Thursday, December 19, 2013

"Native speaker" and "Perfect speaker" are not synonymous

Yes, it can be really annoying to some people (like me, many of my friends and acquaintances, the Oatmeal, and many others) when people make the mistake of confusing "they're, their, and there" or "your and you're", along with a host of other language issues. However, the following statement fails on its logical basis:

"As a English non native, I don't understand how English natives can make mistakes with there, their, and they're."

As vomitous as the "their, there, and they're" error may be to some like me, the above statement itself is based on the fundamentally flawed premise that increased fluency in a language is directly related language to perfection. For that flawed logic, this statement is itself a facepalm statement of "logic-fail". I mean, am I to expect that native speakers of the kvetcher's language don't regularly make a class of error that learners of selfsame language almost never make? Sorry, but I don't buy it, and here's why:

I believe that the major reason why native speakers are likely to make the "there, their, they're" class of error and non-native speakers aren't is the same reason why native speakers of English write "... I would of done it": they're sounding out the sentence in their head, and (apparently) they have such a horrible mental accent (or an inability to distinguish different words in their mental accent) that they make otherwise simple errors. (Plus, being surrounded by people who don't constantly harp on their mistaken spellings doesn't help with fixing such errors before they become ingrained.)

In addition, there is the problem that - as a language that has a really convoluted history of hybridization of multiple languages (and grammars) and (heavily salient here) highly varied preferences in spelling (and transliteration) over time, it's not surprising that spelling errors are one of the more common errors in written English by native speakers (whereas improper grammar is the more common error in non-native speakers of English). I mean, how many different ways can you pronounce -ough? (Apparently ten ways: enough, cough, droughtthough, thought, through, thorough, hiccough, hough, and lough; sometimes, different pronunciations are mixed together, as in Loughborough, and sometimes one word as different meanings, depending on how it's pronounced, as in slough.) How many of the words using ough actually sound like the letters that make the word? (Arguably none.) And yet (and yet!) so many people (children and adults alike) are told to, "Sound out the word." Yeah... in English, it's not as useful a piece of advice as in languages whose orthography better matches its pronunciation.

On the other hand, non-native speakers of English often consciously cogitate creating concordant sentences systematically supporting some sense of grammar that seeks to enshrine a unity between spoken and written forms. Therefore, this type of mistake is less common for non-native speakers of English than errors of fundamental grammar (i.e., those parts of grammar that come so unconsciously fluently to native speakers that they often cannot explain the simple rules of them to non-native speakers beyond the next-to-completely-useless, "It just *sounds* right").

You'd expect a native English speaker to (relatively easily) make the "homophonous" mistake of "they're, their, and there" (or "its and it's" or "pique, peak, and peek" or "site, sight, and cite" or "complement and compliment" or "cavalry and Calvary" or "she and sidhe"), but (almost) never forget to correctly and unconsciously present every single noun as plural, singular or uncountable and either definite or indefinite. With people whose native language doesn't have (or uses different sorts of) concepts of countability, plurality, or definiteness intimately associated with every single noun one utters, making the distinction between, "a cat," and "the cat" (either as a real object in a room or as a conceptual object) really quite difficult.

In other words, each language has its own quirks that create "non-native speaker problems" and "native speaker problems," and I'd wager that - on the whole - the class(es) of problems faced by proficient non-native speakers are more related to grammar than those of native speakers. ... but I guess anyone who worked with non-native English speakers (or have spent time as an adult learning another language) already knew that...

Still, my original bit of pique was that the fundamental logic of the statement is flawed (regardless of the level of personal annoyance I find with people who commit the "there, their, and they're" error), and the statement is thus worthy of it's own, independent, facepalm due to inherent logic-fail.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Pentatonix Carols

I found out about Pentatonix recently. Pump up the bass on this a capella group and enjoy:

Drummer Boy

Carol of the Bells

Enjoy more Pentatonix by subscribing to them on YouTube!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Crash Course American History: When is Thanksgiving

Back in February 7, 2013, the Crash Course channel released a video that investigated the history and context of the period around the first Thanksgiving.

This video provides a reminder about the history and context leading up to this event and the aftermath of what religious persecution by colonists wrought. Remember, Plymouth Rock and the Pilgrims was NOT the beginning of English colonial rule in the New World. Also, remember that the Puritans were definitely NOT religiously tolerant to religious (and social) views that went counter to theirs (and many of which we might find normal and perfectly okay today).

(Yes, colonization sucks for lots of people, but awesome for some.)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Old journal entries from 2003 and 2004

I found some old journals from 2003 (writing for a class about my views and thoughts about all manner of things) and 2004 (field notes from my research trip to India). I'll be posting entries from them over the next few weeks.

Names of people have been abbreviated or redacted.

Monday, November 11, 2013

A Memory on Armistice Day

Some part of me remembers hearing this song when I was growing up. Maybe it was listening to AFRTS when I was growing up in Tokyo. Maybe it was somewhere else. Still, on this Armistice Day, let us remember those who fought, endured, and came home along with those who did not.

A recording of the original:

The song The Band Played Waltzing Matilda,

also makes me tear up thinking about the sheer carnage and waste of warfare. In some similar way, the poem In Flanders Field gives me that same sense of waste, even as the last stanza urges those who come behind to continue the fight; a fight that will serve none but the field on which they die.

In Flanders Field
In Flanders Field the poppies blow
Between the crosses row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

No, private property ownership does not grant you the right to do whatever you want with your private property

Over at the other day, there was a story about an anti-idling campaign in Ann Arbor. This brought out a whole bunch of people who are (apparently) convinced that anything that stops them from running their cars while parked is approaching tyranny, liberal no-goodness/nanny-state-mindedness, or the heights of hypocrisy (since - as many note - police and service vehicles are likely to be exempted in any future anti-idling ordinances and regional traffic planning creates conditions in which people are left waiting for up to five minutes in order to move through an intersection). After scrolling through many comments that seemed knee-jerk reactionary to me, I saw this pile of paragraphs:
It is my choice to drive and idle my car as I see fit. If I want to sit in the car with the AC on while I am doing work during the summer I will. If you don't like the fact my car, which I paid for and that I pay the gas for is idling, I'm sorry, but that is your problem, not mine. The same thing in the winter where I often have to do paperwork for my work. I am not going to turn my car off to spend 15 minutes doing paperwork when I can leave the car running and stay warm.

The problem is too many people are proposing that we do what is best for everyone, and unfortunately that often means we give up our right to do what is best for us personally.

If someone doesn't like my car idling, tough, it is my car and I will do what I want to do with my car (as long as it is within the law of course).
Ahh... well, someone is apparently of the "I paid for it, so I can do what I want with it, and screw everyone who tells me differently" school of thought. Sorry, but no; society and law don't operate in exactly that manner, regardless of what you might think or want. Of all the comments on that story, this was the one that really made me want to write a response. So, in my longer-than-necessary manner, this is what I wrote:
Waitasec, you say that it's your choice to drive and idle your car as you see fit, because you purchased gasoline and the car. Hmm... did you also purchase the air quality we all breathe and the right to pollute it? Strange, but I don't see that as part of the bundle of goods you purchase when you buy gas or a car...

You ironically state, "The problem is too many people are proposing that we do what is best for everyone, and unfortunately that often means we give up our right to do what is best for us personally." I say that it's ironic, since you *seem* to recognize that you live in a society in which people have chosen to come together to live and operate in proximity (i.e., live in a city), but you then choose to disentangle yourself from that system of relatively close interactions and interdependencies to separate your *personal* actions as somehow more important than (or at least independent from) the curtailed set of actions that one can make (legally, socially, and morally) within the context of a city without a whit of recognition that the two concepts are - themselves - in conflict.

Indeed, you base your argument within a private-property and personal rights framework. However, you (apparently) fail to recognize that your argument from a private property perspective is perfectly well and dandy right up until your private property impinges upon *my* private property and *my* personal rights, which is exactly what you (falsely) say you have a right to do. If you really want to read why, to wit:

Presumably, you do not advocate a right to drive across my lawn in your car, just because you purchased your car and purchased your gasoline. Similarly, you likely don't advocate a right to drive your car into my hose, my car, me, or my family. In short, owning a car and purchasing gasoline for it does not allow you to affect other people's private property or to affect other people. Why? Because it's against the law, and (from a private property perspective) you don't own the property that your car is damaging.

So, too, you likely do not advocate the blaring of your stereo or the constant sounding of your horn (or car alarm) as a right that is inherently a part of what you purchase when you buy a car and the fuel that powers the engine that charges the battery that runs the stereo and car horn (and alarm). Indeed, this is what noise ordinances attempt to curtail. Ergo, owning a car and purchasing gasoline for it does not allow you to seriously and negatively impact the quality of life of society, merely because you own that vehicle. Furthermore, this is - in places - against local ordinances (i.e., the law), but even from a personal rights perspective, such actions are imposing yourself upon others without their consent, much like if you were throwing a raucous house party without the consent of your neighbors; not always illegal, but definitely not respecting other people's equal rights.

Furthermore, you likely do not advocate for lowering the pollutant profile of what comes out of the tailpipe of cars in general. Even if you live in a state (like Michigan) that doesn't have a mandatory car exhaust test at time of re-registering a vehicle, you likely recognize the social nuisance that having a smoke-gushing clunker would have on the standing in your neighborhood (let alone your wallet) and take measures to diminish the obvious costs. Therefore, owning a car and purchasing gasoline for does not give you the social freedom to be a nuisance for the wider community, merely because you own that vehicle. Again, from a personal rights perspective, this is much like the previous case, and from a private property perspective, you are now effectively taking, impairing, or destroying a good or service that you did not actually purchase. That it is something owned publicly does not change the fact that you are affecting more than *your* share of the public good.

The anti-idling movement is merely extending this recognition of tail-pipe emissions as noxious and an unnecessary nuisance that is - in many cases throughout the year - the relatively selfish preferences of the driver imposing costs upon society; and these are costs **that the driver has not paid for.**

In short, using your argument of private property is wrong on its premises, because private property ownership of a vehicle does *not* mean that you can do whatever you want with it. Using a private property argument actually shows that you have a *greater* responsibility for the actions you take, since the negative actions are things that you **have definitely not** paid for, and so - from a private property perspective - you have no inherent rights in taking those actions.
I also noted something strange in the wording of the last paragraph of the comment, which brought about this response:
You state, "...I will do what I want to do with my car (as long as it is within the law of course)," which effectively scuttles the entire argument you laid out previously, since you concede that *if* anti-idling measures *were* made law, you actually *would* follow the law and not idle your car.

This brings to question what your entire point was to begin with.

Presumably, *if* there law that says that you cannot idle your vehicle, and since you state that you *will* follow the law, then your whole preceding argument is rendered moot.

However, if you actually passionately believe what you wrote in your argument (flawed though I personally think it is), then I question the veracity of your statement that you *would* follow an anti-idling law (*if* one were to be implemented).

... or would you decide - based on your own - that such laws can be broken if you don't feel like following them? You know, just like - if you are like any human driver - you don't use your turn lights *every single time* you are going to turn, or you don't always come to an absolute and complete stop *every single time* you come to a stop sign, or that you don't always stop at crosswalks to let pedestrians cross *every single time* you see a pedestrian crossing at a crosswalk, or that you don't drive at the posted speed limit *ever single time* you are out driving, etc. In other words, are you merely *rhetorically* saying "I'll follow the law," but *actually* are going to choose to break the law when it's convenient (just like every single human driver does from time to time)? If the latter, then it raises the question of exactly *which* sets of laws you actually feel you are bound by, and which sets of laws you feel you are allowed to break at your own convenience.
It makes me wonder whether people put such rhetorical devices into their arguments to merely sound reasonable without actually being reasonable, since - when you actually look at their statements rationally - they could not actually be stating truth in both parts of their commentary. In this case, this person cannot be telling the whole truth, since there are times that s/he has undoubtedly chosen to break some part of the law regarding the operation of his/her vehicle (unless this person is absolutely perfect in their driving record since they first started driving). Maybe it was to drive at 80mph on the highway instead of the posted 70mph (since effectively everyone drives at 80mph, and it's safer to drive with the average traffic speed, regardless of it being against the law). Maybe it is to choose not to make a complete and absolute stop at every stop sign or blinking red light, since - in many places - it can be absolutely obvious that the intersection is completely clear and safe to traverse without having to come to a complete stop, but rolling stops are (at least in Michigan) against the law. Maybe it is to choose to be lazy with the use of a turn signal on a back-country road, even though its use is required by law. Maybe it's something else, yet again, but - presuming that this commentator is human - there are undoubtedly many instances in which this person - who states, "I will do what I want to do with my car (as long as it is within the law of course)," is factually lying.

Which then raises the question of what they actually mean when they say that they'll follow the law "of course," especially given the almost certainty that they do not actually follow all the laws. Presumably they mean that they won't drive intoxicated (but how intoxicated?) or drive recklessly (but what constitutes "recklessly"?) or drive in the wrong lane (but what if it's just to go from one driveway to the next, because you mistakenly drove in the wrong one?) or go through a red light (but what if it's in the middle of the night in the country and you can see that no one is coming?) or this (but except when that), or that (but except when this), etc.

Yeah... just seems like a purely rhetorical and almost certainly nonfactual statement.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Nature Remains Legal (no matter what facebook posts say)

I saw this on Facebook today, and I was torn. On the one hand, I believe that I understood the sentiment behind the question, but on the other hand I recognized immediately that the question - posed with those photos and captions - is a factually meaningless question, since it conflates disparate meanings of what is the United States, confuses (il)legality with regulation, and uses a troubling definition of "nature" as its counterpoint to the questioning of the purported illegality of the four photos.

While the photo is technically true, it is only so if you make all the mistakes listed above. So I'm going to go through them one at a time.

Collecting rain water is illegal by state law in a some states in the Western US that operate on the prior-appropriation doctrine of water law. It's a stupid precedent, but it's not at all something that is banned in almost the entirety of the US. Indeed, in the US Virgin Islands, new construction is required to have rainwater harvesting systems, and - since the US Virgin Islands are a territory of the US - this requirement is more akin to a federal law than any of the laws banning rainwater collection.

Cannabis is the inverse of rainwater collection: it's banned by federal law, but not by some state laws. This is working its way through state legislatures, both as a hemp-legalization law as well as a marijuana-legalization law. But this one I'll give you as the "banned in the U.S.A." moniker.

Raw milk is banned by the FDA in interstate trade (which is the only way that the federal government can regulate a commodity), and so - again - I'll give you the "banned in the U.S.A." moniker, but - again - it's not so simple. State and local laws actually do allow the sale of raw milk in stores, but (at least in the State of Michigan, where I live) there are laws about how that milk is stored and sold. I seem to recall, too, that other states do allow direct sale of raw milk from the farmer to consumers. So, technically banned, but in reality legal in many places.

Unlicensed inland fishing is illegal under individual state laws, and - as far as I know - all 50 states require licenses to fish. This is technically not "banned in the U.S.A." under federal law, but is effectively "banned in the U.S.A." under state law, so it's a wash. As far as I know, the only federal laws about inland fishing bans regard endangered species, which are not what most people are fishing for. Now open ocean fishing requires licensing with the federal government, but that's not what this boy's doing, nor is it what most Americans do when they do fishing. Still, on open ocean fishing, the moniker "Banned in the U.S.A." is appropriate.

Finally, though, there is the tag line, "When did nature become illegal?" There are many points here that are interesting. As I showed above, none of these are always illegal, which means that they can all be regulated activities, which is different than an illegal activity. Changing the tag line to the more accurate, "When did nature become regulated?" actually does let you think about the history of human interaction with the land/air/water of the territory that would become the United States of America. If we presume a common cultural heritage that goes back to the Jamestown colony (and not Spanish colonization), then the answer to the question, "When did nature become regulated?" goes back to the Jamestown Charter of 1606.

However, even then, we are left with the other epidemiologically troubling word: "nature." I'm not going to even conjecture about the concept of "nature" in 1606 (although there are many books about it, including Death of Nature by Carolyn Merchant), but focus on the present day in the United States. The idea of "nature" usually is independent of the idea of "utility," and going by that tendency, only cannabis is actually "nature," since all the others are presented either explicitly in terms of utility (collecting rainwater, unlicensed fishing) or implicitly in terms of social utility (milk as we use it in society - raw or not - is a commodity and not a natural product). Indeed, even cannabis - if grown for the purpose of medical or industrial use - will no longer be of "nature" either, but another commodity, like milk. And this definition of "nature" is not even one that discusses nature as an interconnected relationship between organisms; the ecological perspective of nature (of which there are many books written as well).

In sum, the picture is technically correct in a very narrow reading of the terms, "nature," "illegal," and "U.S.A." Changing "illegal" to "regulated," recognizing the federalist structure of U.S. government, and - further - being very generous with the definition of "nature," the short answer is, "In 1606." The specific dates for the individual points, though, are - I'm sure - available if you search for them.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ted Cruz Reads the Entirety of "Green Eggs and Ham" while Filibustering the ACA; Destroys Irony-meters

As part of his filibuster against the Affordable Care Act ("ACA," "Obamacare"), Senator Ted Cruz read Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham. Completely without any irony. And completely not understanding the irony of his reading it as part of his filibuster against trying out Obamacare.

Here is his Senate-chamber rendition of that Seuss classic. At 4:15, you can - hopefully - understand the irony.

No, Ann Arbor is not "A Small College Town," but a "Medium-Sized Midwestern City with a Large Public University"

The Ann Arbor News posted the following statement by the newest member of the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority:
Ann Arbor is not a metropolis. Ann Arbor is not a small Midwestern college town. There is no model for Ann Arbor because it is truly unique in our country.
I'll accept that statement. But apparently, one person felt that this statement was wrong on the facts, writing:
But Ann Arbor is a small college town. Whats wrong with that? Sorry, Ann Arbor, this may not make you feel special. It's a great city, a fantastic place to live, and a wonderful place to raise a family.. Why can't that be enough?
Sorry, but this is nonsensical on the facts. Do you know what IS a "small college town" that is also nearby (so you can go and make a comparison)? Albion. Albion is a (relatively) small town with a small college (which it actually calls a college and is actually a college) in it.

In contrast, Ann Arbor has a population of ~115,000. That's not a "town" in any definition, save for a comparative one against places like NYC, London, and Tokyo. We have a larger population than that of Lansing, which most of us (I'd imagine) would consider to be a "city."

Furthermore, the University of Michigan is not a college; it's a university (it's right there in the name). It is also among the largest universities in the US. Furthermore, the student population of the University of Michigan is ~43,000, which is almost eleven times larger than the nearby village (aka town) of Dexter (~4,000) and roughly double the resident population of the City of Ypsilanti (~19,000).

If this person had stated, "Ann Arbor is a medium-sized Midwestern city that houses one of the largest public universities in the country," then I'd agree with the entirety of your comment (because I do agree with the rest of what you state). Of course, *that* statement wouldn't have held as much rhetorical clout as the non-factual statement they chose to write (which I'm guessing is why they wrote what they did).

The Rhetoric of the Scientific "95%"

When scientists say that they are "almost certain" or "virtually certain," this does not mean that the scientists are not sure. Just like "theory" doesn't mean the same thing in scientific discourse as it does in public discourse, the idea of certainty is also not at all the same in science as it is in public life. Take the following sets of statements; the first is written in a more regular manner of speech, and the latter is written with scientific recognition of contingency, but they mean the same thing:

Regular speech mode: This is going to be the best weekend party, ever!
Scientific speech mode: This will likely be the best weekend party that we have yet gone to.

Regular speech mode: John is a fireman.
Scientific speech mode: All the available evidence indicates that John is a fireman.

Yes, it sounds robotic. Yes, it sounds kind of annoying. Yes, it is overly pedantic. But it is also more accurate and more precise. The party this weekend cannot literally be the best weekend party throughout all of time. Unless you have objective information about the quality of parties in the future and in the distant past, you are likely to be able to project the likelihood that this upcoming party is better than similar ones from your past experiences.

Well, what about "John is a fireman"? If he works at a fire station, he is certified to be a fireman, is in a union for firemen, and actually goes out and fights fires, what more evidence is needed to prove that John is a fireman? Well... it's not about proving that he is a fireman. It's about whether there is evidence to show that he isn't a fireman. So far, we have no credible evidence to show that he isn't, which means that we can only say that the available evidence is indicative, but not proof-positive, that John is a fireman.

Yeah, it's annoying to have to deal with positivistic statements in regular day-to-day life while simultaneously having to recognize that scientists - when speaking scientifically - often appear to prefer speaking in terms that indicate the possibility that the statement in question can be falsified. (See what I did there?)

Anyway, with the latest IPCC report on climate change coming out, remember that it's a science-based document written (primarily) by scientists and to be based on the justifications surrounding the practice of science itself. In other words, it's chock-a-block full of apparently uncertain statements. But what is publicly meant and what is scientifically meant by the same words are not the same thing. Check it out:
Top scientists from a variety of fields say they are about as certain that global warming is a real, man-made threat as they are that cigarettes kill.

They are as sure about climate change as they are about the age of the universe. They say they are more certain about climate change than they are that vitamins make you healthy or that dioxin in Superfund sites is dangerous.

They'll even put a number on how certain they are about climate change. But that number isn't 100 percent. It's 95 percent.

And for some non-scientists, that's just not good enough.

There's a mismatch between what scientists say about how certain they are and what the general public thinks the experts mean, experts say.

That is an issue because this week, scientists from around the world have gathered in Stockholm for a meeting of a U.N. panel on climate change, and they will probably issue a report saying it is "extremely likely"—which they define in footnotes as 95 percent certain—that humans are mostly to blame for temperatures that have climbed since 1951.

One climate scientist involved says the panel may even boost it in some places to "virtually certain" and 99 percent.
Some climate-change deniers have looked at 95 percent and scoffed. After all, most people wouldn't get on a plane that had only a 95 percent certainty of landing safely, risk experts say.

But in science, 95 percent certainty is often considered the gold standard for certainty.

"Uncertainty is inherent in every scientific judgment," said Johns Hopkins University epidemiologist Thomas Burke. "Will the sun come up in the morning?" Scientists know the answer is yes, but they can't really say so with 100 percent certainty because there are so many factors out there that are not quite understood or under control.

George Gray, director of the Center for Risk Science and Public Health at George Washington University, said that demanding absolute proof on things such as climate doesn't make sense.

"There's a group of people who seem to think that when scientists say they are uncertain, we shouldn't do anything," said Gray, who was chief scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency during the George W. Bush administration. "That's crazy. We're uncertain and we buy insurance."
With the U.N. panel about to weigh in on the effects of greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of oil, coal and gas, The Associated Press asked scientists who specialize in climate, physics, epidemiology, public health, statistics and risk just what in science is more certain than human-caused climate change, what is about the same, and what is less.

They said gravity is a good example of something more certain than climate change. Climate change "is not as sure as if you drop a stone it will hit the Earth," Princeton University climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer said. "It's not certain, but it's close."

Arizona State University physicist Lawrence Krauss said the 95 percent quoted for climate change is equivalent to the current certainty among physicists that the universe is 13.8 billion years old.

The president of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, Ralph Cicerone, and more than a dozen other scientists contacted by the AP said the 95 percent certainty regarding climate change is most similar to the confidence scientists have in the decades' worth of evidence that cigarettes are deadly.

"What is understood does not violate any mechanism that we understand about cancer," while "statistics confirm what we know about cancer," said Cicerone, an atmospheric scientist. Add to that a "very high consensus" among scientists about the harm of tobacco, and it sounds similar to the case for climate change, he said.

But even the best study can be nitpicked because nothing is perfect, and that's the strategy of both tobacco defenders and climate deniers, said Stanton Glantz, a medicine professor at the University of California, San Francisco and director of its tobacco control research center.

George Washington's Gray said the 95 percent number the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will probably adopt may not be realistic. In general, regardless of the field of research, experts tend to overestimate their confidence in their certainty, he said. Other experts said the 95 percent figure is too low.

Jeff Severinghaus, a geoscientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said that through the use of radioactive isotopes, scientists are more than 99 percent sure that much of the carbon in the air has human fingerprints on it. And because of basic physics, scientists are 99 percent certain that carbon traps heat in what is called the greenhouse effect.

But the role of nature and all sorts of other factors bring the number down to 95 percent when you want to say that the majority of the warming is human-caused, he said.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Racial Identity and Me

On federal employment forms, I am (now) allowed to choose any and all races that I belong to. It used to be that I had to choose "Other" and then write in the various races that I claimed. Why the federal government is asking me about race is something that I can understand - at least I think I can understand, given the steep historical imbalances between Whites and not-Whites. However, the racial categories puzzle me:
  • American Indian or Alaska Native
  • Asian
  • Black or African American
  • Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander
  • White
Sometimes, "Alaska Native" and "Native Hawaiian" are their own unique categories, but at other times they aren't. (This makes me wonder whether there is actually any functionality in separating these groups, since these two categories don't always exist as separate in all government forms.)

Even when I was a kid, growing up in the 1980s, I always had problems with this set of pigeonholes, since the pigeonholes all seemed ... wrong. Even now that I can check more than one box (yeah, that "other" box was also problematic), why do we as a nation continue to use such heavily outdated definitions of "race"? I mean, an American from Easter Island would be classified as "Other Pacific Islander", right alongside a person from Papua New Guinea, but what similarity could be drawn from that? Nothing!

But - depending on how you define the association of Easter Island - this person could also define themselves as American Indian. Why? According to the Office of Management and Budget:
American Indian or Alaska Native refers to a person having origins in any of the original peoples of North and South America (including Central America) and who maintains tribal affiliation or community attachment.
So the Easter Island-American would have the option of claiming to be an American Indian or an "Other Pacific Islander." Confusing.

And what about Russian Aleuts? Would the fact that they aren't from Alaska mean that they wouldn't count as "Alaska Native" and therefore have to call themselves "Asian"? Does the fact that movement between Western Alaska and Eastern Russian occurred since before the European "discovery" of the "New World" qualify Russian Aleut-descended people to claim that they are as much Native Alaskans as their closely related kin who happened to live on the other side of the Bering Straits? Or does the fact that Alaskan Aleuts are on the East side of the Straits mean that they are somehow the same "race" as the various Athabaskan tribes that lived in the interior of Alaska?

And what about my "Black" friends who are as bi-racial as me? Why were they supposed to check "Black" and couldn't instead choose "White," even though I was given the option of choosing between "Asian" and "White"? (This was before even the "Other" option.)

And then someone told me that race was about culture. (I later learned that this wasn't technically true, even though race and culture and ethnicity are often conflated around the world, since a distinct culture is often held by a distinct ethnicity, which is often - but not always - perceived to be of a distinct race from other, neighboring populations.) But - even then - I had to wonder why my Japanese mother was the same "Asian" as my friend's Pakistani mother. And why was my naturalized-American friend from a Senegalese family considered to be the same "Black" as my friend who could trace his ancestry to slavery? So the culture definition didn't make sense to me, either.

When I was about 9, I came to realize that the construct of "race" - that thing that so many think is simple and by which racialists and racists both ascribe with pride - isn't really that simple at all. Indeed, when I read in high school about the changes to the concept of "White" to expand to include the various non-Anglo Saxon European ethnicities (so now even Italians, Spaniards, Irish, and Russians are as "White" as WASPs), this whole notion of "race" showed itself to be about as solid as shifting sand.

So now federal and state forms don't really cause me to re-evaluate my racial identity every time I fill them out (and make me try to remember what I chose last time, since I didn't want to be accused of lying on a government document). Now I can just choose a whole bunch of things to which I can stake some sort of ancestral claim, and then let some clerk sort it out to make my notion of my ancestry fit into their arbitrary constructs of race. I'm not a big fan of the "race" part of the form, because I think that it's a question based on a fundamentally inconsistent assessment of a culturally derived concept based on a historical condition that itself is no longer valid.

But I'll just be happy in checking multiple boxes and letting the government try and determine what I meant by my selection.

Thursday, September 05, 2013

A Bad Argument Remains a Bad Argument, Even when it FEELS Right

I recently saw this page (written in Spanish, but with lots of captioned pictures that make it pretty clear what the position of the author is), and the anti-war position that it espoused. While reading through the article, I was struck with how bad the argumentation was in this article. I mean, it's titled, "Siria, la Gran Mentira y la Inminente Guerra" ("Syria, the Great Lie and Imminent War"), and so I'd expect to see something to prove that there is some "great lie" being told about Syria, followed by an argument about whether to use military force in that country or not to use military force in that country.

What the page actually shows, though, is a really good example of confirmation bias and commitment effect. Specifically, it channels an anti-US narrative (which is a rather populist narrative outside of the US, one must admit, thanks to the decades of rather muscular and militant US activity around the world) to "explain" why all the information we are getting about Syria is a lie, that the US has no moral position to speak about the morality of war crimes, that there is no such thing as "the Syrian rebels," and why the proposed US invasion of Syria is actually a plot by the Rothschilds and other world-financial organizations to control this last, hold-out nation

... and (cue the scary music) the New World Order.

I don't know where the best place would be to start addressing the crazy, but I'll start with the issue of national culpability for historic, unjustifiable military actions.

The Problem with the "Sins of Former Presidents" Argument
If a country must continue to pay for the sins of their forebears long after those forebears are voted out of office, have died, or otherwise been rendered irrelevant, then all countries will be rendered impotent. But this is not the case. Spain is no longer judged by the genocidal actions of Franco. China is not being judged by the genocidal actions of Mao, nor Russia that of Stalin. (At least not by credible people.) I'm surprised that the article didn't talk about the US's history of slavery, it's genocide of the native population, or its 18th century military imperialism. Or maybe actions that took place more than 60 years ago are - to this author - no longer relevant? Or maybe the author is saying that Obama - who was a child during the Vietnam War - is the same president as Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon, even though that position is similarly ludicrous.

Just as we are not the same people as our parents and grandparents, so too are the countries of today not the countries of 40, 50, or 60 years ago. If your father did something wrong to a neighbor when he was a young man, do you inherit that wrongdoing? No. That would be ridiculous, and (apart from revenge dramas from the middle ages) not a part of what we would normally view as modern civilization.

Indeed, the only people who wish to keep the torch burning to relive, remember, and not accept that change in the world has happened over intervening decades are those people, organizations, and governments that need to sustain an "enemy at the gates" mentality in order to justify their position. Don't get me wrong: it's a useful technique, because it relies on a narrative and is maintained by carefully choosing evidence that reinforces that narrative, even if it has to simultaneously discard all evidence that doesn't fit the narrative. Such techniques ultimately become increasingly unwieldy as the narrative spins ever farther away from reality. Any attempt to render a complex situation simple by forcing it to fit into obviously false molds does not help one's argumentation, but merely proves the argument - and its proponents - to be unwilling to address the entirety of reality.

Okay, so that should explain the otherwise simple-to-understand concept of countries change over time, and therefore it is illogical to judge a current government by the actions of a government several decades in its past. There is - of course - one exception to this otherwise simple-to-understand concept: when a government actively attempts to retain the trappings of that decades-long-gone government. You know, kinda like what North Korea does with its government and espoused worldview, and kinda like what anti-American populists try to do when rewhipping that already decades-long-dead carcass of the horse that they think still represents the country.

The Problem with the "There's No Syrian Rebels" Evidence
But that's just one piece of the anti-war-couched-in-anti-US-narrative. There's also the simplistic idea that only natives of a country ought to fight in the wars of that country. Ummm... If that were the case, then the Spanish should disown all the "Brigadas Internacionales" that fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. If that were the case, then most of Latin America would need to disown many of their revolutionary heroes that fought for independence from Spain. (And the US would also have to disown the aid from the French, Spanish, Dutch, Oneida, and Mysores against the British during the Revolutionary War.) If that were the case, then we should condemn the non-French who joined the French Foreign Legion throughout the years. But we know that foreign nationals will fight in civil wars, because there is no such thing as a purely civil war. Sympathizers of one side or another will provide aid - either in the form of materiel or in the form of bodies - to the side they support. Merely pointing out what should be yet another simple-to-understand concept of foreigners often choose to insert themselves into national conflicts is not evidence of a great lie; it's evidence that the world continue to be as it has long been. Indeed, the argument about their being non-national fighters is usually the one that you hear from the government against whom the civil war is being fought, and it was the position of Franco during the Spanish Civil War.

The Problem with the Rothschilds Evidence
And then there's the WTF-level of crazy that is the invocation of the Rothschilds. The who? The Rothschilds. You know: that really rich Jewish family empire that has long been the foundation of a conspiracy theory that they control all of the world's media and financial institutions of the world and get governments to fight wars against each other? You know, that family that was the basis for that anti-Semitic drivel known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion? Yes, seriously, this article invokes the Rothschilds - and tangentially one of the most infamous anti-Semitic texts in history - as a foundational reason as to why the media is lying to you and why financial institutions want this war: because it's being controlled by Jews. Bleaugh. I'm not going to waste my time (or yours) in debunking the stupidity of this piece of evidence crap. I'm sorry, but this isn't evidence of a great lie, except the great lie that is being increasingly aggrandized in the writer's own head. Again ironically, citation of the Jewish conspiracies was what Franco believed.

The Problem with Citing the "New World Order"
Okay, I'm sure you're getting pretty tired of reading by now, but whenever I see the "New World Order" - or any other wildly debunked conspiracy theory - being used as evidence, I'm like, "WTF?" In short, if you want to read about why the NWO is a conspiracy theory that ought to be taken about as seriously as the existence of Cthulhu, I'll let you skim through the rather good article on the "New World Order" over at RationalWiki. Again ironically, Franco believed in a Masonic conspiracy, and - to the extent that the Masonic conspiracy is an analogue to the NWO conspiracy, this doesn't help this Spanish-language piece.

Why Agreeing with the Article Undermines the Validity of your Position
I'm not saying that I support military action in Syria. I'm saying that the argument presented here is not based on an assessment of the reality that we actually are living in. Instead, the article bases its argumentation in a specific set of narratives that are logically inconsistent, factually wrong, and disconnected with reality. The USA of the 1960s and 1970s is not the USA of today. The presence of foreign fighters in a civil war is not - by itself - evidence of a lie, The Protocols are still lies, and the reality of the NWO is only in your head. So there you have it, "Siria, la Gran Mientra" is itself a fatuous lie, based on a narrative of anti-Americanism, a naive narrative of national purity in civil wars, a "Jews control the media and the finances of the world" narrative, and "the modern-day Illuminati control the world". False. False. False. False. (I'm surprised that this guy didn't invoke lizard people.)

No matter how much one might wish these things to be true in order to force the facts to fit into these non-factual narratives, the only things that such a wild tale will sooth are the sensibilities of those who buy into these fatuous narratives. The article is, in this way, intellectually lazy and is itself in greater danger of telling "la gran mentira" due to inherent confirmation bias and the commitment effect, and if you base your anti-war position on these utterly false narratives, then you are undermining the validity of your own position.

If you're going to be against military conflict, okay, but at least find a better argument than this dross.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Well, if Ki Can Explain the Unbendable Arm, Why Not the Power of Jesus Christ?

After writing the last post, I found this ... rather "interesting" reasoning about the power behind the unbendable arm: "the power of Jesus Christ."

And there is just as much evidence to say that it is the power of Jesus Christ that causes the unbendable arm as there is evidence to say that it's ki energy: none.

Heck, there's as much evidence to say that it's the Flying Spaghetti Monster's noodly appendage that is causing the unbendable arm (which is just ironic on so many levels).

No, Ki Energy Does Not Explain the Unbendable Arm (Not even when the assertion is published in an academic journal)

A few years ago, I saw a link to an article titled, "The Physiological Study of Ki in Ki Aikido (2)" (PSoKiKA2) published in the Journal of International Society of Life Information Science in 2001. As a person who used to practice aikido (a lot) and who still dabbles in it from time to time, the concept of Ki and the practice of Ki Aikido were familiar to me.

And I've long felt they they were bunk.

What is ki?
Okay, so I've revealed my position right away, but the evidence for the physical existence of ki is paltry at best; along the lines of evidence for ghosts, bigfoot, and the yeti. Indeed, the idea of ki is an embedded concept in Japanese culture, and it is used in forming many words (denki: electricity, kibun: mood, tenki: weather, and aikido: literally "harmonious-spirit way"), and it also has a spiritual/religious meaning. A good analogue of ki is the word (and concept of) pneuma, which has the double meaning of "breath" and "spirit/soul": it has both a physical and a mystical meaning. Indeed, like pneuma, ki is often associated in its physical manifestation as breath, especially in the spiritualistic extremes of Aikido practice. It also has a history of deep associations with Far-Eastern religions (much like pneuma had a history of deep mystical and religious associations in Classical Greek society and - through the works of Aristotle and the Stoics - the pre-Enlightenment concept of medicine, too).

Assessment of PSoKiKA2
Anyway, back to "The Physiological Study of Ki in Ki Aikido (2)." The article is built on the whole notion that the ki in Ki Aikido is a quantifiable physical phenomenon, with the very first sentence in the introduction unequivocally stating:
Aikido is a Japanese martial art, in which Ki is very important and is not always a physical power. (1,2)
Yes. There are references.  In fact, the article cites a total of three references, each one of them about Ki Aikido. In this case, references 1 and 2 are books in the popular press about Ki Aikido (Ki Energy for Everybody and Ki in Daily Life). The final reference is actually the complement to this study (or "PSoKiKA1"), which was published in the March issue of the same journal.

The methodology seems to be okay, but remember that the whole article is resting on the (untested) axiomatic premise that ki is real and can be measured. The introduction continues, though, thusly:
To identify what Ki is in Aikido, we studied what physiological state is controlled when the unbendable arm is performed. The experiments to study the state of the unbendable arm consist of three different conditions: (1) the state of the arm being unbendable by applying only physical power, (2) the state of the arm being unbendable by being powerless without resistance, and (3) the state of the arm being unbendable by extending Ki. Through analysis of the differences among the three states examined, the difference between physical power and Ki should be understood.
Um... Yeah. A little explanation is needed here, I think. First, what is "the unbendable arm"? Here is a quick video explanation (with a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, but not that much of it) that also shows the three conditions of the experiment (the guy in the video calls state (2) "floppy arms"):

In short, when you do the unbendable arm, your arm cannot be (easily) bent by your partner, even if they are trying really hard to bend your arm (which is why it's called "unbendable arm"), and it's a concept that exists in other martial arts, too. All the stuff about the poses is hooey, and you definitely can do it as a party trick to impress people. (But it rarely does impress people, unless you use it to show a person doing pull-ups on your arm.)

Going back to the PSoKiKA2, the researchers hooked up a Ki Aikido master a bunch of apparatuses to see what physiological effects and brain activity there are when the master is (1) actively using muscular strength to resist someone trying to bend his arm, (2) using nothing to resist the person bending his arm, and (3) using the unbendable arm technique to resist someone trying to best his arm.

Not really a bad set-up, except for the premise that what makes the unbendable arm function is ki. *sigh*

Still, PSoKiKA2 gets what looks like decent data and shows that the physiology and brain wave activity is different between condition (1) and condition (3). (Side note: condition (2) is treated as if it were a refractory period between the two tested conditions, and ought to be no different than the baseline condition that was measured prior to condition (1)). Specifically, the results showed:
  • Relative to condition (2), the heart rate was elevated under condition (1) but not condition (3).
  • There was more blood flow at the neck under condition (1) than condition (2).
  • Both condition (1) and condition (3) showed almost instant blood pressure increase, but it was higher for condition (3).
  • GSR increased sharply under condition (1) but not condition (3).
  • Abdominal respiration ceased under condition (1) but was continued under condition (3).
  • Neck temperature decreased under condition (1) but increased under condition (3).
  • Condition (1) showed both alpha and beta wave brain activity, but condition (3) showed only alpha wave brain activity and no beta wave brain activity compared to condition (2).
Now, I would look at these results, and I would say that this conclusively shows that this Ki Aikido master is doing something very different between condition (1) and condition (3). In fact, that's all that PSoKiKA2 can show. If I had data from other subjects (like other aikido masters or complete off-the-street novices who were taught the basics of the unbendable arm mere seconds before testing), then I would be more comfortable to say that condition (1) and condition (3) are not merely artifacts created by the practitioner. (As an aikido practitioner, though, I would say that they aren't, but the data of one individual do not support my personal experiential - and therefore potentially subjective - observation.)

However, this isn't what PSoKiKA2 concludes. Indeed, here's what the authors thought the results meant:
... when resisting with Ki, the subject kept breathing and the exhalation dominated when starting to resist the power, this is presumably the factor functioning to resist the power applied.

... Coordinative function of the frontal lobe of the left-brain with the region for vision in the right brain was observed. The force through Ki might generate this connection.
Yeah, mumbo-jumbo that is also self-confirmatory. Ki and breath are always connected, as is ki and the mind. Finding these things is not proof of ki, but is either an explanation of acculturation or associative physiological processes. For example, in Aikido, we are taught a form of demonstrating the unbendable arm in which we don't breathe when physically resisting. See what the instructor does from 1:00? He purses his lips when not talking; when watching a similar demonstration in other dojos, this is often done unspeaking and with a clenched position. To one extent, it's play-acting. To another extent, it is true that if we are actively resisting, it's difficult to breathe easily, but for the purposes of demonstrating the unbendable arm, it's not so difficult as to cause you to cease all breathing. (Here, the Aikido master in the study either consciously or unconsciously play-acting the role assumed in the active resistance portion of the demonstration.)

So what do I think causes the unbendable arm, if it isn't ki? Well, I think that it's two things: mechanical advantage in work and physiology.

Mechanical advantage in work (aka the dot product of orthogonal vectors)
Waaay back in undergraduate (or maybe high school), when we took physics, one of the things that we learned as a part of kinematics was the concept of the dot product. Now, dot products are important in kinematics, since forces can be represented as vectors, and vectors can be manipulated using that specialized area of algebra called linear algebra.

One of the more important lessons that we learned in basic physics (the one that tries to teach kinematics without relying on the students' knowledge of linear algebra) is that the dot product of orthogonal vectors is always equal to zero. In other words, the net work done by perpendicular forces is nothing. Nada. Zilch. Zeeero. (And - conversely - the net work done by parallel forces is always equal to one or negative one, depending on directions of the vectors.)

Why is this important?

Well, the unbendable arm is actually - on one level - about the application of forces. The one trying to bend the arm (the "partner") is actively exerting force on the arm of the one resisting the arm-bending forces (the "practitioner"). In order to not have his arm bent, the practitioner must be exerting a force, because of the Law of the Conservation of Energy.

When the practitioner is actively resisting by pressing back on the partner's force, they are effectively creating a force vector that is parallel to the partner's force vector. In practical terms, this means that the maximum potential force can be imparted in the task, and the person exerting more force will be able to bend the arm in the direction they want. Since the partner has better leverage (and is usually using two arms), the partner is almost always able to overcome practitioner's ability to exert the force necessary to keep his arm extended.

However, when in the unbendable arm, the practitioner actually exerts force perpendicular to the forces exerted by his partner. Watch the video again, especially from 1:30. The force that the instructor is exerting is actually in the direction in which his fingertips are pointing: roughly perpendicular to his partner's hand positions. Since the angle between the forces approaches 90 degrees, the total amount of force that can be exerted by the partner on the practitioner approaches zero, which makes it very easy for the practitioner to utilize muscle force to counteract the remaining force exerted by the partner.

This isn't only the case when you have a partner using their hands and arms to try and bend the practitioner's arm. It also works with simple weights strapped across the arm at the inside elbow (provided the practitioner can stabilize his wrist and hand on something). So long as the practitioner extends a forward force, the weights will not bend his arm. It still takes work, though, since the force vectors are not at precisely 90 degrees, nor is there any feedback that the practitioner can receive from the weights, which is why it's actually harder (at least in my experience) to do unbendable arm with dead weights. But this leads to the next factor: physiology.

Physiology (specifically the stretch reflex response)
The actions of the human body are not purely the realm of abstract kinematics. The forces it creates are derived from the musculature. No surprise there. However, human skeletal muscle has a stretch reflex response, and:
When a muscle lengthens, the muscle spindle is stretched and its nerve activity increases. This increases alpha motor neuron activity, causing the muscle fibers to contract and thus resist the stretching. A secondary set of neurons also causes the opposing muscle to relax. The reflex functions to maintain the muscle at a constant length.

Gamma motoneurons regulate how sensitive the stretch reflex is by tightening or relaxing the fibers within the spindle. There are several theories as to what may trigger gamma motoneurons to increase the reflex's sensitivity. For example, gamma co-activation might keep the spindles taut when a muscle is contracted, preserving their stretch-sensitivity even as the muscle fibers become shorter. Otherwise the spindles would become slack and the reflex would cease to function.
In short, skeletal muscle has a way of maintaining a certain level of stretch in them that helps maintain the lengthened arm position by creating fine-level manipulations within the muscle fibers to ensure that the overall tension of the musculature is maintained unconsciously. This is important when describing the difference between doing the unbendable arm with a partner and with weights.

When practicing with a partner, the stretch reflex response continuously recruits different muscle fibers to optimize maintaining the position of the arm in its outstretched position. As the partner shifts his leverage (even minutely), muscle fibers in the practitioner's arm are automatically recruited and relaxed, which means that the practitioner isn't consistently using the same muscle fibers to continue keeping the arm extended.

Conversely, when practicing with weights, there is no shifting. (At least, there shouldn't be.) The weights have a constant, unchanging downward force due to gravity, and (if the stabilization point is a fixed surface) the stabilization point is also exerting a constant, unchanging upward force on the back of the hand. The stretch reflex response is to continue to keep the exact same muscle fibers recruited and leave others unrecruited. This means that the arm quickly tires (unless the practitioner moves his position or unless the practitioner uses the partner's shoulder as a stabilization point, or both).

Indeed, we would encounter this type of problem were we to simply keep an arm raised at shoulder height. We might start off by keeping the arm perfectly still, but our shoulder would quickly start to fatigue, and we would be sorely tempted to either drop the arm or move it to a different position. Even rotating the arm or changing the angle of the shoulder or bending the arm at the elbow will suddenly make the task feel easier (at least for a time). This is because the stretch reflex response recruits different unfatigued muscle fibers and releases fatigued ones in order to maintain the new position.

Closing Remarks
I don't know for certain that the unbendable arm is actually caused by the realization of the dot product of forces combined with the stretch reflex response in the arm, but these two things actually have an internal logic and consistency to them that ki doesn't have. If we believe that it was actually ki energy that kept the arm straight, that would mean that the practitioner can convert the partner's physical energy into ki energy. It also means that the process of such energy conversion just happens to look like it takes advantage of the dot product of orthogonal vectors on the physics side and the stretch reflex response on the physiological side.

In short, one doesn't need to rely on mumbo-jumbo non-explanations like, "it must be associated with ki," unless you happen to be using the concept of ki purely in its ineffable sense. However, to write a physiology paper that effectively says that we can measure and observe ki in the body's response to a set-piece in Aikido circles is akin to citing the "power of intercessionary prayer" in healing the cataracts in Sam's mum:

... and the evidence about the studies of the efficacy of the power of intercessionary prayer is that the studies are heavily biased with internal assumptions that cannot be tested, are - at best - serendipitously aligned with the outcomes that the experimenters expect to see, and so riddled with confirmation bias that negative or null outcomes are often explained away or not even included as "valid" results.

Take home messages:

  1. The PSoKiKA2 study does nothing to actually show the existence of ki.
  2. The unbendable arm can be explained through simple kinematics and physiology.
  3. Heavily biasing your scientific research with predetermined causative effects means that you will certainly draw the wrong conclusions from your science (even if your method of obtaining the data was decent or even good).

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Why BMI is not accurate for taller populations

Lisa Wade (at SocImages) links to a really good, publicly accessible run-down on the various environmental reasons why human (and animal) populations have been growing heavier. The author makes a pretty quick equivalence between obesity and BMI by (effectively) just equating the two, thusly:
And so we appear to have a public consensus that excess body weight (defined as a Body Mass Index of 25 or above) and obesity (BMI of 30 or above) are consequences of individual choice.
Now, I believe that there are two germane debates when it comes to the issue of BMI, obesity, and health: (1) the validity of applying a population metric to individuals (which I contend is categorically, logically, and methodologically incorrect) and (2) the question of whether BMI is actually a useful metric of our population. I would contend that the author focuses mainly on studies that presume that #2 is true, which then allows him to focus on answering #1. (I will admit that it's far more juicy and fun to look into #1, but is epistemologically lazy.)

Before continuing, let me first state that we cannot disagree with the fact that the average weight-to-height ratio (otherwise known as the BMI) has been increasing over time. This is a fact. It has countless reams of documentation that support it. Arguing that it hasn't happened is akin to shouting imprecations of denial against the existence of the sun while standing in the middle of a desert at high noon. In short, the numbers are irrefutable: the BMI ratio is increasing. Indeed, the article agrees that this is happening, and does an excellent job of examining the potential causes of the increase in BMI. But what the article misses is the very question of whether BMI itself (and therefore the mechanical definition of "obesity is when BMI>30" that no doubt underlie most of the studies in this area) is actually a useful metric to use on our current population.

The reason why I bring this up (almost once each year on my blog) is that many people breeze past the fundamental question of whether BMI actually is doing the job we assume it is (supposed) to be doing, which is (at the very least) providing a description of the relative height-to-weight ratio of the study population. Indeed, to the issue of the misapplication of the BMI, I will only repeat my position that it's categorically, logically, and methodologically incorrect. (I'll let Devlin explain why.) Instead, below, I'm going to point out one fundamental flaw in the BMI itself: height.

Taller people have a bigger BMI than shorter people of the same build. This is an important (but unsurprising) statement. Also important (but also unsurprising) is that a person can gain weight (or lose weight) without gaining (or losing) height. All this means that height is the independent variable in the description of BMI.

Furthermore, looking at the formula for BMI (weight/[height^2]) it's easy to note that increases in height (say 6 inches/~15 cm) will have a far greater impact to the BMI than an increase in weight (say 6 lbs/~2.5 kg), since height is squared, while weight is not. This means that - as the population gets taller - in order to remain below a BMI of 30, the population must weigh relatively less than a shorter population. Why? It's because the relationship of height-to-weight that forms the BMI was derived from data about 19th century Belgians (who were 5'5" tall, and for whom the formula of wt/[ht^2] was adequate).

But things have changed - a lot - in the height department.

Specifically, humans have become taller than those 5'5"-tall, mid-19th century Belgians. Unfortunately, though, the BMI calculation we use is still that same one derived over 150 years ago (which, btw, was not meant to be a measure of health). But what does this mean? It means that - as a population gets taller - it must become relatively lighter in weight (i.e., far thinner) in order to remain at the same BMI. For example, let's see what happens when we compare the two 2008 US presidential contenders: Barack Obama and John McCain:

Barack Obama: 6' 1.5", 180 lbs = 23.4 BMI
John McCain: 5' 7", 165 lbs = 25.8 BMI

True, Obama was (and remains) thinner than McCain, but - to show how much height influences the BMI calculation, compare, McCain to (then) outgoing president, George W. Bush: at 5' 11" and 190 lbs, George W. Bush had a 26.5 BMI, which is 0.7 higher than McCain's, but was (without much argument) thinner than McCain. So, if Bush was thinner than McCain, but had a higher BMI, and Obama has a slightly lower BMI than McCain, but is a LOT thinner, why is this the case?

The reason why the BMI fails at predicting taller populations is that BMI is fundamentally measuring the relationship incorrectly. For people who are around 5'5" tall (like those mid-19th century Belgians for whom the BMI was calculated originally), then the relationship is actually pretty good. However, with significantly taller (and significantly shorter) populations, the BMI falls apart, because - at these heights - the BMI is no longer acting as an accurate measure.

As Devlin (over at Devlin's Angle) writes:
The BMI was formulated, by a mathematician, not a medical physician, to provide a simple, easy-to-apply mathematical formula to give a broad, society-level measure of weight issues. It has absolutely no scientific or medical basis. It is based purely on a crude statistical analysis. It measures a general society trend, it does not predict.
I would put it one further: saying that "it measures a general society trend, based on the assumption that we can extrapolate from a statistical relationship found among mid-19th century Belgians; it does not predict."

And - in general - populations have been growing taller than mid-19th century Belgians. Especially in Asia. For an example of the change of Japanese average height over time, see here. And this means that these populations are moving away from that range of heights at which BMI was calculated, and for which - at the population level - BMI is/was relatively descriptive.

I'm not even going to get into a discussion about how screwed up BMI gets when you look at populations of athletes. (Hint: the US Olympic team is almost definitely in the "overweight" or "obese" categories, since most of them have a higher-than-average muscle density.)

My other entries on BMI (many of which were motivated from reading SocImages) are here

Monday, August 12, 2013

Peeved (again) with Sociological Images blog

I'm again disappointed by Sociological Images. In a recent entry - "Open Thread: Selling Push-up Bras with the Male Body", the author provides a commercial from Thailand that uses a male model to sell a bra. Apart from mentioning that it's from Asia (and even mistaking the origin of the commercial), the author make absolutely no attempt at even placing the ad in the cultural context of its most likely viewers. Instead, the author ends with:
I wonder what y’all think. Does this queer the body? Is there a transgressive identity behind the gaze? Or is it just more gimmicky advertising based on normative expectations? Both?


I would like to turn it around: "I wonder what you're thinking. Can we impose American gender politics and norms on a non-American audience who are embedded in their own cultural gender politics and norms? Is there a generalizable connection that you can draw between Thai and American gender politics (one that you're just not telling us about)? Or it this just another gimmicky and lazy post that makes absolutely no attempt at analyzing an Asian culture from anything other than an American perspective? Both?"

Seriously, if you're going to write a post in a sociology blog about things from Asian cultures (that are marketed to those domestic audiences) or things in the States that have had a massive influence from one or more Asian cultures (like what was posted by the same author on the same blog just the other day), then it makes sense to me that you should at least make an attempt at analyzing those things in something other than a White-American-only context. This inability to even start to analyze a non-American commercial from a non-American context is something that this author has done a lot (including - but not limited to - this, this, this, this, and this for Asian things in respective domestic contexts).

Is it too much to ask the person with the PhD in sociology to go the additional couple of yards and at least do what she did when writing about "Korean appropriation of American Indians":
It’s difficult (for me) to know how these stereotypes of native North Americans “work” in Korea. It appears to mean something to Koreans, otherwise why use the imagery and narratives, but what? And how should Americans who oppose the stereotyping (and erasing of modern) Native Americans talk about this “borrowing”?
I believe that it's okay to publicly admit when one doesn't know the culturally contextual significance of the imagery displayed, which is why I actually think that it was useful when the author wrote - in "Are they racist or are we ethnocentric?":
I don’t know if [the lack of a cultural connection between chicken and black people is] true [in Australia]. But if it is, it raises interesting questions as to (1) just how cognizant companies should have to be about various stereotypes around the world and (2) whether the biased histories of some countries must be more attended to than others.
Admitting the lack of cultural knowledge is actually useful, since it then gives the context for the author's two points.

It would be nice to see the author put in this minimum of due diligence, instead of (yet again) having the audience explain why the sociological context of the United States is not the appropriate one to use when viewing the presented thing(s). Of course, this is merely Sociological Images, and admittedly, the blog entry in question was an "open thread", but seriously, how much time and effort would it take to write something like, "There are many social contexts in Thailand that undoubtedly inform the messaging in this commercial. However, in a broader context - which can include the US - ..."

... or maybe all of this is merely implied when one is talking about the cultural contexts of countries and cultures of which one is unfamiliar. After all, it's what most people do when assessing the cultures of other countries. It's just sad that a person with a PhD in a field in which one ought to know better is doing it (apparently obliviously).

Friday, August 09, 2013

More Japanese Beatboxing

Last year, I posted some videos of Japanese Beatboxer, Hikakin. He's come out with some new stuff, and I saw this one recently:

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Musings on Lactose Persistence

An interesting map of lactase persistence from Nature:

Differences in Gene Expression & Hybridization
An interesting things from the article:
Most people who retain the ability to digest milk can trace their ancestry to Europe, where the trait seems to be linked to a single nucleotide in which the DNA base cytosine changed to thymine in a genomic region not far from the lactase gene. There are other pockets of lactase persistence in West Africa (see Nature 444994996; 2006), the Middle East and south Asia that seem to be linked to separate mutations3

Since lactase persistence in West Africa, the Middle East and South Asia all seem to be linked to separate mutations, I wonder:

  1. if the different mutations for lactase persistence are differently efficient, and
  2. if people who have parents from different lactase hotspot regions have significantly different lactase production capability.
Since the mutations of lactase persistence occurred independently in these different populations, it means that it is possible that each population might have a different efficiency of producing lactase. (It's not necessarily true, but it is possible.) For example, if Northern European populations could digest x milliliters of cow milk in t seconds, would West African populations be able to digest the same quantity in the same amount of time? Would this hold for all quantities? For commonly drunk types of milk (e.g., cow milk, goat milk, sheep milk, mare's milk, camel milk, etc.)? And for all hotspot populations? These would be interesting things to check out (especially if you were a cereal company who wants to open new markets...)

With regard to the question of whether genetic hybrids would have better capacity of producing lactase, it is important to determine whether the trait is dominant or recessive. In a comparative study between the Northern European and the Middle Eastern mutations for lactase persistence, the authors assume that the genetics of both mutations are dominant traits, which would mean that only one gene is necessary for the trait to be expressed. If a person had both the Northern European mutation and the Middle Eastern mutation, therefore, it is likely that they could well express both lactase persistence mutations. (The assumption of dominance is also more likely, considering that upwards of 90% of the populations in the hotspots can digest lactase, which strongly implies that it's a dominant trait, since a recessive trait is unlikely to emerge at such a high rate, unless there were some strong selective pressures for that trait.)

The Mongol Question
In another note, the article is mum about Mongolia. Indeed, the shading of lactase persistence is at a pretty low resolution (as it is for much of Asia), but it estimates it at around ~45%. This strikes me as a little odd, since much of the population does consume mare's milk, and some regions also consume yak milk and others consume camel milk (i.e., in those regions where they herd yak and camels, respectively). From these milks, different products are made, which serve as a major food source throughout the year. Now, maybe ~55% of the Mongolian population is lactose intolerant, and just go around with the runs and bad gas all the time, but I couldn't find any information about Mongolia. Instead, when I looked for lactose tolerance data for Mongolia, I kept pulling up a 1984 study of ethnic populations in China, including Inner Mongolia. One note, though: Inner Mongolia has a very different demography than the nation of Mongolia, and it's not clear from the reviews of the study that the authors tested ethnic Mongols (who are a minority in Inner Mongolia), Han Chinese (who are the dominant majority), or other minorities (e.g., Manchus, Hui, Daur), or even if they determined the level of hybridization of the subjects (since determination of ethnicity is a social construction - in which a person who is half-Han could still be considered to be Mongol and other ethnic minorities are also considered to be Mongol - whereas lactase persistence is based on biology). I'm going to guess - based on only anecdotal evidence and inference - that the degree of lactose persistence in Mongolia is higher than that of Inner Mongolia and that it could well be higher than the ~45% indicated on the map.

Even though the resolution of the data is pretty sparse in Asia (apart from South Asia), it's interesting to note that if we assume that the darker band of lactose persistence in northern and eastern Asia are due to the Mongols (which I think is justifiable, based on the wealth of evidence that Mongols do consume significant amounts of milk products), then the dark spot of lactose persistence in Japan's main island is additionally interesting. If true, it would appear to bolster some minor lines of genetic evidence that link Japanese populations to Mongolia and potentially explain why lactose persistence is a far more common trait in Japan than it is in the nearby Korean peninsula.

In any event, it would be interesting (and somewhat fulfilling) to see more data from northern Asia (especially from the herding ethnic groups found in that vast - and under-sampled - area).

Of course, I'm not a geneticist, but when I see maps like these, they make me wonder about the interesting implications of genetics.

Friday, July 26, 2013

My sense of "home"

It's the normal question that seems to follow the standard small-talk of getting to know someone in the United States:

"Hello." pause for the reciprocated greeting What's your name? pause for the response and the returning of the question. respond with your name. Where are you from?" pause for the response and the returning of the question. respond with where you are from.

It is with this question of, "Where are you from?" that I get hung up, because I don't have a good answer. I despise the question, "Where are you from?" and let me explain why:

I'm not from anywhere in particular. At least, not in the way that most people I encounter have understood the idea behind their question. To many, the question is roughly equivalent to, "Where were you born?" "Where did you grow up?" and "Where do you call home?" And - to many people (especially those who don't have families of their own) - the answer to at least two of the three questions is likely the same place. (And for many people I've encountered, the answer is the same for all three.)

I understand why the question is helpful: it gives the questioner a short-hand version of "getting to know you." I mean, if I meet a person who's from Boston, I know (or think I know) so many things about them. If they like baseball, they're likely a Red Sox fan. If they like football, likely a Patriots fan. If they like basket ball, they're likely a Celtics fan. Etc. Etc. Etc. And - heck - if I knew even more about the Boston area, I could even ask them what part of the city they're from (or even if they are from Boston itself, and not the greater Boston area).

But I'm not like that. The answers that I would have to give to those three implied questions would be, "I wasn't born where I grew up," "I grew up in seven countries on three continents," and "I call pretty much anywhere I've lived for more than 1 month 'home'". These answers aren't really conducive to people getting to have anything to go on when trying to get to the short-hand of "getting to know you." Indeed, when I've answered truthfully the locations I was born. grew up in, and felt at home in, most people look resentful or lost or put off (and some of them - I learned later - thought that I was trying to be arrogant by listing off so many different places so quickly and nonchalantly).

In short, I despise the question, "Where are you from?" because the truthful answers I give are nothing that most people want to hear.

And then I saw this video, where Pico Iyer eloquently explains why:

One excerpt really spoke to me:
Home has really less to do with a piece of soil than with a piece of soul. If somebody suddenly asks me, "Where is your home?" I think about my sweetheart or my closest friends or the songs that travel with me wherever I happen to be. And I've always felt this way...
The stats that Iyer points out about people like me (a member of "this great, floating tribe" - even if only in spirit):
The number of people living in countries not their own now comes to 220,000,000. That's an almost impossible number to imagine, but that means that if you took the whole population of Canada and the whole population of Australia and then the whole population of Australia again and the whole population of Canada again and doubled that number, you would still have fewer people than would belong to this great, floating tribe. And the number of us who live outside the old nation-state categories is increasing so quickly - by 64 million just in the last 12 years - that soon there will be more of us than there are Americans. Already, we represent the fifth largest nation on earth.
And that's kewl. But what he says about the children of those people who are part of that great, floating nation really, really hit home for me:
The typical person that I'll meet today [in the world's biggest cities] would be - say - at half-Korean, half-German young woman and living in Paris, and as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.
I can definitely relate to that statement, being half-Japanese, half-American, growing up in many different large cities around the world. But Iyer continues.
So [the young woman and young guy] become friends. They fall in love. They move to New York City. ... or Edinburgh. And the little girl who arises out of their union will of course be not-Korean or German or French or Thai or Scotch or Canadian or even American, but a wonderful, and constantly evolving mix of all those places.
That sounds just about what I expect for my future. However, I wonder if I can get a "Great, Floating Tribe" passport...