Ten Lies Distort The Gun Control Debate

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Ten Lies Distort The Gun Control Debate

In a ritual as central to American life as football on Thanksgiving, each new mass shooting spawns a wave of unfocused political energy that quickly dissipates into “thoughts and prayers.” No matter how many people die, no matter the cruelty of the methods or the youth and innocence of the victims, we cannot translate our outrage into sensible gun control measures.

Key to this failure has been a dense fog of misinformation, shrouding debate and thwarting any potential response. Cutting through the gun lobby’s campaign of confusion will be key to building public consensus around reform. Unless we pierce this fog and develop a focused political agenda, Las Vegas will recede from consciousness, one more mass slaughter on our way to the next one.

Here’s a review of the top ten lies obscuring the gun debate.

Lie #1: There is no connection between mass gun ownership and gun deaths.

 It seems obvious that a country flooded with guns will have higher rates of gun deaths than countries with few of these weapons. Why are land mines and hand-grenades forbidden in the so-called “Land of the Free,” despite their obvious value in home defense? Because everyone understands that placing these killing machines in circulation would get a lot of people killed. So why don’t we recognize the same problem with guns?

Obvious answers are never enough for us, so America has been running a deadly experiment on this question for decades. The results are exactly as you would expect. Mass gun ownership leads to higher rates of gun death. Careful regulation can limit that death toll, but not eliminate it.

 We are not the only wealthy, stable country with broad gun ownership, though it’s a small club. Switzerland provides a useful comparison, since it is the only place that comes close to our levels of gun ownership, with about half of our per capita firearm ownership. Their experience demonstrates the obvious realities.

Though gun ownership among the Swiss is relatively common, regulations are tight by American standards. All guns are tracked. Many of the guns in private hands are issued by the government. Sale and possession of ammunition is tightly controlled. With a few exceptions for less-lethal weapons, every private gun sale is recorded.

Thanks to careful regulation and lower rates of gun ownership, the Swiss suffer lower rates of gun related deaths and injuries than the US. Despite these constraints, Switzerland experiences much higher rates of gun death than their less-armed neighbors. In other words, regulation can help, but the connection between gun ownership and gun deaths is unavoidably linear.

Lie #2: We don’t need stronger gun regulation because gun violence is declining.

This lie is fun because of the way it depends on careful framing. Gun violence, defined as crimes committed with guns, has been declining for decades. That makes sense, since crime in general has been declining for decades. However, despite a lower crime rate, guns are now competing with automobile accidents for one of the leading causes of premature death in the US. When accidents and suicides are included in the statistics, gun deaths have been consistently rising while most other causes of death declined. And when gun deaths and injuries are compared to rates in other countries, it is hard to build a chart big enough to properly picture America’s towering rates of slaughter.

Lie #3: We didn’t have this problem “in my day” because people loved Jesus and didn’t play violent video games.

According to Franklin Graham, gun violence happens because Americans “turned our backs on God.” His “kids these days” explanation of gun carnage is a favorite of drunk uncles in MAGA caps all over the country. Though these claims frequently sour Thanksgiving dinners, they lack empirical support.

Mass murder has always been a feature of American life, from the slaughter of Native Americans, to the lynchings of black citizens. We just haven’t always had such broad, unregulated, cheap access to such incredibly lethal toys. There’s nothing new about “lone wolf” killings, either, though our modern flood of unregulated high-powered weapons has made them more common and deadly. School shootings are as old as school. Young Matthew Ward murdered his teacher in front of the class in Louisville in 1853. He was acquitted.

Until fairly recently, our most lethal single instance of “lone wolf” mass murder was a school bombing carried out in 1927 in rural Michigan, killing 44 people. The most lethal era to be a police officer in the US was the first third of the 20th century. Thousands of black Americans were killed in mass-violence in the same era, like the white riot that destroyed Tulsa’s “Black Wall Street” in 1921.

In general, we are living through an era of declining crime and mayhem. Gun deaths stand out now against a backdrop of relative public calm.

Lie #4: The Second Amendment blocks gun regulation.

Americans happily place curbs on our rights to religious freedom, blocking people from committing acts of violence, fraud or abuse in the name of faith. Free speech is limited by laws banning libel or incitement. Americans have a constitutionally protected right to obtain an abortion, yet many of the same people advocating Second Amendment absolutism suddenly lose interest in the constitution when the subject turns to reproductive rights. As a general rule, people tend to cite constitutional protections when they don’t want to debate the merits of an issue. Gun advocates are passionate about civil liberties until those liberties become inconvenient.

Lie #5: The solution to gun violence is more gun ownership.

This lie would be too bizarre to earn column space, but politicians are actually using it build policy, putting guns in places like schools, churches and bars. There is no empirical basis for the claim, but it is sometimes accompanied by one misleading data point.

In a twist on Lie #2, gun advocates sometimes point out that a massive rise in gun sales in recent decades has coincided with a long decline in crime rates. Reductions in crime have also coincided with a long trend of rising ocean temperatures, and an increase in the number of black quarterbacks in the NFL. Without some explanation of cause, this factoid is useless.

Further complicating this argument is an inconvenient fact – crime rates have been falling in recent decades all over the civilized world. How has the surge in US gun sales somehow triggered simultaneous declines in criminal activity in Britain, Germany, France and so on? It hasn’t, because there is no connection between US gun sales and declining crime rates.

There’s another interesting dimension to this lie. Gun sales have surged in recent years in the US, but gun ownership is declining. Fewer American households own a gun than at any point in the past half a century. Only three percent of gun owners possess about half of all the weapons in circulation in the US. Today in the US, the average gun owner possesses eight weapons. America has far more guns in private circulation than at any time in its history, but three quarters of Americans do not own one. Mass gun ownership has no relationship to declining crime rates.

Lie #6: Chicago has tight gun restrictions and mass gun violence. Ergo, gun laws don’t work.

Chicago’s seemingly intractable problem with gun violence is one of America’s fondest fascinations. It’s also a myth. Chicago has more gun murders than other large cities like New York and Los Angeles, thanks mostly to its long, unsecured border with North Alabamastan (sometimes called Indiana). However, Chicago’s murder rate still lags far behind the nation’s leaders, many of which are in red states with loose gun restrictions.

America’s capital of gun violence is in deep-red Louisiana. New Orleans suffers from four times the rate of gun murders as Chicago. Such terrifying urban hellscapes as Kansas City, Memphis and Atlanta all rack up much higher rates of gun violence than Chicago. Expand the inquiry beyond crime, to include accidental gun deaths and suicide, and Chicago simply recedes from the frame. The obvious conclusion also happens to be an empirical fact: states with high levels of gun ownership have higher levels of gun death.

With its supposedly restrictive gun regulations, why should Chicago even show up on the list? Only through a determination to avoid the obvious can one struggle with this question.

A Chicagoan can walk across a street into Indiana and purchase firearms from an unlicensed seller with no tracking of that transaction. That person can then walk back across the street into Chicago and commit a crime. This is a common practice. Most of the guns used in a crime in Chicago are originally purchased in Indiana or Mississippi. And of course, Indiana’s rate of gun deaths is roughly a third higher than in Illinois.

In a strictly technical sense, most of those untracked transactions are illegal. However, our gun laws have been crafted to make enforcement virtually impossible, a fine introduction to the next lie.

Lie #7: We should enforce existing gun laws before imposing new ones.

Calls for more determined enforcement of existing gun laws are the most darkly cynical lie in the debate over guns. Our gun laws are carefully crafted to be unenforceable.

One law stands out as the most critical obstacle to enforcement of gun restrictions. A minor provision of the 1986 Firearm Owners Protection Act bans states or federal agencies from building gun registries. Six states already possessed some form of registry, thus were exempted, but further efforts to break the enforcement of gun regulations made it difficult for them to leverage that information in any useful way.

Congress has protected gun companies from lawsuits. Threats from the NRA have blocked the Centers for Disease Control from researching gun deaths. State and federal laws block law enforcement officials from effectively tracking weapons used in crimes.

Chicago’s frustrating efforts to crack down on gun traffickers illustrates the problems with existing gun laws. Absence of tracking makes enforcement impractical if not impossible. This blind spot fosters a rich climate for illegal gun traffickers in Indiana. Even when federal officials catch someone funneling weapons illegally into Chicago, obtaining convictions is difficult. Police invest little in enforcement efforts because prosecutors regularly decline cases. Prosecutors decline these cases because convictions are so rare. Without federal help, local law enforcement in Chicago has almost no means to stop the flow of guns. Without smart laws, even federal assistance has limited value. Calls to focus on enforcement of existing laws, rather than reforms, are a cynical ploy.

Lie #8: We need guns to protect ourselves from the government.

Claims of a Second Amendment right to overthrow the government may be false, but they get us very close to understanding the honest motives behind the gun lobby.

Until 2008, no federal court had ever recognized an individual constitutional right to own a firearm. If anyone imagined that the Constitution protected a right to use violence to overthrow the government, that idea was put to rest in 1794, when George Washington marched an army across Pennsylvania to squash citizens’ “Second Amendment remedies.”

If the Second Amendment was about resisting the government, why have we only enjoyed a personal right to firearms for less than ten years? And why don’t we have the right to obtain other critical supplies for our jihad, like mortars, land mines and fighter planes?

A dark truth lurks in the “Second Amendment remedies” lie. What fuels the most passionate wing of the gun lobby is the American tradition of mob violence. A population armed with infantry weapons is no match against the organization and equipment of a modern nation-state, but with the inaction or complicity of local law enforcement a well-armed population can run riot over unprotected minorities.

What happens when citizens take up arms against the government? Study the history of the Black Panthers. Despite being reasonably well-armed and organized, they were systematically hunted down and killed until the movement died out. Absent some zone of safety, protected by complicit law enforcement or benefiting from a smaller “sub-state,” private use of weapons is ineffective. Reconstruction featured many similar examples. Racist militias failed to capture New Orleans in the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874 despite being reinforced by Confederate veterans and strengthened with weapons captured from US forces. However, these same militias found success in the rural countryside, where they enjoyed the complicity of local law enforcement.

Private weapons are ineffective in resisting the government, but highly effective as an unrecognized extension of government. Well-armed white paramilitaries were the lynchpin of Jim Crow, waging a campaign of terrorism in black communities. Their private activities allowed local governments to impose crippling limits on black citizens while escaping accountability. Many black Americans were armed as well, but their weapons did them little good. Racist militias could operate with the tacit backing of local law enforcement, while any use of force by black residents in self-defense was be ruthlessly punished.

Behind the “Second Amendment Remedies” lie lurks a dark reality: private arsenals have always been the bloody left hand of white supremacy. When gun enthusiasts shrug off the mass slaughter of innocent civilians to preserve “freedom,” they aren’t talking about your freedom or mine.

Lie #9: No legislation can curb gun deaths in the US.

Americans now have more guns in circulation than citizens. No credible regulatory scheme, no matter how smart or ambitious, is likely to bring the rate of gun deaths in America in line with global standards anytime soon. Whatever we achieve politically in the near term can only be a down-payment on a better world for our children.

There are a few smart measures that could begin to slow the carnage and place us on a path to a safer future. If we start soon and persist over time, future generations can enjoy lives relatively free from mass gun violence while preserving their historic right to own weapons. Perhaps our most promising model would borrow lessons from the regulation of our other most dangerous product – automobiles.

No one is permitted to drive on our roads without obtaining a license. Every automobile is registered. Every transaction is taxed. All vehicle owners are required to maintain insurance to cover potential harm. Despite tight regulation, car ownership is ubiquitous. Cars remain a major cause of injury and death, but insurance has played a critical role over the years in driving safety improvements. More than any other force, insurance companies’ advocacy and political pressure has driven the industry to improve safety and curb highway deaths.

Our habit of imposing complicated and confusing restrictions on weapons by type and shape is largely theater, designed to create a sensation of progress while avoiding the fundamental problem. Instead, we should adopt a simpler, more powerful solution. Register every gun and every gun sale. Require gun owners to obtain a license. Make liability insurance a requirement for every gun owner, tracked to every gun. Require proof of insurance for every sale. Track sales of ammunition, just like we track the sale of Sudafed. Make these gun and ammunition registries available to law enforcement. It is a simple, constitutional approach that preserves the right of responsible adults to own as many weapons as they want, so long as they can demonstrate responsible, safe ownership.

Registration and insurance would not stop every crime, just like they fail to stop every automobile death. They would, however, begin to bring down gun deaths almost immediately. Faced with registration and insurance costs, declines in casual gun ownership would accelerate. It would become very expensive to maintain a gun-nut arsenal of dozens of weapons. Insurance costs would power the spread of trigger locks, gun safes and other safety protections. Registries would empower police to enforce gun laws. Liability suits and criminal actions against irresponsible gun owners would severely constrain criminals’ access to weapons. Instead of waiting for the ATF to crack down on illegal sellers, lawyers representing murder victims would quickly bankrupt today’s crop of amateur gun smugglers. Liability risks on sellers and insurers would make it more difficult for the obviously mentally ill to build an arsenal.

Personal freedom, constrained by personal responsibility, with limits imposed by markets rather than government. It’s an approach to gun control that any Republican should love, right?

Lie #10: Americans oppose tighter gun regulation.

When presented with concrete proposals to regulate guns, majorities of Americans almost always favor them. That support is so universal that it spreads across partisan lines. In fact, a ballot proposal on gun control passed in Nevada of all places. More than 90% of gun owners support universal background checks. A majority of Republicans support a national gun registry.

These ten lies have confused the public and diffused the political momentum of gun control advocates. A clearer understanding and concentrated focus will be key to achieving any legislative progress. We should approach this problem like our lives depend on it.

Source : https://bit.ly/2MUODHr


Black-ish Taught Me More About Slavery in 22 Minutes Than My Entire Education.

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Black-ish Taught Me More About Slavery in 22 Minutes Than My Entire Education.

The whole issue of slavery is one fraught with a legacy of pain, trauma and, yes, white guilt, and this country didn’t even apologize for this mass tragedy until 2009. If you think I found out that little stat from a history book, nope—I learned it from the season premiere of ABC’s Black-ish, which produced one of the black-est episodes of prime-time TV in a long time.

In it, Dre (Anthony Anderson), the patriarch of the family of now seven, attends a school play starring his twins on the subject of Christopher Columbus (first, the straight way, and then the “woke” way—where Columbus is called a slavery pioneer and massacres Native Americans).

During the show, Dre starts grumbling to his dad (Laurence Fishburne) about the b.s. of the notion that Columbus “discovered” America, before he gets up and rants about how racist and historically incorrect the play was.

As usual, there is biting sarcasm woven into the Black-ish storyline, with the teacher of the class saying that she had “bused in minority students after the last incident,” to which Dre responds, “Honestly, if I wanted my kids around this many minorities, I would have taken them to a Tyler Perry play and shamelessly enjoyed it.” Dre then asks the teacher why no “black holidays” are celebrated, and then lies about celebrating Juneteenth, the holiday many black Americans observe on June 19 to mark the end of slavery.

Mulling it over, Dre then takes the issue of Juneteenth to his job at the ad agency, where they’ve brought in singer Aloe Blacc (playing himself) to help them with some new jingles. Blacc then sets up the scene for the most heartwarming part of a most creative episode, a video done by the Roots on how Juneteenth began, a send-up of Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just a Bill”:

With the episode featuring more musical numbers set during slavery and lines like, “We celebrate the Fourth of July, but not the day all Americans were free,” Kenya Barris and his Black-ish writing team prove that they are some of the most deft comedic writers on the scene today, with the ability to handle thorny, black-ass topics while managing to be honest and funny AF.

In its last three seasons, Black-ish has taken on the subjects of “black names” (the Johnsons’ new baby is named Devonte—yes, like dude from Jodeci); HBCUs vs. predominantly white institutions; and biracial identity, all with depth and humor.

Barris told EW that he was really “proud” of the episode and that it forced him to examine his own scorn for “black holidays”: “Yeah, the episode talks about how talking about slavery makes white people uncomfortable, I get that. At the same time, it’s not indicting of anything contemporary. It really is more indicting, if anything, of black culture and being afraid of making other people uncomfortable, and thus disregarding our own past.”

I may be prone to hyperbole sometimes, but I say that this just may be one of the best TV episodes of all time. It took some of the best of black culture—music and comedy—and explicated a deep, dark reality with historical accuracy, authenticity and, yes, black love.

It was for us, by us, but white folks might learn a thing or two, too.

Source: https://bit.ly/2tC7sHt

Ancient village discovered in Canada is 10,000 years older than the pyramids.

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Ancient village discovered in Canada is 10,000 years older than the pyramids.

The discovery of a 14,000-year-old ancient village in Canada could forever alter our understanding of early civilization in North America. Researchers estimate the settlement is way older than the Giza pyramids, and have found artifacts dating all the way back to the Ice Age. The village is one of the oldest human settlements we’ve ever uncovered in North America – and lines up with the oral history of the Heiltsuk Nation.

Researchers from the Hakai Institute and University of Victoria, with local First Nations members, unearthed revealing artifacts on Triquet Island, around 310 miles northwest of Victoria, Canada. They’ve found fish hooks, spears, and tools to ignite fires. Thanks to the discovery of the ancient village last year, researchers now think a massive human migration may have happened along British Columbia’s coastline.

Archaeologists once thought humans might arrived in North America via a land bridge between Russia and Alaska, and then moved forward on foot. But the recent discovery suggests people moved down the coast possibly in boats instead; the coastal route likely came before the inland route.

University of Victoria PhD student Alisha Gauvreau, who was part of the excavation, told CTV News Vancouver Island, “I remember when we get [sic] the dates back and we just kind of sat there going, holy moly, this is old. What this is doing is just changing our idea of the way in which North America was first peopled.”

The find fits right in with the oral history of a First Nations government in British Columbia, the Heiltsuk Nation. For generations they’ve told stories of ancient coastal villages. William Housty of Heiltsuk Nation told CTV News Vancouver Island, “To think about how these stories survived all of that, only to be supported by this archaeological evidence is just amazing.”

Source: https://bit.ly/2Kj4TU2


Israel seizes solar panels donated to Palestinians by Dutch government.

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Israel seizes solar panels donated to Palestinians by Dutch government.

The Netherlands has lodged a complaint with the Israeligovernment after dozens of Dutch solar panels donated to a West Bank village were confiscated by Israeli authorities.

The hybrid diesel and solar power electricity system was installed last year in remote Jubbet al-Dhib, a village home to 150 people in an area of the West Bank occupied by Israel.

The panels were not built with proper permits and permissions, the authorities said, confiscating equipment belonging to the £307,000 humanitarian project last week.

Critics points out that building permissions for new Palestinian homes and infrastructure are almost impossible to obtain.

The village mayor told Palestinian outlet Ma’an News that the panels were destroyed, although Comet-ME, the aid organisation which installed the panels, said that between 60 and 90 were taken away intact and other equipment at the site destroyed and left behind by Israeli forces.

The Dutch Foreign Ministry has asked for the equipment to be returned to Jubbet al-Dhib and is considering what “next steps can be taken”, according to a report in Israeli daily newspaper Haaretzpublished on Saturday.

The issue has sparked anger both in the Dutch government and in the Palestinian territories over how it was handled.

Cogat, the Israeli military agency responsible for coordinating Israeli policy in Palestinian areas, said that several work-stop orders were issued before the day of the raid. Villagers maintain that they did not know the site had been targeted until Israel Defence Force (IDF) soldiers showed up.

Of particular note is that Jubbet al-Dhib is very close to Israeli outpost villages –settlements illegal under both Israeli and international law – which enjoy a full connection to the main power grid.

Cogat said in a statement that the village had “other electricity sources” other than the “illegal electricity room”. Haaretz said that before the solar panel system was installed, the 150 residents relied on a couple of “old and noisy” diesel generators for three hours of power a day.

More than 300 structures in the occupied West Bank demolished by the Israeli authorities in 2016 were at least in part funded by the EU or international NGOs, an Israeli military official said earlier this year.

Last year also saw the highest number of Israeli demolitions of Palestinian structures since rights groups began records.

Source: https://ind.pn/2KkwmRX

New religion: How the emphasis on ‘clean eating’ has created a moral hierarchy for food.

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New religion: How the emphasis on ‘clean eating’ has created a moral hierarchy for food.

Part of a series showcasing the research at the annual Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences conference from May 30-June 5 at the University of Ottawa.

When a vegan friend opened her fridge door, Gillian McCann could sense his disgust at the milk on the shelf.

“He never said it, but it definitely felt like it was polluting the … space,” she says.

McCann, a professor of religion and culture at Nipissing University in northern Ontario, says she is just as guilty of food snobbery. The vegetarian admits she would be grossed out to find a hunk of meat too close to her salad in the fridge.

But if their kitchen skirmish sounds like just more fodder for a Portlandia skit, it also points to a larger, more troubling, trend.

McCann is one of several academics presenting papers at next week’s Congress of the Humanities & Social Sciences in Ottawa looking at how the explosion of “clean eating” — whether raw food and juicing, the paelo diet, gluten-free regimens or fervent veganism — has created a moral hierarchy for food.

She argues that the rise in food movements has coincided with a decline of religion in society, with many people seeking familiar values such as purity, ethics, goodness. But these movements also tend to encourage behaviours that have steered a generation away from religion: Judgment, self-righteousness, an us-versus-them mentality. And, she adds, many seek a fulfilment that cannot be satisfied with food.

The relationship between food and virtue has deep roots. A bite from that apple in Eden, after all, was Eve’s fatal moral choice. Muslims and Jews avoid pork. Many Hindus and Rastafarians are vegetarian.

But while most of us have ditched traditional dietary restrictions, there is still a tendency in the broader culture to apply moral values to food choices, American philosophy and religion professor Alan Levinovitz argues in his new book, The Gluten Lie and Other Myths About What You Eat.

The way we categorize foods as virtuous or polluting is complex. For example, as Levinovitz explained in an interview with The Atlantic this month, “people thought sugar was bad in the late 1700s” almost as soon as it was introduced. This is because it was considered pleasurable and thus tantamount to sin, even as the sweetness of honey, considered more “natural,” was not.

As religion has declined, though, McCann argues that our obsession with the purity of what’s on our plate has grown. “It’s largely unconscious,” she says, but is motivated by a sort of “religious impulse” that goes unrecognized.

The fervour over what is considered “good” or “bad” food can have a Messianic tinge. Sorting out how we should eat seems to become ever more fraught: is it enough to eat food that is generally healthy? Does it also need to be environmentally sustainable? Is limited meat intake okay or do we need to abstain completely to be virtuous eaters?

Christiane Bailey, who is a PhD student of philosophy at the University of Montreal, believes eating meat, however sustainably farmed and humanely killed, is misguided. She is presenting another paper at next week’s meeting arguing veganism is the only way Canadians can be true ethical eaters. The researcher says it is “privileged and ignorant” to eat even an animal that has supposedly led a “happy” life on a farm, or even its byproducts.

But what she describes as a fight against “injustices” done to animals inadvertently pits her against other eaters, a dynamic McCann notes in her presentation.

“If you think you’re the pure, someone else is impure,” she says. The more self-righteous we are about what we eat — because it’s ethical or healthy or local — the more we also tend to judge others on what they eat. Or worse, who they are.

There’s a reason someone says ‘I am a vegetarian,’ rather than ‘I eat vegetarian.’

“It feels like virtue,” says McCann. “‘I am a virtuous person, I’m controlling my body, I’m disciplining my body [and] you’re not.’”

Part of the appeal of virtuous eating is it offers us a sense of control in an overwhelming world, says Helen Zoe Veit, a professor at Michigan State University and the author of Modern Food, Moral Food.

“In the last 30 or 40 years, there has been a strong sense that ethical eating is one of the most powerful things individuals can do to effect positive change,” she says in an email.

If someone religious came up and talked to you like that, you wouldn’t take it. But when it’s about food, you’re at a loss

But much of what we consider “good” eating is not about “ethics in any conventional sense, but instead (is) mainly about personal health and esthetics,” she notes, pointing to paleo and gluten-free diets.

“Feeling morally righteous about food choices makes sense when people are giving up desired foods in order to slow climate change or prevent the abuse of workers or animals. When people also feel morally righteous about dietary choices that are primarily about the body and the self, it hints that part of North Americans’ enduring interest in dietary trends is the idea that giving up desired foods is a virtuous act in its own right.”

Courtesy of Nipissing University

Not everyone has the luxury of food choice, or the individual agency to make that “moral” decision to live a healthy, active life.

Elisabeth Harrison, a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto who is also speaking at the meeting, argues for many people, eating behaviours are beyond personal control. Not everyone has the money to, say, buy organic. Pushing the health agenda without looking at larger social forces, she believes, is akin to “health fascism.”

For her part, McCann says she tries to keep self-righteousness about her vegetarianism in check — and not to eye-roll her friends when they cast silent judgment about the contents of her fridge.

“I think it’s so underground it’s hard to call it anymore,” she says of sermons about ethical food.

“If someone religious came up and talked to you like that, you wouldn’t take it. But when it’s about food, you’re kind of at a loss, you’re like ‘I can’t even engage on this,’ because, in a sense, they’re right.’”

Source: https://bit.ly/2KnHqhp

Building a peace accord between computer scientists and social science.

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Building a peace accord between computer scientists and social science.

AS A COMPUTER science PhD student, I am a disciple of big data. I see no ground too sacred for statistics: I have used it to study everything from sex to Shakespeare, and earned angry retorts for these attempts to render the ineffable mathematical. At Stanford I was given, as a teenager, weapons both elegant and lethal—algorithms that could pick out the terrorists most worth targeting in a network, detect someone’s dissatisfaction with the government from their online writing.

Computer science is wondrous. The problem is that many people in Silicon Valley believe that it is all that matters. You see this when recruiters at career fairs make it clear they’re only interested in the computer scientists; in the salary gap between engineering and non-engineering students; in the quizzical looks humanities students get when they dare to reveal their majors. I’ve watched brilliant computer scientists display such woeful ignorance of the populations they were studying that I laughed in their faces. I’ve watched military scientists present their lethal innovations with childlike enthusiasm while making no mention of whom the weapons are being used on. There are few things scarier than a scientist who can give an academic talk on how to shoot a human being but can’t reason about whether you should be shooting them at all.

The fact that so many computer scientists are ignorant or disdainful of non-technical approaches is worrisome because in my work, I’m constantly confronting questions that can’t be answered with code. When I coded at Coursera, an online education company, I developed an algorithm that would recommend classes to people in part based on their gender. But the company decided not to use it when we discovered it would push women away from computer science classes.

It turns out that this effect—where algorithms entrench societal disparities—is one that occurs in domains from criminal justice to credit scoring. This is a difficult dilemma: In criminal justice, for example, you’re confronted with the fact that an algorithm that fulfills basic statistical desiderata is also a lot more likely to rate black defendants as high-risk even when they will not go on to commit another crime.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. I do know, however, that I won’t find it in my algorithms textbook; I’m far more likely to find relevant facts in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work on systemic discrimination or Michelle Alexander’s on mass incarceration.

My personal coding projects have presented similarly thorny ethical questions. Should I write a computer program that will download the communications of thousands of teenagers suffering from eating disorders posted on an anorexia advice website? Write a program to post anonymous, suicidal messages on hundreds of college forums to see which colleges offer the most support? My answer to these questions, incidentally, was “no”. But I considered it. And the glory and peril of computers is that they magnify the impact of your whims: an impulse becomes a program that can hurt thousands of people.

Perhaps it’s more efficient to allow computer scientists to do what we’re best at—writing code—and have other people regulate our products? This is insufficient. Coders push products out at blinding speed, often cloaked in industry secrecy; by the time legislation catches up, millions of people could be harmed. Ethics training is required for professionals in other fields in part because it’s important for doctors and lawyers to be able to act ethically even when no one’s looking over their shoulders. Further, computer scientists need to help craft regulations because they have the necessary technical expertise; it’s hard to regulate algorithmic bias in word embeddings if you have no idea what a word embedding is.

Here are some steps forward. Universities should start with broader training for computer science students. I contacted eight of the top undergraduate programs in computer science, and found that most do not require students to take a course on ethical and social issues in computer science (although some offer optional courses). Such courses are hard to teach well. Computer scientists often don’t take them seriously, are uncomfortable with non-quantitative thinking, are overconfident because they’re mathematically brilliant, or are convinced that utilitarianism is the answer to everything. But universities need to try. Professors need to scare their students, to make them feel they’ve been given the skills not just to get rich but to wreck lives; they need to humble them, to make them realize that however good they might be at math, there’s still so much they don’t know.

A more socially focused curriculum would not only make coders less likely to cause harm; it might also make them more likely to do good. Top schools squander far too much of their technical talent on socially useless, high-paying pursuits like algorithmic trading. As Andrew Ng, a Stanford computer scientist, admonished a roomful of Stanford students he was trying to recruit to Coursera: “You have to ask yourself, why did I study computer science? And for a lot of students, the answer seems to be, so I can design the latest social media app…I believe we can build things that are more meaningful than that.”

There are many steps tech companies should take as well. Organizations should explore the social and ethical issues their products create: Google and Microsoft deserve credit for researching algorithmic discrimination, for example, and Facebook for investigating echo chambers. Make it easier for external researchers to evaluate the impacts of your products: be transparent about how your algorithms work and provide access to data under appropriate data use agreements. (Researchers also need to be allowed to audit algorithms without being prosecuted.) Ask social or ethical questions in hiring interviews, not just algorithmic ones; if hiring managers asked, students would learn how to answer them. (Microsoft’s CEO was once asked, in a technical interview, what he would do if he saw a baby lying in an intersection: the obvious answer to pick up the baby did not occur to him).

Companies should hire the people harmed or excluded by their products: whose faces their computer vision systems don’t recognize and smiles their emojis don’t capture, whose resumes they rank as less relevant and whose housing options they limit, who are mobbed by online trolls they helped organize and do little to control. Hire non-computer-scientists, and bring them in for lunchtime talks; have them challenge the worldviews of the workforce.

It’s possible that listening to non-computer scientists will slow the Silicon Valley machine: Diverse worldviews can produce argument. But slowing down in places where reasonable people can disagree is a good thing. In an era where even elections are won and lost on digital battlefields, tech companies need to move less fast and break fewer things.

Source: https://bit.ly/2pXt8Ng

Can a font save your life?

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Can a font save your life?

After decades of issuing forecasts in ALL CAPS, in the spring of 2016, the US National Weather Service said it would start using both uppercase and lowercase letters, allowing it to better emphasize important information like tornado warnings and hurricanes.

Lena Groeger is a designer and journalist who wrote How Typography Can Save Your Life for ProPublica in which she argues that the design of a typeface can actually be an issue of life and death.

Take highway signs, for example.

How easy they are to read at night, in bad weather, or just in general can make a minor difference: getting in the right lane for an exit.

Or it could make a major difference: like avoiding an accident.

Over the last several decades, the typefaces on US highway signs have been replaced with an easier-to-read font, as shown in the picture above.

Typeface choice and style is also important, Lena says, because it can help or hinder you from extracting important information from a block of text.

Consider the green picture below.

An example of how difficult it is to read all-caps text versus sentence case text. (Lena Groeger)

Most people find the sentence-case version of the text, on the bottom, easier to read, says Lena.

Which is the the reason why the US National Weather Service announced that it was changing its weather forecasts and bulletins from all caps to sentence case.

Environment Canada has also made this change.

Recognizing that in current usage, using all caps in a sentence is akin to shouting, the US service made this clever announcement in 2016:


Lena explains that the use of all caps dates back to a time when forecasts, as well as legal and other documents, were written with typewriters, which have a limited capacity to emphasize text — and using capital letters was the only easy way to do this.

How the US National Weather Service forecast looked before, and now. (NOAA)

“We’re well past the age of typewriters,” she says, and it’s taken a long time for many agencies to catch up, she adds.

Now, messages like tornado warnings — which will remain in all caps — will stand out much more, and allow people to discern important information from the forecast.

But the significance of typeface choice also applies to traffic, and the ability of a driver to read and process information.

In a recent study MIT’s AgeLab and the font maker Monotype examined how different typeface choices could effect driver reaction time when glancing at a dashboard.

The study found that, especially among men, a clearer, easier-to-read typeface meant on average they were spending half a second less getting information from the car’s dashboard. That may not sound like much, but at highway speeds, its significant.

Half a second equates to 50 feet of travel, Lena says. “That could mean the difference between life and death.”

Source: https://bit.ly/2ItXEn8