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Let Kids Play!

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A fascinating if somewhat ambivalent article by Melanie Thernstrom in the NY Times on the importance of allowing children to play without constant adult supervision.

t was a Friday afternoon at Mike Lanza’s house in Menlo Park, Calif., and the boys were going crazy. There were boys playing ball in the street, while in the backyard, boys were skittering along the top of the fence while others were wrestling on the trampoline. The house itself is nothing special — a boxy contemporary, haphazardly furnished — but even by the elevated standards of Silicon Valley, the Lanzas’ play space is extraordinary. It boasts a map of the neighborhood painted on the driveway, a fabulous 24-foot-long play river — an installation art piece, designed for children’s museums — and a two-story log-cabin playhouse with a sleeping loft, whiteboard walls inside for coloring and really good speakers, blasting Talking Heads.

Leo Lanza, who was 5 at the time, was taunting my kids, claiming they were too scared to climb 12 feet to the playhouse roof, using the toe holds, and then leap onto the trampoline, which has no surrounding netting. My daughter, Violet, the only girl there, continued to decorate the playhouse walls with a purple marker. “I don’t care if you get hurt,” she responded airily. Her twin brother, Kieran, scrunched up his round face, turning pink. “That’s not true!” he wailed. “I am not scared.”

My kids were in a prekindergarten program with Leo, the youngest of the three Lanza boys. I had heard a lot about Mike’s house, a few miles from our own, but that Friday-afternoon pizza party, a year and a half ago, was the first time I had gone there.

Through the glass doors of the kitchen, I could see Mike opening a bottle of wine for some guests. Mike is a well-known, if polarizing, figure in our community. An entrepreneur in his early 50s, he has a boyish grin, large hazel eyes and curly salt-and-pepper hair, and wears jeans and sneakers, like all the other middle-aged tech guys. After acquiring three Stanford degrees (a B.A., an M.B.A. and a master’s in education) and selling a handful of modestly successful start-ups, Mike decided to focus on his ideas about parenting. He began writing a blog and giving talks and eventually self-published a book entitled “Playborhood,” a phrase he coined to describe the environment he wanted for his kids. (He kept a hand in the tech world as well — an app he created, a map-based photo-sharing service called Streetography, is being released next week.)

Mike is a deep believer in the idea that “kids have to find their own balance of power.” He wants his boys to create their own society governed by its own rules. He consciously transformed his family’s house into a kid hangout, spreading the word that local children were welcome to play in the yard anytime, even when the family wasn’t home. Discontented with the expensive, highly structured summer camps typical of the area, Mike started one of his own: Camp Yale, named after his street, where the kids make their own games and get to roam the neighborhood.

“Think about your own 10 best memories of childhood, and chances are most of them involve free play outdoors,” Mike is fond of saying. “How many of them took place with a grown-up around? I remember that when the grown-ups came over, we stopped playing and waited for them to go away. But moms nowadays never go away.”

In Mike’s worldview, boys today (his focus is on boys) are being deprived of masculine experiences by overprotective moms, who are allowed to dominate passive dads. Central to Mike’s philosophy is the importance of physical danger: of encouraging boys to take risks and play rough and tumble and get — or inflict — a scrape or two. Central to what he calls mom philosophy (which could just be described as contemporary parenting philosophy) is just the opposite: to play safe, play nice and not hurt other kids or yourself. Most moms are not inclined to leave their children’s safety up to chance. I certainly am not.

Mike had invited me to drop the kids off — not to hover. But I could see Leo brandishing a long rubber tube, as if he were about to whack my son, who looked worried. Beneath the pleasantries, it was clear that Mike thought I was putting my son at risk of turning into what used to be called a sissy — a concept whose demise he regrets. And I was of the opinion that Mike was putting his son at risk of being a bully, a label Mike thinks is now used to pathologize normal, healthy, boyish aggression.

Mike came out to the yard, his wineglass in one hand and a piece of cheese in another. His wife, Perla Ni, a lawyer who directs a nonprofit, was working late. Where Mike has a loud, large and boisterous presence (a neighbor once compared him to a Labrador retriever, happily trampling everyone’s shrubbery), Perla is quiet, petite, deliberate and self-contained. The only child of Chinese immigrants, she wants her sons to have considerably more fun than she had.

“Uh, can you keep an eye on them?” I asked Mike, reluctantly gathering my stuff to leave. “The society of 5-year-olds is fragile and may fall into savagery!”

“Yeah, yeah,” he replied affably. “I’m a believer in that Rousseau theory — what’s it called?”

“Something about a Noble Savage?” I said. “I’m more a believer in the truth of ‘Lord of the Flies.’ ” My smile was thin and conveyed, For the love of God, can you please put your drink down and watch the kids?

His smile told me he wanted me to leave already.

In 2006, when their oldest son, Marco, was 2, Mike and Perla began what proved to be a two-year house search in Menlo Park and neighboring Palo Alto. They were yearning for the kind of classic neighborhood that Mike recalled from his childhood on the East Coast in Scott Township, a suburb of Pittsburgh. They were living in San Francisco, but they wanted to move out of the city to a playborhood — a version of American kid life featured in shows like “The Little Rascals” and “Leave It to Beaver,” in which kids build forts and ride bikes outside, unsupervised — free, skirting danger, but ultimately always lucky. (The oddness of needing a neologism for what so recently would simply have been considered a “neighborhood” only reinforces his point.) Mike drove around deserted street after street: The kids were off at Lego robotics classes, Kumon learning centers or diving practice or squirreled away with their screens.

Despite having achieved a higher socioeconomic status for his family than he had as a kid, Mike felt his sons were at risk of having a worse childhood. Growing up in a middle-class Italian-American family in the 1960s and ’70s, Mike rated school as boring-to-O.K., whereas after-school play time with the gang was awesome.

Like many places, Silicon Valley is sports-crazy, with kids participating in year-round travel clubs and working with private coaches. But Mike feels that organized team sports fail to teach the critical life skills that he and his friends learned in pickup games they had to referee themselves. They were forced to resolve their own disputes, because if they didn’t, the game would end. Their focus was not on winning and losing, as when adults are in charge, he says, but simply on keeping the game going.

Mike recalls how his gang was often short of a quorum for games. There were two other boys their age, but one was deaf and the other, he says, was “whatever the P.C. way to describe what used to be called ‘mentally retarded.’ ” Since they didn’t want to “stoop all the way to girls,” he says, giving me a smile, they found ways to change the rules to accommodate the two boys with special needs in their game — “not because a grown-up forced” them to be inclusive, Mike says, but because they were motivated to be. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

20 October 2016 at 2:21 pm

The far right is more something than I ever imagined: Watch this video.

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The video is in this post at When you watch the video you will see that finding a compromise that meets the interests of various factions is going to be challenging. It also makes one question the efficacy (and perhaps also the goals) of American education. It’s true that Texas specifically prohibits the teaching of critical thinking skills. Without such skills, …  well, watch the video. And reflect that those without critical thinking skills don’t have the tools to deal with what you see: they are defenseless and unprepared.

In Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift has a wicked political satire in the voyage to Lilliput, but the satire is also thoughtful as well as pointed. There were two great disagreements. One was whether heels should be high, or low. Both sides, the Low and the High, defended their positions fiercely, but compromise was possible: heels come in all heights, and you find a height that’s low enough to placate the Lows and high enough to shut up the Highs, a height between the extremes.

Unfortunately, the other great disagreement was not so adapted to compromise. This was the disagreement between the Big-Endians, who thought you cracked a hard-boiled egg on the large end, and the Small-Endians, who maintained that the egg is cracked on the small end. (I’m a Big-Endian myself.)

That disagreement, like the actual disagreement in the US on abortion, doesn’t lend itself to compromise. Some say issues that do not lend themselves to compromise have no place in politics because politics consists of working to find the most satisfying (or least unsatisfying) compromise. (In this connection, I highly recommend Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Ury. Inexpensive secondhand copies abound.)

Written by LeisureGuy

12 October 2016 at 3:22 pm

Is Donald Trump suffering from Alzheimer’s, which afflicted his father?

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It would be good if Donald Trump would submit to an actual medical exam, instead of trying to get by using a fake report. Sophia McClennan wrote in Salon in April 2015:

The Donald Trump gaffe track keeps playing. The GOP frontrunner seems to literally spew out a doozy almost daily.  Campaigning in Pittsburgh, he recently blathered, “How’s Joe Paterno? We gonna bring that back? Right? How about that—how about that whole deal?”  While his campaign suggested he was referring to the former Penn State football coach’s statue, it was hard to shake the sense that Trump was unaware that Paterno died in 2012 and that Pittsburgh has no direct tie to the sports program at Penn State, which is located three hours east.

Then there was the time that Sean Hannity asked Trump which government agencies Trump would shut down, “The Department of Environmental,” Trump replied.  That exact sort of gaffe killed Rick Perry’s entire campaign, but despite some biting Stephen Colbert mockery, the mistake hasn’t seemed to hurt Trump at all. He won New York despite suggesting September 11 happened on 7/11.

But here’s the thing, the Trump campaign seems to be filled with more than just gaffes.  Channeling his inner Sarah Palin, Trump’s rants often seem to lose any connection with reality at all.  Take the example of Trump’s interview with the Washington Post editorial board in March. During that exchange one of the editors asked Trump if he would consider using a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS.

Check out Trump’s reply:

TRUMP: I don’t want to use, I don’t want to start the process of nuclear. Remember the one thing that everybody has said, I’m a counterpuncher. Rubio hit me. Bush hit me. When I said low energy, he’s a low-energy individual, he hit me first. I spent, by the way, he spent 18 million dollars’ worth of negative ads on me. That’s putting [MUFFLED]…

RYAN: This is about ISIS. You would not use a tactical nuclear weapon against ISIS?

TRUMP: I’ll tell you one thing, this is a very good-looking group of people here.  Could I just go around so I know who the hell I’m talking to?

We have become so accustomed to these sorts of ramblings that we don’t really register them as anything more than standard nonsensical Trump-speak—a pattern of speech we have seen crop up across the GOP in recent years, most notably in Palin’s gibberish.  But I urge you to re-read the exchange above and register the range of nonsense—the lack of basic grammar, the odd syntax, the abrupt shift in topic, the disconnect from reality, the paranoia, and the seeming inability to even grasp the question.

As we scratch our heads and wonder how someone who says and does such things can still be a frontrunner, I want to throw out a concern. What if Trump isn’t “crazy” but is actually not well instead? To put it differently: what if his campaign isn’t a sign of a savvy politician channeling Tea Party political rhetoric and reality TV sound bites? What if it’s an example of someone who doesn’t have full command of his faculties?

We’ve watched both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton come under fire for potentially being unfit medically to run, but have we wondered enough about Trump? There is far more media coverage about Clinton’s health at 68 than Trump’s at 69.

There could be a good reason why. At times it can be very hard to distinguish between extreme right-wing politics and symptoms of dementia. The Alzheimer’s Association tells us that if two of the following core mental functions seem impaired then it is time to seek medical help: Memory, communication and language, ability to focus and pay attention, reasoning and judgment, visual perception.  Alzheimer’s carries other symptoms besides memory loss including difficulty remembering newly learned information, disorientation, mood and behavior changes; deepening confusion about events, time and place; unfounded suspicions about family, friends and professional caregivers; more serious memory loss and behavior changes.

Scholars of the recent trends in GOP politics point to some of the very same tendencies happening across the extreme right-wing faction of the party. (See thisand this for example.)

Much to the chagrin of the reasonable conservatives who wonder what has happened to their party, it is now often difficult to distinguish Republican rhetoric from the ravings of someone suffering from diminished mental capacity.

The first time I wondered at something being not quite right with Trump’s brain was during the first debate in August 2015 when Trump said “We need brain in this country to turn it around.” Even my 10-year-old son noted that Trump had suggested we need intelligence in government in a really stupid way.  But it was more than stupid; it was ungrammatical.  It wasn’t simply a basic use of language; it lacked the grammar structure that even a third grader has readily available.  And for all of the ease with which we Trump bash, it’s worth remembering that he did, in fact, graduate from Wharton as an undergraduate in economics. He might have been full of bluster back then, but I’m guessing he still could speak in a complete sentence.

The next real warning sign was . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

5 October 2016 at 9:17 am

An extremely weird thing for Trump to say—sounds like projection to me

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From Amy Davidson’s excellent column in the New Yorker:

In his first ten minutes in the Manheim rally, he appealed directly to Bernie Sanders voters. But he couldn’t help but call him “Crazy Bernie,” and inform the audience that “we have much bigger crowds” than Sanders had.

In fact, in Manheim, Trump suggested that there was something insane about any scenario in which a person like Hillary Clinton thought that she had the right to seek a high political office. “Now, she’s got bad temperament. She’s got—she could be crazy. She could actually be crazy,” Trump said. He added, “We need somebody who is strong. We need somebody that knows what they’re doing.”

First, he attempts to woo those who supported Bernie Sanders, many of whom, like myself, have great respect for Sanders’s efforts to return government to its mission: promoting the general welfare rather than rolling over for the 0.1%. And the way he chooses to convince Sanders supporters to join the Trump campaign is to tell them Bernie is crazy. I think this is purely and simply and obviously stupid, but it’s a special kind of stupidity: it’s the stupidity exhibited by a person who does not understand the first thing about human personal relationships, and it’s also (along with the later comment) something said by someone who has “being crazy” on his mind.

He obviously is thinking about the possibility that someone is crazy, so it’s very accessible in his mind as he talks, and I imagine he’s thinking about it for a very good reason: his words and actions are being reflected back to him by the media, and over time I think it must become evident even to him how very, very far out of his depth and out of his league he is. Obviously, this is not something a narcissist would admit, but at this point it must be getting hard to ignore the signs that he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about of what he should do, either in his campaign or should he become president: it’s a tiger on whose tail he maintains a weakening grip. His self-deception seems to move further and further into fantasy, with the deceptions obvious to others and harder to accept even for him.

And then think about his demand that “We need somebody that knows what they’re doing.” I think that reveals another thought that is on his mind: he doesn’t know what he’s doing, and that is revealed over and over in his misstatements, vacuous foreign policy utterances, and so on.

I think what we see in his statements is pretty clearly projection. And look at this paragraph, which follow the above quotation:

And, again, his picture of her corruption was made stranger by his presumption of her lack of real agency or original ideas: “Hillary Clinton is merely a vessel for those global special interests trying to strip our country of its wealth, its jobs, its status”—he emphasized that word—“as a sovereign nation.” Beyond the gender implications, the vesseling of Clinton has the effect of making the conspiracy she is supposedly part of sound all the more insidious and far-reaching. After all, the explanation for her wanting to be President couldn’t simply be that she has policy goals of her own. (Trump, at another point in the speech, said of Clinton, “She’s never done anything meaningful.”) In this scenario, there must be something else going on, something involving money and men who were out of sight—foreigners, too.

Emphasis added, and again that’s pretty clearly projection. The high point of his career in real estate turned out to be his ability to make a creditable claim to have lost close to $1 billion dollars in his personal income in one year. He recovered from that debacle by licensing his name to be put on just about anything (from steaks to wine to education-for-profit scams) and also by being a reality show host. You can see where it might occur to him to think about whether one’s life has been meaningful or not. I think narcissism must get its power from severe personal anxiety and negative esteem. That is, in Donald Trump’s ceaseless self-praise, he doth protest too much, don’t you think? Perhaps he continually harps on how very great he is because on some level he knows that if he didn’t say it, no one would realize it.

I’m reminded of Daniel Goleman’s Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception. (Link is to inexpensive secondhand copies.) In the preface he provides an account of a young woman who is deceiving herself and the transparency (to others) of those deceptions. Like deceiving yourself that you’re a foreign policy expert and military strategist, or that you warned before the Iraq invasion that the war was a mistake and would destabilize the Mideast. Probably those work as self-deceptions, but transparent to those who won’t go along.

Written by LeisureGuy

3 October 2016 at 5:25 pm

Teh stupid in Congress, explained in Vox

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Jennifer Williams reports in Vox:

The Senate on Wednesday voted 97-1 to override President Obama’s veto of a controversial bill, known as the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA), that would allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue the government of Saudi Arabia for its alleged financial support of al-Qaeda.

And then things got weird.

Almost immediately after the vote, 28 senators who had just voted for the bill sent a letter to the bill’s Senate sponsors, Republican John Cornyn of Texas and Democrat Charles Schumer of New York, saying they were concerned about the “potential unintended consequences that may result from this legislation for the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

The Obama administration has long argued that the bill could end up putting the United States at risk of being similarly prosecuted in foreign courts by undermining a long-standing tradition in foreign relations known as “sovereign immunity.” They made this argument when the bill was first up for a vote back in May and promised to veto it if it passed. Then, when it did pass, Obama vetoed it, citing once again his argument for why he thought the bill was a bad idea.

When Congress announced it would hold a vote to override the veto, Obama wrote a letterto Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, yet again making the case against the bill. But Congress voted to override the veto anyway — the first time they’d ever done so in Obama’s entire presidency.

It was only after that final vote on Wednesday to override the veto that Congress apparently figured out that — uh oh! — there might be some negative consequences to the bill they had just voted into law.

Their excuse for why they’d passed this potentially harmful bill? The Obama administration never told them it was a bad idea.

“Nobody really had focused on the potential downside in terms of our international relationships,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-KY, said. “I think it was just a ball dropped.”

Never mind the fact that the Obama administration most definitely did explain, again and again, why they thought the bill was a bad idea, the fact is that it’s Congress’s job to understand the potential impact of any legislation they pass.

As White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest aptly put it, “what’s true in elementary school is true in the United States Congress, ignorance is not an excuse, particularly when it comes to our national security and the safety and security of our diplomats and our service members.”

Regardless, Congress still seems a little confused about all of this. Luckily, we have an explainer that should clear everything up for them — and you. Here, then, is the Obama administration’s case against the JASTA bill, and why top national security experts think he’s right. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

30 September 2016 at 3:17 pm

Posted in Congress, Law, Mental Health

More on the contemptible response of the FBI, Department of Justice, and prosecutors to unwelcome facts

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Those who dedicate their lives and careers to winning convictions are not interested in anything, valid or not, that makes winning a conviction the least bit more difficult. It seems that the majority of the FBI, prosecutors, and DoJ do not really care whether the evidence they use is accurate or not: their sole focus is on winning convictions, and to hell with evidence.

Our criminal justice system has just put on public display the degree of its corruption, and it’s an ugly sight. Daniel Denvir writes in Salon:

Under fire yet again, law enforcement is fighting back. Facing heavy criticism for misconduct and abuse, prosecutors are protesting a new report from President Obama’s top scientific advisors that documents what has long been clear: much of the forensic evidence used to win convictions, including complex DNA samples and bite mark analysis, is not backed up by credible scientific research.

Although the evidence of this is clear, many in law enforcement seem terrified that keeping pseudoscience out of prosecutions will make them unwinnable. Attorney General Loretta Lynch declined to accept the report’s recommendations on the admissibility of evidence and the FBI accused the advisors of making “broad, unsupported assertions.” But the National District Attorneys Association, which represents roughly 2,5000 top prosecutors nationwide, went the furthest, taking it upon itself to, in its own words, “slam” the report.

Prosecutors’ actual problem with the report, produced by some of the nation’s leading scientists on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology, seems to be unrelated to science. Reached by phone NDAA president-elect Michael O. Freeman could not point to any specific problem with the research and accused the scientists of having an agenda against law enforcement.

“I’m a prosecutor and not a scientist,” Freeman, the County Attorney in Hennepin County, Minnesota, which encompasses Minneapolis, told Salon. “We think that there’s particular bias that exists in the folks who worked on this, and they were being highly critical of the forensic disciplines that we use in investigating and prosecuting cases.”

That response, devoid of any reference to hard science, has prompted some mockery, including from Robert Smith, Senior Research Fellow and Director of the Fair Punishment Project at Harvard Law School, who accused the NDAA of “fighting to turn America’s prosecutors into the Anti-Vaxxers, the Phrenologists, the Earth-Is-Flat Evangelists of the criminal justice world.”

It has also, however, also lent credence to a longstanding criticism that American prosecutors are more concerned with winning than in establishing a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

“Prosecutors should not be concerned principally with convictions; they should be concerned with justice,” said Daniel S. Medwed, author of “Prosecution Complex: America’s Race to Convict and Its Impact on the Innocent” and a professor at Northern University School of Law, told Salon. “Using dodgy science to obtain convictions does not advance justice.”

In its press release, the NDAA charged that the scientists, led by Human Genome Project leader Eric Lander, lack necessary “qualifications” and relied “on unreliable and discredited research.” Freeman, asked whether it the NDAA was attempting to discredit scientific research without having scientists evaluate that research, demurred.

“I appreciate your question and I can’t respond to that,” he said.

Similarly, Freedman was unable to specify any particular reason that a member of the council might be biased against prosecutors.

“We think that this group of so-called experts had an agenda,” he said, “which was to discredit a lot of the science…used by prosecutors.”

The report, “Science in Criminal Courts: Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature-Comparison Methods,” was the result of a comprehensive review or more than 2,000 papers and produced in consultation with a bevvy of boldfaced names from the legal community. It found that there is no solid scientific basis to support the analyses of bite marks, firearms, biological samples containing the DNA of multiple individuals and footwear. The report also found that the certainty of latent fingerprint analysis is often overstated, and it criticized proposed Justice Department guidelines defending the validity of hair analysis as being grounded in “studies that do not establish [its] foundational validity and reliability.”

The new report is comprehensive but hardly the first time that scientific research has cast doubt on the reliability of evidence used in trials — everything from eyewitness identification to arson investigations. The report cites a 2002 FBI reexamination of their own scientists’ microscopic hair comparisons and found that DNA testing showed 11 percent of the samples that had been found to match in reality came from different people. A 2004 National Research Council report cited found there was an insufficient basis upon which to draw “a definitive connection between two bullets based on compositional similarity of the lead they contain.”

One of the most important developments in recent decades has been DNA science, which has not only proven that defendants have been wrongfully convicted but also raised questions about the forensic evidence used to win those convictions.

In the Washington Post, University of Virginia law professor Brandon L. Garrettdescribes the case of Keith Harward, who was exonerated on April 8 for a Newport News, Virginia rape and murder that DNA evidence later showed someone else committed. His conviction, for which he spent 33 years behind bars, hinged on the false testimony of two purported experts who stated that his teeth matched bite marks on the victim’s body.

“Of the first 330 people exonerated by DNA testing, 71 percent, or 235 cases, involved forensic analysis or testimony,” Garrett writes. “DNA set these people free, but at the time of their convictions, the bulk of the forensics was flawed.”

In an interview, Garrett called the NDAA response “juvenile.”

“The response seems to be you say that certain forensic sciences are unscientific, well you’re unscientific,” said Garrett. “To call a group of the leading scientists in the world unscientific, it’s just embarrassing….I really doubt that they speak for most prosecutors.”

Many cases, the report found, have “relied in part on faulty expert testimony from forensic scientists who had told juries incorrectly that similar features in a pair of samples taken from a suspect and from a crime scene (hair, bullets, bitemarks, tire or shoe treads, or other items) implicated defendants in a crime with a high degree of certainty.”

Expert witnesses have often overstated the certainty of their findings, declaring that they were 100-percent certain when in fact 100-percent certainty is scientifically impossible.

Forensic science has largely been developed within law enforcement and not by independent scientists, said Medwed. In the case of bite mark analysis, the report concludes that the method is basically worthless. But by and large, the report calls not for the science to be thrown out forever but to be improved so that it is in fact reliable.

“The NDAA response strikes me as a bit defensive to say the least and puzzling because my hope is that in looking at this report the reaction of prosecutors would be, how do we improve the system,” said Medwed. “Even if they believe that some of these disciplines are legitimate, how do we further test them, and refine them so they can be better?”

The NDAA, however, not only dismisses the scientific research in question but asserts that scientific expertise has no role to play in determining what kind of evidence judges decide to admit into court. . .

Continue reading.

Ignorance is bad, stupidity is worse, and combination is deadly. It’s a bad sign that so many in law enforcement and among prosecutors seem to embrace ignorance with enthusiasm.

Written by LeisureGuy

23 September 2016 at 1:57 pm

“A hundred walked out of my lecture”

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Dr. Susan Blackmore describes the academic spirit nowadays, which lacks the spirit of inquiry:

I’m still shaken by yesterday’s lecture and its aftermath. Oxford in the 21st century was, I’d fondly assumed, the epitome of somewhere I could speak freely and fully, and expect people to listen and then argue and disagree if they wished to. Apparently not.

I was invited to give a lecture on memes by the “Oxford Royale Academy”, an institution that has nothing to do with the University of Oxford but hosts groups of several hundred 17-18 year-olds for two weeks of classes and, I guess, some kind of simulation of an ‘Oxford experience’. I was told they were of 45 nationalities and I assumed many different religions. So I prepared my lecture carefully. I tried it out the day before on my husband’s grandson, a bright mixed-race 16 year-old from Paris, and added pictures of the latest craze for ‘Fatkini posts’ and more videos, including my favourite Gangnam Style parody (Python style), but I wasn’t going to avoid the topic of religious memes – religions are an example, par excellence, of memeplexes that use wicked tricks to ensure their own survival. I simply made sure that my slides included many religions and didn’t single one out.

Looking back I should have seen trouble coming early on. I began with a pile of stuffed animals on the desk that I use to illustrate natural selection. Many laughed at my ‘dangerous predator’ eating them but at the word ‘evolution’ a young man in the second row began swaying side to side and vigorously shaking his head. I persevered, trying to put over the idea that evolution is inevitable – if you have information that is copied with variation and selection then you must get (as Dan Dennett p50 puts it) ‘Design out of chaos without the aid of mind’. It is this inevitability that I find so delightful – the evolutionary algorithm just must produce design, and once you understand that you have no need to believe or not believe in evolution. You see how it works. So I persevered.

Introducing memes, I asked for volunteers to come up on the stage and invent a new meme. This same young man, called Moritz, was up in a flash, followed by four others. I asked him, at the word ‘go’, to make some simple movements and sounds. ‘One, two, three, Go,’ I said, and he waved one hand around in a circle, chanting ‘In the beginning was the word, and the word ….’. The others then imitated him and that was fun. Three obediently began reciting from the Bible but the fourth threw both arms in the air and declared ‘There’s a big old man in the sky’ and raised a huge laugh and cheer from (some of) the audience. This seemed an opportunity not to be missed so I asked the whole audience, at the word ‘go’, to imitate either of these two new memes, whereupon a great cry burst out of, ‘In the beg…’, ‘There’s an old man …’. Great, I said, we’ve now got two memes, you have just seen meme creation and selection at work.

Then I arrived at religion. I pointed out that religions demand lots of resources (I showed them pictures of a church, a Hindu temple, a Jewish menorah and Muslim pilgrims on Hajj); they pose threats to health (I showed people ‘purifying their souls’ by wading in the stinking germ-laden Ganges) and make people do strange things (I showed rows of Muslims bent over with their heads on the floor). I hadn’t gone far with this before five or six young men got up and began to walk out. They had a good distance to go across the large hall, so I said ‘Excuse me, would you mind telling me why you are leaving?’ There was a long silence until one said, ‘You are offending us. We will not listen,’ and they left. Soon after that another bunch left, and then another.

I explained the idea of religions as memeplexes: they package up a set of doctrines, tell believers to learn them, to pass them on, to have faith and not doubt, and they ensure obedience with fearsome threats and ridiculous promises. This I illustrated with images of Christian heaven and hell. Then I read from the Koran “those that have faith and do good works, Allah will admit them to gardens watered by running streams … pearls and bracelets of gold.” “Garments of fire have been prepared for the unbelievers. They shall be lashed with rods of iron.” More walked out. By the time I arrived at a slide calling religions (Richard’s fault!) ‘Viruses of the mind’, the lecture hall was looking rather empty.

The cartoon was worse. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

14 September 2016 at 6:47 pm

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