October 30, 2015

This year’s unrealistic Halloween worry: MDMA in the trick-or-treat bags

Filed under: Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Reason, Jacob Sullum debunks the latest variant of the old “OMG! There might be marijuana in the kids’ trick-or-treat bags! OMG!”:

With Halloween just around the corner, it’s time for scary news reports that begin, “With Halloween just around the corner…” This genre of yellow journalism often features warnings about tainted trick-or-treat candy, a mythical menace that in recent years has gained credibility thanks to the popularity of marijuana edibles in states where such products are legal.

Last year police in Denver, where state-licensed marijuana merchants had recently begun serving recreational consumers, told parents to be on the lookout for THC-tainted treats in their children’s candy bags. As usual, no actual cases of such surreptitious dosing were identified.

But fear of strangers with candy springs eternal. The fact that this threat so far has proven imaginary is not deterring reporters and law enforcement officials around the country from warning parents that harmless-looking treats might contain a mind-altering substance other than sugar—if not marijuana, then MDMA.


Almost all of these stories make a leap from the observation that cannabis candy exists to the completely unsubstantiated fear that someone might slip it into your kid’s trick-or-treat bag. That scenario is highly implausible, since it is hard to see what the payoff would be for replacing cheap Halloween treats with expensive marijuana edibles. Given the delay between eating cannabis candy and feeling its effects, the hypothetical prankster could not even hope to witness the consequences of his trick. Furthermore, it seems that nothing like this has ever happened — or if it did, it somehow escaped the attention of the yellow journalists who keep warning us about the possibility. The story is kept alive by the gullibility of the same parents who anxiously examine their kid’s Halloween candy for needles and shards of glass.

Jackson Metro Police Department

Jackson Metro Police Department

This year saw the birth of a new variation on this theme: Instead of cannabis in your kids’ candy, maybe there’s MDMA. Snopes.com, the online catalog of urban legends, traces the scare to a September 25 post by a Facebook user named Thomas Chizzo Bagwell featuring a photo of colorful Molly tablets. “If your kids get these for halloween,” Bagwell wrote, “it’s not candy.” Last week the Jackson, Mississippi, police department posted the same photo, accompanied by this warning:

    If your kids get these for Halloween candy, they ARE NOT CANDY!!! They are the new shapes of “Ecstasy” and can kill kids through overdoses!!! So, check your kid’s candy and “When in doubt, Throw it out!!!” Be safe and always keep the shiny side up!!!

That burst of fact-free fear, which was later removed from the police department’s Facebook page, transformed idle speculation into “an alert” issued by “police nationwide,” as WILX, the NBC station in Lansing, Michigan, put it. WOIO, the CBS station in Cleveland, claimed “Ecstasy masked to look like candy” is “popping up all over the country, and police want to warn you.” If a child were to eat one of those tablets, according to Westlake, Ohio, Police Capt. Guy Turner, “they would be in the emergency room without a doubt.”

October 23, 2015

Adults have co-opted kid culture

Filed under: Media — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Gavin McInnes isn’t impressed with the ongoing self-infantalization of the adult world, but he’s even less thrilled that even the cartoons are now primarily oriented to adults rather than children:

I’ve oft complained about the infantilization of American adults, but something strange is happening. We’re going from “Comic books aren’t just for kids anymore” to “Comic books are not for kids anymore.” Adults aren’t just participating in kid culture, they’re confiscating it.

We just finished hosting Comic Con here in NYC and the streets were filled with grown-up children dressed as superheroes and characters from kids’ shows. I’m not talking about a dad dressed as Batman because his kid was dressed like that too. There were no kids. Comic Con is for adults now. Eventbrite surveyed 2,600 fans and listed 0% under 13. The vast majority was between 30 and 49.

As a parent trying to give my children a childhood, I find this co-opting of their culture infuriating. In my home, we celebrate “Cartoon Morning” on Saturdays because it’s one of the fondest memories of my own childhood. Looking back, I realize the cartoons we had back then sucked pretty bad. The best it got was Wacky Races, which was just a race between different cartoon characters sabotaging one another. There was no plot. The quality of cartoons today is incredible. The two top broadcasters, Cartoon Network and Nickelodeon, host mind-blowing, quality shows such as Adventure Time, Regular Show, Clarence, We Bare Bears, The Amazing World of Gumball, Uncle Grandpa, Sanjay and Craig, and of course, Pig Goat Banana Cricket. I’d never watch these on my own, but I believe it’s healthy to watch these shows with your kids because it forges a bond and you often need to explain the story to the younger ones. The problem is, these shows don’t air on Saturday mornings. One of the reasons they’re so good is that they’re not made for kids. They’re made for adults. My kids’ favorite, Sanjay and Craig, airs new episodes at 8:15 p.m. on Fridays and 10:45 Saturday mornings. Kids get up at 7 a.m. They’re bored of cartoons by then. These shows must be adhering to the sleep patterns of grown-ups. When you turn on the TV at 7 a.m. on Saturdays, Nickelodeon is showing a SpongeBob SquarePants marathon and Cartoon Network is doing the same with a terrible show called Teen Titans. That’s the kind of thing on at three in the morning on a Tuesday. Saturday-morning cartoons are officially over.

October 15, 2015

QotD: No matter what, you’re never really “ready” for kids

Filed under: Business, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Apparently tech companies are offering egg freezing as a benefit to their employees. There’s some suspicion among women I know that this is supposed to help/force women in technology balance family and career by delaying childbirth — it’s not a good time in your late 20s and early 30s, so freeze those eggs and have kids when you’re ready.

What I haven’t seen anyone explain is when, exactly, you’ll be ready. For most people, your 40s and early 50s are your peak earning years — is that really going to be a good time to meet that special someone, or finally step back to invest some time in having kids? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m already noticing that I have a lot less energy than I used to. It’s not that I can’t get my work done or anything like that. But it used to be that if I had to travel for six days straight and then deliver a 2,500-word essay on the 7th, I could dial up my reserves and power through it — miserable and cranky, to be sure, but functioning. Then one day, around the time I turned 40, I dialed down for more power and there just … wasn’t any. My body informed me that it was tired, and my brain would not be doing any more work today, and we were going to sleep whether I liked it or not.

This is — as friends who have done it freely remark — a difficult age to be taking on your first newborn. I can’t even imagine trying the same feat 10 years from now, when my joints will be even creakier and my reserves even more depleted. So I’m skeptical that women who are having trouble combining work and career now will really find it much easier to do within any reasonable time frame. Is all this egg freezing actually going to expand the choices of most of the women who use it, or will it just be an expensive way to choose career over family without realizing that you’re making that choice?

Megan McArdle, “Will Freezing Your Eggs Help Your Career?”, Bloomberg View, 2014-02-16.

September 29, 2015

Bad preschool is worse than no preschool

Filed under: Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Megan McArdle on the popular notion that preschool programs are a panacea for all that ails the public school system:

Universal preschool has become the ginseng of American politics, a sort of broad-spectrum nostrum that will cure almost anything that ails you. Inequality, male-female pay gaps, crime, poverty — just apply some early childhood programs, and watch those maladies fade. Expect to hear this a lot from Hillary Clinton in the coming presidential race.

And what kind of a crotchety, sour, greedy old columnist could be opposed to such a wonderful idea? I’m so glad you asked.

In truth, I am not opposed to early childhood education programs. I am opposed to blind boosterism of such programs, the kind that confidently predicts marvelous results from thin empirical evidence, and briskly proceeds to demand huge sums be spent accordingly. There are three big problems with this:

1. The empirical evidence is shakier than many boosters suggest. The possible benefits of these programs can be divided into two baskets: cognitive benefits (improvement in academic skills and performance), and non-cognitive benefits (improvement in such things as social skills, hyperactivity, gratification delay, and so forth). The evidence of cognitive benefits is underwhelming; they appear, and then tend to fade out as the children leave the program and proceed through our nation’s school systems.

A lot of hope has therefore been poured into non-cognitive benefits. Some early programs seem to show long-term improvements in things like graduation rates, employment and criminal activity. However, many of these programs were very small, which raises the possibility that we’re dealing with small samples plus publication bias, rather than something that actually works. In general, in social science, you tend to see that the larger the sample and the better designed the study, the less remarkable the effects. And this is definitely what you see with early childhood programs. Perry, Abecedarian, the Chicago Child-Parent Center: these are inspiring projects. They’re not nearly large enough to base a national program on.


And indeed, that’s what a new study out of Quebec seems to suggest. In the 1990s, the province instituted an inexpensive universal child-care program. The program doesn’t seem to have produced much in the way of cognitive benefits, and its non-cognitive benefits were actually negative — that is, kids exposed to the program (those who lived in Quebec) were more likely to have various problems than control groups in other provinces.

Now, this is, as I always caution, Just One Study. It’s a pretty convincing study, of a pretty large group. But it’s still a single study, which means that we should not rush to say that universal child care is a bad idea, or even that cheap, badly designed universal child care is a bad idea.

What we should rush to say, however, is that the background assumption about such programs — that at worst they’re a waste of money for zero results — cannot be safely held. We have to assume some possibility that our early childhood program will actually be worse for the kids than the status quo is.

September 22, 2015

A unique genetic population in the Dominican Republic

Filed under: Americas, Health, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

BBC Magazine on the extraordinary lives of the Guevedoces, children who suddenly develop male sexual characteristics at puberty:

The discovery of a small community in the Dominican Republic, where some males are born looking like girls and only grow penises at puberty, has led to the development of a blockbuster drug that has helped millions of people, writes Michael Mosley.

Johnny lives in a small town in the Dominican Republic where he, and others like him, are known as “Guevedoces“, which effectively translates as “penis at twelve”.

We came across Johnny when we were filming for a new BBC Two series Countdown to Life, which looks at how we develop in the womb and how those changes, normal and abnormal, impact us later in life.

Like the other Guevedoces, Johnny was brought up as a girl because he had no visible testes or penis and what appeared to be a vagina. It is only when he approached puberty that his penis grew and testicles descended.


So why does it happen? Well, one of the first people to study this unusual condition was Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley, from Cornell Medical College in New York. In the 1970s she made her way to this remote part of the Dominican Republic, drawn by extraordinary reports of girls turning into boys.

When she got there she found the rumours were true. She did lots of studies on the Guevedoces (including what must have been rather painful biopsies of their testicles) before finally unravelling the mystery of what was going on.

When you are conceived you normally have a pair of X chromosomes if you are to become a girl and a set of XY chromosomes if you are destined to be male.

For the first weeks of life in womb you are neither, though in both sexes nipples start to grow.

Then, around eight weeks after conception, the sex hormones kick in. If you’re genetically male the Y chromosome instructs your gonads to become testicles and sends testosterone to a structure called the tubercle, where it is converted into a more potent hormone called dihydro-testosterone This in turn transforms the tubercle into a penis. If you’re female and you don’t make dihydro-testosterone then your tubercle becomes a clitoris.

July 31, 2015

QotD: “Having it all”

Filed under: Media, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

In 2012, Gloria Steinem complained that the Have It All question was a “bullshit” question because no one ever asked that question of men. It’s true. Society doesn’t often ask that question of men, but not because of sexism.

Women ask about having it all because they were told they could have it all…by women like Steinem. The old glossy women’s magazines are full of have-it-all glamour, declaring that women could easily have it all without men. Steinem did not actually coin the “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle” quip, but she got the credit for it because it succinctly represented her preaching and the mood of the time. Women didn’t need anything but the old rules and the old men to get out of their way. Each woman was an island unto herself, a self-contained unit of success. Eventually, all of those things we told women back in the 60s to boost their confidence and get them out in the world became the standard by which we now demand singular performance from women.

Check the commentary in many of the lauded feminist pop culture franchises, most recently “Divergent,” “Frozen,” “Maleficent,” etc. Characters get the feminist seal of approval when they are separated from any sort of partnership with men. Having it all doesn’t count unless we are doing it without men.

Men, on the other hand, didn’t have some masculinist movement telling them that they could have it all, much less that they had to do it all on their own. Nor would they have been as receptive if they had. Unlike girls who tend to engage in pretend play in which they are the princess, then the chef, then the teacher or the pupil, all in the space of an afternoon, boys tend to also play games with rules, even if they’ve made them up by consensus. The boy who isn’t fast learns to hit the ball harder or to catch. They train each other in tradeoffs. The rules don’t bend. The boys adapt to the world the way it is. (I host large parties and play dates often. This plays out in my yard, every time.)

Asking women if they can have it all isn’t sexism. It is an aspiration that women who should know better foist upon women who don’t.

Leslie Loftis, “Irony, Thy Name Is Feminism”, The Federalist, 2014-07-28.

July 17, 2015

QotD: Feminism’s uneasy attitudes to motherhood

Filed under: Politics, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Last week a person named Amy Glass wrote a breathtakingly honest — and breathless — rejection of traditional motherhood:

    I hear women talk about how “hard” it is to raise kids and manage a household all the time. I never hear men talk about this. It’s because women secretly like to talk about how hard managing a household is so they don’t have to explain their lack of real accomplishments. Men don’t care to “manage a household.” They aren’t conditioned to think stupid things like that are “important.”

    Women will be equal with men when we stop demanding that it be considered equally important to do housework and real work. They are not equal. Doing laundry will never be as important as being a doctor or an engineer or building a business. This word play is holding us back.

First, a few small points.

I hear men talk about how hard it is to manage a household and raise kids all the time. (We may not talk about it in terms Glass can recognize, but as a subscriber to the Happy Wife, Happy Life school of marriage, it’s my experience that husbands who don’t recognize and appreciate how hard it is to run a home soon become ex-husbands or miserable husbands.) Glass also may only be hearing what she wants to hear. Or, she may know only asinine men. Who knows? Frankly I don’t care which one is right because I don’t put a lot of stock in what Glass has to say.

Second, this is truly shabby work:

    Doing laundry will never be as important as being a doctor or an engineer or building a business. This word play is holding us back.

Talk about word play! You see the sleight of hand, right? “Doing laundry” is a single, discrete task, a subset of a vast realm of responsibilities that often come with running a household and being a mother. Being a doctor, engineer, or business-builder are total careers or vocations. In other words, it’s a false analogy. Like saying being a chef isn’t as worthwhile as being a truck driver because chefs “cut vegetables.” Every career or calling involves unpleasant or tedious tasks.

Just in case you still don’t get it, another illustration. Raising kids involves taking the barbarian clay of a baby and through the alchemy of love and the application of intellect turning it into an emotionally, spiritually, and physically healthy human being and citizen. Meanwhile, doctors put their fingers in old men’s butts. So, to sum up: “Putting fingers in old men’s butts will never be as important as raising children. The word play is holding us back.”

Third (as a reader flagged for me), Glass is not exactly a rigorous thinker. On January 15 she writes:

    Every time I hear someone say that feminism is about validating every choice a woman makes I have to fight back vomit.

On January 17 she writes:

    The great thing about Feminism is that it means that women can do anything. You can be a working woman or a stay at home mother and both choices are equally valid. There is no “wrong way” to do feminism.

    This means that as good feminists, we never judge the choices of other women.

Assuming there isn’t a technical explanation for what’s going on here (a false byline, a prank, or maybe an angry capuchin monkey loose in the IT department) this is the kind of inconsistency that doesn’t invite refutation so much as medication.

Jonah Goldberg, “It’s Still Only Two Cheers for Capitalism”, The Goldberg File, 2014-01-31

June 20, 2015

Delighted to announce…

Filed under: Personal — Tags: — Nicholas @ 20:42

… the birth of Freyja Mallett, who would have been my sister’s first grandchild (my sister died barely two weeks ago). I’m looking forward to visiting Sammy tomorrow and meeting Freyja for the first time.

June 16, 2015

QotD: The Young Adult fiction of Ronald Welch

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

I’d already been tinkering with the idea of writing a YA story, something for Ranger’s Apprentice fans to move on to.

Commercially, the idea was, “They’re going to read Bernard Cornwell when they are older; let’s take some money off them now.” However, my main motivation was wanting to write something my son could read — the magnum opus my agent was shopping owed too much to the War of the Powers (Am I the only person who remembers that series?). I also wanted to follow in the footsteps of Ronald Welch, the YA writer I read when I was a kid.

Welch was a WWII veteran turned grammar school teacher. He wrote what we would now call YA books about young officers finding their place, and he did it in just about every major conflict involving English combatants from the Horns of Hattin, through Marlborough’s campaigns, to his chronologically last book, Tank Commander, which is an utterly awesome tale of World War One, culminating in the Battle of Cambrai, the first modern tank assault.

We’re not talking trash here. Each book was well researched, the writing is good — he even won a Carnegie Medal for Knight Crusader, which puts him in the same ballpark as Rosemary Sutcliff. As far as I can see, his star faded after his death, not because of his quality as a writer, but because he became unfashionable:

  • His books simply have boy cooties. They are about young men learning leadership and responsibility while being shot at and shooting back without qualms … doing their job in adverse circumstances.
  • He’s not an anti-imperialist. I don’t think he’s pro-imperialist either. He just tells things as they were with people accepting the ethos of the time. His characters generally show matter-of-fact respect for other cultures, but don’t question their own right to be in Palestine or India or wherever, or question very much at all.
  • He’s not anti-war. His fight scenes also go all the way up to 11 on the Conan Scale. I don’t think he likes war, but — having fought in WWII — he sees it as necessary, and the experience itself as worthy of writing about.

This last, bears further examination.

Modern war books aimed at younger people tend towards:

    OMG my best friend just got killed. Look at that dying horse. War is Hell. At least I and my friends will (drum roll) Preserve Our Humanity.

Ronald Welch, who pulls absolutely no punches, by the way, is more:

    OMG my best friend just got killed. You there, put that dying horse out if its misery. War is Hell. Watch the left flanks chaps and some of us will get to live through it. I said WATCH THE DAMNED LEFT FLANK!!

It’s all about taking responsibility, keeping presence of mind, in just about the most hostile human environment.

Very few young readers will grow up to be soldiers. Many of them, however, will face crappy situations. At work when a project implodes. Socially when people turn on them. In a family when a child is very sick, or when a marriage breaks down or turns abusive…

In all those circumstances, there are points neither for maintaining a personal moral hygiene nor for being sensitive. If everybody is going to get through this thing, somebody has to watch the left flank. That person may well be you.

And that’s the kind of book I wanted to write.

M Harold Page, Shieldwall: Barbarians! Writing and self-publishing an old school boy’s young officer story set in Attila’s invasion”, Charlie’s Diary, 2015-06-03.

June 15, 2015

“The destruction of the family is the single most destructive force in the past 40 years”

Filed under: Health, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Gavin McInnes talks to Dr. Amier Carmel, a New York psychoanalyst, about trauma and “cry-bullies”:

He describes the cry-bullies as people with “an intense need to control” and says that “the resentment associated with this need to correct is often an induced feeling used to fix another problem.” This makes perfect sense. Whenever I argue with liberals and they preach to me about immigration, education, or women’s rights, their lack of knowledge on the subject makes it clear they’ve never looked it up. “It’s never about what it’s about,” as Derb would say. Ask them how many illegals are in the country and they’ll rarely get within 10 million of the number. Ask them how much we spend per student per year and they’ll say, “Not enough.” Ask them how much young women without kids make compared with men and they’ll say, “Women need a choice.” They’re not in it for the truth. They’re in it for the platitudes of the crusade and the power it evokes. We all know that by know. The question is why.

Carmel has a fascinating answer. “The destruction of the family,” he opines, “is the single most destructive force in the past 40 years.” Amier then discusses the back-and-forth kids do, going from mom to dad every time they have a grievance. “This dance,” he says, “is how we attain justice. It’s how the parameters of our sense of internal integrity are defined.” Amier seems particularly concerned with the lack of fathers. “The father sets down the law. When he is not there, a sense of anxiety takes root and that leads to outwardly directed hostility. Soon you are looking to the outside world to show you what the limits are. You’re ‘acting out’ and hoping society will control you. The desire for paternal law becomes pathologized.” Amier calls PC violations “narcissistic injury” and adds that this fear-driven petulance becomes especially dangerous when the ideology becomes someone’s entire identity. “When that happens,” he says, “it’s as though rationality and socialized relationships dissolve. The ideologically identified person can often become wildly reckless because they seek the obscuring of accountability with increased pathos.”

We can see this in the liberal demigod Che Guevera. His insatiable lust for power was cloaked as a need for justice, but it’s arguably just a case of a mentally ill child trying to impose order on a world he felt was spinning out of control. Che grew up in a household where his emotionally absent father would openly flaunt infidelity. Ernesto Guevara Lynch was a loser who blew his wife’s fortune on himself and young girls. I’ve noticed a pattern with liberals and fathers who were negligent and financially irresponsible. So much of their belief system seems to come from revenge. This is why they attack white men for looking at someone funny but turn a blind eye to a child prostitution ring in Rotherham. This is also why feminists won’t shut up about the “white male patriarchy” (“patriarch” meaning “father”) but have nothing to say about the shocking difference between black-on-white rape and white-on-black rape. Che is no different. He took his pain and turned it into a crusade against the world. This is why liberals put him on a T-shirt. They don’t like him because he freed Cuba or forced socialism down its throat. They like him because he personifies the cry-bully.

June 12, 2015

The long-lasting impact of the “Little House” books

Filed under: Books, History, Liberty, USA — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

Jason Kuznicki on the deep emotional grasp Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books are still having today:

“Not ‘Harry Potter’!” says Alice, age five. “I want ‘Little House’!”

It’s the age of negotiated bedtime reading. My husband and I oblige, and tonight we read from Little House in the Big Woods, the first installment of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fictionalized autobiography. We take turns reading: Alice reads, then I do, then Scott does. Then Alice reads again. It’s never enough.

What draws her in? A lot of things. The characters are mostly female, young, and strong. Laura herself begins “Little House” at four, an age that wins our daughter’s ready empathy. Not unlike the first volume of “Harry Potter,” Little House in the Big Woods introduces an unknown world; done properly, that’s always exciting. As generations already know, the story is clean and earnest, without affectation or smarm. And it’s told in words that Alice can read all on her own — a great confidence builder.

It’s sometimes hard to fathom, though, just how different Laura’s life was from our own: churning butter, salting meat, boiling down maple syrup… Megan McArdle discussed all this in a recent piece for Bloomberg. The “Little House” books open up a lost world for today’s kids — and for today’s adults:

    [A]s an adult… what really strikes you is how incredibly poor these people were. The Ingalls family were in many ways bourgeoisie: educated by the standards of the day, active in community leadership, landowners. And they had nothing.

We’re not just talking a different skill set, then. The skills came of necessity, and of hardships almost wholly unknown today: “Little House” contains the actual sentence, “They had never seen a machine before” — because, well, they hadn’t.

May 31, 2015

Alice’s sesquicentennial

Filed under: Books, Britain, History — Tags: — Nicholas @ 03:00

In Maclean’s, Brian Bethune talks about the 150th anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland:

On July 4, 1862, Rev. Charles Dodgson, an Oxford lecturer in mathematics better known now as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, rowed up the Thames to a picnic spot. He had with him four of his favourite people: his friend Robinson Duckworth and the three young Liddell girls — Lorina, 13, Edith, 8, and 10-year-old Alice. From the sparse evidence of Carroll’s diary, it was hardly a memorable occasion; perhaps it was the weather that July day: cloudy and damp, with a high of 20° C.

The embellishments began 10 months later — when Carroll went back to the entry and added, “On which occasion, I told them the fairy tale of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which I undertook to write out for Alice” — and didn’t stop for decades. By the time 80-year-old Alice Hargreaves (nee Liddell) was telling the tale on her triumphant visit to New York — the “original Alice” was greeted at the dock by more than 30 reporters — her recollection of a “blazing summer afternoon with heat haze shimmering over the meadows” was already established fact.

It is the perfect creation myth for a singular event in English literature — and yes: historians, recognizing it as such, have pored over the meteorological records. It’s a story that involves Carroll’s crucial place in a continuum stretching from the Victorian era to modernity, encompassing the earlier era’s near-incomprehensible — to modern eyes — concepts of childhood and of sexuality, and the birth of photography. But whatever its particulars, when Carroll finally got his story down on paper 150 years ago and published it under its now familiar title, Wonderland — a shape-shifting tale that is both a love letter to the English language and an extended metaphor for childhood — changed children’s literature forever.

Alice’s sesquicentennial — how Lewis Carroll would have loved that word — will be marked globally by events large and small. She has been published in 7,600 editions in 174 languages, including Tajik and Esperanto; many will be on display in London and New York. The popular ballet will be staged around the world, a marionette theatre in Austria will recreate the story, Vancouver Playhouse promises Alice flamenco, and on and on.

And there will be books, of course, including a catalogue raisonné of Carroll’s 1,000 surviving photographs (out of 3,000 taken). With the notable exception of Canadian writer David Day’s eagerly awaited Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded, out in September, few are liable to be as compulsively readable as Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s The Story of Alice. The latter is informative on what went into the making of Wonderland, from the Victorians’ intense focus on the underground — both literal (the tube) and fantastic (Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth) — to Carroll’s anxiety about rapid change (like the Red Queen, he always thought he had to run faster and faster, just to stay where he was). And it’s brilliant in the way it mirrors Carroll’s own protean nature, offering no overarching theme, except to establish that its subject was not a man to provide two possible meanings for all he did and said, not so long as he could stuff in three or more.

Speaking from Oxford, where he is an English professor at Magdalen College, Douglas-Fairhurst makes it clear that was his aim. “I’m trying to restore a kind of innocence to biography. I don’t have strong opinions about Carroll, a man whose details are fragmentary. There is no one story, or even genre, that can give us all the answers about Alice and him. What we have are the books, masterpieces in their complexity, serious and funny, with a playful surface lying over a desperate yearning for logic and order. For 150 years, Alice has been a blank screen onto which we project all we want to throw at her.”

May 30, 2015

QotD: Education

Filed under: Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

A couple of days spent examining the literature of the New Thought in pedagogy are enough to make the judicious weep. Its aim seems to be to reduce the whole teaching process to a sort of automatic reaction, to discover some master formula that will not only take the place of competence and resourcefulness in the teacher but that will also create an artificial receptivity in the child. The merciless application of this formula (which changes every four days) now seems to be the chief end and aim of pedagogy. Teaching becomes a thing in itself, separable from and superior to the thing taught. Its mastery is a special business, a transcendental art and mystery, to be acquired in the laboratory. A teacher well grounded in this mystery, and hence privy to every detail of the new technic (which changes, of course, with the formula), can teach anything to any child, just as a sound dentist can pull any tooth out of any jaw.

All this, I need not point out, is in sharp contrast to the old theory of teaching. By that theory mere technic was simplified and subordinated. All that it demanded of the teacher told off to teach, say, geography, was that he master the facts in the geography book and provide himself with a stout rattan. Thus equipped, he was ready for a test of his natural pedagogical genius. First he exposed the facts in the book, then he gilded them with whatever appearance of interest and importance he could conjure up, and then he tested the extent of their transference to the minds of his pupils. Those pupils who had ingested them got apples; those who had failed got fanned with the rattan. Followed the second round, and the same test again, with a second noting of results. And then the third, and fourth, and the fifth, and so on until the last and least pupil had been stuffed to his subnormal and perhaps moronic brim.

I was myself grounded in the underlying delusions of what is called knowledge by this austere process, and despite the eloquence of those who support newer ideas, I lean heavily in favor of it, and regret to hear that it is no more. It was crude, it was rough, and it was often not a little cruel, but it at least had two capital advantages over all the systems that have succeeded it. In the first place, its machinery was simple; even the stupidest child could understand it; it hooked up cause and effect with the utmost clarity. And in the second place, it tested the teacher as and how he ought to be tested — that is, for his actual capacity to teach, not for his mere technical virtuosity. There was, in fact, no technic for him to master, and hence none for him to hide behind. He could not conceal a hopeless inability to impart knowledge beneath a correct professional method.

H.L. Mencken, “Education”, Prejudices, Third Series, 1922.

May 29, 2015

The legacy of the great satanic sex abuse panic still resonates today

Filed under: Law, Media, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Radley Balko reports on the recent release of two former Austin, Texas daycare owners … who’ve been in prison since 1992 on the testimony of a toddler and “expert evidence” from a satanic ritual expert and how the moral panic of the day made it impossible for the courts to see how utterly unlikely the case actually was:

The panic actually began in the 1980s. It was instigated and perpetuated mostly by groups of fundamentalist Christians who saw Satan in every heavy metal album, “Smurfs” episode, and Dungeons & Dragons game, along with a quack cadre of psychotherapists who were convinced they could dig up buried memories through hypnosis. What they did instead was shed some light on just how potent the power of suggestion can be. Remarkably, children were convinced to testify about horrifying — and entirely fictional — violations perpetrated on them by care workers and, in some cases, by their own parents.

But it wasn’t just children. As the Kellers’ conviction shows, the panic was so overwhelming, it could convince trained medical professionals to see abuse where there was none. Some defendants were convicted of gruesome crimes such as the aforementioned dismembering of babies despite the fact that there were no corpses and no babies missing from the immediate area.


That the highest court in Texas still can’t bring itself to declare the couple innocent, in spite of all that we know now, shows just how difficult it can be to undo the damage caused by a moral panic and junk science in the courtroom.


Here’s an observation from the panic that I don’t think has been fully explored: These kids didn’t make up these stories. In this case and dozens of others, the kids were telling tales with details about geography, history and current events about which kids of their age couldn’t have known. That’s likely what made their stories seem somewhat credible. But the fact that it all was fictitious reveals a particularly unsettling truth: These sick, lurid, unimaginable abuses could only have been a product of the imaginations of the therapists, social workers, cops and/or prosecutors who interviewed the children. If the memories were implanted, those are the only people who could have implanted them. That means that the same people entrusted to protect these kids, and in whom these communities trusted to police the streets, prosecute crimes and administer therapy, were ultimately the ones capable of dreaming up detailed sexual fantasies that put children in bizarre rituals involving violence, animals, corpses and so on.

There’s a lot to be learned from these cases. For one, there are lessons about professional accountability: Not only were the vast majority of the prosecutors who put these innocent people in prison in these cases never sanctioned, but also most went on to great professional success, sometimes because of their role in these high-profile cases, and sometimes even after it was widely known that the people they prosecuted were innocent. There are other lessons here about how we screen “expert” witnesses, and how bad science gets into the courtroom. There are lessons about the power of suggestion that could be applied to eyewitness testimony and how we conduct police lineups.

But the drawing of lessons is something we typically do once a crisis is over. This one still isn’t. There are still people in prison awaiting exoneration in these cases.

May 20, 2015

Minecraft – the latest moral panic

Filed under: Gaming, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Techdirt, Karl Bode pours some scorn on a deserving demographic:

Like many people, video games have been an integral part of my life for about as long as I can remember. From my days visiting Wildcat! BBS systems where I’d play Trade Wars 2000 — to obsessing over the Apple IIe, IIc and IIgs — video games were not only an integral part of my childhood, they actually helped forge an adult career path. Swapping out graphics cards and building new PCs to play Quake 2 led to a job in Manhattan legal IT, which in turn resulted in a life focused on writing about technology. Aside from a few tics, I like to believe I wound up relatively normal, and video games have made my life immeasurably more rewarding.

That background usually forces me into the role of video game evangelist when surrounded by folks that, all too frequently, are engaged in hand wringing over the diabolical moral dangers games purportedly present. At a party recently, some friends expressed muted shock because a colleague’s kid was, instead of being social, playing a game in which he was “herding human beings and keeping them in a barn to eat.” I had to explain (skipping the part about how you’d need a mod to actually eat them) how this behavior wasn’t indicative of a Jeffrey Dahmer in training, he was simply engaged in normal problem solving behavior on the new frontier […]

Despite the fact that Minecraft is simply an amazing evolution of the Lego concept for the modern age, the moral panic surrounding the game never quite seems to abate. The latest case in point is over at the BBC, where the outlet implies it has heard all of the pro-Minecraft arguments before, it’s just choosing to ignore them in order to portray the game as an unpoliced virtual-reality hellscape that’s rotting the brains of children everywhere. While there are some good points embedded within, there are notably more bad ones, like the argument that kids should instead be reading, because reading engages imagination and builds character

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