Saturday, December 27, 2008

Confirmation Bias

A friend of mine posted this link on her facebook site. It's an article about opening up monogamous relationships. I'm responding, not the article itself, but to one of the comments, which claims: Having been in and known dozens and dozens of people involved with open relationships, I can think of less than a handful for whom it has worked.

Of course defining which relationships "work" and which don't can be pretty hard, but it struck me that a case could be made that most relationships don't "work" at least if your test is having them last for life.

When I was at university I knew of perhaps three openly non-monogmous relationsips, although there were probably a few others who were keeping it quiet. Naturally this was out of hundreds (possibly thousands) of relationships within my friendship circle over the years.

The other day I opened the newspaper to an interview with someone who was part of one of those non-monogmous relationships, who has now become a moderately famous author. His partner is drifting around during the interview, occasionally intervening. And yes, its the same partner. They've been together more than 20 years, since well before I met them.

The thing is, I can only think of four other relationships from my peer group that have made the distance. So the "failure" rate is actually a lot higher for the conventional relationships than the very small sample of open relationships.

But when monogamous relationships break up outside observers seldom blame monogamy. When open or polyamourous relationships don't last, it's the first thing everyone else grabs for.

It's not a very original observation of course. It's called Confirmation Bias. When we see something that supports our prejudices we file it away as evidence, when it counteracts what we expect we often, although not always, disregard it.

But it would be nice if, on a lefty website, people of explicitly progressive politics were not so clearly applying it to bash others.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The Psephology of Giving

I am a big fan of the Internet sites that raise money for charities by having ads played to you when you either click the link, or use them as a search engine. Collectively they have raised millions, translating to hundreds of millions of meals for the hungry, thousands of square meters of rainforest saved, hundreds (at least) of children taught to read and so on. Admittedly some of this is illusion, with money shuffled from one charity to another, but it still looks like the net effects are positive.

One of the smaller sites in this regard is Search Kindly. They use the Google Search engine, but get to pass on half the income from sponsors to charities, rather than it all going to Google. Search Kindly differs from other such sites in that you get to choose which charity you want the money to go to. They've tried this in a few ways, but at the moment run polls each month where those using the site can choose from a list of six charities. Whichever gets the most choices gets the money for the month. You don't have to choose when you use the search engine, but I usually do.

Only very rarely do the options include a charity I actually think would be a bad choice, but there is no doubt that some would make the money go a lot further than others. At the start of this month I was pleased to see the Grameen Bank on the list, and enthusiastically voted for them every day. Alas by mid month it was clear they would come third (although at least there are consolation prizes for 2nd and 3rd). I decided to switch to MedShare International, a charity I'd never heard of before, but who sound like they've got a great program, collecting medical supplies Western Hospitals can't use for shipping to aid groups in the fourth world.

The thing that struck me about this is that it is a rare case of voting where you get to see the score as the vote progresses (I mean rare in terms of things that matter, not worthless web surveys). If the vote was run like an Australian preferential secret ballot I'd have voted Grameen 1, Medshare 2, but what if it was a US plurality style ballot? Even if I had known Grameen was probably not going to make it, I might have voted for them anyway. However, confronted with the clear reality of a two-horse race I shifted my vote.

I don't really have a conclusion to this (other than use Search Kindly or Ripple or one of the others out there), but it does provide yet more evidence why preferential voting is better than First Past the Post. It's just crazy that one can be left with this choice between voting for what you really believe in, and voting for what might actually win, sometimes without even the information Search Kindly offers to facilitate.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Maintain Your Rage

I haven't blogged on the disaster that is the White Paper on Carbon Trading. That's simply because the dissection of what is wrong with this abomination has been done better by many more prominent bloggers.

What I don't think has been covered nearly as well is what those who want a biosphere that lasts longer than the warranties on the more reliable dishwashers should do. One of the nasty aspects of the ETS is that it doesn't leave any room for people to take direct action by, for example, acquiring Green Power. All that happens is that the emissions you have saved become available for polluters to snap up at bargain basement rates.

Lobbying is clearly also not effective - if it was we wouldn't have this debacle. As for working the system from within, well Cortney Hocking's line that "Peter Garrett is the only man in history to have more power as lead singer in a rock band than as a federal minister" is now proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Donating to GetUp's ad campaign is a good first step, but seriously, if you want to make a difference in the long run I think the options are down to one: Join the Greens. If you're already a member, up your involvement or donations.

I don't really like saying this because I am a great believer in pursuing multiple strategies, and I always distrust the people who have the same answer to every problem. Since involvement in the Greens has been my primary form of activism for a long time, pushing it to hard makes me feel like one of those Socialist Alternative members chanting "One solution, revolution". But seriously, what is the alternative?

It's not like the Greens don't need your help. Whether it is more bodies on polling day handing out HTV cards, more people willing to put up their hands as candidates or campaign managers, or just someone willing to counteract the nutters who still dominate the occasional branch and working group the party needs people. And it needs money. If you're angry, the link is here.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Shocked I Say

This morning, news radio carried the same story several times (as they do):

"The man whose house was hit by a plane yesterday said he was surprised..."[1]

On one occasion they changed it to "shocked". I can only assume that the writers have taken their Christmas break early.

[1] I may have the way they described him wrong, but the relevant part is right.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

I'm Starting to Relate to Farmers

My house has three trees in the backyard. One is a fig tree, which has been deeply appreciated by many friends. One is an olive tree, which produced nothing the first year I was here, but gave me some very nice olives the second, although salting is a lot of work.

I had no idea what the third one was, and since it looked like it might die the first year didn't pay it much attention, other than putting on a bit of graywater in the hope it wouldn't. Now after, producing nothing at all for two years it has come out in a whole lot of very small plums.

They're not really good to eat, but I thought they might be good soup-making material, having made some wonderful soups from plums you wouldn't eat straight at a former house. A week ago only a few were ripe, but there were scores (literally) that were only a few days off. Then came the rains. Leaving aside the ones that are still a few weeks off, so many of those scores have split that this is what I was able to harvest.

Monday, December 15, 2008

On Beauty

There's a very moving (and beautifully written) post over at Hoyden about the Beauty Myth and what happens to women's self identity as they age and are no longer noticed/praised for being desirable. Although the thread sometimes degenerates there are several comments as insightful and revelatory as the original.

I'm particularly cautious of thread derailment on feminist topics so I thought I'd post over here and just link there.

I'm interested in the other side of the coin - how to avoid perpetuating and reinforcing the message. For a long time I'd almost never comment on a woman's appearance at all, lest it be reinforcing of the idea that this was what matters. More recently I've slipped into sometimes telling a woman how attractive she looks, and it struck me the other day that I've said nice things about one particular friend's looks more often than her intellect/academic success. (Since she's well into a PhD in a hot area of science the latter is considerable, but she's not entirely confident of her abilities, so its not like such comments would be superfluous)

I realised that as a society we're so conditioned to talk about women in terms of their appearance that it takes a fair amount of effort not to. Certainly such effort is pretty minor compared to the efforts women have to go to in order to block out the messages that their worth is measured in milli-Helens[1], but I'm pondering how important this is, and if any comments are too many. May post in more depth later.

[1] In case this is not self-explanatory, the milli-Helen was a measure of beauty proposed at one point on the basis that if Helen of Troy had "the face that could launch a thousand ships" beauty could be measured on the scale of how many ships would be launched to rescue/recapture an individual. I'm not sure how tongue in cheek the idea was, but besides the sexist (and hetrosexist) assumptions, it is does reveal that in a society where cultural notions of beauty are strongly reinforced such a scale is much less use than one in which diverse visions of beauty are encouraged.

Sunday, December 14, 2008


When I started this blog I never expected it to top the readership charts, or draw so many page views I could run advertising that would make me rich. But I rather hoped someone would read it. Thus my excitement when anyone comments.

After a failed attempt to put a tracker on some time ago I made another effort two weeks ago. This time it seems to have worked, and I've been emailed two weekly records of all the visits to the site in that time.

And the figure is....drumroll....none.

Yes, no one at all has visited this site in that time according to the tracking device. No pageviews at all. Either it is filtering out my own visits, or its not working.

It really doesn't do a lot for my efforts to convince myself I can get a book published.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Year To End All Wars

Mark 2068 in your diaries. It’s the year humanity will achieve its crowning glory – an end to war.

OK, I’m not actually serious with that. The date is based on a calculation so rough it barely deserves the name, but I’m trying to make a serious point. Unlikely as it may seem, we are on target to end perhaps the greatest blight on human happiness in history, and in the life time of some people alive today.

I suspect that most people, off the cuff, would say that war is getting more common in the world today, and scoff at the idea we are on a trajectory towards ending it. But this perception is false, based on three factors:

• We have a general tendency to think bad news is increasing, even when it is not
• Wars are now more reported than ever before, so we hear about atrocities in far off lands of which we know little.
• The wars that are occurring may well be becoming more bloody – at least in absolute terms – which creates a perception there are more of them.

There is no doubt new technology is allowing killing on a greater scale than ever before, and as the world’s population grows it is to be expected that death tolls will rise.

But the happier side of the coin is that the number of wars in the world is on the decline, and has been for quite a while. My very rough estimate is that every three years two wars are ended and one new one starts. A slightly less rough assessment is that there are 20 wars in the world today. On this basis it will take 60 years to end war entirely, thus the date above.

Now there are many, many things one can quibble over in these figures. The definition of war is not that easy, as is defining when many conflicts start and finish.. I’m sure I’ve also left out a few wars from the table below, and would be grateful for corrections (although of course I’d prefer that there are no more horrors to confront) I’ve put my definitions at the bottom. Feel freed to disagree with them, but I’m fairly confident that on almost any consistent definition you can use my broad conclusion is robust – the number of wars in the world is in long term decline.

The obvious fly in this ointment is that environmental degradation increases conflict and will lead to more wars. Already the Dafur conflict may well have been caused, at least in part, by desertification of the Sahel.

But against this there is the fact that wars tend to breed more wars, and peace breeds more peace. Conflicts on a nation’s borders lead to destabilisation, most clearly seen in the way civil war in Liberia engulfed surrounding nations. On the other hand, the more countries there are that are free of wars the more support there is for the humanitarian and peace-keeping missions, as well as the trade sanctions and moral pressure which collectively have contributed to ending quite a few of the world’s conflicts.

I think we’re in a race, to get the number of wars in the world down to the point where virtuous circles take over and war is put behind us like smallpox before global warming fans the embers of an unstoppable number of blazes.

I’m far from certain we’ll win this race, but there is a much better chance than most people realise that we might.

Nation’s experiencing wars[1] begun since 1993 (5)
South Ossetia/Abkhazia[2]
Ivory Coast

Nations whose experience of war stopped since 1993 (12)
East Timor
Northern Ireland
Sierra Leone

Nations experiencing continuing wars (15)

Kurdish Turkey
Niger Delta
Sri Lanka
West Papua

Wars that started and ended between 1993 and 2008 (7)

I’ve chosen 1993 as the starting point because it gives us as long a timeline as possible while still avoiding the events surrounding the ending of the Cold War, which stopped quite a few conflicts, while starting several others. If you take the starting period back to 1983 you’ll find the ratio of wars ended to wars begun is even more promising.

There are also a couple of wars I’ve found difficult to classify. Officially the war in South Sudan is over, but I’m not confident enough to put it in the second column. I’m also not sure whether Pakistan belongs in the first or the third column or should not be listed at all since it is more a powderkeg than an active war. The South Thailand insurgency is another puzzle – it started well before the era, but has spiked since 2004.

On these numbers we’re actually doing slightly better than my estimate, but several of the wars that have been brought to a close were quite small, so I’ll round down.

If I’m right, by 2023 we should have ended around ten of the current wars, although five new ones will have started. This doesn’t strike me as incredible at all. Certainly some of the wars listed in columns 1 and 3 look intractable (it’d be a braver blogger than I who predicted the end to the Israel/Palestine conflict, or peace in Somalia). However, many of these look like they could come to an end a good deal earlier. The peace treaty for Mindanao was defeated on an 8-7 vote. The Columbian FARQ and the LRA in Uganda look close to collapse and I’m pretty confident South Ossetia and Abkhazia will end up as peaceful independent states. It’s quite likely historians will judge that war already over.

It’s true three of the new wars are a whole lot bloodier than the ones that have come to an end, but if we can get the number of active conflicts in the world into single figures I think we’ll see fresh enthusiasm for positive global intervention.

And just think – if we could cut the number of wars in the world by a fifth in a period where George W Bush was president, imagine what’s possible when we actually have a president desirous of peace.

[1]I use the term “Nation’s experiencing war” to refer to situations where a political conflict is killing more than 1 person per hundred thousand per year. I think its important to look at the actual costs, rather than whether war has been officially declared. Of course the cost of war is measured in injuries and economic damage as well, but deaths per head of population are easier to measure and seem a pretty good starting point. The rate of 1/100,000 is completely arbitrary. However, as I have said I think the general conclusion stands up whether you use a higher or lower rate as long as one is consistent.

I have excluded from this definition cases such as Zimbabwe where a government is killing large numbers of its people, but the killing pretty much all goes one way. Whatever this should be called, I don’t think it is war. It’s pretty easy to demonstrate however, that atrocities of this form are also in long term decline – another reason for optimism.

A more difficult exclusion is conflicts that are not based on national or religious feeling, or political ideology, cf the Mexican battles over control of the drug trade. I’ve left these out because they’re harder to track, but also because, horrific as they may be, the death rate is usually lower than “proper” wars.

[2]The conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia are so linked in cause and likely outcome I am counting them as one. Even combined, the death toll is still one of the lowest on the list.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Good News From Switzerland

In Switzerland, over two-thirds of voters supported heroin provision to heavily addicted people. This is good news for those with a heroin problem, as the program saves lives, and it is also good news for the Swiss burghers who won't have their houses burgled as a result.

More importantly, it's good news for people in equivalent situations in a whole lot of countries. The overwhelming nature of the vote will send a message to jelly-backed politicians elsewhere. It is regrettable that a bill for legalization of cannabis went down at the same time, but in the long run I suspect the success will count for more than the defeat.

This is also very good news for the Greens. Personally I don't believe our policies are the major bar to electoral success. Lack of money and an absence of experience in government are bigger problems. Where our policies do get in the way its usually because they are badly written and need to be rethought.

However, there are some policies that do hurt our chances, and drugs and law and order are chief amongst them. The problem is that our policies here are basically right (give or take a bit of tweaking). They would save lives, cut crime and save money. We can't abandon them without selling our soul. Electorally they are a burden we have to bear, although of course writing them more clearly would reduce the damage.

So Switzerland's vote is very good news. For one thing it proves these are not policies the population will never accept. For another it gives us something to point to. Most people won't listen, but for a few, the fact that 68% of a developed nation backed something might make them question their knee-jerk opposition.

More to the point, this is a tide that will be very hard to hold back. Several other nations are considering adopting something similar. In a globalised world it will get harder and harder to scaremonger about a policy that not only exists in many comparable countries, but is demonstrably saving lives.