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.

Time to grow up a bit more

It used to be my friends would know when I had some downtime at work because I would post links to funny videos and LOLcats on my Facebook page. Nowadays, I'm posting articles about the legality of bringing criminal charges against the pope, the importance of church and state separation, the undermining of science and what Westboro Baptist Church is up to this week. I've had some good discussions and gotten some complaints.

I'm coming to terms with myself as an atheist, and caring more about protecting the rights of others. I'm becoming more informed about my world, and having to form opinions about things I had never seriously considered before. Opinions have to adapt and change as perspective and current information changes. Facebook is not the right forum for this kind of exploration. It's time to try something else.

What I'm hoping to accomplish here is to confront issues from as many sides as possible and develop informed opinions about them. Taking only my perspective into account, this will likely fail. Hopefully the process will be interesting enough to attract a few like-minded critical thinkers who will contribute and help it succeed.