Wednesday, August 26, 2015


When blogging, FB posting, or talking live about a political figure they admire, liberals are likely to say "regardless of what you think about his politics, you have to admire X for doing (some ostensibly good work)."  They never say it about conservatives, regardless of the goodness of the work.

Conservatives don't tend to say that at all, about anyone, unbidden. If they are asked, or if the person has just died or had some tragedy, they might lead with "I have always admired his generosity and compassion for (some ostensibly good work)" before proceeding to a criticism.

Both responses seem to lack a certain graciousness.  I'm not sure which one is worse.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Machines Are Biased

A regular reader sends a WSJ link.

Apparently social media software shows cultural bias. An image-scanning software's initial data set was predominantly white. (The article does not say what the percentages were, and whether the predominance simply tracked American demographics or was more than that.) Additionally, because there are more white faces than black ones on the internet, a software that continually learns from experience amplifies this bias.

Fixing the imbalance is certainly the first priority for the software developers.  But another use immediately occurred to me.  Observing how the software goes wrong might be useful in learning how we learn our biases, including the black box of what "initial data set" is hard-wired into us, and whether that can be compensated for.  In the examples from the article, there was some intuitive connection between how we act and how the software acts, making it quickly understandable.  There might be more that is not immediately noticeable.

There may be a hidden problem in that.  If software modification gives us insight into how we ourselves might be modified, couldn't it be used to increase our biases rather than decrease them, in a manner which reflected the desires of the more powerful?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Confirmation Bias - NH Primary Version

Last-minute surges and last-minute deciders are of course important in our primary.  I have little to say to those voters, because I don't understand them and I don't know what motivates them. But the field is already narrowed for them by the time they get to that last two weeks by the accumulated support of slower - not necessarily wiser - choosers among the larger field. I think I understand those a bit better.

If you are one, you are just about to enter dangerous territory. Labor Day and the restarting of the school year is one of the last check points before serious confirmation bias sets in. If you don't get this under control, you are going to quickly become one of those people you regret, right around oh, Feb 10 or so. You will double down repeatedly no matter what the news is. You will have chosen your guy/gal, and even if they strangle a puppy on live TV you will tell co-workers the next morning that the puppy deserved it, and besides, everyone knows it's the other party that strangles more puppies.

If you don't think you have confirmation bias, then your case of confirmation bias is probably particularly bad, yea, even incurable.  (See also, Dunning-Kruger Effect.) Everyone, everyone has it, and it is only avoided by specific effort.

Here's something you can do about it, just to smack yourself back into your senses a bit: pretend, to yourself and with courage even to others, that you are a supporter of one of the candidates who is doing poorly in the polls right now. You don't even have to switch parties (that's a pretty hard exercise anyway), as there are intelligent, decent people unable to get any traction in both places. Pick one you sorta liked anyway, or look for the positive in someone you don't know much about.  You can even tell pollsters you are supporting them - I think there is a general exemption on the Commandment about bearing false witness when it comes to polls anyway.  Theologians are standing by to help.

Leading in the polls is a matter of money or charisma at this point. (The ability to inspire anger is also a form of charisma, remember.)  You will note, when you stop hyperventilating, that neither of those things is that important a quality for a president.  They each might be net negatives.  So pick someone going nowhere and believe in them.  It will do you good. Really, it will do us all good.

You can get some of your best self back this way, before the quadrennial idiocy descends upon us.

BTW, I can't recall who I voted for in half the primaries since 1976.  I recall caring deeply at the time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Trump and Sanders

Everyone is trying to explain to the rest of us who the Trump voters are and what motivates them.  Fine. I believe some of them. Yet I see lots of assumptions, but very little actual data, about who the Bernie Sanders voters are. Apparently the narrative is satisfactory enough that actual facts aren't necessary, as in: Sanders voters are farther-left, OWS voters who really, really dislike the system, plus those who distrust Hillary.

Well, sez who?

I no longer trust polls because of the cultural changes in telephone use. However, I trust airy generalisations by people who "follow the news a lot and are locked in to the vox populi" even less. I have a little theory about who the Sanders voters are, in three camps.  The last three times I had such a theory (2004, and 2008x2) I was spot on once, ridiculously wrong once, and I still go back-and-forth on the third one.

Anyway, I'm going to try.  It is in NH that Sanders has leapt forward and leads Hillary in the polls. And as irritating as it is to remind you of this, our votes, which count for little, at least count ten times as much as yours.  Concord NH, where I work, is Arts&Humanities, government-loving liberal central for NH.  I know lots of Sanders supporters - even when they don't say it in the building I see their bumper stickers in the parking lot and I know whose Prius is whose. (Partly from which dog breed they also have on their decals, which they talk about constantly.) Yet I also have a quiet underside of Sanders supporters that I know, who are not the social workers, psychologists, and occupational therapists you would expect.  A Silent Majority of liberals, perhaps, though they would be horrified at the reference, if they were old enough to know what it referred to.

I think there is a third camp, beyond the a) socialist lite and b) don't trust Hillary camps, who are driving the Sanders Surge. I'm going to manipulate the conversations at work over the next week and report back.

Monday, August 17, 2015

National Socialism

Glenn Reynolds has had fun poking at Bernie Sanders and others that the socialism they are advocating isn’t the international version put forward by the PRC or USSR (or CPUSA), but a national socialism. The point being to create an association in the reader’s mind between their philosophy and National Socialists.  Nazis.  The echoes of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism have been explicitly noted in a few spots.

In a purely intellect sense this is entirely reasonable. A philosophy of Socialism In One Country, though it is completely at odds with Marx and Engels, was established as a practical alternative among prominent communists a century ago. The more successful versions of socialism now, as I have noted before, tend strongly to be in homogeneous nations – Switzerland, Scandinavian – which maintain a robust and even severe free-market attitude in their relations with other nations. No one is giving away Volvos, nor even Volvo technology, to the oppressed masses.

But the popular imagination does not separate arid economic discussions from the historical reality of death camps, gulags, and invasion of neighboring countries. Whatever else Bernie and the Debts are about, they aren’t strong advocates for invasions, torture, and mass extermination. Comparing the smell wafting from their kitchen to Auschwitz, even playfully, isn’t fair.

I suppose it might be fair, if it could be established that national socialism and fascism are similar enough to be spoken of as much the same thing at all points, and inevitably led to such abuses. I doubt we can get that far.

However, we may be able to get further down that road than is popularly supposed.

Hitler used right-wing imagery and appeals, but much of the program was left-wing.  Not fully, as there was no push that the workers might own their means of production, nor that a levelling of income was the goal. But it was explicitly clear that no industry, no sector, no estate was to exist for its own good, but "for the good of all." Profit motive and rights of the individual went quickly by the wayside. Perhaps we should consider it the parent of corporatism today, that unholy mix of the worst of left and right.

As to imagery and appeals, I grant there was often some nod leftward in fascist appeals, but in the main, it was the standard stuff one finds in culture after culture.   The Right usually promises to get the young people working and talking respectfully, not swearing in the streets or hanging around uselessly and getting into trouble; to honor in art, and music, and rhetoric the inner nobility of The Tribe, stretched as far into the past as is dared; to have flags and parades and displays. For all these things the blessing from the military and religious cultures is important, if not essential (though they can be easily infiltrated and disempowered later).  Evangelical Christians ate this stuff up in Germany and Catholics did the same in Italy, the Orthodox in Slav states, only to be betrayed a few short years later.

By the way, why is it that conservatives and gays both like parades? Is this a subtle key to understanding conflict?

Are the two parts easily separable? The central idea behind fascism is the all-stick-together advice known as far back as Aesop. One can see that this might put people who didn't sign on with full force a bit under suspicion, and immediately recall that this is exactly what did happen in Germany. It happens in gentler and lesser ways in all human groups. So already in National Socialism we have the potential for the government (because it's national) lean on people to get with the program, either with carrots or sticks. Still, even though the Swedes all decorate their houses exactly the same at Christmas and are pretty insistent telling even other Scandinavians how wrong they are, they seem fairly happy with it.  No one breaks their arms to make them do this. It is unraveling badly in Malmo and even Stockholm now, but perhaps they can out-nice their new immigrants and get them to buy in.

But so far, no.  And the Swedes seem to have forgotten how to make citizens do things they should.
My overarching picture is that sharing within the tribe is the human norm. Even among the smallest bands this is seldom entirely egalitarian, as some members are considered more valuable and get greater resources, but all are provided for in some way. Those outside the tribe are entitled to nothing and are regarded as less-than-human. As organization of population increases, the number of people considered to be “in the tribe” increases.  There is always a balancing act, for having a large cooperative clan means improved ability to command resources in the environment and defend oneself.  OTOH, it means more people to provide for, and more conflict of needs. In the age of empires many peoples could be brought under one banner, but it was still clearly many peoples. A select few of each could be tapped for leadership or citizenship, but people otherwise kept their clan status.
The coalescing of clans into larger tribes, and tribes into nation- states is more recent. Only in the last few centuries has come the idea that a nation is "really" all one people.  The United Kingdom has had to straddle that divide, regarding themselves as separate nations in some instances, a single force in others.  The US has come closer to being United but separate states, but still has clear regional divisions.  We also continue to define ourselves quite emphatically along racial lines, though ethnic and religious differences are getting washed out. If anything, racial identification is getting stronger, a dangerous trend. When we were at least in theory attempting to be a melting pot, we could also at least attempt to see ourselves as all-in-this-together. If the goal is to be multi, I fear increasing numbers of people will buy out, saying "What's my motivation?  If you don't want to be part of me, why should I care?" Other dividing lines may occur to you.

I see no evidence that human beings are currently equipped to go farther down the road of expanding their de facto definitions of "who is my neighbor," whatever their ideals.  Those who profess to be the most international turn out to be deeply identified with some citizens of other (usually western European and Anglospheric*) countries, of similar class, outlook, and profession to themselves.  They become just as "nationalist" in some sense - just defining it differently.
Christians have a responsibility to get there somehow. Whether it comes naturally to us by upbringing and personality or whether it comes only by grace, we are under orders that our tribe is the Christian tribe, regardless of what original tribe each of us came from.  I don't see that as the same thing as what is happening politically.  I think "national" is as far as we can go in the flesh - indeed, that seems too far most days, as the nationals who accomplish it all come from places where everyone looks the same - and "international" is a dangerous illusion. I hear that independent evangelical churches are showing the best integration we've ever seen in some locations, and I hope it's true.  Up here in NH, you'd never know.  Our evangelical church has many more African Americans than usual, but it's still a small number, and there are reasons peculiar to our congregation for that. We'll see where it goes.

*They also like various Asians while they are here.  I get to see a lot of international students and internationally-trained doctors coming through.  When they go back to Korea or India they must somehow become less important, as the internationalist Americans  I work with have almost no understanding what various factions in those countries of origin think.  They take it as given that the internationals hated George Bush and love Barack Obama.  It is an amazing thing to behold when the actual furriners politely or even timidly contradict that notion. It has almost zero effect.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Tired Of Nostalgia

Back from vacation. Walked in the woods of Swanzey, and will start on a new section next year.

Tracy and I discussed many things on the way home: how our vacation activities are different with grandchildren than with children, why our church plant failed but another type is doing well, what things we can leave behind when we downsize from this house, whether we want to put any more energy at all into genealogy when we retire - great topics for a 39th anniversary.  In the midst of it, I realised that I am no longer so very nostalgic about much of anything.

This is a sea-change.  I have been nostalgic as long as I can remember remembering.  I wrote a song of nostalgic about my childhood when I was fifteen, for pity's sake. Later in life people like to revisit the places they once lived or went to school, dabbing at their eyes and humming half-remembered songs. I was doing that at twenty. Garrison Keillor struck a chord in me when he came upon the scene in the 80's, and I clearly wasn't the only one.

Starting years ago, I've been to all the places I once lived, and the second time one goes it seems rather a waste. I've gone out of my way to visit the schools, camps, places of employment, ice cream stands. I've reread my childhood and young adult favorites, relistened to a lot of the music, browsed the magazines still available in leftovers bins, bought local history calendars, and looked up a lot of folks I knew.

It gets old after awhile.

Family Stabbing

My eldest son sent along this background to a family stabbing months ago, noting that this seemed reasonable to him. My second son noted that the story did not say which of them was right - a detail everyone in our family would have considered important.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


I want to like Relevant magazine, which I think fits an important niche.

But I don't.  Tell me why.