the minor premise

the minor premise

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Food for Thought

Hindu Nightmare

This one appealed to my politically incorrect sense of humor! From the current Ship of Fools Caption Competition. Delicious!


Saturday, November 25, 2006

Short Note on Human Rights

Not much time to write today, being in the middle of a minor plumbing job.

Human Rights Watch is not normally one of my favorite organizations, as it treats legal abortion as a "fundamental human right" (evidently "fundamental human rights" are only conferred after birth.) and doesn't seem to have much interest in the fundamental human right of free exercise of religion. However, the organization does produce some pretty informative reports on parts of the world where human rights are few and free exercise only one small problem among many. This month it has released a report on the status of women in the Palestinian Territory. I've only had time to partly skim it so far, but what I've seen has been ugly. It is linked here. Would that latter-day feminists (my brand of the philosophy goes back a century or so) took half the interest in abuses like these that they seem to take in far less serious issues.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Thanksgiving Things

Ay, call it holy ground,
The soil where first they trod;
They have left unstained what there they found --
Freedom to worship God.

Go to
The Landing of the Pilgrim Fathers
for the full text of Felicia Hemans' famous poem.

Or, for some fun,
Go to
Explaining Thanksgiving to the French
for Art Buchwald's classic Thanksgiving column. (Note: this text has some typos in the French.)

Go to
AP Alaskan Thanksgiving Feast article
for an article on Thanksgiving dinner in a North Slope village.


Sins of Commission?

C thought that the Pentagon officials glib condensation of strategic choices for Iraq sounded like such trivial sloganeering. In fact, with all the repetition the phrase has been getting, it might as well be a song hook. Sounds like a job for the parody department . . . .

Apologies to J.R. Cobb, R Whitely and the Tams.

Go Big, Go Long or, Go Back Home
(to the tune of the "beach" standard
Be Young, Be Foolish, Be Happy )

Go Big, Go Long or, just go back home
Go Big, Go Long or, just go back home

Old Jim Baker is in town, it's Commission time
(Commission Time)
The leaks come, 'bout every day down the old grapevine
(old grapevine)

Will a different game plan for the troops deployed
make sure they are best employed?

Go Big, Go Long or, just go back home
Go Big, Go Long or, just go back home

Don't let this slip away
How long now should we stay?

The day to day press is often full of unimportant things
(Important things)
Like Brittany and her Fed-Ex or Katie's ring
(Katie's ring)

But troops over there a half a world away
They're gonna need a strategy

So Go Big, Go Long or, just go back home
Go Big, Go Long or, just go back home
(repeat and fade)

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Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Some days I wish I hadn't read the news

Will all these evildoers never learn,
they who eat up my people just as they eat bread?
They have not called upon the Lord;
then they shall be in great fear,
for God is with the just generation.

Ps. 14:4-5

is all over the news now. An anti-Syrian, Christian Lebanese Cabinet Minister has been assassinated.

The Janjaweed attacked eight Darfur villages,focusing their murderous wrath on children and the elderly. Children were taken from their mothers and shot. The militias barred African Union investigators from the areas they had "purged"; African Union troops in the region, outnumbered and without a mandate to intervene, say they can do nothing. Somebody tell me again what the hell the United Nations exists for?

This is a couple of weeks old, but as I figure the odds of seeing it on the news sites any time soon are slight, I feel I ought to mention it. It's been all the talk of the Egyptian blogosphere, although the government and media in that country seem to be trying their best to say as little as possible about the incident. I found it on Sandmonkey (where I also found the link to the Darfur article above;) his post on it includes a roundup of several other bloggers who have reported on the incident.

The gist of the reports is this: On the first night of Eid in downtown Cairo, a mob consisting of moviegoers angered at having been shut out of a full movie first vandalized the box office, then went on a five-hour rampage through the downtown sexually assaulting any unfortunate woman or girl who fell into their path. While some downtown shopkeepers and cabbies did rescue victims they encountered, the police, aware of the situation, apparently did nothing to stop the attacks and even refused afterward to take reports from victims. Al-Jazeera had some footage of the incident, but obliged the government when asked not to air it. The country was finally made aware of the incident when a female TV writer decided she'd had enough and reported the whole story during a talk show. Protests have followed the incident and (surprise) have resulted in some arrests. Sandmonkey has been following this story and writing some good posts. Be warned, those with linguistic sensitivities: from what little I've gleaned from his blog, he's an atheistic hedonist whose language is often not drawing-room suitable, but he's a gentleman. Read his post on this; it will shock you.


Monday, November 20, 2006

Now if you'll excuse me, I have a few whales to go harpoon

I had noted without paying too much attention the election by the Episcopal church of Katharine Jefferts Schori as Presiding Bishop. This morning I came across a reference to a New York Times Magazine interview with her along with some selected quotes:

[Interviewer]How many members of the Episcopal Church are there in this country?

[Schori]About 2.2 million. It used to be larger percentagewise, but Episcopalians tend to be better-educated and tend to reproduce at lower rates than some other denominations. Roman Catholics and Mormons both have theological reasons for producing lots of children.

[Int.]Episcopalians aren’t interested in replenishing their ranks by having children?

[Schori]No. It’s probably the opposite. We encourage people to pay attention to the stewardship of the earth and not use more than their portion.

Aside from these somewhat backhanded remarks, most of the (very short and not terribly deep) interview reads benign, if overly sanctimonious. The above quotes (surprise, surprise,) were not well taken by commenters on Open Book, Catholic writer Amy Welborn's blog. They have led to some creative commentary, however, and a Cafepress mug I may have to drop hints about for Christmas. I'm in a quandry; I'd had my eye on Feminists For Life's Stanton and Anthony "Another humorless old biddy for life" mugs for a while and now they've got a competitor.

I dunno about everybody else, but I kinda like Kate. Having no natural skill myself in tact or diplomacy, I'm always heartened to learn of public figures next to whom I could appear to have kissed the Blarney Stone. It's a real self-image boost to realize one is not the planet's biggest verbal maladroit.

With my newfound confidence I'm considering issuing Ms. Bish a challenge. As one of those overprocreating Catholics who don't give a darn about stewardship of the planet, I'd like to propose she try a month or two of compacting the garbage for a household including four young children, one in diapers, into a 50-liter can. That's liters, not gallons. That's with pickup every other week. When she decides she's had enough, I'd be happy to give her some pointers. I did it for several years.

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Sunday, November 19, 2006


Given the recent exchanges with C and Candorville "fan" Richard, I thought it worthwhile to state some critera for the awarding of the not-so-coveted minor premise tinfoil hat award. This will ensure that any aspirants to the award can tailor their activities, statements, and writings to compete for the distinguished honor.

The tin-foil hat aspirant should display demonstrable levels of suspicion and cynicism, focused against an intangible group (i.e. "the man," "them") or against a public individual who could not, of his own accord, be individually guilty of that which he is accused (i.e. the President). Most often, the award will go to the aspirant who cannot name the true object of his ire.

The aspirant should make his or her feelings known in a public forum that is accessible to minor premise authors. This includes (but is not limited to) speeches, press releases, articles, blog posts, artwork, pamphlets, books and broadcast programming. The subject matter should be of such import that the distortion has the potential to cause unforseen damage if taken
seriously by more than the aspirant and his or her circle.

At the heart of the aspirant's assertion should be a few facts (one or two will do), and a willingness to follow one's bias wherever it takes them. Factors such as rational implausibility, contradiction of previous positions (without explanation), and general lack of any but circumstantial "proof" help the case of the aspirant. The judges will award bonus points for blatant errors in logic (at least the ones we can find. Professional logicians are welcome to add
their input.)

Some examples are in order:

Prior to 1989, belief in a Communist conspiracy would generally not win you a tinfoil hat, because it could be proven that there was/is a self-avowed international Communist movement. What would have won you a tinfoil hat in those days was to connect non-Communist socialists to that movement (c.f. the followers of Joe McCarthy).

Someone who believed that the KKK was behind putting menthol in cigarettes would certainly qualify. While the KKK does exist, its capability to influence the marketing decisions of competing business concerns is dubious at best.

Most of the unfortunate host who still espouse a "Worldwide Jewish Conspiracy" would qualify for a tinfoil hat. While television network al-Manar would not earn the award by intenionally publishing the falsehood that 4000 Jewish workers did not show up for work on 9/11, those who unwittingly use the story to bolster their anti-Jewish conspiracy theories would definitely warrant consideration. As for the falsehood, someone else will have to institute a "flaming trousers with Pinocchio nose device" award.

Those who believed that the Clintons (one or both) killed Vince Foster, with no leaks, would be eligible. They couldn't keep the missing FBI files a secret, or a dalliance with an intern, but they could commit murder with impunity, the invesigation concludes a suicide and no one leaks the plot? No "triggerman" is found?

Unfortunately, the award is only a trophy of sorts. We make no guarantees of its practicality .

The minor premise will entertain nominations; however the bestowing of the award remains the prerogative of the minor premise.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Thought for the day

...from Psalm 127 (JB) and with thanks to Henri J.M. Nouwen in With Open Hands (1972, Ave Maria Press.)

If Yahweh does not build the house,
in vain the masons toil;
if Yahweh does not guard the city,
in vain the sentries watch.

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Tuesday, November 14, 2006

With All Candor

What follows is a partial response to some questions I received in the combox to my post I Was Wrong. Answering took up quite a bit of space, and my philosophy on comboxes is that they should be used for comments. I've been drawn once or twice into a combox sermon, but feel that the medium is best suited to a brief remark or two. More than two or three short paragraphs and you've got yourself a post, not a comment. As these observations are written about a particular comic strip and to a particular interlocutor, you may find them boring or irrelevant. If so, skip the post. Hit the B-team button down the page; you will find quite a few excellent writers there, and doubtless more interesting fare.

Hello again, Richard,

I've gone over your comments now and I see that you have them categorized into two basic themes. The first, I think we can put under the heading of "Election Fraud Issues," the second, under "Literary Merit and Qualities of Candorville. "

Under the first theme you have made (as far as I can see) four basic points. First, vote fraud is commonplace in American elections whether or not we choose to see it. Second, it was a deciding factor in the last several election cycles. Third, as Republicans were in control, either of the executive branch or of certain key states in those elections, responsibility for fraud, at least for right now, can be laid at the feet of that party. Fourth, eternal vigilance on the part of somebody (voters? Democrats? the media? Rock the Vote? You don't seem to specify) led to problems in the recent elections being intercepted in the nick of time so that they could finally be considered incorrupt, or close enough. You point out that all the alleged "problems" in recent cycles have favored Republicans (Not quite. I seem to recall some matter of attempts to discount overseas military ballots, and a race in the Pacific Northwest that ended under a cloud, though I don't recall all the details. You could look it up.) You also bring up Santorum's loss in support of the notion that allegations of fraud go both ways.

I'm not gonna argue what some in the Santorum campaign might have said; I wasn't there. As I've already pointed out, the candidate's prospects for success were considered guarded by his own campaign before the election, and his loss was by a wide enough margin that a few flipped votes shouldn't have made a lick of difference. If an unverifiable assertion was made, it was a stupid move. I will say, though, that IMHO, an awful lot of vote fraud outcry has been a straw man. It hasn't been lost on me that much of it seems to have been unsubstantiated, and that the loudest and most frequent complaints have come from a fringe element of the losing party. That's all I'm saying at this point, because doing justice to the subject matter will require extensive fact-checking. I'm not interested in coming back at you with theories and speculations, I'm interested in the facts of the matter. So that discussion, I'm afraid, you'll have to wait on. Try dropping by in a week or so, but realize that I don't always have a lot of free computer time. It could take longer.

Your second theme comes down to an exchange of opinions, and can therefore be easily addressed right now. You are unquestionably a more frequent Candorville reader than I am, and are thus more abreast of Bell's storylines. I must stay with general impressions based on two or three strips a week, but I think that that method of reading can also provide some insights. Cartoonists generally tend to plan their storylines with two kinds of readers in mind, so that a daily reader can follow the story, but a weekend reader will get the basic point being made. This may be growing less common in the age of the Internet, but there are still enough newspaper readers out there that I doubt it's gone out of style yet.

You mention, in your second comment, that "people who use mockery to dismiss this never, ever explain why all the anomalies favored the Republican party in 2004." You've provided one possibility why the anomalies favored Republicans; I have, I hope, at least suggested another. But what interests me in that sentence right now was your word choice. I did use "mockery" to dismiss Bell as a serious claimant to the facts; Bell himself often uses similar "mockery" to promote his own opinions. Surely you don't see his "cautionary tale" of a vote decided by one thug's paper ballot after a whole precint has been negated as anything but hyperbole? The day that happens here, get ready for the tanks to roll into town! Satire requires careful handling--let loose too much and you trivialize the point that you are trying to make. Comparing the present-day U. S. to a police state, even in jest, merely demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of what police states are really like.

You say you believe I am reading ulterior motives into the strip's storyline: whereas I see it as an attempt at timely political commentary, you see it merely as a "cautionary tale" of something that could happen if we don't watch our ways. I could be wrong, but I don't think there's enough subtlety there for there to be anything ulterior about it. But I don't see Bell channeling H. G. Wells or Bradbury or Vonnegut, either. I see him looking at the news (and maybe a few carefully chosen political blogs,) selecting a topic that speaks to his worldview, then recasting that topic in the context of his strip. If his intent is to craft a futuristic dystopia fable, his efforts are a bit too muddled with the contents of the daily headlines for him to be really successful.

You have declared yourself a Candorville fan, and from what I can see you certainly do seem zealous about the strip. As much as I hate to offend, I respectfully disagree. It isn't just a political matter: I read Doonesbury for (literally) two decades (haven't in recent years; it's not in my paper and I'm not a big enough fan to chase it on the Internet) and probably disagreed with it 98% of the time, but I seldom felt Trudeau was insulting my intelligence. I read Boondocks reruns now, and while I sometimes think MacGruder a little harsh, I find his satire fairly equitably dispensed and his social commentary frequently incisive. I'm sorry, but Candorville just doesn't give me that vibe. I tend to react to it with an inward groan of "Oh, please, not another nutty conspiracy theory." I find Bell much too quick to seize on talk points and urban myths from the least rational segment of the political left, and display them as if they were documented facts. I cannot take him seriously when he does this. I certainly don't consider it thoughtful or thought-provoking. The instance that started this discussion isn't the only case I've seen of this tendency, either. My issuing of a tinfoil hat was sort of a "lifetime achievement award" in that respect.

The strip is cutely drawn and occasionally humorous. I appreciate Bell's commitment to diversity, but I'd be more inclined to take it seriously if his characters were a little more diverse--and I don't just mean racially. I wouldn't rely on Candorville as anything resembling an information source, or even as really good social commentary, and thus I'm afraid I can't bring myself to call it "a good work of art." That, for what it's worth, is my opinion.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Locke, Stock and Barrel

Michael Totten, a freelance writer who resided in Beirut for a time and was ill-used by the Hizballah, published a combox entry from a Texan, Ric Locke, to a Hizbollahi commenter. Pretty powerful stuff. Some excerpts:

I am, more or less in order of importance, an American, a Christian, a Texan, a military veteran, a Republican, and a descendant of American Indians. Whatever your goals are, you must convince me, and others like me, not to oppose them, or you don't have a hope in Hell.

The reason that is so is that you produce nothing for yourself. You and your people do not even make the explosives you kill people with; you must buy them from the West, or from the Persians. . . .

You don't even earn the money you buy those things with. You must depend upon the largesse, the generosity, of others, and if you believe that generosity is genuinely in your interest you are too stupid to take seriously, . . . .

We, on the other hand (and by "we" I mean the West and those who have copied us) make all those things. It is for this reason that we are strong. We learned, with the most painful lessons coming in the century just past, that both Mao and Machiavelli were wrong. . . . . What we have learned is the deep truth of another aphorism:
When you are strong you can forgive your enemies. When you are weak you can only kill them.

It's worth reading the whole piece.


Saturday, November 11, 2006

To All Our Vets

cathy comic


I Was Wrong

In my last post I made a remark to the effect that computerized voting machines seemed to have suddenly been absolved of all the previous accusations that had been made against them. Well, not quite. Darrin Bell, who draws the comic strip Candorville, raised the issue yet again in the strip below, published today.
candorville comic

Now I know that the strip was drawn several weeks ago, prior to the election and before Bell could have had any knowledge of the results, but his failure to allow for the possibility that the election might proceed fairly and even favor his own party shows a lack of foresight and a ghastly lack of faith in the American electoral system.

Bell had to have assumed, in drawing this strip, that there was no way his side would get a fair shake and no chance they would win. One has to wonder how he will proceed with his next batch of strips now that the reverse has been demonstrated.

I have often opined when reading this strip that the cartoonist must get his political material from the Daily Kos and similarly-inclined blogs. I frequently find myself wondering whether the Democratic left wing really buys its own PR, especially in matters like the "Rigged Elections" accusations. I suspect that some--Jesse Jackson, for example-- do not. In this case, I'm afraid I have to conclude that this accuser actually does, to the extent that he was willing to risk looking like a fool to make his point.

Thus the Minor Premise is displeased to present Mr. Darrin Bell with the Third Irregular Order of the Tinfoil Hat. We have finally developed a prototype for this award (see below,) so if Mr. Bell will send us a mailing address and hat size, we can parcel post him a customized one. (NOTE: We will not be holding our collective breaths for this event.) We should probably add some kind of device for Failure to Plan Ahead in Case of Being Wrong. I suppose I could pengrave something along the lines of Ha-mi-nah-ha-mi-nah-ha-mi-nah" around the brim, but I'm open to suggestions.

The Susan B. Anthony Fund raises money for pro-life candidates, giving preference to woman candidates but supporting women and men. It was formed by pro-life feminists as an answer to EMILY's List. It also has an informative website and sends out legislative alerts. A recent notice from the organization offers some perspective on the recent election:

For the fifth consecutive election in a row, candidates endorsed by the SBA List Candidate Fund have won more than they have lost.
The SBA List Candidate Fund won 59% of its federal campaigns this year. Seventeen of 29 SBA Candidate Fund-endorsed candidates were victorious on Tuesday.
By contrast, EMILY’s List won 43% of its federal races with 13 of 30 endorsed candidates prevailing on Election Day. In 2002, the SBA List won 19 of 29 federal races (66%). In 2004, SBA won 27 of 35 federal races (77%).
Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and the Democratic Party imitated the pro-life movement to pick up several seats on Tuesday. America did not vote against the pro-life position on Tuesday. Even Democrats were sounding pro-life.

Heartening to hear, as I have just about had a surfeit of news commentary from the EMILY's list people lately.

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Friday, November 10, 2006

And He made them, Male and Female

Here's a little toy from the vast playground of the 'Net.

The Gender Genie

Gender Genie is a gizmo that
indicates the sex
of any given author
from the content of the text.

So if you think a blogger
might not be on the level,
Or you suspect an author
is just playing a role,

Then the Gender Genie
will figure out the gender
so you can sort the genuine
from merely the pretender.

The minor premise post "Election Blues" was put through the Gender Genie, and the results were:

Words: 1059

(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 1301
Male Score: 1634

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: male!

The results for minor premise post "Why I haven't been posting" were:

Words: 425

(NOTE: The genie works best on texts of more than 500 words.)

Female Score: 337
Male Score: 191

The Gender Genie thinks the author of this passage is: female!

But C's last two authored posts ("Election Thoughts" and "Oh, Brother, Part III the Last") score male! [hee hee]

Have fun!


Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Election Thoughts

*D has reminded me of Tip O'Neill's remark that "All politics is local." I think this is fundamentally true regarding yesterday's election results. Very probably it was a factor in races here in Geawgia.

*I often listen to the radio while driving; two stations I listen to are a news/talk/sports station with a heavily conservative market and a classic rock station with a format geared to a blue-collar market. This made for interesting campaign ad listening. A local Dem congressional incumbent (mercifully not my headache) ran ads on the talk station that went out of their way to draw parallels between some of his positions and those of the Bush administration (heck, some of these bordered on bootlicking.) On the rock station, his ads played to class envy and the tone towards the administration was, to put it mildly, unfriendly. If we were all a little more catholic in our radio habits, we might be a lot more cynical about some of our politicos.

*A very miracle has occurred--overnight the Diebold computerized voting machine seems to have been "healed" of bugs, glitches, tampering, etc.

More later, if time allows.


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election Day Wisdom: A Kids'-Eye View

For the amusement of all, a selection of election day observations from The World According to Kids by retired schoolteacher Harold Dunn (1992, Spectacle Lane Press.) They are under the chapter heading "For Campains, Take Two Aspirants Every Four Years." It is eerie how astute some of these are:

The worst thing a candidate can do is to be told about a mistake he is making on some issue, but then keep making the same mistake over and over, etc., etc., etc.

Thin skinned is good in apples but bad in candidates.

Candidates are found in many sizes, shapes and meetings.

Political ties are just to get elected and not to wear.

The job of delegates is to resent their states.

When they talk about the most promising presidential candidate, they mean the one who can think of the most things to promise.

Political strategy is when you don't let people know you have run out of ideas and keep talking anyway.

Splinter groups are things that get in bandwagons.

A dark horse is a candidate that the delegates don't know well enough to dislike yet.

Noncommittal is to be able to talk and talk without saying anything.

Being nominated means watch out unless you don't mind being elected.

The campaign manager must have a smart head up his sleeve.

The trouble with candidates is I don't understand everything they say. Like sometimes they say words with four or five cylinders.

Political slogans are brief unnecessary sayings.

A candidate should renounce his words carefully.

I have found candidates to be extra talkity people.

Constituents are what people are except that they can be chickens of anything you can get to vote for you.

An improvised speech is to pretend like he is just now thinking of what to say.

Politician is the bawling out name for a candidate you don't like.

Campaigns give some people a great deal of happiness by their finally ending.

People get to vote but computers get to say who will be president. [NOTE: This viewpoint seems to be gaining large numbers of adherents in some secters lately.]

A split ticket is when you don't like any of them on the ticket so you tear it up.

We are learning how to make out election results known quicker and quicker. It is our campaigns we are having trouble getting any shorter.

Also-ran means goof in the language of politics.

[But lest you get too disheartened and decide to give it all up, remember:]

It may work for other choosings, but eeny meeny miney moe is not a good way for president choosings.

Thanks to democracy we now know that when a person votes he is somebody and not just a person because democracy teaches us everybody equals everybody else if they are Americans.

One good value of election campaigns is they let us know what problems we should be worrying about. And if we are not worrying, why we should be worrying.

Having the privilege to vote is so important it is just to appreciate, not to really understand.

Heredity is a bad thing in politics because it gets us kings instead of presidents.

[So get out there and do your civic duty. Because:]

The campaign is when the candidate tells what he stands for and the election is when the voters tell if they can stand for him being elected.

[The elder offspring have been threatening to write themselves in for County Soil and Water Conservation Supervisor, which is an open seat. I wonder if they'll have a new job by evening?]

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Monday, November 06, 2006

America -- It's time!

It's time to exercise your franchise and become one of the biannually governing elites.

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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Election Blues

Some believe that the greatest danger to the Republic comes from terrorists. Some believe that it comes from nuclear war, or excessive immigration. I believe that the biggest danger to the United States comes from its own people losing faith in its system of government. And the American system of government is based squarely on regularly held fair elections for representatives. The system depends on, among other things, that the winner of the election will not use his office to take retribution on the loser, and that the loser will abide by the electoral decision. There are forces within the United States who appear to wish to destroy the American reliance on elections for political leaders. This destruction would eventually effectively do away with the election as the soverign deciding mechanism for electing officials.

How, after centuries of regular elections, could the people of the U.S. be separated from something so basic to the political life? Until recent elections, registered voter turnout has been in a steady decline. The offering of the vote to 18-year-olds did nothing to appreciably increase voter participation. Most 18-21-year-olds do not vote, and, at that time of their lives, are apathetic to national issues. Indeed, there is a class of older American who cannot be bothered with even local issues; to these folks the federal government is "the man," who oppresses from far away. Most of these individuals are apolitical, and so they, by and large, do not evangelize against the government, except to their close neighbors or bar compainions. These apolitical classes have been joined by a political class that not only distrusts the government, but distrusts the means to arriving at a government.

The "hanging chad" fiasco of 2000 did not only traumatize the electorate of Florida. Rightly or wrongly, it shook public confidence in the ability of the state government to hold an election. Many state governments responded by dispensing with whatever "outmoded" system they were using at the time and going to a fully electronic, computerized system. Instead of inspiring confidence in the vote, the move to computerized machines added the fear of computer vulnerability and vote invisibility to an already unsettled electorate. An example of this enhanced voter distrust can be found in a story recounting an incident of a voter losing sight of her vote. She did not lose her vote, only her ability to verify her vote. The vaguely written story said nothing of how this might have occurred, or whether it actually affected the vote. (I suspect operator error, having dealt with computer programs with "display problems" before.)

All of this distrust has fueled an idea that the election can and will be rigged. One Democratic blogger has gone so far as to say that if the election does not go its way, protests should be held in front of local county election offices. Bob Fertik's blog proposes that Democrats dressed in blue should hold candlelight vigils in front of the election offices. Should the election go their way, the gathering would turn into a party. If the election result was unfavorable, the gathering would be a protest. Fertik envisions his "Blue Revolution" following in the footsteps of revolutions in the Ukraine, Czechoslovakia, and Lebanon. In Fertik's opinion, since the opinion polls have had the Democrats ahead of the Republicans, any electoral result other than Democratic victory must be the result of rigging.

Several questions arise out of this strategy. If opinion polls are the true standard of the will of the electorate, why hold the old fashioned kind at all? It is very expensive in time and money to hold an election where you endevor to count every vote. Even with electronic means, which some of the electorate passionately do not trust, it takes a large effort to hold a statewide election. So why go through the expense if you can outsource it to Zogby, Gallup, or one of the networks?

Opinion polling, even in its purest form, is a statistical exercise. It does not hold to the principle of "one individual, one vote." A number of individuals are sampled, and then the pollster infers what the whole electorate will do. While statisticians have devoted whole careers to making polling methods accurate, there are a number of ways they can go wrong.

A portion of the electorate will not talk to pollsters or will lie. Some will tell pollsters they are likely to vote, and then not vote. Or, they will change their minds between being polled and casting the official vote. Some, feeling the questions are an intrusion, will not talk to the pollster at all or not answer the questions truthfully.

The pollster could knowingly or unknowingly form poll questions to bias one side. Most polls that are published purport to be unbiased, but they can and sometimes are manipulated either by the polling or the publishing organization. An pollster can let his mindset dictate how a question is formed, and thus introduce bias. Certain non-neutral vocabulary can influence a respondent. More insidiously, introductory paragraphs or initial questions can be formed to lead an individual to a particular way of thinking, so that when the final, "unbiased" question is asked, the respondent is conditioned to answer a certain way.

The pollster can weight the demographics improperly. Just as there is always a temptation in the military to "refight the last war" polsters use demographic weighting based on past data to approximate what the whole electorate can do. Answers by members of certain low-density groups are given more weight than other responses. Thus, a single response from the right group can potentially throw off the accuracy of the poll.

Furthermore, we have the example of recent elections where opinion polls have failed to predict the will of the electorate. Polling can not be allowed to replace the election as the voice of the electorate.

Statistical sampling in the form of opinion polls should never take the place of the self-selected poll, the election. A voter must suffer the "inconvenience" of registering, and then care enough to go to the polls. At that moment, he or she becomes one of the "governing elites, making an actual decision. The voter must have confidence that his decision is heard. A blue clad mob acting on statistical inference should not be allowed to overthrow that decision.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Oh, Brother, Part III at Last

Part the Thank-Goodness-It's-the-Third: In Which C Goes All Earth Mama on Matters and Risks Outraging a Good Portion of the English-Speaking World in Some Way or Another.

It seems to me the basic assumption of the citations above (actually below, as blogs load from the top, but you know what I meant) is that the reproductive systems of our paleolithic ancestors was in at least some respects similar to ours. At the very least, they don't seem to assume drastic differences, so let's work from the assumption that at this point they were fairly similar. That way we can assume that paleolithic women already possesed all the advantages that would make monogamy a desirable strategy. But let's not assume they didn't know what was going on, or that subtlety in ovulation was entirely a mechanism for maintaining peace in the tribe by keeping lunkheaded males in line or in the dark or fooling any potential Liliths out there into overcoming their reticence.

In the first place, that human female fertility symptoms are subtle doesn't mean they're nonexistent. Any modern female with a little experience practicing fertility awareness (and probably some without) can tell you that, despite our collective cultural distance from the Garden. Primitive cultures around today are, as a rule, a lot more in tune with nature and their own bodies than are most of us. The author of The Continuum Concept (sorry, read it a long time ago and don't have a copy to hand) related, for example, that in the Yanomamo tribe of the Amazon, the occasional new mother who "missed the signs" and was soiled by her infant (no diapers in the Amazon) was a source of great levity.

In the second place, our crazy, mixed-up reproductive cycles and behavior owe something to our crazy, mixed-up modernity. Modern hunter-gatherer peoples around the world could provide us some clues about prehistoric reproductive cycles, if someone wanted to study this and could persuade some of those folks to discuss the topic. But it's not necessary to go even that far. Anybody who's ever lived in a womens' dormitory or sorority house or batched it with a couple of other gals can tell you what happens when a small group of women of reproductive age live in close association with each other. Synchrony! Moreover, it is well known from some of those hunter-gatherer cultures as well as from history what happens to the female cycle in the absence of artificial light. (Some of the neopagans have made a regular religion out of this. Somebody even tried to base a new form of natural family planning on it, back in the hippie days. But I digress.) Most, if not all, of the women of reproductive age in our theoretical paleolithic extended family group would not only be synchronized to each other, but also to the cycles of the moon. Males wouldn't be sqaubbling over "the female in estrus" or even just the "fertile female" because all the females would be ovulating at the full moon (more or less) and menstruating--if they weren't pregnant--at the new moon.

Don't try to convince me that people who can ID and list uses for thousands of jungle plants and predict when it's time to take Baby off the trail to do his business can't figure out "women conceive at the full moon" or "women conceive when they are producing mucus"--I ain't buyin' it. I see no reason why our paleolithic ancestors couldn' have had some understanding of the moon/cycle/pregnancy relationship as well, especially as females would be tending to come up pregnant at the same time of the month and fertile females would differ from nonfertile females in precisely the characteristics that were under lunar effect. I'm not suggesting, mind you, that those ancestors (or Amazon tribeswomen, or !Kung women,) were all highly skilled Ovulation Method practitioners long before the Billingses ever thought of it. But I think it's incautious to assume they had no understanding of their own biology, either, especially if on that assumption rests a theory of origins.

Yea, verily, many years ago (1979, to be exact,) Mary Shivanandan penned a few facts on the cultural history of fertility awareness in her book Natural Sex. They are a very few facts, unfortunately. I think there really isn't a whole lot of information on this topic. There certainly wasn't in 1979. One factor, I think, is that Modern Cultural Blindness thing again; I've long since given up counting the number of educated professionals I've encountered or heard of whom no amount of pounding will convince that any woman can learn and make use of fertility awareness principles. Perhaps reticence on the part of the subjects (i. e. modern primitive people) to discuss family matters or 'women talk' with nosy, pith-helmeted outsiders (who are really more interested in your hunting spear and the meaning of that feather headdress you're wearing anyway) has also stood in the way.

At any rate, waaay back in the days when Nature was still in, Shivanandan relayed the findings of some early fertility awareness researchers:

Dr. Claude Lanctot came across a black woman in Chicago in the 1950's whose grandmother had taught her about mucus as a sign of fertility. She had brought the folk wisdom with her from Africa as a slave. Dr. Hanna Klaus...also found that African women understood the relationship
Dr. Klaus was asked to train teachers of Natural Family Planning in Kenya....She found difficulties over the word 'mucus'
[It wasn't a nice thing to talk about in the culture.] was known that a pregnancy would result [from] intercourse during the period of mucus. The information was handed down from grandmother to granddaughter. A certain ritual was associated with passing on this information...When the young people moved to the city the ritual disappeared and with it the information...Dr. Klaus found the same with the American Indians. One woman told her that since her mother had died at birth, her father had told her...It was something handed down from parent to daughter.

In short, fertility awareness in some form has been around, probably for quite some time. I'm inclined to think that, whatever mechanisms led hominids to recurring cyclic fertility throughout the year and whenever it happened, there is no reason to assume that 'concealed' ovulation was as little apparent to them as it seems to be to some of us. It occurs to me, moreover, that the natural hormonal influences of ovulation have probably been pretty effective over the millenia at overcoming female reticence. It's a frequent side effect of chemical contraceptives that some dulling of hormonal drives takes place; it is important, again, not to read our modern experience too deeply into the fossil record.

There's also the (Lord knows how old) matter that maternity, in almost every culture, confers an elevation in social status for the mother. Is it possible that paleolithic humans also had behavioral/social incentives for motherhood? Shreeve mentions the presence of female figurines at some sites. He does not spend much time musing over their possible significance except to note differences between archeologists as to whether the figures have religious or cultural significance or are mere 'paleolithic porn.' It seems to me that the carvers went to an awful lot of effort to produce 'porn' (and that in a culture where survival was a round-the-clock job and clothing probably hard to come by anyway) if that was all it was. That the figures were a kind of totem used for honoring or celebrating fertility and maternity seems more likely.

So, my conclusion? The Shreeve book is well-researched and well-written work of science journalism and a good chronicle of a very busy period in paleoanthropology. It will doubtless continue to age well as a historical document of that period. It discusses the big issues in the field intelligibly and engagingly and depicts the people who work in it with life and color.

Shreeve is a journalist, not a scientist, and so seems reticent to question the heavy hitters in the field. This is understandable, but also tends to muddy things as those heavy hitters (under no such restraint) flail at each other throughout the book. Questions like the one about the importance of parsimony to the Eve hypothersis that has been hounding me since Part I don't really get dealt with, which is too bad for the reader. Theories like the ones over which I have spilled so many electrons in this post tend to be accepted uncritically, and input from experts in disciplines outside the human origins business doesn't seem to be of much interest inside it. Thus the reader gets treated to some pretty good ideas, and some not-so-good ideas, but all weighted about the same (except for some political correctness, of course.) For the interested layman, this complicates critical assesment of the ideas being thrown around.


...if they are capable of acquiring enough knowledge
to be able to investigate the world,
how have they been so slow to find its Master?

Wisdom 13:9 The Jerusalem Bible


Thursday, November 02, 2006

O Brother, continued...The Neandertals, Part II

Without further ado,

Part the Second: In Which C Begins by Tossing Off a Flagrantly Obvious Reference to an Early Episode of Star Trek, and All Pretense of Serious Analysis Begins to Crumble

It was in the discussions on paleolithic family matters that I started watching the watchers. Getting in his requisite little dig at traditional marriage advocates (is this some kind of rite of passage you have to go through to prove yourself a suitably detached academic?) Shreeve goes on to outline the economic arrangement that he thinks may have led to our survival as a species: monogamous pair-bonding. Maybe not lifelong monogamous pair-bonding yet, but monogamy just the same--what anthropologists call 'the sex contract', or by less businesslike names.

One thing that came to my mind reading this was the lack of interest in the importance of the extended family or clan (except as a vehicle for forming alliances with other clans through exogamy.) Not that I don't have the utmost respect for lifelong monogamous pair-bonding; I just have a hard time envisioning it as the sole, or even primary guarantor of species survival. It may have been what set us apart from the Neandertals; it probably was an overall good, but I think that whole alliance complex must have been at least as important. I wouldn't bet on the survival of a couple with small children in the dangerous prehistoric world. Dad can't be on guard all the time; Mom can only forage for so long before the kids go off and get in trouble. Hunting large game with spears is dangerous business, but nutritionally almost essential. Hunters working in teams enhanced their chances of success and of survival. Even so, hunters risked being incapacitated or killed. A clan structure could have ensured that, if a hunter gave his life in the service of the clan, his wife and kids weren't going to starve. Thus, the avoidable mortality rate for a particularly vulnerable segment of the population would have gone down.

A clan structure, however, is a little more involved a social construct than is a 'sex for meat' arrangement. You have to figure who's in, and who's out; who's connected to whom in what way, and who has the final say in all decisions. If your youngsters are taking mates from outside the clan, you have to have a system for bringing in the new members, and for how you deal with those new members if their spouses die (do you keep her around? Send her home to her parents? Marry her to someone else? Let her decide?) A clan can also act in an enforcement capacity (Go take care of your wife and kids, and leave the other women alone! What are you, a troublemaker?) and as an organizer (Og's leg hasn't been the same since the run-in with that buffalo, so he can knapp spearpoints for the rest of us and tend the fire while we go out hunting,. We'll bring him and his family some food.) Sex-for-meat may be a convenient, short-term economic arrangement, but I don't think it has much potential either for long-term survival or for the social networking that civilization requires. My inclination is that in this case, it took a village. Possibly monogamy facilitated order within the clan. There are risks to going out spearhunting with the guy you've just cuckolded.

But I need to get back to the 'sex contract' issue, because it leads to my original question of whose worldview was coloring whose. Shreeve, having theorized on possible differences in mating behavior between Neandertals and moderns being a population isolator, goes on to explain the presumed role of the human female reproductive strategy in ensuring the production of the next generation. He focuses on the more-or-less constant receptivity of females, and on 'concealed' ovulation:
A human female does not display [obvious external signs] when she is fertile, and ovulation is carefully concealed, both behaviorally and psychologically. Not only do the female's mate and the other males remain does the woman herself, suggesting that it is somehow to her evolutionary advantage not to know.
Concealed ovulation is seen to have evolved to reduce competition for estrus females among the males in the group, making cooperative hunting possible... [This, incidentally, is presented as a 'traditional theory...thought up by traditional males.' It may be, but I think it's also realistic, in a way. You don't want to tick off a guy with a spear.]
Concealed ovulation, some investigators say, compelled the male to stick around through her whole reproductive cycle to ensure [paternity]...providing for his sure-bet offspring rather than [fathering children at random]who would not benefit from his aid...Another theory has it that concealed ovulation did not assure the male's knowledge of paternity but rather confused it...potentially infanticidal males...would be less reluctant to kill her offspring if it might be their own. (Oops! I think he meant more reluctant there.) Yet another theory suggests that if the female's ovulation were not concealed even from herself, she would assiduously avoid sex when she knew she was fertile....

By this point, the NFP alert warning flashers were going off in my head like nobody's business. All this theorizing, IMHO, is suffering from just a touch of Modern Cultural Blindness Spillover. The fundamental assumption of the theorists, on which all these ideas rest, is that the lack of obvious external signs of fertility means that our primitive ancestors didn't have a clue about it. I'm not so sure this was the case, and if it was the case briefly early on, I'd bet Billings charts to basal temp thermometers that it wasn't for very long.

Conclusion tomorrow, so help me Hannah.