Friday, April 30, 2004

Defending The Unspeakable

Here's how they're apparently going to play it:
In neat, handwritten block letters, the son wrote a journal about his Iraq experience and sent a copy to his father.

Sergeant Frederick, who described the abuse Wednesday night on the CBS program 60 Minutes II, says in the journal that he saw Iraqi prisoners placed in intolerable conditions.

"Prisoners were forced to live in damp cool cells," says an entry said to be from January. "MI [Military Intelligence] has also instructed us to place prisoners in an isolation cell with little or no clothes. No toilet or running water, no ventilation or window for as much as three days."

In the journal, Frederick says the unit was in a strange, almost unfathomable land. Like improperly supervised children, he says, members wanted to do their jobs but were uncertain exactly what was expected of them. [...]

"A prisoner with a clearly visible mental condition was shot with non-lethal rounds for standing near the fence singing, when a lesser means of force could have been used," he wrote.
The article nicely sets up the picture of Frederick and the other Army reservists as victims led astray by their own inexperience, following - with reservations - the directions of unscrupulous interrogators, because they hadn't received the training to know any better. The poor troubled kids, huh. Except that the quoted journal entry is from January, which, according to the article, is about the time that other soldiers in the unit were calling home and telling their parents there was going to be trouble.

And a few months before he supposedly wrote this sensitive, compassionate, just-following-orders journal entry, Frederick apparently sent this letter:
"Military intelligence has encouraged and told us 'Great job.' "

"They usually don't allow others to watch them interrogate. But since they like the way I run the prison, they have made an exception."

"We help getting them to talk with the way we handle them. ... We've had a very high rate with our style of getting them to break. They usually end up breaking within hours."
Look at his use of personal pronouns and the active voice there - "the way I run the prison." "We've had a very high rate with our style of getting them to break." It's complete ownership of, and identification with, the situation in the prison. Compare that to the passive voice with which he fails to take responsibility for anything, in the journal he sent his father: "Prisoners were forced..." "A prisoner...was shot..." "MI has instructed us to..." Suddenly he isn't an actor or decision maker. He's not bragging about his authority and style anymore. He's suddenly "like improperly supervised children," not responsible for his own actions.

Sergeant Stryker ain't buying it:
The first rule of a coward, when caught, is to play stupid. The second is to blame someone else. I don't know about you, but I'm pretty sure I don't need a superior to tell me that attaching wires to someone's genitals or beating the living shit out of them is unacceptable. What are you, a fucking idiot? This guy's supposed to be a correctional officer at a Virginia prison, but apparently when it comes to performing his job outside the confines of the Commonwealth, he turns into Sergeant Stupid. "Duh, What do I do? What do I do? Wow, that translator's raping a prisoner and that soldier over there's taking pictures. I don't know what to do! Help, help, I need an officer!" [...]

wait, did anyone ever tell you that maintaning discipline and standards of conduct is your main charge as an NCO? Did this piece of training slip through the cracks as well? You know, I wear the same uniform. I'm an NCO as well. Not only have you disgraced yourself, your unit, your country and humanity, your actions have disgraced me and everyone else who wears that uniform. Your stupidity, ignorance, and cruelty have stained all of us, because of that uniform we all wear. It's the binding tie that connects not only all of us serving today, but everyone who has ever served and those who will serve in the future. That uniform is stained with the noble blood of those who've fallen in battle for their country, but you have smeared that uniform -my uniform!- with the excrement of malevolent barbarism.
Respectful of Otters' Military Advisory Board ain't buying it either. But unfortunately, as always, some other people are:
"I'm sure there is more than one side of the story, and we don't know all the facts," said Robert Hutcheson, a Cumberland resident and Allegany County commissioner. "In my mind, this is no blemish on their record."

Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 172 in Cumberland was been a strong supporter of the unit at the rally arranged by McClarran-Mizak along the pedestrian mall downtown.

"The little bit I have read about, it seems to me that it is being completely blown out of proportion," said Roger Krueger, who served in Vietnam and is the chapter's president. "When a person is in combat, they have to do whatever they have to do to stay alive."
And sometimes, apparently, when a person is not even remotely close to combat, in order to stay alive they have to take unarmed, helpless, locked-up men, strip them naked at gunpoint, pose them as if they're having oral sex with each other, and take pictures. Who are we to judge, who have not seen the hell that is war?

...Man, Frederick isn't the only one who's disgracing the uniform. I'd like to put Mr. Krueger in a room with Sergeant Stryker for a while.

Thursday, April 29, 2004

An Army Of Liberation

I don't even know what to say about this.
It was American soldiers serving as military police at Abu Ghraib who took these pictures. The investigation started when one soldier got them from a friend, and gave them to his commanders. 60 Minutes II has a dozen of these pictures, and there are many more – pictures that show Americans, men and women in military uniforms, posing with naked Iraqi prisoners.

There are shots of the prisoners stacked in a pyramid, one with a slur written on his skin in English.

In some, the male prisoners are positioned to simulate sex with each other. And in most of the pictures, the Americans are laughing, posing, pointing, or giving the camera a thumbs-up. [...]

The Army has photographs that show a detainee with wires attached to his genitals. Another shows a dog attacking an Iraqi prisoner. Frederick said that dogs were “used for intimidation factors.”
The guys who are being court-martialed say that they didn't know they were violating the Geneva Convention, because they never got any training in procedures for handling POWs. The Army's internal investigation found that the reservists acting as prison guards were asked by interrogators to "prepare the Iraqi detainees, physically and mentally, for questioning." What exactly that meant appears to have been left up to the reservists to decide for themselves, perhaps with input from the interrogators. But only the guards are being court martialed. Why?
[S]o far, none of the interrogators at Abu Ghraib are facing criminal charges. In fact, a number of them are civilians, and military law doesn’t apply to them.
Civilian. Interrogators.

Civilian interrogators. People conducting interrogations who are not subject to the Geneva Convention or the Uniform Code of Military Justice. People who don't answer to Congress or the President, conducting interrogations of terrorized Iraqi prisoners. It's those interrogators that I keep coming back to.

I think they'll try to spin this as an isolated incident in which poorly-trained part-time soldiers got out of control. Individual wrongdoing on the part of the soldiers directly involved - bad apples, but not a sign of a spoiled barrel. But the use of civilian interrogators - as opposed to, say, Army interrogators - suggests that someone wanted to inject a certain level of deniability into how those prisoners were treated.

Christ. If it hadn't been reservists - if real soldiers with a real chain of command hadn't provoked an investigation - if the whole prison had been run by private contractors, we probably still wouldn't know that Iraqis were being tortured in our names.

Update: Jeanne D'Arc asks:
The lesson of the Boudreaux photograph is that when you put young men and women into positions where they are both powerful and powerless -- powerless to change the course of events, powerless even to protect their own lives, and at the same time able to bully other people -- some of them are going to do stupid, vicious things.

These photos raise far more disturbing questions. Do we have a military that knows perfectly well that young, frightened, inexperienced, poorly trained soldiers are going to do brutal things, and has decided to make use of that convenient fact?

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Soon I Will Stop Blogging About Abortion

...but that day is not yet, because Alas, a Blog has some fascinating statistics. (Link is to the non-Catholic version - if you're a religious Catholic, you might prefer to read this version of the same post.)
Pro-life laws may prevent a few abortions; but they don't prevent enough to be measured statistically, or to have a noticeable effect on birthrates. That may seem counterintuitive, but it actually makes sense. Why? Because most women don't have abortions lightly. They have abortions because they are feeling very determined, or perhaps very desperate, and the anti-abortion laws don't seem just to them. When something is desperately wanted by consumers - and when that something is fairly easy to supply - outlawing it won't make it actually unavailable. [...]

Here's another statistic to consider: Which countries have the least abortion? Belgium has an abortion rate of 6.8 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15-44. The Netherlands, 6.5. Germany, 7.8. Compare that to the USA's rate of 22. Even better, compare it to countries where abortion is illegal: Egypt, 23; Brazil, 40; Chile, 50; Peru, 56.
I cannot even begin to express my joy that someone is bringing concrete figures into a debate which - on both sides - usually depends on rhetoric. The data is followed by an eminently reasonable argument for a demand-side, rather than a supply-side, approach to reducing abortions. Hear, hear.

Talking 'Bout My Generation

The conventional wisdom in the pro-choice movement says that women born after Roe v. Wade take abortion rights for granted - that we're not as pro-choice as our mothers are because we don't remember the struggle. For example, take this lecture by Ruth Rosen, originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle:
THIS IS AN open plea to young women. I know you think abortion rights have been won. I know you take for granted the right to choose when and whether to bear a child. But now those reproductive rights are under attack and it's your turn to carry the torch. It's time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. It's time to organize and march in the streets.

I also understand why you feel complacent...But such complacency is terribly shortsighted.
Amy Richards, of the Third Wave Foundation, doesn't have much patience for this kind of hectoring condescension. In her "Ask Amy" column, she writes:
[I]f you ask most "second wavers" -- not all -- about young women -- they will say something to the effect of "they take their rights for granted, they don't realize that choice is in jeapordy."

This has never been my experience, since I interact with younger women daily who are doing this work, so when I hear this accusation, I immediately point to these examples and I get some version of "they are the exception," but they aren't.
So who's closer to the truth, Rosen or Richards? According to a recent Gallup poll, women aged 18-29 - all of them born after Roe - are more likely to call themselves "pro-choice" than any other demographic group in the country. 54% of them say they're pro-choice, compared to 51% of women aged 30-49 and 44% of women aged 50-64. Newsweek notes a UCLA poll finding that 55% of first-year college students support abortion rights, down from 64% in 1993. That's definitely alarming, but in combination with the Gallup poll it's hard to single it out as a specific failing of young women.

The Gallup report is worth reading in full, because - in contrast to the polarized news coverage of the abortion issue - it depicts an American people who are groping for nuance. For example: Only 40% of polled Americans say that abortion should be legal in all or most circumstances, and yet 60% say that abortion laws should stay the same or be liberalized further. Only 48% identify as pro-choice, and yet Ruy Teixeira cites other Gallup polls showing that 66% think abortion should be legal in the first trimester, and that only 30% think that Roe v. Wade was bad for the country. That discrepancy suggests to me that - like "feminist" and "liberal" - "pro-choice" has become a term largely defined by its detractors. I don't know how to keep that from happening - suggestions?

The "Terrorists" Respond

Planned Parenthood's response to Karen Hughes:
Invoking 9/11 to defend this administration's policies regarding reproductive rights was an insensitive and divisive overreach.

We are all Americans, and we are patriots, too, Ms. Hughes. And we will not cease in our efforts to fight the attempts by this administration and this Congress to restrict reproductive rights, family planning, medical privacy, and so many other important factors in a woman's right to care for herself and her family without intrusion from government or politicians. We do this precisely because we value human life and dignity so much.

Your friends in the administration have repeatedly stated that our troops are fighting for freedom: to allow people to control their own lives and make their own decisions. Yet this administration and this Congress are working to take away American women's rights to make their own decisions.
Way to go, Gloria Feldt!

Update: Karen Hughes says that's not what she meant, but doesn't really say what she did mean.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

One More Post About The Secular And Religious Lefts

Let's talk about confirmation bias.

Confirmation bias is the well-documented cognitive tendency to see and remember evidence which fits with your expectations, and to overlook evidence which disconfirms your expectations. Everyone does it, to a greater or lesser extent. It's a side effect of the processes our brains use to make organized sense of the overwhelming and constant bombardment of information we're exposed to during every waking moment.

Why do I want to talk about confirmation bias? Because of the controversy in the lefty blogosphere over relations between the secular left and the religious left. I'm not going to rehash the whole argument. I'll just say that I'm looking forward to Bible Study this evening because I want to compare notes with the other folks who marched for choice on Sunday, and that if you think that statement seems odd or unlikely, then this post is for you.

Again and again in comment threads, the religious left are being chided by many on the secular left. "If you want our respect, you have to speak out against the fundies first." "Why don't you speak up against the religious right?" To which I say: "We've been shouting at the tops of our lungs for years. When are you going to start paying attention?"

Case study: the March on Washington. How many lefty bloggers linked to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice? Just a handful - including Value Judgment, Ms. Musings, and Sadly, No, but not any of the most prominent or highest-traffic lefty blogs. How many mentioned the interfaith worship service which was held before the March, or the 24-hour pro-choice prayer vigil? Looks like that one might possibly boil down to seminarian Chuck Currie and me. Lefty religious groups were active co-sponsors of the March, put lots of bodies on the streets, and had prominent signage and religious symbols. How come they were so invisible to people who wanted to sing the same old song about the absence or passivity of the religious left?

I think the answer amounts to confirmation bias. People went to the March on Washington expecting to see a confrontation between the religious right and the secular left, and a lot of them just plain didn't register anything that didn't fit. The same thing happened in the gay marriage battle – people remember the religious protesters outside the San Francisco City Hall, not the ministers and rabbis performing marriages inside. Disconfirming evidence is consistently overlooked – by the left, by the right, by the middle. We see what fits the story.

To the folks on the secular left who have been asking "why the religious left doesn't speak out against the religious right," I suggest that you try asking two other questions: "If the religious left were speaking out, how would I even find out about it?" and "When the religious left does speak out, what can I do to help spread and amplify their message?" We're all good at seeking out disconfirming evidence when it's our ox that's being gored – when patriotism or military bravery is portrayed as a purely Republican province, for example. Let's work a little harder to test our own biases as well.

Monday, April 26, 2004

More March Chatter

Unsurprisingly, there's great coverage of the March on Washington over at Ms. Musings - particularly this post about the post-march press coverage. Elsewhere, World O' Crap reports on some very special March coverage - including one blog which makes the breathtakingly clever argument that feminists don't need abortions because we're all too ugly to get a man.

One thing I've noticed, reading the press coverage, is how wildly the March counts vary depending on who's estimating. Utne Reader accepts the organizers' count of more than a million. The Washington Post leans towards the high side of the official Park Police estimate of 500,000-800,000, quoting police officials saying that the marchers might have exceeded their 750,000-person permit. The Christian Broadcasting Network places the crowd at 500,000. The American Spectator thinks that 300,000 would be a "generous" estimate. tops them all, reporting under the headline "March For Abortion Attracts Lower Numbers Than Expected" that "some estimated that only 'tens of thousands' participated," of whom many were actually anti- abortion protesters. (Yeah, this picture shows just tens of thousands of people. They're, um, moving around really quickly, so it looks like there are more of them.)

I had a wonderful time at the March, myself. Except that, next time, someone should remind me that it's possible to get sunburned even when the sky is overcast. I was so excited and energized that I didn't even notice my nose and the back of my neck burning until it was far too late.

It's hard to explain how big a crowd of a million people is. (I'm taking the organizers' count because I know they were collecting names and passing out "count me in" stickers, so their count is based on something tangible.) Actually, it's hard to understand how big a crowd a million is even when you're in the center of it. I know that when we left the Mall four hours after we started marching, people were still finishing up - and we were nowhere near the front. I know that I sat down to rest in an open lawn in the middle of the route and watched a column twenty women (and men) wide, hundreds of yards long in its visible portion, passing ceaselessly before me. I know I saw people from Texas and Montana and Alabama and Canada. I know that only unceasing vigilance kept my little group of eleven from being separated and lost in the endless throngs. But I don't really know what a group of a million people looks like. I wish I could've seen it from the air - except that then I would've missed all of the faces.

Some of the things that moved me most: Medical Students for Choice, in scrubs and short white coats, carrying signs that read "we are tomorrow's abortion providers." They've got a lot of courage. The woman who marched next to me briefly, her baby in her arms, wearing a T-shirt that said "proud abortion provider." "Three generations for choice," grandmother, mother, and daughters. My Significant Otter, putting a "this is what a feminist looks like" sticker on his Atlanta Braves baseball cap. Older women saying they wanted to spare their daughters the suffering they went through. Unitarian-Universalists everywhere I turned. "Don't mess with Texas women." "Ask me about my abortion." Looking around at the friends I was marching with, and realizing that none of us remembered the days when abortion was illegal - and hoping that would always be true. Hoping that this would be the last time that women and our allies would have to march for the right to control our own bodies.

Domestic Terrorists

I came home from the March on Washington to discover, via the Daily Kos, that Karen Hughes apparently thinks that I and the other million men, women, and children who marched yesterday had a certain something in common with global terrorists. When asked if abortion rights would be an important issue in the campaign, she said:
I think after September 11th the American people are valuing life more and realizing that we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life.

And President Bush has worked to say, let's be reasonable, let's work to value life, let's try to reduce the number of abortions, let's increase adoptions.

And I think those are the kind of policies that the American people can support, particularly at a time when we're facing an enemy, and really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life. [...]

Unfortunately our enemies in the terror network, as we're seeing repeatedly in the headlines these days, don't value any life, not even the innocent and not even their own.
I know that the Bush Administration likes to bring every question back to the War on Terror, but this crosses a line I didn't think even they were capable of crossing. The majority of Americans who support legal abortion are like al-Qaeda because they hate freedom and want to limit people's choices, wait, because they believe that men should have control of women's reproductive capacity, no, because they don't care about killing innocents. Man, she must've really stretched for that one.

The ironic thing, of course, is that there have been multiple acts of terrorism committed by one side in the abortion debate: hers. Let's look at the FBI's definition of terrorism:
"The unlawful use of force against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population or any segment thereof, in the furtherance of political or social objectives". This definition includes three elements: (1) Terrorist activities are illegal and involve the use of force. (2) The actions are intended to intimidate or coerce. (3) The actions are committed in support of political or social objectives.
Now let's look at the examples of Chuck Spingola, Clayton Waagner, Paul Hill, James Kopp, and Eric Rudolph, all of whom have killed abortion providers or made terroristic threats against clinics. They - among many others - attempted to end women's access to legal abortions through violence, threats, and intimidation, and they were funded, supported, and defended by anti-abortion organizations. Now let's look at the other side, at a list of pro-choice activists who have used violence and illegal acts to intimidate or coerce the general public into supporting their positions: _____________

Finally, let's look one more time at the words of anti-abortion Karen Hughes: "[antiabortion policies] are the kind of policies that the American people can support, particularly at a time when we're facing an enemy, and really the fundamental difference between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life."

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Jed Bartlet Is My President - Not To Mention My Pitcher.

You can barely make the words out in this picture, I know. It's the scoreboard at Camden Yards, and it reads: "The Orioles Welcome First Pitch Participant - President Josiah Bartlet."

Orioles scoreboard announcing 'President Josiah Bartlet'

For a few minutes - well, for twenty minutes, actually, because they filmed the scene four times - I got to live in an alternate reality where I had a brilliant, courageous, liberal, slightly goofy president. A president I could trust. I cheered myself hoarse.

But I'm sure what you're all really wondering is: what kind of arm does Jed Bartlet have? Well, I've got some bad news for the country. First pitch was high and outside. Second pitch also high, for another ball. Third pitch was in the dirt. Then he threw a wild pitch over Javy Lopez's head. Four pitch walk to start off the first inning, and you know that kind of thing leads to nothing but trouble.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Some More Of The Right Christians

Sister Donna Quinn, a Palos Hills resident, attended the last two and is flying to this one with four other nuns. Rev. Nan Conser, a retired United Church of Christ minister in Golf, never went before but is going with a group of 10 clergy and lay people. Rev. Larry Greenfield, an American Baptist minister who leads Hyde Park Union Church, couldn't make it last time, but said he wouldn't miss this one for anything.
Where are they going? To join the March for Women's Lives in Washington DC, defying the popular wisdom that Christians all speak with one voice on the abortion issue. There's a prayer vigil starting at 10am Saturday ("Clergy and lay leaders will pray for the safety of health-care providers and travelers to the march and for elected officials to have wisdom and compassion for women.") and an interfaith worship service Sunday morning, just before the march, at the Capitol Reflecting Pool.

I think these folks are really great, but they seem to think that they're just going about their ordinary business:
"The majority of religious people in the United States are in favor of women's choice, but you don't hear about it because of a successful campaign on the part of certain groups to make the American people believe that religious people wouldn't support the right to choose. In fact, the opposite is true," said Castuera, noting that an "underground railroad" of clergy helped women get abortions before the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe vs. Wade made them legal.
(Link via Christine Cupaiuolo at Ms. Musings. See you on the Mall, Christine! I'll be the furry one with webbed toes and an eye peeled for sushi. Unless I'm overidentifying with my blog again.)

New Showcase: The Tangled Bank

People who visit Respectful of Otters for the science-related posts will surely want to check out the inaugural post of The Tangled Bank, a biology and medicine blog showcase which will rotate hosts in the manner of The Carnival of the Vanities. Why "The Tangled Bank?" An explanation, submission guidelines, and a list of upcoming hosts may be found here.

Please support these fine science bloggers with your visits, comments, and links.

I Seem To Have Touched A Nerve. And Had One Touched.

Kevin Drum linked to my story about Wal-Mart, sending several thousand visitors my way. A whole lot of additional commentary followed.

I guess I've been spoiled here in my little corner of obscurity. I was taken aback by the ugliness of some of the comments that followed, like the guy who apparently thought that maybe my client would have plenty of money to buy HIV care out-of-pocket if she weren't spending her huge Wal-Mart salary on Manolo Blahniks, and the guy in Oliver Willis's comments section who thought that "the story here is the woman who screwed up, not the private corporation who decided not to punish its responsible employees and consumers by taking money out of their pockets to bail her and others like her out - quite possibly so they can go out in the world and be irresponsible some more." In fact, several people seemed to think that providing adequate health care to people with HIV would only encourage bad behavior.

I know, I know - I shouldn't take this stuff personally. But it turns out that it's very hard for me to hear people saying unwarranted nasty things about my clients. This woman's an economic or moral abstraction to them, but I sat in a room with her for an hour and heard about all the miseries of her life. It's my job to help her and care about her. So I feel protective of her, and now I'm sorry I exposed her - even anonymously - to scorn and condemnation. I'll think twice before I post anything else about my clinical work here.

Moving on to Wal-Mart's defenders: I'm perplexed to see anyone make the argument that "you'd think Wal-Mart had given this woman AIDS. (They didn't.) So why does Wal-Mart owe her payment for her treatments, in addition to her regular wages? And if I'm her co-worker, and I don't have HIV, why should she be paid more than me?" I'm guessing that this person must be opposed to the whole concept of employer-provided health coverage. (I wonder who pays for his medical care.) After all, my employer didn't give me allergies or hip dysplasia, and they didn't give my Significant Otter high cholesterol. When I fell down the stairs, I wasn't pushed by my boss. Why should they pay for any of the medical visits or treatments related to these various problems? And shouldn't the person who works in the next office be jealous that I got my salary AND some X-rays, and she just got her salary?

Predictably, lots of people argued that Wal-Mart would inevitably have to either cut staffing or raise prices in order to provide adequate health coverage to its employees. None of the folks on the pro-Wal-Mart side seemed willing to consider the possibility of shareholders accepting reduced profits in order to provide employees with adequate salaries and benefits. It turns out that people who are quick to scorn the idea that corporations have any moral obligations to their employees are simultaneously very protective of the moral obligation corporations have to maximize shareholder value. (Check out this criticism of Costco, which does pay a living wage, from Deutsche Bank analyst Bill Dreher: "Costco continues to be a company that is better at serving the club member and employee than the shareholder." I think I'll talk about Costco in a separate post.)

Finally, lots of people (and I wonder who pays for their medical care) wanted to know why I thought Wal-Mart had any obligation to provide health coverage at all. This one is best answered by one of Kevin Drum's commenters, Jesurgislac:
Practically the moment the health system in the US, insofar as it exists, it set up on the basis that your employer will pay for your health insurance. If every employer in the US simply decided that from now on the money they paid to subsidize employee health insurance was to go to their shareholders instead, and people would only have health insurance if they could afford to buy an individual plan, then the US would suddenly face a health care crisis the like of which it's never seen: not just 45 million people without health insurance, but probably more like 250 million. The whole health "system" would crumble into bankruptcy.
Wal Mart's moral obligation to provide health insurance for all its employees arises from the fact that it makes its profits from a system which assumes that all major employers do so. If all major employees imitated its business model, the system would collapse and kill hundreds of thousands.
Yes, exactly. I'd be delighted if we had a system of national health coverage in the U.S., because I've seen firsthand what happens when people fall through the cracks of our existing patchwork system. When the day comes that a national system is put in place, we'll have worked out how much you and I and the Walton family and the Wal-Mart corporation all need to contribute through our taxes to make it happen. Right now, part of Costco's taxes go to cover the government-funded health care provided to Wal-Mart employees, but Wal-Mart's taxes don't go to cover Costco's employees. It amounts to a taxpayer-funded subsidy of Wal-Mart's profits.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

The Short Attention Span Generation?

Over in the comments section of this thread, Daniel Green has been arguing for the existence of a decline in attention span over time in both children and adults, presumably the result of the rise of television. This would be fascinating if it were true, particularly in light of persistent worldwide gains in IQ during the last century. But Daniel wouldn't cite any evidence other than his own dissatisfaction with his former students, so I had to go do his research for him.

Here's what I found, after an exhaustive search of psychological and medical research databases: nothing. No evidence of cohort effects, secular trends, or historical trends in attention, attention span, or sustained attention. Not for children, and not for adults. There is evidence (free registration required) that recent generations of elderly adults have better cognitive abilities, including memory, than previous generations did at the same age. That's about it for historical trends in attention.

So younger generations don't have shorter attention spans, but what about That Devil TV? Just a couple of weeks ago, a study came out in the journal Pediatrics which claimed that TV watching in toddlerhood contributes to attentional problems in the early elementary years. It got a lot of media coverage. So I went to the library and read the article, and sheesh. Let me just say that, although Pediatrics is a great journal for medical research, there's no way that this study would ever have been published in a top-ranked psychology journal.

Here's the deal. Researchers asked mothers of 1 and 3-year-old children how much TV their children watched. When children were 7, their mothers were asked to rate whether the child "has difficulty concentrating," "is easily confused," "is impulsive," "has trouble with obsessions," and "is restless." Mothers were allowed to qualify their answers as "very true" vs. "somewhat true," but the researchers ignored the distinction and scored even "somewhat true" answers as "yes." They did not have experts examine the children. They did not have the children complete any actual tests of attentional ability. They did not collect evidence of whether the supposed memory problems were clinically significant - that is, whether they affected children's performance at school, at play, or at home. They did not make any efforts to measure the amount of TV the children actually watched.

Here's what else they didn't do. Although they controlled for a lot of variables which might have influenced attention problems, they didn't control for family socioeconomic status (SES). That's a huge omission, because lower-income children are more likely to have attention problems and are also more likely to watch TV. Controlling for SES is standard in most developmental research, so it's odd that they left it out. (They did control for maternal years of education, but that's a pretty weak measure of SES.)

All this is not to say that I think it's healthy to plop a toddler down in front of the TV all day, every day. TV takes up time that toddlers should be using for activities with a higher developmental payoff. But the methodology of this study is so bad that the results simply can't be trusted, and the huge media blitz means that millions of parents have just been given one more thing to feel guilty about.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

At Work With "America's Most Admired Company"

The HIV clinic where I work doesn't accept patients who have health insurance. We're 100% funded by the state and federal government, and we're in service for people who are absolutely indigent. People who have no other options - not Medicaid, not Medicare, not anything.

So imagine my surprise when someone came into my office today who has a full-time job. She works 40 hours a week at Wal-Mart. Like many of their employees, she can't afford their health insurance plan. Even if she could, they wouldn't cover her HIV care because it's a pre-existing condition. It isn't even about paying for the drugs, which are expensive - she qualifies for the state AIDS Drug Assistance Program, which picks up all of her prescriptions for her. Wal-Mart won't pay for office visits to an HIV specialist, and they won't pay for the blood tests she needs to monitor her condition.

So you, the federal taxpayer, will be paying for her medical care. Today you also gave her $40 worth of food vouchers, because after she pays her rent (which eats more than half her wages, and she lives in a slum) there's not a lot left over to buy food. I'm sure you're glad to do it, right? You don't want her to die.

And you don't want Walmart's $8 billion profits and 21.6% return on shareholder's equity to drop, the way it probably would if the public weren't picking up the cost of keeping Wal-Mart associates and their children alive. You wouldn't want any members of the Walton family to drop off the list of the richest people in the world. (Imagine if only four of them were in the top ten.)

"A social worker told me," she said to me indignantly, "that I'd be better off if I quit my job and went on welfare. I'm not doing that!"

I'm sure the Walton family is very proud of her work ethic. After all, you can't buy those kinds of values - not that they seem to be willing to try. So dig a little deeper into your pocket, would you, federal taxpayer? I'd like to get her on the waiting list for subsidized housing.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Grants Are In!

Now there's nothing to do but sit back, watch the first Respectful of Otters flamewar unfold, and wait for the kindly American taxpayer to shower me with money.

There will be real blog posts at some point very soon, but right now I have a date with a McHenry and Season Three of Angel.

Sunday, April 18, 2004

Kids These Days And Their Post-Structuralism

My contemporary feminist theory professor in college defended her syllabus by telling us that "life is too short to read Camille Paglia," and she was probably right. But everyone else is referencing this essay, and besides, it serves as a useful distraction from the work I should be doing. Paglia writes:
Interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S. It is difficult to imagine American students today, even at elite universities, gathering impromptu at midnight for a passionate discussion of big, challenging literary works like Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov - a scene I witnessed in a recreation room strewn with rock albums at my college dormitory in upstate New York in 1965.
She goes on to explain that rapidly moving images on TV have caused radical changes in the way our minds work, leading to short attention spans and worse: "Those in whom eye movements and vestibular equilibrium are disrupted, I contend, cannot sense context and thus become passive to the world, which they do not see as an arena for action." (If you reached college age in the past 30 years, Paglia is apparently talking about you.)

In the first place, Mark Liberman is correct. If there had really been a massive shift in the perceptual and cognitive capacities of American children, I wouldn't be learning about it from a curmudgeonly essay by a humanities professor: it would be all over the scientific journals. I took a graduate-level course in cognitive development as recently as 1998, and surely the professor would have mentioned a sea change in the workings of the human mind somewhere between the stepping reflex and Piaget.

Honestly, I think this is one more example of "those degenerate kids these days and their crazy music," elevated to a respectability it doesn't deserve because of Paglia's intellectual cachet - which I'm not sure she deserves either.

Kids these days aren't like Paglia's friends in college were. But most kids at the time that Paglia was in college probably weren't like her friends. The educational path that ends in a Ph.D. and a professorship typically involves early segregation from average people, and when Paglia was growing up in the age of "ability tracking," that was even more true. Grad school selects for precisely the kinds of people who, as Paglia describes her college buddies, like to have intense discussions of literature at midnight. (Well, my program selected for people who liked to get drunk and mock inferior research methods, but the principle is the same.) No doubt there were plenty of other students at SUNY Binghamton in the 1960s who only cared about football and drinking and their future business careers, and who whined when they were assigned books that were too hard.

Paglia didn't have to hang out with those guys then, but now their direct descendants have shown up in her classes and she's stuck with them. The middle of the bell curve is much fatter than the ends, so she's probably got a lot more beer-and-Cliffs-notes kids in class than she has proto-intellectuals. That doesn't mean that America's youth have gotten dumber, it just means that she's being forced to encounter a wider spectrum of America's youth than she ever had to know when she was one.

If you read historical essays about academia, it's clear that the same shock happens to professors in every generation. She's just updated for the digital era the old complaints about the degrading effects of radio and rock 'n' roll and co-education.

Saturday, April 17, 2004

Messing With The Wrong Woman

My dear friend Barbara has a personality so intense and so powerful that, when I first met her, I came away thinking she was a foot taller than she is. In fact she is a 4'11" towering force of righteousness, and I've seen her raise welts with a single, calm, well-placed word. She pretty much uses those powers for good - but you don't want to get on her bad side. Everybody who knows her, knows that.

So I'm sure that it must have been a complete stranger who met Barbara's insufficient praise of Bush's press conference performance with accusations that she doesn't "support the troops." I'm going to let her take it from here:
I don't support the troops? I beg your pardon? Lady, there has not been a single day in my forty eight years I have not had at least one family member in service in the US military.

I am sick unto death of this obscene linking of the current administration and the troops.

My father, brothers, husbands, son, daughters and sons-in-law have all served or are now serving in uniform. I've spent most of my life supporting the troops, I gave birth to some of those troops. I've fed them, pressed their uniforms, sent them mail across the world, and prayed their next set of orders would not send them into harm's way.

I was a platoon sargent's wife when I was nineteen years old. I've sat through more family briefings on field exercises and deployments than you can imagine. I was raised in military housing at the end of runways on bases you never heard of, and I raised my children in places just like that as well. I had a dependent's ID card before I was allowed to drive.

I had a dependent's ID card when I went to apply for food stamps to keep my kids fed. My grandchildren got WIC program benefits because their father, on active duty, made so little they met the financial guidelines.

Support the troops? You bet your ass I support the troops.

I support their right to a decent wage. I support their right to be properly equipped. Soldiers in some units bought their Kevlar armor on Ebay, lady. Where was your support? Yellow ribbons and uplifting songs about kicking a little ass don't deflect shrapnel.

I support their right to expect their sacrifices will not be abused by cuts in VA hospital services. I support their right, God forbid, to have the planes bringing home the dead covered by the media so that the people can see and honor them.

Support the troops? I support their desperate hope they will be led by competent officers and directed by intelligent, compassionate politicians. I wish to hell I thought more people supported the troops as fiercely as I do.

Friday, April 16, 2004

This Is Just To Say...

...that I'm writing two grants which are both due Monday, so I'm not sure how often I'll be here over the next few days. My normal pattern would be to procrastinate like crazy right up until the very end, in which case there will be lots of blogging. On the other hand, I got so absorbed in the grant today that I forgot to go home. If that continues there probably won't be any more Otters until Tuesday.

So if you don't see me, know that grantwriting is going well.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Otters: Not Actually Fascist

I find this post of mine is being badly misunderstood in the comments section over at Electrolite.
Americans of all ethnic groups are protected equally by the U.S. Constitution, and for good reason. Applying this logic elsewhere, we should have had crackdowns on the civil rights of members of lots of groups. [...] Back to the crackdowns, we might think about cracking down on white males: over 90% of serial killers have been white males. [...]

This means that "these repeated terrorist plots don’t reflect on the 'vast majority of Certain Ethnic Group members, who are peace-loving, law-abiding, loyal citizens,'" and that "evidence that these so-called law-abiding Ethnic Group members covertly support the terrorists among them,"--when based on assuptions of illusory correlation--is hogwash.
Well, um, yes. In fact.

I suppose this is what I get for being ironic among people who don't necessarily know me, or for not festooning my ironic posts with smileys or WARNING: IRONY AHEAD slogans. You all knew better than to take me literally, right? Right?

If not, for future reference: if you find yourself staring at one of my posts and wondering if my brain was somehow taken over by ultra-right-wing mind control rays, please consider the possibility that my words weren't meant to be taken literally.

Incidentally, how hopelessly geeky am I? My first response to this paragraph:
If you added up all the members of your "certain ethnic group" who have been arrested (or are wanted for) for acts of terrorism, then compared that number to the total population of members of the group living in the country or the world, and then ran a very basic test of statistical significance called a t-test, the test shows that a relationship between terrorists and your "certain ethnic group" has NO statistical significance.
was to start picking apart the guy's understanding of statistics. In fact, if all you know is the population of a group and the number of terrorists who are group members, you don't have any means of testing whether there is a statistically significant relationship between group membership and terrorism. You would need to be able to compare the ratio of terrorists to group members with the ratio for other groups. And even if you did have rates for all ethnic groups, you would need to use a chi-square analysis, not a t-test, because the comparison as described violates the statistical assumptions underlying the t-test, such as -

Okay, never mind. Sometimes I'm so geeky I can't stand myself.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

And Another Thing About This Ricin Guy...

The federal complaint doesn't indicate that Alberg had a set plan to release the ricin, and an FBI spokeswoman said no one was at risk. [U.S. Attorney's spokesman] Lincoln declined to speculate whether Alberg has terrorist ties.
Vague statements of terroristic intent (""It's now exciting working with poisons perhaps I'll find a way to end all life on Earth through some interesting items."), with no defined plan for carrying out a specific attack. Who does that remind me of?

...Oh yeah. Jose Padilla.
Within hours of Ashcroft's announcement, administration officials were pointing out that Padilla had no radioactive material or any other bomb-making equipment. Nor had he chosen a target, or formulated a plan. And while his connections with al-Qaeda operatives were never in doubt, he suddenly began to look a lot more like the accused shoe-bomber Richard Reid (i.e. another disaffected ex-con from the West desperate to get in with al-Qaeda) than like the sophisticated professionals who put together September 11.
Padilla, as we all know, is still being held without charges or trial, although the Supreme Court may be changing that any day now.

Okay, so Padilla had actually made contact with al-Qaeda. But he didn't actually have any weapons of mass destruction, whereas this Robert Alberg did. How come Padilla gets indefinite imprisonment without trial or benefit of legal counsel, and Alberg gets nice, aboveboard, by-the-rules legal proceedings? How come the government has to prove its case against Alberg, but not against Padilla?

My guess: it's not what you know - or what weapons of mass destruction you have - but who you know.

(I'm waiting for Mona Charen to write about how morally bankrupt conservative family cultures inevitably produce people like Robert Alberg. Think I should hold my breath?)

In Which Otters Fight Political Correctness

Yet another member of a Certain Ethnic Group has been arrested on charges of being armed and ready to carry out a terrorist attack on American soil. This guy had ricin, the same stuff that shut down the Capitol when it was sent to Bill Frist, the same stuff that can kill a person in half-milligram quantities. And this comes less than four months after another member of the same Ethnic Group was caught planning to bomb U.S. churches and other civilian targets. It comes less than two years after federal agents uncovered an enormous network of terrorist activity, including fake federal IDs and caches of weapons, even a sodium cyanide bomb capable of killing hundreds - all, you guessed it, organized by members of this same Ethnic Group.

It must be taking truly heroic effort on the part of the interests who control our media, to willfully avoid connecting the dots here. We're supposed to believe that all these crimes are isolated incidents. We're supposed to piously mouth assurances that these repeated terrorist plots don't reflect on the "vast majority of Certain Ethnic Group members, who are peace-loving, law-abiding, loyal citizens," and ignore the evidence that these so-called law-abiding Ethnic Group members covertly support the terrorists among them. No doubt, we'll be expected to ignore the links between the latest suspect and radical religious movements, just as we weren't allowed to ask hard questions about the religion that supported the last guy - because (of course) "theirs is a religion of peace."

Well, I've had enough. I don't care how "politically incorrect" it is - I want to do whatever it takes to keep America safe from terrorism. If that means a crackdown on the civil rights of members of Certain Ethnic Group, well, so be it.

(Full ricin story is here. Via World O'Crap.)

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Tired Of Reading About Lauren Slater Yet?

Michael Miller, an epidemiologist at Minnesota, is a lot more succinct than I am. He's also obviously got better access than I do, because he's got a bunch of scans of Slater-related letters. Here at last (warning: PDF) is a pointed scientific evaluation of Slater's so-called replication of the Rosenhan study, in the form of a very polite letter to Slater signed by ten psychologists and psychiatrists.

They pull out a detail I missed: she claims that, in nine emergency room visits, she was prescribed a total of 25 antipsychotics and 60 anti-depressants. Really? Each ER gave her more than six different antidepressant prescriptions? I want to know where these ERs are, because around here people usually seem to get by with just one or two antidepressants. The folks who wrote the letter want to know where these ERs are, too, but apparently Slater isn't telling.

The best thing Miller's got is Lauren Slater's letter back to Robert Spitzer (PDF again). I have no idea what to make of this:
At root none of the statements you believe you didn't make are any kind of misrepresentation of you, even the statement about Rosenhan and his illness, given that your ire towards him and his "study," is quite well known.
I'm trying not to read that as, "it doesn't matter if you actually said it, because everyone knows you were probably thinking it" - but it's hard to know how else that sentence was supposed to be interpreted.

Okay, I'm going to try to stop blogging about Lauren Slater now, lest you all think I've developed some kind of unhealthy obsession. I leave you with this series of posts from another Slater-obsessed person, who actually had Slater herself show up in his comments section. I suppose I can only dream.

You Heard It Here First

Mark Liberman points me towards this New York Times article on the whole Lauren-Slater-liar debate. The Times does a decent job of outlining the untruthfulness charges, ranging from Deborah Skinner Buzan's argument that she is, in fact, neither dead nor psychotic, to Robert Spitzer's complaint that he is not, in fact, pleased that David Rosenhan is dying, to numerous people's complaints that Thomas Szasz's name is, in fact, spelled "Szasz."

They do a less good job of covering the gaps in Slater's intellectual argument, such as her apparent conviction that the important parts of the famous Rosenhan "pseudopatients" study happened in the ER, not on the wards. I suppose that's understandable, given that, for some reason, they haven't felt the need to bring in a psychological scientist to weigh Slater's claims. (The Times review of Opening Skinner's Box was written by philosopher Peter Singer.) And they don't get into the stupidly gratuitous sensationalism, as seen in this complaint from Elizabeth Loftus:
p. 196: Slater makes a point of the fact that " the end of the interview, I know not only Loftus's shoe size but her bra size too." The reason Slater knows that is that she explicitly asked me for each of those pieces of information. It makes me wonder what questions she asked of her other interviewees.
Predictably, these complaints are countered by Slater's proponents with annoying psychologese, turning the criticisms into evidence of the shaky mental health of the critics:
To Amy Banks, a psychiatrist who is the medical director for mental health at the Fenway Community Health Center in Boston, the hubbub shows the vulnerability many mental health professionals feel when faced with questions about the subjectivity of mental health diagnosis.
Maybe people do feel "vulnerable" when they're inaccurately described as having been tortured by their father into psychosis and suicide, or when they're misquoted as gloating over the broken, desperately ill bodies of their academic rivals. Maybe I'm pissed off at Lauren Slater myself because I have shaky professional self-esteem, and she's shown that the Otter Emperor Has No Clothes. Or maybe, you know, people get really angry when you lie about things that are important to them, and vulnerability doesn't have a thing to do with it.

But that's just my theory.

(It turns out, incidentally, that Deborah Skinner Buzan is suing Slater for libel - and in a British court (Buzan lives in London), where libel is much easier to prove than it is in the U.S. It will be interesting to see what the courts have to say about the "creative nonfiction" defense.)

Updated to add: Apparently, the Times article did mention Elizabeth Loftus's bra size, and I just missed it. Sorry.

Saturday, April 10, 2004

Crazy Like A Fox?

Susan, of Suburban Guerrilla, shares a fascinating new twist on the Enron saga:
Former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling was taken to a hospital early Friday after several people called police saying he was pulling on their clothes and accusing them of being FBI agents, a police source told The Associated Press.

Police found Skilling at 4 a.m. at the corner of Park Avenue and East 73rd Street and determined he might be an "emotionally disturbed person," said the source, speaking to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Police did not charge Skilling with a crime. They took him to New York Presbyterian Hospital for observation. Hospital officials did not immediately return calls for comment.
Susan, as well as Oliver Willis, thinks this is a defense setup for Skilling's upcoming trial. But it's hard to see how that would work.

It can't possibly be a setup for an insanity defense. A verdict of "not guilty by reason of insanity" requires the defense to prove that the defendant was crazy at the time of the crime. If the defendant was sane at the time of the crime, but is crazy at the time of the trial, that leads to a judgment that the defendant is "incompetent to stand trial." What happens then? The defendant is committed to a mental hospital until he or she becomes (legally) sane, at which point they go on with the trial.

There's no way in the world that they could convincingly argue that Skilling was psychotic at the time of the crime. All jokes to the contrary aside, if the CEO of a major corporation had completely lost touch with reality, people would notice. And it's hard to imagine how someone who was too psychotic to know right from wrong would have the skill to commit a white-collar crime. So there's no way that Skilling could actually get off on an insanity defense. Nor does it make sense for him to try to feign incompetency to stand trial, because all that would get him is an indefinite delay - during which he would be imprisoned. Feigning incompetency is only a good deal if you're likely to be executed if convicted.

So what do I think this is? According to the Yahoo story: "Skilling was described as being intoxicated and highly uncooperative when he was approached by police." I bet that's all it is.

Friday, April 09, 2004

What Happens When You're Not Respectful of Otters

Alert reader Brian Zimmerman points me towards this cautionary tale:
In a scene perhaps more typical of a Fox "When Animals Attack" special than Dartmouth crew practice, a river otter attacked crew coaches April 2 during the varsity heavyweight afternoon practice. No one was injured, but the incident, which occurred seven miles upstream from the crew boathouse, rattled the nerves of all involved.

Your Biology Lecture For The Day: Otters Get Pedantic

[T]he prestigious Institute of Medicine has put a number on just how many people have "limited health literacy" -- a surprising 90 million adults.

They have problems following instructions on drug labels, interpreting hospital consent forms, even understanding a doctor's diagnosis and instructions.
This is not exactly news to me. As a specialist in behavioral medicine, I spend a lot of time translating medical information into - not just plain English, but simple, concrete, and vivid English. A full third of my clients have less than an eighth grade education, and most of them have only the haziest understanding of their disease process.

It's easy to put the blame on doctors for their overreliance on medical jargon. But putting complex medical information into simple terms is a lot harder than it looks. Even professionally produced patient education materials often do a bad job of it. We have all kinds of educational pamphlets and comic books in our clinic, but I rarely use them.

Here's an example of why (warning: PDF file). It's a lovely, glossy, full-color, comic-style brochure that purports to teach basic facts about HIV by using analogies to everyday activities. Analogies are great - I use them all the time. But they're not so easy to come up with, and if you do a superficial job of it, you don't increase explanatory power at all. For example: here's how the brochure explains critical elements of HIV bloodwork:
"Just as this crossing guard directs the traffic at this busy city intersection, the CD4 cell is the part of the immune system that directs others to attack harmful things, like bacteria and germs, that enter the body every day...Just like your body tells you it's time to eat by making your stomach rumble, your viral load tells you and your doctor how well your HIV medication is working."
Hoo, boy. Where to start. A crossing guard keeps traffic moving smoothly and safely, and attempts to prevent collisions. It's only a good analogy for CD4+ cells if you imagine the crossing guard directing cars to run down, say, escaped rabid dogs, or jaywalkers. But at least the second half of the analogy is a valid description of what CD4+ cells do, whereas the description of viral load misses the boat entirely. VL is the amount of HIV in the bloodstream. So, yeah, doctors can indirectly tell how well HIV medicines are working by looking at VL, but what it directly measures is how powerful and widespread HIV is in the body. The analogy implies that VL is irrelevant for patients who aren't on medicine. Worst of all, though, the two analogies don't link CD4+ count and VL together at all, so there's no concrete example of how they relate.

These same concepts - CD4+ count and viral load - are things that I explain several times a week. I also use analogies, although mine haven't been made into a glossy comic book. Here's roughly what I say:
CD4+ cells are like the cops of your immune system. They patrol your blood looking for germs - invaders - and when they find them, they sound the alarm and bring the rest of your immune system in to attack. HIV is like a gang that's trying to hunt those cops down and kill them. Your viral load is a measure of how much HIV is in your system, so, how many gang members are on the hunt.

Now, you know what happens when there aren't very many cops to patrol a neighborhood? The criminals move in. And when you don't have a lot of CD4+ cells to patrol in your blood, the germs move in and take over. That's how people get sick with AIDS: the HIV gang has killed off so many CD4+ cops that there's nothing left to protect against whatever germs come around. But if you're able to knock out some of the gang members, by taking your medicines, the CD4+ cops have time to call up reinforcements, and they can start patrolling again.
I'm not saying this is the world's best analogy either, but at least my clients come away with a concrete picture of what's going on in their blood. And they don't tend to forget which of their lab results represents the "good guys," something most of them aren't sure of when they come to me.

But the point is not to proclaim my superiority over the nice health educators that Agouron Pharmaceuticals hired to produce the analogy brochure, it's to say that patient education is harder than it probably seems to people who don't have to do it. You can have all the right elements - concrete comparisons, high-interest presentation, lots of pictures, links to everyday life - and still come up with something that doesn't much help.

California Energy Crisis Comes Home To Roost

Remember when everybody knew that the 2000-2001 California energy crisis was entirely the fault of deregulation and overly strict environmental standards?
A federal grand jury in San Francisco has returned a six-count indictment against a unit of Reliant Resources Inc. (RRI) and four of its officers in connection with a 17-month federal criminal investigation of the manipulation of California's energy markets.

The indictment alleged that in June 2000, Houston-based Reliant Energy Services Inc. intentionally drove up the price of electricity in California by shutting off its power generation to create the appearance of a shortage. As a result, the company allegedly reaped millions of dollars in illegal profits.
In one phone conversation a few days after the company allegedly first shut down power plants, a Reliant trader explained: "It started out on Monday losing $3 million, market just fell out of bed. So, then we decided as a group that we were going to make it go back up, so we turned like about almost every plant off. It worked. Prices went back up. Made back almost $4 million, actually more than that, $5 million."
One hopes that this will be the first of many indictments, but it seems more likely that other companies involved in the market manipulations will get away with paying fines. According to the Contra Costa Times, "prosecutors said the decision to charge the company was based, at least partly, on its refusal to fully cooperate with the investigation." So probably the others will fall in line, release documents, behave contritely, and give up some portion of the enormous profits they won from choking off California's energy supply.

But still, it was nice that Ashcroft and his Justice Department took a few minutes off from their critical antipornography operation to announce the indictments. [Insert your own joke about "the real obscenity" here.]

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Sure, You're Safe

According to the American Social Health Association (via CNN), after all these years of public service announcements, most Americans still don't have a clue about safer sex.
The majority -- 84 percent -- of the survey respondents said they take necessary steps to prevent catching an STD, but 82 percent of the sexually active participants said they never use barrier protection when having oral sex. Almost half said they go without condoms when having vaginal sex. [...]

More than 90 percent of respondents said they believed their current or recent sexual partner was disease free. But a third of them never discussed STDs with their partners and only half said their partners had been tested.
The interesting aspect of this survey is the disconnect between people's beliefs and their behaviors. Some large percentage of them are having unprotected sex with a partner who has not been tested for STDs, and yet they believe they're taking all the necessary steps to avoid infection. Sounds like crazy stuff, but it's actually perfectly consistent with research showing that the number one risk factor for unprotected sex, among the general population, is being in love.

The message that most Americans appear to have picked up from STD education is that you should wear a condom with a new partner, someone you don't know very well, someone you're not sure you can trust. A large majority of people use a condom for the first sexual encounter in a relationship, but the percentage of people who use condoms for the second, third, and fourth encounter - and so on - decreases linearly. As couples grow to love and trust each other, they generally stop using condoms. Rational people include a step where they go and get tested together, or trade doctor's notes, but for the majority of the population that step appears to be optional. Instead, people seem to develop a general sense that their partner is "safe," which leads them to believe that sex with their partner must also be safe. They let down their emotional barriers, and so using a physical barrier seems untrusting or unnecessary.

In retrospect, you can see how a lot of safer-sex education materials might unwittingly lead people in that direction. Prevention messages tend to address safer-sex discussions and decisions as things that happen when a relationship begins - or in the context of casual sexual encounters. There's an undertone of "you can't trust this person; you don't necessarily know where they've been" to a lot of safer-sex messages, so it's unsurprising that people discard those recommendations when they do conclude that they can trust their partner.

I don't think I've ever seen a pamphlet or ad directed at the general public that talked about how established couples can decide whether or when to stop using condoms. And yet, it's unreasonable to expect lifetime condom use in established relationships. If nothing else, some people are going to get married and decide to have babies. Marriage isn't exactly protection against STDs, but there's a general expectation that married couples don't use condoms unless they're using them for birth control - in the absence of a general expectation that couples who are sexually active prior to marriage should get a whole panel of STD tests.

We've done a decent job, culturally, of teaching people that condoms are basic and expected elements of casual sexual encounters. But until we do a better job of teaching people how to integrate safer-sex protections into loving and committed relationships, we're going to continue to get survey results just like these.

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Countdown to June 30

It's heating up again in Iraq. Twelve Marines were killed yesterday, bringing the death toll for Coalition forces to 638 - not counting PMC employees. The names of the 638 are here. It's clear that Iraq is not pacified and that we have not established any kind of civil order. The war is still ongoing.

So, when June 30 comes, are we still getting out? So far, Bush has declared that the deadline is utterly inviolate, even though it means that there won't be time to establish an elected government in Iraq before U.S. forces pull out. They're not even trying to pretend that the June 30 deadline is based on anything other than the need to have the war wrapped up before the U.S. Presidential election in November. But if we pull our troops out in the midst of hard fighting and continued U.S. casualties, it's hard to see how even the Bush Administration could spin that as a military victory. If we pull our troops out and what follows is a bloody Iraqi civil war, followed by the rise of a hardline Islamic religious government, it's hard to imagine how even Rumsfeld and Perle could shrug it off as a bubbly excess of individual liberty. ("Freedom's untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.")

But I don't know. Maybe they could. Certainly, the ongoing violent mess in Afghanistan doesn't seem to draw a lot of press coverage or public outrage. Maybe they would be able to drown any lingering doubts about the aftermath of Iraq with the televised execution of Saddam Hussein, a flood of red-white-and-blue bunting, and a crowd of screaming patriots chanting "U.S.A."

John Kerry is working at making it harder for them, and good for him.
"I have always said consistently that it is a mistake to set an arbitrary date, and I hope that date has nothing to do with the election here in the United States," Kerry told reporters in Ohio, where he talked about his plan to revitalize the economy. "The test of a turnover of sovereignty is the stability of Iraq, not an arbitrary date." [...]

"We have to be successful in Iraq. I've said that many times," Kerry said. "But we have to be successful by pursuing a policy that makes sense, that brings all nations to the table to understand the stakes. And I think this administration has yet to provide Americans with a thorough understanding of exactly of who we are turning the authority over to in June and precisely what the consequences of that will be."
Yes, I understand the irony of my position. I'm a passionately anti-Iraq-War liberal Democrat who is arguing that we can't stop fighting the war. But that's because we owe it to the people of Iraq not to leave them in a bloody hell of lawlesness and civil chaos.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Are You Now Or Have You Ever Been

I wasn't initially planning to comment on l'affair Kos, but it doesn't seem to be going away. (If you've been hiding under a rock, Julia has a good summary here. Here's Kos's full explanation of what he was thinking. Here's Teresa Nielsen Hayden's post, the comments section of which I commend to your very close attention.)

I think what Kos said was ugly, but in the thirteen years that I've been online I've seen a lot worse. And, unlike many of the ugly things I've seen people say in blogs, Kos's comments appear to have arisen from genuine pain. If you've always lived safely in the U.S., you're not really in a position to judge him for having insufficiently warm feelings towards U.S.-funded "security forces" who are not subject to the UCMJ or sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution.

There's been a lot of sanctimonious criticism, to which I will not link, about the inadequacy of Kos's apology. Does anyone really think that if he had apologized and withdrawn his statement, all would be forgiven? Ask Kathryn Cramer. She went too far in her coverage of the Fallujah killings, and posted some unwarranted speculation. In response, she got vile pornography and death threats posted to her comments section. She took the errant post down and apologized profusely, and the hostile comments increased - because, apparently, taking the post down meant that she was trying to hide. She's continuing to receive violent threats, some of them directed at her children.

The hard right aren't interested in apologies or corrections. If this were really about promoting civility of discourse, they'd have plenty to attack on their own side without hunting down people on ours. They want us to shut up, and that's pretty much all that will satisfy them. Whether or not you agree with Kos, or Kathryn, it's important that we not let them be drowned in a sea of right-wing viciousness. They have a right to be free of harrassment. Both of them have my full support.

Remember: you don't have any way of knowing that it won't be you next. Purity campaigns, by their very nature, tend to spread.

Sunday, April 04, 2004

A Little Family Bragging

My brother was instrumental in making this happen:
Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s bankruptcy reorganization has resulted in a windfall for California's environment: A vast acreage of pristine mountain land owned by the utility will be permanently protected, and a $100 million fund will be created to maintain it and open it to recreational use.

From Mount Shasta to the Carrizo Plain, nearly 1,000 parcels totaling 140, 000 acres -- almost twice the size of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area -- will be donated to parks and wildlife agencies or protected through conservation easements.

The land includes important wildlife habitat and many sources of the state's drinking water, as well as some of the best fly-fishing streams in the western United States. There are fragrant conifer forests, rich stands of hardwoods and rolling oak savannahs, pierced by glittering rivers.

Under a deal reached with the California Public Utilities Commission, some lands will be protected as wildlife preserves, while others will be opened up to new trails, boat ramps and campgrounds.
As director of the California Hydropower Reform Coalition, he's been working on this project for years. The San Francisco Chronicle's calling it "one of California's most important conservation deals in decades." John McCaull of the National Audubon Society says, "You'd have to look at creation of the national parks here to find anything comparable." So let's hear it for my brother Steve! It's hard to get more Respectful of Otters than preserving 140,000 acres of wildlife habitat.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Notes From Blue America

The problem with musing over a blog post in your head for a couple of days without writing it down is that, before you get around to actually putting pixels on the screen, Matthew Yglesias comes along and pretty much writes your post for you.

Matt, like everyone else, is revisiting David Brooks' goofy but influential article about Red vs. Blue America in the light of Sasha Issenberg's article pointing out that Brooks made up a lot of his "telling details." In case you haven't read Brooks' article, or don't want to wade through it, he contrasts Montgomery County, MD and Franklin County, PA to come up with the thesis that "Red America" (made up of states which went Bush in 2000) is full of modest, middle-income, salt-of-the-earth just-folks who love Jesus and their country, whereas "Blue America" (made up of states which went Gore in 2000) is full of latte-sipping, Pottery-Barn-shopping, godless Commie intellectuals. Or something like that.

Matt wrote the post I intended to write, because he - like me - lives in the bluest of Blue America. Not Brooks' hallmark example of Montgomery County, which went a lukewarm 62.5% for Gore in 2000. My city went 82.9% for Gore. Matt's city went 85.1% for Gore. This is some Blue America, all right. How come Brooks didn't come visit us? Probably because it would've spoiled his thesis. Matt says:
Brooks chose Montgomery Country, Maryland -- specifically, Bethesda -- as his exemplar of Blue America. We're given no reason, however, to think Bethesda is actually typical of the region he's trying to profile. If he'd picked, say, Silver Springs or the Bronx or my particular slice of Blue America (Columbia Heights in the District of Columbia) he'd have found a very different story -- lots of working class African-Americans and Latinos, many churches, and no Pottery Barns. Brooks lives in the area, so it surely hasn't escaped his attention that the bluest state of them all -- Washington, DC -- is, outside of a few neighborhoods, nothing like Bethesda.
Similarly, if I took you on a tour of my Blue America city you'd see neighborhoods featuring little hole-in-the-wall restaurants serving lake trout and fried chicken, storefront churches preaching obscure variations on the Gospel, stores advertising cheap pagers and cell phones, and check cashing businesses serving - and usually ripping off - people with no bank accounts. Those neighborhoods are just as Blue in their voting patterns as the neighborhood I live in, with its Thai restaurants and gay bars and many, many churches. Hell, they're probably Bluer.

But that doesn't really fit in with the "liberals are effete snobbish millionaires" argument Brooks - and the Republican Party - likes to push so much, so let's go back to ignoring the existence of working-class urban Democrats and union households and single working moms who don't have the time or the money to cart a minivan full of kids to a soccer field somewhere and thus don't deserve to be an electoral demographic. Let's forget about the fact that no modern Democratic candidate has felt that he could do without the support of black churches, because everybody knows that Democrats are ungodly. Let's forget about the data (courtesy of Matt) indicating that Gore won big among people without a high school diploma, as well as people with graduate degrees, because everyone knows that Democrats are a bunch of overeducated snobs. Let's forget that Gore won big among people who made less than $30,000 a year and Bush won big among people who made more than $100,000, because everyone knows that Democrats are a bunch of limousine liberals.

Hey, this is easy. Maybe *I* could be a public intellectual.

Everybody Likes Baseball Analogies

I'm sure that everyone already reads Atrios, but this was just such a good story that I wanted to see it in my own blog:
On a recent morning in early March, the Senate Judiciary Committee convened to protect the American flag from burning, stomping, shredding, and the notion that, as Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch put it, "urinating or defecating on the flag is some form of speech." The Committee's Republican majority had carefully assembled the audience for this hearing. The room was filled with dozens of aging veterans, wearing medals and dark red VFW hats. Also in attendance was a hero of perhaps even greater red-state status: nascar driver John Andretti, who would testify that "those who desecrate the flag have total disregard for our military."

In other words, the hearing had all the trappings of a perfect, election-year GOP stunt. But then things got a little more complicated. Committee Democrats, such as Richard Durbin of Illinois, noted that Republicans had voted down a Senate amendment increasing veterans' health spending the previous night. "Giving a veteran a flag is not a substitute for giving our vets the quality health care they were promised," Durbin said, causing brows to furrow under those VFW caps. Committee Republicans were furious. GOP Senator Larry Craig of Idaho nearly sputtered with rage as he defensively rambled about shortened lines at a veterans' clinic in Boise and vowed that veterans' spending would eventually be "plussed-up" in the budget process. The cultural issue had become an economic one; Democrats had found a soft spot.
I don't want to underestimate the Democratic party's ability to self-destruct at any moment - they're kind of the Chicago Cubs of the political world, if you think about it. A lot of native talent, some great guys you really like (plus corporate backing you try not to think about), and a general sense that it's all about the underdog... combined with an unnatural tendency to collapse coming down the stretch. I happen to think that the Cubs could have a shot at the World Series this year. Somehow, while everyone's been snickering about what perennial losers they are, they've managed to line up a phenomenal bunch of players - particularly their rotation, which has the potential to completely shut down the other guys' offense.

Democrats (see? this really is an analogy!) are getting better and better at shutting down the other guys' offense. This story about the veterans is a perfect example of the kind of thing we should be doing: puncturing the Republicans' carefully-constructed theatrics and morality plays with a stark consideration of what's happening to real people under Bush Administration policies. This is beautiful. But we need to keep playing as a team. Right now, at this moment, we're doing a great job of presenting a unified party - and it's working. We can't fall apart coming down the stretch.