Friday, December 23, 2011

Gender politics and Automoblox

Update: Jason Thibeault, who has a much larger readership than I, helped me publicize this issue (thanks Jason!)... and the co-founder showed up in the comments and provided some corrections. Apparently this is the case only the case with the sports cars: the other models put the woman in the driver's seat. I still think it would be even better if all of the shapes were such that they could be rotated 180 degrees, but it seems the company has been trying to do the right thing from the get-go. Kudos to them.

I am still reading Susan Calello's comments and may have a second update later.

Some cursory googling seems to indicate I am the only person to have noticed this (or at least, the only person to have noticed it and blogged about it). The otherwise excellent toy Automoblox appears to have a subtle -- and probably unintentional -- misogynist implication inherent in its design. This is not really a huge deal, and since I'm thinking about posting this to Facebook (where my cousins, who bought them for my son, might well read it) let me say that this does not change the fact that my son loves them, I still think it's an absolutely fantastic toy, and I am ever so grateful to the Geigers for the gift. This is merely meant as food for thought.

So what's the misogynist implication? Well check this out: The two figures that ride in the car have features that strongly imply gender, and the way the car comes preassembled, the man is in the driver's seat. That by itself is not really an issue (it would be a nice feminist statement of Automoblox to have reversed it, but I can't expect everybody to actively support every cause 100% of the time) but the problem lies in that, although Automoblox can be reassembled in a variety of different ways -- this is part of what makes it an excellent toy -- a bizarre quirk of the design makes it so that you can't ever put the woman in the driver's seat.

In describing the educational benefits of Automoblox, Wikipedia states that "the passengers in each car have specifically shaped bases which lock into matching sockets in the car to encourage shape recognition and matching." Indeed -- except that the male passengers have either a square- or circle-shaped base, meaning that they can be rotated in any direction, while the female passengers have either a star- or triangle-shaped base (both with an odd number of sides) meaning that they cannot be rotated exactly 180 degrees from the default position.

You can reassemble the car so that the star-shaped socket is on the driver's side, but you cannot face the female passenger directly forward. No matter how you configure it, she will always face at an off angle if placed in the driver's seat. What's frustrating is that if they had just used, say, a hexagon and an octagon for the bases, this problem would be averted.

I imagine this was unintentional. And it's an excellent, excellent toy. I suppose the next step is to contact the company and maybe if they get enough pressure, in future versions they can correct this. Or am I just being hypersensitive here?

Friday, December 16, 2011

On Hitchens: Oh how wrong he was... and how much we have lost for his departure

I've noticed something about a lot of the Hitchens tributes today. A great number of them contain a digression along the lines of, "I disagreed strongly with Hitchens in regards to this or that issue, but..." Indeed, it is probably safe to say that Hitchens is unusual in that even among those of us who had the deepest admiration for him and his opinions and his impossibly sharp prose, virtually all of us had more than one point on which we thought he was not just wrong, but badly wrong, shockingly wrong, dangerously wrong. The Iraq war is the obvious example, but it is only the tip of the iceberg. Scan a few of the obituaries and blog posts and you'll see what I mean. Here is a man who inspired even his dearest friends and most dedicated supporters to voice their differences in a damn eulogy!

And in a way, this is the best tribute we could pay to a man who so relished an argument, who convincingly defended (whether right or wrong) the most seemingly untenable positions, with a quickness and wit the potency of which was rivaled only by the contents of his ever-present rocks glass. For fuck's sake, by the time Hitchens unleashed his savage takedown of Mother Theresa, the woman was so venerated in our culture that she had become an idiom for unimpeachable goodness ("He's no Mother Theresa, but..."). It helps that in this case Hitchens' criticisms appear to have been largely right on the money, but my god -- who else could possibly possess both the audacity and erudition to have launched such an iconoclastic attack? One cannot separate his rightness in this case from his wrongness on so many other issues. The entire world telling him he was full of shit? A mere trifle to the Hitch.

We have lost not only one of the most astonishing orators and scintillating essayists of our time, we have also lost a man with a unique ability to be gloriously unflappably wrong in the eyes of everyone he respected (and everyone he didn't respect, too). "Conventional wisdom" will sleep easy tonight, I fear.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On consciousness-raising

I've been making an effort in the past year or so to use the female pronoun whenever referring to a hypothetical person. There was recently a discussion about pronouns over at Crommunist (and by the way, if you aren't reading Crommie, start now!), and coincidentally the gender politics of pronouns came up twice yesterday at work... so I've been thinking about it quite a bit over the past several days.

One can make an argument that simply replacing the male pronoun with the female one when referring to a hypothetical person is not really any better. I think this opinion commits the fallacy of ignoring the broader social context, but after some recent contemplation I'm going to go one further: Even if it really isn't any better, it's still a worthwhile exercise simply as a matter of consciousness-raising.

If you're a man -- especially if you are a white heterosexual middle-class man like myself -- it can be difficult to put yourself in the shoes of a person who experiences institutionalized bias. I can abstractly recognize that it's a little messed up for the male pronoun to just be acknowledged as the default, but that doesn't tell me anything about how it feels. However, experiencing other people using the female pronoun as the default, especially when I am being asked to picture myself in the role of the hypothetical person they are referring to... well that's an eye-opener. It feels weird, doesn't it? I think a valuable piece of knowledge is gained when one viscerally experiences that weirdness for oneself.

I'm also certain I would not have spotted one of the incidents yesterday were it not for the effort I have been making to substitute my default pronoun. Two co-workers were explaining to me some work they have done that involves a collaboration with educators, primarily with elementary school teachers. I noticed every time they referred to a student, they said "he"; and every time they referred to a teacher, they said "she". Both did it, consistently, without exception. (I'm probably going to mention something about it to them today or tomorrow, but I've been mulling over how best to approach it without coming off as confrontational)

So even if female-as-default really is no better than male-as-default (and as I said, I don't think that's necessarily the case when viewed in a broader context), it's still a good exercise in consciousness-raising. If you haven't tried it, you ought, at least for a little while. It's, well, it's weird. And I guess that's the whole point, isn't it?

The title to a PZ post today helped me tie this together with another thing I've been thinking about: Whether some of the more confrontational secular holiday displays that have gone up are a good thing or not.

While these displays surely tell the truth, and while I am certainly not concerned about constantly policing tone in general, some of these displays don't exactly make me feel holiday cheer inside, y'know? In a perfect world, holiday displays would all be positive messages, and some of the secular ones going up clearly are not. Negative messages are often necessary when opposing injustice or changing the social zeitgeist, but at Christmas/Channukah/Solstice? It leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

Yet I still felt like I supported the controversial displays anyway, even if I don't personally like them. And now I think I can articulate why: It's yet another exercise in consciousness-raising.

Yeah, these displays probably do make believers feel uncomfortable at a time when we as a society have traditionally tried to come together in mutual joy and generosity. But you know what? That's exactly how many non-Christians feel when an elaborate government-sponsored creche is on display to the exclusion of menorahs or Santa or anything else. That's exactly how many non-Christians feel when the War on Christmas people demand that Happy Holidays be expunged from our vocabulary in favor of an abject deference to Jesusmas. Like a man being asked to put himself in the place of a hypothetical person being referred to as a female, this asks Christians to momentarily slip into the shoes of a maligned minority, a minority whose holiday traditions are demeaned and devalued.

An eye for an eye is obviously not a good long term strategy, especially when we're talking about actual violence. But when we're talking about the possibility of maybe some mild discomfort and some hurt feelings, and when a big part of the problem is that the privileged group simply can't understand what it feels like to be in the out-group because they've never experienced it -- yeah, this is fair game.

Always using the female pronoun may not really be any better than always using the male pronoun. And an aggressively atheist holiday display may be no better than an aggressively Christian holiday display. But what both of these things do is make you think, to put yourself in the place of the other. That's what consciousness-raising is all about.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

That will be that

From my wife's blog, about wrestling with grief coming up on the first anniversary of Nicole's death:

I hung some of the stockings on the fireplace last week, but not hers. I would like to be the sort of person that hangs her stocking and puts some of her favorite things in it, enjoys her memory, then brings the stocking to her grave on Christmas and lays it there gently, says a prayer. But I am not that sort of person. I will probably throw her stocking into the fireplace. Maybe I'll fill it with coal and hang it on her gravestone. Or more likely the rage will pass and I'll do something sensible, like taking the family to her resting place on the 21st with some of her favorite ice cream (butter pecan sans pecans). And I won't really want to be there, and the visit will have nothing to do with the holidays. I will go out of a begrudging sense of duty that Nicole would have appreciated. We'll be sensibly sad and cry a little, then we'll go home and live our delightful lives. She'll be extracted from my holiday memories for several years and then one day I won't even think twice about using the roses on the tree, and her stocking will be long gone. December 21st will be a day when maybe Jay or I will say, "Hey, isn't it the anniversary of.." and whoever didn't say it first will be embarrassed, then we'll distract ourselves with something more fun to think about, and that will be that.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I love my job

If you are using Firefox or Chrome, and your video drivers are very up-to-date, you should see something more than a couple of non-functional buttons below. Putting this together took me a little more than half an hour (I had to dig up an undocumented feature of X3DOM) and it totally counts as work. Awesome.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Burzynski Clinic, and the thug Marc Stephens

Mostly just wanted to do my part to Streisandify the shameless thug Marc Stephens, who claims to represent the Burzynski Clinic (though it's not entirely clear yet that he does) and has taken to such low methods as posting Google Satellite pictures of a 17-year-old blogger's house. The guy is a grade-A asshole, and no amount of daylight is too much for his thuggish tactics.

I also wanted to be clear about exactly what the Burzynski Clinic is doing that is ethically wrong. After all, antineoplaston therapy isn't completely implausible (though what evidence is available seems to go pretty firmly against it), and when there are no known better treatments, isn't it okay to try unproven methods, in the hopes they might pay off?

Not if you charge money for it. Patients typically don't pay to be in a medical trial, for somewhat obvious reasons. Even if antineoplaston therapy still looked promising (it doesn't) it would be unethical to charge patients exorbitant sums of money to receive it -- doubly so if the treatment is already looking dubious from the results of previous trials.

Why I oppose the figurative use of the term "militant" in all contexts

Uh oh, I go and call Bruce Hood a "nice guy", and Bruce himself responds in the comments unfortunately triggering one of my big pet peeves.

No, it's not that Bruce thinks the outspoken atheism strategy is "misguided" and that he doesn't "understand" it -- reasonable people can disagree, and I stand by my point that there is a difference between Bruce, who simply favors a softer approach towards religion, vs. folks like Mooney, Rosenau, etc., who spend a sizeable fraction of their time talking about why other people's approaches are wrong.

What bugs me is Bruce's use of the phrase "militant atheism". The problems with this phrase have been pointed out time and time again, but I'm going to go a step further: I do not think it is appropriate ever to use the phrase "militant" in a figurative/non-literal manner, no matter what group you are talking about.

My reasons for this are threefold: First, the original literal usage -- meaning engaged in or favoring actual military action -- is still quite common. Second, which usage of the word is intended is largely determined by the group to which it is attached. Third, and most importantly, it seems to me that when the group in question is advocating in favor of a historically oppressed classification, they are far more likely to get the figurative usage. And that to me sounds like an attempt to slander and squelch.

If we are talking about a militant Islamist, it is clear we mean one who advocates violence; we do not call Harun Yahya a militant Muslim, even though he is very aggressive about promoting Islam. It would seem incongruous and even libelous to label him as such. This is true for pretty much any religious group one attaches the word "militant" too, as well as for most types of purely political causes, e.g. a "militant separatist" is not simply someone who advocates strongly for independence, but who endorses and/or participates in military action in order to achieve it.

On the other hand, if we are talking about a "militant feminist", it is obvious we do not mean a woman who literally endorses violence against men or against misogyny. That's just absurd. The same goes for "militant atheist" and "militant homosexual", etc. Although I did hear that the Queer Eye guys were thinking about forming a paramilitary group to assassinate public figures with a poor fashion sense. Oh no wait, I didn't.

Now, maybe part of this is simply because there really aren't any militant atheists, feminists, or LGBT people. It just generally doesn't work that way. (Side note: Obviously in some places atheistic communism used violence to enforce atheism, but typically we would not identify those folks as "atheists" first and foremost, but rather as communists/Marxists/Stalinists/etc. If you wanted to call Mao a militant atheist, however, I would not argue with you.)

The situation is somewhat murkier for groups where there are true militants, but which sometimes get the figurative usage anyway. An example might be civil rights activists. Certainly I would not object to labeling some members of the former Black Panther Party as "militant civil rights activists" (although "militant black supremacists" might be more appropriate in that case). But you hear "militant" being used here sometimes just to refer to people who are outspoken and/or uncompromising in their views. Other examples would be animal rights activists or environmentalists, although it seems to me that in those cases, the usage of "militant" is predominantly literal. (Surprise surprise, since they don't deal with a historically oppressed group) I think I've heard non-violent people referred to as "militant environmentalists", but if I have, it hasn't been very often. That term is generally reserved for people who firebomb SUVs and such.

In any case, while the figurative usage of the term is quite common (in fact it is the first definition at, it still feels terribly incongruous when it is applied figuratively to one of the groups for which the usage is normally meant literally. It would seem odd to call James Dobson a "militant Christian", for example, even though he is at least as strident in his beliefs as "militant atheists" like PZ Myers.

(Interesting side note: I googled for "James Dobson militant christian" just to see if anybody actually calls him that -- and in fact many do, for what it's worth -- and the first link that came up quotes James Dobson referring to "militant homosexual groups". I think my point has been made...)

Until that discrepancy in application of the term is resolved, I think the figurative meaning should be avoided altogether. Only call someone "militant" if they specifically endorse or participate in violence. Otherwise, you are falsely equating them with those who do. As long as "militant Islamist" implies someone who kills for Islam, you can't call someone a "militant atheist" without implying the same things about them.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Why are left and right reversed when you look in a mirror, but up and down are not?

I encountered this brain-teaser on another blog quite some time ago -- wish I could say which one, but I no longer recall -- and it turns out to be harder to articulate the answer than one might think. I puzzled through it at the time, and then I remembered it again last night and had to re-figure it. Thought I might record my thoughts on it this time around.

One reason I don't remember the original blogger is that he or she simply left it at, "Nobody can really quite say!", which is simply not true: it's just very difficult to say it, but one can indeed figure it out. Try it yourself before you read on, if only to realize that it's not as trivial as one might expect!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, 95% of the answer stems directly from how left and right are defined, and if you want to skip to that, click here. Before that, however, I think it's useful to consider some directions which are not reversed in counter-intuitive ways.

Imagine a woman facing north and looking dead-on into a mirror at eye-level. She is wearing a ring on her "left" finger -- but this is the last time I will use the words "left" and "right" until we come to the answer, so let's say instead that she is wearing a ring on her west finger. Her eyes are facing north, as previously stated, and her head is pointing up.

For the woman in the mirror, all three axes -- north/south, east/west, up/down -- behave exactly as expected for a reflection in the plane of the mirror. Mirror woman's ring is still on her west finger, her head is still pointing up, but now her eyes are facing south. No surprises here, right?

This is because north, south, east, west, up, and down all have definitions which can be expressed independent of both a) any other direction, and b) the content of what you see. (There's actually a couple different ways of thinking about this for up/down, but for an earthbound mirror at eye-level the ambiguities don't come into play, so let's ignore them for now.) The compass points are defined by the Earth's magnetic field -- or by geographical convention if you prefer, but the result is the same -- and up and down are defined in relation to Earth's gravitational field. (Probably.)

In contrast, left and right are not well-behaved in this way; they are defined in relation to two other directions, namely top and front. Uh oh, and there's two new directions, "front" and "top". These are not well-behaved either; they are defined in relation to the content of the scene. For now, however, I am going to treat "top" as synonymous with "up", for simplicity, and then re-examine that assumption later. So when you add it all up:

"Left" is defined as the cross-product of "up/top" and "front", while "front" is defined by visual cues within the scene, such as the direction a person's eyes are pointing. (I think I got my signs right there, but don't beat me up if the correct cross-product is the other way; you get my point!) In our example of a woman facing north straight-on into a mirror, "up" stays constant, because it is (probably) defined in relation to gravity, while "front" reverses compass directions. The real woman's front is north, while the mirror woman's front is south -- we know this because "front" is defined in this case by the side of her body where her eyes are.

Interestingly, if one could make one's brain do the mental contortions, it ought to be possible to visualize it so that the woman's front and back have been reversed, i.e. that her eyes are now on the "back" of her head, her toes point "backwards", her back is now on her "front", etc., and if you could do that, then I believe one would also see that her left/right have not been reversed. The ass-backwards mirror woman still has her ring on her left hand. However, I find this impossible to fully conceptualize; I get about halfway and my mental image ends up looking like the teleporter scene from Spaceballs. It's worth trying this exercise anyway, if only because it helps illuminate why it is so difficult to articulate the answer to the titular question of this blog post. Our assumptions about the definition of left/right and front/back are so ingrained that even when we name the assumptions and express a conscious intention to discard them, we are still stuck with them. We can't help it.

Now imagine the woman turns 90-degrees to her left, so that she is facing west (but the mirror is still north of her). This is actually an easier case. Now we see that front and back are still the same -- west and east respectively -- but left and right have been reversed because they are directly perpendicular to the plane of reflection. It's no surprise that left and right are reversed in this case; how could they not be!

The math gets slightly more complicated if the woman is facing into the mirror at an angle (but still at eye-level, for now), but it ends up working out the same. In these scenarios, rather than one relevant axis staying the same and the other being reversed, both axes are partially transformed. It all works out though: Left/right will be transformed directly by reflection over the plane of the mirror, and indirectly via the same transform of front/back, and together it winds up with left/right being completely reversed.

I've been hand-waving so far on up/down and top/bottom, because they are the same as long as the mirror is at eye level. But what if the mirror is directly above the woman's head, and she is looking straight up at it? This case works out as well, although now it is important the we distinguish "top" as being something defined by the content of the scene, and we will also see that the definition of "up" is a bit slippery and people might have different ways of looking at it -- especially once you moved away from the Earth into space!

I also want to look at some cases where maybe left and right are not reversed in a mirror, because there are no cues to give you front/back or top/bottom. Alas, my sons really need some attention right now, so this will all have to wait for a follow-up post.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

I finally put my finger on what bothers me about the Occupy movement

Let me start this out by saying a few things: First, I unreservedly support the general aims of the Occupy movement, such as they are. Second, I do not want to make the mistake (and don't think I am) of impugning a movement or protest simply because its aims are not crystal clear; many a movement has been successful in enacting change without necessarily having specific demands at all times. Third, the police response in many places has been utterly appalling. Given the nature of the protest, it's almost unavoidable that there will be conflicts and arrests -- the entire point is to create an inconvenience, isn't it? -- but the lack of proportionality in places like Oakland, the bizarre unprovoked use of pepper spray in places like Berkeley, etc... it's just crazy!

All of that said, I've always intuitively felt like there was something not quite right about the Occupy movement. I knew it had something to do with their lack of specific goals, but as I said before, a movement doesn't necessarily need specific demands in order to be effective. Still, something about that just felt a little futile, a little misdirected somehow...

And yesterday, driving past the Occupy Rochester protest, it suddenly hit me: You can have a protest or movement that doesn't have specific demands, but you can't have a "we're going to stay here and we're not moving until either you arrest us all or..."-style protest without specific demands. How will you know when you're done? And if you can't know when you're done, how can you have a we-aren't-moving-until protest?

People like to draw parallels and contrasts between Occupy and the Tea Party movement. The validity of many of these comparisons is a bit questionable in my mind, but let me take the Tea Partiers as an example and show why they don't have this problem, despite having arguably even more nebulous goals than Occupy. The Tea Party movement is ongoing, but each rally or protest has a distinct start and end. Eventually the movement will peter out, but it won't seem like surrender when it does.

Occupy can't last forever, and since the point of the protest is "we-won't-leave-until", and since "until" is completely undefined, it will inevitably look like a surrender. The protesters will leave, despite the fact that "until" never happened.

Now, there are advantages to Occupy's approach. Certainly it was able to get the attention of the media despite an early unwillingness to give much coverage to OWS. (On a side note, I'm apparently so embedded in alternative media that I didn't even notice this lack of coverage until people started to complain about it) And the fact that it is a style of protest which is especially likely to generate conflict with law enforcement does create the opportunity for both more exposure and more sympathy for the movement.

But will we see "Occupy candidates" being swept into national government in Nov. 2012, the way we did with the Tea Partiers in 2010? I just don't see it. I don't know if has anything to do with this hokey Underpants Gnomes-esque format, or if it's more because of the general political lay of the land right now, or what. I just can't get excited about Occupy, because I don't think they have a path to the sea to actually accomplish anything. And it's not only because their demands are vague; it's because they are nevertheless operating in a way that is most effective at achieving specific demands. It just doesn't add all the way up for me.

I must reiterate, however, that I do support the Occupy movement nonetheless.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Rates for phone calls from jails and prisons should be federally regulated

My brother-in-law was diagnosed schizophrenic around the time he turned 20, he's struggled with drug addiction, and he's been homeless 90% of the time for I think over a decade now. No surprise under these circumstances that he is frequently in and out of jail. Given his preference for the West coast, he's often in jail on the other side of the country where we can't possibly visit him in person.

Which brings us to the issue at hand: Those who have not had friends or relatives land in an out-of-state jail may be unaware of this, but the rates to accept a collect-call from jail are typically very high. Well, no, that's not quite accurate: The rates are fucking extortion, that's what they are.

My mother-in-law tipped me off about a recent Huffington Post article about a prison in Georgia which charges inmates $5/minute for phone calls. That's over eight cents per second, for those of you playing along at home. And don't think that's an isolated case; I'm afraid I can't tell you what the rates are from the various jails my brother-in-law has landed in, because we only did it one time and were so shocked by how expensive it was we couldn't really consider it in the future. But it wasn't much less than in Georgia.

The HuffPo article focuses on how it is private prisons seeking to maximize revenue that are doing this, and while this is true, it somewhat misses the point: The government is letting them do it.

Corporations excel at maximizing short-term profit; in fact that's pretty much what they do. Something like two centuries ago, it was observed that if an entity is the sole provider of a particular good or service, they can maximize short-term profit by doing some really brutal sketchy shit. Like, I dunno, charging inmates and their families five fucking dollars a minute to make a phone call, for example.

We have laws that limit trusts and monopolies for exactly this reason. The government either ensures that there are multiple entities offering the particular service, or else when that is unfeasible, e.g. in the case of utilities, the sole provider has to submit to heavy government regulation in order to make sure they are playing fair.

But this is somewhat of a special case that doesn't fall under the existing legislation. (There are many special cases like this, for what it's worth) A prisoner at a particular jail or prison has no choice about who provides phone service for him, or for that matter, who provides any sort of long-distance communication whatsoever. It's either an in-person visit (which is not remotely practical if you're imprisoned on the opposite coast of your family) or bending over and taking whatever fees the jail wants to shove up your ass. There is no ability to leverage the competitive nature of the free market here: What are you gonna do, make sure you get tossed in a different jail the next time?

I can't entirely blame the companies who run these prisons. They are, after all, doing exactly what they are supposed to do: heartlessly maximizing profits above all other concerns. And what they are doing is legal. But it shouldn't be. Private prisons have the exclusive ability to profit from their inmates' desire for outside communication , and consequently that ability ought to be closely regulated to ensure it is not being wielded in an exploitative manner. Maximum rates should be dictated by federal law and kept at a reasonable level.

And by the way, if anybody shows up in the comments and says, "If you don't like it, don't commit a crime in the first place!," fuck you. With a rusty knife. Maybe you missed the part when I said my brother-in-law is a diagnosed schizophrenic, making it nigh impossible for him to hold down a job. Or maybe you didn't notice the fact that it's not me who committed the crime, but it is me who would be the victim of this immoral extortion if I want to let my wife speak to her brother.

Exploiting the families of inmates for huge profits is dirty pool, and it ought not to be allowed. And that's all I have to say about that.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Nicole's scar

I don't really write poetry. My song lyrics, of course, but I struggle with those, and in any case, one might say that every song I've written is a lie: usually they are about a character, even if written in the first person, and even when I am talking about myself I will freely change facts or even themes to make a rhyme or to enable a cool line. This post is in the spirit of a poem, but my forte is prose (that is the only way I know how to tell the truth) so that is how I will deliver it.

Nicole had a scar above her right eye. Or maybe above her left; it's strange how fast these details fade from memory. I asked her about it one time. When she was very young -- maybe three? or was it older? -- she had wandered in front of a kid on a swingset, and had gotten clobbered. It was pretty deep. Nicole always wore a lot of makeup, maybe too much, but nonetheless you could always see the scar.

During her life, I thought it was sad. I thought, "What a stupid little incident, and yet this scar will be here forever." But the other week I realized that scar isn't there anymore. Nicole's been cremated. There is no trace of that scar anymore, except for echoes: in photographs, and in the reverberations of Nicole that live on in the neural pathways of her friends and loved ones.

I used to think the saddest thing was that the scar was forever. But I was wrong, the saddest thing is that the scar was never forever.

Monday, October 10, 2011

There's probably no Dawkins?


Christians are so silly. How can you be angry at an Oxford professor you don't even believe in?

Sunday, October 9, 2011

As long as you don't throw the rest of us under the bus...

I've been meaning to write this post for a week or two, and the latest post from Jason Rosenhouse addresses a very similar topic, so I figure I best get on it.

At a party the other weekend, I was talking to a friend and mentioned my blog (which he was already aware of) in passing. Actually, I only mentioned it because I was saying how relieved I was that the looming Markuze threat had been neutralized -- here's hoping Dennis is feeling better, by the way! In any case, this prompted him to say, "That reminds me something I've been meaning to ask you," and for clarity, I'm going to loosely paraphrase him in the first person:

I'm an atheist, but I have no desire to engage religion on any level. The whole idea just seems incredibly silly to me, and I'm just not really interested in discussing it.

But lately I've been thinking about third-wave feminism, about how a lot of young women today don't appreciate, or even want to disassociate themselves from earlier first-wave feminists like Susan B. Anthony, or second-wave feminists like Gloria Steinem. They've grown up with the default assumption that women and men ought to be treated equally, and it's disappointing when they aren't willing to acknowledge how hard their predecessors had to fight for this basic notion.

I started to wonder if that's me in regards to my atheism. Am I obligated to be outspoken, to be part of the struggle? Or can I just be myself?

Hopefully it is not too unseemly to have a pair of thirty-something guys discussing how young women are "doin it rong" in regards to feminism! But I think the analogy is clear -- who has not had the cringe-inducing experience of hearing a young woman declare that she is "not a feminist" or "not one of those feminists"?

I think it is a very good question, and my answer was this: You have absolutely no obligation to do anything you are uncomfortable with, to be more of an "activist" than you are naturally inclined to be. The only thing I think is important is that you don't throw other atheists under the bus because of their own way of expressing it. To extend the analogy to feminism, I don't think that every single woman ought to feel compelled to get out there and "burn her bra" (to use the popular metaphor), but I do find it unseemly when women are critical or dismissive of those who do. By the same token, you can just be an atheist and you don't have to make a big deal out of it or push for greater acceptance or try to highlight the flaws of religion. You are totally fine just ignoring it -- but please don't make other atheists out to be villains because they have a different approach.

The one thing I did say I thought was useful for all atheists to do, if they can -- although situations vary and this is not always practical -- is to be open and forthcoming about their lack of belief, to be "out" as it were. Drawing an analogy this time to the gay rights movement, I don't think there is pressure for every LGBT person to march in Pride parades, to campaign for marriage equality, etc., but there is at least some pressure to come out of the closet, if they can. And I think this is appropriate. Obviously some circumstances dictate remaining in the closet, whether it be an LGBT person or an atheist -- a young person living at home in an unaccepting family, the possibility of damaging one's career, etc. But generally speaking, this is something which everyone ought to do if they can, as it can have such a powerful effect on public perception.

Beyond that -- be yourself! And let other people be themselves too.

The Rosenhouse post today quotes from a bridge-building atheist -- as opposed to an I-don't-care atheist like my friend -- but the principle is the same: Everyone has their own approach, and that's okay. What's not okay is telling somebody else their approach is wrong and they should shut up. We ought to all be on the same side here. It's this throwing-under-the-bus that separates nice guys like Bruce Hood from dickheads like Nick Matzke.

"I'm not one of those atheists" is just as unseemly as "I'm not one of those feminists." Look, you don't have to be. Just don't demonize us.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

It ought to be possible to measure whether the death penalty actually makes victims' families feel better

You often hear it argued that the families of victims will not "find peace" until the murderer/rapist/etc. is executed. Certainly, victims' families feel an intense burning desire for retribution. I would too, I am sure! But does it actually make them feel better? As one who does not really believe in the idea of "closure", I am skeptical... But it just occurred to me while reading the recent Hitchens piece on the topic that we ought to be able to measure this.

One problem might be getting a large enough sample size, since there are only so many people executed per year, and you need to get the families to agree to do a series of questionnaires. And you need to have the first questionnaire administered before anybody's been executed, and you don't know for sure whether the execution will be granted, etc.

Anyway, I figure you want to have three cohorts (and two of them are indistinguishable before the end of the study, so it's tricky). One is families of murder victims where the perpetrator will certainly not be executed because the state does not have the death penalty. Another is families of murder victims where the death penalty was sought and granted, and the third is families of murder victims where the death penalty was sought but ultimately denied. You take various measurements of their psychological state at the outset of the study, then at various intervals later (e.g. 1 year later, 3 years, 5 years, 10 years, or something), and also immediately after the execution for families in the relevant cohort.

In this fashion, we could see whether seeking and getting the death penalty actually does make victims' families feel better. My hypothesis would be that we'd expect to see a short-term bump immediately after the execution, but no long term differences -- and I would not be surprised if families in the cohort where execution was sought but denied might do worse even in the long term. I would love to see it measured...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Mr. Neutrino, I'd like you to meet Mr. Bayes

A lot of people who want to believe the faster-than-light neutrino result (and count me as one who would love it to be true!) are displaying a tendency to get quite pissy at those of us who remain skeptical, e.g. see this comment over at Bad Astronomy, which is actually one of the more mild ones. There are accusations of dogmatism, that a "true" skeptic should just follow the results.

That is true as far as it goes, but in my never-humble opinion, if you want to "follow the results" properly, you must be a Bayesian.

The prior probability, based on everything we know about physics, that neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light in a vacuum, is vanishingly small. The results of countless past experiments would have to be either dismissed, or given a completely different explanation. Anything is possible, of course, but as somebody else said (can't remember where, sorry, no credit), this is "possible" on the order of saying, "Oops, turns out gravity doesn't attract, it repels!"

And Bayes tells us then, that even what would be very solid experimental support for this result in another context is totally unconvincing in this context. Bayes Theorem doesn't quite work this way, but to just simplify it: Let's say last week I gave you trillion-to-one odds that neutrinos could travel faster than light. Then we come up with an explanation for how this result could be an error, but unfortunately it requires a series of coincidences that are a billion-to-one against. I'd still believe it was the billion-to-one error before I'll believe FTL neutrinos were a real thing.

It's probably something much more mundane, of course. Or perhaps it will turn out to reveal some weird new physics where the neutrinos can appear to some observers to exceeding light speed, but in a way that doesn't screw up causality and relativity; that would be neat. But if you're a Bayesian (and you should be), then you can be virtually certain that it's not really FTL. Sorry, sci-fi fans. No galactic empires for you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Drawing Lines on Star Trek-Based Discrimination

Ed Brayton over at Dispatches has a thoughtful piece up titled Drawing Lines on Religion-Based Discrimination, which takes as a jumping-off point the example of a gay couple in Illinois suing a bed-and-breakfast that refused to host their wedding, and goes on to examine the complex relationship between religious freedom and religious discrimination, and attempts to explore in which contexts religious-based discrimination is acceptable. It's a balanced and well-written piece which comes to some very reasonable (though tentative) conclusions... but while reading, I just couldn't stop shaking my head. All this, to prevent conflicts over what seems to me to be obviously made-up bullshit! Explicit protections for religious freedom are crucial, of course, but it's not because there is some critical benefit to diverse religious beliefs; rather, it's because without those protections, religion becomes a tool of oppression. Establishment of a state religion is no better or worse than the state establishing a mandated preference for Star Trek: The Next Generation over Star Trek: The Original Series, it's just that the latter issue tends not to arise because people don't get nearly as stupid-crazy over Star Trek as they do over religion.

But that got me thinking... What if people did get that crazy over Star Trek? And so without further ado, I present Ed's piece, rewritten as if we lived in an alternate universe where countless wars were fought to settle the age-old question: Who would win in a fight, Kirk or Picard?

The Chicago Tribune reports that a Picardian couple is suing two bed and breakfasts for refusing to rent facilities to them for a Borg-themed civil union ceremony.

The Beall Mansion in Alton told the Wathens via email that it “will just be doing traditional weddings.” The owner of the Timber Creek Bed and Breakfast in Paxton wrote in an email to the couple: “We will never host Borg-themed civil unions. We will never host Borg-themed weddings even if they become legal in Illinois. We believe the Borg are not canon and are mere fiction based on what The Original Series fails to say about them. If that is discrimination, I guess we unfortunately discriminate.”

Here’s the legal situation:

The couple filed a complaint with the Illinois Department of Human Rights, which investigated and found “substantial evidence” that a civil rights violation had been committed.

The August finding allows the Wathens 90 days to file a complaint with the state Human Rights Commission or take civil action in Circuit Court. The Wathens’ attorney, Betty Tsamis of Chicago, told the Tribune that her clients have chosen the latter path and will file lawsuits against both businesses as early as next week.

This action, should it proceed, could bring to the courtroom a debate over the boundary lines between Trekkian freedom and discrimination in Illinois.

Steven Amjad, an attorney representing Timber Creek, said the state constitution guarantees Trekkian freedoms.

“These are business owners that have strong Star Trek-based convictions. The Legislature has created this (conflict), and the courts will have to sort this out,” he said.

Andrew Koppelman, a professor of political science and law at Northwestern University, said the question is whether the state’s Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act — which protects Trekkian freedoms from government intrusion — can trump the state’s Human Rights Act, which includes the protection of people based on whether they are into the Borg or not.

“The hotels seem pretty clearly in violation of the Human Rights Act,” Koppelman said. “And if you’re going to say that somebody is exempted from the human rights law under the Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act, that would mean that people could discriminate based on Trekkian views. It’s a slippery slope.”

I’ve written recently about the billboard put up in Grand Rapids by my friends at the Center for Inquiry – Michigan. They had a billboard company refuse to put up their sign before finding one that would. After last week’s CFI meeting, I had an interesting conversation with the director of that group, Jeff Seaver, about whether that was illegal discrimination or not. He had actually been asked about that by a local TV reporter and had said something like, “And that’s okay, they’re a private company and they can turn down our business if they want to.” But since then, he’d been thinking about it and he wasn’t so sure that was true.

Interest in the Borg is not covered by the anti-discrimination statutes in Michigan, or at the federal level, though it is covered by some states. But Star Trek series preference is covered nationally and in every state and it does cover private businesses. A Kirkian restaurant could not refuse to serve someone because they’re Picardian— or atrekist, for that matter. This is well established law and enjoys overwhelming public support, so it’s pretty well settled. So what’s the difference?

On the other hand, a Star Trek club can, of course, limit its hiring to only those who prefer the same captain. This is known in legal terms as the nerdisterial exception. And this is a crucial principle. Freedom of Star Trek would mean nothing if the state could force a Kirkian club to hire a Picardian as its treasurer. But what are the limits of such an exception? What about a Star Trek school? Could the government force a Picardian school to hire an atrekist teacher? I think the vast majority of people, even atrekists, would say no.

But what about a Star Trek club-operated day care center? Or a homeless shelter? Or a restaurant set up by a Star Trek club to fund some charitable activity? Jeff offered this possible distinction: If the activity is explicitly Star Trek-related, then the exception should apply, but if it’s a service that is not inherently Trekkian in nature and is open to the public, they should be required to accept all takers both in terms of employment and servicing the public. And that seems reasonable, though not a perfect solution.

Some Kirkians claim that requiring them to serve Borg-loving customers in any context is a violation of their Trekkian freedom. But if it is, it is exactly the same as requiring them to serve customers of every race or gender. Discrimination on the basis of race can be and historically has been based on various TV series as well, yet almost no one seriously argues today that any business should be able to turn away a black person. Who is going to stand up and say that a business should be allowed to refuse to hire women because their sincerely-held Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire-based beliefs tell them that women should stay at home and not work?

Even if someone would make that argument, it’s not going to work, either legally or politically. It’s simply a non-starter. And there is no difference between those situations and discrimination against Borg-loving people or atrekists. If it is a violation of Trekkian freedom to force businesses to serve or hire Borg fans and atrekists, it is just as much a violation of television-based freedom to force them to serve or hire black people or women.

But Prof. Koppelman is right to point out that, legally, the Star Trek Freedom Restoration Act and its many state versions does complicate this. That law requires that Trekkian groups and individuals be given exemptions from generally applicable laws unless the government can show a compelling state interest in enforcing the law on them specifically in that particular context. And those laws are used everyday to exempt Star Trek clubs from zoning regulations and lots of other laws.

It may be that STFRA and other such laws should simply be done away with, that there should be no exemption for Trekkian groups or individuals, period. But then we go back to that nerdisterial exception, which I think even the most hardened atrekist would agree with — no one thinks we should force Star Trek clubs to hire people who are fans of the other show. So perhaps Jeff’s solution is ultimately necessary, a narrowly drawn exception for Star Trek clubs and probably Star Trek club-run schools, but not for businesses that just happen to be owned by Kirkians who feel the need to discriminate.


Update: I swear to God, I had not seen this before I wrote this. 2:10 is most relevant.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The Times (of London) says something weird

The Times has a great article about Richard Dawkins' new book, The Magic of Reality (behind a paywall, but reproduced here), but right in the middle of it they have a couple of paragraphs that leave me scratching my head a bit:

Pitting religion against science, at least in enlightened cultures, is to formalise a dichotomy that need not exist. While [Dawkins] may not agree, many would argue that religion has provided mankind with a moral framework possessed of a strength and clarity that, without God, thinkers since the time of Socrates have struggled to replicate...

The argument that creation requires a sentient creator — the teleological argument — had been ably sunk long before Professor Dawkins’ hero Charles Darwin began to fret whether a benevolent deity would have wilfully created a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs inside the body of a living caterpillar. David Hume perhaps scuttled it best, pointing out that if something as complex as the Universe required a creator, then that creator, being more complex, must have required one, too.

Losing our belief in a creator, though, should not entail we lose our wonder too.

Huh. If I might glibly paraphrase, what I'm hearing here is, "Religion is totally AWESOME! But you know, there's obviously no God, and educated people have known this for centuries..."

(I realize the passage leaves room for a God that is a part of the universe rather than its creator, but... for a lot of people that wouldn't really be God.)

I know what they are trying to do. They are trying to play the usual condescending game of "belief in belief": "I know a lot of you are turned off to Dawkins because he's always hating on religion -- but we don't hate on religion, and we liked this book!" I don't want to get too hung up on this point, it's otherwise a great article. I just feel like the inherent condescension of this position is really on display here. I mean, if I believed in God, I think I'd find that passage a bit off-putting. "I don't believe in that rubbish, but I think it's totally awesome that you are deluded in that way!" Blech. Heh, oh well.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Skepticism without cynicism: It's a win-win

This morning as I was getting out of the shower, my wife reported that our two-year-old had said something rather, uh, disturbing: "Grandpa fell down! Grandpa fell down! Now he's sleeping..." Given that my parents are both over 70, Grandpa one day suddenly "falling down" and "sleeping" is unfortunately a fear that seems all too real. I said, "Lucky thing we're skeptics, otherwise that could be pretty scary!"

Later, my wife figured it out: The other day she had sung the "old man is snoring" song, but replaced "old man" with "grandpa". In other words...

It's raining, it's pouring, grandpa is snoring
Bumped his head on the bed, now he can't get up in the morning

Okay, now it's not so mysterious as to how our toddler got an image of grandpa falling down and sleeping, is it?

But here's why skepticism is a win-win: Since meaning is something humans invent, I can take whatever personal meaning from this I want to. My folks haven't gotten to see the boys in a few weeks, and I really ought to set up a time for us to get together. I managed to avoid the ominous fear that a more credulous person might have felt, but I also get a useful reminder to keep in touch with family. Huzzah!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

In which I try really hard to avoid common ground with Ophelia Benson

Over at Butterflies and Wheels, Ophelia Benson issued a challenge to have a "nuanced dialog" about whether sexist epithets are acceptable. It seems other candidates either refused to use their real name, or else had other issues complicating the debate, so I have volunteered to take up the other side.

This is going to be challenging since unfortunately I'm basically on the same page with Benson. But I feel there are just enough differences in where we stand that if I focus on those aspects, we may be able to get something going here. Maybe. Already at least one commenter has noticed we don't hardly disagree. But hey, it's a challenge, right?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

I win an argument with Dan Cooper!

I won't bore anyone with the details, but I just totally whupped Dan Cooper (yes, that Dan Cooper) in an argument on Google+. After I said that he had earlier indicated there was no gender discrepancy in earnings, Cooper said:

Prove to me that I said what you say I said.

A fair request. I obliged, in detail, although I did have to admit he only implied the salary gap was a thing of the past, rather than stating it explicitly. I must have really hit the mark, though, because his sole reply was:

You're totally castrated. Very sad. And you think men run things? You are ruled by women.

Awesome. Not even a "you're wrong" or "I didn't imply anything" or even an "I don't have time for this." I prove he contradicted himself, and he responds by saying I have no dick. Never have I won an intertubes debate in such spectacular fashion. Full of win!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Why is oxygen the third most common element in the universe?

So it appears from several sources that the three most common elements in the universe are, in order, hydrogen, helium, and oxygen.

The first two make perfect sense to me. Hydrogen especially -- it's basically just a stray proton, right? Most of them have an electron buddy, of course, but it's not hard to see how that could happen. And then helium is two protons fused together, and as far as I understand it requires the lowest amount of energy to fuse. So that makes sense. You've got a universe full of stray protons (your most common element) and when they start to clump together producing heat and pressure, you fuse pairs of them together and get your second most common element.

But whence oxygen? It's #8 in the periodic table. My simple-minded imagination would have thought the order of frequency of elements would have been roughly the same as their atomic number, allowing some idiosyncracies for what's more stable, etc. And if it weren't, I would have expected the next most common to be maybe a noble gas, or just generally something with a distinct position in the periodic table. I can't see anything special about oxygen...

I'm assuming it has to do with some idiosyncrasy of stellar evolution. Can anybody help me out here?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

So much for having a place for non-believers to grieve...

In the comments to an earlier post, somebody pointed me to an exciting Facebook group called "Grief Beyond Belief". The purpose of the group should be obvious from the name.

Here's a couple posts from a thread there today, with some emphasis of my own added:

Little offensive calling them delusions, don't you think? I too am an Atheist, however....I do believe that we have souls. I don't believe in god, heaven, hell, or anything pertaining to religion. As I believe religion was nothing more but created by man to control people. But It has been proven that spirits do exist. I'm all about if it's been proven or not. It's well documented and caught on camera and such that spirits do exist. People have seen them, heard them, ect.. It's not religous nuts either, because they are usually against that kind of thinking. As they think the soul goes up to heaven and their loved ones are with "god". I very much believe that the spirits/souls of our loved ones are around us and can/do make contact or let their presence be known sometimes. Some aren't so lucky to experience it, or maybe we've over looked it? I don't know really. But I do believe it happens and don't discredit someone if they had a legit experience with it.

NO ONE has a clue about what happens after death, atheist or holier-than-thou. we can all have an opinion, but no one has the right to call another delusional. and jeff, unless you've been dead and brought back in the ambulance (like i was in '89), i'm guessing you have even less of a clue. i have no freakin idea what happens and no idea if there's any 'being' out there. i've had unexplainable occurrences after my husband's death of cancer just 10 wks after diagnosis in 2007. as recently as the eve of the 4th of july when i was sitting on my porch. i wasn't even thinking about him and yet when i looked at the other rocker, there was an outline of him in his jeans and boots. and frankly, i don't care if anyone believes it or not.

God fucking dammit.

I'm not comfortable criticizing someone while they are grieving, but the whole fucking point of this Facebook group is that I don't have to listen to people talking about, "Oh, mwah, nobody can KNOW what happens after death!" and "There's spirits all around us talking to us!" What the fuck. Fuck you.

I wrote a very nice guarded comment on the thread explaining why these statements made me very uncomfortable. Now on my blog I am venting. This is fucking bullshit. If you fucking believe in spirits all around us, you AREN'T a non-believer, you are a New Ager. And THIS GROUP IS NOT FOR YOU. If you are having trouble finding a group for you, let me help you with that. Goddamit...

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

If relativity hadn't predicted the precession of Mercury, would skeptics be obligated to study Einstein's proofs in detail anyway?

A thought occurred to me while commenting over at Jerry Coyne's blog, and I just want to give a more concise version here.

The equations underlying the theory of relativity are quite elegant and beautiful. A friend of mine tells me of a modern physics class he was taking where the students burst into applause when the professor finished the derivation of E=mc2. So much complexity is summed up so simply and in such a cohesive theory.

This suggests that it might be true, but it's not evidence. One of the first solid pieces of evidence in favor of relativity was that it accurately predicted the precession of Mercury. And of course many more observations came later which confirmed the value of Einstein's theory over Newton's. One by one, the skeptics were forced to take Einstein's work seriously.

But let's imagine an alternate reality where relativity hadn't made this prediction, and in fact it's prediction for the orbits of all the other planets was somewhat less accurate than traditional Newtonian dynamics. Would a contemporary skeptic still have to take Einstein seriously? Would Einstein have been justified in saying, "You simply don't understand the math behind it. Look how elegant this equation is! Look how it unifies space and time in such a concise way! If you aren't convinced, I think you really need to read my book..."?

No he would not. And in a world where, it seems to me, the evidence against theism is overwhelming, we are under no compulsion to explore logical arguments for God. Arguments based on pure reason are often useful, but they ultimately carry very little to no evidential weight. I don't need to understand Aquinas' Five Ways in detail, or be able to point out the flaws in them, because I can just look around say, "Welp, no gods here. Must be some flaw in his reasoning or a concealed false assumption or something." Pure reason is valuable, but it has no power to convert the skeptic, nor should it. And that goes whether you are talking about science or theology.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Conundrum of Progressive Belief

Since I just read a Greta Christina article which touched on the controversy over whether or not liberal/progressive belief enables extremism, it is apropos that a (religious) friend of mine posted the following to Facebook today:

"Is it working? Your belief system, that is. Is it really working? God's intention all along has been for the believer's life to work." Beth Moore

(On a side note, this Beth Moore does not actually appear to be all that progressive of a believer -- though still progressive enough to piss off other evangelicals I guess -- and is strongly anti-gay among other nasty things.)

Anyway, this is an interesting little quote, because on the one hand it is all wrong from a logical/epistemologial perspective, and if taken literally it could even be potentially dangerous; while on the other hand, for the target audience I think the message is generally a positive one. That pretty much sums up the conundrum of progressive theism right there, so let's dissect this one.

First, the bad: For starters, there is a hidden circularity here which renders it somewhat of an empty statement. If your criteria for determining what you believe is, "Does it work for me?", then logically the only basis you have for asserting anything about "God's intention" is whether or not that belief works for you. It's a tautology. Moore is basically saying, "I believe whatever works for me, and that includes believing that you should believe whatever works for you." It's pretty hollow when you think about it.

Worse yet, there is at least a theoretical danger in any untethered epistemology. If we take this statement literally, I might say, "Well, I feel bad that I shoplifted, but it's nice to have this free stuff. Wait a minute... if I just tell myself that God wants me to shoplift, then I don't feel bad about it anymore. Works for me!"

That's perhaps an unrealistic example, but there could be others. For instance, the process of examining one's own unconscious prejudices can be a painful one, and if you can just get yourself to believe that God shares your prejudice, then you can go on comfortably ignoring it. How many people have short-circuited a logical examination of their reasons for opposing marriage equality by just hiding behind religious belief? That is starting to sound like more than just a theoretical problem.

On the other hand, the message the target audience is going to receive from this assertion is probably a positive one: If a particular piece of dogma is not working for you, if it just seems terribly wrong to you, well maybe you ought to discard it. Moore's justification is wrong and perhaps even dangerous, but the conclusion is right.

I think the following is probably a bad example, since from what I can find it appears Moore toes the Evangelical line on homosexuality, i.e. she is dead fucking wrong and screwing up people's lives, but it's the only example I can think of, so let's go with it: Imagine a gay Christian teen who is struggling to come to terms with the contradiction between her identity and her beliefs. While I, and presumably most readers of this blog, would much rather see her discard the bonds of theism altogether, that can be a supremely difficult thing for people to do, especially as they may be struggling with other deeply emotional issues. Furthermore, as Richard Wade has eloquently pointed out, many young people still living at home may find that the security of their most basic needs is tied to belief, or at least the facade of belief. Better than nothing is if this hypothetical teen were able to say to herself, "Hey, this silly dogma about homosexuality is just not working for me. God couldn't possibly want me to feel so awful in this way. That has to be a mistake, and I'm not going to believe that crap anymore."

Again, Moore unfortunately fails to take this philosophy all the way and still clings to Evangelical beliefs that are downright hateful. But the quote on its own has some merit for believers -- if they're going to stick with belief that is. And that's always the conundrum, isn't it?

Monday, July 11, 2011

Three reasons why gnus especially should temper their criticism of outspoken feminists

The catalyst for this post, of course, is the ongoing Rebecca Watson/Elevator Guy/Richard Dawkins debacle. I don't want to say much about that, beyond just that my position is similar to Ophelia Benson's, i.e. Dawkins was wrong but not that wrong. I'm hearing now that some people are upset more over how Watson treated McGraw than anything else, but I've already expended too much mental energy on this whole little blow-up to look into it any further.

I think the majority of gnu atheists would consider themselves feminists or pro-feminism -- after all, religion has historically been used as a tool of misogyny (or is it the other way around?) and so it's only natural that those who ardently oppose the negative effects of religion would also oppose misogyny. But there also seems to be a very large contingent who, despite being nominally in favor of gender equality, are deeply resentful of what they see as overly "strident" feminists. They complain that it was not "us" who caused all of this oppression, both historical and ongoing. They complain that they are being treated unfairly, perhaps even claiming to be the victims of misandry.

Well, gnus shouldn't be making that type of mistake. Gnus, of all people, should be sympathetic towards the most outspoken forms of feminism -- even if that position can be wrong at times. Now I'm not saying someone ought to adopt an incorrect opinion, but gnus should not be infuriated by it, and should understand the value of these "strident" voices. And here are three reasons why:

Gnus ought to know that when attempting to change the public conversation, being polite, even-handed, or fair is not always the most important thing. The phrase you hear bandied about often is the Overton window, though I've become less comfortable with that term over time simply because of Glenn Beck's stupid novel of the same name. The point is that for far too long women have been expected to shut up and take their proper subservient place. And make no mistake, it's still socially acceptable in far too many contexts to express that view. On the flip side, far too many people find it unseemly or rude for a woman to speak up about gender issues.

This ought to sound all too familiar to atheists. And as gnus, how have we chosen to tackle that problem? By refusing to stay silent about our views, even in situations where it is perceived as rude or inappropriate to air those views. Our criticisms of religion may not always be entirely fair, but goddamnit, it's high time somebody said those things anyway. Gnus ought to understand that the same thing goes for feminist viewpoints, which have historically been squelched. You don't fix that problem by asking politely if maybe it's your turn to talk now; you fix it by expressing your views openly, unapologetically, and even vociferously. Eventually it just becomes okay to talk about those sorts of things, and then the nice calm polite conversations take place.

We're still not at a point in our society where everyone can have that nice calm polite discussion, and that goes whether you are talking about religion or gender. As a result, I don't blame atheists for being loud, ardent, or even rude. And I don't blame feminists for it either.

Gnus ought to know that crowing about 'persecution' from a position of privilege is pretty unflattering. When Christians in America complain about being 'persecuted', boy does that make my blood boil. It's true that Christianity is sometimes ridiculed in the media, sometimes even unfairly. But by god, Christians can proudly say that every elected US president has shared their religious views; they can expect their faith to be perceived a a positive character trait by the vast majority of the population; there is no shortage of media catering directly to their religious tastes, including whole separate musical genres; and numerous points of Christian dogma are codified into law, with far too many legislators talking with a straight face about adding even more. Yeah, you're not being persecuted, STFU.

News flash: That's how feminists feel when men complain about misandry. Are men sometimes criticized unfairly? Oh sure. But uh... yeah, you and I have got it pretty good, bro. Every elected US president has been a man; men are perceived as more capable than women in a wide variety of tasks, to the point where we can just expect a higher salary without even trying; there is no shortage of media catering directly to men, including the fact that the vast majority of protagonists in popular media are men; and until very recently, numerous laws were explicitly beneficial towards us. (As a side note, it is true that alimony law requires reform in many states now that, you know, we're actually letting women have jobs and stuff... but this is a legacy artifact of historic misogyny, not a result of misandry. Get that straight please.) On top of all that, most of us men don't have to constantly worry about getting raped.

So yeah, you know... stop complaining. I think it's okay sometimes to point out ways in which men are screwed over by laws or societal mores or whatever (as evinced by my parenthetical remark about alimony reform) but as the privileged group, we need to approach that sort of thing with due humility. No whining.

Gnus ought to know that cultural criticism doesn't take place in a vacuum. This is sort of the reverse of the previous point. I am much harsher when criticizing American Christians, for example, than when criticizing American Muslims; and by the same token I am much harsher when criticizing Muslims living in Islamic countries than I am when criticizing American Muslims. American Muslims may at times be worthy of criticism, but they are also getting a whole lot of bigotry and prejudice thrown their way. I always try to check myself, to see if I'm really trying to follow a legitimate point, or if I'm getting bamboozled by what essentially amounts to racism and/or jingoism.

Those who are formulating a criticism of an outspoken feminist would be well-served to do the same sort of introspection. There may be valid criticisms, but is the perceived importance of those criticisms getting amplified by the continuing societal hostility towards feminism and towards women in general? Are you getting bamboozled by misogynists? It's worth reflecting on.

To sum up, when you are advocating in favor of a group that has historically been oppressed, silenced, discriminated against, and devalued, it's okay to be a little brazen, a little overly harsh, a little angry, and at times even a little unfair. For too long, religious belief and open misogyny have simply gone unquestioned, enjoying a privileged position where not only do those on the wrong side wield the power, but have manipulated the bounds of socially acceptable conversation to squelch any opposing voices. Now after all these centuries, atheists and feminists are speaking up, making their story part of the public consciousness. And those who, in the face of that history, would criticize these proud new voices for seeming a bit too shrill -- maybe they ought to reconsider that.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Space, time, and oblivion

Mortality's been on my mind more lately, for really obvious reasons: A very close family friend died suddenly in December, a former girlfriend of mine died suddenly a few weeks ago, and there has been a spate of two-degrees-of-separation deaths as well, i.e. not people we knew, but people we knew knew. That'll sure make you think about death a lot!

It still doesn't hugely bother me, and I mostly stand by what I wrote about the topic back in January 2010. The thought of oblivion is a little bit more unnerving now that it's more viscerally "real" to me, but not that much more unnerving. What's actually been troubling me more than the idea of my own eventual annihilation has been proton decay and its implications about the fate of the universe. I'm finding the idea that someday every particle in the universe will have disintegrated, even if it's an absolutely inconceivable 1090-odd years in the future, to be really troubling and bleak.

So then this morning on the drive to work I was thinking about cosmic voids (yes, really) and for a moment I had that same feeling of an incomprehensible magnitude of bleak nothingness -- though not quite as powerfully as when contemplating the eventual breakdown of all the protons in the universe. It hit me that, depending upon how we view the relationship between space and time, as well as how much stock we put in the concept of the present, they could be no different!

Nobody really quite knows what to make of time. I tried reading The End of Time by Julian Barbour, which proposes a radical reimagining of how we perceive time in relation to physical reality, but I only made it about 2/3 of the way through before the heady math and geometry was just too much for me. In any case, where I'm leading is that one way of viewing the universe is as a static 4- (or more-) dimensional object. There's no particular present, just points in spacetime. Of course there are many different ideas on how we ought to interpret time in relation to physical reality, but this is one of them, and based on our limited knowledge at this point in history, it could be valid.

If we look at it that way, then there is little practical difference between the incomprehensible emptiness of cosmic voids in the spatial domain vs. the incomprehensible emptiness of a dead universe in the temporal domain. (Depending on the spatial geometry of the universe, there could be one important difference, in that if the universe is finite but unbounded for example, there's no spatial direction you could go in where you would encounter unending emptiness, but there is a temporal direction where you can... but I'm not sure how important this is to my point here.) So when we stare into the temporal abyss, when we contemplate the eternal death of the universe, it ought to be no more existentially disturbing than when we contemplate the spatial abyss of these incomprehensibly large voids.

Which is to say, it's still pretty freakin' disturbing, but perhaps more manageable. Voids are still one of the bleakest things I've ever heard of.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Breastfeeding and feminism

Well there's a potential minefield for ya. I'm not sure why I would hazard to even try and write about this -- as a man, me telling women "ur doin it rong" in regards to feminism is unsavory at best, almost always condescending, and just generally a bad idea. But I have some thoughts about it, and I'd like to take my mind off some other stuff, so I thought I'd share what I have to say.

My thesis here is that the most sensible "feminist" position on the issue would be that a) women should be maximally facilitated to breastfeed if they choose to do so, including legal protections on doing so in public and employers providing a place to pump; while b) women should not be unduly pressured to breastfeed if they don't want to, that they especially should not be made to feel like they have failed or anything like that, and that if somebody's reason not to is simply "I just don't want to", that should be accepted uncritically. I will now try and defend that position.

It is important when we discuss anything like this to be ever mindful of the naturalistic fallacy. Nature has given women a distinctly different deal than it has given men in regards to this issue, and we should not be confused into thinking that this implies anything about what ought to be the case. At the risk of pissing off so-called lactivists -- whom I largely agree with, by the way -- the fact that breastfeeding is natural doesn't inherently argue that women ought to do it, nor does it even in and of itself mean that it ought to be socially acceptable to do so in public. There are plenty of things that are "natural" that we don't tolerate in public, sometimes with very good reason. I happen to feel very strongly that public breastfeeding ought to be tolerated and even encouraged, but my reasoning has very little to do with it being "natural".

So shall I proceed to those reasons? For starters, there really isn't any defensible reason not to tolerate public breastfeeding. There's nothing other than social convention that makes some people find it unseemly. Nature enters into it a little here in that if people did naturally find it disturbing, then we might want it to be a private activity; but it's not like that and I really just can't see any argument not to tolerate it.

More importantly, however, a lack of tolerance for public breastfeeding adds an additional burden to those who might choose to breastfeed. Constantly being shunted off to a bathroom or some other private location interferes with a breastfeeding woman's ability to fully participate as an adult in social and professional situations. Nature has already dictated for us that if a child is to be breastfed, it is the mother who will be doing the bulk of the work; there's no reason we should exacerbate this imbalance.

There's an important caveat here, that if a woman is not herself comfortable with breastfeeding in public, that is her business and nobody should be criticizing that. I guess some people even feel that it is a betrayal of values for a woman to cover when she is breastfeeding in public! No way. Even if it is an unfair social convention that creates this lack of comfort, a woman should not be forced to be a martyr for social change if she wishes to breastfeed.

I think this is so important that I favor legislation clarifying that any place which allows infants must also allow breastfeeding, and legislation forcing employers to provide for mothers to pump during the workday.

I don't want to make it sound here like I am characterizing breastfeeding as an inherently unpleasant or burdensome activity -- far from it, many women find it very rewarding and enjoyable. In fact, biology has also been unfair to men here, in telling us that we can't breastfeed even if we want to. (I guess it can be done with hormones and such, and certainly feeding an infant from a bottle provides some of that same feeling of bonding... but the point is that even if we have overcome nature in this regards, which I'm not convinced of, our natural biology was still unfair) I do not want it to come across as if I am saying, "Nature has shafted women by making them breastfeed, and we should undo the damage as much as possible." Rather, I am saying that our biology creates an inequity, and that inequity should be minimized without regard to whether it is inherently positive or negative.

So what about the flipside? Can advocacy in favor of breastfeeding become an anti-feminist position? Again at the risk of being patronizing, I think it can if we are not careful.

As already mentioned, even in the best of situations nature has dictated to us that if a child is to be breastfed, the mother will be doing most of the work to facilitate that. (Even if the mother were to exclusively pump and her partner or other family members did all the feeding, it still can be a physically and emotionally demanding activity, and in any case some women simply may not feel comfortable with it) By providing an alternative to breastfeeding, formula potentially frees mothers from this obligation. You can now be a mother and not breastfeed if you don't want to. When we denigrate that, we are aiding and abetting an unfortunate misogynist aspect of our biology.

Another important digression on the naturalistic fallacy is due here. The preponderance of evidence does seem to show that breastfeeding is superior to formula feeding -- but we can only have determined that by evidence, not by reasoning it out or favoring what is "natural". There are plenty of examples where "unnatural" things are clearly superior. Just thinking in the category of "things that are consumed", fortified milk, iodized salt, and fluoridated water are all relatively uncontroversial examples. (Apart from the anti-fluoridation crackpot conspiracy theorists, there are some legitimate questions about the cost/benefit of the amount of fluoridation that is employed in some areas, but there's little doubt that the practice itself has been beneficial) So it could have been the case that formula turned out to be much healthier than breastfeeding for some reason. It's not, but we couldn't have known that without evidence.

And furthermore, it's important not to oversell the benefit. While the data is mixed, the benefit does appear to be fairly modest. It's not like using formula is automatically going to make your child fat, stupid, and emotionally maladjusted. It may very slightly increase the odds that she will be obese as an adult, to pick one example of a possible benefit to breastfeeding -- but we all make choices every day that affect our children's future, sometimes negatively, and unless it's something with a really pronounced effect, e.g. like smoking during pregnancy, there ought not to be a moral stigma attached to it.

Telling a woman that she is failing her child if she doesn't breastfeed is equivalent to saying that you should not be allowed to be a mother unless you are willing to conform to your "proper" womanly role. And that is a distinctly anti-feminist thing to do. In my male opinion, that is.

Biology has not given men and women equal treatment; we cannot change this. But as I have argued previously, that doesn't mean gender inequality is a good thing! If we value gender equality -- and I do, very much so -- then we ought to do whatever we can to minimize the impact of those facts of biology which get in the way. In the case of breastfeeding, that means doing everything we can to facilitate women who choose to breastfeed, and it also means letting women know it is perfectly alright to make a choice not to breastfeed. Ultimately it's about empowering the individual to be whatever he or she wants to be -- nature be damned.

Monday, May 16, 2011

This should not be happening in my 30s

I really haven't been intimate with all that many women. Two of them have died in the past six months. What the fuck?!?

Friday, May 6, 2011

WorldNetDaily should hire me as writer

So today Al Qaeda confirmed bin Laden's death. Now, I read on the interwubz somewhere that Obama had just faked bin Laden's killing in order to secure re-election. Therefore, this latest news could only mean one thing: Obama is in charge of Al Qaeda!

(Seriously, I betcha some conservative nutjob has already said this...)

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Obama releases hastily photoshopped birth certificate

I hope nobody is buying this obvious photoshop job released by the White House. This is just a doctored version of the Kenyan long form birth certificate that was leaked in 2009:

Monday, April 11, 2011

An unconventional take on gender stereotypes and biology

A friend posted a link to Facebook that showed two word clouds, one showing words used in advertising for toys aimed at boys, the other showing words used in advertising for toys aimed at girls. I'm not actually going to post the link here, because while I think the author's point is correct, I think the post itself does nothing to support the point being made, and this is all a distraction from what I actually wanted to talk about. There's been something I've wanted to say for quite some time about gender stereotypes, gender bias, and biology; and thinking about how some toys are perceived as gender-specific finally revealed to me what I think is the right way to say what I am trying to say, without coming across as patronizing.

Is gender discrepancy in toy preference purely a societal construction, or does it have any biological roots? Well, I don't think one can assert a clear answer to this question (it's undeniable that social convention reinforces this discrepancy, even if it didn't create it, which makes it very difficult to measure). But consider the following facts: Men are on average larger and more muscular than women. Babies only come out of vaginas, and milk (generally; don't distract from the central point) only comes out of the nipples of women. Given those realities, I don't think it would be surprising if we were to discover that, independent of culture, boys were more likely to play with fighting superhero toys, and girls were more likely to play with baby dolls. I'm not asserting that as true, but I really don't think it would be surprising.

But that's only a bit of speculation about what is; it says absolutely nothing about what we ought to do about it. Worse yet, it's not even the complete picture: It's undeniable that, even with gender stereotypes being bolstered by powerful cultural reinforcement as they are today, many boys would still rather play with dolls and many girls would still rather play with superheroes. It is not fair that these individuals be short-changed or stigmatized just because they don't fit a stereotypical mold, even if that mold has a perfectly natural origin. (Edit: In re-reading this, I think I inadvertently came across as presenting somewhat of a false dichotomy, i.e. that each individual either likes "boy's" toys or they like "girl's" toys. That's bullocks, and of course equally important is that even if, say, a given boy might usually want to play with superheroes, he should ideally not feel reservations about playing with baby dolls on occasions when it strikes him to do so.) Individuals should be empowered to do what they want, to act according to individual preferences and desires. This personal liberty and autonomy is one of our most important shared human values!

The upshot of this is that if it is the case that gender stereotypes have a biological basis (and again, I do not believe there is sufficient evidence to make an assertion about this either way), then that would only intensify the importance of minimizing any cultural reinforcement of those stereotypes. It might even suggest that we ought to work towards not only elimination of that cultural reinforcement, but an outright reversal of it, i.e. a society where it's "cool" to explore the opposite gender stereotype.

There is absolutely no reason to believe natural selection should be egalitarian in regards to gender. The moderate sexual dimorphism of our species suggests evolution has not been entirely blind to gender in H. sapiens (though thankfully we are quite a bit better off in that regard than C. lectularius!), and therefore we should be prepared that there might very well be natural behavioral differences between men and women. But as organisms with a uniquely powerful ability to reason about concepts of fairness and morality, we owe it to ourselves to do better than unguided evolution in this regard. The possibility that conventional gender roles might have biological roots is not an excuse to shrug our shoulders at stereotyping and inequality: rather, it is a call to redouble our efforts in combating those pernicious effects.

Thinking about meta-ethics...

I've come to learn a lot more about meta-ethics since I wrote this fumbling post way back in August of 2009. That long ramble is still fairly close to my current thoughts, but now I know a lot more of the conventional views and terminology -- and let's face it, even though jargon can be obscure and irritating, properly used it can help clarify and focus our thoughts, by giving us a name by which to refer to a very complicated idea -- and as of late, I've been stimulated to ponder it much more deeply by four events: The discussion over Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape, which I suppose I will have to read now; a series of posts from Russell Blackford about meta-ethics, partially as a follow-up to discussions with Harris; my discovery of Daniel Fincke's blog Camels with Hammers, and his unconventional take on meta-ethics; and a conversation with Bjørn Østman in which he called me out on sloppily referring to objective morality in another post without proper caveats. So my thinking is evolving.

Despite the fact that as recently as a week ago I declared that I "certainly do not" subscribe to moral error theory, I am beginning to think that on some level it is the most accurate approach to meta-ethics. Although I think it is utterly irrelevant in practice, if we want there to be (as Blackford puts it) "more metaphysical grunt" behind morality, if we want to assert that people are compelled to behave morally as opposed to just naming what is moral and what is not... if that's important to us, well, you can't have that, so in that sense if that is what most of us are trying to say when we make moral statements, then that is necessarily an error, and moral error theory must be correct.

I am not sure if in practice the lack of a true metaphysical imperative is really all that important, though. I might also describe myself as a moral realist in the sense that I think what is meant by morality is non-arbitrary, describable at least in principle, and -- here's where I got into trouble tossing around that word "objective" so flippantly -- once we have all that, I think that for many moral propositions we can confidently assign it an unambiguous truth value.

The only thing that is missing is some ghostly metaphysical demand that we "ought" to behave that way, but I don't think this is actually a problem. As a result of natural selection, virtually all of us (excepting true sociopaths and those whose meta-ethical foundations have been severely distorted by bogus ideologies and dogmas) buy into the core subjective "ought": namely that we ought to try and promote those universal values which seem to be shared among all human cultures.

The elusive metaphysical imperative is unnecessary, because we already have the necessary imperative built in; indeed, one could argue that it's a pretty fundamental part of being human.

Which is not to say that humans naturally behave morally, heavens no. But we all naturally have an inclination towards fairness, towards avoiding undue suffering, etc., and given that, our big brains are (or ought to be) able to puzzle out some more advanced moral concepts in order to support that underlying imperative.

So I am asserting: that morality is supported by a built-in imperative universal to virtually all humans; that it is non-arbitrary; and that for at least some moral statements, we can confidently state their truth or falsity in a way that firmly transcends culture. That's 99% of the way to moral realism, I think, and so I am hesitant to disclaim the label. Call it moral quasi-realism perhaps?

Now there is a parallel here to my thoughts on the Problem of Induction. In both cases I am making an assertion ("inductive reasoning is effective", "people ought to behave in a way that promotes universally shared values") which I believe to be ultimately unsupportable, but I am not too worried about it because I think these assertions are shared by pretty much everybody; and I think that the rest of what we want to get (objective reality in one case, moral truth in the other) flows naturally from that.

There is one important difference, however: In the case of inductive reasoning, while I believe the assertion is unsupportable without resorting to a defective circular argument, I also happen to believe the assertion is objectively true, no matter what humans might have to say about it. If the world blew up tomorrow, I'm pretty confident that inductive reasoning would continue to be a valid way of uncovering reality (assuming there were some other beings around to do the reasoning, but of course even if there weren't, it would still be true that it would work). Objective reality does not depend on the existence of humans or other sapient beings. I cannot prove this, nor can I really offer any evidence without resorting to circular reasoning; but I am extremely confident it is true nonetheless.

In the case of morality, however, even though I think it is non-arbitrary and that moral statements can sometimes be classed as true or false, all of that depends on humans (or sapience, or at the very least sentience). Morality is non-arbitrary only in reference to who we are, and if we didn't exist, or if what it means to be human fundamentally changed in certain key ways, those assertions would no longer stand up.

So while my belief in objective reality depends on an unsupportable assertion, I believe that assertion is objectively true. It's objective all the way to the core. In contrast, my belief in "objective" morality not only depends on an unsupportable assertion, but that assertion depends on some subjective traits of humanity. My meta-ethics has a crunchy objective shell with a chewy subjective middle. Bite into it, and I suppose I subscribe to moral error theory; but for all outward intents and purposes I am a moral realist.