Category Archives: Uncategorized

Why I Need a Garage (very sad content; consider carefully before reading)

I was hurriedly preparing my morning: getting my work keys to let my students into the clinic for some Saturday appointments, cleaning a couple of things, fiddling with the solar still (water still tastes awful; it’s been a week), and then I went to get my kayak. After letting the students in, I figured I’d get a little paddling time at the reservoir. I haven’t been since I got back from Canada for the summer.

And therein lay the problem. In a moment, you will understand that the last sentence I wrote is a horrible, sick pun. I pulled back the tarp that covers my kayaks where they hang from hooks and straps on my back fence, in my liliputian “backyard”, and as I did so I smelled something. It reminded me of a nasty townhouse I spent a month or two cleaning up, after decades of filth and neglect. The kayak had been hanging on its side all summer, and the source of the stench was right about where my right thigh would go, if I were paddling. It looked, at first, like a bird’s nest, but messier. Rat’s nest? Pile of leaves somehow blown under the tarp and accumulated in the boat? Mud and twigs? Few seconds I did not realize how unlikely all of these ideas were. As I tilted the kayak to pull it out of its straps, a rounded, triangular object like a large, thick, wooden gingko leaf clattered down from where it had been stuck to the deck of the boat.

As it turns out, this was a scapula (I think, maybe; you can see it in the photos). The nest was fur and bones. It was a cat, or had been, quite some time ago. It must have been dead a good portion of the summer, because there was no rotting smell, just a strong musky reek, like a dried, carmelized pool of urine (which was, I think, the reason for a similar reek in the upstairs bedroom and closet of the townhouse, back in Ohio). The ex-cat was pretty much fur and bones; nothing squishy, nothing remotely moist. It was dry, but partially stuck together, as if with crackling glue. And there were dead, black, crunchy tubular insect bodies everywhere.

Now you know why the last two hours have been spent peeling, scooping, scrubbing, soaking, scrubbing, soaking, and scrubbing the kayak. Instead of paddling it. I have used half a gallon of concentrated Simple Green and a quart of Lysol. The gloves I was wearing will be thrown away. The clothing may be burned. If so, I expect a face-melting manifestation much like that opening-the-ark scene in the first Indiana Jones movie.

I assume the cat died from something other than being trapped in my boat. (1) There were no signs of struggle, and there was lots of foam he/she might have scratched and probably destroyed. For that matter, any cat worth its salt could have clawed through the tarp covering the opening. (2) It would have taken about zero calories’ worth of effort to escape. The tarp was not tight; it was like a semi-taut sheet draped over a window. I guess the cat was just dying for other reasons, and chose my cockpit as its blue plastic mausoleum.


If you want to see the photos (of course I took photos), they’re kind of freakishly fascinating (to me). They’re under the cut. Continue reading

Ah, mainstream media. Frickin’ eh.

Over at Mother Jones, there’s a highly informative article revisiting 18 of the more egregious inconsistencies and blunders the mainstream media in the U.S. have been responsible for, since the start of this whole “war on terror” thing ((It just occurred to me… is a “War on Terror” pretty much the same as “Attacking the Darkness?” Surely someone else has seen this parallel of meaningless abstraction in nomenclature before now)).

I freely admit that my views of the U.S. political machinery and the war itself have changed, as things have gone along. But the Mother Jones article was a wake-up call, nevertheless. How quickly we forget the weasely words of the people in the magic box.

Second favorite:

The day before the invasion, Bill O’Reilly said, “If the Americans go in and overthrow Saddam Hussein and it’s clean, he has nothing, I will apologize to the nation; I will not trust the Bush administration again, all right?”

As if we needed more evidence that Bill O’Reilly was an especially heinous, right-wing-ratings puppet. And, though it’s more of a mockery of the media, rather than a media blunder, per se, here’s my favorite:

Stephen Colbert’s routine at the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in April 2006 is remembered for the in-his-face mockery of President Bush—but he also spanked the press, perhaps one reason his mainstream reviews were mixed at best. Addressing the correspondents directly, Colbert said, “Let’s review the rules. The president makes decisions; he’s the decider. The press secretary announces those decisions, and you people of the press type those decisions down. Make, announce, type. Put them through a spell-check and go home. Get to know your family again. Make love to your wife. Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration. You know—fiction.”


The democratic machinery of the nation, by its very nature, is always “broken” to some extent, but there are functional measures of how much it’s broken. Currently, I think a strong case can be made that it’s more broken than it’s been in ages. Mainstream media organizations have often been the Bush Administration’s willing minions in this process.

It will take a long time to fix what we’ve broken in the past couple of decades (especially the last 7 years). Assuming we ever get around to fixing things.

Autism-Vaccine Link? Thousands of Coincidences might Still Mean No.

Autism Caused by Vaccines?
Autism-vaccine controversy has lately captured (more of) my attention. You can’t search for “autism” or “vaccine” even separately on Google without stumbling across a dozen blogs dedicated to this subject ((The blogs tend to be written by nonscientists interested in asserting that vaccines cause autism, whereas the scientists don’t usually have blogs arguing back)). This is obviously an area of  high passions. People’s children are being diagnosed with very scary, fundamentally unsettling disorders at increasingly high rates (although the rate of increase of the rate seems to be slowing down, a fact cited as support by both sides of the debate), and nobody has any solid answers about what causes this, or how to fix it.

Though of considerably lesser consequence, epidemiologists’ competence is also being called into question. I’m sure this has at least something to do with the drama.

It seems  that the “vaccines cause autism” side of things is being driven largely by reports of people whose children have received vaccines and then been diagnosed with autism, countered by a boatload of empirical studies suggesting the there is no link. Personally, I think the studies so far still leave room for a possible association (perhaps only for a few individuals?), but this would not be the broad-strokes disease model suggested by the so-called “mercury militia.” If vaccines imparted a general, across-the-board risk for autism — even a fairly small or inconsistent one — it would almost certainly have shown up in spades by now. It hasn’t.

The Null Hypothesis
Whether vaccines cause autism or not, the discussion illustrates a sinister mental error we humans make. Well, more than one, actually ((Repeat after me: correlation cannot prove causation)). The null hypothesis can help illustrate the concepts here ((Despite its sullied reputation in peer-reviewed research)). The null hypothesis is a fairly simple and logical concept, yet we so rarely apply it. It is simply the question,

“What would I expect to see if my suspicions weren’t correct?”

See how insidious that is? Nobody likes to sit around and seriously consider the possibility that they may be wrong ((Did I mention the scientific method? It can help with this kind of stuff)). So, let’s look at this possibility, as much as a lazy sometime-blogger can, within a limited amount of time and not being paid to do this.

In case this is not clear by now, I think people may be tempted to assume (especially if they never stop to think about it carefully) that a lack of association between vaccines and autism would mean that nobody ever had the experience of autism being diagnosed fairly soon after a vaccine. However, I will show that this is not the case at all. In fact, if there’s no association, we should still expect to see quite a number of cases like that.
Continue reading

Oooh and Aaah.

 nom nom nom

So, this is what accomplishment looks like to me. This is External Funding. It is the single most impressive thing on my vita, besides the PhD itself. Maybe more impressive than that, to others.

Last Spring we submitted a proposal for this grant, as part of a 10-university (more or less) consortium. On my part, this involved a few crazy days and nights writing and rewriting a proposal, meeting and re-meeting with the two members of my research team (an ethnographer too busy to be in charge of our 3 projects and criminal justice professor too smart), and smashing our 3 barely-related proposals into an unnatural research beast condemned to walk the earth… whatever. Then we had to do a budget, which involved me wildly guessing at what it would cost to do a 6-year research project. I’m sure my budget will be ignored during this final budgeting phase which is, according to one person, “a group of universities gathering like coyotes to fight over the scraps of meat on a skeleton”.

In the past year we’ve invested many thousands of dollars in travel and faculty time in this thing. Maybe tens of thousands. And we got it! Sort of. There’s slightly more money, but we have to share it with the UTEP consortium. Grr.

In the academic research world,  external funding is food. And publications are sex ((You have to tell interviewers how much sex you’ve had, if you want a job)). Me, I’m getting my first good academic meal… ever (I’ve subsisted on hors d’oeuvres until now). And sex ((You realize this is all in the metaphor of publications = sex, and that I would never publicly discuss my own sex life in this level of detail… except to say that it’s frickin’ great)) … well… let’s say I’m like the nerd who can’t figure out why his come-on lines about the differences between Unix and Linux always result in a lonely walk back to his nerdpad.

But the food is pretty great. Now to figure out how to eat it, and if I wanted it in the first place ;)

South Padre Island Again! (with Sheraton hotel review at no extra charge!)

So Alex and I went to South Padre and it was teh roxxorz. Seriously. We drove in through dense fog on Friday evening and drove out through dense fog on Sunday morning, but Saturday was glorious and perfect.

We stayed at the Sheraton hotel. Hm. What to say… It wasn’t a regretful experience, by any means, but I’ll be looking for a different hotel if we do it again. Continue reading