Sunday, December 2, 2012

Faith is Nihilism

Bryan Fischer says that not exploiting fossil fuels to the absolute maximum is like rejecting a birthday present from Jesus, and that if we don't maximally rape the environment then God's feelings will be vewy vewy hurt.

You know, once upon a time, religious activists in the US were actually pro-environment, because they felt it represented responsible stewardship over the Earth that God had given them. I suppose some would say that this represents a very dark turn in American religion over the past several decades, and they'd be right, but I also think it's symbolic of something greater: Faith is essentially nihilistic, and when faith inspires goodness, it is no more reliable than the "goodness" of an avowed nihilist doing an incidentally good deed because it gives her momentary pleasure.

Revealed truth is an invalid epistemology. It can lead to any possible conclusion. And that makes it just as good as no epistemology at all; it makes it pure nihilism. It gives the believer the right to adhere to any philosophy she chooses, without the need for even a pretense of meaningful justification. "God said so" is as valid as "I feel like it."

Ironic that us atheists are always being painted with the broad brush of nihilism. There are nihilistic atheists to be sure, but ultimately it is only an epistemology based in science and reason which can transcend nihilism. Faith is not an escape from nihilism, it is an unrestrained embrace of it.

Faith is nihilism.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

FtB has a problem

Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, but FtB has a problem now. It's not on every blog, but it seems like it's spreading to more and more of them. The problem is very similar to what a lot of the FtB haters have been complaining about, except that their complaints predated the problem, so I'm not exactly sure what happened here. In any case, the problem is this:

In the comments on some of the blogs, if you deviate even slightly from certain unwritten assumptions of the commentariat, people will be a total asshole to you. You might even be wrong, and in that case it's good that there are folks there to set you on the right track... but they will be downright fuckin' mean to you, and that's just not necessary. There are certain blogs where the commentariat has stopped differentiating between full-blown MRAs vs. men who are trying very hard to be feminists but maybe have a couple of unexamined assumptions that are clouding how they see things. Get one thing wrong, and not only will they tell you, but they will tell you just what a worthless fuckup you are too.

My guess as to how this happened is that a lot of people there are fed up with trolls, fed up with people JAQing off, fed up with the online hate. And I don't want to draw a false equivalence here: What I am complaining about in the FtB comment section is light years away from some of the horrible vitriol that has been hurled at some of the bloggers there.

Nevertheless, it's a problem, and there are more and more blogs there where I just simply avoid the comment section altogether. It's too bad. FtB is still a really cool place, but it could be even better if certain folks just took a deep breath and thought for a second about positive intentions before ruthlessly excoriating people for falling somewhat short of perfect.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Nate Silver may be overrated, but poll aggregation isn't

tl;dr version: It's not exactly clear whether or not Nate Silver is the wunderkind he is made out to be (his true gift may be more in the explaining than in the predicting), but poll aggregation is an idea whose time has come -- and pundits and pols ignore it at their peril.

Let's get one thing out of the way up front: I really like Nate Silver. His writing style is pitch perfect, and people like me really get off on his blend of scientific humility and technical swagger. Independent of anything else, his mini-celebrity status is well-deserved, in my opinion.

Still, there are many who have questioned whether his "special sauce" is really contributing anything of value. There are even people whom I really respect that are quite down on Silver. I think this all raises some fair questions. Despite Silver's legendary performance in 2008 and 2010, and even despite the fact that he continued the streak by making (by some measures) the most accurate predictions in 2012, there is still room to argue that some of this is just statistical flukiness.

To be sure, while Silver was arguably the most accurate quant on this most recent election, his advantage over other poll aggregators was razor-thin. I consider it an open question whether the "special sauce" really does yield a consistently more accurate answer than other simpler approaches, or if Silver has just gotten a little lucky. But the thing is, it doesn't matter all that much.

Whether Silver is really doing something special, or if one can make do with a more streamlined approach that simply seeks to aggregate polling data in a sensible way, without all of the meticulous adjustments performed by the 538 model, one thing is perfectly clear: In the last several election cycles, poll aggregators have yielded consistently accurate results, even while blowhard pundits have floundered.

I think Silver's predictive success (as opposed to his professional success, which as I have mentioned I think is largely due to his excellent writing style and explanatory abilities) is in large part an inevitable result of the vast increase in the amount of independent state-level polling being done these days. While Darren Sherkat is correct when he says, "on average, if you heap together shit, it doesn’t equal filet mignon. The Central Limit Theorem is not something to be fucked with...", it now appears (if you'll allow me to extend the metaphor) that there is enough meat in modern state-level polling to at least make a decent hamburger, if not filet mignon.

There's a bit of an epistemological Catch-22 here, in that the low sample size will always give the doubters enough wiggle room to argue that it's all a fluke. But it really seems to me at this point that the most parsimonious explanation for Silver's continued streak, as well as the excellent performance of his quant counterparts, is that there is a core of legitimacy to poll aggregation, and that models like the one employed by Silver (if not his specific model) should now be recognized as far and away the most reliable method for predicting the results of an election.

There's still plenty of room to doubt some of Silver's more exotic "voodoo", but it is increasingly hard to deny that the basic idea is sound: Take all of the data that you have available, calibrate it to take into account each polling outfit's historical performance, and average it all together. Apply error bars of appropriate size (e.g. Silver should not get credit for calling 50 out of 50, since his 50.3% "prediction" on Florida hardly counts as "calling it"), and you now have a stable and reliable and sufficiently hedged prediction. How many more elections will it take before we can agree on this?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Scrabble and Intellectual Property

My post on the differences between Scrabble and Words with Friends continues to garner huge numbers of hits, as well as a lot of comments. A number of comments have expressed anger or bewilderment over Words' transparent rip-off of Scrabble. While some related legal issues can be murky -- and the ethical issues are murkier still -- there is one thing that is not in doubt: Zyngo, the makers of Words with Friends, are in no danger of being successfully sued by Hasbro. The reasons why are alluded to in the comments of the other post, but there seems to be enough interest/emotion regarding this that I figure it warrants its own post.

Different types of intellectual property

First things first, a little bit of intellectual property 101. There are three ways of protecting intellectual property in the United States, and indeed in most of the world. I am not a lawyer by any means, so I will not pretend to give a comprehensive explanation of what each of these are. But in short: A patent is something you use to protect an invention or an idea; a copyright is something you use to protect a specific work, like a book or a song or what-have-you; and a trademark is something you use to protect a name.

All three of these can apply to certain aspects of Scrabble, and Zyngo could have -- but clearly did not -- infringe on any of them. I will take each type of protection one at a time.

Scrabulous Trademarks

The easy one first: Trademarks. As mentioned before, trademarks are used to protect a name. It sounds simple in principle, but it can actually get very complicated. For an example, look up the long-running dispute between Apple Computers and the Apple Records, the label founded by The Beatles.

Again, I am not a lawyer, and there are better resources to learn about the vagaries of trademark law. But for our purposes, it's really simple: Zyngo didn't use any words that sound anything like "Scrabble" or "Hasbro" or anything else that could have gotten them into trademark hot water. Not an issue.

It bears mentioning that an early Scrabble clone on Facebook went by the name "Scrabulous" -- and unsurprisingly, there was a lawsuit. Frankly, the name was a really dumb move and they probably didn't think it through that much. They changed their name to Lexulous and still exist to this day. Other changes were made as well to get Hasbro to drop the lawsuit, which we'll discuss when we get to copyright. But first, another easy one...

Patents, Deadlines, and Expiration Dates

So it turns out you actually can patent a game. This could get really sticky, as patent law is tremendously murky, and I say this as someone who has multiple patents to his name (Google me!).

Luckily, patents expire after a relatively short amount of time (typically 20 years in the United States), so even if there were a patent on Scrabble, it would have expired long ago. Furthermore, it seems that the only Scrabble-related patent dealt with tile design rather than gameplay, which would be a non-issue for an online game even if it hadn't expired before I was even born.

And don't entertain any notions that Hasbro could file a patent today. While the law in the US recently changed (to be even more restrictive), it's never been the case that you could file a patent any later than one year to the day after your invention became public. The deadline for protecting Scrabble passed sometime around when Hitler invaded Poland.

Napster's Bane

Which leaves only one form of intellectual property protection: Copyright. You know, the reason 95% of your music collection is technically illegal.

Copyright is used to protect an "original work", like a story or a song or a picture whatever. I'm actually a little shaky on what defines an "original work", but typically if you can write it down or record it, that would count.

So what in Scrabble counts as an "original work"? The board for sure -- and this is why Words with Friends uses a different board layout. The instructions would also count, but you can always just paraphrase them (similar to the way you can copyright a cookbook, but you can't really protect an individual recipe). An argument could be made that the tile frequency and scoring might count, since that is something you could write out in a tabular form (just as I have done in my other post).

It is notable that Lexulous nee Scrabulous changed exactly these things when they got Hasbro to drop the lawsuit, and it's notable that Zyngo has altered all of these from the original Scrabble as well.

Final thoughts, and a word about ethics

Have no doubt: I'm sure Hasbro would like to have their official Scrabble app be the only game in town. If there were a reasonable chance of them winning a lawsuit, they would take it.

Again remembering that I am not a lawyer, I think that if for some reason Zyngo decided they wanted to keep the tile frequencies and scoring the same, that could get really dicey. I don't think it's a slam dunk, but it would be murky enough that I'm pretty sure Hasbro would sue, just to try their luck. Of course, it's totally not worth it (for any of the parties involved, really) so Zyngo is playing it safe and making sure they change enough that any attempt at a lawsuit would get laughed out of court.

So -- we know Words with Friends is legal. Is it ethical? Well, I'm not going to make a strong pronouncement here, but I will say this: Hasbro could easily have the #1 word game app on Facebook due to the distinct advantage imparted by their trademark, if they also had the best app. Furthermore, I can't imagine that Words with Friends significantly cuts into sales of physical Scrabble games (even if this travesty were actually popular, note that Hasbro got the rights to sell it -- hah!). If anything, a popular and playable Scrabble clone probably stimulates sales, as people get hooked online and then want to play it in person.

Lastly, it's worth noting that Scrabble was a similarly close tweak of an earlier game by the name of Lexiko. So don't cry for Hasbro, please.

Friday, October 12, 2012

What is the job of a journalist, anyway?

I've noticed this really annoying pattern in a lot of media reaction to the debates over the last couple of weeks: A knowledgeable (relatively speaking, that is) pundit refusing to analyze the debate from her own informed perspective, and instead anticipating how the typical undecided, i.e. low-information1, voter is going to perceive it. Paradoxically, the typical low-information voter's opinion is going to be greatly shaped, whether directly or indirectly, by the verdict of the chattering class. So you wind up with this weird (and very stupid) manufactured reality, where the pundits think they are dumbing it down in order to make more accurate predictions, and in the very process manage to dumb down the entire election.

Imagine if other professions did this! "I went to my doctor because of a horrible pain in my knee, and she said it's probably a serious joint injury that requires surgery... but then she said most laypeople would just walk it off, so that's probably what I should do." "The pilot said that, counter-intuitively, you need to nose down in a stall situation in order to recover. But most people's instinct is to pull the stick back, so that's his plan in the event of an emergency."

It's fine to note, e.g. that some of the numbers flying back and forth in the first prez debate are likely to go over a lot of voters' heads. But a pundit has a responsibility to then go on and report on her own informed reactions to those numbers, not treat the candidates with disdain for daring to discuss actual policy!

It's moments like these when I have to remember something: People in publicly visible professions aren't any less likely to suck at their jobs than people in ordinary work-a-day careers. How many people in your office are clueless slackers who coast on doing an okay job, but not really bringing any special expertise to bear? Well, there's just as many people like that in the news room, I guess.

1I choose my words carefully here... That the "typical undecided voter" happens to be particularly uninformed is a statistical fact, regardless of what some may like to believe about independence, open-mindedness, non-partisanship, etc. To avoid giving offense, I make no judgment here about any individual undecided voter. I expect there are undecided voters out there who are very well-informed and take the issues very seriously, but they are highly atypical.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

It's geopolitical and theological

Muslims in Egypt riot and burn and kill because somebody insulted their prophet, and a lot of people have very strong opinions as to just why they do this. Is it because of poisonous and violent teachings in Islamic theology? Or is it because of geopolitical circumstances, that put people in desperate situations with no effective rule of law?

Well, it's both, obviously. Those who want to reduce it to nothing more than geopolitics need to ask themselves what exactly these people would be rioting about if their holy book wasn't giving them an excuse. (And if the answer is that instead they'd riot against their ineffective governments and the negative influence of Western economic interests in the region, good for them!) And those who want to reduce it to nothing more than the negative influence of Islam need to ask themselves what was so different about the medieval period/Islamic Golden Age, when the successful countries were all Muslims and the angry witch-burning riot-prone idiots were represented by Christendom.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Sorry, but AVG Secure Search is malware (Update: but maybe won't be in the next version)

Discovered AVG Secure Search today when I installed the trial version of WinZip on a laptop that I only intend to use temporarily. There seems to be some controversy over whether AVG Secure Search actually qualifies as "malware". I understand why some think it's not: AVG appears to be a legitimate company, the software does not seem to be harmful (and may even be beneficial for users who want it), and although I have not verified this myself, I am told that it's all there in the EULA/fine print/options of the software you are installing.

But here's why this little shit of a browser extension is malware anyway: It conceals itself deep in the fine print, piggy-backing on other software (and software that I, for one, generally consider to be trustworthy, to boot! Or did, at least, until today), and -- and this is the most important part -- it deliberately makes itself difficult to uninstall.

It installed itself on Chrome in no less than three ways, each of which in and of itself would have been sufficient for Secure Search's functionality: As my default search engine, as the default page that loads when you open a new tab, and as a browser extension. That's just absurd! And if you don't believe there's a problem, just do a little Googling (maybe even using AVG Secure Search, eh?) to see just how many links there are saying "I tried everything to uninstall AVG Secure Search and it's still there! Help!"

I would argue that if AVG were trying to conduct business in good faith, on the search page that loads there would be an option to uninstall, and it would do all the clean-up for you. Failing that, having it as just the default search engine, or just an extension, or whatever, would at least be reasonable. The fact that I tried two different ways of uninstalling it with no results... well, that kinda makes it malware.

Side note: For uninstalling this little leech from Chrome, there are excellent instructions here. Actually, those instructions would probably apply to cleaning out any sort of bullshit lying douchebags from Chrome.

Update: Please see the comment below from Jon Meyer with AVG Customer Care. The company does seem to be taking these complaints seriously, and to their credit they are resisting the temptation to simply take the "If you didn't read the EULA, then fuck you, it's user error" approach. They say the next version will include an uninstall button. While I'm still not crazy about the stealth bundling with WinZip, it was the combination stealth-install/tricky-uninstall that for me crossed the threshold of "malware". If they follow through with the simple uninstall button, I retract the accusation.

Monday, August 27, 2012

The big names behind Atheism+ need to publicly distance themselves from Richard Carrier's regrettable post

And that's about all I'm going to say. I'm not even going to bother to provide links, because if you are the type of person who is even vaguely interested in this sort of internal politics of atheism, you already know exactly what I am talking about.

I really, really like this Atheism+ idea. I think it's great. Yeah, it's a little like humanism, but it's also a bit different, and anyway, branding matters.

But Richard Carrier's post just left a terrible taste, and a lot of people who are on the fence about Atheism+ are mentioning it. I haven't heard a peep about Carrier's weird rant from Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, PZ, Stephanie, or any of the others.

They really should publicly acknowledge it and say something about it. I agree with what I think Richard was trying to say, but the way he said it was just nasty and unhelpful.

To me, part of the whole point of Atheism+ is to define the movement in such a way that the douchebags want no part of it. And then good riddance. So Richard's language suggesting some kind of explicit purge is as superfluous as it is unseemly. You don't have to kick anybody out (what would that even mean, anyway?), because if you make the movement about the right things, the people you don't want as allies will kick themselves out.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Harris solution to the Wisconsin shooting

A few months ago, Sam Harris wrote a very convincing essay in defense of profiling at airports. He sure has me convinced!

This is why, in the wake of the Oak Creek shooting, I would like to propose a novel solution: From now on, all white male Army veterans will be subject to a secondary search upon entering the boarding area of any airport. I can't imagine anybody will oppose this plan!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Help me make sense of this bad movie

So I watched part of Transformers: Dark of the Moon yesterday. I didn't watch it all the way through yet, and it is obviously terrible... but maybe somebody can explain something to me, because it's such an obvious and terrible plot hole that I just can't get over it. Spoilers below, but uh, don't really worry; the movie is awful, i.e. it comes pre-spoiled. Its only redeeming qualities are the sound design (which is excellent, actually) and the special effects (which are good, if frenetic... very much in the style of the day, if you know what I mean).

So Sentinel Prime betrays the Autobots so that he can get the Pillars back and lead a Decepticon invasion of Earth, so now the Transformers will have a new place to live after Cybertron. Okay, so far so good. He's going to use a wormhole to transport a Decepticon army directly from their secret base into the mall at Washington, D.C. Good plan!

But where are the Decepticons hiding? On the moon. Okay, um, in real life, yeah, the moon is actually pretty far away, and a wormhole to the moon would be pretty useful. But earlier in the movie, the Autobots find out that the Ark is on the moon, and they're just like, "Okay, let's go check it out," and they hop in their ship and it's like taking a spin down the the 7/11 for them. I guess the Decepticons don't have that technology or something? I guess? It just seems... I dunno... inexplicable... The Decepticon army got all the way from Cybertron to the moon, but then they ran out of gas or something? Wouldn't the movie have made more sense if they were using the Pillars to transport the secret Decepticon army from some barren planet near Cybertron or something, i.e. somewhere that is ACTUALLY FAR AWAY for an interstellar spacefaring race?

This is not the only bizarre plot hole in this turd of a script... For instance, when they revive Sentinel Prime, they are in a secret base in Washington, DC, and the rest of the Autobots who brought him back to life are just hanging out with a bunch of human government types. So Sentinel Prime is all like, "oh hai, we iz frendz i gess but i dun taek orderz n stuf from meatbags, kthxbye" -- even though he's been in some kind of suspended animation since the conflict at Cybertron, i.e. before the Transformers even made contact with Earth. Shouldn't his reaction be more like, "GAH! What the fuck is up with these weird squishy d00dz?"

There also seem to be some plot points in the movie which, if I heard them right (admittedly I was kind of ignoring most of the dialog by that point) seemed to hinge on the so-called "dark side of the moon" being literally dark all the time, rather than simply facing away from Earth. Which, um, it's not. Not dark, I mean. You know how the moon has phases because there's always a different side of it facing the sun? That's because THERE'S ALWAYS A DIFFERENT SIDE OF IT FACING THE SUN, YOU IDIOT.

This is all not to mention that any part of the movie that involved humans interacting with each other was poorly written, poorly acted, very poorly directed... Really, they should have just called the movie "Robots Fighting with Cool Noises", kicked Shia LaBeouf in the nuts and made him sit out the rest of the movie, and just had it be a bunch of Transformers duking it out. It would have been much improved -- and the plot would have been more engaging and made more sense!

Monday, July 2, 2012

FtB: The totalitarian hivemind that doesn't tolerate dissent... but is also tearing itself apart in an internal flamewar?

I hate to say it, but I agree with this commenter. The Harassment Wars over at FtB, well, that was a conversation that needed to happen, but it's getting really tedious at this point, and it is frankly starting to turn me off to FtB just a little bit. It's not really the actions of any particular individual (though I have to point out that a solid month before his involuntary departured, I pointed out that Greg Laden was the prime example of somebody who was on the right side but being a total dick about it), but rather, it's just that this admittedly necessary discussion is getting really, really tiresome.

Which makes it all the more funny when people post all kinds of nonsense about how FtB is a "totalitarian state", a "hivemind", does "not tolerate dissent". Yeah, um... if FtB was like that, it would be a lot more peaceful right now. Just sayin'...

Friday, June 29, 2012

Scattered thoughts on circumcision

In the wake of a German court ruling that circumcision cannot be performed on a child who is too young to give consent, I thought I would share my thoughts on circumcision. This post will be broken down into sections to organize it a little, but I am not going to attempt to really weave it together into a coherent whole. Just some scattered thoughts.

My background

In the interest of full disclosure: I am circumcised. Both of my sons are not. Most (but not all) of my male peers are circumcised; most (but not all) of my friends with young sons have chosen not to circumcise. I'd like to think this is a generational thing, but while there is some data to support a shift, I think in my case it has more to do with selection bias, namely in the fact that a lot of my friends are into natural birth, attachment parenting, and related stuff.

The health effects

Well, there's a lot of conflicting data out there. My general read is that the risks and benefits seem to very nearly cancel each other out. Circumcision does seem to have some modest prophylactic effect against infection, some sexually transmitted diseases, possibly against a rare form of cancer, etc. Given the sociopolitical pressures to justify circumcision, I suspect this data might be exaggerated, but there does seem to be something to it.

This, of course, is weighed against the direct risk of complications from the procedure, which are rare but not unheard of. The upshot is that you are balancing a very small number against another very small number, and it is difficulty to say which is larger.

In any case, one thing we can be certain of is that the total effect on health is small, even if we don't know whether it is a net positive or net negative. With the possible exception of curbing transmission of HIV in areas experiencing an extreme epidemic, it does not seem that health effects alone are sufficient to indicate either for or against circumcision.

Update: I am glad I used the phrase "possible exception" in the above paragraph, as it has since come to my attention that there is good reason to doubt the claimed efficacy in terms of HIV transmission. The research that has been used to back this contention has some very serious problems (most egregiously, the circumcised groups received sexual health counseling that the control groups did not), and to further compound the matter, there are reports of circumcision being oversold to African men, even going so far as it being pitched as a "natural condom". Obviously it is a terrible HIV prevention policy if men are getting circumcised in lieu of using a condom!

The quality of life effects

This is something you don't hear a lot about outside of outspoken anti-circumcision circles. Part of that is because people tend to focus only on the health effects and cultural issues, but I think it's also partly because this is incredibly difficult to measure.

There are numerous anecdotes to suggest that circumcision has a negative effect on sexual pleasure, possibly for both partners. I employ my routine skepticism here, in that I generally am not willing to accept a conclusion based on anecdote alone, but the idea is at least plausible.

In short, there's not enough data here to really say much of anything... but the fact that this is at least a possibility ought to enter into the evaluation.


Here's where I agree, at least in principle, with the German court. It is possible based on what we've seen so far that there is a very small but real health benefit, and that there are no quality of life effects. My response: So?

It would seem that performing an invasive medical procedure that resulted in a rather drastic cosmetic change, without consent, for only a modest health benefit, violates the principle of primum non nocere. Even if there are no quality of life effects -- which is far from certain -- you're still performing a non-trivial body modification, and to do so without patient consent seems to be a cost that must be taken into account. And while that cost is not insurmountable, the modesty of any possible health benefit (if it even is a net benefit) does not seem to me to have any prayer of balancing it sufficiently.

In other words: In even the best possible scenario, the lack of consent argues against routine circumcision.

Culture, religion, and discrimination against an ethnic minority

This is where it begins to get a little tricky. Not so much in Israel or in Muslim countries, of course, but in countries where circumcision is a ritual practiced primarily by an ethnic minority. I don't really have much to say about it, other than that it's important to examine both others' as well as one's own motivations. It is undeniable that opposition to circumcision has, at sometimes in history, been used as a club to promote antisemitism and Islamophobia. And that's just not okay.

Harm reduction

So one can pretty easily tell from this that I don't think circumcision is a good idea. But what do I think about public policy? Do I agree with the German court? Should circumcision without consent be banned?

I'll give my answer in the final section, but first I want to point out that if circumcision were banned in the US tomorrow, it would put countless baby boys at risk. Why? Because there are thousands of Jews and Muslims who are simply not going to stop the practice, and if you make it illegal then they will find a way to have it done underground. The back alley abortion will be joined by the back alley bris. "I know a guy who knows a guy... I can vouch for you, but don't bring anything with you except the cash and the baby. These mohels will cut you!" (Bah-dump)

I joke, but this is deadly serious. If people are going to circumcise their infants, it's better that they get hospital care (or, if having a mohel do it in a home, at least know they can go to the hospital if necessary without fear of prosecution). This, of course, has to be weighed against all the people who presumably would not circumcise if it was not a legal option. But I have a partial remedy in mind for it...


So my wife and I choose not to circumcise, and I exhort others to make the same choice. But what do I think about public policy?

I would like to see it start with a very modest incremental step, which I think would drastically reduce the number of circumcisions taking place in the United States, while not creating any sort of undue burden on ethnic minorities nor creating any inadvertent dangers by way of driving the practice underground. It is simply this: Hospital staff should be legally barred from bringing up the topic of infant circumcision, unless there is a specific medical indication in favor of it. If a parent/guardian inquires about it, doctors and nurses are then free to discuss it without limitation, just as they are now.

It is impossible to quantify, but it seems highly likely to me that there are tremendous numbers of parents, in the US at least, who have their sons circumcised as a matter of course, not because they have strong feelings about it, but because they just assume that is what's done. They would presumably not seek it out if it were not offered, but if offered, they may simply check the "yes" box (figuratively speaking) without thinking about it. If we can only get these people to stop circumcising, that is a tremendous win, and could have a profound snowball effect against routine circumcision.

On the other hand, the most harm that can possibly result from such a policy would be that a family who was passionate about circumcising for cultural reasons might "forget" to ask about it, and would have to come back later. That would indeed be a nuisance, but it is a relatively minor one, and I imagine it would be relatively rare: most people who are passionate about it will simply ask their obstetrician at a prenatal appointment.

Many would argue that such a change would not go far enough. I don't necessarily disagree, but nevertheless I fear the specter of black market circumcisions, and in any case I think anything more drastic is simply a political non-starter right now. My suggestion would reduce routine circumcision dramatically, while enacting a tactical retreat in regards to religious tradition.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"Not sure what's happening, but will pray."

So a friend of mine is going through some serious shit right now in her life, and she posted a little about it on Facebook, without going into specifics. One of her FB frends commented:

Not sure what's happening, but will pray.

Okay, he means well, but I just want to point out something extra dumb about this: If you aren't sure what's happening, how can you pray about it? How will you know what to ask god to do? Oh, god just knows, is that it? Well then why do you need to pray in the first place? Shouldn't just saying, "Yeah, god, that stuff you're supposed to do, get right on it," shouldn't that be plenty specific enough? Why pray specifically for my friend if you don't even know what you are praying for? And if god is just guessing it for you, why pray specifically for my friend?

Good intentions, yes, I know. Good, incredibly stupid intentions.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Welp, the last time I've had a drink was Saturday evening. So that's what, five days I guess? Can I say it's been six days since I had a drink? Dunno what the standard is for how you count this shit...

Right now it's sort of indefinite. Enjoying good beers and brewing are hobbies of mine, so I am loathe to give it up forever completely. I'd like to get back on some sort of moderation track at some point. There are some promising signs that this might be an option for me in the future, but right now it's waaaay too soon to tell. This might just as easily turn out to be permanent.

I've been a fairly heavy drinker since my early 20s, and my wife's been urging me to address that for some time. But I personally have never really been all that uncomfortable with my drinking level, at least not until recently. The last half a year, however, it's gotten a bit out of hand (not to the level of missing work or anything remotely like that, but still...), and a big catalyst for that is that my drinking has gotten all tied up with some relationship issues, to the point where the two problems are not really separable. I don't want to say too much about it, but right now I basically need to untie this knot before I can really make progress on solving either problem. It's absolutely impossible to say how much one problem is contributing to the other right now, because they are too intertwined.

So, abstinence it is, at least until this Gordian knot is cut. Blah.

I went to an SOS meeting at a local UU church a couple weeks ago, I'm gonna go again on Monday. I'm not sure if these meetings are going to be helpful for me or not... I am not someone who easily identifies with other people, and to be perfectly honest, the two times I've been to meetings in the past, I see some of the people there and I'm just like, "Wow, I am absolutely nothing like that person and never could be. What am I doing here again?"1 I am sorry if that sounds elitist; I guess it is. But I can't help myself from feeling that way.

On the other hand, it's been helpful the last few days to picture myself showing up on Monday and saying, "I'm Jay and I haven't had a drink in nine days." (Or is it eight? How am I supposed to count this again? Fuck it, I've been imagining myself saying nine, so I'm saying nine, dammit!) It might be worth it just for that aspect, although I still worry that my anti-identification with some of the people there (yes, even at the SOS meeting) will be counterproductive. Just going to have to play it by ear.

Anyway, I might write more about this in the future. Since I blog under my real name, I sort of don't want to go into too many details, at least not until I have a better idea of how this is going to play out. In any case, here's a music video for ya:

1I am pretty sure this is not a case of denial, either. It's not the amount of substance abuse that these people-I-can't-identify-with are engaging in, it's their attitude towards it and how they deal with it. At the SOS meeting, there was an older guy who, even though his problem and his solution were a fair bit different than mine, I could kind of identify with him. And this is even despite the fact that, at it's worst, his drinking problem was way worse than mine, both in terms of sheer amount of alcohol, as well as direct impacts on his life (he nearly lost his job over it). So please don't misunderstand me, my failure to identify with these people is not a case of me failing to imagine myself having an abuse problem of that level. It's something else entirely.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

You women don't understand what it's like to have privilege (and I'm only half-joking)

My wife and I had another couple over for swimming with the kids last night, and the woman in the other couple -- Jenny -- was telling a story regarding a friend of hers dealing with sexual harassment reports at a school where she teaches (or rather, her friend failing to report it when she witnessed it taking place -- long story, not mine to tell, so I'll say no more). I brought up that shitstorm taking place in the atheist/skeptic blogosphere right now, and we talked about that and related issues for awhile.

Elevatorgate also came up, since I had told my wife about it before. And actually, Jenny had read about it in the news, believe it or not! In any case, I made a contrast between the present issue regarding anti-harassment policies, which I think is a relative no-brainer, vs. the issues surrounding Elevatorgate, which I think are really complex and difficult.

Jenny got what I meant by that right away, referring to Elevatorgate as "relying on a lot of subtext." My wife, however, said, "Jay, come on now, any time you ask a stranger in an elevator to do just about anything, that's just not appropriate."

She's right of course, and in that sense Elevatorgate is simple. But I still say that dealing with these issues is hard, and here's why: While I pretty quickly saw why you can't go propositioning a stranger in an elevator once it was pointed out to me, it is not something that would have easily occurred to me on my own.

As I explained to her last night, I simply have not ever been in a situation in my entire life where I seriously thought I might get raped. Never happened, not once. Moreover, it's rare that I even experience situations where somebody is making vague implications that encourage me to comply lest I be overpowered in some way.

My wife responded by asking me how I would feel if a 6'5" man got into an elevator with me at 2AM and tried to proposition me for sex. Oh sure. And I can use empathy to understand what that might feel like. But the key point is that neither that nor anything like it has ever happened to me, ever. It's something I can empathize with, it's something I can train myself to think about, but it's not something that I naturally intuit, because I have no direct frame of reference.

It's a theme that gets repeated over and over again: Privilege itself makes you blind to privilege, unless you make a deliberate effort to educate yourself and train yourself to see it. And even then, it will always come harder to those of us who lack a frame of reference.

So what's the practical upshoot of this? Well, certainly I'm not asking anyone to feel sorry for us poor menz who don't understand what it's like to fear being raped. And in fact, despite the deliberately provocative title of this post, I don't think there's a whole lot that women can do about this. I think some women might benefit, just from a personal sanity perspective, to keep this in mind when they encounter cluelessness that seems shocking and willful to them. But that doesn't mean they should react to said cluelessness any differently; it's just, if it helps you not completely tear your hair out, you might remember that these knuckleheads probably really actually don't have any idea what you are talking about.

More importantly, though, this is about what men need to do differently. Now, many men have indeed experienced rape or the fear of rape. I don't want to downplay that. But we must recognize that, while virtually every woman has legitimately been concerned that she might be sexually assaulted, it is probably fair to say that the majority of men have not. Maybe not a vast majority, but a majority nonetheless.

And that means that most of us are lacking a pretty freakin' important piece of the puzzle here, and if we're going to get that piece we need to listen. This is not something you can make intuitive sense out of, because you don't have the reference frame to apply your intuition. It's like trying to gauge the difficulty of doing a layup if you've never even handled a basketball before: You might be able to analogize to other experiences you've had, but maybe it would be better to just ask a basketball player. And if the answer she gives seems wrong to you, then consider the possibility it might be because of your lack of experience in situations like that, rather than intransigence on her part.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

A pair of past posts

I just wanted to say that I see no contradiction between these two posts, one very recent, and the other from almost a year ago:

Three reasons why gnus especially should temper their criticism of outspoken feminists
(In which I argue that, just as it's more important that irreligious voices be heard in the first place than it is for our voices to always be perfectly fair or polite, the same logic applies to feminism)

Distinguishing between friends, foes, and those in between
(In which I argue that some of the recent rhetoric from some-not-all feminist FtB bloggers has failed to draw a distinction between friend and foe, and is less effective than it could be as a result)

It might seem like there's a contradiction between those two posts, but there's really not. And I think the reason it might seem so is because there are some points that I did not make forcefully enough in the latter post. Namely: I totally get why people are fed up and are not bothering to be nice to allies when those allies are being clueless; I don't think anybody owes anybody anything in that regard, i.e. there is no ethical imperative to be nice to friends when they are being idiots; and even if these bloggers continue to lob the same type of bombs at friend and foe alike, they will still be effective in the long-term, though I suspect it may take somewhat longer.

It's total bullshit that dealing with sexism in our movement is so tedious. The level of pushback, the sheer bile of the vitriol from some quarters, it's disgusting, and it's disappointing -- no, not even disappointing, devastating. It should not be like this, and I can't really fault those who have completely lost all patience with it.

I wrote the latter post not to condemn, but rather because I think there are some missed opportunities. To be clear, it is not about the hurt feelings of the clueless. See the first post I alluded to for why I'm not shedding a tear over that. It's also not about tolerating wrongness in our allies. I'm not going to falsely reassure a believer in theistic evolution that I think their position is philosophically sound just because I'm glad they aren't a Creationist; and neither am I going to shy away from calling out a fellow skeptic when their privilege is showing.

What it is about is this: To the extent that any given individual is able to do so, if you can tell the difference between somebody who just needs a nudge in the right direction vs. somebody who's really begging for a brutal cockpunch, you can be more effective doling out the nudges and the cockpunches accordingly. If you're not someone who has a talent for that, well okay then, carry on, do your best. If you have been able to discriminate friend from foe in the past, but now you have simply lost patience, well, okay, I get that. I don't think it's a good thing, but -- what can I say? You've got every reason to have lost your patience.

I don't think the bloggers I called out are bad or are overly shrill or anything. I think they'd be more effective by tailoring their rhetoric more to each individual situation, but at the same time they are under no moral obligation to be maximally effective 100% of the time. The pushback against even such a modest suggestion of having an anti-harassment policy at conferences, it's shocking, and if some people are too fed up to be at their most effective, I don't blame them one iota.

I don't get people who deny common descent

Random thought here: The evidence for evolution is overwhelming, but you do actually have to educate yourself about some of that evidence. You can't just look out your window and deduce, say, some of the really striking evidence coming from molecular biology that is helping to clarify the tree (er, tree-ish, allowing for horizontal gene transfer) of life.

But the evidence for common descent? I mean, are you kidding me? First of all, anybody who denies that humans are a type of ape, I mean.. Really?!? Have you, you know, like looked at a chimp or an orangutan or anything? You didn't notice that they look almost exactly like us? Second of all, the Satan is a Dick Theory notwithstanding, the frikkin' fossil record... I mean, I guess I can understand this one because many Creationists studiously avoid ever acknowledging the incredible wealth of transitional fossils that are constantly being paraded in the media as the latest example of "The" missing link. But come on...

That such incredible change could have taken place through natural selection and genetic drift alone, that's hard to comprehend, I get that. A lot of that I think is because our ability to conceive of the time scales involved is very poor (I have found that when thinking about big numbers, there's a point where I start treating exponential growth as if it were linear, e.g. I have a tendency to think that the order of magnitude difference between 10,000 and 24,000 is on par with the difference between 10110 vs. 10124, but of course that's absurd -- and I know how absurd that is, and yet that's still how I think about very big numbers instinctively, so imagine how bad it is for someone who is less familiar with large quantities). But in any case, if somebody accept common descent, but thinks there needed to be some kind of outside force to help natural selection along... well, they're still wrong three ways from Sunday, but that's a mental error I can grok. You have to actually look for the evidence to understand what is wrong with that argument.

But denial of common descent? Denial that we are, plain as day, primates? Don't get it.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Distinguishing between friends, foes, and those in between

I really don't care for the phrase, "Everyone is a racist." Oh, I agree with the intention: Every single one of us from time to time engages in actions, harbors unconscious attitudes, or perpetuates institutions which have undeniably racist consequences. That doesn't make us bad people; it's how we deal with this, especially when it's pointed out to us, that makes the difference.

But I really hate the phrase itself, for a few reasons. For one, it sacrifices a useful distinction. There are people who are very aware of race issues and try their best almost all the time; there are people who don't have any overt racist attitudes, but who are pretty clueless about racial sensitivity; and there are people who, though they might claim otherwise ("I'm not racist -- I have piles of black friends! I even let them use my bathroom!") consciously harbor unapologetically racist attitudes and regularly employ them in their decision-making. To give all three of these groups the same label seems hopelessly coarse-grained to me. For my part, I reserve the noun "racist" for the final group.

Another problem, which is related to the first, is that it's using the maximally negative word even for the most minimally impacting behaviors, thus increasing the potential for defensiveness. Someone who might be responsive to having the unintended racist consequences of their behaviors explained to them might well completely block out anything that comes after, "Hey, you're being a racist." Nobody wants to think of themselves that way, and if you start the conversation that way, you've ended it already.

Not that that's always a bad thing, of course. A lot of people aren't going to be responsive either way, and in those cases, coming out with guns blazing can be exactly the right thing: You turn the conversation into a stalemate, but you still might influence people who are listening in/reading the conversation.

But if you fail to distinguish between friends, foes, and those in between, and just lob the same size bombs at any of them when their behavior falls short, then you're being less effective than you could be and even discouraging people from taking the time to understand your point. And the reason I'm writing about this now is because I fear some of the "good guys" in the ongoing Secular Sexism Wars are starting to lose that friend/foe distinction.

Before going further, it's important to make clear that I'm not trying to pull a false equivocation here. The people I am criticizing in this post -- and I am going to name names, by the way -- are generally in the right, while the people they are arguing with are generally in the wrong. And the absolute worst behavior coming from the "good guys" pales in comparison to the typical bile coming from the "don't you tell me not to objectify women!" brigade. An example is in order, starting first with one of the worst moves from our side:

DJ Groethe recently said something really, really dumb about the declining registration among women in this year's The Amazing Meeting. And he deserves some serious criticism for that. But is DJ friend or foe? In the past, DJ has seemed to indicate that he is on the right side of these issues (TAM was one of the first skeptic conferences to have a harassment policy, after all), but he has also demonstrated that he doesn't always "get it", and has made his share of non-trivial missteps in regards to sexism. He's in that in-between region. And as such, perhaps some relatively nuanced tactics are in order.

And yet look at how the news broke at FtB. Greg Laden, in one of his regrettably common over-the-top displays, calls for DJ Groethe to resign, without even giving him a chance to respond. If I may mix metaphors here for a moment, Greg just took a giant shit in the well.

Some more tempered criticism of DJ Groethe's faux pas followed, but already the damage had been done. DJ went into total defensive mode. At least a couple of otherwise-sympathetic FtB bloggers were so shocked at the suggestion that DJ resign that, rather than address the problems with his shoot-the-messenger statement, they rushed to his defense. The rhetoric on both sides escalated rapidly, and now the possibility of TAM actually addressing this problem constructively seems remote.

Hell, the organizers of TAM don't even have that much incentive to do so: The situation became so acrimonious so quickly that a lot of the people with concerns have already announced they just simply won't go, no matter what. I don't necessarily blame them, either, as Groethe's follow-up responses were in some cases even worse than the initial comment. But then again, I can't help but wonder if DJ might have been more responsive if he didn't feel like his very job was under attack right from the get-go.

Trigger warning for next paragraph.

But as bad as Greg fucked this all up, look at what he did not do: Greg did not suggest that maybe DJ Groethe needed a nice prison-ass-rape to fix him up. He did not call him a fag or a homo (or even a man-cunt!), or suggest that his misstep had something to do with DJ being too ugly/too sexy/too prude/too slutty. As unkind as I've been to Laden in this post, the very suggestion that he would say something so vile stretches the imagination to the breaking point.

And yet these kinds of comments would not at all be out of place coming from some of the more unseemly elements of the "anti-harassment policies are Talibanesque!" side. So please don't think I am making a false equivalence here.

But the "good guys" can do better, and they can do so without compromising a single crucial principle. I know this is the case, because I've seen it done on FtB. Where? Well, as promised, I'm going to name names. I'm going to restrict this to FtB bloggers, because I'm not familiar enough with any others:

I've already mentioned Greg Laden, and I think he's the worst when it comes to this sort of thing. I like Greg, he's often entertaining, and his fascinating life experiences sometimes give him unique insight. (His series on eating insects is not to be missed) But he's so black-and-white sometimes, it really grates on me. This is not the first time I've criticized him on this blog, either. Actually, it's at least the third, although the second time I did not mention him by name.

Who's next? Stephanie Zvan and Jason Thibeault. Now, I read both of those blogs regularly. I've learned a lot from both of them, and in the case of Stephanie's blog, I can even to a certain extent credit her uncompromising attitude for that. (I can't say if I would have "gotten it" faster or slower if she and the commenters there had been nicer... the aggressive approach ultimately worked, but at the same time it was very difficult not to get overly defensive) But lately I see both of them occasionally losing a bit of this friend/foe distinction. Jason recently came dangerously close to lumping Chris Hallquist in with the rape-threaters, simply because Chris failed to understand the context of an anti-booth babes clause in a proposed anti-harassment policy. (Jason clarified in a comment that he thought Chris was merely "jumping the gun" rather than turning all the way to the dark side, but I still think it was wrong to toss a mention of Chris in with that particular post without clearly distancing Chris' reasoned-but-wrong disagreement from the rest of the reactionary bile) Both of these bloggers are great overall, but I suspect both of them have had to deal with too many people for whom the absolutely proper response is "Fuck off you hate-filled toadie," that they sometimes forget some people -- even some people who are badly wrong -- deserve something more along the lines of "Hey, I know you're a decent person and you mean to do the right thing, but I think you need to re-examine the unintended consequences of what you said about X."

A few other bloggers cross the line here and there... PZ -- but of course that's his schtick, I guess. Ophelia Benson every now and then I think, but I love her so I maybe don't notice it as much.

So does anybody get it right? Is there anybody who is just as strong on issues of sexism, racism, and other matters of privilege as people like Stephanie, but who consistently gets the friend/foe distinction correct and consistently sets the right tone for the right audience?

Yes there is: Ian Cromwell, a.k.a. Crommunist. I can't say enough good things about Crommie's approach to people who are straddling that friend/foe line, people who's intentions are in the right place but who just don't fully "get it" yet. I could have counted myself among that group many times in the past, and probably will again many times in the future. Crommunist is just as uncompromising on calling out privilege as anybody else at FtB, and yet it somehow feels safe to be wrong at his blog.

More than once, I have had an issue where I was basically like, "I sorta worry that this thing I think is racist, but I still kinda think it anyway and I'm not sure why it's wrong," and Crommunist has been able to patiently set me straight. If I'd asked the same question in, say, Greg Laden's blog, I'm quite sure I would have been shouted down, had all sorts of terrible adjectives attached to me, and I might have just turtled up and stopped listening.

Crommunist still has just as much fire to fling at the irredeemable assholes, but he has a talent for distinguishing friend from foe (and everything in between), and treating each accordingly. Again, I really want to avoid making a false equivocation here... but nevertheless, too many of the recent volleys coming from the right side of the Secular Sexism Wars have struck me as the rhetorical equivalent of carpet bombing. In the long run, that approach works, but I think it's less effective than the surgical strikes for which Crommie has such a talent.

In short: Keep up the good work, FtBers -- but I think you can do even better.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Thank the New York Times for your latest right wing meme

We had a project lunch today at work, and somehow I managed to get into politics with another guy -- typical Dunning-Kruger conservative, if you know what I mean. At one point he claimed that an elementary school in New York City was now requiring Arabic. I immediately said, "No way, that's bullshit, and I'm gonna debunk it right now," and whipped out my phone. (I'm somewhat of a gunslinger with my phone when it comes to debunking, heh...) He assured me it was true, and that his source was the New York Times.

My first search turned up a bunch of hits repeating the claim from a bunch of right-wing asshole sites like The most "reliable" source I found in my initial search -- and the scare quotes are very much justified there, I think -- was the New York Post. Not exactly a paragon of journalistic integrity, but I usually expect that they don't outright lie. And sure enough, the Post seemed to confirm that Arabic was required, although it was made clear even in the article from that conserva-tabloid rag that it was simply in lieu of where other foreign languages, like Spanish or French, might be offered. Of course, French isn't spoken by quite as many brown people, so I guess that would be okay.

So I figured I'd better find the original New York Times article. And I did. Turns out to have been a blog post. And lookie at the update at the bottom:

Editor’s Note: A previous version of this post, and the headline, said the Arabic program would be mandatory at the Hamilton Heights School. School officials said that while the lessons will be offered to all students, it is not mandatory.


Thanks a lot, Elbert Chu, for stirring up a whole bunch of anti-Arab race-baiting with your sloppy journalism. You lazy dick...

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Low-hanging fruit

A lot of the pushback against conferences adopting an anti-harassment policy has been in the form of grousing about evidence (or lack thereof). Obviously we know this can be a problem, as these sorts of situations can easily degenerate into he-said/she-said.

But I think this is ignoring a lot of low-hanging fruit, if you'll excuse my use of what may be a somewhat tired metaphor. The assumption seems to be that the typical serial harasser will repeatedly deny everything and, as long as there are no tangible consequences, continue his behavior without modification. While it's undoubtedly true that there are people out there like that, I think this is the exception rather than the rule.

I think people will be pleasantly surprised how much of the more egregious behaviors decline precipitously as soon as there is a procedure in place so that conference organizers can have a chat with an accused harasser and merely let him know that the behavior in question is unacceptable. Sure, there will be those who laugh it off. But even just establishing that there are boundaries and that there might be consequences eventually is often enough to induce someone to change their outward behavior, at least in that particular context.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Conferences having an anti-harassment policy should be a no-brainer

It's sad how much pushback there is against the very simple and reasonable idea that atheist and skeptic conferences ought to have official anti-harassment policies in place, and a basic framework for dealing with harassment, sexual and otherwise. I mean... really?

I haven't written about Elevatorgate on my blog, because that kind of thing is a very difficult issue. I definitely come down on the Rebecca Watson side, but I also have a lot of empathy for Elevator Guy, and I am at a loss as to how best to address issues like that. As Greta points out, the more important issue is creating a safe space for women -- but at the same time, social dynamics strongly incentivize men to be aggressive in their overtures. Even if you make a good argument why individually men should not act that way, as long as the perverse incentives are in place then collectively very little is going to change. Actually fixing these problems is challenging.

But the stuff we are talking about here is not. For crying out loud, one of the problems Jen McCreight has referred to is speakers groping attendees! Do we really have to have a conversation about why that's not okay?

Adoption of anti-harassment policies will not do much of anything to fix the more difficult problems, like Elevator Guy-type stuff, or women being excluded in subtle ways like being interrupted more often, etc. And nor will it create some draconian atmosphere where everybody is afraid of what they might say, as some have feared. It simply means that there's actually some method of recourse when some asshole is doing something waaaaay out of bounds. Who the fuck can be opposed to that?

Saturday, May 19, 2012

PZ on religion on women

PZ has an entertaining little rant against D.S. Wilson and his ideas about religion as an adaptive trait operated on by group selection. (For what it's worth: I don't think it's inconceivable that at one time religion was beneficial to certain groups and that a form of cultural evolution may have driven it, but I'm extremely skeptical about the idea of group selection on a genetic level, in any context.) It culminates in a few paragraphs that I think extends far beyond this one little point about D.S. Wilson, and so I have re-edited it to make it more general:

But I have one word for [those with a] benign view of religion...That word is…


Whenever I hear that tripe about the beneficial effects of religion on human cultural evolution, it’s useful to note that the world’s dominant faiths all hardcode directly into their core beliefs the idea that women are unclean, inferior, weak, and responsible for the failings of mankind…that even their omnipotent, all-loving god regards women as lesser creatures not fit to be intermediaries with him, and that their cosmic fate is to be subservient slaves to men, just as men are to be subservient slaves to capital-H Him.

...[T]hose with eyes to see can see for themselves that religion has for thousands of years perpetuated the oppression of half our species. Half of the great minds our peoples have produced have lived and died unknown and forgotten, their educations neglected, their lives spent doing laundry and other menial tasks for men — their merits unrecognized and buried under lies promulgated by religion, in cultures soaked in the destructive myths of faith which codify misogyny and give it a godly blessing.

Isn’t that reason enough to tear down the cathedrals — that with this one far-reaching, difficult change to our cultures, we double human potential?


Friday, May 18, 2012

Some "skeptics" think Zimmerman's injuries were faked or self-inflicted

I'm not going to name names, and I'm not going to go into detail (I have a lot of work to do right now). But I have to comment on this... Over at FtB, I've seen a couple of commenters and at least one of the bloggers implying or even outright stating that the minor injuries George Zimmerman is reported to have had after the fatal encounter with Trayvon Martin were self-inflicted or faked, or even fabricated. The idea being that he thought this would let him get away with his devious plan to murder a black kid.

Come on, people. Is it possible that happened? Well, sure, and that sort of thing is not unheard of. But it's a pretty dramatic accusation, and a pretty spectacular explanation, especially when there is a much more mundane explanation ready at hand.

We know with 100% certainty -- from the 911 tapes -- that Zimmerman had been following Trayvon for several minutes and was extremely agitated by the time he got out of his vehicle. If we accept that the major elements of "Dee-Dee's" story are more or less true, we also know that Trayvon was (justifiably!) pretty worked up as well. For instance, "Dee-Dee" urged him to walk faster to try and get away, but he defiantly chose not to alter his pace. We also believe that at some point, Zimmerman got out of his SUV and approached Trayvon. Again if we accept "Dee-Dee's" story, it seems that the events at that point degenerated pretty rapidly, with the phone connection being cut off almost immediately after Zimmerman's approach, possibly as a result of Trayvon being shoved.

You know what could happen next in that kind of situation that would be totally unsurprising? A fistfight. Either one could have thrown the first punch, or neither of them might really have done it. Both were pretty much at maximum fight-or-flight response at that point, and based on their phone conversations we have reason to believe both of them had already made a conscious decision against "flight". Is it so shocking that they would have come to blows? Why on earth would someone be so skeptical of this narrative that they had to invent some weird conspiracy about self-inflicted wounds???

Is it some sort of need to make sure that Zimmerman is maximally to blame? If so, it's entirely unnecessary. If you stalk a kid ten years younger than you, aggressively walk up to him, get in a fistfight, and then shoot his ass, that's a serious crime, at least any place with sane gun laws. Hell, even if Trayvon unambiguously threw the first punch, you can't provoke someone into punching you and then cap them in the chest. Yeesh!

Or is it some sort of impulse to make Trayvon into some kind of saint? Well, once again, this is grossly unnecessary. Teenagers, um, occasionally get into fistfights. I know I sure did. And in this case, it seems Trayvon was pretty justified in feeling threatened! And like I say, even if there was a fistfight, that doesn't at all imply who threw the first punch. It's entirely plausible that Zimmerman walked up and tried to tackle Trayvon, then started losing when Trayvon fought back, and cowardly pulled out his gun. There, see, you still get to picture Trayvon as some sort of immaculate never-broke-a-single-rule hero, but you don't have to ludicrously deny that the evidence points strongly towards there having been a physical confrontation.

This conspiracy mongering about self-inflicted wounds is useless and annoying. Unless evidence comes to light that actually suggests that really happened, people should stop yammering about that hypothesis. It's paranoid, it's absurd, and it's distinctly unskeptical.

Addendum: A couple other thoughts on this... Zimmerman has not exactly come across as a criminal mastermind here. This is a guy who used to call 911 if he saw an open window or open garage door, and his website was, uh... well I don't know how to describe it. It's much easier for me to believe that Zimmerman is just a regular idiot with a gun and a hero complex, rather than some kind of devious sadist who formulated a clever plan to murder a kid in the streets and get away with it.

Also, some noise has been made about the fact that Zimmerman was on top of Trayvon when the shot was fired, and so therefore how could Trayvon have busted his nose? All I can say is, I guess people who say that have never been in a fistfight before. As I mentioned, I was in a couple of 'em as a kid. One of them actually dragged on for awhile, because it wasn't in school so there was nobody to break it up. Sometimes I managed to pin him down, sometimes he managed to do it to me. We both had bloody noses by the end. Actually, I think I bloodied his nose with a lucky punch when he was on top of me (though this was like almost two decades ago, so I don't really remember).

It's entirely plausible that Trayvon was mostly winning, then for a moment Zimmerman managed to get the upper hand, and he seized that opportunity to pull out his gun. I'm not at all saying that is what happened; it is just one of many possible scenarios that is consistent with the evidence. But it (and a lot of other similarly mundane explanations) are a lot more plausible than this self-inflicted wound crap.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

"Why does she have to be so hot?", or, How even some feminists are getting it wrong on the infamous Time cover

I think I may be starting to flip-flop on the Time cover again. I still think the headline was a bad choice, but so much of the other criticism I am seeing is just so terribly wrong-headed that I'm beginning to feel that countering the BS is more important than the judgmental implications in the headline.

For one thing, in the mainstream media there is still plenty of the predictable "ZOMG that kid is way too old!" garbage. If breastfeeding advocates had gotten exactly the cover they wanted, that's the battle we'd be fighting here -- and we ought not to lose sight of that, because it's a golden opportunity. Time has just opened a national conversation on how old is too old to breastfeed, and while you may not personally like how they introduced the topic, the #1 message needs to be: "As young or as old as you and your child feel comfortable with!" Let's not squander this unique chance obsessing over details.

Most troubling to me, though, is how much of the criticism is along the lines of, "Why did Time feel they needed to show an attractive woman with her boobs out?" I touched on this yesterday, but I feel I need to say more. I'm even hearing this criticism from some feminists and breastfeeding advocates, and while I understand where they are coming from, I think making an issue out of it, at least in regards to this particular image, is a big mistake.

The answer to the titular question, "Why does she have to be so hot?", is plainly obvious: Because she's on the cover of a magazine.

And no, that's not really okay. As I said yesterday:

I think the problem here is not so much the Time cover itself, but rather the fact that women in our society are constantly judged on the basis of their appearance, by both men and women alike, far more so than men are. The way a woman looks, and her perceived attractiveness, is already a highly-politicized issue.

Women appearing on the cover of Time magazine, or any other national magazine, tend to be highly attractive. This is nothing new. And while it reflects poorly on the way we evaluate and objectify women, this cover photo is at worst "not part of the solution" in that regard.

So why is that becoming such a big deal over this particular image? To me, the answer is obvious: Breastfeeding is still being sexualized and subjected to sex-shaming. People see that image, and instead of seeing an unconventional portrayal of breastfeeding, they see a woman flashing her naughty bits. That kind of response is exactly what we are trying to oppose! Why are so many breastfeeding advocates inadvertently encouraging it?!?

I'm vaguely reminded of the patriarchal religious impulse to demand that women "dress modestly" or cover themselves, lest men be tempted. "How dare you reveal your ankle in public? I won't be able to help myself!" Grow up. A woman who is breastfeeding doesn't have to assume a deliberately un-sexy pose for your benefit. She doesn't have to eschew makeup or (I can't believe I'm even saying this) make herself look homely just so you won't get all confused.

And anyway, why is it such an awful thing that a woman is breastfeeding and looks a little sexy at the same time? Is sex that dirty and evil (or breastfeeding that dirty and evil?) that it needs to be segregated from everything else at all times?

As I've admitted, there is a slight problem here in that Time is just unquestioningly going along with the "sexy ladies sell magazines" trend. But we see that kind of thing constantly and most of us don't typically make a thing out of it at every single opportunity. We're only making a thing out of it right now because this woman is breastfeeding. That shouldn't matter. If an inexplicably attractive woman on the cover of a magazine isn't worthy of complaint when she's not breastfeeding, then it's not worthy of complaint when she is breastfeeding. End of story.

Friday, May 11, 2012

About that Time cover...

So yeah, everybody's seen it, right? A lot of my Facebook friends are nursing moms, a lot of them are AP moms, a few of them are even extended-nursing moms, so there's been a lot of talk about this in my circle. I was initially pretty positive on it, though I've grown more ambivalent now that I've started to understand more of people's objections to the cover. I'm going to list the major objections I've heard, and my response to them.

A sensationalist photo will create a backlash against public breastfeeding/extended breastfeeding.

I just flat-out disagree with this one. Social change doesn't occur by staying within boundaries hoping to avoid a backlash. Social change happens by going way outside the boundaries. Even if you go "too far", the overall effect over time is to create more room in the mainstream for moderates.

Did over-the-top Gay Pride parades create a backlash against LGBTQ people? Nope, it normalized being gay, by extending the boundaries and thereby moving the middle. "I don't mind gay people, I just don't like those half-naked leather-wearing dancing dudes in the Pride parades. They are so in your face about it!" That's kind of a crappy thing to say, but the same person fifty years ago probably very much would have had a problem with gay people, even "normal-looking" ones.

By the same token, I don't really believe anybody is saying to themselves, "Well! I was okay with breastfeeding in public, but now I see these people are sick, and I won't tolerate it!" Rather, I think a more likely scenario is people who are leery about public breastfeeding subconsciously saying to themselves, "Well, I don't like that... but at least it's not like that crazy lady on the cover of Time!"

But it's not being sensationalist in order to create social change -- Time is just trying to sell magazines!

Um, yes they are. Is this supposed to be surprising? Next, please.

The woman is too sexy. Show normal breastfeeding moms!

This objection has some merit. But if they'd shown a less attractive woman, wouldn't there be outrage that Time was deliberately trying to stereotype AP moms as plain-looking or homely?

I think the problem here is not so much the Time cover itself, but rather the fact that women in our society are constantly judged on the basis of their appearance, by both men and women alike, far more so than men are. The way a woman looks, and her perceived attractiveness, is already a highly-politicized issue. This is not a good thing. And if you want to argue that this Time cover is contributing to the problem, I think you might have a point. But it's just so hard to say what they should have done. That's one of the most depressing things about misogyny, racism, homophobia, etc.: in a world where privilege operates so pervasively and so invisibly, sometimes it's nigh impossible to figure out the "right" thing to do.

I find the Time cover unremarkable in this regard. It did neither a particularly good job nor a particularly poor job of navigating the depiction of women and the irrelevant criteria on which they are often judged. They probably could have done better, but there's not an easy fix here.

This relates to the next objection, which is:

That's not what breastfeeding looks like at all.

Nope, it's not. This is not what the economy looks like. This is probably not a fairly accurate depiction of what dripping petroleum looks like. This is not what two dogs hanging out together typically looks like.

The intention of a magazine cover is not necessarily to accurately portray anything; rather, it's to create an eye-catching image that captures the flavor of the topic under discussion. We can debate whether this cover did so in a responsible and effective way, but the fact that it doesn't look like real-life breastfeeding is totally irrelevant.

The "Are you mom enough?" headline is insulting to women who don't live up to some imaginary ideal.

Now this, I agree, is problematic. I hadn't really thought about that when I gave my initial reactions to the cover, because I was focused on the image itself, which, as I've described, I don't really have any major problems with. But the caption is troubling, especially since, as I've written about previously, there's a huge minefield when it comes to promoting breastfeeding: pressuring women to do something they don't want to do, treating them as baby factories rather than fully-realized individuals, etc. The relationship between breastfeeding and feminism is complicated, and this headline strikes a really unfortunate tone in that regard.

My wife interprets it as being intentionally hyperbolic, as in, they are picturing a woman doing something that is perceived as pretty extreme, and then the "Are you mom enough?" thing is an acknowledgment that, holy crap, this is some pretty extreme mothering. In other words, it's not supposed to be shaming women any more than a depiction of BASE jumping with the caption "You think you can handle this?" is supposed to be shaming everyone who is not a BASE jumper. She has a point... but it's too easily misinterpreted. I agree this was a mistake, and it is the main factor which has made me more ambivalent about the cover.

In summary...

I don't see anything wrong with the image itself, beyond the fact that it's gotten itself inadvertently tangled in the broader web of gender politics in general, and in that regard it is neither great nor terrible. The headline, however, is extremely troublesome. I think the intention was positive, and that was the way I perceived it initially... but there is just way too much potential downside. In a society where women are constantly dumped on for failing to live up to some ideal or other ("too fat!" "too thin!" "too ugly!" "too slutty!" "too prude!" "too wimpy!" "too bitchy!"), even the possibility that it could be interpreted that way is unacceptable. I like the image, I don't like the headline.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The tale of Skip Tex and Regina Edgars

One day, Skip Tex logged into Facebook and found that he had a friend request waiting for him. It was a woman by the name of Regina Edgars, whom his friend Sally C. Atwater had introduced him to at a party. The idea was that Regina had some campaign experience which, it was hoped, could help Skip with his political ambitions.

Now Skip wasn't so sure about this... Regina seemed knowledgeable and eager to help, but Skip Tex was predominantly progressive, while Edgars on the other hand was a registered Republican. The only other Republicans which Skip had friended on Facebook were his parents, and he was pretty tired of seeing all the birther nonsense and other crap they would constantly link to from WorldNetDaily. It wasn't even so much the terrible policy positions or even the undercurrent of racism that bugged Skip so much; it was just the patent absurdity of the articles his parents posted. But Sally assured him Regina was different.

Cautiously, tentatively, Skip clicked "accept" and added Regina to his friends list. The very next day, he saw that Edgars had reposted a status to her wall: a well-meaning request to send a birthday card to a kid with brain cancer. Problem is, the story had already been thoroughly debunked by Snopes, years ago.

With a roll of his eyes, Skip clicked over to Edgars' profile and unfriended her. An overreaction? Perhaps. But nobody who knew the personality of Skip Tex would be surprised. This is his pet peeve after all. Maybe he missed a golden opportunity by rejecting Edgars' overtures, but in practice it didn't matter. Even from the beginning, he wasn't sure he could get along with Edgars, and the Snopes fiasco just seemed to confirm his suspicions. Justified or not, that door was closed.

Moral of the story: The most surefire way to piss off Skip Tex is by saying something that anybody with an Internet connection can plainly see is false.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Surprise: Republican spin doctor comes across like a Republican spin doctor

Welp, Edwina Rogers really screwed the pooch with that Greta Christina interview, didn't she? (Note: I am being lazy with links for this post because a) I'm in a hurry, and b) I assume any of my readers who actually give a shit about the internal politics of atheism already know a dozen better places to read about the internal politics of atheism, so I'm just going to briefly and lazily give my two cents) My read of the atheist blogosphere's initial reaction to her appointment (and her interview with Hemant) was basically, "Um, woah... did the SCA just appoint a Republican spin doctor to be their executive director? Well, I'm not sure how that's going to work out, but let's wait and see..." So there was an opportunity there, I think initially. But the GC interview was disastrous, and I don't see any hope anymore of the SCA selling this to the secular community at large.

There are all sorts of problems with Rogers' appointment, but her biggest mistake could be summed up as simply as this: The sorts of techniques that work with Fox News viewers are not the same sort of techniques that work in the secular community. That's it. We don't even need to make the case that what the secular community finds convincing is superior; I happen to think that is the case, but it doesn't even really matter. All that matters for purposes of this post is that what those audiences want to hear is different, and Rogers just scored a massive FAIL in her understanding of that.

When addressing Fox News viewers, the overriding priority is to not give an inch. That's pretty good advice for arguing in front of any group, I'm afraid (nuance loses arguments, typically), but it's not always priority #1. And it turns out that when arguing in front of secularists, priority #1 is to not make statements that are disproven by 5 minutes of Googling. This is not to say you can't ever get away with lying to skeptics, but your lies can't be blatantly obvious to anyone with an internet connection. Rogers failed badly in this department, and given that there was already a lot of (IMO well-justified) bias against her due to her ties with the Bush administration, I just don't see any possibility of coming back from this.

Disclaimer: I must confess I don't even really have a horse in this race, since the extent of my involvement with the SCA has been that I "liked" the Secular Student Alliance page on Facebook. I am not a donor nor a member. So what I think doesn't really matter, beyond the fact that I think I happen to be super-smrt and stuff.

An awesome thing about Where the Wild Things Are that I bet you never noticed

I've been meaning to do this post for several months now, ever since I noticed this. The sad departure of Maurice Sendak made me decide that today is the day.

My paperback copy of Where the Wild Things Are is 10"x9" (actually it's more like 9 7/8"x9", but close enough). So in each pair of facing pages, there are two times 10" times 9" equals 180 square inches of paper.

The lone illustration on the first pair of facing pages ("The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind") is 5 1/2" x 4 1/8", for a total of about 22.7 square inches, or 12.6% of the total paper. The illustration on the second pair of facing pages is almost imperceptibly larger, at 6 1/4"x4 3/4", or 29.7 square inches, or 16.5% of the total area. I think you can see where this is going... but you still might be surprised at how committed Sendak is to this distinctly mathematical flair:


I probably didn't need to label the Wild Rumpus, but I did anyway. For the entire book, the illustration has been growing and growing, until for those three pairs of facing pages, the illustration fills the entire space, obliterating words (if you don't recall, those pages stand apart from the rest of the book in that there is no accompanying text).

I also labeled the two points where it crosses the 50% line, once on the way up and once on the way down. In both cases, the entire right hand side page is solid illustration, the left is simply black text on a pure white background. The first, which I have labelled "Start of dream?" is the frame where we see Max's arms raised as he prowls through the newly grown forest, accompanied by the text, "and grew until his ceiling hung with vines and the walls became the world all around". If you'll allow me a bit of interpretive license, I would argue that in the pages leading up to where I have marked "Start of dream?", Max has been in that semi-dozing state we often find ourselves in, where images flash in and out of one's head as one teeters between wake and sleep; and the page I have labelled "Start of dream?" is when he falls into a deep slumber, and the vague scenes in his head crystallize into the ragged narrative of a true dream.

The point I have labelled "End of dream?" doesn't require nearly as much interpretation. In fact, I probably could have left off the question mark. This page is accompanied by the caption, "and into the night of his very own room where he found his supper waiting for him", and shows a tired-looking Max smiling and rubbing his head in his room. It is the first post-Rumpus illustration we see that is clearly in the "real" world rather than the dream world. This is pretty unambiguously the end of whatever experience Max was having.

I think it is no coincidence that the "dream" is book-ended by pairs of pages that stand at the threshold where the illustration bursts from the confines of the right-hand page and spills over into the left-hand page -- which, in all of the non-dream parts of the book has been reserved for plain black text on a pure white background. I have to believe this is deliberate.

It's a simple idea, but Sendak was committed to it, and it's subtle enough that I think most readers don't consciously notice it. And yet it adds tremendously to the excitement and other-worldliness of the book. The whimsy grows and grows monotonically, until it begins to impinge on the words, and finally all linearity and verbal thought is obliterated in a frenzy of unconstrained imagination. And just as quickly, the fantastic images shrink and dry up, until we gently touch down back in the world of words and simple material needs and hot suppers.

RIP Maurice Sendak. You were a genius.

Monday, April 23, 2012

From Eternity to Here has made me see a silver lining to the heat death of the universe

Note: I referred several times in this blog post to the idea of entropy "increasing forever", when of course it does no such thing. What I meant to refer to was an inflationary cosmology. I knew I would get some technical details wrong, and worse yet, my other fear -- that this post is redundant -- also seems to be true as well: Carroll tackles a similar scenario just a few pages later in Eternity than where I was when I wrote this. Still, there is some difference: Carroll is arguing that a non-inflationary universe is in contradiction with our observations; whereas I am pointing out that even if, in a misguided attempt to salvage the universe from a future of eternal emptiness, we invoke the anthropic principle to wave away the problematic observations, the universe we find ourselves in is far worse than one which ends with eternal emptiness. Carroll is saying, "This can't be true," while I am saying, "Even though we might fool ourselves into thinking otherwise, we really don't even want this to be true."

Well lookie here, Sean Carroll noticed my preliminary comments about From Eternity to Here, and he blogged about it. I am frankly honored, a bit star-struck even -- though if I'd known this would happen I wish I had put more time into that post! Sean's response in a nutshell seems to be, "Maybe it's a fair cop, but it's difficult to see any way to do better." I think I agree with that. I still think that a reader for whom this book is her first exposure to relativity and quantum mechanics (and logarithms, yeesh) is not going to follow a lot of it... but a lot of the review material is welcome anyway. Good popular science writing is immensely difficult, and Eternity is a truly stellar example of it. I really can't recommend this book enough!

I'm still not quite to the end of the book (I'm a little over 75% of the way through), so perhaps my thinking in this post is wrong-headed, or possibly redundant... but in any case, I think this book has incidentally given me a somewhat more positive view of the heat death of the universe.

Let's face it, the idea that the universe will end not with a bang, not even with a whimper, but with a gradual diffusion into a sea of unstructured particles is downright depressing. Making it worse is the idea of proton decay, a concept that was introduced to me by the light and fun book Death from the Skies. ("Don't be a dick", Phil? Maybe you could start by not telling me the most fucking depressing fact in all of cosmology... dick!)

But I am beginning to think that, if we really take seriously the conclusions of entropy and statistical dynamics, a universe in which we did not expect the arrow of time to point monotonically and irrevocably from the Big Bang towards heat death is even worse.

I am thinking back to what Sean Carroll refers to as the "Boltzmann-Lucretius scenario" (naming it jointly after the brilliant physicist and the renowned poet and philosopher, as each suggested a similar idea about infinite random recurrences of the universe). In this scenario, the universe as we know it, with it's apparent low entropy state, is the result of a random fluctuation from a high entropy state in an eternal universe. The Poincaré recurrence theorem implies that, in an eternal universe of flat spacetime, it is not just possible but inevitable that every possible state will eventually be arrived at by random chance -- including the exact state of the universe in which we find ourselves right now.

Carroll handily disposes of this idea, pointing out that there are all sorts of features we would expect to see in such a random fluctuation which we do not in fact see in our universe; and that, conversely, the features we do see are far more consistent with the idea of our universe having evolved from a low entropy boundary condition.

But hold on there for a moment, let's not just leave it at that. Let's say we have indeed convinced ourselves that the Big Bang really was a low entropy boundary condition, and that this explains the arrow of time (what Carroll calls "the Past Hypothesis"). Yet, having accepted that conclusion -- and therefore having at least nominally disposed of the Boltzmann-Lucretius scenario -- now let's also say that, since we find the idea of the universe dissipating into a uniform quantum soup to be distasteful, we've convinced ourselves that we ain't going out like that. We started out from a low entropy boundary condition called the Big Bang, which defines the arrow of time for us, but we'll eventually settle into a flat universe, where, although the average entropy remains constant, "stuff can still happen". The alternative is too depressing, right?

The second part of that hypothesis may be just wishful thinking, but even still, we ought to be careful what we wish for... because if I'm not mistaken, the consequences of such a universe are epistemologically devastating. Our dear frenemy Poincaré (don't be a dick, Poincaré!) has proven that, even if we accept that there was at one point a nice orderly universe which evolved naturally from a low entropy boundary condition to a state of high entropy, if we don't allow the entropy to keep increasing indefinitely then there would then follow an infinite series of universes that only seemed to have started from a low entropy boundary condition, but really they were merely random departures from equilibrium.

Even if we believed there had been one very nice existentially satisfying Big Bang-bounded universe, the most parsimonious explanation for our current situation would be Last Thursdayism. Sure, it looks like we are living in that very special and orderly "first universe" possessing a nice clear arrow of time leading from a low entropy big bang to a high entropy "future"... but it's far more likely we are in reality in one of the infinite number of "later" universes which happened to randomly fluctuate into a state that just sort of "looked like" it came from a Big Bang.

Except it's even worse than that. Since, in such a universe, all history is an illusion, there is no way to lean on inductive reasoning in order to predict what will happen at any other moment in time. In such a reality, the most parsimonious explanation for the sensations we are experiencing at any given instant in our lives is that we came into being only a picosecond "ago" due to a random fluctuation of the eternal equilibrium end state of the universe, and we will cease to exist a picosecond "later". Sure, we might be in one of the many universes which are evolving from a random low entropy fluctuation that occurred Last Thursday, putting us in a state that approximated a particular Thursday in the "first universe"; but it's inconceivably more likely that we are in a much more local deviation that simply created the illusion of all of that for one infinitesimal moment. It is a nigh certainty that nothing you see is real; with overwhelming probability, you are nothing more than a Boltzmann brain that perceived for an instant the illusion of being in that special "first universe", and then evaporated an instant later.

So yeah, the fact that an expanding universe allows entropy to increase indefinitely sounds depressing... maybe it is a bit depressing... but the alternative is far, far worse. In a universe that will at some point reach a state of eternal thermal equilibrium, with the accompanying random fluctuations into low entropy states, nothing is knowable, nothing can be believed. The heat death of the universe makes me sad, but if it weren't inevitable then the only logically defensible world view would be nihilism.