Signaling

Imagine license plates existed starting in 1765.

The post image means something, yes?  If you’re John Adams and you’re trotting down the road on the way to drop off a letter to The Boston Gazette arguing against the Stamp Act, you might cluck your tongue as you pass the wagon with this license plate.  Loyalists!

Fast-forward to 1770. Imagine your name is Gray, and you live in Boston, and you were a Loyalist, and this was your license plate.  Your brother Samuel is killed in the Boston Massacre.  Angrily, you remove this plate from your wagon -the same wagon Adams saw five years prior, and toss it in the trash.  A signal, of a different sort.

Or imagine you’re John Adams and you’re defending the soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre, and you come out and find that someone has found this plate from the trash and tacked it on the back of your coach.  That means something different.  In the context, Adams would probably regard it as a threat, yes?

Fast-forward to 1812.  It’s entirely possible that this license plate would get you shot.  What does this license plate represent, to the average American?  Decades of oppression by a distant monarchy, followed by two wars!  The burning of our capitol!

Fast-forward to today.  Do any of those signals still come through the mists of time?  If they do, do you think any of those signals are implied by the person with this license plate, or is this just an inference on the part of the viewer?

Does the rest of the context matter?

Here it is:

Awesome van, whoever you are.  (photo credit to Kitty)

What’s the point?

The point is that signaling has many components to it.  What the presenter wants to imply.  Who the presenter has in mind as their audience.  Who actually sees the signal, which may or may not overlap with the intended audience.  What inferences the intended audience reads from the signal.  What inferences the unintended audience reads from the signal.

I missed the beginning of the RNC yesterday, but I caught most of the end of the Davis speech, and everything that followed.  I thought Ann Romney’s speech was a little too calculated to my ear, but that’s probably because I’m a cynic.  I thought she navigated possible mine fields up until just before 7:25pm (PDT).  Here’s the speech (don’t watch it yet).

I think one of the weird things about people who come from privilege (and this includes myself) is that they generally have a hard time talking about their hard times without sounding clueless to some of the people who are listening.

Everybody has hard times.  It’s well established that people with more money don’t have less stress, because your stress-coping mechanisms aren’t hardwired tools, they adapt to your circumstances.

When you don’t have enough money in your checking account to pay for your apartment, you feel the stress of housing difficulties acutely… whether you’re living in a project or a basement apartment.  Whether you don’t have a place to go, if you lose that apartment in the projects… or you just don’t want to call your support network for help if you can’t afford that basement apartment one month.  Stress is stress, as it is perceived.  At one point I was unexpectedly unemployed and I could barely pay my rent.  If I didn’t figure out a way to get by on a drastically reduced cash flow, I would have had to default on my lease and move back in with my parents, or become a financial drain on my parents.  That certainly sounds better than, “I’ll be out on the street!” for certain.  But the funny thing about stress research is that you feel stress in accordance with perception of consequences, not the reality of the consequences.

If Mitt had a seizure going to class one day and their firstborn came down with an illness that required hospitalization for six months at $100,000 a week, Ann and Mitt would have a support network to fall back on that someone who lives in the projects lacks.  So trying to come across as “just folks”… comes across as genuine, for your intended audience (the people who are probably going to vote for you anyway), and as political baloney for your unintended audience (those not inclined to vote for you anyway).

I was interrupted by the chillun’s at one point so I missed a few seconds.  Fast forward the video to 12:19.  Hit “play”, and let it run out to 12:22.

Now, if you didn’t hear the entirety of the speech, what did you just hear?

If you did hear the entirety of the speech, what did you just hear?

Any bets on whether or not that 3 seconds of airtime gets play on social media, today?

Tying into Jason’s post, which I just bumped but it is well done… IF you weren’t in the bag for Romney, AND you heard that three seconds of speech… AND you were a single-issue voter on the issue of gay marriage (pro- or con-), and your first introduction to the entire speech was that three seconds, spoon-fed to you with a whole additional context… could you manage to listen to the whole speech without seeing REDCOAT?

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93 thoughts on “Signaling

  1. A very good post.

    As someone who is not inclined to vote for Romney, the “just folks” persona especially in regards to her MS and living like poor college students.

    It is bad that Ann Romey has MS, MS is a horrible disease. However there is a big difference between Ann Romney going through MS with a husband worth over 200 million dollars and a strong support group and my friend who works in retail and has a semi-employed father and a bus driver mother and student loan debt.

    I don’t begruge Ann Romney for her privileges. I grew up as a very comfortable member of the upper-middle class and would have a similar safety net from family if one that is not quite as extravagant. However, I am very cognizant of the advantages of my birth or at least try to be. I’ve done and said some bone-headed things and been called out for being privileged.

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    • I dunno. There are things where I would say “Get a grip, appreciate what you have,” but MS isn’t one of them. No, it’s not the same having MS being rich as having it while being poor, but I would take a whole lot of student debt and trade a whole lot of opportunity wealth in exchange for not having it. If you’re trying to make the case that being wealthy does not remove you from really bad things, MS is a pretty good way to make that case.

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      • My main point is that Ann Romney has access to very expensive medications that my friend does not. And as I understand it, MS medication can be very expensive and even insured people often face caps from their providers.

        My friend does have a medical marijuana card to help with pain and suffering but we know how Mitt feels about that. To be fair, the attack on medical marijuana is a place where Obama disappoints me but I wonder how much of it is a very entrenched DEA.

        In general though, I think she is often just as clueless as Mitt especially when she talked about paying for school via stock she got from dad. This was hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stock in the 1960s/70s when it had higher purchasing power and tuition and cost of living was much lower. She also had some speech about 5 teenage boys devouring groceries while her husband was the head of Bain. This is quite different than a single-mother who works as a waitress or teacher trying to feed her family.

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        • My main point is that Ann Romney has access to very expensive medications that my friend does not. And as I understand it, MS medication can be very expensive and even insured people often face caps from their providers.

          I get it, but dude… MS! If I have MS, even if I have lots of money with which to treat it, is a string of curse words, fear, sleepless nights, and so on. Yes, if you have MS, it’s lots and lots better to have money. But if my wife were diagnosed with MS and anyone suggested that I put it perspective because we have the means to possibly treat it, I would want to punch them in the nose. We might try to put that positive spin on it, but I’d see someone else suggesting that it could be worse because I could be poor and have MS… in a really negative light.

          I get the general argument. But… MS. “Fairytales don’t include MS” is an extremely reasonable position.

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        • My wife has MS. The meds are super expensive, up to 1000-2000 per month. There are also various tests and other problems that add costs. She had her own health insurance but switched to mine since its better. Her HI would not pay for certain procedures or meds. Not only does she have me, and my good insurance becuase i work for the gov, but her parents are a good back stop since her dad was a doc. Having worked with many people with serious illness’ those people who have no backstop, who have nobody to house them if they can’t do it themselves, who have no insurance but Medicare/caid no exactly how precarious their lives are. Those people who are lucky enough to have a safety net also know it. There is a huge difference.

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          • I imagine that it’s easier to deal with anything, for any value of anything, if you’re a multimillionaire than if you’re a white/blue/pink collar schlub.

            At the end of the day, however, there are some things that you can’t put a pricetag on. Pointing out the things that do have pricetags don’t make up for the things that don’t.

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          • People who get cancer (of any sort) have an initial response to the diagnosis with much the same level of stress, regardless of either how treatable… or how expensive it is. Learning you might die is going to hit you, no matter how much money you make. That moment in time is remarkably similar for everybody.

            Extended care and associated stress (particularly in the case of breast cancer) is the subject of a lot of research, but much more needs to be done. Once you get into the treatment stage, you start to see some divergence.

            Income, age, and educational level affect PTSD (note: this is a particular clinical diagnosis) in breast cancer survivors signficantly. http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/ccp/63/6/981.pdf

            Unless you’re very old or young, stress doesn’t affect your breast cancer survival rate much. If you’re older than 60 or younger than 40, though, it appears to do so. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0022399983901125

            Turns out, emotionally accessible health care providers can be a particularly big factor contributing to lower stress. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1540-4560.1984.tb01108.x/abstract

            Unfortunately, while people have studied how financial level is correlated with terminal disease reported stress levels, the actual consequences are not well-studied. http://pmj.sagepub.com/content/21/7/595.short

            Here’s another: http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/hea/18/6/555/

            So the situation is very complex.

            But if you talked to a rich person and a poor person and you asked them to describe what it was like to have been diagnosed with cancer, I’m guessing they both would honestly report upon their experience in a way that would allow them to relate to each other. Asking them how their long term situation in treatment and care differed would produce two different conversations, of course.

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            • I care more about the later than the former.

              I have no doubt that it was very stressful and painful for Ann Romney to deal with cancer and MS. She has my sympathy here.

              However, the treatment and care is where most of my concern is especially because we can’t ever seem to have honest conversations about this stuff in the United States ever.

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              • I don’t think it’s unreasonable to care about both, or even care a bit more about the later one than the first one.

                But let me tell you, if you ever want to get the shit justifiably kicked out of you, write a comment about how SMA kids and parents have it way worse than cancer patients when a mother with a child going through chemotherapy is reading your Facebook wall.

                Because “worse” ain’t a judgment you have standing to make without hurting someone, badly.

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              • This wasn’t a speech about health care, though, was it? This portion of the speech, anyway, was about their marriage, which was strained by her health problems. That it could have been worse if there were the often-attached financial problems strikes me as a weak counterargument to what she was actually saying. I take this back if she said “and we didn’t need no government health care” or somesuch, but I’m not seeing the cluelessness in what she actually said.

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                • Well i’d reflect on her husbands “plan” for health care and R platform re: HC. She didn’t talk about it, but there is plenty of context to discuss HC. I’m guessing she doesn’t really have to worry about being denied HC due to having a pre-exsisting condition.

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                  • Her mission, in that speech, was to humanize her husband as much as possible, and talk about women as not being excluded from the GOP experience.

                    Policy was probably right out, as far as the handlers were concerned.

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                    • So you’re saying Mitt needs help from his wife to pass a Turing test???

                      I do understand the purpose of her speech, but its a frickin national convention where they role out their official platform. Saying her speech should not be considered in that context is a bit silly.

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                    • Whether or not you find Mitt Romney to be a “have a beer with” kind of guy (and seriously, I think the dude has a stick up his butt)… you’d have to be a bonehead of a political analyst to not realize that jokes about Mitt not passing a Turing test are pretty common, out there, right now.

                      So I might think the guy is totally human and warm and awesome (re-clarification: I think the guy seriously should consider smoking a joint or something, he *never* looks relaxed), but I would still jump all over the Candidate’s Wife Speech and say, “YOU NEED TO HELP WITH THIS PROBLEM”.

                      And given the “GOP WAR ON WOMEN” bumpersticker, yeah, I think that would be my second emphasis.

                      Talking about policy would have nothing to do with problem number one and arguably would make problem number two worse among the target demographic.

                      So, yeah, that’s what I would have told her to do, if I was a publicist. Focus on Mitt, your marriage, how human he is, and how awesome you think it is to be a Republican and a woman.

                      Christie is who I’d ask to be a policy wonk. I’d also be pretty pissed at Christie this morning, but that’s a subject for a whole ‘nuther post.

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                    • I’d also be pretty pissed at Christie this morning, but that’s a subject for a whole ‘nuther post.

                      2016 is just around the corner. Assuming an Obama win, 2016 is already in the bag for the Republicans. Better start campaigning *NOW*.

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                    • Well, it didn’t have to seem so blatant.

                      I mean, it struck me about halfway through the speech, and then I noticed twitter noticing, and then he’s almost done and finally I blurted out “Dude, are you going to mention the actual candidate!??!” about three seconds before he did.

                      If you want to sour all the old fogies who sit behind closed doors and make decisions For The Good Of The Party, this was a good way to do it.

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                    • Per Mr. Kuznicki’s post, I’m fine with Christie selling the philosophy, not the candidate:

                      “I believe we have become paralyzed by our desire to be loved.
                      Our founding fathers had the wisdom to know that social acceptance and popularity is fleeting and that this country’s principles needed to be rooted in strengths greater than the passions and emotions of the times.

                      Our leaders today have decided it is more important to be popular, to do what is easy and say “yes,” rather than to say no when “no” is what’s required.
                      In recent years, we as a country have too often chosen the same path.

                      It’s been easy for our leaders to say not us, and not now, in taking on the tough issues. And we’ve stood silently by and let them get away with it.

                      But tonight, I say: ‘enough.’

                      Besides, you’re going to get all the wonkage you can eat once Ryan gets started.

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                    • Our leaders today have decided it is more important to be popular, to do what is easy and say “yes,” rather than to say no when “no” is what’s required.

                      Geez, Christie, wait until after the election to stick that much knife in your own nominee.

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                    • We’d better start getting Christie attacks ready now. “He doesn’t care about his body, how can he pretend to care about the country?”

                      “He’ll never connect with the Christianist base unless he gets a Christianist VP… and with that weight on him, do we really want to risk a Christianist in the White House after Christie dies of a heart attack?”

                      “Christie is a racist.”

                      “Christie’s nomination just indicates the current degeneracy of the Republican Party. If they had any integrity, they would have nominated Linda McMahon.”

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  2. This is not my week. First, I plan to do a jukebox link that Sam touches on. Then I plan a short little license plate post and you do the same. Of course, yours is substantive and stuff.

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    • I saw that guy’s van several weeks ago in the carpool lane and I turned to Kitty and said, “You have to take a picture of that, I need that for a post.” She said, “What are you going to write about?” I said, “I’m not sure, but that van is an awesome example of something.”

      Last night, the kids interrupted the speech at just the right time for me to get that three seconds out of the previous 10 seconds of context and I said to myself, “Waitasecond… what did she just say?”

      Then this morning I was working on cleaning out my inbox (10 messages or bust!), and I came across the emailed copy of that photo from her and it clicked.

      Put your post up and schedule it to go live in a few days. Get it out of your head, before it gets lost.

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  3. Perhaps because I had seen much of the speech (but not all, and perhaps not even a majority) last night, including the “real marriage” quip, I didn’t see it as signalling on ssm. (However, while ssm is important to me, it’s not my single issue.)

    I saw the “real marriage” quip as a claim that she and “Mitt Romney” went through hardships as other people did. I do think it would have been a much more interesting speech if her “real marriage” quip had included a discussion of “that rough patch we had early on when we wondered whether this marriage was really going to work and maybe we should consider things carefully and by the way, we’re pregnant!” Maybe they never had a rough patch, but that would’ve been quite a thing to hear about.

    As it is, much of the “we lived in a basement apartment” phrasing rings false to my ears.

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    • Oh, I definitely saw it as a response to, “We don’t have a storybook marriage!” CLEARLY it’s not a dogwhistle.

      My response to the storybook marriage “attack” is, “Well, duh. Nobody has a storybook marriage, Ms. Romney. People who resent you for your privilege (rightfully so or wrongfully so) don’t care much about your marriage. They care about your privilege. You *think* they care about your marriage being storybook, but they don’t. They care about your lack of (true) suffering. Whether or not that’s a fair charge, you don’t get it… that’s the charge.” But this is another example of it being hard for people with privilege to discuss hardship. It *is* hardship – scientifically measurable and everything! – but it’s not the sort of hardship that people identify with, unless they’re just like you.

      The point at the bottom of the post is that I can see how one nice little chop-chop with the editing machine and a few bullet points regarding SSM stance and you’ve got yourself a facebook meme. And that people who are single-issue voters here (particularly if they’re already partisan), if they were introduced to the speech by that clip with those bullet points, they’d be hard-pressed to listen to the whole speech without discarding that context.

      Right now, the idiot with the peanuts seems to be the story of the day, though.

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    • I took Ann Romney at her word that their dining table was an ironing board. As for her multiple sclerosis, human nature gets jealous, what can you say? That her “storybook” life wasn’t and isn’t perfect is what keeps the tabloids in business.

      Not that anyone questioned Mr & Mrs. John Heinz-Kerry’s wealth. But that’s a different game.

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  4. My literal and specific reaction to this article: I can’t stand vanity plates. I was in England recently and I was blown away by the lack of vanity plates. I couldn’t put my finger on why. But one reason is that they’re so self-indulgent.

    My general reaction to this article: I can’t stand out-of-context games. It’s pretty easy to understand what a candidate or party supports – which is not to say they’re always telling the truth, or they won’t compromise away a principle for something better, but you can tell where they claim to stand without much effort. I try not to grade a candidate on how many out-of-context things his people pounce upon, but I definitely make judgments about the people who do the actual pouncing.

    So, really, both of my reactions are the same. Don’t be a sloganeer. Respect your principles enough to fairly articulate those of your opponents.

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    • See Jason’s post for the practical reason why this (which to be clear is also my preference) is the losing strategy in all situations where most voters are low-information.

      I’m not sure what to make of guys like us. We’re stupid.

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      • I read it. It seemed smug to me, although I can’t state why. I think the problem isn’t with depth; it’s with lying.

        Candidate A has an obligation to present his candidacy in a clear way. Ditto Candidate B. They both can do it at varying depths, and should, depending on the medium. A stump speech is different from a policy speech; a bumper sticker is different from a platform. If both candidates do that, then the voter would be able to make an informed choice (at least as informed a choice as he wants to).

        If Candidate A doesn’t truthfully depict himself, it becomes someone else’s job. Ideally it would be Candidate A’s supporters. Often it’s Candidate B or his supporters. If Candidate A doesn’t truthfully depict Candidate B, then B and his team are put on the defensive, trying to correct the public image. But ideally ideally, there would be a neutral observer who would call either candidate on any falsehood or distortion. We don’t believe we have one anymore.

        That’s the problem. We haven’t gotten dumber. We’ve gotten more dishonest.

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        • > But ideally ideally, there would be a neutral
          > observer who would call either candidate
          > on any falsehood or distortion.

          Ideally ideally, we’d have ~200 million of them. You know, the people that vote.

          But if wishes were fishes…

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          • Yeah, I know. But it would be nice if there were a press that was (a) unbiased, and (b) generally perceived as unbiased. I always think about what Arendt said, that totalitarianism arises in a culture which is simultaneously gullible and cynical. I don’t see how anything good can come out of that paradoxical combination, and it feels like our culture possessed both traits.

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  5. The speech was a little painful because the delivery wasn’t the best but I thought it was sincere.

    Here’s the deal though: I was born to a very, very blue collar family. We were on the verge of losing the house several times and there were nights I went to bed hungry. Then I went to college and I got a good job and then married a woman with an even better job and things are much easier for me now. But I never forget what it was like when I was a kid.

    I guess what I am saying is, just because you have personal success doesn’t mean you forget what it is like to be less successful. Ann Romney grew up in a very average situation and I think she is sincere when she talks about their first apartment and their struggles. It’s a bummer that people will assume they can’t remember what it was like to not be rich.

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  6. After our Bluray of Weeds ended last night, I haphazardly switched to the convention and my wife and I found ourselves in the middle of Ann’s speech. My wife was extremely moved and impressed.

    On the issue of license plate signalling, I have been toying with the idea of writing a guest post on the idea of philanthropy signalling on license plates. The idea is what would happen if we color coded license plates based upon philanthropic contributions to charity or tax contributions above the minimum requirement? The point wasn’t to argue for or against it, as much as to explore what the country would be like if we had more public displays of our altruism or lack thereof. I have no idea how people from different political views would react.

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  7. I cheated and listened to ten seconds before the three-second blip you highighted. While I can see how the quote could be aimed at the issue of SSM, in context that’s just plain not what she’s talking about.

    Also in Ms. Romney’s defense, breast cancer and MS don’t care how wealthy you are. Getting care for those conditions is certainly easier for the affluent than the economically challenged, but there are still effects of the medical conditions, effects of the treatment, and fear.

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    • > there are still effects of the medical conditions,
      > effects of the treatment, and fear.

      The part that makes this all hard to suss out is that a lot of that is not easily separable and yet the consequences of them are manifestly different in some interesting and measurable ways.

      Everybody who gets bad medical diagnosis experiences fear. Everybody who gets treatment has to deal with side effects. Everyone who experiences this sort of pain deals with some of it internally and some externally. Everyone worries about the bills, even if they’re better-than-above-normal income. Everybody worries about the loss of opportunity. Everyone worries about the children.

      Still, age, income, and education all are correlated with how likely you are to get crushed under all of those things, going on, all at once.

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      • Actually, since he was diagnosed in 2004 with a rare form of treatable pancreatic cancer, he would have most likely died 8 years ago without either insurance or other financial means to pay for the treatment he underwent.

        Did not being poor keep him from eventually dying? No, but I bet if you could ask him (or his family) they’d say those extra 7 years weren’t nothin’.

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        • Tod you’re actually talking about an area I’ve begun to learn a tremendous amount about recently. First the cancer was rare BECAUSE it was treatable. 99% of the pancreatic cancers that are discovered are already stage 3 or 4, they can treat but you’ll die in 6 months or less either way. Jobs’ cancer was considerably more benign than those, therefore the 7 years is an open question. He aggressively treated the cancer but since it was a very slow moving kind, his very aggression may have (and many oncologists suspect) exacerbated the problem. He didn’t die of the cancer, but complications from the chemo and radiation therapy.

          Bottom line, “all your money won’t another minute buy“.

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          • ward – first and most importantly of all I’m sorry to hear that you are learning more about this kind of cancer. Whatever that means for whoever in your life, I am deeply sorry that an educational opportunity has arisen. We had a very close friend pass last year, and I know that I would give anything to have been kept ignorant about pancreatic cancer.

            But what I had meant was that while Job’s type was treatable, it was only treatable for someone that had the financial means (including health insurance) to do so.

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            • Tod, just getting back to all the old replies. Thanks for your concern. Yes she was a good friend of the family and yes, she’s dead. She beat the odds by living an extra six months, it probably helped that one of her children is an oncologist.

              I choose to believe in an afterlife not because of my great faith (no mountain moving for me) but because it is inherently comforting when a loved one is lost. Plus it adds that dollop of meaning to a largely meaningless existence if these few days are all we ever have before oblivion. Poor Jobs might be spending his afterlife debugging Windows code, surely hell for him. ;)

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  8. On a side note, in what other profession does a spouse speaking to the hiring committee be considered a normal course of action for employment?

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  9. Holy crap, dude… this is a great post. I haven’t read the comments, but I am seriously impressed with how you’ve deftly handled this issue. You’re making a statement about the way we make statements. Fuck, dude!

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  10. I had seen most of the speech and I think I heard that quote but, even if I hadn’t in it’s context, I knew enough about what she was saying to never even think she was referring to SSM.

    Rick Santorum, on the other hand, talking about how we need to get back to “mothers and fathers raising children” or whatever… yeaaaaaaa… about that…

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    • I heard it both because I was distracted, and I listen to these things to hear what the other side is going to chop out and do stuff with. I’m looking for the bit that can be misconstrued, the part that sounds bad.

      If I hadn’t been distracted, I would have gone right through the speech and come out the other side more or less impressed with her not making any screwups but also depressed – as I usually am – about how people have a hard time communicating around their own circumstances.

      But that one confluence of circumstances made that emphasis jump out at me. After I backtracked and listened again, I said to myself, “Oh, okay… moving on, now”.

      But still, I can see how this could become a thing. It wasn’t a misstep or a “open mouth, insert foot” moment, but that made it all the more interesting as a question of manipulating signals, which was the point of the post.

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      • Oh, agreed.

        Looking at it in its full and proper context, I think the VERY WORST you could say to her was, “Hey, the phrase ‘real marriage’ might not be the best one to use when there is a very real and ongoing debate in this country about what should or should not be considered a ‘real marriage’.” That is the WORST you could say… that her word choice was less-than-perfect. Which probably puts her ahead of the curve.

        On the flip side, why don’t pro-SSM people grab onto this and say, “Hey, if a ‘real marriage’ is one that has ups and downs and isn’t easy and can be turbulent and requires work and dedication and commitment but is ultimately one marked and defined by love… then most gays already are ‘real married’!”

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  11. I didn’t leap to the “swipe at gay marriage” conclusion when I heard that – there’s enough division among conservatives/Replublicans on the gay marriage issue that I would find it hard to believe a reference to it (one way or the other) would make it past those vetting the keynote speech. Still, I’m left wondering, what she considers a “fake” marriage?

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  12. Kinda off OP, but this is why I don’t have bumper stickers or any other type of display on my car. I don’t want some idiot taking offense and throwing a rock at my car because he disagrees with my “social commentary”, and I don’t want to endure a “detainment” by advocating something a LEO might take offense at or think he might get a civil asset forfeiture.

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