No More “Safe” Guys

Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a number of conversations with my male friends about them being called “safe,” or in one case, a “safety blanket.” Don’t know what I’m talking about? Celebrate.

This is the phenomenon in which a (generally young) woman dismisses her behavior around a guy as “Oh, that’s just so-and-so. He’s safe.” It always sounds like it’s meant to be a compliment, but there’s very little like it to bring out the bitter in a guy even decades after the fact. It took explaining the concept of “safe” to the wife of one of these friends for me to really figure out why.

Read the rest at Quiche Moraine.

No More “Safe” Guys

For Juniper

Depression is much like that abusive significant other. It’s always there, even after all your friends have gone home. It’s waiting for you after a day out or even the rare short vacation. And it never, ever stops lying to you*.

The lies are the worst part, the little whispers in your ear that tell you you’re nothing–not good enough, not loveable enough, not smart enough, not strong enough–not whatever it is you would need to be to get away. Because it doesn’t want you to get away. It doesn’t like it when you turn your back for even a second, when you’re happy for just a moment without it. It doesn’t like it when you realize that someone else wants you.

Depression is a jealous mate. It wants to possess every tiny bit of you, even if it has to kill you to be sure of you. It goes hardest after the people who love you and want to help you get away to someplace healthier. Sometimes it does it directly and sometimes by whispering more loudly. Sometimes both, because that weakens you more.

That’s why it hurts me as much as it does to see Juniper feeling alone and unable to cope. Those are lies–not Juniper’s lies, mind you, but the lies of her depression.

Juniper is one of the strongest people I know. She has to be. She’s never not had depression following her around, whispering in her ear, yet she’s accomplished so much. She’s carved out an existence independent of her family’s expectations. She’s achieved graduate school despite having to clean up the messes depression has left her. She’s traveled internationally, and not just to some cushy Caribbean resort. She’s shown flexibility, gathering accomplishments in both the humanities and in science. She’s developed a personal sense of style and taste that others look to. She’s written a blog that in a very short time built an audience that will wait months for her next post.

Those are just the few things I know about. They’re things to be proud of in anybody’s book, but to do them while managing the deep depression that Juniper is prone to is astounding. I haven’t done nearly as well, and I admire Juniper for this more than I can say.

Nor am I the only one. In addition to everything else, Juniper is one of those people whom others (except a few poisoned and poisonous internet trolls) quickly come to love. On top of all her accomplishments, Juniper is sweet and loyal and sharp and passionate. People sit up and take notice when she comes on the scene, and they keep an eye out for her when she hasn’t been around for a little while. Juniper is very much not alone, except by the machinations of jealous depression.

Just as it is only that ever-whispering, constantly belittling depression that keeps her from knowing all this on her own.

So, Juniper dear, please, no matter what the depression tells you, don’t ever think you’re weak and don’t ever think you’re alone. Those are lies, told not to protect you, but to isolate you. The truth is that you’re one of the strongest people I know. You’re simply preoccupied with this monster that’s determined not to set you free, and your particular monster is too much work for even the strongest person to handle.

The other happy truth is that there are plenty of us out here who want to help. We can’t make the depression go away. We can’t make it leave you alone. But we can, if you let us, take up some of the work of loving you and believing in you. We are not as strong as you are, and we may not be as accomplished, but this small thing is so much easier for us that we can do it while you continue your fight.

Please let us.

* Yes, I’m going to use dualistic language here. No, I do not believe in a dualist theory of mind. It’s a metaphor.

For Juniper

Pain Research Matters

As someone who recently spent a bunch of time debating whether the pain was worse than the narcotics, as someone who saw my fitness level (and that of others around me) tank because of pain, as someone who literally watched my pain be dismissed because a doctor “couldn’t imagine” the cause, as someone who was accused of shirking when pain kept me from something I enjoyed doing, as someone who watched the world go by while I couldn’t, I understand how much pain research matters. Do you?

If you need a bit of help, I recommend Zuska’s post on her migraines and the failures of available pain treatments.

I am deeply personally acquainted with pain, both chronic and acute, and the list of prescription and OTC meds I have taken over the years in an effort to prevent and control migraines, and treat their pain when they manifest their ugly selves in my life, is stunning even to me: Acetaminophen, acupressure, acupuncture, ambien, amitriptyline, aspirin, chiropracty, coffee with lemon juice, coenzyme Q10, darvocet, demerol, depakote, dilaudid, excedrin, fentanyl, fiorinal, inderal LA, lamictal, magnesium, massage, percocet, petadolex, reglan, seroquel, skelaxin, timolol, thorazine, tizanidine, topamax, toradal, tramadol, verapamil, vivactil, vicodin, vioxx, xanax, zonergran. I am pretty sure this is only a partial list as I did not go through my file with the information on all the meds I’ve ever taken since my stroke odyssey began in 2003 for this post.

Luckily, there are pain researchers who also understand. One of them, JuniorProf, has recently started blogging again.

At McGill 3 very important things happened to me.
1) I was suddenly working in the most dynamic pain research center in the world. The multidisciplinary nature of pain research suddenly became very apparent to me and opportunities to translate basic science findings into clinical results seemed more attainable than in other areas (I’m not saying this is true, just my perception).
2) I started to go to pain clinical rounds. There I finally gained a grasp of the horrific suffering of chronic pain patients. It is one thing to read about it, it is quite another to meet these patients and hear their stories. A consistent story you hear from these people is how they are abused or dismissed by a medical system that all too often does not take pain seriously. This inevitably makes their pain condition worse and by hnb the time they finally start to get relief from their pain they are often out of work, severely depressed and sometimes even suicidal. It is truly heartbreaking.
3) I became a pain patient myself.

Go read the rest. If that’s still not enough to understand the importance of pain research, you can move on to JuniorProf’s Twitter #painresearchmatters campaign. A few chosen Tweets contributed by others than JuniorProf:

  • because migraines are like a part time job without pay
  • Because pain is not a gift or a blessing or a lesson. It is pain.
  • Pain research matters to me because I’m sick of becoming accustomed to pain as if it’s usual, par for the course…
  • Because we want the chance to be the best we can be in our lives.
  • Because it’s not in my head.
  • Because pain is not a failure of either morals or fortitude. We never “deserve” to suffer.
  • Because there’s very little more invalidating than “You shouldn’t be experiencing any pain.” *shrug*

Of course, there’s a good chance, pain being what it is, that you do understand. You may never have experienced the failures of pain management, but you’ve almost certainly experienced the successes. So what do you do to tell the world you support pain research?

Well, aside from breaking the taboo of talking about pain, I’m not entirely sure. That is important, though, even if you only reach a small audience of family and friends. You can also demand that studies like the one that got JuniorProf so riled up are put in the context of the research they support. And you can keep reading JuniorProf to find out more about pain research.

It should be a fascinating, and hopefully productive, trip.

Pain Research Matters

What I Owe Bora

You probably don’t realize this, but if you’re reading this blog and enjoying it, you owe a small debt to Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around the Clock. I owe him a much bigger debt.

While Greg Laden has certainly done the most to promote this blog, and many, many others (too many to link) have played a part in that, without Bora, I would probably never have managed to talk myself into promoting it. When I started reading A Blog Around the Clock, I was still commenting on other blogs without leaving a link back to this one. What can I say? I’m Minnesotan, introverted and all too aware of the risks of social interaction.

Bora, on the other hand, has been consistently forthright on the subject. What good does writing a blog do if no one ever reads it? Not linking, not connecting people to your thoughts isn’t discretion or politeness. It’s stopping the conversation dead. And Bora is all about the conversation.

So now I link myself. I take part in the conversation when I have something to add. (Yes, those of you who wish I wouldn’t now know who to blame.) I let people know when I’m writing on one of their pet subjects. I promote myself and my work, and I owe it to Bora.

I owe him more than that, though. I owe him for ScienceOnline.

I’m a geek. I’ve attended science fiction and fantasy conventions for, oh, about the last two decades. I’ve gone to programming, but until recently, I hadn’t participated in programming.

See, while I’m a geek, I’m hardly the biggest geek in the room, no matter what room I’m in. I’m not actually an expert on any subject, at least not by comparison to the people around me. In geek culture, I’m a dilettante. So why would anyone want me to sit at the front of a room and talk?

I almost didn’t go to ScienceOnline2009. I didn’t think I had anything to contribute there either. I’m not a scientist. I’m not a teacher. I’m not a journalist. I’m not a science blogger. Just a geek who writes science fiction sometimes. But there ended up being too many people I wanted to meet and too many sessions I wanted to see, so I put my name on the list.

Then Bora, dear Bora, immediately drafted me for the Science in Science Fiction session, where I’d expressed the tentative thought that maybe I could contribute something. And I do mean immediately. I was so gratified that I busted my butt to put together materials to talk about. Peggy Kolm did too, although she wasn’t able to make it to ScienceOnline in the end. So I moderated the session on my own.

Turns out I’m pretty good at it. Good enough that people made a point to compliment me on it (for moderating? who knew?). Good enough that I was inspired to interview for Atheists Talk radio instead of just hosting, starting with interviewing Bora, of course. Good enough to have turned it into a panelist gig at Skepchickcon. Good enough to have put together a panel for ScienceOnline2010 and to be thinking about what niche I can carve out for ScienceOnline2011. Good enough to be working on becoming enough of an expert on something (no hints until I see how it turns out) to submit a paper proposal for TAM9.

And I owe it to Bora.

There are plenty of other things I owe Bora, of course. He’s been a consistent champion of conversation, even in the midst of argument. He encouraged me to be thoughtful about my blogging and what I want to accomplish with it. He’s written those massive posts that bring together thoughts and subjects in new ways that make me think very hard. He introduced the blogging world to his lovely wife, Catharine, who has been very good to me indeed and whom I would have missed if I’d never managed to meet her. He’s also responsible for me meeting SciCurious, for which I’m much richer in many ways. He took part in Jodi and Jason‘s proposal trail, which is partly responsible for their coming to Minnesota last month for CONvergence. He championed blog carnivals, through which I’ve come in contact with a ridiculous number of cool people.

I’m forgetting things, of course, but it’s only because there is so much I owe Bora that I can’t keep track of all of it at once.

As I said at the start of this post, if you enjoy my blog, you owe Bora something too. There are a few ways in which you can do something about it. You can blog or Tweet about it (use the hashtag #IOweBora). You can help connect ScienceOnline and potential sponsors in order to help the conference grow. You can also recognize the fact that most of what Bora has done, he’s done with very little in the way of remuneration. Abel Pharmboy is working to rectify that, since the Zivkovic family is currently dealing with disability and underemployment. If you have a little something you can contribute, you can show him directly that you understand how much you owe him.

Because we all do.

What I Owe Bora


Time to update my blogroll. Actually, it’s been time for a while, but the exodus from ScienceBlogs has made the current status ridiculous. While I’m at it, enjoy a few posts from people’s new sites, plus a couple from what is, for now, temporary exile.

A Blog Around the Clock: A Farewell to ScienceBlogs

Of course, I started (in 2003/4) in political blogging where much is a matter of opinion, stakes are high, tempers are short, speed of blogging is important, and stating things confidently and even ferociously is important as a persuasion method. If I have heard some useful factoid somewhere, I would often boldly claim it as true without checking first.

But then I gradually switched to blogging about science. This is the domain of verifiable facts. The goal is education, not so much political action. I wrote about my area of expertise, and I wrote in a way that built on that expertise and made it accessible to the lay public. I wrote about things I knew a lot about and was very familiar with the literature. So I referenced, cited and linked to a lot of supporting documents – peer-reviewed scientific papers.

Are You SciCurious?: Sex, Stress, and Neurogenesis

Sci couldn’t help but notice all the tweets going around the other day talking about how sex stressed you out but was ultimately good for you. She contemplated saving it for a Friday Weird Science, but it’s not THAT weird (though it is interesting), and anyway Sci has something brewing for teh weird skienz.

So this is going to be a post for today. Let’s talk about sex. And let’s talk about stress. And then let’s talk about how increases in glucocorticoids are not the be all end all of psychiatric pathology.

Thus Spake Zuska: How Not To Sell Me Your Fancy HVAC System

Third dude came today and did a long presentation after having measured all sorts of shit and went on about importance of proper installation, bla bla, explained all sorts of bla-di-bla about the equipment, how their employees are carefully screened and drug tested and they don’t allow any convicts to work for them because in prison they teach convicts plumbing and HVAC and here’s a picture of brown dudes in prison uniforms studying to come rape and kill your wife in your own home under the guise of installing your new furnace and ac, and you can get a heat pump too to further reduce costs, and bla bla more tech stuff, and voila! four options for your consideration, good, better, best, wow, ranging from $11k to $16k.

And I said, “WTF?”

White Coat Underground: Reminder: Whooping cough is serious business

I shouldn’t see any cases of pertussis (“whooping cough”), but I do. We have a safe, effective and affordable vaccine. But still, people are getting this disease. In the age group I see (adults), immunity has often waned, and if they haven’t been revaccinated, they can get the disease and pass it on. In adults it often looks like a cold, but not in kids. Most properly vaccinated children are immune and remain so until there little airways are large enough to cope with the illness. But a certain percentage of kids either don’t get vaccinated or aren’t successfully vaccinated, leaving them vulnerable to a disease that shouldn’t even exist at a measurable rate.

DrugMonkey: Blog collective

In the current upheaval of ScienceBlogs, however, I’m seeing a trend by which if people are thinking “blog collective” they are thinking inward toward their respective -ology domains.

The re-launch of geoblog Highly Allochthonous is a case in point. Notice the domain name “all-geo.org”? Gee, I wonder who they are intending to collectivize? Also see the genomesunzipped collective started by Daniel MacArthur who may or may not be closing his Sb shop (hasn’t said, so far as I know).

Greg Laden: Can you train an adult brain?

It is often said that the human brain develops and improves up to a certain age, then becomes stagnant for a while, then slowly (or not so slowly) deteriorates over time. This is an old conception that developed before we knew that neural connections are being modified constantly, and that it is even the case that new neurons can develop in an adult brain. So, it should not be too surprising to find that it is possible to purposefully train the brain to be better at certain functions, even if you are already old and decrepit.


Asking for It

Two pieces that I think speak well for themselves: Via Kammy, a new Scottish PSA:

The “Not Ever” campaign by Rape Crisis Scotland takes its inspiration for the 30-second spot from a government survey conducted this February that found that 17% of Scots believe that a woman wearing “revealing clothing” is “partly, mostly or totally to blame for being raped.”

Go watch. And via Kylie Sturgess, something to think about for those who might not understand what could possibly make some women feel uncomfortable at skeptic events:

The girl may be nuts, she may have HPD, she may be incredibly attention hungry for whatever reason, but that doesn’t make her a slut. I know some people may have personal reasons to dislike her or the discord she apparently causes, but that doesn’t make her a slut. And if you hate her, fine, and if you hate that the JREF brings her more publicity, fine, but you don’t get to go around complaining that she’s too flirtatious or that she gets all this attention just for being young and cute.

You won’t enjoy the story, but you should go read it.

Asking for It

On the Utility of Dicks

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, I was young and somewhat naive. Libraries had always been very good to me, sometimes when no one else was, and I trusted them. See, they had these sections labeled “nonfiction,” where I found confirmation that the world was a weird and wonderful place. Parapsychology, ghost stories–all of them had to be true because the library told me they weren’t made up stories. They weren’t fiction.

A high school psychology class reinforced that belief, talking about J. B. Rhine’s experiments. Experiments! Science confirmed what the library had told me. And as I went through college and learned more about science and experimental design, parapsychology garnered more legitimacy.

Then a friend gave me Flim Flam. James Randi told me how people had lied to me under the guise of nonfiction, under the guise of science. He was, in fact, kind of a dick about it. That’s not a very nice book by any definition of the word. It uses name-calling. It sneers.

But oh, it was exactly what I needed. I needed it both for the information it gave me and for the anger and vitriol. Without Randi’s vitriol, I wouldn’t have been able to make the clean break in thinking that I did. If he hadn’t been so clearly and visibly and sometimes nastily angry about the perversion of systems that were meant to uncover and convey the best knowledge we can have, I’d have been faced with the choice between a more classical skepticism, doubting everything that came my way, and clinging to the idea that what I believed had to be true.

Randi’s anger defined a space where I could safely land. It said, “This is a place worth defending, where we can get at truth if we work at it–as long as we are honest and can keep the frauds out.” It was something to move toward, something more than the self-annihilation that Phil Plait described skepticism as being in his talk at The Amaz!ng Meeting last weekend. Randi’s anger showed me the value of that space more eloquently than any utilitarian description ever could have.

That’s the closest thing I have to a conversion story I have. It’s also why I was a touch disappointed in Phil’s speech, although I appreciated most of it. He asked how many of us used to believe in woo, and he asked how many of us had been converted by people being angry and mean to us. He didn’t ask how many of us had been converted by someone being angry and mean on our behalf or on behalf of the ideals of skepticism.

I’d have raised my hand. High.

There are things worth being angry about. There are things that, if they don’t make us angry, I’m not sure we’re human. There are things worth showing that anger over.

Nor am I arguing with Phil when I say that. One of the pieces of his text that hasn’t been quoted that I’ve seen, except by me on Twitter, is, “Anger is a very potent weapon, and we need that weapon, but we need to be excruciatingly careful how we use it.” Remember this.

People who are talking about how being mean or angry doesn’t teach people to think critically or evaluate evidence are missing half the point. Skepticism is only partly process. It’s also a set of values. Good luck getting someone to put in the time and effort required for critical analysis if they don’t understand why objective truth is worthwhile. Expect to be told to lighten up and go get some sunshine if the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand–viscerally–the harm done by relying on unworthy sources of “knowledge.”

Communicating the values is every bit as important as communicating the methods, and we communicate values by modeling them. That means showing our anger sometimes when our values are perverted by others and presented to us as caricatures of themselves. It doesn’t mean going berserk and mowing down everything in our paths indiscriminately, but it doesn’t mean suppressing our emotions either, even the less than sanitary ones.

Note that once again, this doesn’t contradict what Phil said. Nor does it contradict what PZ Myers has had to say on the topic, despite a chunk of the Twitterverse (many of whom were not at TAM, ahem) crying, “Fight! Fight!” as soon as Phil’s speech was done. Nor does it contradict the studies that show that–in general and on average–particular types of communication are more effective in shifting opinions than others.

The problem is that I’m not in general or on average. I’m me, with my own set of quirks and reactions. And when I came across Flim Flam, I was already someone who shared the values of skepticism. I just thought the people who were investigating all this fascinating phenomena were too. It took Randi getting very angry to show me otherwise.

It took him being a dick. And I thank him for that.

On the Utility of Dicks

Skepchickcon Report


Skepchickcon and CONvergence have been over for more than a week, but I haven’t gotten around to writing about it yet. Some of that is because I was enjoying our house guests instead. Some of it was because I went to TAM the day after those guests left. A lot of it was simply because I was still processing everything that happened. It was a packed long weekend.

Find out what happened at Quiche Moraine. While you’re there, you might also want to check out my last post, which I complete failed to link to: “The Problem with Sock Puppets.”

Those who engage in sock puppetry, however, are making a raid on reputation. They’re stealing it, either by exploiting the bandwagon fallacy to accrue unearned regard for their position or by disowning the negative effects that attacking someone else has on reputation, basically shoplifting a smackdown every now and again. YNH did both.

Skepchickcon Report

Reconstructing Criticism: Work

This is the last post, at least for now, on the subject of constructive criticism. Feel free to suggest other subtopics that I haven’t covered. This post doesn’t contain any new information about making criticism effective, just some general thoughts about offering criticism.

Many of the the topics in this series are interrelated, and I’ve attempted to include those relationships as links. Beyond that, however, there is one thing that every part of creating constructive criticism has in common. It’s a lot of work. It might even be too much work. After all, you’ve got other things to do. Honestly? That’s okay.

One of the goals of this series is to give you tools for making any criticism you might offer more effective. I think I’ve done that, and I think I’ve explained how the various tools work to improve efficacy. But I also wanted to differentiate between criticism that is called constructive and criticism that actually is constructive. There’s a fair amount of the former around on the internet that has as its sole claim to being constructive “Well, I think it will be better for you if you do it my way.” By now you should know that constructive criticism requires more than that.

That isn’t to say that there’s something wrong with criticism that doesn’t work to be constructive. There’s a place for that too, in the grand scheme of internet chatter. However, we shouldn’t call it constructive when it’s not. Doing so claims an effort that hasn’t been made (sometimes because it can’t be). It can also be used as a lever to demand explanations for why criticism hasn’t worked, when the simple answer is that it wasn’t really built to work.

Calling all “friendly” criticism constructive also confuses people about what constructive criticism actually is; namely, a process that can produce excellent results when we’re willing to put in the work. I hope this series helps to make your work more productive.

Reconstructing Criticism: Work