Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Family Research Council: Church and Parents Are Good! (Shocker)

The Family Research Council, the conservative organization that pushes a hetronormative, anti-abortion agenda, released a study yesterday purporting the claim that children of “both biological parents” that attend church on a weekly basis are less likely to repeat a grade. Wow. There are so many things wrong with this that I don’t even know where to start.

Although the report claims that “controlling for all factors” like “family income and poverty, low parent education levels, and race and ethnicity.” But I don’t quite buy it. After all, if you’re in a two-parent household, by nature you are more likely to have about double the household income you’d have in a single-parent household — especially if your in the household of a single mother. Furthermore, families that attend church on a weekly basis are just more likely to be the kinds of parents that are invested in a child’s education, since they are more affluent, more likely to provide the kind of structures that would enable that, and so on. (Interestingly enough, although the press release billed the study as supporting “biological parents” the actual study lumps biological parents in with adopted parents. Presumably they didn’t mean to include gay parents in those adopted parents.)

They also measured behavioral problems in terms of “repeating a grade” and “children whose parents were contacted by school” about behavioral problems. As if these are the only factors that go into a child’s health and well-being. What such factors really measure is discipline, not necessarily overall happiness or achievement in a child.

But here’s the thing. Even assuming all these things are true — that “intact” families that attend church on a weekly basis have more disciplined children — the study seems to point to the idea that people have a choice about the kind of family they end up in. That’s the part I find so horrifying and insulting. Life is a bit unpredictable. You never know when a marriage might not work out or you become widowed. Some people get pregnant accidentally and choose to carry the pregnancy to term (something the Family Research Council strongly supports) but your partner may not stick around to see that child grow up.

Ultimately we don’t get a lot of choice about our family situations in life. Instead of pointing out how awesome two-parent households that attend church are, maybe instead we should look at how to support single parents so that their children’s achievements can match those of the families that don’t seem to need the help.

Cross posted at Pushback.


I'm liveblogging on the future of reproductive rights with Marilyn Keefe of the National Partnership for Women & Families, William Smith of SIECUS, Heather Boonstra of Guttmacher Institute, and Cristina Page of here.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Female Brain, Not So Different From Male Brain

Amanda Schaffer has a very interesting article over at Slate that debunks some of the controversial “science” devoted to the differences between men’s and women’s brains. A prime example of this is Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, which caused uproar in the feminist blogosphere. Schaffer examines Brizendine’s claims that women are “more verbal” than men. When you look at the evidence, she notes, there is little difference between the sexes, even if you look at the tried-and-true test scores:

What is the scientific basis for these claims? Well-established literature suggests that girls tend to acquire language earlier than boys and are less likely to develop dyslexia (though the sex difference in dyslexia is less striking than some older research would suggest). But while adolescent girls may perform better on some tests of verbal ability, the gender gap is not large, according to meta-analyses assessed here. In the past couple of years, scores on the critical reading section of the SAT essentially show a dead heat for boys and girls: In 2007, they averaged 504 and 502, respectively. The new writing test on the SAT shows an advantage for girls, but it’s small: In 2007, those male and female averages were 489 and 500. Sex differences on reading comprehension and vocabulary tests also appear to be small or close to zero, when all ages are taken into account.

In other words, it’s just a case of finding science to back up stereotypes. All of the funding spent on research to discover “differences” between the sexes is about as useful as the research that shows taller people make more money. Okay… but so what?

Schaffer calls these scientists “evangelists,” saying that they purport these differences because it’s easier to explain the lack of women in science or the pay gap if there’s some kind of biological reason for it instead of facing the cold, hard facts that there’s still a lot of systemic and institutional sexism in society today. After all, if women are told all their lives that they should be “verbal” and “empathetic” they probably won’t be very likely to pursue a career in science or mathematics. Studies show that much of the spatial reasoning associated with technical professions like these improve vastly in both sexes with training. In other words, there’s no “natural” ability for the sciences–it’s just a matter of hard work. The cultural cues are disseminated to children early in life. Look at how even Legos are cued for boys.

So please, granters of research money, stop funding these silly studies about what boys and girls do differently. Time and time again, such studies do little to prove that there’s any kind of “hardwiring” in our brains just because of our sexual anatomy.

Cross posted at Pushback. Image by Flickr user hurleygurley.

Monday, December 15, 2008

OMG Hooking Up!

So says the New York Times opinion column from this weekend by Charles Blow (heh, blow). Apparently Blow thinks that this strange thing known as “hooking up” is here to stay. He actually turns to a book that I reviewed negatively for Bitch this year called Hooking Up: Sex, Dating and Relationships on Campus. Also, apparently if you are over the age of 30 you won’t understand what “hooking up” means. So, for those of you in that age range, Blow defines hooking up as casual sex, but I’ve generally understood that term to be more ambiguous.

In fact, as I understand it, the term is meant to be ambiguous. Some people are only comfortable making out with people, others are more comfortable with having sex. The term is meant to encompass these and everything in between so that there’s some intrigue. But Blow defines hooking up as casual sex, so let’s dive into that.

The thing I never understand is that for people over 30, as Blow has chosen to define the non-hookup generation, hooking up is always seen as a bad thing. Older folks seem to want to protect us young ‘uns from expressing our sexuality. Now, let’s be fair. There are a lot of risks that go with causal sex, including pregnancy and STDs, but most people are sexually active with more than one person in their lifetimes, and some of those are bound to be causal encounters. In fact, if those over 30 really thought long and hard about it, they’d probably remember (or recall that they don’t quite remember) a few casual encounters from their day.

Instead of freaking out about the fact that casual sex exists, or, like Blow, offering a resigned sigh that it’s here to stay, it’s important to arm young people with accurate and up-to-date information about how best to minimize risks in casual encounters. That includes encouraging condom use, HPV vaccination, and STD testing. But to pretend that casual hookups somehow lead to devastating emotional damage, or that everything would be all better if we returned to the era of Dating*, is silly.

Yes, hooking up can bring negative repercussions, but there are far worse things about sexual repression. Furthermore, a lot of relationships start with a casual encounter. People find one another that way who otherwise wouldn’t. By discounting casual encounters, we’re limiting ourselves in all kinds of ways. And hooking up isn’t for everyone. Some people just aren’t into it. And that’s okay. The point is that we need to be open to all kinds of safe sexual expression, whether it includes hooking up or not.

* As far as I can tell, this is a return to 1950s-style Dating where the boy comes to the girl’s house, under strict supervision of the girl’s parents, the dad holds a gun and demands to have her back by a certain time, and then the boy and girl go and have sex in a car. Much better, don’t you think?

Cross posted at Pushback.

"Ideas" for Women

The New York Times Sunday Magazine this week was its “Ideas” issue. That is, a series of short blurbs that include everything from how to determine pay for teachers to a vending machine for crows (really). But there were two particular blurbs that were directly targeted at “women’s issues.”

The first was actually about men. See, it recanted this old study about how men who are more into gender equality tend to suffer lesser wages than their more “traditional” (i.e. sexist) male counterparts. The same is true for women. The article asked, “What if the real difference isn’t between men and women but between men who think women belong at home — and every-one else?” This sort of odd study shows that there is actually a long way to go in fighting for pay equity. It’s still useful to point out that even though men believe in equality and may be earning less than their “traditional” male peers, they still earn an average of a couple thousand dollars more than the women who believe in equality. Just because you believe in equality doesn’t make it so.

The second was a British study I hadn’t heard of until I read about it in the Magazine. The study shows that when a company is succeeding, both men and women are more likely to support a male candidate to take over in an executive position. But if that same business seems to be failing, men and women are much more likely to choose a female candidate for the job. This is a phenomenon that researchers call the “glass cliff.” The reasoning is that people don’t mind putting women in charge if there’s already a great chance of failure–think the last-ditch effort to name Sarah Palin as VP–but when things are going smoothly, they want to be sure to have a “strong leader”–read: man–in charge. It’s a unique phenomenon and seems to suggest that there’s a lot of underlying sexism that people don’t even realize they have.

Both seem to present problems more than actual ideas or solutions like the rest of the magazine. I guess solving gender problems is harder than teaching crows to drop coins into a vending machine.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Image by Flickr user Cayusa.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Winning on Language

Today over at RH Reality Check my piece is about how the coalition that fought for choice in South Dakota ended up winning. Hint: It's not by using language like "my body, my choice":

Sarah Stoesz, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Minnesota, South Dakota, and North Dakota, credits the win to a well-run campaign with broad grassroots support. But it wasn't a strategy run only by outside consultants, with slick advertisements and catch phrases like "My Body, My Choice" or "Keep Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries." In fact, the word "choice" was abandoned by the coalition fighting the abortion ban in South Dakota altogether. Instead, the coalition took a pro-family approach, using the word "baby" where mainstream pro-choice groups would have used the word "fetus." One Healthy Families ad featured a woman named Tiffany Campbell, who appeared with her husband and son. In the television ad, Campbell explained that during her pregnancy they discovered twin-to-twin syndrome, a condition in which one fetus would need to be terminated for the other to survive. Campbell phrased it this way, "I would have buried two babies." Much of the language in the ads talked about families making decisions without government interference.

"We were completely ready to and did redraft all of the usual rhetoric that is used by people on our side," Stoesz said. She noted a lot of feminists on the national level were upset at a pro-choice campaign that would abandon rhetoric built on for decades, but Stoesz isn't sorry she abandoned the rhetoric. "As the head of Planned Parenthood [in the region] I'm responsible for keeping the sole abortion clinic in South Dakota open and I'm responsible for making sure there is a strong base of support for women's reproductive health in South Dakota," she said. "South Dakota isn't Manhattan. It isn't San Francisco. It isn't even Chicago and it's not even Minneapolis. It's so different. The culture is so different."

Go ahead and read the whole thing here.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Sarah Haskins Explains the Appeal of Vampires

So. Funny.

'Twilight' Fires Female Director with Biggest Opening Weekend for a Woman Ever

Apparently when you are a female director and make a cult movie that made a profit of $100 million in the first three weeks of its release (the largest opening weekend ever for a female director) you know what you get? Fired.

Ah yes, the world makes sense again.

Family Research Council: CAP's Influential ... and We’re Jealous!

The Family Research Council (FRC), a right-leaning group that counts among its main priorities opposing same-sex marriage and making abortion illegal, sends out an e-newsletter multiple times a week. I subscribe to it because I’m curious about what they’re up to and also to see their hilarious graphics and headlines (they will go out of their way to use a pun at any cost). The group is headed up by Tony Perkins, who you may have seen on TV a lot talking about how he’s not one bit sorry Prop 8 passed in California.

This week, FRC sent an email about our parent sister (I guess that makes it our aunt?) organization, the Center for American Progress, or as FRC called it, the “ever-expanding empire of liberal billionaire George Soros.” To be fair, George Soros’ Open Society Institute is one of CAP’s many donors that include both foundations and individuals. The email pointed to CAP’s influence over the new administration, since the building is housed “just three blocks from the White House.” This is, of course, unlike FRC’s headquarters, which are also located in downtown DC, a whole five blocks from the White House.

FRC actually got many of its facts right while giving its readership a rundown of CAP, including when they talked about two of the people who work at CAP who also have a relationship with the new administration: CAP’s CEO John Podesta, who is leading Obama’s transition team and CAP’s (now former) Senior Fellow Tom Daschle, who has been tapped to be Secretary of Health and Human Services. They actually also managed to get some policy positions right as well:

Their advice to Obama is largely contained in CAP’s book, Change for America: A Progressive Blueprint for the 44th President, released just a week after the election. Though the organization has been counted on for its recommendations on domestic issues, the group’s social agenda is devastatingly pro-abortion. On CAP’s website, visitors will find two extra, online chapters from the Change book, which advocate, among other things, the radical Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA), taxpayer-funded abortion, “comprehensive” sex education, a repeal of the Hyde Amendment, and a repeal of the abortion ban on military bases. CAP’s political arm also spoke against the state marriage amendments and actively worked for the defeat of the state life initiatives on November 4.

Why, that’s exactly what CAP supports! The policy arm upstairs works to ensure that choice is a real thing that exists for all women in America, not just wealthy (mostly white) women who have the luxury of paying for their reproductive freedom. While FRC thinks these polices are bad things, we happen to think they’re good things.

But the funny thing is, the end of the write-up is downright flattering. They seem to be recognizing how influential CAP is to the new administration and are just a teeny, tiny bit jealous:

This should illustrate just how potent Washington nonprofits can be, particularly when they are functioning in the minority. Now that FRC finds itself in a similar position, rest assured that we are working from within to lead the battle for conservative ideas. To help us build on those efforts, please consider donating to FRC as we regroup for major fights over the future of faith, family, and freedom.

So hat tip, Family Research Council! Thanks for getting us mostly right and good luck with that whole working from within to battle for conservative ideas thing.

Image: Tony Perkins, President of Family Research Council

Cross posted at Pushback.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Reprioritizing College Affordability

An article in today’s New York Times paints a dire picture for the affordability of college in the future. As states cut allocations to public colleges and universities, the institutions are making up for it by hiking tuition prices. At this rate, an expert quoted in the article says, tuition could make up 24 percent of the family budget by 2036. The Times points to a study released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education today which shows that 49 of the states are getting an “F” in college affordability, with only California managing to get a passing grade.

The list of reasons why college has become so unaffordable is long. Many schools are just aren’t getting as much out of their endowments since the stock market has taken a tumble, and therefore schools are seeking more from state budgets. But state budgets are tight, too, so states are allocating less and less. This means the burden falls on the students to make up the rest. While some families can afford to pay the increased cost, the hardest hit are low-income students. The Pell grant just hasn’t been keeping up with the cost of tuition, forcing low-income students to take our more and more loans. While federal loans are fairly safe–they’re guaranteed and come with a fixed interest rate–private student loans are fairly unregulated. What’s left is piles and piles of debt, and students are having a harder time paying them off when they have a hard time finding jobs after graduation.

Kevin Carey recently pointed out in a Washington Monthly article that some schools have been compensating for increasing costs by increasing distance-learning-style classes. But the reality is that there are a lot of good things about college affordability–Pell grants and federal loan programs–but there just hasn’t been enough to go around. And many schools, in a constant vie to increase rankings, are spending money on merit aid, or scholarships that often go to those that don’t necessarily need it. If we really want to make sure that low-income students can go to school, we need to restructure priorities in higher education. Low-income students may be the most expensive to educate, but they also see the greatest economic mobility increases. That means it’s the best return on an investment.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Is the Path to Gender Pay Equity Through Unionization?

A study (PDF) released this week by the Center for Economic and Policy Research shows that women joining unions has a big impact on increasing wages. Women in unions see an average increase of about 11 percent, or about $2 an hour. Women in unions are also more likely to have health insurance and pensions than women with four-year college degrees. Currently women make up about 45 percent of all unionized workers, and are on track to become the majority of unionized workers by 2020.

My guess is that this has a lot to do with unions having increasing power in traditionally female professions. Health care workers, for instance, have been targeted by organizers to unionize. Traditionally female roles like caregivers have long been subject to low pay and little thanks. By organizing these workers, women are gaining real earning power in what is a skilled profession, but has traditionally not thought of as such. Today, health care workers are one of Service Employees International Union (SEIU)’s main constituencies.

The idea behind unionization is for skilled workers to gain negotiating power–this is something women have traditionally been thought of ask lacking. So if more women join unions, they can take the power of collective bargaining to help close the gender inequality gap. Women in professions that don’t require higher education can actually earn more if they join a union.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Extreme Dieting Makeover

Today over at Campus Progress I have a review of the much-talked-about memoir, Thin Is the New Happy. I talk about how the book is instrumental in highlighting some of the more horrifying aspects of women's weight behavior:

In one experiment, she counts each time she has a negative thought about her body. She discovers it happens about 263 times in one day—that’s once every three and a half minutes. Her negative thoughts about her body surpassed her thoughts about sex, family, work, and money.

The results of Frankel’s experiment are hardly out of the ordinary. Most women today have a negative, chronic relationship with dieting and body image. A 2001 study showed that college women who diet have a much greater disparity between their perceived body image and their “ideal” body image than women who don’t diet. The misperceptions aren’t because their “ideal” body images are unrealistic; it is because they have unrealistic ideas about how heavy they actually are. A study this year explored a behavior known as “fat talk,” or intensive conversations young women engage in about food and body size that often lead to negative perceptions of their bodies.

Go ahead and read the whole thing.

Yes, the Proposed HHS Regulation Is Sexist

The Los Angeles Times has a good recap of a Health and Human Services regulation that’s bad news for women (Planned Parenthood has a petition here). The article points out what feminist bloggers have been saying all along: the rule wouldn’t just grant doctors the right to refuse to perform an abortion; it would allow doctors and nurse practitioners to refuse other treatments like birth control, emergency contraception, fertilization treatments, and many others.

While some have argued that there’s no harm in allowing doctors to exercise their right to freedom of religion (although this is technically already covered under the Civil Rights Act of 1964), it’s important to take a moment to examine the embedded sexism in this regulation, buried under layers of cultural “norms.” The legislation is targeted explicitly at women. Women are the ones that use the reproductive treatments outlined in this regulation. None of the treatments were specific to men. As Ruth Bader Ginsburg outlined in her dissent in the Gonzalez v. Carhart case, women simply can’t enjoy equal access to citizenship as long as they can’t control their reproduction.

So long as there are regulations or laws that specifically control or limit the rights of one gender and not the other, the legislation is unequal. The regulation is allowing doctors to deny treatment to women based on their sex, using religion as a defense (one also wonders why a doctor would become an OB-GYN if he or she opposed abortion and birth control). Perhaps it’s because I’ve been reading Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex lately, but many of the things we accept as cultural norms or based in religion are actually age-old notions of treating the woman as someone or something to be controlled.

Much of The Second Sex is devoted to outlining all the ways women are painted as the Other. They are either condescendingly thought of as less than human, incapable of achieving the plane of male thought, or elevated to some kind of superhuman inspiration for chastity and artistic inspiration. While this is certainly very centered on the gender question–after all, there have been many Others in society–it certainly points to all the double standards that women are subjected to.

By forcing women to stick to abstinence as means of birth control, women’s lives are restricted in ways that men’s just aren’t. The regulation doesn’t put restrictions on Viagra or fertility treatments for men. Even though it is framed as a religious rights issue, it is ultimately about controlling the reproductive lives of women. Ultimately, controlling women’s reproduction means controlling their freedom and equality as citizens.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Ford: Squeezing the Middle Class

Ford proposed a new plan to Congress today with various components, which included Ford CEO Alan Mulally volunteering to accept a salary of $1 for a year. But part of the plan also includes negotiating with the United Auto Workers to cut their “labor costs”–in other words, Ford is seeking pay cuts for its workers. I understand the mentality: to save the company everyone needs to make sacrifices.

But what I wonder is if cutting workers’ wages really accomplishes the plan of stopping economic hardship. Despite claims of $70-an-hour union workers, unionized auto workers are squarely in the middle class, the economic group that’s seeing the most squeeze in this economic recession. They’re still paying taxes, but with inflation and pay freezes, the middle class is seeing their real wages shrink. By asking the unions to drop securities for their members and cut wages, the companies may actually make the economic situation worse for the average worker.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Can Boys and Girls Play Sports (Even If They're Not Good)?

Lisa Belkin--the one that wrote that interesting article on equal parenting in the New York Times Sunday Magazine earlier this year--talks today about the ramifications of a $149 genetic test you can give to your child to see if he or she will be athletically inclined. She doesn't delve so much into what that means for the future of sports, but she talks about what it means for parents and kids.

The stereotype of the screaming, bossy, overly invested parent at the athletic game comes to mind and may even live in the memories of some of the nerdier types out there. Sure, a simple test may stop parents who want an athletic kid from riding them so hard: If the kid just isn't genetically inclined than the pressure's off. But what about the value of failure?, Belkin asks. Apparently there's a lot of good to trying out a sport and failing at it. After all, that's how kids learn to deal with the failures of life.

But knowing that your kids won't be good at sports and making them play them anyway seems a little sadistic. So perhaps the solution is just to not give your kids the test but also be open to the idea that your kids may not be naturally good at sports. That can be frustrating and heartbreaking, but it can also teach children the valuable lesson of learning that they're not good at something.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Christian Berenstain Bears

Berenstain Bears Via Emily , the beloved Berenstain Bears of our youth are promoting wholesome Christian values on the Focus on the Family website. While many might be horrified at these beloved childhood books endorsing the right-wing, anti-gay agenda of James Dobson 's organization, I don't exactly remember the original books being secular. The new Dobson-sponsored religious versions are authored by Stan & Jan Berenstain, the same authors of the original books. Stan has now passed away, but his son Mike continues to author books with his mother.

Let's remember that the Berenstain books focused on morality tales and holidays that were obviously Christian in origin. It's fairly common, especially in the days before we were young, to weave Christianity in with children's literature. But in addition to the Berenstain Bears, let's remember that there are plenty of other progressive children's books out there: Heather Has Two Mommies , All Families are Special , and the ultra-feminist Paper Bag Princess .

While it's a little concerning that Dobson's organization is working on indoctrination at such a young age, there's plenty of indoctrination that progressives can do as well. It's important to realize that there's a huge slection of children's books out there, so there's no need to rush to the Focus on the Family website to order the books of the churchgoing Berenstain Bears.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Thoughts on Daschle

While President-elect Barack Obama's transition team is busy announcing his appointments to State, Defense, and OMB, in my column at RH Reality Check this week I take a closer look at the choice of Tom Daschle as Health and Human Services Secretary. Some are pleased, others aren't:

Gloria Feldt, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood from 1994-2005, was less than excited to hear the news of Daschle's appointment. "Tom Daschle's strengths are that he is well-connected in Washington, he is well-connected in the health care industry, although some may say that there are conflicts there, he fully understands and knows the congressional process of making legislation, of policy creation, and he I think enjoys a great deal of respect from members of Congress. That said, many of those very strengths are his weaknesses as well," Feldt said. She notes that Dashle wasn't particularly known for a strong leadership style, but came to the debate as a compromiser, especially following the Democrats' electoral defeat of 2000.

In particular Feldt pointed to meetings she had with Daschle in the early days of the Bush administration about anti-choice judicial nominees. "Tom Daschle's response was to essentially roll over and play dead," she said. "His first answer was, ‘These guys are going to get confirmed anyway. Why are you asking us to fight?'"
Read the whole thing here.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eating Testicles on Jezebel

I'm a little embarrassed to admit that I participated in this experiment, but let me just reiterate: testicles do not taste good.

A Very Feminist Thanksgiving Feast from Megan Carpentier on Vimeo.

It Ain’t No Culture War

Ann Friedman is right in her column over at The American Prospect: The battle over LGBT rights isn’t a culture war. By calling it such, we’re losing ground in the debate. The debate over LGBT is a matter of civil rights, not culture, and until the left can succeed in framing it as such, we well always be victim of those that prefer to remain on the sidelines, waiting to see who wins the fight.

In the aftermath of the election, many progressive pundits were eager to call the culture wars done and over, their influence no longer as strong. And yet, there are thousands in California whose marriages over the last several months hang in jeopardy. Single parents, including gay parents, have been stripped of the right to adopt children from Arkansas, and a judge in Miami just today ruled that gay adoption should be illegal. Thousands more aren’t able to stay with their partners in the hospital or share in employer health insurance benefits because the state refuses to recognize the union of two people of the same sex. This isn’t culture we’re talking about. These are people’s lives. Until we get Americans to recognize these battles as a civil rights issue, we’ll always be on the losing side.

Correction: This post originally said that a judge in Florida ruled that gay adoption was illegal. The judge actually ruled against a gay adoption ban, thereby making gay adoption legal in the state of Florida.

Cross posted on Pushback.

Can Human Taste Ever Be Predictable? Netflix Is Betting On It

Over the weekend I read this fascinating article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine about the predictor algorithm that Netflix has been working on for years. The online movie rental giant has put forth a contest challenging people to improve its recommendation system. Anyone who can increase its accuracy by 10 percent will receive $1 million.

If you have a Netflix subscription, you’ve probably noticed that the company harasses you about rating every movie. The reasoning goes that if you keep rating movies, Netflix might be able to recommend new ones that you like. It’s similar to the technology that Amazon and iTunes use to recommend books and music you might like.

The major obstacle to improving Netflix, it turns out, is quirky fare like Napolean Dynamite:

Worse, close friends who normally share similar film aesthetics often heatedly disagree about whether “Napoleon Dynamite” is a masterpiece or an annoying bit of hipster self-indulgence. When [51-year-old “semiretired” computer scientist Len] Bertoni saw the movie himself with a group of friends, they argued for hours over it. “Half of them loved it, and half of them hated it,” he told me. “And they couldn’t really say why. It’s just a difficult movie.”

Mathematically speaking, “Napoleon Dynamite” is a very significant problem for the Netflix Prize. Amazingly, Bertoni has deduced that this single movie is causing 15 percent of his remaining error rate; or to put it another way, if Bertoni could anticipate whether you’d like “Napoleon Dynamite” as accurately as he can for other movies, this feat alone would bring him 15 percent of the way to winning the $1 million prize. And while “Napoleon Dynamite” is the worst culprit, it isn’t the only troublemaker. A small subset of other titles have caused almost as much bedevilment among the Netflix Prize competitors. When Bertoni showed me a list of his 25 most-difficult-to-predict movies, I noticed they were all similar in some way to “Napoleon Dynamite” — culturally or politically polarizing and hard to classify, including “I Heart Huckabees,” “Lost in Translation,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou,” “Kill Bill: Volume 1” and “Sideways.”

In other words, the programmers tackling the Neflix problem are attempting to tackle whether human taste can ever be totally predictable based on past behaviors. Quirky comedies and outrageously political commentaries seem to be hard to predic –the more controversial the film, the harder it is to say if someone will like it or hate it.

The interesting thing about these programs it it sets it up as a computer versus human scenario. But the programmers are examining very human questions. For instance, Bertoni realized the difficulties posed to Netflix by widely panned films that fit into a user’s preferred genre. As long as humans are addressing those questions on the programming end, it will be a combination of computer and human prediction.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Student Moms

Inside Higher Ed has a profile of a program that provides special housing to single mothers who are attending an undergraduate Roman Catholic institution, the College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Nebraska. These women are required to find their own childcare, but by putting single mothers in one place, it has fostered a cooperative living environment where the women can watch one another’s children while at class. Furthermore, the living situation addresses some diversity problems that the college seems to have:

This housing option for single mothers began in fall 2000, when it attracted nine mothers and their ten children. Tara Knudson Carl, Saint Mary senior vice president, said the idea of the program arose in administrative conversations as way to serve this traditionally underserved population. She added that the program was started on a trial basis. Participation reached its peak in fall 2007, when 39 women with 46 children lived in Walsh Hall.

This year’s cohort living in the Mothers Living and Learning program is more racially diverse than the overall Saint Mary student population – which is 78 percent white. Fifty-six percent of the mothers are white, 38 percent are black and 6 percent are Hispanic. Additionally, students enrolled in the single mothers’ program have a higher graduation rate than the overall student population. The recent six-year graduation rate for mothers in the program was 53 percent, compared to 51 percent for the entire student body. Citing the relative youth of the program, Carl said she expects this graduation rate to increase significantly.

This program addresses is an age-old problem for women who want to have children. Having children and attaining professional success are often seen as being at odds with one another, mostly because there aren’t mechanisms in place to help women that want both. This program is one way to address the idea that women with children can succeed.

This program is only one of eight nationwide, but it seems to me that more colleges should consider implementing programs like this. College dormitories aren’t designed to house children, and a small building bought up by the university could help foster a cooperative living environment and give opportunities to those that might not otherwise get the chance to succeed. Although these women could live in off-campus housing, they really are on their own. Commute times and a lack of helpful neighbors make the burden of attending classes too much sometimes. More colleges and universities should consider implementing such programs.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Madam Chef

Via Sadie at Jezebel, The Independent has an essay on how women are “everyday cooks” while men earn the title of “chefs.” I already wrote a post here on the IFA about my own personal aversion to the kitchen and attention to the gender stereotypes, but I think that Sophie Radice seems to hit on a fear that many women have: although men may be taking on more cooking responsibilities, there’s still a hierarchy there. Women are supposed to prepare the daily dinners while men take the stage and show off for the dinner parties.

The only time I ever suggested cooking for anyone other than the children he laughed. For he believes that only men can be truly great cooks. And though he is not a misogynist in real life, he certainly is in the kitchen.

The thing is, the kitchen is real life. It’s a perpetual problem that women allow their partners to imply that their role in the home is one of maintenance. Women need to ask that men take an equal share in the everyday cooking, and take the stage if they want to. The point of all this gender discussion isn’t just to make sure we have more Stephanies on Top Chef, it’s also about making home responsibilities more equitable.

Radice makes a lot of good points about the general feeling about skill levels of men and women in the kitchen, but she also seemed to imply that complicated recipes are overrated (and her piece is loaded with some gender stereotypes of her own). There’s no shame in taking on a complex dish — but they shouldn’t be expected for everyday. One thing I’ve discovered with my own cooking experiences is that a lot of it is about confidence. While I found a lot of joy in trying this asparagus souffle from Simply Recipes with Kate at home, I would’ve been terrified to serve something so complicated to guests. But if you have the confidence required, you don’t mind making complicated things, even if they fail.

The ego that goes with many Top Chef contestants (and other major chefs) is one that is broadly encouraged in men and discouraged in women. The kind of negative commentary Radice gets from her husband only furthers her lack of confidence in her cooking skills. So remember to compliment the chef — especially if that chef is a she.

Cross posted at IFA.

Congresswoman Pregnant! (Psst. She's Not Married)

This is annoying. Rep. Linda Sanchez, who I think is an amazing and awesome feminist speaker is pregnant! Congrats! Good for her! Except all the Washington Post can focus on is that she's not married. *gasp*

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) is pregnant with her first child, the Los Angeles Times reports this morning. Which is hardly unusual -- several other congresswomen have given birth in office -- except for the fact that Sanchez isn't married . . . yet.

The dad is Sanchez's serious beau of more than a year, Connecticut consultant Jim Sullivan, and she tells LAT op-ed columnist Patt Morrison that they're "unofficially engaged." But since she's 39, they didn't want to wait any longer to start making a family.

So, no wedding date set yet. Their baby is due May 21, the Times reports.

What is this? Do we still live in 1961? People who aren't married have babies all the time. I think it's time for us to get over it.

James Dobson: WWJF?

This is a pretty funny video making fun of the fact that Focus on the Family is laying off 200 employees after sinking $500,000 into passing the ban on same-sex marriage in California.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Obama: Gym Rat

President-elect Barack Obama may be our healthiest president ever (well, except for that whole smoking thing), since, as Mike Scherer stalks reports in a post on Obama’s workout habits during the transition period, Obama averaged about 90 minutes a day at the gym this week.

Sunday: President-elect Barack Obama’s motorcade left his home in hyde park at 8:37 am sunday morning, arriving at Regents Park Apartments for his morning workout at 8:41 central time. He wore a light khaki-ish baseball cap, couldn’t tell the rest of his outfit. At 10:15 am his motorcade left Regents Park and returned to his house. [94 minutes.]

Monday: Motorcade rolled at 7:33 a.m. from Hyde Park residence en route Regents Park apartment building for the President-elect’s morning workout. He arrived about four minutes later. PEOTUS worked out for more than an hour and then returned home at 9:08 a.m. to shower and change. Your pool is holding steady outside the residence. [91 minutes.]

Tuesday: Workout. No news. The motorcade - six black SUVs, led by two Chicago police cars - pulled away from Obama’s home at 8.11 a.m., arrivng five minutes later at the Regents Park apartments. We rolled back at out at 9.35, arriving home five minutes later. [79 minutes.]

Wednesday: At 7.39 am. The motorcade headed to. Regents park for Obamas daily work
out. A man on the sidewalk held up his young bundled up a child to wave. The morning is cold and gray with whipping wind. 9.06 AM With the sun now shining Obama heads out from regents park gym. People walking dogs amidst swirling fall leaves in the park adjacent to
the regents park complex pay no mind to the motorcade. Agents use binoculars to look at nearby high rise roofs. [87 minutes.]

Thursday: Uneventful morning, as far as your pool could tell. President-elect Obama left his house at 8:24 am CT and arrived at Regents Park apartment building for work-out at 8:29 am CT. He departed at 10:04 am CT and we were back at his house at 10:12 am CT. [103 minutes.]

Man, this makes me think that somehow I’d be more disiplined at working out if I ran for president and could have a motorcade force escort me to the gym.

Cross posted at Pushback.

The RIAA Is Evil

Jesse notes that Tennessee’s universities are forced to spend millions on anti-pirating software even though they’re expecting to increase tuition and lay off teachers. As the article Jesse links to says, this is part of a national effort spearheaded by the RIAA to keep the record industry alive. In fact, as I wrote about before, the RIAA managed to sneak some of this stuff into the Higher Education Act reauthorization earlier this year.

Universities are going to end up spending anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars on equipment and software to combat file sharing–to subsidize an industry that may not serve a clear purpose anymore.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Is Culinary School Worth It?

It’s Top Chef season again. I’ll be making my friends some yummy food tonight while we watch the second episode. This season my favorite chef is Eugene, who worked his way up from his position as a dishwasher. The rest of the contestants went to fancy shmancy culinary schools.

Over at one of my other blog projects, The Internet Food Association, New America Foundation education policy wonk Ben Miller takes a look at whether culinary schools are actually worth their rather sizable price tag:

For those who don’t spend all day obsessed with higher education trade publications, cohort default rates measure how many student loan borrowers from a graduating class default on their debt within two years of graduation. The national average cohort default rate is right around 5 percent. A high cohort default rate generally indicates that students are having trouble finding jobs that helps them cover their debt. I say generally because the measure is far from perfect. For one, it only looks at what occurs two years out and not farther down the road, and two it is not perfectly correlated with school quality. (Those wanting to know more about the problems with cohort default rates can click here.)

The one good thing about cohort default rates is that the Department of Education publishes schools’ cohort default data right on its website. I pulled out every school with the word “culinary” in its name (none have chef or food), plus Baltimore International College and Johnson & Wales University, which also have culinary schools.

The results varied widely. The CIA was far and away the best of the large schools, recording a cohort default rate of around 2 percent each year in 2006, 2005, and 2004 (the most recent data due to the two-year measurement window). At the other end of the spectrum was Johnson & Wales and the JNA Institute of Culinary Arts. The former had over 7 percent of its 5,000-plus borrowers default, while the latter had 10 percent of its borrowers default in 2006 and 13 percent(!) default in 2005.

So the answer to the question is no, culinary school is probably not worth it. I see in the comments section that some are advocating for community colleges to step in for people who aren’t going to be top-tier chefs. The tuition at a community college is usually somewhere under $5,000 a year and gets you all the basic skills you might get at a more expensive for-profit institution.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Wealthy Elite

Jen Sorensen, one of my favorite cartoonists, posted this info from an alumni flyer (she went to UVA):
Estimated price: $64,950 per person

Highlights include Machu Picchu, Easter Island, Samoa, the Great Barrier Reef, Angkor Wat, Tibet, the Taj Mahal, the Serengeti Plain, Luxor, the pyramids and the Sphinx, Petra, and the Moroccan city of Fez. All in slightly under a month.
Trips sponsored by alumni associations are pretty common, but, as Jen says, this one takes the cake.

Focus on the Family Lays Off Employees

It seems that James Dobson’s organization, Focus on the Family, is laying off more than 200 people–about 20 percent of the organization–after the organization sank more than half a million dollars into the “Yes on 8″ campaign in California. This is the second round of layoffs in two months, and just one of many rounds of layoffs in the last few years.

Apparently the hard times in the economy affect the radical Christian right as much as the workers at General Motors. Right now the right is taking a hit; they’ve lost on almost every front–except passing anti-gay measures in three states–but they probably won’t be down for long. While FOTF has laid off hundreds in the last few years, their efforts may be rekindled after a couple of years of an unfriendly presidential administration. Much as the Bush administration lent itself to the growth of lefty organizations and lefty media, the opposition to the Obama’s administration will be slowly building in the next few years, and will resurface later on.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rule on Women and Health Care Access to be Finalized

The really awful proposed rule that Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Levitt is trying to push through in his last few weeks of public service is expected to be finalized this week. The rule not only “protects” doctors and nurses who receive federal money from administering health care to women due to their “religious beliefs”–something that is already covered by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964–but also seeks to redefine birth control as abortion. That way, the rule protects a doctor if he or she refuses to administer an abortion or birth control.

Obama opposes the rule and is expected to reverse it once in office, but that process could take three to six months. What’s also interesting is that the rule was proposed after the deadline of June 1 was waived by the White House for reasons that still haven’t been specified. It seems that this is just a last-minute “fuck you” to women’s rights groups.

Cross posted at Pushback.

This Is a Surprising Revelation

We think is written by a man (79%). [Gender Analyzer]

Race-blind Admissions Aren’t Real

Inside Higher Ed has a great piece today summarizing Timothy Groseclose’s study on the illusion of race-blind admissions. Oftentimes students make references to things in their persona essay that may tip off an admissions officer to a student’s race or ethnicity: mention of a unique holiday, travel outside of the country to visit relatives, or even the student’s hometown or high school. Additionally, high school activities, like involvement in the school’s Black Student Union, may tip off an officer to the student’s race. Even names can identify someone as a race or ethnicity. These indicators would probably be considered illegal under California’s anti-affirmative action measure, but they are impossible to exclude.

It may not be “fair” that a student can reveal his or her race simply through her name or student activities, but the admissions officer, as long as they aren’t giving preferential treatment solely for race reasons, is doing his or her job: admitting students who will create a positive learning environment for other students.

Conversely, the article points to other factors that make admissions unfair:

Is it fair that a student with C’s gets into an Ivy League school because his father is a trustee? How about the lacrosse player with SAT scores 300 points below the institution’s average? The daughter of a politician? The Republican at a liberal arts institution?

The dean of admissions at Tufts University called such factors another form of “affirmative action.” At it’s root, affirmative action’s goal isn’t to simply give preferential treatment to students of color–it’s designed to level the playing field for the students, like the ones above, who get into colleges simply because they have some other asset working for them.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Wanted: Geekettes

There’s an interesting piece in The New York Times today about the lack of women in computer science. While women are actually starting to approach parity in other hard science fields like math, and engineering, there are fewer women in computer engineering classes at places like MIT than there were 25 years ago. In other words, the number of women in the field is actually dropping. The article concludes that the reasons are varied and rather intangible, but one contributing factor could be stereotypes about men and women set at an early age:

Justine Cassell, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Technology & Social Behavior, has written about the efforts in the 1990s to create computer games that would appeal to girls and, ultimately, increase the representation of women in computer science. In commenting as a co-contributor in a new book, “Beyond Barbie and Mortal Kombat: New Perspectives on Gender and Gaming,” Ms. Cassell writes of the failure of these efforts, “The girls game movement failed to dislodge the sense among both boys and girls that computers were ‘boys’ toys’ and that true girls didn’t play with computers.”

She said last week that some people in the field still believed that the answer to reversing declining enrollment was building the right game. Another school of thought is what she calls the “we won” claim because women have entered computer-related fields like Web site design that are not traditional computer science. Ms. Cassell points out that it’s not much of a victory, however. The pay is considerably less than in software engineering and the work has less influence on how computers are used, and whether this actually accounts for the diminishing numbers of female computer science majors remains unproved.

Ms. Cassell identifies another explanation for the drop in interest, which is linked to the pejorative figure of the “nerd” or “geek.” She said that this school of thought was: “Girls and young women don’t want to be that person.”

Cassell believes it has a lot to do with stereotypes. I definitely think that’s part of it. Interest in these fields develops at a young age, and if young girls are taught that computers are for boys, then they probably won’t engage with them. But there’s more to it than just stereotypes.

As I wrote in one of my three articles on women in academia last spring for Campus Progress, part of the problem with getting women to go into science, especially academic science, has a lot to do with mentorship. There’s a lot of reason to believe that women simply don’t get the support that’s needed to be competitive in academic sciences. There are few women to serve as role models and mentors. One way that a group of women in academic sciences approached this was to be peer mentors to one another, gathering every other week to talk about academic and career goals. This kind of mentorship becomes especially important in fields that are so heavily dominated by men.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Anti-Choicers and Obama

Jessica over at Jezebel has a good summary of a Washington Post article on pro-choice groups that are figuring out what to do now that they've lost on, well, almost every front this election. Some are outraged, others are more reasonable. But the article talks about the conflict between the Pope and Obama's plans to sign the Freedom of Choice Act, something that lifts many restrictions on abortion. The Pope sees this as an affront, and is threatening to drag his feet on other issues where he and Obama agree, like foreign policy and the environment. Apparently everyone sees the fact that the Pope might be less willing to work with Obama as a problem, but that seems weird to me. The Pope doesn't make public policy in America. Obama does.

I recall a documentary I saw on JFK's primary race once. People were concerned that JFK, the first and only Catholic president, might be secretly working for the Pope from Washington. Additionally, Catholics are increasingly distancing their politics from the Vatican, so perhaps Obama should just focus on working with Catholics themselves instead of the Pope.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Obama on the Supreme Court

The LA Times had a speculative piece this weekend on who President-elect Barack Obama would choose to nominate for the Supreme Court if a vacancy opened up (the article does point out that John Paul Stevens and Ruth Bader Ginsburg haven’t indicated they’re retiring in the next four years).

The first part of the article notes that many liberals are clamoring for Obama to choose a liberal lion in the mold of former Justices like Earl Warren, Thurgood Marshall, or William Brennan from the Supreme Court’s civil rights heyday. The article then mention those who have already been pushed by various groups as obvious candidates (there is a big push for a woman): Judges Diane Wood, from the U.S. appeals court in Chicago, Sonia Sotomayor, from the U.S. appeals court in New York, and Elena Kagan, who is dean of Harvard Law School.

But the article is quick to note that while liberals might be hungering for a social justice advocate on the Supreme Court, evidence suggests that Obama may go the route of Bill Clinton and choose a more moderate justice if a position were to open up:

In an interview with the Detroit Free Press editorial board in October, he described Warren, Brennan and Marshall as “heroes of mine. . . . But that doesn’t necessarily mean that I think their judicial philosophy is appropriate for today.”

Obama, because he has a heavy background in law already, may do little consulting for a Supreme Court justice appointment, so it’s hard to tell where his sympathies might lie until the situation presents itself. I fear that this is yet another avenue by which liberals may end up finding themselves disappointed.

While Bush took his re-election as a signal to push a conservative agenda on the Supreme Court, there’s evidence that Obama will not take the opportunity to push a liberal agenda on the Supreme Court. The problem, of course, is that the Supreme Court has already tipped so far in the balance of conservatives that appointing more moderates to the Court won’t be doing anyone’s civil liberties much of a favor.

Cross posted at Pushback.

In Mexico, Bodyguards Are In Fashion

I so rarely see mainstream American media address Mexico's violent situation, but yesterday the New York Times ran this story about how wealthy families in Mexico are hiring bodyguards, dressing them in designer clothes, and having them escort their children to school.

Unfortunately, the story mostly reads like a style section piece that seems to claim "bodyguards are the new black" which doesn't at all seem the best way to go about reporting the terrifying situation in Mexico today, where loved ones can be kidnapped at any moment. The situation is so bad that many upper class Mexicans are simply leaving the country. But the problem is really those that aren't from the upper crust:
Some security consultants and academics point out that at least the upper crust has options, while other Mexicans must rely on law enforcement agencies, known for their corruption and ineffectiveness, to protect them from the violence. Many families who struggle to make ends meet find their loved ones grabbed for ransom. And shootouts between traffickers and the police and soldiers pursuing them erupt with no regard for the income level of bystanders.
It's hard to imagine living in a world like this, yet it's a reality for many Mexicans today, and it's sort of amazing that it garners so little attention from the American press, since it all happens in America's back yard.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Update: Clinton as Secretary of State

Unsurprisingly, Barack Obama does not read this blog and appears to have offered Sen. Hillary Clinton the Secretary of State job anyway.

Madam First Lady

Emily Brazelon has some feedback on the Rebecca Traister piece on Michelle Obama's "momification" I wrote about earlier this week. Brazelon seems to be giving feminist props to Michelle Obama for her role as mom-in-chief, that the media (and the Obama campaign/administration itself) has recently been promoting. I agree with Brazelon's main point that just blaming the media for this is a little too easy. I also agree that Michelle's role as wife and mom isn't exactly new and it's one that she's been promoting throughout the campaign. I think the answer is much deeper, it's about the illusion of choice many women have. We're seeing though that illusion with Michelle Obama.

What we're talking about here at the root of this is the the debate that's been happening since the second wave of feminism. Woman who didn't want to be attacked for staying at home to raise children accuse feminists of going back on their "choice" rhetoric. The reasoning goes that feminists should support the "choices" of women, even if that means a woman "chooses" to stay at home to raise children instead of pursuing a career. And I agree, when a woman (or man, for that matter) decides that raising children is that important, then more power to her (or him!).

The tricky part, though, is that "choices" aren't as open or easy as we like to think they are. Women tend to be at a disadvantage when making these choices thanks to the fact that they are often out-earned by their husbands and the pressure of societal norms that call on women to be caretakers.

Take the pressures on Michelle Obama. Michelle can't really "choose" to be a working First Lady in the White House. That would be weird, right? No other First Lady has done that, and Michelle probably isn't really into breaking. It also seems clear that everyone, Michelle included, is seeking to avoid "repeating Hillary Clinton's rocky first lady performance," as Brazelon said. Clinton flexed her muscles as First Lady, and the result was that she became one of the most polarizing figures in America. The backlash on Hillary's role as First Lady will last for a long time.

So Michelle has been left with extremely limited choices. She probably doesn't want to be as passive as many other First Ladies, but she certainly can't be like Hillary. She may have made her peace with the decision to make career sacrifices for Barack a long time ago, as Brazelon said, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's easy for her. Barack even acknowledges Michelle's resentment of his lack of domestic help in his second book, The Audacity of Hope. In many ways, Michelle's situation is like many other women who are part of powerful couples today and are more or less forced into making hard decisions when their husbands get promotions that are too good to turn down.*

But while I agree with most of what Brazelon says, I thought this line seemed off, "in the meantime, yes, [Michelle] is the one honcho-ing their physical move, or at least whom to delegate it to. I hope so! Because I want my president-elect working on other pressing matters like our economic crisis." It may be true for the Obama's that Barack's job is too important for him to be an equal partner in household affairs, but I think such justifications are liberally applied to other men with "important" jobs. Are the cultural expectations really so different when the man is president of a company or running his own business? The conventional wisdom is that we can't expect men to share in household work because their jobs are too important. Women's jobs, on the other hand, are almost never considered more important than family responsibilities. I have a hard time believing that people would be so generous to Michelle if the Obamas' roles were reversed, and it was she that was too busy to pay cursory attention to finding the right schools for her daughters because she was dealing with the country's economic crisis.

In the end this debate is just a redux of the "mommy wars" that resurface every few years. I never found these screaming matches very useful. But the one good thing to come out of them, as shrill and awful as they were, is that men need to be expected to help with the responsibilities of home and children equally, no matter how busy they are. In the Obama's case, it may not be possible, but it's probably the only exception I can think of. We also need to stop assuming that just because women have children they must want to give up a career. Unfortunately, Michelle's situation has sparked this debate once again.

*For the vast majority of women today, working isn't a luxury; it's a necessity. Most women must work because they have to. It isn't a choice for them.

Single Mothers Drop in College Attendance

Well, here’s yet another complication to Bill Clinton’s welfare reform. Changes in welfare policy during the 1990s put the incentive on welfare recipients to work, by means of kicking them off after a certain, rather arbitrary, period of time. The changes received a mixed reaction from liberals: first an urge to veto the legislation, then warming up to the reforms but calling for alterations to them.

A new study shows (via Inside Higher Ed) that single mothers are dropping in college attendance in an era of welfare reform because education doesn’t count as work. In single mothers aged 24 to 49 with only a high school education, college attendance reduced by 20 to 25 percent compared with pre-welfare reform statistics. The researchers behind the study say there is strong evidence to think this might be linked to the changes in distribution of welfare.

This policy doesn’t make a lot of sense. The best way for many people, especially women, to increase their income is to attend school. By placing the emphasis of welfare reform only on work and not including education in that formula, we’re reinforcing economic stratification and discouraging economic mobility. Without knowing much about the nitty gritty of welfare policy, it seems to me we should fix this policy to encourage higher education, not discourage it.

Cross posted at Pushback.

College Is Expensive

Some of the best high school students don't attend for college. More don't even take the SAT, and a greater number don't take necessary steps like touring campuses. Why is that? Inside Higher Ed points to what seems like an obvious solution: it's too expensive (about 80 percent cited cost as a major factor in deciding not to attend post-secondary school). This is especially a problem because it's a disproportionate amount of minorities -- about 48 percent -- many of whom came from low-income families. In other words, part of the problems universities are having with increasing their racial diversity may have to do with college cost.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?

I for one think it would be a really, really bad idea to have Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. Some feminists are in favor of this, presumably because they think it's good to have as many women in high-level administration jobs as possible. But the reason Hillary Clinton is bad on foreign policy is because she's known to be pretty hawkish, voting for the war in Iraq and never apologizing for it. It's a position I can understand as senator, but not in such a key diplomatic position as SoS. In fact, during the primary season, Clinton made a big deal out of the fact that she wouldn't meet with foreign leaders like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad without preconditions. Since the main job of the SoS to meet with foreign leaders, I think this seems like a bad fit.

Besides, Clinton has been a key leader on feminist issues in the Senate and with her experience on health care she seems like a key person to work to pass legislative change on her pet issues. I agree that it's important for the SoS to be someone who is pro-choice and with a good understanding of human rights issues (that's why I have reluctance to favor someone like Chuck Hagel, who has a good background in liberal internationalism and diplomacy), but I still think that Clinton isn't quite the right choice.

Image by Flickr user Llima.

HHS Update

Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean won't be secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. This is probably a good thing, not because I don't like Dean, but because his largest qualification seemed to be that he was, um, a doctor. Practicing medicine and knowing health policy are not the same, people. Not the same at all.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Introducing the Internet Food Association

Some friends of mine and I have started a food blog, called the Internet Food Association. We were cooking, having dinner parties, and sharing recipes so much that these bloggers decided to start a site of their own. Predictably, my first post is on the gender politics of home cooking.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Still Fighting Old Civil Rights Battles

Femocracy points to an LA Times article that reveals for many of those gays and lesbians of color, marriage isn't necessarily at the forefront of their civil rights concerns. It's not because they don't feel marriage is important, it's just that it falls far down on the list of addressing other highly offensive things that happen to people of color every day:
At a time when blacks are still more likely than whites to be pulled over for no reason, more likely to be unemployed than whites, more likely to live at or below the poverty line, I was too busy trying to get black people registered to vote, period; I wasn't about to focus my attention on what couldn't help but feel like a secondary issue.
It's a fair point in this contentious post-Prop 8 mania. Many gays and lesbians of color still have a lot of civil rights to work through, and may not consider marriage at the top of their priority list.

Scalia Finds Domestic Violence "Not That Serious An Offense"

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that Justice Antonin Scalia doesn't think much of women, but here's more proof of that. Dahlia Lithwick on XX Factor notes that Scalia was quoted saying, "So it's not that serious an offense. That's why we call it a misdemeanor," in response to allegations that a woman's domestic partner was carrying a gun.

Apparently Scalia seems to think that because domestic violence is sometimes categorized as a misdemeanor, it's not that serious of a crime. Granted, that's the definition of misdemeanor versus felony, but he should have realized that saying that would make him come off sounding like he doesn't care if women get hurt in instances of domestic violence. Ugh, this kind of makes me sick to my stomach.


Rebecca Traister has a good look in Salon at the public’s perception of Michelle Obama as First Lady. The media is already eager to paint her as “the mother of young children” whose primary responsibility is to settle her family into their new role as the First Family. But Traister deftly notes the tension that’s hiding under the surface.

When he launched his congressional run, Barack writes, “Michelle put up no pretense of being happy with the decision. My failure to clean up the kitchen suddenly became less endearing. Leaning down to kiss Michelle good-bye in the morning, all I would get was a peck on the cheek. By the time Sasha was born … my wife’s anger toward me seemed barely contained.”

Barack continues, “No matter how liberated I liked to see myself as — no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners, and that her dreams and ambitions were as important as my own — the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments. Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold.”

To me this signals the struggle that working women with families eventually have to face. When career women’s husbands are also ambitious, someone has to take the back seat and women are the ones that often end up doing so. We’re kidding ourselves if we think that Michelle, who until Barack’s presidential run out-earned her husband, isn’t a little sad that her public persona is expected by most to be domestic, demure, and polite. The First Lady’s primary occupation is wife by definition.

Aside from the First-Lady-ain’t-no-office argument that Matt Zeitlin put forth, people are more than uncomfortable with the notion of a First Lady flexing her muscles. I would actually disagree with Matt, Laura Bush is only slightly less passive than her mother-in-law. Granted, Hillary Clinton probably took the push for public policy farther than most are comfortable with, but there’s always room for negotiation in this role that hasn’t been defined as active except by Eleanor Roosevelt and Clinton.

There’s no question that presidents have always called on non-elected officials for advice and help. JFK’s relationship with Bobby is a great example. It’s unseemly for wives of presidents to have an official capacity the way Bobby did, so instead they’re expected to plan outfits for inaugural balls. As long as we view couples as a balance–one’s ambitions must take the back seat while the other is enjoying success–we will continue to see the underlying tension that Michelle is living with today.

Cross posted at Pushback.

Image courtesy Flickr user AlexJohnson.

Veterans' Groups File Lawsuit Against VA

Via Annabel at Pushback. Two veterans groups, Vietnam Veterans of America and the Veterans of Modern Warfare, filed a lawsuit against the Department of Veterans Affairs for delays in making decisions on disability claims. The VA is required to deliver decisions on claims within 90 days and address appeals within 180 days. If the VA can't get to the claim in time, they're supposed to administer an interim fee, something else the groups are saying the VA is failing to do.

I think the frustration here is on both sides. The VA has become inundated with claims over the last few years, without enough staff capacity to get through them all. The veterans are frustrated because they can't work at an able bodied pace, and need the disability certification for insurance claims and work benefits. The VA's delay is frustrating and affects their lives severely. The reality is that part of the problem is that Congress needs to sink more money into the VA for administrative support. With more people on staff to process claims, the faster they can be addressed.
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