Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year!

May good things precede you, follow you and walk beside you.

Just made that one up. It's like my sometimes-wish for people who give me money (such erudite and fantastic individuals!) to be protected by snakes in that it might not be what the recipient actually wants.

What I tried to say there is that you should be able to enter a world which is fair, sustainable and at peace (precedes you), you should be able to leave it even better with your own deeds (follow you) and you should have the most astonishingly wonderful time while doing it all (walk beside you).

What Mitt Pays in Taxes

Mitt Romney is the Republican presidential contender whom the Powers-That-Be want. They want him to win the primaries because the other Republican candidates are mostly weird (so weird that I haven't had much heart to write about their weirdness) and have little chance of beating Obama. Then, of course, both Romney and Obama would be good corporation boyz.

A website supposedly tells us how much less Mitt Romney pays in taxes. I say "supposedly" because I have not checked if Romney indeed gets most of his income from sources which are taxed at as little as 15%. Still, it's quite correct that income from capital is taxed at lower rates, in general, than income from labor. Put that in your Marxist pipe and smoke it!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Childhood Obesity? Partly The Fault of Bad Mothering, Of Course

A new study found this to be the case. Honest! But more about that later in this post. First, let's look at a few summaries of the findings:

Raw Story reported* it like this:
According to a new study in the January issue of Pediatrics, children who struggle to connect happily with their mothers are more likely to be obese by their teen years.
Ohio State University conducted the research, using almost a thousand kids born in 1991 to measure how mothers interacted with their children during various stages of childhood. Researchers studied whether children felt safe with and attached to their families.
The study found that 26.1 percent of children who reported troubled relationships with their mothers were also obese at age 15, a rate double that of children who reported close relationships to their mothers.
CNN blogs reported it like this:
The mother-child relationship has always carried a lot of weight.  Now researchers say some obese teens might be in essence, carrying the weight of their relationship with their mothers when they were younger.
A new study published in this week's edition of Pediatrics finds the type of relationship a mother has with her young child could affect that little one's chances of becoming obese as a teen.
And the New York Daily News like this:
A bad relationship with your mother can do more than leave emotional scars — it can also increase your waistline.
A new study in the January issue of Pediatrics found that children who did not have close emotional bonds with their mothers during childhood were significantly more likely to be obese as teenagers.

After those three summaries I'm sure you are ready for the necessary corollary. This one:
Anderson was quick to note that the findings should not be used to blame mothers, but should be seen as an opportunity to intervene in mother-child relationships while children are still young.
The findings should not be used to blame mothers! What a relief! For a while there I thought that this is exactly what is happening.

For something this important I had to get hold of the actual study. Which I now have read**. But before commenting on it, let's ask what the starting point of a study like this might be.

Did the researchers go out to test both fathers and mothers, for instance, to find out what the impact of both fathers and mothers might be on a child's obesity?

Can you guess the answer to that one? Yup, they only tested mothers, not fathers. So we know nothing about any possible impact the father's bad parenting skills might have on a child's later obesity, simply because fathers were not studied.

And why were fathers not studied? Because the researchers wanted to study the behavior of the main caregiver to the child! But notice the way those summaries of the study were about mothers, not about the major caregivers? That's because the study used the term "mother," not the term "caregiver."

That's a minor slippage, you might argue, because mothers usually are the major intimate caregivers to their children. But it is slippage, nevertheless, because using the term "mothers" makes us think of the family relationship between a woman and her children, not about the care-giving situation.

One final comment before I dive into the study itself: Note how negatively those summaries are framed. They essentially tell us that bad mothering produces fat children. Why not re-frame those findings by saying that good mothering protects against childhood obesity?

I think the reason for that comes from the assumption that all mothers should be perfect. If they are not, their children suffer and the mothers should shape up. Or have suitable interventions, as one of the study authors proposed.

Now to the study itself: The first question I wanted to have answered is an obvious one:

Did the findings control for socio-economic factors, especially income? This is an important variable to control for because poverty could explain both problems within the mother-child relationship AND childhood obesity. Note that this theory does not require the causality to go from bad mothering to obesity, necessarily, but argues that both could be due to the stress and limitations that low family income create.

It turns out that the results mentioned in those summaries are based on data without any control for income and other relevant factors. They are raw comparisons, if you wish. For proper comparisons, I quote from the study itself:
The prevalence of obesity in adolescence was 26.1% among children who experienced poor early maternal–child relationships (score: greater than or equal to 3) and was 15.5%, 12.1%, and 13.0% for children with better relationships (scores of 2, 1, and 0, respectively) (upper section of Table 4). After adjustment for gender and birth weight (model 2), the odds (95% CI) of adolescent obesity were 2.45 (1.49–4.04) times higher for those with the poorest relationships (score: greater than or equal to 3) compared with those with the best relationships (score: 0). With additional adjustment for race/ethnicity, maternal education, and household income-to-poverty line ratio, the OR (95% CI) was attenuated to 1.56 (0.90– 2.73), and with inclusion of maternal obesity to 1.42 (0.76–2.63). Low maternal sensitivity was more strongly related to adolescent obesity than was insecure attachment (lower section of Table 4).
That's the statistical gobbledegook. Note that those numbers are created to compare the "worst" group with the "best" group, in terms of mothering. Which is pretty much the expected thing, given that the standard for mothering is perfection.

Then note that the numbers discussed in that quote are essentially how many times more likely obesity is among the children of the "worst" mothers as opposed to among the children of the "best" mothers in the sample the researchers used. If the likelihood of obesity for the child of a "good" mother is the number x, then the quoted material tells us that the child of a "bad" mother (in that sample) has the likelihood of obesity 2.45x, or more than twice as much, assuming that only the child's sex and birth weight are held constant in the comparisons.

But if we also control for the socio-economic and demographic factors, the likelihood of obesity for the "bad" mother's child drops to 1.56x, and if we also control for the mother's own obesity, that number drops to 1.42x. Remember that 1x would mean equal odds of obesity for the children of the "best" and "worst" mothers.

If you have read my statistic series (available on the site listed at the top of this blog's front page) or are otherwise familiar with statistics, you may already have gotten an AHAH! experience from looking at those confidence intervals in the quoted material.

A confidence interval is an interval estimate, a range of values within which we believe the true value in the population to lie, with some confidence. The study values come from a sample. How well the findings of that sample apply to the general population is reflected in that interval estimate.

Let's take the income-controlled results for closer scrutiny here: The sample finding, the value that I have already cited, states that after controlling for the socio-economic variables the child of a "bad" mother is 1.56 times more likely to become obese than the child of a "good" mother. But the interval estimate on that same figure ranges from 0.90 to 2.73. Note something funny about that interval?

It covers the value one which would be the point at which the children of "bad" and "good" mothers would have an equal chance of producing an obese child. In other words, the results do not rule out the possibility that after controlling for the socio-economic factors the likelihood of obesity might not, in fact, be higher among the children of the so-called "bad mothers."

Indeed, one table in the study (Table 4) shows something quite interesting:

It compares all the ranked classes of mothering skills with the "best" skills used as the reference point. When the other three classes are compared to the "best" class, the confidence intervals for all three comparisons cover the value one if the research controls for the child's gender, birth weight, the socio-economic factors and the mother's own obesity. Remember that the value one is the referent value, applied to the "best" mothering class.

What does all this mean? Suppose that you read a poll result where Jane Smith is predicted to win some election by 5%, with a margin of error of plus/minus 7%. If those numbers use the 95% confidence interval, then the poll tells us that Jane Smith might win by as much as 5%+7%, or 12%. Or she might lose by as much as 5%-7% or -2%. The confidence interval overlaps the point where victory turns into loss.

Which isn't extremely comforting if you root for Jane Smith. Well, the findings of this study are like that, with proper controls. Nowhere near as strong as the popularized summaries suggest.
*This summary has an error. The children did not do any reporting themselves. The measures the study used were collected when the children were quite small and were based not on reporting but on observations of mothers with their children either at home or in a laboratory.
**It cost me twelve dollars to acquire. The donation button is in the right upper corner of my blog. Mmm.

Thanks to NTodd for the initial link to this study.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Today's Embroidery Repost

I really like this one:

It's called The Monster, but whether you are the monster or the fairy/angel depends on the day, as does the question whether the fairy/angel is being sucked in or manages to get away.

For the technique-minded, the work is a combination of embroidery, reverse applique and applique.

Ruminations on Merit

This dark week at the brink of time is for rumination. So I have decided. I don't have to put in hooks on my fishing rod to catch you, my sweet readers. I can just write about anything I wish! Mostly because people are busy doing other stuff, sigh.

So it's going to be about the concept of "merit," the way the conservatives use it to argue that the rich deserve their wealth because they have a) unusual talents of the super-star kind and b) because they work, whereas the rest of us just suck on the many teats of the evil government sow.

It is an appealing philosophy of life. A comforting one, if you count among the winners. Because you have earned it, both by being special, and also for having worked so hard. You Have Merit. Life Rewards Merit. God Rewards Merit.

The backside of that philosophy is the troubling kind. It means that if you are not rich you do not have special talents and you did not work hard. So that rules out Jesus, for instance, from the group of the deserving few. But it also means that the successful people don't have to feel empathy towards the losers in this life. The losers deserved to lose. The winners deserved to win.

Now take this basic framework to the conservative policies. How does one use this to justify no "death taxes?" The demand that large inheritances should not be taxed at all? The recipients don't have to prove that they have special rare talents and neither do they have to prove many years of hard toil. They get the money even if they are total slobs with one brain molecule.

And of course one can get quite rich by winning the lottery or by marrying someone with money or by robbing, oh, say, the financial market. Are we going to redefine "merit" to include the ability to do those kinds of things, too?

Which brings me to the question of how one does define "merit." It's not always an easy thing to spot, because many define it pretty subjectively, as in "I have merit, you do not." But more seriously, "merit" is meaningless if it is determined by a hundred-meter dash where some people have their legs cuffed together, some people arrive at the starting line after a ten mile run to get there and some people are told to run in the opposite direction from the finish line.

That was a parable about the many unfairnesses the society brings to us. They serve to stifle potential merit in many and to nurture even small merit in others.

It's still true that the society does reward merit, sometimes, and that trying to work hard and to use your talents is a very good thing. But not being among the "winners" does not mean that you don't have merit, that you did not work hard, and being among the "winners" does not mean that you have merit or that you worked hard.

The mythology of "Merit Always Gets Its Rewards" is strengthened by those stories of individuals who started out poor and destitute, then worked very hard and now are billionaires or famous dead presidents or whatever. The problem with this mythology is that it begins from one end (the billionaire or the dead president end) and then works backwards. It doesn't begin from the other end. If it did, we might hear of all the millions of people who had great talent and worked hard and got exactly nowhere.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ladies, Meet The Republican Presidential Candidates

Michelle Goldberg introduces four of them to you:
Last night, four GOP candidates—Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry—took part in a “tele-town hall” sponsored by Personhood USA, which was broadcast on the radio program of Steve Deace, an influential Iowa evangelical.  The event demonstrated that a commitment to banning all abortion, even in cases of rape, incest, and threats to a woman’s health, is now the normative position among the party’s presidential contenders.
It's like the rapist's fatherhood rights initiative!

Most attention was paid to Rick Perry's recent change of opinion. He's now ready to ban abortion for pregnant rape victims because of this:
Perry told the crowd at his campaign stop that the decision came after watching a documentary on abortion produced by former Arkansas governor and 2008 presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.
“That transformation was after watching the DVD, ‘The Gift of Life,’” Perry said. “And I really started giving some thought about the issue of rape and incest. And some powerful, some powerful stories in that DVD.”
Perry said a woman who appeared in the movie who said she was a product of rape moved him to change his mind about abortion.
“She said, ‘My life has worth.’ It was a powerful moment for me,” Perry said.
And of course her life has worth. But the mistake Perry makes here is the common one of confusing actual real people with potential people.

To give you an extreme example, suppose that we could ask a disembodied spirit waiting for reincarnation how it feels about not finding a suitable merging of an egg and a sperm, about having to hover and wait in that emptiness, perhaps right next to you when you had sex with a condom. What do you think it would argue?

Probably that everyone should have unprotected sex as much as possible so that it could reincarnate and get started with a life that has worth.

If you think that example has all sorts of problems, then you are in good company, because I find the forced-birthers' definition of when human personhood begins equally full of problems. Yet I must take their arguments seriously, whereas my arguments nobody takes seriously. So it goes.

Riley on Marketing The Pink

This video talks about the pink toys for girls. I can't quite get everything the little girl says but her overall point is extremely valid.

I spent some time recently in places where young children congregate. The girls, in particular, look like a uniformed army, from distance, because they all wear pink and faded purple. The boys have a little more variety, as long as they avoid those two colors. And these are three-year old children!

The whole pink thing has become a monster. It wasn't this bad earlier. But walk into a toy store and you can tell where the girls are supposed to go by the Pepto-Bismol color.

I've written about the color pink and gender earlier, about the strong need children have to determine their gender group at a certain age, about how the advertisers ultimately decide what determines it and so on. But right now I'm just flabbergasted by the ubiquity of One Single Color in the girls' toys. It's sickening. Put "girls' toys" into Google images search and look at the page. Then grab the Pepto-Bismol.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Rose By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

Now here's an interesting take on the question whether a divorced woman should be allowed to keep her ex-husband's last name. It's not her name but his name! He only lent it out for the duration of the marriage!

Set this against the background of the still-dominant tradition that women should relinquish their last names at marriage and you come to a very odd conclusion where a woman's last name is something that should change back and forth, depending on what man defines her family membership. When a marriage ends she goes back to her father's name. When she re-marries she takes the name of the new husband. Should she get divorced again, back to the father's name! A yo-yo name!

Come to think of it, the conclusion isn't at all odd, given what happens in reality. But it's nice to see all that about the name being "his" spelled out. Because now a woman considering "taking his name" at marriage might realize that at least one man thinks the name is only out on loan.

You Gotta Have Skin In The Game

I was going to write about this article where some in the 1% make an empire-strikes-back statement but Matt Taibbi did the work for me.

Here is the initial "you gotta have skin in the game" statement:
Asked if he were willing to pay more taxes in a Nov. 30 interview with Bloomberg Television, Blackstone Group LP (BX) CEO Stephen Schwarzman spoke about lower-income U.S. families who pay no income tax.
“You have to have skin in the game,” said Schwarzman, 64. “I’m not saying how much people should do. But we should all be part of the system.”
Some of Schwarzman’s capital gains at Blackstone, the world’s largest private-equity firm, are taxed at 15 percent, not the 35 percent top marginal income-tax rate. Attacking the banking system is a mistake because it contributes to “a healthier economy,” he said in the interview.
Mmm. I have come across that "skin in the game" thingy all over the net, recently, and it annoys me greatly, for the reasons Taibbi gives:
But it seems to me that if you’re broke enough that you’re not paying any income tax, you’ve got nothing but skin in the game. You've got it all riding on how well America works.
You can’t afford private security: you need to depend on the police. You can’t afford private health care: Medicare is all you have. You get arrested, you’re not hiring Davis, Polk to get you out of jail: you rely on a public defender to negotiate a court system you'd better pray deals with everyone from the same deck. And you can’t hire landscapers to manicure your lawn and trim your trees: you need the garbage man to come on time and you need the city to patch the potholes in your street.
And in the bigger picture, of course, you need the state and the private sector both to be functioning well enough to provide you with regular work, and a safe place to raise your children, and clean water and clean air.

Taibbi then goes on to point out that people like Schwartzman are not really part of the same system. If you are rich enough you don't need Medicare, the police (you hire your own security) and you certainly don't need Medicaid. Ideally, the very rich don't need a government, except as military protection and a legal system which keeps their wealth safe.

Monday, December 26, 2011

You Reap What You Sow

Remember that we must all now tighten our belts? That austerity policies are the new panacea for an economic depression? Why a further suppression of consumer demand is seen as a cure for a problem of insufficient consumer demand beats me. But whatever the advisability of austerity in this already-austere climate, its effects will fall most painfully on the frailest among us.

When state governments cut, cut and cut their budgets, someone will bleed, as this example demonstrates:
The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors (NASMHPD), an organization of state mental health directors, estimates that in the last three years states have cut $3.4 billion in mental health services, while an additional 400,000 people sought help at public mental health facilities.
In that same time frame, demand for community-based services climbed 56 percent, and demand for emergency room, state hospital and emergency psychiatric care climbed 18 percent, the organization said.
"This wasn't one round of cuts," says Ted Lutterman, director of research analysis at NASMHPD Research Institute. "It was three or four for many states, and multiple cuts during the year."
If the economy doesn't improve, next year could be worse because many community mental health agencies are cutting programs and using up reserve funds, says Linda Rosenberg, president of the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare.
"It's been horrible," she said. "Those that need it the most - the unemployed, those with tremendous family stress - have no insurance."
In the emergency room, this increased demand has meant doctors and social workers are spending hours and sometimes days trying to arrange care for psychiatric patients languishing in the emergency department, taking up beds that could be used for traditional types of trauma.
More than 70 percent of emergency department administrators said they have kept patients waiting in the emergency department for 24 hours, according to a 2010 survey of 600 hospital emergency department administrators by the Schumacher Group, which manages emergency departments across the country.

The title of this post is all wrong. It's not the people who sow the austerity politics who do the hardest reaping. And that's the reason why they keep advocating such policies.

New York Times. I'm Pointing The Finger At You.

I'm very annoyed by the kind of articles, quite common in the so-called women's sections, where the writing seems to have gone like this:

1. I have a plot idea! We are going to say that all women now wear false eye-lashes.
2. I'm going to find some data that seems to back up my argument that this is a trend. Anything will suffice! If the sale of false eye-lashes has doubled in Dinkytown (from two pairs to four pairs, say), then I have data for a trend!
3. But most of the piece will be interviews with women who wear false eye-lashes now and how that is a statement of feminist intention and something that they really want to do. (These are real women, probably, telling their stories. The crime is that the stories are used as evidence to prop up the idea of a trend, even though anecdotes can be found on almost any behavior if one searches.)

What's wrong with this? Other than turning the whole idea of how one does research upside-down? Other than selectively finding ONLY those people who agree with your views and not the ones who disagree with your views? Other than being bad with data games?

The frequency of these pseudo-trends is often about women's behavior. As if it doesn't really matter whether one get something like that right or not. Who cares if women are misinformed and pressured into silly choices?

I have never quite understood why the New York Times loves this particular kind of bad journalism when it comes to women. They don't do it with health reporting which is quite excellent. They don't do it with most of science reporting (unless it is about gender), and at least some of their stories on general politics are not like that.

This is the piece which provoked my rant. But the Times has published several similar pseudo-trend pieces in the past and I have written about them. And let's not forget the horrible piece on the rape of an eleven-year-old girl.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

On Christmas Day

This is a translation (one of many) of a fragment from a Gnostic prayer or poem found at Nag Hammadi in 1945. It may depict the divine feminine. I like it because it reaches past the thinking part of the brain.

Posting it today seems appropriate, in that scales-balancing sense.

The Thunder, Perfect Mind

I was sent forth from the power,
and I have come to those who reflect upon me,
and I have been found among those who seek
after me.
Look upon me, you who reflect upon me,
and you hearers, hear me.
You who are waiting for me, take me to yourselves.
And do not banish me from your sight.
And do not make your voice hate me, not your
Do not be ignorant of me anywhere or any time.
Be on your guard!
Do not be ignorant of me.

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.

I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter.
I am the members of my mother.
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains.
I am the bride and the bridegroom,
and it is my husband who begot me.
I am the mother of my father
and the sister of my husband,
and he is my offspring.
I am the slave of him who prepared me.

I am the ruler of my offspring.
But he is the one who begot me before the time
on a birthday.
And he is my offspring in due time,
and my power is from him.
I am the staff of his power in his youth,
and he is the rod of my old age.
And whatever he wills happens to me.
I am the silence that is incomprehensible
and the idea whose remembrance is frequent.
I am the voice whose sound is manifold
and the word whose appearance is multiple.
I am the utterance of my name.

I am the knowledge of my inquiry,
and the finding of those who seek after me,
and the command of those who ask of me,
and the power of the powers in my knowledge
of the angels, who have been sent at my word,
and of gods in their seasons by my counsel,
and of spirits of every man who exists with me,
and of women who dwell within me.
I am the one who is honored, and who is praised,
and who is despised scornfully.
I am peace,
and war has come because of me.
And I am an alien and a citizen.
I am the substance and the one who has no substance.