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May. 31st, 2016

devil duck

How we feel about people with different politics

Followed links from this post to this WikiPedia page to this 2012 research paper, which reports on a study in which self-described liberals, moderates, and conservatives were asked to answer a series of moral questions as themselves, as "a typical liberal", and as "a typical conservative". The questions are premised on the "moral foundations theory" that people make intuitive moral decisions based on a handful of fundamental principles (e.g. Care vs. Harm, Authority vs. Subversion), but different people weight those principles differently. The results are fascinating and sobering:

  • Participants of all stripes agreed that liberals are more concerned with "individual-focused" principles such as Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating, while conservatives are more concerned with "group-focused" principles such as Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. The perceived dichotomy appears to be true -- at least, people's answers "as themselves" match their self-reported political leanings in this way.

  • Participants of all stripes exaggerated these differences between liberals and conservatives, overestimating both their own group's and the "opposite" group's adherence to the above dichotomy.

  • Participants of different political leanings had different degrees of accuracy:

    • Conservatives were most accurate in describing how people of various stripes felt about "individual-focused" principles, and liberals least accurate. The latter overestimated how important these principles actually were to liberals, and underestimated how important they were to conservatives.

    • Moderates were most accurate in describing how people of various stripes felt about "group-focused" principles, and liberals least accurate. The latter overestimated how important these principles actually were to conservatives, and underestimated how important they were to liberals.

    • Liberals perceived more-dramatic differences between liberals and conservatives than moderates or conservatives did, which in turn was more dramatic than reality.

The lesson for Liberals Like Me (tm): yes, conservatives really do think differently, but by and large they're neither as heartless nor as authoritarian as you think they are. Your fellow liberals aren't quite as individualistic as you think they are. And conservatives might understand you better than you understand them.

ETA: Of course, all of that applies to conservative people, not elected officials (since the study was based on data from ordinary people, not elected officials). Elected officials who are Republican first and conservative second probably are just as spiteful, destructive, heartless, and authoritarian as you think they are. This study doesn't address them.

May. 21st, 2016


A liberal's discomfort with trans-gender

Unlike some people bothered by the trans-gendered, I wasn't raised in a "Mad Men" world, and I don't pine for it. I was raised in the feminist backlash against a "Mad Men" world: we watched "All In the Family" after dinner, and I nearly memorized the album "Free To Be You And Me". I was brought up to believe that your physical sex should have no bearing on your choice of toys, occupations, social and economic roles, clothing, etc.

Which leaves me puzzled when I hear of people who decide they "should have been born male" or "should have been born female". Why should it matter, for any purpose other than excretion and sex? (Two activities in which, combined, I expect to spend perhaps 1% of my life, leaving 99% for activities that have nothing to do with the shape of my sex organs.)

I took Home Economics in junior high school, because I liked cooking and wanted to do it better, and because I didn't know much about sewing but thought a competent person should. I knew I would be teased for it -- I already got a lot of abuse, and accusations of being "gay", for the twin crimes of being small and smart -- but I thought it was the right and brave thing to do. If I were in junior high school today and made the same choice for the same reasons, would I be diagnosed with gender dysphoria and advised to consider hormone treatment or even surgery? If, furthermore, I were exploring my teen-aged sexuality and found some attraction to other boys, would that seal the diagnosis? I certainly hope not!

When trans people win the battle to change their sex and be accepted in society as their new sex, it tells me we lost the war: your physical sex does determine your role in society after all. The trans movement seem to me to be working very hard to escape from prison... so they can check themselves into a different prison, when I would have preferred to raze both prisons to the ground.

To use a different metaphor, gender reassignment strikes me as a hardware solution to a software problem. I have a spreadsheet program and need a Web browser, so instead of installing a Web browser, I change the CPU to one which interprets the instructions of a spreadsheet program as those of a web browser. It just seems terribly inelegant and inefficient.

Mind you, I'll fight vociferously for your right to declare yourself male or female, and be treated as such; see here and here. But I'm deeply disappointed at your need to do so.

Comments, particularly from transgendered people and their loved ones, are welcome: I don't understand the motivations, and I really want to.

May. 13th, 2016


Bathroom laws again

So "bathroom laws" are in the news again, with the Obama administration's announcement that what it's been telling North Carolina to do also applies to public schools everywhere in the country.

We all grew up with a simple rule for bathrooms: in public places, you use the bathroom corresponding to the sex you look like when fully clothed. And even if North Carolina's HB2 went fully into effect, that would still be the rule in practice: nobody's going to hassle you for going into a women's room if you "look" female when fully clothed.

For most people, most of the time, the sex you "look like" (not only physiognomy but clothing and hairstyle) corresponded to your chromosomes which corresponded to your physical sex organs which corresponded to the sex written on your birth certificate which corresponded to what kinds of toys you liked to play with which corresponded with your occupation, so the choice of criterion didn't matter for most people. But if you looked male and walked into a women's bathroom, you would get funny looks, at the very least.

North Carolina's HB2 changes this century-or-two-old practice: they no longer care what sex you "look like", but rather what sex is written on your birth certificate. It wouldn't be a significant change if we lived in a world in which those two criteria always matched, but we don't and it is. The law is a toddler's tantrum of protest against the world's unfairness by closing our eyes and resolutely pretending we do live in such a world.

Whenever you pass a law, you have to think about how you'll enforce it, and whether in fact you can enforce it at all. If not, passing the law is a political exercise, not a good use of taxpayer money.

NC-HB2 is unenforceable. Most people view me as male, so if I walked into a women's bathroom in North Carolina, a police officer could reasonably stop me for violating HB2. At that point, however, they know only that I look male when fully dressed; if in fact my birth certificate says I'm female, I am doing not only what the law allows but what the law requires. The burden of proof is on the police officer to show probable cause, and on the state to show guilt, not on me to show the reverse. The officer could ask to see my birth certificate, but I don't routinely carry it with me, and surely the North Carolina legislature didn't intend to require me to do so. The officer could, with sufficient probable cause, conduct a strip search, but that shows only whether I have a penis, not whether my birth certificate says I'm male. The state could subpoena my birth certificate, but if I honestly don't know where it is, I cannot comply with that subpoena; surely the state didn't intend that people without birth certificates can't use public bathrooms.

In practice, the law will inevitably (as it was intended to) be applied discriminatorily -- not only by law enforcement but by vigilante justice. If you look male but your birth certificate says you're female, you have a choice between breaking the law every time you use a public bathroom, and being accused of breaking the law every time you use a public bathroom. If your fully-dressed appearance matches your birth certificate, on the other hand, you can cheerfully obey the law without being hassled. If your fully-dressed appearance is sexually ambiguous (by local community standards -- it could include a man in a kilt or a woman with a shaven head), you don't even have a choice: you're likely to be accused of breaking the law no matter what you do. The real effect of the law (aside from whipping up "the base" in an election year) is to officially authorize harassment of sexually-ambiguous-looking people: they need to be punished for causing us cognitive dissonance, because their existence demonstrates that we don't live in a neat and tidy world.

May. 4th, 2016



I was in Indiana yesterday. It being primary-election day, I found myself in conversation with a Friendly Native about matters political (and trying hard to avoid giving offense). While assuring me that she hadn't voted for Trump, she also complained about Obamacare: apparently the last time she tried to renew one of her more-expensive prescriptions, the claim was denied on grounds that, as a sexagenarian without employment-for-pay, she's "no longer a productive member of society." As it turned out, her doctor called the drug provider and negotiated a deal whereby she gets the drug for free, so she's not suffering and dying without her drugs, but she's pretty certain the claim wouldn't have been denied this way before Obamacare instituted "essentially a national health care system."

Realistically, no Federal government bureaucrat made this particular claim-denial decision, nor ordered the insurer to make this individual claim-denial decision; even if they wanted to, there aren't enough Federal government bureaucrats in HHS to do that. And insurance companies were freer to deny claims ten years ago than they are today. So Obamacare cannot have directly caused this claim denial (although it's conceivable that an insurance company might say "we make less profit in area X because of Obamacare, so we have to deny more claims in area Y to make up for it.")

I find it unlikely (though not impossible) that any insurance company has a "productive member of society" criterion for fulfilling or denying claims. Even if they did, I find it completely unbelievable that any insurance claims adjuster would say to a customer "we're denying your claim because you're not a productive member of society." Perhaps the most plausible explanation, then, is that Friendly Native, already believing that Obamacare somehow involves government death panels, mis-heard something and interpreted it as "the death panel has heard your case and found you undeserving of life."

Of course, I didn't say at the time "that's impossible; you must have mis-heard something," because that would have been interpreted as an attack, and forced Friendly Native to defend and double down on her belief. So I just said "that's bizarre" and let the conversation go on to other topics.

But I'd like to understand what mindset leads to this kind of conspiracy theory seeming plausible. The ostinato repeat for eight years that Obamacare is "a government takeover of the health care system" would lead a reasonable person to ask why government would want to "take over" the health care system; if in addition one thinks of government as "them" rather than "us", then the "government takeover of health care" must be intended to benefit "them" at the expense of "us" -- specifically, to save money for "them" by skimping on "our" health. (I don't know why the same reasoning doesn't apply to insurance companies, which actually have spent decades unapologetically saving money for "them" by skimping on "our" health.)

Government is the enemy. Government (even a democratically-elected government) is "them", not "us". "Government doesn't solve problems; government is the problem," as dear Uncle Ronnie told us almost forty years ago. There was never any evidence that the statement was true, but it was a terrific sound bite, making the speaker sound cynical-worldly-wise, and Republicans have been repeating it ever since. They've made it an article of the faith that government can't do anything right: if government tries to do something right, they'll sabotage it in order to protect the faith; if government succeeds in doing something right, they'll deny the evidence in order to protect the faith; if you suggest that government might potentially do something right, you're excommunicated from the faith.

Apr. 24th, 2016

devil duck

Not dead yet...

Apr. 13th, 2016

devil duck

PSA: Google on Freedom

Some days I'm proud of my employer. This afternoon I attended a talk by the "Jigsaw" team, whose mandate is to use Google technology to promote freedom and protect the vulnerable around the world, and I thought I would mention three services in this category. If you have friends or family living under the control of an oppressive government, make sure they know about this stuff. Most are joint projects between Google and one or more other academic institutions or NGO's.

  • uProxy, a free browser plug-in which enables anyone to create a proxy Internet server that people in high-censorship places like China and Korea can use to get to uncensored Internet content. (A joint venture between the University of Washington, Google, and I don't know who else.)

  • Project Shield, a free service protecting independent journalism servers from DDOS attacks, including attacks by their own governments.

  • Unfiltered.news, a Web site to show you what topics are being reported on by journalists in various countries. Check out the list of "topics underreported in your country" (relative to other countries' coverage of that topic), then follow the links to see (either translated or in the original language) recent headlines about those topics in various other countries. Slide the "date" bar to see how popular this topic was, and what was being said about it, on various recent days. (It's interesting to note which countries had remarkably little coverage of the Mossack Fonseca "Panama Papers" leak last week....)

There were demos of some other neat services like this, but they haven't been announced publicly yet; you'll just have to wait :-)
Tags: ,

Apr. 2nd, 2016

devil duck

Bathroom laws

First, let's make clear that the commonly stated reasons for anti-trans bathroom laws are nonsense. "Lawmakers [in North Carolina] had said that they were trying to prevent men from dressing as women to enter bathrooms and commit assaults." (NY Times) Never mind the lack of evidence that this has ever been a significant problem; does anyone seriously expect that somebody who's willing to cross-dress in order to sneak into an opposite-sex bathroom in order to commit a serious felony will be stopped by a local ordinance or a misdemeanor law against entering that bathroom?

That said, there is a taboo in our society against men (by whatever criterion) in women's bathrooms, and women (ditto) in men's bathrooms; why? It's not an Ancient And Honorable Tradition: I haven't done a lot of research on it, but I suspect there was no such thing as a multi-user, single-sex bathroom until a few hundred years ago, and most of those were single-sex by virtue of being in single-sex religious or educational institutions; the opposite sex weren't supposed to be in the building, so there was no need to exclude them from the bathroom. The notion of multi-user, single-sex bathrooms in public places, I'm guessing, dates back maybe 150 years. The taboo doesn't apply at home, where most people have single-seaters that serve whoever gets there first. Some people are bothered by excreting in the same bathroom where an opposite-sex stranger has been recently or might be soon; others aren't. Some people are bothered by excreting in the presence of someone they know, even a sexual partner; others aren't. What really bothers people is being in the same room with a stranger of the opposite sex at the same time while one or both of you is excreting.

So why does "of the opposite sex" matter? One answer is "I don't want someone who might want to have sex with me to see/hear me more intimately than I have offered." Related but distinct: "I don't want someone I might want to have sex with to see/hear me more intimately than I have (yet) offered." In both cases, the "opposite sex" part follows only under the assumption that everybody is heterosexual. If you accept the fact that a substantial percentage of the population is sexually attracted to people with the same-shaped sex organs as themselves, no sex-organ-based or chromosome-based bathroom law will ever protect you from these concerns; the only safe solution is single-seaters. (Multiple well-insulated stalls sharing a sink is a possibility, and my employer has some of those, but many people seem to object to it on the slippery-slope theory.) So in a way, bathroom laws are just another way of desperately clinging to the fantasy that homosexuality doesn't exist and that "gender" is a nice clean concept in which chromosomes, physical sex organs, other physical and emotional attributes, clothing, social and economic roles, and interest in other people's sex organs all correlate perfectly.

I guess another answer would be "to prevent children seeing a kind of genitalia they haven't already seen on themselves." I'm not sure what end that is supposed to serve, unless you subscribe to the theory that the sight of a female body turns adolescent boys into volitionless rape machines, but realistically, anybody over the age of eight today who hasn't seen at least pictures of opposite-sex genitalia isn't trying.

An argument could be made specifically against men (physically larger and stronger, on average) in women's bathrooms, on grounds that they're low-visibility places where one might commit rape without witnesses. Of course, such a law won't prevent male-on-male rape (less common) or female-on-female rape (even less common), so at best this is only a crime reduction argument; to really prevent public bathrooms being used as safe spaces for rape, you need either single-seaters or high traffic. And, as mentioned before, the laws try to prevent a felony by wrapping it in a misdemeanor, which seems unlikely to have much effect.
devil duck

News flash: The Donald says something indisputably true

"The laws are set now on abortion and that's the way they're going to remain until they're changed."

NY Times

Mar. 20th, 2016

devil duck

An afternoon of music geekery

A few days ago I heard about a workshop on barbershop-quartet arranging, led by a guy named David Wright (who I gather is a macher in the barbershop world, and was influential in broadening the scope of allowable barbershop music beyond pieces written in the 1920's and 1930's). It was too late to sign up for the advanced morning master class (and I didn't have a barbershop arrangement to bring in anyway), but I attended the less-advanced afternoon class, which was a lot of fun. Three hours of music-theory geekery, including discussion of just intonation, Pythagorean commas, the distinguishing characteristics of barbershop harmony, the palette of typical chords used in barbershop, which traditional rules of voice-leading barbershop obeys and which it cheerfully ignores, etc. Wright's day job is as a math professor, so his explanations were exactly in the right language to speak to me (and I think made sense to the rest of the twenty-odd people in the workshop too). And to make it all concrete, he brought up "Happy Birthday" in Finale on his laptop and we collaboratively worked out a four-part barbershop arrangement, arguing measure by measure and note by note over different possible choices.

Now, I'm not really a member of the barbershop world: I've sung about four barbershop pieces in my life, and have never actually arranged for barbershop. But I've arranged in late-medieval-early-Renaissance style, which has certain similarities, most notably that the "melody" is usually in the middle of the texture rather than on top (called "lead" in barbershop and "tenor" in medieval), and that the other middle part (called "baritone" in barbershop and "contratenor" in medieval) tends to get the weird notes left over, and therefore makes no sense on its own. And hey, vocal harmony is vocal harmony. If it sounds good, it is good.

Feb. 17th, 2016


public works

In recent days the Times has had several articles that sorta fit together in my mind:
Fixing Our Broken Water Systems
What Happened to the Great Urban Design Projects?
How New York Made Pre-K a Success
Can Health Care Providers Afford to Prepare for Disaster?
How Sea Walls Around Hoboken Might have Stopped Hurricane Sandy's Floods
Finding Beauty in the Darkness

All of these articles are about projects which
(a) [would] improve a large number of people's lives a little bit each;
(b) [would] cost a lot of money, although not a lot per capita; and
(c) would be difficult or impossible to charge for individually: either they inherently benefit everyone in a geographic area, or many of their beneficiaries are liquidity-constrained and unlikely to make the individual decision to invest in them.

In short, classic examples of what economists call "positive externalities": they benefit largely people who didn't voluntarily pay for them, which means either
(a) a lot of people pay a little for them involuntarily (e.g. through taxes or surcharges on something else they need), or
(b) a few wealthy and public-spirited people voluntarily pay more for them than they personally benefit, or
(c) they don't happen, even though their total benefit may far exceed their total cost.  (To be more precise, they happen at a level below the most efficient level.)

A few decades ago, these sorts of projects might have been the subject of a bipartisan debate over whether the project in question really is cost-effective, whether there's appropriate accountability in procurement, whether to pay for it cash-on-the-nail or float a bond, boring stuff like that.  Today if you propose any such project, regardless of the specifics, Republicans will oppose it because gummint! taxes! socialism! tyranny! Today's Republican party is fundamentally, irrevocably committed to the principle that anything done by a government won't work.  If you somehow start building such a project (like Obamacare), Republicans will do everything in their power to sabotage it, make it work as badly as possible, because if (God forbid!) it actually worked, it would call this principle into question.  Indeed, if you try to study a problem that might have a positive-externality solution, Republicans will oppose even gathering the data for fear it might lead to somebody proposing government action.

This Republican axiom implies that the only effective way to fund a large project is for a large corporation to do it in the expectation of making a good ROI.  Or, if it's really not marketable, it can still be funded by a wealthy philanthropist who happens to have a hobbyist's fascination for this particular useless project.  I'm all in favor of wealthy philanthropists, but there aren't enough of them, with a broad enough range of hobbyist fascinations, to be a reliable source of funding for all the things that have good cost/benefit ratios but aren't individually sellable.  Relying on them inherently skews funding in favor of things that interest rich people, not necessarily the things with the best global cost/benefit ratios.

Mind you, there are certainly problems with funding things through government means.  Anybody who has a larger-than-usual stake in the project (e.g. somebody hoping to get the contract to build it) has an incentive to spend a lot on lobbying (aka rent-seeking) to direct the project in his/her preferred direction.  Examples are legion of government projects and regulations being "captured", managed more for the benefit of a few powerful politicians or donors than for the public benefit.  But there are also plenty of examples of government projects and regulations actually improving the broad public welfare by an amount greater than their cost. The possibility of such a project or regulation being mismanaged should inspire us not to throw out the baby with the bathwater, but to improve government management and accountability so more of them are well-managed and cost-effective.  But that might increase public trust in government, so today's Republicans can't allow it to happen.  A party that used to be concerned with stamping out government incompetence and inefficiency now wants government to be as incompetent and inefficient as possible.

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