Friday, July 01, 2016

On Ursula le Guin

Ursula le Guin is a wonder-ful and wonderful writer.  If you are not familiar with her sci-fi-cum-fantasy work you are in for a real treat.  Her most famous books are The Left Hand of Darkness,  which is about a planet whose inhabitants are otherwise like humans except that they lack permanent sexual differentiation, and The Dispossessed, which asks questions about what is possible in the political and economic arrangements of our lives.

See how great she is?  She's giving you two science-fiction books with weird technology, even higher mathematics and physics, and also a  treatise  on how our societies might look if we didn't have to spend so much time and agony over gender questions, plus a treatise on capitalism, anarchism and communism.

But she might just be most famous for her short story "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas."  If you weren't assigned that in an ethics college course I recommend it for this Fourth of July long weekend*.  In one sense it's a very short short story, in another sense you never get to its end.

My favorites among her books are still the EarthSea series.  If you like Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings you might like Earth Sea.   The latter describes a simpler world, the writing is more elegant and condensed, and its basic ethical frameworks different:  Tolkien applied Catholic ethics to his world, le Guin applied Taoism.

But Earth Sea also has wizardry and dragons and all sorts of fun stuff.

The very latest books and story collections in the series are the best, with writing so honed that it's crystal-clear and sharp enough to cut, each word carefully picked to bear the largest possible meaning, everything superfluous abandoned, to allow the simple stories to be about truly large questions: death, freedom, love, our proper places in the plans of the universe.

I leave you with this quote from le Guin, useful when we try to understand why people often defend their own oppression:

“We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”

* Wiser voices note that it might not be appropriate for a holiday weekend, being a bit depressing.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Global Confidence in Donald Trump? Hillary Clinton? Vladimir Putin? Recent Pew Research Center Findings.

This table from a recent Pew Research Center survey of global attitudes is a fun one to explore:

Or a frightening one, should Donald Trump become the next president of the United States.  Note that the specific political and economic histories of the surveyed countries matters.  For example, that Greece has very little confidence in Angela Merkel is easily explained.

Another fascinating nugget of information in the survey concerns the difference in the confidence men and women have in Vladimir Putin as a foreign leader:

Men are more likely to have confidence in Putin.  My instant reaction was that this is easily explained by the patriarchal opinions Putin frequently spouts.*

Those will tend to put more women off, because they are bad omens about how he is likely to act when it comes to women's rights and stuff.  On the other hand, his "he-man-rules" demeanor might please some men.** 

A more rigorous exploration of that difference would require studying if belonging to a more right-wing party correlates with greater confidence in Putin and if men are a larger fraction among the members of such parties, but even if the answers to those questions were positive we couldn't rule out my instant reaction as one of the underlying reasons for both right-wing views and the love of one Vladimir Putin.  So.

*  Not that he is at all alone among powerful politicians in being a sexist asshat.  This 2014 article reminds us of that.

** The stance is shown here:

I love that picture.  It's the most hilarious thing ever.

The SCOTUS On Abortion And Scientific Evidence

A long-standing strategy of the forced-birthers has been to impose more and more regulations on abortion clinics.  These regulations pretend to be about preserving the health of the women who have abortions by stipulating that abortion clinics should be equipped like ambulatory surgical centers, that the doctors working there should have admitting rights to the local hospitals and so on.  The real intent, naturally, is to force abortion clinics to close.  That makes getting an abortion more difficult, at least for the poorer women who can't afford the costs of long travel.

One of the more unsavory aspects of this forced-birth strategy have been the bogus health risk arguments its proponents keep advancing, such as the idea that abortion causes breast cancer (not true) and also the general fear-mongering which tries to destroy the mental health of women who have had abortions, while pretending to care about that very health. 

To put that fear-mongering into a wider context, note that giving birth is much more dangerous, on average, than having a legal abortion in the United States:

A key study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology estimated that the risk of a woman dying after childbirth was 10 times greater than after an abortion. The study estimated that between 1998 and 2005, one woman died in childbirth for every 11,000 babies born. That compares with one in 167,000 women who died of abortion complications. Doctors who perform abortions say the most common complications are not bladder issues or problems with reproductive organs -- as some abortion opponents like to emphasize -- but mild infection that can be easily treated.

Now the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has addressed the question whether strict health regulations of the above type, as used by the state of Texas, constitute an "undue burden" for Texas women seeking abortion.  The 5-3 decision answers that question affirmatively:

The Supreme Court on Monday ruled resoundingly for abortion rights advocates in the court’s most important decision on the controversial issue in 25 years, striking down abortion-clinic restrictions in Texas that are similar to those enacted across the country.


The Texas provisions required doctors who perform abortions at clinics to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital and ordered clinics to meet hospital-like standards of surgical centers.
“The surgical center requirement, like the admitting-privileges requirement, provides few, if any, health benefits for women, poses a substantial obstacle to women seeking abortions, and constitutes an ‘undue burden’ on their constitutional right to do so,” Justice Stephen G. Breyer wrote for the majority.
The missing scientific evidence about the actual (rather than imaginary) risks of legal abortions mattered in the decision:

Among the evidence undermining the surgical-center requirement, Breyer said, is a finding that early-term abortions have a lower mortality rate — five deaths in a decade in Texas — than childbirth, which the state allows to take place at home, or procedures such as a colonoscopy or liposuction, which do not carry the surgical-center requirement.
Texas could also not show why doctors needed an admitting privilege to a local hospital, Breyer said.
“When directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case,” Breyer wrote.
In short, why fix something when it's not broken, as the old saying goes.

That's not to argue that abortions has no health risks.  But other similar or larger health risks of various procedures do not provoke the same concern from the Republican politicians of Texas.

One ethicist who is fervently opposed to legal abortions has argued that this SCOTUS decision is just a temporary setback, that all the forced-birth side needs to regain the right to turn abortion clinics into centers of nuclear medicine is to collect stories of harm to women who have had an abortion.

But that wouldn't work, in my opinion,  because nobody argues that abortion has no health risks.  Rather, the question is whether these risks are so large that they require especially stringent regulations, compared to, say, colonoscopy, liposuction or home births.  Those procedures do not  provoke the same urgency  for more stringent regulations, despite having higher mortality risks.


Monday, June 27, 2016

Brexit Dreams And Nightmares


The option "Leave" beat the option "Remain" in Britain's vote about whether it should stay in the European Union  (EU) or leave it.  And the floodgates opened.

If I were a wiser writer I'd stop right there, because so far I've uttered no opinions unsupported by any evidence:  the kind of analysis I've far too often read about the nightmare or the dream that is Brexit. 

Sure, there are factual articles, too, telling us how Cameron got into this political mess in the first place, what Britain pays to the EU and what Britain receives in return,  and what the various options Britain now has might be. But one reason why so many articles about the Brexit are opinion pieces is that the kind of data we would need for strong conclusions about the vote are very hard to find.

Take the information we might get from exit polls:  To find out the demographics of those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain.  But the Brexit vote didn't have official exit polls.  The ones which exist are private polls.

The private poll I saw was on the Lord Ashcroft site.  Google Lord Ashcroft and you will find that he is a British conservative, domiciled in Belize (to avoid paying UK taxes?), with rather Trumpian characteristics, though without the financial inheritance Trump has.  He also tells us on his site that he was for Leave himself.

This doesn't necessarily make the polls biased or inaccurate, because I doubt that it is Lord Ashcroft himself who carries out the polling.   In any case, his site offers the most comprehensive demographic data on voting patterns that I have been able to find and it is that data I wish to discuss here, with some fairly serious criticisms.