Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival #3

It’s discouraging (yet energizing) to be able to do a weekly blog carnival on the topic of why one U.S. Representative should be voted out of office and still have plenty of material each week. But Michele Bachmann just keeps providing reasons she needs to leave as soon as possible.

I also have a personal reason to want to see Bachmann go. When people ask me where I’m from, I have to tell them that I graduated from Stillwater High School (many, many years ago). The reaction I get may be distrust or it may be pity, but the words are always the same. “Isn’t that where Michele Bachmann is from?”

Think I’m exaggerating? Check out this reaction to last week’s carnival at Tangled Up in Blue Guy. In this case, all of Minnesota is being tarred with the Bachmann brush. The same thing happens in the comments at Wonkette, with barely more than a mention of her name. People are laughing at us because of Bachmann.

The latest statement by Bachmann that has the national onlookers up in arms (and falling down with laughter) is her statement that we don’t need to worry about the environment and global warming, because the planet’s already been saved–by Jesus. Seriously. Talking Points Memo keeps track of other Bachmann doozies that have caught their attention, as does The Progressive Puppy.

Back in Minnesota, at Tangled Up in Blue Guy, Mike is wondering why, if we have to deal with Bachmann representing us to the world, nobody here has seen her lately. The Fruit Fly notes that ever more people are asking the same question. Blue man in a Red district is also wondering where Michele Bachmann is, in particular, why her campaign was at a parade without her.

I’ve been in the Cokato Corn Carnival parade as a candidate. One steadfast rule of the Cokato Corn Carnival parade is that the candidate must be with the parade group.

Bachmann was AWOL.

Theories as to Bachmann’s absence were abundant…

Perhaps the rain would have made her melt?

Perhaps the Congresswoman doesn’t quite have this “vacation” thing down yet?

Bachmann playing absentee from her district is not new, but these days, she has a better reason than ever to avoid showing her face in town. The FBI arrest of local businessman Tom Petters is everywhere in the news. Frank Vennes was the point person for transferring large amounts of money from local Christian groups and charities to Petters’ fraudulent investment vehicle–at the same time he was donating to Michele Bachmann’s campaign, and at the same time she was working to get him a presidential pardon. But why let me explain it when The Fruit Fly has an excellent summary of the situation?

Bachmann has, of course, rescinded the letter that she wrote asking for Vennes’ pardon, but the Dump Michele Bachmann blog has a copy.


Mr. Vennes is a truly unique man in that he is not asking for a pardon that he may achieve personal success. By the grace of God, this has been done. Mr. Vennes is seeking a pardon so that he may be further used to help others.

There is still a great deal of question as to who was using whom, but we can be pretty sure it wasn’t God using Vennes to help others. Dump Michele Bachmann has some information that casts doubt on the her claims that Vennes was helping anyone. Greg Laden has footage from the ongoing coverage. Anomalous Data examines the double standard in allowable associations for Republican congressional candidates and Democratic presidential candidates.

In a first for this carnival, Bachmann herself tries her hand at blogging, parroting the claims of the Tax Foundation that Minnesota is among the top 10 states in being unwelcoming to business. Do be forgiving, at least about the formatting. She’s new at this. (Actually, she’s not, but considering that back in April, she was trying to put the brakes on a mortgage rescue proposal, she’d probably prefer that we forget that.)

Or if you’re not in a forgiving mood after reading all this, Idiosyncracy presents another “top” 10 list for your consideration: the top 10 worst lawmakers in Congress.

Apparently the magazine said this of Bachmann, “One gets the impression that if, in the name of ‘traditional values,’ Bachmann could rescind the vote for women, she would. Her vacant, wild eyes recall a doomsday prophet, or one of Charlie Manson’s girls. Equal parts religious hack and party hack, she’s got spunk and not much else.”

Actually, Bachmann does have one more thing. I took a look at her voting record and discovered that she has the ability to say, “No.” Of course, she says it consistently, no matter what legislation is involved and how many, even of her own party, think it’s a good thing.

The good news is that we do have an alternative. A donation of time or money to El Tinklenberg, Bachmann’s opponent, can help get Minnesota off that list. A donation now can be particularly effective, considering that the national Republican groups are starting to scale back their advertising purchases in Minnesota. If they’re not backing Bachmann the way they did in 2006, it’s because they know just how vulnerable someone this out of touch with reality and with the voters really is.

You can also help with the carnival. Volunteer to host an edition or submit Bachmann news. And check back in a week for the next edition. See what Bachmann has been up to…and where she’s been.

What Is Race Good For?

Greg Laden posted a nice review of a traveling science museum exhibit on race and racism. His post touched on a couple of points of disagreement between him and the creators of the exhibit, but all the argument that followed was over this:

First, the parts we agree with: There is no such thing as race (biologically), race is a social construct used as a political and economic tool, even efforts to use race in a “positive” way such as in medicine or forensics are doomed to failure because of the lack of biological validity of the concept, and so on and so forth.

This brought out the racists, as has been the case every time I’ve seen a statement like this made, but unlike in the past, I got involved in the argument. I learned a lot doing so, and I want capture and summarize that here, for myself and others.

Definitions
These get to be pretty important in any argument like this, especially for avoiding accusations of ad hominem attacks. These are the relevant definitions from the Websters Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged.


Racism: the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another, which is usually coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its right to domination over others. [emphasis mine]

Valid: based on distinctive characteristics of recognized importance: founded on an adequate basis of classification.

I emphasized “usually” in the definition of racism because belief in racial superiority is not necessarily part of racism, although it is important in explaining racism’s negative effects. It is, however, the piece that people who defend the concept of race focus on when you use the first part of the definition to classify them as racists.

The Argument for Race
There were four main arguments made for the biological validity of race:

  1. Genetic testing allows for grouping by country of ancestor origin.
  2. Race may not predict the things it’s been used to predict in the past, but it’s an important proxy for genetics in medicine.
  3. Yes, assignment of humans to racial categories is an arbitrary procedure, but we use arbitrary names for parts of other continua. Why not race?
  4. You’re just being PC, Marxist wankers.

I think we can ignore #4, but the rest were addressed in the discussion.

Where to Start
Most of the racists started with the assumption of race and told the rest of us to disprove it. However, as Greg pointed out, that’s the wrong base assumption. We don’t assume that each bird that we see that is slightly darker than its fellows or is missing a tail feather is a new subspecies. If we want to claim that they represent a group distinct from another group, we have to define the boundaries of the group and prove their validity.

We expect genetic variation. We expect changes in the frequency of alleles across types of environments, across distances from the point of origin of a mutation. Human history is in part a history of trade and conquest, so we also expect changes in frequency across trade routes and distances from trade routes, across distances from imperial centers.

The key word is “across.” As noted before, people trade and fight and have sex and produce offspring with their neighbors. Greg likened this to a game of genetic telephone. What you hear at any two widely separated points may sound distinct, but there is a chain of changes between them. We can divide up our players, but why?

The burden is on the person wanting to impose categorization to show that the categories are valid–both accurate and useful. The existence of a distinct genetic population of humans is not an impossibility, but what we know of human history makes it quite unlikely.

Genetics of Origin
The racists brought up studies that showed that, starting from a knowledge of the region of origin of a test population’s ancestors, researchers could find genetic markers that, in combination, could sort the test subjects into clusters by region of origin. This was given as evidence of the underlying genetic validity of race. There are three problems with these studies.

The first is a sampling problem. Remember that game of telephone? One of the racists in the thread suggested sampling whites from Sweden, blacks from Nigeria, and Asians from China. Researchers in one study cited excluded subjects who gave “other” for their race. If you cut out the parts of your sample that don’t unambiguously fit into your racial mold, it’s much easier to point to the remaining subjects as supporting it.

The second problem is related to how the genetic data was chosen. Researchers used a program for analysis that searched for sites among the hundreds sampled on the genome that could be used to sort the population into a specified number of groups. That means that sites that didn’t covary weren’t used in the analysis. Variation was again discarded on the path to finding distinct populations, and even then, the one of these studies cited in its entirety was not able to differentiate between two Asian groups without restricting their data further. Other studies that haven’t discarded data have found that there is much more variation within races than between them.

Third, nothing about these studies suggested that there were any real-world correlates of any note to the genetic sites used to separate the populations, thus failing to demonstrate any importance in the differences that were found. Relying on self-reported data on origin, they did not even show that the genetics they were testing correlated to any traits typically used to sort people into races.

Race for Medicine’s Sake
One of the more seemingly benign arguments for clinging to the concept of race is that it can provide a clue to underlying genetics that can be useful in diagnosing or treating disease. After all, we know that Ashkenazi Jews get Tay-Sachs and that Africans get sickle-cell anemia. Again, there are multiple problems with this argument.

Both Tay-Sachs and sickle-cell anemia are genetic disorders with well-defined mechanisms, but environmental factors play a role in many diseases. Many of the other disorders that are often linked to race, such as skin cancer and hypertension, do not have such well-defined causes. Limiting diagnosis and treatment advice based on race in these cases is risky at best.

Even among known genetic disorders, inheritance is not based on race as we know it. There are no races that all get one disease that no one else gets. The gene for sickle-cell anemia is adaptive in areas with high rates of malaria. This means that there are areas of Africa with almost no instance of the gene and areas of Europe and Asia with fairly high rates. Tay-Sachs is prevalent among one population of Jews but not others. It is also prevalent among Cajuns. French Canadians also have a higher than average prevalence, but the underlying genetics among Quebecers is different than among Cajuns, who share a mutation with the Ashkenazi Jews. As in the studies on population genetics, single genetic markers show very little correlation with race or point of ancestor origin.

Continua and Compl
exity

“Erm, okay,” say the racists, finally. “Maybe the underlying genetics do vary smoothly. That doesn’t mean they don’t vary. We use arbitrary names for other continua, like color. Why not for races?”

While this is once again starting from the assumption that race has validity–that it already measures something–and thus, the wrong question, it does raise a couple of issues that are worth talking about. Color, an example used in the discussion, is provocative. The underlying continuum is smooth, but we do use divisions of it, frequently and successfully, in communicating with each other. Why can’t we do the same with race?

The answer is complexity. To the extent that we agree on a definition of a name, saying that something is a particular color tells us what wavelength(s) it reflects or emits. What does race tell us? What is the underlying continuum that we’re measuring?

Of course, we can’t reduce humans to a single continuum of variability. We even have difficulty finding traits once considered to be racial traits that vary with geography in ways a racial model would predict. Skin color varies with average sun exposure as much as it does with any known pattern of migration. Analysis of skeletal remains, now and in the past, does not reliably indicate group identity. Facial features and body proportions are both too variable and too consistent across groups.

The continua that race tries to measure are not single, smooth gradations around the world. They don’t always follow the same paths, so that if we overlaid one trait on another, the resulting map would look somewhat like plaid but much fuzzier. A third overlay, accounting for just one more trait, would produce an even more muddled map. Where do we stop and still see anything that look like groups without the groups being larger than an extended family–or even an individual? We would have to reduce the number of traits to the point that we would only be measuring trivial differences between us.

Still No Answers
The question I kept asking during the discussion is, “What does race tell us?” It still goes unanswered after all the debate. If someone wants to claim that race has biological validity, race has to not only be based on biological measurements that distinguish the categories used, which current racial classifications are not. It also has to tell us something about the biology of race that is nontrivial. Importance is a critical part of the definition of validity.

After this discussion, I’m much better aware of what race does not tell us. I’m still waiting to be shown what it does.

Common Wisdom

I’m not sure what’s happening this year. Whatever it is, it isn’t what happened four years ago, or eight, or more. The things that everyone knows about politics and elections are turning out to be false. This year.

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin had a debate. Everyone knew that the expectations had been lowered so far for Palin that it would be hard for her to lose. She was folksy. Biden spoke in long words and obscure allusions–the kiss of death. Everyone knows that should have cost him.

People ate it up. Biden won the debate.

Locally, Senator Coleman has been running nothing but attack ads against Al Franken. Everybody says they hate them, but everybody knows they work. So he runs them.

Except this time. Coleman is down in the polls and has decided to withdraw the ads. He says it’s because we can’t afford to be negative with the economy in shreds. It’s because the ads are costing him votes.

I’m not sure what’s going on. Voters are behaving differently, unprecedentedly–dare I say rationally? I’m completely confused, but I have only one question.

Can we keep it?

Update: As usual Comrade PhysioProf says far more succinctly, even with all the swearing.

Happy Things

Before I parse how badly I was lied to about investing and while I figure out how to miss someone I never knew (no, no link), I thought I’d take Mme. Piggy up on her idea for a gloomy day meme. In the interest of lowering my blood pressure, here are a few of the things that make me happy, in no particular order.

Boys in kilts
A particular pair of deep blue eyes
A sleek, loyal little black cat
Talking nonsense
Hashing out a new idea
Treating libertarians like my personal catnip mice
Fireplace weather
People who don’t scare easily
Crisp, clean sheets
Lazy days and energetic conversation
Imposing order
Discovering I’ve written something that isn’t crap
Dirt under my fingernails
Pop music with complicated rhythms and clever lyrics
Using personal space to herd pedestrians
The iPod shuffle function
A crispy, gooey, chewy oatmeal raisin cookie
Bare feet
Discovering that there are more of “us” out there
Defiance
When the music is dancing to me
A big, unwieldy jigsaw puzzle
The bitter with the sweet
People-watching
Throwing a little swing into the slack rope
Unabashed metaphor
Following along one step ahead
Years-long running jokes
Strong cheese
Finding the flaw in the argument
Difference
The silent shared smile
Daydreaming
Information on demand
Looking behind the mask
Story, story, story

How about you?

What Is Rebalancing?

I am not a finance expert. I am not an investment expert. I am someone who pays attention when one of these people makes a suggestion that will affect my retirement investments, however, which means I rebalanced my 401(k) last week.

Yesterday, I was talking to someone who received the same advice I did. She said, “I haven’t rebalanced yet. Maybe I don’t understand, but it seems to me like a way to lock in losses.”

She was right. She didn’t understand. And if she didn’t understand, despite having a background in math, someone reading this probably doesn’t understand either. I think she got it after I explained it to her, so I’ll throw my explanation out here too.

You can ignore this if you have your retirement investments in a target-date fund. They do the rebalancing for you. You can also ignore it if the idea of looking at what the stock market plunge has done to your money makes you queasy. If so, get into a target-date fund and forget about the money for a while.

In short, rebalancing between stocks and stable value (usually bond) investments means that when stocks grow, you squirrel away some of your gains in the stable value funds to protect them in case the market goes down. If stocks decline in value, bonds usually get more attractive to investors, so rebalancing is your way of using some of the bonds’ increased value to buy stock on the cheap, while it’s possibly undervalued.

Let’s say you’re an investor with 30 years to go before retirement. You set your investments up so new funds coming in go into 10% stable value, 40% large cap stocks, 30% small cap stocks, and 20% international stocks. At the end of a year in which all your investments are growing but domestic stocks have a large upswing in value, your actual funds might be 7% stable value, 42% large cap stocks, 35% small cap stocks, and 16% international stocks. If you rebalance to your original allocations, you move 2% of your funds out of the large cap and 5% out of your small cap to stick 3% in your more-protected stable value fund and 4% in international stocks, which can outpace domestic stocks in growth in the next year just by catching up to them in value.

The numbers aren’t quite as dramatic, but that’s more or less what I did at the end of 2007. That means I moved money out of stocks before they started falling in January. Last week, after the panic sell-off of stocks, I rebalanced again. I ended up buying cheap stocks. Sure, I did it before another round of panic, but it beat waiting until they were going up again.

If you have an investment adviser, by all means, ask them what you should do. If you don’t, well, the advice I got was that now is the time to rebalance. What are you waiting for?

ScienceOnline’09 Update

Woo hoo! I’m happy to announce that I now have a co-moderator for the Science Fiction in Science Blogs session at ScienceOnline’09 in January. Peggy Kolm of, among other blogs, Biology in Science Fiction and Women in Science, will be joining me. Peggy is exactly the person I would have wanted as a co-moderator, had the choice been left up to me, and I was tickled to hear that she can make the conference.

The description for our panel has been updated a bit:

Science fiction has inspired curiosity and enthusiasm in generations of children. How can science bloggers draw on SF’s power to entertain and educate? What science can we find in fiction beyond the old multi-page calculations of rocket trajectories? What does the practice of science look like in SF? In the past, scientists like Asimov and Clarke were the ones writing SF. Who’s producing the good stuff these days, and what makes a good bad example? Many modern SF writers blog too. What opportunities exist for cross-promotion and educating the writers? And which bloggers are already doing it all right?

It is, however, still a work in progress, which is where we can use your help. A discussion page has been set up for the session. Go tell us what you want us to be prepared to talk about, whether it’s a question you want to see answered, a writer you want talked up, or a field or discipline you want covered.

For that matter, just drop us a note to let us know you’re coming to the session. It’s an early one, and just knowing we’re going to have an audience will help us both as we contemplate being verbal at that time of day.

Why Vaccinate? Fighting Mutants

It’s flu vaccination season again, and we’ve all heard the excuses not to take the stick: It hurts. (briefly) I never get the flu. (yet) I don’t hang around with old people or babies. (you never go out in public?) I’m healthy; I can take it. (better than you can take a needle, huh?)

We all know the reasons to be vaccinated too, or at least we know some of them. We know that, even if we’re not vaccinated against the exact strain we’re exposed to, vaccination can reduce the severity of the flu. We know that a barrier of vaccinated people is the best way to keep the flu virus from reaching vulnerable populations, whose bodies can be overwhelmed by the virus.

You may not know that getting vaccinated makes you a scifi hero. Why? You get to fight mutants.

Okay, you actually get to fight mutations, but it’s still a heroic thing to do. You see, every time a copy of the flu virus infects one of your cells, it marshalls the cell to start producing more copies of the virus. Each of those copies has the potential to be a bad copy, a mutation. Once produced, a mutation may die on its own, your immune system may zap it, or it may infect another cell and start cranking out copies of the mutation.

These mutations, just like most scifi mutants, are bad news. Why? Because each bad copy that survives is one step further away from the strain of the virus to which people have some immunity. That makes the virus spread better, because it gets to more cells. So, if you don’t get immunized and you get the flu, the flu virus you shed may be more likely to make someone else sick than the flu shed by the person you got it from.

Also, although it’s an unlikely event, each mutation–or a combination of rapid mutations–has the potential to turn the flu into something no one’s immune system recognizes. That means it can get into anyone’s cells and multiply. That means people fighting to develop an immune response before the mutant virus kills them. That means pandemic.

Unlikely, as I said (the next pandemic flu is almost certain to come from animals), but not impossible. Why chance it when you can be a hero?

Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival

This is a new carnival, special to this election season. The purpose? To see Michele Bachmann fired as a Minnesota representative to the U.S. House. The reason? Do you know who Michele Bachmann is? Have you heard her speak? Did you see her kiss Bush? Ew!

Ahem.

Greg Laden hosted the first edition last week. Mike is hosting at Tangled Up in Blue Guy this week. I’ve been promised next week’s slot, although I don’t see it yet on the calendar. Tune in then, and I’ll share my more personal reason for wanting her gone.