Category Archives: Science

Things the U.S. Could Do To Make Pregnancy More Appealing

I’m in the waiting room for a doctor’s appointment — again — so I finally have a second to get out my thoughts on pregnancy. Specifically, how hard it is under our current system in the U.S.

So, here are things we could work toward, besides abortion, that would maybe help more pregnant people decide it was worth it to keep a baby.

Necessary Improvements

  • Expand FMLA coverage to cover everyone, regardless of how many employees are at the company or how long the person has been employed there.
    • FMLA only hold’s someone’s job for three months, IF they work for a company with more than 50 people and if the person in question has worked there more than a year. So a lot of people fall through the cracks.
  • Make work accommodations for pregnancy mandatory.
    • An employer should have to make a reasonable accommodation for pregnant people to keep working while avoiding either hazards or challenging situations. Ex. I do not know how anyone in food services makes food of any kind in the first trimester.
  • Change work culture so it is acceptable to discuss pregnancy with a boss or HR beginning at the first trimester. Accommodations should start then.
    • The first trimester is no joke. Fatigue making you fall asleep in your desk, constant nausea. Some people have to be hospitalized or miss work. Add to that the social pressure to keep quiet about it? That’s a real struggle.
  • Encourage physicians to offer off-hours prenatal appointments and/or require that these appointments are automatically considered “excused” time off work.
    • I had no idea prenatal doctors’ appointments were both so frequent (1x a month for six months, then 2x, then weekly) and so ridiculously impossible to schedule around regular work hours. At least at my doctor, I don’t get a choice for a time of day that won’t interrupt my workday. They say show up, and I just have to do it. My work is accommodating, but not everyone’s is, and I still have to get my work done, despite having to be out so often.
  • Make insurance coverage for pregnancy mandatory.
    • This really shouldn’t have to be said, but of course it does. Pregnancies aren’t always planned, and they are challenging in many unforeseeable ways. It should be covered by every insurance, especially if you want a culture that supports people having kids.
  • Mandatory maternity leave of six weeks, minimum.
    • Ideally this would be handled with some kind of federal funding or disability insurance, but no one should have to go back to work while their body is completely wrecked, they are sleep-deprived, and leaking. Some kind of payment to help people continue to get fed and housed during this traumatic time would go a long way.
  • Distribute baby boxes to encourage safe sleep and provide supplies to new parents.
    • Other countries do this; it’s a small box with a firm mattress, and frequently comes with a few small baby items and personal care items for mom. The box is used as a safe space for newborns to sleep in proximity to the caretakers, and the supplies guarantee that every new parent has the fundamental supplies they need for baby’s first weeks.
  • Strengthen existing support systems to ensure pregnant people are able to be housed and have access to care.
    • No one should be homeless and pregnant.
  • Support for breastfeeding.
    • Obamacare mandated that every employer have a secure place for pumping, which is a start, but breastfeeding is hard no matter what. People need support and realistic expectations at work if you want people to continue to do it.

Would Be Great To Have

  • Parental leave for both parents.
    • Fathers and partners are every bit as important to newborns as moms. Moms need help. And the “pregnancy risk” employers take by hiring young women would be nullified if everyone had the option for leave.
  • Paid leave.
    • Having your job held is a start, but a pretty weak one. If we were serious about supporting parents, we’d copy other countries and provide some kind of income support. For everyone.
  • Provide qualified childcare.
    • I had no idea I needed to start thinking about childcare, and how to pay for it, and its availability, while I was still in the first trimester. It can cost more than college tuition. If you want people to have kids, you need to find ways for them to be able to afford them and protect them while the parents work.
  • Provide pregnancy leave before the baby arrives.
    • Maybe it is just my insurance, but the time I am in the hospital laboring/in surgery does not count toward my maternity leave. It’s considered regular time off, as if I just didn’t feel like going to work instead of am literally in the hospital. How is that ok? Add in all the days someone may be really struggling with a pregnancy side effect, and you could have many days of missed work — which counts against the number of days that person now has available for leave. This system is broken.
  • Make prenatal care and labor and delivery costs actually affordable.
    • We need to overhaul our healthcare system in general, but all these prenatal appointments and tests (so many tests!), plus the cost of actually having a baby — it is astronomical, even with someone who is prepared and has “good” insurance. If you want people to keep their unplanned pregnancies, you’ve got to bring these costs down.
  • Provide additional/flexible food stamp/EBT options for pregnant people.
    • The first few months, I could basically just eat crackers, fruit, and cereal. After that, I got incredibly hungry, just all the time, but still somewhat picky about what sounded actually edible. If I had limits on what I could buy because I were on EBT, I would have been hungry a lot. I support people not being hungry.
  • Provide a small clothing stipend for lower-income people.
    • This is a true nice-to-have, but any illusions I had about continuing to keep wearing my regular clothes were gone by the third month. I have a small maternity wardrobe because I am loathe to spend on clothes for a few months… but I have had to buy all new clothes, from undergarments up. It’s not just a matter of being unfashionable (I still am!), but literally not being able to put clothes on my body. If I had to choose between pants I could sit down in and eating, I don’t know what I would have done.
  • Offer free or low-cost family classes.
    • Some places offer this, but it should be standard. Babies don’t come with instructions, and neither does pregnancy. My doctor is great, but I see her for maybe 10 minutes. The public needs resources to be able to support pregnancy and new parenthood.
  • Encourage vaccinations.
    • A newborn is basically restricted to the home for about three months until they can receive fundamental vaccinations and get protected from truly deadly maladies. The general population needs to step up and protect these vulnerable folks — which will also help the parents with childcare and mental health, because they will be able to get out more.
  • Offer maternity support home visits.
    • Perhaps it’s just that I’ve watched a ton of Call the Midwife, but I am incredibly jealous of that system. A nurse visits pregnant and new moms several times throughout the pregnancy, providing not just healthcare support, but also emotional check-ins and general social needs (is the home environment safe? Are there other programs the expecting family may benefit from? Etc.) The availability of a supportive environment is one of the strongest factors in reducing medical interventions in labor and in reducing the risk for post-partum depression. It absolutely seems worth it.

If supporting families and encouraging people to have children is a social goal of the country, implementing any of these changes would have a positive effect — and possibly the side-effect of reducing abortions (which banning doesn’t actually do — women just find a different, not always safe, way).

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‘The Martian’ Movie is Awesome

I loved the book The Martian, so I’ve been really looking forward to seeing the movie. The teaser trailers made it look like thy would be identical, like Ridley Scott really put thought and attention into getting every detail right and making it just like the book. Plus, NASA was on board!

So I was pretty psyched, and as anyone who reads the book first knows, that can be dangerous. Will the movie manage to live up to your imagination?

I think The Martian does it. It is awesome. That’s the number one takeaway here; it makes Mars missions seem attainable, exciting, and totally awe-inspiring in the deeply Biblical/act-of-God sense.

I mean, look at this promo shot from the movie!

The Martian movie was awesome

from i09

That’s just…gorgeous. It is like a stunning sunset at the Grand Canyon, except the whole set is the Grand Canyon. And I cried when I saw the Grand Canyon, so I’m really saying something here when I say this is just incredible and moving.

Matt Damon (despite all the jokes about our willingness to send him into space and save his life repeatedly) just owned the part. He’s perfect for it. For so much of the movie, he is alone, but it doesn’t feel heavy or hard to watch, the way Moon intentionally did. Just like the book, Watley is light-hearted but determined, and it’s ultimately a story about hope.

The movie makes Mars look cool, makes Matt Damon look cool, makes science look like the amazing problem-solver that it is, and makes humanity in general look pretty good.

I don’t think it was a perfect film. Other fans of the book might notice some glaring omissions—I don’t want to be too detailed for risk of spoilers, but at least two whole crises are cut out completely—but I think it makes sense that they were cut. There just wasn’t enough time for the level of detail afforded by the book, and the book could admittedly get to be a little bit challenging because, well, it turns out surviving alone on an inhospitable planet is hard. But where the movie truly shines over the book is in the ending: it’s far more epic and satisfying–though I do deeply miss that beautiful final paragraph from the last page of the book.

In all, I think the movie is really great, but is best as a companion piece: those who haven’t read the book are missing out on a far richer, more nuanced, experience. But seeing Mars on the big screen is really, really cool!

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Review: The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Martian is a gem, an instant science-fiction classic that will blow your mind and make you long for (and fear) space travel. If this book (and its soon-to-be-produced movie) isn’t enough to reignite interest in NASA’s Mars mission, I don’t know what will.

The plot is simple: Mars astronaut Mark Watney is left behind on Mars after an accident; he is on his own to survive until NASA can figure out a way to pick him up…years later.

What’s particularly amazing is that with any other author, this book could have been an exhausting, emotionally-draining beat-down. It could have focused on how much it would suck to be totally alone on Mars; Watney could have spent the whole book being a pathetic, barely-surviving drag.

But “The Martian” is surprisingly funny, the kind of funny that means you’ll be laughing aloud and poking your spouse to share it with him. Watney is completely sarcastic, a naturally buoyant personality who, when faced with adversity, says, This is going to suck, but I am going to survive, damnit.
And then he’ll name rock formations on Mars after himself and declare himself King of Mars. And maybe institute worship of duct tape.

Another way this book distinguishes itself from pretty much all fiction is how clearly it was written by a science- and math-inclined mind. Author Andy Weir saves the reader from all the equations, but it is no less clear that there is intense math right under the surface; he even provides the variables used, in case another math-inclined person wants to try to figure it out, too. Most science-fiction, it need not be said, is more of the fiction, less of the science. But Weir is a world-class nerd of the best kind, and the hard science backbone to “The Martian” is what makes it so utterly believable.

“The Martian” is an outstanding book. What may make it truly great is its ability to transcend normal book-readers and reach those who care about hard numbers, math, and science, as well as those who could use a good laugh. It’s first-class writing that makes me believe we can send a man to Mars (but hopefully not leave him there).

View all my reviews

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The Importance of Failure

I’ve been thinking a lot about bones lately. I’ve been thinking about what happens when you break one. A friend is a power lifter; he literally wrestled a bear once (for charity. Both he and the bear were fine). But he fell while trying to fix a toilet and broke his elbow and now has a very impressive-looking brace on it.

I was thinking about how, when a bone breaks, it hurts a great deal, and even after it sets it can throb and be sore for weeks. (I’m taking this on faith; I’ve never actually broken one and was unwilling to do it for science’s sake).

But then it begins to heal, and while it heals, a mass of bone surrounds the broken area. As a result, the place where a bone broke is temporarily stronger than it was before it was ever broken.

The effect isn’t permanent, or I imagine every athlete and soldier in the world would be throwing themselves down stairs to try to break-and-heal more, but it’s got me thinking about failure in general.

I was reading one of those stupid lists of “things everyone should do before ____,” and failure showed up there, too. Most of the list amounted to that: fail, and fail again, and learn from failures while you can. It also quotes J.K. Rowling, who famously was on welfare and at rock-bottom before she sold Harry Potter and became a hero to authors and readers everywhere. She told Oprah:

“I’ve often met people who are terrified—you know, in a straitjacket of their own making—because they’d rather do anything than fail. They don’t want to try for fear of failing,” she says. “[Hitting] rock bottom wasn’t fun at all—I’m not romanticizing rock bottom—but it was liberating. What did I have to lose?”

I wonder if perhaps it was her failure that allowed Rowling to succeed?

Resilience is one of the most amazing characteristics of humanity. Did you know that, psychologically speaking, there is a large segment of cancer survivors who say they are grateful for the cancer, as terrible as the experience was? That is failure of the body. There are many kinds of failure, some for which we contributed and some that happen for no reason at all. They all hurt wickedly, and are sore for a good long time after the event. But what if, like with a broken bone, we are stronger after we have healed from a failure? What can we do with the lessons we’ve learned from our failures, and what will we go on to achieve?

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Kids Aren’t Reading (Because They’re Reading All The Time)

Another day, another spate of articles bemoaning the state of today’s youth. This most recent is a bunching of studies that found that kids aren’t reading as much.

NPR put it this way: “Nearly half of 17-year-olds say they read for pleasure no more than one or two times a year — if that.That’s way down from a decade ago.”

GASP! The horror! Let’s trot out the motifs of the way this generation is RUINED FOREVER!

…but wait. It said “read for pleasure.” Hold the phone there. Perhaps there is another, different explanation beyond “the internet/video games/drugs/television did it.”

Terrifyingly, I’m now old enough to be considered part of the “adult” quotient, but I was in high school not too terribly long ago, and I can tell you something: there was a lot of required reading. And I like to read! I read all the time! But, during the school year, my reading fell to being mostly required reading.

And let me tell you, reading the Crucible for the fourth time in the same year (“to really understand the text” *gag*) gets really old and I would not consider that enjoyable!

So that’s me, a kid who loves reading and literally never leaves the house without a book. When I was 17, I wouldn’t necessarily have said reading was “pleasurable” either: I was maxed out, and, yeah, preferred to play video games or watch TV. How must it be for the kids who are ONLY exposed to school reading? They never get the opportunity to develop a fondness for reading because they’ve been conditioned to view it as work full of meaningless “symbolism.” (yes, I’m still scarred from “The Scarlet Letter.” Sometimes a tree is just a freakin’ tree, teach!)

In an increasingly technological society, I find it hard to believe that kids are not reading in general. We’re all reading and writing MORE than ever, with so much communication switching away from in-person or on the phone to texting, email, status updates, and online forums. It’s becoming MORE important, but that kind of reading and writing wouldn’t show up in these studies.

Essentially, I think the problem here is not with teens and reading for pleasure, but with the studies. I DO think there are probably plenty of things to distract kids from reading, but those things could be bolstered not by writing ominous-sounding articles about “kids today” but instead folding more “fun” books into required reading. As much as I loved “A Handmaid’s Tale,” would it kill school districts to allow some trendy stuff–maybe middle schoolers would really benefit from doing an analysis of “The Hunger Games” instead of a nonfiction book for a change.

What do you think? Should we be worried about teen reading levels?

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You’re Incompetent and You Know It (Clap Your Hands)

I discovered a really awesome model of learning recently. It’s known in psychology circles as “The Four Stages of Learning”  and is frequently shown as a little four-part box. (Personally, I prefer a list, because it’s a progression, not a hopscotch situation.)
The four stages explain what it is like to learn something new: you move from not knowing how much you don’t know to eventually being completely proficient.
The four steps are:
  • Unconsciously Incompetent- You have no idea how hard something is because you’ve never tried it.
  • Consciously Incompetent– You’ve tried something and found out it’s actually not that easy. This is a potentially embarrassing place to be.
  • Consciously Competent– You’ve worked hard and now you know you’re actually doing it pretty well.
  • Unconsciously Competent– You’re so good that you don’t even have to think about it anymore, it just happens naturally.
As a writer, my guess is you spend at least some time feeling Consciously Incompetent, especially when there’s a deadline approaching and you have writers’ block and it all sucks. But with time and practice, you’ll be Consciously Competent, and that’s sort of an amazing and magical feeling.
I feel like Ira Glass’s quote about creativity strongly reflects this growth (I’ve marked the stages in brackets):

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste.[Unconsciously Incompetent] But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not.  But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. [Consciously Incompetent] A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, [Consciously Competent] and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”

Plus I have a feeling the folks who hear you’re a writer and say something idiotic like “oh, well you just stay home and write stuff all day, that’s not real work at all!” are just Unconsciously Incompetent. If they ever dared sit down and try to do it, they’d quickly realize that gap, too.
It’s good for our brains for us to move through these steps by trying new things. It’s also really hard. Do you make an effort to stretch yourself and learn something new? (I’m taking swing dance lessons. I am SO consciously incompetent right now!)

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If You “Don’t Read,” I’m Judging You

A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 23% of Americans did not read a single book in the last year.
And I am judging every one of them.
(Okay, actually, not all of them. America has a surprisingly low literacy rate for a developed nation, and it’s absolutely tragic how people in an industrialized country like ours could have been deprived of this vital skill, which basically dooms them to minimum wage jobs. NPR had a brilliant report on it. I tried to volunteer for an adult-reading program, but apparently this kind of work wasn’t compatible with my 9-5 job.Those people? I do not judge those people. I am sorry we failed them as a community.)
If you are a competent, reasonably educated person–as most folks in America are–then I 100% judge you and think you are less competent if you aren’t opening a book, turning on a Kindle, or otherwise taking time to read something other than your work emails.
The Atlantic article shows that the 23% non-book-reading rate has actually held from the last time the poll was completed, so in 2012 AND in 2014, about a quarter of the population hadn’t read a single book in a year.
The reddit conversation about this report raised good questions: What counts as a book? Are we just talking adult fiction? Would the training manual for work qualify? How about “Hop on Pop” that I read to my kid?
I don’t know the answers to that, but my answers would be: maybe yes, if you actually read it and didn’t skim; and probably no, but chapter books should totally count.
Another set of comments suggested that it didn’t matter because people were reading more than ever, just not books–reading news online, reading personal correspondence, reading magazines. They contend that therefore, it doesn’t matter that people aren’t reading books. I disagree. We’ll get to that in a minute.
The study also reports that only a quarter of people said they had read more than 11 books in a year–not a high sum, and that means that most people (about 50%) have read between 1 and 10 books in a year, far less than one a month.
Last year, I used Goodreads to track my reading, and surprised myself to find that I read more than 30 books last year. I didn’t even find it to be that hard; after all, I’m a fairly busy person. I guess the only thing I do differently from others is that I don’t watch TV…but even then, I watch a show or movie on Netflix several times a week, so I still have an affinity for the boob tube.
(The Atlantic story dug in a little deeper to suggest that because more people are graduating college, more people will likely be readers later on. Maybe. I certainly hope so.)
But–all those non-readers: I’m judging you. I am judging you for your shallow appreciation for fine literature, for an experience that literally takes you out of yourself and teaches you to empathize for others; to allow you to be anyone you could imagine (or can’t imagine!); to teach you new words and concepts that are beyond your ken. Reading unlocks worlds, both within you and outside of you, and I think you are a pathetic person if you can’t be bothered to even read ONE BOOK in a year.
I don’t even care what it is–Young Adult books have seen a surge recently, and it ain’t just kids reading those. Some YA books are my favorites! It’s a great way to escape adult pressures.
Why don’t magazines and online reading count? Basically, they are too short and don’t provide that escapism or empathy portion that you get from complex storylines in a novel or nonfiction work. There isn’t sufficient complexity. I mean, the average newspaper (and magazine) is written at the 8th grade level. That’s not a very high bar. You can do better! Stretch your mind! It will make you more interesting. I am full of random tidbits and knowledge picked up in a book somewhere along the lines!
And the time thing isn’t really an excuse; you’re just not trying. I read before bed. I also bring a book to lunch with me, in case my coworkers are busy. Reading while eating is far better than just eating alone because you got ditched for a meeting!
One of my favorite college professors recently declared on Facebook that she read 177 books a in the last year! That’s incredible! I mean, I felt accomplished with 30! I told her that Stephen King claims to read 70 books a year, so clearly she needs to start writing.
Reading is good for the soul and the mind. Go pick up a book, you lazy louts.

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