You see little sister don’t miss when she aims her gun

Posted by Sappho on August 19th, 2014 filed in Race

One of these days, I shall have to find, for my Stanford co-op friend Ruth, who shared her old Stanford photos with me, that old notebook, the one that’s still packed in the garage where Joel boxed everything when he had to get the house cleaned before I could come home, while I was being treated for cancer, and then I can share with her that review Andre Braugher wrote of that play, when he was nineteen, and falling in love with theater, and, when it disappointed him, really, really pissed off. I can share that, because I copied it from the Synergy house journal, when I went back for my 25th reunion. Or maybe I can tell her where to find it, since it’s now the year of her 30th reunion and she’s back in the San Francisco Bay Area. I can tell her which year of the Synergy journal to look in, and what pen name she used. It’s easy to find when you know where to look.

What I can’t share with her, since I never had them in my hands for more than a few days, are his angry poems. “In one ear and out the other,” he said, in disappointment, when I had trouble telling him which particular ones I liked or disliked, or even remembering the lines clearly, for I don’t have his gift for words. What I remembered then, and remember still, is simply an emotion: Anger.

But I’ve been thinking of those poems a lot, this past week, as Ferguson descends into chaos, and the Tweets come, about people teargassed, or a photographer arrested, or a strange photo of police advancing on a crowd with guns drawn. Most of all, I’ve been thinking of them as, with yet another unarmed black man dead, reported by multiple witnesses (not just his friend) to have had his hands up when he was shot, I find that, yet again, we get the same old far right attempt to paint him as a thug, by mining his social media presence for rap lyrics and photos where he looks “tough.”

I don’t know whether Michael Brown stole the rellos or whether he didn’t. There are grainy stills of a young man of about his build who looks as if he might be pushing his way out of the store after some petty theft. There are clips circulating showing a snippet of that surveillance video that suggests that Brown did, after all, pay for the rellos. There’s a video of the store’s lawyer, stating that the store never called the police about any theft, and surrendered the tape only after police requested it. I do know that, if he did steal $50 worth of rellos, being shot in the street when you have your hands up and are trying to surrender isn’t the right penalty for that act. So we get people like Matthew Vadum writing about rap lyrics and gang signs, trying to make him out to be a “thug” who liked performing “thug music.”

I have a nephew who’s just Michael Brown’s age. He’s tall and strong and black, and he’s headed for college and has a girl friend and wants to be a screenwriter. And don’t I know that, if he had been shot unarmed in the street, these people would be mining his social media for every “nigga” and “homie” and every sign that he might just possibly have been somewhere where pot was smoked, to paint him a thug?

But you don’t know my nephew. And you don’t know most of the others I’m picturing now in Michael Brown’s place, if they’d run into the wrong cop at the wrong time, and been suspected of one petty crime or another, and seemed, who knows why, to be making the wrong move. Not the guy who bent my ear at the coffee house at Stanford about how he meant to become a cop, or the one who worked swing shift as a computer operator while his wife worked days as an administrative assistant, or the one who eagerly volunteered for my professional association. And, if you’re the kind who thinks that anyone shot by a cop must have been a thug, you won’t believe it could happen to “one of the good ones,” as I, looking at the statistics showing that cops shoot unarmed black men way more often than they shoot unarmed white men, can’t believe that it only happens to young men suicidal enough to bum rush a man with a gun (can black men really be that much more likely than white men to stupidly charge men with guns, while they themselves are unarmed?).

So, let me give you someone to whom you can put a face. Here are some photos of him. He’s accomplished. He has a degree from Stanford, and he was acknowledged as the Most Outstanding Theater Student when he graduated from Juilliard, and he has been nominated for an Emmy eight times and won twice (maybe this year will make the third win. He has been married for twenty-three years to the same woman, and is said to be a good father to his sons. Is he enough “one of the good ones” for you?

Now picture him at nineteen, as I can remember him, a big, strong black man with a shaved head, over six feet tall. Here are some photos of him. Picture him young. Imagine that we had then, as we do now, cell phones and photos of ourselves everywhere. Those moments that I remember, and you don’t, because only a few of us had access to the Arpanet (precursor to the Internet) then, and we didn’t use it to share selfies, are instead broadcast everywhere. Those angry poems that I remember reading and that you’ll never see? They’re up on SoundCloud. And you can check Instagram and Twitter and find selfies of Andre, and photos snapped by his friends in all kinds of poses. Do you think, then, that you’d never be able to find a photo of him, striking a pose or playing a part, that looked tough? Never a word that you could use against him? I sure don’t.

None of us is that good. None of us could meet that standard. Even if we’ve never stolen a pack of rellos, even if, heck, we’re among those who never smoked pot in our teens (and I’m not, I didn’t steal but I surely toked), haven’t all of us struck a not so angelic pose or sung a set of not so angelic lyrics? I know I have. I’ve sung “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and I’ve sung “The Nights The Lights Went Out in Georgia,” in the role of that little sister who don’t miss when she aims her gun, and I’ve sung the part of the doomed prostitute going back to spend her life beneath the Rising Sun, and I’ve sung the role of Sam Hall, the unrepentant murderer about to be hanged, and I’ve acted the role of Lady MacBeth. And because I’m small, and female, and white, I can be sure that if I’d ever been shot in the street when I was young, no one would have dragged out my songs to make you think me a thug who deserved that shot.

But they would have for Andre, if he’d been the one shot. I’m sure of it.


Jaea Lee at Mother Jones on Exactly How Often Do Police Shoot Unarmed Black Men?

Campaigns for #MikeBrown #Ferguson

Jamelle Bouie at Slate on The Militarization of the Police

Radley Balko at the Washington Post on After Ferguson, how should police respond to protests?

Jelani Cobb at the New Yorker on A Movement Grows in Ferguson

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Ten years after Dad’s death

Posted by Sappho on August 17th, 2014 filed in Family

On August 8, 2004, Dad died of multiple myeloma, after living with it for seven years. A little over a week ago, I passed the ten year anniversary of Dad’s death.

It’s a time of anniversaries of deaths, as this year also makes the thirty year anniversary of the accidental deaths of my friend Joan and my college boy friend Brian. And the thirty year anniversary of the murder of Bibi Lee, whose death probably wouldn’t stick in my mind if it hadn’t come so close on the heels of Brian’s death, since I didn’t actually know her, but, since she was killed not long after Brian died, my memory of the aftermath of his death is tangled with a memory of friends at Stanford, who knew her friends at Berkeley, putting up posters in that doomed search for her.

I’ve been thinking of them all this summer, as the anniversary of Joan’s death passed in June, and the anniversary of Dad’s death passed just now. I remember Joan playing Dungeons and Dragons with her paladin; because she had trouble speaking due to cerebral palsy, her sister had made her cards with drawings of the various actions her character could take. And I remember her playing with her rabbit, and a moment when, arguing with her sister, she said a few words more clearly than she’d been able to in the past, and her sister stopped, mid-argument, to marvel at how well she had spoken. And I remember talking till dawn with Brian, and biking with him, and lying with him in a park in Palo Alto, and a phone conversation with him, shortly before he died, in which he talked to me about Elie Wiesel’s Night.

But this week, in particular, I have been remembering Dad. Last Sunday I arrived at the discussion we have before meeting for worship, to find that it was, as we do once every month or two, on an article from Western Friend, and this time it was from their issue On Pride. It struck me that talking about pride was fitting for a discussion two days after the anniversary of Dad’s death, because Dad was in some ways the embodiment of pride.

You know the song “C’est moi” from Camelot?

C’est moi! C’est moi, I’m forced to admit.
‘Tis I, I humbly reply.
That mortal who
These marvels can do,
C’est moi, c’est moi, ’tis I.

Whenever I hear that song, I think of Dad. Not that it was his favorite song; he preferred (and would sing) Che gelida manina. But he had a boastfulness to him, a charming and humorous boastfulness that you couldn’t help smiling along with, won that, I think, served him well in his career and with women.

“Is it a famous scientist?” he would ask us, when, in Botticelli, one of us was thinking of someone whose name began with “G.” And the right answer was always, “It’s not Denos Gazis.” Once, when he told me he had flown in a seat next to a famous ball player, and gotten his autograph for one of my younger brothers, he said that he had offered his own autograph in return.

When I last saw him, he told me again the story of his life. It was a story that moved from one marvelous accomplishment to another:

“In Greece,” Dad would say, “to be a lawyer was not much, to be a doctor was something, but to be a civil engineer, that was the person who was most admired. And so I decided to study civil engineering. And people said that I was not ready to take the test for the university in Athens, but I took it anyway, and scored at the top. I jumped down several steps at once when I ran to tell my mother. Then, after I had graduated, and was working, a friend met me in a street and said he was going to take a Fulbright exam. And I said, why not? So I went with him, and took the test, and won, and went to study at Stanford.”

And from there the account continued, to how he impressed people at Stanford, and at Columbia, and when he went to work as a traffic scientist, first for General Motors and then for IBM.

Or, as he described his childhood once (and this time I recorded the words):

Modesty forbids me to tell you how impressed my teachers, and schoolmates, were with my performance. Suffice it to say that my teachers told my mother that ‘a student like Denos comes around once every thirty years — maybe’. And when I had a reunion with my schoolmates after many years, I generally found one of their grown up children waiting to meet ‘that genius Gazis that my father has been talking about all these years.’ But enough of modesty!

There have been times, at work, when I’ve found myself channeling Dad (“I am your best support engineer,” I told a new boss once, and my coworkers laughed). Usually I’m lower key. But thinking of Dad has led me to thinking of what kinds of pride are useful at work (toot your horn and tell people what you’ve done), and what kinds of humility are needed (acknowledge other people’s accomplishments and be accurate, not over optimistic, in your estimates of what you can get done when).

I wrote a number of posts about Dad as he was dying and shortly after his death, so here are some of them:

Nunc et in hora mortis (as Dad’s death was approaching)

Traffic theory and music (memories of Dad)

… I pictured a little comic, for the younger generation of the family (only I’d be pretty clumsy at drawing it). It is called, “How Grandpa Denos made cars go faster,” and it has a page with a sketch of the Lincoln tunnel, all jammed up with cars. And, “We watch the cars here” (right before the upward slope part of the tunnel). And then it shows Grandpa Denos at a computer (if it were what really happened, it would be a huge computer with punch cards, but I am picturing this as drawn for kids to young to know about punch cards, so Grandpa Denos sits at a PC), which tells him what the cars are doing, and there are all the little pictures of the car, the car with holes, and the little car pulling a ladder. And, see, the computer tells us how many cars we can let in the tunnel, and still have them move fast enough. The end. Well, at least it has cars and trucks in it, right? …

Good Friday (remembering how Dad died)

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You took your life as lovers often do

Posted by Sappho on August 15th, 2014 filed in Bipolar Disorder

The day after Robin Williams’ death, my husband, who lives with bipolar disorder shared an article in the Washington Post, about Suicide contagion and social media: The dangers of sharing ‘Genie, you’re free’. I couldn’t help thinking of one of my favorite songs, Don McLean’s song for Vincent van Gogh, the one that so deftly evoked van Gogh’s paintings, and then hits you with the phrase, “You took your life as lovers often do.” A touch too much glamour for suicide? Or simply an expression of how much we lost? Or both?

Nearly ten years ago, my husband, one day, started sending me text messages about how I should publish his poems after his death. He had taken it into his head that killing himself would make him the next Sylvia Plath, finally appreciated in death as he never had been in life. I called his psychiatrist, she talked him into going into the hospital, and he left the hospital with a new diagnosis, but depression but bipolar disorder, and a different cocktail of medications.

Kay Redfield Jamison has argued, in Touched By Fire, that there’s a link between creativity and bipolar disorder. It’s a controversial claim, like the claim that computer professionals like myself have a link between skill at our profession and being somewhere on the autistic spectrum. But, whether because Jamison is right, or because our minds select vivid examples, we all know the cases (depressed or bipolar) that illustrate her point: van Gogh, Plath, Hemingway, Woolf. On a good day, they may remind someone like my husband that he has gifts as well as an illness. And on a bad day, well, on one very bad day he sat looking at his wrists, considering how best to cut them, and preparing to become Sylvia Plath.

I think of the song “Vincent,” and I realize how many of my favorite songs have some connection to suicide. They long for death, like the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young song 4 + 20, or they try to cajole the suicidal to hang onto life, like Billy Joel’s Second Wind or Phranc’s Life Lover. They imagine with dread what it would be to lose someone you love to suicide, like Patti Smith’s Redondo Beach, or linger with regret on things left undone to connect to a friend who killed himself, like Judy Collins’ Song for Martin, or dwell on the release that suicide could provide, like the theme for M.A.S.H., Suicide is Painless.

And they are, most of them, at least partly wrong. Vincent didn’t take his life because he loved; he took his life because he was ill (and also a creative genius). Perhaps Judy Collins might have said something to help Martin, and it’s important to do what we can to help our friends and family who struggle with mood disorders, but sometimes the illness takes even those who know they are loved. And suicide is never painless, not for those who are left behind. But they appeal to me because, I suppose, they’re also at least partly right, as they speak to me about the things that can drive us to want death, and the sorrow and regret that death leaves in its wake.

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McWhorter explains why Obama sometimes drops his g’s (and why, in general, Presidents of either party adopt a “warm” vernacular style)

Posted by Sappho on August 13th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary

For a President Today, Talkin’ Down Is Speaking American. (Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.)

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Geneticists respond to Nicholas Wade

Posted by Sappho on August 11th, 2014 filed in DNA, Race

From Science Insider: Geneticists decry book on race and evolution

A best-seller by former New York Times science writer Nicholas Wade about recent human evolution and its potential effects on human cultures has drawn critical reviews since its spring publication. Now, nearly 140 senior human population geneticists around the world, many of whose work was cited in the book, have signed a letter to The New York Times Book Review stating that Wade has misinterpreted their work. The letter criticizes “Wade’s misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies,” and is slated to appear in the 10 August issue of the Book Review. It’s available online today.

… The list of signatories reads like a who’s who of researchers in the field and includes such well-known geneticists as Evan Eichler of the University of Washington, Seattle; David Goldstein of Duke University; and Michael Hammer of the University of Arizona.

So I checked the list of signatories, and have things to say about a few of them (in alphabetical order).

First, to understand the significance of these particular people signing the letter complaining about “Wade’s misappropriation of research from our field to support arguments about differences among human societies,” it helps to remember the structure of Wade’s book. The first half of the book is devoted to arguing that “race” is, in some sense or other, biologically real. In making this argument, Wade references research by population geneticists who include the four people to whom I’ll introduce you. Then, in the second half, Wade heads off into some scientifically dubious speculation about how, now that he’s established that in some biological sense or other, “race” is “real,” it’s now reasonable to suppose that durable biologically based psychological differences between the races are the basis of sweeping differences in civilization, such that Africans are more tribalistic, and Chinese more authoritarian, than Europeans, who, let’s be honest, for all that Wade insists that he isn’t racist, seem to get the qualities that we most prize.

Esteban Gonzalez Burchard of University of California, San Francisco: Esteban Gonzalez Burchard, together with his colleague Neil Risch (on whom more below), is noted for his research on the significance of race and ethnic background in medical research. In this context, Burchard has argued for a certain analytic value to the category of race, which makes him exactly the sort of person that, Wade would like us to believe, ought to be in Wade’s corner, if not constrained by political correctness. Here, for instance, is what geneticist Bryan Sykes, in his book DNA USA, has to say about Burchard.

Esteban is a pulmonary physician and an expert on asthma. Mountain had recommended we meet because in his research Burchard had been using the chromosome paintings to try to understand the very different frequencies of asthma in blacks and Latinos. In fact, his interest in the way gene pools blended went much further back, and he had been a principal author on several important scientific papers on the impact of race and ethnicity in clinical practice that I had read. He had experienced more than his fair share of adverse reaction to his claim that there were genetic differences between races, something that professional geneticists had tried to play down for fear of being condemned as eugenicists. I have said, and written, in the past that my research with mitochondrial DNA showed that race has no genetic basis, but now I think that was an oversimplification….

Wade, in his earlier career as a science writer for the New York Times, has noted a paper co-authored by Burchard, Risch, and a couple of others, on the use of race in medical research. Here is the paper: Categorization of humans in biomedical research: genes, race and disease. It defends the use of race in medical research, for the purpose of “genes underlying susceptibility to common diseases or influencing drug response.” And Wade explicitly references Risch and his work in A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History, as part of his case for the biological reality of race.

Joanna Mountain of 23andMe, Inc.: As I’m sure anyone following my blog knows by now, 23andMe does personal genomics that includes an analysis of the likely ethnic composition of your ancestry (in my case, no surprise, the largest components turn out to be Balkan and UK & Ireland). Another of Wade’s big arguments in the “race is real” portion of the book that argues for the general reality of race is the fact that companies like 23andMe can sort our DNA into different ethnicities. Wade goes on at length about this, making it a key point in his argument. Joanna Mountain, a population geneticist with degrees from and experience on the faculty of Stanford University, is the head of research for 23andMe.

Jonathan Pritchard of Stanford University & Howard Hughes Medical Institute: Wade’s argument is that human evolution is “recent, copious, and regional.” Whose research is he leaning on, here? Pritchard’s. See, A Map of Recent Positive Selection in the Human Genome, an article of which Jonathan Pritchard was one of the co-authors.

Neil Risch of University of California, San Francisco: As I’ve said, Wade uses Risch’s medical research to make his argument for the reality of race. But one may, like Burchard and Risch, consider race to be “real” in the sense of being a category that can be useful in studying the genetic variation that influences susceptibility to particular diseases or response to particular drugs without then agreeing with the use Wade makes of this “reality” to give his own race his favorite psychological characteristics. As it happens, Ta-Nehisi Coates interviewed Neil Risch about race and genetics. There’s a lot of interesting stuff there about his medical research and how he uses admixture analysis, but the part that’s relevant to why he would sign a letter criticizing Wade’s new book is here:

One last question. Your paper on assessing genetic contributions to phenotype, seemed skeptical that we would ever tease out a group-wide genetic component when looking at things like cognitive skills or personality disposition. Am I reading that right? Are “intelligence” and “disposition” just too complicated?

Joanna Mountain and I tried to explain this in our Nature Genetics paper on group differences. It is very challenging to assign causes to group differences. As far as genetics goes, if you have identified a particular gene which clearly influences a trait, and the frequency of that gene differs between populations, that would be pretty good evidence. But traits like “intelligence” or other behaviors (at least in the normal range), to the extent they are genetic, are “polygenic.” That means no single genes have large effects — there are many genes involved, each with a very small effect. Such gene effects are difficult if not impossible to find. The problem in assessing group differences is the confounding between genetic and social/cultural factors. If you had individuals who are genetically one thing but socially another, you might be able to tease it apart, but that is generally not the case.

In our paper, we tried to show that a trait can appear to have high “genetic heritability” in any particular population, but the explanation for a group difference for that trait could be either entirely genetic or entirely environmental or some combination in between.

So, in my view, at this point, any comment about the etiology of group differences, for “intelligence” or anything else, in the absence of specific identified genes (or environmental factors, for that matter), is speculation.

These are just the people that I, as a layperson, recognized and whose connection to Wade’s arguments I could make right off the top of my head. Jennifer Raff, who unlike me actually has some relevant professional knowledge, points out others whose research Wade had cited approvingly in his book. She also takes issue with Wade’s reaction, in which he suggests that most of the signatories probably never read his book and were reacting to someone else’s slanted description of it.

Further, I suspect that more people on that list have read his book than he believes, simply because I’ve talked to them. In fact, Jerry Coyne, one of the signers of the letter has read it twice. (I encourage you to read his thoughts on the subject at the link above).

I can see why they’re angry

“There was a feeling that our research had been hijacked by Wade to promote his ideological agenda,” Nielsen says. “The outrage … was palpable.”

There is, after all, a huge difference between pointing to evidence (which does actually exist) that human vary geographically and that, while some of that variation is due to genetic drift, some of it is also driven by different selective pressures, and claiming evidence (which doesn’t actually exist) that cultural differences are driven by evolved cognitive and behavioral differences between different populations. As Jerry Coyne says, in that blog post Jennifer Raff recommended reading (and which I recommend, too), quoting Sarah Tishkoff, another signatory of the letter, whose research in regional variations in lactose digestion had also been used by Wade in support of his claims,

And Sarah, whose team did the work on lactose tolerance, damns the book in just a few words (I’ve bolded the money quote):

Tishkoff also acknowledges that natural selection has created biological differences that vary with geography. For example, her team discovered mutations that allows some African populations to digest lactose. But she scoffs at the idea, proposed by Wade, that natural selection has shaped cognitive and behavioural differences between populations around the world. “We don’t have any strong candidates for playing a role in behaviour,” she says.

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Comparing my ethnicity estimates from the big three personal genomics companies

Posted by Sappho on August 2nd, 2014 filed in DNA, Genealogy

I got my Ancestry DNA results. So, here’s a comparison of the ethnicity results from 23andMe, FamilyTreeDNA, and AncestryDNA, with comments. I posted as a Facebook post first, for those family members who may be following my genealogy posts on Facebook but not clicking through to my blog posts, so all of you who read it on Facebook can ignore this post. The rest of you can read on.

First, I’ll give you my comments on the differences between the three estimates, and then you can scroll down to see all three actual breakdowns.

There’s two ways that you can look at the differences that you find between the companies in ethnicity results from DNA. One is to look and the differences and ask, which company is most accurate. Here, for instance, ISOGG (the Intenational Society of Genetic Genealogy) has a chart by ISOGG member Tim Janzen comparing the companies (for ethnicity, he judges 23andMe to be the most accurate). Or you can ask which is doing best by which ethnicities (it’s possible that, say, one company gives better results for one ethnicity and one for another, depending on what reference groups they have). But what interests me is, what do the variations tell me about the process of estimating ethnicity from your DNA.

The first thing is that trace regions vary a lot from one test to another. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to trace our Native American ancestry, because 23andMe shows it, now, for all of us, and Doug McDonald, in his analysis of my DNA gave me an 80% of having some Native American ancestry (but very faint, he said), but mainly because, if we have it, it’s the one trace ethnicity that *has* to have gotten into our family tree within a documented historical time frame. European settlers only arrived on this continent in the 17th century, so there’s a hard time limit here. If it’s not Mary “Little Dove” Hyanno, and it’s real, it has to be someone a lot like her (17th century, and probably Wampanoag like our possible ancestor Mary “Little Dove,” given where I’ve traced Alice Leonard Moore’s ancestors). Not so with the Sub-Saharan African ancestry that 23andMe gives us, which may, if real, mean some 17th century captive African ancestor brought to this continent, but which could also, given that Africa’s been interacting with Europe all along, be very old.

But that Native American ancestry goes away on FamilyTreeDNA, for the simple reason that FamilyTreeDNA doesn’t show trace ancestry, but sticks with larger percentages than what 23andMe shows. It also goes away on AncestryDNA; perhaps AncestryDNA’s Central Asian is the same DNA element that 23andMe has interpreted as Native American? Other trace regions come and go, depending on which company I look at (the same is true for the free Admixture calculators in DIYDodecad or on Gedmatch).

The second difference is that neighboring European regions turn out to be hard to tell apart, and different companies interpret the regions differently. 23andMe, correctly, shows me as having a lot of British & Irish (but probably underestimates my French & German ancestry – Carey shows more). FamilyTreeDNA shows no British (though it turns out they do have that category), and instead shows me as having lots of Scandinavian and Western European. There is no way I have lots of Scandinavian ancestry (really, this is my mother’s side, so there can’t be an accident here about who my parent is). But if you think about British history, you can see why British DNA wouldn’t be all that distinguishable from a mix of Scandinavian and Western European DNA. Ancestry, meanwhile, separates British and Irish DNA (which may be overly optimistic, given that it’s apparently hard even to reliably distinguish British DNA from Scandinavian, and I actually doubt, given our paper trail, that I have as much Irish ancestry as British).

The third difference is that the estimates vary wildly in how much Middle Eastern (or West Asian, for AncestryDNA) DNA they give me, and how they categorize it. I suspect the reason for this is that I’m half Greek, and Greece is really close to the Middle East, so you can either look very Middle Eastern or not all that much, depending on the reference groups (apparently FamilyTreeDNA had a significant reference group from Asia Minor, which is, after all, right next to Greece).

On the other hand, everyone agrees that I’m overwhelmingly European. Even if I use an admixture calculator that isn’t designed for people of European ancestry, like EthioHelix, I still wind up overwhelmingly European if I use a calculator with any European element at all. (And if I use one without a European element, like the all African version of EthioHelix, it picks the most European-like element it can find, in this case North African, and gives me a majority of that element.) At the same time, everyone agrees that I’m not entirely European (though they vary a lot in how much non-European they give me, mainly because of that highly variable Middle Eastern element).

Now, for those of you who want to read the actual estimates, here they are.
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More News and Whatnot

Posted by WiredSisters on August 1st, 2014 filed in Health and Medicine, Law, Living Wills, End of Life, Terri Schiavo, News and Commentary

We have an entry, sort of, in the Paranoia Sweepstakes. It wasn’t actually submitted to me or the blog, but it’s just too good to ignore. And after all, the Sweepstakes aren’t like the Nobel Prize, in which some official body has to nominate candidates. The Wired Sisters make the rules, and the Wired Sisters hadn’t thought about that particular issue until just now, when, in reading my email, I came across this story in the Daily Kos:

Rep. Michele Bachmann has a new theory about the unaccompanied minors fleeing violence in Central America who have come in large numbers to the southern U.S. border: they are future victims of a liberal plot to use unwilling children for medical experiments. (For details, see It’s hard to imagine an entry that could beat this, but OTOH, I don’t have an address to send the prize to, so I’m willing to wait until the official deadline to declare a winner.

On a distantly related note, in yesterday’s mail, I received a voter registration card for the late Mr. Wired. He has been gone for two years now, and would get a major kick out of the card. I took it down to the office of the Board of Election Commissioners (which he used to call the Board of Electioneers), and the first thing they asked me was whether this was a change of address. I told them I didn’t think so, and if it was, I don’t know the new address anyway. Chicago, of course, has pioneered for more than a century in upholding the civil rights of the vitally impaired. For details, see Recount of the Living Dead.*

Have a good weekend, y’all.



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News and Other Items of Interest

Posted by WiredSisters on July 31st, 2014 filed in Computers, Daily Life, Economics, Health and Medicine, Iraq War, Law

  • “Medical Billing and Coding: Interested in the Health Care Field?”
    This is one of the things that pops up in my email at least a couple of times a week. What raises my eyebrows about it is the idea the billing and coding are part of the “health care field.” That makes about as much sense as the other notion going around these days, that the pharmaceuticals used for execution by lethal injection are exempt from disclosure under either “medical confidentiality” or as part of the “justice system.” As one astute analyst pointed out some years ago, access to health insurance is not the same as access to health care, any more than having car insurance will get you to the grocery store.
  • On the other hand, I have pretty much stopped worrying about Big Brother’s snooping into my personal data, since the stuff filling my spam box now rests on the assumptions that I am not only a single Christian male with bad credit, erectile dysfunction, and a dog, but am also African-American.
  • The crisis in the Middle East, at least according to one astute analyst, has arisen because Hamas, the pseudo-government of Gaza, could find no other way to resurrect its street cred in the Arab world (after their proxies in Egypt and Syria got the crud beat out of them) than by attacking Israel to provoke a counter-attack—the same tactic Saddam Hussein used at the outset of the First Iraq War. “We can’t rely on our friends unless we activate a common enemy”? If Israel did not exist, it would have to be invented. Or maybe it was?
  • Speaking of which, I’m still waiting for conspiracy theory entries. Where are the paranoids when you really need them? For instance, is it possible that the world is actually controlled by
  • a network of condominium boards of directors, whose intricate maneuvers are intended to keep the condo market from falling? I should be finding out soon, now that I’m on one.
  • Or do current events reflect the sinister hand of the Ailurophile Conspiracy? The Wired Cat passed away last week, after a long (for a cat, anyway) illness. I miss her a lot. But since I’m going to be out of town for a while next month, I won’t be getting another cat till I get back. I mean, it’s just rude to bring a critter into your household and almost immediately leave her alone for a couple of weeks in the dubious care of a cat-sitter. Which brings us to the Ailurophile Conspiracy. Have you noticed that it is now no longer possible to just pick up a stray cat or kitten on the street and take it home, or allow it to inveigle you into taking it home? Now you have to pay for the privilege, to a shelter acting as a middle-person by picking up, neutering, and caring for stray cats until some gullible ailurophile comes along with a few dollars to spare. Has the proliferation of cute cat/kitten videos online created this market? Is it an economic artifact like the market for bottled water and the ever-rising price of admission to museums that used to be free? Shouldn’t the money be going to the cats themselves? This requires further research, perhaps by the Animal Law Committee of the Chicago Bar Association, of which I was a founding member.

It’s been a long month. Time for vacation.


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It all depends on your reference groups

Posted by Sappho on July 28th, 2014 filed in DNA, Genealogy

I’ve now gotten tested at FamilyTreeDNA as well as 23andMe, and am waiting on results from Ancestry. Sometime later, when I have all three results, I’ll probably write a post on how my ethnicity results compare between the different companies. But in the meantime, Gedmatch has a new calculator that I can use to show the importance of reference groups.

In order to sort your DNA and tell you your expected ancestry proportions, all admixture analysis software, whether the calculators supplied by personal genomics companies or the ones you get from free software like DIYDodecad or the analysis done by Doug McDonald, uses reference groups. These are groups of people of known background who can be used to estimate everyone else’s admixture percentages. (Of course, the people in the reference group are at least a little admixed, too, because everyone is admixed. But the group as a whole will vary in ways representative of the area it’s drawn from.)

It matters what reference groups you pick. For instance, soon after I got tested at 23andMe, they put out a new version of their Ancestry Composition that gave a lot of us (me included) trace amounts of Native American and Sub-Saharan African that weren’t there before; someone explained in the forums that they had shifted their European sample from a group of white Utah residents (that possibly had some trace Native American and Sub-Saharan African DNA) to a European-born sample. Later, they did further revisions that refined the breakdown of Asian and Sub-Saharan African ancestry; I noticed that our trace amounts of non-European ancestry (and those of some of my DNA cousins) also crept up with those revisions. For another example, FamilyTreeDNA has me as more Middle Eastern than 23andMe does; the reason appears to be that FamilyTreeDNA’s Middle Eastern sample tilts more toward Asia Minor than 23andMe’s does (so probably Greeks in general look more Middle Eastern on FamilyTreeDNA than on 23andMe).

Now, given that the people doing the admixture calculations tend to wind up with a lot more samples from people of European ancestry than from people of any other sort of ancestry, other groups wind up less well served by the reference groups. There have been efforts to counter that. I know that 23andMe has a project that offers free DNA analysis to certain people of African ancestry, and the other companies may have recruiting efforts of their own. And there have been efforts to create free admixture calculators that tilt less European.

One such is the new EthioHelix admixture calculator, recently added to Gedmatch. It comes in four versions. There’s an Africa only version (no non-African reference populations included). Here is how I (with known ancestry evenly split between Greece and Western Europe, the Western European part mostly from the UK and Ireland, with some French and German) come out in EthioHelix K10 Africa only

East-Africa2 34.75%
Mbuti-Pygmy 0.12%
North-Africa 64.72%
Omotic 0.41%

This makes some sense, since if you have only Africa to work with, North-Africa is the closest proxy available to Europe. (I’m surprised, though, that I got as much East-Africa2 as that.)

Now, what do I look like with the one that’s designed for people who are a mix of African and European ancestry, EthioHelix Africa K10 + French? (The French reference population, here, is used as a proxy for all of Europe.)

North-Africa 18.76%
Hadza 0.56%
French 78.71%
Omotic 1.97%

Evidently, this calculator interprets my mostly English side as entirely French, and my Greek side as an admixture of French and North African.

Now, let’s see how I look in EthioHelix K10 + Japanese (designed for people of mixed African and Asian ancestry, with Japanese being a proxy for Asian).

Omotic 5.98%
Mbuti-Pygmy 0.75%
East-Africa 1.22%
Khoi-San 0.74%
West-Africa 0.29%
Biaka-Pygmy 0.32%
North-Africa 72.67%
Japanese 18.04%

Finally, here’s what I look like in EthioHelix K10 + Palestinian (designed for people who are a mixture of African and Middle Eastern ancestry):

East Africa1 1.20%
Mbuti-Pygmy 0.18%
Khoi-San 0.92%
Hadza 0.89%
Biaka-Pygmy 1.06%
Palestinian 89.25%
Omotic 6.50%

(Here I’m overwhelmingly Palestinian because they have no North African in this calculator, and, whether you’re looking at Western European or Balkan DNA, Palestinian DNA is a better match for it than Sub-Saharan African.)

EthioHelix, of course, says flat out that it isn’t designed for my particular ancestry mixture. But subtler differences in reference populations can explain why one company gives different ancestry results from another. And other people may be less well served by admixture analyses that parse my ancestry just fine.

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On college admissions and affirmative action

Posted by Sappho on July 24th, 2014 filed in Race

Linda Darling-Hammond, Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education at Stanford University; Faculty Director, Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, at the Huffington Post points to A Basic Flaw in the Argument Against Affirmative Action.

Here’s my basic problem with the argument against affirmative action. I went to Stanford. I had friends there of various races. I don’t know how much of a boost my black friends at Stanford did or didn’t get from affirmative action (not so much, I guarantee you, that their SAT scores weren’t well above the national median, you can check Stanford’s general admissions statistics for confirmation on that). I do know that they were no slouches. Black students at Stanford, overwhelmingly, graduate and proceed, on average, to do very well in their careers. So, you know, if Andre Braugher didn’t need any affirmative action boost to get into Stanford, you’re a racist if you assume he did. But if he did, at any point in the process, get that little boost from affirmative action, that means that affirmative action was doing its job, and good for affirmative action! Because I’ll put his brains, determination, and talent up against yours any day, whoever you may be, affirmative action critic who grumbles that black people are grabbing white people’s spots at the university.

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Revenge porn, #Twitterpurge, etc.

Posted by Sappho on July 24th, 2014 filed in Computers, Sexuality

Mary Adkins, at Slate, writes, in response to the hijacking of a #Twitterpurge hash tag for “revenge porn,” or nonconsensual posting of nude photos of private individuals to humiliate them:

As an attorney who helps clients remove revenge porn from the Internet, I recently got a call from a mother whose daughter had been contacted by a reporter for an interview. The 22-year-old learned from the reporter that four nude selfies of her had been featured on a site specifically for this kind of thing for nearly eight months and accumulated over 30,000 views. They had been posted with her full name, the name of the town where she lived, and with links to her Facebook and Twitter accounts. Above all of this information was a screed calling her a “cunt” and a “whore” and a “sick, suicidal bitch.”

It took me two days and about six hours to get the photos down. First, I had to register the images with the U.S. Copyright Office for $35. Why? Because that was the only clear law the person who posted the photos was actually violating. Because they were selfies, my client’s daughter owned the photos—she took them—and so by posting them, her ex had violated her copyright. Not her body, not her autonomy, not her freedom to live in the world without having been exposed unwillingly to 30,000 strangers, but her copyright. And if they hadn’t been selfies? Well, she likely would have been out of luck. (For anyone whose selfies were posted without consent under the “twitter purge,” you can also send a takedown notice to Twitter.)

So, there are two possibilities about this 22-year-old’s ex:

  1. He doesn’t think she’s sick and suicidal, but, being angry at her now, he went and posted a nude photo of her with the lie that she’s a “sick, suicidal bitch,” so that he can persuade the world that she is.
  2. He does think that she’s sick and suicidal, and he thinks it’s a great idea to post a nude photo, with full identifying information and a screed denouncing her, of a woman that he thinks is already prone to suicide.

Neither of these possibilities, to put it mildly, makes him look good.

And now for the thing that bugs the heck out of me, whenever “revenge porn” comes up for discussion. There’s an article at the Guardian titled Twitter trend based on The Purge films exposes horror of revenge porn, that relates how the #Twitterpurge hashtag (originally about a movie) got hijacked by people posting naked photos of their exes, and arguing that there should be a law against revenge porn. (My husband linked the article on Facebook, and it’s how I learned about this particular Twitter discussion.)

Since it’s the Guardian, there’s also a long comment thread. I read the comments, I guess generally a mistake. They fall into several categories. Some of them express horror that this is a thing. Others reassure readers that it’s been hyped in the Guardian article, that only a few people posted the photos, and far more people using the #Twitterpurge tag were denouncing revenge porn than having anything to do with it. A few worry that laws to ban this awful thing could prove to be a solution worse than the problem. All of these reactions I can understand. Even the last; though there’s no reason freedom of speech has to include a blanket right to publicize private nude photos (and it doesn’t include such a blanket right even now, given that, as Adkins explains, if the photo is a selfie you can still go the copyright route to exert control over it), it’s still true that laws to prevent a bad use of photos, if overly broadly written, can wind up banning speech that you’d want to preserve.

The thing I will never understand, though, is the thing that turns up over and over and over again in these threads. It’s remarks like, “Don’t take nude photos of yourself. Duh.” It’s having one person after another say that anyone who shares a nude photo with his or her lover is a reckless exhibitionist. It’s having one man in the thread say that he’d tell his daughters that anything you put out on the Internet can be put out anywhere else.

I get why you might not want your 22-year-old daughter to have sex, in the first place, with the guy who would later plaster the nude photo that she shared with him privately to a public web site, along with a screed calling her a “cunt” and a “whore” and a “sick, suicidal bitch.” I will never get why you’d advise her that it’s her own damn fault for trusting the guy in the first place. And I will never get why you’d suggest that sharing the photo privately with the one particular guy who sees every part of that naked body, and knows just what she looks and sounds like at the point of orgasm, is equivalent to sharing it with the Internet.

Maybe sharing nude selfies with your significant other isn’t your thing. It’s never been mine. But isn’t calling it “reckless exhibitionism” that’s morally equivalent to personally putting the photo out on the Internet something like saying that, if I start a small software company, and share my source code with a programmer that I hire to work on my project, it was my own stupid fault and I haven’t been the least bit betrayed if that programmer, angry when I have to lay him off, then posts my source code to a warez site with a screed denouncing me and inviting people to crack my code?


There is no escape

Posted by Sappho on July 20th, 2014 filed in Daily Life

I was hiking up a trail today, following Joel, when a couple of mountain bikes came down the trail toward me. I stepped aside, waited for them to pass, and resumed my hike. As I turned the corner, I heard the ring of a cell phone, and the shout of one mountain biker to another: “I need to answer my phone.”

“Why?” replied the other.

The question went unheeded. The phone was answered.

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“They’re trying to drag Russia into world war three. Fuck them.”

Posted by Sappho on July 20th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary

Missed getting this one into yesterday’s round up on MH17, the Malaysian plan shot down over Ukraine: MH17 and its aftermath: ‘ordinary Russians are horrified and frightened’ Natalia Antonova, a Ukrainian-American journalist married to a Russian and living in Moscow, describes the reactions of ordinary Russians as a mix of fear, confusion, disdain for the rebels, wild conspiracy theories, and some support for Putin.

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Ukraine and Gaza: a round up of coverage

Posted by Sappho on July 19th, 2014 filed in News and Commentary

I’ve been stuck inside most of today, due to a combination of needing to take it easy after giving plasma and the fact that we’ve been trying to avoid coming and going while they paint our condo. So I took the opportunity to check papers from different countries on the events of this week.

Who’s leading with the latest on Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, shot down over the Ukraine earlier this week: Nearly everyone.

Australian papers have been reporting profiles of the dead as names were released: the two retired teachers, the nun, the grandfather taking his three grandchildren on the trip of a lifetime. Now the New York Times has a full list of the dead, along with profiles of some of the victims.

Earlier reports said that as many as 108 AIDS researchers and activists headed for a conference in Australia had been among the 298 on the flight, but that particular part of the death toll may be lower, as the latest statement posted on AIDS 2014 reports six delegates confirmed among the dead. These include Joep Lange, former president of the International AIDS Society, AIDS researcher for decades, and early outspoken proponent of triple antiretroviral therapy.

Der Spiegel reports on the Moscow connections of the Russian separatists who shot down MH17. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reports that the separatists have returned dozens of corpses from the crash.

The Greek paper Eleftherotypia reports on Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s statement that Putin has a last chance to show that he’s willing to help, by exerting his influence on the rebels to get them to allow full access to the crash site. Ezra Klein’s Vox reports reasons for Rutte’s frustration, as “the untrained rebels are carting away evidence and refusing entry to actual investigators.”

The Pakistani paper Dawn sees the two disasters this year to Malaysian Airlines flight as harming Malaysia’s national pride. Meanwhile, India Times tracks the impact of the crash on flyers and aviation, as flight times increase to avoid Ukrainian airspace, air insurance rates go up, and airlines reevaluate safety margins in air space near other conflict zones.

Global Voices has several posts of coverage of the MH17 disaster, from the renewed grief of Chinese families still waiting for answers on MH370 to Russian state TV attempts to edit Wikipedia coverage of the event.

Mark Galeotti, at Foreign Policy, sees the downing of MH17 as the beginning of the end for the rebels.

But Shaun Walker, at the Guardian, thinks that Putin is not yet ready to abandon the rebels.

… Much will depend on what exactly can be ascertained by any investigation. At the moment, plenty of circumstantial evidence points to MH17 being downed by the rebels, possibly using a weapon provided by Russia. But if a “smoking gun” is not found – and with every hour that the crash site is contaminated and not handed over to proper investigators, the chances of a thorough investigation seem to diminish – the Russians may be able to mount a plausible deniability defence.

This, after all, has been a conflict where plausible deniability has been stretched beyond belief….

Cheryl at Nuclear Diner has a good round up of links of analysis by people with background on Ukraine, Russia, airline flights, etc.

Who’s leading with the latest on Israel’s troops in Gaza: Israeli and Turkish papers. Also Le Monde, which leads with a report that a big demonstration in Paris protesting Israel’s actions in Gaza went ahead despite an effort to ban it as posing a risk of public unrest.

The Jerusalem Post live blogs Israel’s Operation Protective Edge: thirteen tunnels discovered by Israeli troops, air raid sirens in the Ashkelon and Beersheba areas, Gaza-based militants have used up about half their rockets, two IDF soldiers dead.

So does Haaretz: 22 tunnels unearthed, dueling attempts by Israeli and Palestinian UN envoys, diplomatic maneuvering around an Egyptian ceasefire proposal, and a travel warning for Israelis to avoid travel to Turkey.

You may remember that Israeli-Turkish relations, once friendly, soured four years ago in the wake of the Gaza flotilla raid. As recently as two months ago, there was speculation that Israel and Turkey might mend relations as they found a common enemy in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

It doesn’t look, now, as if that mending of fences is happening any time soon.

The Daily Sabah, a Turkish paper friendly to Turkey’s ruling AKP party, reports that Turkish government officials are united in their condemnation of Israeli aggression, and that Erdogan condemns Egypt’s ceasefire proposal as overly friendly to Israel.

The Hurriyet Daily News, a Turkish paper that leans more toward Turkey’s secular opposition party CHP, reports that all three Turkish presidential candidates have come out against Israel’s actions.

The Ottomans and Zionists blog judges Israeli-Turkish rapprochement dead, and reports on why a Gaza ceasefire is so difficult: no good brokers for a truce, fractured Hamas leadership, pressure on Bibi from his right flank, and

the balancing act that Israel is trying to play with the eventual outcome regarding Hamas itself. Israel’s goals are delicately balanced between weakening Hamas and taking out its capabilities to launch long-range missiles at Israeli cities while still keeping Hamas alive and viable to the point of it maintaining its rule over Gaza.

Daniel Levy at Al Jazeera sees Israel’s goals as

another round of what is known in the Israeli security establishment as “mowing of the lawn” — a periodic degrading of Hamas’ military capacity. Netanyahu’s other strategic goal is to disrupt the fledgling effort at Palestinian reconciliation between the key rival national organizations, Fatah and Hamas.

An article in the Economist reports that Hamas wants two concessions that it probably won’t get.

Among its key demands were a lifting of the siege of Gaza and the release of prisoners. Gaza’s seaport and airport would be reopened and monitored by the UN.

Juan Cole suggests that

The Israeli security establishment was almost certainly encouraged to launch its military assault on little Gaza by the current divisions over political Islam in the Middle East.

… The overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt last summer has positioned the Egyptian government as almost as big an enemy of Hamas as Israel itself….

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Revolution in France

Posted by Sappho on July 19th, 2014 filed in Music

It being the week of Bastille Day, I’ve been listening a lot to Revolution in France, a video on the historyteachers Youtube channel, set to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance.” It makes a nice companion to another history song set to “Bad Romance,” “Women’s Suffrage.”

Now, I know the history in the “Revolution in France” song, and so, probably, do you, but somehow, hearing it all in a song and seeing the video brings home to me why Burke might sympathize with the American rebels (if not entirely to the point of supporting our revolution), and be appalled by the French Revolution. Because, though the two revolutions shared some of the same 18th century Age of Reason ideas, and both broke ties with monarchy, in other ways, the French Revolution makes ours look downright conservative by comparison.

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Books and movies: On 19th century anti-semitism, redshirts, the success of Cro Magnon, death, memory, and horny teenage girls

Posted by Sappho on July 15th, 2014 filed in Books, Movies

I mentioned that my trip home from Maine was a bit hairy due to storms, and involved one flight being cancelled and replaced with one two days later, and a case of being rerouted after I missed my connecting flight. So it was a good thing that I brought not one, but three airplane reading books, on my Kindle. Here are my summaries of those books, and the last couple of movies Joel and I watched on Netflix.

Daniel Deronda: “Is it tragic?” Mom asked me; she’s under the impression (perhaps inspired by The Mill on the Floss) that George Eliot novels can be expected to be terribly tragic. But Eliot has at least one other mode besides tragic: putting a character through hell as the plot works its way toward teaching that character a moral lesson. In this case, the character who needs reform, and gets to go through hell, is young, spoiled, heedless, self-centered Gwendolyn, who, under the pressure of financial disaster, marries for money, breaking a promise to the baby mama of her new husband, not to supplant her claims. She gets, for her carelessness, a boatload of guilt, and a husband far less biddable than she thought, but since the great disaster of the novel is the accidental death of this particularly unpleasant husband, leaving a will that salves Gwendolyn’s conscience by handing most of the estate to the baby mama’s son, I can’t call the conclusion tragic. Meanwhile, Daniel Deronda, the title character and other protagonist, meets the entirely untragic fate of learning that he was born Jewish.
Read the rest of this entry »

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Paranoia Sweepstakes

Posted by WiredSisters on July 14th, 2014 filed in Dreams, Fiction, Guest Blogger, News and Commentary, Whimsies

A couple of weeks ago, I issued a challenge here for the best conspiracy theory, offering a gift card to a local spy store as a prize. A dear friend of mine who likes to nail things down asked for the Official Rules of this contest, so here they are:

Official Rules:

1. Entries can be transmitted as comments/replies here (
2. Nobody is barred from participating. In fact, we’d love to have entries from people employed by the NSA, CIA, Public Radio, or Blackwater. Please feel free to pass this on to anybody you know who seems really good at conspiracy theories.
3. We’re okay with pseudonyms, but we will need your real name if you win, so we can send you your prize.
4. Neatness doesn’t count, but legibility does, and originality counts big time.
5. Maximum length: three paragraphs or thereabouts.
6. To be a proper conspiracy theory, one end of it must be an observed or documented phenomenon, which must either be caused by or result in some outrageous imagined conspiracy. Give examples of the observed phenomenon. Examples I have used on this site: [Observed means to imagined end--"what could this be used for?"] observed phenomenon=putting computer identification chips in domesticated animals. Conspiracy theory=this is a means to spy on the pet’s person.  The conspiracy can also be an imagined means to an observed end ["how did we get here?"], for example:  hiring out-of-work actors to hang around looking desperate, poor, and homeless to scare working people out of quitting their lousy jobs–observed phenomenon–panhandlers on the street.
7. Enter as often as you like.
8. Deadline is Labor Day, which is shortly before I leave on a long train trip, so I figure I can read and judge the entries then.

Have a good summer.

Red Emma

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What I did on my summer vacation

Posted by Sappho on July 9th, 2014 filed in Daily Life

You may have noticed that I’ve left the posting to Wired Sisters for a bit (and left one comment dangling in moderation for two days, sorry about that). Part of that is that I got busy with other things for a few days even after I got back from my trip. But part of it is that I went on a trip.

This year, Mom turned 80. Actually, she turned 80 a few months ago, but we scheduled her birthday for when everyone could make it. Because one of my brothers is in the Foreign Service in Senegal, this meant scheduling it for the end of June. We rented a lodge and a cabin at Moosehead Lake, where all seven of Mom’s children, Mom, some but not all spouses of Mom’s children, and eleven of Mom’s fourteen grandchildren all assembled.

The lodge: Moosehead Lake’s one flaw is that it’s isolated and it takes a long drive to get there (after, for some of us, a long flight to be in Maine in the first place. But that one flaw also allows its big advantages. For rates better than what my sister who planned the event could find anywhere else, we got a lodge with nice bedrooms, a large living room and kitchen where we could cook, in a beautiful setting. We also got to rent a couple of kayaks and a canoe for a day. The lodge had some books, which we didn’t make too much use of because everyone had brought either Kindles or hard copy books, some games, and some jigsaw puzzles. And we spent a lot of time outside.

There we had my mother’s birthday party, where one sister baked a cake, and made a dessert with chocolate wafers and whipped cream, and one sister-in-law supplied a beautiful Senegalese tablecloth. I went out in the kayak. Deer and geese wandered near our lodge. TV could not be avoided, because it was, after all, the World Cup, but stayed confined to one room so that people could sort themselves easily into soccer fans and not.

After the couple of days at the lodge, some people returned home, while others proceeded to my mother’s house, which is in a small town on the coast not far from Bar Harbor. I was, at this point, supposed to leave the next day, as was my older brother. So he drove me to the airport in the morning (his flight being early and mine in the evening). I waited all day in the airport, with not much to eat because a flight of troops came through and cleaned out all the cheap lunch offerings on sale, and then, in the evening, discovered that my flight was cancelled due to a storm in Chicago. So one sister picked me up and brought me back to the house, till my new flight could leave two days later. This disappointed my husband and was inconvenient for my boss, but thrilled one niece, who ran to hug me saying, “You came back!” I had further adventures on the next flight out, involving a late flight missing a connection in Chicago, but did make it home that time. And at least I had brought plenty of Kindle reading material, three books in all (about which books I’ll blog later).

In the couple of days that we were at the lodge and the further days at my mother’s house, I got to talk with all the siblings that I hadn’t seen in various long intervals (because, when you have that many brothers and sisters and everyone has scattered to the winds, it’s hard to see everyone). We finished one jigsaw puzzle and made progress on another at the lodge. I kayaked at the lodge and rowed off my mother’s beach.

I also got to see nephews and nieces I normally only learn about (some directly and some indirectly) on Facebook. I got to see the video of one nephews back flip and see his front flip in person, play the game of Monopoly with an ever changing set of players as nieces and nephews entered and exited the game and played with wildly differing strategies (one nephew wanted to own Boardwalk and Park Place and build houses and hotels, while another wanted to own every $1 bill in the game), watch nieces perform surgery on a dead worm with an elaborate accompanying story about the worm being pregnant and arriving in the hospital, participate in a discussion about whether to take in or return to its place a baby bird that had been found in the road, go out in a rowboat with one nephew inside and another swimming while hanging on the rear, admire photos of another nephew’s girl friend, learn about a niece’s Instagram account, and demonstrate for a niece how I can write my name with my feet (she rose to the challenge and proved able to do the same, as my mother cannot).

Now I’m back home, and will have blog posts about books and things sometime within the next few days. To Wired Sisters, I may not have commented on your posts while I was gone, but I did read and appreciate them, from my tablet.

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The Euphemism Crisis

Posted by WiredSisters on July 1st, 2014 filed in College Life, Economics, Health and Medicine, Law, Moral Philosophy, Race, Torture, Uncategorized

On my way from court to my office this morning, I walked past the Metropolitan Correctional Center. It’s a federal jail. Oddly, I can’t recall having any clients incarcerated there, but I did have a couple of clients who worked there. Very interesting ladies, both. Regrettably, they and I never got around to talking about the name of their workplace. “Correctional Center.” I was being really precise when I called it a jail, rather than a prison. Jails are mostly for holding people who are awaiting trial and whom the government does not consider bailable. Federal jails, these days, also hold people awaiting immigration proceedings of various sorts, and a few people serving short sentences for federal misdemeanors. The official name of this particular jail bothers me because none of the above-listed people have been officially determined to be in need of “correction. “ Mostly, they just need to be kept on ice until the government decides what to do with them long-term.

Cook County, Illinois, has its own “Department of Corrections,” which is also a jail, primarily for the purpose of pretrial detention and incarceration of people convicted of misdemeanors and given short (less than a year) sentences. What’s to correct for them?

Then there’s the joint popularly known as St Charles. Officially, it’s a juvenile detention facility. “Detention” is an interesting word, too. To detain someone is to temporarily limit his or her mobility. The animal rights activist who wants to talk to me about adopting a shelter pet may detain me for a few minutes. A bad traffic jam may detain me for a couple of hours. We “detain” undocumented immigrants and criminous juveniles for months or even years. They probably don’t see it in the same light as a talkative cat-lover or a traffic jam.

Before St. Charles was a juvenile detention facility, it was a “reformatory.” Before that, it may have been a “reform school” (haven’t done the research on that yet.) And perhaps, in the beginning, its founders and administrators may actually have hoped to do some reforming. Maybe some of them still do. But the kids “detained” there almost certainly don’t see it that way.

Before there were reformatories and detention centers and correctional institutions, there were penitentiaries. They were (sorry, Lynn) a Quaker invention. The original version (the “Auburn system”) was based on really good religious intentions and utter psychological ignorance. If voluntarily-experienced silence and isolation can cleanse the soul and strengthen the morality of a Quaker, they reasoned, why can’t an involuntary version do the same for criminals? They didn’t know then, and in fact, we are only recently finding out, the pernicious effects of involuntary long-term isolation on mental health. What they were trying to do was bring the inmate to a repentant state of mind. What they got, in all too many cases, was insanity.

The Auburn system was discontinued in the late 18th century, partly because of the mental health problems it created. Solitary confinement for extended periods has more recently reappeared, especially in federal prisons, usually as a punishment for infractions of prison rules (often really trivial ones, such as possession of “contraband”—which can be as inconsequential as a extra pair of socks.) Which has in turn generated a more careful psychological study of its results. The “insanity” that often resulted in the Auburn system has now been more carefully analyzed. See, for instance

It has become clear that “detention facilities” do a lot more than detain, while reformatories do not reform, correctional centers do not correct, and penitentiaries rarely create repentance. On top of that, as we are becoming increasingly aware, the overuse of incarceration and the racial and economic imbalance of the prison population are leading to economic and social problems for the society outside prisons (see, for instance, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow)

Lots of smart well-intentioned people are working on solutions. Logically, the minimum requirement of any institution expected to reform, correct, or induce repentance ought to be that people come out no worse than they went in. The current system fails this test dismally. Many of the suggested alternatives merely set up different ways to sentence criminals, something other than locking them up. But, as a homeless man once remarked to my husband, everybody’s got to be somewhere. These alternatives come in two varieties: the ones that put people back in the communities where they got into trouble in the first place, thereby imposing a serious burden on those communities, given our current patterns of residential segregation. A few communities are likely to produce far more than their fair share of antisocial lawbreakers, and should not be burdened with the responsibility for all of them. Or, alternatively, as the reformers of the early 20th century often proposed, lawbreakers should be moved far away from those communities, perhaps to less densely populated areas where clean air, lush vegetation, gentle wild creatures and god’s open space can heal their troubled souls (Cue the Bambi soundtrack okay, I’m getting carried away here, sorry. That really was what a lot of reformers back then thought. Now we know that the main difference between poor rural areas and poor urban areas is the difference between meth and heroin. And of course, land in any non-poor area is too expensive for the taxpayer to be willing to pay for. Also, sending lawbreakers to places far from their original homes means their families can’t visit them very often, which is hard on both the prisoners and their families. The families, after all, have committed no crime, but if they can’t see their fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers more than once or twice a year, they’re being punished too.)

So here’s an immodest proposal, which we are almost technologically able to implement and which we maybe should be working on: the deep freeze. Cryogenics. Not (as is more often discussed) for rich people with terminal and currently incurable diseases, to be thawed out when we find cures, but for lawbreakers. Most of whom do their major criminal activities between the ages of 16 and 35 or thereabouts. More recent research into the adolescent and just-post-adolescent brain tells us that this is related to the slower development of the parts of the brain governing “executive functions,” impulse control, and anticipation of consequences. It has been a commonplace among criminologists for decades that many criminals “age out” of the criminal life. This brain research probably explains a lot of this phenomenon.

Locking up large numbers of adolescents and just-post-adolescents in one place, even without the selection mechanisms of the criminal law system, is a recipe for rowdiness at best and violence at worst (Animal House, anyone? Rape culture on college campuses? You get the idea.) Dunno about you, gentle reader, but I avoided trouble in college mostly by sheer good luck, some of which consisted of being on an Ivy League campus. The only way to keep troublesome youth off the streets without encouraging them to assault each other is the deep freeze. Assuming (the research hasn’t really looked into this, but it seems reasonable) that normal aging and brain development will continue to occur even at very low temperatures, criminal youth put into cold storage may actually thaw out with fewer violent and criminal tendencies than they went in with, having “aged out” where they couldn’t hurt anybody. Or, at the very least, they will come out no worse than they went in, which is a lot better than the current system can claim.

I am suggesting this, not altogether facetiously, partly because we are running out of money and space to incarcerate people under the current system. Most of the expense and overcrowding is caused by the “frequent flyers.” If one trip through the system would do the job, the system could be reduced by at least 70 or 80%. We are becoming aware that we just can’t keep going at the present rate. But the one thing we are running out of that we haven’t started worrying about yet is


What are we going to call the next generation of lockups? If we can’t call them something like Cryogenic Correctional Centers, there really isn’t much more vocabulary left. We could, I suppose, just name the next generation of joints after some person or place prominently connected with incarceration, as the Brits did with Borstal. How about Gitmo?

Red Emma



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The Right Side of History

Posted by WiredSisters on June 30th, 2014 filed in Dreams, Feminism, History, Moral Philosophy, Race

In the admittedly rarefied realms where I read political opinion, a lot of people seem to worry about “being on the wrong side of history.” We need to rethink this meme ASAP. Except for orthodox Marxists, I suppose. Orthodox Marxists believe history is on their side, and therefore cannot be blamed for wanting to be on its side. The rest of us, not so much.

Whose side, after all, is history on, and when can you tell? There was certainly a time, in the 1930s and early 1940s, when history seemed unquestionably on the side of fascism. (I’ve been watching the History Channel’s biography of Mussolini, which gives a really clear view of that era.) For that matter, history has at various times appeared to be on the side of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the “Evil Empire”, none of which are around today. I am not literate enough to know which side history was on in Asia during the same eras, but I do know that there were empires in the Western Hemisphere on whose side history appeared to be for a while. Not to mention the umpteen dynasties in ancient Egypt. You get the idea.

Today’s thinkers who talk about the “wrong side of history” are mostly talking about racism, sexism, and homophobia. It is getting easier to believe that those pernicious ideologies are on the “wrong side” of history, if by the “wrong” side, we mean the losing side. It helps if we don’t actually know much about history. The liberation of African-American slaves from both slavery and discrimination appeared to be the winning side during Reconstruction, remember? Now Reconstruction is a mere footnote. Various people within the last thirty or forty years have, for instance, been elected “the first African-American senator/ congressional representative/ governor from ________ since Reconstruction…” If Reconstruction had in fact been the tide of 19th-century history, such appellations would today be nonsense rather than footnotes.

Feminism appeared to be the right side of history in the 1920s and 1930s. That was partly, of course, because we were looking at “history” only in the Western industrialized world. But mostly it was because it took us a while to discover that the right to vote was not the ultimate goal of feminism. And, for that matter, I can remember a time when passage of the Equal Rights Amendment looked like a slam dunk. Forty years later, it is still a mirage.

In Middle Europe in the first quarter of the twentieth century, Jewish culture and community looked like the tide of history, the born leaders of the intellectual and financial world. Yeah, right.

As a religious Jew, I am required to believe that history, in the perhaps very long run, is on the side of the Holy Blessed One. But, as Keynes pointed out long ago, in the long run we are all dead. In the shorter run in which we live our brief narrow lives, history is morally neutral at best. At worst, it is the enemy. It has certainly been the enemy of most ethnic minorities—or have you lunched with a Lydian, or supped with a Scythian, lately? The Kurds may actually pull off a state of their own. But betting on them hardly constitutes being on the right side of history.

If we oppose racism, sexism and homophobia only because they are going to win, what does that make us other than opportunists with a long view? Getting back to Judaism, while we believe in the coming of the Messiah, we also believe he “may tarry.” Quite a while, perhaps. In the meantime, we are not supposed to worry that much about being on the right side of history—we just want to be on the right side. Period.



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…And You Are There…

Posted by WiredSisters on June 25th, 2014 filed in Daily Life, History, Iraq War, Law, Marriage, Moral Philosophy, Peace Testimony, Sexuality

“One of those days that alter and illuminate our times…” or does anybody remember that really neat radio (and then tv) show called “You Are There”? Well, today a couple of mildly memorable things happened. One of them involved Vladimir Putin, everybody’s favorite thug, who asked Russia’s upper house of legislators to revoke the right it had granted him to order military intervention in Ukraine to defend Russian-speakers there. Let’s unravel that. Imagine that President Bush were still in the White House, and then imagine that he had asked Congress to revoke the authority it gave him under the War Powers Act to intervene in Iraq to defend whatever he thought he was defending in 2003, because whatever he wanting to accomplish had in fact been accomplished. He didn’t, of course, because he wasn’t president any more. But, we are told, elections have consequences. President Obama was in fact elected, at least in part, because of his opposition to the Iraq War. But he never got around to asking Congress to revoke the authority it gave his predecessor to send soldiers to Iraq.

The War Powers Act was passed in 1973 over President Nixon’s veto, and various presidents have reported to Congress under that act, including requests for authorization, 130 times between then and 2011, which is the most recent date from which I could find information. So far as I can tell, no president has ever asked Congress to revoke any authorizations issued under the Act, although several such authorizations have been allowed to expire under their own terms. President Obama has made no request for authorization of his most recent assignment of 300 troops to safeguard the US Embassy in Baghdad in response to the current unpleasantness there. And, so far as I can tell, even though he withdrew all US troops from Iraq in December, 2011, in compliance with a Congressional resolution, neither he nor Congress invoked the War Powers Act or revoked any authorization issued under that Act. In short, Putin, whom we are all accustomed to considering a lawless thug, has actually shown more respect for law than any American president in the last 45 years.

So is anybody at all concerned about this? Well, no. What conduct of the president does concern the guardians of our freedom, the media? Most notably, at least in Topeka KS, comment arose because (though I have been unable to find out whether the presidential conduct in question actually happened there, or merely took place somewhere else but aroused public notice in Kansas) the President of the United States grabbed his wife’s posterior as she preceded him up a staircase someplace. (See for more details.) Got that? In the first place, when somebody is preceding you ascending a staircase, at least somebody with whom you are on close terms, you may want to assist her by putting a hand on her waist, and may perhaps miscalculate and put that supporting hand a little lower. And in the second place, if the worst thing anybody can think of to say about somebody’s public conduct is that he touched (or grabbed, or whatever) his own wife’s backside, either the reporter or the president needs to get a life.

Enough for today, I guess.

Red Emma

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