Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A new kind of Christmas

I grew up in the suburbs of Buffalo, NY, in a nominally Christian household. Christmas was a very big holiday for me and my mother; significantly less so for my father and brother. It's not that they didn't care about the holiday, but just that the season as a whole meant much less to them than it did to us. Christmas Eve was very ritualized: there was the singing of carols; the addition of a last-minute snowfall to my mother's Christmas village; a lovely music-filled candlelight service at my church which routinely drew members of other churches; a walk home with stops to look at the nice light displays; a dinner of fruit, cheese, shrimp, and cocktail smokies wrapped in crescent roll dough; my mother's reading of An Account of a Visit From St. Nicholas (aka 'Twas the Night Before Christmas), and then an early trip to bed for the next day's presents, big breakfast (eggs scrambled with potatoes and sausage) and dinner (ham, at least 2 types of potatoes, at least 3 vegetables, rolls, Jell-O, and dessert), and the cat(s) playing with ribbons and bows. About half the time I got snow on either Christmas or Christmas Eve. When I was very little there was a large family celebration, but from around the time I was in kindergarten onward it was just the immediate family with possibly the addition of my mother's sister, who routinely slept over on Christmas Eve until my brother an I were in late middle school.

Things are different these days. My mother died some years back. My father has remarried, and moved to Florida for the winter. My childhood cat--more of my eventual step-mother's cat while I was in college and beyond--died over the past year, so won't be around to play with the wrapping and the low-hanging ornaments. I do most of my Christmas shopping on Amazon, so I don't face the holiday crowds. Tomorrow will feature a relatively late start, given that I'm the youngest person present (my step sister couldn't get the vacation time this year), and the dinner will be the 4 of us plus two couples of their friends.

So, today, the activities were a bit different. I finished fixing my dad's computer problems, fulfilling my role as a member of Generation Tech Support. I went for a run, an walked back in my shorts and overheating still. I just finished a large wrapping job for my step-mother, wrapping basically all of her gifts to my brother and to my father, while she and my dad are out at a cocktail party. And now I'm waiting for the delivery of some Chinese food, as my family has decided that if everyone already assumes we're Jewish, we might as well embrace it, even if we do still celebrate the secular holiday.

The first couples of years I spent Christmas down here, without my mother, seemed very weird to me. Now, it feels mostly normal, with the exception of the weather. That's to be expected, of course. I just wonder now: if I had a Christmas like those I grew up with again, would that feel weird? Does the new normal replace the old normal, or become an additional set of parameters that are added to the category of normal?

Saturday, December 13, 2008


I was reading the New York Times blog Proof, which is about the intersection of American life and alcohol, earlier today. It got me thinking about my own relationship with the substance.

Such as it were.

When people get to know me, one of the first things they find unusual about me is that I don't drink. In the entirety of my life, I've probably had less than 10 servings of alcohol. I'm not a recovering alcoholic, and I don't have a religious prohibition against the substance, so I don't fit into the standard reasons people have come to expect from those who don't partake. Alcohol is so central to adult society in our culture that any deviation from it marks the teetotaler as an aberration, and seems to demand an explanation. I generally just tell people that I don't enjoy the taste of alcohol, and so I don't see the point of drinking it; while it's true that I don't like the taste, as a reason that still seems to leave people baffled. There have been other reasons for pretty much my entire adult life, though which ones have been in place at any given time have fluctuated.

When I was first in the age in which drinking was considered a social norm, I was under the legal age requirement. I am, and pretty much always have been, a goody-two-shoes, and just didn't see myself as the sort to break the law even when it was expected. I remember interviewing to be an RA in a campus dorm on my 20th birthday, and having a hard time convincing the faculty member who was interviewing me that no, really, I actually did not want a glass of wine to celebrate. It was less the fear of being punished for violating the rule than it was my self-image as someone on the straight and narrow that meant that my being underage was a reason not to drink.

There was also the fact that I knew full well that alcohol primarily serves to lower our inhibitions. I'm gay, and I was in the closet for quite some time--not out of fear, but because my libido was much weaker than my desire to eventually have a family, and at the time it seemed unlikely I could have both. I didn't want to risk saying something or doing something in regard to my orientation that I would regret in the harsh light of the next day. In my mind, no matter what allure alcohol might have once I tried it would be worth that risk.

Then there's the potential risk of addiction. I have a large number of family members with alcohol problems, running through both my mother's and father's families. I suppose I shouldn't be too shocked by that, given the stereotypes of my predominantly Irish and German heritage, but while some of them are functional alcoholics, others are clearly not living the lives they would otherwise be capable of because liquor is holding them down. To be fair, there are also family members who don't seem to have any problem with their drinking, and others who abstain completely, but I know that the risk is there. It may even be pretty close--though I only ever saw my mother drunk once in my life (after a really bad superbowl loss by the team she rooted fanatically for), when she was hospitalized just prior to dying at 52 from kidney and liver failure the doctors asked us how long she had had cirrhosis of the liver. None of us knew she did. I don't know if that could have been caused by the abdominal infection she's had for months. It's possible that she drank no more than any of us knew she did, and just had a low tolerance for alcohol; it's also possible she had had a drinking problem for years and kept it secret from us. And I wouldn't be surprised if my father's liver isn't in great shape either; though it has moderated somewhat over the past couple of years, since he retired he's drank more than he knows he should. He definitely doesn't have an addictive personality (unlike my mother, he didn't have too hard of a time giving up smoking, and he still every once in a while smokes a cigar and then feels no craving to do so for months), so he seems to go through intermittent phases of deciding he's drinking too much, cutting way back, and then slowly loosening the restrictions. So with at least some evidence that both of my parents are/were disposed to drinking more than is healthy, I'm not exactly itching to dive in to the bottom of a glass myself.

There's also the fact that alcohol is toxic. It destroys brain and liver cells, and that's even with the human body's defense mechanisms. Hell, I use alcohol to sterilize lab equipment in my life as a biologist. This reason must be tempered by the fact that low to moderate drinking seems to have beneficial effects on the heart--ideally, I should be drinking a glass and a half of red wine a day--but it can't be totally overlooked.

Then there's the issue of deep core personality. I've known relatively nice people to turn into mean drunks--when all the layers of social skills and conscious choice are stripped bare, they're shown to be nasty, or depressed, or whatnot. Granter, there are also happy, bubbly drunks, and sleepy drunks, but I look at it somewhat through the cost/benefit ratio: there's not much to be gained by finding out that at the core I'm happy; there's significantly more to lose by finding out that at the core I'm nasty. The potential downside is enough worse than the potential upside to not be worth investigating.

And, finally, there's the fact that not drinking, and not for the most common of reasons, makes me different. A friend once observed that I seem to have a strong desire to be atypical, and I think she might be right about that. Choosing not to drink is a very easy way to be different. I'm not proud of the notion that some of my quirks may ultimately derive from a simple and somewhat childish desire to be unique, but I'm too introspective to dismiss the idea entirely.

And, of course, I still really do dislike the taste. I'm not the sort who really has acquired tastes--if I don't like how something tastes, I stop consuming it and find something else. The only taste I know I've acquired is for V8 juice, and that was by way of making myself drink it daily for a stretch of time in order to boost my intake of vegetables.

Thankfully, I'm not a moralist who looks down on others for drinking. As long as you're not an obnoxious drunk, and as long as you don't try to drive while impaired, I don't actually see a moral aspect to alcohol. So, enjoy your libations, which will be free flowing this time of year. I'll be over here with my soft drink, an oddity in your midst.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Civility of discourse

For a variety of reasons, I've been thinking recently about what constitutes being polite, and when it's acceptable not to be. This started with a flame war in a forum I frequent, where someone posted a diatribe about how people having racial preferences in their dating partners were sick and prejudiced. When people expressed contrary opinions, he alternately told them they weren't addressing the point or else dismissed them in a snarky comment or two without answering any questions they raised, even when the questions were along the lines of "Could you clarify what you mean by X?" or "You've stated that my entire post is a mass of contradictions. Would you point out a specific contradiction in what I said?" Eventually, even those who started out on the high road grew increasingly sarcastic and dismissive toward him.

In another recent example, a friend apparently removed me from his list of friends on Facebook because I left a comment that his status message was factually inaccurate. That fact really can't be disputed; it concerned the number of senators of a given party who voted one particular way on an issue he cares about, and he attributed all the votes in one direction as being from one party when that was not the case. My comment was deleted very quickly; several hours later my status as friend was revoked. I've since sent him an apology. I don't actually see why what I said was inappropriate, but a mutual friend certainly felt it was and when there's not a larger principle involved, I'm willing to go along with the views of the majority on societal norms even if they don't make sense to me. Since I was apparently in the wrong, I apologized. Being right on this issue isn't more important to me than maintaining a good relationship with the person involved.

But all of this has me thinking about several larger issues.

One is the expectations regarding communication. This is an age-old question where social and technological change has brought it to light from a different angle. When someone expresses an opinion on a blog, or in an internet forum, or on a social networking site, what is the intent? If you disagree with something they say, either objective or subjective, what is the appropriate response? Who decides? The mutual friend in the latter case saw it as our friend expressing his frustration; I saw it as him both expressing his frustration and assigning specific blame. Even assuming that there is a true correct answer to what the comment was doing, when two intelligent people read the same comment and come away with two different impressions of what it means, that makes it seem that interpretation is important even on things which seem straightforward to any one observer. Those issues of interpretation are a big part of why I chose to go into a natural science in the first place; while there is still interpretation, there is far more in the way of objective fact and an underlying reality to be examined in those fields than in many others.

Then there's the line between public and private. Many people apparently consider social networking sites to be private affairs, despite the massive reporting on employers scouring the myspace and facebook profiles of applicants and even current employees. I take a very different view: these sites are meant to foster interaction between people even when they aren't physically present. I may be alone in my living room while I'm writing this, but once I hit publish it goes up for the wider world to see. Even though very few people read this blog, it's still available to the public even if I have editorial control over it. The more people who read something, the less private it is. If you keep a hardcopy journal or diary, that's private. If you publish comments on a social networking site where you're connected to dozens of your friends and coworkers, that seems pretty public to me.

I've always felt that dissent is one of the cornerstones of our society, and that on the whole it tends to be a good thing. Silencing people who disagree with you doesn't seem to serve a purpose to me, other than to place you into a false echo chamber where you assume everyone agrees with everything you say, and thus there's no need to think critically about it. That's one of the main reasons I've left up comments that are little more than ad hominem attacks against me, even when it's an issue I care about. I actually enjoy it when people attack my position themselves, but it's my impression that many people do not make the distinction I do between attacking a point and attacking a person.

Then there's the issue of how emotion is treated in our society. I've noticed a general pattern in life that the more passionate someone is about something, the more others excuse their behavior in regard to the subject and castigate others for doing or saying anything that might upset the passionate individual, even if the statements are objectively true. This happens in politics, in business, in social relationships...I can come up with examples from pretty much every aspect of my life. There is a certain deference given to those who act on emotion, which is why the rallying cry of "Think of the children" has an amazing ability to shut down discourse. The key word in that cry is "children"; the word "think" is hardly ever stressed.

Those who act on logic are often considered inhuman. That's backwards. We have plenty of evidence of non-human animals acting on and feeling emotion. We have almost none of non-human animals acting on logic. Even chimpanzees seem to be unable to learn the concept of delayed gratification in games where picking the smaller pile of treats leads to the bigger reward, despite being able to grasp it when abstractions are used; the sight of the reward seems to overpower the conceptual knowledge that they will get the large reward only if they select the smaller one. Your dog really does love you and enjoy spending time with you just being you, even if he's just laying down next to you. He doesn't, on the other hand, know whether or not it's his birthday, or make plans for what to do when he gets old. The ability to act on logic rather than emotion is one of the most defining characteristics of humans compared to other animals we know of.

I also have to say that people who act on emotion are not the only people who experience emotion. I almost always base my actions off of logic and reason, and I have a definite preference for facts over feelings. That in no way means that I don't have feelings, or even that my feelings are less intense and therefore less important than those of people who do act upon theirs more often. It is entirely possible that the difference between them and me lies not in the intensity of our emotional responses but in the strength of our self-control. As someone who has demonstrated that control in the past, I am expected to continue to do so, while those who lash out in a self-righteous rage are given a pass, and the rest of us are to keep our heads down and our mouths shut until they calm down. We are admonished to be polite even in the face of others being decidedly otherwise. I don't really see that changing anytime soon, nor even a way in which it could change. It just gets tiring at times.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Trying to understand my opponents

In the past couple of weeks, I've read rather extensively on what the formal position of the Mormon church is in regards to same sex marriage. They're hardly the only religious group out there who feel the way they do--the Catholics, for example, are really no better--but the Mormons were the funding source for the Yes on 8 campaign, and thus bear much of the brunt of the angry response.

Anger alone isn't terribly useful, though.

What really struck me is the pervasive idea that setting up two differently understood relationships described by the same word would undermine one of those relationships. A lot of people really seem to think that a couple down the street getting married would indeed affect their marriage if they don't think that the people down the street should be allowed to be married. The point strikes me as entirely nonsensical, and it's stated with an air of obviousness.

And then I realized that I state my view that whether or not I can marry a man in no way changes and heterosexual marriage with an equal air of obviousness. So it now seems that I need to explain that in more detail.

Let's pick a different familiar relationship; one that's a little less politically charged. I'm going with Brother, mostly because I have one of those.

Now when I say I have a brother, I mean that I have a male sibling a year older than me who has the same parents I do. We grew up in the same household, had many of the same teachers, many of the same friends, etc. We still talk most days, even though it's been years since we've lived together.

There are a lot of other forms of brothers, though. Among my extended relatives is one immediate family of a double second marriage. The father's first marriage resulted in a son. The mother's first marriage resulted in two sons and a daughter. The double second marriage resulted in two more sons. One of the five sons was adopted. Thus, their family involves males who are full genetic siblings, half genetic siblings, and adopted siblings. They're also all brothers, in a sense I agree with. Well, except for the daughter; she's a sister.

There are also people who use the term brother to mean people they've never lived with nor share any genetic link to. A number of religious organizations, for example, use it to refer to fellow believers who are male. Monks are traditionally referred to as Brothers. Fraternity members also typically refer to each other as brothers. I don't think any of these relationships actually fall under the heading of brotherhood--sharing neither genetic nor social parents means you're not really brothers in my book--but I recognize that others disagree with me here, and use the term regardless.

So, clearly there are a bunch of different relationships encompassed by the term brother, many of which mean entirely different things than my relationship with my brother. And not one of them changes or impinges on or threatens my relationship with my brother. He is still my brother, and the fact that other people use the term brother to mean someone I don't feel is actually their brother is completely irrelevant to that fact. If monks legally became brothers, it wouldn't threaten my relationship with my brother at all, nor would those of us from the males-who-share-parents crowd need a law designed to "protect" the institution of brotherhood. After all, brotherhood is traditionally a familial relationship, and we all know how the family unit is the central organization of our entire society.

Apply the same to sisters. Fathers, and Mothers, both of which can be religious titles as well as familial relationship. And that's just the nuclear family. Things get even more complicated and hazy when you look beyond those.

So if you're so certain that only one meaning of marriage can exist, only one exact specified form of the relationship, and that it will be undermined if anyone else ever uses the term...why does the same not apply to brotherhood?

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Illness symptoms

I've been ill the past few days, which, because I'm a biology nerd, has me thinking about the nature of illness symptoms.

Most likely, I've got either a bad cold or a very low grade flu. My symptoms started on Sunday with sinus congestion and a post nasal drip. By the middle of the night I was running a fever (I don't have a thermometer, so I'm not sure how bad of one), and on Monday it had spread to include nausea, lethargy, aching joints, a headache, loss of appetite, dry heaves, and what I gather was a lot of swallowed air--my stomach felt distended, and I was burping a lot with no taste residual to it. Today I'm somewhat more coherent, my fever's broken (though when I woke up my bed sheets were soaked in sweat--I'm washing them at the moment), and my joints don't ache except when I cough. However, I've developed a persistent dry, unproductive cough.

Many symptoms of mild illnesses I don't actually treat very often. This is because a number of the symptoms are part of the body's defense mechanism against the illness. Low grade fevers, for instance, seem to increase the speed at which the body recovers, most likely from a combination of the increased kinetics of some immune reactions and the very narrow temperature range of some pathogens. As such, I typically only take medications to break a fever when it's 4 or more degrees above normal, as that starts getting into the danger range. Headaches are often a sign of dehydration, so rather than taking an analgesic when my head hurts, my first instinct is to drink a lot of water (or, if I'm ill, gatorade or fruit juice--if I'm dehydrating from symptoms at either end, I'm losing more than just water). Then again, I get headaches all the time and thus they don't faze me too much unless they're migraines, which I get rarely but treat as soon as they show themselves.

A dry, unproductive cough, though, seems to me to fall into the category of "symptom caused by the infection agent as a way to further spread the disease". I can't see how it benefits my body at all, as it doesn't seem to be removing any irritants from the lungs. That puts it along the lines of the diarrhea produced by cholera, though obviously less dangerous (almost all deaths from cholera are due to dehydration, which is primarily caused by that diarrhea--keep the patient hydrated, and the disease will clear naturally with essentially zero mortality). As such, it seems a reasonable sort of symptom to treat medically.

In reality, though, my major mode of action when ill is to avoid people when possible. I stayed at home yesterday for essentially the whole day (the exception was dragging myself to an IM volleyball game because my team would have had to play shorthanded if I didn't show up--weird co-rec rules about male/female ratios, but I did advise them all to wash their hands as soon as we were done because I might have infected the ball--and stopping by the market on the way home for some basic supplies), and I did all my labwork today before 7am so that I wouldn't overlap with my labmates and get them ill. I've forced myself to eat bread and saltines, and to drink gatorade, fruit juice, and ginger ale, even though I have no appetite just because I know I need to get something in me. A few mugs of dissolving chicken bouillon in hot water have helped my throat a good deal, as have some excessively hot showers with the exhaust fan turned off. Last night, the medication of choice was NyQuil (as my Dad calls it, the night time sniffling, sneezing, aching, coughing, passing out on the kitchen floor medicine), and today I've moved over to the nondrowsy DayQuil option. I've largely been sitting on my couch (head vertical to promote sinus drainage) wrapped in a blanket, and focusing my moments of coherence on short bursts of productivity. Most likely, I should be fine by tomorrow, given that I'm pretty sure that if I were in high school I would have gone to school today (though not yesterday). Still, at times like this, I tend to be very thankful for having been born into a society which embraces functional Western medicine. As miserable as I felt yesterday even when using pharmaceuticals, it would have been a lot worse without them.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Proposition 8: Calling it what it is

I'm not the sort who normally posts about political matters. For the most part, I see political issues as generally being things where reasonable people can disagree even when presented with the same basic facts. People will disagree on the relative importance of different goals, the likelihood of certain outcomes, and will form different opinions about who will get hurt by something, who will be helped by something, and by how much. Different philosophies about the role of government can also easily lead people to different conclusions. I have views on a number of typically hot-button issues--abortion, capital punishment, health care, etc--where I don't even think that people who completely disagree with me are fundamentally wrong. And, in general, I figure an adult will rarely change his or her mind based upon someone else's argument.

But even though I fully expect that everyone who will read this and lives in California already agrees with me, I still felt the need to say something.

A lot has already been said about California's Proposition 8. Supporters have tried to state that it will inevitably lead to incest and polygamy, and that kindergarteners will be indoctrinated that gay marriages are a good thing even if their parents disagree. That churches will be forced to open their doors to same sex ceremonies, and that pastors will be sued for hate speech for preaching against homosexuality. Lies, all of it. Opponents of the proposition have already debunked these specific points, and many others.

At its core, this is a proposal to remove civil rights.

That is important. It would remove existing rights in the state of California. I get annoyed at both political parties routinely misrepresenting their candidates' and opponents' voting records on votes to "increase taxes" or "cut funding" when in reality they were votes to not lower taxes or to not increase funding, respectively. There is a difference there, and there is an even greater difference here than exists in most of the gay civil rights cases.

Think of what that means. If you vote yes for Proposition 8, you are voting to remove a group's right to get married, and invalidate their existing marriages. Admittedly, it's a small group in terms of the population as a whole--somewhere around 5% of people are gay. In comparison, about 2.5% of California is Jewish. Less than 2% is Mormon. 4% is Baptist, and it's the most common strain of Protestantism in the state. Less than 7% is African-American/Black. If the majority can rule that existing marriage rights for the 5% or so of gay people can be removed, what does that mean for other minority groups of a similar size?

You can argue that individuals need to prove that they deserve additional rights which they currently do not have in order to change the status quo. It's not a position I happen to agree with, but I can still view it as a reasonable starting view even if I think it's wrong. Essentially every time in history a group has been granted civil rights, it has been because those currently in power were convinced that it was wrong to not extend those rights or privileges to the formerly disadvantaged group. It is not inherently nonsensical to feel that the same should apply in the case of extending gay rights--that gay people should have to prove that they deserve the right to get married and to serve in the military and to inherit property from their partners without triggering the estate tax and to adopt children and all the rest.

But even so, it is another thing entirely to take one of these rights away. It is akin to saying that you've been convinced that they don't deserve to get married, rather than saying that you haven't been convinced that they do. If you haven't been convinced one way or another on a position, there are several reasonable defaults. You can default to the position that is the status quo--if you're not positive that something's broken, there's no point in trying to fix it. That is essentially the basis of conservatism: maintain the status quo unless there is a compelling reason to change things. You can default to a position of greatest good to harm ratio--if someone benefits, and no one is harmed, then that's the way to go. Both choices are valid and fully defensible.

Both of those argue voting No on proposition 8 unless you are completely sure that gay people shouldn't have these rights.

At the moment, more than 11,000 couples have already married in California because of the state Supreme Court's ruling that same sex marriages are legal. This proposition would add to the state constitution "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid and recognized in California." That would destroy these thousands of marriages. The official arguments in favor of proposition 8, included on secretary of state's site about the arguments for and against each proposal, includes "Proposition 8 is about preserving marriage; it's not an attack on the gay lifestyle. Proposition 8 does not take away any rights or benefits of gay of lesbian domestic partnerships. Under California law, 'domestic partners shall have the same rights, protections, and benefits' as married spouses. (Family Code 297.5). There are NO exceptions. Proposition 8 WILL NOT change this." It also states "It protects our children from being taught in public schools that 'same-sex marriage' is the same as traditional marriage."

Explain to me how voters eliminating thousands of marriages protects marriage. This is not just a decision to not extend marriage rights. It is not even just a ban on future same-sex marriages. It would legally destroy thousands of existing, legally recognized marriages. This is analogous to "protecting freedom of the press" by shutting down hundreds of newspapers and talk radio stations that broadcast opinions with which you disagree.

Further, the supporters have decided to simultaneously make the argument that there are no legal distinctions between heterosexual marriage and homosexual domestic partnerships and that a reason to support this proposition is that it would result in children being taught that the two are the same thing. Is the disconnect between these two arguments lost on those who wrote them?

I fully admit that I see gay rights as the civil rights issue of my generation. The parallels between current marriage bans and the antimiscegenation cases which persisted in this country until 1967 are immediate and profound, as far as I can see. The same arguments which are used to exclude the openly gay from the military--unit cohesion, morale, and that the military is not a grounds for social engineering--were the same ones used to segregate the armed forces, and were eventually seen for the invalid smokescreen they were back then. I would love to see real progress on this front. I would love to see people address the federal Defense of Marriage Act--which to my non-legally-trained-mind seems to be a law trying to state that certain laws (marriage) are not subject to part of the federal constitution (the full faith and credit clause)--in terms of Constitutionality, rather than pragmatism.

But this is bigger than all of that.

If you vote Yes on Proposition 8, you will not only vote to remove rights from a substantial number of people--current estimates are around 5% of the population being gay, which would be over 1.5 million in California even assuming that gay individuals were no more likely to move to the Bay Area and Los Angeles than they were anywhere else in the country. You will also tell tens of thousands of people that you feel it is appropriate to invalidate their existing, legal marriages because you don't think people like them should be allowed to get married.

Everyone is free to believe that homosexuality is immoral. That it is a choice, and that people who behave that way will be punished for all eternity. Free to belong to a religious organization that will not perform such services. Free to disown family members who are gay, and to shun gay people socially. Free to vote against extending us any rights we don't already have. That's part of the beauty of democracy--everyone gets to vote as (s)he sees fit, regardless of whether people like me think that view is wrong.

I just want those who support Proposition 8 to think about exactly what they're doing in this case, and be honest about the effects. Do you really want to vote to remove rights someone already has? Why?

Be conservative. Maintain the status quo. Keep the government out of things it has no business in. Uphold the freedom of religion.

Vote No on Proposition 8.

And if there's someone you think will be voting Yes on it, feel free to forward this argument to them if you think it might help.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A bit of perspective

There's something of a financial crisis playing out in the US at the moment. Forecasts of doom and gloom are pretty common right, with phrases such that this is the "worst since the Great Depression" floating around.

At the moment, we're hearing about the horrific crashes on Wall Street, with record breaking losses.

Taken completely out of context.

The absolute value of losses are indeed record levels. This is because the Dow Jones is worth one heck of a lot more than it used to be. At the moment, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is around 11,000, which is around what it was back in 2000. In 1990, it was less than 3,000.

The market has been sliding for the past year. As of the moment I'm writing this, the Dow Jones Industrial Average is down just under 17% for the year to date, and somewhere around 21-22% for the past year. Obviously, this is not a good thing.

On the other hand, on October 19th, 1987, the Dow Jones lost approximately 22.7%. On one day. It took 2 years to recover. Do you think that might be more recent than the Great Depression?

Keep in mind that percentage changes are a lot more meaningful than absolute value changes.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Attribution of malice

I read this opinion piece in Slate today which bothers the heck out of me. The article really is summed up by its headline: "Racism is the only reason Obama might lose"

Now, don't get me wrong: I do recognize that racism is problem Obama will have to deal with. There will undoubtedly be people who will note vote for him based simply on the color of his skin. There will also be people who will vote for him simply based on the color of his skin, but I think, on the whole, it will be more of a harm to him than a bonus. After all, the majority of black people are registered as Democrats anyway, so there are probably more anti-black racist Democrats and Independents not voting for him than there are racist Independents and Republicans voting for him, even if you assume different percentages of each type within their respective categories.

My problem with the sentiment about this stems mainly from the elevation of one piece of information about the candidate above everything else. Take the paragraph:

"Many have discoursed on what an Obama victory could mean for America. We would finally be able to see our legacy of slavery, segregation, and racism in the rearview mirror. Our kids would grow up thinking of prejudice as a nonfactor in their lives. The rest of the world would embrace a less fearful and more open post-post-9/11 America. But does it not follow that an Obama defeat would signify the opposite? If Obama loses, our children will grow up thinking of equal opportunity as a myth. His defeat would say that when handed a perfect opportunity to put the worst part of our history behind us, we chose not to. In this event, the world's judgment will be severe and inescapable: The United States had its day but, in the end, couldn't put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race."

That is an argument that voters should vote for Obama specifically because he is black, and electing a black President would be good for reasons historical, international, and inspirational. It leaves aside everything else about the candidate: economic policy, Supreme Court legacy, foreign policy, education policy, health policy, everything. There is a word for making a decision solely on the basis of race. It's not a word you want applied to you.

This sort of thinking pervades much of the rest of the piece as well. For instance, the line: "Or he is an 'elitist' who cannot understand ordinary (read: white) people because he isn't one of them.". No. He is considered an elitist because he's an intellectual who went to very good schools and has essentially only held jobs in public service. Charges of elitism are incredibly common in American politics, and have the ability to stick to basically anyone who isn't either a populist or has had substantial military experience. This is why so many politicians attempt to get folksy during the primary season; the meme of George W. Bush being the candidate you'd want to have a beer with, and who you could talk with (despite him being at least as much of a blue blood as Kerry was) was part of why he got elected. I highly doubt the majority of people who think Obama is an elitist mean that he doesn't understand white people; I think most of them think he doesn't understand what it's like to worry about whether his home is going to be foreclosed, or whether he'd be able to scrape together enough money to send his children to a public in-state college. I'm not saying they're right, but it's an entirely different concern.

This is actually very similar to how I felt about Lieberman when he was a vice presidential candidate and stated that the only reason people would vote against him would be anti-semitism. Actually, I was much more annoyed at Lieberman, as he himself stated this, and Obama's not the one making this argument, so Lieberman takes much more of the blame. Conceptually, though, the bigger of a deal someone makes about a characteristic that isn't directly relevant to job performance, the less likely I become to support that person. It's a problem of priorities.

For this election, I haven't decided between Obama and McCain. Neither of them have the executive experience (governor, business executive, president of a non-profit, etc) that I would like to see of a President. Obama's a very charismatic man who has the ability to change a lot of things, but I worry that the vague meme of "change" might be applied to things which don't need to and shouldn't be changed. I oppose a number of the policies both candidates are proposing (both of them on the war and on gay marriage, Obama on health care and affirmative action, McCain on abortion and energy policy [actually, both on energy, but McCain's worse]). Most likely, I'll end up figuring out which of these I think will have the longest-running implications on the Supreme Court and make my decisions on that. But I hate the implication that if I choose McCain, it's because I'm a racist. And, further, I think it's this pervading attitude that is a large part of why the polls are inaccurate about Obama. Yes, some people will say they're voting for him when they secretly won't because they're racist. I think it's likely that there are more people who will say they're voting for him when they're not, simply because they fear that they'll be labeled as racist if they say they're supporting McCain.

Monday, July 14, 2008

On the shoulders of giants

I assume this is a reference to the Isaac Newton quote "If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.". But my friend Megan passed this along to me, which is essentially a call to post about a classic paper in your field and the contributions it's made.

The papers which have had the most direct effect on my science have been relatively more recent, but thankfully, I do know some useful older ones as well. If I were feeling more ambitious, I'd tackle Sewall Wright's 1932 paper which laid out shifting balance theory, but that's not going to fit into my current time scheme. So I'll instead go with Lederberg and Lederberg's March 1952 classic Replica Plating and Indirect Selection of Bacterial Mutants in the Journal of Bacteriology

Though it's hard to think of it at the moment, at the time this paper was written there was controversy over the origin of mutations. Some people felt that mutations were always arising spontaneously. Others felt that mutations which conferred adaptation to a specific condition would be brought about by introduction of that condition. For example, if a cell were subjected to an increased salt concentration, mutations which enabled it to deal with a high salt concentration (maybe changes in ionic transporters, changes in the internal salt concentration, changes in detoxification machinery, etc) would be induced, and thus occur more frequently than they would in a cell not subjected to salt stress. Thought this may seem strikingly teleological, I feel it's important to remember that this was before the double helix nature of DNA had been demonstrated, so it was a time in which biology was even more of a black box than it is currently.

The Lederbergs devised a simple experiment to test this idea. They grew bacteria on agar plates without the presence of an antibiotic that the strain was sensitive to. They then stamped this master plate onto a sterile piece of velveteen, so some of the cells adhered to the pile. This velveteen was then stamped onto a number of fresh plates containing the antibiotic the cells were known to be sensitive to. If the mutations conferring resistance happened before exposure to the antibiotic, resistant colonies would form in the same location on the fresh plates, because they would have been derived from a resistant ancestor on the master plate. Conversely, if the mutations were induced by the presence of the antibiotic, there would be no correlation in location of the resistant colonies from one plate to another. The results clearly showed that the locations where resistant colonies grew were consistent across the replica plates made from a given master plate, showing that the mutations responsible for the adaptation arose in an environment in which they would not have been expected to be advantageous. This paper also details the equivalent experiment involving bacterial resistance to a virus which infects the wild type--again, resistance crops up in the same locations repeatedly, indicating that it is derived from changes which occur before exposure to the virus.

This paper also outlines the use of sterile velvet for replica plating--a technique I myself have used repeatedly in the lab to screen for certain types of mutations and/or genetic engineering. In general, it's fairly easy to screen most traits in one direction--if you want to find which bacteria are resistant to a given antibiotic, you put the antibiotic in their growth medium, and anything that grows will resist it. Sometimes, though, you want to select for the cells which are sensitive to the antibiotic, or which require the addition of a certain chemical in order to grow, or the like. Replica plating provides an efficient way to screen hundreds of colonies for these types of changes--make a master plates in the permissive environment (without the antibiotic, with any possible required nutrient, etc), and make replica plates on both the permissive and the strict environment (when the antibiotic is present, when a given compound is missing, etc.). Look for colonies which grow in the permissive environment but which don't in the sensitive one. There you go. To be more sure of yourself, you'll generally repeatedly test that it has the property you're looking for, but the odds are pretty good that it does, and it's a lot faster than other means of finding such negative properties.

So, thank you, Drs. Lederberg. this paper of yours not only established the importance of mutation prior to exposure to an environmental challenge, but also outlined a handy lab technique I've made repeated and systematic use of in my own experiments.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

An interesting concept, somewhat marred by an essential flaw

Recent list work: #5 (done), #9 (done), #32, #42 (done), #44 (done), #69, #70, #83, #85 (done).

Slate has an interesting article about color/racial bias potentials in professional athletics. It discusses some cases of white athletes getting higher pay than black athletes with comparable stats, whether that's economically justified based on the effects racial makeup of the team has on ticket sales, whether baseball umpires alter their calls on ball v strike based on the race of the batter/pitcher (and how omitting an important variable such as time of day can lead noise to be mistaken for signal), etc.

But there's a big flaw in the article.

The hook of the article is that the Celtics are going to be playing the Lakers in the 2008 NBA finals. On paper, the Celtics are a better team--better win/loss record, better point differential, long winning streaks against teams the Lakers themselves were playing. The Vegas oddsmakers have, on the other hand, favored the Lakers on the point spread. The article attempts to discuss whether Vegas has caught on to referee racial bias which tends to operate on the whole in favor of white players. Most likely no, but not for any reason discussed in the article. Fundamentally, oddsmakers are not really concerned with whether team A will beat team B by 5 points. They are concerned with whether 50% of the betting dollars will be on team A if you give team B an artificial boost of 5 points. Gambling establishments essentially want an equal amount of money on each possible outcome, so they can minimize their risks and make their profit from the house taking whatever cut it takes. It frequently amazes me how many people don't recognize this distinction.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The culture wars continue

Today the CA Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision on gay marriage. Proposition 22, aka the Knight Initiative, was passed back in 1999 defining marriage in California as being between one man and one woman. This ballot proposition almost caused me to switch my voter registration to CA from my native NY in order to vote against it, but I reasoned that the school budget vote in May would be more likely to be affected by my vote than this initiative, so I stayed registered in NY at the time. Gay couples have sued, oral arguments were yesterday, and a ruling is expected today.

This site has a decent synopsis of the expectations.

For the record, I support reasonable marriage equality. By that, I mean that marriages between any two consenting adults who aren't married to other people, and let's leave the sophomoric statements about "Everyone already has the equal right to marriage someone of the opposite sex, so you're not advocating equality but special treatment" out in the dust where they belong. I also respect that the proponents of this (to me) odious initiative at least went about it legally; I'm not happy with their result, but process matters to me, and so I'm far more fond of this statute than something like the Defense of Marriage Act which strikes me as so blatantly unconstitutional.

One of the things, though, that bothers me in the coverage of these matters is the repetition of things which are simply not true. "Unlike many other states, California also has a robust domestic partnership law, passed in 1999, which gives gay couples almost all of the legal rights and benefits afforded to married couples." This is a common perception--that if you create civil unions, you're creating something legally equal to a marriage, but merely calling it something different, so what's the big deal?

The big deal is that there are a number of ways that no domestic partnership law nor civil union is legally equal to marriage. None of them touch upon the federal marriage benefits--joint filing of federal taxes, lower inheritance taxes, the ability to use marriage to sponsor citizenship, family-related Social Security benefits, inheritance of a pension, etc. Even in CA, domestic partners may not file joint state tax returns. Spouses have legal privilege in court testimony; domestic partners nearly universally do not. Civil unions and domestic partnerships do not cross state lines, which is of far more concern today than the similarly awful anti-miscegenation laws from the 1930s--our economy is far more mobile now, and it's much more likely that any young couple will end up moving to a new state for their education or employment. There are hundreds of legal differences between marriages and either civil unions or domestic partnership agreements. This is a fact that is very rarely acknowledged in popular discussions of the issue. And, I feel, something that is to the tremendous disadvantage of those of us arguing for equality.

When you're arguing for the need to treat people equally, one of your best allies is the outrage some people will feel at the lack of equality. That outrage is going to be blunted when people feel the only difference is what something is called, rather than the pragmatic legal realities that are the bigger problem. Until the general public is made aware of host of legal differences between civil unions/domestic partnerships (or even the gay marriages in MA) and a federally-recognized marriage, I think it's unlikely that they will care enough to make a change.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

An annoying lack of fear

Tomorrow I have my oral qualifiers. I turned in my written one -- a thesis proposal -- two weeks ago, and tomorrow will present about the work and answer whatever questions my committee decides to ask. I don't feel like I've done much of anything on this in the past week, and the reason is...I'm just not scared enough. I've been through quals before. I've been working on or thinking about this project for 4 years now, though for substantial portions of that time I was physically working on other projects. I've never feared public speaking, and I gave a version of this talk last week. After I did so, I asked the one biologist I know who heard the practice for feedback, and he told me I know too much about this subject, probably because I was able to give a reasoned answer to a question which was almost certainly asked as a joke.

So tonight I looked over my powerpoint to remind myself of the order of things, and I did another bit of analysis of some of the preliminary data and tossed it in there. I've bought food for the meeting (cheese, bread, pepperoni, fruit, and juice). And I've read much of a novel that I've read before and which has absolutely nothing to do with my work. I couldn't even get into the mood to bake cookies like I normally do for all committee meetings.

Here's hoping my lack of fear doesn't come back to bite me in the morning. Though I think it's unlikely, I recognize it's theoretically possible for my committee to fail me and tell me I need to leave the program. And yet, even writing that out doesn't send me into the panic I feel it should, with me reviewing the papers I've cited to be sure which author argued which point in which specific paper.

I suppose in the morning I'll find out whether this is the calm of reasonable confidence, or the calm of denial.

Update: I passed. The exam was a lot longer than I expected it to be (roughly 3 hours of me talking and being asked questions, nearly 3:30 hours by the time they'd decided I'd passed, brought me back in the room, and we finished discussing some strategies for the next steps and how to alter things for the grant I'll use this project to apply for in the fall. I felt like quite the idiot at a few points, in which I couldn't remember things which I know that I knew at points in the past, but it's done with. I now most likely don't have another stretch of time as scary as that waiting in the hall until I do the same thing at my actual dissertation defense.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

I'm not dead yet...

...just not been blogging lately.

I turned in my written qualifier exam last week, which was what was taking up the majority of my life until that point. I also got back page proofs for the encyclopedia article I wrote with my advisor; those are due back next week. I've filled out my taxes, and gotten a good portion of the way through preparing my oral presentation on my thesis project, so I've got a bit of a breather.

Today I found myself dealing with way too much information on a different front. I went grocery shopping, which I'm beginning to understand is a dangerous thing to do if you're well read in terms of ecology, health, and international relations.

For instance, let's look at the produce I bought.

I eat a lot of fruit, and for reasons I don't feel like going into at the moment I was limiting myself on fruit for the past couple of weeks, so I really wanted to buy some today. Because I'm the sort to overanalyze things, I ended up considering:

Is it better to buy fruit crops from Latin America or from greenhouses in the US? It's April in MI, and thus most fruit is not yet in season--our big local fruit harvests are mid summer (cherries) and fall (apples and pears), with some berries throughout the summer. When contemplating the blackberries on sale this week, I noted that they're from Ecuador, which presumably means that they've been transported a longer distance (higher CO2 emissions) and were grown under higher pesticide concentrations, which may remain stable in the water supply. Conversely, they were also grown in a climate more amenable to berry production in the first place, and probably required much less in the way of added fertilizers, and if they were farmed in large scale projects their harvesting efficiency is probably much better than in the small scale operations typical of most seemingly progressive farming. Then there's the consideration of whether this provides an economic incentive for licit agriculture in a region where workers will clearly switch to coca production if nothing else is economically viable, whether my purchase of a foreign farm product is lowering the long term economic viability of domestic farm production, whether or not that effect on domestic farm production is inherently a net bonus or a net negative, and whether I'm influencing the demand for migrant farm labor that is increasingly comprised of illegal immigrants. And then there's the consideration of whether since immigrants are, in general, harder working than people who stay in their native country (because they're willing to sacrifice so much for the perceived benefit for their children) which group it's better to reward.

And all of that is without even addressing the question of whether it would be better ecologically to buy fresh versus frozen berries, given the energy cost in the freezing process and transport in refrigerated conveyance.

Lest someone be tempted to tell me to go to a farmer's market--well, the local ones aren't open yet, and even if they were, the impact of the gas needed to get to the farmer's market might overpower any ecological benefit going could reap. Perhaps going would be able to reap other economic benefits, and the social benefits that changing economics of supply and demand would entail, but that's not terribly clear either.

Similarly, it took about 10 minutes to find a loaf of bread which wasn't horrendously expensive, was made of whole grains, and didn't contain high fructose corn syrup. That's less for health reasons (my metabolism is just fine with a large component of high fructose corn syrup in my diet) than it is my relatively insignificant economic protest against a farm bill which makes high fructose corn syrup more profitable for agribusiness than crops designed to be eaten as whole crops.

Then I got into considerations about recycling when it came time to buy something to drink. I recycle both plastic and aluminum, and in some ways I very much support deposits on cans and bottles to encourage their recycling. But given that I've got a recycling truck coming by my house once a week anyway, it seems a bit silly to care about getting things that I need to take back to the store. Also, while aluminum cans end with more packaging than do plastic bottles, aluminum recycling is less energy intensive and recovers a higher yield of the aluminum in the first place. Then again, the cardboard that the aluminum comes in is something the city only sometimes picks up--otherwise I need to drive it to the drop off center for cardboard recycling, which I admit I do rarely more because it's something of a pain than because it's better to wait until I've got a full load, as it's not on my way to anything.

Then there was the issue of bagging. I've got a set of canvas bags which I take shopping with me, so I don't have to rely on paper or plastic bags--it's one of those rare times when the responsible decision actually is clear. However, with the way self checkout tends to work, it's much more of a pain to use my own bags than the store bags, as the weight sensors will think I'm trying to steal something if I just put the empty canvas bag on the pad before I start scanning things. I usually end up having to stack the food on the sensors, pay, and then put it all in my bags, which makes me take more time than the average customer and slow down everyone else. Today, though, I bagged in paper (which is actually worse in terms of CO2 than plastic--the higher transport costs overmatch the sustainability arguments) inside my canvas ones. I've got some yard waste to get rid of, and the city will only take it if I put it in paper bags. I ended up getting dirty looks from a couple of customers, perhaps because they thought I was just posing at being responsible.

If this is what trying to be an informed, conscious shopper entails, I can see why most people aren't. It's a lot more work and a lot more time than simply grabbing what's on sale. I have a hard time imagining that I'd be willing to put this much time and thought into my grocery shopping if I had children, or was worried that my company might have another round of layoffs at any time, or any of the many other reasons most consumers aren't going to care where their fruit came from.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

An unfortunate occurence

The picture above is of my very old kitten, Solar, taken this Christmas break at my Dad's. I got her the summer before entering 3rd grade, as a kind of delayed birthday present. My brother already had a cat, and I decided I wanted one, so we went to find me a kitty. Since his was a girl cat, mine was to be as well, just to make life easier despite his cat already having been spayed. I had no particular phenotype in mind when searching for a cat, unlike my brother--who, incidentally, ended up wanting the first cat he saw, even though she didn't match his expressed preferences at all. Still, of the two kittens in the cage, I thought she was the cuter one, and thus was pleased to find out she was the girl kitten when we asked. Their cage was too small to get a sense of the kitten personalities, but they were a reputable pet store which only had a small number of mammals at any given time, so we decided to trust them to provide a healthy cat.

Solar's personality actually first emerged on the car ride home. Not content to be in a moving box unable to see what was happening, she poked a paw out of the small space left by the folder cardboard, latched her claws into a flap, and pulled it open. She then climbed out and began to explore the car.

She was quite tiny when we got her, and fell quickly into the beta cat role, with my brother's cat effectively acting as her mother. Solar was always rather skittish around people - even people she knew - but somehow she clued into the fact that she was my cat and I was her human. I was able to pick her up with no difficulties, while she'd squirm and yowl if anyone else tried to do so. She'd run and hide under furniture, in crawl spaces, or anywhere else small and out of the way when strangers came by, and even with most family friends. Her asymmetrical facial markings always made her look like something of an idiot, and she had the frequent problem among six-toed cats of being unable to fully retract her claws, which lead to a very distinctive clicking on the hardwood or the tile while she was trying to stalk. That appearance of idiocy was sometimes challenged, though, by items such as her figuring out how to open the cabinet in which we kept her cat treats.

Certain traits of hers remained adorable well into adulthood. She remained tiny - never reaching more than 5 pounds, and spending most of her life at 4 - and playful, though it wasn't until around the age of 8 that she began to pay any attention to all to catnip. Prior to that her favorite toys were pencils, twist ties, rubber bands, and especially the plastic rings from the mouths of milk jugs. Those plastic rings were actually used to play fetch by her, and though she wouldn't come to the call of her name, she would come to me if I snapped my fingers and held my hand low enough for her to rub her head against; something she did for no one else. We actually realized we should stop feeding her kitten chow when it dawned on us that she was approaching middle age, despite all evidence to the contrary. She essentially never ate dry food out of her bowl, but would pick up each individual piece, drop it on the floor, and then eat it from there. Most of the time when she drank, it was by dipping her paw in the water bowl, then licking the water as it dripped from her paw. And her two most common poses were asleep in the sun with her paw draped across her eyes, and awake and sitting with all four paws tucked under her, invisible, with her tail wrapped tightly around her left side up to her chin.

That's not to say that she was an utterly ideal cat. She became a bully towards other cats when she grew up, even scaring the heck out of some 25 pound outdoor cats despite being puny and declawed. She was convinced that she was fiercer than any dog, and tended to try to attack them whenever she encountered them. She marked her territory in the hallway carpet a little too often for comfort. She was also a very early morning cat, and would sometimes choose to try to instill this early-to-rise mentality on others by yowling for no discernible reason, or by pawing your cheek if you insisted on lying in bed but had left your door open. She highly enjoyed any plant she could come into contact with - she even insisted on trying to eat a cactus once - and felt that insects were fun moving toys to be tortured. And, in her old age, she would sometimes gorge herself on too much wet food, and make herself sick. She was, after all, a cat.

Still, I'm more likely to remember the amusing things about her. Poised, as a kitten, on top of the television and trying to catch Mario whenever he jumped too close to the top of the screen. Trying frequently to escape out the back door, only to freeze if she hit the pavement with a look about her of "what do I do now?" before that moment of indecision caused her easy recapture. Leaping across my brother's bed towards the window he always left open, only to find my mother had wisely closed it in the winter while he was at college, and thus bouncing off the glass and backwards onto the bed. Being launched across the room by a recliner with a hair trigger, causing her to avoid the living room for a week.

The fact that she went to go live with my Dad when I went to college - my mother convinced herself that she had become allergic to the cat, when it was really her decades of smoking catching up to her - has made the news I received today of her death much less traumatic than it otherwise easily might have been. As does her advanced age; 19 is old for a kitty, and she had had a few health scares in the past few years. On top of all of that, she died fairly peacefully, in my step mother's arms on the way to the vet. But even though for the past few years she's been more of my step mother's cat than mine, it's still a certain sense of loss, though not of sadness. There's just a definite degree of introspection in the death of a creature so tightly linked in my mind to my childhood. I suppose it's one more sign - as if I needed another - that I'm not a kid anymore. I know this, and yet my ability to recall so clearly what it was like to be, say, 10, sometimes makes it less obvious than it should be.

Friday, January 25, 2008

So, I see you have some bananas....

Sometimes, I think my life is rather ordinary.

I’m a grad student, so that’s pretty much my job. It’s been frustrating recently due to some labwork not going well (meaning I’m doing stuff which turns out to be pointless), a collaborator not responding to my attempts to communicate with her and get some materials she’s promised me (standard sort of coworker problems), and lab meetings/seminars taking up a large amount of my time (meaning I’m spending too much time in meetings). That’s beginning to look like an underpaid office job, where one of the primary perks is extreme time flexibility. Outside of my job, I’ve been reading some popular fiction, working out, and watching some movies. I’ve even been going to an internet cafĂ© with friends, even if we’re there to play board games. This all seems pretty typical.

And then, in conversation today, I was reminded of the fact that this summer I was asked by a random stranger in the grocery store if I had a pet monkey.

Things like that have a way of reminding me that sometimes my life really isn’t that normal.

Now, in the defense of the random stranger, my shopping cart looked like I was about to open a fruit stand. I had foolishly decided to go to the market while hungry, which everyone knows means you’ll buy way too much food. I’ve learned that for me, personally, going to the grocery store hungry will result in insane quantities of fruit being purchased. As a gay primate, I have plenty of reasons to like fruit. At the time of the question being asked, my shopping cart contained two pints of blueberries, one of strawberries, two bunches of bananas, a couple pounds of cherries, probably a pound of grapes, and a small watermelon. And nothing else. I was in the process of reaching for some raisins when the young woman just blurted out “Do you have a pet monkey?”

“Excuse me?”

No introduction, no previous encounter, just a 20-something woman asking whether I kept exotic tropical primates at home. Maybe she was trying to flirt with me; I didn’t think of that until much later. She just struck me as weird. She repeated her question, at my response. I looked at her like she was a crazy woman, said “No,” and headed over to the deli counter. I was relieved she didn’t follow me. When it was time for me to check out, I noticed she was still standing in the produce area. She didn’t have much produce in her cart, and seemed to be paying more attention to the other shoppers than the food.

I think we can all take some knowledge away from this anecdote:

- What some people consider friendliness, others will consider weird.

- If you want free fruit in the summer, talk me into going grocery shopping while I’m hungry, and then come visit in the next couple of days.

- If you’re a woman who has decided to treat the grocery store as a different kind of meat market, head back to the butcher’s case. The junk food aisle is another good option. The fruit area of the produce section is not the market for you.

When has your time been served?

Until quite recently, Karl Helge Hampus Svensson was a first year medical student at the Karolinska Institute. A world class medical training and research facility, the Karolinska Institute is best known for selecting each year's winner for the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Now it is issuing a different judgment.

The institute has decided to expel Mr. Svensson. The technical reason? His high school transcripts bore his current legal surname, though he was born with the last name of Hellekant.

That, of course, is not the real reason he's been expelled. He changed his name after being convicted of killing a man named Bjorn Soderburg in 1999. Police considered the crime to be a hate crime, as Mr. Svensson (or, at the time, Mr. Hellekant) was under surveillance due to suspicions he was a neo-Nazi. He has since served 6.5 years of an 11-year sentence, been paroled, applied to medical school, and been admitted. His admission came about largely from his high school transcripts, several online courses he took during his incarceration, and an interview in which no one asked what he had been doing for the past 7 years.

That being said, the onus of this decision does not lie exclusively with the Karolinska Institute. The Sweedish Medical Association has stated that it will not grant him a license even if he does graduate from a medical school, solely due to his conviction for this murder.

At this point, we are left with a question: from what crimes is rehabilitation possible?

An 11-year sentence for murder strikes me as being predicated on the belief that rehabilitation is definitely possible. 11 years is a long time to spend in jail--though of course, parole* reduces that time--but it's still only a fraction of one's life span. 6.5 years is less than 10% of the life expectancy at birth in Sweeden. Even the full span is less than 15%, and the very fact that he was paroled is a good argument for the system deciding that he has officially been rehabilitated to a sufficient degree to involve his inclusion in society.

At the same time, at least in the US, we believe that some rights and privileges are surrendered upon conviction of a felony. Felons don't get to vote, for example. There may be a similar rule in Sweeden; I don't know.

So what is the message here? If you commit a felony, you can be made into something of a citizen again, but you can't become a doctor? If so, why is the prison system allowing him to take online courses toward that end, and why is it not a question on the application to medical school in the first place? Is the fact that this was considered a hate crime relevant? If so, does that mean that we care more about what you think than what you physically do?

Let's grant, for the sake of argument, that he was indeed a neo-Nazi and that the murder was related to that. I am fully aware of the fact that his hate group would include me on the list. The Jewish people weren't the only victims of the Holocaust; the Nazis also attempted to exterminate the Roma, and the gays. I am a member of the last of these groups, and many strangers assume I'm a member of the first as well. I still don't think whether or not the crime was a hate crime should matter in the punishment he receives for it; that is way too much of thought-crime for my tastes.

For the record, I think the Karolinska Institue is within their rights, but their decision is a shameful one. I would be all for expelling him if he had lied when asked about a felony conviction, what he had been doing for the time he was imprisoned, etc. I'd also be fine with expelling him for lying about his grades. I would even be OK with them deciding not to admit him if he volunteered information about the crime ahead of time, or they asked him before offering admission, choosing instead to offer the position to another applicant who had not committed acrime. All of that would be quite reasonable, and probably prudent. Finding that he used his current legal surname on his old transcripts, on the other hand, strikes me as a very weak way of finding anything they can which would technically allow them to expel him, even though he did nothing wrong in the admission process and was, by current accounts, performing well in his schooling. It seems like a case of manipulating the rules to get the result you want, rather than following the spirit of them. But, as said above, I don't entirely blame them; the Sweedish medical Association deserves blame as well, for stating that he will never be licensed. Particularly for a medical association--which, as part of its existence, oversees the licensing and practicing methods of psychiatrists--to effectively state that one's past negative thoughts and actions can never be recovered from seem to me entirely the wrong message to send.

* The word parole was originally given as "probably". This typo has been fixed after the fact.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Issues of independence

I read an interesting opinion today about why it's bad to be a political independent. Speaking as an independent, I obviously don't think it's such a bad thing, but the article is relatively well written. Essentially, the writer argues that humans are by nature factional, and that once you start trying to actually do anything rather than speak in meaningless generalities, you'll end up with disagreements about terms or priorities, and then you'll need to unite with line-minded people in order to accomplish something. Further, an independent as President would face more politics in trying to get something done than a member of one of the two major parties, as that President wouldn't be able to count on a large bloc of automatic support.

These arguments are valid as far as they go. What I feel the author has overlooked, though, is another reason why many people become independents: the fact that there is more than one political axis. If you align things are a purely left-right axis, I come out pretty much dead center. So does my friend David from freshman year. When you look at two axes, on the other hand, David and I come out as diamterically opposed, as he's essentially a populist and I'm essentially a libertarian. We come out in the middle on a single axis because when looking at the broad scale, the number of issues on which we greatly favor the Democrats balance the number of issues on which we greatly favor the Republicans--it's just that, for the two of us, many of those positions are opposite to each others'.

I'm sure there are some people who are independents because they gain satisfaction from not belonging to a major group, or who may feel superior to others for their lack of assumed allegiances. The author does, however, completely ignore that some people might be independents because on the, say, 4 issues that matter the most to that person, two positions are taken by the Republicans and 2 are taken by the Democrats, and the person thus doesn't have greater loyalty to one side or the other on policy as a whole, but must make decisions more on the basis of the particular Republican or Democrat offered as a choice. By not addressing that aspect, I see the argument as fatally flawed.