Logic puzzle time!

(Personal)

2012-10-22 07:19
Comment

Okay, so. There are three doors, two hiding goats, one hiding a car. You pick a door. The host now picks another door, revealing a goat. Should you switch? The answer is, of course, that if you switch, there is a one in three chance that you find the unexpected tiger.

Peter Seebach

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Gricean Maxims, and why I have trouble with them...

(Personal, Politics)

2012-10-16 22:21
Comment

A while back, I commented on Romney’s “Keep America American”. At least one person told me that I had given the impression that I thought that the people who liked this slogan were racists; this confused the heck out of me, because I thought what I said was that racists liked the slogan, and that I believe it was constructed the way it was in order to appeal to them.

To me, these statements are virtually unrelated, and it is confusing that anyone would read one as the other. But let’s look at more cases.

In a recent discussion pertaining to various claims made by politicians, I saw a claim in passing which struck me as incorrect, so I responded to point this out. Since it was on tumblr, I left the entire quoted post (because that’s tumblr-custom) even though I was only responding to part of it. But the thing is, I responded to a thing which is… well, not what most people would have responded to.

There’s a set of rules, called Gricean maxims, which are basic principles of interpreting communication. They are instinctive in humans… no, wait. They are instinctive in non-autistic humans. They’re not instinctive for me. I have to think about them. As a result, I can forget to, and this often results in me communicating things wildly unlike what I thought I was saying.

The particular thing that gets me with corrections is an order-of-operations problem. For most people, the processing order is:

  1. See statement.
  2. Interpret statement according to basic rules.
  3. Evaluate statement for things like truth or falsehood.

For me, it’s:

  1. See statement.
  2. Evaluate statement for things like truth or falsehood.
  3. If statement is true, interpret statement according to basic rules.

Now, here’s where it gets funky. If I am arguing with a claim because the statement pre-interpretation was false, people who aren’t autistic are very likely to end up perceiving me as disagreeing with the post-interpretation meaning. Which can be a source of conflict, especially in the fairly common case where I happen to accept the intended communication as true but uninteresting, so I’m arguing entirely about a related point. e.g., when someone posted a list of accomplishments by Muslims (in response to a picture of the WTC buildings captioned “imagine a world withous muslims”), I jumped on a couple of them as obviously bogus, without a moment’s thought to the question of whether the underlying implied arguments had any merit. I wasn’t going to think about the logical implications of the statements until I’d resolved the question of why some of them were false.

That said, these really are lovely and useful principles. As always, Wikipedia has a good quick summary. And there’s an interesting variance; I can forget to apply these because I’m in a hurry. People who apply them only unconsciously, however, run the risk of being unaware of whether or not they are applying these rules, and are quite likely to apply them selectively to improve the perceived performance of people they like, or disimprove the perceived communications of people they dislike. (This is a failure to apply the “principle of charity”, another wonderful communicative tool.)

For an interesting example, consider the claim from tonight’s debate that Obama did, or did not, call the attack in Libya an “act of terror” the day after it occurred. (Language log has now written about this too, and gives better examples.)

The actual words from the president’s speech:

No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for. Today we mourn four more Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America. We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.

A number of conservative pundits have rushed to point out that this does not actually state that the attack in question was an act of terror. This is… well, if they’re autistic it’s careless, if they’re not it’s dishonest. This is a speech about the attack on the embassy. Everything in this speech is presumptively related to or about that attack. Which is to say: Either this constitutes an (indirect, but clear) assertion that the attack in question was an “act of terror”, or it is a lone paragraph on a completely unrelated topic which is inexplicably sandwiched between two paragraphs of talking about the attack.

Only one of these interpretations is remotely plausible.

I don’t dispute that, in general, politicians lie. If someone were to assert that Obama chose that phrasing so that, if he were later found to be wrong about the attack, he could pretend that he never meant to imply that it was an act of terror, I would consider that an untestable claim, but certainly a highly plausible one. The man’s not an idiot; he had insufficient information, and probably acted to hedge his bets. But to jump around yelling that he didn’t actually specifically identify the subject of his speech as the subject of a paragraph within his speech is idiotic.

Had these commentators been asked, without awareness of the speaker, whether a paragraph like this in a speech about the attack in question could be reasonably construed as asserting that the attack was an act of terror, I do not doubt for a minute that they would have said yes. But they weren’t asked about that. They were asked, after the candidate who is their sole hope of defeating a hated opponent had asserted that Obama had said nothing of the sort until two weeks later, whether these remarks proved their hero to be a liar.

Of course, both candidates lie. They lie at an astounding pace. And yet, for some reason, the vast majority of people in the US are thoroughly convinced that their candidate doesn’t lie, and the other one does. A moment’s thought dispels this notion. Which of the following is more likely?

  1. 47-48% or so of the American public are completely and totally incapable of critical thinking, and unhesitatingly believe good things about their preferred candidate and bad things about his opponent, without regard for the evidence. The other 52-53% are fine.
  2. 48-49% or so of the American public are completely and totally incapable of critical thinking, and unhesitatingly believe good things about their preferred candidate and bad things about his opponent, without regard for the evidence. The other 51-52% are fine.
  3. The entire populace is systematically biased in exactly the way that has been confirmed by basically all of the research we have ever done on how humans evaluate truth claims and how halo effects work.

I’m betting on that last one.

Peter Seebach

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I guess you're in big trouble, then.

(Politics)

2012-10-16 10:48
Comment

Elizabeth Price Foley writes:

So let me get this straight: Liberals are “favorable to progress” while conservatives are “disposed to . . . limit change.” Ugh.
I had to write my daughter’s teacher a note to politely point out that while these might be decent generic definitions of the words, they are not accurate in the specific context of a civics class or study of the American political system. In that context, the relevant distinction between liberals and conservatives has nothing to do with being favorable or unfavorable toward “progress” or “change,” but a difference in view about the proper size and scope of governmental power, with liberals believing generally in bigger government, conservatives believing generally in smaller government.
If this is how our children are learning to define “liberals” and “conservatives,” we are in BIG trouble, folks. Anyone with kids out there needs to monitor their child’s civics materials carefully.

When the Democrats are lobbying to have the government formally define marriage and make sure that people are not getting legal recognition for a kind of sex which used to not get that recognition, and the Republicans are lobbying to reduce and eliminate laws about abortion, Ms. Foley will have an excellent point. Well, maybe when the Republican party has decriminalization of drugs as a plank, too.

Right now, though, the fact is that the US liberals are consistently more liberal in the traditional sense, and the US conservatives are consistently more conservative in the traditional sense. The Republican party does not in general stand for smaller government, or even for shrinking government; only for changing the focus of where the government grows. The Democrats do tend to stand for larger government, except on the many occasions when they actively seek to reduce the size and scope of government involvement.

I feel bad for the “conservatives” who actually want smaller government, because they haven’t got any candidates to vote for right now. The choice is between people who want to vastly increase spending on a bunch of stupid stuff, and people who want to vastly increase spending on a bunch of wasteful stuff. Not quite sure which is which, most days…

Wanna monitor your child’s civics materials for accuracy? Start with the core of all accuracy: Being willing to admit uncomfortable truths. One of those is that the Republican party is very actively using fear of change as a major get-out-the-vote strategy, and has been since the first tentative hints of legislation to do with gay marriage. Another is that the Republican party has been the source of a large number of highly intrusive and restrictive laws to do with sex, drugs, and abortion. It is not reasonable to handwave those away; they are too large, and too significant.

And I would love to see this changed, as there are a lot of historical Republican views on government and economics that I’d like to see get a fair hearing, but I’m not willing to sacrifice the underlying principles that made America an interesting social experiment in order to appease the people who won’t vote for anyone who thinks maybe there is something to this science stuff after all.

Peter Seebach

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Burying cats: Humans are not sane.

(Personal, Religion)

2012-10-15 20:25
Comment

Jesse’s cat Maya died today. She was 15ish. Our friend Aud had a cat named Penny, who also died today, so we dug them a grave. It turns out this is a lot of work. Our back yard has fairly dense dirt, full of rocks and tree roots, and it is really hard to get dirt out of a deep hole with a shovel. (We now own a shop vac.)

The whole thing is… Well, it’s a bit insane in spots. Consider that I got them some catnip mice. I was originally going to get them one so it could be an ice breaker, but they came in three-packs, so we buried three catnip mice for them. One each, and one extra because you know they’ll lose one.

Thing is, obviously whatever about the cat was like-people to us, it was long gone. (The sort of synaesthetic perception I get of a ball of sparks that hovers near a cat and appears to follow its intent dispersed as soon as Maya fell asleep, long before her heart stopped beating.) But there is something sort of cool about funerals. They are, obviously, for the living, not for the dead. Luka helped in his own inimitable way, quoting bits of Pet Sematary throughout the digging.

It is probably insane, though, the way we think about bodies as having dignity. On the other hand, I think it is closely tied to the insanity that makes humans be what they are. There is a lot of what we do that seems insane if you think about it too closely. But some of that insanity, that belief that there is something more to the world than just what’s obviously in front of us, is also why we can have nice things. It is because we can conceive of niceness.

Jon Stewart was once quoted as observing that the reason he isn’t worried about society is that when nineteen people arranged to destroy a couple of buildings, killing thousands, hundreds of people rushed into those buildings to try to save people. He’ll take those odds any day. On the whole, I am pretty content to live among a species which thinks that it is obviously reasonable to put extreme care and effort into making sure that a cat’s final moments involve being held and purring, and then buries a catnip mouse with the cat just in case.

Perhaps archeologists will find our little cat grave and conclude that we worshipped cats. I am not sure they would be wrong.

Peter Seebach

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Skin in the game

(Politics)

2012-09-29 14:48
Comment [1]

The phrase “skin in the game” comes in and out of fashion. I always rather liked it; it’s evocative.

It is occasionally used to argue that if people pay no income tax, they don’t have any reason to care about the tax code. I don’t think this is generically true; many people who pay no income tax now would start if the tax code were changed. For instance, some people pay no income tax due to tax credits or tax breaks. Many people have friends or family who pay income tax. There are many taxes other than income tax, such as payroll tax.

But the basic idea that if something won’t affect you, and you can vote on it, that can lead to undesireable outcomes? Sound reasoning.

Most of the people expressing concern about this are Republicans. And I have a proposal to make to them: I will support you in your quest to ensure that more people are at least somewhat affected by the tax code, but I want to see you put your money where your mouth is on this one.

If you don’t have a uterus, you can shut the fuck up about laws pertaining to abortion. Without a uterus, you do not have skin in the game. The (overwhelmingly male) legislators who passed the Texas law requiring doctors to rape women with a ten-inch plastic rod before performing first-trimester abortions? They were passing a law that could not possibly affect them. Ever.

When the people who are worried about voting decisions by people who don’t pay taxes are absolutely consistent in that none of them ever vote to restrict abortions unless they personally have a uterus, I will be a lot more inclined to believe that they have a sincere principle going here, not just a convenient excuse to disregard the poor.

This is not to say that there is not a legitimate concern to be had; it is pretty obvious that at least the short-term best interest of someone who won’t pay taxes either way is generally going to be to increase spending (and probably taxes along with it) on programs that benefit them. But I am not so sure that the entire voter base is incapable of thinking past the short term, and I suspect that there are a lot of people who are pretty aware that there is a real need for effort to get the budget balanced. Nonetheless, this is far from the only case in which people are making decisions about stuff that doesn’t affect them, and it’s far from the most egregious.

Peter Seebach

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Forced password resets: you're doing it wrong

(GeekStuff)

2012-09-23 22:23
Comment [2]

For the most part, I really like Dropbox, but it seems to me that their recent decision to roll out forced password changes is… poorly implemented.

First off, breaking on the first use is never a good design. Sure, in this case I just wanted to mess around with something on a spare tablet, but what if I’d actually needed to get something done? Suddenly I’ve got a large and possibly non-trivial delay before I can get anything done. If I don’t happen to be near my email, Bad Things Happen.

Secondly, the mechanism selected is a password reset. As in: Email is sent to my listed email address, which allows setting a new password on the account. What this means is that if this gets triggered at a time when I cannot easily get to my email, I’m in trouble. It gets worse; if this gets triggered at a time when someone else can get to my email, they’ve just been given complete access to the account, along with the ability to lock me out.

Password resets, without checking for access to existing passwords, are a last resort; they should never happen automatically without any previous discussion with the user as to whether that is what the user wants.

There are some interesting bits; I didn’t get the confirmation emails for a while (probably because of greylisting), so I tried an alternative method they offer, which is to log in using the old password, then create a directory with a suitably arbitrary name using one of your existing machines. Clever!

But on the whole, this is not how security should be done. Forced password resets are pretty questionable; they tend to result in passwords being written down (bad), or following easily-derived patterns (very bad). But mostly… There should never be a time when your first awareness of a password reset is that you can’t use the service. That is a bad way to make things work.

Peter Seebach

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Romney's 47%: The distinction between factual and truthful

(Politics)

2012-09-23 00:09
Comment [2]

You’ve probably seen it by now:

There are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that’s an entitlement … And they will vote for this president no matter what … These are people who pay no income tax … My job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

Now, there is some room for speculating that this is a misleading quote, but Romney has stated that he stands by it, and I have seen some conservatives insist that it’s good that someone finally came out and “told the truth”. (EDIT: Since I wrote this, Romney has declared that he was completely wrong. This increases my respect for him. Leaving the rest of this article alone, but be aware that it is in some ways no longer relevant.)

The canonical source is the Tax Policy Center, which everyone seems to agree is reasonably non-partisan.

Is it true that 47% of people pay no income tax?

Probably not, because at least some people who pay no federal income tax nonetheless pay state income tax. But that’s probably something we can reasonably overlook. What I’m less comfortable with overlooking is payroll taxes. These are taxes which are set to a percentage of your income (up through a certain point, around an income of $110k/year) and which are paid to the federal government. That sounds to me like it is reasonably considered “income tax”, and it’s not subject to all the same tax breaks. If you include payroll taxes, it’s about 18% of people who don’t pay those either.

But even among those 18%, about 10% are “elderly” (meaning on retirement funds/pensions, in practice), and about another 7% have under $20k/year in income. (About 1% fit into neither category and are special cases in some way.)

Now, on the one hand, it does seem a little silly to compare that people with no income don’t pay taxes, but it’s not entirely inappropriate or inconsistent in this context; he’s talking about why people might be viewed as dependent on the government and believing the government has a responsibility to care for them. So I would say that it’s that 17% or so, not the 47% (or that last 1%) who are meaningfully described this way.

So how do these people vote?

This gets a little more surprising. Of the ten states with the highest percentage of people who don’t pay federal income tax, only one was leaning to Obama when this story broke, and numbers were likely similar when this video was originally taken. Many of the people who are relying on government programs to get through rough spots are in fact habitual Republican voters; some even advocate that the very programs they’re relying on be cut.

Only I’m not sure this is all that surprising. Voters in the US have a long history of at least sometimes voting for what they think is best for the nation, which may not be in their own narrowly-defined or short-term best interest. And there’s nothing all that unusual about people who think a given social program should be cut using it while it exists anyway; people frequently make economic decisions to take advantage of things that they think probably shouldn’t be there, or aren’t sustainable. It is also possible that the correlation is at a broader level; people who live near a bunch of non-payers of federal income tax might be motivated by animosity, for instance. But reporters who have gone around asking have indeed turned up many people who paid no income tax, who received some sort of government social benefits, and who were Romney supporters.

Which is to say: It is not true that the 47% of the population who pay no income tax will necessarily vote for Obama, or that they view themselves as victims, or anything else.

What worries me is that it appears that one of two things must be true. Romney has since confirmed that he stands by these statements (though he says they were “inelegantly stated”). So either he’s lying, or he’s seriously misinformed about the political views of 47% of the populace — and a 47% that, given historical trends, might well have been reasonably expected to vote more towards him than against him. And inclined to dismiss them. And that’s worrisome.

It’s not his job to care about them.

So let’s drop the tax thing, and just go to “people who won’t vote for Romney”. Well, it’s arguably true that it’s not his job to care about those people, insofar as he’s a candidate for office. But there’s a bit of a worrisome trend here, which is that Romney frequently says he’s not concerned about people, or doesn’t care about them. He’s not concerned about the very poor, because there’s a social safety net. He also thinks that, since the safety net is expensive, it should be cut; should we assume that, were this to happen, he would start being concerned? Or is this speech the real explanation; he’s not concerned about them because they are unlikely to vote for him.

This leads to a problem, though. It isn’t necessarily the job of a candidate to care about people who wouldn’t vote for him. It is the job of a representative to care about all the people he represents, though. And if you only care about people when it’s your job to care about them, you don’t actually care about them.

Actually, most rich people don’t care.

Science to the rescue! This is not a problem somehow unique to Romney. People who view themselves as richer or of higher social class have less empathy. Now, you might assume this is because non-empathic behaviors are an advantage, but that’s not the whole story; you can improve empathic skills in people by inducing them to think of themselves as less rich and powerful, and you can worsen empathic skills in people by inducing them to think of themselves as richer and more powerful.

Now, this isn’t an all-or-nothing thing, and there’s nothing preventing people from working actively to overcome it. The thing is, it does take work, and there’s no evidence at all on the table that the Romneys are the slightest bit inclined to do that work.

The tendency to overestimate the influences of our own choices on positive outcomes, and underestimate the influences of our choices on negative outcomes, means that people who have been very successful are very likely to massively overestimate how much of that is their doing — so when they see unsuccessful people, they assume it is because those people didn’t have as much virtue of whatever sort. They’re not as smart, they didn’t work as hard… Anything but the possibility that maybe there’s a certain amount of coincidence and happenstance going on.

So, in conclusion…

The underlying claim that 47% of people pay no income tax is true, but the many attached claims about how these people vote, whether they view themselves as “victims”, and so on are all materially false. And the thing is, you can write off the caring thing and ask “but shouldn’t we have someone competent?” But the fact is, getting this kind of thing wrong strikes me as gross incompetence. There is no excuse for a politician to be this badly confused about what people believe or how they vote, least of all when talking about how to pursue votes in an election which looks fairly tight to begin with.

Not that I’m sure Obama cares about these people either, but he’s at least repeatedly stated that he cares, and his interactions with Congress have, on the whole, shown some interest in trying to do things which he appears to believe will benefit people — including categories of people that he can be pretty sure will predominantly vote against him.

It’s not as though I was going to vote for Romney anyway. I pay taxes (nearly as much, percentage-wise, as he does), my household doesn’t qualify for any interesting tax credits, we don’t qualify for any social programs I can think of, and I am all for personal responsibility for my life, and for that matter the lives of the people around me that our woefully incompetent social safety net isn’t catching. No, I just think that opposing gay marriage is pretty much equivalent to opposing interracial marriage, and I am sick of putting up with that crap from politicians. I wouldn’t vote for an overt racist, why should I vote for a guy who opposes civil rights for other people?

And that’s ultimately his problem: He’s writing off people who might well have voted for him, and trying to pursue people who never would. That seems unlikely to work.

Peter Seebach

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Partisan language has gotten silly.

(Politics)

2012-09-12 01:39
Comment [3]

I’ve noticed a thing, which is that angry internet commenters who use “libs” are using it as some kind of code word. It doesn’t mean liberals. It means bogeymen. “Libs” are a large, well-organized, utterly monolithic, group of people who are at all times completely dishonest, completely irrational, totally stupid, totally uninformed, and persisting in being this way out of malice.

Now, the thing is… If this set of people existed, they wouldn’t exist. If they’re genuinely as stupid and ill-informed as they are said to be, they can’t possibly be meaningfully said to be irrational or dishonest; those both imply some kind of functioning cognition and meaningful basis for drawing conclusions.

And yet! Somehow, when people use this word, they use it to refer to absolutely everyone who is disagreeing with them. People say they don’t feel Romney’s budget plans are specific enough? That’s libs! They are not actually under the impression that even one penny of government spending is not completely explained in Romney’s budget plan; rather, they are using their vast supply of filthy welfare lucre to stay home posting deliberately and maliciously deceitful comments at all hours of the day while Republicans work and pay taxes.

What’s amazing is, having prodded a couple of these people, and asked them, I have found that they appear to genuinely believe this. They are somehow convinced that there is but a tiny and very thoroughly dishonest minority behind any opposition whatsoever to any view they’ve identified as “right wing”. So they rant about how nearly everybody is opposed to gay marriage, and “libs” are just making it up. Think schools should cover evolutionary biology and not pretend there’s a “controversy”? LIBS! Think maybe “not allowed to compel kids in your class to join you in prayer in a publically funded school” isn’t quite as bad as “place of worship set on fire by people who think you shouldn’t be allowed to be in their country at all”? LIBS!

This stuff is madness. And lest people think it’s all one-sided, obviously it’s not. I know people who believe, sincerely, that the Republican party line on taxes leads to economic disaster. Okay, you could argue that, certainly there’s reasonably qualified economists on both sides of that one. But wait! Some of these people believe that Republicans also believe that. And that they want it to happen, because they are acting entirely out of malice.

This is stupid.

The fact is, the vast majority of the people in both parties have sincere beliefs about what works and how to make life better for everyone (or at least most people). And of course, people being people, most of them are wrong. Probably nearly all, because all human beliefs about economic systems are pretty much guaranteed to be too oversimplified to be usefully called “right”. But for some reason, people keep imagining that the people on the other side are totally aware of the “truth”, and are acting in malicious ways because they are evil.

So, basically: I dunno what the counterpoint word is; I’ve seen “repubs” used in a similar way, but not so consistently. But if you see someone comment on what “libs” do? That is not a source of information; it is a person who has drunk the kool-aid and is spiraling into madness. Unless you have some kind of very reliable way to compel them to actually hear what you say rather than reinterpreting it within their dogma, you cannot communicate anything about politics to them, and they have nothing to communicate except fear and anger.

If anyone finds a cure for this, lemme know. An ideal cure would also work on the liberal versions.

I do feel obliged to point out: For historical reasons, in the US right now, “liberal” in the sense of left-wing and “liberal” in a more classical free-speech/free-opinions sense have significant overlap. So while there are certainly plenty of dogmatic leftists to be had, many of the groups that they are associated with also have a non-trivial population of people who are quite aware that the people they disagree with are usually acting in good faith, and who make efforts to communicate with them.

Idle thought: I suspect that a major source of this is that the Internet, by allowing people to heavily self-select peer groups, is massively increasing the “echo chamber” effect. People used to talk politics with a variety of people including people they disagreed with, so they tended to be at least basically aware that other people held differing views, and even a little aware of what those views were. And they knew those people to have traits other than those views. Now? Now they spend their time gathering on blogs they agree with and attacking the drive-by trolls — some of whom probably weren’t trolls, but people who really did want to try to engage.

Peter Seebach

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This is sorta freaky, and I am not at all sure what I think of it

(Autism)

2012-09-04 17:53
Comment [2]

The FDA has approved clinical trials of a proposed cure for autism.

This is… well. It’s one thing to know that the only major “charity” (I use the term loosely) that most people have heard of that has anything to do with you is dedicated to eradicating you and everyone like you. It’s another thing entirely to hear that some doctors think they might be making progress towards doing that.

I am aware that some autistics are a lot less functional than I am, but then, so are a lot of non-autistics. The vast majority of the ways in which I function “poorly” can be categorized in one of two ways:

1. ADHD, not autism. Separate issue.
2. Things that are a problem only because they’re abnormal.

Imagine, if you will, the general category of “ways in which someone’s identity could be radically altered by biological interventions”. Imagine a treatment that makes people self-identify as male, or female, rather than as whatever they might otherwise. Most people would be pretty upset about this; I certainly wouldn’t be super enthused about “ceasing to be autistic”, simply because that’s a fancy way of saying “ceasing to exist, and being replaced by someone else”.

Thing is. This is clearly being done to kids who cannot possibly give informed consent. Should consent be required? Usually we assume that parents can consent on their kids’ behalf, but does that apply in cases where the treatment involved utterly changes who the kid is?

I have no idea.

I do, however, think it is pretty clear that there is a lot of benefit that could be had much more cheaply, and with much less risk of unmaking people, or damaging them severely, simply through education and support services. And maybe doing that would be a good first step towards thinking about whether we need to “cure” autism any more than we need to “cure” blackness, femaleness, or any of the other things that have historically left people poorly-equipped to function in a society dominated by white males…

Peter Seebach

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Reporting the wrong story

(Politics)

2012-09-01 12:57
Comment

EDIT: See updates below. The actual thing Romney said was probably slightly different, and it is not clear that it ought to be considered a “slogan” really.

There is occasional discussion of the observation that one of Romney’s speeches contained a phrase, “keep America American”, which was also a slogan used by the KKK in the 1920s, and even the 1950s. Trueish, though not precisely correct. Back in December of last year, MSNBC apologized for reporting on this in a way that implied that the resemblence was intentional. Furthermore, it’s since been pointed out that Romney actually said something slightly different. (“Keep America America”, not “Keep America American”.) And certainly, there’s not much evidence to suggest that it’s intentional. (I don’t really have any evidence that it isn’t, but there’s no basis for assuming it is.)

But the thing is, while it’s certainly ridiculous to imply that Romney is intentionally calling to mind the KKK’s slogan… That doesn’t mean that it’s really just a “coincidence”. The point of the slogan is to appeal to a particular emotional response; it ties in strongly with the spirit of Romney’s “joke” about how no one’s asked to see his birth certificate. Time and time again, Romney just happens to make remarks that would remind all the racists: Romney’s white. The other guy’s not. Romney talks about keeping immigrants out. It’s an appeal to the notion that if we don’t do something, our nation will be overrun with foreigners, with people who aren’t like us.

The thing about that slogan isn’t that the KKK had it first. It’s that it is a slogan which is by nature strongly appealing to the sorts of people the KKK wanted to reach. It is a slogan about drawing a clear line between us and them. And “us,” it turns out, means “white”.

Romney didn’t use “a KKK slogan”. Romney used a phrase which was designed to evoke a particular set of emotional responses. The KKK used a slogan which was designed to evoke a particular set of emotional responses. Since they were both going for the same set of emotional responses, they both came up with similar wording.

This isn’t something that ought to be some huge scandal because it proves Romney’s a secret Klansman. At the same time, the mere fact that he didn’t get the phrase from them doesn’t mean that it’s not a very disturbing phrase.

Peter Seebach

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