Dani Lierow

The Tampa Bay Times reported four years ago on the story of Dani Lierow, which is the saddest non-fictional account I have ever read. Dani entered civilization for the first time at age six when a neighbor called the police to report a case of child abuse. The call was well warranted. Reporter Lane DeGregory describes what the responding officers encountered at her house:

First he saw the girl’s eyes: dark and wide, unfocused, unblinking. She wasn’t looking at him so much as through him.

She lay on a torn, moldy mattress on the floor. She was curled on her side, long legs tucked into her emaciated chest. Her ribs and collarbone jutted out; one skinny arm was slung over her face; her black hair was matted, crawling with lice. Insect bites, rashes and sores pocked her skin. Though she looked old enough to be in school, she was naked — except for a swollen diaper.

“The pile of dirty diapers in that room must have been 4 feet high,” the detective said. “The glass in the window had been broken, and that child was just lying there, surrounded by her own excrement and bugs.”

Dani had, for nearly seven years, experienced almost no human interaction. She “missed the chance” to learn speech. She had scarcely been held, and likely had never been allowed outdoors.

Her caseworker determined that she had never been to school, never seen a doctor. She didn’t know how to hold a doll, didn’t understand peek-a-boo. “Due to the severe neglect,” a doctor would write, “the child will be disabled for the rest of her life.”

This is more injustice than should exist in the whole world, heaped onto a single innocent human being. Dani didn’t starve because she was born into poverty. She didn’t crave the outdoors because she lived somewhere unsafe. She suffered simply because her mother did not think it important to interact with her child.

I can’t begin to summarize this story. Read the article in full and visit the Dani’s Story website to see pictures of Dani more recently with her new family. Bernie and Diane Lierow adopted Dani at age eight knowing that she still wore diapers, that she couldn’t speak, and that she may never develop in the most basic ways parents wish for their children. The amount of good they’ve done can’t ever undo the evil that’s already been wrought, but it is all anyone could ever give.

As I had hoped, the Dani’s Story website does include a link to donate via PayPal toward Dani’s therapy and long-term care. Nobody’s asked for anything, but the ability to donate — to do something — just feels necessary when we are all so powerless to do anything more substantial.

Jessica Ahlquist

The Internet makes for at once a terrifying and wonderful community.

Jessica Ahlquist made headlines this week when she (with the American Civil Liberties Union) won a lawsuit against Cranston High School West asking the school to remove a banner from the auditorium. Most of the news coverage doesn’t get specific, but here’s the complete text of the offending banner:

Our Heavenly Father,

Grant us each day the desire to do our best, to grow mentally and morally as well as physically, to be kind and helpful to our classmates and teachers, to be honest with ourselves as well as with others.

Help us to be good sports and smile when we lose as well as when we win. Teach us the value of true friendship.
Help us always to conduct ourselves so as to bring credit to Cranston High School West.


Jessica Ahlquist

Jessica Ahlquist

Ahlquist suggests this is a prayer and thus doesn’t belong in a public school. The school board saw the banner as purely historical (a gift from the class of 1962-1963) and secular anyway. The eagle-eyed judge deciding the case managed to spot the “Our Heavenly Father” at the top, the “Amen” at the bottom, and the fact that the text calls upon a higher power to grant these various laudable attributes.

Also, the title on the banner is “School Prayer”. That was probably a useful clue. Judge Ronald Lageux ruled (in a 40 page decision worth reading in full):

No amount of debate can make the School Prayer anything other than a prayer, and a Christian one at that. … While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.

Bringing the suit did nothing positive for Ahlquist’s social standing, and winning it didn’t help. Police have been investigating threats from social media (read the most wretched if you’re brave) and stepping up patrols around the school and her home. The court’s decision notes:

After Plaintiff’s public comments before the School Committee, and particularly after the lawsuit was filed, Plaintiff was subject to frequent taunting and threats at school, as well as a virtual on-line hate campaign via Facebook.

When the mayor spoke in the very auditorium and told students the banner should stay, Ahlquist reported feeling devalued, “horrible very uncomfortable, alone and isolated.”

Maybe we can help with that. Public tweets @JessicaAhlquist are now overwhelmingly positive. That’s a start. But wait, there’s more! Hemant Mehta, blogger at FriendlyAthiest.com, started a campaign to give Ahlquist a small college scholarship. This tangible show of support compensates someone who has suffered the hatred of ignorant religionists while standing up firmly for her beliefs. That must be taxing in a way we (who have not done it) can’t imagine. But I like MarcoVincenzo’s answer on Reddit best. Why give?

Because rewarding merit is the best way I know of to encourage others to emulate it. And, in a world of limited resources it’s better to focus those resources where they’ll do the most good rather than dilute them to the point where they can’t even be detected.

The American Humanist Association will keep the donated money in a trust fund. When I began researching this piece, the donated amount stood at $8,200. It climbed to $10,000 within hours and topped $12,000 by this morning. Would you care to give a dollar (via PayPal) to support the courage of a 16 year old high school student?

As one Redditor put it, “I was going to buy beer. I decided to spend $10 for this cause … I’m still going to buy beer.”

Girl Scouts

A teenaged Girl Scout is calling for a boycott on buying cookies this year upon learning that Girl Scouts of the USA admits transgender boys — i.e., admits anyone who identifies herself as a girl regardless of the child’s anatomical gender.

I expected a vitriolic rant on the evils of minorities here. What you’ll hear instead, while still tragically misguided, is a calm, well-researched position:

Of course, what this actually does is increase immensely my respect for Girl Scouts of the USA. I’ll order extra cookies this year as soon as our local troops start selling (in just ten more days).

Whereas Boy Scouts of America openly and thoughtlessly discriminates against its membership (which it can legally do as a private organization), I’ve learned from this news that Girl Scouts of the USA is more accepting. Girl Scouts of Colorado in particular made headlines when a local troop leader initially denied admission to a transgender boy prompting the state organization to intervene with a reminder that “Girl Scouts is an inclusive organization”. Anyone who identifies herself as a girl (regardless of their physical anatomy) may join.

Girl Scouts are also a bit more tolerant toward religious differences. Although the Girl Scout Promise calls for girls to try “to serve God and my country”, after a lawsuit in 1993 they now allow individuals to substitute other phrasing for “God” if that word does not describe their beliefs. (This establishes those who deviate as exceptions to be tolerated rather than equals, but is still an important positive step.)

Ultimately, why would we want to shelter our children from others who are different? At a young age children are already accustomed to discovering that much about the world is different than they had imagined and they will take those differences in stride. A girl in Kindergarten meeting a transgender boy will almost certainly respond by saying, “Well that’s nice; can we go down the slide again now?” An adult meeting the same individual in the workplace for the first time may react less favorably. Even if you cruelly characterize someone’s beliefs as “abnormal” or “wrong”, whom do you serve by pretending that they do not exist in the world? Certainly not your children.

The teen in this video advocates boycotting cookie sales since more than half of those proceeds go to the council, with only 10% to 15% staying with the local troop. She advocates sending cash donations specifically to local troops — presumably those deemed sufficiently intolerant and bigoted. For the rest of us, this is a great excuse to eat more  cookies, since funding the council is funding the same organization that’s willing to intervene when it sees intolerance in local troops.

The website behind the video also provides a form letter to send to Girl Scouts of the USA administration to protest the decision. I’ll be sending a letter of support.

Chernobyl vs. A Banana

In the ongoing wake of the Fukushima Daiichi crisis, news outlets have been saying “Three Mile Island” and “Chernobyl” a lot. To help alleviate the ensuing confusion and help us all understand radiation doses a little better, Randall Munroe of xkcd fame has prepared a chart of radiation doses on the xkcd blag.

We can see at the 1µSv scale the effect of eating a banana, at the 1mSv scale the dose one gets during a mammogram, and at the 1Sv scale the doses that are likely to kill you. The dose for “Ten minutes next to the Chernobyl reactor core after explosion and meltdown” is pretty astonishing.

The Best Egyptian Protest Signs

Astute observers of current events may recall some sort of hullabaloo in Egypt a little while back having something to do with freedom and democracy.

The Cheezburger Network has showcased some of the best protest signs.

Egypt Protest Sign

Egypt Protest Sign

They’re all quite clever, such as this programming-themed protest:

try {

Free and Fair Elections;

} catch (DemocracyNotFoundException ) {

“Time for Mubarak to leave”; }

Can You Hear Me Now?

This story appeared today on Yahoo! News:

Can You Hear Me Now?

Can You Hear Me Now?

Wouldn’t an even more impressive story have been about the earlier climber who, after ascending Mount Everest, built a cellular phone tower?

(It was actually a satellite phone, but it’s funnier to think of a cellular tower atop Everest.)

Making Too Much Lemonade

Katie Johnston writes in this morning’s Boston Globe on how Europe’s airport shutdowns in the wake of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano affect Boston:

Travelers’ despair aside, officials are considering the economic impact of the disruptions on Boston. Some are hoping that the loss of business from Marathon spectators who could not get here will be offset by those who can’t get out.
“Honey, I know you wanted to be home by now, but since we’re stuck here let’s at least buy some more souvenirs.”

Food, Shelter, and Internet

Google generously sponsored free wireless Internet access at 54 airports during last year’s holiday season, including Boston’s Logan International.  This made hectic holiday travel a little more fun, and surely got Google a metric boatload of ad impressions on all the “wireless jail” pages we see when first connecting.

I don’t mind terribly paying for the resources I consume, as a general rule, but the pricing model for Internet access at airports is a terrible fit for most people.  At Logan, the cost was $7.95 for 24 hours of access.  On its face, that’s not bad.  But of course, most people aren’t spending 24 hours in the airport; they’re just checking their e-mail in the one hour buffer surrounding their flight.

Well, good news, citizens of Boston: Massport has arranged to keep the Internet free at Logan — indefinitely!  Unsurprisingly, use of the wireless network grew sixfold during Google’s sponsored access, and Massport is finally ready to continue offering the third basic element of human survival at no cost.  Excellent decision.


Logan Wireless Internet

I love the number of shared libraries that appear in iTunes at the airport.  My favorite selection this time: “Stud Beefpile.”  I didn’t dare look to see what was in that one.

Roxxxy the Robot

In the Business section of this morning’s Boston Globe is this blurb from the Associated Press:

A New Jersey company says it has developed “the world’s first sex robot,” a life-size rubber doll that’s designed to engage the owner with conversation rather than lifelike movement.

So many punch lines and so little time!  Reading on:

The dark-haired, negligee-clad robot said “I love holding hands with you” when it sensed that its creator touched its hand.  Another action, this one unprintable, elicited a different vocal response from Roxxxy the robot.

Oooh.  Saucy.  Now, talk to us about the “sex” part of “sex robot” a little:

It has sensors at strategic locations and can sense when it’s being moved.  But it can’t move on its own, not even to turn its head or move its lips.

No further questions, your honor.