Saturday, January 16, 2010

Fun with Statistics 2

I had so much fun with that last set of number that I decided to try this again. This time I rearranged the data so that I could look at generational sets over the course of time. Each generation contains five years worth of people. And all the data comes in five-year intervals from 2000 to 2015 – that’s four data points for each generational group.

You can see here that each generation gets four rows. This generation group started out in the year 2000 from the age 0-4. Then in 2005 they were between 5-9 – unfortunately not everyone made it, the generation shrank by about 500,000. As best I can tell, there are just two things that change these generational number, mortality and migration. I don’t know how to separate out those two effects yet. If I was really ambitious I might be able to find some migration numbers, but I took a quick look around and didn’t find anything helpful or reliable. The generation that started out age 0-4 in 2000 will be 15-19 in 2015. It’s expected to shrink from 95,371,000 down to 94,289,000 – that’s a loss of 1,082,000 people due to death and migration. It shrank by about 1.13% from the 2000 level.

That’s the number that I finished with. The generational shift should show us how much each generation has had to contend with change, loss, and general struggle. Again, you can access the complete spreadsheet here. Each country has its own page and I’ve ordered the generational loss numbers in a convenient manner. Not surprisingly they all end the same way no matter what country you look at. By the time you’re looking at 80 and 90 year old people, mortality rate approaches 100%. The really interesting information is at the other end – from 0 up to about age 49 or 54.

Those are the ages where people really move around. The US gets a good number of people coming in – apparently more than other nations our size. India and China are visions of stability. Relative to their native populations, migration doesn’t appear to have a significant impact on their numbers. I would guess the losses that appear in the numbers are mostly due to mortality because they are so stable across age groups. My guess is that when the numbers are more sporadic across generation groups, it is due to migration patterns. Among this group, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Vietnam stand out. You can see these contrasts in the graph below.

So it seems that there are approximately three kinds of countries. There are gainers, losers, and countries that are stable. The gainers, like the US, Germany, and Saudi Arabia have economies with a strong demand for more manual labor – they’re importing workers. The losers have cheaper-labor economies where workers might have incentive to seek better employment opportunities somewhere else. The stable countries are probably more self-contained economically relative to their size. They could be smaller counties without a lot of immigration or emigration, or they could be larger countries that have nowhere to send workers in such numbers that look meaningful against their total population (China and India.)

I think this info is pretty interesting so my next mini-project is going to expand the data I’ve used to look at these numbers. I know that the effects in my generational loss numbers are mixed, but I think that’s ok. These numbers should give us some information about stability because whether someone has moved away or passed away, their social circle needs to contend with their absence. We’ll see where this goes.

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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Fun with Statistics

After a conversation with hannah about populations and demographics I decided to have a look for myself. The UN has a great database with information on just about every country. Because we were talking about populations of young men, I started by getting trend data on age and gender for the twenty largest countries in the world. We focused on young men because there’s a conventional wisdom meme that claims large populations of young men lead to wars.

Here’s the link to the entire spreadsheet:

The first page has some interesting statistics comparing the populations across countries and then there is one page for each country, in order from largest on down. All the raw numbers are in thousands. So in the first table (T1) on the front page, for T1-China:2000 it has the number 9731 – that’s 9,731,000 people. More specifically, those 9.7 million people are all young men, ages 15-29, that did not have a corresponding woman of the same age. On the individual country pages, I called this statistic “extra men.”

The UN output format isn’t the greatest in the world. It took some time moving the numbers around to bring out the relevant data. The second table (T2) on the front page is labeled “USA 2000-Baseline.” Here I took the number of extra men in the US in the year 2000 and set that as 1.00 – then I divided all the other figures on extra men by that number from T1-USA:2000 (1196) to help put the numbers of the other countries in perspective. For example, right now in 2010, the US has 1.25 times as many extra young men compared to back in 2000. Remember, this isn’t the raw number of young men, this is the difference between the number of young men and the number of young women. A change from 1 up to 1.25 is a fairly subtle shift. Compare the USA’s current number, 1.25, with China’s, 13.71, and your eyes might pop a bit. Right now, China has nearly 11 times as many extra young men compared to the US.

How much of that can be accounted for by difference in population size? Well, China’s population is about 4.2 times larger than ours. That should indicate that something different is going on between the US and China. People often say that China is missing women. There may be some error in statistics reported in China due to the “one child” policy, but I don’t really know much about that. More likely, the aberration is due to infanticide of baby girls which has been reported on in numerous places. The statistics seem to imply something similar has taken place in India. We shouldn’t think that the US’s numbers are rock bottom. I haven’t looked at a way to find the “normal” balance between young men and women yet, but the US has quite a few "extra men" as well.

So what about that “young men = war” idea? Well, these stats don’t tell us too much so far. The fact is that I would need to look at historical data to see just how we should interpret that claim. Does that mean that large groups of “extra men” increase the chance of war? Or does it mean that a population, as a whole, which has more young men is more likely to go to war? If that’s the case, Iran looks far more dangerous than China. They have the youngest, most-male population among the 20 largest countries in the world. Has there been any trouble in Iran lately? Another reason that historical data would be important here is that all around the world, medical care is improving and populations are getting older. There will be fewer spikes in the numbers of young men. So is the phenomena in question a matter of a magical tipping point – you get X percent of young men and you will have a war? Or is it a relative issue where the most lopsided countries in the world get to light the firecrackers? Furthermore, what if aging populations just lead to stretches in the longevity of our social roles. “30 is the new 20, son, so go grab your gun and your balaclava!”

For the information that statistics can tell us, they sure leave us with a lot of questions.

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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

A Classy Guy

Jim Tressel is a winner and a total class act. He has done nothing but bring honor to the The Ohio State University and its football program. And he's kind of funny, too. "I think they're all sober."

Jim Tressel is a winner and a total class act. He has done nothing but bring honor to the The Ohio State University and its football program. And he's kind of funny, too. "I think they're all sober."

Congratulations to Coach Tressel and the Ohio State Buckeyes, 2010 Rose Bowl Champions!

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

My First Run (pt. 3)

Okay, to continue with last week’s story, three of us are leading a hash run in a mountain forest near my house – we are the hares. Dave is back waiting at the beer check next to the beautiful Silver River waterfall. Ben is marking the Short route with flour heading up the hillside up to the crest of the ridge. I’ve just made my way up a small stream which dwindled down to nothing as I made my way up the hillside. I’ve just left the stream to go through a short section of forest that we cleared on an earlier trip.

The cleared section opened into a really weird farm field, there was no sense to its location. It wasn’t near the stream-trail, it wasn’t near the ridgeline, it wasn’t convenient for anything, though it was a big help to us. There was one small, rough trail leading away from it. It was probably the lowest grade trail I’d still be willing to take the runners on. You felt like the mud and earth was going to slide away from you on every step. Oddly enough, about ten feet from the ridge the trail just disappeared, like someone wasn’t interested in finishing it. But I had my bag of flour and I put down a check on the trail on top of the ridge.

I thought of that check as the best possible gift I could give to the people running the long. Simply put, the Mao Kong Ridge Trail is the single greatest place to run in the world. It has a bit of up and down, but you never lose momentum. It has some turns and some stones which makes it challenging, but still dynamic. There’s one fifteen minute section that’s pure running nirvana. It’s never slick, always fast.

Now, I thought that check on the ridge was a gift because it meant the runners could spend more time on the ridge. When the day was done, they didn’t see things that way. It turns out that after the check, I hadn’t dropped any flour for more than 300 meters. Our rule is first flour needs to be within 100 meters – there was some dissent over that problem.

The Long route crossed with the Short route once the Short came up to the ridge. Planning everything out, we were very worried about getting caught by the faster runners. We agreed that whoever made it to the cross first would mark the Long route and second would mark the end of the Short. I suspected I’d get their first because of my early shortcut, but, beforehand, I really couldn’t say for sure. On the day I arrived at the crossing point first, Ben got there less than 20 seconds later.

We didn’t stop to chat. I grabbed my flour and continued with the Long. Ben grabbed his and went to finish the Short. His trek was nearly done, but there was a tricky bit coming up. He had just come up to the ridge top and now he had to go down the other side. But that route is covered with the most slippery, dangerous, cursed stones I’ve ever tried to tango with. A friend that I brought down those steps begged me not to make anyone else try them. She was certain they were just too treacherous. But I felt boxed in and I couldn’t figure out another way finish the Short route. I put my faith in everyone’s sense of self-preservation and just hoped they would be careful. No problems, everyone got in safe.

But that was Ben’s work. I marked the long continuing up the ridge a bit further. It climbed up a bit to a minor peak and then it really got exciting. The week before our run, Ben had stumbled upon another trail to get off the mountain that I’d never seen before. At the last minute we decided to include it. The trail’s a real screamer. It starts high on the peak and drops all the way down to the stream the eventually becomes the big waterfall. It was steep and it was a muddy mess, but what a thrill. There were thick vines hanging all around that really helped, it was a full-body exercise.

I made my way down that section much faster than I should have and my heart was pounding, the whole world felt intense. But then I heard a noise. An unmistakable noise. It was Big John. He was shouting at someone else on the trail. That’s just how he tells jokes, he shouts – the punch lines at least. But this was bad. I was the hare. I’m not supposed to be seen. I’m not supposed to be caught. We had been marking for more than an hour. I never imagined that anyone would be left on the trail after all this time. Worse still, I was supposed to lead the Long runners down the middle of the stream. What could I do with people still going by on the far side? I hid. Quietly.

I really just crouched down behind some plants and telepathically urged them to hurry up and get moving. It actually seemed to work fairly well. I only had to wait for about two minutes. I was nervous about the fast runners coming up behind me, but I still felt I had some time. When I thought there was a gap on the trail across the stream I jumped down into the stream and marked down the stream as quickly as I could. Nobody shouted. Nobody saw me. I made it to the mini-waterfall – about six feet. I made an exclamation point out of flour just before the jump! I leaped and splashed down in the cold water, still flowing strong. All my flour got washed away, but I was prepared. I grabbed the last stash of flour and got up on the right side of the stream. I had to move quickly and carefully because there were still people on the far side of stream that I had to avoid.

I moved safely along a muddy trail and into some bamboo groves, I was nearly on the home stretch. I got back to the railroad ties that I had used as a shortcut at the start of the run. I was going to use them to finish the Long route. “Tuzi!” “Tuzi!” “Tuzi!” A nine-year-old girl was shouting, “The Hare!” over and over. I’d been caught by a nine-year-old girl. There was a group of Short walkers who had gotten confused at an early check, they were a bit behind. They caught me fair and square. I told them how to finish up and I went on my way. I marked the remainder of the run back to the restaurant without any trouble.

Most people concluded that the run was a spectacular debacle. A few sour notes along with some real high points. Nothing boring about my runs…I’ll never have it any other way.

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Monday, November 23, 2009

My First Run (pt. 2)

To set the scene, about twenty minutes before I got into an accident with a lawyer from the Justice Department. I had to talk him down and jump in a cab to get to the start of the run I was responsible for leading. I was already late, and when I arrived everyone was waiting around impatiently and some people were starting to get upset. I jumped out of the cab, grabbed my bag of flour and the three of us, me, Dave, and Ben, started running. Together, we ran up a short set of steps to the ridge top, but then we split up. Dave and Ben went straight down the hill on some farming trails. I cut across the side of the hill on a path made out of recycled railroad ties. I took a short cut because we only need one person to go over each section of the run, this allowed us to finish the whole thing faster and avoid getting caught.

Dave and Ben ran down the hill all the way to the bottom, before coming back up some stone steps to the 200 ft. Silver River waterfall, still in beautiful form. Dave’s day finished right there because he was in charge of the beer check – a special treat for our group, the China Hash. Some other hashes have a beer check every time they run, but we only have them once or twice a year. I though the spot was special enough that people would really enjoy a cold drink there. I found out later it was a big hit, all the drinks went quickly. Dave even made a video of some of the people coming up the stair just before the stop. (I’ll see if there’s a way I can put it up here.)

Ben took over laying the trail after the waterfall/beer-stop. He went up a few more stone steps before the trail evened out a lot. That’s also where my railroad-tie shortcut met up with the real trail. I had already gone ahead to mark a different section. Ben moved through this flat part quickly. It was a great elevated forest trail overlooking a stream on its left side. If the weather had been a little drier, this section would have been nearly perfect. It was shaded from the sun, so not too hot. It was wide, so not too restrictive. It was flat. All those factors make for some fun and fast trail running. But, because it was at the bottom of a valley, it was muddy. I say that only makes it more exciting.

That section led us up to a “bridge.” Just after the “bridge” the trail split for the Short and the Long. -- Sometimes the hare will plan to possible routes. One is longer or significantly more challenging for more intense participants. One is shorter for those so inclined. -- Ben was responsible for marking the Short route with flour leading back up to the mountain ridge. For the first time that day, at the beginning of the Long route, I started marking. I went off the trail straight into a stream. The stream quickly shrank and the trees and vines reached in from banks. It was slow going, but I knew anyone who followed would have to contend with the same obstacles. After several meters going up the stream, it opened into a broad pool. Ahead was 6+ft. stone wall with the streamwater running down the side. I put my bag of flour on top of it and climbed up. From head to toe I was soaked and muddy. From there I was able to skirt the streambed taking small stone staircases up from one deserted paddy to the next. Someone probably farmed here 10, 20, or 30 (100?) years ago. Then it was back into the stream, but it shrank as went uphill. I spent about twenty minutes following the stream up as high as I could. Then I found a section of jungle that we had all worked to clear the week before.

That section wasn’t too long, but I remember how much work it was to make it passable. Dave and I took turns with my cutting tool – a one foot steel blade on a two foot wooden arm. Ben was armed with a hand saw. I offered it to him before we left, but I was skeptical of how well it would work. He swung it around like a madman and it really did the trick. Dave and I always stayed thirty feet away from him, but I have to admit he was effective.

[I’ll have to stop here, but I should be able to finish next week.]

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

One Run, Up and Down

Dave said there’d be no long hills. I’m pushing upwards on just the balls of my feet – think of Flashdance. That’s the problem with long hills, the thinking. There’s no sharp turns, no logs to duck under, nothing dynamic. All you can do is grind and grind and grind. And think. Think of walking. Think of finishing. Think of punching that farmer who didn’t want you going through. Think of flying. Off the side of this fucking mountain. Think of who’s ahead. Think of who’s behind. Think of pushing harder. Think of walking. Think of walking. I come over the top of the hill and battle against the urge to walk in celebration of my victory over the climb. I run on.

I turn onto a shady trail, my vision sharpens, my feet fall naturally one after the other. If I showed you a picture of the path you’d see branches and rocks, roots and leaves, small boulders and bamboo pikes. But that photo would be a lie. None of those things are on my trail. My feet don’t slip on leaves, don’t trip on roots. I don’t slow down for branches, boulders, or bamboo. I slide on through.
It’s natural.

Now the downhill. It’s natural to be careful. It’s natural to take it slow. It’s natural to be nervous. But there’s nothing natural here. I’ve learned that my ankles are tough and my eyes will find a way down. They’ll tell my legs first. I’m just the last to know. It’s like having the front car on a roller-coaster on the first test-run. Can’t wait to find out how it ends.

I hit the ON-IN and finish a minute later. Toothpick hands me a beer.

Monday, November 16, 2009

My First Run (pt. 1)

At the end of October I planned and hared my first run for the China Hash House Harriers in Taipei. This is the group I run with on Sundays. Each week we meet at a different scenic place just outside Taipei. Two people (the hares) plan a trail ahead of time, and we give them a 15 minute running head start. The hares lay a trail of flour as they run and everyone follows trying to catch them. I took my first turn as a hare just three weeks ago. The club’s most senior member was quoted beforehand saying, “I’m not going to a run done by that bunch of rookies, you’ll all be lost in the damn jungle!” Just because he was right doesn’t mean it wasn’t a foul thing to say. But that’s still ok because everyone had a great time – even me.

This story is actually going to start one day before the Sunday run. Saturday morning, Dave (my co-hare) and I went out to survey the run one last time before we had to perform for a crowd. We rode my scooter up the hill to Mao-Kong which overlooks all of Taipei from the South. The trail started up some stairs until it went over the ridge, down through a farmer’s plot to a service road. Then a steep drop on some cutbacks all the way to the edge of a little town before taking a hiking trail next to a stream back up into the forest. It’s not considered great form to have huge vertical drops and gains, better to even them out. But in this case it was worth it – the trail went straight past the 200 ft. Silver River waterfall. There’s a temple in the cliff side behind the fall. And it had rained hard for three straight days before our run, I’ve never seen the cascade so full.

At the end of our run there was a short section where you had to trace a stream with a small six foot waterfall. We were so hot from hiking and running that I couldn’t resist jumping in – it’s such a rush. We headed back, but when I got to the scooter I discovered my pockets were empty…no keys. No scooter keys. No house keys. They had come out in the fall. We went back and looked for them, but there was no hope. The water was too fast, too turbulent. The keys were gone.

I’m proud that I was able to remain calm. Living in Taiwan has helped me develop my patience and my problem-solving skills. We coasted the scooter back down the hill to town and found a repair shop that could put new locks on the scooter. I finally got my cell phone out of the trunk and called my roommate to see if she could help me get back into the apartment. I got her key copied and everything was resolved. I bought Dave dinner to make up for the delay and thank him for his help. I finished the night by driving my scooter back up to Mao Kong and running home. I went to bed early and nervous.

I got up on Sunday and immediately started checking over everything. I had the flour ready. I had added the food dye to keep it visible even if it gets wet. I reviewed the timetable and the job flow-charts for me and my two co-hares. There were a lot of separate things to take care of, even with three of us, we still had to split up to get it all done. I had to pick-up Dave and Ben from the subway. Then we drove up the hill, stopping at all the turns to leave flour marks so everyone else could find it later. Once we got to Mao Kong, Dave took a bag of flour to mark the trail for a foot race that started at the Subway came up to the start of our run in Mao Kong. Ben took my car and drove down the hill to pick up Dave. I got on my scooter and drove on the farm roads to get over the mountain and set up a beer-stop next to the giant waterfall. All of that went off without a hitch, but I didn’t get back until 20 minutes before the run was supposed to start. But I got worried when people told me that the marks on the road driving up had faded, people were having trouble. I grabbed Dave and jumped on my scooter so we could re-mark the road before starting. We got to the bottom of the hill and go into an accident with a car. [Great!] The plastic on the front end of my scooter was smashed up. There was a small scratch on the bumper of the car. But the man was upset and frightened. It took me five minutes to get him to move his car to the side of the road before I could start and try to talk him down. He was a lawyer. [Fantastic!] With the Justice Department. [Awesome!]

After about 15 minutes he calmed down, we exchanged information and went on our way. We jumped in a cab and encouraged him to drive up the hill as fast as possible. We were late and everyone was waiting.

Friday, October 23, 2009

One Image

I want to talk a bit about Tom and Karen’s visit here in September. Now that the trip as a whole has had some time to cool on the windowsill I think I have a more even perspective on the whole event. In fact, at this point, I’m sure I can condense the entire trip into the analysis of a single photo. I’ve chosen this one:

First, I’ll need to outline the content. From Left to right, you’ll see Karen, my friend Beauty, her baby Sarah Nicole, her husband, with Tom on the right. And yes, I truly believe that everything important about our trip can be related back to this image. On the surface, this a great photo of some of my favorite people from the trip. Karen and Tom are obvious, but Beauty and her family are some of my oldest friends here in Taiwan. When I first moved to MingJian at the end of the summer after I arrived in Taiwan, Beauty wasn’t just one of my first friends; she was one of the very first people I met. I remember that I had moved into my apartment and I was wondering around looking for a nice restaurant. I sat down and the server was trying to figure out what I wanted. That was still a challenge back then, my Chinese wasn’t, what you might call, intelligible. Beauty walked in from nowhere and we just started talking. I was so surprised to be speaking with someone in comfortable English that I could hardly contain myself. I just wanted to babble on and on for hours. Back then she was just pregnant. Her baby, Sarah Nicole was born that winter. Beauty and I visit whenever we get the chance. It’s not as much since I moved to Taipei, but she’s still one of my closest friends in Taiwan. She and her husband gave the Cassavants and I some very nice tea as gifts before we left.

On a more general plane, this photo is a great representation of the time that I spent in Nantou and how much I love sharing that with anyone that I can. We took this photo at one of my favorite restaurants, not just because they have all of the traditional Taiwanese foods. But because they have some of the best food in Taiwan. Nothing is more common at a roadside than a soup and noodles café. The soup mix that Beauty’s husband makes every day is so thick with garlic and spices you can’t see past the surface – that’s my measure of a great soup. That’s just the sort of thing that I want to bring to any guests that I have the honor of hosting. With lunch we drank bubble tea with “chunks” in it. Any kind of chewy, sweet thing can go under the general category of chunks – nothing ancient here, it’s just very popular. Just after leaving the restaurant we drove straight into the mountains that make Nantou famous. We walked along Sun Moon Lake the three of us with Bagels. We ran around CheCheng trying their famous plum wine. We visited a famous Confucian Temple with spectacular night-time lighting. All these things and more are special here, found only in Nantou County, Taiwan – my home for a very important year.

But far more can be drawn from that single picture. At its very center is Sarah Nicole’s adorable smiling face. When I first arrived in Nantou, Sarah Nicole was still in her mom’s tummy, just waiting. This photo speaks to me about change. Even when I left Nantou she was a very little baby in a carrier. Now I look at her and I think of how much time has passed and all that I’ve done. I’ve taken a year of rigorous Chinese classes and thrown myself into the China Hash House Harriers. And both of those played a role in Karen and Tom’s trip. If it hadn’t been for those classes I wouldn’t have been able to organize as much as we did in those few days. That’s really one of my stronger suits at this point, logistics are pretty manageable – which makes talking about philosophy in Chinese a great new challenge. But I got a few good things together. I was able to scope out some different hotel options and found one in an interesting area. I made some special requests to the attendant and Tom and Karen seemed please with the hotel. We even got to participate in a Hash run on Wednesday night. Half-way through the run, someone came running back to us shouting about snakes on the trail. Of course, our first reaction was, “Snakes?! We’ve gotta get a look at that!” We, slowly, made our way up the trail in the middle of the jungle. Rather daringly, I took the lead when a dog started barking violently in the dark. I turned my flashlight and a farmer squatted silently next to the dog, holding him. I asked about the snakes and here’s the dialogue that ensued:

Me: Are there snakes on the trail?

Farmer: Yes, many snakes.

Me: Are the snakes poisonous?

Farmer: Yes, very poisonous.

Me: Well, is it dangerous?

Farmer: No, it’s not dangerous.

Me: Um, if there are many snakes, and the snakes are very poisonous, why isn’t it dangerous?

Farmer: Because running in the forest is good for your health.

[Jacob turns away from the creepy farmer and finds a woman was standing behind them the whole time.]

Me: Excuse me, is the trail safe?

Woman: Yes, it’s safe.

[Jacob turns to Tom and Karen.]

Me: Yeah, it’s safe.

Tom: That was way too much talking for, “it’s safe.”

We decided to continue on and we made it to the end of the loop, and joined everyone else for a great bash meal.

That’s what I see in this image.

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Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Search for Civility - Identity and a Dream

I had a dream last night.

I am starting at a new university and a group of us are at a little get together. We're all a bit nervous, just trying to get to know everyone and find our way in the new environment. It's hard not to be a bit nervous at times like this, you want to get a feel for everyone else and you also want to give a good impression. Then a beautiful blond girl walks in and all the oxygen is sucked out of the room. She tries to casually join the crowd, but it's hard not to stretch out your ears for what she's saying. In her own good time, she comes to chat with our small group. She's German with an alluring accent. We aren't talking with great earnest, just a few pleasant nothings about the economy or politics. As hard as it is not to stare, I have to admit that her comments are funny - she's impressive. Then she adds, "But I guess that's all academic. The Rothschilds and the rest of the Jewish moneychangers will still call all the shots no matter what minor changes we make..."

A nazi? WTF?

And that's where things went wrong...

Now, considering things had taken such a drastic turn, you might expect that I woke right up, but the dream went on just a bit further. Being Jewish, my first reaction wasn't even disbelief, but seething anger. Rage started to rush through my chest screaming for any outlet. But I held my smile on my face. As I've discussed in these recent diaries, I've been trying to find ways to connect with people despite any disagreement. I genuinely tried to search myself for a way that I could engage this girl in a positive way, something substantive or even just inane. It was a moment of total failure - I just couldn't do it. I woke up feeling relieved the dream was over, but also feeling very anxious.

Everyone's had nightmares where they are frozen, unable to move in the face of an obvious threat - it's terrifying. But I've never had a dream where the danger was social, not physical. When I woke up I didn't feel scared; I felt deeply uncomfortable. Was this dream a sign that my search for civility was wrongheaded? Am I committing myself to leave unchallenged people and beliefs that I consider truly evil?

On reflection, I know that in real life I'd feel no urge to find common ground with a nazi. I think it comes down to issues of "tribe" and identity. Being set against the "Jewish Plot for Global Control"™ was a huge part of who this girl was, like the Birther in this Oliphant cartoon. Attempts to reason with her were likely to be met with "devil's greatest trick" kind of responses that discredit the source of an argument rather than confront the substance. If she hates Jews and I'm Jewish, how can I hope to find common ground with her in order to reach a common understanding?

But tossing our the issues of "tribe" and identity leaves this discussion incomplete. In a previous diary I conveyed a discussion I had with a co-worker about healthcare.

One exchange I had with a co-worker I'm not particularly proud of. To briefly introduce him, he's from upstate Wisconsin and concerned with securing the Mexican border. He doesn't support healthcare reform. Having just read the KFF summary I mentioned above, I felt well armed with details to explain away any concerns he might level against the reform plans being debated.

He complained about all the poor people who get emergency room care and then walk away unable to pay their hospital bill. I pointed out that substantial savings could be found on this issue by helping expand preventative care. Fundamentally, he didn't want to be forced to pay for the health expenses of others, especially as a result of their poor choices. I suggested that we need consider bending that ideology in order to save some money. I quoted standard statistics about US health expenditures compared to other countries. I was friendly, sharp, and clear...I'm pretty sure he was unmoved.

My dad commented, "he isn't really arguing an issue, he is defending his 'tribe'. We are born with an instinct to fear and dominate those outside of our tribe." "When your colleague fulminates against immigrants, he is defending and asserting his membership in a tribe that he defines himself as a member of. You do the same for your tribe if you look down on him for his failure to appreciate your logic."

The version of "tribe", or identity, in use in the above stories is too complete, too all-encompassing. In reality we all hold a variety of identities and norms about how we should act and what we believe. Sometimes these notions compete, I am a proud American and I feel very uneasy about many things done in America's name. Many times these notions complement and reinforce each other, I am reasonable and I support the Democratic party. [/snark]

In reality that basket of identities that we carry around interact in complex, even mysterious ways that are difficult to predict. But they determine who we can and who we cannot work with in society. I could never be on the same team as that nazi.

I believe that the case with my anti-immigration, anti-healthcare reform co-worker is much different. I can work with him because even though some facets of our identities clash, others match up very well. We're both Americans living abroad in the same country. We both teach English at the same school. That's a lot to work with. If I can emphasize those common aspects I believe we can build a rapport, a sociability between us. Hopefully, that will bring us both to be more flexible about the areas we don't agree upon. It's one thing to fight and argue with a stranger, it's very different to do it with a friend.

I can't be friends with just anyone, but I can try to make friends with nearly everyone.

Cross-posted at DailyKos

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Search for Civility - Challenge of a Calm Response

I've written two other diaries about my search for civility and the surprising position it has brought me to consider. I strongly believe that trying to shout louder than healthcare reform opponents, overpower them with raw political strength is a foolish plan that is doubtful to succeed. Even if we win this battle of wills, we'll do much greater harm to ourselves and our country. We should strive for civility. We should work to build a country where we can live side by side with others, without malice or ill will.

In this diary I discuss the successes and failures I've had in my efforts to talk with friends, family, and co-workers about healthcare reform. I want to highlight the impossibility of constructing a useful discourse with heated interaction despite the challenge of a calm response.

Also, I'd like to thank Clem Yeobright for a link to this Kaiser Family Foundation .pdf comparing and contrasting the different reform bills in play. Most of my current understanding of healthcare reform is based on that document.

In previous diaries I've called for more leadership from our elected officials and the heads of our communities. I've written to my representatives in Congress about my disappointment, but I've received no replies. It's made me wonder about who the real leaders are and how socially distant I am from them, but I'll set this issue aside for the rest of this diary.

I've had a number of discussions and interactions over healthcare reform since I wrote my last diary. I want to focus in on responses I gave that now seem especially weak or especially strong. A number of my weak responses came from my inability to calmly react with measured tone and force. My effective responses were not my wittiest or wonkiest quips, they were effective because they helped me convey a desire to build an open-minded dialogue. A discussion should not be fencing with swords, it should be a meeting of minds, a courtship of lovers. Seek embrace, not victory.

One exchange I had with a co-worker I'm not particularly proud of. To briefly introduce him, he's from upstate Wisconsin and concerned with securing the Mexican border. He doesn't support healthcare reform. Having just read the KFF summary I mentioned above, I felt well armed with details to explain away any concerns he might level against the reform plans being debated.

He complained about all the poor people who get emergency room care and then walk away unable to pay their hospital bill. I pointed out that substantial savings could be found on this issue by helping expand preventative care. Fundamentally, he didn't want to be forced to pay for the health expenses of others, especially as a result of their poor choices. I suggested that we need consider bending that ideology in order to save some money. I quoted standard statistics about US health expenditures compared to other countries. I was friendly, sharp, and clear...I'm pretty sure he was unmoved.

Looking at it now, I don't think he was ready to be convinced. As soon as I heard him go against reform, I automatically set myself up to oppose him. He put up his defenses. I should have had more self-control. I should have more carefully listened to his concerns to let him know that I wanted to discuss this with him. I didn't just want an opportunity to spout my talking points.

This Pat Oliphant political cartoon makes fun of Birthers and the like who will find ways to deny the strongest evidence in order maintain their view. I argue that this bullheaded opposition isn't intrinsic, rather I believe it's based on the players involved. No statistics or pleas were going to persuade my co-worker in that situation because we weren't close enough yet. It's not that he cannot be convinced, he just needs someone closer to try and convince him. If that is a general truth, then we shouldn't be polishing our debating skills, we should be trying to better understand and grow closer to non-supporters.

If I didn't do a particularly good job there, I believe that some of my comment responses from my last diary, Search for Civility - Against Public Option, were much more effective. Some of the questions I asked elicited substantial and well-considered responses. I believe the most effective ones showed that I was open-minded.
Do we misunderstand the proposed public option?

Are our concerns about the future and private insurance unrealistic?

I want to hear more about the third one.
Third, the thing that she is afraid of is not going to happen under any bill under consideration right now.

If you can tell me more about that, it might completely assuage our concerns...we could go home happy. Do the bills have measures that prevent larger employers from dropping private coverage? What if it turns out that the companies with employees on the public option are more fiscally competitive than employers that provide private insurance? If that were the case, over time, the companies providing private coverage would need to adapt or go out of business, right?

In the above questions I tried to lay out a path for my opposition, a standard of contradiction. That path, or standard, can be constructed in a reasonable or an unreasonable manner. The more specific you make your questions, the more reachable success will seem for anyone that might oppose you. The discussion should then be more inviting. The difference between a reasonable standard, an unreasonable standard, and an impossible standard is difficult to enunciate, but usually pretty easy to see when you encounter it.

To wrap things up I have a few suggestions for anyone else who thinks a search for civility makes sense. If you feel yourself getting fired up and passionate, try to rein yourself in. When things are heated you're more likely to think of what you want to hear than what your opponent needs to hear. Don't get sarcastic and snippy, that betrays a closed mind. When talking with someone, if your minds are closed, you aren't having a discussion, you're just measuring your dicks.

Cross-posted at DailyKos.