Friday, 20 March 2015

“Drives” and human behaviour

So I’ve been having a conversation with my friend Wolfboy in the comments to my recent post about Richard Dawkins – or rather, about the Drive Threshold Model that Dawkins discovered and what it teaches us about rape culture, i.e. that even if rapists are motivated by sex desire, “not dressing like a slut” still isn’t going to be an effective precaution against rape. And I was just on the point of writing another big reply as an addendum to my existing reply, when it occurred to me that the points I wanted to talk about could make their own blog post, which I’m accordingly writing now. Well, when I say “writing”, a lot of it is copypasted from that conversation.

In the original post I made a slightly misleading analogy:

It turns out all kinds of human drives and desires fit the Drive Threshold Model. So if it’s been an hour or two since lunch you may find yourself hungry for chocolate, say, or salted peanuts, or something specific. If you’ve got children you’ll know how often they’re “only hungry for pudding”. But if you haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday I’ll wager you’ll be happy with stale cheese and wilting lettuce.

The misleading bit was where I linked one’s level of hunger to how long it’s been since they’ve had food. That is how hunger works, more or less, but it’s not how sexual desire works. I mean, OK, there is a sort of urgent edge of feeling that builds up over time like that, but it can be discharged by, shall we say, taking matters into one’s own hands. Your level of attraction to other people doesn’t drop down when you have sex and then steadily build up again.

Wolfboy made a cogent response:

I think the complicating factor with sex drives and rape as compared to hunger and food is that a) without food you’ll die, so the drive is a bit more fundamental and b) you don’t need to have any sort of relationship with your food while you do need to decide what sort of relationship you want with a sex partner.

Morally and rationally, Wolfboy is correct. The problem is, we’re talking about drives here.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

Goodbye and thank you, Sir Terry Pratchett

I still own several Discworld books with the old “About the author” blurb that begins “Terry Pratchett was born in 1948 and is still not dead.” That sentence is now only half true. Because of the International Date Line, it was Friday the 13th here when I found out he had died. This seemed appropriate.

I met him three times, if thirty seconds in a book-signing queue counts as “meeting”. The first time, I was fifteen, and the signing was at my high school. I remember hurrying to get to the auditorium in time for his talk, and very nearly bumping into him in the corridor – a small man, egg-bald, with a neatly trimmed grey beard, and eyes that looked like he had had some bad news earlier that day. That last impression stands out in my memory because it was so unusual for me to notice anything like that when I was fifteen. (Even today, I’m not fantastic at facial expressions.)

And now I’m sitting here trying to pick one thing or a few things out of his immense body of work, and tell you how it impacted on me. This is difficult. Even doing it chronologically is proving to be a problem, because it goes so far back that I honestly don’t remember what the first Pratchett book I read was. I’m almost sure it was either Wyrd Sisters or Moving Pictures. I do remember reading Reaper Man when it was new out, and that was the one after Moving Pictures. And I can tell you that Pratchett got me out of the endless loop of Tolkien that I got stuck in for a bit there in my teenage – not that there’s anything wrong with being a Tolkien fan, needless to say, but it’s better to read more than one author. Pratchett showed me that fantasy doesn’t have to be about battles and kings and the fate of the world. Ordinary people’s stories are worth reading too.

There was darkness under Pratchett’s good humour. When Robin Williams died last year a lot of people pointed out that comics tend to have honed their craft battling inner demons. Williams’ familiar demon was sadness; Pratchett’s, according to Neil Gaiman who knew him for nearly half his life, was anger. It’s no coincidence that his two most complex and fully realized protagonists, Granny Weatherwax and Commander Samuel Vimes, both wrestle perpetually to control pent-up inner fountains of rage. Rage at what? For their author, rage at the unfairness of the world; rage at how stupid people can be. I don’t mean the sneering “Why do I have to put up with you peasants?” kind of anger at stupidity – I mean that Pratchett saw how officialdom and pomposity and cant and petty-mindedness get people hurt. And he could never quite shrug it off with an “Oh well, life’s not fair, that’s how it is.” Pratchett always cared what happened to people. He stood for practicality and hard work like Kipling, and for social justice like Dickens.

But perhaps because he lived with darkness, Pratchett also learned to embrace it. He made Death a sympathetic character, “not cruel, just terribly good at his job” (and how those words sting just now!): calm, friendly, professional, fond of little pleasures like good food and the company of cats, but perpetually bemused by the foibles of humanity. I don’t have figures on how much that one creative choice has helped people cope with the inevitable end of life. Apparently elderly readers used to write to him, hoping he’d got Death right. Other fantasy franchises seem to be adopting the idea, at least partly. Much of Supernatural is blatantly pinched from Pratchett, though their Death character is slightly sterner and quicker on the uptake. Harry Potter may not have a personified Death, but Rowling’s treatment of it – calm, courageous acceptance – has a distinctly Pratchettian feel.

I toyed with the idea of writing a short story for this post, where Pratchett himself meets Death, but there’ve been a couple of good ones already that I won’t try and better. Let me instead say farewell by echoing the final few entries on his Twitter:

At last, Sir Terry, we must walk together.

Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night.

The End.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Richard Dawkins’ biggest contribution to feminism

No, it’s not “nothing”. Look, hear me out, OK? Yes, as a public figure Dawkins has said a lot of bigoted things in the last few years about women and sexual assault. In his books he discusses sexism every so often; it seems he thinks that prejudice about people’s gender is an equally big mistake regardless of which gender one is prejudiced against. Which is perhaps true purely in terms of whether your judgement of an individual person is likely to be right or wrong, but our society is heavily biased towards some kinds of gender prejudice and away from others, with moral and political consequences that can’t be ignored – except he does ignore them. (He also, disturbingly regularly, comments sympathetically on paedophilia. I devoutly hope the reason he gives in his autobiography is the real one: that he feels guilty about having been party to driving the teacher who molested him in boyhood to suicide.)

But before Dawkins was a public figure or a popular writer, he was a scientist. His research was on animal behaviour. And his big discovery, back in the late 1960s, is called the Drive Threshold Model. He tested it in chicks, which apparently show a definite colour preference when pecking at small objects: blue is preferred to red and red to green. Now you might think that this means a chick will always choose to peck a blue object when there’s one available, and a red one when there isn’t, and a green one only if there’s nothing else. But apparently not. Rather, when a chick’s drive to peck is low, it will only peck at blue objects; if it gets higher, it will peck randomly at either blue or red objects and ignore green; at the heights it will peck at any colour indiscriminately. Hence the term “drive threshold”.

If this only applied to chicks it would be pretty pointless me repeating it. But Dawkins applied the mathematics to a wide range of psychological studies on humans, measuring preferential behaviour towards flavours, colours, vegetables, handwriting styles, and composers. It turns out all kinds of human drives and desires fit the Drive Threshold Model. So if it’s been an hour or two since lunch you may find yourself hungry for chocolate, say, or salted peanuts, or something specific. If you’ve got children you’ll know how often they’re “only hungry for pudding”. But if you haven’t eaten since the day before yesterday I’ll wager you’ll be happy with stale cheese and wilting lettuce.

Now here comes the point. Women want to keep themselves safe from rape. And lots of people, not all of them men, have a helpful suggestion: maybe women should not “dress like sluts”, especially when out after dark. And this, funnily enough, makes a lot of women angry, because it places the responsibility on women not to be raped instead of on men not to rape. To which those giving the warnings reply that it’s no different from warning people to keep their cars locked in areas prone to theft, which is hardly taking responsibility away from the thieves, is it? In fact it is different, as New Zealand discovered in 2013, when a man was acquitted of a sexual assault that he had confessed to committing, on the grounds that his two female victims were “foolish” to have been crossing a park at night while “dressed as they were”.

But setting aside the ethics of such precautions – do they work? Let’s suppose that most sexual assaults are committed by men trying to satisfy their own sexual desires (obviously in a predatory, totally objectifying way). Let’s also suppose that in general men have a sexual preference for some styles of dress over others. Both these suppositions seem plausible enough at first glance, but I don’t know what the actual evidence is for either one. Obviously if one of them is not true then the whole thing is moot, the precautions don’t work. The point is that you still can’t conclude that dressing down will make a woman safe, because of what happens above drive thresholds. If a man is prepared to sexually assault strangers at night to satisfy his sex drive, it’s a reasonable guess that he must have a high sex drive at the time – way over the threshold where his preferences about clothing make any difference. The Drive Threshold Model therefore predicts that his choice of victim will have nothing to do with the way she’s dressed.

From which I draw three conclusions. In ascending order of importance—

For social justice people: the findings of science are not biased, or at least not hopelessly biased, by the scientists’ ideology. Biology is not the enemy.

For evo psych buffs: feminism will usually turn out to be right. Go ahead and bet on it.

For everyone: stop freaking telling women not to dress like sluts and they’ll be safe from rape. It doesn’t work.

Friday, 6 March 2015

Ships that pass in the night

If I ever get my hands on a working time-machine, the first thing I shall do is organize a public debate between C. S. Lewis and Steven Pinker. Not (I’m sure they would both protest) that it would be an especially momentous encounter compared to what you could do with a time-machine. If all goes well, rest assured I will also talk to Shakespeare and Virgil and Homer and the author of Beowulf, document the Polynesian conquest of the Pacific and the first people in the Americas and Australia, film mammoths and indricotheres and dinosaurs in their natural habitat, witness the origin of life, and all that other guff. But the Lewis-Pinker debate will serve as a proof of concept.

Why those two in particular? Because they are so different and yet so similar. Both are fascinated by language, and by what it reveals about the mind. It seemed a little too good to be true, a few years ago, when a manuscript was discovered containing Lewis’s opening contribution to a planned collaborative work with J. R. R. Tolkien, to be entitled Language and Human Nature. Sadly, Seven magazine, which I gather printed the fragment, hasn’t uploaded it to the web. It was never completed because Tolkien was as bad at finishing things as I am, and also he was bogged down in The Lord of the Rings at the time the project began. But that tantalizing title could be the subtitle for most of Pinker’s popular works. On language, Pinker and Lewis nearly always agree.

Monday, 23 February 2015

Not in my name

Today New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key announced in Parliament that New Zealand would be sending troops to Iraq to help the US fight the Islamic State. There was no vote.

I could really just finish with that. When you look at the other parties’ responses it’s pretty clear why National didn’t risk putting it to a vote. The aim, Key says, is to protect “the rule of law”, which he identified with “the international rules-based system”. I’m not sure whether I’m alarmed or relieved that he didn’t claim to be acting for “democracy”. Was that because he thinks you can have the rule of law without democracy? Or was the irony of sending people to die for democracy without a vote just that little bit too uncomfortable even for him?

Here’s the thing, if you don’t see the problem. Every system of government is “rules-based”. Slavery was “rules-based”, with rules like “Slaves must not run away” and “Slaves may not be taught to read”. The Nazis had all sorts of rules – about who could marry whom, about what you could say about the Führer. There is no reason in principle why rules shouldn’t coexist comfortably with hideous violence. The question that matters is whether the rules are devised by the powerful or by the people.

But given the disgraceful behaviour of the New Zealand police at the Auckland Pride Parade on Saturday, I’d say the people who run our country have long since forgotten that.

Friday, 13 February 2015

Atheism is not a vaccine against bigotry

The three victims of the Chapel Hill shooting

A couple of days ago in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a guy called Craig Hicks walked into the house shared by his newly-married neighbours Deah Barakat and Yusor Mohammad and shot them and Mohammad’s visiting sister Razan, killing all three. Hicks’ immediate inspiration for the act seems to have been a parking dispute. Would he have done the same over a disagreement with his white neighbours, his neighbours with north-western European names, or his neighbours whose ancestors had lived more than two generations in the US? If so, it would break the nauseously familiar pattern that so far his crime seems to instantiate. Us-and-Them thinking cannot be uprooted from the human psyche; all the more urgent that its shoots be plucked off at first sight.

There’s a twist. As well as their skin colour, ethnicity, and provenance, the victims were all Muslim. That’s not the twist. Hicks advocates right-wing politics and opposes gun control. That’s not the twist either. The twist is that Hicks is an atheist, indeed a “New Atheist”, a devotee of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. It’s looking like his atheism was part of the parcel that led him to think shooting someone is OK if they’re Muslim and nick your parking space.

New Atheism is one of multiple crowds that I hang out on the fringes of. I’m not a big fan of Harris or Hitchens and my opinion of Dawkins has taken a pounding in the last couple of years, but I still admire Daniel C. Dennett and Steven Pinker, and I applaud Stephen Fry’s stance on God in the recent viral YouTube video. I could distance myself from Hicks by doing some Us-and-Themmery of my own – redneck! gun-nut! libertarian! patriarch! – but that wouldn’t be honest. His crime has no bearing on the existence or otherwise of God, but it has punctured the protective bubble of self-praise that New Atheists have blown up around ourselves, part of which was that New Atheists don’t blow that sort of bubble.

So here goes. No, violent aggression against people seen as “other” did not come into the world with religion. Most of today’s major religions became major by harnessing it, but it predates them and, if Hicks is anything to go by, will survive their demise. No, rejecting supernatural beliefs does not make you immune to it. Yes, reason is one of the antidotes, but for that to work you have to commit yourself to the use of reason as your sole means of persuasion. Using the word “reason” as a badge of superiority won’t cut it.

Yes, Islam is a religion, not a race. Yes, some of Islam’s sternest critics are former Muslims. Yes, they include leftists like Maryam Namazie as well as neocons like Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Yes, one can leave Islam through mental effort. No, that doesn’t make it OK to harass Muslims for being Muslims. Yes, everyone should have the right to free speech. No, that doesn’t mean Muslims have to stop complaining when people trash-talk them. Actually that’s kind of the opposite of what it means, when you think about it. Yes, false beliefs can be harmful. Yes, clinging to beliefs beyond the warrant of the evidence is therefore dangerous. No, that doesn’t mean it should be punished, except insofar as rational debate constitutes punishment.

No, Islam does not contain qualitatively nastier ideas than Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism. Yes, there is historical contingency as well as present geopolitics in the tangle of contributing factors that help explain why majority-Muslim countries nowadays are trailing the rest of the world on violence and human rights. Yes, particular readings of the Qur’an are part of the tangle. No, there is no sense in which they are “core beliefs” of Islam but the phobia of Jews, heresy, and Satan were not “core beliefs” of Christianity well into modern times.

Yes, 9/11 and the Charlie Hebdo shootings were committed in the name of Islam. No, that doesn’t mean every single Muslim is more violent than every single non-Muslim, even by a tiny degree. It means, at most, that (at present) the proportion of people who are violent is slightly larger in Muslim populations than in other populations. If that justifies shooting Muslims, then the same logic mandates the extermination of men; the prevalence of violence among men is orders of magnitude greater than the prevalence of violence among women (and chronically so). No, Muslim immigrants into non-Muslim countries are not all sleeper agents of the global caliphate waiting for a signal to convert everyone by the sword. Not even mostly.

No, Muslims are not responsible for what other Muslims do just because they’re Muslims. That Enlightenment humanism stuff? That stuff we talk about, where you get judged by your individual actions, not the characteristics of a set that you happen to be a member of? That applies here too.

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Whakamanatia te Tiriti

Imagine with me that you’ve got new neighbours, and they’ve offered you some kind of contract to let them use part of your property. Let’s say, just for the sake of the example, that your house has a garage and theirs doesn’t, but they have a car and you get by with a motorbike. So when they move in they knock on the door and ask if they can use your garage. You’re a bit dubious at first, but they come back the next day with a contract all drawn up that says they’ll give you regular payments for maintenance, they’ll always leave you room to store your motorbike in there, and if you need the garage for anything bigger all you need to do is ask and they’ll park on the street that day. You check and double-check the small print and it’s all legit, so you sign.

The following morning you awake to the sound of your neighbours converting your garage to a sleep-out for their teenage son. You run out, waving your copy of the contract and shouting angrily. They smile indulgently and produce their original version of the contract, with your signature impressed on it through carbon-paper. It’s written in their native language, and in translation (they explain) it gives them complete right of ownership over your garage in exchange for a small weekly payment. They apologize for having badly translated it when they gave it to you. But you signed, and they’ve started the weekly payments, they say, so the garage is theirs now.

Morally, you’ve been swindled. How about legally? If you took them to court, what would you argue? Supposing – at this point the analogy gets a little frayed, but we’re approaching the real thing a bit closer – supposing it turned out they belonged to a completely separate jurisdiction, so that you had to recourse to international law. What then?

As a matter of fact, international law has a well-recognised principle devised for this exact situation. After all, when two nations sign a treaty it’s quite likely that the signatories will be seeing it in two different languages. The principle that has been adopted in all such disputes is called contra proferentem, which is Latin for “against the one bringing it forth”. What this means in our analogy is that since you didn’t have any input into formulating the terms of the contract, the version you signed in your language is the only official version. The other one is null and void; you never signed that one! The fact that it was older, and contained the drafters’ true intention, is legally irrelevant.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Sexism in the Bible

Look, I’m sorry about this. I don’t mean to pick on anybody, honest. But I’m trying to blog weekly if I possibly can, and that means I need to find something to comment on every week, and it’s much easier to comment on things I disagree with. And this is a topic on which I often encounter opinions I disagree with. So it will tend to come up. And Parliament wasn’t in session for the year when I began writing, and my only lecture over the summer is Chemistry, which doesn’t generate many disagreements. So it’s back to religion. My previous post discussed a conflict between Christianity and progressive politics, and that’s also the topic of this one. Sorry.

There was an argument on a friend’s Facebook over how sexist the Bible is. In my experience there are two ways these kinds of argument go, and this was the more common one, between Christians and non-Christians who agree that sexism is bad, disagreeing over whether the Bible is sexist (and therefore bad). The other way it goes is when Christians who think sexism is bad (and therefore the Bible can’t be sexist) argue with Christians who think the Bible is sexist (and therefore sexism can’t be bad). Either way, the non-sexist Christians always end up in a bit of a bind. You can get feminist messages out of the Bible if you wring it hard enough, of course, but then with sufficient verbal gymnastics you can get any message out of any text. Let me demonstrate, using a deliberately outrageous example.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Nerds, feminism, and privilege

Content note: rape, sexual entitlement, homophobia, suicidal thoughts

You know that thing the internet does, where comments inspire blog posts inspire articles inspire whole pop-cultural trends? It reminds me most of a drama-class exercise I once did (in preparation for my only stage performance ever, at Allen Hall Theatre), where everyone stands in a circle and you stare at the person opposite you, and any movement they might make, no matter how tiny or unintentional, you copy but make slightly larger. Gradually something that started as an involuntary twitch of a finger turns into a whole-body thrash. Anyway, it’s starting to do it again, and I find I have something to say on the issue.

It started with a guy called Scott Aaronson, who nearly a month ago wrote a short blog post on a physics teacher at MIT who’d been caught sexually harassing his students via e-mail. His comment section blossomed the way mine don’t, and about a week later the conversation had come around to the question of whether nerdy men are more creepy towards women than other men, or less, or about the same. And something someone said hit a nerve, and Aaronson gave a very personal response.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Hegel has a lot to answer for

Writing this post is making me a little edgy. Most of the friends I’ve made since leaving high school, I met through student activism in one capacity or another. Which means a lot of my friends are people who hold Marxism dear. That makes criticizing Marxism a painful thing for me to do. And it’s not as if I have to do it, exactly, I could just meander to the back of the crowd and mumble insincerely when my political coalition voices opinions that I find problematic in support of the positions that I am trying to help them defend. But I don’t feel that that’s entirely honest, for one thing; and also, unexamined assumptions in my worldview niggle at me. They keep me awake at night. So before I even start on what the problems are, let me talk about the parts of Marxist theory which I do agree with.
In fact, I’ll start with one that will most clearly establish where my loyalties lie. With the Marxists, and against free-market economic theory, I think that profit in a capitalist economy depends largely or wholly on the exploitation of labour. But this is going to make me look like an economic naïf if I don’t explain a bit. Which I don’t mind doing, because although I’ve said it a few times before, I think it’s one of those things that needs to be said again and again until people get it.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Et tu, Randall Munroe?

You all know who Randall Munroe is, right? Or at least if I put the letters X, K, C, and D together in that order you know what I’m talking about? Good.
xkcd is one of the science-y-est things on the internet. But even Munroe can slip on the old “I bet those scientists didn’t anticipate the potential flaw in their method that I spotted when I read a lay account that didn’t go into all the fiddly details about controls and things” banana-skin once in a while. Here’s the strip I’m talking about:
Our fMRI study found that subjects performing simple memory tasks showed activity in the parts of the brain associated with loud noises, claustrophobia, and the removal of jewellery.
Munroe’s mouse-over caption reads “They also showed activation in the parts of the brain associated with exposure to dubious study methodology, concern about unremoved piercings, and exasperation with fMRI techs who won’t stop talking about Warped Tour.”

Um, Randall? Do you know what the f in fMRI stands for? It’s “functional”. Functional magnetic resonance imaging differs from boring old magnetic resonance imaging in the software it uses, and what that software basically does is record changes in brain activity (well, in blood flow to particular parts of the brain) between the moment before the experimental stimulus and the moment after it. Any activity attendant on the experience of being in an fMRI machine, per se, will not change. It will be the same on both sides of the stimulus and so will cancel out.
Which doesn’t of course mean that science can’t or shouldn’t be criticized by non-experts. Just check whether they’ve figured out what you’ve figured out before you start telling people that they haven’t, OK?

Thursday, 27 November 2014

This time, there is a right side and a wrong side to be on

I wasn’t going to say anything about what’s going on in Ferguson because I haven’t got anything to say that isn’t already being said. I’m white, so my voice is not the voice you need to hear, and I’m neither an American nor resident in the United States so my influence over what’s happening is distant-to-nil. But some well-meaning people are posting memes on my Facebook to the effect of “let’s everybody calm down and stop calling each other names.” As if there were anything remotely resembling equality or balance in the situation.
Here is what’s going on, people. Some people are angry and yes, some of them are probably making a bit of a mess. The reason why they’re angry is because the people tasked with protecting them (as members of society) from harm and exploitation are killing them without provocation because of their skin colour. That is only happening on one side. There have been no cases of black police officers killing unarmed white youths.
You do not get to tell people to stop expressing their anger about their families being killed by agents of the Government for no reason. You just don’t.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

The kind of religion I’m against

I am an atheist from a Christian family. Quite a few of my Facebook friends are people I knew from church back in the day, and most of them are still Christians if not necessarily still at that church. So quite often I get religious memes across my feed, and there will sometimes be religious conversation around the dinner-table when I visit my family. It seems to me that I exercise quite a noble degree of restraint on these occasions, continually refraining from passing critical comment, saying nothing in front of the children. But of course everybody feels that they respond better to annoyances than they really do, and that they themselves are less annoying than they really are.
This isn’t going to be about why I don’t believe in God. Nor is it going to be anywhere near all my thoughts on religion. I just want to stake out my position on the question: to what degree should religion be tolerated, and to what degree should it be opposed? Is it like race or gender, so that opposition to a belief different from one’s own is bigotry? Is it like politics, so that the rights and wrongs depend partly on what you want and what you stand for? Or is it like science, so that there is a “truth of the matter” and other positions are factually false? And can everyone please at least pick one of those and stick with it, rather than being like “My religion is like my race and you’re a bigot if you dispute it, but other people’s religions are like their politics and I hereby declare my opposition to them because I don’t want them to be true”?
I’ve been drafting this post on and off for a while now. I started it when Libby Anne over at Love, Joy, Feminism wrote this post on the four major goals of the atheist movement, of which she endorses three, the exception being “working toward a world without religion”. I agree with most of what she says, but somehow the whole thing doesn’t quite sit comfortably in my head. (By contrast I agree completely with what she said recently about Sam Harris, though admittedly because it’s just what I already thought.) Of all things, what’s drawn me back to it is that, in the small choir I sing in, we’re now practising a setting of Thomas Hardy’s 1915 poem The Oxen for the upcoming Christmas concert. But I’ll get to that.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Why couldn’t we have had a movie about Lúthien?

I gather the Tolkien family have put their foot down and said “no” to any more Middle-Earth movies after The Hobbit is completed. I’m disappointed, but only mildly. The days are now past when any attempt to depict high fantasy on screen was bound to fail ignominiously. I don’t begrudge the Tolkiens their decision – apparently their father’s fame has been the bane of their privacy for half a century, not to mention that the movie companies have been very stingy about passing any of their profits on to his estate. And I understand completely why Peter Jackson and Weta Workshop went for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit first. But I think Tolkien himself was a bit embarrassed by The Hobbit. It wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the mythos at all – he just helped himself to the name of a character (Elrond) and a place (the lost city of Gondolin) to give it a bit of atmosphere, and then filled out the connections over the twelve years it took to write The Lord of the Rings. (Which then took six more years to publish. And George R. R. Martin fans complain about waiting five for A Dance with Dragons.)
Those two were the only Middle-Earth books J. R. R. Tolkien got published in his lifetime. All right, those and a small collection of verse under the title The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. His son Christopher is still, I think, collecting and transcribing the giant mass of manuscripts he left when he died, some of them going right back to his time in the trenches of World War I. The first published was The Silmarillion, a collection of the whole mythos condensed down to one chapter per story, which many people understandably find tough going. Jackson has had to stretch and pad out The Hobbit to make three movies of it; The Silmarillion would fill at least a dozen.
Of all Jackson’s padding, the single element that has raised the most fan complaints so far is the most necessary one: the invention of the female elf-ranger Tauriel among Thranduil’s people in Mirkwood. I have a sneaking suspicion Jackson is going to kill her off in the third movie. The Hobbit was a boys’ adventure story, and like many boys’ adventure stories of the time it had no female characters. The Lord of the Rings has seven named female characters, eight if you count Shelob the spider. Two, Lobelia Sackville-Baggins and Ioreth of Minas Tirith, are old-lady stereotypes. One is Rosie Cotton, who doesn’t show up until Sam Gamgee needs a happy ending. The remaining four are all idealized models of femininity – Goldberry, Arwen Evenstar, Galadriel, and Éowyn of Rohan. Goldberry, like Tom Bombadil her husband, appears only in a disconnected episode near the beginning; her character is too sketchily drawn to tell us much about her author’s values. Arwen, Galadriel, and Éowyn each warrant further investigation.

Monday, 27 October 2014

And so it begins

Just over a month since the election, and National are making the labour laws on things like tea-breaks more “flexible”. This doesn’t mean the workers will be able to flex them, obviously. Only the employer. Oh, but it’s all right, they can only take your tea-break away if you agree to it. No coercion there. After all, it’s not like they control your weekly wage or can hold the veiled threat of dismissal over your head or anything, is it?
I can see how they’ll argue it from here. It’ll be “Let the market sort it out” – the idea that if you don’t like the conditions your employer offers you can go find another job somewhere else. It’s Economics 101. And, like Economics 101, it ignores the fact that labour supply is negatively elastic. People work more hours when their pay is low, so they can be sure they’ve got enough cash to cover their needs; they take time off when it’s high and they can afford it. That means the employer gets more work out of them by offering less in exchange for it, which means that the law of supply and demand will always push wages and conditions straight down to the bottom. I’ve argued this before, more than once. It is something that those who run this country, and those who vote for them, urgently need to understand.
What’s the alternative? For now, I’ll settle for keeping the government-mandated regulations we have, or used to have, on what wages and conditions are acceptable. In the long term, however, the problem is that while “flexible” very easily (as here) becomes a weasel word for “exploitative”, it does refer to something real as well. Different workplaces operate under different constraints. No one size fits all. So if the market won’t fix the problem, what will? Dare I suggest democracy might? I don’t mean democracy via parliament, I mean direct democracy. I mean workers owning equal shares in the company, setting company policy, voting executives in and out.
Yes, if you are the kind of person to whom a company is something you own rather than something that tells you what to do, this would be a bit of a shock to the system. By all means argue against the idea. But let’s be clear: what you stand to lose is neither more nor less nor other than your personal power over a bunch of other people’s lives. If you think that makes you sound like the bad guy, you might want to think very carefully about that. Don’t come complaining to me. You hold your employees’ well-being, present and future, in the palm of your hand. You don’t want that? Give it back to them.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

The “context” doesn’t always make it better

When Libby Anne of Love, Joy, Feminism wrote this post about being an atheist but not working against religion, I started drafting a reply. But that was three weeks ago, and other things have taken up my attention in the meantime. Then Sam Harris posted this complaint about having his words (from The End of Faith) taken out of context in an image meme. And he provided what he considered to be the necessary context. The thing is, the context doesn’t actually make him look much better. I do think that religion in general is something that should be opposed, and some day I’ll get around to explaining why. But it is much more important that Sam Harris’s kind of atheism be opposed. I’ll give you the full passage, with the offending sentence in bold. Content note: violence, casual reference to torture, fear tactics targeting a non-Western religion.
The power that belief has over our emotional lives appears to be total. For every emotion that you are capable of feeling, there is surely a belief that could invoke it in a matter of moments. Consider the following proposition:
Your daughter is being slowly tortured in an English jail.
What is it that stands between you and the absolute panic that such a proposition would loose in the mind and body of a person who believed it? Perhaps you do not have a daughter, or you know her to be safely at home, or you believe that English jailors are renowned for their congeniality. Whatever the reason, the door to belief has not yet swung upon its hinges.
The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense. This is what the United States attempted in Afghanistan, and it is what we and other Western powers are bound to attempt, at an even greater cost to ourselves and to innocents abroad, elsewhere in the Muslim world. We will continue to spill blood in what is, at bottom, a war of ideas.

Note on the above:
We do not have to bring the membership of al-Qaeda “to justice” merely because of what happened on Sept 11, 2001. The thousands of men, women, and children who disappeared in the rubble of the World Trade Centre are beyond our help – and successful acts of retribution, however satisfying they may be to some people, will not change this fact. Our subsequent actions in Afghanistan and elsewhere are justified because of what will happen to more innocent people if members of al-Qaeda are allowed to go on living by the light of their peculiar beliefs. The horror of Sept 11 should motivate us, not because it provides us with a grievance that we now must avenge, but because it proves beyond any possibility of doubt that certain twenty-first-century Muslims actually believe the most dangerous and implausible tenets of their faith.
Sam Harris, The End of Faith, cited by the author in On the Mechanics of Defamation
I hadn’t read The End of Faith before. Otago University’s copy is housed in a special collection of books on religious topics which for historical reasons is outside the campus and bothersome to get to. If I had read this passage before now, I would have held Harris in much lower esteem than I did up until he blogged it. Honestly, I’m mystified as to what part of the “context” he provides is supposed to make it any better to suggest it might ever be OK to kill people for their beliefs. Granted that a person’s beliefs motivate their action to an extent that nothing else does; still, belief in turn is contingent upon circumstances, as the gratuitously horrifying analogy Harris himself opens with should have demonstrated (what would have been wrong with Steven Pinker’s illustration of the same point, “Your car is being towed”?). One way belief can change is through rational conversation, albeit usually some time after the fact, but I can think of no strategy better designed to close the doors on rational conversation than to suggest you might be justified in killing your interlocutor for their beliefs. A more common reason for belief to change is that the new belief makes better sense of the believer’s life experience than the old one, but if the old one is “Westerners are evil and must be destroyed”, then a pronouncement like Harris’s is only going to confirm it.
There was a time when it was generally accepted that it was reasonable to kill someone for their beliefs. Then people changed their minds about that, and there’s a reason why that change of mind was called “the Enlightenment”. Yes, I know that Europeans used the gains they enjoyed from killing each other less to consolidate their power and go and harass the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Enlightenment sceptics didn’t go around killing Christians. Or suggesting killing Christians. Or saying it would be ethical to kill Christians if they couldn’t capture them. Considering what Catholics and Protestants as groups at that time earnestly believed they needed to do to sceptics, as well as to “witches” and each other, by Harris’s standards the sceptics’ conduct was needlessly and indeed foolhardily restrained. Does Harris – does anyone – think civilization would have been better advanced if they’d taken up arms?
Harris might answer that those are pragmatic considerations, bearing on the wisdom of saying that it’s ethical to kill some people for their beliefs rather than on whether it’s true. Harris and I have different views of what constitutes the ethical, of course. I agree with him that the basic measure of goodness is subjective well-being. And my view on subjective consciousness allows at least the theoretical possibility of aggregating and comparing well-being across multiple subjects (Harris’s view, that consciousness is irreducibly and unfathomably mysterious, would rule this out). But ethics is not just about what circumstances would, in theory, be best, if only they could happen. It’s about what actions on our part will bring about the best result. For this purpose there is no getting around the fact that you can’t measure well-being in practice. You have to factor your uncertainty, and other people’s uncertainty about you, into your calculations. In the end it works out to maximizing trust and minimizing fear. If someone is actively trying to kill you or other innocent people, killing them might in many tragic cases be the best you can do; but attacking first creates fear, not trust, and is therefore unethical. I can’t quite believe that actually needed saying.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Why my gender sometimes embarrasses me

I want to be clear right from the get-go: this post is addressed to men. I have no intention of adding to the internet’s glutted store of earnest male advice to feminists about the delicate intricacies of men’s sexual feelings. They’ve heard it all before, a million times. No, I’m facing the other way. Men need to understand why their sexual feelings don’t impose any obligations on women. I doubt I’ll convince any MRAs or rapists. My target audience is guys who sincerely believe that mostly the genders are treated pretty much equally in our society, give or take a few institutional holdovers from the past. And I’m hoping (or wanting, at least, I’m not terribly optimistic) to reach some of those who draw the conclusion that all this “free and willing consent” stuff was thought up by angry lesbians who just don’t understand men’s Needs. Well, I understand men’s Needs, and I say free and willing consent is a moral necessity.
So there’s a secret group on Facebook, based at my place of work, where male students get signed up to share nude photos of their partners that the partners haven’t consented to have shared. That isn’t consent, if you’re wondering. That is sexual assault. What had me facepalming, though, was that apparently they framed this as a way to show “respect and appreciation” for women. At which, let me tell you, all the women I’ve heard mention it simply boggle. It’s unbelievable. You don’t show respect for someone by displaying their body to strangers without their consent. Well, it would be unbelievable, that is, if I hadn’t met similar attitudes before.

Friday, 3 October 2014

Special votes are in

And it looks like the Greens have gained a seat and National have lost one. This means National no longer have an absolute majority. However, Act, i.e. David Seymour, is likely to support their changes to the Resource Management Act and the employment laws and pretty much everything else they want to do, so I’m not celebrating very hard.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Don’t ask questions if you don’t want the answers

Back in August I blogged about a lecture on the “obesity epidemic”. Since then (under the roar of the election) it’s become clear that the scientific consensus, at least within the Health Sciences Division of the University of Otago, is that
  • Obesity is a major contributing cause of a lot of health problems, most especially Type 2 diabetes
  • The Body Mass Index (BMI) is a reasonable measure for most people, as long as you use a bit of common sense about people with high muscle mass
  • What determines your BMI is a simple matter of calories in minus calories out; where complications arise is in what determines calories in and calories out
  • However, shouting at people to eat less and exercise more accomplishes little to nothing
As I think I’ve said before, the scientific consensus is not always right. For about half a century after somebody thought up the idea of continental drift, the scientific consensus was that it was silly. Now it’s the underlying explanatory theory of geology, or rather plate tectonics, which explains why continents drift, is. However, the scientific consensus is always a better bet than politically-motivated maverick hypotheses. So I’m sorry, I can no longer endorse arguments against fat-shaming which rest on the BMI being nonsense, or weight being unrelated to diet and exercise, or weight being irrelevant to general health. Not until you show me well-evidenced scientific studies showing that (as it might be) weight is a confounder for the effects of diet and exercise, or something.
I think it is reasonable, however, to draw the conclusion that the free market is failing horribly to distribute food in anything like an optimal manner. The human brain’s appetite networks are not calibrated for a world where you can get fat and sugar on tap and you don’t have to walk ten kilometres a day if you don’t want to. We who live in developed countries consume more than is good for us and expend less energy than is good for us. That’s not so much a matter of us being wealthy – these effects hit the poor in unequal developed countries hardest – as of us being urbanized, industrialized, having work schedules that rely on pre-processed foods which give us a quick hit of energy to the brain. Meanwhile as people continue to starve in undeveloped countries, supermarkets throw food away by the tonne on the pretext of it not being “fresh”, and then prosecute people who retrieve it. I don’t believe most of the scaremongering that goes on around genetically engineered foods (because science, again) but I don’t think they’re going to solve nutrition poverty in the undeveloped world. Those GM supercrops are just going to end up in Western supermarket dumpsters.
So capitalism is not doing what it’s supposed to. But the one alternative to capitalism that anybody’s seriously tried in the past couple of centuries, that of course being communism, did even worse. That’s partly because queuing is not such a great system of goods distribution either, but it’s also in large part because they let their politics dictate their agricultural science. Crops were supposed to grow stronger if planted close together, out of class solidarity, you see. It didn’t work out. Can we please start letting the evidence drive our thinking, instead of the other way around?

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

What I’d need not to have known, to have voted National

I spent quite a while tweaking that title. I’m still a little angry over the way the election went. I don’t think I’m going to be less angry any time in the next three years. But it’s become undeniable that this isn’t like 1999, when most of the country had just plain had enough of the National Party’s bullshit, and our main concern was to make sure Labour didn’t slide too far to the right. Come to that, most of the country had had enough of National’s bullshit by 1996, it’s just that a critical minority made the mistake of trusting Winston Peters. This time, we need to try and understand what’s going wrong for the Left in New Zealand. We can’t retreat into comfortingly aggressive slogans about how our opponents are just pigs and their voters just sheep.
I want to be very clear about one thing from the start. When I talk about the Left, I’m referring to a certain cluster of political theories and attitudes; I do not mean a particular party or parties within New Zealand’s parliamentary system. I was six years old the last time Labour could say they stood for workers and the poor without people coughing behind their hands. I am not interested in Labour returning to 40% of the vote if it has to abandon the struggle for equality (again) to do so. My vision is not of a country where National is pretty much still in government only they wear red ties instead of blue. But on the other hand it’s vital we learn something from this. We’re going to need to have some very forthright conversations about what is and what is not essential to the Left. And we’re going to need to reach a general consensus. And after that, anything that turns out to be a secondary concern is going to need to be sidelined unless it’s a means for achieving the primary concerns, and that question is going to need to be settled on the basis of evidence.

Monday, 22 September 2014

I was wrong about the election

I made some rash predictions last time, and also at least one factual error: the Greens did once have an electorate seat. In fact on Saturday night National was returned to Government with a bigger majority than ever. This means one pattern in history hasn’t been broken (National has never had fewer than three terms in a row since it first formed) but another one has (no third-term government in New Zealand history has ever increased its majority). As things stand the National Party holds an absolute majority in Parliament, one of the things MMP was supposed to prevent. The numbers won’t be complete until the special votes come in from New Zealanders overseas, and they tend to favour the Greens. But they won’t be enough to reverse what happened on Saturday. Everybody on the Left is trying to figure out what went wrong, and I’ll join them in the next few days – there are some very odd patterns in the numbers that need attention paid to them. Meanwhile I’m just posting this so you don’t all think I’m sulking.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Election rant (this is how I write when I have a time limit)

My plan, you see, was to finish the previous post within the week and then run a short series of posts on election issues coming up to polling day. But no, somehow I just couldn’t either marshal my thoughts in a timely fashion, nor give up on it and leave it as a draft and write other stuff in the meantime. Note to self: that is how you maintain a blogging schedule, it isn’t going to work otherwise. Now polling day is tomorrow. And by law you can’t publish anything between midnight and 7pm on polling day that might influence someone’s vote. So I have to get this finished in the next seven hours. And you all get to see how I write when I haven’t got time to go back and edit.
As usual I have to be conscious that a lot of my readers are not New Zealanders. Recently I seem to have been oddly popular in Turkey, and a while back it was the Ukraine. So I guess I have to tell you about all the parties as well. I could link you to them, but frankly that seems like more work than just writing, especially because whenever I wander away from this editor page to look something up it takes me ten minutes to get back. I should perhaps mention that I am a little bit medicated right now as well. Actually, no, first I have to explain New Zealand’s electoral system, for New Zealanders as well as non-New Zealanders, as you’ll see.
Back in the days of First Past the Post National and Labour were the only realistic options going. Back then we voted the way I think Americans still do, that is, we cast a single vote each for the local electorate candidate, and the government was whichever party had a majority of the seats in Parliament. Now imagine what happens if you have a lot of electorates with a small preference for National, and one or two electorates with an overwhelming preference for Labour, and you can see why this doesn’t necessarily end up representing the country. And you can imagine how likely it would be that a new party would break into more than one electorate at a time. So we had a two-party system. A vote for any other party was a wasted vote and, if you and your partner both happened to favour different parties, you might form a pact not to vote at all, because your votes would just cancel each other out. Which unless you spend the entire election day at home seems to me to be a highly exploitable situation, but whatever.
I feel like shouting very loudly at this point because we changed this in 1993. 1993. I’ve been saying “we” but in reality I have never voted under this system. Never. Not in my life. I turned 18 in 1996, and cast my first vote under the new system, which is called MMP – Mixed Member Proportional. There will be New Zealanders voting in this election who weren’t born last time we were still using First Past the Post. And I am still seeing people on Facebook talking about “wasting votes” by voting for the minor parties. Or asking people to make sure a Labour electorate candidate got in “so that we have one more Labour MP in Parliament.” Or even talking about their votes “cancelling out”. And while I deplore violence, I must in honesty report that talk like this gives rise to images in my brain involving grabbing people by their jackets and head-butting them while yelling “It doesn’t! Work! That! Way! Any! More!”

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Purity vs. consent

Content note: rape culture, victim-blaming, sexual entitlement
Seeing as you’re reading this on the internet, you are presumably already aware that somebody hacked into a whole bunch of well-known women’s electronic devices (most prominently Jennifer Lawrence’s), stole nude photos which were not intended for publication, and posted them on Reddit. No, I haven’t seen them. No, I won’t be looking for them. Yes, I’m aware that the theft has been given an offensive and puerile name online, and no, I won’t be using it. I’m not really here to talk about it anyway. I’m here to talk about an attitude I’ve seen coming through in people’s responses to it. If you are unclear at all as to what’s wrong with looking at nude pictures of people who haven’t given their permission for you to look at them, start here. Or here. Or here. Or here. Or, for some appropriately thunderous sarcasm, here (“It’s basic logic: If you don’t want your wallet stolen, don’t have money. If you don’t want to be strangled to death, stop breathing”).
I’m not a big risk-taker myself, but my faith in humanity must be, because I often read the comments on articles like that. Here are some excerpts.
I agree with your view and urge you to direct your obvious energy and intellect to the cause of banning pornography.

There are zero photos of me naked on the interweb. Know how I know this? I’ve never taken one (zero, coincidentally, is the number of people who would be interested in seeing said photos were they to exist, but I digress). Knowing they’re in the spotlight and knowing that predators like the criminal who hacked their accounts are out there, I do think they’re silly for taking the risk of sharing photos of this sort...

Just one question. Why did JLaw have nude pics done in the first place?

Can we have more articles supporting sending naked pictures to loved ones? I think any idiot should be allowed to electronically send their face atop their exposed body.
On the other hand, maybe people can learn from their mistakes, and not try to avoid the idea of deserving to have regrets. Is it perhaps possible that, though all rape is rape, girls can voluntarily do things with their body that they wish they never did?
Maybe, I’ll receive a scathing response from the public, who will tell me, “Even though this hacking has been happening for years, it is a woman’s choice if she wants to take that chance.”

If you’re an attractive female celebrity, you can be certain that at any point in time there are hundreds, if not thousands of people (some of them newspaper reporters), doing their absolute best to hack into any and all of your personal information. Hence, it would be prudent to restrict the amount of personal information you store in a digital form.

To be honest, I feel no sympathy for anyone affected by this hacking.
Anyone who allows their sensitive, personal, private information on the internet – no matter how “secure” the storage location – shouldn’t be at all surprised when that information is stolen. It’s unfortunate that there are people in our society willing to exploit others, particularly women... But ultimately, I cannot see anyone naïve enough to misuse technology in this manner as blameless.
Someone did point out to that last person that people’s medical history is stored in the Cloud, so that any new doctor they go to can access it quickly. Try the thought experiment: replace “nude photos” with any other kind of private information, and nobody would try to pretend that the hack was anything other than the nasty assault on personal autonomy that, indeed, it was. The “It was their own silly fault” stance makes no sense.
But you know me. I’m never content with “It makes no sense”. Let’s see if we can find a perspective from which it does make sense, and see if that teaches us anything.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The case for clean(er) politics

New Zealand is buzzing right now about Nicky Hager’s new book Dirty Politics. Buzzing so hard, in fact, that it’s sold out, and I can’t see myself getting hold of a copy before the election. (There have been rumours of it being bought up and destroyed by National supporters, but I haven’t seen these substantiated and they seem implausible, given the financial and political costs such actions would incur.) So I can’t quote word for word. But there are plenty of summaries and synopses and juicy tidbits being shared all over the net. For non-New-Zealanders, and New Zealanders currently living under a rock, I gather the basic gist is this:
Right-wing blogger Cameron Slater, he of “Whale Oil Beef Hooked”, has been covertly getting fed information, in various forms, from the very highest levels of government, which he’s been using to smear and slur and manipulate both the National Party’s political opponents and anybody nominally on their own side who they wanted rid of. Among other things, he’s been given Labour Party membership data obtained by hacking their database, and he’s been tipped off when potentially embarrassing Official Information Act requests are being processed, so that he can request the same information, get it first, and blog it himself with a pro-National spin. There’s a summary of the major allegations here.
Details that have been quoted or scanned on blogs and tweets and Facebook reveal a consistently nasty mindset, from calling Canterbury earthquake survivors “useless pricks” to a fundamental disrespect for the rights of young women. Prime Minister John Key has of course dismissed the whole thing as a left-wing conspiracy theory and put Judith Collins, the National Party minister who has worked most closely with Slater, on what I think is her third or fourth final warning by now.
Not having seen the book itself, I can’t comment on it directly. What I wanted to talk about was a much more humane blogger’s take on the situation. Chris Trotter is New Zealand’s foremost representative of what I guess you’d call the Old Left. His response is captured in the title of the piece: Dirty Politics – Is There Any Other Kind? My response to that is: There had better be.

Friday, 15 August 2014

When science and politics collide

Content note: fat-shaming
Today I took notes in a first-year biochemistry lecture. The students are starting a big module on metabolism, it seems, which is obviously a major part of human life and health. First-year health science papers tend to have a different lecturer every time. They’re often grad students or teaching fellows, but today we had a senior lecturer from the Biochemistry department with dozens of publications to her name. So, not somebody who I’m in a position to call out for bad science in her own subject.
And in this introductory metabolism lecture, this authority on biochemistry and health told a hall full of students that there is an obesity epidemic in the Western world and it’s all due to basic thermodynamics – people eating more joules than they burn off – and it’s causing a raft of health problems that she didn’t detail.
Now she didn’t say or imply that obese people are all lazy gluttons; in fact she pointed out that one problem with exercise is it makes you want to eat more. She didn’t say anything whatsoever about willpower or self-control. She did show us a list of countries ranked by the percentage of obese people in the population, and joked (by way of warning the class not to confuse correlation with causation) that speaking English is evidently a major cause of obesity.
What’s bothering me is that I could find dozens of sites, just a click or two a way from this blog, that say obesity is not something you can fix by changing your eating and/or exercise habits, and that weight as such doesn’t cause the health problems, and that the things today’s lecturer said are myths and constitute fat-shaming. And it’s quite clear that shaming people about their weight doesn’t help them in any way. In general, I think if you look at someone who has a problem that you don’t have, and your immediate response is “That’s ridiculous, why don’t they just—” no matter what you think they should just, you’re wrong. Sometimes people are stupid, but millions of people are not so stupid that they live in thrall to something you can solve with a snap of your fingers.
The point is that politically I agree with the latter group of people. Shaming people about their appearance is a heinous thing to do, regardless of whether they have a “choice” about it or not. But I can’t say that they must have science on their side just because they have morality on their side. Reality is regrettably amoral. If it’s true that Western diet and exercise patterns cause obesity and obesity causes health problems, then it’s true and no amount of cultural repositioning will change that. Equally, if it’s not true it’s not true and no number of people who think it is true will change that.
I’ve written at some length about the parallel issues I have with evolutionary psychology. There I concluded that most of what you see in the popular media is indeed bullshit but there is a core of science underneath that isn’t so easily discredited. I don’t know whether that’s the case on this issue. I would dearly love to stand with my political fellow-travellers here, but I can’t if they’ve got the facts wrong.
Of course scientific assertions are always open to correction. If there are facts I’m missing which support the “there is no obesity epidemic” side, I would love to hear them. But they will have to be facts that a published expert in the biochemistry of metabolism are likely not to have heard of.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Election graffiti: anger is one thing, hate speech is another

Content note: racism, NSFW language
It’s election season here in New Zealand. We vote in six weeks. There are election billboards going up all over the place, and naturally some people are taking matters into their own hands.
Party Vote Act(ual Racism): One Country, One Law (One Dillusion)
(Ab)Use Your Party Vote to keep the government on a short leash: Vote Conservative
Vote (Batman) Labour
There’s a collection of them over at Vandalized NZ Political Billboards on Tumblr, which is where I found these images. It’s dominated by attacks on National Party billboards,
Nicky Wagner (Muppets) Christchurch Central: Party Vote National
Working for (Rich People): Party Vote National
some comparatively subtle,
Carter, Port Hills: Party Vote National (The Rich Deserve More)
some very much not.

Monday, 4 August 2014

What have we learned?

A hundred years and a month or so ago, Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo. This triggered a wave of anti-Serb violence across the Austro-Hungarian Empire, because apparently what one Serb did every Serb was responsible for. As he was a minor, Princip got twenty years in prison instead of the death penalty. He died of tuberculosis just a fifth of the way through his sentence. The Empire demanded that Serbia suppress all anti-Imperial actions and publications and accept Austrian control of their police force. Serbia said “OK,” but they didn’t say “OK” to every single demand, and Austria-Hungary declared war.
Some bits of what happened next, I’m not clear on. The Russians felt obliged to intervene on Serbia’s behalf. The Germans had been itching for a war with both Serbia and Russia for some time. Germany and Austria-Hungary had an alliance with the Ottoman Empire. France and Britain stepped in to help Russia. I don’t know why any of that was the case. I do know that one hundred years ago yesterday, Britain declared war on Germany. At that time, white New Zealanders and Australians identified as British, so from that point on “we” were at war. Which I guess is why my local newspaper dedicated its front page yesterday to the centennial.
Get used to this kind of thing. You’ll be seeing it a lot in the next four years. Thought for the day: World War I was rich countries invading rich countries. Nowadays you don’t see that, “nowadays” here meaning since 1945. Why not? What changed? Why, for the last seventy years, has it only been poor countries being invaded? What trick have rich countries learned in that time for avoiding being warred upon? (It’s certainly not that rich countries no longer go to war.) Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature is required reading here, but has he got it right? He dismisses the popular “nuclear deterrent” theory; I have no problem with that. He also claims that global trade has been a major force for peace, which sits most uncomfortably with my politics but Pinker’s data and logic are persuasive. Basic idea: if country A is a source of trade goods for country B, country B has an incentive not to want country A’s economy disrupted by war.
Something’s missing. One lucrative set of trade goods is armaments, which reverse the incentive structure. If you’re selling guns, you want your customers threatened by wars, so that they’ll buy your guns. Also, protecting trade ships and trade zones has become a major raison d’etre for military deployments. And then look at the protests at all the big free trade conferences; look at the violence governments are prepared to deploy against their own citizens in defence of commerce. Free-trade apologists might reply that the protesters are mistaken or misguided in their choice of political goals, and that trade is a powerful enough force for peace to justify suppressing dissent. But even if trade is a force for peace, so too – taking my information from The Better Angels of Our Nature once again – are democracy and the free exchange of information. Trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement threaten both.
I take Pinker’s point. Economic interdependence links nations together, it helps people put a value on each other’s lives who otherwise didn’t have a reason to care. Yes, that sounds awful, but the reality is no human being could care about every single other one of their seven billion fellow human beings. We care about the couple of hundred people we know personally, and we can have our consciences and our compassion stung by stories and images of a few more, but there comes a point at which it’s just too much. So we can’t hang our plans for world peace on everybody caring, personally, about everybody else. That’s not going to happen.
But granted that economic ties between nations are a good idea per se, is this really the best we can do? Do we have to sign our democracy and our freedoms over to giant corporations and their neoliberal running-dog enforcers? Corporate capitalism is addicted to fossil fuels, which has historically caused shortage crises as well as global warming, and to dirt-cheap labour, which has historically caused large-scale political unrest. Fuel crises and political unrest are both causes of violence. Being better than 1914 is not much to congratulate ourselves on.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

My submission to Statistics New Zealand on gender identity

Statistics New Zealand are asking for submissions on a new standard for doing statistics on people’s gender identity. There’s a submission form here. I filled it out, and this is what I said – being very brief because I didn’t spot the link where you could send Word documents as submissions until I’d already started filling in my answers in the text fields, which only allow 512 characters per question. The one-word answers on the first couple of questions are where I just ticked a checkbox. Italics are where I quote their words.
Do you agree with the proposed concept of gender identity? [Gender identity is defined as a person’s internal, deeply felt sense of being male or female or something other or in between. A person’s gender identity may or may not correspond with their sex (HRC, 2008). Gender identity is subjective and is self-defined.] Yes.
Do you agree with the proposed definitions of related terms? No. If not, please state the definitions you have concerns about, and how you think they could be improved.
I disagree with the definition of “sex” [the distinction between males and females based on the biological differences in sexual characteristics]. I don’t claim to speak for trans people, but I understand that trans women see themselves as female, not “male but feminine”, and likewise, mutatis mutandis, for trans men. Minds merit more attention than genitals in most contexts. And “biological” is too broad and vague a term. Since humans are living things, everything about us is in a sense “biological”.
Are there any other terms you would like to see included in relation to gender identity?
Rather than simply “sex” I would use the terms “anatomical gender”, “physiological gender” or “reproductive gender” when it is necessary to compile statistics on such things (as it might be for medical purposes). “Gender” and “sex” should both, by default, refer to a person’s identity.
The background paper provides some examples of the approaches different countries have taken to collect gender identity information. Do any of these approaches stand out to you as being suitable for use in New Zealand?
No. The simplest and least cisnormative way to collect information on gender would be to remove the tick-boxes entirely, and instead provide a text field for a short written answer.
Is there any other information relevant to the concept of gender identity that you feel is missing from the background paper?
I feel there should be a discussion on the inappropriacy of “biological” essentialism. Genital configuration and the sex chromosomes do correlate with many other features of human anatomy, physiology and psychology, but that does not make either one definitive of a person’s essential nature – any more than any of those said other features.
If you have any further comments about the concept of gender identity or the information in the paper, please add them here.
Should anyone object to the concept of subjective gender identity on Biblical grounds (Deuteronomy 22:5 “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth unto a man...”), please draw their attention to I Samuel 16:7 – “...man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.”
A couple of things I would have said but there wasn’t space:
  • In most contexts I can think of where it is necessary to distinguish behavioral or identity gender (or linguistic gender) from anatomical or physiological gender, one also from time to time wishes to discuss sexual intercourse. If you reserve the word “sex” for physiological gender, you can then run into ambiguities due to the fact that “sex” in common parlance means sexual intercourse.
  • Obviously I don’t think it appropriate for Government departments to incorporate the Bible in their documentation. However Biblical fundamentalism is probably the second-biggest source of opposition to getting past the gender binary, after that weird combination of male entitlement and homophobia that says “I should have the right to contemplate having sex with anyone I find attractive, without facing the horrible possibility that she might be in some sense ‘male’ and thus make me in some sense (oh, the horror, the horror!) ‘gay’.” So I decided to include a counter-argument that would give those people pause for thought.

Monday, 21 July 2014

I only have one thing to say about Gaza

Content note: violence
There is a lot of anger coming across my Facebook feed about Gaza. More of my friends are pro-Palestine than pro-Israel, but one of the pro-Israel ones makes up for it by posting nearly as much as all the pro-Palestine ones combined. You know who you are. But it wasn’t him who posted this image:
“We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children.  We cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.  We will only have peace with the Arabs when they love their children more than they hate us.” —Golda Meir, former Prime Minister of Israel
I’ve been saying nothing because I don’t know any more about Gaza than any other New Zealander who follows international news, and saying anything would only mean I’d have to deal with a storm of anger from somebody. But I’m getting the storm of anger anyway. So this is the one thing I have to say about Gaza:
It is morally wrong to fire explosive devices at people just because they are of the same ethnicity, and live near the same place, as the people who have hurt you. Even if they are also politically aligned with those people. It doesn’t make a moral difference whether the explosive devices are mortar rockets or missiles launched from planes. It is human nature to think essentialistically, but neither “Israel” nor “Palestine” is a monolithic entity that is collectively responsible for everything an individual might do in its name. Killing innocents does not redress any wrong, it compounds it.
The death toll in Gaza is in the hundreds, if it’s not thousands by now. I don’t think the death toll in Israel has cracked single figures yet. If you don’t think the number of people you kill is morally important, you are no better than a terrorist. So I am opposed to Israel’s actions. And I’m not swayed by Meir’s little piece of spin. Last I heard, Israel had a highly-trained military force called Mossad. If you want to convince me Mossad couldn’t enter Gaza and take out the individuals firing rockets – by “take out” I mean capture for trial in an international court of justice, but even targeted assassination would be better than bombing the whole place and killing children – then you have a lot of work to do.
But just because I’m opposed to Israel’s actions doesn’t mean I support Hamas. Look, when two groups of people are trying to kill each other you can bet they’re also telling lies about each other as loud as they can. In a movie one of them would be snowy pure and telling nothing but the truth, but real life isn’t a movie. So I don’t believe everything I hear that opposes Israel just because I also oppose Israel in this. But I do believe that young Gazans are likely to know more than me about the situation, and during an earlier outbreak of violence a year or two ago I read a manifesto by some young Gazans that began: “Fuck Israel! Fuck Hamas!”
Violence breeds violence. Two wrongs don’t make a right. These are clichés, but they’re clichés because everyone knows they’re true. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Friday, 18 July 2014

What are the odds? Quite good actually

Content note: rape, rape culture, sexualized victim-shaming
Since a lot of you aren’t New Zealanders, you likely won’t have heard of the things this blog post is about. So a bit of quick background. Back in May, Muhammad Rizalman was arrested in Wellington on charges of burglary and sexual assault. His home country of Malaysia, which he had been serving here as a foreign diplomat, recalled him and refused to waive diplomatic immunity. There followed the political buck-passing match that always fills up the news media around things like this. Then last week the woman Rizalman had allegedly followed home and attempted to rape, Tania Billingsley, had her name suppression lifted and spoke to a TV station about what had happened. Being a feminist, Billingsley used feminist terminology such as “rape culture” in her statements to the media. She called out Foreign Minister Murray McCully for his Ministry’s “incompetent handling of the diplomatic immunity aspect”. Jan Logie, Green Party spokesperson for women’s issues, agreed.
Someone who didn’t agree was a right-wing New Zealand blogger name of Cameron Slater, who goes by “Whale Oil” online. His blog is “Whale Oil Beef Hooked”, you see. You have to pronounce it in a New Zealand accent but listen in an Irish accent, I guess. Shamefully for my country, he’s become a major media figure here. Slater of course supports McCully’s party in Parliament and opposes Logie’s, so it’s hardly surprising he would take a critical view. He wrongly believes that he understands what’s meant by “rape culture” – and that it’s something patently absurd – but that hardly sets him apart from most people at his end of the political spectrum. All that considered, however, his response to the incident is still appalling.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Valuing individuals

I’ve decided to change my blogging style. This year up to now I’ve blogged once every two months, and that really isn’t winning me any readership. (My post trashing The Tao of Badass, on the other hand, apparently is.) This isn’t to say that I’m going to stop doing the in-depth articles. I’m still working on a discussion of social constructionism, and there’s the Imponderable series to finish. But those will now be interspersed between briefer, more bloggy posts. I’m going to commit to posting something every week. On the other hand, I’m not going to do what I used to do on my old LiveJournal, which had entry after entry saying “Sorry, can’t think of anything to blog about today.” Instead, I’m going to find something every week, either online or in my lectures at work, which is worthy of comment. And as I can’t really ask questions in lectures, what with being a staff member instead of a student, that’s likely to be a rich source of commentary.
On Tuesdays I have POLS102, which at Otago is a paper entitled “New Zealand Politics – Introduction”. I say “at Otago” because Dr Bryce Edwards encourages people to tweet in class using #POLS102 as a hashtag, and unfortunately there are lots of people from other universities tweeting with that hashtag in reference to completely different courses. Anyway. Today was an introduction to ideology. About the Left and the Right and how the Left is all about collectivity and the common good, and how the Right is all about individualism and self-interest.
Can people stop saying this, please? It’s bollocks.
Look, I don’t blame Bryce for simplifying things for the first-years. And to be fair he did go into more detail than that, and he used the terms “socialist” and “liberal” more than “right” and “left”. But the idea that Left equals collective and Right equals individual is not a simplification, it’s a falsehood.
Seriously. Look at politics at the moment. Pick a rights issue that’s hot right now, an individual rights issue. The right to marry the person you love. The right to identify as the gender you feel you are, and to change your body to suit if that’s what you want. The right not to be raped. The right to move from one country to another. The right to choose whether to carry a pregnancy to term. On every one, socialists and liberals stand shoulder to shoulder to support the rights of the individual. Opposing them are the conservatives, who champion the interests of collective organizations like the Church and communal abstractions like The Family.
Ah, but that’s social liberalism, you might say. On economic issues the Left really is about the collective good and the Right really is about individual liberties. To which I say: nope. In neoliberal economics, “welfare” is a measure of the total monetary value held by society, which is the same amount whether it’s equally distributed among everybody or concentrated in the hands of an élite. Socialists and social democrats are the ones who care about whether each individual gets a fair share. As for individual dignity, I can tell you from several years’ experience that if you were to design a system with the specific purpose of wearing it down through the sheer weight of bureaucracy, you could scarcely do better than Work and Income New Zealand, which was instituted by the National government of the 1990s so as to stop beneficiaries “ripping off the rest of us” – note again the collectivism of the phrase.
But don’t the Right favour the private sector (individual, freedomish) over the public (state-run, collectivitarianismic)? Yes, they buddy up with what is called “the private sector”, but that term is a preposterous Orwellism. Calling vast international organizations like Coca-Cola or Microsoft “private” makes precisely as much sense as calling an Antarctic midwinter blizzard “toasty”. The honest word would be “corporate”, from Latin corpus “body”, into which, the idea is, the individuals making up the corporation have submerged their personal identities. You could argue without absurdity that environmentalism is about preserving the natural resources of the Earth’s biosphere for the good of everybody rather than letting the selfish exploit it. But most of the real damage is being done by corporations, not individuals; and all of the real suffering is being borne by individual people, who, e.g., haven’t got clean water to drink or fresh air to breathe, or whose homes are being destroyed by the effects of global warming.
A worker is a person.  A corporation is not.
On my Facebook page, where it says “Politics”, I’ve written “I endorse the goals of social democracy but doubt the competence of the state to deliver them.” I’m wary of the power of government, but corporations are worse. And a large reason for my wariness is that since I was a child I’ve been watching governments sell off the responsibilities they were sworn to protect. I believe we can do better. In September I’ll be voting for someone who cares about people, and people’s rights, and people’s freedoms. Someone on the Left.