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Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Black Lives Matter - Facts and Figures

After over a week's worth of protests with no end in sight, and I'm seeing lots of white folks on social media question whether all this is really necessary. Cops kill more white people than Black people, I've seen some say. And these incidents, while horrible, are isolated, and aren't a sign of some systemic problem. And anyway, some say, Black people commit more crime and that's why cops keep killing them. So Black people should just stop being victims and just obey the laws and then they wouldn't have to worry about getting involved with the police.

And the truth is, it's easy to make a compelling case when you cherry pick statistics, when you don't tell the whole story. So over the next few blog posts, I'm going to try and tell the whoooole story in hopes of getting folks to understand that yes, Black folks are provably and significantly more likely to be beaten or killed by cops. And while there are some crimes one race is more likely to commit than the other, Black folks are way more likely to experience police violence even over crimes that Black and white folks commit at the exact same rates. And finally, I'll provide several examples showing that Black folks don't have to be doing a damn thing to be the victim of police violence.

In this post we're only going to talk about what goes on between police and Black adults, because the issue of policing Black kids is a whole egregious and heartbreaking mess that needs its own post. 

So to get to where we are we're going to take a quick trip in the wayback machine to take a quick look at how we got here. Picture it. Dixieland. Reconstruction era. Following the Civil War, people in the South discover that paying Black people to do work means less money for white people, and they're not big fans of that fact. Fortunately, the 13th amendment, the one that banned slavery, gave them a loophole. You can't force just anybody to work without pay anymore, but you can still enslave people in prison. So as soon as the North stops looking, Southerners pass Black Codes - special laws, just for Black folks, with wildly disproportionate sentences, that allow for the arrest, conviction, and enslavement of Black folks. If you're Black, you could get arrested for not having a job, but you could get arrested for selling stuff without permission too. You could get arrested for loitering, being out after curfew, owning a gun, or drinking outside in public. If you got arrested, you went to jail for forever, and lo and behold, you were back at work on a plantation or on a chain gang. It's slavery rebranded. 
Once Black folks had been convicted and given inordinately long prison sentences for these new crimes, they could be "leased out" the plantation owners, construction companies and so on. Rules were, lessees could shoot their prisoners if they ran away, and if one died, they'd get another. The conditions were awful and a great many enslaved Black people did die. Folks, inside and outside, who complained were met with the argument that if these folks didn't want to be enslaved in this way, all they had to do was not break the laws. Sound familiar? 
Within a couple decades, anti-slavery types started crying fowl on having special laws for Black people, and localities changed things up a bit. Laws about loitering, open container, disturbing the peace and so on would apply to everybody, but cops would have great discretion on whom they applied it to. Prosecutors would have discretion on whom they would charge, and judges would have discretion as to sentences. And judges and prosecutors would just happen to use that discretion to charge and give crazy long sentences to Black folks. There are still different sets of laws for Black folks and white folks, but that fact is no longer officially acknowledged. This system was intentionally designed to put more Black folks in prison than white folks, put them in there for longer, and make money off of their labor. And the system continues to work exactly as designed. 
And if you think that cops can't possibly still be getting away with just up and arresting Black folks for next to nothing, take a look at Adrian Schoolcraft. Schoolcraft was a Brooklyn cop who had a crisis of conscience when his Sergeant started straight-out telling he and his fellow officers to arrest and cite people on trumped up charges in the mostly Black Brooklyn neighborhood that his precinct patrolled. Schoolcraft started recording his Sergeant saying things like, one Halloween, "any roving bands of more than 2 or 3 people, I want them stopped, cuffed, throw them in here, run some warrants... we'll come back and process them later on." Schoolcraft's sergeant was specifically telling officers to arrest people without cause and throw them in jail, and that they'd figure out what to charge those folks with later. Which is completely, blatantly illegal, but who is gonna believe poor Black folks over NYPD cops? Are those folks going to hire a lawyer every time something like this happens? Schoolcraft recorded officers arresting Black folks for trespassing on public streets. Citing Black folks for open container when they're walking home from church with a bottle of orange juice. Stopping and frisking Black men without probable cause, which was illegal at that time. This all happened in 2009. Not 1909, but two thousand - ten years ago - nine. By the way, when Schoolcraft started bringing these concerns to the people above him, instead of doing anything, they raided his home and had him involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution for a week
Any which way you cut it, according to any legitimate source, including our own government, Black Americans are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be convicted, and get longer sentences for piddly misdemeanor crimes than white folks. And, it turns out, cops are much more likely to assault and kill Black folks in the process of  And it isn't getting better. According to The Sentencing Project:
 In recent years, black drivers have been somewhat more likely to be stopped than whites but have been far more likely to be searched and arrested. The causes and outcomes of these stops differ by race, and staggering racial disparities in rates of police stops persist in certain jurisdictions—pointing to unchecked racial bias, whether intentional or not, in officer discretion. A closer look at the causes of traffic stops reveals that police are more likely to stop black and Hispanic drivers for discretionary reasons—for “investigatory stops” (proactive stops used to investigate drivers deemed suspicious) rather than “traffic-safety stops” (reactive stops used to enforce traffic laws or vehicle codes). Nationwide surveys also reveal disparities in the outcomes of police stops. Once pulled over, black and Hispanic drivers were three times as likely as whites to be searched (6% and 7% versus 2%) and blacks were twice as likely as whites to be arrested. These patterns hold even though police officers generally have a lower “contraband hit rate” when they search black versus white drivers.   
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's get back to the history lesson. Around 1930 the government finds a brand new way to unevenly enforce laws. Now, back then, in most states, you could get cannabis at your local pharmacy - some required a prescription, some didn't. Cannabis was banned in some places, but for the most part it was considered pretty harmless. Then along comes Harry J. Anslinger and his Federal Bureau of Narcotics. Anslinger is hired as the founding leader of the FBN, and Anslinger hated two things: weed and brown people. Actually, that's only half true. Before he started his campaign against it, Anslinger had said that the idea that cannabis could harm people was an absurd fallacy. Buuut then he noticed how much Black folks and Mexicans liked the stuff. Anslinger said, "Reefer makes [slur] think they're as good as white men," and he warned that marijuana made white women want to have sex with Mexican and Black men. Anslinger encouraged referring to cannabis by its Mexican name, marijuana, in stories about its many ill effects, because he thought it made the drug seem foreign and that much more dangerous. Anslinger's allies in the media, notably his buddy William Randolph Hearst - who hated Black people almost as much as he loved storing his urine in jars - were all too happy to run false or exaggerated stories about the evil things brown people did when high on herb - anything that sold papers and made brown people look bad was a winner in Hearst's book. 
In the late 30s, Anslinger succeeded in having marijuana outlawed nationwide and before the ink was dry on the act, the justice system started enforcing it differently for white folks and Black folks. Black folks were more likely to be stopped, searched, charged, tried, and convicted, and once again, received longer sentences, even when it came to pass that Black folks and white folks were equally likely to use the drug. Once again, these drugs were designed to allow the justice system unfairly target Black people, and they continue to work as designed.
You might think things are getting better now that weed is legal in so many states. But that isn't exactly the case. People who got busted for serious weed crimes are still in jail even in places where weed is no longer a crime, and those who aren't in jail anymore still have their criminal records (which can affect employment, student loans, ability to buy or rent a home, and more). And even in places where weed's legal, you've got to have a license to sell it - if you're not a licensed dispensary, selling pot can still be a felony subject to harsh, harsh penalties including prison time. And it just so happens that Black folks don't even own 1% of the legal marijuana industry. The city of LA even created a program designed to provide cannabis licenses to people harmed by the war on drugs, which seemed like a step in the right direction, except that only 20% of the businesses that will benefit from the program are Black-owned.
So pot gets made illegal all over the country in 1937, and now you've got hundreds of thousands of disproportionately Black prisoners all over the country providing free labor in prison workshops - slavery rebranded once again. But the fun's just starting. 
In 1971, Nixon kicks off his War on Drugs. According to Nixon aide and Watergate co-conspirator,
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people … We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.
By now, I probably don't have to tell you that the War on Drugs disproportionately affected Black communities. Black folks and white folks were equally likely to use drugs, but Black folks were far more likely to be targeted by law enforcement over it. Nixon's drug policy walked so his successors' could run, and soon we had the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which imposed draconian mandatory minimums on possession of crack cocaine - a drug favored among Black Americans - while imposing much lighter sentences on possession of cocaine, which is the same drug, except preferred by white folks. The US Sentencing Commission found that crack laws were maybe the most racially skewed laws on the books, with Black people being on the receiving end of 79% of crack convictions. That disparity was eventually addressed with the Fair Sentencing Act, which was passed in 2010 over the fervent objections of - you guessed it - the Fraternal Order of Police and the National Sheriff's Association
At this point, I might be giving you the impression that the whole problem of racial disparity in our justice system rests on drugs. That cops might lean a little harder on Black folks who do drugs, which may be unfair, but is pretty easily resolved by just not doing drugs. But not so fast. We still haven't gotten to Broken Windows Policing.
Okay, so Broken Windows Policing is a criminological theory that visible signs of disorder in an urban environment encourage more crime. A couple of social scientists back in the early 80s wrote an article called "Broken Windows" arguing that:
Social psychologists and police officers tend to agree that if a window in a building is broken and is left unrepaired, all the rest of the windows will soon be broken. 
But, the authors said, if you repair the one broken window right away, no more broken windows. In a follow-up book, one of the authors of that article opined that what applies to windows might apply to crime. If you intervene then the small crimes happen, they'll happen less often, and crime will go down overall. Clean up vandalism right away. Get addicts off the street and into treatment. Get the community involved in keeping the neighborhood clean and orderly so they'll feel a sense of ownership and police themselves. 
Law enforcement agencies were fans of the idea, but didn't maybe understand it so great. Seems cops mostly took the whole theory to mean that they should go into minority neighborhoods to arrest and cite people for what the hell ever they could think of. "Disorderly conduct," which of course means whatever cops want it to mean. Spitting. Riding a bike on the sidewalk. Loud music. Trespassing for sitting on the stoop of a building they don't live in. Or sometimes buildings they do live in - mental health worker Rhonda Scott was arrested for the crime of standing on her own stoop without the ID to prove it, and suffered two broken wrists in the process. Can you even imagine - begin to imagine, walking out onto your front porch and having cops walk up and break your freaking wrists for doing it? I suppose the answer to that question depends on your skin color.
Anyway, Broken Windows leads to more stops, more searches, more violence, more arrests, more charges, more convictions. All disproportionately affecting Black folks, and all having very little proven effect on the crime rate. If you've read this far, you've probably guessed that all this leads to a lot more dead citizens, and of course, those citizens are disproportionately Black. According to CampaignZero.com, "in 2014, police killed at least 287 people who were involved in minor offenses and harmless activities like sleeping in parks, possessing drugs, looking "suspicious" or having a mental health crisis."
If you need more evidence that police use of force disproportionately affects Black folks, check out this study from the Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences. Head to MappingPoliceViolence.org for a whole bunch of raw data. And here's a whole mess of data about police use of force policy and training and such.
From 1983 to 2016, the prison population has increased from 250K to over 1.5 million, and even though they make up only 13% of the general population, Black folks make up 37% of the prison population. One in three Black men will go to prison in their lifetime, which means, by the way, that one in three Black men will be disenfranchised for some portion of their life - people in prison can't vote, and many states require former prisoners to pay a fine or make it through probation before they can vote again (and by the way, their job prospects once they get out are way worse than a white man who committed the same crime would be). 

If it helps you to hear it directly from the United States government, here are some direct quotes from the United States Sentencing Commission:

  • "Black male offenders continued to receive longer sentences than similarly situated White male offenders." Black men's sentences are 19% longer on average and the disparity has not improved at all since 2012.
  • "Violence in an offender's criminal history does not appear to account for any of the demographic differences in sentencing."
  • "Black male offenders were 21.2 percent less likely than White male offenders to receive a non-government sponsored downward departure or variance" (sentence below the minimum sentencing guidelines)
If you need to hear it from a conservative, conservative lawyer T. Greg Doucette has been keeping a running Twitter thread of videos of police violence against BLM protesters. 

It isn't anyone's imagination. This justice system does not treat Black lives as if they matter. And until there's real, true justice, there's not going to be any peace.


Friday, May 29, 2020

Filming a police encounter

I don't know what to say about the lynching of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police force. I don't know what to say about news that we now know that at least three officers knelt on Floyd for a time after he was restrained, and others stood around with their hands in their pockets as one of their own crushed the life out of him, not saying a word. I don't know what to say about the fact that only one officer has been charged and that one only with third degree murder - killing someone "without intent to effect the death of any person."
Black folks are already dying of COVID at 4 times the rate of white folks while doctors on TV blame everything from obesity to melanin, conveniently ignoring the well-established factors of medical bias and environmental racism. And now the news is teeming with egregious cases of police and civilians alike executing Black folks on shadows of suspicion, reminding us that for all our talk of peace and unity, racism festers under the surface like dry rot. 
Last night I felt so hopeful as I saw footage a protest in my small, conservative town - a truly multi-cultural group of protesters gathered downtown singing Lean On Me together while a man passed out masks to those who didn't have them. Not great in the social distancing department, but heartening to see. This morning I learned that the peaceful protest ended with cops lobbing tear gas and shooting rubber bullets into the crowd. 
 

So I feel pretty helpless pretty much all the time. Getting to a protest in the past has been logistically very difficult, and now that we've got a plague and I've got a malfunctioning immune system, I'm not going to do much good there. I can donate money, and I do, but that feels like hardly anything. 
The best thing I can do, far as I can tell, is stick my nose all the way up in people's business. So I'm going to use this post to talk to you about the time I filmed an uneventful police encounter. Not because I want cookies for being a good ally, but because this is a really simple way for white people to become part of the solution. If you pay attention to police encounter videos where there are multiple people shooting, you'll often notice that cops are going after Black folks who are recording and ignoring white people for doing the same. That means we've got an opportunity to use our privilege for good here.
First, know that filming police encounters is your first amendment right, no matter what police might tell you. As long as you're not impeding their ability to do their job you are free to document. It does feel kind of like a dick move to stand around recording someone who hasn't done anything wrong yet, but I just reminded myself that most people have security cameras trained on them all day at their jobs, and nobody bats an eye about it.
So, this January I was walking through a parking lot and caught the immediate aftermath of a car accident. I didn’t see what happened, but from the conversation, it sounded like one of them was going the wrong way in a one-lane aisle. The two women involved - one Black and one white, were calm and civil, but I decided to stick around until the cops showed up, because I have seen way too many videos of routine traffic stops turn into lynchings to take for granted that everything’s gonna work out fine.
 Eventually the Black woman (call her Kay) noticed me lurking nearby, so I told her I'd stick around to record if that was okay. She seemed relieved to have someone in her corner - she was alone while the other driver had her mom with her, plus the owner of the restaurant whose parking lot we were in kept coming out to see if she was okay and if she needed anything (completely ignoring Kay of course).
So Kay and I chatted until the cop arrived. When he got there, I hung back, put the phone in landscape mode so that I could capture as much of the action as possible, and pressed my elbows against my body to reduce camera shake. I wasn’t live-streaming, but you probably should use some kind of live upload app, like Facebook Live that automatically updates as you’re filming. Cops aren’t legally allowed to take your phone or delete anything off of it but they sometimes will anyway.

When things were winding up, I went over to where everyone was standing to ask Kay if she needed a ride to the next place she needed to be and we hugged. The officer had clearly noticed me recording, but we nodded pleasantly at each other as I left. And that was that. Now that I've done it I'm going to try to always stop when I see police interacting with Black folks. 
I butt in to other people's business in other ways too. If I'm in a store and the door alarm goes off, I'll go to the door and watch, not inconspicuously, phone at the ready. Just to make sure all parties are aware there's a witness to this, hoping to communicate with my presence that if things go down differently than they would if I'd set off the alarm, I'm going to have questions. In stores and stuff, I will eavesdrop on any conversation between other people that feels like it could turn into some kind of verbal altercation, just in case the next BBQ Becky takes exception to the way some customer from a marginalized group shops for salad tongs and calls the cops. I've read too many news stories where cop calls for relatively minor offenses (or non-offensives) turned deadly in seconds. And I have a knack for wandering into and diffusing tense situations.  

If you're feeling as helpless and guilty and crappy as I am, please consider donating to one or more of the following: Campaign Zero, working to prevent police killings on a policy level; the Minnesota Freedom Fund paying bail for people who can't afford it;  BlackLivesMatter.
Also, please note that if you see Shaun King fundraising for this cause or are asked to donate to JusticeForBigFloyd.com, maybe direct your money elsewhere? Floyd's family has not been in contact with King about what King plans to do with the money and he doesn't seem to be working with any of the other charities involved.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Happy Mothers' day... week

Going back to my roots today, I thought it'd be fun to talk about the etymology of the word mom. Did we get it from the Swahili word mama or the Gaelic word mam? Did it come from Arabic ahm or Hindi ma? Maybe from the Urdu amee? Or did they all come from proto-Indo-European, that great great great grandparent of so many of the languages spoken throughout Europe and India.
Nope. Turns out the reason that people in countries from the arctic circle to the horn of Africa have such similar names for mom is that the term is coined by babies, who develop the ability to make sounds in roughly the same order, no matter the language those around them speak. See, sometime in the 6 month range, they leave the directionless babbling of infancy behind and start experimenting with intentional sounds. Ahh is the easiest vowel sound to control, as it requires no special movement of the throat, mouth, or lips. And since the m sound requires one simple movement of the lips, it'll be one of the first consonant sounds they make. Moms respond to the sound of ma-ma-ma, which reinforces to babies that saying ma-ma-ma summons mom-mom-mom, and eventually, the sounds become words. The other sounds babies develop around this time, of course, are da-da, na-na, pa-pa, ba-ba, and ta-ta, in no particular order.       

Friday, April 24, 2020

COVID scam roundup

As the weather turns warmer and the walls of our houses and apartments slowly close in, a lot of people are feeling pretty ripped off. Seniors are getting shafted out of the proms and graduations they've looked forward to for four years, teachers are losing out on the goodbye hugs as they send their kids off, kids can't go out and play with their friends. We are all getting cheated like nobody's business.
Some of us more literally than others.
In times of human tragedy, you can count on a lot of things. You can count on the helpers. On seeing the best in people. On seeing the last person you'd expect step up in a big way.

And you can count on scammers circling like jackals, falling over themselves to make a buck off of fear and misery and suffering. Then there are the normal, garden-variety scams that folks are running across just by virtue of being at home and online more. So I figure it's probably a good time for a good old scam roundup.

Phone phonies
There are a whole mess of scams going around that start with your answering your phone. I've gotten quite a few calls from some organization trying to sell me some bogus supplemental insurance. You might get calls claiming to come from a doctor, or a nonprofit that wants to give you a free coronavirus test kit, or a hospital demanding payment for a loved one whom they claim is close to death.
The AARP gives a bunch of guidelines for avoiding getting taken in by these scams. They say not to even answer the phone if you don't recognize the number on caller ID. If you do answer, and a robot starts talking, try to remember if you've ever given written permission for this company to contact you via robo-dialer. If you haven't, hang up - unsolicited robocalls are illegal.
If a charity calls, it's best not to donate over the phone. Ask them to send you materials in the mail - scammers won't bother - or how to donate online. 
No legitimate organization will ever ask for your full social security number over the phone, and it's best never to give any personal information to a stranger who calls your house. 
If you get a call that rings once and then hangs up, don't call it back. That may be a ploy to get you to call a hotline that charges you a per-minute fee. Beware of phone calls in which you receive a strange-sounding voicemail that doesn't include any discernible words - that's another trick to get you to call a toll number; the scammers come up with audio clips designed to peak a person's interest so they'll be more likely to call back.

Cyber-sick
According to the BBB, scammers have been texting folks telling them they have to take a mandatory COVID-19 test online, but it's just another scam to get a bunch of your personal information. I mean, "online COVID test" should probably have been your first clue? Anyway, BBB says not to click on the link they send you and not to text them back.

Social Security
The Motley Fool reports that lots of folks are getting official looking mail that seems to have come from Social Security. The letter says that your benefits are going to be suspended due to COVID unless you call a certain phone number. Once you call the number, they tell you that you have to pay to be reinstated, and it's all a ploy to get your personal information and credit card number. 
If you get a letter that seems to come from Social Security, it might be wise to find your nearest Social Security office's phone number online, rather than call the phone number listed on the letter. 

Quizzes
This isn't directly COVID-related, but now that a whole lot of us have nothing better to do than sit at home playing around on social media, many of us have grown careless with personal information. 
A bunch of those surveys that go around asking for your favorite vegetable, your first job, your stripper name (which might consist of the name of, for instance, your first pet, another common password question) - those were designed to get you to reveal your password questions for various websites. That makes it a whole lot easier to hack into your accounts and steal from you.
Another quiz scam - Facebook apps. Couple years ago, Cambridge Analytica got a whole bunch of Facebook users' personal data by getting them to opt in to a Facebook quiz app without reading the end user licence agreement. You'd think after that happened Facebook would have taken steps to prevent that sort of thing, but now a security firm is saying that Ukrainian hackers used the same method to get user data very recently. 
You can make yourself safer by keeping your account set to friends-only, never taking quizzes that never require you to enable an app or accept an end user license agreement, and avoiding quizzes that include personal information. 

Emails
Phishing is the practice of sending emails that appear to come from a legitimate business, but which then trick you into going to a phony website and entering personal information. In an especially cruel twist, scammers have been sending phishing emails that appear to be job offers, offers of financial help, and insurance offers. People get a job offer email from someone posing as LinkedIn, they click a link in the email, try to log in to LinkedIn, and then the scammers have full control of the victim's LinkedIn account as well as any other account that uses that password.  
If you get an email that seems to come from LinkedIn or another job search website, don't click the link in the email. Instead, open a new browser tab, and type the web address in the search bar. This allows you to be certain you're going to the correct website; if you do in fact have a message waiting, there will be a notification icon. 

Door to door
The Red Cross is tracking reports in which scammers, posing as Red Cross workers, show up at people's door claiming to be selling or giving away home COVID19 test kits. These scammers are after your money, your personal information, and may even want to rob your house. The Red Cross isn't selling test kits door-to-door, and I'm going to go out on a limb and say that no other legitimate organization is either. 
You might run across other, non-COVID door-to-door scams as well, just by virtue of being home during the day. For instance, there are scammers who dress in what looks like an energy or home security company's uniform and show up at your door with a clipboard, making it sound as if they need you to sign some routine paperwork, or claiming they can lower the price you're paying for energy. Sometimes they claim your service is about to be shut off. What you'd really be doing if you signed on the dotted line is agreeing to pay a recurring or one-time fee for essentially nothing. These scammers are like virtual quick change artists - they're really, really good at convincing you they're legit. Here's what you can do:

  • If someone claims you have to take immediate action, you can go and find your last bill from the company that provides the service in question. Use the 800 number on that bill to check whether the visitor is legitimate.
  • If you do get tricked into signing up for a service they're selling, don't worry and don't be embarrassed. These folks are very, very good at what they do. The good news is that the Federal Trade Commission gives consumers a 3-day "Cooling Off" period for sales made at your home. You just need to fill out the cancellation form that came with your paperwork (or write a cancellation letter if no cancellation form is available) and send it by certified mail within 3 days of your signing up. If problems arise, you can file a claim with the FTC, who will get it straightened out. 
When it comes to door-to-door salespeople, I think it's probably safe to assume that no legitimate business is sending their employees door to door during the shutdown  

That's not nearly all the scams that I dug up, sadly, but those seem to be the biggest ones. Just, remember to keep your eyes open and your minds skeptical, because people are horrible and the world is depressing.
But now, some good news.
Meet my weekly watch-n-weep. I am way too jaded and
cynical for these shenanigans. And yet. 

Sunday, April 19, 2020

Fighting for the death

In the past couple of days there have been protesters spread across the front pages of newspapers across the country. If you'd have asked me to guess what people would be willing to break isolation to protest over, I would not have guessed that they'd be demanding that more people be allowed to die of SARS-CoV-2, but that's apparently what the kids are into these days. But then, there are a whole lot of well-funded organizations convincing them that it's a grave injustice that we should sit at home for a couple of months in the hopes of saving a few hundred thousand lives. Organizations tied to Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers, Adolph Coors, who'd like to have their workforce back and aren't worried if a few of them have to die for the cause.
And I want to talk about some of the points that some of the protesters and their online supporters have been making, because some of them actually seem to have merit when you look at them out of context, and it's actually not impossible to imagine being so convinced by aspects of the small picture that the big picture gets out of focus.
I keep encountering people online who insist that we're all just being crazy and anxious and over-the-top. We're so scared of getting sick that we've abandoned all reason. Now that most places aren't seeing the nightmare scenarios that were predicted early on, this is an especially tempting view. Even though the nightmare scenarios were projections of what would happen if we didn't take aggressive containment measures, anti-climaxes are anti-climactic. Now it's true, the public does panic unnecessarily all the time, over really foolish stuff. Politicians too. Remember how everybody freaked out about those 4 Ebola cases in 2014 and everybody was losing their minds and demanding the president close the borders? Heck, we've done that over every major Ebola outbreak. Remember when everyone wanted to shut the country down over SARS? MERS?
But do you remember who was remaining calm and telling Americans "there's no reason to worry, we got this"? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The National Institutes of Health. Doctors. Scientists. Epidemiologists. They worked efficiently and with great urgency with the international scientific community to contain those illnesses, and to get treatment to those who needed it. They told us we didn't need to worry and they were right. The researchers who have been working to protect Americans from infectious diseases are world-class. They've got a thousand years of historical data to draw from, some of the most advanced technology on the planet, and they know a lot better than Karen on Facebook how diseases work. If every infectious disease expert on the planet is saying "this is the one we need to worry about," then this is the one we need to worry about.
There is no reason, y'all, that all the infectious disease specialists would band together to sell you a big old lie. In fact, every one of them would kill to be the one that discovered the silver bullet that ended the international nightmare. Setting aside saving lives and all that nonsense, the researcher who figured out a way to contain or cure the disease without shutting down the economy would have a Nobel prize, a book deal, and every cent of research funding they wanted for the rest of their lives. They'd be the greatest hero on the planet. Not a one of them wants to have to tell you to stay at home if you want all your loved ones to stay alive.  

Now, I've heard a number of people suggest that what we need to do is reopen the economy but leave all the old people at home while everybody else develops herd immunity. Because they heard the expression "herd immunity" once and decided to start using it without actually understanding how it works. Here's the problem with that plan.
We're sitting at about 30K new cases of COVID-19 per day, with social distancing. Of those 30K, 6,000, or 20% will be admitted to the hospital (not counting people who are treated in the ER and sent home). A significant number of those 6,000 people will die without prompt medical attention. Unfortunately, those patients don't go home after a day. Many will remain weeks, some a month or more.
The good news is that, except for in hot zones like New York, our hospitals, for the most part, have the capacity to handle this. For now, most have the beds and the staff to get prompt and effective treatment to everybody. Doctors and nurses in some areas are working past the point of exhaustion, which, of course, makes deadly mistakes more likely. Hospitals across the country still lack adequate masks and gowns, which means that doctors and nurses are getting sicker at a much higher rate than necessary, and that's causing some staffing issues that are for the most part manageable. So far. Because of social distancing.
So what happens if we stop social distancing tomorrow?   
There will be a spike in new cases. I don't know how big - you'd have to ask an epidemiologist - but I do know that if we're adding tens of thousands of cases a day despite half the country being in underground bunkers, the spike's gonna be somewhere between massive and staggering.
Hospitals don't have enough beds to accommodate a massive spike. Hospitals don't have the staff to accommodate a massive spike. And when hospitals are short-staffed, people die. People with COVID-19 who could have been saved would die because doctors didn't get to them in time. People with conditions completely unrelated to COVID-19 would die because doctors couldn't get to them in time.
The ICU fills up with COVID-19 patients, leaving no room for people with other life-threatening emergencies. Ambulances can't keep up with the demand and people with COVID-19 and without will suffer or die because there aren't enough EMTs in the city to respond to every emergency in a timely fashion.
But it gets worse. If we reopened the economy tomorrow, hospitals would not have enough PPE to keep themselves safe. Medical professionals would continue to get sick at much higher rates than the rest of us. 20% of doctors, 20% of nurses, 20% of respiratory therapists, will end up being hospitalized and unable to work, leaving hospitals even more short-staffed, which leaves more COVID and non-COVID patients dead. 

I've heard a few people make the argument that sure, social distancing might be necessary in big places like New York, but in small towns, it won't spread like that. Well, in fact, COVID-19 is barreling its way toward rural America and experts don't think rural America is ready. See, the smaller the town, the smaller and less well-equipped the hospital.
There would be other dire consequences to reopening the economy too soon. COVID-19 is already ravaging nursing homes. How much worse will it be when every staff member's kids are back in school/at daycare? How are businesses going to thrive if the open back up only to have all their employees get sick at the same time? Who is going to maintain order if all the cops get sick at the same time? This isn't just a normal bug - this is every employee who gets sick going on mandatory quarantine for two weeks, assuming they don't get hospitalized, assuming they don't end up on disability because the disease ripped up their organs.
Look, y'all, this shut down sucks. It sucks so much. I am bored and I can't stop eating and I'm getting really antsy about not having a job and I miss my family and I legit cannot breathe through that stupid mask. But Fauci’s gone from estimating death rates in the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. The peaks we were so worried about have turned to gentle slopes. Look, for instance, at Ohio, which took some of the earliest and the strictest social distancing measures in the country. The yellow shows what researchers were predicting with no intervention at all. The blue shows what Ohioans have accomplished by just staying home and being safe. 
“Our latest projection is 1,600 cases per day — still a lot of cases per day, still a load on our hospitals, but this is the effect you have done. In Ohio we took our prediction and you have basically done this… you have squashed this and you have stretched it. Honestly, this is you. This is what you have done. This is how you have saved lives.” Dr. Amy Acton, Ohio Department of Health Director

Ohio plans to start very gradually reopening businesses come May 1st, and I'm cautiously optimistic about the prospect. The health director and governor have been very clear that we won't return to business as usual for a long, long time, but hope that cautiously reopening some non-essential businesses will offset the financial hardship for struggling families.   
I will confess that I am more concerned about the economy than I am about my getting sick. I know that if I do get sick, even with my compromised immune system, my odds of surviving are still really good. I am unemployed and way, way more worried about my personal finances than I am about my slim chances of catching the plague. Yes, I get that it is vitally important to avoid another great depression. But we can not, must not grease the wheels of capitalism with the blood of our countrymen. We are all in this together.
So does the economy stay closed forever until we get a vaccine? I don't see how that's possible. Several medical models have indicated that we'll need rolling shutdowns from now until 2022 - that's when we expect to have a vaccine. I don't know enough to have an opinion on that, but I do know that, at the very least, Americans have a moral obligation to stay at home until every hospital has enough personal protective equipment to keep their staff alive. We cannot applaud doctors and nurses as heroes and then put their lives at risk by behaving irresponsibly. There are a lot of people talking about their rights to get their hair cut or eat at Applebees, but don't thinking about the fact that hospital employees have the right to live.  I love you all. Stay safe, and stay home!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Touchy

Good information about catching COVID-19 from contaminated surfaces seems hard to find. Some news reports say that the virus remains on surfaces for a few days at most, while some seem to say it can remain for a couple of weeks. Some sources say to wear gloves everywhere you go, and some say wearing gloves is worse than touching things with bare hands.
There are a few reasons we see so much conflicting information. For one, COVID-19 is a brand new virus, and researchers’ understanding of it is improving every day. For another, news outlets tend to be really bad at vetting sources for their science reporting, such that they’ll give the same weight to a study with a sample size of 4 conducted by the Clown College of Cooterville as they do to a huge study by the CDC.
Luckily, my recent liberation from the world of the gainfully employed gives me plenty of time to dig through the science behind the headlines and separate the concrete from the riffraff. If you don’t have time to read this whole story, here’s a summary: you most probably can’t get COVID-19 from food. You can get it from surfaces, but you’re far more likely to get it by failing to follow social distancing guidelines. COVID-19 remains on surfaces for 1-5 days depending on the surface, but statistically, you aren’t nearly as likely to get COVID from your groceries, say, as you are to get it from your fellow grocery shoppers. Note that all this is true as of the middle of April 2020, but our understanding grows every day.     
*Exceptions include stainless steel, on which the virus remains active for 48 hours, and copper, on which the virus remains active for only 4 hours.

But hang on. There was definitely a news story about the CDC finding COVID-19 virus on a cruise ship 2 weeks after the last passengers were off, wasn’t there? Yes, CNBC did run a story with the headline, “CDC says coronavirus survived in Princess cruise ship cabins for up to 17 days after passengers left.” But the word “survived” is misleading here. What the CDC found was viral RNA, evidence that the disease had been there, but they didn’t find any live, infectious virus. 
Now let’s talk about what all that means for groceries and deliveries. The CDC, the WHO, the NIH, and infectious disease specialists everywhere say that the risk of getting COVID-19 from your Cap’n Crunch is minimal, and you should worry way more about person-to-person spread. They’re right, of course. All the experts say to get your groceries delivered when you can, and when you can’t, treat the grocery store like a game of Operation. Where the pieces move. And you don’t know whether you’ve successfully removed the funny bone for two weeks. They say you should touch only the stuff you plan to buy (that includes your face), stand as far back from the cashiers as you can, and use touchless payment methods if you’re able. And of course, wash your hands 100 times a day while singing the entire Beatles back catalogue. 
They’re right, of course. Especially since, as far as they know so far, somebody’s got to cough or sneeze right on your summer sausage to leave COVID cooties on it. But I personally do prefer to clean everything that comes into my house. If you do too, here’s the dirt. You don’t need to bust out the bleach or the flamethrower to get rid of Miss ‘Rona, you don’t even need to break into your precious supply of anti-bacterial wipes. Any old soap will do. Soap contains compounds called amphiphiles that weasel their way in between the lipids in the virus membrane, which causes the membrane to break up, which turns the virus into a harmless jumble of molecules. Wipe items down with a soapy rag then a clean wet rag, and they’re good to go. You should do the same with the counter once you’ve got all the groceries put away.
Experts say produce can just be washed like normal, no soap needed. Remember, the plague wants to feast on you, not your food. Stuff in cardboard can just be dumped straight into reusable storage containers – or just left alone for a day. Clean up your fridge handles and cupboard knobs just to be safe and then, you guessed it, wash your hands. 
In my house, when we get food delivered, we do transfer it to our own plates, use our own silverware, and wash our hands after we’ve disposed of all the bags and packaging that came with our food. I give packages and mail a quick spritz with Lysol before I touch them, which the experts would probably tell me is over-the-top, but I certainly don’t have anything better to do. 
So the long and the short of it is that science says stay home. When you can’t stay home, stay away from everyone. When you get home, you can give your wares a wipe-down, but you’ll probably be fine if you don’t.


  • “Coronavirus Resource Center” Harvard Health Publishing 04/16/2020
  • “How COVID-19 Spreads” CDC.org 04/12/2020
  • Desai, Angel N. MD, MPH1; Aronoff, David M. MD. “Food Safety and COVID-19” Journal of the American Medical Association 04/09/2020
  • Moriarty, Leah. “Public Health Responses to COVID-19 Outbreaks on Cruise Ships — Worldwide, February–March 2020” Centers for Disease Control Website 03/27/2020
  • Putterman, Samantha. “There’s no evidence COVID-19 can survive on surfaces up to 17 days.” Politifact.com. 03/26/2020 
  • Thordarson, Pall. “The science of soap – here’s how it kills the coronavirus” 03/12/2020
  • van Doremalen, Neeltje, Ph.D., et al. “Aerosol and Surface Stability of SARS-CoV-2 as Compared with SARS-CoV-1” New England Journal of Medicine. 04/16/2020
  • WHO team “Q & A on Coronaviruses (COVID-19)” World Health Organization website 04/08/2020


Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Hungry?

If you want to minimize your COVID-19 risk, the best way to buy groceries is online. Instacart allows you to buy groceries from a variety of nearby stores and have them delivered to your home. All you need are a credit card and an internet connected device.
The cost of delivery varies based on how high demand is when you order and how soon you want your groceries. You’ll generally pay about $5.99 per delivery plus tips, but the company often offers deals and discounts. If you plan to use Instacart regularly, it may be worthwhile to invest in their Instacart Express service, which offers unlimited deliveries for a yearly fee. 
Instacart doesn’t deliver from all stores in your area. Some larger chains, like Walmart, offer their own delivery services. 
These steps assume you are shopping on a laptop or desktop computer. If you’re shopping on a tablet (such as an iPad) or phone, the process is similar, but the position of the fields and buttons on the screen will be different.

  1. Open a Web browser, and type Instacart.com in the Search bar. The Instacart main page appears.
  2. Type your zip code in the Address or zip code field and click Continue. If Instacart service is available in your area, an Available in [your area] message appears, and you are prompted to create an account.
    • If Instacart isn’t available in your area yet, a message appears stating We aren’t in [your area] yet. 
  3. In the Email field, type your email address, and then click Sign up with email. An account is created and a Select Store for Delivery page appears.
  4. Click a store name. The page for that store appears.
  5. Find the items you need by typing their names into the Search bar and then pressing Enter.
  6. When you find an item you need, click on it, and then click Add to Cart to add it to your virtual shopping cart.
  7. When you’re finished adding items, look for the Cart button near the upper right of the screen and click it. The contents of your cart appear.
    • If you want to, you can change the quantity of an item by typing a new number in the field next to the price.
    • If you want to remove the item from your cart, click the trash can icon below the product name.
  8. Click Go to checkout. A checkout screen appears.
  9. In the Add delivery address section, enter the information requested. 
  10. In the Choose delivery time section, select a time and date for your delivery.
  11. In the Delivery instructions section, enter any special instructions, like “Please leave groceries on doorstep,” or “Please use side door.”
  12. In the Mobile number section field, enter your mobile phone number. Your delivery person will text you at this number if they have questions about your order. If you don’t have a mobile phone, or would prefer not to communicate via text, use your landline number.
  13. In the Contact Name section, enter your first and last name. 
  14. In the Payment section, enter your credit card number.
  15. If you want to add a tip, click the Add tip button on the upper right side of the screen. Note: A large portion of Instacart employees’ income comes from tips.
  16. If the store doesn’t have one or more of your selected items on the day of your delivery, your Instacart shopper will call or text you and ask if you want to substitute something else.

Friday, April 10, 2020

Achtung baby

The news about COVID is encouraging - projected deaths are now much lower than they were initially, social distancing is working. Still, people are dying, and a whole lot more people will be dead before this is over. The whole world is upside down and the fact that we can't leave our houses serves as a constant reminder of how friggin terrifying everything is.
Public health officials keep reminding us of the stuff we can do to avoid getting sick - hand washing and staying home and all that. But they don't talk about one of the most important methods for fortifying the immune system: managing stress.
I know that the idea of trying to manage stress while trapped in your house with a superflu in the air and unemployment looming and screaming demon children tearing your house apart sounds absurd. But the fact is that the stress we're all under is killing us - some of us literally. Stress is the reason we're exhausted even though we never leave the house and it's the reason we can't stop shoving Fritos in our faces. Stress is why my fibromyalgia's flaring and it's likely why your asthma or acid reflux or IBS is acting up. And most importantly, stress is kryptonite for our immune systems. But at least there are some things we can do about it. 
Now, before I go on, I want to make it clear what I'm not saying. I'm not minimizing this crisis or telling you that your fear isn't valid. I'm not telling you to stop worrying and learn to love the plague. This post is about finding moments of calm in the terrifying chaos of this crisis, about caring for our bodies by tending to our minds. It's about taking what control we can of our health and giving our immune systems a fighting chance.

So, we've all heard about mindfulness meditation a hundred times, and adult coloring, and journaling and bubble baths. But here are some science-based stress reduction methods you might not have heard of. No one of these are going to work for everybody, but I hope I'll have included enough that there's something for everyone. 

  • Commune with nature:
    Research shows that just 20 minutes out among the trees, even if you're just sitting on a park bench the whole time, can significantly lower your levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol does all kinds of nasty stuff to your body, including chowing down on your white blood cells.
    Bonus, sunlight boosts your levels of vitamin D, which is necessary for immune function.
  • Consider fostering a pet:
    Okay, if your life is already a steaming pile of chaos, this is a terrible idea and you should move along. However, shelters are badly in need to folks to shelter their critters (so that they can have as few humans working at the adoption center as possible). And as it turns out, petting a cat or dog can actually lower depression, anxiety, and blood pressure. 
  • Play Tetris, of all things. The game distracts the part of your brain that deals in "narrative conceptual thinking," essentially cutting off your ability to fixate on whether you remembered to Lysol the doorknobs or how much time you let the kids play on the iPad today. I suspect this isn't limited to Tetris. I've got this game called Merge Dragons on my phone that accomplishes what years of trying to force myself to meditate couldn't. I Love Hue is a good one for people who don't especially like video games. Here's a list of mobile games that other folks have found useful in managing stress.
  • Laugh: The list of health benefits from laughter is so long it sounds made up. It releases endorphins which relieve pain, chase away stress, and may have a positive effect on anxiety and depression. Laughter stimulates circulation and relieves muscle tension. It even causes the release of neuropeptides that help your body fight disease. And what on earth are you supposed to laugh at in this epoch of despair? I don't know. Cats?
Friends, take care of yourselves as well as you can. Try to remember that, as scary as things are, even if you get this thing, and even if you're in a high risk group, your odds of beating it are better than your odds of not. Remember that I love you. I'm staying home for you. I hope you're staying home for me too.

You can find more information about the impact of stress on your health in Richard Sapolski's wonderful book Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

De-escalate

Every day it seems like we hit a new bottom in the world of politics, a new "holy shit how is this even happening?" Couple weeks ago Brett Kavanaugh seemed like a travesty, but now we got the White House openly blaming the victims of pipe bomb attacks, despite, like, Trump's frequent endorsement of violence against reporters, the latest one a few days ago. And almost as awful, in my opinion, is the barely contained glee that liberals on social media seem to be expressing over the situation, the seeming victory lap they're running over everything they were warning about coming to fruition. These pipe bombs have just become the latest tool with which to bludgeon the other guy.
Meanwhile, one of these bombs could go off at any time. Meanwhile a copycat somewhere could see the havoc and decide they want in on the game. Some maniac's gonna decide to retaliate. And those theoretical pipe bombs aren't going to explode anywhere in the vicinity of a Clinton or a Trump, they're going to kill some poor lady in a USPS processing facility who has three grandchildren and is a week away from retirement. They're gonna dismember a kid walking past a mail truck. They're going to blow up some hero cop who puts herself in harm's way to protect others. And still the right will shriek "Lock her up" and still the left with post memes of Trump and Putin kissing, and still the right will blame the left and the left will blame the right and not one of those twats is gonna acknowledge their own role in fanning the flames of hatred and discord and violence.
Don't mistake this for a "blame on both sides" sort of argument. We're not the side with the Nazis and the Klan and openly racist rhetoric. This is a "someone has to be the rational adult" argument, and it's sure as hell not gonna be them.

So anyway, I was just thinking about some stuff I learned working at a group home for people with mental illness. And while I'm not diagnosing anybody with anything, you can't really deny that people who spend all day reposting wildly inaccurate memes and unsupported conspiracy theories aren't at least a little delusional. 
They say you should never argue with a delusion, because it only serves to make the delusion more entrenched and makes the person think you're part of the conspiracy. But you should also never indulge a delusion, for obvious reasons. A shrink once told me that his strategy was to ask questions that would help them discover the holes in their own logic. So like "It must be really scary to hear demon voices from your sink. I can't hear them though. Can your roommate hear them? What do you think it means if you're the only one who can hear them?" I don't know how that translates to convincing people who believe that George Soros and a migrant caravan did 9/11 and turned the frogs gay, I'll let you figure that out on your own.

So another thing I figured out working with troubled folk is that it is not possible to de-escalate a conflict by shouting louder than the person who is acting out. I guess the far right bad guys are already incredibly pissed - that's how they got so entrenched in this mentality in the first place. I know the fact that they're pissed isn't our problem and it sounds a lot like I'm saying that abused women should avoid abuse by being better wives, but I guess what I'm trying to say is that my plan going forward, when I try to engage hateful people, is to go in with a genuine desire to change their mind a little, rather than to be right. Because I'd prefer not to find out the next new bottom.
Let's see, what else did I learn working in group homes and such? If someone bites you, push into the bite rather than pulling away... that probably doesn't apply here. Nothing helps you find common ground like music and food. Kindness can be surprisingly contagious. Don't let people off the hook for being shitty to you, but also never let them see they got to you. Recognize the sacred in others, no matter how ensconced they are in profane. 



Saturday, October 13, 2018

On Wednesdays we wear blue

I've got a beef about liberals for once. And since I'm only preaching to the choir anyway, here it is: stop acting like god damn playground bullies. Now I'm not talking about real, passionate acts of protest - I firmly believe the world needs more people brave enough to shout at senators in elevators, not fewer. I'm not talking about things like kneeling during the anthem either - if you can't see this gesture as the reverent form of peaceful protest that it is intended to be, then I don't know what to say to you. Climbing statues and confronting elected officials in public and committing acts of civil disobedience are all, to me, not just brave, but necessary if we're to bring about change, if we're to draw attention to the real folks being hurt every day by the toxic policies of the people in power. That's not what I'm talking about when I'm talking about bullying.
No. I'm talking about this sort of nonsense that liberals on social media post in every political argument and in response to every Trump tweet.


Like, just stop. After 2 years in office, we've all heard allll the Trump tiny dick jokes. They're not making anyone laugh, they're not convincing anyone of anything, they're just making us look childish and dumb and inarticulate and like we're unable to support our opinions with sound reasoning and logic. Personal attacks, name calling, all that, they're like big neon signs announcing "I have nothing of substance to say." That's not helpful. 
And for god's sake stop it with this horseshit:

Joking about how homophobes are secretly gay is not only infantile, the joke is built around the notion that being gay is fundamentally shameful, so that in attempting to scold someone for homophobia, you are, in fact, spreading homophobia. Members of the gay community have repeatedly asked straight "allies" - including Handler specifically - repeatedly to stop it with this lame punchline. Dude, if you're straight, freaking listen to the people you're supposedly allies with and just don't. If not because it perpetuates shame then because IT IS A VERY TIRED OLD JOKE AND NOT FUNNY TO ANYONE FOR GOD'S SAKE WRITE SOME NEW MATERIAL.

Y'all, we're supposed to be the good guys, and yet the "r" word gets tossed around freely by liberals in every big Twitter debate I happen upon. The other day someone on a local activism group I belong to used the word "republitard." Dude, that is so wrong. 1, because it's deeply offensive, and 2. because it's the stupidest sounding insult I've ever heard. What the hell is even wrong with you? Do your mommy and daddy know you're playing with the computer? 

To the liberals who are contributing to public debates with tired memes and grade school insults, I say please, please stop making us look like idiots. Just, go yell at people on a Twilight fan site or something. Social media offers us an opportunity unprecedented in the history of the world to have real, substantive discourse with people we'd never meet or interact with otherwise, people we have a chance of reaching an understanding with. But we can't do that with a bunch of bozos jumping up and down screaming stupid insults and seeing who can post the most offensive picture with text on it.

What I'm saying is: quiet down now. The grown ups are trying to have a conversation. 


Yes, this was triggered by the whole Kanye West thing. I don't have any special affection for the dude, except that his crazy speaks to my crazy. Like, I'm not qualified to diagnose what's going on with Kanye specifically, but I can say that people with mania often get to where they just can't stop talking, but they can't form a coherent sentence, and they jump from subject to subject, and it's near impossible to follow what they're saying. It's so frustrating and scary to feel this incredible urgency to communicate something and to have no one understand a word you're saying, and it makes me feel really sad that Kanye seems to be doing exactly that while all of society points and laughs and calls him stupid and uneducated and a minstrel and an uncle tom and worse. 
It doesn't make me sad for Kanye, so much as it makes me sad for all the people like me, who are getting to hear loud and clear what society really thinks of people like us.
The only acceptable mean Trump meme.

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