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Moving to Scotland

December 13, 2019

A British friend of mine is looking north to Scotland (youtube), where “your diet may be scary and your weather may be bad, but at least you’re not completely fucking mad.”

Dark Australia

December 11, 2019

Hounds of Love is a Christmas movie only in that it is set during the season. It is clearly based on an infamous pair of Australian couple who murdered multiple women in the 1980s, even though its makers disclaim that. And it is one of the darkest movies I have seen. (You have been warned!) It will not become a holiday classic.

So I guess it is good to read that Australia has been named one of the five safest nations for women. I’m always a bit skeptical of such rankings. The obvious objective data to check is Australia’s homicide rate, which is about a fifth that of the US’s, and on par with the EU’s.

Well, Netflix next is sending us the final season of Game of Thrones. More suited for holiday viewing.

The purpose of sex

December 10, 2019

A lion doesn’t eat to get fat or to maintain its health. It eats because it is hungry, or from pleasure, or even in social drive, because another lion has brought food, and taking some reinforces status or signals gratitude. It usually is an error, a misunderstanding of biology, to leap from physiological function to a story about behavior. People seem especially inclined to do that regarding sexual behavior. So I am glad to see that biologists from Yale and the University of Texas have written a paper taking to task past attempts to “explain” non-reproductive sexual behaviors, as if they especially are in need of some evolutionary explanation. (Cite.) I suspect invertebrate zoologists are not as susceptible to that error as those studying mammals. Nor those studying mammals as susceptible as those theorizing about human psychology.

I was reminded of the teleological error when a Facebook acquaintance quoted from Donald Hoffman’s new book, The Case Against Reality:

Evolution couldn’t care less if you perceive objective reality. It only wants you to have sex successfully. As a consequence, your apprehension of the world is tuned to whatever allows that to happen.

Well, no. Evolution couldn’t care less if you have sex successfully. No more than physics cares whether a star goes nova or not. That is a glaring example of the teleological error. And no, an organism’s traits are not all tuned to successful reproduction. Evolution weeds out genetic traits that fail at that. That leaves plenty of room for characteristics that arise from the accidents of history. Those who look for some kind of design or adaptation in every trait should re-read Gould’s famous paper.

You get to define what counts as success in the realm of sex, and how to work that into your life. Evolution shaped your body and your brain. Both, in our case, are flexible and adaptable. Evolution does not dictate purpose. Not even in lions.

That said, Hoffman’s books may hold interest. I have downloaded the free sample to read. The teleological error I highlight may be more a turn of phrase than substantive premise.

Hunting, fishing, and sailing, oh my

December 9, 2019

Hunting and fishing licenses continue to decline, year over year, and with them, a major source of state funds for habitat and wildlife conservation:

In Wisconsin, a lack of funding has prompted the state’s Department of Natural Resources to leave staff positions unfilled and cut back on habitat management. Colorado’s wildlife agency has cut tens of millions of dollars in expenditures and trimmed programs that deal with invasive species. Vermont’s fish and wildlife department, which manages more than 25,000 species and nearly 2,000 native plants, is cautioning that even though the state leads the nation in wildlife viewing, that activity “provides no significant revenue stream to the department that would allow for the management of the resources viewed.”

Wildlife is a public resource. You can charge a hunter for bagging a deer, even if they do so while that deer is on the hunter’s own property. But you cannot charge someone for looking at a warbler or a flycatcher. Park entrance fees bring in some, but not much.

That article describes a demographic vice: hunting now skews toward the boomer generation, and hunters tend to hunt less after they turn 65. Some are trying to recruit younger people into the sport, focusing on the locavore aspect. (Venison chili is on our menu this week.) While I wish that success, the truth is that hunting is tied to cultural practice. I suspect most hunters started hunting in their teens, with older relatives, developed hunting buddies as young adults, and then it became as much a way to maintain those friendships as it did recreation in the outdoors. It is hard to rebuild such habits once generational decline sets in. (I’m not a hunter or angler, going only when friends twist my arm.)

Boating and sailing face a similar concern, though their numbers are not in such strong decline. They play more varied cultural roles, so have a bit more adaptability.

Vaccines and medical error

December 5, 2019

Nurses killed two Samoan infants in 2018, when they mixed the MMR vaccine with muscle relaxant instead of water. Indirectly, that led to a horrible measles outbreak that killed dozens more, by causing the people there to shy away from the vaccine. Seemingly, an anti-vax organization run by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr has a bloody hand in that.

In the Congo, thousands of children are dying of measles.

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr is an educated fellow with a law degree. I wonder, though, if he ever studied any statistics? You can no more think about risk and benefit without statistics, than you can do accounting without arithmetic. If you think you can, and that your innumerate opinion on such issues is anything more than junk, I suggest you take all your money, go gamble in Vegas for a week, and come back wealthy. Or more cautious. Photo is a gambling scene at an inn, by Teniers the Younger, back when mathematicians first were developing the conceptual tools for that.

Surreal times

December 4, 2019

Many Trump defenders protest that Stephen Miller’s policy to separate children from parents whenever possible at the border is no different from what was done under Obama, since both were operating under the same legal framework. The Homeland Security Administration thought it was different. So different, they estimated they would seize 26,000 children in that fashion, in six more months, had not Trump retreated under political pressure. That is from a report by the department’s inspector general. I worry that Trump at some point will turn on the government’s system of inspectors general.

Franklin Graham is boosting the latest children’s book by evangelical author Eric Metaxas, depicting civil servants and unruly immigrants as dangerous beasts. Just in time for the holidays, teach your children whom to hate.

Trump went to the NATO summit and told a pack of bald lies, causing Macron at one point to act the school teacher correcting him. What once seemed surreal now is a monthly spectacle. Earlier, Tucker Carlson fessed up to the obvious, that Trump is an incessant liar:

Donald Trump is a salesman. He’s a talker. He’s a boaster, a booster, a compulsive self-promoter. At times, he’s a full-blown BS artist. If Trump hadn’t gotten rich in real estate, he could have made a fortune selling cars.

Of course, Carlson goes on to excuse that, rather than looking at why Trump’s pushing conspiracy theories is pathological, why that makes him the perfect fit for the modern right, and why it is corrosive to democracy. Still, he is adequately aware to admit it, which is the low bar set by my Trump test.

Because they want to cover for that pathology in Trump, we should expect the right-wing media to work overtime exposing falsehoods from any Democratic candidate. “See?” They will say or imply, “everyone lies.” Don’t let them get away with it. Yes, everyone sometimes lies. But few are bullshit artists. As some wag recently put it, you can no more defend Trump’s constant assault on truth by pointing out that we all sometimes lie, than you can defend Jeffrey Dahmer by pointing out that we all sometimes eat things we shouldn’t.

The endurance of underground maps

December 3, 2019

To those visiting a metropolitan area with a subway system, it can seem like a piece of magic that the locals rely upon, that remains a bit tough for those not in the know. The human mind doesn’t orient easily when robbed of visual clues. The NYT has a nice flip chart on how the MTA map first created forty years ago brought more sense and more riders to the city’s subways.

The first subway I used much was Mexico City’s, about 1979. Lance Wyman designed its station icons two decades earlier, for a population that still had a large fraction of illiteracy. A map with English translations of those icons has gained some recent popularity.

Photo right shows one of the recent bronze figurines decorating the NYC subways.