Thursday, April 27, 2017

The other certainty in life

The big deal in Washington is Trump's hastily sketched out tax "plan," which seems like a way to move money away the government and back to the hands of the wealthy.  He would create a three-bracket system, eliminate almost all deductions (except charitable donations and mortgage interest), and cut the corporate tax rate from 35% to 15% (unless you're a home business--the you can kiss your home office deductions goodbye).
It's a good outline--for people who have money.
Now I won't deny that the Internal Revenue code as it stands is a hot mess.  However, the solution is not this.
Some people would like to put a "flat tax" into place, asking why the rich should pay more.  I'll show you a little math from the 2016 tax workbook:
The highest tax bracket is for incomes of $415,050.00, and these individuals pay 39.6% of their income in taxes.  Minus a $43,830.05 standard deduction, a single person earning the minimum for this tax bracket will pay $120,529.75 in taxes.  That's a lot of money, right?  They pay more in taxes than most people make in a year.  However, let's look at it another way.  Their post-tax income is still $294,520.25, also a lot of money.   Now let's look at an office worker making $30,000 per year.  Their taxes for the year are $4,040, leaving them $25,960 for the year.  That's still less than one tenth of the first earner.  Both of these individuals need housing, food, transportation and healthcare.  Guess who will spend most of the year counting pennies?  (Hint--it's not the first guy.)
Now, let's look at the Trump plan.  The first earner will see a tax bill that drops from 39.6% to 35%, meaning a drop in taxes from $120,529.75 to $101,437.45.  However, what of the $30,000 earner?  Depending on the bracket, this earner could either see a drop in the tax bill from $4040 to $3000.  Or, if this unfortunate soul is in the 25% bracket, that earner's taxes could go up to $7,500 per year--nearly double the current tax bill!
A fashion consultant once said that we should dress for the body we have, not the body we want to have.  So too with national policy.  We should demand policies that positively affect the lives we have, not act like millionaires in a temporary slump and allow policies that only benefit the rich on the odd chance that we find ourselves among their members someday.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The Excelsior Scholarship--good intentions, poor implementation

The latest idea to come out of Albany is the Excelsior Scholarship--free college for anyone whose income is less than $100,000 per year, to increase to $125,000 by 2019.  Sounds like an ideal benefit--proof of New York's growing commitment to middle-class families.
It looks good on paper anyway.
The Excelsior Scholarship is little more than a raised cap on New York State TAP grants, with a catch.  The scholarship only covers up to $5,500 per year--which is not the full cost of CUNY tuition.  If you receive any other aid, the scholarship will only provide funds to bring the total to $5,500.  You have to work in New York state after graduation for as many years as you received the grant (which makes sense--it is taxpayer funded).  Recipients must earn 30 credits per year--a hardship for working students.  Also, the grant only covers four years, and is not offered to people with bachelor's degrees.  Since degree holders are not eligible for federal aid or TAP grants, this would have provided much needed assistance to people trying to enhance their skills to keep up with a changing world. 
This provides some assistance, but not much.  This is designed for people taking a traditional route through school--but state schools have a number of non-traditional students.  Students who are taking fewer classes to go to school around a job.  Students getting second bachelor's degrees because, whoopsie, the world changed; the economy's in the toilet, and that B.A. in liberal arts that was supposed to provide a decent living doesn't, and why didn't you get a degree in STEM you idiot.   Students who are taking more challenging degrees that take five and six years to complete.  Students changing majors because that math degree is harder than we thought.  Students taking a semester off because life happens and I got meningitis and couldn't finish the term.  And guess what?  All of them could use the grant, and almost none of them qualify for it.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Meet Julia--an imperfect introduction

Over the years, Sesame Street has been a model of inclusion.  They showed college-educated African-Americans in the 1960s, a Deaf main character in the 1970s, death and birth of characters in the 1980s, a Spanish-speaking muppet in the 1990s, and responses to natural disasters and crises in the 2000s.  On Monday, Sesame Street took another step into introducing kids to a diverse, imperfect world with the culmination of their "Be Amazing" initiative: a felt and wire muppet on the autism spectrum.  Julia is four years old, is able to speak (mostly echolalia, which is a legitimate form of communication), loves her stuffed rabbit Fluffster, and flaps and bounces when she is happy.


I'm not going to discuss the accuracy of her portrayal of autism.  There will always be autistic people who share some of her characteristics but not others.  (I'm using identity-first language here, as this is the choice of many autistic people.)  Instead, I'm going to go into the other characters reactions to her.  It's not all bad, but it's not perfect either.

The Good:
  • Julia communicates in various ways, whether it's shuddering at the finger paint, using echolalic speech, covering her ears, and bouncing and flapping.  Alan, Abby and Elmo treat her communication methods as legitimate and respond appropriately.
  • Alan explains Julia's differences to Big Bird in a way that shows that they are a part of her, and does not attempt to remove or suppress her differences at any time.
  • Julia is shown to have talents of her own.  Her painting of Fluffster with wings is not only imaginative, but technically advanced for a four-year-old.
  • When Julia starts bouncing during the game of tag, Abby joins in, not because she's "being nice to the disabled kid," but because it looks fun.
  • When Julia shuts down due to the siren, almost no one gets angry or upset with her.
The Bad:
  • Although most four-year-olds, autistic or not, are not the greatest self-advocates, it would have been nice for Julia to have been able to advocate for herself more without having someone else "translate."
  • When Abby and Elmo explain Julia's differences to Big Bird, it comes off as being patronizing.  They sound as if they are saying, "yeah, Julia's weird, but we're her friends anyway."  This is particularly glaring to me because both characters are supposed to be a full year younger.  It makes Julia's differences stand out more.
  • Big Bird comes off as kind of a dick in this episode, particularly during Julia's shutdown during the siren.  He's an 8' 2" yellow bird whose best friend is a furry, brown, earless elephant, and he can't deal with Julia because she has sensitive hearing?  His comment about the siren not being that loud comes off as dismissive.  (And autistic people are supposedly the ones who lack empathy...)
  • After the intro segment, Julia is not seen or heard from again for the rest of the episode.  I'm hoping this is not the Very Special Episode about autism, and Julia is integrated more into the life of the Street as the series progresses.  I also hope that she has a part in storylines not related to her identity as an autistic muppet.
Overall, I'd give the episode a C+.  It was a fair, but not great beginning.  Let's hope that, as time passes, that Sesame Workshop is improves their portrayal, and Julia becomes a character in her own right. 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Thirteen Reasons Why--a review

Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Last year, I read the young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why.  Simple enough premise--Hannah Baker, a suicidal teenager, records a series of tapes before ending her life.  Her friend Clay Jensen receives the tapes, and some very simple instructions.  Listen to the tapes and then pass them on to the next person.  Stop passing them, and a third party will play the tapes for the entire school.  Oh, and if you received the tapes, you are one of the reasons that Hannah ended her life.  The recipients include the boy who was her first kiss (who spread rumors that they did so much more), catty girls who were "fake friends," a Peeping Tom photographer, the campus rapist, and a guidance counselor who didn't listen to her final cry for help, among other.  Clay?  Nice guy who had a crush on her, and who left her alone in a moment when she was in distress.
Netflix just turned it into a series.  Originally it was meant to be a movie, but instead, each of the tapes becomes its own episode.  The series begins after Hannah's suicide, and while the school puts on a public display of mourning, Hannah's parents are commencing a lawsuit against the school.  Clay receives the tapes, and is one of the last of the listed recipients, so most of the other people on the tapes have already heard them.  And here is where things get interesting.   Clay considered Hannah a close friend, and had a mild crush on her, so he wonders what he could have done to make her suicidal.  Instead, he goes after the other recipients.  Most of them are the "good" kids--athletes, student government leaders, cheerleaders, popular kids--and so they're more concerned about saving their own reputations than about considering the repercussions of their actions.  There is a hope that once someone is "gone," those who bullied and tormented that person, who made their lives a living hell, will feel remorse for what they did.  With few exceptions, none of them feel any remorse at all.  Instead, they try to paint Hannah as an unstable liar.  When that doesn't work, they go after Clay...
The moral is supposed to be that every action has consequences, and that what someone considers a "harmless" prank could inflict serious damage on another person.  However, this lesson seems lost on every recipient of the tapes, including Clay.  Many of them deny their involvement, and with good reason.  If those tapes come out, they could be in serious trouble.  Bryce committed two rapes.  Justin not only assisted Bryce with one (and of his girlfriend, no less), but spread a photo of Hannah with her skirt up.  Tyler stalked Hannah for weeks, and also spread a suggestive photograph.  Sherri knocked down a stop sign, causing an accident in which another student died.  Marcus felt her up against her will.  Ryan stole one of her poems and published it without her knowledge or consent.  So, just with a few people, we have rape, accomplice to rape, dissemination of child pornography (Hannah was a minor), leaving the scene of an accident, destruction of city property, sexual harassment, and theft of intellectual property.  And while the other people named on the tape may not have committed felonies, their actions do not place them in a very positive light either.  They bullied Hannah, spread rumors about her, hurt her as revenge on third parties, and played pranks.  And thought a few flowers and signs on her locker could make it all better.  (A rather amusing scene features Courtney, one of the recipients, and Hannah's mother.  Courtney tells Mrs. Baker that she and Hannah were good friends.  Mrs. Baker replies that if that were true, Courtney would never have used roses on Hannah's memorial, as Hannah hated roses.)  Meanwhile, few of them adjust their behavior after hearing the tapes.  The girl who knocked down the stop sign volunteered to help an old man injured in the accident, and eventually turned herself in.  Another boy eventually calls out all the recipients on the tape for caring more about their own skins.  But the others, including Clay, bully Tyler for being a Peeping Tom.  The athletes named on the tapes beat Clay up to keep him from talking, and Marcus plants drugs on Clay to discredit him.  Most of them throw Bryce and Justin under the bus.  And the sad part is, the school administration behaves no better than the kids, attempting to cover up their own involvement.  In the end, Clay reaches out to an unhappy classmate who has begun self-injury, and gives a digital copy of the tapes to Hannah's parents.
This series is a distressing look at the dynamics of human connections, or lack thereof.  It shows that, for all we think that we are "good" people, we have the capacity to do great harm.  That at our core, most of us are self-absorbed and cruel.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Cyberbullying--new wineskins, old wine

Recently, an eleven-year-old boy committed suicide because he thought his girlfriend killed herself.  It turned out that the girlfriend had used a friend's Snapchat account (and the help of some of her other friends) to play a prank on the boy.  And now, she's in trouble with the law.  Reading the comments on the article, so many blame easy access to social media for the girl's actions. 
Yes, Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram are relatively new.  Teenagers acting like assholes however?  Has been going on since the dawn of time.  This same prank could have happened without a single cell phone.
Girl convinces a few of her friends to tell Boy that she committed suicide and then cuts school for the day.  Boy, distraught, runs to a teacher, who has Girl's parents called.  Parents are unable to find Girl (because no one has a cell phone), and call the cops.  Boy, devastated, jumps off the school roof at lunchtime.  Meanwhile, Girl comes home from the mall and has to deal with not only her furious parents, but some incredibly ticked-off cops.  Same prank, same outcome--and nary a cell phone or social media account in sight.
While I don't think the girl should be charged with homicide, she needs to realize that actions have consequences, and that a "cute," "harmless" prank is neither.  Bullies (and that's what this girl is, social media or no social media) bully other kids because it's fun, and they get away with it.  Once they have their asses handed to them with hard consequences, they usually stop, because it's not worth it anymore.  Certainly a harassment conviction and a couple of nights in juvie will straighten out her head.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Destigmatizing mental health--who benefits?

There is a bill in Congress that has passed the House, and I wonder how many of you have heard of it.  It's called the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act of 2016, affectionately nicknamed the "Murphy Bill" after Rep. Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania.  Among its provisions is the "Compassionate Communication on HIPAA"--which basically means if you have a mental illness, and a family member--or your doctor--decides that you are "in crisis," your right to privacy goes out the window.
Meanwhile, after Carrie Fisher's death, we learn that she was a tireless advocate for destigmatizing mental illness.  A number of people started coming out last year as "mentally ill."  Destigmatization for the win!
But who wins?
The juxtaposition of these two events shows that we have not destigmatized mental illness at all.  What we have done is destigmatize mental illness treatment.  Specifically, we have destigmatized one particular treatment model--behavioral therapy and psychotropic medication.  But, as the above bill shows, we still see the mentally ill as unstable and incompetent.
Mental illness is not simple.  It's a festering, bubbling cauldron of trauma, loneliness, financial stressors, chemical dependency, marginalized identity, and living in a society that does not handle pain well.  Because it is so complicated, there cannot be a simple, quick, "one-size-fits-all" solution.  Unfortunately, the limitations of insurance, our culture's need for the "quick fix," and the idea that "doctor knows best" lead us to pushing the above model.  When it works, it works.  When it doesn't--then a complicated problem can become very bad very quickly. 
We know that this model works for the provider.  They have a steady stream of patients.  And we know it works for the various social service agencies who can pat themselves on the back and say that they are doing something.  But what of the patient?  What can the patient do when a medication doesn't work, or the behavioral model of therapy is a poor fit?  If they go with the program, they are wasting time and resources on a treatment that doesn't work.  If they don't--then their doctor can say they are "in crisis."  And the stakes are high.  So much rides on keeping a provider happy.  Those determined to be "mentally ill" can potentially lose their children, their jobs, their access to schooling, and their freedom.  And now, they can take away your right to privacy as well.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Do we really love the geeks?

Lately, there's been a lot of talk about "geek is chic."  Comic book movies are coming out at least once a year, shows like Dr. Who and the Big Bang Theory have sizeable followings, and computers are as much a part of life as televisions once were.  Geek culture appears to be in.
But what of the geeks themselves?
Being a geek has never been about specific fandoms or about black-rimmed glasses.  Star Wars may have been a geek obsession as a sci-fi movie, but it was also the highest-grossing film for its time.  I doubt it was because a handful of kids in glasses and calculator watches saw it over and over again.  True geekery is about single-minded drive.  It's about latching onto something and pursuing for its own sake.  And that drive is something that our culture doesn't always appreciate.
As an example, let's look at a subject that is poorly understood and somewhat maligned--mathematics.  Since I started studying mathematics, I've noticed that the response I get from non-math people when I bring up what I'm studying is similar to the response I would get from introducing a two-headed garden snake--revulsion mingled with awe that I would even go near such a thing.  Sad, really.  Hidden Figures may have been nominated for Best Picture, but I doubt that enrollment in math departments and calculus classes will go up as a result.  (The class I took with the highest attrition rate was Calculus 2).  Similarly, with computer programming.  Last semester, I took an intro course in computer programming.  Out of a class of 30, maybe half turned up for the final.  Most people dropped out because it was "too hard."
Our culture loves the end result of geekery more than the geeks themselves.  We love programmers for giving us apps and games for our phones.  Does that mean that we would want to talk to an actual programmer about languages and debugging techniques?  Sheldon Cooper is abrasive and obnoxious.  He's also a Caltech engineer who makes a buttload of money.  How many of my readers laugh at his antics?  How many of us want a real Sheldon Cooper in our lives?  We love us some Game of Thrones, but we also call George R. R. Martin a "fat fuck" when he can't get the next volume out fast enough to satisfy our curiosity.  (And let's be honest here.  How many Game of Thrones fans actually heard of A Song of Ice and Fire before the show came out?)
What we love about "geek culture" is when something is so well done that it goes mainstream.  Because with it comes status and money--the two things geeks don't really care about when choosing an interest.  Sure, we may want our manga to sell.  Internet videographers would love to be the next Nostalgia Critic.  But only so that we can support ourselves doing what we love.  Anyone who pursues a field solely to "get rich" with find the work a disappointing slog.  And those who have been successful only were because their passion made the product special enough to be appreciated.  And that passion may create some of the greatest works and theories in history, but it doesn't make for scintillating coffee klatch conversation.