Entries in society (10)

Tuesday
Feb262013

Real Life Cypherpunk

No, the hurricane didn’t blow this blog away, but I’ve been hosed nonetheless.  Still, I want to get back to writing, so will maybe stick to something a bit shorter-form.

Lately, I’ve been fascinated with the rise in value of Bitcoin (BTC), a distributed, anonymous, cryptographic token transaction system intended for use as a currency.  My original thought on the technology was “nifty idea”, but never would have thought it would have much in the way of real value (not that virtual goods can’t have real value, but BTC isn’t, by itself, much of a game).  I certainly didn’t see it rising again after the initial bubble and crash, but if you look at the charts, you’ll see that the value is now above the June 2011 bubble and crash.  That crash was precipitated by a security breach and subsequent flash-crash at Mt. Gox (the largest Bitcoin exchange). Subsequent high-profile security breaches in the immediate months following surely didn’t help, but it’s worth noting that such incidents didn’t cease in November 2011, BTC was able to regain its value despite the occasional digital bank-robbery.

So given my interest, and my surprise, I was fascinated by this essay by Gwern on anonymous black-market website Silk Road (the site itself can be found here, I link to this for educational/informative purposes only and not to encourage you to do anything illegal).  The essay is a very detailed, down-to-brass-tacks look at how Silk Road works and what its weaknesses might be.

Silk Road is designed to conduct business with only the minimum amount of information possible.  A normal e-commerce website ends up with the following information:

  1. Payment information for the buyer
  2. Payment information for the seller
  3. Reviews left by the buyer for the seller
  4. Information sent by buyer to seller (including at least a shipping address)
  5. Information sent by seller to buyer (if sent via site)
  6. The seller’s name / pseudonym
  7. Users IP addresses
  8. Metadata about users connections

Making the process anonymous involves several technologies:

So Silk Road actually ends up with:

  1. Bitcoin addresses the buyer used to transfer bitcoins to Silk Road
  2. Bitcoin addresses the seller used to transfer bitcoins from Silk Road
  3. The reviews left by the buyer for the seller
  4. Encrypted gibberish sent by the buyer to the seller (including at least the buyer’s address), plus a public key for the seller (which everyone can see)
  5. Encrypted gibberish sent by the seller to the buyer, if any (the buyer has no need to post a public key, they can send it to the seller in their message if they need a reply)
  6. The seller’s pseudonym
  7. The last hop of the connection path users take to access the site

Silk Road can also strengthen their resilience against outside attack by only keeping recent data for items 1, 2, 4, and 5, and no data for item 7 (there is, however, no way for users to verify that they are in fact doing so).

Silk Road also employs several technologies / methods to mitigate the effects of anonymity:

  • Pseudonymous escrow
  • Reputation economy (presumably the reason they allow for pronounceable seller pseudonyms (6), while keeping information to an absolute minimum in so many other ways), plus methods for quantitative and qualitative analysis of buyer feedback data
  • Seller account auctions (SR admins say the primary reason for this is to make the sort of attacks (note that includes scams or stings) that can be done with new accounts at least very costly to do repeatedly; of course, this also makes money for whoever’s running Silk Road)

So Silk Road not just a straightforward application of Bitcoin.  Bitcoin is just a main ingredient in the whole cypherpunk stew!

Also, this is not to imply that the system doesn’t have weaknesses.  It still falls short of the goal of full cryptographic anonymity.  For one thing, the seller ends up with a physical post address for the buyer.  Postal addresses are a lot harder to generate and anonymize than Bitcoin addresses or private keys, and the movement of physical packages is a lot easier to inspect and trace than TOR connections.

Gwern suggests that Silk Road could be brought down through DDoS or acquiring a large number of accounts for some coordinated scam.  Acquiring new accounts to do individual stings is too high cost for too little gain, especially since the value of “flipping” a Silk Road buyer is very low (there’s little they can do to get information on Silk Road sellers).  Perhaps law enforcement will decide to do some stings anyways to make an example of a few cypherpunk drug-purchasers; the ineffectiveness of that tactic as a deterrent doesn’t stop people from trying.

Gwern doesn’t mention the demise of Bitcoin scenario described by Moldbug in this post, where the value of Bitcoins is brought down by a broad-scale legal attack on the Bitcoin exchanges, indicting them all for money laundering (Bitcoin tumblers might be more deserving of this attack, but targeting the exchanges will be easier and more effective).  That wouldn’t prevent people from trading Bitcoins for goods.  But Silk Road’s selection still isn’t as good as Amazon’s, and Bitcoins are still not sufficiently liquid when it comes to things like rent and groceries, so the value of a Bitcoin in rent and groceries still depends on the exchange rate with less science-fictiony currencies.  Not that it would be impossible to find someone on Silk Road to ship you food, but you really don’t want to buy your necessities at black market prices if you can help it.  Being able to spend money earned at a black market premium on things not sold at a black market premium is a big advantage of illicit trafficking.

Thursday
Jul122012

Free-Range Parents and Gender Equality at Work

Two recent essays in The Atlantic discussing feminism and work-life balance caught my attention recently.  The first, by Elizabeth Wurtzel, has the striking title 1% Wives Are Helping Kill Feminism and Make the War on Women Possible.  Here’s a snippet that captures the gist of it:

I have to admit that when I meet a woman who I know is a graduate of, say, Princeton — one who has read The Second Sex and therefore ought to know better — but is still a full-time wife, I feel betrayed.

And one from the second, much longer essay Why Women Still Can’t Have It All by Anne-Marie Slaughter:

[…] I’d been the woman congratulating herself on her unswerving commitment to the feminist cause, chatting smugly with her dwindling number of college or law-school friends who had reached and maintained their place on the highest rungs of their profession. I’d been the one telling young women at my lectures that you can have it all and do it all, regardless of what field you are in. Which means I’d been part, albeit unwittingly, of making millions of women feel that they are to blame if they cannot manage to rise up the ladder as fast as men and also have a family and an active home life (and be thin and beautiful to boot).

The essays made a splash in the feminist blogosphere.  One thread of the reaction I followed from here:

But beyond that, the housewife model is what makes male superiority in the workplace possible, and creates disincentives to more family-friendly workplace policies. Men who have stay-at-home wives literally have nothing other than work to worry about. […] That model enables men to work longer hours and be more productive; women in the workplace cannot compete (yes, stay-at-home dads exist, but there are a few thousand of them in the United States, making them uncommon enough to be insignificant for the purposes of this conversation). And of course men see that women can’t compete, and it cements their view that women aren’t as capable, and they end up mentoring bright young men who in turn rise up the ranks. […] Corporate cultures that are built around a man-and-housewife model aren’t exactly family-friendly in the first place, and making them really change is going to be impossible unless men are forced to change their behavior. So far, the corporate response to large numbers of women leaving has been to make it easier for women to leave. […] If none of those men had stay-at-home wives – if the men currently occupying the highest-level jobs in the world had to take as much responsibility for childcare and homecare as working mothers — you can bet that corporate culture would look very different.

To here:

There’s much missing in the framing of these debates—from the expectation of power and privilege to a limited idea of what success is. What’s irked me is the continued assumption that this is a women’s issue. The problem isn’t that women are trying to do too much, it’s that men aren’t doing nearly enough.

A new report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that women—even those with full-time jobs—still do the bulk of housework and childcare. On an average day, 48 percent of women and 19 percent of men did housework. Married women with children who work full time spend 51 minutes a day on housework while married men with children spend just 14 minutes a day.

The breakdown of childcare responsibilities was not much different—55 percent of working men said they cared for their kids on an average day, whereas 72 percent of working women did. Women also reported spending more time during the day caring for their children than men. [links theirs]

Back to here:

As an aside, I have a secret fantasy of gathering a team of men to go to every male-dominated discussion (on specific issues in the law or a certain genre of film or investigative journalism or whatever) and when it’s Q&A time, earnestly ask the male panelists how they balance work and family.

That one has a list of suggestions for addressing the issue, beginning and ending, notably, with:

First, don’t marry or move in or reproduce with men unless they pull their own weight. Seriously. That might mean you end up alone. That might be a better option.

[…]

Eighth, I don’t really know what else, except all of these discussions are part of the reason why I am extremely hesitant to reproduce. [Emphasis mine.]

(Note that I’m doing some really rough excerpting here, and none of these should be taken as substitutes for the original sources.  All worth your while, especially the original essays.)

That line of discussion reminded me of a book I read recently.  Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids looks at twin and adoption studies and argues that there’s not much middle-class parents can do to effectively benefit their kids beyond giving them good genes and a reasonable middle-class upbringing.  More labor-intensive methods of parenting yield little result (either due to the extra work having minor effects or mixed effects).  Given that good parenting requires less effort than expected, the book argues that middle-class people should simply consider having more children.

Here’s a relevant passage on the rise of childcare hours among American parents:

[…] As expected, dads do a lot more [childcare] than they used to.  Since 1965, when the average dad did only three hours of child care per week, we’ve more than doubled our efforts.  Given how little dads used to do, though, doubling wasn’t hard.  What’s amazing is the change in the typical mother’s workload:  Today’s mom spends more time taking care of children than she did in the heyday of the stay-at-home-mom.

Back in 1965, when the typical mom was a housewife, she spent ten hours a week specifically focusing on her children’s needs.  By 2000, this number had risen to thirteen hours a week.  This happened despite the fact that today’s moms are much more likely to work outside the home, despite the fact that moms have fewer kids, and despite the fact that dads are a lot more helpful. […]

One pattern hasn’t changed: Stay-at-home moms spend more time with their kids than working moms.  However, both kinds of moms went from about eleven hours per week in 1975 to seventeen hours per week in 2000.  Working moms went from six hours per week in 1975 to eleven hours per week in 2000.  Modern working moms spend as much time caring for their kids as stay-at-home moms did thirty years ago.

These weekly totals sound low because they define “child care” narrowly.  Reading a book on the couch while my sons fight Playmobil wars wouldn’t count—even if I occasionally urged them to play nice.  When parents get full credit for multitasking, measured child care shoots up about 50 percent. [ed: I think that may be an under-estimate, compare this to this, for example (noting that the bins are different)] But however you measure, the main patterns remain.  The average dad has roughly doubled his effort.  The average mom spends more time taking care of her kids than she did when the average mom was a housewife.

[…] If the statistics are right, it’s clear why raising kids feels like a chore.  By the standards of the Sixties, modern dads do enough child care to pass for moms—and modern moms do enough child care to compete for Mother of the Year. […]

(This article indicates these numbers have continued to rise, especially among the college educated.  Though there may be over-reporting there; the article indicates the surveys do make a similar distinction between primary and secondary child care, but the survey methods may differ.)

It’s not that child-raising has become harder.  America has become wildly safer for children, both in terms of factors that parents have little control over (disease, war) and things that parents might hope to protect their children from some of the time (violence, accidents).  And that reduction in risk isn’t from the increase in childcare hours itself, crime rates have gone down across the board and accidents have become less dangerous mainly due to medical technology.

Another book, Free Range Kids (the author also writes a fantastic blog), argues that a culture of fear perpetuated by the extremes of the fear-and-blame-focused 24-hour news cycle and anxiety-driven status competition among parents has lead to an extreme system of parenting that’s bad for the well-being of parents and children alike.  We worry about and obesity, and then don’t allow kids to go outside.  An all-but-entirely-illusory fear of abduction leads to “don’t talk to strangers” hyperbole that leaves kids deprived of their best and easiest way to get help when they’re separated from parents and in trouble.  And much of that addition childcare work ends up being spent on car trips (a far, far greater source of avoidable danger to children than stranger abduction, but for some reason one which doesn’t get much attention in the corporate news media).

It’s also worth noting that for some of the things where nurture really does have a significant effect (e.g. people having positive memories of their childhood), more laid-back parenting could also be productive.  As the article above relates:

“Parents are feeling like they don’t have enough time with their children,” said Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, which conducts research on the work force. “It’s a function of people working so hard, and they are worried they’re shortchanging their children. I’ve never found a group of parents who believe they are spending enough time with their kids.”

[…]

Dr. Galinsky notes that although working parents typically feel guilty for not spending more time at home, children often have a different reaction. In a landmark study published as “Ask the Children” (Harper, 2000), she asked more than 1,000 children about their “one wish” for their parents. Although parents expected their children would wish for more family time, the children wanted something different.

“Kids were more likely to wish that their parents were less tired and less stressed,” Dr. Galinsky said.

(As an aside, it’s worth noting that some of the rise in childcare time is simply time freed-up by the use of labor saving technology in other sorts of household chores.  But technology should also be labor-saving in other sorts of childcare, especially the indirect kind.)

Given that context, there are a few important things to note:

1. It’s important for men to do more housework and childcare work, but specifically in a context that allows women to do less housework and childcare work (and specifically less of the sort that’s tedious and labor-intensive).  Just having everyone do 12 hours of direct childcare a week (in two-parent families), plus some multiple of that in for-the-whole-household chores and keeping-an-eye-on stuff, wouldn’t be better for women, men, or children.

2. The culture of unnecessarily labor-intensive parenting makes this whole gender-equality in work-life-balance problem look harder than it is.

3. The need to get companies to stop relying on the “housewife model” is still absolutely crucial.  For one thing, very young kids are still going to need loads of supervision (though modern American parenting still manages to be way more labor-intensive than necessary even in that case).  But the social model of helicopter-parent, always-supervised child is just as much of a problem, and just as much of a gendered issue.

4. The extent that “parenting correctly” has become some sort of class-anxiety-ridden status battle is bad.  Having that be another thing men expect their wives to take on for them is even worse.

Which brings me back to that first essay.  Wurtzel writes:

Seriously: Did Romney actually tell his wife that her job was more important than his? So condescending. If he thought that, he’d be doing it. […]

Hilary Rosen would not have been so quick to be so super sorry for saying that Ann Romney has never worked a day in her life if we weren’t all made more than a wee bit nervous by our own biases, which is that being a mother isn’t really work. Yes, of course, it’s something — actually, it’s something almost every woman at some time does, some brilliantly and some brutishly and most in the boring middle of making okay meals and decent kid conversation. But let’s face it: It is not a selective position. A job that anyone can have is not a job, it’s a part of life, no matter how important people insist it is (all the insisting is itself overcompensation). Even moms with full-time jobs spend 86 percent as much time with their kids as unemployed mothers, so it is apparently taking up the time of about 14 percent of a paid position. And all the cultish glorification of home and hearth still leaves us in a world where most of the people paid to chef and chauffeur in the commercial world are men. Which is to say, something becomes a job when you are paid for it — and until then, it’s just a part of life. [emphasis mine, links theirs]

So here’s another angle on that:  As feminists have pushed for women’s equality in the workplace, America has been making (middle-class) parenting more like a job, more like a career.  Status conscious, labor-intensive, very concerned with doing things “the right way”, who to blame when things go wrong, who’s qualified.  Wurtzel is dead right to note the emptiness of that “most important job in the world” rhetoric, but it’s also worth noting how that rhetoric has become embedded in the structure of modern American parenting.

Friday
Mar302012

Trayvon Martin and the State of Discourse

I’ve been following the case of Trayvon Martin’s shooting at the hands of neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  On the left, there was a rush to accuse Zimmerman of cold-blooded murder.  On the right, there was a rush to paint Martin as a thug and double down on the racialized paranoia.  But the facts that really make or break the case (specifically, who started the fight) are currently unknown.  The unusual bits of Florida’s laws on self-defense don’t really apply to this case, they don’t excuse murder if you provoke someone into attacking you and then resort to lethal force, or if you attack first and later fear for your life when the fight doesn’t go your way.

There’s some interesting discussion to be had on the role of guns in self-defense and aggressive violence, guns win fights but also escalate the stakes awfully quick:

Statistically, incidents of guns being used successfully in self-defense are extremely rare. The following events are a lot more likely:

• Criminal gets hold of your gun and uses it against you.
• The gun gives you a psychological feeling of self-confidence that will cause you to get into bad situations you otherwise would have avoided if you did not have the gun.
• Use of a gun in an ambiguous situation will get you in prison for murder, which is worse than getting beaten up.
• Being prosecuted for murder will ruin your life even if the jury finds you not guilty.

The Zimmerman incident is a good example of the truth of the above. The video showed that Zimmerman wasn’t beaten up that bad. Without the gun, Trayvon probably would have run away after giving him a good but not life-threatening beating. And according to Zimmerman’s father, Trayvon saw the gun, which caused an escalation in the altercation.

There’s something to be said about race relations in this country, something to be said about violence, about respect and community, about culture, about the standards of criminal evidence.  But most of what I hear about this case depresses me because it seems to be overwhelmingly characterized by those that no longer hope for productive dialog on this sort of issue, from one side:

“An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” Mikhail Muhammad said at a Saturday press conference in Sanford, Fla., in which he also called on 10,000 black men to “capture” Zimmerman. “He should be fearful for his life”…

Or the other:

In the last few days I’ve repeatedly discussed blacks’ common attitude that their response to any white authority figure who asks them anything is to resist, fight, ignore, or run away. But the commenter at Half-Sigma puts it better: Non-blacks may not talk to blacks, period. To say anything to a black is to step into his territory, it is to dis him, and thus to provoke his righteous vengeance…

Seems like on some issues the state of discourse in this country is only slightly better off than Trayvon Martin.

Thursday
Mar082012

Murray and Meritocracy

I’m going to write a bit more about Murray, in response to an op-ed follow-up to his recent book.  The op-ed responds to the accurate criticism that his book describes a problem but doesn’t lay out policy suggestions or responses.  In the article, he makes several suggestions:

  1. Eliminate unpaid internships
  2. Replace the SAT with subject-specific tests
  3. Replace ethnic or racial affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action
  4. Eliminate bachelor’s degrees as a job requirement

All of those sound reasonable to me, though I don’t think those would make that much of a difference.  Neither does Murray, he thinks it would be more symbolic.

The big about degree requirements is interesting, in part because there’s been some action on a similar legal front with regard to high school diplomas.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has at least raised the issue of whether high-school diploma requirements could be discriminatory when that credential is not well-connected to actual job requirements.  There are probably quite a few jobs where the credential of a college degree (especially if not requiring any particular subject) is also not well-connected to the job requirements, and may have an adverse effect on protected groups.

Murray really does have a lot in common with meritocratic liberals.  A common mis-characterization of the liberal position on group differences among alt-righters seems to paint liberals as radical “blank-slate” believers, who either think there are no identifiable groups (plainly wrong), there are no differences between identifiable groups (plainly wrong), or that there are differences between groups but by really lucky coincidences none of those differences are morally significant (plainly wrong and incredibly implausible (unless you think no differences are morally significant, I guess)).  Rather, liberals mainly disagree with Murray on whether wandering into the rhetorical minefield of biological group differences is net-beneficial.

Murray himself notes in an essay summarizing his previous book:

In all cases, the variation within groups is greater than the variation between groups. On psychological and cognitive dimensions, some members of both sexes and all races fall everywhere along the range. One implication of this is that genius does not come in one color or sex, and neither does any other human ability. Another is that a few minutes of conversation with individuals you meet will tell you much more about them than their group membership does.

Which makes me wonder why he can’t avoid those minefields entirely instead of merely tiptoeing.

(There’s some further fascinating discussion of the op-ed here.  The comments are really worthwhile, in particular the comment (left March 8, 2012 at 10:19 am, sadly no comment permalinks on that site) by Albatross on meritocracy.)

Saturday
Feb252012

The Fall of "Fishtown"

A while ago, I picked the January 2012 issue of conservative journal The New Criterion (Volume 30, Number 5) from a local newsstand.  The issue caught my eye because it had a symposium on the question “Is America in decline?”, a topic I find fascinating as a futurist and someone interested in Peak Oil and similar phenomena.

One of the essays on the purported decline of America was “Belmont & Fishtown” by Charles Murray, summarizing Murray’s book Coming Apart, which discusses “The State of White America”.  (Presumably “white America” specifically for rhetorical reasons, given the fate of Murray’s most famous work.)  Murray discusses the richest and poorest of whites, using Belmont and “Fishtown” as emblematic labels for these groups.  Murray’s conclusion is that since the 1960s, “Fishtown” has gone into deep decline in terms of American core values (Murray refers to such as “Founding virtues”).  “Belmont” has avoided such decline, but become isolated (geographically (for more on that topic, see Bill Bishop’s The Big Sort) and in terms of tastes and preferences (becoming David Brooks’s bourgeois bohemians)).

Murray talks about four values in his study:  Marriage (and single vs. married birth and parenting), industriousness (Murray just looks at hours worked and participation in work force), honesty (Murray just looks at crime rates), and religiosity (which Murray posits causes increased civic engagement, but I’d say that it’s just correlated to civic engagement in general; church attendance is just a civic engagement thing religious people do).

Why did this happen?  Murray goes into little detail (at least in the short essay version of his work, I have not read the book).  One reason cited is the sorting effect of elite universities, coupled with financial aid.  This is an unintended consequence of meritocracy, the best and brightest, no matter how poor, are able to escape from troubled “Fishtown” (and, presumably, ensconce themselves in isolated “Belmont”), leaving “Fishtown” with even less social, cultural, human, and financial capital to deal with its escalating problems.  (Affirmative action would presumably bring the same effect to a broader cross-section of de-facto-segregated communities, but Murray doesn’t discuss this because he’s focusing on whites.)  As the problems get worse, the best and brightest of “Fishtown” have fewer opportunities where they grew up and more incentive to leave.

There’s one big thing missing from Murray’s explanation, though, perhaps best explained by a graphic like this:

(Excerpt from a graphic by the New York Times, from this opinion piece, HT Nick Huber.)

I’d say that’s the real power behind the wedge that’s driving “Fishtown” and “Belmont” apart.  I’d guess that the decline in the top marginal tax rate has something to do with that phenomena, though that came too late to be the primary cause.  Once you have the wedge of economic inequality (that is, declining economic opportunity that disproportionatly affects those already worse off (and pretty much anything will disproportionately affect those already worse off)), all sorts of feedback loops start up related to Murray’s metrics:

  1. Marriage: Less economic opportunity means fewer people can find a match who will make them better off. Job-related stresses also take a toll on relationships.
  2. Honesty: Less economic opportunity means more desperate people on the fringes.
  3. Industriousness: Murray asserts that divergence on this metric began when demand for labor was still high, but work that pays less (relative to national standards of living) is still less motivating.
  4. Civic Engagement: Less economic opportunity means less funds for church dues and other activities.  Increased job stress may mean less time/energy for other activities.
  5. Honesty + Marriage: Harder to get married if you’re a criminal.
  6. Honesty + Industriousness: Ditto for finding employment, even if it’s available.
  7. Honesty + Civic Engagement: Why participate in your community if you don’t like/trust your neighbors?
  8. Civic Engagement + Marriage: A good context to meet people, and in terms of child rearing in or out of wedlock, you’re more likely to care about social censure if you’re a member of a social group in the first place.
  9. Civic Engagement + Honesty: Building the sort of trust and norms that discourage crime.
  10. Any one of those four + itself: Norms change, it’s a vicious cycle.  The sorts of capital that keep these metrics high is also driven out when they decline.  Successful people leave, organizations move or cease to exist, webs of trust break down.

The above isn’t an inclusive list, and that’s not all that’s going on.  Technology has a role to play, too, and given my earlier points about the Robot Revolution (related), I expect the trend in the graph above to get worse.

I think both liberals and conservatives are aware of the decline Murray discusses, though I’ve seen rhetoric from both sides accusing the other of being in denial.  The underlying problem is largely untargeted by either side.  Liberals only have the political power to defend stop-gap measures that help the poorest of the poor.  Conservatives deny that a gap between productivity and wage growth is a problem, or suggest that the poor will pull themselves up by their own bootstraps if only liberals stopped “helping”.  That line misses two things:  First, the “rising tides lift all boats bit” doesn’t really fit with the psychological reality of the situation, which is that people judge how well off they are relative to others in their society, so economic inequality means social breakdown even if standard of living continues to rise.  Second, there seem to be some implicit and very rosy assumptions about the form such bootstrap-pulling would take, especially if the “social safety net” really is removed (or overwhelmed).

(There’s been about Murray going around the blogosphere (especially among alt-righters), some posts to start on include this speculation about Charles Murray and the Future and this review of the book.  I’d be curious to see more left-wing reactions to the book, too, if there are good ones to read.)

Monday
Sep192011

Second City Epidemiologist

I watched The Interrupters this weekend, and I second this review, it’s well worth seeing.  The documentary chronicles the front-line agents of the organization CeaseFire, the Violence Interrupters.  CeaseFire’s founder, Gary Slutkin, is an epidemiologist who formerly worked for the World Health Organization, and he takes very seriously the analogy of the “violence epidemic”.  The approach is similar:

  1. Identify outbreaks (violent incidents)
  2. Respond at the center with a focus on limiting transmission (discouraging new retaliation by those not already involved)
  3. Build long-term resilience with vaccinations, sanitation, and so on (change norms)

A more comprehensive approach also fits into this analogy:  Infected are quarantined (criminals captured) and treated (rehabilitated) or institutionalized.  CeaseFire’s efforts, though, are mostly focused on the above, particularly step two.

On the non-metaphorical health front, similar efforts have been similarly sucessful.  An example from The Checklist Manifesto was particularly vivid in my mind while watching the movie, a study in which soap was distributed, along with simple instruction on handwashing methods and habits, to impoverished communities.  The results were dramatic.  But those results relied on the cooperation of those participating in the program, and it would be a mistake to assume that their behavior was influenced primarily by the mere availability of soap.  The instruction was also a factor.  But one factor found in follow-up study as to why that program had been more successful than some similar efforts was that the soap used was particularly high quality.  Smelled good, felt good on the hands.  Washing with it was pleasant.

One question for CeaseFire is not just how best to educate about nonviolence, or how to bring social pressure to bear in favor of nonviolence, but how to make nonviolent conflict resolution “smell good”.  (The movie contains some interesting ideas in relation to this question, I think, though it doesn’t address that directly.)

For further reading, see this post on CeaseFire as applied anthropology.  Also related to the topic of violence in Chicago and the source of the title of this post, this blog.

Wednesday
Jun012011

A Modern Story of X

Recently, there’s been this human-interest story making the rounds about some parents who have decided not to disclose the gender of their latest child, Storm.  Unsurprisingly to me, the couple in question was influenced by X: A Fabulous Child’s Story, published in 1978.1  I’ve been a fan of that story since I first heard it in middle school and think it makes a good point:  Children don’t need everyone telling them what they should be doing (in relation to gender roles) for them to develop an understanding of who they are.2  In modern American society, at any rate, people care about the gender of young children with an intensity that makes little sense.  I once saw a video in a psych class where parents introduced their infant to strangers by differently gendered names, a small difference which colored the entire interaction so intensely that the resulting film was rather comedic.  What’s in a name, indeed?

However, that’s not the end of that case.  As Reddit commenter Majoribanks notes:

[…] it doesn’t actually sound like they ARE giving their kids such an unbiased choice. It sounds like they really really really want radical genderqueer show-off children to support their own worldview.

I mean, they say this: “What we noticed is that parents make so many choices for their children. It’s obnoxious” but then also this “The boys are encouraged to challenge how they’re expected to look and act based on their sex.”

The two are in direct opposition to each other. These kids don’t go to school, and don’t interact with people outside their family very much or for long amounts of time. Their parents “encouraging” them to “challenge” their gender expectations is basically tantamount to telling them “you should act like girls to please mommy and daddy!” I mean, if their sons ask for a pretty frilly dress and the parents respond with “of course! you look so wonderful in it!” but if they ask for a machine gun they get “do you really want to conform to expectations for boys to be so violent” instead, how is that any sort of meaningful choice?

That phrase seems to explain, to me anyway, why BOTH their sons want to have longer hair and wear pink and purple and glitter, when even their parents have short hair and don’t wear makeup. Most kids who DO play with makeup, girls included, do it because they see their mother and female relatives doing it.

That comment really reminded me of another blog post from earlier this year, written by Heather Soersdal:

So, here’s my mistake: I never should have written the post about my gender conforming kids in response to the posts about the gender nonconforming kids. […] What I know now is that I had no idea of the scope and scale of this my-son-acts-girly blogging phenomenon and just how truly offensive it is. I’m embarrassed to have taken any part in it.

As it turns out, there are a lot of blogs like this. Like, a lot. […]

They all have 2 things in common: they’re all about boys who act feminine, and the boys are all prepubescent and in some cases barely emerging from toddlerhood. Nobody’s concerned with girls who like boy things even though some of them could be gay, too (gasp) and anyone with a copy of What To Expect the Toddler Years ought to know better than to start a career writing about gender nonconformity in a child who is too young even to have any real solid idea of how to be gender conforming.

Girls aren’t an issue because girls acting like boys are considered to be expanding their horizons and even promoting themselves. Femininity in women isn’t assumed to be innate, but learned behavior (see: charm schools, every womens’ magazine ever). Therefore, masculinity in women is not assumed to be innate but as contrived as femininity and possibly semi-rebellious behavior that will probably get her far in life if cripple her chances of getting a husband. Boys acting like girls, however, are immediately assumed to be acting on innate feminine impulses that are probably connected to them wanting to date other boys. Mens’ genders are real, womens’ genders are faked. [… no seriously I’m omitting a lot here …] There’s no need to assume anything about a child’s sexual orientation and if anything there’s a need not to obsess over it. Planning this far into a child’s future simply does not make sense.

However, these parents insist they’re not planning this far into their boys’ futures. They insist and insist and insist on it. Oh, the insisting. They go on about how they know this is not a guarantee of a gay son. They have links all over the sidebar about GLBT causes and titles like “Raising My Rainbow” but don’t you dare forget, they know that this probably doesn’t necessarily mean they’re gay except in BoyGir’s case, where it necessarily definitely means he’s gay and genderqueer. They insist they do not care about whether their sons are gay or transgender. There are really only two conclusions I can think to draw here. Either these parents are struggling with their homophobia and overcompensating for their negative feelings toward their own sons in the same way you might buy an extra special gift for the in-law you hate to prove you don’t hate them, or they just really love the attention, Münchhausen’s style.

[emphasis mine, link also mine]

(I’ll just do that thing I do where after a lengthy quote I tell you to just go and read the whole post anyways.)

Okay, so that end is probably overly harsh, but I don’t think the criticism is inaccurate, or that a similar sort of thing might be going on in this story.  It’s easy (or at the very least, tempting to some) to cross the line between doing the right thing because it’s right and doing the “right” thing so you can wave some sort of political flag before an audience.  If you think that something shouldn’t be a big deal, making the most of the media coverage is probably undermining your point.

1. If that name is a comics pun, that’s quite a groaner.

2. In fact, there’s strong evidence that “confusing” someone about their gender identity is really hard.

Monday
May092011

Oh When the Sluts / Come Marching In

In Boston last weekend, this happened.  And I was there.

The Boston SlutWalk was a response to the Toronto SlutWalk, which in turn was a response to a member of the Toronto police, who at a workshop on security York University college said “women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized”.

People found that annoying for several obvious reasons:

  1. “Like sluts” is a surprisingly fickle term, and that bit of advice reduces rather easily to a claim that women should be inconspicuous or else.
  2. It’s stated in a way that’s overly simplistic: In fact, that advice would only apply to a small minority of rape or sexual assault cases (and even in the cases where it does apply, one wonders if there’s something self-fulfilling about law enforcement officers making statements like that, in terms of undermining legal deterrents).
  3. That sort of advice pushes focus away from solutions that discourage perpetrators in absolute terms (non-zero-sum solutions that make life harder for perpetrators if followed by anyone, instead of just making one person a less-obvious target as compared to someone else).
  4. Such advice is particularly troubling in the context of a crime where perpetrators do escape justice based on victim-blaming judges and juries, and particularly troubling coming-from law enforcement.

As always with such decentralized activism, the message of the march was a little incoherent.  However, the speech given by Jaclyn Friedman at the end of the march was an amazing and coherent piece of rhetoric, and you should read it here.  The key bit:

[…] make no mistake about it: we can be called sluts for nearly any reason at all. If we’re dancing. If we’re drinking. If we have ever in our lives enjoyed sex. If our clothes aren’t made of burlap. If we’re women of color, we’re assumed to be sluts before we do a single thing because we’re “exotic.” If we’re fat or disabled or otherwise considered undesirable, we’re assumed to be sluts who’ll fuck anyone who’ll deign to want us. If we’re queer boys or trans women, we’re called sluts in order to punish us for not fearing the feminine. If we’re queer women, especially femme ones, we’re called sluts because we’re obviously “up for anything,” as opposed to actually attracted to actual women. If we’re poor, we’re gold diggers who’ll use sex to get ahead. And god forbid we accuse someone of raping us – that’s the fast track to sluthood for sure, because it’s much easier to tell us what we did wrong to make someone to commit a felony violent crime against us than it is to deal with the actual felon.

There’s a word for all of this. And that word is bullshit. But there’s also a phrase for it: social license to operate. What that means is this: we know that a huge majority of rapes are perpetrated by a small minority of guys who do it again and again. You know why they’re able to rape an average of 6 times each? Because they have social license to operate. In other words: because we let them. Because as a society, we say “oh well, what did she expect would happen if she went back to his room? What did she expect would happen walking around by herself in that neighborhood? What did she expect would happen dressed like a slut?” [emphasis mine]

In other words, the question is what happens in the minds of bystanders, when they’re looking for a rationalization for not intervening in an ambiguous or sketchy situation?  What happens in the minds of jurors, when they’re looking for a reason not to convict?  Those may well be the same essentially-random people who see or hear about such “awareness-raising” activism.

Feminist blogger Hugo Schwyzer discusses the SlutWalk here and argues with some detractors who frame it as an effort to reclaim the word ‘slut’, and he makes an interesting point:

In their op-ed SlutWalk is Not Sexual Liberation, Dines and Murphy assert that

… the focus on “reclaiming” the word slut fails to address the real issue. The term slut is so deeply rooted in the patriarchal “madonna/whore” view of women’s sexuality that it is beyond redemption. The word is so saturated with the ideology that female sexual energy deserves punishment that trying to change its meaning is a waste of precious feminist resources.

[…]

What Dines and Murphy share with the Toronto cop is a sense that women are fools for demanding a level sexual playing field with men. Like so many of my colleagues on the “anti-porn” wing of feminism, Dines and Murphy tend to mistrust (or ignore) young women’s efforts to pursue pleasure. Their concerns about premature sexualization are legitimate, and I share them. But I think they seriously underestimate young women’s potential to negotiate their way from unwanted sexualization to healthy, empowered sexual agency. That kind of journey can’t take place alone, of course. And that’s part of what the SlutWalk movement is about: creating a safe space for women to come together in public defiance of those who would define their sexuality for them. [his emphasis removed, mine added]

I agree with Schwyzer.  Though I’d say that last bit doesn’t just apply to women.

Sunday
Apr102011

More Than Meats the Eye

There’s more going on here than you might think:

 

That video is from a YouTube show called EpicMealTime, there’s an entire line of such videos.  See also thisiswhyyourefat, the Heart Attack Grill, the ffffffuuuuuuuuuuuud subreddit, etc., etc.

A few thoughts:

1. Competitive feasting has deep historical roots.  It’s hypothesized to be one of the reasons for the transition between hunting-gathering and agriculture.  Starving hunter-gathers presumably would not turn to agriculture, since that means burying grain instead of eating it and staying in a food-poor area instead of moving.  However, moving from gathering to horticulture to agriculture could be a way of turning a current surplus into a future even-bigger surplus at the expense of being tied down and vulnerable to future famine.

2. Robin Hanson is a fan of explaining modern trends in terms of the tendency of high-status industrialists/agriculturalists to live according to forager norms instead of farmer norms.  But he points out a hole in his hypothesis:

I hypothesize that the cultural pressures which long ago pushed folks from more natural forager ways into then-more-functional farming ways work better on poor people, so that rich folk less feel their pressure. If so, as folks get rich they would tend to revert back to the natural-feeling forager ways.

While this hypothesis may seem natural, I must point out that it has a gaping hole: it is far from obvious why the cultural pressures that made foragers act like farmers should weaken when folks get rich.  Yes poor farmers may have few other options, while rich folks have the luxury of acting more like foragers. But rich farmers could have instead used their wealth to act like hyper-farmers, moving even further from forager styles. Why exactly did rich farmers act more like foragers?

I wonder if competitive eaters lean more politically conservative or liberal than seemingly-similar individuals?

3. Is the kind of competitive feasting I highlight hyper-farmer or hyper-forager?  Well, forager modes of competitive feasting tend to allow high-status individuals to accumulate further status without them accumulating further material control or wealth.

Of course, not all the examples above are the same.  In the case of EMT, I suppose it depends on how the social pressures on Harley Morenstein and the other hosts work as they gain more wealth.  If it results in a dramatic increase in their personal income, agriculturalist.  If it results in the show containing ever larger / more expensive / more dramatically produced meals in such a way that it precludes extraordinary accumulation of wealth by the hosts, forager.

On the other hand, the structure of the feast is more agriculturalist (the “big man” is paying to obtain raw materials up front and people are (essentially) paying him for the result). And pretty much all the distribution of funds is going directly to industrial agriculture.  Distribution of actual food isn’t involved.

And no way a forager is going to get their hands on that much bacon per person.

4. Given the low price of many high-calorie food items, excessive food is in many cases very clearly framed as a celebration of “low culture”.  It hardly fits in with the “eats a healthier and well-varied” diet that’s the first item in Hanson’s description of foragers.  On the other hand, the exaggerated or ironic celebration of low culture is very SWPL.

No idea how to fit that into the farmer norms vs. forager norms framing.

5. Getting back to point 3, countering the accumulation of all wealth in the hands of a few high-status individuals is kind of key if you want to have a stable society.  Modern civilization has dealt with this almost entirely by expanding frontiers (or in globalization terms, “developing new markets”).  But we’re running kind of short on frontiers at the moment, and the need for labor is lower than ever due to technology.

Arguably, foreign aid programs are a sort of competitive feasting.  They redistribute wealth to accumulate status, both of which promote stability.  Given the role of food prices in recent revolutions (past and ongoing), that’s not been terribly effective.

Tuesday
Jun292010

America Needs Better Places

This TED Talk given by James Howard Kunstler is fascinating because it goes a long way to explain the problems with suburbia outside of the direct issue of energy efficiency:

The problem of impoverished public spaces has several sources, many self-reinforcing.  If people drive everywhere, they don’t spend a lot of time in between-building public spaces, so there’s no incentive to improve those spaces, and thus no incentive not to drive everywhere.  If culture values private space over public space, the resulting public spaces reinforce those values.  If people have hard jobs and long commutes, they might not want to linger anywhere on their journey back to their family, so even the indoor public spaces put convenience and speed over the friendliness of the space itself.  And after a long drive home to the kids (who have no access to any sort of public space on their own), one might prefer playing in the back yard to driving out to the park (if there is one).  On the architectural side, building one nice building won’t rehabilitate an otherwise unpleasant space, so why bother.  And based on the idea that the right thing to do in public places certainly isn’t “hang out”, architectural fashions have risen disproportionately promoting elements that are intimidating, disorienting, or disconcerting.

A digression on that last point:  It seems almost like America’s wholesale rejection of urban design fundamentals gave American architects a form of Stockholm Syndrome.  These are the people tasked with building good spaces, which is often impossible and requires knowledge that has been largely discarded.  That leads them to make horrible design decisions even in places where good public spaces could be created and the resources are available.  Kunstler uses Boston’s City Hall plaza as an example, and I can see why:

Boston City Hall

Wikipedia’s discussion of the critical response highlights that architects rated the building far more highly than the general public.  Seriously, did the architects actually think, “It would be great if Boston’s City Hall looked like an imposing concrete inverted UFO filled with bureaucrats, surrounded by a vast brick buffer zone where people have no reason to habitually linger, that’s what the face of local democracy and civic engagement in Boston should look like”?  Presumably not.  It’s just that it seems like a cool idea, any sort of cube-dwellers can be installed in any sort of building, the wide-open space makes for some dramatic light and shadow and consequently some pretty interesting photos if you crop them right.