Friday, December 31, 2010

A Capitalist Approach to Superpowers

Originally published over at SiMF.

Superpowers are undeniably cool. Who wouldn’t want super strength, or the ability to fly? Superpowered characters are popular in science fiction because, among other things, they allow us to explore what life would be like without the physical limitations we experience as humans. But it doesn’t stop there. Energy manipulation, teleportation…some superhumans push past the boundaries of our technological limitations as well, performing with a thought feats that your average physicist can only dream about reproducing someday.

Unfortunately, while we can strive to replicate the effects of some super powers with technology, there aren’t any real superhumans. Well, some people claim to be psychic…but nobody really takes them seriously, right? After all, if they could really predict the future they’d be making a fortune off the stock market and winning the lottery every week.

Which raises an interesting question. If superhuman abilities actually appeared in our modern society, how would they be used? In literature, superhumans generally only have two options: use their enhanced abilities to do good things and become a hero, or do bad things and become a villain. You can try stalling, but sooner or later Uncle Ben is going to die and you have to choose your path. That seems awfully limited, don’t you think? It’s true, someone with super strength and invulnerability would make a good crime fighter. He’d also be really good at demolitions and handy to have at a construction site. An honest-to-goodness telepath would be highly sought after in the business world. The practical applications for someone capable of teleportation are mind-boggling…just imagine a delivery guy who could arrive with your pizza minutes after you placed your order. Wow.

This concept of extraordinary abilities being used to accomplish ordinary tasks isn’t an original one. Throughout science fiction, superhumans have occasionally used their abilities for mundane purposes. In Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Strikes Again, the Flash was coerced into running on a giant hamster wheel that provided electrical power to a third of the United States. Babylon 5 featured the Psi Corp, a government agency that conscripted psychics and telepaths into civil service. Every once in a while some mutants in the X-men Universe will be enslaved and forced to use their powers to rebuild Genosha for the umpteenth time or something. There always seems to be some form of coercion, though. No one ever thinks of offering them a job with competitive salary and benefits. Is enslavement and conscription really necessary when you can pay people to do what you want?

Now I imagine that it would be more challenging to write an interesting story about a superhuman that worked in construction as opposed to being in the world-saving business, but not everyone has to be a hero! Certainly not all the time, anyway. In a society like ours, it makes more sense that people with enhanced abilities would find ways to put them to more practical, and profitable, uses. Even heroes have to pay the bills, after all. Why not take advantage of their unique abilities to do so?

But wait! ‘With great power there must also come – great responsibility!’ You know, I think that’s part of the problem. Superhumans have been used to tell stories about morality and big ethical questions for as long as they’ve been around. It’s iconic. Good versus evil, and all that jazz. The idea that you must use your abilities in a way that benefits your society is as entrenched as the idea that you must keep the fact that you have special abilities a secret. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I love those stories, but as much as I enjoy reading about this Chosen One or that Super Hero, injecting a little more capitalism and practicality into the worlds of the superhumans would make for some really interesting storytelling. It could inspire more relatable characters, and take the super-powered paradigm in new directions. After all, what these stories do best is inspire and comment on society as a whole…and society as a whole is pretty capitalistic. If I woke up with psychic powers, the first thing I would do is buy myself a lottery ticket.

Happy New Year, everyone!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The War Against Bacteria

My department had a visiting speaker this week, Dr. Sean Moore from the University of Central Florida. It was a really interesting talk, and Dr. Moore had a unique perspective on the way we use antibiotics against bacteria.

As microbiologists, we spend a lot of time and energy trying to understand the mechanisms bacteria use to invade human cells and cause disease. The idea being that if we understand how and why it happens, we can interfere with the process or prevent it from happening. Bacteria have been around much, much longer than humans, though. They didn't develop these mechanisms in the hopes that a human-like host would come along so that they could use them to invade human cells. The bacteria are just trying to survive inside an especially hostile environment, using whatever molecular tools they happen to have. Most disease-causing bacteria in humans only cause disease when they recognize that they are in a hostile environment. If they are colonizing an animal host or living in dirt or water they are not producing the chemicals or activating the pathways that make humans sick. They are happier and healthier that way, too. Virulence takes energy away from things like obtaining nutrients and cell division.

It's easy to lose sight of the fact that bacteria are not sentient. We anthropomorphise them all the time, even in science. We say that they are attacking or killing us, but they aren't. They're just surviving. Most of the symptoms we experience while sick are actually caused by our immune system as it tries to destroy the invaders. In fact, we are host to about 100 bacteria for every human cell in our body. They live on our skin and in our intestines, and without them we would be screwed. If you've ever had intestinal problems or persistent sickness after being treated with a broad-spectrum antibiotic, that's why. You basically wiped out most of the bacteria living in you, creating a vacuum that was filled up pretty quickly with whatever new bacteria you happened to encounter...only these new bacteria weren't adjusted to the unique environment that was you, and your immune system wasn't familiar with them. Sure, sometimes these gut bacteria can go virulent and cause problems, but that usually only happens when something else is wrong already.

Dr. Moore asked what if, instead of using antibiotics to kill bacteria, we instead communicated with the invading cells and convinced them that there was no reason for them to be virulent? Bacteria interpret signals from their environment to determine which pathways to activate, when its safe to divide...their overall behavior in general, really. If some signaling pathway could be used to convince the bacteria that they are still growing in say, dirt instead of your intestine, then we may be able to save ourselves a good bit of trouble. Antibiotics are undeniably effective and absolutely should be used to treat infections, but bacteria are becoming resistant to them faster than we can make new ones. Eventually, it wont be a very viable strategy anymore.

The trick to developing antibiotics is specificity. Prokaryotes are very similar to eukaryotes in many ways, so identifying compounds that will kill bacterial cells without killing human cells is challenging. You have to identify things that are distinctly unique about bacteria, and disrupt them as much as possible. Penicillin for example works by blocking peptidoglycan cross-linking. Bacteria can't form cell walls, and they die. Eukaryotes don't make peptidoglycan, so it doesn't affect non-prokaryotic cells at all. It works pretty well, until the bacteria learn how to make B-lactamases that chew up the penicillin. Then we introduce B-lactamase inhibitors, and the arms race continues. Drug companies screen thousands of small molecules, trying to identify ones with antibiotic activity. The rest of them are dismissed. Signaling compounds for mediating virulence rather than killing bacteria could very well be among them, but we have no way to screen for that kind of effect...especially since we really have no idea what we would be looking for.

The science is interesting, but still extremely preliminary. It's basically an idea and some computer simulations at this point. What really boggled my mind was the difference in philosophy. Our response to bacteria is often very emotional. We want to destroy the little buggers. We want revenge because they made us sick, but that isn't a logical response. Wars end because people agree to stop fighting. What Dr. Moore is suggesting is a significant paradigm shift, which I think could open up a lot of new possibilities and avenues of research.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Building Bigger Bugs

Originally published here at Science In My Fiction.
Also picked up by io9!

Giant insects make great movie monsters. Everyone deals with bugs on a daily basis - usually by squishing or exterminating them. We all know what they look like and what they can do, and I think we're all a little bit terrified of what would happen if the insects of the world decided to take revenge on humanity. They outnumber us. They have built in pincers and fangs and wings and armor. They are proportionally stronger, faster, and tougher than humans. Really the only thing keeping them in check is their size. Take that limitation away, and they would overrun the world.

Insects haven't always been the tiny nuisances we're familiar with today, though. During the carboniferous period, the Meganeura dragonfly had a wingspan of 28 inches. The Arthropleura, a relative of the millipede, could grow over 8 feet long. It was the largest known land invertebrate of all time. A majority of insect diversity has escaped the fossil record because the exoskeleton is made of chitin, a material that simply doesn't preserve well.  Every insect during the carboniferous period wasn't a giant, but just imagine what else could have been wriggling around in a world with dragonflies the size of hawks and millipedes the size of boa constrictors! So why aren't there any super bugs nowadays? Why did they get smaller over time?

To answer that you have to understand how insects breathe. Mammals absorb oxygen through the lungs, which is then transported throughout the body via the circulatory system. In insects, the circulatory and respiratory systems are separate. Oxygen is delivered directly to the cells via a complex series of tubes called the tracheal system. The tubes allow gas exchange to occur between the cells and the air. Oxygen diffuses in, and carbon dioxide diffuses out. It's not really very efficient. The larger an insect is, the larger the tracheal system has to be to support respiration. Eventually you run out of room for other organs. How big an insect can grow is limited by its ability to breathe.

Ok, so maybe giant insects don't make such great movie monsters when you know they could never actually get that big without suffocating. So how were they able to get so large during the Carboniferous period? Well, for one thing the Earth was covered in vast, swampy forests at the time. That's actually where the time period gets its name, since the plant matter deposited then forms the majority of the planets' modern coal deposits. All of this plant life absorbed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and produced oxygen. It is estimated that atmospheric oxygen levels in the Carboniferous period were as high as 35%, compared with 21% today. The most widely accepted theory is that with a higher oxygen concentration, the tracheal system was able to function more efficiently and insects were able to grow much larger.

Knowing that, the Mad Scientist in me wants nothing more than to get some atmospherically controlled tanks and breed me some giant spiders. It's fool proof, don't you see? If they ever escaped, they'd suffocate in normal atmosphere! No need to fear them turning against their creator or running amok in the nearest city. Spider silk, with its incredible tensile strength and flexibility, has been the Holy Grail of the textile industry for decades. Obviously the solution is just to build a bigger spider. Also, giant spiders are cool.

Unfortunately, it's been a long time since the Carboniferous period. A little something called evolution has been going on since then, and modern insects are adapted to a modern atmosphere. Researchers have examined the tracheal systems in insects of various sizes, and they have found that as insects increase in size the tracheal system also increases at a disproportionately higher rate.  Modern beetles, for example, can not grow larger than approximately six inches no matter how high the oxygen concentration is because the tracheal system still takes up too much room. In the Carboniferous period, the trachea were likely much narrower in diameter. With the higher oxygen concentration, the smaller tubes could have delivered enough oxygen to support larger insects.

Given enough time in a more oxygen-rich environment, you can bet that at least some insects would become super-sized. Unfortunately for me and my plans for world domination, it would happen on an evolutionary scale and not because some spiders were accidentally zapped with gamma radiation. Ah well, back to the drawing board.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Internal Consistency - Part 2: Herbal Medicine

I've been thinking recently about the importance of skepticism and the need to apply skeptical thinking to my own life. As such, I've had to take a good, hard look at some of the things I believe. Why do I believe these things? Are these beliefs really supported by evidence, or is it just wishful thinking? You can read Part 1 of this exercise here.

Herbalism was one of the things about Wicca that appealed to me the most. Thinking that I could do something simple, like making a cup of tea, to help heal someone else made me feel really good. And there's nothing wrong with that in and of itself, but for the most part I was pretty ignorant about what I was doing. Sure, I had read a few books about herbal teas and tinctures and what herbs had been traditionally used to treat what symptoms...but I was really and truly ignorant about medicine. I wasn't a doctor, I was a dumb teenager who never stopped to think that the person I was making this tea for might have an adverse reaction to it or that it might interact negatively with some prescription medication they were already taking.

Herbal medicines are still chemicals and need to be treated as such. Unfortunately, herbal remedies are considered dietary supplements by the FDA, and therefore aren't regulated in the same way as prescriptions and over-the-counter medications. Basically, the products have to be 'safe', and that's about it. They don't have to regulate dosage or interactions, and they don't have to prove that the drug does what the manufacturer says it does.

Just to make that clear, an herbal supplement supplier can produce a product and claim that it does whatever they want. "This placebo will make you better at math, double your lifespan and cure your impotency! Give us your money!" They don't have to prove that it is effective beyond what it takes to convince people to spend money on their product. Why not? Basically, no one is sure where to draw the line between 'food' and 'drugs', making it difficult to regulate consistently. As the herbal medicine and supplement business gets bigger and bigger, it is becoming more and more apparent that the current laws are not adequate. There is a lot of debate going on currently about how and whether the FDA should regulate herbal supplements.

Herbal remedies aren't just snake oil, though. Many modern medicines are just concentrated or modified versions of the chemicals found naturally in plants. Which is even more reason to tread cautiously. Make sure you are as informed as possible before using any herbal remedy, and consult with an actual doctor before starting any herbal regiment. Yes, willow bark is where we get aspirin from and willow bark tea is a nice, relaxing way to treat your friend's headache...unless they happen to be taking another NSAID, and it happens to induce angioedema. You are not a doctor just because you know something about herbal remedies.

Just because a remedy is 'natural' or 'traditional' doesn't mean it will actually do anything, either. Here is an excellent run-down of some popular herbal treatments and their purported effectiveness. As long as herbal remedies are supported by published studies and common sense, and you use the appropriate caution, there is nothing wrong with them. In fact, they can be very beneficial. I would recommend books like this one, published by the prestigious MAYO clinic and backed up by research, if you're really interested in trying your hand at natural or herbal remedies. This book will not tell a patient to try anything that might be dangerous, anything that has been tested and found not to work, anything that is based on belief rather than on evidence, or anything that might delay or interfere with needed medical treatment. Be extremely suspicious of any 'natural' or 'herbal' treatment that can't meet those basic criteria.

So where does this leave me? Do I still 'believe' in the power of herbal medicine? To the extent that herbal remedies have been shown to be effective, yes. I 'believe' they should be treated like any other drug...with caution, medical supervision and common sense. I no longer take what is written in my books on herbalism at face value, and I wouldn't offer to prepare an herbal remedy for anyone without making doubly sure it was safe and being certain they were also seeking professional medical advice for their problem. I'm slightly less ignorant in that regard, at least.

I think the biggest difference between my perspective now and my perspective as a Wiccan in high school is that I no longer think of herbalism as the answer to everything. Dumb kid that I was, herbalism seemed like this mystical, perfect way to fix things. 'This tea will fix your body'. 'Burn this herb as an incense to fix your mind'. 'This herbal sachet will fix your heart'. If it didn't work right away, it was just because herbal remedies took longer to be effective. I believed everything I read in my books about herbal cures, without needing or looking for evidence. I had faith in the power of these plants to heal. Honestly, I'm lucky I didn't accidentally poison someone.

Faith is simply not a good basis for medical treatment. Knowing what I do now about herbalism and science, I feel like I am much better equipped to use herbal remedies effectively and safely...with a substantially reduced risk of accidental poisoning. I would call that a significant improvement.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Boy Scout Conundrum

The Boy Scouts of America has presented me with an ethical conundrum for many years. On one hand, I know several people who were Boy Scouts growing up and have only positive things to say about the experience. I love the idea of taking kids out hiking and camping and making them just generally more prepared for the coming zombie apocalypse. It's fun. It builds character. The kids look adorable in their little uniforms.

On the other hand, the BSA has policies in place prohibiting homosexuals from holding leadership roles in its scouting program. Agnostics and atheists are prohibited from membership all together, on the grounds that these philosophies conflict with the values of 'Scout Oath and Law'. Membership status and leadership positions have been denied or revoked because of these policies.

You can see where the conflict is for me. I want to support the kids involved in the BSA, but I do not want to condone discrimination by supporting the organization itself. For a while this little bit of cognitive dissonance floated around in my skull, unaddressed, until a trip to Publix brought it to the front lines. The Boy Scouts were there, selling popcorn to raise money for a trip. Initially I was uninterested, but an adorable little boy with big, blue eyes came up to me and asked me to buy some so that his troop could go camping. I was cursing internally even as I smiled and said 'Yes, I'd love to'. I was cursing even more when I realized how expensive the popcorn was. But how could I turn him down? I had extra cash on hand, and he was so proud and excited to have actually sold something!

Unfortunately, actually putting my own money in the hands of the Boy Scouts increased the cognitive dissonance. So now I have to figure this out.

The BSA is a private organization. That means it can establish its own policies about who can join based on their right to 'freedom of association'. Those policies have been challenged several times, even at the level of the Supreme Court, and the right of the BSA to make and uphold those policies has been affirmed. The right of 'Freedom of Association' basically allows a private organization to exclude a person from membership when "the presence of that person affects in a significant way the group's ability to advocate public or private viewpoints." So what are these viewpoints that atheists and gays are infringing on by their involvement?

Scout Oath
On my honor I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country
and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong,
mentally awake, and morally straight.

Scout Law
A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Seems tenuous to me. It's true, your average atheist wont be too thrilled about regularly reciting an oath to 'do your duty to God'. I can see how that could potentially cause some conflict. Most of us certainly aren't what you would call 'reverent' either. Still doesn't seem like grounds for banning atheists and agnostics from membership. 'Morally straight', though? Is that all they have against the gays? That is at best a technicality.

It's a pile of crap, really. However, as long as the right to freedom of association is being interpreted the way it is in this country, they have the right to decide who gets to be a member of their organization. Unfortunately, the leaders of the BSA have chosen to be discriminative pig-dogs. As individuals, all we can really do to show our disapproval is not support the BSA.

But what about the children? They aren't necessarily being discriminatory, they just want to have fun! That's true, but the BSA is not the only way for that to happen. There are several alternative organizations that offer similar programs and benefits without the discrimination and hateful policies. Honestly, I feel like I made a mistake buying that popcorn. I wish I had instead donated that money to Navigators USA or Camp Fire USA. Because as cute as that little boy was, I'd rather support organizations that will teach him about tolerance and diversity.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Superstition is Not Harmless

I'm an outspoken person. I care a lot about things like science, equality, and the truth. I'm also pretty stubborn, especially when I know I am right about something. Taken together this makes me fairly argumentative at times. I know, shocker, right? On several occasions I've run into people who don't understand why I'm arguing, though. In fact, I've been called a jerk for arguing as vehemently as I will do on occasion. Why do I have to be right all the time? Why not just let some things go and let the crazy people be crazy? And I can see their point. There's no sense in getting worked up over every single issue. I think it is a mistake, however, to trivialize the impact of the 'crazies'. Anti-Vax, Homeopathy, Mysticism...these things may seem like abstract concepts, but people really do believe in them and those beliefs get people killed. Whooping cough is making a comeback and killing children. Ignoring science-based medicine in favor of alternative methods that are not supported in any way by science will only lead to more tragic, preventable deaths.

'But Mysticism is harmless, right? It's just a bunch of superstitions. No one takes them too seriously...right?' Unfortunately, that is not the case. Just ask the ACES Wildlife Refuge in Belize. When two children went missing, a Mayan psychic predicted that they had been fed to the crocodiles at the sanctuary. The resulting mob destroyed the facility and killed several of the animals.

Albinos in Africa live in constant fear of being attacked and sold for parts. Seriously. Right now. Today. This is really happening, because witch doctors are telling people that the blood and body parts from albinos will enhance spells or attract fish. And people believe it! Enough people with enough money believe it that you can make a sizable profit just by killing a few people that don't really count as people anyway because their skin doesn't produce melanin.

It's insane to me that things like this are still happening, but they are. Dismissing superstitious beliefs as harmless has not helped. If people who know better don't get angry and argue and protest, how will it ever change? Even if the crazies will always be crazy, how can we stop them from influencing others without demonstrating loudly how completely and irrevocably wrong these people are? Taking a position and defending it does not make you a jerk. Discrediting someone elses' position with facts and evidence does not make you a jerk. Saying and doing nothing when faced with people acting irrationally because of faith, or encouraging others to do so? I'd rather be a jerk.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Internal Consistency - Part 1: Meditation

I haven't always been an atheist, you know. I was baptized Presbyterian. I went to an Episcopalian church with my grandmother every Sunday, where I served as an altar girl and helped out in the Sunday School. I never made it through confirmation classes, though. (Apparently they don't like it when you start quoting Monty Python and the Holy Grail in a seriously religious setting. Go figure, right?) I was baptized a second time as a Baptist when I went to church with a friend for a brief time. Through most of High School I was Wiccan. Heck, I was an ordained High Priestess. Once I got to college I floated around in limbo for a while, drifting between Paganism and Agnosticism. Eventually I realized that Science made the most sense to me, and chose to believe in reality. Reality is awesome.

'That's odd, BW.' You may be thinking. 'You don't usually talk about yourself in this blog.' Which is true, I actually try to avoid that. I'm exploring something relatively personal here though, and I think it needs some context. You see, during my Wiccan phase I learned a lot about meditation, herbal medicine, astrology and tarot cards. A lot of that knowledge stuck with me. I still meditate on occasion if I'm feeling wound a bit too tightly. I own several books on herbal remedies and can recommend a good tea to assist most minor discomforts. I know a 'How many X does it take to change a light bulb?' joke for each astrological sign. I've been doing tarot cards readings for 11 years now and am a member of the Hoggetowne Tarot Guild. We do readings at our local Renaissance Fair every year.

'Whoa, hold on BW...' you may be saying. 'You're an Atheist. A nonbeliever. A skeptic! How can you still believe in all of that New Age stuff?'

It's a tricky question. Are my thoughts on things like tarot cards and astrology consistent with a logical and scientific worldview? Am I rationalizing and compartmentalizing in order to hold on to my silly, harmless beliefs? Does it even matter one way or the other?

Obviously I think it does matter or I wouldn't be writing about it. Skepticism is important, and it isn't easy. (Read that article! Greta Christina is awesome.) Questioning things we are told, being wary of bias, investigating the source of the information...these things do not come naturally. You have to work at it. It is even more difficult to apply those principles to yourself and look critically at the things you believe. Why do I think the things I do? Do they really make sense, or am I just thinking that way because it's easy and makes me feel better? Well, time to practice what I preach.

Let's start with an easy one: meditation. I think my first experience with meditation was when I was a kid. My grandmother used to read us these bedtime 'stories' that were very much like meditative exercises. Basically, she would tell us to close our eyes and imagine floating outside of our bodies and experiencing the things described in the story, like flying above the world or wriggling through the roots of a plant. It was neat. When I was Wiccan, meditation was a big part of the rituals. We believed that by focusing our energy and visualizing certain things (deities, the sun and moon, forces of nature, etc.) we could affect them and be affected by them.

I haven't really thought seriously about meditation in a long time. Nowadays I mostly do it when I'm bored or can't sleep. I started doing a bit of research on it and even the general descriptions of meditation are pretty varied. It is practiced by at least a dozen spiritual faiths with different reasons and goals, but the general idea seems to be to focus or direct your mind for some benefit. The claims vary, from the ability to reach other planes or transcendental states to controlling your heartbeat and metabolism. The published research on meditation is plagued with poor methodology and conflicting results; sometimes they conclude that there is an observable change in a meditating person, sometimes they don't. Dang, I thought this one was going to be easy.

Ok. No matter how hard you concentrate on something, you cannot affect other people or the world around you just by thinking about it. So the real question here is whether or not meditation actually has an affect on the person doing it. I can cite my own experiences of meditation helping me get to sleep, but that is purely anecdotal evidence and I may be biased anyway. Scientifically, if the effect is not measurable and repeatable then it has very little credibility. Currently, there is insufficient evidence for me to accept the power of meditation to calm or control the body, at least beyond what just sitting still would do on it's own. It's possible that a well-designed study will come along and change my mind, though. For now, I think of meditation as a mental game, or a way to distract my mind so my body can relax. It would be pretty cool if there was more to it than that. I certainly used to think there was, but when evidence contradicts beliefs it's time to let them go.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

What do you mean, it's not always about me?

I am a giant nerd, and I enjoy talking about nerdy things. Sometimes I get carried away and forget that there are normal people out there that don't really care very much about my DnD character or the awesome comics I read this week. When I am in the presence of such a non-geek it may take me a minute, but I will eventually realize it and make an effort to talk about whatever it is normal people talk about. (Movies? I dunno.)

I mean, it makes sense that not everyone shares my views and interests. I am perfectly capable of talking about non-geeky things when I'm around non-geeks. It just seems polite, honestly. Why would I expect them to enjoy or even participate in something that just really isn't their thing? I'm still a geek on the inside, and it doesn't stop me from making geeky jokes and observations.

So why is it that when someone is praying, they want everyone else to pray with them? In the last few months I must have read about at least a dozen law suits being filed against schools and city councils for instituting some kind of official prayer. Seriously? What is so wrong with a moment of silence? No one is stopping you from praying if that's what you want to do.

Now as I said, I understand that it's easy to forget that not everyone likes the same things you do. I can see how in a predominantly Christian neighborhood a prayer at the start of a meeting or at a graduation ceremony could be established without it occurring to anyone that it was wrong. Just because no one has complained up until now doesn't make it right, though. Once someone complains or files a law suit, why can't they just say 'Oops! Our bad!' and move on?

Because it is wrong, no doubt about it. Not everyone is Christian, and any endorsement by a government body of one particular faith over any other (or the lack of faith all together, for that matter) is discriminatory and violates the separation of church and state, no matter how harmless it seems. And hey! There's a completely reasonable alternative out there! Have a moment of silence, and let everyone use it however they'd like. Why are they wasting time and taxpayer money to fight these lawsuits? Why are they taking advantage of loopholes to keep their prayer as public as possible? Holding the prayer before the 'official' start of the meeting so it technically doesn't count, not screening student's graduation speeches, having a rotating list of speakers but only inviting predominantly Christian's shady dealings designed to avoid law suits without actually having to change anything. Why is being able to pray out loud and in public so important?

It's not just prayers, either. In Marion, Illinois they're trying to put up a Ten Commandments Monument in Town Square, on government property. When atheist Rob Sherman objected, he was 'not welcomed' in Marion. Rather than just building a non-religious monument instead, the City Council is talking about selling the land to make it technically private property. I hope they do, and Sherman outbids them. How is it anything but obvious that a monument to the Ten Commandments outside of City Hall is a problem? Why would they so stubbornly cling to the idea instead of just admitting that it would belittle non-Christians coming to City Hall seeking justice? How can a non-believer be sure they're going to be treated fairly in that kind of environment?

The Highway Crosses is another recent example. In Utah, highway troopers that fall in the line of duty are honored by erecting large, white crosses on busy highways. They argue that this is not an endorsement of religion, because crosses are not necessarily a religious symbol. So, why not just use something that is definitely not a religious symbol? Why fight an expensive legal battle to keep your crosses? Yes, families place roadside crosses all the time. Families are not a government body. There are plenty of ways to honor the fallen without religious overtones that are just asking for a lawsuit.

I am not at all religious, so maybe I'm missing something here...but I don't talk about geeky stuff every time I hang out with people. It doesn't make me less of a geek, or diminish my geekiness in any way. I don't erect monuments to Batman in front of government buildings so everyone can see how geeky I am. The whole attitude just confuses me.

Ok, never mind. I'm totally erecting a monument to Batman outside City Hall. That is just too awesome.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Judge Walker, Texas Ranger

So in other news I've been dying to write about, that pile of crap Proposition 8 was overturned in California! This is awesome in many ways. First, and most obvious, yay for equality! The fact that Prop 8 was passed in the first place was a grave injustice, and I am thrilled to see that injustice being corrected. Also, since the ruling itself actually stated that banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, we are closer than ever to getting a Supreme Court decision on the matter and hopefully putting it to rest once and for all.

Second, the ruling itself (which you can read here) was methodical, factual and thorough. It is in every way a victory for logic and rationality in government. Judge Vaughn R. Walker completely destroyed the gay bogeymen erected by the proponents of Prop 8 and the supposed "harmful consequences" of gay marriage by critically examining the case, witnesses and testimony. He found it severely lacking, and I commend him for his use of pure reason in handling such an emotionally charged topic. Dude kicks ass, is all m'sayin'. There's a really good summary of Judge Walker's findings here.

I was seriously psyched by this decision. It gave me a little bit more hope for humanity and the ability of rationality to triumph over fear and prejudice. So when I went home to visit family and my step-dad started spouting his usual mix of anger and bigotry, I didn't let it get to me. 'No sir, you are not the one in power here!' I thought. 'A new age is upon us, and my generation will make things right! Bully!' When my youngest brother started parroting him and talking about how 'gross' it was for two guys to kiss, I got a little phased. When random strangers walking past me at the mall echoed that sentiment I was actually pretty bummed by it. 'There is so much ignorance out there, and we have so far to go', I thought. 'Balls.' My other little brother (I'm the oldest of seven. There are a lot of us.) restored my hope considerably, though. He actually initiated a conversation with me about how awesome the overturning of Prop 8 was, totally of his own accord. You rock, little bro.

My experiences back home did ground me somewhere back in reality. Yeah, we're making progress. That's awesome and should be celebrated. There's still a lot of hate and ignorance to be overcome, though.

First Amendment >>> Internet Polls

Ok, so I'm a bit late to weigh in on this issue because I haven't had time to write in a while, but there's this HUGE debate going on about the 'Ground Zero Mosque'. When I first read about it I thought it was kind of silly, and I certainly didn't expect it to get this huge. I mean, what exactly are they debating about? Nothing illegal is happening and the government has no power to do anything about it, no matter what popular opinion says. This article does a pretty good job of explaining why the whole thing is ridiculous.

Now, this subject came up while I was visiting home. My Dad has been both a paramedic and a firefighter, and he objected to the 'Mosque' because the families of the first responders killed in the World Trade Center attacks objected. He felt that their wishes ought to be respected, and honestly that's the only argument against the construction project that's made me stop and think for a minute...until I remembered that Muslim citizens and first responders were killed in the attacks as well. No, I respect and sympathize with those families, but their objections are reactionary and their anger is misguided. Popular opinion does not trump the First Amendment. Anyone who understands the facts of this situation (I hope anyway) has to see how pointless the argument against it actually is, and how dangerous it would be if the First Amendment were compromised in any way.

The people perpetuating the argument strike me as either sensationalists who want to sell advertising or just plain hateful. The Daily Show has been doing an awesome job tearing them apart, too...especially Fox News. *shudder* Nothing frustrates me more than seeing facts twisted to support an agenda, and that is pretty clearly what is happening here.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Belief and Political Correctness

As far as I'm concerned, ideas are infinitely preferable to beliefs. People get hung up on beliefs. They take them personally. For example, I don't believe that God doesn't exist; the evidence suggests that God doesn't exist. If the evidence changes, I'll have to get a new idea. Obviously, not everyone uses this approach. That's fine, people should think and believe however and whatever they want.

That principle, that everyone is entitled to their own beliefs and opinions, is very important to me. Unfortunately though, like many principles, it doesn't always work so well in practice. Because sometimes, people are just wrong. Evolution happens. It is measurable and observable and can be used to make reliable predictions about the world. The Earth is about 4.54 billion years old, give or take a few millennium. We have radiometric dating techniques that say so. Just because you don't understand the math doesn't mean it's not true. Dinosaurs were real. We have the fossils, and they weren't planted by Satan to test your faith.

'Calm down, BW!' you may say. 'Sure, some people believe silly things that aren't true, but that's ok! The Universe doesn't care what people believe!' And you'd be absolutely right. But where do we draw the line? Where does being tolerant of others' beliefs cross over into allowing harm to occur unchallenged? How do you deal with people who genuinely believe that they are doing the right thing, and just happen to be completely wrong?

Abortion clinic protesters believe that what they are doing is right. They believe that babies are being murdered, and they are doing their best to put a stop to it. But they don't distinguish between patients seeking therapeutic or elective abortions, and they don't distinguish between an actual person and a cluster of tissue that might be a person. The decision to get an abortion is never easy to make, but it is a decision that has to be made by each woman individually. Some pregnancies are the product of rape or abuse. Many abortions are medically necessary. By harassing patients and employees, all that these protesters accomplish is to make it harder for these women to receive the care they need. I found this letter, written by a former protester to be especially poignant. This girl was just doing what her grandmother said and trying to help save babies. How do you get through to people that are so convinced they are in the right?

Cultural beliefs can be just as problematic as religious beliefs. Slavery was once a way of life in America. People fought to defend that way of life, even though it involved subjugating others. In retrospect it is obvious that owning another person is wrong, but the people living that life believed they were entitled to it. Now we have culturally sanctioned segregation and abuse of women. Honor killings are on the rise, especially in immigrant communities exposed to western values. This editorial discusses how the ideology of multiculturalism is problematic for advocates dealing with abused women in these communities. The cultural values and traditions that lead to violence are not discussed or questioned, because the culture must be respected. But when those beliefs lead to tragedies like the death of Aqsa Parvez, it may be time for some cultural insensitivity. Where do you draw the line? How do you get through to those people who feel like Aqsa'a parents were in the right and she brought it upon herself?

I could go on forever here. Believers in faith healing let their children and loved ones die of preventable diseases rather than take them to a doctor. Some people can argue quite reasonably and eloquently that gay people don't deserve the same rights as other human beings and it has nothing to do with bigotry and homophobia. Really. That's just the way things are to them. It's completely and utterly wrong, but that is what they believe and how they see the world.

Ok, I've asked where the line is and what do we do about it, time to man up and actually try to answer the question. I draw the line between accepting other beliefs and speaking out against them where those beliefs start to negatively affect others. If you, as an informed adult, choose to rely on prayer for healing and celebrate the Earth's 6001st birthday then go for it. You're not hurting anyone but yourself. If you deny your children access to medical care because you think God will cure them or try to deny anyone else their rights because your beliefs say they shouldn't have them, you can go fuck yourself. I will oppose you in every way I know how. It's not enough just to extend tolerance to everyone, because some beliefs should not be tolerated.

Obviously there's a lot of gray area here. There is no one universally applicable right answer. Each unique situation must be approached with empathy and critical thought. The only thing shown to reliably decrease abortion rates is to increase education about family planning and contraceptive use. The best way to increase understanding and acceptance of different cultures is to increase exposure and education between groups. Cultural or ideological sensitivity is no reason to allow ignorance to take root and spread. When individual belief comes into conflict with the safety, happiness and education of others it has to take a back seat.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Thoughts on Happiness

As I may have mentioned before, I am an atheist. As such, I see life as a temporary thing. One of my main goals is to experience said life as thoroughly and as richly as possible, and to make it better for others to the best of my ability. As far as I'm concerned, we only get one shot at things. If you aren't happy, then you need to change things until you are. Being miserable is a waste of time.

Well, that was all rather trite and preachy, wasn't it? What am I getting at here? Basically, I have had to make some decisions lately for the sake of my happiness that were probably going to make someone else unhappy. It felt selfish and mean, and was difficult to do. I spent about a week making the decision and talking it over with people. Why? If happiness is my priority, why was it so hard to make what was clearly the right decision for me? Because I was making the other person's happiness my responsibility. This is an easy trap to fall in to, one to which I am especially vulnerable. (I get like a -10 on the search check. It's an obliviousness penalty.) Fortunately, experience has taught me to recognize the trap and get out of it quickly. I told the other person how I felt, and things changed. The other person may be unhappy for a while, but their reaction to my honest feelings is their own responsibility.

Unfortunately, some people actively set this trap for others. Ex-boyfriends threaten to commit suicide unless you take them back. Parents claim that you are ruining their marriage by being gay. Another person makes their happiness contingent on you doing what they want. These are extreme examples, but this is emotional blackmail and it happens all the time. Taking a stand when you are caught up in a situation like this can be a difficult and heart-wrenching thing. I would encourage everyone to take a good look at this equation and make sure you don't fall on either side of it. If you do, please do something about it.

I don't care what you believe...if you're not happy, what's the point? Do what you need to do to be happy. I'm not saying you should go out and quit your job or tell your nagging mom to go fuck herself, but don't let other people's happiness keep you from yours. Unless you're Jean Grey or Superman, you only live once.

BW's Heroes: Coolest Mad Scientist Ever

This guy right here? He is the shit.

Nikola Tesla is my hero. When most people think about Mad Scientists, they are thinking of Tesla...only he actually existed, and was actually mad. Literally, there's evidence to support that he was obsessive-compulsive at least. He held conventions with Tesla coils blasting electricity throughout the room, and would laugh at the terrified people. It was totally safe, after all. They were just a bunch of ninnies who didn't understand science. Nowadays, we have ArcAttack. Thank you, Tesla.

The man was a genius. Modern commercial electricity is based on his theories and development of Alternating Current electric power systems and motors. Edison dismissed AC power because he didn't understand the math. Tesla dismissed Edison for being a bad scientist. His AC current kicked Edison's ass in the War of the Currents, and he could have been a billionaire for those discoveries, too. He tore up the contracts because he thought power should be freely available, and because it would have put his employer out of business to have to pay them.

I think that's why I admire the man so much. He was absolutely innovative, sure. The list of his inventions and the contributions he made to science is mind-bogglingly long and varied. Electromagnetism, robotics, computers, remote control technology...we owe the dude a lot. It's the pattern of his life that is so incredible to me, though. He loved a challenge, and he loved science. He didn't market his inventions well or care about making money. He didn't care that people thought he was crazy, or that his Death Ray was purely theoretical or that the technology needed for his Flying Machine probably wouldn't be developed in his (or any) lifetime. It was the idea that mattered. Figuring it out. Taking the spark of inspiration, and following it wherever it took him, no matter how crazy it seemed. There's something really awesome about that. I don't know if I could do it with everything he had to face, even if I had his genius.

Tesla was ostracized during his time. His few close friends, Mark Twain among them, spoke well of him but he never married (obviously because the two of us were born centuries apart, o cruel fate), and died alone in a world that dismissed him as a 'Mad Scientist'. The Fools. They'll pay...they will all pay! As soon as I get my time machine working...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Priorities, people!

If I need help, I do not stop and wonder if the person who is helping me believes in God. I do not concern myself with their personal life at all, really. They are helping me. I say 'Thank you'. So when I read about this, I was rather incredulous. A food bank was unable to make all of its deliveries because they were short on volunteers, but they were turning away volunteers who didn't belong to a church. The guy running the food bank even admits that 'it sounds really, really stupid', but apparently the food bank was set up with increasing church involvement as a primary goal. I thought feeding hungry people was the point of a food bank. Would the people getting the food have cared whether or not the deliveries came from church-goers?

This may be a relatively small issue, but it hints at something bigger. Any situation where politics or prejudice interferes with getting help to people who need it is an unnecessary and terrible thing. When the earthquake hit Haiti, there were huge delays getting aid to the people that needed it because of bureaucracy. I can't go anywhere at the hospital where I do my research without seeing signs asking you to donate blood, but the FDA bans a significant portion of the population (homosexual men) from donating at all.

That is something that has really bothered me for years, too. Hospitals always need blood. Always. I have never seen a blood drive that wasn't advertising a 'critical shortage'. They need this blood to save people's lives, in the most literal sense. But only if it's not gay.

Now I know, the ban was put in place back in 1983 because the male homosexual population at the time had significantly higher rates of HIV infection. We had no effective screening process to ensure donated blood was safe, and it was honestly better in terms of disease control to eliminate the possibility of receiving blood from such a high risk population. Seriously though, that was almost thirty years ago. All donated blood is screened for HIV now, and other high risk populations are only required to wait a year after their last 'high risk behavior' before they get the go ahead to donate. Don't even get me started on why butt sex even qualifies as a 'high risk' behavior. Ugh.

So why is the ban still in place? Apparently it's a polarizing issue, with the blood banks themselves split on whether to maintain the lifetime ban or remove it entirely. But we're talking about peoples' lives here, why is it even up for debate? More blood donations can only be a good thing. Sometimes I just want to smack some perspective into people.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Evil Forces of Misinformation

There are a lot of things in this world that annoy me. Fundamentalists, Fox News, Jenny McCarthy and the anti-vax nuts...they all make me a little crazy and prone to violent ranting. So does passive-aggressiveness, but that's neither here nor there. The thing that these particular subjects of my ire all have in common is misrepresenting or flat out ignoring facts and evidence. They represent to me a perversion of the scientific method. Rather than developing theories based on evidence, they have agendas that the facts are cut and twisted to fit.

But that in and of itself isn't so bad. It's certainly frustrating, but people everywhere do it all the time. We want certain things to be true, so we look for affirmation of those things and gloss over the contradictions. What inspires mind-exploding rage in me is the depth of impact these particular groups have and how little that matters to them. Fundamentalists don't care that Creationism, for example, isn't supported by a single shred of evidence, they still think it should be taught in schools. It doesn't matter to them that they are misrepresenting or ignoring actual science, or that their distortions spread and are accepted as fact by people all over the world.

Fox News (and honestly most news networks to some degree, but Fox annoys me the most so I'm picking on them) is notorious for bias and regularly reports stories that are puffed up without calling the substance of the data into question. The recent 'Climategate' scandal is a perfect example. Climate researchers at the University of East Anglia had their e-mails hacked and cobbled together to give the appearance that their data did not support humanity as a contributing factor to global warming. This was being covered up in a vast liberal conspiracy designed to sell eco-friendly merchandise. Fox jumped all over this story, which fell apart within a week or two after some basic fact-checking. That apsect of the story was glossed over, however. Still, the negative impact this story had is real. People have a natural tendency to believe what they hear first. Even if the initial story is later debunked or retracted, the damage is already done. Nowadays, information spreads so quickly that the importance of getting the facts straight the first time is greater than ever, but the truth is secondary to ratings and pandering to the audience.

The anti-vaccination movement is an even bigger pet peeve of mine. If I even hear it mentioned I have to take several deep breaths or risk foaming at the mouth with rage. I'm a microbiologist and an immunologist, so the depth of ignorance being circulated on this subject is especially painful to me. A big part of why vaccines work at all is because of something called herd immunity. If most of the people in a population are protected against a disease, it is less likely to spread. This creates a layer of protection for people more vulnerable to the disease, such as children, the elderly and immunocompromised patients. If vaccination rates decrease then that protection erodes, with predictable results. Unvaccinated populations also create an environment in which the microorganism can adapt to the human host, potentially generating new strains that the current vaccines are less effective against.

I have yet to see any data in support of the anti-vaccination movement that hasn't been completely retracted or discredited. People are literally dying, of preventable diseases no less, because of it, and why? To cause fear and perpetuate a scandal? To sell books and bogus homeopathic remedies? None of this makes any sense. The decision to not vaccinate your children doesn't just affect you, it puts them and everyone else in your community at risk. The decision to convince people that they shouldn't vaccinate their kids has the potential to affect society as a whole. Perpetuating this misinformation is probably the most socially irresponsible thing I can imagine.

Well, now that I've ranted and raved about the Evil Forces of Misinformation plaguing society, what is to come of it? There is misinformation everywhere after all, it's not going to disappear no matter what. Even if Fox News suddenly starts doing informative and fair reporting and Jenny McCarthy tells everyone to vaccinate their kids immediately, the problem is bigger than them. With so much information out there, we have to start doing our own fact checking. We have to apply critical thinking to everything we hear, from office rumors to the local news. We need to hold ourselves and others accountable for the accuracy of our statements, because the truth matters and people are listening.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Ever wonder what will happen to your pets after the Rapture?

My grandmother is a huge fan of the 'Left Behind' books. I find them to be generally distasteful, but interesting in concept. The question of what the rest of us would do if some significant portion of the population was 'gone' (abducted by aliens, turned into zombies, killed by a plague, wiped out in a war, etc.) is one of the most popular themes in science fiction. For good reason, since it allows us to explore interesting questions about our own nature. How would I respond to a crisis? Would I survive the zombie apocalypse? Pretty much every nerd I know has a Zombie Attack Plan and has assessed their home for the level of protection it would provide against the Horde. It's fun to think about, and honestly I think it makes us more prepared for any real crisis that comes our way.

The reason I found the 'Left Behind' concept so unpleasant was that it centered around an apocalyptic event that many people actually believe is going to happen. Some people have even set a date for it, as I griped about previously. To me, it seemed to trivialize their beliefs. To the people who held those beliefs, my grandmother included, it gave them a weird (to me) feeling of superiority. Like my friends and I, she was imagining what would happen to her if the events of the story actually took place...and she saw herself being raptured away and watching those events unfold from heaven. She was a bit difficult to live with for a few weeks after reading those books.

Even back in my days as a card-carrying Episcopalian the idea of the Rapture didn't make sense to me. It was too dramatic, too flashy...I didn't really believe in it. Now that I am a card-carrying atheist I definitely don't believe in it, and as such would be left behind if I were proven wrong and the Rapture were to occur. A few atheists are taking that fact and running with it. Since all of us heathen atheists aren't going anywhere, once the Rapture happens we'll feed your dog while you're out. There's a child rescue service available as well, in case your baby is orphaned when you are taken up to heaven. That's right, affirmed atheists are offering their services to care for your beloved children and pets after you leave them behind to go chill with Jesus. I bet they'll even water your plants for you if you tip nicely.

If this were a joke service I would find it hilarious, but they're actually taking people's money. Setting aside how ridiculous it is that anyone is seriously using this service, the people offering it are absolutely sure that they will never have to fulfill their contracts. If the Rapture did occur, there would be no one to enforce them anyway. Doesn't that make the whole thing a scam? Aren't they just taking advantage of people here?

I'm not sure. If someone really believes the Rapture is coming and they are going to be among those brought into Heaven, this could be a legitimate worry for them. The Bible doesn't exactly paint a nice picture of Earth post-Rapture. How could anyone enjoy Heaven knowing their children and pets were left to face that world alone? Maybe the peace of mind the service provides is worth it to those individuals that literally expect to be raptured any day now.

I don't know if this is right or wrong, but I do know I don't really like it. It feels like something important is being compromised, though I haven't figured out why just yet. Maybe it's that someone who would pay an atheist to take care of their animals after they get raptured is probably a nice person who really loves their pets and happens to have some misguided beliefs. Maybe it's that the service strikes me as a mean joke, where the customers pay you to laugh at them. Maybe it's that my grandmother would probably do it, especially if you caught her in those few weeks after she read the Left Behind books. It doesn't sit well with me.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Might I suggest a blindfold?

Women are sexy. Confident women especially so. It is entirely understandable that men, seeing our awesome sexiness, are affected by it. Call it 'arousing lust' or 'temptation' or whatever you want, it's natural and it's not a big deal. Or at least, it shouldn't be. Throughout history though, women have been held to different standards of dress and behavior because of the effect they have on men. Showing our wrists and ankles was once considered scandalous, for goodness sake. Even today, in some cultures women are expected to cover themselves pretty much completely in order to preserve their 'modesty'.

This concept of 'modesty' annoys me. Not only is it a huge double standard, it places the responsibility for a man's thoughts and feelings on a woman's manner of dress and behavior. Most teenage girls aren't dealing with burkas and petticoats, but your average teenager does spend most of their time worrying about how they look to other people. Girls everywhere are worried about being seen as 'slutty'. Throw some conservative or religious upbringing into the mix, and this 'modesty' concept starts to matter. So how does a modern teenager learn to dress modestly? Does she discuss it with her parents or her friends, or experienced women in her life? Of course not, she asks what teenage boys think. Who else is better qualified to tell women how they should dress? It's the boys they're trying to please, after all.

I didn't take the survey because it had closed, but I read a sociological analysis of the results. I find them annoying. According to the young men taking the survey, anything from miniskirts to wearing a purse strap across your chest is immodest. Decorative stitching on the back pockets draws too much attention to that fine, fine ass you have there. Immodesty isn't limited to how you dress, either. Walking, stretching, bending over...all of these things inspire lust or temptation within the souls of your fellow men, who really just want to see you for who you are as a Sister in Christ if you would just stop jiggling so much.

How does this make sense? Last time I checked having a penis didn't preclude you from keeping it in your pants. The Y chromosome does not make you less of a thinking human being. Though as a woman, I suppose I have "no concept of the struggles that guys face on a daily basis" who have "to constantly be on guard against ungodly thoughts brought about by the inappropriate ways they {women} sometimes dress."

As ridiculous and insulting as this all is, it's also kind of horrible. The idea that women are responsible for the way men react to their appearance or behavior has been used to justify rape and abuse for centuries. I can't imagine it's good for the self-esteem of the girls who buy into this crap, either. It also stomps all over female sexuality, since women can't possibly be tempted by men. Lust is a male problem. Dressing modestly is a female problem.

To which I say 'bullshit'. No heterosexual female has seen Daniel Craig without a shirt on, or Nathan Fillion in the 'Trash' episode of Firefly, without feeling tempted and a little lustful...and I will personally shoot anyone who tries to cover them up. Yummy.

Oh yeah, modesty. It's dumb. No one but you is responsible for your actions. If you really have a problem with how someone is dressed, don't look at them. It's their decision and their right to present themselves however they want, and how that makes you feel is your own problem to sort out.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How many times has the world ended so far, exactly?

When I first read about this a few weeks ago it made me chuckle. Agape Ministries, an Old Testament cult in Indiana, convinced several of their followers to donate large sums of money to the church based on the idea that Doomsday was coming. When the world didn't end as predicted, a few of those followers decided they had been had and wanted their money back.

I feel kind of bad for the people that were ripped off, but I also have to laugh at the whole thing. Bringing civil charges against a Doomsday cult for lying? It's lovely. Now that the possibility is out there, maybe it'll even discourage other groups from employing such shady and fear-oriented tactics.

Or maybe not. I'm totally planning a barbecue for May 21st, 2011. It's even a Saturday. Mark your calendars, I'll make kebabs.

But wait, why are these groups even setting a date in the first place? Why would they open themselves up to being proven wrong in such a definitive way? As con-artists, wouldn't it be easier to say Doomsday was coming "soon" rather than setting an expiration date on everything? What if they actually believe the world is going to end? Are they still con-artists?

I did some reading about the Rapture from Christian mythology (and I call it mythology because we're talking about the end of the world here, come on now), since it seems to be what these groups are anticipating. It's difficult stuff to stomach, and I didn't look too deeply into it for the sake of my own sanity. What it seems to come down to is a few passages in the Bible that speak vaguely about the second coming of Jesus, a time of tribulations, and the Rapture itself where God whisks all of his believers away. Using questionable techniques, such as numerology and the Bible Code, various groups have attempted to set a date for when these predicted events will occur. Once this date has been determined, as many supporting passages from the Bible as can be found are tacked together, bake for 30 minutes at 350 degrees, and voila! Your very own End Times Prophecy.

So what happens when they're wrong? Doesn't that kind of put a damper on things? Not at all, as these guys demonstrate. Someone must have misinterpreted something somewhere. The goal post just gets moved, and the cycle just starts over. At least Agape Ministries is getting called on it. Maybe it'll inspire more people to do the same.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

How about not being a Dick? Have you tried that?

Oh, the things people will do to help their fellow man See the Light! That's right, it's International Burn a Koran Day! It even has a Facebook page, so you know it's official.

As far as I'm concerned, this is shameless pandering for attention that is targeting a minority group in an especially vicious way. It embarrassed me as a human to learn about it and I was downright flabbergasted to discover that Dove World Outreach Center, the group organizing the 'event', is right here in Gainesville. They're also busy organizing a protest against Gainesville's mayor, Craig Lowe, because he happens to be gay. It is unclear if they are protesting his homosexuality in particular or just the fact that one of the gays managed to sneak their way into office.

Pastor Jones also claims to have been 'inspired' by Everybody Draw Muhammad Day when creating his event, which irked me. I strongly supported EDMD, and the similarities are superficial at best. It's true, both events center around doing something that is offensive to Muslims, but that's about as far as it goes. EDMD happened in response to a real problem, and it was making an important point about free speech and the need to criticize even what some people view as sacred.

I strongly suspect that this whole bit of nonsense is just to drum up media attention (burning Koran's on September 11th? *facepalm*) for the pastor's new book. Putting cynicism aside though, what could his motivation possibly be here? One of my favorite blogs did an interview with Pastor Terry Jones, and I am of mixed feelings about his responses.

On one hand, it shows a surprising level of ignorance for someone who calls themselves a 'Doctor'. (I wonder what his PhD is in?) His understanding of Islam is certainly lacking, especially for someone who has written a book on the subject. Plus there is the seemingly obvious problem that burning another religion's holy book is not going to convince them that their religion is a lie. It will not inspire them to re-examine their relationship with God, it will just convince them that you are an asshole.

BUT, he seems to actually believe what he is saying, and he has the right to believe whatever he wants. Burning books may be barbaric and dripping with hateful overtones, but it is protected by the first amendment. People have the right to burn their own books.

His response to criticism from the Christian Community is pretty solid as well:

"This is the way that we have chosen to do it. To those Christians who disagree, we would encourage them to choose their own method of spreading the gospel and do so."

How can someone be so reasonable and still be so crazy? It's creepy. He makes a good point, though. I disagree, so I should let him do his thing find a way to spread my own 'gospel'. They'll be protesting the mayor August 2nd, from 12-2 at City Hall. I wonder if you have to agree with the people who filed the protest to show up? Do you think 'Judge me by my merits instead of who I find fuckable' will fit on a sign?

Anyway, I disagree with their message and their methods. It's a dick move, but if they really believe in it what can you do? They're not hurting anyone, after all.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

This is so gay.

I am all about equality. Really, it's a big deal to me and it'll probably come up a lot in my writing. The gay rights issue is huge and multi-faceted, but there is a particular aspect of it I would like to explore. To facilitate that, I'm going to make my general position (which I am not interested in exploring) clear from the beginning:

People deserve equal rights. You can believe all you want that other people are living in sin and are going to Hell, but you do not get to deny anyone their rights because of your beliefs.

Now that that's out of the way, I came across this little comic book on the Interwebs not too long ago. It's a training guide, in comic book form, on the US Military's Homosexual Conduct Policy. It was produced in 2001 and distributed to US troops in an attempt to make the actual legal issues surrounding 'Don't ask, don't tell' more accessible to troops. I don't think I would call it a success. The future of the soldier who comes out of the closet, thus ending his military career, is not addressed and the harassment issue is seriously downplayed. Could anyone really take this seriously?

'Don't ask, don't tell' was put in place in 1993 by Clinton as a compromise. Prior to DADT, military policy was that 'homosexuality is incompatible with military service'. Anyone caught being gay was discharged. One of Clinton's campaign promises was to allow all citizens to serve in the military regardless of sexual orientation, but he couldn't get any real changes through Congress except to stipulate that military applicants were not to be asked about their sexual orientation. Hence the name.

It is undeniably a discriminatory policy, and one of the reasons I supported Obama was that he promised to repeal DADT as part of his campaign. It took a while to get around to it, but back in May the House finally voted to repeal DADT...pending investigation into how 'disruptive' the policy change would be.

And that's the crux of the issue right there. Homosexuals are currently banned from military service because of the idea that "it would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability." A lot of people believe that. 'But that's silly!' you may cry. 'Gay people are there already, they're just being forced to lie about themselves!' Certainly ultra-conservative reactions against the repeal of DADT, claiming that rape and HIV will spread across the ranks, are patently ridiculous. But what about your average, slightly homophobic soldier who was just more comfortable being able to pretend there weren't any guys checking him out in the shower? What about the very real problem of military harassment? Will it really be that disruptive? How is this investigation being carried out, anyway?

The military is conducting a survey, collecting subjective data from 400,000 troops. In a way this makes sense. The troops themselves are the ones that will be affected the most by the policy change. The survey itself is already receiving some significant criticism, though. Especially from the LGBT community. The questions, many of which are multiple choice, are accused of containing skewed language and pertaining to useless or inappropriate subject matter. I haven't read the whole thing, but here's a PDF if you're interested.

Honestly, I've found this piece to be the most informative in terms of actual soldier's opinions...if you scroll down to the comments section, that is. I've seen everything, from blatant condemnation of homosexuality to real concern for equality and fairness for their fellow soldiers, from actual people. It really is a mixed bag.

So now the big question becomes: How? Officers can talk all they want about discipline and professionalism, but counting on discipline to maintain 'unit cohesion' in the face of such an inflammatory issue just doesn't seem realistic to me. Segregating gay and straight soldiers is morally suspect (Separate but equal? Oh yeah, that worked so well before.) and certainly isn't practical. Repealing DADT is necessary and important, but I don't envy the officers that are going to have to deal directly with the consequences. It would be a fascinating social experiment if it weren't taking place within our military.

Ok, it's still more than a little fascinating, but it's also a bit disconcerting to think about a lack of stability in our military. It wouldn't take much more than a healthy level of paranoia to feel threatened by that. Our LGBT troops deserve every bit of respect and honor that our straight troops receive, however. It's about time we started doing something to fix this inequality.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Malaria-proof Mosquitoes!

This is seriously cool. Entomologists and geneticists at the University of Arizona modified a single gene in the Anopheles stephensi mosquito in the hope of shortening its lifespan to the point where the malaria parasite would be unable to mature fully before the host died. Instead, they entirely blocked infection by Plasmodium falciparum, the primary human malaria parasite. They still don't understand entirely why it worked (you can find the actual published data here), but by all accounts it sure seems to.

Malaria is one of those diseases that kills a million or so people each year, but because nearly all of those million people live in third-world countries not much gets done about it. Drug companies can't make much profit from making a drug that only poor people would buy, so progress has been slow. In fact, most of the current efforts to fight malaria revolve around mosquito control rather than targeting the parasite. There's some really cool research going on here at the University of Florida that revolves around designing pesticides that target the mosquitoes' uniquely alkaline digestive system, theoretically leaving other insects, fish and humans (with our acidic digestive systems) unaffected.

But what good is this new Mutant Mosquito going to do, besides maybe inspiring the next SyFy channel original movie? It's far too early to say anything for sure, but some of the articles I've read are excited about replacing wild mosquitoes with the mutant construct. This seems pretty unlikely to me, given that the mutation reduces the mosquito's lifespan, and therefore its breeding window, by about 20%. That's not going to compete successfully with the wild mosquitoes.

The other argument is the 'What have we wrought?!?' conundrum, which is what I really wanted to explore here. No one is seriously suggesting that we should introduce these new mosquitoes into the wild, but the potential to take a lab-created organism and replace an existing one with it is fraught with interesting moral and ethical questions.

First, can we really predict every possible outcome? What if something goes horribly wrong once the mosquitoes are released? Isn't that what happened with the love bugs? Those stupid things are everywhere!

Ok, the story about the love bugs being created in a lab and accidentally released is amusing and all, but it's a myth. We have for a reason.

Also, genetically modified crops have been in circulation for several years. A majority of transgenic crops are herbicide- or insect-resistant, but others are designed to be resistant to extreme weather conditions or specific viruses and parasites that are problematic for farmers. Some crops are even engineered to be nutritionally fortified and have been used to alleviate chronic malnutrition. There is still some controversy over the use of these crops, especially in regards to the effects on biodiversity and potential for the modified DNA to spread to other plants in unpredictable ways. These are real concerns. Only time can really tell what the long-term effects will be, but the metaphorical wheel is in motion. So far, the results are positive. Nothing has gone horribly wrong, and this technology honestly gives me a glimmer of hope for the future.

Plants are obviously not on the same scale as genetically modified insects, though. Insects can crawl and fly and spread themselves across the globe. Malaria isn't the only disease spread by mosquitoes, either. West Nile Virus, Dengue Fever, Yellow Fever... it's not difficult to imagine one of these monsters filling whatever gap was left by the elimination of malaria. Still, we have to look at the very real danger malaria presents. If replacing the wild mosquitoes with this construct was a viable option, would it be ethical not to do so? How do we weigh the million actual lives that are lost every year to this parasite against the potential harm it could cause? I don't really have an answer to that, but I think it will be very interesting to watch the progress of transgenic crops in agriculture. Good or bad, the results of these forays into the genetic manipulation of our environment will likely set the precedent for the future.

God vs. Atheism in Battle of the Billboards

I've been following this story pretty closely and it's nice to see some news coverage that's actually telling the whole story.

It would be nice if they had mentioned something about the vandalism that took place within a week of the billboards going up, and how some Christians actually endorsed said vandalism...but I'll take fair representation. Fair representation is a good thing.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

What's a Modern Carnivore to do?

I have a lot of vegetarian friends and I've always found it interesting to hear their reasons for choosing to eschew meat from their diet. After all, meat is tasty and our bodies are designed to use it as a source of complex proteins. I've collected quite a few stories.

A guy I knew as an undergrad told me he stopped eating meat after taking an agricultural food science course and learning all of the gross details of what goes into meat and how it is processed. He will still eat meat, but not in America. I know a couple vegetarians who are morally opposed to the treatment the animals receive, and vegans who are sickened by the thought of all of the artificial preservatives and hormones the animals are fed. Honestly sometimes it feels like I need a better reason than 'meat is tasty' to continue being a part of the whole mess.

I got a new perspective this past weekend, though. I've made a new friend who is vegetarian, and when I asked for her story she explained that animal farming was one of the major contributions to pollution and greenhouse gases. Her opinion was that not eating meat was a simple thing she could do to help the environment.

Now I remember a few years ago when everyone was joking about cow farts causing global warming, but I had largely dismissed it as media bias. Cow farts are funny and not our fault, so it's nice to be able to blame something like global warming on the poor flatulent cows. Now I wasn't so sure. I went and did a little research about the various factors contributing to the build-up of Greenhouse gases and found a compilation of greenhouse gas emissions for the year 2000, prepared by the Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research. It's a bit dated, but it's the cleanest-looking graph I found. The EPA has some more up-to-date information if you're interested.

It's a bit surprising to see it all laid out like that, isn't it? You get the impression from the media that the biggest problem is our loud, smelly cars and their exhaust but it's far more complex than that. Power, industry, agriculture...all of these things affect our daily lives in ways we probably haven't thought about.

Getting back to the point though, agriculture doesn't really seem that bad, does it? Certainly not as bad as transportation and power. The thing is though, even though carbon dioxide build-up is what everyone hears about as the cause of Global Warming and the Greenhouse Effect, methane traps heat in the atmosphere over twenty times more effectively, and Nitrous oxide is about 310 times more effective. Look where most of the methane and nitrous oxide are coming from.

It's not just the cow farts, though. Really. Both the direct and indirect effects of agriculture are pretty significant. Fertilizer overuse is the biggest contributor, but methane production by livestock is pretty up there and is compounded by clear-cutting forests, that would normally serve as carbon sinks, to create pastures and grow crops.

So is vegetarianism really helping the environment? Maybe a little. It's pretty undeniable that it's healthier for you, and the animals aren't treated well. In today's modern society we really don't need meat to provide our daily allotment of amino acids. Change is really hard, though...and that's what the bigger issue really is. So much of the way we live our lives is tied into these industries...we all want to think that we're making a difference by addressing one aspect of the problem, but too often we aren't seeing the big picture. To really fix the problem a lot has to change, and it may take decades or centuries for that to really take hold.

In the meantime, do what you can! It may sound trite, but change has to start somewhere. I've been trying to eat healthier anyway, I might as well cut a little more meat out of my diet. There's an awesome Farmer's Market near my house, I should go more often. Who knows, maybe it will make a difference. Baby steps, and all that.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Run! She's got a vagina!

Recently the Vatican has revised Church Law, making sexual abuse by priests a more serious crime and increasing the window of opportunity for the abused to bring charges against their abuser. My response to this was to roll my eyes and mutter something along the lines of 'It's about damn time', but hey, progress! Progress is good. Maybe it'll make a difference. Then I found out about this. The same declaration that I thought was a sign of progress proves that the Vatican is still living in the Dark Ages. Under these new rules, the attempted ordination of women is right up there with clerical sex abuse of minors.
So what does the Bible have against women? I asked the same question, and it seems to come down to this:

11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve. 14 And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. 15 But womenGreek she

will be savedOr restored

through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. Timothy 2:11-15

I wonder how different the world would be if the Biblical Editors had left that bit out? It's not just the Bible, though. Verse 4:34 of the Qur'an, translated by Mohammed Habib Shakir, reads:
Men are the maintainers of women because God has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property; the good women are therefore obedient, guarding the unseen as God has guarded; and (as to) those on whose part you fear desertion, admonish them, and leave them alone in the sleeping-places and beat them; then if they obey you, do not seek a way against them; surely God is High, Great.

I'm no cultural anthropologist, but it seems to me that religions like Christianity and Islam have institutionalized sexism, causing the concept and practice of discrimination against women to persist far beyond its time. Because let's face it, historically there has been a reasonable (not really fair, but reasonable) basis for sexism. Back in humanity's loincloth days, being pregnant or nursing meant you were vulnerable and less able to find food. Without help and protection from a male, your average female and her children were less likely to survive, and therefore less likely to contribute to society and it's development.

Once agriculture came along and people actually stuck around in one place long enough to develop concepts like 'property' and 'inheritance', your bloodline started to matter. Things like land and power were passed down from father to son (not always, but predominantly), and not being sure who your father was could at best cripple you socially and at worst start a war. Setting strict rules for female behavior and controlling who women slept with was terribly unfair, but it kept society from collapsing and there wasn't really much anyone could have done about it except pick up society by its roots and give it a good, metaphorical shake. People haven't always been all that confident in their own survival, and worrying about things like social equality is frankly a luxury.

Thankfully, it is a luxury that I currently enjoy. Haven't we grown out of this yet? Female educators, professors, bosses and (non-Catholic) pastors are all over the place! How can the Vatican knowingly set back the cause of female equality within the catholic church in this day and age?

Because of Timothy 2:11-15. The Catholic church believes the Bible is the word of God, and that doesn't leave a lot of room for argument or change. Not all Christians take the Bible literally, or have even read the whole thing for that matter, but questioning the word of God is still a big deal for a lot of people. It goes against their beliefs, and is generally not received very well. So is it really worth making a fuss about this? Women can still be pastors, as long as they aren't Catholic. The Pope certainly isn't going to change his mind. Obviously, given that I'm writing this, I think so. Christianity and Islam are the two biggest religions in the world. Their influence is huge and impacts the lives of real women all over the world. Questioning these kinds of decisions and holding people accountable for their consequences is the only way to really make progress towards something more like equality. This may be a relatively small issue, but it comes directly from the Vatican with all of the authority of the Pope behind it. It is based on a single Bible passage, and it makes some women feel like they don't matter. Can you imagine being a woman in a church where you aren't permitted to speak or vote on church matters, or where your opinion is ignored because you have boobs? This is still happening today, and it isn't right.