Sun Phases: The Sound of the Eclipse

Craig and I mashed up of two of his creations – Sun Boxes and Moon Phases – for the eclipse on the 21st. If you let the app know your location, it will use local data to begin at dawn, climax during the eclipse’s maximum obscuration, and end at dusk. If you aren’t in the US (or if you want to know what the eclipse “sounds like” in a different location), you’ll also be able to choose a location instead.

Check it out here when the time comes:

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Sun Phases: The Sound of the Eclipse

Purple America: 2016 Edition

As I tend to do after presidential elections, I’ve been diving into the data from November 9th, 2016 in order to convince myself that things are much more complex than the narratives on offer in our news media.

This year I came up with a more interactive visualization:

I also wanted to figure out where my presidential vote might “count” the most, so I made a little table for that that shows both Electoral College weight, as well as “competitiveness” weight:


Purple America: 2016 Edition

Toward Institutionalized Empathy

I originally drafted this post exactly a year ago, right after the Paris attacks. I didn’t post it then because I thought it would be too inflammatory, and I was honestly just too sad. I didn’t feel like getting into an Internet Argument. I still think it’s true, though, and think it’s worth saying even though I’m sure there are plenty of people out there just waiting to ignore the nuances. Either way, here it is.


Since Paris was attacked on Friday night, my Facebook feed has exploded with posts about how fundamentally unjust it is that Americans are so upset about this event, but they weren’t upset the day before when Beirut was attacked.

While I think it’s an argument more persuasively made later, when emotions are not quite so high, I do understand the impulse behind it: There is an inherently dehumanizing aspect to feeling more empathy for some and less empathy for others, and we know where dehumanization leads.

However, the virulence of these posts prevented me from showing solidarity with the people in Paris for fear of the flak I would get for NOT having shown the same solidarity with the people of Beirut the day before. And that just means less empathy and less solidarity to go around.

In actuality, my empathy for Parisians is not a sign of my lack of empathy for the people of Beirut. In fact, it’s a sign of my normal, if lamentable, neurology.

Before I continue, let me take a moment to unequivocally state the obvious: The life of a person in Beirut is not fundamentally or objectively worth more or less than the life of a person in Paris.

While there’s some disagreement on the exact number, current science suggests each human can only see between 150 and 300 other humans as fully developed, complex individuals. This limitation clearly comes with some dire consequences – hate crimes and genocide defining the far end of the spectrum, nimbyism and neglect covering the nearer end. However, it is practical from an evolutionary perspective.

In order to survive as a social species, we each need to know and care about the people upon whom we most depend for survival. In an abstract sense, in a modern world, that group could include some complete strangers on the far side of the planet. But even now, even with the Internet and a globalized economy, one’s in-group is still mostly populated by the people who are geographically and culturally proximate – our families, our neighbors, the people we went to school with, the people we work with, etc.

Let’s take me as an example. I know people in France. I have been to France. If there is another language I come close to being able to speak besides English, it’s French. The victims of the crimes in Paris were doing things I do on the regular: I go to rock shows of the Eagles of Death Metal sort, I sit outside on patios at restaurants eating dinner. I don’t frequent huge sporting events, but I’ve been to a few.

Beirut, on the other hand, is slightly further outside my usual sphere. I know people who were born in Lebanon, and still others who have visited Lebanon, but not anyone who currently lives there. Since Beirut is a modern city, I can imagine that the lives of its residents are largely like my life, but I don’t know that viscerally from having seen it or from knowing people who are currently living it.

That said, my visceral reaction to hearing the news about Paris on Friday differed from my reaction to hearing about Beirut on Thursday because of Paris’s societal proximity to my life. I don’t think that’s wrong. I think it’s the emotional reality of a human existence for most people most of the time.

What is wrong is preventing people from expressing empathy by making them feel that their empathy is misplaced or fundamentally bad in some way. We need more empathy in this world, not less, and it’s not a finite resource.

What’s even more wrong is to ignore the reality of our biases – to pretend humans are fundamentally different than we are – and thereby to inhibit our ability to mitigate or overcome those biases. Simply asserting one should, at root, care equally about strangers as one does about friends does not make that any more practically possible than it already is. However, if we accept that it isn’t possible through sheer will, then we can start to build structures and institutions to counterbalance them.

It’s only because we know we’re forgetful that we keep to-do lists and calendars. We could pretend that it’s possible for a human being to just remember everything, or we can accept our limitations and build structures in life to mitigate them.

Likewise, only when we’re able to honestly see and confront our tribal biases can we start to support the work that takes care of the people outside of our tribe – because they deserve it. Their lives are worth just as much.

Toward Institutionalized Empathy

American Oligarchy by the Numbers

The original wonder twins, John Adams and John Quincy Adams
The original wonder twins, John Adams and John Quincy Adams

Already during my lifetime we’ve had one president (George W. Bush) who hailed from the immediate family of another (George H. W. Bush), and there’s a good chance we’ll be repeating the phenomenon with our next president.

In total, we’ve had five presidents (11.6%) who were at least second cousin¹ to a previous president:

  • John Quincy Adams was John Adams’ son
  • Zachary Taylor was James Madison’s second cousin
  • Benjamin Harrison was William Henry Harrison’s grandson
  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt was both Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin and his nephew
  • George W. Bush is George H. W. Bush’s son

Four of them (9.3%) shared the last name of their familial predecessor: Adams, Harrison, Roosevelt, and Bush.

If Hillary Clinton is elected to the 45th presidency², it will bump those two stats up to 13.6% and 11.4%, respectively.

My question to the sociologically-minded statisticians of the world is: What numbers would we expect if we lived in a true meritocracy, rather than the oligarchy we evidently live in?

Put another way: Given what we know about the genetic makeup of the US population, how often would we expect a president to be at least second cousin to another president sheerly by chance?

¹ If we want to roll super deep with this, it appears that 42 out of our 43 presidents so far have all been related to the British King John Lackland who signed the Magna Carta in 1215.

² Thanks to Grover Cleveland serving two non-consecutive terms, we’ve so far had 44 presidencies but only 43 presidents.

Soon after I posted this to Facebook, my cousin-in-law Daniel Roston came forward with exactly the sort of math I was seeking:

so…i think i can put an upper limit at around [a snowball’s chance in hell] that it would happen by random chance.

assuming an average family size of 4 offspring (high for now, but maybe less high for 1790), and including the presidents’ and their [partner’s] families, i get 256 people with the level of relation of 2nd cousin (i.e., either the president or their partner shares at least as much DNA as a second cousin). Let’s assume all people live at the same time and there are 10^8 people eligible for the presidency.

Then let’s calculate the total number of family members to choose from, since there could be overlap there. The probability that some family member of some president will be among the 256 family members of some other president is 256/10^8. So the probability that they won’t be is 1-256/10^8. We can calculate the probability that none of the family members will be the same person by multiplying together all the individual probabilities that they won’t be the same: (1-256/10^8)^(256*43)=0.972. So removing the family members we expect to be the same person, the total number to choose from is .972*43*256=10,700.

Then the probability that a randomly chosen president will not be among those people is 1-10,700/10^8 and the probability that all 43 will not be is (1-10,700/10^8)^43=0.9954. So the probability that one of our presidents would have been so closely related is 0.0046 and the probability that it would have happened 5 times is…0.0046^5 = 2 x 10^-12.

American Oligarchy by the Numbers