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December 1, 2015

According to a recent poll, white Americans, especially those of a conservative bent, long for the 1950s and think that racism against whites(!) today is a greater problem than against minorities. (Cite, pdf). Psychologists at Northwestern University find that whites more favor conservative political views when primed with demographic information about their coming minority status.

Billy Townsend spins from the mortality data for middle-aged white American men to their underlying self-hatred. With comments on country music.

Townsend’s article reminds me somewhat of this article about how jihadists are born in the outskirts of Paris. Deeyan Khan, a British film maker, made a documentary film about this from the other side of the channel.

Freedom inches forward in N. Ireland

November 30, 2015

A Belfast high court ruling finds that Northern Ireland’s abortion ban breeches human rights. (English law, liberalized in 1967, doesn’t apply there.) Sarah Ewart is one of the women bringing the case, after traveling to England to abort an anencephalic fetus:

I, and many women like me have been failed by our politicians. First, they left me with no option but to go to England for medical care. Then, by their refusal to change the law, they left me with no option but to go to the courts on my and other women’s behalf.

Godless Americans, Godless Greeks

November 29, 2015

The small fraction of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated continues to edge up. Of course, affiliation and belief are different things. Many of the unaffiliated still aver belief in some notion of god. And many who are affiliated with a religion do not believe. It’s not too surprising that a majority of American Jews are atheists, since belief isn’t what qualifies someone as Jewish. But as that article points out, there also are large numbers of cryptic atheists in church pews, including 10% of protestants and 21% of Catholics.

I may have to read Tim Whitmarsh’s book on atheism in the ancient world. It’s true that much religion then was a civic affair, which made philosophical criticism of belief a different kind of matter. (There were mystery religions, some presaging aspects of Christianity.)

Enjoy your turkey. And a little to drink…

November 26, 2015

The latest caution about red meat comes from a study observing that the risk of ischemic stroke rises significantly with greater consumption of red meat, but not other proteins, such as turkey. While this study (cite) included a large number of subjects over twenty years, it carries all the usual qualifications of an observational study that relies on self-reported eating habits. Interestingly, an increase in the risk of hemorrhagic stroke was seen for those eating the most eggs. Go figure.

Researchers looking at DNA methylation as a marker for aging found that it increased with smoking, but had the familiar U-shaped curve with drinking: “moderate alcohol use – about one to two drinks per day – was correlated with the healthiest aging, while very low and high consumption were linked to accelerated aging.” This research (cite) is pretty speculative, but interesting, given empirical studies on the effects of alcohol showing the same.

All sorts of proteins and alcohol are handy in Las Vegas, which has become the Thanksgiving destination for some south Asians living in south California.

“Steinbeck’s” boat to sail again?

November 23, 2015

WASH_STEINBECK_BOAT_1Port Townsend seems the spot for restoring old wood boats. John Gregg, a geologist who as a boy was inspired by The Log from the Sea of Cortez has bought The Western Flyer, the boat on which Steinbeck took that voyage, intending to restore it.

Except, it wasn’t Steinbeck’s. He was tagging along with Ed Ricketts on the latter’s trips to collect marine specimens. And it wasn’t Ricketts’s boat, either. Just one he hired sometimes for those collecting trips.

I’m a bit dubious how Steinbeck would view such a project.

But the book is a good yarn of California before it became high tech, and Baja, before it became popular. By all means, read it.

In other maritime news, this grounding is the kind of thing that gives drunken sailors a bad name.

Why automated vehicles must become social

November 21, 2015

Human drivers deploy more than a physical model of the road, other vehicles, and physical environment. They also rely on a behavioral model of the drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians around them, sometimes without being entirely conscious of it. That guy in the grey Toyota has been edging close to the right lane, and likely wants to get over to exit soon. That bicyclist is an older woman carrying a heavy load on her back rack, so may wobble. That pedestrian is more attentive to his iPod than to the traffic lights. The communication runs two ways; we ease back a bit to let that grey Toyota driver know we understand his intent, even before he signals. That kind of social interaction is necessary, especially when negotiating urban streets and intersections. Or when an automated vehicle picks up and lets off passengers at a downtown bar.

It would be easy but mistaken to think that automated vehicles could get away without that kind of social interaction. They don’t need to drive like humans. But they will be operating in an environment with humans. Perhaps automated trucks can get away without social behavior, if they use only controlled access highways, start and stop at special terminals, and call for backup when encountering a situation that is too complex. A more general purpose automated vehicle has to do more, including behave sensibly when people around it are not. (What’s that coked-up bar hopper doing on my hood?!)

Human social behavior also extends beyond other humans. We recognize threatening or friendly or needy behavior from dogs. Hunters and birders gear their efforts to the behavior of their prey or subjects. The kiskadees in my neighborhood know if they call an alert from my back tree, I’ll come to run off the stray cat.

Elon Musk is putting out the call for “hardcore software engineers.” What may be more difficult is finding the AI experts and social scientists who can develop the necessary social model for an automated vehicle. I suspect both Tesla and Google soon will run smack into that problem. It’s not an easy one. It requires machine learning, because a model of human drivers, bicyclists, and pedestrians, is something that we cannot program from scratch. It may have to be adaptable, because human behavior varies from town to country, and from region to region.

And it will be necessary for a broad variety of other kinds of helper robots, beyond automated vehicles.

ISIS, Muslims, and refugees

November 20, 2015

Two absurdities about ISIS are now common. The lesser is the notion that ISIS somehow isn’t a part of Islam, or not even religious, when clearly it is. That denial hurts the cause of Muslim reformers. And makes those who give it voice seem strangely disconnected from reality.

The greater and more dangerous absurdity is to view the style of Islam practiced by ISIS as somehow representative rather being a small and extremist offshoot sect. That absurdity is spread by the right wing in the US and Europe, and directly feeds the xenophobic myths about the Syrian refugees. Paul Krugman takes on some of the other absurdities in the right wing’s apocalyptic vision.

Chemi Shalev draws the historical parallels between the right’s reaction to today’s Syrian refugees, and how the US rejected Jewish refugees seven decades past. And on much the same grounds: among those refugees were communists and other dangerous elements. No doubt that was the case. If any group of refugees or immigrants has to be as pure as the driven snow, none will pass.

Nicolas Hénin provides a view of ISIS from the inside. David Graeber points to Turkey as one of the Islamic states that provides ISIS some cover, and peeks at the complex politics in how western states approach that. Robert Parry casts a broader net, looking at the role Saudi Arabia and Qater also have played in supporting the extremist parts of Islam.


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