One reader's rave

"Thanks for the newspaper with your book review. I can’t tell you how impressed I am with this terrific piece of writing. It is beautiful, complex, scholarly. Only sorry Mr. Freire cannot read it!" -- Ailene

Help the Honey Badgers in their fight for freedom of speech and thought!

Monday, September 26, 2011

Take the Offensive Against Gerrymandering

I just sent an email under that header to both my state legislators, as follows:

I hope you will do more than simply oppose the politically motivated attempt to change the way Pennsylvania chooses its presidential Electors. Democrats should take this opportunity to push for reforms that could end gerrymandering altogether.

The key is to point to the hypocrisy of the rhetoric about "making every vote count." Right now, inasmuch as this is a "purple" state, every voter has a modest chance to affect the outcome by coming out and voting, no matter what part of PA te lives in. By contrast, if the Corbett/Pileggi "reform" is adopted, only voters in the "purple districts" — basically the Philly suburbs  — will still have any chance of affecting the outcome. Urban and rural voters alike will no longer have any motive for getting to the polls. That's because this legislation wouldn't abolish "winner-take-all" — it would only shift the operation of that principle from the state to district level.

The real alternative is proportional representation on the state level. This is the type of system whereby 10% of PA voters can choose 10% of the state's Electors, no matter how they're distributed throughout the state. Various forms of PR exist, such as cumulative voting and the ranked-list system; they're all described at the web site of the Center for Voting and Democracy.

Adopting PR for the Electoral College would make every vote count even more than it does now, since it would no longer be necessary for the election to look "close" to give each vote the sense that te has a significant chance of affecting the outcome. Further, there's no reason to limit this principle to presidential elections; we can advocate it for the state legislature as well, and roll it all up into one bill. (We could also include PA's congressional delegation, but this part would likely be struck down until US Code Title I is amended to no longer require single-seat districts.) Proposing to "amend" the present bill by substituting PR for single-Elector districts would put Pileggi & Co. on the defensive by showing that only our plan actually advances the goal that his only pretends to serve; at the same time, by applying PR to other state elections simultaneously, it would completely eliminate any possibility of gerrymandering, since districts themselves would become passe. And if any currently "red" states followed PA's example, that would tend to cancel out any loss of Democratic Electors owing to Pennsylvania.

Friday, September 23, 2011

It's Not What We Don't Know...

I just sent this letter to the Public Record in response to an article in their "You Need to Care About Your Healthcare" section.

The title of your article, "What You Don't Know Can Kill You," is rather ironic, in that its very first statement, "[H]eart attacks are [the] #1 cause of death for Americans," is something we don't actually know.

Why do I say this? Because eight years ago, after my mother died, I was dismayed to discover that doctors are expected to pronounce a cause of death even if they're not really sure, and that my mother's doctor declared her death as being due to heart attack without having physically examined her — based solely on a telephonic communication that was significantly incomplete as to the circumstances in which she was found. She decided to give heart attack as the cause of death simply because, she said, this often strikes people of my mother's age (78) without any prior warning.

This may well be, and it may well be that this is what my mother died from — but if doctors are often making guesses like this, they could often be getting it wrong, and we would really have no way of knowing. In fact, this sort of error would tend to feed on itself in a snowball effect: the more doctors guess heart attack as a cause of death, the higher the statistic for deaths caused by heart attack without prior warning, and so the more likely doctors are to pronounce this cause of death based simply on a guess — and so on.

In no way do I want to minimize the importance of everyone's looking after their heart health. But neither do we want to overlook other possible causes of death because of a possibly exaggerated figure for the number of deaths due to heart attack. Nor would we, in individual cases, wish to close an inquiry prematurely due to an ill-founded assumption that the cause of death is already known. By doing so, we might miss out on important information that would help us forestall our own deaths.

As a general moral principle, it is horrendous that the law actually compels doctors to pretend to a certainty that in many cases they don't really have. Pretended certainties are one of the biggest sources of mischief in our world. Stephen Hawking put it this way: "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance. It is the illusion of knowledge." Or as Mark Twain said, "What gets me in trouble isn't what I don't know, it's the things I know that just ain't so." We should urge our lawmakers to repeal this unwarranted mandate of an artificial, pretended certainty. Let's get used to openly acknowledging our ignorance, when ignorant is what we are.

I will be sending copies of this letter to my state legislators now.

Double Standard?

I read this quote in today's Metro concerning the 20th anniversary of Nirvana's Nevermind:

“I loved them. I think they were just a great rock band. They had all the sort of great elements that a rock band has. They had that rebellious stance and a clandestine appeal. They were great-looking and rough and messy. [Emphasis added.] And great songs. The whole package was there.”
— Blondie singer Debbie Harry

Seems only a few weeks ago that I read an interview in which someone was complaining about how she can't play without people's commenting on how good she looks, a complaint that was represented as being common among female rockers. Is what's sauce for the gander not sauce for the goose?

Monday, September 19, 2011

My Book Review Soon to Be Published

The other day I learned that my review of Ranger's Apprentice 8: Kings of Clonmel, will appear in the next issue of ICSA Today, magazine of the International Cultic Studies Association. You can read it here:

Friday, September 09, 2011

Doing It Off the Cuff

After arriving for the bimonthly BiUnity meeting this evening, I discovered it had been canceled on account of flooding in the region. But since two others had also shown up, including one person new to the group -- and since William Way Community Center still had the room reserved for us -- I decided to go ahead with an unofficial meeting so the newbie could get some of his questions answered. It went well.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

From "A Man Harassed with Sound" to "Philly Coverup"

Someone handed me a flier about this a couple weeks ago:

It may be that she was fired for political reasons, but the rest seems like pure paranoia. Chances are she just had the misfortune that someone who held a grudge was looking on, unbeknownst to her, when she volunteered for the "wrong" candidate, and decided to tell her boss. It's not likely that a conspiracy was stalking her.

This kind of delusion is apparently shared by many, however. A couple years ago someone rose to speak about it during the Q&A portion of the local ACLU annual meeting. He called it "gangstalking" and a Web search revealed there are thousands of sites concerned with it (though many are just reproductions of the same article). None of them seem to provide any solid evidence, however. Indeed, some will claim that the gangstalkers intentionally avoid leaving any hard evidence of their actions, just so other people will think you're crazy!

Many, though not all, of these people seem to have a world-view suggestive of the "kook right." I asked the publisher of The Skeptic's Dictionary if he knew anything about it, but he'd never heard of "gangstalking" and noted the improbability of such an apparently huge conspiracy so successfully hiding itself from the public at large.

The paranoia of the speaker from the floor at the ACLU meeting was suggested by the fact that in the course of his remarks, he asked those running the meeting to get a certain man standing near him to "stop touching me." Note that the publisher of the above site also complains of strange women touching her on public transit, as if it were part of a conspiracy to make her crazy.

This is reminiscent of ads I used to see in the Daily Pennsylvanian back in the Eighties. They would ask if anyone knew about "a man harassed with sound," evidently referring to the ads' author. He claimed that various noises were being produced near his home for the purpose of disturbing him, intentionally leaving no hard evidence so others wouldn't believe him. Now that the Web exists, it's easy for paranoiacs like him to find one another and reinforce each other's delusions.

Thursday, September 01, 2011