Saturday, April 30, 2011

Another List I Need to Make

I still haven't decided which knitting projects to take to the beach with me! Admittedly, I do have two weeks to decide in between now and then, but a little planning can't hurt.

So far, my list consists of:

1. My Omelet shawl (I like to think it'll be done by then, but I doubt it.
2. An Orchid Thief Shawl
3. My Robot Love-in-progress mittens
4. Another pair of mittens or gloves.
5. The next iteration of the sideways scarf.

It'll vary depending on how much I get done in between now and then. Hmmmmm.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Book Review: The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

I hated this book so profoundly I'm not even going to bother writing anything about it. If you like reading about slacker, narcissistic artist-types who think the world should pay homage to their Great Genius while doing no work and blaming each and every one of the women in their lives for their lack of success (and sundry other problems), go for it.

Or I could introduce you to my college boyfriend. Same difference, really. I guess I could be happy that this book reminded me to thank my lucky stars that I dumped that malignant loser almost six years ago, but I could have done without the reminder that the world is full of people who are just like him (or, at least enough of them to where a book detailing their self-induced misery could be reasonably construed as satire or social commentary).

Satire or not (if it's satire, it's very poorly-executed), I couldn't find anything of value in this book. The characters are all thoroughly repellent, I found the narrative execrable in more ways than I can count, and the entire thing was steeped in misogyny. Gross. 1 out of 5 stars, and I need some tequila.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

FO: Socks for My Mom

Pattern: Sock Recipe by Stephanie Pearl-McPhee
Yarn: Lang Jawoll Color Aktion
Needle: US #2
Finished Size:  Women's 9.5. My mom has big feet. 
Notes: I am thankful for my little feet! 

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Vacaaaaaaaation! Reading.

I'm going on vacation in May with Matt, Matt's mom, some of Matt's friends, and some of Matt's friends' moms, and my best friend in the universe. We're going to Folly Beach in South Carolina, and when I'm not dazzling the crowd with my amazing stuffed shells and taking said friend to Fort Sumter to ogle the rednecks and see just how many articles of clothing may be embellished with the stars and bars observe an important part of American History that he has yet to have experienced, I'll be reading. And, probably, blogging about the same.

I think I may use the week as an opportunity to get some of the backlog caught up; at my present schedule of posting a book review every three days, I have a month's worth of entries queued up. Or I may keep it that way and post them all when school and the holidays hit and I have even less free time than I do at present.

My main project, though, will be to fill in the gaps in my reading list. I need to read a books by authors whose last names start with J, K, N, P, Q, U, V, X, Y, and Z. Some of those are going to be more readily achievable than others, of course, but it's worth a shot.

I also need to catch up on the Victorian Literature challenge I'm working my way through. Since all of the books I intend to read are already on my nook, I really have no excuse other than laziness/being unable to slog my way through the boring parts of Vanity Fair, which I've been working on for close to a month now.

I'll post my list once I make my decision.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: Gourmet Rhapsody by Muriel Barbery

I wish I could have gotten my hands on a French copy of this novel. I hate reading literature in translation, but given my current hilariously-bad-state-of-finances-imposed book-buying diet, purchasing French editions from is sort of out of the question. Luckily, the translator did a really good job of preserving French syntax and used a French cognate-laden vocabulary, which helped to take the edge off.

Gourmet Rhapsody depicts the final days of a famous food critic, who is kind of an awful person. He's managed to alienate most of his family at some point or other (with the notable exception of the cat), and all of his family, whose narratives are interspersed with his, must wrestle with his effects on their lives and negotiate how they're going to cope with his death. Meanwhile, the critic digs through his memories, searching for the final, elusive flavor that he must experience before he dies.

I can see why Muriel Barbery has become so popular. Her writing style is effervescent and refreshing, providing the reader with tons of detail without becoming bogged down in endless side narratives of description. Moreover, she is able to transition cleanly and cogently from one viewpoint to the next without jarring the reader. This is quite difficult to execute; a number of otherwise good books I have read have fallen prey to this. Most importantly, though, is her ability to render even the most irascible and complicated characters into something sympathetic, even lovable. I'm really looking forward to reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Lovely. Want to read it in French. 5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Yogurt Sale Day!

I'm not really sure how I feel about devoting a blog post to yet another aspect of my Speshul Snoflayke eating habits. On one hand, I tend to be self-conscious about them; on the other, I like to talk about myself and my obvious speshulness. Quite the conundrum.

The picture to the left should indicate which decision I made.

This week, my favorite brand of yogurt was on sale, and, as is my habit, I bought an absurd amount of it, pulling them from the back of the rack to ensure that I got the latest expiration dates possible (yes, I know, grocery store workers everywhere probably hate my guts. I promise, I always put the ones I don't take back neatly). This is because I am a Speshul Snoflayke who dislikes the taste of artificial sweetener and fake fruit flavors, which render most brands of yogurt varying degrees of inedible. Tragically, the brands that I will eat tend to cost more, as is generally the case with organic dairy products, so I can only buy them when they're on sale.

Twenty-five cups of yogurt later, I should have enough to last me until the next time they go on sale.

The reason that I eat so much yogurt, by the way, is because it's the ideal pre-workout food. I don't often have time to eat something solid, wait forty-five minutes to an hour for it to digest, go to the gym, do an hour's worth of cardio, and then make it back home in enough time to get cleaned up and ready for work. With yogurt, I can eat a cup right before I walk out the door and be able to work out without getting hungry or feeling like I'm going to throw up. Both are more or less equally unpleasant, and I try to avoid that whenever possible.

I also don't want to develop osteoporosis when I'm older.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Book Review: Vaccinated: One Man's Quest to Defeat the World's Deadliest Diseases by Paul Offit

I guess my love of reading medical non-fiction is showing, yes? I saw this book when I was looking for pictures of Paul Offit's other book for that review, and decided to pick up a copy at the library.

I'd never heard of Maurice Hilleman before reading this book, which is sort of odd given the huge contributions he made to medicine. He was instrumental in the development of a number of vaccines in addition to revolutionizing the way in which they were synthesized. That's no mean feat for someone who came from rural, Lutheran Montana! In addition to saving the lives and health of millions of children, Hilleman also saved a number of chickens! Since many vaccines are synthesized in eggs and, at the time, many chickens were afflicted by a contagious, cancer-causing virus (and it was unclear whether that virus could cause diseases in humans), Hilleman resolved the issue by developing a vaccine for the chickens. Nifty, huh?

Offit does an excellent job detailing the facts of Hilleman's life (the culture he used for his mumps vaccine came from his daughter!) as well as explaining the medical and scientific aspects of his work in an easy-to-understand fashion. I only have one quibble with his presentation of the issues involved: early on, many vaccines were tested on institutionalized children who suffered from any combination of mental retardation, mental illness, and various physical conditions. While Offit acknowledges that such experimentation would be considered unethical (and would be illegal) today, he noted that, at that point in time, such children were at the greatest risk for developing infectious diseases and (for the most part) the consent of their parents was obtained. While the realities of the institutions were pretty terrible, I'm not convinced that they justified experimentation on their inhabitants, especially since modern clinical trial guidelines didn't exist. It sort of left a bad taste in my mouth. 

Very informative and well-written. I could have done with a more in-depth discussion of the ethical issues involving using marginalized individuals as human guinea pigs, though.  3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Friday, April 22, 2011

Oh hey look another one!

So, I started my second Juneberry a few days ago. Now that I've gotten the hang of doing two-side lace, it's coming along much faster than the first one did. 

I figured out how to modify it to make it smaller (more on that once I've finished it), and am currently working my way through Chart D. Sadly, it probably won't be finished until early May because I have a bunch of stuff I need to complete before then, but it's shaping up quite nicely! 

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Recipe of the Week 2011 #16: Alton Brown's Baked Meatballs

I decided to try my hand at a new kind of meatballs tonight. While this recipe relied on my old standards, lamb and beef, it also included pork, spinach, parmesan cheese, and a much lower ratio of eggs and breadcrumbs to meat. Overall, they were pretty tasty, but next time I make these, I'm probably going to use less spinach (roughly half the amount the recipe calls for), not add any salt (the parmesan cheese made them plenty salty),* and more eggs/breadcrumbs in the mix (so they stay glued together better).

* Yet another dietary idiosyncrasy: I taste salt pretty strongly, and don't put much in my food as a result. One of the reasons I dislike corporate restaurant food: all the salt they add to keep it indefinitely freezer and shelf-stable makes it taste like a lightly-flavored salt lick.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Book Review: Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA


The value of hand-washing was my main takeaway from Maryn McKenna's Superbug: The Fatal Menace of MRSA. Well, that and a sense of creeping paranoia the bursts into full bloom when things like my grandmother being hospitalized with pneumonia (no worries, she's fine now) or my cat getting a dime-sized, infected abscess from a bite he sustained at the hands, er, mouth of one of the neighbor's cats (he's fine, too, but what is with these accident-prone cats?) happen. The downside of reading lots and lots of books about diseases: you become a very well-educated hypochondriac.

At least I'm washing my hands more. It can't hurt, right?

I found Superbug both engaging and informative. McKenna, a medical/scientific journalist, is highly effective at communicating the vagaries of the medical system and epidemiological practices in layman's terms. I appreciated the way in which she highlighted inefficiencies in reporting within the epidemiological community, and was shocked at the extent to which denial and intentionally obtuse behavior on the parts of individual doctors and hospital administrators has fed the spread of MRSA. Once again, everyone: wash your freaking hands. I found it so appalling that these infections continue to spread (and acquire additional drug resistance as they do so) because hospital personnel are unwilling to acknowledge their role in the spread of staph infections and behave accordingly. I find myself in complete agreement with McKenna's ultimate solution: given staph bacteria's ability to rapidly evolve antibiotic resistance and the medical establishment's inability to nip spread in the bud, the only way to corral it effectively is to develop a vaccine. There are already vaccinations that protect against bacterial diseases, so there's no reason why one couldn't be developed for this one with enough research.

My only quibbles with Superbug are its tone, which often becomes sensationalist, and McKenna's unfortunate choice to compare MRSA outbreaks to the HIV/AIDS pandemic. I tend to be on Team Sontag where this sort of thing is concerned, and consider using the spectre of HIV/AIDS scaremongering at best, downright insensitive at worst. HIV/AIDS has killed millions of people, infected millions more, and is the leading cause of death in a number of communities around the globe. Worse, its primary victims are socially marginalized by any combination of race, poverty, sexual orientation, occupation, addiction status, and religion, among many, many others. The behavior of the American government under Reagan (which did next to nothing until heterosexual people started getting sick because they believed that AIDS was a plague sent by god to punish people they deemed immoral) was particularly deplorable. The spread of HIV had led to more human rights abuses than I can count or name on the parts of both individuals and their governments, so I have a really hard time swallowing antibiotic-resistant superbugs as something creating a comparable situation. Sure, we're all really scared, but I seriously doubt the toll that MRSA can take on humanity will ever approach what HIV/AIDS already has.

Nevertheless, Superbug is definitely worth reading. 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Second Sock Syndrome

I started these socks for my mother ages ago. I'm hoping to finish them by next weekend, when I'll be attending a cousin's wedding in my hometown.

Then, onto another pair. I have so much sock yarn to get through.

Monday, April 18, 2011

PSA: Cats Are Assholes

I'm not really sure what possessed them to chew the crap out of my flip-flops. Maybe they liked the texture? Or my feet are extra tasty? Either way, I'll have to go buy a new pair. And hide it from them.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris

Letter to a Christian Nation is another book I've been meaning to read for a while. Several of my more atheist-minded friends have recommended it highly. I decided to give it a go even though I'm not a member of its target audience. I've been an atheist for almost eight years now, since I was eighteen, and Letter to a Christian Nation is targeted primarily at American Christians, though I imagine people of other faiths in developed nations would find it useful to learn, in brief, how atheism and atheists work.

It does, of course, bear mentioning that atheism isn't monolithic. There's no dogma, no creed, no hard-and-fast rules of what all atheists must think, believe, and say to be considered atheists apart from the obvious lack of a belief in any deity. We run the gamut from Buddhists and other non-theistic religions to Ayn Randian Libertarians to the more stereotypical bleeding heart secular humanists to raging antitheists to militant apatheists and, of course, the whole range of agnostics who, despite their official ambiguous stance, live their lives in the same way that atheists do.

Nevertheless, Harris does a really good job of explaining why many choose to reject Christianity (also briefly touching on Judaism and Islam) as well as why it's possible to not be religious and still be a decent human being. His arguments are clear and easy to understand, and he doesn't bog himself down waxing pedantic or over-philosophizing.

Though I didn't find it especially enlightening, given that I'd already had many of these thoughts myself, I still consider it a valuable tool in explaining atheism to more religiously-inclined people. 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Book Review: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman is April's reading for the 2011 Classic Feminist Literature Challenge. This was one of the few books in the challenge that I'd never heard of before; the majority of them I've seen discussed elsewhere or have read in whole (The Subjection of Women, Ain't I a Woman?) or in excerpt (A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, The Beauty Myth). I was interested in getting a chance to read something by an author I'd never heard of previously as well as some early twentieth century American literature, a genre in which I haven't read much.

Herland is a utopian novella that depicts the journey of three wealthy-ish, well-educated men who stumble across a remote country that is exclusively populated by women while on an expedition in South America. Not wanting to share their discovery with the rest of the team, they return to the United States and begin planning their own expedition. Terry, the adventure-obsessed playboy, is enamored of the idea of a country full of silly, helpless, squabbling women who will undoubtedly fall all over themselves in order to claim the prize that is him, agrees to finance the expedition. Jeff and Van (the narrator) tag along because they, too, are intensely curious about what a country of all women would be like, though neither harbors the sexist notions that Terry does.

Upon arriving, they are immediately taken captive by the women and are imprisoned in a fortress where they are taught the language and history of Herland. While Jeff and Van aren't exactly enthused by this state of affairs, they soon befriend their captors and make strides in their new education. Terry, on the other hand, is positively incensed at his captivity by lowly (also, unattractive and middle-aged) women, and convinces the others to escape. Their escape is, of course, unsuccessful; when they finally make it back to their biplane, they find it sewn up in thick fabric. Unable to leave, they are recaptured and returned to the fortress. The women inform them that they will be allowed to leave and explore the countryside once they have learned the language and customs of Herland and have demonstrated themselves trustworthy. At this, Terry reluctantly agrees to play along, though he is never fully convinced that their society is viable or that their captors are "real" women.

The three men come to learn the history of Herland: it was originally a mixed-sex colony that allowed slavery. However, one day some two thousand years prior to the arrival of the men, a volcanic eruption cut it off from the rest of the countryside. Soon after, the slaves revolted and killed all the men. The women retaliated and killed the slaves. After that, there were no men left and there was no way for any more to arrive. Faced with the destruction of their people, the women were delighted a few years later to discover that one of their own was capable of parthenogenesis. The whole community became invested in raising her five children, and her children's five children, and so on and so forth until the community was populated exclusively by the one woman's descendants. Eventually, though, the land started to run out of space and resources despite its careful tending by the women, so they instituted a policy that regulated the number of children a woman was allowed to have, in order to ensure that nobody would go hungry or want for anything.

Generally speaking, I'm not a fan of utopian novels. They all possess qualities I find naive, unrealistic, and grating. It's pretty evident that Gilman is selling both feminism and socialism here, and while I'm not opposed to either of those things, the way in which she constructed her utopia of Herland was a little silly and a lot unrealistic. I get what she was driving at, though: much like John Stuart Mill, Gilman clearly believes that differences between the sexes are socially constructed, not innate, which is why women in Herland are able to fulfill roles assigned to men in other societies. That they are able to live together amicably without squabbling (despite Terry's repeated insistence that women aren't capable of running a cohesive, viable society) also demonstrates Gilman's belief that so-called negative characteristics of women (flightiness, impulsiveness, willing to scrap with other women for male attention) are also socialized.

Beyond that, Gilman uses the male characters in a deft manner, demonstrating that Terry's traditional vision of femininity and how women should behave is not only completely prejudicial and off-base, but lends itself to foul behavior and violence (he eventually tries to rape one of the women). Meanwhile, Jeff and Van, who are more open-minded, are able to not only see the good of society, but adapt to it and become better people themselves. This is a pretty clear commentary of what Gilman believes the future will hold, and I think she's largely been proven right.

As for the socialist aspect of Herland, Gilman's vision of an orderly society is pretty clear. Throughout the narrative, the women of Herland demonstrate an intensely utilitarian ethos, subsuming their own individual desires for the good of the community. It's why all of the women agree to limit themselves to one, maybe two children apiece, and are willing to surrender their rearing and education to the experts. Their desire for their children to become full, productive members of their community always outweighs their individual preferences. The children, for their part, are educated communally and are allowed to develop their own interests, and pursue whichever career path suits them the best. No job is valued over any other, and it appears that Herland does not have a moneyed economy; goods are simply distributed to whoever requires them. It appears that the system was born of the necessity that collaboration was the only way that the society would survive, and that it evolved naturally over time. Again, the juxtaposition of characters from "regular" society enable Gilman to highlight all that was (and continues to be) wrong in America: child poverty, extreme gaps between the wealthy and the poor, and a system which regards children as property and commodities, not human beings with their own rights.

I liked it, but I'll continue to prefer dystopias. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, April 15, 2011

FO: Juneberry Triangle

It's finally finished!
Pattern: Juneberry Triangle, by Jared Flood
Yarn: Jamieson's Soft Shetland in "Wood Nymph," 5 skeins, 600 yards
Needle: US #8
Finished Size:  65" wide, 35" deep. HUGE-NORMOUS, in other words. It's like a blanket, almost.
Notes: I should have blocked it in the bathtub. The wool grew a ton once it was wet and blocked; I think the size close to doubled. 

I've started a second one that I'm going to make smaller by changing the lace pattern. Once I figure out the nuts and bolts of the alterations, I'll post them here.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Book Review: The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

I admittedly have a weird relationship with Sam Harris' work. On the one hand, I really liked Letter to a Christian Nation (which I'll be reviewing next). On the other,  The End of Faith left a bad taste in my mouth for reasons I don't care to get into here (they boil down to me not being a fan of the whole "religion is the root of all evil" drum that Harris and Hitchens tend to beat overmuch). Fortunately, I wound up enjoying The Moral Landscape quite a bit. I tend to be an atheist of a philosophical bent, so I really enjoy books about the philosophy of science.

The essential premise of The Moral Landscape is that the demarcation between so-called science questions and moral/philosophical/religious questions constitutes a false dichotomy and that there is no reason why science shouldn't be used to address metaphysical or moral questions. The notion that only religion can be used to address moral concerns is patently wrong, Harris argues, pointing out that many moral advancements that have occurred since the Enlightenment (such as the banning of slavery in England and the US, female suffrage and other rights, etc.) have occurred despite the influence of religion, often in direct contradiction with the original texts in question, and not because of it.

Furthermore, he continues, using religious standards as a measure of human well-being is problematic in light of the fact that many religious dictates cause human suffering rather than alleviate it, and that using the carrot-and-stick afterlife trope only worsens and confuses moral considerations further. Our main concern, claims Harris, should be whether a given thing will enrich humanity or cause suffering. Rather than viewing morality as a series of laws and rules, he envisions a topographical landscape, in which certain events correspond with peaks, or things that bring happiness to people, and valleys, or things that bring suffering. This view allows for the existence of multiple goods, rather than singular ones, and a multifaceted approach over a one-size-fits-all worldview that ultimately fits no one.

This is an idea he touched on in his other works that was also addressed at length by Richard Dawkins in both The God Delusion and The Greatest Show On Earth, but had never had a stand-alone treatment until now. I'm not entirely convinced it was a necessary endeavor, though, as it doesn't require a lot of explanation or justification (after all, soft sciences like psychology and sociology have been hard at work quantifying the unquantifiable for over a century now) and The Moral Landscape contained a fair amount of superfluous filler, including what appeared to be an extended hashing-out of a personal dispute between Harris and an appointee of the Obama administration (for that it's worth, I agree with Harris on that subject, but didn't think the whole bloody affair needed to be gotten into).

All said and done: solid and interesting, but not really novel. Could have done without the filler, as well. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Recipe of the Week 2011 #15: Dad's Special Rice

Dad gave me the recipe for his special rice ages ago, but I've only recently gotten around to making it. I served it with some cheese, onion, and pepper quesadillas (that were supposed to have acorn squash in them as well, but I screwed up the roasting to a degree so embarrassing I'll not discuss it further). Matt was a fan, of course, but he pretty much likes everything.

Special rice is pretty simple to make; all you need to do is add a cube or two of chicken bouillon to the water, cook the rice as directed, and then add wilted spinach, a can of black beans (rinsed first, of course), a small can of pineapple chunks (drained), and some finely chopped cilantro. It tastes really good, and goes well with a number of dishes. I'll almost certainly make it again. I love anything with spinach in it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

We'll call this one "Down to the Wire"

It looks like my knitting luck has changed: I finished my Juneberry Triangle with three or four yards to spare!

Now, onto the blocking! It'll probably take a few days to dry. This thing is going to be GIGANTIC.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Book Review: Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All by Paul Offit

I first heard about Deadly Choices on the facebook fan page of The Jenny McCarthy Body Count, a website that documents the increasing spread of vaccine-preventable diseases thanks to McCarthy's (and a number of others') false claims that childhood vaccinations cause autism and other illnesses. As someone who has spent an excessive amount of time reading books on diseases (I read about smallpox after learning about a missionary who died of it during VBS as a small child, and the obsession continues), including both scientific and social histories of the same, I tend to be a fan of vaccines. A better way to put this is that I'm a fan of not dying of preventable disease. I am also not a fan of getting sick when I don't have to. I'm 100% vaccinated against everything I can possibly get a shot for, including the influenza that so many people my age skip because they think it's unnecessary (it was a struggle to not mock Matt and his friends when they caught it and were miserable for days).

I had a few formative experiences with vaccine-preventable diseases that have shaped my opinion on this subject. When I was in first grade (so, six and seven years old), I managed to contract chicken pox, influenza, and rotavirus in the same year. This was in 1991 and 1992, so the vaccines for rotavirus and chickenpox didn't exist yet, and influenza vaccines weren't generally given to school-aged children. I wound up missing a month of school, all told. Had I been born five or six years later, I could have avoided all three of them.

The flu was the least bad of the three, even though I recall being pretty miserable. I'm one of those people who hallucinates when they have high fevers, so any illness involving those is going to suck no matter what. Chicken pox fell in the middle of awfulness, but it was orders of magnitude worse than the flu. I had those freaking pox in my hair. My most vivid memory of that week-and-a-half was feebly scratching my head against the car upholstery, desperately trying to relieve the itching without actually scratching. My sister still has scars from it. Worst of all was the rotavirus. I became so ill that I spent a week in the hospital, hooked up to IV fluids. Torturous boredom on top of being sick as a dog? No, thanks. I consider myself lucky that I was born in the United States. Rotavirus still kills half a million children a year, mostly in developing countries, and if I had been born in one of those countries, I could very well be dead right now. It's a sobering thought, and it's not one that a rising number of people in the United States are having.

Deadly Choices traces the evolution of the anti-vaccine movement, which is as old as vaccines themselves. Apparently, people protested against getting vaccinated against smallpox because they believed that it would give them a mental defect that would cause them to behave like a cow, or that they contained the seed of Satan and other impurities (seriously), or they simply didn't understand how they worked and objected to public health officials having the temerity to demand that they protect their children from a potentially fatal disease. Those of us who are familiar with the American anti-vaccine movement are all too aware that there is nothing new under the sun. Now we get to hear about how vaccines cause autism (they don't, and even if they did, the attitude that a dead child is superior to an autistic one is, frankly, completely fucking appalling), how they are contaminated with lead, mercury, formaldehyde, anti-freeze (nope), and that injecting vaccines into children weakens their immune systems, and that risking death from any number of illnesses is the preferable course of action. Offit does an excellent job debunking these ridiculous assertions, among a number of others. Deadly Choices is very informative in that respect; not only does it show the history of the anti-vaccine movement, it also presents counter-arguments to use against its proponents.

The crux of the issue, that Offit points out, is that parents generally have the ability to inflict whatever idiotic medical opinions they have on their children with no repercussions whatsoever-- and that the trend in favor of allowing "philosophical" exemptions to vaccine mandates will only continue. He believes that the only thing that can change the minds of these parents is diseases like whooping cough, diptheria, and the mumps coming back and killing a whole bunch of children, which will cause them to re-evaluate their priorities. Unfortunately, in the meantime, children who can't get vaccines because they're too young or have health conditions that preclude vaccination and rely on herd immunity are becoming increasingly at risk, right alongside otherwise healthy, unvaccinated children. I firmly believe that the right to "philosophically" exempting one's kids from the greatest public health achievement of the twentieth century ends when your choices start to get other peoples' kids killed. And I don't think anyone should die because their parents made stupid medical decisions for them. Children are people, not property, and have the right to not die needlessly over their parents' ideological beliefs about medicine.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Recipe of the Week 2011 #14: Traditional Madeleines

I decided to try a more traditional madeleines recipe last night. I generally prefer mine to have honey in them, but figured making the regular kind would be a worthwhile endeavor. I got the recipe from here.

They taste pretty good (I like the honey kind better), but the humps were enormous. I guess that's from refrigerating the dough which also, incidentally, made the batter difficult to scoop into the molds. I kind of want to make these again, but put the batter into the pan at room temperature and see how they turn out.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

And on to Shawl #4 of 2011:

Now that my Juneberry Triangle is getting close to being finished, I've decided to start on my fourth shawl of the year: an Omelet.I have a giant skein of Zephyr laceweight in Pewter, a misty gray that's the color of egg whites when they hit the skillet, that has juuuust enough yardage to cover it (hopefully, I will not run out of yarn at the end. I will cry). I've finished Chart A, and am pretty sure this shawl is going to take forever to complete. I have to do four and a half repeats of Chart B, and then there's still C, D, and E.

I'll probably start a second Juneberry in the meanwhile. I have some blue yarn that it would look great in.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Book Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

After waiting two months to get my hands on The Hunger Games, I added Mockingjay to my queue at the library once I made it to the top five in the queue to read Catching Fire. I still had to wait another month to read Catching Fire, but my wait to read Mockingjay was only a week after that. I am the master of the library holds system!

I was initially sort of nervous about reading Mockingjay, as it seemed like a lot of people liked it less than the previous two books in the series. Fortunately, my nervousness was unfounded; Mockingjay is probably my favorite installment of the three. A lot of people who have reviewed it positively noted both its psychological realness as well as the strong similarities between Katniss and Ender from Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (which, incidentally, was one of my favorite books when I was younger). I'll stop here to avoid unintentionally spoiling things for those who haven't read the first two books in the series.

As usual, later books in a series will be discussed behind a pagebreak. If you haven't read The Hunger Games and Catching Fire and don't want to be spoiled, don't click it! I won't be spoiling the end of Mockingjay, though, so if you haven't read it yet, you can still read my review.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Turning a Corner

I'm now officially more than halfway through the edging on my Juneberry Triangle, and it's becoming clear that this thing is going to be freaking huge when I finish it. I think my gauge is a bit larger than what the pattern called for, given the pre-blocked size and the amount of yarn I've gone through.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Let a Thousand Eye Rolls Bloom

I admit it: I have a multitude of pet peeves. They vary widely in degree of seriousness, from people listening to music on their iPods in the library with the volume turned up so high you can hear it three stacks over to people who think it's a really awesome idea to drive drunk and then whine and cry when they get busted and have to spend the weekend in jail. I know some of them are slightly more rational than others (see: my pathological hatred of those giant freaking flower headbands that people stick on their daughter's head, because heaven forbid someone mistake her for a boy. The damage might be terrible and permanent! vs. my opinion of people who don't spay and neuter their pets, who I personally think should have to spend a week living and working in the shelters for each unwanted animal their negligence produces), but they're all relatively important to me, and cause more or less equal amounts of irritation on my part. Some are worse than others, though.

One of the biggest (and most often-aggravated ones, given the company I keep), is the notion that people who study math and the hard scientist are by nature more intelligent than those inclined to the social sciences and the humanities. Much as I maintain that getting an English degree was not the wisest decision in terms of my income potential, that doesn't mean that the study of literature is worthless, nor is it any indication whatsoever of my intelligence level. People seem to think that because I didn't spend whole afternoons in labs or agonize over problem sets, I wasn't doing any work, "just sitting around and reading." Clearly, I couldn't hack it elsewhere, and was coasting my way through.

The hilarious thing is that I had zero time to lay about and read for fun. Apart from summer vacation, I read fewer than twenty books for fun over the course of my entire undergraduate career, and half of those I read when I was a freshman. My average workload in a given semester involved the equivalent of two Shakespeare plays (I also took classes on Chaucer and Dante) along with four to five hundred pages of prose (sometimes poetry) per week, and I averaged about ten pages of writing about what I was reading per week, as well. And that was just for my courses that counted towards my English major; I was also taking sociology, philosophy, and women's studies classes, and those tend to involve a lot of reading and writing, too. On top of that, English was one of the hardest programs at Vanderbilt; the professors seemed to delight in exceptionally strict grading standards (one would fail you if your papers had typographical errors even if the content was perfect), and the difference between a good grade and a mediocre one often hinged on how insightful you were in class discussions.

Easy major, my ass.

Also hilarious was the number of semi-literate individuals I met who were enrolled in the sciences side of the College of Arts and Sciences and the School of Engineering. I lived in the philosophy/fine arts dorm (McGill: Where the Weird Kids Live), and it attracted both ultra-nerdy science types and the varying flavors of philosophizing humanities and social science students. I became the Resident Editor of Papers, and the number of highly intelligent math and science majors I knew who couldn't string a simple sentence together, much less formulate a cogent argument about the theme of a work of literature was astonishing on its own, and becomes even more so when one considers I was at a fairly prestigious university. Note that I don't say that these individuals were stupid because they couldn't write a paper extolling the relative merits of utilitarianism as depicted in Charles Dickens novels, nor do I say that they couldn't do it if they were willing to apply themselves. There's no doubt in my mind that they could have done better if they were interested in the subject matter, but they weren't.

I'm not interested in math at all, and my interest in the sciences begins and ends with biology and its practical applications. I don't care about how computers work as long as they do, and I have absolutely no interest whatsoever in building machines, bridges, or anything else not involving yarn. This does not indicate a lack of intelligence or a sign of personal, moral, or intellectual failure; I'm simply not interested in any of those things. And that's okay.

I also suspect that there's not a small amount of sexism tied up in this crap. The hard sciences, math, engineering, and computer-based fields are male-dominated, while the humanities and the social sciences (with the possible exceptions of economics and political science) are heavily skewed towards women. I can't help but feel an undercurrent of misogyny every time someone intimates that reading books is girly, or that sociology is a "fluffy" discipline, or, better yet, that women aren't in the male-dominated fields because they're incapable of performing well in them. I'm sure that has nothing to do with entrenched sexism in those fields (and the notoriously hostile environment they produce in schools and workplaces alike), or the fact that women are all but brainwashed from birth on to believe that they can't do math or science as well as men.

Every time this comes up, I have to force myself to not kick myself for choosing to go into disciplines and fields that I enjoyed rather than toughing it out in the sciences to prove a point. I shouldn't have to, and neither should anyone else.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Book Review: Medical Apartheid by Harriet A. Washington

I decided to read Medical Apartheid after finishing The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks last year. I'd seen several reviews of the latter that recommended Medical Apartheid to those who were interested in learning about the entire history of unethical medical treatments imposed on ethnic minorities (specifically, Black people, though individuals of Hispanic descent are also discussed) in the United States. In the interest of expanding my knowledge on this subject past Henrietta Lacks and the Tuskegee experiments, I decided to give Medical Apartheid a shot.

I wound up enjoying it quite a bit, but it was very different from The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Since Washington's scope is far broader than Rebecca Skloot's, the book is organized very differently. The tone is also quite a bit more serious and technical, and the work revolves around a set thesis rather than relating the narrative of the (immortal) life of an individual person. Washington's thesis is that one of the reasons that Black people have such poor health outcomes relative to those of white people is that their long history of being exploited by white doctors and researchers has led to a state of culturally ingrained iatrophobia, or fear of doctors and medicine. Having read a number of books tangential to the subject (mainly involving the tense relations between white women and women of color over the reproductive rights movement), I was familiar with the concept but largely ignorant of the history behind it. In this way, I found Medical Apartheid to be quite enlightening.

Washington does a wonderful job distilling three centuries of often convoluted histories into a cohesive narrative. The first part of the book, which moves mostly in chronological order, details the experiences of Black individuals from colonization to emancipation, delineating the ways in which the institution of slavery procured numerous bodies for medical practitioners to experiment on as well as detailing the appalling ways in which slaves were treated by doctors (many of them so dreaded the treatments they were forced to endure that they would work even when deathly ill). Post-emancipation, Washington switches organizational gears and moves towards a topical treatment of specific incidents (or clusters of incidents) which have taken place since the end of the Civil War. Washington hits the commonly-known issues surrounding the Tuskegee experiments and what happened to Henrietta Lacks, but she also probes deeper into a number of other, lesser-known practices such as:

  • Medical schools and hospitals stealing bodies from black graves to be used as cadavers, a watered-down version of which persists today).
  • Black people, but especially Black children, being disproportionately represented in the potentially dangerous phases of clinical trials.
  • Black prisoners being coerced into participating in clinical trials.
  • "Mississippi Appendectomies," or hysterectomies performed without the knowledge or consent of the woman, and the racially fraught nature of birth control campaigns.

All in all, very enlightening. 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, April 4, 2011

I should just come out of the closet about this already:

I am not a sweater knitter.

There are several reasons for this, and they all boil down to some combination of laziness, lack of attention span, practicality, frugality, and the commitmentphobia that has long since become a depressingly dominant part of my personality.

The main reason I don't knit sweaters is that they take forever. I don't have the longest of attention spans, and the only reason I'm able to read as many books as I do is because I read very, very, quickly. I do not knit anywhere near as quickly as I read, and once a project hits the one-month mark of continuous work, with each day that follows, the likelihood that I ever finish it diminishes. Exponentially. The fact that you have to knit things twice (sleeves, neck facings, hoods) makes it even less likely I'll finish one, given the fact that I  already have a tremendous case of second sock/glove syndrome.

A second reason is that I have a hard time finding sweaters I'll get a lot of wear out of. Of all my handknit items, I wear my socks the most, closely followed by wintertime accessories like scarves, hats, and gloves/mittens/wristwarmers. That's because they go with multiple outfits, as opposed to being an outfit by themselves, and I prefer versatility in my wardrobe since I change it so much. Sweater designs fall out of style a lot faster than smaller accessories, as well. Beyond that, I live in the South. It doesn't generally get cold enough to warrant the wearing of heavy wool sweaters here. Even in the mountains, it's only Wool-Sweater Cold for maybe six weeks out of an unusually cold winter. As someone who has cold feet a lot, wool socks are a much better investment of my time, energy, and money.

This brings me to my third point: sweaters are really expensive to make. A general rule of thumb is that the price of a yard of yarn increases with the weight, or thickness of the yarn. Generally, lace yarn is the cheapest per yard, followed by fingering, then sport, then DK, then worsted, then the bulkier weights. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule depending on brand and fiber content, but it mostly holds true. While this has changed somewhat, the majority of English-language knitting patterns use DK or heavier yards, which automatically makes the cost of the project shoot up-- nevermind the fact that you need a lot more yarn for a sweater than you do for a pair of socks. My preference for using washable yarn for stuff I'm getting heavier wear out of (which drives the price of the yarn up even higher), it's even less likely I'll be willing to put up the cash for a sweater. So there's that.

The main issue, though, is that I am very commitmentphobic about fitted garments. This is due in large part to the devil of a time that I have buying clothes off the rack. Being short is hard, internet, and it seems like most clothing these days isn't sized for anyone under 5'4 (I'm 5'2), and that goes for knitting patterns as well. In order for a sweater to fit me, I'd have to heavily modify the design, and there's still no guarantee that it would actually fit. My options would be spending even more time on the project by unraveling and re-knitting it, or else cut my losses and toss it (given my previous comments on the cost of sweater yarn, this option is just as unappealing as the former). So while I often see patterns for lovely sweaters and think, oooh, I'd really like to have that, I can't quite bring myself to take the plunge, buy the yarn, and knit it.

So that's why I don't knit sweaters, in case anyone was wondering.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Current Book Docket, Again.

I really need to stop checking out multiple long books from the library. Since they don't fit on the elliptical reading trays, I can't read them while working out and they take ages to finish.

  1. Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
  2. Sundown Towns by James W. Loewen
  3. If On A Winter's Night, A Traveler by Italo Calvino
  4. Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain
  5. Operation Mincemeat by Ben MacIntyre
  6. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
  7. Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
  8. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Book Review: Promises I Can Keep by Kathryn Edin and Maria Kefalas

I'd had this book recommended to me by a number of people over the years, as it crops up frequently in discussions of unmarried teen/early twenties pregnancy. I had my own interest in the subject, of course: my mother had me when she was only twenty, and I've spent much of my life fighting against the stereotype that the children of young mothers are destined to have a drug addiction, no high school diploma, and, of course, three different children by as many men by the time they hit their early twenties (and, since my parents are divorced, I am supposed to be incapable of having normal relationships and must have massive Daddy Issues). It's really irritating and frustrating to have to combat that attitude every time the subject comes up. Equally irritating is the realization of how seriously people Just. Don't. Get. It. when it comes to this issue, and how that translates into totally ineffective social policies.

(Admittedly, there are few things more satisfying than throwing my Vanderbilt degree in the faces of less-educated people who insist that I'm inferior because of how old my mom was when I was born. HA.)

The problem that many people like me (feminist, liberal-minded who believe that pregnant teenagers should be treated like human beings, not baby factories for older, more affluent people) face is that negative outcomes associated with having children young are very real: they are generally less likely to finish high school (or college, for that matter), which in turn leads to long-lasting poverty. Their children are more likely to have health problems at birth, and, as young mothers are likely to wind up poor, their children are more likely to be raised in poverty and experience all of the negative social, educational, and economic baggage that comes with it. Most perversely they are far more likely to repeat the cycle by having children as teenagers themselves than children born to older adults.

The solution that most people hit on is prevention efforts, such as medically accurate, comprehensive sex education and easy access to reliable forms of birth control. These efforts have caused a decline in teen pregnancies over the last several decades; however, these declines have mainly been concentrated among middle- and upper-class teenagers. While pregnancy rates among poor teenagers have fallen, they haven't fallen as sharply. Edin and Kefalas offer a complex, yet highly convincing explanation for why this is.

The main thrust of Edin and Kefalas' thesis is that teenage pregnancy is not a career-ending injury for poor teenage girls in the same way it is for more affluent teens. Having attended an expensive private school as a teenager, I can attest to this. Several of my classmates got pregnant over the four years were were there, and every last one of them had an abortion. Having a child in that situation translated to direct and immediate losses: not being able to finish high school on time, having to go to state or community college instead of an elite university (and taking longer to finish that, too), being forced to keep living with your parents well past the age of eighteen, and getting to deal with the crappy way that many people treat young mothers.

Someone who has either already dropped out of high school, on the other hand, (this is the case for many, if not most, poor teenage mothers) or is just killing time until graduation so they can get a job at a convenience store has a lot less to lose. Basically, if all you have to look forward to is years of dead-end jobs and chronic underemployment, it doesn't really matter if you have your first child at seventeen or twenty-five: you and your baby are still going to be poor. College is not the entering adulthood rite of passage for poor women the way it is for the more affluent. Having a family is what changes them from children to adults in the eyes of their community, and, as such, even accidental pregnancies are welcomed (another interesting finding the researchers made are that the majority of these pregnancies are neither accidental nor intentional, and are usually passively conceived by lowered compliance with contraceptive use). Re-framing the issue of teen pregnancy as being a result of poverty rather than a root cause of it makes the issue far more coherent-- and explains why educational and birth control campaigns have only been partially effective.

The second part of Edin and Kefalas' argument involves why these young women do not get married. Interestingly, marriage initiatives have been the social conservatives' answer to the problems associated with teen pregnancy. Women who have children in dual-income families are less likely to be poor, so strongly pushing marriage initiatives would be a good way to decrease dependency on social programs and diniminish the negative effects of poverty on young children, they reason. Yet, despite Bush II-era programs, marriage rates have not been substantially altered. Edin and Kefalas ultimately conclude that low marriage rates have little to do with the women's attitude towards marriage; in fact, the women they study revere marriage and strongly hope to achieve the middle class ideal of marriage and home. The thing is that the women are unwilling to marry the men who fathered their children because the men fall short of what the women think they should be: they refuse to get better jobs to support them and their children, they run around and cheat on them while they're pregnant, they deny fathering the children, they won't help raise or support the children once they're born, and so on and so forth.

Most of the women who have chosen to leave the fathers of their children state that, given the fathers' financial insufficiencies, marrying their children's father would take resources away from their children. It's an interesting twist on the idea of a lack of marriageable men theory. Due to twentieth-century economic changes, there aren't a lot of legal, lucrative jobs open to poor, uneducated men. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped over seas, even the most menial of office jobs require at least a two-year degree, if not a full bachelor's, and minimum wages have not kept pace with inflation.  Many poor men who want to make a decent living find themselves resorting to illegal activities, such as selling weapons and/or dealing drugs, which may provide some income, but offers the mothers of their children yet another reason to not want them around. As it turns out, poor women are looking for a lasting partnership, but are realistic enough to recognize that their boyfriends may not be suitable for that purpose. And while they may be willing to forego the marital ideals of the middle and upper classes, they're not willing to give up on having children of their own.

An eye-opening look into the true causes of young motherhood. 4 out of 5 stars.