Yeah, I’ve been gone for a good bit. I can explain. Politics, the pandemic, and health crises sapped my will to write. Then the sun came out. (And there were so. many. volcanoes.) In this essay, I will ‘splain what’s been going on, and show you some of the beautiful sights we saw as we broke free from a confining year.
This was a summer of slowly learning how to adventure again.
The pandemic was rough, even for introverts. We couldn’t travel out to our favorite volcanoes, and even local outdoors walks in areas without many people felt fraught. The winter was especially tough. My partner was an essential worker, and though we never caught COVID, we risked it daily. Political turmoil made everything much worse, especially when the Capitol was attacked in January. The stress of it all caused me to withdraw and him to relapse. We nearly lost each other. Words failed me for a long time. It felt like nothing would ever be safe again.
But in spring, he went into residential treatment, and my friend M and I began tentatively venturing out. Just to nearby parks, at first. She introduced me to Union Bay Natural Area, where magnificent views of Lake Union, the Issaquah Alps, and Tahoma (Mount Rainier) provide a lovely setting for many fantastic birds. That’s when my passion for the sun was rekindled after a year of being unable to venture out.
I brought her to North Creek, where trails through the wetlands and along ponds provide many more opportunities for birding (yes, it’s become our thing), plus lovely views of the ridges that the Cordilleran Ice Sheet bequeathed to the Puget Lowlands.
Ah, yes, it’s that time of year again, where the holidays bunch up like they’ve put off celebrating til the last minute and suddenly it’s time to give All The Gifts. Of course, this being 2020, and many of us being in America where the ostensible leader can’t see reality past his artificially inflated ego, this is a complicated holiday season. Many of us will be socially distancing still. Viruses don’t take holidays, even when we wish they would.
Thanks to eCommerce, though, we can still give our loved ones some nice little gifts if we don’t want to skip that part, many of which will help while away a long pandemic winter. Let’s explore!
You know how sometimes you’re kinda sad when finishing a book, because despite having approximately 4,568,892,626,942 other books you need to read, none of them will be quite like this book? Yeah, I felt that way about Raoul McLaughlin’s The Roman Empire and the Silk Routes: The Ancient World Economy and the Empires of Parthia, Central Asia and Han China. There are few books that manage to straddle the line between interesting enough to keep me plugging through to the end, but soporific enough to be a reliable insomnia cure. This book struck that exact balance.
Some researchers need to be reading books by neurologist Oliver Sacks.
One of the greatest joys in reading about the neurological disorders he treated, including autism, was his delight in all the myriad ways brains work. He didn’t treat people as defective. Where other people saw deficits, he saw potential, talent, opportunity, and skill. He celebrated neurodiversity before it was even a thing. Decades later, I can pinpoint specific stories he told that helped me see the ways “disorders” like Tourette’s or autism could be assets – despite the difficulties they cause in a world filled with people who believe brains should only function in certain ways.
Unfortunately, a lot of neuroscience researchers haven’t gotten Dr. Sacks’s message. They see difference as deficit if you have a disorder, no matter how ridiculous it sounds. (Prefer YooHoo to Pepsi? If you’re allistic, you’re quirky. If you’re autistic, you’re defective – and suddenly, enjoying YooHoo is an issue that needs to be cured.)
So you end up with papers like this one, wherein the authors discover that autistic folks are more morally consistent than allistic people, and decide that’s because their brains are broken:
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by a core deficit in theory-of-mind (ToM) ability, which extends to perturbations in moral judgment and decision-making. Although the function of the right temporoparietal junction (rTPJ), a key neural marker of ToM and morality, is known to be altered in autistic individuals, the neurocomputational mechanisms underlying its specific impairment in moral decision-making remain unclear. Here, we addressed this question by employing a novel fMRI task together with computational modeling and representational similarity analysis (RSA). ASD patients and healthy controls (HC) decided in public or private whether to incur a personal cost for funding a morally-good cause (Good Context) or receive a personal gain for benefiting a morally-bad cause (Bad Context). Compared with HC, individuals with ASD were much more likely to reject the opportunity to earn ill-gotten money by supporting a bad cause than HC. Computational modeling revealed that this resulted from unduly weighing benefits for themselves and the bad cause, suggesting that ASD patients apply a rule of refusing to serve a bad cause because they over-evaluate the negative consequences of their actions.
Huh. My parents taught me it’s important to do the right thing, even if no one’s watching, and even if doing the wrong thing meant I’d get something nifty. I guess they were defective, too.
My friend Andrew Hutsell, who is autistic, isn’t having it. They, together with friends JadeHawk and Alyssa Hillary Zisk, wrote a letter to Hu et al explaining the authors’ many critical failures. They’ve given me permission to share it here:
Have the authors considered the possibility that autistic people having moral consistency may not be a deficit?
Autistic people here are characterized as lacking Theory of Mind [ToM] or having a deficit. It would seem the authors’ ToM deficits are evident in their inability to interpret autistic behavior and decision-making.
We show that ASD individuals are more inflexible when following a moral rule even though an immoral action can benefit themselves, and suffer an undue concern about their ill-gotten gains and the moral cost.
When I and other autistic people look at this same set of data we see it this way:
Allistics are less able to follow a moral rule when an immoral action can benefit them; they suffer from a reduced concern about their ill-gotten gains and the moral cost.
The framing here matters. The authors did not consider the existence of other valuation systems, and attributed autistic ethical valuations as indicative of a faulty cost-benefit analysis.
Autistic integrity in moral judgement could instead be interpreted as a highly developed Theory of Mind.
Theory of Mind is described in the literature as:
[…] our appreciation for people’s cognitive states, such as beliefs and knowledge. (Lane, Wellman , and Kerr, 2010)
Emotion understanding as:
[…] our ability to identify overt emotionals reaction, to predict others’ emotional reactions, and to appreciate that people have both palpable and private emotional experiences. (Lane, Wellman , and Kerr, 2010)
Given these definitions, it seems there could be a link between the development of Theory of Mind and moral integrity. Lane, et al., did find a positive link between children’s development of theory of mind and higher level moral reasoning. (Lane, et al., 2010)
Interpreting the autistic people’s choices and behaviors as a deficit is a choice the authors made according to their own lack of understanding their autistic subjects. Autism research tends to rely on a deficit model to interpret autistic behavior and traits. This model creates a bias in researchers, to the point that moral integrity and consistency is even seen as a deficit.
Allistics’ lack in understanding autistic people, and vice versa, has been termed the “double-empathy problem.” (Milton DE, 2012)
In an Expert Discussion of Autism and Empathy, moderated by Dr. Christina Nicolaidis, published in Autism in Adulthood, 2019, Dr. Milton shares that comments from autistic people regarding lack of understanding from allistic people “[…] far outweigh any comments and issues autistic people have in understanding others.” (Nicolaidis, et al. 2019)
Dr. Milton goes on to discuss how autistic people are often putting in much more effort to understand allistic people, while allistic people are not putting in the same effort. It would behoove researchers to question their biases and interpretations of observed autistic behavior.
Furthermore, the researchers assume lack of ToM as the basis for this paper, even though there is a significant lack of actual empirical evidence that autistic people lack ToM (Gernsbacher, Yergeau, 2019). In this study, they found a lack of convergence for the definition of ToM, lack of reproduceable results regarding autism and deficits in ToM in larger sample sizes, and various other issues with previous empirical findings and studies based on autistic people’s proposed lack of ToM.
Lane JD, Wellman HM, Olson SL, LaBounty J, Kerr DC. Theory of mind and emotion understanding predict moral development in early childhood. Br J Dev Psychol. 2010 Nov;28(Pt 4):871-89. doi: 10.1348/026151009×483056. PMID: 21121472; PMCID: PMC3039679.
Moderator: Christina Nicolaidis, Participants: Damian Milton, Noah J. Sasson, Elizabeth (Lizzy) Sheppard, and Melanie Yergeau. Autism in Adulthood. Mar 2019.4-11.
Gernsbacher MA, Yergeau M. Empirical Failures of the Claim That Autistic People Lack a Theory of Mind. Arch Sci Psychol. 2019;7(1):102-118. doi:10.1037/arc0000067
So yeah, this is where pathologizing neurodiversity has gotten us: pretty much everything autistic folks do differently than allistic people is seen as a defect, and they assume it’s autistic folks who need to be fixed. They don’t examine their own behavior to see if maybe folks on the spectrum are the ones who’ve got it right. And they don’t question their assumption that autistic = defective, which causes them to do asinine things. Like, for instance, assuming that moral fidelity is somehow wrong.
This particular instance is unintentionally hilarious, but it exemplifies the kind of framing that leads to autistic people being punished and abused for behavior that isn’t actually wrong. It’s insidious, and it’s dangerous.
Thank you, Andrew, JadeHawk, and Alyssa, for taking the time to show Hu et al that their framing is bad, and they should feel bad.
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My darlings, we did it. We ousted a sitting president.
I know it may not feel much like victory. The Senate may remain in Republican hands. Republicans gained seats in the House. We barely squeaked out a win in Pennsylvania, and several states that we thought might turn blue didn’t. We didn’t get the full-throated roar in the electoral college that would have definitively destroyed Trumpism. We aren’t yet seeing the Republican party in ruins, as they so richly deserve.
Nevertheless, this was a victory.
I’m even calling it a resounding one, despite feeling quite otherwise in the early aftermath.
Why shouldn’t women be singing “A pirate’s life for me!” right alongside the men? Laura Sook Duncombe’s exquisite Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled The Seven Seas certainly proves that women have always had the skill and determination to sail and plunder. Many answered the siren call of the sea. Men have tried to write them out of history, but good evidence for pirate women exists, and Laura found plenty of it.
Pirates are for many of us, an inherently fascinating subject. Tales of famous pirates both historical and fictional abound. We dress like them for Halloween, talk like them on one special September day, and flock to movies about them. But outside of a few notable exceptions, most of those pirates we encounter in song, story, and screen are dudes. So many dudes.
Laura uncovers a world full of lady pirates from around the world.
The conservative Christian education world is experiencing one hell of a circus this week. Its principal star, now-former Liberty University President and all-around terrible human being Jerry Falwell Jr., fell right off the tightrope. The usual evangelical safety nets couldn’t save him this time.
He’d already been teetering after foolishly posting a photo of himself, pants unzipped and holding what appeared to be a mixed drink, clutching his wife’s pretty, young, not-married-to-him assistant. Either of these violations of the Code of Conduct would be enough to get a Liberty University student in serious trouble; both together could get them suspended or expelled. It was too blatant for even evangelicals to ignore. Falwell took an indefinite leave of absence from his position in early August after that fiasco, and he promised he’d “try to be a good boy.”
Unfortunately, he’d been a bad boy for a very long time, and it’s finally caught up with him.
I’ve been a Dame Agatha Christie fan for very many decades now. She wasn’t my fave when I was young – I was a misogynistic jackass and thought she was a pale imitation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that she’s the better writer. I guess I’ll have to do an entire post on that eventually. But for now, just know I respect her story craft immensely.
And after reading A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup, I respect her a hell of a lot more.
This is a very necessary book for any Christie fan. It’s super neat getting to know her killers’ poisons better, especially the rare ones that are featured in this wonderful book. Kathryn does a marvelous job explaining such uncommon death-dealers as eserine, monkshood, nicotine, and veronal. There are even chemical structure diagrams as the section break symbols. If you’re a geek or a nerd, this book will make your heart grow three sizes.
Kathryn begins by singing Christie’s praises for knowing her poisons. She describes Christie’s work as a nurse during WWI, when she worked in a hospital dispensary. She was a natural, and keen-eyed, and saved a patient from getting an overdose when she spotted a grave mistake made by the man who was training her. (That dude later got memorialized as the pharmacist in Christie’s The Pale Horse. Having read this book recently, I can assure you that was a dubious honor indeed.)
Learning that she was actually a trained apothecary, and drew directly on her medical knowledge for her books, shot my respect for her through the stratosphere. And it makes The Mysterious Affair at Styles pop with elements that were taken from her direct experience. This chapter is wonderful for those of us who love her works, but haven’t learned much about her life.
The rest of the book is divided into chapters that are each devoted to a particular poison, and the Christie novel(s) they appear in. Spoilers abound, so if you haven’t read all of Christie’s books, and don’t want to know details, you’ll need to skim in places. Kathryn does warn when major plot elements are being discussed.
Each chapter gives a history of the poison in question, talks about how it affects the human body, and discusses the biochemistry behind its effects. We also learn how Christie’s characters used it, what details she got right, and what she got wrong and/or took some dramatic license with. Kathryn also talks about real-life criminal cases that may have inspired Christie’s stories. There is so much good stuff packed into a not particularly large book!
The appendices are one of my favorite parts. Appendix 1 gives a table that shows cause of death for all of Christie’s novels and short stories, in order of publication, and listed by both UK and US titles. This has simplified my quest to complete my collection by 1000%. The second appendix gives the chemical structures of the poisons. And if you want further reading, there’s a very nice bibliography.
This is one of the books I enjoyed most this year, and I finished it hoping Kathryn has enough material for a Part II. If you love Christie, chemistry, and/or crime, treat yourself to this book. You deserve it!
P.S. The Kindle version of The Pale Horse is free to borrow for Prime members right now. If you haven’t read it yet, you’re going to love it.
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We’re reading Layla F. Saad’s Me and White Supremacy. Today, we’re covering the rest of Part I: Who is this work for?, What you will need to do this work, How to use this book, and Self-care, support, and sustainability.
There’s a lot to unpack before we even get to the work! But we’re almost there.
Layla gives a shout-out to trans and non-binary folks in her “Who is this work for?” section. In addition to white people of all genders, she also points out that the work is for white-passing people. But while people who can “pass” as white do derive some (conditional) benefits from white supremacy, and therefore need to work to dismantle it, things are more complicated.
It is also important to know that this work will bring up some challenging feelings around your internalized oppression against yourself and your marginalized identities and about how you have also been oppressed by a system that only benefits you to the extent that you are able to present or pass as white and be anti-Black.
Do not use this work as a stick to beat yourself with, but rather use it to interrogate your complicity within a system of privilege that is only designed to benefit you to the extent that you can conform to the rules of whiteness.
So if you’re a part of that group, definitely get all of your self care plans prepped and ready.
Layla says we’ll need three things for this anti-racism work: our truth, our love, and our commitment. She says something critically important under truth I think that we all need to pause and take fully on board:
I cannot emphasize this enough: This work is not an intellectual exercise or a mental thought experiment. When we talk about racism, we are talking about people’s lives. This is not a personal growth book that is designed to make you feel good about yourself. It is likely that in doing this work consistently, you will find some level of personal healing. However, I want to make it very clear that this is not the purpose of this work. The purpose is the healing and restored dignity of BIPOC.
Let me assure you from personal experience with confronting internalized misogyny and the fact we live in a world that hates women: this isn’t going to feel great. In fact, it’s going to probably suck quite a lot. But it’s necessary. And it gets better, especially when you’re working to change things for the better.
Under love, Layla reminds us that
Pain and shame are neither desirable nor sustainable as long-term strategies for transformational change. It is my hope that love is what initially brought you to this work. It is my conviction that love is what will keep you going.
We’re going to need a lot of love to power through and change the world. Self-flagellation won’t help. We absolutely need to avoid wallowing in shame: not only does render us less effective, it diverts people’s efforts from fixing problems when they feel compelled to comfort us. Tell your shame and pain to pipe down and let love have the driver’s seat.
Add love to a healthy measure of old-fashioned stubborness, and we can do this thing.
How to use this book is a fairly straightforward section, with recommendations like keep a journal and go at your own pace. I just want to highlight what I see as some critical bits.
When answering the prompts, do not generalize about white people broadly. Do not talk about white people as if you are not a white person or as if you do not benefit from white privilege. Remember this book is about your own personal experiences, thoughts, and beliefs, not those of other people.
The temptation will be strong to generalize and push things off onto other people in order to protect our egos. Realizing you’ve engaged in problematic behaviors hurts. We have to do our best to face our own culpability head-on. We can’t change anything much if we refuse to admit we, too, are part of the problem, whether we want to be or not.
And this next bit is equally important:
Keep Asking Questions
As you move through the book answering each prompt to the best of your ability, dig deeper by asking yourself when, how, and why questions. For example: When do I react this way? When do these thoughts or feelings come up for me? How does this specific aspect of white supremacy show up for me? How does thinking or feeling this way benefit me? Why do I feel this way? Why do I believe this? Why do I think this is true? Why do I hold on to these beliefs? Asking when, how, and why will help you to get down into the deeper unconscious layers of your internalized white supremacy, thus taking your work a lot deeper.
Many of us here either work in STEM fields or are science fans. Asking questions, interrogating our assumptions, and not taking superficial answers as final should be easier for us than it is for people who haven’t been trained to investigate.
Just remember, though, that white supremacy is a helluva drug. It’ll make us want to stop at the surface, where things are comfortable. Push past that and keep asking!
Layla finishes Part I with some self care tips. One of the most important tips is to reach out to others doing this work for mutual support. I encourage you to use the comments here if you want to connect with me and others (click here to report any issues). We can also start a Facebook group if you’d like.
Another important reminder:
Feeling the feelings—which are an appropriate human response to racism and oppression—is an important part of the process.
No matter how bad it feels to wake up to the pain, shame, and guilt of your racism, those feelings will never come anywhere close to the pain BIPOC experience as a result of your racism. So instead of getting stuck or overwhelmed, channel those feelings into action and change. Talking to a friend, family member, support group, therapist, or coach will be helpful in supporting you to process what is coming up for you so you can keep moving forward. [Emphasis added]
Just, in talking out your feelings, please don’t dump those on your BIPOC friends, okay? They’ve got enough to handle as targets of white supremacy.
To close Part I, let’s reiterate one of the most important points:
You will have to learn to wean yourself off the addiction to instant gratification and instead develop a consciousness for doing what is right even if nobody ever thanks you for it.
None of us should get cookies for doing the right thing. We need to be very, very careful that we aren’t running to BIPOC and demanding praise and treat every time we do something decent. We’re not dogs. Most of us aren’t children. We shouldn’t need gold star stickers to do what we ought.
The groundwork is laid. Next, we’ll begin the work. Get your tools together, and I’ll see you there!