Dear Casey's: Also, autistics speak.

(Autism, Personal)

2013-04-15 08:41
Comment [2]

While I was out picking up delicious pizza last night, I noticed that our local convenience store (Casey’s General Store) was doing fundraising for Autism Speaks. This makes me unhappy. On the whole, I like existing.

Autism Speaks is a pretty awful entity. First off, they are a classic money grab; the bulk of their money goes into fundraising and expenses, with very little going towards programs that are even nominally intended to actually benefit autistics. However, that’s the good news. Because their programs are by and large directed towards eradicating us, and many of us are unhappy with this. We do not want to be “cured”. We are not necessarily highly enthused about research on ways people could abort fetuses that might turn into autistic children, either.

Autism Speaks has a long history of excluding autistic voices. For a long time, they had no autistic participation whatsoever, and I think they now have a single token autistic involved in their work. They sued a 14-year-old autistic child for making a parody of their website. They refused to hire a woman when they found out she had an autistic child. They actively promote language designed to medicalize autism and present it as a horrible affliction from which people ought to be freed. This leads directly to increased hostility to, and discrimination against, autistic people.

I don’t think this is an accident. Their aggressive anti-autism propaganda benefits from any suffering associated with autism. If austistic people are discriminated against, that means they have bigger numbers to point to for how much worse off autistic people are, so they can make even scarier films about how horrible it must be for us to exist.

If you are looking to have a highly-recognizable charity affiliation, I think you have chosen reasonably well, except that Autism Speaks is starting to have a much worse reputation over time. Under the threat of having the only organization nominally speaking for us telling everyone that we are the horrible monsters that replaced the real children our parents could have loved, autistics have started organizing and educating the people around them, and most of the people I know are now aware that, by and large, autistic people find Autism Speaks a very threatening organization. And that tends to make them work out less well as a reputation booster.

If, on the other hand, you were looking to do something that actually benefitted autistic people, well. You pretty much got that one exactly wrong. I am not aware of a program or organization more hostile to us. If you would like to put some resources towards organizations that are actually interested in the wellbeing of autistics, I would call your attention to the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN), an organization mostly run by autistics who would like to be permitted to speak for themselves.

Thank you for your consideration.

(Submitted via contact form, also posted on my blog.)

Peter Seebach

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Comment [2]

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The difference between doubts and questions.

(Personal, GeekStuff)

2013-04-14 14:18
Comment

There is a fascinating dialect quirk which has caused occasional confusions, which I think ought to get talked about. Many people who learned English in India tend to use the word “doubt” where most other English speakers would use “question”. I have been told that this is because, in one of the common languages around there, there’s a single word which is the best translation for both “doubt” and “question”, and people get told to translate it to “doubt”.

This occasionally causes confusion, because doubts and questions are not the same thing in English. For one thing, a question is a request that someone else provide information. A doubt is merely an uncertainty. For another, “doubt” has the connotation that you have been given information already, but think it may be incorrect.

What this means is that if you haven’t already got at least some information, it is at the very least highly unidiomatic to say you have a “doubt” about a topic. And if you have got some, there’s a worse landmine: The connotations of “doubt” allow it to be used as a way to not quite explicitly accuse someone of lying. If someone tells you something, and you say you have a doubt about it, you are asserting that you do not find what they told you believable for some reason. This requires that they are mistaken or lying, and a lot of the time, being mistaken about an issue would imply lying about one’s expertise or competence. Especially with technical issues.

If you have an awareness that you do not fully understand something, call it “uncertainty”. If you have a desire for other people to tell you about something, or tell you more about it, call that “a question”. Only call it “a doubt” (or doubts, plural) if you have information but suspect that it isn’t true.

A lot of people will know what you mean anyway, especially if you have other similar signs of English as a second language and they’ve encountered the idiom before, but even then, using the same word for all of these different things reduces the clarity of your communication. Every time you make people guess at your meaning, you create doubts…

Peter Seebach

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Theme and variations

(Politics, Religion)

2013-04-02 17:53
Comment [1]

Music tends to rely heavily on the use of recognizable themes; little bits and pieces of melody and/or rhythm which are repeated to create consistency in structure. In the simplest form, a theme may simply be repeated. The “rounds” often used in early music classes add the complexity that each part may be at a different point in the theme than the others, but all the parts are still the same. The famous example is “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”, a piece of music which still has the power to enthrall children up through the age of seven or so, but tends to pale a little after that.

What really makes themes interesting, to me, is that they are subject to variation. You don’t just play the exact same melody over and over; rather, you start seeing different presentations of the theme, pieces of it taken individually, or presented in a different order. Changes in key, changes in progression, notes added and removed.

And this leads to one of my favorite forms of music, the fugue. I love me some fugues. My favorite ever is the Little G Minor fugue (link is to a video showing the MIDI notes in color and space rather than in musical notation; this can be really helpful if you want to visualize what’s happening).

Now, here’s the thing. If you were to take the main theme of that piece, and just repeat it a lot, you would not end up with nearly as awesome a piece of music. The inclusion of things which are not the theme, and especially of things which are similar to the theme but not quite identical, is not some sort of newbie error. Bach did that to highlight and strengthen the theme.

So, where am I going with this? When you have a clear theme or pattern, it is easy to identify when something does not quite follow the theme, and then easy to assert that this is an error; that one has “failed” to follow the theme. And I am arguing that it’s not necessarily an error, or a failure to conform. It may be a variation, intended to reflect, and highlight, and support that theme.

I occasionally encounter people who insist that, for instance, marriage which does not fit a particular model of “traditional” marriage (roughly as practiced in the US in the 1950s, only with more divorce), is a “deviation” from God’s Plan for Marriage. And I don’t believe that, because I don’t think God writes plans with all the subtlety of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. Let us stipulate for the sake of argument that there is a Divine Plan of “marriage” which is one man, and one woman, who are married until one of them dies. What should we make of all the other things we see, which are similar enough to be recognizable, but not quite exactly fitting that theme? Are they “deviations” from that? Not always, certainly. Sometimes, they are variations on that. They are things which, while different from the theme, reflect the theme’s essential character. They are things which allow people who might otherwise be outside the plan’s scope to find that they are in the plan after all.

So when people get divorced, the Plan is that they are done — they have failed at marriage, and it’s over. Indeed, the Catholic Church still won’t perform a marriage for someone who’s been divorced, in general; you have to get an annullment declaring that you were definitely not actually married before. And many people do feel that remarriage is in some way invalid. But our society, as a whole, has come to think that letting people remarry after a divorce is not such a bad thing. It’s not exactly the same as the original marriage, but it’s a fundamentally similar thing, so similar that we call it by the same name and give it the same legal and social treatment, in general. It serves the same role in our society. Perhaps more importantly, it draws people in and includes them.

Our society is starting to recognize that the same principle applies to marriages with two men, or two women, instead of one of each. They may not be identical to the form we’re most familiar with, but they are clearly related to it and built on it. With rare exceptions, even people vehemently opposed to legal recognition of these relationships seem to acknowledge that life-long committed romantic relationships between two men or two women are fundamentally similar to marriage, arguing only that they are defective in a way which should exclude them from legal recognition. But the fact is, they aren’t defective. They are not deviations from the theme; they are variations on it. They may differ in some ways from the theme, but they reflect it and harmonize well with it. They make our culture and our world richer. They are a new voice joining the fugue, revealing that what seemed like a complete and coherent whole had still more space for additions which contributed depth and vibrance to the experience.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [1]

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A thought experiment...

(Personal, Politics)

2013-03-18 13:50
Comment [5]

As commented previously, there’s a lot of outrage because a couple of kids who raped underage girls got sentenced as though they had comitted a crime.

First, some baseline facts:

  1. These kids identified themselves as “the rape crew”.
  2. These were not crimes of opportunity, but premeditated setups.
  3. They openly bragged about what they’d done, until someone revealed that you could in theory get in trouble for raping people.
  4. The boy whose house the rape occurred in was not charged. His mom is the prosecuting attorney for the county…
  5. I’ve read allegations that she also tried to pressure the victim not to press charges.
  6. The victim was drunk, and possibly drugged, enough that she didn’t know what happened until she saw pictures and heard comments through social media.

Now, normally, if you have people demonstrating a clear plan of arranging to get someone unconscious enough to be unable to even comprehend what’s happening, let alone consent to it, that’s considered pretty good evidence of bad intent. But! This happened in a big football town, and the boys are big football stars. So there’s a ton of commentary from various bystanders (mostly apparently unaware of the details of the case) asserting that it was just a girl who got herself drunk and then regretted her actions the next day, not “rape” at all.

There’s a lot of problems with this; for one thing, do we generally expect a sixteen-year-old to be competent to manage her alcohol intake? Do the allegations that she was drugged, not merely drunk, matter?

But you can see the real nature of the problem through a little thought experiment: Imagine that the crime weren’t rape. Imagine that it were basically anything else. Say… Theft.

So, consider the hypothetical town of Bustenville, a small town with a very popular and avidly-watched youth hockey league. It comes out that some of the players on the hockey league have taken to calling themselves the “mugging crew”. What they do is, they have parties, and arrange for people at those parties to get really drunk — so drunk they can’t remember what happens — and then take all their valuables. Cash, jewelry, and so on. They post pictures of this, they talk about it, they brag about how much money they’re taking in. And finally one of the victims comes forward and complains. Videos and pictures are recovered showing the unconscious victim and the “mugging crew” lifting cash out of the victim’s wallet. It comes to trial, and the kids are found guilty of having stolen money from their victims, on the grounds that they took money without any consent from the victims.

Would you expect to see dozens of posts on social media sites defending the kids? Calling it youthful hijinks? Explaining that the people they took the money from were probably just really generous and then regretted it the next day?

No, you wouldn’t.

If these kids had killed someone, you might see attempts to claim it was a tragic accident, but if they had been calling themselves “the murder crew”, and talking about it and planning it and posting pictures, and making it clear that the resulting death was an outcome considered in advance and actively sought… Do you think you’d see a lot of people outraged at the suggestion that they could be called “murderers”? No.

And that’s the point of the little thought experiment. What’s happening here is not that these kids are facing unfair charges. It’s that people have very different standards for rape, which are mostly that they don’t think it’s all that serious. Change it to theft or murder, and the general feeling is that people who commit crimes are criminals. Change it to rape, and suddenly there’s a lot of people who think it’s horrible that these boys will be known as rapists. Well, maybe they’ll be known as rapists because they are.

I’ve been told that the distribution of rape among rapists follows a power law distribution. I can’t find a way to verify that — because it’s really hard to construct search terms that involve “rape”, “power”, and “law” and have to do with distribution curves rather than legalities or imbalances of strength or capability. But it seems pretty reasonable. I am pretty sure I don’t know any guys who have comitted any rapes. I certainly don’t know any who brag about it. On the other hand, if these kids hadn’t gotten in trouble, do you really think they’d have stopped?

That said, there is one point where I think it makes sense to suggest that maybe people other than these kids are at least a little culpable. Where the hell were the adults? Why was the football coach threatening people who asked questions about this rather than getting involved and investigating the students? Why was the mom, who is presumably at least basically aware of the law, not more involved in finding out what was happening and educating her kids? Why were multiple parties acting to defend these kids, and help them cover things up, rather than cooperating with getting them busted?

Heck if I know. But I’d guess the very sympathetic reporting about the horrible loss of these kids’ football careers is a factor.

Peter Seebach

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Comment [5]

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Rape culture in a nutshell

(Personal, Politics)

2013-03-17 15:02
Comment [1]

I used to be pretty skeptical of the notion of “rape culture”. The idea that there was a strong cultural bias towards excusing, justifying, and overlooking rape struck me as, frankly, insane. I have since been reminded: Humans are, in fact, generally insane.

The linked article captures the essence of “rape culture” in a way that is clear, simple, and direct. A couple of rapists got sentenced to jail time. The news coverage on this is about how horrible it must be for them. See, they were football players, and they were popular, and they will now be in jail long enough that they are unlikely to get good scholarships and go to college and maybe get to make a name for themselves in college football. This, we are explained, means that their lives are falling apart. And that is a grave and serious tragedy, that these promising young men will suffer so.

Seriously. People are distraught that rapists might do jail time.

If the argument were in terms of the need for restorative justice or rehabilitation or anything like that, hey, I could maybe get behind that. I am not at all convinced that punishment is a sound model for how to correct wrongdoing. But it’s not. It’s just that these kids are losing out on opportunities because of our society’s mysterious belief that raping a sixteen-year-old girl is in some way a bad thing. None of the distress has to do with the suffering of their victim, or the problems in a society that led them to think that this behavior could be remotely acceptable. No, it’s just that it’s tragic when rapists get caught and face some kind of consequence for their actions, because these kids were promising football players.

In America, it is a tragedy if a football player goes to jail for rape before making enough money playing football to never have to work again.

Dear Mister Rogers, please pray for us sinners.

Peter Seebach

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Sex-obsessed gay guys, privileged white males, and the fallacy of division

(Personal, Politics)

2013-03-11 13:26
Comment

I was, at one point, derided for attempting to explain intersectionality (the awareness that people might be “privileged” in one category, but “opppressed” in another) to someone who was, I was informed, an autistic female person of color, and thus presumably aware of it. But given that I was explaining it in response to an allegation that white males cannot comprehend oppression, I somehow suspect the awareness had not quite percolated through to application.

There is a widespread understanding that, since women and minorities are oppressed, white males do not experience oppression. At least in the US, it is generally true that no one is oppressed particularly for being white or male. (There may be exceptions, but we can ignore them for the purposes of this point.) But, at the same time, obviously some are oppressed; they might be gay, or trans, or autistic, or in any of a number of other categories which are actually subject to oppression. And people who talk about this stuff a lot certainly know that. So why do they keep forgetting it? Why do they keep assuming that any white male is necessarily unaware of what it is like to be oppressed?

Allow me a moment of digression. One of the reasons many people are so vehemently opposed to gay rights is that they think gays are disgustingly sex-obsessed. I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that gay people are particularly more sex-obsessed than straight people, and honestly I doubt I’ve ever met gay people who think about gay sex as much as the folks at Focus on the Family appear to. But this belief is common enough to inspire the question: Where does this come from?

I think the answer is simple: It’s the fallacy of division. If the category “gay people” is defined entirely by sexual orientation, then presumably the members of that category are defined by sexual orientation. These are people whose defining trait is their sex lives; that would make them pretty sex-obsessed. And as long as you are thinking about them in terms of their group membership alone, you have no other traits to consider that might make them seem different. (Kahneman refers to this as the “what you see is all there is” error; since you only have one piece of information about these people, it is presumed to be the most important piece of information.)

And once you have that notion in mind, the problem of the always-privileged white males is explained; if all you know about them is that they are in two privileged categories, and you don’t know about any other categories, there’s nothing telling you that any given member of the category is in any particular oppressed category, and there’s certainly a possibility that some aren’t in any oppressed category we know of. And there might be some who are oppressed, but we don’t know how many, or which ones. Simplest answer is that white males are not oppressed.

This is precisely as true as the theory that gay males are obsessed with and defined by their sex lives, and appeals to the mind for the same reasons.

Peter Seebach

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Jesse talks about the "cure for autism" issue...

(Personal, Autism)

2013-03-11 11:30
Comment

Occasionally people mention the importance of “curing” autism, and a lot of autistic people usually react with a little concern; while the strangers who would replace us may be very nice people, they are not us.

Someone asked Jesse about this on tumblr, and I’m just gonna quote the conversation because it’s persuasive:

Anonymous asked:
hey so in response to the “cure for autism”, now im not autistic so i dont have very much right to speak for anyone, now my cousin is severely autistic, all he can really do is moan and yell with a few words, but mostly talks through pictures, now what do you think about giving the “cure for autism” to those folks? as it would help them function on their own? it seems like its a huge disability for them??

Jesse:
i think, if it existed, you’d have to ask him, not me. he’s a person and should be allowed to make his own decisions, even if he has to communicate them to you in pictures.
just because you don’t understand him doesn’t mean he’s not human.

Anonymous:
i never said he wasn’t a person i was simply wondering about if you think it would be good for him, as i was asking your opinion, as if if you were in his position would you want it? or even if he would grasp the concept and what it means, as a lot of what we do must be extremely strange to him!

Jesse:
i’d like you to take a step back and look at this conversation from a bit of a distance, if you can.

you’re asking me, a stranger on the internet, what is best for your own cousin, whom you know personally.

you’re asking me whether a person i’ve never met would ‘grasp the concept’ of his own autism and whether he would want it changed. you’re not asking him, because he communicates in pictures. because you don’t understand his language, you’d take a stranger’s opinion over his, when he himself is the topic under discussion.

this is why we hate Autism Speaks. because they have this attitude. ‘they’re so impaired they don’t even understand the conversation, so we’ll just talk about them over their heads, and make decisions about them without consulting them.’ the fact that you’re asking a mildly autistic guy what’s going on in a strongly autistic guy’s head doesn’t really change what’s going on here.

i’m not going to flip out and call you ableist or whatever, because i don’t want you to feel bad, i want you to understand. if you aren’t willing to learn how he wants to communicate, then you need to stop having opinions about him. or asking other people to have opinions about him. his situation is only any of your business if you make the effort to understand him. has anyone even given him a text device? does he get enough quiet time to ever recover from overload? are people driving him silent by constantly pushing him to fake ‘normal’? i don’t know! do you know?

there is no ‘cure’ for autism. it’s purely hypothetical. but there are definitely ways to make it a whole lot worse, and a whole lot of people with autistic friends and relatives systematically do those things that make it worse, and then they think the reaction to this well-meaning abuse is what autism is. you’re talking like your cousin is severely retarded, like he has no actual thoughts, like he’s some half-sentient animal. but some ‘severely autistic’ people who supposedly can’t communicate… turn out to be able to type quite coherently if people stop doing ‘quiet hands’ and forcing them into public and making sudden noises around them!

tl;dr: i’ve never met the guy. you tell me.

Peter Seebach

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Changes in society and how they affect literature

(Personal)

2013-02-28 14:48
Comment

Been reading Raymond Chandler’s writing recently for a Project. So, in the last day, I’ve learned slurs I didn’t know before for gays, blacks, and women. Okay, maybe I’d heard the gay ones before, maybe, but probably not in ten or twenty years, and possibly not as slurs. I definitely didn’t know some of the stereotypes. The ones for blacks? Heck, I couldn’t figure out what half of them were until I’d seen them in enough contexts to pick them up (which took a chapter or two). Women? Pretty easy to guess, but seriously, wow.

And yet. It’s literature. This is Influential Art. This is stuff that has guided the writing and voice of whole genres of novels and movies. Heck, I’m reading it because I want to write something in this style. You can’t “fix” it. You can’t make a realistic story in 1940s Hollywood where the police are just as concerned about the killing of a respectable African-American member of the community as they would be about a white guy. Or where people don’t consider “guy is gay” to be a pretty good explanation for any and all other depravities or weaknesses.

Makes for a very weird reading experience. It’s really exceptional writing, except that he rarely makes it a page in some stories without saying something obviously offensive to modern ears.

This is a whole different category from, say, Huckleberry Finn, in which the protagonist is in obvious and direct conflict with his own racism.

Peter Seebach

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Humor and apologies...

(Politics, Personal)

2013-02-25 15:32
Comment [1]

The Onion recently did something they have, so far as I know, never done before in their entire history. They apologized. Specifically, they apologized for a tweet in which they called a nine-year-old girl a “cunt”. Well, okay, that does sort of merit an apology, but I think commentary on this is missing something important.

I’m about to write something which may look like I’m saying the tweet was okay. It wasn’t. But I think that a real understanding of why this is the only time the Onion has ever apologized, I need to explain why someone might make that mistake, and that means talking about why sometimes it is appropriate for humorists to say things that would otherwise be decidedly inappropriate.

Humor is allowed to do things which would be otherwise “inappropriate”. Humor is where you can say things that are horrible, and sick, and sometimes mean, and there is a sort of exception to the rules for this. This is not a new thing; the trope where the court jester can mock the king is not entirely fictional. Humor is allowed to violate boundaries, and to break taboos. The Onion produces headlines like “SIDS Found to be Result of Bad Parents Who Could Have Done Something”.

So, to understand how this happened, you have to understand: Humorists are generally starting out with the awareness that they are allowed to violate boundaries. They know that they can do things like do a TV news spot entitled “Sony Releases New Stupid Piece Of Shit That Doesn’t Fucking Work” which are littered with profanity. They can make fun of religions, and disabled people. And not only can, but should, because part of the role of satire in our society is that it is one of the few things which can speak truth to power.

And that’s what’s wrong with this one; while I think it’s pretty clear that the intended target of the remark’s social commentary is reporting on Hollywood and actresses, the obvious target is a nine-year-old. A nine-year-old who is female, dark-skinned, and has a name that people can’t pronounce because it’s not sufficiently commonplace. In short, a person who is in many significant ways very far from “power”.

As commentary on the nature of reporting about celebrities, and the atrocious way female actors are treated and commented on by the news industry (look at the shit they said about Anne Hathaway last night!), this is biting and incisive. But the nine-year-old is unacceptable collateral damage. She doesn’t need that kind of crap. She doesn’t need it piled on all the crap she’s already going to get from racists, sexists, and anyone else who happens to think she looks like an easy target.

That said, consider why The Onion’s writer didn’t use, oh, say, Anne Hathaway in the tweet. They didn’t say it about Anne Hathaway, because no one would have been able to tell it was probably intended as satire. Because people really do say nasty stuff about an actress for not gleefully discussing all the ways in which she tries to stay skinny enough to get roles without dying from her body cannibalizing its own organs. They couldn’t say it about an adult actress, because saying stuff like this about an adult actress isn’t out of bounds to begin with. Saying it about a little kid was almost certainly intended to point out how shitty it is that people feel comfortable talking that way about adults.

It’s an error in judgment, but it’s not a completely insane one. And I think the best thing we can do about it is, instead of freaking out about how The Onion went too far by attacking a little kid, freak out about how no one seems to think that saying the same things about adult women is not going too far. Yes, The Onion owed Quvenzhané Wallis an apology. Entertainment reporting as an industry owes basically the entire female half of the acting profession apologies. I’m guessing that won’t happen.

Peter Seebach

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I can't help but think this is intentionally misleading...

(GeekStuff)

2013-02-24 13:32
Comment

So, I like rainbowy things and bright lights. There are a lot of modern keyboards, mice, and such which have color controls for what color they glow.

So I saw a shiny new high-end computer keyboard (Thermaltake’s “Challenger Ultimate”). The box shows the keyboard backlight shading smoothly from red through the rainbow to purple:

Boxart

It has descriptive text at various places on the box:

  • “256 Individual Colors”
  • “Individual Color Switchable”
  • “Wizard 256 Back Light Design”.

In fact, what it has is: You can change the color of the backlighting of the whole keyboard to a single color. It can be any RGB value using the standard 24-bit color space. The “256 Individual Colors” refers, not to any kind of different lighting in different locations, but to a preset palette of 256 colors you can select from if you don’t want to manually pick the exact color you want.

I mean. It’s a niceish keyboard. It’s pretty. The LED lighting really is nice. It has a flexible macro system built into it. All that’s great. But… The word “individual” makes no sense here if it doesn’t mean that there are separate lights which can be configured separately.

Sooooo, back to the store to fuss at people.

(Side note: Their software, which hasn’t been updated in ages, is sort of chintzy at best, and not very well-designed, but it wins huge points over, say, Logitech’s, in that it’s not 20x as large as it needs to be.)

Peter Seebach

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