You only got it ’cause you’re a girl

unconscious bias

This week there was a fabulous article, by Alison Coil, on the bias against women in the sciences and why men don’t believe it exists. For ‘men’ you could just as well read ‘the establishment’ because we know not all men and we know that some of those ‘men’ might as well be women that have ‘made it’. ‘Made it’ meaning a permanent job, research funding, big glory publications and your version of fame in your field.

The people that ‘make it’ like to believe they made it because they have some sort of superior quality to the folks that didn’t make it. As Coil puts it – it is hard for many to believe that those who have succeeded in science have not done so entirely due to their own innate brilliance. Science – and many other professions – tend toward being a monoculture where they favour ‘people like me’, which means if you are a white male (in the West anyway), you can automatically have an advantage whether you know it or not.

Weirdly, often the same people that think people only ‘make it’ because of superior ability, don’t apply the same standards to women or minorities; while those that have ‘made it’ have done so through their own ‘brilliance’, you may have just gotten there because you are a woman. There is a lot of going on about reverse sexism and these mystical things called ‘quotas’ which are biased against men – even there are no real quotas for academic jobs and academic publishing in the main. Believers in the success through ‘superior ability’ model (for the right people of course) sometimes even expound that it’s actually BETTER to be a minority/woman because you have more opportunities, in this gender balance gone mad culture.

This is clearly bullshit. If this were true, then we’d have a gender/ethnic balance by now because this apparent abundance of ‘more opportunities’ for the minorities has been a ‘priority’ for at least 30 years. At least people have been telling me this for the last 30 years.

In my own experience, I have held four peer-reviewed independent research fellowships and each time I have gotten one, I have been told by at least one person (usually more) ‘you only got it ’cause you’re a girl’, like some 7-year old on a baseball field. I have won the occasional award here and there and again – I’ve been told ‘you only got it because you are a girl’. Incidentally, I also won a bike race once because I was a girl, see there weren’t as many girls in the girls field as there were boys in the boys field so it was easier for me to win ‘because I was a girl’. Currently, I, like other scientists, sit on funding panels and scientific advisory committees – but I get to do this because I am a girl, whereas the boys get to do it because they are really clever. It couldn’t possibly be that I might be good at it or that I might have the same ‘innate brilliance’ that they do.

To me these two positions are mutually exclusive, but this is what bias is about. This and why it is so hard to fix within the system. This idea that somehow I have made it because I am great, whereas you have made it solely because you are a girl, or had a bunch of favours, or were merely in the right place at the right time also inhibits any inward introspection about what is wrong with the system and how to fix it. It is also not very logical to think that your success is completely meritocratic and that someone else’s must be due to ‘quotas’. The reality is there is a big package of luck (and yes favours) associated with anyone’s success, it is simply not just based on ‘ability’. A mere look at the statistics of going from PhD to Post-doc to PI can tell you that there are a lot of innately brilliant people that don’t ‘make it’ in science. There are simply not enough jobs. If you work in academia, like I do, you see all sorts of very very talented people leave that could have easily ‘made it’ given different circumstances (funding, job availability, a chance), there are some pretty massive cracks in the system. It is a bit like the Victorian pipes under London, all of that water could have been useful, 1/2 of it ends up in the Thames.

In a perfect world people would be hired just on the basis of ability with no other consideration. This is what we all want, a fair playing field for all where there is no other criteria than meritocracy and where you don’t get hired just ‘because you are a girl’. But here’s the rub it is not a fair playing field and those folks who are ‘the most able’ are really difficult to distinguish as the measures can be quite subjective. People have different experiences. For scientists, different science is published in different journals, with different citation rates. For tech positions, people have different coding experience, different education, different people they have worked for. The best people are not always easy to identify and when life is subjective, bias is a big contributor to decisions. We must be aware of it, and we must take steps to stop it and we must pay attention to the data that is telling us we aren’t doing good enough to address these issues, because, as a society, we are not.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Stop re-writing Confederate History : this includes you Simon Jenkins

shelby foote civil war

Simon Jenkins published an opinion piece yesterday in The Guardian entitled With every sneer, liberals just make Trump stronger. Jenkins derides those who deride Trump and his supporters and he thinks that Trump missed a trick in criticising the left:

He failed to fully address the one aspect of the riot where attacking the left might have had traction, its Orwellian “history scrubbing” of the Confederate hero General Robert E Lee. Instead he used the occasion to denigrate the “alt-left”, and ramp up his appeal not just to the “alt-right” but to the silent right that, perhaps ashamedly, sympathises with it.

Simon Jenkins while ostensibly deriding the left for loosing Trump supporters because they are too sneering, is misrepresenting the history of Confederate statues in the US South and, perhaps unwittingly, is merely reiterating the fallacious, ill-informed Neo-Nazi/KKK arguments that somehow the ‘left’ is trying to rewrite history.

It is the white-surpremicists who are history scrubbing, and this history scrubbing has been going on for over 150 years. It is the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’ that is really responsible for an Orwellian rewrite of Civil War history. Most of these Confederate statues were put in prominent places around the South to show support for the newly enacted Jim Crow Laws, to intimidate and reiterate that whites were superior to blacks. If Simon Jenkins spent 5 minutes on the internet he could learn this. If Simon Jenkins had merely listened to the Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu’s speech on why that multi-cultural city decided to remove Confederate statues from places of prominence he would have learned that

Removing Confederate Monuments Doesn’t ‘Erase’ History. It Fact-Checks It. And it immediately begs the questions; why there are no slave ship monuments, no prominent markers on public land to remember the lynchings or the slave blocks; nothing to remember this long chapter of our lives; the pain, the sacrifice, the shame, all of it happening on the soil of New Orleans. So for those self-appointed defenders of history and the monuments, they are eerily silent on what amounts to this historical malfeasance, a lie by omission. There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence of it.

Simon Jenkins could have just googled the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’ and paid attention to the complex history of racism in the US and refrained from reiterating this ridiculous ‘Heritage not hate’ argument, but he didn’t. What Jenkins chose to do was to just throw fuel to the fire, about something he apparently doesn’t know anything about and can’t be bothered to read about.

In truth Jenkins has some good points, Trump opposers can be very condescending to Trump supporters and this does not help. Listening and talking and thinking about ways to heal the great divide in our country should be paramount in our minds as US citizens as we clearly have a problem and we need to deal with it.

But Jenkins choose THIS issue to make THIS point at THIS time. This is not only negligent of a real understanding of US history, it is grossly irresponsible. In effect, similar to the President who attacked the ‘alt-left’, Jenkins supports the very arguments that led to this white supremacist rally in the first place the very arguments that revisionist Confederacy lovers have been using to justify their bigoted actions for years. There are plenty of issues where people on both the left and the right must meet part way across the aisle to listen to one another, and there is a time to clearly tell white supremacists that their reinvention of history and purveyance of hate is not welcome. The events surrounding Charlottesville and the removal of confederate statues from prominent places in the South is one of those times.

There is no equivalency between the Neo-Nazi/KKK/white supremist protesters and those who rally against them. As the newly resigned from Trump’s now disbanded manufacturing council the CEO of Intel Brian Krzanich says:

“We should honor — not attack — those who have stood up for equality and other cherished American values.”

This is not a two sides of the aisle issue. This is not an issue over which to challenge liberals who sneer about the president. This is an issue that both conservatives and liberals alike are largely united on. Just say no to Nazi’s. Just say no to white supremacy. It is not hard. And please Simon Jenkins, unlike the US President, do us all a favour and read some Confederate history before you start pontificating about things you know very little about.

Posted in Charlottesville, Confederacy, Simon Jenkins | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Stop re-writing Confederate History : this includes you Simon Jenkins

We the people have to keep striving for equality and justice for all

We the people of America, we have a problem with racism.

we the people

Like many of you, I watched the events in Charlottesville, from the safety of my home, in horror, tears and blinding anger. Ostensibly, these folks are angry that a statue of Robert E Lee is being removed – because somehow this is erasing their history. In reality, the removal of this statue is erasing the false alt-fact, history of the Civil War, that somehow the lost cause of The Confederate South was noble or not *really* about slavery.

In reality, these people are angry because as white people they think they are superior to other people. There is no other way around it. If you want to try and argue this isn’t what it’s about – go and have a peruse of David Duke’s website, it’s pretty clear. I agree with every politician and pundit who says, this bigoted behavior is counter to the ideas of being an American, where all men (and women) are created equal. These people are also at the fringe. They are loud angry and violent, they are not like most of us. But our problem, America, is that racism goes much deeper than these lunatics. I think after Civil rights we just thought all of this lunacy would just gradually go away. That we’d just get rid of Jim Crow and it would sort itself out.

Most of us aren’t like those white supremacy fools; most of us find the KKK abhorrent; and most of the people that voted for either candidate in the last election find them abhorrent. Most of us don’t espouse that the white man is better than XXXX because this is (usually) a minority position and most of us aren’t nearly that stupid.

But we still have a problem in America. We the people have a problem with racism and we have a problem with denial. We the people have a problem with not looking at our history square in the face and dealing with it; for instance the Civil War was fought entirely over slavery- go read some books or just the articles of the seceding states if you don’t believe it. We try to distance ourselves from the reality of racism in America by saying, ‘we must not be racist because we are not like those idiot white-supremacists’ In reality, most of us are not neo-Nazis or members of the KKK. Regardless, we the people still have a racist history and an un-level playing field for all races in America. We the people need to be honest about this and we also need to figure out how to deal with it.

Racism still exists in our institutions. African Americans are five times more likely than white people to be incarcerated for the same crime. I am a Southern white girl. When I got in trouble with the police as an underage kid, I, like Jamie Davenport was spared and I got sent home with a pat on the head. This is unlikely if you are not white. How are we going to fix this? I have no answers, but I think it can start by being honest about our past and how things stand in the present.

I hope that we the people stop saying we are colorblind because we are not. While this is an inordinately well-intentioned thing to say, I fear this hurts more than helps. This implies that we all start with the same playing field and that we all have the same advantages and disadvantages as Americans and this is just not true. This implies that we can just condemn the neo-Nazis because we aren’t like that, without actually achieving the American dream of making all men and women truly equal in America. If we forget this, if we forget our fight for universal equality, then those Neo-Nazi white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville really have won. Let’s not let them do that.

Posted in Charlottesville, Racism | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Beware of the monoculture (why diversity is good for crops and tech companies)


In the 1930’s, the USA along with a number of other countries, went through a massive economic depression. This was in no small part due to a lack of diversity. Those amber waves of grain, which had only been recently planted, were a monoculture. There was a drought and then, as happens in the Great Plains, a whole lot of wind and the wheat quite simply couldn’t keep up. Wheat was many a farmer’s only crop. Wheat was much of America’s food source. You probably know the rest of the story.

This week a recently sacked member of Google penned a 10 page memo on diversity. It has caused quite an uproar, largely because it stated the boilerplate of the differences between men and women and what this means for work, with not much evidence, complete a big helping of the standard stereotypes:

Women are more cooperative (I was hoping for nurturing, myself)
This has been debunked, mostly, the differences are actually quite small

Women are more neurotic
cue Sigmund Freud no less, I’m guessing the Google-memo dude must think it definitely has something to do with the womb

Men ask for pay raises, women don’t
cue Sir Philip Hampton on BBC women’s pay gap

I am a woman, I have a knee-jerk reaction to these pronouncements about how I am. Women aren’t always more cooperative, I know plenty of men who are neurotic and if you know women don’t ask for raises as much as men then the BBC should have preemptively had that conversation, it’s not like it’s hard.

My reaction aside, I think we are all pretty clear there are differences between men and women, many of which, I would argue are nurture rather than nature, but this is somewhat besides the point. The difficulty comes when people use these differences, however large or small, to assert that ‘women can’t do certain jobs’ because of some ‘nature’ they have. This automatically limits diversity, 50% of the population is out just by gender. This reinforces a monoculture.

This doesn’t only happen to women, it happens to men as well. If men have some personality trait which would be deemed feminine by the proponents of these ridiculous ideas that women can’t do a certain job (neurotic perhaps?), they are out too. This was also suggested in the Google diversity memo:

Feminism has made great progress in freeing women from the female gender
role, but men are still very much tied to the male gender role. If we, as a society,
allow men to be more “feminine,” then the gender gap will shrink, although
probably because men will leave tech and leadership for traditionally “feminine” roles.

This, again, only serves to increase the monoculture. These statements and indeed the whole document seems to support the ‘people like me’ syndrome, the seed of any monoculture. Which in the end only serves to exclude a large amount of talent from even getting through the door for certain jobs. The question proponents of these professional monocultures never seem to answer is – Why would you want to do this? Why do you want to eliminate over 1/2 of your potential talent base by selecting on some kind of random, unproven set of ‘personality traits’ which aren’t necessarily correlated to success? (there are plenty of successful companies with female CEO and/or COOs – such as Facebook) All good investors know it’s prudent to diversify funds, why would anyone advocate not doing the same for a work force, especially in a highly-dynamic ideas-based industry? It makes no sense, and only solidifies the monoculture.

Monocultures are temporally weak. They may have their day in the sun, but in the long run, they are weak because all you need is one bad wind storm and you have no crops. Even if you manage to withstand the storm, imagine how much better it could be if you could keep harvesting in a tempest, which you are much more likely to be able to do if you have a diverse set of crops.

The Google-memo guy had one point I did actually agree with:

My larger point is that we have an intolerance for ideas and evidence that don’t fit a certain ideology. I’m also not saying that we should restrict people to certain gender roles; I’m advocating for quite the opposite: treat people as individuals, not as just another member of their group (tribalism).

To me, this would include thinking that women or men with ‘feminine’ characteristics couldn’t do a certain job, but I am thinking that he might have missed his own point on that.

Posted in diversity, google memo, monoculture | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Beware of the monoculture (why diversity is good for crops and tech companies)

On ending the myth of the Lost Cause

jeff davis, coming down

During Reconstruction, that horrific impoverished period in the US South after the Civil War, the Cult of the Lost Cause (of the Confederacy) took its roots in the minds and attitudes of Southerners and indeed of the nation as a whole. Based in the idea that Southerners were somehow more noble, chivalrous and moral than the Federals in battle, old Confederates began to re-write their history, with their own alternative facts. The Lost Cause also warped the reasons why the Southern states left the Union, where the emphasis was shifted to States’ rights rather than the right to own slaves. It worked, post-war Southerners succeeded in exalting and sanitizing their past, to be something other than what it was.

It is not hard to find out that the Civil War was indeed fought over slavery, and that the Southern states did secede from the Union because of the issue of slavery. Just read the Articles of Secession from various states and it is there in bold print for everyone to see:


For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery. They have endeavored to weaken our security, to disturb our domestic peace and tranquility, and persistently refused to comply with their express constitutional obligations to us in reference to that property, and by the use of their power in the Federal Government have striven to deprive us of an equal enjoyment of the common Territories of the Republic.


Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery– the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization.


They (the Federal Government) have for years past encouraged and sustained lawless organizations to steal our slaves and prevent their recapture…..

But somehow, many Southerners refuse to believe this. Just as they somehow refuse to believe that Robert E Lee really did loose the battle of Gettysburg, even though General Lee himself was pretty clear it was largely his fault and even offered his resignation on account of it.

The Cult of the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, is a re-writing of the history of our great nation. It was this cult, this attempt to sanitize the Southern sentiment that raised monuments and statues and attempted to change history to vindicate those who fought the Civil War or as Paul Buck put it:

“With a sensitive regard for the past, therefore, the vindicators proceeded to rationalize the inconsistencies of their position until they arrived at a solution which enabled them to solute ‘Old Glory’ while retaining their devotion to the ‘Southern Cross’.”

I am proud to be Southern, but I am not proud of that part of my forefathers and mothers who thought that some men were inferior because of their color and who may or may not have trafficked and bought slaves. And I think we owe it to ourselves in the South and indeed to humanity to confront the past head on, without all of the whitewashing that has gone on since the Confederacy was defeated. We need to own the complicity of our forebearers who not only fought against the Union for the right to own slaves, but then immediately after that war was over enacted Jim Crow laws to keep people that looked different from them ‘in their place’. Yes this happened too and yes I had some relatives that were all for it. I had an old aunt who moved from her house in Atlanta because ‘too many black folk’ were moving into her neighborhood – and this was in the late 1970s…

This is the reality of what happened in the South. Is it the whole reality of what it means to be Southern? Of course not but it does form a huge portion of our history. We cannot erase it, but we are wrong to glorify it or as Frank Underwood says in House of Cards:

Personally take no pride in the Confederacy. Avoid wars you can’t win and never raise your flag for an asinine cause like slavery.

In America we are still encumbered by issues of racism, and pretending that we are not does not help anything. We have to own our past, the sins of the fathers are not the sins of the sons, or daughters, but we have to make sure we are honest about what happened and try to work towards a truth that can set us all free.

Posted in Civil War Statues, Confederacy, Racism | 1 Comment

On the removal of our Southern ‘heritage’

Bye Bye Robert E Lee

In the US South, in various places, confederate statues are being removed. In New Orleans Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, General Beauregard – all these relics of the Confederate past are being transported to a legacy of cobwebs, pigeon-shit and dust.

And so they should be.

A sizeable population of Southerns are angry about this. If you’re from the South you’ve heard these arguments that glorify the Lost Cause of the Confederacy a thousand times. Heritage not Hate. As a Southerner myself, believe me when I say it’s a heritage based on hate. It’s a heritage based on the immorality of owning other people, the auctioning of souls to be beaten, abused and barely fed to harvest cotton or sugar cane for a white man, all because these men thought they were morally superior to someone who was a different color from a different land.

Robert E Lee was a great general of the Confederacy, but he fought for the right for one man to own another. We like to think in the South that this ‘great man’ was full of dash and derring-do and somehow was not a racist because he was a ‘kind master’ to his slaves, or let them go (he ran out of money, he had to) because he was good. He was definitely good at his day job, but make no mistake, his day job was fighting for something base and immoral. There is nothing about the Civil War that was good. And it is true, the Civil War was fought for states rights. The right of people occupying a state to own other people, the right of Southerners to own slaves.

To many of us, racism seems like a simple issue. To many of us a racist is a white supremacist, a neo-Nazi, a member of the alt-Right or whatever the hell they call themselves these days. But these people are small in number and lurk on the edges of society, no matter how loud they may scream and how much news coverage they may get. But they are out there, they are identifiable. What is worse and harder to identify is the casual racism in the South (and indeed other places in the US and the wider world). The people who swear up and down they are ‘color blind’, that they see no race.

This is crazy and blind. Crazy you can’t fix, but blind you can deal with. Please don’t pretend that in the US we are all treated equally – open your eyes, read the statistics. If you are African-American you are much more likely to be incarcerated for a crime than if you are white. If you don’t ‘see’ color you are clearly blind and if you as a white person in the South can’t see how we treat our fellow Americans that are a different color then you are willfully blind and it is time to deal with it.

Harper Lee knew this. She knew about the incipient problem of casual racism, before anyone else knew that ‘casual racism’ was a thing. She wrote about it, not in To Kill a Mockingbird but in Go Set a Watchman. This is the book she wrote first and allegedly didn’t want to publish first (or ever?), perhaps because it is closer to our racist truth. It shows the sickening,covert underbelly of the racism encapsulated by ‘good people’. The subversive infantilization of the White Man’s Burden where most slave owners felt they were enslaving their fellow man for their own good, because they were ‘good people’. Or as Robert E Lee put it “The painful discipline they are undergoing is necessary for their instruction as a race… How long their subjugation may be necessary is known and ordered by a wise Merciful Providence.”

We in the South have to open our eyes and address this past, warts and all. We have to stop glorifying the Civil War, we have to set a Watchman, we have to keep our own eyes open to our own casual racism. Instead of insisting you don’t have a racist bone in your body – most people don’t think they are racist – open your eyes, look at your attitudes, check yourself. Don’t be Atticus Finch, he was not a ‘good man’, he is our lesson. Most of us aren’t a ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ racists – but how many of us are ‘Go Set a Watchman’ racists? This is the question we need to ask ourselves.

I have the same desire as the Mayor of New Orleans, who said in a glorious, poignant speech on why it is time to rid ourselves of Civil War statutes and the cult of the ‘Lost Cause’:

I want to try to gently peel from your hands the grip on a false narrative of our history that I think weakens us. And make straight a wrong turn we made many years ago — so we can more closely connect with integrity to the founding principles of our nation and forge a clearer and straighter path toward a better city and a more perfect union.

Posted in Civil War Statues, Confederacy, Racism | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The president needs a civics lesson

President Trump needs a civics lesson. First I would suggest that he reads the 1st Amendment of the US Constitution. I know this might be hard for a president who doesn’t read, but it’s a short read. Alternately, he could maybe request that Bill O’Reilly read it out loud on his show if this is easier for him.

This is the 1st Amendment (The 1st Article in the Bill of Rights):

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

There are a few things in there he might need to learn:

1 – Congress shall make no law

Congress makes laws, not the president. The law of the land is set by the Legislative branch, not the Executive branch. The law of the land is upheld by the Judiciary branch, not the Executive branch.

2 – no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Trump’s proclaimed ‘priority’ to Christian refugees over Muslim ones is dangerously close to being violation of this.

I can imagine someone saying, “well they are refugees not American citizens”, but what the president is proposing is discriminating AGAINST someone based on their religion. This Implies there must be some kind of religious test to know whether or not your immigrants are your ‘selected’ religion’ or not. This is against the 1st amendment. Discrimination of refugees based on where they are from is also against the law of the land in America set by Congress in 1965 – namely the Hart-Cellar Act which abolished the national-origin quota system set up in 1924. The president either doesn’t know that it is illegal to discriminate based on country of origin for immigration, or he doesn’t care and thinks he is above this law. Let’s hope it is the former.

In the main, Congress doesn’t take kindly to the ill-treatment of any American. The Patriot Act – which was established directly after 9/11 – gave the president more powers than he usually has (I am strongly biased AGAINST the Patriot Act, I think it in itself was unconstitutional) most of which have now expired states the following :

(a) FINDINGS.—Congress makes the following findings:
(1) Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, and Americans
from South Asia play a vital role in our Nation and are entitled
to nothing less than the full rights of every American.
(2) The acts of violence that have been taken against Arab
and Muslim Americans since the September 11, 2001, attacks
against the United States should be and are condemned by
all Americans who value freedom.
(3) The concept of individual responsibility for wrongdoing
is sacrosanct in American society, and applies equally to all
religious, racial, and ethnic groups.
(4) When American citizens commit acts of violence against
those who are, or are perceived to be, of Arab or Muslim
descent, they should be punished to the full extent of the

It almost makes me wish the Patriot Act was back, because it is clear that the president is in violation of it, very minimally because the concept of individual responsibility is sacrosanct in American society. But not to the president, it appears, he is happy to blame whole countries of people, who are fleeing the individuals that are actually responsible for both domestic and international terrorism.

President Trump is not the only president to issue executive orders that are in violation of the law of the land and that over-reach executive power, The Washington Post has an excellent article on this. This, however, is largely besides the point at this juncture because Trump is the president NOW, and he is acting NOW.

While I am apoplectic about my president’s actions, I am proud to be an American. I believe in our system of government and our checks and balances are starting to work – faster than I thought they would:

Friday (Jan 27th 2017), Trump signs an executive order which includes

a 90-day ban on entry to the U.S. for visitors hailing from `countries of particular concern” when it comes to terrorism. The ban would apply to seven Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Sudan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq

Saturday (Jan 28th 2017): people with valid visas were detained at the airport

Saturday (Jan 28th 2017) part II: American Civil Liberties Union goes to court on behalf of the detainees and

Federal District Court Judge Ann M. Donnelly issued a stay, blocking President Trump’s discriminatory policy from taking effect and preventing refugees and immigrants from being deported.

This is not over. There are still people stranded outside the US who legally reside in the US because of this unconstitutional move on the President’s part. The Judge’s order only covered the folks currently in transit and as such it’s only a first step. This deplorable action (in my opinion) by our executive branch is continuing to cause damage and likely will cause damage into the future.

As citizen of the US, I have the right to say all of this. I have the right to speak out against this. This fundamental right is ensconced in the US Constitution. I have the right to free speech. I also have the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. Americans are using that right. People are protesting (mostly non-violently) – calling their representatives and senators in unprecedented numbers – as they should when they believe the government is doing the wrong thing. It is the 1st amendment of the US Constitution that gives us this right. President Trump would do well to remember this.

These are the things that make America great – our Constitution, Americans standing up to say this is not the America I want. Our country was built on immigration, the president himself has strong ties to immigration – his mother was an immigrant, his wife (and his ex-wife) is an immigrant. Increasing diversity, tolerance and ensuring equal opportunity for all citizens and soon-to-be citizens is what makes America truly great, and that is what I will try my utmost to help maintain.

Posted in 1st amendment, Trump executive order | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Goodbye David – my brother and childhood hero

My older brother, David McLain, died suddenly of a heart attack on August 18, 2016. He was only 51 years old and none of us saw this coming. He was a force of nature, my big brother, I already miss the hell out of him – right down to his more stupid jokes. I can still just about remember the sheer joy of me and David rolling down the hill in a big cardboard refrigerator box that my mom picked up from Sears. This is how I intend to remember him for the rest of my days.

Here, I have written out the eulogy I gave at his funeral, or as close as I can get to what I said as I only had written a portion of it at the time.

Me and David
David and I at John and mine’s wedding in 2008.

David was born on November 9th, 1964. I don’t know, because I came later, but I imagine he came into this world determined to live and wailing his head off. I imagine he was really trying to tell my mother a joke so she wouldn’t be in so much pain, and get them to laugh him into the new world.

He was born to Verna and Howard McLain – Verna from Elizabethton, Tennessee; Howard from Michigan. She’d only recently come back from 4 years in Brazil, he was a chemical engineer, war veteran, PhD – together they produced one of the most intelligent, creative, enthusiastic human beings to ever share this world with us or as my Dad might have said “Boy that guy’s got a lot of energy”.

As a kid, like an adult, David never sat still. Surrounded by a band of boys, who are in many ways also my brothers, he played basketball with Chuck, baseball with Mark, ran with (or from something they’d done) with Jono, played “Butts up” a game that only David could name and invent with me, John and Molly.

As a kid, like an adult, David was the speaker of truth. He wasn’t scared to tell anyone when they were lying – teachers, parents – despite this being a bad idea.

As a kid, like an adult he had a gentle, loving soul. He was my protector, he was my hero. He saved me from drowning when I was a kid, he saved me from falling out of ride onto the pavement at the TVA&I fair and I know he’s done the same for so many of you.

As a kid, like an adult he was determined and intelligent. He wanted to play guitar, he practiced for hours and hours. He practiced so much that my parents had to buy him a set of headphones so the rest of us could get some peace. He played the trumpet, he practiced for hours and hours, so much my parents had to buy him a mute. And math, well maybe not math, math he could always just do.

David also had some hard times but always worked to sort them out. When he almost died when he was 19 of Rocky Mountain Spotted fever, I am half convinced he came of it only because he was determined to brush his teeth. When in his early 20s he drank too much and ended up in the hospital for it, he was determined to stop and he did. David had a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering and then god at MSc in Mathematics, both in about 5 years despite the almost dying and his bad bout with alcohol.

He got a job in computer programming before the rest of us knew what that even was. Then he started graduate school at the University of Maryland and gave me his car when he moved. He was so determined that car was fine that he didn’t believe there was anything wrong with it, even when it caught on fire.

He left graduate school to go back to programming and then along came Elinore. He was determined for her to have a good life, he was determined to be a good dad and I think he did that too.

As a kid like an adult, he was determined to laugh. He’d dance, he’d sing, he’d perfect a corny joke, just because he was determined to make us all laugh too. He made me laugh as a kid – mostly at inappropriate times such as now. He used to throw me down the stairs because he was determined this was fun for me. He made us laugh in church, at choir practice, at Boy Scouts, at the gas station, all the time, everywhere. He was determined to bring joy into all of our lives.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Would you like fries with that ? (my time at the wonderful world of Wendy’s

I graduated from high school in 1986. I was 18, I had a job and a $600 Chevy Chevette and was living in an apartment with (too many) other folks and wasn’t going to University. I was gainfully employed at a wage of $3.35 per hour at the fast-food paradise Wendy’s, where the clockin/clockout culture ensured you didn’t get paid when you went to the toilet or took a 7 and 1/2 minute food/cigarette break. With the exception of those lucky folk on management track, we were *contracted* to work 39.5 hours a week with time and 1/2 for anything beyond that. Why? So the good folks that ran Wendy’s didn’t have to pay for health insurance.

You can’t really pay your rent and then have money to do novel things like eat, with a full time job at Wendy’s – even in Tennessee, even in 1986, no matter how many roommates you had. So I had a second job on weekends at Western Sizzlin’ steak house. Western Sizzlin’ (yes it really had that flirty apostrophe) wasn’t exactly a fine dining establishment and armed in my industrial weapons grade double knit polyester and rubber-soled shoes I ran the salad bar. It sounds easy, it wasn’t. It was a Friday/Saturday/Sunday night frantic slip sliding away on grease coated backroom floors to get hungry all-you-can-eat patrons a full bowl of pasta salad or one of the other 168 items stocked by the salad bar kind of job. Wendy’s had its grease issues too, where my first job of the day after my 8 AM clock-in was to pour the mop bucket of congealed grease from the day before into the collection vat – so Wendy’s could make some additional profit but selling it to cosmetic companies (yes, really). I still can’t bring myself to wear foundation to this day.

(this *was* me – thankfully I was spared this particular humiliation)

Yet being the physically-drained, covered-with-grease, working poor wasn’t the worst part of this. The worst part was that people treated you like shit. People you worked for (not with), people that you served. While there were certainly more than a few civil patrons, a large portion of the work-day was spent being regarded like something someone had stuck on the bottom of their shoe.
I was screamed at (too put it mildly) by a man in Porsche for being too slow – it was the lunch rush and only 1/3 of the staff had actually showed up that day. Why? Because maybe the bus service had been shut down, or their kid was stuck in hospital or perhaps they had actually escaped to a better world. He told me ‘I’ll have your job’ – I told him he could have it. I think the only reason I didn’t get fired was because the manager would have had to run the grill himself.

I had a senior manager watch me wash every single window in the restaurant by hand – because the squeegee was broken. He watched me without saying a word, waited till I finished the whole thing and promptly ran off to tell another junior manager to tell me I had to do it again with the squeegee because that was the way it was done. I thought I was expressing that can-do spirit of a good work ethic by hand-washing on a ladder. Instead I almost got fired given that I voluminously expressed my opinion about what exactly I thought that senior manager could do with that squeegee.

Eventually, I escaped, I got a job working the night shift at a gas station. This new employ – where incidentally I DID get eventually fired (but that is most definitely a story for another day) – was a definite improvement – if only because of the sweet farewell to double knit brown uniforms.

But this is the thing – I didn’t pull myself up by my boot straps, I was armed with the background and education that allowed me to escape, I was privileged. I was also lucky. It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing into my future from 1986, but in the US, 30 years ago, state universities didn’t cost an exorbitant amount of money (like they do now) so it was a hell of a lot easier to go back to school. I grew up in a suburb, with a decent high school education, with parents who believed it is a good thing to go to college. This is not always an option, more importantly it doesn’t feel like an option. If you’re just working to stay alive and feed yourself and your kids, where can you find the time to go back to school? Money isn’t the only thing people used to say to me – but it is the only thing you think about when you can’t pay your rent. No one is patting you on the back up for working that minimum-wage job – even though you’re just trying to get ahead in life or feed your family, trying to get back to school or stay off the streets. At least now in the US, when you are among the working poor you have health insurance, so you don’t have hang out at the emergency room after hours to get treated for a broken arm – which is what you used to have to do, or doctors wouldn’t see you.

Whatever happened to my fellow Wendians I don’t know. Some of them went into management, some of them went back to college, some of them maybe went to McDonald’s (we were always convinced it was much better there; they had a clown). But I hope they aren’t working jobs where they are still treated like garbage and that they have nice managers (I had a few) and that they’re always nice to the next person that hands them a Frosty and a Single with cheese.

Posted in working poor | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Would you like fries with that ? (my time at the wonderful world of Wendy’s

Cervical cancer is not porn – Knox County schools shouldn’t cave to ignorance

“There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

― Joseph Brodsky

tags: books, censorship, illiteracy, reading 5672 likes
My hometown has made the international news. Is this for the fact that Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero was one of the few Tennessee mayors to fully support same-sex marriage? Or for the fact that Ms. Dolly Parton, our great lady of increasing East Tennesee literacy got her start in Knoxville?

No. Knoxville has gained international attention because some ignorant local mothers have decided that The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is pornography. Yes, you read that right. A book about a woman with cervical cancer whose cells were taken (without her knowledge) and used to transform the life sciences, to this small corpuscle of ill educated women is really just porn. So unless these women have some kind of strange fetish or something – their insistence on banning this book from the Knox County School system is base, pathetic and plain ole’ bona fide ignorant.

Here they are on the T.V. (as we say back home) – sharin’ there self-righteous, sanctimonious opinions. Of course everyone is entitled to their own opinion. If you want to try and ban your kid from reading a book about cervical cancer because you think it’s porn, that’s your prerogative. I am totally sure your teenager is different and listens to his mama. I also hope you never end up with cervical cancer yourself. Besides the fact that you’d probably have a hell of a time explaining that to your family without using the word ‘cervix’, cervical cancer is horrific, so I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy.

Insisting that Knox County school system to ban this book? This is crazy, sanctimonious and, I’ll say it again, just plain ignorant. You do have the right to you opinion, you don’t have the right to stamp all over everyone else’s rights, because of your ill-educated opinion. But go ahead, ask away (and bless your heart!) but Knox County School Board better say NO, in no uncertain terms, NO. In fact the board shouldn’t even consider your request. Knox County School System has a duty. This duty is to educate our children about the world, not censor them from it. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an important book and not just for scientific reasons. It is about people WITHOUT health insurance in the US, who don’t have a chance in hell of surviving such horrific cancer. This is a book about what it was like to be poor and African-American in the US in the 1950s. This is an important book. Yes it deals with female anatomy but female anatomy is not pornographic, or to quote Rebecca Skloot herself: a parent in Tennessee has confused gynaecology with pornography.

I really hope there is not some person sitting on the Knox County School board thinking ‘well they do have a point’. They don’t have a point, this is just plain damn ignorance. Knox County School Board if you ban this book or even consider banning this book you need to ask yourselves, what kind of message are you sending about women and girls ? What kind of message are you sending about how you educate? What kind of message are you sending if you even question that a book which deals with cervical cancer and mentions gynecology in a respectful, educational sense can be considered pornography? What kind of ridiculous precedent would this set?

I was educated in the Knox County School system. We read a lot of books. Books, that some ignorant parents such as these ladies would be appalled by. Of Mice and Men – murder! Death! Migrant working conditions! Romeo and Juliet – teens killing themselves over love (your children might get ideas)! The Crucible – Puritan man cheats on wife with young girl who then gets him killed! (one of these ladies current objections is that infidelities were mentioned – so she better get to work on The Crucible too). Not to mention The Canturbury Tales – Miller’s Tale anyone? So you better watch out Knox County School Board, don’t let ignorance set a precedent or they’ll be coming for your entire curriculum – and you’ll be left with a whole bunch of teenagers who can only read Fun with Dick and Jane

Knox County School Board, I hope we can count on you to do the right thing – ignore these fools and fight the good fight to rid their children of this kind of ignorance. Oh and congratulations Rebecca Skloot! The crazy ladies of Knoxville, Tennessee have just ensured that every kid in Knox County is definitely going to read your book!

Posted in Knox County School System, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks | Tagged , , | 4 Comments