Monday, April 18, 2016

Two-Party Pooper

Medicare for all makes sense.  So does paying for college for Americans.  And better regulation of financial institutions.  I have no real argument with this stuff.  The details deserve a close look, but that's not something we get from Sanders.  As long as some loud, white political junkies are pleased, he's got a campaign on his hands.

It's possible to make these things work, but if we only do it halfway, we end up with a total disaster.  There's definitely an element of the sunk-cost fallacy in there, but that's a theme in American elections.  "Am I better off than I was 8 years ago?" is the too-simple frame that our too-simple party system forces us to use.

I loved this interview with Barney Frank.

I am disappointed by the voters who say, “OK I’m just going to show you how angry I am!” And I’m particularly unimpressed with people who sat out the Congressional elections of 2010 and 2014 and then are angry at Democrats because we haven’t been able to produce public policies they like. They contributed to the public policy problems and now they are blaming other people for their own failure to vote, and then it’s like, “Oh look at this terrible system,” but it was their voting behavior that brought it about.
He's not being diplomatic, and probably not taking enough credit for government dysfunction, but overall, he's right.  It takes some work to support an ambitious agenda, but Americans should be honored to be a part of making things better.  If we're not going to bother, we are effectively signing on with the Republican self-fulfilling prophecy of broken government.

People have needs that are being unmet. Polarization along party lines has become its own end, which may in fact be the end of the parties.

Bernie Sanders tells us he's part of a revolution, but when he fails, he's giving us a nice feeling while we burn a potential movement down.  And we'll just blame him (like a lot of Bernie supporters blame Obama), instead of looking at why nothing changed.  A president is just an administrator.

So maybe I'm not just mad at Bernie, but the asinine black-and-white system that produces lightweights like him.  If the opposition party didn't basically live on another planet, it might work to refine the details of good ideas.

You could say a lot of this about Barack Obama, but I'd respond that his administration has given us about as much progress as possible in the system we have, with the electorate we are.

So what exactly do I think we should do?  For now, I think electing Hillary Clinton President is our best move.  Keep people like Wyden and Warren in the Senate, and concentrate on actual lawmakers before we let presidents break our hearts again.  

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Disrupting Social Mobility

There's a company I've seen a lot of advertising for lately, called SoFi, which creeps me out mightily.  It's a bank, but won't call itself that.  Kinda like how Uber doesn't have any employees.

SoFi aggregates a bunch of information about its clients and then bestows on them the honor of SoFi's approval for loans and refinancing - for life.  They pick the best financial bets and give them loans.  (Isn't that what a bank does?  Yes, except a bank does this on a loan-by-loan basis.  SoFi signs you up for life.)

The for life  part is what I hate.  I don't think it's bad business, but it seems like an ideal way to permanently separate members of different economic classes.  

And I didn't even get to the most dystopian part yet: they want to create a dating platform for their clients.  Forget about subtle class markers like accents or dental work.  

The most insidious part of this is that it makes perfect business sense.  SoFi offers unemployment insurance to its clients, so that they don't lose their big bets to the random financial setbacks that throw careers into chaos.  

Granted, taxpaying Americans all have access to unemployment insurance, but the public program is not always sufficient to keep people afloat during bad times.   I imagine that SoFi's offering is significantly better than what you'd get from the government.  

But if availability of unemployment support makes Poors too lazy to find work again, why won't it foster indolence among the SoFi class?  

The better we get at figuring the odds, the better we get at stacking them.  

Wednesday, March 09, 2016

More than an Oopsie

I fit in pretty well to the category of cissexual woman.  My phenotype, and I assume genotype, are pretty easy to read.  I have occasionally gotten lazy about how considerate I am to those who don't quite fall on one side of the spectrum.  But I've decided to shape up, mostly spurred by Naomi Gordon-Loebl's essay on The Toast.   I usually think that if you don't comform very well to a gender binary, people will occasionally misgender you, and it's probably on accident so it's no biggie.  However, I've heard many times that it's almost always hurtful, regardless of whether it's an accident.

I have a few trigger issues like that, so I'm going to be extra-sensitive about the things I know are others' sore points.  To that end, I was reading some stuff about gender-neutral language and found a pretty exhaustive guide to making languages less gender-binary.    The languages I am acquainted with are not very accommodating to gender-neutrality.  In fact, when I have taken Spanish classes, I've gotten somewhat stern lectures telling me to shove my feminist sensibility, and I have to admit I've just accepted highly-gendered language as the way of the world.

But now I'm inspired to pay more attention, and not just retreat into a safe ignorance of these issues.  I don't expect that the whole of the Spanish-speaking world will ever go for it, but the way I've seen English pronouns like "zie" or "hir" take off in some parts of the Internet gives me hope that degendered language variants could have viability.

I can't speak much for languages other than English, but if I use new gender-neutral pronouns, I feel I can safely assume that anyone who has a hard time understanding what I'm saying is playing dumb in the hope that I'll switch to their preferred pronoun scheme.  People learn words by context, and a gender-neutral pronoun is a simple concept.

I am not sure exactly what I'm committing to here, but I'm trying to be more careful.  I am not quite ready to give up "he" and "she."  On the one hand, it seems like it would be ideal to use gender-neutral pronouns in situations that demand formality, but on the other, formality usually comes alongside conservatism.  When I think about the way I tend to speak and write, it will probably be sort of random.  I've always liked to keep a variable tone in my writing and speech - it keeps people paying attention, and adds an element of humor.  

Now, as a reward for reading a long discussion of pronouns and their gender politics, here's a song I loved from the 90s, from a band that really seemed to rebel against gender expectations.

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Reporting about Sexual Assault Sure Seems Hard

Buzzfeed has come up with something alarming and strange: a huge number of customer support contacts made with Uber include the terms "rape" or "sexual assault."  Buzzfeed got some screenshots from a former Uber customer support representative.

In one screenshot, a search query for “sexual assault” returns 6,160 Uber customer support tickets. A search for “rape” returns 5,827 individual tickets. Other variations of the terms yield similarly high returns: A search for “assaulted” shows 3,524 tickets, while “sexually assaulted” returns 382 results.

That seems like an awfully high number of criminal acts happening in conjunction with Uber rides.  Uber suggested that the search used was returning a lot of typos or out-of-context text strings (and has now been shown to be wrong that this would be why these results are coming up in a search of their software.).  Since I am not a huge fan of the company, my first instinct was to jump on the "They're scum!  Hang 'em!" bandwagon. But a few hours later, it struck me that this is a really strange find.  There do seem to be a strangely-high number of Uber horror stories out there, but the indication of the Buzzfeed findings is that Uber drivers are engaging in an up-to-now invisible, systematic campaign of sexual assault on customers.  It's not impossible, but I'd be truly surprised if that were the case.     

This was brought to my attention on Jezebel, where the implication is that Uber is doing a terrible job of to cover up a huge problem with sexual assault in the face of damning proof.     

Uber did respond to Buzzfeed's piece, but then retracted some of its claims about how the search worked.  

So that's the story so far.  

This all seems very weird.  In my experience, high-profile stories about sexual assault tend to fall apart in strange ways.  That's probably to be expected, given the sensitivity of the subject and the pressure on the parties involved.  

I've learned not to draw conclusions as these stories spin up.  Usually, it's fair to assume someone did something bad, which may or may not rise to the level of a criminal act.  

Given Uber's clumsy attempts to save face in this, I am growing ever more secure in that assumption.  

Monday, March 07, 2016

Voting my Conscience

Hillary Clinton is too much of a hawk, and has caused thousands of unnecessary deaths.  She's also a weird rich person, with whom I have almost nothing in common.

I still admire her ability to keep a strong, progressive career going in the face of opposition at every turn.  I suspect a lot of that ability is related to the things about her I really despise.  The personality and way of thinking it takes to be a truly powerful politician are fundamentally a mystery to most of us.  Ultimately, I think she has what it takes to be a good President, and I'm voting for Hillary Clinton this year.  

I'd be happy to vote for Bernie Sanders in the general election, and I like how he's kept a lot of focus on economic equality in this primary.  But I hate how his campaign has mutated into a Hillary Hatefest that's convinced otherwise smart and strategic people to think they should vote for Donald Trump instead of Clinton.  The overtones of voting to punish Clinton for her sins just come off as delusional.  Voting is a lot more like a duty than a joy, and that's okay.   Maybe my calculations are wrong, and Clinton is a horrible bet for the presidency this year, but I don't think so.               

I can't make the powerful feel anything in particular by casting a ballot.  It reminds me a lot of when the ACA was painfully being cobbled together and progressives wanted to kill the bill because it was going to let those assholes get away with what they've done.

They already have (and had, in the case of the ACA) gotten away with it, and revenge is not just around the corner.  It will probably never come, and even if it did, some truly bad people would be living in truly bad circumstances.  The idea of making them sorry is not a fantasy I am so attached to that I can risk contributing to the Trump agenda.  

I think there is a nonzero chance that Trump could be elected president, and I want no part of that.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Don't be a Backlasher

Top Image from #SharesFromYourAunt

People hate change.  I hate it too, especially when I'm not expecting it.  Whenever a magazine I read changes format, I flip out a little. (That's the least-embarrassing example I can think of in my life, and I'm sticking to it).  You wouldn't know it from populist movements, but change is hard for everyone even when it's for the better.  It requires you to actually think about all your behaviors you'd set on automatic.

Beyond protecting their privilege, this is why people love complaining so much about political correctness.  They were used to a world where they could assume that everyone was straight and or white, and now they have to put new steps in their system before they're being polite.  In that world, no one had a chance to point out that they're getting screwed.  There's an impulse to react with a lot of anger at being asked to change, and that's where backlashes come from.

I, like everyone I've ever met, hate it when somebody tells me to "calm down."  But sometimes I need to calm down.  In calmer moments I've decided that if somebody tells me to calm down, I should consider that I am not calm, and need to be.

But sometimes people do upsetting things they shouldn't do.  America's laws are unfair to minorities, and sometimes majorities.  "Unfair" is an understatement.  I'm reading The New Jim Crow, so that's what's on my mind at the moment, but I don't really want to make this post a list of injustices.

If you'll allow me to make a generalization, there are two types of populists: those trying to correct an injustice and those trying to sabotage progress made by the first group.  The latter are backlashers, and they are loud right now.  They want they're country back - you know, to make it great again.  They don't want to change their pronouns or bother with social and professional circles that truly include nonwhite non-hetero people.

I was horrified when I realized that a lot of people truly value white supremacy and/or patriarchy.  They don't want to call it that, but they are so used to the results that they don't notice what the root cause is.  When you don't want people to understand the facts about sex, you don't want people (but mostly women, since they're the ones who get pregnant) to have a say in their sexual and reproductive lives.
So maybe the SJWs aren't just whining and making your life difficult.  Take a moment to think about it later on tonight.  

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

15 years on birth control and I had no idea

I have teeny tiny muscles.  I've always been a weakling, and it turns out that taking birth control pills has not been helping me out.  I just figured it was genetic.  Then I stopped taking birth control and started lifting weights and all of a sudden I had a muscle or two.  It wasn't a coincidence.

I don't have a fun tangent, I just wanted to inform the masses.  

Monday, February 01, 2016

Ragequit the Machine

I hoped in 2008.  Things changed a little.  I got frustrated when it came time to put together the PPACA.   I thought I was just burned out, and distanced myself from politics for a while.  The political process has broken my heart a few times, but I also can't ignore the world around me.  I can definitely vote, but I can't promise much more than that.  For now, this is going to have to be what I do instead of fully burning out.

It makes me nervous when a politician gets me excited.  Sometimes I am proven to be too pessimistic, and I love it when that happens.  Who really expected Sanders to get this far in the nomination process?

As it stands, I don't think I'll vote for him in the primary.  He's got a few positions on policy I prefer to Hillary's, but he doesn't seem to have any strategy to speak of.  If he sought to change the dialog in the primary, he did that, but I get the feeling it's flaming out into general Hillary-hatred.  The political seems to be just turning personal, and once a campaign veers into a popularity contest, it's just running out the clock.  When you're still telling people that "If people got to know me, they'd vote for me," you haven't made your case, and it's too early to coast.

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Read a book, you uncultured dummy

It's hard not to react badly in a discussion about a prejudice you don't face when you ask somebody a question and they respond that it's not their job to educate you.  They're right, but it's hard to take when you are also told that the burden of the prejudice is not something you can understand, due to your privileged position.

A lot of people don't want to explain their burdens to you because the explanation is frequently just rejected.  I think it's pretty understandable that women would like to walk down the street without hearing strangers' opinions of their bodies, but drawing this conclusion is apparently a feat of intuition and logic that escapes a good amount of the Internet.  So I don't want to explain it again, just to hear that I've made a stupid mistake in thinking that my comfort is relevant to my comfort.

Sometimes, a banal metaphor for a concept gains traction on the Internet, and I usually don't get what the hubbub is.  There is value in finding new ways to explain a concept, but I don't really think that (e.g.) "consent is like tea" is much different than "consent must be given."

Maybe I should be a little kinder about things like "spoon theory" since we're all just trying to get this down, and maybe it takes a fresh look for some of us once in a while.  

Saturday, October 17, 2015

One Weird Trick For Gun Safety Around Children

Lots of small children find guns in their homes and hurt or kill with them as a consequence.  This is an idiotic problem that Americans are tolerating.

It's pretty apparent that being a responsible gun owner doesn't immunize you from this problem.  In fact, I don't know precisely what better safeguards would look like.  If research on gun-related accidents weren't basically impossible to conduct in the U.S., I might.  And I hope that this functional  ban on gun-related research is coming to an end.  

So, once somebody comes up with a fairly reliable way to keep guns away from kids, I'd like to see parents helped with implementing it.  (And even if we just made sure parents comply with current best practices, that's not nothing.)  It would be a lot like the way that local police will inspect car seat installations for new parents, but someone trained in safe storage of weapons would come to your house and see if your storage practices are up to snuff.  Ideally, these consultations would be paid for by gun manufacturers.  And while we're at it, why can't they pay into a fund for research?  

Nothing will prevent all accidents, but I think this idea has a significant chance of saving lives, as well as being Constitutional as all get-out.  

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Real Housewives of Silicon Valley Make Gazpacho

It's hot today.  I say that calls for gazpacho, which means a trip to the store before it gets truly hot out.  I'm lucky enough to live about a mile from a really great produce/specialized import food stand, so once I slept in a bit and got some cool chai (which I also got at the Milk Pail) in me, I set out to get my groceries.  By 11:00 it was already over 80 degrees, so by the time I lugged everything home, I was dripping in sweat.

Hot weather is my favorite weather.  This kind of morning is my favorite kind of morning.  A little walk and some writing, looking forward to a nice no-cook dinner in the evening.  Maybe some time in the pool in the afternoon.
The fruits of my labor.  The tomatoes are all yellow and at the bottom of the bag.
I used Alton Brown's recipe, but subbed red wine vinegar instead of balsamic and added fresh oregano and chives.  My tomatoes are all yellow, so I didn't add any tomato juice.  When I've mixed tomato colors in the past, it looks horrid.  Despite the modifications, I like the recipe a lot.  The method of straining all of the cores and seeds for juice adds some nice thickening pectin.

Monday, July 27, 2015

A Western Liberal's Views on Guns

It kind of blows my mind that the second amendment to our Constitution is (now, explicitly) about an individual right to bear arms.  It just doesn't seem like that big of a deal to me.  Freedom from search and seizure (e.g.) seems like it would come before that.  

But I grew up in country where people care.  

My spouse once idly mentioned that in Idaho, prosecutors can be issued firearms as part of their office.  I said that he would not be reviving that quaint tradition, because I want to keep the risk of in-home gun injury as close to zero as possible.  I do admit to having a little bit of residual culture-war distaste for guns, since I associate them with Republicans and toxic masculinity.  Frankly, they seem sort of tacky.  

Then again, that is a sort of appeal. A Republican's concealed-carry license is a hipster's ironic moustache that raises your risk of suicide by at least three times.  So if you want to push the standards of cultural signifiers and taste, a firearm is not a prudent way to do it.     

I'd think this might increase your suicide risk by a lot more.
CC Timo Luege from Flickr.
But prudence is not everyone's watchword.  A lot of people have dangerous hobbies, but we try and keep them dangerous only to the participants.    I am not about to go out hunting, but I respect a person's desire to be that intimately involved with feeding her or himself*.   

Accidents happen to everyone, including the responsible and well-trained.  It's folly to rely on them not happening.  (The only person I can think of that I've known to die by a gun did so by accident.)  I'm really really risk-averse, so I tend to try and keep myself away from situations where the stakes of accidents are as high as they are with weapons.   

But the really sticky part when it comes to firearms for personal use is self-defense.  It's only sticky because of how hard it is to assess the risk of really scary stuff.  My experience with people who really push this is that they're willing to tolerate or ignore the risks that come with firearm ownership for the extremely small likelihood that they will truly need a gun to defend themself.  I have some pop-psychological theories as to why this is, but they're so uninformed that I will just skip those in favor of simply saying that it does not add up for a person like me, or indeed most people.  There are almost certainly circumstances in which having a gun around for self-defense is going to help you a lot more than the risk of suicide or accident is going to hurt you.  

These numbers are kind of hard to untangle, since there are a lot of things that make you "the kind of person who would keep a gun in their house" that are also things that make you likelier to be in a violent conflict.  So, I'll leave sorting this out to the professionals.  A study in the American Journal of Epidemiology says 
Those persons with guns in the home were at greater risk than those without guns in the home of dying from a homicide in the home (adjusted odds ratio = 1.9, 95% confidence interval: 1.1, 3.4). They were also at greater risk of dying from a firearm homicide, but risk varied by age and whether the person was living with others at the time of death.,
I like this bit because it acknowledges the way that the risk factors affect each other.  Young people die due to injuries (violent, interpersonal, or not) a lot more than people who live long enough to acquire diseases.  In fact, young people die almost exclusively due to injuries.  

I am talking about "kinds of people" as in statistically-important populations.  I am "the kind of person" whose marriage doesn't last, since I got married pretty young (among other things).  I hope I'm an exception (It was just my 11th anniversary this weekend), but what happens is what happens.  So don't feel like I'm painting a picture of who you are with this stuff.  

As it happens, I am not the kind of person to keep a gun in her home, and I am not the kind of person likely to die by shooting.  Anyone could have told you that, but when you put together my demographic profile, common sense is born out.    Neither were Mayci Breaux or Jillian Johnson.  

TL;DR Guns are dangerous and I don't really want one around me when I can help it.  People assess risk in wildly different ways, and that's natural.   I'm willing to live and let live, but it's irresponsible to mince words about the risks that guns present.  Again from that paper: 
Results show that regardless of storage practice, type of gun, or number of firearms in the home, having a gun in the home was associated with an increased risk of firearm homicide and firearm suicide in the home.

*This is about as far as I respect hunting.  If you feel like testing your coordination, play ping pong or Nintendo.  If you want some fun explosions, find a place where you can enjoy them in safety.  

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

NYT Magazine Scoops NASA

NYT January 2015

NASA July 2015

Coincidence?  Maybe some of us were wrong.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

If You Actually Cared About the Environment

Problem: Obesity
Problem: carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere leading to global warming

Do the math.  One of these problems solves the other.

Fat contains a lot of carbon.  If people are getting so obese, they're a fantastic carbon sink.  So do your part and order a pizza today!  Everyone acts like we're in the middle of an obesity crisis - I say we're in the middle of an environmental solution.  That Michelle Obama probably doesn't mean to be hurting the environment, but that's still the effect she's having.  Every lost kilogram is 850 g of carbon dioxide, sent straight into the rapidly-warming climate.  It may be unorthodox and untested, but so was widespread burning of fossil fuels.  One environmental experiment demands another.

If we're going to give it a shot, we at least need to get the theory down.  According to Wikipedia, the fat stored in human adipose tissue is in a semi-liquid state, and is composed primarily of triglycerides and cholesteryl ester.  The triglycerides undergo lipolysis to become glycerol and free fatty acids.

Doing his part
For a human being to be considered obese (as over a third of Americans are), their body is supposed to be more than 25% fat by weight.  And sorry Mr. Universe but you're not sequestering carbon as well as Homer Simpson is.
Not helping.

I can't find a good molecular formula for myosin or a representative fatty acid without pulling out a paper book, so I'll just use calorie content as a proxy.  Each gram of fat contains about 9 calories, each gram of protein about 4.  I'll admit that there's a lot of information out there about the specific chemical composition of adipose and muscle tissue, but I can't access it for free, so I'm going to wing it until I'm actually writing this into law.  

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Links and Add The Words

I've decided to turn a corner on things, and stop being such a layabout.  In accordance, I am going to post something at least once a week.  Here's what's been on my mind:

A new chemical bond has been discovered.    It sounds like a kind of special case, but it's not nothing.

I also may no longer live in Idaho, but I do keep up on the goings-on.  This week the legislature finally heard testimony about adding the words "gender identity and sexual orientation" to Idaho's standing Human Rights Act. 

The thing that I've found really interesting about this conflict is how people in Idaho have long wrongly assumed that these protections are already written into state law.  They say they act as though that's the case, but I don't trust them.  Unfortunately, this is something I heard on the radio, so I don't have a good link, but when you think about it, people are generally paranoid about an overly-litigious society.  

I know when I was trying to go back to work several people told me that no one would dare screw with me for fear of ADA complications.  In short, that's bad advice.  If you're already in a disempowered position, it's not always straightforward what protections the law affords, and accessing them requires making and proving an illegal imposition on your rights.  

Thus, the mistaken impression that The State protects LGBT Idahoans is not enough to ensure that happens. It may usually be the case, but when it's not, someone gets screwed.    


In not-exactly-biology, I was really into this article by Olga Khazan, and it made me think a little:

I always thought it was weird/insane when coal miners claimed that they were the ones disregarding safety rules and not using equipment by their own judgment, not under the orders of supervisors requiring unsafe work practices to help the bottom line.  But in this article, it says, 

Coal workers are supposed to be offered masks to wear, Smiddy said, but “for a 12-hour shift in a coal mine, there's almost nobody who can wear a mask. They say, ‘It's heavy on my face, I can't breathe with it on.’”

That got me to thinking about how many news stories I ran into this summer about the difficulty of dealing with PPE in the ebola outbreak, and how no one says, "The gowns were just too uncomfortable, so we just took them off."  In fact, I spent a lot of time last summer wondering at how people seemed to be transmitting ebola so easily.  I've used BSL 3 PPE in a relatively low-pressure environment and it didn't strike me as a particularly big deal.  Ebola is the next step up, but it still seemed like people who should know better were getting sick all the time.  Then again, from the sounds of it, health workers were doing their work without the aid of gowns and masks quite a lot as the outbreak spun up.  I'd really love to hear from someone who's been there about how that comes to pass, and whether it rests on ignorance or a mixture of carelessness and bravery.  I wonder what the difference is between health care workers and their PPE, and coal miners and theirs.  Ebola kills you quicker than black lung, but still.  Even if this tangential thought isn't all that interesting to you, read this article.  It does a good job of showing the intersections between poverty and disability and how our country's safety net isn't constructed in a way that can quite handle those complications. 

Oh, and if you've made it this far, please leave a comment saying you're reading, or hit me up on social media.  I'll keep shouting into the void if you don't, but I'd appreciate it if I knew someone was reading.    

Monday, August 11, 2014

Neither articulate nor clean

I have a habit of losing track of how well I'm articulating myself when I speak, but it turns out that I'm definitely not the only one.  For some reason, I have always been hugely amused by the ambiguity in language, and respond to misinterpreted words with embarrassing fits of laughter (like how my sister always thought NPR's Bob Edwards was Bob Backwards.)  I just hope no one interprets my amusement as language snobbery.  I don't think these mistakes are dumb - I think they're kind of brilliant, and give insight into how people think about language.

I noticed how lazy I can be about articulating myself soon after I graduated college and started working closely with a woman who'd grown up in China.  She was a great phonetic speller (which I imagine is true of most people who grow up speaking Chinese) and wrote down exactly what she heard people around her saying.  To Xun, Anthrax was antruas.  This was about ten years ago, and I've slipped considerably in the interim.  

I have to wonder when being inarticulate becomes an accent or dialect in itself.  

Monday, July 07, 2014

Security without passwords

This idea strikes me as right.  Passwords are unwieldy and hackable in ways that location isn't.  However, it's kind of hard to give myself a visceral sense that this would be more secure.  It's like how people a generation older than I am like to have documents printed out.  I've always felt like something is more secure if it's stored in a digital format somewhere.  I lose paper all the time.  What if I spill something on it?

HT to D for the video.

I don't really tell my spouse my passwords, but I also don't really care if he uses my devices, usually.  I wonder how the actual implementation of this new authetication regime deals with shared devices.  

FYI: If this seems like a weird subject for me to be taking on, you might be interested to know that my spouse has taken a job at Google, and we're now living in California.  So this kind of thing is on my mind more now.  

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Elephant in the Drawing Room

I work with animals in captivity, and I love it.  There are things about it that make me uncomfortable, and I've been wrestling with them for a while now.  I found a movie on Netflix called The Elephant in the Living Room which told the story of a pretty impoverished guy who kept a lion as a pet.  My first reaction to the idea of a guy keeping a pet lion in Ohio was, "That's horrible!"  The movie also followed the activity of a police officer who responds when exotic animals kept in situations like that get into trouble.  He was portrayed as the enlightened savior, the reasonable one.

Then I got to thinking that there are lions at "my zoo" whose lives aren't very much like the lives of wild lions.  What makes it so much better for a zoo to keep an exotic animal than for some schlub in middle America to do that?  He's not a zoologist or vet, but that doesn't mean he's not a clever and sensitive guy with a sense for what animals need.  My intuition tells me that he can't provide for a lion what it needs (namely, space and other lions).  I'm just curious about how much of my intuitive revulsion at the idea of keeping a lion as a pet is informed by my social class.  My experience among animal lovers tends to have been that the more affluent an animal-lover, the more they feel like an animal needs its space.  But even people who take the hardest line against pettification of animals have a hard time resisting nuzzles from an animal who's giving them.

Overall, the movie really seemed like a study in class-differentiated attitudes towards animals among Americans.

The thing that blew my mind was when Lambert's owner ended up taking in a female lion, and since he didn't really have the right facilities for Lambert (the original lion he'd raised) and the female, he ended up keeping them in a grimy horse trailer for a period of time.  The female lion got pregnant and ended up having a healthy baby.  I was shocked that things turned out so seemingly well in what looked like deplorable conditions.

The real shock came when Lambert was accidentally electrocuted.  The movie depicted this, and it was sickening and terrible.  I think it just goes to show that caring for exotic animals requires a lot of resources.  Accidents happen, but the rules that accrediting agencies come up with will help prevent them.

I don't think wild animals should be treated like pets and hand-raised to be human companions.  People really get excited about animals, and want to snuggle them and keep them as pets.  I don't believe that an animal necessarily needs to be in its natural environment to be "happy."  It's a difficult thing, when the natural environments aren't as available as animals need them to be.

Then there's the issue of access to the animals: I think zoos do a good service in giving people the chance to see animals close-up and really understand what it is we're working to conserve in the wild.  There are lots of people out there who are driven to be up close and personal with wild animals, and I'd prefer they do something like get educated and maybe become a vet or find a wildlife sanctuary to work at.  But there are people who don't have access to that kind of thing and will do things like bring home a lion cub.  I'm glad that the law doesn't side with them, but I just wish that the man in this movie had a better outlet for his desire to be with animals.        

Thursday, May 08, 2014

I'm cheating on you with another blog

But I swear, it doesn't mean anything to me!  If you've been reading my blog, or just know me, you probably know that I'm not religious.  A friend of mine mentioned that she wanted to read the Bible and see what she thought.  I told her I'd be happy to do the same and blog it with her.  We current non-believers have joined up with a Christian to go through the Bible and respond.  If you're interested, check out The Pragmatist, The Perplexed and The Prophet.  I'm Pragmatist, and Perplexed is the one who initiated this project.  She's doing some nice cliffs-notes TWOP-style recaps of each chapter, so I've hardly touched my own Bible, I have to admit.  

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

A Crackpot's Views on Nutrition

I like like like food.  Cooking it is fun, but often I find myself balking at cooking due to laziness and a lot of pressure I put on myself to EAT RIGHT.  Plus, I tend to panic when I get hungry.  If I have a bunch of things like Kind bars sitting around, I can go days where 75% of the food I consume comes in bar form.  It's carby and low-effort and sort of expensive, but it makes me stop worrying about how I'll get my hunger sated.  I read a review of Soylent, the nutrition shake that everyone somehow is convinced is much cooler than Ensure  (Via Andrew Sullivan.) and it sounds to me like Soylent is a gateway to orthorexia.  If I'm going to replace my fun, stimulating food with a goo, I think plumpynut sounds much yummier.

I have some sort of crackpot ideas as to why living on Soylent won't work out very well.  I don't have any good links, but I have gotten the impression over time that an entire diet of nutritional supplements generally won't cut it for maintaining good health.  If we're going to accept that as true, then I can move on to why I think it doesn't work.

At Zoo Boise, I got to hang around some giraffes a lot (I miss you, Julius and Jabari!), and the giraffes were fond of chewing on the fence of their exhibit.  A guy who was watching that said he was a vet and that some herbivores will just chew on things because there's a behavioral-physical loop where if the animal's body doesn't do enough chewing, it doesn't feel like it's sated.  In that case, they just chew on whatever's around.  This comes up when herbivores eat food that's too soft for them.

I find that I don't feel very "full" after processed food gets to digesting inside me.  I wonder if it's the same mechanism working in me.  The same goes for when I am eating a lot of yogurt or cottage cheese or other semi-solid food.

The other thing that I imagine influences why "whole foods" tend to work differently in our bodies than what I'll call "constructed foods," is some research that showed that the RNA found in the organisms we eat can control  the transcription of our own genes.  

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Lucy in the Sky Without Anxiety

I use antidepressants, and have for years.  I was resistant at first (mostly due to some ableist nonsense about being one of those people with something wrong.  I also didn't understand that I had any kind of problem.)

Popular ideas about "happy pills" are so wrong about how these drugs work.  A "happy pill" would be basically useless, I think.  The thing that makes a good antidepressant useful is that it makes depression manageable, so you have the strength/insight to deal with symptoms as they come along.  

I had to learn a lot about psychoactive drugs when I dealt with a lot of anxiety and depression as my life turned upside down in 2008.  This is not to mention insomnia, which has been a problem for most of my life.  I ended up using a lot of sleep aids then, and looking into anti-anxiety meds.  My impression of anti-anxiety meds like benzodiazapenes wasn't a good one.  They seem more like traditionally-recreational drugs, where they just push a psych symptom out of view for a while, until the drug wears off.  

I don't see how that helps very much.  It's the difference between a hand up and a handout.  Then again, these drugs are widely used for an illness I don't know that I've truly experienced.  However, Andrew Sullivan points to someone's anti-anxiety experience with psilocybin that sounds precisely like my description of why antidepressants are useful drugs.  

Hallucinogens and other recreational drugs that aren't alcohol or marijuana are pretty taboo in the world of psychology, but I wonder if they need to be.  

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Add The Words Idaho

So I was pretty busy as I got close to moving from Boise, but I regret not being a part of the Add The Words campaign.  Check out this really amazing trailer, but be warned that it starts with a metaphorical punch.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Be Careful, but Don't #CancelColbert

I just love Stephen Colbert.  Let's get that out of the way first.

Because of that, I don't think his show should be canceled.  He regularly plays with fire, and it's both brave and reckless of him.  I do wish he'd stop with the transphobic jokes, but I watch and enjoy his show.  He's a biting social critic, and generally a voice for morality in public life.

Sometimes he steps over the line of decency, but almost always in a way that ridicules others' cruelty, rather than joining in it.  When he makes a joke that goes, "Ha ha, how can Dan Snyder not know he's being an asshole?" by employing an ugly and hurtful stereotype, he's doing something inherently risky.

I think I've reversed my position on hate speech being necessarily worthy of legal protection.  I used to believe that it needs to be, because it is speech.  Now I believe that it's a luxury of my position to be able to laugh off a slur.

When I say this humor is "risky" I don't mean, "at risk of offending liberal crybabies."  I mean it risks the safety and comfort of marginalized people.  Correlation isn't causation, but the specter of a more-racist society is enough to scare me off of saying the n-word even in private.  A society where the n-word is frequently used is probably an especially dangerous society for black people. I'd  rather not be comfortable with the hallmarks of white-supremacy, in case there's a causal relationship I don't quite understand.  It takes a lot more than just not using a particular word to evolve beyond our legacy of white supremacy, but I think good-hearted people generally agree that a racial slur is something we can give up in service of that goal.  In fact, it's possibly the very least that can be done. It is a limitation on expression, but I find it to be truly tiny.

The joke was unnecessarily offensive.  Stephen Colbert the man did not choose to highlight it, probably for that reason.  

Monday, February 03, 2014

I Signed Up for Obamacare

...and it was not a good experience.  It took me hours, and a few phone calls.

Looking back, I'm not quite sure what the problem was, but apparently Chrome and don't play together well.  I spent a lot of time on something unresponsive, just figuring it was slow.

Click login, see nothing is happening, and come back later to find that my click wasn't registered.  Finally log back on with a new browser, and get an error saying that I need to log out and try again, then get stuck looking at the login screen again.  That was a mistake.  I made an account, applied for the ability to choose a plan, and got to the point where I thought I was finished, but realized I hadn't chosen a plan.

If you need to do this too, you might want to see Sarah Kliff's guide to signing up with

In the end, I was able to enroll in a plan, but I was very determined to make it work.

Monday, December 16, 2013


I've been wondering why I don't write any more, and decided I can of course blame Republicans.  They're a terrible opposition party.  There's no back-and-forth to follow; only back.  I also need more stimulation than I get hanging out in my apartment.  (When I leave it's very cold out and I am likely to spend money.)

However, it appears that I may be moving to the Bay area very soon, and a new environment should be pretty stimulating.  

Friday, October 18, 2013

Honesty and Decency are Superhuman

I wrote this post a long time ago, and I'm not sure why I never published it.  Luckily, Ta-Nehisi Coates' new piece about the capacity for evil in any run-of-the-mill person made me think of it.  I wonder how many things I do unconsciously that are as bad as complicity in Nazi Germany.  I have some ideas, but I am more interested in what it takes to be good in the world.  From where I sit, it takes a lot of courage and energy to be merely decent.

Amanda Marcotte pointed out how extremely cool it was that Charles Ramsey stepped up to make a difference in what seemed like a run-of-the-mill domestic violence incident.  It turned out that he stepped in at a time that allowed several kidnapped women to escape their decade-long ordeal, but there was no way he could have known that.  (Amusingly, he says in an interview that he knew something was really really wrong when a white lady ran into his black-man's arms.)

Amanda nicely takes this incident as a reminder that we need to pay attention to the world around us and intervene when we can.

She's right about that, but it bumps up against the progressive tradition of mocking "cookie-seeking."  If you don't know what that is, it's doing something normal and decent (like not raping people) and asking for praise.

Decency takes a significant amount of self-confidence and bravery.  It's hard.  We may as well be generous with our cookies.  There's a reason that people keep reading inspirational tales of heroism so they can internalize the ability to act.  

To be clear, I think that Ramsey did something that should be expected of all people, but I also think it was brave.  It's an action that deserves commendation, but shouldn't be exceptional.  If we were all half as good as we think we are, every day we'd do four or five things that would impress a stranger.  

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Donde el caucho se une con la carretera

I took two years of Spanish in high school, and felt like I learned a lot then, but it's been 13 years since I graduated and I've let that knowledge atrophy.  Enter Duolingo.  I've pretty much run through the stuff that I learned in high school and am learning new things now.  I was almost able to write the title of this post in Spanish without googling the translation!  (In English it means, "where the rubber meets the road".)  It's interesting how my interaction with the program has evolved over time.  There are a lot of steps where one has to listen to spoken Spanish and transcribe it, also in Spanish.  At first, I would have to listen to the recording over and over to get it right.

Now that I've been practicing a while, the recordings are starting to sound like words to me so I don't have to just memorize the syllables I heard and write them down.  I know I don't have the best working memory, so at first I just chalked it up to that.  It turns out that my problem was that I didn't (don't) know Spanish, not that I'm a special snowflake with an unusually bad memory.

The program also involves a fair amount of speaking into the microphone, and I'm extremely glad it does.  An English speaker doesn't roll her R's very often, and once I am out of practice, I sound absurd when I try to do it.  According to Duolingo, I am able to read about 50% of Spanish-language articles.  That seems a little too optimistic to me, but I'll see what I can do when I finish the program.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Food-blogging February: The Peanut Butter Cookie Trials

I haven't written much over the past few years - I figured I should get back to my roots and do some food blogging.  I intend to write something every day, so it is likely to stay pretty pedestrian and home-cooky.  I know it's not February yet, but I made some cookies today and wanted to be sure I get going on this project.

Peanut butter is a big part of my diet.  I love it, but have a hard time finding peanut butter cookies that aren't too sweet.  Maybe it's time I develop them.  I'm starting with this recipe, from Simply Recipes.  In the comments, someone says that they cut the white sugar down to 1/4 cup, and I followed that advice with a little twist inspired by overmeasuring - I just used 3/4 cup of packed brown sugar for the total sugar.  Another variation from the recipe is that I didn't get to baking the dough until it had rested for about 36 hours in my fridge.  From the taste of the dough, it may be a little too sweet, but I'll bake them and see how they come out.

Baked them 13 minutes at 350 degrees, they spread a little further than I expected, and they are somewhat overcooked, but the sweetness is about perfect.  The peanut flavor is not perfect - that will need a boost, maybe with some chopped peanuts.  Maybe the long resting time was too much for the baking powder, and they expanded horizontally instead of vertically.

The problems with the usual peanut butter cookie recipe that I'd like to solve are:

  • Long resting time
  • Lots of butter

I have a few modified recipes that I could try out next time.  Recipe A, to address the butter content, will be:
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup RT butter
1 egg
1.25 cups flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt

Note that the volume of wet ingredients stays the same here.

I suspect that replacing some of the butter with peanut butter will result in a better PB flavor and less spreading.  It might also make for tougher cookies that don't rise as well, but I'll just have to bake them and find out.  As for the time variable, I'll try one batch after a half hour's rest, another after an hour's, and if neither is satisfying, I'll try two and three hours' rest batches.

I originally conceived of this as an experiment to work on in the near future, but I don't know that I want to eat that many cookies in a short time.  Once this batch gets eaten, I'll use my modified recipe and resting times.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

If the NRA took anything seriously

If the NRA were mildly serious about keeping guns out of the hands of the "bad guys," and the self-declared unserious and irresponsible, they would be very pleased to see James Yeager lose his right to carry guns.

I've been entertaining myself with some thought experiments about what would happen if the NRA weren't a bunch of machismo-poisoned culture warriors and industry shills.  If they hadn't relied so heavily for so long on the nonsense about needing to be personally armed against a tyrannical government, they could be telling us that we need a gun mandate, and everyone should be required to buy one and learn to use it as part of a well-regulated militia.  It would be good for their industry, and make sense regarding the common-sense interpretation of the second amendment.

Instead, we get self-reliant sharpshooting cowboy nonsense. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Learning How People Learn

Working in the Discovery Center and at the Zoo, I have to guess a lot about what kids know when they show up and what I could possibly teach them.  I am not very good at guessing ages, but I find a "shibboleth approach" works pretty well when it comes to gauging a child's knowledge.  When I am in the butterfly garden, I like to ask kids if they know that all these butterflies used to be caterpillars, and if so, what's the big word  that's used to describe the process of changing from that wormy thing into a butterfly?  If they balk, I'll start it for them, "meta-" still leaving a chance for them to get it even if it didn't come to mind immediately.  What doesn't really work is to just ask, "Do you guys have any questions?"  That's a little too blank-slatey for strangers, I think.

These are things it's taken me a while to figure out.  I do remember a few major failures I've had in interactions with kids.  Once, a mother came in with her son who needed to talk to "a scientist" for a Boy Scouts project.  I volunteered myself, and I forgot to get down to the kid's level, and totally lost him when he didn't know what DNA was.  After that, I ended up sort of explaining my last job (molecular diagnostics) to his mother.  D'oh.

I've gone over this in my head several times since it happened about a year ago, and I even woke up this morning thinking about how I could have done better.  Between that, and seeing this link to a series of videos aimed at small children who need to interact with doctors from a Pinterest buddy, I was inspired to write up some of my experience learning education by doing education.  Plus, I need a bit of an extra push when it's this chilly outside and I need to get to the zoo in a few hours.  

Friday, November 02, 2012

The Hall of Sexual Harrassment

This is what I dressed up as for Halloween.  I did a big drinky party on Saturday, and this Wed went out with a couple of friends to visit the haunted houses/woods.  We went to a couple, and this was a new experience for me.  I was a bit sleep-deprived, so I was sort of hard to startle.  For some of the people hiding behind corners getting ready to jump out and scare me, I was a disappointment - so much so that they followed me down the path trying to get at me.  I'll give them that as being legitimately creepy.  My two companions were a lot easier to get a rise out of.  And I'll admit a few things made me shriek.

I found that somewhat disturbing - very much like the phenomenon of men who won't let you walk by on a street without responding to a vulgar comment.  The worst was the dude who asked me if I was a "pussy-flavored-pop-tart."  Dude.  No.  You don't know what my costume is, let it go.

The most amusing part of one was a "public health care center" offering "end of life counseling."  I wonder if they have that bit in blue states.  And they had to change the death panel sign after a while, I'm sure.

I left feeling like I was made of stone, a Halloween grinch.  There are things that creep me out, but they tend to be slow to burn.  I have a very hard time with wind storms.  And almost every time I've come across a snake in the wild, it's made me shriek.  Embarrassingly, when camping, I listen very carefully for the bears that are surely coming to eat my marshmallows.  

Monday, October 29, 2012

Location Location Location

A recently-concluded legal battle over the custody of IVF-created embryos involved at least one person who felt a lot more attached to her embryos than I ever have to any.  A couple created several embryos with the aid of reproductive tech, and only ended up having one child before they eventually divorced.  The mother, as it turns out, won custody of their daughter, and sued for custody of the embryos, which she won and eventually destroyed.

When it comes to reproductive choice, I've liked to discuss hypothetical situations about artificial wombs and claims to embryos and fetuses that would exist outside a woman's body.  It's sort of difficult to think about because it's so different than what humanity has been dealing with for all of our existence, but some court cases are demonstrating the simple-to-me principle that the right to abortion is one that exists because incubation occurs in a woman's body.  Once an embryo or other proto-kid of two parents is no longer in her body, the mother has lost her veto power.

Personally, I think that either parent should retain the ability to destroy embryos that are not in a woman's body.  In general, I think veto power should be retained when it comes to creating whole new people, so long as it doesn't require forcing abortion on an unwilling woman.  But I can understand why people would err on the other side.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

The Gallows of Good Faith

People love to make fun of "Hopey-Changey," and they're right to.  Obama's 2008 campaign was based to an embarrassing degree on sentimental and generic idealism.  However, I still think that he tried to put it into practice.  Ever since he came into office, there have been outraged progressives upset that he even tried for compromise on anything with proudly-intransigent Republicans.  He gave them the chance to step up and govern, like they've been elected to do, and when they declined, it became just enough rope to hang themselves with.  You only need to see Romney's attempt to tear down Wall Street and back "Romneycare" to see that obstructionism in a time of crisis isn't just treading water and storing up political capital for when you get back in power and can use it up.  Win enough weeks and you've won the war.  

Tuesday, September 25, 2012


I just downloaded an Android app for tracking my menstrual cycle, and it's ad-supported.  So far all the ads are for apps which use GPS to stalk one's partner.  

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Lots of dead ends

The IUCN has profiled a lot of the very endangered animals it likes, and the comments are full of the stuff that had kept me frustrated with environmentalism for most of my life, like desperate calls to "wake up."  A commenter says

According to the Queensland Museum book of dinosaurs we have already lost 99% of species on this planet over time. We have to be more responsible as a species to try and save what we have left. 
This stuff bothers me because it's framed as an alarming talking point, but it's really just how things work.  Natural selection gives us an unsentimental system that makes most species dead-ends.  Where one goes extinct, another is supposed to arise and take advantage of the empty ecological niche.  The problem is that people have stepped in to fill a number of niches, and that's been harmful to biodiversity.  Where people are, large predators tend to disappear.  

It's not that people don't understand that there are competing interests, it's just that they're very difficult to balance.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Mature Enough for Girlhood

Jezebel is discussing the phenomenon of extra-girly famous women, with a tone that suggests worry.  Megan Reynolds has responded.  It is kind of true that women are embracing a lot of things that fit girls better than they do women - like glitter, unicorns, and cute kitties.  I can identify with this a little, since I just turned thirty and have only recently been confident enough to really consider experimenting with my own style.  I never learned to put on makeup until I was 25.  Going with silly fashion trends takes a certain amount of confidence.  Teenage and younger girls are usually giant balls of insecurity, so I don't know why we're looking to them for bold silliness.

As a teen, I was influenced by the swing revival of the 90s and dressed sort of conservatively.  To this day, I dress far older than my age.  My skirts are almost always full, swingy, and knee-length.  It was when I was about 22 that I finally realized that little tiny pigtails are the ideal way to pull back short hair for a workout (You can lay down on a yoga mat without having a big bump in the back of your head), and at the time I felt a bit too old for the look, but I've continued doing it since then.  It seems pretty unfair that once I get to a point where I feel like I can try some stuff with fashion, I'm "too old" for it.

Another dimension is that most of the women in the Jezebel piece are very financially stable, They probably have the sense that they worked their childhoods away so they could achieve that, and they are owed some latitude to play that they never got as children.  In fact, I have that feeling myself.  If I worked my way into a career that isn't going to happen now, I get to wear that sparkling cloisonne strawberry necklace.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Just too horrible to contemplate

Like many, I'm tempted to blow off Todd Akin's comments about pregnancy as the product of rape being impossible.  It's so obviously stupid that it's hard to know how to respond.  This has given me some insight into how anti-choice politics work.  Akin probably has a hard time believing something so horrible could just happen to someone who was raped (something already horrible having happened to her).  I concur that it's difficult to comprehend.  Once in a while, you hear about something so bad that it just can't be the case that it ever has happened or ever will.

Except it did happen and will happen again.  People do things to mitigate the horror of an unfair world.  In the case of rape producing pregnancy, most people tend to agree that the best thing we can do to mitigate the horror is to let a woman opt for aborting the pregnancy.  But if you live in a tidy world where there is always a correct, not-just-acceptable-but-good choice, you just don't get pregnant when you're raped.  If you're pregnant, you were obviously not raped, so STFU.

If the world were just, we wouldn't have to enforce justice on it.  If our leaders can't handle that, they're irresponsible vermin who should slink back into their fetid caves and hide until we've forgotten about them.

The last people who we need in charge are the ones who have not asked the question, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" because they think bad things don't happen to good people.  

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Throw Away the Key

In some ways, I am totally baffled by Romney picking Ryan as veep.  I agree with the analysis that Ryan's presence on the ticket shifts focus from Romney's strong issues (self-reliance, business, Obama Bad) to his weaker ones (social programs, taxes).

For a while, I've had a theory about vice-presidential selection that I think the GOP might be using: it's a great way to contain a weirdo.  Who's less relevant in Washington than the veep?  The conventional wisdom about a VP balancing a ticket hasn't really shown itself to be true.

When I do that thing liberals do - fantasize about what it would have been like if Gore'd gotten into the oval office - I think about how great it would have been to keep Lieberman locked up in the vice presidency.  

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

This again? Why won't people be serious about guns?

Florida is (again) trying to ban pediatricians from asking the parents of their patients if there are guns in the household.  This was already struck down as unconstitutionally-restrictive of the doctors' rights.  And it pissed me off royally, since people are always trying to regulate what doctors tell women about abortion, but see this as an intrusion on the second-amendment right to bear arms.

What?  Seriously?  A doctor asking if you have a gun in your home is making it hard for you to keep a gun there?  (Well, after you find out that if someone dies at the end of that gun, it's most likely going to be part of your family, you'll probably be a little less stoked about gun-ownership.  But God and the NRA forbid you learn that kind of thing from your doctor.)

It's one thing that this is stupid legislation.  It's quite another that it's being pushed again after a couple of high-profile gun crimes.

Just what about senseless gun violence makes Americans think it's time to pretend like we don't know they're dangerous?

I can usually ignore the gun control issue, but I'm getting riled up over how hard-headed Americans are when it comes to their guns.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Did you know that the hyrax is closely related to the elephant?

Working at the zoo, there are a lot of conversations where I have to sort of skip over complicated points about biology, and condense things into soundbytes.  My ultimate goal is to keep simplifying something from being dumbing it down.  It's the hardest part about working at the zoo vs. the Discovery Center.  I try to keep information concrete, which is pretty easy given that we have all sorts of animal skulls and stuff to teach with.

The place where this comes up most is in conversations about classification and "relationships" between animals.  I think people in general think of these things as more concrete than they actually are.  I know I always did.  Linneas had no idea what DNA was, so a lot of the relationships that were determined to exist historically were based on things like outside appearance.  After you spend some time learning about single-celled organisms, you start to realize that the traditional means of defining a species are really not so relevant.  Asexually-reproducing organisms are pretty much classified by how much of their genetic code they share.  After a certain degree of difference in highly-conserved regions of their genetic material, they're considered different species.

This was especially interesting to think about when I worked in medical microbiology.  These microorganisms are critters that you can't see without a microscope, and are really only interesting to us insofar as as they affect our health.  I got to a point where it began to sound like semantics to me.  I mean, once penicillin kills an infectious agent, who cares what species or subspecies it is?  In my own medical care, I certainly don't much care (not enough to pay for the tests).  When it comes to epidemiology, however, the story is different.  Genetic signatures can help trace the sources of outbreaks.

This is exactly what people are talking about when they say "race is a construct."  Race, and species classification, are just systems we use to understand and categorize the world around us.  The natural world doesn't need us to tell it what we think of it.

I do this science education stuff in an area where people are often a little hostile to the idea of evolution.  I think a better understanding of this kind of thing would be really helpful, because popular conceptions of evolution are convoluted by the hierarchical pictures like the above.  I wonder how much resistance to evolution would go away once people had a better understanding of it.

(I don't mean to give the impression that I always felt like I understood this.  Most of the insight I'm trying to get across here were realizations I had in lecture halls in college, feeling like I should have always understood this stuff.  In case you're curious, the classes that were most instrumental to these realizations were anthropology 101, history of biology, biology for majors, and genetics.)

A rock hyrax
An African elephant

Friday, June 01, 2012

Conflicted Interests

I started this post a few weeks ago, but after the NYT just took the subject on, I decided I should go for it. I thought it was a little too negative, but the stakes with endangered species are high no matter how you look at it.

I went through orientation to work at Zoo Boise this summer as a "Zoo Naturalist," and I went in with  few reservations.  I wasn't sure that even the best enclosures were quite good enough for wild animals.  I'm still not sure that they are, but now I have a slightly different attitude about it.  Zoos create an educational opportunity that can't be replicated anywhere else, and raise a ton of money for conservation.  I think of it a little like I do animal dissection in biology classes - it puts a few animals at a disadvantage so that people can learn more about them and be inspired to take the next step and really get into science and conservation.

As a kid, I was a totally annoying environmentalist who would give you crap for littering, and simply didn't understand why people use pesticides in producing food.  Through my life, I've gotten really alienated with environmentalism in general, and have struggled to understand it in a pragmatic way.  I'm hoping my time at Zoo Boise will help me get back in touch with my environmentalist side (it is extremely fun so far), and yeah, conservation is quite expensive, but that's why part of your admission to Zoo Boise goes to their conservation fund.

One thing that I was very impressed with is that one of the nature preserves Zoo Boise works with, Gorongosa National Park, is administered in such a way that things are tolerable for the people who live there.  Money doesn't just go to maintaining park grounds, but to health care facilities for neighboring people.

Mostly, I've never been able to balance out the human needs with the environmental ones, morally.  In general, I lean much more toward helping people than I do animals, and I've always been extremely grossed out by the imperialist overtones in a lot of conservation movements.

To illustrate something I think should work pretty well, The US is trying to reintroduce wolves to their natural range in the Western US.  A lot of Idahoans don't like it.  Even our governor wants to kill him some wolves.  Frankly, I don't get it.  We have replaced a lot of the herbivores that used to roam around here with domestic ones that we like to eat.  Oddly enough, wolves like to eat cows too.  Sometimes they kill one - usually the gov't will pay damages, and so will an environmental group.  What's the harm done, if you pretty much don't lose money on the venture?  Camping is a little scarier, but it's supposed to be a little tiny bit scary.  (Last week, a cougar was seen gallivanting around downtown Boise quite near my home.  Frankly, I stayed off the greenbelt for a few days.)

Let's just PREtENDA that the woman isn't even there!

Congress has no problem with discriminating against already-born, adult, American gay human beings, but has a giant fit about selective abortion.  I hate hate hate that this invasive thought-police stuff is happening, but it's all the more insulting that PRENDA passed when ENDA has no hope.

Of all people, Andrew Sullivan captures the root of why this is bad, bad law:

I'm just deeply skeptical of how legal authorities could determine such a motive if the women do not say so. Banning explicit advertizing or marketing for sex-selective abortion would be another thing. But my sense is that this is all underground anyway, very hard to root out, and the kind of government power that would be unleashed in trying to figure it out is not compatible with a free country. I mean, how do you prove motive in such cases?

Right.  Who's to say it's the wrong kind of discrimination?  And even if it is, who really really cares?  China is seeing strange and bad effects from widespread anti-girl bias in sex-selective abortion, but there's really no proof that this is spreading much further.  It proves nothing, but I'd rather have a girl baby, mostly because I've spent almost no time with little boys.  

That's just me admitting a preference, but not intent to abort if things don't go my way.  Frankly, the kid will be their own person, so it's a roll of the dice, boy or girl. 

And I think that's the major point that anti-choice legislators refuse to understand about reproductive rights.  A significant portion of what happens in reproduction isn't under anyone's control.  It's a terrifying and awesome process, and the control a person can have over it should be their right, especially when it's happening inside her body.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

And all of a sudden it slips away from them

They don't get it.  Republicans tried to harness identity politics with Michael Steele and Hilary Rosen, but they just don't get the core idea that people who aren't white men have legitimate greivances with systems set up to screw them.   Mitt Romney's trying to untwist the pretzel-logic of at-home mothers needing to work outside the home for welfare.  It doesn't make sense, and he can't force it to.  They're trying to raise the stupid ruckus they think that Democrats are trumping up all the time.

Seeing the tug-of-Mommy-War has made me think that this is when Americans can really attack the problem of support for families with children.  

Friday, April 13, 2012

What Ann and Mitt Romney are Ignoring

Hilary Rosen was right that Ann Romney can't identify much with the financial struggles of mothers who work outside the home.  She was wrong to say she hadn't worked a day in her life.  Ann Romney can afford help with her household duties, and having multiple sclerosis and five children, probably needs it.

This debate gets a little personal for me, since I am likely to embark on at-home motherhood quite soon - with uncertain health, and it seems like it's only a matter of time until someone tells me I haven't worked a day in my life.  I've gone to a lot of trouble to ensure that I can take care of myself financially (It's all a little rube-goldberg at the moment, which is still scary), and if I don't have Obamacare, I need my spouse's health coverage.

What bothers me most about this dialog is the way that conservative men act like the de facto restrictions they think women need (financial dependence on a man so they can follow the natural order and raise children) are a liberating force.  As a woman with ambitions toward motherhood, I can tell you that I don't want the devotion of my time to childcare to leave me even more vulnerable than I already am.  Unlike me, Ann Romney doesn't have to choose between treating her illness and sending her children to college.