Monday, January 30, 2012

Extremely Inconvenient Truths

When I was reading Freakonomics, one of the interesting and controversial arguments in the book was that the legalization of abortion led to a fall in the crime rate.  The logic was that unwanted children were more likely to wind up as criminals, and this legalizing abortion essentially caused those unwanted babies to be aborted before they could grow up into criminals.   

Shortly after the book was published, many people brought up serious objections.  In the end, the theory was largely debunked.  

However, it lives on as a powerful memes.  At some level, for certain types of people, it just makes sense, and when a theory matches expectations so strongly, people become extremely reluctant to validate it, much less challenge it.  Just based on that, I suspect that it will be a long time before this meme leaves the public consciousness.

Recently, though, I heard another argument that had some of the same feel.  I was discussing the European economy with some intellectual friends, and we were speculating on how it was possible that Germany could be so strong while other sections were so weak.  It is especially impressive given that Germany did the bail out of all bail outs when they absorbed East Germany as part of German unification in 1990 - estimated at 1.9 trillion dollars.

Germany has to deal with all of the "normal" problems of the other economies in Europe, including an aging population, relatively high unemployment, and a general entitlement culture.   Stat-wise, it seems there are no major differences...

So what is the difference?

In discussing this, there was a general sense that Germans are good workers, or have a German mindset, or german values or work ethic, or german engineering, and so on.  But this is just pushing the question down the road, making it OK, why do germans have that mindset?

At this point, a new point came up.  In the years leading up to world war II, the Nazi leadership of the country systematically went out to kill, deport, or otherwise remove everyone who they thought was inferior.  This included Jewish people, of course, but also included mentally ill, communists and socialists (and others who were not supportive of what the Nazi's considered the German way), homosexuals, prostitutes, homeless, immigrants, and "the unemployable".  It is difficult to get fixed estimates, but a safe estimate is that 10 million or more people were either killed, deported, or fled.  

So was this the determining event?  Did Germany become stronger by literally pruning off the weakest members of their population?  

Not surprisingly, it is difficult to find any kind of academic studies on this stuff.  There are many articles discussing the opposite issue - how Germany's persecution caused a brain drain of physicists and rocket scientists, and how this loss might have cost them the war.  And there is general anecdotal evidence that genetic diversity leads to a more robust population.  But there is also literature discussing culling in general, and how can be beneficial to improving the health of a herd.

We are the (healthy) 99%
A lot has been made of the fact that the richest 1% control almost 40% of the nation's wealth.  This in itself is not terribly surprising to me.  I mean, it is hardly news that rich people have money, and that it takes money to make money.   But for some reason, much less has been made of the similar statistic that the sickest 1% are responsible for 22% of all healthcare spending.  The sickest 5% are doing more than 50% of the spending.  With all of the talk about so-called "healthcare reform", are we going to see a similar backlash against the ultra-sick that we see against the ultra-rich? 

You might think that people will reject this simply because it should be obvious to anyone that only sick people spend money on healthcare, but I wouldn't count on that.  Logic rarely has play in these situations - emotion reigns supreme.  Consider the anti-corporate sentiment going on now.  I read an article recently lambasting the governor of Wisconsin for giving tax incentives for corporations to move there.  This was being characterized as a hand-out to the wealthy.  The logic that only corporations create jobs, and jobs are the only actual source of income for the populous just seemed completely lost on these guys.  Luckily for the seriously ill, most people are sympathetic to them in a way that they aren't with the millionaires.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Feminism with Chinese Characteristics

W has been - not exactly complaining, but talking a lot lately about male and female differences, and in particular actions or attitudes that I have that make her feel more or less feminine or make me seems more or less masculine to her.

I should state for background that W is Chinese, and she grew up in Sichuan in a family of pure intellectuals.  So her sense of proper gender roles is basically out of The Story of the Stone.   In this model, women are objects of beauty, art, and culture.  Their role is to create a harmonious environment for those around them - primarily the family.  Women are not supposed to be useful, in the sense of doing specific things.  What a westerner might consider a traditional female role - say, cooking, cleaning, or doing laundry - are not considered feminine in this culture.  Those tasks are very low status, and are suitable for a maid or servant.
Men in this model are basically the deciders.  They are responsible for bringing in income and maintaining social status.  They are leaders, of both men and the family, and they are expected to make the decisions for the family and rally the rest of the family around them.  As in the female case, many of the traditional western roles (such as being a handyman around the house or doing yard work) are considered jobs for servants and not particularly masculine.
I on the other hand am basically a normal American male, with a protestant work ethic underlying a liberal education in so-called feminist propaganda.  So while I intellectually and emotionally absolutely believe that men and women are vastly different creatures, I am culturally programmed to think that ignoring those differences will somehow be good for both me and the female involved.
This disconnect has led to countless misunderstandings between W and me over the years.  It started when we we first going out.  When we met, I owned a house, and I would do all of the cleaning and maintainance of the home, including home improvements like removing walls or putting in Ethernet.  This was just baffling to W.  In her mind, only a pauper would act this way.  It was particularly perplexing to her because I didn't had any special talent for these things.  I took ten times the amount of time to do the job at half the quality compared to a professional.  The idea that there was a certain satisfaction in doing the job yourself was completely alien.   I know now this pride in self-self-sufficency is a uniquely American value.

In the western world, we often think of the male female difference along emotional lines.  In short, females do the emotional work and men do the practical work.  This is not the case for W.  in her model, emotional work is really the only work that matters.  Both male and females do mostly emotional work, and the difference is just in the nature and domain of that work.
This was a very hard concept for me to grasp, and I struggled with it many times over the years.  For example:  let's say that we are planning a vacation.  My first attempt is to plan in together.  We figure out a budget, look at places to go, and start evaluating options.  This highly practical approach went over like a lead balloon.  W felt I was trying to remove emotion from this, which was true.  For her, though, emotion is what you want to maximize, not minimize.    So next I told her that she could figure out where to go and let me know, and then I would decide how we were going to fund that.  In my mind, that was being nice to her.  But this felt like I was abandoning her to do all of the work and that I was doing nothing.  Next I offered to figure this out myself, and just let her know the result.  You know - stepping up as the male and getting things done.  But then she felt excluded.  There was some fun part about planning this - some emotional warmth - and she wanted to be part of it.  After several more attempts, I finally figured out that what she wanted was for me to decide where we are going, and to completely own that decision.  But that decision I make should take all of the emotional concerns of the family into account, not merely the practical concerns.   And where she wanted to engage was in the conversation with me on determining what those emotional concerns might be.

One time we were watching a video in a Karaoke room.  In the video (whose name I forget now), there was a sequence of a man in the water, pulling a boat along, while a girl (the singer) sat in the boat holding a parasol for shade.  Periodically the man would become exhausted from the work.  When this happened, he would sit in the boat himself and the girl would wipe his brow and fan him.  This seems to me to be an example of the chinese ideal.  If no one is pulling, the boat goes nowhere.  But if the girl gets in the water and pulls herself, there is no one to help cool them down and relax.

Since the time when we met, we have met many other couples where one person is from China and one from a Western country.  I think many of them struggle with these issues, and very few of them realize this gender expectation difference is at the heart of it.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Protector Factions: The Nöords

In a previous post I was discussing the fictional factions/races in my Protectors universe.   Now I wanted to discuss some of these in more detail.  We can start with the Nöords.

The Nöords are the magic users of the world.  They are the Protector version of elves and other such etheral creatures.  When I write stories with Nöords, I often think of Galadriel from Lord of the Rings

Using magic - particularly white magic or animal magic - has been a staple of female power fantasy in many forms of literature.  The Nöord faction is design to channel and enhance this sort of role play. 

The Nöords are a mysterious race that inhabits the northernmost part of the protector world. 

The Nöords were originally formed thousands of years ago when individuals powerful in magic fled north to avoid persecution.  There they met up with a powerful race of magic users indigenous to the area.  Some speculate that these natives were not human – either extraterrestrials or angels – but this is all speculation.

The Nöords kept to themselves for a millennia of years and have only recently been rediscovered by the factions in the last 100 years or so.  The Nöords themselves have little need for outsiders.  As such, there are few relations between the Nöords and other factions.   Noords place a premium on their privacy and do not allow any airplanes into their lands, and also prevent satellite imagery.  Their lands, city structure, and population are all unknown to the outside world.

The Nöords, particularly the females, have a magic ability which they call "anima".   Through the use of anima, they can communicate with and control animals and have broad control over nature and the elements.  Anima comes on with puberty and develops to full strength typically by the time the woman is 24 or 25.  Nöords females who are regular users of anima are referred to as witches.  This is used in a derogatory fashion outside of Nöord culture, but is not considered insulting to Nöords.  Nöord males also possess anima but are usually much weaker.

Much anima involves creating temporary conditions known as glamours.  These glamours fade over time – sometimes fairly quickly – and can be detected by anyone who possesses any anima of their own. 

There are six general families of anima:  Ilma, Elukka, Kivi, Virrata, Liha, and Alue.  While a typical Nöord would have some nominal ability in each of these, it is very unusual for a single person to have significant power in more than one.

Ilma – control over air, atmosphere, and weather.  Common abilities include creating light in darkness, making objects glow, and changing temperatures.  More unusual abilities might be the ability to create focused blasts of extreme heat or cold, create rain or snow or even large storms, etc.    Ilma anima is a glamour and typically will not last more than a few hours after invocation.

Elukka – control of plants and animals.  Common abilities include the ability to commune with animals, talk to them, understand them, and even control them.  At lower levels it is used to pacify animals or grow impressive gardens.  This is a type of clairvoyance.  It works on humans as well, although it is considered impolite and can be resisted – typically by using ones one anima against it.   At more powerful levels mass control is possible, even at great distances.    Sometimes a large group of Nöords will get together to form a kind of hive mind, in which all of the member minds are thinking as one, with greatly increased speed and intellect.   It is rumored that the Nöord high council consults such a hive mind as a kind of oracle.  Elukka anima only has effect while being invoked. 

Kivi – control over earth, stone, metal, and other inanimate objects.  This is a form of telekinesis which allows the wielder to alter the shape of these materials as if they were clay, using only her mind.  This power is mostly used for artistic purposes, to make jewelry (at a lower level) or impressive cities of stone at high levels.  There are stories of it being used defensively (such as opening up large fissures in the ground to swallow enemies) but those are uncommon.  Those with greater power can mold larger objects and do it faster.  There are tales of powerful witches who can make golems in this manner, making a solid block of stone sprout arms and legs and then controlling it with their mind.  The kivi magic does not have any effect on living tissues, either plant or animal.    Kivi anima is a glamour and is easily detected, but has an extremely long duration.  Powerful casters can create stone cities that stand for thousands of years.

Virrata – Virrata is a strange concept.  The literal meaning is “flow”, but a closer description might be “luck”.  This magic just makes things go your way.  At the minor level this can be used for parlor tricks such as winning at games of chance.  At higher levels it can be shockingly powerful, with strings of impossible coincidences moving the wielder closer to the goal. 

Example:  during the War of Northern Expansion, the entire eastern front of the Trade Federation army was wiped out.  Just as the Noords were entering battle, the trade federation armies feel ill.  The water used in the preparation of food that was shipped to the front turned out to have been infected with rare protozoa through an agricultural accident.  By coincidence, the filtration mechanism had failed precisely when the food was being prepared the week before.  This failure went unnoticed because the officer in charge had a family crisis and didn’t come into the plant.  Finally, the medical supplies that could have saved the infected were accidently shipped to southern Africa due to a computer mixup.  This was all attributed the unusually strong virrata of the witch in service of the Noord commander.

Unlike most anima, virrata seems to be an always-on background power and does not fade away.  The wielder can increase or decrease the strength of flow through concentration but has little or no ability to direct it.  Some speculate that those in flow are jumping through parallel universes to find one that is more optimal for them, as this seems the only way to explain certain effects (particular that the facts that support the coincidences often proceed the invocation of flow), but of course there is no way of testing such a hypothesis. 

Liha – the control of flesh and living matter.  A small level this can be used to make small changes in appearance or improve personal health.  Those with more power can alter appearance more radically – a common use if for cosmetic enhancements such as pointed ears or a different skin color.  It can also be used to heal diseases or mend cuts or broken bones.  At very powerful levels, flesh can be radically reshaped.  A person can be made into a different form entirely, such as being changed into a dragon or a mouse.  Flesh shaping in this way can be very complicated and typically requires a long period of study in addition to having the native ability.  Otherwise it is quite easy to accidently kill the subject, cause brain damage, etc.  Classic transformations (into bat, mouse, fox, eagle, etc.) have been worked out and perfected over hundreds of years and these are the ones commonly learned.  Liha anima is a glamour and rarely lasts more than a few hours or days at best unless the caster is extremely powerful. 

Alue – the control of objects in space.  This anima allows the witch to move things with their mind.   At minor levels this can be used to move small objects around like a parlor trick – sliding a coin across a table or making it come up heads when flipped.  More powerful witches can move larger objects or move them faster.   Those very powerful in the art can teleport objects as well as move them.  In this way, an object can move from A to B without going through any points between.  This anima is not a glamour.  While it can be detected while an object is being moved, this tinge fades within a few seconds.

Most non-Nöord scientists believe the alue anima is actually manipulating the fabric of spacetime to create apparent forces.   Objects are not so much pushed as pulled to their destination.  Teleport also seems to work by shrinking the object into a dimensionless point, then moving the point to the new location, and then expanding it again.  Even a small object the size of a coin creates a loud pop at its new location when teleported due to the supersonic shockwave caused by the object suddenly appearing in space, pushing the air out of the way.  Teleporting a book under the wheel of a car will cause the car to flip over onto its back, again from the force of the extremely rapid expansion.  Because of this, alue anima is the most common magic used in military actions. 

Tall and thin, with pale to white skin and long blond to white hair.  Females average 6’ tall, males around 6’6”.  Eye color can be blue, green, violet, or (rarely) black.

Another Nöord-looking female from a movie not quite as good as Lord of the Rings

Nöords do not wear make-up.  Hair tends to either hang naturally or be bound with simple braids. 
Nöords frequently use their powerful magic to alter their appearance.  Simple magic can create effects such as a light glow that surrounds the person or sparkles in the skin or eyes, or changing hair, skin, or eye color.  They also use charms that make someone look either extremely beautiful (or ugly), look like someone else, or otherwise disguise appearance.  Those that are most powerful can radically change someone appearance permanently or temporarily.  Adding wings or elongating the ears for an elfin look are popular, as is transmorphing into an animal.

Clothing Style
Nöord females tend to wear robes or gowns of various kinds.  Animal materials such as furs and feathers are common.  Fabrics are often decorated with natural materials such as pearls, gems, shells, or animal teeth.  

Magic glows, color changes, and/or winds are common charms that are added to clothing and jewelry.

 Most of the Nöord traditions center on the role of anima.  Almost all Nöords possess some anima, but a select few are extremely powerful.  If someone is born with no anima, they would be an outcast and would likely be expelled from the land of the Nöords.

Most mating among the Nöords is done for Magic.  Nöords are serially monogamous and pair-bond from the time of pregnancy until the child is weaned.