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A Christmas Carol

Stave One

The Progressive was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed on November fourth by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. The Conservative signed it. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come from the story I am about to relate. (Dickens, 1843, p. 1)

In her biography of Charles Dickens, Claire Tomalin observes that the story of his cold-hearted miser, Scrooge, is a parable for the condition of the working class 1843. During that year of the industrial revolution, the first bored underwater tunnel is built, “The Economist” begins publication and Ada Lovelace writes the first computer program for the Babbage Engine. Then as now, however, the poor and unemployed are considered a lazy lot and a burden to the “makers” in society. As we first meet Scrooge, he is approached by two “Progressive” gentlemen who are attempting to create a fund to help the poor and destitute. To them he utters the now (in)famous lines “Are there no prisons … are there no Workhouses … the treadmill and poor law are in full vigor?” These are references to the general practice in this era to imprison or indenture debtors for failure or inability to repay. The poor laws and debtors’ prison were generally abolished by the end of the 19th century but ever-creative States in the U.S. have used legal chicanery to effectively reincarnate them. Debt collectors in Missouri, Illinois, Alabama and other states are using these loopholes to jail the poor who cannot legitimately pay their debts.

First, explains St. Louis Post-Dispatch[1], the creditor gets a judgment in civil court that a debtor hasn't paid a sum that he owes. Then, the debtor is summoned to court for an "examination": a review of their financial assets. If the debtor fails to show up for the examination -- as often happens in such cases -- the creditor can ask for a "body attachment" -- essentially, a warrant for the debtor's arrest. At that point, the police can haul the debtor in and jail them until there is a court hearing, or until they pay the bond. No coincidence, the bond is usually set at the amount of the original debt. As the Dispatch notes:

"Debtors are sometimes summoned to court repeatedly, increasing chances that they'll miss a date and be arrested. Critics note that judges often set the debtor's release bond at the amount of the debt and turn the bond money over to the creditor -- essentially turning publicly financed police and court employees into private debt collectors for predatory lenders."

Marley’s ghost, nevertheless, may have been active. In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new law restricting body attachments for civil debt. In New Jersey, bill S-946/A-1910 was signed in August and passed by the voters in November. This bill allows for non-monetary options rather than jail time to be applied to minor, non-violent offenses where the defendant does not have the ability to pay.

In St. Louis County, MI, the practice, however, is undeterred and extended to exploit excessive collection of revenue from “predatory traffic tickets” creating an endless treadmill of jail time for minorities guilty of driving while black. But, the events in Furguson, MI have shed a light on this practice, spurring Missouri Attn. Gen. Chris Koster to file lawsuits against 13 St. Louis Co. municipalities.

The ghosts of past, present and future may also have appeared to both Republicans and Democrats in Congress where there is clear bipartisan support for general prison reform.

“A coalition of unlikely allies has coalesced in recent months to advance criminal justice reform. These strange bedfellows -- from liberal Democrats such as Sen. Dick Durbin to tea party darlings such as Sen. Mike Lee, from the NAACP to Americans for Tax Reform -- are all proposing reductions in mandatory minimum sentences.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder's calls for such reductions have been cheered by some of the same Republicans who otherwise want to impeach him. In Texas, a conservative group called Right on Crime has led the way on prison and sentencing reform -- earning plaudits from, among others, California progressives.” [2]

We must keep the pressure on our legislators to reduce and remove incentives for states and municipalities to view fines as a major surreptitious revenue stream couched in an Orwellian concept of deterrence. Additionally, we must collectively rebuke the for profit “prison factory” mentality in our courts. If we do this, maybe we will be worthy of Tiny Tim’s wish “God Bless us, everyone.”

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Alice in Wonderland

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” [1] This proclamation by the Queen of Hearts to Alice neatly sums up the plight of 27.5% of the households in New Jersey as documented in a 2014 report by the United Way of Northern NJ.[2] This is a report about ALICE, not Lewis Carroll’s Alice, but the “Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” people in our society. These are individuals or households that, although employed, cannot afford basic household necessities, as defined by United Way, of housing, childcare, transportation and health care. While many in this group are earning more than the official National Poverty Level, they are at or below the survival level for New Jersey. 

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Blame it on Social Security

The United States is running a one trillion dollars a year budget deficit, and is sixteen trillion in debt. The right wing insists that it is all the fault of social programs and Social Security in particular. The reader should remember that in 2001 the USA had a $236 billion surplus with a promise to grow in the future. Rather than insure the long-term stability of the nation and the social contract between its people and government, the neo-conservatives guided us to huge tax breaks and two wars conducted on credit.   Like a lottery winner on an uncontrolled spending spree, the country burned through our entire surplus, maxed out our credit cards and then raided the piggy bank. The piggy bank, in this case, is the Social Security Trust Fund. The piggy bank is now full of I.O.U.’s, and the conservatives want to welch on the deal now that the “Baby Boomers” want their money back.

Social Security is not a welfare program. Throughout our working lives, we pay into a trust fund that manages the money, using treasury bonds, eventually paying benefits in proportion to our contributions. The money in the trust fund was loaned, not given, to the federal government. Conservatives never much liked Social Security. It’s a wildly popular government program that’s totally solvent until 2033. It will be easily fixable and by then may not need fixing at all. It is an example of government that works, Conservatives cannot allow that to happen. It should be remembered that before 2008, these people wanted to convert Social Security to a Wall Street investment mechanism. As history unfolded, this would have created great security for the Bankers and Hedge Fund Managers but left the remainder of us in trouble.

We must rise with one voice and declare that bill to the trust fund has come due. The same people that took from it to fund wars and tax breaks must now pay it back. It is our money the bill is due and we want it back.

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Pledge to reduce gun violence

On March 9th I joined the Sandy Hook Promise to support the efforts to reduce gun violence. “I promise to do everything I can to encourage and support common sense solutions that make my community and our country safer from similar acts of violence”. You too could also make this promise by texting “I promise” to +12039893549 to sign the pledge. Or visit the following site:  This time there will be change

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The Nobel Prize Gender Gap

Over a century has passed since Nobel Prize had been established. Many distinguished individuals have been recognized for their great achievements, innovations and breakthrough in a field of science, medicine, technology, literature and peace. According to the Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize [1] there have been 555 recipients of Nobel Prize and Prize in Economic Sciences (1901-2012). Only 43 of those individuals or 7.7 % were women.

nobel winners

This chart (Figure 1) illustrates all Nobel Prize winners broken down by category and ranked by gender (1901-2011). [2]


In her 2001 book ‘Nobel Prize Women in Science. Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries' Sharon Bertsch McGrayne explores the reason for astonishing gender disparity by examining the lives and achievements of women scientists who either won Nobel prize or played a crucial role in Nobel-prize winning project. [3] Even when women have contributed to work that led to Nobel prizes they were very often written out of the story, as in the now well-known case of Rosalind Franklin. Her work on the double helix shape of DNA was not recognized when the Nobel Prize for that discovery was awarded to James Watson and Francis Crick. A similar story could be told of Jocelyn Bell (now Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell) and the discovery of pulsars, and of Lise Meitner in the history of nuclear fission. [4] Many women-scientists faced enormous obstacles. They were confined to basement laboratories and attic offices. They crawled behind furniture to attend science lectures. They worked in Universities for decades without pay as volunteers as late as 1950s. [3]

One can see in Figure 1 that outside of the sciences, literature has a rather better record. Women have been awarded almost a tenth of all the prizes handed out – but even that hardly gives confidence that the distribution of Nobel Prizes accurately reflect the distribution of elite minds. Given how many women have been authors since the descendants of Jane Austen (1775-1817, English novelist) and occasionally secured a room of their own to write in, is there really only one great woman author for every ten men? [4]

Of all the prizes it is peace that is stereotypically seen as most often a more female domain. It is one which is frequently awarded to organizations rather than individuals; women were possibly even in the majority as members of some of the 20 organizations awarded that prize over the years. But women have been among only a small minority of named winners. Those 12 who had been awarded Nobel prizes by the start of 2009 were fewer than 15% of the total ever awarded the prize. [4]

Figure 2 illustrates Female Nobel laureates (%) by decade, worldwide, 1901–2008. [4]

 nobel laureates

As the graph (Figure 2) shows during 1950s women did not win any Nobel Prizes although they have been nominated. For the Peace prize, for instance, nominations included educationalist Maria Montessori in 1951, birth control campaigner Margaret Sanger in both 1953 and 1955, and Helen Keller in 1954 for her work on disability and ability. However it was men, especially anti-communist men, who were pushed forward. The Cold War was at its height. The witch hunts for communists of the 1950s were reflected in the Nobel awards and in literature too: Winston Churchill was awarded the Literature prize in 1953, Ernest Hemingway in 1954, and Boris Pasternak in 1958. The fact that no woman was awarded any of the highest of international prizes between 1947 and 1962 almost certainly says more about social changes and the political imperative to be seen to be supporting “men of freedom” at that time, than about any lack of achievements among the women who might have qualified. [4]

The gender disparity in Nobel Prizes in science has generated cries of discrimination from some authors (e.g. Hilary Rose's Love, Power, and Knowledge: Towards a Feminist Transformation of the Sciences or Monique Frize's The Bold and the Brave: A History of Women in Science and Engineering). But looking only at the number of male and female winners of the Nobel could be misleading. To accurately assess the presence of gender bias, one must also consider the ratio of male and female competitors. It would be a mistake, for example, to assume that because there is a roughly equal proportion of males and females in the world population there should also be an even split of men and women among Nobel Laureates. The candidates for the Nobel are an extremely select population and the demographics of this group are not necessarily similar to the general population. [5]

Differing career interests, a Mathew effect (i.e. when better-known scientists tend to get more credit than less well-known scientists for the same achievements [6]), or other barriers to the highest echelons of science could all contribute to reducing women's representation among the hopefuls for the Nobel. In fact, a recent study by Corinne A. Moss-Racusin and colleagues (published in PNAS [7]) demonstrated that, even today, employers in academic science hold gender biases. Still, it is important to make a distinction between prejudice that keeps women from becoming a candidate for the Nobel and prejudice that prevents female candidates from being chosen for the prize. In other words, independent of what gender biases women have to overcome to reach the apex of science, are the women who succeed in getting there fairly evaluated by the Academy? [5]

While Nobel prize winner nominees and laureates issue remains a controversial topic for discussion a variety of organizations exist which serve to promote the role of women in science, technology, and politics, and to enhance their recruitment and retention in these fields.

To name a few of the more prominent ones:


As Marie Curie once said (twice the winner of Nobel Prize in Physics 1903 and in Chemistry in 1911): “Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained.”

I hope the readers will find these words to be inspirational, and I encourage you - women of 21st century - to consider career in science, medicine, technology, mathematics, politics, or any other field (outside of the traditional housewife role of women of 20th century), and face the challenges it may bring with dignity.

This article is an introduction to series of assays containing biographies of women - Nobel Prize winners, the relentless discrimination they have faced in universities, both as students seeking scientific education and as researchers, and the passionate love of science that ultimately allowed them to prevail. [3]


[1] Official Web Site of the Nobel Prize

[2] Charts Bin (2011). All Nobel Prize Winners by Gender.

[3] Sharon Bertsch McGrayne (2001). Nobel Prize Women in Science. Their Lives, Struggles and Momentous Discoveries.

[4] Danny Dorling (2010). Putting men on a pedestal: Nobel prizes as superhuman myths? Significance, Volume 7, Issue 3, pages 142–144.

[5] Stephanie Kovalchik (2012). Gender discrimination and the Nobel Prize, 1901-1953.

[6] Michael Strevens (2006). The Role of the Matthew Effect in Science.

Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 37:159–170. 2006

[7] Corinne A. Moss-Racusin at el. (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students.

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS), 16474–16479, vol. 109, no. 41.

[8] The Nobel Prize Internet Archive, section ‘Female Nobel Prize Laureates‘


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Recent Comments

Stats are OK but analysis shou...

Thanks for the article. Excellent summary. I think part of the problem could be the NOMINATION process. Who is nominating? are t... Read More
Monday, 10 February 2014 03:31
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