Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Another tick in the "pros" column for self employment

When we talk about things like rape culture, the corollary to telling women that we are responsible for keeping our dress and behavior appropriate, so as to ensure we don't get raped, is that under this logic, men are basically reduced to animals who can't process a rational stream of thought outside of "SHORT SKIRT MUST SEX." Like, if a woman is wearing a short skirt, it's her fault she was raped because the dude just couldn't help himself. This, we must point out, is a pretty awful stereotype of men, no? Men don't like to be stereotyped as potential rapists and deviants, and after all, they remind us, most men are NOT raping women.

The rest of this post isn't going to be about rape, but it is going to be how that whole rape culture attitude trickles down in the rest of our lives. Apparently, the Iowa State Supreme Court issued a decision that allows bosses to fire employees on the grounds of an "irresistible attraction."
In the case at hand, James Knight, a dentist in Iowa, fired one of his female employees, Melissa Nelson, in the interest of saving his marriage. Apparently the good doctor’s wife caught on to the fact that he wanted to fill his assistant’s cavities, and demanded that Nelson be fired immediately. If “filling cavities” is too broad a term for you, we’ll break it down with some factual tidbits taken from the opinion (available in full on the next page):
  • Knight complained to Nelson that her clothing was too tight, revealing, and distracting, but Nelson denied that her clothing was in any way inappropriate.
  • Nelson was supposed to know that her clothing was too revealing if she caught a glimpse of Knight’s err… dental instrument… standing at attention, and later told her it was a good thing she didn’t wear tight pants, because then he’d “get it coming and going.” Lovely.
  • Knight told Nelson that her dull sex life with her husband was bringing him down, noting, “[T]hat’s like having a Lamborghini in the garage and never driving it.” Knight likely had a case of the sads because he was unable to test drive the exotic thing of luxury between Nelson’s legs.
  • Knight once asked Nelson how often she orgasmed, because that’s totally appropriate.
So basically, this guy was sexually harassing his employee, but in a bizarre twist of events, he fired her for being too sexy and her termination was validated by the State Supreme Court. The Above the Law blog has a nice, succinct summary, but the full text itself really is full of gems.

And this is why I had that super serious first paragraph about rape culture. No one raped Melissa Nelson, but she lost her job because her male boss (and the male boss's wife) was concerned about the *possibility* that he might not be able to control himself around her. And the court said that was okay. Sorry Iowa ladies! Your employment is not nearly as important as the insatiable pantsfeelings of your male boss. It's your fault you're attractive? What did you expect, trying to go and have a job anyway?

I could keep going with the snark, but really, I don't have to. This is stupid enough on its own without me needing to highlight it with italics and hyperbole.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012


This post is going to be of a more personal nature, so I'm putting it behind a cut. If you're not all about that Livejournal shit, you'd best skip over this one.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Thoughts on a scene from Skyfall.

I saw this image on Tumblr today, with a nice little thesis about the significance of the scene in the context of the film and our societal expectations of masculinity. I don't have too much to add to the statement, since I think it's pretty spot-on and reads the intentions of the scene perfectly. The post did make me think, though, of my experience in the theater during this scene, which was quite interesting.

When it first became apparent that Silva was kind of putting the moves on Bond, there was an instant palpable tension in the theater -- like, holy shit, is this happening to James Bond? I can't claim to be inside the minds of my fellow audience members, so I don't know for sure what everyone was thinking, but I can state definitively that the theater was collectively uncomfortable during this scene in a way that I haven't noticed when this kind of interaction happens between men and women.

When Bond quips that it might not be "[his] first time," there was an audible sigh of relief, and laughter. It was the perfect response to diffuse the tension. It made me think, optimistically, that it wasn't so much that the audience was afraid of Bond having to do "gay stuff," but that he would be actually in a powerless position in a new and uncomfortable way. Like the pictured comment says, we are so used to Bond being in control and doing and getting what he wants that maybe it was really just that we don't like seeing this character who we know and love so well being threatened with sexual assault. Maybe it had nothing to do with the fact that he is a man and his aggressor was also a man. Maybe.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Here's something about growing up...

I've had so many conversations recently that touch on the idea that meeting new people has somehow become tortuously awkward. I certainly feel this way, which is a somewhat new experience for me, as I've always been pretty extroverted and comfortable in social situations. Now, though, I become anxious at the thought of trying to have a decent, non-awkward conversation with someone I don't know. What on earth to I have to say to someone who doesn't already know me?

I'll be... over here.
Something else I've realized, and I don't really know if this is connected to the first thing I was talking about, (but I wouldn't be surprised if it is) is that somehow at the cusp of "adulthood" we stopped asking each other what we liked, and started asking each other what we do. As kids and teenagers, I feel like given the understanding that we were all in school, I remember trying to connect on our actual interests. We're all already sitting at the lunch table after class, so let's get into who we actually are and talk a bit about what else we have going on in our lives.

Now, though, I can bet that 99% of the time, our opening line to each other is, "So, what do you do?" And I get it. Presumably, our jobs or career pursuits take up the majority of our conscious hours, so it makes sense to start there. And that's not to mention that if you're trying to date someone, finding out what they do is treated like a good shorthand for intellectual (and economic) compatibility.

But ugh, god. I suspect that even if you are lucky enough to be really passionate about your job, it still isn't what you talk about with your friends most of the time. No, you're probably talking about other things you enjoy, common interests you have as friends, things that you've done together, good times you've shared -- most of which were not based on your mutual appreciation of your job.

I feel like part of the reason that we corner ourselves into these really stilted, awkward conversations is because right off the bat, we're asking strangers about, potentially, the most boring thing about them. How could we possibly expect to be interesting and interested in each other if the standard opening line is "What is that thing you do all day that you can't wait to get home from?"

So... what is more awkward? Continuing to have that forced dialogue about our extremely scintillating day jobs, or bucking that social norm and starting off the conversation on a different foot? Well, I think I am going to try the latter for awhile, and I'll get back to you.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Book review: The Fever Series by Karen Marie Moning

Here’s the series, in order:
  1. Darkfever
  2. Bloodfever
  3. Faefever
  4. Dreamfever
  5. Shadowfever
These five officially complete my Cannonball (52 books in a year!) Yay! I had initially signed up to do the half-cannonball (26 books) — a formerly avid reader, I hadn’t really done a lot of reading for pleasure in the past few years, and I was unsure how many books I’d be able to cover. I want to say: THANK YOU Cannonball read, and THANK YOU Pajiba, for giving me the motivation to rediscover reading, one of my true loves in life. For the remainder of this year, I won’t be writing any more reviews, because I’ll probably be re-reading some of my favorite new books that I discovered this year.

I read these based on Malin’s reviews. I’m fairly new to urban fantasy and paranormal romance, being somewhat averse to cheese. For some reason, despite that Darkfever cover, Malin’s review convinced me to give these a try, and I’m really glad I did.

The series is set in modern-day Dublin, which due to its ancient Gaelic roots in fae magic, is kind of a “ground zero” for interactions between humans and the Fae. The heroine, MacKayla Lane, travels to Dublin with the initially simplistic idea of lighting a fire under the ass of the Dublin police, who had been previously unable to solve her sister Alina’s murder. MacKayla quickly learns that there is a lot more to Alina’s murder than she previously suspected. For one thing, she discovers that she is a sidhe-seer, or a human that can see the Fae, whereas other humans can only see the glamours that the Fae project in order to look human and blend in. Mac finds that she shared this ability with her late sister, and it was these very connections that got Alina killed.

Grappling with these revelations, Mac falls into an uneasy alliance with Jerico Barrons, the ruthless, enigmatic, and powerful owner of a Dublin bookstore. Together, they seek the Sinsar Dubh, a text about which Mac knows little to nothing, other than that the final voicemail she received from Alina implored her to locate it. Barrons has his own reasons for seeking the book, and though his motives are unclear, it is plain to Mac that she needs his help and protection if she is going to pursue her sister’s dying request.

Several other players are introduced: V’Lane, a Fae prince of the Light (Seelie) Court; Rowena, leader of a coven of other sidhe-seers; the Keltar, a clan of Druids; Dani, another sidhe-seer who grows a sisterly bond with Mac; Darroc, Alina’s former lover, and so on. With every book in the series, Mac encounters situations that force her to profoundly change. In Darkfever, she’s bubbly, naive, flippant, and astutely described by Barrons as a lamb to slaughter in the world of the Fae. With his help and her innate intelligence, she’s able to adapt, becoming quite the compelling and kick-ass heroine in the process. If you’re annoyed by her early on — DON’T WORRY. She gets so much better, and you’ll almost certainly end up liking and admiring her even by the end of the second book.

I’m leaving out a lot of detail, particularly regarding the later books, because I don’t want to reveal too much and spoil anything. I would be remiss if I didn’t give lip service to the dynamic between Mac and Barrons, which starts off similarly to how you would expect a lion to interact with a hyperactive chihuahua (Mac is the chihuahua.) Initially, it seems that the only reason Barrons even tolerates her is because she has a particular gift that is uniquely and massively helpful in finding the Sinsar Dubh.  These two have some pretty steamy sexual tension throughout the series that is pretty wicked hot. Barrons himself, I can barely describe. Malin may have said it best in her review — he’s the ultimate alpha and a quintessential bastard of literature, which in a romance or romance-adjacent novel is pretty much the pinnacle of sexiness. The combination of their explosive chemistry and the compelling story made these all-nighters for me — I couldn’t put them down. I guess this kind of stuff is more up my alley than I thought it was, because the series became an instant Cannonball favorite and I re-read several parts of every book before returning them to the library, then promptly went and bought them on Amazon. Highly recommended!

Book review: Nerve by Jeanne Ryan

Goodreads summary: “When Vee is picked to be a player in NERVE, an anonymous game of dares broadcast live online, she discovers that the game knows her. They tempt her with prizes taken from her ThisIsMe page and team her up with the perfect boy, sizzling-hot Ian. At first it’s exhilarating–Vee and Ian’s fans cheer them on to riskier dares with higher stakes. But the game takes a twisted turn when they’re directed to a secret location with five other players for the Grand Prize round. Suddenly they’re playing all or nothing, with their lives on the line. Just how far will Vee go before she loses NERVE?”

This was a pretty quick read and a rather fluffy one too. The book is set in our reality, in our time, and as such, initially the premise was intriguing. I definitely believed in the idea that such a game could exist in our time and that there would be tons of people out there that would play dares to an online audience in exchange for cash prizes. The Grand Prize round, though, seemed really farfetched to me, and as such the whole climax to the story was a yawn for me. On top of that, I didn’t really connect with any of the characters, so I didn’t really feel that invested in the “lives on the line” outcome.

The writing itself was fine, about average caliber for your typical YA novels these days. There is a prologue that felt weirdly tacked on to the beginning, and is only referenced in passing once during the rest of the book as a throwaway sentence. This was my only issue with the editing/technical side of the story.

Overall, I wasn’t super impressed with this one, but I think I may be too old for it. It’s possible that an actual teenager could relate to the characters better, and possibly believe more than I did that their peer group would willingly participate in things like the Grand Prize dare. With good YA, being slightly out of the age demographic doesn’t jar me, but here it did.

Monday, October 22, 2012

About that GMO feeding study in rats... yes, THAT one

Ever since it was published, I'd been wanting to do a takedown of Gilles-Eric Seralini's much-discussed paper finding that rats fed Monsanto's Roundup corn developed tumors at a greater rate than a control group of rats fed non-GMO (genetically modified organism) corn. It turns out I don't really need to write my own article, since plenty of people have done a great job of writing it for me. I really liked this one from the LA Times by Michael Hiltzik.

I'm going to do some choice copy and pasting here:
The research in question is a paper published a few weeks ago by a team led by French biologist Gilles-Eric Seralini. Its findings were explosive: Laboratory rats fed for up to two years on genetically modified corn of a type widely used in the U.S. developed huge, grotesque tumors.

The paper claimed to be "the first detailed documentation of long-term deleterious effects arising from the consumption" of the corn. Seralini found very similar effects in rats fed high dosages of Roundup, a widely used pesticide that the corn had been engineered to tolerate, and in rats fed a combination of the corn and Roundup.
Holy crap, one might rightly think. That's terrifying. But remember that thing I wrote about a few weeks ago about how something being published doesn't necessarily mean it's correct, true, or backed by good science, and that's why we need more double-checking of our colleagues' work? Unfortunately, Seralini's paper is so obviously flawed that even a grad student like myself could pick out mistakes, and I'm astonished it was published at all. For one thing, even the way that it is being billed as some kind of vanguard study, for the first time observing the effects of GMOs in the diet, is entirely false (emphasis mine):
By the way, Seralini's paper isn't the first long-term study of genetically modified foods in the American diet, by a long shot. The same journal that published Seralini's paper (Food and Chemical Toxicology) published a survey of 12 studies of genetically modified corn, soybeans and rice tested on rats, cows, salmon or monkeys for up to two years, and in general found no evidence of any health hazards.
So in stark contrast to the fantastical findings in Seralini's paper, twelve other studies in other animals over the same duration found nothing, and that's just in one journal. This is an anti-GMO argument I see a lot -- for some reason there is this idea that there isn't research being done on the effects of GMOs. I don't know where people are getting this information, because there are tons of studies, both past and present, that mostly show nothing. Seralini's is an astonishing exception.

But okay. Let's not just dismiss it based in it being a lone voice of opposition against a stack of contrasting evidence; after all, sometimes you only need one iconoclast to drastically alter knowledge. Hiltzik nicely broke down the issues with the paper itself:
Among the most common critiques of the experiment is that Seralini used an insufficient number of control rats — 180 test rats were fed genetically modified corn, Roundup or both, but only 20 control rats were fed a purportedly normal diet. Critics say that's too small a control group to be statistically valid.
Of course you'll see more tumor growth in a group that's nine times as large as another group. The proportions are so off that the scientific community dismisses even percentage-based differences between the two groups, because those differences will be more likely to be due to chance. In fact, I could find no evidence in the paper that the authors even tested for statistical significance in the mortality and instances of tumor development between groups. This is a huge -- HUGE! -- red flag. They use misleading statements like "In the female cohorts, there were 2–3 times more deaths in all treated groups compared to controls by the end of the experiment and earlier in general." Announcing from which group rats died earlier is a completely meaningless statement when one group has 180 possible rats that can die and another group only has 20; furthermore, the phrase "2-3 times more deaths" is a tricky phrase because it sounds bad, but it actually only indicates quantity. Saying "2-3 times as likely to die" would indicate tested  -- and (hopefully) verified by statistical significance -- increased odds of death, but "2-3 times more deaths" only means 2-3 times as many rats died in the treatment groups than the control groups, which is again a big DUH since 180 rats vs. 20 rats, well -- you get the picture.
Moreover, the researchers identified no dose-related response: The rats fed higher doses of pesticide or GM corn didn't consistently get sicker than those fed lower doses. In fact, some rats fed higher doses did better than the others.

Seralini offered no explanation why rats fed a pesticide should show the same pathology as rats fed genetically modified corn but not the pesticide, although Roundup and genetically modified corn are totally different things with, one would presume, different effects on the organism. That points to another shortcoming of the paper, which is that there's no explanation or even hypothesis of why either impurity should produce the tumors Seralini found.

"They don't show a plausible biochemical or molecular mechanism for the effect," observes Kevin Folta, a plant biologist at the University of Florida who has written critically about the Seralini paper. "It happens with two completely independent treatments, the herbicide and the [genetically modified] product, and to get the same unusual response from both is beyond suspicious."

The ultimate complicating factor is that the strain of lab rat Seralini used is predisposed to tumors, especially mammary tumors. By about 2 years of age, 80% of these rats will have them, on average. Therefore, the longer the experiment proceeds, the cloudier the data become, because most of the rats would eventually be tumor-ridden anyway. In other words, the length of the study isn't a virtue, as Seralini contends, but may be a flaw.
The dose-response and lack-of-mechanism stuff is bad, but not ultimately completely damning. Papers are published all the time that show some kind of association, but don't yet propose a causal mechanism in the body that explains the observation. Usually, what that means is that the scientific community accepts such a paper as an interesting observation worthy of further study, not as a dogmatic assertion of biological truth, and that's an important distinction against the reception of this paper: this is suddenly being treated by the anti-GMO crowd like absolute truth, even without those biological explanations, and that's bad.

And why isn't there a really viable biological explanation for Seralini's observations? Hello! Did you see that last paragraph? Allow me to repeat: "The ultimate complicating factor is that the strain of lab rat Seralini used is predisposed to tumors, especially mammary tumors. By about 2 years of age, 80% of these rats will have them, on average." Consider that with the fact that, as the article mentions, Seralini's control group was tiny, and you've got a pretty obvious foregone conclusion. Of course rats that grow tumors anyway will grow tumors when you feed them, well, anything.

Regarding Prop 37 itself, which Hiltzik argues against in his article: the scientist in me thinks it's really silly, because in my view the arguments against GMOs hedge into woo-based misinformation about how it has to be bad for you because it's not natural. It's that, or else people don't like Monsanto so they lash back at their GMO products. The pragmatist in me, though, thinks people can just have their labeled food. They can choose to eat what they want, even if it's based on exaggerated misinformation, because why not. In most other instances, I support people's decisions to control matters regarding their own bodies (being pro-vaccination is a notable exception.) I'm not entirely convinced, as the No on 37 lobbyists claim, that it will lead to increased food taxes/costs, but that's something I'll need to look into a little more. In short, I can't really endorse this proposition, because I feel it's based on quackery and fluff, but if labeled food increases the precious comfort and perceived bodily autonomy of the people of California, then all right hippies -- have at it.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Team America GIFs

I put these on my Tumblr, but I wanted to stick them here too. In case anyone needed a little more "America, Fuck Yeah" in their lives.

Book review: The Mortal Instruments 1-3 by Cassandra Clare

This review covers the “original” trilogy of The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, City of Ashes, and City of Glass. More books have been written and the series is up to five now; I have no idea how long the author intends for the series to run at this point.

Look at those covers — aren’t they kind of hilarious? Anyway, being the dedicated Tumblr user that I am, I couldn’t help but notice the fervor over these, particularly with the movie adaptation currently filming and slated for release in spring 2013. Turns out, I’m way behind on this phenomenon, since City of Bones was first released in 2008. Anyway. Onto the actual review-y stuff.

Set in modern New York, the series concerns the re-education of “mundane” Clary Fray, who grew up much like you and I, blind to the supernatural worlds that exist intertwined with ours. That changes one evening at a nightclub when she witnesses a group of Shadowhunters engaged in a bit of demon-slaying. Shadowhunters are humans that are angel-blessed and have the ability (and responsibility) to fight demons and other forces of evil. Shadowhunters are born only from the established bloodline of known Shadowhunters, so when the supposedly-normal Clary is able to see what ordinary humans, called “mundanes,” cannot, the Shadowhunter group takes her back to their lair. Meanwhile, her mother is kidnapped, as it turns out, by demons, and Clary and her new companions, along with her other mundane friend Simon, learn Clary’s true heritage and begin a quest to rescue her mother.

This is basically the setup for the first three books in the series, which has everything you would expect from a supernatural YA series: the epic and passionate romance that appears delayed by insurmountable circumstances and kind of leads to a love triangle, except that you’re never quite convinced that there is really any competition; the showdown between good and evil, which in this case is led by a former Shadowhunter-turned-bad; appearances from vampires, warlocks, werewolves, and faeries — etc, etc. There is also a lot of meta humor and current pop culture references, which make the books fun now but will probably lead to them seeming really dated in another few years.

Overall, yes, these were really fun. I read all three over the course of a single weekend, and I can understand why teenagers (aka, the actual target market for YA) have gone rabid over them. I really enjoyed the world-building and fast paced plot, both of which kept me engaged and caused me to want to zip through these quickly. The romance was fun too, due to a legitimately surprising twist, which keeps them “apart” for a good 2/3 of the trilogy and makes for some deliciously conflicted sexual tension. The writing itself was kind of hokey and immature, and didn’t really achieve the same kind of character depth or development that, say, Collins does in The Hunger Games, or even that THG would-be competitors like Divergent (Roth) do. What the characters lack in depth, though, they make up for in sassy quips. Again, these lend themselves to fun, quick reads rather than truly thought-provoking YA, but I’m not really complaining. One of the things that the Cannonball has done for me is taken away a bit of my prejudice regarding “serious” books. If I’m trying to read at least 52 books in a year, I owe myself a few silly fun ones along the way! So that’s what I recommend to my audience. The Mortal Instruments make a great palate-cleanser if you're used to reading more serious stuff: you’ll probably enjoy them, even if they don’t “stay with you,” as they say. And if this kind of stuff is actually right up your alley, you've probably already read them, since like I said, I'm late to this game.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Book review: Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

Description from Amazon: “Into Thin Air is the definitive account of the deadliest season in the history of Everest by the acclaimed journalist and author of the bestseller Into the Wild. On assignment for Outside Magazine to report on the growing commercialization of the mountain, Krakauer, an accomplished climber, went to the Himalayas as a client of Rob Hall, the most respected high-altitude guide in the world.  A rangy, thirty-five-year-old New Zealander, Hall had summited Everest four times between 1990 and 1995 and had led thirty-nine climbers to the top. Ascending the mountain in close proximity to Hall’s team was a guided expedition led by Scott Fischer, a forty-year-old American with legendary strength and drive who had climbed the peak without supplemental oxygen in 1994. But neither Hall nor Fischer survived the rogue storm that struck in May 1996.

Krakauer examines what it is about Everest that has compelled so many people — including himself — to throw caution to the wind, ignore the concerns of loved ones, and willingly subject themselves to such risk, hardship, and expense. Written with emotional clarity and supported by his unimpeachable reporting, Krakauer’s eyewitness account of what happened on the roof of the world is a singular achievement.”

I don’t really have a lot to add to the official description, as this is a nonfiction memoir, so a lot of the “stuff” I assess and critique in fiction are off the table here. I will note that Krakauer is an exceptional writer, so reading this does have the feel and pace of reading a suspenseful novel. It’s obvious that, as a reporter, Krakauer has made a point of gathering as much information and as many interviews as he could, and doing so has resulted in — what seemed to me to be — a comprehensive, insightful, empathetic, and reasoned take on the events of May 10/11, 1996. Into Thin Air is not without its controversy and detractors, but I think for his part Krakauer was able to elegantly cover a very sensitive subject.  In addition to the straightforward recollection of the summit attempt, Krakauer also engages in fascinating personal reflection and reveals a great deal of his own survivor’s guilt and grief. And, even though I know everyone loves to play psychologist on the internet, I wouldn’t be surprised if his emotional state after the disaster could be considered straight-up PTSD.

The way this book has written gives it wide-ranging appeal beyond the obvious target group of mountaineers and lovers of the outdoors. Though this bestseller is some 15 years old at this point, it’s well worth a read if somehow you, like me, had managed to miss it up until now.

Really, Spotify?

I was going to call this More Things I Do Not Need, but since both of the things I do not need so far have involved Spotify, I'm just going to be more direct.

I do not need the auditory assault that is the advertisement for Bruno Mars' new album. This alone wouldn't be cause for complaint, since Spotify has so far proven itself to be notoriously bad at targeted advertising, and thus constantly feeds a stream of music-related ads at me that, if it actually paid attention to what I listen to, it would know I do not want.

What makes this egregious is that Bruno Mars, he of the ill-advised grenade catching and insipid crooning about love as best understood by a 14 year old, has decided that the album cover that best represents his swag is some lady's decolletage. And Spotify has decided to make this image HUGE on my computer. Do I need to reiterate:


Do they not understand how many people use this service at work? And that I'd prefer not to have a huge picture of that on my screen when I go to the app? 

For this latest dunderhead move, Spotify gets three out of three exasperated Judge Judys.

Monday, October 8, 2012

According to someone every day, music dies

Hey guys, did you hear? Indie is dead! I don't usually follow HIPSTER RUNOFF, which is basically what it sounds like. It covers hipster music and "culture" (have we defined what hipster culture actually is yet?), usually in tiresome and off-putting ironic lolspeak and hyperbole. If hipsterism is, at least in part, trolling earnestness, i.e. desperately pretending not to care about something you really care about and doing everything in the name of irony, then HRO exists to troll hipsters by being hipster at hipsters. Have I lost you yet? Good. You just, like, don't get it, man. Appropriately, then, the site has heralded the end of indie, and the article was brought to my attention by Yeasayer's facebook page, with the caption "Someone telling it like it is -- how do we make a change?"
Here we are in the content farm era where Pitchfork, Rolling Stone, SPIN, HIPSTER RUNOFF, Brooklyn Vegan,, Stereogum, Buzzfeed Music, Shitty, GVB, FADER, Complex, [other random ass blog/dumb website/magazine] all generally post the same stuff. It’s just a matter of creating brand loyalty via aesthetics and the perception of premium content to lemming ass internet users.
Maybe just make something that people can share on Facebook to controversially discuss amongst their friends.
The demand for ‘innovative’ content has formed a buzz bubble. Chillwave and sponsored-content-wave artists were the main beneficiary of this bubble (post2k.5-2k11), but now, so many bands are getting a taste of alleged buzz ‘before they are ready’/before it even means anything in a legitimate context. The buzz machine is broken because there is no trusted, fail proof mechanism to create pure buzz.
There is truth in this. Bigger emerging 'indie' artists don't stay 'indie' for very long anymore, and there is no discernible delineation between 'mainstream' press like Rolling Stone and 'hipster' press like Pitchfork or HRO. So you get bands that, by and large, should be indie bands, but they're suddenly already famous before they've even really done anything noteworthy. This article namedrops Lana Del Rey, Purity Ring, and Grimes as examples of this.
I’m not sure if I have unreasonable expectations. There just has to be a new way that bands can ‘become bands’ other than ‘getting on the same set of websites that will issue predictable opinions on them.’ Or maybe a website can offer a new way of presenting bands without standardized commentary. Perhaps ‘streaming services’ like Spotify and Pandora have become those to some extent. Those appeal to the people who ‘just want the music’ without needing to know the context.
I guess what all this means, really, that what is happening is an acceleration of the cycle that we already knew existed: sometimes indie bands outgrow indie and enter the mainstream. But HRO's argument, I guess, is that bands used to have to actually prove themselves before that happened, and it was a critical mass of fan-generated buzz that elevated them, not prematurely fawning articles from music publications desperate to discover the next big thing. So indie bands now are less about the music they produce and more about their capacity to generate interesting content for the press that covers them.

ALL THAT SAID. They haven't really convinced me that this is a thing that has broken indie beyond repair. Theorem:
  1. Music speaks for itself
  2. Taste is subjective
That is, if a band sucks, then we are in agreement: it sucks! And life goes on. Unless it doesn't actually suck that bad, and a lot of people end up liking it, even if the critics don't (which happens all the time. And life goes on.)

And here is kind of the main point. Purely as a consumer of music, I have very little motivation, outside of the impetus to maybe appear 'cool' or 'scene,' to double-check the credible indieness of whatever group I've just become interested in. Like, what does this even mean?:
Maybe the indie experiment only existed to create Grimes, the ultimate internet content producer who makes content directly aimed at internet viewers. She is the best example of ‘not being a band/musician’, but instead a ‘playing by the rules’ content generation machine that resonates with humans wasting time on the internet.
 I'm not sure I even really care to understand. This is fun:

What I want from music is to like the sound, and (ideally, but not always) for it to speak to me personally in some way. The fact that the artist didn't burst out of a cocoon of spiritual enlightenment with this song on her self-actualized lips means nothing to me if it can still manage to evoke something in me. Sometimes artists write songs for themselves, and sometimes they write them for the people who are listening. Am I being manipulated because I like songs by someone who is "not a band/musician" but rather a "content generation machine"? I don't know, and I don't care. I've passed that point in my life where I need to measure the music I like by anyone's coolness barometer other than my own, thank god.

Ultimately, I'm not too concerned about this article. Like I said in the first paragraph, HRO is a meta hipster troll site, and though there has been a noticeable shift in the way that indie buzz is created and distributed, I am pretty sure life will go on, music will be made, and I'll find something to like. I kind of wonder why Yeasayer felt like they needed to signal boost the article, but trying to analyze the intentions of a band as frequently oblique as Yeasayer is a fruitless endeavor.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Book review: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick

Plot summary from Amazon:

“By 2021, the World War had killed millions, driving entire species into extinction and sending mankind off-planet. Those who remained coveted any living creature, and for people who couldn’t afford one, companies built incredibly realistic simulacrae: horses, birds, cats, sheep. . . They even built humans.

Emigrées to Mars received androids so sophisticated it was impossible to tell them from true men or women. Fearful of the havoc these artificial humans could wreak, the government banned them from Earth. But when androids didn’t want to be identified, they just blended in.

Rick Deckard was an officially sanctioned bounty hunter whose job was to find rogue androids, and to retire them. But cornered, androids tended to fight back, with deadly results.”

My enduring impression of Dick is that he is a genius when it comes to visions. The worlds he creates, the stories, the ideological conflicts — all are arresting and immediately engrossing. As a writer though, the words he puts on the page somehow fail (for me anyway) to inspire the kind of electric energy that could bring his books to the next level. That’s how it is with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the story that inspired the film Blade Runner. If you’ve seen the film before reading this book, you may be surprised, as I was, as to how different the book actually is. Without getting into a detailed description of all of the elements that were changed for the screenplay, I’ll just say that I think Blade Runner did a better job with Dick’s story than Dick did.

I rarely feel this way when it comes to books vs. movie adaptations, but I don’t really think this book is required reading at this point. It’s bizarre: very cold and detached, with all of the tension building to Deckard’s final showdown with the remaining androids, though the final meeting wraps up in a matter of seconds. It’s the ultimate in anti-climatic; I literally blinked and missed it and had to go back and make sure I had really just read the entire encounter in about four sentences. I don’t really have much else to say. It’s a short review for a short book.

Book review: The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned by Anne Rice

I’m doing these two together because I read them together, and because Queen of the Damned picks up right were Lestat left off. Beginning in Lestat, the titular character has awoken some time in the 1980′s after years of sleep. He comes across the “memoir” Interview with the Vampire, written by Louis, the vampire he had created over a century earlier. He decides, partly to get the attention of Louis, and partly to set the record straight, to form a hugely popular rock band and release an album and novel (all called “The Vampire Lestat”) at the same time to create intrigue. What we are reading, then, is his novel of his early life as a vampire, bookended by more recent exposition at the time of his awakening.

Queen of the Damned begins on the evening of The Vampire Lestat’s debut concert, when Lestat’s music has awoken Akasha, the millenia-old original vampire. Lestat is the narrator of this story, too, but he has also “collected” the stories of other vampire characters as they concern their whereabouts and doings that evening of Akasha’s rise. Akasha, herself, has a plan (that Valerie Solanas would love) to “save” humankind from itself, and she has taken Lestat with her as her prince to put the plan into motion.

Taken together with Interview with the Vampire, I found the story overall to progressively pick up steam. Interview was an interesting read, but a rather slow one. Lestat started off much the same, and I wasn’t intensely interested in most of his backstory; he engaged in a lot of the kind of existential whining and drama that Louis did for most of Interview. It wasn’t really until Lestat relates the story of Marius, which gets into the detailed history of vampires themselves and introduces Akasha and Enkil, the original Mother and Father, that I started to really feel engaged. That anticipation continued into Queen, and as such I finished this novel much more quickly than either of the other two. It had a lot more action, and the idea that it was taking place in the present rather than being presented as a memoir worked to up the excitement for me as well. Finally, in the third novel, we also get to meet many more of the older vampires, and the dynamics of the group as they come together provided a welcome dimension of interaction that differed from the histrionic “fatal attraction” type of love that was often described between several of the vampire “couples.”

As these are “classic” (in their own way) vampire novels, it is hard for me to recommend some over the other, as there are extremes these days in what people like in their vampire stories. For me, if I were to do it over again, I would skip Interview entirely and begin with Lestat’s story. Though the first half of the novel wasn’t my favorite, it provided the necessary backstory to understand Queen, which was my favorite.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Things I was really proud of when I was younger

Maybe as a kid you weren't as competitive as I was, but if you were, you may be able to relate to my experience of turning the dumbest things into a competition. Here are some I was actually proud of "winning" as a youngster:
  • Having the fastest WPM on "Mario Teaches Typing"
  • Having the biggest shoe size among my girl friends
  • Being the "best" girl longjumper in my class (my Olympic dreams were promptly and thoroughly dashed at our first track meet which involved other schools)
  • Having the most successful "business" of leasing out my Beanie Babies for the day to sit on the desktops of other students who were not fortunate enough to own their own Beanie Babies -- No shit. I actually did this. There was a sign up sheet on my locker, and for a small fee of whatever-it-was-I-don't-remember I would let classmates rent my Beanie Babies for the day so that they could avoid looking dreadfully uncool by not having them around in class. Other people caught onto what I was doing and tried to replicate it, but I was the original gangsta and no one came close to my entrepreneurship
  • Being tall enough to stand in the back row for class pictures
  • Building the longest clover chains
  • Finding substantial vats of "Indian clay" -- I can't even begin to describe what this could have actually been, but it was what we called the clay-like mud that occasionally could be found underneath our sand pits and the like. So PC of us...
  • Being able to withstand Indian burns the longest -- and as long as I'm remembering inappropriate uses of "Indian," here is another dumb accomplishment. Who is actually proud of letting their classmates injure the shit out of their arm skin? I was!
Were you a goofy kid too?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Things I do not need

That Durex ad that has been playing on Spotify for the last few weeks (not gonna link to it because of reasons, and I'm sure you've heard it if you listen to Spotify.)

Why I do not need this:
  1. I'm at work
  2. I'm disgruntled that a company that purports to specialize in sex, by way of making condoms, engages in tired-ass stereotyping about the kind of sex 'women' vs 'men' like to have
  3. I'm at work. Seriously. There are people around.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"More trial, less error"

Here is an interesting article about reproducibility in science -- a really important concept that falls by the wayside more often than it should.

There is a daunting amount of research that is published monthly in every scientific field, including the social sciences. Papers often contradict each other, indicating unreliable results or results that are specific to the conditions in which the experiments were performed, or the group that was surveyed, etc. Many other published works, though, go unchallenged for months or years before anyone else attempts to recreate the experiment, or improves the experimental method or designs a new method. In this time, other work may be done that accepts these results as fact and begins a new phase of experimentation that builds on the inherent assumption that the prior work was true. This can result in impossible projects or increasingly stacked publication of unreliable data, if the initial assumption was a bad one.

This is why projects like the "Reproducibility Initiative," discussed in the linked article, are so important:
"‘Published' and ‘true' are not synonyms," said Brian Nosek, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a member of the initiative's advisory board.
Last year, Bayer Healthcare reported that its scientists could not reproduce some 75 percent of published findings in cardiovascular disease, cancer and women's health.
In March, Lee Ellis of M.D. Anderson Cancer Center and C. Glenn Begley, the former head of global cancer research at Amgen, reported that when the company's scientists tried to replicate 53 prominent studies in basic cancer biology, hoping to build on them for drug discovery, they were able to confirm the results of only six.
The new initiative, said Begley, senior vice president of privately held biotechnology company TetraLogic, "recognizes that the problem of non-reproducibility exists and is taking the right steps to address it."
Those are some pretty awful statistics. Without knowing exactly what studies these scientists were able to reproduce, the use of the word "prominent" suggests to me that these could have been studies in higher-impact journals, which are supposed to have more rigorous peer-review and editing standards in order to avoid publishing sloppy science. The top journals are not completely immune to publication of "bad" or problematic studies, but it is supposed to happen less often.

The initiative is a great idea and offers an important service. We need more resources like this in science, double-checking results to verify their validity. We need these resources to be available in a trustworthy environment, so that lead scientists feel comfortable sharing their data and techniques without fear of getting "scooped" -- I believe that this (justifiable) fear is what prevents a lot of these checks from happening in the first place, so these "validation labs" would need to be neutral, non-competitive environments.

The diseases we are studying are complicated enough as is, and we don't need bad data or results obscuring their true nature and causes any more than the human body already does.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Book review: Partials by Dan Wells

Amazon: “The human race is all but extinct after a war with Partials—engineered organic beings identical to humans—has decimated the population. Reduced to only tens of thousands by RM, a weaponized virus to which only a fraction of humanity is immune, the survivors in North America have huddled together on Long Island while the Partials have mysteriously retreated. The threat of the Partials is still imminent, but, worse, no baby has been born immune to RM in more than a decade. Our time is running out.
Kira, a sixteen-year-old medic-in-training, is on the front lines of this battle, seeing RM ravage the community while mandatory pregnancy laws have pushed what’s left of humanity to the brink of civil war, and she’s not content to stand by and watch. But as she makes a desperate decision to save the last of her race, she will find that the survival of humans and Partials alike rests in her attempts to uncover the connections between them—connections that humanity has forgotten, or perhaps never even knew were there.”

I’m just going to keep on rolling with the dystopian/survival thing. Partials was a lot of fun: there is a varied cast of characters, personality-wise and racial/ethnically (fistbump for diversity in YA literature,) a great fast pace that had me finishing this one in about a day, and a nice twist in the middle of the book. The protagonist, Kira Walker, is an interesting character. She’s kind of a smartass, and she’s intelligent, moral, and brave. I also really enjoyed the aspect that within the community of surviving humans, it’s not as if there is complete peace and concord. The government has enacted some desperate measures that divide the survivors and has caused some of them to live in the open, beyond the protection of the Defense Grid and therefore more immediately vulnerable to attack from the Partials. The particular law at the center of the ideological chasm is the Hope Act, which states that women 18 and older are required to try and get pregnant as often as possible, in order to potentially have even a single child that is born immune to the RM virus. It’s drastic in the way that government laws often are in dystopian literature, but still, it eerily reflects a political climate today in the US that seems rather focused on legislating women’s bodies. Partials was published early in 2012; I’m not sure, given the timing of writing and publication, if Wells was “inspired” by current events, or that the similarities are coincidental. In any case, the parallels did amp up my reading experience.

Overall, this one is recommended. It’s a quick read, with a story that draws you in, and IMO likeable characters. I’m looking forward to the sequel next year (are there any YA novels coming out right now that don’t have intended sequels?)

Brilliant Internet Comment

From this post:

To be fair, if you are the kind of guy who whine on about man-hating feminists, there’s a pretty good chance that many feminists do indeed hate you (I know I do). Your mistake is thinking that this is because of your gender rather than your repugnant, insufferable, ugly personality, your rude, obnoxious, boorish behavior, your petty, small-minded, self-righteous sense of entitlement, your sociopathic disregard for the feelings of your fellow human beings unless they happen to have/be a dick like yourself, your hateful, intolerant, fascistic bigotry, and your general lack of any traits that any person in his/her right mind could find anything other than infinitely disgusting. And I haven’t even gotten to the bad part yet.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book review: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

From Amazon: “The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night. 
But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway: a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them both, this is a game in which only one can be left standing. Despite the high stakes, Celia and Marco soon tumble headfirst into love, setting off a domino effect of dangerous consequences, and leaving the lives of everyone, from the performers to the patrons, hanging in the balance.”

I’m not going to spend a ton of time on little details because I'm a lazy reviewer again today.

I will, however, offer criticism, as this book wasn’t 100% perfect for me. (Yes, I’m holding it to a higher standard than my pet genre of YA dystopian lit.) Essentially, what everyone before me has said is true: Morgenstern is a master storybuilder, and her vivid imagination of the Night Circus leaps off the page. It’s lush and beautiful and it’s the circus I wish I have always wanted to see. The off-linear pacing from the converging timelines was skillfully performed, but I was a little distracted by the second-person narratives that were thrown in from time to time.

But the biggest issue for me was the romance. I couldn’t grasp any motivation or reasoning behind Celia and Marco falling in love, other than that they were “supposed to.” As far as I can tell, Marco is enchanted at first sight, but Celia never seems to much register his existence; then, she discovers that he is her “opponent,” and a few brief meetings later, they are DEEPLY IN LOVE, owing to their magical cosmic connection or something. Celia goes from a strong, composed, charismatic and powerful person into a simpering “I don’t have the strength to do this without him!” trope.

It was so easy, with the rest of this book, to be picked up and swept away into the beauty and magic of the circus. The romance dragged me out of my reverie; it was too cliched and seemed to have been built on nothing. Clearly, this was not as distracting for a lot of people as it was for me, and truthfully, I still do highly recommend this book. It is a gorgeous and unique read, and it was evocative of vivid imagery in a way that few other novels have been recently. I just could have been truly blown away with some more depth to the characters and more truth to their romance.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Book review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Amazon description: “The times and species have been changing at a rapid rate, and the social compact is wearing as thin as environmental stability. Adam One, the kindly leader of the God’s Gardeners–a religion devoted to the melding of science and religion, as well as the preservation of all plant and animal life–has long predicted a natural disaster that will alter Earth as we know it. Now it has occurred, obliterating most human life. Two women have survived: Ren, a young trapeze dancer locked inside the high-end sex club Scales and Tails, and Toby, a God’s Gardener barricaded inside a luxurious spa where many of the treatments are edible.
Have others survived? Ren’s bioartist friend Amanda? Zeb, her eco-fighter stepfather? Her onetime lover, Jimmy? Or the murderous Painballers, survivors of the mutual-elimination Painball prison? Not to mention the shadowy, corrupt policing force of the ruling powers…

Meanwhile, gene-spliced life forms are proliferating: the lion/lamb blends, the Mo’hair sheep with human hair, the pigs with human brain tissue. As Adam One and his intrepid hemp-clad band make their way through this strange new world, Ren and Toby will have to decide on their next move. They can’t stay locked away…”

(This is going to be kind of a lazy review — sorry.) Like Oryx and Crake, I had a bit of trouble with this one. Not so much with the story or the book itself, I suppose, but the way that Atwood (and many reviewers) seem to think that this world is an inevitability. I suppose only time will tell if I’m the one that’s naive here, but I find all of the “a world so similar to our own” rhetoric around these two books a bit overdramatic and tinfoil-hat-y. I mean, sure, genetic engineering and gene-splicing exist, but not like this. There are elements of truth and feasibility, but I don’t think we are depraved enough collectively to move in the direction portrayed in these novels. We’ll see, I guess.

Anyway, story-wise, I liked this one more than Oryx and Crake, mostly because I liked the narrators in The Year of the Flood a lot better than I liked Jimmy/Snowman in Oryx and Crake. What can I say — Toby and Ren’s backstories of survival and coping with adversity were a lot more interesting than Jimmy’s “Woe is me, my best friend is smarter than me and I’m in love with a manic pixie dream former child prostitute” memoir. The narrative gets a little jumpy, as the characters’ backstories catch up to the present, and the switches between character POVs are broken up by God’s Gardener sermons and hymns, which I found a little trite and tiring. Overall though, it was an interesting read, but not one of my favorite books this year.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sunscreen: Let Me Tell You About It

While reading this article today ("Sunscreen Myths And Misconceptions",) it occurred to me that writing my own post on the topic is long overdue. As a sunscreen disciple who has done a lot of research into ingredients and effectiveness, I've become very confident in my own sun protection, and dispense advise (both solicited and not) frequently to those around me.

I don't feel that I need to begin by justifying why sunscreen is good for you. Everything I've read that suggests otherwise is pseudoscientific bunk. Similarly, I don't want to spend a lot of time talking about cancer risk, since, again, the only people that deny that sunscreen decreases your risk of skin cancer are woo practitioners. I'd much rather delve into trying to break down some of the technical aspects of sunscreen itself and try to make it easier for neophytes and non-chemists to understand (yes there may have just been a GPB reference there.) If you're interested in the pesudoscience/cancer discussion, the link above does a good job debunking some of the myths behind anti-sunscreen proclamations.

First up, I want to talk about the difference between UVB and UVA, and what they mean for your skin.


In the most simplified terms, UVB gives you a visible, red, sunburn. UVB penetrates the outer-most epidermis only, and produce more severe immediate damage to those layers. UVA penetrates more deeply, and it will very rarely produce a red burn, but it primarily contributes to tanning and longer-term indicators of damage, like wrinkles and spots. Tans, though perceived as attractive, are actually evidence of sun damage, but since they aren't painful like sunburns, we tend not to think of them this way. (I should note that when I say "tans are sun damage" I am of course NOT referring to skin that is of a naturally darker complexion; I'm talking about the changing of one's complexion.) Both types of rays will contribute to skin cancer risk, especially over time; though, generally speaking, burns caused by UVB increase risk more immediately. This is a nice segue way to:

Probably everyone has heard of Sun Protection Factor (SPF); it's the nice number on your sunscreen that tells you how good the protection is. The SPF number informs you how strong the protection is with the following formula:

SPF X absorbs 1 - 1/X of UVB rays.
So for example, SPF of 30 absorbs (1-1/30), or about 96.7% of the sun's UVB rays. SPF 55 absorbs 98.2% of the sun's UVB rays. SPF 100 absorbs 99% of the sun's UVB rays. This is all why people say there isn't much of a point in spending more money on some of the higher SPF sunscreens beyond 45 or 50 -- because there isn't much of a difference between 98.2% and 99.0%, even though the 100 SPF is almost twice as high as SPF 55.

Astute readers who didn't fall asleep during the math section may notice that the SPF formula only covers UVB. That's correct! Persistent Pigment Darkening (PPD), the measure of UVA protection, has never been required information for United States sunscreens, so it's harder to judge how well a sunscreen will protect you against these longer waves. The best you can do is try to know your filters -- the exact chemical compounds in sunscreen that block or absorb UV radiation. This isn't always easy, because there are a lot of them, so I'll try to stick to the most important ones.

Physical Filters
The two main physical filters used in sunscreen are Zinc Oxide (ZnO) and Titanium Dioxide (TiO2). A "physical" filter means that the particles sit on top of your skin and act as a physical barrier to scatter, reflect, and absorb UV rays. Both of these two filters protect against UVB rays, but TiO2 has an absorption spectrum that only covers the shorter range of UVA: the "half" of the UVA spectrum that is closer to UVB, also known as UVA II. ZnO covers the full range of the UV spectrum, so sunscreens that use only physical filters offer much better protection if they include ZnO.

Chemical/Organic Filters
There are tons of these! So like I said, I'm going to try to keep it as simple as possible. Chemical/organic filters penetrate the epidermis and create an in-skin barrier that absorbs UV rays and metabolizes them into heat. It doesn't make you feel hot, not hotter than sitting in the sun anyway. It's just an energy-releasing reaction. And why the name "organic"? Well, organic compounds are literally those that have carbon in them, which these filters do, as opposed to the molecules that comprise physical filters. The two main things you need to be concerned about with when selecting sunscreens with organic filters are:
1. Coverage of the UV spectrum (like with physical filters,) and
2. Photostability.

The most common organic filters you'll see these days in United States sunscreens are Avobenzone, Octisalate, Octocrylene, Homosalate, Oxybenzone, and Octinoxate. Most sunscreens avoid using PABA these days, as it has been demonstrated to be potentially damaging -- so you should avoid sunscreens with PABA if you happen to see them. Avobenzone covers UVAII, and is the only one of these that protects against the longest-wave UVA rays up to 400nm, also known as UVA I. (Feel free to keep checking on the graphics above when I'm talking about short and long waves for reference!) The rest are all UVB filters, except for oxybenzone, which covers both UVB and UVA II. Oxybenzone is a good filter, but it does tend to be absorbed through the skin intact (rather than degraded into different, inert compounds) into the bloodstream more than the others. So far, no research indicates that there is any adverse effect from this, but if it makes you wary, you can avoid this filter. Due to the overlapping and complementary nature of these filters, they are often used together to boost UVB protection and cover the full UV spectrum.

So, what is photostability? Well, organic filters, as they absorb and metabolize UV light, are themselves degraded. Some degrade quickly enough in sunlight that they are considered photo-unstable. Avobenzone is one of these, but we like to see it in sunscreens because it protects against UVA I, while the other filters don't. Fortunately, sunscreen makers have found a way to stabilize it in solution by adding octocrylene. So that's a good green flag: if you see avobenzone and octocrylene in a sunscreen, chances are it's in effort to stabilize avobenzone so that it lasts longer. Avobenzone also has an enemy, though: it's already unstable on its own, but if you add octinoxate to the mix, it helps degrade avobenzone even faster! If you need help remembering this, a mnemonic that has helped me remember is "OctiNOxate," as in "octiNOxate is NO GOOD with avobenzone."

Why is photostability important? Well, first know that it is better to wear an unstable sunscreen than no sunscreen at all, since you're at least getting some protection. Beyond that, a photostable sunscreen is important because most people don't reapply sunscreen throughout the day when they are in the sun, and a stable sunscreen will simply last longer and offer better protection for longer. If you are the type that doesn't mind conscientiously re-applying every 2 hours, then maybe stability isn't as much of a concern for you. But I'd say that type of person is about 5% or less in the population, so most of us are better off seeking out photostable sunscreens.

I also want to talk about two other filters that have been prevalent in European sunscreens for at least 10 years, but are either not approved or very recently recently approved by the FDA here in the US. Tinosorb S and Mexoryl are both broad-spectrum filters that absorb the majority of the UVB and UVA spectrum, with drop-offs in absorption toward the extreme ends of the spectrum (as with all filters.) They are also both photostable, and Tinosorb actually can also stabilize avobenzone in solution. These are awesome, multipurpose beasts of UV filters, and the FDA is just taking forever to approve them. Come on, FDA! Fortunately, sunscreens using these filters are not too difficult to get online.

That should about wrap it up. In summary, here is what you should consider when selecting a sunscreen:

1. Physical or organic filters? Generally, the recommendation seems to be to start with organic filters and see how your skin takes to them. If you have sensitive skin or find that you react to most sunscreens that use organic filters, it may be time to get physical. If you're doing so, make sure you get one with zinc oxide, since that provides the best protection.
2. If organic works for you, make sure it has stable, broad-spectrum filters. Look for 30+ SPF sunscreens with avobenzone and octocrylene, first and foremost -- not one or the other. If they also have homosaliate and octisalate, that's fine; they're just contributing further UVB protection. Same goes for oxybenzone, unless you'd rather avoid it. If you can find sunscreens with Mexoryl and Tinosorb, try those out too! (They're personally my favorites, but that's not a scientific bias so much as what formulations I like best from experience.)

I hope this all helped! If there is interest, I can do a separate post for questions and/or my personal sunscreen picks!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book review: The Passage by Justin Cronin

Amazon says: “An epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival,The Passage is the story of Amy—abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her. As the experiment goes nightmarishly wrong, Wolgast secures her escape—but he can’t stop society’s collapse. And as Amy walks alone, across miles and decades, into a future dark with violence and despair, she is filled with the mysterious and terrifying knowledge that only she has the power to save the ruined world.”
That’s… a pretty condensed description, given that this book is ~800 pages long and Amy is in about 60% of it (not because she dies! Not a spoiler.) In fact, that’s really more of a set-up than it is in the description. The majority of the novel concerns human refugees trying to survive following a viral pandemic that killed most humans, and turned the rest into a vampiric species that has decimated most remaining human enclaves.
Immediately after I finished this a few weeks ago, I had a lot of thoughts about it, positive and negative. After those few weeks of reflection, the aspects of the book that stick with me the most are, unfortunately, the ones that left a negative impression. To start with the positive before I get too critique-y: I always love a good pandemic/survival plot, and Cronin keeps good pacing and suspense throughout the lengthy expanse of the novel. I didn’t get bored of reading and was overall invested in the story. But.

The novel is as long as it is mainly because Cronin insists on having, like, 20 main characters, and giving each of them a few narrative pages, and then giving some supporting characters narrative first-person pages too, just for shits and giggs. As a result, there are so many characters, and very few of them are really developed. Or, a character will become fully fleshed out, and we’ll start caring about him/her, and then we won’t hear from him/hear again for the next 200 pages. It’s quite frustrating. The Passage is still essentially linear, and the shifts between character POVs don’t break up the time continuum much, but character continuity is often completely destroyed. I got so tired of having to jump to another character just when one got interesting.
Given all of that, it shouldn’t have been surprising how disappointing, nay, infuriating, the ending was. There are “open” endings, and there are cliffhanger endings, and this was worse. Whatever precious little emotional goodwill invested in the characters is absolutely shat on, as precisely zero of the characters are granted any kind of resolution whatsoever. The ending read like one of the abrupt transitions between character POVs, except it was the end of the whole book. It’s almost like Cronin was like, “Well, I’m tired of writing, and after 800 pages, they’re probably tired of reading, so this should be good enough!”

So — would I recommend this book? Well, no, honestly. And I feel bad, saying so, because it didn’t really feel like a bad or sub-par book as I was reading it. I was engaged. It was well-written. But it was a bit jumpy and abrupt, and for it to end as such just seemed lazy. I understand, and often enjoy, open endings, because they are thought provoking, and on top of collecting my own thoughts, I often want to go out into the fandom and connect with other people and read their thoughts. But this wasn’t like that. It just pissed me off, to be honest. It’s like the last 50 pages of the book just got lost in between the editor’s desk and the printing press. It’s as if I were to end this review without actually

Friday, August 17, 2012

Book review: Insurgent by Veronica Roth

Summary: “One choice can transform you–or it can destroy you. But every choice has consequences, and as unrest surges in the factions all around her, Tris Prior must continue trying to save those she loves–and herself–while grappling with haunting questions of grief and forgiveness, identity and loyalty, politics and love.
Tris’s initiation day should have been marked by celebration and victory with her chosen faction; instead, the day ended with unspeakable horrors. War now looms as conflict between the factions and their ideologies grows. And in times of war, sides must be chosen, secrets will emerge, and choices will become even more irrevocable–and even more powerful. Transformed by her own decisions but also by haunting grief and guilt, radical new discoveries, and shifting relationships, Tris must fully embrace her Divergence, even if she does not know what she may lose by doing so.”

Awihle back, Feminist Frequency’s Anita Sarkeesian made a video about True Grit’s Mattie Ross, saying that while she is a good character, and an interesting character, we should caution ourselves against  holding her up as the feminist ideal for strong female characters:
As we know, all people regardless of gender are capable of the entire range of human behaviours but since we live in a male dominated, male centered society traits stereotypically identified as masculine are most valued and consequentially more celebrated by Hollywood while traits stereotypically identified as feminine are undervalued and often denigrated…

In True Grit, Mattie is certainly subverts expected gender roles by being witty and smart and competent and independent yet she’s not challenging the set of patriarchal archetypal male values ever present in most mass media narratives – she’s actually adopting them.
In other words, having a woman “act like a man” doesn’t necessarily a Strong Female Character make. I’ve seen this described elsewhere as Strong Character, Female vs. Character, Strong Female. The former implies a strong character who happens to be female (we like this), while the latter is just about taking a female character and making her “strong” (can be problematic, depending on what “strong” means to the creator.)

Which brings me to this book. I’ve seen two main criticisms:
  1. Tris is a mess in this book. What happened to the girl I loved in Divergent?
  2. There is so much more ROMANCE in this book. Yuck! This isn’t Twilight! Get that shlocky stuff away from my dystopian YA lit!
Clearly, I’m about to disagree with these criticisms (I have my own, which I’ll get to a little later.) In Insurgent, Tris is very clearly traumatized by the events of the previous novel. I want to avoid spoilers, so suffice it to say she has some pretty damn good reasons to be messed up. It takes her most of the novel to “recover,” but she’s still not quite the same. To me, this is completely okay. I expect people who have been through that kind of crap to have a rough go for awhile, especially when the person in question is a sixteen year old girl. It is frustrating to see that kick-ass girl from Divergent go through this period, but to me it’s much more realistic that she would change based on what she’s experienced (and remember, Insurgent picks up immediately after Divergent, so she’s literally had no time to process what has happened when we meet her again in this novel) than if she had stayed exactly the same. I think her turmoil makes her a stronger (female) character, in terms of being a more interesting one. Tris continuing to kick ass without consequence would have been fun, but would this actually be a compelling, realistic human being? It is a more difficult read to be in the head of someone who doesn’t always think completely clearly, but to me, this doesn’t take away from the novel.

Regarding the romance, all I can really say is that the Twilight backlash has really ruined the ability to have romance in YA novels for awhile. Tris’ boyfriend is her emotional center in this novel out of necessity; she doesn’t really have anyone else. That doesn’t mean that the whole book is about them, but it does mean that there is a lot of gravity placed on their relationship and their interactions. It may seem melodramatic at times, but only because of the extreme situation these teens are in — they literally don’t know if they will live or die from one day to the next. So with all that said, no, I don’t think this book is “too much” about the romance. But even if the scales had tipped more in that direction, I take issue with the seeming idea that our young lady protagonists have to be compared to Bella just because part of their stories involve love.

Now — my impassioned defense thus far should make it pretty evident that I liked this book, and I did, basically for all the same reasons I liked Divergent. My main issue with it was the issue of “the secret,” and the ending reveal. Basically, there is this whole buildup where Tris is trying to get this other character to tell her the major secret that would shake up their society, and he’s all “I can’t, I have to SHOW you.” And then you find out what it is 200 pages later, and I was kind of like, “Really?” For one thing, it’s not all that shocking (I didn’t think) and for another thing, it was absolutely NOT anything that he couldn’t have just told her. The quest for the secret drives the plot in a major way, so for me it kind of made the whole part of the conflict surrounding it based on a pretty faulty premise. Despite that pretty major plot hole, though, the story is still extremely enjoyable. So even considering that AND the major cliffhanger ending, this still has been one of my favorite books of the cannonball so far.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Book review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

Amazon: In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.
During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

This one has been reviewed already and loved by many, so I’ll not get too long-winded, and just add my voice to the chorus. I loved this one; I’m truly a sucker for dystopian YA, it seems! Books of this ilk will be inevitably compared to The Hunger Games for awhile, but while Divergent shares its tone of dark anxiety and element of dangerous competition, the novels are otherwise obviously different. I liked that the reveal of what it meant to be Divergent wasn’t given away immediately — it allowed suspense to build and the conflict to become more urgent. I did not like, as much, that some people were revealed as Divergent, a bit too conveniently, I think, toward the end; though Tris (the protagonist) still did have to force her own resolution without relying too much on these reveals.

I don’t have it in me to do a much longer review, so suffice it to say that if you’re into YA or dystopian lit, you should absolutely check this one out. I, myself, am waiting for the sequel to come off of hold at the library!

Monday, July 30, 2012

Vaccines are a good thing.

News of the recent whooping cough epidemic in Canada has me putting on my raging boots for another science rant. Anti-vaccination rhetoric is an unfortunate consequence of insufficient science literacy and, in some cases, religious dogma. It is difficult to touch the religious crowd with respect to their beliefs, but there are plenty of others out there who are anti-vax simply due to ignorance and misinformation.

Most of the furor over the possible autism-vaccines connection stems from a 1998 paper published by Andrew Wakefield et. al. in the medical journal The Lancet. The paper suggested at a causal link between the MMR vaccine and ''regressive autism" -- autism that develops over time in children that were seemingly neurotypical before -- in 12 young patients. The paper has been thoroughly debunked, and was completely retracted by Lancet in 2010. Wakefield himself has been found guilty by the British General Medical Council of "serious professional misconduct" and struck off the medical register, effectively banning him from ever practicing medicine in the UK again.

As scientists, we don't just stop there. We conduct independent investigations. And what have we found? The Institute of Medicine, over the years, has conducted several in depth reviews of the medical and scientific literature as it relates to all varieties of vaccines and adverse health outcomes. Though in rare cases, their studies have found side-effects of some vaccines in individuals, again, there is no suggestive link between vaccines and autism."But there are side effects!" Well, yes. Of course there are. Just like how some people are allergic to shellfish, and some people experience side effects from, well, any other medication on the market, and any other substance on the planet, some people have reacted poorly to vaccines.

It is truly disappointing to me that concepts of statistical risk and social responsibility, ideas that most people generally seem to understand, suddenly seem to vanish when the subject is vaccination. Some people actually don't know about herd immunity (though everybody should,) but even some who do know still cross their arms, cover their eyes, and insist that they have the "right" to decide what is best for their child. And of course, they do. But when all evidence points to vaccination being what is best, this line of logic indicates nothing other than ignorance, and even hubris, on the part of these parents.

So, what can the rest of us do to combat conspiracy theorists, protect ourselves and others, and raise awareness?
  1. Get vaccinated, obviously, and make sure your family is vaccinated too. As adults, do you know that some of your vaccinations lose their effectiveness over time? Have a blood draw and request a titer test be done to check for your immune status against diseases covered by the regular vaccine schedule. Consider the Tdap booster as an adult, which covers tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis (whooping cough.)
  2. Educate yourself about estimated herd immunity thresholds in your community, and talk about vaccinations in your social circle. Are your friends vaccinated? Are their friends vaccinated? Are their friends' and families' children vaccinated?
  3. And as long as you are going to be talking with other people, be armed with factual, science-based information about the safety and efficacy of vaccines both at the individual level, and at the community level. The links I provided above are a good start, but feel free to dive into primary sources if you are comfortable with scientific jargon. Avoid as sources websites that have an obvious agenda, and that present "evidence" in the form of links to other websites with a similar agenda. You can follow these arguments around in circles and find a lot of charismatic people saying persuasive things, but if they don't back their words up with peer-reviewed, medical evidence, be wary.
  4. If you care for anyone who is particularly at-risk for any of the vaccine-controlled diseases, make sure your home is a safe space for them by only having vaccinated guests. This is awkward and tricky, but it protects the health of your loved ones. And if enough people do this in practice, it can have the effect of exerting social pressure on those who aren't vaccinated for dubious reasons.
These things may be small, but misinformation often spreads between friends and acquaintances in meatspace (offline.) Parents are fanatical about their children, and sometimes a persuasive bad idea, left unchecked, can transform otherwise rational people. Make sure that doesn't happen to the people you know!