March 30, 2011

The Toronto SlutWalk

I want to go to Toronto this weekend.

SlutWalk, a beautifully conceived and organized protest against this kind of women-hating, starts at central Queen's Park at 1:30 this Sunday and winds up at Toronto Police Headquarters at 40 College St. Wear anything you like, the organizers told me when I emailed them. Because it isn't what you're wearing that matters, it's that cops, and indeed rapists, will assess you whatever you wear. Their assessment will invariably be different from yours.

SlutWalk will feature people in all sorts of garments and gear, dressed for the office, clubbing, yoga, walking the dog, whatever it is that people wear as they go about their lives not asking to be raped. It is a message of love and strength to all women (and men), especially those who have been assaulted at the core of their being.

Well, I want to go to Toronto as long as I don't have to file a police report about being sexually assaulted. This is what set off the SlutWalk.

“Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized,” Toronto police Const. Michael Sanguinetti told a class on rape at Osgoode Hall Law School.

Yes, he said this recently. Yes, he said this as part of a class at a law school. No, attitudes like these are not remotely uncommon or marginalized.

Heather Mallick, a Toronto columnist who intends to participate in the walk, explains why that reasoning is wrong and harms victims. Along with that, I think it's time to remind people how we actually prevent rape.

March 29, 2011

Circumvention Tactics for Information Guerillas in the Culture War

maymay delivered a talk last weekend on best practices for getting around the censorship that sex-positive sites face, whether their mission is entertainment or education. I wasn't at the talk, but he's helpfully posted the video and text (potential for NSFW material in the sidebar). As he notes, this information is useful for anyone facing censorship of their topic or message.

Censorship also happens in the form of service discrimination, not merely content blocking. For instance, after Wikileaks began releasing US diplomatic cables in December, 2010, it faced a series of extrajudicial attacks: Amazon kicked Wikileaks off its servers, withdrew its domain name, and PayPal froze WikiLeaks’ account. The amazing thing about this is that each and every one of these attacks has a sexual censorship precedent.

In other words, if you didn’t see this coming, you weren’t talking about sex loudly enough.

The folks who published the NYC Sex Blogger Calendar have had their PayPal account frozen and their funds seized not once, but twice, before they decided to ditch the service way back in 2008. Web celeb Violet Blue’s “sex-positive URL shortener,”, had its domain name seized by the Libyan government in October, 2010. And just one month before Amazon cut off WikiLeaks, there was a big hoopla over Amazon’s initial defense of, then banning of a “Pedophile book” from their virtual shelves. Interestingly, Amazon initially said it wouldn’t pull the book because that would amount to censorship. Eventually, Amazon capitulated to public pressure and, of course, now the book is gone.

What do we do about this? Go find out.

March 27, 2011

Duck and Cover

The older I get, the more diverse are the ages of my friends. It provides interesting insight on how rapidly bits of the world are changing.

I was talking to a friend who's about a decade older than I am. I don't remember exactly what prompted the subject, but I think the context was a discussion of fear. He said, "When I was a kid, we did 'duck and cover" drills in school."

I thought about it for a minute before responding. "We never did drills. I think we knew there was no point. If someone decided to push the button, we were just all going to die. Nothing we could do about it."

The conversation has sat in the back of my head for a few months, getting fuzzier in its details, percolating. Then I went to the Atomic Testing Museum on our way to touring the Nevada Test Site.

There was a photo of the children in a town near the testing practicing their drills, outside on the ground. There was footage of how manikins fared in test houses built near the blasts. There was a mock-up of a basement blast shelter, complete with a manikin family smiling peacefully.

I wanted to laugh, but it would have been the wrong kind of laughter, and any kind of laughter at all was not what I wanted to be doing with Japanese tourists (no, really) in the museum. So I stopped a little past the diorama and turned to my husband and the friend taking the tour with us. We're all the same age group for this sort of thing. I told them about the months-old conversation.

They nodded. My husband said, "I checked on a map recently. We're not too bad off where we are now."

I looked at him. "If it were just one bomb, one warhead."

Another nod and a sour face. "Yeah."

The operable phrase when I was in school was "mutually assured destruction." Scads of nuclear weapons as a security blanket. I suppose it's not surprising we found that sort of comfort rather cold. Hey, there's this guy who calls ketchup a vegetable and names his best hope of defense against a nuclear attack after a fantasy with space trappings and on and on and on. We're supposed to trust him to understand the full consequences of his actions. Oh. Yay.

The first day of ninth grade social studies class, American government, my teacher announced to the class that it would be run as a democracy. No, he couldn't tell us how that was going to work because we were going to decide that. No, he couldn't even tell us the scope of the decisions we'd be making as we voted.

I don't do pass/fail scenarios with open-ended expectations.

I think he thought it was cute when I turned in my chair to face the wall. A protest! Ooh! Yay, democracy! I don't think it stayed cute for more than a couple of days, but cute wasn't my point. If I wasn't allowed to transfer into the other "advanced" civics class (the school cut us off after one or two people), he could find out how much of a pain democracy could be. Then he, I, and the school could decide what that was worth for a grade.

Very shortly after the year started, all of the ninth-grade classes participated in a nuclear simulation at the same time. Our class split up into nations. Each nation got a set of scenarios: pressure on the borders, powerful foes--internal and external--posed to pounce on any misstep. As a nation, each group decided on their response: pacific, aggressive, or something in between.

Our class blew ourselves up on the first turn. One hour of contemplation, minus however long it took to explain the rules, and we had a nuclear war on our hands.

On the up-side, that was the end of the democracy experiment. A rather grim teacher announced that at the same time he announced we were done with the simulation earlier than anyone else. I have no idea whether it made a difference to me. Most of my political education came from looking up the background on Doonesbury strips and Chad Mitchell Trio songs and testing the claims of politicians and lobbyists.

The one lesson I'll never forget from that class, however, is how easy it is to convince ourselves that we don't have any other "real" options. That could be because I've never stopped hearing that as a justification for political decisions, particularly for decisions I wouldn't have made.

I don't know what difference it made to me or my generation to know it was out of our hands whether we lived or died. It would be easy to claim that the materialism of Generation X stems from nuclear nihilism, but we were too young to set the tone of the 80s. It wasn't people my age buying DeLoreans, Rolexes, and coke in bulk.

I don't know that we even had the words to talk about it among ourselves before the situation became less stark. We don't talk about it now. Talking about our teenage years means talking about social pressures and pop culture. For all I know, it wasn't that big a deal to anyone else.

Except for that long, quiet trip through a museum and two instant nods. Those tell me I didn't live through that alone.

March 26, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Rising Lion—The Lion Bows

Zen Cho is a relatively new published writer. You'd never know it from this story. An excerpt:

Mr. Yu told them about the ghost on the way upstairs, speaking low-voiced in Cantonese.

"Nick bought it with the business's money. Without our knowledge," he said. "We hired him because we thought he would understand the British customers better. I suppose it's not his fault. He was very happy about it. He said it was a bargain to get an antique like that in such good condition. He took it well when we told him no more antiques, but he refuses to get rid of this one. He says it adds to the character of the hotel. Matches the surroundings." Mr. Yu looked outraged at the thought. "I can tell you that's not true," he added. "The rest of the surroundings isn't haunted. We got priests to bless the house before we moved in. No ghosts left anywhere, knock wood."

Jia Qi automatically rapped the banister along with Mr. Yu, but Coco was British and did not hold with superstitions. She was only interested in real ghosts.

"How old is the building?" she said.

Keep reading.

March 25, 2011

Reason 41,000,006 We Need Higher Taxes

On the rich at least. Why? Because they don't have any idea how to put that money to use productively. Despite the rhetoric, the vast majority of them don't actually know how to create jobs or even create businesses.

What they do know how to do is put that money "to work." Well, they know they need to in order to make it grow. They don't know how. That's why we got the last tech bubble. That's why we got the housing bubble. And, hey, look, here we go again.

The hallmarks of a bubble in tech are many, but in general, it is agreed upon that:

  • high valuations without corresponding track records,
  • an increase in the number of deals,
  • lots of hype, media frenzy,
  • turnover and profits no longer matter,
  • the prices of 'subject' domains going through the roof,
  • everybody trying to get in on the action,
are all good indicators of a bubble in progress.

Right now, I think it is safe to conclude we're in a bubble, even if some experts are pretty outspoken in stating the opposite.

Ready for your retirement savings to take another rollercoaster ride?

March 24, 2011

Taking Our Fear Seriously

In today's reading, we have Rebecca Watson ready to give up on the internet.

I actually got one point wrong in that video and have wanted to do an update for some time, but every time I try I get another round of comments like the above and I decide it’s not worth my emotional well-being.

I’ve taken to simply ignoring YouTube comments, but for some reason today I responded. I checked out this guy’s profile (warning, autoplay video) and he subscribes to a lot of science stuff, including good friends of mine like Captain Disillusion. I wanted to know what was happening in this guy’s head. Specifically, I wanted to know why someone would call me a bitch and then write something that I basically said in the video (but a bit more eloquently I hope): genital mutilation is wrong, whether on boys or girls.

It's ugly. If you write about women or read about women or are visibly a woman with opinions on the internet, it's not going to surprise you. Read it anyway, unless more of that would be bad for you today.

Then The Bloggess takes some time to get serious.

I realize that I write a (satirical) sex column and blog about my life and you might think that’s an invitation to send me creepy emails, but it’s really not. At all. You continue to try to contact me and I continue to ignore you. You send me strange messages that scare me. I realize you’re probably not aware of how you’re affecting other people but you probably need to seek help. And I’m not the person to help you. Talk to your parents. See a doctor. Please. Because my guess is that I’m not the only woman who you’re emailing. And I’m probably not the only one that you’re scaring.

Let me assure you, you don’t know me, and the things you write make my family and myself very, very uncomfortable. I know that’s not your intention but if you don’t stop, I will contact the police.

Jenny also, wisely, tells her readers not to face something like this alone if it happens to them. She tells them to ignore the messages that have told them not to "make a scene." Smart. Very smart. And needed. I do wish, however, that she'd also taken a moment to remind people to take these stories seriously when they're the person someone chooses to lean on.

It isn't easy, knowing what to say when someone tells you they're scared. Trust me. I know. I've heard some incredibly dismissive things from usually thoughtful people when I've brought up something like this. I've been told some powerfully toxic individuals were "harmless." I could have collected a thousand variations of "Maybe he just...."

Rebecca's post has more comments than I care to count referring to "he" or "the commenter" or telling her, "There are good people out there. This is just one guy." She quoted four bits of nastiness in her post.

Stop this, please. Stop trying to make it better by managing the one person you have some influence over--me (or whoever is complaining). I'm not the problem. Trying to make me think I'm exaggerating isn't going to make the actual problem any smaller. It's big. It's ugly.

If it's more than you can deal with, how about you just tell me so. You might think a statement like that doesn't reflect very well on you, but it does a whole lot better than getting into an argument with me about my safety. Or just learn how to say, "That sucks. Can I help?" There's probably something you can do, and there's a good chance it's small.

Even if not, just listening helps immensely. Besides, you never know when you might learn something from it. For example, today's New York Times reports that the man believed to be behind the 2001 anthrax mailings had a long history of stalking and revenge against women, confessed to various psychiatrists over the years.

The report adds new detail to the F.B.I.’s account of Dr. Ivins’s eccentric and sometimes criminal secret life, including his obsession with a sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, and break-ins at some of its chapter offices. It documents his preoccupation with several women, including his two laboratory technicians, his stalking behavior and his penchant for long night drives to mail or drop off packages, often under assumed names.

One of his therapists took this seriously (pdf). Typically, she was then dismissed.

His therapist became so alarmed that she sought legal advice from her practice’s malpractice insurance carrier and made tentative inquiries with the local police department. She later quit the practice because the physician in charge, referred to as Dr. #3 in this report, did not share her concerns about Dr. Ivins’ dangerousness.

The report details a number of ways in which communication breakdowns led to Ivins keeping his security clearance, but if she had been supported in her fears...well, who knows what would have happened. She wasn't taken seriously, so it didn't.

Unless you're dealing with someone of an age that monsters under the bed and in the closet are developmental milestones, the chances are that the women in your life are strong enough and independent enough that they don't scare easily, much less confess to it. If the behavior aimed at them is getting to them badly enough that they bring it to you, it's worth not waving away. It's worth hearing, worth seeing. It's worth putting together to watch for patterns. It's worth understanding that there are probably also intangibles that get lost in the telling that would impress you more if you were there.

In other words, it's worth taking seriously.

March 23, 2011

At the Nevada Test Site

Prelude and Postscript: Creech AFB

If you watch as we pass, you should get to see them to touch-and-go landings. No disrespect to everyone involved, but those kids who spent all that time with joysticks in their hands....

I. Our Host

"They said Kennedy really wanted to step up testing, and I said, 'You can't do that here. It's not big enough. But the British have been testing at Christmas Island.'

"A couple weeks later, they called me in and said, 'We need you to go to Christmas Island to set up for XYZ.'

"I went home and handed my wife the checkbook."

"Did you ever get your checkbook back?"

"Unfortunately, yes, I did. My wife has Alzheimer's. It's been a good 51 years, though."

II. The Protests

One pen for the men. One for the women. Then we'd bus them to the magistrate, and they'd generally be released on their own recognizance. But at that point, they'd be eighty miles away from their personal effects.

I support their right to protest. That's their privilege. But I wasn't going to help them more than I had to.

Over twelve hundred people went to jail that day. And that’s another story in itself, but anyway. The protesters estimated their crowd at fifteen thousand. At the time I swore up and down it wasn’t more than twelve, but I really believed them. I think there were fifteen thousand people.

III. Camp Desert Rock

I've been in the trenches many times when these things went off, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat. But only on the upwind side. I don't hold with making anyone watch on the downwind side. Why'd it happen? The military side was making those decisions. We didn't have any say.

IV. Grable

MacArthur famously wanted to keep going into China and settle things once and for all. They didn't let him do that, but he did order a bunch of these cannons. This was only fired once.

V. Priscilla

We'll get about three hundred feet from Ground Zero. Those pens you see held animals--mostly pigs, because they're a good human analog--at various distances, above ground and in trenches to find out what the effects would be.

The buildings--you can see the steel and aluminum didn't do so well. We thought being dome-shaped might protect them. It didn't, but the earth berms did. Normal concrete wasn't so good either. The special, high-PSI concrete did pretty well.

This train bridge was built just like a section of the Chicago "L". It was so badly twisted up, we had to take most of it down. I'm glad we kept a section. We weren't planning on tours then, but I always like to show people the bridge. One-inch I-beams, thirty-two inches wide, just bent like that.

An enormous Mosler bank vault sits abandoned and forgotten on the dry lake bed of Frenchman Flat, Nev. It is ugly and rusting, a big cookie jar from hell -- yet it now exists as one of America's greatest monuments to clear thinking.

That giant safe is a relic of an Atomic Energy Commission experiment in 1957 ("Response of Protective Vaults to Blast Loading"). Filled with stocks and bonds, cash and insurance policies, it confirmed that our official valuables, contracts and financial instruments could survive nuclear war. The test must have seemed like a good idea at the time, a masterpiece of steel-and- concrete realpolitik.

VI. Gravel Gerties

It's just a little shack for assembling and disassembling the devices. Only it's got dirt heaped up the sides and gravel on the roof. If something bad happens to you inside, the readings get to the folks outside, and they blow the roof and bring everything down to smother it all so it can't go critical.

Only then, you're not going home for dinner.

VII. Carbon Dioxide

That tank over there provides extra carbon dioxide to the plants in the area. The platforms allow the effects to be seen without disturbing the plants. It's just one of the non-nuclear experiments now on the site.

VIII. IceCap

At 12:01 a.m. October 2, 1992, George Bush entered a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing. Just a few hours later, IceCap would have been lowered into the shaft. The tower and all of the instrument cabling are still in place, although I wouldn't trust the impedance on those cables after they've been lying in the sun all this time.

The test would have determined how well a device would have performed in atmospheric conditions at 40 degrees.

IX. Sedan Crater

The debris plume was five miles wide.

X. Apple II

We found that the cars that were pointed head-on at the blast did quite well. Those that were side-on just rolled.

(If you don't need the math up front, start at 3:00.)

XI. Joint Verification Experiment

While the Russians were here, I managed to spend about eight hours a week at home.

The fact that there are two Soviet teams in and around Nevada reflects the opposing views of how to best reach that goal. The official Soviet team at the Nevada test site is experimenting with so-called hydrodynamic methods of verifying the yield of nuclear weapons, a technique favored by the Reagan Administration. Hydrodynamics deals with the motion of liquids - the rock around the shaft becomes molten when the nuclear device goes off.

The second team, which is not part of the official experiment, is positioned at a Soviet-designed seismographic station on the California-Nevada border. It hopes to help demonstrate that the yields of most nuclear explosions can be accurately estimated with remote instruments, the method favored by Soviet officials.

March 21, 2011

At the Atomic Testing Museum

I. A Is for Atom

II. F.D. Roosevelt, President of the United States


Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in phenomenon would also lead to lead to the construction of bombs...might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory...the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo...attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.

Yours very truly,
Albert Einstein

III. Operation Crossroads

The first bomb missed its target by almost 800 yards. Watchers were not impressed. They reconvened a month later for the second test.

The third demonstration was canceled.

IV. Daigo Fukuryƫ Maru

Unknown to the testers, a Japanese fishing vessel was also in the area.

V. Underground Testing

We were determined to learn from any incident and we did. We never repeated an incident.

Someday, no one living will have seen one of these explosions in person. That worries me. (paraphrased from Robert Rex Brownlee)

VI. Project Pluto

The result was a cruise missile that would be able to drop multiple warheads while leaving a swath of radiation in its wake.


Japanese-style houses were built. An unshielded reactor could be moved up and down the tower to test how the buildings shielded inhabitants from radiation in an effort to help the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

VIII. Counter Terrorism Operations Support

It is the only place they can learn to find and deal with actual radioactive materials at no danger to them.

IX. Modern Remote Sensing

They were able to test how hazardous materials dispersed under a variety of conditions.

X. Inhabitants

The Mojave Desert Tortoise is the only one of the area's inhabitants with a place on the Endangered Species List.

Native Americans volunteered for WWI, ten years before they were granted citizenship. They returned to the test site and kept returning until fences were built and borders enforced.


The Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program delivers benefits to eligible employees and former employees of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), its contractors and subcontractors, or to certain survivors of such individuals, as provided in the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program Act (EEOICPA). This program also includes benefits for certain beneficiaries of Section Five of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

March 20, 2011

Risk, Trust, and the Arrogance of Numbers

In the next couple of days, I will be getting on a plane to go to Las Vegas. I'll be visiting the Atomic Testing Museum and touring the Nevada Test Site, and I'll be flying home. None of that worries me particularly. I'm well aware that I'm much more likely to get hit by a car walking to and from work each day. I should be--it's happened before and I have close calls a minimum of once a week.

That said, I'm still already tired of people telling me how safe--safe, I tell you!--the nuclear power industry is. Some of that is people reacting to any complaint about the industry or the passing along of the scanty news coming out of Japan as though someone were saying the sky is falling, and putting out fatal doses of radiation in the meantime.

Some of it, however, is the reliance of a particular type of information telling me that nuclear energy is as safe as it gets. For example, I've been referred to this set of numbers frequently:

Deaths per TWh for all energy sources

Coal – world average: 161 (26% of world energy, 50% of electricity)
Coal – China: 278
Coal – USA: 15
Oil: 36 (36% of world energy)
Natural Gas: 4 (21% of world energy)
Biofuel/Biomass: 12
Peat: 12
Solar (rooftop): 0.44 (less than 0.1% of world energy)
Wind: 0.15 (less than 1% of world energy)
Hydro: 0.10 (Europe death rate, 2.2% of world energy)
Hydro - world including Banqiao: 1.4 (about 2500 TWh/yr and 171,000 Banqiao dead)
Nuclear: 0.04 (5.9% of world energy)

There are quite a few things that bother me about these numbers. The coal and biofuel safety numbers don't come with a disclaimer that the greatest number of additional deaths from these fuels are due to indoor use for cooking, not from industrial energy production. Wind and solar energy numbers don't reflect that these are developing industries, without decades of safety standards behind them. (Including development numbers for nuclear would drastically change the picture there, given that it was a technology born out of war.) None of these numbers include the costs of destruction of ecosystems, displacement, and unrest caused by the exploitation of resources required.

All those are difficult to quantify, however, and there are no guarantees that they would drastically change the relative risks (except for removing figures for indoor cooking). It is entirely possible that the nuclear power industry has the best track record for the last fifty years or so. I certainly can't tell you it doesn't. That still doesn't give me warm fuzzies over nuclear power, and it kind of creeps me out that it reassures others.

Why? Largely because I live in Minneapolis. I've been through something like this before.

Until the 35W bridge in Minneapolis collapsed, all the statistical data we had said highway bridges were very safe. Collapse was unthinkable based on the numbers. The problem with those statistics is that they were looking at a bunch of bridges that were built around the same time. The data also couldn't account for the pattern of neglect that U.S. infrastructure had undergone for a couple of decades (a form of political corruption). Once we looked at actual bridges instead of historical data, we discovered that many bridges were downright dangerous, on or near the point of serious failure. Without repair and replacement, bridge safety statistics were about to become obsolete in a big way.

We're at a very similar point with what we know about nuclear power production. We have an aging infrastructure, with plants nearing (or past) life expectancy. In order to determine what effect that's likely to have on safety, we need honest evaluation of the current situation, not just the assumption that things will continue as they always have. We are currently reliant on the industry for that evaluation. The question of how much we trust the industry is highly relevant.

It will take time and analysis to be sure, but many of the details that have come out of Fukushima suggest that TEPCO wasn't keeping up with the times in maintaining safety systems. It wasn't applying lessons from prior earthquakes. Early statements from TEPCO suggest it wasn't accurately assessing the risk of the situation. Neither were many others who were speaking for the industry.

That, not historical figures, is what future risk looks like, unless we rebuild the aging infrastructure. Then it might be reasonable to rely on history again. Now, there's a very large question mark that can't be filled in by saying, "Oh, it's always been this way."

Numbers are nice and reassuring, but you need to know what's behind them too. In this case, you need to understand that at least some of your comfort relies on the energy industry stepping up and behaving.

Not only that, but they must behave in a non-competitive situation. The energy situation is very different than the airline situation, to use another example where people are constantly told their fears are irrational. Our energy demand is going up and up, and we can't just say, "No, thank you. I trust this company more, so I'll get my energy from them." We don't have the luxury of looking at nuclear power plants in which we have invested billions of dollars and changing our minds about them, and we'd be unlikely to even if we had that luxury.

We have very few options to make the industry behave where we have allowed it to flourish. That means we must plan for a certain amount of corruption at the executive level. That means that Fukushima, rather than being considered an aberration, must be considered one of the normal failures of the industry, and more so as the demand for energy increases. No matter what the historical numbers say.

If you, personally. want to rely on the historical numbers, or if you need to use them to manage your own anxieties in a productive way, I get that. However, they're nothing like the whole picture in Fukushima or in any future decision-making about nuclear power. Please refrain from suggesting to the rest of us that the numbers are the only things with which we need to concern ourselves.

March 19, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Mimsy Were the Borogoves

This is one of the classics of science fiction, and rightfully so, written by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner. An excerpt:

Somewhat unwillingly Scott brought the gadget across to his father's chair. Paradine blinked. The "abacus," unfolded, was more than a foot square, composed of thing, rigid wires that interlocked here and there. On the wires colored beads were strung. They could be slid back and forth, and from one support to another, even at the points of juncture. But - a pierced bead couldn't cross interlocking wires .

So, apparently, they weren't pierced. Paradine looked closer. Each small bead had a deep groove running around it, so that it could be revolved and slid along the wire at the same time. Paradine tried to pull one free. It clung as though magnetically. Iron? It looked more like plastic.

The framework itself - Paradine wasn't a mathematician. But the angles formed by the wires were vaguely shocking, in their ridiculous lack of Euclidean logic. They were a maze. Perhaps that's what the gadget was - a puzzle.

"Uncle Harry gave it to me, "Scott said on the spur of the moment. "Last Sunday, when he came over." Uncle Harry was out of town, a circumstance Scott well knew. At the age of seven, a boy soon learns that the vagaries of adults follow a certain definite pattern, and that they are fussy about the donors of gifts. Moreover, Uncle Harry would not return for several weeks; the expiration of that period was unimaginable to Scott, or, at least, the fact that his lie would ultimately be discovered meant less to him than the advantages of being allowed to keep the toy.

Paradine found himself growing slightly confused as he attempted to manipulate the beads. The angles were vaguely illogical. It was like a puzzle. This red bead, if slid along this wire to that junction, should reach there but it didn't. A maze, odd, but no doubt instructive. Paradine had a well-founded feeling that he'd have no patience with the thing himself.

Scott did, however, retiring to a corner and sliding beads around with much fumbling and grunting. The beads did sting, when Scott chose the wrong ones or tried to slide them in the wrong direction. At last he crowed exultantly.

"I did it, dad!"

"Eh? What? Let's see." The device looked exactly the same to Paradine, but Scott pointed and beamed.

"I made it disappear."

"It's still there."

"That blue bead. It's gone now."

Paradine didn't believe that, so he merely snorted. Scott puzzled over the framework again. He experimented. This time there were no shocks, even slight. The abacus had showed him the correct method. Now it was up to him to do it on his own. The bizarre angles of the wires seemed a little less confusing now, somehow.

It was a most instructive toy-

Keep reading.

March 18, 2011

Just in Case the World Ends

Need a bit of this at the end of this week.

The Chariot

This is a song that came upon me one night
When the news, it had been telling me 'bout one more war and one more fight

March 16, 2011

Rights Must Be Protected *and* Shared

Via Mike the Mad Biologist comes an excellent article entitled “Power Concedes Nothing Without a Demand,” a reminder of the cost of those things we consider rights and assume cannot be taken from us.

Those who fought to achieve these rights endured tremendous suffering, pain and deprivation. It is they who made possible our middle class and opened up our democracy. The elite hired goons and criminal militias to evict striking miners from company houses, infiltrate fledgling union organizations and murder suspected union leaders and sympathizers. Federal marshals, state militias, sheriff’s deputies and at times Army troops, along with the courts and legislative bodies, were repeatedly used to crush and stymie worker revolts. Striking sugar cane workers were gunned down in Thibodaux, La., in 1887. Steel workers were shot to death in 1892 in Homestead, Pa. Railroad workers in the Pullman strike of 1894 were murdered. Coal miners at Ludlow, Colo., in 1914 and at Matewan, W.Va., in 1920 were massacred. Our freedoms and rights were paid for with their courage and blood.

American democracy arose because those consciously locked out of the system put their bodies on the line and demanded justice. The exclusion of the poor and the working class from the systems of power in this country was deliberate. The Founding Fathers deeply feared popular democracy. They rigged the system to favor the elite from the start, something that has been largely whitewashed in public schools and by a corporate media that has effectively substituted myth for history. Europe’s poor, fleeing to America from squalid slums and workhouses in the 17th and 18th centuries, were viewed by the privileged as commodities to exploit. Slaves, Native Americans, indentured servants, women, and men without property were not represented at the Constitutional Conventions. And American history, as Howard Zinn illustrated in “The People’s History of the United States,” is one long fight by the marginalized and disenfranchised for dignity and freedom. Those who fought understood the innate cruelty of capitalism.

Go read the whole thing. Give it some time to sink in. It's highly likely that your economic education has been poor enough that it will take some time to grasp all the pieces. Reread it as necessary.

One thing to watch, though.

The liberal class has busied itself with the toothless pursuits of inclusiveness, multiculturalism, identity politics and tolerance—a word Martin Luther King never used—and forgotten about justice.

Be careful of arguments like this. I'm seeing too many of them lately.

There are ways to use identity politics to divide, yes, and the class of capital is as expert at these as they are at every other type of divisiveness. However, at their heart, the ideas of inclusiveness are little more than saying that where there are human rights to be had, we must fight the idea that some things legitimately exclude groups of people from claiming those rights.

We don't even have to do it because it's simply the right thing to do (although it is). When capital wants to chip away at human rights, it goes after those groups first. Union busting targets teachers, who are largely female (and who were much more valued when the profession was mostly male). School privatization targets inner-city schools, with large minority populations whom we're told don't stand a chance to succeed unless drastic measures are taken. Immigration "reform," which increases the consequences of working illegally without any real hope of decreasing the numbers, targets Hispanics. Reality-based decision makers are pushed out of office as unacceptable religious minorities.

Little by little, they carve us away, push us apart, and reclaim what they believe is theirs. And for the most part, they let us do the work. It is no accident that the regressives demonize identity politics. Threatening us individually with the idea that no one will believe we are due our human rights works. It works very well.

It works even better when those on the left tell us that our concerns over those threats are just a distraction. They are not. Our rights were won by unions, but those rights have not been shared by all equally. Many of us have continued to be told we are not human, and not just by those on the right.

Unions require a certain amount of trust. Alliances are often uneasy, more uneasy the larger and more diverse they are. Denying the importance of identity politics, denying the call that we must all share in what we protect and what we regain, won't build that trust. It won't build those alliances. Instead, every time we're told it's unimportant, we have to spend the energy to explain one more time why that isn't so. Just as I'm doing here.

So stop it, lefties. Leave patting us on the head and saying everything's just fine to those on the right. Just acknowledge that, yes, it is every bit as important that we share in the reward as it is that we share in the work. Just commit to the idea that we're every bit as human when it comes to human rights. That's all.

Then we can get on with this thing. Together.

March 15, 2011

Good Female Game Characters

I can't think of one thing that needs to be added to this, except to note that the same goes for any kind of storytelling.

March 14, 2011

Don't Pass It On

Want to make a nurse happy? Just say, "While you're in my record, how long has it been since my last tetanus booster? Long enough that it was before they recommended an adult pertussis booster?" Oh, do the eyes ever light up.

Four days after getting a DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccination, my shoulder is still a little sore. Pain lasting that long at the injection site is unusual, as is the overall joint involvement I got to go through. (Pro tip: don't be me. There's a reason I call myself defective. This is how my body treats me.) Still, it was entirely worth it.

Why? Well, there's this:

The pertussis epidemic continues in California, which has seen 5,658 confirmed, probable, and suspected cases as of this week.

That is the most cases seen in the state since 1950, when there were 6,613, according to the California Department of Public Health (CDPH).

The rate of illness -- 14.5 per 100,000 population -- is the highest since 1959 (16.1 per 100,000).

Of the cases with hospitalization information, 10% required admission. Three-quarters of hospitalizations occurred in infants younger than 6 months, and of those, three-quarters were Hispanic.

Nine babies have died, including eight younger than 2 months -- the age at which pertussis vaccination starts -- and one 2-month-old who had been born prematurely and who had received just one dose of the tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine (Tdap).

There's also the fact that it's not just California that's seeing increased vulnerability:

Fewer Minnesota toddlers are getting scheduled shots for major diseases, a new report says, because of declining health insurance coverage and rising parental skepticism about immunizations.

The report by Children's Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota cited federal data showing a decline in the childhood immunization rate from 80.5 percent in 2007 - when the state ranked seventh nationally - to 76.9 percent in 2009.

"Any drop, even 1 percentage point, will get our attention," said Patricia Stinchfield, an immunization specialist at Children's. "What is 1 percentage point in Minnesota? 4,000 kids. That's 150 classrooms of kids that are not vaccinated."

The report concludes that Minnesota's childhood immunization rate fell to 20th among states in 2009.

And while I may not hang around many babies whom I could infect if I caught pertussis, it's a disease that sucks for adults as well. Then there are those who can't be vaccinated because they're already in fragile health:

Carrie, of course, is not otherwise healthy. She’s prone to seizures, one of the rare complications of pertussis. She also has that problem with swallowing.

Think back to the last time you had a bad coughing fit. It’s gross, but think about the saliva and the mucus. Think about the last time you threw up. Now imagine all that together, along with gasping for air–and not being able to swallow.

If Carrie gets pertussis, she’ll almost certainly get pneumonia. Well, she will if the doctors can keep her from choking to death first. There’s a very good reason that pneumonia is a common complication of pertussis, even without Carrie’s problems.

I don’t know whether she’s strong enough to survive it. Honestly, I’ve been too cowardly to ask. Matt and his wife will know, though. They’ll have been thinking these same things, trying not to let their worry show, as they try to keep her entertained while she’s home from school. Other parents at the school will have been thinking similar thoughts. As I mentioned earlier, Carrie’s school has a large population of medically fragile students. Some of them won’t have had the vaccine for sound medical reasons. How many of them could survive pertussis?

Yeah. No matter how many times I said, "Ow," lifting something over the past few days, no matter how much my hips hurt, it was entirely worth it to know that I'm not passing on something much, much worse to someone else.

So the next time you go to your doctor, have a happy little chat with your nurse, won't you?

March 13, 2011

Rape Myth #1: She's Probably Lying

ResearchBlogging.orgTawana Brawley. Duke University men's lacrosse team.

If you see a rape allegation in the news, those words aren't far behind. They are talismans, touchstones for the idea that we must never, ever forget that women lie about rape. These women lied; therefore, women lie.

The truth is, of course, that some women do lie about having been raped. That shouldn't surprise us. People make false accusations about every type of crime, even murder, where it is excruciatingly difficult to do. If no woman ever lied about being raped, the gender might have some collective claim to sainthood.

The difference with rape is the reminder. Name someone who gave an acquaintance a gift then accused them of robbery. Find me a blog post about a robbery where one of these people is mentioned. Name someone who is used to demonstrate that insurance fraud occurs--every time a large insurance payout for theft makes the papers. Name one of those audacious people who tried to frame someone for a murder that never happened, even in fiction, then show me how their name comes up every time a body isn't found.

It doesn't happen. We're not told that people lie about these things. We're told that women lie about rape.

The implication in the "women lie" narrative is that we must be particularly on our guard against false accusations of rape, that any particular accusation is unlikely to be true. But is it?

The Rate of False Report
The standard figure passed around by victim advocates suggests a rate of false reports of 8% based on FBI crime statistics from 1997. This is comparable to rates for other crimes. However, citations can be found for rates as low as 1.5% and as high as 90%. In other words, huh? How do we deal with a range that big?

Luckily for those who want to sort out the truth of the matter, two papers came out in 2010 that shed considerable light by examining how false rape report rates are generated. David Lisak, Lori Gardinier, Sarah C. Nicksa, and Ashley M. Cote collected those prior studies that had the best (and most transparent) processes for sorting between false and merely unproven allegations. They also used a similar process for determining the rate of false reports of rape at a U.S. college.

Their results were interesting in two respects. The first is that all the credible studies produced rates close to the standard figure. Rates ranged from 2.1% to 10.9%, with the college study falling in the middle at 5.9%. The numbers on rape just don't support the idea that extra vigilance is required for this crime over others.

The second finding of the study is even more striking. In the authors' own words, "It is notable that in general the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifications, the lower the rate of false reporting detected." Those studies that relied on sorting done by the police produced the highest rates of rape. Those that examined the details of the cases labeled as false and required evidence of lies, rather than merely suspicion, produced the lowest rates. The 2.1% represents accusers who were charged with making false reports, the strictest criteria. (See this post for some thoughts on applying the presumption of innocence equally to accusers and accused in cases of rape.)

What Is A False Report?
The paper from Lisak and his coauthors discusses the criteria that must be met in order for a police report to be classified as false, noting that official statistics frequently include cases not meeting the criteria. Liz Kelly, in a separate paper released in 2010, examines two "attrition" studies, studies that track the ways in which rape cases fall out of the criminal justice system. Aside from convictions, how can rape cases end up classified?

  • Declined to prosecute: Not enough evidence has been turned up to comfortably persuade a jury. Although the legal standard here is "reasonable doubt," prosecutors also face human prejudices when making these decisions, their own and those of potential jurors.

  • Uncooperative victims: The victim has stopped cooperating with investigators or refuses to testify. This will include cases where the victim doesn't want to be responsible for the rapist going to prison, common in all types of domestic assault. It will also include cases in which dealing with the criminal justice system has become too traumatic. More discussion on that later.

  • Victims deemed not credible: The police or prosecutor have decided that the victim is not to be believed. The victim may have personal characteristics that are considered untrustworthy (such as mental illness), or may have memory impairments (such as intoxication) making a clear picture of the rape difficult. This may also cover victims who withhold details of the rape or events leading to the rape out of embarrassment or fear of incrimination. I'll also discuss this in more detail in the next section.

  • No crime occurred: This is different than false reports. This category includes incidents that may have occurred but did not rise to the level of a crime in the jurisdiction involved (for example, failure to stop sex when consent is withdrawn is not codified as a crime in legal statutes in the vast majority of the U.S.). It also involves complaints by third parties that did not hold up when the "victim" was interviewed and cases in which someone went to the police for help determining whether they had been sexually assaulted, usually after a period of unconsciousness, but no evidence of sex was found.

  • False reports: The reporter has plausibly recanted, or substantial evidence exists to show that the accusation is unfounded.

Only the last of these is actually a false report. The rest of them either don't involve an accusation, or they exist in that murky land where we don't know what happened. So how do so many of them end up being included in the false report statistics?

Making the Numbers
It is notable that in general the greater the scrutiny applied to police classifications, the lower the rate of false reporting detected.

Both the Lisak and Kelly papers include multiple studies that compare actual police classification procedures to international standards. To put it briefly, they don't measure up. Depending on the location, any of those other classifications, aside from reports ending in convictions, might end up being included in official figures on false reports.

Some of this may be sloppy paperwork or coding, but part of the problem is the officers themselves. Kelly reports that even among those who are supposed to be experts in rape, the following attitudes can be found:

We have a lot of allegations that are then retracted, we have a lot of allegations that it comes out in the wash one way or another that it was consensual. He says it’s consensual and she doesn’t, or they’ve been together for like hours beforehand, she’s gone back to his flat. . . . But stranger rape, you immediately start to think, “Oh God, this could be a real proper sort of drag you in the car,” absolutely nothing beforehand has happened. I think subconsciously you would consider it more serious. . . . I think I’d have more belief in the victim, that that was saying it was by a stranger, that . . . it was a proper rape, rather than perhaps someone who said “It’s my ex-boyfriend, he came round,” because then you start to think things like, “Oh, she’s just getting back at him now.” (Female detective constable 2)

I have dealt with hundreds and hundreds of rapes in the last few years, and I can honestly probably count on both hands the ones that I believe are truly genuine. (Male detective constable 2)

In addition to finding that coding procedures weren't followed, the attrition studies Kelly reviewed also uncovered investigation techniques that violated international standards. The most egregious of these was offering lie-detector tests to victims, a practice widely viewed as hostile and accusatory toward victims. Using procedures such as these is one way to inflate the number of cases in which victims stop cooperating.

The prevalence of rape myths among the police forces coding reports as false should also be cause for concern when looking at their uncorrected numbers. When the women they consider untrustworthy match the profiles for those most at risk of rape (mentally ill, developmentally disabled, intoxicated, previously victimized--although the papers don't mention it, racial and sexual minority status fall here too), or those exhibiting rape trauma (scattered, faulty memory, embarrassed, ashamed), they are making decisions that push these cases out of the system on a prejudicial basis, not a factual one.

Then there is the fact that law enforcement is under continual pressure to reduce crime rates. That can lead to situations like that uncovered in Baltimore last year by the Baltimore Sun:

The problem in Baltimore is striking, but Baltimore is hardly the only city affected. If you need to change your crime rate, deciding that more rape accusations are "unfounded" is a simple administrative solution.

These examples are why we can't trust raw law enforcement numbers, which provide the citations for "women lie" arguments. If a police force doesn't know what is and isn't rape, how can it decide which rapes are falsely reported? If a police force decides that in he-said, she-said situations, "she" is arbitrarily not to be trusted, how can we trust their decisions on whether or not she lied? If a police forces continue to endorse rape myths, why would we trust their reporting numbers uncritically?

These are decisions that have consequences. They have consequences for the recovery of victims, as being disbelieved is a risk factor for poor recovery after rape (Ullman 1996). And they have consequences for the rest of us as well. The re-offence rate for rapists isn't entirely clear, but the low estimates put it around 20%. Kelly cites three cases of serial rapists in which early victims were recorded as having filed false reports.

Given the small number of false reports found in well-built studies, and the large number of repeat rapists, it might be time to give some serious thought to how well our societal strategy of disbelief serves us.

A Note on Real False Reports
Kelly's paper provides some interesting detail on a sample of reports that were accurately coded as false. Unlike the stereotype, most of the false reports did not involve direct accusations of a particular person. They were stranger-rape scenarios.

Also, in both the stranger-rape and acquaintance-rape scenarios, the false accuser was generally a victim of some sort. Some had been otherwise abused by those people they accused, including prior sexual abuse. Some were reporting rape to avoid abuse they would have otherwise received, as is suspected to the case for Tawana Brawley.

None of that excuses the false reporting of rape. It simply provides an opportunity to think about what might be done to reduce the rate of false reports even further.

Kelly L (2010). The (in)credible words of women: false allegations in European rape research. Violence against women, 16 (12) PMID: 21164212

Lisak D, Gardinier L, Nicksa SC, & Cote AM (2010). False allegations of sexual assualt: an analysis of ten years of reported cases. Violence against women, 16 (12), 1318-34 PMID: 21164210

Ullman, S. (1996). SOCIAL REACTIONS, COPING STRATEGIES, AND SELF-BLAME ATTRIBUTIONS IN ADJUSTMENT TO SEXUAL ASSAULT Psychology of Women Quarterly, 20 (4), 505-526 DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-6402.1996.tb00319.x

March 12, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Balanced Ecology

James Schmitz has always been my favorite Golden Age SF author. Part of it is that his heroes (of multiple genders) are competent. It is a joy to see them at work, scheming against seemingly impossible odds. A rather large part of it, though, is that his non-human characters live in a way that one rarely sees in stories. This is particularly true for characters that are ecosystems.

No, really. Ecosystems.

The work that shows this off to best advantage is Schmitz's novel, The Demon Breed (full text), but it is a critical element of this week's story as well. An excerpt:

He put his left hand up to his face, and Ilf saw he was wearing a wrist-talker. "Het," Mr. Terokaw said to the talker without taking his eyes off Riquol Cholm, "you are aware, I believe, that the children are with us in the house?"

The wrist-talker made murmuring sounds for a few seconds, then stopped.

"Yes," Mr. Terokaw said. "There should be no problem about it. But let me know if you see somebody approaching the area . . . " He put his hand back down on the table. "Mr. Bliman, please continue."

Mr. Bliman cleared his throat again.

"Mr. Kugus Ovin," he said, "is now officially recorded as the parent by adoption of his niece, Auris Luteel. Since Auris has not yet reached the age where her formal consent to this action would be required, the matter is settled."

"Meaning," Mr. Terokaw added, "that Kugus can act for Auris in such affairs as selling the cutting rights on this tree farm. Mr. Cholm, if you are thinking of taking legal action against us, forget it. You may have had certain papers purporting to show that the girl was your adopted child filed away in the deposit vault of a bank. If so, those papers have been destroyed. With enough money, many things become possible. Neither you nor Mrs. Cholm nor the two children will do or say anything that might cause trouble to me. Since you have made no rash moves, Mr. Bliman will now use an instrument to put you and Mrs. Cholm painlessly to sleep for the few hours required to get you off this planet. Later, if you should be questioned in connection with this situation, you will say about it only what certain psychological experts will have impressed on you to say, and within a few months, nobody will be taking any further interest whatever in what is happening here today.

"Please do not think that I am a cruel man. I am not. I merely take what steps are required to carry out my purpose. Mr. Bliman, please proceed!"

Ilf felt a quiver of terror. Uncle Kugus was holding his wrist with one hand and Auris' wrist with the other, smiling reassuringly down at them. Ilf darted a glance over to Auris' face. She looked as white as his grandparents but she was making no attempt to squirm away from Kugus, so Ilf stayed quiet, too. Mr. Bliman stood up, looking more like a fierce bird of prey than ever, and stalked over to Riquol Cholm, holding something in his hand that looked unpleasantly like another gun. Ilf shut his eyes. There was a moment of silence, then Mr. Terokaw said, "Catch him before he falls out of the chair. Mrs. Cholm, if you will just settle back comfortably . . . "

Keep reading.

March 11, 2011

Don't Talk, Just Read

You may have noticed that it...bothers me when people say stupid stuff about rape. Yes, it's harmful, both because it invalidates those who have experienced rape and because it validates those who think rape is no big deal. That's the part that infuriates me.

The part that annoys me and sticks under my skin, hanging on perhaps even longer than the fury, is that if these same people would just shut up and pay attention, they'd likely learn something important. As I've mentioned before, it's not that hard to find people to talk about rape intelligently and compassionately--and with a command of the facts.

Anyone who's reads a Twitter feed based around information will have seen this great post by Roxane Gay about the need to write carefully about rape. (Those who don't pay their feed regular attention will see it in the next week or so.) She says what I was trying to say yesterday, but in a more writerly way, plus much more about how we trivialize rape by the way we portray it.

While I have these concerns, I also feel committed to telling the truth, to saying these violences happen even if bearing such witness contributes to a spectacle of sexual violence. When we’re talking about race or religion or politics, it is often said we need to speak carefully. These are difficult topics where we need to be vigilant not only in what we say but how we express ourselves. That same care, I would suggest, has to be extended to how we write about violence, and sexual violence in particular.

In the Times article, the phrase “sexual assault” is used, as is the phrase “the girl had been forced to have sex with several men.” The word “rape” is only used twice and not really in connection with the victim. That is not the careful use of language. Language, in this instance, and far more often than makes sense, is used to buffer our sensibilities from the brutality of rape, from the extraordinary nature of such a crime. Feminist scholars have long called for a rereading of rape. Higgins and Silver note that “the act of rereading rape involves more than listening to silences; it requires restoring rape to the literal, to the body: restoring, that is, the violence—the physical, sexual violation.” I would suggest we need to find new ways, whether in fiction or creative nonfiction or journalism, for not only rereading rape but rewriting rape as well, ways of rewriting that restore the actual violence to these crimes and that make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities and that make it impossible for articles like McKinley’s to be written, to be published, to be considered acceptable.

Read the whole thing.

Nor is rape a new topic. Anyone who had been paying attention a year and a half ago, when the film industry decided to collectively take on jury duty for Roman Polanski, would likely have seen links to this post by Harriet Jacobs about how our society concludes that women haven't been raped because they're doing exactly what they've been trained to do.

People wonder why women don’t “fight back,” but they don’t wonder about it when women back down in arguments, are interrupted, purposefully lower and modulate their voices to express less emotion, make obvious signals that they are uninterested in conversation or being in closer physical proximity and are ignored. They don’t wonder about all those daily social interactions in which women are quieter, ignored, or invisible, because those social interactions seem normal. They seem normal to women, and they seem normal to men, because we were all raised in the same cultural pond, drinking the same Kool-Aid.

And then, all of a sudden, when women are raped, all these natural and invisible social interactions become evidence that the woman wasn’t truly raped. Because she didn’t fight back, or yell loudly, or run, or kick, or punch. She let him into her room when it was obvious what he wanted. She flirted with him, she kissed him. She stopped saying no, after a while.

Again, read the full post. Read the discussion in the comments as well. They're well-moderated, so instead of the usual mess, you get insight and exchanges of ideas that could be their own posts.

Then, notice that you've learned something, even if you already know something about rape and rape culture. And the next time some idiot comes along, spewing know-nothing blather, feel all the more free to suggest their time could be better spent digging their way out of ignorance.

March 10, 2011

That Ain't Right

By now you probably know that the Republican Wisconsin senators decided that union busting wasn't a budget issue after all, split their bill in a closed session (in a state with open meeting laws), and passed it with only Sen. Schultz voting against it. The Republicans in the Assembly have already passed the provisions once, so the split bill isn't expected to meet opposition there.

This is likely to get...interesting. These provisions don't have popular support, and recall effort organization for several senators was already well underway before the illegal move. The Assembly and governor's office are about the only places this bill doesn't face stiff opposition.

Protesters are occupying the capitol again. City police and county sheriffs have declined to move them. They've already shown organization and dedication not seen since Vietnam. The protest folk music has already begun.

What comes next?

If you want to watch in real time, The UpTake is streaming video from Madison.

March 09, 2011

Transcription "Journalism" Fails on Rape

So...the New York Times put out an article about an eleven-year-old girl who was gang raped in Texas. Well, actually, the article wasn't about her. It's about how all these people around the event were devastated by it. You know, the guys who did it (who helpfully created pictorial and video evidence such that the question of innocence is largely moot):

“It’s just destroyed our community,” said Sheila Harrison, 48, a hospital worker who says she knows several of the defendants. “These boys have to live with this the rest of their lives.”

And the town:

“It’s devastating, and it’s really tearing our community apart,” she said. “I really wish that this could end in a better light.”

And the mother, who clearly bears more blame than the rapists:

“Where was her mother? What was her mother thinking?” said Ms. Harrison, one of a handful of neighbors who would speak on the record. “How can you have an 11-year-old child missing down in the Quarters?”

And the community institutions:

Churches have held prayer services for the victim. The students who were arrested have not returned to school, and it is unclear if they ever will.

But not the victim. Well, not unless you consider this:

They said she dressed older than her age, wearing makeup and fashions more appropriate to a woman in her 20s. She would hang out with teenage boys at a playground, some said.

I'm not going to go into everything that's wrong with this article. It's horrid through and through, and Mae McClelland at Mother Jones has made a good start in pointing out how. For the moment, I'd rather talk about why.

If you look at the major failures of the Times article, you can see that they mostly don't come from the reporter. Not surprising. It's incredibly easy to find people saying idiotic things about rape and very, very difficult to get it through to them that there is a better strategy than talking when they don't know what they're talking about.

But you know what? We know that. We've known for decades that most people get things wrong about crime, and we sure as hell know that they're worse on the topic of rape. We know that people misassign blame. We know that they tend to treat perpetrators as something short of criminals. We know that there's a lot of special pleading that goes on that makes what happened "not really rape."

That, my dear friends, is why we employ experts. We employ them in training law enforcement personnel, because they don't get rape on their own. We employ them to talk to juries in rape cases, because juries don't know what constitutes evidence of consent or trauma on their own. We employ them to set up programs to prevent rape and to deal with the aftermath, because rape is so entwined in our culture that very few of us really understand all of what we're looking at when we look at rape.

We don't--I emphasize--do not let any old schmuck off the street do any of that. Never. We just don't. Because they get it wrong, as this article demonstrates so thoroughly.

This "reporter" did just that, though. He took exactly what the average idiot on the street told him and reported it as though it were somehow relevant to the matter at hand. The matter at hand being the gang rape of a pre-teen. In a situation that causes any other kind of responsible professional to go the experts, this guy just printed what he was told. His editor, supposedly another professional, allowed it.

Unfortunately, that's what all too much "journalism" is looking like these days: transcription with no value added. Which is not to say that transcription has no value. Instead it has roughly the same value as the sources transcribed, making it all the more important that the reporters and editors involved be professional in choosing their sources.

It isn't hard to find an expert on the topic of rape. It isn't hard to find someone willing to point out that adult clothes don't make adult choices or that even if they did "or we'll beat you up" isn't a choice. It isn't hard to find someone willing to tell you that the only newsworthy question about the victim is "Is she being taken good care of?" (The answer is likely to be less simple, but it usually is.) It isn't hard to find someone who can point out that rape cases make communities uncomfortable because they put reality in direct conflict with comfortable, familiar myth on many levels.

It isn't hard to turn the idiotic words of a few willing mouths into a lesson on the realities of rape, even if you're not willing to take responsibility for debunking the myths in your own voice. And it desperately, consistently needs to be done. That it wasn't done in this article is a failure of insight, it's a failure of professionalism, and it's a failure of journalism. It needs to be fixed.

Go sign the petition to tell them so.

March 07, 2011

Responsible Retirement

It's not hard to find organizations talking about retirement being in a crisis due to pensions. From organizations using that narrative to undercut unions to reporting that uses a snapshot approach to talk about plans with very long life-spans, the idea that pension plan funding and retiring baby boomers are going to bankrupt us all is everywhere. However, there are two problems with this idea.

The first is that it's not true. State pensions and private pensions are not fully funded at the moment, but that has more to do with the current state of the markets and the fact that contributions largely weren't made to these plans while market returns were being inflated by the tech and housing bubbles. Contributions need to be made, but nothing is spiraling out of control. Benefits cost money. That's just the way it works.

The second problem with the pension crisis narrative, however, is worse. The emphasis on pensions hides a much larger problem with retirement in America. This crisis won't hit for another decade or two, but the size of the problem is easily visible today--if you look.

What is the financial magnitude of the nation’s retirement income crisis? Retirement USA asked the respected non-partisan Center for Retirement Research at Boston College to calculate the figure that represents our current retirement income deficit – that is, the gap between the pensions and retirement savings that American households have today and what they should have today to maintain their standard of living. Using the data from the Federal Reserve Board’s Survey of Consumer Finances, the Retirement Research Center has calculated that figure at $6.6 trillion.

The deficit figure covers households in their peak earning and saving years—those in the 32-64 age range—excluding younger workers who are just beginning to save for retirement as well as most retirees. It takes into account all major sources of retirement income and assets: Social Security, traditional pension plans, 401(k)-style plans, and other forms of saving, and housing.

It's not hard to say what's driving this. We are stunningly bad at long-term planning, we're not terribly numerate, and almost everything around us encourages us to live at the edges of our means. That was bad enough in the era of the paternalistic pension, but now that 401(k) plans make the money to fund our retirements "ours" in a more immediate sense, we're doomed. We decide we can't afford to contribute. We take loans and hardship withdrawals. We cash out our savings instead of rolling them over when we switch employers. We're not saving the money we need.

Beyond that, we're doing a lousy job of investing the money we do save. We try to play the market. We avoid risk (and its associated reward). In volatile markets, we do exactly the opposite of what we should do--we sell low and buy high. As investors, we suck.

And if you're sitting there feeling smug because none of what I've just said applies to you, hang on a minute. Actually, hang on for 10 to 20 years. That's when my generation (Gen X) will start retiring and you get to really find out what this means for you.

Let's start with what it means for your kids. We've seen it the last couple of years. Fewer people are retiring at all, and those who are leaving their careers are often still working, just in a less demanding job. Can't afford to start drawing down your savings too quickly when you don't have much. That means jobs that would be entry-level or unskilled are going to people with job histories to show they're reliable. Young adults find it harder to find jobs. Sorry, kids.

Then there's the run on public services. For the working poor, Social Security isn't nearly enough for financial security. And no matter how much we say we're going to throttle "entitlement" spending, money we don't pay on basic services we end up spending on other services. If we don't pay for food stamps, we pay for health care. If we don't pay for preventive care, we pay for emergency care. There are costs we just can't make go away. If retirees can't pay, the rest of us do, and we don't even get humane outcomes for our money.

Finally, there is the impact on the economy. We live in a consumer-driven economy. Poorer consumers mean a less-healthy economy. In addition to what that means for jobs for everyone still working, that hits savings invested in the market. It hits bonds as well, as those are no longer nearly as independent of stock price movements as they used to be. And once the effects start hitting, people who have savings won't even be able to protect them by buying annuities. The current interest rates make annuities very expensive right now, and that's going to be the case whenever markets are threatened.

So, saver or non-saver, you have only so much time before this retirement income deficit hits us all, and hard. Isn't it about time to tell your media and your government to ignore the pension non-crisis and start paying attention to this?

March 05, 2011

Saturday Storytime: Non-Zero Probabilities

N. K. Jemisin is the author of the Inheritance Trilogy, which are (warning!) not all out just yet (but soon!). Nonetheless, they've received plenty of praise, including the highly desirable Publishers Weekly starred review. Sample chapters are available if you want to give them a try. First time's free. Won't tell your mom.

Jemisin's short work is getting attention too. This week's story was nominated for a Nebula Award. Imagine, if you can wrap your head around it, a city in which probability works very differently. An excerpt:

And it's not like the signs are all bad. The state had to suspend its lottery program; too many winners in one week bankrupted it. The Knicks made it to the Finals and the Mets won the Series. A lot of people with cancer went into spontaneous remission, and some folks with full-blown AIDS stopped showing any viral load at all. (There are new tours now. Double-decker buses full of the sick and disabled. Adele tries to tell herself they're just more tourists.)

The missionaries from out of town are the worst. On any given day they step in front of her, shoving tracts under her nose and wanting to know if she's saved yet. She's getting better at spotting them from a distance, yappy islands interrupting the sidewalk river's flow, their faces alight with an inner glow that no self-respecting local would display without three beers and a fat payday check. There's one now, standing practically underneath a scaffolding ladder. Idiot; two steps back and he'll double his chances for getting hit by a bus. (And then the bus will catch fire.)

In the same instant that she spots him, he spots her, and a grin stretches wide across his freckled face. She is reminded of blind newts that have light-sensitive spots on their skin. This one is unsaved-sensitive. She veers right, intending to go around the scaffold, and he takes a wide step into her path again. She veers left; he breaks that way.

She stops, sighing. "What."

Keep reading.

March 03, 2011

I'll Take That Bet

Or, Why Pascal's Wager Bothers Me Not at All

I Have Lived

Now the neon lights are dimming. No more costumes, no more paint.
I admit that I was selfish. I have lived.

March 01, 2011

Living Without Religion


Hooray to the Center for Inquiry for such a basic, human message.