November 13, 2007

schoolyard politics

Bush gets played
Musharraf makes Bush look like a fool. Frank Rich tells all.

Democrats develop a spine
Publicizing a more accurate figure for the cost of the war is great and all, but where were they when the budget got written?

November 12, 2007

check it

Ok, so on Wednesday I got called in for a meeting on Friday, during which we would discuss my 'excessive use of force' with a student. Wha? There were 5 kids at the door, 3 of them had a pass but wouldn't give it to me, one girl ducks under my arm, I grab her shirt and then let go, and this is excessive use of force?

So I'm meeting with the assistant principal and my union rep, and the union rep had counseled conciliation and apology, so I was trying so hard to do it. And the AP is all, this is regrettable, you should never touch a child, blah blah blah, we'll see if the parent is ok with what you said, you should talk to your students the way you would like your own child talked to. You're the model, and you need to set a good example even when things are frustrating. Oh, and we hear you're not doing Drop Everything and Read the last 15 minutes of the day like you're supposed to! Every day! In math class! With no books!

In the Political Schmientist's words, "She called you in for one bullshit thing and then started giving you shit about another bullshit thing?" Yes. Indeed, that is what happened.

During the meeting, she gets a call. Another teacher was covering my class (the class in which the alleged incident had happened), and there had been so much noise in the room that the discipline head for the ESOL department - a woman who has been teaching in the school for 32 years - came down the hall thinking there was a fight. No fight, just chaos. They call one school police officer: no effect. Two school police officers: not much. The discipline head for the students in the class: nope. There are now five adults in the classroom, and it's still kind of a mess. So the assistant principal comes down, and I come down, and she screams at them about how the joke's going to be on them in life and threatens to suspend all of them unless they spend the last 20 minutes of the day (including the reading time) doing the worksheet they were supposed to do.

1. It took 7 people to cover my class for 54 minutes, and I'm the person getting in trouble for discipline issues.

2. Guess who prevented the students from dropping everything and reading for the last 15 minutes of Friday's class? Not me. The person who scolded me about how I wasn't doing it.

3. Every student turned in a paper with a name at the top. Maybe 8 or 10 of those didn't have any real work on them. Only one person got suspended. News flash: when you don't follow through on your threats, you make them meaningless! So now the assistant principal will have no clout with my students, which is bad for me and, ultimately, bad for them.

November 6, 2007

the scientific method v. cultural myths

The CDC just reported that being overweight makes you less likely to die, over-all. When you consider all sources of mortality, people who are 'overweight' are much less likely to die from a number of diseases, which cancels out a higher death rate from a few well-known ones. They also found that being underweight is associated with higher mortality, and I think it's worth pointing out that the article didn't mention any possible alternative explanations for obesity being associated with higher mortality, but listed several possible alternatives to the heresy that being skinny is itself unhealthy (e.g. people get thin because they're sick or smoke).

Like many other ideas about body size, the idea that being over a particular size will kill you was one with scant or no evidence; now we have actual evidence against it.

In response, a preventive medicine specialist told the New York Times that "excess weight makes it more difficult to move and impairs the quality of life." Let's stipulate that there are people for whom this is true. But there is no evidence that people can lose weight and keep it off except becoming obsessive about it in the way that anorexics are obsessive about it; and I would bet money I don't have that for most people, "excess weight" mostly "impairs the quality of life" because people are assholes about it, because there's practically no positive media about anyone over a size 4, and because of the constant pressure to get thin. Those issues, incidentally, affect almost all women of all sizes, and use up a good chunk of the brain power of a couple generations. Have I mentioned that fat is a feminist issue?

One of the researchers very sensibly said, "If we use the criteria of mortality, then the term 'overweight' is a misnomer."

Another, after stressing that it was his personal opinion, said, "If you are in the pink and feeling well and getting a good amount of exercise and if your doctor is very happy with your lab values and other test results, then I am not sure there is any urgency to change your weight."

Which is such sensible advice, and so well supported by his research. And yet fat is such a crazy issue in American medicine that he had to qualify the hell out of it. Being sensible is a dangerous position in the diet wars.

1. Quotation marks because saying people for whom arbitrary combination of their height and weight is over 25 weigh 'too much' is ridiculous, as the article linked to points out. 'Too much' for whom? For what reason? Over what weight?

November 3, 2007

red meat

OK, there've been two meat recalls this week, one for tainted beef (over a million pounds from Cargill) and one for frozen pizzas with pepperoni. The pizzas have caused illness so far, the beef not. This is a ridiculous problem, because it's totally avoidable and absurdly common.

E. coli contamination: totally avoidable. No reason it should ever happen. All the types of E. coli that cause illness not only live in cowshit, but also only live in the feces of cows who eat corn, not cows who eat grass. A corn diet turns a cow's rumen acidic - it's supposed to be about neutral - and makes the digestive system a hospitable place for illness-causing E. coli. The strains of E. coli that make you sick literally can't survive in a cow that's eating grass, which is what cows' digestive systems are adapted to.

So of course almost all beef is raised on corn.

Beyond that, notice that the Cargill plant that produced the tainted beef produces 200 million pounds of ground beef a year. That's a huge amount. The recall applies to 1 million pounds, also a huge amount. Notice also that Cargill is "working closely with the USDA" - that's because even though every meat plant has to be USDA inspected, the USDA has no authority to issue a recall, no authority to order product destroyed. Instead, their authority is only to close a plant, which they are under enormous pressure not to do. Because plants are so enormous, a shutdown becomes a huge loss to a company; also because plants are so enormous, a single piece of contaminated meat immediately gets ground up with all the other meat, contaminating the rest of it. But any USDA inspected plant has to have facilities (including a private office and separate bathroom) for an inspector - a legitimate need, considering the threats USDA inspectors have gotten, but one that weighs heaviest on small plants; the USDA has even told a few small slaughterhouses that they were too small for the USDA to bother inspecting, effectively shutting them down. It's a major barrier to small, local, quality meat, which you can read a lot more about in Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma or this New York Times article about the Farmers Diner.

The way the USDA treats meat and contamination is also pretty interesting. I've been told by sources I can't cite that plants often understate the fecal contamination of their products by as much as 90%. My parents run a small business making prosciutto in a traditional Italian style: when my father went to Italy to learn about it, he learned that in Italy the slaughterhouse is responsible for delivering clean meat to the prosciutto maker; here, the prosciutto maker is required to treat the meat as completely contaminated and guarantee that the curing process kills any pathogens. I don't know which of those is a better system from a public health standpoint, but they say something about what the slaughterhouses in the two countries are probably like, and about the availability of alternatives.

And yet we keep treating food poisoning and contaminated meat on a grand scale as inevitable.