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How conmen operate

March 16, 2018

The con portrayed in fiction typically is a set of clever women and men who scam some targeted mark. The cons, like stage illusionists, care quite a bit about what is real or not, because they use that as leverage in running their ruse. Like the rascally fellow left.

In reality, most cons are not at all sophisticated. Some are outright chicanery, from Irish sweepstakes to fake IRS threats.

Most conmen work quite differently. They may have some goals in mind, such as business deals to win or political purposes to achieve. They don’t, though, approach that with some particular deceptions they must pull off. Rather, they just don’t care about the line between truth and lie. Their only interest is to get what they want, so they unfold whatever narrative they think will advance their bidding. Their fictions are effortless, because truth is simply outside their concern. Even when others point out a flat-out lie they told five minutes previous, they remain unfazed, and just proceed to the next story. And many of them recognize that is the process they use.

What is more puzzling to me are the audiences who happily go along, even when it is admitted in front of them, as Trump blithely does with his supporters in private. How many of those think they know the truth, and are happy with the con as long as it gathers the crowd and lines their pockets? How many just don’t care? How many are accustomed to it, listening to decades of preachers saying what they and their flock know is false, but what everyone wants to believe? Hard to say.


Why accountability matters

March 15, 2018

It was politically easy for Obama, when asked what he would do about recent US war crimes, to say he was more interested in looking forward than back. The price of that is that Trump, as happy with torture as any member of Bush’s administration, has now appointed one of those guilty as director of the CIA. McCain hems and haws. That is about all he has done to oppose torture, since the US first implemented a policy of that.

For the sake of the future, we need to start looking back.

Update: Gina Haspel’s involvement in Bush era torture may be limited to urging destruction of evidence, not direct oversight, as stated by the Slate article linked above. The point stands, that we should have cleaned house.

Not so white lies

March 14, 2018

Louis Jacobson writes a good article on public relations, lies, and Hope Hicks. He quotes Tracy Arrington, who teaches at the University of Texas’ Stan Richards School of Advertising & Public Relations:

The first rule of public relations is, ‘Don’t lie.’ It isn’t acceptable. And you will eventually get caught.

If ever find yourself in a job where you are pressured to lie, quit. You won’t regret it. It’s not a normal part of any respectable job, not even White House Press Secretary, as Jay Carney notes, who once filled that role. Pace Hope Hicks, those kind of lies never are white.

James Schwab, until recently the San Franciso spokesman for ICE, did just that:

I quit because I didn’t want to perpetuate misleading facts. I asked them to change the information. I told them that the information was wrong, they asked me to deflect, and I didn’t agree with that. Then I took some time and I quit.

And if, like Steve Goldstein, you get fired for telling the truth? Wear that badge proudly.


Is some autoimmune disease the result of infection?

March 13, 2018

Yale researchers found that when a gut bacterium, Enterococcus gallinarum, moves to the lymph nodes or liver, it triggers what looks like an autoimmune response. In mice. So that research could be as much the start of a medical revolution as the first clue that H. pylori causes ulcers. Or it could be something peculiar to mice that has little further relevance to humans. (Cite.)


Oh, those bones

March 12, 2018

Gerald Gallagher, an enthusiastic colonial officer serving in the twilight of the British empire, set out in 1940 to create a settlement on Gardner island, a small atoll in the western Pacific, now called Nikamuroro. He had had success on nearby islands. But would die on his newest settlement after barely a year.

It seems somehow appropriate that he was the first to investigate a skeleton discovered there. It was found with a sextant box and the remains of a shoe sole. As is the case with real mysteries, the bones were weathered and partial. The ones that were found are shown white in the diagram left. (Click to expand.) Gallagher describes the remains:

All small bones… removed by giant coconut crabs… difficult to estimate age bones owing to activities of crabs but am quite certain they are not less than four years old and probably much older…no hair found

If the remains were more than four years old, they could not belong to famed aviator Amelia Earhart, lost during her attempted air circumnavigation only 32 months earlier. Still, some poor soul had died on what then had been a deserted island. Gallagher dutifully sent the bones on to Fiji, where Dr. David W. Hoodless examined them and concluded that they belonged to a stocky, middle-aged male.

The bones were then lost. They would become one of those absent puzzle pieces attached to a mystery, and the perfect subject for endless re-analysis in the decades following. In 1998, The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery — TIGHAR — sponsored two forensic anthropologists who presented a paper at the American Anthropological Association annual convention arguing that the remains were consistent with Earhart’s, based on a computer analysis of cranial measurements. They were, of course, relying on the measurements made by the physician in 1941 whose work they did not approve. Just three years past, Cross and Wright, anthropologists from the University of Bradford reviewed the subject (cite and pdf), pointed out the risks of such second-hand analsysis, highlighted some of the other evidence, and concluded:

A critical review of both investigations and contextual evidence shows the original British osteological analyses were made by experienced, reliable professionals, while the cranial analysis is unreliable given the available data. Without access to the missing original bones, it is impossible to be definitive, but on balance, the most robust scientific analysis and conclusions are those of the original British finding indicating the Nikumaroro bones belonged to a robust, middle-aged man, not Amelia Earhart.

Now comes Richard Jantz, an anthropolgist from the University of Tennessee, armed with a newer, better computer analysis showing that the bones fit Earhart better than they do 99% of the population (cite), and arguing on the basis of that:

If Hoodless’s analysis, particularly his sex estimate, can be set aside, it becomes possible to focus attention on the central question of whether the Nikumaroro bones may have been the remains of Amelia Earhart. There is no credible evidence that would support excluding them. On the contrary, there are good reasons for including them. The bones are consistent with Earhart in all respects we know or can reasonably infer. Her height is entirely consistent with the bones. The skull measurements are at least suggestive of female. But most convincing is the similarity of the bone lengths to the reconstructed lengths of Earhart’s bones. Likelihood ratios of 84–154 would not qualify as a positive identification by the criteria of modern forensic practice, where likelihood ratios are often millions or more. They do qualify as what is often called the preponderance of the evidence, that is, it is more likely than not the Nikumaroro bones were (or are, if they still exist) those of Amelia Earhart. If the bones do not belong to Amelia Earhart, then they are from someone very similar to her.

What about the sex?

Anyone who has studied human anatomy, wondering about a skeleton’s sex, first turns their eyes to the subpubic arch. It is the only skeletal feature that is so clearly dimorphic that simple observation often is enough to say “male” or “female.” Jantz explains well why this is. But this is no simple case. a) Only half of the pelvis remained. While an angle is easily determined from a half angle in geometry, anatomy is more complex. Humans are not entirely symmetrical. A pelvis halved by natural elements is not cleanly cut. b) The bones were degraded. c) Humans vary. d) The bones are missing, so there is no way to determine the accuracy of those first measurements and estimates.

The first doctor to examine the remains was Duncan McPherson, who recommended that they be sent on to Fiji for more full analysis. Unlike Dr. Hoodless who examined them in Fiji, Dr. McPherson wasn’t willing to make a judgment about sex, precisely because of the state of the pelvis:

.. no positive evidence of identification was found, and I am afraid the data available does nothing to establish the skeleton as that of Mrs. Putnam. It is unfortunate that the complete pelvis is not available as this would have done much to establish remains as being those of a woman.

Mrs. Putnam is Amelia Earhart, of course. She was quite the modern woman, who insisted on a prenup prior to marrying the publisher George P. Putnam. And on keeping her own surname. And on flying around the world. She was ahead of most of the mid-20th c. world, many of whom referred to her as Mrs Putnam, despite all that.

Along with the sextant and bones, Gallagher found the sole of what he identified as a woman’s shoe. That is a clue in its own right. Though my first thought is that Earhart would more likely wear a pair of boots for her circumnavigation.

What does this show?

The press are busy declaring that Jantz has proven the bones are Earhart’s. Few reporters understand how probability works. If I tell you that I have measured a skeleton, and determined with 99.999% certainty that it is yours, you would rightly answer that cannot be, since you’re still alive. Jantz, being a scientist, understands that his computer analysis only measures similarities, and that probability for any claim on the basis of it depends on what we know prior. Including uncertainty about the underlying data used, given that he is working from past measurements.

Jantz makes the argument that there aren’t any other people whose remains they could be:

In the case of the Nikumaroro bones, the only documented person to whom they may belong is Amelia Earhart. Her navigator, Fred Noonan, can be reliably excluded on the basis of height. .. Eleven men were killed at Nikumaroro in the 1929 wreck of the Norwich City on the island’s western reef, something over four miles from where the bones were found in 1940. This number included two British and five Yemeni that were unaccounted for, but we have no documentation on them and there is no evidence that any survived to die as a castaway. The woman’s shoe and the American sextant box are not artifacts likely to have been associated with a survivor of the Norwich City wreck. If an Islander somehow ended up as a castaway, there is likewise no evidence of this.

I am a bit leery of this line of reasoning. The oceans are large, and full of possibility. Much of what transpires on them goes undocumented. Even today. Moreso a century past. Nikumaroro’s history is largely a blank slate between the 1929 wrecking of the Norwich City and Gallagher’s attempt to put a settlement there in 1940. Any number of vessels passed nearby during that decade. Did I mention that all sorts of things happen at sea? It could be the case both that some unknown sailor or passenger about Earhart’s size perished on Nikamuroro in the 1930s. And that Earhart did so, a few years later.

There are multiple lines of evidence pointing to Nikumaroro as Earhart’s last stop. That those bones likely are compatible with her remains provides one more clue. But not a definitive one.


No neurogenesis in adults?

March 9, 2018

A new study of adult brains finds zero evidence for young neurons in adults. In adult humans. Adults of other species, canaries and macaques, seem to experience neurogenesis. (Cite.) But, other studies using different approaches have found some evidence for it. Perhaps some of the experimentalists are mistaken in their practice or technique. A more interesting possibility is that there is some interesting and unknown biology happening, causing some of those approaches to show something, something not yet well understood. Science — and investigation generally — benefits from looking at same question from multiple directions. Ed Yong does a good job explaining how this piece of research conflicts with past clues, and how much uncertainty there still is on a basic question of neurophysiology.


Muscles and waves

March 8, 2018

Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, who plays The Mountain on Game of Thrones, just set a world record of 1,041 pounds, in the deadlift.

Novelist Philip Alan retells the tragedy of the Royal George, which went down while anchored in a calm harbor in August, 1782, with 900 hands lost. Despite the valiant and futile efforts of the ship’s carpenter. An early etching of the loss is shown left. Alan then repeats a common — but I think wrong — explanation of why sailors then did not much swim:

Most contemporary sailors could not swim, because they chose not to learn for reasons that made perfect sense to them. It was an age still dominated by strong notions of fate, and few professions seem to have been more fatalistic than sailors.

The assumption there is that most sailors of that time actually made a choice on the matter. As if swimming were an elective they refused during their high school curriculum, right after signing up for maritime studies. My own suspicion is that most sailors of the time exercised no choice in the matter at all. The reason most sailors then didn’t swim is that they came from a time and place when few children were taught to swim. I have seen no evidence that sailors had that skill any less than others of that time and social class. After they became sailors — that not always a matter of choice — they were busy and rarely had the opportunity then to learn. I agree that “any writer setting their work in the 18th century needs to try and get into the minds of their subjects.” It is even more important to understand their cultures. Individuals are wondrously varied. But none escape that.