Monday, December 31, 2007

Obama: the Runoff Candidate?

Today Barack Obama pleaded to voters, "Make me your second choice, although you are wiser making me your first." He brought up an interesting subject. Caucuses run by slightly different rules, but it's a good thing to think about. Many people become frustrated with having to throw all their support behind one candidate who may not win.

This is why I like Obama as a politician. He's good at appealing to people who otherwise feel disillusioned with the political system. Instant runoff voting makes a lot of sense for America's democratic system, since we've become so limited with a two-party system. With instant runoff voting, people can feel good about the candidate they really like without feeling like they threw their vote away. Ultimately, this might help third party candidates break into state legislatures or even Congress (Bernie Sanders is quite the exception to make it to the Senate in an overwhelmingly two-party system).

Bhutto, an Imperfect Symbol

Addie Stan has a great memorial article on Pakistan's Benazir Bhutto up at TAP today. She says:
For the women of South Asia, it is a tragedy that extends beyond Bhutto's family and her country. However disappointing her lack of action on behalf of Pakistan's women, Bhutto was a potent symbol of their potential empowerment. Symbolism was what Bhutto did best, and symbols matter -- especially to the desperate.
It's true that in societies where public women just don't exist, even imperfect symbols can go a long way. After all, I often have a problem with the notion that feminists are expected to be more perfect because they are under scrutiny. It's also true that great female Muslim leaders are virtually unknown to the West. Here's hoping Bhutto will pave the way for more female leadership (hopefully of a less corrupt nature) in places like Pakistan.

DC Caucus

14U is holding an informal primary. Leading so far: Hillary Clinton.

Radical Home Schoolers

While I was on vacation in snowy Minnesota, I finally had time to tear through my latest issue of Bitch (luckily it's a quarterly so I feel less bad about not getting to it right away). Unfortunately, Bitch is still in the process of re-launching their website, so I can't link to the article, but they had a story in this issue called "Learning Curve" about radical homeschooling feminists. These women are disillusioned with the school system, finding it lacking in gender studies analysis or not sensitive to their children's special needs or interests, so they choose a path they call "unschooling," or breaking down education and tailoring it to individual student needs.

I have to admit, I was a little jealous of the zine making curriculum one hip mom designed for her kid, but the whole article was framed in a way that focused on how these women square being a feminist with quitting their job to stay at home with the kids to teach them, even if it is a radical kind of teaching. The article's author, Maya Schenwar, asks, "Does being a feminist mean you have to have a paid job? What does it mean to raise a feminist kid? Is there a feminist definition of success, and should there be?" These are all certainly relevant questions for feminists to answer for themselves, but I was surprised by the questions the article didn't ask. What's wrong with our current educational system, and how can we fix it? If these women have lost such faith in public education -- a pretty popular position these days -- then there must be something pretty wrong. By taking their students out of the educational system, it's a little like a frustrated voter saying he's going to protest government by not voting. Then, nothing will ever really change.

Granted working on altering education can be frustrating. Between all the regulations and federal, state, and local funding perpetually hanging in the balance, it can be a depressing thing to try to change. I tend to have faith in the ability to customize education. After all the school district is one place where thoughts of parents are taken very seriously. These women could start and after school zine making club, and open up the opportunity to explore alternative disciplines to all students, instead of catering only to their own children. They could go to PTA meetings to ask teachers to include some feminist, race, or gender studies texts in English or history classes so students get a more diverse experience in the classroom.

I don't pretend that these radical unschoolers alone can change the way we do education, but I guess I'd like to see the discussion framed in a perspective that includes all children. After all, the unschoolers are women that can afford to stay at home and take charge of their children's education -- and children's education is extremely important. There are many women that cannot afford such a luxury and I'm sure lots would like to see the school system changed for the better.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Soldier's Suicide

The AP has a story today about Pfc. Jason Scheuerman who committed suicide in his barracks. Scheuerman went to a psychologist twice to seek help, sharing his symptoms of depression and hallucinations. Still, Scheuerman was denied classification as having a mental health disorder. Scheuerman's father wants an investigation into the behavior of his son's unit's leaders and wants the psychologist to be brought forth for peer review. The AP reports that the Army is tight-lipped about Scheuerman's case.

This soldier came forward to get help, and was denied treatment. There's overall a general resistance to labeling soldiers with mental health disorders for obvious reasons, but soldiers shouldn't be denied treatment when they ask for it. Sadly, Scheuerman and his family had to pay the price.

Human Fat Makes the Fastest EcoBoat?

So it turns out there's a contest to make go around the world in a boat powered by biofuels. I stumbledupon this story about the ecoboat that might break the record (a Brit who made it around the world in 75 days) powered entirely by human fat. It's a pretty sweet looking boat, too.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

IQ Sanity

I was horrified when I recently saw a weird debate on the blogs that was pretty much boiled down to: Black people don't have as high IQ scores as white people. Does that mean they're just dumber? Thank goodness for Amanda Marcotte. Finally, she (and Malcom Gladwell through a recent book review) brought some sanity to this debate.

It’s quite timely now that the racists are trotting out their favorite theory that gets trotted out every few years, smacked down, and then trotted out again once they figure everyone has forgotten the last smackdown, the theory that the IQ gap between whites and blacks must reflect fundamental, immutable, genetic traits, ergo a racist caste system is organic and not the product of oppression.

Now, she's finally making the point I'd been hoping someone would make all along: No, black people aren't dumber. The tests and social standards are biased in a certain way.The fact that the IQ test has long been billed as "a measure of raw intelligence" just seemed silly to me. Gladwell does a great job of explaining why:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits.

I once got criticized for suggesting that maybe the SAT was biased toward white people because non-white groups were lagging behind. What this really shows me is that intelligence, as we tend to measure it, has a lot more to do with class and buying into a certain set of social standards and assumptions. Of course it's hard to think that maybe the way you view the world is really specific to how you were raised. Realizing that is the easy part. Breaking down biases in supposedly objective data is the hard part.

Cross-posted on

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An Inane Ad

Please, don't punish yourself by watching the whole video. Skip to 2:50 and you'll see how the terrible anti-tax cut right-wing noise machine is starting already -- and including a holiday theme.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Control A Woman

I guess we're supposed to feel better that they also have a "control a man" model. Thanks, Urban Outfitters.

Now Urban Outfitters Sells "Control a Woman"

Cross-posted at

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The History of Sex

The History Channel's "History of Sex" series appears to be misnamed. It should be "History of White Sex."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Girls and Dolls

One professor's musings on toys and gender roles as a mother gave me food for thought.
I believed that if I dressed her in overalls, cut her hair as short as a boy’s, and gave her trucks instead of Barbies, she’d end up a nuclear physicist. I got my comeuppance right away. Among her first words were, “What’s that?” We had just passed a desultory-looking store window in downtown L.A. She was in her stroller, firmly pointing her pudgy index finger at a sorry-looking Barbie, alone and dusty, sitting atop a tower of toilet paper.
What this means is that, much as parents wish they could have control over how their children grow up seeing themselves, it's impossible to shut out every influence on children except the ones you want. Ultimately, there's more at work than parenting. This means feminists have a lot of work to do.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Condom Cartel

Apparently there's some price fixing on condoms going on in Europe. Six rubber firms, who make everything from "shoe soles to condoms" met regularly to discuss prices and market information, the BBC reports. These firms controled the entire condom market in Europe.

This is actually pretty serious. Having affordable and availible condoms is a vital part of public health. Customers have been overcharged by up to 30 percent. Two of the firms charged with price fixing by the EU were U.S. firms DuPont and Dow Chemical, and what's more, this is the third time the rubber industry has been caught engaging in price fixing.

So much for the free market.

Cross-posted on

Huckabee Game

Some people think that Mike Huckabee looks like Wallace.

But he really looks like Kevin Spacey.

That is all.

The Times' Minnesota Obsession

Well, it's about that time. Every 4-6 months the New York Times takes it upon itself to publish an article written from the lens of "Look at Minnesotans! Aren't they weird?!?!" Of course, comedian turned Senatorial candidate Al Franken provides a perfect excuse for such an article. The wisdom imparted by the Times is:
“They should be allowing more dogs in places,” Mr. Franken deadpans to the voter, “dogs in grocery stores, dogs in hardware stores.”

Would-be senators do not usually meander into such lines of conversation. Nor do they make up silly songs incorporating the names on their list during “call time,” the endless hours spent calling prospective donors. Nor do they draw freehand sketches of the United States as a party trick at campaign meet-and-greets.
Sweet. Thanks, New York Times for telling us what candidates should and shouldn't do. What's more, they don't even bother to disclose the polling numbers of the race, only saying that Franken and Mike Ciresi, Franken's competitor for the nomination, are "competitive challengers" to Sen. Norm Coleman. When I bothered to look up the actual poll numbers, as reported by the Strib, Coleman is leading to Franken by 49-42. Coleman leads Ciresi by 46-43.

Regardless, the Times' article wasn't particularly helpful. Aren't they supposed to be a real newspaper?

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Problem with Foreign Policy

So it turns out that we have no motivation to go to war with Iran (except that they're, you know, Muslim and anti-American), since they stopped their weapons program since 2003. What the report more or less shows is that Iran has been deescalating a war situation instead of baiting one.

Brian wonders why it took so long for the report to be released and why the intelligence community would defect from the administration. To me, the second point of wondering doesn't seem surprising. After all, the administration has more or less blamed the entire Iraq war on faulty intelligence, something I'm sure gets under the skin of many intelligence professional at the DoD and the CIA. The decision to go to war didn't rest with them, it rested with the president.

Furthermore, I think this really shows how hawkish our entire foreign policy community is on Iran. Even so-called liberal publications like the New Republic in the last year have published essays suggesting a hawkish policy on Iran.* What's more, a lot of people aren't considered serious thinkers in the foreign policy community unless they show evidence of at least minor hawkishness. This seems like a problem to me.

Cross-posted at

*Edited from original text.


Apparently I love to read and write about sea creatures. Via Brad I hear about what's known as a black devilfish (a.k.a. a humpback anglerfish), what's got to be the most extreme gender reversal I've heard of yet in nature.

The male devilfish bites a larger, more attractive mate and never lets go. He stays to become a symbiotic being with the female, depending on her for food and oxygen. Talk about taking on the role of breadwinner.

Bostonian Weekend

I spent the weekend in Boston (I already miss the hard "ar" in "Park Street"), which was really cold, but overall a great city. I'm amazed at how genuinely attractive the city is, and I ended up taking a lot of pictures of buildings. But if you're traveling to Boston (or the greater Boston area) in the near future and are looking for a not-too-expensive place to stay in a good location (about a block and a half from the T), we found this great little bed and breakfast in Cambridge called the Harding House.

The Harding House

It's also a short distance from former TAP web editor Sam Rosenfeld, who by all accounts, seems to be doing well at Harvard. (I found him, guys! He hasn't disappeared!) He even has some snazzy new hipster glasses.

The Cellar

Monday, December 3, 2007

Stem Cell Division

Today Science Progress (which is another division of my employer, the Center for American Progress) had a great piece by Kathryn Hinsch about why the stem cell debate is dangerous for science.
Stories have appeared in the media recently touting the wonders of adult stem cell research, and while adult stem cells are technically pluripotent [a cell that can generate more than one kind of cell when it reproduces], their germinating ability so far is type-limited. For example, an adult stem cell in the skin can produce several kinds of skin and hair cells, and an adult stem cell in the lateral ventricle of the brain can generate neurons for olfactory circuits, and some glial cells. But a skin cell cannot become a brain cell.
Furthermore the ban on stem cell testing can be really dangerous for clinical trials and the people who could benefit from the drugs:

Once they determine a positive, measurable effect, the drug leads are then tested on more sophisticated, animal cell-based models that represent some aspect of the target disease. With every round of elimination, the funnel’s opening grows smaller until those thousands of compounds have narrowed to, say, ten potential drugs. Those drugs are then tested on animals that, in most cases, have been inoculated with the target disease. After the initial testing and refinement process—which can take years—researchers are finally ready to administer the drugs to humans in clinical trials.

But there is one catch. These drugs have never been proven on human cells. And drugs that work on animal models of disease can fail in human trials. If researchers could jump ahead and use embryonic stem cells at the level of cell-based testing, Croft notes, “they would know, at a very early stage, that drug candidates worked on the specific types of human cells affected clinically. Research costs and time could, accordingly, drop.” In addition, cell-based drug testing requires millions of cells. Using embryonic stem cells, a lab could generate millions of exact copies, without relying on closely replicated mouse cells. The difference between exact and close is a chasm in the controlled world of the laboratory. Thus, cell type specificity, species specificity, and unlimited numbers are important reasons for pursuing hESC research.
So a simple discomfort with the use of one kind of human cell (which does not extend to some questionable genetic altering of animals to be used for testing) delays the development of lifesaving drugs and increases clinical trial risks. It's always frustrating when it seems obvious that the right is obsessed with stem cells and fetuses, but fail to step back and look at the suffering of adult humans.
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