Monday, March 28, 2016

The Sashimi Solution

 We've all heard the joke about the statistician who drowned in a lake with an average depth of 4 inches and we've all heard the Mark Twain quote that he attributed to Benjamin Disraeli: there are three kinds of lies:  lies, damned lies and statistics.  Is there any way other than appeals to faith used more to bolster weak arguments than a graph, a chart, a string of numbers?  It's so common we don't notice and worse, we don't check facts.

I read an article the other day which began with the observation that Japan has a higher life expectancy than the United States.  That's probably true, but the article went straight from there to a rhapsody about the Japanese diet and that theme, that Meme so adored by Americans: our food is poisonous and full of  "artificial" ingredients which are killing us.

Being a skeptic by nature and particularly as concerns any article about health and nutrition or food chemistry I took the trouble to look at the WHO statistics by country and yes, it's true about Japan, but when you note that number 2 is Spain, followed by Andorra, Singapore, and Switzerland -- Australia, Italy, San Marino and Monaco all with essentially identical numbers, I had to ask myself just what similarity in diet there is between these and the 39 countries between Japan and the United States.  Not much, I fear, so perhaps the unmentioned assumption: that the primary factor in national longevity expectations is diet, must be questioned.  Something the article does not do but rather taps into our national hypochondria. Is it wrong to observe that all those countries have far greater access to health care?  Are suicide rates taken into account? Accidents, homicides, numbers of people incarcerated, infant mortality, quality of health care and emergency services, elder care?  How many people ask?

People who use statistics to sell things often leave large gaps in their arguments which are filled with unsupported assumptions, as does this one.  Is a fish based diet good for you?  Quite possibly if you don't have allergies to sea food, but you can't get to that conclusion with this argument, which in fact starts with that  assumption. Do genetics play a part in longevity?  From what I read they do and the US is far, for more genetically diverse than Japan or Andorra and in fact so is the American diet.  So should I seek salvation in Sushi or is there more to it than that?

Everybody does it, and particularly those bodies that have elected themselves to speak for causes, from product safety to immigration to gun control.  Facts are easy to fudge, to select from, to edit and redact.  It's easy to confuse "linked to' and "caused by."  Is the fact that there is a link between marijuana and crime the result of marijuana being illegal in teh first place?   The argument for it being a "gateway drug" depends on not looking at the "link' between alcohol, cigarettes and in fact almost anything we all do and drug usage.

Complex causes and simple or single causes. Who likes to confuse them fallaciously more than activists who aren't often quite as rational or honest as you might expect. As I said, there are more ways to increase life span than to eat Sashimi and sea weed.  Want to cut the US gun related "murder" rate?  Stop lumping suicides in with murder.  According to the New York Times 60% of what we call murders are suicides.  Would the corrected number still be too great? sure, but making things seem worse than they are is the practice of every political organization on Earth. Is Trump lying about swarms of Mexicans crossing the Southern border?  Sure, there are more going the other direction?  Is there an Autism epidemic?  Real statistics seem to refute it, anti-vaccine people counter with anecdotes and anger.  It's endless, it's pervasive, even ubiquitous. It's lies, Damned lies and statistics.

Friday, March 25, 2016

It's Only Natural

I don't feel safe in this world no more,
I don't want to die in a nuclear war.
I want to sail away to a distant shore and make like an apeman.

-The Kinks-

The allure of nature, the yearning to get back to some other time and place when things were natural.
It's part of our American revulsion for technology and science and the way they interfere with our animal emotionalism and recreational anger.

 In man's evolution he's created the city 
And the motor traffic rumble. 
But give me half a chance and I'd be taking off my clothes 
And living in the jungle. 
Cause the only time that I feel at ease 
Is swinging up and down in the coconut trees.

in some other time and place when things were natural.  It's a thing of our time and yet it seems almost a feature of the way we are built and the way we think. We want to go back and we always have.

I'm no more immune to nostalgia than you are, but having been a nostalgic person since childhood I've learned much about how life was without the romanticized view that  commerce and politics use to make us spend and vote and sing about. Yes, indeed we have lost a great deal of both beautiful and ugly things over time, but we have gained far more than we're aware of.  Your favorite Tiki Hut restaurant on the beach becomes a soulless chain restaurant serving fish from New Zealand, that peaceful country road triples in width, sprouts ten thousand traffic lights and strip malls. The little seaside fishing community sprouts "shoppes" for people from New Jersey.  I hate it more than you do and yes it does feel like all those artisanal and natural, organic and authentic things are something devoutly to be wished for, but Capitalism has the ability to mass produce romantic ideas and sell them to us as the real thing We can't tell the difference any more.  Even Starbucks seems real to some of us.

How many TV "reality" shows are there about surviving without technology, living "off the grid" and how many "lifestyles" do we buy into that include the pretense of living like a "caveman" and eating a "paleo" diet as though all our ancestors lived in caves or ate the same things.  I fear that most of it is only theater and most of the science adhering to it isn't much different than Dr. Bonkers' elixir.  But we can't get away from it.  The modern world is scary, complex and lacking in some ineffable quality we think we want.

We want things that are "Natural" and we are afraid of anything that smacks of  the lab coat whether the distinction is real or not.  We'll spend more for something "artisanal" a word that's hard to define and you never used to see and we love the word so much you'll spend more for the product of a 'bread artisan' than of a baker although there's no difference.  We just know that preservatives are poison even when they're not.  We just know that  Ammonium Nitrate is "artificial" unless you extract it from manure and that "organic" food is healthier and tastes better even though all evidence is to the contrary. We're afraid and looking for the soothing lap of  mother nature to comfort us and commerce is happy to dress up in a mommy costume and charge us a fee.

I once had a heated argument about milk with some quite intelligent friend who assured me it was bad because only humans drank milk as an adult which shows it's not natural.  Now of course that definition of natural as something which our species is not involved in is contrived.  We are,, as all things are part of nature, but as we're the only species that brushes our teeth, removes the offal from our prey, boils water and millions of other things, it doesn't follow that all such things are harmful. Yet the urge is to deny all the science that proves milk does not make you phlegmatic, because science isn't natural and fear is.

But it's an old argument, used frequently by religious bigots.  Homosexuality isn't "natural"  there are crimes against nature that must be punished.  Ben Franklin was vilified because lightning rods are an unnatural interference with nature, just as Dr. Frankenstein was punished (in the movie version) for learning and doing things man was never meant to know or do.  Yes, it's an old story and older than the Bible which tells us that knowledge is sinful to acquire.

Man made is bad, technology is bad and frightening, and so science is not trustworthy or wholesome.

In man's evolution he's created the city
And the motor traffic rumble
But give me half a chance and I'd be taking off my clothes
And living in the jungle. Cause the only time that I feel at ease
Is swinging up and down in the coconut trees.

But the naive and the fearful and the nostalgic are the prey of bad people and bad science and the sellers of "lifestyles."  Billions are made by telling you to fear radios and anything not found lying on the ground because it's not natural. An anti-oxidant is bad if it's used as a preservative. Nothing artificial is good even if identical to the "natural" version.  Pesticides are bad unless you get them from a plant or mineral even though they may be quite deadly.  We're convinced because we hear this on the Internet or from some TV pitch man or read some charlatan's book.  We have to worry about hormones from chicken and phlegm from milk and about the antibiotics in the pig food getting into our bloodstreams, even if we can't assimilate DNA and all those "toxins' are destroyed by cooking if they exist at all.. We have to worry about grain brain and wheat belly and the equally non-existent danger of gluten or bananas or any of the "seven foods you should never eat." We don't care how much evidence refutes it.

We don't care that Autism isn't expanding and that vaccination doesn't cause it.  We don't care that all our food sources are things that don't exist in the wild and that we are the only animal on earth that cannot survive without technology and that our dominance is entirely due to technology -- like cooking your food or brushing your teeth or wearing clothes or reading a book or making music -- like human inability to tell reason from emotion -- it's not natural.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Talking to ourselves.

26 dead in Brussels, reads the sign. 26 dead in Newtown.  It isn't something meant to inform us. Close the borders says the rubric. Get used to it says the counterpoint. Forget for the moment that this is a conversation between two straw men, their lines scripted by someone with a purpose -- and forget that the death toll in Belgium has escalated beyond that number and is only a small part of a much larger number, this isn't about accuracy anyway.  It's about energizing the base, giving them something to contemplate with masturbatory self-satisfaction while mocking an opposition created of straw  for the purpose. But wait, there's more.

Focus on the false equivalence.  Is the international threat of a fanatical, well-armed and well-funded army of tens of thousands that's already killed many thousands of innocent civilians really in any way equivalent to the threat of a disturbed teen taking a gun to school?  Of course not. Yet some will read this, will nod together in warm solidarity and feel good about themselves. Many will feel superior to those other people, whether they exist or not.

Welcome to politics in the 21st century.  From the grotesquely infantile Ann Coulter quote: "Liberals go Wah.  They go Wah, Wah, Wah."  to the  straw words to the effect that "white people think there's no more racism."  one could make a case that there are more straw men then real men in our country and that anything worth stating is worth expanding or reducing to an absurdly smug and factually inaccurate generalization.

It's done not to convince an opponent, to inform or to answer any questions but to unite a group and to unite it under the aegis of some entity, consolidating it's power and authority to speak for all those concerned with, for instance, armed violence, police brutality, civil rights and many other valid concerns. It's there to make it all seem simple and to stifle other approaches to such problems. Quibble about any detail of  the canon and you're the enemy.

Straw man arguments, false equivalences, they're part of a larger constellation of  sophistical arguments. Oversimplification, the idea that one factor is the only factor, the sole cause of a complex problem. "Speed is a factor in all traffic accidents"  so all efforts to make driving safer must be based on speed limits, never mind the tautology and never mind all other factors.  "Air bags save lives" but never mind how very few or how many are killed by them.

 Is that just how it is in America?  Should I just get used to it?  If it weren't for the possibility that  progressive ideas make themselves poisonous to the public using obviously misleading and manipulative techniques: name calling, weak and fallacious arguments and obstinate repetitions of well known falsehoods and more.  We don't argue to persuade, we argue to show people how morally outraged and angry we are and how afraid they should be.  We encourage people to support demagogues and their lies  We encourage Republicans to vote against us.

Every time we call a well-intentioned person a racist.  Every time we call a sportsman a gun nut, every time we elevate a problem every time we shout down a valid question we energize a Republican. We distract from their excesses and their deceit and instead of creating unity we fragment ourselves.  We so rarely put up a united front. We go Wah.  We go Wah, Wah, Wah.-

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Continuity With Change

Fans of the Emmy winning HBO series VEEP may recall the slogan used on Julia Louis-Dreyfus' campaign bus "Continuity with Change." In our brave new world such things tend to creep off the screen and into that other world of entertainment: politics. Was Australia's Prime Minister quoting consciously or unconsciously when he said " Continuity and Change" in an interview yesterday?
Perhpas to him it gave the feeling that he would be changing things but not too much. Who knows, but of course the phrase was selected by the show's writers for being as meaningless a statement as they could find in order to typify the state of American political rhetoric. The "most meaningless election slogan we could think of".said writer Simon Blackwell.

So far we haven't heard it from any of the clowns in America's two ring circus, but then it conveys a sort of vapid optimism rather than the furious and outraged invective more common to our politics.

Politics mirrors the art that satirizes politics. As circular as a circus ring if not as vicious.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Midas Touch

"Everybody lies" said Hugh Laurie as House.  Everything goes to shit, says the Second Law of Thermodynamics, or "entropy increases" which is the same thing without the smell.

You can't trust anything and no matter how good a thing, a quality, a group of  people out to do good may be, lies and exaggerations and hyperbole creep in, things fall apart and the jerks, the zealots, the fanatics, the self righteous take over. That's how we got where we are, but never mind. As bad as it is, it's always going to get worse. Entropy increases. Religions and causes and principles become atrocities -- always -- and the best of intentions become heresy, error, treason and sin.  If you're not one of us you're one of them and because we're right, nobody else can be. Truth is tribal. Some truth is more true than other truth and some truths are lies.

So it is with humanistic principles, like the sanctity of human life.  If it gets in the way of a group fighting police brutality, the noblest of principle becomes heresy, becomes racism. Truth is only a tactical position. If it serves your position in some battle, it's true enough even if it isn't.  If it does not it can't be true if it shows we're wrong and we can't be wrong because truth is only a tactical position , a fortification, a weapon that serves our group, our tribe.   Good becomes bad, humanism becomes racism. Everything turns to shit.

Entropy increases: disorder, dispute, disrespect and thus defeat.  Good intentions are self destructive.  Preach peace and and start a war, preach love and engender hate, preach respect for all and it all shatters into warring states, groups, tribes, faiths, races, The end justifies the means, the rhetoric, the damage done.

Found the first secular democracy in the world to affirm that legitimacy in government comes from people not from gods and before you know it, the people are interpreting that to mean Theocracy.  Freedom to persecute becomes freedom of religion. Freedom of religion becomes freedom to believe only what we tell you to believe and so any self-contradiction, any forgery, fallacy of invented fact is permissible in the fight for freedom and so freedom is slavery and vice versa.

On the Animal Farm, four legs good - two legs bad becomes Four legs good, two legs better.  Preach love for one group and you offend another that's out to improve only their own lot.  Numbers are never convincing enough so you tune them up, you gerrymander comparisons, add irrelevant numbers and false analogies and you add real fallacies to real data to make it all seem better and soon enough you've polarized instead of convinced and it all breaks down into insult and strife - forever.

You want to improve the atmosphere by mandating smaller cars and we wind up with huge trucks instead.  We want to improve driving safety so we reduce speed limits on the safest roads and when it doesn't work, we lapse into denialism and accusation and draconian enforcement, just as we did with the Volstead act. That it doesn't do what it was supposed to do means only that someone must be blamed, not that we were wrong or naive or stubborn.  You say the cause of accidents is mostly bad drivers and not bad cars?  You'll be run over by righteousness, a victim of the inertia of zeal.

We want to make cars safer in collisions and we mandate one technology and ignore better technology and accuse the inventor of being against safety.

 Alcohol is bad for society say the righteous. it ruins lives and spurs crime, so we ruin even more lives and create vastly more crime.

When it doesn't work, we look for scapegoats and we increase punishment. Cannibis is bad for society and that must be true since the police tell us and there's a powerful group of civic minded citizens to back them up.  The war on drugs doesn't work, vastly increases crime, vastly increases incarceration, ruining lives, destroying families and communities and when it doesn't work?  we try harder. We create numbers to scare people and when the numbers aren't scary enough we tune them up, we shuffle the shells, we deal from the bottom of the deck and if anyone notices or questions, we cry heresy, we call names, we polarize we feel good about it, because it's all in a good cause and the nobility of the cause justifies all tactics, sanctifies the lies, vilifies objectivity, stifles creativity and again the high minded becomes teh simple minded, becomes denialism, becomes persecution.

We want to protect children so the kid who takes a naked picture of another kid goes to jail and becomes a pariah for life and if you say "wait a minute" why, you must be a pervert too!  Everything turns to shit because the notion that something must be done gets reshuffled and twisted to support any solution, any approach, any law or bill or policy and if you question, you're a spokesman for the devil, the bogeyman, the NRA, the KKK , ISIL or worse.

Everything turns to shit, because everyone lies, misrepresents, exaggerates, redacts, edits and feels good about it and why not, because good causes make for good outcomes, don't they?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Beer Halls, Brown Shirts and Trump

Oh my!

I haven't lived in Chicago for a long time, but I don't think the big Windy has seen a Friday night like this one since 1968.  I don't think our dear country has been as divided since the illegitimate war in Vietnam that killed tens of thousands of my generation and set the "Love it or Leave it" thugs against the rest of us. Chicago of course has a history of public violence, like the Haymarket affair in 1886 or the gruesome 'Red Summer'  race riots of 1919.  It's no coincidence that St Louis also erupted in violence that evening and it set me to wondering whether those folks, if they're still alive, who blamed the Chicago race riots of 1968 on Martin Luther King would now blame this affair on Donald Trump. King, of course continued to denounce such actions for as long as he lived and as far as I know without once  bragging about his penis.

I'll leave the question of whether those events were part of the "great" period of American history to which our GOP would like to return us to you, but as the New York Post tells us:

The scandal is that a man who aspires to be leader of the United States of America and a role model to its children has behaved like a soccer hooligan, gleefully stirring up violence rather than seeking to calm it.

Of course it's not just the Chicago riots of 1968 that come to mind, but I'm afraid the passionate rabble of  today doesn't connect  its tactics with the passionate rabble in the beer halls of Munich in 1923 or perhaps they don't think history repeats itself if you ignore it.  Who knows, but I'm hardly optimistic about the future of our Republic even if our next president isn't one who promises to wall out minorities, close houses of worship, punish dissent with thuggery or to base our legal system on the "Body of Christ" whatever the hell that means. Indeed the party of Trump, Cruz and Rubio, the one that told us only a few years ago that America's biggest problem was pornography and freedom of the press  is trying to sanctify our traditional bigotry by mumbling about Jesus and freedom of religion (for Christians only) What would the USA be like, it's Humanist and secular government based on the will of the governed be like, transformed into whatever it is that these heroes have in mind?  Perhaps I'll read about it in Costa Rica.

Sunday, March 06, 2016

Bad is Good, but Badder is Better

Imagine a world without one single fail, epic or otherwise, where you gave presents instead of gifting them.  Wasn't it just yesterday when there wasn't a genius toaster or tennis shoe in the world? Seems like that world never existed to most Americans, their Business or Journalism diplomas framed upon the wall.

So listen here kids, I'm going to tell you about a time - a time not so long ago when a macchiado would have sounded like something you'd get from a woman in black leather, and a barista was that floozie who was always still sitting  there at closing time. No, I'm not gonna tell you it was the good old days because those days were no better than these days, just different. Back then we laughed at out-of-date hipsters  who still started sentences with saaaay and ended them with seeee. We giggled at people who thought things might be swell instead of cool or maybe even neat. We laughed at people who still wore fedora hats or worse those little porkpie hats like Norton from the Honeymooners and we laughed all the harder when they turned the brim up like a total loser. Wear your hat indoors?  Hahahaha!  Not one science fiction writer ever imagined that there would be passionate arguments about whether your backwards hat should have a flat or curved brim or should be over-sized enough to cover your ears.

Once upon a time, not everything was awesome, you see.   Gilgamesh was epic, your lunch probably wasn't.

I heard some period drama recently in which a Victorian character says "the disease impacted her brain" and it was like an alarm going off.  We just don't remember how different our language was, or is it that directors are afraid of confusing the tattooed multitudes by saying it affected her mind?  and then there was the CNN News item about concussions impacting brains -- and said without a smile to indicate the news parrot recognizing that impacting the brain causes concussions.

No, really there was a time when people distinguished between because of and due to: a time when we waited for things and waiters waited on us. If my high school chum had talked about his selfie going viral or his tweet was trending on Twitter, he would have been sent to the school nurse, but it couldn't have negatively impacted on his record since that convoluted and pompous metaphor hadn't yet graduated from business school and shuffled toward CNN to be aired..

Sure, life has changed and so have the requirements of language.  Who needed to call his Timex an analog watch back when John Cameron Swayze showed us how rugged they were and digital meant something entirely different, particularly in the doctor's office, But do we have to confuse meaning with metaphor?  Do we have to accept manipulative marketing blather so eagerly? Do we have to make fools of ourselves trying to sound adolescent, to sound educated or just to sound hip?  Are all of those motivations internal or are they implanted to direct and misdirect thought, stifle perspective and make us pay ten bucks for a cup of coffee?  a Senator wants to refuse to do his job but keep his pay and benefits? A deserter wants to be commander in chief?  All things are possible when  we twist the language.

I remember a decade of hearing how history wasn't as important as "what's happening now baby" and the results of that is a population full of fake and distorted history.  Are we doing the same thing to English by stressing the primacy of slang and jargon and needless complexity posing as erudition?  Listen to a presidential "debate" and tell me why the barking of dogs is less meaningful. Could it be that Orwell's Newspeak is becoming a reality?  Is language being stripped of precision, are words being identified with their opposites and is the function of language to sell, to indoctrinate to simplify past the point of  incisive or trenchant protest?

Why do I keep hearing patriotism used as a synonym for gun ownership? Why does Liberal mean totalitarian and Conservative mean radical revolutionary and why do Family values mean intrusive Theocracy?  Why is a blastula a Baby? What does Organic mean? What does Processed mean? Why is universal healthcare Fascist and Communist at the same time?  Why is any war about fighting for our freedom?  Why is bad good and badder better? Is it for the same reason that war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance strength?

I suspect something of the sort and the fact that every English teacher I know thinks there should be no dictionaries and all that is required of them is to teach spelling and the proper use of possessive apostrophes, makes me wonder, and by "wonder" I mean I'm certain.