Archive for April, 2009

Measuring height and weight is easy. Marking off your child’s changing maturity is a lot trickier. The developmental leaps between fall and spring soccer seasons might be as good a yardstick as any.

Last fall, the Tiger’s first season, he was a standout on the kindergarten field. And I mean he really stood there, out on the field. If we were lucky, he was chasing butterflies, which meant he was at least in motion. But his favorite activities were: 1) Throwing himself on the ground at every opportunity, no matter what was actually happening in the game. 2) Hooking his fingers into the leg openings of his shorts and hiking them up as far as they went, giving himself a wedgie. 3) Giggling and goofing around with the other unfocused players, especially a little girl whose name was the feminine equivalent of his own.

Spring season just started this week, and my has the Tiger changed his stripes. His feminine alter ego is no longer on his team, so he doesn’t have a partner in crime. He’s abandoned the self-induced wedgies, probably because his jersey is oversized and so he’s fiddling with his shirt, instead. He’s forgotten about diving into the dirt.

So now, every once in a while, he actually makes contact with the ball. Today he got the ball, passed to a teammate, reclaimed the ball when it went loose, and passed it back. He’s had more ball contacts in his first two games than in his entire first season.

He’s got a new trick, though. He’s appointed himself the Minister of Silly Walks (and no, I haven’t been letting him watch Monty Python, he’s still only five). At one point during the game, he was doing a weird sloping, gliding step and chanting “macaroni and cheese! macaroni and cheese!” I guess my Tiger isn’t quite grown up yet.


Soccer tiger-cat photo by Flickr user Jersey JJ, used under a Creative Commons license.

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There’s a long tradition of naming flu pandemics after their presumptive geographical ground zero. The Hong Kong flu. Asian flu. Fujian flu. And the dreadful Spanish flu (which almost certainly didn’t start in Spain).

So why not the Mexico flu? Because – as Renee at Womanist Musings and nojojojo at Alas amply show – you can’t invoke Mexico in this country without dragging in a truckload of racist, anti-immigration baggage.

While I like nojojo’s suggestions of “Colonialism Cough” and “Greedy Gringo Fever,” I’m sort of attached to the historical naming patterns. So, staying in that grand geographical tradition, I vote for “Factory Farm Flu.” Srsly. Evidence is mounting that this virus mutated in a literal and figurative epidemiological pigsty: the Smithfield factory farm, which Amanda Marcotte describes as “absolutely swimming in pig shit and carcasses.” And Factory Farm Flu is nicely alliterative, too!

We do need a name change, because “swine flu” is misleading in more ways than one. For instance, Russia has banned pork imports from Ohio to try to keep the disease at bay. They’d do far better to ban imports of Ohio’s live humans instead of our dead pigs, which are completely incapable of infecting consumers in Russia or anywhere.

Of course, Factory Farm Flu might not help hog futures, either, but that’s all right by me. (Daisy Deadhead has a fine post on why this ought to be putting all of us off meat.) Swine flu wouldn’t be able to mutate so easily if it weren’t endemic in certain pig populations. The crowding of factory farms promotes viral transmission. The only effect of those buckets of antibiotics fed to hogs is to halt bacterial superinfections. Meanwhile, the flu virus merrily reproduces and mutates.

And then there are the echoes of the 1976 swine flu panic.  At Salon, Patrick Di Justo has a nuanced account of the events in ’76, which I remember pretty well (I was 12 at the time). In short, a panel of world-famous virologists all agreed that President Ford had better fast-track a vaccine. By the time the vaccine was ready, public health authorities already realized that the epidemic wasn’t materializing. The government went ahead and vaccinated people anyway. Death and paralysis from Guillain-Barre were ascribed to the vaccine, though Di Justo questions that link. Even a single death due to the vaccine would have been one too many, because by then the government’s motivations were purely political.

While Di Justo’s airtight analysis sticks entirely to the events of 1976, an uncritical reader could easily infer wrong lessons for the present: Swine flu is inherently benign, and so we’re overreacting. Gawker is doing just that, sneering at the current concern – hey, all swine flu is the same, isn’t it?

No, actually it’s not. “Swine flu” just means that the viruses were hosted by pigs while they scrambled their sloppy RNA into new mutations. This particular H1N1 strain shows signs of human, bird, and swine origins. The pigs just served as big, pink, grunting petri dishes for all that RNA to mix, mingle, and mutate.

Finally, changing the name to Factory Farm Flu would force asshats like this Salon commenter to be a tad more imaginative:

This disease resulted from college students going to Mexico on spring break, who couldn’t come up with the cash for the local prostitutes. You don’t need to go to flying saucer theories to find any other way pig DNA could combine with human DNA.

Eeeew. At first I thought this referred to Mexican girls, but I guess not. Just one more reason to vote for “Factory Farm Flu.” And one less reason to hang out with the aging frat boys in Salon’s comment section. (Why do I ever go there?)

pigdiceRolling the pig dice – image by Flickr user Kaptain Kobold, used under a Creative Commons license.

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… or other long-term relationship (inertia is an equal-opportunity affliction, after all).

Some weeks ago, the New York Times ran a short piece by Tara Parker-Pope, “Reinventing Date Night,” that made the following point:

Rather than visiting the same familiar haunts and dining with the same old friends, couples need to tailor their date nights around new and different activities that they both enjoy, says Arthur Aron, a professor of social psychology at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. The goal is to find ways to keep injecting novelty into the relationship. The activity can be as simple as trying a new restaurant or something a little more unusual or thrilling — like taking an art class or going to an amusement park.

The theory is based on brain science. New experiences activate the brain’s reward system, flooding it with dopamine and norepinephrine. These are the same brain circuits that are ignited in early romantic love, a time of exhilaration and obsessive thoughts about a new partner. (They are also the brain chemicals involved in drug addiction and obsessive-compulsive disorder.)

(More here.)

Well, my sweetheart and I gave this idea a whirl today, but with a twist. (Don’t worry, I’m not about to inflict TMI on you.) We went to our local big-box store … and shopped for emergency supplies in case pandemic flu comes to our corner of Ohio. I don’t think this is quite what Parker-Pope had in mind but it had all the elements she mentions: novelty (we don’t do this every day), a new location (definitely my first date at Wal-Mart), and of course a frisson of fear (y’all know I’m nervous about the swine flu).

By the end of our “date” we were both feeling really warm toward each other. Maybe it was due to the freezer we ordered from the other big box (having finally decided I’m a grow-mutt and should have one). But I’ve never quite bought into the idea that new appliances are a big turn-on for women. At any rate, I had to scoot off to a doctor’s appointment, so all else is speculation.

On a more sober note, we tried to pick up face masks at both Wal-Mart and CVS. Both stores were sold out. Imagine the shortages if there’s even a mild pandemic! But we now have enough food that my family could subsist on cereal alone for weeks on end, if need be.


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Update 4/30/09, 2 p.m.: This post is getting a lot of hits; I’d like to suggest that your next stop be Effect Measure at Science Blogs, which I’ve found to have the most valuable current analysis of the public health ramifications of the swine flu threat. Also, in the post below I criticize WHO for not moving up to phase 5 quickly enough; they’ve since rectified this.


Don’t panic, says the White House. Don’t panic, says the CDC. Don’t panic, says the WHO.

I don’t want them to panic either, but the people at those agencies had better be worried sick about the emerging swine flu. While the unknowns still overshadow the knowns, there’s one very troubling development that suggests why our government and public health authorities should be treating the swine flu as a far, far greater threat than 9/11 ever was.

Buried deep in a New York Times report is this nugget of information:

In each year’s flu season, most deaths are in infants and the aged, but none of the first ones in Mexico were in people over 60 or under 3 years old, a W.H.O. spokeswoman said. When a new virus emerges, deaths may occur in healthy adults who mount the strongest immune reactions. Their own defenses — inflammation and leaking fluid in lung cells — can essentially drown them from inside. [My emphasis.]

I don’t hold a degree in public health or epidemiology, but as a historian of medicine who’s familiar with the 1918 flu, I know that this is very, very alarming news. (And since I’m not a public health expert whose job entails keeping people calm, I feel free to speak bluntly about it.)

In 1918/19, the mortality pattern was exactly as the WHO describes. Historian John M. Barry describes this pattern in The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague In History, as does Gina Kolata in her well-researched New York Times piece from 2006:

It was the worst infectious disease epidemic ever, killing more Americans in just a few months than died in World War I, World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam Wars combined. Unlike most flu strains, which kill predominantly the very old and the very young, this one — a bird flu, as it turns out — struck young adults in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s, leaving children orphaned and families without wage earners.

(More here.)

To the best of my understanding, the reason less-novel flu viruses don’t provoke such deadly immune responses is that by adulthood, most of us have encountered enough flu viruses that we have some partial immunity to the average new mutations. There’s no need for our immune system to go into overdrive. When a radically new mutation pops up, however, our immune system resorts to the nuclear option. An otherwise healthy young person’s lungs can be destroyed in the course of the resulting inflammatory process – a cytokine storm, if you want the technical term. (Here’s an accessible description of how this works in bird flu; if the swine flu deaths are indeed due to cytokine storm, as seems likely, the mechanism would be similar.) Ironically, healthy young adults are the most vulnerable, because their immune systems are the most robust.

So this mortality pattern plus the other data available so far suggest several conclusions:

  1. We really are seeing a novel virus.
  2. It’s at least moderately deadly. However, its virulence could be variable, since the U.S. has seen milder cases than Mexico, and the less extreme cases in Mexico may be flying under the radar. Remember, though, that a virus can mutate to become more or less virulent during the course of an oubreak.
  3. It is transmitted from human-to-human. It appears much more contagious than SARS or the bird flus that epidemiologists have tracked in recent years.
  4. It has shown up in far-flung parts of North America and Europe. Today, we learned that the swine flu has turned up in Lorain County, Ohio – not quite my neck of the woods, but way too close for comfort. (The infected boy is recovering well, but his school is closed in hopes of containing the outbreak.)

The only reason this swine flu is not being labeled a pandemic is because it’s not widespread enough. Not yet. Give it a week.

Here’s one example of where exhorting people to stay calm seems to be trumping the actual science. Technically we ought to be at phase 5 of pandemic preparedness – one notch short of a full-blown pandemic – if you look at this WHO graph.  Officially, we’re at phase 4, but that doesn’t square with the WHO definition:

Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.

The only reason not to panic is because losing it would make our response even less effectual. I’ve always admired Obama’s calm; his unflappability is one of his most attractive and reassuring traits. But I hope our decision-makers are at least a little scared, because so far, complacency has not concentrated anyone’s mind. Nor has it funneled adequate dollars to the fight against flu. Republicans actually fought to keep flu funding out of the stimulus – gee, thanks! (h/t Pudentilla at Skippy the Bush Kangaroo) Perhaps more damningly, eight years of GOP veto power have left us only marginally more prepared than were were when the anthrax attacks redefined public health as a national security issue!

It’s already a few years too late for the kind of preparation we would have needed: enough doses of antivirals to rein in a true pandemic, and a rapid-response system for developing, producing, and distributing a vaccine. But we need to recognize that the swine flu is poised to create a global emergency. We need to find the resources to fast-track a vaccine. How is it that we can find a trillion bucks to prop up the banks, yet we only have two labs in North America capable of identifying this vaccine – one in Atlanta, the other in Winnipeg? (This is being rectified, but it too will take time.)

Another lesson from 1918: The virus mutated some months into the pandemic and became radically more virulent in the fall of 1918, just when the world was hoping for a respite. In the end it killed somewhere between 20 and 100 million people. Every week of further delay in creating a vaccine for this new flu could cost thousands or even millions of lives.

mexicocityswinefluA train in Mexico City, ground zero of the epidemic; photo by Flickr user Eneas, used under a Creative Commons license.

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Today’s New York Times has an op-ed piece by Mark Taylor, chair of Columbia’s religion department, that attempts to offer a blueprint for reforming universities. Some of his ideas are decent, but they’re not necessarily new. Some of them are – well, less bright that I’d have expected from a guy who’s obviously climbed far higher in the academic treehouse than I’ll ever manage.

His core fallacy is that universities can be compared to businesses:

If American higher education is to thrive in the 21st century, colleges and universities, like Wall Street and Detroit, must be rigorously regulated and completely restructured. The long process to make higher learning more agile, adaptive and imaginative can begin with six major steps …

Who will do this regulating? Do we want the government dictating programs and policies at universities? How about the trustees? At my university, the trustees are frankly the weakest link, rivaled only by our president. Throughout the country, trustees typically know oodles about business but precious little about education.

Traditionally, the faculty played a major role in governing (not managing!) universities, and by golly, it worked pretty well. The massive cost increases at my institution – and at many others, I’m sure – have gone hand-in-hand with moving toward a business management model and hollowing out faculty self-governance. But Taylor doesn’t trust the kids to maintain order in their own sandbox. Instead, he sees faculty as blocking much-needed change:

The other obstacle to change [in addition to exploitative overreliance on graduate students and adjuncts for instruction, a point that we at Kittywampus fully endorse] is that colleges and universities are self-regulating or, in academic parlance, governed by peer review. While trustees and administrations theoretically have some oversight responsibility, in practice, departments operate independently. To complicate matters further, once a faculty member has been granted tenure he is functionally autonomous. Many academics who cry out for the regulation of financial markets vehemently oppose it in their own departments.

What kind of change does Taylor hope to see? Here are his six steps.

1. Restructure the curriculum, beginning with graduate programs and proceeding as quickly as possible to undergraduate programs. The division-of-labor model of separate departments is obsolete and must be replaced with a curriculum structured like a web or complex adaptive network. Responsible teaching and scholarship must become cross-disciplinary and cross-cultural. …

Take away the sexy web/network metaphor (which frankly is a little too 1995 to still be sexy), and you’re left with, um, the kind of work I do. We already have women’s studies , Southeast Asian studies, African-American studies, environmental studies, and many other integrative, cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural programs. And that’s just here at my university in southeast Ohio, where we’re not known for living on the edge.

2. Abolish permanent departments, even for undergraduate education, and create problem-focused programs. These constantly evolving programs would have sunset clauses, and every seven years each one should be evaluated and either abolished, continued or significantly changed. It is possible to imagine a broad range of topics around which such zones of inquiry could be organized: Mind, Body, Law, Information, Networks, Language, Space, Time, Media, Money, Life and Water. …

The idea of a problem-focused program is pretty cool. But the sunset clause? Conventional departments and programs already waste spend vast amounts of time justifying their existence; evaluating curricula, programs, and individuals; and scrambling for ever-scarcer resources. The sunset clause is a fabulous idea if you want to halt teaching and research altogether. You could turn the university into a magical administration-only Rube Goldberg device! While this may match the vision of a few high-level administrators, I’m not sure outsiders such as the trustees would notice, unless you also eliminated the football team.

3. Increase collaboration among institutions. All institutions do not need to do all things and technology makes it possible for schools to form partnerships to share students and faculty. Institutions will be able to expand while contracting. Let one college have a strong department in French, for example, and the other a strong department in German; through teleconferencing and the Internet both subjects can be taught at both places with half the staff. With these tools, I have already team-taught semester-long seminars in real time at the Universities of Helsinki and Melbourne.

Tech-based collaborations are nifty. They’re also time- and resource-intensive. I’m spending far more time on my online Feminist Theory class than I did when I taught it the first time in a traditional classroom. It’s not, technically, a new prep for me, so you’d think I’d be saving time. Hah! The online environment requires a lot more babysitting of the technology. Communication of all sorts requires far more time because every single word has to be typed. Most crucially, while I’m enjoying the class and am determined to make it a success, I’m positive that my students learned more in the bricks-and-mortar classroom. It’s so much easier to redirect an unfocused discussion, for example, when you’re all in the same room at the same time and you can look students in the eye. It’s far easier, too, to sense when they’re not understanding a concept, argument, or entire text.

4. Transform the traditional dissertation. In the arts and humanities, where looming cutbacks will be most devastating, there is no longer a market for books modeled on the medieval dissertation, with more footnotes than text. As financial pressures on university presses continue to mount, publication of dissertations, and with it scholarly certification, is almost impossible. (The average university press print run of a dissertation that has been converted into a book is less than 500, and sales are usually considerably lower.) For many years, I have taught undergraduate courses in which students do not write traditional papers but develop analytic treatments in formats from hypertext and Web sites to films and video games. Graduate students should likewise be encouraged to produce “theses” in alternative formats.

I could see modifying dissertations. In fact, some science and engineering disciplines have already done so, allowing candidates to submit a collection of articles rather than a single monograph. The reason this suggestion won’t catch fire is the same as why publication in a print journal is still far more prestigious than an online journal: Hiring and promotion committees prefer the tangible product – no matter how intangible the subject matter. Thus, any rational dissertator who wants a job will shun radically new forms. And: video games??? (Hmm. I’m thinking of my dissertation on historical experiences of childbearing. The possibilities are endless. Just imagine the animations!)

5. Expand the range of professional options for graduate students. Most graduate students will never hold the kind of job for which they are being trained. It is, therefore, necessary to help them prepare for work in fields other than higher education. The exposure to new approaches and different cultures and the consideration of real-life issues will prepare students for jobs at businesses and nonprofit organizations. Moreover, the knowledge and skills they will cultivate in the new universities will enable them to adapt to a constantly changing world.

Sure. This is a fine idea. Historians, among others, have been discussing the need for broader-based career preparation since the mid-1980s, when I first began to consider graduate studies. Universities can and should do much better in this realm. The devil’s in the details, though. If broader preparation were easy, it would already be happening.

6. Impose mandatory retirement and abolish tenure. Initially intended to protect academic freedom, tenure has resulted in institutions with little turnover and professors impervious to change. After all, once tenure has been granted, there is no leverage to encourage a professor to continue to develop professionally or to require him or her to assume responsibilities like administration and student advising. Tenure should be replaced with seven-year contracts, which, like the programs in which faculty teach, can be terminated or renewed. This policy would enable colleges and universities to reward researchers, scholars and teachers who continue to evolve and remain productive while also making room for young people with new ideas and skills.

Speaking as someone who doesn’t have tenure and is not in line for it, I still think this is a lousy idea, even if it’ll play well on Fox News. I know very few faculty who could be described as deadwood. Even after tenure, they virtually all continue to research and serve their students. If the pace drops off somewhat, that’s because many institutions now have such high tenure expectations as to be incompatible with human life. No one can maintain that pace forever. Taylor’s proposal would result in many university’s swapping experienced professors for cheaper recent grads who are existentially scared and thus highly productive.

What does change after tenure? Faculty feel much, much freer to speak out. For every Ward Churchill, there’s probably a hundred professors who use their megaphone responsibly. They’ve been the ones protesting cuts to the core academic budgets while the athletic department swells up like a pufferfish and administrators build grandiose monuments to their fundraising skills.

I’m all in favor of increasing interdisciplinarity and collaboration. I teach in an inherently interdisciplinary program. The course I taught last quarter on religion, gender, and sexuality was cross-listed between religious studies and women’s and gender studies. I’m already walking most of Taylor’s talk – including living without hope of tenure! And so I can attest to the fact that it’s possible to do innovative work under conditions of insecurity. But if my colleagues and I are succeeding, it’s despite that insecurity – not because of it.

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My Friend Henry Is Famous

Just when I was about to close down my computer for the night, I saw that my friend Henry of Henry’s Travels has just gained her 15 minutes of fame! Well, for kittehs it might be more like 15 seconds. There’s that attention span thing, you know. Anyway, Henry has made the front page of I Can Has Cheezburger? – looking very dashing indeed.

So go here to award her the five cheezburgers she deserves. I’m sure it would please her, even if she’d prefer the non-virtual kind.

I hope Henry won’t mind if we celebrate Caturday a day late at Kittywampus by reposting her fetching photo here.

henrysuperheroHenry! at I Can Has Cheezburger?

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Every year my little town holds an event that my kids eagerly await, and I just as avidly dread: Kidfest. It’s all very well meant. Various community groups take over the university’s basketball arena, offering informational materials for the grow-mutts and cheap craft projects and cheaper trinkets for the kids. The groups are mostly in the social service sector; they range from the battered women’s shelter and the sexual assault educators to the local fake pregnancy clinic (aka the anti-abortion storefront) and a few fundie churches. This year, a rather terrifying oversized Dora the Explorer was wandering the exhibits. Outside, there were fire trucks, a wildlife display, and several snakes, including two constrictors that frankly alarmed us less than Dora.

So what’s the problem? Kidfest is crowded and noisy and induces utter claustrophobia. It makes me wish I would accidentally get in the way of a tranquilizer dart. It’s not just me, though I have a very low tolerance for this kind of shuddering, echoing noise. This morning, when I told two of my friends I was taking my boys to Kidfest, they both said, “You’re a very nice parent,” in tones reserved for when a beloved pet dies.

But this year, Kidfest was a little different. The outdoor activity area was dominated by Army recruiters. Representatives from the ROTC, the Reserves, and the Air Force were present. A portable climbing wall, roughly 30 feet tall, loomed above all the other activities. Recruiters were challenging kids to do as many pushups as their age in years. Those who succeeded won a plastic water bottle with an Army logo on it. They’d even set up a bounce house, which (mercifully) was decorated in primary colors, not a trace of camouflage.

I thought this was interesting for two reasons. First, it’s an obvious sign that the armed services are having to branch out broader and deeper in order to find new recruits. Of course they weren’t angling for the five-year-olds (yet!), but lots of the parents are poor. Lots are unemployed. This region offers ripe recruiting grounds. Appearing at an event like Kidfest that draws hundreds of poor, young adults is a pretty clever way to draw recruits with warm and fuzzy P.R.

Less obviously, the recruiters’ presence signals the militarization of everyday life, as Cynthia Enloe has described. She cites such phenomena as military officers judging the Miss American pageant and junior ROTC seeping into high schools. The military presence at Kidfest would seem to be another example. The soldiers there were all good-humored and sweet with the kids, but that’s not the point. The problem is that a strong armed forces presence at a kids’ fair normalizes the presence of the military in the civilian world and thus blurs the two spheres, as Enloe notes. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a place for military culture, and that’s … in the military.

This blurring of spheres also interposes military values into parents’ relationship with their children. No, you don’t have to embrace the military and its values – although I would’ve been a horrible meanie if I’d forbidden my sons from hopping in the bounce house. But the military presence does force you to take a position, because if you don’t, the default message kids receive is that military values are a shared and uncontroversial part of our mainstream civilian culture – just as much a part of the American consensus as Dora the Explorer and shiny red fire trucks.

tulip21These tulips strike me as oddly appropriate to this post – not as random as usual – since they’ve got this weird khaki camouflage effect. I honestly don’t remember ordering any bulbs answering this description!

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