Life as an Extreme Sport

End of Year Reflections – Or, Why You Can Blame Carl

In my religious tradition, the end of the year is a time for reflection and contemplation; what happened over the course of the year, how will it influence your upcoming year, what lessons did you learn, how will those be implemented, and so on. It’s generally a relatively quiet thing – and yes, should be done according to the lunar calendar, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m going cultural on this one.

And so, it was with reflection at the end of the year – admittedly done in an earlier time zone, since I actually spent NYE in Brooklyn with friends – that I tweeted a simple but very heartfelt sentiment: You know, Twitter basically changed my life, several times over, this last year.

Almost all of the opportunities I’ve had this year, I can trace directly to being on Twitter. Now, of course, there’s the Seneca quote that says luck is when preparation meets opportunity, and some could argue that my preparation was key to jumping on opportunity, but the reality feels quite different for me. What I experienced was reaching out to a new world of people who were warm and welcoming and encouraging, and gave me just the smallest pushes I needed to start pursuing dreams I didn’t realize I still had.

One of the biggest examples of this would be a random discussion with science artist Michele Banks that ended up looping in Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American; one thing led to another and I found myself being strong-armed, in the nicest way possible, to submitting a proposal for a Science Online. Which led to my proposal being accepted, and introduced me to my co-presenter, Judy Stone, an internal medicine and infectious disease doctor with a speciality in clinical trials who also writes the utterly marvelous SciAm blog Molecules to Medicine, where she has most recently been tackling the Dan Markingson case.

Another example would be Paul Knoepfler. Paul is a researcher at UC Davis, and he also runs the amazingly informative blog IPSCell, which is a must-read for anyone interested in stem cell research. Paul covers it all, from explaining the latest journal news in accessible terms to covering the often contentious legal issues of the field. I didn’t realize just what a rock star Paul is in the field until I was at the World Stem Cell Summit in Florida, though. He really is that guy who is always surrounded by people who just want to say hello so that they can say they’ve said hello to him. I consider myself really lucky to have such an influential person telling me you know, I should keep writing, I say interesting things.

This in and of itself – being accepted by science-y types on Twitter, talking to really interesting and fun people without feeling self-conscious – would have made the year amazing. None of this, though – talking to any of the people already mentioned, or the numerous other interesting and intelligent and engaging science and ethics and research types that I do talk with on a near-daily basis – would have been possible if not for one person: Carl Elliott.
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Power Broker Bioethicists

Alice Dreger has a new post up discussing How to be a Bioethicist. She admits, upfront, that she sort of sucks as one, and not for reasons the snarkier or more vindictive readers of this blog might assume. Rather, she sucks as a bioethicist because she has a penchant for naming names and citing her work, because she is concerned about principles, and because she hasn’t figured out how to get a staggeringly high salary, regardless of currency. (Of course, she missed the fourth reason she makes a bad bioethicist: her unfortunate affliction with XX Syndrome.)

Sarcasm, and even personal issues aside, I think Dreger raises a very interesting point about North American bioethics as a whole: what I rather jokingly referred to as the advent of “power broker bioethics” before I realized that this, indeed, was actually and precisely the correct phrase.

A power broker, for those of you who missed the 80s or anything to do with Wall Street, is “a person who is important by virtue of the people or votes they control; a power broker who does you a favor will expect you to return it.” It, in many ways, describes the behavior Dreger details: attempts to suppress dissent via appeals to authority; trading favors for benefits; obfuscating financial details in an effort to hide paper trails; and always, always looking for ways to inflate one’s sense of self via title and position.
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Why I Don’t Like Twilight & You Shouldn’t Either

This started out as a blog comment response over on The Nerdy Bird’s blog regarding Twilight and if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. I was directed to this from Nerds in Babeland’s post defending sparkly vampires, which I flailed about and responded to on Twitter, after GeekGirlCon tweeted the link this morning.

Caught all that? It’s as convoluted as it sounds.

What it boils down to is this: as far as I’m concerned, Twilight tells girls that their only value is in what an older man thinks of them, and it primes these young girls to accept that abusive relationships are normal, romantic and desirable, when the reality is ever so very different.

I don’t have a problem with emotionally healthy and mature grown women enjoying Twilight as a guilty pleasure – a lot of people scoff at some of my guilty pleasure reading, which includes a paranormal romance series that many people have similar abuse concerns with (Kresley Cole’s Immortals After Dark – a concern I don’t share for consent reasons that are absent in Twilight, and I can go into in another post if people are really all that curious).

Regardless, what adults read? Is what adults read.

My concern is largely about the message that tweens and teens take away from the Twilight series. Obviously the biggest issue I have is the domestic violence one; everything – EVERYTHING – Edward does shows up as a red flag in DV handouts (something Dr. NerdLove addresses well in his recent Twilight post). And as I mentioned on Twitter, I know of too many young girls who wonder why their boyfriend isn’t as jealously protective as Edward is, or who justify the stalking and abuse because that’s what love is like, just look at Edward and Bella.

I genuinely believe that any teen girl seen reading these books needs to have an adult intervene and make sure she doesn’t have screwy ideas about what a relationship is, because too many girls are grasping on to it – and to be fair, this is precisely what The Nerdy Bird wonders: why are young girls taking that wrong message?

And naturally, being an opinionated soul, I have ideas. 😉

I do think SMeyers got something very right with the book – she tapped into that feeling that I think the majority of teen girls have. That feeling of awkwardness as your body shifts and your gravity changes and you’re suddenly a klutz. The whole roil of hormones, the feeling like an outsider because of the hormones and sudden competition between female friends for the guys and seeing guys through that light of hormones and all the travails and trials that every single teen girl EVER goes through. Except, of course, the one teen girl you wanted to be like – the one with the perfect hair and clothes and everything else that you never were.

Well, in Twilight, that’s subverted – Bella ends up learning that she really is the perfect one that the pretty (vampire) girl wants to be because of her functional uterus and the worship of this perfect male god and on and on.

Which are all the reasons that adults like the books – the understanding and fond remembrance of being THAT girl (and thank god for growing out of it).

And Twilight isn’t the only series that has done this. I think we can probably look back at any time period and find That Series of Books that teen girls latched on to and loved, which probably had similar themes of the to-die-for (just not literally) older guy seeing the beauty and value and inherent goodness in the not-really-mousy girl who just needed to get contacts and change her hair. (It could be those of us from the late 80s and 90s had it in Brat Pack movies instead of books – in this I am not a good example, as I discovered Pride & Prejudice early, and then was busy reading fantasy and scifi novels in my teens, which whoa, want to talk about unhealthy relationships,…)

The difference with Twilight is that it’s the first time (as far as I know) the message has been combined with the ones that come along with the domestic violence flags.

Unfortunately, we know, from research, that the things we see on TV or read subconsciously influences us and tells us this is “right.” The most common example is the so-called CSI effect, but it’s also been tracked in medicine. (People who watch medical shows like ER or Chicago Hope or even Scrubs believe that CPR is much more effective than it is. When asked how they know, they just know that they “learned it somewhere”.) So we in effect have an awful lot of girls getting the idea that these abuse-y, red flag, drama and control and danger relationships are normal, if not ideal (“he’s so protective because he loves me”). There isn’t popular media out there countering the *bad* ideas in Twilight, or giving alternate models of romance for girls to form their ideas – and ideals – on. In fact, I would argue that popular media aimed at this demographic reinforces that ideal – a pretty big change from the ideas teen girls were exposed to in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Or at least, that’s my brief (and yet still too long) blog response on the idea.

(There are other issues I’ll beat on with Twilight, too, like that the only role a woman has is the one the male wants for her, and motherhood. [Some, for example, might want to frame Darcy and Elizabeth’s romance as bordering on an abusive situation, but Lizzy’s life doesnt’ revolve around Darcy – she has her family, her own life, her own dreams and desires that extend beyond marrying. In fact, to the point of accepting she won’t marry, because it’s so important to her to stay her own person.] And that’s not even touching on the really creepy “imprinting why is no one concerned about the pedophilia implications here?” But that’s deviating WAY further than I should – although give me an ounce of encouragement and I’ll go there, too.)

Analyzing Groupon’s Failure

I feel like people are probably expecting a comment on Groupon’s amazingly over the top, tasteless, offensive advertisement shown during the Super Bowl last night. (Why do I feel like people expect this? Well, I’m Buddhist and I am known for being cranky. It’s not really a large leap there…)

So, yes, I found that Groupon advertisement to be a masterclass in what not to do. For those who missed the advert, here it is:

The copy reads

Mountainous Tibet – one of the most beautiful places in the world. This is Timothy Hutton. The people of Tibet are in trouble, their very culture in jeopardy. But they still whip up an amazing fish curry. And since 200 of us bought on we’re getting $30 worth of Tibetan food for just $15 at Himalayan restaurant in Chicago.

Let’s get the basics out of the way, first. Tibet is in the Himalayas, yes – and because of this, Tibetan cuisine, along with most Himalayan cuisine, doesn’t involve fish. Neither does it involve curry (although Tibetans living in exile in India have added it to their diet).

Facts aside, there are still massive issues here. Putting aside the big one for a minute, the slightly smaller one is the incredibly tone-deaf advertisement creating a situation that suggests all is okay because the displaced, threatened culture can still cook for the White Man. I am not a race scholar by any means, but you don’t need to be one to see the ugly legacy of colonialism echoing in the advertisement.

And then, of course, there is the big issue. The Big Issue. The fact that Groupon is using the genocide of a people to sell it’s services. The occupation of Tibet is considered by many to be one of the grossest examples of human rights violations in the last fifty years. We know that China has imprisoned, beaten, raped, tortured, and killed men and women, monks and nuns, who refuse to renounce their Buddhist beliefs or their allegiance to the Dalai Lama. We know that China has “disappeared” the entire family of the Panchen Lama – at least, the one recognized by the Dalai Lama and other ranking Buddhist monks. China has made it clear that when the current Dalai Lama dies, they will try to instill a puppetmaster in his place – and that they intend to destroy the religion. They have already destroyed countless monasteries, artifacts, and aspects of culture and way of life.

So naturally, Groupon thinks this is a great thing to use to sell it’s services. Because making fun of Darfur would have been dated, and Egypt happened too quickly for them to jump on that train, I suppose. And Groupon did think it was a great thing; from their Twitter feed:

Like standing too close to a rainbow, viewers’ hearts are warmed by #Groupon’s Super Bowl ad. #brandbowl

It was only well after the Tibet advertisement aired that Groupon realized it badly miscalculated; almost an hour after airing, the topic was still trending on Twitter, and the feedback was not positive. Then Groupon posted an additional tweet, which has not yet been supplanted by anything else:

Support Tibet’s largest charity here:

Now, in it’s supposed-defense, prior to airing of any of the advertisements yesterday, Groupon’s Andrew Mason (founder) posted this at it’s site:

The gist of the concept is this: When groups of people act together to do something, it’s usually to help a cause. With Groupon, people act together to help themselves by getting great deals. So what if we did a parody of a celebrity-narrated, PSA-style commercial that you think is about some noble cause (such as ‘Save the Whales’), but then it’s revealed to actually be a passionate call to action to help yourself (as in ‘Save the Money’)?

The actual “Save the Money” link says:

Money is one of our most important natural resources. Sadly, thousands of dollars are wasted every year. Until now.

Finally, celebrities are lining up to spread the word about this important fight. Watch the informative videos below to find out how you can help save the money.

If you save so much money that you feel like saving something else, donate to the four mission-driven organizations below. Groupon is matching donations to make sure they can save the money too.

There are two issues here. The first is practical: the only people who know about “Save the Money” are the people who are already reading Groupon’s blogs and participating in it’s forum(s). The advertisements themselves don’t include any information. And in fact, had Groupon even decided to air a black title card with information on “Save the Money” with a link to the Tibet Fund, then we might not be having any of this conversation. But instead, the company courted disaster by creating a small group of “in-the-know” people who the advertisement wasn’t created for. The people with no, or only passing, familiarity, with Groupon had no context for the charity aspect of these commercials.

The second is a bit more academic. Andrew Mason has said that this was supposed to be a poke at Groupon’s origins, a fun parody and a satiric take on the celebrity PSA. The issue is in how satire – and even parody – work. Both work when a situation is turned on it’s head, allowing the viewer to see the foolish nature of the person, or position, being targeted (whether it is their own views or, say, Glenn Beck’s). This is why The Daily Show excels at just what they do – they’ve mastered the art of changing perception, and highlighting just how foolish their target (often Fox and personalities) are being.

The problem with Groupon’s target here is that few people think that outrage over the situation in Tibet is wrong or foolish. The concept is a bit more viable in the other two Groupon advertisements aired last night (save the whales by whale-watching and save the rainforest by getting a Brazilian wax) only because those two situations don’t involve the actual torture, imprisonment, and death of a cultural group. So instead, the focus of “who is foolish” flips back on Groupon – people don’t feel that opposing the Chinese occupation of Tibet is foolish, or that their support (financial or otherwise) is foolish. Therefore, Groupon becomes foolish (and tone-deaf, insensitive, and more) for their advertisement. (Note: it taints Timothy Hutton pretty badly, too.)

The takeaway here is pretty simple. It’s really hard to make genocide funny. It’s pretty much going to be impossible to use genocide – be it Nazis, Tibet, or Darfur – to positively reflect your brand or to sell anything. The exception here is if you manage to come up with the musical heir to The Producers. But unless you have the modern equivalent of Springtime for Hitler under your belt, you’d best leave genocide to the documentaries and dramas, and consider something else for your first national advertising campaign.

The Chicago Tribune has a continuous Twitter-feed of responses (still continuing) to the Tibet advertisement. Some people might argue that any publicity is good publicity, but I’m not sure I agree in this case – associating your product with an apparent callous regard for human life really doesn’t seem like a winning strategy to attract new users, or maintain the old.

Forbes gets the best headline out of the event, noting that Goupon’s 2-for-1 Super Bowl Special Offends Both China and Tibet Activists. Groupon had been trying to make inroads into China. Chinese reaction this morning suggests Groupon just did a worse-than-Google, as far as they’re concerned. So, shooting oneself in both feet? Check!

a sponge must have substance to absorb

I’m reading Barrington Moore’s Moral Purity and Persecution in History, having started it as a bit of “light” nighttime reading a few evening’s back. (Yes, I know, I need to work on my ideas of what constitutes good before bed reading, especially since I find myself getting up to grab copies of various Bibles to check references far too often for this to succeed in being relaxing reading.) It’s been an interesting read, in part because Moore appears to rely relatively heavily on Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger. My exposure to Douglas’s work is second-hand, through Elizabeth Grosz, but even then, I feel like I understand enough of Douglas’s theory to be able to answer a question posed by Moore early on in his work. In Chapter One (page eight, so yes, very early), he discusses rules about nakedness in Leviticus. He says

Mixed in with the rules about nakedness are two prohibitions on perversions. One prohibits homosexuality in the strict sense of the word: sexual relations between males. This is an abomination (Lev. 18:22). There is no mention of lesbianism. Two possible explanations for this odd omission come to mind. Conceivably the male religious authorities who created this legislation didn’t even know about its existence. OR else they were so terrified at the prospects of female joys without the male contribution that they did not even call attention to lesbianism by passing ordinance against it. Some variant of the first explanation seems more likely.

Does it really seem likely to anyone that men in the Biblical era had no notion of lesbianism? That while male homosexuality was known of enough to call an abomination, absolutely no male religious authority ever saw or heard of lesbians? Perhaps there was a rampant lack of mental creativity?

I propose a third option: that it wasn’t mentioned because the pollutions of a woman’s body are dealt with in other Jewish rituals, and because a woman cannot be further polluted by a woman; that is, the “dirt” that she absorbs is from a male (semen) rather than any contagion from another woman. As Grosz notes in Volatile Bodies, the female body is coded as “a body which leaks, which bleeds” (203); these environment-polluting contagions that are expressed from the woman’s body are already controlled by Jewish rituals and laws – specifically the mikveh. There are a whole host of regulations surrounding the mikveh, and not being a religious scholar to any degree, I won’t go into them. Suffice that they exist as a way to ritually purify after contagion, and that most feminine fluids, such as menstruation, are covered under this. But, as Grosz goes on to explain, “Women are the guardians of the sexual fluids of both men and women; …she is in fact regarded as a kind of sponge or conduit of other men’s ‘dirt’” (197). (This is where the notion of a woman being impure or defiled for sex outside of marriage comes from; as a sponge or conduit of other men’s impurities, she can collect and cross-transmit the contagions.)

But if a woman is not absorbing the “dirt” of men, but instead merely contaminated by that which she already has and is, which is already addressed by the mikveh, then why set up additional legislation? Women and their purity and how to maintain it has already been covered by existing purity laws, therefore there was no need to specifically address lesbianism. This was no oversight on the scholars and writers of Leviticus; it is, instead, an oversight on our part. We modern folks see the rules in Leviticus as being about controlling behaviour or social mores; we’re not looking at them in the “right” light, where that light is about symbolic boundary maintenance and maintaining Jewish cultural identity in hostile lands. That laws governing sex and clothing and food are all discussed together is not some weird coincidence, if you look at them as being laws governing purity and boundaries.