Friday, August 31, 2007

Bias or Self-Centered

This story reports on a recent study in Harvard’s Du Bois Review that concludes, “White Americans suffer from a glaring ignorance about what it means to live as a black American.” However, I’m not so sure about the conclusions.

One question dealt with reparations and the article reports:

The researchers asked participants to imagine that their great, great grandfather, a wealthy shipping magnate, had been kidnapped about 150 years ago. The kidnappers demanded and received a large ransom that bankrupted the shipping magnate. That ransom was used to start a successful company that still survives today and is worth $100 million. Participants were asked whether they would be willing to be a part of a large suit against the present-day company that could net them each about $5,000.

In this scenario, 61 percent agreed to have their names listed on the lawsuit. The researchers noted that this is about the percentage of blacks today who support reparations for slave descendants.

“When white Americans find it within themselves to say ‘I must be compensated for a past injustice done to me’ but the same logic evaporates when the injustice concerns black Americans, they are staring straight at bias,” Banaji said.

I’m not so sure about this. I’m sure some people underestimate the effect of slavery on Black Americans, but I think the results can also largely be explained by the fact people are selfish. You’re offering them a hypothetical $5,000 as a result of a past injustice (which also directly led to the formation of a multi-million dollar company – while slavery led to similar wealth for Whites at the expense of Blacks, the direct connections are never so clear), so it makes sense most of them will take it. Now, you’re concluding they’re hypocritical when they oppose paying money to others for something that their ancestors did?

Most people view reparations as a direct tax or lump-sum payment to Blacks from Whites or at least from tax money, most of which will have come from whites. Not as a lawsuit against one specific company which was conclusively formed from the profits of an incident highly comparable to slavery. I don’t see how you can conclude Whites are hypocritical based on this. How many Blacks support reparations for Native Americans? This survey result is pretty easily explainable through natural human selfishness, which transcends races.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Survey Says…

Here’s a fun little survey that measures how you feel about 25 of the most important issues in the upcoming American political election and how you prioritize them and then matches it up with political candidates. It’s obviously not an exact science, but it seems like it does a pretty decent job for a simple toy, as it allows you to disregard issues you don’t care about or feel are unimportant to the election and also assigns significant weight to your “key” issues. I wouldn’t encourage that this take the place of reading about the candidates’ positions and deciding who best matches your thoughts before voting (or stating repeatedly who you would vote for in the case of Canadians), but it can certainly help you contextualize your vote, think differently about certain candidates or even narrow down on the few issues that seem to separate the politicians with whom you have the most agreement.

So now the question I’m sure you’re all dying to know the answer to. Which candidate should I vote for according to this poll?

Actually, it’s the same candidate that over 57% of the over 128,862 respondents should vote for. For those who know my politics, even roughly, it’s probably no surprise that the candidate I matched up the best with was Dennis Kucinich.

“Wait a minute. I thought you said that over 57% of the respondents matched up the best with you winner,” is what you’re probably thinking right now. And yes, that’s true.

As the poll’s results page says:

You would probably be interested to know that Kucinich has been the first choice of 74840 people (out of 129444). That wasn't my intention or expectation when making this site, but it is certainly interesting.

At the last time a graph was generated - when Kucinich had 69,700 first-place finishes - the second place finisher, Mike Gravel, had 8,771 first-place results. In fact, Kucinich has more than twice as many first-place finishes as the next 6 candidates do (Gravel, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney, Clinton, Hunter, Giuliani).

Even if you use a top 3 results system (3 points for 1st place, 2 for 2nd place and 1 for 3rd place) Kucinich still wins comfortably with 256,214 points, compared to Gravel’s 154,467. Barak Obama comes in 3rd with 59,024, which isn’t even a quarter of Kucinich’s total. Clinton trails Obama and then after her come the first two Republicans: Paul and Romney.

I can come out with reasons why an internet poll would be disproportionately liberal and favour Democratic candidates, but I can’t think of any reason it would swing so heavily in Kucinich’s favour. Perhaps it was linked on several pro-Kucinich message boards, but that’s not where I found it. Perhaps he pays staff to do nothing but fill out the survey, change their IP addresses and then fill it out again, but as a “fringe” candidate I imagine he’s short-staffed and can’t afford to do that.

Perhaps, just perhaps, the media’s characterization of Kucinich as a “fringe” candidate is a self-fulfilling prophecy. He’s not got the name-recognition of Clinton or the sudden rise to fame of Obama, but there’s no reason why he should be less of a public figure than Dodd, Richardson or Biden. The media defines him as a “fringe” candidate from the beginning because he’s not a “name” and because they define his views as “non-mainstream,” and this is all exacerbated by his physical appearance. As I’ve said before and this survey has hinted, perhaps his views are much closer to the mainstream than people either realize or care to admit. I’m not denying his viewpoint on NAFTA or the Department of Peace isn’t unique among Democratic candidates and I’m aware this poll excludes economic matters, but on many of the other issues which Americans define as being most important, such as what to do about Iraq, healthcare, abortion rights, same-sex marriage and immigration, his views seem to coincide with the majority of Democratic voters. Kucinich’s electability and how he’d fare vs. various Republicans are separate matters, but there seems to be little reason that he shouldn’t be right alongside Clinton, Obama and Edwards, at least based on his policy positions.

Friday, August 17, 2007

The Israel Factor

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has been running a feature called the Israel Factor for about a year where it ranks the various US presidential candidates according to how friendly they are towards Israel. Every month a panel of eight experts from across the political spectrum answers a few questions and then ranks each of the candidates out of 10. My issue with this exercise isn't that Israelis are assuming that Americans care about how Israelis feel about American politics. Given the relationship between the two countries it is only natural that Israel has a vested interest in the American election. Furthermore, the feature has additional relevance for the 100,000 American voters living in Israel. While I would hope they base their votes on a number of issues, I'm sure the vast majority base it almost entirely on the candidates’ policies towards Israel. This is only natural given the environment in which they live.

My issue is that "friendly towards Israel" is basically narrowly defined as being in favour of Israel's unambiguous and unconditional right to military action. Despite explanations for how they balance their panel and questions it is clear that the poll is basically a referendum on who unilaterally supports Israel's right to defend itself from perceived threats and who wants to limit it or place conditions on it. One only needs to read through the surveys, or even just look at the final rankings, to see how that plays out. This narrow definition of "friendly towards Israel" is what I take issue with. That’s one way to define the term, but others might consider committing more effort and resources to diplomatic talks between key actors in the Middle East; limiting Israeli defence tactics in an effort to avoid further angering Palestinian factions; further engaging the political wing on Hamas due to its popular support among the electorate; trying to improve the socioeconomic standing of Arabs in Israel or any number of different scenarios that one feels might eventually lead to peace in the Middle East as being policies that are “friendly towards Israel.”

Those who are Israel's strongest supporters, among some of the more notable names, include Rudy Giuliani (the clearly favoured candidate), Mike Bloomberg, Hillary Clinton and Fred Thompson. Those faring less well, but still with strong support for Israel, include Mitt Romney, John Edwards, Barak Obama and, the winner of the big second place finish in the otherwise meaningless Iowa Republican straw poll, Mike Huckabee.

My only question, not asked in jest, is where's Dennis Kucinich and where would he rank?

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Quick Hits, Pt. II

I have a couple of full-length posts planned, but haven’t found the time to write them. Hopefully I will soon before they lose their relevance.

• An Australian sheep farmer fell for a new variation of the internet Nigerian banking scam and it doesn’t reflect well on him.

Des Gregor, 56, has arrived back in Adelaide after being held hostage in the African nation of Mali for 12 days.

Mr Gregor, a sheep farmer, set off to Mali on what he hoped would be an exotic adventure, during which he would not only meet his African bride but pocket a huge dowry in gold.

The target of his affections was a woman purportedly called Natacha, a Liberian refugee in her twenties whom he had met and fallen in love with over the internet.

Seriously. Not only did he expect to meet a woman in her twenties who would agree to marry him (which I guess isn’t that unrealistic in the age of mail order brides), but the kicker is that he was supposed to collect an $86,000 dowry on top of that. What a jackpot. A presumably attractive wife 30 years younger than him and $86,000 for the chore of marrying her. Some people can be incredibly naïve, but you think something about the scenario would have raised red flags in his head or caused him to implement some precautions.

This immediately strikes me as one of those Catch-22 crimes. The plan is flawed in that anyone dumb enough to fall for the setup is unlikely to have the necessary money to pay the ransom. The man is a farmer (not a profession known for its wealth, although they often live better than you may think), who is old enough that his parents are likely dead and who is clearly not married and thus has no source of income beyond his own. The ideal target, as in the one most likely to fall for the plot, is the non-ideal victim, as he has nothing to lose by going to the authorities. Gullible and naive? Yes. Rich and desperate to avoid embarassment? No.

• There’s apparently been a spate of idiocy across Oceania.

A couple in New Zealand is planning to call their newborn son Superman after officials rejected their original choice of 4Real.

Pat and Sheena Wheaton have been frustrated by rules in New Zealand banning names that begin with a number.

Mum and Dad decided to call their son 4Real after seeing an ultrasound image of him. It was then they realised that their baby was "for real".

I’m not a huge fan of the unique names craze, but it doesn’t bug me that much unless the names are ridiculous. This is one of those cases. Seriously, what the fuck are they thinking? If there’s ever been a bigger sign that a couple is unfit to be the guardians of their child within the first couple of days of his life, I’d like to read about it.

Also, here’s an article from the Wall Street Journal on how naming one’s child is seen by many as a way to “brand” the child and make him or her unique, which in my view isn’t always a good thing.

"Names have become a matter of fashion and taste," says Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson.

Not everyone is happy about this development. Albert Mehrabian, a professor emeritus of psychology at UCLA and author of "The Baby Name Report Card," has conducted surveys of how people react to different names. He found that more common names elicited positive reactions, while unusual names typically brought negative responses. To him, giving children names that stand out may ultimately be no different than sending them to school with their hair dyed blue. "Yes, you can have someone stand out by being bizarre, but that doesn't mean it's going to be good," he says.

Karen Markovics, 36, who works for the planning department in Orange County, N.C., spent months reading baby books and scouring Web sites before settling on Nicole Josephine. But now, four years later, Mrs. Markovics says she wishes she'd chosen something less trendy -- and has even considered legally changing her daughter's name to Josephine Marie. "I'm having namer's remorse," she says.

That amused me. In article that told of babies named Nevaeh (heaven spelled backwards, for those who don’t know the story), Evander, Jackson, Sheridan, Beckett and Zayden (none of which are among the terrible choices I’ve heard of here or there), apparently Nicole is too radical. Nicole is too trendy, despite the fact it’s been among the top 50 names in the US constantly for the last three decades.

Unfortunately, I think this paragraph summarizes far too many people’s approach to naming a baby:

Lisa and Jon Stone of Lynnwood, Wash., turned to a name consultant because they didn't want their son to be "one of five Ashtons in the class," says Mrs. Stone, 36, a graphic designer. For Mr. Stone, 37, a production director for a nonprofit arts organization, the challenge was to find a "cool" name that would help his son stand out. "An unusual name gets people's attention when you're searching for a job or you're one in a field of many," he says.

Or you’re the idiot called “4Real” who never gets taken seriously at any moment in his life.

• I got another good literal laugh out loud moment at lunchtime at work thanks to a baseball message board I lurk at once or twice a day. The posters were discussing an article discussing whether it made more sense for the Oakland A's to sign Barry Bonds or stay with Jack Cust. Most posters, and myself, agree that Bonds is the better player, but the difference between him and Cust won't be worth the difference in their salaries. However, we are also in agreement that it is not an either/or scenario and that the A's could sign both of them, playing one in LF and one at DH.

Anyhow, someone was pointing out advantages to Bonds and said that he's an attendance draw, as sold out crowds have been following him around for the entire summer. He concluded his post by asking, "Have sold out crowds been following Jack Cust around since May?"

Poster #2: No, but the A's are third in road attendance in the American League behind the Yankees and Red Sox.

Poster #3: I never knew the A's were so popular.

Poster #4: Fonzie certainly seemed to like them.

Absolutely golden.