Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Don't Download This Post! It's Available In Stores For Only $16.99!

The New Scientist reports that file-sharing does not appear to harm legitimate CD sales.
Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf monitored 680 albums, chosen from a range of musical genres, downloaded over 17 weeks in the second half of 2002. They used computer programs to automatically monitor downloads and compared this data to changes in album sales over the same period to see if a link could be established.

The most heavily downloaded songs showed no decrease in CD sales as a result of increasing downloads. In fact, albums that sold more than 600,000 copies during this period appeared to sell better when downloaded more heavily. For these albums each increase of 150 downloads corresponded to another legitimate album sale.
It's nice to see that people are actually attempting to study this scientifically, rather than relying on ideological arguments from both sides, but I'm not sure this study really does the trick. I haven't read the actual paper, but it seems to me that the RIAA isn't going to be satisfied with the claim that "no decrease in sales" is equivalent to "no economic damage." They want sales to increase (especially sales of these top albums), and they think that downloading slows the rate of increase in sales figures. That's hard to prove or disprove. This study shows a tiny increase in sales attributable to increased downloads; what's to prevent the RIAA from arguing that the increase in sales would've been much steeper without downloads?

I expect to see that "increase of 150 downloads corresponded to another legitimate album sale" translated, in RIAA pressure materials, to "150 people downloaded our song for every one who bought it, so instead of a zillion dollars in profit we should've made $150 zillion. Downloaders cost us $149 zillion." Which would be an utterly ridiculous claim, of course, but it's not as though that's stopped them before. Look at the studies they claim support their position:
For example, a series of surveys conducted by Houston-based company Voter Consumer Research have indicated that those who download more songs illegally are less likely to buy music from legitimate retailers.
The first thing you learn in an introductory statistics or research methods class is that correlation does not imply causation. (Then you spend the rest of your life railing, futilely, against people who use correlational research to support a causal argument - none of whom seem to have taken an introductory statistics or research methods class.)

Heavy downloaders buy fewer albums, perhaps, but that doesn't prove that they'd buy more albums if they weren't downloading. Maybe they don't have much disposable income, and if they didn't download songs they'd borrow CDs from their friends or check them out of the library. Maybe they're really hard to please, and have to download an awful lot of music they don't like in order to find the one thing they do want to buy. Maybe they don't even like music, and only download songs in a spiteful effort to bring RIAA to their knees. (Okay, maybe not. I just couldn't resist.) The point is that the data is equally supportive of all of these interpretations. Correlation - two things tending to happen together - does not prove that one of those things causes the other.

So, lots of credit to Oberholzer-Gee and Strumpf for what looks like a fairly impressive effort to bring actual data into the hysterical debate over file-sharing. I don't think this is the study that ends the debate, but it's miles better than what we've been offered so far.

Monday, March 29, 2004

Let's Hear It For The Good Guys

Do you cringe when you see the words "God" and "sex" in the same sentence? Do you wish that churches and religious organizations would just shut up about sexual issues? That's understandable, given that the angry denunciations of conservative churches tend to drown out the voices of more liberal religious groups. For a refreshing change of pace, check out the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, which says in part:
Sexuality is God's life-giving and life-fulfilling gift. [...] Our culture needs a sexual ethic focused on personal relationships and social justice rather than particular sexual acts. All persons have the right and responsibility to lead sexual lives that express love, justice, mutuality, commitment, consent, and pleasure. Grounded in respect for the body and for the vulnerability that intimacy brings, this ethic fosters physical, emotional, and spiritual health. It accepts no double standards and applies to all persons, without regard to sex, gender, color, age, bodily condition, marital status, or sexual orientation.

God hears the cries of those who suffer from the failure of religious communities to address sexuality. We are called today to see, hear, and respond to the suffering caused by violence against women and sexual minorities, the HIV pandemic, unsustainable population growth and over-consumption, and the commercial exploitation of sexuality.
I had never heard of these folks until I walked into church yesterday and found a copy of the declaration tucked into the order of service. But it appears to be the basis of a decent-sized, and growing, movement. The declaration has been endorsed by 2,250 ministers, priests, and rabbis nationwide. If you're looking for a religious community, there are probably worse ways to find one than searching the list of endorsers for your city's name.

Abortion And Breast Cancer

The current issue of The Lancet - the premier British medical journal - includes a re-analysis of 53 studies of the putative link between abortion and breast cancer. (Link requires free registration.) By combining these studies, they wound up with a total sample of 83,000 women. That makes their conclusion that abortion does not increase the risk of breast cancer pretty damned definitive.

You're going to be hearing a lot about this study, and some of what you hear is going to attack its methodological quality. Here's the part the talking points are going to be based on: the researchers separated studies which collected retrospective information about abortion from studies which collected prospective information. "Prospective" means that they followed women who had abortions and then counted how many of them developed breast cancer. "Retrospective" means that they took women who developed breast cancer and asked them whether or not they had ever had an abortion.

The evidence for the supposed link between abortion and breast cancer all came from retrospective studies. Prospective studies tend not to show a link. What's the difference? Reporting biases. If you ask women whether they've ever had an abortion, a certain percentage of those who did are going to forget (yes, it's possible), and a certain percentage of them are going to lie. There's good reason to believe that women who have breast cancer are less likely to forget or lie than women who don't have cancer. It all comes down to the pervasive human tendency to search for meaning. When something bad, like cancer, happens, we tend to scrutinize every inch of our medical history and environment looking for possible answers. That goes double if there's a potential causal factor that you feel guilty about - like having an abortion. So cancer patients are more likely to remember their abortions, if they've had one, and are more likely to "confess."

The archetypal research showing the dangers of retrospective reporting comes from the field of ADHD, back when it was still called "minimal brain dysfunction." (No, I'm not that old, but my Descriptive Psychopathology professor was.) A whole raft of studies showed that mothers of children with ADHD symptoms reported more adverse events during pregnancy, delivery, and early infancy: falls, bleeding, abnormal test results, delivery complications, high fevers in infancy. So researchers concluded that ADHD symptoms were caused by minor brain damage early in development. Then someone went back and studied actual medical charts for families with and without ADHD kids. There was no difference whatsoever in the number or kind of adverse events experienced in pregnancy, delivery, or infancy. What was going on in the earlier studies? It turns out that mothers of children with behavior problems rack their brains looking for something, anything in their history that might explain what they're going through. Mothers of healthy children don't do that.

Prospective data is much, much cleaner. You document abortions when they happen, and you document breast cancer when it happens. You don't have to rely on anyone's memory. You don't have to rely on anyone's honesty. So the authors of the Lancet study had excellent reasons to base their conclusions on the prospective studies, and their statement that abortion does not increase breast cancer risk is perfectly justified.

(Incidentally, you wouldn't know that from the Washington Post's headline, "Abortion's Link to Breast Cancer Discounted." "Discredited" or "disproved" would have been the appropriate verb choices there - "discounted" doesn't automatically convey the information that the "link" under discussion doesn't exist. Instead, the Post headline gives the impression that the link is there, but some people don't think it's very important. It's very subtle editorial positioning by word choice. Thanks, liberal media. But I digress.)

Monday, March 22, 2004

Woo Hoo!

Ten thousand visits since January of 2004! You like me, you really like me!

(Or actually, judging by my referrer logs, you were looking for factual information about otters, and probably found me disappointingly irrelevant. I'm going to try to help by, from time to time, including otter facts in my blog. Here's one to get you started: "A perfect spraint is 6-8cm long about 1cm thick and dark in colour, usually full of tiny fishbones. A fresh one easily distinguished from a mink scat by the scent - otter spraint smells pleasantly musky or fishy. Honestly.")

Anyway, a warm Respectful of Otters welcome to the verizon.net user who clicked through to my site via Nixve, at 9:18 this morning. Stop by the courtesy window to pick up your prize.

Mutual Assured Destruction

In the early days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Bush White House cut by nearly two-thirds an emergency request for counterterrorism funds by the FBI, an internal administration budget document shows.

The document, dated Oct. 12, 2001, shows that the FBI requested $1.5 billion in additional funds to enhance its counterterrorism efforts with the creation of 2,024 positions. But the White House Office of Management and Budget cut that request to $531 million. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft, working within the White House limits, cut the FBI's request for items such as computer networking and foreign language intercepts by half, cut a cyber-security request by three quarters and eliminated entirely a request for "collaborative capabilities."
Good job by the Center for American Progress in bringing these documents to light. They need to be out there on the public stage. That said, I think they're mostly useful in a Mutual Assured Destruction capacity.[1] The Republicans have been citing Kerry votes to eliminate weapons programs, divorced from context - attempting to make him look weak on defense. With this report of FBI cuts, Democrats can now do the same to Bush. What's the context of the FBI cuts? It's not clear from this article, but if they don't have to pay attention to that, then (in a MAD sense) neither do we. As long as we know that MAD is what we're doing.

Did the FBI need the extra $1 billion that was cut, $700-odd million of which was later restored by Congress? Probably they did. But not every law-enforcement program requested after 9/11 genuinely increased the nation's safety, and - from a civil liberties perspective, if for no other reason - Democrats should be careful about assuming the rhetorical position that the FBI should automatically get everything it asks for.

All that being said, I'll be thrilled if these revelations about the FBI budget push the Bush campaign into being more nuanced in interpreting the meaning of program cuts. It will be great if this takes the Kerry-voted-to-cut-defense weapon out of their hands. In the meantime, let's keep the real solid arguments about Bush's defense record front and center.


[1] MAD, for those readers too young to remember the Reagan era, was the doctrine that if my weapons can blow your country into its component atoms, and your weapons can blow my country into its component atoms, both of us will back off from those weapons and not use them. It worked okay.

Friday, March 19, 2004

When The Luck Runs Out

Those of us who do HIV prevention don't like to talk about long-term exposed seronegatives. (You can tell, because we've given them a complicated, unobvious name.) These are people who continue to test HIV-negative after many years of unprotected sex with an HIV-positive partner. The reason we don't like to talk about them is because we're afraid that every high-risk person out there is going to be convinced that they'll be in the bulletproof group too.

Researchers at the University of Washington have been studying these folks, and have found that they do have very small amounts of HIV in their systems. They never test positive because their immune system never produces antibodies to HIV - but somehow, they've managed to prevent the virus from replicating inside their T-cells. So their T-cells aren't destroyed by HIV, and they don't get sick. We don't understand how that happens, although obviously, we'd like to be able to bottle whatever it is and distribute it to everyone.

At the most recent Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, the UW team reported that 12 men in their group of 94 long-term exposed seronegatives had finally tested HIV-positive. Here's the kicker: none of them were infected by their long-term partners. The partners' HIV was too genetically different from the newly-infected guys' HIV for them to have been the sources of infection.

I learned about this study at a dinner presentation last night. When the speaker got to the genetic comparison, a ripple of laughter swept through the room. It's really not funny, but I'll admit that there is a certain dark irony to it. These guys thought they were immune to HIV, so they could cheat on their boyfriends without consequences. Turns out, they were only immune to their own boyfriend's HIV. And their participation in the study turned up unexpected proof that they'd been sleeping around. Poor bastards.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

A Picture Is Worth A Thousand Words

I clicked through a blog ad on Matthew Yglesias' site and found David Sucher's "City Comforts," a book about making cities more human and more likely to promote a sense of community. Tagline: "how to build an urban village." I'm a big advocate of city living, so I took a look at their sample chapter. It covers aspects of urban design that faciliate casual meetings and conversations among city dwellers - things like sidewalk cafes, sunny plazas, and lots of public bench seating. Nice stuff.

I have to say, looking at the illustrated examples, is that it's probably a lot easier to "build an urban village" if you do it in a real village. Sisters, Oregon has a population of 959, according to the 2000 census. Cannon Beach, Oregon, a pleasant little resort town with a year-round population of 1588. Nantucket, for heaven's sake, another resort town with a year-round population of 3830. It doesn't surprise me that these places have an intimate feel, but I'm not sure how helpful it is to offer them as salutary examples for Detroit and LA to emulate. Okay, so the chapter has pictures of Seattle, Tokyo, Boston, and New York, too - but the majority of the places pictured just aren't what I would call urban.

But my first reaction, looking at the pictures, was "hey, look at all the white people." Among the dozens of people pictured, I count two African-Americans - one playing chess, one listening to a concert. Both of them are surrounded by white people. None of the people in the pictures look to be sub-middle class. You don't see any green hair or leathers or multiple piercings, either. Fostering casual meetings is certainly a good way of building community, and I like most of the suggestions in the chapter - but the illustrations implicitly define "community" as "gatherings of unthreatening white middle class people." I'm not saying this to score some kind of an abstract point - I'm saying that, if you wanted to take pictures like this where I live, you'd have to find someplace to hide the vast majority of city residents.

That's not to say that we don't have great public spaces. We have some lovely plazas, squares, public markets, and parks. But people who hang out in them need to be comfortable negotiating their way around homeless people and junkies and crowds of rough-housing teenaged boys, as well as suited businessmen on their lunch hours. And white folks need to be comfortable being in the minority. I love the city, but it took some adjustment after living in a small, homogeneous town in the Midwest. Plenty of people stick to the suburbs precisely because they don't want to, or aren't able to, make that adjustment. They feel scared or awkward around the kinds of people who gather in the urban layouts that Sucher lauds.

The ironic thing is that you see a lot more examples of the kind of thing he's talking about - active foot traffic, people hanging out being social on the streets and sidewalks, public game-playing - in poor urban neighborhoods than you do in wealthy suburbs. Just down the street from me, for example, there's a block with several boarded-up houses on it. Scruffy black men congregate on the stoops of the abandoned houses, smoking, talking, calling out amiably to passers-by, sometimes passing around a bottle in a paper bag. It would make a great picture for the City Comforts chapter, encapsulating several of Sucher's ideas - except that his intended audience would probably find the scene more threatening than welcoming.

The absence of scary-looking people (from a middle-class suburbanite perspective) from Sucher's illustrations isn't just a cosmetic problem, it's a problem for his argument. Most U.S. cities don't have homogeneous populations who are only prevented from bonding over their essential similarities by the alienating influence of urban design. Cities are heterogeneous collections of people from different backgrounds and with different cultures, crammed together into a compact space with other people and groups they don't necessarily feel comfortable being around. Urban improvement plans which don't address differences of race, class, and culture are, essentially, suburban enrichment dressed up in urban language.

Monday, March 15, 2004

Synergy

Title of an article at HeadlinedNews.com: "Ipod Used In Domestic Homicide."
A Memphis woman was arrested and charged with first-degree murder after she bludgeoned her boyfriend to death with an iPod. [...] Police said no motive has been confirmed, although evidence suggested the murder was the result of a domestic dispute after Pulaski erased the contents of Mathers’ iPod.
In a callout box beside the article: "Related News: Get great deals on the new Apple iPod mini. Starting at under $250."

You know, I'm sure that there are people who read this article - complete with the coroner's quote "It took him a while to die,” Dr. Klamut said. “She must have stabbed him 40 to 80 times with that iPod. His death was not instantaneous, that’s for sure” - and thought, "Man, I've got to get me one of those." But are they really the marketing demographic HeadlinedNews wants to go after?

Update: The ironic thing about this is that I'm usually the one who scoffs at people who were taken in by a hoax. Alas for me.

Friday, March 12, 2004

You Never Reach The Bottom

Last December, when the Bush Administration pushed through its Medicare prescription drug plan, I made a couple of posts about its huge gaps in coverage. At the time, I assumed that the worst components - such as the part that prohibits Medicaid from covering prescriptions not paid for by Medicare, thus actually reducing benefits for the poorest seniors - were never intended to be implemented. Even in this era of Republican domination, they're simply not politically acceptable. I figured that they were in there to drive the projected cost of the bill down, and that eventually there would be "adjustments" - just as the economic impact of the Bush tax cuts was hidden by the various sunset provisions, which were never intended to stand.

So while I was crediting the Bush Administration with this fiendishly clever plan, it turns out that they were also just flat-out lying about the costs of the bill.
The government's top expert on Medicare costs was warned that he would be fired if he told key lawmakers about a series of Bush administration cost estimates that could have torpedoed congressional passage of the White House-backed Medicare prescription-drug plan.

When the House of Representatives passed the controversial benefit by five votes last November, the White House was embracing an estimate by the Congressional Budget Office that it would cost $395 billion in the first 10 years. But for months the administration's own analysts in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had concluded repeatedly that the drug benefit could cost upward of $100 billion more than that.

Withholding the higher cost projections was important because the White House was facing a revolt from 13 conservative House Republicans who'd vowed to vote against the Medicare drug bill if it cost more than $400 billion.
You never reach the bottom of what these guys are willing to do. No matter how much you suspect them, it's always just a little bit worse than you thought. I wonder what effect this revelation will have on that famed Republican Party loyalty. This time they lied to their own guys.

Lauren Slater, Liar

Man, I actually had reservations about whether I was being too hard on Lauren Slater the last time I posted about her new book, Opening Skinner's Box.

I wasn't nearly hard enough.

I still haven't read the book - just excerpts. But according to this piece by B.F. Skinner's daughter Deborah, Slater's book perpetuates the nasty, and completely untrue, rumor that Skinner kept his baby in a "Skinner Box," or operant chamber, just as if she were one of his rats or pigeons.
Slater's sensationalist book rehashes some of the old stuff, but offers some rumours that are entirely new to me. For my first two years, she reports, my father kept me in a cramped square cage that was equipped with bells and food trays, and arranged for experiments that delivered rewards and punishments. Then there's the story that after my father "let me out", I became psychotic. Well, I didn't. That I sued him in a court of law is also untrue. And, contrary to hearsay, I didn't shoot myself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. I have never even been to Billings, Montana.
I heard those rumors myself in college; perhaps you have as well. A quick Google search for "skinner daughter conditioned" found several perpetuations of the myth in the first twenty results, although it also found several debunkings, including one from Snopes. Any serious book about Skinner's lfe and theories includes a debunking of the rumors. I myself took the radical step of asking someone who knew the Skinners personally, who explained the truth to me. What I mean to say is, although the rumors are in fact widespread, so are the facts. They're readily available to anyone who really wants to learn them.
The design of the crib was not at all like that of a traditional crib. Instead of the wooden slats that run along the side of the crib, Skinner's "air crib" had sound-absorbing walls and a large picture window made of safety glass. The crib was designed so that air entered through filters on the bottom of the crib and circulated clean air into the enclosed living space. Instead of having a mattress for the child to sleep on, the child was placed on a tightly-stretched canvas with ten yards of sheeting that protected it. This strip of sheeting could be cranked in a matter of seconds, leaving a clean section for the child to sleep on. [...] The filtered and humidified air reduced the danger of airborne infection and kept the baby clean. Because the crib was filtered with warm, moist air, the baby wore only a diaper to bed. Because of this, Deborah's skin was never "water-logged with sweat or urine" (Skinner, 1979). The baby could enjoy a sound sleep because noise was muffled by the sound-proofed walls. There was also a shade that could be drawn to keep the light out of the crib while the baby was sleeping.
The "air crib" was simply supposed to be an improved version of traditional cribs and playpens. Skinner intended the "controlled environment" to free babies from being swaddled in tons of clothes and blankets; he thought infants were more comfortable and moved more easily when they were naked. He also wanted to reduce the laundry burden. Deborah was taken out of the crib to be held, fed, played with, bathed, et cetera. The story still sounds isolating to modern parents, I think, because people today don't use playpens and cribs as much as they used to - but in the 1940s, when Skinner designed the aircrib, most babies spent most of their day in some kind of restricted space. If Skinner was inhumane, so were my grandparents - and probably yours.

Slater apparently claims she searched for Skinner's daughter Deborah and couldn't find her. That's funny, because entering her married name into Google instantly pulls up her e-mail address. Entering her maiden name pulls up this site from a gallery that represents her art. Okay, so possibly the gallery didn't want to put Slater in contact with Skinner, but I bet they could've confirmed that Skinner didn't shoot herself in a bowling alley in Billings. Slater did interview Skinner's other daughter, Julie Vargas, but Vargas now complains that she was extensively and egregiously misquoted. So do several other notable psychologists quoted in Slater's book.

Lauren Slater is a liar, plain and simple. And a malicious one, at that. The shame of it is that more people will read her book than will ever read serious accounts of Skinner, Milgram, Rosenhan, Spitzer, and the other psychologists she slanders. I hope Deborah Skinner Buzan is planning to sue.

(via Oursin.)

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Support Our Troops

I’m thinking about a 19-year-old who was on my table. This guy could have been your next door neighbor. Smart kid, excited kid. But his life as he knew it was basically over. His legs were gone. It’s hard for these soldiers to believe. I’ve seen lots of people with severe, permanent injuries. They’re going to need a lot of help when they get back home, because their lives are going to change forever. And to have the guy [President Bush] cutting billions from the VA [Veterans Administration] budget, at a time when you’ve got all those guys coming back from overseas with major injuries, that’s disgusting! That hurts every person who ever served this country. I don’t understand how someone can stand up and say, “I’m pro-military,” when you want to cut $16 billion from the VA and close VA hospitals.
(Via Julia)

Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Damned If You Don't

The sun rose in the east this morning. Additionally, a study was released demonstrating the ineffectiveness of teen abstinence programs. This one found that teenagers who take a voluntary abstinence pledge are just as likely to get an STD as teenagers who don't pledge, even though the pledgers have fewer sexual partners. The reason? When pledgers do have sex, they're less likely to use condoms.

Here's the most intriguing part of the results, for me:
The analysis also found that in communities where at least 20 percent of adolescents pledged to remain virgins, the STD rates for everyone combined was 8.9 percent. In communities with fewer than 7 percent pledgers, the STD rate was 5.5 percent.
So it's precisely in communities where there's a lot of vocal support for teen abstinence that, apparently, you have the greatest rates of unprotected sex. That doesn't surprise me at all. The study's author thinks this finding is related to socially-enforced hypocrisy - the old "swept away" phenomenon, where using birth control means that you intended to have sex, which means that you're a whore. Presumably, communities with a lot of vocal support for teen abstinence also tend to condemn girls who have sex, thus increasing girls' determination to only have sex if they seem to have been "swept away."

Another way to understand this result is by looking at the importance of peer norms for sexual behavior. We know from repeated studies that people, including teens, are more likely to use condoms if they think that their friends use them. It's the upside of peer pressure. If all your friends think that having condomless sex is crazy, you're going to feel more comfortable insisting that your boyfriend wears one. At a more basic level, you're simply more likely to think about using condoms, and talk about them with your partner, if your social circle considers them to be a standard feature of sex.

One of the most effective HIV prevention interventions took advantage of people's tendency to follow peer pressure. Instead of sending public health educators into the gay community, they went to gay bars and had the bartenders pick out the most popular and well-liked men. Those men were then trained to promote condom use via casual, one-on-one, personal conversations. When the popular guys became associated with promoting safer sex, everyone wanted to do it, and higher rates of condom use were seen throughout the community - well beyond the folks who actually received the intervention.

Abstinence pledges are the same thing in reverse. If the popular kids are publicly swearing off sex, there's an absence of social norms for condom use. Even kids who didn't take the pledge will hear fewer positive messages from their peers about condoms, and will have less of a sense that condoms are widely accepted in their peer group. It's hard for teenagers to do things that aren't widely accepted in their peer group. So high rates of abstinence pledges in a community make it harder for all the kids, not just the pledgers, to plan for and insist on condom use.

Tuesday, March 09, 2004

Is Testosterone Really A Requirement For Lefty Blogs?

Poor Ezra, at Pandagon, got his ass handed to him today. Twice.
A recent post of mine provoked some discussion about the shocking lack of liberal female bloggers. Sure there's Jeanne D'Arc from Body and Soul (and she's worth at least 7 or 8 male bloggers). There's Jeralynn over at Talk Left. There's the (potentially) lovely Wonkette. But that's about it, as far as I know.
He was immediately supplied with a list of about 100 female bloggers, which doesn't seem to satisfy him because these women aren't linked to by the usual suspects:
Comparatively, I am surprised by the lack of female bloggers. Look at the average blogrolls, not just mine, but Kos's, Atrios, or anyone of your choosing. It's heavily tilted towards the male end of things, a phenomenon I still don't understand.
When last seen, he was bewildered as to why women might've been offended by his post and follow-up comments, each of which seemed to dig him deeper and deeper into a hole.

I've noticed myself that the Big Male Bloggers like Kos and Atrios do tend to have mostly-male blogrolls, but it doesn't make me wonder why women don't blog - it makes me wonder why these guys don't link to more women's blogs. After all, the blogroll at Body and Soul seems close to gender parity, and Christine Cupaiuolo at Ms. magazine's blog links almost exclusively to women. A cursory investigation suggests that most female bloggers link to a lot of other female blogs, so Ezra's "average blogrolls...anyone of your choosing" pretty much doesn't apply to anyone female. His criterion for blogosphere visibility seems to be that prominent men link to your blog - or, contrariwise, his assumption is that the gender ratio of the blogosphere is accurately reflected in the gender ratios seen on prominent male bloggers' blogrolls.

I'll draw a veil over the condescending explanations offered for why more women don't blog. (For example: they don't understand that hard technology stuff, so computers scare them. Tell that to the half-million-plus girls and women with active LiveJournals, or the almost-exclusively-female fanfiction subculture, which has women running its websites, mailing lists, message boards, archives, and other hard technology stuff.)

I should say that I honestly think Ezra means well, and I think he's genuinely bewildered at the number of pissed-off women in his comments section complaining about feeling invisible. I don't think there's some sort of cackling misogynistic conspiracy of male bloggers. I think there probably is a general cultural tendency to take men more seriously than women, at least on matters in the public sphere, and I think that general tendency is amplified by the self-perpetuating nature of blogosphere popularity.

Feminist women and men tend to deliberately work at overcoming the subconscious tendency to give men more attention than women, so they tend to read and link to more blogs by women. In the absence of that kind of deliberate work, you get male bloggers with blogrolls full of men quoting and linking to other male bloggers, and the perception that female bloggers barely exist.

Update: Suburban Guerilla has some brilliant things to say. One point (of many - go read it!) she makes is also something that occurred to me after I went to bed - "Women bloggers still tend to put their politics in the context of the personal." Most women I know talk about politics in their online journals along with everything else in their lives, and don't seem interested in separating out the political stuff for a separate location. That kind of political blogging rarely shows up in links to other blogs or in the TTLB showcase, but it's still a genuine example of women talking politics online.

Monday, March 08, 2004

Hell No, We Won't Go

Did everyone see this thing about the Bush Administration preparing to reinstate the draft before I did? I ran across it on LiveJournal, where it was quoted by someone who'd heard about it from a homeschooling listserv, who, well, you get the picture. It apparently traces back to a Jan. 28 article by Adam Stutz of Project Censored:
The current agenda of the US federal government is to reinstate the draft in order to staff up for a protracted war on "terrorism." Pending legislation in the House and Senate (twin bills S 89 and HR 163) would time the program so the draft could begin at early as Spring 2005 -- conveniently just after the 2004 presidential election! But the administration is quietly trying to get these bills passed NOW, so our action is needed immediately.
I ran this idea past Respectful of Otters' Military Advisory Board over dinner the other night, and was treated to a fascinating display of synchronized eye-rolling. "Is our military even set up so that conscripts would be of use?" I asked. "No," the Military Advisory Board said in unison. (I think they practice.) "I didn't really read the article in depth," I said, "but, you know, it had links."

Since then I've actually followed the links. Let's start with a closer look at S 89 and HR 163. Both were introduced on Jan 7, 2003, and - despite Stutz's alarmed tone, which suggests immediate danger - both have been sitting in committee, unacted upon, for more than a year. The Senate bill was introduced by Fritz Hollings and has no cosponsors. The House bill was introduced by Chuck Rangel and has thirteen cosponsors, all of them Democrats, eight of them (plus Rangel) members of the Congressional Black Caucus. If "the administration is quietly trying to get these bills passed NOW," shouldn't the bills have at least one Republican sponsor? Given that Republicans control Congressional committees, shouldn't the latest action on the bills have been more recently than 14 months ago (S 89) and 13 months ago (HR 163)? And is it even barely conceivable that Bush would choose the Congressional Black Caucus to be the standard-bearers for his insidious agenda?

Rangel introduced his bill to make a point about the Iraq War. He was sending a message, not proposing public policy, and once the message got through he abandoned it. There was plenty of lefty debate at the time about the wisdom of his proposal in terms of antiwar strategy, but a year later the same bill is being presented (with the context filed off) as a Bush Administration plan. Maybe most of the people passing on Stutz's article have just forgotten.

Here's the other major scare section from the Stutz piece:
$28 million has been added to the 2004 Selective Service System (SSS) budget to prepare for a military draft that could start as early as June 15, 2005. SSS must report to Bush on March 31, 2005 that the system, which has lain dormant for decades, is ready for activation. Please see this website to view the SSS Annual Performance Plan - Fiscal Year 2004.
I did view it. I also read it, which is a big chunk of my life I'll never get back. It's got some scary-sounding goals, right at the beginning:
Prepare and conduct an Area Office Prototype Exercise which tests the activation process from SSS Lottery input to the issuance of the first Armed Forces Examination Orders.

Ensure 90% of people tested are capable of implementing activation procedures.
But a little poking around the SSS website put those goals into perspective. The March 31, 2005 date Stutz references is simply the deadline by which the SSS promises to deliver its Annual Report, which as the name suggests, is something they do every year. Another thing they do every year is prepare for the possible reinstatement of the draft, as this 1996 report from the Clinton-era SSS makes clear. Because there is no draft, all there is for the entire Selective Service bureaucracy to do is collect names, conduct readiness exercises, and think about what they'll do if the draft is reinstated. That's what they did under Clinton, and the fact that they're still doing it now doesn't mean anything sinister whatsoever.

I'm not sure what Stutz's motivation was for stringing together these half-truths, but it seems to me that we have enough to worry about with what Bush is actually doing. We can't afford to spare any outrage for things he's not doing.

Sunday, March 07, 2004

Otters Explain It All

Since hardly anyone reads Respectful of Otters on the weekends, I thought it might be a good time to answer reader questions.

No, not questions you've actually asked me. Questions people asked in Google searches which brought them to this site. In some cases, they found exactly what they needed, be it flowers from the heartland or evidence that gender myth similarities outweigh differences. Others left with their questions unanswered, until now:

why should someone be respectful
At its most basic level, this is a question of self-preservation. Rules for respectful behavior originally emerged as a way for smaller, weaker people to keep bigger, stronger people from killing them. More broadly, respectfulness, like courtesy, promotes civil interactions between individuals and contributes to a civil tone in society, which in turn facilitates greater involvement in public life. Psychologists have a duty to be fair and respectful of otters, as you can see from this blog's tagline, but it also behooves us to be fair and respectful of other living things as well. We don't always manage it.

how much seroquel does it take to kill a person
You make me nervous, but in the spirit of sharing psychological knowledge I researched your question. It takes an awful lot of seroquel to kill a person. The average prescription is for 400-700mg per day, and overdoses of up to 9600mg haven't produced deaths. Seroquel is simply not a very lethal drug, although a person could really mess themselves up trying. Nor does it seem like a very efficient way to commit murder. If you're writing a mystery novel, I suggest that you try another method.

how did otters get discovered
Otters told some of their closest friends they had a weblog, but it didn't really catch on until they entered the now-defunct Truth Laid Bear Showcase. Some nice folks at the Liberal Coalition - particularly Scout - discovered me through the showcase, took me under their wings, and left the first precious comments on my lonely blog. I got discovered discovered by Tapped, after Patrick Nielsen Hayden linked to my now-famous boob post. (Which was translated into Spanish! How crazy is that?) In one day, my daily hit count shot up from 50 to 1000. Not that it lasted, but it certainly counts as discovered.

gay otters
No, actually, although I can see why the long string of posts about gay marriage might have led you to believe otherwise. We here at Respectful of Otters are merely bisexual. In researching the answer to your question, though, I discovered that "otter" is a term with specific meaning in the bear subculture of the gay community, referring to a gay man who is hairy, yet slim. Huh. I had no idea. I just assumed the person was looking for some otter analogue of the gay penguins. I guess you learn something new every day.

political involvement virginia statistics
Yes, Virginia, if you're going to be involved in politics you'll need to have a head for statistics. How else are you going to understand what's wrong with John Lott? Fortunately, you probably don't need to get deep into the complicated stuff like logistic regression. Unless you just happen to be interested in reading my disserta - hey, where are you going?

do otters change their appearance
Not as such. Otters have had essentially the same haircut since halfway through college - except for a brief flirtation with head-shaving, which ended about the time I moved to Iowa and experienced my first 20-below-zero winter weather. I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that a childhood friend who hadn't seen me since age eleven recently found me again because she recognized my picture on the net. So no, I can't say that otters change their appearance.

kansas city blog urban february depressed
Yes. If there's one thing in this world of which I'm certain, it's that anyone stuck in Kansas City in February is probably depressed. As I'm sure you'd know if you read their blog. Being in an urban environment is probably a slight protective factor, compared to being in a small town or something, but it can only help so much.

(All search strings unedited. Please excuse this utterly shameless exercise in self-indulgence.)

Saturday, March 06, 2004

There Must Be A Pony In Here Somewhere!

It's been blogged all over the place by now - I got it from Julia -but I just can't resist linking to this masterful deconstruction of libertarian philosophy, from John & Belle Have a Blog.
Reason recently published a debate held at its 35th anniversary banquet. The flavor of this discussion is indescribable. In its total estrangement from our political and social life today, its wilfull disregard of all known facts about human nature, it resembles nothing so much as a debate over some fine procedural point of end-stage communism, after the state has withered away. [...]

Just wish that we might all live in a state of perfect liberty, free of taxation and intrusive government, and that we should all be wealthier as well as freer. Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint on their actions such as might be formed by policemen, functioning law courts, the SEC, and so on, not spend all their time screwing each other in predictable ways ranging from ordinary rape, through the selling of fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures, up to the wholesale dumping of mercury in the public water supplies. (I mean, the general stock of water from which people privately draw.) Awesome huh? But it gets better. Now wish that everyone had a pony.
Go read the whole thing, and then follow it up with Brad DeLong's invitation of a few more people - Adam Smith, Thomas Hobbes, David Hume - to the Reason dinner-debate.

Wednesday, March 03, 2004

Earning A Doctorate In Spin

Blink, and you'll miss the health warning in this press release:
The NIH issued a statement today stating that although the data are preliminary they appear to show, among other things, that, as compared to placebo, oral estrogen alone taken by women between 50 and 79, for up to seven years, caused no increased risk of breast cancer or heart disease. As in the previously published WHI study, a benefit in preventing hip fractures and an increased risk for stroke were identified in this older population. The NIH has determined that the results would not likely change if the estrogen trial continued to its planned completion in 2005. A full report of the results is expected in the next two months.

It is important to note that the study did not find an increase in the risk of breast cancer.
Did you catch it? The critical health warning? Here's the un-spun version:
A large federal study of estrogen therapy in postmenopausal women has been stopped a year ahead of schedule because the hormone increased the risk of stroke and offered no protection against heart disease, the government announced yesterday.

The study included only women taking estrogen alone, not those who take combined hormones. An earlier study, halted abruptly in 2002 after the researchers found an increased risk of breast cancer, involved only women taking the combined hormones estrogen and progestin.

The National Institutes of Health, which sponsored the estrogen study, part of the Women's Health Initiative, said it stopped the study because ``an increased risk of stroke is not acceptable in healthy women in a research study.''
Notice how, in the drug company press release, NIH's decision to stop the study for safety reasons has been blanded down to "The NIH has determined that the results would not likely change if the estrogen trial continued." Yes indeed, and the particular result the NIH thought wouldn't change was that the study participants would continue to be at increased risk of stroke.

I was particularly struck by this quote from the New York Times article:
Dr. James Simon, president of the North American Menopause Society, said, ``I think the findings for women are actually quite reassuring, namely that the major issue which women fear, breast cancer, was not increased on estrogen alone after approximately seven years.''
What struck me as funny was that Dr. Simon said the study was good news with respect to "the major issue which women fear," and not, for example, "the major issue which endangers women's health." So I checked the National Vital Statistics Reports, and suddenly his wording made a lot more sense. In 2001, 100,361 American women died of cerebrovascular disease (strokes). According to the American Cancer Society, in the same year an estimated 40,200 women died of breast cancer. In other words, women are more than twice as likely to die from a stroke as they are to die from breast cancer.

So the estrogen study didn't show an increased risk for the feared result, just an increased risk for the more deadly result - and that's supposed to be good news for women? It seemed unlikely, so I checked Dr. Simon's quote again. And in fact, he doesn't say that the study is "good news" for women - he says it's "quite reassuring" for women. It calms their fears of getting breast cancer, and makes them feel safer about taking a drug that increases their risk of stroke. Aren't you reassured?

(I wouldn't be giving Dr. Simon such a hard time about his precise wording if it weren't for the fact that the confusion of "feeling safe" with "being safe" is so often a deliberate PR move. This guy is smart enough and well-educated enough to understand the relative risks involved. I don't think it's an accident that his comment echoes the drug company's own spin so precisely.)

"They Fall Like A Row Of Dominoes..."

Oregon's most populous county to authorize same-sex marriages.

My former home! I'm so proud.

Tuesday, March 02, 2004

I never understood the whole concept of people who didn't make up their minds until they stepped into the voting booth. Until today, when I walked up to a Diebold voting machine and cast my ballot for John Edwards.

I felt surprisingly sad afterward. I thought I'd already come to terms with the end of Dean's candidacy - and yet, until the last minute, I thought about voting for him anyway. Maybe I should have. I wanted to make a meaningful not-Kerry choice, but in the end, it doesn't look like I did that anyway.

In a little while, I'm going to rally full-strength behind John Kerry and we're going to elect him to be the 44th President of the United States. That time will come. But that time is not yet, and until it comes I'm going to sit here and be sad for a while.

Almost Like Pure Heroin

I've always kind of rolled my eyes when people bring up the finding that homophobic men show more arousal than non-homophobic men when they're exposed to homosexual stimuli. You remember the study:
Men in both groups were aroused by about the same degree by the video depicting heterosexual sexual behavior and by the video showing two women engaged in sexual behavior. The only significant difference in degree of arousal between the two groups occurred when they viewed the video depicting male homosexual sex: 'The homophobic men showed a significant increase in penile circumference to the male homosexual video, but the control [nonhomophobic] men did not.' [...]

When asked to give their own subjective assessment of the degree to which they were aroused by watching each of the three videos, men in both groups gave answers that tracked fairly closely with the results of the objective physiological measurement, with one exception: the homophobic men significantly underestimated their degree of arousal by the male homosexual video.
I know, I know, it's great stuff from a political standpoint, and it's a respectable research design - but I've never put much credence in it. It just seems a little too perfect to be regarded without suspicion. Besides, I hate that psychoanalytic bullshit about how what people really feel is always the opposite of what they think they feel.

Still, I'll admit, sometimes I do wonder:
“Untrammeled homosexuality can take over and destroy a social system,” says [Paul] Cameron. “If you isolate sexuality as something solely for one’s own personal amusement, and all you want is the most satisfying orgasm you can get- and that is what homosexuality seems to be-then homosexuality seems too powerful to resist. The evidence is that men do a better job on men and women on women, if all you are looking for is orgasm.”

So powerful is the allure of gays, Cameron believes, that if society approves of gay people, more and more heterosexuals will be inexorably drawn into homosexuality. “I’m convinced that lesbians are particularly good seducers,” says Cameron. “People in homosexuality are incredibly evangelical,” he adds, sounding evangelical himself. “It’s pure sexuality. It’s almost like pure heroin. It’s such a rush. They are committed in almost a religious way. And they’ll take enormous risks, do anything.”

He says that for married men and women, gay sex would be irresistible. “Marital sex tends toward the boring end,” he points out. “Generally, it doesn’t deliver the kind of sheer sexual pleasure that homosexual sex does” So, Cameron believes, within a few generations homosexuality would be come the dominant form of sexual behavior.
So maybe there is something in that study after all. Cameron, incidentally, was kicked out of the APA for ethical violations involving distortions of the state of psychological science as it relates to homosexuality. Given the state of the science, well, you can see why he'd be tempted.

I can't believe I've encountered this bizarre argument twice in one week. I know plenty of heterosexuals ('cause I'm liberal), and they always seem to be perfectly happy with straight sex. Even the ones who haven't particularly internalized the societal prohibitions against homosexuality, which are supposedly the only things that make men and women want to have sex with each other in the first place. Do these guys, Cameron and Orson Scott Card, even know how they sound? Or do they really think they're voicing something that all straight people feel, deep down?

(via TBogg)

Monday, March 01, 2004

Putting HIV Prevention In Women's Hands

Just as fairy tales do, policy debates about HIV prevention tend to end with marriage - "and they lived happily ever after." Teenagers should abstain until marriage (if you are conservative) or use condoms until marriage (if you are liberal). But of course, only in fairy tales do people's life stories end with marriage, and an article in yesterday's New York Times illustrates that the risk of HIV infection doesn't end there either:
Teenage brides in some African countries are becoming infected with the AIDS virus at higher rates than sexually active unmarried girls of similar ages in the same areas, the director of Unicef and other United Nations officials said here on Saturday. [...]

The officials said the findings pointed to an inadequacy in programs that focus on abstinence among teenagers as a main means of preventing H.I.V. infection because they failed to take into account fully the risk of transmission in marriage.

The young brides are apparently acquiring H.I.V., the AIDS virus, from their husbands, who tend to be many years older and were infected before marriage, the officials said.
The head of UNAIDS suggests promoting condom use in marriage, an idea which seems to me to be a non-starter. A sixteen-year-old girl married to a much older man is unlikely to have sufficient personal power to insist on condom use. It's no coincidence that HIV rates among women are highest in cultures which emphasize female submission - those women have great difficulty negotiating safer-sex practices within their relationships. Most African countries have no laws against marital rape, leaving married women with no legal right to protect themselves from their husbands. And even when brutality is not at issue, most married people - especially in traditional cultures - intend to have children. For that reason alone, condoms simply will not be widely accepted within marriage.

Requiring HIV testing at marriage might be helpful, although, as this article explains, many marriages are not registered with the government. But widespread male infidelity in marriage limits the degree to which women are protected by premarital testing.

So, if married women aren't protected by the much-lauded ABC approach (Abstain, Be faithful, use Condoms), what hope do they have? Microbicides. Microbicides are chemical products - usually delivered as a lubricant gel or a vaginal suppository - which either kill HIV or block it from cell entry. They're probably not quite as effective as barrier methods, but have substantial advantages anyway: women can use them without their partners' knowledge; they don't reduce sexual sensation; and they don't interfere with pregnancy.

Microbicide research has historically been underfunded. The former director of UNAIDS said in 2002 that microbicide research is "a classic case of market failure. The profit incentive for a first generation microbicide simply isn't there." But in the past few years, governments and foundations have managed to scrape together enough money that we're now, finally, looking at several promising lines of research.

Right now, many people's ability to protect themselves from HIV depends, not on what they do, but on what they can convince their partners to do. (This applies to gay men as well as to women.) Microbicides could change that - but as they near FDA approval, expect to hear conservatives focus on their failure rates, as they've done with condoms. Then ask those conservatives what they would tell a seventeen-year-old Zimbabwean girl whose parents have just married her to a forty-year-old trucker who spends months on the road sleeping with who-knows-who. Fidelity in marriage is great, but no one's life should depend on it.