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A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

Archive for the ‘links of the day’ Category

Seven Social Processes that Grease the Slippery Slope of Evil

Posted by Chris on March 8, 2009

  • Mindlessly taking the first small step
  • Dehumanization of others
  • De-individuation of self (anonymity)
  • Diffusion of personal responsibility
  • Blind Obedience to Authority
  • Uncritical conformity to group norms
  • Passive tolerance of evil through inaction or indifference

All of this in new or unfamiliar situations.

This was a list created by Philip Zimbardo.  You can view his TED talk here.  It’s about how circumstances determine evil rather than people being set as either good or bad apples.  His primary recent example is the Abu Ghraib prison torture scandal.  What would drive people we thought were good soldiers to do this?  A combination of things opened the pathway, including superiors who turned a blind eye because they wanted to soften up the detainees for interrogation, being located in an area rarely visited, working the night shift, etc…

It’s not all grim as he also hypothesizes that the “Lucifer Effect” (also the name of a book he’s written) can also be wielded to turn people into heroes, rather than monsters.

If you’ve ever heard of the Stanford Prison experiment (very famous, perhaps infamous, psychology experiment back in the 60s or 70s), this is the guy who created and ran that experiment.  Check out the talk, it’s about 23 minutes in length.


Posted in Culture, links of the day | 1 Comment »

New Ways to measure poverty: Black AIDS %

Posted by Chris on July 31, 2008

I’m going to combine two seemingly very different articles into a post on an interesting way to measure poverty in the US.

First, at Tim Harford writes about what he calls “a sensible way to measure poverty.” Harford is the “undercover economist” and has a very enjoyable and interesting book on the practical applications of economics with the same name.  He talks about conventional methods of measuring poverty and proposes something new.

The conventional methods include objective income threshholds used by governments such has the US poverty line, based on 1960s food budgets and since adjusted for inflation, and the European Union’s line of Below 60% of median income (meaning that it is statistically impossible to eliminate poverty).

Harford advocates the usage of subjective tests.  Every society, therefore, would measure poverty differently- not just a noticeable difference in income and wealth, but the standards of living.  A foundation proposes such a poverty measure, based on what is and is not necessary “to participate in society.”  Harford acknowledges that these measures will be controversial but argues that subjectivity is a strength, because as incomes rise, things like the Internet become necessary making those unable to afford it “poorer” (my word not his) than before.

In the other article, CNN reports that in some areas of the US, the AIDS rate of African-Americans** is greater than the rate of some African countries. (**The article uses “black”, “black americans” and “African-Americans”.  It seems like an important distinction.  If you’re going to compare the AIDS rate in America to that of Africa, it might be important that whoever does the study targets only American-born blacks.  Maybe it’s not?!  I don’t know.  But I am guessing that African immigrants have a different AIDS % rate– and it’s probably lower, actually, because I think the US  screens for that in immigration).  Of course, they look at the African countries with the lowest AIDS rates, but it is still alarming.  I’m rarely shocked or taken by surprise by such things but this honestly got me, I had no idea.

Comparing AIDS rates in Africa and the US is a bit of apples and oranges if you look at straight-up  statistics.  That is how I got in a situation where I thought of South Africa as a country with a very low AIDS rate, but am appalled to read that the black population of Washington DC has a 5% AIDS rate.

So here’s the question: is that bias unfair or Ameri-centric?  Certainly, many Americans care much less about those in Africa.  But according to Harford’s logic, it is not inherently biased to be more alarmed by the 5% of Washington DC than the 5% of South Africa.  First, there are the expectations– in one continent, you’re lucky to not have AIDS; the other, extremely unfortunate to have AIDS.  I will think a bit outside the box and give some other reasons.  In general, African life expectancy is lower, AIDS or no AIDS.  The CNN article reports that AIDS is the #1 killer of black women between 25-34.  Each case of AIDS takes many more years off life in the US than in Africa.  In Africa, AIDS acquisition and treatment is more of a problem because of other aggravating factors like lack of access to clean water, hunger, and other infectious diseases.  Without making light of the AIDS epidemic, in many cases it adds one more problem on top of many others, whereas in the US it single-handedly changes the direction and outlook of one’s life.

To look at the other side of this issue, even though you’re relatively “poorer” to have AIDS in the US, at the same time you’d much rather have AIDS here than in Africa.  Some live with HIV or AIDS for many years due to the superior health care and medicines universally available in the US.  In addition, everyday things like water and food help as well.  Furthermore, even though AIDS is much more common in Africa, culturally there is probably more stigma, even in light of the early homophobia that really cursed an AIDS diagnosis in the US.  I have heard and read firsthand accounts about how you do not discuss AIDS in several different African countries.  In the US, we have a negative socio-religious explanation for AIDS– irresponsible sexual behavior, even inherently immoral sexual perversion, is what causes AIDS.  Africa has its own, however, perhaps even more pernicious and scary to those who wish to avoid it: witchcraft.  Witchcraft, even in Christianized/Islamicized settings, lingers as an explanation for individual misfortunes.  Then, you can add the sexual immorality stigmas on top of that.

In conclusion, I’m not saying it’s better or worse to have AIDS anywhere; it’s unfortunate, sad, terrible–, whatever combination of words it takes to describe what’s going on.

But I wanted to use it as a case study of how we should look at poverty, especially in public policy and philosophical debate.  The way we act as individuals should not change that much.  We should be generous, sensitive, and desire to share in the sufferings of others no matter how relative or objective their “poverty.”  But philosophically, it’s helpful to consider the subjectiveness of poverty before making statements like “We should just be worried about people in our own country” or “How can you be so concerned about irresponsible people in America when there are so many AIDS orphans in Malawi?”.  Furthermore, it should impact the nature and goals of our public policy.  Does government have a responsibility mainly to its citizens to eradicate their problems, no matter how small or large?  Or should it set more moderate goals and then help other nations? (Which is the approach, in practice, of the US as far as I can tell).

After deciding on the goals of public policy, what is its nature?  What do we do?  Let’s say the US decides to only worry about infectious diseases within its borders.  In fact, we say that that it’s not biased to do so, because in part we want to limit our impact on spreading disease to other nations, and demonstrate our willingness to treat diseases brought by immigrants.  How do we concentrate resources?  Are the 5% of a poor population in a large city, who have many problems, the target of a multi-billion dollar campaign?  Or do we offer free Anti-Retroviral Therapy to any AIDS patient, the same amount, irregardless of where they live or what kind of medical facilities are available?

Posted in Culture, human rights, links of the day | Leave a Comment »

Sunday inspiration: “It’s an altar”

Posted by Chris on July 26, 2008

Sometimes I think of an altar as the carpeted stairs and dais at the front of the church meetinghouse. But it’s not. It is a bloody place—a place of sacrifice and death.

I need to remember that.

From Desiring God blog.

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Nasty Crossover

Posted by Chris on July 21, 2008

Go to the 3:50 mark.  In Kevin Durant’s defense, even though he’s guarding a non-NBA player, the guy is much smaller than him.  And Durant hit two ridiculous 3s before that and two right after it.

Posted in links of the day, sports | Leave a Comment »

Sunday inspiration 7/20/08

Posted by Chris on July 20, 2008

I watch this at least once a week…

“I don’t know what you feel about the prosperity gospel, but I’ll tell you what I feel about it: Hatred.  It is being exported from this country to Africa and Asia, selling a bill of goods to the poorest of the poor… People that ought to be giving our money and our time and our lives, instead selling them a bunch of crap called ‘Gospel’…”

Posted in christianity, homeless/needy persons, links of the day, the church | Leave a Comment »

China’s grieving parents told to stop protests

Posted by Chris on July 9, 2008

I wrote two posts recently on the Chinese government’s “leniency” in allowing parents to have more kids to “replace” children who died during the tragic Earthquake in May. They are here and here.

I left off saying that the government’s decision was a good one, but is hardly worth applauding since it commodifies children. I saw a news story today that shows more frustration from grieving parents about a different criticism of the government.

In China quiets parent protesters about earthquake, the AP reports that the parents who were protesting will no longer be allowed to “march, wave banners and vent their rage in public.” Why are they so angry at the government?

The grieving mothers and fathers believe that nearly 7,000 classrooms crumbled so easily because corrupt and incompetent officials didn’t build them properly.

Ouch. Sounds familiar to Americans who remember the criticisms levied at the US government, the president, and others after Hurricane Katrina and the failed levees in New Orleans (and these criticisms are now coming up again in light of Midwest floods).

The article is surprisingly not very objective (at least my understanding of news writing), saying:

After winning global praise for acting like an open society and allowing the parents to protest after the disaster, China is reverting to the tactics of a communist police state ready to crush any dissent.

It’s important, in drawing a comparison, to point out that 70,000 Chinese people died, as opposed to 3,000-4,000 I believe from Katrina. I don’t weigh those 70,000 to mean a greater tragedy, but it is certainly equally as tragic. While American generosity is noted in response to international disaster, I think we have a serious empathy and perspective deficiency. What we do in our daily lives and our foreign and domestic policy should be more influenced by what happens in the rest of a globalized world. For instance, I am for free trade, even if it means that certain jobs are lost by some Americans, because it benefits foreign workers (and Americans by giving us lower prices).

It’s also valuable in comparing the two to see the reaction of people. The AP article describes the parents…

As they tried to cope with their losses, some parents seemed to be driven by a deep sense of nihilism, a feeling they could challenge the government because they had nothing more to lose now that their only child was gone. They were poor farmers or workers who obeyed China’s one-child policy.

Americans who challenged our government did not do it for this reason. We want and expect justice. Whether or not it will make a difference, people knew they could go out and vote either for or against politicians who will do a better job managing America’s infrastructure and making sure disasters like Katrina don’t have the same effect.

We should be thankful for this outlook– that’s about as patriotic as I’ll get during this July 4th season. It says something good about the place we were lucky enough to be born. We don’t expect people to die. We expect government to do something about it. And we know they can.

I’m also thankful for the prevalence of theistic and religious worldviews that are present in America. While our society has secularized in many ways, we are far from Western Europe which is certainly post-Christian (although perhaps entering a phase of pre-Islamic?) and not at all like China where religion has been suppressed for several generations. During times of distress, rare is the average American who will turn to nihilism or postmodern hopelessness- most will pray, cling to family, and be thankful.

Posted in human rights, links of the day | 1 Comment »

Long-term care for a spouse

Posted by Chris on June 19, 2008

I have some personal family experience with this- one  spouse is put in a position of long-term care (or potential or expected long-term care) for a disabled or ill spouse.  I really enjoy reading good examples of care, patience, etc… in the midst.  The following story comes from the Desiring God blog.

Benjamin B. Warfield was a world-renowned theologian who taught at Princeton Seminary for almost 34 years until his death on February 16, 1921. Many people are aware of his famous books, like The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible. But what most people don’t know is that in 1876, at the age of twenty-five, he married Annie Kinkead and took a honeymoon to Germany. During a fierce storm Annie was struck by lightning and permanently paralyzed. After caring for her for thirty-nine years Warfield laid her to rest in 1915. Because of her extraordinary needs, Warfield seldom left his home for more than two hours at a time during all those years of marriage.

Check out the rest of the post.

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No more Ginobiling

Posted by Chris on May 29, 2008

And by Ginobiling, I mean flopping in the NBA and Manu Ginobili. Mr. Manu has become the face of the frustrating increase of blatant flopping, confusing refs and drawing cheap offensive fouls.

Ginobili has drawn the ire of many fans and even inspired the following t-shirt design.
No diving, just play D
HT: Detroit Bad Boys blog

Today, the NBA announced a flopping ban. Well, sort of. Floppers can be fined. Fining is okay. Contrary to popular belief, I think fines are a good way to regulate player conduct. Fans scoff at $10,000 fans because players make a lot of money– but, would you be fined for violating the dress code at work? Ten grand is a lot of jack, it doesn’t matter how much you make.

However, there should be in-game consequences for actions that affect gameplay. In the NFL, helmet-to-helmet hits on a quarterback result in a fine– but it should also receive a 15 yard penalty. Similarly, flopping needs an in-game penalty. Refs should be encourage to call personal fouls on floppers. They need to the following 3 things:
1. Not be afraid of making a mistake and calling a true charge a flop. Mistakes happen a lot more now by rewarding flopping, and, once the flopping is eliminated, the calls will be more clear.
2. Not reward floppers with foul calls on the opposing player. On-ball defenders who receive a weak extended arm and fly into the stands should watch their man drive to the basket for a layup. 15 year vets who can’t jump but fall backwards five feet when a post player turns into the basket should get dunked on and perhaps stepped on.
3. Finally, call a foul on the flopper, especially if a no-call would result in a dangerous situation for the opposing player. For example, a defender falls down and might trip the ball-handler. But at other times, when a guy flops egregiously and play continues, assess a personal foul. If he complains, re-affirm the 2007-2008 early-season commitment to T-ing up guys who backtalk the refs.

If the NBA does those three things, flopping should cease fairly quickly and more importantly the quality of the game will go up and fans will one less criticism of the NBA.

Since I’ve started this post, the Lakers have taken the lead in the 3rd quarter of Game 5 v. the Spurs. If this isn’t an indictment on being floptastic, I don’t know what is.

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I scooped William Saletan

Posted by Chris on May 29, 2008

William Saletan writes at, mainly on cultural and bio-ethics. Almost daily he updates his “Human Nature” blog/article, which follows topics like cloning, medical technology, discrimination, and human rights.

After my post on China’s earthquake exceptions to the one-child policy, Saletan offered his view which can be found here.

I wrote that while “Making exceptions is a positive step,” the “language of exceptions and the nature of the exceptions commodifies children.”

From Saletan, speaking about the government’s decision:

It reads like a warranty or a software agreement. Except we’re not talking about consumer electronics. We’re talking about children. This is what happens when you ration people like commodities.

I’m not pleased that we have the occasion to agree about something as sad as the commodification of human beings– children especially, and children of God. But I will confess a minor pleasure in reaching the same conclusion as Saletan on my own as I really enjoy and value his writing on ethics and his approach, irregardless of whether I agree with his conclusions.

Posted in human rights, links of the day | 2 Comments »

Some good links and gas mileage

Posted by Chris on May 24, 2008

Newsweek’s latest cover story,Growing Up Bipolar: Welcome to Max’s World follows a boy first given a bipolar diagnosis as an infant.

I think I found a new hobby.

First Lieutenant Ted Janis tells TrueHoop about playing pickup basketball in Iraq and the role it plays in helping the soldiers enjoy their time there.

The Department of Transportation reports that vehicle miles fell 4.3% in March, over March 2007. In fact, miles driven have been dropping since last November.

I have read/heard some people say that $4.00 is the price that would cause them to start changing their behavior. Well, $4.00 is here. Gas was $3.50 here 3-4 weeks ago… then it jumped to 3.89, then just jumped to $4.08. It looks like, as a country, we are already making some adjustments (although I wonder if the general economic problems have lowered spending enough to change driving habits rather than gas prices).

I’ve done several things. First off, I have been adjusting my driving habits for over a year, walking and biking some last summer, trying to be strategic about taking care of errands in one trip. Now, I walk more and luckily live very close to my current job.

Much of my motivation for these changes was not due to gas prices, but rather a desire to get exercise, reduce my carbon footprint, enjoy the outdoors. Lately, I’ve made further changes- to my driving itself — accelerating slower, turning my car off at long stop lights, coasting to red lights, etc… unbeknownst to me until yesterday, I was “Hypermiling.” It works, I’m guessing that I may end up getting 10-20% better gas mileage. It will be somewhat hard to measure for now because I made an uncharacteristically long trip out into the country, getting better mileage, and my next tank will probably include my drive to the airport in Springfield. But sometime in June I’ll be able to test the MPG I got last year driving around here vs. my current MPG.

What will you do?

Posted in about me, Culture, links of the day, personal finance | Leave a Comment »