Friday, February 08, 2013

On The Reauthorization of VAWA

For some reason reading about the Republican resistance towards reauthorizing VAWA (the Violence Against Women Act) makes me think about fairy tales.  The Big Bad Wolf and Goldilocks and The Three Bears.  

I can't decide if this is one of those truly weird things specific to me where I write a serious and sad poem and then must (just must) add "duh" to it or something equally inane, or if my mind is trying to tell me something important here.  Let's assume that it is the latter and let's ask what that something might be.

The Republicans blocking VAWA consist of a group of Big Bad Wolves, including Tim Scott:

  • He helped block its renewal last year while in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Tim Scott has tried it again yesterday from his new spot in the U.S. Senate.
  • As a result, not only is the Violence Against Women Act expired, but without funding options, too, and it could take even longer to be reinstated.
  • Although a bipartisan panel of 85 senators openly supported it, Scott and seven other Republican senators blocked the 2013 edition of the bill from coming to the floor for debate, Huffington Post reports.
  • VAWA’s provisions, which include legal aid for abused females and funding of rape crisis centers, are now halted.
  • ...
  • Domestic violence is a prominent topic is Scott’s state of South Carolina, unfortunately. Over 36,000 women in the state are victims every year, according to the state Attorney General.
  • South Carolina ranks highest in homicide committed against women by men, and one of out every eight women in the state are victims of physical abuse at least once in their lifetimes.
  • The Republican senators who joined Scott in blocking VAWA from debate prior to vote were Rand Paul (Ky.), Pat Roberts (Kan.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mike Lee (Utah), James Risch (Idaho), Mike Johanns (Neb.) and Ted Cruz (Texas).

Is calling these men the  Big Bad Wolves unfair?  Perhaps.  But I think the link in my brain comes from the Little Red Riding-Hood who was sent out into the woods all alone,  even though her parents knew that a wolf was roaming about.  Yet it was a little girl they sent, with food and drink, to take care of the aged grandmother.

In modern terms that looks like child endangerment.  How it fits into this story is perhaps the idea that the traditional roles of women are not completely different from the role of the little Red Riding-Hood.  They are based on the view that one doesn't wash the family's dirty linen in public, that intimate partner abuse is almost a private thing and not something the society should try to change.  They are based on the view that the family is a private sphere where the law is in the hands of the head of the family.  If there's a wolf in the family, well, that's the family's business.

And yes, I know that the explicit criticisms of VAWA from those conservatives are about something different.   Hence the second fairy tale in my head, the one about  Goldilock and the three bears.    That story is all about looking and looking to find something exactly right.  There's also another  big bad wolf story having to do with pigs which conveys a related message.

In a similar vein, the conservatives are looking and looking and finding the VAWA wrong.  If it's not one thing (LGBT or Native American women shouldn't be covered)  it's something else.  For instance, one must prove that VAWA has reduced domestic violence.  Otherwise it cannot be reauthorized.  But we don't use that yardstick in determining if other laws about crime should be upheld or not.

My personal opinion is that the name of the law was probably a mistake, because VAWA covers particular kinds of crimes (domestic violence, sexual assaults, dating violence and stalking) which in the past did not get the societal attention they deserved and which also happen to affect more women than men.  Thus, it's not about all violence that women might be victimized by,  and men, too, can benefit from VAWA if they suffer from the consequences of the type of violence VAWA describes.

But the law itself is needed.  Consider this:

  • Native American women living on Indian reservations are highly susceptible to violence by non-Native men because tribal courts lack jurisdiction over them, even when these crimes are committed on tribal lands. Today, federal and state law enforcement has jurisdiction over domestic violence committed on the reservation, but they often lack the means or incentive to pursue such cases, and state's attorneys repeatedly decline to take legal action. This means that under our current system, non-Native men who prey upon Native women are pretty much immune from prosecution.
 That should be unacceptable.

Clearly, The Women Should Have Been Armed!

Another installment in the American gun news:

An attorney representing two women who were delivering newspapers when they were shot by police during a massive manhunt for an ex-LAPD officer called the incident "unacceptable," saying his clients looked nothing like the suspect.
Emma Hernandez, 71, was delivering the Los Angeles Times with her daughter, Margie Carranza, 47, in the 19500 block of Redbeam Avenue in Torrance on Thursday morning when Los Angeles police detectives apparently mistook their pickup for that of Christopher Dorner, the 33-year-old fugitive suspected of killing three people and injuring two others.
Hernandez, who attorney Glen T. Jonas said was shot twice in the back, was in stable condition late Thursday. Carranza received stitches on her finger.
PHOTOS: Manhunt for ex-LAPD officer
"The problem with the situation is it looked like the police had the goal of administering street justice and in so doing, didn't take the time to notice that these two older, small Latina women don't look like a large black man," Jonas said.
I get how horrible this declaration of asymmetric warfare is for the police.  But trigger-happy is not the way to go.

Getting My Cross-Country Skis Ready...

Small snow flurries are being promised here.  Or the snowmageddon as some call it.   It won't probably look as impressive as the picture below (courtesy of VA) which is from northern Lapland some years ago.  But if this blog goes silent for a while it's most likely because of power cuts.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

On False Positives in Mammograms

A study about mammograms for older women has some pretty shocking findings:

The experts gathered and analyzed data from 1996 to 2006 on 2,993 older females with breast cancer and 137,949 females without breast cancer.

The data, taken from five Breast Cancer Surveillance Consortium (BCSC) mammography registries in Vermont, Washington, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and California, is "the largest available screening mammography data set in the United States," Braithwaite said.

There were no differences seen in late-stage breast cancer rates between the subjects who received a mammogram annually and those screened biennially.

On the other hand, the scientists discovered that 48% of women between 66 and 74 years old who received annual screening had false positive results, while only 29% of females in the same age group who received screening every other year had false positives.
It  is that false positive rate* which is shocking.  What the study seems to be saying (haven't looked at the original) is that roughly every other woman in that age group who had a mammogram every year had a false positive finding during that ten-year-period.

Now that's not a very good test.  A false positive finding means that the test indicated a possible cancer which then later diagnoses showed was not the case.   To have that happen to half of all women screened annually means not only unnecessary anxiety but also pretty high costs in terms of those extra diagnoses which are needed, and it may be the case that some of those have a potential for negative health consequences, too.

What this suggests to me is an urgent need to develop better tests.
*Because few tests are perfect, the results can fall into four categories.  The ones we want are the true positive findings and the true negative findings.  True positives are the cases where someone has the disease that is screened for and the test tells us so.  True negatives are the cases where someone does not have the disease that is screened for and the test tells us so.

The undesirable outcomes are false negatives and false positives.  False negatives are probably more serious than false positives, because they mean that someone has the disease but the test fails to pick it up.  False positives mean that the screened person does not have the disease but the test indicates that she or he does have it.  False positives result in further medical care which would not be carried out if we knew the true value.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Wrecked Beauty

These pictures* about nature overtaking abandoned buildings, tunnels and so on are achingly beautiful.

Why?  I'm not sure but there's something about the lack of perfection that becomes perfection, something about them being a snapshot of life passing and ending, something about the extreme power of life in the way nature takes over, survives, even feeds on what humans once built, without any of it being violent or aggressive.

Nature, the final architect?  But this is a collaboration, a piece for two violins, a creation of a new masterpiece from an old masterpiece.  Just look at the added shades and nuances and how very right nature's additions are.

If I wanted to get a bit morbid here I'd point out that our lives are a bit like those pictures, with the nostalgia of the past, the continuous change, the understanding that we, too, shall end up back in the lap of the Mother, part of nature.  But in the meantime, what glory!
*Link courtesy of Gromit

Cantor Courts Girls!

That would be Eric Cantor, House Majority Leader (R-Va).  I started chuckling when reading through his recent speech to the American Enterprise Institute (which is like Santa's workshop for the capitalists).   The speech, always excepting the policy bits which are opposite, sounds like one of Obama's when his staff has harried him to talk more about women.  There's even stuff about women in the labor force which is not judgmental!  Mentioning daycare without droning on about its evils!  Cantor getting in touch with his feminine side!

And of course the Republican Party should put its open misogyny on a back-burner (like polite people do), and of course I'm glad to see Cantor try to do just that, because it's not terribly good for the party to be remembered partly as the party which worries about rapists' fatherhood rights.

Now that was mean of me.  But let's dig a little deeper into what Cantor's conversion to feminism might be all about:

In response to accusations that he is to blame for stalling the reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) continued his efforts on Wednesday to soften his and the Republican party's reputation with women.
"You know, I as a gentleman care very deeply about women in the abuse situation, that we need to get them the relief that this bill offers," Cantor said on the House floor in response to a question from Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) about the status of VAWA. "That's what we want to do, that's our priority, we must move and act on this bill."
Words are cheap.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

On Higher Education As A Bad Investment

Paul Campos wrote a column about the problems of the US college system and in particular the student loans.  It may be the case that college is not such a good investment, after all:

The American system of higher education is increasingly becoming a fiscal disaster for ever-larger numbers of students who move through it.  That disaster is being caused by a combination of terrible incentives, institutional greed — and the pervasive myth that more education is the cure for economic inequality.
The extent of this myth is highlighted by a new report from the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, which indicates that nearly half of all employed college graduates have jobs that require less than a four-year college education.
Far from being “priceless,” as the promoters of ever-more spending on higher education would have Americans believe, both undergraduate and post-graduate education is turning out to be a catastrophic investment for many young and not-so-young adults.

The problems Campos refers to are really several in a complicated knot, beginning with the question whether the United States produces too many college students in the first place (compared to what other countries do), whether a college education should be regarded as a general money-making investment in professional skills, whether the way college education is funded is correct in this country and then the question of the role of higher education in that global rat-race for a job which pays enough to live on.

To talk about all of those requires a book or two, and even then room for debate would remain.
Not that Campos intended such a general discussion; those are my thoughts.  What he does is give us an example from law schools.

Law and medicine and a few other fields are actually not the best examples here, because they truly are occupational training.  A general university degree is not.  But that simplifies the problem in a few ways because we can set aside the question of general citizen benefits of education and the benefits which come to the whole society and so on and pretty much concentrate on the financial and career benefits from a law school degree.

These, Campos argues, may not justify the loans most students must take.  Or, rather, he argues that the loans shouldn't be given on such lenient grounds, given the poor state of the law labor markets:

In recent years, law school has become the most striking example of this remarkably perverse system. Consider how American legal education is funded:
    •    Law schools calculate a total annual cost of attendance, based on their tuition and the cost of living in the area where the school is located. For example, American University’s law school estimates this year’s cost of attendance as $70,204.
    •    Any student a law school chooses to admit can, assuming he or she is not currently in default on an educational loan, borrow 100 percent of the cost of attendance for that particular school from the federal government, in the form of educational loans that currently carry interest rates of 6.8 percent and 7.9 percent.
    •    The federal government puts no limits on how much money a school can make its students eligible to borrow, nor does it make any effort to determine whether the federal loans students are taking out have any reasonable prospect of being paid back.
    •    Interest begins to accrue on these loans as soon as they are disbursed. This means that a student who enrolled, for example, in American University last fall will have — assuming a 3.5 percent annual increase in the cost of attendance — approximately $260,000 in debt when the student’s first loan payment comes due, six months after graduation.  The student will owe monthly payments of more than $3,000 on the standard 10-year repayment plan, and nearly $2,000 on an extended 25-year repayment schedule.

Hmm.  I haven't had enough time to think through the alternatives and I'm not sure what the alternatives are that Campos would propose, if any.  Should law schools be more strictly regulated so that they don't take advantage of the students?  Should  student loans be given on the basis of the odds that a particular student will get a good job? 

But that would bring back all sorts of stuff we don't really want back, such as the importance of old-boy-networks and family connections in getting a job, and it would most likely involve geographic discrimination, too.  Or should we stop subsidizing higher education in law?  Or what?  Maybe there should be better predictions about how many law jobs are going to be available and then limits on how many students schools can take so that the two match better?

From the law student's point of view the problem is in the mismatch between the high costs of training and the likely future earnings:

Starting pay is down for 2010 law graduates, and the drop is greatest for law firm jobs.
Median starting pay dropped by nearly 13 percent for all jobs and by 20 percent for law firm positions, according to NALP, which calls itself the association for legal professionals.
The national median for 2010 law grads working full time and reporting a salary was $63,000, compared to $72,000 for the class of 2009, NALP says in a press release. The national median salary at law firms was $104,000, compared to $130,000 the previous year.
The drop in law firm pay largely reflects a shift in jobs to smaller firms, rather than a drop in salaries paid by individual employers. Fifty-three percent of the class of 2010 who obtained law firm jobs went to firms of 50 or fewer attorneys, compared to 46 percent the previous year. Only 26 percent went to firms of more than 250 lawyers, compared to 33 percent the previous year.
The drop in overall pay is also spurred by the erosion of jobs in private practice. About 51 percent of the graduates from the class of 2010 who found jobs were employed by private law firms, compared to about 56 percent of the class of 2009.
NALP executive director James Leipold says in the press release that aggregate starting salaries fell because more 2010 law grads found jobs with the smallest law firms. “This downward shift in starting salaries is not, for the most part, because individual legal employers were paying new graduates less than they paid them in the past,” Leipold said.
The press release cautions that few salaries are actually at the national median of $63,000 or the national average of $84,111. Many salaries cluster at the $40,000 to $65,000 range at the lower end and at the $145,000 to $160,000 range at the high end. The mean and median also skew high because NALP collects more salary information from large than small law firms. When the statistics are adjusted to place greater weight on small firm salaries, national average pay is $77,333 for all full-time jobs.

In fact, the law jobs have shown that clustering into two ranges for several decades now.  One cluster centers on a fairly low level (for a jobs which requires a graduate degree) and applies to small-town lawyers, the other cluster centers on a fairly high level and applies to lawyers in large firms.  So a student trying to figure out whether the investment in law school will pay off should determine which cluster is most likely for her or him.

There's much more to the value of an education than simply the money it provides, of course.  But the money it provides is important because those loans must be paid back and future children must be fed and so on.

I've read a lot about the high loans of medical students and how those affect the desire to enter medical school or the desire to set up an independent business.  But data on starting salaries in medicine demonstrates a totally different reality.  It will not take terribly long to pay those loans back in medicine, compared to the time it will take in law.

What's interesting about these problems is that they might be different for women and men.  This is because the net return from an investment in higher education of some particular type must be compared with what's-the-alternative-pay, and that alternative pay is higher for men than for women.  Thus, to some extent a deal which looks bad for the average man considering higher education might look better for the average woman considering higher education, simply because her alternatives are worse.

As I mentioned above, this particular dilemma has many, many tentacles, and I only shook hands with one.  There's the question of what the value of lawyers to the society might be, too, and the question whether the privately-determined number of lawyers is the correct one from a societal point of view.  A fair legal system depends on everybody having access to a proper and informed defense.  A purely free-market system of producing lawyers most likely produces only enough for the upper and middle classes who can afford to pay for the services out-of-pocket.

Do Not Be Afraid Of Life. Echidne's Poetry Hour.

A musical adaptation of Kaarlo Sarkia's poem:

A rough translation of the lyrics (by me and without the rhyme):

Do not be afraid of life
Do not deny its beauty.
Welcome it into your house
or if you're homeless,
meet it on the road,
do not turn your back to it.

Death will not slam its door in your face.
Like a bird, fly,
do not evict the present while hiding
among the ruins of the past.
Leave behind what has passed,
leave the dead in their graves,
endeavor to meet the future.
Be free, unchained, like the wind:
The gates of death stand always open.

Never say:
"This is mine, for ever."
Get drunk from the chalice of life,
but when needed, give it up without pain.
The riches of the world are yours
when you ask to own nothing.
Live fearlessly, staking all on this one card:
You always see the open gates of death.

The link above describes Sarkia as the poet of despair and that is true.  But I always found this poem to be optimistic in a sense which appeals to us true pessimists.  What's the hurry, really, it says.  This is a game in which you can only win, it says,  because of the way the stakes are set and the odds calculated by the House. -- I think of this poem as the card that's up your sleeve when you've played all the others and lost.

Monday, February 04, 2013

In Today's Gun News

The case of Chris Kyle has caught most attention recently.  Kyle was touted as the greatest sniper who ever lived but now he is dead, along with Chad Littlefield:

But on Saturday, far from a war zone, Mr. Routh turned on Mr. Kyle, 38, and a second man, Chad Littlefield, 35, shortly after they arrived at an exclusive shooting range near Glen Rose, Tex., about 50 miles southwest of Fort Worth, law enforcement authorities said Sunday. The officials said that for reasons that were still unclear, Mr. Routh shot and killed both men with a semiautomatic handgun before fleeing in a pickup truck belonging to Mr. Kyle.
“Chad and Chris had taken a veteran out to shoot to try to help him,” said Travis Cox, a friend of Mr. Kyle’s. “And they were killed.”

News sources differ on whether Mr. Routh (the killer) suffered from PTSD or not, but if he did, taking him to a shooting range seems to me to be the way to get him to implode or explode.  Perhaps there is a role for such exercises in the treatment of PTSD but they should be carried out by trained therapists.*

This is all quite sad.  Several stories discuss Mr.  Kyle's sniper past, with a whiff of sports-type interest in his accuracy as a killer:

Kyle modestly acknowledged to the Time interviewer that he was "decent" at killing.
"The first time killing someone, you're not even sure you can do it," he said. "You think you can, but you never know until you actually are put in that position and you do it. ... And then, you're worried when you get home, are the politicians going to hang you out to dry and put you on trial for murder?"
Did he regret any of his 160 kills? "No, not at all," he told Time.

A heroic reading?  Then, of course, he was shot himself, perhaps by someone who didn't even have to be very good at it.

None of that is meant to be a deep analysis of the case.

An interesting website lets you find out the rank of all the US states in the number of gun deaths.  The correlation between politics and those gun death figures is obvious:  The states with the highest firearms death figures are more likely to vote Republican, the states with the lowest firearm death figures are more likely to vote Democratic, on average.  What it means is a lot less obvious, because various cause-and-effects chains are running all across the place and getting as tangled as my thing gold necklace does, just sitting in a box.
*Perhaps I shouldn't have said that.  But laypeople usually don't try to do surgery on other people to help them, and PTSD can be a very serious condition which should be treated by experts who are trained in the specific type of PTSD.

Gender Differences. In Swearing! Girls Must Be Queens of Peace!

This is a fascinating story about how some gender differences probably came about:  Women and girls were not allowed to do certain things at all.  Then it became customary that they didn't do those things and then we get an evo-psycho story about how the differences improved the changes their genes got passed on in the prehistory.

Partly kidding, but as I'm reading so much evolutionary psychology recently I note that they would not pay attention to any alternative explanations for gender differences such as this one, at Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington, New Jersey:

Female students at a Catholic high school in northern New Jersey have taken a “no-cursing” pledge at the request of school administrators, though some question why no such demand was made of male students.
  Lori Flynn, a teacher who organized the campaign at Queen of Peace High School in North Arlington, told The Record of Woodland Park there is no double-standard. She says that while males weren't asked to take the vow, they have been asked not to swear when girls are near.
Flynn says school officials want “ladies to act like ladies.” And Brother Larry Lavallee, the school's principal, says girls have the foulest language.

Another story suggests that the girls at Queen of Peace do not have the foulest language:

Flynn told that for the month of February, girls at the school were asked to try not to curse. While their language wasn't a serious problem, she said there were plenty of instances of "subtle swearing."

Two things make this story fascinating:  First, that only girls are asked not to swear, and, second, when there were questions about this the boys were asked not to swear when girls are near.

Thus, the requests are asymmetrical.  Girls are not expected to swear at all, boys are expected not to swear near girls.  That's the traditional rule, by the way.  Men have always been allowed to swear but not in front of the "ladies", and "ladies" (upper class women, usually) were not expected to swear at all.  If they did, they became something less than "ladies."

Delicious stuff, and I want to dig into the deep underbelly of all this.  My guess is that the ban on male swearing in front of the "ladies" is because so much of the traditional male swearing is misogynistic, about cunts and such.  It can be awkward to do that right next to a possessor of the said cunt, without, well, coming out as a misogynist.  So keeping all that to the locker-rooms and other men-only-places seems advised, albeit sly and deceitful.

But is this all that is going on here?  I doubt it.  I think the school is trying to create or maintain a sex difference in speech more generally.  And somewhere in the deep background is the idea that the duty of women is to civilize men.  How can women who swear civilize men?

I don't find excessive swearing a useful communication skill.  The more someone swears, the less the swearing counts because it becomes diluted and customary for that person.  I keep mine as a weapon which is used only rarely, because that way it is more powerful.  But to tell me that I cannot have this weapon at all, just because I don't have the carrot-and-two-peas?   The school can shove it.

Finally, I wondered if this asymmetric request might also have something to do with the fact that the American swearing IS pretty misogynistic.  I hear "bitch", "slut" and "whore" quite a bit, and "cunt" is very, very common.  When girls and women use that same language, given that it is the language of swearing, they come across as self-hating, though obviously completely unaware of it.

Nah.  I'm pretty sure that a Catholic school is not much concerned with women's self-hatred.  And if they were, attacking the swearing in general and pointing out how it is about women's bodies etc. would do more good than telling girls not to swear.