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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 Trends.Google.com, 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.

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