Unsheeply’s Law?

November 9th, 2011

I’ve observed a phenomena that I think deserves a new adage, similar to Godwin’s Law. If you’re not familiar, that’s the idea that given enough time any online discussion – regardless of topic or scope – will eventually involve comparison of a poster’s point to the beliefs held by Hitler and the Nazis.

Similarly, it seems that that any online discussion that involves animal rights, vegan or vegetarian diets will eventually include comments by someone asserting that they are going to go eat a steak or hamburger right now, usually in someone’s honor.

To those posters I say, I get it. You eat meat and you like it. There’s no need to claim you’re going to rush out right now to stuff your face, or pretend that the discussion has provoked you into doing it. And there’s really no need to graphically describe the animal parts you intend to consume. Just not necessary and does not add to the discussion.

But it is inflammatory, and that’s probably the point. It might serve as a diversion from any other more logical arguments in progress, drawing people away from the truth. And for whatever reason, trolling veg forums seems to be a popular topic among a small portion of the meat eating public.

In the same way that Godwin’s law can be cited to reduce the incidence of inappropriate hyperbolic comparisons, my attempt at pointing this out is in the hope that it will reduce the incidence of such nonconstructive comments. Additionally, this law could be used to serve an automatic FAIL to win the argument on the person making the claim.

I’d love to see this on this list of adages named after people or things. So what do you say? Unsheeply’s Law? ;-)

High fructose corn syrup rebranding as corn sugar

September 30th, 2011

According to a story by the Associated Press, “The Corn Refiners Association wants to use “corn sugar” as an alternative name for the widely used liquid sweetener currently labeled as high fructose corn syrup” and have petitioned for a name change. In the meantime, the FDA has cautioned them to stop using the term prematurely, as they haven’t yet received approval and are already including it on promotional materials such as their web sites.

This reminds me of Aspartame’s re-brand as AminoSweet that I discussed awhile back. It’s not difficult to see why they’d want to change away from the term high fructose corn syrup (HCFS) as more and more people are turning against their product.

A representative for the group says they don’t believe consumers will be misled by the new terminology though, saying, “We do not believe that anyone could be confused or believe that the statements regarding ‘corn sugar’ on the websites refer to anything other than high fructose corn syrup.”

So what exactly would be the purpose for making the change, if not to lose the negative association? If it’s not to re-brand your product as something more appealing to consumers, then why bother?

According to this New York Times piece, it’s because they believe corn syrup is a confusing term and that corn sugar better communicates about the calories and sweetness of the ingredient. They say consumers wrongly believe it has more sugar than what we’d traditionally consider table sugar (the granular white stuff) and are avoiding it for that reason.

It seems they haven’t quite agreed on consistent messaging internally. Corn sugar is either a term that will be seen as equivalent to HCFS in the minds of consumers (doubtful, IMO) or else a term than more accurately describes a form of liquid sugar that is nutritionally similar to table sugar (presumes consumers care about and are making nutritional decisions based sugar type comparison, also doubtful). If they’re going to choose a new label because it brings clarity to consumers, they’re not going to choose one that is seen as equivalent to their current term.

In my head, it’s nothing more than an attempt to re-brand in attempt to slow or stop the declining use of their product as manufacturers switch to more “natural” forms of sugar in response to consumer demand — as seen with the introduction of products like Pepsi Natural and Mountain Dew Throwback. And consumers are likely demanding this not due to research into the nutritional profiles of varying types of sugar, but because the media and others have painted HCFS as a bad guy, accurate or not. Also, because the pursuit towards more natural products is a popular trend.

In fact, scientists are somewhat split over whether HFCS is any more damaging to consumers than other sugars. According to the Mayo Clinic, research studies have yielded mixed results. HFCS is chemically similar to table sugar, but the thought is that your body may react differently since it’s processed. There’s insufficient evidence at this point to say that this is true, but studies continue to look a the potential effects, including potential links to cancer. Where there is no argument is that we should all be consuming less sweetener, no matter what the source.

So what do you think? Does a switch to the name corn sugar provide any nutritional clarity to you as a consumer? Do you shy away from HFCS in particular or is sugar of any kind treated the same?

Animal transport, extreme weather

July 29th, 2011

Whenever animal welfare is discussed, animal transport is often left off the agenda. Yet the transport process can be a brutal experience and is largely unregulated.

Every day on my commute to work (20 miles interstate each way), without fail I see at least one livestock transport truck. Some days I’ll see a dozen. It’s usually large pigs heading south, baby pigs going north, and trucks crammed full of birds (or empty bird cages) in convoys of 4 or 5. Occasionally I’ll see trailers of cows, but they’re often hard to spot as their black hides appear near invisible inside the dark recesses of the trucks. What a constant, dismal reminder of why I am a vegan.

This always upsets me, but lately my thoughts have turned from the ultimate fate of the animals towards the animal transport process. A change in focus, but one that ultimately should be considered.

From the research I conducted, it seems there are very few actual requirements for animals transported by truck. The industry standard on treatment seems to be the guidelines put together by Temple Grandin in her Livestock Trucking Guide. They advocate for basic comfort measures, not necessarily for the sake of the animals, but in order to avoid investment loss. There are tips for reducing shrink (weight loss), bruising, and other things that can affect “meat quality”, all based on solid science, but focused solely on what’s best for business.

Lately we’ve been experiencing a heat wave that has daytime temps soaring into the 100s with “feels like” temperatures even higher. We’re getting constant warnings about what to do to protect ourselves and our companion animals, and the government has even started opening up heat relief centers and busing people to places with air conditioning, like malls and libraries.

And yet, I see livestock trucks transporting pigs as normal!! They cram up to 400 “hogs” into a truck and they’re not required to stop to give water or food. Grandin’s guide says that humid Midwestern conditions can be lethal and death losses double on hot, humid days. I wonder how many animals they’re losing to heat?

The same thing happens in winter, as many are transported in sub-zero temps. While some trucks will cover the holes to protect the animals in transit, not all of them bother and they’re not required to do it. I’ve also seen animals driven into heavy storms and high winds. They seem to carry on despite the weather conditions, no matter how unsuitable, and nobody bats an eye.

A chart called the Livestock Weather Safety Index was created to make it easier for shippers to know when their cargo might be in danger. However, I know for a fact that many aren’t following the advice of Grandin or looking to this index based on what I’m seeing on the road every day. If they were, they’d be on the road at night instead and I wouldn’t see them at all.

Obviously, the perspective of the industry is that they consider animals live stock, and in a way similar to transporting something like fruit. They aim to deliver their cargo in a condition suitable for their intended purpose and aren’t bothered by some bruising or a few losses along the way as long as they can maintain their ROI.

Imagine if those were puppies crammed hundreds in a truck in the ridiculous weather and under deplorable conditions. Do you think the average person would be outraged then? How can this be perceived so differently?

McD’s and the mom bloggers

July 28th, 2011

I have to admit, this NPR story made me bristle when I heard it. And not because McDonald’s is using social media to it’s advantage (because any smart company is these days), or even because their so-called healthy improvements are not really that grand (a few less french fries, peeled apple slices and cow’s milk). It’s that they’re courting bloggers with high readership and specifically that those bloggers are responding positively.

Many good bloggers cultivate an intimate relationship with their followers. They share their lives in great detail so the reader really gets to know, like and trust them. Of course this is exactly what makes them useful to McDonald’s. They know that their followers will likely place great stock in what the bloggers say about their company. As the McD’s spokesperson says in the piece, “Moms listen to other moms more than they listen to other folks”.

It made me wonder, are followers of mom blogs, or blog readers in general, really that gullible? Do readers not notice, or not care that this is basically a paid endorsement? After all, bloggers are obligated to say when they’re being compensated.

I know that on at least one blog I frequent (not a mom blog), many participants eagerly emulate the site owners, clamor for their advice, and buy things they recommend. So it’s not a stretch for me to see that all those things could be true for mom bloggers too, but why? Why are people so willing to trust the advice of strangers, just because they’re similar to them in some way? Is it because they feel like they know them?

At a gut level, I think what bothers me is that it seems the bloggers are selling out. I wonder what motivates them to participate. Are the perks and/or pay really that good? Are they just curious? Do some think they can maintain their objectivity and perhaps even stick it to McDs? It seems like it could destroy their credibility, that they’d have more to lose than to gain. But maybe it depends on why they’re blogging in the first place.

Also wondering, does this really work out that well for McDonald’s? I’m thinking it must do if they’re picking up steam on the program and are event touting their efforts to a nationwide radio audience. I know pay per post/review is a growing industry, with lots of businesses (large and small) hopping on board and reporting good results, so the ROI must be there.

That mom

June 29th, 2011

I ran across a spontaneous blog carnival from last year and have been so inspired by the posts that I just had to write about it, because I want to be That Mom, too.

I want to spend my every waking moment with our kid, living life. I want to experience all the crazy things he did today, not just on the weekends. I want to spend my time supporting his interests and catering to his whims, whether that’s making chocolate chip muffins, creating mud puddles in the yard or looking up slime eels on the Internet.

I’m doing as much I can right now within the confines of my current work arrangement, and generally everything is going quite well. We’ve managed to keep him at home and pretty happy. But our limited time together is just not enough- for him, for me, or even for my husband. I want that life so bad I can taste it. And I’m going to make it happen!

And in the meantime, I’m That Mom on the weekends and after work. The mom that takes her kid out for Indian food wearing Thomas PJs and carrying his large Lego Robot Krabs creation. That mom that knows all his favorite shows as well as he does in order to act out the scenes together, sing any theme tune or understand a random reference. The one still breastfeeding well past the socially acceptable norm because it’s what he wants and I trust he means it when he says he needs it. The kind that stays up until 11:00 PM on a work night playing whether it’s because he’s eager to spend more time with me, or just not ready to sleep yet.

I’m that mom that strives to trust and partner with her son as he steps his way through to adulthood and beyond.

Kids are people too (crazy, eh?)

May 4th, 2011

Lately I’ve been noticing something more and more and it’s really starting to bother me. Many people don’t seen to think of young children, even their own kids, as people! You know, human beings with their own feelings, views and desires?

I think this awareness has grown out of my participation in the online unschooling community and has been emphasized by recent interactions I’ve had with other parents on Facebook. Now I’m seeing it everywhere I look!

Children are often treated like some lesser, second class. Their opinions and desires are ignored. Their behavior is seen as unacceptable even when the same thing done by an adult is OK. They’re criticized for things beyond their control. Things they say are dismissed out of hand as childish or silly. Their motivations for acting as they are aren’t even contemplated, let alone seriously considered. Sincere attempts are laughed at and mocked as cute.

I see it in the those who trivialize and/or dismiss a kid’s feelings. The ones that use their size advantage to physically control or intimidate a child into doing what they want or to punish them for doing what they don’t. Those that pull rank and demand they be respected as authority solely due to their age.  It’s pervasive in our culture and many people do these things all the time, and without question.

As mentioned in past posts, children reflect the behavior they receive. So what does it tell our kids when we treat others this way, especially those closest to us? That it’s OK ignore, dismiss or bully others when we feel superior?

Where’s the understanding?  Is it really that much of a stretch to put yourself in a kid’s shoes, think about whether they might be having a bad day, wonder if there’s a reason why they’re crying, consider that they could be in pain or that their motivation is not malicious?  Where’s the tolerance for those who are just starting to experiment and learn about the world? Largely non-existent.

In my head this extends beyond paternalism or a general intolerance of children. In part, it’s due to a lack of empathy, something that seems to be deficient in our society as a whole. For some it’s just habit, do what you know. But there’s also a cultural aspect at play that I can’t really explain.

I am certainly not claiming to be a perfect parent, nor am I saying kids should be treated as if they were exactly like adults. I don’t always treat my son as a partner. I sometimes put my needs before his, or insist that we do things my way despite his protests or try to convince him of my point of view. But it’s really no different than how I’d interact with my husband or sister. Sometimes experience wins out.

Fundamentally though, I respect that our kid is a person with his own interests, thoughts and motivations, and accept that they may not always match my own. From what I’ve observed in others lately, this perspective does not seem to be the norm. I feel lucky I was afforded this respect  growing up and  can see it extended to my son.

Free preschool

March 24th, 2011

Turnover in the last state election, combined with the recession, means our legislature is struggling with some tough financing decisions lately. One big item on the chopping block is free preschool for 4-year-olds.

I can see why people think that is a good thing, and some of my Facebook friends have posted about how they find it so incredibly important that they can send their kids to these programs.

No matter what you think about the value of early childhood education though, what had me immediately scratching my head was the perceived list of benefits gained from the program to date.

The spokesperson for the faction fighting to save free preschool lauded the program for making marked improvement in kids’ readiness for Kindergarten. In her speech, examples given included that the children showed measurable improvement in the areas of listening to authority, lining up and doing what they were told.

Thing is, I don’t see how these are truly related to than the actual academic progress of a student!  Do these skills really give them a leg up when they learn to read or add numbers? Doubtful. Does it speak to classroom control and make things easier for the Kindergarten teacher and get students ready to spend their whole days doing something other than playing? Yes, absolutely.

And while I’m sure those things play a roll in how effective the learning environment is, and how likely a student is to succeed in that environment, it also speaks to a much deeper issue with our education system. The purpose of school these days seems not really to be for kids to learn, as much as it is to train them to function in our bureaucratic system!  It’s more important for them to fall into line than it is to think critically or acquire knowledge.

We tried our lad in preschool last year, and it didn’t work out well. We pulled him out with few regrets. And now I’m actually glad things turned out this way. Due to some of our other life plans, we’re most likely going to be homeschooling. Not sure how this will play out yet, but I’ve been doing a lot of reading and have some ideas. What exactly will his education look like? Not sure, but I know some things that it will not encompass.

Are we worried he won’t learn the aforementioned critical life skills? Well, he can learn to stand in a queue at the grocery store; to listen to non-parental authority at his swimming class; to socialize with others (of a much more diverse age group!) at the library.  Nope. not worried.

Non-violent protest is not terrorism; CMUs are political prisons

March 7th, 2011

Free speech is proclaimed as a protected right in this country. However, given recent events I’m beginning to think that it’s actually conditional, more of a privilege than anything.

Last week, the Supreme Court protected the ability of the Westboro Baptist Church to protest military funerals. As much as I dislike what the church members have to say, I can understand why the court ruled in their favor. However, I’m disappointed by an action the court took today – refusing to hear the case of SHAC 7, a group of seven people convicted of terrorism for running an animal rights related web site.

The members of the SHAC 7 group took no illegal action themselves, but hosted content on a web site that talked about illegal activities others had taken (like releasing animals from labs). The Third Circuit Court had ruled that while they were not a threat and had not done anything illegal, they could be convicted because they supported illegal actions and by doing so might have incited people to participate. By associating with people who had taken part in illegal activities, the rights of the group were no longer protected.

As Will Potter from Green is the New Red said at the time-

“To put it more plainly: Vocally supporting civil disobedience, explaining what it involves, and encouraging/facilitating people to take part is not protected speech.

This is so important let me say it again, another way: People who write about civil disobedience and encourage people to take part can be found convicted of a crime even if they do not take part in the civil disobedience.

So the fact that the Supreme Court choose to let this ruling stand means that the Third Circuit’s decision is allowed to serve as precedent. Even if you don’t support causes like the ones the SHAC 7 were promoting, consider the danger that this presents to free speech. This has major implications for activists of all stripes.

Some might consider this proof that if your cause is unpopular enough, you will be silenced. And some are silenced in the most absolute sense of the word you can imagine. Domestic terrorists, including those convicted of “eco-terrorism”, are often held in something called Communications Management Units (CMUs), instead of traditional prisons. CMUs radically restrict prisoner access and communication to the outside world. They’re said to “rival, or exceed, the most restrictive facilities in the country, including the “Supermax,” ADX-Florence” where the Unabomber is held.

Prisoners in CMUs are virtually cut off from the outside world, kept in isolation. All prisoner communications and interactions are live-monitored and subject to recording. Letters are photocopied and the delivery is delayed. They’re only allowed two phone calls a week (recently increased from one) scheduled well in advance and up to 15 minutes long. That can be reduced to three minutes at the warden’s discretion. If their family members make the trek to see them in person (there are two CMUs in in the US), they can visit a maximum of two hours (where most inmates are allowed all-day visits), twice a month. They are not allowed physical contact. This is worse than even the most stringent rules for high-risk offenders– something many of these prisoners are not.

Last year the government acknowledged these secret prisons and proposed making them permanent. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the ACLU both filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the facilities, their policies on prisoner treatment, and violation of due process rights. This is in part based on the practice of transferring a prisoner into a CMU, or from one to the other, without prior notification and without a chance to appeal.

It’s a commonly held belief the reason the CMUs hold these types of prisoners are to shut them up. Removing their access to their family members, the media, and pretty much everyone means that their messages cannot get out. However, the isolation also has the capacity to destroy the prisoners psychologically and serve as a reminder to other activists of what could happen.

The fact that these political prisons even exist should serve as reminder that free speech rights don’t make a difference if you’re not otherwise free.

Earnings vs. income

January 30th, 2011

Lifestyle seems to grow to accommodate the income available. For most people that means that as your paycheck goes up, what you expect to be able to buy or do keeps pace as well, resulting in a new norm that closely matches current earning capability.

Newly middle class people choose middle class cars, houses and name brand clothes. Why is this? Why don’t they stick with the same types of things they had and did before their income grew, often things less extravagant? Why not keep shopping in thrift stores, driving that older car and getting inexpensive haircuts?

Instead of paying off debt, investing or saving, many will choose to commit the extra funds towards purchasing a big ticket item such as an automobile or a house, perhaps one they’d consider more suited to their new position in life. My family fits into this category (though I wish I could say we didn’t).  Somehow, we got along just fine when we had a much lower income. Our house had as much square footage as our current accommodation, at a lower mortgage cost. But then we decided we needed to trade up. We had some legitimate reasons for seeking a new place, and had a lot of housing options available to us that fit our general criterion for size and location. We could have found some something around our same mortgage rate and still have gotten all the major things we wanted.

So why’d we instead choose one that was quite a bit more expensive? Why do most people? Because they can. We saw something and liked it. We could do it, so we did. Hardly rational or long term thinking at work, or at least that’s how it appears in hindsight.  (Though I am very grateful we didn’t borrow as much as the bank was offering to lend us at the time!)

A family of four could choose to live in a three bedroom apartment within walking distance to a park, or alternatively a three-bedroom house with well landscaped yard, both within the same neighborhood and school district. The impact on the number of friends their kids make, what the family eats or hobbies they take up should be minor, but the decision will make a huge difference to their overall financial outlook, especially when considered over the course of a lifetime.

This difference could easily be enough to finance a round-the-world vacation, private school, early retirement, or some other dream. However if asked, most would say they can’t afford those kinds of things, and don’t really feel like they have a choice in the matter.

Most likely their spending has grown to match their earnings, and they don’t see the choices there anymore because they’ve settled in with the new norm. And this shift just seems to happen gradually, without much thought going into the matter.

One thing that keeps getting brought up over and over in conversations about our economy is that less than 1% of the US population controls almost 40% of the country’s wealth.  It’s also often pointed out that the gap between the rich and the poor is widening, not only in America but across the world.  While the poor often struggle to get enough good food to eat, or keep roofs over their heads, those in the middle (and sometimes the top, too) struggle to keep what they’ve got and hold on to their mortgages. But would they still be struggling if they hadn’t extended beyond what they really need? Had they gone for an adequate 1500 square feet instead of an extravagant 4500 would so many still be facing foreclosure?

People elsewhere in the world manage to live on a few dollars a week. So why do we need hundreds or thousands just to pay for our existence? Don’t kid yourself that our quality of life is so much better, or that we’re happier, because it’s simply not true.  If you look at anything that measures global happiness and wellbeing, we’re up there, but nowhere near #1.

In the US we’re obsessed with wealth. We imitate those above us, get jealous of what they have and hope to win the lottery so we can join their club. I’ve decided this is not something I want to care about anymore.

My family is working hard this year to eliminate debt to help further our long term plans, plans that ultimately do not focus on how much money we can earn, or what kind of stuff we can buy, but rather on the experience and enjoyment of life and what we want to do with our time.

Unfortunately, this means that in the short term we have to focus on money more than ever in order to dig ourselves out of this debt as quickly as possible. We’ve made the conscious decision to focus on short term inconvenience for long term gain.

Look for more posts to come on the topic of lifestyle design, a term that basically means taking charge of your life, figuring out what you want it to look like and making it happen. There are a lot of great authors and bloggers out there focusing on this topic, and much of what they say makes a lot of sense to me so far. I’ve just scratched the surface, but I’m eager to learn more. Anyone have any recommendations?

It’s time to make some changes and we’re already on our way.


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Security theater

January 23rd, 2011

I wrote this piece back in late November and forgot to post it.  I still agree with what I’ve written, so decided there’s no reason not to just publish it now.

I learned a new term yesterday- security theater.  A phrase coined by Bruce Schneier, security technologist and author, it’s something that only serves to make people feel more secure without doing anything to actually improve security, much like the TSA security measures for screening of airliner passengers.

While I understand that some form of security is necessary to protect travelers, the methods currently being employed are beyond acceptable in my eyes.  I cannot envision permitting our young son to go through either the full body imaging scanner or the more aggressive pat downs that have recently been put in place.  I’m thankful we’re not set to fly somewhere already, as it would be a hard to face the loss of the money spent on tickets, but I think at this point foregoing the flight is something I’d do.

It’s beyond imaginable to me that people would even begin to think the aggressive behaviour that constitutes the advanced pat down is OK when in any other context it would be a crime. Modesty aside, the safety of the scanners is unproven in my mind, considered by many scientists to be potentially dangerous.  Yet, I hear coworkers defending the practices, and passing it off as no big deal! It can only be fear talking, the traditional technique used to elicit such a response.

When writing this post, I tried to examine many sides of this issue and look at my personal fears on the topic. What I found was that it’s more like indignation than fear in my case.

One one hand, you have the issue of being forced to  submit to the full body scanners, a multifaceted problem. Even if you ignore the part about some stranger viewing pictures of your naked body, there’s still the problem with the radiation from the scanners.  Of course the TSA says they’re safe, but that’s with limited testing and when they’re operating within normal limits.  But what if they’re not operated correctly (as happens even in the medical world where people are very well trained and paid, and that’s not the case with TSA workers) and are giving off more radiation than they should? And what effect does it having on growing kids brains? And since this is in addition to the radiation received in flight, what effect does the cumulative exposure have on health? Does it make one more likely to get cancer? Just so many unknowns!

On the other hand, you have the fear of humiliation, coupled with outrage and indignation about personal bodily integrity.  I firmly believe that the government should not have the right to control what we do with our bodies, that it  should be left up to the individual (and parent).  In the western world, we value our right not to have our bodies touched without our consent.  In this case, there is no other option. Sure, you can choose to go through the scanners, but even after doing that you may be forced to go through the pat down process.  While I may decide that this trade off makes sense for me, I just cannot put my son through that.  Just how does one explain to a child that a random low-level security guard is on the list of people that should be allowed to touch their genitals? You can’t; it’s just not justifiable.

Have you seen the video of the young boy being strip searched? What about the one where the disabled passenger’s urine bag is broken? While it’s good for people to see these things happening, for all to be aware of just what’s going on, it also adds to the growing level of fear of what will happen if we do implement the procedures. And I don’t even want to think about what happens when they encourage the use of this technology for all forms of public transportation!

I think we’d be hearing less public outrage, if we knew the new measures were effective. But that’s the point of security theater– effectiveness is not the goal.

According to Schneier, our current response to terrorism, “relies on the idea that we can somehow make ourselves safer by protecting against what the terrorists happened to do last time.”  And this is so true!  Terrorist will always evolve to incorporate the most recent changes into their plans. If you do look at 9/11, the example brought up by so many in defense of the TSA practices, you’d realize that the same attack would not be allowed to happen today, irregardless of the right of security personnel to touch your “junk”. Cockpit doors have been reinforced and passengers are now willing to fight to make sure planes aren’t being used as weapons.

Scnheier also argues that there’s no need to subject citizens to increasingly invasive search methods when, “the best defenses against terrorism are largely invisible: investigation, intelligence, and emergency response.”  I really agree with Scneier, and also loved his piece in the New York Times debate on the topic of body scanners making us safer. It’s one of the only sensible things I’ve read on the topic over the last few days.

So what’s the cost of all this security theater? Millions of taxpayer dollars, loss of bodily autonomy, increased public fear. People are willingly submitting to be harassed in order to visit their family members or go on vacation.  Some would argue that it’s just the price you have to pay if you want to travel via air. I’ve decided that price is too steep for my family to accept. For the unforeseeable future, we’ll be avoiding flying.