Thursday, December 28, 2017

Some thoughts on toys

If the producers of CNN's documentary series are moderately educated baby boomers, then the producers of Netflix's new series The Toys that Made Us are moderately educated Gen-Xers and older Millennials.  Are are predominantly male and without children.
The series focuses on eight toy lines ranging from the enduring (Barbie, Lego, G.I. Joe, Transformers) to the flash in the pan toy lines that are only relevant to hard-core collectors (Masters of the Universe).  Most of the brands were popular during the 1970s and 1980s (Star Wars, Hello Kitty, and the aforementioned Masters of the Universe.)  An OK start, but not enough.  To my mind, a series like this needs to focus on toys with staying power.  Toys that our children will be playing with, or are playing with.  Here are a few suggestions:
  • Teddy bears.  What could be more quintessentially American than a toy named for a U.S. president?  In production since 1903, teddy bears are everywhere, and in all forms.
  • Slinky.  A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing!  Everyone knows it's Slinky.  Whether in metal or plastic, most of us have owned at least one at some point in our lives.
  • Play-Doh.  This staple of preschools has been going strong since the 1950s, and has been produced in a wide range of colors, with all sorts of extruders and molds to fit your imagination.
  • My Little Pony.  These colored plastic horses with butt tats (or "cutie marks") have been a staple of little girls' play since 1982.  The animated series My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic not only kept interest in the toys alive to this day and introduced the Generation 4 design, but expanded the fanbase to include men (bronies.)
  • Silly Putty.  Tan putty in a red egg, it wasn't as versatile as Play-doh, but how many of us picked up transfers from the newspaper with it?
  • Mr. Potato Head.  Another staple of preschooler play, the original iteration made you supply an actual potato.
  • Fisher-Price preschool toys.  From the telephone on a string (the one with the eyes and the mouth) to the colored stacking rings, these are the toys are babies will be gumming on for the next century or so.
  • American Girl.  I hesitate to include this, as it only really caught fire during the mid-1990s.  Originally conceived as the anti-Barbie, the sale of the brand to Mattel meant the Barbification of the brand, with the childlike dolls receiving colored hair extensions and cars in place of the historically accurate schoolbooks and china tea sets.  However, it has all the imaginative potential of Barbie and none of the body image controversy, as the dolls represent children with stocky bodies, and come in a range of facial molds, hair colors and styles (or not) and skin types.  However, while the dolls cause little controversy, the price point certainly has (remember "homeless" Gwen, retailing for $115?)
  • Etch-A-Sketch.  How many of us fiddled with the knobs, trying to get the line where we wanted it to go?

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Reverse Robin-Hooding

As we see the Senate and the House pass a tax bill that every economic analyst agrees is horrible, most of us concede that the American Dream is officially dead.  Businesses that were once staples of our middle class (Sears, Toys R Us) are declaring bankruptcy and shuttering their stores.  Alabama is being investigated by the U.N. for levels of bone-crushing poverty not seen outside most third-world nations.  And about 80% of our nation is struggling to afford just to live.
But not all the news is bad.  After all, the Dow Jones Industrial Average keeps going up, right?  It's got to be better than it was in 2007?
Yeah, not really.  We've had all kinds of explanations for stock increases during flat economic times.  From "stagflation" in the 1970s to our most recent "jobless recovery," we're increasingly measuring economic success by one rubric, and it's the wrong one.  The stock market is not an accurate reflection of our economy's health.
Let's look at what the stock market is.  Businesses need money to operate.  Some of that money comes from revenue.  Most of it, however, comes from loans and equity financing.  Loans are easy enough to understand.  Most of us have borrowed money at some point in our lives.  For equity financing, the company sells off little pieces of its ownership.  Those pieces are called "stock."  Currently, stocks are traded in two markets--The New York Stock Exchange, founded in 1817, and NASDAQ, founded in 1971.  (Fun fact: One of the founders of NASDAQ was Bernie Madoff.  Yes, that Bernie Madoff.)  The owners of stock certificates are owners of the company.  They share in decision making (like voting in a board of directors) and they share in the profits.  These profits, called dividends, are paid out quarterly per share.
So much for Economics 101.  How does this play out in practice?  Let's look at an American corporation.  United Health Care is a company that sells health insurance.  In 2016, according to their annual report, the company earned about $184 million in revenue.  That sounds like a lot, except that their stock sales for that same year were over $132 billion!  Now, if you were United Health Care, who would be your top priority?  Your clients, or your shareholders?
We saw this play out to an even greater extreme in the 1990s and early 2000s, with the "tech bubble."  Companies like Yahoo were selling stocks at high prices without having any saleable product at all.  Stock prices do not necessarily reflect revenue.   They reflect how well a particular stock is selling at a given time. 
Most of the people buying stock are in the "investor class"--their sole interest is in getting the most out of their stocks as possible.  Whether that comes from dividends or from the "buy-low, sell-high" ethos of the market, they want to make money.  And, as companies see a significant portion of their equity tied to stock prices, pleasing shareholders becomes more important than product quality.  So, the only thing that matters is the bottom line.  Whether it's moving plants to countries with lower wages and no regulations, cutting staff, or trimming benefits, companies want to increase revenue to please shareholders.  And, if their employees can no longer afford their products, oh well!  They still have their stocks to bring in money.  Who cares about sales revenue when stock equity makes up a great percentage of overall equity?
But it doesn't last.  As history has shown, we've had depressions, stagflations, recessions, and periods of high unemployment.  Currently, we see the Dow rise while more and more Americans face economic instability.  We cannot keep this up.  Eventually, we will crash again.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Me too--My Eight Word Response

Lately on FB, there has been a new trend going around.  People, mostly women, have been posting "Me too" as a status if they experienced sexual harassment or assault.  The idea is to draw awareness to the problem and hopefully show that it's incredibly more widespread than most people's comfort levels would like to admit.
However, like all "awareness" campaigns, this one has had a bit of backlash.  First off is "what about teh menz," usually uttered by guys who have never been assaulted, but are pissed off that they're being left out of the spotlight.  The answer to that is easy and straightforward.  If a man has experienced sexual assault, please feel free to post "me too."  You have my utmost sympathy.  No one should ever have to experience sexual abuse. The first person I saw post this statement was a transgendered male.  I'm on your side, guys.
Then there are those who say, "why are women bitching about harmless catcalling and compliments?  Grow up!"  You are putting the "ass" in "assumption."  Most women who post, I'm sorry to say, have experienced far worse than a few catcalls.
But the worst response has got to be the "virtue" response.  The "guess I'm just not pretty enough to rape, huh?" response.  Unfortunately, this comes from women.  The variants on this are "where are my dick pics?" or "if you just (fill in the blank: dressed modestly, stayed out of the frat party/nightclub/bar, didn't drink so much/at all, didn't have that manicure/nose job/breast implants, didn't go to his suite, blah blah or blah), then this never would have happened to you."  A demonstration can be found here.  This is called the "just world" fallacy, and it makes me see every shade of red.  Because the only thing that separates rape victims from those who haven't been raped is bad luck, and nothing more.
I posted "me too," and have written about my experiences.  Like Ms. Bialyk, I decided to develop my mind instead of my looks, finishing college at 19 without ever going near a frat house.  I'm not pretty (there's a reason my FB profile picture hasn't looked like me in years), dress very modestly, and spent several years as a religious fundamentalist.  I even covered my hair.  None of that protected me.  I was at home and stone cold sober, wearing no makeup and plain, cheap clothes.  That didn't protect me either.
When I have the spoons, I usually end up screaming profanity at the person expressing this viewpoint while hoping they never find out for themselves how wrong they are.  But usually I don't.  So I give my basic eight word answer: Long skirt.  Turtleneck sweater.  Covered hair.  Raped anyway.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

A playground for the rich

Once again, as the mayoral election draws near, the hand-wringing begins.  Rents in NYC are just too damn high.  Our current mayor has done very little to alleviate this issue.  The "housing lottery" system is a joke, and most units in the lottery are too costly for anyone making less than $60,000 per year.  The solution, for many people, is simple.  "If you can't afford NYC, just leave!"
Challenge accepted.
Let's set the bar for minimum income at $70,000 for a single earner.  On this salary, a basic apartment, transportation, food, clothing, and a few luxuries are attainable.  Anyone who can't meet that threshold has to find a cheaper city to live in.
Great plan.  New York is now a city without waiters.  There are no busing staff to clear your table, nor are there many cooks below the rank of head chef.  There are no housekeepers or custodians.  Certainly no store clerks.  That's going to put a damper on all the hotels, restaurants and stores so crucial to NYC's bustling tourism industry.  Continuing on to the performing arts scene, that would let out most theater staff and box office staff, as well as every performer and member of the crew of every show not on Broadway or at Lincoln Center.  So I guess nobody will want to see a show.
OK, so you don't really need restaurants, theaters or hotels.  And with online shopping, do we really need stores anymore?  Well, let's look at the things people actually need to survive in a city.  There are no new teachers, social workers, firefighters or police officers, and no EMTs period.  No traffic cops or 911 dispatchers.  No nurses below the rank of RN.  And that custodial shortage extends to the places we actually use, including hospitals and schools.  Speaking of schools, we've just gotten rid of all the para-educators who work with disabled students, as well as specialty instructors.  At the collegiate level, getting classes will be even harder because there are no adjunct professors anymore (as in the people who teach the bulk of college classes while scraping by on poverty-level wages).  There are no cabdrivers or maintenance workers.  And I hope that you weren't planning a remodel, because your contractor doesn't have a construction crew anymore.  Your nanny has also quit on you, as has your gardener and cleaning lady.  And if you hired a home health aide for your aging parent, that person has just left the city as well.
Going into the office, all of the financial industry will grind to a halt because the administrative staff has gone.  No receptionists.  No assistants scheduling meetings and drafting contracts.  No bookkeeping staff.  Sure, technology could handle most of it, but does a stockbroker handling billions in trade every week even have the time to manage his own calendar?
In our court system, there would be no legal aid attorneys.  No new hires in the district attorney's office either.  Clerks at every level of government would be gone, from the sanitation department to the DMV.  Gone would be paralegals and legal researchers.  And I hope you don't plan on spending the day in a city park, because the groundskeepers aren't there either.
You can't build a city solely for people of means.  It's the working people who not only keep the city running, but make it what it is.  They not only need a decent home, they deserve it.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

The other side of the "MRA Narrative"

I love reading feminist articles.  However, the comment section is usually something to be avoided for the sake of my blood pressure.  Usually, the comments are from men telling the same story--evil, castrating feminist bitches take a man who gives them everything for a ride, then after a few years walk out with the kids and the house.  I've heard this story so often that I call it the "MRA Narrative."  And it's bad for my blood pressure because I lived it.
When I was 24 years old, I married Mr. X, who was 55 at the time.  Now, I know where this is going.  Hot babe snaps up old guy with a fat wallet.  Well, not really.  For years, I was the girl who couldn't get a date.  I'm socially awkward and not very pretty, and so I was the one being "friendzoned."  Also, in college, I was always too young.  I was 17 my freshman year (which made me "jail bait" in California) and 19 when I graduated (which meant I couldn't go anyplace that served alcohol).  I turned 20, and for a short time, started attracting male attention.  It didn't last very long.  I joined a fundamentalist group on the promise of family, community, and, most of all, acceptance.  Add in that in 2003-2005, it was obvious to me that our economy was built on a house of cards.  So I wanted that package.  A spouse, a job, and definitely children.
It was in this context that I met Mr. X.  After moving to Brooklyn, I heard about the occasional BT that someone wanted to set me up with.  Somehow those guys never materialized.  So I moved into the world of "older singles"-- and I mean older.  As in some of them had kids my age.  It became obvious that these men were the only ones who would ever date me.  The men I dated ranged in age from 40-62.  I was all of 24.  I knew even then that I had two things going for me.  One, I was young enough to bear children (although "young" didn't mean "attractive").  Two, I was the novelty act.  Within six months, I would be just one of the crowd, and forgotten.  So I married Mr. X.  He made a comfortable living, fed stray cats, gave people rides, and gave me a job.  And I didn't exactly have a lot of other options.
Within two months, I was pregnant, and our first child was born a month before our first anniversary.  In the early weeks, he was an attentive father to our daughter, but soon became unavailable.  When we moved into our newly renovated house, I had to set everything up while taking care of a five-month-old, including assembling a computer desk.  The only "help" I received came from neighborhood children.  One of the schools offered me a teaching job.  Mr. X convinced me not to take it.  Over time, my place in the household shifted.  I was there to serve him, bear his children, and provide sex on demand.  When our second daughter was born, I came home from the hospital two days before Rosh Hashanah. As tired as I was, and with a newborn and a toddler to care for, I had to set up the bassinet, unpack baby clothes, and still prepare all the holiday meals with no assistance.  His one concession to my condition was not inviting guests that year.  After that, I decided no more children, but Mr. X didn't want me on birth control.  I snuck myself onto an IUD because I knew he couldn't fool with it.  After five years, the narrative shifted from "I will care for you so you never have to work" to "I have to take care of you because you aren't capable of working."  After six years, he told me that a wife was "a cook in the kitchen, a laundress in the laundry room, and a whore in the bedroom."  After seven years, he began sexually assaulting me and punching walls.  I walked out and filed a restraining order.  He violated it numerous times.  All the time, he insisted that he had "treated me like a queen."
Now we come to the divorce.  This is the part where I get "his" kids, his house and his money, right?  I don't think so.  Despite an indicated report from Children's Services that he would get drunk and pass out while the children were in his care, he got ten days of visitation per month, half their school vacations, and half the holidays.  He kept the house and the business.  And, because he worked for cash, there was no way to establish his real income.  I got three years of alimony, child support, and a $20,000 settlement that has never materialized.  Hardly taken to the cleaners.
So, please keep in mind that for every story about the "evil feminist," there is a real live woman who may have been through hell.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

CNN's "The Nineties" buries our gays

As someone fascinated by history, I got really into CNN's decade series.  I saw "The Sixties," "The Seventies," and "The Eighties," and looked forward to "The Nineties," if for no other reason than it was the first decade I could really remember.  The Soviet government fell when I was on winter break in fifth grade.  I saw the troops marching off to Iraq to battle Saddam Hussein in Operation Desert Shield, and we had yellow ribbons in our classroom to support the troops.  I was glued to Law & Order and identified with Daria.  I was in ninth grade when the Alfred P. Murrah building was bombed and O.J. Simpson was acquitted.  I remember Waco, Bosnia, and Rwanda on the news.  My first year of college (don't try to do the math, it won't work), Bill Clinton was impeached.  I voted for the first time in the Democratic primary that nominated Al Gore.  And, yes, I probably danced the Macarena about a hundred times during the summer of 1996.
Which is why I found "The Nineties" so disappointing, mostly for what it left out.  Specifically, our country's extremely dynamic relationship with the gay community.  It was a time of great progress, but also a time of violence and hate crimes driven by homophobia.
By the early 1990s, the status of gays in America was changing.  People felt more comfortable "coming out," and no longer was AIDS the grisly threat it had been.  1994's pop psychology book Reviving Ophelia featured at least one lesbian teenager coming to terms with her identity.  Gay Americans were fighting in court for legal recognition of their partnerships and custody of their children.  Gay characters were shown in media, and the musical RENT featured a gay man, a lesbian, a bisexual woman, and Angel, whose identity (transgender or genderqueer) is still being debated by fans.  And Angel and Collins (the gay man) had the most loving, stable relationship of all the characters!  By the end of the decade, a few states had legalized same-sex marriages or domestic partnerships.
Unfortunately, progress is never linear.  Two well-publicized murders occurred during the 1990s in America's heartland.  Brandon Teena, a transgender man, was killed in 1993.  And, of course, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in a hate crime in 1998 because he was gay.
None of this gets even a nod.  Sure, the television episode mentions Ellen DeGeneres coming out, and the show Will and Grace.  But nothing else gets a nod.  The episode on civil rights focuses on the O.J. Simpson trial (which wasn't really about civil rights) but neglects to mention Matthew Shepard.  Nothing was mentioned about the changing legal or cultural status of the gay community.  However, it was one of the features of the decade that I remember the most vividly.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Charlottesville and the government we deserve

Like so many Americans, I was horrified at the events that unfolded in Charlottesville over the weekend.  Less than a century after World War II, Nazi flags are flying in the United States.  A woman was killed by a white supremacist for the simple crime of disagreeing with him.
How did we get here?
After the end of Reconstruction, the Republican Party rallied around pro-business sentiments likely to be popular with the moneyed capitalists of the Northeast.  This was the world of the "Robber Barons," and they created a tale of two Americas.  Except that when the conditions of the working poor became impossible to ignore, they had to offer a token support of Progressivist ideas, or they would find themselves in homemade guillotines.  Through a confluence of events that we had little control over, including a world war that wiped out most of the world's infrastructure while leaving ours intact, and fifteen years of austerity driving demand for new goods, the United States enjoyed a couple of decades of prosperity.  The problem is that you can't run a country on rhetoric alone, and this was also a time when we were paranoid.  So instead of spreading the wealth, Eisenhower-style, we poured all our energies into an unwinnable war.  Enter Richard Nixon, who was about as far from Eisenhower as you could get.  This brought the economy into a slow slide starting in the 1970s.  However, the GOP can't just openly say, "give to the rich and screw the poor."  Look how well that "47%" remark worked for Mitt Romney.  So instead, the GOP played a long game of distraction.  It's not OUR fault that there are no jobs, rents are rising and healthcare and college are practically inaccessible.  Look over there!  It's those darn Millennials, with their lattes and avocado toast!  Or those baby boomers, who won't retire and are hoarding all the plum jobs!  Or the "welfare queens," those evil people with dark skin and funny accents who mooch off the government, steal jobs, and live likes royalty while you scrape by!  And we can't fund social programs, because if we cut military spending, all those bad people overseas who don't accept Jesus Christ and their lord and savior will bomb us back to the stone age and indoctrinate our children to hate Christmas!  And we CAN'T HAVE THAT!
Well, look where that thinking has gotten us.  A president with no political experience who is a genius at the art of the distraction, a Boy Scout jamboree straight out of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will, and now a KKK/Nazi rally in Virginia, complete with torches.
However, I don't really blame the GOP for this.  They may have profited from hatred, but they didn't create it.  Hatred and fear have been there since before the settlers at Jamestown.  I blame the James Andrew Fields, Jr.'s and Cole Whites.  The Peter Cvjetanovics.  I blame every person who thought that marching in a city with a torch in one hand and a swastika in the other was a good idea.  And every person who chose not to condemn them (including you, Mr. President!)  Because, yes, you are that angry racist.  And since you keep talking about how your guy won the election, you have to figure out how to clean up the board without throwing the game away.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Reproduction issues--again

At the end of this month, a law will go into effect in Arkansas that will disallow abortion unless the person who provided the other half of the fetus's DNA (otherwise known as the "father") consents.  And reproductive rights take a big step backwards.
Many people claim that since the child belongs to the father 50%, he should get a say in whether or not the fetus is brought to term.  But what is a man's contribution, really?  Men provide 23 chromosomes, so half of the child's DNA.  Women provide 23 chromosomes, plus an environment where the gametes fuse into a blastocyst, an incubation chamber for the developing fetus for 36-40 weeks, all of the developing fetus's nourishment, labor and delivery services during the baby's birth, and in many cases, nourishment in the form of breast milk for six months or longer.  Not exactly an even distribution of labor here, is it? 
Some men would argue that if the woman doesn't want the child, she should hand it off to the father.  But this discounts two factors.  The first, as mentioned above, is that there is no "child" to hand off without the pregnancy, labor and delivery all provided by the woman.  And let's not kid ourselves, pregnancy is not without risks.  Prior to the 19th century, complications during pregnancy and childbirth were the leading cause of death for women around the world.  Even now, pregnancy complications can include morning sickness, sciatica, gestational diabetes, ectopic pregnancy and pre-eclampsia (the latter two can be life threatening, even today).  One little gamete is nowhere near a 50% contribution.
The second is that pregnancy is often used as a means of control.  While there are many good men, good husbands and good fathers out there (if you're one of them, I should not have to explain that I'm Not Talking About You), there are also men who use both sex and pregnancy as a weapon.  It's called "reproductive coercion" and it's classified as a legitimate form of domestic violence.  In seven states, rapists can sue for visitation of any children conceived by their crime.  Even in long-term relationships, abusers have been known to sabotage birth control, prevent their partners from accessing it, and force them to carry children to term.  This puts women in a bind because the law now ties them to their abusers until the children reach the age of 18.  Abusers are granted visitation with their children (or in some cases, full custody--yes, it happens), and the former partner must continue to deal with the abusive partner during visitations, give the abuser say in the child's upbringing, live near the abuser to facilitate visitation, or even in some cases, pay child support to the abuser.  Or the victims stay with their partners, reasoning that the abuse only happens to them, and at least they are there to protect their children from the abusive parent.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Misogynistic dillweeds--a field guide

Recently, I heard about a breed of males called "Incels," or involuntary celibates.  In other words, a group of unpleasant man-children who couldn't get a woman to have sex with them if their lives depended on it.  They chalk up their unpopularity to women going for looks or money, not noticing that it's their attitude and unwillingness to own their behavior that women find off-putting.  (Not to mention the double standard--these men are also the first ones to insult a woman based on her appearance or weight.)
There are so many groups now of men like these, it's hard to keep track.  So, I've taken the liberty of preparing a field guide, based on my own experience and research on Reddit and We Hunted the Mammoth:
"Nice Guy": This man dates occasionally, but not often enough to suit his tastes.  The women he dates tend to lose interest quickly, and start to agree with him that he's not good enough.  Popularized the term "friendzone," and has fallen hard for the idea that if he just acts "Nice," the object of his desire will fall madly in love with him.  Frequently calls coupled men "assholes," as opposed to himself, as in the following: "Women just want to date assholes.  Why don't they ever go out with me?  I'm a Nice Guy."  (This same Nice Guy will castigate the object of his attention as a "bitch" or "slut" when she turns him down.)  Annoying, but relatively harmless.
Pick-Up Artist (PUA): To this man, women are objects to be won by charm.  If that doesn't work, there's always persuasion.  To these men, "no" means "I'm just being shy; keep trying."  Best not to deal with this one without backup.
Red Piller: This man is the Pick-Up Artist on 'roids.  Popularized the term "pump 'n dump."  Spends much time trying to establish himself as an Alpha, dominant over women.  Castigates men who treat women with respect as "betas" and "fuckboys."  To take the red pill means to treat feminism as a destructive force in society.  Avoid. 
Men's Rights Activist (MRA): This chap has either been through a divorce or knows someone who has.  Swears up and down that he treated his wife like a queen, but she may see it differently.  His ex-wife got tired of his bullshit and hired a competent divorce attorney, winning a greater than 50-50 share of time with the children (whom he didn't really pay any attention to until now because parenting is a woman's job, amirite?) plus child support and whatever maintenance the law allows.  Because he feels he owes his ex-wife nothing, he grouses about paying to anyone who will listen.  He will probably avoid women at this juncture, since in his mind, they're only after money.
Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW): These boys don't have a girlfriend, and often don't have a job, either.  This is of course, due to Teh Evul Feminists, who insist that women can do anything men can.  Believe MRA and Red Pill statements about women, often due to an inability to relate to women as people.  Have chosen to remove themselves from the dating game altogether because they aren't Fortune 500 CEOs with a hot trophy wife.  What they fail to understand is that they aren't really missed.
Incels: From "involuntary celibacy."  Incels are manchildren who, again, can't get a date (do I detect a running theme here?).  So, to make up for it, they want to put all the "sluts" (read, women who don't have sex with them) into a subservient role.  Loudly deride women for not staying in their "place," and espouse a hatred of women.  Idolize Elliot Rodgers, the guy who shot six women.  Handle with caution.

Monday, June 19, 2017

In praise of pickiness

Whether you call it "single" or "between relationships," I am at that fun little place called Not In A Relationship.  Kind of sucks.
What's even worse is the advice from the "smug marrieds."  Those people who have gone through life with a grand total of five minutes between relationships their entire lives.  They always trot out that trite line about "every pot has a cover" (what if you're a griddle?).  Or else they hand out the same three pieces of advice: "You need to get out more." (I'm in a male dominated field.  How much more "out" should I get?)  "Have you tried online dating?"  (Yes, I have.  Do you know how many online dating profiles are complete fabrications?)  And, my all time favorite: "You're too picky."
You're damn right I am.
Here's what "not picky" got me.  When I came to Brooklyn, I was 24 years old.  In other words, I was already staring down the barrel of spinsterhood.  Also, I was a BT, which meant that I was already getting "redd" to people deemed undesirable--not that anyone actually made these introductions.  So, I navigated the "single scene" knowing I had two advantages: 1. I was the youngest person in the room by about a decade and 2. I was the novelty.  I attracted attention, mostly from divorced men pushing Social Security eligibility.  If I dated even one man under 40, I would be surprised.  But hey, don't be picky.  Besides, I knew that within a year the novelty would wear off and I would lose the edge I had.
It was in this environment that I met Mr. X.  Sure, he was 55 to my 24.  Sure, he was overweight and not the most attractive specimen.  But hey, he had to have a kind heart to be giving rides to people and feeding stray cats.  And kindness was all that matters.  Besides, I shouldn't be picky.  After all, I wasn't particularly pretty either.  So we started dating.  And when he lost his temper and screamed at me, I overlooked it.  It was probably my fault anyway.  When I found out that he had been arrested for possession of a controlled substance, I overlooked it.  My past wasn't exactly spotless either, and past is past right?  When he tried to sodomize me during our engagement, I wrote it off as a misunderstanding.  I mean, he did stop when I called him on it.
Guess what?  My marriage to Mr. X was marked by his alcoholism, frequent emotional abuse, and eventually rape.  But hey, I made it down the aisle, and that was all that mattered, right?  I hadn't been picky.
I deserve so much better than that.  So do all singles who get that line thrown at their heads.  It doesn't matter why I reject someone's advances.  I'm allowed to set standards for myself.    There are far worse things than being single.  And being in a bad marriage is numbers 1-100 on that list.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Summer blockbuster season--survival of the tritest

Recently, I had the opportunity to see an incredible film about a woman who is a true American hero.  I am speaking, of course, about the biopic Megan Leavey. 
If you haven't seen this movie, I suggest you do.  Like right now.  It probably won't be in theaters much longer.  It opened eighth at the box office, despite an 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  One week after opening, it's down to a single screening per day.  The theater had less than 20 people in it.  But what do you expect for a film that was barely promoted and nobody's even heard about?  (I wouldn't have seen it either, but Thing 1 loves dogs.  And since the story was about a Marine and her bomb-sniffing dog--it was kind of required viewing.)
Why do certain movies end up in theaters for ages and others fade out or never even make it?  Why was a film based on the Roald Dahl classic The BFG only in theaters for a few weeks while Boss Baby lasts for months?  Why did the recent release of The Little Prince, an English dub of a French film based on the Saint Exupery story (one of my favorites, incidentally) not even make it to theaters at all?  One week before it was to open, Paramount pulled it, and sent it straight to Netflix.
My guess is we live in the land of the focus group.  Movie companies, competing with streaming services in a pinched economy (going to the movies for a family of four can easily cost $100 between tickets and concessions) will only put their marketing and distribution efforts into films with massive returns.  And right now, that seems to be mostly in big-budget action movies based on the interests of Gen-X and early Millennial males.  TransformersFast and Furious car chase films.  DC and Marvel superheroes (not my brand of geekery, to be honest.)  Most of the previews and theater screens seem to betaken up with some variation on one of these themes. 
But at least there is some hope.  I eagerly anticipated the release of The Great Gilly Hopkins, a film that should have made it (cast included Kathy Bates, Glenn Close, Octavia Spencer and Julia Stiles--not exactly names to sneeze at.)  Other than a few sneak previews, the movie never saw the theaters.  However, to my delight, it turned up on Netflix.  So did The Little Prince.  So will a hundred other films you never heard of or paid much attention to when they were in theaters, but start to look better after you binge-watched the newest season of Orange is the New Black and are wondering what else is on.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Breaking Anne--A Review

*Spoilers ahead!
One of my favorite book series growing up was Anne of Green Gables.  I loved the imaginative, ebullient, intelligent redhaired heroine and the other characters that populated her world: shy Matthew, practical Marilla, gossipy, generous Rachel Lynde, Anne's friends, including the loyal Diana Barry, and of course the cocksure Gilbert Blythe, enemy turned rival turned friend turned love interest (spoiler alert--she marries him.  They have six kids together.)  I read all the books and own the Kevin Sullivan miniseries.  So, naturally, when Anne with an E came to Netflix, I had to watch it.  Especially since it was created by Breaking Bad creator Moira Walley-Beckett.
BIIIIG mistake.  They took my favorite character and put her in Bizarro World.
Walley-Beckett wanted to focus on Anne (played by Amybeth McNulty) as the abused orphan, delving into her backstory to create trauma.  Fans of the book will know that Anne was orphaned in infancy and passed around to two different foster homes.  In the first, her foster father was a violent alcoholic.  In the second, her foster mother had twins three times in succession.  Both foster parents used Anne as childcare, even though she was a child herself.  After her second foster father died, Anne spent a few months in an orphanage until she was placed with the Cuthberts, who originally wanted a boy.  As a result of this level of neglect, Walley-Beckett wrote Anne as a broken character.  Rather than being the dreamer of dreams who must express ideas that are too big and beautiful to hold in, Anne talks and imagines to escape frequent flashbacks of abuse.  In this world, Mr. Hammond keels over from a heart attack while beating Anne.  In this world, the town of Avonlea shuns Anne for her orphan status.  Anne herself is no help in this regard.  Her energy is frenzied, as if she is afraid to stop talking or moving out of fear.  She comes off as less eccentric and more unhinged, collapsing to the ground in agony upon hearing that the Cuthberts wanted a boy.  While McNulty is a competent actress, she still struggles with the bad writing.
Aside from taking liberties with Anne's character, the writers also took many liberties with the story, making it as bleak as the iron-cold settings it was filmed against.  The main conflict of the novel was resolved within the first eight chapters, and the rest of the novel is a coming of age stories filled with many charming vignettes of Anne's growth.  Few of them survived the writing process of the series.  There was no playing the lily maid.  No walking the ridgepole of the roof.  No dive-bombing Aunt Josephine.  No liniment cake.  No accidentally dyeing hair green.  Instead, we are treated to the following:
  • Anne begging pennies in a train station (just to drive home that she was unwanted--we got that!)
  • Lifelong conservative Marilla Cuthbert attending a suffrage meeting (more up Rachel Lynde's alley)
  • Anne antagonizing the Cuthbert's hired farmhand (great way to make a first impression on potential foster parents)
  • Anne telling her classmates about Mrs. Hammond repeatedly trying to escape her husband's "pet mouse," who lived in his front pocket and got her pregnant with all those twins.  (Because what children's book is complete without marital rape?)
  • Gilbert becoming an orphan (It wasn't bleak enough already?)
  • Matthew attempting suicide (Completely out of character.  Matthew was not only a religious man, he was the sort of person who would work to his last breath.)
  • Aunt Josephine going from acerbic-tongued spinster to lesbian in mourning (While I don't mind the representation, I rather like the acerbic-tongued old lady.  Besides, why can't we have asexual characters if we're going to represent?)
  • Anne's first period.  (At least Marilla didn't go Margaret White on her.)
If Moira Walley-Beckett wanted to create a series highlighting the fate of orphans, home children and foster children in the late 19th century, fine.  I'm all for it.  Many of them did suffer abuse and neglect, and even under the best of circumstances were forced to be servants and farmhands while still children.  Just leave my favorite book out of it.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Latte with a side of poverty?

When I got my first job out of college, I predicted the economy would collapse under its own weight eventually.  This was in 2003.  In San Diego, where I lived at the time, both housing prices and rents were skyrocketing.  I had what would be considered a "good" job (eight-to-five, permanent, with benefits), and the best I could afford was rent on a converted shed and a 12-year-old rattletrap Honda that I somehow managed to keep alive to go back and forth to work.  Neighborhoods that had been considered unlivable slums only a couple of years earlier were becoming too expensive for even the middle class.  Many of my coworkers were buying homes over an hour away in Riverside County.  They were signing subprime mortgages (which, even at the young age of 21 I could see were a terrible deal) and encouraged me to do the same.
I wonder how many of them were able to keep their houses after 2008.
The Great Recession was almost ten years ago, and according to many economists, didn't last very long.  Great.  Only most people in my age cohort are cobbling together part-time service sector jobs and side stints as Uber drivers, sharing apartments, putting off marriage and having children, and not really enjoying any real prosperity.  The only costs that seemed to have dropped significantly is the cost of gasoline.  Housing is still unaffordable, and tuition costs have tripled since 1999.  We've even coined the term "jobless recovery" to explain it.  The State of The Union is Not Good once again.
And we don't get much sympathy from those who should know better.  The Boomers lived through the "stagflation crisis" of the 1970s, and their parents lived through the Great Depression.  Instead of commiserating with us, or fighting to make things better, all we hear is a lot of blame.  "It's the IPhones."  "It's the lattes."  "It's the avocado toast."
Right.  Because unless you can afford a house, you don't deserve happiness.
According to The Economist, the ratio of housing to income is still over 100 percent.  There was a slight drop after 2008, but not enough of one to be significant. 
But maybe we Millennials are wasting our money on high-end coffee and techno toys.  Lets look at, for example, an IPhone.  At first glance, $700 for a phone is a lot of money, especially for someone crying poverty.  And especially when many people get new phones every two years.  But let's break that phone down, dollar wise.  $700 over 24 months is less than $30 per month.  That's less than the cost of an electric bill, a week's groceries, or a dinner for two in a mid-priced chain restaurant.  Suddenly that phone looks a lot less expensive.
But what about those lattes?  A five-dollar a day Starbucks habit has got to be breaking into the bottom line.  First of all, unless you're buying a daily Frappucino, you're not spending that much.  A tall Caffe Latte is $2.95 plus tax.  So about $3 a day.  Multiply that by five days (assuming that this is purchased on the way to work), and that's $15 a week.  Over 52 weeks that comes to $780 a year.  The median housing price in the United States is $199,800.  Assuming the 20% down payment you need to save before you can even think about a mortgage, cutting the lattes will get you there in 51 years.  Given that the median life expectancy is 78 years, and assuming you start saving at age 18, you will buy that house when you are 69 years old.  Does it sound like a worthwhile sacrifice?

Thursday, April 27, 2017

The other certainty in life

The big deal in Washington is Trump's hastily sketched out tax "plan," which seems like a way to move money away the government and back to the hands of the wealthy.  He would create a three-bracket system, eliminate almost all deductions (except charitable donations and mortgage interest), and cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% (unless you're a home business--the you can kiss your home office deductions goodbye).
It's a good outline--for people who have money.
Now I won't deny that the Internal Revenue code as it stands is a hot mess.  However, the solution is not this.
Some people would like to put a "flat tax" into place, asking why the rich should pay more.  I'll show you a little math from the 2016 tax workbook:
The highest tax bracket is for incomes of $415,050.00, and these individuals pay 39.6% of their income in taxes.  Minus a $43,830.05 standard deduction, a single person earning the minimum for this tax bracket will pay $120,529.75 in taxes.  That's a lot of money, right?  They pay more in taxes than most people make in a year.  However, let's look at it another way.  Their post-tax income is still $294,520.25, also a lot of money.   Now let's look at an office worker making $30,000 per year.  Their taxes for the year are $4,040, leaving them $25,960 for the year.  That's still less than one tenth of the first earner.  Both of these individuals need housing, food, transportation and healthcare.  Guess who will spend most of the year counting pennies?  (Hint--it's not the first guy.)
Now, let's look at the Trump plan.  The first earner will see a tax bill that drops from 39.6% to 35%, meaning a drop in taxes from $120,529.75 to $101,437.45.  However, what of the $30,000 earner?  Depending on the bracket, this earner could either see a drop in the tax bill from $4040 to $3000.  Or, if this unfortunate soul is in the 25% bracket, that earner's taxes could go up to $7,500 per year--nearly double the current tax bill!
A fashion consultant once said that we should dress for the body we have, not the body we want to have.  So too with national policy.  We should demand policies that positively affect the lives we have, not act like millionaires in a temporary slump and allow policies that only benefit the rich on the odd chance that we find ourselves among their members someday.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Excelsior Scholarship--good intentions, poor implementation

The latest idea to come out of Albany is the Excelsior Scholarship--free college for anyone whose income is less than $100,000 per year, to increase to $125,000 by 2019.  Sounds like an ideal benefit--proof of New York's growing commitment to middle-class families.
It looks good on paper anyway.
The Excelsior Scholarship is little more than a raised cap on New York State TAP grants, with a catch.  The scholarship only covers up to $5,500 per year--which is not the full cost of CUNY tuition.  If you receive any other aid, the scholarship will only provide funds to bring the total to $5,500.  You have to work in New York state after graduation for as many years as you received the grant (which makes sense--it is taxpayer funded).  Recipients must earn 30 credits per year--a hardship for working students.  Also, the grant only covers four years, and is not offered to people with bachelor's degrees.  Since degree holders are not eligible for federal aid or TAP grants, this would have provided much needed assistance to people trying to enhance their skills to keep up with a changing world. 
This provides some assistance, but not much.  This is designed for people taking a traditional route through school--but state schools have a number of non-traditional students.  Students who are taking fewer classes to go to school around a job.  Students getting second bachelor's degrees because, whoopsie, the world changed; the economy's in the toilet, and that B.A. in liberal arts that was supposed to provide a decent living doesn't, and why didn't you get a degree in STEM you idiot.   Students who are taking more challenging degrees that take five and six years to complete.  Students changing majors because that math degree is harder than we thought.  Students taking a semester off because life happens and I got meningitis and couldn't finish the term.  And guess what?  All of them could use the grant, and almost none of them qualify for it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Meet Julia--an imperfect introduction

Over the years, Sesame Street has been a model of inclusion.  They showed college-educated African-Americans in the 1960s, a Deaf main character in the 1970s, death and birth of characters in the 1980s, a Spanish-speaking muppet in the 1990s, and responses to natural disasters and crises in the 2000s.  On Monday, Sesame Street took another step into introducing kids to a diverse, imperfect world with the culmination of their "Be Amazing" initiative: a felt and wire muppet on the autism spectrum.  Julia is four years old, is able to speak (mostly echolalia, which is a legitimate form of communication), loves her stuffed rabbit Fluffster, and flaps and bounces when she is happy.

I'm not going to discuss the accuracy of her portrayal of autism.  There will always be autistic people who share some of her characteristics but not others.  (I'm using identity-first language here, as this is the choice of many autistic people.)  Instead, I'm going to go into the other characters reactions to her.  It's not all bad, but it's not perfect either.

The Good:
  • Julia communicates in various ways, whether it's shuddering at the finger paint, using echolalic speech, covering her ears, and bouncing and flapping.  Alan, Abby and Elmo treat her communication methods as legitimate and respond appropriately.
  • Alan explains Julia's differences to Big Bird in a way that shows that they are a part of her, and does not attempt to remove or suppress her differences at any time.
  • Julia is shown to have talents of her own.  Her painting of Fluffster with wings is not only imaginative, but technically advanced for a four-year-old.
  • When Julia starts bouncing during the game of tag, Abby joins in, not because she's "being nice to the disabled kid," but because it looks fun.
  • When Julia shuts down due to the siren, almost no one gets angry or upset with her.
The Bad:
  • Although most four-year-olds, autistic or not, are not the greatest self-advocates, it would have been nice for Julia to have been able to advocate for herself more without having someone else "translate."
  • When Abby and Elmo explain Julia's differences to Big Bird, it comes off as being patronizing.  They sound as if they are saying, "yeah, Julia's weird, but we're her friends anyway."  This is particularly glaring to me because both characters are supposed to be a full year younger.  It makes Julia's differences stand out more.
  • Big Bird comes off as kind of a dick in this episode, particularly during Julia's shutdown during the siren.  He's an 8' 2" yellow bird whose best friend is a furry, brown, earless elephant, and he can't deal with Julia because she has sensitive hearing?  His comment about the siren not being that loud comes off as dismissive.  (And autistic people are supposedly the ones who lack empathy...)
  • After the intro segment, Julia is not seen or heard from again for the rest of the episode.  I'm hoping this is not the Very Special Episode about autism, and Julia is integrated more into the life of the Street as the series progresses.  I also hope that she has a part in storylines not related to her identity as an autistic muppet.
Overall, I'd give the episode a C+.  It was a fair, but not great beginning.  Let's hope that, as time passes, that Sesame Workshop is improves their portrayal, and Julia becomes a character in her own right. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thirteen Reasons Why--a review

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Last year, I read the young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why.  Simple enough premise--Hannah Baker, a suicidal teenager, records a series of tapes before ending her life.  Her friend Clay Jensen receives the tapes, and some very simple instructions.  Listen to the tapes and then pass them on to the next person.  Stop passing them, and a third party will play the tapes for the entire school.  Oh, and if you received the tapes, you are one of the reasons that Hannah ended her life.  The recipients include the boy who was her first kiss (who spread rumors that they did so much more), catty girls who were "fake friends," a Peeping Tom photographer, the campus rapist, and a guidance counselor who didn't listen to her final cry for help, among other.  Clay?  Nice guy who had a crush on her, and who left her alone in a moment when she was in distress.
Netflix just turned it into a series.  Originally it was meant to be a movie, but instead, each of the tapes becomes its own episode.  The series begins after Hannah's suicide, and while the school puts on a public display of mourning, Hannah's parents are commencing a lawsuit against the school.  Clay receives the tapes, and is one of the last of the listed recipients, so most of the other people on the tapes have already heard them.  And here is where things get interesting.   Clay considered Hannah a close friend, and had a mild crush on her, so he wonders what he could have done to make her suicidal.  Instead, he goes after the other recipients.  Most of them are the "good" kids--athletes, student government leaders, cheerleaders, popular kids--and so they're more concerned about saving their own reputations than about considering the repercussions of their actions.  There is a hope that once someone is "gone," those who bullied and tormented that person, who made their lives a living hell, will feel remorse for what they did.  With few exceptions, none of them feel any remorse at all.  Instead, they try to paint Hannah as an unstable liar.  When that doesn't work, they go after Clay...
The moral is supposed to be that every action has consequences, and that what someone considers a "harmless" prank could inflict serious damage on another person.  However, this lesson seems lost on every recipient of the tapes, including Clay.  Many of them deny their involvement, and with good reason.  If those tapes come out, they could be in serious trouble.  Bryce committed two rapes.  Justin not only assisted Bryce with one (and of his girlfriend, no less), but spread a photo of Hannah with her skirt up.  Tyler stalked Hannah for weeks, and also spread a suggestive photograph.  Sherri knocked down a stop sign, causing an accident in which another student died.  Marcus felt her up against her will.  Ryan stole one of her poems and published it without her knowledge or consent.  So, just with a few people, we have rape, accomplice to rape, dissemination of child pornography (Hannah was a minor), leaving the scene of an accident, destruction of city property, sexual harassment, and theft of intellectual property.  And while the other people named on the tape may not have committed felonies, their actions do not place them in a very positive light either.  They bullied Hannah, spread rumors about her, hurt her as revenge on third parties, and played pranks.  And thought a few flowers and signs on her locker could make it all better.  (A rather amusing scene features Courtney, one of the recipients, and Hannah's mother.  Courtney tells Mrs. Baker that she and Hannah were good friends.  Mrs. Baker replies that if that were true, Courtney would never have used roses on Hannah's memorial, as Hannah hated roses.)  Meanwhile, few of them adjust their behavior after hearing the tapes.  The girl who knocked down the stop sign volunteered to help an old man injured in the accident, and eventually turned herself in.  Another boy eventually calls out all the recipients on the tape for caring more about their own skins.  But the others, including Clay, bully Tyler for being a Peeping Tom.  The athletes named on the tapes beat Clay up to keep him from talking, and Marcus plants drugs on Clay to discredit him.  Most of them throw Bryce and Justin under the bus.  And the sad part is, the school administration behaves no better than the kids, attempting to cover up their own involvement.  In the end, Clay reaches out to an unhappy classmate who has begun self-injury, and gives a digital copy of the tapes to Hannah's parents.
This series is a distressing look at the dynamics of human connections, or lack thereof.  It shows that, for all we think that we are "good" people, we have the capacity to do great harm.  That at our core, most of us are self-absorbed and cruel.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Cyberbullying--new wineskins, old wine

Recently, an eleven-year-old boy committed suicide because he thought his girlfriend killed herself.  It turned out that the girlfriend had used a friend's Snapchat account (and the help of some of her other friends) to play a prank on the boy.  And now, she's in trouble with the law.  Reading the comments on the article, so many blame easy access to social media for the girl's actions. 
Yes, Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram are relatively new.  Teenagers acting like assholes however?  Has been going on since the dawn of time.  This same prank could have happened without a single cell phone.
Girl convinces a few of her friends to tell Boy that she committed suicide and then cuts school for the day.  Boy, distraught, runs to a teacher, who has Girl's parents called.  Parents are unable to find Girl (because no one has a cell phone), and call the cops.  Boy, devastated, jumps off the school roof at lunchtime.  Meanwhile, Girl comes home from the mall and has to deal with not only her furious parents, but some incredibly ticked-off cops.  Same prank, same outcome--and nary a cell phone or social media account in sight.
While I don't think the girl should be charged with homicide, she needs to realize that actions have consequences, and that a "cute," "harmless" prank is neither.  Bullies (and that's what this girl is, social media or no social media) bully other kids because it's fun, and they get away with it.  Once they have their asses handed to them with hard consequences, they usually stop, because it's not worth it anymore.  Certainly a harassment conviction and a couple of nights in juvie will straighten out her head.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Destigmatizing mental health--who benefits?

There is a bill in Congress that has passed the House, and I wonder how many of you have heard of it.  It's called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016, affectionately nicknamed the "Murphy Bill" after Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania.  Among its provisions is the "Compassionate Communication on HIPAA"--which basically means if you have a mental illness, and a family member--or your doctor--decides that you are "in crisis," your right to privacy goes out the window.
Meanwhile, after Carrie Fisher's death, we learn that she was a tireless advocate for destigmatizing mental illness.  A number of people started coming out last year as "mentally ill."  Destigmatization for the win!
But who wins?
The juxtaposition of these two events shows that we have not destigmatized mental illness at all.  What we have done is destigmatize mental illness treatment.  Specifically, we have destigmatized one particular treatment model--behavioral therapy and psychotropic medication.  But, as the above bill shows, we still see the mentally ill as unstable and incompetent.
Mental illness is not simple.  It's a festering, bubbling cauldron of trauma, loneliness, financial stressors, chemical dependency, marginalized identity, and living in a society that does not handle pain well.  Because it is so complicated, there cannot be a simple, quick, "one-size-fits-all" solution.  Unfortunately, the limitations of insurance, our culture's need for the "quick fix," and the idea that "doctor knows best" lead us to pushing the above model.  When it works, it works.  When it doesn't--then a complicated problem can become very bad very quickly. 
We know that this model works for the provider.  They have a steady stream of patients.  And we know it works for the various social service agencies who can pat themselves on the back and say that they are doing something.  But what of the patient?  What can the patient do when a medication doesn't work, or the behavioral model of therapy is a poor fit?  If they go with the program, they are wasting time and resources on a treatment that doesn't work.  If they don't--then their doctor can say they are "in crisis."  And the stakes are high.  So much rides on keeping a provider happy.  Those determined to be "mentally ill" can potentially lose their children, their jobs, their access to schooling, and their freedom.  And now, they can take away your right to privacy as well.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Do we really love the geeks?

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about "geek is chic."  Comic book movies are coming out at least once a year, shows like Dr. Who and the Big Bang Theory have sizeable followings, and computers are as much a part of life as televisions once were.  Geek culture appears to be in.
But what of the geeks themselves?
Being a geek has never been about specific fandoms or about black-rimmed glasses.  Star Wars may have been a geek obsession as a sci-fi movie, but it was also the highest-grossing film for its time.  I doubt it was because a handful of kids in glasses and calculator watches saw it over and over again.  True geekery is about single-minded drive.  It's about latching onto something and pursuing for its own sake.  And that drive is something that our culture doesn't always appreciate.
As an example, let's look at a subject that is poorly understood and somewhat maligned--mathematics.  Since I started studying mathematics, I've noticed that the response I get from non-math people when I bring up what I'm studying is similar to the response I would get from introducing a two-headed garden snake--revulsion mingled with awe that I would even go near such a thing.  Sad, really.  Hidden Figures may have been nominated for Best Picture, but I doubt that enrollment in math departments and calculus classes will go up as a result.  (The class I took with the highest attrition rate was Calculus 2).  Similarly, with computer programming.  Last semester, I took an intro course in computer programming.  Out of a class of 30, maybe half turned up for the final.  Most people dropped out because it was "too hard."
Our culture loves the end result of geekery more than the geeks themselves.  We love programmers for giving us apps and games for our phones.  Does that mean that we would want to talk to an actual programmer about languages and debugging techniques?  Sheldon Cooper is abrasive and obnoxious.  He's also a Caltech engineer who makes a buttload of money.  How many of my readers laugh at his antics?  How many of us want a real Sheldon Cooper in our lives?  We love us some Game of Thrones, but we also call George R. R. Martin a "fat fuck" when he can't get the next volume out fast enough to satisfy our curiosity.  (And let's be honest here.  How many Game of Thrones fans actually heard of A Song of Ice and Fire before the show came out?)
What we love about "geek culture" is when something is so well done that it goes mainstream.  Because with it comes status and money--the two things geeks don't really care about when choosing an interest.  Sure, we may want our manga to sell.  Internet videographers would love to be the next Nostalgia Critic.  But only so that we can support ourselves doing what we love.  Anyone who pursues a field solely to "get rich" with find the work a disappointing slog.  And those who have been successful only were because their passion made the product special enough to be appreciated.  And that passion may create some of the greatest works and theories in history, but it doesn't make for scintillating coffee klatch conversation.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Jesus Camp and the 2016 election

In 2006, a documentary called Jesus Camp was released.  It followed three children who spent their summer at an Evangelical camp, and was largely a commentary on Evangelical Christian culture.
Now, I don't have a problem with the camp's existence.  My own children attend Jewish day camps every year.  Every summer, they pack up their modest bathing suits and their siddurim for a summer of fun with other Jewish kids in a Jewish environment.  So, if Christian parents wish to have their children in a religious environment, fine by me.
The documentary followed three of the camp attendees.  Levi was homeschooled using Christian curriculum materials that completely misrepresent science.  Rachael read Chick tracts and tried to convert strangers in a bowling alley.  Tory was in a Christian dance troupe where the costumes were military-knockoff camo gear.  But that wasn't my problem.
My problem is with the culture of the camp itself.
The documentary included scenes of the children praying over a life-size cardboard statue of then president George W. Bush.  The camp's culture encouraged patriotism and fealty to the Republican Party and its ideals.  At one point, the camp brought in an anti-abortion speaker who talked about the "millions of babies being killed" in a way that made the children cry.  He also taped the kids' mouths with red tape that said "LIFE" and handed out miniscule rubber baby dolls that represented embryos.  There was also a scene in which the campers are picketing the Supreme Court regarding an abortion case.  Camp director Becky Fischer was quoted as saying that she took her cues from Islamic extremists, who brainwash their followers into suicide bombings.  Although Fischer is not advocating direct acts of violence, she is pushing the children into specific political thought.  Christianity is now about conforming to an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ, pro-Republican agenda.
Here's the other problem.  This documentary was released in 2006.  It is now 2017.  Every single one of the kids in that documentary is now old enough to vote, and more than likely did so in the last election.  Their main concerns would not have been equal rights, or preserving health insurance for the working poor, or increasing employment opportunities.  Their concerns would have been reversing the Obergefell decision, giving protected status to Christian companies a la the Hobby Lobby case, reversing Roe v. Wade, and the spread of Christianity at the expense of non-Christians.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Meanwhile, back in Congress...

As I said in my last post, it's been a busy month for the President.  On this day, February 20, he has already been in office for one month and has managed to still maintain the country's attention.  (It's not always the good kind of attention, but it is attention.  #WeAreAllSweden.  #RememberBowlingGreen.)
But today, I want to talk about that other branch of government, one that's a lot less popular.  Give it up for the US Congress!  535 members, split between the 100-member Senate and the 435-member House of Representatives.  The Senate is headed by VP Mike Pence (who only votes if there's a tie), and the House is headed by number 3 in line for the White House, Speaker Paul Ryan, Republican from Wisconsin's District 1.  Former VP candidate.  Guy who is partially responsible for Romney's bid for presidency tanking.  Infamous for wanting to dismantle Medicare.  And according to Queen Mom, with the country treating the president like a chimp on a unicycle, he has his chance.  I disagree.
See, the current administration is not the Congress of Queen Mom's time.  So much has changed since my mother first cast a ballot.  No more must we wait for our news at 6 and 11.  The rise of cable television meant not only the public access channel would live-stream Congress, but the Cable News Network (CNN) would provide 24 hour news coverage focusing on the entire world.  (Yes, I know cable has been around since the 1940s, but few people really had it until the 1980s.)  And CNN is not the only player in this game.  Fox News and MSNBC have also joined in along with Internet reporting in real time.  The only question is separating the truth from the not truth.  CNN is still considered fairly reliable.  And, having been derided as "fake news," they are no fans of the current administration.  This includes the 535 members of Congress.
Congress is now being scrutinized from all angles.  Unlike TV news, Internet news has the response button.  Stories can be liked, commented on and shared within a matter of minutes straight to our phones.  And now, the people can react within minutes, instead of saving up their frustrations for the ballot box.
"We're going to dismantle the independent ethics commission!"
"Like HELL you are!"
"Never mind!"
The Affordable Care Act, supposedly the first thing to go under the new administration, is still largely intact.  No longer was the discussion about high rates and faulty exchange websites, but about twenty million Americans--voters and the children of voters--losing their healthcare.  And this is a law enacted in 2010.  Imagine the outcry if longstanding programs like Medicare and Social Security wind up on the chopping block.  No one will do it because they will be out of office in the next election cycle.  And unlike the President, who has four years to convince the country that he should be re-elected, the House has only two year terms.  Paul Ryan has to think about how well dismantling Medicare will go over. 
I don't imagine it will go over well.
Unlike the AFDC, which was all but dismantled in the 1990s (TANF, the law that followed, provides fewer protections and more limitations), Medicare and Social Security are not "poor people's programs."  (which, to many, mean "black people's programs.)  They are "everybody's programs."  They are programs which middle-class, middle Americans rely upon for their retirement and healthcare for aging parents.  Telling the under-55 crowd that they will not have the same assistance that their parents (or even in some cases, older siblings) have, will not go over well in Wisconsin's District 1.  And, given how many members of Congress have come home to torches, pitchforks, tar and feathers already, I don't think anyone else will suggest it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

It's only been three weeks...

Next Monday is President's Day, and appropriately enough, it will also be the one-month mark on this presidency.  So, how are we doing so far?
  • Inauguration Day protests led to the arrests and detention of six journalists.
  • Comparisons of the size of the crowd between the Obama and Trump inaugurations led to the coining of the term "alternative facts."
  • Trump has falsely claimed that between three and five million illegal votes were cast for Hillary Clinton.
  • Trump has labeled CNN "fake news."  (CNN has found so many "alternative facts" during press secretary Sean Spicer's press briefings that it has refused to air them until they could be fact-checked.)
  • Steve Bannon of alt-right propaganda site Breitbart has been added to the National Security Council--supposedly without Trump's understanding of what he was doing.
  • Trump's business interests are being held by his children, including his overseas holdings, in violation of the emoluments clause.
  • Trump has taken two weekends off to play golf (and it hasn't even been a month.)
  • Trump's executive order banning entry of anyone who has citizenship in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Sudan and Somalia was successfully challenged in court within 48 hours of being signed, and overturned in federal court not long afterwards.
  • ICE raids in urban areas have led to the detention and deportation of numerous immigrants.
  • A botched raid in Yemen led to the death of a Navy SEAL, the loss of an Osprey Plane, and the deaths of 25 civilians, including nine children.  Moreover, the Al-Qaida target remains at large.
  • National Security Advisor Michael Flynn has been forced to resign under suspicion that he has been involved in unlawful communications with Russia.
  • Tornadoes throughout the Southeast have not been responded to in a timely fashion by FEMA.  Meanwhile, a dam breach in California is being completely ignored.  (Makes me long for the days of "Brownie".  He did a heckuva job...)
A presidency riddled with scandals, questions, and poor judgement.  And it's only been three weeks.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

What did I sign up for--Abuse and divorce

So, it looks like I'm taking a little break from everything wrong with American politics to discuss--everything wrong with Israeli politics.  Specifically, this cute little story out of Jerusalem.
A woman sues for divorce on the grounds of domestic violence.  Naturally, the Beit Din cannot force the man to give a get, but they have the power to sanction in case of refusal.  In this case, they did not use that power because--the husband only assaulted his wife after she left him.
Wow.  Just--wow. 
"When a man takes a wife and is intimate with her, and it happens that she does not find favor in his eyes because he discovers in her an unseemly [moral] matter, and he writes for her a bill of divorce and places it into her hand, and sends her away from his house," (Devarim 24:1).
"She does not find favor in his eyes" are the grounds for a get, according to Torah text.  I'd say assaulting her was evidence that he found her "unfavorable."
The rabbis argue that if she hadn't left, he would never have assaulted her.  However, I would argue that, based on everything I've read about DV, physical assault was the escalation of a situation that has gone very, very bad.  Usually, the wife leaving is a catalyst for escalation of abuse, and this can range from physical assault to murder.  (I actually know someone this happened to.  The wife was a victim of emotional abuse for years.  She left her husband, and he physically assaulted her.)  Moreover, the rabbis' statement sounds a lot like victim-blaming.
To me, there should be no discussion.  The man assaulted his wife.  We have it on the record.  This is grounds not only for divorce, but a restraining order.  The Torah is about compassion.  Where is the compassion for the abuse survivor?  Why do we have none for this poor woman?

Friday, February 10, 2017

Betsy DeVos's Department of Non-Education?

So, a few days ago, the controversial Betsy DeVos was confirmed for Secretary of Education.  A Secretary of Education who has never set foot in a public school as an educator, student, or even parent of a student, who supports religious charter education (read: Christian).   Her positions on education, not to mention her lack of experience, were so controversial that two Republicans "crossed party lines" and voted against her.  The deciding vote was cast by our VP.
In my time on this planet, I attended eight brick and mortar schools (six public, two private), homeschooled myself, briefly homeschooled my children, and enrolled them in yeshiva under court order.  I've seen a lot of schools.  Ignoring some of the obvious problems (like DeVos's comments about guns in school being needed in case of bear attacks), here is why I find her appointment "problematic".

Private schools, public funds:  DeVos is a strong proponent of "school choice," which sounds lovely but isn't.  In practice, this means that parents can send their children to any school that has space, opt for publicly-funded charter schools, or take their cut of per-pupil funding and use it for private schooling.  Again, all this sounds nice in theory.  In practice?  Well...
One of the last schools I attended was an all-girls boarding school in New England.  During the summer before I attended, the main classroom building underwent a complete renovation.  Well, almost complete.  There were no built-in accommodations for anyone with a physical disability.  No elevators.  No automatic door openers.  No ramps.  Not even Braille on the classroom doors.  And this was in 1996.  The Americans with Disabilities act passed in 1990.  The message was clear--disabled students were not welcome.  (This "enlightened" attitude extended to mental illness.  Several students going through mental health crises were quietly "counseled out.").
While it sounds great that parents can have access to any school for their children, in practice, parents are constrained by location, availability of transportation, knowledge of options and the time to follow through with applying to them, finances, and their children's academic performance and behavior.  (Not too many parents in western Pennsylvania, for example, will "choose" to send their children to the Bronx High School for Science).
Public school, by definition, must take everyone who lives in their district.  Private schools can cherry-pick based on student ability, family finances, lack of behavioral or emotional problems, parental involvement, etc.  At least one yeshiva, for example, turned us away because I had taken out an order of protection, and I'm sure more than one turned us away because I came in as a single mother.  So all that lovely school choice comes down to the schools doing the choosing.  And this is in urban areas, where there are actually many schools.  What happens in a rural area where the only remaining public schools convert to Christian-run charters?  What about Jewish children?  Or children whose parents are openly gay?  What sort of "choices" will be available to them?

IDEA--Federal Protection Left to the States:  During the confirmation hearings, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA), asked Ms. DeVos about the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act.  Ms. DeVos stated that this was best left to the states.  I will repeat this.  A federal law to protect children with disabilities is best left to the states.
IDEA is already problematic because it is an "unfunded mandate."  Schools have to comply, but are not given the funds to do so.  Moreover, students with disabilities are routinely stigmatized against, the idea being that they take time and attention away from "the kids who can learn."  This leads, in part, to educational triage.  Only students with the severest and most glaringly obvious disabilities receive assistance at all, while those with milder issues are left to flounder in classrooms without assistance.  Moreover, attempts to "mainstream" often mean that students with disabilities are placed in regular classrooms with teachers that have no training in special education and a hostility to the disabled students.  These children are then pegged as "unable to learn," "unmotivated," "lazy," or "behavior problems."
What will happen if this law is left to the states?  Will some states choose to ignore it altogether?  Will children with disabilities be excluded from the classroom altogether, at a point in history when they are only beginning to progress?  Will they be shunted into "special education classrooms" that are little more than warehousing?  Will geography determine access?

Curriculum Questions: I live in NY State, which has some of the strictest regulations for homeschooling in the USA.  And I agree with many of them.  Children have a right to be educated, and I believe that, at a minimum, the parents should be accountable for ensuring their children stay as close to grade level as possible.  Imagine my shock, then, when dealing with the yeshiva system.  My older daughter's social studies textbook in the second grade listed Ronald Reagan as "the current president" (this was in the 2014-2015 school year, so a bit outdated?).  Their yeshiva teaches next to nothing in the way of history or science.  (They get a science teacher every two weeks for an hour.  That's 90 hours, or only 1/12 of the school year). 
The lack of national curriculum prior to No Child Left Behind is not well-known.  School boards have enormous power to decide curriculum.  For example, in Massachusetts, I learned that Jamestown was the first European settlement in what is now the United States (it was actually St. Augustine), and in Nebraska, it was implied that FDR was evil incarnate.  Once curriculum choices are left entirely to the schools, what will happen?  Will schools decide not to teach algebra anymore?  Will evolution be taught as scientific theory, or as mythology? 

Looking Past K-12:  When we think of "education," we often think of our neighborhood public schools.  But public education includes publicly funded Early Intervention programs, Head Start, and public colleges and universities.  Since Early Intervention is a program to assist infants and toddlers with developmental delays "catch-up" to their peers, the questions about that fall under my discussion of IDEA.  But what about Head Start, UPK, and college?  What happens to their funding?
Not every parent gets the luxury of staying home with their children during the pre-kindergarten years.  I did, and it was a wonderful experience.  But there are many parents who are working two and three jobs just to keep a roof over their families' heads.  They can't read their children picture books, teach them the ABCs, or take them to parks and museums on a daily basis.  For more affluent families, private preschools have been around for years.  In 1965, Head Start was created as a means to provide some "catch-up" to the children of impoverished families who couldn't afford private preschools.  The program was expanded in 1981, and today serves over 1 million impoverished children, who might receive no pre-school preparation otherwise.  In an age of academic-based kindergarten, this preparation is crucial for success.
And then there is college.  Funding for public colleges and universities has been drying up for years.  The result is rising tuitions and a dearth of full-time professor positions, as retiring professors are replaced by poorly-paid adjuncts.  Adjuncts hold the same degrees as professors, but are hired on a class-by-class basis with no benefits or job security.  Many have to teach seven classes at three or four colleges just to survive.  The real losers here are the students, who don't get any real attention from their overworked instructors.  (It doesn't help that they have to juggle academic courseloads with one or more jobs.)  As professor positions dry up, enrollment will decline at the graduate level.  (This is already happening in law schools, as high tuitions are a dearth of jobs are leading people away from the legal profession).  Moreover, as tuitions rise with limited return, how many students will even go to college anymore?  What will happen to public funding for Head Start, college, and Early Intervention?  And how will that affect education as a whole?

Friday, February 3, 2017

Religion, politics, and math

Recently, I saw an article about Google, Apple, Facebook, and other tech companies protesting Trump's executive order regarding immigration.  These companies are upset because so much of their workforce comes from the Middle East and South Asia.  Queen Mom remarked that she agreed with the idea that tech companies should hire Americans, and stop importing their talent.  My response?  "You couldn't find enough people in this country who could do the work."
Since the proliferation of personal computers and the Internet in the 1980s and 1990s, tech jobs have held a certain panache in the public's mind, and the increased emphasis on the need for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) has become a major educational issue.  However, we as a society will never accomplish this in any meaningful way for one reason--it is socially acceptable to hate math.
I am currently studying for a second bachelor's degree in actuarial mathematics, and I run across this a lot.  Here's how the conversation usually goes:
"What are you studying?"
"Actuarial mathematics."
"What do you do with that?"
"Assess and manage risk for financial institutions, banks, insurance companies, etc."
"Sounds fascinating.  I could never do that, though.  I hate math."
End conversation.
Being a math major is a lonely life.  You can't discuss your coursework with anyone, because they get bored with it.  If I accomplish something, like properly negate a statement, or remember a Taylor expansion, I can't tell anyone because they'll laugh at me.  But if my artist friends paint a piece, or get cast in a role, or write a story, they can show it off without risking public derision.  I've started joking that the three taboo subjects for mixed conversation are religion, politics, and mathematics.  Religion and politics, are of course, invitations for controversy.  Math is not controversial.  It's just all but universally hated.  Even educated people with advanced degrees feel this way.  Donald Trump has a higher approval rating than math does.  Most people I've run across outside of my math classes would rather spend a day with their most hated political figure than take a calculus class. 
The sad irony is that math isn't even that hard.  I consider myself a mediocre mathematician at best, and yet I still grapple with differential equations and proofs as part of my coursework.  Math is more about perseverance than raw talent.  But so many people shrug it off as boring and useless.

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Keeping a Republic

After the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin was asked what had come out of it.  Franklin famously answered, "A Republic, if you can keep it."
The first Constitutional Convention was truly an amazing things.  Thirteen sovereign nations brought their shared goals and some knowledge of English Common Law to the table and created a set of laws like no other.  An independent judiciary.  A free press.  Checks on the executive branch's power.  No state established religion.  The right of private citizens to bear arms.  Fair treatment to those accused of crimes.  Rights guaranteed to the state governments.  And, as time went on, these protections expended to include the creation of the electoral college, the abolition of slavery, equal protection and voting rights for all citizens, and term limits for our head of state.  The Constitution of the United States of America has truly been one of our treasures for 230 years.
Is it coming to an end?
Last Friday, President Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven different countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and the Sudan).  It applied to all immigrants from those countries, even those who had green cards or US passports.  People flying in from those nations when the order was signed were either detained at airports, instantly deported, or removed from flights.  Americans protested in airports from New York to DC to Chicago the Boston to Philadelphia.  Others sued in federal court.  By the next night, a federal judge in Brooklyn had declared a partial stay on the order for those who had already arrived, and ordered them released from detention.  Three more federal courts followed suit.  Checks and balances ruled the day.  And there was much rejoicing.

It didn't last.
By Monday, we learned that Customs and Border Patrol were defying the judicial orders in favor of the executive order (which had effectively been overturned by the court.)  Moreover, they were denying the detainees access to attorneys and advocates.  Several members of Congress, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, attempted to intervene on the detainees' behalf, but were also turned away.  By Monday night, the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, was fired by the president for refusing to defend his executive order.
Somehow, none of this looks like my idea of "making America great again."
This series of events started with immigration and has gone on to be an attack on the very foundations of our government.  We have always prided ourselves on our smooth transitions of power, our checks and balances.  However, those checks and balances seem to be on life support.  Our freedoms are in jeopardy, as the president muzzles government agencies and his office presents "alternative facts" (how Orwellian).  Protestors are derided as "snowflakes" and "sore losers."  And the freedoms that we take for granted are being denied to those who have already been granted access.
It's time to ask ourselves: Can we keep this Republic?

Coming out of retirement--Lysistrada and personal responsibility

So, I had to go underground for a while because anything I blog could and would be used against me in a court of law.  However, as of April 2016, that is no longer an issue, since I am no longer espoused to Builder (hereafter known as Mr. X) in the eyes of G-d or the courts.  And there was much rejoicing (Yaay!).  Much has changed, of course.  I have gone from homemaker to mathematics student (because STEM fields pay enough to support two kids in the most expensive city in America).  The girls are in school, and hating every minute of it (Le sigh).  And now, I get to be a lot more outspoken!
So, on to our wonderful political scene, or that which has brought me back into blogging.  There has been a lot of discussion of late about the dismantling of the ACA, or Obamacare, by our new administration.  One of the first items on the chopping block was the mandate that insurance companies fund contraceptive devices.  (Remember, as always, contraceptives are not abortifacients.  You can't terminate a pregnancy that never happened.  All comments referencing abortion will therefore be deleted.)  The pushback against this rule always came down to statements about how women should take "personal responsibility."
OK, I'm game.  We'll take a page from Lysistrada, a Greek play about women who stopped having sex with their husbands to protest a war.  From here on in, all women of childbearing age should simply stop having sex with men.  Husbands, fianc├ęs, boyfriends, one night stands are all off limits.  And, should your man protest, just bat your eyes coyly and say, "Oh, honey, I'd love to, but I'm exercising personal responsibility."  My guess, it would take about a month before contraceptives are funded 100%.
See, when we talk about "personal responsibility" in the context of contraception, we are talking about women having sex.  We frame the conversation as though every woman who dares take the Pill or get fitted for an IUD is one of those slutty slutty mcslutty whores who just want to sleep around scot free.  Not like the pure virgins or matrons who have earned our respect.
Except--those sperm cells don't differentiate between the squeaky clean pure married ladies we hold up as exemplars of womanhood and everyone else.  A woman's ovaries don't stop working just because she had those 2.8 kids the statisticians discuss.  Any woman who has any intercourse with any man--ring on her finger or not--can find herself having more children than she can support.  And suddenly, we sneer in our contempt, "If you can't feed 'em, don't breed 'em."
So, we take steps to avoid it, while still participating in sex acts that enhance relationships for 99% of us (about 1% of the population identifies as asexual).   We exercise our "personal responsibility" by using contraceptives.  The end result is fewer pregnancies, fewer families in poverty, and--surprise! fewer abortions.
Women are already trapped in a horrible place when it comes to sex.  We are expected to provide it on demand to our spouses (spousal rape may be illegal, but good luck having a prosecutor actually take you seriously), but when we get pregnant as a result, we have to bear an enormous strain on our bodies.  We lose jobs.  We could lose healthcare.  We have the added burden of another mouth to feed--and expected to do it as valuable legal protections for women, access to healthcare, and our social safety net are rapidly dwindling.  The only low-cost provider of pre-natal services in some areas is Planned Parenthood--which may lose access to Medicaid reimbursement for care under our current administration.  So, when we try to utilize the insurance we pay into (and all taxpayers pay into Medicaid in some form or other) to prevent a(nother) pregnancy, we are shut down with "It's not my job to pay for your birth control!  Why don't you keep your legs closed?"
Fine.  Challenge accepted.  We stop putting out until the conversation changes.  Then maybe our society won't be so quick to yell about "personal responsibility."