Field of Science

Slaughter in Sandy Hook: What Facebook Taught Me

'Nothing brings people together like a tragedy' is a phrase we learn early in life, usually after the first tragedy we experience. That's often a good thing, but it can also be a bad thing. Think about how Americans came together after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, then think about how some people came together to ostracize people with brown skin assumed to be of the Islamic faith.

Yesterday a young man armed with a number of guns, killed his mother, entered the school she worked in and assassinated 20 elementary school children and 6 adults, before turning the gun on himself.  The news spread like wildfire and although there was no new information for hours, updates (saying nothing new) were constantly coming. Of course social media networks blew up as well and then I learned (relearned actually) a number of things about people.

First, people are caring and empathetic to the parents, surviving children, and community.
People are also lazy and unwilling to actually do anything helpful for the parents, surviving children, and community.

For example, my facebook feed was littered with the following prayers and calls for prayers:

Nothing says commitment to helping those in need like hitting the 'share' button. Way to really do something about the tragedy. You can't actually come up with a sound-bite statement on your own, so you use one someone else made. Did you at least take a minute or two to add a comment. Actually no, in fact almost every single one of these posts that were shared (by multiple people) did not contain a word of extra text personalizing the 'share'. So we can click the 'share' button and select OK, because that truly embodies personal caring and empathy to the parents, surviving children, and community. But taking the time to do something useful, well that's just crazy talk.

Looking back on it, these kind of platitudes make some sense. The whole idea is that thinking, praying, or at least acknowledging that some people somewhere are suffering equates with helping in some way.  Why do people think that praying is in some way helpful? Do you believe god is sitting around taking a head count of how many prayers he gets? Once he gets the necessary number he will help otherwise, nada. Actually a lot of people do believe this, which is why see people praying for rain in Texas and Georgia.
You want to actually do something to help? Here is a short list I came up with in response to the plethora of empty platitudes.
  1. Donate blood. I know, you may not live in the Sandy Hook area. But your blood is needed by someone. You could actually save someone's life by spending a few minutes at a donation center. You could spend the time while donating sharing how you are actually doing something to help people. You can even pray while you are actually helping if it makes you feel better.
  2. Donate time to the affected families, shovel their driveways, cook some meals, etc. Don't live in the area, donate some time to help a neighbor, colleague, or the community. You know just generally make the world a better place.
  3. Write letters of condolences-support to the affected community. Even a simple letter to the editor of the Sandy Hook local newspaper. (It's the Newton Bee if you are interested.) You could write letters to the Board of Selectman of Newton CT or Sandy Hook elementary school. I expect your letters would reach some appropriate ears.
  4. You could push to change public policy to help avoid these kinds of shootings in the future. You could try to implement tougher gun laws, or make access to mental health services easier, or restrict violent video games, or whatever you think will make a difference. You may be wrong, you may not succeed, but at least you would be doing something.
  5. Spend time with your children, other family, friends. Let them know they are important to you. You should probably spend 10 times more with those you love than you do watching the news waiting for the important new information that comes once every 48 hours or so.
The second thing I learned, people will use any excuse to advocate for their favorite cause.

The two big ones I saw were gun control and not enough god. Yes, gun control would help. Yes, now is a good time to discuss it. No, empty platitudes regarding guns are about as helpful as praying. The second picture about gun control is even counter-productive. Anyone looking at it should realize the problem, it is not controlled for population. If we assume the numbers are correct, the fact that there were almost 11,000 handgun deaths in the US compared to almost 50 in Japan is meaningless unless you already know that the population of Japan is one-third  that of the US!

Then of course the persecuted Christians who are at war for Christmas need to screech about god and schools. Please just shut the fuck up. Your kids can pray before school starts, between classes, at lunch, recess, whenever they damn well want as long as it doesn't inhibit the learning of others. What you don't get to have is the government forcing every child in the school to have your preferred beliefs indoctrinated into them.

But really?!?! You worship a god who is so insecure that unless he is constantly being told how great he is, he will send a young adult to kill someone elses' kids. That is the take home message of the above picture. I see where that viewpoint comes from, the Abrahamic religions were founded on the story of a dad who was told to kill his son and was happy to do it (of course the prank was called off at the last minute). Hell, the Noah's ark story is the complete genocide of every man, woman, child, infant, and baby on the planet except for 8 adults (not called off).

The third thing I learned is that some people to realize the importance of community and that we should care about each other.

Now is a good time to remind our children that these tragedies are extremely rare and that they have friends and families that love and care for them. Of course, this is also an empty platitude unless it is acted upon. Saying you love your kid, but ignoring the problems they have is useless love. Telling someone you are there for them and not being there, the same as nothing. (Remember this the next time you see someone with an "I support the troops" bumper sticker. Feel free to ask them how, 99 times out of 100 they simply put a bumper 
sticker on their vehicle and maybe prayed a bunch.) 

So if you want to help, then do something. Otherwise, Ill go on assuming you are just trying to make yourself feel better by letting everyone know you really care by sharing empty platitudes.

The 2012 Election: My Assessment and What Comes Next

My Assessment:
My preferred outcome came to fruition, Romney lost. That is not to suggest that I supported Obama. Obama’s white-washing of criminal torture (we signed a treaty which is binding law), use of drone attacks, support of warrantless wiretaps, prosecution of whistleblowers, increased federal raids on medical marijuana clinics compared to Bush, and other examples of executive overreach made me extremely unsupportive of Obama. However, Romney would have maintained, at the least, and done much worse in these areas (reinstituting torture).

            I almost ran the wish-list table here as well. By and large, the far right wing republicans were sent home. Richard ‘rape is a gift from god’ Mourdock and Todd ‘magic uterine powers’ Akin lost to not insane candidates. Also Allen ‘only my religion counts’ West is unemployed. The legislative IQ average increased by 6.4 points with the loss of Akin and West.
            Locally, I was most heartened that my senator is still Amy Klobuchar and my representative is still Betty McCollum. Furthermore, Rick Nolan defeated Chip Cravaack. I was less heartened that Michele ‘swine flu is a democratic plot’ Bachmann was reelected again. However, there is a rainbow with Bachmann’s reelection. Based on redistricting, which made the MN 6th district even more conservative than it was previously, and the fact that she spent 10 times more than her opponent, Bachmann should have won in a landslide. She won by 1.18% (4207 votes). On a positive note Keith Ellison was also reelected. As an actual Muslim, you know that has to chaff Bachmann’s hide.

State Legislature:
            In this case, I ran the table. My senator is Bev Scalze and representative is Jason Isaacson. More importantly, both houses are in DFL hands as is the executive. Maybe some things can get done.

            Two No’s for victory! The constitutional amendment to redefine marriage as one man:one woman failed. The religious right used the meme that gay marriage was a redefinition, but as far as I can see marriage has been a moving target since its inception and has until recently in the US been a mechanism of property control (the property being women). In an example of cognitive dissonance the party most aligned with ‘traditional marriage’ also flocked behind Mitt Romney whose own religion supported polygamy until the US army threatened to squash them out of existence.
            Secondly, the voter ID amendment also failed. This was a strategic plot to disenfranchise voters most likely to vote democratic, veiled in a logical sounding sound bite.

The Way Forward:
            We all know the election results, it’s old news. So now what? Do we wait until the 2014 election hoping things get done? The short answer is ‘no’, or at least I want to suggest you should not think the answer is no. Now is the time to actually try and get something done. The politicians we just sent to office are now, at least unconsciously, beginning to think about reelection. So if you were motivated before, stay that way. Now is the time to start writing to your senators and representatives at the state and federal level. Tell them what you think and why. Do not simply say that you are for or against something, tell them why you are for it or against it. Give them the evidence/ammunition to use to help deliver what you want.
Insist on rationales. If your senators and representatives are for or against something, then have them explain why. Even if your preferred candidate didn’t win, contact your senators and representatives. They must understand they represent you, not simply those who voted for them. If your candidate is against tax cuts on the job creators, ask them for evidence that the tax cuts will create more jobs or that the job creators actually create jobs. You might even use evidence to bolster your questions. Did you get an answer you do not like? Write a letter to the editor in the local paper. Do some shit.
Do you have a skill set or expertise? Contact your senators and representatives let them know and volunteer your expertise in the event an issue comes up that you might be able to help with. Are you a licensed plumber? Let your congress people know that. Maybe a bill will come down the pike on regulatory issues related to pipe joining compound that your expertise can provide insight. Likely this wouldn’t be the case in a major federal law, but the state representative you help out next month might be your next US senator. Remember: one hand washes the other.

Were you like me and voted against the Minnesota marriage amendment? Well, all we accomplished was to make gay marriage not exceedingly difficult to legalize. The fact is in the state of Minnesota, the legal rights associated with civil marriage are not available to a significant number of citizens. I did not support the NO vote, simply to have gay marriage be illegal. I supported the NO vote as a necessary first step to legalization as was done in Maine and Maryland in this very election. There are numerous issues the Minnesota state legislature has to deal with and two days after the election the DFL stated that they are unable to multitask. Bullshit. Now is the time to keep their feet to the fire. The state has already concluded that gays and lesbians should not be constitutionally relegated to second class citizen status, but they are relegated to second class citizen status by law. Now is the time to change that.

We just completed an election cycle where sanity beat out insanity. But you know what? In the off-cycle elections the more moderate voices stay home, which is one of the reasons we saw massive wins by the tea party in 2010. The founding of the tea party had some reasonable voices that made points worth considering, but these were quickly lost by the right wing fringe that showed up and took over the tea party. They most extreme factions vote in droves in the off-cycle elections, so now is the time to maintain your involvement because it's the best chance you have to accomplish things you believe in and/or support. Now is the time to make sure your legislators hear your voice often. (FYI: a letter saying thank you when a legislator supports your position is always appreciated.)

Powerball drives traffic to AbC: a Repost

Here's a post I wrote last year that I am rather proud of for two reasons. First, I think it is well written and makes the relevant points effectively. Second, it pissed off a idiot and ended up spawning several follow up posts. Regardless, I noted that this post is receiving a bunch of traffic because of Powerball. So without further ado...

Thinking about the vagina

I spent the better part of several days last week discussing a fungus that lives in the vagina. I invited a seminar speaker, who studies Candida albicans colonization of mucosal surfaces, which includes the mouth, intestine, and vagina, among other sites. C. albicans is a normal part of the human flora that does not appear to be detrimental or beneficial (a commensal).  During our discussions, which usually took place a local watering holes, it became clear to me that different mammalian species can vary markedly when it comes to the indigenous flora and ultimately the physiology of the vaginal tract.

In women, the vagina is a fairly acidic environment. This is due to the action of Lactobacillus, a bacterium that grows well in the vaginal tract. Lactobacilli generates copious amounts of lactic acid from the metabolism of complex sugars. Lactic acid, as the name suggests, is acidic. The acidic pH in the vagina, due to lactic acid accumulation, inhibits the growth of most other microbes with the notable exception of C. albicans, a fungus. Fungi are extremely tolerant of acidic environments, at least in comparison to many bacteria.

Although C. albicans can grow reasonable well at the pH found in the vagina, it’s growth is limited by the vast abundance of Lactobacilli. Nutrients are not unlimited, so the faster growing Lactobacilli outcompete the slower growing C. albicans. Not surprisingly, if the Lactobacillus population is reduced, for example by broad spectrum antibiotic use or douching, then C. albicans can flourish, which can result in a yeast infection. (It can also lead to bacterial vaginosis, but this is less common.)

What is interesting, at least to me, is that vaginal pH of a female mouse is neutral. Based on this bit of information, you may not be surprised to learn that the murine vaginal tract is not colonized by Lactobacillus (therefore no lactic acid made and no vaginal acidic pH). Since the murine vaginal pH is not as acidic as a woman’s, you might expect C. albicans to do well there (as observed in women with a less acidic vaginal pH). However, C. albicans is not a normal colonizer of the mouse vagina. That being said, we can infect the murine vaginal tract in the lab with C. albicans. Indeed, when we do this, it appears that mice respond similarly to C. albicans as women with a yeast infection. What this tells us is that in the vaginal trac, C. albicans does not appear to be concerned with the environmental pH in regards to disease symptoms. This actually makes sense as recent studies have shown that women who have recurrent vaginal yeast infections (3 or more incidents a year during their child bearing years (yes hormones play a big role here)), the problem is how their bodies respond to C. albicans not due to anything specifically the fungus is doing.

To someone who works on how C. albicans responds to environmental pH, these results may seem disappointing. However, I for one find them intriguing. One primary reason we study the C. albicans response to environmental pH is that environmental pH has a dramatic effect on how this fungus grows. In acidic environments, C. albicans grows as a yeast indistinguishable from the Bakers yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) you can buy in the grocery store. In neutral or alkaline environments, C. albicans grows in the hyphal form (analogous to the hairy mold growing on the bread you baked but left sitting around too long). Besides being a striking phenotype, the transition between the yeast and hyphal growth forms is critical for disease and presumably for colonization as a commensal.

In summary, the ability to switch between the yeast and hyphal growth forms is critical for disease and environmental pH directly controls morphology. The problem or point of interest is that the environmental pH in the vagina of two distinct mammals varies markedly yet disease appears similar. This suggests that other environmental factors contribute to morphogenesis (true) and/or that within the vaginal tract C. albicans morphology is not important (potentially true). Support for this latter idea comes from Candida glabrata, a yeast that commonly colonizes the vaginal tract that is closely related to S. cerevisiae (the one you can buy in the supermarket). The key here is that C. glabrata only grows in the yeast form and is readily able to cause yeast infections.

A couple of accessory points. 1, A picture may be worth a thousand words, but some posts are not amenable to google searches; 2, You can get some interesting looks from patrons of the local watering hole discussing the microbial contingent of the vagina.

A Reason to Vote No on Nov 6

A friend of mine posted an impassioned argument to Vote No on the marriage amendment on Facebook. She wanted to get her message out, so I offered to share it here and she said yes. I have copied her post in its entirety. So without further ado...
This is not spam, this is not meant to seem like a mass message, (although I sent it to a mass) this is a personal message that I, Jenny, am sending, with good intent, to you. Whether you know me well, from the past or only in passing, I REALLY want you to read what I have to say regardless of your opinions or lack there of on politics. 
I'll try to be brief!
In 11 days we will all have the option to cast a vote. I don't care which party/person you vote for. That is none of my business or concern. What I care about is how you vote on the marriage amendment.
*Please don't stop reading* 
I've talked to many people that I consider friends and even casual acquaintances about the marriage amendment and I've heard a startling amount of people tell me that they intent to vote "yes" to approve the amendment. Not because they claim to be bigots, not because they're particularly religious (which shouldn't matter regardless), but simply because they "don't care" or "don't know any gay people". 
Voting to permanently deny rights THAT THEY DON'T EVEN HAVE to a large population of our neighbors is barbaric. I can't believe that at this point in history we're wasting our time with something of this nature and even more, can't believe that people that I know are entertaining it! 
This is not a gay rights issue. This is a HUMAN rights issue. You don't have to know any gays to recognize that. 
Without going into sob stories about anyone that I know I want to talk about practicality. If you are religious and feel like that is the reason you should vote "yes" please do me a few favors: #1- Please remember that church is supposed to be separate from state. Your religious establishment will never be required to marry anyone that it doesn't want to, as churches (synagogues, ect.) are exempt from discrimination laws. It's also not fair to impose your religious beliefs into law. #2- God will not cast you down. I'm sure that you've 'sinned against him' in many ways, like fornication, birth control, using his name in vain, coveting your neighbor... you can still make it up to heaven. #3- If gays earn the right to marry (which is not what we're voting on.. they still will not have equal rights if you vote "no") it will not affect the sanctity of anyone's heterosexual marriage! That's like saying your flower garden is no longer beautiful because your neighbor planted flowers in their yard too. Your garden is NOT less beautiful! 
If you are voting "yes" because you don't know any gay people, please (PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE) recognize how asinine it is to try and prevent rights to a population just because you don't know them. In fact, if you don't know them, even better! It will affect you less than people that do know gays! 
And lastly, if you intend to vote "yes" because you just don't care, then do me an immediate favor: go to my page directly, find the friends tab, and select delete. I do not want to be so much as a casual aquaintence with anyone of your sorts. In fact, if you intend to vote "yes" for any reason, do that please. 
All moral ambiguity aside, can we not all see the economic benefits to gay marriage?! Weddings are expensive! More weddings means more venues being booked, more dresses/suits being sold, the food industry, the booze industry, jobs, taxes on marriage certificates, the cost of lawyers for the divorces... think about it. You don't even have to like the idea of gay marriage to like the extra flow of cash that would go into our economy.
Recognize, friends-that-despise-politics, that you DO NOT have to vote for a candidate to vote on the marriage amendment!!! If you so choose, you can check only one box and submit your vote. If you are one of these people, then I beg you to do so. Do it for your neighbors. Do it for any LGBT person that you know. Do it for the ones you haven't yet met. Do it for our children, that need to know that no group of people deserve to be bullied for something they cannot change. Set the example. 
This amendment has passed in 39 states. This amendment is not the kind of thing that Minnesotans pass. It's not how we treat each other. It's just not nice. 
PLEASE register to vote, even if it is the only box you check, vote "NO". 
The online registry is: 
Thank you for reading my words,

No Rape Republicans: Dumbasses

Republican Assholes: 2nd recipients of this prestigious award
For some reason it seems that an entire major US political party has unilaterally decided that rape does not exist. Or maybe it is better to say that true rape does not exist, it's probably just some liberal media myth like climate change and intellectual honesty. I realize not all, and maybe not most, republicans share this worldview, but this is the problem you get when you embrace fundamentalism.

The patriarchal fundamentalist does not believe in rape, because a woman does not own her body. A woman's body belongs to her father until such time as he bequeaths it to her husband. This is why we, as 21st century first-world Americans still spend time worrying about the hymenal status of the bride, but could care less how often the groom shot his rocks off. This is what a large proportion of the gay marriage ban community means by traditional marriage. Women are property damnit.

Since women are property, they cannot be raped, because it isn't up to them what happens to their bodies. OK, maybe I'm being a bit hyperbolic. It does seem like some douchebag fundamentalist republicans acknowledge that rape is at least theoretically possible. Todd Akin acknowledges legitimate rape. However, if a woman becomes pregnant it can't be rape because the magic uterus prevents all the sperm cells from finding the egg and fertilizing it (note: this magic effect must occur pre-fertilization or otherwise an intact whole human being would be aborted and that would make baby Jesus cry.). Ron Paul noted that there is honest rape, which you can identify because the woman goes immediately to the emergency room, does not pass GO nor collect $200. Paul Ryan identifies forcible rape as a possible event, as opposed to those non-aggressive or maybe unenforcible rapes.

Regardless, most republicans seem to agree that the sex that occurs between a man and a non-compliant woman is really the woman's fault. That's why Roger Rivard noted that some girls just rape easy. Probably the only way men can be expected to not rape those women is to cover the 'easy rape women' from head to toe in some dark garments. Oh wait, Muslims already do that and they are evil, so we'll have to come up with another plan.

Potential devil worshiper 
With that recent history, we come to Richard Mourdock republican douchebag fundamentalist du jour. His actually disagrees with Akin and suggests that a woman can be become pregnant from a rape, however that's ok, because it's a gift from god. Mourdock might be right, if Mourdock worships the devil. Let's consider the ramifications of Mourdock's viewpoint. If a woman is forced to gestate and deliver a resulting baby from a rape, then why not force her to raise it. Also don't expect me or anyone else in society to help you raise your rape-baby, because that's just socialism or something.

What about the rapist? Can we prosecute him? I mean what if the woman was an 'easy rape' and how can we tell? Hell, if the rape-baby was Mourdock's devil-god's will, then can the rapist be held responsible? Obviously not, the rapist has no free will here, it was devil-god's decision, Mourdock said so. If anyone knows what the devil is thinking, I expect it is someone like Mourdock.

My Book Has Landed

I am super-excited! I won a copy of 'Species: A History of the Idea' by John S. Wilkins and it just arrived this evening (Can I get a BOOYAH)!
Of course that means I need to clear some things off my reading plate ASAP. I'm already sporadically reading Origin of Species (with 2 chapters for blog posts in the cue), Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and The Problems of Philosophy and I cannot take on another serious non-fiction book at the moment. Probably will whip through the rest of Russell's book in the next week or so and then I can crack the binding of 'Species.'

As an extra special bonus, my copy is signed by Dr. Wilkins, which I was not expecting and reflects my total awesomeness I'm sure.

Finally I want to plug 'Evolving Thoughts' as an excellent site to gain insights into the history of biological thought, biological philosophy, and definitely check out the basic concepts posts for primers on various important scientific topics.

Quote of the day

"Every event, or appearance, or accident, which seems to deviate from the ordinary course of nature has been rashly ascribed to the immediate action of the Deity and the astonished fancy of the multitude has sometimes given shape and colour, language and motion, to the fleeting but uncommon meteors of the air."

Written more than 200 years ago about a mindset common 1400 years before that. Have things changed at all?

Quote from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon.

On the Goal of Student Seminars

A requirement in most, if not all, biology related graduate programs is that the graduate students give seminars on their research progress several times during their training. In the two programs I am affiliated, students do this in their second and fourth years of training. (I am not including the oral thesis defense required to obtain the Ph.D. and I am only discussing Ph.D. programs as I do not have much experience with Master's programs.) Why do we have these requirements? Or maybe the better way to state the question is 'What is the purpose for having students talk about their research?'
A seminar (not given by a student)
This post is inspired by a recent minor conversation going on around our program. I was not going to post on it, because some of this conversation can be considered private. However, I have heard about this conversation from so many diverse people that the conversation is readily in the public domain. The conversation centers around the idea that specific faculty members are mean to students during their seminars. Seems simple enough, but we should probably define what ‘mean’ means at some point. Regardless, it is useful to establish the purpose of the student research seminar in order to determine what is and is not mean. So back to our initial question...

What is the purpose for having students talk about their research?

There are, of course, numerous purposes for the student seminar and I’ve listed four below. More purposes could be added and these four are not mutually exclusive, but these are the four I want to discuss.

1.    It allows program-wide evaluation.
2.    It sets foreseeable goal posts for progress.
3.    It is great practice.
4.    It allows for self-assessment. 

47% Pride

As basically everyone knows Romney came out to a bunch of his multimillionaire buddies. Well he didn't come out as in he admires Paul Ryan's abs o' steel or anything. He came out as a heartless bastard that really doesn't understand the real world. Of course he isn't elitist, you have to be educated to be elitist (at least in republican circles).

One of the key comments Romney made is:

"Well, there are 47% of the people who will vote for the president no matter what.  All right?  There are 47% who are with him.  Who are dependent upon government, who believe that-- that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they're entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it.  But that's-- it's an entitlement.  And the government should give it to them.  And they will vote for this president no matter what. 
And-- and-- I mean the president starts off with 48%, 49%, 40-- or he-- he starts off with a huge number.  These are people who pay no income tax.  47% of Americans pay no income taxes.  So our message of low taxes doesn't connect.  And he'll be out there talking about tax cuts for the rich.  I mean that's what they sell every-- every four years. 
And-- and so my job is not to worry about those people.  I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for for their lives.  What I have to do is convince the 5% to 10% in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion.  Whether they like the guy or not.  What they-- what it looks like.  I mean the-- it's the-- the-- when you ask those people-- we do all these polls.  I find it amazing.  We poll all these people, see where you stand in the polls.  About 45% of the people will vote for the Republican and 48% or 49%--"
Let me tell you a story.

My mom is a personal hero of mine. She embodies all those family values republicans supposedly cherish. She raised two kids, I was one of them. She's a single mom, because my parents got divorced not because she was one of those 'women who have lots of unprotected sex to make babies for the government to support' that republicans love to fantasize about. I realize many with the republican mindset still feel my mom is deficient because she was unable to keep her marriage intact. Regardless, she raised my brother and I and we both went to college (ergo we're elitists and use words like ergo). She worked full-time while raising us, while my dad did not pay court ordered child-support. She found time to attend my after school functions including marching and jazz band events. So I think by most criteria my mom fulfills those 'real american' values republicans love to crow about. Hell, my mom even voted republican for many years (she got better).

My mom is also one of those 47%ers Romney dislikes and discounts. She is also one of those 47%ers many non-rich Romney supporters dislike and discount.

From the earliest time I can remember, my mom worked full-time. The first job I am aware of is as an assistant nurse type job at a nursing home a few miles from our home. I remember that she worked the overnight shift, at least for a time, and I didn't get to spend much time with her. I also remember going there numerous times to see the patients and getting to know a few of them pretty well. I was probably 4 or 5 at the time. The owners of the nursing home stopped running it and went into real estate, Century 21 if I recall correctly. So my mom found a new job in a secretarial or accounting capacity, I think, at an advertising company, the kind that put up billboards. I also remember going to the office on weekends some times so she could do some work that needed doing. I got to wander around the garage area and mess around with stray supplies. I also encountered my first swimsuit calendar there, I was in the 6 - 9 range. Then she started working at a semi-conductor factory closer to home. She worked there until around the time I graduated and went to college when the plant shut down. Not exactly sure what she did there, she wasn't a floor worker but wasn't a front office secretary either. I think she was an assistant to the management team or something along those lines. She then did a short stint in a nursing assistant type position, before taking a position at an eye clinic. That was the last job she had, which lasted close to 15 years. She was always trying to better herself, to learn new things, gain new skills (elitist!). Towards the end of her tenure with the eye clinic, she was trying to become a technician in order to do certain aspects of the examination.

My mom owned her house outright. She paid off the mortgage and although it needed a bunch of work, it was hers. She basically drove the same car for as long as one could drive it and when the time came to replace it, she bought a used one. In fact, I recall only one new car being bought which occurred when I was real young and my parents were still married. My dad totaled it shortly after we got it.

I remember lay-away plans for Christmas gifts and the Christmas clubs through the banks. We never had many of the bells and whistles associated with solid middle class living, but we had a nice house in a nice neighborhood, I had toys to play with, though my next door neighbor always had much better toys (which is probably why I spent so much time at his house as opposed to vice versa). I probably would have benefited from more attention and guidance with schoolwork, but single mom remember?

But I also know we did not have to use food stamps or access welfare services. Unless we consider free/reduced school lunches of course, in that case I was one of those victimized 10 year olds who felt they're entitled to food.

So although my mom raised two sons to be at least reasonably successful. She paid her own way and paid income tax until she stopped working. (She also paid payroll taxes, sales tax, property tax, etc. just like all those other 47%ers who 'don't pay taxes'.)

But you know what? My mom has succumbed to Alzheimer's disease. She had early onset which started in her early 60s. This is ultimately why she lost her job at the eye clinic. She could not reliably function, she forgot how things were done and made many mistakes. She also had extreme problems filling out a check to pay a bill. It wasn't like she didn't try to pay her bills, she would go to the counter at the cable company and not know how to fill out the check! She frequently could not even understand how to pay using money. As far as modern medicine is concerned, she had no control over her disease. She did not 'do anything wrong' to cause this disease. She had been a smoker, but had quit cold turkey about 20 years earlier. She drank a little wine or a beer occasionally, but there were no puritanical reasons to assume my mom brought the disease on herself. It just fucking happened. She did not have the fucking option of taking responsibility for herself. I took on that responsibility.

I moved my mom out to Minnesota from her only home in Maine about 10 years ago. My brother and I sold her stuff and sold her home. Her savings, retirement, and essentially everything she ever earned over a life-time of hard work was liquidated and used to pay for her healthcare. I wonder if Romney has ever wondered what it would be like if after a lifetime of work all his children had to remember him by were a few trinkets and pictures. I expect not.

So my mom paid taxes for decades and sold off all her assets to cover her expenses. And you know what, she hasn't paid income tax in a fair number of years. She is the 47%. Apparently you should despise my mom more than the other members of the 47% because she isn't even using her government freebies (social security) to buy things with the added sales tax. My mom spends her day sitting in a chair or laying on a bed, requiring a nurse or nurse assistant to move her between the two. She cannot feed herself or in anyway take care of herself. This is who she is now. As Romney said:
Who are dependent upon government, who believe that-- that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they're entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it.  But that's-- it's an entitlement.  And the government should give it to them.
I guess it fact my mom doesn't think she's a victim or that she's 'entitled to healthcare, food, housing, you name it.' My mom doesn't think many thoughts, if any at all. She doesn't recognize me or her grandson, she hasn't been able to speak in quite some time. But I think that. I think as a citizen of the USA who contributed her entire life, raised a family, paid taxes on so many levels that she deserves access to the riches of this country. I guess she didn't build those businesses she worked in, but she contributed to their success. Maybe if I think her government should support her now, I should take over my mother's care. I guess that makes some sense. Im not qualified in healthcare, but I could probably figure out the simple things. Of course my mom requires 24/7/365 day care. So I could quit my job and stop paying taxes to take care of her. Of course that means my son will now be living on the street and not getting 3 square meals a day. Im sure not having a sense of security regarding housing and food will be a character building exercise for him.

Obviously to be an upstanding citizen and father, I won't let him have government paid for food, he can forage from garbage cans. Ill also take him out of school since we won't be paying property taxes. I'll have to do this based on Romney's logic, because I don't want him growing up thinking of himself as a victim entitled to "healthcare, food, housing, you name it." Hmm, you know what, that sounds fucking insane. How about this greatest country on the planet stop fucking whining about protecting its citizens.

I have told numerous people that I am not voting for Obama because I consider him the lesser of two evils, which is still evil. Obama has done some good things in my opinion, but those do not offset the truly horrible things I think he has done: warrantless wiretaps, allowing torture to pass by unperturbed, DOJ raiding marijuana clinics at record levels, eliminating due process, and other aspects of executive overreach. I know it is near impossible to do anything with Congress as it is, but ultimately Obama does not represent many of my views. So, I was not voting for Obama, I also wasn't voting for Romney because he is evil, great big evil.

Well Im voting for Obama now. In fact, I just donated to his campaign for the first time this election. I will do so again. Not because Obama is now a great candidate, but because Romney convinced me that he is such a complete douchebag.

So when you go to vote remember Romney's viewpoint
And-- and so my job is not to worry about those people.  I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for for their lives.  What I have to do is convince the 5% to 10% in the center that are independents, that are thoughtful, that look at voting one way or the other depending upon in some cases emotion.  Whether they like the guy or not."
Those people is my mom. Romney is not worried about her. Romney thinks my mom didn't take personal responsibility and care for her life. Romney thinks he can convince 5 - 10%  of voters that are independents that my mom thinks "they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they're entitled to healthcare, to food, to housing, to you name it.  But that's-- it's an entitlement.  And the government should give it to them."

Well I got good news for you Romney, my mom cannot vote. So, she's one of the 47% who is not voting for Obama. Unfortunately the bad news is that I am one of the 53% that now is voting for Obama.

From the Tax Policy Center
On behalf of my mom, my hero, who I knew well before the Alzheimer's took her, FUCK YOU ROMNEY! And fuck you Romney supporters who think the 47% represents those mythical lazy shits who do nothing but live high on the hog and not the elderly, the working poor, and the unemployed. (You really can't forget about the unemployed, you cannot blame them for not having jobs while at the same time blaming Obama for not making jobs. You realize that if there are fewer jobs available than unemployed people, then some people have to be unemployed?)

How to Study: a Repost

This seems timely to repost.

Since a new semester is about to begin I think a post on how to study would be apropos. So here is an advice column for students looking for some techniques to improve their study habits. I am not an expert in learning, but I am an expert in being a college student with no fucking idea how to study and had to figure it out over the course of a year or two. I was one of those students who didn't have to do much to maintain an A/B average in high school. Although I was exposed to study skills and habits while in high school, none of it stuck because I really didn't need to study to do reasonably well. So here is what I learned that worked for me. If you have your own successful techniques, please feel free to add them in the comments.

Learning is an active process, it requires energy. It may not be as physically taxing as a 45 minute work out, but then again you may not be doing it right. What I discovered is that I learn when I do things, when I engage the material, when I'm an active participant. If it's a couple of days before the big exam and you're wondering to yourself 'What's the best way I can study? I know, I'll take some time to play online and get some tips.' Well, if this is you, you're fucked or at least I don't have anything for you. Come back after your upcoming exam, my advice might help you for the next exam. Right now, you are in cram mode, so you better start cramming and not wasting your time reading blogs. I will admit that cramming works, to a degree. Cramming is a short term solution, getting enough material under you belt to survive or even succeed at the exam. But it's a long-term problem. Are you really in college to survive exams and classes? That was really high school wasn't it? Cramming is problematic because the material is never actually learned, it may come up again on the final, it will likely be important next semester or the semester after that in your more advanced classes. Learning and cramming both take energy, but the former is far less stressful and provides both short-term and long-term gains.

Step 1. Find an environment to study in. Ultimately this became at my desk in the bedroom of my apartment. I also kept my stereo close to police notification level. I learned quickly that I could ignore the music, but sounds from the street, from the kitchen/dining/living room area, or from anywhere outside my room were distracting. To this day, when Im working on grants or papers and do not want to be disturbed, I  close my office door and crank up some music. Although I am a chaotic person by nature, my desk was neat and organized. I needed a place to work comfortably and that was it. My textbooks and notebooks were stacked in/on some milk crates I used for shelves. (These of course were the store bought kind of 'milk crates' not the easily available sturdy and inexpensive milk crates available behind 7/11s, like the one across the street of my apartment. Although if they were the illicit version, which they weren't, they would have been returned when I moved to go to graduate school.)

$0.69 for 3 in 1989
Step 2. Get a bunch of notebooks. I used spiral bound notebooks available for next to nothing at drug stores. Of course these notebooks will have absurd cover designs or pictures you would never in a million years gravitate towards (see picture of my Molecular Biology notebook). That's not the point. The point is what's inside the notebook, and that will be gold. I mixed up the designs on the notebooks I bought so I could easily identify which one I wanted. The alternative is to be flipping through them wondering if this is the black notebook Im looking for. Get one notebook for every class you take (except maybe for the golf/tennis/etc classes). Any class that has a lecture has its own notebook. No cheating by getting a three-subject notebook. Also, get a couple of additional notebooks.

These things are evidence of evil
Since you're at the drug store all ready, get some pens and pencils. I love pens, but despise cheap ass ball point pens. You'll be using these a lot, so get pens/pencils you are comfortable with. Make sure you get a variety of colors. I survived with black, blue, and red, but there is a veritable palate of colored inks now. Get what you love or at least can tolerate. I prefer mechanical pencils, but if you get classic ones, you better kick in for a decent pencil sharpener or two. Also grab some highlighters also in assorted colors.

Step 3. Do the readings strategically. Chapter 3 is covered Wednesday? Read it through by Tuesday night. That isn't very strategic is it? The strategy is to skim read the text. Get a sense of what's in there and what will be the likely topics and points for the upcoming lecture. You don't need to be more than familiar with the material. (In the case of labs, this is not true. You must be intimately aware of the material, because you will be using that information in the lab. Hell, there may even be a quiz on the lab manual!)

Step 4. Go to class. Although you probably couldn't pass a quiz on the readings material, the vocabulary is familiar. Now you already know a bit about the upcoming lecture. Gather up your pens and pencils and one of the extra notebooks. Leave your textbooks at home, along with the highlighters, and other notebooks. You don't need much.

Get to class on time and get a good seat. In large classes, I recommend a seat near to the front and in the middle where the professor can actually see you. Why? Psychology that's why. Take two students doing equally well, one student the professor recognizes, even if there is no name associated with the face, and one student the professor has barely, if ever, seen. If both come to discuss an issue regarding an examination or writing assignment, which one will have at least a sub-conscious advantage?

Open your notebook to page 1 get out a couple of writing implements and get ready. If the professor has handouts or, god forbid, print outs of the slides, then definitely pick them up, but DONT use them during the lecture (with rare exception). Your job is to take a shit ton of notes. Don't worry about neatness and perfection, just get the stuff written down. Write down the points on the slides, the drawings, incorporate what the professor is saying. The very act of writing things down is helping you learn the material. 'But we have the slide print outs, so why write stuff down?' you ask. In my more youthful days I would have responded with 'Because we didn't have the material presented to us, so stop being so fucking needy.' But in my dotage I think an example is better. What is another name for a television? Did 'idiot box' spring to mind? There's a reason for that. Some people watch tons of TV, these are not inherently the most educated people in the world. My mother loved to watch soap operas during the 70s, hours of soap operas. She was not an expert in social interactions because of this nor was she an expert story teller, she just watched a lot of soap operas. This is one of the biggest impediments to learning, fucking handouts. Remember I said learning was an active process. Lectures are not television. You should be doing something not just watching. The problem with handouts is that it facilitates the TV watching mentality. There are reasons to hand out the notes, which is why you are collecting them, but wait until later to use them. For now, take a shit ton of notes.  Do not be tempted to put notes in the margin of the print outs, you bought the cheap ass notebook, so use it. (Plus you'll want a pristine copy of those hand outs for later.) So, you were in class sitting in a strategic location, you took a shit ton of notes, now what? Go to your next class and repeat using the same notebook.

Notes on chromosomal
melting temps.
Step 5. THE MOST IMPORTANT STEP: The next day. So you went to all your classes, even the ones you think are boring, and you took a bunch of notes, even on things you think you know already. Now what? Hang out with friends, watch TV, play some Xbox, then go to bed and the next day go to all your other classes. At some point on this second day, you need to carve out some studying time. When depends on your schedule. I did this in the mid-late-afternoon, because I was generally done with classes then. Go to your studying environment, get out your notes from yesterday, one of the fresh notebooks that will be specific for a specific class, any handouts, and your textbook. Now you will rewrite your notes in a more organized and legible manner. As you rewrite, you will refer to the text for additional points, and in your class-specific notebook you can either incorporate the textbook material or simple refer to the page numbers/figure numbers. Either redraw or cut out the handout figures you need and add them to your notebook. This could take as long as the original lecture, but probably won't. Regardless, you are now learning some serious material. The act of rewriting helps embed the information into your memory, by organizing the material in a manner that works for you (which is probably like it was presented) you are thinking about the material in total not simply one fact after another. You are also reading the text in a more in depth way, which is easier because you already skimmed it and went to the lecture. Do this for those boring easy classes too. It helps maintain good study habits and instead of simply learning the material, you'll own it. Another benefit is that if you do this, you will know before the next lecture what material you may not understand. This gives you a ton of time to meet with your colleagues, TAs, professor to get things straight.

Step 6. When you finish going through the crappy notes, rip out the page(s) and throw them away. You don't need them anymore because they are rewritten and you'll feel good about the progress you made.

I won't guarantee these steps will improve your grade, but I do guarantee that they will improve your understanding and knowledge of the material.

Additional thoughts:

A. Write in your textbooks, at least highlight important information. I used different colored highlighters for different purposes. Red was for definitions, blue was for what I thought were key concepts, red was for things referring to my class notebook. Will writing in your textbook reduce its value when you resell it? Well hopefully you will not resell it. Having that chemistry textbook could come in handy when you need to revisit something you forgot in your molecular biology class. If you absolutely do not want the book, why buy it in the first place? Probably you could borrow one from a colleague or use the library.

B. Scheduling. You need to prepare ahead of time when things are getting done. If you don't, you will almost certainly get behind or not have enough time. If you want to go to that party or game, you may need to start rewriting your notes earlier than normal to make sure you have enough time to finish before going out. Also, there will be several big assignments due for other classes throughout the semester, you'll need to be prepared for catching up on those notes you couldn't rewrite the day after class. (Don't get more than a class or two behind or you'll defeat the purpose of rewriting.)

C. Turn off your phone. You can survive an hour or two without reading all those awesome texts and facebook postings coming in. A 30 second distraction actually amounts to much longer, because it takes time to get back to where you were before you were distracted. Every time you break focus, you are back to a more superficial level of learning and it takes some time to get back to that deeper level.

D. When it's test time, you'll find it much easier to study. The material is already there in your mind because you've been through it at least twice already. You may have to pull an occasional all-nighter, but it will be different than the cramming you did previously.

Notes for a recently submitted grant
from a relevant paper.
E. For the record, I still use these techniques to prepare grants and papers (see photo). I do a lot of background reading and have notebooks dedicated to taking notes on the papers, complete with different colored pens. This allows me to make connections and think about the material in a much deeper way than I would be able to otherwise. Same for seminars I attend, I bring a notebook.

With those words of advice,
Good luck and have a great semester!