Some #WorldCancerDay links

Posted by Sappho on February 4th, 2016 filed in Health and Medicine, HPV vaccine

The first of several ?#?WorldCancerDay? links off Twitter is from the CDC, on the Global Challenge of Cancer

CDC’s Office of International Cancer Control (OICC) is involved in many activities around the world to prevent and control cancer. One important project is to work with the International Agency for Research on Cancer and other organizations to develop regional hubs in low- and middle-income countries to provide localized support, training, and research opportunities to the countries in the region; evaluate and improve existing cancer registries; monitor data quality and disseminate data; and establish cancer registries where none existed. The most recent hub is in the Caribbean region, where cancer is the second leading cause of death….

Next, a statement by the Secretary General of the UN about ?#?WorldCancerDay? singles out cervical cancer as an example of the importance of prevention:

Cancer affects all countries, but those with fewer resources are hit hardest. Nothing illustrates this better than the burden of cervical cancer. The world’s poorest countries are home to more than 8 in 10 women newly diagnosed with cervical cancer, and 9 in 10 deaths from the disease.

While applauding the success of cervical cancer screening in many high-income countries, we have a responsibility to replicate this progress in low-income States, where cervical cancer remains one of the most common cancers among women.

Today, we have the knowledge, experience and tools to protect every woman, everywhere. Comprehensive cervical cancer prevention includes vaccines to protect girls against future infection with the human papilloma virus (HPV), screening measures and preventive treatment of pre-cancers….

Finally, a ?#?WorldCancerDay? link on the ?#?CancerMoonshot? initiative headed by Vice President Joe Biden describes what that initiative means for cancer research.

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Round up: Computer security, genetics of lithium response, etc.

Posted by Sappho on February 3rd, 2016 filed in Blogwatch, Computers, DNA, Science

Bruce Schneier on Security vs. Surveillance.

Krebs says Good Riddance to Oracle’s Java Plugin.

Good news: Oracle says the next major version of its Java software will no longer plug directly into the user’s Web browser. This long overdue step should cut down dramatically on the number of computers infected with malicious software via opportunistic, so-called “drive-by” download attacks that exploit outdated Java plugins across countless browsers and multiple operating systems….

How the O.C. Sheriff’s department used Twitter, Periscope, and other social media to recapture the escaped convicts who were, for a while, loose in my next of the woods.

Laser Kittens: An RPG about tiny kittens growing up.

Genome Wide Study Yields Markers of Lithium Response.

A neat interactive graphic of human migration out of Africa and beyond.

Evidently, Conspira Sea, a cruise for people who want to learn about conspiracies on a luxury cruise ship, is a thing. On Violent Metaphors, Colin is blogging his experiences as a crowd-funded skeptic traveling on the cruise: Day 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

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What doesn’t belong on LinkedIn

Posted by Sappho on February 1st, 2016 filed in Computers, News and Commentary

Social networks are social, even boring old professional LinkedIn. Amid the profiles that are basically extended resumes and the discussion groups about things like Risk Management, people share odd tidbits. While most of my status messages are links to articles about computer technology, the one that got the most likes is a humorous picture of “When engineers go camping,” showing where someone set up a system where new logs will roll onto a fire as old logs burn up. Today, one of my connections shared a video of a trombone quartet playing “Carry on, my wayward son,” while another commented on a business associate’s status message that was actually a link to a book review about a book on the Jewish medieval scholar Rashi. Cool. Even if LinkedIn is mostly for business, I don’t mind seeing that my business associates also enjoy trombone music and not entirely business related books.

But, please, guys, set a limit here. This morning I logged into LinkedIn to find a post about a guy named Kyle Tyrrell. Kyle Tyrrell is an Iraqi war vet in Australia who was arrested for allegedly beating someone up. Tyrrell, in turn, alleges that he was just defending his wife, that one guy punched his wife in the face because of something the wife said about fishing pots, and eight other guys jumped Tyrrell when Tyrrell came to his wife’s defense.

I hold no opinion one way or the other about whether Tyrrell should be charged with assault, because I wasn’t there, and don’t know the facts or who is telling the truth about how the fight started. If he attacked someone who wasn’t already physically attacking him or his family, he should be charged. If some other guy threw the first punch at Tyrrell’s wife, that guy should be charged. Depending on who did what, and what the relevant Australian laws may be, maybe multiple people should be charged with different things. Given that I’m not in Australia, and given that I gather that Australia has a generally functional legal system, I don’t think I need to form an opinion one way or the other on the guy’s innocence or guilt.

I do know, though, that when I read a photo meme that includes the words

This is Kyle Tyrrell, an Australian Veteran of Iraq. In January this year Kyle beat the living shit out of 8 Muslims single handedly – after the Muslims attacked his wife calling her a “wife slut” and a “white whore”. Like and share if Kyle should not be charged for defending his family.

and the guy sharing the photo adds “HE SHOULD HAVE KILLED THEM”, I am not seeing simply a comment about a legal case where the correct outcome might in fact be to find that Tyrrell acted in self-defense. I’m seeing a suggestion that “8 Muslims” deserved to be killed because of course they were the aggressors, and of course whatever the heck they did to Tyrrell’s wife deserves the death penalty, because what can you expect of Muslims?

This does not belong in a professional environment. This does not belong on LinkedIn. Screw this. I have to see this kind of crap everywhere else on the net, but if people can’t control their bigotry on Twitter, can they please at least keep it off the one big social media site that’s supposed to be about making professional connections? Pretty please?

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You can’t run and you can’t hide: reflections on a tale of digital harassment

Posted by Sappho on January 27th, 2016 filed in Computers

Bruce Schneier shares a link to a truly horrible story of digital harassment, about a suburban family who have endured years of harassment, from bomb threats in their names, to hacking of their accounts, to police being sent to their house for fake hostage calls, to the loss of a job when LinkedIn and Twitter accounts are hijacked for racist and anti-Semitic rants. As Schneier says,

We need to figure out how to identify perpetrators like this without destroying Internet privacy in the process.

What I mean to comment on, though, comes near the end of the article:

I ask the Straters what advice they would give to other families, given all they’ve been through in the last few years.

“Don’t use Twitter, don’t use LinkedIn, don’t use Facebook,” Amy says. “Stay away from social media as best you can.”

“Stay under the radar,” Paul adds.

At this, Blair looks up from his Surface.

“No one’s going to do that,” he says. “That’s the wrong message.”

Blair has a point. In 2015, leaving the grid isn’t really an option. Our jobs, relationships, and movements require us to be connected through these networked systems.

Blair has a point, yes. But it goes beyond the fact that people won’t give up their networked lives just because someone might hack them. And it’s not just that, if I want to get a job again, using LinkedIn is a requirement. It’s also that, even if you currently have a job and think you can do without the LinkedIn account, if you really don’t need Facebook and Twitter to keep in touch with your friends, you can’t escape digital harassment by opting out of social media. In a world where being on social media is the norm, people will be expecting you there. They’ll Google you to learn more about you. And, if people can’t harass you by hacking your LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter (because you don’t have them), they can even more easily harass you by creating social media accounts in your name and using them to do whatever reputation damage they can.

I’m the only Lynn Gazis (or Lynn Gazis-Sax) in the world. Any mud that gets flung at me on Google has no place else to stick, and staying under the radar isn’t really an option.

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Declutterers, Inc published on Smashwords

Posted by Sappho on January 27th, 2016 filed in Fiction

I am now a self-published Smashwords author, with one story published and a plan to follow with more. (Yes, I’m still looking to replace my day job as an SQA engineer, and have had several interviews, by phone or in person, but it doesn’t hurt to use my break time between job search activity to publish my short stories.)

Here is my Smashwords author profile.

Here is my first published short story, Declutterers, Inc, a tale of woe about what it’s like to have your house decluttered by the wrong people. It got accepted to the Smashwords Premium catalog, so, in addition to being available at Smashwords, for the price of $0.99, it’s also been distributed by them to other ebook retailers. And here’s the Smashwords FAQ.

Some of the stories that I publish at Smashwords may be ones that I already posted, for free, in the archives of this blog, or that my friends and family have access to for free as Facebook notes. Others, over time, will be ones that I haven’t already posted (though family will, of course, always be able to ask for free copies if they want). If I’ve already put a free version of a story out there, I’m not going to go and unpublish it, and you’re certainly welcome to read the free version instead of buying it. Or you can buy it so that you have your own ebook version if this blog ever goes away. (Or you can, of course, not buy it because you aren’t interested in reading it.) All I ask is that, if you do buy a version, you respect my copyright by not redistributing it for free, and if you do read a story on my blog, you respect my copyright by not grabbing it without permission for a splog.

Anyway, that said, whether you want to buy the short story or not, if you follow the link to Declutterers, Inc you can see my self-drawn cover.

As I put more short stories up, I’ll announce them on this blog.

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Keith Gatling makes a good point about cancer and conspiracies

Posted by Sappho on January 19th, 2016 filed in Blogwatch

And here it is:

I was in a conversation with a some friends last week who claimed that the reason we don’t have a cure for cancer is because it would work against the interests of the medical and pharmaceutical industries to come up with one. They said that if they make so much money treating people for it, why would they want to cure it, and kill the goose that laid the golden egg?

I didn’t have an immediate answer for them then. It’s hard to come up with good answers for conspiracy theorists, but I do now, and it’s one word.


The medical profession did a full court press to prevent and eradicate polio back in the 50s and 60s, when they obviously could’ve salivated over the prospect of selling more braces and iron lungs….

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Announcing the Thessaloniki Yizkor Book Translation Fund

Posted by Sappho on January 15th, 2016 filed in Genealogy, History

The JewishGen office has set up a translation fund to translate the Yizkor book Zikhron Saloniki, about the Jewish community in Thessaloniki (also known as Salonika), Greece. Once there is at least $500 in the fund we (I’m the project leader for this translation project) can set up a contract with a professional translator and work can begin.

Approximately 110 pages have already been translated by volunteers and can be found here, but, with more than a thousand pages to go, volunteer translation will not be enough to translate this book.

Yizkor books are unique sources of information on once vibrant towns, primarily in Central and Eastern Europe whose Jewish populations were destroyed in the Holocaust Written during or after World War II by émigrés and Holocaust survivors, yizkor books contain narratives of the history of the town, details of daily life, religious and political figures and movements, religious and secular education.

Thessaloniki is the second largest city in Greece and Greece’s second largest port. Sephardic Jews were welcomed to this city by the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Spain in 1492, and for centuries Thessaloniki was a prominent commercial center and industrial center in which Jews were represented at all levels of society.

The Germans entered Salonika on April 9, 1941 and instituted forced labor in the summer of 1942. In December 1942, the cemetery, containing nearly 500,000 graves dating back to the 15th Century, was expropriated for use as a quarry. Every few days, the Germans deported 2800-person convoys of Jews to Auschwitz and Birkenau, where they were exterminated. In just a few months during 1943, 95% of the Jewish population was deported. The Germans sent a small number of Salonika’s Jews to Bergen Belsen, where some survived. Greek and Allied forces liberated Salonika in October 1944.

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A split in the Anglican Communion

Posted by Sappho on January 15th, 2016 filed in Anglican Communion News

After years of deep division following the ordination of the gay bishop in New Hampshire, I can’t say that this moment comes as a surprise, but it’s a sad one.

A majority of Anglican primates Jan. 14 asked that the Episcopal Church, for a period of three years, “no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.”

Here is the statement from the Primates.

The suspension is expressed as temporary, but it’s hard for me to see how this gets undone in three years, as the different national churches within the Anglican Communion have been taking their different positions out of deep conviction about what it means to be Christian.

Before the Jan. 14 vote, Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry told the primates gathering Jan. 11-15 in Canterbury, England, that the statement calling for the sanctions would be painful for many in the Episcopal Church to receive….

“Our commitment to be an inclusive church is not based on a social theory or capitulation to the ways of the culture, but on our belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all. While I understand that many disagree with us, our decision regarding marriage is based on the belief that the words of the Apostle Paul to the Galatians are true for the church today: All who have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female, for all are one in Christ….

The move on the part of the primates came in response to a decision by the Episcopal Church, this summer, to allow its clergy to perform same-sex marriages. And it’s my sense that this decision would have come even sooner, had the Episcopal Church not initially held onto hope that the Anglican Communion might be persuaded to be less opposed. But there was a limit to how long it could be delayed, as this is the actual conviction of the Episcopal Church, both clergy and laity.

Although it’s too early to predict what will happen three years from now, when the Episcopal Church could vote on its response to the suspension at its denomination-wide meeting, observers say it is unlikely that the U.S. church will reverse its position on same-sex marriage. This could prompt the Anglicans to continue the suspension or make it even harsher, not allowing the Episcopal Church to fill key positions on the global body.

At Patheos, a blogger who is formerly an Anglican priest and now a Catholic priest writes

The pressure on the Anglican Church to adhere to historic Christian teaching regarding marriage was undoubtedly led by the Africans. This means young, orthodox and majority church of the developing world has formally flexed its muscles. The Africans have stood up to the historic churches of the Northern, developed world. In global terms this is very, very important.

Another blogger at Patheos, Brandan Robertson, writes

Whenever I see large Christian bodies making statements like the one released from the Primates Gathering, I also wonder just how many LGBTQ+ people these leaders actually know….

If Christianity is anything, it’s incarnational. Our faith is rooted in the story of God becoming a human being and experiencing life among us, as one of us.

Meanwhile, Episcopalian bloggers continue to reflect on matters unconnected to the workings of the Anglican Communion.

Chris Yaw writes about Epiphany.

How often we go looking for things in easy places! As we bypass the places where they may actually be found.

Think of the stereotypical drunk looking for happiness in alcohol (classified as a depressant no less!). Or love in a pick-up joint. Or weight loss at the ice cream store (frozen yogurt is only 100 calories!).

The ‘fast, fun, and easy’ have deep hooks in us. God only knows how they convince us that this is where we’ll find our keys…

That’s why, for a few chilly weeks each year, Christians try to pay particular attention to epiphanies.

And Rev. Laurie Brock at Dirty Sexy Ministry writes about absence and space.

The loveliest space created is shaded with the patina of joyful sadness when a long-time member dies. Yes, we know they have gone to Glory, but for those steadfast, faithful members, the open space remaining after death is palpable. We miss those we bury. And while the grief transforms over time, the light will fall in a particular way in the church or a hymn will stir some deeply held memory and we feel the space anew.

Even long after we have sung Alleluia Alleluia Alleluia at the grave, we clergy may find ourselves glancing to their usual place in the pew as we preach, hoping maybe, just one last time, to see the face of a dearly beloved member looking back at us. Instead we see the space left. We even feel the space left, particularly if the departed congregant was a gentle and powerful spiritual presence at worship.


We’ve come a long way since Flakey the robot, and other links

Posted by Sappho on January 10th, 2016 filed in Computers, Science

We’ve come a long way since Flakey, SRI’s early mobile robot, which used to patrol the halls at SRI International, announcing that it had correctly detected obstacles, walls, and doors, and occasionally singing “Daisy.” The other day, SRI International and Yamaha Motor announced their collaboration on MOTOBOT, the first autonomous motorcycle-riding humanoid robot

I generally don’t get involved in the GMO debate, but this is one genetically modified food that, if it pans out, could be a boon: This new climate-friendly rice has been named one of 2015’s top scientific developments.

The genetically modified SUSIBA2 rice gives off virtually no greenhouse gas emissions while growing, and has been developed by a team of scientists spread across three continents.

Key to the new growing process is the elimination of methane production: it’s one of the biggest contributors to the greenhouse gas effect, and 7 to 17 percent of total methane emissions are estimated to come from the rice paddies of the world. If that percentage can be significantly reduced, the impact could be huge – methane is around 20 times more effective at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Another interesting line of climate change research: New material converts CO2 into clean fuel with unprecedented efficiency.

Developed by a team of researchers in China, the material could be one way to deal with the 36 gigatonnes of CO2 we release into the atmosphere each year due to fossil fuel use. Scientists have been struggling for decades to come up with an energy-efficient way to transform CO2 into something useful, and early testing points to this new material as being one of the most promising options we’ve seen so far.

Note the words “early testing,” though. We need this kind of research, but we also need to remember that we don’t yet have a ready for prime time carbon negative technical solution to the carbon emissions problem. We do still need to use all available solutions to reduce our carbon emissions.

Another on the list of things that are not ready for prime time yet, but would be really cool if they stand up to further investigation is the sperm switch contraceptive, which would be sort of like a vasectomy that a man could turn on and off. But, beyond the biggest caveat that this is nowhere near tested enough to be FDA approved yet, there is another caveat to bear in mind:

Another thing to keep in mind is that the SLV is implanted in its open state. Once the valve is closed, there will still be sperm cells present in ejaculatory fluids for up to three months, or about 30 ejaculations. So it’s recommended that men who get an SLV undergo a sperm analysis with a urologist before they let loose and assume they’re good to go.

CRISPR’s Most Exciting Uses Have Nothing to Do With Gene-Editing.

… CRISPR has become almost synonymous with the editing of genes. But gene-editing might not be its most promising use.

The technique relies on two components: an enzyme called Cas9 that cuts DNA like a pair of scissors, and a guide molecule that directs Cas9 to a specific target like a genetic GPS system. Qi, now at Stanford University, found a way of blunting the scissors, creating a “dead” version of Cas9 that can’t cut anything at all.

This seems perverse, but it’s actually quite brilliant. The dead enzyme can now act as a platform for other molecules, including activator molecules that switch genes on, repressors that turn them off, or glowing substances that reveal their locations. And with the right guide molecules, scientists can now direct these payloads to any gene they like.

Now, instead of a precise and versatile set of scissors, which can cut any gene you want, you have a precise and versatile delivery system, which can control any gene you want….

Match Your Motivational Tactic to the Situation.

Behavioral scientists have been researching the different ways people motivate themselves and others for decades. Their experiments have shown, for instance, that people work harder when they get feedback, set ambitious goals, and are given incentivizes.

But after recently conducting a review of more than 150 scientific articles on motivation, we found that each of these motivational tools can also unexpectedly backfire. For example, positive feedback can lead recipients to relax their effort, overly ambitious goals can cause employees to give up, and incentives can undermine intrinsic interest.

(Read the article for more on how to figure out when a given motivational technique is likely to work, and when it may backfire.)

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A word about the insurance industry and climate change, speaking only for myself

Posted by Sappho on January 7th, 2016 filed in Daily Life, Environment

As my Facebook friends will already know, CoreLogic did a reorganization that eliminated a number of jobs, including mine. My last day of work was on Monday. I might blog more about my job search later, but if you really want to know my skill set and what I am looking for, you can check out my LinkedIn profile. In the meantime, I’ll take this opportunity to say things I was avoiding saying while I was still working for CoreLogic. No, I don’t mean saying bad things about CoreLogic. It’s more that, though I have a standard disclaimer, people may not bother to read it before they read a post, and I don’t want to have to attach “I don’t speak for my company” disclaimers to every post, so I tend to avoid posting about things close enough to my work life that they might need that disclaimer.

In this case, the topic is climate change and the insurance industry. Climate change is an issue that combines matters of scientific fact (yes, the climate is changing, and yes, carbon emissions produced by human beings are driving some significant climate changes that yes, will have an adverse effect on many people) with matters that are inherently political (just what should or shouldn’t we be doing about anthropogenic climate change?). I have my own views on this topic, as someone who is not any kind of climate expert (my involvement in the catastrophe modeling business was software quality assurance, not building models) and who doesn’t speak for any corporation.

But some of these views are shaped by the job I have held, for the past thirteen years. Because catastrophe modeling is a product supplied to the insurance industry, even though my own job was SQA, I did wind up following articles in publications for the insurance industry. And so I know that the story of our reaction to climate change isn’t simply a story of progressive lining up on the side of the good guys who recognize that climate change is a problem, and Big Business lining up on the side of the bad guys who want to heat up our planet and never mind the cost. It’s more complicated than that. Different progressives have different degrees of realism about the issue (and some may be blocking solutions that we actually need). And different businesses have different incentives. And one set of businesses that have demonstrated an interest in climate change is the insurance industry.

The insurance industry is concerned with risk management, and, as a result, also with what factors exacerbate or mitigate a risk. If you’re the sort of person who is wary of Big Business (and Big Business, like big anything, has its hazards), when you think of what insurance companies do about risks, you may picture the times they show up in the bad guy role. Boo, preexisting conditions! Yay, Obamacare! Likewise, when it comes to property insurance, you may think of all the ways an insurance company may find to deny claims, which maybe you might want them to approve. But there’s another side to insurance companies’ interest in risk management, and that is the fact that, having an economic incentive to reduce their risk of loss, they have an economic incentive to bring things to your attention, ahead of the fact, that may reduce your risk of loss. And to give you a financial incentive to follow best practices in reducing those risks.

So it is that, in the case of climate change, you can get a lot of good information from insurance company web sites. Take, for example, Munich Re’s climate change web page. Seriously, go take a look at it. It’s worth a read.

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Ooops! Intuition and CopThink

Posted by WiredSisters on January 5th, 2016 filed in History, Law, Memory, Moral Philosophy, Race

Back to this morning’s NPR broadcast.  A different program covered the value and usefulness of intuition.  I believe in intuition.  I wish I had followed mine more often.  These days we see intuition as kind of the sum total of the information normally buried in the subconscious mind, and fortunately made available to us in a pinch.  Good stuff, that unconscious information.  We get it, and take it in, without evaluating it first, and retrieve it later, also without evaluating it first.  That’s the problem.  That unconscious information is no worse, and no better, than the other info we have acquired by consciously and intentionally learning it.  It’s just different, and more.

Which means that it may be filtered through the same assumptions and prejudices as all the rest of the furnishings of our brains.  Those assumptions and prejudices are usually laid down before we are old enough to evaluate them at all.  Even if we backtrack later and try to clean them up, we probably don’t succeed completely.  For instance, I may automatically assume that anybody taller than I am has the right to tell me what to do.  Because, like all the rest of us, I was born smaller than most of the people around me, and those people took it upon themselves to tell me what to do.  As a result, social scientists tell us that, controlling for all other factors, tall people are more successful at almost anything than shorter people.  Arguably, despite what would have been catastrophically low polling numbers if there had been polling numbers at the time, Abraham Lincoln got elected president and did a historically great job at it.  Aside from being smart and efficient and humble, he was taller than just about anybody else he met.  Similarly, basketball star Michael Jordan could easily have gotten elected president if he had been old enough and ambitious enough to run after his great winning streak.  Would he have done as good a job as Lincoln?  Probably not, but who knows?  Some very short people (like Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor) are very smart.  Fortunately Bill Clinton, aside from being very tall, was smart enough to appoint Reich.  Reich himself could probably never have been elected to any office.

What we learn from this is to double-check our intuitions.  Some tall people are very stupid.  Some short people are very smart.  Mark Twain’s famous dictum applies as well to unconscious knowledge as to the conscious varieties–it isn’t what we don’t know that hurts us, it’s what we know that ain’t so.

Which brings us to copthink.  Police officers (like soldiers, firefighters, and surgeons) are often required to make crucial decisions very quickly and with very little conscious information to base them on.  So they have to rely on whatever other kind of information is available at the time.  A lot of that information is the unconscious kind that we call intuition.

Surgeons acquire much of that unconscious information by spending years and years in school and in training.  Soldiers, firefighters, and police officers, not so much.  (Part of the problem is that–unlike surgeons–soldiers, firefighters, and police officers have to use whole-body physical strength and reflexes on the job, along with knowledge, intuition, and habit.  That strength and those reflexes tend to deteriorate with age.  The more time one spends in school and training learning what to do, the less effective one may be at using those skills.)

In these United States, along with the instinct to defer to tall people, most of us learn, before we can read, to be fearful and suspicious of people whose skin is darker than our own.

For the ordinary civilian on the street, the results of this tendency may be discourteous or even immoral. In a police officer, they can be lethal.  Cop sees a Black man running after a White woman.  He presumes an attempt at rape or robbery, by the former of the latter.  To protect the apparent victim, he shoots the apparent criminal.  How could he have guessed that the woman has picked the man’s pocket, and he is merely trying to get his wallet back?


Cop sees a Black youth apparently pointing an apparent gun at the general public. He presumes a possible mass shooting, and forestalls it by shooting the youth.  The “youth” is a 12-year-old and the “gun” is a toy.


Cops call them hunches.  Often they involve a vague sense that something doesn’t look right, something or someone doesn’t belong here. “What’s wrong with this picture?”  A good place to begin checking out the situation.  Not a good place to reach a possibly lethal conclusion.

Now that we know this about cops, we also know it about our unarmed civilian selves.  We know it about our children, in whom these prejudices and assumptions may be more loosely implanted and more easily uprooted.

Perhaps the most important job any school or training program can do is teach us to see our assumptions, and to check them out, before acting on them.  That’s a hard job, because parents and teachers and trainers have the same prejudices themselves.  Psychologist William James says we have to rely on habits and assumptions most of the time, or we would never get anything done.  Maybe he was wrong, or maybe some of the stuff we would never get done never should get done.  At the very least, we need to re-evaluate the way we train our first (and most rapid) responders.

Jane Grey

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Who Ya Gonna Call?

Posted by WiredSisters on January 5th, 2016 filed in Law, Race, Uncategorized

In the spirit of Talmudic copyright, I want to give credit here to our local NPR station, on which I just heard a couple of really useful pieces (Talmudic copyright: “The one who teaches something in the name of the person from whom he learned it hastens the redemption of the world.”) The first, and I hope y’all will spread this to everybody you know, is what to do when a friend or family member with mental health issues starts acting scary. If we have learned anything in the last couple of years, it is that YOU DON’T CALL THE POLICE.

The Illinois Mental Health and Developmental Disability Act (like parallel statutes in other states) says that it is totally appropriate to call them, and that the police are supposed to take the person to a hospital for evaluation, but in fact this is a really bad idea. It is very likely to result in somebody getting shot, maybe even killed. As the police are reported to have told one family member in such a situation, upon being asked to take the person to a hospital for evaluation, “We’re the police. We don’t do hospitals. We do jails.” [They then took the person to jail, where he was tasered repeatedly and died from probably related medical causes.]

This is especially true if these events are happening in a lower-class or non-white neighborhood. So what do you do? Some people suggest calling one’s pastor or other clergyperson. Unless that person has mental health training, that won’t help much either. The only helpful thing your pastor can do, probably, is tell you who else to call.

YOU CALL 911. But you DON’T ASK FOR THE POLICE. YOU ASK FOR AN AMBULANCE AND PARAMEDICS. And then you tell the dispatcher the other useful information in the case—the person has a history of mental illness and hospitalization, is off his/her meds, etc. The paramedics do do hospitals. If nobody ever pays attention to anything else your humble writer says, this blog will have earned its bandwidth if somebody reads this and behaves accordingly. Tell your friends. Tell your neighbors. You may save a life.

Jane Grey

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Ragnarok and Troll Hunter

Posted by Sappho on January 5th, 2016 filed in Movies, Speculative Fiction and Other Geekiness

Joel and I have been enjoying Norwegian fantasy and horror films (Norway’s movie specialty). In the past week, Joel introduced me to two of them.


One sentence summary: An archaeologist thinks he has discovered the historical basis for the Ragnarok legend, but will he suffer the same fate as the Vikings he studies?

Bechdel test: This movie passes, for conversations between the leading man’s female colleague and his daughter, about her dead mother.

Other stuff: This movie does a good job of making the leading man’s female colleague realistically badass. You know how sometimes, in the course of avoiding creating the kind of helpless woman who can be easily immobilized by taking hold of the standard female grab area, some movies instead create the kind of improbably strong woman who handily dispatches trained fighters far bigger than her? Here, instead, we have an athletic woman who can climb better than her male colleagues (who have other skills). Much more plausible.

Also, the archaeologist has an interesting approach to rescuing his children.

Troll Hunter:

One sentence summary: In this found footage movie (think The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, or Incident at Loch Ness), students film a man who hunts trolls for the Norwegian government.

Bechdel test: There were three named women in the course of the movie. I honestly can’t remember whether they talked directly to each other, because the scenes that included the whole group often had everyone talking. But I think it passed. Certainly the whole cast was more concerned about the troll than about their romantic lives.

Other stuff: Lots of fun with the contrast between the fierce combat skills the troll hunter requires and the bureaucratic requirements he has to fulfill for the government. And also with the fact that, in this movie, trolls hate Christians. (At one point, a Muslim character is introduced, and the question comes up, will the trolls react the same toward Muslims as they do toward Christians?)

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Hello 2016!

Posted by Sappho on January 1st, 2016 filed in Blogwatch

Here is a New Year’s song for you: “Kalanta of the New Year (Greek Folk Song).”

As it’s time for the traditional reflection on the past year, I’ll round up a few of the year’s stories that I found interesting. Let’s skip the Trump phenomenon; lots of other people can reflect on what the heck his polling success means. For today, I’m more interested in stories that have some sort of science or technology angle.

Last week’s Ebola situation report had Guinea and Sierra Leone Ebola free, with Liberia expected to be declared Ebola free on January 14. As Ebola persists in some bodily fluids past the normal contagion period, and can be a sexually transmitted disease for longer than it is a casually transmitted one, a period of 90 days of heightened surveillance follows each Ebola free declaration (reached after a country passes two normal incubation cycles after the last known case).

But what are some of the stories about how the tide turned, in the fight against Ebola? One is the story of the search for an Ebola vaccine, resulting in the report, in July, that the world is on the verge of an effective Ebola vaccine. I did one of my Toastmasters speeches on this topic; here you can find a practice version of that speech (though you don’t get the PowerPoint).

Other struggles in the fight against Ebola were organizational. How do you fight Ebola in a country where health care workers aren’t always reliably paid? Here’s a story about how open source software developers helped end the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, by designing a reliable system to distribute wages to health care workers.

The turning of the tide in the Ebola epidemic wasn’t the only success story in Africa in 2015. Mozambique became mine free, thanks to the work of HeroRATs, rats that have been trained to sniff out mines.

23andMe has been posting a nice round up of the year’s story in genetics. For example, their final post was a link to this New York Times story about the discovery of Homo naledi, a new species in the human lineage, in a South African cave.

An experiment asks, do dogs know that other dogs are dogs?

And, a couple of reflections on science from 2015:

Jennifer Raff, on Why there still are monkeys: lessons learned from teaching evolution in Kansas.

And Emma Pierson, on cancer and the value of fighting for a future that you will never see.

To borrow a phrase from a John McCutcheon song,

I guess he knew that he’d never see
The red fruit hanging from the tree
But he planted the seeds for his children and me

(For my father, dead of multiple myeloma, but not forgotten.)

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If You Don’t Have the Perfect Case of Police Violence for Your Argument, Just Wait a Week

Posted by WiredSisters on December 30th, 2015 filed in Law, Moral Philosophy, Race, Uncategorized

As a lawyer, accustomed to cautioning my clients to behave themselves at least when the other side’s eyes are on them, I’m wondering where the lawyers who represent and advise America’s police forces have been spending their time this year. Every time a grand jury fails to indict a cop for killing a civilian, or a cop gets acquitted at trial for killing a civilian, some other cop in another city kills another civilian in the same week. It follows as the night the day. If, as a reasonable lawyer would expect, most police forces are at least trying to be on their best behavior just now, this is really scary. It means this is their best behavior.

Living in Chicago just makes it worse. Last week’s killing of Quintonio LeGrier now strikes me, suspicious lawyer that I am, as a whole new phenomenon we will undoubtedly see again: Homicide by Cop. Grier and his father had been on the outs virtually all of the younger man’s life. The father had been accused of sexually abusing his son, and the accusation was ultimately “unfounded.” It was his father who made the 911 call that resulted in the son’s death. So far, the only source for the allegation that Quintonio had mental problems and was threatening people with a bat is also—surprise!—his father. I am not the only person to wonder about this—his foster mother has stated she doesn’t understand why the father called the police in the first place. Is it possible that Dear Old Dad expected his 911 call to result in his son’s death? Or at least reasonably hoped it would? Based on the now-well-publicized past performance of the Chicago Police Department, that might be a reasonable expectation. And it is Dear Old Dad who has filed for damages in a wrongful death suit against the Chicago Police Department. Will the 911 call disqualify him from collecting (under the legal principle that the person who caused a death should not be allowed to profit from it)? If I were the city’s defense lawyer in the lawsuit, I would at least consider raising that issue.

Anyway, all of this has happened in the same week that the cops who killed Tamir Rice were acquitted at trial. Now his death is being characterized as a tragic mishap resulting from the 911 dispatcher’s failure to communicate to the responding officer that the citizen who made the original 911 call said the gun was “probably a toy” and the person brandishing it “might” have been a child. (Are any heads going to roll for this miscommunication? Watch this space.) Earlier reports on the incident blamed it on the fact that 12-year-old Tamir was “big for his age.” Does that mean fat? Are tubby kids of color now at risk for even worse fates than Type 2 Diabetes?

None of this is new for me. I have lived in Chicago since 1965, and have known since roughly the first month we lived here that the culture of the Chicago Police Force (despite some stellar exceptions including a few of my friends and students) is corrupt, violent, and prone to bullying. What is interesting about the recent revelations is not that the incidents involved happened, but that somebody important has finally noticed them. As with any major social problem, this is going to appear to get worse, from improved reporting, before it gets any better from improvements in police culture and behavior.

Red Emma

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On dating apps, the Hyatt breach, and the benefits of 3D video games

Posted by Sappho on December 27th, 2015 filed in Uncategorized

A quick round up:

Krebs on Security, on the Malware-Driven Card Breach at Hyatt Hotels.

Hyatt joins a crowded list of other hotel chains similarly breached in the past year, including Hilton, Starwood, Mandarin Oriental, White Lodging and the Trump Collection.

Playing 3D video games can boost your memory, study finds.

… To test the effects of games on memory formation, researchers from the University of California, Irvine (UCI) recruited non-gamer college students to play video games for 30 minutes per day over two weeks. (We have to say, as far as research participation goes, this is one of the sweetest gigs we’ve heard about.)

The students were asked to play one of two games: Super Mario 3D World, which features an intricate 3D game world, or Angry Birds, set in a comparatively passive and simple 2D environment.

Before and after the game-playing sessions, the students performed object-recognition memory tests designed to engage the brain’s hippocampus, which is associated with complex learning and memory….

Daniel Faigin passes on a link on the benefits of diversity in designing dating apps.

Dating is similar to porn, in that what women want and need in the experience is often drastically different than men, and yet it is mostly a male-centric industry that is producing the product. This results in an inherent bias in the product towards the male point of view. Nowhere is it clearer than this dating app: whereas men want to see the widest variety of women, the women only care about those men who are somewhat local, who are congruent on interests, and who have a mutual interest in them. In fact, it restricts the profiles that you can see to those where there is a mutual match of criteria. This is a clear example of what a different perspective can bring, and why that perspective is so important.

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An Ebola update

Posted by Sappho on December 23rd, 2015 filed in Health and Medicine

I quote from the Summary section of the WHO Ebola Situation Report for December 23, 2015:

No confirmed cases of Ebola virus disease (EVD) were reported in the week to 20 December. All contacts associated with the cluster of 3 confirmed cases of EVD reported from Liberia in the week to 22 November have now completed 21-day follow-up. The first-reported case in the cluster, a 15-year-old boy, died on 23 November. Two subsequent cases, the boy’s father and younger brother, tested negative twice for Ebola virus on 3 December and were discharged.

Human-to-human transmission linked to the recent cluster of cases in Liberia will be declared to have ended on 14 January 2016, 42 days after the 2 most-recent cases received a second consecutive negative test for Ebola virus, if no further cases are reported. Human-to-human transmission linked to the primary outbreak in Guinea will be declared to have ended on 29 December 2015, 42 days after the country’s most recent case, reported on 29 October, received a second consecutive negative test for Ebola virus. In Sierra Leone, human-to-human transmission linked to the primary outbreak was declared to have ended on 7 November 2015. The country has now entered a 90-day period of enhanced surveillance scheduled to conclude on 5 February 2016.

The recent cluster of cases in Liberia is now understood to have been a result of the re-emergence of Ebola virus that had persisted in a previously infected individual. Although the probability of such re-emergence events is low, the risk of further transmission following a re-emergence underscores the importance of implementing a comprehensive package of services for survivors that includes the testing of appropriate bodily fluids for the presence of Ebola virus RNA. The governments of Liberia and Sierra Leone, with support from partners including WHO and US CDC, have implemented voluntary semen screening and counselling programmes for male survivors in order to help affected individuals understand their risk and take necessary precautions to protect close contacts. 341 male survivors had accessed semen screening services up to 20 December in Liberia and Sierra Leone. A network of clinical services for survivors is also being expanded in Liberia and Sierra Leone, with plans for comprehensive national policies for the care of EVD survivors due to be completed in January 2016.

In order to effectively manage and respond to the consequences of residual Ebola risks, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have each put surveillance systems in place to enable health workers and members of the public to report any case of illness or death that they suspect may be related to EVD to the relevant authorities. In the week to 20 December, 1036 community deaths alerts were reported in Guinea from all of the country’s 34 prefectures. Over the same period 9 operational laboratories in Guinea tested a total of 537 new and repeat samples from 13 of the country’s 34 prefectures. In Liberia, 842 alerts were received from all 15 of the country’s counties. The country’s 5 operational laboratories tested 939 samples for EVD over the same period. In Sierra Leone, 1446 alerts were reported from all of the country’s 14 districts in the week ending 29 November (the most recent week for which data are available). 991 new samples were tested for EVD by the country’s 8 operational laboratories in the week ending 20 December.

The deployment of rapid-response teams following the detection of a new confirmed case continues to be a cornerstone of the national response strategy in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Each country has at least 1 national rapid-response team, with strengthening of national and subnational rapid-response capacity and validation of incident-response plans continuing through December and January.

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Books I am reading (Adam Smith and Neil Gaiman)

Posted by Sappho on December 21st, 2015 filed in Books

I was introduced to Neil Gaiman by Coraline, a dark children’s fantasy story in which an idealized Other Mother and Father prove to be far more sinister than the loving but sometimes distracted real mother and father. More recently, I just finished reading Trigger Warning, a collection of fantasy short stories, some dark and some not so dark. It offered an intriguing variety: An imaginary girl friend comes to life. A woman is afflicted with a form of madness peculiar to tourists in Jerusalem. A man seeks the murderer of his daughter. People are walled up and sacrificed to ancient gods. The years appear as soldiers, dodging something hidden behind the seconds. Fascinating stories. I loved it, and can’t wait to read my next Neil Gaiman book.

I’ve gotten less far in Adam Smith’s A Theory of Moral Sentiments; so far I am just a few chapters in. I got it because I had often seen it referenced in opposition to a certain reading of Wealth of Nations that is heavy on praise of selfishness.

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.

I read Wealth of Nations in high school, and I’d say that, even in Wealth of Nations, Smith is no Ayn Rand. And I don’t see the two books, so far, as in contradiction so much as complementary. Since I’ve occasionally seen them described as if Wealth of Nations were the book for conservatives and A Theory of Moral Sentiments the book for liberals, I’ll also say that I don’t see the difference in emphasis as one of left and right. Wealth of Nations emphasizes more the ways in which Smith’s “invisible hand” brings into alignment people trading in their own self-interest, and A Theory of Moral Sentiments the ways in which caring only about your own self-interest isn’t actually human nature. And each has a shrewd eye to how its subject can go astray. Just as in Wealth of Nations, Smith compliments his observations about the benefits of self-interested trade with a reminder that

People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices.

so, in A Theory of Moral Sentiments, he notes how our natural desire to empathize with others and to have others empathize with us can lead to shared grudges and resentments, as well as to mutual support.

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Today’s better than sliced chocolate link round up

Posted by Sappho on December 11th, 2015 filed in Blogwatch

My sister passed on to me this link: Speak Up & Stay Safe(r): A Guide to Protecting Yourself From Online Harassment.

About that sliced chocolate.

Hit-and-Run Driver Arrested Because Car Reported Accident.

A couple of links related to gun control from bloggers who identify as more libertarian than I do (I identify as civil libertarian, but not as broadly libertarian at least the way the term is usually seen in the US):
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Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

Posted by Sappho on December 8th, 2015 filed in News and Commentary

Donald Trump can’t think of any Muslim American sport heroes.

I had no idea he was that ignorant about sports.


Jim Henley on the Fermi Conundrum

Posted by Sappho on December 3rd, 2015 filed in Daily Life, News and Commentary

OK, yesterday was chilling. I went out for my usual lunchtime walk at work, and when I got to the bookstore, Facebook on my phone popped on (I had the 4G network off at work, which basically turns the smartphone into just a phone and camera), to a message from my sister’s former student in Kenya, “Are you OK? There was a mass shooting in Southern California.” I was OK – Southern California is large, and there was no mass shooting in Orange County – but Google quickly informed me that there was a mass shooting in San Bernardino, where my husband grew up, and my cousins live. I recalled driving the toll road and freeway to get to my mother-in-law’s house, which you get to after turning on a street named for the Spanish word for “rabbit,” about her old church (which happens to be the Catholic church where Paul Shanley got recycled after molesting kids, his past unknown to parishioners there and perhaps even to the Diocese of San Bernardino – I attended Mass there the Sunday after this news came out, and got to watch the unfortunate priest tasked with asking for donations to the Church on that day in particular). I thought of my cousin, on staff at a San Bernardino school (she was in lockdown for hours, but nowhere near the shooting, and got home safely).

And I can’t think of a lot to say about yesterday that hasn’t already been said over and over. So I’ll talk instead about the Fermi Conundrum. Jim Henley writers here about the Fermi Conundrum.

… The Conundrum, as we all know, runs, “Where is everybody?” That is, we should see evidence of intelligent life Out There or right here or, if you’re especially cynical, should have been wiped out by another civilization before we even evolved this far, just to be on the safe side. The answer, “Maybe there just aren’t any other intelligent civilizations,” almost has to count as the most probable answer to the conundrum at this point.

Days like yesterday raise the possibility that the answer to the Fermi Conundrum is, in fact, that intelligent civilizations all wind up killing themselves off before they reach the stars. But I’ve never been that pessimistic. Given that interstellar travel is pretty darn demanding, and takes a long time relative to at least our organic lifetime, I figure, “There are other intelligent civilizations, but, like the Neanderthals in the Neanderthal Parallax Trilogy, they care more about other stuff than they do about space travel” is a viable solution to the conundrum. This time, though, Jim Henley is not just making another post about the Fermi Conundrum, but rather one that’s aimed at

transhumanist types saying that “We’ll just send our robots” or “mind-uploading” or “frozen genetic material raised by AI nannies” or self-replicating Von Neumann machines etc.

And, actually, the Fermi Conundrum is even stronger if it’s directed at civilizations that aren’t confined to organic life.

But Fermi’s concern doesn’t apply just to organic life. In its bare formulation it covers any intelligent, technological civilization. And as the Agent Smiths (seriously, read these people and their distaste for the very smell of “meatbags” is visceral) in the Stross thread make clear, the Strong AI of Singularitarian dreams is the most compelling possibility we can come up with for overcoming the time-horizon problems involved with a civilization bothering to plan and managing to carry off sublight interstellar exploration and colonization. Which means we’re back in the realm of “Out of all the jillions of stars and billions of years it only takes one” – in this case, one biological species that achieves mind uploading or strong AI whose post-organic successor civilization bothers to migrate throughout the stars. Except that a real Strong AI civilization has a much better chance of pulling it off since it shouldn’t need to wrap a thick life-support bubble around itself.

Really, if we’re looking at organic civilizations, the time-horizon constraint offers plenty of room for civilizations to rise and die without ever seeing the distant stars, even if the “die” part of that cycle isn’t accomplished by said civilizations wrecking their planets or blowing themselves up. But with “the Strong AI of Singularitarian dreams,” why the heck aren’t aliens all over the galaxy by now? Their absence does rather suggest that no one out there has that kind of strong AI.

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