Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

Painful Awards

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It's like a knife in my gut.

Four hundred and sixty four credit hours after I first started a decade ago, I will finally obtain my undergraduate degree. There are lot of reasons it's taken this long, or why I have so many credit hours (though eight years in the Army is the biggest explanation for both). But the biggest problem I have had since coming back as a full-time student has been the class schedule.

It's cruel of them, really. I work a full time day job, but my major offered many of the 200 level classes in the evening. It was not until I had finished the 200 level classes that I realized that many of the upper-level courses were only taught during the day, while I was at work. It's for that "I'm still at work" reason that I refuse to recognize a 4pm class as an "evening" class, no matter what time it gets out - and even those classes were rare. My professors and advisors were individually supportive; without them, I would not have been able to stay enrolled. On two different occasions, it was impossible for me to take any classes in my major, or that even advanced me towards graduation. Many other terms, I was only able to stay "full time" due to independent studies with my professors.

It is extremely demoralizing. To be barred from taking classes not by merit or need, but because nobody will bother to teach them in the evening? It makes you feel alone, like you are unwelcome. Despite the individual support of my professors, I nearly dropped out twice.

I finished, however. (Well, barring catastrophe between now and June.) I will not only graduate, but I have been selected as the 2009 Outstanding Sociology Senior. Which is pretty damn cool. Finding that out made the rest of it more bearable. Yesterday, I recieved the official notification and invitation to the awards ceremony.

Held on a Friday, at 2pm.

While I am still at work.

It's like a knife in my gut.

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Jane, Barbara, and Michelle

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[For a little bit of context at the end, this was written in January 2009, just before the Obamas moved into the White House.]

Ascriptions of motivation are problematic at best. Generalizing from those ascriptions compiles layers of problems upon surface like varnish upon wood, taking an individually rich and textured bit of wood and turning it into a smooth, nearly uniform plank. The analysis of Jane Fonda and Barbara Bush ("Jane Fonda, Barbara Bush, and Other Aging Bodies") commits all these errors, providing a specious and somewhat sanctimonious argument for the very real systemic discrimination and oppression of women through the manipulation of body images. Yet, as varnish may make the grain of the wood more visible, so does this analysis. What it lacks in generalizability (though the authors seem keen to do so), it provides a great deal of data for detailed introspection - both in regards to these two women, and also in regards to our own lives.

In Fonda (whom the authors seem to dislike), the authors highlight the contradiction between the control of the body and the freedom of liberation. They claim that the hyper-controlling need of fitness gurus is another attempt to control women through their bodies, and that Fonda's participation in such is less about feminism than it is about hypocrisy. While there are elements of truth in their statements about body control, one wonders if they'd make the same judgment about the discipline, rigor, and effort needed to achieve the skills and status necessary to publish in a peer-reviewed journal.

The authors are also correct in noting that Ms. Fonda's body-building style led towards a more muscular body does approach maleness, and that having plastic surgery for her breasts (and other types) also conforms to gendered types about femininity. They allude, however, that these things are hypocritical on the face of it; how is it not possible that Ms. Fonda wished the control and power of maleness without surrendering the feminine? Are they ignorant that weight training and decreasing body fat results in a reduction of breast size? It appears that they wish for Ms. Fonda to conform to a body image - their own. At what point does surgery (or any other body modification effort) become unacceptable or acceptable? Gender reassignment? Tattoos? It is impossible to disentangle the effects of societal control with personal decisions; different intentions can manifest in the same (or similar appearing) behaviors. Holding up the apparent contradictions in Ms. Fonda's life can serve as a call for self-reflection and self-examination, but little more.

Likewise, the (much less harsh) criticism of Mrs. Bush makes presumptions of intent (and assumptions that magazine reporting is accurate, a problem in itself). They accurately point out that Mrs. Bush has traded criticism for her appearance for renouncing her existence as a sexual being; however, I disagree with their assertion that this is challenging the mainstream notion. It appears to me that the idea of the matronly grandmother is a completely mainstream idea, and one that still resonates strongly. I ascertain this through the common revulsion reaction to the idea of elderly people having sex. This seems to be a significant part of the mainstream path for women, and Mrs. Bush has stayed significantly within it.

It will be interesting to see where Ms. Obama takes this trend, and how well she is able to buck it. She has already been feted by many magazines and shows; leading up to the inauguration, it was easy to see comparisons between her and (then) Jacqueline Kennedy. How will this strong, independent woman challenge the ideas of beauty and age?

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The Next Financial Bubble: Your Salary

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Here's an interesting thought: Neoclassical economics (e.g. the "free market" capitalists) would lead to essentially the same result in regard to wages as socialism.

Stick with me; this thought experiment relates directly to your income. Here's the thought experiment: Free market dynamics presumes that everyone is paid according to demand for their labor, particularly when dealing with skilled labor. In fact, neoclassical economics insists that the higher wages ("rent" in economic parlance) is due in particular to advanced skill sets and the so-called sacrifice of additional training time. [1] Yet this, in turn, should drive more people to seek those skills in order to get those wages. In turn, that would drive the wage for that profession down (since supply would exceed demand), until the market "cleared". That is, reached equilibrium.

Likewise, that should hold for "nasty" jobs - such as janatorial work. In FreeMarketLand [2], most people would not want to do such a job. Therefore, they would seek other professions. The labor supply for janitors would be small, and therefore, they would gain higher wages. If the wages grew too high, then more people would put up with the work in order to gain higher wages. Again, this continues until the market "clears", or reaches equilibrium.

In FreeMarketLand (closely bordered by LibertarianLand), there is a presumption of a level playing field. There would be no barriers to taking a job besides innate skill - and I think it is possible to argue that nearly all jobs save a very very few could be done competently by most people. Therefore, in this theoretical land, labor supply would fluctuate to match wages and demand... until nearly everyone was paid exactly the same.

Obviously, this is nowhere near the case. There's a couple of reasons - information inequality being a big one, and lack of labor mobility being another. But it also implies that there is not a level playing field. In fact, when we compare this theory to the real world, it becomes obvious that there is nothing anywhere near a level playing field. There are numerous barriers: substandard schools, racial or gender bias, or even deliberate exclusion from professions to keep wages artificially high.

Check that last clause again.

All of these barriers have the effect of creating a wage bubble. Your wages (and since you're reading this on the Internet, I'm probably correct in saying "you") are artificially higher than they would be in a truly perfect free market system. We saw a brief dip in wages after women began entering the workforce en masse in the late 1970's. That was the effect of that part of the wage bubble deflating - at least a little bit. That is not a bad thing. Bubbles happen in capitalist economies; a slow deflation of the bubble is far better than the sudden crash of internet stocks in 1999-2000, or the housing market collapse of 2007-2009.

It's kind of nice to be the beneficiary of a bubble - to be "ahead of the game". But no bubble - whether tulips or collateralized debt obligations, houses or Beanie Babies - lasts forever. They end - either by a slow deflation, or by a sudden, dramatic pop.

Now you know. You're on the top of a bubble - a wage bubble. One that is due to be the third big bubble of the last twenty years. We have already felt its tremors with robotics and outsourcing. Let me be clear - I am not talking about the gloomy economic forecast mentioned recently in The Economist, though the current global recession may serve as a dangerously close needle to our wage bubble. But this problem did not need the recession to manifest itself. The skin of the bubble has been thinning for years, and is far beyond recovery now.

The question is not how to preserve our artificially high wages.

The question is - how are we - all of us, across the globe - going to survive when they fall?

[1] I'm presuming here that individual skills beyond competence are not particularly relevant. My co-workers and I all (presumably) share a base set of skills. If I have more talent at it, I might get a minimal wage increase in a higher raise or small bonus, but such differentials makes no pretense at being proportional to skill level. The vast majority of hired labor positions work like this. There is a more valid argument that freelancers (for example) can command differential wages due to skill, but that doesn't apply to the vast amount of the wage-earning public.

[2] Yes, I know the real world doesn't work like this. I'm pointing out a frequently missed point in the theory; real-world application is a few paragraphs later down.

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Homework - A Flash Fiction

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"They will be attracted to you, but it is not love," said the headmistress. The class of young girls, just across the cusp of puberty, still uncomfortable with new breasts and new feelings, watched her pace between the desks.

"They have a responsibility - no, an attachment to their Dark Lady. They will smile at you, and court you. They will promise you the moon and the night eternal, but they will always serve Her. They will never leave Her."

"Perdonious is different," Nancy hissed after class, as she and Jasmine balanced their training stakes and books down the crowded hallway. "He really cares about me."

Jasmine looked at her friend.

"He does. He didn't just promise me the moon and night eternal" - Nancy's impression of the Headmistress was uncanny - "he loves me like he has loved no other."

Jasmine had never argued with Nancy when she got like this. There was nothing to do but smile and nod, to try to change the conversation at the first opportunity.

But she still felt sad when Nancy disappeared that night, and again when the drained husk of Nancy's body was found days later.

Sperm, Eggs, Darwin, and Martin

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It's a puzzling thing.
The truth knocks on the door and you say,
'Go away, I'm looking for the truth,'
and so it goes away.

I don't know what to say about Emily Martin's essay. I mean, this all seems self-evident. Scientists are people, too. We are all infested with our memes and our socialization. Just today I had to point out that a learning module at work that was aimed at promoting understanding and acceptance of bariatric patients had exactly three images out of (approximately) thirty that showed obese people. None of those three exactly showed them in a positive light, and there was one "normal" sized person who was shown with the caption "I've been obese my whole life."

This from the people who are supposed to be teaching us sensitivity.

I think this is the same effect that Martin talks about in The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles. We've internalized the concepts of male agency and female submission so broadly and so strongly that it's showing up in discussions about cells and organs, in labs and textbooks. I mean, there was a recent RadioLab all about sperm... but why wasn't there one about eggs? Especially when the discussion kept talking about - over and over - how sperm weren't these "do it all themselves" kinds of cells?

Martin ascribes an intentionality to these sorts of things, though, that's frankly off putting. She almost insists that it's on purpose, and I'm always wary about ascribing that kind of motive to a huge class of people. Like, well, men. Especially when speaking about Darwin, since I just finished listening to a three-hour programme about his life and influences. Sure, Malthusian ideas influenced Darwin, just as one can trace the effects of our conceptualization of evolution through the popularity of various types of sociological theory (including before Darwin...). Nobody would ascribe intentionality there, and it's somewhat disingenuous for Martin to do so here.

The accusation that can be leveled - and quite successfully - is that these scientists were insufficiently self-reflective. Martin is, appropriately, upset at the way an egg's action is described in passive terms while sperm are ascribed actively. In these cases - just as with sexist, racist, and classist behaviors - we must remind others of what's going on, and adjust fire.

No pun intended.

It's appropriate to realize that our descriptions of germ cells is not yet adequate; reminding ourselves that we no longer consider sperm cells as holding wee little men (and that the egg cell contributed nothing) is sometimes worthwhile too.

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Random, but interesting stuff

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Jim Hines is a fantasy author, with three hilarious goblin books out and one with kick-ass princesses (with more on the way). In real life, though, Jim spent some time helping survivors who had been raped. While (mildly, very mildly) deserving of a trigger warning - something Jim himself notes - his triptych of rape awareness posts are thought provoking and worth reading. Of special note is the latest, which talks about the things those closest to a survivor often do... and probably shouldn't.

In Second Life news, I belatedly discover that Linden Labs is developing a client that can selectively block certain ratings of content. After speaking with an educator last weekend who uses Second Life - and who freely noted that the "Adult Continent" policy wouldn't help her or her students at all - this seems to be the best implementation to both maximize freedom and allow people to avoid content they simply don't want to see. Not that I would have suggested this idea at the beginning of the month.

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Authors, Pundits, and Hegel, oh my.

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Social inequality - or at least the form it takes - is not inevitable. Both structural functionalism and conflict theory (which roughly map to the political right and left in the United States) have explanations which are quickly becoming irrelevant and historical.

Let me explain.

In discussing the teabaggers (which I did here) John Scalzi once again demonstrates why he is my favorite political pundit even though he's not a political pundit - and yes, moreso than Jon Stewart. His observation crystallized the unsettling feeling that I had been getting during my social inequality class this term. That feeling was that everything we were discussing is historical, and having less and less relevance to today.

I've mentioned this before, and it's still true. The old ways of doing class, race, and gender are still present. There are still activists who wish to preserve these inequalities, and still activists who wish to completely overturn all of these systems in a radical overhaul of society.

But a synthesis group is emerging. Rather than solidly take either side, they're much more interested in looking at the problems that currently exist - and fixing them.

The study of both sides is still worthwhile. The functionalists have spent a lot of time and energy discovering the roles and functions that are played out in society - both those that are "good" and those that are "ill". Likewise, the conflict theorists have spent a lot of time and energy uncovering the hidden assumptions of structures of power, and the ways they play out in less-than-obvious ways. The lessons of both are vitally important to know what is necessary, and what traps to avoid.

Yet at the same time, the conflict theorists have the greatest practical failing. As theoretical descendants of Hegel, they have the concept of societal development through thesis meeting its antithesis, and a synthesis of the two developing. The continued insistence that their way of thought is solely correct is a violation of their own conceptual framework.

Regardless, that synthesis is developing - and will continue to develop throughout time. Right now, we should look at the positions of both and take what is useful (and desired) for society as a whole, and reject what is not.

To do so requires a fierce honesty, an openness to different and opposing ideas, and admission of both failings and successes. And it is this sort of mentality that Scalzi - among others - exemplifies.

Maybe more of us should strive to emulate his approach.

Though, perhaps without the bacon.

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Seven tips for making your medical appointment go smoothly

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These are some short guidelines that can definitely make any appointment you have - especially when you're at a satellite facility or imaging center - run more smoothly.

1. Write down your medications with the bottles in front of you, and make sure they're spelled correctly. All too often, there's only a single letter difference between two very, very different trademarked names. And too often, those names have silent q's, y's, and other unusual spellings. Even if you've already told medical professionals at, say, your family doctor, the lab in another building may not have - but need - that information.

2. Your doctor should be able to tell you what any test will entail - at least in general terms. If they can't - or worse, if they're completely wrong - you may want to consider this a reflection on their quality as a physician. In the meantime, call the testing center. It's better to bug them briefly beforehand than have a bigger problem later.

3. Research. Many tests are done slightly differently at different facilities. However, if you see that not eating is a common requirement of a test, and your doctor didn't mention it, you should probably call the facility to make sure you got told correctly.

4. Arriving early does not translate into being seen early. Especially in medicine. Plan ahead; bring a book.

5. If you're going to a test, have the ordering doctor's phone number. Mistakes happen; having the right number to call makes the resolution happen faster.

6. Hospitals and imaging facilities cannot automatically prescribe you medication, give you refills, or even take your blood pressure. Don't expect them to.

7. You will need to be able to tell them your medical history. HIPPA (the privacy act thing) means that many times, ancillary facilities don't know more about your medical history than what is actually written on the order. (This is also the reason for #6.)

What tips and suggestions do you have? Share them in the comments!

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The Stinking Rose - A 100 Word Story

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The vampires would be an attractive couple, if they weren't eating my girlfriend. She still whimpered on the table, red and blue hair caught in her nosering. They'd shredded her battered leather, ripped open both shirt and skin.

They had me chained to the wall, forcing me to watch as they drained her. The male withdrew a pale rose from an ancient vase. He held it under my girlfriend's dripping wounds until it was stained crimson from her. They laughed, tossing the flower under my feet. I smelled the hot iron stench of her blood, and struggled to be free.

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Enough For Everyone

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I'm at the NCSA conference in Dearborn (outside Detroit), and just finished my presentation. This year, like last year, I researched student difficulties balancing real life and the college class schedule. Below is the text I based the presentation from - not the actual paper, because the statistics makes my head swim, and I wrote the thing! Not only is this a difficulty for current college students, but also for our country as a whole. Our society is requiring more and more education to just stay afloat, but working and going to school at the same time is difficult enough. There's no reason we should make it any harder.

It's easy to see choices when we're outside the system. But at the same time, while we're looking from outside, we often forget that we are in our own system of constructed knowledge. We have our own assumptions about the right thing, or the best thing, or the easy thing.

Right now, you have chosen. Perhaps you would have liked to go to another panel. My advisor had to choose between attending this one and presenting her own work.
I had to choose. Right now, I would normally be injecting someone with radioactivity, having been on the clock for just over three hours. At the same time, the second session of classes for my university has just started.

And that's the problem.

I'm going to spend the next few minutes talking about how things have changed, for both students and postsecondary education. We'll talk about how we can use the examples of older students to predict what their problems are, and how these are directly impacted by the college schedule. And I'll talk about the research I did at a two year school and four year school, both in the same city, the problems students had there, and the implications of that research.

When you look at older students - like me - we have some real problems when its time to go back to school. We have full-time jobs, families, homes, or other worries to occupy our time. We have lives and demands outside of college. As the economy has worsened, more and more of us have come to colleges and universities. Students over the age of twenty five make up almost half of the undergraduate population across the country, and there's little reason to expect that to change.

But it's not just us anymore. More and more younger students - the so-called traditional ones - are having to balance outside pressures. Taking four years off in order to study has moved out of reach, as younger students must work to actually support themselves and avoid crippling debt. The student body and its needs are changing.

At the same time, universities and colleges are finding themselves needing us. Endowments and state funding is down, and many schools are facing budget problems. They need every student they can get. At the same time, students need the degrees and skills that postsecondary education provides. Balancing work and school schedules to succeed in school and life is extremely difficult.

Measuring the problem isn't straightforward. One reason is due to methodological problems. One study found that the surprisingly low reported incidence of class conflicts was due to many of their students only taking one class per term. Those students were able to find a class - but they could not address whether or not they would have taken more classes if they could fit them into their schedule.

Older students also provide a theoretical reason why capturing this data is so difficult. They view their work and home responsibilities as an integral part of their lives, not as a mere backdrop to getting an education. When childcare and jobs cause conflicts they're seen as problems with life, not class schedule problems.

This different framework explains the apparent conflicts in the literature. For example, the number of hours worked is a far less accurate predictor of dropping out than a student's sense of "satisfaction" with their institution and their education. If the student feels satisfied with their education, they're more likely to make sacrifices in the other areas of their lives.
There are some indirect ways to measure real demand for class times. When given the choice between equivalent lecture and online classes, many times older students will choose online classes. When online classes are offered, students will access the lessons, quizzes, and tests outside of regular class times.

This indicates that supply does not match demand. The supply is limited and constrained by the traditional notions of class schedules. The bureaucracy of the institutions limits what offerings are available, not the needs of students.

Gary Thompson directly measured the difference between constrained and unconstrained demand. When professors - the "experts" - created a schedule that they believed best fit student's needs, it did no better than a control schedule in matching students to classes. In contrast, an unconstrained schedule developed by a heuristic algorhythm using direct student input did significantly better in matching students to classes. The professors were operating with information inequality, working from anecdotal information from students in past terms that did not accurately reflect the needs of the actual student population.

Last year, I looked at class preferences at a four year institution. I found two surprising things. First, that the greatest predictor of willingness to take an online class was having taken one in the past. Secondly, that there were two separate cohorts - a body of students who strongly preferred traditional daytime classes during the week, and another nearly separate body of students who preferred classes during the evenings, online, and weekends.

This year, I revisited that data, but also included students from a local two-year community college. The relationship between these two institutions includes an assumption that the community college also serves as a "feeder school" for the four year institution. I had seven main questions that I wanted answers for.
  1. If the amount of financial support had an effect on difficulty scheduling classes.
  2. If the degree of difficulty in scheduling classes had an effect on student satisfaction with their school.
  3. If students who wanted traditional and non-traditional class times were separate groups.
  4. If the class times desired by students at the two-year and four-year institution were the same.
  5. If the students faced the same types of difficulties at both the two-year and four-year institution.
  6. If the students faced the same degree of difficulty at both institutions.
  7. If the strongest predictor of willingness to take a web-based class was prior experience with web-based education.

In aggregate, the degree of difficulty in scheduling classes was the same between both institutions, but the types of problems differed. More students at the two-year college had problems due to intrinsic factors within the school schedule itself, while students at the four-year school had more problems due to extrinsic life circumstances. Part of this might be due to the two-year schools' recent switch to an entirely online scheduling system and it's "open enrollment" system in comparison to the four-year institution's tiered scheduling by grade level.
Despite the differences, at both institutions there were significant correlations between working more hours and providing a greater degree of support to the household and difficulty scheduling classes.

I found again that having taken any online class was the strongest predictor in their willingness to desiring another one, moreso than age or self-reported computer expertise.
I also found that students who wanted any class outside of regular hours would be open to any other class outside regular hours. For example, those who wanted web classes were more likely to desire evening and Saturday classes. Likewise, wanting any daytime class was a strong predictor of desiring other daytime classes. There were nonsignificant negative correlations between wanting a daytime class and wanting a non-traditional class time; however, my convenience sample at the four-year institution was comprised entirely of students taking a daytime class.

Perhaps the most disturbing was the strong negative correlation between satisfaction with the institution and difficulty scheduling classes. Remember, for students who have outside responsibilities, satisfaction with the institution and their education has a high predictive value for determining if a student will drop out.
It's tempting to write this off as a problem that students make for themselves. Yet I found a significant positive correlation between the aggregate problems that students had and their openness and desire to take classes at different times. This strongly suggests that the primary responsibility for these problems lies not with student attitude, but with the structure of the institutions themselves.

There are additional problems that respondents put at the end of the survey - needing more classes for their major, more spots in each class, more clas times offered so required classes did not conflict with each other, and more forewarning of classes offered in future terms so that students could plan ahead.
It is already difficult for students to guess what classes will be offered in future terms; however, when the schedule is restricted, students need more forewarning so they can ensure they get the classes they need.

An ideal solution would be to shape class offerings to student needs - and letting the market decide. Barring that, the problems become practical ones of human resources and physical space. Solutions such as web-based classes, or hybrid classes which meet both virtually and in real life appear to be the quickest and most feasible solution at this time. Given my repeated findings, it seems imparative that more students have early exposure to hybrid or web-based classes so that these resources can be fully utilized.

Despite the limitations of the convenience sample that I employed for my research, there is one thing that we can be assured of. These students, despite their difficulties, have managed to precariously balance the demands of a work schedule and school schedule so far. Unmeasured here are the potential students who would attend, but have been unable to reconcile these conflicting responsibilities.
There are many barriers to obtaining a college education. It is imparative that something as mundane as the class schedule does not number among them.

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Individual Drops in a Sea of Maroon

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My workplace - like many - sends out customer satisfaction surveys. One of the things that gets a lot of attention is when a particular employee's name is mentioned. We've gone to lengths to ensure that our names end up in the customer's hands - two cards, name badges, and scripted verbal greetings all repeat our name over and over.

Yet during the first part of this year, it seems like that's happening less and less. Admittedly, this is just an offhand observation, and just for my section in my department at one place in the very large company I work for, but it's striking enough to have been mentioned by managers at two consecutive staff meetings.

I think it's our clothes.

We've had guidelines the whole time I've worked here, but some degree of diversity was permitted in our uniforms. However, since the start of this year, our uniforms are color-coded by our department. Also, our uniforms must all be purchased from the same vendor (purportedly to ensure that the colors match). The rationale is that this coordinated color schema will allow our customers to recognize what department each employee is with at a glance.

I don't know if it is achieving that goal. But this uniformity is uncannily similar to the sensibility that requires servants to all dress the same way. It is - whether intentionally or not - a dehumanizing mechanism. The same mechanism is used with uniforms at schools and military with great success. It makes the employees - myself included - not individual people, but gives us the appearance of interchangeable cogs in the group.

I work in a sea of maroon.

Again, I don't know if this new uniform policy is achieving its stated goals. It doesn't particularly matter to me - I like the color we are wearing, and would probably be wearing it anyway. But being just another drop in the sea of maroon means that it's more difficult for my customers to relate to me as an individual. Instead, there are significant visual cues that I am not a person, but a role.

Roles do not have their names put on customer satisfaction surveys.

Neither the surveys nor the uniform policy is a bad thing, especially when viewed individually. However, the preliminary evidence - in the lesser number of employee names on surveys - seems to support the theoretical perspective that these two polices are at loggerheads. We - both my company, and other companies in the workplace - must be alert for the unintended consequences of our policy decisions. It is only once we realize these problems that we can shift our goals, methods, or policies in order to achieve success.

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Party like it's 1773... or not.

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I don't get it. Why are taxes such a big deal?

First, the ludicrous "tea parties" being held across the country. I can only think of two possible explanations.
  1. The organizers have so weak a grasp on history that they cannot distinguish between a colony without representation and, oh, a republic where you get to vote, or
  2. the organizers think that "representation" means that their elected officials must always agree with them.

Or maybe it's a left-wing conspiracy to make a bunch of right-wing talking heads look stupid saying they're going to "teabag government". (h/t to Jon Stewart for that one.)
Seriously, the second proposition is the most likely - and the most frightening. There are other examples of this kind of ideological intolerance, most notably in the (nominally) Christian crowd that cry discrimination if their monuments and holidays are not recognized... but do not want to share space or time with either other faiths or those without one. (Note to Christians - if the shoe doesn't fit, don't wear it.)

But even the basic, general complaining about taxes seems fundamentally selfish and shortsighted. Perhaps it's because my life has taken some pretty unusual turns, but I'm acutely aware of how beneficial government taxation (and spending) can be. A short list:

  • My fond memories of First Ward Elementary, and useful, if not-so-fond memories of my high school.

  • My father's job at a state university.

  • The interstates I drove back and forth to college, and again while I was in the military. Try making a long trip on the old US routes. It's fun - but not very efficient at all. If you want a real challenge, try route 50 all the way across West Virginia. Being behind a coal truck doing a hairpin turn on a steep hill is not fun.

  • The assistance I received while poor and unexpectedly having a family, keeping us from being homeless and hungry until I got in the military.

  • The assistance we have received when my son unexpectedly incurred medical expenses well beyond what our insurance would pay for

And this isn't even counting the times the police have helped me, or when the EMS squad helped me when I threw my back out and couldn't get up.

Perhaps an example from my time in the military will help make this more clear:

In the Army, there's a fund called Army Emergency Relief (AER). It's funded by donations from other soldiers. While I was in AIT, I suddenly found myself in dire straits, through no fault of my own. AER gave me the money to get through the crisis. For the rest of my military career, I donated money to AER, and saw it help many soldiers, both in my unit and elsewhere.

Having that kind of donation structure - and the framework to effectively disburse monies that way - is possible in the structured environment of the Army. Real life - civilian life - is much more complicated and erratic. Part of the government's job is to promote the well-being of our entire society in a way none of us can do individually. Unlike private business, the government is not motivated by profit motive, so that we can concentrate less on the absolute bottom line and more on the overall, long-range good for society.

Sometimes government does well with that. Sometimes not so well. There's always room for improvement at all levels, and we have to be vigilant that the programs we have are both needed and doing what they're supposed to. Yet the fundamental concept and structure is sound.

I owed taxes (after deductions) for the first time this year. It would have been nice to keep that money.

But it would have barely been enough to fix a pair of potholes, if I had to do it on my own.

At the beginning of this country, shortly after the Boston Tea Party, the founders of this country knew that they must "all hang together, or surely we would all hang separately." The costs we must bear are small compared to theirs, but the risks to the functioning of our society is just as great.

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There's choices, and then there are choices

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"Suicide is never an option," the therapist told the group.

"Actually, it is," I responded. "A bad and stupid option, but it *is* an option."

I did not win friends during my time on the psychiatric ward.

In studies, shoppers who were faced with an aisle full of options found themselves confused instead of empowered.

"I want to go to London," she told me. But she worked at Burger King, and barely paid the rent.

Choice is a weird thing. These three examples illustrate the different kinds of restriction of choice there are.

The economic kind is often mentioned, but the ramifications are often misstated. There's when someone has a choice - say, whether or not to buy a brand new car - but saying that someone has a choice does not make it so unless they have the economic means to make that choice actual.

The second restriction to choice is guided information; when a shopper has a clear preference or clear guidelines and the information about the product to make those choices, then the observed confusion disappears. I mention this, because all too often we hear this sort of thing mentioned as an excuse to limit choice. The problem is not the choices, but instead is the level of information present and available to the person.

The third limitation is structural and social. There are billions of options and choices available to every person every day - but the ramifications of them (even in terms of societal pressure) are enough to make these real choices into non-choices. Think about what you're doing right now. You could choose to do something else - but because of social, societal, and inbuilt (e.g. "moral" pressures) you're doing something else instead.

All three of these aspects must be addressed in order to actualize real change; in this there is no real choice.

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Rusty Steel - A 100 Word Story

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They let me into my parent's house. It's a beautiful day - outside air spring cool and clean, so the stench inside is so much worse.

My parents had got back from the movies. He was waiting for them. He had no reason, just the feel of metal through skin.

The couch is stained with their blood.

They took the bodies away, but not the blood. This time they'll catch him, they say. Sure.

I see the glint the detectives missed, see the knife under my father's chair. I see the glistening blade, and pretend the dark on it is rust.

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Love, Ideology, and Children

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It might be weird to talk about sex during Holy Week, but it's not weird to talk about love. But when we talk about love, sooner or later we end up talking about sex. And when we talk about sex, sooner or later, it ends up Being About The Children. It's entirely too bad that all of these concepts are so tangled up in our culture - because they limit us to an ideology that can be unnecessarily harmful.

It's difficult to even write about these, because each aspect - sex, love, jealousy, relationships, child-rearing - are all such amorphous terms, and because our culture insists that they all go together in a specific way.

Even though that way isn't the norm any more - and really hasn't been the norm for quite some time.

Child-rearing is perhaps the least emotionally charged of them, so I'll use that as an example. Our culture teaches - pretty explicitly at times - that child rearing is supposed to be done by the child's biological male and female parents. I'm not arguing that the functions served by biological parents in prior times are unimportant. That's not the case at all - those functions are developmentally important. But that doesn't mean those functions have to be embodied in the persons of the biological parents.

That ignores the times when the biological parents are abusive or neglectful. It's hard to imagine that, for example, a mother who leaves their child in a car seat while screwing someone else and doing drugs - not that I'd know someone who did that - is arguably worse for their kid than an adoptive parent. Or two men. Or two women. The supposed "norm" of biological parents having some kind of special skill to take care of their children is patently offensive to parents who have adopted children.

It also ignores the reality of many people. I'm talking about daycare. We have relegated the care of our children for years to professionals unrelated to them, and study after study shows that the daycare experience doesn't produce a negative difference in children. And this is not a new trend to have professionals care for our children. It's not only in the modern sense of the daycare center, but in boarding schools and under the care of nannies. Mary Poppins, anyone?

The end lesson of Mary Poppins is entirely true - we should spend time with the children under our care. Yet the supposed biological tie is undermined by Poppins herself. The emotional and caring bond she forges with the children is utterly unrelated to biological or the way society supposes that "family" is supposed to be structured. The importance is in the caring, nurturing support - regardless of source.

Yet our ideology insists that biological parents have to be the only and best rearers of children. This ideology leads to a lot of anguish, self-doubt, and tons of counterproductive results. We do have to ensure that the needs of children are met, but the forms that may take can be as varied as our imaginations will allow.

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Official Easter

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Small note to diversity folks:

1. Putting "Happy Easter!" on the cafeteria menu, but not Passover, is showing official favoritism to a single religion.

2. When you put "Happy Easter!" on the menu, you should probably recognize that not all Christian faiths calculate Easter the same day.

3. Really, handing out Easter candy on Good Friday is kind of inappropriate - not only for the reasons above, but also because quite a few Christian faiths fast on Good Friday. And - if you're going to recognize religions at all - you should offer something other than chicken and roast beef as menu options on Fridays during Lent. Maybe, oh, that fish you had on the menu for Thursday?

Where the hell are the "War on Christmas" people now? Seriously - if an organization is going to officially recognize religious holidays and festivals, then it should try to recognize as many of them as possible. If it's not going to recognize any of them officially, then it shouldn't recognize ANY of them. Selectively recognizing the majority Protestant Christian religious holidays inherently reminds all the rest of us that we are not *really* part of the organization.

While in the military, there were specific rules for participating in politics. I couldn't wear my uniform at rallies and marches (and yes, the Dubya administration had soldiers break this rule). I had to speak as a private citizen, not as a soldier, and so on. But these rules were not a limitation on *my* activies. They ensured that there was no way that it could appear that my actions were synonymous with the organization's.

Why is that so bloody hard?

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Taking "mutant" back

I missed boingboing.

They didn't go anywhere - the popular blog is still going strong. I did. I still got the RSS feed on my palm, and my reader... but I stopped looking at it on a regular basis. Other, more "important" things started crowding into my time.

And without realizing it, those "important" things kept sapping at me.

Being a happy mutant - as the boingers espouse, and as I read way back when in the Happy Mutant Handbook - is fulfilling Marx through a capitalist framework. They're all working. Working hard, in fact. They aren't afraid of work, and espouse an ethos that prefers - celebrates, even - working it out for yourself instead of buying a ready-made solution. They are not alienated from their work at all. They are working freely, of their own choosing, in things that both let them survive *and* fulfill them personally.

I had gotten away from that.

There's been flashes - meeting Ms. Kontis, for example - but it'd slipped away from me for a little while. Our American culture does not celebrate happy mutants - it desires to crush them. Freaks, weirdos, and geeks are all marginalized.

In a sense, that's good. . I would hate to see the mutants be corrupted and influenced by the "mainstream" world. But it makes it hard to remember, to persevere in the face of the great grey of modern mediocrity and conformity.

The angsty teenage cry of wanting to be non-conformist is a rallying cry against the alienation our society forces onto us, the way we pigeonhole others... and ourselves. We mock those angsty teenagers, because otherwise we would have to admit that they are right. We are complicit, both as oppressors and oppressed.

It's up to us to find other happy mutants, and celebrate our time with them. To let the grey and pink normality wash over and across us, while we tread water unaffected, a singing naughty pirate penguin sea chanty delightfully off-key.

Preferably with a spray-painted two-seater Segway.


PLAY! A Video Game Symphony 18 April @ 8pm

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Damn, I'm not going to be in town for this, but it sounds cool.

Performed by full orchestra and choir, PLAY! A Video Game Symphony features award-winning music from a catalogue of blockbuster video game titles. Outstanding motion graphics on large screens above the orchestra accompany the scores, highlighting the action from the video games. “This spectacular concert attracts people of all generations to some of the world’s greatest concert halls,” says Maestro Arnie Roth, Principal Conductor and Music Director of PLAY!

Single Ticket prices:
$75 / $58 / $48 / $36 / $27
STUDENT PRICES: $27 for best available seats
(students are defined as aged 25 or younger with a valid student ID and must purchase in person at the Wintergarden box office)

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Howling Recounts - A 100 Word Story

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A brief word of explanation.

This is a 100-word story, with the topic from last week's Weekly Challenge... "Howl at the moon, I demand a recount, The fencing master, Matzo tower, The end is near." I'm not actually *in* the weekly challenge - I didn't get this recorded in time to submit it. But I happened to see the mash of topics and said, "Wow, that's a challenge." So here it is.

He towered, skin like soggy matzo, hulking over the swarthy man; an oxycontin-fueled mass of rage.

"That's wrong! Count the ballots again!" he shouted into the night sky, shaking a meaty fist at the uncaring moon. "I have millions of listeners, agreeing with my every word! I am the voice of real America!" He pointed again at the swarthy swordsman leaning against the wall. "This will be the end of America! People like this Spaniard more than me? Inconceivable!"

"That word," the swarthy man said, "you keep saying it. I do not think it means what you think it means."

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Keeping adults in control in Second Life

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After she explored Stonehenge in Second Life, my wife turned the corner and walked into a shop selling fully nude skins for female avatars.

With rather large pictures visible from outside the store.

A while ago, I addressed the ghettoization of "adult content" on Second Life. The sad thing is, all the discussions of this sort would not address her experience. While the definitions of "adult" are shifting and hard to define, Linden Labs has - unofficially, at least - stating that only the most extreme adult content would be exiled off the mainland.

In my earlier post, I guessed that Linden Lab's rationale for this policy has less to do with truly offended people than with making things seem more palatable for pinks in suits. While searching for a lightweight text SL client, I stumbled across the seeds to a much more elegant solution to the whole "adult" problem - one that addresses both the most extreme conditions and relatively banal situations as well.

The Able edition (though now unfortunately discontinued) allowed the ability to mute objects:
The viewer is already able to mute the chat from object or avatars that spam the public chat channel. The Able Edition viewer also allows objects to be muted visually, so that they either appear much less intrusively or disappear altogether.

If Linden's goal was to allow people to selectively determine what kind of "adult" material they were exposed to in Second Life, the concept behind the Able viewer points the way. Require a single byte on objects that denotes a rating (I'd suggest G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17, simply because there's general agreement in the US about the cultural standards denoted by these ratings), and the ability to "mute" all objects/people who are rated as more severe than you want to see.

Sure, there's still problems defining the exact boundaries of the standard. Sure, there will still be problems with people setting pictures of boobies to "G" - but there's already a reporting mechanism in place to deal with that. Parcels and shops stay where they're at, people have the independence and liberty to individually choose, and we can all still co-exist.

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Your Rooster and It's Emotions

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"We are men of action," Wesley says. "Lies do not become us."

While an excellent line from _The Princess Bride_, it is redundant. Culturally, we teach our men that they *are* action, and nothing more. They - we - are not expected to do anything other than perform and provide.

"Thank you for your service," Clark Howard tells the veteran on the radio. "How long were you in the Army?"

"Twelve years," the caller says.

"Couldn't make the full twenty?" The joking lilt to Clark's voice is sharper; there's a judging edge to this. I don't catch all of the caller's response, just enough to hear that his child was five and he wanted to spend more time with them and not move them around as much.

"Oh, military brats are better able to make friends because they move around so much," Clark says, and is completely wrong.

There was a clear expectation that the man's action - serving in the military - was more important than his emotions in caring for his child... and that truth could and would be subverted to reinforce that paradigm.

These are simply other expressions of the theme Ms. Bordo notes in "Pills and Power Tools". Men judge themselves on "action" - and even that is simplified to one organ. The normal ranges for this organ - and its performance - seem inadequate. This seems to be largely due to the media portrayals of of male sexual performance from mass media. While Ms. Bordo correctly notes that male sexual performance is rarely visualized onscreen, what portrayals there are in mass media do little to correct the very inaccurate (and often essentially faked) representations in pornography.

But the crux of the matter - as she notes - is that the penis is seen as representative of sex, and simultaneously seen as not part of the whole man. It is seen as simply "a machine" that can be "fixed" by pills. This mindset - reflected in jokes and songs about a man's "other head" and how it has a mind of its own - divorces one's both the responsibility and the emotionality of sexuality from the whole person. This can't be a good thing.

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On any given comment thread...

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Maybe it's because we talked about Religulous last night; the Universe has a nasty habit of springing surprise synchronicity
into my lap. Maybe it's because springtime is here again. Maybe it's coincidence, and someone just learned how to ego-surf the internet.

Regardless, I got the first
in six months on an old post of mine: On Any Given Pro-Life Sunday. My basic premise? Pro-life demonstrators could do far more good actually supporting pregnant women than standing around. Instead, I suggest that such demonstrations are less about change and more about stroking one's ego. (The more limber-minded of you will notice that this argument can, in many cases, be applied to ritualized annual demonstrations of any type, regardless of political persuasion or creed.)

In the post, I quote the Dayton Daily News - who was, in turn, quoting another individual.

That's the person who commented on the post.

The first paragraph of their comment simply disagrees with my position. No problem there, right? It's the second paragraph that troubles me:

I'd also suggest that since you're not the owner of my words and you don't know anything about my life that you please take down your post slamming me for my comment and for that of Emma, one of the kids in my youth group. I do not agree to let my words to be used to slam Christians or those who support the anti-abortion cause. Thanks!

Read that over one more time. Starting at the end, there's the assumption in the last sentence that I'm automatically pro-choice because I disagree with a tactic of the pro-life
movement. Then there's the assumption that being quoted in an article (or blog entry) presumes that your words must support that action.

Um, right.

And then the big one: the idea that each person "owns" the distribution of their words, even after being disseminated in public.

It's a tempting idea to think about - but it's utterly and completely false.

We "own" our words only in the sense that we produce them. Especially when uttered in public, especially when talking to a reporter (or for that matter, writing on the internet), other people can quote you. You don't get to control that. Think about all the review blurbs for movies that are... selective excerpts of the
whole thing. "This movie is exceptional in its sheer lack of momentum" can become "This movie is exception in its sheer ... momentum", and still be a valid quote.

What's especially worrisome is that I'm not misrepresenting Randi Hom's position. I present it exactly the same way that the DDN did. I simply disagree.

Ultimately, they are asking me to take down my post...because I disagree.

And that's a damn dangerous idea, isn't it?

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Transgender support in Second Life

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One of the reasons Second Life is a good thing:

If you are or know of someone who is a significant other, spouse, or partner of a person identifying as transgender we will be meeting Sunday, April 5 from 5pm to 6pm SL time at the TRC Support Center. Contact Beth Gartner for an LM or with questions.

Just spreading the word.

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Public Transit - A Flash Fiction

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[Note: Inspired by a brief recounting of one of my wife's dreams. Apologies to Neil Gaiman.]

I could smell the blood before I saw it. The man at the other end of the bus stop bench looked a little too nice to be riding the bus - suit, briefcase, polished shoes. The professional image was interrupted by the rag wrapped around his right calf, and the blood soaking through it. He saw me looking, and laughed.

This is exactly why I'd told Mom I wanted a car when I went to college.

"Wassamatter, little girl," he said, his raspy voice crawling out of some nightmare. "It's broken. Never seen anyone get hit by a car before?"

I wanted to run. I remembered laughing at horror movie heroines who were frozen in place; the memories were bitter while my legs refused to move. "Shouldn't you get to a hospital? Take a car? Ambulance?"

The man spat. "Cars. They's what got me here. I knew they were gonna get me. I leaped out before the wreck. They want blood. They felt cheated, yeah. I know about them!" I felt the ripples of his cackle up and down my spine. "Now they're hunting me." He gestured to his leg again. "Clipped me crossing the street. Trying to slow me down, they are."

I opened my mouth to say something, but the old Ford swerved out of traffic and towards the bus stop. I leaped back, feeling a fender bang against my heel. The car smashed its way through the bench, flinging man and briefcase into the air, onto the hood.

I would later learn the driver had a heart attack. A freak coincidence. Still, I knew I was supposed to be on the bench. I had cheated the cars. My mother didn't understand why I turned down the car she later got me for my birthday, why I am skittish under the beams of their headlights.

But I saw. I saw the man, lying on the Ford's hood. I saw his blood running in rivulets down into the car.

None dripped onto the sidewalk.

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Punishing the Conductor

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Trains(PDF, TRIGGER ALERT) is an chapter in Nathan McCall's autobiography. It is a chapter about a brutal rite of passage. Trains is an unflinchingly honest account about a gang rape.

This is one of the harder passages I've had to write about, largely because I have a hard time getting past my initial impulse to grab a sharp broadsword and start swinging. The gang rape isn't senseless - and that almost adds to the horror of the thing. Through a brutal twisting of intimacy, it's about reinforcing power, about cementing complicity, and, as the author points out, self-hatred.

And that's why I haven't just wanted a broadsword.

The narrator is clearly unhappy about his prior experience, about his complicity in a heinous act. He is no longer the boy he was at thirteen, no longer on the lifepath his compatriots were likely to find themselves on.

Instead, he is an educated individual, able to reflect and bring understanding to this act that, from his account, is not isolated.

When you hear that over a fifth of women to a third are sexually assaulted by the time they reach college, this isn't what you're envisioning.

And it's not what the author would do now. He is a different person.

So whom do we lash out at?

A co-worker told me of a doctor who was suspected of killing his wife, but released due to a lack of evidence. Twenty years pass, during which he remarries and becomes a pillar of the community. He has children, and there is not the slightest problem with the law. Until someone re-opens the cold case of the first wife's death. There is new evidence - or the old evidence is re-examined, it doesn't matter which. Now they bring this doctor to trial, convict him, and send him to prison.

The man they convicted was not the man who committed the crime. Those who commit crimes of passion rarely repeat their crimes. He was, instead, a father, a loving husband, and a pillar of the community. By locking him away twenty years later, they did not help the community, they harmed it.

Likewise, with this essayist, it is pointless to agonize over the guilt of the author, or to wish revenge upon him. Instead, we must learn what we can from the violence they perpetrated, and do whatever it takes to stop the machismo desire to gain status through the destruction of others.

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