pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Another interesting point for Perv is that individual men tend to have much narrower sexualities than individual women. This fits with my personal observations: women are more like to be bisexual, more like to switch in a BDSM sense, less likely to have a true paraphilia (something they cannot become aroused or orgasm without. As opposed to a kink, which is a non-standard sexual interest that someone enjoys but does not require for every sexual encounter). Of course, it's impossible to determine the extent of cultural influence from observation alone, but Perv introduces some animal evidence that males fixate to a narrower range of targets.

You might think that supports the idea that it's genetic, but it doesn't. The experiment in question swapped baby goats and sheep with each other, and observed the sexual behavior of the adoptees. Males of both species pursued females of their adoptive species, females remained receptive to both (book didn't mention the behavior of females adopted by the same biological species and I can't find the cite). Male goats do not have a sheep-fucking gene. What this actually shows is not that courtship targets are inborn, but learned from the environment, and that males narrow down their target in the time between birth and puberty in a way females do not.

This offers a really satisfying explanation for the range of human male sexual behavior. Most obviously, the wide range in beauty standards between cultures but narrow range within cultures, and in what an individual man finds attractive. Young male brains have the capacity to learn from the culture what is most advantageous to impregnate, and work with that, but have a hard time shifting targets later in life. It works for non-reproductive sex too: Pederasty will never result in a pregnancy, but if sex with young boys is correlated with gaining resources that will aid in reproduction (e.g. status in Ancient Greece), and the relevant section of the brain is taught that while young, it will find the idea exciting.

So once again, the answer to the question "what are humans programmed to do?" is "be astoundingly adaptive to local conditions."
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Eh, it's all right. I wish there were enough decent sex-science writing I could blow it off for not only using Alfred Kinsey's quantitative data, but praising it, but there isn't, so I'm forced to see it's better points: it approaches the subject amorally while respecting the importance of morals, it taught me a fact I so *want* to be true even though I looked up the original reference and it appears to be shakier than he claimed (foot fetishism peaks during STD epidemics), and its consideration of proper moral handling of pedophilia is pretty nuanced.

Actually, let's talk about that. The data is pretty strong that:

  • A sexual attraction to children (pedophilia) is as out of conscious control as any other sexual attraction
  • It is possible to have these thoughts, recognize that acting on them is immoral, and refrain from doing so.
  • The available data is excruciatingly limited, but appears to point to access to child porn leads pedophiles to be less likely to attack an actual child, not more.
  • The stigma against pedophilia makes it very hard to pedophiles to seek out the kind of help that would strengthen their resistance to their urge to act with an actual child.


Hypothetically, what if we legalized simulated child porn (so no actual kids are abused in production), but only for people who registered as official pedophiles? If we managed to keep the consequences to registering reasonable (e.g. it only blocked you from jobs that brought you into contact with children), it could make everyone better off. You might think no one would ever go for it, but if you allow for a concept of pedophiles that includes well meaning people tortured by the corruption of one of the strongest drives in the human soul, it could work. It allows people to simultaneously get some relief while giving their current, morally strong self a way to block their future, weaker self from temptation. And if you ever found an unregistered pedophile in possession of child porn you could feel more justified in throwing the book at him, because the only reason not to be on the list is to have access to children.

Obviously we can't get there from here, but I like it as a thought experiment.
pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
Hobbyfest got slowed down a bit with my SEVERE GUM INFECTION, and will clearly be carried on into 2013. But I managed to get Trapeze in under the wire.

Overall: I'm glad I did it, I plan on doing it a few more times, but it is never going to be a regular hobby. First, it is expensive. s $48 for a two hour class, and for most of that class you're just sitting around, because there's only one trapeze. If you're going to do it, I highly recommend waiting for a groupon and going two days before Christmas, where you can work until your arms fall off.

The scariest part is not the actually flying, because at that point you're just sort of doing it. The ladder you climb is much, much scarier. They attach you to a line for it, and all I could think was "great, so I'm going to break my back instead of cracking my skull. That's much better." then you stand on this tiny, rickety platform, and there's a moment when you have the ladder harness off but don't have the flying harness on yet and all I can think is "YOU DESIGNED THIS WRONG". Then you catch the bar. You're leaning with your center of mass way over the platform, holding something shockingly heavy in your outstretched arms, and the only reason you don't fall is some idiot is holding on to your harness.* Then there is the jumping, which is done on their cues, not yours, which made the whole thing more nervewracking for me.


The good, I guess, is that I got some really cool pictures, and I have some really pleasant muscular exhaustion today. The first time I do anything is often the best, in terms of body response, because I haven't learned how o be lazy about it yet. I find ways to cheat efficiencies shockingly fast. There is something hugely symbolic and powerful about waiting and holding the bar, and I think I have to keep going under I've unwrapped that. Hopefully I can do that in two classes, because that's the discount pack they offered me and I'm not going to pay full price for it.

Trapeze either never gives you time to get in to a flow state or drops you in it immediately and then kicks you out just as fast. That is probably also a good thing to experience.

I was really reluctant to go to trapeze because I thought it was just going to be one long slide of hitting my limitations- I wouldn't be flexible enough or strong enough to do anything. I got talked into going by a friend, who lived up to her promise to relentlessly cheerlead everything I did. This gave me enough space to realize that if I'm angry about not being able to do all of the things in a set, refusing to do any of them is more likely to make me angrier than it is to make me feel good about myself. That lessen was totally worth the $30 the class cost.

*Surprisingly, this doesn't become less stressful if the holder is an attractive member of your gender of choice.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Okay, new rule: I'm not allowed to discuss behavioral biology on a first date, and I am especially not allowed to discuss Sex at Dawn. In fact, I should probably avoid either topic until I'm officially friends with someone.

The problem I run into is that behavioral biology was My Thing for 10 years. I didn't work in it after college, but it's a systemic way of thinking that has never left me. Citing homosexuality as evidence evolution's powers are limited hurts me almost physically, like telling a physicist that the existence of airplanes mean they're overestimating gravity's importance.* I am pathologically uninterested in having a discussion on the topic with someone who doesn't understand it. Even people who think they are agreeing with me tend to be frustrating, because they're still ignorant about the system as a whole. I am totally happy to teach the topic, but very few people want to hear a lecture.

Although now that I think about it, I do like being lectured. I freaking love finding people who know so much more about a topic that the best use of our time is for them to expand on it and me to ask questions. And I would say the same thing about most, maybe all, of my friends. We love both sharing things we know lots about and learning new things from people who know lots about them.

I still need to learn to say "I studied this topic and find Sex at Dawn lacking as an academic text, but I respect that many people have found a lot of value in it." But perhaps the solution to the other question is not to avoid talking about my areas of expertise, but to continue using "tell me something you find interesting" as a conversational opener.

*For the record: evolution means change in allele frequency over time. It's not a driver of change, it's a shorthand for the results of change. If you believe genetics affect survival and reproduction, and you believe the environment changes, your choices are evolution and pixie dust.

Given this, you have 2 choices for explaining the existence of homosexuality: it is adaptive in certain circumstances, or it is a non-adaptive side effect of something adaptive. To take the easier example of Down's Syndrome: DS is clearly maladaptive, but it is still the result of a process shaped by adaptation, which includes weighing the cost of errors against the costs of avoiding or fixing them. An airplane's chairs don't have much to do with gravity, but they're still shaped by the fact that an airplane is designed to stay aloft against a force that wants it down. Similarly, airplane seats have nothing to do with gravity per se, but the fact that it is extremely expensive to defy gravity puts pressure to fit as many people into the plane, and the superiority of air travel to other options for traveling long distances limits counter pressure, so seats shrink.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Since leaving tiny ninjas, I've been teaching biology at a school for sick children and their siblings. The school is really there as a support system and to keep their brains busy, which is good, because the biology program is in terrible shape. I didn't get a textbook until this week, and it is terrible. There is no curriculum, and I'm completely unqualified to teach a real biology class. But I am reasonably qualified to show two kids things I find interesting and show them how to follow up on their own interests. It took me four weeks, but I finally got them to ask questions so I could start opening their minds to the wonders of science.

Unfortunately, what they want to know about is the genetics of racial differences.

They're asking innocently. They used the same tone when asking about the biology of zodiac signs, whether their red hair meant they were angrier, and if the doppelgangers from Vampire Diaries could actually exist. But it puts me in a tricky position. There is a lot of horrible psuedoscience used to support racism, and I don't want to lend credence to it. On the other hand, I don't want to teach them that questions with potentially unpleasant answers shouldn't be asked. Some day they may be doing medical research. Back on the first hand, stereotype threat is a real problem and truth is not an ultimately defense when it is involved. Also, I would like to not get in trouble.

What I told them at the time was: most people talking about genetic differences between races are evil and also bad at science (bonus: they're young enough I can shock them by swearing!), there are often substantial differences between small populations, but two distinct Asian populations look as different from each other as they do from a European population. I threw in a bit about how the classic racial categories just are not biologically true, but maybe not enough. For homework I assigned them articles on sickle cell anemia and lactose tolerance, on the theory that malaria and pastoralism are neutral ways to talk about differences in environment applying selective pressure. I dream of ultimately finding one of those racist fact sheets and eviscerating it with them, which would be both anti-racism and pro-science, but we are not there yet.

The problem is that a neutral reporting of the facts is not enough here. There's reasonably good statistical evidence that Ashkenazi Jews are slightly smarter than Europeans from the same geographic areas. There's super interesting speculation as to why*, and I have in fact discussed that speculation is detail with a very socially conscious Jewish friend. But if all I tell the kids is "Jewish people are smarter", I risk reinforcing some really horrible stereotypes. Luckily, the story of the selective pressure is intimately tied up with persecution and bigotry, so it's easy to bring up. If I talk about rice farming selecting for mathematical aptitude or poor hygiene in Europe selecting for a better work ethic, relative to south Asia, I risk reinforcing some really horrible stereotypes. But the things that would counter those stereotypes are outside the scope of a biology class.

It'd probably be much the same if we cover reproduction (not guaranteed- kids are only here for a few months and I'm letting them choose the topics). In a world where kids learn all about enthusiastic consent and masturbation and queer sexuality, I could teach them the biology of reproduction and move on. In the current world, teaching reproduction reinforces the undeserved primacy of straight, cis, PIV sex.** But I don't thing I can assign What You Really, Really Want as part of biology class.

I'm open to suggestions here, on both the meta issue and on specific examples I can explore with them.


*Short version: the risk of spontaneous attacks by Christians rewarded medieval Jews for keeping forms of wealth that were easy to travel with and hard to seize. Farm land was the opposite of this. Gold was pretty good. Intelligence was perfect.

**I have a BA in biology and the only time I ever heard vaginal wetness discussed in college was a psychology class, where they explained that arousal experiments were done primary on men because they were easier to measure.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
$tud: adventures in breeding is a pretty good specimen of a type of book I am a sucker for. It takes a topic that is not innately interesting to layman (the breeding of thoroughbred horses) and delivers information in a light, informative way. It doesn't do this perfectly, but it's a difficult skill, and if you're looking for something that will engage your brain without tiring it out, it's a respectable choice.

In general, what I learned is that the world of horse breeding is fucked. Perverted, in the oldest, truest sense of the term. There is something deeply broken about a system in which you end up with five human beings maneuvering to help horses have sex. It would be one thing if we were engaging skilled horse penis handlers* because we lived in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where the horses we depended on to carry news and medicine were mutated to near-behavioral-sterility. At that point, I can see horse penis handling being a valued and even prestigious skill. But we let these horses lose their courtship instincts because we like watching them run in circles really fast. If all the horse penis handlers were suddenly called up to go to war, and we were only able to breed stallions that could find the vagina on their own, we would not suffer. We would not suffer even if the next generation of horses ran around in circles at a slightly reduced speed. It's such a waste of human potential.

The system is made worse by what an incredibly long tail of value horses have. You could leave a stallion out with a group of mares and get the whole process done a lot less human intervention, but 1. humans don't want to waste any precious, precious horse semen on pregnant mares and 2. you risk injury to the horses. These are not cheap horses. At his peak, Storm Cat was bringing in one million a day during breeding season. Even wild horses occasionally injure each other in social and especially breeding interactions, and thoroughbreds are considerably more likely to do so because they're so high strung (because we bred them for speed). So they tie the mare down and use teaser stallions and the stallions end up behaviorally incompetent because they're in such an artificial situation. And the thoroughbred ruling body bans artificial insemination because they think live breeding keeps the breed natural.

Applying concepts like rape to animals is difficult and fraught. But wild and even most domesticated horses have mating rituals in which the female exhibits choice. And in breeding thoroughbreds, we take that choice away from them. We tie mares down specifically to prevent them from leaving or fighting back. If we were doing this with the intention of beating an animal, it would be recognized as morally wrong and illegal. If we tied them up for a human to sexually penetrate them, it would be recognized as wrong and (in some states) illegal. But somehow, it's okay if it's another member of the same species assaulting them. This too strikes me as wrong.

*No, seriously. Someone has to help the stallion aim, and if he's got a large penis or the mare is fragile, someone else has to hold up some sort of padding to keep him from thrusting too deep.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I am a pretty vocal critic of hormonal birth control. I recognize that it was a great leap forward for women when it was invented, but I'm angry that we've gotten stuck on it as The Anti-Baby Mechanism, and I see it as a symptom of our disconnect from our bodies in general and science's disconnection from women's experiences in particular. I've wondered out loud how Depo can possibly still be legal, when it has such horrendous side effects.

I'm an idiot. A privileged idiot.

This was driven home to me while reading Escape, which is about a woman's escape from a fundamentalist mormon cult. Her first or second pregnancy ended with a placental abruption, and every subsequent pregnancy (there were eight total) mandated bedrest and still risked death. And then her 7th child was born and required near 24 hour care and constant medical visits; her husband fought her when she took the child on her own. If she didn't have the mental energy to do that or the physical ability to follow through, her son would die. And while it wouldn't be quite as quick, her death or incapacitation put all of her other children at risk as well. Staying not pregnant was literally a matter of life or death.

But being caught with birth control could get her, or her children, killed as well. Contraception that was absolutely undetectable, and required as few doctors' visits as possible, was all that mattered. However bad blood clots and bone density loss are, they were first world problems, relative to a hostile uterus and rapist husband.

So Depo? I take it back. You're like that friend who is sometimes impossible to deal with but is absolutely there when you need them, and I respect you for that.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
One potential treatment for cancer is to infect the patient with a virus that kills only cancer cells. But in practice, we've only ever seen temporary gains from this, in part because it's so hard to distribute the virus to every cancer cell.

Another potential treatment is to irradiate the patient nearly to death, which kills the cancer but also their immune system. You can give them a donor immune system, but that's incredibly vulnerable to graft vs. host syndrome. You can extract and save part of their own immune system, but risk a sample contaminated with cancer. Until you can guarantee that the sample is cancer free, the treatment is unusable.

What they're testing right now is extracting a bone marrow sample, treating the sample with the anti-cancer virus, irradiating the the cancer patient, and then reintroducing the sample that you can now guarantee is cancer free. It's so absolutely brilliant I could cry.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
So in the past month, HIV and its cousins* have**:

1. Cured Leukemia
2. Made kittens glow in the dark

I only intellectually understand how terrifying AIDS was in the 80s, when it appeared to kill you in months and no one knew what it was. I grew up in a time when it was dangerous, but known- there's a test for it, and treatment that can extend your life. I'm getting the feeling that 200, or maybe even 100, years from now, people will view HIV as a tremendous gift that is the basis of immortality and six pack abs. And they'll read about the 80s and kind of get it intellectually, but not really, the way I don't understand fear of bacterial illness. Until their immortality shot mutates and kills them horribly, just like antibiotic-resistant bacteria are going to kill us.


*by which I mean, heavily modified viral particles based on HIV and its feline equivalent

**by which I mean, in the past month, I have heard about the following things that happened some time ago.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I'm a big believer in using evolution as a lens to understand human behavior. For example: I have friends who go on multi day hiking/camping extravaganzas in groups of 3-6. None of them would mind if someone said "I'm tired, let's slow down". They would consider someone who did mind an asshole. And yet, to the one, they need to be near dying before they'll ask the group to rest. This seems illogical, but makes sense if you think about when humans lived in small, interdependent tribes, where being the weak one would be held against you- if not then, then eventually. And this explanation is useful, because it calms me down about speaking up in such a situation.

But here's the thing. There are some very good evolutionary reasons to avoid smearing feces in your mouth. And I, like nearly all other people, have an aversion to doing so that feels so strong it must be inborn. But if you look at young children: it's not inborn. They have to be taught an aversion to feces. And saying they lack the intelligence isn't a valid argument, because it's incredibly easy to evolve instinctive reactions to smells, and "don't touch it" or "don't touch your mouth" are pretty simple reactions.

This casts some real doubts on more complicated hypotheses, like "men should be more promiscuous than women". There are arguments for it that look valid. They feel true. But there are historical periods where the exact opposite was considered true. Of course historical people are idiots, but... humans are really complicated. And kids eat poop.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I'm sure everyone has seen the NYT article on decision fatigue and how it relates to blood glucose levels. Some people (i.e., my dad) misinterpreted it as "people make bad decisions when they're hungry", but I think the truer statement is "risk taking depletes a pool that can be refilled by food." We don't actually know whether the judges have a reasonably good function for determining whether people will re-offend, and simply require them to meet a higher threshold as they get hungrier, or if they stop being able to accurately judge prisoners, in which case keeping them in prison is the more conservative thing but not necessarily the wrong thing, depending on how we weight the rights of good prison

Around the same time, I'm reading another book on hoarding, which talks about a constellation of related traits that seem correlated with hoarding: perfectionism, indecisiveness, fear of making mistakes, fear of losing information, fear of loss (of stuff), fear of loss (of memory)**, inability to prioritize. All of which seem like they could stem from more rapid decision fatigue, be it because hoarders have fewer reserves or find each decision more taxing.

Apparently I don't have anywhere to go with this, but I still thought it was interesting.


*I would love to see a long term study of the recidivism rate of people paroled at various times during the day, and the prison behavior of people denied over the same distribution.

**This is really interesting. Despite doing no worse than non-hoarders on memory tests, hoarders are disproportionately likely to be afraid they'll forget things, and to leave things out as a physical reminder. That's why some hoarders have piles of stuff out in the open, but empty filing cabinets.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Do you know where the phrase "Natural Selection" comes from? Darwin was attempting to distinguish the artificial breeding managed by humans from what was going on the wild. No where is this clearer to me then when I look at my cat Pan, a being that would last about five minutes in the wild. It actually says that in the breed description "Do not let them outside. Their only defense is a quizzical stare." These cats have had every bit of fight bred out of them, and replaced with pure love. It's not a bad strategy, as these things go. But Pan may have taken it too far.

First there is feeding him. I had three different types of food on a plate in front of him, all of which are things he has likes, topped with whipped cream, which he loves. Wouldn't touch it. Whined for food, wouldn't touch it. I place a small amount of food in a different bowl, warm it a bit, and place it next to the plate. Suddenly he's all about the original food on the original plate. It's worse right now because he's feeling icky, but even at the best of times it takes more work to feed him than mother nature is going to put in.

He's only just getting some weight back on after May's shitting blood/refusing to eat episode, and now we're entering a pissing (minute quantities of) blood/frequent vomiting phase that is bad enough he's locked in the bathroom when I'm not watching him. I just got the results back from the vet that clearly something was wrong with his bladder but they needed more tests to determine what. Fingers crossed for a UTI that is making him vomit from pain, which is a single cause we can easily fix.

My point is, don't get purebred cats out of the discount bin.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
For me, the coolest story in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks was just how virulent her cells had become. A good number of other human cell cultures had either never been truly successful, or had been contaminated and outcompeted by the HeLa cells, driving them to extinction. There were hints of this very early on, but it couldn't be conclusively proven until genetic marker identification became available. When it did, it showed that a lot of research that researchers thought they were doing on specific tissue-type cells (e.g. liver cells) had in fact been done on cervical cancer cells. Oops. If this were true, it would have completely invalidated thousands, if not tens or hundreds of thousands, of peoples life work. So they did what any human being would do under the circumstances and denied it was a problem. (Spoiler: it definitely was, and their lifes work was invalid).

The fact that one little mistake could invalidate everything someone had done from age 22 on is a side effect of how specialized scientific research has become. You spend years in general education, then field education, then your tiny tiny subspeciality. Then you spend all your time working on one little problem, probably with one method because learning new methods or new problems just takes too much time.

Contrast this with the scientists in The Enlightenment, which I am an expert on because I read Quicksilver, a fiction book about many of them. Admittedly they wasted a lot of time on ideas that later information revealed to be batshit insane, and they were constantly worried about being scooped by one another, but they had substantially fewer eggs in any one basket. If your calculus proof was scooped by Leibniz, you still had your study of lenses to feel good about. And the guy you beat to lenses can feel good about founding cell biology. It was in many ways a more humane system than our current one, which requires such specialization that you're boxed in by necessity.

I feel like this might be tied in to how insane competition for schooling has been. You have to get into the gifted kindergarten so you can get pre-calc in middle school so you get calc in high school and finish your engineering pre-reqs by sophmore year so you can begin to specialize. It's painful to those involved and I don't even think it's that efficient.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Did you know that heritable, as in h^2, the scientific measure of heritability, has a very little in common with what we would think of as genetic determinism? Heritability is simply the measure of how much offspring resemble their parents, relative to the range in the population. Not even how predictive a parent's trait value is for their offspring, just how similar they are.

This has a bunch of weird consequences. For example, in the Netherlands, skin tone has a higher heritability value in the winter, because in the summer young people tan more and it destroys the correlation between their tone and their parents'. Even more counter intuitive, sex has a heritability value of 0, because everyone has a parent of each sex.* Number of arms at birth is barely heritable, in that there are certain heritable defects that make you more prone to having less than two arms, but they're so rare they barely create a range for us to consider.

Also, and this is important, heritability is only valid in the environment it is measured. A given trait is more heritable when the environment is more consistent. So when you see adoption studies saying parenting doesn't matter that much, what they mean is that across the variations in parenting seen in families that adoption agencies found worthy, parenting style doesn't matter much.

*This absolutely has to be true as a consequence of how sex is defined biologically, regardless of the gender identity of either parent.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
In 2008, I had a combination wisdom tooth removal/jaw surgery to correct chronic pain in my jaw dating back to 2005. If you haven't had chronic pain, I'm not sure if I can convey how stupid it makes you. A mere six months after it started I told the dentist to go ahead and do the filling replacement under partial Novocaine, because the bitch didn't believe me when I told her I needed more and while she had injected a lot, wasn't doing so any faster than my body could clear it out, and I was desperate to get it treated. My dentist recommended the two surgeries after the second root canal failed to help, but it had to be scheduled out several months because I was terrified of general anesthetic* and insisted both be done at once, even though they required separate practitioners. I was contracting at the time and had made job-taking decisions based in part on scheduling around this surgery. Oh, and I had to get up very early in the morning for it, so I was sleepy.

So when the receptionist told me it was standard practice to remove biopsied tissue to check for cancer, I signed the form. According the legal chapter in The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the doctors and/or lab can legally do whatever they want with that tissue. If I had spontaneously donated that, that wouldn't bother me. If I'd been informed ahead of time and had carefully considered it, it wouldn't bother me. But I was not in a position to do any of those. I would have cut my wrist and signed the form in blood if it would get me into surgery faster. And my chronic pain wasn't even that painful, as these things go.

I'm pretty convinced that what bothers people the most isn't that someone somewhere is making money off their tissues. It's that we're taking advice on things we don't understand from people who suspect don't like us very much, and while I'm sure no very few dentists have recommended surgery for the sole purpose of extracting tissue to sell for profit, the human brain forms associations. And if you have a more positive association with things that involve tissue removal you're going to, on the margin, recommend more tissue removal. And we're all so terrified of doing the wrong thing and so desperate to trust an authority figure that we seize on the one thing we can control.

And then there's the fact that they can keep things like the state-mandated blood draws for genetic testing. That's just bullshit.

That was really depressing, especially if you know that the surgery didn't help me either, and that it's impossible to know whether the initial trauma, the initial dentist fuck ups, the improperly anesthetized filling replacement, the root canals, or the surgery caused the lingering problem. So to end on a lighter note: oral surgery didn't actually leave any open wounds, except for where the wisdom teeth were and that's why I got dry socket, which to be fair made me forget about the low level chronic pain I was experiencing pretty quickly. Anyway, the surgery left no open wounds that needed band aids, but the IV for the anesthetic did. It was a My Little Pony bandaid, and I'm convinced it was classic MLP although given that I was still heavily sedated at the time, I'm not sure you should believe me. But I was clearly paying attention, because I asked the friend who was taking care of me why I had a My Little Pony bandaid no less than five times.


*Tangent: I'm pretty sure I'd be less afraid of general anesthetic if doctors would just admit that it's to prevent you from from forming memories of terrible pain, not from feeling terrible pain. The fact that they won't admit makes me wildly inflate the percentages of people who wake up in surgery screaming.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
Warning: possible overgeneralization from my own experiences.

Background: from ages 12-21, I wanted to be a scientist. I left because it turns out science is a spectacularly crappy career, but I still feel some kinship with it.

Opening anecdote: One day in my sociobiology class, our lecturer described a particular experiment demonstrating that people are more friendly towards those who share their name, more so with last than with first, more so still if it's a rare name. The experiment was elegant, required a minimum of effort, and got the undergraduate experimenter published in Nature. For those who don't follow these things: that's roughly equivalent to throwing the winning pitch at the World Series at 17. My friend and I turned to each other and, in unison, mouthed the words "that bitch."

My point is, scientists are competitive. They care about truth and knowledge and expanding human horizons... but they also care that they're the one to do it. It's almost tautological, because while I'm sure there are many excellent scientists who don't care that much, they tend to get scooped. What's worse, there tends to be a particular moment for a particular discovery, and while 99.99999% of human beings are still incapable of finding it, there are still three or four other people with the knowledge, inclination, and equipment, and if any one of them beats you, you might as well be one of the 99.99999%. That was some of the lesson of Quicksilver*: you have all these brilliant minds coming at once and then they waste their time competing with each other and hiding results so the others can't steal them.

This feels like a pretty lonely limb, but I think that's why scientists are so quick to beat down Henrietta Lacks (the woman whose cancer cells went on to be the first and most productive line of cultured human cells). These men* gave their entire lives to something that has minimal financial reward (relative to what else someone with that level of intelligence could do) and is really only prestigious within a small subculture. They did it because they wanted to discover things, wanted to contribute, and wanted the respect of that subculture. They did at the expense of years and years of their lives. Then this woman comes along and contributes about as much to medical science as a nobel prize winner, and she didn't have to sacrifice a damn thing.***

I think researchers try to anonymize and deemphasize the source of their data- the human beings- because they don't want to share the credit. Human instinct is to give the biggest rewards to the person who made the most sacrifice, and giving part of their body feels like a bigger contribution than collating some data, even if the scientist provided the spark of insight and any old human could have donated blood. Knowing this, the scientists dehumanize the donors in an attempt to bring prestige/credit/ownership to themselves.

I'm basing this in part on my own feelings. While listening to the book there's a thread in me saying "why are we paying attention to her? She didn't do anything, she didn't choose anything, she was just in the right place at the right time to have something happen to her?" She has an interesting story, and it's pretty illustrative of a lot of things that were wrong with America at the time and are not as fixed as we like to think, but why is her story more interesting than any of the thousands of other poor black women who went to that same medical clinic? Why should she get remembered and they don't?

And the answer is... because. Because even without bringing metaphysics into it, it is good to cultivate an attitude of respect for people who contribute to things. It's good for the soul to know the web of connections you're living in, and bad to disregard people who made substantive contributions to it. Overruling that voice saying "but she contributed the actual living cells" comes at a real psychic cost.

Okay, that got dramatically less articulate at the end but I've still got a good 2/3 of the book left so maybe I'll figure out some more later.


*This is one reason I don't manage to keep my reading on theme. It's more fun coming up with connections between whichever books arrive at the library together

**The women scientists are likely to be even less happy with her, since they faced many more obstacles than the men.

***I mean, she did die at 30. But it wasn't intentional so it doesn't count.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
I'm 20% through The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (by Rebecca Skloot) and it has every appearance of being one of those books that changes my mind about things: it's well written, well researched, not the approach I would take but not so alien as to be useless, and in an area I don't understand well. Broadly, the book is about cancerous cells that were taken from a (black, poor) woman and became the first human cells to be successfully grown in a lab. These cells have gone on to do all sorts of important things for science (which worries me, because they're CANCER CELLS being used as models for human, and cancer cells THAT COULD SURVIVE IN CONDITIONS NOTHING ELSE COULD* at that). But they were taken without permission, and while her medical care was no Tuskegee, her story shines an uncomfortable light on just how bad the best medical care in the country for poor black people was at the time. It uses her descendents' medical care to talk about the care available to poor black people now. I don't know if this was intentional, since she hasn't mentioned that cervical cancer is caused by HPV, but the fact that her cancer was caused by an STI, of which she caught numerous and varied from her husband, certainly makes me think about issues of sexual violence, consent, coercion, and 1950s gender roles. And there's a lot about race in there too. In short, despite my well earned reputation for enjoying really astonishingly depressing books, I'm finding this one a little stressful. Since I could easily see my opinion change over the course of reading this, and I have a tendency to forget I ever held another opinion when that happens, especially when the old opinion was muddled and weak, I'm recording some of my thoughts on the matter now.

  1. Bodily integrity and control are very important and should be respected
  2. Patients are idiots and keep refusing to let science use things they're getting removed anyway.
  3. but it's not consent if you're not free to say no
  4. but they're so stupid.
  5. I once had an optometrist (optomologist? the doctor one) slip in a form saying he could use results from my exam in research studies without even notifying me. And it was opt-out. Now, it would have been nice to get a note, but I totally understand why he didn't want to bother with notification. But I really hate it when people, especially doctors, slip in things hoping you won't notice, so I opted out. Just to piss them off.
  6. Even though the theoretical universe says that it shouldn't matter if your doctor anonymously writes up your case, I think that human intuition is that no one can serve two masters, and allowing them to write about you will subtly shift their priorities to your detriment.
  7. This isn't such a big deal when it's your barista mining you for poetry material, because you feel confident in your ability to assess his coffee making skills. But it's a really big deal when you're trusting someone else about something very important that you don't understand at all.
  8. The reflexive no may be a desperate attempt to maintain control in a situation where you have so very little of it.
  9. it was common belief at the time that doctors should be allowed to do research on public ward patients, since they weren't paying for their care
  10. I am okay with this, for very limited definitions of the word "research". Unnecessary medication? no. But I think it's ridiculous that we don't even track the outcomes for procedures medicare/aid pay for. And I think I'm okay with free patients being required to give medically unnecessary tissue samples, if it can be done without harm.
  11. did you know that hospitals keep the foreskins of babies they circumsize and sell them for thousands of dollars? On one hand, the families didn't want them before, why should they now? On the other hand THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS. Also, it makes me suspicious of the AMA's support for a procedure that: 1. has no medical justification when done on infants. 2. has a nontrivial number of people saying it's abhorrent.
  12. It's sort of like organ donors. You're allowed to not give up your organs, but not for stupid reasons like "I can't be bothered to think about something so icky until it's too late."
  13. Lacks's family complains specifically about not being able to afford medical care when their mother gave so much to science, especially when parts of science are charging other parts of science $25 a vial for it. And yeah, that does feel extremely unfair.
  14. I think this stems from the human intuition that if you give something to X, even something that costs you nothing, X owes you (or your descendants) something of the returns they got with that object.
  15. This is logically incorrect. Either science owes them money (which can be spent on their choice of medical care, education, high priced call girls, or anything else they might desire) or it doesn't.
  16. early chemotherapy apparently consisted of taping radium to the cervix. I can't tell you how unpleasant it is to listen to that while you're biking.
  17. It feels unfair that some company makes $25/vial off of Lacks's cells and her family gets nothing.
  18. The lab had gone through hundreds if not thousands of tissue cultures before happening to find one that worked. Tracking all of those would have been a nightmare.
  19. But letting them count expenses against these profits opens the door to hollywood accounting.
  20. normally I'd just say "let the market sort it out", and if they can't afford to do the research, so be it, but I want to be young and pretty forever, and discouraging medical research does not jibe with those goals.
  21. This is related to a problem with medical patents: if you have an awesome idea that relies on patents from 10 different companies (easy to do in medicine), you basically can't make it, because you'll never be able to negotiate a good enough deal with all of them. Last I read there are some workarounds for this involving standard contracts, but it's no panacea.
  22. Partially because if you're a bureaucrat who kills a deal that would have made the company millions, no one will ever know. But if you're the bureaucrat who sold a patent too cheap, you're dead.

*It's unclear at this point in the book if Lacks's cells survived because of something particular to them, or because the scientist just happened to get the mix right at that point.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
If it were up to me, the FDA would be run completely differently. For one thing, I really don't care how much pain medicine you take. I would allow adults to purchase heroin over the counter. Chemo? Well, I don't recommend taking it without a doctor's prescription, but sure, knock yourself out. And this whole drug approval process is insane: to get approval, you have to prove your drug is strictly better than other drugs in the class on the market. This is stupid. Humans are highly variable, just because something is worse on average doesn't mean it's not The Drug for one particular person- I'm eternally grateful for the fact that 3 or 4 different allergy drugs went on the market at the same time, because I built up an immunity to each of them in a year or two. At my peak I was taking three and my allergies still weren't under control (the eventual solution turned out to be non-pharmaceutical). If the FDA had only approved the best in class drug, I literally may not have been able to finish high school; my allergies were that bad. And I'll decide if the pain relief I get from Vioxx is worth the potential heart attack, thank you very much*.

The FDA doesn't even do what it does very well. Did you know you don't submit a study to the FDA until after it's complete? So you can just not report a particular study and it doesn't count. What the fuck? If my world, the FDA would by and large be a data collection agency: the drug companies would register their studies before they even started, and report the results at the end. The FDA would collate those results to make them accessible to doctors, possibly also providing comparisons to similar drugs, and let doctors and patients make informed decisions.

But the FDA's real failure is in antibiotics. A government agency tasked with controlling access to drugs doesn't give a fuck about the overuse of the only drugs that have genuine negative externalities. And it's going to kill us if they don't stop.

That's probably alarmist. There are many decision points between now and death by superbug. We've gotten lazy about hygiene in the absence of insects and the presence of antibiotics. But the FDA's priorities are so very wrong in this case.

The solution isn't actually obvious though. As long as doctors are the gatekeepers, they have an incentive to give antibiotics to patients with viral infections to make them shut up. You could make them more expensive, but the middle class and above won't notice unless you make very specific laws about the insurance, and it has obvious repercussions for the poor. My usual answer to issues like that is "price things appropriately and give the poor more money", and maybe that works in this case too (antibiotic use has a negative externality, so it is good candidate for taxation), but it's not the same as a gas tax. You can force people to get N sick before giving them antibiotics, but that might actually make the problem worse. Ditto for making people afraid of superbugs- they'll ask for stronger antibiotics before they stop taking them needlessly.

The fact that most viable option I can think of is lacing antibiotics with something with unpleasant side effects is not a good sign. On the other hand, there is precedent: vicodin has ibuprofin in it not for the theraputic effects, but to give you liver damage if you take too much. Thanks FDA.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
A lot of blogs are commenting on the differential in the growth of men's and women's median wage* since the 1970s. In brief: Until 1970, male median wage moved exactly in synch with GDP, but has essentially stagnated since then, even though the GDP has continued to grow at the same rate. Meanwhile, women's median wage continues to grow roughly in synch with GDP. Obviously this is a complicated issue with a number of contributing factors, but the one I want to talk about is tournament style compensation.

There's two ends to the spectrum of compensation:

  1. effort-indexed, where your rewards are roughly a function of the talent effort you put it, regardless of how much effort others put in. A good example is nursing: the best nurse makes more money than the worst nurse, but not millions more. Mathematically, you can think of the compensation as a roughly linear or maybe even logarithmic function of quality of work. It's worth noting that I made up the term effort-indexed because the official term doesn't exist and/or is hard to find.
  2. tournament style, where whoever does something the absolute best gets a ton of money, and everyone else gets very little or none. Think being an author, or professional athlete. Mathematically, it's an exponential curve.


There's some blur between the two: being a programmer at a large company is effort-indexed, working at a start up is tournament style. And you never know, you could be such a good nurse a wealthy patient leaves you billions. But the categories stand as useful.

The interesting thing is that there's a lot of evidence that when you move something from effort-indexed to tournament style, men compete harder and women compete less.** There's no research into the causality that I know of, but it seems likely to be related to the fact that reproductive success is effort-indexed for women but tournament-style for men.

Given that, you could add a lot of money a pool, but if it's divied up tournament style, it will make minimal difference to the median wage. Since men are more likely to be working in tournament-style systems, it would make sense that adding more money to each pool will affect women's median wage more.

*Brief primer: median means line up everyone in order of the trait of interest and select the person in the middle. This is distinct from the mean, which adds all the numbers together and divides by the total number of people. The median can be the more relevant in certain cases involving data with long tail distributions.

**See this paper for both a general overview of the research, some specifics on how to counteract the effect, and really fascinating info about how the menstrual cycle affects willingness to compete. It's worth noting that the pre-menstrual period, the yimr that makes women unfit to be president or CEO or head surgeon, is when their hormones profile most closely resembles the typical male profile. I'm just saying.
pktechgirlbackup: (Default)
59 Seconds continues to commit the two major sins of happiness research: Confusing The Number Circles On The Form With Genuine Long Term Happiness, and Telling Stories. Let's tackle the stories first. There is at least one study, and possibly many (can't check, I'm listening to it on CD), showing that when people discuss a frustrating event with friends they leave the same or less happy, but when they write down the event they feel better afterwards. Technically the only facts are the exact numbers that came out of each study, but let's assume it's been replicated enough that we can call writing=feel better, talking=feel worse a fact. We can't, for a lot of reasons, but I can't get distracted by that right now. Because even if that were true, the researchers explanation for it- "talking just reminds people of things, writing makes them form a narrative"- is completely unfounded. To test that, you'd have to look at things like "what if we tell people to just complain when they write?", "what if we tell people to tell their friends stories?", "what if they read the helpful diary entry to a friend?" Until then, the explanation is just a story.

And then there's the second sin, which I'm going to expand into a a general "extrapolaing from a distorted view of a single moment in time to all of eternity." My other book right now is Crucial Conversations. It doesn't have any scientific citations, but it is the only book on interpersonal skills I have ever found at all useful*, and that's even better. Technically, Crucial Conversations is telling the same story telling sin I accuse 59 seconds of, but it doesn't bother me because 1. it's not claiming to discuss specific studies, just trends, and 2. I can absolutely see how the stories they are true about my life and the corrections they suggest will make my life better. So I guess 59 Second's sin isn't telling stories, it's telling useless stories.

I apologize for using the word "story" in both the metadiscussion and the specific discussion, because it's rapidly going to stop looking like a word. But soldiering on: one of the brilliant points in Crucial Conversations is that when we have an interaction with someone that goes poorly, we tell ourselves a story about why it happened. The fact is that the coworker excluded you from a conversation, the story is that he's doing it deliberately to cut you out because you're a woman. You could just as easily tell a story that he'd heard you were nervous and wanted to help you, or is a nervous talker and feels like shit now. You have to watch the stories you tell very carefully***, or you'll act inappropriately to the situation. But we tell these stories because in the short term, they make us feel better. SO it seems entirely plausible to me that people feel better immediately after writing down a negative event, because they've now got the fairy tale written, staring them, but that this locks them into repeating the same mistake over again.

59 Seconds briefly rallied by providing scientific justification for a story I believe: the Getting Things Done Philosophy, in which storing information in your brain is anathema because it uses valuable mental ram, and you should do everything in your power to break things into loops you can offload onto storage and close as quickly as possible, because unclosed loops = occupied RAM = more stress + lowered productivity. Apparently the whole mental RAM thing is totally true: you do hold certain information and intentions in your brain until the whole project is finished, and then quickly wipe them. But Wiseman goes in the exact opposite direction for GTD on this: he suggests that procrastinators lie to themselves and say they'll work on a project for "just a few minutes", counting on the fact that once they start they won't be able to stop until they're done. That seems like a great plan. The first time. But it seems like over time it would increase your resistance to starting anything. But Wiseman doesn't know that because he hasn't looked past the first attempt

*this sounds like damning with faint praise, but I'm actually finding it extremely interesting and expect it to be extremely useful when I have a chance to put it into practice.**

**I've had this rant building for a while. I didn't share it because I'm trying not to rant but... screw it. I've basically given up on anything with "for introverts" in the title because they're inevitably written by extroverts. Now, extroverts are not bad people. Some of my best friends are extroverts. And I'm willing to concede that their extroversion makes them more successful at particular things and/or happier at life in general. But, and extroverted authors listen up because this is the critical point, just like you can't make pessimists happier by forcing them to pretend to be optimists, you can't make introverts happier by making them pretend to be extroverts. My goal is not to be more like you, it's to make being me easier. Being you just seems exhausting.

***Wow, this is getting all circular. I only just noticed that this is exactly the Sin of Story Telling I described in the first paragraph.

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