Monday, June 03, 2019

The romance of underdevelopment

I just returned from a week in Sayulita, north of Puerto Vallarta. We were fortunate to have been able to rent a house on the beach; I'm not a beach person, per se, but I do appreciate both how much other people enjoy it and the campfire-hypnosis effect of watching the ocean. It was... "fun" isn't exactly the right word, because we spent a lot of time lounging around doing very little, but it was a very pleasant vacation.

Daily, we'd walk the beach to get into town for breakfast and dinner, and sometimes we'd walk around in town, just taking it in or looking at what was on offer in the little shops or the market stalls. We were travelling with some people who deeply love beachfront communities; they grew up in an American beach town and visit lots more, so it's not out of line to consider them connoisseurs of such places. But I have to confess, I really don't get it.

Our companions, like many beach-connoisseur Americans, especially love beachfront towns in developing countries. (Side note: I think of "developing" in this context in the same way that I think of "developmental delay" versus "developmental disability"; the former expresses the hopeful idea that full normal development is a possibility, whereas the latter expresses the - often more accurate - idea that full normal development is not possible. I don't know whether U.S.-style or European-style or Japanese-style full normal development is possible for every so-called "developing" country, but I don't see tremendous harm in holding out that hope. This attitude of mine might just reveal me as the softy I am, but there you go.) There seems to be a sense that these developing-nation beach communities are more "authentic," live and operate closer to their origins, than their developed-world counterparts. But cheap souvenirs are cheap souvenirs, in the end; the fact (if it is a fact) that the people selling colorful beaded bracelets in Sayulita made those bracelets instead of buying them from a factory somewhere else (a) doesn't erase the fact that the beads and the thread did come from that faraway factory, and (b) doesn't change the fact that the goal in both cases is simply to separate tourists from their money. The bracelets have no cultural significance. They have no utility - they're so very colorful, in fact, that outside the milieu in which they're being sold, it's unlikely they'll ever be worn. They are "handcrafted," if that claim is made, only in that the seller's family cranked them out during the low season, as fast as possible, without great artisanship or loving care; they're a commodity, not an heirloom. They're no more "authentic" representations of Sayulita than if they had been bought by the gross in Mexico City.

(I don't begrudge the sellers one peso that they make in selling them. Good for them, to recognize a market and try to capitalize on it. And I have no animus against the buyers, either; I once bought a God-awful purple crushed velveteen dress at a Parisian street market that, in my teenage excitement about being in Paris, I thought was the most exotically beautiful thing I'd ever seen - only to find that there was no way on Earth that that dress could be worn anywhere but to a costume party [dressed as what? I don't even know] or on stage. But in the moment, in that setting, it was stunning to me. I'm just speaking generally about the souvenir biz.)

Let me see if I can describe a morning. I'd wake up in my own time - one of the great joys of vacation for me.  I was never the first one awake, so I benefited from whoever was, because that person would start the coffee - coffee purchased in town from a restaurant that roasted its own beans. The roast was not nearly dark enough for me, but because it was locally roasted (I don't know where the beans were grown), we bought and drank it, and it was a darn sight better than out of a can. I would sit on the broad tiled patio or down on the little lawn terrace above the beach, looking out at the horizon and chatting loudly with whoever was up over the rumble of the surf below us.

Eventually we slathered ourselves with sunblock and hit the beach to walk into town. In that quarter of an hour, we passed beautifully appointed houses like ours, and abandoned and grafitti'ed concrete shells, and open areas dotted with tents both modern and makeshift. As we came close to the town center, the beachfront bars, restaurants, and vendors of massages and surfing lessons took over, reggae music and shouted invitations to eat, drink, relax, and learn competing with the waves. American voices cut through the rest of the sounds, for me; there's a particular tone we seem to share, along with the familiar sound of our vowels and r's and harsher gutturals, to which I think our ears are tuned.

If I looked inland at many points, I saw the rest: the battered cars, tarped-off shelters of scrap wood and corrugated metal, overflowing trash bins (I was surprised, in fact, to see trash and recycling bins at all - and I confess I'd be surprised if anything was done with the contents of the plastic and paper recycling bins besides emptying them into the same garbage trucks, though I didn't witness it), roaming dogs, small piles of feces of indeterminate origin. But we tended not to eat where these... complications were obvious. We flip-flopped our way up one of the couple of main streets leading from the beach to the main plaza, where we ate in a restaurant that nodded to local culture by serving house-made chorizo and refried beans at breakfast - which meant that it could have been picked up from the beach where our companions grew up and transplanted to Sayulita without anyone noticing the difference. In no way "authentic." But two streets over, we could have had breakfast for certainly no more than half the price, cooked on the brazier on the sidewalk. The problem was, we would have had to contend with the sights and smells of underdevelopment as we ate.

Let's face it. We were dilettantes. This town was nice by comparison with a number of developing-country beach towns I've visited; as I said, they had public trash bins, they had trash collection via a truck that looked just like the one that picks up my trash at home, they at least made a show of collecting recyclables (one day I should write about virtue-signalling inconveniences), they had drinkable water both in and out of bottles, shops refrigerated perishables to what seemed to be similar temperatures to those we would use at home. But it was still desperately playing catchup. The infrastructure to keep it truly clean wasn't there yet, so it was only clean by comparison with even less developed places; trash and shit were almost everywhere, and where they were not visible, they were still apparent to the nose. Tourists clearly didn't trust the water - bottled water was the norm at almost every restaurant, and at the one we visited that didn't sell bottled water, people were drinking juice or beer or soda from a can or bottle instead. One stretch of sidewalk (props for having sidewalks) was raised a good three feet above the street on one side and the shops on the other, with no railing or even a visual indication of the drop; I couldn't help picturing the late-night barflies who must plummet off that causeway nightly. Potholes were marked by sticking something taller than the hole was deep in them - a palm frond, a broken plastic barrel. I don't get the romance to such in-between places.

I'm giving a wrong impression. I enjoyed Sayulita, I thought everyone we dealt with was lovely, patient with our poor Spanish, and accommodating, the food was good, the prices were good, and I've returned relaxed. But I didn't think it was "paradise," as at least one transplanted American called it. I thought it was a piece of normal, coastal Mexico doing its notable damnedest to attract dollars and doing an excellent job of making American surfers and other privileged sandal-wearers (myself included) believe they have changed the world. Who knows? Maybe they have - or are on their way to having done so. But I'll be more bullish on recycling, for example, in a place like Sayulita when I am not crossing the street to avoid a huge and reeking pile of rotting trash on my way to the little rack of nicely painted bins.

First things first.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Throwing things

Ann Althouse blogged today on "milkshaking," the new-ish trend of throwing the contents (apparently it's usually only the contents) of your milkshake cup at someone with whose politics you disagree. Oh, heck, let's dispense with the even-handedness: "milkshaking," the new-ish trend on the Left of throwing milkshakes at conservatives.

I have two thoughts. The first relates to a young kid I've known for many years; he is the king of the not-quite-justifying-physical-response annoyance. Erma Bombeck had a kid like this, apparently. In The Grass Is Always Greener Over the Septic Tank, her brilliant and hilarious commentary on suburban life, she describes a road trip with her family. The kids, all piled together in the backseat, are making the family vacation a banal and enervating hell, as they can do; one of them complains, "He's humming!" Erma or her husband responds, "I can't hear anything." Kid counters with, "He's humming so nobody can hear it but me!"

This is quintessentially the kid I know. For as long as I've known him, he's skated at the thin edge of inviting repercussions for his actions. He's repeatedly thrown balls and other projectiles past people's heads; he's scootered inches from people's bare feet; he's moved his chair so it's touching the chair of the person next to him; he's taken over the playlist and played Minecraft parody songs nobody wants to hear; he's done the repeating-what-people-say thing right up to the point where he's about to get smacked by the kid whose words he's repeating. And then the other kids, who just want him to stop but don't want to resort to violence, appeal to the adult on the scene, who tries to intervene: "Stop what you're doing."

"I'm not doing anything!" or variants of this, such as, "I wasn't touching him!," "I wasn't even close!," or "I'm not hurting anybody!," ensue. The adult is thrown back on, "I don't care what you say you were or weren't doing, it stops now."

Aaaand the kid gets upset. Sometimes he protests: "S/he does stuff like this all the time and doesn't get in trouble." (The adult is well advised not to argue against this point; it's a black hole.) Sometimes he just invokes the silent treatment. (The adult is well advised to ignore this.) Either way, he's getting upset because he's been called on something he was doing that he thought wasn't quite over the line, but that has now drawn the attention of authority. The adult sometimes points this out to him - the fact that he's not upset because of the rank injustice of being called out, no matter what he says, but rather because he misjudged the line. It doesn't do any good. Give him an hour (he's a pretty happy-go-lucky kid and bounces back fast) and he'll be right back on the scooter again.

A milkshake-thrower is likely to be mighty surprised - probably furiously angry - if he is brought up on an assault charge for throwing that milkshake. But it is a perfectly rational response to what is, in fact, an assault.

My second thought relates to the first. A number of commenters on the Althouse thread took the tack of, "When the Right finally decides to stop being nice and actually fights fire with fire, things are going to get real." A dangerous thought, and potentially a true one, and the whole reason why the adult on the scene with the kid I described would always try to intervene, no matter how frustrating and pointless that intervention seemed: because if the adult didn't intervene, the other kids would eventually get fed up and punch him in the nose.

Milkshake-throwers, like pie-throwers before them, should be leery of what they might unleash against themselves. I always want my side of the ideological argument to show endless restraint, invariably to take the path of debate rather than any sort of violence - but I am not in control of other people's actions. I think it's possible, perhaps even likely, that the throwers of supposedly funny, squishy, "harmless" stuff believe that the vaunted Rule of Law will protect them from the thrown punch and worse, since after all, "they're not hurting anybody." But people get fed up.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Game of Thrones, Conservative Manifesto

Spoiler alert! I'm going to speak freely about the final episode of the series. I do apologize to anyone who's slogging through said series now, trying to avoid all water-cooler conversations (or wherever such conversations take place now), but I sat there watching the last episode with my mouth hanging open at the fact that HBO was willing to let it be made.

I'm overstating the case to say it was a "conservative manifesto," I admit; there was still a lot of throwing out of babies with bathwater, which we conservatives think is a bad idea. And nobody is going to like it as a piece of storytelling, because (as my recent college graduate son said) "they were so busy trying to write endings we didn't see coming that they gave us endings nobody wanted."

But let's set storytelling aside. I want to address (here come the spoilers) the end of the Daenerys/Jon arc. Jon is the forces of conservatism; can there be any doubt of that? (Ans.: of course there can.) He follows the rules, questioning them only at the margins; he serves where and as needed; he Does the Right Thing even when that Right Thing comes with a cost - either a personal cost to him or a larger cost that nevertheless must be paid. Now, I expect the real, non-fictional forces of what I'll call "progressivism" (I reject the term "liberalism" for this political stripe - not crazy about "progressive" to describe what are so often regressive policies and ideas, but I don't want to make up a whole new word and I don't want to demonize the other side, only to point up its weaknesses) don't see him as conservative; I think they see him as:

  • brave
  • noble
  • quixotic
  • therefore certainly a Hilary! voter in the last election, except that because of our backward system he can't vote in an American election
  • forced into awful action for which he will forever suffer because of his passionate commitment to Goodness
  • and of course dreamy.
But that's because they have such a hard time ascribing good intentions to a conservative. Daenerys is the forces of progressivism - seen by the real forces of progressivism as:
  • brave
  • noble
  • populist (um... sort of, if we gloss over her continuing to live as an absolute monarch despite her "break the wheel" rhetoric)
  • therefore Hilary! herself
  • in a sex-positive, un-scoldy way
  • but tragically undone by the depth of her passionate commitment to Freedom.
And we the forces of conservatism see her as:
  • strongly "in touch with" and, more importantly, motivated by feelings
  • apt to let those feelings rule over sober thought, whether the thought is her own or her advisors'
  • not great at seeing forward from action to consequences
  • and not very likely to alter her future behavior on the basis of those consequences, because after all her intentions haven't changed.
So what happens? Daenerys doesn't go mad with power - not exactly. That would be too easy. Tyrion lays it all out (I was most impressed with whoever wrote his monologue to Jon - how'd they ever get it past the wokeness censors?), saying that again and again she freed enslaved people, and her supporters cheered; again and again she punished - cruelly punished - those who had enshrined the institution of slavery, and her supporters cheered that too. With each victory, with each punishment, she grew more powerful and (here's the critical part) more convinced of her own rightness, because she took each instance as a referendum on her opinion, her feelings, and the voices of her supporters were unified each time in admiring support for what she chose to do. She grew to understand that her feelings about rightness and goodness were what mattered, not the effects of her actions. And her feelings led her to burn King's Landing to the ground, killing a(n unlikely) million people, almost all of whom would have accepted her as queen just as readily as they had accepted Cersei.

Tyrion acknowledges his own hubris in thinking he could have led her down a different road while still supporting everything she did. But the monologue is Tyrion as Greek chorus. Jon does the dirty work of removing the monstrous evil Daenerys has become through her coming to believe that her intentions are all that matter.

That scene is also a jaw-dropper, as the writers let Daenerys actually say things like (in response to Jon's question, "But what about all the other people who think they know what's good?"), "They don't get to choose."

Now, they do make her seem a tiny bit crazy-eyed when she says that. But not so power-mad that it's obvious to the great mass of her supporters that she'll eventually turn on everyone she once valued. They all still support her and are bereft by Jon's regicide. 

The analogy, to a conservative, is obvious: Daenerys, like progressivism, is in thrall to her intentions. She's so caught up in "doing good" that she doesn't notice, or doesn't care, when her actions result in tragedy, or even when her actions themselves are evil; she's just breaking a few eggs, after all, to make her beautiful utopian omelet. 

Okay, it's possible for a progressive to see this story arc as a battle for the soul of progressivism instead: Jon is just as idealistic and socially conscious as Daenerys, they may reason, but has a useful sense of proportion that Daenerys has lost. Jon is Joe Biden; Daenerys is - well, any of about twenty of the other 2020 Democrat Presidential candidates, or the redoubtable AOC. But - especially given that the series ends with the creation of a House of Lords, for goshsakes - I see conservatism prevailing against progressivism. 

Maybe one of these days I'll write about Sansa as the progressives' version of a conservative.

Tuesday, April 09, 2019

On Merit

Stories about academics who argue that the Western canon is a tool of the patriarchy abound. There's even some foundation for those arguments - it's a fact, after all, that female literacy lagged behind male literacy in the West for a long time, for instance, and that women with an artistic bent back in the day might only be able to express their talent in textiles, like tapestries and embroidery, rather than with paint on canvas, with its relative durability, stability, and above all status. In modern times, we've reclaimed a good deal of what was created in the past by women and people of color, but not recognized as important in its own time. Of course, we've also privileged modern creations by women and people of color (and non-straight people, whose personal proclivities might have been unrecognized or winked at, and were certainly not Line 2 on their resumes, in the past) that may or may not prove to be important, and we've deemphasized the creations of the Old White Men, simply because they were created by Old White Men, to the point that it's easy to understand why kids today don't "appreciate" the things that have proven to be important and timeless.

But now the foundations of science and math are becoming subject to the same postmodern critiques. Why? In God's name, why? Radioactive isotopes don't care whether you think time is a racist construct. And speaking as a (former) geologist, I'm going to say that the rocks don't care if you think a paleontologist should (or shouldn't) have a beard.

The thing is, I believe that the degradation of the Western canon does indeed threaten our civilization (and when I say "our," I'm not saying "belonging to us white people" or "belonging to the menfolk," but rather "belonging to those of us who recognize the relationship between individual rights, property rights, and the incredible level of prosperity enjoyed by an unprecedented proportion of humans alive today"). But surely everyone must acknowledge that the degradation of math and science can threaten lives in the here-and-now.

So here's this from Neo, a "political changer" who used to be on the Left but is now a thoughtful voice on the Right:
But those who are afraid of the truth cannot abide that situation [here she is talking about the Larry Summers story from 2005 when Summers mentioned almost in passing that biological differences between the brains of men and women might explain some part of the difference between male and female participation in, and success at the highest levels of, STEM fields] and feel that jettisoning the entire idea of merit is worth it in order to equalize the numbers, not the playing field but the score. And we will all suffer because, as Solway puts it:
[Tomas Brage, director of the undergraduate program of studies in physics at Lund University in Sweden] seems blissfully unaware that, aside from unadulterated brilliance, meritocratic traits and criteria are precisely those that STEM demands if it is to prosper. He concludes: “Clearly, the subject of all physics is affected by the background of the researcher, teacher and student, and it follows that a gender perspective is needed.” No, it manifestly does not follow. The individual’s practice of physics may indeed be affected by “the background of the researcher,” but the subject of physics is not. The laws of nature are the laws of nature and must be dealt with on their own terms. Physics is physics—nature’s handmaiden, not feminism’s.

Neo's link to David Solway's article is here.

Merit matters. And even the most ardent defender of the postmodern all-is-relative view of learning and knowledge recognizes it in some areas. Take music - not "radio music," where production and especially AutoTune can hide a multitude of sins, but live music, of almost any genre. Whether a singer sings in tune matters. Or take dance. There is a perceivable difference between the way I dance (which is frankly embarrassing) and the way, say, Justin Timberlake or Shakira dances - to say nothing of Baryshnikov.

There is a world of difference between opera and folk music, between heavy metal and soul. But in all, the ability of the singer to sing in tune (yes, even in heavy metal!) is the foundation of whether listeners will enjoy that piece of music - or cover their ears. There is a world of difference between ballet and ballroom, between hiphop and salsa dancing. But in all, the ability of the dancer to move in that ineffable way that strikes watchers as grace is the foundation of whether they'll watch with pleasure - or laugh behind their hands the way my kids do when I dance. Call it "talent" instead of "merit"; it exists, and it remains foundational to the value of the output.

And these are not matters of life and death. How can anyone doubt the merit of an accurate understanding of the foundations of engineering and technology, where life is often on the line? When I read stories like the one above from Sweden, what springs to mind is only, "Holy moly, what a first-world problem."

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Geology and the Mueller Report

Let's start with My Favorite Mueller Memes. It's a tie. Here they are:


I read a great piece in Mediaite today, via Instapundit, about what the press will and will not learn from the release of the long-awaited Mueller report last weekend. In short, the press will learn nothing; they're too invested in a conspiracy theory of their own making, according to Caleb Howe, author of that very worthwhile opinion piece. Howe points out that conspiracy theorists, confronted with a reality that fails to conform to their expectations, don't reexamine the core of their theory; instead, they construct new side-theories to explain why reality is being so uncooperative. Both of these memes speak to this behavior. The top one, I admit, assumes a degree of self-examination that I doubt is present among the collusion faithful; but the message of both is that suddenly, after hagiography after hagiography holding up Mueller as the Savior of Our Republic, his report is now being recast as either compromised by Trump administration pressure or a secret message to Congress urging them to go forth and seek impeachment, or dismissed as unimportant and readily ignored.

So that's where we are, according to the collusion faithful (and is there any other kind of collusion supporter? Have you heard of anyone's mind's having been changed by the release of the Mueller report?). The conspiracy to hide evidence that the President of the United States is a Russian puppet, this poor benighted group must believe, goes all the way to the top.

Howe's close examination of "Russiagate" press failures - he's generous there; it's tempting to call it press collusion to produce a desired result, the unseating of Trump if possible but at least the turning of Congress - would be tremendously useful to media outlets whose credibility has been battered by their own behavior. And it will be ignored. I would love to see the press act as the gadflies they believe themselves to be - if they could embrace their own sense of "journalistic ethics" and bring themselves to gad about both sides instead of just one, that is; but I don't hold out a lot of hope.

In geology, there's a concept called "unconformity." An unconformity is the evidence in strata (rock or soil) of a gap in time, evidence that something no longer present used to be there. There are three primary types of unconformities, each indicative of a different set of events:
  • Angular unconformities occur when strata, layers of rock, are tilted or deformed by tectonic action - say by the uplift of a mountain range. Then erosion and more deposition of strata happen, leaving horizontal layers lying on top of tilted layers. It's easy to spot.
  • Nonconformities occur when there's a flat surface between igneous or metamorphic rocks and overlying sedimentary rocks. The sequence of events is like this: igneous (formed by crystallization of magma, like basalt or granite) or metamorphic (formed by the "reprocessing" of previously existing rock by heat and pressure at depth, like slate and marble) rocks are uplifted by tectonics, forming a mountain range. Erosion happens over millions of years, leaving them more or less flat. Then deposition happens, such as silt deposited by a river on a floodplain, and the deposited sediment becomes rock, shale in our floodplain example, after more millions of years. This too is pretty easy to spot; when you see layers of sandstone, shale, or the like lying on top of granite with a nice flat surface between them, you're looking at a nonconformity.
  • Disconformities are the tough ones: flat layers of sedimentary rock over flat layers of sedimentary rock, but nevertheless with "lost time" in between. In the field, they often have to be inferred from subtle evidence, such as a rusty color at the top of one layer that indicates that that layer was once exposed to air, or evidence of ancient soils such as trace fossils of roots, or an improper sequence of rock types (just trust me on this; I'm happy to go into detail if there's interest). Maybe you can use fossils to infer a gap in time if you know a lot about fossils and you're lucky enough to find one that has a known extinction timeframe in the lower layer followed by one that has a known, and later, appearance timeframe in the upper layer. But these guys are hard to spot.
What kind of unconformity does the Mueller report represent? The objective reader (if there are any) and the reader who took at face value President Trump's repeated statements that neither he nor anyone on his team colluded with Russia will see it as either an angular unconformity - that is, the Democrats will now pivot to the interesting position that the President "obstructed justice" somehow though there was no underlying crime to obstruct justice over - or as a nonconformity - they'll pivot instead to the less interesting position that they'd better look for something completely different to impeach him over. The shaken collusion fan will see it as a disconformity - something happened, they just know it did, but the evidence is so subtle that it'll require a lot of lab work to prove. (And the true believer will deny that there's any gap between pre-Mueller and post-Mueller.)

But certainly the end of the Mueller investigation represents a boundary between two unlike things. There's no question in my mind that it will not represent an end to Democrat public figures' speculation about Trump's putative crimes; I think, instead, it will represent the beginning of those Democrats' speculations taking place in an atmosphere in which ordinary Americans won't believe them uncritically any more. Even those ordinary Americans who bought the collusion story are going to be a little more wary now. I hope.

Because as Matt Taibbi at Rolling Stone surprisingly points out,
Stories have been coming out for some time now hinting Mueller’s final report might leave audiences “disappointed,” as if a President not being a foreign spy could somehow be bad news.

Openly using such language has, all along, been an indictment. Imagine how tone-deaf you’d have to be to not realize it makes you look bad, when news does not match audience expectations you raised. To be unaware of this is mind-boggling, the journalistic equivalent of walking outside without pants.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Violence against language - jk, lol

Spencer Case, writing at Quillette, addresses the idea of concept inflation. This is a subject close to my heart - ask my husband; I am so strict as Language Police around our place that I might as well be Language Gest-

Self-censoring before I finish that word; I wouldn't want to Godwin myself. The point is, I'm constantly haranguing about how words have meaning. Now, I'm not saying words have intrinsic or unalterable meaning; I'm perfectly willing to accept the natural evolution of meaning that accompanies natural language. But let's take a look at the genetic engineering (so to speak) of language for particular ends, shall we?

I want to start by defining terms. Language, for purposes of this post, I'm limiting to verbal language; "body language" and things like the "language" of art are too subjective for this discussion. By "evolution" I mean a gradual, and undirected, drift from one state or set of characteristics to another; this definition is functionally opposed to both "intelligent design" and "domestication," in which change is directed toward a particular end. And finally, let's posit that words are the "genes" of language: the building blocks, the carriers of information that can be transmitted to others. If a word is understood in one way by the speaker or writer, and in another way by the listener or reader, then information has not been accurately transmitted.

Case asks his readers to imagine an alternative form of the fable of the boy who cried wolf, in which a bunch of shepherd boys who, unhappy about the lack of attention they're able to command when the problem they face is not wolves but, say, dogs or coyotes (both less of a threat to their flock than actual wolves), decide together to start calling dogs and coyotes "wolves." At first, just as in the original fable, the villagers come running with their pitchforks whenever the kids shout "Wolf!" - only to see that the threat is less than they understood it to be. And just as in the original fable, they grow inured to the kids' shouts and eventually stop responding at all, so that when the real threat shows up, the shepherd on duty has to fight it alone. The shepherds have inflated the concept of "wolf" to the point where their audience, through experience, now accepts their new meaning, and the word has lost the urgency of its original meaning - to the detriment of everyone.

Case is talking, of course, about the word "violence," which we're now given to understand can apply not just to physical attacks (such as a "violent crime") or physical conditions (such as a "violent storm"), but also to a firmly stated difference of opinion or a "repugnant" opinion stated all by its lonesome. See, for instance, this - trigger warning! - New York Times opinion piece about "when speech is violence": the writer, a professor of psychology, believes that
[b]y all means, we should have open conversations and vigorous debate about controversial or offensive topics. But we must also halt speech that bullies and torments. From the perspective of our brain cells, the latter is literally a form of violence.
And when she says "literally," she means literally literally: earlier in the piece, she talks about telomeres shortened as a result of chronic stress, and about the power of words to produce chronic stress in the body. Hang on, it's worthwhile to quote that whole bit:
...Words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system. Certain types of adversity, even those involving no physical contact, can make you sick, alter your brain — even kill neurons — and shorten your life.

Your body’s immune system includes little proteins called proinflammatory cytokines that cause inflammation when you’re physically injured. Under certain conditions, however, these cytokines themselves can cause physical illness. What are those conditions? One of them is chronic stress.

Your body also contains little packets of genetic material that sit on the ends of your chromosomes. They’re called telomeres. Each time your cells divide, their telomeres get a little shorter, and when they become too short, you die. This is normal aging. But guess what else shrinks your telomeres? Chronic stress.

If words can cause stress, and if prolonged stress can cause physical harm, then it seems that speech — at least certain types of speech — can be a form of violence. But which types?
So the syllogism is "Words => chronic stress; chronic stress => bad health effects; therefore words => bad health effects." Fair enough, from the standpoint of logic. But it rests on another set of relationships that isn't a syllogism: "Chronic stress => harm; violence => harm; therefore chronic stress = violence." And that one is not in evidence, but we're asked to accept it anyway. Finish up with one more syllogism: "Words => chronic stress; chronic stress => violence; therefore words => violence" - but the middle set of relationships is still hanging out there, undemonstrated.

I'll note that the writer links to a Psychiatry Online article reporting on a study that found changes in white matter, as well as behavioral effects, correlated with higher incidence of verbal abuse by peers in childhood. This link encompasses her phrase "words can have a powerful effect on your nervous system."

So that's the scientific basis for calling speech "violence" - though, notice, there's already a perfectly good term for this kind of action - "verbal abuse"; and also notice, the term "violence" is not typically understood to mean low-level but constant erosion (chronic stress, in this case) such as is commonly seen in cases of abuse. In other words, society understands that "abuse" and "violence" mean different things. "Violence" means a discrete act or condition. "Abuse" means either a pattern of harmful behavior that may include incidents of violence, or, in a special case, a single incidence of an act otherwise defined as "abuse." (What I mean by that particular expansion of the term "abuse" is that a spouse, for example, who has been subjected once to a type of behavior that we commonly call "abuse," such as being struck by the other spouse, may still be considered to have been "abused" even though that act only happened once. I'm avoiding talking about child sexual abuse here because that subject is terribly fraught and, because of the enormous power differential between child and adult, and often a size differential as well, even sexual contact by an adult that wouldn't cause physical pain or harm to another adult, might usefully be considered violent when suffered by a child.)

The expansion of the term "abuse" to include single incidents of abusive behavior is language evolution in action. Society has come to agree on this expansion as we have come to agree on the idea of what constitutes abuse. The expansion of the term "violence" to include disagreeable speech is not language evolution, but, as I said at the very beginning, "genetic engineering" of language, changing language on purpose to suit a particular end. Make no mistake, the writer in the NYT isn't talking about individual bullying; she's talking about the societal act of "permitting a culture of casual brutality" (her whole statement is, "There is a difference between permitting a culture of casual brutality and entertaining an opinion you strongly oppose. The former is a danger to a civil society (and to our health); the latter is the lifeblood of democracy.") - with no agreed-on definition of what constitutes "casual brutality." She uses Milo Yiannopoulos as an example without providing any example of his speech that promotes "casual brutality"; the reader is expected simply to agree that Yiannopoulos's speech is self-evidently a "danger to a civil society" because it is "violent" by her prior resort to logic - the one that leaves the important middle terms un-agreed-upon.

And of course, returning to Case's essay, the effect is to devalue the word "violence" so that we all just end up ignoring it. In the short run, we all pick up our pitchforks and come to the defense of those against whom "violence" is being perpetrated - those threatened by the so-called "wolf" - but when we see that the poor victims are just milling around, a few of them looking upset but most of them just keeping an eye on the nearby dog, we shoulder those pitchforks, roll our eyes, and go back to our work. The anti-GMO crowd should take note: words do have meaning, and you forcefully change that meaning at society's peril. Way to go, shepherds - when one of your sheep is being ravaged by an actual wolf, good luck trying to get our attention.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Mismatch: does it matter, really?

Outside of STEM, I mean.

When I say "mismatch," I'm talking about when a student's abilities (as measured via test scores and grades) and a school's expectations don't match up. Gail Heriot over at Instapundit posts frequently on this subject; the effect of a mismatch that goes against the student's assessed abilities (I say it this way because it's certainly possible for the mismatch to go the other way - for the student's abilities to be greater than the school's expectations - but I don't know what the result of this kind of mismatch is) is that that student is much more likely to end up at the bottom of her class and to have poorer outcomes generally.

The upshot is that traditional college affirmative action, kindly intended to give disadvantaged students a leg up at a critical time with the expectation that from there on out they'd be on a more or less level playing field, instead results in fewer people of color, et cetera, in challenging fields and high-level positions within those fields. And it seems self-evident that this would be the case. Someone is going to be at the bottom of every class. To hope that that person will turn out to be the high-achieving kid who goes hog-wild at college and loses all that high-achievingness, rather than the kid who started out not able to keep up with the high-achiever, is not a plan. It can happen - my son has a high school friend who got into UMich on his significant merits and left two years in because he just... flamed out, lost all motivation and desire for the life for which he and his parents had been preparing him. But it is not a reasonable part of a policy.

So put me on record as agreeing that AA should be scrapped, not just on philosophical grounds but on practical ones.

But now we learn of Varsity Blues. It involves, of course, the exact opposite starting conditions from affirmative action: the kids involved were the very picture of Advantage, yet their fool parents still didn't let them compete for college entrance on their own merits. (Of course they didn't - what they were going for was entrance into an exclusive club where the bouncers controlling the velvet ropes were admissions officers and the quality of entertainment - pardon me, education - inside was less important than the fact of being inside.)  And they're insulated from bad outcomes by money and connections. Besides, I'd be seriously surprised to learn that any of them planned to get a STEM degree. So, considering that they're all going for "soft" majors from which they never plan to mine any actual knowledge or training, does the mismatch matter?

This isn't an academic question for me - no pun intended. The goal of our oldest was a school with a highly rated undergraduate business/finance program, and he's finishing up there now. He's been offered a great job (better than any I ever had in the workaday world) after graduation. And I vividly remember his rants in high school about the "cycle of advantage."

Now, we're not Lori Laughlin-rich or anything... but because he was our oldest and we were therefore constantly experimenting and improvising, we succumbed to the rants and paid for a private SAT tutor and a program that purported to help him hone his "story" for college essays. I have no idea whether these things did a bit of good; his grades and his first-draft essay would have gotten him into the school he attends. But even if he had been marginal for that school, and even if the money we spent on these potential advantage-builders had had a direct payoff in admission to the school, what would have been the risk of bad outcomes for him, with a mere undergraduate finance degree on the line? What about the disadvantaged kid who also "only" wants a business degree but knows that a business degree from, say, Texas A&M will mean more in the employment world than one from Sac State (my alma mater)?

That's where it gets dicey. And frustrating. That disadvantaged kid isn't wrong. She might be starting out without the money my kid's family has, but if she graduates from a higher-tier school she can gain exactly the same connections my kid did, and get exactly the same first job. And with a less demanding degree program than STEM, the phrase "if she graduates" takes on a much less ominous tone. Who can't get a business degree? I'm not saying business is easy, believe me; but I am saying a business degree is, compared with even a lowly civil engineering degree. And the business degree, not demonstrated business acumen, is the requirement for those initial employment opportunities. After that first job, her acumen either will or will not carry her the rest of the way. Business degrees don't do much, if anything, to weed out those who won't ultimately be good at business.

So now there's a class-action suit taking shape against the universities that have been revealed so far to have compromised their admissions process. It's Stanford students suing; they say that these other schools' unethical behavior deflates the value of their degrees. A Stanford degree "means something" because Stanford, like the rest, is relentlessly self-promoting, actively courts big donors, attracts high-level research by being able to foot the bill for it because of said big donors, admits only the "best and brightest" high school graduates (and now we know, if we didn't before, the dilution of that phrase) but then coddles them carefully, refusing to let them fail because if they fail, the school's reputation falters.

No, really. I know a guy who went to Stanford and, suspicious at the low level of rigor he was experiencing, said he tried to fail his classes. He not only passed, but got B's. Yes, he was smart, and yes, they were non-STEM classes - but even affirmative action students, whether traditional or moneyed, will have to meet some standard to get into a school like Stanford. So the big question is, what is that standard really? What is a Stanford degree worth, really?

I suppose I should be happy that this scandal, in the longer term, may result in a real leveling of the academic playing field: high-tier universities are being revealed as the diploma mills they've always been, only different from the Evil For-Profit diploma mills in the amount you have to pay for that sheepskin. (And heck, you used to have to build a new library or something! The universities must be falling on hard times.) But it's profoundly depressing to see not only what some parents will stoop to in order to keep their kids away from the great unwashed, but what supposedly great universities will stoop to to get these absolutely normal, but rich and connected, kids inside.