Anencephaly

I would’ve posted a picture of it, but many would consider it not safe for life. Anencephaly is congenital neural tube defect wherein a fetus never develops a brain. Just a brain stem. Usually, babies with anencephaly do not survive more than a few hours past birth. There are a couple of exceptions though.  If you look it up on Youtube, there seem to be two popular types of videos: the medical anomaly or “isn’t this weird?” type, and then the personal “my little angel was diagnosed with this in utero but god told me to carry to full term” type.

It’s interesting to note that despite there being no chance for these babies to ever gain consciousness, let alone have any quality of life, it is not permitted by our current standard of medical ethics to harvest their organs upon birth — even with the consent of their parents. Organ harvest requires that the donor be brain dead: brain stem included. However, waiting that long in these patients makes the organs no longer viable. I guess it’s just not a common enough situation to warrant a reassessment of existing regulations, but if it isn’t possible for a person ever be conscious — to ever feel or sense anything, to ever have a thought or a personality — then in what sense are these human lives? Meanwhile, given that a leading cause of infant mortality in developed nations is congenital defects (eg, of the heart or other replaceable organs), wouldn’t we want policies that increase the availability of donated infant organs?

tl:dr – If we can fix her heart but not his brain, why should we let them both die?

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Racism feedback loop

I came across two pieces today on race: one was an interview with the African (but not African American) author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who wrote Americanah, and another on the Paula Deen racism scandal.

In the first, Adichie relates her experiences learning about what it means to be black in America. She has to be told what’s offensive, and why. The example given is a joke about watermelons. She also comments on how frequently she’s told that she’s refreshingly not-angry for a black person.

The second makes the case that racism is so ingrained in southern culture that most southern racists can’t see that they’re racist at all.

As a society, we’ve been attempting to stop this sort of racism (personal, attitude based — as opposed to structural or institutionalized) by “education”: that is, by telling people that certain words and joke topics are offensive and off-limits.

There’s an easier option. We could simply stop passing on the need to be offended. What if, instead of validating potentially hurtful words by going on rants about past injustices, parents decided to brush off these incidents? “Oh honey, she called you a n*gger? Who knows what that silly word means. Nevermind, call her out for ad hominem attacks next time.” Diffuse, distract, ignore. With time, words lose their ability to hurt anyone. It seems a more efficient solution than trying to convince people that they’re bad, bad, horrible, racist people. Besides, nothing’s so troubling to someone who intends to hurt feelings as a person whose only reaction is a puzzled gaze.

On the other hand, the way we’re doing things now results in too many people with chips on their shoulders. Angry, sensitive people looking to be offended. This difference makes racists feel justified. Vindicated, even: “see? I’m right! Those people are just nasty, angry violent people, so unlike us decent people!” Setting aside special taboos for words, jokes, subjects and phrases just gives them special power. Really, it seems useless to teach our children they have to be upset about certain things.

Feral humans

For the purposes of this entry I will define a feral human* as one who is dependent on government or foreign aid and will be for the entirety or near entirety of its existence. This dependence can be due to either lack of personal or regional development.

I’ve defined it this way because I’d like you to think of feral cat populations. The ASPCA has determined that a strategy called TNR (trap-neuter-return) is the most humane and efficient way to deal with feral cat populations. I think a similar solution can be used on feral human populations. That is, we can make aid dependent on voluntary sterilisation — for the recipient and its children.

Instead, we seem to be pouring billions in aid money a year into populations of feral humans that will never be able to live without it. Even with this aid, most are barely subsisting. Yet, they breed at an alarming rate, just like feral cats. If the goal of all these programs is really to reduce or ameliorate human suffering, I think a my suggested equivalent of TNR would be both more cost-effective and more humane.

*I know there is already a commonly accepted definition which differs from mine, so bear with me.

PS – if you enjoyed this, you might also like A Modest Proposal, which I’m sure was written just as seriously.

Charity

There are charities for saving lives (call it type A). Then there are charities (do we call them that, though?) for making lives worth living (type B). There’s a subtle difference. Most people agree that charities for saving lives from things like malaria and malnutrition (A) are more worthwhile than those for supporting the symphony or the arts (B).

I disagree.

When type A initiatives are successful, they result in more lives that need saving from the same problems. This is not an improvement. If we think of charity as an investment in a better world, then type A gives negative returns.

Now, consider type B. I value those more because a thing of beauty is a joy forever.

In fact, B doesn’t even have to be a charity. It can even be an ostentatious display of wealth, like Hearst Castle:

But it’s a better way to spend money because the beauty of the result will bring joy to countless others forever. Just think of what the Medici money did for the Italian Renaissance. Positive return on investment.

This is how I use my infallible logic to argue that consumerism is morally superior to feeding starving orphans. You’re welcome.

Worst place to be gay

This documentary on attitudes and policies towards gays in Uganda came out last year, but I just saw it a few days ago. I noted with interest that in every interview, when people were asked why they wanted homosexuals to be locked up or put to death, they responded with some variant of “because the bible says it’s wrong.”

Here’s the thing: throughout the world, gay people are contributing positively to society. They are parents who never have children by accident, they are (on average in the US) more highly educated and earn larger salaries, they’ve been pioneers in fields from cryptography to play writing. Rather than persecuting homosexuals because the bible says we should*, why not ignore the bible instead? Treat it as another book. Take to heart only the lessons that are worth learning. Give it no more respect or reverence than any other work of fiction.

All of this reminds me of something Steven Weinberg asserts:

Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things it takes religion.

* Is there even consensus that it says this?

Avoid TSA inspections

I’ve said it so often it’ll probably be my gravestone quote. I would rather risk the small chance of something horrible happening (dying in a plane crash due to terrorists) than face the absolute certainty of something annoying happening (being inspected/pilfered from by the TSA).

I have a theory about TSA inspectors: if they see anything that might be electronics or related goods, thats good enough to qualify you for a “random” inspection. The TSA has done nothing for me this past decade besides stealing various chargers and cables. The latest? My toothbrush charger. New, it’s $30. On eBay, it’s around $20. That’s what, 2 hours pay for a TSA inspector?

To avoid being inspected, don’t pack anything worthwhile. In particular, keep the following in your carry-ons:

* chargers and cables
* computers
* cameras (especially nice ones)
* other small electronics (Kindle, iPad, DS, etc)
* jewelry

The rest they have no interest in. Even if you did pack Prada stilettos.

Is anything necessary?

(In response to the NYT article “Is Algebra Necessary“)

I am disturbed by how frequently I see opinion pieces advocating that we teach different “useful” math in school, or teach less math, or just not make math a requirement at all. I want to figure out the objection to having math requirements.

1. It is not useful

But a definitive analysis by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce forecasts that in the decade ahead a mere 5 percent of entry-level workers will need to be proficient in algebra or above.

Do they also have an analysis about what percent of entry-level workers will need to know who won which battle in the Civil War? Or how many will need to know how to play volleyball or run a mile? How about the percent that need to know the plot of Of Mice and Men? Ah, that’s right. Probably nothing learned in high school is exactly useful.

2. It is hard
The argument is that many drop out of high school and college because* they have difficulty fulfilling math requirements. So, the answer is to either get rid of such requirements, or replace the difficult math requirements with “useful” math. But the reason we require algebra isn’t to ensure that the workforce knows the quadratic equation. While knowing algebra doesn’t necessarily prove that a person is capable of abstract, logical thought, a complete inability to do algebra probably screens out people who do not belong in college. Why not find out sooner than later that you are not college material? It is hard, but that’s why we require it.

3. Teach something else
There’s a suggestion about teaching an alternative, easier math called “citizen statistics.” This more practical math would be easier and more generally useful. Trouble is, the one example given, “teach students how the Consumer Price Index is computed” involves algebra. In general, it is not clear whether other math courses would actually be easier for students and also confer the same filtering benefits mentioned in 2.

This continual questioning of whether we should teach math and have math requirements in higher education is a result of our society’s allergy to math. What needs to change is the attitude that “I’m really bad at math” is an acceptable quirk for a well-educated person. We need to be as ashamed to announce that as we would be to say “I am barely literate.”

* It is not clear that this is a causal relationship