Saturday, February 24, 2007

Mouth Forged Manacles

Posted by olvlzl.
Talking and thinking about the use of identifying words for different groups of people takes up way too much time, it seems to me. It’s too complex to really be able to understand just what the ever shifting implications about them are. And by the time you’ve figured something out, someone has changed it. The worst, though, is that too many people tend to use labels as limits past which people aren’t supposed to go. Call yourself one thing and express an opinion outside of the prescribed role and you’ll get your head handed to you. That’s as big a danger as it ever was.

Interesting piece by Joel Bleifuss about the current use of identifiers among various people who may or may not belong to various groups. I tend to use the terminology that became current in the early 1970s, maybe because of my age. It’s funny to think back at how I didn’t like the word “gay” because it seemed to imply that gay men didn’t take themselves seriously. It seemed to me to be an adoption of the stereotype of what gay men were supposed to be. Now it’s just a word.

Feminist” seems to me to be useful because calling yourself a feminist is a sign that you didn’t retreat in the backlash of the last three decades but just kept going.

I think it’s entirely wise to steer clear of using terms of invective, no matter how fashionable those become. Most importantly because they can still hurt people but, also, by the time you’ve found out, they’ll have reverted back to their original connotation. This is especially true of the use of reclaimed invective by people not in the group. Besides, there are few things more tempting than calling up someone on their use of one.

Actually, it’s best to avoid using all of them unless it’s impossible.

Call It The Lieberman Rule

What anyone asking for the nomination of the Democratic Party must be forced to promise Democratic voters.

Reposted by olvlzl.
The Democratic Party is owned by the members of the party, not by the leaders of it, not by the connected beltway bright things looking for their next press opportunity and handout.

The election and the seat won through it are owned by the voters, not by the candidates.

While the party has no right to require a guarantee of ideological conformity, especially since there is no Democratic ideology, there are things which a Democratic candidate owes to the members of the party.

1. Democratic candidates must make a binding promise that they will not leave the party for another one while holding an office gained as the candidate of the party.
2. If a Democrat leaves the party while holding office they must agree to vacate the office.
3. A Democratic candidate will accept the results of the nominating process.
4. A Democratic candidate will fight a crooked election.

A person who holds office has an obligation to represent all of their constiuents, they cannot be bound by the party to a given position on an issue. That is a matter of trust between the office holder and their consituents. But a person who holds office through the Democratic Party takes on additional obligations to the party. Through their own actions they have asked for our support and so have made it a matter of honor that they will not betray us.

No candidate who asks the support of the members of the party should be allowed to flim-flam us. If they don't gain the nomination through the rules of the Democratic Party they have to accept that. They should be required to promise at the beginning of the nomination process not to act as a spoiler in the general election by being a candidate outside the party or by campaigning for a rival of the party. No office holder who has gained a seat through the Democratic party should be able to leave the party while holding that seat. All candidates should be required to make these promises to members of the Democratic Party from the start as a pledge of trust. If they refuse? Democrats will know what to expect of them and can vote accordingly.

I am sure someone will ask about Jeffords. Much as I respect him, that's not out problem. His party left him and he had an R after his name.


Employees of the Democratic Party in any of its branches and people employed by Democratic politicians should sign a contract stating that they will not go on the cabloids or other news and alleged news outlets to slam the party, its members, its candidates or its motives for three presidential election cycles after their employment ends. Russert, Matthews and the guy with the hair are stinking quislings who would be nobodies without the patronage of fools who trusted them. If the party doesn't learn from their example and institute contractual remedies to prevent the production of more of these it can expect more of the same.

Any Democrat who has anything to do with the likes of Dick Morris should be put up against the wall.

Arguing About A Total Waste Of Time While People Defer Healthcare Because They Don’t Have Insurance Now.

Posted by olvlzl.
Note: I was going to hold this till later but a piece of junk mail came today, from “Skeptical Inquirer” magazine published by what I consider to be the pseudo-skeptical group, CSICOP*. You can imagine the effect it had on me. I might post a piece on that group someday about why I am very skeptical of its skepticism. Maybe it was the praise of Stephen Pinker in the come on that really got me going. I assume that there are any number of feminists who will understand why that might be. This is also posted as motivation to skeptical evaluation of claims of the kind of science he and many others toute. Until then, hope you find this fun. I did.

: What did you mean when you said the “prayer studies both pro and con are bogus”?

Now, you will remember, before we begin, that no claims are made here as to the effectiveness of prayer. This is about why the studies are bogus, nothing else. It is also about why both the believers and skeptics are being dishonest about these widely reported “scientific studies”. The real point is, spend the money and effort on getting a universal health care system, that would really save lives and improve health.

In order to study something you have to be able to observe it, to define what you are observing within some limits and to be able to verify that it is present in your study. “Prayer” is not definable and it can’t be known to be one thing or to exist at any particular time. Any possible mechanism of its operation or the results of it are also undefinable or prone to ambiguity. The widely reported “prayer studies” don’t even get past the first hurdle of logic, never mind science.

Prayer” is an undefined activity, it is also an activity that can’t be observed. It seems that the only verification of the presence of “prayer” in these studies were the reports of those doing the “praying”. Self-reporting, one assumes by people who “believe in the effectiveness of prayer”, is hardly objective verification. It isn’t even knowable if they had the same idea of what they were supposed to be doing. One person might have been trying to appeal to a god to effect healing, one may have been trying to send out healing “energy” from themself, someone might have been trying to do both at once or at different times. Another might have been doing something else. It could be that two people who used exactly the same words to describe what they were doing were actually doing different things. It is quite possible that the mental activities of two such people were quite distinctly different. How would the researchers have controlled for that? If imaging or other techniques were used to monitor brain activity during prayer, there isn’t any way to know if that would have an effect on the outcome.

It could be that any single person was actually doing different things on different occasions, even if they thought they were consistent. We have it on the authority of people who pray that they don’t always “get it right”. So, there is no defined activity that can even be tested for its presence. It gets worse.

It is possible that a subset of the group studied would have actually shown a result different than that of the whole group. It is possible that those were the only ones “doing it the right way”. There is no way of knowing which of the results, positive or negative, might have been right or if neither of them were valid.

Given the very nature of what was allegedly being studied, there is a possible participant in the study whose participation didn’t even seem to enter into consideration. What could be a rather important “other”. If every single person who was “praying” was praying in exactly the same way for the intercession of a god or other spiritual consciousness there is no way to know, 1. If they exist, 2. If they would cooperate with the sloppy study, 3. If they found the entire thing too insulting and so sabotaged it. Maybe the “agent of healing” had entirely different motives and chose to act in an entirely mysterious way without informing the participants. There are precedents reported in the literature of prayer that are consistent with that kind of thing.

And now for one of my pet peeves in this kind of “science”, the control group. It is entirely possible that such an agent of healing had motives entirely separate from those of the study and who chose to effect healing within the people in the “control” group. Maybe God took pity on people who were set aside by the protocols set up for the convenience of the researchers. You think a God who is willing to heal people on the basis of abject, desperate, requests wouldn’t have thought of that?

There isn’t any way to know that either a member of the control group or prayed over group was praying for themselves or if other people, unknown to those doing the study, were praying for them. There isn’t any way to know if such prayer would be more of less effective than that prayer sanctioned by those conducting an official “scientific” study. There is no way to know if the effects of prayer might not be cumulative. Maybe the number of people praying has no effect whatsoever, that is if there is any effect. Even if all of the participants in the “control group”, both non-pray-ers and prayed not-overs were self-declared atheists there isn’t any way to know if some of them might have cheated and snuck in some prayer just to cover all the bases. I suspect Balzac would have suspected that as a possibility*.

Why any scientist, skeptic or religious believer would give a “study” that begins so badly the time of day is probably the most interesting question that could come from this kind of thing. With a lack of validity being so clear, questions of motives must arise. Why the media would is clear, it takes up air time and pushes agendas.

These “studies” are a waste of resources that could be better spent in other ways. It’s quite shocking that religious believers, particularly Christians, would put God to a test like this. Even if its being literally against the word of Jesus didn’t bother them, the literature of religion tells us over and over that doing this kind of thing is just asking for trouble.

The motives of “scientific skeptics” who take their side of this thing seriously are even more suspect. If they are willing to accept such sloppy science their skepticism is of a very low order. As long as no one is being charged for services or delaying treatment, let people pray as much as they want to. While it might offend the tender sensibilities of the pseudo-skeptics, it’s really none of their business how people in despair try to alleviate their distress. They certainly haven’t come up with something any more guaranteed to do that. If skeptics want to go after charlatans who bilk the vulnerable and who endanger people by encouraging them to stop or delay treatment, that would be an entirely worthy use of their time. Otherwise, it’s not only none of their business, it’s cruel.

Spend the money and effort on getting a universal health care system, there is an enormous amount of evidence that a universal healthcare system would really save lives and improve health. So important, it needed repeating.

* Marcello Truzzi was a co-founder and later somewhat a hertitic of CSICOP. He is often cited as the author of the slogan, "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof," so beloved of Carl Sagan. Apparently he broke with a number of avocational ‘skeptics’ over the fact that much of not most of the activity and writing surrounding most of the well publicized “skeptics” isn’t skeptical at all but is a promotion of their fixed opinion. The term “pseudo-skeptics” is a good word to describe the intellectual conceit that is currently fashionable with so many of the fans of the cult of materialism.

By the way, the slogan itself is scientifically problematic. Who gets to decide what claims are extraordinary to start with? Presumably the same people get to decide what evidence is extraordinary enough to fulfill their requirements. And isn’t demanding anything above what would be the normal level of verification be a bald faced violation of the foundation that scienctific inquiry has to be controlled, that no one gets to choose standards of rigor for one area of study that other areas aren't subjected to? The danger of that is clear, it would be an open door for allowing prejudice into what must be as objective as possible. Why would the designation of a claim as extraordinary require more than the, presumably, sufficiently rigorous level of evidence that makes ideas in science accepted? Is there something wrong with the normal level of scrutiny that science practices? I kind of think it works, when it’s actually practiced.

That is, that’s the level of verification necessary in science. What it takes to convince people in normal, everyday life is an entirely different matter. That’s too variable to get a handle on. People have a right to be skeptical for their own reasons that might have nothing to do with what can be demonstrated with the very limited and specialized tools of science. And they should be free to believe on that same basis. Tha's what we call freedom.

** See his short story, The Atheist’s Mass.

A Question

Posted by olvlzl.
Last week, discussing a report of a violent attack on a woman, one of my relatives told me that he had advised his daughter to fight back with everything they could if they were attacked. He told her that she should assume that she was fighting for her life. What do you think?

I have had no luck getting posts up on the blog I began last October on this subject. I’ll start up again soon in a different form.

Posted With Annotation

by olvlzl.
Can the reader now understand the importance of an opinion, of a sarcastic word, a letter, a jest, a smile, or, with still greater reason, of a book in the eyes of a government thus favored by the credulity of its people, and by the complaisance of all foreigners? A word of truth dropped in Russia is a spark that may fall on a barrel of gunpowder.

What do the men who govern the empire care for the want, the pallid visages of the soldiers of the emperor? Those living specters have the most beautiful uniforms in Europe; what matters, then, the filthy smocks in which the gilded phantoms are concealed in the interior of their barracks? Provided they are only shabby and becdirty in secret, and that they shine when they show themselves, nothing is asked from them, nothing is given them. With the Russians, appearance is everything, and among them appearance deceives more than it does among others. It follows that whoever lifts a corner of the curtain loses his reputation in Petersburg beyond the chance of retrieving it.

Social life in that country is a permanent conspiracy against the truth.

There, whoever is not a dupe, is viewed as a traitor, – there, to laugh at a gasconade, to refute a falsehood, to contradict a political boast, to find a reason for obedience, is to be guilty of an attempt at the safety of the state and the prince*; it is to incur the fate of a revolutionist, a conspirator, an enemy of order, a Pole: and we all know whether this fate is a merciful one. It must be owned the SUSCEPTIBILITY which thus manifests itself is more formidable than laughable; the minute surveillance of such a government, in accord with the enlightened vanity of such a people, beomes fearful; it is no longer ludicrous.”

Marquis de Custine c.1839: Empire of the Czar

* Dedicated to Helen Thomas. Molly Ivins once pointed out how craven the Washington Press Corps is for not backing her up in the face of the Bush Junta's attempts to turn her into a joke, and then a non-person.

Late Night Lament

Clepsydra of
The pipe
Still drips.

Posted by olvlzl.

Friday, February 23, 2007

What Is Out, What Is In

You know those articles where you are told why those 900-dollar shoes with the 20 inch cork heels you bought last year are totally OUT now, because the IN shoes this year are made of lucite with little razor blades as buckles? And how eating the mustache hairs of Brazilian goats is the IN thing in restaurant dining now, whereas nobody, but nobody, eats the eyeballs of Ukrainian mollusks anymore? Likewise, I've started seeing political articles with the same idea, the idea of the author deciding what is in and what is out this year. No need to have a reason for it. Just a declaration from high above and that's it.

So I decided to do one of those articles, the INS and OUTS of politics. I'm a goddess, after all. Here it goes:

Joe Lieberman. Any mention of him, all pictures of him. OUT, dratted spot, OUT.

The total absence of Joe Lieberman.

The 2008 presidential campaign, beginning in 2006 and lasting forever.

Real articles about real political problems of today. (Yes, I know I'm a naif.)

Any descriptions of the buffness of Mitt Romney and other homoerotic rants about male politicians. (Do you hear me, Tweety? Bush will never leave Laura for you.)

Articles which explore the question why Chris Matthews (aka Tweety) fears Hillary Clinton so very much and why he thinks women are those slightly ridiculous things that someone forgot to provide with a silence-button.

You can probably suggest better ins and outs. Of course, the serious OUT should be all pre-emptive warmongering for domestic political purposes.

The Army Marches On Its Stomachs

An old saying stressing the importance of the supply and maintenance aspects in any military operation, and the reason why those who engage in direct battle operations are a small percentage of the total military strength in Iraq.

I learned all this from science fiction or fantasy, by the way. Elizabeth Moon's The Deed of Paksenarrion, probably. Just to explain why a female divine would say anything about this stern and manly bidness of war.

Now the hook, as they call it in writing, meaning the reasoning for my babble above:

A point seemingly missed in much early coverage of the UK withdrawal from the south (that I have seen, at least) is the potential impact of that withdrawal on the eventual withdrawal of US forces.
There already has been discussion of how vital the Baghdad-Kuwait supply line is for ongoing US operations, and this concern is well-founded. The south is not as has been portrayed in some upbeat UK and US official comments today. Southern Iraq is a very much troubled region where most localities are dominated by militias (sometimes rival militias), governance (to the extent governance linked to Baghdad exists at all beyond the symbolic in large areas) is tenuous, security forces are in most cases far more loyal to militias (often local, semi-autonomous militia elements) than legal authorities (such as the mayor of Basrah), criminality (including large-scale oil & fuel smuggling) is endemic, and low-level assassinations of the relatively few Sunni Arabs still present there is ongoing.

My bolds. Now I'm feeling hungry, again.

The Koufax Awards

Some clever and discerning person has gotten me into the first round of the Koufax awards this year for "Best Writing". How very nice! I won the "Deserves More Hits" award last year, and my greatest fear is that I win it this year, too. And next year. And the one after that.

The Koufax Awards are a good way of finding more interesting liberal/progressive blogs to read. I encourage you to surf the candidates.

Friday Feminist Funnies often posts on interesting consumer products based on the bodies of women. Here is one recent example. When I saw it I remembered my file of things I see when I log on to my e-mail address. This is one of them:

The ad offers something for everyone, don't you think? If you don't like cute puppies, surely you want a woman with hanging tits as your wallpaper? What other choices could there possibly be? Heh.

To balance things out a bit, there is this image I copied from an e-mail offer, first thinking that it might be a chastity ring... Can you guess what it really is?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Free Kareem

A young Egyptian blogger, Abdel Kareem Nabil Soliman, has been sentenced to four years in prison for "for contempt of religion, insulting the president and spreading false information."

To learn more, go to the Free Kareem website.

Come Shower With Me, Michael

Michael Medved, a shining star in the tiara of wingnuttism, explains to us why we shouldn't allow gay men to join professional sports teams:

In the wake of the nearly-universal condemnation of Tim Hardaway's statements to a radio interviewer, the substantive issue remains. Is it a reasonable for an NBA basketball player (or a soldier in basic training, for that matter) to feel uncomfortable sharing intimate quarters with a homosexual, or does this represent an outrageous, irrational fear? In response to the Hardaway controversy, several sports columnists compared his resistance to the idea of playing alongside gay teammates to the racism of previous years when white players tried to avoid competing with (or against) blacks.

The analogy is ridiculous, of course. There is no rational basis for discomfort at playing with athletes of another race since science and experience show that human racial differences remain insignificant. The much better analogy for discomfort at gay teammates involves the widespread (and generally accepted) idea that women and men shouldn't share locker rooms. Making gay males unwelcome in the intimate circumstances of an NBA team makes just as much sense as making straight males unwelcome in the showers for a women's team at the WNBA. Most female athletes would prefer not to shower together with men not because they hate males (though some of them no doubt do), but because they hope to avoid the tension, distraction and complication that prove inevitable when issues of sexual attraction (and even arousal) intrude into the arena of competitive sports.

Tim Hardaway (and most of his former NBA teammates) wouldn't welcome openly gay players into the locker room any more than they'd welcome profoundly unattractive, morbidly obese women. I specify unattractive females because if a young lady is attractive (or, even better, downright "hot") most guys, very much including the notorious love machines of the National Basketball Association, would probably welcome her joining their showers. The ill-favored, grossly overweight female is the right counterpart to a gay male because, like the homosexual, she causes discomfort due to the fact that attraction can only operate in one direction. She might well feel drawn to the straight guys with whom she's grouped, while they feel downright repulsed at the very idea of sex with her.

What Michael objects to is the idea of someone else perhaps hunting him as a sex object. That's what makes him feel so very uncomfortable, I think. He never asks whether the heterosexual men in the shower look attractive to the young hottie women he imagines, with some enjoyment. He simply assumes that the attraction would be mutual. Or rather, that the guys would do the hunting, so that's ok, too. And not one sentence about lesbians in the women's showers. Maybe Michael is like Queen Victoria and doesn't believe that women could be so perfidious.

Then there is the whole "ill-favored, grossly overweight female" schtick. Remind me again how men don't really want women to go on diets and how it is the other women who force dieting on their sisters.

The whole column is rather vomit-worthy, if you like that sort of thing. Medved builds his arguments into a crescendo, ending in the to-him-obvious conclusion that mixing genders or mixing heterosexuals with gays and lesbians will not work in any professional setting where sex might rear its ugly head. Well, you can guess which groups would be excluded in this scenario.

Besides, he thinks that gay sex is disgusting. I think all sex looks pretty hilarious and certainly would seem incomprehensible to a Martian or some other alien species which propagates by division.
Thanks to spocko.

Tap Dancing

Don't forget that I'm in the chorus on the American Prospect blog TAPPED. You can find some of my more tech-nerdy posts there and also some other stuff. Not to mention the great posts by other writers there.

A "Larry Summers Moment"

Ann on the TAPPED blog has a nice post on the reasons why so few reviewers of the New York Times Book Review are women:

Amy Hoffman, editor-in-chief of the Women's Review of Books, recently reported that she attended a lecture at the Radcliffe Institute by Barry Gewen, an editor at the New York Times Book Review. In what even he described as a "Larry Summers moment" he explained that the reason so few women reviewers appear in the NYTBR is that they just can't write for a general audience about such topics as military history. He explained that NYTBR editors find reviewers by talking to colleagues and reading publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and The New Republic, insisting that he and his colleagues are not overtly prejudiced people but admitted they might have subconscious prejudices.

Note the perfect circle of self-referrals or referrals to People Just Like Me. Note also how odd it is that an intelligent and experienced editor would give such an extremely weak excuse for the dearth of women among the reviewers. I wonder if anyone asked what percentage of the books to be reviewed are on military history and why this percentage (probably not an enormous one) dictated the gender of the reviewers so totally, or if anyone asked what evidence Gewen has to assume that women don't write on military history. Could women at least review cook books, then? Please, pretty please?

Gewen also stated, according to the Harvard Crimson, that he feels squeamish about the idea of seeking reviewers who are not white just for the sake of them not being white. Presumably this is because he has not yet scraped the bottom of the white-guy barrel and only then would someone not white be an equally talented reviewer.

All this is exasperating, because the underpinnings of Gewen's thoughts are made so very bare. It's like spotting someone naked in an embarrassing way. Now we know how Gewen thinks and now we can see how no woman reviewer could ever be hired by him just on her own merits. The next one who gets hired will always be seen as an affirmative action hire, even if she writes on war books better than the angels of death.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Nonpolitical Post, Yet Again

I have a migraine through my right eye. I hope this garden post doesn't make you feel the same way:

Flower Beds

This last week two visitors to the house complimented me on the bed of flowers in the sun I have in my back yard. One called it pretty, the other lush. Although it is, to me at least, both of those, "lush" comes closer to its actual meaning than "pretty".

If I asked you to come and see my plants copulate, would you call this pretty? Yet copulation is what flowering most closely resembles in the animal world; a drawn-out (I hope!) foreplay or sexual display, the finding of a suitable partner, and the deed itself. The buds swell and mature, then slowly, slowly they open pushing, pushing into the sun's hot fingers. "I am here, ready and open" they whisper in alluring colors and mind-altering perfumes. "Come" they croon to the bumblebees, who obey all day long with their silky brown fur smeared yellow with pollen. What exstacy! Even deadheading is not dissimilar from cleaning up the dishevelment after a careless night on the town: the pink dress, now torn, wrinkled and smeared, needs to be gotten rid of, the hangover needs to be treated.

This view of flowering casts a new light on the old debate between people who like structured, orderly gardens with no flowers - just green trees, water and stone - and those who want flowers. I always felt that the structuralists had the higher moral or aesthetic ground, but now I am beginning to wonder if they are just prudish. I bet they would call flower beds pretty.

Where Do You Get Your News?

Dick Cheney, the Vice-President of the United States of America, gets his from friends. Or so it seems, given his reaction to the news that the British troops are going to start withdrawing from Basra and the surrounding area in southern Iraq:

But in an exclusive interview with ABC News, Vice President Dick Cheney said the move was actually good news and a sign of progress in Iraq.

"Well, I look at it and see it is actually an affirmation that there are parts of Iraq where things are going pretty well," Cheney told ABC News' Jonathan Karl.

"In fact, I talked to a friend just the other day who had driven to Baghdad down to Basra, seven hours, found the situation dramatically improved from a year or so ago, sort of validated the British view they had made progress in southern Iraq and that they can therefore reduce their force levels," Cheney said.

I feel very comforted by this. So comforted that I'm not quite sure what to make of the almost simultaneous comment by Iraq's vice-president, Tariq al-Hashemi, about how insurgents and militia members might be leaving Baghdad for?... you guessed it, Basra:

Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tariq al-Hashemi, warned that advance publicity on the security operation had given Shiite militias time to flee the city for bases elsewhere in the country.

``I have information that numerous of their leaders are now in Basra and other southern provinces in safe havens,'' he told Al-Arabiya television. ``I believe that those who were behind the bloodshed and the chaos should be pursued and criminals must face justice.''

For some odd reason I want to walk away after this post while singing "Singing In The Rain".

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The British Are Going!

They are going home from Iraq:

All British troops will be pulled out of Iraq by the end of 2008, starting with the withdrawal of 1,000 in the early summer, the Guardian has learned.

Tony Blair is to announce the moves - the result of months of intense debate in Whitehall - within 24 hours, possibly later today, according to officials.

The prime minister is expected to say that Britain intends to gradually reduce the number of troops in southern Iraq over the next 22 months as Iraqi forces take on more responsibility for the security of Basra and the surrounding areas.

I can imagine what the British will now be called by our neoconservative leaders...

Glenn Greenwald proposes a frightening explanation for Blair's apparent flipflopping on this matter of troop withdrawal:

In comments, C&G suggests that Blair's decision may be grounded in an expectation of some sort of imminent conflict between the U.S. and Iran. That, of course, is pure speculation, but it certainly is the case that even cross-border incidents between U.S. troops and Iran, let alone larger-scale military confrontations, would leave British troops in Southern Iraq most vulnerable both to retaliatory attacks and the risk of inadvertent involvement. It is reasonable to assume (though an assumption is all it is) that the increasingly likely prospect of escalation played at least some role in the deliberations leading up to the British withdrawal announcement.

I'm going to pull a pillow on my head. Tell me when the next war is over.

How To Troll A Feminist Blog

Let's see if this one doesn't make me calm and cheerful again. Worth a try, though I could have given the post some other name, such as "fuck off, you plague-chewed asshole". I'm beginning to sound like a real bigoted feminist blogger here! Hee!

Here are the rules for being a Proper Troll on a feminist blog, or the rules as to the available types of trolling:

1. Just call the blogger an evil bitch or a stoopid bitch. Ask her how she would feel if she had a son born and the son wouldn't be allowed to lord over all women.

2. Then you could point out that the blogger is only a feminist because she is too ugly, too fat, too shrill, too old, too stoopid to be something else. You might sign her up for the support group of big-assed women or big-nosed women.

3. If you are a religious sort of troll, you can quote a lot of Bible or Koran verses. Now that will shut her up. You can also tell her that she is going to Hell. And you can arrange for prayer circles to pray for her.

4. All these too crude for you, but you still want to be a troll on feminist blogs? Worry not! You can always argue that any woman wanting equality really, really hates men. That's it!

5. Now, if you happen to be really stupid yourself, don't hesitate to troll feminist blogs. Your pseudoevidence is always the valid one, and you can say so in many different forms without budging an inch. That'll show them. No, you don't have to read the responses or to check out any other evidence that might be presented. No, you don't have to know how to spell, either.

6. Now we are getting to the higher levels of trolling, the insidious ones. You are getting a graduate degree in trolling here! On this level you will act like a concern troll (Phila's term), which means that you pretend to be on the blogger's side. But alas, the stoopid blogger is writing about something unimportant! Something trivial! Something that will make feminism the laughing-stock of every upstanding anti-feminist out there. Had she only selected the Correct Topic! But she failed, alas, and feminism will be ruined for all times. Just too bad that almost all topics are trivial and unimportant, isn't it?

7. An advanced variation of this is to point out that yes, sometimes women do indeed have it rough, but so do all sorts of other people. What about carpenters? What about carpenter ants? People with crooked front teeth? Those who ride mopeds? People who live in wooded areas? This works very well, as long as you don't remind everyone that being a woman doesn't save you from any of those other problems.

8. The PhD level of trolling on feminist blogs requires quite a few years of work first, so I'm only putting it out there as a goal towards which to strive. The idea is to tell the blogger how very smart and intelligent she is, how really wonderful a blogger she is. What a pity, then, that she squanders her enormous brilliance on such an unimportant and dead topic as feminism. What a great pity, indeed. Imagine what she could do if she was writing on whether Barack Obama is handsome or awkward! Imagine what she could do by writing on the very interesting questions concerning Important Political Topics, topics which reek of testosterone and ballistic integrity. Like what size of an airplane Nancy Pelosi is allowed to have.

More On The Unattainable Perfection

Having to do with the next post below this one, and the further thoughts I had on the topic, the topic being the view of eating and exercise as a moral or religious enterprise or a competition as to who can get closest to an almost nonexistent thinness without dying, without dying EVER!

These are two very different ideas and putting them together looks like an oxymoron. But it is not, or if it is, then life is full of oxymorons (oxymora?).

The first idea is the Puritanical one, still quite common in this country, the idea of life as a moral struggle against temptations, a religious walk through nonreligious sins. Everything, I have noticed, can be twisted into a moral failure by some people, often by experts. Who was it who said that only in the United States it is the fault of the elderly that they die? Because clearly, if you try hard enough, if you are earnest enough, pure enough, you will live forever. And your body will look like that of a twenty-year old, forever, too. If it does not you have sinned, and perhaps the health insurance shouldn't cover your sinning.

Why does this anger me so? Partly because I'm using my red-hot anger as a source of energy, but mostly because such sermons make life really horrible for those most vulnerable to its seductions. For note that the people who read articles on good eating and good exercise and how to take care of your health are not those sedentary and overweight Americans who might benefit from the advice the most. They are also, and perhaps most likely, those Americans who are already too thin and who already overexercise.

I've thought similar thoughts on the many articles on "good mothering" and the awful consequences of neglectful mothering. I'm willing to bet quite a lot that the wrong people are affected by these articles, people who already try too hard and feel too much guilt, and that the people who actually might learn something useful from them (and this does not only mean mothers) will not read the articles or if they do are not affected by them.

What is it about pleasure and enjoyment of life that is so very bad? Think about it. If your daily meals can't give you enough pleasure, because they have become part of the Puritan "religion" of striving, where are you going to get your good feelings from? And if all you see when you look at your children are the many ways you might fail in bringing them up correctly (did you play enough Beethoven? did you eat a pickle while pregnant?), how are you going to enjoy them and the time you spend with them?

And if moving and exercising and dancing are not making you feel a little like one of God's little acrobats, because you are busy writing down your pulse rate and your calorie consumption, when are you ever going to feel that divine breath on your nostrils? Or take sex. If sex is all about counting weekly frequencies and how good your orgasms are, when are you going to have fun?

All this confuses the trip with its destination, and as none of us knows the destination, why not enjoy the trip?

My plea is for moderation, of course, not for becoming a morbidly ill couch potato. But I don't really see the urgings of the fitness and health industries as pleas for moderation, most of the time. There is a slippage towards one extreme or another, all the time. And come to think about it, "moderation" isn't the right word, either, because it conveys the idea of temptations successfully avoided. We need a better word for what I think of as living life as a human being, eating wonderful and healthy (and sometimes not-so healthy) food, moving enough for your body to stay limber, enjoying the gifts this can give you in pure enjoyment of life. We need a word that makes it quite clear being alive is not just a time given to you so that you can leave the stringiest body possible when you die. And die you will.

So much for the first paradoxical idea. The second one has to do with the role of all this in the lives of women, in particular, rather than in the lives of people, in general. There is a whole subgenre of writings and programs aimed at making women feel in the need of improvement. This subgenre serves firms very well, as a worried woman is more likely to buy that expensive face-cream or that educational toy for her child or that Victoria's Secret bra for her husband's ogling enjoyment. The guilt industry, I sometimes think it should be called.

The guilt industry works especially well in affecting women, because the subgenre is not that novel. You read the Bible and find Eve at fault. You watch movies such as "Educating Rita" and you find women in need of improvement. You read fashion magazines and find your body needs fixing. You read articles on child psychology and find that you are walking across a mine-field where every wrong step will cause your child to become a drug abuser who will hate you, the mother in later life. You read anti-feminist writings and find that some argue that women shouldn't have been given the vote. You read other anti-feminist articles and find that women are already ruling the whole world and that this is destroying EVERYTHING. You read articles about women in Afghanistan getting killed by their families for the crime of having been raped by some strangers first. You read articles about how the selfish and uppity women in Europe refuse to have enough children to perpetuate the White Uberrace (and you wonder how much damage they would have done to those nonexistent children by forgetting to play Beethoven while pregnant). And so on.

It's one way of making a person into a pretzel. (And don't come in here giving me counterexamples or scolding me for my intemperance. I'm on a roll.) Even a woman can become a pretzel, and that is a painful process. So what's a girl to do? It's not that hard to see that on some subconscious level many women think that they can somehow prove that they are not so bad, that at least they, if not other women, can be good and upright and ordinary citizens. Maybe working on the body will help. Or committing to Motherhood. Or saying that YOU agree about how terrible other women are, but that YOU are one of the women with a mental penis. YOU are ok. You are not Anna Nicole Smith or Hillary Clinton or Condie Rice or any of those other nasty uppity women who for some reason are seen as a stand-in for all women.

I'm running out of steam and I have to go out to chisel off the ice on the front steps as the postman is complaining about the hazards caused by my refusing to be nice to anyone at all.

Must Do Better

I'm currently in the throes of one of my extremely rare bouts of anger and thus you are going to get lots of wrathful posts until it passes. Now aren't you blessed?

The current angry post was provoked by an article in the Bazaar, a fashion magazine for women. The article, called The Eating Diaries (which I kept misreading as The Eating Disorders), chronicles the eating and exercise habits of three women who are given to the reader as examples of women in a fantastic shape (they certainly are very slim). ("We asked three toned and trim women of different ages to reveal the details of their diet and exercise habits. Read on to discover how they stay so slim.")

As you might expect, each of the women lists an extremely healthy diet (no fats, really, no chocolate, no cakes, mostly no caffeine): some sawdust in the morning, a perfume of steamed fish at night, lots of water from a secret and holy well on Mars. And the exercise schedule is equally fantastic. All these women work out harder than people in training for the olympics.

Nice. But guess what happens next? A nutritionist and an exercise guru are asked to comment on what these women do wrong. Perhaps a leaf of spinach could be removed from the plate? How about another five hours of weight lifting? And some cheese, for calcium. But not just any old cheese: cheese without any fat whatsoever.

So I read this and laugh. But then I got angry again, and thought about how the messages of unattainable perfection just keep coming. And coming. And coming.

And yes, this take on the article is sarcastic. Do you have a problem with that?

Monday, February 19, 2007

Read This

While you still can.

Zenobia: A Book Review

I have just finished reading The Chronicle of Zenobia: The Rebel Queen, by Judith Weingarten. First, a revelation: I know that Ms. Weingarten reads this blog sometimes, and she had the book sent to me for review, but I never got it so I bought a copy instead. Where does this leave me? Heh. You figure it out.

Judith Weingarten is an archeologist and an expert in depicting the place (Palmyra) and the time (269-272 AD) of Zenobia, and if you like historical novels in general you will like this one. The book (first in a planned trilogy, I think) made it easy for me to step into the world of Simon, a teacher and friend of the young Zenobia. Simon is the narrator in most of the book. Other reviews I've read say that the depiction is historically correct. It feels like reality, and that is a nice thing in a book. Perhaps the reason for the very real atmosphere of the book is in this quote by Weingarten:

It was at Palmyra in Syria that I began to tell the story of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, and the rebellion that she led against imperial Rome. I was living within the grounds of the Temple of Bel, and at night, when the great gates of the temple were shut, I came closer to the spirit of the time and place than probably anyone has ever done before. I know that I felt very close to Zenobia, which made the book a joy for me to write.

Why would Zenobia's story be of interest to a present-day reader? There are at least three good reasons, in addition to the intrinsic interest of tales like this (and yes, there is sex, too), and I started thinking about them even before I finished the book. First, the book describes the beginning of what is often described as the fall of the Roman empire, a time when the Persian forces became a major threat to the Eastern parts of the empire, a time when the Roman ability to defend Zenobia's homeland was waning. The cracks are showing in the physical and the intellectual ramparts of the Roman empire, and Zenobia sees those cracks and acts.

Compare all this with the time we are living in today. I doubt it is ever easy for contemporaries to see historical changes happening, but clearly we have stepped into a new and different era of politics and warfare. Old empires, whether real or ideological, are crumbling, and it is not at all clear what will take their place. Reading about that time and place reminded me about this time and place.

A second similarity between Zenobia's time and ours, and a second good reason to read the book, is in the importance of understanding and coping with different religions. The book looks at this through the eyes of a Jewish interpreter, for Simon belongs to the Jewish diaspora in Palmyra. But Christianity, a new and troublesome cult, has entered the picture, too, though the old local and Roman gods still rule strongest. Zenobia herself worships Allat, a goddess about whom I've read elsewhere as a possible precursor of Allah.

How to cope with the many different religions? The responses Simon describes us vary from benign tolerance to being burnt on the stake, and the political reasons for these responses are made clear to us.

The third good reason for the book is in that rare story of a woman rising up in a male-dominated society and becoming a ruler. How on earth did Zenobia ever manage to come into power in a society where women were not expected to leave the women's quarters very much? Was she truly so exceptional? What made her exceptional? How did she manage to gather the power she later wielded? Why did the men around her follow her?

Weingarten tells us one story about all this, but I can imagine other explanations. It's all interesting, though.

I do have one complaint about the book: its title. This first book in the series is mostly about Simon, not about Zenobia, and the book ends before the real reign of Zenobia, the queen, has started. I eagerly await the second installment, to learn more about Zenobia. But the book might have been given a better title.

Pre-Pregnancy, Again

An interesting post on Eschaton asks the following question:

Picking up on something from the comments, I'm curious if the medical establishment's obsessive concern with potential fetuses is a relatively new thing or not. I gather that when obtaining just about any prescription or medical treatment which could impact fetal health in any tiny way, women have to convince doctors that not only are they not pregnant, but that they couldn't possibly be. This of course requires having abstained or abstaining from intercourse for a nontrivial amount of time.

Ladies, is this new? be clear, I'm not talking about inquiring about whether it's been a bit long since your last period or other evidence that you genuinely "might be" pregnant, I'm talking about a somewhat lower standard here, that you "could be."

In any case, this is not really what the "pre-pregnancy" concept for women refers to. Women have always been asked questions about whether they are pregnant before dental x-rays or before getting prescribed certain medications. No, the new "pre-pregnancy" is something much longer term, like from twelve to fifty years of age for women, pretty much whether the woman ever plans to get pregnant or not. This is the walking-womb version, in my mind.

Here is how it came about: In the late 1980's or early 1990's a report about birth defects came out. It reviewed available evidence on any that were known to be preventable, and most of these focused on what the woman should do. Not the pregnant woman, but the woman before pregnancy, because certain birth defects happen very early in pregnancy. The recommendation for increasing folic acid consumption came from this study as lack of folic acid has been shown to be a cause of birth defects.

Now, I had a little trouble with the part of the report which said that it is actually impossible to get sufficient amounts of folic acid from just food so that women should take supplements, because this sounds very odd to me. As if the birth defects are "natural" in some ways, or as if the research might have been wrong.

But that wasn't what angered me about this early report. It was the part where the writers argued that as roughly one half of all pregnancies are unplanned, the prevention of birth defects requires that we must treat all women as potentially pregnant. They might be, given that unplanned bit. The only safe thing is to make all women between menarche and menopause take folic acid supplements and whatever else the medical establishment decides might prevent birth defects. ALL WOMEN. Nuns, those with hysterectomies and so on. All women.

Not perhaps such an unprecedented conclusion if your objective is to reduce birth defects. It's very much like saying that if my objective was to reduce rapes a good way of doing that would be to put all men under house-arrest. It would work. And we can't tell, FROM OUTSIDE, which men might be rapists, so why not just lock them all up. And yes, I know that this is an extreme comparison, but it brings out the fact that the recommendations for women put zero value on what she might want to do with her life, and the rape example shows why such a recommendation wouldn't be made if we put value on the other people's rights and freedoms.

I had a lot of trouble with the values that this recommendation showed, especially as it might turn out one day that what is good for the potential pregnancy some day in a woman's future might be bad for her health right now and then a similar rule might be applied. Hence the walking wombs fears.

This was over ten years ago. The newest version has dressed the very same recommendations in empowering clothes. Now the health care for women is supposed to have pre-pregnancy care as a routine part, because it empowers the woman! Yeah. Except that I know the backstory. And except that we are likely to be in the state of pre-pregnancy or pre-conception for decades.

I'm going to get flack for this. To see what kind, I'm going to reproduce a few comments from that Eschaton thread (hope it's kosher to do)

Could part of it be a reaction to the gnarly, birth defect producing shit
the F.D.A. allows to be sold these days?

Women who are deficient in Folic Acid can cause some horrendous genetic birth defects.
Women who are deficient in Folic Acid can cause some horrendous genetic birth defects.


Jesus H. Christ people.

Not saying that at all, and Folic Acid deficiency could lead to your child being born without a brain. It's a vitamin for god sakes.

Note how women "cause" birth defects? And how it isn't too much to ask for you to take a vitamin so that no child, anywhere, will be born without a brain? But what if the next recommendation is to avoid certain jobs, just in case you might be pregnant? Or not to run for the president of the United States, what with all the stresses of that job which might harm the fetus? Where do we draw the line between fetal concerns and the rights of women to be full human beings?

Some other comments in that discussion thread also seemed interesting. First this one:

I design radiation therapy treatment plans for cancer patients and we make sure none of our patients is pregnant before they begin treatment. A whole body dose of just a few Gy is enough to kill a large adult and we routinely deliver 50-74 Gy to small treatment areas. There's not a threapist, dosimetrist (me), physicist, or doctor who is going to treat a pregnant woman. The risk of damaging/killing the fetus and/or getting sued are just too high. I supposed xrt for cancer qualifies as non-trivial and may not obtain to this discussion.

Note that a woman with cancer is not given this treatment. But there is hair loss treatment for men with dire warnings on the package, warnings, which are aimed not at him but at any woman who might happen to touch the product:

Well, what's with all the advertising for men's erectile or follicle dysfunction that warn that women should not handle said medications if "they might become pregnant"?

i dunno the chemo-stuff about pregnancy, but stuff that gets a guy's hair to grow mightn't be conducive to prenatal health...

So we might ban cancer treatment for pregnant women but allow hair growth products for men? Or this comment:

i was denied palliative pain treatment for endometriosis in the ER until they determined I wasn't pregnant. Several hours and just excruciating.

I see a difference here in how responsibility is viewed and in who gets freedoms to have better hair and who gets to have pain instead.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Bite My Scrotum

Except that I don't have one of those handy just now. But billions of people and animals do as scrotum is a fairly usual part of the male body. But not in children's books, it seems:

The word "scrotum" does not often appear in polite conversation. Or children's literature, for that matter.

Yet there it is on the first page of "The Higher Power of Lucky," by Susan Patron, this year's winner of the Newbery Medal, the most prestigious award in children's literature. The book's heroine, a scrappy 10-year-old orphan named Lucky Trimble, hears the word through a hole in a wall when another character says he saw a rattlesnake bite his dog, Roy, on the scrotum.

"Scrotum sounded to Lucky like something green that comes up when you have the flu and cough too much," the book continues. "It sounded medical and secret, but also important."

The inclusion of the word has shocked some school librarians, who have pledged to ban the book from elementary schools, and reopened the debate over what constitutes acceptable content in children's books. The controversy was first reported by Publishers Weekly, a trade magazine.

The book has been banned in some libraries, just as other books for children have been:

It is not the first time school librarians have squirmed at a book's content, of course. Some school officials have tried to ban Harry Potter books from schools, saying that they implicitly endorse witchcraft and Satanism. Young adult books by Judy Blume, though decades old, are routinely kept out of school libraries.

Ms. Nilsson, reached at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango, Colo., said she had heard from dozens of librarians who agreed with her stance. "I don't want to start an issue about censorship," she said. "But you won't find men's genitalia in quality literature."

"At least not for children," she added.

I thought it was a dog's genitalia?
Thanks to GDF for the tip.

Honeysuckle. A nonpolitical post.


Yesterday evening I was walking around my garden worrying and planning as usual, when suddenly the scent of honeysuckle slapped my face and then disappeared. All cogitation stopped, a different part of the brain flared alive and, for one second, I was the night-dancing moth the honeysuckle was pining for. Miraculous.

Being For The Troops

The article on Walter Reed hospital and its "outpatients" in today's Washington Post is necessary though sad reading. The beginning tells the rest of the tone:

Behind the door of Army Spec. Jeremy Duncan's room, part of the wall is torn and hangs in the air, weighted down with black mold. When the wounded combat engineer stands in his shower and looks up, he can see the bathtub on the floor above through a rotted hole. The entire building, constructed between the world wars, often smells like greasy carry-out. Signs of neglect are everywhere: mouse droppings, belly-up cockroaches, stained carpets, cheap mattresses.

This is the world of Building 18, not the kind of place where Duncan expected to recover when he was evacuated to Walter Reed Army Medical Center from Iraq last February with a broken neck and a shredded left ear, nearly dead from blood loss. But the old lodge, just outside the gates of the hospital and five miles up the road from the White House, has housed hundreds of maimed soldiers recuperating from injuries suffered in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I talked to some Vietnam veterans and they all argued that it has always been so, that the government has always sucked the juice and the life out of its military and then has thrown the broken ones into the garbage, that the bureaucracy has always made life almost impossible for the wounded veterans, that hope has slowly suffocated.

But the situation now looks worse to me, and this is the reason:

Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, commander at Walter Reed, said in an interview last week that a major reason outpatients stay so long, a change from the days when injured soldiers were discharged as quickly as possible, is that the Army wants to be able to hang on to as many soldiers as it can, "because this is the first time this country has fought a war for so long with an all-volunteer force since the Revolution."

Did you interpret this the same way I did: That these soldiers with no limbs or severe mental problems are held in storage so that they can be sent back to Iraq or Iran or wherever the government decides to attack next? I hope I got that wrong.

The whole article tells a story about the real answers to the question: Who cares for the military?

Boxwoods. A nonpolitical post


My boxwoods and I make a dysfunctional family. I inherited some of the box with the house; malnourished and huddled in the deep shade around the foundation they reminded me of Hans Christian Andersen's "Little Matchgirl". I wanted to, I needed to save them. Besides, the house leans west and its foundation sorely needed covering with something evergreen, and I had neither the money nor the horticultural skills to attempt other solutions.

After the first year, I grew worried about the growth rate of my little boxes. My calculations indicated that 240 years would pass before the foundation would be covered. So I bought some more boxwoods. (If you need to ask why you have no understanding of codependency.) The improvement was, of course, unnoticeable. But in the meantime I had begun my adventures in gardening literature, and fallen in love with the idea of boxwoods: their elegant formality, cheerful greenness and so on.

The books I pored over never showed box used in my manner (lined up like little pustules along a wildly slanting stone foundation), so eventually I replaced them as foundation plantings, and used them instead to frame a new brick path to the front door. (A few more plants had to be purchased for this.) The effect is startling; like two rows of little big-headed children waiting in line to be admitted through the door.

But I can't part with them. Perhaps one day I'll need thirty or so boxwoods for some project, and won't be able to find them. And nothing else I grow stays so green in the winter. And growing box makes me feel like a real (British?) gardener.

Every spring my boxwoods host beautiful chartreuse-colored new leaves and the box psyllid; the latter a small insect which turns the leaves into little yellow spoons. As I refuse to use strong insecticides, and as the psyllids seem not to mind soap-and-oil baths, my boxwoods have yellow spoons for leaves until late summer when they usually manage to grow a small harvest of green ones.

My box, buxus sempervirens, is of marginal cold hardiness in our area, and part of me hopes that a severe winter takes care of my boxwood problems. The alternative is to go on with the status quo; however uncomfortable our current relationship, my boxwoods and I have a shared history, an emotional (and financial) investment, which we cannot simply throw away. Can we? And what would my neighbors think if I now acknowledged defeat, after so long promoting the wider front yard use of box to them?

If this sounds familiar to you, and you grow no similar plant, perhaps I might interest you in one of the twelve-step programs for codependents.