Friday, July 18, 2014

More Game of Thrones-Themed Art

This is a super quick watercolor portrait I did of Tywin Lannister from "Game of Thrones." He's all purple because I intend to do a bunch of these, choosing one character to represent each of the Seven Deadly Sins and Seven Heavenly Virtues.

They will all be painted monochromatically, in the color traditionally associated with their sin or virtue.

Tywin is Pride, so I've painted him purple. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Fairly Silly Art Project I've Been Working On

It's Robb Stark from "Game of Thrones" reimagined as a comic-book superhero!

I made these because someone on Tumblr was asking for fan art of Robb Stark and Jon Snow dressed in revealing superhero costumes, and I figured I could do that.

I made up aliases and powers for them, too, to go with the costumes.

Robb's superhero alias is Grey Wind, and he can fly and control the wind. (Possibly he flies by calling on the wind to carry him?)

I'm still pretty jittery about my skill with watercolors, so I made sure to scan this in stages, so that if I screwed up irreparably at any point I'd still have the linework to fall back on.

(The finished picture is mixed media -- outlined in ink, the figure colored with colored pencils, and the background colored with watercolors.)

Here are the other places I've posted these pictures on the Internet:

On my Tumblr: Stage One Stage Two Stage Three All Together

On my Deviant Art: Stage One Stage Two Stage Three

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Bizarre Things Purported to Cause Autism: Glyphosate in Pesticides

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: This is the first of two posts dealing with the claim by MIT researcher Stephanie Seneff that a chemical found in Monsanto's RoundUp herbicide is implicated in the increase in autism prevalence rates in recent years.

This post does not address the claim itself, but evaluates whether Dr. Seneff is a credible source.

She does appear to have credibility and standing in the field of computer science -- particularly the subfield of natural language processing -- and has a lengthy publication history and an impressive array of citations within that field. But in public health, she mostly seems relegated to fringe conferences, the Internet and one not particularly selective journal.

Sometimes I wonder if I should even be bothering to write about some of these autism hypotheses, because they're so fringe, and most people haven't even heard them, much less believe them to be true, but since I mostly write about these for my own amusement, and to satisfy my collector's instinct, the feeling soon passes.

Anyway, on Tumblr I came across a link to this article on some bogus "alternative health" website, about a senior research scientist at MIT who's been going around giving presentations (at conferences of dubious repute, like AutismOne and this anti-GMO symposium hosted by this day spa/alternative medical clinic in Groton, Massachusetts) about how pesticides --- specifically, pesticides containing glyphosate --- are turning everyone autistic.
This was one of the ads in the sidebar of that article

I will address the specifics of Dr. Seneff's claims in another post, because right now I see a golden opportunity to talk about source evaluation, and I'm taking it.

Every news article I could find on this topic had a headline along the lines of, "MIT researcher says chemical in RoundUp linked to autism." That's true as far as it goes (Stephanie Seneff is a researcher at MIT, and that is indeed what she says), but it also has the unfortunate effect of giving the reader the impression that MIT says those things, when really it's just her.

The closer you look at her background and publication history, the more red flags you see.

Her position at MIT is Senior Research Scientist at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory; she's a computer programmer, Jim, not a doctor!

Her advanced degrees are in electrical engineering and computer science, and her undergraduate degree --- the closest she gets to having any background whatsoever in biology or medicine --- is in biophysics.

Biophysics is a perfectly fine field of study --- it's an interdisciplinary melding of biology and physics --- but it's very broad, and it seems to me like it isn't so much a specialty in itself as it is a collection of specific research topics that require study from both biological and physics perspectives. 

Parts of it deal with atomic-level interactions between molecules: figuring out, in exacting detail, how any particular grouping of molecules fits together; how an enzyme or receptor forms a complex with its target molecule; how proteins arrive at, and maintain, their three-dimensional shape. Parts of it deal with electrostatic interactions between those same atoms and molecules, as in the study of ion channels, or the difference in electrostatic potential that exists across cell membranes.

Parts of it are more purely mathematical or computational, dealing with mathematical modeling and computer simulations.

That actually all sounds super interesting and cool, but the point is that most of those areas of inquiry are things that would benefit from investigation by very carefully chosen teams of experts in diverse fields, not one person, and it also seems to me like a bachelor's degree in biophysics (where the option exists -- it looks like biophysics is more often a graduate degree program) involves a fairly solid grounding in basic physics, chemistry, and molecular/cellular biology (as distinct from organismal or population biology, I mean) and then your choice of advanced courses in a very wide range of topics.

Here are some lists of degree requirements for a B.S. in biophysics from various universities that offer it, if you want to look at them yourself: Johns Hopkins University (PDF); York University in Canada (PDF); Arizona State University; Wake Forest University

The point of all the foregoing is just to show that someone could have an undergraduate degree in biophysics that is weighted more heavily toward the physics or chemistry ends of things, with only cursory attention paid to cell biology and little or none to metabolism or physiology. 

Anyway, it looks like most of her research over the years has been concerned with speech and language, and improving computer recognition of human speech. Her Ph.D. thesis, according to this webpage, was a computer model of how the human brain processes language.

She seems to have only pivoted to medical research in recent years.

What's worse, she seems to be writing about a very wide range of unrelated topics in medicine: the heart, the brain, the gut, epigenetics, nutrition, toxicology, epidemiology ... how much can one person understand of so many disparate fields, especially when that person is trained primarily in computer science and has only just (2011-2014) begun to publish about any of them?

Also, when you look at her CV, you notice a striking change in the nature of her citations, corresponding with the change in subject matter.

Following her pivot to writing about public-health issues, more and more of her writing is either self-published (on her website) or published in a single journal, Entropy, which has been called a "pay to play" journal -- one that will publish whatever you send them, regardless of merit, as long as you pay the fee.

For comparison, when she was writing about natural language processing stuff she would be getting published in peer-reviewed journals* published by prestigious academic and professional organizations like IEEE (the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers), the Acoustical Society of America, the European Association for Signal Processing, the International Speech Communication Association, and the Association for Computational Linguistics.

The same holds true for her speaking engagements. 

In the past, she's spoken about natural language processing stuff at international conferences in various fields relating to linguistics and computer science --- the International Conference on Spoken Language Processing in 1990, 1992, 1994, 1996, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2006, and 2010; the Conference of the International Speech Communication Association in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011; the European Conference on Speech Communication and Technology in 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997, 2001, 2003 and 2005; the International Conference on Computational Linguistics in 1996; the Conference on Empirical Methods in Natural Language Processing in 2009; the Special Interest Group on Discourse and Dialogue in 2010; and the IEEE International Conference on Acoustics, Speech, and Signal Processing in 1991, 1992, 1994, 20002008 and 2012 --- whereas her presentations about glyphosate seem to be given mostly to small gatherings of laypeople or at crank conferences, like the Weston A. Price Foundation's Wise Traditions Conference. (She's spoken at five of those!)

Given all of this, the logical thing to do is take whatever she has to say about medicine with a huge grain of salt.

* This is as good a place as any to point out that peer review isn't 100% effective at screening out dodgy science; even The Lancet managed to let Andrew Wakefield's fraudulent research slip past their vetting process. And just recently there's been a huge scandal over a "peer review ring" through which a few authors were able to fabricate favorable reviews of their submissions to make sure they would be published.  

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Doing this drawing made me really excited about drawing people riding comically enlarged animals, so I've decided I'm going to take commissions.

If you want a picture of yourself riding a comically oversized animal -- any animal, even a specific individual (like, if you want a picture of yourself riding your cat), with whatever other specifications you might care to make (what you'd like to be wearing or doing, like if you want to be carrying a banner or aiming or brandishing a weapon or something, or if you'd like to be riding your animal in a specific setting, like up a mountain or through a snowstorm or over the ramparts of Helm's Deep or whatever), PayPal me ten dollars and send me a message (in comments here, in my Tumblr askbox, on my DeviantArt profile page, in an email ... whatever) describing what you'd like me to do.

(Obviously, if I'm going to draw you, I need to know what you look like, so you'll need to send me a picture or a link to someplace where you've posted pictures online.)

My email address (which is also the address of my PayPal account) is, if you want to take me up on this offer. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Bring Me One Large Enough to Ride!

A drawing of myself riding a huge Norwegian Forest Cat, inspired by this post on Tumblr

Only Some of These Really Bother Me

(A version of this post has also appeared on my Tumblr)
Article header from "10 Scientific Ideas That Scientists Wish You Would Stop Misusing"
There's an article on listing ten words/concepts from various fields of science that are commonly misused by laypeople, so I had to look at it and see if any of my pet peeves made it onto the list.

There were a few:
3. Quantum Uncertainty and Quantum Weirdness
[Astrophysicist Dave] Goldberg adds that there's another idea that's been misinterpreted even more perniciously than "theory." It's when people appropriate concepts from physics for new agey or spiritual purposes:
This misconception is an exploitation of quantum mechanics by a certain breed spiritualists and self-helpers, and epitomized by the abomination, [the movie] What the Bleep Do We Know? Quantum mechanics, famously, has measurement at its core. An observer measuring position or momentum or energy causes the "wavefunction to collapse," non-deterministically. (Indeed, I did one of my first columns on "How smart do you need to collapse a wavefunction?") But just because the universe isn't deterministic doesn't mean that you are the one controlling it. It is remarkable (and frankly, alarming) the degree to which quantum uncertainty and quantum weirdness get inextricably bound up in certain circles with the idea of a soul, or humans controlling the universe, or some other pseudoscience. In the end, we are made of quantum particles (protons, neutrons, electrons) and are part of the quantum universe. That is cool, of course, but only in the sense that all of physics is cool. 
4. Learned vs. Innate
Evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk says:
One of my favorite [misuses] is the idea of behavior being "learned vs. innate" or any of the other nature-nurture versions of this. The first question I often get when I talk about a behavior is whether it's "genetic" or not, which is a misunderstanding because ALL traits, all the time, are the result of input from the genes and input from the environment. Only a difference between traits, and not the trait itself, can be genetic or learned — like if you have identical twins reared in different environments and they do something different (like speak different languages), then that difference is learned. But speaking French or Italian or whatever isn't totally learned in and of itself, because obviously one has to have a certain genetic background to be able to speak at all.
6. Gene

[Synthetic biologist Terry] Johnson has an even bigger concern with how the word gene gets used, however: 
It took 25 scientists two contentious days to come up with: "a locatable region of genomic sequence, corresponding to a unit of inheritance, which is associated with regulatory regions, transcribed regions and/or other functional sequence regions." Meaning that a gene is a discrete bit of DNA that we can point to and say, "that makes something, or regulates the making of something". The definition has a lot of wiggle room by design; it wasn't long ago that we thought that most of our DNA didn't do anything at all. We called it "junk DNA", but we're discovering that much of that junk has purposes that weren't immediately obvious. 
Typically "gene" is misused most when followed by "for". There's two problems with this. We all have genes for hemoglobin, but we don't all have sickle cell anemia. Different people have different versions of the hemoglobin gene, called alleles. There are hemoglobin alleles which are associated with sickle cell diseases, and others that aren't. So, a gene refers to a family of alleles, and only a few members of that family, if any, are associated with diseases or disorders. The gene isn't bad - trust me, you won't live long without hemoglobin - though the particular version of hemoglobin that you have could be problematic. 
I worry most about the popularization of the idea that when a genetic variation is correlated with something, it is the "gene for" that something. The language suggests that "this gene causes heart disease", when the reality is usually, "people that have this allele seem to have a slightly higher incidence of heart disease, but we don't know why, and maybe there are compensating advantages to this allele that we didn't notice because we weren't looking for them".
Those were the ones that resonated with me the most; others were only minor peeves or didn't actually bother me at all.

Misused Word #1, "Proof," was only a minor annoyance for me in that I'm almost never talking about mathematical proofs, and even if I were the sort of person who does use them routinely, it still seems to me like most things people talking about "proving" colloquially are impossible to express in mathematical terms.

It just seems to me like there wouldn't be very many circumstances in which mixing up the technical and colloquial meanings of "proof" would be an issue that would even arise.

(I have found that the most annoying sources of confusion in scientist/layperson conversations about proof have to do with standards of evidence, or also degrees of uncertainty. You can be more unsure of one thing than you are of another, even if you're not 100% certain about the thing you are more sure of.)

Similarly, "theory" also doesn't annoy me that much because I don't usually have much trouble adjusting to different usages of words in different contexts.

I can see how it would get really old having to explain the technical meaning of "theory" over and over again, though.
It seems like those are more about the meaning of specific words than they are about whole networks of ideas, so they are easier for me to adapt to when they surprise me in conversation.
The ones discussed in the quoted text above, though? Misuse of ideas derived from quantum mechanics, misinterpretations of evolution and natural selection, or the idea that genes are "for" specific things? Those come with so many other ideas connected to them, so many wrong things tacitly accepted as premises, that I feel like I need a ball of yarn to slowly pick my way back to the start of the conceptual maze.

Cognitive Styles, Stereotypes and Collateral Damage

(Cross-posted from my Tumblr)

I saw a really interesting post on Tumblr about, among other things, different disability stereotypes and some of the less-than-perfect ways different subsets of cognitively or developmentally disabled people cope with them.

The part of the post I'm responding to:
You know how there is a subset of badbrains people who are like “ACTUALLY, our BADBRAINS MAKE US SMARTER. We are not disabled, we are the NEXT EVOLUTIONARY STAGE, we are BETTER. There is us on the top, then normals in the middle, then unsmart r-word badbrains people on the bottom. Given time they will see.” And I was attracted to that subset of badbrains people for a while before I realise they were assholes (And also stopped being academically smart.) And there was a subset of the subset who said “the unsmart r-word badbrains were just expensive useless people who should die, I NEVER thought that (not that I deserve some kind of “not a murderer” cookie) but those people existed and exist. 
But I feel like there is also a subset of badbrains people who are like “ACTUALLY, our BADBRAINS MAKE US KINDER, we are a PURER  type of human, more whole and loving and sane, more Hufflepuff, than the normals. There is us on top, normals in the middle, and the evil heartless non-sensory, abstraction-based, heartless badbrains people on the bottom, they probably all worship Richard Dawkins and watch my little pony and are racist and rape everyone they meet. They are all just like Elliot Rodger, we should probably kill them before they kill us.”
The bolded parts ring true for me too.
I know that both types of “badbrains people” — the ones whose minds handle abstract concepts well, but don’t really get emotions or people*, and the ones whose minds don’t handle abstract concepts or words well but are good at empathy and perceptual, sensory stuff** — exist and have to deal with ableism from NTs, and have various ways of coping with that and saying, no, actually we have value and are good at things.
And I know that those coping mechanisms can turn into ways of hurting other DD/MI people — the ones whose cognitive styles are as different from our own as they are from the norm. We might think we’re trashing a stereotype but actually be trashing real people who share traits with the stereotype. 
I actually overlap a bit with both of the subsets of people you’re describing — most of the mockery I got in grade school was of the “look at the stupid R-word, she believes whatever you tell her” variety; I do live primarily in a world of sensory information and sometimes I’m not exactly within reach of words; I sort of straddle a line between very concrete, literal thought and more abstract, logical, analogy- and metaphor-based thought; I think very slowly and sometimes speak haltingly; but at the same time I’m very good at academics, including STEM subjects, I can be pretty far removed from my emotions (like, it took me until my 20s to even realize I was capable of certain emotions, or to express them), and I am ridiculously insensitive to nonverbal cues and emotional subtext in conversation.
The latter set of traits make me very much a stereotypical “Aspie” that autistics who don’t have those traits have been bashing as non-representative of what actual autism is like. I’m not really bothered by it because I know they’re right. My observations do tell me I’m in the minority in having those traits, especially the lack of affective empathy
The stuff I’ve seen from other autistic people has been more along the lines of “this type of autistic person doesn’t really exist” than “this type of autistic person is evil,” though.

(From NTs, of course, I've seen a whole lot of "this type of autistic person is evil" stereotyping. It's almost coming to replace the autism stereotypes I remember more from childhood, the ones that imagine us as having no inner life.)

*Continuing with the Harry Potter Sorting Hat theme in the quoted passage, it would probably make the most sense to associate this cognitive style with Ravenclaw, and maybe Slytherin.

**Probably more likely to be in Hufflepuff or Gryffindor

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Kansas City, Don't Get on This Bandwagon

Just this past weekend I read something that upset me very much: the City Council of Kansas City, Missouri is considering making it illegal to give food to homeless people without having a permit from the city to do so.

You can read the proposed ordinance here (PDF).

Because it's a couple pages long and legal writing is dense, I'll also excerpt the relevant bits of it here:
Section 8-301.11 of the 2005 Food Code is amended to read as follows: A PERSON may not operate a FOOD ESTABLISHMENT without a valid PERMIT to operate issued by the REGULATORY AUTHORITY. A PERMIT is required to apply for and obtain and pay for a separate FOOD ESTABLISHMENT PERMIT for each of the types of FOOD ESTABLISHMENT operations listed in subsections (1) through (13): 
(13) Food Sharing Permit: issued to a not-for-profit granted tax-exempt status under any provision of Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code ... that is distributing food free of charge for the sole purpose of impacting food insecurity in Kansas City, Missouri. Food sharing permits are not intended to cover food sharing taking place within permitted food establishments. Any already-permitted food establishments shall not need a food sharing permit to offer food free of charge to the public within the confines of the already-permitted establishment. All potentially hazardous food shall be prepared in a permitted kitchen and any processed foods must be pre-packaged. All food shall be labeled with the name or identifier of the permittee and disposed of four (4) hours after being removed from active temperature control. On site food preparation is prohibited with a Food Sharing Permit. Permit holders shall provide waste receptacles if none are readily available or if on-site receptacles are not adequate to collect the waste generated, while distributing food pursuant to the permit and when necessary, shall collect and remove any food or container waste. Food sharing permittees shall not distribute food within one block of a school on a day in which school is in session during the 30 minute period preceding school or the 30 minute period after adjournment. All other Food Code requirements shall be followed, including the obtaining of food handler cards. Re-inspection fees shall be those as set for catering permits. There shall be no cost for the initial food sharing permit or for any routine annual renewals.
It's not clear from this text whether any of this applies to a single person handing out food on their own. (At least, it's not clear to me.)

I'm also not clear on what the implications are for a group that's not a formally recognized nonprofit, like a social club, that might want to distribute food.

The ordinance itself, and City Council member Melba Curls in comments to the public at a protest rally held June 4 at City Hall, cite public health as one of the reasons why the ordinance was drafted.

Intuitively, that makes sense. By making a city-issued permit a requirement to distribute food, the city can keep track of who is distributing food and periodically inspect the kitchens where they prepare it. They can make sure that those kitchens are clean, and that the food that passes through them is not carrying any disease-causing microorganisms.

I'm not sure it would really play out like that, though.

First of all, I'm not aware of any recent outbreaks of food-borne illness here originating in soup kitchens; all the ones I remember reading about originated in restaurants, or on farms or food processing plants.


Other example.

Other example.

Other example.

(It's true, if the contaminated food items end up in grocery stores, they could find their way to a soup kitchen or food pantry's shelves. But it seems like the most efficient way to catch contaminated produce before it makes someone sick would be to do your screening as each shipment reaches the stores, not at whatever secondary or tertiary destination the food is actually eaten.)

So I'm not sure how helpful this measure will be in reducing the number or extent of outbreaks of food-borne illness, and at the same time I'm sure this will have a chilling effect on efforts to feed the city's hungry people. 

(How could it not? It's adding red tape where before there was none. Also, some of the people who are doing that work showed up at the protest rally and said that the ordinance would make it harder for them to operate. So this isn't just me coming up with hypotheticals; this is a thing that people who work at feeding the homeless say will probably happen.)

I'm also aware of a larger pattern around the nation of criminalizing either homelessness itself or ordinary citizens giving food to homeless people.

And I also know that Kansas City is currently hustling to market itself as a cool, happening city to attract the wealthier members of my generation. 

I am made very cynical about what it means to do that, largely by the spectacle of San Francisco all but waging open war on its poor people to curry favor with the Silicon Valley professional classes. 

Return of the Arty Aspie

I started drawing this a ridiculously long time ago --- like fourteen or fifteen years ago. I drew all the black chessmen, and the closest two of the white chessmen, and shaded less than half of the squares when I abandoned it.

I don't remember why I didn't finish it then; either I got bored of it or I didn't think I could draw the smaller chessmen in the background. 

I've gotten better at working on a small scale since then, so they were fairly easy when I finally came back to it.

Being on Tumblr has inspired me to do a lot more art, so I also made a Deviant Art account.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Gardenblogging Part VI

Leaves starting to unfurl on a shrub we planted maybe three years ago? I think it was either the same time as we planted the viburnums or a few months to a year after. Either way, this shrub has not grown anywhere near as much as the viburnums have; the viburnums are taller than me now, and this guy still doesn't come up to my knee.

Wildflower Blogging

I've been posting a bunch of pictures of flowers from my garden --- lilacs, viburnums, bleeding hearts, vincas, and whatever this red thing is --- so now I want to change it up by posting pictures of a flower my mom and I did not plant.

We get a lot of violets growing in the shady parts of the yard --- under the deck, in the grassy zone adjoining the flowerbed, and under the maple tree with the red flowering bush next to it --- and I'm always very happy to see them, so this year I thought I'd take some pictures.

This is also the first time I've noticed that they are in fact blue, not purple!

(So the old verse is true, it's not just that nothing rhymes with purple ...) 
Look at the way the color seems to be coming from veins in the petals. (Also, the flower is a little battered --- I probably should've taken its picture when I first noticed it, instead of waiting until later).

Finally, since I mentioned verse, I want to quote a poem I like that mentions violets.

    She dwelt among the untrodden ways
    Beside the springs of Dove,
    A Maid whom there were none to praise
    And very few to love:

    A violet by a mossy stone
    Half hidden from the eye!
    Fair as a star, when only one
    Is shining in the sky.

    She lived unknown, and few could know
    When Lucy ceased to be;
    But she is in her grave, and, oh,
    The difference to me! 

Gardenblogging, Part V

Like the first couple pictures in my vinca post, these were actually taken last year. This plant flowers early, and I didn't get a picture of it in time this year.
I don't know what this thing is --- it's a woody shrub that's growing practically right on top of one of the maple trees in our yard. It's very sparse --- only a few branches --- compared to all the free-standing shrubs we have.

Here are some pictures that show more of it, and how it leans against the trunk of the tree:
We also didn't plant this --- either the people who lived here before us did, or it volunteered, grown from a seed misplaced by a bird or squirrel or something.

It's my favorite of all our plants. I'd like to paint it sometime.

Gardenblogging, Part IV

Bleeding hearts!

Gardenblogging, Part III

Vincas! The above photos were taken on different days --- different years, actually --- the top two on a sunny day and the bottom one on a cloudy day.

The individual blooms are so tiny you can't really take a picture where they show up clearly that also shows the whole area they cover. So here are a couple pictures where I've tried to show that --- they carpet a fairly large stretch of ground at the base of a black walnut tree growing right next to the huge drainage ditch running through our backyard. 

My mom wanted them there so that we'd have something covering the ground/keeping the soil in place, but not grass that we'd have to mow, because the dropoff is very abrupt and you could go right into the ditch if you're not careful. We have an ongoing project to do that all along the creekbed, replace the grass with low-growing, creeping ground-cover plants, preferably flowering ones. Alas, most of the stretch of ground we want to cover isn't as shady as it is under the walnut, so we can't just cover our side of the ditch with vincas.

Gardenblogging, Part II

(Cross-posted from my Tumblr)

Here are some pictures of one of the viburnums --- we have three, but I only took pictures of one. We planted them some years ago (Three? Four? Probably not five, but I can't rule that out either), and out of all our relatively new shrubs they are probably the ones that are flourishing the best in our yard, aside from the Roses of Sharon and maybe the butterfly bushes.

It's a tough environment for plants, with its combination of heavy clay soil and extreme heat and dryness.

The informational materials that came with the little saplings that we bought said that this type of viburnum grows into sort of a roundish bush with a diameter of six to twelve feet, and to a height of something like five to eight feet or six to ten feet. (I don't remember which of those it was.)

So they're smaller than they would be under ideal growing conditions.

Here's me standing next to one, so that you can see how tall it is:
I'm 5'8", and you can see that the tallest branch on the bush extends a little bit above my head, maybe enough to make it past the six-foot mark.

Look at how big those flowers are!

(Here are some more pictures of them)

Gardenblogging, Part I

(Cross-posted from my Tumblr)

Here are a bunch of pictures of the lilac bush next to my house:

Those pictures give a good idea of the size and shape of the whole plant, but they don't really do justice to individual flowers.

So here are some closer-up shots:

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Snapshots of Disillusionment

There's a book I have, From Poor Law to Welfare State, that's a history of welfare programs in the US, from the colonial period to the mid-'90s or thereabouts. It's a hugely informative book, and maybe one day I'll write a more substantial post about it.

But today I just want to point out something interesting --- if also very depressing --- about the particular edition I own.

It's the Sixth Edition, and after the author's preface it has all the prefaces from every earlier edition. So you can almost travel back in time, reading how the author's thinking and outlook evolved as he had to keep updating the book. (There's a span of, like, more than twenty years between the publication dates of the first and sixth editions, and they happen to be twenty very momentous years in the history of welfare policy.)

What's depressing, though, is that in every successive preface he has to point out that he had been overly optimistic in his concluding remarks to the previous book. 

Here's a snippet from the preface to the Second Edition (1978):
The initial version [of this book], completed early in 1973, brought the account of social welfare in America up to the start of this decade.To leave it at that critical juncture would be to shirk an obligation to readers who have witnessed the important, often complex occurrences since then and who seek to know how they are related to prior events. One of the most significant elements in the new edition, then, is the addition of a chapter on the 1970s, “Where Do We Go From Here?” 

I was especially pleased to have the opportunity to bring the text up to date because, writing some five or six years ago, I ended the manuscript on a rather optimistic note. For reasons discussed in the work, I suggested that “as 1970 approached, all was not bleak”; despite the lack of progress, “there were rays of hope.” Events over the past half-decade have proved me unduly sanguine, as the new concluding chapter indicates. Perhaps a future edition of this work will see the restoration of my confidence in the future; I hope so.
 And here's one from the Third Edition (1983):
Less than two decades ago, during the “booming” 1960s, a consensus existed in America regarding the welfare state. Few people on either side of the political aisle opposed strengthening the Social Security system or even declaring “war on poverty.” It was widely believed that the federal government was responsible for the well-being of all citizens, including their basic economic security and their physical and mental health. 

Now, in the midst of a long period of low productivity, deep recession, near-record levels of unemployment, high inflation, and widespread and growing suffering, the welfare state is under severe attack. In the forefront of that attack is the Reagan administration, with its neo-conservative philosophy. After his landslide victory in 1980, Ronald Reagan and his business-oriented advisors came into office intent on altering the direction of public affairs, particularly with regard to the scope and costs of federal activities and the relationship between the public and the private sector, especially in the area of social welfare. Since that time, they have consistently sought, with great success, to eliminate some federal and federally subsidized welfare programs and to cut back on others in a concerted attempt to reverse the steady drift toward Washington’s greater involvement in the nation’s social welfare system. 

The assault against the welfare state has come from the left as well as from the right, from radical scholars and activists as well as from conservative politicians, businessmen, and working class Americans. During the past fifteen years or so, the literature on social welfare, in fact, has been dominated by critics from the left, those who advocate the so-called social control thesis — the argument that the middle and upper classes have devised and used the nation’s welfare institutions and agencies not to help but to control the needy in order to safeguard the existing class system, perpetuate capitalism, and serve their own interests. In fact, so pervasive had such a view become that David Rothman, one of the authors of a widely cited statement on the “limits of benevolence,” rightly indicated that there even existed a widespread and acute suspicion of the very idea of doing good: “Whereas once historians and policy analysts were prone to label some movements reform, thereby assuming their humanitarian aspects,” Rothman wrote in 1978, “they are presently far more comfortable with a designation of social control, thereby assuming their coercive quality …” 

Activists of all kinds also see the needy as less beneficiaries of a benevolent society and more as victims of an all-controlling state; such activists include radicals who preach “participatory democracy” and “community control,” liberals fed up with big government and the federal bureaucracy, and even some social workers and members of the other helping professions who are convinced that the “experts” or “helpers” do not really help, that their professional knowledge, techniques, and institutions have been used to promote a sort of societal imperialism designed to keep the needy in a dependent position in order to perpetuate and enhance professionals’ own role in society. 
This, then, is an exciting and challenging (if not very encouraging) time to be thinking and writing about American social welfare history and the social work profession — and one of the justifications for a new edition of this work.This revised text is a product, at least in part, of the many things that have happened in the field, intellectually and practically, since the appearance of the last edition in 1979.
... the Fourth Edition (1988):
At the conclusion of the Preface to the third edition of this book, written in July, 1983, I stated, “Perhaps … a later edition of … [this] work, should one appear, will have a happier ending.” Unfortunately, that is not so. Despite the efforts of the outgoing administration to deny and conceal the fact, millions of American citizens remain mired in poverty. Indeed, the situation has worsened over the last eight years. In point of fact, there are now more Americans — especially women and children — who are poverty-stricken and in many cases homeless and hungry than there were when President Reagan took office. In addition, in cities all across the nation, there has developed a demoralized “underclass,” comprising school dropouts, gang members, hustlers, criminals, drug addicts, drifters, and other marginal and functionless people who often prey upon and terrorize innocent citizens and threaten the very fabric of American life.  
This new edition gave me the opportunity to take account of, and analyze, these developments and to put them into historical perspective. In so doing, I came to realize that “Reaganism” was not merely the continuation of policies initiated during the Nixon, Ford, and even Carter administrations, as I had believed (and written) earlier. In retrospect, it becomes clear that the period from 1969 to 1981 was a transitional era between the Kennedy-Johnson administrations, with their idealistic and grandiose social policies, and the Reagan administration, with its far more punitive and restrictive measures — measures that, for the first time, were designed to undermine and undo the welfare state that had emerged in America during the prior half-century. 
... Fifth Edition (1993):
Ordinarily, authors are quite pleased to have the opportunity to revise and update books they had written previously. Certainly that was the case with me, as for example my comments in the Preface to the Second Edition indicate. Unfortunately, however, that was not so this time. For the most part, revising and updating this work proved to be a difficult and depressing task.  
The last edition of this book, published in 1989, concluded with George Bush’s election to the presidency after eight years, under Ronald Reagan, of unremitting horror for the nation’s poor. Since that time, however, as I feared, conditions only have gotten worse. Under Bush, the war on the welfare state continued, poverty intensified, and homelessness and a variety of other related social problems reached new heights. All the while, the occupant of the White House and his supporters, who viewed the needy with indifference, if not scorn, did nothing — or worse: they cut even more holes in the social welfare safety net, such as it was. And while the violence that erupted in Los Angeles in the spring of 1992 thrust the state of America’s inner cities and urban poverty into the public consciousness once again, and even rekindled some public debate on these matters, certainly it did not propel them onto the public agenda, at least not yet.  
If there is any light at the end of the tunnel, it is the fact that the twelve dark and dismal years of the Reagan-Bush era have come to an end, and — as I indicate in the conclusion to this work — there is hope (although not quite as much now as there was immediately after the 1992 presidential election) for the onset of a new domestic order, one that will allow Americans to regain their “dignity as a just and compassionate people,” as the authors of The Greatest of Evils: Urban Poverty and the American Underclass (1993) put it. 
... and Sixth Edition (1999):
The first question most readers undoubtedly will ask is, why publish a new edition of From Poor Law to Welfare State this time? While there are a number of reasons for doing so, there are two compelling, although related, answers to that question. First, the previous edition of this work ended on a rather upbeat, or optimistic, note. President Bill Clinton had just introduced his sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation’s health care system, and while many questions about that undertaking remain unanswered, I wrote that “most Americans reacted favorably to the plan and looked forward to the upcoming debate over its specifics.” Furthermore, to again quote from the last edition, “there seemed to be bi-partisan support, in and out of Congress, for the notion that the time had come for some sort of universal national health insurance scheme.” Obviously, I was wrong, and I am glad to have the opportunity to correct myself — and to explain why I was mistaken.  
Second, and closely related, I also misunderstood, or placed too much faith in, President Clinton and his commitment to helping the needy by getting to the heart of their problems — and using the federal government to help resolve them. I really believed, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit, that Clinton, “unlike his immediate predecessors, who either did not recognize the nation’s social problems or refused to face up to them … certainly admits that the nation has many such problems, … that it cannot afford to ignore them, … and that the public sector can and should help to resolve them. Just as our colonial ancestors viewed their villages and towns as communities [I wrote] he cries out for the government again to become an instrument for the improvement of its citizens’ lives, especially by providing at least a minimal level of social welfare for all of its inhabitants.” 

Again, I proved to be in error. Indeed, as readers may already know, or will discover from reading the “new” last chapter of this book — the title of which I changed from “Toward a New Domestic Order?” to “Looking Forward — or Backward?” — just the opposite occurred. Thanks to what is referred to as the welfare reform act of 1996, signed into law by Clinton (just prior to the upcoming presidential election) over the protests of a number of concerned citizens, the entitlement to welfare, put into place in America some sixty years ago in the midst of the Great Depression (if not earlier, during the colonial period), has been removed and replaced by the “work or starve” mentality of an earlier time.