Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Monkey Money

This story comes courtesy of the last chapter of Superfreakonomics, an interesting read that stirs up lots of unusual ideas about human behavior.

Scientists trained capuchin monkeys to use money. They gave them coins and slowly taught the monkeys that they could use those coins to buy food. After several months, the coins soon become just as important as food.

So it was pretty amazing when, one day, one of the monkeys made a break for the tray that held all the coins. In the first documented case of a capuchin monkey bank heist, he grabbed the whole tray and ran back into the cage, scattering coins all over. It was a monkey free-for-all as they all scrambled to grab the coins.

This in itself was pretty amazing, but even more amazing was what happened next. One of the monkeys, instead of keeping his coin so he could buy some food, ran over to another monkey and gave it the coin. Is this an example of pure altruism in the monkey world? A tribute to a monkey with higher status? Paying back a debt?

The answer became much more clear when, seconds after this transaction, the two monkeys were having sex.

The scientists had just witnessed the first-ever case of monkey prostitution!

Mere months after money was introduced to these primates, they had already discovered that you could pay for, or be paid for, sex.

I think this proves that it really is the oldest profession.

Monday, September 20, 2010


My local cable company, which I'll call "Bombast" for no other reason than I like pseudonyms (even when they're nonsensical), is pissing me off.

After a week in which I already lost power and sprained my ankle, I came home on Friday night, after visiting the doctor for x-rays of said ankle, to find that my cable was out. This not only affects my TV watching, but also my internet connection, which I get through cable, and my landline phone, which goes through my internet (VoiP.)

So, using my cell phone, I called Bombast's customer service and, navigating an annoying automated menu, finally talked to a live person. Unfortunately, the annoying automated menu made me choose between a cable TV issue and an internet issue, and I made the wrong choice. The guy at the cable TV service line was not listening to me when I told him my issue, or else he had no choice but to a follow a script that doesn't allow for my type of problem. He kept having me turn my cable box on and off, and I kept telling him that the problem wasn't that my cable box wasn't working, but that I wasn't getting any internet, either, so it was the CABLE LINE COMING INTO MY HOUSE that needed fixing.

While I was on hold with him, my cell phone died. You see, I hardly ever talk on my cell, and mostly use it just for texts. So I don't usually need much battery power, and I don't recharge it very often. Hence, the battery died while I was on the phone with the incompetent man from Bombast. Now I was really cut off from the outside electronic world: No cable, no internet, no landline, no cell. Since all of this was beyond my control (i.e. I didn't choose to take an offline vacation) it was terrifying and disorienting.

Finally I was able to recharge my phone enough to call Bombast back, navigate the annoying automated menu, and this time choose "internet connection problems." This guy was more competent than the last, and noted that he couldn't get any signal whatsoever into my house. EXACTLY!!!! Thanks for noticing. He determined that a technician would have to come out to my house to check the external lines.

Unfortunately, he said, the soonest he could schedule an appointment would be next Wednesday, five days away. But, he would "escalate" my issue so that someone would probably be able to come to my house this weekend. That sounded good, since I had no intention of taking time off work to stay home all day and wait for the cable guy. He asked for my phone number, because the technician would call before they would come. I gave him my cell number, since obviously my landline-- which goes through my internet, which goes through my cable-- was out of service. When he read back the last four digits of my cell number to me, he had it wrong, which did not instill confidence in me.

So all day Saturday I kept checking my phone to see if they'd call.

They never did.

By about 2:30 Sunday afternoon I was pretty sure I'd been lied to. Bombast was like a sleazy guy after a desperate one-night stand: they had no intention of calling me. I re-evaluated my options and called them back. Navigated the annoying automated menu, finally spoke to a human, who confirmed that, no, they would not be visiting me this weekend. My appointment was for Wednesday morning between 7:30 and 10:00 am.

So I figured I would have to take some of my precious little personal business time off work to wait for the damn cable guy.

On Monday I arrange to take Wednesday morning off work. Later I check my home voicemail from work and find that Bombast has left me a message (automated, of course). There was an issue in my area that they have resolved, so they've canceled my appointment for Wednesday. Huh? This pisses me off for two reasons. First, if there was an area-wide issue, why couldn't they have told me that on Friday and saved me a weekend of anxiety? And two, how do they know that fixed the issue at my house? Why did they go ahead and cancel my Wednesday appointment without confirming that it works?

So I get home Monday night and, sure enough, cable is still out. The lights on my cable modem, telephone modem, and cable box still blink red, nagging me to fix them. I restart everything, but no dice.

I call Bombast again. Navigate the annoying automated menu. Every time that I've done this, I've had to listen to an automated voice tell me helpful things like, "Make sure your modem is plugged in" and "You can chat with customer service representatives on our website at..." This infuriates me. If I could get on the fucking website, I wouldn't be calling you! I have no website access, because I have no internet access, because my fucking cable is broken! Every time I hear this message, I feel like I'm being mocked.

So then I get a live person. At this point I'm much less patient and tolerant than I was the first three fucking times I called them. I ask why they 1.) told me my cable was fixed when it wasn't, and 2.) canceled my Wednesday appointment. After waiting forever while the guy looks up my account, using my escalation number, my reference number, my name, address, and the names of my first dozen elementary teachers, he tells me that the problem in the area was not fixed. No kidding. They didn't cancel my appointment. Then why the fuck did they leave a message to that effect? What kind of incompetent miscommunication is going on at this stupid corporation?

(Whenever conservatives rail against the inefficiency of big government to provide services, I'd like to point them to examples like Bombast, a for-profit company that appears to be just as fucked up as any government agency. But at least the government agency isn't screwing you over to make someone else rich.)

So I guess I'm right back to where I thought I was before I heard the automated voicemail from Bombast. Of course, the tech support guy has no good answer as to why I received that message to begin with. He does, however, have the moxie to ask me if I'd like to try some other service that Bombast offers. Seriously? I'm frustrated and angry and showing it, because my current service doesn't work, and you want to shill more stuff? "Um, I'd like to get the things I pay for to work before I think about any new services," I said. Wow, that took some balls! I'd like to nominate this guy for Stephen Colbert's Alpha Dog of the Week.

You would think that would be the end of the story, at least until Wednesday morning. But later that night I get a call. From Bombast. The lady clearly has no idea what I've been through the past four days, because she's confirming my appointment on Wednesday. She asks me to explain what is wrong with my cable. "You're having a problem with your TiVo?" (I think I mentioned my TiVo in my very first phone call.) Are you fucking kidding me? I've talked to four people over four days about this problem, and you still don't know?

The cherry on top of this customer service shit sundae is that she verifies the phone number the technician is supposed to call before he comes. She lists my landline number. NO, NO, NO! I've given four people my cell number and told them to use that!! How can you still have it wrong?

My English teacher in high school used to tell us that millions of dollars are lost every day in the business world because of poor communication. He was trying to get us to see the value of English as a course of study, but I see much wider implications for that statement. I'm so angry at this breakdown in communication, I'm... I'm... I'm... well, I'm mad enough to write a letter.

And blog about it.

Sunday, September 19, 2010


Due to a confluence of reasons that I won't go into here, I decided to fast on Saturday in honor of Yom Kippur. Even though I'm not Jewish.

In keeping with the theme of "atonement" for the day, I did something that felt like a penance: cleaned my bathroom. While I did that I listened to This American Life, my favorite radio show. This week there was a story about a vet who returned from the Iraq war and was all messed up and violent because of it.

This story hit me at just the right time, because lately I'd been feeling uneasy for something I wrote on this here blog a while back. I wrote about an experience I had at an airport, where I witnessed the family of a serviceperson get all bent out of shape because they weren't given free drinks at a fast food place.

I still believe that their indignation at not getting free drinks was misplaced, but I do feel bad about some of the things I wrote about soldiers that post. I know that soldiers during wartime must have one of the most awful jobs imaginable. I tried to downplay that in my post and I was wrong. How many of us have to go to work every day worried that people are trying to kill you? And not just an isolated wacko, but an entire army of people who make it their job to kill you?

However you feel about the politics of war-- whether it's a necessary evil or an ineffective and dangerous way to settle disputes-- I think it's undeniable that the stress and trauma that individuals go through during war is uniquely horrifying. So I apologize for downplaying that.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Game Over

That's it.

I'm out.

No more NFL for me.

The game is no longer about the strategy of using different configurations of 11 men to either advance or stop a ball. It's not about running fast, or tackling well, or throwing a bullet pass, or making an amazing catch.

No, all of that has been overshadowed by the Rules. Now it's about yellow flags, conferences, reviews, and ponderous stoppages of play to interpret some stupid, inane rule that makes no sense.

It's to the point now that I can't actually enjoy a fantastic play any more because, more often than not, it will be negated by a flag. My appreciation of the game is on a 7-second delay.

A hard-earned, 25-yard run up the middle? Sorry, holding, let's do it over.

An incomplete pass on a crucial third or fourth down? Pass interference! When the flag is thrown, everyone cheers. I don't know about you, but I don't enjoy watching my team advance down the field without actually doing anything. It's like watching someone get a traffic ticket. It may be good for traffic, but how is that entertainment?

A 50-yard scramble on a kick return? Don't forget about "illegal block in the back," a penalty that gets called on 75% of kick returns. Why even bother to have a kick return anymore? Just give the receiving team the ball 10 yards behind where the ball lands.

And it's not just penalties that slow the game down. A close first down? Let's get out the measuring stick, even though the placement of the ball is largely arbitrary and I can see from my perch on the couch that the ball is over the chalk line.

Apparent touchdown? Not so fast. Let's spend the next five minutes reviewing every frame to make sure all the rules were followed. Seriously, how is this fun? Would NFL fans also pay hundreds of dollars to wait outside a courtroom while a jury convenes about a routine murder case?

My last straw was the ending of the Bears-Lions game last Sunday. Because of some stupid rule that somehow defines a catch in the end zone differently than a catch anywhere else on the field, a perfectly good touchdown was taken away from the Lions. I'm a Bears fan, mind you, and even I could see that the Lions got jobbed. Take away the jerseys, and there's not a fan around who wouldn't have called that a legitimate reception.

Although the Lions were able to defeat the Bears' defense on that play, they couldn't overcome the toughest defense in the league: the Rules.

And I didn't tune in to watch the Rules dominate.

I won't make that mistake again.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Fluid Sex

Cheryl and Ellen were good friends of my best friend. As a lesbian couple, they were in a monogamous relationship for many many years. So I was pretty shocked when my friend told me that they had broken up, and Ellen was now in a relationship with... a man. But... but... but... she's a lesbian, I thought. How could she be with a man?

I had no idea at the time, but that was my first exposure to a new way of looking at sexual orientation. Since then I have heard of several anecdotal cases of out lesbians, women who were clearly established and comfortable in their sexuality, who went on to date or marry a man.

The issue become much more personal to me when a good friend of mine, a lesbian, recently started dating a man. She herself was surprised to find herself with a man, because she's never been attracted to men, and although she's happy in her "straight" relationship, she knows that her orientation is still overwhelmingly homosexual. One relationship with one man is not enough to "turn" her straight. This has confused a lot of people. "How can she be happy with a man if she's gay?" "Why won't she call herself bisexual?" "Won't she ultimately crave women too much?" "Doesn't she think, 'Ewwww... penis!'?"

These are good questions, and the people who asked them are sincere supporters of gay rights who take sexual orientation very seriously.

A book that I've recently read helps to address this issue. It introduces a new way to think of sexual orientation, a way that challenges the old dichotomy between biological unchanging rigid determinism and environmental malleable lifestyle choice. (The book was so important to me that I actually waited til I was done with the whole thing to blog about it. No half-read review this time.)


Sexual Fluidity: Understanding Women's Love and Desire by Lisa M. Diamond provides ample evidence that human sexuality, like so many other domains of scientific inquiry, is much more complicated than we thought. The old view of homosexuality-- that it's inborn and unchanging and it can't be "cured"-- has helped to give homosexuals much mainstream acceptance, but it's time for "more forward-thinking approaches to sexuality," as Diamond says. One that is more inclusive to the wide range of ways that people (particularly women) feel and express their sexuality.

Over the course of 10 years Diamond follows a hundred women, interviewing them every two years to track their sexual identity, orientation, and behavior (which are actually three distinct things.) At each interview she asks them to identify themselves as gay, straight, bisexual, or unlabeled.

What she found was that only about a third of the women keep the same identity label throughout the entire study. For the others, they tended to shift as circumstances changed-- from straight to lesbian, or lesbian to unlabeled, or bixexual to lesbian, or unlabeled to straight, and every possible combination. Some switched multiple times throughout the five interviews.

This "sexual fluidity" varies from individual to individual, but Diamond believes (and provides evidence) that women on the whole are much more "fluid" than men. Women are much likely to be attracted to "the person, not the gender." My personal anecdotal evidence bears this out: I know several cases of lesbians who ended up dating/marrying men, but I don't know of any personal cases of out gay men dating a woman. (I don't mean to imply that sexual fluidity only applies to lesbians. Many "straight" women find themselves in same-sex relationships, too.) Historically, most of the homosexual research done has focused on gay men, which would explain why the idea of fluidity has not been studied til now. Women's sexuality has been largely left out of the research.

One important idea that Diamond challenges is the assumption that if something is biological or inherent it cannot be changed, and if it is the result of environment or experience it can be. Both assumptions are wrong. Some biological traits can be changed, and some "learned" traits cannot. Rather than focus on whether homosexuality is natured or nurtured, she focuses on the varying degrees that one can be gay, straight, or bisexual, and how that can change as some women become attracted to "the person, not the gender." There is a lot of room between being 100% gay and 100% straight, and that percentage itself can change over time. As she quotes Kinsey, "The world is not to be divided into sheep and goats." (Which reminds me of the homoerotic scene from Spartacus where the skeevy old Roman patrician asks his bathing slave boy, "Do you prefer oysters or clams?")

As Diamond says,

...it is altogether false to assume that if a woman's sexual orientation is an essential trait, then her sexual attractions must be fundamentally rigid. Sexual orientation can have an inborn basis and yet still permit variation in desire over time. The amount of variation a woman experiences is determined by two factors: (1) her specific degree of fluidity, which varies from woman to woman, and (2) her exposure to the types of environmental, situational, and interpersonal factors that might trigger her fluidity. (p. 161)

Don't get me wrong. I love categories. I am a librarian, after all. Diamond is not advocating that we disregard labels altogether, but she is saying that a gay or straight identity doesn't always lead to the same orientation or behavior. She tells the story of visiting a school to give a lecture on providing support for gay students. One teacher asked her at what age you can be sure that kids will no longer question their sexuality. Diamond's answer was, there is no such age. There's no time in a person's life when you can say, "Okay, you're safe-- you won't turn gay now." (Or vice-versa.)

The last chapter, on biological processes, posits a fascinating idea that there is a demonstrable difference between sexual attraction and romantic love. For example, prepubescent children feel romantic love without sexual attraction. It turns out the two forces come from different parts of the brain. The theory is that romantic love actually happens to be a residual form of parent-child bonding. So when you fall in love, you're using the same part of the brain that infants use to bond with their caregiver. In our evoluationary development, this parent-child bonding impulse turned out to be useful for bonding mating couples, as well. I happen to thing that is amazing, and it's yet another reason why I love evolution.


I can understand the confusion and consternation that many well-meaning supporters of gay rights have when they hear stories of perceived "flips" in sexual orientation. Most of the arguments in the gay rights movement have depended on the idea that homosexuality is inborn and unchangeable, not a lifestyle choice. For years and years anti-gay activists have maintained that "gay can be cured," and people who think they're gay are really just choosing an abhorrent and sinful lifestyle. So when a seemingly gay person takes up with someone of the "wrong" gender, it puts at risk the political gains made by gay rights advocates.

Diamond addresses these concerns in her book, and she doesn't take them lightly. She makes very clear that just because sexuality can shift (due to forces beyond our control) does not mean it can be manipulated or controlled. In the end, homophobes will always take whatever research is out there and try to twist it to their own agenda. We do homosexuals (and women in particular) no favors by sticking with obsolete ideas that, although well-intentioned, do just as much damage as good.

There is no longer any excuse for dismissing female sexual fluidity as an anomaly attributable to women's repression, disingenuousness, confusion, or immaturity. (p 234)

Plus, it's never a good idea to ignore the truth, even for a good cause.

If you want to expand your understanding of sexual orientation, I highly recommend you read the book yourself.