Friday, December 05, 2014

Back in the US, Back in the US, Back in the USSR?

Here's the song for you to listen to.  The old Soviet Union had elections where only one candidate ran(US)/stood(GB) for a particular political post, and many Western commentators ridiculed that pseudo-democracy.  The Soviets had a choice, true.  You could either vote for the guy or not.

How are things in the United States?  This article tells us something about the effects of gerrymandering and the high cost of launching a campaign when a certain loss is in the books:

More than a third of all candidates in state legislative races this year ran unopposed in the general election, according to data collected by the National Institute on Money in State Politics.
In the 46 states with legislative elections last month, 36 percent of races were uncontested. Georgia was the biggest offender, with 80 percent of races having a single candidate running for office, followed by South Carolina with 72 percent and Wyoming with 64 percent.

But it's bad news for real democracy.  Consider all this in the context of the protests about police brutality and racism, say.  The obvious next step is to organize for real change, and a very important part of that is to vote.  But if voting doesn't really matter, the movement will have great difficulty making the kinds of institutional changes that are needed.

When Old Things Speak

I have an old square wooden box which contains a small drawer.  The top lifts up and contains a mirror (speckled with age).  The mirror can be propped against the raised lid and, presto, you have a makeup table!

The mirror, with small bone knobs on the lid and the drawer, is probably from the nineteenth century.  It looks like early Empire but is probably later since it's rural carpentry.  I saved money for a long time as a student to buy it, for some reason I no longer remember.  I keep my embroidery thread in it.

The reason for this post:  I finally cleaned it in a deeper sense than usual, and turned the drawer over.  The bottom has faint text in Finnish.  This is my translation:

I wish I were able to write with golden letters deep inside your heart these few words:  Mari, do not forget me.
What lies behind that is a mystery.  Was the box an engagement gift, made by the groom for the bride?  Or something sadder?  A farewell gift?

This is why I find old things fascinating.  They are records of lives, not that different from our lives.

He Can't Breathe

The biggest topic in the US is what happened in the grand jury decision on Staten Island concerning the killing of Eric Garner and the protests following it.  The twin concerns of the protesters (and, slowly, of many, many more in the country) are racism and police brutality and the intersection of the two.

The list of similar cases is getting far too long, though in at least one recent case the white police officer killing an unarmed black man was charged with murder.  That is one exception in the long line of dismal judicial decisions where grand juries tend not to find further cause when the offender is a police officer.

One practical proposal to do something about these injustices is to furnish all police with body cameras.  That the death of Eric Garner was caught on camera tells us that body cameras are not a perfect solution.  On the other hand, evidence from trials suggests that body cameras can help by changing behavior:

In Rialto, citizen complaints against the police declined by eighty-eight per cent during the year that the cameras were used, while the use of force by police officers fell by sixty per cent. Moreover, the incidents involving the use of force by camera-wearing officers all started with a suspect physically threatening the officer. The numbers suggest that such provocation was not an essential element with officers who weren’t wearing cameras.

The article I link to  argues that body cameras won't save us, and that's probably correct if "saving" means that these problems would completely vanish with the use of such cameras.  But they can help by affecting behavior and by recording some information.  Remember, the alternative is to have no body cameras.

It is the movement which is building because of Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland and other cases which has the potential to make a difference. 

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

David Frum And Echidne Argue The Cause of the Drop in Abortion Rates.

David Frum (a conservative pundit) has written an opinion piece which tries to answer the question  why abortion rates in the US are falling.  Others might mutter that pregnancies are down, too, and that seems to be because of better (wider and more careful) use of contraceptives and possibly because of the recent bad economy which makes people hesitant to have children.

But Frum's theory is different!  He believes that it's not increased use of contraception which matters here, but the increased acceptance of pregnancy outside wedlock.  His piece ends with recommendations for propping up traditional marriage (here meant as marriage where the wife stays at home and the husband goes out to work to make her bacon sandwiches) in other ways.  The reason for propping up traditional marriage is that Frum is a social conservative and believes in its value.

When I read his piece I got stuck here:

Why is this happening?
Some conjecture that improved access to and use of birth control may be the reason, but there’s scant evidence for this. At any given moment nearly 40 percent of women are using no birth-control method at all. Almost half of all American pregnancies are unintended.

Actually, the evidence for that is a lot less scant than the evidence for Frum's own pet theory.  But it's that 40 percent figure that really attracted me.  Note that its implicit use in that paragraph is to make us think that 40% of fertile women are out there having unprotected sex even though a pregnancy would be undesirable.  Note also the next sentence which follows it:  We are to link the two in our thinking.

Perhaps Frum doesn't intend that reading, but that's the one that stares back at me from the screen.  So I looked up the two sets of data.  The 40% figure probably comes from the Guttmacher Institute:

• More than 99% of women aged 15–44 who have ever had sexual intercourse have used at least one contraceptive method.[5]
• Some 62% of all women of reproductive age are currently using a contraceptive method.[2]
• Eleven percent of women at risk of unintended pregnancy are not currently using any contraceptive method.[2]
It's the second item in that list which suggests that 38% of fertile women use no contraception.  But note that it's the third item in that list which matters for Frum's purposes:  Eleven percent of women at risk of unintended pregnancy use no contraception.  The 40% (or 38%) figure includes all women who either wish to become pregnant or who are not in a sexual relationship or who are in a sexual relationship with someone who cannot make them pregnant.

In short, Frum's data is irrelevant and doesn't support his argument, because it is not about women at risk for an unintended pregnancy.

What about the bit where nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended?  That's from Guttmacher Institute, too.   The linked piece begins with the statement Frum copied.  But later in the piece we are told this:

To sum, Frum's argument about the unimportance of contraception as the cause for lower abortion rates doesn't hold water.  Women who use contraception consistently are at a much lower risk of unintended pregnancy.

Why am I writing about this?  Because I'm slowly filling up with rage while observing how certain factoids thrive and multiply, both in journalistic pieces and on Twitter.  Something becomes more "truthsome" by being repeated.  It's important to fight that.  Hopeless, sure, but important.

What's For Breakfast? Different Size Brains. Today's Gender Research Which Didn't Attract Attention.

The title of this post (about breakfast) refers to a study which came out exactly a year ago, the one which argued that girl brainz and boy brainz are wired utterly different.  Remember it?  I read it while having breakfast and it's eternally associated in my girl brain with hash and fried eggs.

 Here's my summary of the earlier study.  This post reads a lot better if you read the earlier one first.  It's also a funny post, so you might not regret the minutes you spend there.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Fast Posts, 12/2/14: On Child Prodigies, Women in Science and Partisan Gerrymandering in the US

This story about Eugenie de Silva, a sixteen-year-old child prodigy (a Harvard graduate doing a PhD) raises all sorts of interesting questions about child prodigies.  Does the arc of their careers continue with the same gradient or do they peak earlier?  How harmful is it to be so different from your friends of the same age?

But it also has one of those dingleberry seeds which I've had to swallow many times:

It’s these glimpses of typical adolescent behavior that have sometimes made Eugenie a target. Female, and of Sri Lankan heritage, she has been haunted by jealousy and racial and sex discrimination. During her graduate studies, she has had to defend herself and her position on certain arguments – sometimes as the only woman in the classroom.
“More and more men started attacking me even when they were putting forth those same ideas and if I would put forth that idea they would come and belittle my comments,” she says.
It is Isabella Karle's birthday today.  She is 93 and a very famous crystallographer who worked together with her husband Jerome.  In 1985 Jerome Karle received the Nobel Prize for his work.  Alas, poor Isabella did not.  Smells of sexism, if you ask me, though Dr. Karle herself states she didn't mind not getting that one award, given that she received so many others.

That's a nice thought.  But Nobel Prizes are not awarded on that basis.  Nobody looks into your award basket to see if it might already be too full. 

This example does, however, raise an interesting question:  Is discrimination on the basis of race or sex or sexual preference AOK if the person experiencing it doesn't care?

My view is that it is not AOK, because each case that slips through or is condoned will make another case more likely in the future.

A fascinating study looks at the effects of partisan gerrymandering in the US.  A snippet:

In 2012, Democratic U.S. House candidates in North Carolina received 81,190 more votes that Republicans. Republicans received just under half of the votes earned by the two parties. And yet, the GOP walked away with 9 of the state’s 13 congressional districts. So, despite the fact that they earned just over 49 percent of the two-party vote, Republicans won nearly 70 percent of the state’s congressional seats.
That's because of gerrymandering.  But could it be an unexpected side effect of creating districts based on logical criteria:  That they are contiguous, compact and close to the same size in population.

The researchers ran eight different simulations to see how many Democrats and Republicans would have been elected into the US House from North Carolina under each of the scenarios in the simulations.  What they found was this:

Seven of the eight simulations did not produce a single map where Democrats won less than five congressional seats, assuming that every voter who cast a vote for a Democrat or a Republican in 2012 would have cast the same vote under the simulated maps. The one simulation that did produce a handful of outlier maps where Democrats won only four seats did so “in less than 5% of the samples.”
In short, the evidence is pretty strong that the actual redistricting in North Carolina was not based on the logical criteria of contiguity, compactness and identical population sizes, or not on those alone.

Ian Millhiser, the author of the article, suggests that the Supreme Court now has evidence to help it decide when gerrymandering is aimed at blocking the will of the people and could use it to rule better on partisan gerrymandering cases.  But, alas and alack, that is extremely unlikely.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Fast Post-Thanksgiving Posts, 12/1/14: Forget the Gender Opinions of Tayyip Erdogan, Remember the Name of Tugce Albayrak Instead.

I would be the ideal worker for any greedy capitalist, because my illness coincide with vacations.  That means I got sick on Wednesday and recovered yesterday!  I'm sure many of you can identify that pattern of keeping some head cold or migraine at bay until nobody is paying you for the time but you yourself.  Grr.

That's an explanation for no writing for several days (and no eating!).  Here's something to tide you over in the former category.  Almond croissants would be welcome in the latter category.

First, Turkey's president  Recep Tayyip Erdogan has given us his version of gender equality, whether it is indeed possible (no) and what women's value depends on (motherhood).  His statements would sound familiar to anybody who knows what right-wing US Christian leaders think about women or what the most conservative Roman Catholic clergy thinks of women.  Erdogan bases his arguments on the Quran, those other guys base it on the Bible:

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has been accused of blatant sexism after declaring that women are not equal to men and claiming feminists in Turkey reject the idea of motherhood.
The devoutly Muslim president said biological differences meant women and men could not serve the same functions, adding that manual work was unsuitable for the “delicate nature” of women.
“Our religion [Islam] has defined a position for women: motherhood,” Erdoğan said at a summit in Istanbul on justice for women, speaking to an audience including his own daughter Sumeyye.
“Some people can understand this, while others can’t. You cannot explain this to feminists because they don’t accept the concept of motherhood.”
He went on to say that women and men could not be treated equally “because it goes against the laws of nature”.
“Their characters, habits and physiques are different … You cannot place a mother breastfeeding her baby on an equal footing with men.
“You cannot make women work in the same jobs as men do, as in communist regimes. You cannot give them a shovel and tell them to do their work. This is against their delicate nature.”
Some commentators said that Erdogan had his foot in his mouth.  But he is making a very clear conservative biology/religion-based  argument against gender equality.  What makes some of it hilarious is the fact that rural women in Turkey do exactly the kind of work he argues that women are too delicate to do.  Indeed, women in many African countries do almost all the agricultural work.

The foot is in the mouth in a different sense.  Erdogan appears to confuse equal rights or equal opportunities with the concept of being identical in all aspects.  But if only absolute sameness guaranteed people their social and political rights, then bigger men should have more rights than smaller men etc.

Would a president make such a silly mistake?  In my experience, yes, because men in his position don't have to learn much anything about gender politics. yet believe they can educate others about it.

Here's a story about a hero, someone we all should look up to.  Remember the name of Tugce Albayrak, a 22-year old student of Turkish background in Germany.  She heard the cries of two teenage girls from the toilets of McDonald's restaurant in Offenbach, Germany.  The girls were harassed by three men, and nobody intervened.  Until Tugce did.  She then appears to have been killed in a revenge attack by one of the harassers:

She had intervened when she heard cries for help from the toilet of a fast food restaurant in the town of Offenbach, near Frankfurt, where the two girls were being harassed, German media report.
Later, one of the men returned and attacked her in the car park, striking her head with a stone or a bat.
Her parents made the decision to turn off life support on her 23rd birthday when doctors told them she would never regain consciousness and was brain-dead.
Candle-lit vigils or national orders of merit cannot bring Albayrak back, but her death can help to start a conversation about the effect of oblivious or uncaring bystanders on rape culture.  Based on what I have read, the harassment lasted for quite a while.

Tugce Albayrak's parents have told that her organs have been donated, based on her own wishes.