Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Autism research as facilitated by Google.

I have a fair range of friends who are not neurotypical.  That’s not much of a surprise these days.
I myself am thought to be not neurotypical, according to the researchers at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.  Possibly.  I can’t remember the exact statements.  They think I might be autism spectrum.  Or not.  I didn’t really care much, to be honest.
My daughter may not be neurotypical.  Evidence is mixed.  (We can definitely attest that she’s a space cadet, but a variation in personality is separate from a neurological disorder.)
So I’m used to hearing a lot of arguments both for and against autism research organisations, and the current big cheese is Autism Speaks.  It has the advantage of a ton of funding and some very prominent spokespeople.
Unsurprisingly, this organisation, like almost any other advocacy organisation, think tank or, for that matter, charity of any kind in all of history, has really irritated some people.  The beauty of the Internet is that every pissant has a hill to piss off of, and the Boycott Autism Speaks crowd has some legitimate points.
Mostly, I stay out of it.  I’m not sure how I feel about all of this and I’m not really keen on getting on either side of the rhetoric.
But today, I saw one of those random, irritated, one-off Facebook posts that people make, bemoaning this as eugenics in the making.
Eugenics seemed a bit much, although admittedly when you have such a well-funded, influential charity teamed up with one of the most influential and wealthy companies in the world … historically, bad things do happen.  Charities usually are trying their best, but they do things like support lobotomies for the sexually dysfunctional, found Indian missionary schools to stop them from living in heathen ways, systematically separate mothers and children to place the children in healthier environments with two married, Christian parents … these are just a few examples.
But I don’t hold that against them.  Those were things that made sense, given what they knew, at the time.  They turned out to be disastrous, sure, but hell, people were trying to do something, based on their limited information, their analysis of what was going on, and genuine thoughts of helping … no matter how unfortunate the help was.
So yeah.  Charities can be a big problem.  They start with a bias, just like individual humans (usually the bias of their founders), but they tend to have a lot more cash on hand than individual humans, and a lot of people with a vague knowledge of their goals but the thought that “hey, what they're doing has to be good”, and madness that way can lie.  We know this.
But the current uproar — and I’m reacting to a two-sentence Facebook post that was linking a news story here, so bear with me and my suppositions, goes like this.
Autism Speaks is an organisation founded by a non-autistic person to deal with the birth of an autist in his family, and the challenges that causes.  It has been widely pilloried for having no adult autists in its organisation (although one thing I read said that there are now two).  The organisation is widely supported by and funded by parents of autistic children.  The charity’s mission statement reads, in part, as follows:
“We are dedicated to funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatments and a possible cure for autism.… we work to bring hope to all who deal with the hardships of this disorder. Autism Speaks aims to bring the autism community together as one strong voice to urge the government and private sector to listen to our concerns and take action to address this urgent global health crisis.”
The Autism Speaks opponents are concerned that Autism Speaks does not actually recognise that there are lots of functional ways to be an adult autist.  Autism Speaks’ "autism community" involves, primarily, the parents of autists and relatives of autists, rather the people who are adult autists in their own right.  Their interest in preventing autism extends to a great deal of funding for prenatal testing for autism.  The opposition of Autism Speaks is concerned that not only would they be prevented from existence, but that addressing their lives as “hardships” and their existences as “an urgent global health crisis” is, in fact, not realising that autism can appear in all sorts of forms, and many of these presentations are not impediments to a normal adult life, and some autistic presentations are exceptionally beneficial to society.
Neither side is wrong.  Having a child with an unexpected disability sucks, and you wish there were ways to keep this from happening to others.  Growing up outside of mainstream society sucks, and being told that ideally, there would be ways to prevent your existence also sucks.
Today, Autism Speaks announced a partnership with Google for hosting their AUT10K project.  Autism Speaks is doing a lot of research into mapping the genomes of people who are affected by autism, and I haven’t researched this, but I’m going to assume it’s the genomes of people who are diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and their parents and siblings, to try to figure out what the predictive factors are.
Google’s involvement, which is buried in Autism Speaks' press release, extends to the following:
Previously, the transport of genomic information involved physically shipping hard drives. Downloading even one individual’s whole genome in a conventional manner could take hours, the equivalent of downloading a hundred feature films.  The cutting-edge capabilities of the Google Cloud can overcome these limits, Dr. Ring says. “Connecting biological discoveries with the best in large-scale cloud storage and computation will advance not only autism research but the entire field of genomic medicine,” he says.
“Modern biology has become a data-limited science,” adds David Glazer, engineering director for Google Genomics. “Modern computing can remove those limits. We are excited to be working with the Autism Speaks team on storage, processing, exploration, and sharing of the AUT10K data. We’re even more excited about the opportunity for Google Cloud Platform to help unlock causes and treatments of autism.” Most significantly, the AUT10K database will be an open resource to support autism research around the world.
While this isn’t great for advocates of conspiracy theories to wipe out autism by big business (and the irony is that computer science careers are a notorious location for adults on the autistic spectrum), the translation is follows:
"We, Autism Speaks, have a bunch of data, which is very difficult to access.  Google, as part of their pre-existing Genomics project, has volunteered to host this data.”  Presumably, Google is also paying the significant costs of hosting all this data and enormous costs of the bandwidth associated with accessing it.
As someone who lives with a Googler, I am used to hearing of the Google obsession with Having All The Data.  They want the data.  They live for the data.  They adore the data.  I can’t tell if they view themselves as hoarders or librarians or curators or what, and that’s relevant here, because curating and library work both imply that you select and discard some of the data, something I don’t personally hear of Google doing much of, but I’m not going to judge them based on a post I researched for less than an hour.  I don’t know.  Google wants all the data.  Always.  There’s a reason they have your e-mail, chat logs, mobile phone, Web browsing platform, videos, maps and phone calls, not to mention most of your Web search history.  (An amusing video was made by The Onion at one point: "Google Opt-Out Feature Lets Users Protect Privacy by Moving to Remote Village”.)
However, even I can’t see how Google will benefit by having people’s genomes, and they do a lot of charitable work based on the “Don’t be evil” (now amended to: “Don’t be so evil that your in-house P.R. department can’t put a positive spin on it”), so I’m assuming they’re doing the genome thing for Autism Speaks for the exact same reason they do genome stuff for everyone else.  Based on a lifetime of exposure to geekery and dabbling in geekery myself, I have grown used to moonshot ideas that will, somehow, one day, make the world better.  They’re not really clear on this or when it will happen or how exactly you’re going to convince everyone to participate, but they’re going to make the world better through technology.  (Truly, if you’re around engineers, you learn that to them, their technologies are a hammer and every problem in all of human history, anywhere in the world, is a nail.)
So I’m going to guess that this is yet another Google genomes thing and they’re not focusing on the P.R. aspect.  That brings us back to Autism Speaks.
What they want to do is find a way to detect whether someone is autistic before they are born.
Adult autists are not keen on the idea of being aborted before their own birth.  I can’t blame them.  I myself was born in a very high-risk situation for Down syndrome, and only a quirk of what was happening meant that I’m alive today.  I’m pretty keen on being alive, and when I wasn’t, I had a LiveJournal and terrible poetry to write.
The two-line Facebook post I’m responding to (remember that?  about fifteen paragraphs ago?) stated that this was eugenics.  And, yeah, I can see that … but only if Autism Speaks gets what they intend to get out of this directly, without any interruptions, deviations, or quirks in the data.
Rarely is science a straight shot.  What is all this sequencing and studying of the data going to do?
It’s going to lead us down a lot of false roads.  That’s no surprise.
It’s going to lead to totally unrelated discoveries.  This, also, is par for the course.
And it’s going to lead to lots of analyses of variations, factors, and possible markers for autism.
Yes, Autism Speaks may one day get their pre-natal test.  I’ll return to that.
But in the meantime?  There’s going to be a lot of data crunching going on.  There’s going to be people noting that when genes X and Y are activated together, there are much higher levels of impairment than when one or the other is activated.
Autism gets a ton of ink these days.  (Correction.  I’m an old woman at 32.  It used to be ink.  These days, it’s getting a lot of pixels.)  People want to know what’s causing it, what’s a factor, why is it happening now.  There’s no way to analyse that without research.  Even if you disagree with Autism Speaks’ goals, you have to recognise that additional research into neurological oddities is not a problem.
Unless you believe that it’s a valid variation of humanity.
We’ve already been through this a few times.  The Deaf community is notorious for this.  I’ll see if you can draw from my example.  (I am not going to kill a ton of time researching this.  These are broad strokes and may be wrong in some minor details.  It’s an allegory.  Or maybe an analogy.  It’s one in the morning.  Cut me slack.)
A deaf child can be born to parents who are Deaf, or who are not Deaf.  Frequently, these parents are not Deaf.  Parents within the Deaf community then cope with their child in the same way that they would cope with any child, since they already have the tools of specialised living situations, specialised language, everything, that allows them to parent their child without impediment.  (Or, rather, more impediment that every other child in this world presents.  As a parent for these past 16 years, I can tell you that it’s a lot.)  We’re going to leave the Deaf parents with the deaf child aside.
But most of the parents who have a deaf child are not themselves Deaf.  They go through mourning, denial, anger, bargaining, Elizabeth Kübler-Ross covered this and you know these stages.  So they’re not happy with this initially.  No parent gets the idea that they themselves are going to have a disabled child, or a child who is atypical in a way that makes their lives harder.  (Most people think they would be happy to parent a prodigy or a genius.  That’s also its own issue and I’m not touching that, anymore than I’m going to go in deafness vs. disability debate.)
They try to see if there are ways to make this child normal.  They research cochlear implants.  They research speech therapy.  They research every single thing they can find to make their lives conform, in some way, to what they expected.
Sometimes, these accommodations work.  The child can learn language “on time” (there’s a ton of research on language receptive years, you have a search engine, enjoy), can learn ways to function in the hearing world, and does not enter the Deaf community, but just has a few more impediments than were initially expected.
Sometimes, these accommodations aren’t sufficient and the parents move to an area where they can arrange for sign language speakers to teach their child, to teach them, they learn about the special needs their child will have for life, they learn how to cope with these things and eventually learn how to accept that their child will have unusual issues but will also have unusual gifts.  Their child will be Deaf, and part of a community that their parents are not a part of, but will also be part of their parents’ community.
And sometimes, these parents are unwilling to accept any of these things, and the child ends up suffering horribly.  The child will forever be alienated from their parents’ community, which demands normalcy, and the community that would have eagerly accepted them.

I’m sure you can draw the parallels.
As we learn more about autism, we are going to learn about things that are factors.  We are going to learn a lot of ways to prevent it.  And many of those ways won’t work.
We are going to learn about ways to treat autism.  We are going to learn about risk factors.  We are going to learn about therapies, ideas, communities, a million and one things that have been done with every community of the differently abled (some of whom are disabled) throughout history.  (I use differently abled very specifically here.  A disabled person cannot, for whatever reason, function independently within their society.  A differently abled person who is Deaf may not be able to hear or function in a mainstream area, but when the accommodations are in place for their community, will be entirely independent.)
We are going to learn about risk factors.
And we are going to, eventually, see that test for neurological irregularity risks.
But not only people who only want perfect children will take that test.  People will take it all the time.  Women who have any risk factors for Down’s syndrome get an amniocentesis frequently.  People will take that test before they even think about having children, the way that Ashkenazi Jews and French Canadians are tested for Tay-Sachs syndrome.  People who have autistic brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles and sometimes, yes, parents, will take the test.
You, the anti-Autism Speaks activist, are a functioning adult.  But autism is a label that is not yet neatly differentiated.
There are people with an autism spectrum disorder that are permanently disabled in ways that are truly profound.  As they research things more and more thoroughly, they will sift the definition, they will figure out what markers mean what.  How serious is a prenatal scan indicating autism?  How likely are people with risk factors X and Z but not Y to have a child with autism spectrum disorder, and how severe will the effect likely be?
People should learn these things.  Will it lead to selective pregnancy termination?  Yes.  Yes it will.  I’m not happy about it either.  But I’m not going to judge someone else’s ability to raise a child who is 95% likely to have a severe disability.  (I’ll happily judge someone who’s choosing not to raise a child who has a moderate to mild risk of a moderate to mild disability.  Go to it.)
You, the autistic rights activist, are in the position of advocating for autism as a way to exist.  Go learn about other disabled communities that, when discriminated against and disenfranchised for their disability alone, found their own ways to cope and establish their own cultural milieu.  The Deaf community is very mature.  The mental illness acceptance community is in its youth but gaining some steam.  (I don’t bring up communities of people who are not differentiated before their birth.  If your only reason for not being a part of a community is a physical liability, you’re in a different position, as your parents likely won’t have any tools to teach you these coping skills or cultural milieu, than someone who is outside of the typical race/religion for their area.)
Find ways to ensure that autism is an acceptable way to be, and you will make it so that when these prenatal tests do show up, in their infancy where there’s no guessing how severe it will be if you get a positive result, there will be a world in which educators, community leaders and, most of all, the prospective parents, so that it no longer seems like a label of doom.  It will seem like a challenge.  It is a challenge.  If you’re neurotypical, and you find out your child is likely not to be … it’s gonna be a challenge.  (Then again, parenting is a challenge, but parents of unborn children always believe that they can prepare themselves adequately for parenting.  Bless their naïve little hearts.)
You can’t fight the search for information on autism’s genetic factors, and I strongly advocate that you stop trying, because I’ve never found trying to convince the tide to stop coming into the beach to be a particularly useful way to spend my energy.  It’s coming.  Just like learning to differentiate the level of autism a child is likely to have before it’s born.  It probably won’t be around by the time my children, now in their teens, have kids, but it will be around for my grandchildren.
Instead, focus your energies on making autism a more comfortable label for people with autism now and find a way to make these accommodations for autistic ways of thinking and being a common part of the culture.
People will always hate the different.
But in my analogy earlier?  The parents who have a deaf child who can’t be fixed?  They either entered the world where that child was, or they abandoned it entirely.
The easier it is to enter a world that will make sense to young children with autism and to provide support to their scared, upset, disappointed and mourning parents … the less likely it is that those children will be given up on entirely.
No matter what these researchers discover, they will not discover ways to eliminate autism entirely.
You are at a watershed moment in history here.  You have the ability to build a community and a world that will welcome these people, and you are facing one of the largest influxes of population into your community that you ever could have imagined.  (We don’t know why.  Maybe all these researchers will have information on why the autism diagnosis spiked in the last decade.)
Don’t screw it up by getting in a pissing match with their parents, who really thought that things would be better if this never happened, and really want to prevent other people from going through this pain and alienation.
Make it better by showing the world that it’s been given a gift.  You get to help determine what that gift was, and you get to help make a world that can make the most of what these young autists — and remember, you’re the ones telling us that it’s in no way a disability — can offer it.  Ain’t a damn thing that will keep these kids from being autistic now.  Maybe these researchers will make it so not so many of their nieces, nephews, children are autistic.  But you already have a huge community, because suddenly we have a huge influx of kids with autism spectrum disorders.
Don’t try to jettison the people who come with it.  (If you’re married, you may realise that no matter how much you love your spouse, they have some frankly annoying relatives.  You’re just getting a whole passel of in-laws.)  They’re the people who have been going through this with their children, and these children need to be convinced by you, after a lifetime of hearing how they’re losing out because of this, that actually, they’ve got cool, different things to offer.
You, the adult autist activist, need to recognise that to make a better autism community, you have to deal with the people who feel like this is a tragedy, because a child’s parents are the center of their world.  You have to support the researchers where it makes sense, make your moral quandaries known, and encourage the search for information and knowledge.  There’s nothing wrong empirically with knowledge, it’s how it’s being applied.
You’re worried about the applications and fighting the research that might lead to those applications … years before the applications even exist beyond a vague theory.  Come on.  You have the ability to make it so that aborting a child for being autistic sounds totally ridiculous.  Don’t screw it up.

Monday, 28 April 2014

The Internet as memory hole.

I am long out of practise with blogging.  If you choose to comment, be aware that this was written in less than ten minutes at one in the morning.

In a discussion with the denizens of the #acetarium IRC channel earlier, an acquaintance brought up that he had learnt of the last execution performed in France being done by guillotine in 1977.  Offhandedly, I said, “Yeah, I knew of that, and I believe it was a North African migrant who was executed.”  Apparently, it was a Tunisian gentleman, though I recalled no other details.

That brought me to thinking about the accessibility of information.

When I was educated (to what degree that is a past tense statement — no one stops learning until they are dead), I had a great deal of work to do in terms of memorising facts and statements and arguments and opinions.  (I was certainly allowed to have my own opinions, but I was taught logical thought from considered models, so I would learn how to structure my own arguments.  It’s not my teachers’ fault that it didn’t take.)

In all of this memorisation and synthesis, I was being educated in the late 1980s and early 1990s in a model that was already considered outdated — education was meant to be more about personal development by that point, rather than on memorising facts.  I’m not going to get into a discussion of that, as I’m not a fool, but it affected how I model myself on information.

I grew up with copious access to the Internet, CompuServe before 1994 and the Internet itself afterward, but Wikipedia didn’t become a project until 2001 and access to information in terms of “Just Google It” (or just AltaVista it, or use Jeeves or Yahoo, back in the day) was not really a thing before the millennium at least.  True, you could search the Internet, but it didn’t mean that there would be any information, not for a very long time, and often not at all.

Our old model of memorising facts seems extremely out of date when one can simply look up a bit of trivia that seems intriguing but isn’t relevant to our work or daily life.  And, indeed, many people now rely on simply Googling what they forgot, and libraries in general and research librarians in particular have been scrambling to re-orient information so it is available to people in these new ways.

It has long been known to anthropologists and neurological researchers that cultures where literacy is relatively rare often have a comprehensive oral tradition, and facts can be passed through oral historians quite accurately for many years.

Cultures where literacy, on the other hand, is indeed widespread often have a comprehensive written tradition, as storing information through writing is both extremely reliable and not as dependent on the narrator’s imperfect memory, and in the unfortunate event of the sudden death of the author, the information will, ideally, still be available.  Oral traditions usually decline in these cultures.

Are we, in the Internet age, we, who do not even need to write things down much of the time, what with modern search algorithms and infinite databases and often, no need to memorise even the contents of a book, as we can simply look up whatever we need, developing the inverse of an oral tradition?  I am not clear on how this would look, nor what to call it, but we are developing a new method of interacting with knowledge, and I think it is likely a revolution … but is it the right revolution?

For the Internet is not permanent.  It is, of course, in many ways, but sites go down, mirrors vanish, archives are blocked by robots.txt and x-no-archive: yes.  Fragments of information remain, but they are as capricious as the results of historians reconstructing lost texts and archaeologists finding clues, but no definite answer.

This is fine for remote history (though it depresses me as a historian), but for information we would have learnt recently?  How are we coping with this?

The mind is immensely adaptable.  Anyone who has even the most superficial knowledge of neurology (and mine is extremely superficial) is aware of the fact that the brain can adapt in astounding ways to injuries and interruptions.

But in shaping the brain initially … are we changing our ability to actually hold on to this information?  Are we developing 1984-style memory holes?  If we lose this fragment of information, is it gone forever?  Is all the information controlled outside of our own brains?  I speak in hyperbole, but we are outsourcing a great deal of knowledge these days.  Fundamentally, many people do not know the content, they simply know where to look and which key words to search.  If that content disappears … did we ever truly know it?

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

There's no one more American than we

(I can't believe no one's transcribed the lyrics yet.)

S.C.: I love America. I may not win any awards for saying this, sir, but I love this country, and do you know why?

J.S.: Why do you love this country, sir?

S.C.: 'Cause on my calendar, each day is the Fourth of July
If you cut me open, I bleed apple pie
Lady Liberty's the hottest girl that I've ever seen
I would totally hit that if I were tall and green

America is perfect and there's nothing to fix
My PIN code is 1776
Americans will deep-fry anything
And that is why I sing…

That it's the greatest, strongest country in the world
That it's the greatest, strongest country in the world
From the north, to south, to east, to west and diagonally
There's no one more American than me!

J.S.: I agree!

But I've got just as much right to wear this sweater
I'm a tolerant American and that's why I'm better
I embody the spirit of the Founders I know
'Cause I watch John Adams on the HBO

You can tax all my cash to help a stranger
But I'll sue City Hall if they put up a manger
I know the forty proper terms for Eskimos
And here's how the chorus goes …

It's the greatest, strongest country in the world
It's the greatest, strongest country in the world
All the men and all the women and all the genders in between
There's no one more compassionate than me

Yes, It's the greatest, strongest country in the world
It's the greatest, strongest country in the world
S.C.: My roll of toilet paper used up sixty-seven trees!
There's no one more American than me

J.S.: Except me!

I love America, and everyone in her
I'd invite Sidney Poitier to dinner
I'll defend anything any person says
S.C.: Unless it's Juan Williams or Rick Sánchez!

J.S.: You don't care about the gays!
S.C.: That's mostly true!
J.S.: You're terrified of Muslims!
S.C.: Well, they scare you too!
J.S.: But I would never talk about it, that would get folks annoyed…
S.C.: You're a coward!
J.S.: Yes, but I'm still employed!

It's the greatest, strongest country in the world
It's the greatest, strongest country in the world
S.C.: I love America from U.S.A. to U.S.Z.
J.S.: I'd marry Uncle Sam if I could do it legally
S.C.: I lull myself to sleep at night by counting detainees
J.S.: I use French words like croissant and bourgeoisie
S.C.: I love NASCAR half-time shows with tons of TNT
J.S.: My hybrid electric scooter gets one hundred m.p.g.
S.C.: From gay men who like football
Both: To straight men who like Glee

S.C.: From the shores of Idaho to the shores of Kentucky
J.S.: From New York to L.A. and all the in-between…

S.C.: From Washington to …
S.C.: From Kansas City to …
J.S.: From Illinois to …
S.C.: From Texas to …
J.S.: From Rochester to …
S.C.: From Minnesota to …
J.S.: From Alaska to …
S.C.: From South Carolina to
J.S.: New Jersey!

There's no more American
There's no one more compassionate
There's no one more American than we

Yes, it's the greatest, strongest country in the world
It's the greatest, strongest country in the world
It's the greatest, strongest country in the world
There's no one more American than we

Wednesday, 30 June 2010

I have to say.

Coming home to a SWAT team blocking your city block is not fun.

(I don't live in a bad part of town, either, but holy cow. This was scary.)

The riot gas the Cambridge cops use seems to be a *lovely* mixture of Binaca breath spray and CS gas. It does not smell pretty.

I want to fall over — and I'd wanted to long before *I* came home to that.

Posted via email from Jessica Allan, up to speed

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Karzai ‘Wins’ a 2nd Term in Afghanistan. Oh, Crap. | Danger Room |

Karzai ‘Wins’ a 2nd Term in Afghanistan. Oh, Crap.

by Nathan Hodge for Wired, 2 November, 2009

If you think the Afghanistan war effort was screwed up before, just you wait. President Hamid Karzai has won, by default, a second term as president after his main rival decided the elections were too corrupt to run in.

That means Afghanistan avoids a messy, logistically challenging runoff vote.

What, you guys think you're The Economist? Please. Is anything in Afghanistan not corrupt, logistically challenging and messy?

But it also leaves a kleptocratic system intact — and raises serious questions about what exactly the United States and N.A.T.O. are supposed to do next in Afghanistan. One of the primary goals in a counter-insurgency campaign to legitimise and win support for the local government. Which is kind of tricky, when the head of that government presided over a sham election.

I realise this is a defeatist American attitude, but has anyone besides Jon Stewart and John Oliver considered that there's really no point to holding Afghanistan? Load up the humanitarian visas, give the money you're spending on combat troops to UNICEF and there you go.

Of course, in our generation’s version of sending Jimmy Carter abroad to annoy foreign nations to death, we sent John Kerry there instead. Don't get me wrong, I love the Senior Senator from my state. But let's get real. You'd totally agree to absolutely anything if it meant getting him to shut up.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Off-line for duration.

Speakeasy used to be good. Now, they are not good. Now, they are crabby.

God only knows when my Internet will go through.

I have the ability to nag, but the coastal problem is an issue.

I feel terrible. Chris and Kristan will lose their minds.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

The British Broadcasting Corporation: Are universities worth it?

Students starting university courses this autumn can expect to graduate owing £23,000, a survey suggests. Is university worth it?

The Push Student Debt Survey of 2,024 students at varying stages of degree courses found debts averaged more than £5,000 a year and that this was rising – except in Scotland, where the government pays tuition fees.

However, the government said it was spending £5bn this year on student support and that it was committed to ensuring cost was not a barrier to any student going to university, whatever their background.

I realise the markets aren't open on our side of the pond yet, but xe was good enough to inform me that as of yesterday's close (and presumably the beginning of trade this morning in London), that translates to about $38,000 dead Presidents.

Lacking any other convenient source of hard data, I turned to the U.S. News and World Report, a document studied at a hard squint and thoroughly memorised by U.S. pupils.

They estimate the "World's Best Liberal Arts Colleges".

Their list is:
  1. Amherst. Estimated cost over four year degree programme: $150,560 / £90,000 / 107,000€.
  2. Williams. Estimated cost over four year degree programme: $150,560 / £90,000 / 107,000€.
  3. Swarthmore. Estimated cost over four year degree programme: $145,960 / £88,500 / 104.000€.
  4. Wellesley. Estimated cost over four year degree programme: $146,560 / £88,500 / 104.000€.

Basically, Limeys, you are so far out of your league here that we're not even playing the same sport.

We do have some "free" colleges. There's The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, for example. Extremely well regarded, amazing faculty. The catch? It only offers art, architecture or engineering (thus a student has to be more decided than your average 18-year-old is) and it's located in the East Village of New York City. The going rate for a 1-bedroom apartment around there is $3,000 / £1,800 / 21.000€ per month, so assuming you can find a subtenant for when school is not in session, you're still paying $84,000 / £50,000 / 60,000€ over four years, or, if you're inclined to architecture, which is a 5-year-programme, you'll be paying $105,000 / £64,000 / 75.000€ in rent before utilities, food and other minor things that people tend to like.

Or there's Deep Springs College. Good luck. The enrolment is limited to 26 students, men only. Plus, it happens to be a cattle ranch, and students put at least ½ of their time into cutting hay, tending gardens or cows, plus they take three courses a semester of an extremely intense nature and they are expected to spend about ⅕ of their time running the college themselves, by participating in such tasks as designing curricula or board meetings.

And bringing up the rear are Berea College and College of the Ozarks. Berea requires that its students work for no credit and no earnings for at least ten hours per week, doing things like waiting tables, making brooms, and the College of the Ozarks is similar.

Although this equation broke in my generation, the last time I looked, college was meant to be a four-year distraction from the Real Wide World out there. Working your tail off doesn't seem to apply.

Thursday, 30 July 2009

A comment left for the Grauniad.

They asked me for my opinions on gaming. They got this. Poor bastards.

Nothing much to be said, really. Cover the innovative and quirky and edgy, but also remember Microsoft Bob and the Nintendo R.O.B.

For the love of God and all that is Holy (I hear he's on holiday, you may have to check with Pete at reception), learn from U.S. media. Oh, I don't mean cover anything like them. God, no. I meant, they actually read Twitter. And Facebook. And God only knows what else.

While I was in disfavour with God and therefore was not born a subject of Her Britannic Majesty and Defender of the Faith, I read foreign news media because I cannot bear my own, save for The Christian Science Monitor and The Boston Globe or The New York Times.

If one attempts to turn on the television to watch the news, you have one of three options:

I strongly suggest that you make your indentured servants, or interns, or trainees, or whatever else you call them, comb through Web-based message boards, Twitter, YouTube and other such nonsense. First, they're doing it anyway. There's only so many times one can be sent out to fetch something. Secondly, “getting the scoop” is now an entirely different match. It's more along the lines of “finding the trend”.

I shouldn't recommend using Twitter as a verbatim source, but having people keep up very closely will allow them to do trend spotting very well. The gents down in the computer room, assuming they're not emulating Simon Travaglia that day, will happily tell the lackeys which search engines to use.

You have human filters. These days, we have nothing but computer filters, which allow us to accidentally post photographs of Karaoke night and send them to the same elderly relative you sat through the cricket with, and human filters who, as you may have noticed, have figured out that they're actively in danger of being placed on New Deal. Use them and use the hell out of them.

Best of luck on surviving the Internet age.

Jessica Allan
Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

If a nuclear disaster occurred, and you had to live out those final painful days just stretched out somewhere thinking about your life—This is who I am. This is what I love. This is what I believe—who would you want hearing your whispers? Who do you trust to hear your whispers? Whose breath do you want mingled with your own? Whose flesh still warm beside you?

Jill McCorkle, “P.S.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Chicago model of militarising schools

For the past four years, I have observed the military occupation of the high school where I teach science. Currently, Chicago's Senn High School houses Rickover Naval Academy. I use the term “occupation” because part of our building was taken away despite student, parent, teacher and community opposition to Rickover's opening.

I personally support secondary military education ... provided it has an acceptance rate similar to the nation's top civilian schools (St. Paul's in New Hampshire, for example, accepts 22% of applicants) and that they need to take the S.S.A.T. and I.S.E.E. like applicants to any other specialised independent school.

In other words, I don't approve of J.R.O.T.C. because it doesn't actually present a significant life advantage to these kids.

Sure, the few of them who are already decided on a military career, this is a great opportunity.

The rest of 'em would be better off becoming Eagle Scouts.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Geen verbod op Hells Angels

This depresses the fuck out of me.

Not because I really care if the Hell's Angels are a legitimate organisation in Dutch eyes or not.

But, in 1969, the Hell's Angels provided security for the Altamont Free Concert, armed primarily with sawn-off pool cues and motorcycle chains, and they stabbed someone who was high on amphetamines and wanting to shoot Mick Jagger.

Now they're dealing with their problems by filing court claims? Sic transit gloria mundi.

Or, as P.J. O'Rourke put it when describing post-Communist Moscow:
The only way to enforce a contract is, as it were, with a contract — and plenty of enforcers. What would be litigiousness in New York is a hail of bullets in Moscow. Instead of a society infested with lawyers, they have a society infested with hit men. Which is worse, of course, is a matter of opinion.

And they did this in New York, as well. How depressing can you get?

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Are we Korea-ing to a nuclear war?

North Korea announced it had conducted a second underground nuclear test.

Next, it plans to carry out tests above ground.

Unfortunately, the ground it plans on carrying out the tests above is called South Korea.

The two Korean states declared an end to war in the Fifties, but now North Korea is starting production of plutonium.

Seemingly, their plan is to source a fleet of DeLoreans so they can take the whole army back to 1953 to finish the job off properly.

TheWest is pretty much powerless to do anything about North Korea because, unlike Iraq, their weapons of mass destruction actually exist.

I'm not sure I'm seeing the problem, to be quite frank.

First, North Korea is so out of it as a country that, as the C.I.A. World Factbook states, "North Korea, one of the world's most centrally directed and least open economies, faces chronic economic problems. Industrial capital stock is nearly beyond repair as a result of years of underinvestment and shortages of spare parts. Large-scale military spending draws off resources needed for investment and civilian consumption."

Gee, that doesn't sound familiar at all. I've never known a major country to go gorge itself senselessly on military spending to the detriment of its own economy.

Oh, wait. I can think of two off the top of my head. And they delicately note, "Industrial and power output have declined in parallel from pre-1990 levels." Something else happened in 1990, can't quite remember what, did bother Cuba as well.

Let me get this time line straight, using the C.I.A.'s numbers as they're handy and probably more reliable than Wikipedia by a slight margin.

"North Korea has chronic food shortages caused by on-going systemic problems including a lack of arable land, collective farming practices, and persistent shortages of tractors and fuel."

1995: "Famine threatened." Does this mean that famine came sniffing around like a drug dealer at a public housing project or what?

2002: Government begins allowing private farmers' markets and private farming to boost agricultural output.

October 2005: Government decides it was off its rocker in 2002, and instead forbids private sale of grains and re-instituted centralised food rationing.

December 2005: Government terminates international humanitarian aid, such as the always controversial United Nations World Food Programme. "External food aid now comes primarily from China and South Korea in the form of grants and long-term concessional loans." A long-term concessional loan is like money lent to a younger brother.

summer 2007: Severe flooding causes food shortage.

October 2007: South Korea "agreed to develop some of North Korea's infrastructure, natural resources, and light industry" which to me reads like "Money lent to a younger brother with a promise he won't spend it on strippers and booze."

May 2008: U.S. government decides to send 500,000 metric tonnes of food to North Korea.

2008: inter-Korean economic cooperation slowed as Pyongyang restricted tourism and manufacturing joint ventures in the North, and food aid from South Korea was suspended.

Oh, and tellingly:
North Korean ₩ per US $ varies between 140 and 170. This is the number that the government will helpfully tell you while cashing your Intourist cheques.

"Market rate", e.g. what a North Korean on the street would consider a fair trade for 1 dead George Washington is ... 3,400 ₩.

Now, as a straightforward number, that's meaningless. We're perfectly good at practising inflation whenever the hell we feel like it anyway.

But based on U.N. estimates, the Gross Domestic Product of the country is 40,000,000,000 US$. And also based on U.N. estimates, the population is 22,665,345. (Cuba, North Korea and Russia all came up with the same basic trick of refusing to tell anyone any of the numbers that they knew, which we know they knew because they did tell us that 34% of the population is engaged in "services", and I somehow doubt in a country where it's illegal to own or run a business or try to make money or do anything but starve, chances are most "services" are rendered unto Caesar.)

Assuming the idealist Marxist state (you know, the one where you can leave your American Spirit Blues in the carton in the kitchen and no one takes more than their share?), that means that your average North Korean earns about $1,764.81 per year ... at the official trade rate, which is the one the government is using. That means, officially, say, 150 ₩ to the US $, so 264,721.5 ₩ in their own terms.

Yet you can find people on the street who would trade 3,400 ₩ for 1 dead President. I'm assuming the value of the people who actually attempt to end up something other than dead are subsisting on ... $77.86 per year.

This tourism thing, they haven't got figured. Lonely Planet, in its long-standing tradition of promoting holidays to places that Amnesty International pelts with mail, informs us that "As well as paying for your bed and board in advance, you will also have to pay for two guides and a driver, making group tourism one of the few measures that can save you money. ... As a rough guide, solo travellers should bank on paying about €250 per day for guides, hotel and full board. This can be reduced to around €130 per day if you go as part of a group."

Part of the math isn't working out here.

Since the Lonely Planet people have wisely surmised that if you're going to pretend to be a non-American for this, you should be paying in Euros, I have to figure out what an average € for an average US $ is worth. With the aid of Triacom, I figure out that 1 US$, from 1999 - 2007, is worth 0.899€. Okey-dokey. The number's probably screwy, but this is a middle-of-the-night blog post, okay?

So, to translate the Lonely Planet's numbers up there, you can expect to pay $224.75 daily, or as little as $116.87 if you're with a group, which is frankly the only way I'd travel to a dictatorship with no functioning government system, no Embassies from anywhere that isn't scarier than it and which still somehow believes in Marxism as firmly as the English department at Yale or some hippies in Berkeley.

Yet I just figured out up there that $77.86 is a fairly realistic representation of what your average person lives on per annum. So, at a minimum, you're paying $39.01 daily more than your average annual wage to travel in a group, or $146.89 daily if you insist on sleeping alone. Than your average annual wage.

People who have much more of a grip on this than you, Mr. Boyle, have figured out that North Korea may be headed by a nutso dictator, but it's hard to get trained nuclear physicists on the job when you're expected to live on less in a year than your average Manhattanite splashes out on taxi fare in a single day.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

It's that time again ...

Deductible medical expenses include:
  • Abortion.
    (This of course makes me wonder how this flies with the people who are arguing that children shouldn't seek abortion without parental consent [or I suppose that people shouldn't seek abortion without grandparental consent] but then might choose to deduct the expense to get over the dreaded 7.5% floor.)
  • Alcoholic or drug rehabilitative inpatient care.
  • Braille books — difference in cost between Braille edition and printed edition.
  • Clarinet lessons advised by dentist for treatment of tooth defects.
  • Iron lung.
  • Lead-based paint removal.
  • Legal fees for guardianship of mentally ill spouse.
  • Navajo healing ceremonies ("sings").
  • Pregnancy testing kits.
  • Remedial reading lessons for child with dyslexia.
  • Smoking cessation.
  • Unlicensed practitioner services are deductible if the type and quality of the services are not illegal. (I think this is meant to apply to, say, midwives and street medics, but possibilities abound, don't they? "I'm delivering massage services, officer, not a handjob.")
  • Whirlpool baths.
  • Wig advised by doctor as essential to mental health.

Non-deductible medical expenses include:
  • Bottled water bought to avoid drinking fluoridated city water.
  • Cost of divorce recommended by a psychiatrist.
  • Cost of hotel room suggested for sex therapy.
  • Cost of moving away from airport noise by person suffering a nervous breakdown.
  • Cost of trips prescribed by a doctor for a "change of environment" to boost morale.
  • Divorced spouse's medical bills.
  • Ear piercing.
  • Funeral, cremation, burial, cemetery plot, monument or mausoleum.
    (N.B.: Isn't that a little bit past the point of "medical expense"?)
  • Illegal drugs, including prescribed marijuana in states where legal.
  • Massages for stress reduction.
  • Scientology fees.
    (Ha! Take that, Kirstie Alley!)
  • Tattooing.
  • Toothpaste.
  • Travel costs to favorable climate if you can live there permanently.
  • Travel costs to look for a new place to live.

As my friend Wes Payne once wrote, "In the military, every regulation, no matter how common-sense or obscure, is writ large in the blood of the idiot before you who fucked it up."

More interestingly, I can deduct clarinet lessons with a note from the right quack? What?

Friday, 20 March 2009

A thought on the removal of administrative and support staff from institutions.

As we all know, currently, institutions all over the Western world are removing "unnecessary" and "redundant" positions from their administrative and support staffs, focusing more specifically on their "core" functions.

Which is a reasonable concession to make in this economic difficulty.

The idea came to me when I was speaking to my husband about a friend who was commenting on an event at Harvard Law School. "Oh? He still has his post? I thought he'd been made redundant."

Redundant being current American slang for, "You're sacked." Its connotation is kinder than being sacked — it's more of a "This is none of your doing, but we need to take away your pay packets anyway. Hope you don't mind too much."

But, to return to my friend, my husband answered, "No, as far as I know, he's still there." He was a systems administrator and IT specialist, so presumably he has yet to be made "redundant", another interpretation of which is, "We can afford to let go of everyone in your department, as we'll handle this for ourselves from here out. So long!"

Somehow, my mind in turn related this to the television series Futurama.

In Futurama, there is a recurring character named "Scruffy". No one ever seems to know who he is or what he does, and in fact, they cannot identify him from scene to scene. He informs them, each time, in a rather dry voice, that he's "Scruffy. The janitor."

Come on, we've gotta go fix the plasma fusion boiler.

[CUT TO: Basement of Planet Express. The boiler is rocking and steam is hissing from it. FRY and BENDER walk down the steps and find SCRUFFY reading a magazine called Zero-G Juggs.]

Who are you?

Scruffy. The janitor.


(Clearly agitated and annoyed.)
Well, why aren't you fixing the boiler?


(Indifferent to BENDER's agitation)
Schedule conflict.

SCRUFFY licks his thumb and turns a page in Zero-G Juggs.

— "Parasites Lost", aired 21 Jannuary, 2001

It occurs to me that, indeed, we could reach a point at which all "superfluous" administrative and support staff were reduced to, "Scruffy. The janitor."

"Excuse me, but do you know who I'm supposed to see? My pay wasn't deposited into my account this week." "I'm having difficulties with the audio-visual presentation for foreign students that allows for simultaneous translation." "Oh, God, send help! Someone just had a heart attack!"

With the removal of enough support staffers from any institution, we could indeed reach a point at which virtually all complaints were re-directed to, "Scruffy. The janitor."

Sunday, 15 March 2009

¿Estás de cachondeo?

Bolivia's Morales: Army, police have CIA contacts.

It's telling that my first reaction is, "This surprises you?"
This time, Morales says a mid-level military official and Bolivian police officers are in contact with the U.S. spy agency. Morales made the allegations on Saturday, but offered no details or proof. He said he is personally investigating the matter "porque vender información a agentes externos es traición a la patria."

I hate to tell you this, sir, but I will anyway. The Monroe Doctrine was written as carte blanche for norteamericanos to fuck around with the rest of the Americas, and The Roosevelt Corollary did not help matters in the slightest.

Furthermore, señor, when entire sections of your country break off to declare independence, everyone with the common sense necessary to keep their own craniums out of their own colons is going to be keeping an eye on the exit door.

Beyond that, you have not only come up with the most hare-brained policy possible — Coca, sí, cocaine, no — you proclaimed upon taking up the presidency, ¡Viva coca! ¡Muerte a los Yankees! which is so not going to reverberate well with one of your most important trading partners. To further piss them off, you suspended U.S. anti-drug efforts.

Look, I'm a norteamericana. I can tell you exactly how hypocritical and stupid we're going to be about it — incredibly so. We'll happily tell you we don't support your production of cocaine as we tell you to ignore that glass coffee table in the living room. But being norteamericanos, we also know that the most powerful force that can be harnessed by ordinary man is money, a commodity that your population has in scarcity. As a coca farmer yourself, you want to preserve the existence of coca for traditional use.

Traditional use of coca is a subsistence use, limited to ceremonial functions and small amounts as a stimulant, rather similar to coffee or tea. Dry coca leaf trades at US $4.30 per kilogramme. Your private foreign investments (as opposed to soft money drops by the World Bank and IMF) is estimated between 8 and 12% of GDP, despite enormous natural energy reserves, and the inflation rate is in the double digits consistently. People tend to rank "being able to not starve" well above "participation in forward-reaching ideas with international importance."

At the very least, if you'd like for us to take this whole "not producing drugs, honest" thing seriously ... please stop giving Hugo Chávez coca in front of Alternativa Bolivariana summits with members of the Fourth Estate present, ¿vale?

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Most poignant summary of the economic crisis so far.

Hobo to another: Now the average American might not know about the economy and the depression. But they know about Budwieser. If they go to the bodega and there's no Budweiser, they know there's a problem.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

A true American hero has been found.

Arvin Guffey, Esq., of Beach Island, North Carolina, is 65 years old. He was ticketed for charges of transportation of un-taxed alcohol and receiving and possession of un-taxed alcohol. They impounded his pick-up truck ... with 295 litres of moonshine in it.

From these two informative links, I learn that moonshine can be flavoured with blackberries, cherries, grapes, raspberries and strawberries. I also learn that moonshine hand-offs seem far more civilised than drug hand-offs — you leave the money in your vehicle, come back after a time, the money is gone, the whisky is there. Impressive, assuming the locals are trustworthy. He informed his arresting officers that he had been making moonshine purchases in this manner for the past 10 years, and that on the day of his offence, he'd paid $2,990 for the 'shine.

That's $10 per litre, more or less. For comparison, Buckfast Tonic Wine sells for about £7 per 75 cL bottle, and Everclear sells for approximately $20 for a 75 cL bottle. So clearly, our man here is a frugal shopper.

The moonshiners, like les bouilleurs de cru and the Schwarzgebrannteren, are dying out, but it's nice to see that the art is still practised in places.