Monday, December 12, 2011

Rage Monday!

So, what's pissing BW off about the world this week? I'll show you!

The new David Attenborough nature show, Frozen Planet, is scheduled to air in the US on the Discovery Channel in March. It's a seven-part series, but originally Discovery had only contracted to air the first six episodes. Why? The seventh episode focused on climate change and the effect humans were having on the polar regions, and everyone knows that climate change is a liberal conspiracy made up by scientists. Seriously. This was an actual controversy. Ten countries opted out of purchasing this seventh episode, including the US. Thankfully Discovery Channel back-pedaled and decided to air the controversial episode after all, but I am enraged that this was even a thing. Discovery Channel was seriously planning on censoring this 'controversial' information for fear of angering the climate change deniers. Scientific fact is only 'controversial' when it conflicts with personal interests. It is appalling that Discovery Channel was willing to cater to that mindset.

The Guardian reports on the epidemic of rape in the U.S. Military. The likelihood of a woman experiencing sexual trauma while on active service is double that of a civilian, but rape cases in the military are vastly under-reported. The victim is much more likely to be punished than their attacker because rape cases are handled internally in the US, not by local police authorities. Rape is seen as a 'breach of conduct'. This is vile. If you're looking for some rage fuel, just spend a few minutes on mydutytospeak.

Priscilla Coleman published a meta-analysis report in the British Journal of Psychology where she concludes that abortion harms women's mental health. This is already being touted on anti-abortion sites as an argument against a woman's right to choose. The report itself however is full of questionable analysis, bad and misleading statistics and bias from the adamantly pro-life Coleman. Half of the studies sampled for the analysis were written by Coleman herself! Why was this nonsense published?!?

Bill Donahue and the Catholic League want to adopt atheists this year, so they can show us that we've been secret Christians all along and help us "no longer be looked upon as people who believe in nothing, stand for nothing and are good for nothing.” Yeah, cause with enough condescension and arrogance I'm sure I could be convinced to abandon logic and reason and believe in whatever fairy tale they want me to believe in. On the bright side, so many atheists decided to contact the Catholic League and volunteer to be adopted that they had to remove the 'Contact Us' link from their webpage.

I'm gonna expand on this just a bit more...because seriously, it is not hard to be Christian in America. Your God is everywhere, your holidays and traditions are nationally recognized, you are in the majority and other people are likely to view you more positively because of your beliefs. Atheists are "looked upon as people who believe in nothing, stand for nothing and are good for nothing.” But the answer is not to fight and argue for equality and against religious privilege, it is instead to give in and just be Christian? We should give up struggling for what is right and just do what is easy? Not because Christianity is right or because they have convincing arguments for God's existence, but because then we'll get to celebrate Christmas like good Catholics? So. Much. Rage.

Oh, and the War on Christmas is on once again! Because saying Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas makes Baby Jesus cry, and commercialized religion is the best kind of religion. I'm sure I'll do a collective post on this idiocy eventually, but for now enjoy the American Family Association's Naughty or Nice list, and the contrived outrage of Fox and Friends.

Share in my rage!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Science Fair 2011: Round 2

I was a volunteer judge at my second science fair here in Alachua County recently. My first fair this year left me disappointed and a bit discouraged, but I am happy to say that this second fair was wonderful. It was lacking a bit on the organizers part, but it was her first year organizing the fair and she did a good job so I'll give her a pass. This time around I was judging the chemistry division.

One of my biggest complaints from Round 1 was that so few of the kids replicated their experiment or included any controls. In Round 2, this was the exception rather than the rule. I complimented almost every child I spoke with on having sound experimental design, including controls, replicates, and multiple variables. One adorable little boy had a demo that explained centrifugal force where he swung a 50 ml conical around over his head. Several projects that at first glance seemed trivial or unscientific turned out to be pleasant surprises. I saw interesting projects featuring everything from getting stains out of baseball pants to the efficacy of ziploc baggies.

For example, one girl was investigating whether cold or room temperature eggs affected cakes. At first I thought this was a bit silly, but apparently this is an actual thing when you're making sponge cake. The young lady in question makes sponge cake for her friends a lot, and noticed a big texture difference when she used refrigerated eggs one time. She observed an actual phenomenon, asked a question, and designed an experiment to test it. She also made six frickin' sponge cakes so that she would have replicates in each condition. She didn't quite understand why there was a difference, but she still approached it scientifically.

Good experimental design and application of the scientific method can make even a trivial subject into a top class science project. Our first place selection was looking at which cup material would retain heat the best. She was an amazing presenter, had relevant and interesting background information, solid experimental design and thorough data collection. She found that styrofoam retained heat the best, and she even understood the science behind it. Top notch.

A lot of the children I spoke to clearly had parents or relatives that worked in science. I saw experiments using a centrifuge, a voltmeter, pH meter and conductivity meter. Some people consider this unfair to children that don't have that kind of background and support at home, but honestly I rated other experiments higher because they understood what they were doing better. That's what really matters, solid experimental design and understanding the science behind what you're doing. Sure you can ask more interesting questions when you have access to better equipment, but a good project needs more than an interesting question. This was especially clear to me in Round 2, where a girl experimenting with sponge cake recipes was more interesting to me than two boys examining water quality from various sources using lots of different types of equipment.

Another big difference I noticed between Round 1 and Round 2 was how many of the top experiments were done by girls. One of my fellow judges at Round 1 lamented how little support and mentoring the girls were receiving in the sciences. At the time I hadn't noticed a huge disparity, though it was true I couldn't think of any solid projects by girls. With that in mind, it was refreshing to see so many excellent experiments by girls in Round 2. 

Best Project: Though she didn't make the top four, my favorite project was from a girl who wanted to investigate the role of baking powder in making cornbread rise. She had three replicates in each condition, and included a control that followed the recipe normally. She explained to me how baking powder worked and the reaction that was taking place, and understood why she got the results that she did. It was a fun, well-done project.

Worst Project: A tie.

One little boy was trying to determine if the amount of cocoa in chocolate would cause it to melt faster. He only did it once, and he didn't seem to really understand anything he was doing. His theory on why cocoa levels affected the speed of melting changed a couple times during the interview.

Another little boy was comparing carbonation levels in homemade versus store bought soda. Except he only did it once, and it didn't work. It did not occur to him that maybe he should repeat the experiment so that he would actually have carbonated homemade soda for the comparison. He also didn't seem to understand where the carbonation came from (yeast) or that carbonation meant carbon dioxide gas being dissolved in liquid.

Seriously though, I judged about 22 projects in all and most of them were solid. These kids are doing some great work.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


Skepticon IV, a major skeptical conference, took place over the weekend in Springfield, Missouri. Several of my favorite bloggers were attending or giving talks at the event, and I would have LOVED to be there. Unfortunately Florida is rather far from Missouri, but at least I got to enjoy reading about it from the perspective of some of my favorite writers! One image that kept popping up as I read through updates from Skepticon was a picture taken of a sign in the window of a gelato shop.
'Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business'
'Wow, what a dick,' I thought. 'Guess he'll be losing a lot of money this weekend.' I figured that was it. But who can predict what will take the internet by storm? Even though the sign was reportedly only up for a few minutes, the damage was done. The above image was widely circulated in the atheist blogosphere. Gelato Mio's online presence was hit hard, with negative ratings dominating their Yelp, Urbanspoon and Facebook pages overnight.

In an attempt to restore his reputation, the owner posted apologies online and attempted to explain his side of the story. First he tried his company's Facebook, followed by their website and finally published an open letter of apology on Reddit. And that's where it gets interesting.

Some atheists, such as Hemant at Friendly Atheist and Jen at BlagHag, feel that the apology is sincere and the owner of Gelato Mio ought to be given props for admitting he was wrong and trying to fix it. Others, including PZ of Pharyngula and JT of WWJTD, feel that the owner is just trying to save face to prevent losing anymore potential profits and the apology is irrelevant since he ignores the actual problem with his behavior. The debate currently should the atheist community react to this insult and the subsequent apology?

This is one of the things I love about the atheist community. We have a million different perspectives and we write about what we think so that others can critique our positions. We disagree on stuff all the time, and that's ok! There's no correct answer, no single True Path of Atheism. It's awesome.

Also, wow! Look at the power of the internet! Douchebags can't get away with being discriminatory anymore. Every little fail can be caught on camera and plastered across Reddit and Facebook instantly. This guy only had that sign in his window for maybe ten minutes, and that was enough. We have an unprecedented ability to share information and make our opinions known. The ability to rate businesses based on how they treat their customers gives us a tangible way of expressing our disapproval and provides real consequences for subtle discrimination that may have escaped comment or notice in the past. That's pretty damn cool.

But getting back to the debate at hand, I'm personally unsure about where I fall on the spectrum of responses to Gelatogate. Let's take a closer look at what I think the important questions are in this situation and see if I can figure it out by the time I'm done.

What did he do wrong?
The owner of Gelato Mio apparently saw something he didn't like at Skepticon: Sam Singleton, the Atheist Evangelist. Sam is a comedian whose act is basically an atheist rant disguised as a Pentecostal revival. It's supposed to be hilarious, but it makes a lot of people uncomfortable because of how blatantly it mocks Christianity. Offended to his very core by what he saw of the performance (which he neither paid for nor was he obligated to watch), the owner of Gelato Mio marched right back to his store and decided to let those damn dirty atheists know they weren't welcome in his place of business. 'Cause that'll show 'em.

Basically, the guy was offended by someone who was mocking his religious beliefs. Instead of just complaining about it or explaining why Sam Singleton was wrong or just leaving the show if he didn't like it, he decided to tell the entire convention they weren't welcome in his store. As a private business owner, he gets to make whatever stupid business decisions he wants. He also gets to live with the consequences of those decisions. Maybe he's heard of this thing called the internet.

Is his reaction justifiable?
Several people are saying that it is understandable that the Gelato Mio guy reacted so strongly because Sam Singleton's act is so inflammatory. Wouldn't you feel self-righteous is you saw someone mocking your beliefs? He wasn't expecting to find atheist sentiments at a skeptics conference, he was expecting to see UFOs and psychics. Maybe skeptic conferences should be focused on debunking frauds and encouraging scientific thought instead of becoming an atheist platform.

I do not like this response. Not one bit. It doesn't just miss the point, it misses several points:
  • Why are we throwing Sam under the bus here? His act is extremely popular and entertaining, and it reflects how many atheists really feel. Atheist sentiments are not inherently bad or wrong just because they are inflammatory, and the fact that Sam's act happened to be the thing that the gelato guy saw doesn't make his reaction any better.
  • You can mock what I believe all you want, doesn't mean I'm going to act like a total douchenozzle. I'm fine with criticism, and I am confident that the facts are on my side. Otherwise I'd be switching sides. So no, I do not think his self-righteous indignation justifies the subsequent discrimination.
  • Skepticism does not stop at bigfoots and UFOs and psychics! Skeptical thinking can, and should, be applied to everything! Climate change, anti-vaccine campaigns, public policy, gender stereotypes...and especially religion! The idea that religion should be exempt from skeptical thought just 'cause is ludicrous, and it is totally unreasonable to call Skepticon an atheist platform because some of the speakers are applying skeptical thinking to theism.
So no, I don't think the fact that his beliefs were being mocked makes what he did any more understandable.

Is the apology sincere?
Honestly, I'm leaning towards 'no'. The first apology that went live was a total 'I'm sorry if what I did offended you'-style notpology, and it only happened in response to negative online ratings and loss of business. When that didn't work, the apologies became more elaborate and personal. The owner sure seems like an intelligent guy, and the long-form apology on Reddit comes across as well-meaning, but it really seems to me like the sincerity is a product of him figuring out how to appeal to this particular audience more than anything else. If all I had seen was the latest apology, then I might be more convinced. But the behavior pattern I'm seeing here is that the more damage his business takes, the harder he tries to apologize sincerely. Not because he unfairly discriminated against a group of people, but because he was caught doing so and is losing money.

Regardless of how sincere he may be though, the guy is still making an effort and that counts for something. As Jen rightly pointed out, publicly admitting you were wrong is hard. But does that mean the atheist community should forgive and forget, or try to undo any of the damage done to Gelato Mio's online ratings as Hemant suggests? I don't think so. I honestly think we should leave it alone. He fucked up, and there was a justifiable backlash. He has apologized and I appreciate that, so I will not add any more fuel to the fire against his business, but he's going to have to rebuild his reputation without my help and I damn sure wont support him.

What is he actually apologizing for?
In the actual apology, the owner admits that his actions were inappropriate and he apologizes for offending everyone. That is nice of him, certainly. But he doesn't acknowledge that not only do we have the right to our own beliefs, but we also have the right to mock his beliefs. Sam Singleton did nothing wrong, and gelato guy was free to leave the performance if he didn't like it.

Yes, gelato guy acted rashly out of self-righteous indignation. He unintentionally showed the world that when faced with viewpoints that were in conflict with his beliefs and privilege that he would respond with bigotry. He's learned a valuable lesson about pissing off potential customers and atheists on the internet, but if he really thinks the problem is just about offending people then that's all he's learned and I don't care how nice his apology is or how much of a discount he's offering to try and make up for it.

Why is this such a big deal?
This is an important question. Because really, this is just one short-sighted business owner. There were plenty of welcoming businesses in Springfield, and being banned from gelato isn't going to have any lasting impact on the Skepticon attendees. So why are people still talking about this, and still arguing about whether or not to accept the apology? Largely because there is one. Most atheists experience discrimination in small ways all the time, and there's not much we can do about it. This guy just happened to get caught, and there just happened to be a perfect venue for atheists everywhere to express their discontent. We were actually able to do something about it in a way that the owner couldn't ignore.

Frankly, we're not used to Christians apologizing to us. It certainly threw me for a loop. I spent this entire blog post just trying to figure out what I thought about it. But I think that's what it comes down to. Gelato guy isn't really any more guilty than all of the other privileged theists out there that are outraged by the fact that atheists exist. He just got caught and actually tried to fix it, so we're holding him up as an example. It's the principles behind the argument that are relevant, not the specifics of the situation. Honestly, expecting any small business owner to change the way he views the world to appease an online community that will probably never shop at his store isn't particularly reasonable. Looked at in that context the apology is a pretty big gesture. But we want theists in general to understand that their beliefs are no more privileged than any other and that we have the right to criticize them, so that's what we want from him too. That's not what we're getting, but maybe this is a step in the right direction.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Girly Toys Suck

Every year, the Tarot Guild I belong to buys Christmas presents for a few children in the Guardian Ad Litem program here in Alachua County. It's a lot of fun, because we get to buy presents for kids using guild money. I'm generally considered to be the resident expert, seeing as how I spend a significant chunk of my time playing with toys. Toys are awesome.

The Guardian Ad Litem program doesn't tell us very much about the children we're shopping for, though. We know race, sex and age and that is all. Which puts me in the uncomfortable position of having to reinforce gender stereotypes. Boys are easy. There are tons of amazingly cool toys marketed towards little boys out there. However if I want a random girl to like the toys she is getting for Christmas, strictly speaking in terms of probability, I should purchase the toys that are marketed to her gender. And I hate it. I hate passing up the erector sets and model-building kits and transformers in favor of dolls and jewelry and purses. Girly toys suck.

Don't get me wrong, I veto anything ridiculously girly that we some across while shopping. I have never purchased a Bratz Doll or Suzy Homemaker playset or makeup kit for any of our anonymous girls. I try to steer towards dinosaurs or gender-neutral toys like games, arts and crafts or scientific playsets. But that doesn't always work, especially when shopping for teenagers.

See, when I was a kid I absolutely hated being told that 'this toy isn't for you' because I was a girl. I hated that girl's Happy Meals came with stupid Barbie's and Hello Kitty's while the boys got Transformers and racecars. I hated that my brother got all of the cool toys that I wanted, while people kept buying me diaries and purses and pink plastic castles. The thought that I might be doing that to another little Me out there makes me sad.

But I have no way of knowing! Practically speaking, most little girls want stereotypical little girl things. Whether that is because they are told that is what they should want or because girls genuinely like girly things is another debate. So I have to do my best to work within the stereotypes. I try to find things that girls would like, but that aren't completely pink and glittery and useless. But it is hard to walk past all of the neat toys that are designed for boys when I'm shopping for the little girls on our list, knowing that no one will ever think to buy those toys for them even if that was what they really wanted.

Friday, November 18, 2011're Catholic now? WTF?

I have a friend in Gainesville that I've known for about ten years. We've never been really close and she tends to pretend the internet doesn't exist and disappear for months at a time, but I've always liked and respected her and we've always gotten along. She's an independent, intelligent liberal with feminist leanings who maintains a full bar in her home and raises chickens. As long as I've known her, she's been pagan. Last night, I found out that she had converted to Catholicism.

This information has been difficult for me to process. She didn't just start going to church, she attended months of classes and fasted during Lent and other serious shit like that. She's a full-blown Catholic for realsie-reals. From what I have heard second-hand, this decision was motivated by her love of ritual and the stability the church offered. I can see that. What I can't quite understand is how any independent, intelligent, liberally-minded woman could even tacitly approve of what the Catholic Church represents by adding her name to their roster.

I should take a moment here to distinguish between the abstract concepts that the Catholic Church represents, based on the actions of church officials and the actual dogma and teachings of the faith, and Catholics themselves. Catholics are like any other group of people. Some of them are crazy and messed up, but most of them are all right. Recent polls suggest that a majority of Catholics don't actually understand or believe in some of the key teachings of the Catholic Church. Transubstantiation, Vatican Authority, celibacy of priests, contraception use, same-sex marriage...many Catholics are flexible on these issues, or act in direct conflict with the teachings of the church while still considering themselves Catholic. For many of them, Catholicism is more about tradition or pageantry or their personal connection with God. Which is totally cool with me, do whatever makes you happy as long as you don't go around hurting anyone or try to legislate your particular flavor of religious morality.

People who are not born Catholic, though...they don't have those established traditions or family connections. They don't have a personal idea of what it means to be Catholic that is softened by those traditions. They just hear about the child rape and the cover ups. They read about Catholic AIDS workers who, until recently, refused to provide condoms to patients because of the church's positions on contraceptives...even though condoms are effective in halting the transmission of AIDS and other STDs. They see the Catholic church not only refusing to give women equal standing within the clergy, but making the attempted ordination of a woman a crime that is equivalent to child rape. They see Catholic adoption agencies shut down rather than allow gay couples to adopt children. They see scandal after scandal come to light, such as the recent revelation that Catholic hospitals were stealing babies from 'unfit' mothers and selling them. They see, unfiltered and without rationalization, the institution of the Catholic Church acting amorally and its teachings being used to justify horrible things. And I'm barely touching on the attacks on female and LGBT equality.

Now if I'm being honest, I don't completely understand why anyone would want to be affiliated with an organization like that. I do get the appeal of the tradition and the pageantry, and I'm sure being born into it helps. I understand that a lot of Catholics don't really believe that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ or that the Pope is infallible and Vatican Authority is absolute, so they're clearly reasonable people. Maybe it's a case of selective hearing. Or maybe when they hear about all of the awful things that are justified by the tenets of their own faith they tell themselves 'that's not me, I wouldn't do that, I don't think that way' and just ignore all of the people who do. Maybe they don't listen at all. Maybe they just don't care what the Catholic Church does as long as they're happy and their kids aren't being molested.

However it works out, there are plenty of reasonable, intelligent Catholics out there that are totally ok with tacitly approving of the Catholic Church's actions by their continued membership. A lot of them even actively support the institution by tithing. I don't get it, but I've come to accept it. Actually making the informed decision as an adult to join such an institution, though? Is there really no other way to incorporate ritual and stability into your life? What is the appeal of this institution of scandal, excess and fucked-up priorities? It seems to me that whatever good you may be able to get out of associating with the Catholic Church you could easily find elsewhere without having to join the ranks of child-molesters and baby-stealers. There are secular charities, secular meetup groups, Universalist Ministries, meditation techniques...the only thing you couldn't find elsewhere would be your personal traditions, and my friend wasn't born into Catholicism. She has often called herself a 'recovering Southern Baptist'. She has always struck me as delightfully irreverent, and I am left befuddled by her philosophical paradigm shift.

What really sucks is that I may never understand this. It seems unlikely that she will continue associating with the predominantly-pagan social circle through which we are acquainted (she hasn't been around for ages, anyway). I have no idea how she would react to questions about her faith if I even got the chance to ask. I may just have to add this to the increasingly-long list of 'Things BW Doesn't Get About Religion' and let it go. Sigh. I hate it when things don't make sense.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Science Fair 2011: Round 1

I've been a volunteer science fair judge in my area for about five years now. The school administrators try really hard to get actual professionals in scientific fields to come in and judge projects in their area of expertise, and as a grad student I have a pretty flexible schedule. I usually end up judging microbiology or biochemistry projects. It's fun to see what the kids are up to and talk to them about science and see all the projects. This year I'm judging four different fairs, and I thought it would be fun to recap them on my blog. Yesterday was the first one I signed up for.

I've judged a lot of fairs over the past few years, and some are better organized than others...but this was the worst by far. The gentleman in charge admitted from the get-go that this was his first time in charge of the fair, and apparently the guy who did it before him didn't leave any notes. He basically gave all of the judges a list of every single project (or tried to...the printer wasn't working properly, and of course he waited until five minutes before the fair to start printing) and told us to split into groups of three and make sure every project was judged enough times, especially the physics projects because there were a lot of them.

First rule of managing volunteers? Don't make them responsible for figuring out what they're supposed to be doing. Eventually us judges determined who the other experts in our fields were, picked the categories most relevant to us and got started. Never mind that all of that information was available to the organizers in our applications and it would have taken all of twenty minutes for that to be established before-hand. We kind of had to hope all of the categories were adequately covered. I think I ended up judging around 25 projects in Human Health and Microbiology...which is a lot, especially since we had to get everyone judged before the kids' lunch time.

The projects themselves weren't very impressive for the most part. Not to be too harsh on the middle schoolers, but like I said...I've been around the proverbial scientific block, and I know what these kids are capable of. I've seen some amazing projects, but this fair had a redundancy problem. As a science teacher, how do you not notice that 7 or 8 of your students are doing the exact same vitamin C titration experiment? Isn't that a problem? They were using an iodide solution to determine which fruit juices had the most vitamin C in them. By measuring the volume of the juice needed to trigger a color-change reaction in the iodide, they could plug some numbers into a formula and figure out how many milligrams of ascorbic acid were in each milliliter of juice. Only one of the kids actually understood that they were doing a titration and that a chemical reaction was happening. She got third place.

The other big project, with at least five entries, was determining what brand of toothpaste worked best at whitening hard-boiled eggs stained in coffee. What do eggs have in common with teeth? Why, they're both white! Seriously. I asked that question every time, and that was the only answer I got. None of them knew how the toothpaste whitened the eggs, and the hypotheses were basically 'this is the brand I use, so it will be the best at cleaning the eggs'. When I tried to get them to understand that the universally subjective measurements of 'how white is this egg on a scale of 1-5' might not be that scientific, I got blank looks.

There were few controls, and only a handful of kids repeated their experiments. One of the girls argued with me when I tried to explain to her why the 12-hr pain relievers she used in her experiment dissolved slower that the 4-hr pain relievers, and how that just might be a confounding variable in determining how effective they are based on solubility. She was quite certain she understood it better than I did, though. Another girl, when asked why she chose to perform her experiment, responded - and I quote - 'I wanted to do something unique, so I found this project on the internet'. Without a trace of irony. My fellow judge barely stopped himself from bursting out laughing.

Best Project: A surprisingly eloquent 11-year old attempted to make self-cleaning bathroom tiles by mixing methylene blue, an antimicrobial, into a glaze and applying it to ceramic tiles. He even created a built-in control by applying the anti-microbial glaze to half the tile and untreated glaze to the other half. He inoculated the tiles and counted colonies that grew on them. He didn't have nearly enough replicates and the firing process may actually have rendered the methylene blue inactive, but I was still super impressed. His uncle worked in a lab and helped him with the project, but he actually understood it and did something really cool and interesting.

Worst Project: A tie.
One kid wanted to determine what conditions were the most conducive to growing mold...but he used a different kind of bread in each condition. There was wheat, rye, and white bread...some containing preservatives (Which, surprise, didn't grow mold during the three day experiment), and some fresh from the bakery. He actually did replicate his experiment once, but he switched types of bread for the replicate too.

Two girls working together wanted to see what liquids would dissolve skittles and m&ms the fastest, because they wanted a project where they could eat candy. They actually told me that was why they picked this project. It took two of them to figure this out. Neither of them knew what solubility meant, and the first trial where they dissolved the m&ms didn't work because they used peanut m&ms and peanuts don't dissolve. They still recorded and presented the data, though. It was painful.

I don't expect these kids to know everything. They're in middle school, after all. If they don't know the answer to something I drop a few hints and eventually explain it to them. If they say something really dumb I try to just smile and move on. But I was doing an awful lot of smiling at this fair, and my dropped hints just kept falling for the most part. They aren't trained scientists either, so they don't always have controls or understand about subjective measurements or why replication is important. As a judge, it's my job to help them understand the strengths and weaknesses of their projects so they can improve them and get a better understanding of the scientific method. I have never had such a difficult time getting those concepts across. Here's hoping the next fair I judge is more satisfying.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Skirts at Sporting Events?

A few weeks back I came across this article, criticizing recent rules changes in the Badminton World Federation requiring female players to wear skirts or dresses. Previously, the decision to wear skirts or shorts was left up to the players. The BWF offered up some pretty lame justifications, claiming that they wanted to 'improve the presentation of players'...meaning, put hot chicks in skirts and see if we can get more spectators involved. It's silly, pointless, and transparently sexist. But it's also badminton, which nobody gives a fuck about. So I just rolled my eyes and moved on.

Today I found out that a similar debate is happening in the Olympic Boxing arena. Apparently the Olympic dress code authority is seriously considering forcing female boxers to wear skirts in the ring. The 2012 London Olympics is the first time female boxers will be participating, since they were rejected in 2005 for failing to 'reach standards of medical safety and universality', whatever that means. The International Amateur Boxing Association apparently is under the impression that 'wearing skirts would help the women stand out from the men’s competitions'. Read, 'if we're going to give you your own Olympic event we at least want the viewers to know you're female'. Again, it's incredibly silly, pointless and quite possibly sexist. Seriously, why is this even being discussed? Who actually thinks that because the boxers are female, they ought to be beating the shit out of each other in skirts instead of pants?

Sure, in the past dress codes for female athletes primarily consisted of skirts and dresses. In the past, women also couldn't expose their wrists or ankles without being considered immodest. Alternate dress codes for women have largely fallen by the wayside...except for some cases, like beach volleyball, where female players are required to wear bikinis. Which does seem to work well for them, in spite of several complaints from players who feel the uniform violates their cultural traditions of modesty. It does so well in fact that in 2004 the president of FIFA encouraged female soccer players to emulate the beach volleyball dress code to increase the popularity of women's soccer. Apparently he did not grasp why such statements might have upset the players themselves.

People who run tournaments need spectators, so they need to create a spectacle...and sex sells. For sports that are relatively new or reaching new audiences, like female boxing and badminton, it almost makes sense that they would be doing anything they could to get more viewers. Except in this case they're doing it by diminishing the very athletes people would be paying to see. Can you imagine spending your entire life training to be good at something, and then being told 'that's great and all, but wear this skirt so people will want to watch you'?

Now I enjoy checking out hot chicks in short skirts as much as the next person, but making skirts mandatory is just impractical. Making skirts mandatory specifically to capitalize on the sexy physique of your athletes is just disrespectful. But there are ways around this! Female tennis players are not required to wear skirts. They have the choice to wear skirts, pants, dresses...whatever they like, but most female tennis players choose to wear skirts. Why? Most likely because it increases their popularity and fan support, which means they make more money from endorsement deals. See, the players can benefit from being sexy too...but it should always be their choice to do so.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Is That Blood Gay?

A recent project I've been working on for my internship has been to coordinate a blood drive between groups in different cities. There is always a shortage of blood and the Red Cross is very supportive of groups willing to host a blood drive or make group donations, so it seemed like a good way to get lots of people involved for a minimal amount of effort on their part. When I sent the information out to the groups however, there was an unexpected problem. A few of the groups weren't comfortable with the idea of participating in a blood drive because donation centers do not accept blood from sexually active homosexual men. They would effectively be excluding their gay members from the event.

Now, I can totally understand where they are coming from here. I do not like supporting discriminatory institutions. I even gave up eating at my favorite fast food restaurant because they donated upwards of a million dollars to anti-gay groups. And believe me, that was not an easy decision to make. I still get Chick-Fil-A cravings sometimes. But I think they're missing the point.

For one, it isn't actually the Red Cross and other blood donation centers that are being discriminatory in this case. They are actually acting in accordance with FDA regulations, which were put in place during the 1980's. At the time, there was no effective screening process for HIV or hepatitis...diseases which were significantly more prevalent in the gay population. The actual wording of the ban targets 'any man who has had sex with another man since 1977' specifically because of the high incidence of HIV during that time period. Since incidence rates were so high and there was no screening process in place, the entire group was labeled as 'high risk' and banned from giving blood. Maybe a bit reactionary, but not totally unreasonable given how terrified people were of AIDS when it first hit the infectious disease scene in America.

The reason this policy is often called discriminatory is because that is simply no longer the case. Tests for HIV were developed back in 1985, and have only gotten faster and more effective. The current risk of transfusion-related exposure to HIV is estimated at less than 1 in 2.5 million. This is why maintaining this policy often strikes people as homophobic, and I happen to agree. Not only does the ban seem entirely impractical given how desperately blood is needed, it is unusually harsh. Other groups that engage in 'high risk' behaviors (traveling to certain regions, history of drug use, etc.) are generally banned from blood donation for one year, whereas buttsex gets you banned for life. Even if it was just that one time in college. Honestly I think that the FDA just doesn't want to deal with the inevitable media circus of misinformation that will circulate if it raises this issue, even if it would mean more blood donations and more lives saved. I almost don't blame them. Maybe in another year or two.

So wait, if I agree that the policy is discriminatory then why do I disagree with groups boycotting blood donations to show support for their gay members? Isn't that exactly what I did when I stopped eating at Chick-Fil-A?

The thing is, when I stopped giving Chick-Fil-A my money I stopped facilitating their support of anti-gay groups. That was important to me. Now, if I refused to donate blood or support blood donation centers I would stop facilitating...the delivery of blood to people who need it to live? No. This does not help anyone. It does not help your gay friends be treated equally. It does not help the people who are depending on blood donations.

If you think it is ridiculous that a significant portion of the population is banned from donating blood when the nation is constantly in a state or critical need? Sign petitions. Write letters to the FDA or your local representatives. Organize a protest. Hand out flyers at blood donation centers. But doing nothing is not a form of dissent in this situation. It doesn't raise awareness or correct the problem. I'm certain that most patients don't even think about where the blood that saved their lives came from, and those patients should not suffer to prove a point.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Getting my Groove Back

BW has been busy! I've had conferences and conventions to capture my concentration, presentations to prepare and pronounce, reviews to rewrite (and rewrite again) plus an internship involving an institution of intellectual integrity. Goodness but I love me some alliteration.

Anyway, I haven't been very good about making time for my blog. I've still got most of those things going on, but I am going to be more proactive about making time to research interesting goings-on and develop my opinions in my blog instead of in Facebook comment threads. And man, are there ever some things that I've been dying to write about!

There have been LOTS of interesting reactions to some of the blatant sexism in the DC New 52 line of comics, which I have been dying to dive into.

There have been alternately annoying and uplifting developments in the LGBT scene.

The controversy of atheist money has been unfolding in a particularly frustrating story involving the Foundation Beyond Belief and the American Cancer Society.

The U.S. House approved Rep. J. Randy Forbes' pandering resolution "reaffirming 'In God We Trust' as the official motto of the United States...and you know I'm going to have something to say about that.

The Personhood Movement has gained so much ground in Mississippi that it actually made it onto a ballot. This may be difficult to address without intense levels of sarcastic ranting. Be warned.

I also want to continue my Internal Consistency series and take a closer look at the reasoning associated with my tarot-reading hobby. Plus I'd like to return to a subject I've blogged about before, the banning of blood donations from gay men by the FDA. I have some new thoughts on the matter.

However! I am out of time for today. Tomorrow beckons, glistening with potential. Or something. One of these issues sound especially interesting to you? Maybe I'll rant about that one first. If you ask nicely.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Shitstorm Cometh

This has been a stressful week for me. Lots of shit has been going down that is stressing me out like crazy, and on top of that I've been getting nasty allergy attacks that are only effectively treated with drugs that knock me the fuck out. I did not want to leave my bed this morning.

Eventually I did, obviously...but I don't think I'll be gone long. The world kind of sucks today.

A bill has been introduced by the House GOP that would allow federally-funded hospitals to refuse to perform abortions on women...even if the abortion is necessary to save the woman's life.

There's a child pornography ring on Reddit, that is apparently protected under freedom of speech.

Yet another couple is using religious teachings to justify child abuse and neglect that led to a child's death.

An Iranian women who was involved with a movie criticizing the country's treatment of women has been sentenced to 90 lashes and a year in jail for being such an uppity bitch. The irony, it is lost on them.

Orthodox Jews are protesting outside of a girls school, because how dare those little bitches walk around being immodest and getting education?

Women in Hasidic neighborhoods are apparently expected to get the fuck out of the way when the men are walking...and this is normal? The real problem is that the signs were nailed to trees. That shit wont fly here.

Apparently there is such a thing as an Amish mob now. Ugh, get your stupid away from me!

Yet another goddamn game designed for women that thinks the only thing women like is fashion and boys.

Seriously...what the fuck is religion trying to do to Halloween

I'm sorry World, but if this is all you have to offer me today then I am taking more drugs and going back to bed. Because this sucks. People are vile, selfish and idiotic, and I am too sick and tired to deal with it.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

False Equivalencies

I haven't written for my blog in months because I've been so busy writing other things. It's been frustrating, because I have so much I want to write about! Instead I've just been posting interesting links to Facebook and having discussions there. Today however, I caught myself practically writing a paragraph as an introduction to a link I wanted to post. If I'm gonna do that anyway, might as well post it in my blog.

So. I was checking out Pharyngula, one of my favorite atheist/science blogs, when I came across this post. It touches on a lot of things that really get under my skin.

I cannot stand it when people call atheists angry, violent and militant. This is what is called a false equivalency. By using the term 'militant atheist' for example, you are drawing parallels between atheists and extreme religious groups. Yes, that is what it means when you take a term often applied to one group and try to use it to describe another.

Look at this PZ explained, religious extremists and fundamentalists do batshit crazy things. They brainwash children, they fly planes into buildings, they execute people for not believing what they believe or having different sexualities. They do horrible, horrible things.

And the people so casually lumped in with those groups, the 'militant atheists'? What do they do that is so horrible? Oh, they write books about how religion is wrong or argue with religious people about their beliefs. That's totally the same thi...oh wait, it's not. Not at all. Not even fucking close.

There is a very significant difference between being outspoken and unapologetic about what you think and being angry, mean or militant. Because of the subject matter however, atheists criticizing religion are often thought of as being rude or hateful when they are just attacking a bad idea. The same way they would attack any bad idea. But most people are practically raised to think religion is special. People's beliefs shouldn't be questioned, because that's what they believe. Atheists don't give beliefs any special treatment, and for that they are lumped in with terrorists. And it drives me crazy.

Back to the issue at hand, though. This particular instance of atheists being called ugly and hateful was in response to a protest by the Backyard Atheists. They had printed out passages from the Bible that they felt were especially...well, hateful. Stuff about women being stoned for adultery and women not being permitted to speak or hold authority, stuff like that. And they were tearing those printed pages up, to draw attention to the fact that those passages do exist, that the Bible says some fucked up shit...and maybe not all of it is worth listening to.

Now obviously people have the right to disagree with what they did, and they absolutely have the right to be offended by it. But the Backyard Atheists also have the right to make the points they were making, and they did it in a cheerful, non-threatening way. And again, it raises a lot of points that I don't think many people often stop to consider.

The lady in the video talking about how the Backyard Atheists obviously didn't know the God of Love was an excellent example of how people take what they want from religion. The Bible passages in question were not full of love. Most likely she wouldn't even agree with them. Sometimes I think that moderate, friendly Christians forget that the justification of their beliefs comes from the exact same place as the crazy fundamentalists. They are both equally guilty of selecting the passages they agree with as God's word and ignoring the rest. There is no way for them to know if they are really behaving how God would want them to. Moderate Muslims have the same problem, they're still basing their beliefs on flawed source material and just ignoring all the violent bits that the extremists have latched onto.

'Ah, but the Holy Book is a symbol of their beliefs, however they choose to interpret it,' you might say. 'Of course they are going to be upset if it is mistreated.' Ok, sure...I can understand that. But that doesn't make it logical. If your faith is really about God as you interpret him to be, based on your experiences and what you've been told and what your preacher has said and heck, even what you've read in the Bible...then why is this ridiculously old, outdated, historically inaccurate book so critical to your faith? Especially when parts of the Bible will likely outright contradict your faith as you know it?

But the fact that it's illogical isn't what really gets to me, it's just something I'd like people to consider. What really bothers me is when religious people expect that since this thing is special or sacred to them, then everyone ought to treat it as such. To you, the Bible may be the Holy Word of God. To me? It's an old, inaccurate, infuriatingly sexist piece of literature. You really expect me to treat something like that with reverence? You really expect people of other faiths with their own Holy Books that are the Word of God to give your particular Holy Book special deference? Just because you think they ought to? It is that sense of privilege, that anyone who treats what they consider to be the Word of God with anything less than the deference they feel it is deserved is being hateful, that I find incredibly frustrating.

Let's recap. Just because one group of people, no matter how large and privileged they may be, says something is Holy does not make it so for the rest of the world. I said the same thing when people were drawing chalk figures of Mohammed, and I said it again when Terry Jones wanted to burn the Koran. Yes, it is polite to be respectful of what someone else believes. I'm all about respect, really. Just not to the point where bad ideas and irrationality are allowed to flourish. Sometimes, going after a symbol is a really effective way to do that. I would argue that the Backyard Atheists and a majority of the people drawing chalk figures of Mohammed handled those symbols as respectfully as possible while still making their points...which are important and worth making, even if it might offend some people.

Also? Arguing logically and respectfully that bad ideas are wrong does not make me hateful or militant. It is that perception in our society, that religion is privileged and it is inappropriate to question or criticize it, that has led to the legislation of religious morality and introduction of creationism in schools. Just because an idea is based in belief does not proof it against criticism. If you are offended by that criticism, so what? It happens, and criticism is important for making ideas stronger. If an idea is bad to begin with, wont you be better off acknowledging that and moving on?

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Atheist Politicians FTW

I think we need more atheist politicians. Not just because atheists and agnostics are the most politically under-represented group in America, either. Though that is certainly an unfortunate reality. The latest US Census reports that 15% of Americans consider themselves atheist or agnostic, yet we only have one openly atheist politician in the entire legislative branch. Good on you, Rep. Pete Stark of California. That's 0.2% of the legislature representing 15% of Americans. It goes without saying that the executive and judicial branches are 0% atheist. Feels a bit lop-sided, doesn't it?

This speaks to the un-electability of atheists more than anything else, though. This is a documented and frustrating phenomenon, made even more confounding by the fact that atheism isn't what makes us who we are as people. Atheists don't have a unifying philosophy or morality, or a set of rules that govern our behavior. These are things that characterize religions, and atheism is not a religion. So it's not that I feel that atheists and the atheist world view are not being represented well in Congress. I do feel that atheists tend to have some things in common though, and they are the kinds of things that I would like to see more of in politicians.

Allow me to clarify a bit more here. Atheists are an incredibly varied group, coming from every conceivable background. We have different goals and philosophies, and we approach atheism in different ways. The Atheist movement has often been criticized for a lack of unity because of this, but bollocks to that. I like diversity. That said, there are some patterns that I've noticed.

First of all, atheists don't believe in a God. Obvious, right? You know what else we don't believe in, as an extension of that? The Afterlife. Reincarnation. The Rapture. That's right, we only live once and this Earth is all we're going to get. So we'd damn sure better take care of it. The conscious acknowledgement that we (and our descendants) are going to have to deal with the consequences of our actions in regards to the environment makes atheists more likely to give a flying fuck. I would certainly be flabbergasted to see an atheist politician supporting short-sighted environmental legislation. Religious conservatives, though? Not surprised. After all, they're expecting to go party with Jesus or a harem of virgins or whatever after they shuffle off this mortal coil. Life on Earth is transient, and simply not important in the grand scheme of spiritual immortality. But just in case, wouldn't you rather have the people who think this is all we're gonna get making the policy decisions?

Another thing atheists have in common? No religion. Total shocker, I know. The thing is, all of those people shouting about how homosexuality is sinful and gay marriage should be banned? The ones who think that women should be modest and subservient or are attacking female reproductive rights? Yeah, those ideas are based in religion. Muddy the issue all you want with your self-important, privileged whining and misdirection, there is not a single reasonable, factual argument for why gay people shouldn't be allowed to get married and adopt children, or why women shouldn't be able to control when and if they get pregnant. You take away the religious nature of the arguments and they fall apart. Now I'm not saying that there aren't any racist, sexist, or homophobic atheists. But I am saying that leaving religion frees you from the baggage associated with religious doctrine, and I would personally prefer that the people making decisions that affect equality do so with the facts foremost in mind. Not old books that say women should be silent and treated like slaves by virtue of their ovaries, or that contraception is evil, or that LGBT individuals are damned because of their biology.

Phew. Getting a little rant-y in here. So far I've been extrapolating atheist traits based on the lack of belief in God and rejection of religion associated with atheism, but the atheist movement does have its pet causes. Chief among them are separation of church and state and science education. Again, not all atheists care about these causes. They do not represent some unifying philosophy. But chances are that if you're even nominally familiar with the atheist movement you're pretty well informed about them.

To your average atheist, separation of church and state is a given. Why should religion have any influence over politics? Beliefs are personal and subjective, after all. Politics affects everyone. We're frequently dumbfounded by Christians who, accustomed as they are to being in the majority in this country, seem to mistake assuring protection for all for an attack on their beliefs. The government isn't saying that you can't pray. The government is saying that they can't endorse one religion over any other philosophy. They can't tell others to pray. If you really don't understand why this is an important distinction, imagine someone opening a town hall meeting with an invocation to Satan. Or a speaker at a high school graduation asking everyone to kneel with them and bow towards Mecca. Now imagine everyone else going along with it and demonizing you for saying it made you uncomfortable. You could probably stand to read a little more about privilege while you're at it. Again, this is something I want my politicians to care about because it benefits people of all religious philosophies. Not just whoever happens to be in the majority. It is immeasurably better to have a government that protects all religious philosophies without endorsing or being influenced by any. Otherwise you end up with someone else's religion and morality shoved down your throat or determining your rights. Trust me, that sucks.

I really shouldn't have to even address why good science education is important. It should be a given that children should be taught the facts as we know them to the best of our current ability. Unfortunately, that is not the case. School textbooks are constantly under attack by groups who want to re-write history to support their philosophy. Creationism is being pushed into science classrooms as if it were a valid scientific theory. Teachers are afraid to teach sensitive subjects, like evolution, for fear of arousing the wrath of parents. It's detrimental to children's education, and by extension the future of our country. If your ideas of how the Universe came to be or how life developed contradict the facts, then fine. Talk about them in philosophy class. But don't pretend they are irrevocable truths. The very idea of misrepresenting scientific fact, or twisting it to support an agenda, is repugnant to me. Atheists as a whole, having rejected the comforting philosophies of religion in favor of provable facts, tend to feel pretty strongly about this. And I want someone who feels strongly about this making educational policy decisions. The children are our future, after all.

So. Environmentalism. Equality. Separation of church and state. Science Education. Do you have to be an atheist to value all of these things? Of course not. Do I think atheists as a group are more likely to hold these values? Yes. And these are the values that I want to see in my politicians. Not because I think everyone should agree with me (though they absolutely should, seeing as how I'm right all the time), but because they benefit other people and the country as a whole. But atheists have a secret weapon. We are very good at being angry.

That's right, a lot of atheists are angry.  That's an amazing article, by the way. And sure, there are plenty of even-tempered accommodationists out there too...but if you show them something like this? Or this? You'll have them sputtering in a matter of minutes. And that's not a bad thing, damn it! Anger is incredibly powerful. Historically, it is one of the single most significant motivating forces for change.  Atheists in general are vocal, and not just on our own behalf. We don't like seeing any group having their rights abused, be they children or minorities or white, anglo-saxon males. I have more faith, so to speak, that an atheist politician will get outraged at injustices and abusive policies. And I want my politicians to be outraged! Because there are so many outrageous things happening in my country right now, it makes me want to scream!

Ahem. Again, to clarify, I don't think atheists are better by virtue of being atheists. But the qualities I see in the atheist movement? The reliance on reason and fact above all else? The outrage and compassion? The writers and scientists and activists? I respect these people, and I want people like them in charge of my country. They sure can't make things much worse.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Short-Sightedness and the Rapture

I've already ranted about the recent rapture prediction and how ridiculously people behaved because of said predictions. That's right, I was making fun of the Rapture before it was cool. Unfortunately, I couldn't celebrate the rapture as it happened because I was attending a microbiology conference on the Day of Deliverance. How inconsiderate! It's almost as if scientists don't take unfounded predictions based on flawed hypotheses seriously.

My End of the World Barbecue was easily rescheduled though, seeing as how the world didn't end. It was a blast, and I'm looking forward to having another one in October. The fiasco is already fading from the public eye, and I hadn't intended to write much more about.

But since Harold Camping was publicly humiliated and started backpedaling like a bear on a unicycle (after a significant profit and tons of free publicity, the bastard), the way people have been reacting to the Failed Rapture has been making me think.

First, many of Camping's followers remain as devoted to him as ever. This is disappointing, but not really much of a surprise. It's actually a documented aspect of human behavior to believe what we hear first, even when presented with evidence to the contrary. In fact, corrections or conflicting facts are sometimes more likely to affirm our convictions than change our minds. After all, the alternative is admitting that we were wrong. I've also already ranted about how destructive misinformation can be, so I'll simply reiterate here that critical thought and skepticism are crucial weapons in the battle against frauds like Camping.

Second, other fundamentalist Christian groups have been awfully condemning towards Camping and his predictions. I guess they're just excited to have someone who makes them look sane by comparison. 'No man knows the day or hour' is being thrown around with a sickening sense of smugness. Which is insanely frustrating, because the only difference between what they believe and what Camping believes is that he picked a day. That's it! They agree on every other ridiculously implausible aspect of Jesus' return, the Rapture, the Time of Tribulation for us sinners and the eventual destruction of our entire planet/universe because God is feeling verklempt...yet they're the sane ones? It makes me want to tear my hair out.

But what really got me thinking were the stories of Camping's followers. One man in particular took his family on a cross-country trip to the Grand Canyon. Because of the strain of his financial debt, he felt that the Rapture would have been 'a relief'. The End of the World would mean that he didn't have to deal with his problems.

That mentality disturbed me, and I started pervasive is it? One of the things that frustrates me the most about conservative thought is how short-sighted it can be. Little or no value is placed on things that don't benefit you, immediately and directly. If you really believe the world is going to end during your lifetime, why bother taking care of your environment or conserving resources? Why care about policies that benefit the community or further scientific development? The long-term is basically rendered meaningless. It explains so much.

Now I know that conservative politicians aren't all fundamentalist Christians, but there is an awful lot of overlap and the Rapture is a significant aspect of Christian belief in general. Even if an individual thinks the Rapture is unlikely, accepting a divinely-mandated 'End of the World' as a possible future has got to affect your long-term thinking to some degree. Personally, I think this is just more evidence for why atheists make the best politicians. Too bad we're pretty much un-electable.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Funeral Planning

My great grandmother passed away recently (unsurprisingly, and in a very peaceful manner) and the task of preparing an obituary of sorts to be distributed at the funeral service has fallen on my younger sister. This has been difficult for her for several reasons, and I have been trying to help her sort it out.

First it's a bit challenging to write a celebration of someone's life when they've been struggling with age and Alzheimer's for a majority of the time you've been alive. This can be solved relatively easily though, by speaking to friends and other family members and learning about the things that mattered to that person in life. What my sister has really been struggling with is trying to please everyone in regards to the religious content of what she is making.

The majority of this branch of the family views themselves as Christian. In general, they don't attend church or adhere to most of the behavioral or philosophical guidelines of Christianity. Regardless, they have been known to take their beliefs quite seriously if the subject comes up. My sister is non-religious, but unsure of her beliefs. She would prefer to leave religion out entirely and focus the attention on the woman in question, but she is concerned that a lack of religious trappings will create something of a shit storm amongst the nominal-yet-extremely-passionate-Christian relatives.

Now it would not be difficult to paint whatever she writes with the glossy coat of religious observance. Add the Lord's Prayer or maybe a few psalms, toss in a few references to angels bringing her home and her being with her loved ones up in the clouds and you're good. My sister considered these things, and felt that the Bible passages had nothing to do with her great-grandma, and religious platitudes would just be condescending.

Those are her conclusions, by the way. When she said she didn't want to say anything like 'the angels called her home', I was trying to be very diplomatic and not let my atheism take over the conversation. I just asked her what about it made her uncomfortable, and she fired right back with 'It's so condescending. That's the kind of stuff you tell little kids.' I was practically beaming with pride.

Anyway, what I'm really getting at is that it would be easy to throw in some mouth service to please the people who feel like a funeral ought to be about God and Heaven and all that but she doesn't want to. I daresay she feels that it would compromise her integrity and take the focus away from the dearly departed. For the most part, I agree completely. It's not like there wont be religious observance at the funeral, but the piece that she is making to honor our grandmother's memory will be about our grandmother.

There is something to be said for the fact that this is a funeral, and for many of our relatives it is about mourning. If religious wording and psalms makes them feel more at ease or helps them deal with loss, then why not just include them anyway? It's harmless, after all.

Aside from the philosophical argument about how helpful it really is to be given false hope and comfort that isn't terribly relevant here, I still feel like my sister is making the right call. This is her thing. She is creating it to honor someone she loves, and she should be free to do that in the way she feels is most appropriate. Yes, other people will read it and might be upset that it isn't religious enough. They can get as religious as they want in their personal observances. If anyone seriously gives my sister shit over not being God-oriented when she makes this thing, they're a total wanker.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The most universally sexist decision possible

Recently, Barnes & Noble made the decision to require the magazine Dossier to conceal its newest issue in opaque plastic because of the potentially offensive nature of the cover. A cover which featured the bare chest of an androgynous male who had been stylized rather femininely. Now I can see how such an image might make some especially sheltered or hetero-normative individuals uncomfortable, but it hardly seems to warrant being treated like an R or X-rated image. Especially when it is displayed alongside other shirtless, more muscular men and women wearing bikinis.

Jezebel first reported the story, complaining that the decision was sexist against slender, less muscular men with atypical builds. Skepchick followed up, complaining that it was instead targeting female or feminized individuals. I tried to find a neutral report of this story, but there doesn't seem to be one out there. You'll have to look at the two opposing viewpoints and decide for yourself what motivated Barnes & Noble's decision.

To me, though? It's pretty clearly a discriminatory decision. I'm actually impressed with the scope involved. I mean, is there anyone they managed to avoid offending?

Men? Well, you better have a traditionally masculine build with lots of glistening muscles! Otherwise you might be mistaken for a woman or a queer, and we can't have that! Might upset the ladies.

Women? We can't have anything even resembling the female body being displayed uncovered. What do you think this is, a porn store? Cover them titties up! Preferably with some tight-fitting spandex, because that will sell lots of magazines.

Androgynous? Trans? That's just fucked up. If we can't tell whether you're a boy or a girl, we don't want to have to look at you.

This kind of business decision is just a slap in the face to anyone trying to promote the idea that non-traditional bodies are still beautiful. Though I suppose we don't have to worry too much...Barnes & Noble isn't exactly a relevant company nowadays. Still, it's remarkably ridiculous that images as tame as this one are treated so controversially because the subject matter is unfamiliar.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Parasites Infest Science Fiction

Originally published over at SiMF.

Literally. Parasites hijack our bodies, manipulate our thoughts and emotions, and even use us as incubation chambers for cute little baby parasites. And it terrifies us! The very idea of some outside entity invading us…not just our world, but you and me specifically…gets inside of our heads and makes our skin crawl. Which is why they make such great Sci-Fi monsters! They’re everywhere! Movies, television, literature…we can’t get enough of the creepy little guys. The Xenomorphs from the Alien franchise are arguably one of the most iconic parasitic organisms ever, with a complex life-cycle that requires a human host. Stargate SG-1 has the Goa’uld, parasites that integrate with their human hosts rather than bursting out of their chests. Even in children’s literature you have the Yeerks; evil space slugs from the Animorphs novels who tried to enslave humanity via the ear canal.

Noticing a bit of a trend? If you look at AMC’s list of the Top Ten Parasite Movies, more than half of them feature an alien parasite. Even though parasites are common right here on Earth, their life cycle is so radically different from ours it feels alien. Especially to those of us living in developed countries with treated water and clean food, where parasitic infections have been largely eliminated. In many parts of the world however, especially in areas with poor sewage treatment, parasites are still a day-to-day problem.

What most people imagine when they think of the term ‘parasite’ are intestinal parasites. Hookworms, roundworms, pinworms and the like colonize the intestinal tract as adults, laying eggs that are shed in feces. The eggs and larvae then spread via contaminated water to other animals, including humans. Gross. They don’t reach full maturity until they find a host though, so their life cycle actually depends on obtaining this ideal host environment. Different species of parasites have adapted a wide variety of techniques for improving their odds of finding the host they need.

For example, Toxoplasma gondii is a parasitic germ whose primary host is cats. It can infect other animals, but is only capable of sexual reproduction in cats. When T. gondii infects rats it actually alters their brain chemistry to make them attracted to the scent of cat urine, thereby increasing the likelihood that the parasite will end up inside of a cat, along with its current host. It’s a very subtle manipulation of the intermediate host to get the parasite where it wants to be. Kind of like mind control.

Opiocordyceps unilateralis, known as the zombie-ant fungun, functions in a way that is entirely like mind control. When this parasitic fungus infects a carpenter ant, it manipulates the host into leaving the colony and attaching itself to the underside of a leaf. The fungus prefers to grow in this environment. When the ant dies, the fungal stalk erupts from its body and produces spores…which drift down to the forest floor and infect other ants.

Most parasites try to avoid killing their hosts. Why mess with a free ride, after all? But that is certainly not always the case. Certain species of wasp, known as parasitoid wasps because they ultimately destroy the host, lay their eggs inside other insects. When the eggs hatch, the juvenile wasps eat their way out of the living host without so much as a ‘thank you’. Parasitoid wasps are often cited as the inspiration for the Xenomorph life cycle.

So you see, we don’t need to look to outer space or science fiction to be creeped out by parasites. There’s plenty of creepiness to go around here at home.

Religious people aren't stupid, but religion is another story...

I have often been told that my tone when discussing religion is derogatory. That I am deliberately condescending or inflammatory towards religious people. By nature, my vitriolic attitude puts religious people on the defensive.

This is something of a misunderstanding, that is largely due to a critical difference in perspective. First let me say plainly that religious people are not inherently stupid or bigoted or sexist or any of the things that I often accuse religion itself of being. Sure, you've got your Fred Phelps and your Zach Chesser and all sorts of religious crazies out there demanding that the world change to suit their extremist views...but for the most part people like that represent an especially crazy and vocal minority. Most religious followers are average people that are predominantly rational and usually try to do the right thing.

The thing is, many religious people feel like because they believe in something that somehow makes it 'special'. It becomes traditional. Accepted. Protected. Those beliefs become part of their identity, in otherwise intelligent and rational people, to the point that someone criticizing those beliefs feels very personal. It feels like they are criticizing you as opposed to some of the ideas you have or some of the things you happen to believe.

As a skeptic, I put a lot of effort into critically analyzing my own values and beliefs. I'm not personally attached to them in such a way that criticism of my stance on gay rights or evolution feels like a personal attack. When I encounter other beliefs and ideas, I apply the same critical analysis to them. For example, when I read about the Hasidic newspaper that edited Hillary Clinton and Audrey Tomason out of the Situation Room photo, I was upset. I found the deliberate act of removing the images of these women to be sexist and intellectually dishonest. The justification for doing so, that publishing images of women violated modesty laws, was insulting to both men and women (I'm sure you all know how I feel about modesty).

You see, all of the tradition and spiritual context doesn't mean anything to me....and that's the root of the misunderstanding I mentioned. I treat people's beliefs like any other idea. In the case of the edited newspaper photo, I am evaluating the idea on its own, under its own merit, and find it severely lacking. Frankly, if an idea can't support itself than I don't see why it's worth anyone's time. Just because an idea has persisted through the ages or is culturally acceptable does not mean it's a good idea.

Again, I'm talking about ideas. Not people. Ideas should be questioned and criticized and refined, because that is how they become stronger. And we become better thinkers by participating in the process. The tolerance of bad ideas because of political correctness or cultural sensitivity, or the dismissal of superstitious beliefs as silly and therefore harmless, are all things I feel strongly about because these bad ideas affect people.

So if you tell me that you're Christian or Jewish or Muslim or whatever, I'm not going to think that you are stupid. Honestly it wont affect my opinion of you much in any way, because I don't think that the religion you follow has much of anything to do with who you are as a person. However...

If you tell me you believe in the idea that the Earth was created in seven days about 6000 years ago? I'm going to seriously question your critical thinking skills and scientific awareness.

If you tell me you believe in the idea that women should be removed from photos or held to certain standards of dress or behavior for the sake of modesty? I'm going to think you are sexist for enforcing a double standard and ignoring the importance and contributions of half the population.

If you tell me you believe in the idea that the world is going to end on May 21st? I'm going to roll my eyes and resist the urge to call you on May 22nd to see how you're doing.

These are bad ideas. I wont pretend that they are good ideas because some people believe them, or affirm them in any way by tacitly accepting or accommodating them. They don't get a pass because they stem from religious or cultural traditions.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Not My Delicious Chicken!!!

While discussing lunch plans recently with a politically like-minded friend, my suggestion of Chick-Fil-A was met with incredulity. It went something like this:

Me: 'Howsabout some Chick-Fil-A?'
Him: 'You're kidding me. Chick-Fil-A is totally an anti-gay, fundamentalist organization that employs discriminatory hiring policies.'
Me: 'Buh-wha?'s nommy...'

And thus the seed of cognitive dissonance was sown. I've dealt with issues like this before on my blog, such as when I agonized over whether or not it was morally acceptable for me to support the Boy Scouts of America, and it remains a challenging issue. How does one determine when or if the immediate benefits of an organization, in this case delicious fried chicken, outweigh the broader, less tangible issues that organization represents? That chicken is pretty damn good. I needed to be better informed.

Now I knew that Chick-Fil-A was a Christian company, but aside from not being able to give them my money in exchange for deliciousness on Sundays I never felt like it was a big deal. I may be an atheist, but just because something is Christian doesn't make it automatically bad. I've never felt proselytized at or discriminated against at their restaurants. As far as I was concerned if they wanted to lose money by being closed on Sundays, that was their prerogative as a privately owned business. Still, an investigation was in order.

The first article I came across seemingly put some of my concerns to rest. Yes, there had been some controversy over Chick-Fil-A supporting a Pro-marriage group by providing food to a rally of some sort. Not such a big deal, really. The wording in the title struck me as odd, though...controversy over Pro-Marriage policies? Not Anti-Gay policies? Oh, this article is from Catholic Online. They may be a bit biased, perhaps I should continue my investigations.

Then I found an article from an online student newspaper covering student protests over the on-campus branch of Chick-Fil-A. The students wanted the restaurant gone because its 'discriminatory hiring and business practices' and 'conservative-Christian policies' were at opposition to the message of inclusion the campus wanted to send. Dang, this isn't looking good for me. But hey, this is just a student newspaper, right? No references, no documentation...they could be just as biased as the Catholic site, for all I know. But the seed had taken root.

Next up was an article from the Forbes magazine archives looking into Chick-Fil-A's hiring practices. Apparently the company has been sued 'at least 12 times since 1988 on charges of employment discrimination'. The screening process potential employees go through is rigorous, invasive, and designed to select exceptionally loyal employees that 'belong' with the company. Seriously, read that article. This is some downright creepy shit. Even so, it's a privately owned company. Its franchises are independent contractors, not subject to federal employment discrimination laws. It's creepy and cult-like, but not necessarily wrong.

You can tell I'm grasping at straws at this point. I really wanted to be able to enjoy my fried chicken without the guilt of supporting a company so strongly at odds with my own values. Alas, it was not to be so. This investigation into Chick-Fil-A's charitable investments and partnerships, collected by EqualityMatters, really put the nail in the coffin. Over $1.1 million given to anti-gay groups?!? That's what they're doing with the money I spend on chicken?!? Well that's just a bucket of crispy-fried crap.

Now there is certainly an argument to be made against boycotting a franchise, seeing as how they don't actually make the policies I disagree with...but honestly, that's mostly rationalization. They are still enforcing those policies, and the parent company still profits. They aren't doing anything technically illegal, so not supporting the company with my patronage is about the only reasonable recourse left for me that doesn't conflict with my own ideology. Dang. Caring about stuff sucks sometimes.

Friday, April 29, 2011

How to Make a Zombie Plague

Originally published over at SiMF.
Also picked up by io9!

Ah, the zombie plague! A Mad Scientist couldn’t ask for a better means for world domination. Not only would discrete application of your infectious agent eliminate your opposition, the rest of humanity will be far too busy fending of their recently deceased loved ones to notice when you swoop in and take control. The population is reduced to a more manageable size, and the ever-present zombie threat will keep any potential rebellions from forming. Everybody wins! Well, mostly I win but you get my point.

But how to make it happen? There’s a good reason no one has ever pulled off the ‘Take Over the World by Zombie Plague’ scheme before…it’s an awful lot to ask of a single infectious agent. It must be transmitted from person to person, or even across species, quickly and with a low infectious dose. It has to fend off the immune system and penetrate the blood-brain barrier to get at your delicious brain meats. It has to basically turn your body into a walking incubation chamber, dedicated solely to feeding and spreading the infection. Still, these obstacles are not insurmountable when one has the power of Mad Science.

To put things into perspective, it is important to understand that the things that make us sick – viruses, bacteria, parasites, what-have-you – have been around a lot longer than we have, and they’ve gotten very good at what they do. And what they do isn’t very nice…we certainly don’t think so, anyway. The pathogens causing the infection are just doing what they have to do to survive and replicate in a hostile environment: You. In many cases, the characteristics that make this possible are a lucky coincidence for the pathogen and an unfortunate side-effect for the host. For example, a surface protein that makes a bacteria more resilient in the soil may also protect it from your immune system. If that bacteria spends enough time in a human host, it’s going to get better and better at exploiting that characteristic so that it can survive longer and reproduce more.

The longer this process goes on, the more specifically attuned the pathogen has the potential to become. Humans haven’t really been around very long, evolutionarily speaking. Bacteria however are some of the oldest forms of life, and the viruses that infect them, known as bacteriophages, have been fine-tuning the process for an exceptionally long time. So much so that many bacteriophages only infect one species of bacteria. They have become so specialized in exploiting the characteristics of their favorite bacteria that they have lost the ability to infect others.

Pox viruses are some of the oldest viruses that infect mammalian cells, and they have developed a similar level of species-specificity. A human could drink a vial of rabbit pox and be completely unaffected. That level of control would be useful…but that isn’t really what we want, is it? No, we want something new and flashy and explosively infectious. The Ebola virus only broke onto the ‘human infectious agent’ scene in 1976 and it has already made quite the impact. The virus itself destroys blood vessels and prevents blood from coagulating, producing lots of infectious fluids and causing death through hypovolemic shock. Bats are the most likely animal reservoir for the virus as well, which is pretty badass. Can you imagine zombie bats? I can. It’s awesome.

Unfortunately, viruses that are capable of infecting multiple species don’t generally affect them in the same way. The bats infected with Ebola aren’t leaking blood everywhere and birds infected with influenza haven’t come down with the flu. That’s because these species are carriers. While the virus is still present, it isn’t causing disease. Like the bacteria living in the soil that happen to have an adaptation that causes disease in humans, these viruses have a stable existence within their animal reservoirs. They only cause disease when they jump to humans, a less familiar environment. This is actually what makes Bird Flu so potentially dangerous. Multiple strains of influenza can infect the same animal, allowing for exceptionally rapid genetic recombination and the development of new strains our immune system has never seen. Many different animal species are reservoirs for human disease including pigs, armadillos and deer…but while they may be useful in delivering your zombie plague to the masses, your undead horde wont be accompanied by zombie armadillos. I’ll give you a moment to recover from the crushing disappointment.

So how will our zombie plague be spread? There’s a lot to consider here. Not only does the infection have to reach a lot of people, it also has to reach their delicious brains. The human brain is a fairly important organ. The blood-brain barrier carefully restricts access to the cerebrospinal fluid, protecting your tender brain from most bacterial infections as well as inflammation. Inflammation is your immune systems first response to a potential invader, but in the brain this can cause swelling and tissue damage. To prevent this, the blood-brain barrier keeps out the cells and antibodies of your immune system as well as the bacteria. There is certainly precedent for overcoming this obstacle, however. Rabies virus is spread through infected saliva and can travel from a bite wound to the brain, bypassing this barrier. Sound familiar?

But once our virus gets to the brain, how would it go about turning your average person into a shambling virus factory? Well honestly, you don’t really need most of that big brain you have. Sure, that cerebellum helps you coordinate your movements but shambling is totally in this year. As a proud soldier in the undead horde, you don’t really need to make any complex decisions so screw that  frontal lobe. And all that memory processing and spatial navigation provided by your hippocampus? Bah. All you really need is your amygdala…the primitive reptile brain, that generates the ‘fight or flight’ response. Just get rid of the rest and you’re good to go. Well, figuratively speaking.

So we’re looking for an infectious agent that can be introduced to the population in a relatively innocuous way – such as through an animal reservoir – that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier, destroy all that unnecessary brain tissue, and leave the host a shambling plague factory….preferably oozing with infectious particles. Now I’m sure most of you are thinking viruses are the way to go here, but I’ve got one word for you: Prions.

Prions are basically infectious proteins. We don’t know a lot about them yet, but they are the causative agent behind spongiform encephalopathies such as Mad Cow disease and Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. Mad Cow disease can be transmitted to humans who eat infected tissue, and there is some evidence that prions can become airborne and cause disease at a surprisingly low infectious dose (in mice, anyway). Since all they are is a single protein, they have no trouble slipping past the blood-brain barrier and wreaking havoc with your neurons. When the misfolded prion protein encounters other proteins in the brain, it acts as a template that causes the misfolding of these healthy proteins, thereby propagating itself. Prion diseases are currently untreatable, even. The only real downside is the long incubation time, but I’m still pretty confident that prions are the way to go in terms of zombie plague development.

Even if you aren’t trying to take over the world (and why wouldn’t you be?!?), the zombie plague is exceptionally useful as a modeling tool for the spread of highly infectious diseases. It’s also a powerful motivator for getting people interested in how diseases spread. You can try your hand at destroying the world with the zombie plague or building your own custom pathogen to see how fast you can infect the world. Preparing for the Zombie Apocalypse is also a fun way to be prepared for more routine disasters that people do face daily.