The Second Annual Valentine’s Day Rant

Is it my cranky imagination or does Valentine’s Day become more of a big deal every year? All of the second-tier holidays seem to have gotten elevated in the last decade: St. Patrick’s Day, President’s Day, Columbus Day, and so on. This may be due to a sagging consumer economy that runs on holiday-based spending; namely, of course, Christmas, but Halloween works just as well.


I’m a 40-something married woman but my attitude toward Valentine’s Day basically matches that of your typical, 4th grade boy:  it makes me want to vomit.

Pre-Valentine’s, I’m reminded that although I occasionally enjoy listening to some local sports talk shows, I’m not their intended demographic. Every ad is about pleasing your “lady” and avoiding being in the “doghouse” by buying her something suitably expensive and/or cute. Occasionally cute and expensive are combined, as in a recent promotion for a teddy bear that could be wearing a diamond necklace.

Suddenly, grown women are expected to coo over teddy bears. Suddenly, every inadequately wealthy or insufficiently romantic man who doesn’t buy enough for his lady is Andy Capp, and his lady the bathrobed harridan who awaits him angrily at the door with a rolling pin in hand. 

Valentine’s Day is among the tackiest and most tasteless of holidays. So is New Year’s Eve, which is also a heavily couple-focused holiday, feted largely with overpriced, mediocre prix-fixe meals, cheap dresses with halfhearted pretensions to class, and open bars with rail drinks.

Valentine’s Day trades in the most insipid clichés of middlebrow romance. If you took the promotions seriously, it’s all about hothouse roses, lobster dinners, cheap champagne, teddy bears, domestic chocolates, and tacky, poorly-made lingerie.

About this day, I’m a proud, unrepentant snob. The minute Build a Bear factors into my love life in any way, I’m packing it in. I had a friend growing up who was so indelibly marked by the Valentine’s mise en scene of true love that every time she tried to share a romantic or erotic fantasy with us, it ended up being all about lobster tails getting dipped in butter. There was never any sex, or, really, any man involved.

Valentine’s is a diabolically cynical example of how there is nothing that can’t be turned into a commodity, that can’t be appropriated for profit. Your feelings, passion, and heart are there for the taking. All the histories document how Big Floral and Big Chocolate appropriated the holiday to capture their market share of love from the card companies in the early 1900s. Your heart, for a day, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Whitman’s Sampler, and you will do its contrived bidding, or get called an insensitive lout.

As marketed, the day is emotionally proprietary and a celebration of smug exclusivity. It’s about who “the one” is. And, it’s romantically comparative by the lowest metric imaginable—who gets the best gift or, in more recent coinage, whose man does the “sweetest, nicest thing” for his girl. It trusses up ideas of romance, relationships and sexuality that we might otherwise have outgrown by now—to wit, males buy things for females, and by buying these things prove that they love them, and then they don’t buy their ladies nice things it’s because they don’t love them enough, and you, as a female, should pout about that juvenilely when it happens, until your male buys you something worthy to restore your warm feelings.

Now that I think about it, the elementary Valentine’s Day of my youth was much more philosophically appealing. The 4th grade Valentine’s Day was scrupulously democratic, even socialist. The teacher made clear that you had to share the love. You had to bring valentines for everyone in the class, and woebetide if your parent or teacher discovered otherwise, that you were conspiring to hurt someone’s feelings.

In its own way, those hastily-decorated brown bags by which we collected all of our valentines conveyed the loftier idea of universal, unselfish love, or agape. Everyone got a valentine, everyone was worthy, the default was to share the love.  Of course, we were being “forced” to include everyone, and there was always that one kid—and I probably was that one kid for other kids—that we dreaded giving a valentine to.

But of all the social compulsions imaginable, surely the least offensive is that we extend an affectionate courtesy even to those we don’t care for; that we act loving, even when we don’t feel loving.

Interestingly, in its earliest days in America, Valentine’s Day implied a similarly encompassing social obligation, that you sent valentines to colleagues, relatives, friends as well as romantic interests.

The meaning of the day changed, such that there is now only one Valentine. I’m Yours… Be Mine… Those cards that you punched out the night before school and carelessly-distributed to everyone in your class are for just one person now. By adulthood, we have outgrown the tender illusion of that grade school valentines bag, that love and affection in this world would be equally and generously dispersed.

Those who are suffering heartache, unrequited love, a defunct, “I See Dead People” marriage, or are at the moment unhappily single, can feel rotten about themselves, if they took Valentine’s Day seriously--which I sincerely hope they do not. 

Cambridge scientists create a successful "vaccine" against fake news

A large new study uses an online game to inoculate people against fake news.

University of Cambridge
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Researchers from the University of Cambridge use an online game to inoculate people against fake news.
  • The study sample included 15,000 players.
  • The scientists hope to use such tactics to protect whole societies against disinformation.
Keep reading Show less

Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

5 facts you should know about the world’s refugees

Many governments do not report, or misreport, the numbers of refugees who enter their country.

David McNew/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs

Conflict, violence, persecution and human rights violations led to a record high of 70.8 million people being displaced by the end of 2018.

Keep reading Show less