Scientists and the Shutdown
Published on October 1, 2013 by guest author: Eric Perkins

I'm going to ask the people who read this blog to think about a group of people they might not think about very often: scientists. I have to think about scientists every day because I am one and I work with academic scientists all over the U.S. and the rest of the world. But today, I was thinking about the scientists in the U.S. specifically. Today, I received the following message from a scientist at the NIH with whom I've been working. He sent it to me after I asked him some technical questions and then expressed my sympathy for his current plight due to the governent shut down. He had to send the response from his personal e-mail account because he was no longer able to use his NIH account:

"I'm really grateful for the kind words of solidarity. As research scientists, I feel like we work for pay that doesn't really match our huge number of years of post-graduate training and we don't enjoy all that great of job security, particularly lately. A major perk of the job has always been the feeling that society respects the personal sacrifices we've made in the interest of making life better for our fellow human beings. But this shutdown leaves me wrestling with the feeling that now even the respect I thought we got paid is some kind of illusion. I'm a short Metro ride away from Capitol Hill, so tomorrow I'm planning to make a picket sign reading 'Shutdowns stop cancer research' and 'Put me back to work fighting cancer' and walk around in front of Congress. It'll be nice to feel that thousands of fellow scientists undoubtedly have my back."

I've been immersed in academic science for nearly 18 years--13 of those years doing research. My colleague here communicates something that I'm not sure many non-scientists really appreciate. Academic and government scientists do not get paid a lot of money - at all - and they work very, very hard. When I was at the bench, I once tried to calculate my hourly wage based on my then 70-80 hour work week. I stopped when it was clear that I was making drastically less than the minimum wage. During one particularly difficult stretch of graduate school, I went nearly 6 months without a full day off. That's including weekends. But I, like many scientists, was driven by a goal, a personal mission. The mission is all most scientists have to keep them going, and the current government shutdown is keeping many scientists from their personal missions.


A Healthy Dose of Skepticism
Published on June 17, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I offer some thoughts on the NSA and whether we should trust people in charge of a vast surveillance network.

Here's an excerpt:

"At a wedding years ago, I met a young man who worked at the National Security Agency. He was a groomsman and I was a bridesmaid, and we were spending a lot of time together at various events.

'I hear you work at the NSA,' I said, in an effort to make small talk.
The young man frowned.

'I really wish you hadn’t heard that,' he said. 'I’m afraid I can’t talk about it.'

I learned two things from this conversation: People who work for the NSA are highly secretive, and they do not regard 'So what do you do?' as a benign question. Of course, the young man’s evasiveness only made me more curious about the NSA. He was a nice guy, and I enjoyed hanging out with him. But I wondered about his job. What did it entail? Would I disapprove of it?

A few years ago, a mutual friend jokingly suggested I marry the young man, since we’re both single. I wrinkled my nose. 'I’m not sure I approve of his line of work,' I said. 'Whatever it is.'

The NSA has been in the news a lot lately."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Spare Me the Sympathy
Published on May 6, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the younger terrorist brother, and how people are wrong to feel sorry for him.

Here's an excerpt:

"Not long after Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was apprehended, I heard someone express sympathy for him.

'I feel sorry for him,' this person said. 'If it wasn’t for his older brother, he wouldn’t be in this mess.'

I thought this was an isolated sentiment, but no: I keep running into people who feel sorry for Dzhokhar, though they’re always quick to add that there’s no excuse for what he allegedly did, and that he should suffer the consequences.

I didn’t know what to make of these comments, which I completely disagreed with.

I don’t feel at all sorry for Dzhokhar, and I don’t understand why anyone would. Nor do I buy the dominant narrative, that Dzhokhar was a guileless bystander until his mean older brother led him astray. But even if I did accept this, I doubt I would sympathize with Dzhokhar. In fact, I might find him even more repugnant than I already do.

To me, there’s nothing sympathetic about someone who lacks strength of character and a functioning moral compass. If your mean old brother can convince you to plant bombs at a marathon, you probably weren’t a very good person to begin with."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Terror in Boston
Published on April 21, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about the terror attacks in Boston, and how they made me angry.

Here's an excerpt:

"Normally, this column would be about my vacation.

That’s what I usually do after my vacations — write a column in which I describe my fun adventures, share humorous anecdotes and reflect upon what a good time I’ve had.

But I can’t write a vacation column this week.

As soon as I heard the terrible Boston Marathon news, from a passenger on my flight, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do it.

I like information, and I called a colleague while walking down to baggage claim to get some. But she couldn’t answer my main question: whether a friend who was working at the medical tent was OK. I wasn’t the only one worrying, of course. People across the globe were asking similar questions, reaching out to friends and loved ones to make sure that they were OK.

And many people were not OK, which is why Monday was such a horrible day.

My fears were put to rest almost immediately, as my friend’s boyfriend was waiting for me at baggage claim, as planned. He didn’t have to say anything — his presence alone told me what I needed to know. Because if my friend wasn’t OK, my guess is he would have been doing something other than picking me up from the airport. My friend called while we were driving, and the details were grim: blood and dismembered limbs everywhere, tourniquets, injured runners being wheeled to the medical tent. I was sad, but I was also angry.

And as the week has progressed, I’ve become angrier.

Which is fine, I think."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Cameras, Cameras, Everywhere
Published on April 18, 2013 by Sara Foss

As a staunch advocate for privacy, I've been somewhat leery of putting surveillance cameras all over our public and private spaces. However, my opinion began to evolve about three years ago, when my sister fell down some stairs in London. Her life was arguably saved by a surveillance camera - someone saw her fall and immediately contacted the British equivalent of 911. And the presence of cameras all over Boston seems very likely to produce solid leads and possibly lead to an arrest in the marathon bombing case.

So my opinion might be changing.

In any case, Farhad Manjoo makes the case for putting cameras everywhere over at Slate.

Angst at My Alma Mater
Published on March 6, 2013 by Sara Foss

My alma mater, Oberlin College, made national news this week.

After a series of racist incidents, the college canceled classes and held a day of solidarity. I surveyed a small circle of fellow alums. We agreed that classes should not have been canceled. We felt that doing so would empower whoever was behind the racist incidents - make them believe they could bring the school to its knees. I pretty much agree with this take on the whole thing by The Atlantic's Conor Friedersdorf.

But my friends and I also feel that it's extremely unlikely that some underground network of racists was behind the incidents. My immediate sense was that the incidents were likely some kind of hoax, or a students' misguided attempt to make a statement about political correctness, or free speech or something, although I thought there was a slight possibility an angry nutjob was behind it. In any case, I'm not surprised by reports suggesting that the KKK robe that was sighted on campus was probably just a student wandering around in a blanket.

Of course, there's also the question of why this is a national story. Frankly, it shouldn't be - the New York Times should have better things to write about. The blogger Bob Somerby believes the Times covered it because they love stories about race and racism. I don't disagree. But I also think the Times pays way too much attention to the troubles of students at elite liberal arts school. My guess is that a lot of Times reporters and editors attended such schools, and think they're really interesting. Unfortunately, most Americans attend state schools and community colleges, if they go to college at all. Most people have never heard of Oberlin, and will wonder why it merited so much coverage from the nation's paper of record.

Why I'm Tired of Hearing About Why People Own Guns
Published on February 17, 2013 by Sara Foss

Since the mass shooting in Aurora over the summer, I've been noticing a lot of articles examining the various reasons why people own guns. I even thought about writing one myself - interviewing local gun owners, hearing them talk about why they own guns. But I've grown weary of these stories. They take great pains to explain the motivations of gun owners, but you seldom see such thoughtful stories explaining why people don't own guns. As I've tried to make clear, people who don't own guns are also making a lifestyle choice - one that often reflects the culture of their community or the family in which they were raised.

An article on gun ownership posted today by the Christian Science Monitor raised a number of red flags for me. My first problem was the headline, which makes a big assumption - that there's a misunderstood majority of gun owners. I'm not sure I believe this, and the article doesn't actually provide any evidence for this assertion. Even more bafflingly, the article opens with some dude named Nick Brinley waltzing into a state capitol with a loaded AR-15. "Instead of menacing the public, though, Mr. Brinley joined about 350 other gun enthusiasts waving signs saying things such as 'Don't mess with the Constitution, it ain't right – [signed] Me' to protest a post-Sandy Hook gun-control package being floated in Congress, and backed by President Obama."

For some reason, it doesn't seem to have occurred to the reporter that just the sight of a crowd of men wandering around a public square with loaded weapons might be menacing for some people. Like me. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: I don't have any patience for open carry activists. If I saw someone wandering down my street with a gun, I would call the police. My main experience with guns stems from being mugged at gunpoint, and I'm not comfortable with strangers invading my space with their guns. In any case, someone like Nick Brinley is menacing to someone like me, despite the Christian Science Monitor's assessment that he isn't. In fact, I'd say that the article could actually use some perspective from a victim of gun violence - someone who might not be so impressed by a bunch of dudes carrying guns and "Don't Tread on Me" signs.


No Guns For Me, Part II
Published on January 21, 2013 by Sara Foss

Over at the American Prospect, Paul Waldman does a pretty good job of articulating some of my basic feelings on guns.

I don't mind the Second Amendment as much as he does, but I agree with his overall take on the gun issue - that those of us who choose not to own guns have some rights, too, and that living in a country where every social interaction necessitates entering a room full of armed citizens is not something we want to do.

I like Waldman's post because I think we need non-gun owners to stand up and explain why they don't own guns, and why they don't want to. I feel like I've really made an effort to understand why people own guns, and be respectful of this part of American culture, and that I'd like to see gun owners make a similar effort to understand people who don't want to be around guns. Maybe they believe they've done this. But I'm not completely convinced. I do know this: We're constantly being bombarded with the message that gun owners consider owning a gun an intrinsic part of their identity. Well, not owning a gun is an intrinsic part of my identity. It's not like I've never had the opportunity to own one, or think about owning one. As a matter of fact, I've thought deeply about guns. And I'm not a gun person. And that's not going to change.

You can find my previous thoughts on guns here and here.

Nope, Not Gonna Learn
Published on November 29, 2012 by Sara Foss

Mitt Romney lost for myriad reasons, but one of the biggest reasons was the unrelenting meanness of his party. At least, that's my theory. When you basically insult half the country, and suggest they're a bunch of leeches, a lot of people are not going to want to vote for you. Throw in some insulting remarks about gays, women and minorities, and your candidacy will only appeal to a narrow slice of the electorate.

I don't know what I expected the Republicans to do after losing an election they were confident they were going to win, but I think I thought they would stop saying stuff that made them look like a bunch of hateful jerks. Because it's not a very good strategy, you know?  But I was wrong. The insulting comments have continued unabated! First, there was Romney's conversation with donors, where he suggested Obama won because of all the gifts he was going to hand out.

Then this week Mitt Romney strategist Stuart Stevens claimed that Obama only won the votes of Americans who earn less than $50,000. “The Republican Party has problems, but as we go forward, let’s remember that any party that captures the majority of the middle class must be doing something right," said Stuart, who seems oblivious to the fact that median household income is about $50,000. In any case, what is Stuart suggesting here? That the people who matter voted for Romney, and everybody else sucks?

Stuart's feelings were echoed by former GOP Congressman Tom Davis, who said that Romney lost because of Obama's ability to turn out "underclass minorities" who "orient toward the city" and "were pulled out of apartments." As someone who lives in an apartment, I always bristle when people characterize apartment-dwellers as shiftless losers. And I'm sure all the people who voted for Obama, love being described as the underclass.

My expectation is that the GOP will attempt to rebrand as the party of "compassionate conservatives." But every time they open their mouths, they make it harder to do so.

The Wreckage of Staten Island
Published on November 20, 2012 by Sara Foss

In case you've forgotten about the monstrous hurricane that devastated New York City and New Jersey, check out these photos.

Things Mitt Romney Didn't Win
Published on November 15, 2012 by Sara Foss

So I see that Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan are blaming Obama's re-election on unprecedented turnout from urban voters, which is their not-very-secret code for black people. Their whining refrain has quickly grown tiresome, though it's generated some good laughs, what with Charlie Webster, the chair of the Maine Republican Party, complaining that dozens and dozens of black people cast ballots in rural Maine.

In any case, it's no secret the Romney/Ryan ticket fared poorly among urban voters. But here are some other places where it fared poorly:

1. Paul Ryan's home district, where Obama/Biden won

2. States where Mitt Romney owns houses, which includes California, Massachusetts and New Hampshire

3. Michigan, where Mitt Romney's father served as governor

4. The affluent suburbs of Virginia

5. Three of the whitest states in the country: Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine


Mitt Romney Still Doesn't Get Why He Lost (And Never Will)
Published on November 14, 2012 by Sara Foss

There's no single reason why Mitt Romney lost the election - I suspect there were several factors.

But one reason, which I don't think has been highlighted, is how mean he and other members of G.O.P. have gotten. If you want people to vote for you, don't insult them! Find a way to outline your vision that doesn't involve insulting half the country! I mean, I don't recall Obama dismissively writing off old white men as a voting bloc in quite the same way the Republicans seem to dismiss blacks, Latinos, young voters, women, and gays. (Did I miss anybody?)

Anyway, here's a story about a still-bitter Mitt, lamenting all the people who voted for Obama because Obama will give them presents. I know that I am expecting a gift card any day now. Which is a joke, by the way. What I am expecting is for Obama to pursue some kind of grand bargain that will mean I get less social security and Medicare when I'm older, and that involves extending as many olive branches as he possibly can to a bunch of sore losers who won't stop crying about the decline of a traditional America.

Also, the New Yorker's Alex Koppelman weighs in on why Mitt Romney will never understand why he lost the election here.

From the archives: Rule of Thumb contributor Cabot Nunlist on the 47 percent controversy

Nate Silver Will Answer Your Questions
Published on November 14, 2012 by Sara Foss

Over at Deadspin, American Hero Nate Silver responds to reader questions.

My favorite exchange:

Q.: Nate - Who gave the most ridiculous refutations of your work? Old school baseball guys, or GOP media a couple weeks ago?

A.: It's MUCH worse in politics, I think:

1) People in sports will make lots of silly refutations of your arguments. But they do tend to deal with your arguments, rather than attack your character or your integrity.

2) A lot of people in politics operate in a "post-truth" worldview, whether they realize it or not. Less of that in sports.

3) In sports, scouts actually contribute a lot of value, even though statistics are highly useful as well. In politics, the pundits are completely useless at best, and probably harm democracy in their own small way.

He also describes himself as part of the War on Bullshit.

Click here to read the whole thing.

Petraeus Links
Published on November 12, 2012 by Sara Foss

I know it's a serious matter, but I find the story of General Petraeus' downfall pretty hilarious. Perhaps I am just a cruel person. One of things that makes this story so funny is how heartbroken his admirers in the media are. They seemed to think Petraeus was some kind of god, and that he could do no wrong. Thankfully, this little scandal will kill Petraeus' presidential ambitions, and we won't have to listen to starstruck reporters describe his genius and integrity ever again. 

Anyway, here are two of my favorite Petraues links.

This one, by Spencer Ackerman at Wired, describes how he and other reporters became enamored with Petraeus.

This one, by Michael Hastings, explains how Petraeus was always a fraud.

This one, by Jane Mayer at the New Yorker, ponders some of the story's unanswered questions.

Why America's Voting System is a Disgrace
Published on November 11, 2012 by Sara Foss

David Frum has some insights into our voting system, and why it's so terrible.

Click here to read them.

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