Quantcast

Jul 27 2013

No atheists in Intensive Care Units

One week had passed since I flew out to be with my mom. Our spirits were high thanks to recent progress – my mom had woken up, seemed to have all of her mental faculties and remember who we were, and was just getting enough strength to communicate by pointing at letters on a board. The fact that those things sounds so insignificant should tell you just how bad things had been.

My dad and I were going through our new routine – sitting next to my mom in the ICU while she slept. We kept pretty quiet to try to not to disturb her, since good sleep in the ICU was rare. This unit was grandfathered in, which meant there were no walls between patients despite that being the new regulation. And I can see why that regulation passed. Machines beeped and droned constantly. Visitors yacked loudly on cellphones making personal calls (against a rule that apparently no one would enforce). But the worst was when something was going wrong. One patient tried to tear out all of his tubes while swearing up a storm and thrashing around the unit. Even more disturbing was when nurses would swarm a patient when something was going terribly wrong.

It wasn’t a good place for the kind of peaceful rest you need after you almost died.

But since my dad and I were trying not to make my mom’s space any noisier than it already was, we mostly sat and listened. And I’ll always remember one of the conversations we silently listened to, only communicating with each other through mutual eye rolls.

A man had been admitted in the bed next to my mom for triple bypass surgery (yes, you hear that much detail and more – if I had been taking notes I could have told you his whole medical history and current medications…so much for medical privacy). It seemed to have been pretty routine and uncomplicated – he had been wheeled out and back and was pretty much instantly looking back to normal. He was immediately eating solid food while resting in his lazy boy. To put things into perspective, my mom had just been given her first nutrient IV bag after almost a week of no food at all, and still couldn’t stand.

The man called a nurse and she promptly came to help him with what he needed. He said to her, “My brother says if you thank nurses, you get better service. So I guess I should say thank you.”

The nurse looked at him incredulously for one moment before squeezing a “you’re welcome” through gritted teeth.

I was kind of stunned. Who thinks that way? You think the only reason you should be polite and thank someone is because you selfishly want better service? You know, not because that nurse was part of a team that saved your life? More so, who says that out loud without realizing how incredibly rude it is?

It irritated me, but I tried to ignore it. Maybe he was hopped up on drugs or something. Maybe he was just a jerk. Whatever. I didn’t need to worry about him because I was just happy my mom was alive. (And to illustrate one of the reasons I love my mom: After she was able to communicate clearly through writing, she overheard the nurses placing an order for their dinners over the phone, and she tried to insist that we pay for her nurse’s meal since she had been taking such good care of her all week. The nurse politely declined, but that’s the kind of lady my mom is – even in sickness she’s thinking about others.)

Pretty soon his family filed in to visit. My irritation returned because the conversation for the next couple hours can be summarized as “Praise Jesus and the power of prayer for this successful surgery.”

Excuse me? Praise Jesus? Praise prayer? This coming from the same guy who only thanked his nurse because he wanted better service? Yes, let’s snub the human being who was instrumental in your medical care and instead pat ourselves on the back for clasping our hands together and wishing things go well. Let’s thank Jesus but not the doctors and nurses who have devoted their lives toward training to do this. And definitely not the scientists and engineers who developed the methods for your survival. Thank Jesus.

The arrogance of it drove me mad. They probably found their religious beliefs comforting, and never considered what this may sound like to people around them, since in Indiana it’s pretty much assumed you’re a Christian. It’s not just the snubbing of science that irritated me. It made me think, “Why do you think your God saved your husband, but put my mom through so much pain? Why is he worth saving but she’s made to suffer through all of this? What kind, just God would do that?”

That’s when I was glad I was an atheist in that ICU. While my Greek Orthodox grandparents were weeping and distraught, asking me desperately why God would punish my mother like this, I understood that nothing divine decided this.  It did not reflect a flaw in my mother’s character or some sin that god was punishing. It did not reflect the frequency of prayers from all the church lists she had been added to, nor was it punishment for having rabid atheists for a husband and daughter. It was bad luck, a random mutation in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

I was distraught enough over my mother’s well-being – I’m glad I didn’t have to be distraught over god’s will as well.

Jul 26 2013

Sometimes, life gets hard

First off – yes, I’m alive.

Even though my blogging frequency has been pretty pathetic recently, I still get a steady trickle of emails from concerned readers who miss me. It’s an odd feeling knowing total strangers want to make sure I’m okay and miss my writing, but I do sincerely appreciate it (even if I don’t reply, sorry). It also makes me realize that not everyone follows my twitter feed, so many of you have no idea what has been going on in my life.

No, it’s not just grad school that’s been keeping me busy. These have been the hardest months of my life.

On March 15th, my mom called me. My family knows I hate talking on the phone, so when my phone is ringing and it’s not a holiday, I assume something is wrong. Usually that’s just my irrational anxiety talking, but unfortunately this time it was right. It was news I never wanted to hear – my mom had cancer again.

She had been cancer free for 8 years, after winning her battle against breast cancer during my senior year of high school. I hate to say this, but I had never been truly worried during that time. Part of it was knowing they caught it soon and that she had wonderful doctors, but part of it was definitely being a naive 17 year old. At the time I didn’t realize it, but my parents had painted a rosy picture of the situation to keep me from worrying. What I remember is my mom scheduling her chemo appointments around my high school golf matches, because she didn’t want to miss them for the world. The worst of it was kept behind the scenes.

But now I was a little bit older and wiser. In this case, being a geneticist was not very comforting. I was more aware of the realities of a cancer diagnosis, especially when cancer had come back. But I tried to stay cautiously optimistic, since there was still no official diagnosis.

A week later one morning, I was laying awake in bed worrying about my mom. My phone rang, and this time it was my dad. Getting a phone call in the morning is even more terrifying, and I knew instantly from his voice that something was horribly wrong.

He told me my mom was going to die within hours.

Hearing that out of nowhere, while stuck thousands of miles away across the country, was… I don’t even have an adjective that can describe that. Horrifying? Devastating? I was literally in hysterics, sobbing and shaking for hours. It felt like a nightmare come true. I’m so glad my boyfriend had been there, because I don’t know what I would have done without his immediate support. In the span of a week my mom had gone from perfectly healthy, living the stereotypical retired life golfing in Florida, to “going to die.”

A couple of days earlier, my mom had fluid (caused by the cancer) removed from her abdomen, and that change in pressure had caused massive blood clots to move from her legs to her lungs. “Why didn’t the doctors check for that ahead of time?” I asked myself. She couldn’t breathe. She had a 10% chance of making it, but thankfully our hometown hospital is one of the top 50 in the nation and had a cardiologist present that specialized in dealing with this problem. Also thankfully this happened at 7am on a Sunday morning, so the emergency room was empty. Who knows what would have happened to her if she hadn’t been the only patient there.

She survived. I flew out the next day to be with her.

Even though the clots had been removed, there was little emotional relief. When I got there, we were bluntly told that she may never wake up from sedation at all, or if she did she could be a vegetable. The first thing I saw when I arrived was that her tongue had swollen to grotesque proportions, filling her whole mouth and spilling out. The doctors still have no idea what was going on there and originally blamed the tape holding her breathing tube in, though my dad and I suspect they accidentally gave her antibiotics that she’s allergic to and wouldn’t admit it. When I noticed her face was starting to swell as well, they ignored me…until we had come back from lunch and her whole head had swollen up. It was devastating seeing her like that – seeing someone you love and thinking “that can’t be my mother.” Once her whole head was ballooning up, they finally admitted I had been right, and maybe they should start trying to reduce the swelling. Yeah, you’d think.

(I wish the tongue thing was the only time we dealt with incompetence from doctors and nurses… They constantly ignored call buttons for 30 minutes to an hour and I had to go run and find nurses in emergencies, they tried to give her medicine for other patients which thankfully my dad caught, they tried to give medicine in her left arm despite signs everywhere saying not to do so, some wouldn’t use gloves and were obviously not using sterile technique, doctors fought in front of her which destroyed her confidence in them… Yes, they saved her life, but at the same time my faith in doctors has definitely been shaken.)

Thankfully again, my mom beat the odds. After a couple of days she woke up. We talked by her first pointing to letters on a sheet, then by her writing, and after weeks she was able to barely speak. I can now say that months later, she can talk fairly normally and has all of her mental faculties. I feel like I can’t even thank science or medicine here – she got lucky.

The problem was, you know, my mom still had cancer. And the equivalent of a massive heart attack followed by aggressive weekly chemotherapy is not exactly a good situation. She was getting chemo even when she was still bedridden and unable to walk. She was in the hospital for 90 days, but thankfully has been home for about a month now (and is still getting chemo). Just imagine not being able to leave a hospital room for three months – no sunshine, no idea if it’s day or night, no food (thanks to the swollen tongue)… You don’t even realize the little things you take for granted, like being able to cuddle with your pet or wear your own pajamas.

As for the cancer, the chemo does seem to be working very well, which makes me rejoice. We were glad to find out it wasn’t breast cancer again, because that would have been the worst prognosis. Unfortunately, it was ovarian cancer, which is scary in its own right. We have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but having both occur independently in the same individual is a huge red flag that the cancer may be heritable – that is, that her genome has some mutation that predisposes her to that type of cancer. If correct, that means I would have a 50% chance of having that same mutation.

My mom could honestly care less what her genome is, since it wouldn’t really change her treatment (“Yep, you still need chemo”). But she wanted to get genetic testing for my sake. Thankfully her results said she has normal copies of BRCA1 and BRCA2, the two main breast cancer genes. Having a mutant copy of one of those greatly increases your odds of getting cancer, so hearing that news was a relief. But to a geneticist, it was a minor relief. I knew there were dozens of genes that could contribute to cancer, and dozens more that we probably haven’t even figured out yet. This just ruled out the common problems.

After my parents told her genetic counselor that I was getting my PhD in genomics, the counselor decided she would just rather talk to me directly. We chatted on the phone and she discussed how she wanted to test a larger number of genes, especially since gastrointestinal cancer runs in my mom’s family and may be related to her case. She told me her current problem – getting my mom’s insurance company to okay the test. She explained how insurance companies don’t like tests that utilize modern technology like next generation sequencing, because they rather have you pay a deductible on each individual gene than have one test that covers the whole genome.

(Yeah, they rather squeeze more money out of their dying cancer patients than do an efficient test. I never had any faith in the insurance industry to be able to say I lost it, but let’s just say my rage against them has grown. At least my parents have insurance, because after a month of treatment alone the bill was at one MILLION dollars. It’s horrible enough worrying about my mom’s health; I’m glad I don’t have to worry about their sudden bankruptcy as well.)

But I knew something this genetic counselor did not. I told her that Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 & BRCA2, worked in my department and did a cancer gene panel that was twice as large as the one the counselor was considering. After the counselor got done fangirling and squeeing over Mary-Claire (no, really, nerd glee), she asked if I could try to get my mom enrolled in MCK’s study. All it took was one email, and minutes later MCK had said yes. My mom no longer had to worry about insurance, she would learn more about her genome than from some company’s test, and she’d contribute to a growing body of knowledge about cancer genetics.

While I’m relieved to know I’ll have this information, it has been an emotional process. Part of me is terrified for myself. I’ve seen how cancer has affected my mom. The physical weakness, the loss of hair (which can really hurt a woman’s self-esteem), the inability to eat (how I wish Indiana had medical marijuana, or that I could smuggle some from Seattle). Not to mention the giant cloud of doom reminding you that, yeah, you may die from this. It really scares me wondering if I’ll have to go through the same thing when I’m her age, or if I’ll get unlucky and it’ll strike me sooner.

And at the same time, I feel guilty for worrying about myself at all. I feel selfish worrying about what might happen to me in 30 years, compared to what’s happening to my mother right now. I feel guilty that I can only visit her a little bit before I have to come back to work, even though she’s told me that me finishing my PhD is the most important thing to her. I feel guilty that my dad has to be her full-time caretaker and home nurse now, while I get to go “back to normal.” I feel guilty every time I have a moment of happiness when I’m back in Seattle, because I feel like I should always be worrying about her.

I’ve never been good at prioritizing taking care of myself, but now it feels damn near impossible.

And that’s partly why I’ve been so depressed the last couple of months. Worrying about my mom, worrying about myself, feeling guilty about worrying about myself… I wish those were the only things stressing me out, because I could barely handle those. My boyfriend is graduating with his PhD this year (yay!) but that means we’re worried that he won’t be able to find a job in Seattle and will have to move far away (not yay). Grad school has been rough (which is a redundant statement, right?). I’ve been feeling very lost and without guidance for a while now, since my project is very unique and I’ve basically created it from the ground up (or as another grad student told me, I went straight from undergrad to a postdoc). My current experiments aren’t working, and even though troubleshooting lab work is totally normal, it can be crushing when you’re already down. It makes me feel like a failure and an imposter who shouldn’t even be in grad school. My lab is also having some funding woes, so I feel a lot of pressure not to screw anything up or waste supplies because we may not have the money for a round two. The cherry on top is that the two other grad students in my lab are graduating in the next month, so I will be the only graduate student left. I already felt lost and alone, but now it’s just going to be me, my adviser, and our research scientist.

The problem with depression is that even if you have understandable reasons to be depressed, it can make you unreasonable about everything else. I have particularly bad anhedonia – nothing really give me any pleasure. When asked to list my hobbies, I list things I used to enjoy. I have no motivation to do anything, even “fun” things.  Getting out of bed in the morning is a chore. I haven’t had an appetite in weeks, but I just keep feeding myself because I know I have to. I had convinced myself I had no friends who actually cared about me or wanted to hang out with me, which turned me into an even more lonely hermit. I’ve lost all of my goals and dreams, and when I think about the future I just despair. Every news article or opinion piece I read just makes me think how fucked and unfixable the world is, and I feel hopeless to do anything to make the world better.

And the fucked up thing about depression is that it convinces you that all of this is true, and you are the problem. Depression is like having sunglasses glued to your head and insisting the world is dark, even when you rationally know its bright. I was literally convinced for months that there was no hope in the future and that I would never feel happy again. Right now I can’t remember what it feels like to be happy. It wasn’t until yesterday that I had a small moment of clarity when I realized that my brain was lying to me. Not only that my brain was lying to me, but that I had gone through this exact thing before! There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt this way, but happiness and motivation and normalcy always came back eventually. I need to remind myself that this too shall pass.

I’m attempting therapy again (thank you, Secular Therapist Project). At least this time I’m pretty sure they won’t suggest Buddhism and spirituality as the solution (no thank you, University of Washington mental health services). Unfortunately the health insurance they give us grad students is kind of crap, so it looks like I’ll be paying mostly out of pocket for it. But thankfully I have a good amount of savings and just got a raise (thank you, National Science Foundation) so it won’t be a huge issue, and I’m trying to start viewing my mental health as something worth investing in. This isn’t a pity call for money – if you feel the urge to donate, pick your favorite cancer research charity and that will make me happy.

I don’t really have a take home message or wrap up for this post. I simply realized that writing has always been therapeutic for me, and when I quit blogging I threw away that therapy along with a social support network (you guys!). I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest, so here it is.

Dear life: Please stop sucking soon.

kthx,

Jen

Mar 11 2013

Paleofantasy: When people act like cavemen because they misunderstand evolution

I’ve been waiting so long for someone to write this book.

Salon has a great interview with Marlene Zuk, evolutionary biologist who just wrote “Paleofantasy: What evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live.” The Paleo diet? How evolution surprisingly supports 1950s gender roles? Yeah, those ideas aren’t actually supported by evolution after all – something that should come as no surprise to my readers.

It is striking how fixated on the alleged behavior of our hunting-and-foraging forbearers some educated inhabitants of the developed world have become. Among the most obsessed are those who insist, as Zuk summarizes, that “our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.” Not only would we be happier and healthier if we lived like “cavemen,” this philosophy dictates, but “we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene … and bad at things we didn’t.”

The most persuasive argument Zuk marshals against such views has to do with the potential for relatively rapid evolution, major changes that can appear over a time as short as, or even shorter than, the 10,000 years Cordain scoffed at. [...]

There are human examples, as well, such as “lactase persistence” (the ability in adults to digest the sugar in cow’s milk), a trait possessed by about 35 percent of the world’s population — and growing, since the gene determining it is dominant. Geneticists estimate that this ability emerged anywhere from 2200 to 20,000 years ago, but since the habit of drinking cow’s milk presumably arose after cattle were domesticated around 7000 years ago, the more recent dates are the most likely. In a similar, if nondietary, example, “Blue eyes were virtually unknown as little as 6000 to 10,000 years ago,” while now they are quite common. A lot can change in 10,000 years.

Read the whole piece, as it’s a great summary of why these sort of standard evolutionary psychology arguments are so flawed.

Now, I do think evolutionary psychology has a lot of potential. Obviously the brain evolves like any other organ, which has fascinating effects on behavior. But the field is in its infancy, and is currently propped up on arm chair speculation and frequently unfalsifiable claims (claims that are impossible to prove wrong).

My favorite example of this comes from the Evolutionary Psychology class I took in undergrad. Now, I was originally super excited about this class. As someone who was interested in human evolution, behavior, and sex, I thought that evolutionary psychology was my calling. That was until we got to a specific lecture on human sexuality. We were discussing a study that was investigating patterns of human promiscuity, and the professor asked us to come up evolutionary explanations to describe the data we could potentially see. Most people came up with something along the lines of “Female humans will not be promiscuous because pregnancy has more cost to them and they need a monogamous mate to help rear the child, where men will be very promiscuous  because they want to spread their seed as much as possible.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard that argument somewhere before. But I presented an alternative hypothesis: “Female humans have cryptic fertility – it’s hard to tell when they’re ovulating – so they will be equally promiscuous, because then no man will know if the child is theirs so they will all pitch in to help rear the child.” I presented this idea because evolutionary psychology often looks to primitive tribes for its hypotheses, and we see my scenario happening in many tribes of South America.

My professor nodded and said that was a good alternative explanation. I asked how we would be able to distinguish between the two hypotheses, but he didn’t seem to understand why that mattered. He saw evolutionary psychology as being able to explain either situation, so in his mind it only supported the field of evolutionary psychology because it was able to explain anything!

But the ability to come up with an explanation for anything is not what makes something scientific. Creationism can come up with an explanation for anything – “God did it” – and that is not scientific. To be scientific you need your predictions to be falsifiable, and unfortunately right now evolutionary psychology is closer to creationism than it is evolutionary biology.

Like I said, evolutionary psychology has a lot of potential because the brain evolves. But I think we need to establish a much larger base of information before we can even remotely accurately interpret data. We need to understand the staggering complexity of the brain and the genomic contribution to that complexity before we can really start investigating what’s going on, and even then it will not be as simple as thinking “What would cavemen do?”

Feb 19 2013

The Conundrum

The three topics I most want to talk about – my research, teaching, and grad school – are the three topics I can’t talk about.

I can’t talk about my research because part of my data comes from public databases, which means it would be easy for other scientists to scoop me if I even explain what general questions I’m investigating.

I can’t talk about teaching because of student confidentiality. I also don’t want my students to read me critiquing certain aspects of the class, which will cause a nightmare for the people running the class. And I don’t want my students to take it personally when I lament the holes in their education that should have been filled back in middle school if our education system wasn’t so terrible.

And I can’t discuss how I currently feel about grad school out of fear of the social repercussions. I don’t want my personal situation or feelings to be seen as airing dirty laundry or universal statements about my department or field. I don’t want to be labeled as a problem before graduation, let alone tenure.

Even writing this makes me feel uneasy, because I don’t want anyone to think people are purposefully silencing me or telling me what I can or can’t write. No one has confronted me. I’m just scared of the hidden social consequences within academia.

I can wait 8 years to get tenure, right? Well, I’d have to find those increasingly rare post docs and faculty positions first, so maybe I won’t have to wait so long since I’ll have been pushed out of academia by the horrible job market alone.

Sigh.

Feb 12 2013

Happy Darwin Day!

It’s my annual excuse to post my favorite Darwin related image:

Unfortunately I don’t have time to write up a substantial Darwin-themed post… ironically because I’ve been working on a group presentation for my Philosophy of the Genome class on the eclipse of Darwinism and the following modern evolutionary synthesis.

Are any of you taking part in Darwin Day celebrations?

Feb 11 2013

Indiana high schoolers want to ban gays from prom

It seems like not much has changed since I was an Indiana high school student:

A team of Valley high schoolers and parents rally for a separate prom that bans gays.

NBC 2′s Paige Preusse reports how Sullivan High School says there’s nothing legally they can do to allow it… several students and parents are taking matters into their own hands.

Several parents, students, and others who believe gays should be banned from the Sullivan High School prom met Sunday at the Sullivan First Christian Church.

“We don’t agree with it and it’s offensive to us,” said Diana Medley.

Their idea is to create their own separate…traditional prom. Students say there are several others from their high school who agree, but are afraid to take a stand.

“If we can get a good prom then we can convince more people to come and follow what they believe,” said student Kynon Johnson.

And now they want everyone to know where they stand.

“We want to make the public see that we love the homosexuals, but we don’t think it’s right nor should it be accepted,” said a local student.

We love you…but you’re offensive, wrong, and shouldn’t be accepted. Um, that’s kind of the antithesis of love, guys.

Diana Medley is a special education teacher in town. She doesn’t believe anyone is born gay.

“I believe that it was life circumstances and they chose to be that way; God created everyone equal,” said Medley.

“Homosexual students come to me with their problems, and I don’t agree with them, but I care about them. It’s the same thing with my special needs kids, I think God puts everyone in our lives for a reason,” said Madley.

“‘So the same goes for gays? Do you think they have a purpose in life?’ No I honestly don’t. Sorry, but I don’t. I don’t understand it. A gay person isn’t going to come up and make some change unless it’s to realize that it was a choice and they’re choosing God,” said Medley.

Your gay students have no purpose in life? That’s how you “care” about someone? This is how you talk about your students who are coming to you for fucking help? I can only hope that she’s not pushing her “you must choose God” bullshit on the special ed students trapped in her classroom.

Several local pastors support the separate prom movement.

“Christians have always been prepared for a fight. Jesus gave us armor for the front, not the back; we’re not running anymore,” said Bill Phegley with Carlisle Church.

Are you fucking kidding me? This is all about how the poor little Christians are being persecuted when you’re the ones banning LGBT students?!

If the thought of a girl dancing with a girl or a guy dancing with a guy unnerves you that much, that’s you’re fucking problem. Don’t go to prom. You don’t get to ban people because they give you the willies because we have separation of church and state in this country, which means you can keep your stupid fucking ass-backwards delusions to yourself and not force it on your fellow students.

Yeah, I’m mad. This pisses me off more than usual. You know why? Because I spent my high school years desperately defending my LGBT friends. When I overheard people saying “that’s gay” as an insult or calling someone a fag, I was the first to step in and tell them that it was offensive and unacceptable. When I was standing in lunch line and people would be talking about how disgusting my lesbian friends were, oblivious that I was friends with those ‘fucking dykes,” you know what I did? I spoke up. I told them they were fucking bigots and if they had a problem with my friends, they had a problem with me. And they shrunk into silenced fear in front of me, only to spread rumors that I was obviously a lesbian throughout the whole school. As if that would insult me.

When my lesbian friend wanted to start a Gay Straight Alliance to combat the constant bullying she faced from other students, I was the VP so I could do everything to help her organize. And she needed all the help she could get, since no one else wanted to help her. No teachers would be the adviser for the club because it was career suicide. The principal wouldn’t allow us to be an official group because we were “non-academic” and if he let us in, he’d have to let in other non-academic clubs like a “Nazi group” (his example). This was despite the fact that my high school already had plenty of non-academic clubs.

When my friend’s mom threatened to sue their asses off since what they were doing was blatantly illegal, the principal eased off…a little. He let us meet in a side room of the library, but wouldn’t let us be an official club. He let us put up flyers advertising our meetings, but the flyers couldn’t contain the words “gay,” “lesbian,” “bisexual,” “GLBT,” “sex,” or “sexual orientation” because they were “inappropriate for high school students.” When we came to our meetings, most of the time the librarians purposefully locked us out so we wouldn’t be able to meet. When we complained, nothing happened. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, on the other hand, got plenty of meeting space and was allowed to freely advertise throughout the school despite technically being “unofficial.”

And when prom rolled around, they wouldn’t sell my friend and her girlfriend a couple’s ticket because those were only for “real couples” – aka a boy and a girl – because they didn’t want two female friends buddying up to just get a discounted rate. Instead they would have to buy more expensive individual tickets if they wanted to go, and would not get any of the couple ticket benefits (a balloon with your names on it, a couple photo, and basic fucking dignity).

Instead they told the school to go fuck themselves and went to a Star Wars convention, where they were accepted and had a blast.

My lesbian friends were the lucky ones. They were able to be out because they had supportive parents, and also because lesbianism is often more accepted. Especially when you happen to be really attractive lesbians, so all the bigoted straight dudes in the school can sexually objectify you instead of only bullying you. But my gay male friends? They were all hidden in the closet, and terrified at being outed. They might have been out to a couple close friends, but I found so many of my classmates coming out once they had escaped to college. It made me sadder. If I had known what those people were feeling in high school, I would have been an ally to them too.

And you know why I’m still so angry? Because even though I graduated 7 years ago, and even though students have been desperately trying to form a GSA every one of those years, they are still being stonewalled by the school administration. There’s still no GSA and students are still constantly bullied because of their sexual orientation. And this is in a town that’s part of the “liberal” part of Indiana.

And the Christian students are the ones who are being persecuted?

Why did I do all of these things? Why did I care so passionately about gay rights even though it didn’t personally affect me? Not because my parents “brainwashed” me to support gay rights or subscribe to some liberal agenda. We never discussed the topic, honestly. My parents just taught me to be a person who is kind to others. That’s all.

It saddens me that these Christian students have been taught to hate instead.

Feb 07 2013

I’ve figured out why the Vatican hoards its wealth!

St. Peter’s Basilica is not actually named that because of its architecture, but for the Basilisk living beneath it! Lore tells of Basilisks converting various substances into gold, which explains the Vatican’s enormous wealth!! It also explains why they’re so reluctant to give the wealth away, because the evil Basilisk will turn the Pope into stone as revenge!!!! Quick, we need to find a wizard and a goblin forged blade!!!!!!!!!!!!

Wait. I think I’m crossing my mythologies. Catholics don’t believe in silly things like Basilisks or goblins. They believe in crackers that magically turn into flesh and people rising from the dead. My bad, it’s all so confusing. I blame the NyQuil.

Feb 07 2013

How about we sell the Vatican instead?

I have a feeling Catholics won’t like my solution to their monetary problems. But you see, times are tough. The LA Archdiocese alone has lost $660 million to those pesky victims of child rape. This is their solution:

The non-profit Guidance in Giving lists the Los Angeles-area Catholic Church among its “diocesan accounts” and says it is exploring a campaign to raise $200 million for the diocese to meet “a variety of needs,” including “priests’ retirement, seminarian education, Catholic schools, Catholic Charities and parish needs.”

The archdiocese did not respond to NBC queries in time for publication, but a church spokesman acknowledged the possible campaign to the Los Angeles Times, which first reported it.

In 2007, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $660 million settlement with 562 victims of abuse by priests and other church personnel. According to the Times, financial reports show that the church remains $80 million in debt.

Yes, a $200 million fundraiser. Presumably these funds would be donated from Catholic constituents, who obviously have no better way to spend their money than giving it to a church that’s been covering up hundreds of cases of child rape by priests. Food? Clothing? Housing? Education? Meh, what’s more important than avoiding the threat eternal damnation in a lake of fire?

Not coercive at all, nope.

But here’s an idea. Instead of relying on poor and middle class Catholics to save your child-molesting ass, why not get help from the head honcho? The Vatican’s worth is somewhere between 10 and 15 billion dollars. To save the Los Angeles diocese, the Vatican would have to sell a couple pieces from their mind bogglingly enormous art collection or maybe melt down a couple of the solid gold objects that are just lying around St. Peter’s Basilica.

Oddly enough, the Vatican seems more interested in hoarding its wealth than sharing it. They’ve previously been exempt from about a billion dollars of taxes annually, though that might soon change. And if you’ve ever been to the Vatican, seeing the wealth is amazing. I was lucky enough to visit Rome when I was 12, after visiting my aging Greek relatives in Athens for the first time. When I went to the Vatican with my parents, my main reactions were:

  1. Huh, the Sistine Chapel is smaller than I expected.
  2. Why do I have to wear a stupid dress when the guys get to wear pants?
  3. This is beautiful, but do they really need this much money when there are homeless people begging for food right outside the doors?

I must be missing something.

Feb 04 2013

Pokébiology 101: “Evolution” and the enigma of Eevee

PokebiologySmall

(Click here for the introductory post to Pokébiology 101)

You know I had to start my Pokébiology 101 series with the most famously scientifically inaccurate part of Pokémon: evolution.

In the Pokémon world, “evolution” means something different from what you might have learned in your biology classes. …Well, what you should have learned in your biology classes, assuming the religious right failed to push their agenda into your science classroom. Pokémon evolution is when a Pokémon transforms into a different looking creature once some criterion is met. Most often this means reaching a certain level (levels increase as you gain experience, experience comes from participating in battles). Some Pokémon evolve under weirder circumstances like being exposed to a particular item, being traded to another player, reaching a certain level of happiness, and so on.

For example, a Bulbasaur evolves into an Ivysaur at level 16, and an Ivysaur evolves into a Venusaur at level 32.

BulbasaurEvolution

This is not evolution. This is metamorphosis.

What’s the difference? Why are Pokémon actually metamorphosing, and not evolving? They both imply some sort of change is taking place, which is why the terms are so easily confused. But there’s a major difference in when and where that change happens:

  • Metamorphosis is the change in body structure of an individual that happens conspicuously and abruptly during their lifetime. The most common real world example is a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. This is exactly what happens in the Pokémon world. Well, instead of forming a cocoon, Pokémon flash a bright light and make cheery beeping noises…but I’m going to chalk that up to the games being from the point of view of a ten year old with an overactive imagination. Wee, shiny!
  • Evolution is the change in heritable characteristics of a population over successive generations. A characteristic is heritable if it is genetic, and thus will get passed on from parent to offspring, and from that offspring to its offspring, and so on. The key here is that this change happens over many generations and affects the whole population.

What would be a hypothetical example of actual evolution in the Pokémon world? Let’s say we’ve stumbled upon a population of Venusaurs in some jungle untouched by Pokémon trainers. Most  Venusaurs have pink flowers, but a rare individual has a gold flower because of a mutation. In case you’re wondering, this alternative color scheme exists in-game and is known as a “shiny,” and shiny Pokémon are incredibly rare. Like, “I’ve probably played 1000 cumulative hours of Pokémon games and I only found one shiny Sentret a decade ago” rare.

shinyven1

Now, let’s say that shiny Venusaur is very successful in producing a lot of baby Bulbasaurs for whatever reason. Maybe gold flowers attract more prey, so shiny Venusaur is well fed and can have more babies (directional selection). Maybe other Venusaurs find the rare gold flower extra sexy, so shiny Venusaur has more mates and thus more babies (sexual selection). Maybe it’s all due to random chance and shiny Venusaur just gets lucky (genetic drift). When that generation of Bulbasaurs grows up, the new generation of Venusaurs might look something like this:

shinyven2

If we’re still around to observe this population many generations later, it may look like this:

shinyven3

The shiny trait has now become “fixed” in the population – that is, every individual now has the gold flower. Now the population of Venusaurs looks different than it used to – and that is evolution! If this population is isolated from other Venusaurs and continues to evolve novel traits, one day this population might be so different that it can’t even mate with other Venusaurs anymore. And that, folks, is when you have a new species.

But back to metamorphosis. The common caterpillar example is linear: a caterpillar makes a cocoon and becomes a butterfly. But not all Pokémon have a set fate. I give you the most enigmatic example, Eevee.

eevee-evolutions

Eevee is special in the world of Pokémon because it has the largest number of ways it can evolve depending on your actions. Want a Flareon? Give Eevee a Fire Stone. Espeon? Make Eevee very happy and level up during the morning or day. Leafeon? Level up while near a mossy rock.

It seems like this couldn’t possibly exist within the confines of our natural world, right? How does an Eevee have the ability to metamorphose into such different creatures just from what its exposed to in the environment? How can a Vaporeon, Jolteon, Flareon, Espeon, Umbreon, Glaceon, and Leafeon all have the same genome as their starting Eevee, but such different traits?

Not to erode Eevee’s specialness, but this happens right here on Earth.

This is known as polyphenism: when multiple discrete phenotypes (a set of observable characteristics) can come from the same genetic background because of differences in the environment. The most common example is different castes in bees. You may know that within a hive, one female gets to be the queen bee, and the other females are worker bees. A queen bee is made by feeding a larvae what’s known as “royal jelly,” which contains chemicals that alter the larvae’s development. If that larvae has a twin sister that didn’t get a special meal, sis will grow up to be a worker. They’re genetically identical, but very different thanks to their environment.

The only thing distinguishing bees from Eevees are the number of choices in development.

eeveebee2

In which I speculate on what would happen if you gave a bee a Fire Stone or Macho Brace.

It will forever irritate me that the game designers chose the term “evolution” instead of a totally accurate, also cool-sounding alternative word. My best guess is that “Bulbasaur is metamorphosing” took up too many pixels, so “evolving” won out. Sadly, this kind of sloppy terminology can cause a lot of misconceptions about what evolution really means. But hopefully now that you’ve learned some Pokébiology, you’re less confused.

EvolveMankey

 

So confused.

Feb 03 2013

Since I didn’t watch the Super Bowl…

…can you fill me in on what memes were created so I’m not totally confused at every joke on the internet for the next 24 hours?

Older posts «

» Newer posts