A Surplus of Outrage

Are you outraged by the Trayvon Martin shooting?

I am. Or to be honest, I’m notionally outraged.

I’m metering my outrage. If I didn’t, I would go mad. So much in our society seems utterly unfair and hard to change. But let’s look at something close to the experience of Trayvon Martin that if he didn’t himself experience, it’s something close to the experience of many boys who “look like him”1.

Consider the many decades of the Drug War. Study after study shows the actual rates of users and dealers are very similar between different racial groups (other than Asians). Black people are supposedly only 14%2 of regular drug users, but are 37% of those arrested for drug crimes and a outrageous 56% of those in state prison for a drug crime. This is all drug crimes from simple marijuana possession to being the drug boss many assume are the people the drug war is fighting3. Now consider what it means to have a felony record.

A felony record means you will find it hard to get housing (it’s perfectly legal to refuse to rent to felons). A felony record means you might find it hard to get even a low-paying job (it’s perfectly legal to require felony disclosure on applications). A felony record (and presumably little savings) means you might find it hard to go to school (it’s perfectly legal to refuse to give loans to felons and federal law explicitly disallows drug offenders from federally subsidized financial aid if the drug offense while getting aid). Of course, a felony record means you might not even qualify for public assistance. What exactly are you going to do when you get out of prison, even for the most innocuous of offenses, such as marijuana possession?4

But why do the police arrest so many more black people? Why are so many more convicted? There’s no reason to think there are more black drug users or dealers. Who gets stopped and frisked in New York? Minorities are stopped nine times as often as white people5. This type of disproportionate enforcement hold up all over6. If different groups use and deal drugs at similar rates but you stop and question one subgroup more, then of course they will be arrested more often. Where do the police focus most of their efforts? “High crime” neighborhoods where they can stop anyone “suspicious”, not frat row or white suburbs. But the rates of 15-25 year old males smoking marijuana are pretty similar in both neighborhoods (in fact, white males in that age group use marijuana more!)

Now consider you’re a boy growing up in all of this. Your older siblings or your friends’ older siblings (and eventually you) are stopped by the police at arbitrary times, often just for hanging out on the street. “Driving while black” and “walking while black” and “standing on a corner while black” are not jokes. Many of the older men in your community have gone to prison and now find it hard to find work. You need special watching, society is saying. You’re dangerous.

Doesn’t this seem like it might be burdensome mentally? That perhaps it might be hard to keep one’s nose clean in this social environment7. Doesn’t it seem likely that one mistake could lead to a life of privation and social ostracism? Why are black kids (and poor kids) uniquely held to a high standard that a middle-class white kid never experiences? Don’t stand around on street corners — it looks suspicious. Don’t do drugs or the law will come down hard on you — even though the kid in the suburbs has little such fear. Keep your eye on the prize — but don’t look away even for an instant because you might stumble and never get up.

I’ve left out a lot of details, statistics, argument and history. There’s more to it (and more to be outraged) than just this. But this is enough. I think about it and realize: I didn’t experience this growing up, but others did and do. I grew up poor, but not poor and black (and not male which is important too). Moreover, I grew up poor primarily in areas that the police didn’t see as dangerous. I didn’t have to worry that when I trespassed to sit and talk over the train tracks that police would show up and chase me off (and maybe it could go far worse). When I got into a fight, it was just kids being kids, not criminal activity. I could go wherever I wanted and not really worry about people thinking I was suspicious.

When I think about growing up with that pressure? It freaks me out. My mind freezes up imagining how different it could turn out for me. Instead of a respected (and well rewarded) job at a computer company, plenty of friends, social activities and the ability to just make my own platform for expression on a whim, where would I be? Would I have been able to keep my nose clean while relentlessly being told I wasn’t worth anything? Could I have escaped arrest before eighteen? Would I have bothered to go to college? Would I have even got in? If I’d attended school, might I have gone to a party, smoked some weed and then lost my student loans after a cop stopped me on the way home? Sure, plenty of kids do manage to keep their noses clean, but would I have? Am I so uniquely special that I could have? Why do I expect so many other kids to manage this?

Why do we expect so much of kids when we offer them so little?

I’ll have to stop now. The writing will get more ridiculous and tortured. Sometimes it bubbles up inside, the outrage screaming in my mind and listening to the news brings it up more. It wouldn’t have mattered if Trayvon Martin had been filmed when he was shot. Someone would still say on TV that he shouldn’t have been walking there or that he was suspicious. And some poor kid would have to watch that being said about someone who “looks like him”.

That I let myself be even a little outraged8 about this now is likely because of Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow. Sure, I thought, I know our justice system and society are extremely unfair, but it’s not because that many people are actually racist, right? Even if those enforcing the rules aren’t acting from racism, the outcomes matter. A final quote from her book that hit me hard:

For black youth, the experience of being “made black” often begins with the first police stop, interrogation, search, or arrest. The experience carries social meaning-this is what it means to be black. The story of one’s “first time” may be repeated to family or friends, but for ghetto youth, almost no one imagines that the first time will be the last. The experience is understood to define the terms of one’s relationship not only to the state but to society at large. This reality can be frustrating for those who strive to help ghetto youth “turn their lives around.” James Forman Jr., the cofounder of the See Forever charter school for juvenile offenders in Washington, D.C., made this point when describing how random and degrading stops and searches of ghetto youth “tell kids that they are pariahs, that no matter how hard they study, they will remain potential suspects.” One student complained to him, “We can be perfect, perfect, doing everything right and still they treat us like dogs. No, worse than dogs, because criminals are treated worse than dogs.” Another student asked him pointedly, “How can you tell us we can be anything when they treat us like we’re nothing?”

  1. I use this phrase because of the many people expressing their outrage by saying their son, if they had one, would look like Travyon Martin.
  2. The percentages for drug use, arrests and convictions in this particular sentence come from A 25 Five Year Quagmire but you can find similar ones from many sources just by googling. The numbers vary somewhat but within one data set they tell the same story.
  3. The overwhelming majority of drug arrests are for possession.
  4. To be sure, the logic of this entire piece applies to people who aren’t black. Poorer people in general are obviously treated very similarly. But poor people, as a class, are not generally assumed to be criminals by large numbers of Americans.
  5. New York Minorities More Likely to Be Frisked
  6. In The New Jim Crow, the author cites several high profile studies including: Operation Pipeline where drivers violating traffic laws on the New Jersey Turnpike were stopped looking for drug couriers. 42% and 73% of arrests were of black motorists despite equal rates of traffic law violations. It turned out that the white motorists were more likely to actually be carrying drugs; In Florida, a reporter obtained video footage for 1,000 highway stops. 80% of those stopped were black or latino despite only being 5% of those on the road. And it goes on. These are only the cases where someone bothered to go look to see if there were racial disparities in enforcement. The vast majority of disparity in enforcement goes unreported because if a cop stops you but lets you go, it doesn’t really get reported. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect your view of the world.
  7. And I haven’t even mentioned poor social services, bad schools, or the effects of poverty!
  8. I am not unaware of the sad privilege I have to only sometimes be outraged while other people have to live it. I worry that this post is offensive to use Trayvon Martin as a lead-in, because of that privilege. But it’s the honest truth: endless news on the topic makes it hard for me to suppress that outrage and writing makes me less crazy. And maybe it will make people think a little.

Quick Scuba Note

Seven weeks ago I took my open water certification class at Seattle Scuba. It was my first scuba experience and one reason I wanted to start writing more.

It was amazing. Yes, I was incredibly cold (seven millimeter neoprene is still cold), the dive site is not the best in the world, and I spent a lot of time waiting on a line just breathing1. But during that weekend I saw many (to me) huge starfish, some sea pens, a few fish and a few crabs. One very tiny crab was just hanging out by the line — I think that crab saved the entire endeavor, reminding me why I wanted to do this. It took my mind off the fact that I was freezing and couldn’t see very far because all of us green divers had kicked up so much sediment. He (she?) just crawled along going about his business and I got to watch.

The second awesome part was realizing in a physical way how different the underwater world is. This is something that I intellectually “knew” because nature documentaries rock2. Even with all that gear on, it’s pretty easy to maneuver underwater. It made me think of several sea mammals and birds that also spend time on land. Usually they are incredibly awkward on land and that is the only way most of us see them (in real life, as opposed to nature documentaries). But all the awkward bulk of a sea lion is not awkward underwater. This was driven home to me as I walked up the rocky beach out of the water for the third time, feeling like I would never make it to the ledge to remove my gear before I slipped and fell. I’m not adapted to be in the water, so I’m even more awkward out of the water. But the entire experience made me viscerally feel that underwater is different.

On the way to class on the second day (almost exactly seven weeks ago in fact!) I realized that scuba gear makes me a cyborg3 since unmodified humans aren’t able to breathe underwater (or for that matter aren’t capable of maintaining a level below the surface). As a person who welcomes the idea of using technology to improve human condition and ability, I pretty much couldn’t shut up about it — “I’m a cyborg today!”

I’ve since become a scuba cyborg one day in Aruba where I swam thru a school of fish. I swam thru two different schools, gently, each time it was more amazing as the fish gradually just made a gap and then closed it up behind me. They were gorgeous colorful fish, darting around rapidly, almost like each represented a notional position in an electron cloud. But there weren’t so many of my favored starfish, though a giant purple sea urchin of extreme spininess reminded me of the small little sea urchins I loved in the tide pools of northern California. It was also kind of nice to not be wearing a super thick wetsuit … but the frigid north is my home, so next week I get to go see more awesome underwater sea creatures who live in a world I can only visit.

  1. Instructional dives generally involve descending along a line and then waiting holding on to a rope on the bottom until it’s your turn to perform some skill like mask clearing or swapping regulators.
  2. If you have never seen The Blue Planet, you should. It’s narrated by David Attenborough — off-screen as they sensically chose not to have someone dive everywhere and speak in scuba gear. The episode “The Deep” about, well, deep-sea life is fascinating and really drives home that parts of the world really are alien to our experience.
  3. For the pedants, I realize that traditionally “cyborg” usually refers to be a permanent of biological and technology. It could be permanent with enough technology and reason to do so. See the disturbing novel Starfish by Peter Watts.

Science and Journalism … and Fear Mongering

Something that frequently causes me to have a nearly uncontrollable feeling of hopeless frustration is science reporting. Science reporting is frequently inaccurate, exaggerates (or misinterprets) conclusions, ignores caveats or the degree of certainty. This is normal in all journalism and science journalism is no different. But, fortunately and unfortunately a lot of reporting these days are actually more informal posts on websites (hosted by traditional news organizations or not). This type of reporting often feeds narratives about a particular story, which influences the tone and content of “traditional” (printed) stories on a topic. I don’t actually consider this a fundamentally bad development, but it does mean that if someone proposes a particularly scary interpretation of a scientific event (a new study or new product, etc.), a lot of the reporting becomes wildly inaccurate. This is particularly common in agriculture related science.

Agent Orange Corn?

I recently learned about “Agent Orange Corn”. Apparently Dow has developed a corn variety resistant to a common herbicide, specifically 2,4-D. This herbicide has been around a long time and is generally pretty safe (when used properly)1. In a lot of ways, this new corn variety seems similar to glyphosate-resistant corn (aka Roundup Ready) in that it allows the farmer to plant a food crop, apply an herbicide to remove competitors (otherwise known as weeds) and not worry about killing off their young plants. There are some major problems and issues with herbicide-resistant crops, notably overuse and misuse leading to plants naturally developing resistance to the herbicide in question. However, the possible benefits — less overall use of herbicide, less soil runoff due to no-till methods — means that I applaud an increase in variety.

So what does this have to do with Agent Orange? It turns out that 2,4-D was one of the compounds in the Agent Orange defoliant used horrifically during the Vietnam War. However, most people were horrified because of the damaged caused by the dioxin compound that had contaminated the Agent Orange during production2. While 2,4-D can also be contaminated by dioxin, it turns out that the other compound — 2,4,5-T — was the one actually contaminated with dioxin during its use in Vietnam. 2,4-D itself continues to be used as an herbicide in North America and Europe, with ongoing evaluations of its safety. This doesn’t mean it might not be problematic3 but it’s not dioxin and shouldn’t be implied to be the same as it.

Unfortunately, the Center for Food Safety decided it would try to link dioxin with this proposed corn variety by calling it “Agent Orange Corn”. Their press effort has resulted in regular news organizations emphasizing that aspect: example 1 and example 2. These types of local articles drive fearful opinions and few readers are likely to seek out further or contradictory information. It’s just another story about how evil modern agricultural science is.

It would be a pity if our society continued to grow corn and soy in massive monocultures without developing ways of making it more ecologically sound. Pesticide resistant crops are one way we can minimize use of pesticides, increase no-till agriculture to reduce soil erosion but still produce the large volumes of staple crops our society demands.

Thanks to Biofortified for bringing this one to my attention. Though I would like to point out (thanks to a friend for being pointedly critical) that this sentence is false:

The 2,4,5-T was unknowingly contaminated with a dioxin, something that was only later recognized as a significant human safety issue.

It allows the author to elide (in a manner helpful to his argument) the problematic history of Agent Orange and Dow Chemical’s involvement. We know now that both Dow and Monsanto were aware that their 2,3,5-T was contaminated with a dioxin that they knew was incredibly harmful. While the companies apparently told parts of the military (which then decided to use it anyway), they lied to health organizations4 for some time. Leaving this out allows the author to portray Dow in a much more positive light. The history of the major agribusiness companies (especially Monsanto and Dow) is a major reason people are skeptical of GM developments like Roundup Ready corn and new corn from Dow.

I consider it reasonable to not forever condemn Dow (and Monsanto) for past actions and find knee-jerk demonization to be unhelpful, especially as these companies develop crops that could greatly reduce our harmful impacts. But it does the public discussion no good to pretend these problems don’t exist.


A couple months ago, The Stranger Blog (Slog) posted a breathless, fear-mongering post linking to “The Very Real Danger of Genetically Modified Foods. This Atlantic article spread all over the internet and ultimately to various traditional news posts, sometimes in completely absurd ways. There are numerous take-downs (and the post itself has been modified heavily). To the author’s credit, he includes links to some of these critical articles now. They are definitely worth reading, especially The Biology Files post because it talks a bit more about the meaning of the research.

An actual fair and interesting article about the original research (which has absolutely nothing to do with genetically modified food) is the Discover Blog post about it which I quickly found by googling after reading the original Slog post. The research itself is pretty interesting (if it holds up) since it means that maybe small fragments of RNA in our food can affect how our bodies function — maybe food has more than just calorie sources and vitamins (and possibly poisons), as we were taught in school. There are a lot of places this research could go, but it’s a bit early for breathless, scaremongering about it. Certainly the possible interactions with genetically modified organisms used for food are completely unstudied at this point.

So why did this one upset me so much?

Not too long after the ridiculous Slog post, Publicola — ostensibly an independent local news media organization with journalistic standards — filed a story about a proposed GMO labeling law that included this howler:

A recent study found that people who consumed GMO rice have small amounts of ribonucleic acid—genetic coding—from the rice in their DNA.

Not only did they not cite the source of the study, the study had nothing to do with GMO rice (it was regular rice), the subjects weren’t humans (they used mice) and the result wasn’t that they found the rice RNA in the subjects’ DNA, just that it was detected in their system (specifically very small fragments in the subjects’ bloodstreams). But it seemed fairly obivous to me that the author had likely read either the Slog post or The Atlantic piece and summarized it in an almost “game of telephone” kind of way. Unfortunately, it made me extremely wary of Publicola as a news source5. But this is just one information source I happen to consume. How many other local news blogs and even newspapers uncritically reported this study in a “scary” fashion? When I google for it, I find blessedly fewer local news articles parroting this scary story than I expected, but plenty of uncritical links by various online sources.

Why does this matter to me?

I think it’s important that we learn to feed everyone without destroying the environment. After a lot of reading, I believe that judicious use of genetic engineering will be critical to prevent a Malthusian solution. But the conversation (especially online) is nearly completely antithetical to fair and considerate examination of the issue. There are some good books, but generally if you search for articles on GM, you’re going to get exaggeration and misconceptions if not outright scaremongering. We need more reasoned discussion and not “Monsanto is Evil” and “Frankenfoods give you cancer”.

Some of the books that helped inform my opinions include:

I read Tomorrow’s Table after attending a talk by the authors hosted by The Long Now. Previously I’d had the vague notion (unexamined and not terribly strongly felt) that GM was “kind of bad”. I didn’t know why really, except vague ideas that it wasn’t good for us. That talk was eye-opening and I’m grateful for the Long Now for putting these talks on, even if I can’t easily attend anymore.

  1. I even found a spectacular page describing some of its breakdown paths. I wanted to know what 2,4-D breaks down into and its half-life — around 10 days. Not that my chemistry is up to understanding much of that link, but I’m in awe that human beings can figure this stuff out! And then just post it on the public internet for anyone to use!
  2. Many at the time were also horrified at the rampant defoliation leading to ecologic damage and destruction of human agriculture, but what is remembered now is generally the toxic effects in humans, most notably from the dioxin contaminant.
  3. And certainly I would expect overuse of any particular pesticide could be an ecologic problem worth studying and finding mitigations.
  4. Thanks to the aforementioned critical friend for this link.
  5. After contacting them via several means (a comment, twitter, and a short message to the contact email given on their site), I have received no response and there has been no correction or clarification in the original article. This indicates to me that I should assume similar care for accuracy and fairness in all other articles. Mistakes happen and sometimes a writer doesn’t check everything, but it’s critical to accept correction gracefully. I myself hope I don’t have to make too many, but it’s inevitable.

The Autoharp

I’m currently learning to play the Autoharp.

This is an autoharp:

It’s an Autoharp! At the JoCoCruiseCrazy open mic night.  Original by Scott Russell, under Creative Commons.

It’s also the first time I played in public, but fortunately to a very understanding crowd — open mic night on JoCoCruiseCrazy 2012.

I started playing last August after I decided that I should just stop dreaming of making music again and just do it. I picked an autoharp because Cory McAbee of the Billy Nayer Show plays one in an awesome fashion, especially live.

But learning on your own is hard. Amazingly, the Pacific Northwest and Seattle has an extensive folk and autoharp community and I found a weeklong autoharp camp. I just went and learned a lot in a week, even though I was a beginner. I really recommend “music camp” if you want to get started. There’s apparently also a guitar camp up here in the PNW!

I try to practice everyday. I really do. But more later.

An Introduction


In this era of the internet, and social media and all the forms of online social interaction, it’s hard to say “hello” on a new website. Usually, you would have a reason to visit a site: a link from elsewhere. You got here (somehow) when I’m just starting this, so I don’t have much to offer you.

But for the moment, read the About page and have a look at my twitter and flickr.