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This place matters

Friday, December 25, 2015

The man with the bag

David Kyle Johnson wants you to stop lying to your kids about Santa. Not because it's psychologically scarring or something but because, he points out, it's a lousy thing to do if you want to raise a good critical thinker. Guy's got a point. People tell kids that this impossible thing is real, and they go to crazy lengths to keep their kids believing. There are movies telling kids to believe the lie no matter how much evidence to the contrary. Johnson even spoke of a History Chanel-style "documentary" scientifically proving that the man exists.
Johnson argues that perpetuating the lie teaches children to believe things without evidence, doggedly stick to your beliefs regardless of the facts, and massage the evidence to support one's own world view. 
Now Terry Pratchett espouses quite another view in his book Hogfather. He says that making kids believe the little lie of Santa Claus teaches them to believe in the big lies like Justice and Fairness. At first blush, that's alarmingly cynical. At next blush, though, that's actually kind of genius. We make kids recite the pledge every day knowing full well "justice for all" is a pipe dream. How many little activists are forged in the moment that their belief in universal Justice goes up in flames? If they never believed the lie, they wouldn't be filled with righteous indignation when they found out the truth. 

So is Johnson right or is Pratchett? I don't know. The Santa lie has always seemed pretty cruel to me, but then I've always been one to suck the fun out of innocent things. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

News Headlines Cause Autism!

SSRI drugs taken during pregnancy, the Internet shrieked at me over my morning coffee, increase the risk of autism a terrifying 87%. The reality, not shockingly, is not nearly so dramatic. 
So the study, which appears in JAMA Pediatrics, does indicate that children born to moms who took SSRI drugs during their second and third trimesters may be slightly more likely to have autism. 
The study looked at pregnancies and children in Qu├ębec over a ten year period. It is a cohort study, meaning that it observes a whole bunch of data looking for a correlation between one factor and another. 
No matter how good a cohort study is, it can only show correlation. Which might mean there's causation, but might not. For instance, I'm far more likely to be accosted by a giant spider after eating a Vegemite sandwich, not because Vegemite causes spider attacks, but because I'm more likely to encounter both while visiting Australia. 

So while it could absolutely be that SSRI drugs cause autism in fetuses, it might also be that moms who are under the care of a psychiatrist are more likely to take their kid to a psychiatrist (the study might have controlled for that, but I'm not paying the $30 bucks required to see the full methodology). 
So the only thing a cohort study can do is say whether a correlation is or isn't present, and indicate whether more research is warranted. 
A couple of other factors to consider before dumping those drugs down the toilet: the average kid in the non-SSRI group had a .7% chance of being diagnosed with autism, versus 1.2% in the SSRI group, so even though 1.2% is, in fact, 87% more than .7%, we're still only talking about one out of every hundred kids. In addition, there have been many other studies looking for a correlation between psych meds and autism, and none of those have found one. 
Does that mean SSRI drugs are perfectly safe to take when you're pregnant? It most certainly does not. There are all kinds of possible side effects, some serious. However, mental illness / mood disorders can be really dangerous for a developing baby too, so mom and her doctor have to weigh the risks and benefits very carefully. Which makes it not so responsible for people who don't know what they're talking about to run around screaming about the autism apocalypse. 
If you're really worried about a pregnant lady in your life poisoning her baby's brain, the more responsible thing to do would be to maybe suggest she talk about the risks of SSRI use with a doctor or two. Because one thing the overwhelming majority of research does tell us is that excessive stress in mom can cause serious issues in a developing baby.

Holly jolly nightmares

You know what the best part of not having kids? Spoiling other people's kids rotten. And - bonus - I get to take their kids' Christmas presents on a "trial run" before I fork them over. So if you wondered why your kid's Play-Doh Fun Factory was full of glitter and cat hair... I plead the 5th. 
I never had a Teddy Ruxpin when I was a kid. At the time, I thought it was because my parents were horrible and didn't love me; I now realize they recognized animatronic evil when they saw it.
Hey kid, Uncle Teddy's got a
story for you.
For those of you who missed the long national nightmare, Ruxpin was a bear who told you stories from a cassette tape buried deep within his bowels while moving his mouth and staring into your soul with his cold, dead eyes. His inventor Ken Forsse originally gave him a name that would have better suited Satan's teddy bear, Simian Greep. Forsee rethought the name but apparently not the soul-eating robo-demon.
Teddy Ruxpin looks like Holly Hobby compared to this smooth criminal.
And no one's gonna save you
from the beast about to strike.
I refuse to believe that Japanese company Daishin CK had anything but evil in mind when they invented the cymbal monkey, which they named Musical Jolly Chimp.

Good old MJC stars in Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders, a crime against moviegoers if ever there was one. In the film, the world's worst dad buys his kid a cymbal monkey. Shortly afterward, people start dying, which I have to assume is pretty much what happens when you bring home a cymbal monkey. Funny thing, Merlin's Shop was a direct rip-off of the Stephen King story The Monkey. So not only were they not even creative enough to write the worst movie this side of Manos, Hands of Fate, they weren't even creative enough to rip off a good Stephen King story. 
Then there's this, presented without commentary.

Because I'm too lazy to write any. Instead, please enjoy this random passage stolen from Stephen King.
They float,' the thing in the drain crooned in a clotted, chuckling voice. It held George’s arm in its thick and wormy grip, it pulled George toward that terrible darkness where the water rushed and roared and bellowed as it bore its cargo of storm debris toward the sea. George craned his neck away from that final blackness and began to scream into the rain, to scream mindlessly into the white autumn sky which curved above Derry on that day in the fall of 1957. His screams were shrill and piercing, and all up and down Witcham Street people came to their windows or bolted out onto their porches.
From Answers.com, Wikipedia, GoodReads

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The persistence of memory

My last post was part one of a response to an NPR story I heard a few weeks ago and can't find a link to. Some condescending art historian was grumbling about people taking photographs of art in museums and how dumb a thing this is to do, because you should look at them instead. You've heard similar arguments, I'm sure, about how our culture is photo obsessed, how people take pictures of thing instead of just appreciating them, and what vanity it is to post blurry pictures of our mundane lives all over social media. 
In my last post, I talked about how viewing life through a camera lens has made me see so much more than I ever have before. To me, photography, in the words of Bob Dylan, "opens up a new door to show you something you seen before but overlooked a hundred times or more."
But what about the vanity bit? What about the selfie-obsessed culture and the social media overshares? Do scolds have a valid point there? I certainly don't think so.
My best friend and her husband recently made pretty much the most perfect child ever made. She confesses that her phone overfloweth with a million and one pictures of her child, and she sends me one of them nearly every day. Do I need a million and one pictures of that child? No. But every mundane photo she sends me is a microburst of joy in my day. 
Thing is, vanity and excess are in the eye of the beholder. I love that I get to see the mundane details of the lives of loved ones who are far away. I haven't really talked to my childhood best friend in years, but it makes me so happy to see that she has the big family she always talked about wanting when we were kids. If it weren't for my cousin posting tons of pictures of her baby, my mom might not have gotten to see the snapshot of the baby wrapped in the blanket she'd made his father. And last year's Christmas was that much nicer for the fact that I got to watch a video of my friend's kid in Atlanta opening the gift I'd sent him. 
And I know that looking at a friends' blurry picture of the Mona Lisa is nothing like seeing it in person, but it makes me really happy to know my friend got to go to the Louvre. Of course cherry blossoms are much more beautiful when you can see and touch and smell them, but they're also beautiful when a friend snaps a selfie of herself surrounded by them. And damn it, if my friend's really proud of the crepes she made for breakfast, I wanna see 'em. 
See, I think that taking too many pictures, sharing too many pictures, trying to photograph things that mean so much more in person, I think they let us share our lives with the people we love in ways we never could before. I think it's great that people can be separated by thousands of miles and still share the mundane intimacies of their lives with each other. I can spend Christmas morning with my immediate family, and my best friends' family, and my extended family, and I can do it practically in real time. That, my friends, is a Christmas miracle.  


Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Aw snap

The day I took my DSLR out for its maiden voyage was the first time I saw a place I'd been looking at for years. To long-time readers and to the folks that read my photography blog, I apologize for making you look at these pictures yet again :).
I took my camera out that day to try to capture the dancing fountain at the Terminal Tower in Cleveland. Sadly, it wasn't so much dancing that day as drizzling.

So that the day wouldn't be a total loss, I decided to practice on mundane things - hand rails and ceiling tiles and such. It started with this accidental self-portrait. 
Can you spot the hidden Brigid?
And then this random decoration in a railing.
 I couldn't believe I'd never noticed the designs in all the grates.

 Or the elegant lines of the rapid station I'd rushed through a hundred times.
 I'd stood waiting for elevators and never even glanced at the doors.
 I'd walked past this mural a hundred times and never so much as registered it was there.
 I've stood at this spot waiting impatiently for a hundred buses and somehow never looked at what I was seeing.
A security guard saw me taking pictures, and pointed at things I'd looked at but never seen, told me what settings to use to best capture the light here, and reduce glare there. He told me the history of a building where I'd spent hundreds of hours of my life shopping, waiting, eating, killing time with friends. That day changed the way I saw the things around me forever.  

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Tilting at windmills

Quixotic has got to be one of the best words ever. Not just because it comes from the book Don Quixote, but also because we pronounce it kwiksotic and not keehotic. In Spanish, the word is quijotesco, which you can hear pronounced here.
But the impossible dreamer isn't the only fictional character to become an eponym. In fact, he's not the only character from Don Quixote.
A Lothario is a sleazy pickup artist, named for a sleazy pickup artist in one of Don Quixote's metastories. 
I was surprised recently to learn that gargantuan comes from Gargantua, a character created by Rabelais. On the other hand, lilliputian means teeny tiny, and gets its name from Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. 
Lilliputian hallucinations (more frequently known as Alice in Wonderland syndrome) can make the sufferer see things as much bigger smaller than they really are, much closer or much farther away. This can be a symptom of serious neurological illness, or of drug addition, or of being a child. The latter wasn't a joke - lilliputian hallucinations are apparently not that unusual in children. 
Side note: The number of very serious things that are perfectly normal in children is alarming. Oh, sometimes kids just poop green. It's normal! Baby has a terrifying seizure because of a tiny fever? Normal! Kid is trippin' balls in the Pack N Play? Normal!
Lilliputian hallucinations aren't so bad when you consider some other conditions named for literary characters. Sufferers of the Oedipus complex, according to Freud, want to have a sexual relationship with their mothers. Which, according to Freud, is totally normal. I do not understand the collective delusion that led people of the 19th century to accept Freud's theories like they made perfect sense. Oh sure, every little boy wants to bang his mom. That's totally believable. And it is totally obvious that people who like a clean house must have been potty trained too early and are therefore fundamentally compelled not to poop. That's genius! 
XKCD.com

Peter Pan syndrome isn't a real diagnosis, but it refers to what others call a puer aeternus - an eternal boy. JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan, may have had a Peter Pan syndrome of sorts - his growth was stunted by stress after the death of his closest brother - in a sense, Barrie never grew up. In one version of the Peter Pan stories, we learn that the lost boys were children who, hearing about all the dangers and responsibilities of becoming a grown man, climbed - or fell - out of their prams and were carried off to Never Never Land. Barrie's mother often said that her only comfort after the death of her son was that he would never grow up and leave her, that he would never have to face the trials of adulthood. Never Land was Barrie's portrait of his mom's fantasy.


Tuesday, December 1, 2015

May the force be ever in your favor

I work in software, and whenever we hire a new programmer, it only takes about a day or so before someone asks the really important question: Star Trek or Star Wars? 
See, there are three types of people in the world: Star Trek people, Star Wars people, and people who don't know the difference between the two. Star Wars fans accuse Trekkies of being smelly losers who live in their parents' basements and have no social skills, to which I say, I live in my own basement dammit, and I'd have mad social skills if I had any desire for human interaction. Star Wars fans, on the other hand, are pop culture dabblers who prefer flash to substance (sometimes stereotypes are eerily accurate, amiright?). Of course, people who don't even know the difference are just so far beneath consideration that Trekkies and Warsies can easily set aside our differences to look down on them.
How to make a fanboy cry
It is funny, isn't it, how eager we can be to form factions over something so superficial? And it's not just geeks either. Mac people and PC people, Beatles fans and Elvis fans, Team Edison and Team Tesla, mayonnaise and Miracle Whip - we form alliances with only the slightest provocation.
Animals form packs or factions to control scarce resources - it's much easier to protect your stash of rotting zebra meat if you have a posse. Here in the land of plenty, there are more than enough zebra carcasses for everybody, but the need to form packs is so deeply ingrained in us, like a vestigial organ that has long since become irrelevant. 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving

American history is filled with half-truths and disappointments. Here's a little snippet on gratitude from a man who, by all accounts, was exactly who he seemed to be.


Do me a solid, kids. Declare your dinner table a hate free zone tonight. Just tell everybody you love them and we're not going to fix anything throwing hate and blame. Hold your family tight in the memory of all the people who don't have a family to hold tight anymore.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Pompous Circumstance

I've had one and only one job that I've left without notice, and that was the job at which I graded standardized tests. Or would have graded standardized tests - I made it through one whole day of training before I left.
My would-be employer was a temp agency that graded essays for a company whose name we were never told. Essays would be graded on a scale of 1 to 5, and we received handouts giving example essays for each grade. Based on the content of the essays, it was pretty clear that the low-scoring examples were kids who lived in poverty. The instructor kept pausing to point out and mock the students' mistakes while the trainees laughed. 
Though numbers vary widely by school district, third grade students now spend over 20 hours of the school year taking tests, while eleventh graders can spend close to 60. These tests have high stakes - they affect things like teacher pay and school funding, so schools dedicate up to 150 hours a year just to test preparation. 
People today bristle at the idea of government and corporations controlling our lives - except when it comes to standardized tests. You've probably never even heard of the Educational Testing Service, yet few corporations have more control over our lives and the lives of our nation's kids. The Educational Testing Service develops so many national standardized tests that many, including Americans for Educational Testing Reform, consider it an outright monopoly. The big one is the SAT, but it also develops AP tests, the GRE, several state-level proficiency tests, and the Praxis. Educational institutions continue to use these tests even though the ETS's own data reveals the tests to be wildly unfair. 
The Wall Street Journal reports that the average score of students whose parents' combined income is below $20,000 is almost 400 points lower than the average score of students whose parents clear more than $200,000. 400 points is the difference between Harvard and state school, the difference between a full ride and no ride. This is in no small part due to the fact that the ETS sells expensive test prep materials to those who can afford them. No wonder the rich get richer. 
Inside Higher Education reports that Caucasian and Asian American students far out-perform African American and Mexican American students. FairTest.org points out that this disparity is partially responsible higher rates of unemployment, lower rates of pay, and lower college enrollment for black and Hispanic students. Certainly this problem exists in standardized testing across the board, but the ETS has more than adequate resources to research and try to find more income and race-neutral questions. But they don't care about fair. They don't care about who really does or doesn't have scholastic aptitude. They care about delivering a uniform bell curve.
Generally not-for-profit organizations are supposed to be trying to do some good in the world. This not-for-profit organization are trying to put more money in the pockets of their executives. Even though the organization's supposedly not for profit, Bloomburg reports that the company's CEO made $1.3 million in 2009 - more than the head of the Red Cross, more even than the president of Harvard. The company's execs are also compensated far more than the industry average. 
Why are we okay with this? 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

How well do you know your scripture?


Try this fun quiz with your friends and family - identify which of the following verses are from the Bible and which are from the Quran:

  1. If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you.
  2. A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet... But women will be saved through childbearing.
  3. Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. And a man's foes shall be they of his own household.
  4. Suppose you hear in one of the towns your God is giving you that some worthless rabble among you have led their fellow citizens astray by encouraging them to worship foreign gods. If you find it is true and can prove that such a detestable act has occurred among you, you must attack that town and completely destroy all its inhabitants, as well as all the livestock. Then you must pile all the plunder in the middle of the street and burn it. Put the entire town to the torch as a burnt offering to God. That town must remain a ruin forever; it may never be rebuilt. 
  5. Then I heard God say to the other men, "Follow him through the city and kill everyone whose forehead is not marked. Show no mercy; have no pity! Kill them all – old and young, girls and women and little children.
  6. If your own full brother, or your son or daughter, or your beloved wife, or you intimate friend, entices you secretly to serve other gods... do not yield to him or listen to him, nor look with pity upon him, to spare or shield him, but kill him. Your hand shall be the first raised to slay him; the rest of the people shall join in with you.
  7. Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves. 
  8. Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword, their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open.
  9. Now go, attack the Amalekites and utterly destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.

If you guessed they're all from the Bible, congratulations, you're on to my little game. This isn't to prove that Christian scripture is evil, or that it is more violent than the Quran, but just to point out that you can cherry pick evil stuff out of Christian scripture as easily as you can the Quran. Just as Nazis used Christian scripture to justify their actions, ISIL uses the Quran to do the same. But just as the Nazis conveniently ignored all the bits in the Bible about loving and not murdering, ISIL conveniently ignores passages in their own scripture - the bits about never killing women or children or non-combatants or clergy...

1) Deuteronomy 21:18-21, 2) Timothy 2: 11-15 3) Matthew 10:34-36 4) Deuteronomy 13:13-19 5) Ezekiel 9:5 6) Deuteronomy 13:7-12 7) Numbers 31: 17-18 8) Hosea 13:16 9) 1 Samuel 15

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Soundtrack of freedom

We don't know what was going through Billie Holiday's mind as she stood on the stage at Cafe Society, New York City's first integrated night club, that night in 1939. Maybe she was reflecting on how much she had to lose. She'd first been in trouble with the law at 9, when she'd been hauled into court for truancy and sentenced to nearly a year in reform school. At 11, she'd nearly been raped, only to spend another several months in protective custody at the same reform school. At 13, her mother forced her into prostitution, yet when the women's brothel was raided several months later, Billie Holiday served five months in prison to her mother's two.
Music had been Holiday's ticket out, but that night in 1939, the night she first performed  Abel Meeropol's Strange Fruit, could have ended it all. Meerpol had written the song in 1937, following the Indiana lynching of lynching of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith a few years earlier. White jazz fans then liked black music a whole lot more than they liked black people. White audiences might not like being confronted with the reality of racism. But she sang it anyway. And audiences, most of them, loved it. 
I can't imagine that anything I will ever do in life will be as brave an act as Holiday's. 


Southern trees bear strange fruit
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant south
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop
--- Hollywood wasn't eager to take on Hitler. Even in the twilight of the 1930s, when it was becoming clear that Hitler might just be the human embodiment of evil, studios didn't want to touch Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator. Indeed, no one would have blamed Charlie Chaplin for walking away from the film he'd written satirizing Hitler and the Nazi regime. Most of the folks in Peoria hoped to avoid getting into World War 2, and a decent number still thought those Nazis might be on to something. Then there was FBI's massive file on Chaplin; the little tramp would have been wise to stay off their radar. J. Edgar Hoover was already convinced that Chaplin was a communist, and these words from The Great Dictator's final monologue could only strengthen that conviction. 
I should like to help everyone if possible- Jew, Gentile, black men, white…
We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery... In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.
Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. 
The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.
Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will!
Chaplin hoped that his magnum opus would shorten the coming war, and he didn't care about the consequences for him. He hoped it would wake America up to the atrocities they were so eager to ignore. I don't know if it did, but I do know I watch it every time I need a shot in the arm.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Of course you realize this means war

There's a war on Christmas; Fox News says it so it must be true. When a business says happy holidays instead of merry Christmas, it's clearly because they hate Jesus, and not because they're trying to be inclusive (and welcoming and being kind to all people is so the opposite of the Christmas spirit). 
The fact is, Christmas lovers, you are not persecuted warriors because you're not fighting anybody. 95% of Americans celebrate Christmas. 95%. 88% of folks have no problem with businesses saying Merry Christmas, with the remaining 12 saying only that they prefer "happy holidays". 82% of all Americans view Christmas as a religious holiday, with 62% attending religious services on Christmas, 65% displaying religious decorations in their homes, and 78% saying that they think it's important to use the holiday as a time to reflect on the birth of Christ. In fact, Americans are far more likely to be offended by being wished "happy holidays" than those who are offended by "merry Christmas." I could find no research indicating that a statistically significant number of Americans want to bring down Christmas - the vast majority of folks who don't celebrate Christmas don't declare any desire to stop others from doing so.
But I think that actually, there is a different kind of war on Christmas. A war between greed and generosity, a war between consumerism and kindness, a war between words and actions. Christ says, "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray... on street corners so that others may see them." And yet we have this douchenozzle literally standing on a street corner shouting about the lack of effing snowflakes on his Starbucks cup being an assault on Christmas.*

See, Christmas is supposed to celebrate the birth of Christ, a leader who hated greed and preached against lavish displays of wealth. Christ says, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, for where your treasure is, there also will your heart be... you cannot serve God and wealth." (Matthew 6:19 and 24). Yet corporations want us to celebrate Christmas by doing exactly that - piling more treasures and trinkets onto all that we already have. I think that if there is a war on Christmas, it is a war between our generosity toward those in need and greed for ourselves.
At Christmas, we all give lip service to peace on earth and good will toward men, but how many of us actually do anything to help the people who need it most at Christmas? Jesus says, "If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?" If the faithful scream and yell about businesses failing to recognize their faith in exactly the right way, but do not share their wealth with those in need, they truly are the clanging cymbals Paul spoke of in his first letter to the Corinthians. 

You want to truly fight for your Christian values this Christmas? Refuse to participate in the orgy of greed that is Black Friday. 
Boycott jewelers who sell conflict diamonds and consider lavish gifts to charity instead of lavish displays of wealth. 
Want to avoid supporting businesses that openly defy your Christian values? Boycott Nestle USA and other chocolate manufacturers who use forced child labor and force employees around the globe to work unsafe conditions for terrible pay.
Want to fight companies that don't reflect your Christian values? Don't worry about who does and doesn't wish you a merry Christmas, and instead worry about who does and doesn't force workers to do their jobs in horrible and unsafe conditions. Boycott H&M for the preventable deaths caused by terrible conditions in their suppliers' factories. Boycott Victoria's Secret for buying from suppliers that beat their workers and force children into picking cotton. Boycott Disney for using suppliers who pay pennies to child laborers and force workers to do their jobs under deadly conditions. 
The real threat to your Christian values isn't the design on a damn paper cup, it's greed, abuse, neglect, and hatefulness. You want to keep the Christ in Christmas? Behave a little more like Christ this Christmas. Give a little more and take a little less. Be kinder. Be more compassionate, more conscientious, more loving, less angry. Give more and preach less. Love one another as Christ has loved you.
From "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear" by Edmund Hamilton

*Other bible verses I could have used here: "But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, 'You good-for-nothing,' shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, 'You fool,' shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell." (Matthew 5:22). "If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal." (1 Corinthians 13:1). "Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed." (Romans 2:1-5).

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Flim flam and woo woo

Lately you hear a lot about doctors being closed-minded about natural remedies and alternative treatments. Doctors learn a very narrow view of healing, heavily influenced by Big Pharma and Western values. They want to treat us with chemicals, which we all know are bad and unnatural, and they hate natural remedies because they're a threat to their bottom lines.
Except doctors prescribe natural remedies all the time. When those natural remedies are supported by science.
If you go to a doctor with pain from arthritis, fibromyalgia, or an injury, the first prescription they're likely to write is for physical therapy. Physical therapy may not seem like a natural remedy because it doesn't come drenched in patchouli oil, but physical therapy uses a person's own body to heal itself. Nothing is more natural than that. If you've ever been to physical therapy, you've probably met about a few people who complain bitterly about their doctor refusing to "do anything" about their pain - they don't want PT, they want the drugs. Why would a doctor who is in the pocket of big pharma put up with all the whining and crying of people who just want a pill? Why not just write them an expensive scrip and shut them up? And if people get hooked on the drugs, so much the better - repeat business for everybody! If doctors are just out for the money, why would they go to such lengths not to keep the customer satisfied?
Proponents of the allegedly ancient practice of ear candling say that shoving a burning thing in your ear is a natural way to remove ear wax and draw out toxins. ENTs give advice that's even more natural - leaving your ear wax where it is. See, science tells us that ear wax is a powerful anti-microbial that protects our hearing and prevents disease. Science tells us that ear candling, on the other hand, not only doesn't remove earwax or toxins, it is dangerous and has resulted in at least one death. If ENTs were all about the money, they'd be all for ear candling. Doctors report having treated burns, ear infections, occlusions, hearing loss, and ash remnants on the ear drum. And if ENTs were in the pocket of big pharma, they certainly wouldn't tell you to leave your ear wax alone - without ear wax, we're more prone to all kinds of infections - infections that could be treated with expensive pharmaceuticals.
If you have a break or a sprain, the doctor's first orders will be rest, ice, elevation, and compression. A good doctor knows to weigh the patient's pain against the risks of the various drugs. Why does a doctor prescribe ice and not, say crystals or essential oils? For the same reason they don't tell you to take a bath in jello or fill your pants with Cheez Whiz. There are a billion very reliable clinical trials showing that ice treats inflammation; there are no scientifically valid studies showing that crystals or jello treat inflammation. One's own feelings on the topic of crystals and jello aside, it's not ethical for a doctor to recommend a treatment that she doesn't know to be safe and effective. 
Endocrinologists urge, beg, and cajole diabetic patients to change their lifestyle choices and stay alive. Why, when there are so many pills and needles and vials and surgeries to sell? Have you any idea how profitable diabetic complications can be? Why do doctors keep warning people about diabetes and pre-diabetes when there are so many billions to be made? 
If doctors are willing to teach people some natural ways to avoid diabetes, why not others? If cardiologists preach oatmeal and olive oil, why wouldn't they also share the truth about wheat grass and heavy metal detox? Because some natural remedies are supported by science and some aren't. 
As for the unscientific stuff - oils and crystals and such - I'm not entirely knocking them. I'm for anything that helps people feel better, so long as nobody's being lied to or endangered. But doctors are in the business of science and evidence, and society needs them to be. 

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Take this blog and shove it

In crochet, pulling out stitches is called frogging - a play on the sound frogs make - rip it, rip it, rip it.
In online gaming, the term rage quit refers to abruptly quitting a game when things aren't going one's way. KnowYourMeme.com says that this term may have originated in chat rooms, and probably originally referred to abruptly leaving a chat room after an argument.
Rage quitting is similar to taking one's ball and going home. Google NGram Viewer says that the expression first appears in print in the 1946 book Easy to Do Novelty Entertainment. Two men are discussing their golf game. Jones tells Brown that he'd scored an even 80 that day. And an even 80 the day before. And the day before too. Brown asks how this can be. Jones replies "When I get to eighty, I pick up my ball and go home." 
Perhaps the best song title ever written is David Allen Coe's Take This Job and Shove It. 
Wikipedia calls this phrase a snowclone -  a common phrase that people like to swap words into and out of. For example, Take This Job and Love It (the title of about a million different motivational career books), Take this Hijab and Love It (article by Jillian C. York), and my favorite, Take This Banana and Shove It (a DailyKos.com article about corruption in the banana industry).


Grammar scolds like to complain about neologisms like unfriend. Those scolds might be surprised to learn that the term is at least 200 years old. The term was far more popular in the early 1800s than today, according to Google Ngram Viewer.
Ghosting refers to intentionally disappearing from another's life. Ironically, all this technology designed to bring people closer together makes ghosting super easy. On Facebook, you don't just have the ability to unfriend a person, you can hide your profile from them (until Facebook changes your profile settings so that your stalker ex has another chance to attempt a joyous reunion). You no longer have to just ignore a person's calls - you can set your phone so that it never rings when they call. In a world where everyone can be in touch all the time, it is easier than ever to disappear. 

Well kids, I'm tired and crabby, so I'm gonna take my blog and go home. Laters baby.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Warning: News headlines cause cancer

Earlier this week, according to numerous news headlines, the World Health Organization declared bacon just as carcinogenic as cigarettes and asbestos. "Red alert for meat eaters: WHO study finds hot dogs, bacon and other processed meats cause cancer," declared the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. The Telegraph proclaimed "Processed meat ranks alongside smoking as major cause of cancer, World Health Organisation says." The New York Post ran the story under the headline "OMG! Bacon causes cancer"; in related news, whoever wrote that headline should be arrested. Partisan sites weighed in with their own spin, with Fox News reporting "Meat producers blast WHO report linking processed meat and cancer" and PETA titling their story "Bacon-Wrapped Cancer."
Problem is, none of those headlines are an accurate reflection of the WHO study.
Here's the problem with scientific journal articles - hardly anybody actually reads them. What we read is some journalist's attempt to make the story more palatable to the general public. Most people don't realize that by the time the scientific study reaches our eyeballs, it has usually been shunted through a long and complex game of telephone.
The Skeptics with a K podcast did a story back in June explaining how it is that science headlines manage to get things so terribly wrong. The team explained that after a journal publishes an article, a press release is issued discussing the salient points. The press release is likely written by someone who didn't actually participate in the study, so that's step one in the telephone game. The press release ends up on the desk of a reporter, who probably does not read the actual journal article, and may or may not understand the science discussed in the press release. That reporter churns out a story, and that's step 2 of the telephone game. So it turns out that reporters usually don't write their own headlines, that's generally done later by a headline writer. The headline writer skims the article, which they may or may not understand, and gives it a headline, step 3 of the telephone game. Once the story is released into the wild, websites pick it up, often replacing the headline with a more sensational headline, designed to attract as many clicks as possible, telephone game step 4. Then of course there are the pundits and editorialists and bloggers who twist the data to serve their own ends, and the actual message ends up looking nothing like the one we started with.
So a few days ago, the journal Lancet Oncology published Carcinogenicity of consumption of red and processed meat by a group of scientists acting on behalf of the International Agency for Research on Cancer Monograph Working Group. Yawning yet? It gets yawnier. Those scientists performed a metadata analysis on all recent studies regarding the link between red and processed meats and cancer. They found that the majority of reliable studies show that people who eat a lot of processed meat have a slightly (but statistically significantly) greater risk of contracting some types of cancer. So they concluded, "On the basis of the large amount of data and the consistent associations of colorectal cancer with consumption of processed meat across studies in different populations, which make chance, bias, and confounding unlikely as explanations, a majority of the Working Group concluded that there is sufficient evidence in human beings for the carcinogenicity of the consumption of processed meat."
The WHO did not say that bacon is as bad as smoking - that misconception comes from the fact that the WHO labeled processed meats a Group 1 carcinogen. Group 1 does include cigarettes and asbestos, but it also includes sawdust, the sun, and alcoholic beverages. To be in Group 1, research must show significant evidence that the agent causes cancer; Group 1 doesn't care about the degree of carcinogenicity or the amount of the agent that the subject must be exposed to. The article doesn't make any of the outlandish claims that the headlines alluded to - in fact, the group clarified that "the latest IARC review does not ask people to stop eating processed meats but indicates that reducing consumption of these products can reduce the risk of colorectal cancer."
It worries me that newspaper headlines can make us more, rather than less, ignorant.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Revisionist Taxonomy

A couple of months ago, a Reddit user started a board challenging people to give animals more descriptive names. Some of the replies:














Jeremy and I came up with a few of our own.

















Friday, October 23, 2015

Killer

Whenever there's a mass shooting, people who support gun rights start lining up around the block to call for better mental health care. They're implying, quite disingenuously, that people with mental illness are responsible for most killing sprees. It's a lie and they know it's a lie. Watch John Oliver tear the lie apart far better than I ever could.
In fact, so many intelligent people are finally sticking up for people with mental illness, that those who want to vilify us have had to take a different tack. Instead of blaming people with mental illness, they're blaming people with mental illness who dare to seek treatment. 
There have always been rumors claiming that SSRI medication can cause violent psychotic episodes. However, following the tragedy at Sandy Hook, the conspiracy theorists doubled down.
In April of 2013, gun rights advocate Dan Roberts published a screed titled "Every Mass Shooting Shares One Thing In Common and; It's NOT Weapons"* on the medically reputable site AmmoLand.com. In it, Roberts (not a doctor, scientist, or anything of the sort) gives a bunch of examples of people going off SSRIs and onto murder sprees - evidence that might actually mean anything if he gave any sources at all. Other websites give similarly weak anecdotes but no scientifically credible data as to the danger of SSRI drugs.
What the conspiracy theorists don't understand is that their false information does real harm to people like me. It's a low blow to a group of people who have already been kicked below the belt far more times than we deserve. 
Every time someone makes one of these false claims, people with mental illness get a little bit more stigmatized, and we're stigmatized more than enough already. And you know what else? SSRI drugs can be problematic for people prone to mania, a very important fact that you can't find by doing a Google search for SSRI side effects because there are so many websites dedicated to giving false information about SSRI drugs that the true risks of SSRI drugs are hidden.
Every time someone repeats an unsupported claim about SSRI drugs causing violence, they're reinforcing the notion that people with mental illness are dangerous, and we're vilified plenty enough already. And you know what else? SSRI drugs can have an adverse effect on fetal cognitive development, but severe depression in mom is also bad for fetal development. Moms with severe depression have to weigh the risks and benefits of SSRI drugs very carefully, something that's really hard to do when every website they visit screams what horrible monsters they are for even considering exposing their babies to such poisons.  
Every time someone online makes an irresponsibly hyperbolic claim, people like me get a little bit more terrified to seek the help we need, and having a mental illness is terrifying enough already.
Conspiracy theorists can sit in their basements and feel smug and superior and it doesn't cost them a god damn thing. It costs people like me.
Look. SSRI drugs do have side effects, and some of them are very serious. This is true of every drug. It is very important to weigh the risks of any drug against the possible benefits. But right now if I do a Google search for "SSRI Risks," the actual research is going to be nearly impossible to find because it is buried under pages and pages and pages of unsubstantiated conjecture from people who aren't doctors and aren't scientists and don't have any expertise and have no reason to weigh in other than the desire to feel superior.
Some of us need these medicines just as surely as a diabetic needs insulin, as urgently as a cancer patient needs chemo. There's not a person with mental illness who doesn't wish they didn't have to take pills just to function. You look at the risks of taking the drugs and weigh them against the risks of living without them, and you talk to experts and you do what is best for you. That's hard to do when people are shoving misinformation down your throat for no good reason.
I'm not sure why people with no skin in the game and no idea what they're talking about think I should consider their opinion when deciding what is best for me. Don't they know these drugs are a matter of life and death for some of us? Don't they know that when they spout off their nonsense opinions, it makes it that much harder for people living with mental illness to find actual information about our treatment? Mental illness is god damn hard enough already.

Who the hell do they think they are?




* Actually, they kind of, by definition, have "weapons" in common.


By the way, if you want actual information without the fear mongering, check out scholar.google.com - you can read the actual studies behind the headlines.

Monday, October 19, 2015

You Suck

In England and Ireland, people don't vacuum with a vacuum cleaner, they Hoover with a Hoover, whether that Hoover is a Dyson or a Bissell or a Shark. 
It just occurred to me that this is really weird. I live in Canton, Ohio, birthplace and headquarters of the Hoover Company, and we do not Hoover with Hoovers. We don't even vacuum with a vacuum cleaner; here in Canton we sweep with a sweeper.
The first device to be called a vacuum cleaner was invented by a Herbert Cecil Booth around 1901, though it ran on an internal combustion engine and had to be pulled along on a horse-drawn carriage. Legend has it that when booth first got the idea for using suction to remove dust, he tested the idea by placing a napkin on a restaurant seat, putting his mouth up to the napkin, and sucking. Which is probably the grossest way he could have tested this ever. If he was at a restaurant, one assumes there were tables, which are a lot less likely to play host to people's butts than chairs. And why exactly wouldn't he use a clean table and cover it with, say, cookie crumbs, rather than sucking years old bits of food and dirt off a chair in a public place? Herbert Cecil Booth: good at inventing things, bad at testing them.
The first portable electric vacuum cleaner started its life as a Bissel carpet sweeper. A carpet sweeper is one of those mechanical do dads that restaurants use when they want to fail to pick up crumbs without disturbing guests. In 1908, a janitor named James Murray Spangler got tired of failing to pick up crumbs, so he tweaked it - adding a soap box, a fan, a broom handle, and a pillow case. He sold his patent for the device - then called the Electric Suction Sweeper - to a leather goods maker named W.H. "Boss" Hoover. Thus the Hoover Company was born.
Still doesn't explain why Brits call it a hoover while Cantonites call it a sweeper.

Living In Sin
Adrienne Rich

She had thought the studio would keep itself;
no dust upon the furniture of love.
Half heresy, to wish the taps less vocal,
the panes relieved of grime. A plate of pears,
a piano with a Persian shawl, a cat
stalking the picturesque amusing mouse
had risen at his urging.
Not that at five each separate stair would writhe
under the milkman's tramp; that morning light
so coldly would delineate the scraps
of last night's cheese and three sepulchral bottles;
that on the kitchen shelf among the saucers
a pair of beetle-eyes would fix her own--
envoy from some village in the moldings...
Meanwhile, he, with a yawn,
sounded a dozen notes upon the keyboard,
declared it out of tune, shrugged at the mirror,
rubbed at his beard, went out for cigarettes;
while she, jeered by the minor demons,
pulled back the sheets and made the bed and found
a towel to dust the table-top,
and let the coffee-pot boil over on the stove.
By evening she was back in love again,
though not so wholly but throughout the night
she woke sometimes to feel the daylight coming
like a relentless milkman up the stairs.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

I will please

And now for some fun facts about the placebo effect. Placebo is the Latin word for I will please, and it refers to an inert substance that has medical benefit nonetheless. Before it was that, it was the "name given to the rite of Vespers of the Office of the Dead, so called from the opening of the first antiphon, 'I will please the Lord in the land of the living' (Psalm cxiv:9)," according to etymonline.com. Because the people who carried out the rite were paid to do so, they were often considered insincere, and so it came to be that people associated the word with phoniness. 
I think a lot of people see the placebo effect as a trick for the gullible. Maybe, some folks think, if the placebo effect works on you, you weren't actually sick or in pain to begin with - you just thought you were.
But actually, the placebo effect can impact anyone - regardless of their intelligence or general level of gullibility. Placebos work on about a third of the people who try them, give or take. And in recent years, scientists have found that the placebo effect doesn't just effect a patient's perception of their own symptoms.
A couple of years back, Harvard opened a Placebo Studies institute, which I like to believe is a school where half of students aren't actually learning anything, about one third of whom will think they actually did learn something. Anyway, the institute has made some startling discoveries. When they gave Parkinson's patients a placebo injection, not only did the patients feel better, they actually produced more of the dopamine that the disease destroys. Placebos change brain chemistry. They change vital signs. 
They even work when patients know they're getting them. A few years back, researchers gave IBS sufferers a placebo - and told them they were getting a placebo. Despite this, patients on the placebo showed greater improvement, both in objective and subjective assessments than did patients who took nothing at all. 
Of course, placebos work better when a patient doesn't know they're getting placebo. The more a person believes the placebo will work, the more likely it is to do so. And the type of placebo matters too.
Red placebos make patients feel jittery. Blue placebos make them sleepy. Capsules are better than tablets. Two pills are better than one. Placebos disguised as brand name products work better than generic placebos. Placebos work better the more the subject thinks they cost. Placebos even work better if the person who provides them is wearing a lab coat.
In general, less pleasant placebos fare better. Injections work better than pills, electric stimulation better than injections, sham surgery (which is horrifyingly a thing) works best of all. Placebos that have unpleasant side-effects (or those that come with a warning of unpleasant side effects) work better as well. 
All of this raises some interesting ethical questions. Would it be ethical for a doctor to prescribe a placebo if a proper medical treatment wasn't available? Are homeopathy and other complete shams okay if they can make people feel better? (No. More on that in a future post). If a placebo has real medicinal value, can it really be called a placebo?

Info from The Placebo Effect on Skeptoid.com and The Power of Nothing by Michael Specter, in The New Yorker.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

No body's business

It's like a game of tennis. Vogue puts a size 8 model on its cover, and commentators declare it the fashion apocalypse.

Some nobody posts a childish rant about fat people on YouTube, and big girls take to social media to show off just how gorgeous curves can be.
But fat people are so unhealthy.
One really important fact gets ignored in all of this give and take. Our bodies are ours. We don't have to defend them or prove them worthy of existing. Our bodies aren't there for other people to judge. And we have the right to opt out of the game.
No girl should starve herself because some online bully called her disgusting. No man should judge his worth by what a fashion designer thinks his body should be. 
Look, like it or not, our bodies are ours. All our lives, other people have tried to tell us how our bodies should be - what size they should be, what clothes we should put on them, which flaws we should be ashamed of now.
Nobody should have to bargain for the right to live in his body. No one should have to prove her body's worthy of existing. Nobody has to beg for the right to live in their own skin.
The truth is that our bodies are not up for a vote. Our bodies aren't for other people to pass judgement on.  
I believe this with all my heart, and yet honestly, sometimes I feel a little sick when I look in the mirror. We don't need to be told what other people think of our bodies, we've heard the message loud and clear. 
   

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