Friday, August 29, 2014

Why is Michael Sam's Sexual Orientation the Most Noteworthy Thing About Him?

Michael Sam

Michael Sam is the first openly gay active player in the NFL.  This is a big thing, and worthy of attention.  Michael Sam is a pioneering symbol of the increasing acceptance of gays in our culture, but he is also a symbol of a much darker type of acceptance in our culture.  The acceptance of horror stories as normal background for black athletes.

Michael Sam is the seventh of eight children.  Of those eight children, two are dead, two are in jail, one has been missing for sixteen years, and one is a gay athlete who graduated from college and made it into the NFL.  While I am writing this it is still not clear whether he will make a regular season roster, the NFL is a tough place to make it.

As a child Michael Sam saw one of his brothers shot to death in front of him.  As a child Sam was maced by a police officer who was arresting his brother.  Sam lived in his mother's car for a time as a child.  Sam's parents split up when he was young.  Of the boys in his family, Sam is the only one who is not dead, missing, or in jail.  He is also the first member of his family to go to college.

Michael Sam also managed to get as far as he did without support from his family.  His mother didn't just not help him, she actively opposed him playing football on religious grounds (his mother is apparently a Jehovah's Witness).  In order to pursue football Michael Sam had to live with a friend's family, where he had his own room and chores.

I don't know that much about his family or his background, and that bothers me.  If Johnny Manziel had come from a similar background I would expect it to get a lot of press.  But stories like Michael Sam's are so common for black players that his seems hardly noteworthy.  

It's not that I think that Sam coming out as gay is not noteworthy.  It is definitely worthy of note, and it is important.  I just think that we should also be aware of what Sam has had to overcome to get to where he is, and homosexuality is not the biggest thing he had to overcome.  Acceptance of gays is good, and important.  Acceptance of death, violence, homelessness, and broken homes is not a good thing, but it is also important. 

Michael Sam is emblematic of where attention gets placed in our society.  LGBTQ rights and discrimination are issues that are in the spotlight, families like the one Sam came from are not.  We should not stop trying to create a more inclusive society.  LGBTQ issues should not be ignored.  But poverty and violence, and the ways that poverty and violence intersect with race in this country should not be ignored either.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Anatomically Modern Humans Out-competed Neanderthals with a Combination of Weakness and Fat

Z: So, these... these termites, they're... they're, they're... these guys aren't going to put up much of a fight, right? I mean, we're talking about pushovers, right?
Barbatus: Not really, kid. They're five times our size and spit acid from their foreheads.
Z: [panicked] Hey, wait a minute. Let's not get... we're being too hasty here. These guys sound like bruisers. Just how were you figuring on beating them.
Barbatus: Superior numbers, kid. Overwhelm their defenses, and kill their queen.

             --Antz, 1998

It seems like every article I read about why Anatomically Modern Humans (AMH) out-competed Neanderthals (I like the "h" spelling, and I'm sticking with it) focuses on what short-comings Neanderthals might have had that explains their extinction.  I think that this focus is backwards.  While it may seem counter-intuitive, I think it was AMH's short-comings that led to them out-competing Neanderthals.  To glibly sum up my pet hypothesis, humans wiped out the Neanderthals by being weak and flabby.

Natural Selection is not the same as Survival of the Fittest

People tend to assume that the biggest and the strongest are most likely to survive.  That idea is so strong that it is commonly held as an unquestioned assumption.  In fact the phrase "survival of the fittest" is commonly confused with evolution.  Darwin never used the phrase "survival of the fittest," Darwin's phrase was "natural selection."  Survival of the fittest was coined by Herbert Spencer, and actually expresses a common misconception about evolution.  Evolution does not favor those who are strongest or smartest.  Evolution favors those who make the most babies that in turn make the most babies.

Hypothetically: if you had a type of mouse that lived for 30 years and were smarter and stronger, but didn't start having babies until age three and only had one baby at a time and another group of mice who only lived to three, but had large litters starting at six months, which group would you think were at an evolutionary advantage?  If you went with survival of the fittest you might expect the smart long lived mice to do better, but in reality it would be the stupid mice that make lots of babies early and often that would be likely to be more successful.  Because even though the smart long-lived mice are individually fitter, there are going to be fewer of them.

There are a lot of mice in the world.  They don't live long, but they make lots of babies.  That's a good thing since there are lots of things that eat mice.  If mice took years to reach sexual maturity there wouldn't be enough surviving to keep the species going.

This is just my pet hypothesis, not a commonly accepted theory

Now, just as a heads-up, this is my personal hypothesis.  I have never read this hypothesis in any reputable science publications, so if you are in an archaeology class I would not suggest putting this forward as an accepted theory.  I didn't even come up with this idea through ideas presented in archaeology papers.  My pet hypothesis was inspired by this documentary, The World's Strongest Toddler.  I recommend watching the documentary, it's pretty interesting, but I will summarize.

Myostatin and the World's Strongest Toddler

The World's Strongest Toddler is Liam Hoekstra, who was profiled as a toddler.  He was very unusual because he has a myostatin deficiency.  Myostatin inhibits muscle growth.  That might seem like a bad thing, but here's a picture of a bully-whippet (a whippet with a myostatin deficiency) next to a normal whippet:

When you look at this difference you can see that there could potentially be some problems.  The most obvious for a dog owner is how much food the bully whippet would clearly need to stay so bulky.  That is an important thing to remember going forward.

But all that extra muscle does more than just increase food requirements.  Those big muscles also make it much harder to store fat.  In the case of Liam Hoekstra, he was a toddler with no body fat.  Children need either body fat or constant food.  Because Liam had no fat stores he has much less wiggle room when it comes to skipping meals.  In modern day US that is not too much of a problem, because we have plenty of food.  However, for our evolutionary ancestors there were not fast-food burger joints on every corner.

But Liam Hoekstra is not just stronger and leaner than normal kids, he is also faster and has better balance.  In terms of physicality, Liam Hoekstra is better than you (unless you are the German kid with the myostatin knock-out mutation).  Neanderthals were much the same.

Neanderthals:  Bigger, Faster, Stronger, Extinct

When you think of Neanderthals you might think of the old fashioned representations of them.  Stooped, hairy, and ape-like.  These days the reconstructions tend to look a little different.  Here are some of my favorites:
This was a reconstruction of a Neanderthal woman published by National Geographic in 2008.  The article this was from actually provided a lot of the information that led me to my hypothesis.

A Neanderthal Family reconstruction by the incomparable Atelier Daynes  I strongly recommend you check out her stuff.  She does beautiful work.

And of course, the obligatory Neanderthal in a Suit.
 I show these images mostly to get you thinking about Neanderthals as people.  Because Neanderthals were
people.  People so much like you and me that unless you are of purely Sub-Saharan African ancestry a portion of your DNA is probably derived from Neanderthal ancestors.  Neanderthals were not dumb animals.  They used complex and varied tools, they took care of each other and the old, and they buried their dead.

They also had bigger brains than early AMH on average.  Some people claim that their brains were different somehow and that is why we out competed them.  Personally I find this idea a bit of a stretch.  If we had a good handle on how our own brains actually worked then I might be a little more credulous.  I think that an important thing to remember is that there is a broad range of normal brain sizes for modern humans, and it is not necessarily correlated with intelligence, I think that it is foolish to put too much importance on raw brain size.  But we should also remember that Neanderthals were more massive than humans.  We can compare that to men and women.  Women's brains average about 15% smaller than men's brains, but men's bodies average about 20% larger, which means that men's brains average about two percentage points smaller as a percentage of total body.  But this is kind of a tangent, but let us assume that Neanderthals were roughly as intelligent as humans.

The biggest difference between Neanderthals and humans is their metabolism.  Most humans can get by just fine on 2,000 Calories a day.  An average female Neanderthal probably required more than twice that.  In 2008, National Geographic stated the caloric requirements of an average Neanderthal woman would be 4,034 Calories per day.  That article is actually available online here.  The article was written a few years before the genome studies that found that a small percentage of the modern human genome is derived from Neanderthals for non-Africans.  The article uses the older mitochondrial DNA studies to suggest that Neanderthals were a separate species.  It's kind of ironic, even though archaeology studies things long gone and buried, archaeology is constantly changing.  You might think that the study of static objects from the past would be a static field, but it is not.

Neanderthals were much stronger than we are.  It's not just a matter of muscle size, it is also muscle placement and skeleton.  While it is true that your average neanderthal had muscle mass like a steroidal body-builder, they also had thicker stronger bones and their muscles were placed to provide better leverage.  If you think back to Liam Hoekstra you can remember that his increased musculature makes him faster, stronger, and gives him better balance, and that is on a human frame.  Imagine a group of people that were actually designed to be that strong.

Before moving on let us review briefly.  Neanderthals had slightly bigger brains.  They were stronger.  They had more muscle mass, and heavier bones.  And most importantly to my idea, they had twice the caloric requirements that we do.

Big Brains, Big Muscles, Big Appetites

Those muscles and brains have a very concrete cost.  They require a lot of food.  But not just any food will do.  Our muscles need protein, and our brains need fat.  If you don't get enough protein you can suffer from a type of starvation called Kwashiorkor.  Kwashiorkor is a funny name for a horrible disease.  It would seem to me that if you required much more protein just to survive that it would be much easier to slip into protein wasting.

It shouldn't be too surprising that Neanderthals subsisted primarily on meat.  Recent studies have shown that Neanderthals did eat plants, but the majority of their diet was meat.  Some studies of residue on Neanderthal teeth has shown that they even ate medicinal plants.  Neanderthals understood their world, and ate vegetables and made medicine.  But they mostly ate meat, and their bodies needed that meat.

But we don't just need protein, we also need fat.  There is another silly sounding type of starvation, Rabbit-Starvation.  Rabbit starvation is what happens when you live off of lean meat.  If you don't have enough fat in your diet (or enough carbs to make up the slack) you will starve.  You can eat twelve rabbits a day and starve if you don't have access to fats and/or carbs.  So for Neanderthals with their primarily carnivorous diet, they needed not just meat, but high quality fatty meat.

Those big brains that Neanderthals had needed fat to keep operating needed fat to maintain.  But if they had metabolisms like Liam Hoekstra's then it must have been difficult to keep on a surplus of fat.  They needed fatty meat.  They needed a lot of it.  They needed big game.  And they did hunt big game.

Picky Carnivores vs. Generalist Ominivores

(Now we are getting into my conjectures, this is how I imagine things)

Neanderthals lived on the landscape like predators.  Large predators don't live in high density.  Think of wolf packs or lion prides.  Their groups can't get too big or too dense or there won't be enough high quality prey to go around.  Neanderthals lived in smaller groups than humans, usually in the 5-10 people range.  That size worked for the life style they led.

AMH lived in larger groups, even early humans lived in groups of 20-30.  Humans aren't carnivores.  We eat everything, and can survive on just about anything.  We will selectively eat big game, but if it's not there we can do just fine on grass seeds.  Today most humans live primarily on grass seeds in the forms of staples like wheat, rice, and corn.  With our lower metabolisms and our talent for making fat out of anything we can live in much higher densities.

Our higher population densities also provide us with another advantage, social ratcheting.  When you have a larger group of people you can divide labor.  Neanderthal women and men did a lot of the same work.  Everybody had to be able to do everything because there weren't enough people to have anyone specialize.  Having larger groups also means that there is a higher chance of having old people around.  Old people might not seem like a huge deal, but they are.  If you come across the worst winter in 50 years it can be awfully handy to have someone around who remembers how they survived the last time there was a disaster.

A lot has been made of the years about how slowly Neanderthals changed their technologies.  I think they changed slowly because they didn't have as many people around.  When everybody has to be going all the time it is harder to come up with new ideas.  But that is just conjecture.

I also think that part of the reason that Neanderthals stuck with hand-held spears instead of throwing spears was because they didn't feel the same need that humans do.  Neanderthals were already strong and fast.  They didn't need to find was to stay away from the animals they were trying to kill.  But once again, that is just an idea of mine.

Neanderthals needed the most nutritious animals around in order to survive.  When humans showed up on the scene they probably hunted the same animals.  When the populations of high quality prey dropped it was no big deal for humans, we just ate something else.  For Neanderthals that would have been a disaster.  If the big game was gone from an area they would need to go after it or they would starve.  Even if there was plenty of food around for humans to thrive in higher population densities than Neanderthals ever achieved it still wouldn't be enough for the Neanderthals.

There is evidence that humans and neanderthals fought.  I don't think it was war that wiped out the Neanderthals, but it is a fun thought experiment to imagine what the conflict could look like.  Neanderthals were stronger and faster, but humans didn't need to get up close to kill, they used projectiles.  But even if Neanderthals killed three humans for every Neanderthal, they would still lose, because there are lots of humans.


So there you go.  We don't need to look for any shortcomings in the Neanderthals to figure out why they died off.  We don't need them to be stupid, or unable to talk.  We just need them to be what their biology made them.  Their well designed bodies, highly adapted to the ice-age, were poorly adapted to being overrun by people who needed less.

Neanderthals thrived in Europe for far longer than humans have been around.  They were very successful.  If it all just came down to survival of the fittest one would expect them to still be around.  But other than remnant DNA they are gone and we are here.  We won the evolutionary competition because we are weak and fat.

You could say the weak inherited the Earth.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

To Serve and Protect: Why are Cops Sporting Military Gear?

In a mature society, "civil servant" is semantically equal to "civil master."
       "Time Enough for Love" by Robert Heinlein.

This post is a rambling mess, and I apologize ahead of time.
Police interacting with an unarmed protester in Ferguson - Source NYTimes
Another day, another young black man killed by police.  This time the victim was named Michael Brown, he was 18, unarmed, and had his hands up before he was shot to death in plain sight.  Now there is a no-fly zone above Ferguson, and "riot police" are running around in military costumes.  But at least we don't need to worry about the safety of the officer who gunned down an unarmed teen, his identity has been protected.

This post is difficult for me to write.  My feelings on the subject are confused.  I find the trends in Law Enforcement in this country terrifying, but I have always been on the side of the Police Forces.  I worked in security for over a decade, and in that time I came to feel an identification with the forces of law and order.  To me the police are the good guys.  I like them.  I have police officers as friends.  I worked regularly with the Seattle Police Department and the FBI.  I was so impressed by my interactions with the Seattle Police Department that I went through the hiring process with the Federal Way Police Department.  During my panel interview I realized that the attitude of serving the public that I found so attractive in the SPD was not so evident with the FWPD.  I quickly came to feel that there was an antagonistic attitude toward the public at work in the interview, and my responses were shifted toward service to the public.  I was not surprised when I was turned down by the FWPD.  The experience also convinced me that police work was probably not in my future.  But the experience did not change my basic feelings about police, just about my ability to be a part of a police force.

Before we go on I feel like I should talk more about my interactions with police.  As I have said, I have always felt that the police have been on the same side as me.  With only one exception I have never felt endangered or threatened by the police.  The exception to that rule was when I was pulled over for going 12 miles over the speed limit on the freeway through Salem, Oregon two years ago.  The officer that pulled me over was without a doubt the rudest and most verbally abusive police officer I have ever interacted with.  It seemed very clear to me and my wife (girlfriend at the time) that the officer was trying to provoke a confrontation.  It seemed like he was not going to be satisfied until there was a physical confrontation.  Fortunately after some time of verbal abuse when it became clear that my responses were not going to vary from polite and my hands were not going to leave my wheel the cop wrote me a $280 ticket and left.  It was a scary situation.  I've always wondered how it might have been different if my wife and I were not two white adults driving a two year old car wearing conventional clothing with conservative haircuts.

But let's be clear here.  For me this was a completely singular experience, and I was not harmed or arrested.  For me, even the experience of someone being rude to me is highly unusual.  I am a large, friendly, white male with short hair.  I interact with people courteously.  Everywhere I go people are polite.  I go to bars in rough neighborhoods, rural remote areas, other countries, places where I am the only native English speaker, and everywhere people are nice to me.  I know that not everyone has that experience of life.  I try to be cognizant of that when I try to give people advice.

So for me the most egregious act that a police officer has perpetrated on my person was an unprovoked verbal assault.  For Michael Brown it was getting gunned down in the street.  For Eric Garner it was getting choked to death in public for selling cigarettes.  For Jonathan Ferrell it was getting tased and then shot ten times for knocking on a door asking for help after climbing out of the wreckage of his car.  For John Crawford it was being shot to death for holding a toy gun in a Walmart.  The most obvious difference between me and those four men who were killed by police while unarmed is that I am white.  They are black.

But I really don't want to make this post about race.  God knows racism is a real thing.  My time in security gave me a perspective that made racism far too evident to be denied.  I am not even going to try to list individual events.  And I also know that being white is not a total insulation from being harassed by the police.  When I was a young man I drove a beat up car and worked a late swing shift.  I usually headed home around 3am, and I was pulled over a minimum of four times a week.  One night in particular I was pulled over twice driving the 100 blocks from my work to my house.  Police saw me, a young man in a crappy car driving at 3am, and assumed I was drunk.  But since I was polite and sober every time I received literally hundreds of verbal warnings for various pretexts that were cited for pulling me over between the ages of 18 and 23.  I never begrudged the police their pulling me over, statistically you are pretty likely to catch a drunk driver if you pull over young men in crappy cars driving on surface streets at 3am.  And in every one of those cases the officers were polite and professional.

I figure that the police probably would not have given me endless warnings or been quite so polite if I had been black, but I really want to try to make this post about more than racism.  The trouble with making articles about the police centered around racism is that for white people like me, police racism hurts other people who look different.  The militarization of police forces affects all of us.  Race makes the threat of a militarized police force seem less threatening to people who look like me because we see pictures like this:
Police menacing that same protester - Source The Concourse
Yes the force brought against the unarmed black protester seems unwarranted.  But hey, there is graffiti saying "fuck the police" in the image, there's a storage facility in the background (you don't see those so much in affluent areas), and the guy is black with long hair.  All things that might make the image seem a little more distant and understandable.  I mean, everybody knows poor black people hate cops right?  Of course the cops would launch a military style assault on black people.  It just makes sense.

That's why I like this picture better:
Whatcha doin?  Oh you know, cop stuff. - Source Business Insider
Now it just looks scary.  There is no graffiti, this could be anywhere in the US.  And the picture puts you in the position of the viewer.  The viewer confronted by faceless men in military style tactical gear with no apparent name tags.  Men wearing sidearms in addition to their carbines, backed up by the police version of an MRAP (the Lenco BearCat).  But these men aren't soldiers, or at least they are not supposed to be soldiers, they are supposed to be police.  Why would police in the US need desert boots?  Why would they need camouflage in a city?  Why is that cop pointing a 5.56 carbine with a 30 round magazine at me? 

This is not a group of police officers seeking to keep order, this is a group of police officers preparing to fight a battle against the public.

And now let us turn back to race.  In 1967 Daryl Gates assembled a SWAT team in Los Angeles to combat things like snipers (from race riots) and the Black Panthers.  Gates used officers with military experience.  He created a military force to use against Americans.  The first LAPD SWAT team battle was actually with the Black Panthers.  But that was not technically the first SWAT style action, the first was north of LA against non-cooperating farm workers.

It is interesting to note that at the same time that California was militarizing against black militants Ronald Reagan was also speaking out against open carry.  Ronald Reagan was trying to ban open carrying of loaded weapons.  The law that passed in 1967, signed by Reagan, is named the Mulford Act.  Who was the law seeking to strip of their right to keep and bear arms?  The Black Panthers.

That's right, limiting the right to keep and bear arms and SWAT teams came about the same year, in the same place, for the same reason:  To fight back against those uppity negroes.

Maybe I'm drawing too strong of a point, the Black Panthers were in fact rather scary.  They were a bunch of angry black men running around with AK's.  And the SWAT teams were also used to crack down on Mexicans first, but...  yeah.

(Parenthetically, I don't want to draw too strong of a connection between the squashing of the right for US citizens to keep and bear arms and the militarized oppression of Americans by the government.  Not because there is not an obvious and progressive correlation, but because correlation does not necessarily imply causation.  Just because 0.125% of homicides in the US in 1991 used a military grade weapon doesn't mean that the Assault Weapons Ban was aimed at furthering the force asymmetry between the police and the populace.)

Unsurprisingly, against this same backdrop of the civil rights movement, crying out against police brutality, disquiet about Vietnam, and growing distrust of the government, one year later the Federal Government passed the Gun Control Act dramatically reducing which arms citizens could own.  Two years later the government proved that they were right to restrict the means of violence to themselves when the National Guard fired into a group of unarmed students at Kent State.

Not that the populace reacted with the same sanguine chill to the Kent State Massacre as they did to black people getting killed by militarized police forces, but I see a connection between use of military force against black people and the broadening of who the government can use military force against.  But once again, I might be drawing connections were none exist.

If we fast forward a decade or so we see another major uptick in the militarization of police forces.  Ronald Reagan (again) helped broaden the scope of what SWAT would be used for as he broadened the War on Drugs.  The scope of who the government would use military force against was expanding.

Fast forward another decade and a half.  9/11 happens.  The War on Terror happens.  The Patriot Act eviscerates the constitution.  The number of cities fielding SWAT teams explodes.  The funding for militarized police forces explodes.  And once again mission creep sets in.  The police become essentially an internal military force to protect the government populace against the populace terrorists.

Color me naive, but I feel like we have the FBI and the National Guard to protect the country.  I feel like the police are there to enforce local laws and keep the peace, not to fight wars.

But now we fast forward another decade plus to today.  80% of cities with populations between 25,000 and 50,000 have SWAT teams.  In 1983 that number was 13%.  In 1975 there were 500 Swat teams in the whole country.  In 1966 there were no SWAT teams (and civilians could own machine guns).  An average of 50,000 SWAT raids go on every year in America.  Today SWAT teams are used for such dangerous missions as breaking up poker games, or checking out a bar that may have sold liquor to minors.  One of my favorite anecdotes is when a SWAT team went to investigate a man suspected of running a cock-fighting ring and they drove an armored vehicle through his fence and proceeded to kill 100 of his chickens and his dog.  (for more read this article, it's better than mine)

Today police continue to kill black men with the same racist impunity they have for decades. The difference is that now a city of 21,000 people in Missouri can call in a military style assault force to crush any opposition without having to involve the actual military.

I guess my point is this.  Racism is a problem, not just for the races being discriminated against, but for everyone.  Because when racism is allowed to affect policy those policies affect us all.  Racism allowed our country to slowly build up a militarized police force.  Military force is still mostly used against minorities, but it threatens all of us.  And today it is used against all of us.

When you read about Michael Brown being gunned down in broad daylight you should acknowledge that race played a big part in his death.  You should also realize that Michael Brown was a human being, just like you.  And the same rules that let Michael Brown's killer go unnamed would let your killer go unnamed.

Think about it.
Michael Brown, yes he was that young.

And sorry again for the rambling tangent-riffic mess of a post.  I just had too many thoughts to pare it back.  I try to maintain focus in my posts, but sometimes they get away from me.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Socialism In America

If you have ever bought a house by getting a mortgage, attended a university using government grants or financial aid, collected unemployment, used funds from the Montgomery GI Bill, received Social Security Benefits, been on workman's comp, used food-stamps, collected welfare, or been on disability then you have been the beneficiary of just some of the US's Socialist policies.  The broad availability of these things were all part of a socialist movement in the first half of the 20th century.  The real demonization of socialism didn't take off until we really got into the Cold War.  Many people do not realize that young nuclear families owning houses, and the general prosperity of the 1950's, was the result of massive government funding and socialist policies.  I find it humorous when conservatives hold up the 50's as an ideal while decrying government spending.

I myself have not been the beneficiary of many of the things I listed, outside of financial aid for school (which has been altered in recent decades to be more of a guaranteed revenue source for banks).  I hope one day to buy a house, and probably have a mortgage, but I have not yet.  I could have benefited from some of the other things I listed, but thus far I have been too stubborn and proud.  I take pride in having supported myself, and found ways to feed myself or find some kind of employment, even when I could have collected unemployment or gotten food stamps.  But when I have been in those situations I have only had to be responsible for myself.  And while I think people should always strive to support themselves, or rely on their friends, family, and community first, I do not begrudge the safety net to others.

But I should mention that I have benefited from one recent "socialist" policy.  I and my daughter are receive more affordable health coverage through the ACA (AKA, Obamacare) than we could through my wife's work.  I am thankful for that, even though I would like the ACA to be replaced with a very different system.\

But this entry is not about Socialism, or even a defense of socialism.  I simply wanted to illustrate the silliness of assuming that the country is going to fall if one's political opponents succeed on any one point.  My biggest complaint about our political system is not about issues, it is about tactics.

Our political discourse in this country is dominated by oppositional messages.  Politicians do not campaign on positive issues, they campaign on scare tactics.  When there is disagreement on an issue politicians do not argue their positions, they just accuse the others of trying to ruin America.  We have two major political parties in this country, and for both parties the campaign planks are built around wedge issues.  Gun rights, abortion rights, religious rights, gay rights, gender rights, civil rights, business rights.

The Republican party uses the specter of Socialism to blacken Liberals.  Socialism is held up as antithetical to all things American.  It is held as a self-evident truth by many that Socialism is evil and un-American by nature.  To hear politicians talk you might be convinced that Obamacare was the first major passage of a Socialist agenda item in US history.  After all, we couldn't have defeated the godless Commies if we hadn't been true blue free market capitalists right?

Obviously socialist ideas and programs will not destroy America.  They haven't so far, and they are an intrinsic part of our social fabric.  That is not to say that I support unbridled socialism.  I think that entrepreneur based capitalism is a more effective wealth redistribution system than pure socialism, but we are living in a country in a time where we are seeing the damage that ideologically based market based capitalism can do to the distribution of wealth and political power.

I think it is important to try to avoid ideology when trying to make a broadly workable economy.  I consider myself a capitalist, but I also think that some degree of socialism is vital to making capitalism work.  Even things that I feel ambivalent toward, like unions, have a role in a functioning capitalist economy.  For example, many individuals in our economy the only capital they have is their own labor.  If a worker with no valuable assets beyond their labor cannot even exercise some level of control over their own labor then they have no power.  The right to collective bargaining provides workers with the power to exercise control over the value of their labor.  This is an important thing if workers are going to be able to build their own base to create wealth from.

I'm just using collective bargaining as an example of the ways that I see socialism and capitalism as complimentary rather than mutually exclusive.  Ideological purity might be useful in polemics and philosophy, but I don't think it's very useful in trying to run a country of hundreds of millions of varying backgrounds and economic situations.  There are arguments to be made about whether or not specific programs might do more harm than help, or whether or not particular programs will set up a dangerous dependency, but the term "Socialism" should not be treated as a bad word.

Debate should be on how a policy would work, not on the philosophical underpinnings of the policy.  Of course in order for us to have a debate on how a policy would function we would have to agree on goals.  In order to agree on goals we would have to agree on what constitutes the betterment of our society.  Right now our bipolar political landscape makes even agreeing on what would constitute an improvement in our country impossible.  As long as we define ourselves in oppositional terms of Right/Left, Conservative/Liberal, or Capitalist/Socialist it is going to be hard to find agreement.

Why the Passing of Robin Williams has Dominated the News

When Robin Williams died yesterday all the other news took a back seat, and that's okay.

A friend of mine posted (jokingly, I think) that the conflicts in Gaza, Syria, and Iraq must have taken the day off, as did the Ebola outbreak, since there was no other news.  I was surprised to realize that my response was anger at the post.  I felt like my emotional response was a little silly.  After all there are many people dying in those situations around the world, and there are horrible things happening in those troubled places.  But I still felt like the death of Robin Williams was important enough to preempt the rest of the news.  I responded that Robin Williams had given me joy and made me laugh more times than Gaza, Syria, Iraq, and Ebola combined.  All those things were shitty yesterday, and they will be tomorrow too.

On August 10th Robin Williams was a comedian and actor with a singular impact and scope.  His stand-up was legendary, he had played an incredible range of characters, he had shared openly his struggles with addiction, he toured extensively with the USO bringing his comedy to service members around the world, and he was struggling with depression.

On August 11th Robin Williams was dead, and it looks like it was suicide.

But why would one entertainer's death be so noteworthy that the news focused solely on his passing when there was so much else going on in the world?  Why would the President of the United States of America issue a statement on his passing?  Why would Conan O'Brien end his show with talking about receiving the news that Williams had passed?  Why is my Facebook wall dominated by people talking about Williams?  One woman even talked about having to pull over this morning on her way to work because she was overcome by the loss of Robin Williams.

I think there are a number of reasons.  One of the simplest and possibly more cynical reasons is that Robin Williams was one person.  When it comes to grief and dealing with loss the human mind can be grossly inadequate.  When faced with the deaths of hundreds or thousands the scope of the tragedy is so great that the mind does not even try to comprehend it, the mind simply resets to zero.  For an example of this think back to September 11th, 2001.  For how many of us was the attacks on the World Trade Center too horrible to comprehend until we saw images of individuals falling from the windows.  Thousands died, but it is the images of individuals that haunt us.

When hundreds or thousands are dying, displaced, or suffering because of violence, ignorance, and intolerance it is overwhelming.  It might give us general feelings of sadness and unease, but often we just shrug and move on.  There is nothing we can do and it's no one we know.  When one individual we all know dies at his own hand because he could not bear to go on living we can all grasp it.  We can all feel the loss of that one person.

Napoleon Bonaparte wrote that the grief of one loyal dog struck him harder than the thousands of soldiers that had died at his orders.  The singular can feel more real because it is within our grasp.  We can all understand the uncomplicated grief of the dog who has lost its master.  We can all grasp the sadness of the funny man that brought happiness to millions, but could not overcome his own demons.

But the sadness at the loss of Robin Williams is not just because he was one person, as opposed to faceless numbers.  The loss of Robin Williams is sharp because of what he represents, particularly in contrast to other bad news.

When we read or hear about Islamic State (the group formerly known as ISIS or ISIL) we hear about unimaginable depravity.  Seven-year-olds married off to fundamentalist militants, rape and murder, hundreds of thousands displaced, children dying of exposure, mass executions, children being beheaded.  The idea that a group perpetrating such atrocities could actually exist, let alone be winning a war and re-writing political boundaries is unfathomable.

Whether we realize it or not, we all know on some level that the only reason that society works is because most people are good people.  The vast majority, I would guess 90%-plus.  On any given day, in any given situation, 99.9% of people are going to do the right thing.  Even bad people are not always doing bad things.  We walk down crowded streets and no one shoots at us, molests us, or robs us.  For every bad thing that happens to you just think about how many people you interact with in passing that do nothing to harm you, or who even actively help you.  If people were not good and cooperative by default then human society could not exist.

We all know other humans, and we know that humans seem to generally want similar things. To live in comfort, to raise their families, and to be happy.  Groups like Islamic State seem so far removed from what any human could want that it boggles the mind.  Then when you read that Islamic State is in fact attracting more followers and Al Qaeda members are defecting to Islamic State it just makes you want to throw up your hands.

There is nothing I can do about Islamic State.  The closest I can come to doing something about Islamic State is support fighting against them.  When the only thing that one can do to combat evil is to support more death and destruction it is saddening.  Especially when one feels, as I do, that more killing will not resolve the problems that lead to the formation of such a group.  It is a hopeless feeling.

But then you contrast that hopelessness with someone like Robin Williams.  Robin Williams was just one person.  Flawed and brilliant.  He made no secret of his struggles.  But he also brought happiness to millions.  He toured the world with the USO bringing comedy and happiness to soldiers around the world being thrown into the situations that make one feel hopeless.  He shone a light that reminded people that there was goodness and happiness in the world.

Williams also had a longevity to his career.  Generations have grown up with him as a part of the pop-culture landscape.  His roles as the Genie in Aladdin and Mrs. Doubtfire made him a part of millions of childhoods.  But not all of his roles were so great, and many his roles were not universally loved.  The man laid some real stinkers of movies.  But even when he made a horrible movie his popularity as a public figure did not wane.

In recent decades many of Williams' roles were darker.  He carried and communicated a sadness and darkness in many of his roles that belied the perception of him as a funnyman.  But we always knew that even as he expressed pain, sadness, and scarring of the soul that he could also turn around and bring levity.

In many ways it was his darkness and flaws that made him so moving.  We knew that he struggled with addiction.  You could see his sadness.  But he still was able to bring happiness to people.  He showed that even if we have darkness in us that we can still do good things.  Robin Williams represented a hopeful idea.  The idea that we can be flawed ourselves and still do good things.

That is why I am totally OK with the media making a huge deal out of Robin Williams' death.  Yes there are other problems in the world, but that does not detract from the pain of losing a public figure like Robin Williams.  He showed that one does not have to be a perfect person to do good things.  And his death shows that even people who do good things can suffer and struggle.  Those are both lessons that I see as more important than knowing that there are bad people doing bad things.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Just a quick update

I just wanted to write something to explain why I haven't posted in a while.  I've been doing some travelling and some SCIENCE!  I flew down to LA for my little sister's wedding.  She is Rita Gomez now.  It was nice to get to spend a little time with my sister.  After I got back to Oregon I immediately went out to the high desert to help out at a field school.  Also first my mother and then my wife's mother were visiting.  Their visits allowed me to do more work than usual and make a little money, as well as facilitating my travelling.  So that's why I've been incommunicado.  But I promise to step up my writing again this week.  

Right now I am working on a couple of blog posts that are just more general posts on politics.  I'm working on the idea of what America really stands for, and I am also going to write a smaller article on socialism in America (because it turned into an overlong tangent for a different entry).  I also want to write about some of my more out there personal ideas about what can be done to make our country better, like universal service and different educational priorities for high-schools.  I would also like to write a bit about my pet hypothesis of why humans out-competed Neanderthals a couple dozen millennia ago.  So I got stuff rattling around in my head.  Plus, since current events seem to be the things people actually read on my blog I will try to keep on top of things going on in the world.

It was great to get a chance to get out and do some archaeology this past week.  Getting out into the desert and living in a tent is hugely refreshing for me.  I realized while I was out there this summer that it has become a vital thing for me to live rough for part of the year.  Living in a tent with no climate control seems to help make the rest of the year a little more pleasant.  It really recharges my batteries.  Plus I got to help find archaeological specimens.  We found basketry fragments, projectile points, and I found my first coprolites (ancient poop for the non-archaeologists).  The field school was a reopening of a previously excavated site that had been extensively looted.  So this was a meaningful opportunity to get real data out of a damaged site.  It was good fun.

I hope everyone is doing well.