Archive for: October, 2017

Must See: Slavery & the Civil War

Oct 31 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the things that really frosts my shorts is the current (and ongoing) revisionism about "why was the Civil War fought?". I live in the North, now, and I see Confederate Flags. Why is this acceptable?

One of the best, mostly easily digestible, short but incisive videos I've seen in a long time is a short from Colonel Ty Seidule,  a West Point Professor of History.

He addresses the question as to why there is still, 150 years later, controversy about the Civil War. Was it about Slavery? In asking why is there controversy, he says:

Many people don’t want to believe that the citizens of the sourthern states were willing to fight and die to preserve a morally repugnant institution.

We just can’t believe it.

There has to be another reason.

Well, there isn’t.

As Ta-Nehisi Coats says: Colonel Ty Seidule kicks the facts. Watch this video. Share it with your friends.

The evidence is clear & overwhelming.

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More reasons to be Old (as if you could help it)

Oct 31 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Mornings are just the best. The best. They are quiet. There are no children. There are no partners. If breakfast sounds like a good idea, one can have what one wants. If not, there is coffee. and quiet. Did I mention the quiet? And the ability to write a post without being interrupted. I love mornings.

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Logic on safety

Oct 30 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

My father, only partly jokingly, used to say that one of the issues with car safety is that people who cause accidents don't bare the cost/brunt/result of their bad driving. "If we mounted spikes on the steering wheel", he said "long sharp spikes" so that if you braked suddenly or hit someone, you would get a long sharp spike in your chest, "everyone would drive much more carefully and never drive drunk". Actually, I suspect this might not hold for adolescents who believe they are immortal.

Part of the problem, as Dick Lewontin, the population geneticist used to say, is that people aren't good at integrating. That is, they don't do well with calculating the area under the curve. Thus a narrow spike, like 9/11 changes our government (has dept. of homeland security really done anything to merit the amount of money it sucks up?), our lives, and everything else. I am not saying that the lives lost were not important, or that it wasn't a horrible event. I'm talking about the proportionality of the response. A small, steady, but constant problem, like drunk driving, which isn't dramatic, has a bigger impact over time, but doesn't get the attention. Some would say this echoes our nervous system: we respond better to edges than to gradual changes.

According to the CDC:

In 2015, 10,265 people died in alcohol-impaired driving crashes, accounting for nearly one-third (29%) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States

One bit of information is that drunk driving is only 1/3 of the deaths, so we're talking about >30,000 per year in car deaths. The deaths in 9/11 were a one-time count of 2996 (note: the deaths due to 9/11 may be rising due to pulmonary complications. acknowledged. check. but those deaths are not what the response was about).

It's been 16 years, and in that time (doing the integration) 480,000 people have died in traffic accidents.

Although awareness of drunk driving has increased. Certainly, it more important than it was when I was young. But, despite the level of attention it receives, there is still an issue, and one about which we, as a society, are reluctant to grasp and address. Certainly if we compare the response to 9/11 to that of drunk driving, we come up short.

There are lots of reasons. There are reasons that promote dealing with 9/11 and others that reduce the attention on drunk driving. Politics: those in power tend to drink but not fly planes into buildings. Politics: you look good by advocating a strong stance on terrorism. Heck, let's declare war on a noun.

And drunk driving is only one thing. There are other, largely preventable causes of death, including other substance abuse, faulty infrastructure, being it fire safety or hurricane preparedness. I suspect there is more public money going into hurricane response (if you are white, etc... Do not forget Puerto Rico) than infrastructure in general.  But hurricanes are dramatic one off things, as opposed to the slow daily and deadly drip of people killed by drunk drivers. We like the dramatic things, but we just can't integrate under the curve.

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Oct 27 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

This happened a while ago (but within last 2 years). I'm posting it now, because I wanted to be sure it was not associated with my most recent study section.

The proposal was from an experienced PI. I don't remember, but it could have been 2nd R01 or at least a post K22/23 level person. The person was not just content with shaving the margins down to the minimum, using the smallest permissible font, and making captions on the figures


Image result for communist era block architectureAs I have often said, there is lots of argument about how your proposal should work. (see here and here and here, but remember rules have changed since some of these things were written). Certainly, do not push the legal limits. But I always feel that big enormous communist-era blocks of text are depressing and dispiriting to a reviewer. If I turn the page and see solid top to bottom, left to right text, and my heart sinks. I am going to have to work very hard to be your advocate for a proposal like this.


This proposal tried something I've not seen before. They added footnotes. FOOTNOTES. Who the heck in science uses footnotes? The footnotes were also in a


font. I figured they got another 1/2 page of text this way. The footnotes were "definitions" of concepts. Like hopping. Or justifications. Like why we used bunnies. There was a debate (oye, are there debates), as to whether we could dock the score for such a blatant disregard of format rules. The answer from the SRO, was no, we can't. But I know that no one wanted to be the advocate for this proposal.

I have always thought that page limits/word limits are your friend. They tell you how much information the reader is expecting. How much you should include. If it is not enough room to say what you think you need to say, you are trying to say too much.

Protip: don't do this. The study section was irritated, and, I believe (although was not explicitly informed) that the proposal got pulled.


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Whistle-blowing, Uber and the NYTimes

Oct 26 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

Susan Fowler, the engineer who "blew the whistle" on the rampant sexism at Uber, is profiled in last Sunday's NYTimes.

Her story grabs you, if you are one of the many, many women who have lived through something similar. Your story doesn't have to even be as blatant, or disgusting or life-changing to be able to bring back those visceral feelings of shock replaced by horror and, eventually after it has happened again and again, the dispair of "will this ever end" and "will anyone ever take me seriously?".

Her story is powerful but the profile is dreadfully written. In the "Sunday Style" section, nee the Women's Pages of the newspapers of my youth, it is told in a breathless, histrionic tone. The writing never avoids a shocking metaphor or lurid writing when the opportunity presents. Surrounded by wedding announcements and ads for lingerie, purses and jewelry, it reduces Fowler's story to a modern harlequin romance or the women's version of Pilgrim's Progress.

Digging down into the specifics, buried in the last two columns on page 9, is the horror what happened after her blog post. I will give piece this: it shows Arianna Huffington to be the ass she is:

Ms. Huffington told me that she agreed the problem was "systemic sexism" but that she did not believe there was "systemic sexual harassment".

WTF? Yes, we are sexist, but we keep it to ourselves, so there is no harassment. The message to the women who complained, to Huffington on the board, and to HR, was "yes, this happens" but the public face was always "there is really no problem, but if there was we would have already corrected it".

Just going through the details of the article, the ranks of denial, the serial offenses, brings back memories. Going to HR and being told no problem exists. In one point in the article, it quotes Fowler talking about how the election of Trump made her feel powerless, a feeling she thinks hasurred greater activism on the part of many women.

When I was in grad school, long, long ago, I always thought that by the time I got to be old, issues of racism and sexism would be gone. There are deep, ugly, oily waters of hate, of dismissal, of degradation of women, and people of color, the people who are our brothers and sisters and siblings of non-binary gender identity who are just different. These feelings pool and run underneath the veneer of "patriotism.

Oh, and New York Times? Take these stories out of the "society" pages and put them where they belong.

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A few thoughts on elderly parents (part 2): Stuff about the elderly that is hard

Oct 25 2017 Published by under parents, Uncategorized

It's hard for us. It's hard for them. But: no one likes getting old. I'm not talking about embracing the I'm post-menopausal and not afraid of death old. I mean acknowledging that one is frail, and of diminished capacity in one way or another.

So: many elderly probably shouldn't be driving. Their vision is worse, in some cases their sense of space and distance is worse. But we live in a society where for many, if not most, people, not driving is not an option. You can't get a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk, let alone anything else, without getting into a car. Yes, there is uber and lyft and taxis and public transport. But have you tried those for everyday stuff? Not easy. What if you don't have a credit card? or a smart phone? Yes, we are scared to death they will hurt someone. And usually it's a bad car accident that makes them stop.

Many people refuse to plan for, or acknowledge, or really do anything about getting older. They all think: "It won't happen to me". This is part of the driving thing, but also doing laundry if your washer is in the basement. Its getting hearing aids and new glasses. Its figuring out the new interface that the bank, the credit card, the Social Security administration has online. All of this is hard, and its doubly hard if you didn't grow up with the technology or you still don't type (when I was in high school, typing was a girl's class). It's figuring out what to do when you computer isn't talking to the internet and you can't see the hardware.

It's forgetting that you left the kettle on, till it burns through, but you are too embarrassed to tell your kid, the one who lives near by, and its too hard to get to Walmart to buy a new one (because that's all you can afford) so you do without tea or coffee, because it's all so very very hard. But you miss the coffee and wonder how it got so bad.

I used to get so angry with my father who didn't like his hearing aids, and refused to wear them and then  couldn't understand a word I said about trying to make his computer talk to the internet (again).

We are angry because they live far away and don't want to leave what little of their life they have left. We are angry because they don't want to move some place where they will be safer, and probably happier. And then they get angry because who are we, their children, to tell them, the parents, how to live? We are angry because we want to help, and they don't want our help. They want to be left alone, thank you very much. And both sides often say: "and if you're going to be that way, just hang up now and stop bothering me".

But we love them, and try to remember how they, as best they could, supported us when we were difficult and unpleasant adolescents. So we call back and try to help, no matter how hard it is. And for those struggling right now, I say: I only wish I could have one more fight with my father or mother.

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Oct 25 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

I still think there should be a dinosaur named the Thesaurus.  And I imagine Thesaurus Rex would be badass with wordplay. -- Neil deGrasse Tyson

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Who's the most influential dog? Yes, you are, good dog, extra treat for you

Oct 24 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

So SCIENCE wrote an article based on an AI company's determination of "the most influential scientist". It and Jeremy Berg got some pushback because the list was not, as it is said, diverse.

Kudos to Datahound for listening. So while the lack of diversity is a problem, and a problem that happens over and over and a problem worthy of our time and attention, there's a bigger problem in the whole idea of most-influential.

Most Influential? The title could practically be click-bait. Who's the most <pick a superlative> of all <pick noun/job>?

We love knowing the best. And when I was at MRU, where the US N&WR rankings of medical schools were *important*, I knew people who cloaked in false modesty cared about being the <most> of something. These people were acutely aware of their place in the hierarchy, even as they pretended to be driven by something else. And sometimes the drive (to find a cure, a molecule, an answer) was real. Really. But they still knew who was "better" and "further along" and "more influential". It was the unstated sub-text.

The idea that there should be pleasure of a job well done, whether it is painting Sistine Chapel or decorating cookies for the postdoc's party, is given lip service. And actually some people who do things that fall between masterworks of genius and cookie decorating, understand it. They are often called "happy".

But we as a society, and even we, as the educated vanguard, banner carrying scientists committed to making the World A Better Place, care way too much about "the best". We are about glamour pubs, and claim that one can't get a job in academic research or an NIH grant funded without them. We care about impact factors, and h-indices and all the ways we can measure who's the best. We just talk about how our measuring the best is better than the way glossy magazines or talk show hosts measure.

In the end, there is a pleasure in making a beautiful cookie, doing an experiment, and even teaching a student who won't end up being one's brilliant legacy. Maybe that's just "little people" talk. But ask yourself: what do *you* want out of life. Don't answer me, answer yourself.

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A Few Thoughts on Elderly Parents (part 1)

Oct 23 2017 Published by under Alzheimer's disease, dementia, parents, time

One of the hardest things about "growing old" is watching those around you. I am still me, and day by day I may change, but I am still me on the inside. In some ways, getting older is like the frog in the pot. Put the frog in boiling water and it will jump out. Put the frog in cold water, and turn the heat up a tiny bit at a time, and the frog will let itself be cooked. Getting old happens a degree at a time. Before you know it, you have a belly and back aches and the strong desire to color your hair blue.

But while one is continuous and contiguous with ones younger self, one notices things in the other people in one's life.  Sometimes it just seeing a friend who you only see at the gym, out to dinner in fancy clothes. Sometimes its family members who live far away. These people have aged, and sometimes to a remarkable amount. The frog just jumps out of the pot.

The temporal bone is on the side of your head, and the temporalis muscle lies right above your jaw joint. They are called "temporal" not because your mind is your temple (despite what you may think). The "tempe" is from time, and the sides of your head, according to the ancients, is the canvas where Time's fingers first paint. Grey at the temples? Grey in time.

Sometimes it is not just grey beards and a shaky gait. Sometimes it starts being cognitive stuff. And if people dislike the idea that their bodies are aging, let me assure you that they like the idea of their mind aging even less. The clinical word for aging-illnesses of the mind is "dementia" de- for un- or bad, and "mentia" for mentation or mind. But as spastic, a very particular neuromuscular medical finding, was an childhood insult for kids you didn't like, demented is an insult for horror movies. And no one fancies themselves in horror movies, either as the monster or the victim.

So the first part of my advice about elder parents (or friend, or person-of-closeness-for-whom-a-standard-word-does-not-exist): acknowledge that it is hard for you. These are your (perhaps) beloved parents. Certainly these are people you remember being young and vital. They are people who (allegedly, in the best possible world, if things had maybe been different) cared for you. Who protected you. Who fed you, and now, now they are old, and weak and, yes, a bit pathetic, compared to your memory. This isn't easy.  I remember, well before dementia set in for my mother, seeing my parents walking down the street. Given where we were, at my sister's last apartment, they must have been in their 60's - the age I am now. I was going back to grad school, or postdoc? I had said goodbye and saw them walking away to visit friends who lived in the same city as my sister. They looked so old! This little old couple out of a movie or a story or something. Not my parents. I remember thinking: when did they get so old? And now: why didn't I run back and tell them that I loved them?

I've loved, been friends with, still am friends with, taken care of, and more, many "old" people. Old defined as older than me. Sometimes its not hard to be a friend to someone with a bad memory, or take a meal to someone who can't cook. Yet when it gets to be family, all the emotions get in the way. Stuff from when you were 8 or 12 or 16 or 30 shows up in your head, demanding attention. You may not be able to say "out damned spot" or you may, and the spot will stay. Just acknowledging it, seeing it, may help you set it aside.

One of the hardest things I did when my Mom was in the early-ish stages of Alzheimer's disease was realizing, and giving credence to the idea that I could no longer fight with her. That all the issues and tensions were going to be moot. She, strong intelligent and very hard on me, would get furious and stop talking to me if I tried to argue with her. And sometimes she would cry. If I tried to comfort her tears, she would double down on the anger and say very hurtful things, things she knew were hurtful. What kind of things? Things like "you will never be a good scientist". Or worse. She knew where my weak places were. In the beginning people with dementia are smart, and articulate and cruel. Executive function is one of the first things to go: the part of brain and personality that keeps civilization going, that keeps people from cursing and saying the worst that they think of.

I had to let go of the past. I had to say (and say over and over): you cannot fight with her. She is not the person she was. It felt unfair. It was unfair. It felt like she won in the end. That I could never convince her  of who I was? But who ever does win against their parent? By the time you can cognitively win, you are not playing and fighting with the opponent of your youth.

Eventually, I reached that place, and really, things were much easier for me. I was a duck and her words rolled off my back. Yes, Mom. Whatever you say Mom. There are other coping mechanisms. Other strategies. And, really, people who care. Let yourself cry and mourn what is lost, because truly, things are being lost. But you, you are still continuous with the glorious child that you were.


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The Invisible Woman

Oct 20 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

When I was a child there was a toy, but also exhibits at the Museum of Science & Industry (my favorite, hands down), called “the Visible Woman”. I think there was also a “Visible Man”, but it did not interest me at all. The visible woman had a clear exterior skin, and you could see bones and muscles (some) and hearts and lungs and stomachs and uteri. In my head, I thought of her as the “invisible woman” because you couldn’t really see her: her face and her skin.

I have now joined that legion of invisible women. In the intertubz, and in the tweets, there is a great deal of talk about women being told to “smile”, let alone women being hit on by total strangers. I was invisible when I was younger: no makeup and exuding that hard-ass don’t fuck with me look. I suppose I had a RBF well before RBF’s had a name. But I was also not pretty enough to matter to men, I suppose. This is one way in which being invisible is a double edged sword.

I read two articles this weekend that talked about another version of invisible: being a post-menopausal woman. One article was a profile of Frances McDormand, an actress who wears no makeup or high-heels or what might pass as stylish clothing. She explicitly said “I am invisible and I love it”.

The other was the New Yorker profile of Gloria Allred, the lawyer, who is anything but invisible, and has made her career of being highly visible. The story is about her as a professional, although it does mention her daughter. The line that caught me was: “She gave up on dating years ago” the implication being that she doesn’t have time for it, because of everything else she is doing. There’s a lot to unpack in that line, both powerful and maybe a little sad. But, its clear it’s a major positive thing for her.

So all this makes me think about how to age gracefully? Gracefully, not beautifully, or fighting aging every step of the way, or pretending that you are 16 or even 26 when you are 66 or 76. For McDormind, was never the good looking love interest in movies. The same was true for Kathy Bates (I remember an interview with Bates that said similar things- amazing, the profile of Bates was from 1991, and it has stuck with me. Also see: the internet never forgets). Perhaps if you’ve been surviving in a cut-throat environment that overtly values looks over skill, you know what you are, what you have, and how to play it.

Invisible is a double-edged sword. I can be standing in line, and not just men, but good-looking young women, step in front and get service before I do. I once actually said “what am I? Chopped Liver?” and the staff (United Airlines?) looked at me like I grew a second nose out of the middle of my forehead, and one that was running at that. Then there’s the incident of the poster of young pretty women for an event for faculty people. There are folks who have not forgiven me for that one yet. Yes, older women are invisible. Everyone I know over 60 has a story. The simple mind-test: if you see an older man and younger woman together, what do you think (given that we all think something)? But an older woman and younger man? We are certainly not sexual any more.

But there is also a relief to that invisibility, and I think that is part of what McDormand was alluding to. One can just walk down the street.



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