The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Sunday, November 30, 2008

An Argument Primer

Sorry that I haven't posted more often. I have spent the last three weeks recording archaeological sites in central California, have been working on two papers for publication, and both to see friends and to celebrate my birthday, I spent the weekend in Santa Barbara with Kay. Needless to say, I have been rather busy.

But, I saw this and thought it was worth directing your attention. Skeptigirl has posted a primer for making arguments. I rather like it, and I think it's a good set of ground rules for discussion. I would add one thing, though.

Skeptigirl rightfully spends a fair amount of time pointing out that both arguers need to be able to state a clear position that they are trying to advance. However, it is equaly important that when someone argues against your position, that they actually argue against your position and not against a position that they are attributing to you. In truth, this would fall under the logical fallacies that Skeptigirl discusses, but it is common enough that I think it deserves specific mention.

For example - whenever I state that I think that supernatural claims (inclusing everything from astrology to ghosts to religion) should be just as subject to scrutiny and criticism as mundane non-supernatural claims, somebody starts claiming that I think that religious people should be stripped of their rights to speech, to raise their children, to worship, etc. etc. This is, of course, bullshit. I simply state that assertions made based on supernatural claims should not be privileged above other assertions, and that supernatural beliefs should not be exempted from the criticism that ALL beliefs are (or at least should be) subjected to.

To claim that I am in favor of stripping anyone of their rights is not only to claim that I am in favor of something that I am not in favor of, but to claim that I am in favor of something that I actually find to be abhorrent.

Likewise, when discussing the recent Proposition 8 with people, I routinely found that people were attributing all manner of beliefs to me that I do not hold and that were even antithetical to every belief that I do hold - including a commentor on this site claiming that I hold a position that I do not and that I believed that supporters of the proposition and religious organizations should be stripped of the right to free speech.

This strawman tactic is a comon one in debate, common enough that I think that it deserves special mention. The reason why it is used is obvious - sometimes the person useing it clearly believes that they are making a correct assertion despite the evidence to the contrary (such as, oh I don't know, the person with whom they are arguing never having made the claim in question). Other times, though, it is used to try to put someone on the defensive so that they are thrown off and are unable to make their arguments as effectively as they otherwise could.

Regardless, I like Skeptigirl's entry, and I recommend checking it out.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Theoretically Speaking

Garbage doesn’t usually speak for itself.

Archaeology is the study of garbage.

Yes, I know, everyone outside of archaeology knows archaeologists as the guys (and, for whatever reason, the general conception amongst the public is that archaeologists are male) who unearth temples, open tombs, find ancient religious relics, and discover lost cities. And there is some truth to this, as work at the pyramids of South America and the excavations in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings will attest.

But most of the time we are digging through the trash piles, midden heaps, dumps, and privies. And this is as it should be – after all, all human activities leave behind waste. A big temple will tell you that something was going on at a location, but not what was going on. A look at the refuse can tell you whether this place was used for feasting, sacrifice, pilgrimage, or some other thing altogether. A tomb will tell you about how people died, but a garbage dump will tell you what they used, ate, and otherwise consumed while they lived. What’s more, garbage is left behind wherever humans act – flaked stone is left behind at even ephemeral hunting blinds, privy pits are sometimes all that remains of historic homesteads, and prehistoric village sites are littered with the remains of food, tools, and general living.

But, as I say, garbage doesn’t usually speak for itself. Once you have found the garbage, you have to figure out what it means. What do the stone flakes, animal bones, burials, and other assorted residues of human existence actually mean? This is where theory* comes into play.

So, for example, right now I am working on a project analyzing animal bone from two archaeological sites in Kern County. I have figured out that the majority of the bone comes from deer, a small amount from rodents, and an even smaller amount from birds, fish, and small animals other than rodents. So, what the hell does this mean?

Well, I can use models developed from theory that examines hunting behaviors from a standpoint of both risk assessment and calories gained per unit of energy spent and determine that deer must have been abundant in the local environment for the smaller, safer, and easier to get animals such as rabbit to have been ignored. So, I have learned something about how the people at this site interacted with their environment.

I can then use models developed from theory that is based on power relations within families and within communities to try to figure out what it means that hunting deer (a primarily male activity) is the primary source of meat, while acorn pounding (a primarily female activity, and one that usually determines settlement patterns) is still the primary source of daily food. From this, I may learn something about the social organization between genders.

And models from both of these different lines of inquiry can be used together to create a more complex model of human behavior – how do human interaction with the environment and social and gender organization influence each other? How does this influence food gathering? Settlement patterns? Short- and long-term sustainability of a particular mode of life?

Theory applicable to archaeology comes from a wide range of traditions and positions, and forms of theory tend to have names that either over-explain or obfuscate the nature of the models that they contain. For example, I have used optimal foraging theory, population theory, rational actor theory (which is tied to optimal foraging theory), identity theory, Marxist theory (which, no, is not about communism), feminist theory, etc. etc. etc. Each of these theories takes some aspect of human behavior (the need to get food, the need to procreate, the desire to earn or maintain prestige, the formation of cliques and classes within a culture) and seeks to explain what the material remains of past people are telling us about these aspects of humanity.

In all, this variety of theoretical stances and models provides us with a huge toolkit for interpreting the past and trying to figure out just what the hell our ancestors were up to. Strangely, though, it is common for many archaeologists to simply take a small sample of theory – sometimes limiting themselves to just one – and try to apply this to everything.

And as the old saying goes, when your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Case in point: I read an article once (I don’t have the book on me – I’m at a hotel in Fresno at the moment – otherwise I’d cite it) which was about the examination of pottery taken from an 18th century worker’s home in the eastern US. The article noted that at a given point in time, the pottery found in the locations of wealthy households changed, while the pottery found at the working-class home stayed the same. It was noted that the new pottery was more expensive than the old, and that the working-class households were quite poor, but the author went on to reject the idea that the higher cost of the newer pottery had anything to do with the worker’s refusal to change pottery.

You see, the author of this particular article was quite enamored with identity theory – a branch of social theory that examines how people, groups, and communities form and display their individual and shared identities (formation of neighborhood identities, social classes, nationalism, ethnicity, etc.). As a devotee of this particular branch of theory, the author rather foolishly forgot that there are other valid lines of theory, and rejected that economics likely did play a large role in the selection of pottery.

This is not to say that identity formation and display played no role – the wealthy people certainly were making purchases that made little sense financially but did make sense from a symbolic and social point of view (in other words, they appear to have been of the “if you got it, flaunt it” mindset, or were pushed into it by their culture), and this likely played a role in the formation of the identity of the working class people around their (they may have come to view the lower-cost pottery as one of the markers of their station in life), but economics definitely played a role – if the higher cost of the new pottery is what separated it from the old pottery, then it is rather absurd to discard that as an explanation for the lack of adoption of the new pottery in favor of a more ephemeral “identity” line of inquiry.

Now let’s be clear, most archaeologists don’t take such a narrow view of human behavior as to seek to explain it all through one aspect of human behavior. Most of us realize that the food quest is but one aspect of life, sex is another, seeking prestige is another, solidarity (or lack of solidarity) with other people is yet another, and so on and so forth, and that all of these aspects of life interact and influence each other. Humans are dense balls o’ motives and actions, and to focus on one element of our lives as the driving force behind everything creates a weird sort of myopia that will always eventually lead you down the wrong path.

But, nonetheless, there is a minority that not only does this sort of thing, but is even proud about it.

Okay, so you’re probably thinking “heh, foolish academics, what else do you expect from them?” So, I should say that while this is most obvious with academics, it’s something that I see everyone do.

For example, it’s very common for many of the people that I know to talk about the free market as the great panacea for all of our economic ills. A simplification of one aspect of the argument goes something like this: the individual is a consumer. The consumer will, all things being equal, make rational choices with their money (this can be generalized into other resources as well). Therefore, if the same item is sold for two different prices, then the consumer will choose the lower price. It is, therefore, in the best interest of the Producer A to produce at the lowest possible cost so that the buyer will choose the products of Producer A and not those of Producer B. This drives costs down, which also increases consumption as the consumer can afford more, thus maintaining demand, and keeping the producer producing, and allowing more consumption, so that money cycles through the system. Greed, a productive force that gets a bad rap, keeps the system in check – it ensures that the consumer will seek the lowest price, and also ensures that producers will try to provide the lowest price so as to appeal to the consumer. The desire to sell the most and make the most money will keep producers in check so that they do not cooperate and stiff the consumer.

That’s a definite over-simplification of Adam Smith’s ideas of capitalism. His ideas are actually much more intricate, and quite fascinating, and deal for example with issues of innovation rather than simply price as a way of getting money. But, that’s the nut-shell version.

It sounds good – it relies on greed, an emotion we all have, to keep a system running, and it assumes that we will go for the lower prices, and thus provides an impetus for the producer to sell for as low as they can. And there is a lot of truth to it – competition frequently leads to lower prices, people usually will pay the least they can for a given commodity, and so on. I like this model a lot. It explains a lot, and it frequently works.

But it doesn’t always work for a simple reason – it assumes that the driving motive behind human economic activity is the desire to spend as little for as much as possible. And, well, this isn’t quite accurate.

For example, if Producer A and Producer B both produce jeans, Producer A may start calling theirs “designer jeans” and put a little logo on it. They may even make them less practical as an item of clothing, but they may be able to sell them for more than Producer B (who makes sensible and well-made jeans) because people perceive the “designer jeans” as being more prestigious. Economic interests fall in the face of the desire for prestige. This also explains why odd vehicles, such as the consumer versions of the Hummer, have sold as well as they have, despite being wildly impractical from an economic standpoint. Also, it has been shown time and again that producers will cooperate to fix prices, contrary to the model.

And, to be fair, the same is true for the Marxist, who believes that class solidarity is the driving power behind human behavior, when it is really only one of many.

In fact, there are very few “movement” ideologies that do not make this mistake – which is not to say that the members of a given social or political movement make the mistake themselves, but this type of error is rife in most ideologies. Do you believe that people are motivated primarily by laziness? Greed? Loyalty? Sex? The desire to do good? The desire to show off? People are motivated by all of these things, often all at the same time. To assume that even something as narrow as economic behavior can be explained by one motive is to shut out all of the various different drives clamoring for the attention of each individual, and anyone seeking to understand (or make policy for) society needs to understand that.

Wow, this entry took a long and extended detour away from archaeology…so I suppose we should get back to the discipline that I actually know something about those of us who study garbage with the intention of knowing about the people who generated it. Any archaeologist worth their salt will understand that we have a large toolbox at our disposal for understanding our fellow simians. The good ones use try as many tools as they can before settling on the set for a given problem.

See, an education in archaeology isn’t just good for the archaeologist, it can make you grumpy towards everyone!

*Theory is one of the most abused and misused words in the English language. People think, due to misinformation fed to them in their elementary school classes, that a theory is merely a hypothesis that hasn’t been tested enough to be called a “law.” This isn’t the case at all. Theories are complex edifices of information, conclusions, and bridging arguments. Some theories are very hypothetical – such as many from theoretical physics – while others are well established as factual accounts of how the world works – such as gravity, evolution, and the germ theory of disease. So dismissing something as “only a theory” (a statement often used to dismiss evolution) is a bit like saying that a vehicle with four wheels and powered by an internal combustion engine isn’t a car because it’s “only a Chevy.” It makes no sense.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

...and sometimes they do their job...

Have you heard of Kevin Trudeau? No, he's not the guy who writes Doonesbury. Rather, he's the guy who was convicted of fraud some years back, and due to restrictions placed on his commercial activities by the FTC, he took ato writing books such as "Natural Cures THEY Don't Want you to Know About" in which he dispenses medical advice that ranges from the useless to the downright dangerous and is always fraudulent.

Well, after a few such books which did far more harm than good, the FTC has finally come down on him again.

Okay, I know that many folks will have a poor view of regulatory agencies in general, and others will have a poor view of the FTC in particular, and I'm not really interested in arguing about that. Right or wrong, there is simply something satisfying about seeing a con artist get comeuppance.

(tip o' the hat to skepchick)

Sunday, November 16, 2008

I Swear!

Growing up, I often heard the adults around me say "someone who swears is someone with a small vocabulary and a smaller mind" (and as we became teenagers, one of my younger sisters would often say this in a snotty tone of voice when someone else swore – but that never stopped her from doing the same). Even as a kid I knew this was a stupid claim. If you swear, then you have demonstrated that you know the swear words appropriate to the situation. In other words, you know words – which is not the sign of a small vocabulary OR a small mind.

Now, if you are incapable of expressing yourself without these words, okay, that may indicate that you could stand to buy a thesaurus. But knowing and using these words does not, in and of itself, indicate a small vocabulary, mind, or any other such thing. In fact, not having these words in your arsenal shrinks your vocabulary by definition.

I have a very large vocabulary – some would even say an abnormally large one. Yet, I swear. I do it when I want to emphasize a point, express a strong reaction, or do some other thing that requires a word that is considered forceful. For example, if I am sick of someone bothering me, I may tell them "go away." If I want to make sure that they understand that I am angry with them and I REALLY want them to go away, I'll tell them to "fuck off!" Both phrases mean the same basic thing – go away, you're bothering me – but the emphasis is different, and as all communication is contextual, that makes all of the difference. There are many people who I can say "go away" to, even yelling it at them, and they will continue pestering me – I have never had anyone continue doing so after I tell them to "fuck off," no matter how mild the tone in which I say it. In other words – the words one chooses to convey a message carry meaning even if the content of the message is the same – and swearing is one of many tools that a person has to convey meaning – just as vulgarity is not always the best way to get a point across, so is eloquence not always the best way.

So, if this is the case, how come so many people feel so strongly about people using these words? Simple – habit.

Words such as "shit," "piss," "fuck," and so on were not always considered to be vulgar. Anyone who has read court documents from Renaissance knows that many of these words were routinely used in the most polite of polite company. Even that word that is considered by many to be the pinnacle of vulgarity – "cunt" – has a long and perfectly respectable heritage. These were considered no more offensive than their clinical counterparts (defecate, urinate, copulate, and vagina - respectively) are today. Actually, even the clinical counterparts still carry some social sting – which comes to the interesting thing about all of these words – they are almost all related to bodily functions, sex, or sexual anatomy. This is not a coincidence – the very social prohibitions and forces that prevent us as a society from actually having an adult conversation about sex (and thus prevent us from realistically addressing issues such as STD's, abortions, birth control, etc.) are the ones that make us go giggly or gasp when we hear someone refer to "shit."

Now, I am no expert on the subject, but if I had to place a bet, I would say that the transformation from perfectly respectable words to "unspeakable vulgarity" is probably an inheritance from those folks who managed to get themselves worked up about everything dealing with the human body – the Victorians. I can think of plenty of times when I saw words that are now considered vulgar in "respectable" contexts that date to before the 19th century – and none that date to after this period. Now, I may be wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised if the Victorians bare the brunt of the blame for this obsession with "bad words."

Regardless, we now consider these words to be "bad" because we have been trained to think of them as "bad" – it is standard operant conditioning, the sort of thing that any first-year psychology student understands full well. And because of this, there is a simple way to deal with the issue – lose our sense of shock when we hear these words. If people weren't shocked when I told them to "fuck off," then it would be no more effective than if I had simply said "go away." If you really feel strongly that vulgarity should be reduced, then you have an obligation to start with yourself and stop reacting to it. Better yet, use it every once in a while – make it boring, rob it of its shock value. These words won't go away, but our reaction can be reasonable and not, well, superstitious, as it is today.

So, to get back to the original point – these words are just that, words. They have no mystical powers, they carry no negative energy, they are simply words. They are only offensive because we as a society decide they are offensive, and we really need to grow up.

Of course, if we do grow up, that will make it harder for me to express my extreme displeasure with coworkers.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Echo Chamber

Some years back, I knew a woman who had been part of the “Human Shield Project.” For those of you unfamiliar with this organization, it was comprised of people who, in the lead-up to the current Iraq war, believed that the administration wouldn’t dare to bomb locations where U.S. citizens were known to be. To this end, they organized to have U.S. citizens travel to Iraq and stay in places that were likely to be targets to avert the bombing.

This seemed, to me anyway, to be a rather poorly thought-out plan. The administration was unlikely to be deterred from bombing locations with the human shields unless it perceived a public outcry due to such casualties. As most people in the U.S. didn’t appear to know about the organization, and many of those who did know of them considered them traitors or fools or both, their presence appeared rather unlikely to deter any military action. Quite simply, the administration was unlikely to suffer any negative consequences for harming these folks.

I pointed this out to the woman who represented this group, and she stated that she fully believed that the Human Shield Project actually had widespread support among the U.S. populace – a position that was completely at-odds with reality. She was not a foolish person, in fact she was quite bright (and probably still is quite bright), nor was she someone who seemed inclined to accept preposterous notions uncritically. So, then, how could she have drawn a conclusion so contrary to the real world?

As I began to ask her more questions about her time with the Human Shield Project, more information came out. She had lived with other members of the project, her job centered around the project, and when she received communication critical of the project it was usually in the form of faceless emails and website comments.

In other words, most of her daily interactions were with people who supported her worldview, and she typically only heard dissent from sources that were probably correctly dismissed as being full of hyperbole and venom. She had gotten caught up in the echo chamber of support for the project, and all of her senses were painting an image that was rather different from the world outside of her social group.

Lest you think I am being overly critical of the leftys, I will be quick to point out that the American “conservative” movement has built one of the largest and most effective echo chambers around. Consider how many people get their political views and news analysis from Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Bill O’Reilly. Not to mention the number of smaller internet “news” sites such as World Net Daily which spew nonsense that would be laughable if a surprisingly large number of people didn’t believe it (yes, it’s dumb, but there are many people who believe it). All of these venues are aimed not at informing people, but at convincing them that they are informed while feeding them a steady diet of unquestioned ideology.

And the left-wing reaction? To ape them. To create networks such as Air America which are essentially the mirror image of Fox.

Regardless of whether you are a right-winger or a left-winger, a reactionary or a radical, a Christian or an atheist, a Buddhist or a Muslim, a Disco queen or a slam dancer, the echo chamber is not a healthy place to be. It is a place that not only prevents you from hearing dissenting opinion, but also begins to warp reality by pulling slowly in one direction without anything to correct your course.

Consider, if you will, the folks, and these folks really do exist, who honestly believe that the Bush family is actually composed of shape-shifting reptilian aliens who seek world domination. How could someone draw a conclusion that seems so absurd? They must be crazy, right?


It starts simply – maybe they are curious about UFO reports, so they attend a few lectures on the subject and find themselves further intrigued. If they don’t get exposed to countering points of view but are showered with the stories of witnesses without any attempt at non-alien explanations, then it may not be long before they start listening to stories of abductions and thinking that “hey, if these beings are travelling to Earth, then it’s reasonable that they may be examining humans while they’re here.”

Now, it may stop there, but it may not. If they continue to surround themselves with fellow believers, and they have accepted that people are being abducted, then it’s not too far a stretch to think that aliens have a reason for doing this that isn’t just curiosity. Again, the fellow delves deeper and finds himself surrounded by people who encourage this line of thinking and don’t provide any criticism, so, after a time, this seems like a reasonable position. From here, he can find groups that will support and hold as reasonable his conclusion that maybe the aliens have sinister plans for humanity, maybe those plans involve slavery, maybe they have already begun, and finally, after many steps, maybe the aliens are already among us as ruling families. Meanwhile, all criticism is likely to come from people who either dismiss him out of hand without listening to him, thus triggering the psychological defenses against criticism that all of us have, or else are simply nullified by the positive feedback that he is being given by other believers.

The ultimate conclusion is absurd, but it wasn’t reached all at once. It started with a more-or-less reasonable thought “hey, maybe there’s something to these UFO sightings”, and at every step along the way, our hypothetical traveler found himself surrounded by people who assented to his conclusions and showed little criticism, making them seem more reasonable than they really were, and the conclusions that he drew became more and more bizarre as time went on. Had he been routinely subjected to critical points of view delivered in a reasonable way, would he have gone to the final and very strange conclusion? Perhaps, there is always someone who adds 2 and 2 to get 49, but he would certainly have been less likely to.

In more mundane subjects, the echo chamber is even more pervasive. How many people do you know who think that Bush’s tactics in Iraq were brilliant? How many people do you know who think that Obama is somehow single-handedly going to change the U.S.? How many people do you know who believe that NBC has a socialist agenda? That evil homosexuals have a plan for converting our youth? That Ronald Reagan had ties to the Nazis? That the moon landing was a hoax?

All of these beliefs are rather silly, and yet there are many people who believe each one. And the reason why they believe them is because they are surrounded by people and media who echo their views to the point where another step down the loony path seems not like delusion, but like clarity or freedom. We like to think that we are able to see through nonsense, that we have common sense, but what we view as being obvious and “common sensical” is based not only on our own ability to reason, but also on what we are accustomed to seeing and hearing. To someone who has been fed a steady diet of young-Earth creationism, the very tenets of evolution, no matter how well supported by science, will seem bizarre and foolish. Likewise, to someone who was raised in a secular household, the notion that someone could believe in a deity that answers prayers and watches over you seems like lunacy.

And there’s the rub. We all have a propensity to fall into a “crowd” of like-minded people, and we all have the tendency to listen to those who speak to what we believe. We all visit the echo chamber from time-to-time, and some people never leave it. And how do we know when we’re in the echo chamber? Well, some folks have both the necessary levels of self-criticism and curiosity to find the information trail that they need to lead themselves out most of the time. Many of us, however, either cannot or will not escape. It’s comfortable in the echo chamber – being told how right we are, how we’re among the few who see what’s really going on in the world, and how we are somehow above the muck that everyone else is mired in – it doesn’t matter if it’s true, it simply has to feel good. I have found myself in the echo chamber a few times and had to really fight with myself to get out – it’s an appealing place to be.

But it is also a potentially dangerous place to be. Sure, if all that you echo chamber tells you is that your hobby is the greatest thing ever, or that your sports team is amazing, then that’s harmless enough. But when you are in a social group that reinforces your tendency to ignore real solutions to problems, when you have come to believe that your prejudices are wisdom and that you should act on them, when you have become so divorced from reality that you are unable to see the faults in your reasoning, then the echo chamber can become a dangerous place not only for you, but for those who are impacted by your actions.

And if you claim that you have never been in the echo chamber yourself, well, you’re either lying to yourself or your lying to whomever you are speaking with. We have all been there, you, me, and everyone else, and we will all be there in the future. But it’s not hopeless. Simply being aware of it, and being aware that we are all drawn to it, is the best way to reduce the amount of time that you spend there. But we need to all be aware that when we find ourselves surrounded by people who constantly seem to be talking sense, but we feel tempted not to actually critique what they are saying – well, we’re probably on the wrong path. We’re all guilty of this, but we can and need to do better.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Obligatory Day After Election Day Post

It’s the day after election day, and I have a few links for you to check out, a few statements of the obvious, and absolutely no deep thoughts. We have our first African-American President, a high-speed train linking southern and central California may be closer to being built (whether or not people actually use it is another question entirely), California’s constitution was amended in a way that reflects poorly on us as a people, and chicken cages will be larger – though the necessity of such a measure is sure to be highly debated by poultry farmers and animal rights activists and nobody else. I, for one, am glad that the whole thing is over. Over for the moment, anyway.

I have to say, I was impressed by McCain’s concession speech – after a messy and often ugly campaign, it seemed to sum up the important fact that, whoever is up to bat, we are all playing for the same team. However, call me a cynic if you will, but I suspect that the amount of venom that has been spewed by pundits and activists from, in favor of, and against both of the major parties over the last two decades may have created an environment so toxic that even a well-written and well-delivered speech from such a high-profile figure as McCain will do little to alleviate it. Unfortunately, it seems that too many people have ceased viewing the political opposition as opponents and started seeing them as enemies. Then again, perhaps I’m just grumpy and cynical (at least, I hope that I’m just grumpy and cynical).

The day of the election, this post at one of my favorite blogs referenced a podcast that I regularly listen to, Common Sense With Dan Carlin**. In episodes 135 and 136, Carlin discusses the level of politically-motivated invective currently entrenched in the media, and discusses both the impacts that this has had and is likely to continuing having on how the citizens of the US view elected officials, as well as his own experiences having been a political talk radio host and having dealt with the pressure to be unreasonable in order to get ratings. It’s worth listening to, and gets one thinking about how at least some portion of the current radicalization of many politicians may have more to do with attempting to appeal to an electorate that seems to be increasingly viewing politics as a form of pseudo-gladiatorial entertainment rather than a system for organizing government, and how our media is feeding into this tendency.

I would also point you towards and episode of the Seanachai titled "I Voted?", in which Patrick McLean makes the point that we tend to credit or blame our elected officials in general, and our executive officials in particular, with things that they have limited or no control over. Given the amount of change that people are expecting of Obama, I can't help but imagine that people will be very disappointed with him over things that he likely has little to no control over (though, perhaps, he promised to much during the campaign). Anyway, something else to ponder.

Interestingly, I also heard a good argument for another source of the current level of political poison from a source that I didn’t expect it. I love listening to the Hometown Tales podcast, and their election-day episode (episode #254) was “tales of the presidents” – oddball facts and little-known information related to each of the presidents. The show is high on fun, generally low on substance, but towards the end of the episode they discuss George W. Bush’s legacy, and one of them comments that the degree of vitriol worked up over Bush may be due not only to the 24-hour news cycle (which this sort of thing is often blamed on, and with good reason), but also due to the fact that the advent of blogs and podcasting means that A) anyone can be an “expert” regardless of how much or little sense they actually make, and B) there is a greater ability for people to lock themselves into an “echo chamber” of opinion (my term, not theirs), where they constantly have their own views reinforced without reality or context intruding (the “echo chamber” idea is one that has concerned me for some time, actually). As a result, while Bush has certainly had his problems (I, for one, am no fan of his and really can’t grasp why anyone would be), these have been exaggerated by the nature of information during the times in which we live.

I have no real discussion, nothing much to add – I have just been thinking about these things a lot, and I thought these were good links to point you folks towards. I hope you are all well, and that the outcome of the election does ultimately bring us more good than ill – though I doubt it will bring the sort of massive change that so many seem to believe.

*I really enjoy this show, and it is one of the few political shows that I can stomach. I frequently disagree with Dan Carlin’s conclusions, but as he actually takes the time to explain where he is coming from, rather than going for the usual “this is the PROPER liberal/conservative thing to believe” I find myself often hearing a well-articulated argument for another position. Sometimes he changes my mind, sometimes he doesn’t, but I always find it valuable. Also, unlike most political talk show hosts, Carlin changes his mind when presented with good arguments or better information, and he’s not afraid to say so when it happens. He, correctly, sees the ability to change one’s mind as a strength and not a weakness – if only this attitude were more common, and truly was “common sense.”

Monday, November 3, 2008

No, just Charity Money...

Ahh, good, the Christian Children's Fund is actually being fairly groovy.

Turns out that the issue with the donations was due to guidelines that the fund has for receiving donations and not the source of the donations. While this still seems a waste (the $17,000 could have gone a long way), the reasons are fairly prosaic and understandable.

See here for further information.

If nothing else, this demonstrates how quickly we can jump to conclusions in the absence of good information.

Thanks, Kay, for the heads-up.

The Devil's Money?

I'm back from the forest, and when I returned, I saw this very strange news story.

GenCon, a yearly role-playing game convention, holds charity auctions and donates the money to groups that they feel are worthy of support. In honor of Gary Gygax, who was a co-creator of Dungeons and Dragons and hence one of the fathers of the role-playing game hobby, GenCon decided to donate auction-generated moneys to Gygax's favorite charity, the Chrisitian Children's Fund.

Nothing so odd about that.

The strange part is that the Christian Children's Fund refused the money, allegedly upon learning that it was raised in part through the sale of Dungeons and Dragons parphenalia.

Unfortunately, the only information I can find on this comes from the gaming community, with no comments from the Christian Children's Fund itself, so it's difficult to say why they turned it down. The general feeling amongst the gamers is that it's due to the fact that some religious groups hold some mighty odd objections to role-playing games in general and Dungeons and Dragons in particular, but I would assume that the Christian Children's Fund was a bit above that nonsense.

So, I'll look and see if I can find a reason why they turned the money (totally approximately $17,000) away, but if any of you come across anything, let me know.

This is just bizarre.