Saturday, January 28, 2012

Spiders are scary... or are they?

I read this today: "people tend to develop phobias for evolutionarily relevant threats (like snakes and spiders) rather than for things that are far more likely to kill them (like automobiles and electrical sockets)". So I got these 4 pictures and if you're anything like me you'll find that 2 of the objects appear benign, while two appear sinister to the point of causing discomfort.

Then it struck me that, once one understands evolution, this should have been incredibly obvious. One shouldn't find out something so simple and experience a feeling of enlightenment. Especially someone like me who considers themselves relatively intelligent and (accounting for age) relatively well-educated. This apparent paradox frustrated me, so naturally its been on my mind since I first read the original sentence.

The more I thought about it, the more I realized how utterly fantastic it is that we're able to experience such frustrations. There are 2 main reasons: we exist in a time where we can have the knowledge of something like that, and what the actual knowledge means.

We can compare time from the earliest life to 2012 by using a calendar. I calculated the calendar by scratch using a yellow pad and Wikipedia, so feel free to verify. There are of course some limitations to any such representation, but the underlying theme is well established fact. I set the start date of the calendar to January 1 at midnight, and the end date is December 31 at 11:59:59, and I'm using the calendar of the year 2012:

January 1st: Primordial ooze beings to exist
May 16, 9:00 pm: The great oxygenation event
September 12, noon: Sexual reproduction arises
November 6, 6:00 am: The first multi-cellular creatures arrive
November 10, 7:30 pm: The earliest brain appears via a flatworm. And these are still around! So consider that before defining *Homo sapiens* as the pinnacle of evolution.
November 14, 10:03 pm: The first vertebrate appears
November 27, 4:39 pm: The first recognizable limbs begin to appear
November 30, 10:12 pm: The first mammals appear
December 21, 9:00 pm: At this point there's a common ancestor of mice and men
December 27, 8:24 am: Primates diverge into subgroups
December 28, 5:15 pm: Old World Monkeys diverge from apes
December 29, 7:13 pm: The common ancestor of humans and great apes is alive
December 30, 2:08:44 pm: Very early hominin genus, they had brains 1/5 the size of modern humans
December 30, 5:25:48 pm: Loss of body hair, full bipedalism
December 30, 8:01:09 pm: Homo erectus is thrust into the world
December 30, 8:42:54 pm: We learn to control fire
December 30, 11:13:11 pm: The earliest anatomically modern humans
December 30, 11:50:19: pm: Behavioral modernity (e.g. using tools, symbolic thought, cooking food)
December 30, 11:52:02 pm: We leave Africa and interbreed with Neanderthals
December 30, 11:58:25 pm: Europeans develop light skin, Homo sapiens become the last living species of the genus Homo

This isn't comparing, say, from the Big Bang or even from the Earth's creation. This is just our ancestry! For the "first 364.99" days every living creature was incapable of anything much more complicated than fishing or drawing crude pictures. Even once Homo sapiens emerged, our first ~100,000 years we lived to around 25 and if we were lucky enough to avoid a brutal violent death our teeth would kill us. For emphasis from Jared Diamond: "the actual percentage of the population that died violently was on the average higher in traditional pre-state societies than it was even in Poland during the Second World War or Cambodia under Pol Pot."

And yet here we sit! The beneficiaries of a previously inconceivable explosion of safety and progress. We can reliably bet that we won't be murdered, we won't be robbed, and we can freaking download Wikipedia on a handheld device. We're so powerful our contraptions will render the Earth largely uninhabitable unless we purposely change our behavior. We're capable of walking on the moon, or investigating quantum mechanics. We're capable of studying human brains and behavior and the Universe in general and learning so much more than has ever even been conceived by previous generations! We're capable of recognizing the common link between spiders and ourselves, recognizing why we behave a certain way when we see one, and easily disseminating that information to anyone with access to books, the Internet or other people who know. Just think about that for a moment. Throughout almost all of time there has never been a creature capable of anything even remotely comparable to what we can do. Unless of course one wanted to define "greatness" as longevity in which case I think we'll have to hand that trophy to trees and flatworms.

Which brings me to the second reason my frustration, once reflected upon, became utterly fantastic. Think about everything that happened that led to the feeling of discomfort when looking at a spider. Untold generations of our ancestors had to get hurt by spiders - entire lineages dying out because of one interaction with one small spider - before we learned to instinctively recognize that a spider is dangerous. That feeling of discomfort are the genes of your ancestors crying out to you! The states of your brain today are being influenced by the interactions your ancestors had in the Pleistocene era. The lessons they learned by watching their neighbors die were learned so well that we can sit in our AC, drink tea imported from Japan, watch a video from Syria, eat fruit imported from South America, discuss the finer points of philosophy, and yet just the sight of an insect is enough for our ancestors to cry out so strongly it changes our brains. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson's stardust quote, that's a whole new level of connectivity we share with the world.

I think it's pretty cool.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Corporations are people my friend!

I read the above article this morning and its been bothering me since. It's a well-written informed opinion piece with a conclusion I disagree with. God knows it's a pleasant diversion from "Newt Gingrich's adultery is *actually* an indication he should be president" style drivel. I couldn't help but feel something was off about the argument but until just now I couldn't translate my gut feeling into words.

A corporation is more than a group of people (eg shareholders) who have pooled their money. I'm not up on my financial lingo but entities exist to fulfill that role: partnerships, limited partnerships, limited liability corporations and the like. The U.S. tax code has provisions for people who want to pool their money and have the resulting entity basically be "a group of individuals".

(My understanding of) the reason people form corporations is precisely because they want to form an entity separate from the people involved. They want an entity that can go bankrupt, for example, without the shareholders as individuals go bankrupt. They want an entity that the Supreme Court can rule - ಠ_ಠ - as having freedom of speech. Again, my knowledge limits me, but I hope the point is accepted: people form corporations precisely to create an entity apart from the shareholders.

Which is why, once we keep that in mind, it's bizarre to argue that corporations should be independent entities in every way except when it comes to calculating tax burdens. I don't want to blame someone for arguing for something that benefits them (although that sentence alone speaks volume about society) but it's transparent that the argument only holds water if one is a shareholder themselves. I can't see any justification for arguing that corporations are people when it comes to tax burdens but very much aren't people when it comes to everything else.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A quick thought on those who demonize SNAP

I was having a conversation with some friends, and it just hit me what I dislike about the attitude that leads to demonizing people who receive food stamps. I'm on my lunch break, so I'll be brief. Although I do officially recommend trying Seitan, I just had it for the first time and it's pretty great. It's the resentful attitude of "us vs them" that attacks those who often can't defend themselves.

Obviously when it comes to SNAP recipients this resentment is often drawn along racial lines, but I think it's entirely possible to draw lines using some other method. But it's the attitude that while every government service we use is justified, a black person receiving money from the government for groceries is over the line. Proponents have to admit that everything they use: clean air, clean water, education, knowledge that the ER has to take them (absent freaking universal healthcare), education of workers, police, fire, safe products, the justice system, everything they use is a normal and accepted government function. They have to argue that there's something unique about SNAP, and I think that argument is always fueled by A) racism or B) an "us vs them" mentality.

It's really clear when you pay attention to some of the language. The theme is always something like "they're spending our money" or "I, as a taxpayer, shouldn't have to give them money". It's unique in that this attitude is never applied to, for example, the mortgage interest deduction or occupying two countries. There's criticism of those things - and a lot more! - but this "us vs them" attitude seems to only rear its head when talking about welfare or SNAP. It's not acceptable in society to demand that someone claiming the mortgage interest deduction has to humble themselves before you, there are no chain emails discussing how Social Security recipients should "get rid of their flatscreen and 20's if they want our money".

It's used to A) serve as a scapegoat for real problems, which means it's also a false solution (AKA the country's budget would be in shape if it weren't for lazy unemployed black welfare recipients) and B) it serves the *really important* function of defining groups. It's our money; they're taking it. We work hard; they don't. We're employed; they aren't. We don't waste money on flatscreen TVs and 20's; they do. I don't think this is a good function! But in the context of the conservative "every man for himself, let the chips land where they will" demonizing SNAP is extremely effective. It's divisive, its claims are untrue, it's resentful, it's irrational, but it's really freaking effective.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Follow up on Occupy

This (video) and the aftermath is a perfect example of the sort of behavior that I was trying to characterize in my previous post. The message that was spread after this incident was basically "police officers needlessly pepper spray innocent protestors". That message is inaccurate, or at best shows poor judgment with all the facts (of course my conclusion is also assuming I have all the facts!) available

The videos released, the pictures accompanying the news articles, all the evidence seemed to indicate that the police acted inappropriately, to put it very mildly. The Google personalizes results so it's anecdotal evidence, but when I typed in "uc" "uc davis pepper spray" was the 6th suggestion, and when searching "uc davis" the bottom half of the first page of results were all related to the pepper spray incident. Some of the police officers involved were put on leave, and I just realized anyone who cares enough to read a blog post about the UC Davis pepper spray incident probably knows the basic message about what happened and the aftermath.

That's why this more complete video of what actually happened is so important. IANAL, but it appears that a crowd of protestors surrounded a group of police officers, refused to let them leave, were pepper sprayed, then the police were allowed to leave. I've never been involved in a protest but it seems like refusing to comply with the police results in the police giving up or being arrested. And the police action should be reasonable because police brutality is something I take very seriously. The right to legally protest is something I take very seriously.

I always understood protests - civil disobedience - is when one is saying "I'm protesting by breaking the law with the understanding that while my stand is morally justified in my mind, it's illegal and I refuse to stop until I'm forced to by police". And what happens is some variation of:

1) Police/Law: What you're doing is illegal so stop doing it
2) Protestors: No it isn't! Or, it's illegal but I'm publicly going to continue doing it to raise awareness of my cause or somehow change society
3) Police/Law: We get that. It's still illegal and you still need to stop doing it
4) Protestors: No, we can continue. It's so important that we're willing to risk arrest
5) Police/Law: Seriously guys, we will arrest you and physically make you stop.
6) Protestors: That's the price of taking an ethical stand
7) Police/Law: We're *this* close to making you stop. We've told you repeatedly, we told you yesterday, and now we're standing in front of you literally shaking the pepper spray can. It's about to happen.
8) Protestors: (they literally said this) Don't shoot children!

And then the police used pepper spray. And guess what? The protestors were forced to comply without the police using unreasonable force. On top of that, the police didn't even force them to comply with what had been ordered the day before. The police settled for just being allowed to walk away. 

Occupy's response? Label it police brutality, and release edited video and pictures that seemed to prove that it was police brutality. I just can't sympathize with a group or with people whose mentality is that the truth is less important than furthering their goals. That isn't to discount the distaste for their general mentality that I find easier to describe rather than justify. Screaming don't shoot children? Believing they have a right to civil disobedience without repercussion? They consistently adopt all sorts of ideas that I take very seriously and ruthlessly cheapen and exploit them. The best parallel I can think of is the phenomenon of adding "-gate" to the end of everything, but of course Occupy does this in a much more directed purposeful way. 

I agree with a lot of their goals but I can't support using lies and misrepresentations as evidence or cheapening serious ideas. TBH, I think my distaste for the movement stems from how close they are to something I would love to support and yet they're also so far away.