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Saturday, April 15, 2017

Elegy for the shattered ones

I'd like to take a moment today to talk about the most oppressed, the most persecuted minority group in our great society: Porcelain Americans. What's a Porcelain American, you ask? Well chances are, you know several. 
Like that guy at your gym who keeps getting passed over for promotions just because he's a white male. Porcelain American. The type of person who cracks under the unbearable weight of being called out for making casually racist statements. The kind of person who shatters whenever the hero of a movie is black and the villain white. The kind of person who falls to the floor in a million tiny pieces when a person of color speaks to them with anything other than complete and humble deference. These are Porcelain Americans.
Not all white people are Porcelain Americans, and not all Porcelain Americans are white. But it is true that for Porcelain Americans, the pendulum on racism has clearly swung too far - it was all fine and good when Black people were demanding the right to vote, but the fact that Black people now demand justice for small Black children being shot by cops? Clearly demanding that individual cops be held accountable is an attack on all cops everywhere, blue porcelain shattered all over the floor. 
For Porcelain Americans, the agony suffered over a footballer of color who won't stand for the national anthem is exponentially greater than the suffering of the starving people of Somalia for whom that same footballer has helped raise millions. Hungry people are a fact of life, but when you start cracking the porcelain bust of Uncle Sam - well that's a travesty that Porcelain Americans should never be forced to witness.
It's easy to ignore the suffering of Porcelain Americans. Yes, on paper - and by almost every metric you can measure, the average Porcelain American enjoys privileges that Americans of the non-porcelain variety doesn't. But put yourself in Porcelain Americans' shoes. What good is all that privilege if you can't use it to tell racist jokes without someone getting offended? What good is anything in a country where it's no longer okay to openly discriminate against the undesirable?
And imagine... just imagine for a moment the terror of knowing that any minute, some movie that you are in no way required to watch could retroactively shatter your entire childhood? 
Who even knew that was possible? And how can we say we're fighting rape culture if every day in America thousands of Porcelain Americans' childhoods are being raped... somehow. 
 Look at what the world has done to our precious Porcelain Americans and tell me that their lives aren't literally worse than all the Black kids in Flint with lead poisoning. Look at all the horrors under which Porcelain Americans are cracking and straining and tell me it isn't literally worse than piffling concerns like "systemic racism" and "rape culture." Porcelain Americans are shattering all around us. And we're just turning a blind eye.

Okay, I'll let you in on a little secret. I'm totally a Porcelain American. When I saw that  there was a movie called Dear White People, damned if the first thought to cross my mind wasn't "DOUBLE STANDARD!" But then I remembered the whole idea of false equivalence, and I watched the movie, and it was good, and I learned stuff. Not a chip or a scratch. My inner Porcelain American's always gonna take offense at being accused of having privilege, or having someone call me out for a micro-aggression I didn't even mean to make. That initial moment of taking offense may not be voluntary, but shattering over every slight and offense and every hint of unfairness or double-standards or disrespect - that's totally optional. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Casting call

So yesterday I mentioned my blog to some folks at work, with the caveat that it consists mostly of abrasively liberal diatribes and occasionally some stuff about words, wordplay, and word origins. Then I looked at my blog and it turns out that the abrasively liberal has pretty much drowned everything else out. I blame school - I don't have much time to browse through my stacks of word trivia books, stuck as I am reading Important Literature, and the little free time I have between work and school is generally dedicated to laying awake nights fretting about the Trumpacolypse. 
Possibly from

So today, and in light of the fact that I should be off reading some of that Important Literature I mentioned, I thought I'd tell you some fun facts from some of my favorite podcasts, and provide you with links so you can have fun too.

This is more than just the most cleverly named podcast in the interwebs - it's a really entertaining and exceedingly well-researched podcast and website that is, in their words, "a collection of entertaining curiosities in history, literature, language, art, philosophy, and mathematics, designed to help you waste time as enjoyably as possible."
Fun fact from the archives of their show: in the early part of the 20th century, Dutch forger Han van Meegeren fooled the art world into believing he'd found previously undiscovered Vermeer paintings to the tune of millions. This despite his work looking nothing the hell like Vermeer.  
Helen Zaltzman hosts this show which, unlike my blog, actually is about words, wordplay, and word history. 
Fun fact: Back in 1816, the world seemed a very bleak place. A volcano in what's now Indonesia had just unleashed the largest volcanic eruption in 10,000 years, enveloping the planet in volcanic matter that blotted out the sun, cooled the planet, and destroyed crops all over the place. Tens of thousands left their homes and wandered from city to city in search of food and shelter. That's the backdrop against which Mary Shelly wrote Frankenstein. 

Episodes of this show are short, which is too bad because you want to hang on every word. He tells stories from history, of people forgotten or misremembered.
You may have heard that Leo, the MGM lion, killed his trainer the day after he filmed his world famous roar. Well he didn't. But life after the roar was even more strange. MGM decided he'd be the first animal to fly cross country, but the plane crashed. No worries, he survived. 

There are lots of podcasts dedicated to scientific skepticism, but this is my favorite. The three hosts debunk all kinds of pseudo-scientific claims, but what I like is that they demonstrate that lay people can read scientific studies to determine just what's fact and what's crap. 
Fun fact: Gwyneth Paltrow's website,, sells "yoni eggs" - jade eggs that you're supposed to shove up your hooha to give it superpowers, maybe. The skeptics are here to inform us that this is not where rocks are supposed to go. 
None of them, for the love of god. None of them.

If you've never listened to podcasts before, I like Stitcher. You can use the Stitcher app, or you can listen straight from your browser. This app's really simple, and you can stream directly without having to download.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

I'm still here

Sorry I've been away so long. I was looking forward to spending some time caching blog posts this week while I'm on spring break, but instead fibromyalgia decided to beat the living shit out of me for a while. I'm just hurting and exhausted and so far beyond cranky. Honestly, it makes me want to

It kind of feels like
Maybe more like 
I mean, I guess it could be worse

So here's a video I like to watch when I'm feeling bad about my own life.

I never get tired of that. Because if there's anything Tom Hanks has to teach us, it's that, no matter how shitty a hand you get, you half-ass nothing, and eventually, if you dream big enough, you can grow up to be...

Any questions?

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hooray for hypocrisy!

So another awards season is nearing its completion and there have been, and certainly will be, some fiery political diatribes up on that podium, stars selflessly using their sixty seconds in the spotlight getting in their digs at good old Donald Trump. And good for them. 
I guess.
This parody brought to you by MS Paint.
When I saw Meryl Streep's speech against Trump's bullying at the Golden Globes, all I could think was "Then make a movie with a god damn Black person in it, Meryl." The cast lists for her movies are whiter than a Starbucks inside a yoga pants outlet, and she's not doing shit about it. Last year, defending a lack of diversity in one of her projects, she claimed it was okay because "we're all Africans." She's one of the most talented, most visible actors in Hollywood and she could be doing a hell of a lot more than making self-important speeches. 

And that's the thing about certain Hollywood liberals. They're all about conspicuous displays of liberalism, but when it comes to Hollywood's massive diversity problem, they don't want to do shit. 
Hollywood's still whitewashing roles from Michael Jackson to all the gods of Egypt and the Meryl Streeps of the industry aren't saying a thing. Scarlett Johannson and Matt Damon have condemned Trump's racism, but Damon's currently the star of a movie set in medieval China (I'm sure there's some vitally important reason the character has to be white; there always is) and Johannson's wearing yellowface in The Ghost in the Shell and says it's okay because feminism. Practice what you preach or quit preaching, dude.
I was heartened by David Harbour's SAG awards speech when the Stranger Things cast won for Best Ensemble. He talked about standing up to bullies and speaking up on behalf the disenfranchised and marginalized. But the guy's on a show with one whole character of color. The whole of the show's first season failed the Bechdel test. Maybe focus some of that fiery passion on getting Stranger Things show runners to actually cast some of the marginalized and disenfranchised folks of whom you speak.

There are some celebrities getting it right. Oprah, Brad Pitt, Danny Glover, Lee Daniels, Nate Moore, Shonda Rhimes, and so many more have busted ass trying to make TV and movies that give a voice to marginalized people and a platform for them to stand on. They're not perfect people (Oprah unleashed Dr. Oz on an unsuspecting public for God's sake), but they're not shouting liberal catch phrases from awards podiums and then going home to do jack and shit.

So I'm calling you out, Hollywood celebrities who definitely read this blog and care what I think: practice what you preach. You want to make America kinder, more tolerant? You want to rise up against bullying and racism and discrimination? Make movies and television that promote diversity and draw in the marginalized. Don't just make speeches, make art. Make changes. Make waves. Make people think. Make a difference. 

Thursday, February 2, 2017

um, guys?

When I learned this morning that there'd been violent demonstrations at UC Berkeley over a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, I'll admit I didn't know much about the guy. And now that I've wasted a little of my life reading about him, I'm gonna waste a little of yours with a theory I can't seem to stop having. Note: There are hate words below.
Pretty much everything you need to know about M.Y. is stuff he'll tell you himself. He's a self-proclaimed Internet troll with the mantra "double down, don't back down." He once said, "If someone calls you an anti-Semite, you go to their page and put up swastikas." He's not an anti-Semite himself, of course, because one of his grandparents was Jewish, and I'll just let you go ahead and connect the dots back to Hitler on your own. "I’m totally autistic or sociopathic," he once bragged to Bloomburg. "I guess I’m both." He'll do anything to get attention - he says that in the last for years he's never been alone in a room for more than an hour. And he's a genius at maintaining his brand - the embattled provocateur. 
Still, that's no excuse for censoring the guy. Even if he does insist on calling his tour The Dangerous Faggot Tour, I guess. Sure he's got no real education and his lectures generally consist of wall-to-wall anti-woman, anti-gay, anti-trans, anti-minority hate speech, but we live in a country of free speech, goddammit. And violence is never the answer, right?
Well, it might be if you're Milo Yiannopoulos. See, his big controversial tour has turned out to be kind of a dud. There were few bookings and a bunch of cancellations. A handful of students at Rutgers stood up, smeared paint on themselves, and then left. His appearance at the University of Minnesota drummed up a whole 40 protesters, only five of whom even made it into the venue. I mean, the guy proclaims himself an "Internet Supervillian" and he gets what? Some brief interruptions, a protester or two? Some supervillian.
To finally get some attention, poor M.Y. had to enlist the help of even less relevant "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli for a planned event at UC Davis. Now the controversy machine was firing up. M.Y. said on Facebook that the event was cancelled due to violence, but the police stated that there had been no violence or even property destruction. 
And then there was the University of Washington. Out of nowhere, this huge phalanx of organized black bloc protesters show up with fireworks and baseball bats. They're all in black, their faces are covered, and they're attacking M.Y. supporters and press alike. Finally, some headlines!
And isn't it a weird coincidence that a couple weeks later another well-organized gang of black bloc protesters showed up at M.Y.'s Berkeley engagement, dressed all in black with their faces covered, with fireworks and baseball bats to force the cancellation. Police are saying that the Berkeley students were protesting but peacefully, when all of a sudden a hundred and fifty guys dressed like ninjas showed up and started throwing bricks and setting fires. The attacks were aimed mostly at the police, but groups of peaceful protesters were targeted as well. About two hours before the event, the university said it was cancelling the event, saying they couldn't guarantee M.Y.'s safety.

M.Y. appeared on Facebook Live not long after, looking fabulous, saying he was shocked at the way some people "were so threatened by the idea that a conservative speaker might be persuasive, interesting, funny and might take some people with him, they have to shut it down at all costs."
Now M.Y. had his headlines. He was trending on every platform one can trend on. Even the President, a man M.Y. creepily refers to as his "Daddy," paid attention. M.Y. is back in the headlines and back on brand. It worked out really well for Milo. Who, remember, brags about being a sociopath and a supervillian and being willing to do anything for attention.

Is it crazy to wonder if that "anything" includes maybe a little violent pot-stirring? 
And a kitten, so you don't have to look at M.Y.'s pretty,
smug face.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Life or something like it

I've been thinking about lives and choices, on this, the anniversary week of the Roe v. Wade decision. Good, loving people are marching on Washington this weekend protesting abortion. I get where they're coming from, I do. I was a pro-life activist in high school.
And then I realized that picket signs don't prevent abortions. Contraceptives do. Education does. That's why I support Planned Parenthood. I still don't like abortion. So I support organizations that strive to prevent unwanted pregnancy. 
Abortion right now is at an all-time low - lower even than in 1973 when Roe v. Wade was passed.
Notice the nosedive it took starting in 2010? That happens to coincide with the passing of the Affordable Care Act, which put contraception into the hands of the women who needed it most. That's how you enact legislation that will end abortion.
But the Affordable Care Act is going away. And Planned Parenthood is in peril. Social programs that feed the hungry, care for the sick, and help the poor are in the cross-hairs. Do you honestly think that's going to make for fewer abortions?

Saturday, January 21, 2017

So you voted for Trump

So you voted for Donald Trump. I don't understand it and I sure the hell am never going to be okay with it, but the inauguration is over now and what's done is done. But if you're a person of good will, if you've got a conscience, if you're a person of faith, you are morally obligated to help clean up the mess your guy's about to make.

Trump and the Republicans aim to prevent the many male and female Medicaid patients from going to Planned Parenthood for cancer screenings, prenatal care, routine physicals, vaccinations, STI tests and treatment, and counseling services. Your guy is taking needed health care services away from people in poverty which means you have the moral obligation to do something to help those folks. You need to donate to your local free clinics, hospitals, and community health centers. Without access to the services that Planned Parenthood provides, people will die, and that's on you.

 I am not asking you to change your mind about Planned Parenthood, but I am telling you that you're responsible for helping the men women and children who will be left in the lurch. I am telling you that if you're pro-life, if you really are pro-life, it's time for you to start feeding, clothing, and caring for those babies once they're born. If you're Catholic, St. Vincent de Paul provides food, clothes, and other assistance to families in need. If you're a pro-life Catholic you are morally obligated to give generously to charities like this one, now more than ever. If you call yourself pro-life and do nothing to help people in need, you have no business calling yourself pro-life.

And another thing. Just because you voted for the guy doesn't mean you have to support his insane cabinet picks. You need to call your elected officials about his nomination for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, and you need to do it now. The woman is a menace who doesn't have any experience with public schools at all. Her confirmation hearing demonstrated that she has no understanding of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - that she didn't even know it was federal law. She doesn't support full accountability for private and voucher schools. She also has, unsurprisingly, massive financial conflicts of interest. You have a mind. You are capable of independent thought. You know this woman isn't even qualified to run a school cafeteria and it is your responsibility to call your elected officials and tell them so. If this lady is confirmed, there's a good chance, based on her past advocacy, that she'll shift federal funding away from public schools and toward unregulated, unaccountable for-profit schools. A generation's worth of kids' education hangs in the balance, and these kids are gonna be your doctors and nurses when you get old. Get. on. the. phone. If this woman gets confirmed, on January 31st, the fallout will be on you.

You voted for a man who bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. You voted for a man who has demeaned and harassed women all his life and bragged about doing so. You voted for a man who has made sexual comments about young girls, a man who calls women he doesn't like pigs and dogs. You elected a man who in 2013 said that rape in the military is a logical consequence of having women in the military. And that means if you've got a conscience, you've got a serious karmic debt to pay. I don't agree with all the work Catholic Charities does, but they do fight tooth and nail against sexual violence and you've got no excuse not to support them. There are a ton of Christian organizations fighting sexual violence, human trafficking, and violence against women and girls, and you need to look them up and start supporting them with your time and money. If you don't agree with the awful, vitriolic comments your guy has made about women but supported him anyway for some effing reason, you have a moral imperative to do something to compensate.

You like the arts? You better start going to museums and donating dollars because Trump's promising to cut off funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. You like PBS and NPR? Better donate to your local affiliate because Trump and the Republicans are planning to cut their funding too. You like clean air and water, and bodies of water that don't catch fire on the regular? Well, with a guy who has repeatedly sued the EPA, who has called himself the “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda” heading the EPA, you better start looking after the environment by reducing your own carbon footprint and donating to organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund. If the government's not going to help us preserve our planet, we're all going to have to step it up, and that means you, Trump voters who care about the environment. 

I'm not telling you to do anything I wouldn't do or haven't done. But I am telling you that you need to step up and help us preserve our education system, our (already alarmingly weak) social safety net, our planet.

You know how conservatives are always saying the government shouldn't be in the business of helping the poor and needy, that private charities should do the job? Well we are about to find out how well that whole idea works (again), so you need to pony up. I get that people of conscience voted for Trump, though I will never ever understand how they justified it. Now it's time for you people of conscience to get off your asses and get to helping us deal with the fallout.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Safety dance

As I gear up for my second semester of grad school I find myself thinking about safe spaces, those bug bears of conservative pundits and Twitter trolls alike. You know safe spaces, those things that inhibit free speech and coddle young minds on college campuses across the nation. They are destroying the Very Fabric of our education system, don't you know?
So does anybody here actually know what a safe space is? Class? Pundits? Trolls? Anybody? I mean, if people are bitching about them 24-7, you'd think we'd all have a clearer idea of what they are.
Wikipedia's as good a place to start as any. The idea of a safe space started with the women's movement; Kennedy Moira Rachel defined it as a place where there's "a certain license to speak and act freely, form collective strength." But isn't a safe space a place where free speech is explicitly banned? Women's consciousness raising groups of the 1970s were safe spaces. Later, gay bars were considered safe spaces - places where a person could be out and gay without fearing violence or condemnation. Also reasonable and very much necessary. So when did safe spaces transition from being havens for free expression to authoritarian hell holes where free speech is punishable by death? Where indeed.
For answers, I turned to, which shows the popularity of search terms over time. It turns out the term "safe space" was of little interest to much of anybody until October of 2015 when it catapulted into public awareness immediately following an episode of South Park titled Safe Space. And if you're thinking it's a little odd that the event that started getting Americans worked up about the evils of safe spaces was a satirical cartoon show, well, I felt the same. So I kept digging.
In a recent editorial for the LA Times, Frank Furendi complains that "Campuses are breaking apart into safe spaces." One of the examples he gives supporting this was a statement from Northwestern president Morton Schapiro. According to Furendi, Schapiro feels that black students should have a space reserved for them in the dining hall where white people aren't welcome, where they can be "sheltered from dissimilar people." In fact, Schapiro mentioned one specific incident in which a couple of white students asked to sit with a group of black students stating that they "wanted to stretch themselves by engaging in the kind of uncomfortable learning the college encourages." Schapiro argues that the black students had a right, in this case, to politely say no. Schapiro does NOT say that black students should be given a safe space in the cafeteria to avoid white people; Shapiro DOES say that black students have the right to decline to be treated like a civics class assignment. Now, you can disagree with what Schapiro says, or doubt that the incident went down exactly the way he says, but you've got to wonder why Furendi would need to so wildly and blatantly misrepresent Schapiro's case in order to argue against it.  

Furendi also says that "the Social Justice Living Learning Community offered by the University of North Dakota indicates that the balkanization of accommodation extends beyond ethnicity to students’ political convictions." Check out that learning community's website, though, and you'll learn that it's a service dorm where "each person shares the responsibility of creating an environment in which all residents are respected and valued – regardless of one’s age, size, gender, sexual orientation, identity or identity expression, disability, race, ethnicity, color, creed, national origin, cultural background, socio-economic status, or religious affiliation or conviction. Join us in embracing our differences and appreciating the unique perspectives each person brings." So Northwestern is bad because they allegedly want to students to be able to avoid dissimilar people, but North Dakota is wrong for wanting to bring together dissimilar people to celebrate differences and learn from each other? Because it seems like allegedly dividing students up and actually joining people together are opposite things. So how is Furendi saying they're both bad? 

I've dug through a ton of news stories about safe spaces and they all just seem outlandishly overblown. The College Fix ran a story after the Republican National Convention proclaiming "'Safe space’ offered at Cleveland university in response to Republican National Convention." The story's written to make it seem like the Cleveland State was kowtowing to student over-sensitivity by creating a safe space from nasty Republican ideas. In fact, Cleveland State is spitting distance from the convention area where, if you'll recall, law enforcement was worried about actual physical violence. Downtown Cleveland, where Cleveland State is located, is normally home to only 13,000 people. 50,000 people attended the convention; thousands more showed up to protest, and thousands more attended the many events surrounding the convention. Cleveland State would have been pretty damn remiss if it hadn't taken steps to ensure that the campus was a "safe space" for students and faculty. Not a space that was safe from Republican ideas, but a space that was safe from tens of thousands of out-of-towners, some of whom might, according to police, become violent. 

Another article on The College Fix claims "‘Safe place’ set aside for those upset at campus talk on transgenderism’s threat to liberty." In fact, transgender individuals live constantly under threat of violence, and not an imagined one. Transgender individuals are extremely and demonstrably more likely to be victims of violent crime; they're much more likely to be raped, and they're much more likely to be murdered. So when a virulently anti-trans speaker was hired to speak at UC Santa Barbara, some trans students were pretty reasonably afraid that increased anti-trans sentiment might lead to, once again, actual physical violence. They didn't ask for an anti-free speech zone, just an anti-fear-for-bodily-safety zone. 

One news story I saw claimed that a college campus had declared itself a safe space for communists. No such thing had happened - the university had just failed to officially recognize an anti-communist student group. You can agree or disagree with that decision, but the university DID NOT declare itself a "safe space" for communists.

A story claiming that Stanford had removed Trump signage because it violated "safe space" rules actually removed said signage because the university had space reserved for political signage and the signage in question was outside of that area. Here, you can disagree with Stanford's policy about political signage, but it is a fact that Stanford DID NOT remove the signage because of a rule about "safe spaces."
A story about a university offering a safe space to students who hadn't voted for Trump was actually about a university counseling center that had emailed students reminding them that, if they were stressed about current events or if they were being bullied or threatened, the counseling center was a safe space to talk about their feelings. Counselling centers have been a fixture on college campuses for decades, and they're by definition safe spaces to talk about your feelings. I've been to a lot of shrinks, kids, and I can tell you that they're not a place you can go to escape upsetting ideas - they're a place you go to learn how to deal with being upset without completely losing your shit. The letter from the counselling center didn't mention Trump, and it didn't even hint that the counseling center was not a safe space for people who voted for him. It just said "hey, if you're stressed, come to the counseling center." Is that really such a terrible thing?

However. This isn't to say there haven't been some high-profile incidents in which students DID try to censor speech on campus. However, even those events have been somewhat overblown and misrepresented. 
For instance, the Play Doh incident at Brown. You know the one, where the school brought in an unpopular speaker and scores of students demanded a safe space where they could avoid being exposed to new ideas and blow bubbles and play with Play Doh, and Brown acquiesced because the inmates are running the asylum?
So what really happened was that a student group at Brown had brought in a speaker, Wendy McElroy, who had made several public statements about rape culture that some Brown students felt were dismissive toward sexual assault survivors. The university's Sexual Assault Task Force wanted the speaker barred, but Brown refused to do that. So the Sexual Assault task force protested by establishing a competing event where sexual assault survivors could come and talk with counselors and learn about the university's resources for assault survivors. Yes, a campus group tried to have a speaker barred. Yes, I believe they were wrong. But they FAILED to have the speaker barred. Free speech prevailed. And the student group protested by holding an event meant to raise awareness about university resources for sexual assault survivors and I hardly think that's a travesty. Also there was Play Doh there. Call the National Guard. Step 1: give students Play Doh. Step 2: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria.

Finally, in 2015, some Yale students horribly, horribly bullied a professor, Erika Christakis, over an email in which she asserted that the university didn't have the right to tell students not to wear culturally appropriative Halloween costumes. While I didn't necessarily agree with everything Christakis said, but she made her point civilly and eloquently, without even a hint of disrespect or discrimination. In response, about 150 students confronted her in person, shouting and jeering while she and her husband, also a Yale prof, called for calm and civil discourse; they were afraid for their safety and if you watch the videos of the incident, it's easy to see why. Christakis was wronged, horribly. She left the college over it, although claims that she was forced out are categorically false. The dean unequivocally refused demands that Christakis be dismissed. One professor wrote a letter to the editor of a Yale newspaper in support of Christakis, and it was signed by 69 other professors. Lots of students spoke up in support of Christkis. But still Chistakis chose to leave her position, and I don't blame her. Campus should have been a safe space for her and it wasn't. And that's awful. 
Although nobody said anything about this being a "safe spaces" issue, near as I can tell. There was talk on campus around that time about how Yale could be a safer space for disadvantaged and minority students, but that was a mostly separate issue. You can research that on your own though, as my hands are tired.

So, to summarize this outlandishly TL;DR post for which you all deserve cookies for slogging through, we have a whole crap ton of smoke and one unconscionably but ultimately isolated fire. 

Friday, January 6, 2017

Squishy science: the YOU'RE RUINING YOUR BABY edition

If you've read the barely modified press releases masquerading as news lately, you know that science has found definitive proof that the mere act of being obese destroys your future offspring by causing developmental delays. Yep, a recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics tested thousands of children and discovered that the ones with fat fat fatties for parents couldn't turn the pages of a book or stack blocks as well as the ones with nice healthy stick insects for parents. Proof positive that obese parents produce idiot children with flippers for hands.
Except no, it totally didn't. So there was indeed a study in the Journal of Pediatrics in which researchers looked at data collected by the Upstate KIDS study, which follows 6,000 children in upstate New York. While the children of obese parents were okay with stuff like communication, gross motor skills, and problem solving, it seems that their fine motor skills were delayed compared to kids whose parents weren't obese. But the study has some pretty huge limitations that make it flat-out impossible to draw any conclusion.

First, this is a cohort study. A cohort study is one in which researchers review a whole bunch of data to look for correlations. No matter how good a cohort study is, it can only show correlation. Which might mean there's causation, but might not. The only thing a cohort study can "prove" is that more research is warranted. 

But even for a cohort study, this one has some serious flaws. The sample size is nice and big, but it only looks at kids in a small geographical region. Also, all the data is based on self-reporting - rather than having clinicians in a lab evaluate children, they just have parents fill out a questionnaire. Problem is that self-reporting is a notoriously bad way to get accurate data - people exaggerate, people misunderstand questions, people misremember, people lie. As Wikipedia points out, "Self-report studies are inherently biased by the person's feelings at the time they filled out the questionnaire. If a person feels bad at the time they fill out the questionnaire, for example, their answers will be more negative. If the person feels good at the time, then the answers will be more positive."
Now the researchers say that this effect is mitigated by the fact that the questionnaire that the parents fill out is really specific, but is it? Not really. For instance, the questionnaire asks parents if their kids can turn the pages in a book. That's not a precise question at all. One parent might interpret this to mean a board book, or another, a book with paper pages. One parent might consider the kid incapable if they can't turn the page without ripping or creasing, but another might not consider that a factor. Are we talking big books or small books? Glossy paper or regular? Does the kid spend a lot of time looking at books, and thus get more practice turning pages? Are some parents more likely to give answers based on wanting to make their kid look good? This is the stuff that researchers can control for in a clinical trial, which is what makes clinical trials much better ways to measure this stuff.
And even if there really is a strong correlation, the study has nothing but guesses as to what might cause it. Maybe obesity causes inflammation, which affects the baby's brain development. But that doesn't explain why the dad's obesity would be a factor. Maybe it's not mom or dad's obesity that causes the apparent delays, but the underlying factors causing that obesity. Maybe people with a genetic predisposition toward obesity also have a genetic predisposition to be slightly delayed at page turning. 

So this whole story bugged me for a bunch of reasons. One, I friggin hate it when the media reports on cohort studies like they're the definitive last word. The only purpose of a cohort study is to determine whether further research is warranted, information which is useless to people who aren't scientists. 
And two, yeah, obesity is bad when you're pregnant. It increases the risk of miscarriage, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, an a whole bunch of other pregnancy complications. Maternal obesity can also harm the munchkin's long term health. We get it. We know now that the whole idea of eating for two is an old wives' tale that's ultimately bad for mom and baby, and we know it's really important to eat healthy and exercise throughout the pregnancy, and don't worry - OBs make sure their patients know it. But eating and exercising are behaviors. Obesity's a state of being that's not easily undone. Ideally, mom's at a healthy weight when she gets pregnant, but life happens. And when articles like these treat more or less wild speculation like scientific fact, it only compounds the guilt and stress that obese moms already feel about something it's too late to fix. It only gives more fuel to the shamers who insist it's okay to treat big women like shit for a situation they already feel like shit over. 
And that's a problem. Because you know what else is really bad for a baby's development? Stress. Such as the stress an expecting mom feels when she's constantly bombarded with hand-wringing articles and finger-pointing editorials. Obese women are stressed enough about the good science - don't try to cause them further stress with bad science.
For the past 20 years since my friends started having kids, I've seen this long stream of the best parents I know beating the crap out of themselves for every parenting mistake, every imperfection, real or imagined. I've talked to pregnant women who feel bullied and shamed by their doctors, their families, or the Internet communities they've turned to for support; who have been made to believe they've screwed up their baby for life before the baby's even born. You want highly inexpert pregnancy advice from a lady on the sidelines? Take care of your baby. But take care of yourself. Listen to your doctor and do your best and love your kid and love yourself and you and your baby will be fine. Because my experience is that the more worried a woman is about this stuff, the less worried she probably should be. 
And for god's sake, stay away from those crazy ass mommy internet forums. Those women will have you convinced that your baby will be born a mutant unless you eat a diet of pure kale juice and give birth directly into a vat of coconut oil and apple cider vinegar. Everybody knows that unless you ALSO feed your baby nothing but Himalayan sea salt goji berries, you might as well just leave it out in the woods to be raised by wolves.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016, a year to be forgot

So the other day I clicked on this Buzzfeed article about the most powerful photos of the year, expecting Bowie tributes and stuff, I guess. Instead it was images like these:

And I was reminded of the incredible luxury I have, as a middle-class American, to only have to mourn pop stars and actors. We cried over Alan Rickman and Prince, but how many tears have we shed over Aleppo? Baghdad? Yemen. I thought 2016 was awful because we lost Carrie Fisher, but this year hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians lost their lives and homes and families for a war they didn't start and they didn't want. And when they ran away, these men and women and children without a country, the international community turned their backs with threats and scare-mongering and analogies about poison Skittles. 2016 was a shit show all right, but maybe not for the reasons we all think it was.

But to jump off the Debbie Downer train, you ever wondered what the hell an auld lang syne is?
Auld lang syne is Scots for times long past. Here's Wikipedia's English translation for the song:

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.
And surely you'll buy your pint cup!
and surely I'll buy mine!
And we'll take a cup o' kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine;
But we've wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.

We two have paddled in the stream,

from morning sun till dine;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand my trusty friend!
And give me a hand o' thine!
And we'll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.

It's from a poem by Robert Burns, but it didn't become a New Year's thing until the 20th century, when Guy Lombardo's band rang in 1929 by playing it at midnight on a national radio broadcast. Hollywood took a shine to the idea of playing the tune to mark the new year in every movie ever, and audiences followed suit. Ironically, 1929 turned out to be a shit show of 2016 proportions, what with the Great Depression and the influenza epidemic that killed 200,000 and all. Maybe the song's bad luck. Maybe we should start singing this one.