Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

Brigid Daull Brockway is technically a writer

A blog about words, wordplay, and etymology, with slightly more than occasional political rants.

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, 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!

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.