Saturday, September 21, 2019

On The Dangers Of Inadvertent Plagiarism


I recently saw this 1569 portrait, painted by Antonis Mor, and immediately felt that it looked familiar in a very odd way.



Here's why:  It looks like the pattern of an embroidery I made more than ten years ago:



At the time I liked to relax by creating weird things out of fabric, thread, costume jewelry and so on.  My supplies came from yard sales and flea markets and the Salvation Army stores.

The above "portrait" is a companion to another one, both shown together below (apologies for the flash in the picture and the dirty glasses on the pictures):




The idea behind them was to provide "important ancestor pictures" for people who don't own castles or manor houses, but who would like to pretend that their ancestors belonged to European nobility or even some royal family.

It's an Echidne joke, and may not be that funny for others.  In any case, I hung them in my bathroom for a few years.

Now why I write about this is because my portraits are not direct copies of any paintings*, but were created based on my recollections of all the paintings I had seen, either in museums or in books or on television.  In particular, I did NOT copy that Antonis Mor picture when I created my gentleman.

But if you were shown just the first two pictures in this post, and you were on a jury tasked to decide whether Echidne is a plagiarist, you would conclude that the evidence condemns her.  Or me. 

Even I would agree that the prosecution would have proven their case, and I know that the embroidery was not a direct copy of Mor's painting, in the sense that plagiarism means.

I certainly must have seen that painting earlier, and stored it in the dusty attic of my memory, so that when I designed the embroidery the pattern came from that memory attic.  But without any awareness that it was the memory of one single painting!

This frightens me:  I realized how extremely easy it could be to plagiarize someone else's writings without at all intending to do so.  But it also makes me quite elated:  Somewhere, inside our memories, we may have exact pictures of everything we have ever seen.

Now to figure out how to get all of those into our awareness.

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*  The lady was, however, largely put together from various paintings of queen Elizabeth I and of some other royal queens and princesses.

In case you are interested in such things, all the fabric in the clothing of the pair comes from one silk scarf I bought at Sally Army, the other bits (faces, hair and the unfortunate beard) are from my old tops, and the jewelry is from yard sales.


Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Today's Political Thoughts: On Electability, The Use of Synecdoches in Politics And Harmless Fun



1.  Isn't it funny that Warren's DNA debacle left a giant scar on her* while Trump saying that his ancestors came from Sweden (when they did not) mattered not at all?

Trump's history is so full of all sorts of misdeeds that the smaller ones get ignored, while the one clear problem people have been able to unearth in Warren's history is repeatedly mentioned.  As repetition is the mother of learning, well, this works very well for Trump and his party.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Mirror, Mirror On The Wall


The only psychologically healthy way to interact with a narcissist is not to.  But when the president of a powerful country is a narcissist* we don't have that luxury of total disengagement.  We are all strapped into the seats of a roller-coaster built and controlled by one Donald Trump, his narcissistic injuries and the immature rages those create.

We live in a world where a mental two-year old with those famous Terrible Twos temper tantrums rules over us, if we let him.  So we can't let him, but that means we have to play his games because we can't put him on timeout.

This makes me so very tired**.  I imagine him going "mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the greatest of them all?" and if the answer displeases him, well, someone, somewhere, is going to get attacked, probably out of all proportion.

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This article from early August gives several examples of Trump's narcissistic behavior and puts it into the context of being the president of one of the most powerful countries on this planet.

** And probably others are tired of the need to cope with his narcissism, too.

It's particularly difficult for those of us who would like to do policy analyses, because it takes place within the usual right-wing political plots:  Cut taxes for the rich, kill Social Security and all transfers to the poor, give money to the oil industry and so on. 

Those plots also include that weird Republican yearning to invade certain Middle Eastern countries while kissing the asses of other Middle Eastern countries. 

How is Trump's concern with nothing but his own ego going to play in that context?

You tell me, because I have no idea.  So far the one good thing about Trump has been his reluctance to go to war for no good reason.  I hope nobody learns to manipulate his ego into wanting to invade Iran, the next country on the conservatives' to-invade list.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Obliteration of Alpha Males. Or What Tucker Carlson Fears Might Happen In American Politics?


Tucker Carlson believes that a patriarchal system is required for any society to exist.

I know this, because he invited the anti-feminist Heather Mac Donald, one of the weirdest members of the gals' auxiliary to the white supremacist movement, to his show again, to talk about the terrible oppression of men in the US.  Especially about the dreadful plight of the alpha males:

HEATHER MAC DONALD: We're living in a culture that is trying to obliterate alpha males and create an alpha female.
...
We have to be very realistic that what we are creating here is a systemic culture of contempt towards male success and that's got to have an effect.
TUCKER CARLSON (HOST): How does this help women, in the end?

MAC DONALD: Well it only helps women if you believe the idiocy that strong women can do it all. It certainly doesn't help children because children need mothers and fathers. But it seems like most females are simply involved in this crusade based on anger and resentment that they have to not just be equal but to crush men and that is absurd. There are male virtues of chivalry, entrepreneurial drive, risk taking that have given us civilization and if we continue to disparage those Tucker, we're going to have no civilization left.

CARLSON: That's exactly right. Gender roles are the building blocks of any society and we've let a small group of unhappy people destroy ours and tamper with the formula.

I adore these kinds of rambling and hallucinatory exchanges (1), because they reveal the underlying beliefs of our Tucker.  

The "alpha male" terminology she uses in that quote is common on the various misogyny online sites where it was initially borrowed from wolf packs (2).  But wolf packs actually have both an "alpha male" AND an ""alpha female"!  Or rather, the leaders of the pack tend to be the parents or grandparents of the wolves in the pack.

What's she trying to achieve with that first assertion?  She is trying to frighten the conservative men (and their henchwomen) in Carlson's audience by suggesting that feminists are not interested in the equality of the sexes, but in turning the still-everywhere-common patriarchies upside-down.  This would mean that men might then be treated the way patriarchies, at their worst, have treated women!

Now that is stuff for nightmares!  In those men would be gelded, men would be locked inside their homes, men would be required to dress modestly, to keep their eyes lowered, and all gate-keeping about sex would be their responsibility.  The leadership, in all fields, would belong to women, and men would really have to prove their worth before they would be allowed to tiptoe in the corridors of power.

I had fun with that paragraph.  Rest assured, my sweet and erudite readers that none of the above has any realistic chance of happening.  Indeed, I don't know a single feminist who even desires such an outcome. 

The above exchanges between Carlson and Mac Donald are not really about gender roles (though those can be very problematic in themselves (3)), but about the desirability of patriarchal arrangements.

Both Carlson and Mac Donald equate civilizations with patriarchy, and then imply that we cannot have the former without the latter.   Carlson appears to argue that we can't even have a society without strict gender roles.

Mac Donald also believes that certain virtues belong to men alone. Those would be chivalry, entrepreneurial drive and risk-taking.  She then warns us away from disparaging those virtues, because that, my friends, will take us right back to the stone age.

That warning looks weird to me.  Do feminists routinely go out of their way to criticize entrepreneurial drive and risk-taking?  I have never seen that happen.

Besides, both entrepreneurial drive and risk-taking are human characteristics, not limited to the male sex, though often seen as such because of the gendered lens we see them through (4), and I see no reason why they would somehow disappear without patriarchal gender roles.  Chivalry, on the other hand, might vanish because it would transmute itself to plain common courtesy toward all (5).

Sigh.  I shouldn't have this Pavlov's dog reaction of needing to correct all the shitty stuff Tucker Carlson spews into the world.  My work changes nothing.

He and his guests are not talking about facts or looking for evidence but simply pushing the fear buttons of the right-wingers who watch that show.  Those people don't read here and in any case the very topic appears impervious to intellectual arguments. 

So initially I was planning not to write on any of this (I still have duty-free chocolate left, as an alternative way to pass time).

But then I asked myself if the timing of this topic on Carlson's show has anything at all to do with the rise of Elizabeth Warren's approval ratings among the Democratic presidential contenders for 2020 elections, because she sure qualifies as an "alpha female" to people like Carlson and Mac Donald?  And it would make sense that our Tucker would start injecting lots of subconscious fear of uppity women into our political conversations right about now?

So I decided to write this post, just in case.

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(1)  It's not being concerned about the problems American men and boys might face today that I see hallucinatory here.  It's that both Mac Donald and Carlson blame feminism and attempts to increase gender equality for, pretty much, the end of civilization.  Those nightmarish monsters are not real.  And neither is happiness and success necessarily a zero-sum game between the sexes, the way both Carlson and Mac Donald see them. 

Besides, focusing on the feminist monsters  makes us not address the real reasons why working-class men are more hit by the loss of jobs than working-class women are,  or why men and boys, especially those belonging to ethnic and racial minorities, are dropping out of higher education.  Ironically, at least some of the reasons for these real problems probably lie in old patriarchal gender norms.  See my Jordan Peterson book review for more on some of those.

(2)  More on the roots of the conservative concept of the alpha male, here.

(3)  Because distinct, rigid and unequally valued gender roles are, of course, one of the main ways in which the subjugation of women was historically accomplished, and also the main way it can still be maintained.

(4)  To elaborate:

We tend to see risk-taking and competitiveness more easily in certain domains and not in others, and the ones where we see it most clearly are domains where men have traditionally been most active, such as finance and sports.

Risk-taking by women is common in some domains.  Women take more social risks than men, though we don't see those activities as risk-taking.  Neither do we see willingly accepting the risks involved in pregnancy and childbirth as risk-taking behavior the way we see such behavior in, say, sky-diving.  Cosmetic surgery and other body modifications are risky endeavors more common for women than for men, too.

And certain behaviors, such as engaging in one-night stands with strangers are objectively riskier for women than for men. This means that we cannot directly compare men's and women's willingness to take sexual risks without controlling for the fact that the real risk levels differ. 

Then people, in general, are more likely to take risks and to compete in fields they know well, probably because greater knowledge actually reduces the amount of real risk one is taking.

This is partly why studies in the field of finance often find that women are more risk-averse, on average, than men.  The willingness to take risks rises with one's knowledge of a field, and women are still less knowledgeable about the field of high finance than men, on average. 

Finally, to study gender differences in entrepreneurial traits we should control for the fact that getting outside financing and startup support is harder for female-run firms than it is for male-run firms, on average.  That fewer women are entrepreneurs might be because of such obstacles, not because they have less taste for entrepreneurship.

This long explanation doesn't mean that if we fixed all those problems in comparing men's and women's traits we would find no difference.  But we should first fix all those problems before making the kinds of statements Mac Donald makes in the quote I use in this post.

(5)  The misogyny sites talk about the end of chivalry as a veiled threat, something along the lines that if women refuse their inferior position in the society then the men on those sites see no reason to be nice to any woman.








  








Wednesday, September 11, 2019

The Opioid Epidemic. Beware Of The American Penchant For Over-Correction.


An initial over-correction of newly apparent social, economic and health problems is a particularly American cultural characteristic. (1)  It has been compared to the movements of a pendulum which swings from one extreme position (where the society completely ignores an important problem) to the opposite extreme position (where the society attacks that problem with all possible weaponry, not caring about the collateral damage this causes).

That first wild swing is ultimately followed by the pendulum moving back and, ideally,  settling somewhere in the middle where the problem,  as well as its cures and their costs,  are viewed through a more realistic lens. But that first wild swing should not happen.

A well-known example (2) of this pattern is the life cycle of the so-called crack baby epidemic of the 1980s:



For those of you who may not recall, the mid-1980s were rife with hysteria surrounding cocaine--in particular crack cocaine--and the huge social toll it was taking on the U.S. New and little-understood, crack was associated with all kinds of social ills, including rising crime rates, poverty, and (far more nebulously) the escalating HIV/AIDS crisis. But for a moment, the "crack baby" alarm sounded the loudest--the country and its social system was about to be completely overwhelmed with a generation of babies who, due to prenatal exposure to crack cocaine, would be born with all kinds of mental deficiencies and health problems.


That generation of "crack babies" never emerged. Crack, which was described by some medical doctors as being as devastating to an unborn fetus as heroin, turned out to be less damaging than alcohol (which is far more widely used and carries greater risks for long-term fetal damage). The symptoms early research associated with "crack babies" turned out to be the same as the symptoms for any prematurely born baby.
The false belief in a terrible epidemic was created by the interaction of early medical research which utterly exaggerated the damage crack caused in babies with an issue which appeared to wreak havoc among the most vulnerable among us: tiny infants.  It was exacerbated by sensationalist writing and by the ease with which the American society resorts to mother-blaming, and even more so when those mothers are black and poor (3).


Monday, September 09, 2019

Some Things Were Better in the Olden Days. Like Airplane Seats And US Presidents.



1.  Take commercial airplane seats.  They weren't always stacked against each other like crates for some cumbersome product in a warehouse.   The seats were wider and offered more legroom.

You have probably guessed that I whine about this because of a recent personal experience and you are correct.  I sat in the seventeen-inch-wide middle seat in a three-seat row a few days ago, for six long hours, while contemplating the strong shoulders and arms and the sturdy hips of the passengers on my immediate right and left.

I could contemplate them because the hips shared some of my seat, and because the arms completely possessed the (theoretically shared) armrests*.  Those armrests, by the way, could not be raised in that particular area of that particular plane.

So mild agony ensued.  I'm slim (snakes are) and have never much thought about airline seat comfort.  But there's something about sitting for hours, as if wrapped in invisible duct tape to create a narrow vertical bundle, that concentrates the mind on personal discomfort.  Trying to scratch my nose required elaborate squirming and apologies, and then I developed a terrible desire to spring up and do jumping jacks in the aisle.

Which I resisted.  But the experience made me read about airline seats once safely back at the Snakepit Inc., and I found this hilarious explanation why the shrunk seat space doesn't matter at all:

Boeing concedes that seat pitch has been reduced (by three inches, on average, for long-haul flights, it says). But it added: “Today’s seat pitch and seat design with composite materials provide similar, if not improved, comfort from the bulky metallic structure and foam-dense designs used in the past. In general, the new seat designs and materials provide two to three inches of ‘equivalent pitch’ over older seat designs.” 
That's about the legroom, not about the seat width.  What it really means is that now the seats are as thinly padded as church pews.  So we haven't really lost as much legroom as it seems, because we have also lost the padding in the seats**!

2.  Presidents were also better in the olden days (even when they were terrible presidents and carried out horrible policies), because their mental age wasn't somewhere around two-and-a-half years, and because if they were malignant narcissists they covered it up much better. 

We are now used to a president who spends most of his time golfing, watching Fox News and fighting personal and nasty Twitter wars with people who have little political power, such as popular entertainers, just because they have insulted his ego and so caused one of his narcissistic rages. 

But even in that context Trump's so-called Sharpie-gate should have shocked us:

Here, in case you missed it, is the original claim Trump made on Sunday and continues to defend: “In addition to Florida—South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama, will most likely be hit (much) harder than anticipated.” The Alabama part of this was untrue, and the Birmingham National Weather Service immediately corrected the record on Sunday, operating under the understandable assumption that Alabamians receiving accurate information about a looming natural disaster mattered more than the president’s pride. Trump, unaccustomed to correction, disagreed. Since then, it didn’t hit but it could have has become his mantra, as he tweeted about it for days before the Wednesday Sharpie incident that will live in infamy, when he presented an official NOAA map doctored with black ink to make the hurricane appear to be headed toward Alabama.

The sentence I have bolded in that quote is the important one, because for Trump nothing matters more than his pride and ego.  That is dangerous in the president of a country, not only because he is willing to cause harm to his own people should his pride require that, but because it's a characteristic foreign powers can easily exploit.

3.   There's one more thing which was better in the olden days, and that thing nicely connects the previous two segments having to do with overseas flights and US presidents:  It is discussing American politics while in Europe. 

That used to be quite fun.  Now it consists of people demanding to know how we (I) could ever have let Trump happen*** and what we (I) are going to do to get rid of him, because they themselves can't affect that, even though Trump affects their lives, too. 




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* I hasten to add that it wasn't their fault.  They had nowhere else to stow their arms.

**  I know, of course, why airlines do all of the above. Passengers are, on the whole, price sensitive, so cutting quality works better than price increases in the search for maximum airline profits.  Still, all the in-flight information videos about safety depict people happily relaxing in much more spacious seats.  That's false advertizing.

*** Of course only after they have carefully probed the possibility that I might be a Trump-weirdo myself.  When I assure them that I am not, the relief is always visible.







Wednesday, September 04, 2019

Online Pornography As The New Sex Education?


The possible relationship between misogynistic types of pornography and possible real world sexual violence is difficult to study for many reasons:

There's the-chicken-and-the-egg problem in trying to determine the direction of causality if a correlation between violent porn consumption and committing violent sexual acts is found.  Perhaps violent men consume violent pornography?  Or could it be that violent pornography creates violence in some men who wouldn't have been that way without it. 

There's also the more general problem of how to pin down the impact of one cause (here the consumption of misogynistic porn) on general societal trends when so many other possible causes are changing at the same time.*

That's a preamble to my views about Olga Khazan's June article in the Atlantic Monthly which asks if online pornography is now operating as an extremely warped form of sex education, one which teaches young people terrible ideas about what women like in sex.