Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A new kind of Christmas

I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY, in a nominally Christian household. Christmas was a very big holiday for me and my mother; significantly less so for my father and brother. It's not that they didn't care about the holiday, but just that the season as a whole meant much less to them than it did to us. Christmas Eve was very ritualized: there was the singing of carols; the addition of a last-minute snowfall to my mother's Christmas village; a lovely music-filled candlelight service at my church which routinely drew members of other churches; a walk home with stops to look at the nice light displays; a dinner of fruit, cheese, shrimp, and cocktail smokies wrapped in crescent roll dough; my mother's reading of An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas (aka 'Twas the Night Before Christmas), and then an early trip to bed for the next day's presents, big breakfast (eggs scrambled with potatoes and sausage) and dinner (ham, at least 2 types of potatoes, at least 3 vegetables, rolls, Jell-O, and dessert), and the cat(s) playing with ribbons and bows. About half the time I got snow on either Christmas or Christmas Eve. When I was very little there was a large family celebration, but from around the time I was in kindergarten onward it was just the immediate family with possibly the addition of my mother's sister, who routinely slept over on Christmas Eve until my brother an I were in late middle school.

Things are different these days. My mother died some years back. My father has remarried, and moved to Florida for the winter. My childhood cat--more of my eventual step-mother's cat while I was in college and beyond--died over the past year, so won't be around to play with the wrapping and the low-hanging ornaments. I do most of my Christmas shopping on Amazon, so I don't face the holiday crowds. Tomorrow will feature a relatively late start, given that I'm the youngest person present (my step sister couldn't get the vacation time this year), and the dinner will be the 4 of us plus two couples of their friends.

So, today, the activities were a bit different. I finished fixing my dad's computer problems, fulfilling my role as a member of Generation Tech Support. I went for a run, an walked back in my shorts and overheating still. I just finished a large wrapping job for my step-mother, wrapping basically all of her gifts to my brother and to my father, while she and my dad are out at a cocktail party. And now I'm waiting for the delivery of some Chinese food, as my family has decided that if everyone already assumes we're Jewish, we might as well embrace it, even if we do still celebrate the secular holiday.

The first couples of years I spent Christmas down here, without my mother, seemed very weird to me. Now, it feels mostly normal, with the exception of the weather. That's to be expected, of course. I just wonder now: if I had a Christmas like those I grew up with again, would that feel weird? Does the new normal replace the old normal, or become an additional set of parameters that are added to the category of normal?

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I was reading the New York Times blog Proof, which is about the intersection of American life and alcohol, earlier today. It got me thinking about my own relationship with the substance.

Such as it were.

When people get to know me, one of the first things they find unusual about me is that I don't drink. In the entirety of my life, I've probably had less than 10 servings of alcohol. I'm not a recovering alcoholic, and I don't have a religious prohibition against the substance, so I don't fit into the standard reasons people have come to expect from those who don't partake. Alcohol is so central to adult society in our culture that any deviation from it marks the teetotaler as an aberration, and seems to demand an explanation. I generally just tell people that I don't enjoy the taste of alcohol, and so I don't see the point of drinking it; while it's true that I don't like the taste, as a reason that still seems to leave people baffled. There have been other reasons for pretty much my entire adult life, though which ones have been in place at any given time have fluctuated.

When I was first in the age in which drinking was considered a social norm, I was under the legal age requirement. I am, and pretty much always have been, a goody-two-shoes, and just didn't see myself as the sort to break the law even when it was expected. I remember interviewing to be an RA in a campus dorm on my 20th birthday, and having a hard time convincing the faculty member who was interviewing me that no, really, I actually did not want a glass of wine to celebrate. It was less the fear of being punished for violating the rule than it was my self-image as someone on the straight and narrow that meant that my being underage was a reason not to drink.

There was also the fact that I knew full well that alcohol primarily serves to lower our inhibitions. I'm gay, and I was in the closet for quite some time--not out of fear, but because my libido was much weaker than my desire to eventually have a family, and at the time it seemed unlikely I could have both. I didn't want to risk saying something or doing something in regard to my orientation that I would regret in the harsh light of the next day. In my mind, no matter what allure alcohol might have once I tried it would be worth that risk.

Then there's the potential risk of addiction. I have a large number of family members with alcohol problems, running through both my mother's and father's families. I suppose I shouldn't be too shocked by that, given the stereotypes of my predominantly Irish and German heritage, but while some of them are functional alcoholics, others are clearly not living the lives they would otherwise be capable of because liquor is holding them down. To be fair, there are also family members who don't seem to have any problem with their drinking, and others who abstain completely, but I know that the risk is there. It may even be pretty close--though I only ever saw my mother drunk once in my life (after a really bad superbowl loss by the team she rooted fanatically for), when she was hospitalized just prior to dying at 52 from kidney and liver failure the doctors asked us how long she had had cirrhosis of the liver. None of us knew she did. I don't know if that could have been caused by the abdominal infection she's had for months. It's possible that she drank no more than any of us knew she did, and just had a low tolerance for alcohol; it's also possible she had had a drinking problem for years and kept it secret from us. And I wouldn't be surprised if my father's liver isn't in great shape either; though it has moderated somewhat over the past couple of years, since he retired he's drank more than he knows he should. He definitely doesn't have an addictive personality (unlike my mother, he didn't have too hard of a time giving up smoking, and he still every once in a while smokes a cigar and then feels no craving to do so for months), so he seems to go through intermittent phases of deciding he's drinking too much, cutting way back, and then slowly loosening the restrictions. So with at least some evidence that both of my parents are/were disposed to drinking more than is healthy, I'm not exactly itching to dive in to the bottom of a glass myself.

There's also the fact that alcohol is toxic. It destroys brain and liver cells, and that's even with the human body's defense mechanisms. Hell, I use alcohol to sterilize lab equipment in my life as a biologist. This reason must be tempered by the fact that low to moderate drinking seems to have beneficial effects on the heart--ideally, I should be drinking a glass and a half of red wine a day--but it can't be totally overlooked.

Then there's the issue of deep core personality. I've known relatively nice people to turn into mean drunks--when all the layers of social skills and conscious choice are stripped bare, they're shown to be nasty, or depressed, or whatnot. Granter, there are also happy, bubbly drunks, and sleepy drunks, but I look at it somewhat through the cost/benefit ratio: there's not much to be gained by finding out that at the core I'm happy; there's significantly more to lose by finding out that at the core I'm nasty. The potential downside is enough worse than the potential upside to not be worth investigating.

And, finally, there's the fact that not drinking, and not for the most common of reasons, makes me different. A friend once observed that I seem to have a strong desire to be atypical, and I think she might be right about that. Choosing not to drink is a very easy way to be different. I'm not proud of the notion that some of my quirks may ultimately derive from a simple and somewhat childish desire to be unique, but I'm too introspective to dismiss the idea entirely.

And, of course, I still really do dislike the taste. I'm not the sort who really has acquired tastes--if I don't like how something tastes, I stop consuming it and find something else. The only taste I know I've acquired is for V8 juice, and that was by way of making myself drink it daily for a stretch of time in order to boost my intake of vegetables.

Thankfully, I'm not a moralist who looks down on others for drinking. As long as you're not an obnoxious drunk, and as long as you don't try to drive while impaired, I don't actually see a moral aspect to alcohol. So, enjoy your libations, which will be free flowing this time of year. I'll be over here with my soft drink, an oddity in your midst.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Civility of discourse

For a variety of reasons, I've been thinking recently about what constitutes being polite, and when it's acceptable not to be. This started with a flame war in a forum I frequent, where someone posted a diatribe about how people having racial preferences in their dating partners were sick and prejudiced. When people expressed contrary opinions, he alternately told them they weren't addressing the point or else dismissed them in a snarky comment or two without answering any questions they raised, even when the questions were along the lines of "Could you clarify what you mean by X?" or "You've stated that my entire post is a mass of contradictions. Would you point out a specific contradiction in what I said?" Eventually, even those who started out on the high road grew increasingly sarcastic and dismissive toward him.

In another recent example, a friend apparently removed me from his list of friends on Facebook because I left a comment that his status message was factually inaccurate. That fact really can't be disputed; it concerned the number of senators of a given party who voted one particular way on an issue he cares about, and he attributed all the votes in one direction as being from one party when that was not the case. My comment was deleted very quickly; several hours later my status as friend was revoked. I've since sent him an apology. I don't actually see why what I said was inappropriate, but a mutual friend certainly felt it was and when there's not a larger principle involved, I'm willing to go along with the views of the majority on societal norms even if they don't make sense to me. Since I was apparently in the wrong, I apologized. Being right on this issue isn't more important to me than maintaining a good relationship with the person involved.

But all of this has me thinking about several larger issues.

One is the expectations regarding communication. This is an age-old question where social and technological change has brought it to light from a different angle. When someone expresses an opinion on a blog, or in an internet forum, or on a social networking site, what is the intent? If you disagree with something they say, either objective or subjective, what is the appropriate response? Who decides? The mutual friend in the latter case saw it as our friend expressing his frustration; I saw it as him both expressing his frustration and assigning specific blame. Even assuming that there is a true correct answer to what the comment was doing, when two intelligent people read the same comment and come away with two different impressions of what it means, that makes it seem that interpretation is important even on things which seem straightforward to any one observer. Those issues of interpretation are a big part of why I chose to go into a natural science in the first place; while there is still interpretation, there is far more in the way of objective fact and an underlying reality to be examined in those fields than in many others.

Then there's the line between public and private. Many people apparently consider social networking sites to be private affairs, despite the massive reporting on employers scouring the myspace and facebook profiles of applicants and even current employees. I take a very different view: these sites are meant to foster interaction between people even when they aren't physically present. I may be alone in my living room while I'm writing this, but once I hit publish it goes up for the wider world to see. Even though very few people read this blog, it's still available to the public even if I have editorial control over it. The more people who read something, the less private it is. If you keep a hardcopy journal or diary, that's private. If you publish comments on a social networking site where you're connected to dozens of your friends and coworkers, that seems pretty public to me.

I've always felt that dissent is one of the cornerstones of our society, and that on the whole it tends to be a good thing. Silencing people who disagree with you doesn't seem to serve a purpose to me, other than to place you into a false echo chamber where you assume everyone agrees with everything you say, and thus there's no need to think critically about it. That's one of the main reasons I've left up comments that are little more than ad hominem attacks against me, even when it's an issue I care about. I actually enjoy it when people attack my position themselves, but it's my impression that many people do not make the distinction I do between attacking a point and attacking a person.

Then there's the issue of how emotion is treated in our society. I've noticed a general pattern in life that the more passionate someone is about something, the more others excuse their behavior in regard to the subject and castigate others for doing or saying anything that might upset the passionate individual, even if the statements are objectively true. This happens in politics, in business, in social relationships...I can come up with examples from pretty much every aspect of my life. There is a certain deference given to those who act on emotion, which is why the rallying cry of "Think of the children" has an amazing ability to shut down discourse. The key word in that cry is "children"; the word "think" is hardly ever stressed.

Those who act on logic are often considered inhuman. That's backwards. We have plenty of evidence of non-human animals acting on and feeling emotion. We have almost none of non-human animals acting on logic. Even chimpanzees seem to be unable to learn the concept of delayed gratification in games where picking the smaller pile of treats leads to the bigger reward, despite being able to grasp it when abstractions are used; the sight of the reward seems to overpower the conceptual knowledge that they will get the large reward only if they select the smaller one. Your dog really does love you and enjoy spending time with you just being you, even if he's just laying down next to you. He doesn't, on the other hand, know whether or not it's his birthday, or make plans for what to do when he gets old. The ability to act on logic rather than emotion is one of the most defining characteristics of humans compared to other animals we know of.

I also have to say that people who act on emotion are not the only people who experience emotion. I almost always base my actions off of logic and reason, and I have a definite preference for facts over feelings. That in no way means that I don't have feelings, or even that my feelings are less intense and therefore less important than those of people who do act upon theirs more often. It is entirely possible that the difference between them and me lies not in the intensity of our emotional responses but in the strength of our self-control. As someone who has demonstrated that control in the past, I am expected to continue to do so, while those who lash out in a self-righteous rage are given a pass, and the rest of us are to keep our heads down and our mouths shut until they calm down. We are admonished to be polite even in the face of others being decidedly otherwise. I don't really see that changing anytime soon, nor even a way in which it could change. It just gets tiring at times.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Trying to understand my opponents

In the past couple of weeks, I've read rather extensively on what the formal position of the Mormon church is in regards to same sex marriage. They're hardly the only religious group out there who feel the way they do--the Catholics, for example, are really no better--but the Mormons were the funding source for the Yes on 8 campaign, and thus bear much of the brunt of the angry response.

Anger alone isn't terribly useful, though.

What really struck me is the pervasive idea that setting up two differently understood relationships described by the same word would undermine one of those relationships. A lot of people really seem to think that a couple down the street getting married would indeed affect their marriage if they don't think that the people down the street should be allowed to be married. The point strikes me as entirely nonsensical, and it's stated with an air of obviousness.

And then I realized that I state my view that whether or not I can marry a man in no way changes and heterosexual marriage with an equal air of obviousness. So it now seems that I need to explain that in more detail.

Let's pick a different familiar relationship; one that's a little less politically charged. I'm going with Brother, mostly because I have one of those.

Now when I say I have a brother, I mean that I have a male sibling a year older than me who has the same parents I do. We grew up in the same household, had many of the same teachers, many of the same friends, etc. We still talk most days, even though it's been years since we've lived together.

There are a lot of other forms of brothers, though. Among my extended relatives is one immediate family of a double second marriage. The father's first marriage resulted in a son. The mother's first marriage resulted in two sons and a daughter. The double second marriage resulted in two more sons. One of the five sons was adopted. Thus, their family involves males who are full genetic siblings, half genetic siblings, and adopted siblings. They're also all brothers, in a sense I agree with. Well, except for the daughter; she's a sister.

There are also people who use the term brother to mean people they've never lived with nor share any genetic link to. A number of religious organizations, for example, use it to refer to fellow believers who are male. Monks are traditionally referred to as Brothers. Fraternity members also typically refer to each other as brothers. I don't think any of these relationships actually fall under the heading of brotherhood--sharing neither genetic nor social parents means you're not really brothers in my book--but I recognize that others disagree with me here, and use the term regardless.

So, clearly there are a bunch of different relationships encompassed by the term brother, many of which mean entirely different things than my relationship with my brother. And not one of them changes or impinges on or threatens my relationship with my brother. He is still my brother, and the fact that other people use the term brother to mean someone I don't feel is actually their brother is completely irrelevant to that fact. If monks legally became brothers, it wouldn't threaten my relationship with my brother at all, nor would those of us from the males-who-share-parents crowd need a law designed to "protect" the institution of brotherhood. After all, brotherhood is traditionally a familial relationship, and we all know how the family unit is the central organization of our entire society.

Apply the same to sisters. Fathers, and Mothers, both of which can be religious titles as well as familial relationship. And that's just the nuclear family. Things get even more complicated and hazy when you look beyond those.

So if you're so certain that only one meaning of marriage can exist, only one exact specified form of the relationship, and that it will be undermined if anyone else ever uses the term...why does the same not apply to brotherhood?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Illness symptoms

I've been ill the past few days, which, because I'm a biology nerd, has me thinking about the nature of illness symptoms.

Most likely, I've got either a bad cold or a very low grade flu. My symptoms started on Sunday with sinus congestion and a post nasal drip. By the middle of the night I was running a fever (I don't have a thermometer, so I'm not sure how bad of one), and on Monday it had spread to include nausea, lethargy, aching joints, a headache, loss of appetite, dry heaves, and what I gather was a lot of swallowed air--my stomach felt distended, and I was burping a lot with no taste residual to it. Today I'm somewhat more coherent, my fever's broken (though when I woke up my bed sheets were soaked in sweat--I'm washing them at the moment), and my joints don't ache except when I cough. However, I've developed a persistent dry, unproductive cough.

Many symptoms of mild illnesses I don't actually treat very often. This is because a number of the symptoms are part of the body's defense mechanism against the illness. Low grade fevers, for instance, seem to increase the speed at which the body recovers, most likely from a combination of the increased kinetics of some immune reactions and the very narrow temperature range of some pathogens. As such, I typically only take medications to break a fever when it's 4 or more degrees above normal, as that starts getting into the danger range. Headaches are often a sign of dehydration, so rather than taking an analgesic when my head hurts, my first instinct is to drink a lot of water (or, if I'm ill, gatorade or fruit juice--if I'm dehydrating from symptoms at either end, I'm losing more than just water). Then again, I get headaches all the time and thus they don't faze me too much unless they're migraines, which I get rarely but treat as soon as they show themselves.

A dry, unproductive cough, though, seems to me to fall into the category of "symptom caused by the infection agent as a way to further spread the disease". I can't see how it benefits my body at all, as it doesn't seem to be removing any irritants from the lungs. That puts it along the lines of the diarrhea produced by cholera, though obviously less dangerous (almost all deaths from cholera are due to dehydration, which is primarily caused by that diarrhea--keep the patient hydrated, and the disease will clear naturally with essentially zero mortality). As such, it seems a reasonable sort of symptom to treat medically.

In reality, though, my major mode of action when ill is to avoid people when possible. I stayed at home yesterday for essentially the whole day (the exception was dragging myself to an IM volleyball game because my team would have had to play shorthanded if I didn't show up--weird co-rec rules about male/female ratios, but I did advise them all to wash their hands as soon as we were done because I might have infected the ball--and stopping by the market on the way home for some basic supplies), and I did all my labwork today before 7am so that I wouldn't overlap with my labmates and get them ill. I've forced myself to eat bread and saltines, and to drink gatorade, fruit juice, and ginger ale, even though I have no appetite just because I know I need to get something in me. A few mugs of dissolving chicken bouillon in hot water have helped my throat a good deal, as have some excessively hot showers with the exhaust fan turned off. Last night, the medication of choice was NyQuil (as my Dad calls it, the night time sniffling, sneezing, aching, coughing, passing out on the kitchen floor medicine), and today I've moved over to the nondrowsy DayQuil option. I've largely been sitting on my couch (head vertical to promote sinus drainage) wrapped in a blanket, and focusing my moments of coherence on short bursts of productivity. Most likely, I should be fine by tomorrow, given that I'm pretty sure that if I were in high school I would have gone to school today (though not yesterday). Still, at times like this, I tend to be very thankful for having been born into a society which embraces functional Western medicine. As miserable as I felt yesterday even when using pharmaceuticals, it would have been a lot worse without them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Proposition 8: Calling it what it is

I'm not the sort who normally posts about political matters. For the most part, I see political issues as generally being things where reasonable people can disagree even when presented with the same basic facts. People will disagree on the relative importance of different goals, the likelihood of certain outcomes, and will form different opinions about who will get hurt by something, who will be helped by something, and by how much. Different philosophies about the role of government can also easily lead people to different conclusions. I have views on a number of typically hot-button issues--abortion, capital punishment, health care, etc--where I don't even think that people who completely disagree with me are fundamentally wrong. And, in general, I figure an adult will rarely change his or her mind based upon someone else's argument.

But even though I fully expect that everyone who will read this and lives in California already agrees with me, I still felt the need to say something.

A lot has already been said about California's Proposition 8. Supporters have tried to state that it will inevitably lead to incest and polygamy, and that kindergarteners will be indoctrinated that gay marriages are a good thing even if their parents disagree. That churches will be forced to open their doors to same sex ceremonies, and that pastors will be sued for hate speech for preaching against homosexuality. Lies, all of it. Opponents of the proposition have already debunked these specific points, and many others.

At its core, this is a proposal to remove civil rights.

That is important. It would remove existing rights in the state of California. I get annoyed at both political parties routinely misrepresenting their candidates' and opponents' voting records on votes to "increase taxes" or "cut funding" when in reality they were votes to not lower taxes or to not increase funding, respectively. There is a difference there, and there is an even greater difference here than exists in most of the gay civil rights cases.

Think of what that means. If you vote yes for Proposition 8, you are voting to remove a group's right to get married, and invalidate their existing marriages. Admittedly, it's a small group in terms of the population as a whole--somewhere around 5% of people are gay. In comparison, about 2.5% of California is Jewish. Less than 2% is Mormon. 4% is Baptist, and it's the most common strain of Protestantism in the state. Less than 7% is African-American/Black. If the majority can rule that existing marriage rights for the 5% or so of gay people can be removed, what does that mean for other minority groups of a similar size?

You can argue that individuals need to prove that they deserve additional rights which they currently do not have in order to change the status quo. It's not a position I happen to agree with, but I can still view it as a reasonable starting view even if I think it's wrong. Essentially every time in history a group has been granted civil rights, it has been because those currently in power were convinced that it was wrong to not extend those rights or privileges to the formerly disadvantaged group. It is not inherently nonsensical to feel that the same should apply in the case of extending gay rights--that gay people should have to prove that they deserve the right to get married and to serve in the military and to inherit property from their partners without triggering the estate tax and to adopt children and all the rest.

But even so, it is another thing entirely to take one of these rights away. It is akin to saying that you've been convinced that they don't deserve to get married, rather than saying that you haven't been convinced that they do. If you haven't been convinced one way or another on a position, there are several reasonable defaults. You can default to the position that is the status quo--if you're not positive that something's broken, there's no point in trying to fix it. That is essentially the basis of conservatism: maintain the status quo unless there is a compelling reason to change things. You can default to a position of greatest good to harm ratio--if someone benefits, and no one is harmed, then that's the way to go. Both choices are valid and fully defensible.

Both of those argue voting No on proposition 8 unless you are completely sure that gay people shouldn't have these rights.

At the moment, more than 11,000 couples have already married in California because of the state Supreme Court's ruling that same sex marriages are legal. This proposition would add to the state constitution "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California." That would destroy these thousands of marriages. The official arguments in favor of proposition 8, included on secretary of state's site about the arguments for and against each proposal, includes "Proposition 8 is about preserving marriage; it's not an attack on the gay lifestyle. Proposition 8 does not take away any rights or benefits of gay of lesbian domestic partnerships. Under California law, 'domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits' as married spouses. (Family Code 297.5). There are NO exceptions. Proposition 8 WILL NOT change this." It also states "It protects our children from being taught in public schools that 'same-sex marriage' is the same as traditional marriage."

Explain to me how voters eliminating thousands of marriages protects marriage. This is not just a decision to not extend marriage rights. It is not even just a ban on future same-sex marriages. It would legally destroy thousands of existing, legally recognized marriages. This is analogous to "protecting freedom of the press" by shutting down hundreds of newspapers and talk radio stations that broadcast opinions with which you disagree.

Further, the supporters have decided to simultaneously make the argument that there are no legal distinctions between heterosexual marriage and homosexual domestic partnerships and that a reason to support this proposition is that it would result in children being taught that the two are the same thing. Is the disconnect between these two arguments lost on those who wrote them?

I fully admit that I see gay rights as the civil rights issue of my generation. The parallels between current marriage bans and the antimiscegenation cases which persisted in this country until 1967 are immediate and profound, as far as I can see. The same arguments which are used to exclude the openly gay from the military--unit cohesion, morale, and that the military is not a grounds for social engineering--were the same ones used to segregate the armed forces, and were eventually seen for the invalid smokescreen they were back then. I would love to see real progress on this front. I would love to see people address the federal Defense of Marriage Act--which to my non-legally-trained-mind seems to be a law trying to state that certain laws (marriage) are not subject to part of the federal constitution (the full faith and credit clause)--in terms of Constitutionality, rather than pragmatism.

But this is bigger than all of that.

If you vote Yes on Proposition 8, you will not only vote to remove rights from a substantial number of people--current estimates are around 5% of the population being gay, which would be over 1.5 million in California even assuming that gay individuals were no more likely to move to the Bay Area and Los Angeles than they were anywhere else in the country. You will also tell tens of thousands of people that you feel it is appropriate to invalidate their existing, legal marriages because you don't think people like them should be allowed to get married.

Everyone is free to believe that homosexuality is immoral. That it is a choice, and that people who behave that way will be punished for all eternity. Free to belong to a religious organization that will not perform such services. Free to disown family members who are gay, and to shun gay people socially. Free to vote against extending us any rights we don't already have. That's part of the beauty of democracy--everyone gets to vote as (s)he sees fit, regardless of whether people like me think that view is wrong.

I just want those who support Proposition 8 to think about exactly what they're doing in this case, and be honest about the effects. Do you really want to vote to remove rights someone already has? Why?

Be conservative. Maintain the status quo. Keep the government out of things it has no business in. Uphold the freedom of religion.

Vote No on Proposition 8.

And if there's someone you think will be voting Yes on it, feel free to forward this argument to them if you think it might help.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A bit of perspective

There's something of a financial crisis playing out in the US at the moment. Forecasts of doom and gloom are pretty common right, with phrases such that this is the "worst since the Great Depression" floating around.

At the moment, we're hearing about the horrific crashes on Wall Street, with record breaking losses.

Taken completely out of context.

The absolute value of losses are indeed record levels. This is because the Dow Jones is worth one heck of a lot more than it used to be. At the moment, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is around 11,000, which is around what it was back in 2000. In 1990, it was less than 3,000.

The market has been sliding for the past year. As of the moment I'm writing this, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down just under 17% for the year to date, and somewhere around 21-22% for the past year. Obviously, this is not a good thing.

On the other hand, on October 19th, 1987, the Dow Jones lost approximately 22.7%. On one day. It took 2 years to recover. Do you think that might be more recent than the Great Depression?

Keep in mind that percentage changes are a lot more meaningful than absolute value changes.