December 28, 2009

Trust and Critical Thinking in Science Reporting: A Case Study

If you've been paying attention, you've heard me say before that I'm not a science blogger. However, over the weekend, I authored a guest post that was not merely science blogging but also blogging on a peer-reviewed publication. I wasn't thinking about it at the time, but it was an opportunity to apply some of my thoughts regarding my upcoming session on Trust and Critical Thinking for ScienceOnline, which seeks ideas on how to report science in a way that teaches readers to interact with information skeptically.

Given that, I thought I'd capture what I set out to do in my post. Mind you, all these strategies involve modeling critical thinking. I have no data on how effective modeling may be, but it's the best idea I have right now and it's fairly easy to do as a writer.

Let me know how I did at Quiche Moraine.

December 27, 2009

Reaction Times and IQ Tests

In the ongoing discussion about disparities between racial classifications on IQ tests, Dr. Bryan Pesta requested that we consider his paper, "Black-White differences on IQ and grades: The mediating role of elementary cognitive tasks." Because as he rightly points out, not everyone will have the background to evaluate the paper, I thought it would be helpful to discuss the paper in the context of the cognitive science literature.

Okay, this time I can't say I'm not doing science blogging. In order to take advantage of some of the functions of Research Blogging without the setup time, this one is posted at Greg Laden's Blog.

December 26, 2009

Tired of Christmas Music?

This, most decidedly, is not that.

And more Savage Aural Hotbed. Now with added saws.

December 22, 2009

Gaga, Palmer, Madonna

Amanda Palmer and her ukulele make some interesting points about popular art.

December 21, 2009

Readings in IQ and Intelligence

Apropos of the continuing tendency for white supremacists to show up crowing about IQ, here is some reading that may help people understand the history of IQ testing and its relationship to the complex phenomena that lumped under the term “intelligence.”

Find the list at Quiche Moraine.

December 20, 2009

Paint Me on Velvet

What do you get a very good friend who has almost everything he wants and really only wants for things you have no power to give him? Well, if he's an author with a sense of humor and a bare wall over the mantle that's been begging for art for years, you might get him this.

That's right. You give him a velvet painting of the cover art from his first book--in the "delightfully ostentatious golden ornate frame."

And how do you procure such a thing? You hire an agent to have the painting done in Tijuana, where they take velvet painting far more seriously than you do, and you end up with something frighteningly awesome (seen here just finished, pre-framing and shipping).

But how do you keep said author from discovering that something is afoot during all the arrangements? Well, you don't do what James did and start cackling about evil plans two months before Christmas, or chatter with your co-conspirators with shoulders hunched and heads tilted together. Luckily for us, Kelly is very good at compartmentalization and refused to do much speculation before the unveiling, because if I'd run misdirection, he'd really have known something was up. As he said, "From the way you said, 'Evil,' I suspected I was the victim."

Then you unveil it at a Christmas party with as many of the conspirators present as possible. You play a mariachi version of "La Bamba" to tell the world that the cheese factor is entirely intentional. Someone notes, "It's the first unveiling I've been to that wasn't a tombstone." Your friend is speechless for an hour for the first time since his wedding, and you are entirely satisfied.

Oh, yes, and you don't forget to tell John Scalzi that it's all his fault.

December 19, 2009

Artichoke-Crab Spread

Or, the joys of a well-stocked pantry.

It's holiday party time again. I was planning to bring cupcakes with a cream-cheese-based frosting to a party today, but one of the hosts started talking about all the baking she was doing, including cupcakes. Never "compete" with your host's cooking. So I was stuck for something to bring. I'd just gone grocery shopping, so I didn't want to head back to the store. After looking around, here's what I came up with.

Artichoke-Crab Spread

1 8-oz package of cream cheese
1/2 cup sour cream
1 can artichoke hearts, drained
1 can crab meat, drained and liquid given to cat
4 cloves garlic
1-1/2 t. dried thyme
1 t. lemon juice
salt & freshly ground pepper to taste

Throw the cream cheese and sour cream in a bowl. Use one just a little bit larger than you expect to need. This isn't easy to mix.

Chop the artichoke hearts, chokes more finely than leaves. Add artichokes and crab meat to the bowl.

Mince the garlic. Chop the thyme slightly to break up the leaves. Add.

Drizzle lemon juice over the contents of the bowl. Add a heavy pinch of salt to begin. Go lightly on the pepper. With the thyme in the mix, you won't need as much as you might think.

Mash the ingredients into the cream cheese to break it apart. Once you've achieved a uniform consistency to the mix, taste. Add more salt and pepper if needed, but be aware that the flavors will not have blended yet.

Rest in the refrigerator to rehydrate the thyme and pepper for at least one hour.

Spread on crusty bread and nom.

December 18, 2009

Atheist Holiday Traditions

Yes, the church took Saturnalia and turned it into Christmas, but it's fun to pretend, Charlie Brown.

December 17, 2009

Tell Me a (Political) Story

Terrified Tabetic is getting a bit cynical, it seems. Commenting on PZ Myers' commenting on Making Light's commenting on Boing Boing's commenting on Peter Watts' experience at the U.S.-Canadian border:

I am completely unsurprised that border guards would rough someone up and treat them disrespectfully. I am also unsurprised that another arrogant white dude seems shocked that people are mistreated by law enforcement officials.

The ennui, it burns.

TT, you're not shocked by the treatment Dr. Watts received. I'm not shocked by it. PZ's not shocked by it. Nobody who's paying any attention to the world around them is shocked. Some of us are still outraged, as we've been outraged all along.

Isis, on the other hand, is amused.

Many of us in the blogosphere quietly chuckled because this thing that happened to Watts, horrible and unjustifiable as it is, happens to brown people all the time. And it generates no outrage.

Now, as someone who wrote about Dr. Watts' situation last week, I've got a couple things to say on the situation. First, my reaction to the news was not shock. The only surprise for me in the story was that the U.S. border patrol was stopping people leaving the country.

That didn't stop me from using the story to draw attention to the problem. This is a pervasive problem, not just at the border, not just for white (although I just had to look that up to be sure), Canadian science fiction writers with doctoral degrees in marine mammal biology. In fact, like any pervasive problem, I'm well aware that it's going to have a disproportionate impact on the "invisible" people--ethnic and religious minorities, the poor, the uneducated, people with mental and physical disabilities, people with unpopular political views.

However, because I have close ties to the online science fiction community (and Dr. Watts participated in last year's run-up to ScienceOnline), this was the opportunity that got pushed across my screen. I grabbed it, hoping to push it into another sphere and make people who haven't been paying attention as outraged as I am. And yes, I looked at it and chuckled to myself, "Yeah. Just try to do your oh-they-must-have-been-asking-for-it-cause-they're-somehow-scary dance on this one, jerks. Time to face up to the fact that this problem can bite you too."

I don't like the fact that the vast majority of people are empathy-challenged. I'm doing what I can to change that, to get people to understand that different doesn't equal wrong doesn't equal not entitled to the same basic rights. I want a world in which no one needs, as Isis said, "some white patrons to show them to the majority culture."

That is my goal, but in the meantime, I'm not a purist. If somebody hands me a political sledgehammer for use on one of those pervasive issues, I'm going to use it, because the vast majority of people can't be moved to political action by anything short of that. I'm going to use it even if it exploits something in society that I hate, because it is still a "real injustice" and because, even if the sledgehammer is of the majority culture, that doesn't change the fact that most of the injustice happens to minorities.

Zuska compared PZ's post to the news coverage for a missing white woman, but I don't think that's quite the right analogy. Ryan White was the face of AIDS research. Gay men largely stopped dying from the disease. Minority homeless people benefit from the snow-white appeals for Christmas donations to shelters. Who stands to benefit from the enforcement of due process and a curb on the arbitrary exercise of nonexistent police authority? Everybody who isn't already too powerful to have to worry about it. It's cynical as hell, but it's doing something.

That brings me to my second point. Terrified Tabetic noted that he had a friend, Mohammed, who experienced similar problems. I asked (responding to cynicism with the same, I'm afraid), why this was the first time he was telling me about it. Isis talks about brown injustices being shunted aside, but she doesn't provide any stories.

Now, to be clear, I'm not saying that either TT or Isis isn't walking the talk. They both do. But what they're both doing in this situation is responding to white-guy story with minority-inclusion critique, and critique just isn't as powerful as story.

Dr. Watts is a science fiction writer. That means that unless he's very, very good--in terms of sales, not writing--he's squeaking along moneywise. For a pasty guy, he's not very powerful. There's no good reason for his story to be noticed over any other pasty guy's. In fact, the press was entirely uninterested.

However, Dr. Watts knows Cory Doctorow, otherwise known as Boing Boing (yes, I'm simplifying slightly). Doctorow wrote a short narrative piece on Dr. Watts' ordeal. Boing Boing made sure that plenty of people saw the story, and it stuck and spread. It spread successfully, in part, because the people passing it on were also storytellers and because Dr. Watts' own version of the story is short, bitter and shows why his work is award-nominated.

Story works. Story matters. Story is remembered in a way that arguments and reasoning aren't. Without story, we wouldn't have so damned many teenaged (of whatever chronological age) libertarians running around. Story is what I do all over this blog, whether I'm talking about science or politics or art--even when I'm making a logical argument--and that's what gives this tiny blog an influence entirely disproportional to its small readership (and by the way, I love you guys).

To bring this back to the topic at hand, Isis has a point about repackaging. Some experiences do get repackaged. However, I'm not sure that's a bad thing. I took "Carrie's" parents' Facebook status updates--pure worried experience--and repackaged them and my knowledge that portion of the anti-vaccine movement that isn't motivated by profit into a story about the consequences of non-vaccination. I did the same thing with another friend's outrage on Twitter over not being able to get health insurance for his daughter. These aren't my experiences--I'm not even a parent--but I translated them into stories aimed at particular audiences, and the people whose experience I used thanked me for it. I got them heard.

Dr. Watts is not a brown person repackaged. He's an individual who had an all-too-common experience. If brown people's stories need to be repackaged, from personal conversations or as excerpts from blog posts or whatever, in order to be heard (and yes, they do), the situation isn't that different than that with the political sledgehammer. The need may be distasteful but it still exists. We can do that. It doesn't subtract anything from the original story to add more stories. And those of us privileged enough to be heard by the majority can tell those stories even as we work to eliminate the need for repackaging.

December 16, 2009

Annotation Please

Greg wrote a post yesterday that is academia erotica. No, really, although it's probably not what you think from that description.

It was like they were standing at far end of a room full of books and periodicals, with no walls separating the room from the outside, standing on the edge of an unfinished floor and observing poorly resolved things floating around before them that might or might not be useful data or other constructs. Shapeless forms of possible knowledge floating in the dark and cold unknown. Every now and then the scientist is able (using some tool or another) to grab on to one of these poorly defined forms in an attempt to wrestle it into a place where it could be understood. Sometimes, the thing they would grab would be reformed into books and articles to add to the shelves in their proper place. Sometimes (often) putting the new item on the shelf required tossing what was already there out into the vague abyss at the edge of the room, sometimes the thing they grabbed would wriggle free and escape before sense was made of it. Sometimes it would be thrown back because it was crap.

Definitely worth a read.

Aside from its own merits, it reminded me of a conversation I had with him recently. I don't know how the subject came up, but I do remember telling him how I wanted books to change. It was a recent conversation, so I was probably a bit out of it, but I still agree with what I said then.

Blogs, particularly science blogs, have spoiled me. There are books out there I want to read, weighty little things like Jared Diamond's tomes and 1491 that are broad overviews of topics with which I just don't have enough familiarity. But I'm not reading them. I'm not hesitating because it's too much reading, mind you. Blogs haven't spoiled my attention span. I'm hesitating because the books are wrong.

They have to be. These books cover so much that their authors can't be experts in all the details (where they are experts in any of them). There is information that has gone through at least two rounds of Telephone--simplification and translation to popular or vernacular that will change some of the meaning. There is information that is outdated. I don't want to learn and rely on this stuff only to have to redo all my work later.

I want what I have when I read a science article online and see a trackback, or what I get simply by keeping up with several science blogs. I want a notation that someone else has something to say on the subject. Not unedited, of course, because that extra shaping is part of the point of a book, but I want flags and the option to see when an expert says, "Well, this matter shouldn't be presented as settled," or "Stating this in that way, while not incorrect, is misleading. The more complex truth is...."

When I'm reading for information, even if I'm reading something aimed at the lay audience that I am, I want information, and I'm slowly becoming dissatisfied with anything else.

December 15, 2009

How Unhappy Is Irrational?

I got an interesting response to my post, "Going Emo," by email. It was specifically in response to the last bit of a single bullet point:

Breaking the social conventions isn't worth it. It just makes more work. It requires reassuring all the friends whose lives have just been shaken up. It requires holding your tongue on things like, "No. I don't need to see a professional to have my attitude adjusted. I need to stop being reasonably anxious and in pain for a while. Barring that, I need a fucking hamburger and someone who can moderate their conversation to the right degree of challenging. Not that you asked how you could help."

The bullet point, in turn, was a response to a note from the same person asking why I was being so negative, since "It's not like you at all," accompanied by the question of whether it was time for me to get some professional help with that. Based on my Facebook status updates. Specifically, these status updates:
  • just too damned much trouble, really.
  • ...falls, on the scale of human companionship, somewhere between utterly unrewarding and actively taxing.
For anyone else who was terribly concerned...I had PMS, made significantly worse by an enforced lack of exercise. I mentioned it over here. It happens. It's ugly. It's over in a day or two, but anyone who gets in my way in the meantime might be in for a bit of a surprise and for no good reason. Those two statements are a pretty fair picture of a temporary situation. They might be strongly worded, but one of the cornerstones of training in writing is cutting out wimpy prose.

The next update, by the way, was, "If you need hyperdrive, I can fix that too, but I could never be your wookie." (Explanation, of sorts, here.)

The idea in this new post-emo-post note was to urge me, once again, to seek professional help. "If I'm the only one of your kajillion and a half friends who has made the suggestion of seeing a professional, then I am shocked." You might want to sit down. "I don't know why you might be resistant to seeing a therapist." Then do allow me to explain.

I've been dealing with pain for two months. I've been dealing with enforced inactivity for a fair chunk of that. I've been dealing with uncertainties about my health for a good bit more. But that's just it, I'm dealing with them. I'm making my doctors appointments. I'm being appropriately cautious with my activity, which does include some testing of my limits. I'm taking pain medication when appropriate--mostly.

A note about narcotic pain medications: The reason these things have a high street value is that they fuck with your head. Even looking at the list of milder side effects for Vicodin, we see: drowsiness, nausea, and mood changes. Huh. Sounds a lot like the superficial symptoms of depression, doesn't it? It would be nifty if a chat with a therapist would provide some coping strategies for Vicodin that would make those side effects go away, but that's not about to happen. That leaves me with a choice between side effects (including a loopiness that makes me hesitate a very long time before spilling my guts on the old blog) and pain.

The emotional side effects of pain are something that a therapist can help you deal with. However, the advice is to keep the pain from interfering with your life as much as possible. For reasons having to do mostly with my not wanting to continue bleeding and partly to do with the inability to immobilize the cervix so jiggling around doesn't make the pain worse, this hasn't been entirely possible. I'm very much hoping that tomorrow's doctor appointment will settle that question. I miss exercise.

I miss exercise in part because I miss being able to eat what I want without gaining weight. I can't do that if I don't move around a bunch, so I'm eating very little right now. It's not a shortcut to weight loss, unfortunately, but at least it means I'm not gaining anything. It does, however, look like one of those signs of depression--until you listen to me bitch about wanting a hamburger. Or see me angling for oatmeal raisin cookies. Vicodin makes me hungry when it's not making me motion sick.

Then there's exercise and sleep. Sleep and I have never been very good friends, particularly when sleep means something that's compatible with a corporate work schedule. Exercise helps keep us mostly reconciled. With enough exercise, sleep takes over some time near the time it should if I'm going to get up at a decent time. I still see the wee sma's about once every two weeks, but I mostly maintain something like a pattern.

One thing being immobile has done is make me pay out my sleep debt and put me on a more comfortable schedule. I should, apparently, sleep from midnight to eight or so. Unless I'm sick, in which case, I should sleep always. Sleeping always without actually being sick, along with migraines, is what drove me to the doctor in the first place, which is not exactly evidence of being unwilling to see someone about my problems.

So, yes, if you're looking at me, you're going to see changes in (apparent) appetite and sleep. You'll also see that I'm not consistently doing many of the things I would normally enjoy doing, largely because they require concentration or extended attention, which is also a problem with both pain and narcotics. You'll see that I'm not enjoying many of the things I normally would, because I'm so out of shape (and blood) that getting ready and getting to them leaves me tired out.

Then we come to mood. When was the last time you were sick, injured or in pain for an extended period of time? How did you feel about that? How sad did it make people when you talked about it? How worried did they get? How tired of explaining everything did you get? How long did it take talking about your problems and asking for accommodations that weren't offered to make you feel selfish?

One of the reasons I've been writing about my little health scare is that nobody else was. There was information about the technical aspects of all the procedures I've been through, but nobody was talking about what it felt like. I didn't want other people to have to discover the fear and the pain and the inappropriately funny bits on their own. I didn't want other people to feel alone.

There are a lot of things about the way our society is set up that make being ill isolating if you're at all sensitive to social expectations. Not that make it feel isolating, but that actually isolate you from other people. Social interactions that should express genuine interest in another person are used as greetings in passing, so it's nearly impossible to tell who really wants to know how you're doing. We live long distances from one another so that visits are occasions, not to be met without a shower and some decent clothes. We set up our interactions around participatory events that don't have a lot of room for the passive (ask me to expound on wedding and baby shower games sometime) or require cash even when someone may not be getting paid.

We medicalize unhappiness. Let some isolated soul vent irritation about being isolated, let them be honest about being grumpy, and suddenly they've got one more fucking problem that requires that they go do something to have it fixed. We say, "Go see a therapist." We don't say, "You're right, that sucks." We don't say, "I'd be pretty miserable in your position." We don't say, "Can I bring you a cookie?"

Except we do. Some of us. Many of us. We reach out and hug somebody so they feel less isolated. We make sure they know we really want to know how they're doing, and then we listen. We sympathize, even when sympathy hurts us too. We recognize that being unhappy is, to a certain extent, exactly the most rational response to pain and disability and disappointment. And we ask, instead of tell, our friends what kind of help they need, because being sick doesn't make people children incapable of making those decisions.

That, my friend, is why you're the only person who has suggested I see a therapist, much less done so three times. It's also why I'm resistant, not to seeing a therapist, but to the pronouncement that a therapist is the appropriate response to the things I'm dealing with when you haven't taken the time to find out how I'm dealing with them.

December 14, 2009

Credulity, Skepticism and Cynicism

You've met them. "Oh, those scientists. They get their funding from the government/industry/political think tanks. They're just producing the results needed to keep their money flowing. They'll say anything it takes. Besides, it's not like they don't make mistakes. Even Newton and Einstein had it wrong."

You've met the others, too. "My friend told me about an Oprah show where she talked to a writer who explained how the universe really works. I always knew it was a special place made just for me."

We've got a problem to solve. Stop by Quiche Moraine and add your suggestions.

December 13, 2009

What Detectors?

Apropos of the Peter Watts border-crossing debacle, Will Shetterly has a post up about his experience being arrested at the border. Well, really, it's about what came after.

I was baffled. I briefly wondered if the hashish was mine and my mind was playing tricks on me. There was the evidence, after all: the lie detector had told me, and the world, that I had lied. Fortunately, my parents still trusted me, though modern science told them not to. They continued to spend money on the lawyer.

Wanting to understand what had gone wrong with the polygraph, I decided to hire a private operator to give me a second test. Somewhere in my files, I still have the letter from him. He said that my test showed evidence of an intent to deceive.

At this point, I began to research polygraphs.

It's always worth remembering that what we call a lie detector test detects stress. It relies on the assumption that there are particular appropriate patterns of stress in lying and truth-telling, and it requires that someone subjectively determine which of those an individual's pattern matches. There's a reason the Supreme Court has decided polygraphs don't meet standards of evidence.

Also entertaining is the polygraph apologist who immediately shows up in the comments of Will's post to call everyone else naive and uninformed without adding any data to the discussion. Whee!

December 12, 2009

Going Emo

You were warned.

Some observations from spending far too much time with myself:
  • Competence seems like a pretty cool, objective thing on which to base your self-image...right up to the point where you can't do what you've been doing. Then it all just sort of falls apart. What was the last thing you accomplished? How long ago was it? How good does that next thing need to be to make up for everything undone?
  • Social conventions are basically worthless when things aren't going well. The answer to "How are you doing?" is "Good. And you?" It isn't "Just anemic enough to huff and puff every time I walk up a flight of stairs." It isn't "Too wiped out to figure out how to get to see you but too proud to ask for help if you won't think of it on your own." It isn't "Bored out of my skull from sitting here alone day after day. How would you be doing in my place?"
  • Breaking the social conventions isn't worth it. It just makes more work. It requires reassuring all the friends whose lives have just been shaken up. It requires holding your tongue on things like, "No. I don't need to see a professional to have my attitude adjusted. I need to stop being reasonably anxious and in pain for a while. Barring that, I need a fucking hamburger and someone who can moderate their conversation to the right degree of challenging. Not that you asked how you could help."
  • There are some social conventions you just don't break either way. You don't get sad because someone else's happiness is a contrast to your situation. You don't get angry at people who can't figure out how to say something while you're doing the work to keep up a good front. You don't get envious that someone else is moving ahead with their plans while you're stuck. You don't get jealous that people flock to the social butterflies while you hold yourself back from bringing storm clouds. Not publicly.
  • Being able to read people really well is not an advantage here. Yes, I can tell that my illness scares you. Yes, I can tell that you're fooled by the fact that I gather up all my resources for a public appearance and wonder how sick I can be. Yes, I can tell that your respect for me is based largely on what I accomplish and drops off the same way my self-respect does. Yes, I can tell that you resent the dragging anchor that I've become and that I've stopped taking care of everybody around me. Yes, I can tell you're bored. Yes, I can tell you think I'm whining.
  • Being used to being able to read people well isn't an advantage either, particularly when it comes to ambiguous or incautious statements and very low days. It's hard enough to shake the certainty of depression, harder still when you can't tell yourself that feeling that certain is abnormal.
  • Introverts really hate talking about themselves. Illness brings on a self-preoccupation that gets really damned tedious even to the ill. Combining the two is roughly equivalent to turning into one of those "See no evil..." figures. Blinded, deafened and muzzled.
And that is as much of that as I can stand. You may now return to your regular, interesting programming.

December 11, 2009

Ah, That Great American Freedom

If you're not part of the online SF circle or an obsessive reader of Boing Boing, you probably missed this.

Along some other timeline, I did not get out of the car to ask what was going on. I did not repeat that question when refused an answer and told to get back into the vehicle. In that other timeline I was not punched in the face, pepper-sprayed, shit-kicked, handcuffed, thrown wet and half-naked into a holding cell for three fucking hours, thrown into an even colder jail cell overnight, arraigned, and charged with assaulting a federal officer, all without access to legal representation (although they did try to get me to waive my Miranda rights. Twice.). Nor was I finally dumped across the border in shirtsleeves: computer seized, flash drive confiscated, even my fucking paper notepad withheld until they could find someone among their number literate enough to distinguish between handwritten notes on story ideas and, I suppose, nefarious terrorist plots. I was not left without my jacket in the face of Ontario’s first winter storm, after all buses and intercity shuttles had shut down for the night.

In some other universe I am warm and content and not looking at spending two years in jail for the crime of having been punched in the face.

But that is not this universe.

That's apparently all it takes to get a Canadian science fiction writer assaulted and thrown into jail these days for going home. And yes, before you ask, everybody wants to know why the U.S. Border Patrol was frisky enough to be stopping people returning to Canada. They certainly have that option, but they exercise it rarely enough that most people don't know they can.

Boing Boing has the information on how to contribute to Dr. Watts' legal defense fund. Emma Bull points out that even very small donations add up. She also notes:

In Canada, if the same thing happened, we could have just asked the customs agent, who would likely have told us, "We search all rental cars." We could have done exactly what Watts did, and got nothing worse than an answer.

Don't tell me Watts should have known better. He's a free, law-abiding citizen of a free country, who has a right to believe in the rule of law and reasonable behavior in the nation right next to his. If you tell me he asked for it, he deserved it, what happened to him was justified by his actions, I swear I will ban you from this goddamn journal. Because that could have been any of us.

Everyone involved in this crime who was wearing a uniform should go to jail. They've brought shame on my country and on my justice system.

I'll let Emma speak for me on this one.

More updates on the situation are being compiled as they come at Making Light and Whatever.

December 10, 2009

The Tragedy of Sexting

Or, how to read an article on teenage sexuality.

Thanks to Smart Bitches, Trashy Books, this post at Sylvia Has A Problem is getting some small fraction of the attention it deserves. Keep passing it on.

Of course it wasn’t a slut-shaming, woman-hating, sex-hating culture that divides young women into “good” (virginal) and “bad” (fallen) and allowed a 13-year-old girl to believe that she had ruined her life forever by showing a boy her tits.

No, it was her “impetuous move” and somehow also the dangers of the INTERNET (even though the internet was not involved, except in that her internet access, probably one of her major sources of social support, was taken away by her “churchgoing family” as a punishment for an act that they had no goddamn fucking idea what it even was or what technology it used).

This one gets it exactly right.

December 07, 2009

Still Not Dead

To start: I'm fine, or I will be. (Better, Jason?)

To continue: If you ever have to go to the emergency room, don't forget to bring a book. It will distract you from Larry King in the waiting room and all the people he has on to yell at each other about Sarah Palin. It will give you something to do besides worry as you wait in the examination room and feel the blood flow out of you. It will keep you company as you stay awake all through the night waiting for someone who can fix you.

Make it a long book.

Find out why at Quiche Moraine.

December 06, 2009

Carnival of the Elitist Bastards--Here Be Monsters

The ship had been sitting in dock for far too long. It had needed repairs, but shouldn't the repairs be done by now? The admiral sent word, but the replies that came back were vague, with little information available. Finally, the admiral decided to see the state of things for herself.

Things were all too quiet as she approached the H.M.S. Almost Diamonds. She feared that whatever had ravaged the ship had done more damage than anyone had thought. Then she heard it. A faint cheer, coming from on board. She followed the noise to its source and opened the door to the captain's mess.

This wasn't what she'd expected to find. The whole crew was jammed into the tiny room, and all were liberally supplied with grog and rum. The captain sat at the head of her table, a little pale and quiet but obviously enjoying herself. George was in the middle of a story, but he paused when he saw the admiral.

She shook her head, not wanting to interrupt their little carnival. "Ne'er mind me. Go on." But still he waited until she was seated with a cup of her own special reserve tequila.

Then he nodded. "A truly strange hybrid it was. It's lower body was that of a squid or octopus, one of the strong, clean creatures of the sea. It's upper body, however, was that of a holy man. He was crouched and strangely yellow.

"He carried a fruit of the same color, grasped lovingly in one hand. He would speak to it and tell it how beautiful it was, how it fit perfectly everywhere he could think to put it. Then he would make to eat it, only to pull it from his mouth, saying he cared for it no longer. But soon, he would be caressing it again.

"He had a companion, not unlike himself, but hollowed and empty when seen from the back. I asked whether this was his mate, but he said, 'No. The female of my kind has yet to come into existence.'"

Here George dropped his voice. "He tried to give me something. I don't know what it was. Like the tentacles on which he rested, it looked like the clean things of the sea, but it smelled more putrescent than any pile of rotting storm debris. As he reached out to put it in my hand, I understood that he meant it to give him power over me, but I was prepared. 'You are impossible,' I said when he touched me. 'Your body doesn't belong to you, and it knows it.

"Then both monsters fell into two pieces. The parts that looked like men tried to grab the tentacles, but those were quicker and more agile. The last I saw them, the two were dragging themselves in the dirt after their foundations. I suffered no harm from the monster's touch, but the memory is something I shall never erase."

The mess was quiet when he finished, until someone raised a tankard. "To George!" came the cry, and "To George!" came the hearty response.

There was a pause then, as no one wanted to follow George's tale. Finally, Greg stepped forward. "It is an odd thing for a sailor to find himself in the clutches of a monster. It is odder still when something so moist leaves you so high and dry, but it happens to plenty of old tars this time of year. The problem, to my mind, is that we listen too much to the old tales and to our fear of trying something new.

"Still, with a little derring-do, a sharp blade and the judicious application of fire, it is a simple thing to deal with the monster. Such feats will make you the toast of those who see your triumph, but do not be too surprised if others fail to believe you. People will cling to tradition."

Greg started to sit down but stood again. "Oh. One more thing. Take care how you land when you finish your monster. Proper technique will leave you covered in glory. Anything else will simply leave you with lumps."

This applause was more modest, but the admiral could see the crew taking in the advice. Even if they never used Greg's technique when faced with a monster of their own, they would at least be questioning the old advice.

Chris stepped forward then, a gleam in his eye. "There are no such things as sea monsters."

His crew-mates knew him too well to take such easy bait, but they settled back to listen.

"Certainly, there are some creatures of the deep that prey on humankind, but they are merely hungry. Anything that large would have to be.

"They may attack us with tentacle and fang, leave us bloodied and broken, but they only do it to protect themselves. We may be restricted to the surface, and they may have all the deep in which to play, but that may not always be the case. If they let any of us go now, soon we may be swarming below the waves.

"In short, we are the enemy, and all the behemoths do is simply done to protect their weak hides." Chris bowed and sat down, followed to his seat by a rain of biscuits and laughter.

gg didn't throw bread and he didn't laugh. "Chris is right, in a way. Oh, there are truly sea monsters, but it is for their very monstrosity that we love them."

He looked at the rest of the crew. "Is there anything as lovely as the sun shining off the iridescent scales of a sea serpent? Is there not beauty in its twists and its coils? In its strength so overwhelming that it can be as gentle as a child and still crush us?

"Do we not love them because they have seen the depths and promise to take us there with them, even if we can never return as we went?"

All went silent again until Cujo359 hissed, "I've seen those depths. I've seen the dark creatures that come wriggling up into the light. Always beside us. Always traveling the other direction.

"I've heard what they say. They whisper of monsters, as though they weren't monsters themselves. They speak into our nightmares, into our confusion.

"And I've seen what happens when we listen to them. We forget why we sail. We forget where we are going, and we jump overboard, into the water with the monsters. Sometimes...sometimes we even throw each other to them."

Cujo359 shuddered then and drank deeply of the grog. The whole crew followed suit, no one quite looking at anyone else.

Blake cleared his throat. "I was going to talk about George's monster. I've seen it too, although I didn't fare as well. My own fault, though, really, as I went looking for the thing.

"Still, it gave me an idea. What if I were to become a monster myself?" He smiled at the room. "Wouldn't that be something? I could go where I wanted when I wanted, do what I wanted to anyone I felt like doing them to. I think I'd want a tail instead of tentacles--"

He was cut off by another volley of bread. He caught a piece out of the air and bit into the crust. "Oh, well. It was just an idea."

John frowned at Blake, but the corners of his mouth twitched. "We have quite enough monsters around, thank you. Limited number of bodies, of course, possibly because the form has been selected to preserve resources or possibly because having all the heads spitting that weak venom at once is the only form of defense they've evolved."

He sighed. "I must admit, it does make them difficult to kill. Cut off one head, another grows back. Cut off that one, you get another. Cut off the third....

"Of course, this assumes that these are really heads to begin with. They could be a novel form of camouflage, making us think the creatures are facing us, no matter what direction we approach from."

John lapsed into thought. After a moment, the admiral stepped forward. "I rather like monsters, sometimes. As gg notes, there is something appealing in the thought of diving beyond the shallows, even unexpectedly.

"There are dangers in being consumed, of course, but there are rewards as well. The monsters can consume your life, but they allow you to travel to places you could never go on your own, if you hadn't been swallowed whole. There is wisdom to be found in the cold, in the depths and in the heights."

The admiral gestured for more tequila to fill her empty glass. "To sea monsters."

"To sea monsters!" The crew weren't convinced, but they were enthusiastic. And perhaps a little tipsy.

The captain stood then and raised her glass, first to her admiral, then to her crew. "I shan't describe the monster that left our fair ship just now. The admiral's tales have left us with the perfect sense of wonder for ending our carnival on a happy note. I will only tell you how happy and proud I am to sail these seas with a crew such as this. Truly, there is no better place to be."

November 15, 2009

The Great Explainers

If you haven't seen Coupling (the British version; there is no American version as far as I'm concerned), you're missing out. It may be the best-written sitcom in the history of television. There's much that's hilarious, but the best bits may well be the explanations.

The Last Bastion

How to Seduce a Man

The Sock Gap

November 14, 2009

Around the Web

Worth reading:

I guess we can assume that people who commit such acts are really inhuman. But frankly I think you're kidding yourself and are abjectly horrified to look in the mirror. African fighters that mutilate children and innocent men and women are different, they aren't like us. We say that as we embrace Jack Bauer obtaining that vital information in any way possible. We say that as we allow Dick Cheney to walk free and happily laud his role in legalizing torture. You know because when we do it, its different.

Lorax explains why Michele Bachmann is really dangerous. It isn't the few pieces of legislation she proposes, trust me.

Do you know what one of the actual decisive events of the 1991 Soviet coup d’état attempt was? The failure of the ГКЧП to arrest Boris Yeltsin when they had the opportunity was very decisive. They fucked themselves on that one. Major Evdokimov, chief of staff of a tank battalion of Tamanskaya motorized infantry division who had orders to guard the White House declared his loyalty to the leadership of the Russian SFSR. Yeltsin climbed one of the tanks and addressed the crowd. It’s my opinion that that kind of thing was a bit more decisive than the words of the Orthodox Church.

Dan takes on a political scientist whose understanding of history appears to be a bit clouded by religion. He does a pretty good job of it too.

Girl becomes Woman. Woman becomes Mother. Girl is no longer Girl, but Earth Mother. Breastfeeding, Sling-Wearing, Earth Mother. Earth Mother has no need to flirt. All is well.

Or is it? Jenny Wadley's blogging again, and that's a Good Thing.

The thing is, had it not been my grandmother, I likely would have been appalled. Instead it was just one of those quirks that made her who she was. Her “colored man” drop ins were like a souvenir from growing up in the ’30s and ’40s. That’s how things were then.

I'm always impressed at how long the crew at Skepchick can keep a discussion, even about a contentious subject, on topic and civil. This is one of those threads. Also an impressive demonstration of how a single person can derail a thread.

Rounding out Sci's first week of the Great Oxytocin Posting of 2009 (oh yes, there will be two weeks of this, hang tight), we've gotta do something weird. And luckily for everyone, oxytocin does lend itself to the strange types of studies. Like multi-orgasmic studies. Complete with measurements of anal contraction. You know you wanna volunteer for this one.

Well, I'll leave that decision up to you, but you do want to read about how they do the studies that tell us things like, "Oxytocin plays a role in orgasm." Seriously. And remember, "She graphs because she loves."

An easy way to kill a debate on health care policy is to use the "R" word. We saw this early in the HCR debate with overheated talk of "death panels" and other nonsense. But we ignore the real issue of rationing at our own peril. Those of us who favor real HCR must embrace rationing, coopt it, show our opponents how it is inevitable.

PalMD explains how it actually works now. He's good at that sort of thing.


November 13, 2009

Minnesota Disability Law Center

A couple of friends of mine recently bought a Smart car. A word of warning for those of you considering a similar purchase: You need to build in extra travel time. It isn't that the Smart is underpowered. It's simply that if anyone is around as you get into or out of your car, you're going to be spending some time in conversation.

I've seen this in action. While at a wedding reception this summer, I saw my friends pull up in their new car. About five minutes later, I got to wondering where they were. They were still by the car, chatting with a fairly large group of people. About another five minutes passed before they showed up at the reception.

"That was cool!"

The cool part wasn't that people had been interested in the car. The cool part was that my friend had enough sign language to understand and answer their questions. The large crowd was because, well, the deaf group picnicking near us wasn't likely to find another Smart owner able to answer their questions any time soon.

It's kind of a funny story when it's a car. It's much less funny when it's a hospital visit. The woman in the following video is my friend's aunt and the reason she knows a respectable amount of sign language. She, and the group featured in the video are the reason deaf people visiting Minnesota hospital rooms don't have to wait for someone like my friend to come along.

November 12, 2009

Tax 'Em

The campaign finance report for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine shows that four Minnesota area Catholic Dioceses contributed $6250 to a campaign to reject a law legalizing gay marriage in Maine.

Yes, you read that right.

The Diocese of Crookston donated $5,000 to the effort. The Diocese of Winona and the Diocese of La Crosse, WI gave $500 each. New Ulm's Bishop John Levoir gave $250.

They did this to change the laws in Maine. It's almost 1,500 miles from St. Paul to Portland, Maine, slightly closer from Winona or La Crosse. Nobody from Minnesota needs to travel to Maine to get married. They can do what a couple of friends of mine did this summer and duck across the border into Iowa.

None of these dioceses' parishioners are going to be making the trip to Maine to get married. None of their parishioners were in any position to be influenced from the pulpit on how to vote on this issue. No, this is strictly about imposing the churches' will and their religion on others not otherwise under their jurisdiction by changing the law. There's nothing about that that isn't politics.

According to the IRS, the dioceses' actions are currently legal.

For those wondering about tax violations, the IRS forbids tax exempt organizations from backing a political candidate but "can engage in a limited amount of lobbying (including ballot measures) and advocate for or against issues that are in the political arena. The IRS also has provided guidance regarding the difference between advocating for a candidate and advocating for legislation."

This needs to change, to become more specific in response to a change in church tactics. What's going on right now with churches interfering in questions about gay civil marriage isn't limited in its scope. It isn't pastors or priests guiding uncertain voters in the pews. It isn't individual worshipers sending checks. It's exercising the muscle of national organizations, putting their organizational and fundraising capabilities to use to change the broader American political landscape.

We recognize the influence of money on politics. We do it officially, limiting contributions and requiring that they be disclosed in such a way that the influence of larger entities, like corporations, is also limited. Churches are given exemptions to these and other laws because they are officially held separate from government. That means that government has limited oversight over religion, but that's only true as long as religion doesn't exercise undue influence over government.

Between the fight over this vote and the fight over California's Proposition 8, I think the churches have crossed the line. Tax 'em.

November 11, 2009

Veterans Day

Today is the day we celebrate the end of the "War to End All Wars." It's the day we commemorate the horrendous loss of life, limb, sanity and simple comfort that war entails. We do it by thanking our soldiers, which I do, but....

Why aren't we doing more? Why do we allow anyone to turn their health care into a political football? Why do we deny that we are responsible for their PTSD or even that they have it? Why don't we do a better job of helping their families manage the stresses of deployment? Why don't we do a better job of protecting the few rights they don't give up in order to protect us, like the right to worship as they see fit--or not at all--instead of the way their commanders worship, or the right to not face sexual harassment?

Why do we send them to fight in wars that can't be "won"? Why do we not demand that everyone else share some part of their sacrifice when we do? Why do we spend so long to shape them when we take them out of civilian life and so little time when we tell them to return? Why don't we contribute more to the education that's meant to fit them for that civilian life? Why do we let "supporting" our troops become supporting the people who order them around?

Those are the kinds of thanks that matter, and until we start doing those and more than one day out of the year, we've got this holiday all wrong. To all the soldiers I know, love and/or am related to, thank you once more and I'm sorry I don't have more to offer you than these words.

I Love This Place

There's no place better than the internet to be sick. No, really. The people around here are amazing. I would have had a truly miserable last couple of months without them.

Now, before I go on, let me just note that I might not have survived these months without the help of my husband. But if he doesn't already know how wonderful he is, I've screwed something up badly. This particular post isn't about him.

Find out what it is about at Quiche Moraine.

November 06, 2009

Reporting Non-Default Religion

I've been reading about the Fort Hood shooting this morning, like most everyone else. There's lots of bad and misleading information being passed around this close to the confusion, I'm sure. A few things stood out in the reporting, though, most of them having to do with the alleged shooter being Muslim, or more specifically, not Christian.

  1. Major Hasan apparently received a load of flack from fellow soldiers over the last eight years about how his religion has allied him with the enemies of the U.S. We are currently involved in two wars. In both wars, our allies and our enemies share a religion, although the details vary. If we can't distinguish between the two better than that, we're in incredibly deep trouble.
  2. Major Hasan was reportedly reprimanded for proselytizing. Considering the current state of our evangelical armed services, this is galling. How much did the unequal treatment contribute to turning fellow soldiers into targets?
  3. Major Hasan reportedly shouted, "Allahu Akbar!" before shooting. This is being treated as evidence of motivation in several venues. This is a ritual phrase. If he had shouted, "Help me, Jesus!" instead, would it be so widely reported? Would anyone think it was a clue to anything aside from a religious person being terribly upset?
We don't know what happened with this shooting, or why. It's going to be some time before we do--to the extent we ever know. In the meantime, beware of people trying to play on your own internalized narratives. Watch out for reporting that creates stories out of stereotypes and xenophobia.

The shooting has stopped. We can afford some uncertainty. We have time to figure out what happened. And we've seen enough in the last eight years to know how well it goes when we lay blame and act before we do that.

November 05, 2009


I'm two days home from spending five hours in the hospital. Everything went well, except for my reaction to the narcotics. My body's shifting into healing mode, which means I'm about to fall asleep again, but before I do, I thought I'd share some details. It's a little odd to know so many people are following along at home, but I've invited it, so I won't slam doors shut now.

These are just odds and ends from the planning meeting with the oncologist who did the surgery through the surgery and recovery.

  • Apparently I nod in all the right places. Both the oncologist and the pre-op nurse asked me if I was in medicine. I blame a large vocabulary, Google and PalMD.
  • No religion is never the default. Someone from Abbott Northwestern Hospital called me in advance to confirm that their information on me was current. "And we show 'Lutheran' for religion. Correct?" Uh, no. Not a bad guess in Minnesota, but completely wrong.
  • People really think spouses should be there for everything. Twice my husband came to me and said people were telling him he should be there with me when I checked in at 5:30 a.m. Twice I told him that I'd much rather have him be awake and functional when I woke up after the surgery.
  • I still can't fall asleep on my back, as much as I wanted to nap during pre-op. 5:30?
  • Being in the hospital during a Joint Commission audit results in lots of repeated questions and lots of apologies for the repetition.
  • Writing on the lower abdomen is "close enough" for marking that surgery is supposed to be done on the cervix.
  • After about half a bag of IV, you don't really care that you couldn't drink anything that morning.
  • Heated hospital gowns are the best idea ever. Air chamber in the gown + hot air blower hookup = awesome.
  • Operating rooms without functioning thermostats are a much worse idea, but having heated blankets piled on top of you almost makes up for that.
  • I'm much less disturbed by being strapped in and having my arms taped down than I am by the idea of falling off the narrow operating table.
  • It is much more comfortable to undergo a conization under general anesthesia, the brain-wave monitor is going to feel like velcro being pressed into my forehead, the oxygen mask smells like plastic, and I had the most informative nurse anesthetist ever.
  • Anesthesiologists (or at least this one) like propranolol. "She'll have a nice, slow heartbeat."
  • The most uncomfortable pre-op moment was having the oxygen sensor put on. If I'd known, I'd have trimmed that fingernail.
  • I still don't know what kind of anesthesia I had. One of my Facebook friends suggested I ask for propofol ("Michael Jackson gave it a bad name."). However the nurse anesthetist said there was a shortage of it ("You know. The stuff Michael Jackson was taking."), so I'd get gas. However, once I was in the OR, the anesthesiologist said they were knocking me out through the IV. So, yeah, no clue.
  • The most painful post-op moment was getting rid of the monitoring pads. At least this time, unlike when I got my appendix out, only one of the five is still outlined on my skin in dark red.
  • Despite having had a very short night of sleep before the surgery (5:30?), I fought the anesthetic pretty hard once I grasped a tiny bit of consciousness.
  • Fentanyl is lovely stuff. At least immediately.
  • Some people apparently think it's weird to Tweet soon after an operation. This does not mean they don't want the news right away. I might have had deeper thoughts on that, but I was under the influence of fentanyl.
  • I'm not cut out to be an addict. Either the fentanyl or the Vicodin I had as a follow-up caused nausea, poor temperature regulation, and a truly nasty headache. No more for me, thanks.
  • Tweeting snippets of dialog from the new Ratchet and Clank game will cause some people to assume you're having a great time on those narcotics.
  • Coming home to a heap of well-wishes is such a lovely thing that it requires its own blog post.
  • I'm waiting for the pathology reports that will tell me how often I need to have Pap smears for the foreseeable future. I've already been told that I'll never be able to stop having them.
  • I've also been told that I need to take good care of my immune system, mostly in ways I already do. "Eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Modern science can't quite tell us why those are important yet, but we know they are. Avoid a lot of red meat. Don't be one of those people who only sleep four hours a night. Do something three to four times a week that you find stress-reducing." I'd already concluded I needed to find a better way to manage the amount of stress in my life, but I'm still debating what kind of changes will actually do that instead of creating someone else's perfect stress-free life that I'll hate and be stressed by.

And now to nap.

November 03, 2009


I was pointed to this new video from Tinu last night. How can I not share it with Dr. Isis?

November 02, 2009

The Limits of Resilience

There's a Facebook meme running around that's basically, "Describe me in one word." I put that up recently, and someone answered, "resilient". While I'm sure it wasn't his intent, I almost cried.

Resilience was a fairly new field of study when I was getting my degree in psychology, lo, those many years ago, and I was fascinated by it. I would be, of course. It's the study of how people recover from bad events instead of being irreparably broken by them. At the time, much of the focus was on how some kids from less than ideal backgrounds grow up to be happy and successful. Hence, my fascination.

In case you're curious, two of the big things that allow kids to survive and thrive whatever their circumstances are problem-solving skills and the presence of even a single adult who is thoroughly in the kid's court. This plays no small part in my opinions on education and informs my interactions with the few kids in my life. It also limits the number of children I do interact with. But I digress.

In the end, resilience mostly comes down to resources--having them and knowing how and when to use them. I got myself into a bit of trouble this spring by gambling that I had the resources to support me in taking an emotional risk. For various reasons, some of those resources weren't available to me when things went badly. Between that and the fact that I'd declared some solutions to my problems to be off limits, I boxed myself in. Badly.

I got hurt. Not sleeping for more than a couple hours at a time, running on adrenaline, back against the wall because that's one direction they can't come at you from--that kind of hurt. Unsurprisingly, I made myself sick. Slightly more surprisingly, I stayed sick.

Actually, I'd already been sick. Too much time off in the last couple of years for sleeping away the muzzy head and sore throat. Too much time off for migraines. Just a day here and a day there, but enough to eat up all my time off so I didn't get vacation aside from the occasional long weekend. And after I hurt myself, it was worse.

Being, indeed, at least somewhat resilient, I decided this was a problem that needed fixing and went to the doctor. There's nothing really wrong with me. Well, I have allergies that are now responding decently to a new antihistamine. The joints in my big toes are screwed up in ways that can probably be compensated for without intrusive intervention, like my knees. I still have a wonky heart valve, but it's not noticeably worse than it was seven years ago. But all my blood tests are well within normal ranges, and I'm not showing any inflammatory markers that would suggest I picked up the family problems.

Oh, and there's the problem of the bad Pap smear. And the waiting for the biopsy results. And the figuring out what kind of surgery I'll be having. All just a little stressful.

So changing my antihistamine hasn't made me any better. In fact, I've been worse. I've slept twelve hours in a night before, but never while averaging nine to ten hours of sleep regularly, and I've still had trouble keeping my eyes open while "awake." Not content to let my throat have all the fun, my ears have been hurting too, all without a fever or elevated white cell count. I went on leave from work to formalize the fact that they can't count on me to be there on any given day. The drugs that are supposed to help keep me from getting migraines haven't been helping, or at least I'm still getting migraines.

In other words, it's not been good around here.

That's what "resilient" was dropped into the middle of, and why I almost cried. I haven't been feeling my most resilient lately, despite this person nailing one of the ways I usually think of myself.

At the same time, I realized that I am being more resilient than I'm giving myself credit for. Maybe my body isn't bouncing back, but I am still working on my problems, even if I don't know how the answers will turn out. We changed my migraine medication to propranolol, which has worked for me before. It may also give my body a rest from some of the stress by blocking the action of adrenaline.

I'm grabbing glimpses of fun where I can find them, saving the energy I do have for a friend's birthday dinner, another's baby shower. I'm fighting the work ethic that says that if I can't do the things I normally do that require concentration, I shouldn't be doing anything else either. I'm losing the war on feeling guilty about it, but I'm trying.

I'm not ruling out any solutions this time around. Some of them aren't very appealing, but they're staying on the table while I think about what they offer and what they demand. In the end, that may be this summer's big lesson. This is where my limits lie.

October 26, 2009

Yellow Rage

Totally stolen from Will Shetterly. They earned that ovation.

October 20, 2009

Space Week and Beyond

We have another great series of guest posts going over at Quiche Moraine. These have technically been written in honor of Space Week, but Norman Barrett-Wiik is turning October into Space Month for us.

Gettin’ It On in Space

Late in July, my wife and I welcomed our first child, Liam Oran, into the world. He is a happy and healthy 10 weeks old now, and his presence prompted my wife to suggest today’s topic when I was soliciting suggestions a few weeks ago. While contemplating the idea of sex in space may invite more than its share of muffled laughter or red faces, for anyone who believes that the future of the human species depends on our ability to colonize outer space and other planets, it is serious business.

Cleaning Up the Orbital Neighborhood

While responsible space-faring nations are making de-orbit plans a standard feature of launches today, there are hundreds, possibly thousands of derelict objects still around from the time before this need was recognized. These factors combine to create a recipe for eventual chaos in the orbital arena, which if left unchecked, could render wide regions of Earth’s orbital space effectively unusable for decades or even centuries.

Dispatches from the International Robotic Explorers League

Consisting of the many and varied robotic spacecraft exploring our Solar System and parts beyond, the IREL soldiers on tirelessly, often in obscurity and in conditions that would make even the most hardy of human beings question their resolve, all to provide us with the data necessary to enhance our understanding of the Universe. They may only be robots, but they give every ounce of circuitry in the service of completing their missions, in many cases going above and beyond the call of duty to return useful measurements long after their designed operational lifetimes. Join me now as we take a look around the league.

Read and enjoy.

October 19, 2009

Pie and Ginger

Since I improvised this with only a partial recipe and it won a contest (tied for first, anyway), I suppose I should capture it for posterity.

Spicy Pumpkin Cheesecake Pie
1 9-inch pie crust (I recommend my husband's, but do what you can)
16 oz. cream cheese
3/4 cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1# pie pumpkin
3 t Ceylon cinnamon
1-1/2 t ground ginger
1/2 t ground cardamom
1/4 t ground clove
1/3 of a nutmeg, freshly grated
2 T chopped candied ginger (see below)

Preheat oven to 350F.

Cream the cream cheese and sugar. Incorporate the eggs one at a time. Mix in the pumpkin and ground spices. Pour into pie crust and sprinkle with the candied ginger. Bake for 50–60 minutes.

What I would change next time: The cheesecake was not as solid as it could have been, despite cracking around the edges. Next time, I'd lightly blind bake the crust, then bake the whole pie in a shallow pan of water to keep the edges from cooking so thoroughly before the center is firm.

Candied Ginger, Ginger Sugar, and Ginger Water
Get a little over a pound and a half of ginger. Peel it and slice it thin. A mandolin helps, even if you find it, as you should, somewhat terrifying.

Lay the slices in the bottom of a slow-cooker/crock-pot and just cover with water. Steep on the lowest heat setting at least overnight. Pour off the water and save it for mixing drinks or incorporating into recipes. It makes for very nice popovers.

Set out a large cooling rack covered with parchment paper. Weigh the ginger, and place it and an equal weight white sugar into a large saucepan. Add back a cup of the ginger water and place over medium heat. Simmer until the sugar is dissolved and the ginger becomes translucent. Turn the heat up to boil off the water. Stir frequently. Once the sugar crystallizes, turn off the heat and continue stirring until the sugar is essentially dry. Turn out onto the cooling rack and separate.

Store the sugar in an airtight container. Depending on how you want to use it, you may want to run it through the food processor first to break down lumps. Store the ginger in the refrigerator in an airtight container.

This will be stronger than the candied ginger you buy in the store. Enjoy carefully.

October 15, 2009

More on HPV

A couple of excellent science bloggers have taken the time to fill in some of the details around HPV and the vaccines that I left out in my self-preoccupation. PalMD did a great job of putting my situation into the context of regular screenings.

When a woman lays back on the exam table at her yearly exam, the doctor or nurse first looks at the outside of the vagina for any abnormalities such as external yeast infections or genital warts. They then open up the vagina with a speculum and can see the vaginal walls, and eventually the cervix, which at this angle looks a bit like a think donut. Depending on technique, a small, cylindrical brush is inserted into the cervix and rolled around to collect cells, and a wooden spatula is scraped around the outside of the cervix. Then the speculum is removed, and fingers are inserted internally and a hand is pressed against the pelvis to feel for any other abnormalities. Usually a finger is also inserted into the rectum to feel the tissue between the rectum and vagina.

If all this sounds rather invasive, it is. Some women have very little sensation in their cervix, but many women have a very sensitive cervix and yearly pelvic exams can be very, very unpleasant. For women with a history of physical/sexual abuse, the discomfort can be magnified a thousand-fold. So if you're wondering how a woman could possibly fail to get a regular Pap smear, try a little empathy. In medicine, we find it tempting but ultimately not useful to blame people for their diseases.

Empathy is one of Pal's strong suits, and there's plenty to be found in his post, even though I told him not to worry about my feelings or privacy in getting his message out. Which he did.

Abbie at ERV also wrote a post that made my unforgiving self very happy. (What? It's a virus. It doesn't care how I feel about it.) She explained why the vaccine can do permanent good--why we don't need to be too concerned about another HPV strain taking over and causing the same number of cancers as the vaccine prevents.

There is no adaptive advantage to an HPV that causes cancer.

It could be that 'any' HPV can cause cancer, by accident, its just that HPV 16 and 18 are the most prevalent HPVs, so they get the most 'chances' to make a mistake.

But thats not the case. 16 and 18 cause a teeny-tiny minority of all HPV infections.

Getting rid of them is not going to create an ecological vacuum that will necessarily be filled. While 'shit might happen' again, there is no evolutionary 'reason' to fill the 'HPV cancer' void.

Get your vax against HPV 16 and 18. Obliterate those assholes from the planet.

What she said.

October 13, 2009

Good News but Complicated

Continuing in the tradition of providing too much information that I set with my last post at Quiche Moraine, since the people who commented found it either informative or inspiring, here's the update on my situation. According to the biopsies taken last Wednesday, I don't have invasive cervical cancer. That's the good news.

The bad news is that this still isn't easily fixed. I'm in for more "helpful violence" that's going to be painful and require some recovery. Here's the problem, with illustrations.

The most common method for treating what I've got is a conization, or cone biopsy. (That's right, I'm not done with biopsies yet.) This is a procedure in which a cone of tissue is taken out of the center of the cervix. In this illustration, a scalpel is used to cut on the dotted lines.

The problem is that conization won't remove all the tissue I need removed. The lesion I have is large enough that one side of it stretches outside the area that would be removed. Quite far outside, in fact, to around where the blue arrows point. Nor is this the least problematic of the tissue to be removed. It's still classified as CIN 2–3. Those cells need to die before they become cancerous.

The next step is to meet with an oncologist to decide whether this can safely be done in a less-invasive manner, probably with lasers in addition to the conization or whether I'll need to lose enough of the cervix that I'll have to have a hysterectomy. The discussion, of course, will be complicated by my tolerance for this sort of risk--and what my insurance company is willing to pay for. Yes, they have a certain say in this as well.

So that's pretty much it for the information I added today. It's all good news, really, given the restrictions I knew about after the biopsy. Since I dragged my readers into the waiting with me, I'm happy to answer nosy questions in the comments as well.

October 09, 2009

And Then You Wait

One day your doctor calls. You think to yourself, "Huh. Last clinic, it would have been a nurse. Whatever." And the news is good: Blood work, even the special stuff they did because you've not been feeling well and you have a family history, is perfectly, beautifully normal.

Oh, except the Pap smear came back abnormal and here's the number for a gynecological clinic and tell them "CIN 2-3" when you call to make the appointment for a colposcopy.

So you look that up, and you see "moderate to severe" and "carcinoma in situ." You take a little bit to let that sink in and try to remember there were other words there as well, like "regression," and as you're doing that, the phone rings again.

In case you're wondering why I've been uncharacteristically quiet lately. At Quiche Moraine.

October 07, 2009

Skeptic on Skeptic

In the context of the Atheist Alliance International presenting contrarian Bill Maher with the Dawkins award, Steve Novella has written a very interesting post at Skepticblog on balancing concern for the skeptical movement as a movement and the need for skeptics to not place any person or idea beyond criticism. As you can imagine, this has relevance far beyond the skeptics movement.

But while we are being polite to each other, we should also be uncompromising when it comes to factual accuracy. No one is suggesting otherwise, and Brian was explicit on this point. Open discussion, even conflict and disagreement, is a good thing. It is part of science and skepticism, and it makes our movement intellectually healthy.

I also think it is OK to show this to the public, and perhaps I differ a bit from Brian here. I don’t think a united front is as important as a collegial front. It might even be to our advantage to show that we happily and openly disagree and correct each other.

Rather, I think colleagues should not attack each other in public without fair warning. There may be a fuzzy line there, but one worth contemplating.

It's a very politically astute post, perhaps the most astute I've seen on the topic. I highly recommend reading it.

October 06, 2009

Supply-Side Jesus

There is now a project, from the "minds" behind Conservapedia to wipe the liberal bias from the second-most cited document on the internet--the Bible. No, really. I can't think of a better way to commemorate the announcement, while simultaneously demonstrating the work required, than to post this lovely animation of Senator Al Franken's (hee, I love saying that) "Supply-Side Jesus."

October 04, 2009

Warning, Revisited

When I am retired I shall dye my hair purple
With a red eyeliner that scares the grown-ups, and delights the children,
And I shall spend my savings on absinthe and Turkish bells
And shiny nose rings, and say we've no money for morning coffee.
I shall dance beyond the reach of thought until I collapse,
And flirt with the pretty boys and kiss drag queens,
And tell the gossips what I think of them,
And return to the freedoms of my youth.
I shall wander city streets in the night
And chat with street musicians and panhandlers,
And learn to tango.

You can stay up 'til dawn and stagger home,
And let your mascara run to your chin,
Or bat rhinestone-studded fake lashes,
And hoard art and artists and bartenders and feather boas.

But now we must have bedtimes to suit a working day,
And be on time and dampen the sparkle,
And look appropriately sober for the clients.
We must make polite conversation and attend happy hours.

But maybe I ought to dance more often now?
So my body remembers me, is not too shaken and sore,
When suddenly I retire and dye my hair purple!

For Catharine, whose baby has such lovely purple hair, and with apologies to Jenny Joseph.

They Won't Thank You

Does this mean that we're doomed when we try to fight fear? I'm not sure it does. I think it's more likely that we're currently fighting fear the wrong way.

Take the classic childhood fear of monsters in the unseen places--under the bed, in the closet, in the dark. How are most of these fears treated? Do we tell children it's natural to be afraid of the unknown, but that these things don't need to stay unknown? Do we hold their hands while they open the doors and look under the bed?

No, or at least not often. Instead, we say, "Don't be silly, honey. There are no monsters. Go to sleep." And we do it at the same time that we're teaching them that there are things in the world to be afraid of.

Find out the consequences at Quiche Moraine.

October 01, 2009

I'm Torn

It's Donors Choose time again at ScienceBlogs. I've contributed in the past, even earning myself a beautiful print from Jessica at Bioephemera. (That's right, Comrade PhysioProf and I have the same art hanging on our walls, and we're both very happy about it.)

But right now, well....


Authorities are bracing for what they described as another "major problem" that may be caused by potential super typhoon "Pepeng" this weekend while the country is still recovering from the massive damage incurred from tropical storm "Ondoy," (international code name: "Ketsana").

The National Disaster Coordinating Council executive officer and concurrent Office of the Civil Defense administrator Glenn Rabonza said on Thursday they are expecting downpour in Metro Manila, one of the areas hardest hit by "Ondoy" which wrecked havoc last weekend.

Meanwhile, data from the NDCC indicated that as of 3 p.m. Thursday, the casualty toll from "Ondoy" has risen to 280 dead, 42 missing and four injured. About 512,092 families or 2,506,845 persons have been affected and caused about P4.8 billion (about $101 million) in damages to agriculture and infrastructure.

United Nations World Food Programme Unicef
Also World Vision (Vietnam)


Before the disaster struck, the majority of the population in American Samoa lived below the poverty line, with tuna canneries, coconut plantations and tourism representing the bulk of the territory's economic activity.

The canneries produce the tuna consumed in millions of American households, with StarKist and Chicken of the Sea having huge factories on American Samoa. But the local tuna industry has been in turmoil since the companies were forced to pay workers the U.S.-mandated minimum wage, something they have historically avoided.

Long before the tsunami hit, Chicken of the Sea planned to close its packing plant on the island this week and lay off more than 2,100 workers, amounting to a double-whammy for workers who lost their jobs and saw their homeland ravaged by disaster in the same week.

Operation USA


Throughout a chaotic Thursday in Padang, rescue workers, soldiers and frantic residents searched together into the night with precious little earth-moving equipment or electricity, combing crushed offices, hotels, hospitals and schools for survivors.

The death toll rose to 1,100 people on Thursday, with many hundreds more injured, according to John Holmes, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator, speaking at a news conference at the United Nations.

“I fear these numbers will rise as more information becomes available,” Mr. Holmes said.

On Thursday morning, just as the city’s airport was reopening and rescue teams were setting to work, Padang was rattled by another earthquake, this one registering a magnitude of 6.6. This second quake, which hit about 150 miles south of Padang, damaged hundreds of buildings in the nearby town of Jambi, officials said. There were no reports of casualties so far from the second temblor, Mr. Holmes said.

Operation USA