Tuesday, December 18, 2012

To Lighten The Darkness: Part III

With all this talk of injustice, maybe an inspiring story of perseverance in the face of it, finally managing to change it for the better, is ideal for this episode of lightening the darkness. While the overall story is still quite sad, the demonstration that things can be changed, even by the little guy, is extremely important.

On Having Nothing To Say

I have not commented on the shooting in Newton because honestly I feel that I have nothing to offer the conversation. Adding my voice to the horror and outrage that is spreading across the web seems fruitless, there is nothing on the subject I may have to say that I have not seen said a hundred times. However, I do not want to pass by this excellent post by Avicenna on the subject, and I urge you to read it. It almost brought me to tears, and I think it is very much worth the read.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How To Speak Of This Injustice

I can't handle injustice very well, it gets under my skin the way nothing else really does. I find it hard to even put it into words, because I can hardly bring myself to believe that it happens, and when I am accused of exaggerating (something that is common given the heated way I tell stories, despite the fact that I almost never do it) just adds insult to injury for me. I will therefore let Cenk do the talking, as he is so much better at it than I am.

Please, please sign this petition to free Stephanie George, and pass the word on to as many people as you can. This epic failure of a war on drugs is destroying lives, and is built on the most monumental hypocrisy. I am amazed at how few signatures it has. Let's change that. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

This Gave Even Me Pause

The other day, I stumbled upon a quick graphic that PZ Myers had made and put up on Pharyngula. Now I consider myself to be fairly educated with regards to women's issues, I talk about it quite frequently and even have been accused of exaggeration, people telling me the situation is really not as bad as I make it out to me. And yet, even I was shocked at this one

That is unbelievable.

Now when I look at this graphic, my mind automatically goes to how my statistically impaired friends would attempt to tear this apart.

The first point of contention being: Yea well, there were women killed in 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan too! So the graphic is even more skewed than this! But that's not really the point, because they were not killed for simply being women. But then that's not fair either, because the women killed by their partners were not necessarily killed for being women, although the fact that they were women definitely was the largest indirect reason for their murder. 

The point of this graphic is the national conversation. 9/11 was a tragedy, and we are reminded of how tragic it was constantly, how many American lives were lost, how devastating it was. We are constantly talking about supporting the troops, and how it is insanity to be losing so many American lives overseas in such a pointless war.

And yet, when is women being killed by their partners ever made a big deal? When is the national day of remembering them? How many discussions about that are had on television? Where are the sorrowful television specials dedicated to so many more American lives lost? 

Monday, December 10, 2012

An Atheist's Reason For The Season

This post is appropriate for (two days after...oops) the 8th of December, which as I have mentioned before is the day in which, traditionally, the Christmas season officially starts in Italy. It is the day the trees go up, the Christmas lights come on on the streets and the Christmas markets officially begin (although I have noticed that this year, in light of the economic crisis, they were given permission to open shop earlier than usual) all to coincide with that famously confusing Immaculate Conception. I am one of those atheists that does in fact celebrate Christmas, or Mithrasmas, or Xmas, or whatever I may feel like calling it. I like it, its fun, and every year I act as Santa for my grinchy Italian family buying everyone's gifts for everyone else, so getting to Christmas knowing what's in all the packages except for my own. This does not mean, however, that I do not know plenty of people that are of Taslima Nasreen's opinion, that it is silly to celebrate Christmas:

I get surprised when ex-Christian atheists instead of celebrating a day off work, celebrate Christmas. Christmas is a Christian holiday, a religious event — it is for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Atheists don’t believe in God the father, Jesus the son or the holy spirit. Atheists are not Christians, they do not need to participate in Christian holiday.  

Well, I think that part of the answer come in her next paragraph (emphasis my own)

Many atheists even celebrate the pagan festival of winter solstice. Why do they need to celebrate a Pagan festival? It is true that many rituals of modern Christmas celebrations are pagan. But this is not a good reason to celebrate Christmas or Solstice. Atheists are neither pagan nor Christian. They don’t uphold ancient pagan superstitions, so why do so with those which happen to be popular at Christmas time? There’s nothing about ancient paganism which is any more rational than modern Christianity.

That's exactly it, Christmas celebrations as we know them are really bastardizations of much older pagan rituals, adopted when Christianity became big. Those who believe in a historical Jesus say that, if he did exist he most likely was born in September, so why change it all up in order to fit nicely with a pagan holiday which has nothing at all to do with Christianity?

Well, because people like their holidays and like their traditions. They are some of the best childhood memories for some people, and often they want to continue those great memories for their own kids. For Christians it was strategy: it's much easier to convince people to switch over to your religion when you tell them they don't have to change some of their favorite things about their old one, but for many atheists it's for similar reasons that we continue to celebrate it. People have been celebrating this time of year for ages, all under different names, so why can't we do the same thing this time around and have atheistic Xmas? I had some great Xmases in my time and I want to have that for my kids, the tree, the presents, the dinner, the family, all of it holds a special place in my heart and is an experience I wouldn't want to deny my future children. So what if Christians also celebrate this time of year for their own purposes? Why should that affect my celebrations with my family?

Now, do any atheists have to celebrate Xmas? Of course not! If they don't have any special memories attached to it or don't like it, then don't celebrate it! Celebrate, as Taslima suggests, Women's Day or Anti-Slavery Day, or hell make up a random date and call it My Family Day and come up with a bunch of traditions for your family alone!

The only thing that I would personally suggest, as I did to a friend of mine who does not have the happy Xmas memories that I do, is not to forgo having any holiday at all to celebrate, especially if you have kids. I know people say "well I can see my family at any time", but when life starts to get going and each family member starts doing their own thing, it's amazing how quickly time slips by until you stop for a minute and think crap, how long has it been since we've all been together in the same place at the same time?

 Having an xmas-like holiday gives everyone something to look forward to. It makes you stop and think what would my brother/sister/uncle/mother really like? What present could I get them that would make them happy? It gives you an excuse to bake cookies, make a nice meal or whatever else you don't indulge in when you're far too busy working. Most importantly, it gives everyone an excuse to drop whatever they're doing, take a break and visit with family and friends. I don't think there is anything wrong with that at all.

So as for me? I just bought my xmas tree and decorated it over the weekend listening to Nat King Cole carol for me. I then made myself a nice hot chocolate and relaxed, enjoying the beginning of the season, amazingly watching it snow outside. I was content, and I could care less that at the same time there were others boring themselves silly at mass. They're celebrations have nothing to do with me, and mine are for my benefit, not for Christianity's.

As an aside, if you haven't seen Taslima Nasreen's blog yet, do check it out. I may have disagreed with her in this case, but I do think her writing is remarkable. However I do think a trigger warning is in order: many of her posts are very hardcore: she blogs about women's rights and fundamentalist Islam, so the sad hard truth about rape, beatings and torture, including graphic images and videos, can often be found there.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Is It Sexual Assault?

This train of thought came upon me when watching one of those famous TYT Supreme Court moments that I've blogged about before. This video involves the so-called "Alabama Teabagger", and while from that title I thought I was going to get a few laughs at the Tea Party's expense, what I actually saw was just kind of gross.

As usual, the person that I disagree with the most in this case is Jayar, whom as usual is the one that, in my opinion, has the most unreasonable perspective. I could rant on and on about how much I hate the argument that he makes, the close cousin to the "well I was beat up at school and turned out alright, therefore I think that bullying should not be addressed because it builds character!" argument. However this is not about that. This is about a question that I immediately asked myself even before Ana brought it up: if it was a woman, would I have a different opinion as to how harshly he should be punished?

I appreciate the point that Cenk makes, that context matters and that it would be different if it was sexual in nature. If the guy did it to get off it's blatant sexual assault, whether he's doing it to a woman or a man. However I think it is pretty clear in the video that the act was intended as a prank, one which would humiliate the victim. However, even so, even if there was the exact same stupid-college-prank intent behind it, a part of me still feels like it's worse if the victim is a woman. Why is that? Is this another possible deep core of sexism hidden within me?

I realized that my feelings stemmed from the reaction that I imagined the victim, upon seeing that video, would have. When you see a burly college guy passed out at a football game getting pranked, you imagine that when he wakes up and discovers what happened he would be enormously pissed, and either beat up the prankster or devise an extremely elaborate and equally humiliating counter-prank. When you see the same thing happening to a woman, you imagine her being extremely humiliated, possibly depressed, possibly not having the guts to face her classmates for some time afterwards. Some of this is unfair stereotyping, some of it is from the cultural double-standard we have regarding men and women and embarrassing sexual-related things happening to them, but most of it is the imbalance of power. When you humiliate your peer it's a prank, when you humiliate someone who is weaker than you it is bullying. The fact that imagining the same thing happening to a young man that was weaker and picked on by the football team gave me the same gut reaction that imagining it happening to a woman did confirmed that this was the source of my double standard. 

Therefore the question becomes: is it fair to assume that a woman has less power? Is it fair to automatically jump to the conclusion that she would not be able to take it the same way and defend herself in the same way that another man could?

I think the answer is yes and no.

I know for a fact that there are women out there who would immediately try to devise the most complicated and terrifyingly humiliating counterprank imaginable. I know that there are women that would not be afraid to find that guy and kick the crap out of him in front of his friends, accomplishing both tasks. However, I do think that the football, frat-like and overall college culture would not be expecting that reaction, and I think that is the point.

Except for very special circumstances in which some girls may have been accepted into certain groups as "one of the guys", I think that the reaction that the "prankster" would expect from the woman would be the first that I described. All of a sudden, the prank moves away from being humiliating-but-harmless-fun into the realm of actively trying to make that person miserable. I think that a man who would do that would be trying to provoke that reaction from a woman, even if he does wind up getting a good kick in the balls for his troubles. That's where I think that the intent would be significantly different, and where it would not necessarily apply solely to women. 

It's not that women necessarily have less power than men in this circumstance, it's that more likely than not the man would be doing this because he expects her to have less power and not be able to defend herself.

This is why there are trials for this sort of thing, and why it shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all sentence. I think that, regardless of the victim being a man or a woman, if the person doing it has the intent that I last described, I could accept two years. If, on the other hand it was meant as simply a very stupid prank towards a peer, it's way way over the top.

In this case I have no idea where the victim stood in this regard. For all I know the prank could have been payback for something the passed-out person did previously. Because of this, I reserve judgement on the severity of the sentence in the absence of all the facts.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Judging What Is Real: Part II

A continuation, if I may.

It is interesting that while I was mulling around the contents of yesterday's post in my head, something happened that made me want to extend the topic of what constitutes as real.

This weekend I started my first Coursera course, and I was incredibly excited. It's given by Caltech, and is about Drugs and the Brain. I need a good refresher course in neuroscience, as I haven't even looked at it since my first year in college (when I was not a good student at all, thanks depression!), as I only did a very specific neurobiology course in my last year. It's all stuff that can be useful to me in my career and PhD, so I signed up, took my little notebook out and almost nostalgically started taking notes while watching one of the mini lectures during my lunch break. A colleague of mine saw me at in, right in the middle of copying down and trying to make sure I understood a physics equation (something I haven't studied since my second year in high school, so I really needed a refresher there), when she asked me astonishedly: you're taking notes?! For a coursera course??!! 

I replied well... yes! Of course I am! how else am I going to learn enough and pass the exam! To which she replied but.... it's all fake! What are you doing that for?!

Here I was befuddled and quite a bit miffed. Never mind that she knows exactly what coursera is, what it's about and at least said that she thought was absolutely brilliant. Never mind that she knows full well that these courses are offered by some of the most prestigious universtities in the world. And yes, this specific course is relatively brief and might not earn us an unofficial certificate of completion, but what about all of this makes the course "fake"?

What is so "fake" about knowledge?

Is it because the course is not one that carries university credit, and therefore cannot be used towards getting an official degree from Caltech? But then does that make any class that someone audits "fake"?

Is it because it is not a course that is directly improving my career chances? But does that make her own pursuit of her second degree in archaeology, despite being a biologist, "fake"?

What is so fake about learning?

It really comes down to what your priorities are, when it comes to deciding what you think is "real" and "fake". She obviously gives far more importance to officiality, and what others will officially recognize as something that you have done. I understand that coursera is new and relatively open in structure, there has been no standardization of course structure or examination, there is no way of comparing how strict or lax the grading method is, and therefore as of now is not as "offical" as it could be. Nevertheless, it is still education, it is still knowledge and it is still something I want to learn. I may not get an unofficial certificate of completion, but the knowledge that I gain from this course could really help me explore other avenues of research, or make me be able to hold my own in an interview in which knowledge of these things is required. To me, that makes this course very real indeed.

Officiality is, in my opinion, extremely limited. There are diploma mills out there that have not yet been discovered, where you can buy a degree without putting in a day's work. Less obivous are universities (and some high schools) which are exceedlingly expensive but also pathetically easy, which require next to no work to complete so long as there is a healthy influx of cash. Some may officially recognize certificates from these institutions, but to me they are the real "fakes" here. 

Where do your priorities lie when it comes to deciding what is real, and what is fake?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thoughts On: How We Judge Reality

Now that I have managed, somehow, to get through my 2 presentations in 10 days, I think I can breathe a little bit and get to the topics that I have had mulling around in my head for a while.

I'm sure that all of your have heard this narrative at some point in your lives. For me, I found that it became particularly prevalent in my pre-teen/early teen years, when kids really start to delve into their first existential questions. 

The very first ones of course tend to come up much earlier. For example, I remember thinking I was HOT SHIT when, at 8 years old and first discovering the existence of color-blindness, I came up with the age-old question: How do I know that what I see as blue is what you see as blue? Maybe what I call blue, you call purple! OMG SUBJECTIVITY FTW!! But apart from those classic one-hit wonders, the real "deep" discussions (which often ended in, if not tears, a lot of brooding and moody pondering), at least for me and my peers, began at the pre-teen stage. Things like whether or not love exists, whether or not the soul exists, whether or not the supernatural exists, what that all means with respect to us and our lives and our meaning and purpose, these were all hotly discussed. 

Of course these discussions were not as "deep" as we thought them to be at the time, which is about as much as you can expect from a bunch of barely pubescent kids. They were riddled with logical fallacies and a whole lot of "this is what I would like to be true and therefore this is what I believe" was going on, but that is immaterial to the point I will finally get to. The common thread of discussion that I want to bring up is one that I'm sure you've all heard by now, and I want to bring it up because it is one that I have heard come up among adults as well. It goes a little something like this:

Desperate Romantic (DR): Of course true love exists! I believe in it fully! It is what makes us human! It is what binds us! 
Presumed Skeptic (PS): I don't believe in true love. It doesn't exist. 
DR: Well I've found a soul mate! How do you explain that?
PS: There are no soul mates because there is no soul. The soul is just electrical impulses in the brain. Love is just hormones firing in the brain, that's all.
DR: You're diminishing what it means to be human by saying that! That's such a nihilistic perspective! 

And here is where I get lost in the backwards-ness of our culture.

Notice how DR is the one who says s/he believes in things like love and the soul, while PS is the one who claims not to.
And yet PS is the only one that is pointing to a physical, measurable something that either love or the soul could be, while DR insists they have to be invisible, unseeable, unmeasurable, untouchable.
Catch my problem here yet?

What I don't understand is how in the bleeding hell we managed to get so twisted in our logic that we accept that if something is invisible, unmeasurable and untouchable makes it more real, while claiming that it can be seen or measured makes it less real. That is why I called the second generic person in this back and forth "presumed" skeptic, because despite being seen as the nihilistic atheistic person in this exchange, they are making just as much of a backwards and illogical argument as the first person is. 

What is so bad about finding the chemical, measurable source of love? Doesn't finding that, measuring that, by definition prove it to be real? Why are so many people, PS-es out there included, so ready to dismiss the natural world as less-than? But more than that, how did we get here? Isn't it amazing that if tomorrow scientists came out and demonstrated a measurable compound which causes the feeling of love, and demonstrate that that feeling of love can be viewed in the brain beyond a shadow of a doubt, so many people would throw up their hands and cry "well that does it, love doesn't exist!" ??!! 

I believe that there is a physical, natural source for love, and therefore I believe that love exists. Interestingly, I was always on the outskirts listening in when this particular debate came up in my childhood, because I hadn't quite made up my mind about it.

Now I realize that the reason for that is because I was truly in the middle.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Tough Questions: On The Limits of Personal Freedom

Despite my extremely patchy posting, I found that I had to re-address one last aspect of the issues that I brought up surrounding Savita. As usual, thinking about the victims of backwards, brutal religions just gets me thinking about all of the ways that these religions infringe on the rights of human beings to be healthy. I think not only about people who die because of dangerous pregnancies, but about circumcision, acid being thrown in girls faces, AIDS because of a lack of access to condoms and children dying of preventable diseases because their parents were told not to believe in a certain medicine. 

When thinking about the horrors that many religious people impose on their own, especially their children, it is very easy to say things like "You know what asshole? If your adult self wants to be a dumbass and not take a blood transfusion to save your own life go right ahead, one less idiot on this planet, but don't let your child die because of your lunatic beliefs!" I am sorry (am I? I'm not sure yet) to say that I also have said this more than once, and am usually of this opinion, but this recent tragedy has really gotten me thinking. 

First of all, any regular reader of this blog will know that I am one HELL of an advocate for personal freedom. I feel that if you are an adult, are fully capable of making your own decisions and are not hurting anyone else in the process you can pretty much to whatever you like. I have taken this idea to some pretty dark extremes, defending even things that make my stomach turn in the utmost disgust. You can see my post on incest, for instance. When that story came out about that German guy that looked for a guy on the internet who loved the idea of being eaten, then killed and ate him, I said he shouldn't get life in prison because the guy not only volunteered, he really really wanted to be eaten - and shouldn't what happens to his own life be his choice and no one else's? I once even saw a documentary about these rare cases of voluntary amputation (if I find it again, I'll update and link it), where these people cannot live with a limb and try desperately to cut it off in any way possible, finding it of course very hard to find a doctor willing to amputate a perfectly healthy limb, and thinking that if I were a doctor I'd try to help these people out. Coming from this perspective, you'd think that my being OK with an adult doing something unhealthy because of their religious beliefs would be absolutely nothing, right?

And yet, there were two examples that stuck in my mind which made it very difficult for me to continue shrugging my shoulders in the face of weird choices that I will never understand but have no interest in shaking my finger over. One of them is the case of adult women electing to be fully circumsized, which a South African friend of mine tells me is the norm in the small town where he is from. The other is the idea of a woman getting a symphysiotomy despite knowing exactly what it is and what it will do to her (and yes I know that this was not the case in Ireland). Am I just being uber sexist, and only balk at these things because they involve women? 

I hope not, because there is a very fundemental difference between the two categories. The first category that I described is one in the absence of coercion. A person has a very strange fantasy, or has a rare illness that makes them need something desperately, who am I to tell them they can't have it, if they're not infringing on someone else's rights in the process? In the case of the latter, however, I don't think that is the case. If your community basically tells you you're an unmarriable slut if you elect to not be circumcised, that's not really a free adult making a free choice is it? If a woman is led to believe by her country steeped in patriarchal religion that her only worth on this planet is to make as many babies as possible no matter the cost or risk to her health, how can I possibly be in favor of that? 

The question thus becomes, would I be in favor of putting hard laws against these things that I despise? Just because I despise them, even though adults are (relatively) volutarily electing to have them?

I think that history has shown that laws are the wrong way to go about these things, especially when it comes to limiting adults. While I am in favor of laws preventing these things being done to children (as relatively powerless citizens they need extra protection), having only laws leads to one thing: back alley proceedures. I personally would invest my resources and energy into education, education, education, always. Let's talk about how these things are incredibly dangerous. Let's talk about changing our culture to something that is sex positive, not slut-shaming. Let's change people's minds.

I suppose the fundemental conclusion is this. When someone has an innate, psychological problem, such as the people who desperately want to become amputees, there's nothing you can do to remove that need inside them. They have it and they will be miserable for the rest of their lives if they are forced to keep that limb, and misery pushes people to do desperate and dangerous things. This means that we need to pick the better of two not-ideal situations: allow that person to sever that limb in the safest way possible.

On the other hand, if we have a person whose only reason for wanting something so dangerous and brutal is because they were unfortunate enough to be born into a society which tells them that they are worth less if they don't do it, well that's just not. fucking. fair. I don't want anyone to think that, and I will not want to stand idly by while the vicious cycle goes round and round. While legislation will probably do more harm than good - pushing an already unsafe proceedure underground - tackling the root, the source of the problem is the hardest but the best way to handle this unfairness. 

There's more to struggle with this, but this first part I hope is clear enough.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

To Lighten The Darkness Part II

And now, to counterbalance that terribly depressing story, I give you the boss of this week. Alvin Lau, you, your poem and your passion rock.

And Now It's Happening In Italy...

In my never-ending comparison of the two cultures between which I was raised, one thing that I used to like about the Italian culture was the absence of bullying, at least at the school level. That is not to say that there weren't kids that were mean, or cruel, or loud in their ignorance, but the systematic bullying of "weaker" or "unpopular" kids by one or more "stronger" or "popular" kids was almost unheard of. I remember friends of mine watching typical American teen comedies, with the nerdy kids regularly getting pushed around or their heads flushed in toilets, with the cliques of the "popular kids" at the top and a whole underclass of kids below them wanting to be them, and laugh at the ridiculous parody of American life that couldn't possibly be true. I mean, there might be some girls that are prettier, and therefore girls that are better at snagging a boyfriend, but there's no real high school social ladder that could come tumbling down if you stop dressing a certain way or put on a few pounds, is there? I mean, sure there are some criminal kids, dangerous fascist kids that might do terrible things to someone, but it's not something that happens in every school, every day, under teachers' noses, right? Come on, it's a total exaggeration! This naivete was something that I liked, because it was an indication of a high school mentality which involved small groups of friends largely leaving others alone and going about their own business. While there are other aspects of high school life which are a real problem in Italy, such as the regular occupations of schools with all the reasons and problems that come with them, this at least was an aspect that I admired.

Here's the thing though. While I know that in countries where bullying is rife you will find it pretty much everywhere, things always get worse when the student body starts becoming more filled with "others". It used to be that there were very few racial minorities (and the ones that were present were thus well integrated) in public schools(*), almost no one that came out in adolescence, and this absence of easy targets to pick on no doubt contributed to the rarity of bullying. However this country is evolving, more and more people are understanding they are gay at younger ages, and so it begins. I am ashamed to say that bullying has reached our schools, and now begin the teen suicides, people who break under the persistent, constant pressure of hate.

A fifteen year-old boy, known only by the pseudonym Davide (Italy has strict laws regarding the publishing of underage people's names) hung himself in his home while his parents were away, after a year of cyberbullying in the form of a facebook page designed solely to humiliate him, homophobic comments at school, and apparently the straw that broke the camel's back with a teacher berating him for coming to school wearing nail polish. I'm sure it did not help matters that (allegedly, according to his friends) his parent's were not supportive of him, and "did not understand him". Those who knew him blame themselves for not seeing the signs sooner and doing something to help, but this is pure survivor's guilt and is not their fault. 

The only silver lining that I can find is that there is an investigation into the creators of the facebook page, the instigators behind the systematic abuse, who will hopefully be charged with Istigazione al suicidio a suicidio avvenuto - inciting suicide with the result of an actual suicide, a penalty that can bring five to twelve years in prison. What will actually happen, if it all will be abandoned somewhere down the road remains to be seen, but at least for now something is being done. Commenters on the article call for the Italian version of the "It Gets Better" campaign, and I agree with them.

If any of you are or live in Italy, and are or know a member of the LGBT community that needs help coping with abuse, know the resources that are available to you. Call 800-713-713 for support and information.

(*) I did not go to a public school, but rather an International school, which resulted in there being no such thing as a racial minority - with 56 countries represented in a high school of 180, we had more of a "two of everything" thing going on. We also had a few kids who were out, and a few more we were sure were not far behind. In my four years of high school, to the best of my knowledge there was never a single instance of bullying. People may fight, and bitch about each other behind their backs in true teenage fashion, but there was no uneven power, no systematic taunting that ever happened there. One kid with whom I was no longer friends did try to get back at me by spreading the rumor that I was a lesbian, but it died on his lips: few believed him, and those that did could not care less, not a single one of them came up to me to even ask me if it was true, let alone make fun of me. I only found out because I overheard him, and when I brought it up to a couple of people they simply said "oh yea, I heard that, honestly I just thought he was being kind of pathetic, nor did I really think about it enough to wonder whether or not it was true". I tell this story because I think that having an open, multicultural and international upbringing is the single most important thing that made me who I am, and my education is a model that I believe is the best solution for producing openminded and productive people. This has been tried and tested, and always to be kept in mind when you hear people crying "freedom of religion" and "protection of values" when trying to advocate for unrestrained bullying and all-one-race-and-one-background schools.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

To Lighten The Darkness

I have decided that, from now on, I will follow every horrible story I post about with one about someone that is inspiring, someone that every so slightly raises my hopes for humanity. I don't want this blog to become tragedy-porn, and either way it is always important that there are people in this world we can aspire to be more like, not just people we can revile.

Today I am also going to focus on someone who is no longer with us, but is still a truly inspirational and amazing human being. Her name was Rachel, and at nine years old she was already totally awesome.

Rachel was your average nine-year-old. She loved Taylor Swift and had a secret crush on Justin Bieber, although she’d never admit it. She had a loving family and a heart that wanted to solve every problem she saw in this world. Once, she cut off all her hair and donated it to make wigs for kids who had cancer. So when she sat in church one day and heard Scott Harrison from charity: water give a talk about how kids her age in Africa didn’t have clean water to drink, she immediately decided to help. 

With her mom’s encouragement, she created a fundraising page on mycharitywater.org, telling her family and friends that she didn’t want presents for her ninth birthday. Instead, she asked them to donate $9, as she was turning 9. Rachel wanted kids like her to have clean water to drink.

She had a big goal: to raise $300 and give 15 people clean drinking water. She fell a little short, raising $220, and told her mom that she’d try harder next year.

A month later, Rachel was in a tragic car accident on highway I-90 near Seattle, Washington. A trailer had jack-knifed into a logging truck, sending logs tumbling down the freeway. More than a dozen cars were caught in the pile-up, and the trailer smashed into the back of Rachel’s car.

When the news spread about Rachel’s story and her birthday wish, people all around the world began to donate on her page. Some gave $9, some $19, leaving comments like “This is the rest of my month’s salary…..” A month later, 30,000 people had given more than $1.2 million.

Not only did she display more empathy and altruism at the age of nine that many people do in their entire adult lives, she also happened to pick a great charity. This is what I look for in a charity, and this is what makes this also a post about supporting them:

When we started charity: water, we made a bold promise to the general public — 100% of their donations would go directly to the field to fund water projects. We'd find another way to cover our operating expenses. And we'd even reimburse credit card fees when donations were made online.

We depend on private donors, foundations and sponsors to cover everything from staff salaries to basic office systems to office rent and supplies. These donors are some of our most dedicated: their investment fuels our long-term mission, our ability to scale as an organization and our mission to continue using 100% of public donations for water projects. 

Great girl, great cause. Feel your spirits rising ever so slightly. 

Forcing The Discussion

And here I am to prostrate myself at your virtual feet for by prolonged and undue absence. I was going through a writer's block, a "crap I have nothing to say, and no one cares what I have to say anyway" phase, from which I have been shocked out of in light of recent viral stories that I want to add my two cents to. 

By now, I'm sure you have all heard about Savita Halappanavar, the most recent face put on the victims of the Catholic Church's meddlings in societies to which they do not contribute.

Savita Halappanavar (31), a dentist, presented with back pain at the hospital on October 21st, was found to be miscarrying, and died of septicaemia a week later.

Her husband, Praveen Halappanavar (34), an engineer at Boston Scientific in Galway, says she asked several times over a three-day period that the pregnancy be terminated. He says that, having been told she was miscarrying, and after one day in severe pain, Ms Halappanavar asked for a medical termination.

This was refused, he says, because the foetal heartbeat was still present and they were told, “this is a Catholic country”.

She spent a further 2½ days “in agony” until the foetal heartbeat stopped.

The dead foetus was removed and Savita was taken to the high dependency unit and then the intensive care unit, where she died of septicaemia on the 28th.

There was no chance, none whatsoever that her foetus would survive. Despite this, they chose to put the life of its mother at risk, by choosing the arbitrary standard of a foetal heartbeat as proof it was still alive, thereby directly causing her death.

I wonder, are heart transplants illegal in Ireland as well? The person's heart is still beating when it is removed for transplant, it must be in order to still be viable, but by their own logic isn't that directly killing their patient and therefore illegal?

So why am I deciding to weigh in at this point? Why is this one case so important?

I hope that this is what will finally precipitate a real discussion that we need to have regarding the liberties we give Catholic hospitals. 

Even if it is discovered that this was an isolated case, one in which her doctor was negligent and solely at fault, even if it is discovered that his actions were not in accordance with proceedure at the Catholic hospital in question, even if the administration of said hospital is absolved of any responsibility beyond any doubt, we still need to have this conversation.

This is not the first time that we are faced with the disgusting proceedures in Catholic hospitals. Take ectopic pregnancies, which have 0% chance of survival, since the foetus will burst the fallopian tube and kill the mother once it reaches a certain size. We have heard of Catholic hospitals which refuse to remove the embryo in question because of their "morals", opting instead to remove the woman's entire fallopian tube, greatly reducing her fertility and turning a simple operation into a far more dangerous one. Where was the global outcry then?

What about the sawing of women's pelvises to make them into supreme baby-making machines? 

The problem is the lack of a face, a victim, someone that the whole world rallies around. Now there is one, and with enough people paying attention we need to address the real issue: how much are we going to allow hospitals to get away with?

We need laws, real laws, limiting in explicit words what religious hospitals are allowed to do and still operate as hospitals. If Jehovah's Witnesses decide their going to open up a hospital but refuse to give blood transfusions to any of their patients, even to save their lives? Guess what, you don't get to be a hospital, you don't get a cent of govnerment money and you sure as shit aren't going to be served by ambulences that might bring an unwitting patient to your doors. If a Catholic Church refuses to save a woman's life because she has some foreign DNA inside her? Fuck you, you don't get to be a hospital anymore, end of story. 

Now, when people are really looking and really paying attention, now is the time to act.

Monday, November 12, 2012

What Happened to Book Reviews?

Here I used to be reading three books in a weekend given the three hour train ride I have to take whenever I go back to Rome, now it's been twice that I've gone down and I'm still bringing along the same book that I haven't even opened yet. Yeesh, what's going on? Where has the reading bug gone? Well, it's easy, I've gotten hooked on audiobooks. More specifically, I cannot go anywhere without being plugged into the Harry Potter series, read by Stephen Fry.

I adored the books, and I was the perfect age for them to "grow with me" as I was reading them. Now, I have to say, I think I like hearing Stephen Fry reading them to be even better. They keep me company as I walk back and forth to work (since they have now stole my bike for the third time, horray), on the train, as I dissect larvae at the microscope or as I go about my solitary business. They're also so long that by the time I reach the end of the last book, very little time needs to go by before I start on the first again. They're that good. He's that good.

I have found that when it comes to audiobooks, they need to be books you have read and/or books that do not require an enormous amount of attention. If it's your first time reading them, or it is a book that needs careful consideration paid to every word, you need to be able to hold it in your hand and fix it with your eye, or you wont be able to follow it and you certainly wont be able to multitask. To this effect, I have downloaded the following audiobook series that will follow Harry Potter:

Discworld - Terry Pratchet
The Dark Tower - Stephen King
The Vampire Chronicles - Anne Rice
His Dark Materials - Phillip Pullman
Dune - Frank Herbert

I am a little giddy, though I highly doubt that any of them will be as good as the Stephen Fry readings. He's just... so... I suppose you have to listen for yourself to get it. I just hope I wont get too hooked that I wont open up any paperbacks again.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Fuck You Libertarians!!

I'm so very sorry that I have been neglecting you. I have been finding very little to say and even less time to say it, and I was wondering whether or not to acknowledge the fact that the United States just, finally managed to re-elect their president. It's not like it was a shock, the math was pretty clear on that before the actual election, so it wasn't exactly a nailbiter. Of course there are the hilariously uninformed that actually were flabbergasted about it (including the Mitt Romney campaign itself), and I suppose it is only because of them that I have decided to talk about this at all. This video just tipped me over the edge in its absolute hilarity, so I figured why not.

Yes, Obama won, and apparently there are some very drunk and incidentally very funny people that are just stinking MAD about it!!!

It's OK, you can admit it, it's pretty funny. Actually, I'm more interested right now in getting follow up interviews with those people that were sure that Romney would wim because God was going to make sure of it, because God was never wrong. My question would be this: Did the absolute creaming of Romney in this case make you

A. Question your belief in God
B. Question your belief that God prefers Romney to Obama
C. Think that Satan might currently be stronger than God?

My guess, it'll be D. Non of the above. There's no reasoning with some people.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Another Awesome Lady

I'm back from my little holiday everyone, even though I didn't get to leave the country I still managed to have a fabulous time to make up for my incredibly shitty birthday, hooray for belated birthday celebrations! Since I am still in a good mood, I want to open up November with another female boss. Today we meet Tracey Spicer, an Australian newscaster, who had this awesome dose of snark to dole out to the oh-so-deserving. I'm sure you know that I am quite partial to snark myself, and this lady has just wiped the floor with the targets of her ire:

DEAR Mr Misogynist,

I'd like to thank you for everything you've taught me over the past 25 years.

Why, I had no idea I was so fat, ugly and stupid. I thought being a size 12 was perfectly acceptable.

But when you yelled across the newsroom, ''I want two inches off your hair and two inches off your arse'', suddenly, a light went on.
Of course! The size of my posterior is directly related to the content and credibility of the stories I'm reporting on for this network. Silly me. You're right. I'll never make it as a TV journalist.

Those wise words of yours from 1986 are still ringing in my ears: ''That's why you don't see blonde newsreaders,'' you explained patiently. ''People don't take them seriously.''

It reminded me of another sage piece of advice, from a radio boss during a job interview some years ago.

He put it simply yet eloquently: ''There's a reason why you don't hear women on commercial talkback radio,'' he said. ''No one wants to hear the whiny sound of a female voice. Us blokes get enough nagging at home!''

Really, in retrospect, it was foolish to think I was worthy of such a role.

Like all women, I only have two areas of specialisation: shoes and handbags. We all know high heels are a patriarchal construct to disempower us by constricting movement. (Oh dear. Must stop having thoughts like that. Sorry, I have no idea where that came from.)

Anyway, through some quirk of fate, I managed to land a newsreading job.
I know what you're thinking. I finally decided to speak into that flesh-coloured microphone you were always pointing in my direction.

Oddly enough, I was offered the job by a woman. Who would have thought? Initially, I was wary. You always said you'd never work for a female boss because, ''You can't trust anything that bleeds for five days and doesn't die''.

Hilarious! It's a good thing I was wearing a corset or my sides would have split.

Fortunately, there were enough blokes around to keep me on the straight and narrow.

On my first night, the station manager came down and said, ''You need to stick your tits out more''. Once again, my brain wasn't working properly.

In between the raging bushfires, the political crises and savage cuts to welfare, I'd forgotten to flirt with the camera.

A couple of years later - I'm ashamed to say this - I ''porked up'', according to one of the producers.

My new boss quickly raced out and arranged sponsorship from the local gym.

Frankly, I was unsightly. I stood out like a bull in a china shop, around those fragile lollipop ladies with their skinny bodies and massive heads.

Speaking of heads, I got a nasty shock when I looked in the mirror one day. Wrinkles around my eyes and on my forehead. Too much thinking? Surely not.

I remember you reviewing a video tape of one of my colleagues - clever girl, Walkley Award winner as I recall - and saying, ''The problems seem to be here and here,'' pointing to her ghastly crow's feet.

As it turns out, wrinkles were the least of my worries. I'd gotten myself knocked up.

I wanted to go back to work when bubby was three months old but, once again, it took a man to show me the error of my ways.

''Women should be at home with their children,'' my news director said. ''Or the fabric of society will be rent asunder.

''Anyway Trace. You're getting a bit long in the tooth. Why don't you give some of the younger girls an opportunity?''

Suddenly, all the lights went on. And it was so bright - it made your light look like a limp insipid flicker.

This is difficult for me to put into words but if I had to, it would sound a bit like this: F--- you.

F--- you, you misogynist bully with your archaic beliefs, intellect of a pygmy, and tiny dick.

The reason I am writing this letter is to thank you.

Among others - too many to mention - you lit a fire in my belly that's become an inferno and these days, I don't cop shit from anyone. When I was sacked by email after the birth of my second baby, I fought the lot of them.

I do hope you receive this correspondence. I had trouble finding a forwarding address after you lost your house due to that unfortunate sexual harassment case.

(I'm sure the bitch was asking for it.)

Yours in emancipation,

What has gotten into Australian women these days? Whatever it is, I approve.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thoughts On: Body Farms, Autopsies and Anatomy Museums

This one has been swirling around in my head for a while, but it also just so happens to be an appropriate topic for Halloween, don’t you think?

This is one of those cases in which for a long time I had to think to death why I felt the way I feel about a certain thing. So here’s the deal: I am not opposed to art exhibits or museums which display human bodies, I was brought to an anatomy museum as a freshman in high school, and while it was a little disturbing for a 13-14 year old (particularly the severely malformed fetuses and the poster book of a sliced pregnant woman), I do not oppose their existence. Of course I am also fully aware that body farms and autopsies performed for medical training are invaluable to our society and even if I were opposed to the former, the latter is undeniably essential. Here’s my one caveat though: the people who are used have to have consented to this while they were alive. I am firm in this, and I did not go to one of the exhibits in Dublin because I was told that the majority of the bodies used were unclaimed as opposed to voluntarily donated. Why, though, do I feel this way?

I obviously am not religious or superstitious in any way. I do not believe that the “souls” of those people will “know” what is being done to their bodies and upset them. I do not believe that they will become angry ghosts for the way that their bodies are being treated. I do not believe that any of them will be denied access to heaven because they were not buried in a certain way. Why, then, am I so adamant about consent, when they would never know any better anyway?

The answer came to me when I was talking to a friend of mine who is considering visiting the Human Body Exhibition in Milan. She has never been to one of these before nor has she ever seen an autopsy, so while she is very curious she is unsure how she will react. Discussing it, she said that she would probably be very sad, because she will be thinking about how these bodies were real live people once. To which I responded that that would not make me sad in the slightest, so long as I knew that those people had wanted their bodies to be displayed in such a way. And that is when it clicked.

Respecting their last wishes is my way of preserving their humanity. I will always remember that those bodies were people, I cannot disassociate what they are now with what they were. However, knowing that this is what they wanted for themselves and their bodies would make me happy to participate, not sad. I do not fear death the way that many others do and I accept it, however I feel that respecting someone’s wishes is respecting their humanity. I would find it incredibly sad if I knew that the exhibit was filled with unclaimed bodies, that just because those people had outlived their family or perhaps died in the wrong place at the wrong time that somehow made them less human, less worthy of respect, less deserving of choosing the fate of their bodies. I would feel for those people, I would wonder what their lives were like, what they would have wanted, why they died alone and unwanted. On the other hand, to know that the last wish of the person I am looking at was to be looked at by me and the thousands of others that walk through the exhibit makes me feel happy to oblige. I would not think on their past life with sadness but with curiosity and a smile on my face. Finally, I feel that there is an inherent hypocrisy in giving some people the right to do with their body as they choose but deny that right to others.

I may not have really explained myself that clearly, so feel free to ask or bring up another tangent. I am also aware that this is very subjective, so what are your thoughts on the subject?

Have you ever been, or would you ever go to a body exhibit or a human anatomy museum?

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Journal Club: No Smoking Allowed

We haven’t done a journal club in a while, so I figured I couldn’t resist delving into the science behind another one of those scientific newspaper articles that love tohype it up. It all started with one of those articles that people share on Facebook, the title of which translates to:

Peptidediscovered to stop smoking definitively and without relapse!” Wow, that’s some discovery! This article linked me to a statement released from the Center for Addiction and Mental Health, which of course actually had a far more toned down title: “CAMH discovery may lead to new treatment to prevent smoking relapse”. O.K., we’re digging down past the layers of hype.

Of course both of these articles committed my worst pet peeve ever: they didn’t cite the actual article, and it took me forever to find it. It’s not on Science Direct or Google Scholar yet, PubMed only has the abstract, I finally managed to find it on the webiste of the Journal of Experimental Biology, also because the actual title they landed on was:

Yeesh, good thing they accompanied this article with a press release, cause that’s a pretty specific and boring title that would not have led me to open that article and read on, nor does it make it easy to find in a search engine. Anyway, this is the part where I read the actual article and digest it into easier morsels for you, like a mother bird barfing up her dinner. So let’s see, what did they actually conclusively find?

Let’s start with what we know: we know that there are receptors in our brains called nicotine acetylcholine receptors, or nAChRs. These receptors are activated by nicotine, which in turn cause the yummy feelings in our brains, which is what makes smoking additive and hard to give up, especially over long periods of time (don’t I know it). What remains fuzzy is exactly what these receptors do on a molecular level after they receive the nicotine fix, therefore the molecular source of what exactly makes smoking so hard to give up.

Here, they found that one particular receptor of the nAChR family, called α7nAChR, forms a complex with another kind of receptor called NMDAR, under chronic exposure to nicotine. This means that the formation of this complex could be a key component to understanding what makes it hard to quit. Therefore, theoretically, if you stop this complex from forming, you could prevent the downstream warm-and-fuzzy effects on the brain that this complex induces, and thus making it easier to give up the cigs. With me so far?

In order to test this hypothesis, the researchers got rats addicted to nicotine, teaching them that if they pressed down on a lever, they got a shot of nicotine. Once they were well addicted and their self-administration of nicotine became relatively stable, they were given a shot of a peptide that the researchers showed interferes with the formation of this complex. After this shot, the rats no longer looked to self-administer nicotine. They also made sure that this was not because the peptide simply made the rats loopy, therefore making them less likely to press down on the nicotine bar for different reasons, but they demonstrated that the rats injected with the peptide moved around just as much as normal rats.

This sounds quite promising, so what are the ups and the downs?

One big problem I have with this paper is the lack of focus on the aspect that they focused on in their press release. I understand that the molecular part of the paper is extremely labor-intensive and important, the fact that they conclusively demonstrated the protein complex formation (which is not easy) and found a peptide that inhibits it is a paper all on its own. However, rightly so, they knew that the part of this experiment that would get the most attention is the part about actually testing this peptide to see if it works. However, despite being the only focus of the press release, they completely gloss over it in the paper. There is not a single graph, not a single statistical analysis of the behaviour of the rats.

ICV injection of 12 or 40 nmol TAT- α 7pep2[L336-M345] blocked reinstatement of nicotine seeking, they say. OK, completely? Significantly? That’s it, that’s all the information I get?

TAT- α 7pep2[L336-M345] peptide did not affect locomotor activity (not depicted) why is it not depicted? Did you not run a statistical analysis to demonstrate that the locomotor activity was not affected? If you did, let’s see it! If you’re not going to pay any attention to the behavioural aspect of the experiment then just don’t do it, and you definitely don’t get to make it the sole focus of your press release.

Putting aside my wariness about the nicotine-seeking results of the rats, it is a promising experiment and certainly the first of its kind. Of course there is a very long way to go in applying it to humans: seeing if this complex also forms in humans (tough to do, since in this case they demonstrated it by taking neurons from the rats), and definitely doing a very in-depth analysis of this peptide to make sure that it doesn’t interfere with anything else in the body which is important.

It is a good start, but I still give them a tut tut for their handling of some of the data.