Thursday, February 28, 2013

Class Participation

I find my face has again appeared in the Philadelphia Public Record, this time in connection with one of Commissioner Stephanie Singer's classes for candidates (which was sponsored by the local chapter of the National Organization for Women and the Coalition of Labor Union Women). If you click on the image under "Our latest issue" for 28 February, you'll find the picture on page 11. Though you probably can't see it, the sign I'm holding says "Independent." They didn't have one for "Green."

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Real Beliefs Have Consequences

Yesterday a coworker told me that very shortly, on a date I won't quote here, "they're going to be putting chips in us." He was speaking of microchip implants that will be "the Mark of the Beast," without which we won't be able to engage in commerce.

Of course I'd heard such predictions before, but without a specific date attached. I told him I think this is nonsense: "Humanity is a chaotic system. No one is in control." I added, "I'm quite certain that no one will be putting any chip in me on [the date]." He insisted, "Just you wait. A year from now, I'll be telling people  'I told you so.'"

Finally I asked, "So, do you want to put some money on it?" His answer? "Well, I'm not that sure."

Note that there were actually two testable claims here. The first was that we'd all be forced to get implants on a certain date. The second was that my coworker believes we will be. If the second were true in any empirically meaningful sense, he'd have jumped at the chance to make some money on it  -- especially since I hadn't specified how much I wanted to bet, or even what odds. The fact that he backed down as soon as I suggested a wager tells me he doesn't really believe what he's saying.

To be consistently empirical, one must define all one's terms of discourse, including those pertaining to the discourse itself, in an empirical way. Only in this way can one distinguish true beliefs -- the kind that induced some people to give away all their possessions and euthanize their pets ahead of 21 May 2011, for instance -- from meaningless cocktail party (or office) chatter. For that matter, one can't even define lying without this distinction.

A real belief makes someone act differently, not just talk differently.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Thanks to my friend and neighbor, fellow Green Chris Robinson, I learned of somewhere else to send my account of my Election Day experience that for whatever reason the Germantown Chronicle didn't print. It turns out the Mayor's office is soliciting people's stories about that day, so I copied mine to his web page created for this purpose.

Also thanks to Chris, I learned that City Commissioner Stephanie Singer is holding classes for people seeking neighborhood leadership positions such as block captain, committeeperson, and election board. I've attended two of them and she knows my face now. She says she's glad there's an effort to build the Green Party in this city. She herself was a Democratic ward leader before voluntarily resigning that post after her election to the Commission, but perhaps appreciates that her party would function better with a more credible opposition than the GOP has much chance of becoming here.

On another front, I attended a speed dating event at the central library Monday, where I selected about half of the thirteen women I met and was matched with two of them. I'd attended a commercial speed dating event in 2002, where I selected four out of ten women but didn't match anyone.

I invited one of them to a Valentine's Day Dessert Party and Buddhist Love Panel last night, of which I'd learned after attending a free meditation class at the PCI library off Rittenhouse Square. (Even prior to the class, I'd started getting results practicing mindfulness on my own.) I only invited one to avoid any awkwardness, but she didn't show and hasn't responded to my email as of about 6:30 yesterday evening.

The people were friendly and the practical advice from the panel (answering written questions submitted in advance) seemed psychologically sound, but I don't subscribe to the metaphysical aspects like belief in reincarnation. A couple people to which I mentioned this said I could just take the parts I find useful.

P.S. Singer says that the best thing to do in view of improper conduct such as I witnessed would be to call the district attorney. A call from him to the Judge of Election would probably stop the problem behavior. She pointed out to me that since election board workers are elected, they haven't necessarily attended the trainig and so may not realize what's permitted and what isn't.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Literary speed date

The Free Library held a speed dating event Monday evening. I'd only participated in one such event previously, over ten years ago, and though I'd picked four women I got no matches that time. Since I don't suppose I was any less intelligent or physically attractive then than now, I must assume my greatly reduced social anxiety and improved self-confidence are the reason that this time there were two.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Reminding Elected Officials That They're Human

The other day I heard city councilmember Bill Green on the radio indignantly rejecting the idea that a large contribution might influence him. I left this message on his website:

As someone who has voted for you in the past, I am dismayed by the facile way you in which you dismiss the idea that $30,000 could influence you. That's an incredibly naive statement, and suggests that you need to study some psychology.

The classic work in the social influence field is Influence by Robert Cialdini. In it, on the basis of both experimental research and his own undercover investigation among "compliance professionals" such as marketers, Cialdini identified six major tools of influence. One of these is "reciprocity," the principle that if someone does something for you, you feel obliged to return the favor. You can't simply turn this off, because it operates on an unconscious as well as a conscious level. Pure intentions are no guarantee against it.

Because this effect can't be negated by an act of will (and public disclosure requirements prevent reliably shielding yourself from knowing contributors' identities), the only protection lies in declining donations from those whom you don't wish to influence you.

Understanding that everyone is susceptible to bias, scientists have instituted the system of peer review to keep each other's errors in check. This same principle of critical thinking applies to everyone, not just professional researchers. To minimize the risk that even seemingly benign contributors could exercise an unwholesome influence, it's important to make their role well-known or at least easily knowable.

Richard Feynman, the Nobelist who uncovered the cause of the Challenger disaster, defined science as "a set of techniques we've developed to avoid fooling ourselves" -- techniques that presuppose we have the humility to recognize our capacity for self-deception. In my view, assisting each other in this regard is one of the most important forms of human solidarity. I hope you will receive what I've written in that spirit and take it on board as you continue your public service.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Today I took part in Brandywine Peace Community's monthly anti-drones protest on the Penn campus, where drone warfare research is taking place. You can learn more about this issue at