Friday, March 22, 2019

Short Posts on Women's Issues, March 22, 2019

1.  The first woman has won the coveted Abel prize in mathematics:

Karen Keskulla Uhlenbeck, a mathematician and professor at the University of Texas, has become the first woman in history to receive the Abel Prize, one of the most prestigious mathematics awards in the world.
The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters announced that Uhlenbeck was the award’s newest recipient on Tuesday.
I report on it, despite how I know the MRAs interpret any advances in gender equality (as encroachments to areas they deem as rightly theirs), because the harmful stereotype of women not being able to do well in mathematics is still very much alive in most cultures.  So it's worthwhile to report on the various "firsts."

Thursday, March 21, 2019

The Family Values Boyz: Trump and Bolsonaro

Jair Bolsonaro is the Trump Of The Tropics, an openly misogynist and racist guy who is also the current president of Brazil.  Given that, it was such fun to see the two of them together in the Rose Garden:

But what was perhaps most jarring about Bolsonaro and Trump’s meeting was how closely their worldviews seemed to align. This came across most clearly when Bolsonaro vowed that the US would stand against “fake news.”
“Brazil and the United States stand side by side in their efforts to ensure liberties and respect to traditional family lifestyles, respect to God our creator, and stand against gender ideologies and politically incorrect attitudes and against fake news,” Bolsonaro said Tuesday, through a translator.
His statement, made alongside the US president, was striking, and a direct example of how he ran his campaign and his presidency so far. Bolsonaro and the cabinet he appointed often promote so-called traditional values, and Bolsonaro consistently attacks “gender ideology” — a kind of catchall that refers to LGBTQ rights, feminism, and leftist ideals that he sees as undermining the social order.
Bolsonaro also flings the term “fake news” at his critics, including those in media. He stirs fears over “gender ideology” and berates “fake news” to rally his base and distract from scandals in his administration and his increasingly unpopular agenda; in February, his approval rating fell to about 39 percent.
None of what Bolsonaro said about “gender ideology” received endorsement from Trump — but neither did it get any pushback.

So for Bolsonaro "gender ideologies" is anything that would stop heterosexual men from ruling the roost alone.  In fact, Bolsonaro's use of "gender ideologies" covers even worse shit than that, for in the past he has been openly misogynist.*

The bit about respecting traditional family lifestyles is utterly ludicrous:

We saw two men standing in the Rose Garden, each purporting to defend "family values," each on their third wife, each of those wives younger than the previous one, as if wives were cars to be traded in for a more recent model whenever they look a little bit scuffed.  And I'm pretty sure that neither Trump nor Bolsonaro had much to do with the care of their own children.


* From Wikipedia:

In a public speech in April 2017, Bolsonaro said that he had five children, that the first four were male and that for the fifth he produced a daughter out of "a moment of weakness"


Journalist Glenn Greenwald called Bolsonaro "the most misogynistic, hateful elected official in the democratic world".[124] wondered whether Bolsonaro was "the world's most repulsive politician".[121] British news magazine The Economist referred to him as a "radical", "religious nationalist", a "right-wing demagogue", and "apologist of dictators".[125]

Note that it doesn't matter if Bolsonaro's statement about his daughter is a joke.  For it to be a joke, the basis must lie in the implicit assumption that daughters are inferior to sons.  That's what the laughter would be about:  a strongman conceived something inferior.


Wednesday, March 20, 2019

News From The Weird-World. Or The New Political Reality.

Our Supreme Leader is waging a Twitter war against a dead man:

Last weekend, Trump attacked the late senator in several tweets that targeted McCain's ties to the controversial Russia dossier and his vote against repealing Obamacare. He also referred to McCain as being "last in his class" at the US Naval Academy.
On Tuesday, he continued his criticism of McCain, telling reporters at the White House that "I was never a fan of John McCain and I never will be."

If Trump wasn't the leader of what used to be called the free world* before he ran it to ground, this would be the funniest thing since American cheese was invented.

And forty-five percent of registered voters approve the way Trump carries out his job!**  That would be hilarious, too, if we could watch this comedy from another planet.

All humor aside, fighting to get Trump out must be our first priority, if we wish to save democracy and some scraps of the environment.

*  Whether it was free or not, at least its leaders used to pay lip service to human rights and pushed a little in that direction.  Now our Supreme Leader pushes in the opposite direction and adores dictators.  The new trend toward "strongmen" in this world does not bode well for democracy or for human rights, and Trump is the prime example of that trend.
**  Because almost all the political shit is tribal, these days.  It's as if people are saying "Trump is an asshole, but he is our asshole."

And, sadly, I see that tribalism rearing its ugly head among the Democrats, too, where the primary fights will solidify those nasty tribal borders.  If we don't earnestly try to be less tribal, Trump will win again, because his tribe consists of almost all the Republicans, while the lefty tribes a multitude. 

Monday, March 18, 2019

How To Confuse With A Poll

The new USAA poll finds that

Amid signs that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference may be near its conclusion, a new USA TODAY/Suffolk University Poll finds that trust in Mueller has eroded and half of Americans agree with President Donald Trump's contention that he has been the victim of a "witch hunt."
 Bolds are mine.

Here is the actual question that tells us half of Americans agree with Trump's contention that he has been the victim of a "witch hunt":

Table Q20 Page 1520. President Trump has called the Special Counsel ́s investigation a “witch hunt”and said he ́s been subjected to more investigations than previous presidents because of politics. Do you agree?

Bolds are mine.

Now that question, my friends, is an example of how NOT to frame polling questions.

It is, in one sense, asking agreement or disagreement with  two Trump assertions, the two separated by the word "and."

Suppose you want to answer "no" to the first question and "yes" to the second question.  Well, you can't!  You have to agree or disagree with the whole quote.

But the second question, asking if Trump has been subjected more investigations than previous presidents, clearly has a big part which is true.  He has been investigated more than previous presidents.

Whether someone thinks the reason is in his politics or in the fact that he is a rather corrupt man or both, it's still true that there have been many investigations.

It's not correct to conclude from those answers that half of Americans agree with the first part of Trump's statement, the one about a witch hunt.  The respondents may have chosen agreement to the whole question because there is a truthful bit in the second part.

In sum, that question was formulated very poorly.  It should have been split into two separate questions. 

Born To Be In It, Says Beto O'Rourke. Would That Work For Female Politicians?

Beto O'Rourke has thrown his hat in the Democratic presidential primary ring.  He is a charismatic guy, with the looks of a young Kennedy and the fame of having had almost not lost to the conservative ringwraith Ted Cruz in last year's senate race in Texas.  That's like succeeding in almost baptizing the devil in Hell, I assume.

I have nothing against most of O'Rourke's policies (the ones I know about) so my comments here apply only to what he has chosen to reveal about himself in this presidential race.

Take the Vanity Fair cover he has already scored!  Here it is:

It has everything!  A good-looking guy looking relaxed in jeans, next to a Labrador and a pickup truck.  What's not to like**?   Here's just your "ordinary working class truck-driving guy with his dog", possibly listening to Country&Western music.  Or that's how I would decode the symbolism of the cover.

But the text next to the picture begins to open that Pandora's box I am interested in when I slice and dice gender and sex.

The text says:

Beto's choice.  "I want to be in it.  Man, I'm just born to be in it."  

The "it" in that quote is the campaign for the president of the United States in 2020.

And why not?  I, for instance, strongly feel that I was born to be a goddess.

But saying "I'm just born to be in it" really wouldn't work for female candidates.  I read a thousand online comments about how entitled Hillary Clinton was, how it was "her turn" now and so on.

Many people find women who express personal ambition unlikable.   Being unlikable is worse for female politicians than male politicians, because we expect (in almost all cultures) women to be more likable than men and therefore punish them more severely when they are not.

Then there is Beto's joke about his wife taking care of their three children, sometimes with his help.  He apologized for the joke later** and I don't think it was that terrible a joke.  It would have been perfectly funny in 1956.

Still, I wonder if the situation could successfully be reversed.  Could a female politician go on a campaign trail and joke about her husband taking care of their three children, sometimes with her help, without having her political chances seriously damaged?

I doubt that very much.

Finally, O'Rourke left an online trace of juvenile comments for which he has also strongly apologized.  Those included a few pretty sexist and misogynist comments:

In one text file that was dated to 1989, when O’Rourke was 16 or 17, “Psychedelic Warlord” described a “new creature: THE ULTRA TRENDY.” In an over-the-top sarcastic tone, Psychedelic Warlord declared these “ultra trendies” to be “a cancer that might cause the death of each and every scene across the nation.” Psychedelic Warlord went on to say that many of these “ultra trendies” are female “sluts.”
“ULTRA TRENDIES are usually the ‘scene sluts’ that many of the menfolk admire so. They show up, get drunk with the band, and tell the lead singer, ‘I really like your music. I think it’s a lot like the Sex Pistols. Sooo… you wanna fuck?’” Psychedelic Warlord wrote.
The writer went on to accuse these women of “only” liking the Sex Pistols and the group’s frontman, Sid Vicious, and suggested this affinity led them to enter into abusive relationships.
“ULTRA TRENDY females hook-up with violent boyfriends because, (yeah… you guessed it) ‘He’s so much like Sid Vicious!’” Psychedelic Warlord wrote.
After describing the characteristics of these “ultra trendies,” Psychedelic Warlord offered suggestions for how to handle these people. The ideas included encouraging interactions between the “ultra trendies” and neo-Nazis as well as mocking their appearance.
“Tell the Nazi Skins in your area that this certain ULTRA TRENDY has AIDS. … To kill an ULTRA TRENDY female, show her a picture of what she’d look like without make-up. … Tell him or her that they’re completely ugly,” Psychedelic Warlord wrote.

Now try to do a reversal on that!  I can't even imagine a female politician having anything of that sort in her past, but who knows.  I'm sure, however, that she would not be forgiven for something similar.

None of the above is aimed at O'Rourke, specifically.  Indeed, he has acted beautifully in not belittling his Democratic opponents, and I like the way he is good at thinking on his feet.

But it does point out that the rules, they are different, when it comes to women and men in politics.  The tightrope politicians work when trying to garner public approval is narrower and more frayed for women (and even more so African-American women),  and even the safety net below the female tightrope walkers is full of holes.

That's why women who commit political blunders might not be lifted up again.


*  Remember John Edwards?  He was once, too, photographed in jeans and next to a pickup truck.  That didn't ultimately work for him.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

On The Christchurch, NZ, Terrorist Massacre

I have little of any use to say about it.  I wish peace, if at all possible,  to those who lost loved ones and I wish those who were wounded a speedy return to full health, if possible.

Many terrorist attacks strike at innocent people (people who have nothing to do with any real or imaginary grievances the terrorists have) in places which are supposed to be safe, joyous and peaceful. 

Hence the choice of mosques in this case and houses of worship more generally.  Although those places are also selected so as to maximize the likelihood that the victims will belong to the loathed group alone, the choice also serves to maximize the effect of terror:  Nowhere is safe, the terrorists want all of us non-terrorists to think.

They also want to divide us into thought camps, based on the terrorists' own definitions.  That we must NOT do.  It's the extreme fringes which wage these terrorist wars against each other and, of course, mostly against the rest of us.  We must refuse to participate on either side in their private wars.

Politicians, clerics and media talking heads must take some responsibility when they sow seeds of genocidal hatred on purpose.  We must remember how the radio sowed such seeds in the Rwandan genocide. 

And we must find some way of getting a grip on the online radicalization of what looks to be mainly young men with extremist tendencies, with much more emphasis on not only Islamic radicalization but also the radicalization of white men inside the new white supremacy and ethno-nationalist movements.

All that is weak tea.  My heart is heavy today.


Rodrigo Duterte on Putas And Crazy Women. Or The Upside-Down World Of Right-Wing Autocrats.

Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, is a silver-tongued song-lark who hates women with a hatred stronger than a thousand suns.  That's why I don't quite get how he can be the president of a country where half the citizens are female.

Duh.  Of course I get how he can be the president:  Deep, deep inside our hind brains we, including women,  are ultimately not that bothered by how women are viewed.  We are used to that.  We drink it in from the culture from almost our first breath.

But Rodrigo doesn't have to dig in his hind brain for nasty slurs about women.  They are right on the tip of that silver tongue:

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte addressed female police officers and military staff at an event intended to celebrate them earlier this week as “puta,” which translates to “bitch” in English.
While delivering remarks at an event that was meant to honor the Southeast Asian country’s Outstanding Women in Law Enforcement and National Security on Monday, Duterte addressed the overwhelmingly female audience using the profane remark, The Guardian reports. 
He also addressed them as “you crazy women” and lamented women who he said deprive him “of my freedom of expression,” according to the international news agency. 
Duterte also reportedly told the crowd at one point, “I love women.”
“That’s why you see I have two wives. That means I like women,” he continued.*

Does any of that sound familiar to you?  A little Trumpish?  Or like some of the comments of Brazil's right-wing president, Jair Bolsanaro?

Hungary's president Victor Orban, Russia's president Vladimir Putin and Turkey's president Recep Tayyip Erdogan tend not to use such vulgar language when speaking about women, but they, too, are very much invested in getting women back into the kitchen and into their main business of breeding more citizens.  And so are the leaders of ISIS and right-wing white terrorist movements.

The Boyz of Patriarchy.

If you are interested in learning more on this topic, consult my earlier post and the references in it.


*  That last paragraph is a really common trick among misogynists.  They tell us that they love women roughly the same way I love spaghetti with pesto.

The message is intended to confuse us and it also gives them a little giggle at managing yet another little slur against women while pretending to give a compliment.

The real point, of course, is to remind women of their proper role in life. Rush Limbaugh did that when he said that he loves the Women's Movement, especially from behind.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Tucker Carlson On Women's Primitive Nature

If you have never heard of Tucker Carlson you are very blessed.  He is a conservative loudmouth who, over the recent years, has slipped into white nationalism and a few other foul-smelling ideologies.

But between 2006 and 2011, when our Tucker was but a mere young boy in his late thirties and early forties, he used to call in to a radio show run by a come the drums... Bubba The Love Sponge!

I love those weird micro-realities.  Don't you?  Imagine talking to Bubba The Love Sponge* an hour a week!

Anyway, in those talks Tucker Carlson took off his polite conservative mask and let his hind-brain run around nekked. You can read the transcript of his comments here, but for my purposes it's enough to say that Carlson really doesn't think women are human beings:

I mean, I love women, but they're extremely primitive, they're basic, they're not that hard to understand.
(Mmm. Bites head off a mouse, spits it into a corner, swallows the rest of the mouse.  Wipes mouse blood off the chin, burps.)

Sigh.  I wasn't going to write about Tucker-The-Fucker, to coin a term of endearment, but I saw too many people express their surprise that Tucker could actually believe in those values that he still preaches.

They though that he's just your basic scam artist who doesn't believe anything he says as long as the golden showers mean coins raining into his bank accounts.

Well, they were wrong.

* Is he all squishy?  If you poke him in the belly, does he giggle?


Monday, March 11, 2019

The Anti-Vaxxers: Irrational Or Rational?

Frank Bruni, an opinion writer at the New York Times, has a good take on what he calls the horror of anti-vaxxers, those who refuse to have their children vaccinated without having valid medical reasons for such a refusal. 

After acknowledging that we have always had the conspiracy theorists, the flat-earthers, and the holders of other nutty theories among us, Bruni views today's anti-vaxxers as an example of wider problem with the refusal to accept facts:

But there are differences now that make the cranks that much more baffling, numerous and pernicious. For starters, they fly ever more stubbornly in the face of sophisticated research and hard-earned knowledge. Beneficiaries of wisdom that prior generations lacked, they toss it away, wasting and mocking progress itself.
At the same time, in many educational circles, there’s as much talk of students’ individual truths as of the truth.

Friday, March 08, 2019

The Hallmark Cards Version of the International Women's Day

The 2019 International Women's Day is today, and it is also being slowly watered down in social media, at least in the countries I access there.  It's becoming a day to give flowers to people whose achievement is that they are women, and to thank them for carrying out their culturally ordained female gender roles*! 

Although there's nothing necessarily wrong in celebrating some demographic group for existing, I am very uncomfortable with any attempt at deifying gender and gender roles (for that way leads to more inequality)**.

I am also uncomfortable with the implicit assumption in this new celebration that all women are identical spoonfuls from the same large homogeneous soup, but also completely different from all men (who are usually not seen as being just spoonfuls from a different but also homogeneous soup bowl.)  Still, if people want to have International Days of flower-giving for all the possible various demographic groups, go for it.

But that was not the intention of the International Women's Day.  Rather, it was intended to be a day which would remind us about the oppression of women, still everyday life in many countries, which would celebrate the advances that have taken place in increasing the equality between men and women, and which would remind us about the enormous tasks still ahead.

*  Anti-feminists in the US argue that we should celebrate an International Men's Day with equal attention, that having a special day for women but not one that makes men the focus of admiration is a great unfairness.  We should have a day when we celebrate men for fulfilling their culturally decreed gender roles and when we give them flowers and thanks for that.  Or cigars and booze, I guess,  given the culturally decreed gender norms.

And if the International Women's Day becomes just a Hallmark Cards event, that's what is probably going to happen.

But the real reason for the International Women's Day, as intended,  is that in most of the world almost every other day looks a lot like an International Men's Day.  And that is not fair. 

**  This is what happens when the amorphous mass "women" are thanked for all the extra unpaid work they do while also working in the labor force, or when women are thanked for being kind and submissive and caring.  When it is done under the flag of an International Women's Day, with no plan to alter any of the problematic aspects of that division of labor, it serves to "essentialize" gender roles and norms.

Thursday, March 07, 2019

In Southern Italy, The Far-Right League Celebrates The International Women's Day...

To honor the International Women's Day, the Italian far-right league in Southern Italy has published a pamphlet with this message:

It was intended to be a dedication to women, but the pamphlet instead takes aim at those who “offend women’s dignity” by impeding their “natural role” of “supporting life and the family”.
It contains a list of six ways in which it says what it calls the natural role of women is harmed, including by “those who claim self-determination that arouses rancorous attitudes towards men” or who support laws that would allow same-sex couples to declare themselves as a child’s parents on some official forms.
The leaflet ends with a message saying that women have “a great social mission to fulfil in regards the survival of our nation”.
Members of the opposition centre-left Democratic party said the flyer “aimed to take women back to the Middle Ages”.

My translation:

The "natural" role of women is to give birth to lots of children for the new Reich, to serve as house-keepers and sexual partners,  and to obey the commands and wishes of their husbands and fathers.

This is hilarious.  The European far right's number one enemy consists of migrants and refugees, a large percentage of whom are Muslim.  One of the main arguments the far right, in general,  employs in opposing Muslim immigration is to point out the oppression of women inside Islam, especially in the teachings of petro-Islam which has become more common in European mosques because of Saudi financing.

Yet the innermost core of their own views about women is almost identical, even if in practice they would allow women a little more freedom*!

The leader of that far-right movement did try to distance himself from the pamphlet's message:

Matteo Salvini, the leader of the League and deputy prime minister, distanced himself, saying he did not support the content. “I’m working for equal dignity between men and women and between fathers and mothers,” he said.

There's that "dignity" code-word again!  The Catholic Church uses it when talking about its treatment of women.  Women should be allowed to keep their dignity!  Whatever the term might mean**, it does not mean equal opportunities for (or equal treatment of) men and women.


*I have never been able to make logical sense out of the odd political bedfellows our current era contains. 

For instance, the patriarchs of the right share many of the values of the patriarchs of the Islamic right, and that should make them into bedfellows, right?

But instead of that they fight each other.  Because only one group of men can stand on top of the power ladders and have access to all the society's resources, including the bodies of its women? 

At the same time, the left, including the feminist left,  traditionally seen as the supporters of human rights of all types,  should not be in bed with those ideologies which openly advocate fewer rights for women than men, right?

But sometimes that is exactly what happens:  When criticizing specific sexist practices would appear to give support to those who harbor and disseminate anti-Muslim bigotry, or when it could be interpreted as "white saviorism" or colonial oppression, then women's rights tend to lose.

** Play with the word a little and you will find that it can be applied when something is quite unfair. Say someone believes that no woman can do higher mathematics.  That someone could then argue that letting women even try strips them of their dignity as they would falter and fail and look ridiculous.

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

Period Troubles. And Jokes.

If you, too,  have an infantile sense of humor, you will get a kick from the title of an email I received about the short menstruation documentary which won an Oscar* this year:

Menstrual Equity's Red Carpet Moment

But even funnier is the UK Guardian story about a guy who decided to calculate how many tampons the average menstrual period would require

I laughed while reading it, and my laughter was pure.  By "pure" I simply mean that the article is incredibly hilarious to anyone who menstruates or has ever menstruated.  My laughter wasn't hollow, bitter and cynical, and it wasn't even sarcastic.

The story is just so hilarious.  The master calculations:

“So the average period is 10 to 35ml of blood, each tampon holds about 5ml, so seven tampons per cycle,” he began. “Lets be generous and say 10 for those ladies with an extra-juicy uterine lining. Nine periods a year equals 90 tampons max,” he concluded, before going on to refer to a 64-pack of tampons listed for £7.90 plus shipping on Amazon (“Buy two packs, save on shipping”).

Okay.  Let's assume that the periods last five twenty-four-hour days and that seven tampons should be used per cycle.  Let's then figure out how long each tampon should stay inside the vagina if we follow those recommendations.  That would be around seventeen hours per tampon! 

Let's then compare that time to the recommendations about how often to change tampons in order to prevent the toxic shock syndrome, a rare-but-dangerous condition that can be associated to tampon use:

How can toxic shock syndrome (TSS) be prevented?

  • Women who use tampons during their menstrual periods should change them often. Tampons should be changed at least every four to eight hours. If the flow is heavy, tampons may have to be changed more frequently.
I do love academic research of all kinds, even the kind of "academic" this example demonstrates.  I'm now going to determine the minimum number of times people need to urinate per day and then I'm going to use that to recommend how to save money by reducing the number of public toilets/bathrooms.  So.

* The linked article about the documentary makes a few criticisms about how menstruation and girls' access to education in India is treated in it.  That I used that link is not to be intended as criticism of the documentary in itself.
But it's true that girls may be kept away from school not only because the facilities don't allow them to care for their menstrual needs, but also for reasons which correlate with menstruation:  Patriarchal societies may view a girl who has started menstruating as ready for marriage, and further education is then not deemed necessary. Or she may be kept at home so that she cannot become pregnant outside marriage.  That would damage both her chances of getting married, the only real career path for most women in such societies, and her family's reputation.

It could be that the lack of facilities for menstruating girls at schools is a direct barrier for their continuing education, but it could also be a consequence, possibly intended, of the overall treatment of children at the point when they enter the relatively constrained roles that are allowed to fertile women. 

In either case, talking about menstrual hygiene needs openly is important.

Tuesday, March 05, 2019

Does Google Discriminate Against Men In Pay?

Google has carried out its annual pay fairness study since 2012.  The study, which covers 91% of Google's employees, compares total employee compensations while standardizing for job type, job level, performance and location.  Standardizing, in this context, means that those four variables (and perhaps others not mentioned here) are held constant in that analysis.

These studies are then used to give additional pay to some employees who appear not to be paid enough given their job type, job level, performance and location.

The results of Google's most recent study have raised lots of eyebrows, because:

Google has given raises to thousands of men after an analysis of Google's pay structure found that the company would otherwise be underpaying those men relative to their peers, The New York Times reports. The analysis also led to raises for some women.
Google determines annual pay raises in a three-phase process. First, Google adjusts every employee's compensation based on standard factors like their location, seniority, and performance ratings. Managers can then seek additional discretionary raises for their best-performing employees.
Finally, Google performs a company-wide analysis to determine whether these raises are biased in terms of race or gender. If biases are detected, the disadvantaged workers are given additional raises to eliminate the discrepancies.
"We provided $9.7 million in adjustments to a total of 10,677 Googlers," the company said in a Monday blog post describing the results of the equity analysis.
"Men account for about 69 percent of the company's work force, but they received a disproportionately higher percentage of the money," the Times's Daisuke Wakabayashi writes. "Google said it was important to be consistent in following through on the findings of its analysis, even when the results were unexpected."

So what's going on here?  Did we suddenly wake up in the Opposite Reality, where men are the demographic group which gets paid less, even in such a male-dominated field as tech?

Monday, March 04, 2019

Women's Rights in Saudi Arabia And Google

In Saudi Arabia, women must have the permission of their male guardians (father, husband, brother, uncle or adult son) to travel.  A Saudi government app allows those men additional control over their subordinate women.  And Google will not remove the much-criticized app:

Google has declined to remove from its app store a Saudi government app which lets men track women and control where they travel, on the grounds that it meets all their terms and conditions.
Google reviewed the app — called Absher — and concluded that it does not violate any agreements, and can therefore remain on the Google Play store.
Absher is intended to make all sorts of routine government-related tasks easier for Saudis.  But those tasks include, for example, the ability for women's guardians to give or rescind their travel permissions. And Absher allows men to receive SMS alerts if the women under their control try to use their passports.

It also makes it harder for women such as Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun (or Al-Qunun) to run away from their families.  Alqunun fled her family while they were vacationing in Kuwait.  She took a flight to Bangkok, using her passport,  and tried to continue from there to Australia.

Alqunun, eighteen at the time, claimed that her family abused her and kept forcing her to accept an unwanted marriage proposal.  For a while Thai officials tried to deport her back to her family still in Kuwait.  After all, that was the correct procedure under Saudi laws which keep women eternal minors.

But she barricaded herself in her hotel room, fought back, and finally got asylum in Canada.  Other Saudi women trying to run away from their families have not been as fortunate.

The wider questions cases like this one raise are important.  They are about the rights of various cultures to enforce their own values, perhaps even beyond their own geographical borders, about whether human rights are universal values or whether they can vary depending on what particular cultures (or their rulers, more likely) decide they should be,* and what responsibility "outsiders," such as Google here, should bear for the choices they make.

As I have written before, if we respect all cultures as equal and their values as something that outsiders shouldn't comment on, then we wipe out the rights of weaker individuals under oppressive cultures.  The Amish Supreme Court case in the US is one example of an attempt to consider the rights of cultures to thrive vs. the rights of individuals within those cultures to thrive.

*  And women's rights are human rights.  It's also true that pretty much all cultures on this globe have historically limited women's rights, and in that sense the lack of those rights can well be viewed as part of the heritage of many cultures.  This does not make such limitations worth respecting.


Saturday, March 02, 2019

Today's Recipe: The Humble Rutabaga Casserole

Called lanttulaatikko in Finnish.  It's a traditional Christmas side dish, served together with similar casseroles or loaf-shaped dishes made out of potatoes and carrots.  But you don't have to be in December to make it.  I usually bake several casseroles at one go and then freeze most of them.

Here is one  lanttulaatikko recipe in English.  It's not quite the one I use, because it includes ginger and does not include freshly ground nutmeg.  Also, though cream is nice, I often use just milk.  But all those are acceptable variations. 

The only real change I would make in that recipe is the time in the oven.  The oven temperature should be 320 F and the casserole baked for an hour and a half.  The low temperature and long baking are essential for the flavors to intermingle and to produce the final flavor.

The rutabaga is called the "swede" in some parts of the world.  In case you happen to live in one of those parts.  Also, the recipe works with turnips, too.

Molasses (not syrup) is the one essential ingredient, whatever else you adjust.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Short Posts, 2/28/19. Or While Trump Clowns, What's Going On Behind The Curtain?

1.  Autocrats and would-be autocrats apparently require unusual haircuts.

 Picture from here.

2.  While Trump takes the front of the world stage by his clowning and keeps our eyes glued to him,  stuff happens behind the curtains.  Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, is to head the Environmental Protection Agency.  His main goal is to roll back environmental regulations.  This is payback for the energy industry.

3.   Trump's antics also distract us from learning other important news.  For example:
...the Trump administration escalated its war on Planned Parenthood and the women who use it. It released a rule prohibiting Title X, a federal family-planning program that serves around four million low-income women, from funding organizations that also provide abortions. Further, the administration instituted an American version of the global gag rule, barring doctors and nurses receiving Title X funds from making abortion referrals to their patients except in certain emergency situations.
This is payback for the white evangelical patriarchs.

4.  Finally, Trump acting up distracts us from the Michael Cohen testimony. 

Cohen was one of Trump's lawyers and is widely regarded as having been his "fixer."  The testimony didn't include anything I hadn't already heard or read as rumors, but it's fascinating that Trump can so easily create a "hey, look at me clowning here" diversion from the attention it should have received.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Ageism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice?

Ageism is a weird -ism in American politics.  It frequently goes unnoticed, even among the cultural left, and especially when it targets those who are old.

This is weird, because barring premature death,  we are all one day going to be in that group.  Self-preservation would seem to dictate that we would want to eradicate ageism before it hits us, right? 

What brought this topic back (1) to my attention was a recent Vox article (2) studying racism in the online knitters' community.   I quote:

The most common image of knitting is still probably an old white lady sitting in a rocking chair making a blanket (a stereotype that tends to grind modern knitters’ gears, with reason). But even though the stereotypical image has gotten younger over the years, the community is still perceived as very white.
Why does that stereotype (3) "grind modern knitters' gears, with reason?" 

My guess is that it's ageism.  Old ladies are...old (4).  They sit in rocking chairs and they make boring blankets, not exciting fashionable creations.  And they are not online, selling their creations on Etsy.  Young people don't want to be identified with that group.

A different way of thinking about age and knitting is to note that old knitters are often very experienced knitters.

Many of them were taught to knit in childhood, like my paternal grandmother (5).  She could knit anything, without patterns, from sweaters to hats, from scarves to socks  and from gloves to mittens.  She knitted with the intarsia technique and with the Fair Isle technique. She even knitted extremely fine lace for bed linens.  

And yes, toward the end of her life she sometimes sat in a rocking chair, knitting.  But to define her skills by focusing on just that part of her life really would be ageist. 

(1)  An earlier example of ageism in a feminist context is a review of Katha Pollitt's abortion rights book Pro in 2014 by Michelle Kinsey Bruns:

The abortion fight embodies social threats that most directly affect the millennial generation, alongside women of color, low-income women, and childbearing-capable people who don’t identify as women at all. It does them a disservice to designate a Reagan-era messenger to deliver the argument that the rollback of reproductive politics to a pre-Pill status is an urgent, active threat, right now.

Pollitt's answer to that was:

Finally, I have to say I bristle at Michelle Bruns’s characterization of me as a “Reagan-era messenger.”  I’ve had most of my writing life well after Ronald Reagan left the White House, and most of my thinking life too. I guess ageism is the last acceptable prejudice.  Fortunately, life has a way of correcting it.

All bolds are mine.

(2)  I am focusing on the small ageist bit of the article here.  You can read all of it at the link.

(3)  Is this stereotype perhaps based on the actual age-and-race distribution of amateur knitters in, say, the US?   In other words, would the most common type among knitters still be an older white woman (in a rocking chair)?

I found nothing on the race or ethnic group distribution of amateur knitters, and neither was I able to find age statistics on knitters alone.  But  a 2014 Craft Yarn Council online survey tells us the age distribution of those who knitted or crocheted or did both and who participated in that survey (3,178 individuals).  The age distribution of the respondents does tilt to older ages:

Note that an online survey is very likely to underestimate the number of oldest knitters and crocheters.

(4)  And old ladies, of all races,  who knit blankets are, I believe,  also more likely to be poor than wealthy.  Those blankets are probably made out of cheap acrylic thread, not expensive hand-dyed wool.

(5)  My maternal grandmother refused to have anything to do with knitting or needlework or other similar crafts.  A reminder not to generalize in the other direction, either.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

Saturday Cat Blogging

This cat is sitting on the terrace with his human.  Not loose in the environment, in other words.  Supposedly the first breakfast outside this spring...

Posting cat pictures is an age-old online tradition on political blogs.  They are the palate cleaner, between various political rants about the sky falling.  So now you know!

Friday, February 22, 2019

Mini-Posts, 2/22/18. On Election Fraud, Loss of Biodiversity, the Opioid Epidemic And The Abuse Of Minors

These mini-posts are an attempt to look at depressing phenomena (political corruption, environmental pollution) from a slightly more positive angle.  I find that I need that in order not to sink into deep nihilistic depression on such issues, to feel that fighting is still worthwhile.  Let me know what you think about Echidne going Pollyannaish.

1.  The North Carolina state board of elections has voted unanimously for a new election in the 9th congressional district.  Why?  Because, for once, election fraud was too obvious to sweep under the carpet*:

Monday, February 18, 2019

Meanwhile, in Oklahoma, Women Are Aquaria

This is a fun story about a proposed bill which is unlikely to pass, even in Oklahoma:

Oklahoma state legislator Rep. Justin Humphrey (R) has sponsored a draconian bill that would require a woman to get the written consent of the fetus’s father before obtaining an abortion.

He has thought deeply about this question, as can be seen in the following quote:
Ultimately, he said, his intent was to let men have a say. “I believe one of the breakdowns in our society is that we have excluded the man out of all of these types of decisions,” he said. “I understand that they feel like that is their body,” he said of women. “I feel like it is a separate — what I call them is, is you’re a ‘host.’ And you know when you enter into a relationship you’re going to be that host and so, you know, if you pre-know that then take all precautions and don’t get pregnant,” he explained. “So that’s where I’m at. I’m like, hey, your body is your body and be responsible with it. But after you’re irresponsible then don’t claim, well, I can just go and do this with another body, when you’re the host and you invited that in.”

Bolds are mine, and the bolded sentences are the reason why I write about this proposal even though it is unlikely to pass.  The views Humphrey (R-NoUterus) expresses are common among online pro-life comments*: 

If you don't want to get pregnant, keep your legs crossed.  In other words, don't have slutty sex at all.  Or any kind of sex.

What's fun about Mr. Humphrey's views is what happens when you do a sex reversal on them. 

Suppose he had said to all potential fathers that they pre-know they can make someone pregnant if they enter a relationship (including one-night stands), and that they should be prepared for that possibility by planning for at least eighteen years of child payments before dating anyone or by getting a vasectomy or by demanding a functioning male contraceptive pill.

But pro-lifers don't have those demands.  In the world of those who hold Humphrey's views it's only women who are deemed responsible for pregnancies.  Men can hunt for sex without any limitations.  And I find that weird.

What would happen if everyone started suddenly following Humphrey's rules?  There would be very little recreational intercourse.  Not even Mr. Humphreys could get any!   Married heterosexual couples, say, would only have sex when they wanted to have a child and would stop the minute they have enough children.

That world will not happen, but neither does Mr. Humphrey want that world.  He wants a world where the slutty pregnant women will have no say over whether they will give birth or not**.

I have some sympathy for Mr. Humphrey's worry about men having no say about becoming fathers or not after they have made someone pregnant.  Once we have perfected artificial wombs outside the human body they can have equal say over that question.   But as long as the risks of pregnancy don't happen in their bodies, their power to decide over those pregnancies must be less than the power of the people whose bodies are exposed to that risk.


*  The pro-life comments tend to fall into two major categories.  One is based on religious arguments, usually from Christianity, even though abortion is not mentioned in the Bible.  The other is based on the implicit assumption that only women are responsible for getting pregnant, that it's all some kind of parthenogenesis, and so nobody else is expected to pay for, say, birth control.

** They lost that right by being slutty, in his world. 


Saturday, February 16, 2019

The Trumpergency Speech. Or The National Emergency Which Isn't National.

I watched Trump's speech declaring a state of national emergency.  Now I am very tired, even though the emergency he is declaring is not a national emergency.  It's a Trumpergency, a state of great (the greatest!) Trump-anxiety, caused by his inability to get his way through mere temper tantrums.

But that's not what made me tired.  It was taking notes of the speech while desperately trying to understand what kinds of "facts" his assertions might have been based on. 

So while I listened to his speech, I scribbled down key words and phrases: 

Very talented people, extremely well (negotiations with China went), very good relationship (with a North Korean dictator), couldn't be done before by others (repeated boasting about how he has disarmed North Korea), finally the US is respected, phenomenal (North Korea's location), phenomenal US economy created by Trump, tremendous stock market figures created by Trump, wasn't done before by others (fixing the southern border), economy he created going to the roof (!), never done before (China trade deals), nobody else could do it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Trickster God And The Yearning For A Political Savior in American Politics

The following two stories are intended for the pleasure (?) of those who like to spice their political meals with mythology, fantasy and literature.

First, the recent events in Virginia politics should trouble all of us, but there's extra trouble for those who prefer Democrats to run that state but who also don't want to condone or ignore allegations of sexual violence or the use of racist imagery by their "own" politicians.

Let's start by summarizing (1) those events for anyone who hibernates in the winter or isn't properly obsessed with American politics:

On February 1st, the conservative Web site Big League Politics published a photo from the medical-school yearbook page of Governor Ralph Northam. In the photo, from 1984, one man wears blackface and another wears a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo, though he didn’t say which of the two men was him.

The next day, at a press conference, Northam insisted that he wasn’t in the picture, after all—though he confessed that, at some point in 1984, he had worn shoe polish on his face (“I don’t know if anybody’s ever tried that, but you cannot get shoe polish off”), in order to resemble Michael Jackson at a dance contest.

Soon afterward, Big League Politics reported on the existence of a private Facebook post in which a woman appeared to accuse the state’s lieutenant governor, Justin Fairfax, of sexual assault at the Democratic National Convention in 2004. Fairfax, who would become governor if Northam were to resign, denied the allegation; the woman subsequently came forward to reiterate the allegation in her own name. 

Two days after that, the attorney general, Mark Herring, who is also a Democrat, and currently second in the line of succession to be governor of Virginia, admitted to wearing blackface at a party during his college years—he was in costume, he said, as the rap musician Kurtis Blow.

Get it?  If Northam resigns, Fairfax would be the governor, and if Fairfax then resigns, Herring would be the governor.  What happens if all three resign?

The new governor would be the speaker of the Virginia house of delegates, the Republican Kirk Cox!

And there you have the Democrats' dilemma:  Those who want to see all three men resign would then have to accept a Republican Governor for Virginia!  That just might have even worse economic and social consequences for African-American men and for all women in the state of Virginia.

Reading about this made me think of the Trickster, a common mythical archetype in many cultures:

Tricksters are archetypal characters who appear in the myths of many different cultures. Lewis Hyde describes the trickster as a "boundary-crosser".[1] The trickster crosses and often breaks both physical and societal rules. Tricksters "...violate principles of social and natural order, playfully disrupting normal life and then re-establishing it on a new basis."[2] 
A Trickster god, the joker that he is (2),  would adore the dilemma I have described above, and might even willingly create it, because the resulting chaos and confusion allows us to learn something important, something which cannot be learned while staying safely inside the boundaries decreed by our particular political conventions.

The joke the Trickster makes in the Virginia case is the bitterly hilarious juxtaposition of the types of behaviors Democratic and Republican politicians, respectively,  are sanctioned for.  What is rewarded among the Republicans (think of the sexist and racist Trump in the White House) is sanctioned among the Democrats.  But in this case sanctioning the latter would directly reward the former!

That outcome is to teach us an important lesson, in a rather painful manner, as is the custom of the Trickster gods and goddesses.

Second,  while following the overall political conversations about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, I noticed how she triggers weird responses not only from the political right, but to some extent also from the political left.

The latter are not nasty jabs at her or attempts to find a mote in her eye and then call it a beam (3), but almost the reverse:  They reflect a desire to see her as the lone savior, the new hope for the country,  the heroine who will all alone fix a broken political system.

Some lefties saw Barack Obama in that manner before he was first elected.  Even then I doubted the wisdom of putting all one's political eggs in one basket, especially as that basket was carried by one single human being.  What I feared was the chance that when someone is elevated in such a manner, the first misstep that person makes will cause the pendulum to swing to the other extreme.  And all humans make missteps.

Now, I like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.  She is smart, media-savvy, and assertive.

But she is also still inexperienced, and she will make mistakes.  We should expect some mistakes, because they are part of how we learn.  Those who elevate some politicians to demigod status will, however, have great difficulty coping with any newbie errors she might make.  The incentives, then, are to deny that the mistakes even happened.

And that's a understandable reaction, given what the political right will do with them.  But still.  It's not a good idea to hand over our political salvation to any one person.

All this reminded me of the late and great fantasy writer, Terry Pratchett.  In several of his Discworld books he has his characters talk about justice.  In Reaper Man, Death (an anthropomorphic death, a skeleton in a black cloak) says this:
There’s no justice. There’s just us.
Many interpretations of that statement are possible, but my own has always been this:

If we want justice we need to create it, Justice is not found in the bricks of the courthouse walls or in some separate god or demigod of justice.  Justice and injustice operate through the acts of us all. 

And so does political salvation.


(1)  These issues are listed here in time order, but they differ in their ultimate consequences.  Fairfax is accused of something criminal, sexual violence, and a second woman has come forward to accuse him of rape during their college years.

(2)  Mostly the Trickster is depicted as male, though there are also female Tricksters, among the Japanese kitsune, for example.

(3)  I plagiarize the Bible there to show how female politicians tend to be treated in the media.  A recent example is The Case Of Kirsten Gillibrand And The Chicken.


Friday, February 08, 2019

On Mean, Mean Political Bosses

The rumor-mill tells us that Senator Amy Klobuchar is a mean, mean boss.  A bitch, in fact.  I remember reading the same about Hillary Clinton in the past. 

On the other hand, we all know that Our Dear Leader, one Donald Trump, appears to be the boss from the hottest hell.  The difference between his case, and that of, say, Klobuchar, is that nobody attributes Trump's meanness to him being a man but just to his character.

This is not quite so true when we talk about possibly* mean female bosses.  Though the media coverage of such cases is currently a bit fairer than it was, not so long ago,  it is still extremely hard to evaluate the meanness of a boss without also taking into account what the underlings' expectations are.  Those expectations are likely to vary depending on whether the boss is a man or a woman.

In general, we still expect women to be kinder, gentler and more democratic bosses than men**. 

This matters.  Suppose that we have two bosses, one male and one female, who are objectively equally nasty.  But because the female boss is expected to be nicer, probably unconsciously, her nastiness looks more glaring, more hurtful and just plain nastier.

Several takes on Amy Klobuchar's possible bitchiness also mention surveys about the meanest bosses in the US Congress.  The variable that measures meanness in those surveys is staff turnover, and we are told that the departure of senior officials is weighted more than the departure of lower-level staff.

While the actual survey findings vary, depending on the time period, female politicians' offices are over-represented (compared to their percentages in the House and the Senate) among those with highest turnover figures over longer time periods.

These surveys have some problematic aspects:

For instance, an office could have a high turnover not only because underlings run away from a mean boss, but also because underlings leave to climb upward in various political organization. 

The former is what the surveys purport to measure, but they can also be measuring the latter.  Without knowing where those who depart are going and why they are leaving, we cannot really tell if a high turnover is due to a boss who is mean or a boss who is supportive of the underlings' career aspirations.  Or for some of the other reasons I discuss here.

Then there are the variations caused by the fact that a politician's staff turnover rate depends on where we are in that politician's term.  Though at least one of the articles I link to reminds us not to draw conclusions about the high last-year staff turnover rates of those politicians who are retiring, given that their staff all need to find new jobs, I also believe that slightly similar considerations might apply to the beginning of a politician's first term.

That's the time when politicians first meet all their new staff and when the staff meets the politicians, and neither side might know yet if the matches are good.  I would expect a greater first-year turnover, and then a much reduced turnover when the working arrangements have settled down and both sides know what to expect.

The surveys would be improved if they controlled for that time factor***. 

Ideally, they should also control for what happens when a politician faces a particularly difficult time, with scandals (real or created) or a fall in support and so on.  Many staff members might then depart, in order to save their own careers (the Trump effect?).  To the extent female politicians are judged along a harsher scale, in general, such difficult times could appear more common for them, and that could explain some part of any sex difference in the mean bosses surveys.

The above comments are examples of the kinds of variables we should control for before we draw any conclusions about whether men or women are worse political bosses.  That's because such comparisons should be between male and female politicians in as identical circumstances as possible.  If those circumstances are not identical, then what we attribute to gender might, in fact, have other causes.

I have no idea how or if those survey results would change with proper standardization.  Neither can I speculate on the possibility that because politics has not been an easy area for women to enter, those who in the past had the tremendous willpower and fighting spirit to have succeeded in it  might not be the least demanding of bosses at this stage of our societal evolution.

My main point is, rather, that unless we can control for the underlying and gendered expectations about how male and female bosses are supposed to behave, the net we use to fish for mean political bosses is also likely to catch not only the truly mean bosses, but also many female bosses who would not be deemed mean if they were male.  


* I use the qualifier "possibly" here not because I wouldn't believe that there are mean female bosses (there are), but because of the way we might use a different scale in measuring what "mean" means when it comes to female and male bosses.

As an aside, I believe that true meanness of the mean-boss type is not a sex-linked characteristic.

**  This comes about because of an interesting problem: 

The traditional gender stereotypes we apply to men do not clash with what is expected from being a leader, but the traditional gender stereotypes we apply to women do clash with what is expected from being a leader.  The latter means that women in leadership positions must walk a tightrope between not being found effective enough leaders and not being found properly feminine.

One way of solving that dilemma, probably unconsciously, is to start expecting that female leaders lead in more feminine ways, in more supportive and more maternal ways than male leaders.  One small-sample study found that women surveyed in the study expected female bosses to be more supportive and empathic than male bosses.

A maternal leadership style can work for some women.   But to expect it from all or most women may be the reason why female leaders who do not follow that style are very easily labeled as abrasive or mean bosses.

*** And if they carried out a few statistical significance tests about the differences between turnover rates. 

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Trump's State of the Union Speech

The actual state of the union in the US is dire if by "union" we mean a general, if vague, belief in the existence of an implicit contract between the government and its citizens or agreement about the actual contents of such a contract.  The state of the union from that angle is in the divorce courts, because the Republicans and the Democrat desire quite different types of governments.

Yes, I know that this is not what the SOTU speech is all about.  But I baked a delicious lemon-almond tart and had a wedge while watching our Supreme Leader deliver the speech.  The tart was sweet yet tart and it made my worldview too benign for a sharp criticism, especially of a speech which certainly was not written by Trump or the Rasputin behind his throne, Stephen Miller, but by someone capable of writing rousing speeches not intended to directly frame one half of the country as the Real Enemies of Trump.

The transcript of the speech can be found here, and here are the major corrections to Trump's statements.  They are fairly fundamental ones and well worth learning about.

Sunday, February 03, 2019

An Ode To Butternut Squash

Such bliss!  What a rush,
When the hardy sage meets
the sweet butternut squash.

A bad pome in praise of food.  I feel like writing a post in the cookbooks-by-divines series, one which does not include blood sacrifices and other similar god and goddess foods (eyeballs or arms or burnt offerings in general or even manna).

I love butternut squash.  This is a fairly new love in my life, acquired in this promised land of all pumpkin-seeming things (Trump, too).

Butternut squash is cheap, it's pretty, it's delicious yet unassuming,  and it's good for you.  Its only negative is the very hard skin (which would be useful as an armor to be worn surfing online, but a hazard when it faces me and my largest knife, given the lack of a flat bottom on the squash).

I buy several squashes at one go, halve them along the long axis and then roast them in the oven, cut sides down in a pan coated with some olive oil.  When they are done (375 degrees Fahrenheit), I scoop out the innards and freeze most of them.  That way I have many beginnings for luscious butternut squash meals ready for later.

You could go fancy on those meals and make a butternut squash lasagna with sage.  It's delicious.  It's also a lot of work.  I make it sometimes for parties, but usually I turn the squash innards into a spaghetti sauce with garlic, lots of fresh chopped sage* fried in butter, salt, pepper and perhaps a little vegetable broth or milk or something else if the sauce is too thick.

But my favorite is a butternut squash soup, served with dark bread and some cheese.  I use half a squash (innards), half a chopped onion, two cloves of garlic, about eight turns of a nutmeg mill and some black pepper.  The onion and garlic are stewed in butter or olive oil until the onion is limp and transparent.  Add one to two cups of vegetable broth and a teaspoon or so of honey, and then blend it into a lovely orange smoothness.  Makes enough for two people or one very hungry one.  If you prefer it milder, use partly milk, partly vegetable broth for the liquid.

It's excellent, I think, though do be careful if you use a separate standing blender for the blending.  If you fill it with hot soup, it doesn't help to wear oven mittens to keep the top down or to have two tea-towels between the mitts and the blender lid, and it doesn't matter how hard you press down on the lid:

You will experience an explosion in the kitchen, and if the soup is very hot you might also get lots of little demon-freckles all over your face and neck from the burning.

Don't ask me how I know that.  Wiser minds tell me that blending the hot soup in several small portions avoids the explosion.  Or use an immersion blender.  Or just go nuts with a big fork or spoon inside the saucepan, chasing all lumps, if you have nothing better to do with your life.
* Or frozen sage.  Dried is not quite the same, because it's the fresh sage who married the butternut squash.  I buy one potted sage every spring (if the old one didn't overwinter), plant it in a sunny spot in the garden and harvest it all summer long and into the fall. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Backsliding in Women's Rights? Two Examples.

Two recent items about women's rights possibly going backward made me think of the process I go through when grieving after the death of someone who meant a lot to me.

That process is like a circular staircase.  You start at the bottom of it and pretty much go around in a circle, to reach the next level, and then you keep climbing the staircase of, say, grief.   You both climb higher and face the same painful questions again.

I'm not sure what's at the top of that staircase, but during the climb it often feels as if one has come back to the starting point, walked around a circle.  It's not true because the new circle of grief is on a higher level.  We see the loss from a new perspective and we are a little more removed from it.

After that philosophical opening, the actual items which provoked it may seem mundane (which does not mean that they are not important). 

The first is the partial return of a practice restaurants once used as lot: That of either refusing to serve women who entered the establishment on their own (or even in groups as long as the group included no men) or seating them somewhere hidden, such as by the kitchen swing door or next to the toilets.

The reason for that discriminatory practice was that women on their own were assumed to visit restaurants only as sex workers looking for clients, not as customers wanting to have a meal or a drink.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

How To Write About Politics In The Era Of Chaos

I am publishing fewer post on this blog.  The reasons are many and complicated (including does a falling tree in the woods make a sound if nobody is listening?), but one which I'd like to talk about today has to do with the current climate in American politics, the climate in political writings, the resulting online quarrels and the information included or not included in social media, such as tweets.

This Trump era is ruled by the God of Chaos (1), not only in the United States, but globally.  He is having a hell of a time, riding his war chariot through mobs everywhere!  Few notice that he is a) the god of chaos, not of order (he does disguise well (2)), and b) that he has harnessed the horses to his chariot with their butts forward.

And far too many worship at his altar.

He hates nuance so we drop nuance from politics.  He adores anger (causes a lot of chaos and breakage) so we work all day long to get very angry.  He prefers emotions to facts so we learn to think with what we believe are our guts, even if the feeling might be just indigestion from too many hamberders.

He detests facts and is far too impatient to read long articles or research the truth in someone's statements.  And because we are learning that he is the strongest god of this moment, we, too, learn to hate research and reading and the kind of careful thinking which the God of Chaos finds more boring than watching Trump's hair being dyed.

And lest you think that I only talk about the American right-wing here, the God of Chaos is very good at convincing all of us that the best way to serve righteous causes is through the tools he loves:

Anger, accusations, building stronger walls to keep the in-group members in and the out-group members out, public purity examinations and purity policing to make sure that all the in-group members should be allowed to remain inside the walls.

Walls, whether physical conceptual, serve to keep some out and some in (3).  But they also strengthen the smell of civil war in the air:  That various factions regard other factions inside the same country as the real enemies, not as disagreeing compatriots.

Walls become fortifications and ramparts, information becomes propaganda.  Propaganda cannot have nuances, so nuanced treatments go.  No propaganda will include all evidence, unless all evidence supports the arguments of the propagandist's side, so the evidence we will be offered in political debates will be at most partial, at worst false.

Because it is war, we sometimes unquestioningly ally with distasteful causes and beliefs, as long as that alliance hurts our most hated enemies more than it appears to hurt the integrity of our own value hierarchies.


This I cannot do.  Indeed, I cannot play the game the God of Chaos referees, because I know, exactly, what he tries to achieve.  But I also truly cannot play that game.

It's not because I am the last upright, neutral and analytical writer standing (though of course all that goes without saying (4)).  It's because I am bad at the games of chaos, have no talent for the kind of emotional writing that works in chaotic politics, and when it comes to anger, well, you really don't want to make goddesses, even minor snake goddesses, angry.  They tend not to regulate the resulting hurricanes and tornadoes very well.

In short, I am working through this dilemma and hope that it will be resolved soon, one way or another.

(1)  He has to be a guy god because Jordan Peterson, the right-wing prophet worshiped by lots of young conservative men, insists that chaos is female, and that all right-thinking young men should rise up against her.  So it's salutary to correct that belief (wink).

Now why the God of Chaos could become the dominant divine of this era (at least temporarily) probably deserves a separate post which would cover climate change,  globalization and outsourcing and their nasty effects in some countries, the financial markets bubble and its wealth-killing effects for the not-so-rich, increasing global income inequality and the vast human migrations with the social upheavals they cause.

But note that if Almost Absolute Chaos were to rule, there would be strong pressures to replace him with the God of Absolute Control.  That replacement (sometimes in response to just the fear of chaos, not actual chaos)  is how we get fascist states and the kinds of theocratic states where I, for one, would have very few rights.

Chaos and order are not necessarily theoretically linked to right-wing or left-wing political goals or characteristics, though the right has a stronger preference for traditional power hierarchies as a form of order.

But Trump, a right-winger,  happily  sows chaos, and rigid order has certainly been applied, from above, in communist societies.

In practice widespread desire for order is more likely to result in right-wing fascism or extremely conservative theocracies, however.

(2)  The reality might be more complicated.  Just as in politics, the extremes, order and chaos, might be the end-points not of a line but of an almost-completed circle.  It's easy for certain kinds of extremists to jump over that little break in the circle and to end up at the other political extreme.  Likewise, it's possible that extreme chaos is much closer to extreme order than we like to think.  Balance in all things is the proper alternative to both extreme chaos and extreme order.

(3)  Despite Trump's weird border wall fixation, walls are not necessarily bad and have their uses.  Remember this before you go and break down the fence that keeps the neighbor's angry bull in his pasture.

(4)  This is a joke.  Honest.  

Thursday, January 24, 2019

The Economics of Health Insurance. Three Stories.

The New York Times has posted a piece on the possible impact of Trump Care [sic] on how many people have health insurance:

The number of Americans without health insurance plunged after Obamacare started. Now, early evidence suggests, it’s beginning to climb again.
New polling from Gallup shows that the percentage of uninsured Americans inched up throughout last year. That trend matches other data suggesting that health coverage has been eroding under the policies of the Trump administration.

This early evidence must be treated as tentative, for reasons that have to do with Gallup's changing methods of polling people and because other sources are not (yet) showing a similar drop in the number of insured people.

On the other hand, the policies of the Trump administration are, of course, specifically intended to cut back on enrollment in Medicaid. for instance, and from that angle the results wouldn't be too surprising.

I like that NYT piece, because it doesn't treat us as grumpy and hungry children, demanding to be fed with the right political messages.  It's nuanced, points out several ways in which the findings can be interpreted, and explains what kind of data we should seek in the future.


I broke a small bone in the table of my foot last summer.  Because of the high costs of my health insurance policy (it's the largest monthly expense in my budget), I first seriously considered not going to see a physician:  I wasn't sure if I could afford my share of the costs from my remaining monthly budget.

Remember that what we in the US call health insurance is only partial insurance and leaves us with some out-of-pocket costs, and remember that it's hard for the patients to predict how large those end up being, given that the insurer has power to refuse some items and leave paying for them to the insured person.

This experience made me think more about how buying health insurance both makes a person poorer and reduces the final prices of health care at the point of care.  (Those of you who like economics might want to think about how the conventional analysis of the income effect and substitution effect of a price change might be useful here, once we allow for the extra income change from buying a health insurance policy.  There are two income effects now.)


Sarah Kliff talks about the way emergency rooms price their services in this Vox interview.  If you find reading the interview hard going, welcome to the club.  Studying the way hospitals charge for their services can be a truly nightmarish experience for anyone trying to use routine economic models for that*.

One obvious reason is that the patients might not even have the kind of price information which is required for those models to work.  Take "the facility fees,"for one example:

These charges, known as “facility fees,” are the price that patients pay for walking in the door of an emergency room and seeking service. Nationally, these fees are kept secret. Patients only learn their emergency room’s facility fee when they receive a bill after the visit.

So.  It's impossible to react to a price when one is not told what it is! 

Conservatives who advocate "free market" economics in health care tend to skip over problems of that sort, as they skip over the problems that local monopoly power of hospitals in many areas causes, as they skip over the lack of information most consumers have about what care is necessary and what care is of sufficient quality, and as they skip over the serious theoretical problem of the sellers in health care not only selling the product but also telling the buyers what they need to buy.**
The pricing patterns of hospitals and their emergency rooms link to health insurance.  
Consider the case of someone who is brought to an emergency room unconscious or too confused or in too much pain to think clearly.  This person may have private health insurance which only covers in-network services, and while the hospital itself may be in the network, it may employ providers who are not.  There's no way for someone in that condition to scrutinize the small print in their health insurance forms or to walk around checking which emergency room doctors or other specialists are in the network and which are not.
This could mean that someone with insurance is not, in fact, someone with insurance when the final bills come in for the emergency room and possible later hospital care.   

Vox’s database shows that patients are especially vulnerable to these surprise bills when out-of-network doctors work at in-network hospitals.
“It does happen quite a lot in the emergency room,” says Christopher Garmon, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri Kansas City.
Garmon published a study last year that found as many as one in five emergency room visits led to a surprise bill from an out-of-network provider involved in the care.
“When somebody is out of network and the patient knows that, they can avoid those providers,” Garmon says. “Here, it’s very hard for patients to know this is going to happen.”
Garmon found that surprise bills are the most common in emergency room visits where the patient is ultimately admitted to the hospital for further treatment. Twenty percent of those patients end up with an out-of-network bill, often from specialists such as anesthesiologists and pathologists.


*  The models are not completely useless, but to determine how they relate to the real-world patterns of hospital pricing can be excruciatingly complicated once we take into account how much information is hidden from the consumer side of the market, the monopoly power of many hospitals, their not-for-profit status (what do the try to optimize?  and how does that goal affect their pricing principles?) and the possibility that they compete mostly in perceived quality rather than in price.

** It's not that sellers are out there defrauding buyers out of all their money, but that the health care markets have special arrangements to safeguard the relatively uninformed buyers.  Those special arrangements, such as the agency relationships between providers and patients, licensing and the self-regulation of the medical profession, all tend to have side-effects which are not pro-competition.