Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Strange, But True...

I read about Phineas Gage about 4-5 years ago, and recently re-encountered the story. It's a strange one.

If you're already feeling a little freaked out, you should be.

In 1848, Phineas Gage was working on the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in VT. At that time, holes drilled into rock were filled with dynamite, connected to a fuse, and then blocked and compacted with sand, using a tamping iron like the one pictured above.

It seems that Gage may have forgotten to put sand into the hole or the rod itself may have struck a rock and given off a spark: in either case, the ensuing explosion sent the tamping rod through Gage's left cheek and out the top of his head, like this:

The rod landed approximately 30 yards away.

The sketch pictured above was drawn in 1868, after Gage's death, by John Harlow, the doctor who attended Gage at the time of the accident. Miraculously (or horrifically), Gage seems to have either remained conscious or else regained consciousness within minutes of the accident: he walked to a cart and was driven to his boarding-house, where he was treated by Harlow.

Although he nearly died of infection twice, by January of 1849, Gage was alive and (reasonably) well.

If you want more gory details (and believe me, they are gory: I would have barfed and passed out if I had been anywhere in the state of Vermont that day), there is a detailed account of the case available on the science blog at Neurophilosophy.

It isn't for everyone.

What's interesting about the case is that it offered the first convincing evidence that personality is linked to the prefrontal cortex of the brain.

Although Gage survived, he was never the same. (And, well, really, who would be?)

In particular, Gage's personality underwent a severe alteration. According to Harlow, Gage became "fitful, irreverent, indulging at times in the grossest profanity (which was not previously his custom), manifesting but little deference for his fellows, impatient of restraint of advice when it conflicts with his desires, at times pertinaciously obstinent, yet capricious and vacillating, devising many plans of future operation, which are no sooner arranged than they are abandoned in turn for others appearing more feasible" (see above: "The Incredible Case of Phineas Gage," Dec. 4, 2006, http://neurophilosophy.wordpress.com/).

What I find particularly sad is the fact that 1) Gage lost his job (his bosses found that he no longer worked well with others and this was in the days before workman's comp, obviously) and 2) he spent much of the rest of his life traveling around with that horrible tamping iron, trying to earn money by exhibiting his injury.

He lived for another 13 years, and died in 1860 of complications from a series of epileptic seizures.

And yet, in the end, without Gage's terrible accident, we might never have had such convincing evidence of what is known as "cerebral localization"--the idea that certain areas of the brain are responsible for specific aspects of cognition and personality.


Monday, May 30, 2011

Pocketbooks and Chicken-Butts: Political Pejoratives

I finished reading Quirk.  One of the chapters I found particularly interesting was the section on "Liberalism."

I've been called a "liberal."  And a "progressive."  (And other things too, but I'll let that pass.)  Each time it has happened, I've had a brief brain-glitch.

I realize that the person is hurling the term at me as a pejorative label that is supposed to call attention to my political biases (or moral failures) and make me feel bad about them. 

I know that, though, only because I've seen the terms applied to others and it's clear that the ones using them really don't like the ideas and attitudes espoused and articulated by the others.

The brain-glitch I experience when I hear myself called "liberal" always stems from the fact that I can't quite comprehend how "liberal" is a negative term or an insult. 

I apply butter and jam to my toast very liberally; I'm also quite liberal when I serve food and drink to my guests.  So, I'm liberal in my thoughts and my opinions.  These are all good things, I think.

"Liber" in Latin means "book."  There's just no way I'm not going to like that word.  I'm even a Libra, for heaven's sake--it's totally different, of course, but it sounds sort of similar.

Likewise, calling me "progressive" makes me happy.  It appears I'm making "progress" somehow and I apparently give others the impression of moving something forward on a somewhat regular basis. 

This seems good, particularly when I realize that I may in fact have spent an entire day staring at the wall and eating Smartfood.

No worries: I'm "progressive."  Other people have told me so.

At the same time, I really like the term "conservative," and I think I'd be kind of pleased to hear myself called that too at some point. 

Who doesn't want to "conserve"?  Conservationists rock. 

People who are "conservative" are steady and reliable and careful.  They have savings accounts.  They don't squander their energy or their resources, and they don't chase after the latest fad.  They know what works and they stick to it: nothing wrong with that.

"Moderates."  Well, that's also quite nice.  I wouldn't mind that one either.  "Moderation in all things," we're always told.  A little too much here but a little less there, and voila, you'll break even.  Moderates keep things on an even keel: gotta like that.

"Green."  Okay, that's actually my favorite color.  So how awesome and accurate is that?

So you see my dilemma.

When I look at political blogs and social network pages and see people "insulting" one another with these kinds of political labels, I have two reactions: 1) What's your point? and 2) Why is this an insult?

The first time someone called me a "liberal" in an email, I had to sit and think for a bit about how I should respond.   All I could think was, "Yes... and...?."  I was clearly supposed to be hurt and angered, but all I could think was, 1) "What's your point?" and 2) "Why is this an insult?" (see above).

And this is still my reaction.  When I see someone calling someone else "conservative" or "progressive" or whatever, I still can't quite understand why the accused gets so angry or why the accuser feels so vindicated. 

I mean, so a person expresses "conservative" or "progressive" opinions--so what?  At the end of the day, it's just an opinion.  They're entitled to it.  We don't have to agree with it or like it. 

And they don't have to agree with or like my opinions, either.

I'm reminded of the time when I was babysitting a six-year-old boy and he told me that he didn't like one of his little neighbors. 

When I asked why, he announced (in an embarrassed and deeply wounded tone of voice), "She called me a pocketbook."

When I suggested that "maybe she was just joking," he said, "Yeah, well, it isn't funny."  His brother quickly acknowledged his pain by agreeing, "Yeah, it's not.  Don't worry: we're totally gonna get her for that."

On the other hand, when the two brothers were displeased with one another, they used to call each other "chicken-butt"--and there were never any lingering hard feelings about it afterward.

In Quirk, Holmes notes that there really isn't any scientific brain research out there on political propensities or biases, since political affiliations aren't classified as brain diseases. 

So although the posts and comments that appear on YouTube or as links on The White House Facebook page or The Tea Party Page or The Coffee Party Page or all the other politically-oriented pages out there repeatedly assert otherwise, a person's political affiliation is NOT a sign of damaged neurons or overall brain-rot.  (Or even low intelligence, actually.)

Instead, a person with a high component of "liberalism" in his or her personality seems to be, on average, a bit more comfortable tolerating ambiguity.  A person with a lower component of "liberalism" in his or her personality (someone who might be identified as "conservative") is a bit more comfortable with stability.

How can you tell?  Well, you can take one of the various personality tests out there: The Big Five Personality Test or The Jung and Briggs Meyers Typology are two options.

Biologically, a more "liberal" personality is no better than a more "conservative" one.  Each has its advantages. 

As Holmes points out, "liberal" personalities who enjoy ambiguity engage in "the mental equivalent of dithering around in the open field, just begging to be attacked by a predator.  In many ways, it's safer to commit to a course of action than to linger for days, debating the merits of every possibility" (218).

"Conservative" personalities, on the other hand, are notable for their conscientiousness and sense of order, but this may mean that they are less comfortable exploring new options necessary for survival.  They take notice of ambiguity, but they opt to respond to it only in ways that are tried-and-true.

Holmes also points out that "Conservatives also tend to rank high on something called 'death anxiety'" (218).  For some people, the very idea of death triggers acute anxiety. 

I've actually seen this reaction in people's responses to my post last year about my mother's and father's deaths.  I have been told that what I wrote was disturbing and unnecessary, that there was no point remembering and writing about such experiences.

Others, however, appreciated the post and spent time telling me their thoughts about it and about the phenomenon of death in general.  It didn't bother them at all-- or at least not in any way that they couldn't tolerate.

As Holmes notes, "Some studies suggest that death anxiety reflects a fear that life itself has no meaning.  For someone who doesn't enjoy ambiguity, that could be a pretty distressing possibility" (218). 

I think for anyone out there, it's a pretty distressing possibility, and it's interesting to think that some personality types are simply better able to live with that distress.  Currently, researchers "speculate that a brain sensitive to danger might be more inclined to support policies that are 'protective'" (220).

If you're becoming increasingly worried as you read this that I'm neither "liberal" nor "conservative" but simply "off my rocker" and "out of my gourd," you can check out the links at the end of this post for further reading on this subject.

And in the meantime, if someone calls you a pocketbook or a chicken-butt, I say, just shake it off.

Gerber, A., et al. 2009 "Personality traits and the dimensions of political ideology."  Social Science Research Network.

Kapogiannis, D., et. al. 2009 "Cognitive and neural foundations of religious belief."  Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences 106 (12): 4876-81

Kossowska, M., et al. 2003.  "The relationship between need for closure and conservative beliefs in Western and Eastern Europe."  Political Psychology 24 (3): 501-18

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Altruism, Morality, Personality

This article in Newsweek, entitled "Boycott BP? Don't Bother," came out about a year ago.  Begley argues, among other things, that "consumer boycotts of the latest oil company to run afoul of public opinion are emotionally satisfying but ultimately futile."

If we don't like BP, we should also have problems with Shell, Citgo, Exxon, Texaco & Chevron, Begley argues.  Judged by environmental and humanitarian standards, all of them have a history of criminal, environmental or ethical wrongdoing.

For the record, I've never gotten gas at a BP station and after the spill, I saw no reason to start.  I also pass by Exxon, because I'm still angry about the Valdez spill.  I used to go to Shell and Citgo, but then I started to avoid them as well.  I was down to Sunoco and Mobil (now Lukoil in NJ and PA), but of course Mobil merged with Exxon in 1999, so... I started avoiding them.

I avoid finding out about Sunoco, because I'm sure there's a problem (actually, several) there as well, and I just want to get gas somewhere nearby.

I do similar ethical balancing acts (or contortions) when it comes to investments, and I know for a fact that my retirement portfolio has serious moral failings.  I always question what weight I should give to my principles, and what weight should be given to practicality?

I think most people also want to factor in "profit" as well, and that's where the tough questions always come in.  Capitalism is premised on competition, not altruism.

In Quirk, Hannah Holmes investigates the biological and neurological sources of altruism.  Long considered an evolutionary conundrum, scientists question when, how and why altruism even developed at all.

If survival depends on competition and dominance (as it does in the natural world), where does being nice (to say nothing of being "moral" or "good") fit into the existential equation?

An episode of the sitcom "Friends" once pitted Joey against Phoebe in a debate about whether there was in fact such a thing as a "selfless good deed."  If doing something for someone else makes us feel good, it isn't really a "good deed" per se--it's an act of implicit selfishness that ultimately promotes our own well-being.

In a sense, altruism doesn't make sense: helping others at the expense of ourselves can bite us in the end.  Experimenters often use what's called the "Prisoner's Dilemma" to measure kindness and altruism.  They give test subjects ("prisoners") "money units" which they can then give to an unseen partner.

If they do, the amount is quadrupled.  The unseen partner then has the option of returning some of the money to the first "prisoner."  As Holmes summarizes, the question becomes, "If you were the prisoner, how much would you risk on a stranger?" (99).

You can imagine how this turns out.  Altruistic "prisoners" can get burned by their generosity and then have to determine whether or not to continue their behavior on principle, knowing that they may get burned again.

A similar scenario is the "Common Goods" game, which determines how individuals respond when they realize that a member of their group isn't going to behave altruistically.  Each player is given an amount of money that they can anonymously invest in the "common good."  The researcher will then double the pool of money that results, and divide it equally among the players, regardless of their initial contribution.

As Holmes notes, "[t]he general outcome mirrors the Prisoner's Dilemma.  The average person is willing to commit half of what he has to the public good.  A few people always freeload on the system, getting something for nothing.  And a few others always throw all their money in" (126).

Interestingly enough, science has shown that even dogs and chimps recognize injustice, but they do so in a one-sided way that focuses on identifying only the unfairness directed at themselves.  They are entirely indifferent as to whether that unfairness is extended to another member of the group.

As Holmes observes, "detecting a cheater is only half the moral equation.  The other half is refusing to participate in unfair behavior even when unfairness benefits you.  That's harder" (136).

What Holmes (and science at large) has concluded is that different human personalities will exhibit different levels of altruism and morality, but that both tendencies emerged as ways of preserving human community.

If no one is altruistic and everyone either cheats the system or looks out for him- or herself, the community eventually breaks down.  This is not good for human survival: we need some form of communal interaction to survive as a species.  As Holmes notes,
"The cheaters I've known don't tend to attract a crowd of friends.  The friends they do have may also have personalities that are hard to love.  We have a lexicon for such people, and none of the terms are flattering: He's a taker.  She's a player.  He's a sponge, a parasite.  She's an opportunist, always working an angle." (132)
On the other hand, an entirely altruistic individual will not survive either: if you give away everything you have, you have nothing.  At the same time, however, altruists tend to build up a cache of support among their fellow human beings.  Not everyone is a taker; most people respect and value generosity.

As a result, Holmes claims, "Most of us tend to clump in the middle.  A healthy self-regard prevents us from giving away so much that we endanger our own family's survival" (132).

So where does buying stock or boycotting BP fit into all this?  I think this is one of the interesting dilemmas facing modern existence.  If, as science suggests, distance tends to attenuate altruistic impulses and full-blown morality is a function of more than a simple concern for the extent to which we ourselves are being cheated or railroaded, we may have inadvertently created a world in which remaining at arm's length from the concerns of others is inherently easier. 

As Begley's article suggests, boycotts are most effective when they exist in the context of what Holmes and other researchers would identify as a small (or small-ish) group of human encounters and endeavors:
For a boycott to achieve its aims, there has to be a clear issue. “Don’t kill dolphins when you catch what I need for my tuna sandwich” is specific and clear; “don’t despoil the environment when you get what I need to drive” isn’t. ... A boycott must also give consumers alternatives; you can eat strawberries instead of grapes, but trading in your gasoline-powered car for a Tesla or Volt or other electric isn’t nearly so simple. And a boycott must be organized so that violations are visible. Co-workers could see if you brought grapes for lunch, and anyone in Montgomery could see if you were riding the bus. Unless someone figures out how to make gasoline bought from BP produce exhaust that forms a big “BP” when it spews out your tailpipe, no one knows where you gassed up.
In a sense, altruism and morality prevail if you can shame the cheaters in a group into better behavior.  But the US is largely a guilt culture: we have focused on the individual conscience as the seat of morality, perhaps to the neglect of a larger social conscience.

Should Charlie Sheen be somewhat ashamed of himself?  I kind of think so.  But he and I don't live in a shame culture, and he's probably only "guilty" of bad taste, bad business savvy, bad metaphors, bad parenting, and anti-Semitism--all of which are probably open to debate.

So, the gist is, if I feel okay about what I'm doing, who are you to tell me I'm an immoral pig?  Sucks for everyone else, but I'm doing just fine, thank you.

Hence the phrase, "Winning."  (I hate that phrase, by the way.  May he choke on his "tiger blood"--whatever the hell that means--every time he says it.)

I think this issue is something that social activism has yet to grapple with and that the socially-minded among us have to figure out how to deal with as well.

To some extent, all activist movements operate on the creation of awareness and reform through shame: they attempt to shame individuals, large corporations, CEO's, political leaders, or whoever into a sense of personal culpability and responsibility by exposing wrongdoing.

This is because in the United States, we operate as a guilt culture that assigns responsibility individually--in fact, it is one of the hallmarks of our identity as a nation.

No way am I taking the rap for what someone else did.  Prove that I did it and then prove that it was wrong, otherwise, it's not my problem.  And if I don't feel bad about it, well, then, too bad for you: it means that even though I may be guilty, I don't feel guilty about it.

And you have now hit the moral brick wall of a guilt culture.

Which is why activist movements that seek to expose corruption and shame the cheaters into accepting responsibility for their actions don't always achieve their ends unless they pack a one-two punch: shame them, but then be sure to hit them where it hurts (economically or legally--or both).   

When people advise a return to the values of early American society, I think what is missing from their discussion is a recognition of the fact that, even in the 1770's, communities were by definition much smaller, day-to-day survival was not a given, and cheaters and altruists alike had a palpable, immediate impact on the communities in which they lived.

You could see who was pulling their weight and who was not, and the community could respond accordingly.  And the community would have to respond quickly because, as the Lost Colony at Roanoke makes so hauntingly clear, you could easily vanish without a trace.

I think early American society was a guilt-culture-in-the-making (as witnessed through the individual freedoms guaranteed by The Bill of Rights), but the residues and contexts of a shame culture still prevailed, in many ways.

So are today's boycotts and public exposures through social networking sites, the media, and the internet ultimately "futile"?

I don't think so.  But I do think that many of these activities and the users of these technologies have not yet figured out a way to recreate the kind of small-group identity that seems to be crucial to effective action.  I think this is what happened with the revolution in Egypt: a large group overcame distance to forge a collective counterweight to injustice.

It's not just about being a voice for change.  It's about a willingness to situate one's own unique voice within a larger chorus.   In the end, I believe that this is what the founders of the United States government all did, both individually and collectively.

Friday, May 27, 2011

My Week Away From It All

As I think I mentioned, I got back on Sunday from visiting my best friend and her family.  She had been having a tough week and actually had a meltdown at the clinic about her son's situation about two days before I arrived.

So my visit was well-timed.

Here was her week in review, prior to my arrival.  Bear in mind, an MRI is a stressful thing for her, because there's always the possibility that it will show that her son's brain cancer has spread, in spite of the radiation and chemo.  He's living on borrowed time, in many ways, and we're all painfully aware of that.

She called to ask if she needed to give her son Ativan before the MRI, and the nurse told her, "Well, you certainly know your son better than we do.  Why are you asking us?!"

Then, someone from the billing department called and when my friend said "Hello?", the woman said, "Okay, is there anyone in your household who speaks English?"

My friend's husband is from Mexico, so their last name is Hispanic.  My friend, however, was born in VT and raised in upstate NY.  She has no accent whatsoever, gringa. 

Then, the insurance company didn't like the fact that the oncologist had adjusted her son's dose of chemotherapy (because he'd put on weight--which is actually a good thing), so they kept sending the wrong medication amounts.  They did this three times, so she ended up out $100. as a result of that and spent two days and three phone calls (each about 45 minutes in duration) stressing out that she wouldn't have the dosage in time to give it to him on schedule.

Meanwhile, the bills are all screwed up.  They arrive almost daily, to the tune of thousands of dollars, of course, and they are never correct.  Each incorrect bill requires a phone call to someone and a re-explanation of the mistake--once you reach an actual human being, that is.

You have to cross your fingers you get someone who can fix the problem, or if you do get someone who can fix the problem, you have to cross your fingers that they will.

Then, when they arrived at the clinic for her son's appointment prior to his MRI, everyone was in a meeting, so there was no one to do his blood counts and get him ready for the MRI.

This was when she lost it.  I mean, really--who can blame her?

I asked her if she dropped any F-Bombs on anyone, and to her credit, she didn't.  I told her that, although the law probably varies from state to state, this means that, by NJ standards, all she did was have a "loud conversation."

I think it was pretty loud, though, because when I went with her to the next appointment at the clinic, the office manager looked a little worried, particularly when she saw me.

I have no idea why.  I am nothing if not sweetness and light.

They do seem to be trying to help her out a bit more now.  I chimed in (how could I not?) about some of what was happening in terms of the bills and the prescriptions, because my friend is the type to just try to quietly deal with things all on her own.

She's not likely to stagger into a room yelling, "What in the HELL is going on here?!  I swear to GOD if someone doesn't help me RIGHT THIS SECOND, I'm gonna friggin' LOSE it."

So that's where I come in.  But in this case, I didn't have to have a full-blown freak-out, which was nice.  I just quietly told them that I didn't think they were fully appreciating the level of stress she was under, having a child this sick and two other children at home, plus bills and doctors and well, life.

So I hope I helped.  We also went to the animal shelter to see about adopting a cat and I offered my best advice on that subject: I suggested we back the minivan up to the door and simply take all 100 or so of them with us.

About the only decision that was reached was that I should not be taken along on the next trip to the shelter.

In the car on the way home from one of our outings, my friend's middle son suddenly notified his five-year-old sister, "Hey, I think you're growing a little mustache."

As she stared at him, appalled, and worriedly fingered her upper lip, he told her, "Oh, don't worry.  I think Missy [my nickname--it's a long story] has one too.  Here, let me check."

As he leaned forward to rub my upper lip, I alerted him to the fact that this was NOT the way to win favor with the ladies.

Meanwhile, his little sister very much enjoyed pulling my shirt off of my shoulder to expose a bra strap.  She was appalled, though, when I crouched down in low-cut jeans, even though I SWEAR no butt crack was ever exposed. (I always do a crouch-test before I buy pants.)

Nevertheless, she rushed up to me, giggling, to pull my shirt down and my pants up.  She also insisted at various points that I was "a stinky little thing," but her brother put an end to that debate by finally leaning over and sniffing me.

To my great relief, he told me, "No, it's okay, you don't stink."

So that was my week away from it all.  On the drive home, I had the pleasure of listening to Beyonce's "Single Ladies" on the radio and I've had the song in my head ever since.

While I'm not personally interested in marriage, I think her point is nevertheless well-taken.

♪♫ "Wo oh ooh oh oh ooh oh oh ooh oh oh oh..."♫

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The New Wild West

A friend and I have frequently discussed the difference between arrogance and confidence.

It's a pretty crucial distinction, actually.  Think about it: everyone loves hanging out with someone who is confident.  The day just breezes by.

On the other hand, no one wants to hang around with someone who's arrogant.  They're a complete pain in the butt.  They spoil even the simplest pleasures life has to offer.

On the one hand, arrogance might seem to be misapplied confidence.  A tad too much of it, perhaps. 

But actually, I think arrogance is a complete lack of confidence.  Which is ironic, because it means that although the arrogant think they radiate confidence, they are in fact generating the exact opposite: total insecurity.

I've been thinking about this because in Quirk, Hannah Holmes talks about assertiveness.  In a way, I think assertiveness is the lynch-pin between arrogance and confidence.  The arrogant misunderstand the nature and purpose of assertiveness: they think you need it in every situation.

The confident, by contrast, have mastered the fine art of making a little assertiveness go a long way.

Personally, I think of the difference between arrogance and confidence in terms of temperature and volume.  The arrogant tend to run at high temperatures and to excess, whereas the confident know how to conserve their energy and keep their cool.

The arrogant are always a little loud, while the confident tend to stay quiet.  The arrogant want you to know not what they know, but the fact that they know it.

The confident are comfortable with what they don't know.  They don't necessarily need you to know what they know, if it's not particularly pertinent or relevant to the situation at hand.

Because of this, I think the confident work smoothly and efficiently.  They're like human engines that have figured out how to minimize friction--both personally and socially.

The arrogant are engulfed in friction, both personally and socially, and ironically, they assume that it must always be someone else's fault, since it can't possibly be their own.

Because I'm working on designing a course that looks at identity and mobility and I'm currently devising a unit that looks at identity, mobility and technology, I've been situating all of these ideas in terms of my own experiences online, on email and Facebook, over the past couple of years.

For me, this is how personal experience becomes relevant to my intellectual life.  By situating it in a larger context of ideas and concerns, I try to understand what happens to me as something that may not be limited to myself, no matter how uniquely personal it may seem to be at the time.

I'm fascinated by the fact that, on Facebook, there are what I think of as "hot pockets."  On the one hand, I can go onto a wide range of pages and know that I will see people posting and commenting calmly and efficiently, discussing a wide range of potentially controversial topics and sharing information with one another in ways that advance the conversation and ideas.

Everyone leaves these pages with food for thought.  And the conversations sometimes span the course of days, if not an entire week.

On the other hand, there are the "hot pockets."  If you go onto one of these pages, it's like you've entered an electronic Wild West after someone just shot the sheriff.

No one is calm in the hot pockets.  Instead, everyone is, well, freaking out, and as a result, none of the information posted or obtained is ever accurate.  People are constantly posting and posting and reposting, commenting and commenting and re-commenting, sometimes with little more than a minute in between comments and posts and sometimes with no variation in the ideas or phrasing.

If you saw someone in real life stand in front of another person and shout at them like that, you'd think they were insane.  But in the electronic hot pockets, people lack all sense of self-awareness.

They don't take the time to visualize what they would look and sound like if they spoke or acted in the way that they are presenting themselves electronically.

Phrases like, "For your information..." and "Let me tell you..." abound.  The volume and vociferousness of their holders determines whether opinions are "right" or "correct."  Points of potential interpretation or debate are "bullshit."  Labels are slapped onto everything and everyone: "progressive," "liberal," "teabagger," "libertarian"--and these are just some of the more polite terms people tag onto various modes of self-expression.

If you descend into the maelstrom, be prepared: at some point, you will be called "trash" and your intelligence will be called into question in queries laced with expletives.  You will be blocked.

Bullets, bar-stools and fists are flying, chairs are hurled, tables are overturned.  And that huge mirror behind the bar is only a few seconds away from being shattered by airborne glassware, so be sure you duck in time.

What is particularly odd to me is that, in the midst of this chaos, the prevailing tone is always one of spiteful condescension.  Everyone is an expert on religion, politics, finance, constitutional law, history and sexuality (to name only a few).  And everyone has a link to back them up.  Not a resume, or a distinguished career, or a book, or a lot of life experience in the field-- a link.

And usually it's to a dot-com site.

It's always implied that we're supposed to feel quite lucky these people are even posting and commenting.  They're willing to waste their valuable time telling us what we should know and think.  If only we weren't all so oblivious and stupid, they could forgo the Facebook experience altogether.

Except that they can't, and they know it.  We don't need them at all; they need us.

Arrogance always needs an audience--that's its Achilles Heel.

My theory is, the people with the resumes and the careers and the books and the experience stay out of the hot pockets.  They're confident in themselves and their lives, so they don't need to chuck a glass at someone or try to get our attention by firing warning shots into the air and bringing the chandelier down on our collective heads.

Actually, I've come to the conclusion that most of the confident people out there aren't on Facebook at all or, if so, they only show up intermittently and for very clearly determined periods of time, with a very precise agenda.

They do what they came to do, and then they log off to go do what they need to do in real life and real time.

I question the extent to which Facebook generates a false sense of accomplishment in those who rely on it heavily as a medium of social interaction and engagement.

If you spend hours posting and commenting about your beliefs and your opinions, what have you really done?  You haven't written something coherent or comprehensive: your comments and wall posts won't change the world.

Seriously, they won't.

I think that, in many ways, the revolution in Egypt misled people about the nature of social networking sites. The revolution didn't come about "because of" Facebook or even "on" Facebook.  It came about because of the actions of people in Egypt in response to a political situation that had been brewing (or unraveling) for decades.

The technology mobilized individuals by giving them a sense of solidarity and helping them to see that they were part of a larger collective of shared energies and opinions--there's no denying that.

But it didn't make the individuals revolutionaries: they had already made that choice for themselves.

And even more importantly, they didn't spend hours a day just posting and commenting on Facebook.  If they had, there wouldn't have been a revolution at all. 

What is in the hot pockets--the Wild West of Facebook--is not shared energy or a collective purpose.  It's sheer arrogance.  You can tell by the temperature and volume: everyone is hotly "shouting" (caps lock ON).  No one is listening.

And certainly no one is reflecting on anything they read or write.  If, at 7:49 p.m., you tell me that, on the subject of constitutional law, I don't know my ass from a hole in the ground, you can bet I'm not going to wait around until 7:55 p.m. to post a link to a dot-com site and tell you to go stick it where the sun doesn't shine.

I think people can't be feeling very pleased or satisfied with themselves or their exchanges when they finally log off from such experiences--if they ever log off.   I think it creates a vicious cycle: dissatisfied with their experience, they are doomed to repeat it, endlessly, and always with the same result.

This is the classic definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and always expecting a different result. 

Meanwhile, I think they have no idea that, just a click or two away, others are actually talking and writing and thinking productively and coherently about the very ideas that they care so much about.

I suspect they'll never know.  Whenever the renegades and the outlaws stroll into town to start shooting things up, the decent and the hard-working quietly and confidently lock their doors and protect what they value most.

After all, they're the ones who always clean up the mess that the others leave behind.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

My Quirks

I'm reading Hannah Holmes' book Quirk: Brain Science Makes Sense of Your Peculiar Personality.  I'm not sure it's totally made sense of my peculiarly peculiar personality yet, but I'm only a little ways into it.

I found her discussion of SSRI's (Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors) interesting.  About five years ago, SSRI's were touted as the new wave of medications for depression and anxiety.

Since it was determined that the chemical neurotransmitter serotonin affects mood, the logic was, depressed individuals may have too little serotonin in their neural synapses.  SSRI's were developed using "rational drug design"--that is, they were discovered not by a process of trial and error involving tests on cell cultures or animals, but by postulating the therapeutic effects of targeting a specific biological target (in this case, serotonin) and then developing drugs based on this hypothesis.

They are the first psychotropic drugs to be developed using this method.

The SSRI's do exactly what their name suggests: they inhibit the absorption of serotonin (its "reuptake") so that more serotonin remains in the individual's neural synapses.

Several problems remain: first, serotonin exists both within cells and outside of them, in synapses, but SSRI's can only target external levels of serotonin--there's no way of predicting or targeting serotonin levels within cells themselves.  And mood may be a result of the balance between internal and external serotonin, and not just its quantity or level.

Secondly (and contrary to what was initially assumed), many people suffering from depression and anxiety actually have high levels of serotonin, so SSRI's are simply compounding the problem.

Thirdly, there is a lot more to mood than serotonin.  As Holmes suggests, "Serotonin is a big player, but there are many others, all interacting.  As one rises, another falls and a third does cartwheels" (26).

Ultimately, serotonin drugs are effective for less than 50% of the people who take them.  A report published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in January of 2010 concluded that the benefits of antidepressant medications "may be minimal or nonexistent, on average, in patients with mild or moderate symptoms," although in individuals suffering from severe depression, they do offer a "substantial" benefit as compared to placebo.

At the same time, however, that "substantial" benefit falls short of the accepted standards for a "clinically significant" effect.  As a study published in PLoS Medicine in 2008 concludes, "Drug–placebo differences in antidepressant efficacy increase as a function of baseline severity, but are relatively small even for severely depressed patients."

A blog post entitled "Death to the Serotonin Hypothesis" (April 2007) points out that, as early as 2005, researchers were aware of the fact that the presumed link between serotonin and depression/anxiety was not only scientifically unsupported but "logically flawed" as well.

This ties into one of my quirks (or pet peeves): the fact that no one is out there telling anyone these things because the direct-to-consumer marketing practiced by the pharmaceutical industry is just that, marketing.

Not informationMARKETING.  Which means they're never, ever going to tell you, "Hey, this drug isn't really working the way we thought it would.  And it may not be working at all, for quite a few of you.  In fact, quite a few of you could maybe just take a sugar pill and get the same results--or better."

If I graded fewer than 50% of my students' papers or showed up for work sober approximately 50% of the time, I think people would argue that I'm not functioning effectively at my assigned task, despite all of my charming and charismatic protests to the contrary.

When it comes to curbing anxiety, Holmes quotes the advice of Klaus-Peter Lesch, one of the foremost researchers on the links between neurobiology and personality.

"Resilience," he argues, is attained through "A work-life balance. ...  A regular lifestyle.  And lots of exercise" (47).

So there's that.  But in the meantime, my rhododendrons look pretty:

I also planted mint and asparagus.  By all accounts, the mint will grow like a weed, and I will probably live to rue the day I ever planted it.  The asparagus, on the other hand, takes two years to grow, so this is very much a long-term commitment.

Here's hoping I don't forget that I planted it.

And my jam is done, but I ran into a few problems along the way, so I'm not sure if this batch will be successful.

Turns out, the good people who write on the boxes of liquid pectin that it's exactly the same as powdered pectin and that you should just follow the recipe are, well, lying.  You need to add twice as much to get the crushed berries to gel, and you need to add it after the berries begin to boil, not before.

Luckily, I was in a good mood, so I decided to just let it slide, redo the batch to try to fix it, and then hope for the best.

The alternative was to write a letter denouncing them for their incompetence, complete with photos of a very frustrated me standing over a pot of simmering berries, angrily brandishing a slotted spoon and looking kind of like this:

So... this may be a failed batch of jam, or it may be okay.

I'm not worried, because I still have a couple of quarts of berries left, and one of my personal quirks is a firm belief that, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."

Saturday, May 14, 2011

"Bad Blood"

I watched this documentary last night. 

My friend, Donna Shaw, covered the story for The Philadelphia Inquirer during the 1990's and contributed extensively to the documentary. 

I found out about the film because, in her typically modest fashion, Donna just happened to mention in passing yesterday that it would be airing on PBS next month and that last winter, she went to Tribeca for the premiere.

As it mentions at the end of the film, she teaches this story in every journalism class.  And with good reason.

Everyone should see this film and know this story.  It is beyond unbelievable, and beyond upsetting. 

You will need kleenex, but I don't care.  These people suffered horribly, and we owe it to them to watch what happened and why.  We should be upset and angry and uncomfortable.

Actually, we should be furious.

The only person I am currently willing to exempt from watching it is my best friend.

Correction: if she were to attempt to watch it and I found out about it in time, I would throw myself bodily in front of the screen or drape myself over the set so that she couldn't.

The rest of you out there have no excuse.  It will be broadcast on PBS in June.  If you can TiVo mindless crap like "American Idol" or "Spartacus" or "Real Housewives of Wherever," you can TiVo this. 

And if it depresses you, it should.  Just please don't try to tell me that you "don't like to hear about this kind of thing."

Would you rather live it? 

Because, as Dr. Bruce Evatt says in the film, "This will happen again."  The only possible chance of stopping it in the future, is knowing about it now. 

The pharmaceutical industry and the FDA deliberately looked the other way for years.

We shouldn't.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Sunday Miscellany

Still grading... but into the home stretch.

This was the other big project for the weekend: installing my raised garden beds.

The hardest part was getting them level, since the yard clearly is not.

Meanwhile, my seeds have suffered dampening off and died.  GRRR.  They were doing well, and then... not.  I'll figure something out, but right now, I'm just mad at them.  (Anger is the first phase of grief.)

Here's the other afghan I made this winter for Project Linus:
Pretty cool pattern, made to look like sheaves of wheat.  I like it.

My neighbor's cat likes to stop by and say "hello," but my cat is not pleased by the idea of my receiving other feline gentlemen callers (or human ones either, for that matter). 

No matter what the species, it always results in a staring contest.

Mine's the puffed-up and indignant orange guy.
What can I say?  We adore each other, end of story.

My only other thought today, is that my best friend is the absolute best mom in the world. 

I know plenty of you ladies out there are thinking you've done all right for yourselves this past year and you deserve kudos for it, but there's just no way you're in the same league with her.  Raising three children after finding out your eldest has brain cancer?  C'mon. 

Don't even try to argue this one with me.  No way you'd win.  Ever. 

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Retooling My Earlier Ideas

I've been thinking a lot about my post about the mortgage crisis (Easter Sunday) and realizing that, in my typical zealotry about issues of personal self-awareness and accountability, I definitely overstated my case in ways that I'm not comfortable with.

Sometimes, I just shoot from the lip.  When that happens, I find that I have to return to the scene of the crime and consider the damage.

This article by Elizabeth Warren, "Unsafe at Any Rate," published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in the Summer of 2007 says what I could never say half as well about my own feelings about financial responsibility and reform.

Warren addresses the concern I voiced in my earlier post, that people have sometimes (or often?) gotten themselves into their own financial messes: 
"Some Americans claim that their neighbors are drowning in debt because they are heedless of the risk or because they are so consumed by their appetites to purchase that they willingly ignore the risks. Surely, in such circumstances, it is not the responsibility of regulators to provide the self-discipline that customers lack. Indeed, there can be no doubt that some portion of the credit crisis in America is the result of foolishness and profligacy. Some people are in trouble with credit because they simply use too much of it. Others are in trouble because they use credit in dangerous ways."
But, as Warren goes on to argue, "that is not the whole story. Lenders have deliberately built tricks and traps into some credit products so they can ensnare families in a cycle of high-cost debt."

Using an apt analogy, Warren argues that the financial industry might as well be selling toasters that have a 20% chance of going up in flames.  No one would buy such a toaster, if they knew.  And thanks to the creation of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in 1972, consumers are entitled to know, so that they no longer run the risk of inadvertently buying them. 

While I think people need to take responsibility for their own financial mistakes--and we all make them, by the way-- I don't mean to suggest that I'm not in favor of increased consumer protections and increased accountability on the part of organizations that peddle financial products.

Profiting from other people's mistakes or misfortune is wrong, by any standard--particularly if you are the one who deliberately misleads people into committing disastrous errors.

In my early twenties, I myself fell victim to a misrepresented financial product (what was marketed as an "annuity" turned out to be nothing more than a glorified life insurance policy).

I was furious when I realized what had happened.

The guy who sold it to me--a long-time family "friend"--made me feel like a fool when I confronted him about it.

His exact words were, "Well, but I thought you were an educated woman.  I assumed you knew about these things.  I gave you the paperwork to look over..."

I remember thinking, "Okay, you schmuck.  We'll just see about that."

But, in some ways, as a well-educated single woman, I had the luxury of indulging my fury.  I found out about and joined a class action suit, documented what had been said to me, provided copies of all materials (many of which had not been given to me prior to purchase) and--two years later--got my money back, plus interest.

But I realize that my case is not the norm.  Many people with low-income jobs, who are also compelled to assume responsibility for their families and who may not have access to the kind of information and resources that I take for granted, are not going to have the luxury of my kind of pro-active anger.

And there was a lot of paperwork to file.  I make my living using words; for me, it was easy enough.  I was motivated, and it's what I do all day.  For many, though, it would be a difficult--and implicitly humiliating--chore.

It's easier (if not easy) to take a stand when you are the only one affected--mentally, emotionally, financially--and the only one who will have to suffer the consequences of your actions.

Most people are not in that situation.  And I agree, we need to protect everyone, regardless of their circumstances.

My toaster exploded, so to speak, but in the end, I was lucky.  I suffered only minimal scarring.  And yes, I learned my lesson, but it was very limited and very small-scale.  I now know firsthand that the buyer has to beware--no matter what she's buying--and that some sellers will take advantage of family friendships, ignorance, good-natured innocence, trust, you name it, to make a commission.

As Warren argues, though, "To say that credit markets should follow a caveat emptor model is to ignore the success of the consumer goods market–and the pain inflicted by dangerous credit products."

If we can regulate what people can and cannot sell when it comes to toasters, there's no reason why we can't regulate what can and cannot be sold in the financial industry.

I certainly don't want other people to get burned, and I didn't mean to suggest as much in my earlier post.

What I want is for people to acknowledge, when or if they are unfortunately burned, for whatever reason, what actually happened.

Did I knowingly touch the stove or did I walk into the kitchen only to have the toaster explode on me one morning?

All that said, it infuriates me that Obama has not appointed Elizabeth Warren to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

If he can reiterate support for Jeff Immelt's appointment, he can sure-as-shit back Elizabeth Warren.

And yet, he isn't, as this April 14, 2011 article in Bloomberg Business Week suggests and as is increasingly becoming all-too-clear.

There is a grassroots campaign being organized by The Coffee Party.  I've included the Facebook link on my blog.

I find it incomprehensible.  Elizabeth Warren is the best candidate for the job; the fact that she supported a $20 billion dollar fine on the mortgage industry should seal the deal, not kill it.

It's moments like these when I realize that I'm in the right profession for my personality and temperament.  I would not do well as a politician, administrator, or run-of-the-mill bureaucrat.

I realize that there's a lot of BS that comes with that territory, and some of it, unfortunately, seems somewhat necessary.  It greases the wheels of the big managerial machine.

It's not really all that different from the double-dealing and self-serving courtiers who used to surround the king; it's a facet of human nature, perhaps.  Whatever it is, we've always had it and I think it's unrealistic to think it will ever entirely disappear.

That said, I can't help but think that, if some paunchy, dye-job, over-the-hill, fat-cat politico came to me and said that "they" wouldn't support Elizabeth Warren's appointment as head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, I would listen as patiently as I possibly could and then say,  "Yeah, well, suck it asshole, because Elizabeth's in charge and that's the end of it."  

Can you imagine the headlines?  "Feisty President Tells Warren's Opponents to 'Suck It'."

So much for my staunch advocacy of civil discourse.  ("Physician, heal thyself.")

Similarly, when Colin Powell was coming under fire as Secretary of State under Bush, I think I would have listened carefully to what everyone was saying then and said, "Yeah, well, suck it asshole, because Colin's in charge and that's the end of it."

I'm sensing a definite trend in my political commentary.

My (rather crudely expressed) point is, I think there is value in appointing people who are 1) self-reflective, 2) consistent in their ideas and opinions, regardless of the "sides" or "trends" in political debates, and 3) willing to speak their mind even if--and, in particular, when-- they know that other people in power won't agree with them.

They say what they say because they believe in it.  And they believe in it today and tomorrow, because they thought about it yesterday and decided that it was what they believe.  This is who they are.

And when they make mistakes, they acknowledge them, but they also acknowledge that people are always more than the sum total of their mistakes.

We need people like that in charge of things.  We just do.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Still Grading...

but taking a little break to reflect on life for a minute.

As it turns out, I think the crazy guy's crazy girlfriend may be reading my blog occasionally too.


Oh well.  There just aren't enough hours in the day to be wondering what's up with that anymore.  I think I've run the gamut from disgusted to angry to ... indifferent?  It's just all so silly.

I've been reading a biography of Dorothy Parker.  She was such an amazing wit.  I think her poem, "Indian Summer," fits my experience over the past few months: 
In youth, it was a way I had
To do my best to please,
And change, with every passing lad,
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know,
And do the things I do;
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you!
There was always so much darkness in Parker's sarcasm, though--and her life was truly painful (depression, abortions, suicide attempts, failed marriages, failed love affairs).

She's the one who wrote "Résumé":
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live. (1925)
Which is quite clever, but unfortunately sums up a lot of her life.

My favorite: "This wasn't just plain terrible.  This was fancy terrible.  This was terrible with raisins in it."

And, as she also said, "A girl's best friend is her mutter."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

La Vida Loca

It's Cinco de Mayo and, as has been the case for the past umpteen years, I have papers and finals to grade.

Teachers have a vexed relationship to the grading process.  We think it's a good idea; we have only ourselves to blame.

And yet, inevitably, our humanity seeps through.  My favorite description of the grading process, written by a newly-minted Ph.D. and young professor, parallels Kubler-Ross' model of the five stages of grief.

And please, don't tell me the one about throwing the papers down a stairway and then basing the grade on where they land.

That one's just lame and it shows your age.  Everything's submitted electronically now.

And yes, I could throw my laptop down the stairs, but that won't help.

I made the mistake of giving my students insight into the grading process by telling them a story about my own experience.  Last year, over spring break, I was alternating between going to the hospital to see my mom, who was dying, and grading.

So I'd spend the day talking about morphine drips and DNR orders and listening to Cheyne-Stokes breathing, and then go home for an hour or two and try to get some grading done.

At one point, about 3 days into this process, I was midway through reading my poor students' innocent essays when I suddenly shrieked, "THESE PAPERS JUST AREN'T VERY GOOD!!!!!"

That's when I realized that I'd better stop grading for a bit.  I called my best friend, who wisely said, "I think you're tired."

I did eventually get the papers graded, and I actually went back over the ones I had corrected before my outburst, just to make sure I hadn't punished anyone for existential circumstances over which they had 1) no control, and 2) no knowledge.

After I told that story, my students began to encourage me to do whatever is necessary to "make sure I'm in a good mood" when I grade their papers.  They counseled me to reflect on when I most like to grade (do I prefer mornings, afternoons, or evenings?), to take frequent breaks for food and naps, to consult with my cat when necessary, and to perhaps consume alcohol (in moderation, of course) if it will have an overall positive effect on the nature of the comments and criticisms I offer.

Most of all, they advised that, when overly tired or in doubt, I should simply give the assignment an "A" and move on, knowing that I have "done the right thing."

While I felt that some of their advice was a bit biased and perhaps not in the best interests of my career, I have attempted to capture the spirit of their suggestions. 

I have just finished eating 12 little snack-size Heath candy bars--the small ones.  The very small ones.  The ones that, if you had gotten them in your Halloween candy when you were a kid, you'd think, "Yeah, hey, thanks, cheapskate," before you learned that it was rude to think such things.

I ate these while listening to Ricky Martin's "Livin' La Vida Loca" on high volume.  Since I will once again be unable to celebrate Cinco de Mayo, I thought the least I could do was imagine downing a margarita or two and then dancing with Ricky.

Ideally, of course, margaritas would not have approximately 3000 calories each and I would be dancing at a Cinco de Mayo party with someone who looks a lot like Ricky, but who is a bit closer to my own age.  And not gay.

But in a pinch, I could just dance with Ricky.

I have also spent a fair amount of time commenting to my kitty about how wonderful and overwhelmingly smart he is, despite the fact that, to the untrained eye, it would appear that all he has been doing is simply napping all morning.  He seemed to enjoy this, but when I began dancing with Ricky, he felt it best to withdraw to a more secure location. (As I said, he's very smart.)

I joyously realized that, after yesterday's rain, one of my rain barrels is now full.  If I were a character in a musical, this would have been a point at which I would have burst into a movingly thankful, heartfelt song that involved repeatedly opening my arms wide and staring up at the sky.  

I then tested the rain barrel's tap for scientific confirmation.  And yes, it was true.  It is full.

I also cheerfully acknowledged that the gladiola bulbs I planted two weeks ago have begun to sprout.  I then made an effort to count exactly how many there are and devoted some time to imagining what colors they will be.

I decided the time had come to sign up for paperless billing on a variety of my accounts, and in a flurry of green activity, I investigated the recent developments in wind energy technology.

I defragmented my hard drive and made sure my Temporary Internet Files folder had been emptied.  (It had.)

And then I began to blog.

So now I think I'm ready to start grading.

Happy Cinco de Mayo, everyone!

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Speak Out Against "Riders" That Kill Wildlife

The Center for Biological Diversity is working to stop the fallout from the delisting rider included on the budget deal passed by Congress.

This is a press release describing the Center's recently-filed lawsuit.

Lawsuit Filed to Stop Unlawful Killing of Endangered Wolves in Oregon

More importantly, Gov. Kitzhaber of Oregon has written to President Obama to express his concern at the way in which the delisting rider was placed on the budget bill because it set "a highly undesirable precedent" by preempting debate on an important environmental issue.

If you click on this link, you can petition your own governor to join Gov. Kitzhaber in expressing concern about the way in which the delisting rider was used to circumvent the Endangered Species Act.

Speak Out Against "Riders" That Kill Wildlife

Monday, May 2, 2011

Conspiracies and Meat Loaf

So Bin Laden is dead.

As a skeptic with cynical leanings, I always look at events like these--ones which use strategic military force and intelligence to accomplish a purpose we've been claiming to have for years now--and think, "Why now?" 

In politics, it's sad to say, violence has huge spin-potential.  I think that Americans needed something to rally around and this event, coming on what is almost the tenth anniversary of 9/11, will offer that, in large measure.

Which doesn't make it a bad thing, necessarily, just a simultaneously strategic one.

A collective reminder of what happened to us, to remind us that we are still "us," no matter how divisive "the rhetoric" has been.

That said, I loathe the wholesale infiltration of conspiracy theorists into mainstream media and culture.

I really wish they would just shut up and go away.

Go back to YouTube and Facebook and do your thing, yes, freedom of speech, First Amendment, the whole shebang.  "The Truth is Out There."

Great.  Good.  Go.  Bye.

Yes, I know, this means I'm one of the sheep.  That's right.  And as such, I'm going to bank on the fact that, when Armageddon comes, my kitty and I will be among the first casualties and thus, we won't feel a thing.

In the meantime, I have my garden and my rain barrels and my knitting.  And my books.  And my blog.

I'm sorry to say, but I just don't want to see one more video of one more person of questionable credentials (and highly questionable sobriety) zooming their digital camera in on one more blurry document with blacked-out passages and the words "TOP SECRET" and "CONFIDENTIAL" on it.

And then asking me to send money so that they can continue their "work."

My feeling is, if "they" come for me in the night, well, there probably wasn't much I was going to be able to do to stop that to begin with.

And anyway, my kitty and I are sound sleepers.

I think it's ironic that, one of the historically documented instances when the American Government did in fact come for Americans in the night was as a result of Franklin Roosevelt's Executive Order 9066 in 1942.

But none of the conspiracy theorists ever mention that at all.  It's always about Roswell or the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Kennedy Assassination.

And by the way, is there even anyone out there who didn't think that the Kennedy Assassination was a conspiracy?  I mean, it was pretty clear at the time, and if you didn't think so at first, you did when you saw this:

Anyway, my point is, ENOUGH.  Conspiracy theory was cute and cool and funny when it was The Lone Gunmen on "The X-Files," but in real-life, it's just incredibly annoying when it's being dished out 24/7.

(all images on this page may be subject to copyright)

Conspiracy theory is basically paranoia, creatively (and in some cases very creatively) applied to politics.  And paranoia is just narcissism, regularly inflicted on the rest of us, whether we asked to be "enlightened" or not.

It rarely accomplishes anything.  The alleged "wake-up call" we're being offered ultimately does more to distract us from the issues than it does to clarify them.

My feeling is, if we're trying to move the ball down the field, the efforts of conspiracy theorists are analogous to someone suddenly running onto the field to tell us that the laces on the ball are sometimes made of polyvinyl chloride, also known as "The Poison Plastic," and that there are major corporations who are hugely invested in producing PVC and that they have lobbyists at all levels of the political infrastructure.

Really?!  You don't say.  Well, how about we at least try to get to the twenty-yard line first, and then we'll all think about the laces and their implications for the big picture, okay?

Likewise, my immediate reaction to being told that the American economy is now and always has been the victim of Wall Street Bankers and Brokers and Blood-Sucking Corporations is, "Well, no shit."

I mean, have you ever taken a stroll down Bellevue Avenue in Newport?  Those historic homes weren't built by funds and volunteers from Habitat for Humanity. 

And actually, that's why unions were started in the first place.  To oppose the powerful corporations and their impact on American labor practices.  To counteract the influence of corporate lobbyists in Washington.

Whether you like unions or not, I think it's naive to suppose that, if they're eliminated, companies will stop shipping jobs overseas and bring them all back to the good old U.S. of A. where they'll spontaneously pay everyone a fair wage to work under excellent conditions with top-notch health care and retirement benefits, just like they always wanted to.

That just isn't the story that history tells.  Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) may be a overlong, maudlin, and overtly socialist novel, but Sinclair was a reporter at the turn of the century. 

And it's probably no coincidence that his other works are entitled The Moneychangers, Oil!, King Coal, and The Profits of Religion.

And if people are so worried about the power of corporations on the American economy, why in the name of all that is holy are they announcing "Trump for President in 2012!"

I mean, WHAT?!  That doesn't make a bit of sense.

It is true that, unlike most corporations, The Donald is not a producer of any product or service.  But that kind of makes it that much worse, in my opinion.

He markets an image, and that image happens to be himself.  He gets rich by pretending that he's gotten rich in business and then makes money telling other people how to pretend to get rich in business.  So my initial guess is, he probably isn't as "rich" as he claims to be.

All that aside, he doesn't seem very eco-friendly.  Or diplomatic.  Or all that concerned about creating jobs.  Ask Atlantic City what he's done for them, ever.  Not much.  Fiscal responsibility?  More like conspicuous consumption.

What does he know about the Constitution?  About government?  Public policy?  Education?  Health care? Tax reform?  (Is his company paying its taxes?  Has anyone checked?  I'm not being snarky: I really don't know--maybe they have.)

But in the end, I don't stress too much about him, actually, because I kind of think that, this is just the way of The Donald.  Whether or not he actually intends to run is irrelevant to him.  He just wants the media attention.  He's doing now what he did during the 80's: anyone who grew up within a 50 mile radius of NYC couldn't escape hearing about him.


It's always the same spin, the same kind of comments, the same basic story.  Before, it was Ivana, Marla Maples, Rosie O'Donnell... now it's Obama's Birth Certificate.  Somebody please find a story about Trump's current mistress.

You know she's out there.

Meanwhile, can I just say that I loved Obama's little speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner.  Oh, SNAP.

But really, what I've been thinking is, Meat Loaf should run.  I mean, really.  If we're taking it to the level where we have to hear from Trump and Sarah Palin on a regular basis, I'd like to put Meat Loaf into the mix.

I watched "Celebrity Apprentice" once, and I think he acquitted himself admirably.  He did more than The Donald did during the entire hour.

It's true, he goes ballistic sometimes, but then he reflects on it later and admits he made a mistake.  I like that.

And I think it would be worth it to see someone get that way every once in a while, especially when talking to the press.

Meat Loaf was in "Rocky Horror."  He can play baseball.  He's from Texas.  These are all things Americans typically like to see in a presidential candidate. 

I think there are maybe two people out there who came of age in the late '70s or early '80's who don't own a copy of "Bat Out of Hell."  According to the IMDB database, it is the third-highest selling album of all time, with 30,000,000. copies sold worldwide.  "Bat Out of Hell II" sold 20,000,000 copies in the 1990s and is "considered one of the biggest musical comebacks in music history."

In "Fight Club," he played a character who had his testicles removed and then developed (and I quote), "bitch tits."

Really, what more do we want?  I say, let 2012 be The Year of Meat Loaf.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Barrels and Blankets

Another beautiful weekend.  As promised, I headed out to Richmond yesterday morning to visit the RI Water Lady and pick up my rain barrels.  She's very cool--anyone who's trying to get people to conserve water is obviously very cool--and it was a beautiful morning for a drive. 

I installed them today and... drum roll... here they are:

I know this isn't much of a thrill to anyone else out there except me, since they're really just recycled food barrels. 

The lids have holes and there's a mesh liner underneath the lid, to keep out critters and such.  I put rocks on top for additional filtration--to help keep the pollen out. 

The hardest part of the installation process was cutting the drainpipe with a hacksaw to install the water diverter--and that wasn't very hard at all, just incredibly noisy.  (Seriously, you don't want to be doing that at 6:00 a.m. if you value staying on good terms with your neighbors.)

You can see the diverter a bit better in this picture (and I promise I'll stop talking about this in a minute or two):

It's installed very easily into the drain pipe, and it drains the water down onto the lid of the barrel, where it goes into the barrel itself to be stored.  In the winter, you have to store your barrel so it won't freeze, so you can simply flip up the downspout on the diverter until next spring.

Each barrel is 60 gallons--about 1/4 of an inch of rain can fill a barrel.

You can attach the spigot lower, but I typically use a watering can, so that's why it looks like I now have two very large and very strange water coolers in my back yard.

I actually have to attach a hose to connect the two.  I didn't have any extra lengths that would fit, so I wrote "black hose" on my shopping list. 

Let's hope that I remember that I mean "garden hose" and not, say, "fish net stockings."  The fact that the next item on my list is "topsoil" should clue me in, but then, you never know.

And who knows?  Perhaps, in a pinch, the fish net stockings could be used in place of the mesh screen... well, maybe not. 

The neighbors might talk.

I'm also cruising along on my blanket for Project Linus.  Here that is:

It's also not very fancy.  It's just your basic granny square afghan, but it uses up all kinds of left over yarn from previous projects, and is always a good thing to have.  I'm hoping to finish that this week.

I also cleaned out all of the crap in the back of my shed, since last week I cleaned out the shed itself.  (That's where I found the bricks to put under one of the barrels, actually.  Yes, I know-- I'm still talking about the rain barrels.  I can't help it.) 

I really should have taken "before" and "after" photos of that process, since cleaning out behind an edifice is always a messy job and you never get any landscaping credit whatsoever for it. 

No one ever comes up to you on the street and says, "The crap behind your shed is gone!  It looks awesome now!  I drove by and I couldn't believe it.  You really did a lot of work.  You must really be pleased with the results."

Unless, of course, the back of your shed looks like something on that show "Hoarders."  Then, I think people would notice and congratulate you on any improvements, big or small. 

So not getting credit in this case is actually a good sign, I guess.

Even less photogenic, but equally exciting to me is the fact that my grant proposal is shaping up.  I'm actually thinking that, by Monday, I'll have something that I'm not totally ashamed of to give to the Grants Office to look over.

This is good, because come Tuesday, I will begin to be chained to my computer, grading final papers. 

Oh well, at least it's supposed to be cloudy and raining...