December 2013 Archives

By "alienating Latinos and women," notes Pacific Standard, "research suggests the GOP may have an even bigger problem: The generation that is just emerging:"

In "Growing Up in a Recession," published in the Review of Economic Studies, economists Paola Giuliano and Antonio Spilimbergo report that people who experienced a recession "during the critical years of early adulthood" generally "support more government redistribution, and tend to vote for left-wing parties." [...]

They found that experiencing a recession during young adulthood "affected the probability of voting for the Democratic Party in a sizeable manner"--as much as 15 percent for people who were young during the Great Depression.

The study http://restud.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2013/11/06/restud.rdt040.abstract "Growing Up in a Recession" is quite succinct:

We find that individuals who experienced a recession when young believe that success in life depends more on luck than effort, support more government redistribution, and tend to vote for left-wing parties. The effect of recessions on beliefs is long-lasting.

TomDispatch's Peter Van Buren asks, "What if Edward Snowden was made to disappear?"

No, I'm not suggesting some future CIA rendition effort or a who-killed-Snowden conspiracy theory of a disappearance, but a more ominous kind.

What if everything a whistleblower had ever exposed could simply be made to go away? What if every National Security Agency (NSA) document Snowden released, every interview he gave, every documented trace of a national security state careening out of control could be made to disappear in real-time? What if the very posting of such revelations could be turned into a fruitless, record-less endeavor?

The author notes that the spectre of countrywide censorship looms over Great Britain, which "will soon take a significant step toward deciding what a private citizen can see on the web even while at home:"

Before the end of the year, almost all Internet users there will be "opted-in" to a system designed to filter out pornography. By default, the controls will also block access to "violent material," "extremist and terrorist related content," "anorexia and eating disorder websites," and "suicide related websites." In addition, the new settings will censor sites mentioning alcohol or smoking. The filter will also block "esoteric material," though a UK-based rights group says the government has yet to make clear what that category will include.

In the US, that power is in corporate hands:

Google recently introduced software that makes it harder for users to locate child abuse material. As company head Eric Schmidt put it, Google Search has been "fine-tuned" to clean up results for more than 100,000 terms used by pedophiles to look for child pornography. Now, for instance, when users type in queries that may be related to child sexual abuse, they will find no results that link to illegal content. Instead, Google will redirect them to help and counseling sites. "We will soon roll out these changes in more than 150 languages, so the impact will be truly global," Schmidt wrote.

While Google is redirecting searches for kiddie porn to counseling sites, the NSA has developed a similar ability. The agency already controls a set of servers codenamed Quantum that sit on the Internet's backbone. Their job is to redirect "targets" away from their intended destinations to websites of the NSA's choice. The idea is: you type in the website you want and end up somewhere less disturbing to the agency. While at present this technology may be aimed at sending would-be online jihadis to more moderate Islamic material, in the future it could, for instance, be repurposed to redirect people seeking news to an Al-Jazeera lookalike site with altered content that fits the government's version of events.

Can whistleblowers' efforts be neutralized by manipulating search technology?

Imagine if, back in 1971, the Pentagon Papers, the first glimpse most Americans had of the lies behind the Vietnam War, had been deletable. Who believes that the Nixon White House wouldn't have disappeared those documents and that history wouldn't have taken a different, far grimmer course?

The point is, of course, that "Leaked revelations will be as pointless as dusty old books in some attic if no one knows about them:"

Go ahead and publish whatever you want. The First Amendment allows you to do that. But what's the point if no one will be able to read it? You might more profitably stand on a street corner and shout at passers by.

It's worth remembering that only 1% of the Snowden files have been published:

The Guardian editor said the paper had "made very selective judgments"' about what to publish from the files taken by Mr Snowden, a former contractor with the National Security Agency (NSA), and had not revealed the names of any officials.

"We have published I think 26 documents so far out of the 58,000 we've seen," he said. [...] "There's stuff in there about Iraq, Afghanistan, we're not even going to look at it. That's not what Edward Snowden was doing when he wanted responsible journalists to go through this material.

"We've been working slowly and responsibly through this material, with some of the best journalists in the world, 100 contacts with government and agency sources, we will continue to consult them but we're not going to be put off by intimidation but nor are we going to behave recklessly."

insult to injury

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In describing the wonder of free-market healthcare, Paul Waldman writes "Twenty years ago I had my first knee surgery, after tearing some cartilage, and I vividly recall the one item that stood out among the dozens on the bill:"

For the two steri-strips that covered an incision--tiny pieces of tape that even today cost about 20 cents retail, and which hospitals buy in bulk so surely cost them just a couple of pennies--I and my insurance company were charged $11, or $5.50 per strip. A miniscule amount in a five-figure bill, but it struck me as the most absurd, since it represented a markup of approximately 10,000 percent, if not more.

He reminds us that "The government didn't give us this kind of price-gouging, just like the government didn't give us 50 million uninsured Americans:"

Nor did the government give us lifetime and yearly caps on coverage. Nor did the government give us now-outlawed "rescission," in which your insurer cancels your coverage because you got sick. Nor did the government gave us denials for pre-existing conditions. You know what gave us all that? The free market. Government can certainly cause problems, but just about all the major reasons our health-care system is so expensive and serves so many people so poorly (or not at all) are the result of the free market.

It's a wonder that these ridiculous line items don't overshadow government finances, such as the Navy's $640 toilet seats.

active atheism

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In explaining why I ditched god for good, Ariane Sherine remarks that "As an atheist without a rule book on how to act, I looked to my friends for inspiration."

I resolved to become a better person. I spent six months training and qualifying as a massage therapist, then gave massages for 40% of the going rate to charity workers, nurses, students, the unemployed and people on low incomes. I went to donate blood for the first time, signed the organ donor register and became vegan. I recycled as though my life depended on it, switched my electricity to Good Energy, and signed up with Age UK to volunteer to visit an elderly person for two hours a week. I also decided to sell 50% of my possessions in eBay charity auctions (which started last night), aiming to raise more than £3,000 for Médecins Sans Frontières. And, unexpectedly, I found that every new thing I did made me happier.

It is impossible to talk about your own acts of kindness without looking as though you're after praise and yet, if you don't, you can't reasonably encourage others to give. As a single mum on a low income, I'm unable to give much to charity or spend much on ethical companies - so I've decided to write and campaign about philanthropy instead, in the hope that it will encourage others to do so.

It's not about ideology--it's about action:

I will always be an atheist. However, I think that encouraging people to change their actions is more essential than trying to change their beliefs. If everyone in the world became an atheist, it wouldn't solve all the world's problems; if everyone became kind and good, it would.

David Dobbs attempts to lay Dawkins' "selfish gene" analogy to rest by looking at locusts:

In the most infamous [grasshopper] species, Schistocerca gregaria, the desert locust of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, these phase changes (as this morphing process is called) occur when crowding spurs a temporary spike in serotonin levels, which causes changes in gene expression so widespread and powerful they alter not just the hopper's behaviour but its appearance and form. Legs and wings shrink. Subtle camo colouring turns conspicuously garish. The brain grows to manage the animal's newly complicated social world, which includes the fact that, if a locust moves too slowly amid its million cousins, the cousins directly behind might eat it.

...this bug's DNA -- the genetic book with millions of letters that form the instructions for building and operating a grasshopper -- gets reread so that the very same book becomes the instructions for operating a locust. Even as one animal becomes the other, as Jekyll becomes Hyde, its genome stays unchanged. Same genome, same individual, but, I think we can all agree, quite a different beast.

It's a different paradigm as well:

Twenty years ago, phase changes such as those that turn grasshopper to locust were relatively unknown, and, outside of botany anyway, rarely viewed as changes in gene expression. Now, notes Mary Jane West-Eberhard, a wasp researcher at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Costa Rica, sharp phenotype changes due to gene expression are 'everywhere'. They show up in gene-expression studies of plants, microbes, fish, wasps, bees, birds, and even people. The genome is continually surprising biologists with how fast and fluidly it can change gene expression -- and thus phenotype.

The point is that "this recognition of gene expression's power requires that we rethink how we view genes and evolution:"

...a number of biologists argue that we need to replace this [Mendelian] gene-centric view with one that more heavily emphasises the role of gene expression -- that we need to see the gene less as an architect and more as a member of a collaborative remodelling and maintenance crew.

Dobbs looks at Richard Dawkins and "his magnificent book The Selfish Gene," opining that "he creates one of the most thrilling stretches of explanatory writing ever penned. It's breathtaking:"

By the time you've finished his book, or well before that, Dawkins has made of the tiny gene -- this replicator, this strip of chemicals little more than an abstraction -- a huge, relentlessly turning gearwheel of steel, its teeth driving smaller cogs to make all of life happen. It's a gorgeous argument. Along with its beauty and other advantageous traits, it is amenable to maths and, at its core, wonderfully simple.

"Unfortunately, say Wray, West-Eberhard and others, it's wrong." In its place is the three-step process of genetic accommodation:

First, an organism (or a bunch of organisms, a population) changes its functional form -- its phenotype -- by making broad changes in gene expression. Second, a gene emerges that happens to help lock in that change in phenotype. Third, the gene spreads through the population.

In other words, the gene-centric model survives because simplicity is a hugely advantageous trait for an idea to possess. People will select a simple idea over a complex idea almost every time.

PZ Myers comments on the higher-order thinking involved:

It's good to see genetic accommodation getting more attention, but I'm already seeing pushback from people who don't quite get the concept, and think it's some kind of Lamarckian heresy.

The Independent summarizes the truth about women and sex this way: "They start younger and have more partners - and those are not necessarily men:"

"We can see that the pace of change has been different for men and for women in the last decades. The gap previously seen between them has been closing," said Professor Kaye Wellings of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, one of the survey's lead authors.

"For some aspects of sexual behaviour, for example numbers of partners, it has narrowed, for others, such as age at first sex, it has closed and yet in other respects, such as same-sex experience, women have overtaken men," Professor Wellings said.

"Whilst same-sex experiences have remained relatively constant among men, it has increased markedly among women. Although a minority of women have reported sex with another woman, that proportion increased from 4 per cent in 1990 to 16 per cent in 2010 and 2012," she said.

20131202-switch.jpg

Salon's Tracy Clark-Flory notes that "This isn't just a British thing:"

Indiana University sex researcher Debby Herbenick tells me that her U.S. research has yielded similar results: 8 percent of men and 15 percent of women report same-sex sexual behavior in their lifetime. Unfortunately, we Americans don't have reliable historical data to show how this has changed over time.

Girl-on-girl behavior is fetishized in our culture to a degree that boy-on-boy is not, and women are given much more leeway to explore sexually or have a fluid identity than are men. (How often is a kiss between two heterosexual men allowed to be just be a kiss?) That is perhaps evident in another aspect of the study's findings: More men than women identify as gay, and more women than men identify as bisexual. Chivers summarizes it like so: "Men's sexual behaviors remain more polarized and stable."

Note that the majority of women's same-sex encounters do not involve genital contact. Roughly 18 percent reported getting sexual with a woman without going downtown, compared to the 8 percent that did venture there.

Will Saletan also looks at the Natsal data as it pertains to lesbian sex:

In Natsal-1, less than 4 percent of British women aged 16-44 said they'd had any sexual experience or contact with a partner of the same sex. In Natsal-2, that number rose to nearly 10 percent. Now it's 16 percent. By any measure, that's an enormous increase, more than doubling the reported rate among men. Even if you attribute most of it to changes in candor or interpretation, the willingness of so many women to admit to same-sex activity represents a big cultural shift.

That doesn't mean these women are going all the way. When they're asked more specifically whether they've had a same-sex experience that includes genital contact, only half as many say yes. But the trend line is identical, rising from 2 percent in Natsal-1 to 5 percent in Natsal-2 and 8 percent in Natsal-3. The same holds true when women are asked whether they've had a same-sex partner in the last five years. On that question, the percentage who say yes has climbed from less than 1 percent in Natsal-1 to more than 2 percent in Natsal-2 and nearly 5 percent in Natsal-3. [...]

When asked whether they've had any sexual experience or contact with another female, only 3 percent of women aged 65-74 say yes. That number rises to 7 percent among women aged 55-64, 9 percent among women aged 45-54, 12 percent among women 35-44, 18 percent among women 25-34, and 19 percent among women 16-24. If the prevalence of lesbian sex were constant and evenly reported, you'd expect it to increase with age, based on the accumulation of experience. Instead, the trend runs sharply the other way. Apparently, in later cohorts, it's more common, more honestly reported, or both.

The National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles report (PDF) includes this infographic summary:

20131202-natsal.jpg

Today's news, coincidentally enough, featured a pair of coming-out stories. The first one was the revelation of actress Maria Bello to her 12-year-old son Jackson, as relayed to the NYT:

"So are you romantic with anyone right now?" he asked.

I took a deep breath, knowing that my answer, and his response, would have an impact on our lives for a very long time.

He was right; I was with someone romantically and I hadn't told him. I had become involved with a woman who was my best friend, and, as it happens, a person who is like a godmother to my son. [...]

I exhaled and finally said it: "Clare."

He looked at me for what seemed like an eternity and then broke into a huge, warm smile. "Mom, love is love, whatever you are," he said with wisdom beyond his years. (Yes, he obviously attends one of those progressive schools in Los Angeles!)

I like her anti-label frankness, her preference that "I would like to consider myself a 'whatever,' as Jackson said:"

Whomever I love, however I love them, whether they sleep in my bed or not, or whether I do homework with them or share a child with them, "love is love." And I love our modern family.

Maybe, in the end, a modern family is just a more honest family.

Honesty, though, scares some people who still rely on comforting lies. For example, the hyper-masculine homophobia prevalent in the sports world. British diver Tom Daley, who won Olympic bronze in 2012, announced today that "I'm dating a guy and I couldn't be happier."

"I've been dating girls and never had a serious relationship to talk about and now I feel ready to talk about relationships this year."

"Come spring this year, my life changed massively. I met someone and they make me feel so happy, so safe, and everything just feels great. And that someone is a guy.

"It did take me by surprise a little bit. It was always in the back of my head something like that could happen. Something just clicked. It felt right. My whole world just changed right there and then.

"I still fancy girls but I'm dating a guy and I couldn't be happier. It just really does feel right.

"People are going to have their own opinions and I think people are going to make a big deal over this. Is it a big deal? I don't think so.

Salon praises Bello's great "whatever" coming out by observing that "We like to keep people in tidy boxes with neat labels on them: Gay, Straight, Conservative, Religious, Vegan:"

Fluidity is, in its own way, a harder thing for a lot of people to accept. But the world is full of believers who have questions and Republicans who aren't Tea Party lunatics -- and men and women who love who they love without a lifetime exclusive preference for one sex. Maybe it makes for less simplistic headlines, but it's a lot more accurate. [...]

Only time will tell what -- if any -- consequences there will be for Bello for simply acknowledging the person she's in love with, a person who happens to be a woman. But it's encouraging that she's done it, and in such a straightforward manner.

The piece calls it "a different kind of coming out, one that recognizes that not everybody fits in one tidy box."


update (12/3 at 1:43pm):
In summarizing the reactions to Tom Daley, NCRM observes that "much of the world cheered him for being a 'role model,' and a 'champion.'" This contrasts with Michelangelo Signorile's take:

Judging from the horrendous attacks on Daley on Twitter, if you admit to sucking dick, even in the most overt way, you're still "a gay" and a "faggot" and a "fag" no matter what you call or don't call yourself.

It's kind of like a homophobic variant of the racist one-drop rule, the weight of which is lifted somewhat by his subsequent remarks:

These two revelations have confounded a lot of people, and it's been fascinating to see how the public figures' planned and controlled but nonetheless emotional announcements were received like Rorschach tests.

He goes on to observe that "not only are they [Daley and Bello] not hiding their same-sex romantic involvements, but they're shouting them from the rooftops:"

Making a YouTube video titled "Something I want to say..." -- which would go viral in an instant -- as Daley did, or writing an op-ed in The New York Times with the headline "Coming Out as a Modern Family," as Bello did, is about as out and proud regarding a same-sex relationship as you can get. They just rejected, for the moment, choosing an identity -- and either of them could change that in an interview, or a video, or a tweet tomorrow.

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