Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Gay adolescents effected by parents’ reactions to coming out

A new study released today in the journal Pediatrics indicates that gay adolescents are greatly impacted by how their parents react to them “coming out.”  In short, youths whose parents are loving and supportive have better outcomes than those whose parents react negatively.

Among other findings, the study showed that teens who experienced negative feedback were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide, nearly six times as vulnerable to severe depression and more than three times at risk of drug use.

More significantly, Ryan said, ongoing work at San Francisco State suggests that parents who take even baby steps to respond with composure instead of rejection can dramatically improve a gay youth’s mental health outlook.

Check out the article (linked to above) for the definitions and methodology of the study along with more details on the findings.  The study was conducted by a team of researchers from San Francisco State University’s Cesar Chavez Institute and was led by Caitlin Ryan, the director of adolescent health initiatives.  The study took three years to perform.

The story indicates that more gays and lesbians are coming out earlier in life, with the average age among those in the studies being about 16.

“So many families of children who are gay, bisexual or transgender, particularly families of gay male youth, think that if they are tough on the kid and tell him how unsatisfactory his gay lifestyle is to the family, he will have it knocked out of him,” Vermund said.

Vermund said he also was impressed by Ryan’s finding that a little bit of familial acceptance could go a long way in increasing a child’s chances for future happiness.

“The Southern Baptist doesn’t have to become a Unitarian,” he said. “Someone can still be uncomfortable with their child’s sexual orientation, but if they are somewhat more accepting and do the best the can, they will do the youth a lot of good. That to me is an important message.”

In the event that we want to prevent depression, the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, and suicide, the results of the study are worth considering.   If the findings of this study are accurate and withstand further scrutiny, maybe they have something to tell us about the way we treat not just homosexual youths, but adult homosexuals in our society as well.

The experience of pain and perceptions of intentionality

According to a new story in the Economist, two psychologists, Kurt Gray and Daniel Wegner of Harvard University, have just published a study in  Psychological Science that indicates our perception of pain may be influenced by whether or not we think it was intentionally inflicted.  Like the famous Milgram experiments (blogged about here), Gray and Wegner’s study involved electric shocks.  When subjects thought that their partner (in actuality a confederate) decided to shock them, they rated the shocks are more painful than equivalent shocks that they were told were administered due to impersonal experimental protocol.

2009 has been delayed

The 2009th year of the common era is going to be delayed and its predecessor is being extended.  For real.  But just by a second.

As reported by MSNBC, the extra second, which is required to keep the time in sync with the Earth’s rotation, was ordered by the International Earth Rotation and Reference Systems Service (yes, that’s a real thing—here’s their website).  Said rotation can vary slightly due to various factors, like the planet’s liquid core sloshing around and the gravitational effects of other Solar System bodies.

Leap seconds are added periodically; the last was inserted into 2005.  Wikipedia has, unsurprisingly, more information on them.

Saudi girl, 8, must stay married to 58-year old

An 8-year old Saudi Arabian girl forced into a marriage with a 58-year old man (CNN reports that he’s 47) must stay married, according to a Saudi Judge, Sheikh Habib Abdallah al-Habib.  Her father arranged the marriage in order to cover his debts to the man, who is reportedly “a close friend.”  The amount in question is approximately $7961 US.

The Saudi flag

The Saudi flag

The girl’s mother, with whom she lives, petitioned the court to annul the marriage; however the judge ruled that the mother, who is divorced from the father, is not the legal guardian of the girl and thus has no standing to bring suit.  The judge ruled that the girl could petition in her own right for a divorce once she reaches puberty, however there is no accepted definition of what constitutes puberty under sharia law.  The father apparently had asked the man not to have sex with his “wife” until she reached 18.  The judge has asked for some sort of pledge from the husband against consummating the marriage until she reaches puberty, whatever that may mean. (I presume that the pledge would go to the father, not the girl, if te girl is statutorily raped, as such activity would be called in the civilized world).

Such marriages between young girls and (much) older men are not terribly uncommon in Saudi Arabia, though there are Saudis who oppose child marriages and point out that they violate various human rights agreements to which the kingdom is a party.  (As I’d previously noted, women are not currently allowed to drive legally in the kingdom, which is hardly a bastion of women’s rights.)

Apparently the girl doesn’t yet know that she’s married.  Hopefully the girl continues living with her mother and doesn’t find out about her marriage until she gets to sign the divorce papers in a few years.

Obama to use Lincoln Bible for swearing-in

President-elect Barack Obama will use the same Bible for his swearing-in as the prior president from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.  The Bible is held by the Library of Congress who will make it available for the January 20th inauguration.  No president since our 16th has used this particular Bible, which is burgundy velvet with gilded edges; it was published in 1853 by Oxford University Press.  It was a by William Thomas Carroll, the clerk of the Supreme Court, specifically for Lincoln’s inauguration; the Lincoln family Bible was unavailable for the event as it was still packed away with the family’s other possessions.

Most people will torture someone if asked

Jerry Burger of Santa Clara University in California has released the results of an experiment that show that most people—70% of us, in fact—are willing to torture someone if they’re asked to.  Burger’s experiment was very similar to the famous ones done by Stanley Milgram back in the 1960s; subjects were asked to give “electric shocks” to a confederate of the experimenter if that person answered questions incorrectly.  With each wrong answer (they were all scripted) the purported strength of the shocks increased (actually, there were no shocks at all).  Seven out of ten subjects were willing to continue past 150 volts and complaints of pain on the part of the subject.

The original Milgram experiments continued up to 450 volts, which most subjects were willing to deliver.  Milgram got the idea for his experiments when considering why so many Germans participated in the holocaust and then later justified or defended their participation by claiming “I was just following orders.”  His experiment proved that most of us will “just follow orders” and do really bad things.

Burger said the experiment, published in the American Psychologist, can only partly explain the widely reported prisoner abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or events during World War Two.

“Although one must be cautious when making the leap from laboratory studies to complex social behaviors such as genocide, understanding the social psychological factors that contribute to people acting in unexpected and unsettling ways is important,” he wrote.

“It is not that there is something wrong with the people,” Burger said. “The idea has been somehow there was this characteristic that people had back in the early 1960s that they were somehow more prone to obedience.”

Wikipedia has a good article on the original Milgram experiments, explaining exactly how they worked, the different variables he used, and the various results.  CNN also has a good article that covers and compares the Milgram and Burger experiments.

FBI agents stole $7.8 million from taxpayers

The logo of a very corrupt organization that's run for itself, not for you

The logo of a very corrupt organization that's run for itself, not for you

MSNBC reports that FBI agents posted to Iraq received $7.8 million in overtime and pay that they weren’t entitled to, an average of $45,000 per employee between 2003–2007.  They claimed the pay for, inter alia, doing watching movies, exercising, and attending parties.

One employee defended the fact that he claimed pay for the time he spent doing laundry, “When you’re in that environment, anything you do to survive is work for the FBI.”  It must be nice to work for that agency when you can do immoral things and get away with it.  Just about all the agents posted to Iraq claimed 8 hours of overtime per day, every day, for the three months they were there.  There’a a term for that sort of behavior: stealing.

Expert on avoiding kidnapping is kidnapped in Mexico

It may look peaceful from space, but mucho people are getting kidnapped down there

It may look peaceful from space, but mucho people are getting kidnapped down there

Mexico has a really bad problem with kidnappings.  It’s so bad, that even experts on how to avoid being kidnapped, like American Felix Batista, get kidnapped.  Batista works for Houston-based ASI Global, a security firm, and was recently kidnapped just after giving a seminar on how to avoid that fate.  It is thought that police, who were among the few who knew of his whereabouts, tipped off the criminals, who probably wanted to send a message with the kidnapping.

Law enforcement officers and officials frequently are implicated in kidnapping in our neighbor to the south.  Several were recently arrested for the kidnapping a murder of a 14-year-old Fernando Marti a few months ago.  Many Mexicans don’t even go to the police when they get ransom demands; they figure it’s far better to handle the matter themselves.  Kidnapping is a big business south of the border; it’s usually done by drug cartels for the ransom money, but occasionally, as in the case of Mr. Batista, is done to send a message as well.

Fully 5% of the country’s 106 million people report having been kidnapped or having known someone who was kidnapped.  And 45% of Mexicans who have a phone said they’ve been victims of telephone extortion, in which someone has called them, claimed they’ve abducted a family member, and demand ransom money.   These claims are often false, but abductions are so common there that they’re plausible and often result in ransoms being paid anyway.  In the cases of real kidnappings, the captors often mail back the victims body parts, like ears and fingers, if the money isn’t paid quickly enough.

The Flag of Mexico is a vertical tricolor with the National Coat of Arms, which is too small to make out any detail on

The Flag of Mexico is a vertical tricolor with the National Coat of Arms, which is too small and complex to make out any detail on

To counter these threats, wealthy Mexicans have taken to hiring armed security guards, living in what amount to fortified compounds, and riding around in armored vehicles (though doing so didn’t help Fernando Marti).  And now the LA Times is reporting that some are having tiny transmitters inserted under their skin that can transmit their location to orbiting satellites in the event that they’re captured.

According to official statistics, 65 people are kidnapped each month; but since most aren’t reported, the actual number is estimated to be about 500 per month by some observers. Earlier this year 100,000 people demonstrated in Mexico City for the government to do more to solve the problem.  Hopefully their demands will be met.

South Korean lawmakers get in fight, break out power tools

MSNBC reports that members of South Korea’s unicameral parliament have gotten into fisticuffs.  Again.

The chamber of the South Korean National Assembly looks like this when there is no fight going on

The chamber of the South Korean National Assembly looks like this when there is no fight going on

This time, the ruling party locked opposition members outside the committee room where the recently signed South Korea-U.S. trade pact will be introduced.  They feared that the opposition would try to oppose ratification of the pact.  Go figure.  Opposition members tried to batter down the door to the room, using a sledge hammer and eventually a power saw to break through—but to no avail, as the ruling party members had piled furniture up behind said door as an additional barricade.

The ruling Grand National Party controls 172 out of 299 seats in the National Assembly and so should be able to push the trade pact through.  The U.S. Congress has not yet approved the deal.

Fights are not at all uncommon among South Korean lawmakers—even on the floor of the National Assembly itself.  Sometimes they even throw chairs and microphones.  Here is a video of a fight that broke out last December:

Mecca to be remodeled

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca.  The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

A pilgrim at the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. The Kaaba is seen in the midground.

The Economist has an interesting story about Saudi plans to remodel Mecca, the holiest city is Islam.  The city is the original hometown of Mohammed, the founder and chief figure in Islam, and was a key religious center even before that time.  Muslims are supposed to pray five times each day, at appointed times, all while facing in the direction of Mecca, and are urged to participate in the haj, a pilgrimage to the city during the holy month of Ramadan, at least once in their life if they are able.

As international travel has gotten easier, more Muslims have been able to visit Mecca, causing significant logistical problems (including people often being trampled to death).  A chief reason for remodeling parts of the city, including the most important mosque there, the Masjid al-Haram (“Sacred Mosque”) is to accommodate the 2.5 million pilgrims that come to Mecca during the haj each year.  At present, the mosque can hold up to 900,000 visitors; plans are to expand it to a capacity of 1.5 million.

Given the great importance of the mosque and Mecca to Muslims, it is not surprising that the Saudi plans are stirring up debate.  The fact that one of the architects chosen for the project, Briton Norman Foster, is a non-Muslim has added to the controversy.  Non-Muslims are not allowed to enter Mecca, so he’d have to supervise the project from a distance and couldn’t visit the site itself.

But the city has already undergone huge changes.  The Economist reports:

Even before the plans to give the Haram mosque a facelift emerged, many Muslims were uneasy about the renovations already underway in Mecca. The modern city bears little resemblance to the birthplace of the prophet Muhammad. Visitors to Mecca can buy a latte from Starbucks and a snack from KFC or McDonald’s. Moreover, the first Islamic school where Muhammad is believed to have taught as well as the house of Khadija, his first wife, are believed to have been destroyed as construction in Mecca has boomed. Critics such as Mr Angawi fear that if these plans go ahead, more damage will be wrought upon Mecca’s historic buildings. Some suggest that Saudi Arabia’s rulers don’t concern themselves much about preserving these historic sites because their interpretation of Islam regards venerating holy places as akin to idol worship.

It will be interesting to see what sorts of decisions are made by Saudi leaders, including King Abdullah—who is the “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” (in Mecca and Medina)—in this matter.

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted

This highway sign indicates that non-Muslims must take the bypass around Mecca, where only Muslims are permitted. (Click to enlarge)