Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Essential dinner party topic: Coming together across party lines to save our Union

I came across this today and, after checking her Facebook Page (she wants to share it), decided to share it through this blog.  These are the sorts of non-partisan dinner party topics that are essential to have these days.


From Heather Richardson, professor of History at Boston College:

"I don't like to talk about politics on Facebook-- political history is my job, after all, and you are my friends-- but there is an important non-partisan point to make today.

What Bannon is doing, most dramatically with last night's ban on immigration from seven predominantly Muslim countries-- is creating what is known as a "shock event."

Such an event is unexpected and confusing and throws a society into chaos. People scramble to react to the event, usually along some fault line that those responsible for the event can widen by claiming that they alone know how to restore order.

When opponents speak out, the authors of the shock event call them enemies. As society reels and tempers run high, those responsible for the shock event perform a sleight of hand to achieve their real goal, a goal they know to be hugely unpopular, but from which everyone has been distracted as they fight over the initial event. There is no longer concerted opposition to the real goal; opposition divides along the partisan lines established by the shock event.

Last night's Executive Order has all the hallmarks of a shock event. It was not reviewed by any governmental agencies or lawyers before it was released, and counterterrorism experts insist they did not ask for it. People charged with enforcing it got no instructions about how to do so. Courts immediately have declared parts of it unconstitutional, but border police in some airports are refusing to stop enforcing it.

Predictably, chaos has followed and tempers are hot.

My point today is this: unless you are the person setting it up, it is in no one's interest to play the shock event game. It is designed explicitly to divide people who might otherwise come together so they cannot stand against something its authors think they won't like.

I don't know what Bannon is up to-- although I have some guesses-- but because I know Bannon's ideas well, I am positive that there is not a single person whom I consider a friend on either side of the aisle-- and my friends range pretty widely-- who will benefit from whatever it is.

If the shock event strategy works, though, many of you will blame each other, rather than Bannon, for the fallout. And the country will have been tricked into accepting their real goal.

But because shock events destabilize a society, they can also be used positively. We do not have to respond along old fault lines. We could just as easily reorganize into a different pattern that threatens the people who sparked the event.

A successful shock event depends on speed and chaos because it requires knee-jerk reactions so that people divide along established lines. This, for example, is how Confederate leaders railroaded the initial southern states out of the Union.

If people realize they are being played, though, they can reach across old lines and reorganize to challenge the leaders who are pulling the strings. This was Lincoln's strategy when he joined together Whigs, Democrats, Free-Soilers, anti-Nebraska voters, and nativists into the new Republican Party to stand against the Slave Power.

Five years before, such a coalition would have been unimaginable. Members of those groups agreed on very little other than that they wanted all Americans to have equal economic opportunity. Once they began to work together to promote a fair economic system, though, they found much common ground. They ended up rededicating the nation to a "government of the people, by the people, and for the people."

Confederate leaders and Lincoln both knew about the political potential of a shock event. As we are in the midst of one, it seems worth noting that Lincoln seemed to have the better idea about how to use it."

Monday, January 30, 2017

Mindful eating: is there such a thing as an ethically raised egg?

An essay in the Guardian today got me thinking about the ethics and welfare associated with how we decide what eggs (if any) to eat.   writes:

"... the “free range” egg is perhaps the most audacious. You’d need Disney-level imagination to believe the UK can produce more than 10bn eggs each year without inconveniencing any chickens. But by slapping “free range” on the label, and perhaps a nice pastoral scene with a few chickens roaming free, most consumers never realise how the eggs came to be in the box."

Read the entire thoughtful essay and discuss this at your next dinner party. And, if you find it upsetting, then perhaps eggs shouldn't be on the menu.

Friday, January 27, 2017

A Groundhog Day Lesson About Fake News

For my 'day job' I study marmots--large, alpine ground squirrels--that include the groundhogs we celebrate on Groundhog Day. It turns out that marmots face the same problems as we do when making decisions with unreliable news sources. I wrote the following for the Huffington Post Blog about what we can learn from groundhogs about fake news and the importance of reliability assessment.

Here's the text reprinted here.

Our ‘fake news’ epidemic reminds us that we all must be mindful of the sources of our information. Obtaining information is essential for the innumerable decisions we make daily including decisions about what to wear, when to cross the street, and whether to put milk in our coffee or tea. We also make more consequential decisions about whom to date and marry, where to go to school, or what car or house to purchase. Information has never been so abundant, but it is not all equally reliable. Yet, reliable information is essential to make rational choices. Can we trust that our milk is fresh and unadulterated? Can we believe the graduation statistics from a college or university? Can we trust the safety statistics about a car? This problem is not uniquely human and I suggest that we can learn effective strategies from other species, including the groundhogs we celebrate each year on Groundhog Day.
Groundhogs are one of 15 species of marmots and I study antipredator behavior in these cat-sized alpine ground squirrels. Like many other species, marmots must trade-off risks versus rewards when they leave the safety of their burrows to go out to forage to avoid terrestrial predators—foxes, coyotes, and mountain lions, as well as aerial predators—hawks and golden eagles. Upon detecting a predator they emit alarm calls—loud chirps that warn other marmots. Marmots hearing those alarm calls cease all activity, look around to detect the predator, and often run back to the safety of their burrows. But, while at their burrows they are not able to eat, and this is a costly situation for marmots must double their weight each summer during a 4-5 month active season to be able to survive a 7-8 month long hibernation.

Fortunately, individuals differ in their propensity to emit alarm calls and there are essentially Nervous Nellies and Cool Hand Lucys! Nervous Nellies call in response to not only predators, but other things as well that are not alarming. We all recall the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. By crying wolf when there was no wolf the villagers learned to ignore the lying shepherd boy, which had disastrous consequences when a real wolf appeared.
From the perspective of a marmot trying to decide whether to keep foraging or run back to their burrows, Nervous Nellies are sending unreliable signals. This is not much different than the problem we all face in determining whether the news we encounter is supported by facts or made up by someone on their kitchen table as click bait. If The Boy Who Cried Wolf explains marmot behavior, then Nervous Nellies—who are unreliable— would be ignored.
Humans partially solve the problem of information acquisition by relying on trusted sources. If I am going to purchase a car, I poll trusted friends and colleagues about their experiences. By doing so, I’ve saved a lot of time reading each and every review about cars and making hundreds of visits to car dealers. The problem today is that we trust our partisan news aggregators or sites and this makes highly susceptible to fake news that taps into preexisting confirmation biases.
Turns out that marmots also trust reliable but not unreliable marmots. We conducted an experiment and found that marmots hearing alarm calls from reliable callers responded immediately but then resumed their prior behavior more quickly than those hearing unreliable callers, who kept looking for a non-existent predator. In some sense, this is exactly opposite what one would expect from the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, but it’s very similar to what we see when we trust, but verify, our news sources.
So what to do? Marmots have it easy—a handful of predators to detect, and only a few individuals to potentially assess the reliability of. This palls in comparison to a 24-hour news and spam cycle churning out vast amounts of potentially contradictory along with some genuinely erroneous information.
We all have an inner marmot; we have evolved mechanisms to believe trusted sources. But now we face an evolutionary mismatch and our evolved evaluation mechanisms have broken down because there’s simply too much potential information to process.
Mindful of this, I suggest that we scrutinize our news sources. If it sounds too ‘good’, perhaps it is. News sources that follow strict journalistic practices and fact check their sources are, without question, going to be more reliable on average than those that simply aggregate information. The rise of fake-news means that we must re-learn to trust but verify. And we must dig deep into our pockets and support reliable journalism that properly fact-checks sources because there simply isn’t enough time for each of us to fact check everything we hear. The truth is out there and we need good information to make informed decisions.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Roasted brussel sprouts with sesame and salt

Readers of this blog will realize that I like having a lot of small plates. Playing around with ingredients in our larder a while ago I stumbled upon this easy and delicious recipe. It works wonderfully as an appetizer or as a side dish.

In a 9 x 9" baking pan,

fill the bottom with a single layer of brussel sprouts.
add about 2 Tbs sesame oil and shake to coat the sprouts,
sprinkle on about 1 Tbs kosher salt; shake.

Bake at 400°F for about an hour or until browned on the outside and soft and buttery inside.

Serve warm.

Because the pan is on the small size, other things can be baked in the oven at the same time to efficiently use energy.  You can cook it at 350° but it may take a bit longer and doesn't brown as nicely. Feel free to experiment!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Civility...never more needed than now...

I've been laying low for the past year or so--busy with work (I finished a 7-year term as Department Chair), and busy with my research. I was on my first-ever sabbatical--where I wrote half a book, and I've been trying to make time to finish writing the book (Fear and It's Consequences) ever since. And, I've also been struck with an unusual (for me) paralysis. I simply don't know what to do to help restore communication and civility in a time where we really must figure this out. The US election, Brexit, and the rise of nationalism throughout the West is alarming.

I'm an American and our country is deeply divided. I am frustrated, scared, and saddened. Frustrated because the American Dream is shattering in front of our eyes--partially fueled by inequity, and partially fueled by fear of change. Scared because the rise of demagogues is not really a good way out. And, I'm saddened because I believe that liberal democracy is a good thing and that our past century's experiment with it may be coming to an end; not just in the US but throughout Western Europe. The World will be a very different place in the coming decades and it will not be a safer place.

I've been cooking, and having dinner parties (of course), but it's been harder to reach out and have hard conversations with folks who have a very different perspective. People are emboldened to be intransigent. We follow our own news unable to conceive there are different perspectives out there. We are more entitled than ever to believe that their perspective is the only correct perspective.

But it's never been more important to do so--to communicate with fellow citizens. And, it's also not been more important in a while to work together to make positive changes.

Regardless of whether you're surrounding yourselves with like-minded friends, or or neighbors with vastly different beliefs, we all can, and should, eat our way to civility. I'm going to try to share recipes and discoveries more regularly now.  Open a good bottle of wine and have some friends over. Nibble on some apps, and talk politics.  Just be polite because civility and politeness is what we really need now.