Tuesday, December 25, 2007

The solstice is the reason for the season

Merry Christmas and Happy Whatever, everyone!

I'm visiting the family for the holidays, so posting will be light for a while (if you haven't noticed. It may even be entirely absent for another week. In the meantime, there are new recipes up, so go cook something if you are off work.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

A perfect storm of ignorance

Sigh. The creationists are at it again. It never ceases to astonish me that there are so many credulous and gullible people in this country. It seems to be getting worse, not better.

First, Chris Comer was fired from the Texas Education Agency for forwarding an email about an anti-intelligent design speech. She was the director of science curriculum and in charge of the science standards for Texas schools. "Coincidentally," those standards are up for review this year. The deputy commissioner that demanded her firing used to serve as an advisor to then-governor George W. Bush. Somehow, I'm not surprised. Again, I'm ashamed to be Texan.

A man writes in to the News-Gazette with a "disproof" of evolution that has nothing to do with evolution. Hint: if a disproof of one of the most accepted and evidence-supported theories in all of modern science fits on a 3x5 card and requires only an 8th grade education, there's probably something wrong with your argument.

There's actually a creationist wiki: CreationWiki. Unlike even Conservapedia, participation isn't open; you must first ask the site admins for permission. Believing in Godly creationism is a prerequisite; Hellbound atheists need not apply.

A Florida educator sends out an email asking creationists to fight the inclusion of evolution in Florida's educational standards. Unlike the Texas case, she receives only a reprimand.

Ugh, it's just so frustrating. The good news is that if you go look at the comment on Comey's firing at the Statesman article or at the Chronicle editorial, they are predominantly pro-evolution. The frustrating part is that the anti-science comments are full of the same stuff we've seen a thousand times before: evolution is just a theory, there are no transitional fossils, evolution isn't true because we don't know what came before the Big Bang. Geez, creationism hasn't had a new argument since about 1925.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

I'm famous!

The Austin American-Statesman had an article a week or so ago about the evolution-related firing of Chris Comer, the science curriculum director of the Texas Education Agency. You haven't read my blog post on the subject because I haven't finished it yet.

My letter to the editor of the Statesman, however, was published. W00t! I am proud to join the ranks of cantankerous old bastards with too much time on their hands.

The Statesman publishes their Opinions page online as a blog, complete with a comments section, so you can read that I'm not welcome back in Texas. Sniff.

It's just another example of politics as tribalism that being pro-science and pro-evolution is the "liberal" position and the anti-science and pro-creationism position is "conservative."

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Can you be pro-life and an organ donor?

There's a thread over at IlliniPundit about the recent stem cell breakthrough. In it, one commenter spouts the usual pro-life and anti-stem-cell line "We must not take life to save life." It's the same mentality that you get from pro-lifers about abortion, namely the valuable part of a person is that he is "alive." They never seem to explain under what definition of "life" a zygote is alive but the sperm and ovum are not.

That kind of belief system, however, isn't consistent with permitting organ donations for organs like the heart. Such transplants can come from people that are brain-dead. But I'm not even sure that the position that a person can even be brain-dead is compatible with the extreme pro-life position.

A brain-dead person is still, at the cellular level, alive. With the exception of breathing, many of the normal bodily functions are going on. His heart still beats; his hair still grows; his body is still warm. A blastocyst is alive only in this sense.

I'm of the opinion that brain activity isn't just the most important thing about a person, it's the only thing that's valuable. It's what makes the difference between living tissue and a person. Cut my arm off, and no one will argue that I'm less of a person; pick up my severed arm and no one will argue that it is in any way a person. So there must be something other than being alive at the cellular level that defines the important part of a person's existence.

I just don't see how anyone who's thought it through can claim these two positions are anything other than logically inconsistent. I guess it's that "logically" part that's tripping me up. The pro-life, "an embryo is equivalent to a full grown human being" position isn't a logical argument; it's an emotional one. It has emotional resonance and it soundbites really well.

I'm sure many people will disagree with me and that's fine. Just give me a usable definition of "alive" that applies to a zygote but not a brain-dead person. For bonus points, give me a meaningful definition of "person" that applies to a zygote but not a puppy.

UPDATE: To respond to Glock21's question "At what point are we a human being or person?" I'd like to hand that one off to The Frontal Cortex:

Both political extremes are wrong. A zygote isn't a baby, and a third-trimester fetus isn't a zygote. If cellular biology knows anything, it's that life is a gradient. Our consciousness slowly accumulates. There is no magic spark when an egg starts dividing and differentiating. It's just DNA doing it's thing. Of course, let those cells divide for long enough, and you'll end up with something pretty miraculous. Deciding at what point the miracle begins - at what point that bundle of cells accumulates a "soul" or "mind" or "brain" - is, of course, the really difficult part. But other countries - like Britain, where abortion is an issue debated by doctors, not grandstanding Parliamentarians - show us that this question can be answered in a methodical and rational manner.

I have to say that the obsession and fascination with a fertilized egg because it's apparently "whole" or "complete" is odd. Really, the only difference between separated gametes and a zygote is that the DNA has come together. Big deal. You can have tons of unique DNA in a test tube and it's not a person. DNA isn't even alive. And looking closely at the biology just makes the soundbite even more invalid. From The Island of Doubt:

...there is no "moment of conception."

For starters, the process of fertilization take a measurable amount of time. First the living sperm and living egg membranes fuse, then the egg completes the second stage of meiotic division -- the process that produces a haploid gamete with only half the DNA of a non-sex cell. Then the sperm loses its tail and the energy factory known as the mitochondria. Then the nuclear material from egg and sperm fuse, a process that again takes time. DNA must be wrangled and manipulated until new diploid chromosomes are ready for the next steps. It doesn't happen all at once...

Furthermore, it's only going to get worse. The better the temporal and spatial resolution of our technology,which is improving with each passing day, the more detail and complexity emerges in the reproductive cycle.

So I ask again: when exactly does in this process does one become a "human being" whose destruction is tantamount to murder? Where precisely is this moral boundary of which Mr. Bush speaks?

I understand that to admit to the fact that there is no boundary, that life is continuum, opens a lot of uncomfortable doors for those who like their ethical architecture to be straight and narrow. Sorry, but that's ... life.

I think a lot of the arguing here happens because a segment of the population is very uncomfortable with greyness. Black or white. Good or evil. You're either with us or against us. By framing the discussion in these terms, there isn't any measured or critical analysis or discussion. But it does make things oh so morally uncomplicated.

UPDATE II: Fig pointed out that this post disappeared from the site. When I wrote the above update, I accidentally saved it as a draft, rather than publishing it to the site. Sorry.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Whedon vs. Blue Sun Media, Inc.

The Hollywood writer's strike continues. David has a couple of good posts up about it. Go. Read.

I just saw this today, but a couple of weeks ago, Joss Whedon wrote a response to a NY Times article on the strike. The Times article shamefully framed the writer's strike as something other than a "real" strike. A real strike involves working people, while those writers are just "working" people. As usual, Joss shows exactly why the pen is mightier than the sword (and why a pencil makes for a stake substitute when you're in a pinch):

Reporters are funny people. At least, some of the New York Times reporters are. Their story on the strike was the most dispiriting and inaccurate that I read. But it also contained one of my favorite phrases of the month.

"All the trappings of a union protest were there… …But instead of hard hats and work boots, those at the barricades wore arty glasses and fancy scarves."

Oh my God. Arty glasses and fancy scarves. That is so cute! My head is aflame with images of writers in ruffled collars, silk pantaloons and ribbons upon their buckled shoes. A towering powdered wig upon David Fury’s head, and Drew Goddard in his yellow stockings (cross-gartered, needless to say). Such popinjays, we! The entire writers’ guild as Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel. Delicious.

Except this is exactly the problem. The easiest tactic is for people to paint writers as namby pamby arty scarfy posers, because it’s what most people think even when we’re not striking. Writing is largely not considered work. Art in general is not considered work. Work is a thing you physically labor at, or at the very least, hate. Art is fun. (And Hollywood writers are overpaid, scarf-wearing dainties.) It’s an easy argument to make. And a hard one to dispute...

"The trappings of a union protest..." You see how that works? Since we aren’t real workers, this isn’t a real union issue. (We’re just a guild!) And that’s where all my ‘what is a writer’ rambling becomes important. Because this IS a union issue, one that will affect not just artists but every member of a community that could find itself at the mercy of a machine that absolutely and unhesitatingly would dismantle every union, remove every benefit, turn every worker into a cowed wage-slave in the singular pursuit of profit. (There is a machine. Its program is ‘profit’. This is not a myth.) This is about a fair wage for our work. No different than any other union. The teamsters have recognized the importance of this strike, for which I’m deeply grateful. Hopefully the Times will too.

Studios! Settle already! Give the writers the pittance they are asking for so people like Joss can get back to writing and I can get back to complaining that you haven't given Joss another series.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Can we get some intelligence in the design of the News-Gazette?

I rarely poke my head in at the News Gazette blogs, because they're usually fairly inane. About a week ago Rhonda Robinson blogged "Expelled: No intelligence Allowed - new movie, old debate", which is more disappointing than her usual conservative, self-pitying blather. What's unusual about this column is that the density of logical fallacies is so high is threatens to distort the flow of cars on I-74 due to its graviational pull.

Intelligent design creationists spout the same claims over and over. They used the same tired old arguments so often, that you can actually refer to them by number. The Index to Creationist Claims categorizes and indexes the standard creationist claims, distortions, and half-truths in a nice, tidy list for reference. Here I'll point out Robinson's fallacious arguments:

  1. CA202: Evolution has not been proven. Robinson writes, "Why is a 150 year old unproven theory accepted as fact..", when in fact, evolution *has* been proven, in so far as science "proves" things. This leads us directly to the next one:
  2. CA201. Evolution is only a theory. This can only be attributable to Robinson's ignorance of what constitutes a theory. Perhaps it's unfair to expect her to be familiar with such things, but it's she that has chosen to pontificate on science and it is she that is talking out of her ass.
  3. CA002.1. Evolution leads to social Darwinism. Robinson quotes Ben Stein's blog about his upcoming creationist movie, "Darwinism, perhaps mixed with Imperialism, gave us Social Darwinism..." As the ICC points out, this is just the "is vs. ought" logical fallacy. Even if evolution leads inexorably to Social Darwinism (which it doesn't), that wouldn't mean evolution was false. Science tells us the way the world is, not the way the world ought to be.
  4. CA005. Evolution is racist. Robinson/Stein continue: "[Social Darwinism is] a form of racism so vicious..." Ironically, Social Darwinism started in 1944, over 50 years after Darwin died and 85 years after the publication of The Origin of Species. So, was evolution valid for the period in between?
  5. CA006.1. Hitler based his views on Darwinism. Robinson/Stein write, "[Social Darwinism] countenanced the Holocaust against the Jews and mass murder of many other groups..." Again, no. The evil of the Holocaust requires no more scientific theory than the selective breeding of livestock practiced by farmers for centuries. Hitler also referred to the Jews as bacteria that needed to be eradicated and cancer that needed to be excised. Shall we next accuse modern medicine of being racist and anti-Semitic?
  6. CB910. No new species have been observed. Robinson/Stein continue, "Despite the fact that no one has ever been able to prove the creation of a single distinct species by Darwinist means..." Except for the fact that multiple new speciation events have been observed in insects, birds, fish, and mammals.
  7. CB090. Evolution is baseless without a theory of abiogenesis. Still quoting Stein, Robinson writes, "Darwinism also has not one meaningful word to say on the origins of organic life..." Evolution isn't about the origin of life on this planet. It's about the change in the characteristics of the individual species. Abiogenesis, or the origin of life, is more speculative than evolution, but that doesn't mean it's impervious to science, either. I'm not sure why Stein feels necessary to wonder about the origins of "organic" life. Does he know about silicon-based lifeforms that I'm unaware of?

That's one creationist claim every 70 words or so in this blog post. That's pretty impressive for 500 words.

What I find the most irritating is the continual put-upon tone she takes in the posting. She asks "Are we still free to disagree about the meaning of life?" and why creationism is "not allowed to be heard." She even goes so far as to ask "Are we still free to disagree about the meaning of life without fear of persecution?"

Seriously, persecution? Rhonda, get down off the cross, we could use the wood. You can complain about persecution when creationists stop making a mint peddling books to the ignorant.

Robinson whines, "This is about science, and the freedom of ideas." Science isn't really about ideas. That's philosophy. Science is about evidence, and creationsists have none.

Hopefully, creationists will someday come up with some arguments that they haven't been parroting for decades, ignoring the evidence mounting against them. Until then, I'm just bored.

(Oh, and The Squire is still around. He stops by the comments and pretty much gives Robinson a good blog-lashing. Get back to blogging, you slacker.)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A blog post for Mom

If you ever get to Santa Fe, you really should get to Cafe Pasqual's. It's this really good, very original restaurant on the Plaza.

One of the few podcasts I listen to on a (semi-) regular basis is The Splendid Table. A couple of weeks ago, the show did an interview with Katharine Kagel, the creator and owner of Pasqual's. If you don't subscribe, you can listen to that edition of TST here. The interview starts at 13:30

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Pissed at PetSmart

I kind of got fed up with the fake driftwood I had in the aquarium the other day. It had gotten covered in algae and was just sitting there like, well, like a rock. So I pulled it out, but that left a large open space right in the center of the aquarium that needed filling.

I was unfaithful to Sailfin, my pretty kick-ass local fish shop, and went to PetSmart. I had heard from David that they had introduced a new line of aquarium plants.

Selling plants in tubes like that is a bit weird, but they all seemed to be in pretty good condition and I could get a good close-up look at each one. They are all Top Fin brand, which I think is PetSmart's store brand. The problem was that the tubes identified the plant, but not much else. They said they were "aquarium & terrarium" plants, but not how big the plants got, where they should be put in the tank, and most importantly, what the light requirements were (which is important in an aquarium).

They had no plants in the size I was looking for that I'd heard of, so I picked up a tube each of Ophiopogon japonicus ("Kyoto grass") and Selaginella willdenowii ("Peacock fern"). No particular reason, I just liked the look of them.

After getting them home and planting the both of them, I decided to look them up on the web. Imagine my surprise when I found out neither of them is an aquatic plant! They both need to grow emersed and will eventually die when fully submersed. The Selaginella died about two weeks later and the Ophiopogon is starting to yellow and lose leaves. So I'm pretty ticked that I was sold a product unsuitable for the purpose for which it was advertised and sold.

Serves me right for not going to Sailfin.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Bring out the GIMP!

I realize that pretty much anyone who's anyone has a copy of Photoshop they bring out to do any heavy image editing. I also realize that no one would ever have an less-than-legal copy of the $650 program. At least no one I know. And certainly not me.

But if you're tired of deciding between your image editing program and, say, the mortgage payment, you should check out GIMP. For just about everything, it is a drop-in replacement for Photoshop. It is also open-source and free. The latest 2.4 version is nicely integrated into the OS (previous versions looked a little odd). There's even a Windows installer (sorry, you Mac people will have to figure it out on your own).

There might be a bit of a learning curve, but there's good documentation. Just about anything you can do in Photoshop, you can do in GIMP.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Where are we going and why am I in this handbasket?

If you're ever tired of LOLCats (though, who could ever be tired of cute kitties?), you might want to check out LOLTheist. It's sacrelicious!

George Bush speaks French

Via Dispatches from the Culture Wars, I find Bruce Fein's editorial in the Washington Times, comparing Bush to Robespierre of the French Revolution. I found these two quotes from Robespierre interesting:

No liberty for the enemies of liberty.

That's the sort of attitude that brought us things like Gitmo, extraordinary rendition, and warrantless searches.

The second is:

We must not let foreign enemies use the forums of liberty to destroy liberty itself.

Just try and tell me that's not another way of saying "The Constitution is not a suicide pact," another recent Republican mantra.

The rest of the editorial, demanding the return of habeus corpus is worth a read. He points out that only 5 percent of Gitmo detainees were captured by American forces. The rest were captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance, with little protection against wrongful detention. This is one of the fliers distributed in Afghanistan:

Get wealth and power beyond your dreams. ... You can receive millions of dollars helping the anti-Taliban forces catch al Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Celebrate! Go blow somethng up!

Today is November 5. So:

Remember, remember
the fifth of November
The gunpowder, treason, and plot.
I know of no reason
Why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

Now, go watch V is for Vendetta. Happy Guy Fawkes Day!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

History in the making?

I'll be the first to say that I don't really know anything about the politics in Pakistan, but I look at the news coming out of Pakistan and can only wonder if we're watching the death of a democracy. They're a nuclear power, have been what seems to be the edge of war with India over Kashmir for forever, and Osama bin Laden is most likely hiding out in the mountains there. Speaking of bin Laden, according to Wikipedia, his approval rating his higher than Musharraf's in Pakistan.

So when the President facing legal challenges to his re-election suspends the Constitution, arrests political opponents and lawyers, and requires judges to swear an oath of allegiance to him, it seems like kinda a big deal.

But nothing like that could ever happen here, right? Right?

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Just how crazy is crazy?

I've been hanging out a bit over at Illinipundit, which is populated mostly by conservatives, many of which I strongly disagree with and a few I only somewhat disagree with. I don't think that's entirely a bad thing. Gordy, who I don't really see eye to eye with on most of what he says, seems genuinely interested in having a civil debate and an actual discussion of issues, not just shouting back and forth. When others pipe up, I usually just shake my head and think, "How can people actually believe this stuff?"

That being said, sometimes it's good to be reminded that even the craziest of crazies over there isn't actually, you know, crazy. No, these people are really crazy:

Halloween is an appropriate time to learn that a "Grand Druid Council" of 13 "Witches" control the Illuminati, and meets eight times annually on the "Witches' Sabbaths" (incl. Halloween) when millions of occult practitioners engage in orgies, which for some may involve human sacrifice... Todd says rock and roll music is designed to cast a demonic spell on the listener. I know this sounds farfetched but I urge you to listen to Todd's presentation "Witchcraft of Rock and Roll" in the multimedia section here. He says the Illuminati started Jesus Rock to control the message.

That's from "'Rothschilds Rule w/Druid Witches' Said Defector". But that's not all:

When we consider how many Americans are "habitually" under the "spell" of pharmaceuticals- I mean to the point of changing habits and personalities- we should shudder... How did it get that way? Who benefits? I think that this is beyond money, though money be the root of all kinds of evil; I think that there is a spirit of deception at work in the pharmaceutical industry. I think that it threatens the very strength, the very essence of our nation. I believe it threatens and hinders freedom of conscience and the eternity of our fellow man.

(From Magic Modern Wonder Drugs.) Every time you pop a Prozac, baby Jesus cries. Act now, and we'll send you this bucket of crazy, absolutely FREE:

NBC's resurrection of this 1970's [Bionic Woman] series about a mutant [sic] is timely since Sommers' ordeal is a metaphor for what the Rockefeller Foundation did to her unwary sisters.

As result, women are increasingly confused, lost and desperate. Nature designed them to sacrifice for husband and children and to be cherished in return. But elite social engineers taught them that devotion to their loved ones is "oppression." They would have to compete with men and have careers. The elite's ultimate goal is to eliminate the nuclear family as a means of controlling humanity, also the purpose of the "war of terror..."

A woman is a means to an end: home, family, companionship, life skills, emotional intimacy and security.

That would be from "The Bionic Woman: Does she Menstruate?"

These people are serious. And there's lots more. It's not just one kook running the site; I counted at least five authors at first glance. You couldn't come up this much crazy if you put all of Arkham Asylum in a blender.

(Hat tip to Dispatches from the Culture Wars.)

Friday, November 02, 2007

Because we just don't have enough months

I discovered from soyisthenewblack that this is NoBloPoMo, or National Blog Posting Month. I guess NBPM was less pronouncable. Trying to make a blog post every day for a month is an interesting idea. I don't know if it will just make me blog more, or if my blogging will suffer in quality. We shall see.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Contraception, continued: A graph

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchContinuing from my previous blog entry, Does the Pill encourage teenage sex? No., here is the graph showing the cumulative age at first coitus for students that had received and had not received comprehensive sex ed and contraception

The original graph is in black and white and my annotations are in color. If I'm reading this graph correctly, the median age for the entry into sexual activity is about 14.5 for the group without the program, and lightly over 15 for the group with the program. So we can conclude that the program caused about an 0.8 year delay in becoming sexually active.

Furthermore, at the median age for sexual activity for the non-program group (where 50% of them had begun sexual activity), only 35% of the program group was having sex. So we can see that exposure to sexual education and the availability of contraception clearly causes a delay in sexual activity in teenagers.

The Zabin study is from 1986, probably before AIDS prevention programs and condom awareness were in full swing. So the contraception methods uses were probably primarily the pill. In fact, the study goes on to look at pill usage specifically. They also found that, even though girls were likely to postpone sexual activity to a later age, they were more likely to be using the pill when they did start sexual activity.

Dr. Fig was kind enough to send me a big, honking list of references from PubMed. I'll try to go through some of those soon.

Reference:

  • Zabin, L. S., M. B. Hirsch, E. A. Smith, R. Streett, and J. B. Hardy. "Evaluation of a Pregnancy Prevention Program for Urban Teenagers." Family Planning Perspectives 18. 119 (1986).

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Does the Pill encourage teenage sex? No.

Apologies, this is likely to be a long one

Executive Summary

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchYou're a busy person, Gentle Reader, so here's the scoop: after a discussion over at Illinipundit, I went looking in the peer-reviewed literature to find out whether or not access to oral contraception increased sexual activity in teenagers. Basically, I was trying to find out whether making oral contraception available encourages teenagers to have more sex. I couldn't find much of anything specifically limited to the Pill, but found quite a lot on contraception in general.

The undeniable conclusion is that access to contraception does not increase sexual activity in teenagers. Similarly and not surprisingly, access to sexual education about contraception also does not increase sexual activity in teenagers. If anything, comprehensive sexual education delays the onset of sexual activity and increases the use of contraception and condoms.

Background

Over at Illinipundit, there was a discussion about a public middle school in Maine with a health clinic that decided to proscribe birth control pills to its sexually active students. Some quick factoids from the NY Times article: there are about 500 students in the school, 135 have the parental permission required to use the clinic, 5 of those were sexually active, and they were all either 14 or 15 years old.

The scope of the teen pregnancy problem is stunning: over 40% of teenage girls are pregnant at least once by the time they're 20. (Kirby) Furthermore, a quarter of sexually active teenagers contract an STD each year. (Kirby)

In the discussion at IP D. Boon asked this:

I would really like to see some of these studies that show the prevalence of The Pill has not led to increased sexual activity at a young age. I have no qualms about saying abstinence only education is probably a not effective, but I've head the opposite about the pill.

Now, I'm pretty sure the research shows that access to contraception does not increase sexual activity in teenagers, but most of what I could remember was about condoms, not the Pill. So I went to look for the actual information.

D. Boon and redstatewannabe both also said that contraception being made available would constitute an "endorsement" of the situation. It was never really explained what that meant, specifically, but I take it to mean that it would have the effect of encouraging teenagers to have sex at a young age.

Methodology

Google Scholar. Really, that's about it. I searched for various combinations of "oral contraception", "the pill", "birth control", "contraception", "sexual activity", "teenager", "adolescent", and similar terms. I found several of what looked like good papers, read them, and followed their references to papers they cited.

I want to make it clear this wasn't an exhaustive or comprehensive search. Google Scholar isn't the best database out there, and finds lots of extraneous stuff. I'm a scientist and engineer; the databases I usually use don't index this sort of social science material. I know there are other databases like Pubmed and Medline, but I don't know how to use them. I also want to make it clear that I'm not a social scientist, so I'm generally relying on the analysis of the authors (I really don't understand how p-values and statistical significance work). Nor did I want to spend more than an hour or two (or five, by now) on this, so I limited myself to less than a dozen papers.

My search was limited to published, peer-reviewed information and their citations. I specifically did not want to rely on any press reports because they almost inevitably over-simplify the science or get it plain wrong.

Findings

In short, neither access to contraception nor sex ed that discussion contraception hasten the initiation of sexual activity. (Committee, Kirby) Everything I found supported that conclusion. It was unanimous. Kirby even describes the amount of evidence supporting this conclusion as "overwhelming."

I was not able to find data specifically limited to the Pill, but part of that may be due to the fact that there are currently at least thirteen different contraceptive methods available, including three different formulations of the Pill. Most studies looked at contraception generally, one I found looked specifically at the effect of condoms on behavior, in the context of HIV prevention.

One thing that became clear is that access to contraception isn't enough. Access to information and education is also very important. Zabin found that access to a health clinic that sounds very similar to the one in Maine (access to sexual education, counseling, and access to contraception and medical services) actually resulted in a significant delay in the onset of sexual behavior. Quoting the study:

While the changes in the age at first intercourse are not large, they are substantial enough -- in the direction of delay -- to refute charges that access to such services as those provided by the program encourages early sexual activity... The project appears to demonstrate that if students in junior high schools are given access to nearby services and if they are offered information and continuity of care, they will use such services, and at levels comparable to those shown by older teenagers.

It usually takes about a year for an adolescent female to seek contraceptive services after the onset of sexual activity. (Committee) The Zabin study found that with one year's access to the program, a female student was about twice as likely to have sought out such services before becoming sexually active, and the percentage at six months was 70%. In other words, it is important that sexual education and contraceptive access start before the onset of sexual activity. The median age for this onset in the Zabin study was about 15. (Admittedly, this was a study in an urban high school, were it is likely to be younger than elsewhere.)

Guttmacher et al. did a study on the effect of the condom distribution program started in 1991 in all New York City schools. This was done in the context of HIV prevention, but their results should be relevant in this discussion of sexual activity as well. They found:

Clearly, making condoms available at school does not lead to increases in sexual activity.

Furthermore,

higher-risk students reported getting a condom from school in significantly higher proportions than lower-risk students.

There was also some concern raised in the IP discussion about the confidentiality of these medical services. Several commenters felt that not informing parents that their children were sexually active was a violation of their "parental rights." According to the Committee report:

The primary reason adolescent's [sic] hesitate or delay obtaining family planning or contraceptive services is concern about confidentiality.

In other words, the best way to make sure teenagers do not use birth control or condoms is to tell their parents. I understand the concern here, but a parent's rights over an adolescent are not absolute. It is the moral and ethical duty of any health care worker to care for his patient's medical needs first; the abrogated rights of a third party are a secondary concern. This isn't to say they're unimportant, as in the case of mandatory reporting of rape or abuse, but a teenager above the age of consent has some medical privacy rights.

Conservatives have been pushing for abstinence-only sex education for some years now. There's even a new TV ad pushing parents to tell their children to not have sex. Personally, I think this is stupid. Not only does it completely ignore the existence of gays and lesbians, not only is it a practice that isn't used by 90% of the American population, and not only is it the only instance I know of where mandated ignorance is a form of education, but there's this to consider:

About 26% of adolescent couple trying to abstain from intercourse will become pregnant within 1 year. [Committee]

Conservatives usually inflate and distort condom failure rates when they try to claim they're ineffective, but they never cite the failure rate for their abstinence programs. Over one quarter of abstinent teenage couples get pregnant within a year, and that's not counting the couples that fail at abstinence and don't get pregnant!

Lastly, I just want to point this out to parents that still look down on sex education and contraception. This has got to be one of the most frightening statistics I've seen:

First intercourse was nonvoluntary for 9 percent of teen females. This percent was higher among those who were younger at first intercourse. (Abma)

If that doesn't make you think "Holy crap!", what does? I'm not quite sure if the use of the word "nonvoluntary" means some of these girls were just pressured into having sex as opposed to out-and-out rape, or if that's just scientific jargon for rape, but it's a stunning percentage. One in ten.

Mind you, that's just for first intercourse. One in four women will be raped in their lifetime. I can't find statistics that break it down any further, but women between 16 and 25 years old are at more than three times the risk of women in any other age group, and about 20% of women are raped by the time they're college-aged. It's sort of out of the scope of this blog post, but remember that women are not the only ones at risk. Six percent of rape victims are men, and in about 10 percent of both rape attempts and sexual assaults, men are the victims.

Conclusions

The literature conclusively states that access to contraception does not hasten the onset of sexual activity. Access to a comprehensive sex ed program as well as contraception actually seems to delay sexual activity in teenagers, if they get it early enough.

References

  • Abma, J. C., G. M. Martinez, W. D. Mosher, and B. S. Dawson. "Teenagers in the United States: Sexual Activity, Contraceptive Use, and Childbearing." Advance Data from Vital Health and Statistics. Series 23. Number 24 (2004).
  • American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Adolescence. "Contraception and Adolescents." Pediatrics 104. 1161 (1999).
  • Guttmacher S., L. Lieberman, D. Ward, N. Freudenberg, A. Radosh, and D. Des Jarlais. "Condom Availability In New York City Public High Schools: Relationships to Condom Use and Sexual Behavior." American Journal of Public Health. 87. 1427. doi:10.1542/peds.104.5.1161 (1997).
  • Kirby, D. "Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy (Summary)." Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (2001).
  • Mosher, W. D., G. M. Martinez, A. Chandra, J. C. Abma, and S. J. Willson. "Use of Contraception and Use of Family Planning Services in the United States: 1982–2002." Advance Data from Vital Health and Statistics. No. 350 (2004).
  • Zabin, L. S., M. B. Hirsch, E. A. Smith, R. Streett, and J. B. Hardy. "Evaluation of a Pregnancy Prevention Program for Urban Teenagers." Family Planning Perspectives 18. 119 (1986).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Is politics just tribalism?

Sorry to have not written anything in a while. I've just been swamped and for most of the past week my internet connection has been unpredictably up and down. Now that I've got a shiny new cable modem things should get better.

One of the things I've wanted to write about for a while is whether or not politics and our public discourse in general is just tribalism. By that I mean that people associate themselves with either Republicans or Democrats and have an emotional stake in that decision. After a while, it becomes about maintaining that identity and keeping power away from the other side, rather than thinking about the issues and trying to come up to the best solution to a problem.

Of course, as soon as I started thinking of this post, Dispatches from the Culture Wars said it better than I ever could. Here he's talking about a blog getting tagged as left or right:

...down with dualism. The whole point of such dichotomies is to avoid having to think. If you can just put that "liberal" or "conservative" label on someone, you can know whether to dismiss them or not. If you're intellectually lazy, that is. If you're capable of rational thinking, you know that labeling an argument does not defeat the argument and that you actually have to examine the logic of the argument and whether it explains the evidence or not.

And a couple of months ago:

I think that is the emotional root of why people respond so virulently to such [separation of church and state] cases, because in their mind religion is primarily a form of tribalism - those who agree with you are "Us" and those who don't are "Them." The moment you buck the majority, you are immediately placed in the "Them" category and the basic tribalism instinct kicks in; they truly do see themselves as protecting the in-group from the barbarian hordes at the door.

I've noticed this while hanging out over at Illinipundit. Commenters there are quick to start ridiculing their opponents as traitors, Marxists, socialists, anti-troop, illiterate, stupid (I'm looking at you, JB), and so forth. It quickly stops being about analyzing the issue or even trying to have a discussion, and becomes about attacking the ideological enemy.

In one of the debates, every single Republican Presidential candidate said that evolution was wrong. I really have a hard time believing that these presumably well-educated and reasonably smart guys, every one, thinks that biologists, cosmologists, and astrophysicists are wrong about their own field of study. It's the same thing when Bush said he would never appoint anyone to the Supreme Court that could approve of the Dred Scott decision. Come on, does he really think that there are a lot of Supreme-Court-quality lawyers that support slavery? No, this was a coded message about Roe. Both of these things were a way for the candidate to say to his followers, "Here I am. I'm one of you. I'm one of the tribe. Trust me."

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Third of a dozen

4 Jobs I’ve Held

  • Paperboy
  • Dishwasher
  • Engineer @ International Space Station
  • Postdoc
4 Films I Could Watch Over and Over
  • Hmm. I'm not a big fan of watching movies many times
4 TV Shows I Watch
  • Just 4?
  • Grey's Anatomy
  • America's Test Kitchen
  • Heroes
  • The Closer
4 Places I’ve Lived
  • Lawrenceville, NJ
  • Socorro, NM
  • Houston, TX
  • Champaign, IL
4 Favorite Foods
  • French fries
  • Chinese dumplings
  • Thai curry
  • Pizza
Oddly, I don't eat any of those too often 4 Websites I Visit Everyday
  • New York Times
  • Pharyngula
  • Userfriendly.org
  • AmericaBlog
4 Favorite Colors
  • Blue
  • Purple
  • Green
  • Translucent
4 Places I Would Love to Be Right Now
  • Nowhere. I hate traveling.
4 Names I Love But Would/Could Not Use for my Children
  • Honestly, I've never given this any thought
4 Books I Could/Have Read Over and Over
  • Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis
  • Wheel of Time series, Robert Jordan
  • The Sandman series, Neil Gaiman
  • Memory, Sorrow, Thorn, Tad Williams
Pretty much everyone I know has done this so I can only tag:

Saturday, September 29, 2007

No ringtones or noodles

Waiting for the bus this evening, a car stopped for a red light at the streetcorner where I was standing. That's not too unusual. What was unusual was that this woman driving was actually eating what looked like spaghetti.

Now, on a long trip and when on an interstate, I've been known to munch. I've even had a sandwich on a few occasions. But this woman was not only driving on Green Street in the middle of campus, where a pedestrian stepping into the middle of the street is a not-uncommon experience, but she was eating food that required the use of utensils. I think it's pretty obvious that, when you have to have one hand on your plate, one hand on your fork, and one hand on the wheel, you're driving distracted.

I couldn't tell if she had garlic bread, too.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Why can't conservatives at the DI ever tell the truth?

It looks like the Daily Illini has replaced John Bambenek with Paul Schmitt as one of their resident conservative wingnuts. In today's DI, Schmitt has a rant about Planned Parenthood and the evil they do against women. As usual for these sorts of things, it's full of half-truths and distortions.

Quick summary for the non-locals: Planned Parenthood is trying to open a clinic in Aurora, a Chicago suburb. Because of how anti-choice zealots behaved when PP opened a clinic in Austin, much of the paperwork was in the name of a PP subsidiary Gemini Office Development. The Aurora City Council knew that the permits were for a medical clinic and approved them. When it was revealed that this would be a PP clinic, the Jesus hit the fan, and the crazies came out of the woodwork. Aurora is now suing to stop the opening of the clinic.

Schmitt's column today reads:

In Texas, contractors that were building a new clinic for the organization refused to finish their work upon learning of what exactly they were constructing.

Well, that's not exactly what happened. Schmitt makes it sound like the contractors discovered what they were building and quit the project in a huff of moral outrage. Actually, anti-abortion activists started a campaign of intimidation and harassment, including following workers home and bothering the residents in their neighborhoods. This caused enough of the smaller contractors to drop out that the general contractor did as well. Hardly the implication that Schmitt's piece leaves.

Schmitt continues:

The facilities, which have faced repeated lawsuits by parents of its clients, pro-life groups and others, claim to offer necessary and important services to the communities where they are located. Looking at the situation in Aurora, however, one might easily draw a conclusion that Planned Parenthood advocates nothing more than an abdication of personal responsibility, honesty and self-respect.

You know, I went over to Planned Parenthood's website, and I couldn't find any information about abdicating personal responsibility. I did find information on birth control, avoiding STDs, and even how to care for yourself if you are or want to get pregnant. Nothing about dishonesty. So one also might easily draw the conclusion that Schmitt has no idea what he's talking about.

It's funny that Schmitt brings up the Austin Planned Parenthood clinic as an example of a success. One thing that Schmitt doesn't mention is that another woman's health clinic in Austin was bombed by anti-abortion activists this year. Suddenly, that crowd doesn't seem so "pro-life" after all.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Why Star Trek sucks

Ryan has an interesting post up about whether Star Trek has a heterosexist bias. I think he makes some interesting points, but I think I disagree with his ultimate conclusion.

Star Trek is somewhat biased,but I think it's unfair to say the writers are homophobic. Rather, I think Star Trek has a mainstream bias. I suspect studio executives think so little of their audience, that they are afraid that putting in a gay subplot would either drive away viewers or cause too much "controversy".

The Old Series was somewhat groundbreaking, covering issues like race and feminism. Roddenberry wanted Kirk's second-in-command to be a woman, but the TV execs said absolutely not. So instead, women were nurses, the space telephone operator, and space secretaries. In miniskirts. It wasn't until The Next Generation that we got actual strong women in positions of authority.

I think the reason for this is that Star Trek was really forced to appeal to a mainstream audience. It had to be the sort of thing that audiences could pick up immediately, be entertained for a while, then put away, maybe to watch it next week. It was episodic television in its purest form and entirely plot-driven. By the end of an episode, everything was exactly as it was at the beginning of the episode, with the exception of a disposable redshirt or two. I can't help but attribute some of this to a desire to syndicate the show, where episodes may be shown out of order. No matter the reason, when the goal of your show is to maximize the franchise possibilities of your idea, that's not conducive to telling a story or even deep characterization.

Think about it. Who in Star Trek actually developed as a character? Heck, over the course of one of the series, who even changed as a character? Virtually no one. You might make he case about some of he characters in later series, but not many.

And I think that's due to the need for mainstream appeal in ST. When you get a creator and writers for whom the story is paramount, you can make magic. Buffy is the obvious example here. Hush, where there's absolutely no dialog for most of the hour-long episode, really was TV unlike anything I've seen before or since. The Body, where Buffy's mother dies is heartbreaking. One of he characters even becomes a lesbian, forms what is probably the healthiest of relationships on the show, loses her partner, becomes the evil villain for a season, then is redeemed for the final season.

Instead of getting more TV like this, we get SciFi's Crap Movie of the Week where Stock Male Character fights poorly-CGI genetically engineered livestock/alien/unknown jungle creature before rescuing By-the-book But Brilliant Scientist Love Interest Woman from imminent death before riding into the sunset.

I'm not saying episodic TV is nothing but crap. I really enjoy Star Trek, Farscape, Stargate SG-1, and others. It's just really frustrating to see great shows like Firefly, Buffy, Firefly, B5, and Firefly -- not just enjoyable TV but as close to serious art as anything on television can be -- only get shuffled around from network to network, get given crappy timeslots, and completely ignored where it counts (*cough* Emmys *cough*).

To save the world, Buffy actually damned the love of her life to Hell. All Tony Soprano did was whack a few people.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

At least I got the white powder part right

So Billy is in town this weekend for a short visit. His birthday is on September 11 (not good planning on his part), but since he's here now, I decided to make a cake for our little get together last night. I decided to try something different and was making the All-Purpose Buttery Yellow Cake from America's Test Kitchen. It sounded good, and with that much butter, it couldn't be bad, right?

This recipe does use a lot of butter, about twice what I'm used to using in a cake, but I figure it's supposed to be buttery. Anyway, after letting the baked cake layers cool in their respective pans for 10 minutes, I turned them out. The bottom of each of the layers looked really weird. Translucent, almost. "Uh-oh," I thought and figured they didn't get fully cooked, so put them back in the oven for a couple of minutes.

Then I turned them out again. Still translucent. That's really weird. But since this recipe called for so much butter, I figured maybe some of it melted, sank to the lower part of the cake, and that's what I was seeing. So I frosted it and it waited for the party.

Then we ate it, and it tasted really weird. It was sweet, sure, but very dense. The texture was just all wrong. Very dense. Rubbery, almost. So it didn't go over well.

This afternoon it occurred to me that, once in the past, my baked goods weren't coming out right and weren't as fluffy as they should have been. It turned out the culprit was baking powder that was several years old. I replaced the half-used baking powder, and things started coming out right again. So I opened the cupboard to check the date on my baking powder container.

You know how baking powder (my brand, anyway) comes in those little cardboard cans with a plastic lid on top? It turns out I had two in the cupboard:

You know, from the top, or if you're in a hurry, those look pretty similar. From the side, not so much:

Um, oops.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

FEC rules: Still not notable

The FEC has ruled on John Bambenek's complaint against Daily Kos. They rejected his reasoning. No one was surprised. Here is the Kos post.

Via ArchPundit, Illinois Reason, and IlliniPundit.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Another American jihadi

Wow, another terrorist attack on a major city in this country was recently thwarted. The terrorist in question was arrested trying to get sarin nerve gas and high explosives. He may have been planning to spray the sarin from a helicopter over parts of a major US city.

Oh, but it doesn't count as terrorism because he wasn't Muslim. From WKRN:

A white supremacist was sentenced Tuesday to 30 years in prison for attempting to acquire Sarin nerve gas and C-4 explosives that he planned to use to destroy government buildings.

Demetrius Van Crocker, 40, a farmhand from the small town of McKenzie near Jackson, was arrested in 2004 after an FBI undercover agent posing as an employee at the Pine Bluff Arsenal in Arkansas, delivered a water-filled Sarin canister and a small quantity of explosives...

In meetings with Burroughs outside a McKenzie convenience store in 2004, Crocker described his "dream" of riding a motorcycle to Washington D.C. and setting off a dirty bomb while the House andSenate were in session.

He also told [the undercover agent] he wanted a helicopter license so he could spray or bomb black neighborhoods in Jackson with poison gas, booby-trap a marijuana field with mines to kill drug agents, and spike drugs with poison to kill black people.

This story has everything. Weapons of mass destruction. Big explosions. A nerve gas attack on an American city. So why was this buried in a local news story? There isn't a single article on this thwarted attack on CNN, FOXNews, MSNBC, or even the New York Times. If this guy's name had been Abu bin Whatever, this would have been non-stop news for days.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

An oh-boy band

Seriously, this is a parody, right? Please tell me it's a parody. Because it just can't be real. Not with those khakis.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

An America fatwa

Another example of how the Religious Right is clinically insane:

Wiley S. Drake, a Buena Park pastor and a former national leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, called on his followers to pray for the deaths of two leaders of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

The request was in response to the liberal group's urging the IRS on Tuesday to investigate Drake's church's nonprofit status because Drake endorsed former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for president on church letterhead and during a church-affiliated Internet radio show.

Drake said Wednesday he was "simply doing what God told me to do" by targeting Americans United officials Joe Conn and Jeremy Leaming, whom he calls the "enemies of God."

"God says to pray imprecatory prayer against people who attack God's church," he said. "The Bible says that if anybody attacks God's people, David said this is what will happen to them.... Children will become orphans and wives will become widows..."

"Let his days be few; and let another take his office," the prayer reads. "Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow."

An American preacher is actually petitioning God to cause the deaths of his fellow Americans. That's about an inch away from the sort of thing that happened to Salman Rushdie. If some member of his church actually decides to take matters in his own hands and "do what God tells him to do" with a bullet, Ayatollah Drake will have blood on his hands.

Realize that this isn't some fringe group. This is a guy that used to be a leader of the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. It is the second largest in the world, behind only the Catholic Church.

A commenter on another blog pointed out that Drake is claiming God told him to tell his followers to ask God to kill these people. Why doesn't God just go out and do it without all these people asking him to? It's funny how "what God wants me to do" and "what I want to do" always seem to line up so nicely.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Like a horde of locusts...

The students are back. If you need to go grocery shopping, I suggest you do it at least four hours ago.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Jews go home

How am I just now hearing about this? From the St. Louis Post Dispatch:

In this town of 3,000 residents, there are at least 15 churches. Maybe 20. They're featured prominently on business street corners. They're also tucked away — hidden almost — on residential blocks.

So you don't need to travel far to find the good Lord, as they say. In fact, visitors can't drive into town without a holy hello.

"Welcome to The Village of Alorton," say two green-and-white billboards with lights shining on them. "Where Jesus is Lord. Randy McCallum Mayor."

By all accounts, the longtime, city-owned signs have never seemed to stir anyone. As it turns out, though, they could be a problem.

The city erected and maintains the signs, Mayor Randy McCallum said...

Former Mayor Callie Mobley, who took office in the early 1980s, said she immediately pushed for the signs. The City Council approved them, and the city paid maybe $250, $350 tops for each, Mobley said. The reason for the signs was simple.

"I believe in one God, one Baptism, and one Lord," she said.

And never once did she hear any objections to the signs.

It actually surprised me to find out that Illinois was actually a hotbed of sundown towns in the not-so-distant past, having a higher percentage than many other states. So I guess it shouldn't shock me to find out that such intolerance in downstate (surprise!) Illinois is still going on. Geez, have these people even heard of the Constitution? I don't give a rusty crucifixion nail whether or not the mayor believes in one baptism or two-point-six dunkings in sanctified Jell-O.

The mayor makes it sound so innocent, saying that there were no objections. Well, duh. Do you think that maybe no one in a small town wants to speak up for fear of retaliation? Do you think that maybe having a sign that says "Jesus is Lord in our town" might make other people feel just a teensy bit unwelcome in your town?

Of course, the Christian rightwingers over at Focus on the Family have already jumped on this and are claiming it's just another example of the "War on Christianity" being raged in our country. Yeah, right.

Monday, August 06, 2007

The right wing cult of masculinity

I have an original blog post I'll probably put up in the next day or so (sorry for not writing more), but I read this article this evening and just had to write about it.

There really is an obsession with masculinity on the part of right-wing Republicans and the right-wing pundits. Sara at Orcinus has a fantastic post today about it. She also references great articles by Digby and Dave Niewert, also on the same topic. Sara writes:

Over the years, my online ex-fundie community has spent a lot of time puzzling over the ways in which fundamentalism arrests the moral, social, emotional, intellectual, and sexual development of anyone who embraces it...

Right-wing authoritarian (RWA) followers have little use for reason; but are very invested in their fantasy lives. They take myth and metaphor absolutely literally, because interpreting them requires a level of abstraction they aren't comfortable with.

It really seems to play into the whole Republican, conservative mindset. The thing is, they're interested only in the image, not the substance. I mean, you've got Tucker Carlson calling Barak Obama "a wuss" with "wimpy rhetoric," yet Chris Matthews raves about Fred Thomson's "daddy image." First of all, Twinkletoes Tucker shouldn't be criticizing anyone's butchness. (I should also point out that strong female figures make Carlson fear for his own manhood.) Yet when they're faced with real masculine figures, they go on the attack. Somehow in the last election, John Kerry and John Murtha had their war service mocked and belittled, while virtually no one in the Bush administration served in the military and even fewer in combat.

Sara continues:

Which brings me around to my point, which is that the over-the-top behavior around masculine gender roles Digby and Dave are noticing is pretty classic early primary behavior, too. The games boys play at this age often involve extreme masculine archetypes -- cowboys, cops, soldiers, sports heroes, spacemen, and so on. The fact that so many mainstream and conservative media guys are suckered by this posturing shows that they don't really have a clue about what a Real Man looks like -- though, somewhere deep down inside, they're pretty sure they don't qualify. That's why they're so easily wowed by men who can put on the costume and make it look good.

Go read the whole thing; it's really very good.

Speaking of media narratives of masculinity, remember that iconic image of Dubya in his flight suit after flying the jet to the carrier where he gave his "Mission Accomplished" speech? Did you know that's the basis for the George W. Bush Top Gun Action Figure? Get this: it's anatomically correct. I'll just leave you with that.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Democrats never go to church?

There is a post over at Illinipundit about Giuliani. I don't want to comment on the discussion there, but point out something about the original editorial. That editorial, from the Washington Post, begins:

Social issues such as gay rights and gun control divide America so sharply largely because no one has found a single solution for them equally acceptable to both churchgoing conservatives and secular liberals.

Note the dichotomy there: the two groups in politics are, apparently "churchgoing conservatives" and "secular liberals". Even though an overwhelming majority of Democrats are religious -- and Christians, to boot -- only conservatives qualify as "churchgoing."

We saw this crap all the time in the last election, except that it wasn't "churchgoing conservatives," it was "values voters." The rest of us being, apparently valueless, atheists that attend Black Mass during the new moon and probably would eat your face given half a chance.

It's a dangerous assertion made worse by the fact that it's probably unconscious at this point: that only conservatives have a moral compass. Of course, this meme has been brought to you by your "liberal" media.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Public health care policy

Imagine that you're interested in health care or public health. Or, perhaps, imagine you're a MD MPH PhD-candiate doctor working in an emergency room department in an urban hospital (though who would be that crazy?). In that case, you really should be reading Ezra Klein's blog. He has two really great blog posts today that I just must highlight. From the first:

Consumer-driven health care controls costs by pushing more spending onto the consumer so that they can afford less care. It rations by income. It's not even deceptive about this: That's literally what "skin in the game" means. When you're paying more for your care, your price sensitivity increases, which in turn makes you both less able and willing to pay for care, which in turn will make you more likely to purchase valuable care and discard bad care.

That, at least is what advocates hope will happen. Whether you believe them depends on whether you believe consumers can make smart care decisions, and whether you believe wasted care can be cut out by bluntly disincentivizing all care. But the cost controls here have nothing to do with innovation; they have everything to do with increasing financial exposure so we're less willing and capable to purchase medical services.

And from the second:

The LA Times reports that uninsured adults in Los Angeles are waiting more than a year for gallbladder and hernia surgeries. Indeed, the Harbor-UCLA medical center just told the county's clinics to simply stop referring non-emergency gallstone, hernia, orthopedic, or neurosurgery patients till the hospital worked through its year-long backlog.

The clinics, predictably, are responding by sending these patients to emergency rooms, further overwhelming ERs with patients in terrible pain, but not technically suffering from an emergency. Yet. So they're being turned away, though no doubt going into debt or having their wages garnished as they attempt to pay off the bills. Meanwhile, In the absence of the necessary surgeries, we're holding these folks together with belts and trusses -- literally

On the other hand, if you're the most powerful man in the world, here's your view on health care in this country:

People have access to health care in America. After all, just go an emergency room.

I feel healthier already. Don't you?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

How much is a blog post worth?

John Bambenek is making a nuisance of himself again. He has filed a complaint with the FEC that the popular political group blog Daily Kos is an unregistered political committee. I discovered this when I saw that Atrios (another popular blogger) had bestowed upon him his semi-regular award of "Wanker of the Day."

His argument is essentially that DK provides the gift of "free advertising" to political campaigns and candidates. Since a paid advertisement on DK costs $9,000, he argues that must mean a blog post must be worth "at least that much." The only source of revenue to DK that I'm aware of is paid advertisements from the Advertising Liberally network. Those don't meet 2 USC 431. Therefore, the only possibly contribution to DK would be the value of the individual blog posts, made by unpaid community members. These clearly don't meet the status of a "contribution:"

2 USC 431(9)B: The term "contribution" does not include - (i) the value of services provided without compensation by any individual who volunteers on behalf of a candidate or political committee

The good news is that both the right and left blogosphere are fairly united in the absurdity of this complaint.

The thing I find frustrating is that I'm not convinced it has been made in good faith. The timing is suspicious. It's only a week until the Yearly Kos convention starts up in Chicago. So I rather just think this is a ploy to get attention. The sad thing is that it worked.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Please do not feed the crazies

DarkWraith over at Pam's House Blend has created a little graphic for people to put on their websites:

I'm sorry but this is simply unnecessary. The United States is not turning into the Fourth Reich. No one is being hauled off to gas chambers. Wholesale extermination of an entire race of people is not being perpetrated by our government.

Being a card-carrying, baby-eating liberal, I have serious problems with Bush's latest executive order. On the face of it, it strikes me as clearly unconstitutional. But to suggest that it turns our country into the fucking Nazis is ridiculous.

It's also self-defeating. It's hysterical hyperbole that doesn't support this guy's position. Frankly, it just feeds the right-wing rhetoric that Democrats hate America. The recently-unhinged Bill O'Reilly has started calling the mainstream Daily Kos site equivalent to the KKK and other hate groups. This is just the sort of thing that gives him and other right-wingers the ammunition to do so.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

I may have to wait a while

I am worried that with all the excitement about the latest Harry Potter book, someone in the media is going to leak the ending. So I'm avoiding all the press about it as much as I can. In fact, judging by the letters to the editor in yesterday's NY Times, it looks like they may have given away the ending in their book review. What kind of a jerk would do such a thing?

I don't own any of the other books, and I don't want to buy this one just to find out how it ends, so I reserved a copy from the public library. My place in the queue? 450. I guess I'm not in any hurry.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why are Americans so darn stupid?

I've read in a number of places about surveys that show American's have a truly awful understanding of science. Lots of these things turn out to be apocryphal, so I went looking for actual data. One thing that I found was the General Social Survey, which is a study that has been done every year to two years since 1972. It asks a large number of questions ranging from attitudes on social trends to politics to science literacy. Most of the science literacy questions are new, so there aren't trends to examine. It's very interesting, and I would encourage you to go to the GSS website, download the results for yourself, and have a look. It's only a 2600 page PDF.

I took the results of some of the science questions and turned them into pie charts. Some of the questions I reworded for brevity, but they're basically all the same. Needeless to say, the results are somewhat disappointing.

The first one is a bit predictable, on evolution: (click for a bigger picture)

That's understandable, if frustrating. Americans are constantly lied to by their (religious) authority figures about evolution. Creationism is basically in industry in this country with its own books, videos, and lecture circuit. Since it's usually portrayed as a choice between religion and atheism, all people really know is that they despise atheists, so they chose the religious option.

The next one is a health question:

This one has actual practical consequences. If people think antibiotics are effective against viruses, they are likely to demand them from their doctor or just take leftovers in the case of a viral infection. Since the antibiotics do nothing against viruses, they'll just let any bacteria present possibly build up a resistance.

Here's one on astrology:

My hope here is that people misunderstood the question and thought it was talking about astronomy, not astrology. If not, one in twenty Americans think the position of the stars and planets actually has an effect on your personality.

This one is dear to my heart as I deal with these little buggers every day:

I guess electrons are esoteric to most people, but come on, this is high-school level stuff we're talking about, not the Bohr model vs. electron shells. It's not rocket science.

Here's the one that really scares me:

Go back and look at that again. One in four Americans doesn't know the Earth goes around the Sun. One in four. I can understand if a couple of people just got the question backwards, or answered too quickly and answered wrong by accident. I can't believe that a quarter of the people surveyed did.

Is it just ignorance? Is it just that so few Americans know anything about the world around them? Or does a huge fraction of the population actually reject heliocentrism? It's not a crazy question. There actually are modern geocentrists. Heck, they even have a freakin' annual conference. There is a Catholic group that holds that not only is the Earth the center of the Solar System, but of the entire universe. It is not a coincidence that all these kooks base their ridiculous nonsense on their religion.

That sound you hear? It's Galileo spinning in his grave. Or maybe he's just holding still and the Earth is rotating around him.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Yet more incompetence on FOX News

A couple of weeks ago, Bill O'Reilly did a segment on a "Lesbian Gang Epidemic." I don't usually watch FOX News (my cable company doesn't carry it), but whenever I do, I'm just stunned by the fearmongering and their, shall we say, loose association with facts. This "OMFG the lesbians are coming, run, run, run" segment was no exception.

O'Reilly invited "FOX News crime analyst" Rod Wheeler on to lay it on thick. Here's some of the crap Wheeler was spewing:

Well, you know, there is this national underground network, if you will, Bill, of women that's lesbians and also some men groups that's actually recruiting kids as young as 10 years old in a lot of the schools in the communities all across the country... We've actually counted, just in the Washington D.C. area alone, that's Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia, well over 150 of these crews...

O'REILLY: Now, when they recruit the kids, are they indoctrinating them into homosexuality?

Yes," Wheeler answered. "As a matter of fact, some of the kids have actually reported that they were forced into, you know, performing sex acts...

It's all over the country. I mean, you go from New York to California to wherever you want to name, you can see these organizations. Now, the other thing, too, that our viewers are going to find very, very interesting, is the fact that they actually carry—some of these groups carry pink pistols," Wheeler said. "They call themselves the pink-pistol-packing group. And these are lesbians that actually carry pistols...

Shadowy homosexual conspiracy? Check. Nationwide crisis? Check. Gays molesting children? Check. Lesbians with weapons? Check. OMFG!!1!

The Southern Poverty Law Center did an excellent fisking of this report, and it turns out that every single thing this guy reported was complete bullshit. A couple of weeks ago I blogged about a so-called study that was being unquestionably reported by the press, even though its conclusion were clearly ridiculous. This is no different.

The 150 lesbian gangs roaming the DC area as we speak? It turns out there are only about 160 gangs of any sort in the DC area. Only nine are mostly female and there's no indication that any of those are a lesbian gang. There hasn't been a single media report about a crime committed by anyone with a "pink pistol," yet this fucking incompetent on FOX claims there are entire groups of people carrying them.

It's not that this guy was wrong or just exaggerated a bit that peeves me. It's that this was such a towering edifice of incompetence. That even if every gang in the DC area actually was a bunch of raging dykes he still managed to inflate their numbers by 1500%. That he managed to get every single fact he reported wrong, yet this still made the air. That's what ticks me off. So it doesn't really surprise me when the SPL pointed out that this idiot was part of an anti-gay church.

Apparently this had drawn some attention because the idiot Wheeler has taken down his entire website, and replaced it with a "disclaimer" that reads in part:

I mentioned that there are "over 150 of these gangs" in the greater Washington DC area. What I actually meant is that there are over 150 gangs in the Washington DC area, some of which are in fact lesbian gangs. Lastly, I mentioned in the segment that there is this "national epidemic" of lesbian gangs. A better choice of words would have been to say that there is a growing concern nationally, and especially in major urban areas, of increased gang activity, which includes some lesbian gang activity.

So if this segment was just about increasing gang activity in this country, then why the focus on lesbian gangs? Could it have something to do with a political axe to grind? Hmm... Not surprisingly, this story has been picked up by the right-wing nutjob press. Just here in Illinois, both Porno Pete and Stacy Harp have mentioned it. Facts are just so inconvenient when you have bigotry to spread.

(Via Pam's House Blend and Replace the Lies With Truth.)

UPDATE: Orcinus has also picked this up.

UPDATE II: Also picked up by Feministing and Pandagon

Monday, July 02, 2007

I guess I'm just naive

So Bush pardoned Scooter Libby the same day the judgment came down that he would not be able to stay out of jail while his appeal was in the works. I was honestly surprised. Not that he would pardoned, really, but that it seems so political -- blatantly political -- without any regard to whether this is for the benefit of the country or not.

I guess perjury and obstruction of justice aren't all that serious when it comes to the rule of law, after all.

UPDATE: Both David and prarie biker mention in the comments that this commutation is significantly different from an actual pardon. I disagree. There were three components to Libby's punishment: probation, a $250,000 fine, and 30 months of jail time. The jail time has now been reduced to zero.

The fine is also meaningless. Libby's defense fund was as high as $4 million a little while ago. Even if the lawyers devour all of that, raising another $0.25 million should be all that difficult for him. I doubt he will actually pay a penny of the fine. That leaves just the probation as his punishment. Big deal. As long as he doesn't drive with a suspended license, he's being punished less than Paris Hilton.

prarie biker's comparison to Sandy Berger isn't particularly apt, either. Berger did not "steal and destroy classified information" from the National Archives. He took copies of classified documents in preparation of his testimony before Congress. At worst, what he did was a security risk, there was no crime against the public interest.

A letter writer at the NY Times I think put it quite eloquently:

When George W. Bush was governor of Texas, he presided over more than 150 executions. In more than one-third of the cases — 57 in all — lawyers representing condemned inmates asked then-Governor Bush for a commutation of sentence, so that the inmates would serve life in prison rather than face execution.

Some of these inmates had been represented by lawyers who slept during trials. Some were mentally retarded. Some were juveniles at the time they committed the crime for which they were sentenced to death.

In all these cases, Governor Bush refused to commute their sentences, saying that the inmates had had full access to the judicial system.

I. Lewis Libby Jr. had the best lawyers money can buy. His crime cannot be attributed to youth or retardation. He has expressed no remorse whatsoever for lying to a grand jury or participating in the administration’s effort to mislead the American people about the war in Iraq. President Bush’s commutation of Mr. Libby’s sentence is certainly legal, but it just as surely offends the fundamental constitutional value of equality.

Because President Bush signed a commutation, a rich and powerful man will spend not a day in prison, while 57 poor and poorly connected human beings died because Governor Bush refused to lift a pen for them.

Bush wouldn't pardon inmates who's lawyers slept through their trials, yet Libby gets off. There's just something fundamentally wrong about that.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Our "liberal" media: science edition

There's an interesting editorial in the Dallas News about science reporting and how stories get spun in the media. Even though we're told non-stop about how the media is "liberal," it turns out that scientific studies that support conservative views get huge attention in the press (and can be distorted to say things they don't actually say), studies that support traditionally liberal views get virtually no traction at all.

[A parenting study] tracked the effects of good fathering on 19,000 children born in 2000 and 2001 and found that by age 3 a child would have more emotional and behavioral problems if the father had not taken time off after the birth.

Don't recall reading about it? You don't remember seeing experts lined up on the morning news shows to explain how crucial the findings were, or advocacy groups noting how this proves it's important to support paternity leave?

That's probably because, although such a study was indeed published, it got virtually no media attention...

Over and over again, studies that appeal to anti-feminists and social conservatives gain media traction, while the ones that come to opposite conclusions languish in obscurity.

For instance, the traditionalists always like studies with results showing large gender differences that support the old-fashioned sex roles. A great example is the Pew Internet and American Life Project, which in 2005 found that women and men differ in their use of the Internet:

More men (30 percent) than women (25) said the Web helped them a lot to learn more about what was going on, while more women (56 percent) than men (50) said it helped them connect with people they needed to reach. These differences are statistically significant.

But when filtered through the media, these findings are interpreted as: "If there is an overall pattern of differences here, it is that men value the Internet for the breadth of experiences it offers, and women value it for the human connections..."

A difference of at most 6 percentage points became an absolute gulf between the sexes, and the media exclaim, "Women are relational; men are factual!"

I'm starting to notice this more and more, myself. When reading about something about science in the media, I often have to just wince because they get it fairly obviously wrong or draw inaccurate conclusions. I mean, does every article about media storage capacity have to tell us how many Library of Congresses will fit on this new media? Does every report on a new transistor design have to mention artificial intelligence?

I didn't realize this the first time I read through it, but the piece is written by J. Goodrich, who runs the feminist harlot blog Echidne of the Snakes. Score one for the bloggers.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Shiny!

Last night, David and I went to the Champaign Can't Stop the Serenity, a charity screening of Joss Whedon's Serenity to raise money for Whedon's favorite charity, Equality Now.

It was pretty impressive. Of the 29 cities holding such an event, Champaign was only one of five to completely sell out the theater. Pretty much everyone showed up, too. According to the website, this event raised about $2,200 for the charity, which is more than Pittsburgh, London, Charlotte, and Madison. Not bad for a little college town.

This is the second year for the event. Last year, Serenity showings raised $50,000. This year, the Champaign show opened by showing Joss Whedon's acceptance speech for an award he was given by Equality Now. In true Joss fashion, even his speech was pretty entertaining:

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Bad porn science

I hate bad science. What I really hate is someone using a thin patina of scienceyness to push some sort of political agenda. That's when people either cherry-pick data to support their position, or produce some ideological-driven "study." John Bambenek did that a few months ago, when he tried (and failed) to produce studies that showed sex caused depression in girls. Two of the studies directly contradicted in their text the very conclusion he was drawing, and the third wasn't even a credible study. I suspect Bambenek has not changed his position on this matter, showing it is ideologically driven and not rational.

Recently, a study is being flogged around by the press about internet porn addiction. Porn addiction is apparently about to destroy society. The study was run by Christianet.com, which claims to be the "most-visited Christian website in the world." The addiction results have been reported by mainstream news sites (here, here, and here) and Christian news sites (e.g. here, here, and here). Gay bloggers have also picked it up; both Pam's House Blend and Wayne Besen have commented on it.

Here's what the study says:

The poll results indicate that 50% of all Christian men and 20% of all Christian women are addicted to pornography," said Clay Jones, founder and President of Second Glance Ministries whose ministry objectives include providing people with information which will enable them to fully understand the impact of today's societal issues. 60% of the women who answered the survey admitted to having significant struggles with lust; 40% admitted to being involved in sexual sin in the past year; and 20% of the church-going female participants struggle with looking at pornography on an ongoing basis.

Fifty percent of men are addicted to porn? Not just that they look at it, but they're actually addicted to it? That's an absolutely ridiculous statistic. If I told you that half of all men were addicted to heroin, you'd look at me with a "What you talking about, Willis?" look on your face. It's absurd on the face of it. What pisses me off is that this statistic is being reported without even a shred of skepticism.

So I thought that maybe the press was picking this up and making more of it than it really was or just flat-out misunderstanding it, as reporters often do with anything having to do with science. So I went looking for this study. What did I find? Crickets chirping. Nothing.

First, I went to Christianet.com. This place hardly qualifies as a website at all. It's an Internet portal. How very 1998. It's mostly a collection of links to things like "Christian Home Loans" and "Meet Christian Singles." Their Blogs section is a hoot, too. Each blog entry consists of roughly two lines of text, plus a link to some other section of their site and an offer to send an e-card.

It turns out that this thing everyone is citing is an internet poll, not any sort of study. There's no information about what questions were asked, how people responded, or even what qualifies as internet port "addiction." I have the suspicion that the people running this poll would consider Michelangelo's David to be Renaissance porn.

I tried to find more information about the poll on their website. Not only isn't there any mention of it on the Christianet website that I can find, there's no contact information for anyone at Christianet. Absolutely zero. No email address, no "Contact us" page. I wrote the admin in the WHOIS entry, but no response.

What's almost worse than this thing getting this level of attention is that it's being looked at with complete credulity. Even though it concluded that half of all men have this addiction, no one even batted an eye. In fact, people mostly just seemed to find it amusing that Christian evangelicals were caught in a bit of hypocrisy. The Stuff article called them "porn-again Christians." (OK, I admit I got a laugh out of that.)

This is how things get caught up in our collective consciousness. Someone reads about this poll in a news article on some website, but no one ever looks up the details. It gets generally accepted as true, even though it's just propaganda from one small group with an axe to grind.