November 30, 2008

Hot Is Heavy

I don't usually feel the need to point to one of Zuska's posts and say, "Yeah, what she said." She's got a strong voice and when she's not reaching her audience, it's usually either because they're unreachable or because they already agree with her in principle and are arguing over details.

This week, though, Zuska put up a post about the ephemeral nature of hotness that I think missed its audience. The first half of the post talked about her losing her thick, abundant (hot) hair to illness, but the bits that everyone seemed to focus on were:

Hotness is a great thing, but unfortunately it comes with an expiration date. Bodies change, making hot fashions simply unwearable; joints develop aches, making fashionable footwear unbearable; hair thins and loses luster and just looks plain terrible.


Wide hips, sensible flat shoes, poor hairdo - yeah, that could be me in those photos. Dr. Isis, I'm not asking you to mask or stifle your total hotness (as if a domestic and laboratory goddess even could!) and I admire your efforts to create mass cognitive dissonance through conflation of "hot", "mama", and "scientist". Just maybe be a little kinder to the old crones in the audience.

The comments could largely be summed up by this one:

Ah Zuska, you know true hotness is a state of mind.

This is fine. This is all well and good and true as far as it goes. The problem is that Zuska wasn't merely talking about age. She was also talking about health.

Hotness, even as something that doesn't relate to the external characteristics that people have little control over, requires resources. It takes time and attention and energy and money--more time and attention and energy to the extent that money isn't available. (You've read John Scalzi on the costs of Being Poor, right?) These are resources that people who are dealing with illness and disability frequently don't have.

When we value hotness so highly, we place additional burdens on those who already have too many. We ask those who want nothing more than sleep to maintain labor-intensive standards of grooming. We ask people with arthritis to iron clothes. We ask those in pain to be pleasant and "graceful." We ask people with depression to keep a positive attitude.

We can tell them that we don't require any of this of them, that all we want is for them to get better or to do the best their disability will allow, but we have to know that they're sick or disabled in order to deliver this message. Most illnesses and disabilities don't come with marquee lights. The message that hotness is required for the fullest participation in society doesn't limit itself to the healthy, able-bodied population, because we don't know, can't know, who that is.

If you think the ill and the disabled don't feel this pressure, ask yourself why organization such as Locks of Love and Heavenly Hats exist. Ask yourself why patients in long-term care are cheered up by a gift of pretty clothing or by something as simple as having their hair styled. Ask why those with disabilities are cheered to see others like them as models and athletes--among the hot.

Does this mean that the hot among us shouldn't revel in being hot? Nah. For one thing, that's never going to happen. For another, what they're actually reveling in is, in large part, health. Having good health and having the resources to enjoy it are things worth reveling in. They are more rare than they should be.

I just think people should know that this is what they're really enjoying and know, as Zuska and I and many others do, that it may not last.

November 29, 2008


The domestic and laboratory goddess, in her answer to our question about science fiction and science bloggers, talked a little about the female role models available to a young budding scientist. This prompted me to realize that I have readers, too new to have heard me waxing enthusiastic about WisCon, who would love this convention.

WisCon is the first and foremost feminist science fiction convention in the world. WisCon encourages discussion, debate and extrapolation of ideas relating to feminism, gender, race and class. WisCon honors writers, editors and artists whose work explores these themes and whose voices have opened new dimensions and territory in these issues. And, oh yes, we also like to have fun while we're at it.

WisCon is my "home" convention, the one I attend every year, even though it's a four- to five-hour drive to Madison to get there. It's a convention of grown-ups but isn't too grown-up. It has the highest ratio of published authors to fans of any convention I know, but the media programming is great too. It has an academic track, child care, a civilized con suite and commitments to access for people with disabilities and dignity for people with unconventional gender and sexual identities. Oh, and a hot tub.

The James Tiptree, Jr. Award (named after Alice B. Sheldon and supported by a bake sale and auction), is given "for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender" at the convention. This year's guests of honor are Ellen Klages, who made a room full of people go from laughter to tears in less than five minutes two years ago, and Geoff Ryman, a former Tiptree winner and reportedly most graceful wearer of the tiara in Tiptree history.

As you can probably tell, there's no good way to explain this convention. It's utterly unlike the stereotype of a science fiction convention, except in the ways it isn't. The only way to find out whether it's for you is to check it out. It doesn't happen until May, but don't wait. Registration is capped at 1,000 people, and right about now is the time it fills up.

Go see, and maybe I'll see you there.

November 28, 2008

Murder in the Round

Every once in a while, I come across a place in the center of a city that makes me wonder whether the city planners had been drinking a wee bit too much mountain dew. And no, I don’t mean the soda. Or even the moonshine.

I walk through Elliot Park in Minneapolis on my way home from work most days. It’s an irregular piece of greenery on the edge of downtown, carved up by basketball and tennis courts, a skate park, a rec building, a ball field, a playground and a wading pool.

There are concrete paths here and there, but people mostly follow the ruts in the grass. The main path in the park forms a large circle around the playground and pool. To be perfect, it should circle a small hill, but people know well enough not to follow it anyway. Well, the children may not, as the designer was no doubt aware, but their attention spans are short enough that they never make it around three times. At least, I haven't heard of any disappearing in the park.

Just inside the path is a circle of elms, and this is where the park gets interesting to more than just a faerie-fevered imagination. The trees are nearing the end of their lifespans, and there are a few gaps, but this also means they're the tallest trees on this edge of downtown.

In the fall, tall trees and nearby food turn the park into Crow Central. Every evening, toward sunset, crows on their short migrations have to find somewhere to spend the night. Most nights, it's the park, specifically the ring of elms. I hear the park, of course, before I see it, as the normally more solitary birds negotiate settling in these massive groups. The chatter is so obviously meaningful that it's hard to fight the impression that if I stand and listen long enough, I'll begin to understand.

It's fascinating to look up and see trees, so recently opaque with leaves, now studded with large black bodies. They never quite become opaque again, though. While the elms are definitely the preferred perches, they can only accommodate so many birds comfortably. I don't know how the question is decided, but when one too many birds lands, the entire tree erupts again.

Some of the crows will swirl about to land again in the same tree. Others will depart for less-crowded, less-desirable trees nearby as new birds fly into the park. The entire sky, a post-sunset deep blue, churns like a movie shot of the bat cave--only the silhouettes above are ever so much bigger, and they carry their own music with them as they move.

This video is the closest I could find to what I see walking home. My view is obviously steadier.

Without a circle of trees to concentrate the birds, it's not quite the same. What I see and hear feels nigh unto magical. I keep meaning to the write the story that goes with it, but my descriptions can't begin to capture it. Of course, nothing can. If it could, it wouldn't be magic.

And like any good faerie magic, all that's left of the birds in the morning is shit all over the sidewalk.

November 27, 2008

Shakespeare in Translation

More Animaniacs.

Hamlet on Yorick


Lessons With the Warners

Yakko, Wakko and Dot, that is. Someone's been posting Animaniacs videos, and they've put up most of the good patter teaching songs. Now, I wouldn't want to try to pass any tests based on these, but they're still fun, years later.


State Capitols

The Nations of the World

Yakko's Universe Song

"We're just tiny little specks, about the size of Mickey Rooney." [sigh] I miss those guys.

November 26, 2008

Tradition's End

Mme. Piggy has a post up mourning the--hopefully temporary--loss of a Thanksgiving tradition. It resonated with me in a way it might not have any other year. This year marks the end of a tradition for us as well.

For me, Thanksgiving has always meant my grandparents, my mother's parents. They were the in-town grandparents when I was young, and Thanksgiving was always at their house. (We lived in another state for a few years, but I don't remember those Thanksgivings.)

Things changed, of course: more leaves in the table as more kids came, a kids table when we became too many, a shift to early Thanksgiving when my grandparents became snowbirds, adult grandchildren bringing dates. But my grandparents were the constant.

There was a brief break in tradition when my grandparents shifted to a longer snowbird schedule. We had to choose between early Thanksgiving and celebrating the fall birthdays. The birthdays won, and Ben and I started hosting Thanksgiving in our new house.

Hosting was much more convenient for us. It allowed us to combine family obligations from both sides in one place, and our kitchen is much more able to cope with preparation for a feast. Still, it felt wrong without my grandparents, like a fake holiday, like we were playing house while the grownups were away.

Then they sold their place in Arizona and started coming to our house for Thanksgiving and all was well again. Sure, my grandpa keeps thanking me for all the good food as though my husband doesn't grill the turkeys and make gravy and as though no one else brings anything to share (instead of him being the only one), but there are some things that aren't worth trying to change. We had a tradition going. “Over the river and through the hood to Steph and Ben's house....”

Then there's this year.

During the fall birthday celebration, my grandmother started hinting about how they don't get around so well anymore and how it's so nice that everyone else comes to them and maybe Thanksgiving? I changed the subject.

She called a couple weeks later to make the suggestion explicitly. I put her off until after the election.

I knew then we'd go, and we will. Tomorrow, we'll pack up a ridiculous amount of food and cooking gear and carefully coordinate the use of a tiny kitchen. It'll be tricky, but we'll manage.

Much harder will be facing what the end of the tradition means. My grandparents are both in their nineties now, and neither is as hale as they once were. It won't be that long before the feast moves back to our place.

But will it be Thanksgiving without my grandparents?

November 25, 2008

Grandma's Cranberry Relish

Or, how to make all the kids eat their cranberries. Seriously.

3 12-oz. bags fresh cranberries
2/3 c. granulated sugar
1 large can crushed pineapple
1 pint heavy whipping cream
1 lb. mini-marshmallows

Wash and drain the cranberries. Grind using a medium die.

Mix in sugar and let sit overnight in the refrigerator.

Drain the crushed pineapple thoroughly. Mix the juice with some rum. This is for you, not the kids.

Whip the cream to very stiff peaks, just shy of butter.

In a bigger bowl than you think you'll need, mix the pineapple and marshmallows into the cranberries. Fold in the whipped cream just until you have no large red streaks.

The end result is fluffy, unthreateningly pink and has distinct sweet and tart elements. Serves dozens and freezes remarkably well.

November 24, 2008

Arbitrary Things

Eek. Tagged again.

  1. Link to the person who tagged you.
  2. Post the rules on your blog.
  3. Write six random arbitrary things about yourself.
  4. Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
  5. Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
  6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

Thing One
I was, quite literally, a poster child. Back in the days when in-home daycare was a radical choice, my mother was involved in promoting it. Pictures of me as a very smiley, very blond two-year-old were used to show how happy children in daycare really were.

Thing Two
I have discovered, through a certain amount of experimentation, that overly sweet candies can be much improved by roasting them over a fire. Circus peanuts and peeps are particularly good examples.

Thing Three
I've never had a driver's license. I can drive a manual transmission and downshift around a corner, but I've never taken the test. There is no good reason for this.

Thing Four
My laugh is preserved for posterity. Neil Gaiman recorded material for his spoken-word album, Warning: Contains Language in front of several live audiences. Most of what made it onto the album was recorded in a studio, but "Chivalry" is the live version. That very loud, very distinctive laugh that's just a little early? That's me.

Thing Five
My music collection contains fairly complete discographies of a number of eighties "one-hit" wonders: Soft Cell, Men Without Hats, Thomas Dolby, Falco, Kate Bush, Yaz/Alison Moyet, Dead or Alive, Simple Minds, Madness.

Thing Six
I was in a play about seventeen years ago that the playwright came to see. It took me until this summer to ask the director, "So, did he actually like it, or was he just being polite?" Yeah. I still get stage fright too.

You may have noticed that I'm not very good at following rules. No this is not one of the arbitrary things (it's fundamental), but an explanation of why I'm only doing two-thirds of the list. If you want to consider yourself tagged, I'd love to hear more about you, but I'm not passing this one on otherwise.

November 23, 2008

Internet Annoyances

I've spent much of the last two days with patchy and unreliable internet access. This has recently been fixed by (a) restarting the router again, although that hadn't done anything earlier, (b) my husband closing and restarting Firefox on his computer (uh, huh) or (c) something further up the line that we had no control over but that happened in conjunction with the other two.

In any case, the whole experience reminded me of other internet annoyances. Here are a few tips on how to not make truly annoying websites.

Know the basics of don't: splash screens, Flash-based navigation, media that loads without warning, flashing text, mystery meat navigation and text/background color combinations that will trigger a migraine.

Do not accept any ads you can't wall off from the rest of your layout. Last month, one of the very large internet ad companies was experiencing slow servers, and I don't know how many pages I couldn't see until the ad servers responded. Browsers just didn't know how to draw the pages without the ad information.

Don't design something that looks like navigation but isn't. If that link is on what looks like a button, particularly if that button changes color when moused over, I had better be able to click on the whole button, not just the text. Yes, really, companies do this.

If you can, try not to cram a bunch of links up against the right side of the page; i.e., the scroll bar. Even a few pixels of clear space makes a difference.

Yes, I get that your website is complicated. However, if you're providing information that is available from every publicly traded company, there is no excuse for burying it six to eight clicks deep. It should take me one (easily found) click to get to your corporate site, one to tell you what category of information I'm looking for. At that point, give me a page with a lot of links under different headings instead of making me guess which link I have to click to get to the next step.

Check your traffic logs every now and then. I know of one Fortune 500 company whose website--the main page--has generated errors every time I've tried to load it in the last six months. That doesn't help either of us.

There, just a few tips to make my life more pleasant. If everybody follows them, I can stop being annoyed and get back to writing something interesting.

November 21, 2008

Bad Ad

Seen on a billboard for a local auto repair chain:

We'll leave the hoist up for you.

Proof positive that advertising account executives not only have no idea how to care for their own cars but also have no interest in knowing anything about it. The hoist, of course, is only accessible in the down position.

Ironically, many shops do put the hoist up before shutting off the power and going home, but this is to make it inaccessible. Silly ad people.

Now someone just has to explain to me how they got the company to buy the slogan.

November 20, 2008

Not of the Tribe

So, last night I was working on a roundup of some of the cool blogs that have been recommended in the responses to our questions on science and science fiction, when I made the mistake of taking a break to check in on some of the blogs already on my blogroll. I was completely derailed.

DrugMonkey had a post up about the tribe(s) of science and action for the common good of the tribe. It was, if I'm reading him right (no guarantee), an introduction to some thoughts on applying humanity's tribalist tendencies to achieve a greater good. It's an interesting idea, and I agree with the goals...but he said, "tribal."

I reacted. Nothing out of line, just a pure emotional response. So, of course, I have to break it down.

I don't belong to any tribes. The whole idea makes me itch.

I belong to a couple of small, manufactured families, but at least in this day and age, that's not the same thing. Knowing with whom I chose to spend my time doesn't tell you much about me. Not the same way that being part of a tribe would. I like my families, but I don't identify with them. I am not them. They are not me.

This isn't true in tribes. The premise of a tribe is that the tribe's welfare is your welfare. In order to make this real, the tribe's identity also has to be your identity. You can have your own place, yes, but only as long as it fits within the tribe.

To take a nice, contentious example, I'm female (physically, genetically). I don't communicate "like a woman." I don't solve problems "like a woman." I don't accept the roles of enforcing social norms or making peace or having or raising children. The majority of my allegiances are to men but are neither sexual nor power-imbalanced. I don't fit comfortably within the feminine tribe.

I could do what others do and try to stretch the tribe itself to fit me better. There are no guarantees, though, that this will happen. Look at the resistance others get when they try. And even if I were to fail, the tribe would have demanded my cooperation during the trial.

I've lost the benefits of being part of a tribe along with the obligations, of course. After all, your welfare is also the tribe's welfare. It could be a lonely type of freedom if I weren't an introvert. Still, I think I prefer this to a lonely belonging.

There is a piece of writing advice that says to claim for yourself the identity of "writer." It's meant to carry the writer through the times when it doesn't feel as though progress is being made--the middle of the novel, incoming rejections, having to practice and practice a particular skill to get it down. So far, so good.

There is also a bit of advice that says simply, "Writers write." It's very practical advice that says you'll never have a finished product worth publishing if you don't sit your butt in a chair and crank it out. Also good advice.

However, these two pieces of advice together have caused some serious heartache for people whose writing has been interrupted for long periods by, well, life. Being one of the few tangible rewards for most people who write, tribal identification is highly prized, but it slips away with every day not spent writing. I've seen an award-winning author ask, "Am I a writer?" because she writes slowly and in spurts.

So, no. I write, but I am not a writer. I geek out, but I am not a geek. I have U.S. citizenship and take an active role in politics, but I am not an American. I am not my school, my hometown, my local sports team, my hobbies, my career, my gender, my body shape, my political beliefs, my socioeconomic status, my health issues, my pet ownership, my musical preferences, my clothing choices, my operating system. These things are part of me. I am not part of them.

I belong to no tribe.

November 18, 2008

Beware, Writer

I manipulate you, you know.

I lay out a path of words to take you where I want you to go. And you go, fitting your steps to the rhythm of my words.

I wave a hand over here to keep you from looking over there. If you see what I want you to ignore, you turn away.

I tell you I am humble. You build me up, disregarding the arrogance required to assume my thoughts and words would be of interest.

I make you cry, each word hitting you in the same painful place. You call it beautiful and send others to weep.

I decide the effect I want, then plot and scheme against you to achieve it. You applaud and ask me to do it again.

I carefully calculate just how much return I must give you, then give a sliver more. You thank me for my generosity.

As a reader, I am one of you, kin. When I write, you are mine.

And I am at your mercy.

November 17, 2008

Response the First

A big thanks to Simon Haynes for being the first person to jump up and throw in his opinions on the relationship between science and science fiction. Simon is the author of the Hal Spacejock series, which is currently available only as imports in the U.S. (grrr). However, you can download his first book to get a taste before diving in.

As you can probably guess from the name, Hal Spacejock is a hoot, but how about the science?

Humanoid robots and self-aware computers please!

I'm writing novels based in the far-future, where humans are the same cantakerous self-centered beasts they've always been, but robots and computers are intelligent, wise and caring. I've seen reviews declaring that my human characters are bastards one and all, while my robots represent the ideal I'd like humans to aim for. Not far wrong, that.

Simon's a long-time computer programmer, so he presumably has a better grip on how to manage to integrate self-awareness and selflessness than I do. Read the rest of Simon's answers and find out more about him at Spacejock News.

I'll get more links and highlights up soon, but thanks again, Simon, for being first.

November 16, 2008

About the Name

In case you've ever wondered where the blog name comes from, here's a video from one of my favorite artists. I bet you'll never guess what the song is called.

Don't read too much into the lyrics, though. There's a lot more to this not being a place of diamonds, including the fact that I just don't like diamonds. Who wants to be that hard, that pure, that transparent, that flawless? Give me a beautiful colored stone any day, and if it's just a little more fragile, then so be it.

In fact, I prefer it that way. Where do you go from perfection?

November 15, 2008

Out and About

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Me? I'm off hanging out where I can wear shirts like these and not feel like a complete slob or, you know, twelve.

Of course, it helps that they now make these things in women's cuts. Nobody's going to mistake me for twelve in one of these.

A slob, on the other hand? Maybe. But that's what weekends away are for.

November 14, 2008

Science and Fiction--An Open Call

ScienceOnline09 is an annual science communication conference that brings together scientists, bloggers, educators, and students to discuss promoting public understanding of science. Peggy Kolm and I will be moderating a session on science fiction as a tool for science communication. We're looking for input on the topic and to start an online conversation between science fiction writers and science bloggers.

Participation is easy:

Questions about science and its relationship to science fiction are posted below and at Biology in Science Fiction. Send us a link to your answers on your own blog or post the link the comments at either site. If you're a writer without a blog, you can post your answers directly at either site.

We will then collect links to the posts on the ScienceOnline09 conference wiki, as well as our own blogs, and facilitate a discussion on the different ways science and science fiction are used.

Questions for Science Fiction Writers
  • Why are you writing science fiction in particular? What does the science add?
  • What is your relationship to science? Have you studied or worked in it, or do you just find it cool? Do you have a favorite field?
  • How important is it to you that the science be right? What kind of resources do you use for accuracy?
  • Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

Questions for Science Bloggers
  • What is your relationship to science fiction? Do you read it? Watch it? What/who do you like and why?
  • What do you see as science fiction's role in promoting science, if any? Can it do more than make people excited about science? Can it harm the cause of science?
  • Have you used science fiction as a starting point to talk about science? Is it easier to talk about people doing it right or getting it wrong?
  • Are there any specific science or science fiction blogs you would recommend to interested readers or writers?

Thanks for taking part, and we look forward to your answers!

November 13, 2008

Proposition 8

It's been more than a week, and I still can't talk about it. The growl in the back of my throat isn't going to come across well on a blog. Luckily, some people still have use of their voices.

Monica has the Olbermann video. Watch it if you haven't. This should be on 24-hour continuous loop in every state that has voted down gay marriage--and 23-hour rotation in those that haven't made it fully legal.

Dr. J is also bringing the righteous, taking religion to task for its role in this travesty.

If marriage is to be defined by religion then there is an obvious extension of this argument...any heterosexual people who are not religious should also not be allowed to get married. I can just see the 'moderate' 'liberal' religious people out there squirming away at this, saying I'm just being ridiculous. Well why? It is time you faced up to the fact that it is YOUR religions that are the source and fuel for most this sort of hatred and division and you by being part of it are totally complicit in this.

My friend Catherine takes a more forgiving and optimistic view than I do.

That said, Proposition 8 passed in California, other marriage bans passed in other states and Arkansas outlawed "unmarried people" from adopting and fostering kids. My partner and I have seen our share of changes, good and bad, in the 15 years we've been together. This year, her Mormon family fully acknowledged me as her partner; it took them 14 years but back in the spring, I was actually told that I was "part of the family." It was a lovely grand gesture, even if we still can't talk to her aunt about her forty year long relationship with her "roommate"; that remains off limits.

We've also seen the the possibility of legal marriage fail more times than pass, but the fact remains that we've seen it pass at all. We've seen churches change and families embrace what they wouldn't or couldn't before.

And then she gives us just a little more to celebrate. Congrats, guys.

Comrade PhysioProf is also in a rare celebratory mood. He's bringing good news, so I'll even forgive him for not swearing as much as the issue deserves.

A judge in the state of Connecticut has just entered judgment for the same-sex couple plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking the right to wed, based on the Connecticut Supreme Court ruling on Oct. 10 that same-sex couples have the constitutional right to wed rather than accept a civil union.

Dr. A reminds us that the election may be over, but that doesn't mean the fight is. Want to do something to help? Of course you do.

I'm a post-doc with many responsibilities. You are too. Or you are running a lab, making lesson plans, grading papers, changing diapers, walking dogs, paying bills, traveling the world, treating patients, changing tires, writing books, cleaning toilets, catching criminals, or whatever it is you do. We are all busy, but we can take an hour out of our Saturday and unite to show the world we will not stand for Proposition Hate.

Go learn how you can help. Find your voice.

November 12, 2008


I woke up this morning to discover that Glendon (of the amazing Flying Trilobite) had tagged me with a meme. In thanks for his not tagging me with all three of them, here is my prompt response.

The 5 Things Meme
5 things I was doing 10 years ago:
1. Starting to think that writing was something I should take seriously.
2. Regrading the yard and putting in window wells to keep the water out of the basement.
3. Being a landlord.
4. Writing specifications for and testing a Y2K compliant GUI to replace a mainframe system.
5. Browsing at dial-up speeds.

5 things on my to do list today:
1. Find bread at the bakery that will handle grilled cheese, PBJ and pot roast.
2. Research just how much the crappy economy is trickling down.
3. Finish butchering a deer.
4. Shoehorn in quality snuggling time with boy and cat.
5. Get to bed a non-obscene hour.

5 snacks I love:
1. Apples.
2. Smoked almonds.
3. Candy corn.
4. String cheese.
5. Gin-Gins.

5 things I would do if I were a millionaire:
1. Give away more than I do now.
2. Pay off the house to be completely debt free.
3. Squirrel some away for cushion and additional income.
4. Write more.
5. Decide what my next challenge will be without regard for pay.

5 places I've lived:
1. Georgia.
2. Oklahoma.
3. In a trailer park in a rich suburb.
4. In an apartment when I already had a dorm room paid for.
5. In the hood, by choice.

5 jobs I've had:
1. Selling seashells, but not by the seashore.
2. Physics teaching assistant.
3. Psychology research assistant.
4. Team lead (twice, not happy either time).
5. Analyst (of three different sorts).

5 people I'll tag:
Five people I don't know enough about. Only five?
1. Betül, because her answers will be very different than mine.
2. Muse142, because she isn't blogging enough right now.
3. Juniper, for the same reason.
4. JLK, because I can be the first to tag a new blog.
5. R.E.S.E.A.R.C.H.E.R.S., because I can cheat and get a twofer.

November 11, 2008

Red Touches Yellow

When I was little, my doctor worked in a clinic that had the coolest entryway. I didn't much notice the entryway when they reopened the clinic in the middle of the night to deal with my pneumonia-induced 104 degree fever and delirium, but that's another story. Usually, I loved the place.

We entered through a fully-enclosed glass walkway over a large-scale terrarium. There were lots of plants, a few turtles, and fish in the small pond directly under the walkway. My mother figured out, eventually if not right away, to leave some extra time before our appointments so we could just stop and stare for a while. No, we couldn't wait until we were done.

The most exciting day was the one with the snake. It was the cutest little scarlet kingsnake, just tiny and absolutely adorable.

It was, by far, the mostly brightly colored thing in the entryway. It wasn't doing much, but we stared anyway. It was just so pretty.

Then my mother was hustling us inside and into chairs in the waiting room. She didn't go up to the desk to check us in as normal. No, she went back out to the entryway. Without us. We might have rebelled if she hadn't come back in quickly. Everything proceeded as usual then, right up to the end.

It wasn't until we were on our way out that she leaned over the reception desk and said, very quietly, "You might want to know that the snake in your entryway is a coral snake. Those are poisonous." Then off we went.

We never saw the snake again.

An interesting postscript: As I was looking for pretty snake photos, I discovered that the U.S. no longer has an approved manufacturer of coral snake antivenin. Wyeth decided to get out of the business. It's okay, though. They just extended the expiration date of the old stuff, so we won't be completely SOL until this time next year.

Photos: Baby Coral Snake by cordyceps. Some rights reserved. Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides from Wikimedia. Some rights reserved.

November 10, 2008

The Personal and the Political

I lost a few friends this election season. First time it's happened, and I'm not altogether sure how I feel about it.

One of them I cut loose. She was someone I'd hung around with in junior high and hadn't heard from between then and me joining Facebook. I didn't feel it was much of a loss to let her go when she used her status update to swear about how a particular political candidate shouldn't be allowed into a particular town.

Sure, it was my candidate, but it was really the choke hold she wanted to put on political speech that made de-friending her an easy choice. Of course, the fact that she only ever used Facebook to tell people how cute her kids were helped too. I mean, cute kids are cute and all, but I want to talk to grown ups.

The other two are a little weirder. This is a couple with whom we've usually gotten together a few times a year. We still don't have much in common except history, but that's always stretched far enough for everyone to have a good time.

I'm not even sure what happened, really. I can tell when it happened, because with my memory for numbers, I could tell when my Facebook friends count dropped. I assume it's the election, because I've always known they were conservative and, really, what else has there been for the last several months? But I don't know what the trigger was.

Did I mock too much while watching the debates? Was adopting Hussein as my middle name for the duration beyond the pale? Or was I just part of an unbearable anti-McCain, anti-Palin tide? Was it something I did, or was this election somehow even more contentious than even 2004?

I'm not likely to find out anytime soon. I'm not the only friend they dropped, as word is that "no one" has seen them in ages. But it doesn't stop me from asking.

What happened?

November 09, 2008

Coming Out

In case the new addition to the sidebar doesn't say it loudly enough, I'm an atheist.

This won't surprise anyone who knows me well, but this blog is here in part because few people know me well. It may not surprise regular readers of the blog. I do, after all, use rationality as a label for posts. It's utterly unlikely to surprise anyone I've argued with online. But I think it's still important to say, because a lot of people don't think they know any atheists, which leads directly to the kind of idiocy we saw in North Carolina.

What does this mean for you? Aside from having a face (or another face) to put to atheism that is hopefully prettier than Christopher Hitchens', not much--necessarily. Yes, if you're religious, I think some of the things you do and believe are irrational, but this is coming from someone who built a shrine for a jar of expired jelly (another story). Humans are irrational critters, and there's something deeply satisfying about being irrational sometimes.

So, Why Atheism?
Nobody comes to atheism because it's the popular choice. They come to it because none of the gods are any less silly or self-contradictory than the rest. They come to it because a non-arbitrary world is what they see when they open their eyes and look around them. They come to it because faith requires so many mental accommodations that it uses energy better spent on living. They come to it because every idiot they know (as opposed to just some of the smart people) is telling them to jump on the bandwagon.

Me? I was raised atheist, although it disturbed my mother somewhat when I told her so.

I was born to parents raised in a strict Methodist tradition. How strict? They got married because they wanted to have sex. No exaggeration. They had their big church wedding all planned and went through with it as scheduled, but they eloped a few weeks before because they were tired of waiting.

By the time I was born, they seem to have figured out that this was problematic (and thus, I may owe my existence to religion), because they decided to raise their kids outside any church and leave it up to us to choose once we grew up. I attended church services fewer than a dozen times as a child, mostly weddings and funerals, a couple of times after sleepovers with friends.

There were no prayers, no grace at meals. Christmas and Easter were strictly secular holidays (with the standard cartoony adopted pagan trappings). There was a bible in the house, but it had been a confirmation gift or something and lived in its gift box. It was never read.

So, Super-Rationalist Baby, Then?
Uh, no. The Christmas after I turned two, I was taken to see The Nutcracker ballet. I was mesmerized. (Christmas is still largely a mix of The Nutcracker and the Island of Misfit Toys for me.) This was followed by a long, late-night car trip to a destination coated and shiny with ice from a recent storm. I'm told that as I looked around me, I declared to my parents that I believed in magic.

Okay, I was two. Magic was probably a bit abstract for me to understand. I probably meant beauty. I conflated the two for a very long time, but I kept believing in them.

Oh, what didn't I believe in? I believed in faeries and mermaids, trolls and djinn. I believed in Norse and Greek and Egyptian and Japanese gods and in tricksters from just about any tradition. I believed in beasties under the bed. If it was in my books, I thought I might just find it in the real world if I turned the right corner or opened the right door or found the right place in the woods. That's how it worked in the books.

I believed longer than most children, I think, at least in those things. Even after I gave up believing in specifics, I had reasons to need to believe in a different world, and I didn't know yet that adulthood would be that world.

So, What Happened?
I stopped needing to believe so much some time in high school. I still can't tell you how I ended up changing, since my circumstances didn't, but I did. Blame it on hormones, maybe. I got happier, even amid all the drama, and I started living in this world.

I still thought it was cool that there was real weird stuff out there, like ghosts and glimmers of ESP. I'd never seen them, not really, but they were in books that weren't fiction. I looked forward to science figuring out how they worked. Oddly, though, even then I knew that I could make myself see them if I wanted to, just like the Ouija board could spell out something other than nonsense if I was half-willing to make it happen.

I went off to college around then, hung out at the pagan desk in the student center. With my dawning understanding of the role that desire played in belief, I was with the pagans but not of them. They were just a cool group of weirdos.

Then my favorite of the weirdos gave me Flim-Flam! as a present right around the time I was really getting into research design, and I realized that not all "nonfiction" is created equal. The whole experience rather shook up my standards for "proof."

So, Then You Were an Atheist?
Nah. I considered myself a militant agnostic for a long time--when I thought about it at all. Being raised without religion, my beliefs on the subject didn't seem terribly important. They still don't, really, except when someone else's views intersect with my life. But over time, I came to realize that I wasn't exactly agnostic, either.

I call myself a practical atheist. I don't believe we can prove there is nothing that we would ever call a god. However, every attempt at defining a god I've seen is either disproved or of no general human relevance or consequence whatsoever. On that, I am not agnostic. I'm not ignorant, either, as I spent a good chunk of my life reading all the world mythology I could get my hands on.

Nor am I agnostic on the question of whether religion should have any influence on important decisions. The ideas and philosophy of any religion must stand on their own, without the shield of religion, or they must be ignored in public life. The only weight that religion should be given is its cultural weight, and that only with all possible consideration for the question of privileging the culture of the majority. There is some use in recognizing that many of us want Christmas off from work because of family rituals that have sprung up around it but none in assuming everyone has these same family rituals.

It's the question of privilege, really, that's making me join the Out Campaign. It's too easy to denigrate and mistreat people based on their minority status when no one knows who they are. If you read my blog, you know me, at least a bit. So now you know an(other) atheist.

Miss Her Yet?

Palin, that is. If so, you're in luck. You can keep her with you for another year by getting the Sarah Palin 2009 wall calendar. No, really. See?

I couldn't make this up. Well, I could, but I have standards.

Those teeth scare me.

November 08, 2008

Bush Can Write?

That was my first thought on hearing talk of Dubya's presidential memoir. My second was, "Heh."

Bush's immediate predecessor, Clinton, signed up with Knopf within months of leaving office, but his approval ratings were far higher than Bush's, even though he was impeached for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky. The first President Bush, defeated for re-election by Clinton, never did write a memoir. He instead worked on a foreign policy book, "A World Transformed," with his close friend and National Security Adviser, Brent Scowcroft.

Anti-Bush books have been dependable hit-makers during a rough decade for the industry, but publishers are unsure of the market for a book by Bush. Few believe he has a chance to get the $15 million Clinton received for "My Life" and some question the quality of a memoir by Bush and especially Vice President Dick Cheney, who has also expressed in writing a book, but is not known for being self-critical.

Full story here.

Student Life (and Death)

Dr. Isis, in her new digs, is writing about teachers letting themselves into students' lives. She's looking at it through the lens of writing, but there are...never mind, I'll just tell the story.

Fall semester of my sophomore year of college, two things happened that shouldn't be related. I got a gamma globulin shot, and I officially changed majors. The event that linked the two was the death of Jon, my buddy and lab partner.

Jon was an unrepentant geek. Band geek, physics geek, punner, the kind who taught himself to flip a pen around his fingers and would practice in class even though the pen would occasionally skitter noisily away. He was the kind of geek who crushed on female friends without any expectation that there could be more.


One weekend Jon went home to do laundry and see the family. He didn't come back Sunday night because he thought he had the flu. A few days later he was in the hospital, then moved to the local university hospital, comatose and in need of a new liver. It was hepatitis.

I thank whoever decided that the hospital needed large waiting rooms. Jon would have been gratified to see how many of us huddled together there. He would have understood, too, as the wait went on for days and people drifted back to school except for an hour or two here or there. The three of us who hung around except to sleep and shower and work when we had to were the ones who had already been through bad stuff, who knew that the strain was survivable and ultimately better than not knowing what was happening. Jon would have stayed too.

It was a week before a donor liver was found. Jon's kidneys had shut down and he was on dialysis. Neither Jon's family nor those of us who'd stayed told the others that we could read the doctors' faces by that point. Somehow, those told a story that the percentages couldn't. They told us how critical the next few hours were.

The surgery went well, technically, but the liver never started working for Jon. His body rejected it, as sluggishly as it was doing everything else. Dialysis got more difficult as his veins stopped functioning properly. Somewhere in there, I made the mistake of telling one of the hopeful people that it was over, Jon was dying. I don't think he forgave me.

Then Jon died, about a week after the transplant.

I think that was when they finally got around to asking which of us might have had close enough contact to be in danger. The night before Jon had gone home, we'd been out for beers with another friend. (Yes, I was barely eighteen. So sue me.) This friend was all but bawling over his impossible love, and Jon and I took turns stealing his beer and drinking it when he wasn't paying attention. We still had to prop him up to walk him home, but we kept him away from dangerously drunk. I earned a gamma globulin shot for that. So did our friend, but he also got the girl in the middle of all the stress.

No one, by the way, ever figured out why Jon's liver went bad. It wasn't any of the known strains of hepatitis.

Going back to classes was hard. I dropped multivariable calculus without regret. I was taking it from the incomprehensible teacher who'd written the incomprehensible book, and having Jon as a study partner was the only reason I hadn't already decided to take it at a different school. I took an incomplete in optics, meaning to go back when I could face the lab without my lab partner. I don't remember what my third class was, something where the grade was dependent on midterm, final, and papers. It was flexible and not something Jon was taking with me.

I woke up the first morning I was fully back on campus to discover that there was a test scheduled in my fourth class--psychology--in three hours. I'd skipped one test, as allowed under the rules of the class, the first week Jon was in the hospital. I couldn't skip this one. I went to the professor to ask for a one-day extension. I think I even managed not to cry in his office.

He said no. He explained that the ability to drop a test was there to cover bad situations and that it wouldn't be fair to other students to make a special rule for me. He, not unkindly, suggested I start studying.

I did. I read the chapters I'd missed, even though I wanted to curl up into a tiny ball instead. I barely finished them, having to go back so many times because I realized I wasn't taking anything in. The test was a nightmare. I knew I wasn't doing well. I couldn't concentrate, and I could barely remember what I'd read. I hated my professor and wondered how life could pile one unfairness on top of another.

When the tests came back, mine had an "A" at the top and no other marks on the page.

I may have learned more in that class than in any other I've ever taken.

All of which is a very long way of responding to Dr. Isis's concerns about doing students an injustice in taking their personal situation into account. It certainly doesn't have to be that way. It can even be an opportunity to help them develop.

November 07, 2008

A Letter of Protest

Submitted here. Reasons here. More information on the two undesirables here and here. Feel free to adapt this for your own protest letter.

Dear President-Elect Obama:

By now you have begun to hear concern from the scientific community over the potential appointments of Larry Summers as Treasury Secretary and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. I am not a scientist. I am merely a citizen who must also express her objection to these candidates.

One of the hallmarks of the Bush administration has been the unprecedentedly political nature of appointments. Party and personal loyalty have trumped all considerations of competence, and the country has paid the price in Iraq, in Louisiana and on Wall Street. This can't be allowed to happen again, but serious consideration of Summers and Kennedy would represent a continued triumph of politics over competence.

Summers has demonstrated a persistent inability to present his ideas with any kind of diplomacy. He cannot lead. Considering the scope of the changes that must come to American markets and the resistance those changes will face, a lack of tact and the inability to inspire others are fatal flaws. In addition, the choice of Summers, even for Treasury, would signal that your administration is not serious in its desire to encourage more women to go into STEM.

Kennedy has done some excellent work for the environment, and he deserves to be recognized for his service. However, he too is unsuited for a leadership role in your administration. His understanding of science is led by his ideology instead of his ideas being shaped by science. This is most apparent in his championing of anti-vaccination conspiracy theories, but it applies in his understanding of environmental cause and effect as well. Whoever heads the EPA must be guided by the science instead of choosing which science to believe.

Either of these picks would continue the current administration's embrace of incompetence and ideology. Neither would represent the change we were promised. And either would lead to a distracting and embarrassing confirmation fight that you cannot afford in the early days of your administration. I have already asked my congressional representatives to support your agenda of change. Please, avoid these candidates and others like them so that I don't have to ask them to work against you. We don't have the time for that.

I thank you for your consideration.

More Kids

For (the other) Ben, who came out to dinner with us last night and got this one stuck in his head without anyone mentioning it:

And a little, er, palate cleanser. Warning: Chicken Lady not for faint of heart.

November 05, 2008

The Second Test

We have (oh, finally) elected Obama. We've done a good thing, for ourselves, for our country, and for the world. If you were part of this, pat yourself on the back. Celebrate. Treat yourself to a nap, then to a second evening with champagne, or maybe the other way around. (Dr. A, take two of both, please.)

Then have a seat and look around. As I pointed out in the wee, weary hours of last night, many of us failed the first beyond-Obama test. We hired our guy but sent him into the job without all the tools he could use. In Minnesota, a state that went 54% for our president-elect, only 42% voted for the senator who supports the same changes he does.

It's time for the second test. It's time to get a hold of your freshly elected representative and your senators, if you know who they are yet. Congratulate those who just won a race. Then get down to business.

Tell them that you didn't vote for Obama for his charisma. Tell them you didn't elect him to put the cutest first family ever in the White House. Tell them McCain was wrong about it being because Obama is black.

Tell them you meant it when you voted for change and that one of the first things that is changing is how you and they do business. They sent you email every six hours for the last several weeks. Tell them they should expect to hear from you more often now. They told you when and where action was needed. Tell them you'll be doing the same for them.

Start now by telling them which of Obama's inititiatives you expect them to support and make a priority. Remind them that their jobs depend on it. Remind them that they're not alone in doing this. They still know how to reach you if they need you to rally or write letters or rouse the rabble in some other way.

Tell them you voted for Obama because he inspired you to be a citizen, not just a voter. Then be one.

This is a test. We're all being graded.

Mixed Feelings

As I sit here, watching local election results come in, I find myself very proud of my country and disappointed in my state. As a nation, we rejected cynicism, rejected the politics of fear. We listened to someone tell us we need to work, and we cheered. After months of hearing the uneasy question, "Are we ready?" we said, "Duh!" We watched the new first family walk out in front of an elated crowd and were unashamed to say that we cried.

Minnesota stood behind Obama with a ten percent margin. That looks like a lot of support--until you look at the results in our other races. We're sending Michele Bachmann, who doesn't believe that Obama has America's best interests at heart, who saw nothing wrong with the Obama Waffles, to Washington to work against him. We're sending Eric Paulsen, who is merely somewhat smoother and less transparent than Bachmann, to do the same. With his election, Minnesota actually makes its House delegation more conservative.

With 92% of the vote in, it looks as though we're also sending Rove's boy Norm back to the Senate. It's hard to say for sure, but this race should not be close. There was only one candidate in this race whose priorities matched Obama's.

Looking further down the ballot, there's much to be happy about and proud of. Dangerous judicial candidates were locked out. We stepped up to pay for the things we say we value. But closer to the top, we failed. We chose the president who asked the most of us, but in our first test, we gave him nothing.

We can't do this, people. We elected a man whose power lies largely in his ability to move us. If we stand where we have always stood and refuse to budge, we will ensure his failure. If we do not move, we fail ourselves. And we cannot afford to fail.

November 04, 2008

An Argument in Shakespeare

Because the drama isn't always all in one place. Sometimes it's here.

ACT 1: SCENE III. A Starbucks near Brooklyn.

Sound of a modem connecting. Enter three Moderators.

First Mod
Where hast thou been, sister?

Second Mod
Killing trolls.

Third Mod
Sister, where thou?

First Mod
A right-wing nut had posts from NRO,
And spamm’d, and spamm’d, and spamm’d:—
‘Stop it,’ quoth I:
‘Amendment, First!’ the astroturfer cries.
His IP’s to McClatchy gone, with three diff’rent screen names:
But with my Mac I’ll thither wend,
And, faster than the troll can send,
I’ll ban, I’ll ban, and I’ll ban.

And sometimes there.

To ban, or not to ban: that is the question.
Whether ‘tis nobler in men’s eyes to suffer
the stings and sorrows of discordant words
Or ban and thereby silence them? To ban,
Then sleep in peace, and by a sleep to say
We end the questions and the niggling facts
That thought is prone to. ‘Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To ban, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub.
For in the censor’s sleep what dreams may come
Though we forbade contrary thoughts,
Must give us pause.

But it's all drama, nonetheless.

November 03, 2008

Life in Da Hood

There are times when you wake up, not quite sure why, but knowing it isn't good.

Two men and a woman, all 19, suffered non-life-threatening wounds when they were shot about 1:35 a.m. Sunday near 1012 E. 21st St., said Minneapolis police spokesman Sgt. William Palmer. The motive was unclear, but it was not a random shooting, he said.

I woke with a vague memory of loud noises and only consciously heard people yelling in what sounded like an argument. There was a cop car at the intersection by the time I was aware enough to move and look. The two ambulances were the big hint that it was serious.

Mostly, I knew that the election was making me sleep deprived (as though I didn't already know). Usually gunfire wakes me up instantly, so that I've been able to count a full clip unloading as I come to consciousness. Not this time. There wasn't even any adrenaline.

For the curious, no, it doesn't happen very often. Less than half a dozen times in over ten years, although this is the first time there were injuries to make the paper. The arguments that pull me out of sleep are much more common, especially now, when the economy's in trouble, but they're still less frequent than the kids running around after my bedtime who are having too much fun to be quiet.

No, I'm not scared, and no, I'm not moving. In all the time I've lived in the city, I'm still further from the closest murder than I was growing up in the suburbs. It's life, people.

There's just a little more of it here.

Who Makes You Afraid?

When you head to the polls tomorrow--whenever you evaluate politicians--there’s one question you should ask yourself. “Who makes me afraid?”

I’m not telling you to think about who you’re afraid of. I’m asking you to do something very different and think about who wants you to be afraid.

Who goes beyond talking about our problems to paint you a picture of the most dire consequences of not voting for them? Who’s telling you you’re going to die or go to hell or lose your country? Who is telling you your family is threatened? Your marriage? Your children? Your job? Your house? Your vote?

Fear has its place in making choices. It keeps you from walking too close to that edge or taunting that bear or trying to beat that train. It’s excellent at pushing you to make snap judgments when you face an immediate danger.

Aside from that, fear is a lousy basis for decision-making. The thing that makes fear so useful in that dangerous instant--the ability to suppress conflicting thoughts--makes it counter-productive when you have a complicated situation to evaluate. It’s difficult enough to sort through some of the issues and competing interests that we elect our representatives to deal with without fighting fear’s little injections of adrenaline that clamor for a decision right now!

That’s why it’s always worth looking at who wants you to be afraid. It is possible that they’re just communicating the urgency they feel over a particular issue. However, it’s also possible that they don’t want you thinking very hard about the rest of what they have to say. Anytime you see fear injected into a campaign, it’s always worth taking a step back until you can figure out which it is.

So, as you prepare to vote, don’t forget to ask, “Who makes me afraid?”

Replace Michele Bachmann Blog Carnival

Mike has The Last Edition of the Carnival to Replace Michele Bachmann. Ever. up at Tangled Up in Blue Guy.

Didn't think there was anything new to know about Bachmann? Heh. Try the world's creepiest Christmas letter and an actual good reason to let Bachmann keep talking. See? There's always something more to learn, one more barrel bottom for her to scrape. Unless we stop her.


November 02, 2008

Michele Bachmann Eyes

I just...I couldn't disappoint all the Googlers. Apologies to Jackie DeShannon, Donna Weiss, Kim Carnes and Betty Davis.

Her ire is getting old,
Her lips filled with lies
Her heart is always cold
She's got Michele Bachmann eyes
She'll turn bigotry on
You won't have to think twice
She's bright as New York snow
She got Michele Bachmann eyes

And she'll hate you
She'll berate you
All the while segregate you
She's caught on tape
And she knows just what it
Takes to make a pro gape
She sees Sarah Palin's senseless rise,
She's got Michele Bachmann eyes

She'll let your bridges fall
It whets her appetite
She thinks you're all in thrall
She got Michele Bachmann eyes
She'll say a prayer for you
Pretend she's playing nice
She hopes you have no clue
She's got Michele Bachmann eyes

She'll evict you
And afflict you
Help a bad government restrict you
She's in a scrape
And she knows just what it
Takes to make a pro gape
Everyone thinks she's so high,
She's got Michele Bachmann eyes

And she'll hate you
She'll berate you
All the while segregate you
She's caught on tape
And she knows just what it
Takes to make a pro gape
Everyone thinks she's so high,
She's got Michele Bachmann eyes

And she'll hate you
She'll berate you
Segregate you
She's got Michele Bachmann eyes

She'll evict you
And afflict you

Okay, apologies to everyone else, too. Blame the margarita. I do.

My Sample Ballot

This is an enhanced version of my sample ballot for Tuesday. I put one together every election for me, my husband and anyone else who wants to trust my political judgment. I read the candidates' statements, look at endorsements, and Google for red flags. This isn't so important for nationwide or statewide elections, but it's critical for positions like school board and open judges' seats, which don't get much coverage.

I'm sharing my sample ballot with a few more people than usual this year. In order to make it more useful, I've included races in which I'm not eligible to vote but about which I have strong opinions (uncontested seats are not included). Each pick contains a link or links to my rationale for the choice. Not all of them were written by me, but I agree with them all.

Enter your address here to find out where you vote and who's on your ballot. Also has links to candidate profiles.

Here are my picks:

U.S. President: Barack Obama [why]

U.S. Senate: Al Franken [why and why]

Supreme Court Associate Justice, Seat 3: Paul H. Anderson [why]

Supreme Court Associate Justice, Seat 4: Lorie Skjerven Gildea [why]

Appeals Court Judge, Seat 16: Terri J. Stoneburner [why]

Sales Tax Amendment: No [see below]

U.S. House, District 1: Tim Walz [why]

U.S. House, District 2: Steve Sarvi [why and why]

U.S. House, District 3: Ashwin Madia [why and why]

U.S. House, District 4: Betty McCollum [why]

U.S. House, District 5: Keith Ellison [why]

U.S. House, District 6: El Tinklenberg [are you kidding me? why and why and why]

U.S. House, District 7: Collin Peterson [highly effective incumbent]

U.S. House, District 8: Jim Oberstar [highly effective incumbent]

Minnesota House, Seat 50B: Kate Knuth [effective incumbent]

Minnesota House, Seat 51A: Shawn Hamilton [why]

Minnesota House, Seat 51B: Tom Tillberry [why]

Minnesota House, Seat 61A: Karen Clark [effective incumbent, technolibertarian opponent]

Minnesota House, Seat 66B: Alice Hausman [effective incumbent, opponent running only as non-incumbent]

Minnesota House, Seat 67A: Tim Mahoney [why]

District Court Judge, 4th District Court, Seat 9: Philip D. Bush [why]

District Court Judge, 4th District Court, Seat 53: Jane Ranum [see below]

District Court Judge, 4th District Court, Seat 58: James T. Swenson [highly effective incumbent]

Hennepin County Soil and Water Supervisor, Seat 3: James Wisker [see below]

Hennepin County Soil and Water Supervisor, Seat 5: Karl Hanson [see below]

Hennepin County Commissioner, District 5: Randy Johnson [no serious opponent]

Hennepin County Commissioner, District 6: Jan Callison [more direct experience]

Minneapolis Schools Operating Levy: Yes [why]

Minneapolis Schools Referendum: No [why]

Minneapolis School Board (3): Carla Bates, Jill Davis, Lydia Lee [why]

Osseo School Board (3): Jennifer DeJournett, Dean Henke, Teresa Lunt [why and why]

Annandale School Board (3): Bryan Bruns, Michael J. Dougherty, Michelle R. Miller [see below]

Lakeville School Board (3): Judy Kelliher, Kathy Lewis, Ron Schieck [see below]

Other Elections: Let me know if you don't see your school board here and want it included. I've included those where I know I have readers, but I'm happy to look at others.

My Reasons
Sales Tax Amendment (Legacy Amendment): I'm voting no on this one for two reasons. One is that even in Minnesota, where we exempt clothing and much food, sales taxes are still regressive taxes. The other is that, barring an emergency, I want to keep the anti-tax magical-thinking idiots accountable for their votes. We're just not facing that kind of an emergency in Minnesota right now. Update: See the comments for someone who disagrees with me for some pretty good reasons.

District Court Judge, 4th District Court, Seat 53
Both of these candidates are highly qualified, and either would be a good choice. I chose Ranum, frankly, because she is endorsed by more judges.

Hennepin County Soil and Water Supervisor, Seat 3
There are only two credible candidates in this race. Workcuff is running on an anti-gay-marriage platform (WTF?). Klatte is talking about environmental issues, at least, but does not appear to have a grasp of what the job entails. I chose Wisker over Torell because this is obviously Wisker's passion. His degree and work experience relate directly to the responsibilities of this position.

Hennepin County Soil and Water Supervisor, Seat 5
While I'm not thrilled with Hanson's statement of priorities, his statement is at least readable. Beck provides no indication that he knows what this job entails.

School Board Elections
My priorities in choosing school board candidates are as follows. I eliminate anyone who is trying to use the school board as a platform for noneducational issues or who otherwise demonstrates that they don't understand or don't respect the position they're running for. I watch very carefully for the buzzwords that indicate an attempt to inject religion into the classroom or to manage school spending strictly to keep taxes down. I give a premium for nonprofit and governmental board service.

School Levies
I'm not a fan of these, as I think school funding is a burden and a privilege that should be shared generally. However, as artificially enhanced property values fall and in the absence of a recognition at the state or federal level that unfunded mandates are a real problem, many of these school districts find themselves in immediate trouble. Many of the states levy requests are renewals, others are required to meet the needs of growing districts or aging school buildings. I haven't seen one of these on which I wouldn't vote "yes."

November 01, 2008

False and Defamatory

Norm Coleman's statements that the allegations contained in a suit filed by a Texas Republican were "false and defamatory" (and that the suit's timing was determined by Coleman's filing suit against Al Franken's campaign) might be just a bit more credible if he didn't accuse all his political opponents of lying about him.

Those accusations themselves might be more credible if he didn't make them in lawsuits that were dropped after each election. They might also be more credible if he hadn't been the first to go personal in his negative ads.

Just sayin'.

Voting for Al

In my last post, I talked about the many excellent reasons to vote against Norm Coleman for senator. The fact that his third-party challenger has drawn down Coleman's poll numbers while leaving Franken's untouched suggests that lots of people agree with me on that. What I have trouble understanding is why more of them aren't voting for Al. I'm excited just to have the chance.

One note of disclosure before I start: I haven't always been an Al Franken fan. Saturday Night Live was okay when he was writing for them, but I really despised Stuart Smalley. It's a Minnesota thing. To really understand, you have to deal with in-your-face meekness and drive past Hazelden every time you visit your family.

No, my love affair with Al Franken started in 1996 when I heard he'd put out Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. I loved that he didn't merely look shocked and ask, "How can all these conservative mouthpieces lie like that and get away with it?" as so many others were doing. No, he took the blowhards' own schtick and skewered them with it. That he used their tactics to be much funnier than they were was a bonus.

It was Franken's next book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right that made me take Franken seriously. In this book, he dropped the schtick for an emphasis on research. He demonstrated, clearly (while still being funny), that policy should not be made on the basis of what one thinks should be the truth, especially not when the truth is available. For what was largely sold as satire, that book is one of the most thoroughly researched documents I've seen.

That wasn't the only thing Franken did in Lies. He's the first writer I've seen talk about his research staff (whom he worked with while a Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard) in the text of his book, rather than relegating them to the acknowledgments. That impressed the hell out of me. He didn't have to do it, just like lawmakers don't have to recognize that their staffers play a huge role in governing our country, but he did. That makes a difference in the quality and loyalty of one's staff, as I can attest after having seen them at Franken HQ and the get out the vote campaign.

Lies was also where I discovered that Franken was a huge Paul Wellstone fan and supporter. Franken had been living in New York for twenty years. He didn't need to follow Minnesota politics then, but he did that too. As a Wellstone fan myself, that means a lot to me.

Shortly after the book came out, around the time his radio show started up to combat the right-wing noise machine, a local magazine ran the cover story, "Why Not Al?" It suggested--in 2004--that a 2008 senate run wouldn't be such a strange or unwelcome thing. I agreed completely. A progressive, evidence-based senator? Hell, yes! That's exactly what I wanted then and what I want now.

But what about his temper, I hear? A couple of thing, actually. Have you ever noticed that the video clips of Franken's "scary" temper are usually about 20 seconds long? I'll let Al add the context they're missing:

I think the [ad] you're probably referring to is of me being "angry" right? And there's one in which I swear and I talk about the shamelessness of somebody in it and this was when Fox in August of 2003 said that our soldiers in Iraq were safer than residents of California. They were trying to trivialize the danger that our troops were in order to serve a political agenda, which is to say that the war was going well. Britt Hume made the point, he said Iraq is the same size as California and yet we're losing only 1.7 troops a day while six people died every day in California. Well, there are 300 times more people in California. When this was pointed out to Brit Hume, instead of apologizing to our troops and the families of our troops, he said: 'Well admittedly it's a crude comparison, but it's illustrative of something.'

My response when I heard that was, "Yeah, it illustrative of something. It's illustrative of what a jerk he is." But instead of jerk I used a different word and I'm not happy with my reaction to that, and it wasn't a comedy routine. It was just me being angry that they had trivialized the danger that our troops were operating under. I've been on seven USO tours. I see how magnificent our troops are. I don't apologize for being outraged when Fox News deliberately trivializes the danger that our troops are operating under. I don't like the way I did it and I don't like that it's on tape.

There's also another thing they've done. I tell the story about Paul Wellstone running alongside his son David Wellstone when David was in cross country track. It's a pretty funny story because Paul would run alongside him on this two and a half or three mile race and at the end of the race he would go, "You can do it. Keep going. Take this guy." And I do this impression of Paul. Well, they have taken a tape of me and sped it up to make me look like I'm crazy. And it's all this distortion and they just want to distract from the real serious issues that Melvin was referring to. We have issues regarding education, regarding health care, regarding jobs. My goodness we're seeing the economy collapse and there's no credibility. We have no leadership anymore.

There's a lot to be angry about at the moment. Personally, I want a representative who doesn't shrug these things off. And Franken has demonstrated, with his books and his radio show, that being angry doesn't make him less effective.

As for the rape joke, um, so what? Yes, rape jokes are going to be painful to rape victims. The world's funniest joke is going to be painful to those who lost someone to gun violence. Every (good) joke is going to be painful to someone. If you want to judge Franken's views toward women, evaluate him when he's being serious.

And whatever your views on pornography, don't whine that he wrote about it in Playboy. Really. I want a politician who isn't afraid to talk about sex. I want one who is perfectly clear that abstinence-only sex education is a failure and who is more concerned about the quality of justice that our country provides than about whether her marble breasts are covered. Enough with the squeamish Puritans, already.

Speaking about policy positions, I love Franken's policy pages on his campaign site. Some politicians tell you why an issue is important. Some tell you what steps they want to take. Franken does both. For example, from his education page:

In addition to funding issues, I believe that the No Child Left Behind law must be dramatically reformed or scrapped altogether. I'm for accountability, but I'm not for the deeply-flawed NCLB system. I once read about something called McNamara's Fallacy. It goes like this:

The first step is to measure whatever can be easily measured. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can't easily be measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that what can't be measured easily really isn't important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that what can't be easily measured really doesn't exist.


-- Reading comprehension and math skills tests only measure reading comprehension and math skills (and, I suppose, test-taking skills). We should measure critical thinking, teamwork, creativity, and other important skills. And we have to reverse the narrowing of our curriculum that has de-emphasized science, art, civic, and physical education.

-- Stop duplicative testing. My daughter taught third grade in a public school for three years, and she was constantly frustrated by the amount of classroom time that had to be devoted to testing and test preparation. While we need to measure student progress, too many districts have overlapping district, state, and federal tests. We should audit tests at the district, state, and federal level to ensure that this doesn't happen.

-- Instead of punishing low-performing schools, use research-based interventions to help them improve. Give them the resources to hire, develop, and retain the best teachers by offering increased pay, safe working conditions, and sufficient support staff and facilities.

Whereas Coleman doesn't say what he wants to do for us. Instead he tells us what he did before. He doesn't have a general education policy page (seriously), but this is from his college costs page:

-- Senator Coleman introduced bipartisan legislation with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), the College Textbook Affordability Act of 2007, to reduce the astronomical cost of college textbooks. The recently passed Higher Education Reauthorization bill included language nearly identical to this proposal by Senator Coleman. As every student and parent of a college student knows, there is an enormous discrepancy between the price of books at regular book sellers and those at college bookstores. The Coleman legislation would help bridge this gap..

-- This year, Senator Coleman joined with Republican and Democratic colleagues in a bipartisan effort to ensure that funding for the Perkins Loans program, a vital source of reduced interest loans for students from low income families, remains at $65.4 million and is not cut.

-- In May 2008, legislation was passed into law that would ensure students have federal loans available to them no matter the status of the private loan student market.

Actually, from the way it's written, I'm not sure he did the third one. Either way, I much prefer Franken's thoughtfulness and his enthusiasm for meaningful change.

What do I want from my next senator? I want someone with a passion for the truth. I want someone who looks at the evidence in setting policy. I want someone who collects and keeps good minds around him. I want someone who doesn't forget where he came from even as he succeeds somewhere else. I want someone who will be a voice for the people who are left voiceless. I want someone looking forward, not backward.

I want Al Franken.