Monday, September 14, 2015

How to Lie With Statistics

I recently saw an article from Mother Jones, a publication not known for its impartiality, titled "A Majority of Cop Killers Have Been White." This comes as no surprise. Setting aside for a moment the predominant whiteness of anti-government, "sovereign citizen" militias and their propensity toward cop-killing, the fact is that most people in the United States are white (presently 77.7%), so even if all races killed cops at an equal rate, a majority of the cop-killers would be white. That's how proportionality works--if you have a majority in an overall group, they will also be the majority of all proportionally represented sub-groups. If you have a pitcher of Kool-Aid made of 99.8% water, then any size cup of that Kool-Aid will also be 99.8% water.

Sub-groups aren't always proportional, though. For example, although 77.7% of people in the United States are white, only 69.8% of all persons arrested in the US in 2013 were white. Studying such disparities can lead us to important insights. The problem is that people pushing their pet political agendas often present the disparities as if they were insights in and of themselves. Such presentations rely on shared assumptions and prejudices. For example, an audience that shares the view that non-white Americans are oppressed victims would see this disparity as prima facie evidence that the American criminal justice system is disproportionally hard on non-whites and easy on whites. An audience that is biased in favor of whites and against non-whites, however, would see the disparity as being proof that whites are more law-abiding, while non-whites are more prone to criminality. When such an assertion is presented to a like-minded audience, it tends to slide by unchallenged and serves only to bolster the audience's confidence in their belief that their prejudices are correct. Psychologists call this phenomenon "confirmation bias."

Notice, for example, that when left-leaning journalists and bloggers speak of the number of persons arrested, convicted, incarcerated, or killed by police, they tend to speak in terms of rates rather than percentages. The reason is that in all of these cases, whites make up the majority, but the majorities are less than proportional. For example, while black Americans make up 13.2% of the population, 23.8% of all people arrested in 2013 were black. So if you want to confirm the bias that black people are treated unfairly, you could present this disparity without further data and interpret it (without supporting evidence) as being proof that the preconceived notion is correct. "Of course black people are treated unfairly! Just look at the numbers!" The unquestioned presumption is that the extra 10.6% of black people arrested didn't deserve to be.

Mother Jones points out that the majority of cop killers are white, and this is true--in 2013, out of 28 known cop killers, 15 of them were white and 11 were black (race was not reported for the other two offenders). Clearly, the majority were white. Bad! Bad, bad white people! But that also means that only about 53.57% of the cop killers were white, while whites are 77.7% of the population overall. On the other hand, about 39.29% of cop killers were black, while blacks are only 13.2% of the population overall. So whites are underrepresented among cop killers, while three times as many blacks are cop killers as would be proportional.

Given the tiny numbers we're talking about, none of this says anything about the relative characters of these races. The character of millions of white and black Americans is not defined by a couple dozen cop killers. But when someone wants to promote one group as good or bad, they'll enhance or diminish the appearance of the numbers regarding that group by shifting to discussion of either percentage or rate, accordingly. When Mother Jones wants to make white people sound worse than black people (as they do), they'll present numbers that show (gasp!) that the majority group commits the majority of a particular type of heinous crime, while glossing over the fact that members of the group they're trying to lift up are more than three times as likely to commit that same crime. I'd presume Fox News would do the same thing in reverse.

In fact, I've seen this done by the other side often enough. When right-wing publications, which see poverty as symptomatic of laziness rather than victimization, want to represent minorities as being lazier than white people, they'll point to the higher rate of blacks receiving food stamps. When left-wingers want to counter those facts, they simply point out that the vast majority of food stamp recipients are white...which tells us nothing, given that whites are in the majority generally.

But even aside from whether we're talking about percentage or rate, there's the issue of assuming what the data implies, as I alluded to on the food stamp issue. Are a higher rate of blacks than whites receiving food stamps because they're lazier, or more likely to be discriminated against in hiring for better-paying jobs, or because their families weren't allowed to accumulate wealth in generations past, or any number of any reasons? It's not evident from the data. But we'll pretend it is, if it seems like the numbers support our conclusions.

As such, you can use data to lie without even changing the type of figure (percentage vs. rate) used. For example, pro-black groups will speak of the higher rate of blacks arrested and convicted. But feminists will point out that the vast majority of people arrested and convicted are men. Bad, bad men! The problem is, these are often the same people. A lefty feminist can believe that more men being arrested is proof that men are inherently more criminal than women, while simultaneously believing that more black people being arrested is proof that the system is racist. We'll move the goal post without even realizing we're doing it. If we used arrest rates as a benchmark of criminal nature, then we'd have to conclude that both men and blacks are more criminal than women and whites, respectively. If we instead use arrest rates as a benchmark of injustice (again, with the implied assumption that the excessive number of arrestees didn't deserve to be arrested), then we must conclude that the system is rigged against both men and blacks. Neither of those views fit neatly into the political boxes as they've been drawn by the two major political parties, however, so people will change the standards from one group to the next as it suits their purposes.

tldr; Data is not analysis. When you hear "most of" or "the majority" or "at a higher rate," look for the rest of the story and carefully study the underlying causes before jumping to any conclusions. If you're seeing the world through any chosen ideology, the facts are probably not always going to support your point of view.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

A Little Perspective

When a police officer shoots a suspect, it's often the case that the wounded suspect is then handcuffed and left to lie bleeding on the ground without first aid until the scene is secured and an ambulance arrives. If other officers are on the scene at the time of the shooting, multiple officers may fire on the suspect at once, increasing the number of wounds he's likely to sustain. When someone shoots a police officer, that police officer is typically wearing body armor and has been trained in how to survive a gunfight. The officer is normally in radio contact with other officers and/or dispatch, may have other officers assisting him, and normally has an emergency vehicle with lights and siren at his disposal for self-rescue. All of these factors combined mean that an officer who is shot in the line of duty is far, far more likely to survive than is a suspect who's shot by police. The odds are stacked against the suspect's survival and in favor of the officer's survival. Please keep this in mind as you read the following.

Out of a population of 318,900,000 residents, the police have killed 776 so far this year. That means the police have killed 0.24 people per 100,000. That's about one per 416,667 people. Imagine a city or a county with a population of 416,667, where the police kill one criminal a year. That probably wouldn't seem excessive. Newsworthy, but not prima facie evidence of excessive force.

Of those 776 killed, 582 were armed. Black people were killed at a higher rate than whites and hispanics, with about 0.5 per 100,000 black residents being killed by police. That's one black person killed per 200,000, with about a 3-in-4 chance that he was armed at the time.

According to the FBI, the murder rate for the whole country was 4.7 per 100,000 in 2013, the most recent year for which they have data. That means that Americans who aren't cops are being killed by each other 9.4 times as often as they're being killed by police. If seeing a cop makes you worry about being killed, you should worry nine times as much when you see anybody who's not a cop.

As of yesterday, 83 police officers have died in the line of duty this year. 83 is a much smaller number than 776; however, that's out of a total of around 900,000 officers versus 318,900,000 residents. Cops are being killed this year at a rate of 9.22 per 100,000. That's nearly double the murder rate. In other words, despite how much the odds are stacked in favor of a cop surviving a gunfight, Americans are killing their police officers at almost twice the rate that they're killing anyone else, and about eighteen-and-a-half times as often as cops kill black people.

We have all these facts in front of us, and yet the public narrative is that cops are the ones who are violently out of control, and that the biggest thing black people have to worry about is being killed by the police, when there's only a one-in-200,000 chance of that happening, and only one-in-800,000 if they're unarmed. That's a smidge more likely than your chances of being struck by lightning (1-in-960,000). If you listen to left-leaning news commentators, though--or worse, the angry echo chambers that exist in the liberal pockets of the Internet--you'll get the idea that black communities are under siege, where parents have "the talk" with their kids to keep them from being murdered by police, and that even well-meaning police officers of color are unwittingly being driven by their inherent biases to kill black people at the first opportunity that presents itself, like Manchurian Candidates in blue, brainwashed by neo-Nazis to commit a genocide against the black a rate of about ten percent of the normal murder rate.

If, then, people would like to preserve what's left of their credibility, they'd do well to put away their race cards and quit crying "wolf!" every time an aspiring cop killer loses a fight and happens to be black. Is there a problem of excessive use of force by the police in this country? Certainly. One innocent life lost is too many. But when we lose all sense of perspective, when we hysterically elevate this problem to the front and center of social discourse at the expense of greater and more pressing problems like poverty, war, climate change, and growing inequality, we do the entire world an injustice. When people respond to chants of "Black Lives Matter" with "Blue Lives Matter" or retorts about how people should focus on black-on-black violence if they really believe that black lives matter, it's not an attempt to advance racism. It's an attempt to cut through the histrionics, and to order priorities by the actual numbers instead of by how successfully a sensationalist media seeking higher ratings has managed to inflame people's emotions.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Why Mass Shootings Aren't a Problem

     Even aside from people who want to get rid of guns entirely, there are a great many people who rightly want to keep guns out of the hands of those who would use them for evil purposes. All too often, though, these people approach mass shootings and other gun crime as problems to be solved rather than a dilemma to be managed. Predictably, all their solutions to these "problems" would create more problems than they solve. When this is pointed out to them, they get frustrated, throw up their hands, and shout, "Well what do you think we should do? Even an imperfect solution is better than doing nothing!"

     That's not a foregone conclusion, however. When a proposed solution causes more harm than it prevents, it's worse than doing nothing, not better. The main reason these ideas fail is, as I mentioned above, that they treat a dilemma as a problem. Let me sketch out the difference. Let's say you don't want peanut butter on your nose, but you have a bit on it. It's not doing you any good. There's no reason to keep the peanut butter there. Removing the peanut butter from your nose will not create a worse situation than keeping it there. Removing it will cause you to have the situation you desire: having a nose with no peanut butter on it. And that's it--no downside.

     A dilemma, on the other hand, is a messy, complicated situation where you have competing, mutually exclusive values to choose among. Managing a dilemma necessarily entails making sacrifices. Say, for example, that you're a recent high school graduate, and you have an opportunity to either major in Architecture at UCLA or major in Electrical Engineering at MIT. There's no way you can have both. A creative person might find ways to mitigate the losses of foregoing one or the other, but there really is no middle path. You have to choose, and reaping the benefits of the option you choose means you also have to live with the consequences of giving up the other opportunity. That's a dilemma. It's not a matter of just wiping a bit of peanut butter off your nose and making the trouble disappear. You have to weigh the options against each other and determine which option is worth sacrificing the other.

     That's why I say mass shootings aren't a problem. They're a dilemma. Some of the reasons why have been so fully sketched out previously on this blog (not to mention by the NRA and other defenders of the Second Amendment) that there's no point going into any depth on them here. There's no way to just wipe the mass shootings off the end of our nose, because there's usually no identifying a mass shooter until the damage is already done, and the damage, in this case, is permanent. Both preventing the shootings and responding in such a way that would reduce the number of innocent casualties to zero would require the implementation of a police state so massive and intrusive that we might as well all lock ourselves in individual cages like battery hens, a situation I think most people would find even less desirable than living with the possibility of mass shootings.

     There's another reason, though, that I've never seen anyone else address, to say that mass shootings aren't a problem. Given the present state of our technology, mass shootings are a feature, not a bug. That sounds like a horrible thing to say until you stop feeling, start thinking, and realize that a would-be mass murderer who's frustrated in his attempt to get his hands on a gun might not necessarily lower his ambitions and reach for a knife or a machete. Instead, he might build a bomb.

     It's really a simple matter of utility, in the sense that economists and game theorists understand that word. Bombs kill a lot more people in one whack than guns do, so why have all these mass shooters chosen to use guns rather than bombs? The simple answer is that people are lazy. Some terrorists no doubt have built bombs, huge ones. But a lot of killers simply aren't that dedicated. They want easy, quick gratification. If they can fill out some papers and pay a few hundred dollars at a store, or steal a gun from someone else who has done so, or pay a private individual for a previously-owned gun that might well be stolen, that's a much easier method for obtaining a weapon for mass murder than trying to buy or build a bomb. Even most criminals wouldn't know where to buy a bomb, not even a small one like a hand grenade, and most wouldn't know how to build more than a small pipe bomb.

     If you make it impossible to buy a gun or to steal one, then someone who wants a gun will have to make it. While building a bomb takes a great deal more skill than buying a gun does, it takes a great deal less skill than building a mass-murder-capable gun. All other issues aside, if we look only at the question of utility, I'm okay with laws that restrict the ownership of full-auto weapons and removable, high-capacity magazines, because if someone really wants those things and is willing to break the law to have them, it still requires far less skill to convert a semi-auto gun to full-auto or to build functional magazines out of scrap metal and springs in one's garage than it does to build a large, effective, safe-to-operate, concealable bomb. As such, outlawing full-auto guns and high-cap magazines doesn't put aspiring mass murderers in the position of shrugging and saying, "Eh, for all that trouble, I might as well just mix up a pallet load of TATP."

     That alone, I feel, is reason enough to not try to eliminate the possibility of mass shootings. As long as they are possible, and easier to pull off than a bombing, I think we steer lazy killers away from using bombs.


     The question we should be asking then is not, "How do we eliminate the possibility of mass shootings?" but rather, "How do we mitigate the existence of mass shootings?" That is, how do we:
1. ...remove the motive for wanting to commit an act of mass murder?
2. ...minimize the opportunities for committing mass murder?
3. ...minimize the damage that can be done by a mass murderer?

     Question #1 has very little to do with guns. It's more about psychology and social problems than it is about technology. It's also the biggest, most tangled dilemma in the list. We'd have to change nothing less than our culture, our economic system, our politics, our methods of raising children, and our own personalities. Aside from that--aside from producing kinder, gentler people who don't want to hurt each other--the only obvious answer I see is to make succeeding at mass murder so unlikely that people are discouraged from trying. It's like why so few robberies are bank robberies. Both the likelihood of failing and the consequences of failing make banks an unattractive target. If we can't make people be nice, at least we can aim for making them think there's no point trying to kill a lot of people.

     Question #2 is largely an issue of security and sort of overlaps with question #1, because a person will be discouraged from wanting to try killing a lot of people if they can't think of any time or place they could succeed in doing so. This is the rationale behind eliminating gun-free zones and arming teachers. The thinking is that if a would-be school shooter knows that he'll likely be intercepted and killed by another armed person the moment he draws his weapon, he's far less likely to bother attempting a school shooting. But we can do even better than that. How would a killer manage to murder dozens of school children at one time if, for example, all children were homeschooled?

     That's what I mean by minimizing opportunities. I'm not suggesting that all children should be homeschooled. I simply mean that if we didn't keep all the kids in one place, it's tough to conceive of a way to go to one place to kill them all. In the same way, how do you pull off a bank robbery if everybody has their money stuffed under their mattresses?

     If schools were built as a campus of small, one-room schoolhouses rather than a single, large building, and all those little buildings went into lockdown the moment a single shot was fired, it would be impossible for a killer to get access to more than one class full of targets. Keep classes small and increase the number of buildings, and you minimize the damage even further. It's also possible to control movement like this within a single building; it's how prisons operate. This is the kind of thinking we need to be engaging in rather than thinking we can control the behavior of deranged individuals by passing laws. School lockdown procedures developed after the Columbine shooting already operate on the same basic principle.

     Question #3 also overlaps with question #2; if a killer can't get at his victims, he can't do them much harm. In addition to that, though, we can also make responses to mass shootings faster and more effective. I'm not a fan of arming all teachers, because I've known too many teachers who didn't seem emotionally stable enough to be trusted with a gun. But I don't see a problem with schools having their teachers, or some portion of their teachers, trained to act as an on-site emergency response team. Just as some employees learn to operate fire extinguishers and AEDs without the expectation that they be fully certified firefighters, I think it's reasonable that we could put some teachers and other school staff members through police use-of-force training and active-shooter response tactics. Then, rather than having a killer walking around unimpeded for five minutes until the police show up, he'd be facing an auxiliary SWAT team within maybe 45 seconds.

Even if that team is armed only with ballistic shields and Tasers (so nobody breaks into the school's armory and gets their hands on a deadly weapon), they would still be able to engage and possibly subdue the shooter to stop him from killing any more children. There's no reason to confine this strategy to schools, either. Businesses, churches, any place people gather together and present an attractive target to terrorists, there could be a team of carefully screened volunteers who are trained to stop an attacker or at least contain him until police arrive.

It beats trying to stop suicide bombers.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Omnivorous Rex

I recently encountered a woman on Facebook asking others how she was to come to grips with the idea of killing animals for meat. She said, "Is there a way for me to get over my soft heartedness towards animals or am I just doomed to pay outrageous prices for meats?"

Here's what I told her:

If you feel that strongly about it, you shouldn't be eating meat. Better to live a morally consistent life than to live with your head in the sand. Awareness is a good thing.

But ask yourself where you draw the line. Do you swat mosquitos? Any sympathy for ticks? Parasitic worms? Just walking outside, you may inadvertently kill any number of insects lying underfoot. If you have a functioning immune system, you're constantly killing thousands of microscopic critters just by breathing and digesting. You're a functioning part of your ecosystem; killing is unavoidable.

Even if you were to go vegan, tractors and pesticides kill wildlife, not to mention all the animals killed by trucks and the destruction of habitat caused by highways and farms.

And that's just animal life. What about the plants? With each year that passes, we discover more about the inner lives of plants. They communicate with each other and with insects. They demonstrate an awareness of their environment. They react to threats. They are sentient, if not sapient. They're as much alive as a hopping rabbit.

Even some plants kill animals for food.

So rather than trying to push the truth out of your consciousness (and into your subconscious, where it will manifest as nightmares or mental illness), embrace the truth: you are a born killer.

You have eyes on the front of your face to focus on prey instead of having them on either side of your head like prey animals do to enable them to see approaching predators from all directions. You can craft weapons to amplify your killing power. You can throw weapons...while a different direction. You can make fire! You can speak to others of your species and even to dogs and horses to coordinate an attack. Walking at a normal pace for as long as you can stay awake, you can chase down any animal on four feet. (Seriously, if you just follow a deer across the open plains, never letting it rest, it will drop from exhaustion before you do.) You can even raise animals to be your food, and you won't have to chase them at all.

You are the Ultimate Predator. Get comfortable with it.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Different Worlds

On a gun group I follow on Facebook, there was recently a post that started, "With all the talk lately about flag burning..." and I was like, "All WHAT talk about flag burning? I haven't heard a word. All the news I've been hearing is about a riot and an earthquake and a volcano and who's running for President, and how Republicans are trying to turn the whole country into a "Christian" theocracy, and 101 stories about how cops suck...unless they're Swedish."

And then I saw my brother share something from FOX (because he does that sort of thing) about how there's allegedly a flag desecration "challenge" going viral like the ice bucket challenge, where people take video of themselves stepping on American flags.

And if you look at the reaction, conservatives are homicidal over this. They are literally saying they're willing to be imprisoned or killed in order to commit acts of violence against the people using flags to express their frustrations. I look at this reaction and the intensity of it, and I'm thinking, "Wow, you know, life must be pretty sweet if the biggest thing you've got to worry about is whether people are hurting the feelings of a piece of cloth that's mass-produced in Korea."

Remember, the people getting this worked up about disrespect to a symbol of the United States government are the same people who bitch endlessly about the United States government, hate the President, don't want to pay taxes, want to secede from the Union, point rifles at federal agents, and form militias in hopes of someday violently overthrowing the government. Setting aside these glaring inconsistencies for a moment, I'd like to focus on the mental health of people getting this worked up over the well-being of an inanimate object.

If some antiquity were being abused--such as when the Taliban destroyed 1700-year-old Buddha statues in Bamiyan--I can understand people being upset over that. It's not that the statues themselves are gods--though people may be upset about violence toward the ideas those statues represent--the real tragedy of it is that those were pieces of history, tangible connections to the ancient past, now lost forever.

But these flags? Again, I understand how people could be upset about the violent rejection of ideas they believe that flag to represent (though I maintain that the people getting upset about it are actually some of the fiercest opponents of most of those ideas), but the difference between these flags and the statues of Bamiyan is that the flags are totally replaceable. They're cheap commodities, trade goods manufactured by the hundreds of thousands, with something like 94% of them coming from China. They're practically disposable. You might as well worship a paper towel. If a flag gets burned, you can just go buy another one. It's silly to cry about it, and downright psychotic to get so emotional about it that you're willing to harm other human beings and sacrifice your own freedom and safety in the process.

Given that so much that's wrong in American politics is being driven by people gripped by this lunacy, I've devised a plan for weeding them out. Have you heard of "dammit dolls?" It's not the name of a punk band. They're little rag dolls that violent people beat when they're angry. Since violence is the only way these people know to express their frustrations, they channel their aggressions into these inanimate dolls rather than risk getting in trouble by attacking a human or other living thing. So here's my plan. We get some cloth that has the American flag printed on one side, and plain white on the other. Then we use this cloth to make dammit dolls, with the flag side turned in. Then we package these dolls with an image of something that would enrage conservatives. I dunno, something like a photoshopped image of Ronald Reagan having sex with Marilyn Manson in a church. Then we send these packages out to all the conservatives in America. The easily enraged ones, upon seeing the image, will beat the hell out of the dammit doll with the flag concealed inside. A few days later, we send them a letter instructing them to open up the dammit doll to find the prize hidden inside. They'll open it up, see the flag, and it will dawn on them that they've just angrily beaten a flag.

The particularly psychotic ones will immediately kill themselves in the most horrible way they can think up, because they'll be consumed with self-hatred. The slightly less psychotic ones will be stunned by their own hypocrisy and shrink from criticizing others who abuse flags.

Of course, these are conservatives we're talking about, so I can see how this might backfire. Like closeted homosexual politicians who deal with their secret shame by crusading against gays, these people who hate themselves for beating a flag doll might project that anger out towards others, and try to deal with their own shame by passing draconian laws against others who are caught abusing flags. Still, if enough of them kill themselves or shut up, these ones who get more zealous may not have the numbers to get such laws passed.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Is There Such a Thing as Provocation?

Provocation used to be recognized in American courts. The degree to which it still is, I don't know. But presumably, once upon a time, if you got arrested for punching a guy in the nose and told the judge, "Yes, Your Honor, I punched him in the nose, but only because he wouldn't quit calling my wife a whore," there was a good chance you'd get off with a lighter sentence or none at all, because the court would recognize that you had been sufficiently provoked. It's not to say that punching people in the nose isn't wrong; just that it's too much to expect you to be a saint when someone else is working really hard at getting themselves punched. It was a recognition of two facts: 1) that humans have their limits, and 2) that sometimes victims contribute to the mental state of their attacker. Sometimes they literally ask for it. By treating provocation as a mitigating circumstance, courts were recognizing the concept of shared culpability.

We hold police officers to a higher standard of self-restraint when it comes to provocation. This is why most police academies still use a boot camp format for creating a stressful environment for cadets. The schools not only want officers to be able to work under pressure, they want them to demonstrate that they have a thick skin. It's expected that nobody wants to go to jail, and so it's not unusual for people who are being taken to jail to hurl insults and abuses at the people who are taking them. This much is expected, and a police department needs people who can handle it.

How does someone handle something like that, though, day after day? One way is that the officers set themselves above it. They take an attitude of condescension toward the person who is behaving badly. They fix it in their minds that the person hurling insults somehow can't help himself, because he's morally or mentally inferior in some respect. It's treated almost like a handicap. Just as you wouldn't lose your temper with an incontinent person for wetting himself, you don't lose your temper with criminals for acting like criminals. It's all they're capable of.

If you get into this mindset, it can make the job workable. Of course, after a few years of spending all day responding to calls of criminal behavior, it can be challenging not to see the whole of society as belonging in that mental category of human rubbish, because you're getting a skewed perspective. You have to fight back the urge to suspect the worst of everyone.

But what do you do when they don't let you? That is, what if you're trying to brighten the line in your mind that separates criminals from everybody else, so that you can still retain somewhat of a positive view of humanity in general, but the rest of humanity doesn't cooperate? What if, every time you try to be polite, friendly, and helpful to people you weren't called to arrest, they rebuff you and repay your kindness with venom? How much of that could you take? How long would you endure that before reaching the conclusion that the general public does deserve to be lumped in with the criminal element?

That's not something they teach in police academies, and it doesn't get enough attention in most police departments. Religion could play a useful role here, but being as there's a wall of separation (or supposed to be) and the fact that departments may be composed of officers from a diversity of faiths, the role religion can actually play is necessarily restricted. Psychological counseling isn't really an option, either, as simply reaching out to a mental health care provider stigmatizes an officer as being unfit for duty.

So we call these guys to come clean up society's messes, and then we dump more garbage on them for doing it, and the only support system we allow them is each other, or--off-duty--their families and churches. If divorce rates and domestic abuse rates among cops are any indicator, this is too much to expect of families. And then we're put off by the fact that the police have an "us vs. them" attitude toward the public when we, the public, created it.

Suppose you were a fire fighter, and every time you showed up to respond to a medical emergency, everybody there whipped out their cell phones hoping to get video evidence of you stealing something, despite the fact that you had never stolen anything, ever. How long would it take for that to get old? Imagine people clutched their purses and patted their wallets every time they saw a firefighter. Imagine pundits going on for years at a time and even building whole careers around pounding the message that firefighters don't respect people's property. "When the only tool you've got is an axe, every problem looks like firewood." Suppose that every time a fire broke out, there was a near certainty that the fire department was going to be sued for breaking doors and causing water damage to walls and furniture. Every other day, the news would have a story about the "reckless disregard" firefighters had for people's stuff, and they'd run stories with carefully constructed half-truths about how firefighters in other countries put out fires using waterless methods. If more fires happened in a minority neighborhood, necessitating more responses from the fire department, journalists would hold up those statistics as proof that firefighting is an inherently racist occupation.

If you felt you were continually under assault by everyone outside your fire department, just for doing your job, how long would it be before you eventually told all those jerks to put out their own fires and drive themselves to the hospital?

It's in this light that I'd like you to watch this video. In South Gate, a city in Los Angeles County, California, some plainclothes police officers in tactical gear were doing something--arresting someone, serving a warrant, we don't really know. And for some reason, there were at least two women in the neighborhood--one across the street and another maybe ten feet from them--who felt that the mere presence of these officers represented an impropriety worthy of documenting. The officers weren't apparently doing anything to either of these women, just talking among themselves. But one of the women nonetheless got very close to them, playing sidewalk news anchor with her cell phone. It's not clear from this video whether they asked her to stop or asked her to leave, but it's also not clear what business she had being there doing what she was doing.

At that point, we see one of the officers chase the woman, grab her phone, and destroy it. Make no mistake. What he did was wrong--as wrong as punching someone in the nose for repeatedly calling your wife a whore--and he should face appropriate disciplinary action accordingly. If the implication is that the recording is for the purpose of documenting criminal evidence, then the implied accusation in recording the officers' conversation is that the officers are all criminals and that their mere presence is a criminal act. How long should the people who are there to stop crime reasonably be expected to put up with that foolishness? It doesn't justify one of them assaulting a woman and destroying her property, but there's also only so much sympathy one can have for somebody who goes out of their way to kick a rattlesnake.

At some point, when adults get serious about solving a behavioral problem--whether of an animal, a child, subordinates, a class of people, whatever--they realize that you can't just punish everyone into compliance. They figure out that the people who are acting in an undesirable way are doing so as a response to certain conditions, and if you want to change the behavior, you have to change the conditions. Do you think police in this country are out of control, brutal, and corrupt? If so, are you out of control, brutal, and corrupt? If not, what's the difference? Don't just say, "they're rotten people." That's too easy. It solves nothing. They're human beings displaying human responses to a given set of conditions the best way they know how. So what conditions are they being subjected to that caused them to be more brutal, out-of-control, and corrupt than you, and what can we do to either eliminate those conditions, or to better equip the officers to deal with those conditions in a way we find acceptable? That's a national discussion that needs to happen. In the mean time, we're not helping anything by needling these guys for existing, and then crying about it when they lash out in response. It's time we did more than just demand better. It's time we created better, and that starts with recognizing our own role in creating this situation.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Turning Privilege Into Oppression

Let's play a game. Think of some privilege you have, like...

"I have electrical service in my home 24/7."

That's pretty awesome! Do you know how many people DON'T have that kind of luxury? And did you really do anything to deserve it? You may have earned the money to pay your electric bill, but it's unlikely that you're personally and solely responsible for the existence of the power plant and the electrical grid in your city. If you're like most people who have electricity, you lucked out on those things. Now, take that privilege, and find a way to turn it into a complaint.

"I can't get ahead because I'm burdened with high electrical costs! Every time I try to see the sunset, all I see are wires. I worry constantly that my house will burn down or that I'll get shocked. I'm afraid to turn on the light when I take a shower. I fear that the wiring in my house puts me at special risk during a thunderstorm. I worry that all that electromagnetism coursing through the walls may be giving me cancer while I sleep. The power company conspires with manufacturers to make products that make me increasingly addicted to electricity usage. I don't want mountaintop removal or wars in the Middle East, but I don't know how I'd get by without an unlimited supply of electricity, so I keep voting for horrible people and feeling guilty about it. It's all a devious conspiracy to keep me trapped in a job I don't want working to pay for things I wish I could live without."

Wow, what a burden! Now, if you can couple that with neoteny, you...

What's neoteny? Neoteny is the retention of juvenile characteristics into adulthood. It's a biological term. In humans, females are strongly neotenous. For example, the size, shape, and sound of a twelve-year-old child of either sex are much closer to the size, shape, and sound of a grown woman than to those of a grown man. Men appear more different from children than women do. Socially, this has worked to women's advantage, because all humans--men and women alike--have evolved to nurture children and to place importance on protecting them and providing for them. So when a child--or a woman--cries, you're going to feel more biologically compelled to care than if you see a man crying. The same characteristic that would make you want to avoid a war movie where all the casualties are cute, little kid is the same characteristic that makes you listen and care when a woman talks about someone hurting her feelings.

So anyway, if you happen to possess this trait that makes everybody biologically hardwired to care about your well-being, and then you manage to re-state everything good in your life as a terrible burden, you've just learned the basics of how to be a Feminist.

Here's an example from the editors at Everday Feminism. The link goes to a cartoon called "How Society Polices Women's Clothing," that shows us just how tough it is to be an affluent, Western woman. There's just no way she can please everyone! The cartoon shows seventeen different ways a woman can dress, and how, in all but the last instance, other people are going to have opinions about it. Opinions! Uncharitable ones, even. Go on, go read the cartoon and let it soak in just how badly America treats women over something as simple as getting dressed to step outside. Terrible, isn't it?

Now go back and look at the whole cartoon again, only this time, imagine that each of the characters you see there are men, and imagine how the captions might differ. Go on and do it. I'll wait. Frame by frame, no advancing to the next one until you've wrapped your head around the idea that each one is male and expects to be regarded as such. Give them guys' names if it helps. I'll start you off: The dude with the long hair and the Daisy Dukes is Kevin. The one in the long skirt is Doug. The one in the suit and a bunch of makeup is Marcos. The one next to him in the pink dress is Frank.

I suspect the criticisms these guys would face might embody something a little harsher than just, "You should wear clothes that do more to flatter your shape." They'd be more likely to contain the word "faggot" and threats of serious bodily harm. which all those compassionate feminists fighting for equal rights for all humans will just shrug and say, "If he doesn't want to get his ass kicked, he shouldn't dress that way. It's not our fault he chose to throw away his male privilege." Because it's privilege when a man is all but assigned a daily uniform and threatened with physical violence for deviating from it, but it's oppression when a woman has multiple options for every occasion and her biggest problem is that people will notice her and feel moved to say something they think is helpful.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Biggest Danger of Police Work Is Not What You Think

I may edit this later to be a proper, stand-alone article, but for now, I'm just going to paste it and give you some background. I used to be a cop, and my little brother and his wife still are. My brother's Facebook posts are pretty much limited to pictures of American flags and memes celebrating the heroism of police and military personnel. It's the kind of starry-eyed, patriotic stuff I might have posted when I was a ten-year-old Cub Scout if we'd had Facebook back then. On one of these recent posts--a video monologue by a young woman gushing about how wonderful police were and attacking anyone who felt less intensely about it than she did--one commenter dared to offer that, while police work was indeed both dangerous and noble, it wasn't the most dangerous job in the world, statistically speaking. Specifically, he cited construction work as being more dangerous. Predictably, there was a vicious dogpile as law enforcement officers and those who love them tore the man to shreds for having the temerity to share such an offensive fact. The poor guy scrambled to clarify that he had no ill will towards the police, but it wasn't enough. They got nasty, so he got nasty back, and it completely fell apart. At that point, I posted this:

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics, Again

Reading a few articles over on, I'm overwhelmed by the logical fallacies and failures of reasoning that the readers are supposed to just swallow without question. Permit me to "mansplain" one of the more problematic ones.

Let's say we have ten targets, and we line them up left to right along a wall. Standing just a few feet away, I take a bow and arrow, aim at the target furthest to the right, shoot, and hit that one target. Ten percent of the targets on that wall have now been hit by an arrow.

This does NOT mean, however, that, "If you're a target on that wall, you have a ten percent chance of being hit by an arrow." It means that the one I aimed at had a very likely chance of getting hit (the exact percentage depends on such variables as my marksmanship and the quality of the archery equipment), while the ones I wasn't aiming at were very unlikely to get hit at all. The chances that my arrow would have left the bow, taken a sharp left turn, zoomed to the target furthest to the left, taken a sharp right turn, and then planted itself in that far-left target are something close to zero percent.

And yet that's exactly the sort of assertion being made when  they say that a person of color has a 44%-50% chance of going to prison or that a woman has a one-in-three chance of being raped. It presumes that there is a sole, relevant variable--in these examples, being a person of color and being a woman, respectively. For that to be true, we have to assume that because President Obama is a person of color, he has the same chance of going to prison as does a black gang member who sells crack in front of a police station, or that an old woman alone on a sailboat in the middle of the ocean is as likely to be raped as is a teenage girl in sub-Saharan Africa who's been kidnapped by enemy soldiers. That kind of claim doesn't pass the most basic of credibility tests.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Some Thoughts on Netanyahu's Speech to Congress

- Liberal pundits in America have gone on at great length about how Netanyahu disrespected Obama. From what I've heard so far, he's expressed nothing but praise, admiration, and deep gratitude towards President Obama.

- Netanyahu seems not to be aware that, unlike him, we are not at war against Islam.

- He lists Iran's support of terror while remaining silent on the issue of Israel's daily terror against the Palestinians.

- He says that the greatest threat to the world is "the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons." Could it possibly be that he's never heard of Pakistan? Pakistan, which has had nukes for ages, was hiding Osama bin Laden in his last days, and they've never nuked anyone.

- He goes on about how Iran is not to be trusted because it's not forthright about it's military nuclear ambitions. What, Mr. Netanyahu, is Israel's nuclear capability? Mind if we send some inspectors to verify?

- "Why should Iran's radical regime change for the better when it can enjoy the best of both worlds--aggression abroad, prosperity at home?" Like us!

- Speaking of which, where does the US, which has more nukes than anyone, get off telling other countries they shouldn't have them?

- " country, Israel, the one and only Jewish state!" How many Jewish states does he think there should be? Why should there be even one? Our nation was founded on a separation of church and state. To us, theocracy is tyranny. Why should we stick our necks out defending the very sort of tyranny we established this country to be free from? I'd be a lot more supportive of Israel's right to exist if they'd abolish state religion, end religious apartheid, and weed out all traces of their ideology of Jewish supremacy.

- "For the first time in a hundred generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves!" With billions of dollars of American military aid, so long as we don't form any treaties with Iran.

- Wait a he saying that the Jews twenty years ago couldn't defend themselves? Forty years ago? Sixty years ago?

- Could you imagine Christian fundamentalists in the GOP making this big a deal over the Pope? Would we support the Vatican having nukes and taking billions of dollars of our tax money, especially if it was oppressing the Italians, waging war on Tunisia, and rattling sabers at Libya and Algeria while talking about the Christian struggle to resist extermination?

Obama's response:

tldr, re:Obama's response: Yeah, we like Israel, but Netanyahu has no ideas on how to keep Iran from getting the bomb.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Relevant Skills

I think it's tragic that, in a culture as centered as ours is around video entertainment, when kids put on plays in school and study Shakespeare and Miller and so on, all they study is theater and not cinema. And a good many teachers, even when I was a kid, *play movies in class* for the kids to watch. Even when they're studying a play, the teacher will play a film adaptation of the play. But when they walk the kids through the motions, it's always for a live performance, not a film. Any actor will tell you that stage acting and acting for a camera are totally different beasts, yet most film actors get their start on stage, because that's the only acting experience schools generally offer.

I say it's tragic because it walls off a huge, lucrative industry into the realm of the unknown and untouchable. I think when most people think about "working in movies" or TV, they're only thinking about the talent. But where does a kid go to learn how to mix sound? How many high school art classes teach kids to build movie props? How many vo-tech kids studying electricity even know what a gaffer is?

When I was a kid, I wasn't interested in acting, but I liked to pull the ropes to open and close the curtains (and in doing so, I ended up learning everybody's lines). Broadway is maybe the one place in the whole world that has any use for that, and I'm sure they have motorized curtains now.

But how many places worldwide do they record commercials? Nightly news programs? I've seen and heard of kids acting out reporting the news, but that's all they do--write a script and read it in front of an audience. They don't build a set, work the lights and sound, record it, and broadcast it. They don't promote it. They don't have to hire and manage the crew and the talent. They don't find the stories and cull them and decide what to lead with and make it all fit in the allotted time between commercial breaks. 

When I worked at Columbus State, one of the jobs I volunteered for was asset inventory. Every piece of equipment the college owned that was worth more than some certain amount of money has to be tracked and has a bar code physically attached to it. So I'd go around putting on stickers or checking serial numbers on everything from pianos and digital projectors to gas chromatographs and airplanes. This led me to discover that the college has its own television studio tucked away in the back of the library. It was almost never used. I was told that they used to have a class that used it back in the sixties or seventies, and that they'd use it to televise a meeting or something now and again, but that the students no longer used it regularly, even though the equipment all seemed pretty modern. It's like they continued to funnel resources into this, as though they needed to think up something to spend money on, but they didn't bother to use it to train people to go into broadcasting.

When a kid expresses an interest in making movies or TV shows, if we assume she means acting, we dismiss it as a silly ambition, because actually becoming rich and famous as an actor is a long shot. But you know who pretty reliably gets rich in that industry? The people who PAY the actors. And even if you're not looking to get famous or rich, doing the tech work behind the scenes must be steady work in a culture where people spend a good chunk of their waking lives living vicariously through screens.

Maybe it's more transparent in Los Angeles or New York. But given that a studio is the modern equivalent of a printing press, wide participation in this form of media seems pretty basic to our democracy. I think this is why Youtube has become such a sensation. It does for video broadcasting what the Internet did for publishing. But if you look at the quality of most of the stuff on Youtube, it's clear that most of the people generating content are completely ignorant of how to do it well. And let's face it--a video that's well produced is going to be more enjoyable to watch than one that isn't. People will feel more comfortable sharing it, and it'll get more views. Simply having the presence of mind to use a tripod makes a video more watchable. And, like a person who dresses well being taken more seriously than someone who doesn't, the more professional the quality of a video is, the more seriously the viewers will take the content.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Explaining Natural Selection to Believers in Intelligent Design

Believers in intelligent design often argue with great passion and conviction that when an organism perfectly fits its environment or its ecological niche, that's proof that it "couldn't have been an accident." Just as it couldn't be an accident that a particular key fits a particular lock, they believe that random chance can't account for any two things in nature fitting together so perfectly.

It's rubbish, of course, but their argument makes intuitive sense if you don't understand natural selection. They think, apparently, that random genetic mutation is the only factor in evolution, and don't fully appreciate how environmental forces can carve a species into shape. I've thought of a few ways to illustrate it.

Cookies. Gingerbread men aren't the result of balls of dough dropping and some of them randomly flattening out into the shape of gingerbread men. Genetic variability would be like dropping a big wad of dough on the table and rolling it out. The shape after the initial plop is random. As you push the rolling pin this way and that, you're not trying to precisely roll out the shape of a gingerbread man. It's just a wider, thinner blob. But then comes the cookie cutter. The cookie cutter could represent any selective force--a storm, a plague, climate change, whatever. The dough inside the cookie cutter perfectly fits the shape of the cookie cutter, and the dough outside it is discarded.

But I decided I didn't like that example, because someone made the cookie cutter. Someone deliberately used it to make a cookie that shape, so that example probably wouldn't really succeed in stretching the awareness of someone who already believes in the existence of a designer.

So then I got to thinking about unintentional impressions, like a footprint in the dirt. When you walk, your shoes (or feet) perfectly match the footprints you leave on the ground. You don't intentionally indent the dirt to match your shoes, it just happens. But even there, we have a sapient agent and a man-made shoe, and we really need to remove people from the illustration for it to work right.

A branch! A branch ripped off a tree by the wind during a rainstorm crashes to the ground and falls in the mud. The impression in the mud perfectly matches the shape of the branch. Nobody had to do anything to make the mud that shape, and yet the shape in the mud is so perfectly suited to the shape of the branch that, according to the reasoning of those who believe in intelligent design, it couldn't possibly have happened by accident. Except that it did. Is it an accident that they match? The match happened because of the accident. If we can document that the branch was weak and the wind was strong and the mud was soft, then the preponderence of the evidence suggests that the stick fell and made an impression in the mud by accident rather than that an invisible, supernatural being broke the stick off and placed it in the mud in a precise position for reasons we can never understand. We have an abundance of evidence suggesting an accident, and absolutely none to support wild speculation about divine intervention.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Media Illusions

The media that says the police are out of control and that you should rightly fear for your life any time you see a cop is the same media that gave pit bulls their bad reputation. Some pit bulls really have chewed people's faces off over nothing, same as some cops have committed criminal acts of assault and murder. No denying either one, but all you "pibble" lovers out there have a pretty good idea how representative that picture is of the whole truth.

It's the same media that told us in the 1980s that Satanists were behind every tree, waiting to abduct your children and pets and murder them in ritual sacrifices. It's the same media that told us that these devil worshipers could be positively identified by their interest in heavy metal music and Dungeons & Dragons--if they weren't already sacrificing the neighborhood pets, continued exposure to this devilish game and music would soon warp their minds and open a gateway to demonic possession. Every D&D player and headbanger who lived through that era without so much as entertaining the thought of offering a youngster's blood to Beelzebub, but lived in fear of people's insane reactions to the media hype that said it was all but inevitable, has a pretty clear picture of what cops are being put through right now.

That same media was at work before my time, giving people the impression that every American serviceman to have ever set foot in Vietnam enjoyed shiskebabing babies on bayonets in between burning villages and raping the inhabitants. Before that, the witch hunt of the day was against "commies," which had less to do with targeting those seeking collectivist economic policies and more to do with persecuting gays, artists, liberal Democrats, and anyone who challenged authority and tradition. The so-called "fourth branch of government" has long made its living by using scapegoats to create sensations that captivate their audience and keeping them watching for the latest news. Wake up, people. You're being played. Clip the marionette's strings. Don't get fooled again.