Martin Shkreli is not the problem. The fact that a company like Turing Pharmaceuticals can exist is the problem.

Martin Shkreli was arrested today. Yay! The whole world will (rightly) cheer. Call it karma, call it “getting his,” call it “reaping what you sow,” call it “justice.”

However, keep in mind that he wasn’t arrested for anything to do with drug pricing or the shady business practices of Turing Pharmaceuticals. Turing Pharmaceuticals, and “companies” like it will continue to exist. And that is the real problem.

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When Turing announced its price hike of Daraprim from $13.50 to $750/pill, the world reacted with horror and Shkreli quickly became the most hated man in the world. Daraprim is a life-saving medication for people suffering from toxoplasmosis, caused by a rare parasite affecting mostly those with compromised immune systems. In addition to the price hike, Turing made the drug available only at their specified pharmacy (Walgreen’s) for outpatients.

Turing and Shkreli were caught completely off-guard by the outrage. Shkreli tried to explain that it was a “great thing for society” and that he “shouldn’t be criticized” for this, but the public wasn’t buying it. Eventually, his defense shifted to saying that he had an obligation to make money for his company and that the drug was way underpriced. He has employees to pay and they’ll be unemployed if he doesn’t make money.

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But what about that company? No one had ever heard of Turing Pharmaceuticals before this debacle. What is it that they do?

The darapram fiasco IS WHAT THEY DO.

Turing Pharmaceuticals has no research labs, no scientists in white lab coats, and no plans for new drug development. They don’t even have drug manufacturing facilities or anything related to the production, distribution, or selling of pharmaceuticals. They are a “pharmaceutical company” in name only. This is their business model:

1.) Scour the pharmacopeia for niche drugs that fit a certain profile and are “underpriced.” (more on this later)

2.) Buy the manufacturing rights to those drugs. (They still won’t actually make anything. They’ll pay the same plants to make the same pills. Nothing changes.)

3.) Jack up the price of those drugs.

4.) Make huge profits. (Buy yachts, helicopters, and $9,000 bottles of wine.)

5.) When others eventually come in and force the price down, sell the manufacturing rights back, probably at a much higher price.

6.) Move on to the next drug.

 

This company is not about making or developing drugs. It’s about making money. There’s nothing wrong with making money, but that is ALL that they do.

This is vulture capitalism at its absolute worst, and the way that they pick the drugs to purchase underscores this. The drugs they want are those that fit a certain profile: old, out of patent, sold by just one or two companies, targeted at a very narrow market, and most important of all…  the drug must be life-saving and without available alternatives.

In other words, they want to find drugs that people will die if they don’t get. This allows them to charge as much as they want and the patients will have no choice but to pay.

Turing knows that their price-hike will be temporary because competitors will get in on the game, but if no other companies are currently making a drug, it can take a couple years to get the operation up and running because they still have to get FDA approval. It’s not as long and involved as approval for a new drug, but they do have to show that they can make the drug safely. During those 2-3 years, Turing can extract millions from patients that desperately need the life-saving medication.

Turing has tried to defend itself by saying that they will price the drug at $1 for the poor and uninsured. First of all, does anyone believe that will actually happen? How would that even work? But even if they could do that and they actually followed through, this is still a horrible situation because when insured patients need the drug – WE end up paying for it!

If the patients are insured, those prices are then passed to insurance companies, who pass it on to consumers through our sky-high premiums and co-pays. If the patients are on medicaid or medicare, we all pay for it through our payroll taxes. Either way, we pay for it.

The end result of Turing’s business practice is the massive transfer of wealth from all of us to Martin Shkreli and his sleazy partners. AND WE GET NOTHING IN RETURN.

It’s true that we all transfer massive amounts of wealth to already wealthy companies every day, but we usually get something in return. I have transferred thousands of dollars to Apple over the years, but I got iPhones and MacBooks in return. But daraprim was already developed and on the market for decades. They didn’t CREATE anything.

Turing doesn’t develop anything, doesn’t invent anything, doesn’t create anything, doesn’t produce anything. They are simply in the business of finding hidden corners of the pharmaceutical market where they can swoop in, like the vultures they are, and extract huge sums of money from unsuspecting, and very ill, patients. And it’s all perfectly legal.

Before August of this year, Martin Shkreli had made himself famous in business circles with this general business model, even if the rest of us had never heard of him. He was hailed as a visionary, a genius. We live in a world where this type of vulture capitalism is not just tolerated, but cheered. The only reason the rest of us now know about him is that he went just a bit too far with his pricing. (Not according to him. He thinks it actually should have been higher.)

Turing Pharmaceuticals is not a visionary company. It is a leech. And we are the host. And like all leeches, they provide nothing to their host. They simply take.

Turing and Shkreli touched a nerve this fall because the product they choose to hold ransom is life-saving medication, but how many other companies are there that operate this same vulture model in other industries? What other products and services are price-inflated so that scumbags like Shkreli can extract their piece of the pie, while giving us nothing in return.

They pat themselves on the back and call themselves visionary geniuses, but they are merely clever thieves. And our regulatory system does nothing to stop them.

 

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Cheap white eggs: Radiolab Dodges All Discussion of Race

[EDIT: After a Twitter discussion with the host and a producer of Radio lab, I have decided to soften the attacking tone of this post and change the title to be more fair and objective. The URL shows the previous title.]

 

I have been a regular listener to Radiolab for years and last week’s topic was of particular interest to me: Birthstory, an in-depth, exquisitely produced narrative about in vitro fertilization and surrogacy as way for two gay men to make a family.

I don’t think this was their best work. Throughout the 60 minutes of the podcast, the issue of race and racial disparities were confronted multiple times, but never discussed. There are also rather glaring unasked questions, whose omission may reveal even more than their answers could have.

Only biological children really count.

The podcast is about Tal and Amir, two gay men from Israel who have a baby, actually three babies (!), through IVF with surrogacy. This is not at all uncommon in our modern era and I join the many that cheer when families are made this way. The first “hmmm” moment was just a couple minutes into the podcast. Amir expressed how important it was to have a baby that was ‘truly his own.’

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Photo from Kurt Lowenstein Educational Center (it is NOT Tal and Amir, the subjects of this post)

Of course, terms like that are tossed around ubiquitously, but just imagine how that sounds to adopted kids or adoptive parents. We all know that Amir was referring to “biological” parentage and did not intend to imply that adoptive parenting isn’t “real.” But still, is that the best way to say it?

Also, at this point in the podcast, an Israeli journalist is brought in to support the notion that, apparently, having a desire for biological children is, “a very Israeli thing.” [Right, because in no other culture do we see that odd desire!] The speaker validates this point by saying that people who have children are seen as much more valuable to Israeli society than those that don’t. Again, this seems pretty universal to me. If anything, this attitude is much more intense in the Global South.

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The Ojeda family

More to the point, this claim that only the procreative are valuable to society goes without challenge or discussion, even in our era when an increasing number of adults are opting not to have children and facing bizarre condemnation for doing so. On its own, this commentary may seem harmless, but in the larger context, it’s another small example of how dismissive this podcast seems to be of other cultures besides the Western one in Israel and the United States, and of people within those cultures that don’t fit the prevailing winds.

Given the topic of the podcast, this was quite surprising to me.

Foster children aren’t worth mentioning, let alone considering

Then, things started to get more overtly bothersome. While interviewing Tal and Amir about the various options they had to make a family, the hosts discussed insemination, adoption from a foreign country, and even the new phenomenon called “The New Family,” which is picking up steam in Israel and elsewhere. This is a fascinating new social phenomenon in which men and women who, separately, want to have a baby, come together to do just that and then raise the baby jointly, but separately, almost like a divorced couple. Regardless, none of the presented options appealed to Tal and Amir for various reasons.

Nowhere in this discussion was any mention of the possibility of adopting foster children. Not a word. In a podcast in which all manner of family-making was discussed, the issue of foster care was not mentioned even one time the entire hour. I found this especially galling consider the extraordinary lengths that the Tal and Amir went to in order to have their children.

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Foster children in Calgary (Alberta, Canada)

Let me clear. It is not the case that Radiolab simply decided to discuss only those options that Tal and Amir flirted with. The discussion began with this quote: “You basically have two options. It used to be three options, but now just two.” [The previous third option is adoption from “third-world” countries, which is now more difficult for gay couples.] In this podcast, Radiolab basically states that “the new family” and international surrogacy are the only possible options for couples that can’t produce their own children naturally but still want to be parents.

Meanwhile, in New York City, where Radiolab is produced, nearly 17,000 kids are in foster care. Around 2,500 of them are ready and waiting for adoption. Many of those never will be and instead will instead age out of the system as orphans.

That’s just New York City. There are over 400,000 children in foster care in the US and over 100,000 of them are currently awaiting adoption. More than 20,000 kids age out of foster care in the United States every year.

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A “baby box” in the Czech Republic

In Tal and Amir’s native Israel, the foster care system is in a full-blown crisis. Emergency shelters are overflowing and just this year, the Knesset passed a bill to build more shelters and funded renewed efforts to recruit more foster parents. Adoption by same-sex parents (even those with no biological connection to the child) has been legal in Israel since 2008.

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Somehow, while discussing Tal and Amir’s quest to raise a child together, it never came up that thousands of children need homes right in their own community.

To be sure, I understand that foster parenting is not everyone’s first choice when they think of how they can start a family. That’s why there are so many kids that need homes in the first place. That’s why so many of them age into group homes and then eventually age out of the system without ever getting a real home or a permanent family.

And I understand the reasons people are scared of foster children. There are legitimate concerns about permanency, the resulting pain if children are returned to parents, behavioral or emotional problems resulting from whatever circumstances brought them into foster care to begin with. I get all of that.

But isn’t it worth mentioning that these kids exist? The complete omission of this topic, while other options were at least mentioned, sends a message that foster children aren’t worthy of consideration (a lesson the older ones have probably learned already).

In the case of Tal and Amir, we have Amir’s strong and perfectly natural desire for biological children. (Tal has this desire, too, as they end up making a baby with his sperm as well, which is how they end up with three total.) However, the option of foreign adoption was briefly discussed. This means that the desire for biological children cannot completely explain the lack of mention of foster children in this section of the story.

In Israel, most of the kids in foster care are Ashkanazi, Sephardi, or Arab. In the United States, however, where Radiolab is produced and where the vast majority of its listeners reside, the foster care system is a perfect manifestation of our racial inequality. Because the biggest factors that bring children into foster care are poverty, lack of family and social support, untreated mental illness, and drug abuse, (and because those issues are suffered by Blacks and Hispanics at higher rates than Whites), our foster system is mostly filled with children of color. In 2014, of those in foster care in NYC whose race is known, 95% are Black or Hispanic.

Thus, there is an unmistakable racial element to the complete omission of the subject of foster children, maybe not for Tal and Amir, but definitely as a topic for this podcast.

[Edit: Jad Abumrad, host of Radiolab, pointed out to me that it was Tal and Amir who introduced the options that were discussed, including international adoption, but not including foster care. The hosts then explored those options. There was no omission by Radiolab, intentional or unintentional.]

“Cheap White Eggs”

Because surrogacy for gay couples is specifically banned in Israel, Tal and Amir had to go international. The result was an incredibly complicated and expensive arrangement involving at least four countries and well over $150,000. The two surrogates would be from India, but the implantation, delivery, and neonatal care would actually take place in Nepal because this kind of surrogacy is illegal in India. (And it now is in Nepal, too.)

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The eggs, however, would come from Eastern Europe.

Why Eastern Europe? With the surrogate in India and traveling to Nepal, surely eggs could be obtained in one of those countries? Why insert yet another country into this already complicated mix? This meant that they had to fly a woman from Ukraine to Nepal for a lengthy stay to harvest the eggs. That’s more borders, more logistics, more flights, and more cost. Why did they have to come from Eastern Europe?

Because that’s where you can get “cheap white eggs.”

That was the term that was used. Cheap white eggs. When Tal said this, my jaw dropped, but I held out hope that this incredibly racially charged issue would then be explored a little bit.

Nope. They laughed. It may have been an uncomfortable laugh, but they repeated the phase and everyone laughed together. Tal and Amir wanted a white baby and were willing to incur the additional logistics, expense, and risk in order to get one. And the hosts gave an understanding laugh.

They laughed because all of us in the West know that of course the baby had to be white. Who would pay that much money only to end up with a black or brown child? After all, if that was an option, they wouldn’t have to do any of this!

The phrase “cheap white eggs” gets more sinister the longer you think about it. First, it implies that white eggs, and thus white people, are a premium. It also reveals that, although there is a desire for thrift, racial preferences trumps all. These aren’t ‘white cheap eggs,’ they are ‘cheap white eggs.’ The baby had to be white. Preferably cheap, but definitely white.

To be fair to Tal and Amir, the desire to have and raise a baby that is the same race as the parents is perfectly natural, especially when the parents are the same race as each other. All else being equal, why introduce the complicated dynamics of transracial parenting into an already complicated family situation? I get that.

But all isn’t equal and the phrase “cheap white eggs” captures it perfectly. Tal and Amir may have simply wanted a baby that was their same race, but in that process they confronted the global machinations of white racial superiority. Rather than a knowing laugh, perhaps some discussion of this warranted?

This feels like eugenics, but oh well…

The selection of the egg donor had Tal and Amir discussing the various physical characteristics that they hoped their babies would have. While I’m sure healthy and happy were understood and thus unspoken, there was sure a lot of scrutiny about eye color, hair color, and even the shape of the nose of the egg donor. At one point, Amir sort of grapples with the notion that this feels a little unseemly. He even says the word “eugenics” when expressing his discomfort, a word that resonates in Tel Aviv more than anywhere. The issue of race surrounds everything in this story, but no one seems to notice.

The scrutiny of the egg donor brings the story face-to-face with one of the most thorny ethical issues in reproductive medicine today: designer babies. Our society is inching closer and closer to the days when technology may allow us to select and edit the physical and even mental characteristics of our children.

The only discussion of this that we got was one question, “And why do you want your children to be tall?” Amir responds, “Well because it’s just easier!” The story then moves on.

Get those white babies out of there!

Fast forward and we reach the point that the three babies are now born. Then, the unthinkable happens. A powerful earthquake strikes Nepal. Devastation is everywhere. No Power. No water. Pandemonium. Death and suffering on all sides.

Given that they are the subject of the podcast, it is not surprising that the narrative quickly turns to the heroic efforts to rescue the newly born babies, along with dozens of other babies of surrogacy, whom are trapped in harm’s way. What did surprise me is how nimbly that pivot was made. Death and destruction in Nepal, BUT WHAT ABOUT THOSE WHITE BABIES?

The story describes how the Israeli government moved mountains to get these new families to safety while, sometimes literally, stepping over the suffering of the Nepalese people around them. In a particularly galling moment, Amir, now a new father, is running desperately on the street looking for help and finds an American in uniform, a security guard for the American embassy. Amir begs for help, “Please, sir, we are Israeli citizens, and we need help!”

The American security officer, of course, snaps into action and rushes them to the safety of the Israeli embassy. Clearly, saving white foreigners is the highest priority, even while bleeding and broken Nepalese still filled the streets.

Nepal Earthquake

Again, it’s not surprising that the podcasts covered the earthquake mostly in terms of how it affects the story they’re telling. But the earthquake affected more than just this family. It killed tens of thousands and sent millions even further into hopeless poverty. Couldn’t we have paid some respect to that fact? And of course any country’s government and embassy has their first priority to take care of their own citizens, but given the disparity in wealth and resources at play here…  oh nevermind.

A look at international surrogacy

The podcast spends its last 20 minutes grappling with the ethical issues surrounding surrogacy, specifically when the surrogates are from underdeveloped countries. To their credit, their investigation reveals some blatant exploitation, misrepresentations, and the risks these surrogates are subjected to.

However, the analysis does not probe very deeply. Their biggest concern seems to be that, if governments ban surrogacy, it just pushes the whole thing underground because, “the demand will still be there.” [The demand for white babies, just to be clear.]

Only two possible government responses are compared: completely unregulated and unfettered surrogacy, or total ban. I’m no family lawyer, but it seems that a middle ground deserved at least some mention? Maybe a government could allow surrogacy but demand that surrogates’ rights be protected, their risk be minimized, and their compensation be reasonable?

That is more or less what happens in Western countries. Although laws very by state in a very imperfect legal patchwork, surrogacy happens in the US every day. For the most part, the women that participate make their choice freely, are provided with medical and life insurance, and are well compensated. Most don’t consider them victims of exploitation. Are countries like India and Nepal not capable of anything like this?

When deciding whether to use an Indian surrogate, Tal and Amir grapple with the possibility of exploitation and then quickly satisfy their scruples by assuring themselves that she is receiving a life-changing amount of money that will allow her to lift herself and her family out of poverty and secure their future. They are paying some $12,500 for “surrogacy services” and that’s a lot of money in rural India.

Only later in the podcast do we find out that less than half of that $12,500 actually went to the surrogate.

Even if it is unfair to expect them to have done any diligence regarding their surrogate (hey, that’s what their paying the agency for, right?), it is hard not to juxtapose their apparent lack of interest in their own surrogate’s life and circumstances with the righteous anger we hear from them later when they find out that she was probably paid $5,000 and possibly much less. “It’s not enough!”

I quite agree.

The surrogacy agency defends this by explaining how many middlemen are involved in getting the surrogates from India to Nepal, vetting them, examining them, getting them across the border, etc. and then reminds us that they can’t be responsible for all the problems in the world.

Radiolab asks nothing further of them, but I wish they had. The surrogacy agency is who profits from all of this and has all the power in the situation. Here’s what I may have asked

 

  • Are you trying to deceive people like Tal and Amir by not making the actual surrogate payment amount more clear in the contract or invoices?
  • In addition to misleading clients, does concealing the amount of payments to surrogates actually hide the exploitation of poor women?
  • What does a surrogate get if she goes through the whole procedure, becomes pregnant, but then miscarries? [This is covered later, but it is asked of the surrogates, not the agency.]
  • How will the surrogate be involved in decision-making if, during the pregnancy, complications emerge that pit her health and well-being against that of the fetus?
  • Who looks out for the legal rights and interests of the surrogates throughout the procedure? Are they provided with independent representation? [They aren’t.] Why not?

Eventually, Radiolab does focus quite a bit of time on the surrogates themselves. They include additional interviews on their website. They seem to be genuinely concerned about the women who choose to do this, why they do so, and what they go through.

Given how unwilling they are to ask any tough questions of the agency, however, this concern could look like mere curiosity. This is a science podcast after all. Radiolab doesn’t have human rights or women’s rights or racial equality on their masthead. That’s not what they are about. Their mission is not social justice; it’s science journalism. But this story is about much more than just medical science, and they know it. I wish they more fully explored the human side.

The messages we send

Radio lab runs on around 500 radio stations and boasts a million subscribers to their podcast. As such, they have a serious responsibility to consider the messages they send each week. I urge them to consider the messages they may have unintentionally sent in this podcast: foster kids aren’t worthy, white people are more valuable and its okay to laugh about that, and it is exploited women that should be questioned about why they are so easily exploited, not the powers that do the exploiting.

I’m sure they don’t really believe any of those things, but I cannot just give them a pass. For them, as for me, not challenging something is akin to normalizing it.

-NHL

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Nathan H. Lents,    www.TheHumanEvolutionBlog.com

 

 

Mindware Listens! Redesigned Marketing for Children’s Science Toys Is Awesome!

Mindware is a company specializing in science-based toys and activities for children. Their tagline of “brainy toys for kids of all ages” is definitely apt. The catalog is a playground in its own right and wouldn’t it be awesome if children everywhere had access to such great toys to stimulate their interest in science and the natural world?

However, last month, their catalogue featured the following two-page spread:

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photo courtesy of Lynn Esteban, taken from Clapway.com

I and others wrote articles and Facebook posts deploring the sexist nature of both the photo display and the copy. The not-so-subtle message here is that real science is for boys and makeup is for girls. Girls are all about doing things that are pretty and smell nice, while inquisitive boys get to explore more serious matters.

To be fair, the rest of the very same Mindware catalog was free of such harmful stereotyping and subliminal sexist messaging. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Mindware can usually be counted on to deliberately thwart gender roles on occasion. (As I noted in my original article.) That’s why the ad above was so perplexing, so out of place.

In response to the outcry, Mindware posted the following statement as a comment on the article I wrote:

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A rare public mea culpa and a promise to fix this and do better. We all applauded the quick apology as we waited to see the new catalogue.

The new catalogue is now out here is the newly redesigned two-page advertisement for the same products:

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photo courtesy of Lynn Esteban

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photo courtesy of Lynn Esteban

What a difference! Totally gone are the gender-segregated science themes. We see a boy formulating cosmetics and a girl getting dirty working with a volcano. Both are seen working with slime, because why not?!

Furthermore, The copy was entirely re-written. No more fluffy adjectives for the girl-targeted products next to serious and stimulating descriptions of the boy products. Both sets of products are described together and as real science.

Here is an excerpt from the longer description of the soap lab from their website:

We use soap everyday, but what makes this sudsy substance work? In this hands-on cosmetic kit you will blend bright colors and scents for your own signature soap, learn the history of soap making, experiment with pigments, discover the difference between hydrophilic and hydrophobic molecules and even examine the law of volume!

That’s some real science there!

THIS – THIS – is how a company should respond when called out for sexist marketing. Their apology was not just placating words offered to calm the storm. They meant what they said in their commitment to do better, and for that, they should be applauded. As I said before, they’ve always done such a great job presenting interesting science toys to both girls and boys. The example last month was a lapse, a screw-up. And they immediately fixed it.

Well done, Mindware. I think I’ll go ahead and buy some of those Science Academy toys for my little girl and boy. They’ll both love them.

-NHL

(For a spectacularly horrible counter-example, a company that ignores concerned consumers and shamelessly stands by its sexist marketing, see Party City.)

Party City Stands by “Sexy Cop” Costume for Young Girls

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The pictures above are real. They are from this year’s selection of Halloween costumes from Party City. The only possible label for the girl version of the police officer costume is “sexy cop” and it is targeted for both toddlers and juniors.

If, for whatever reason, you fail to see the sexualized nature of this costume, take a closer look. Have you ever seen a female police officer in a skirt? What about those high-heel boots on the toddler? The costume for older girls features pumps, because female police officers wear heels, obviously.

Compare this to the boy’s cop costume, which attempts to recreate the correct police officer uniform in every aspect. The girl version is overtly feminized with the frilly skirt, the studded belt, leggings, and a tight-fitting low-cut top.

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If you are still incredulous that this is a “sexy cop” costume, consider this: In each of the ways that the girl cop costume departs from the typical police officer uniform (in other words, in each way that it differs from the boy costime), it aligns with the common “sexy cop” stripper motif. Even the pose of the little girl is suggestive, when taken in context of the costume.

The little boy cop is shown with a walkie-talkie, which police officers often use in the course of duty. The girl costume does not include a walkie-talkie. She does have handcuffs, though. Because of course she does.

This had to have been a huge mistake. My brain refuses to accept the possibility that someone intentionally sought to sexualize girls at three or four years of age. I refuse to live in a world where that would not only happen, but also not be stopped by the many other people that had to do with this costume, photo shoot, catalog, and advertising. It was all a huge mistake. It had to be.

But the thing about mistakes is that they get so much worse when you refuse to admit them and apologize. That is exactly what Party City has done.

A customer named Lin Kramer posted a long and thoughtful message to Party City’s Facebook page, which included a picture of the highly sexualized “sexy cop” costume. Party City originally replied with a canned “thanks for feedback” message, but later, when others began to write, Kramer’s message was deleted and she was blocked from posting on their page. She then posted it to her own page.

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Quite predictably, this led to a social media firestorm and a quick look at their Facebook page reveals lots of angry comments on all of the recent posts. Party City has replaced the generic “thanks for feedback” response to one that includes an apology for deleting Kramer’s post. They even imply that an employee was fired for it. However, there is still not even a hint at realization of the problems with the “sexy cop” costume. Perhaps worse, the same canned response is being copy-pasted in response to every customer complaint, giving the distinct impression that the angry feedback is not really being read, let alone heeded.

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It’s hard to imagine how they could possibly be handling this any worse. One of many things that Party City does not grasp is that failure to genuinely listen to legitimately upset customers only fans the flames and invites closer scrutiny of the company as a whole.

For example, irked by the sexy cop costume, Kramer did an analysis of the entire catalog of costumes for kids at Party City. The results are not good. 30% of the costumes marketed to boys were based on occupations, while only 7% of the “girl costumes” had anything to do with careers or jobs (This includes the “sexy cop,” because, well, stripper is a legitimate occupation after all.) This is especially baffling when one considers that all of the boy-targeted occupational costumes are perfectly suitable for young girls. (Are there jobs that aren’t?)

Pretty much all of the girl-targeted costumes are overly feminized and sexually suggestive, from the “precious pirate” to the “vampire queen.” And let’s not forget the cowgirl, laced up in frilly pink from top to mini-skirt.

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There was one girl costume that can be construed as occupational that was not also targeted to young boys: cheerleader.

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Don’t get me started on the “Native American” costume. This one is marketed to both girls and boys because we all know that cultural appropriation and broad racial stereotypes is gender neutral.

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There is little reason to think that this year’s selection is any better or worse than that of years’ past, but Party City can expect boycotts and lots of angry messages about their costumes this year. As offensive and stupid as it is, the “sexy cop” costume was not even their biggest mistake. That honor belongs to the clumsy and tone-deaf response when confronted.

Five days and hundreds of messages after Lin Kramer’s letter, the “sexy cop” costume is on the landing page of the “toddler costumes” on the Party City website.

As I’ve written previously, there is simply no excuse when large companies fail to understand how their products and marketing underscore gender stereotypes. Images like these shape how young girls come to understand their potential. It also shapes how young boys come to view girls and women.

Party City’s selection of Halloween costumes sends a message loud and clear to young boys and girls: girls’ value comes from their sexuality.

-NHL (@nathanlents)

A Scientist’s Personal Eulogy for Oliver Sacks

Regretfully, I never met Oliver Sacks, but I still feel like I knew him, like so many others do, because he has had such a deep impact on my life on multiple occasions. Many famous people, and those who knew him best, will properly eulogize Dr. Sacks. This, on the other hand, is a personal eulogy, my “Oliver Sacks stories,” and the only effort I can make to memorialize this truly great man. I refuse to see this as an act of vanity because I suspect that much of what I say will ring true for millions of others.

At each important turn in my life, there was Oliver Sacks. I was first introduced to his work when I was 12 years old and saw the movie Awakenings, based on his memoir of the same name. As I watched the movie over and over again, I found myself deeply drawn to the character of Dr. Malcolm Sayer and decided that I wanted to be a doctor, too. It was perfect timing because my 8th grade science class spent the year studying the human body.

AWAKENINGS, Robin Williams (lab coat), Tobert De Niro (plaid shirt), Mary Alice (nurse), Ruth Nelson (green suit), Julie Kavner (nurse), 1990, (c) Columbia

AWAKENINGS, Robin Williams (lab coat), Tobert De Niro (plaid shirt), Mary Alice (nurse), Ruth Nelson (green suit), Julie Kavner (nurse), 1990, (c) Columbia

Why Malcom Sayer? I had already met plenty of doctors, read books and seen movies about them, and knew that it was a highly respected profession that all “smart kids” should consider. Malcom Sayer was different because he saw his patients as a mystery, a puzzle to be solved. He didn’t simply treat symptoms or match the confirmed diagnosis with the accepted treatment. He asked the bigger question, “What is not working here?” and the even more important one, “How can we fix it?” Dr. Sayer, like Dr. Sacks, thought like a scientist because he was a scientist, a point subtly made during his awkward interview as the movie opens. Awakenings Because of this, we get the impression that Dr. Sayer doesn’t quite belong in the hospital and probably shouldn’t be treating patients. As the movie progresses, all of the characters seem to reach that same conclusion as well. That is, all the characters except the patients whose lives he has transformed. And why does Dr. Sayer not quite fit in? Because he is never satisfied simply treating patients. Dr. Sayer is a frustrated scientist working within a system where innovation is not valued and creative thinking is not welcomed. Dr. Sayer is Dr. Sacks. sacks-awakenings4 This feeling of not quite fitting in stuck with me as I completed the entrance requirements for medical school. I slogged through my courses, tackled the MCAT, and survived the interviews. I had my acceptance in hand but all I could think about was the morose Dr. Sayer. Why was he so sullen? Robin Williams Awakenings It was at that time that one of my dearest friends gave me another book written by Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a book filled with neurology cases as strange as the titular one. Paradoxically, this extraordinary book made me realize that I didn’t want to be a doctor at all. I didn’t want to be Dr. Sayer; I wanted to be Dr. Sacks. I wanted to chase clues, do experiments, and ask questions. I didn’t want to treat people; I wanted to study life.

So that’s what I did. I became a scientist, a decision I haven’t regretted for even a moment and for which I have Oliver Sacks to thank. The latest phase of my career has seen an increasing emphasis on writing. As I have come to fancy myself a science writer, it was Oliver Sacks to whom I looked for inspiration and motivation. After all, the list of those who can realistically be called his colleagues is short.

In the past few years, I have read and re-read his books and eagerly devoured his articles in The New Yorker. Like Lewis Thomas before him, he gives the impression of a medicine man out of time. His words often feel like they come from anyone but a physician. A playwright, a monk, a sage, perhaps a romantic poet from the early modern period, but not a physician. And yet, he was a physician, above all else. He was a physician in the truest and purest sense. If only they were all like him. If only all of us were like him. music Just this year, Dr. Sacks did it to me again. I heard in a Radiolab podcast that he’d written an autobiography, On the Move: A Life. In it, Dr. Sacks chose to give his fans a parting gift: a look into the pain and beauty of his private life. images One part of his story touched me deeply. Discovering that he was gay at an early age, he was grotesquely rebuked by his mother and painfully rejected by two would-be lovers. In response, he turned inward and chose to forgo intimacy for virtually his entire adult life.

As he discusses these episodes, he appears at once detached from them and yet still experiencing them. He spent many decades in self-imposed celibacy, instead throwing himself tirelessly into his remarkable career, a jealous lover if there ever was one.

In 2008, Dr. Sacks finally allowed himself to fall in love again with fellow writer Billy Hayes. This was barely a year after I began a relationship with my now-husband. What a cruel difference that my husband and I are hoping to see 50 or 60 years together, while Billy got to enjoy a mere seven years before cancer took Dr. Sacks from him. And from us. oliver-sacks-and-billy-hayes As I read the words of his autobiography, I wondered with teary eyes if my personal life would have been as painful as his had been, had I been born in his era instead of my own. His mother reviled him for his private admission; mine stood with me as I got married in Central Park. What a stinging injustice.

Because Dr. Sacks was not a religious man, I will not disrespect his memory with the usual platitudes of him being in a better place, looking down on us, and all of that. Nevertheless, the statement that Oliver Sacks “will always be with us” is a metaphysical certainty beyond any question. He poured his heart, his soul, his self into his writing to entertain, delight, and challenge us. In that sense, we really do have him here with us.

As I aimlessly leaf through his books, I am grief-stricken for a man that I never met but mostly definitely knew. Because he was so generous with his words, his knowledge, and his heart, I know that I can find him right where he has always been: in The Mind’s Eye.

Goodbye, Dr. Sacks. I shudder to think how my life would have turned out without you in it.

-Nathan H. Lents

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The Meaning and Meaninglessness of Genealogy

The Human Evolution Blog

The practice of genealogy, researching one’s ancestors and family tree, has exploded lately. Ancestry.com has become a huge success, boasting millions of subscribers and a net worth well over half a billion dollars. Many, if not most, families in the US have at least one person actively researching the long-forgotten twists and turns of their family tree.

It’s an understandable obsession, of course. The preoccupation with who we are and where we came from has plagued humanity since the dawn of civilization. We put up pictures of our great-great- grandparents, whom we never met and are long dead, and bore all of our houseguests with their stories.

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(The Lents family, ca. ~1918)

But what does it all really mean?

Genealogical Surprises

Ancestry.com and other genealogy businesses have made a common practice of digging deep into the background of celebrities (something people are obsessed with even more than genealogy) as a…

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The Women Behind the Discovery of Richard III

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The same week that Tim Hunt made his sexist remarks about the presence of women in research laboratories, I happen to be in the midlands of England teaching a course on forensic DNA analysis at the University of Lincoln. Because I got my PhD studying the cyclins and CDKs, I had long admired Dr. Hunt. I was depressed.

As luck would have it, my spirits would soon be raised. I took a weekend holiday to Leicester and had the wonderful opportunity to visit the remains of Richard III, now interred at the Leicester Cathedral, as well as the museum that tells the story of their recent discovery and exhumation. They have done a truly wonderful job with this exhibition and I strongly recommend anyone who can manage it to go. IMG_5836 (picture taken by NHL)

The discovery of this Medieval monarch, killed and buried more than five hundred years ago, is an incredibly unlikely and dramatic story, a real triumph of both historical research and modern science. I was particularly struck by the central role that women played throughout the story.

First, there is Philippa Langley, probably the single most important person in the rediscovery of King Richard. It was the unwavering passion of Langley, a screenwriter and secretary of the Scottish chapter of the Richard III society, that provided the steady persistence necessary to make the project a reality. She relentlessly raised both money and awareness and was the principle organizer of the exhumation effort. Of the first time she stood in the now-famous car park, she said, “The strangest feeling just washed over me. I thought, ‘I am standing on Richard’s grave.'” Indeed she was. Pictured Phillipa Langley. Archeologists believe they have found the remains of King Richard The 3rd. The dig is taking place in a car park in Leceister. The site is believed to be the long lost, Medevile Church Of The Grey Friars, The last know resting place of King Richard III. Leicester, England. CODE: 362255 www.expresspictures.com Express Syndication +44 (0)20 8612 7884/7903/7906/7661 +44 (0)20 7098 2764 Langley was not the first woman to suspect the car park. It was an essay by Ms. Audrey Strange that first correctly speculated the location of Richard III. In fact, Strange first petitioned the city of Leicester for permission to excavate the car park back in 1962. Her request was denied. She published an essay describing her careful research in 1975 and, fortunately for all of us, it caught the attention of Langley some 30 years later. AudreyStrange1988 Then, there is Dr. Jo Appleby, the osteology expert from the University of Leicester. It was Dr. Appleby’s careful work that confirmed the age and sex of the individual whose remains were found, and confirmed the condition of scoliosis, an affliction that King Richard was said to have suffered from. dad86e503bf08b04280f6a70670040b4Next we have Dr. Turi King, a genetic anthropologist, who led the effort to confirm the identity of the remains by comparing the DNA to known relatives of Richard III. (Note: many sources cite these present-day relatives as “descendants,” but Richard has no direct descendants. He fathered only one child who died before adulthood. Dr. King used DNA from a descendent of Richard’s sister to confirm the mitochondrial haplotype.) King has since completed the sequencing of Richard III’s entire genome. Because SCIENCE. article-2273164-175778A7000005DC-460_634x326 Finally, we have Dr. Caroline Wilkinson, then of the University of Dundee, who performed the reconstruction of Richard III’s face using only the recovered skull as her guide. The Richard III team contracted Dr. Wilkinson without telling her who the subject was, so as to not bias her work. She produced the face of a man with a striking resemblance to the oldest surviving portraits of Richard III. Screen Shot 2015-06-13 at 8.19.37 PM These are the women that rescued Richard of York out of the 15th century dirt underneath a civil service car park. Of course, there were other women and men involved in this truly Herculean effort, but we do well to give these impressive women special recognition.

-NHL

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(And here’s me in awe of the fantastic work of these women.)