoying but not traumatic. I’m glad to see it’s not comic or respectable or “boys will be boys” [actually, it’s usually men being boys, but I digress] any more.  But the thing that concerns me is that many of these creepy or annoying guys have also created some good art.  Or done some other good stuff, like maybe really ending the Korean War.  FDR and JFK fooled around, a lot, but they were also good presidents in most of the ways that counted.  That is, if we still think they did count.  The Cosby show was (a) funny, and (b) helpful to many African-American families trying to raise their kids to feel at home in America. Does that count any more?

In fact, a large proportion of ‘The Best Which has Been Thought and Said’ (as Matthew Arnold described it in Culture and Anarchy) and a fair amount of the best stuff that has been done, came to us in the hands of men [sic] who, at least in their spare time, were sexual predators, wife-beaters, bigots, anti-semites, and in general people I would cross the street to avoid shaking hands with.  Maybe that’s true of Western, and Eastern, and modern, and classical civilization in general.  Obviously, one of the corollaries to that proposition is that we women need to step up and pitch in and create (and publish, and publicize) more of the art and thought and history of our various civilizations.  I’m glad to see that happening these days.

Of course, the Proctomorph-in-Chief hasn’t reunified the Korean peninsula yet, and may never pull it off. And Obama did a lot of things that, post facto, probably rated the Nobel.  Dr. King was a philanderer.  Gandhi was a sexist.  Thoreau was a freeloader.  Teddy Roosevelt was a militarist and a big game hunter.  And, on the other hand, Hitler was a vegetarian.

In short, friends, while most of us occasionally do proctomorphic things, even the worst of us occasionally do, or create, something really good, or at least socially useful, and even the best of us are capable of doing really awful stuff.  It’s probably a good idea to remind ourselves that much of the best that has been thought or said or done comes to us at the hands of human beings who have also thought or said or done some really awful stuff—and vice versa.  Rather than deprive ourselves of heroes and geniuses and their work, can’t we just accept that? It’s true that Gandhi was a sexist—but it follows from that, that many sexists may be mute inglorious Gandhis in their less publicized moments. I am not prepared to throw all of Western, or Jewish, or classical civilization into the dustbin of history, or deprive myself of its pleasures, merely because they were created by human beings capable of proctomorphic behavior. Let’s give this a thought, shall we?

Jane Grey






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Comey’s book, Comey’s faults

Posted by Sappho on April 27th, 2018 filed in Books

I bought Comey’s book on Kindle, and have barely started to read it. One thing, though, struck me just in reading the Author’s Note:

All people have flaws and I have many. Some of mine, as you’ll discover in this book, are that I can be stubborn, prideful, overconfident, and driven by ego. I’ve struggled with those my whole life….

Interesting. If you’d asked me to name Comey’s flaws, that’s about what I would have named. I don’t generally take it for granted that people see their flaws as the same flaws that I see (I doubt Trump does). (Comey’s countervailing virtue in my eyes is that, even when he’s wrong, he’s honest. That’s why I bought the book.)

I also like the Reinhold Niebuhr quote at the top of the introduction.

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

As for the rest, I haven’t gotten far enough to comment.

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Ebola: A Bit of Good News

Posted by Sappho on April 17th, 2018 filed in Africa news and blogwatch, Vaccinations

Remember that Ebola epidemic in 2015? And the vaccine that emerged from that epidemic? The latest word is that people vaccinated still show antibodies two years later. Merck is aiming for FDA approval later this year.

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A couple of links related to population genetics

Posted by Sappho on March 31st, 2018 filed in Blogwatch, DNA

David Reich responds to questions from readers of his op-ed column. You can read the whole thing, but I’m excerpting just part to clarify that he does seem to be making a significantly different argument from that made by Nicholas Wade.

In short, I think everyone can understand that very modest differences across human population in the genetic influences on behavior and cognition are to be expected. And I think everyone can understand that even if we do not yet have any idea about what the difference are, we do not need to be worried about what we will find because we can already be sure that any differences will be small (far smaller than those among individuals).

Note the “very modest” here. And also that he’s not arguing that any particular difference has been proven.

Next, the Twitter discussion of David Reich’s column led me to discover a new-to-me blog: the Coop Lab blog on Population and Evolutionary Genetics. There you can find an interesting post on polygenic scores and tea drinking:

… The success of GWAS seems to suggest that we’ll soon be able to settle debates about whether behavioural differences among populations are driven in part by genetics. However, answering this question is a lot more complicated than it seems at first glance. In this blog post I’ll talk through some of the complications, including how gene-by-environment interactions and correlations among SNPs make it difficult to use polygenic scores to understand differences among populations.

Some of these complications are perhaps best illustrated with a toy example. Say we perform a GWAS of the amount of tea that individuals in the UK drink…

Another post, Where did your genetic ancestors come from?, explains how, once you go a certain number of generations back, you wind up with people who are your ancestors but didn’t supply you with any DNA. There is a very good chance that you’re descended from Charlemagne. It’s highly unlikely that you have his DNA.

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Everybody knows that the dice are loaded. Everybody rolls with their fingers crossed.

Posted by Sappho on March 31st, 2018 filed in Race

Andrew Sullivan joins the fray again, on race and IQ. Unlike David Reich, who has expressed complete ignorance about what traits might eventually prove to vary, between populations, in their genetic influences, Sullivan is certain about what one of them will prove to be.

In fact, Klein seems to back a truly extreme position: that only the environment affects IQ scores, and genes play no part in group differences in human intelligence….

… My own brilliant conclusion: Group differences in IQ are indeed explicable through both environmental and genetic factors and we don’t yet know quite what the balance is.

In other words, in Sullivan’s view we don’t know exactly how far black people are genetically predisposed to be stupider than white people, but we can be pretty darn sure that they are genetically predisposed to be stupider, even though there are powerful environmental differences between the two groups.

Now, here’s where I’m going to make a distinction. We are not arguing, here, about whether any two population groups are exactly equal in their average genetic influences on any particular complex trait (such as IQ). We are arguing about how the dice are, or aren’t, loaded.

Imagine that you and I each have a pair of dice. I roll my dice, and you roll yours. It’s possible that your dice add up to 2, and mine add up to 12. Or we might both roll something that adds up to 7. Now, suppose that you and I each roll that pair of dice a thousand times. In this case, the law of large numbers guarantees, if each of us is rolling with unloaded dice, that we’ll approach the same mean. But your thousand rolls will not add up to exactly the same number as mine; in fact, if we calculate our means out to as many decimal points as possible, it’s less likely that we wind up with the same number than it would be if we each rolled the dice only once. Instead, we’ll have two different numbers that are now so close that they are barely different.

Now, imagine that I compare two populations, for whom I magically (a genie granted me a wish) know all of the relevant intelligence related genes. To the extent that it’s meaningful to imagine calculating a genetic predisposition for intelligence between the two groups, the two groups would not be equal. The dice have been rolled too many times for that to be the case. They might be so close to equal that on January 1 of one year, one group is “smarter” while on January 1 of the next year (because of who was born and who died in each group), the other group is “smarter.” But at any given moment, they wouldn’t be exactly equal. The dice would have been rolled too many times for exact equivalence. I think we all intuitively know that, and that, partly, is the intuition that Sullivan is relying on, when he suggests that Klein’s position is extreme. How could two large groups ever be exactly genetically equal?

On the other hand, if the genetic dice aren’t loaded, we also wouldn’t expect one group’s genetic predisposition to be, say, a whole standard deviation away from the other. Not, at any rate, for large and genetically diverse populations, and for traits governed by a very large number of genes. There are too many founders, and the dice have been rolled too many times for each group.

In real life, of course, there’s some added complexity, because we don’t actually have pure IQ genes, whose effect we can just multiply to get an exact predisposition for each group (even if we knew all of the genes involved). We have genes that interact with the environment. (Consider the discussion of whether Pima Indians are genetically predisposed to Type 2 diabetes, or whether, even if there are genetic determinants, these genes only have this effect in a particular environment.) Our hypothetical two population groups could even each be predisposed to higher intelligence than the other, in the sense that one might be more vulnerable to one environmental influence and one to another. But I’ll ignore that complication for now, and instead focus on another question.

How are the dice loaded? We don’t know that the genetic dice are loaded. We neither have evidence of such a genetic difference, nor evidence of a difference in selective pressure sufficient to lead us to expect such a difference. We do have evidence that group scores (and, for some groups, rankings) in IQ change over time. We do know that the environmental dice are loaded, in this country, against black people (slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, and the list goes on). This isn’t an inference from a difference in outcomes, it’s a plain historical and contemporary fact. Sullivan himself says, “there is indeed no reason to believe we have done enough to ensure equality of opportunity for African-Americans.” Why, then, would we split the difference at all when looking for a cause of differences in test scores?

It would be like insisting there must be genetic differences between two groups in predisposition to lung cancer when you already know that one group is full of heavy smokers and the other barely has any smokers at all.

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On Genetics, Population, and “Race”

Posted by Sappho on March 29th, 2018 filed in DNA, Race

I think I’m with Ezra Klein on David Reich’s op-ed, How Genetics Is Changing Our Understanding of ‘Race’. By that, I mean that, like Klein, I don’t find it obvious that I, as a liberal, should be offended by Reich’s column, but that I find the inevitable chorus from the “human biodiversity” crowd of racialists of, “see, a scientist agrees with us” just as foolish and misguided as ever.

First, let’s talk about Reich’s column. As Ezra puts it,

Reich is careful in his claims about what is known as of yet. He says that “if scientists can be confident of anything, it is that whatever we currently believe about the genetic nature of differences among populations is most likely wrong” — a level of humility often absent in this discussion. He goes on to slam researchers who, discussing race and intelligence, claim “they know what those differences are and that they correspond to racist stereotypes.” I do not find this column as troubling as Harris seems to think I will.

Reich’s column contains interesting information about how researchers have tracked genetic risk facts for prostate cancer, and how current populations are admixtures of other populations, rather than existing from time immemorial. And Razib Khan’s review reports that Reich’s new book has similarly interesting information about Neanderthals, Denisovans, and the evolution of the “Out of Africa” hypothesis. Cool stuff, and part of why I enjoy, from a purely amateur perspective, reading about population biology.

There are also points where I question Reich’s framing.

Does it really make sense to use biological differences between the sexes as an analogy for biological differences between populations? I’m hardly a strong hereditarian on behavioral and psychological differences between the sexes (my hunch is maybe 20-40% of the difference is innate and the rest culturally determined), but, moderate though my “nature” estimate is here, I think that innate psychological and behavioral differences between populations are likely to be way smaller. Basically, wherever you fall on the nature/nurture continuum in how you see gender differences, you should expect much less “nature” in “racial” differences. Biological differences between the two sexes are more profound. There’s some evidence of recurrent (though not universal) cross-species differences in male and female behavior. There’s a stronger case for natural selection producing such differences. Maybe he’s just using sex differences as an analogy, but it’s an analogy that deserves some caveats.

I also wonder what he means by:

And since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations (because the frequencies of genetic variations are rarely exactly the same across populations), the genetic influences on behavior and cognition will differ across populations, too.

Is he suggesting simply that differences in genetic influences on behavior and cognition will exist at all, in a measurable way? Or that they’re likely to be of comparable size to the differences observed in other traits? Because these would be entirely different claims, and one strikes me as much more likely to be proved true in the future than the other. But, given that his cautious framing could apply simply to the more modest possibility, and that he’s not suggesting any particular content to these as yet unproven genetic influences, this doesn’t exactly strike me as Nicholas Wade territory.

Still, Reich has gotten some enthusiastic praise (and some criticism for disavowing Wade and Harpending and Watson on race) from the racialist corners of the Internet, so now’s as good a time as any to talk about why “scientific” racism is not so scientific.

First, I’m going to talk about the varying meanings of “significant,” and why I would not be surprised, at one point or another, to find statistically significant differences, between some populations or other, in genetic influences on behavior and cognition (and, sure, don’t think we should hang our anti-racism on an insistence that such differences will be completely nonexistent), but, at the same time, would require that a particularly high bar of proof be met before I’d believe in the existence of large, practically significant innate behavioral and cognitive differences between “races.” Second, I’m going to talk about why it’s important to distinguish “populations” from “races” and why “race is a social construct” is not at all the same thing as “race is not a real thing” (social constructs are real and powerful!).

To explain I think we might eventually find that some genetic influence on behavior and cognition might differ between some populations, I want to discuss the case of the Hutterites. Back when I was a student at Stanford, majoring in psychology and considering a double major in sociology, I considered, before ultimately picking another topic, writing a paper on Hutterites and mental illness. The psychological study of the Hutterites had been a thing since the 1950s. I just did a Google search, and, sure enough, it is still a thing. See this paper on Low Prevalence of Psychoses among Hutterites, an Isolated Religious Community. Hutterites have, relative to others in Manitoba, a particularly low incidence of schizophrenia. They have a culturally bound mental disorder called Anfechtung that involves obsessive religious guilt. They are less frequently diagnosed with psychosis. Etc.

Now, the reason that academics started studying the Hutterites to begin with was this: They were looking to see whether the higher rate of psychosis among the surrounding non-Hutterites was due to the complications of modern life. Did the Hutterites have protective cultural factors, driving down their schizophrenia rate? And perhaps they do.

But, as the linked article points out,

The overwhelming majority of the North American Hutterites are descendants of 89 founders, 43 females and 46 males (T.M. Fujiwara, K. Morgan, unpublished data, 1999).

Hutterites aren’t the only population being studied that has gone through a bottleneck. Populations that go through a bottleneck, such as the Hutterites or the people of Saguenay du Lac, show a greater degree of genetic drift. That is, their genotypes show greater variance in traits that aren’t being selected for or against, simply because a small set of founders allow a particular trait to spread (consider the spread of hemophilia among the royal families of Europe).

People are going to do genome-wide association study (GWAS) on such inbred populations, and there’s a good chance that, sooner or later, one or another of them will turn out to have a statistically significant deviation from the surrounding population in some genetic influences on some cognitive or behavioral trait. Less inbred populations may also prove to have much smaller degrees of differences (a difference doesn’t have to be large to be statistically significant). We should of course be prepared, if such differences prove to exist, still to advocate equal treatment of people regardless of ancestry. And I have hope that this won’t be a problem, because, though I think that “we believe that this other group is worse than us in all the cognitive and behavioral traits we care about, but really, truly, we’re going to treat them equally” is going to happen when pigs fly, it’s unlikely that science will prove that this other group is really, truly, worse than us at all the cognitive and behavioral traits we care about.

Now, here’s why I don’t think such differences, if discovered, are going to be remotely as large as differences in traits that have been heavily subject to differential natural selection, such as skin color, lactose intolerance, or malaria resistance:

Kevin Mitchell, the author of Wiring the Brain, responds on Twitter to the part of Reich’s column that I quoted above, about “since all traits influenced by genetics are expected to differ across populations”. Here is Mitchell:

The last sentence of this graf has a little leap of logic that is not supported. If genetic architecture of behavioral + cognitive traits is highly pleiotropic + they’re under stabilising selection, then we should NOT expect big genetic diffs b/w groups

They *could* exist but would have required strong, sustained differences in selective pressures on these traits across populations, to offset pleiotropic effects.

Strong arguments against this for behavior (due to freq-dep selection undercutting directional effects) and for cognition (if intelligence is a general fitness indicator)

Also, these traits are so polygenic that all loci can’t be monitored and selected on at once – can’t prevent new genetic variation causing phenotypic variance within populations (offsetting directional effects b/w groups)

In other words, given that most cognitive and behavioral traits are a) produced by a large number of genes, which, b) each have multiple effects, and c) aren’t likely to be subject to sustained differential selective pressure in different regions either because the trait is generally a sign of fitness (intelligence) or because there’s a balance between the adaptive value of the different traits across different environments, we’re not likely to see big genetic differences, here, between populations. There may be statistically significant differences, but probably not practically significant differences.

Now, let me talk about populations and races. I find it useful to distinguish between “populations” and “races” for two reasons.

First, “populations” studied by science (whether to study ancient human migration or for medical reasons) don’t necessarily have the same boundaries as social “races.” For instance, I carry a gene that’s common among Persian Jews, for pseudocholinesterase deficiency. It’s useful to know that this gene is more common among Persian Jews; given that screening the whole population would be costly, a lot of the same benefit can be gained by targeted advertising of screenings in neighborhoods with many Persian Jews (similar to the Tay Sachs screening done among Ashkenazi Jews). Similarly, I’ve learned from the 23andMe results that a surprising number of my DNA cousins come from the Saguenay du Lac region of Quebec. This doesn’t have a lot of practical implications for me personally (my French Canadian ancestry comes only through one great-great-grandmother, and is only part of her ancestry). But it did mean that I learned that the Saguenay du Lac region of Quebec is an island that went through a narrow population bottleneck, and that, as a result, has some distinctive epidemiology (for instance, a higher rate of cystic fibrosis). Again, a population, not a race.

Equally important, though, is the fact that, as real as genetic differences between populations are, the social construction of race is just as real. And has profound effects, both social and (through the impact of “racial” status differences) biological. As Ezra Klein points out

International evidence suggests oppression, discrimination, and societal resentment lowers group IQs. As the New York University philosopher of neuroscience Ned Block has written, quoting the work of anthropologist John Ogbu, oppression has a clear effect on marginalized groups globally. “Where IQ tests have been given, ‘the children of these caste-like minorities score about 10-15 points … lower than dominant group children,’” he writes.

Block’s point, and this is important, is not that IQ isn’t heritable, or even that it’s impossible to imagine it differing among groups. It’s that it’s impossible to look at the cruel and insane experiment America has run on its black residents and say anything useful about genetic differences in intelligence.

I’ll close with a final note about an inconsistency among those who make a big deal about “racial” differences in IQ tests (not Reich, who disavows this argument in his column!). Often they will say, in principle, that IQ is partly inherited and partly environmental. And that it’s really, really important! Leading to all kinds of good things, personally and for society as a whole, from people with higher IQs! Now, if you really believed that, would you spend all your time arguing black people just have lower IQs and there’s nothing we can do about it? Wouldn’t you want to look for those environmental causes that might be impairing this trait, which you value so highly?

Shouldn’t you care a hell of a lot about the lead in the water at Flint?

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Robot News: Microbots and that self-driving car casualty

Posted by Sappho on March 20th, 2018 filed in Blogwatch, Robots

Microbots team up to move a car

Ars Technica on the self-driving car fatality in Arizona (the first bystander fatality by a self-driving car)

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