Thursday, April 30, 2009

Everyone's always blaming the free market for its failures, but joke's on them - it doesn't exist!

Consumerist has been pushing the Arbitration Fairness Act, which addresses the problem of mandatory arbitration clauses effectively voiding the very contracts and in which they are situated (except that part about mandatory arbitration), as well as the contract's relation to the laws of the United States, where most contracts contain these clauses.

Today they tell the story of a guy who lost his job when his prosthetic leg started giving him blisters and he started using crutches instead. Bullshit, right? He says that using crutches had hardly any impact on his job performance, but that he was told over and over that he had to use his painful prosthetic. Under the ADA, an employer is required to reasonably accomodate a worker's disability, and it sounds quite reasonable to me that a guy use his crutches when other options for mobility cause him pain and infection.

The running joke at Consumerist all week as they've been highlighting this act is, "Don't blame the free market for this - you don't have to sign that contract." This holds some water regarding purchases, but is totally bankrupt when it applies to getting or keeping a job with a discriminatory employer. My favorite so far has been:

To those saying that this is an example of the failure of free markets, no one has ever been forced to sign an MBA. Just as capital is free to move in a free market, so is labor. The OP could have taken his labor elsewhere or not signed a contract with an MBA. Now I am in no way in favor of MBA's, but this is not a failure of the free market because we, as laborers, have the ability to take our labor elsewhere if we don't like the policies of our employers.

What I don't get is why free-market capitalists get so upset when anyone impugns the honor of the free market. Who the hell cares about your poor widdow free market when it doesn't exist? Physically moving to where you can get work with a reasonable contract is a cost that a laborer can't necessarily bear. When supply moves to accommodate demand, there's some friction. This is perfectly obvious to anyone who lives in the real world, but apparently irrelevant to dogmatic free-market capitalists who think their tautology has relevance to anyone at all. If the market were perfectly efficient and free, then it would be perfectly efficient and free. Well, okay, but let's talk about the market in which this guy is trying to find a job - where MBA clauses are ubiquetous and good luck getting that negotiated out of your employment contract.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Screw the incrementalism

The obviously calculated position that Democratic politicians take in opposing gay marriage but favoring civil unions just isn't getting anyone anywhere. I'll admit that I can sometimes be too staid and unambitious in my hopes for political progress, but I think Iowa and Maine and New Hampshire have shown the folly of concentrating on the boring stops along the way to progress. Who can get excited enough about civil unions to advocate for them anyway? Apparently hardly anyone. (Graphic lifted from Andrew Sullivan)

If they're so smart, why do they fall for that?

Medical-type-people will claim that the Ambien pen they're using doesn't influence their prescribing habits, but that's a pretty hard claim to believe when your doctor's office is so full of the plastic crap with logos all over it.

When I first got to know the workings of a lab, and had to think about inventories and what kind of microtubes I wanted to use, I was a little horrified at the stupid gimmicks supply and instrumentation companies use to advertise their wares. Naively, I thought, "Psh, we scientists aren't dumb enough to fall for that - we buy based on performance." And then, "If it didn't work, they wouldn't sink so much money into marketing."

The best lesson in the potency of branding I've learned lately is looking up brands of bath products I've long associated with wholesomeness with the Environmental Working Group's database of product safety ratings. The most counterintuitive thing I found was that Neutrogena's body oil with fragrance in it is rated as safer than the fragrance-free type. WTF. I actually like the somewhat patchouli-ish scent of the scented kind and would use it if it didn't make me sneeze all day. Also, a lot of my personal associations between brands and safety or wholesomeness were WAY off. Apparently I'm courting some pretty nasty reproductive cancers with my daily routine. My philosophy on the stuff is that if it's a cleansing product, its very purpose is to wash away, so if the few moments it spends on my skin don't bother me, I'm pretty much in the clear. Anything meant to stick to me, like a moisturizer or makeup or deodorant, I'm a bit pickier about. I tend to figure that if it doesn't bug my sensitive skin, it's pretty inert and boring.

So go ahead and terrify yourself with that search engine. Knock yourself out. It's kind of like the weird masochistic thrill everyone's been getting from the cognitive dissonance their admiration for Susan Boyle provokes in them. We knew we were superficial, but that we were this bad?

For a while in 2008, I was mildly obsessed with finding an eye cream that would reduce the puffiness around my eyes that I think will be a lifelong side-effect of the surgery I had last year. It was a fool's errand, but now I know what not to buy. For my money, nothing actually reduces puffiness except an ice pack, but the creams will make dark circles look better after a while. It was only after spending huge amounts of time scouring the shelves of drugstores that I realized how extensive the product-placement in 30 Rock actually is. I don't care if it's sarcastic - it's still product placement and kind of gross. I did think it was truly funny when Jenna got fat and Liz said of the fat-hatred directed at her, "It's like those Dove commercials never even happened."

In recognition of denying the bill of good we're constantly buying, I wanted to highlight Kevin, MD's take on doctors accepting promotional items but hiding the brands emblazoned on them. I agree that it's plain old corruption to take the perks but pretend to be above them. You hear that, Tina Fey? I'm talking to you - your "joking" product placement is no more dignified than the normal kind.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Yes, "We" can

Andrew Sullivan objects to the idea that our government isn't able to deal with more than one problem at once, but I think it's less a problem that the government can't work on enforcing the rule of law at the same time it tries to pick up the pieces of the economy, and more that the media likes one big story that bleeds. And we can hardly expect lawmakers to do anything without a camera recording their heroism, can we?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

In the name of Science

In an effort to stay topical, I'm going to write an Earth Day post about how I was constantly appalled at how much plastic I threw away when I worked in molecular biology. Absolutely everything needs to be treated with bizarre processes to remove any traces of nucleic acids or RNases and DNases, and then properly disposed of after use. It gets really scary when you start on high-throughput processes and have to use a dozen boxes of tips in a couple of hours.

I know I've seen the worst of it because all I did for the last five years was PCR (aka polymerase chain reaction), which is incredibly easy to contaminate and tough if not impossible to sort out once you do get contamination in equipment or workspaces.

In preparation for this post, I impotently Googled around for some info about what people are doing to make high-tech work like this more sustainable, but terrifyingly enough, there's not much out there. It's not proving a negative to say I can't find something on Google, but it's a bit eerie considering how much Googling I do on any given day.

My tendency toward guilt also reared its head when I had surgery 6 hours away and considered the environmental impact of that adventure. I had a million family members there with me (Thank you everyone!), some who flew and some caravanned with Andy and I over to Seattle from Moscow. Between all the sterilization necessary to practice medicine or perform surgery, I don't know why I haven't heard more about this. And it turns out that there are a number of organizations devoted to making hospitals more sustainable. I'm also curious about the environmental impact of manufacturing all the supplies and drugs. We know that drugs people take pass into the supply of water from which we drink, and I've got a pharmacy of leftover pills that I don't know how to dispose of. (But if you're in the mood for Decadron, and trust me, you're not, I can help you out! Just kidding)

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Private industry trumps government FAIL

I was listening to a report on NPR tonight where they let Newt Gingrich whinge about using statistical sampling methods to determine population demographics for the census. His problem is that they're not counting every single head but using time-tested methods of estimation. The reporter says that it really wouldn't be worth sending a census worker to every single doorstop (or very feasible), and Newt replies that private companies like FedEx go to every single address in the nation.

Okay, well, so? If FedEx could keep a satisfied customer base without delivering all of the packages it's paid to, wouldn't market forces obligate them to let a few packages slip through the cracks? Newt can't make a satisfying argument against good sampling methods, so he plays on fears about non-white minorities as an increasing proportion of the American population. The Republican argument against efficient and accurate sampling methods clearly says, "But by God, if you miss one white family, you'll mischaracterize the entire nation!"

I'm pretty sure that Newt's been through high school, and that he damn well knows he's being disingenuous. The wide-eyed Republican who doesn't trust your high-falutin' expertise is getting pretty old, and totally transparent.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

McDonald's eaters probably have kitchens in their houses

I have to disagree with Mark Bittman. I've lately been considering ponying up and getting cable because I'd like to be able to switch on the TV and see a cooking show once in a while. My appetite has been M.I.A. for months, so eating and cooking have become a major chore. For someone who spends almost all of her time at home or the grocery store, I really don't cook or eat much. I was very often inspired by the Food Network's cooking shows when I watched them. I think I could crack this mild anorexia by pushing more ideas about food into my head so asparagus on the brain turns into asparagus on my plate.

In actuality, the reduced appetite is probably related to some of the medication I take, but not every one of my problems comes from a pill or can be solved by one.

Bittman sez:
When you watch most celebrity chefs go to work on TV it is a) baffling and intimidating, and b) a charade. Baffling and intimidating because nearly every ingredient is usually prepared in advance, and what isn’t is selected so that the chef can show off his (almost never “her”) knife skills, which are bound to intimidate nearly all of us who can never aspire (and why would we, really?) to chopping an onion with our eyes closed; his ability to make food fly in the air while cooking it; and/or his skill at presentation, which has absolutely nothing to do with taste.
Watching cooking shows has always activated my "I could do that" desire to meet a challenge. I am never going to forget when I realized that you can make macaroons instead of buying them at a store. Learning to cook is very empowering. I don't believe people when they say they can't cook - all it is is taking foods that taste good, putting them together and making it warm.

I don't actually believe that, but I say it because it's kind of funny and true enough to actually encourage people not to be intimidated. I think the reason I am good at cooking is that I turn food-related principles over in my mind long enough to be creative with them. What's sort of funny about that is how my thinking converges with classic recipes seemingly only influenced by my brilliance at combining flavors. I also really enjoy eating, and have long wondered whether my body rewards me with more/better endorphins than most people get for eating delicious things. I think this for a couple of reasons: when I am sick and eat a good meal, most of my symptoms abate for a little while immediately afterward. Also, my sense of satiety is not very keen so I frequently overeat. Now that my appetite has taken a dive, neither of these things are true and I eat a lot of convenience food so I can get the chore done as quickly as possible.

(Ironically enough, I had to step away here to eat a beautiful dinner my husband made - salad nicoise - when I was feeling too lazy to cook myself.)

Bittman writes from a perspective that appears to assume that most Americans do not cook basically any of the food they eat or have any familiarity with a kitchen or basic cooking techniques. I imagine that this editorial voice overstates the ignorance of American eaters, but stats I've seen on the subject aren't very complimentary. Fast and other prepared foods make up a large portion of the American diet, but everyone has had to dice an onion now and then, so they can judge the relative real labor that goes into one of Rachael Ray's putatively 30-minute meals.

In other words, I'm just not buying that most people are shocked and horrified to find that cooking works differently in their kitchen than in a television studio. I also think that most food writing is appallingly condescending (so it's not just Mark Bittman who's on notice here).

Back on the personal note - if anyone is concerned, I'd like to say that I've had a shakeup (no pun intended) in my medication routine and am seeing my appetite return.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A Girl and her Video Games

I am terrible at video games. Ever since the advent of the third dimension, I've been hopeless. Give me a Sega Genesis and I'm gold, but the xbox is too much for me. My husband will play any game until he wins it, so I've spent a lot of time watching him play video games. Some days, I'm contended and entertained playing second fiddle like that. I've followed the plots of lots of games he's played, but I've given up trying to play myself since when you suck at games all you get is 30 seconds of being shot and then waiting for the thing to reload. It's demoralizing. I did get a Wii, hoping that its differences would make for games that I would have the ability to play, but I still struggle a little with Super Mario Galaxy.

It's interesting to consider this aspect of myself through a feminist lens, since tech and games are a world where women are often excluded. I'm not used to knowing how well I fit a stereotype, but with this one, it's pretty clear. It kind of feels like an interest in games would be a natural outgrowth of my general interest in science and technology, but here I am with my girl games, watching my spouse kill all the aliens.

There are some games that I can play and enjoy (this is a list that would very quickly be fingered as a list of games girls like). I like:

World of Goo
Katamari Damacy
No More Heroes
The Sims
The whole Soul Caliber series
The Burnout series

The rest of them feel like work to me. You'd think my period of unemployment* and stint as an invalid** would have bored me enough to put in some practice and learn to enjoy some more games, but even the ones I can handle I find to be exhausting.

*I have a feeling that this part is coming to a close, thank God.
** My health has been mostly cooperative since about September, but things have been shaken up (no pun intended) in the past few weeks. To clarify, I consider being stable on medications to be "cooperative." Back on the med-go-round I go.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Our president isn't a dog person

If he really were, he wouldn't have put the puppy off until after he became President. Watching the video, his body language pretty clearly doesn't express excitement or even comfort - more like, "You're cute but please don't get mud on my new pants." He reminds me of myself when I'm confronted with a baby - they're cute, sure, but what am I supposed to do with it? Guess I'll just keep my hands in my pockets and admire from afar...

Good "Gosh those Obama girls sure are cute" moment, but not really a video for cuteoverload.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Rude pervs aren't born

Jezebel brought to my attention an interesting question about teaching kids manners in the ways of dating and sex:

Should the conversations parents have with sons about sex, manners and respect be any different than the talk they have with their daughters?

I never really thought about it before, but it's extremely strange how a lot of men act with women. The article includes comments from a woman who frequently received explicit propositions for sex from strangers - and it's really weird how men who think they are otherwise polite and normal will put strange women on the spot. What I think it comes down to is the bizarre tendency to separate "sexual morality" from "morality." You need to be polite ALL THE TIME, even when you're naked. I think people who grow up with the idea that they're being naughty and breaking rules any time they engage in sexual behavior are more likely to figure they've already crossed the line of decency by getting onto the topic of sex, and what could possibly make a difference in how much they offend someone after that Rubicon's been crossed?

An example from the past few days in my life would be when in the new Spring sun, my extremely fit neighbor was out and about shirtless, and I very obviously made a point not to stare at him. Later, it occurred to me that if I'd been out in my swimsuit (and probably only if I were more conventionally attractive), I'd expect to be unapologetically ogled by any man, without thinking much of it. In the situation where I am the nearly-naked one, I'd probably feel like I was inviting stares, as would any men hanging around at the time.

I think the same reasoning applies to men who feel entitled to proposition strange women - they feel they're being provoked by the presence of an attractive woman.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

The return on treating Alzheimer's

Kevin MD linked to a sort of sensationalist post questioning the amount of money that gets poured into the care of Alzheimer's patients. I'm no stranger to extremely expensive medical interventions, but I am of the opinion that current treatments for AD don't really justify their cost. They may slow the progression of disease, but at great monetary cost, and once you start going down the AD road, you're not coming back. (I may be uninformed as to what is possible in treatment of Alzheimer's, and I'd be happy to be corrected.)

I do know from experience that clearing cognitive impairment can make you feel "better" and relieve some real suffering, so I can see how drugs or therapy affecting cognitive function - even if it can't clear the cobwebs enough to allow a patient advanced in the disease to care for him or herself - could fall under normal pallitive-type care.

Me, if I ever get a diagnosis of AD, I don't know that I'd like anyone to bother treating the Alzheimer's itself.

What I'm not conflicted about whatsoever is keeping proper medical care of Alzheimer's patients. I've never been close to someone going through the course of AD, so I'm not able to say I can sympathize with the "Just have a stroke already, Grandpa" perspective.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

I've moved on, but that doesn't change what happened

I have to admit that I found it via Fark, but this is an interesting article about people advocating on the behalf of sex offenders whose crimes exist within the range of at least icky and illegal, but in the minds of many, are not especially criminal.

My understanding is that in some states, sex offenders are registered at different levels, according to the severity of the original crime and the likelihood of reoffense. This makes perfect sense to me: rape is rape, but victims are always different, as are circumstances of the crime. The article goes out of its way to excuse statutory rape as not that bad. From where I sit, it seems like the tendency to commit such a crime is something a perpetrator would be likely to mature past, especially after being punished for it. A 23-year-old may think they have a lot in common with a 16-year-old, but they're probably not going to feel that way when they're thirty (because they don't). I was most alarmed by the work of one Jan Fewell, who looks up sex crime victims and calls them to try and recruit them to her offender's advocacy group and defend their own perpetrators by asking that they be treated leniently in light of the specific circumstances of the crimes they committed.

Fewell calls a victim and asks whether they were the victim of rape or if they'd had consensual sex. Leaving the two choices that stark seems a little manipulative to me, since a sex crime is prosecuted not for how a victim eventually comes to feel about it, but for the transgression itself.

I don't think sex offender registries do what they're supposed to do: they are said to exist to protect the communities in which sex offenders reside and work, but I think this is disingenuous. These registries exist to shame sex offenders and expose them to the vigilantism that can fit within the bounds of the law, like social stigma and employment and housing discrimination.

So a level III sex offender moves in next door. What am I supposed to do about it?

It's shameful to commit a sex offense, but I don't think forcing sex offenders into isolation and poverty really protects anyone. It might feel to most like a fitting punishment, but punishment doesn't undo or prevent crimes. Whatever a sex offender takes from a victim doesn't ever get paid back. Suffering is non-transferable.