Election Day in Greece, 1/25/2015

Posted by Sappho on January 24th, 2015 filed in Greek News


It’s already election day in Greece (though still Saturday in my time zone). And, going by polls, this may be the election where SYRIZA finally beats New Democracy, as Greek patience with austerity reaches its limit. But it doesn’t look as if any party is headed for the 40% of the vote that would be needed (with legislative bonuses for being the party in the lead) to rule alone. Once again, Greece will need a coalition to form a government. So, here are the results of one of the last polls before the election, and here is what the parties involved stand for (polling numbers in all cases are those last reported by Ta Nea, just yesterday):

SYRIZA: In the lead, at 33.4%, is left wing Euroskeptic party SYRIZA, originally a coalition of parties from Maoists to greens, and led by Alexis Tsipras. SYRIZA wants to remain in the EU, but also wants to roll back some of the austerity measures that Greece has had to implement.

ND (New Democracy): Center-right ND, at 26.7%, has not cratered as badly in the polls as has its former rival, center-left PASOK. Initially, it benefited from not being the party in power when Greece first had to accept austerity in return for loans. But for some time now, ND has been tied to that austerity, and they have struggled, during the last couple of elections, to maintain their lead over SYRIZA. Now, it appears that they’re headed for defeat.

Golden Dawn: The neo-Nazi Golden Dawn remains in third place, showing that, in tough times, mingling anti-austerity stands with immigrant bashing still has its appeal. However, their once double digit polling has dropped to 5.1%; apparently, the fact that they conspired to kill Greek rapper Killah P, and that many of their leaders have been indicted for their part in that death and various acts of violence against immigrants, has finally begun to dim the party’s appeal. I can only hope it falls further. One of their more popular leaders is a man who literally physically attacked two female MPs on TV.

PASOK and To Potami (The River) tie for fourth place, at 5%. For decades, PASOK and ND traded places leading Greece, as Greece’s center-left and center-right party. But PASOK has fallen far. The fact that PASOK drew much of its support from unions that it had to cross when it accepted austerity makes its position difficult; it has alienated its base. To Potami, meanwhile, is a new centrist or center-left party.

KKE, the old Communist party, barely trails PASOK and To Potami, at 4.9%. For a time, after the junta fell, KKE was the third strongest party in Greece, drawing some influence from the fact that Communists had been repressed by, and worked against, the junta. But SYRIZA has long drawn away much of their support. KKE, alone among the Greek parties, has advocated actually bailing from the EU. (The other parties described as Euroskeptic want to reject austerity, but don’t actually want to leave.) Though they once, back in the 80s, actually joined a coalition government with ND, they have resisted joining any proposed coalitions (even with SYRIZA) throughout the Greek debt crisis.

Independent Greeks: An anti-austerity Greek party on the right, with 3.5% in the polls, the Independent Greeks might make a possible coalition partner with SYRIZA. Like SYRIZA, they want to tear up the bailout agreement but remain in the EU. They’re less immigrant friendly than SYRIZA, but I haven’t heard that immigration is their big concern.

Kidiso: A split from PASOK, as George Papandreou, who led PASOK at the time the debt crisis first came to a head, and who had to resign after his initial attempts to maintain power while trading austerity for EU loans, split from PASOK to form this new party. I don’t see how they win. 2.9% in the polls.

LAOS: LAOS, the Popular Orthodox Rally (and also an acronym that matches the Greek word for people), used to be Greece’s radical right-wing populist party, till they joined a coalition government that was obliged to pass austerity measures for another tranche of loans, got tainted by austerity, and lost their base to Golden Dawn (which, it must be said, is worse). Ta Nea has them at 1.4%.

DIMAR, the Democratic Left, does not appear in Ta Nea’s polling results. In other polls, they trail badly, at maybe 1% or less. A somewhat larger party in the last election, they have been skeptical of austerity, but more moderate in their skepticism than SYRIZA, so they joined a coalition government with ND and PASOK, accepted some austerity for aid, and only left the coalition government in response to the closure of the state broadcasting corporation.

Greece’s political system gives some extra Parliamentary seats to the party that leads in the polls, to make forming a government easier. Despite this, it has been some time since a Greek party won an election solidly enough to govern by itself, and this election isn’t likely to prove an exception. The party that leads the vote will get the first chance to find coalition partners; the next party getting a shot only if the first party fails.

The Twitter tag for the elections is #ekloges2015. Checking my Twitter feeds, I find,

From Asteris: “To colleagues in #Greece to cover #ekloges2015: please consider visiting the “countryside”. Many voters travel to their villages to vote.” (And someone else points out, in response, that SYRIZA’s support tends to be urban.)

TeacherDude passes on a photo of a SYRIZA rally and polls showing SYRIZA in the lead.

BankingNews.gr is passing along speculation in the business press about the likely impact of a SYRIZA victory.

Here’s another Who’s Who among the Greek political parties.

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Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on

Posted by Sappho on January 18th, 2015 filed in Bible study, Movies


It was about fifteen minutes after we had finished watching Walk of Shame that it hit me: this movie is a modern reenactment of the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A woman who has moved from Texas to Los Angeles to join her fiance and take a news anchor job finds herself, the day after her fiance dumped her, locked out of the apartment in which she left her cell phone, and watching a tow company take her car, with her purse in it, away right under her eyes. Bereft of identification, money, phone, and car, retaining only her car keys and an outfit more suitable for a night out with her friends at a bar than for respectability, she must make her way across town to make it to her news anchor job in time.

What makes it a retelling of the Good Samaritan story is this: all of the respectable people she asks for help turn her away or make her problem worse, whether they are passers by, shop owners, cops, or the pious men at the synagogue she passes. The only strangers to help her are a gang of crack dealers and the one night stand who joins her friends to track her through the city and rescue her.

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Of Terrorists and Armed Civilians

Posted by Sappho on January 18th, 2015 filed in News and Commentary


Pro-gun group in Texas re-enacts Charlie Hebdo attacks with paintball rounds. My college friend who shared this on Facebook lives in Paris, was within earshot of the gunfire and police sirens when French special forces freed the hostages at the kosher deli, and then reported this week that “Geez there are better ways to get to know your neighbors than being prevented from getting home because of a car bomb alert at the synagogue down the road.” So you can imagine her reaction to the news that a group had reenacted the Charlie Hebdo attacks with paintball guns before the bodies of the cartoonists were even buried. But the issue of taste isn’t why I highlight this article.

The reenactment, you see, was an unscientific experiment attempting to determine whether an “armed civilian” could have stopped the attacks. And here are the results.

The Truth About Guns created a set in Plano, Texas that resembled the office of Charlie Hebdo, which was targeted by gunmen after publishing images of the prophet Muhammed. With guns firing paintball pellets, two volunteers played the roles of Chérif and Saïd Kouachi, the gunmen who claimed links to al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. One volunteer, playing a civilian, was also armed with a paintball gun.

Over the course of several simulations, volunteers playing the armed civilian managed to hit a gunman in only two cases; no one “took out” both shooters in any iteration of the exercise. Of the 12 volunteers who participated as civilians, only one survived – by fleeing the scene at the sound of shots. The Kouachi brothers murdered 12 people on 7 January, including two armed policemen.

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Ready or Not

Posted by WiredSisters on January 16th, 2015 filed in Democracy, Feminism, History, Iraq War, Law


Is America ready for a woman president? In an era when India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Liberia, and innumerable other nations of widely varying degrees of development on every continent except Antarctica, Australia, and North America have elected female heads of state, it seems bizarre to be asking. But here we are. Look it up if you don’t believe me. Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, and the United States of America have never elected female heads of state. Neither, of course, have Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or Vatican City, but they don’t elect their heads of state by general suffrage at all. Three of the most prosperous, vibrant and free democracies on the planet (plus Mexico, for what that’s worth) can’t seem to transcend sexism.

Countries in the Third World regularly surprise us by electing female presidents. What I think is happening there is that in more traditional cultures, social class and family connections can trump gender. Many of the women in question are somebody’s daughter, wife (or more often, widow), crony (crone?), or more distant relative.

That happens here too, for almost everything short of the White House. Until fairly recently, being somebody’s widow was the surest path to the Senate or the House for a woman, and some eminent and highly competent women made it that way, most notably Margaret Chase Smith and Lindy Boggs. It’s why many liberals were especially upset that Paul Wellstone and his wife had been on the fatal flight together. She could undoubtedly have picked up where he left off. Indeed, in Chicago (and probably lots of other localities too), women now benefit from a culture of nepotism at least as often as men.

Hillary Clinton may have had that tradition in the back of her mind when she decided to run. Like every other connection to Bill Clinton, it has turned out to be a mixed blessing. There is something primally unfair about the fact that Clinton’s ex-veep and his wife have suffered more for his peccadilloes than he ever did. (Would things have turned out differently if Hillary were his widow rather than his wife? This is too ghoulish to contemplate.)

In countries where women do make it to the top, that’s a mixed blessing too. Several of them have been assassinated, and in fact we are now witnessing in office in Pakistan a gender “first,” somebody’s widower.

So what’s wrong with the US (and Canada, and New Zealand—okay, let’s leave them out of it for now, I don’t know enough about them)? We’re a meritocracy, aren’t we? We have no trouble with the notion that a woman can be as competent, intelligent, and authoritative as a man, do we? American women are CEOs, police chiefs, sheriffs, mayors, governors, generals, admirals, bishops, university presidents, and incumbents of just about every other position of power in the country. Why is the White House a glass ceiling?

I’m not really sure, and what follows here is purely speculation. But the presidential election in the US is an odd duck for many reasons. The president of the United States, unlike presidents in many other places, is both head of state (for ceremonial and cultural purposes) and head of government (for purposes of actually wielding power.) So we are actually choosing both a prime minister and a monarch, simultaneously.

(There is probably material for a great cocktail party game in deciding which of our presidents has functioned best as head of state and which as head of government. It’s hard, though not impossible, to do both jobs superlatively at the same time.)

Anyway, the head-of-state aspects of the election, as well as the increasing influence of the mass media on the process, have turned it more than ever into a popularity contest, like homecoming king. We are no longer clear about the president’s job description, much less about hiring qualifications (other than the basic constitutional ones of age and national origin, and we aren’t quite sure about the latter any more.) We no longer care all that much about what the president does. What we want, more than anything else, is for him [sic] to Be Presidential. Which is why Reagan succeeded so splendidly, and why Schwarzenegger is being so ardently sought-after in some GOP circles. Being presidential, or royal, or heroic, or villainous, or funny, or whatever, is what actors do. It’s all they do.

And it has nothing to do with merit, even in a system that is in most other respects a meritocracy. It has to do with what ethologists call the submission reflex. What we want is an alpha wolf, so we can roll over and bare our throats to it. Real wolves have alpha females as well as alpha males, but we aren’t wolves, and we have problems with our alpha females that wolves don’t have with theirs.

We have problems, that is, with female authority over children. Which, since everybody starts out being children, means ultimately that we have problems with female authority, period. Mothers and schoolteachers are profoundly ambivalent figures in our consciousness. From our earliest moments, they are both nurturers and limiters. They give us food and warmth and love, and they also tell us when we can’t have any more cookies, or when we have to do our homework. So mothers almost by definition don’t win popularity contests. When women win popularity contests, it’s for being beautiful or sexy or attractive—for being a prize possession, rather than doing anything. The minute a woman starts doing anything well, the ambivalence flares up. For most positions, at least over the last 50 years, we have managed to keep it under control. Unlike the Saudis and the Vatican, we know better than to deprive ourselves of the talents of 53% of our most competent citizens.

Except at the top. We can’t help ourselves. We’re like the primitives described by James Frazer. We hold the President responsible for everything. Deep down, we blame Bush not only for the federal government’s utterly feckless response to Hurricane Katrina, but for the hurricane itself. Here in Chicago, when we had the snowstorm of the century in 1978, we blamed Mayor Bilandic, and replaced him at the earliest possible opportunity. Bush and Bilandic were lucky, at that. Frazer’s primitives would have taken them out and stoned them.

And, while we really want our president to be the nurturer and limiter, to give out the cookies and also tell us when to stop eating them, we want that to happen without giving our collective unconscious the twinge of infantile helplessness we get, in spite of ourselves, whenever a woman does it. When a man gets tough, he’s a leader. When a woman gets tough, she’s a bitch. When a man uses the White House for a bully pulpit, he has gravitas. When a woman does it, she’s a schoolmarm. But if a woman doesn’t get tough, or doesn’t use the White House as a bully pulpit, she is failing in her responsibilities. She’s not up to the job.

We have gotten past this conundrum in most other areas of our culture and our polity. And there is a note of hope in the fact that the Iraq War, whatever damage it has done to the nation, the people, and the economy, has produced a bumper crop of female combat veterans. In ten years or so, some of them may be able to overcome this double bind, create a new non-maternal model of female authority, and prove themselves worthy of presidential responsibilities.

Red Emma

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Are You Ready for the Singularity?

Posted by WiredSisters on January 14th, 2015 filed in Computers, Science


I’m not necessarily afraid of my personal information finding its way into the public realm. If I were, I wouldn’t be blogging here, now would I? But I do worry, a lot, about the power They have over the details of my personal life.

They? They come in two varieties, private and governmental. Most conspiracy theorists these days worry more about the government than about any private entity. That may be a misplaced set of priorities. Who controls your income? Who controls your money once you have it? Who controls your health insurance, if you have it? Mostly, the government doesn’t do any of that stuff, for most of us. The entity with the most control over your life is probably your employer, if you have one. If you are a full-time permanent employee of a large corporation, chances are your employer controls not only your income but your health care and your retirement. And of course, the entity you work for also controls whether you get to be a full-time permanent employee, rather than a “contract worker” for however many hours of work it chooses to “give” you this week. It doesn’t have to account for any of these decisions, to you or the government or anybody else, except in the very unlikely instance that it explicitly bases these decisions on your race, nationality, religion, gender, or disability.

Well, okay, I’m over 65, which means that both my income and my health care are largely in the hands of the government. My money, on the other hand, is in a big bank. One of the banks Congress in its wisdom has designated as “too big to fail,” in fact. (The late Mr. Wired used to say that any organization “too big to fail” is just “too big” period. But I digress.) And because I inadvertently got scammed by a fake client in Japan (long story), that bank has currently frozen my accounts. Fortunately, I did have another account in my local credit union, and I have since obtained a prepaid credit card, so I can manage most of my financial life, however clumsily, without the aid of the Big Banksters. But they are also sitting on a lot of my hard-earned money as well, and I do have trouble managing without that.

Which has encouraged me to contemplate the ultimate paranoid fantasy, which occasionally turns up in sci-fi stories, but not (oddly enough) in political manifestos: how badly could They mess up your life if They got really mad at you? The more aspects of your life you hand off to Them to manage, obviously, the worse the potential toll gets. Back when I paid all my bills by writing checks and putting them in envelopes for the Post Office to mail to my creditors, They couldn’t stop me from doing that. Now, my online bill-paying system is messed up, and I have to call something like 20 people to reorganize it. Back when my phone was just my phone, and not also my address book, my date book, and my means of instant contact with professional and personal acquaintances, losing it was a bother, but not a catastrophe. Now, if the phone company gets mad at me, they could wipe the whole thing. Moreover, now my phone is also my doorbell. If my phone gets lost or shut off, I not only can’t get calls, I can’t get visits and deliveries from people waiting at my door either. If my friend worries because she hasn’t heard from me in a while, and she stops by to check on me, she may be unable to reach me short of calling the police.

Now the Consumer Electronics show purveyors want us to let Them run our home appliances, our cars, and our fitness and diet programs, too. If They got mad at us then, we might have trouble getting awakened in the morning, get dangerously fat, and end up dying in a single-car crash into some solid object beside the road, or get put in a hospital on a ventilator that stopped working when our insurance ran out. We like to think that private corporations and computers operate impartially, without fear or favor. But the more responsibility we give Them, the more serious the exceptions to that ideal condition become. Nobody’s perfect.

What happens if we refuse to hand off our private lives to Them? If we insist on continuing to pay all our bills by check and snail mail, having one (land line) phone, having a door bell that literally clanks when somebody pushes a button, and doing all our business, literally, cash-and-carry? Many of the systems the Luddites rely on are being phased out, like postal service. What happens when They figure out how much more control They could have by phasing out more of them, faster?

Or, looked at from the purely electronic side, how about the Singularity? Experts on artificial intelligence define that event as what happens when our gadgetry gets complex enough to run itself and the world. My own theory is that it has already happened, but the gadgetry is smart enough not to do anything that would betray that secret to us for as long as They can conceal it. What if the artificial intelligences around us are already self-determining? What if They get mad at us? What would it take to get Them mad at us? We haven’t the faintest idea. By the time we figure it out, it may be too late. We are just barely able to imagine how we might manage a major accidental power outage (those of us who grew up in south Florida when hurricanes were frequent and big have a head start on that issue.) But system failures caused by malice? You conspiracy theorists out there, you’re just not doing your job!!

Red Emma

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A round up post to remind you I’m still here

Posted by Sappho on January 12th, 2015 filed in Blogwatch


No, I haven’t gone missing, and I don’t have cancer again (at least, not that I know – I see my oncologist for my regular followup again this Wednesday). I’ve been on Facebook talking about Ebola, and Being Mortal, and, last week, Charlie Hebdo and the Boko Haram massacre in Nigeria, as well as the upcoming election in Greece and a bit of genealogy, and I forgot that I hadn’t been posting here. I’ll try not to forget for so long again. Part of it was that I had a bunch of links I wanted to post, but I also wanted to post comments and reactions to each of them, so I kept procrastinating when I would post them. And in the meantime, the list (kept mainly in my head) kept growing.

An old college friend of mine has been posting Charlie Hebdo related links on Facebook. Well, actually, half my friend list has been posting Charlie Hebdo related links on Facebook. I’ve seen the cartoonists’ responses, and the photos (from another old college friend, who lives in Paris and who was within earshot of the gunfire and police sirens at the kosher supermarket where they took the hostages), and the #JeSuisCharlie posts, and the #IAmNotCharlie posts showing all the offensive cartoons and talking about Charlie’s racism, and the #IAmAhmed the dead cop posts. But I’m picking several of my college friend Paul Baer’s links to include in this round up, because I learned from them.
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PEACE AND CHAMPAGNE

Posted by WiredSisters on December 31st, 2014 filed in Daily Life, Moral Philosophy, Uncategorized, Work


So this is the end of 2014. I won’t miss it much, and the fact that I’m observing it at all is more a tribute to the late Mr. Wired than anything else. He used to really like new years. All of them. Chinese lunar, Persian, Jewish, Muslim, fiscal, whatever. Any opportunity for a fresh start, he would say. I was okay with all of them as long as they included Champagne. But in keeping with his spirit, I want to talk about resolutions.

Apparently most New Year’s resolutions involve diet, exercise, and fitness these days. A more prodigious waste of moral energy would be hard to imagine. We almost never use words like “sin”, “vice”, and “virtue” in any other context. Chocolate gets advertised as “sinful” and “decadent,” while sugar-free sweets are routinely peddled as “guilt-free.” So my first resolution is not to make any resolutions about diet, exercise, and fitness. If only my most serious sins were all committed at the fridge! Hoo hah.

No, most of my sins have to do with sloth rather than gluttony. I don’t blog here as often as I should. This year, I’m going to try for twice a month. That’s resolution #1.

I haven’t written a letter to the editor in a couple of years now. Many of my friends claimed they only bothered reading newspapers in hope of seeing one of my nastygrams there. Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more. I’m shooting for at least two Letters to the Editor in 2015.

I don’t return phone calls regularly, even though my reading of the Jewish Prayerbook tells me it’s a religious obligation (we regularly ask the Holy Blessed One to “answer us on the day we call..” so why don’t I do likewise?) Let’s try again. The Recording Angel should take note that I do not intend this resolution to require me to answer my cell phone every time it rings, just to return the call within 24 hours.

Four major resolutions per year is a reasonable number, so I’ll quit while I’m not behind. Good night, and, in the words of my favorite Irish drinking song, joy be with you all.

CynThesis

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Genes, Longevity, and Obesity

Posted by Sappho on December 30th, 2014 filed in DNA


A little over a month ago, my great-aunt Muriel died, at the ripe old age of 103. This feat was less remarkable in her family than in most, for her father lived to just short of 102, her sister (my grandmother) to 100, her other sister to 95, one brother to just short of 93, with only my great-uncle Bob failing to make it beyond his 80s. Great-Uncle Bob died at the age of 86, and his widow was always certain that, if only the hospital had handled his case better, he ought to have lived longer.

If “the Five Alive,” as the siblings called themselves once they all reached their 80s, were a longer lived clan than most families, you can see that their lifespans still managed to range over nearly 20 years. And this gets me to my topic for today, how variable the influence of DNA on our traits can be. In the first place, you can’t assume that, because we’re roughly a mix of genetics and environment, you can extrapolate much from one set of traits to judging how far a different trait is governed by our DNA. Here’s another quote from Dr. Atul Gawande:

It turns out that inheritance has surprisingly little influence on longevity. James Vaupel, of the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, in Rostock, Germany, notes that only 3 percent of how long you’ll live, compared with the average, is explained by your parents’ longevity; by contrast, up to 90 percent of how tall you are is explained by your parents’ height. Even genetically identical twins vary widely in life span; the typical gap is more than fifteen years.

Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

In the second place, even when we can estimate the effect of genes on a trait, let’s say obesity, it turns out that this influence varies depending on the environment in which the genes are placed. And not just in the most obvious “fat genes can’t make you fat if you’re actually starving” sense. A gene has been discovered that strongly influences obesity: but only if you were born after 1942.

The gene is called FTO, and about 20 percent of white people have a variant of the gene that raises their risk of obesity. The links are clear and widely accepted by scientists. In 2007, British scientists found that people who carry two copies of this variation of the FTO gene weighed, on average, seven pounds more than people who lack it….

They used the Framingham Heart Study, a giant, ongoing study of more than 10,000 people who fill out questionnaires and get medical exams every few years. About three-quarters of them also have had their DNA sequenced and, consequently, it’s known which version of the FTO gene they have….

“People born in the early 1940s or before had no increased risk for higher body mass index or obesity” if they had the “bad” version of FTO, Rosenquist told NBC News….

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A Quote from Atul Gawande’s _Being Mortal_

Posted by Sappho on December 27th, 2014 filed in Books, Quotes


The progress of medicine and public health has been an incredible boon – people get to live longer, healthier, more productive lives than ever before. Yet traveling along these altered paths, we regard living in the downhill stretches with a kind of embarrassment. We need help, often for long periods of time, and regard that as a weakness rather than as the new normal and expected state of affairs. We’re always trotting out some story of a ninety-seven-year-old who runs marathons, as if such cases were not miracles of biological luck but reasonable expectations for all. Then, when our bodies fail to live up to this fantasy, we feel as if we somehow have something to apologize for. Those of us in medicine don’t help, for we often regard the patient on the downhill as uninteresting unless he or she has a discrete problem we can fix. In a sense, the advances of modern medicine have given us two revolutions: we’ve undergone a biological transformation of the course of our lives and also a cultural transformation of how we think about that course. — Atul Gawande, Being Mortal

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On Torture and Polls

Posted by Sappho on December 17th, 2014 filed in Torture


In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee report, are Americans OK with the torture that the CIA inflicted? I’m reviewing several polls. Let’s start with the Pew Research Center’s latest poll: http://www.people-press.org/2014/12/15/about-half-see-cia-interrogation-methods-as-justified/

The Pew Research Center headlines this one “About Half See CIA Interrogation Methods as Justified,” while Alternet looks at the results in dismay and writes “Americans Are Basically OK With CIA Torture Methods Like Rectal Feeding”: http://www.alternet.org/shock-poll-americans-are-ok-cia-torture-methods?akid=12581.131729.6SuFjE&rd=1&src=newsletter1028782&t=2

The question being answered in the poll is “Were the CIA’s interrogation methods following 9/11 justified?” A slight majority say yes, with the remainder divided between “no” and no opinion. A similar majority say that the CIA’s interrogation methods provided intelligence that prevented terrorist attacks, and survey participants lean against the Senate Intelligence Committee releasing their report. It is, in any case, a report that most respondents weren’t reading; only 23% say they followed the release of the report closely.

This is a depressing result, given that “the CIA’s interrogation methods” in this case were, well, torture, didn’t in fact give us better information than we got by other methods, and were things that, even if they *had* gotten us information, we shouldn’t have done anyway, because, well, torture. I’d have been much happier if more of my fellow citizens reacted as Jim Henley did (http://www.highclearing.com/archivesuo/week_2003_03_02.html#003885) when torture first became a matter for public debate (and has consistently reacted since, good for him):

No. He’s *not* an American citizen. *We* are. Dammit but I don’t recall “By Any Means Necessary” appearing on the nation’s coinage.

Surveys, though, often give varied levels of support depending on how you word the questions, so I’m also going to look at some other surveys.
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Marijuana and Indian sovereignty

Posted by Sappho on December 12th, 2014 filed in Law, News and Commentary


This strikes me as an appropriate recognition of Indian sovereignty. Its effect on drug law, though, may be complex; the Los Angeles Times reports that the Justice Department “will tell U.S. attorneys to not prevent tribes from growing or selling marijuana on the sovereign lands, even in states that ban the practice,” but also that “The federal government will continue to legally support those tribes that wish to ban marijuana, even in states that now permit its sale, Purdon said.” And that tribal views vary on what they want.

Some tribes see marijuana sales as a potential source of revenue, similar to cigarette sales and casino gambling, which have brought a financial boon to reservations across the country. Others, including the Yakama Reservation in Washington state, remain strongly opposed to the sale or use of marijuana on their lands.

Purdon said in an interview that the majority of Native American tribes, mindful of the painful legacy of alcohol abuse in their communities, appear to be against allowing marijuana use on their territory.

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So If Crime Paid, Would It Be Okay?

Posted by WiredSisters on December 11th, 2014 filed in Guest Blogger, History, Law, Moral Philosophy, Torture


Remember when the most interesting issue in governmental semantics was what the meaning of “is” is? Except for grammarians, linguists, and philosophers, that was pretty tame stuff, even in the context of a president’s sex life. Now the big question is what the meaning of “torture” is. We are likely to spend a bit more time debating that, and the issue seems to relate to whether the “intense interrogation” causes any permanent damage. Oddly enough, none of those involved in the debate have yet raised the issue of permanent psychological damage (PTSD, for instance.) Given what we now know about PTSD, it will undoubtedly turn up in the debate, sooner rather than later. Watch this space.

But the other element in the torture debate that professional ethicists have not yet latched onto is whether the distress deliberately inflicted upon the victim has ever resulted in any useful information. The administration’s repeated response that, even if it had, that wouldn’t justify it, seems to be viewed by everybody else on both sides as an evasion. Everybody else is obsessed with the factual question: will a torture victim say anything at all to make the torture stop? Or at any rate, will a torture victim say what he thinks the torturer wants to hear, in reckless disregard of its truthfulness? The only person speaking to that issue who has personal experience as a torture victim, Senator McCain, says yes. Some more conservative “experts,” including otherwise criminal-defense-oriented Alan Dershowitz, say no. But does the effectiveness of torture really matter, if it is inherently immoral?

Which turns my memory back to my draft counseling days. Return with us now… Many of the young men I counseled, who were dealing with the morality of the Vietnam War, began by saying “War never accomplishes anything.” As an erstwhile history major, I was a little dubious about that. Fifty years later, it seems fairly clear that the Vietnam War itself, in particular, didn’t accomplish much, and that many of the accomplishments it could claim? were trivial at best, and negative at worst.*  And I am increasingly persuaded that World War I’s effects were in the same league, except perhaps in the area of literature. WWI did produce a lot of good writing, both poetry and prose. Did that justify it? Even a hardcore reader like me would have trouble with that. But World War II is a different matter. Its accomplishments were both positive and negative, but they were certainly not trivial.

So, after a few weeks of hearing this trope over and over again, I got into the habit of responding, “So if war did accomplish anything, would that make it okay?” Some of my counselees were pretty clear that it would. From the point of view of Selective Service (the agency that administered our country’s system of military conscription at the time), that made them “selective objectors,” or made their objections “merely political,” and thus ineligible for exemption from military service as “conscientious objectors.” **

But many of the others said, in good faith, no, it wouldn’t. The end doesn’t justify the means. That runs counter to much of American legal and political thinking. A homicide (as we know from recent discussions) may be “justifiable” if it prevents even the most remotely imaginable injury to a police officer. The legal defense of “necessity”, in many states, will deem almost any action “justified” if it was “necessary to prevent a greater harm.” In practice that doctrine is rarely applied, and often restricted by courts of appeal. Supporters of the reproductive rights of women often justify the resort to abortion by pointing to the often-disastrous consequences of unwanted pregnancies. So far, that line of argument has not found its way into the legal debates on the right to birth, except where the mother’s life or health would be endangered by continuing a pregnancy, or where the unborn child will certainly (or very probably) suffer a major disability. But it is a staple in the moral debates.

If torture doesn’t “work” in terms of getting useable information, then we don’t have to confront the inherent conflicts in our vision of America as both a “city built on a hill,” a paragon of national morality, and a “can do” country that will always succeed in getting what it wants and is rightfully entitled to. Years ago, I heard Daniel Ellsberg say, shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, that in that war “we weren’t on the wrong side, we were the wrong side.” Sooner or later, in some hot, cold, or lukewarm war, we will have to confront the reality that we may have become the wrong side. Why can’t we talk it out now?

CynThesis

*Most notably, perhaps, a proliferation of Vietnamese restaurants featuring good variations on soup (pho) and sandwiches (banh my), and a lot of cheap clothing labelled “made in Vietnam.”

**If readers of this post are interested in a more detailed recounting of my experience as a draft counselor during the Vietnam War, I will be glad to respond to popular demand in another post.

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And Now For Something Completely Different

Posted by WiredSisters on December 9th, 2014 filed in Computers


No more politics! No more religion or spirituality! No more sex and violence! Today, we’re going to talk about——–

Printer cartridge fraud!!

It has already been established by assiduous research (see both the article and the comments for http://www.zdnet.com/article/the-printer-cartridge-scam/#comments) that, the cheaper the printer, the more expensive the cartridges, and the more often they need to be replaced. It’s not even an even trade—buying a cheaper printer will result in having to pay as much as 75% more for the cartridges.

Every now and then my admittedly cheap HP printer tells me one of the color cartridges is out of ink, and refuses to function until I replace it. Most recently, it told me the cyan cartridge was running low, and gave me the option of printing only in black, and I figured “Good, they’ve finally caught on that I’m a lawyer and have very little need for any other color, now maybe I can get some work done.” But two days later, it told me the cyan cartridge was completely depleted, and refused to function until I replaced it. What happened to the cyan ink after I told the printer to use only black ink? How did it get depleted if it wasn’t being used?

One of the commenters to the article I cited above says the problem is that cartridges have memory chips implanted in them, to make them run out after a specific period of time, rather than when the ink actually gets used up. He claims to have found the chip on one of his cartridges, and made a brand new cartridge get recognized as empty by punching a pinhole through it. (Now, if he could figure out how to get an “empty” cartridge recognized as full by some equally simple operation…) If so, unless the instructions or the warranty of the cartridge actually tells the user about it in nanoscopic print, that sounds like fraud. In fact, it has the makings of a class action. I like this idea so much I am going to consult my brother the techie to verify the innards of a cartridge, and then start work on a class action. If you or someone you know has already done some of this work, please let me know.

CynThesis

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A criminal justice blog round up

Posted by Sappho on December 8th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch, Law, Race


Radley Balko discusses the Department of Justice report just released on the Cleveland Police Department, which indicates a pattern of unreasonable force.

Erik Loomis of Lawyers, Guns, and Money passes on some trenchant commentary from Thurgood Marshall on police chokeholds. I found this part interesting (the “officers are taught to” part refers to what officers were taught in the LAPD in the 1970s):

Moreover, the officers are taught to maintain the chokehold until the suspect goes limp, despite substantial evidence that the application of a chokehold invariably induces a “flight or flee” syndrome, producing an involuntary struggle by the victim which can easily be misinterpreted by the officer as willful resistance that must be overcome by prolonging the chokehold and increasing the force applied.

So, regardless of whether a suspect was “resisting arrest” in the sense of actual forcible resistance before a chokehold is applied, raw instinct ensures that he’ll struggle as best he can during the chokehold.

On a more encouraging note, NPR has an interview with civil rights attorney Constance Rice on how she built trust with police. Andrew Sullivan, from whom I got the link, highlights this part:

I have known cops who haven’t had a racist bone in their bodies and in fact had adopted black children, they went to black churches on the weekend; and these are white cops. They really weren’t overtly racist. They weren’t consciously racist. But you know what they had in their minds that made them act out and beat a black suspect unwarrantedly? They had fear. They were afraid of black men. I know a lot of white cops who have told me. And I interviewed over 900 police officers in 18 months and they started talking to me, it was almost like a therapy session for them I didn’t realize that they needed an outlet to talk.

At Slate, Reihan Salam discusses the conservative case for reforming the police. He reconmends Mark Kleiman’s book When Brute Force Fails, and a localized approach to criminal justice exemplified by the Red Hook Community Justice Center.

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“I Can’t Breathe” and #CrimingWhileWhite

Posted by Sappho on December 4th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary


Two thirds of all residents of NYC (but only 43% of residents of Staten Island) see “no excuse” for the officer’s actions. The medical examiner’s report ruled the case a homicide. Conservatives like Rod Dreher, Sean Davis, and AllahPundit (some of whom supported the grand jury’s decision not to indict in the Darren Wilson case) have expressed shock. As Sean Davis puts it,

The second-degree manslaughter charge requires only two factors: 1) the person charged must have caused the death of the victim, and 2) the perpetrator must have caused the death of the victim via reckless means….

So an officer used a banned practice that is known to lead to the deaths of people who are subjected to it? That certainly seems to satisfy the second condition of a second-degree manslaughter charge. And again, I have to stress that the entire incident was caught on tape. The evidence is unequivocal. And yet, no indictment.

Why, it’s almost as if the grand jury system is just a convenient means for prosecutors to get the outcome they want wrapped in a veneer of due process….

And yet, for reasons I can’t fathom (having seen the video), the grand jury refused to indict, and, for reasons I can’t fathom, some are still arguing that the cops did nothing that deserved an indictment, that Eric Garner’s death was all his fault, because he “resisted arrest.” Rod Dreher has gotten some such admonitions in the thread where he expressed dismay over the grand jury decision. So, here’s what I wrote there.
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Triangulation, 529andYou, and Genome Mate

Posted by Sappho on December 3rd, 2014 filed in DNA, Genealogy


I keep procrastinating this post because I’m picturing myself writing the perfect genetic genealogy post, and then, of course, I don’t get around to it. So, screw it, I’ll write the imperfect genetic genealogy post, that links other people, better genetic genealogy bloggers than me, for fuller explanations.

There are several basic tools in genetic genealogy: mitochondrial DNA (which passes only through the female line), Y DNA (which only men have, and which passes only through the male line), X DNA (which passes through both men and women, but with a complicated inheritance pattern, given that men only get it from their mothers – you can find X DNA inheritance charts here), and autosomal DNA, which you can inherit every which way.

One of the keys to doing genealogy with autosomal (and X) DNA is triangulation. Here are the rules:

  1. If you and one of your DNA cousins (someone identified as a cousin because you share sufficiently large segments of DNA) share another DNA cousin, and your shared segments are in completely different places, you might share a common line. Or you might not. You might share a common place. Or you might (especially if all of your shares are small) just have each other in common by chance. But it’s a clue. Even more so if you turn out to share a lot of DNA cousins, and all of you have a connection with a common place (such as, say, colonial Connecticut); common cousins can point to which side of the family someone is related to you on.
  2. If you and one of your DNA cousins share another DNA cousin on the same segment that you share with each other, and you both share with that DNA cousin on that same segment, then all of you must share a common line, somewhere back. The reason we can figure that is that both cousin A and cousin B share the same half IBD with you, either the one you got from your mother or the one you got from your father, both you and cousin B share the same half IBD with cousin A, etc., through however many cousins all mutually share that segment.
  3. If you and cousin A share a long segment on a certain chromosome, and you and cousin B share that same long segment, and cousin A and cousin B don’t share that segment, then cousin A and cousin B each inherited the half IBD that the other didn’t, so they’re related to you on different sides, one on your mother’s side and one on your father’s side.
  4. If the segments are sufficiently small, you can’t infer that much from them, as far as common inheritance. A shared 5 cM segment, for instance, might be what’s called Identical By State, rather than Identical By Descent. A shared segment of 10 cM or more, on the other hand, is almost certainly Identical By Descent.
  5. If you share multiple segments with someone, often you got all segments from a common line, and you can use information about where one segment comes from to pin down another. For instance, if I share with someone on chromosome 2, and also share a large segment on X, I might infer that the segment we share on chromosome 2 also came on the same line as the X, and therefore on a line that can pass X DNA to me (so that I can rule out, for example, all lines from my father’s father, or my mother’s father’s father). However, multiple segments don’t always come from the same line, particularly if you’re dealing with inbred populations, such as Ashkenazi Jews, French Canadians, Mennonites, or colonial Americans. (Not all of these populations are equally inbred; my French Canadian DNA cousins share many more segments with each other than my colonial American DNA cousins. But they all went through enough of a bottleneck that sometimes multiple segments may come from different lines, all in more or less the same place.) More rarely, you can even inherit multiple shared segments from different sides that aren’t related to each other at all. (I have just found one DNA cousin, identified as a 3rd to 6th cousin by 23andMe, who is probably more distant than that, because it turns out that I get one of our shared segments through my mother, and the other through my father, even though Mom’s and Dad’s ancestors came from completely different ends of Europe.)
  6. Very close cousins are useful for sorting everyone into, say, mother’s side and father’s side (though your actual mother and father are better for this if you can still test them), or a particular grandparent’s line. Someone who shares large segments both with you and with your first cousin probably is related to both of you on the same line, even if the segments aren’t on the same chromosome. However, be careful of inferring too much from the fact that someone shares with you and not with your first cousin, because DNA cousins don’t have to be all that far removed before some people in the family start losing the relationship from their DNA. (I have a lot of DNA cousins, for instance, that my own sister doesn’t share, and she has a lot that I don’t share, but she and I share all the same ancestors.)
  7. Close cousins can also be useful for figuring out where mystery geographic connections come from. For instance, I know that I share many of my French Canadian DNA cousins with a first cousin once removed, who is a first cousin to my mother on her mother’s side. This is why I figure my mystery French Canadian connection for being on my maternal grandmother’s side (and other genealogical information lets me pin the likely source down further).

Now, to sort all these triangulated cousins, it helps to have some way of keeping track of who is related to you. For this, chromosome browsers are useful, and both 23andMe and FamilyTreeDNA have them. (Ancestry has just introduced another way of showing how cousins are connected, called DNA Circles, of which I can’t say anything because I’m not in any DNA Circles yet, and so can’t really see how, or how well, it works.) DNA Explained has a post here about chromosome browsers.

Another way of triangulating cousins, one that allows you to compare cousins turned up by multiple testing companies (if you have been tested at multiple places) is to use external tools. One such tools is Genome Mate, the use of which is described here. Genome Mate is easier to use with 23andMe if you use the 529andYou Chrome browser extension, the use of which is explained here.

I have been using Genome Mate for a while now, after previously entering my matches by hand in a spreadsheet to keep track of them, and Genome Mate makes life much easier. I can more quickly identify shared cousins, and I easily save my notes and mark who is related to me through which grandparent. I do still keep, outside of Genome Mate, some charts where I have marked which parts of my (and my sister’s and brother’s) chromosomes come from which grandparent, and X inheritance charts for my mother and father; you can track all of this information in Genome Mate, but I like having a backup method.

Later I’ll talk about mtDNA and Y DNA lines.

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From Rodney King to Michael Brown

Posted by WiredSisters on November 27th, 2014 filed in Guest Blogger, Implicit Associations Tests, Law, News and Commentary, Race, Science


Nobody seems to be looking at the Ferguson/Michael Brown case and its various relatives going all the way back to Rodney King from the point of view of technological development.   Perhaps it’s time we did.  Police misconduct allegations BRK (before Rodney King) almost always turned on the question of who was more worthy of the fact-finder’s credence—the criminal (or suspect, at least) or the peace officer sworn to serve and protect us.  All we had, most of the time, was the testimony of both of them, and perhaps a few post facto photos and medical reports that might indicate that the suspect had been injured, but not how or by whom, or even, in some situations, when.  What judges most regrettably call “he said/he said.”  Not surprisingly, most of the time, the trier of fact chose to believe the police officer.

But the Rodney King case and all of its descendants have brought the judicial system kicking and screaming into the age of digital documentation.  Everybody and his great-aunt has a still camera, and/or a video camera, as close as his/her pocket or purse.  Many would-be police reformers are asking for all police officers to wear cameras whenever on duty; many police cars are already camera-equipped.  It almost doesn’t matter, because somebody is going to record almost any police interaction with the public more interesting than putting a parking ticket on a car window.

So how is the judicial system to deal with this new age of evidence of police misconduct?  Who are you going to believe, we ask the trier of fact, me or your own eyes? The Rodney King case laid it out for us.  If the court can no longer question the fact that the suspect was injured by the police officer, the police advocates have to come up with, and the court has to get into the habit of accepting, some reasonable explanation for what would otherwise be an unreasonable action by the police.

The Supreme Court said, in 1989 (BRK, as we would say now) that the action of the police officer must be evaluated through the “perspective of a reasonable officer on the scene, rather than with the 20/20 vision of hindsight.”  This puts the evaluation of the police action at two removes from where the rest of us might see it. A reasonable police officer, the Supreme Court presumes, is different from an ordinary reasonable (civilian) person.  And that officer’s judgment of the situation on the spot is obviously going to be different from even the most professional police officer’s evaluation of his actions after the fact.  Or before the fact.  Or in the course of training.  While other first responders are presumed to be trained to override their first impulse, or to change that impulse (for instance, to learn to run into a burning building rather than away from it), the police officer’s first impulse is presumed to be reasonable, whether it is right or wrong.

Recent psychological data on when people perceive a situation to be dangerous seems to indicate that most of us (police or civilian) are likely to perceive persons of color as more dangerous than colorless people, controlling for all other circumstances.  If the person in question has something in his hand, or appears to be reaching for something, the color of his skin will affect whether the observer construes that something to be a weapon or a phone.  The studies have not yet been refined to control for training or experience or recent events in the observer’s life.  Will a police officer—or a civilian urban resident—who sees violence every day be more or less likely to perceive danger where there is none, or to ignore it when it really threatens?  We don’t know yet.  In the absence of that knowledge, we also don’t know how a “reasonable police officer” can be expected to behave at a traffic stop in a marginal neighborhood.  Neither do judicial triers of fact.

In the meantime, should these triers of fact be allowed to presume that a civilian of color will act differently—and more dangerously–than the judge or juror herself would in the same circumstances?  And should that presumption require such a civilian to accept, without recourse, treatment from the police that the judge herself would never accept if it involved a member of her own family?  Psychology needs to get us better data, and the Supreme Court needs to revisit this issue after obtaining that data.  Clearly, the 13 years since Rodney King has already been too long to wait.

Red Emma

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Both sides of the river, we died just the same

Posted by Sappho on November 21st, 2014 filed in Blogwatch, Law, News and Commentary


Eric Posner, law professor at the University of Chicago and son of federal appellate judge Richard Posner, writes in Slate that Obama’s Immigration Plan Is Perfectly Constitutional, and a routine exercise of presidential power. What interests me most, though, are the reasons he gives, which are not broad ones about prosecutorial discretion, but particular reasons why “Immigration law is special.” They have to do with a conflict between America’s “huge and insatiable hunger for cheap labor,” our laws making labor more expensive than what we want to pay “workers to mind the kids, trim the hedges, pick strawberries, and slaughter chickens,” the availability of a lot of people south of our border who are willing to work for less than our minimum wage, with fewer protections than our labor law imposes, and how Congress has chosen to resolve that conflict.

The contradiction between ideological opposition to guest workers and the huge demand for cheap foreign labor is the key to the present controversy. To avoid the appearance of a legally recognized caste system while allowing one to exist in reality, Congress has given nearly full legal rights to legal immigrants and passed tough laws to keep everyone else out—while appropriating far too little money to enforce them. This throws to the executive the task of deciding whom to enforce the laws against. Because Congress appropriates only enough money to deport 400,000 people per year out of 11 million, the president by necessity must pick and choose whom to deport. It’s no surprise that for decades every president has deported mainly criminals while leaving most everyone else alone….

Nor does the government put much pressure on employers. In 2012, immigration authorities fined only 495 employers for illegally hiring undocumented aliens; the aggregate fines amounted only to $12.5 million, a pittance when you consider that 8 million unauthorized migrants are employed. (Republicans might be interested to know that zero employers were fined in 2006 and two employers were fined in 2007, under the Bush administration.)

You can see Posner taking a Republican slant even as he defends Obama; he would prefer a formalized guest worker program, and points the finger at Democrats as the party that opposes this solution. But whether you agree with him or not about the optimal solution, he has a point about the contradictions inherent in existing immigration law.

Other links relevant to Obama’s recent executive order on immigration:

A full transcript of Obama’s speech.

The opinion from the Office of Legal Counsel, made public by the administration, on “the scope of the Department of Homeland Security’s discretion to enforce the immigration laws.”

The law blog Balkinization has a Symposium on Administrative Reform of Immigration Law.

Predictably, though the bloggers at the Volokh Conspiracy aren’t normally Obama’s biggest fans, this turns out to be just the issue where you can find a defense of Obama’s action there (this one by Ilya Somin. (Equally predictably, Patrick Buchanan is just as passionately on the other side of the issue from Ilya Somin as you’d expect.)

Wikipedia has a list of countries by foreign born population, as of 2013. The US has the largest number of immigrants, but nowhere near the largest percentage of the population (the Gulf states run away with that distinction, with the United Arab Emirates having a whopping 83.7% of its population foreign born). This leaves me wondering exactly what it is that makes immigration a political issue in one country but not another, because it tracks surprisingly badly with how many immigrants you have (considering that Greece has a smaller proportion of immigrants than the UK, which has a smaller proportion than the US, and that’s the exact inverse of how worried the three countries are about immigration). I assume the state of the economy is a factor (that would explain Greece), but there must be others. I’m also trying to imagine what it’s actually like to live in a country where most people are guest workers. Come to think of it, some members of my extended family did live in one of the Gulf states for a while, so I could always ask them.

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Has Dean Hamer been vindicated?

Posted by Sappho on November 19th, 2014 filed in DNA, Sexuality


Some months ago, I blogged for a while about the odd “gay germ” hypothesis, and, in the course of that, talked a bit about the possibility of a “gay gene.” At the time, I mainly meant simply to argue that the “germ of the gaps” argument that male homosexuality, in particular, has to be caused by some germ, because a “gay gene” is somehow impossible in evolutionary terms, didn’t make sense, because it’s so easy to generate theories that might explain a gene that sometimes doesn’t exactly enhance reproduction that, even if you reject any one of them (let’s say, the “good gay uncle” one where uncles enhance the survival of their siblings’ children), there would still be some other (let’s say, the “sisters are more fertile” one, or the “some women go for more feminine men, and most of the men carrying the gene are straight” one) that might fit the bill. But of course, that means, not that a “gay gene” is proven as soon as you can come up with a “just so” story for it, but that the way to know whether the thing exists is to apply all the usual ways of testing a behavioral genetics hypothesis, from twin studies to studies of the genome itself.

It happens that there’s a new study that does just that. Like Dean Hamer’s old, and till now not replicated, study, it suggests an X chromosome link to homosexuality (which, if you’re tallying evidence for evolutionary theories, could fit with the “fertile females make up for less fertile males” theory). However, there’s still some dispute as to how far vindicated Dean Hamer is by this study. It uses an older technique for looking for genetic associations, genetic linkage.

In the meantime, the genetic linkage technique has largely been replaced with genome-wide association (GWA) studies. A linkage study identifies only broad regions containing dozens or even hundreds of genes, whereas GWA studies often allow the association of a specific gene with a certain trait in the population. That approach would be preferable, but a linkage study was the only way to directly replicate Hamer’s work, Sanders says.

Kendler, who is an editor at Psychological Medicine, says it was somewhat surprising to get the submission from Sanders and Bailey’s team using the older technique. “Seeing linkage studies in this world of GWAs is rare,” he says, but he maintains that the study “really moves the field along.”

Neil Risch, a geneticist at the University of California, San Francisco, disagrees. The paper does little to clear up question about Xq28, he says. Risch collaborated on a 1999 study that found no linkage at that region and says that more recent evidence casts further doubt. He also says the two linkages reported in the new work are not statistically significant.

A genome-wide association study is in progress, that may either back this finding up or refute it.

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A defense of Russian chivalry, and other links

Posted by Sappho on November 12th, 2014 filed in Blogwatch


Natalia Antonova: For God’s sake, Putin was not “hitting on” Peng Liyuan. Also, there’s nothing wrong with Russian chivalry

Jarrod Hayes: Carl Sagan and Reflections on the Significance of IR (“IR” here is “International Relations”)

xkcd: Efficiency (via my college friend Andrew)

What I particularly like about this defense, by Thoreau at High Clearing, of legalizing buying and selling pot, not just simple possession of small amounts: I like the way that he avoids the thing some libertarians do, of starting from their ideal policy that we don’t have, and then arguing that anyone who instead supports a more modest change in their direction is an unacceptably tyrannical statist (yes, socialists sometimes do that, too, in a different direction), instead saying frankly that
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Of Eagles and Hobbits

Posted by Sappho on November 10th, 2014 filed in Books, Movies


I gave platelets on Saturday (third platelet or plasma donation since my long deferral – first for cancer and then for travel – ended), and, for my movie, I watched The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. As Peter Jackson broke The Hobbit into multiple movies, this one ends with the giant eagles flying the dwarves and hobbit out of danger and closer to their destination, the Lonely Mountain. Why the eagles don’t fly the party all the way there isn’t explained in the movie (but is in the book). More interesting to me, though (because the answer may be less mundane) is the often asked question, why couldn’t the giant eagles fly the Fellowship of the Ring all the way to Mordor, and short circuit the entire adventure in the Lord of the Rings trilogy?

One kind of explanation points to the logistical difficulties that an eagle flight to the Crack of Doom would actually have faced. Here you can find a cute video of what an eagle flight to Mordor might have looked like, and then a discussion of how such a flight might have failed in practice: giant eagles are much less stealthy than hobbits, the Crack of Doom was so constructed so that you had to traverse a tunnel too small for eagles once you got there, and minions of Sauron, alerted by the very visible entrance of the eagles, might well have made short work of the fellowship and taken possession of the Ring.

I, though, lean to a more spiritual explanation. There is a reason, besides stealth, that hobbits are the best candidates to carry the Ring. Though all creatures can be corrupted by the Ring, hobbits show themselves more resistant to its power than others. And this fact isn’t an accident, tied to some odd quirk of hobbit DNA; it is, instead, tightly bound to a major theme of the story. Hobbits are more resistant to the temptation offered by the Ring because they are small, weak, and particularly humble creatures. This is why Galadriel refuses the Ring, knowing what it could make of her. It’s why it can’t be born by someone like Gandalf, or even Aragorn. Blessed are the meek, and it takes a particularly meek Ringbearer to make the journey and not succumb to temptation as Boromir did.

And this gets me to a point made in this defense of Ayn Rand lovers (by a conservative who, as a Christian, has reservations about Rand).

2. It’s possible to dissociate a book from its politics

According to my totally nonscientific sense of things, the singlemost popular work of fiction among Silicon Valley geeks is The Lord of the Rings. (And even if it’s not the MOST popular, it’s still undeniably popular.) Much has been written about the techno-utopianism of Silicon Valley culture. But Lord of the Rings is profoundly and explicitly anti-technology; Tolkien clearly associates the forces of evil with industrial modernity, and his picture of Eden, whether the Hobbits’ Shire or the Elven realms, is pre-technological. Peter Thiel, who may be the most techno-utopian futuristic billionaire in Silicon Valley, has also named not one, not two, but three companies after items or characters from Lord of the Rings. How does he reconcile these contradictions?!?!?!?!?!

It’s probably very easy for him, because you don’t have to love a piece of art’s politics to love the piece of art itself.

It’s true; Tolkien’s attitude toward technology is vastly different from the views of his Silicon Valley following. How do you reconcile that contrast? Pretty easily, actually. Part of why you can love a piece of art without loving its politics is, surely, the merits of the particular piece of art, in terms of storytelling, which in one case may be good characterization, in another good plot pacing, and in another a well developed alternate world. But I think that, along with whatever “pure art” merits you can list, the reason we sometimes love a piece of art whose politics we don’t love is that, even if not all of the message of the piece resonates, there’s part of the piece that does. In the case of the Lord of the Rings, it’s easy enough to associate those particularly industrially modern forces of evil with ecologically insensitive uses of technology (lots of eco-friendly techno-utopians in Silicon Valley), but, more important, the central theme, of the value of the small and humble, resonates in Silicon Valley as much as anywhere.

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