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I have spent a good portion of the morning talking to my coworkers about the neuroscience of orgasm. There's a fascinating area of research on women who are paralyzed and numb from the waist down who can still experience orgasm. This appears to be due to the vagus nerve. The word vagus comes from the same root as vagabond, and the nerve is named for the way it "wanders" throughout the body instead of going to the spinal cord and taking the traditional route up to the brain. So when a woman is paralyzed, there is still a way for signals of pleasure to reach her brain and therefore her consciousness*.

In the process of looking up the article that documents this, I also found out that there's research showing that when people orgasm, there's a drastic decrease in activity in their prefrontal cortex. This makes sense, since experiencing an orgasm makes you feel "out of control". Similar research shows that some men and women who have trouble reaching orgasm fail to decrease prefrontal activity. Of course, it's hard to know what's causing what, but it seems to bear out the common wisdom that thinking too much about trying to come only makes it more difficult to do so.

My coworkers and I agreed that this would be a fun line of research to pursue, but that we'd get embarrassed trying to explain our jobs at parties, so it's for the best that we study something more mundane, like morality.


* - The actual mechanics of orgasm, especially in men, can be induced without any conscious awareness, kind of like a crayfish's swimmeret system. (I knew something seemed familiar!)
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Last night was apparently the execution of John Muhammed, the adult half of the pair responsible for the DC sniper shootings.

Chrystal linked to the story, otherwise I wouldn't have known.

I was talking about this with someone else from the area recently, about how surreal it was to walk around outside then, how white vans freaked us out for months afterwards, even after we found out that they weren't using a white van at all. I remember because I was working at the local congresswoman's office when the first shootings happened right in Rockville, five minutes down the street. We kept getting calls from constituents and then one of the calls was my dad, telling me not to go outside and take the bus home, he would come and pick me up.

That was one hell of a year. 9/11, the anthrax attacks, the sniper shootings, and then Paul's death. A really crazy year.

I don't believe in the death penalty. That is mostly driven by feeling that it disproportionately punishes minorities, and that it frequently punishes the wrong people. But John Allen Muhammed is one of the people that is clearly guilty and probably "deserves to die". I still don't think he should have been executed. I don't think badly of those who think he should be executed. But the news that he's dead doesn't make me happy or satisfied or relieved. Just very sad.
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While I'm procrastinating...

I saw this piece on women playwrights and theater about a week ago. I don't know if those without a nytimes subscription can read it, but here's an excerpt:

When more than 160 playwrights and producers, most of them female, filed into a Midtown Manhattan theater Monday night, they expected to hear some concrete evidence that women who are authors have a tougher time getting their work staged than men. And they did. But they also heard that women who are artistic directors and literary managers are the ones to blame.


I grew increasingly more grumpy as I read the story, which details a study that asked male and female artistic directors to rate identical scripts with male and female names attached. The surprising finding (at least, the one reported by the NY Times and others in the media) was that female artistic directors were the ones giving lower ratings to women.

Here's the real deal:

The questions about the likely reception of a play intend to measure customer discrimination (by the audience, in this case) and co-worker discrimination (by the actors). They are not measures of what the respondent himself or herself thinks about the play... All it means is that they believe the audience and the workers in the theater are less accepting of female playwrights than of male playwrights. Male respondents don't believe this, but then they don't have the same life experiences as the female respondents...

Suppose you come and interview me about authors, say, and ask me to tell which ones I think are really good and what their future prospects might be. And I give you some female and some male names of writers I like and regard as equally good and then tell you that the female ones have not as great prospects as the male ones. Then you go out and write that THIS PROVES I'M THE REASON FOR THEIR NOT-SO-GREAT PROSPECTS! That's pretty much how this whole thing works: To notice discrimination is to be guilty of it.


Sexism is alive and well in theater... and in journalism.
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There is, apparently, a heated debate surrounding the creation of the DSM-V. For those of you who didn't grow up with a copy of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) in your home - it is a sort of general consensus of psychiatrists as to which different mental disorders exist and how they should be diagnosed.

It sounds relatively innocuous, until you start thinking about the fundamental questions that lie beneath. What is a mental disorder, and what is just a different way of thinking and behaving? Where is the line between legitimizing suffering and medicalizing otherness? What does mental "illness" even mean?

The DSM weighs heavily in these discussions. Clinicians, health insurance companies, and others use the DSM as a guidebook to deciding what they will recognize, treat, and pay for. The debate going on now has real impact.

The DSM has been controversial in the past. Until 1973, it listed homosexuality as a mental disorder, and it currently lists several provocative disorders, including Gender Identity Disorder, Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. The debate over whether or not these particular disorders should legitimately be included brings up all those fundamental questions.

The current criticisms being leveled at those compiling DSM-V (we currently use DSM-IV) fall along two major lines. First, apparently there is too much secrecy in the process. Whereas all previous revisions have been completely open, contributors to this revision had to sign a confidentiality agreement. Given that more than half of the contributors have financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry, that's a little troubling.

Secondly, the head of this revision has called for a "paradigm shift" in the way we think about mental disorders. The person who headed up the previous revision, Allen Frances, is one of the most vocal critics. He warns how in the past, reclassification of disorders such as ADD and autism created "epidemics" in the population and how with pharmaceutical pressure to create more and more disorders that can be medicated, the danger is even more great. The new version is apparently going to focus more attention on prodromal patients - i.e. people presenting with pre-clinical, more mild symptoms. I think it's great to try and catch small problems before they become big ones - we do this with physical health all the time - but like Frances I worry this is little more than a ploy to net more patients for the pharmaceuticals.

Anyway, what do you all think?
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The transition from Bush to Obama has been a strange one for me. There is a certain ease to opposing someone whose ideology is so different from yours. There is no need to be subtle, to try and tease apart where things are going wrong - you know why they are doing this thing that you hate: because they don't value what you value.

With Obama, things are different. He tells me that he values what I value - liberty, tolerance, security. And yet somehow I find myself outraged, again and again, by his actions. And I find myself trying to make excuses for why he is doing what he's doing. "He has to compromise," I tell myself. "He wants to stand up for our beliefs, but he can't."

It's what psychologists call the Fundamental Attribution Error. It is more complex than simply assuming the ill will of enemies and the good will of friends. It is a way for us to do so without feeling like bleeding hypocrites. We attribute bad outcomes to the situations our friends were put in. But we focus on the intentions of our enemies. It was their fault bad things happened. They wanted it that way. They could have changed things if they'd really tried.

And so Bush and Obama both pushed the bail-out, but Bush was stealing money for his cronies and Obama was making the best of an impossible situation. Neither Bush or Obama (so far) pushed for marriage equality, but Bush is a homophobe and Obama is just hoarding political capital. Bush and Obama have both kept troops in Iraq. Obama understands it is a strategic necessity. Bush likes shooting Iraqis just to watch them die.

Yes, there are concrete differences in ideology, policy, rhetoric between the two Presidents. But we should be wary that easy assumptions sometimes lead to disturbing biases. It is easy to let ourselves believe we are being even-handed, when in fact we are nothing of the sort.
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The two great goals of my childhood were to play for the New York Yankees, and the become President of the United States. I have yet to accomplish either of these things, but it occurred to me today to wonder - which will happen first? A woman in major league baseball, or a woman in the White House?

What do you think, and why?

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What is it about a romantic relationship that makes it different from other kinds of relationships such as friendships and family relationships? Is it something more than sexual intimacy? Why are romantic relationships so commonly exclusive? Is there something about romantic relationships that leans inherently toward exclusivity, or is it just a common cultural preference?
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I used to be more coherent with this sort of post, but damn. Just - damn. I am so fucking sick of Obama.

Edited to say:

Okay, let me try for some coherence.

We are a nation of human beings - people with the capacity for good things and bad things both - a nation of doctors, teachers, loving parents, artists and truth-seekers - a nation of thieves, demagogues, hypocrites, rapists and murderers.

All of politics - all of life - is a battle against those bad things. I don't believe there's a way to set up government to take over that battle for us. I don't believe there's a set of easy rules to live by - although some rules (thou shalt not kill, do unto others as...) are better than others.

Life is a struggle, a long upward climb against badness in ourselves and in others. I do my best in my own small little sphere because to do more would drain the joy out of my life and my own happiness is something that I at least have control over, something I can protect and nourish. I have a hard time believing that the sacrifices I could make would take us very many steps in the climb.

When the most powerful person on the face of the earth - when a man who I do believe has some compassion, some understanding of the depths of suffering in the world, some willingness to think outside the box - when he says, "No, that's too much to ask", "No, that's too big a change", "no, that's too high, too steep, too far" - when he chooses practicality over principle, money over fairness, rape and torture over justice and mercy, then I want to stop doing even the small things I do, I want to give up, lay down, enjoy my life as best I can and try to stop my ears against the cries of others.

What did he mean, yes we can?

Yes, we can give up?
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I went to two fantastic shows this weekend. I saw Great Lake Swimmers at the Brattle theater, which was wonderful - their music is great on a CD but they're one of those bands that is something else altogether in concert. Tony Dekker's voice is just achingly beautiful. It takes the catchy melodies and unique lyrics to a whole other level.

My two favorite songs, for those of you who've never had a chance to listen before, are Changing Colours and Everything Is Moving So Fast. I really like how he takes these natural phenomena - leaves falling in the first song, and glaciers in the second - and turns them into love songs. You really have to listen.

The other great show was Debi's labor of love, Di Gantse Velt Iz A Teater - the selection of scenes from Yiddish plays (performed in Yiddish!) which she and her cast and crew have been slaving over for the past months. It was wonderful to watch - really, really impressive. There's something about old plays. They seem in some ways to be so inaccessible, so different and foreign, but if done well you can slide past that, into a place where you're seeing familiar people telling a familiar tale, and what matters if it's a hundred and fifty years old and in a different language?

Anyway, good weekend. :)
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