On Political Correctness

2015/02/28 at 10:24

A few months ago, I joined a couple of neighborhood Facebook groups, and like previous times when I’ve participated in lightly moderated or unmoderated Internet discussions, I was once again shocked by people’s opinions and behaviors. You’d think I’d learn. Anyway, one of the groups was a neighborhood ‘Crime Watch’ group, and several times when recent local (thankfully, not terribly severe) crimes were discussed, some commenters immediately assumed that they were perpetrated by the [mostly Latino] workers building new homes in the area. In two of these instances, the probable perpetrators were caught (in part due to awareness raised by the Facebook page, to give credit where it’s due), and the alleged criminals turned out to be white teenagers who live in the neighborhood. So much for people’s desire to believe that the crimes were perpetrated by outsiders.

A couple of weeks ago, someone posted to the Crime Watch group a link to a news article about two accused burglars who’d been caught, wondering if they had been active in our area. The news article displayed the mugshots from both alleged criminals, and as it happens, they were both African American. Predictably, some of the first comments on the Facebook thread were pretty horrible and/or racist, in my opinion. One of those first commenters simply wrote, “Thugs.” I added a comment, “‘Thug’ is a racially charged word. Best to avoid it.” In my mind, I hadn’t openly accused the previous commenter of racism, though in truth that’s what I was thinking. Naively, I did not anticipate the pile-on that subsequently occurred. The original commenter added that she herself was Hispanic and therefore couldn’t be racist. Later came accusations of political correctness, which quickly degenerated into flat-out name-calling. It got very ugly quickly.

For weeks prior to this, I would recount to Katie the appalling narrow-mindedness I saw in discussions in the Facebook pages, and Katie would always respond by asking me why I continued to frequent them if they caused me so much grief. Fair point. The name-calling pile-on brought her point home, so I resigned from all of the groups for my own mental health.

But it has continued to bug me why I was so unprepared for the responses that I got to my last comment. A few days ago, I ran across this Youtube video, and it helped me to understand better what happened:

Here’s the heart of the Youtuber’s point (thanks to Fred Clark for the transcription):

That mindset right there is what does as much as anything to perpetuate injustice all over our society. That assumption that only a “cretin” or a monster or a bad person would ever be racist or sexist or harbor any sort of bias or prejudice.

That right there is the Big Lie. There is nothing that does more to perpetuate injustice than good people who assume that injustice is caused by bad people. That’s just not how being good works. And that’s not how being a human being works.

The truth … is that all of us, as good people, are still naturally prone to doing bad things. We all have natural tendencies toward implicit bias and prejudice and bad habits. …

I now realize that I had a different definition in racism in mind than some of my neighbors on the Facebook group. My definition is more like the one in the video: we all have biases, and even if we don’t, then those who read our words might. Therefore, it’s best to avoid terminology that might be understood as racist–even if not intended that way. The people who reacted so strongly to my comment, however, define racist as the overt, intentional racism of ‘bad people.’ Therefore, my suggestion of racism was, to them, an accusation that they are that type of person.  Unmoderated internet discussions are not a good place to explain nuanced views.

Turing test

2015/01/29 at 08:37

I find this interesting and depressing at the same time: developing robots to mimic handwritten letters in order to dupe people into open marketing mail that they would otherwise just toss, including varying pressure of the writing instrument, creating margins that mimic human writing, and of course, developing fonts that write the same letters in various ways.

Technical issues aside, here’s the heart of the matter:

Half the time, I’m cynical/alarmed/wearied that so many people are working so hard to make machines fool humans.

But the other half the time I’m kind of cracked up by the fact that the most avid prosecutors of Alan Turing’s sly and audacious 1950 thought-experiment have been not philosophers or computer scientists or advanced A.I. labs but … marketers. The former folks have foundered for years on the difficulties of understanding the fractal contours of human consciousness. The latter just want you to open up their damn mail. Comprehending the mysteries of human thought and behavior is hard. Emulating it? Not so much! It’s partly why Turing’s test is so unsettling: Man, are we really that easy to copy?

Mind you, this particular Blade Runner dimension of modern life could quickly diminish in relevance, because frankly, postal mail is itself declining rapidly. The amount of upright, breathing humans who regularly write letters by hand has been shrinking steadily for years. So maybe it’s not long before handwriting flips its its existential polarity. A handwritten envelope will become not a litmus test of humanity but sure-fire proof that we were sent a form letter by an impersonal database. We’ll sort through our paper mail with the inverse logic of today, tossing aside immediately all the letters addressed with pen-script (robot, robot, god, another one sent by a robot) but then pausing at the sudden, startling appearance of an envelope addressed by a dot-matrix printer.

Hmmm, we’ll say to ourselves: Now this might be real.

My furry running partner

2014/11/05 at 14:25

Stan and Charlie on the running trail

Last spring, our beloved Golden Retriever Xena died of old age. A couple of months later, we went to the Pflugerville Animal Shelter to adopt a kitten but came home with a dog whom we named Charlie. He was somewhere under a year old when we adopted him, weighs just under 20 pounds, and is an unknown mix–our best guess is Pomeranian (due to curly tail) and Golden Retriever. It turns out that Charlie is a real athlete. I tried taking him running with me a couple months ago, and he has really taken to it. He pulls like crazy, but due to his small size, that’s not too much of a problem. To date, our longest run together has been nine miles.

 

My beautiful wife and me

2014/08/22 at 08:45

We were dressed up at a wedding reception recently.

Katie and me

Jobs that no longer exist?

2014/02/28 at 15:56

Today, I saw a Reddit thread about jobs that no longer exist. Of course, the entire discussion thread consisted of people naming instances where the jobs do still exist but are much less common than in the past. One of the jobs on the list was: bowling pin setter. Well, this job does indeed still exist among the nine-pin bowling league of central Texas. One of my first jobs as a kid was setting pins at the Spring Branch Bowling Club. It was a rough job, and I didn’t last long at it. And it is also dangerous. The pin setter sits up in the superstructure above the pins, and when someone bowls, the pins can go flying pretty far and fast. In fact, certain bowlers threw the ball so hard that the pin setters watched for them and the pin setter for that bowler’s lane and the surrounding couple of lanes moved away from the lane altogether so as not to get hit by flying pins.

Ruth Wiley, Polio Nurse

2014/01/07 at 12:03
Ruth Wiley, Polio Nurse

Ruth Wiley, Polio Nurse

Katie and Hannah have been sorting and scanning a huge box of photos and other memorabilia that Katie got from her mother, including photos from her mother, Ruth Wiley. During the early 1950s, Ruth Wiley was a supervising nurse in the children’s polio ward at Burge Hospital in Springfield, Missouri. We have scanned and uploaded a bunch of photos that she kept from that time.

Lexical Distance Among the Languages of Europe

2014/01/06 at 10:17

This is a really nice visualization:

Lexical Distance Among the Languages of Europe

Lexical Distance Among the Languages of Europe

Per the accompanying article:

This chart shows the lexical distance — that is, the degree of overall vocabulary divergence — among the major languages of Europe.

The size of each circle represents the number of speakers for that language. Circles of the same color belong to the same language group. All the groups except for Finno-Ugric (in yellow) are in turn members of the Indo-European language family.

 

My newest cross stitch project

2014/01/01 at 14:53
May Cthulhu Destroy This Home Last

May Cthulhu Destroy This Home Last

Here’s the pattern.

Raking leaves

2013/12/19 at 13:49

Autumn (well, December) in Central Texas

Samuel raking leaves

End of an era

2013/12/17 at 09:35

I first got on the internet in 1995. I spent my evenings on my new Windows 95 PC exploring this new wonder via 28.8 kbps modem. I had been working with the SGML document format at work, so the HTML of the web came easily to me. Like many people at that time, I had my own web site on GeoCities.

I decided to create a web site for the church that Katie was serving as a minister at the time. While working on the site, I came across a set of web pages that listed, in categories, pretty much all religious-related web sites existing at that time–the web was still small enough that such an endeavor was possible. For some reason, I emailed the site’s creator, Susan Brumbaugh, and we became email friends.

Susan was working on her Ph.D. In sociology at the time and spent her days at a Sun workstation at the university, which meant that she was one of the very first people to get internet access. Like me, Susan was learning to author web pages and had decided to create a web site for the church she was attending. But Susan was (still is?) a collector, and as she explored the web, she created a catalog of the sites she ran across. So was born her site ‘Religious Resources on the Net.’

By 1996 or so, I had moved on from learning HTML to web programming in Perl. Susan’s directory of religious web sites was an obvious choice for converting from a set of static web pages to a database-driven web site. So, I converted it to Perl CGI and a flat-file database. Susan could add, edit, and delete sites by editing the text file. At some point, we acquired the domain religiousresources.org and moved the site there.

In about 2002 or so, I was learning the LAMP technology stack, so again I migrated the site to PHP and a MySQL database with a full-fledged administrative interface for Susan to review submitted sites and manage the site. I also redesigned the site at that time, and I have to say that, in my biased opinion, at least, the design has held up pretty well for a decade:

ReligiousResources.org home page

ReligiousResources.org home page

Through all of this, Susan maintained the list of sites as a labor of love. Eventually, she went from finding sites herself to taking submissions. But she still reviewed each submission for suitability to her standards for the site, appropriate description and inclusion in the appropriate category. As the web grew, this became a big job.

Throughout the early years, we explored options for making at least enough money from the site to pay for its hosting. We considered and rejected banner ads back when they were popular. We found them too distracting, and the potential for ad revenue didn’t seem very good. However, when targeted Google AdWords ads came along, we found something that would earn us some money and would actually be an improvement to the site’s visitors.  Since the purpose of our site was to help its visitors find resources elsewhere, relevant ads actually added options for our site’s visitors.

Eventually, Susan’s and my interests changed: we had families, changed jobs and cities, etc. Combined with the ever increasing number of submissions for inclusion in the directory, we eventually got hopelessly behind in reviewing submissions. Eventually, we quit taking new submissions since we were not dealing with the existing ones.

After several years of neglect, as the sites in our directory got older and more irrelevant, we have finally made the tough decision to shut down the site. Susan and I have done other interesting web work over the years and formed an enduring friendship and business partnership . It’s been a good run, but it’s time for this chapter to come to an end.