I feel just as safe as I did last Sunday

I haven't really wanted to blog about the bombing in Boston, because I don't think I have anything worthwhile to add to the conversation.  But today in my Sociology class, the teacher asked a question that really pissed me off:  Do we feel less safe now than we did before the bombing? No.  No, I don't.  And no, neither should most people.

If you live or work in or around Boston right now, that's one thing.  Or if you're about to go to a major cultural event.  And if you're Muslim or Chechen, being around strangers in America might be a bit less safe now than it was last Friday.

But living within a half hour's drive of a place where a bomb went off almost a week ago isn't notably dangerous.

If I felt like everyone else was being reasonable, I would say that the only reason you might feel less safe now than you did last week is if, prior to now, you were totally unaware of the reality that some people suck, and sometimes people blow things up or shoot people.  There are loads of reasons people do these things, but the reasons don't matter all that much on a personal safety level.

What matters is that people living in middle- to working-class neighborhoods and attending community colleges that have no large geo-cultural or political significance are just as much not targets as they were before something other than them was targeted.

This isn't about not giving in to terror.  This isn't about putting up a brave face.  This is me, pissed off that my peer group can't handle the idea that bombs in one place do not automatically, systematically increase the likelihood of bombs everywhere.  I, like most of the people I know, am actually not less safe because of the bombing on Monday.

It's fine and normal to be sad, freaked out, or confused right now.  But if you actually feel like your safety has declined since Monday, and I didn't mention you in paragraph three, I think you probably haven't been paying attention.

ThinkProgress on gender in the media according to SCIENCE

Tara Culp-Ressler at ThinkProgress published a post today, How The Mainstream Media Exploits 'Science' To Reinforce Gender Stereotypes, which lists five media events, connected with studies -- sometimes flawed, sometimes misrepresented, and sometimes not even published -- to make huge, sweeping claims about gender.

On Tuesday, mainstream news outlets covered the results from a small survey in Australia that polled just over 100 women about their sexual preferences. One headline atop an NBC story proclaimed, “Science proves women like men with bigger penises.” The reporter includes a few other examples of studies that have reached the same conclusions about women’s predisposition to larger male genitalia, but only after acknowledging that the results from past research on the topic “have been disputed as sexist, or scientifically flawed, or both.”

The article is heavy in evolutionary psychology, small sample sizes, and headlines that bear little or no relationship to the research they're reporting on.

This is a good example of the ways that science is held a little bit back by cissexist cultural narratives, and how the media is held  hugely back, and is holding everyone else back, by forcing every story they can into those narratives.

So paywalls kinda work a little I guess?

The Guardian, which has a free website, but also offers paid subscriptions to its digital edition, published an article today by Michael Wolff examining the limited success of paywalls:

To the surprise of many digital evangelizers and old-media doubters, newspaper paywalls turn out to work. Sort of.


The New York Times deserves credit for the breakthrough: it created a model that is "porous" enough that if you don't want to pay, you don't have to, and if you read the Times regularly enough and don't care about not paying, you will. This has added a significant new revenue stream, while yet preserving the Times' online advertising income (anemic though that is).

Paywalls still aren't solving the problems that journalism faces on the long-term -- eventually all the old loyal readers are going to die, and if the content is locked up, it's hard to get new subscribers.  The solution may still have to be far fewer journalists.  (Or, the solution we really should be going for, comprehensive welfare so we can have a core of journalists in our civilization whether or not it's profitable -- journalists being important and all.)

Wolff also highlights a disturbing case in favor of the paywall, in the Daily Mail:

There is, too, the inverse strategy: no paywall. If the Times establishes one model of limited success, the Daily Mail establishes the opposite model of limited success. In essence, the Mail has played an entirely un-newspaper game, much less trying hold onto and finance what has worked offline, and much more trying to focus on what works online. Using large amounts of aggregation, and focusing relentlessly on celebrities, with search engine and social media strategies, it has, in fact, outdone almost all its native online competitors in the quest for traffic and wholly trounced every other newspaper.

I looked at the Daily Mail just to check out this point -- I thought I'd grab a screencap to show you how awful it is.  But it's too terrible.  It makes me feel sick just looking at it.  Here are some of the headlines:

  • 'Gouge out his eyeballs!' Screams of heartbroken father as he faces the man who 'killed his daughter, 3,'[1. The quotes, presumably, are getting them out of actually writing 'allegedly'.] in court
  • MTV's Buckwild star Shane Gandee, 21, is found dead in truck with TWO[2. Yes, it's really in all caps.] others - 31 hours after he was reported missing
  • Confessions of a drug-addled beauty editor: Fired journalist lands $550,000 book deal for tell-all memoir
  • Heterosexuals will 'fake' gay marriages to get benefits if same-sex marriage is legalized nationwide, claims Georgia Republican Party chairwoman

I might subscribe to the New York Times over this.

A case study for bias in headlines (Teenager shot as an intruder while accidentally sneaking into the wrong home)

camboy_72 on the Urban Planning subreddit posted a link to a Fox News article about a death in Virginia. What appears to have actually happened is:  a High School junior went out with his friends and got drunk, so he had to sneak back home, and came in through a back window.  But he accidentally snuck into the wrong house.  The homeowner, hearing the burglar alarm, got his gun, warned the teen, fired a warning shot, then, when the teen was walked past him, up the stairs, shot and killed him. On the Urban Planning subreddit, camboy_72 titled the link: Yet another (tragic) reason to despise cookie-cutter subdivisions.  To that point, Allison Klein and Michael Allison Chandler at the Washington Post write,

A day later, Caleb’s friends and family were trying to figure out how this promising, well-liked athlete, who stayed out of trouble and generally listened to his parents, could have died in such a way.

“They have the exact same staircase as us, the exact same carpet. Caleb clearly thought he was in his own house,” said his father, Shawn Gordley, who provided the account of his son’s night. “He probably stumbled around and was just trying to go to his room.”

(emphasis mine)

That one pretty obviously shows extreme bias, but it also came from an explicitly and openly biased source:  a subreddit about urban planning.  I agree with that point, by the way -- it's seriously screwed up to live in an environment where you can't tell your own home from the other ones on the street.  And while we're on the point, this is also a really good case study for why people shouldn't have guns in their homes.  Intruder ≠ violent attacker.

But I'm more interested in the way Fox headlined the story.  For a baseline, this is how the Washington Post titled the Associated Press story:

Sheriff says homeowner fired warning shot at teen intruder who mistakenly entered wrong home

And here's how Fox headlined the same story:

Homeowner fired warning before fatally shooting teen intruder, sheriff says

The story after that is the same, but I've said before and I cannot stress this enough, most people, most of the time, mostly just read headlines.  Especially if those headlines confirm our prejudices about the world, we tend not to feel like it's necessary to read past that.  The Washington Post headline contains enough relevant details that the point is clear to someone just scanning headlines on the main page: "Teenager made a mistake, got himself shot."  Whatever your views on gun control, that's a sufficiently complex idea to encourage reasonable thought.  The Fox headline, on the other hand, offers "Homeowner kills hooligan invading his house."

This failure, the failure of headlines, is not a trivial thing.  It's a major way that news sources either contribute to, or undermine, the prejudices of their audience.  Fox's headline defends the worldview in which the status quo is "Guns in the home save lives and property."  Whether or not that's a legitimate view, the particular story in question absolutely does not support it.  The view that this story supports is "Guns in the home kill innocent people."

The truth, obviously, is a complex combination of the two points, and a well-informed public would form opinions based on the facts of the degree to which the former or the latter is more true, as well as their own views about which is more important.  Fox, rather than encouraging that dialogue, is pursuing the anti-informational quality that  encourages their readers to deny even the existence of cases in which their status quo is, if not contradicted, even ever made complex.

Laci Green on rape culture

I don't really know what to say about the Steubenville rape case, outside the obvious -- those boys got less punishment than they deserved, and the media sources that have been covering it like the tragedy is two rapists getting punished for rape are sick and horrible and people should be made to resign -- I find it difficult to articulate what I feel about it, and I'm not sure I feel qualified to talk about it. But part of rape culture is letting rape apologetics pass by unquestioned, so I think it's wrong not to say anything, too -- which is why I'm glad Laci Green has made a video about it, because now I can just embed that and say "I agree with her."

Laci Green's WTF HAPPENED IN STEUBENVILLE? (Trigger warning: rape):

I agree with her.

Wrong articles and rebuttals

I am an editor on my college's newspaper   Often, I see articles that shouldn't be published.  They contain misleading, or even factually wrong claims, and/or are biased often to the point of being bigoted.  I'm not the editor in chief, though, so it's not my call what we do and don't publish. All I can do is recommend.  And sometimes, my recommendations are heeded.  Other times, my editor in chief (or the student adviser) suggest that, if I have a problem with the content, I should write a rebuttal.

I realize that this is pretty much how news works in America now:  every opinion gets as much attention as it's possible for the relevant media to give, and if it's wrong, the solution is rebuttal.  Other people are asked to take the time to laboriously undo as much of the damage as they can.  But no amount of rebuttal can ever do the amount of harm reduction that can be achieved by simply not publishing wrong stuff in the first place.

Also: most people barely skim the first story they read on a topic, very few people devote the sustained attention to a single topic they care little about that is necessary to digest two contradictory articles.

Not that there's anything I can do about it.  It just annoys me.  A lot.

The Daily Show without Jon Stewart this summer

For twelve weeks this summer, the Daily Show is going to have a different host.  According to the New York Times Jon Stewart is taking time off to direct a movie called "Rosewater," which sounds like it's probably not going to be a light political satire because it's an adaptation of a memoir about the imprisonment of an Iranian Canadian journalist.  Now, I haven't read the book.  Maybe it's hilarious.  I'm just saying I wouldn't be surprised if it's not. The Times's article is mostly about the role that the Daily Show, and Jon Stewart, played in the imprisonment of the aforementioned journalist -- he was arrested on espionage charges because he participated in a joke interview that featured Jason Jones, dressed as a spy.

The part of this news I'm most excited about, though (and I feel really awful for changing the topic from an imprisoned journalist to get to this) is that John Oliver is covering for Stewart during his absence.

After Stewart, John Oliver is my favorite person involved in the Daily Show.  In fact, after Stewart, John Oliver is probably my favorite person who's appeared more than once on Comedy Central.  This is great news.

Texas woman has two sets of identical twins at once; CNN covers

I started watching CNN while I was having breakfast today, because there wasn't anything good saved on my DVR and I didn't want to watch Kitchen Nightmares.  I don't see much non-fictional-script based TV apart from Fox, which is what my parents watch, so I didn't realize how disappointing the institutions Fox imitates are.

The story

It was actually a pretty cool story, so I want to start with that.  A woman in Texas had a set of fraternal twins who both divided into identical twins, resulting in four children.  They named the kids alphabetically by birth order, Ace, Blaine, Cash and Dylan, and thematically after Las Vegas, in keeping with their two year old son, Memphis.

The birth-order naming scheme sounds to me like a recipe for insecurity and conflict, but I can't reasoonably claim to be sure about that.

About CNN's coverage of the story

My major criticism of this story comes from this section, similarly expressed in the video clip:

Identical twins result when a fertilized egg splits into two embryos. Twins occur in about 2% of all pregnancies, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System. Of those, 30% are identical twins.

The odds of having two sets of twins at once is about 1 in 70 million, Dr. Alan Penzias, associate professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive biology at Harvard Medical School, told ABC News. Attempts by CNN to reach Penzias on Tuesday were not immediately successful.

I think there might be some sort of selection bias in the kinds of doctors who talk to the press.

Obviously, 1 in 70 million is a number that guy pulled out of his ass, unless ABC just did some back-of-an-envelope math based on the true things he said.  If we take the numbers he listed, and assume that the events: having fraternal twins, one twin splitting, and the other twin splitting, are all entirely separate events, with no related causes at all, then you do get odds close to 1 in 70 million.

If, for one obvious example, the event that caused one zygote to split was the same event that caused the other zygote to split, the odds are closer to 1 in 10 thousand.

Here are those numbers next to each other, in monospace, so you can see how big a difference there is:


The actual odds, insofar as they could possibly be established, is probably somewhere between those two.  Those odds are also kind of a pointless thing to report on, but if they must, they could at least aim for a more critical approach to statistics.

That story was followed up with a blatantly prejudicial teaser titled "Michael Jackson's Son Gets a Job," then a commercial by a mother who said her kids hated her before she got her teeth whitened.

About CNN

News organizations set the standard for the quality of discussion in the community they serve.  That's why it pisses me off that CNN is failing this badly.  It shouldn't be easy to spot obviously misleading or false information in any given story I'm not an expert in, but it is.  I was writing more than I was paying attention in the next few stories, but it was clear I didn't just get lucky -- CNN clearly sets a very low standard, to the point that I think they're actually stigmatizing critical thought and complex evaluation.

I hear the argument that TV-based informational content is inherently reductionistic and trivializing, but there are hundreds of examples to the contrary -- examples where creators make it clear when they're simplifying,  examples where they clearly, fully explain the relevant context, examples where humor is used sensibly in relation to the content, so it doesn't obscure the points.  Those examples are all from the last week, and they're all from YouTube channels that get these poitns right consistently.

Granted, those are all on YouTube.  But I don't think you can seriously argue that there's anything inherent about network news that makes it impossible to do what people on YouTube do, some of them in their free time.  What you can argue is that there are economic forces preventing them from moving on past their decade or two of mistakes.

I think the appropriate response to that is for good journalists to abandon the industry.  Maybe we can talk Google into offering more grants for professional journalism on YouTube?

Youtube, ads, and national inventor's day

I didn't know there was a national Inventor's Day.  It turns out it was a couple days ago, February 11. I found out about this because I just watched a two-and-a-half minute ad before a video on YouTube.  The reason I watched it was because I was incredibly surprised to hear Ze Frank's voice on the ad, and I figured whatever Ze Frank is going to advertise for has to be at least worth listening through.

The ad was about inventors.  It's called Why Inventors Are Awesome.  It was for national Inventor's Day.  It was sponsored by GE.  I'm not sure it's changed my opinion about GE (they make a lot of stuff that I really like existing, but they're a very big company and that gives me an uncomfortable sense of 'what am I not hearing'...)

I just wanted to take this moment to talk about the fact that there are, it seems rarely but actually pretty often, occasions when ads benefit everyone involved.  This video, Life by the Numbers, and YouTube, both got money for serving that ad to me.  GE got my eyeballs for a little bit, and made me think about looking into them with a charitable attitude.  And I got a two and a half minute video that made me feel good about the world, about humans, and about the past and the future.

a sexist narrative in the entertainment industry

I had no idea there was a rumor that Jessica Chastain and Jennifer Lawrence hated each other.  But I'm not surprised -- as this article on Slate points out, it's not an unusual narrative:  two women pursuing success are cast as in competition against each other, rather than against everyone else in the business, or -- even better, and more true -- both pursuing success in a field they hope will grow enough to accommodate as many brilliant people in it as possible. Chastian shot the rumor down on Facebook:

I find it very sad that media makes up bogus stories about women fighting in this industry. Filming The Help was the most amazing experience and yet, that is the film Im most asked about in regards to "fighting on set". Why do we support the myth that women are competitive and cannot get along? I think all of the actresses recognized this year have given incredible performances. But more important, they've all shown themselves to be filled with generosity and kindness. I've done two photo shoots with Jennifer Lawrence over the years and have found her to be utterly charming and a great talent. I've told her how beautiful her film work is. Please don't allow the media to perpetuate the myth that women arent supportive of each other. Everytime an actress is celebrated for her great work, I cheer. For the more brilliant their performance, the more the audience demands stories about women. With support and encouragement, we help to inspire this industry to create opportunities for women. And as we all know: a great year for women in film, is just a great year for film xxjes

George W. Bush's leaked paintings

I've seen some paintings of George W. Bush around the internet today, and I really had no idea what was going on with them.  I didn't particularly care.  I had also seen some stuff about someone hacking Bush's email account.  I didn't care about that either, and also it sounded like too much effort to read about while I'm sick.  (btw: I'm sick.) But the Daily Kos wrapped it up in a nice, short piece, and here's the gist of what happened:  Some douche hacked into George Bush's email account and publicly distributed a couple of paintings he'd done of himself, in his free time, which had been sent to his sister.  Other douches around the country are making fun of the paintings, criticizing Bush as an artist, and photoshopping stuff into them.

This strikes me as an obvious breach of ethical boundaries:  yes, email hacking of political figures can have positive effects, re: journalism and important leaks.  But these paintings aren't important political information.  They're really obviously part of the private life of a person who happens to also have a significant public life -- or, at least, used to have.

Apart from the fact that it's Absolutely Not Cool to make fun of a non-expert artist for being not an expert at art, this also reflects on the screwed up idea in American culture that notable people are public property.  It should be a no-brainer that responsible citizens of the internet shouldn't encourage this distribution and mutation of Bush's paintings.

If you're really curious, you can go googling, but I'm not going to embed the pictures or link to anywhere that posted them. (The Daily Kos article embedded them, so no link, but they were at least critical of the fact of their release.)

Jon Stewart's awesome gun video

Pretty often I forget to keep watching the Daily Show.  Fortunately, I sometimes see awesome gif sets that let me know there's an episode I need to see.  Last week, I saw one of those.

This video is eight straight minutes of awesome points, but here's my favorite one:

Jesse Ventura: Do we go to the ford motor company and tell them, stop making these automobiles because people get drunk and kill people in cars?

Jon Stewart:  No, but we do enact stricter blood alcohol limits, raise the drinking age, charge bartenders who serve drunks, and launch huge public awareness campaigns to stigmatize the dangerous behavior in question, and we do all those things because it might just help bring drunk driving rates down, I don't know, by two thirds in a few decades.

I can only begin to express how pissed I am about this

There are a whole bunch of major problems with the American media.  If you extend any of them out far enough, they all become fatal, because when you're operating on the scale of a nation, there aren't very many decisions that don't end up being life-or-death for someone. But one of the areas we cover, mass shootings, we do so incredibly, visibly wrong that it's hard to explain.  I'm going to put the news content of this post below the fold, because I don't want to give it the credit of the front page on my blog.  I'm also going to use the nofollow html tag in my links, because I don't want to increase the relevant website's google traffic.

USA Today has a report on the Aurora, CO shootings dedicated, the police officers' descriptions of the process of arresting the gunman.  The first image on the page is a massive courtroom sketch of the gunman, and his name is in the headline.

The way we report on violent crime, centering around the criminals rather than the victims, constructing a nearly heroic narrative, encourages copycats, inspires new generations of murderers.  There are a whole lot of reasons that the United States has one of the highest intentional homicide rates in the developed world.  The biggest and most obvious one is that we let pretty much anyone have nearly any kind of weapon they want.  But one of the other huge ones is that we don't hold our media accountable for the way they present their stories.  Or, when we do, we mostly hold them accountable to their shareholders, and mostly only demand that they make their content maximally sensationalist, to draw in advertising views.

The Aurora, CO story is over.  The people who should follow and know about the result of the trial are those who are particularly obsessed, and those who are close to the story.  The former category is probably dangerous, and the latter category deserves access to the narrative.

Broadcasting this media to the entire country, months after the event, does little apart from remind every would-be mass shooter that the way to go down in fame, if you fuck anything else up big time (note that the gunman had recently flunked out of medical school) is to kill a whole bunch of people somewhere they feel safe.

[note: the article I posted about an hour and a half ago, the videos of the crazy person, features a moment where that guy makes the same point I'm making about the problem of the media and copycats.  I want to take the time now to clarify that just because one of the fifty or so crazy and false things he said happened to be pretty close to true and reasonable doesn't mean I agree with him, or that he was being reasonable even for a moment.]

Guns in the US

There was an ad before a YouTube video I watched earlier today,  unfortunately I didn't have the presence of mind to save the link -- I think it's safe to assume that they would have already paid for the advertising, that they didn't (a.) throw up the ad after hearing about the shooting this morning, or (b.) have the ability to pull it from airing for a respectful period of time.  My point isn't that the ad was in poor taste.  Just that it exists. It was an ad for a company in California, that sells kits to assemble guns at home.  The ad featured (in fact, entirely consisted of) a man explaining that it's not illegal to buy the parts of a gun, even if you can't buy the gun itself, how to machine those parts to create the gun they're parts of, and in what ways you can avoid registering the gun.  Apparently, registration has to happen at the point where the gun is sold, at least in California, so if you make it yourself, nobody has to know that you own it.

It's not hard to qualify for a gun in the United States.  But apparently, that's not enough -- there are also companies whose business is helping people who don't qualify get around the law with loopholes, so they can have guns without letting anyone know.

I'm angry.

I'm angry because I know how many times in the next few weeks I'm going to hear people say that this couldn't have been prevented.  And because I know I'm going to hear that, even if guns were substantially more controlled, this kid would have gotten them anyway.  Or that he would have done just as much damage if he had some other weapon.

After the Aurora, CO shooting, PolitiFact responded to Facebook claims that the United States has the most gun violence in the world:

According to data collected by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, several other countries had more gun homicides than the U.S., and perhaps 17 countries had a higher rate of gun homicides than the U.S. when population is factored in. However, when comparing the U.S. to its most direct equivalents -- affluent nations in Europe and Asia -- the U.S. has far more gun homicides than they do. We rated this one Half True.

Emphasis mine.

So, we have less violence than countries like Somalia.  We're outdone in gun violence per capita by the nation states who are constantly at war with themselves and each other.

And I'm angry that people will say "If you outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns."  First of all, because it reduces a complex legislative discussion to all-or-nothing, and secondly, because other developed countries clearly illustrate the reality that more gun control means less gun death.

The UK is widely acknowledged to have some of the strictest gun laws in the world.  Wikipedia has a list of world nations by firearm related death rate.  The United States is twelfth, at 9 deaths per 100,000 people annually (data 2008-2010).  The UK is sixty-fifth, at 0.22 deaths per 100,000 people annually (data 2009).  That is, eleventh from the bottom of the list.  That is, about 41 times more gun death in the US than the UK.

And to the point about people just finding other ways to kill people, the US rate of murders per 100,000 people is 4.2; the UK's is 1.2.  As for the discrepancy with the numbers, a lot of gun death in America is by suicide.  The American suicide rate per 100,000 annually is 12.  UK; 6.9.

Now, correlation does not prove causation.  But it offers a fracking big hint.  And this correlation absolutely disproves the premise that more gun laws = more gun violence.

Plenty of people will say that we shouldn't make this political.  That it's a tragedy.  That we have to wait a respectful amount of time before we start the argument about gun violence.  They said that after the Aurora shooting.  And the shooting before that.  And the shootings before that.

We didn't ever get around to changing the rules last time.  We won't, this time, either -- if we pretend that gun control legislation is somehow irreverent.  There may not be a sufficiently respectful amount of time after this shooting, before there's another one.

Since (and including) the Columbine shooting in April of 1999, there have been 31 mass shootings in America.  That's close to two and a half per year.

We're over the average so far in 2012, at 3, but there are less than 20 days left this year.  Is that a respectful amount of time?

Quinn Norton's eulogy for #Occupy

(via Boing Boing) Quinn Norton, a reporter who followed the #Occupy movement from near the beginning, living camp to camp with the protesters, has written a eulogy for the movement.  It's sad, kind of painful, and enlightening to read.  There are bright sides, here and there, but they're few and far between.  She's right -- obviously -- but I kept thinking, the whole way through, that #Occupy failing doesn't discredit the concepts -- that new kinds of social order fail because you try new things until one succeeds.

I cut out some of the pieces I thought were the most poignant, because it's a very long article and I understand if you don't want to read the whole thing.  But it's definitely worth reading.  It's one of the best pieces of journalism I've seen lately.

Here's the link.

Because the [General Assembly] had no way to reject force, over time it fell to force. Proposals won by intimidation; bullies carried the day. What began as a way to let people reform and remake themselves had no mechanism for dealing with them when they didn’t. It had no way to deal with parasites and predators. It became a diseased process, pushing out the weak and quiet it had meant to enfranchise until it finally collapsed when nothing was left but predators trying to rip out each other’s throats.


The police would quietly tell stories of their own to me. Never attributable, never usable in the normal course of journalism. They were the terrible things that go on in dark places in America, the things that hurt them, that turned their assumptions about other people so dark. They talked of picking up the same junkies again and again, of returning beaten girls to their tormentors, powerless to stop the sickening cycle of violence. One told me he’d covered up a disturbing sex crime. I looked at him questioningly, and he explained that the powerlessness of the victim meant the best he could do was let them escape into the night. We were both distressed, but him with a gun, and me with a pen, were both powerless.


As the camps became darker, the women mostly left, and those who remained were grateful to just be left alone. By my count Occupy had dropped from as high as 40 percent women to less then 10 percent, in an atmosphere of sexual violence, bare intimidation and hatred. By then for a certain kind of occupier, anything with breasts was a target in the camps, either for scorn or being too sexy or being insufficiently sexy. It was never the majority, but the majority did nothing to stop it. They had a progressive stack in the GA that purported to let women speak first, but no one talked about the comments, the groping, the rumors of rapes.


Less understood was the other part of Occupy — the part that was about the need for community. Occupiers came to the camps to care for others as much as they came to be cared for. People had to find a way to matter to each other in ways that weren’t mediated by the social services, the justice system, the institutions we stick each other into.

It was this need to serve each other, not any political message, that stocked the kitchens and filled the comfort barrels. It was that which kept volunteers up for days, taking care of drug addicts and neurotic students and old men with failing bodies.

By DC, the last eviction I wrote about, not even I could stay outside this need anymore. We all stood on the police line, cold and wet and sad, 12 hours into the rainy eviction. We took blows and kicks from riot police and SWAT rather than step on the people behind us that had slipped in the mud. We had relearned in each argument and every pitched tent that the fundamental job of humans is to care for one another, to keep each other whole and safe.

It was this drive which linked arms and quietly waited for violence in front of a thousand TV cameras the world over — this, and nothing more.

Fingers crossed that something better happens soon.

The voting map is less red than it seems

(via Vondell Swain on Tumblr) I just reblogged this on Tumblr, but it deserves more attention, so I'm posting about it here, too.  Someone named Chris Howard on Facebook posted this image:

The map in the top middle is the one I saw on election night.  The map on the top left is the way it would look if you broke down the wins by county.  It actually kinda looks more red, doesn't it?  Over on the right, you have it in shades of purple based on the split -- most of the country looks pretty divided, and it seems to make sense that more of it skewed blue.  But it still might not look totally fair that the Democratic president gets to run this apparently very right-leaning country.

Then, the big map on the bottom, shows another level of overlay -- the counties are washed out based on population density.  Suddenly, it becomes apparent that those handfuls of counties that skew blue are where basically all of the people are.

A study on beliefs about climate change in Australia revealed some interesting trends: it seems like pretty much everyone underestimates the number of people who believe that climate change is happening, and everyone over-estimates the number of people who believe it isn't. John Timmer at ArsTechnica writes:

The false consensus effect became obvious when the researchers looked at what these people thought that everyone else believed. Here, the false consensus effect was obvious: every single group believed that their opinion represented the plurality view of the population. This was most dramatic among those who don't think that the climate is changing; even though they represent far less than 10 percent of the population, they believed that over 40 percent of Australians shared their views. Those who profess ignorance also believed they had lots of company, estimating that their view was shared by a quarter of the populace.


But there was also evidence of pluralistic ignorance. Every single group grossly overestimated the number of people who were unsure about climate change or convinced it wasn't occurring. Even those who were convinced that humans were changing the climate put 20 percent of Australians into each of these two groups.

The authors of the study suggest that this could be "a result of the media's tendency to always offer two opposing opinions, even on issues where one is a fringe belief."  (AT)  Hopefully, this research will give new tools to consciousness-raising efforts, so we can get closer to a consensus not just that climate change is happening, but that it's not hopeless to do something about it.

A cool explanation and praise of Nate Silver's election forecasting

(via Reddit) Annmaria's Blog at thejuliagroup.com has a post up explaining how Nate Silver's election predictions worked, and why it was a really brave thing to do.   I thought this post was really cool, because I didn't quite understand any of what was going on at Silver's blog -- all I knew was that he was forecasting an Obama victory, and that was comforting.

Well, I got a little more than that.  I understand that when someone has a 90% chance of winning something, and that thing only happens once, it's still totally possible for the other person to win.  In fact, roughly one tenth of unique 90%-probability events go the way of the 10% margin.

I didn't know, though, whether Silver was partisan, or whether his math was any good.  The conversation about it was mostly over my head, and taking place in venues I don't closely follow.  (Although I've been barely following anyone in the past couple weeks -- been kind of busy and flustered.)

It turns out, there's this thing called the Central Limit Theorem, which says, according to Annmaria's Blog, 

the mean of an infinite number of reasonably large random samples will be the population mean.

No idea how you prove that, but apparently it's well-accepted statistical theory.

So, more realistically, the more reasonably large random samples, the more likely that their mean will be predictive of the actual result.  Which I think means that about 90% of polls added up to an Obama victory in the electoral college.

Annmaria's Blog (sorry I keep referring to her by her blog's title, but I can't find her name) explains that Silver's forecasting was extraordinary -- she says heroic -- not just because he applied good statistics, which many statisticians could have done, but that he put that prediction out there, took the risk of a misunderstanding public and an (at the end) 8% chance of ruining his own career, to stand up for good applied math.

I agree -- it's a heroic thing to do.  He elevated the quality of public discourse, and provided more vivid, undeniable evidence for the usefulness of data to reach conclusions.  I think his contribution will have a genuinely substantial positive effect on political discourse in the next 4 years.

1984: new work in ENG102! Yay!

We've just finished Grimm's Tales in my English 102 class, and we're just moving on to one of my favorite books, 1984.  Part of the format of this class is writing essays in response to each reading assignment -- 1984's assignments are divided up one for each of the three sections -- and I have a lot of ideas.  And I'm only 12 pages in.  So here's a bit of an idea dump so I can move on with reading. Oppression, Capitalism, and Architecture

The Ministry of Truth -- Minitrue, in Newspeak -- was startlingly different from any other object in sight.  It was an enormous pyramidal structure of glittering white concrete, soaring up, terrace after terrace, three hundred meters in the air.

This is the Shard.  It is 306.9 meters tall, according to Wikipedia, and is the tallest building in London by far.  I'll grant that it's not made of glittering white concrete, but it's pretty damn closeto looking like the Ministry of Truth.

That said, it's not the home of the British Government's propaganda wing.  It's a private building, full of offices, restaurants, and hotels.  We're in a weird place, as a civilization, where the biggest construction projects we can manage are not the source of nationally organized collective action for the benefit of all, but private enterprises for the benefit of the very wealthy.  The Shard is for corporate offices, and it is, essentially, a gigantic ad sticking out of the center of London, declaring, "We are friendly to Corporate Offices.  Come put your Corporate Offices Here."

The Reactionary Anti-1984

I will grant, unequivocally, that it's a good thing that 1984 didn't come true.  We would not be better off as a world if a lot of countries had ended up going down that road, and I do believe that Orwell gave us the tools to discuss it, and thereby prevent it.

What he didn't do, which is fair enough because we can't expect one writer to fix the whole of the future, was explain how things could go wrong in the other direction.  The use of propaganda in 1984 is oppressive and insane.  But it bred a rabid anti-propaganda culture, where what would have been better in its place is a system of transparent propaganda: more "This is what the government asks of you and why," less "The government has no right to ask anything of you."  Civilization means we're all in this together, and at best the government is our efforts to cooperate, manifest.  In fear of letting it control us, we've completely untoothed it.  Now, we're suffering other kinds of oppression.  (See above: The Shard, corporate overlords.)

Facebook: The self-manifest Telescreen

We're not strictly living in the kind of technological Panopticon that Orwell envisioned.  More like the reverse -- we're living in an increasingly comprehensive environment where, at any time, we could be broadcasting.  See, for example, this blog.

Some of us are hopefully using this for good.  I, personally, see my online presence as a way of holding myself accountable by putting my best self forward and demanding of myself that I live up to my online presence.  But I don't feel like most people have as carefully thought through what version of themselves they're putting forward.

As I've written before, some of our online resources, like Facebook, are engineered to encourage us to put a particular version of ourselves forward.  Facebook encourages us to be nasty, shallow and narrow-minded.  You can use these tools without succumbing to their leanings, but Facebook isn't helping anyone be a better person.

And all your friends could always be watching or listening. The more you use Facebook, the more your silence is conspicuous.

The phenomena Orwell described in 1984 are largely deliberately orchestrated by the Party.  But it's also possible for many of them to occur organically, through the mere existence of the appropriate tools.  Facebook's relevance algorithms encourage everyone to pay closer attention to your relationship status than any other aspect of your life.  Twitter, Tumblre and tagging in general arguably promote a kind of #newspeak.  In this case, the failure of social media companies to make their products actively anti-Orwellian constitutes a failure to prevent the world that Orwell sort-of predicted.


I don't have any ultimate point here.  Any one of these might get expanded into my first paper on 1984, or I might come up with some totally new topic.  I've got like three days to write it, who knows what will happen. (Apart from Google, whose algorithms have presumably already predicted the content of my blog for the next six weeks.)

This post is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.  More information is available at www.txwatson.com/school-license.

the debates that I haven't seen yet

I didn't get to watch it last night, and I'm not going to have time to watch it tonight.  Or, probably, all weekend.  But I'm really looking forward to seeing the presidential debate. Thing is, I'm already hearing references to it all over the place.  Tumblr is covered in jokes.  I know that Romney barreled over the moderator.  I know that his points are compelling and reasonable, and that the problem is that his argument doesn't mesh with anything he's been saying for weeks.  I know Obama's debating was unsatisfying for a lot of people.

The other day, I saw a graph that showed that the coverage one watches during or after the debate affect the outcome of the debate more than the choices or statements of the debaters themselves.  I've also been reminded, several times recently, of the Nixon/Kennedy debate -- the one where having a TV or not having one massively affected who you thought won the debate.

So I wonder what it's going to be like, for me, watching this debate with all this pre-existing content floating around in my head. l I still think it's worth watching, because it's worth getting the additional information.  But it's going to be weird.  It's going to be sort of not-the-way-it's-meant-to-be.

They should update debating to the Internet Age.  I vote webcomic-debates.  Or vlogbrother-style exchanges.  They could stretch out over the course of the entire election cycle.