Westinghouse > Tesla > Edison

Hired female engineers, paid living wages, and he has that super fine mustache? Come on!

Why, in all this Tesla > Edison stuff, does no one ever mention the late great Westinghouse?!??!?  Don’t get me wrong, Tesla was a super cool dude and being played by David Bowie automatically gives you serious awesome points, but for all of his awesomeness, it wasn’t Tesla that got shit done.  And it definitely wasn’t Tesla who made sure people got treated right.  No, that distinction belongs to this BAMF who always gets left out of *his* story: George Westinghouse.

Westinghouse is why there even *is* a Tesla.  FFS people!!  Y’all should listen up because Westinghouse was a baller for reals.  And by that I mean he ensured that every one of his employees made a living wage and was well-treated, even when the rest of the industry refused to do so.

A brief intro to Westinghouse:

The son of a New York agricultural machinery maker, the 21-year-old inventor came to Pittsburgh in 1868 in search of steel for a new tool he designed to guide derailed train cars back onto the track. Before he died 46 years later, he gave the world safer rail transportation, steam turbines, gas lighting and heating, and, of course, electricity.

Westinghouse didn’t invent alternating current; he acquired the patent rights from two European scientists. He had a knack for spotting good ideas and people and bringing them into his fold. And he knew AC was a good idea.

In his lifetime, he received 361 patents for his inventions, and founded 60 companies.

To critics who questioned his management acumen, George Westinghouse would say: “Look at all these jobs I created. Does that mean I’m a bad manager?”

He paid Tesla an absurd amount of money for Tesla’s design for an A/C motor.  Westinghouse was already running A/C power long-distance and had A/C generators that worked.  In fact, it took them years to make Tesla’s motor work.  Tesla, genius that he was, was not great at practical application.  I’m not saying that to knock Tesla, but to point out that Westinghouse had to put in a lot of work to make that Tesla invention actually work, yet Tesla gets all the credit.

Westinghouse was also just a good guy, for real:

Westinghouse Air Brake, now called Wabtec (WAB), was among the first companies to offer pensions to employees. And when the worker died, the pension went to the employee’s spouse and orphans — an uncommon practice in the 1880s.

Westinghouse was one of the first to hire female engineers. And Saturdays were half-days at his firm when most workers toiled six days a week.

The War of the Currents

Empires of Light Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse, and the Race to Electrify the World by Jill Jones is both a history of the rise of electricity in the US and a character study of three of the men responsible for that rise.  The story is a fascinating one, not least of all because it examines the same forces that still dominate the market today.  Innovation and creating new markets for those innovations are the keys to technological advances in society, but innovations do not always come with the market.  A market without the innovation is not as successful as one with it.  Another key aspect of success seems to be marketing, but marketing cannot change the fundamentals of the economic landscape.  The better product may not win, but the most convenient product probably will.  The final lesson is that losing or winning a battle over one product, however important, does not dictate the future success or failure of the companies or inventors.

The three men who are profiled in the book demonstrate this perfectly and compellingly. Edison, Westinghouse, and Tesla were a trio of self-made, intelligent, inventive, entrepreneurial, and incredibly hard working men, but their personalities and approach to the market were completely different.  Tesla was a genius immigrant who was meticulous about his fashion and probably autistic; he was not a businessman and had no interest in being one, he simply wanted enough money to do his research.  Edison, like Tesla, had a gift for invention, but his gift came less from theoretical work than from simply trying everything he could think of until a best solution appeared and “borrowing” other people’s ideas and improving them.

Edison also felt that the market side of things was incredibly important and took an active role in creating and running his companies.  His lab was considered the invention of the modern research and development lab.  Westinghouse started as an inventor, but his real gift was in finding other people’s innovations and creating the market for them.  He would buy patents and then find ways to make them commercially viable.  Unlike Edison, he was not personally invested in the inventions, just in their implementation and profits.

It is incredible the role that personality plays in the success of an invention.  Though Tesla was undoubtedly the most visionary and honest of the three men, he was not commercially minded.  This allowed him to be taken advantage of and to fail to be recognized for his many contributions.  Innovation is not enough, someone has to create the market – this is an important lesson, regardless of the century.

Tesla was a bit of a mad genius with no real interest in commercial viability or practicality, he was only a player in the game thanks to Westinghouse buying his patent.  The real useful comparison in terms of market creation and implementation, and the rivalry that was the primary focus of the book, was Westinghouse and Edison.  They were two men with very different ethics and very different goals.

Westinghouse insisted on paying his men high wages and paying people for their inventions.  He was ridiculed for being too generous.  On the other hand, he was incredibly tenacious and litigious, fighting any perceived patent infringement with as much force as he could muster. Edison was much more pragmatic.  He did not pay his men well and refused to negotiate when they had a strike and would not allow a union.  He did not give recognition to those who invented for him and he was also very litigious, even in fights he could not win.  He could afford more lawsuits than any small competitor could.

Edison refused to use other people’s inventions but Westinghouse was very quick to buy patents and rights as soon as something was invented.  Although Edison had created the initial market, he ceased to introduce new, practical innovations.  This allowed Westinghouse to take over the market completely through Tesla’s new generator and the ability to send electricity over long distances.  Edison stubbornly held onto DC even when it was failing, and it would ultimately cost him his electric company.

This brings the second lesson, having a market is not enough, you have to continue to innovate in order to stay competitive.  Had Edison pursued AC power, he would have completely controlled the market.  Tesla came to him first but was mistreated and Edison refused to take any interest in AC power.  Edison was hugely popular and an excellent marketer, which allowed him to stay somewhat competitive for a few years, but his stubborn denial of forward progress lead inevitably to the failure of his company.

The primary difference between AC and DC power is that DC offers much less power and therefore is less dangerous but is also much more difficult to send long distance.  AC power is much more convenient because it can be generated miles from the user and, from one centralized location, it will distribute power to many people.  It was clear almost immediately that AC was the only practical solution, but Edison fought desperately against this.  Edison held demonstrations where animals were electrocuted to death and his company invented the electric chair to execute prisoners in order to make AC power look dangerous.  He lobbied to have the electric chair introduced as a method of state execution in New York.  He made AC power out to be horrific and, because of his fame and fortune and favorable media coverage, it slowed progress of AC, but not for very long.

Westinghouse was just as proactive on the marketing front and took the lead on powering Chicago’s World Fair and the first hydroelectric power plant at Niagara Falls by bidding lower than Edison for the contracts, knowing that the publicity would be better than any advertising he could buy.  Edison’s company should have easily won those contests, being the only established electrical company at the time, but they acted as though they had a monopoly on power and therefore bid far higher than they needed to.  In both cases, Edison’s was the company that was approached first and, because they gave such outrageous estimates, bidding from other contractors was sought.  Here again we see that having the market does not make you a success when others are able to be more competitive and innovative.

Westinghouse ultimately won the war of the currents and AC is now what powers America.  Edison, because of his obstinacy, lost not only that war but also control over his electric company to J.P. Morgan.  Tesla continued to run experiments, funded by J.P. Morgan.  These immediate fates, however, did not dictate their futures.  Tesla, in particular, soon found himself low on funding and interest from others because he was not pursuing commercial ideas.  He did not even have the money to file a patent lawsuit when Marconi stole his radio design.

As for Westinghouse and Edison’s companies, ultimately Edison ended up winning.  After he took control, J.P. Morgan merged Edison’s company with another electric company to form General Electric, which became the powerhouse in electricity.  Edison lost the war of currents, but the company he started ultimately had market dominance and the money he made from this company would fund his research for the rest of his life.  He left electricity behind and created the motion picture industry with great success.  Westinghouse, on the other hand, ultimately lost control of his business when it went bankrupt and new shareholders, who did not share his vision, ran it for the rest of his life.  The market is constantly moving; a successful innovation depends on companies that move with it, which means either new companies or flexibility from old ones.

PS Help build a goddamn Tesla museum.

Todd Akin and how the Christian Right’s delusion of an all-powerful God hurts people

I am about as far from the Christian Right as you can get, religiously and politically, and it’s not always apparent how closely that religious fervor is related to what I think of as the most cruel and stupid of the beliefs that the right-wing clings to.

Todd Akin, current representative and Senate nominee, said one of the most offensively stupid things I’ve ever heard.  Admittedly, I am as far from him on the abortion debate as one can get, but I do have some sympathy for people who think abortion is murder without exception.  I happen to think that it doesn’t matter whether it is murder or not — in all other circumstances, people have the right to use any means necessary to protect their own body from unwanted invaders and harm, I don’t see pregnancy as different.

Regardless, his scientifically illiterate justification for allowing no exceptions for rape is rather astonishing:

People always try to make that one of those things, ‘Oh, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question.’  It seems to me, first of all, what I understand from doctors is that’s really where—if it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.

Todd Akin’s absurd claim that people who are “legitimately” raped can’t get pregnant is symptomatic of the larger problem of the Christian Right. When you think that there is an all-powerful God overlooking everything, it’s difficult to cope with the cognitive dissonance that bad things happen to good people and that most solutions to problems are imperfect.

The problem of evil in the world is nothing new, but it is much easier to ignore if you blame all bad things on bad actions on the part of victims rather than societal problems or true injustice.  It would be too cruel for someone to get pregnant from a rape, so she must have not been raped, not really raped, only kind of raped.  They aren’t saying these things to justify their positions, they genuinely believe them because not to would be so difficult to all of their other beliefs.

There can’t be systematic injustice — God wouldn’t allow it, so women and black people and poor people are all simply reaping what they’ve sewn or playing their appropriate role, not being hurt by unnecessary prejudice and cruelty.  Women can’t be raped, they are always asking for it.  People on welfare must be bad people, that’s why they deserve to be poor.  They are different from us.  That’s why when Rush Limbaugh takes government handouts, it is OK, because he’s really a good person, but when some black welfare queen takes it, it is not OK, because she’s really a bad person.  Limbaugh doing drugs is someone who needs counseling, inner city kids doing drugs are criminals.  Why should there be social safety nets for bad people?  Because in the mind of a Christian, the world can be broken into the good people and the bad people.  Somehow they miss that almost everyone is just a people people, not particularly good or bad.

To be a Christian, you must believe that God is all-powerful and good, and so you’re forced to believe that people have asked for their bad fates and that solutions to problems are simple, otherwise you have to start questioning the God hypothesis and admitting that the responsibility for making to world a better place for your fellow man is yours.

Geek Evolution: Let go of your anger, be a Better Nerd

by Nicholas Thurkettle

I have known Ashley for a few years now, and I think she would agree geekdom has been a foundational pillar of our friendship from the very start. And so when she started on this topic I felt like this was a conversation in which I could participate, and she has been good enough to lend me some space on her rabble-rousing e-billboard here.

I have to confess I was, for a long time, on the wrong side of the argument she describes. I used to talk about latter-day self-labeling geeks as wearing the equivalent of fake prison ink. I am part of the last generation that experienced adolescence without the Internet being a significant presence in our lives – the year I graduated from high school, 1995, was the year in which commercialization of the Internet took off with the decommissioning of the National Science Foundation’s NSFNET. At the time, I was in an economics class that played the game of investing imaginary dollars in the stock market. One of my teammates kept suggesting we throw every piece of play money at this thing called America On-Line. We didn’t listen. He’s wealthier than I am now.

But the difference I will have to describe to the younger generation from now on was that, pre-Internet, it really was possible to feel utterly alone in your geekdom. But for the two or three friends who could be talked into staying up all night to watch The Trilogy (there was only one back then), it was difficult to conceive that there was a vast world of us out there. And, even if we could rationally-accept that there was, it didn’t do our daily sense of isolation much good.

Nowadays, of course, there is this astonishing and galvanizing sense of instant community that can be created around any obsession, and Geekdom has become a powerful nation influencing affairs all over the cultural planet. And as Ashley and many others have rightly pointed out, we ought to celebrate that, and be grateful the next spawning of lovely nerds won’t share our suffering.

But until recently, I clung to the tribulational aspect of my nerd youth. It’s easy to love Doctor Who now. Hop in the TARDIS and try loving Doctor Who in 1989. That’s not for sissies.

As I reflect honestly on it, though, I really wasn’t actively bullied much in the classic sense. It was more a sense of being frozen out, and not understood. There was this pretty, glittering party of a world that the popular people were running, and my kind just didn’t fit there, and I perceived that in a million baffled looks and dead-ended conversations. But part of my maturation has been to realize that basically everyone feels left out of something; and the most successful, popular person around is, inside, probably as messed-up and uncertain about life as I am. I now realize most of the crowd ever meant any harm. And I think time grew my grievances as it can so often do.

Wasn’t it our comfort in those times that the things we prioritized – imagination and the deep commitment and knowledge that comes from loving something to a truly-geeky extent – was worth more than the fleeting goose honks that passed for What Matters among the superficial crowd? I know I believed it. The key question here is – did you really believe that when you said it or not?

Because if you do, then suffering is not intrinsic to being a nerd. We don’t have to be scorned for the way we love in order for that love to be valid. To hold on to that anger is, to an extent, to grant the vaporous and unslayable Thems of our past the premise we always claimed to reject – that to be this way is weird, wrong, and so rare and useless as to be vestigial to right society.

So I am relieved to come clean and say I was wrong. A positive definition of nerddom can emancipate us from old anger.

I do believe, though, that is still possible, and even defensible, to watch that these labels of geek and nerd, which we have reclaimed from derision, not be embraced too cheaply by too wide a crowd. Because then we risk them not having a definition at all.

I’ll use an analogy so dated as to be almost useless, except that I know the nerdiest among you will go to Wikipedia to read about it and will probably think it’s cool that you learned something today: if a hardcore Bob Dylan fan told you that you can’t call yourself a REAL Bob Dylan fan unless you own the non-commercial release versions of the Newport Bootlegs, then you might well say that person was being clannish, superior, and intentionally-obscure. What I hope we are trying is to keep geekdom at large from that status.

But if you heard someone say that they were a HUGE Bob Dylan fan, and when you asked them what they loved about him, they replied that they had just heard that “let’s get stoned” song of his on the radio and thought it was cool, I am saying you would be damn right to be irritated. Because that is not even the song’s name, and a nerd wouldn’t get something like that wrong if the word “nerd” still means anything.

I am not saying there should be barriers to entry in our big nerdy tent – anyone could be a nerd about something. But it does take at least a little bit of work, some genuine and proactive embrace of thing beyond what can be passively-digested, to earn the label.

This is not nerding, this is being a couch potato.

We do agree that what makes a nerd a nerd is that he or she is not superficial about that over which they nerd. I don’t want us to shy from that. I want to retain and recognize the right – if someone wants to refer to themselves as a nerd or a geek about something – to see them demonstrate that they have bothered to delve into it; even to watch/read/listen to/play it more than once (can we get a ruling on that, at least?) Any rock band will tell you that just buying a T-shirt so people can see you wear it doesn’t make you a real fan, and we ought to listen to wisdom like that; because in the greatest days of rock, the best rockers were massive nerds.

If your friend bought a ticket to The Avengers, saw The Avengers, and liked The Avengers, that makes your friend a movie fan, not a nerd. And that’s okay. If they call themselves a nerd based just on that, I think we nerds have earned cuffing them (good-naturedly, I now stress) over it.

Now, maybe they saw it, and felt compelled to talk to you about how they think Nick Fury is a badass. And you enthusiastically agree, but lament that movie Nick Fury didn’t have the “Steranko Gun”. Your friend wonders what that means. They do a little reading (you lend them a book or two, don’t you?) And then they come with you to the comic store for hardback collections, because they have decided that They. Love. Nick. Fury. And they Must. Know. More. Now you are serving your friend well. Graciously welcome them to Geekdom. Find out what they nerd out about, because they probably have nerded out over something in their lives before and didn’t realize that’s what they were doing. Soap opera fans? Huge nerds. Also pro wrestling fans – but I repeat myself.

We have a responsibility, in being Better Nerds, not just to let go of grievances, but to articulate what makes us nerds to begin with, and what makes that a good thing to be in this blessed time for all things nerdy. If the isolation of the positive aspects of nerddom – that commitment and attention to detail and admiration for the artists who entertain us – is what will rescue it from past traumas, it can also be what protects the label from spreading out and being commoditized to meaninglessness. It is not earned by pain. But I say it is still earned.

We have an opportunity here, what with this staggering volume of delicious geek product being served to us, to show people not just how to love something cool, but how rewarding it is to love it in the way a nerd does. Just about every woman I have dated has been a nerd of some kind, and I feel lucky for it. Truly – once you go nerd, you don’t go back to the herd. That commitment and joy in discovery makes for a great partner.

If there is some lingering irritation at the latecomers to our party, let’s decide that it is only to protect what we think makes our ways valuable, and let it be welcomingly-simple to dispatch – you don’t owe us anything. You can be a nerd too; just do as nerds do.

Nicholas Thurkettle is a member of the Writers Guild of America, and in his life has authored screenplays, stage plays, prose fiction, newspaper and magazine features, film criticism, millions of words’ worth of blog posts, corporate training videos, ghost-written office dinner party jokes, and was once nearly hired to write an erotic virtual comic book, but was passed over despite that he had a fantastic story pitch for it.  His blog can be found at NicholasThurkettle.com

Guest Post Policy: Send me an e-mail, maybe you can post an entry here too.

Video Dragon*Con 2011: Do Be a Dick

This is the talk I gave at Dragon*Con last year, which was itself an expansion on the talk I gave at TAM9.  It’s about how to use emotions to your advantage when trying to promote a cause.  I talk about Prop 8, the importance of social justice in getting people to like atheists, and how to be a dick in an effective way.

The powerpoint and notes for the presentation are here: http://freethoughtblogs.com/ashleymiller/2011/09/06/do-be-a-dick-sometimes-emotions-and-skeptics/

Stop making geek culture be about how you were bullied

Update: More thoughts here.

To my mind, being a geek is a lot like being gay or being atheist.  These are things that can be completely invisible to an outsider.  No one in high school knew I went home and wrote Hercules fanfiction.  No one knew the fathomless depths of my geekery.

Greta Christina has a wonderful post about how, as being gay has become more normal, the people who are out are also becoming more normal.  Normal, to most outcast’s minds, is a bad thing.  If there’s one thing you can comfort yourself with when you’re an outsider, it’s the feeling that you’re better than the people who are, as you see it, “insiders”.  Greta says the same thing is going to happen with atheists — we’re going to stop being statistically smart and amazing on average, and start being just sort of average.  Because what we’re working towards is acceptance, and when coming out isn’t difficult, more people come out — no bravery required, no willful pride necessary, any and all may apply.

I think that this is the same as what has happened with geek culture, and it has pissed off a lot of old geeks.  They feel that new geeks have not paid their dues to be able to call themselves that.  You weren’t bullied?  Well, then you’re not a *real* geek.  I used the term “hipster geek” in my previous post, which I basically took from John Scalzi, and while that expresses the attitude accurately in some ways, it doesn’t explain the why.

Being a geek in high school for most people is hard.  It is as hard in some places as being out and gay.  And unlike being gay, there is no nerd-jock alliance in high school.  There’s no Geek Student Alliance.  When, to be who you are, you have had to go through hell, it can be very irritating that there are people who didn’t go through hell and claim to be the same as you.

“Oh, you grew up in San Francisco with hippie parents who drove you and your same-sex partner to the movies before you could drive, well I grew up in the Deep South where coming out meant I was beaten up every day, therefore you don’t really know what it’s like to be gay.”

We all want to be understood and when you’re tortured, you want to have gotten something from it.  If you’re tortured and it doesn’t mean anything, that’s so much worse than if your torture earns you something, some sort of credibility, some part of a special club of people who overcame.  But the reality is, being bullied doesn’t earn you anything.  It doesn’t make you a better person, it doesn’t make you higher ranked in the world of geekdom, gayness, or atheism, and it doesn’t even always give you insight into the world, though sometimes it can.  Being bullied is simply a horrible thing that happens to people.

Someone calling themselves “…” responded to my previous post about who gets to be a geek and said the following things:

Some of us paid our dues is what I’m saying. “sexism in geekdom”? When I was growing up, all – and I mean all – girls at my school would have rather been sent to Saudi Arabia than be called geeks.

And that, in a nutshell, is why geek culture is male dominated.

Anyway, my point was that there are some of us who paid our dues in that area. It’s not about being “hipster”, it’s about a certain annoyance that comes from people who would have treated you like you were carrying a radioactive strain of leprosy back in the day now finding it’s cool to like LotR. It’s irritating to say the least.

I’m fully aware that that tiny handful of geek girls who existed – and they were a tiny handful, don’t even pretend otherwise – had as rough a time as the rest of us. But I find this rapid retroactive identification with geekdom… suspicious. Yes, it’s quite astonishing how many people were geeks back then nowadays. It’s a wonder that there was any other kind of person around in the schools at all… It’s a bit like the Jewish population explosion in vichy France, isn’t it?

That’s true, but it is also true that girls were some of the most viciously anti-geek ones, and it is true that many of the blows we soaked up was because the guys in question wanted to impress the pretty girls, who were not above egging that sort of thing on.

There’s another point; yes, it sucks that girls got ostracised at times by other geeks, but being a geek meant you got ostracised by definition. And geek fratricide is hardly uknown. If you objected to one group, why didn’t you form your own? That’s what I did, and let me tell you, I didn’t get any approval or help. You talk about the community… back then there wasn’t a community. There was just what you and the tiny handful like you could put together. You scraped it together as best you could, and only for one reason, because you loved it, and if you couldn’t – tough. People would be disgusted that you even tried, let alone that you were upset when it didn’t work.

I am simply repeating, for the last time now, that there are very good reasons why geekdom is traditionally clannish and insular, and it might be nice to see that reflected. You know, just for accuracy and politeness sakes.

You read this and you can see, he is pissed off. Leaving aside his troubling loathing of women because of how he perceived the “pretty girls” in high school, he is pissed off that he had to work so damn hard at something that other people aren’t having to work hard at.  He is pissed off that some girls made fun of him in high school and made him feel bad about himself and that some girls now claim that they are geeks too.  Maybe even some of those same girls!

I think this attitude is incredibly fucked up.  I think it’s time to let go of the anger.

Most people feel like outcasts in high school, even those people the rest of us thought were cool. What the commenter is doing, and what a lot of geek guys are doing, is creating definitions of what is cool enough for them to accept you.  You have to pass their “geek” test.  As a geek, I find this border patrolling deeply embarrassing.

As it happens, when I was in high school, most of the self-described geeks I knew were girls. Monty Python club? Mostly girls. Yearbook, newspaper, lit mag, math team, academic decathlon, religion club… all of these were dominated by girls. I don’t interpret that to mean that boys are less legitimately geeky.

Was I bullied?  Sure.  At home moreso than by my peers, but both.  I was told I would always be unhappy, that I would never find a boy who would date me, that “guys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses”, that I was too fat even for nerds to want to date, that if I didn’t drink I wasn’t a real teenager, that playing games with my friends was going to make me die a virgin, that I would marry the first boy that would have me out of desperation, that not going to the football games or pep rallies signified a deeply troubled mind, that hanging out with my teachers instead of my fellow students was bad.

And by boys who were geeks I was told that I was too intimidating, that a girl who was better at them than a game was a problem, that a girl who knew more about movies than them was cool but not really, that I could kick their ass on Star Wars trivia was threatening.

And if a kid today can go through high school watching movies and writing fanfiction and having monty python club and participating in acadec and reading comics and no one thinks less of them for it: AWESOME. If everyone, including Joe Peacock’s “6 of 9s”, wants to embrace their inner weirdness and smartness and they can do that without it being embarrassing, fuck yeah! That’s amazing! I wish I had been so lucky, and maybe me pushing the boundaries a little helped them. Maybe I made the world a little bit better for people who like the same things I like!  Maybe the world sucks a little less now than it did then.  Or maybe now I am trying to make the bullying meaningful.

Being a geek shouldn’t be about a persecution complex.  It shouldn’t be about being better than other people.  It shouldn’t be about bullying people who want to be your friend now because of what you think they may have been like in high school.  It should be about embracing people for being themselves and being grateful that they can be themselves when they are with you.

The importance of sexual identification in AIDS rates

Gregory in Seattle left the following comment on my AIDS post yesterday and I thought it was worth reposting in its own right.

You might find this of interest: an interactive map giving the HIV infection rates in the US by county, per 100,000 population. According to the CDC, about 25% of Americans, aged 13 or older, with HIV are women. Of them, 64% are African American. Of all the people with HIV in the US, an estimated 20% do not know they have the virus.

I’m a member of the Community Advisory Board for the Seattle HIV Vaccine Trials Unit. We’ve discussed the racial and regional disparity of the pandemic in the US. Education and religion are parts, but there is also a strong element of identification. Many African American men who have sex with men do not self-identify as gay: they do not march in parades, they do not go to bath houses, they do not fall in love and build a common life with other men. Being gay is a white thing, and the popular sentiment is that only gay people get HIV.* This identification divide exists even in major cities on the coasts. Because much of the outreach over the last 20 years has focused almost exclusively on gay men and has been done through gay newspapers and through outreaches to bars and pride events, nearly all of the “Be Safe” message never reaches them.

Another huge issue is the availability of low-cost, anonymous testing resources. It is established that people who can get tested are much more likely to get tested, and that provides an opportunity for education. Tests can cost around $50 if paid for retail, and few insurance companies will cover them. Even if you have that kind of money, in much of the south getting a test means either driving a hundred miles or more to a city where you can be tested anonymously or explain to your personal physician why you think you need such a test. The result is that people just don’t get one.

So yeah, a lot needs to change before HIV rates in the black south will change.

(*) It is conveniently ignored by the people pushing the “gay = HIV” lie is that, as of the end of 2010, about 2/3rds of the people on the planet with HIV lived in sub-Saharan Africa. That in several countries in southern Africa — South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho — 15% to 28% of the adult population is HIV+. That about 10% of all people with HIV are children aged 14 or younger, and that most of those got it from infected mothers either transvaginally during birth or from the virus expressing itself in breast milk. That of all adults on the planet with HIV, 56% are women. And that since 2006, HIV/AIDS is the leading cause of death among women in their reproductive years.

It is pretty damn grim.

He also pointed me to the following collection of links from a presentation he gave for MENSA recently.

AIDS in the South: Religion is the enemy of social justice

The South is the new epicenter of HIV transmission — half of all new infection happen here, though we have less than a third of the American population.  South Carolina is 8th in the nation for rates of HIV, but other southern states are doing poorly as well.  Louisiana, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas… HIV is not going away.  And there’s more bad news, if you get HIV in the south, you’re more likely to die from it.

So why is everybody getting AIDS?  Well, you could look at our education scores, our poverty levels, our resistance to decent health care coverage, the rural populations with little access to doctors, or the Bible thumping hatred of homos that makes people terrified to get tested or admit they’ve contracted the disease.

Those making under $10,000 are three times more likely to get HIV than those making $50,000+.  People making under $10,000 a year can’t afford medicine and doctor visits, they can’t afford to be driven to where they can get tested and get treatment.

And in the south, most poor people are black.  According to the Washington Post, one in five gay black men in the south has HIV.

Researchers say that African Americans in the South are especially likely to see homosexuality as immoral. In response, gay black men in the South often live on the “down low,” leading ostensibly straight lives with girlfriends and wives while having sex with men.

“In the African American community, men who are gay are more likely to hide their sexual activity,” said Saag, who also directs a HIV clinic in Birmingham. “So it’s more common for the virus to spread from gay men to heterosexual women.”

Good work, Good Book.  Religion is also to thank for the limited sex education provided in many of the southern states.  Abstinence only education?  Not great for telling people how to use condoms when they act on hormones or get married.  Combine that approach with the Nikki Haley-esque Christian Conservative approach to healthcare, and you find a lot of people who get missed by healthcare.  25% of people with HIV in SC live in rural areas, care for people far from urban centers is difficult, even more so when your state refuses to fund or accept funding to help them.

So what can be done?  The Washington Post again:

Many who work with HIV patients including Saag, the Birmingham HIV clinic director, are trying to win over churches. Many say that churches in the South often foster HIV stigma, presenting the disease as part of a sinful gay lifestyle. Saag and others are working to persuade pastors to see HIV as a health problem rather than a moral issue. Some observers are hoping that the new Affordable Care Act will improve HIV care in the South, and elsewhere, by increasing funds for Medicare and Medicaid recipients.

You know what else can be done?  Increase the stigma of being a Christian who thinks that helping the poor is bad and being gay is a sin.  Accept that if you’re not black and not gay, you’ve got a lot of privilege and need to work really hard to understand that other people have it worse than you.  We are not all given equal circumstances.  As a white woman in this state, my chances of getting HIV are incredibly small and it’s got nothing to do with my choices and everything to do with how I was born.  If I’d been born a gay black man, I’d have a 20% chance of being HIV positive, which is five hundred times my risk as a white woman.

Why am I telling you this?  Because you should care.  Because social justice issues should be important to atheists. Because religion hurts people. And we can do something about it.

—————————-

Have some stats from the glorious state of South Carolina:

Who has HIV:
04.6% are white women (34.7% of population)
19.4% are white men (33.8% of population)
25.0% are black women (14.2% of population)
46.9% are black men (14.9% of population)

Demographics of the state:
34.7% are white women
33.8% are white men
14.2% are black women
14.9% are black men
(15% of the population makes up almost half the HIV cases)

Percentage of Population w/HIV:
0.04% of white women
0.19% of white men
1.07% of black men
0.51% of black women

Or look at it this way:
1 in 100 black men
1 in 200 black women
1 in 600 white men
1 in 2500 white women

Or look at it this way:
White men are 4.3 times as likely to get HIV than white women.
Black women are 12 times more likely to get HIV than white women, and 2.7 times more likely to get HIV than white men.
Black men are 25 times more likely to get HIV than white women, 5.7 times more likely to get HIV than white men, and over twice as likely to get HIV than black women.

http://www.census.gov/popest/data/state/asrh/2011/SC-EST2011-03.html
http://www.dhec.sc.gov/health/disease/sts/docs/cntyrate_2010.pdf

Help me save South Carolina, the arts, and my mom

Over the weekend, the governor, Nikki Haley, destroyed the South Carolina Commission for the Arts — the cut was such that the 20 people who work there cannot show up to work today, can’t even go into their building, because of liability issues.  The arts in South Carolina brings in $9.2 billion and creates 78,000 jobs at a cost of 1.9 million to the Arts Commission.  It’s a phenomenally stupid cut — our state has one of the two best arts in education programs in the country!  We don’t do a lot well in South Carolina, but this is one of the few we really do.  And now we’re about to be the only state in the country without a public arts agency.

This is political, but I have to let you know it’s deeply personal as well.  I have worked for the Commission, I know everyone who works there, the arts and arts education are extremely important to me, and my mother is the president of the foundation board.  My mother has worked with them for over half of my life — for 15 years she has been on their board and this is her third year as president. Nikki Haley is messing with my mother — that is NOT COOL.

There is good news!  The SC legislature is returning next week to vote on it — the problem is that it is summer vacation and they may not all show.  They also may not get the 2/3rds majority needed to overturn the vetoes.  I need your help.  My mom needs your help.  My state, which is run by idiots but full of wonderful people, needs your help.

Please contact the SC Representatives and Senators and urge them to vote to override Vetoes #1 and #21 – to keep the doors open at the Arts Commission!  Also, let them know that the rest of the vetoes are pretty crappy too — taking money from teachers, schools, important scientific research, and programs to help victims of sexual violence.

Here’s a single contact form to get in touch with:

All the Senators: http://www.scstatehouse.gov/email.php?T=M&C=SMEMBERS

All the House Members: http://www.scstatehouse.gov/email.php?T=M&C=HMEMBERS

I know many of you aren’t from my state, but I think FtB has the power and this movement has the power to put some pressure on these people, and if you’re from South Carolina, you must do this!  Tell them to show up!  Tell them to override the vetoes!  Help my mom!

Ken May, Executive Director, “The state can’t wrest my cellphone from my grip”

EDIT: Passing the need on and sharing is something that you can do to help even if you don’t contact the politicians, please share. And it is on reddit.http://www.reddit.com/r/atheism/comments/w9og0/help_me_save_south_carolina_the_arts_and_my_mom/

Gay Marriage: Blankenhorn’s Conversion

It is human nature to love the story of a convert, but it is even better when the convert is someone who has been fighting against your cause for a long time.  David Blankenhorn was the key witness for the Prop 8 proponents (anti-marriage) and is generally thought to have made a bit of a shambles with the argument — mostly because there was no legitimate argument to be made.  He is now supporting gay marriage.

Blankenhorn’s primary argument up to the conversion had been that marriage is about having children and that same-sex marriage would undermine that purpose.  Despite his longtime support for so-called traditional marriage, he said the following in his testimony, in response to aggressive questioning:

I believe that adoption of same-sex marriage would be likely to improve the well-being of gay and lesbian households and their children.

We would be more American on the day we legalized gay marriage than the day before.

With quotes like these in his testimony it is perhaps unsurprising that the lead witness against Californian’s right to gay marriage is now identifying as a gay marriage supporter.  Blankenhorn’s position has always been more nuanced and humanist than the anti-gay arguments generally given against same-sex marriage and it is refreshing to see him turn that nuanced acumen to a different conclusion.  I happen to massively disagree with his conclusions as to the worth, goals, and historical understanding of marriage, but it is clear he thinks that human dignity and rights are an important part of saving the institution he cares about and the only way to do that is to stop making the defining feature of marriage the fact that it’s for straights only.

His essay in the New York Times is heartening and a reminder that being out and being vocal about your rights does matter and changes the world, even if it is just one person at a time.

I do believe, with growing numbers of Americans, that the time for denigrating or stigmatizing same-sex relationships is over. Whatever one’s definition of marriage, legally recognizing gay and lesbian couples and their children is a victory for basic fairness.

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