Category Archives: Uncategorized

DNA Confirms Tyrolean Iceman Died of Extreme Fashion Violation

In 1991, the five-thousand year-old mummified remains of a man were discovered in the Italian Alps. Numerous DNA analyses have been performed on those remains in the past, providing a lot of information about who he was and what he ate. But now, a team of Italian and Irish researchers have analyzed ancient mitochondrial DNA recovered from his clothing, providing critical insight into his likely cause of death.

The results were published earlier this month  in Scientific Reports, and hoo boy is the ghost of Joan Rivers angry. Shoelaces made from cattle, sheepskin loincloth, and goatskin leggings; a quiver made from roe deer and a bearskin hat. His coat? Goat and sheep! I mean, this guy was basically wearing a Guy Fieri nacho recipe.

Artist’s reconstruction of the iceman’s ensemble. Image via

The results provide information about the ancient phylogeography of these animals, as well as insight into the iceman’s lifestyle. The cattle, goats, and sheep all appear to be closely related to contemporary domesticated populations in Europe, consistent with an agricultural/pastoral existence. The deer and bear point to an important additional role for the use of wild species.

Other analysis has suggested that this iceman died as a result of an arrow wound. Alternative theory: this is evidence of early mirror technology — a technology that, like the nanobots in Wool, developed before the culture was advanced enough to handle it.

How Many Delegates does Sanders Need on Tuesday?

Tomorrow, Tuesday March 15, like many Tuesdays over the past couple of months, is THE DAY THAT IS GOING TO SETTLE THE PRIMARY ONCE AND FOR ALL!!1!!!!!111!

Which is to say, there are a fair number of delegates at stake, 691 out of the 4051 pledged delegates, over a quarter of the 2724 remaining pledged delegates.

[Aside: I’ll be drawing delegate counts from The Green Papers, confirming with 538’s counts, noting any discrepancies. Also, I’ll be ignoring superdelegates, because their votes are not pledged, and I honestly don’t believe that they are not going to swing for whichever candidate has more pledged delegates at the convention.]

At the moment, the pledged delegate counts are Clinton 775, Sanders 552. So, how many would Sanders need to win in order to be on track to capture 50% of the pledged delegates before the convention?

Sanders needs 1474 of the remaining 2724 delegates, or 54%. So, the simplest calculation would say that he would need to win at least 374 of tomorrow’s delegates.

But that calculation ignores the fact that the states vary in systematic ways. If Sanders had won 51% of the vote in Vermont, for instance, that would not be an indication that we was on track to win 51% of the pledged delegates nationally.

To address this issue, 538 put together their delegate tracker, which attempts to adjust for demographic variation among the states. Their model estimates the number of delegates each candidate would be expected to win in a given state in order to wind up with 50% total. For example, their model projects that Sanders should perform substantially better in Nebraska than in other states. Sanders won 15 delegates there to Clinton’s 10, which is exactly the split given by their model.

That is, to the extent to which their model is accurate, the results from Nebraska point to a very close primary race nationally. (Personally, I’m not sure about their model, as it seems to rely more on conventional wisdom and media narratives than on data — sort of a microcosm of the decline in quality of 538 overall. But, it is probably a decent first-order correction to a simple delegate-count horse race.)

According to the 538 model, Clinton’s target number is 365 delegates, while Sanders’s is 326. The difference comes from Florida and Illinois (and, to a lesser extent, North Carolina), where they expect Clinton to overperform relative to her national standing.

So, for example, if Sanders were to win 330 delegates, Clinton would extend her lead over him, but it would suggest that, if he keeps performing at that level, he will win more than 50% of the remaining delegates.

The problem (and the reason I wrote this) is that the number 326 does not account for the fact that Clinton already has a lead of more than 200 delegates. At this point for Sanders, winning 50% of the remaining delegates means losing the nomination.

So, I’m combining the two calculations — the demographic corrections from 538 and the current delegate totals — to come up with a number that I think represents a reasonable target for tomorrow’s primaries.

There are a couple of different ways to do this. One sets Sanders’s target at 353, and the other at 349. So, something in that vicinity, let’s call it 351. And Clinton’s corresponding target would be 340 delegates.

Of course, regardless of the specific outcome tomorrow, both campaigns will continue on, notwithstanding whatever predictable and idiotic statements come from the media. And once those results are in, I’ll update this calculation for next week’s primaries in Arizona, Idaho, and Utah.

What Hillary Clinton’s AIDS Comments Reveal About Her Worldview

On Friday, while attending Nancy Reagan’s funeral, Hillary Clinton gave an interview to MSNBC in which she made the following statement:

It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that really appreciated, with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’

This was a very strange and dumb thing to say, even for someone who seems to make as many unforced errors as Clinton does. As social media and news outlets quickly reminded her, the truth of the matter was much closer to the opposite of what she said. The Reagan administration, including Nancy, was legendarily silent on the issue.

The Clinton campaign’s initial apology seemed almost as bad:

Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 2.14.41 PM

“Misspoke” seemed like a bizarre and dismissive characterization of a full-paragraph of revisionist hagiography that was clearly part of her prepared remarks for the interview, and this terse apology did not do much to stem the criticism.

However, on Saturday, Clinton posted a much longer apology that explicitly denied the credit she had given to the Reagans. And, importantly, she explicitly gave credit to the many, many activists who did start our national conversation about AIDS in spite of the depraved indifference of the Reagan administration.

To be clear, the Reagans did not start a national conversation about HIV and AIDS. That distinction belongs to generations of brave lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, along with straight allies, who started not just a conversation but a movement that continues to this day.

The AIDS crisis in America began as a quiet, deadly epidemic. Because of discrimination and disregard, it remained that way for far too long. When many in positions of power turned a blind eye, it was groups like ACT UP, Gay Men’s Health Crisis and others that came forward to shatter the silence — because as they reminded us again and again, Silence = Death. They organized and marched, held die-ins on the steps of city halls and vigils in the streets.

One can quibble, of course. While walking back her praise of the Reagans, it ignores the gut-churning cruelty that characterized much of the administration’s response. And there’s the fact that much of the rest of her statement is basically about how she, Hillary Clinton, is the actual hero of the story. But, it was a political funeral in the middle of an election, so those omissions and that spin are not surprising. And, as far as apologies from politicians go, this was was really pretty good.

So, my anger has subsided somewhat, but I have continued to be puzzled as to why she possibly made this statement in the first place. The theory that makes the most sense to me, as bizarre as it is, is that this was actually Hillary Clinton’s perception of the events of the 1980s.

Garance Franke-Ruta (storified here) makes this argument:

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(And a bunch more interesting points. Well worth reading, and clicking through the links.)

There was also this article, published in the Advocate on March 6, shortly after Nancy Reagan’s death, and several days before Clinton’s comments. The article presents the Reagans’ relationship with AIDS in the most generous possible light, with several passages of this flavor:

Nancy Reagan is sometimes credited with pushing her husband to do something about AIDS, and he eventually supported some funding for research. The death of their friend, actor Rock Hudson, is often referred to as a pivotal moment.

So there is a very specific perspective from which Clinton’s original statement can be seen as, well, sort of true. It’s sort of a Great Man Theory perspective. Sure, there were lots of things happening, people saying things, protesting, and so on, but the important part of the history is what happened within the walls of power. If by “national conversation” you mean “conversation among the nation’s elite”, and if by “the public conscience” you mean “the public consciousness”, and by “the public consciousness” you mean “the consciousness of the political establishment”, maybe Nancy Reagan was a key driving force.

I suspect that this fundamentally oligarchical worldview is behind a lot of Clinton’s political missteps. When she brags about being praised by Henry Kissinger, she seems genuinely surprised that there are people who don’t find that to be a compelling reason to vote for her. And it helps to explain her response to the protests that led Donald Trump to cancel his rally in Chicago on Friday:

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Her message seems to criticize the protesters as much as Trump’s rhetoric — a profoundly authoritarian stance that seems natural if you assume that politics should be a conversation among a very limited set of elites, and that all the little people just need to be more polite and deferential.

Fundamentally, to me, Hillary Clinton acts less like someone running for President, and more like someone applying for a job as Head Animal Control Officer. She has mustered the support of the town council, and she has a letter of recommendation from the Chief of Police. But she can’t for the life of her understand why all the dogs in the pound keep interrupting her, acting as if they should have a say in the decision.

Don’t get me wrong. I suspect that she would be a relatively benevolent dog catcher. Compare Donald Trump, who is campaigning on a promise that he will euthanize all the dogs and turn them into a plentiful supply of cat food.

Her second apology for her bizarre statements about Nancy Reagan was a huge improvement. It was as if, when sufficient pressure was placed on her, the hundreds of millions of people who are not part of the political, financial, and media elite came momentarily into focus for her. It was disappointing, however, that her ability to acknowledge the courage and importance of regular Americans did not even persist to the end of the statement.

How Should Democrats Allocate Primary Delegates Among States?

The US Presidential election system is weird, but the primary system is really weird. Contests are strung out over the course of five months, with the rules varying from state to state — from who can vote to how the voting happens to how the delegates are allocated among the candidates.

For the Democratic Party, there are 4051 “pledged” delegates, whose first-ballot votes at the convention are determined by the results of state-wide (or state-equivalent-wide) primaries, and 714 “superdelegates”, party leaders and insiders of various sorts who can vote for whomever they want.

Allocation of Delegates

The exact number of delegates assigned to a given jurisdiction is determined in a number of steps (details here). First, each jurisdiction is assigned a base number of delegate votes. For the 50 states and DC, this base is 3200 time an “allocation factor” that is the average of two quantities. Half of the allocation factor is set by the fraction of electoral college votes for the jurisdiction (e.g., 3/538 for DC and 29/538 for Florida). The other half is the fraction of the nationwide popular vote for the Democratic presidential candidate that came from that state over the previous three elections.

That second factor does two things. First, it makes the delegate allocation more proportional to population — reducing the advantage given by the electoral college system to smaller states. Second, it rewards states that tend to vote Democratic.


In this figure, blue dots indicate states that have gone for the Democratic candidate in each of the three previous elections, while red dots have gone for the Republican candidate in all three. Gray dots are states that have voted for the Democrat in either one or two of the three most recent elections. You can see that the slope of the red points is lower than that of the blue points.

You can also see how this scheme down-weights the electoral value of the small states, since the apparent y-intercept is below zero. We can see this shift more clearly if we replot this in terms of the number of delegates per electoral vote:


Note that the apparent purple point is actually an overlay of red and blue (Montana and Vermont).

Then, each state is given various bonuses based on when they hold their primary. For example, you get a larger bonus for holding your primary later in the season. And, for primaries held March 22 or later, you get a 15% bonus if you are part of a cluster of three or more neighboring states with primaries on the same day.

(Because in Democratic primaries, as in the Special Olympics, everyone is a winner, no state has an overall bonus of less than 15%.)

Delegates are also assigned to various jurisdictions that don’t actually get to vote in the presidential election, like Puerto Rico, and to “Democrats Abroad”, people living overseas, who would vote in the presidential election via absentee ballot in their home state.

How SHOULD delegates be allocated?

So, is this a sensible way to allocate delegates? It depends on the goal. The current system seems to be basically a hybrid of the electoral college system and a popular vote, with some additional features to reward party loyalty. It seems that the system aims to strike a balance among three competing goals:

  1. Pragmatic considerations of electoral math. Elections are determined by the electoral college, so a system that mirrors the electoral college seems more likely to produce a candidate who can win.
  2. A democratizing impulse. At the same time, there is a sense that the electoral college system is weird and not always fair. Skewing delegate weights towards population size, allowing proportional allocation of delegates within states, and allowing participation by groups that are normally excluded from the Presidential election all make the primary outcome a bit more like a nationwide popular vote.
  3. Community Building. If you reward states that produce Democrats and get them to vote, as well as states that get in line and follow the rules, you presumably hope that this will lead to more of both.

However, if we take the pragmatic angle seriously, there is something missing from this calculation. In the current political environment, the outcome of a Presidential election depends primarily on how candidates perform in the swing states.

Barring a landslide, come November, the Democrats are going to win Washington DC and Massachusetts, and the Republicans are going to win Wyoming and Mississippi. If the goal is to nominate a candidate who can prevent a dystopian Trump presidency, Clinton’s win in Alabama and Sanders’s win in Vermont are irrelevant. The primary results we should pay attention to are those from states that could determine the election outcome. Fare more important are the close results in Iowa and Nevada, Sanders’s victory in Colorado, and Clinton’s in Virginia.

So, the other thing you could include in your allocation factor is a measure of “swinginess”. There are a lot of ways you could do this, but here’s a simple one: calculate the mean and standard error of the difference between Republican and Democratic vote percentages in each state over the past three elections. Assuming those values are Normally distributed, calculate the probability that the winner is different from what we expect from the mean. So, if the mean difference is exactly 0%, the probability would be 0.5. If the mean difference is 5%, and the standard deviation is also 5%, the probability would be about 0.17. If the mean difference is 30%, and the standard deviation is 5%, the probability is effectively zero.

Take this probability and multiply it by the number of electoral votes. The result is something like the number of electoral votes you can expect to get by doing well in that state.

What remains, then, is how to combine this factor with the other considerations. For example, if we use an Allocation Value that is 90% the existing formula, and 10% Swinginess, we get the following:

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If we use these numbers to replot our graph of base delegates per electoral vote versus electoral votes, you can see how the states that have been close in the past get bumped up.


Those four highest points, from left to right, are Colorado, Virginia, Ohio, and Florida.

Is this fair? I’m not actually sure what that means in this context. Keep in mind that nearly 1/3 of the delegates exist either a) to directly express the will of the party elite, or b) to allow the national party to manipulate how and when the states hold their primaries.

A better question might be, would it work? Also, what other consequences might result? It seems intuitive that, for the Presidential election itself, a candidate’s ability to carry Ohio is more important than how much of a landslide they could rack up in California. On the other hand, winning by more (or losing by less) in non-competitive states could make a difference in down-ticket races. And if you discount the voters in solid-blue states too much, you risk alienating your base.

All in all, I suspect something along these lines would be an improvement. At a minimum, it might be a useful way to factor in “electability”, particularly in election years that are more likely to be decided by base turnout than by swaying independent voters.

Here’s What’s Up with the Color of that Dress

After the continuation of net neutrality and the onset of the llama revolution, the most exciting thing to hit the internet yesterday was this dress, which some people claim is white and gold, while others claim it is blue and black.

guys please help me - is this dress white and gold, or blue and black? Me and my friends can’t agree and we are freaking the fuck out

Buzzfeed has been running a poll. As of right now, the results are running 71% white and gold versus 29% blue and black. Gawker media is also on the case, concluding that everyone is an idiot, while Slate says you’re looking at the dress wrong.

Here’s what I think is going on. First off, here are the two colors, extracted from the image and presented out of context:


To me, that’s a sort-of steely blue-gray on the left and brown with maybe a hint of gold on the right. According to Adobe Illustrator, the RGB values are: R: 140, G: 146, B: 185 on the left and R: 137, G: 115, B:81 on the right. Depending on where, exactly you sample from, the values vary a bit, obviously, but are always pretty close to these.

In each case, these values are on a scale that runs from 0 to 255. So that means the Red and Green channels are running at about 50% in both cases. If all three were 50%, we would have something that looked like a middle-of-the-road gray. Relative to that, we have some extra blue on the left, and we have some blue taken away on the right. So we can think of the blue-gray as a bluish gray. The brown we can think of as a yellowish gray, or maybe an orangish gray.


So, those are the actual colors in the picture, but the color of the dress is a different question. Why is it that some people look at the top photo and see a white dress with gold trim, while others see a blue dress with black trim?

What I think we have here is a case where there are two different effects, both relating to the fact that our perception of colors is affected by context. What is special in this case is that the two effects are pushing our perception in opposite directions. Plus, they are balanced in magnitude, so which of the two dominates varies from person to person, and can be influenced by little details, like the angle at which you view your computer screen, background lighting, etc. In fact, some people see the colors spontaneously flipping from white-gold to blue-black or vice versa. It’s basically this thing from the New Yorker:

The first effect is we perceive colors in a way that enhances their contrast with nearby colors. Look at these boxes. If you’re like most people, the small square on the left looks like it is a lighter color of gray than the small square on the right:


But in fact, those two center squares are exactly the same shade of gray. The one on the left looks lighter because it is surrounded by a darker gray. The one on the right looks lighter because it is surrounded by a lighter gray. Here are the same two squares with the context removed:


This is a perfectly reasonable thing for your eyes to do, because, in the real world, the intensity of light in the environment varies. If you’re looking for berries to eat, you want to perceive a strawberry in a shady spot as the same type of thing as a strawberry in a sunny spot. So, when everything is dark and shady, you correct your perception, saying essentially that this strawberry must actually be brighter than it looks. Similarly under bright sunlight, you would (correctly) infer that the berry is actually darker than it appears.

The color surrounding much of the dress in the photo is a very bright white. In this context, we perceive the colors as being darker and more saturated than they are, yielding a rich blue and a very dark brown verging on black.

But there’s another way that this correction can play out. Look at this picture:

Figure 0.1. Thechessboard illusion: areas A and B on the board have ...

The punchline here is that the squares labeled A and B are actually exactly the same color (as illustrated in the lower-left corner of the photo. Here, part of the effect is due to the fact that square A is surrounded by lighter squares, and therefore appears darker than it is, while square B is surrounded by darker squares, and appears lighter. But another part of the effect is due to the fact that we perceive a light source off to the right, and we see that the green cylinder is casting a shadow. Since we know that square B is in this shadow, we correct for this, perceiving it not as a gray square, but as a white square that is in the shadows.

In the dress picture, the light is coming from behind the dress, so the entire side of the dress that we can see is in its own shadow. We correct for this by perceiving not a blue-gray dress, but a white dress that has been photographed with horrible backlighting. We implicitly assume that the darkness is an artifact of the photograph.

We can recreate these two effects by taking our original two colors and either shifting them away from white (recreating the effect of perceiving something against a white background), or shifting them towards white (recreating the effect of perceiving something photographed with a light source behind it).

Here, I’ve corrected the saturation and blackness values 1/3 of the way from the original (left) towards pure white (center) or pure black (right):


And here, I’ve corrected all three RGB values 1/3 of the way from the original (left) towards pure white (center) or pure black (right).


So, when you look at the dress, part of your visual system is saying, “Wow, everything is so bright! This dress must actually be really dark in order to look like this!” But another part of your visual system is saying, “Wow, what a horrible shadow! This dress must actually be really bright in order to look like this!”

What is so cool about the picture is that it seems to trigger both of these corrections in roughly equal measure. But just as our perception of a duck-rabbit picture snaps back and forth between duck and rabbit (but it is hard to see both at the same time), our brain chooses one of the two interpretations of the dress photo, and jumps in with both feet. Small differences in our visual systems — or the specific details of the context in which we view the photo — determine which way it jumps. For instance, I find it easier to see the white and gold dress when I look at the top part of the photo (where the backlighting is strongest), and can see the blue and black dress best at the bottom.

Vancouver School Board awkwardly fixes gender pronouns

The Vancouver School Board has done something really dumb. Which is nice, because most of the dumb school board things you hear about are from the US. They decided that they wanted to let students choose the pronouns used to refer to them: he/him/his or she/her/her. So far so good. They also wanted to give students a third, gender-neutral option. Also admirable.

This is where things start to go wrong. Their gender-neutral option consists of xe, xem, and xer. Now, a lot of people have tried to introduce gender-neutral pronouns in the past, none of which have stuck, probably because their suggestions were typically almost as dumb as this one. I mean, seriously, these don’t even look like they’re trying to be English words. And it seems to me that if you want a new word to be used, maybe make sure it’s obvious how to pronounce them.

According to the story in the National Post, the new pronouns are “pronounced to rhyme with the genderless plurals, they, them, and their, only starting with the ‘z’ sound.” Here’s an idea. If you want your pronoun to be pronounced with a z sound, spell it with a fucking z.

But here’s the thing that drives me nuts. We already have a perfectly good set of gender-neutral pronouns. No, not it. The singular they. Sure, there are a few circumstances where it sounds clunky: When Elvira got to the restaurant, they ordered a glass of wine. But is it really any worse than When Elvira got to the restaurant, xe ordered a glass of wine?

But, on the other hand, the singular they is the norm when referring to a non-specific individual, as in Someone left their penumbra in the cloak room, or Anyone who orders a marmot from a catalog shouldn’t be surprised if they get a second-rate marmot.

The National Post story includes a number of interesting comments about the history of gender-neutral pronouns from Dennis Baron, of the University of Illinois, ending with this:

Prof. Barron is skeptical, however, of the longevity of xe, xem and xyr, given the failures of their predecessors.

“It’s very hard to inject a word into the language,” he said. “The pronouns that do arise tend to arise naturally. Obviously somebody has to come up with them, but it’s not a campaign to get a word adopted, it’s something that just sort of catches on by word of mouth, literally.”

Arise naturally, like they.

(via Boing Boing)

Yes, ALL Men’s Rights Groups are Responsible for Elliot Rodger’s Murders

On Friday, May 23, the nation was stunned by 22-year-old Elliot Rodger, who went on a shooting rampage in Isla Vista, California, where he murdered six people, sent seven others to the hospital, and eventually killed himself. Details about Rodgers emerged quickly, most notably a trail of extreme misogyny in the form of a 140-page manifesto, online videos, and participation in discussions on a site for failed pick-up artists. In his last video message, he said

You forced me to suffer all my life, now I will make you all suffer . . . All you girls who rejected me, looked down upon me, you know, treated me like scum while you gave yourselves to other men. And all of you men for living a better life than me, all of you sexually active men. I hate you. I hate all of you. I can’t wait to give you exactly what you deserve, annihilation.

Within a couple of days, though, the race was on to control the narrative, to define what, exactly, had caused this tragedy. Some people (e.g., at the New Statesman, the American Prospect), pointed to a misogynistic ideology, which is pervasive through much of our culture, and can be found in its most distilled form in the Pick-Up Artist (PUA) and Men’s Rights Activist (MRA) communities.

Other, stupider people tried to point the finger elsewhere. In the Washington Post, film critic Ann Hornaday argued that it was because the “schlubby arrested adolecsent” in Judd Apatow films always gets to have sex. Fox News – presumably after having tried and failed to find some way in which Rodger was actually Black, or Muslim, or a secret-pro-gun-control-false-flag-sacrificial-lamb – ran a segment in which they brought in a psychotherapist / psychologist to speculate that the shootings were the result of his “fighting against his homosexual impulses”.

Obviously, guns were involved in the crime, and the shooting is already being used to argue for new gun control laws, but it appears that the first three victims were stabbed to death. Likewise, mental health was clearly an issue, as it almost always is in these cases. However, to the extent that blame for this crime can be ascribed to “gun culture”, or to the systematic deficiencies in our mental healthcare “system”, both of these causes pale in comparison to the normalization of an extreme, violent misogynistic ideology.

So how, exactly, are the MRA and PUA groups to blame here?  No one is saying that they are directly responsible for these murders. However, in the absence of these groups, and the broader culture of mainstream misogyny, I think it is unlikely that Elliot Rodger would have wound up where he did.

The key concept here is psychological priming. When we evaluate things, whether actions, or people. or values, we evaluate them in comparison to something else. Marketers know this, and they exploit it regularly: sales are attractive because they make us feel like we’re getting a bargain. The fact is, I have no absolute sense of how much a box of mac and cheese should cost. If I walk in to the grocery store and see that it costs $1.59 for a box, I’ll think, “Okay, I guess that’s how much it costs.” But, if I see that it normally costs $1.99, but is on sale for $1.59, I’ll feel like I’m getting a great deal.

Similarly, fancy restaurants often have one or two high-priced items on the menu, and wine stores will stock a handful of bottles of extremely expensive wine. Even if no one ever orders or purchases these high-end goods, it is worth their while to stock them, because their real value is in making the rest of the prices look more reasonable. If there’s a thousand-dollar bottle of wine on display, you’re more likely to spring for the hundred-dollar bottle.

There’s not much question that Elliot Rodger was mentally ill. Maybe it was inevitable that he was going to lash out against women in some way, that he was going to do something horrible that went three steps over the line. MRAs don’t bear any responsibility for that.

What the MRAs and PUAs are responsible for is where the line was. And they’re responsible for working to make it seem normal – even admirable – to stand as close to the line as you can get.

Like most poisonous ideologies, misogyny tends to get whitewashed with Orwellian double-speak and dog whistles. In public discourse, at least, MRAs are not “against women”, they are against “women getting special rights”, just as homophobic bigots are against “special rights for gays”.

More broadly, very few men would claim to have a problem with women, but a lot of men have a problem with women who are “stuck up bitches”, or who are “psycho”, just as most racist troglodytes “don’t have a problem” with black people in general, just the “lazy” or “criminal” or “entitled” ones.

Whether we’re talking about racism or homophobia or misogyny, there is a societal sense of what sorts of statements and actions are and are not appropriate – of where the line is. The finely carved rhetoric of most MRAs is an attempt to make sure that they stay on the right side of that line. In a way, that’s a good thing. The problem is that when you normalize behavior that is just on this side of the line, you make it that much easier for someone who is angry or mentally ill to cross over that line. Because that is how our brains work.

No matter what the societal norms are, there will always be people who are outliers. That means that if you work to create societal norms that are just this side of physical violence towards women, you all but guarantee that there women will be targeted with physical violence.

Imagine if we lived in a society where misogyny was not endemic. Maybe in that society, Elliot Rodger still winds up as a mentally ill kid with a lot of frustration and anger directed at women. Maybe he still steps way over the line of acceptable behavior. But maybe that means that when he goes to a party, hits on a girl, and gets turned down, he throws his beer in her face and calls her a bitch.

Imagine if that was what three steps over the line looked like, and calling a woman a bitch for not going out with you was national news, the sort of thing that would result in someone like Rodger receiving the psychological help he needed.

Is that scenario even possible? Well, just how far the line of societal norms could be moved depends on the answers to a whole lot of nature/nurture questions. But there is no doubt that we could achieve something closer to that scenario than what we have at the moment.

But the other problem is that we have gangs of the Men’s Rights Activists and Pick-Up Artists tripping over each other to position themselves just on this side of what is acceptable. It’s like that scene in World War Z, where the zombies pile on top of each other until some of them can make it over the wall. Elliot Rodger is the one who made it over the wall, but all the MRAs and PUAs who have been normalizing misogyny helped him over, and they absolutely bear responsibility for the murders he committed when he landed on the other side.

H & R Block Wants to Rip You Off

So, for the past few weeks, you’ve probably been seeing those ads from H&R Block. You know, the ones where they tell you breathlessly that Americans who are foolish enough to prepare their own tax returns are missing out on a billion dollars. A BILLION DOLLARS!!

The implication, of course, is that the amount paid to the IRS by people who do their own taxes is a billion (BILLION!!!) dollars more than it would be if they had H&R Block do their taxes.

Let’s assume that’s correct. What does it mean for you, the taxpayer?

According to the IRS, about 145 million income tax forms were filed in 2011. According to Pew Research, about a third of people do their own taxes. That means there are just shy of 50 million self-prepared income tax returns filed every year.

So, that billion (BILLION!!!!!) dollars amounts to about twenty-one (21!!!) dollars per self-prepared return.

According to H&R Block’s 2013 Report to Shareholders, during their fiscal year ending on April 30, they prepared 22 million US returns, for which they brought in $1.7 billion, which is an average of $77 per return (including returns that users prepare using their online tools, at prices ranging from zero to $50, depending on the complexity of the return).

That average is actually on the cheap end overall. According the the National Society of Accountants, the average tax preparation fee for returns without itemized deductions is $152. Nevertheless, speaking in averages, H&R Block’s argument is that you should pay them $77 so that you can pay $21 less to the US government.

There are legitimate reasons to use a tax preparer. For instance, there’s the calculation of how much time you would save by paying someone to do your taxes, and how much your time is worth to you, factoring in how much you like or dislike doing your taxes. What pisses me off is the way these ads exploit the fact that a billion is a large number to imply a big payoff.

It’s like saying, “Americans spend millions of dollars every year on snow shovels. So you should hire me to shovel your driveway. I’m not going to tell you how much I’ll charge you, but you can (probably) safely assume that it will be less than millions of dollars!”

On a related note, keep in mind that, like other corporations that make their money from tax preparation, H&R Block spends millions of dollars every year lobbying congress, much of it to oppose legislation to simplify the tax code.

Five Reasons Biologists Should Use Preprint Servers

So, following my previous post, I got some interesting feedback from a couple of biologists who were not completely sold on the idea of posting preprints of your work to the arXiv (or, now, the bioRxiv). Or, rather, they were not convinced that the cost-benefit calculus worked out in favor of posting. After all, as one person pointed out, there are already a bunch of hoops to jump through on the way to publication, what with formatting, revising, angrily cursing reviewer number 2, reformatting, resubmitting, and whatnot. What does posting to a preprint server do for you, beyond adding another step?

Well, it occurs to me that this is probably a question shared by a lot of biologists out there, so I thought I would share the reasons I’ve come up with.

  1. Open Access. You want your work to be available to the widest possible audience, right? When some enthusiastic young researcher is searching the literature, and they stumble across your seminal work on tribble parthenogenesis, you don’t want them getting Spock-blocked by some crappy paywall. Sure, maybe their University has an overpriced subscription to the obscure journal you published in, but maybe it doesn’t. Or maybe it’s a pain for them to access it via the proxy server when they’re off campus. Or maybe this young researcher doesn’t have access because he and/or she is an independent scholar, because they’re actually too smart and creative to work for The Man. Maybe they’ll just scroll down the search results page until they find another paper by your grad-school nemesis — the one who never chipped in his fair share for pizza — and you’ve lost another citation. Don’t let this happen to you! Make sure that your work is freely, and easily, accessible to everyone everywhere.
  2. Speed. You’ve finished your research, you’ve blindly written down the p-value that the software you downloaded from the internet spit out — er, I mean, “double-checked the statistics”, and you’ve written a beautiful discussion section that skillfully implies that your results are going to revolutionize not only your own field, but any field whose scientists have sufficient foresight to follow in your footsteps. But now you have to wait for six months or a year, or maybe longer, before your paper appears in print, and, of course, by that time, even you will have moved on to more interesting problems. If you post to a preprint server, though, your work is available immediately. And, if you make revisions in response to reviewer comments, you can post the revised version there, too. Some journals (e.g., Evolution) will even let you post the final, published, journal-formatted PDF to the preprint server after some time (12 months following publication for Evolution). So, the fact that you’re getting your work out there early does not mean that you’re committing to something less than the final version.
  3. Normalization. At this point, most biology journals are okay with authors posting their manuscripts to preprint servers, but some still are not. Not to name names (*cough* Elsevier *cough*), but some publishers would still like to hold on to an outdated publishing model where they can earn obscene profits through ownership of a product to which they contribute little to no value. The more biologists publish preprints — and commit to publishing only in journals that permit prepublication — the more pressure it places on publishers to stop rent-seeking. Basically, it is a really easy way to nudge the world of academic publishing in the direction of justice. Or, you know, if you prefer, you can keep feeding those paywall parasites like the rest of your Vichy scientist colleagues. No judgment here.
  4. Feedback. When you’re desperately worried about getting out publications so that you can get your degree, or get tenure, or whatever, it is easy to forget the real purpose of peer review. In an ideal world, peer review means that experts in your field look closely at your work and help you to make it better. By posting a preprint, you are able to get comments from the entire community — at an early enough stage that those comments might actually help you to improve the paper before it fossilizes.
  5. The Left Side of History. Look, the fact is, this is the direction that everything is moving. And you need to ask yourself, years from now, do you want to be the stodgy, old, out-of-touch professor who doesn’t post preprints, and who has to get their grad students to help set their powerpoint presentation to full-screen mode? Or do you want to be the super-cool hipster prof, who could say things like, “I’ve been posting on bioRxiv since you were in diapers”, but who would never actually say that, because it would make you sound like a total dickhead? At future Thanksgiving dinners, do you want to be your field’s Liz Cheney, or its Mary Cheney?*

* Answer: You want to be your field’s Lon Chaney.

Steve Lonegan on Syrian “Others”

So, as some of you may know, we’ve got a special election happening tomorrow here in New Jersey, pitting Democrat Cory Booker, the current Mayor of Newark, against Republican Steve Lonegan, the former Mayor of Bogota. The race got a lot of headlines in the past few days after Rick Shafan, a (since fired) senior staffer with the Lonegan campaign, said that Booker’s communications with a Portland stripper sounded like “what a gay guy would say.” He went on to explain in stomach-churning detail what he (as a representative of straight guys everywhere) would have said to the same stripper. If you haven’t read about it, check it out.

But back in September, we got a recorded phone call from Lonegan, urging us to come to a rally in Montclair against military intervention in Syria. Now, while I doubt that I agree with Lonegan on just about any other issue, I am glad that we found a way not to get involved in another war (even if it was going to be “just” airstrikes).

The American’s-bombing-people-in-Syria issue, is settled, at least for the moment, but there was something telling in the phrasing of the phone message. Here’s my transcript:

America is on the verge of another war, a war we can not afford. A war where we do not belong. I’m Steve Lonegan, I’m the Republican candidate for the United States Senate. Please join me this evening in Montclair at 12 Church Street for our anti-war rally.
We should not be putting our money, our troops, and our nation in harm’s way in a war in Syria that will result in the death of thousands of Syrian Christians, Jews, and Others.
We simply do not belong there. There is no excuse for this war. None. Please send our message to our elected representatives across this state and across this country: “No . . .”

That’s where our answering machine cut off. I assume the message was something along the lines of “No war!”

The interesting part of the message was “Syrian Christians, Jews, and Others.” Hmmm . . .

Here’s my read on this. I have no evidence to suggest that Steve Lonegan himself has anything against Muslims. He might, but I’m happy to give him the benefit of the doubt here.

However, it does seem clear that he is unwilling to say that he is against killing Muslims.

Here’s how I picture the strategy meeting:

STAFFER 1: Okay, it looks like Obama is going to war against Syria. We’re tying Booker to Obama, so we need to come out against the war.

STAFFER 2: But we have to be careful. Killing Muslims is still polling very strong with our base.

STAFFER 1: I’ve got it! We refer to Syrian Muslims as “Others”.  That way we avoid appearing sympathetic to them, and in fact, contributes literally to the “Othering” of Muslims, sensu De Beauvior.

STAFFER 2: We’ve got a mole!

Sadly, STAFFER 1’s body was never found.