Sunday, January 25, 2015

Political Correctness is not all it's cracked up to be
Political correctness can increase creativity, an NPR story reports.  The study found that when groups first discussed political correctness their brainstorming efforts that followed (compared to a control group that went directly to brainstorming) produced both more ideas and more creative ideas. Groups that were all male or all female did not show more creativity, but mixed groups did.  

The authors conclude that “men might be uncertain about what may be seen as sexist or inappropriate, while women might be uncertain about speaking up at all and if their ideas will be valued.  ‘But in both cases, by reducing this uncertainty, people were much more open—both men and women—to share more ideas,’ Duguid said.”

Michelle Duguid, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, is one of the authors of the study and this is the citation from her web page:

"Creativity from Constraint? How Political Correctness Influences Creativity in Mixed-Sex Work Groups", Administrative Science Quarterly, with J. Goncalo, J. Chatman, J. Kennedy

National Public Radio is a great source for daily news.  Locally, turn to 89.7 or 90.3 on your FM dial for WKSU or WCPN respectively and you will find NPR news programming on either station.  Best way to survive daily commutes, because the best news programming on both stations is during commuting hours in the morning and after work.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Take the Leap
David Brooks, conservative columnist at the New York Times, recently wrote about online dating.  You can see his full text here.  I like Brooks because he strikes me as usually prioritizing being honest and thoughtful over grinding an ax or sneaking in his sides talking points.  I only sometimes agree with him.

A column about online dating struck me as an odd choice.  Turns out there is some interesting research being done by data mining the big data available on these sites.  For instance, as Brooks noted
“It’s better to have a polarizing profile than a bland one. People who generate high levels of disapproval — because they look like goths or bikers or just weird — often also generate higher levels of enthusiasm.
Racial bias is prevalent. When Asian men are looking at Asian women they rate them as 18 percent more attractive than average. But when they are looking at black women, they rate them as 27 percent less attractive. White and Latino men downgrade black women by nearly the same percentage. White, Latino and Asian women have similar preferences.
When people start texting or tweeting to each other, they don’t turn into a bunch of Einsteins. Rudder looked into the most common words and phrases used on Twitter. For men they include: good bro, ps4, my beard, in nba, hoopin and off-season. For women they include: my nails done, mani pedi, retail therapy, and my belly button.”
I am not sure I know what all these terms mean.  I am sure I do not use them and would be embarrassed to hear many of them used among friends.  

Right before I was about to start feeling superior to online daters, Brooks cut me off at the knees and I immediately recall that two friends whom I deeply respect in every way found their partners through an online dating service.
“People who date online are not shallower or vainer than those who don’t. Research suggests they are broadly representative. It’s just that they’re in a specific mental state. They’re shopping for human beings, commodifying people. They have access to very little information that can help them judge if they will fall in love with this person. They pay ridiculous amounts of attention to things like looks, which have little bearing on whether a relationship will work.”
Brooks then reviews briefly research that suggests dating sites do not do a good job of mining their own data to deliver on their promised match making.  Is anyone really surprised that we do not have an algorithm that finds life partners?  

Then Brooks surprised me a bit with the lesson he chose to draw from this research.  He argues that the algorithm is MIA because good relationships are lovingly unpredictable and we succeed here, not through a linear and utilitarian analysis of net worth and cuticle care, but by taking “the enchantment leap.”
“This is when something dry and utilitarian erupts into something passionate, inescapable and devotional. Sometimes a student becomes enraptured by the beauty of math, and becomes a mathematician. Soldiers doing the drudgery of boot camp are gradually bonded into a passionate unit, for which they will risk their lives. Anybody who has started a mere job and found in it a vocation has taken the enchantment leap.
In love, of course, the shift starts with vulnerability, not calculation. The people involved move from selfishness to service, from prudent thinking to poetic thinking, from a state of selection to a state of need, from relying on conscious thinking to relying on their own brilliant emotions.
When you look at all the people looking for love and vocation today, you realize we live in a culture and an online world that encourages a very different mind-set; in a technical culture in which humanism, religion and the humanities, which are the great instructors of enchantment, are not automatically central to life.
I have to guess some cultures are more fertile for enchantment — that some activities, like novel-reading or music-making, cultivate a skill for it, and that building a capacity for enchantment is, these days, a countercultural act and a practical and fervent need.”
Thanks David.  Your column was a great way to start my day today.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Discovering New Worlds Very Close By
Animal Dreams is sitting on the end table next to me on the couch.  Waiting.  Just finished Flight Behavior, and before that Poisonwood Bible right after reading my first Kingsolver novel, Prodigal Summer. 

With a few exceptions, my novel reading started in high school English class and ended with high school graduation.  With an English professor partner I usually do not say that out loud, but this past year has been different.  Stacks of books about politics, requiring more dusting than thinking, have been replaced.

Reading Kingsolver is a welcome, if occasionally disturbing, adventure into worlds outside and within myself.  Part of me thinks, ‘hey, I should try to write similarly accessible and gripping stories where readers learn about how politics really works,’ in place of her teaching us about the natural world.

A larger part of me knows I could never actually pull this off.  But it speaks to how deeply I am loving her work.  I am a teacher and now I am her student as well.  

The stories of those in Zebulon Valley helped me see the complicated relationships between predators and prey that, together, create delicate ecosystems we take for granted as always resilient.  The lessons learned about our missionary and colonial impulses—at home and abroad—in Poisonwood Bible felt like the best political science course I had ever experienced. 

Dellarobia’s struggles, (particularly her exchanges with Ovid and his with the reporter), and Kingsolver’s gentle-yet-powerful description of these, help me see our world in finer shades, where climate change looms as an intimately experienced existential challenge to our species, relationships, and sense of self & community.

But I am not going to try to capture all that I love about these novels, because I lack the skill to articulate, perhaps even to fully identify, all the ways these are sparking my interest and curiosity. 

Just wanted to note that this is yet another way Julie enriches my life…one of a million or more, and to take a moment to appreciate her and these novels, the round house and our Christmas ornaments, date night, the noodle restaurant, Grand Canyon, and Cinque Terra. 

Monday, December 22, 2014

Athletes Speaking Out
When a Hollywood film star or CEO or athlete chooses to speak out on a controversial political or social conflict they always run the risk of being dismissed or even ridiculed for speaking out on something they know little or nothing about.

Sometimes the criticism is well-grounded.  This time it was not and the MSNBC coverage of the story gets my nomination for best covered story of 2014.

Here is a Salon story with a link to the MSNBC interview. Ari Melber, filling in ably for the amazing Chris Hayes, asks the right questions and the right follow ups, with just enough pushing to let the union official steadily reveal, one layer at a time, that his comments were more about thoughtless defensiveness than about an honest discussion of the challenges we face.

Andrew Hawkins, a player for the hapless Cleveland Browns, turns out to be incredibly thoughtful and honest and real.  Why would anyone apologize for calling for justice is a very good question.

Of course, the mass media rarely makes connections across stories (or historical eras).  Today we have stories about American's torturing our enemies abroad and American police killing unarmed citizens at home.  While there are many ways to reject mainstream media failures to make these connections, this story is one worth considering.  Calling for us to step back and 'see' ourselves as we are seen by others, the author notes that for Americans (are we unique here?) 'anything other than a black and white world perplexes us.'

Making connections across news stories is nearly always unsettling for the powerful.

"And as soon as I started thinking about the Senate’s torture report in the context of America’s conduct abroad, many other things seemed immediately of a piece. The string of police murders. The Surveillance State. The license granted corporations and the wealthy to purchase elections. No welfare for the poor but welfare for Wall Street. A minimum wage no one can live on. The bold-faced biases of our highest court—and when the judiciary goes, I learned during my years as a correspondent, all else is either gone already or on the way down."

In the end, I still see and experience an America not captured here, but an America likely to become stronger and more like the nation we aspire to become by engaging with the connections being made here.

He concludes that "a nation guilty of torturing its prisoners, shooting minority children, fortifying its oligarchies and surveilling its population 24/7 and everywhere has nothing to teach the world about democracy, justice, civil rights or the other values we profess but do not any longer live by. We have surrendered the franchise, such as it was ever ours."

Monday, December 15, 2014

Enhanced Policing
Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post has written several powerful columns recently about police violence targeted at young black men.  Below is most my favorite and full text at the link above as well.

“I can’t breathe….  Those were Eric Garner’s last words, and today they apply to me. The decision by a Staten Island grand jury to not indict the police officer who killed him takes my breath away.

In the depressing reality series that should be called “No Country for Black Men,” this sick plot twist was shocking beyond belief. There should have been an indictment in the Ferguson case, in my view, but at least the events that led to Michael Brown’s killing were in dispute. Garner’s homicide was captured on video. We saw him being choked, heard him plead of his distress, watched as no attempt was made to revive him and his life slipped away.

This time, there were literally millions of eyewitnesses. Somebody tell me, just theoretically, how many does it take? Is there any number that would suffice? Or is this whole “equal justice before the law” thing just a cruel joke?

African American men are being taught a lesson about how this society values, or devalues, our lives. I’ve always said the notion that racism is a thing of the past was absurd — and that those who espoused the “post-racial” myth were either naive or disingenuous. Now, tragically, you see why.

Garner, 43, was an African American man. On July 17, he allegedly committed the heinous crime of selling individual cigarettes on the street. A group of New York City police officers approached and surrounded him. As seen in cellphone video footage recorded by an onlooker, Garner was puzzled that the officers seemed to be taking him into custody for such a piddling offense. He was a big man, but at no point did he strike out at the officers or show them disrespect….

The coroner ruled Garner’s death a homicide….

There are two big issues here. One involves the excessive license we now give to police — permission, essentially, to do whatever they must to guarantee safe streets. The pendulum has clearly swung too far in the law-and-order direction, at the expense of liberty and justice.

As I wrote Tuesday, we are so inured to fatal shootings by police officers that we do not even make a serious effort to count them; the Brown case illustrated this numbness to the use of deadly force. Garner’s death is part of a different trend: The “broken windows” theory of policing, which holds that cracking down on minor, nuisance offenses — such as selling loose cigarettes — is key to reducing serious crime.

Police officers, whose brave work I honor and respect, are supposed to serve communities, not rule them.

The other big issue, inescapably, is race. The greatest injury of the Brown and Garner cases is that grand juries examined the evidence and decided there was no probable cause — a very low standard — to believe the officers did anything wrong. I find it impossible to believe this would be the result if the victims were white.

Garner didn’t even fit into the “young black male” category that defines this nation’s most feared and loathed citizens. He was an overweight, middle-age, asthmatic man. Now we’re told that the man who killed him did nothing wrong.

Eric Garner was engaged in an activity that warranted no more than a warning to move along. But I recognize that he also committed a capital offense: He was the wrong color.”

Friday, December 12, 2014

Seize the Eric Garner Moment
Is George Will offering to meet us half way?  When conservative commentators, like George Will and Glenn Beck and others, express outrage at the failure to indict the officer who choked Eric Garner to death we need to pause and take stock:  this could be a time to try to get something done.  This particular conflict might be presenting an opportunity to lead.

Washington Post columnist George Will argues that Eric Garner’s death is an ‘affront’ to our national ‘sense of decency.’  He calls the grand jury’s failure to indict the officer ‘inexplicable and probably inexcusable.’  On this point, perhaps, there appears to be widespread agreement across the country.  

Will points his finger at our criminal justice system as the source of the problem. Again, a surprisingly candid and non-ideological position for a conservative to stake out, suggesting the possibility of common ground.  And Will goes one step further on his journey to meet opponents half way:  a criminal justice system hooked on mass incarceration that is more about politics than crime control is what best accounts for Eric Garner’s death.  In his own words…
“He [Eric Garner] lived and died in a country with 5 percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of its prisoners. In 2012, one of every 108 adults was behind bars, many in federal prisons containing about 40 percent more inmates than they were designed to hold. 

Most of today’s 2.2 million prisoners will be coming back to their neighborhoods and few of them will have been improved by the experience of incarceration. This will be true even if they did not experience the often deranging use of prolonged solitary confinement, which violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishments” and is, to put things plainly, torture. 

The scandal of mass incarceration is partly produced by the frivolity of the political class, which uses the multiplication of criminal offenses as a form of moral exhibitionism. This, like Eric Garner’s death, is a pebble in the mountain of evidence that American government is increasingly characterized by an ugly and sometimes lethal irresponsibility.”

Well said, Mr. Will.  But here is where Will begins to go off the rail.  While rightfully pointing to the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration he then uses this as just bait so he can then switch to a focus on the need to reduce government regulation.  Here is how he does it.  He claims addressing mass incarceration requires us to “reach beyond matters of crime and punishment, to basic truths about governance.”  

And from here, it is smooth sailing for him to ignore the policy choices driving mass incarceration—zero tolerance policing in particular—to redirect our attention to taxes.  He claims to be analyzing ‘overcriminalization,’ but he does so by ignoring the types of minor, non-violent, offenses that have long been the bread and butter of our failed War on Drugs, choosing instead to focus on a New York State law criminalizing the sale of single cigarettes.

We know why he does this, of course.  First, like Rand Paul he is always eager to find a soapbox for his anti-government-regulation gospel. Second, he wants to use the Garner killing to advance his attacks on regulation, while also protecting his much-loved zero tolerance approach to policing.  And he does both by providing a folksy metaphor that, upon examination, does not fit—by design.

Will suggests we can help future Eric Garners by rolling back the government regulatory over-reach exemplified by the cigarette tax and preserving his cherished ‘broken windows’ metaphor as a guide for police work. Unfortunately, the folksy metaphor about the importance of tending to broken windows or street lighting is at odds with the police practice that occurs under its banner—by design.

Will and his allies consistently oppose policy and spending that would fix actual broken windows, street lights, or other signs of urban blight and decay.  Instead, he supports policy and spending priorities that move these funds into policing—and there are no police officers I am aware of who are paid to repair the physical deterioration in inner city neighborhoods.  Instead, they ‘tend’ to metaphorical broken windows by arresting (or, in the case of Eric Garner, killing) people in the neighborhood.  In his own words…

“Garner died at the dangerous intersection of something wise, known as “broken windows” policing, and something worse than foolish: decades of overcriminalization. The policing applies the wisdom that when signs of disorder, such as broken windows, proliferate and persist, there is a general diminution of restraint and good comportment. So, because minor infractions are, cumulatively, not minor, police should not be lackadaisical about offenses such as jumping over subway turnstiles. 

Overcriminalization has become a national plague. And when more and more behaviors are criminalized, there are more and more occasions for police, who embody the state’s monopoly on legitimate violence, and who fully participate in humanity’s flaws, to make mistakes.”

Will is correct to note that overcriminalization has long been a national plague.  But not because we over-regulate cigarette sales.  Overcriminalization and the mass incarceration that results from it, as Will points out, is rooted in the criminalization (and aggressive zero tolerance policing) of the minor infractions Will insists we must continue to criminalize.  Our prisons are bursting at the seams with the non-violent drug offenders caught in this broken metaphor for police work, not with those arrested for selling cigarettes. 

On a related point, Will reminds us that we ignore the plight of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and others at our own risk.  He tells us that “Professor Douglas Husak of Rutgers University says that approximately 70 percent of American adults have, usually unwittingly, committed a crime for which they could be imprisoned.”  Since it is very common to be reminded by conservatives like Will that ignorance of the law is no excuse, 70% of us could easily have been in Eric Garner’s shoes, if criminality was the driving force behind zero tolerance policing.

So, George Will might want to meet us half way, but his understanding of half way is strategically designed to be a trap.  We should applaud his recognition of the national plague that is mass incarceration due to overcriminalization.  But we should insist on an actual response, rather than his metaphorical suggestion, that focuses on not criminalizing those minor infractions our police aggressively enforce under the banner of broken windows policing.  And combine this with an effort to provide funding for policy designed to fix the actual broken windows of urban blight.