Update Schedule

This blog regularly updates on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty-seven: Music

Music is probably one of the "realest" things there is, if "being real" can be considered a continuum and not just a binary thing. If you're having trouble imagining a spectrum of realism, think about how real chairs are: well, OK, on the one hand there are actually chairs in the world, but on the other hand there are just atoms arranged chair-wise. But those atoms are composed of protons, electrons, and neutrons, and those things are a little bit "more real" than the chair-like arrangements into which we place them. If you can dig that. Or it could be that, since words are imaginary, I'm just playing a pretty word game. Your choice, I guess.

The best definition for music that I ever heard was, "organized sound in time." Now, the sound of music (phenomenologically speaking) is just vibrations in the air wobbling your eardrum and then turning those wobbles from air vibrations into liquid vibrations, followed by tiny hairs in your inner ear picking up those vibrations and telling your brain that you're hearing sound. But what's behind that is a bunch of rhythms, and what makes music interesting is the arrangements of (and relationships between) those rhythms. I don't just mean time signature and beat, I mean the rhythm with which the air must vibrate to carry, say, a C#.

Now here's where the "realness" of music comes in: the relationships between those vibrations are a matter of mathematical proportion. While it's fairly arbitrary what names we give to our notes and what scales we use, these rhythms have a direct relationship to the bits of reality from which they are constructed. What precisely that means is up to the reader, but the fact remains that sound (or more generally, rhythm) is a direct expression of the properties of reality that produce it. There is a key difference, however, between rhythm as we perceive it and rhythm as it actually is, and here I want to illustrate the point by reference to some of the differences between Indian and Western music.

Both Indian and Western music are based on the physics of sound, but whereas Western music only recognizes twelve notes in an octave, Indian music recognizes twenty-two notes in an octave. Interestingly, both styles typically choose only seven notes in that octave range to play in a piece, and this determines the key of the piece. While the variations of Western music typically involve play with harmonic progression, Indian music tends to focus its complexity on melody and rhythm: in an Indian performance, the audience can keep a steady rhythm while the performers play around, and then they meet back up and the audience is impressed with how they each went and played with the rhythm and then managed to meet back in the middle. In a Western performance, the audience just kind of sits and listens while everyone stays in the same rhythm and plays different parts in harmony. And whereas Western music tends to have a "mood," Indian music has a time of day: Westerners have happy music, sad music, suspenseful music; Indians have morning music, afternoon music, night music. And that's just skimming the surface! (A more thorough read can be found here.)

The point is, a Westerner might call Indian music dissonant and arrhythmic, while an Indian might call Western music repetitive and dull. Each would describe their own music as rich and soulful and all kinds of other positive adjectives, while the other thing is "just weird." Which you like seems to be based only on where you grew up, the local style to which you have grown accustomed, like language or an accent: Indians have three distinct sounds which Westerners seem to translate all as the "D" sound, and Westerners seem to do this thing with migrating Rs (which is why a Bostonian will "wash the cah," while a Texan will "warsh the car").

But underneath that style is the same physics, the same vibrations, the same travelling disturbances through reality. Much like language is all about communicating ideas, music is all about communicating rhythms; but while ideas are only in our heads, rhythms are actually "out there in the world." I think that makes music and rhythmic expression a little bit more real, more interesting, more visceral, than the things that we do with language alone.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Family Togetherness > Ideology

I got into town late on the 23rd, and everything since then has been a blur of cooking, eating, drinking, wrapping and un-wrapping... y'know, family togetherness. But on the 24th, my family went to a Christmas Eve service at the local Episcopal church. I had just shown and explained my book to my mom and her girlfriend, and they seemed to be really impressed with the fact that I cranked out a word count in a month and then followed up to get my proof copy, but only now - now that I've written a book, it seems - do they understand that all my talk of God being imaginary means that I actually don't believe in God. Like, I've been an atheist longer than I've been an adult (if you count 21 as adulthood, that is), and so my mom seemed to hem and haw and hesitate about asking me to come to service, even though I haven't done so for years.

There was one exception, two years ago: my youngest brother and sister were in the pageant, so I put up with being bored for an hour to support them. Oh, I also went to a church when my choir director died - he was a great guy, and celebrating his life/honoring his death was worth acting against my "church is stupid" principle.

Well, I told my mom that I'd sleep on it, and so I did. I woke up thinking that I really didn't want to go, but it meant so much to other people, and it's really not all that much trouble for me. Oh, they also have a gay pastor at this church, which sweetened the deal for me: like Pat Condell, I don't want there to be gay clergy only in the sense that I don't want there to be any clergy, but I have no problem with someone wearing a certain set of clothes just because of how they choose to stick it in the naughty place. And maybe if churches become inclusive and permissive enough (which, historically, has defined what church is not all about), then my problems with churches will just go away and religion might become a positive thing in the world after all. Or maybe my head's in the clouds, I don't know.

Well, Christmas Eve slipped by, mostly. I had to help the kids accomplish their lists for the day: E had to finish a present for Mom, C had to clean her guinea pig's cage because it hadn't been done for weeks, that sort of thing. And my task was to make the Jell-O for Christmas dinner, since it was layered and required brief periods of attention between long spans of inactivity. Just my style! Anyway, I'm in the middle of making Jell-O (four of seven layers in), still wrapping presents, my brother A & my father haven't shown up yet, and mom tells me it's time to go to church. They're heading out the door right now! We gotta go!

Well, OK. I'm thinking to myself, "I could go to church and be bored but have a little bit more family togetherness - which we're getting anyway - or I could stay home and do useful things that actually accomplish something. Hmm..." So I said that I needed to get to a stopping point, but if Dad & A were going and the whole family would be there except me, then I would go. I called my dad and left a message as the rest of the crew headed out the door. Well, Mom calls me from the road to say that they have actually seen my father's vehicle on the way, then my father calls me to say that he's bringing A to church and wants to know if I'll be there.

Ugh. Fine. OK. "Yeah, I just got to a stopping point. I'll throw on my boots and coat and I'll be right along." I briefly consider a shot of rum - just to keep me warm, you understand - but then I think better of it. I'm only five minutes late, and according to the program, they're still singing the prelude hymn. I sit down amid hugs and whispered greetings and smiles, all of which I return, and then hear the priest say, "Blessed be the one, holy, and living God."

The congregation responds, "Glory to God for ever and ever."

The priest continues, "Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen." (You see, I kept a program. It's all annotated an' shit.)

The first reading was from Isaiah 9, which seems to be all about the Lord's people coming together to live in peace while all those ungodly folk live their awesome lives in civilization. Read it. It's civilization versus the country bumpkin believer, and God comes along to lay low the people who actually try to improve their lives and feel good about themselves for it.

It wasn't all backwardness and foolishness, though. There was some humor, too! At one point, the pastor said, "Therefore, according to his command, O Father," which I totally heard as, "...according to his commando father." It gave me the giggles and I had to explain by passing notes. And at the end, when we were about to sing Joy to the World, the pastor realized that we skipped over Silent Night and said, "Wait! We forgot Silent Night! It's just not Christmas unless we sing Silent Night, after all." That gave more people the giggles, so I had no problem laughing along.

So, OK, an hour of boredom, but at least everyone's nice. There was no Hellfire or brimstone, no shrieking condemnations of difference, just a bunch of innocent god-walloping nonsense with a central message of love. I can't quite get behind that on account of the nonsense, but it could be a whole lot worse. And it made for a great conversation starter, too! At dinner, my mom started telling me how the congregation has shrunk with the gay pastor, and she told me about how she ran into one of the no-longer-attending families while she was out shopping and asked why she hadn't seen them at church. She responded that there had been some changes, at which point I said, "Huh. Cute. A bigot in civilized clothing." I got to talk about Conservapedia and their stupid project to remove liberal bias from the Bible, too. Then we actually talked about the Bible, and how it's a mixed bag and you can get whatever you want out of it depending on how you go into it. Good conversation!

There was something of a reprise last night at my grandparents' place (they have a 26-acre valley for a backyard, so this is where the sledding happens). I got to talk about my book again, and my mom brought up that I came to church, and then she brought up the Conservative Bible Project again and I got to talk all about it. So it was good, in the end, because the family unbeliever got to rally with the rest of the crew against what we all recognize to be idiocy. And at the end of the day, I really don't care what people believe, so long as they leave their unprovable crap at the door when it comes to telling others how to live their lives. There's a difference between "You should take your full course of antibiotics to cure an infection" and "You should refrain from sticking it in the naughty place in thus-and-such a way because it makes baby Jesus cry." They know the difference. They just... believe some things that I find silly.

Whatever. I probably believe some things that they find silly.

Oh, I had entirely forgotten about the Jell-O, but of course church didn't get blamed. I just went out to buy more and picked up where I had left off. It came out great!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Turning off my computer...

...and so begins my sojourn to The Frigid Northlands. Happy whatever you do, everybody!

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A Matter of Scale

I have to thank Silver Garou for pointing me at this video of the Universe as we see it:
It reminds me of the Total Perspective Vortex from Adams' Hitchhiker trilogy. Then there's this, from Rhodopsin:
The Universe is such a huge and awesome place! And while I'm at this, I should also mention that cl linked me to Symphony of Science a few weeks back, which is great stuff! What's not to love about auto-tuned prose from great science popularizers, set to ambient techno with imagery from science programs? Here's Our Place in the Cosmos, which features one of my favorite Dawkins quotes: "Matter flows from place to place and momentarily combines to be you. Some people find that thought disturbing - I find the reality thrilling."

Monday, December 21, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Writer's Remorse

I've been re-reading my response to Sarah Braasch, both in light of the comments left there (and in the DA thread), and because I re-read things often to try to get a different perspective on them. Well, now I've got a different perspective on my own words, and I feel compelled to say something about it. Here I go!

The more I read what I wrote, the more it comes off as a couple pages of "I don't like your style, young lady!" It strikes me more and more as finger-wagging nonsense, and I always get pissed when people do that to me, so why would I do it to anyone else? As both Sarah and Ebonmuse have said, the criticisms are valid ones - but what was I criticizing? Well, Sarah didn't genuflect before the facts in a manner suitable to my tastes - she didn't cite sources when making points. Why did that stick in my craw so much? Because... because... because facts matter, dammit, and if you don't keep track of where you get them from, then you might be wrong and then... and then... well, you'd be wrong.

But was Sarah wrong in anything she said? Umm... no. As Ebonmuse was kind enough to point out, the facts are on Sarah's side here - while her apocalyptic tenor* may indeed have been hyperbolic, I think such hyperbole is justified by the facts in this case. And ultimately, the availability of that justification is what matters to me, not whether it's laid out right the Hell then and there. Missionaries do in fact bring their death cult with them and tie it to what comforts of civilization they also offer, and their death cult is in fact anti-civilization, anti-health, and anti-sanity. How better to bring about the end of the world than by poisoning all that is best in it, both in practice when giving aid to people, and in the public mind by causing the disease to be consistently linked with the cure? Oh, and for clarity, disease=unevidenced superstition (but I repeat myself!), cure=secular civilization (oh, I repeat myself again!).

To be fair, nobody goes all the damn way to Africa just to ruin a bunch of strangers' lives. These missionaries, of course, have nothing but the best of intentions in their heart of hearts, I'm sure of it - but who's always saying that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions? Must be someone who believes in Hell...

Anyway, I think I got a little carried away with my academic desire for citation. But this ain't Wikipedia, it's not even college, and so picking nits over something like that just seems inappropriate now that I've had a couple days to think about what I wrote. My first reaction to her piece was that it was moving and well-written, and while that admittedly does rely on the sort of background that she and I share (i.e. growing up amid religious insanity), we do in fact share that background, and I think appealing to that is no bad thing. As Sarah said, this is not academic writing, so my criticisms are at least a bit out of place.

I guess what I'm getting at is that everyone's an asshole from time to time, and I think I just took my turn. Sorry about that. I should have thought about what I was saying before I said it, and then I might not have gone off on a tangent about... nothing at all, really.

* - I try to use the phrase "apocalyptic tenor" at every available opportunity, because I read it here and it's awesome (it's also awesome here). But am I the only one who thinks of a giant Luciano Pavarotti destroying Italy when this phrase is mentioned? That would be quite an "apocalyptic tenor" indeed! Man, now I want to see giant Luciano Pavarotti wreck the Vatican... that would be awesome, too! Also, today's Dinosaur Comics is pretty awesome, too (fortune cookie moment).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Too Awesome Not to Share

This was just too amazing to leave alone on the internet:
click for big, source
So yeah, this site is just awesome. It might even be called "epic," in a "win" sort of way. For the win.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Arguing on the Internet: Whose Work Is Sarah Braasch Doing?

So I've been thinking about Christian Missionaries Are Doing God's Work, and re-reading it with a more critical eye. I started off liking it a whole bunch, but then again, I started off agreeing with Sarah in the first place. Now, I think the piece (as a stand-alone essay) expects perhaps a bit too much from the reader, or bites off more than it can chew. Maybe both.

I'm not troubled by the initial revulsion at the missionaries on the plane. I think it's an understandable emotional reaction all on its own, and the conversation Sarah relates between her and her friend shows a great opportunity for growth. My issue starts with "The Ghion was a sea of entitled whiteness."

I understand that First World folks can (and do) cop an attitude of entitlement, especially when they think they're helping others and see any inconvenience as ingratitude (or some such horse-shit). But this is never shown, we are simply expected to believe that an attitude exists without ever seeing it in action, rather than presenting it as a reasoned conclusion from any observation that was shared with the reader. Sarah says, "The only dark faces were those of the employees and the babies," but aren't those the people who live in this country? And isn't the point of a hotel to accommodate its guests? And why on Earth is she complaining that children are being taken from an impoverished nation to a home with parents who can provide for them? I understand that the situation these children are being brought into is far from perfect, ideologically speaking; but I think it's a damn sight better than the destitution in which they would otherwise be raised.

Then there's this bit: "I would have been more than happy to forego any creature comforts to not be staying in the same hotel as every other overfed Westerner in Addis Ababa. ... I decided to soak in the tub for a little ablution." Now, maybe she had no choice in terms of which hotel to stay in. I'm just saying, it makes for a rather awkward juxtaposition to say, "I'd sacrifice X to escape Y; but now I'm going to indulge in X without getting away from Y at all!" When you don't have a choice about Y, sure, you may as well do X anyway. Just sayin'.

Moving on, there's the conversation with the other missionary (from a story logic perspective, this would have been an excellent place to capitalize on that aforementioned growth opportunity). Sarah asks, "Why can missionaries and evangelicals and proselytizers sense a former believer like sharks detect blood in the water, like rapists and child molesters can smell the lingering odor of victimization emanating from the pores of the abused?" I didn't know that they could! But in any event, it doesn't seem like this particular one is doing anything of the kind. Sarah, by her own admission, isolated herself - she put herself in a position where she looked lonely, and this other person seemed to be trying to make friends with her. She reined herself in and remained civil, but it seemed unnecessarily strenuous for her to do so. Was she starting off in a confrontational mood, I wonder?

At the end of it, Sarah simply leaves as soon as her cigarette is finished, which is coincidentally when the missionary is at her most vulnerable. Why not take this opportunity to exercise a little patience and do some missionary work of her own? Moreover, what is this Christian likely to say to her friends about the encounter? Would she glowingly recount the friendly conversation she had with the atheist, who wasn't a fire-breathing Satan-worshipping demon but actually a nice person just like her? Or would she probably have something else to say? Perhaps something that reinforces her preexisting notions about atheists?

As for her conclusion and call to action, I'm half with her, half confused. On the one hand, I agree that the actions of missionaries cause direct and real harm, but on the other hand, Sarah doesn't seem to acknowledge how screwed-up the pre-existing superstitions and circumstances of these people often are. It's not like the Christians need to tell these Africans to believe in the supernatural, they do that on their own already. Really, the harm that the Christians do is... well, yeah, by mis-educating them on sex, they actively contribute to the spread of disease. By not correcting misogynist attitudes, they reinforce those attitudes. Christians are throwing fuel onto an already blazing fire of primitive superstitions, and the fact that the transplanted primitive superstitions are linked to the civilized help these people bring makes for a detrimental juxtaposition on the world stage. Sure.

However, I think her point would have been better served if she limited it to showing how the actions of American Christian missionaries are detrimental to their goals. They want to help people? Great! Go help people! Oh, but if you also want to spread your religion, then there's gonna be a problem. 'Cuz, you see, we checked, and it turns out that religion is bad for people. Her points at the end, backed up with some statistics (perhaps links to news stories concerning the torture of witches inspired by missionaries, or wars started over ideas spread by missionaries, or really any kind of data at all), would have admirably served this purpose. But "they are the apocalypse?" Sure, Christianity's a death cult and all that - as Pat Condell points out, the defining moment of Christianity is its founder's death, and all the benefits accrue after death, and so on and so forth - but I think a bunch of unsubstantiated sneering renders such an apocalyptic tenor a bit needlessly hyperbolic. To wax verbose.

So yeah, as I'm sure can be gleaned from the feedback Sarah's received already, the stuff she talks about isn't entirely unreasonable. However, to someone who doesn't have a background of experience that is remarkably similar to hers, to someone who doesn't know about the racism/sexism/elitism/entitlement that often runs rampant in God's chosen cults, this could come off as a bunch of condescending and confrontational bullshit. That objection could easily be removed with the simple inclusion of a few supporting facts, even anecdotes: perhaps a story of a missionary berating a hotel employee, if such a thing did in fact happen. A good piece of activist writing should educate the reader on problems, not simply state them and blame them on somebody. Or it could just be a rant, but then it ought to get the rant tag, so people know to take it with a grain of salt.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

From Metaphysics to Politics: High horses and the myth of identity.

I'd like to start today's philosophical sojourn with a thought experiment. Cut off your pinky in your mind's eye. Are you still yourself? Of course you are. What about your arm? Without your arm, you're still yourself. Both arms, both legs, even your torso - if you could survive as a Futurama-style head in a jar, you'd still be yourself. You'd have lost your gastroenteric and spinal nervous systems, and those go a long ways farther to influencing your "brainy self" than most people realize, but you'd still more or less be you.

The same goes for your hair color. If I woke up tomorrow with blonde hair, but otherwise the same, I'd still be D. If I woke up tomorrow with green skin, I'd still be me. If I woke up tomorrow in a body of the opposite sex, I'd still be who I am, that one thing about me would have just been changed independently of all other things.

How about your past? Take any day of your life, and delete it from your history. It could be the most important day of your life, but you were still you before it, and you'd still go through the changes you'd go through afterwards (although perhaps a radically different set of particular changes) in a continuously changing flux of "you." The same goes for each and every facet of your personality, every emotional reaction you've ever had, and so on and so forth. Take yourself apart, and where is the "you?" There is no "essence of you," aside from a constantly-changing patchwork mish-mash of atoms and the events those atoms have been through.

There is no such thing as "you."

Lots of people, yourself included, have "an idea of you." And as the philosophers Parker and Stone have reminded us, an idea doesn't need to have a referent in order to have effects in the world. The idea of you is a real idea, but it is not the same thing as you any more than your idea of a duck is an actual duck (for clarity, your idea of a duck is not a duck). Actually, when you get right down to it, there's no such thing as "a duck," either (just "atoms arranged duck-wise," which is practically the same thing but not exactly), because all language is language of convenience. So even though there's "really" no such thing as you on the one hand, of course there's "really" such a thing as you on the other. To remain intellectually honest, however, we have to keep both of these senses in mind when we talk about ourselves so that we can make sure that we're not confusing the two in our own minds, conflating them when speaking to others, or equivocating between them while trying to make a point.

Why do we need to do this? Well, to not do this would be careless and stupid, I think. Do you want to be careless and stupid? I don't know. I sure don't. But there's no law saying that you can't be careless and stupid, so to each his or her own, I guess. Keep that in mind for part two, coming soon! (Guess what? Soon is now!)

Much has been said lately, in the corners of the Universe that I frequent (I'm not just talking about the internet here), about all the wrongs that have been done to this group/person at the hands of that group/person. It's a real shame - I'm not being facetious or sarcastic at all here, it really is a shame. Suffering is a part of life, it's not all flowers and rainbows. But then people go and do something weird: rather than actually try to work together to do something constructive about it, some douchebags seem to want only to whine and whine. They seem, for whatever reason, unwilling or unable to get outside their own heads and stop taking things personally. Yes, these things often affect them personally, and that's rotten, but even though it's very real in one sense, it's all in your head in another important sense. Both senses are valuable, because while the former can help you motivate others to be on your side, the latter will help you make your case without whining.

Now, I want to get one thing very straight at this point: some people talk about their problems because they want sympathy, and some people talk about their problems because they want solutions. Some people only respond to talk of problems with sympathy, and some people only respond to talk of problems with solutions. Doing only one or the other of these is incomplete, and that's the TL;DR version of my beef today. As emotional creatures, we need sympathy - so give it when you can! Really! Be sympathetic to your fellow human beings and their experiences. But problems are for solving, too, so offer solutions as well! And when you tell people about your problems, be grateful for what sympathy you do get, and also be prepared to make progress and move towards solutions, which will involve taking a little advice, because it's probably coming your way anyway. So be a little tough on yourself, swallow your pride, and take whatever comes your way as an opportunity to learn.

Or did you think you had the right to tell other people how they ought to respond to you? Or the ability to control how others think of you? You're not the main character, y'know. Everyone's got problems. Sure, lots of people don't know what it's like to be you, but you don't know what it's like to be anyone else, either, so stay off that high horse. Besides, at the end of the day, the world is under no obligation to take you seriously, and you're not entitled to anything. Every single part of you, every facet of your personality, every choice you've made, every word you utter, every action you take, is subject to question and ridicule. So what?

So what, ideed. This is not a rhetorical question, I really mean this: take anything that's happened to you, any injustice you've suffered, whatever storm you've weathered. Ask yourself, "So what?" And keep asking it. So it's wrong - so what? So, it hurts! So what? So this is bad for the whole world! So what? Keep asking so what, and you'll see that dwelling on the negatives is pointless - it's the wrong attitude to take. Yes, it hurts and is bad and is unfair, and yes, that sucks, and yes, that's awful. But so what?

So, pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and do something. "I shouldn't have to!" Wrong attitude, asshole. "I already am!" Really? Awesome! Again: so what? We'll go a better way this time: so I'm fixing problems. So what? So I'm making the world a better place! So what? So, things are going to be a little less awful now. So what?

So, hopefully, you're happy with what you're doing and you've found some meaning in your life. So what? Well, isn't that the point? Hasn't that been the point all along? How we survive is what makes us who we are, so how are you surviving? Are you throwing a tantrum, literal or metaphorical, petulantly tapping your foot as you wait for the world to conform to whatever idea of fairness or justice you think it ought to automatically respect? Or are you getting over your bad self, taking care of your own damn needs, and dealing with people by giving them what they need to get on your team and work with you? One of those approaches works. The other is stupid.

This is politics: dealing with people, giving others what they want in order to get them to give you what you want. It's not always fair, it often sucks, but it's how things work. And if you get enough people on your team, you can get things headed towards your way in the long run. Doing this in the best way possible requires an uncommon level of honesty and self-awareness that can only come from refusing to let your wounds define you. If you choose to forge your identity (and imaginary as it is, we all have an identity) from all the wrong that's been done to you, if you insist upon emphasizing your victim status, then you cannot reasonably expect anything other than continuous failure and misery.

But even if you do everything right, then you will still suffer failures and setbacks from time to time. That's just how things go sometimes. It sucks. And things aren't always this simple, I know. What I'm saying is, simplify things for yourself. Are you missing some advantages enjoyed by others in society? That sucks! So take them. If you got a sub-par education, go to the library and give yourself a better one. Shitty social circle? Make new friends. Low self-esteem? Start taking steps to improve your life and build your self-esteem on that. Heal your own wounds. Take control of your own life. You can't ever do it all the way, and you might not win, but you can start, and you can keep at it, and you can refuse to let the bastards keep you down. And then you can put yourself in a position to help others like you, because you'll have something to offer, even if it's only the wisdom of your years or the experience of what doesn't work. I mean, you can't fix everything right away; but you can't even start to fix the world until and unless you've started fixing yourself. And complaints never fixed anything.

This post was featured in the 47th Humanist Symposium.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Call Ripley! A little bit of Holiday Honesty, for a change.

I totally stole this from the Atheiskeptihumanist forums (so extra-special thanks to UberPest!). My "penance" is to tell you all to go register there! It's a pretty simple portmanteau, you can bookmark it if you can't spell it, and the community needs more members - which means that the earlier you get there, the more relevant you'll be! And while you're at it, you should also check out Atheist Nexus, too. It's like the Facebook of atheism. On to the news!

Boss Creations is dedicated to putting Christ back into Christmas. Don't laugh, this is Serious Business. OK, laugh because it's stupid and nobody with half a brain gives a shit. Also, laugh because they're literally jamming their symbol of medieval torture into a pagan symbol of a pagan holiday in a desperate bid for cultural relevance, just like the church did in metaphor when they tried to co-opt the holiday all those years ago. You see, the church can't torture people into believing any longer, so now they just bludgeon us all with symbolism - as Boss' front page says, "It's not just a tree - it's a movement!"
What. The. Fuck.

So I'm kind of alarmed by this whole thing, but I find their misguided attempt at cultural dominance to be cutely honest. I'd like to see Jesus up there, myself, beaten bloody with a little INRI above his head, maybe a banner wrapped around his naughty bits saying something like, "Blood Sacrifice is Just Awesome! Fuck Yeah!" Oh, for a fun time, ask any Christian away from the internet what INRI stands for - ten bucks says they won't know, but we need a statistically relevant sample, and I guarantee I'll come out on top across, say, a couple hundred randomized trials.

I also wish these nutters were somehow forced to accept the historical fact that Christmas was co-opted from pagan solstice celebrations. Seriously, the evergreen decked out with shiny baubles and fairy lights, the gift-giving, mistletoe, all that crap - pagan, pagan, pagan! The real killer, though? Christmas trees are against the Bible, for serious! Someone needs to inform Marsha Boggs, Boss Creations' owner-slash-crazy-ho-bag-in-residence, who apparently hates inclusion because it doesn't show her particular sect the special deference it does not deserve at all. I'd love to see the look on her face when Jeremiah 10:2-4 is read to her.

Of course, she'd probably do the Christian thing and ignore reason. She knows what she believes, don't confuse her with the facts. Christianity is whatever she says it is, godammit, and there's no way the Bible could be against her because... wait, there is no because, that's just a fact. Right, guys?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Outrages Are Outrageous!

Thanks to Rhodopsin for tipping me off to this tidbit: last Tuesday (12/8), the Canadian sci-fi writer Peter Watts got a little out of line with border patrol, and was brutalized out of all proportion for it. (other sources)

Now, I don't know if anyone told this guy, but the police run on authoritarian dick-waving. That goes double for border patrol, who imagine themselves the defenders of Our Glorious Nation against foreign threats. Sci-fi writers aren't exactly high up on the list, as foreign threats go, but creative types in general tend to have a problem with bowing to authority for its own sake, especially of the dick-waving variety. But the people who pursue power tend to be the people who want it, and provoking such types is usually risky business as they are wont to exercise said power at the slightest provocation - such as a foreign writer asking police why they're searching his vehicle.

What we have here, you see, is a misunderstanding: Watts, reasonably enough, didn't seem to understand that when an officer of the law wants to search your vehicle, the officer gets what the officer wants whether you like it or not. This makes no sense, but it's how things work. Watts also didn't seem to understand that disobeying a direct order from a police officer, such as "return to your vehicle immediately," is a crime. Could he have been justifiably cuffed and hauled in to station, at great embarrassment and perhaps some minor financial expense? Sure.

Should he have been beaten, maced, and then dumped over the border after posting bail with no coat or vehicle during the first major storm of the season, only to be charged with felony assault by his assailants? Hell fuck no!

OK, so now the tables have turned and it's border patrol who's out of line. In order to do things like not lose all of his everything and send the message that This Shit Won't Fly, Watts needs about three metric boat-loads of cash. He has maybe a quarter of a metric boat-load of cash at present, being the critically acclaimed but not really all that popular author that he is. So if you have some extra scratch lying around, you can make a PayPal payment to donate@rifters.com, or send a check in the mail to Peter Watts. He's made his books free on the internet, so you could download them and donate the money you'd save.

Actually, I remember being intrigued by his Rifters books ever since I read Anatomy of a Rifter some years ago... I think I'll toss a twenty his way with a Christmas download and finally take a look at what he's got to say. Rhodopsin, remind me if I forget, because this is important to me.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Bus Crazies Gone Wild!

So I was riding the bus to work this morning when I overheard a man talking to another man about teh innernet. These were Serious Men, who do things like Talk Shop, so I can understand the instinct to appear knowledgeable. For my part, well, I don't know - I'm not a doctor. But I have friends in high places - people who occasionally take the time to explain things to me, like how a computer works at the transistor level (it's a physical logic gate - so cool!) and stuff like that. Computers are still magic to me, at some ambiguous level - it's along the way from "transistor be logic gate" to "game go on screen" - but it's magic that I can at least listen to intelligently. And now I'm hyphenating too much - back to the story about making fun of posturing idiots.

So this guy says he couldn't do the research he needs to do because "they blocked all the social networking" and now he can't even "get on IM." He tried to Google what he needed, apparently, but it "brought up something else all on its own," and so he was all like, "delete delete delete!" Because it was, you see, "an adult, umm, it was a porn site." Well, fuckin' surprise. Apparently nobody ever told him that that's what the internet is for. I thought to myself, briefly, "Who does this yahoo think he's trying to fool?" But then I looked around on the bus and answered my own question. And now I think my elitism is showing. Oops!

So I started talking to Typhinius about this, because it was hilarious, and he courteously explained to me that if spam clogs all the tubes, then that will slow down my pixels. I countered that the law of supply and demand has created a preponderance of lesbian porn, and that if nobody watches it, then it's just going to pile up and start spilling out to all the other sites. We'd better get cracking! Keeping on top of internet porn is Serious Business!

Fast forward to work, and I'm talking video games with one of the tech guys, when one of the people who does actual work walks in and starts asking him for help with her home computer. She was using terms like "computer box" and "the button by the volume knob" (I'm not making this up, I swears it!), so I knew what I had to do. I practiced at poker face for a while, then when there was a lull in the conversation, I asked her, "Are you sure your spam filter is working properly? If too much spam clogs your tubes, then that could cause your pixels to slow down."

She looked at me and nodded - knowingly. Part of me died a little.

But then tech guy came to her rescue, and said with perfect sincerity, "Don't listen to D," as if I weren't even there! Whatever, he did the right thing, and I cracked up because I could no longer keep a straight face.

Speaking of non sequiturs, this reminds me rather of Our Lord Jebus. You see, the tubes are our brains, and the pixels are our thoughts, and Jebus is the spam. When spam clogs the tubes, your pixels slow down, they get all fuzzy, and it's hard to see what's going on. But this is OK, really, because thinking is hard. You don't want to bother with all that tough work, do you? So let Jebus clog your brain tubes with his blood or spam or whatever, and blur out all those sharp-edged pixels. It's the stupid man's anti-aliasing.

Or you could install Skepticism brand spam filters, and keep your tubes clear and flowing properly. Sure, you might not like some of the things that pop up on your screen now, but those things were there anyway - you just couldn't see them before because of all the Jebus spam! And then you'll know that when other people talk about lesbian porn overflowing onto other sites, they're talking out their asses, so you don't need to worry about that stupid apocalyptic crap. And then you can start worrying about things that actually need to be worried about, like misogyny and homophobia and hunger and poverty and disease. You know, real problems, not the made-up problems that the Jebusites are constantly fretting about.

Friday, December 11, 2009

My Photoshop skills are not what they used to be...

But I guess that's what happens when you only do MS Paint diagrams for... uhh... years. Yeah, years. Jeez.

Anyway, I'm upset with a few elements of the cover. OK, four. Mainly the metal face bits, because I can't even follow a polykarbon tutorial right any more. But it's not total crap, and it will work as a cover for the proof copy so I can at least make sure I did the magic right on submitting things. Here, have a look-see:
I also decided, oh, about forty-five minutes ago that I wanted to do something besides plain black for the background - but I had accidentally made the background part of the layer I was working in, so I totally fucked myself. After that, it was mainly just saying, "Fuck it," and wrapping up so I could just get my damn proof copy already. So if anyone has awesome Photoshop skills - or any kind of awesome art skills, really - and feels like whipping up a 5x8" cover at 300dpi, it will probably be better than mine. And you'll get credit in the book, too! It's win-win, I promise!

Anyway, I guess that's what I get for trying to rush everything at the last minute and not sleeping since... umm... shit. I woke up on Wednesday morning and have been going ever since. Is it Friday already? I have shopping to do! Good thing I'm off work today.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

What is this "sleep" of which you speak?

Everything is in order, continuity is established, and like three typos were fixed. Seriously, I scoured the whole thing in the last like twelve hours and it's all good. Now I just have to register at Create Space and upload! Oh, and the cover, too. And dedication, acknowledgments, about the author, etc.

Friday, for serious.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009


So I didn't hear anything from the NaNoWriMo people about what I got for winning this year. But then Rhodopsin picked up Borderlands (which is a sweet game, despite the fact that it's side-by-side split screen and Modern Warfare 2 controls - and you can't fucking change either of those things! Dammit!), and Silver Garou & I have been working on getting the achievements to unlock the ODST armor for our internet avatars (because unlocking sweet gear for your internet persona by playing games is like the best marketing gimmick EVAR). What does this mean? It means that D becomes very lazy. I managed to write enough to cover the Riley Williams segment just in case I wound up wanting to remove it, but other than that, I haven't worked on The Quantum Mechanic since the 30th.

But then I got an e-mail at like 9 pm last night stating that we winners do get a free proof copy, and since I want to get this ready in time for Christmas shipping, everything else is on hold until I've got that all ready. Just so y'all know.

By the way, "in time for Christmas shipping" means Friday. Like, this Friday. So I'ma get crackin'!

Saturday, December 5, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty-six: Cordyceps, scourge of the jungle!

Cordyceps is one of my favorite kinds of parasite: a zombie parasite! That is, a biological zombie parasite, not a memetic zombie parasite (religion, nationalism, etc.). What do I mean by "zombie parasite?" I mean a parasite that overwhelmingly alters the behavior of the host, like rabies (which makes its host restless, vicious, and thirsty), in a way that makes it dramatically more likely to cause the parasite to spread. The common cold, influenza, ebola, these just straight up kill you (or get killed) and it's a pretty boring fight. But zombie parasites make you do things that you could imagine the parasite straight up asking you to do, and you say "Yes." Just like religion!

Check this out:
Footage from Planet Earth.
Cordyceps is a real monster, albeit a beautiful one. It can make floor-dwelling ants, which would normally spend their entire lives on or beneath the ground, climb. And it looks cool, too! Check out some of these sweet photos:
Seriously: so awesome. But don't ever mutate! You can click on any of those "source" links for bigger (and more!) images, and you can also go here for even more shots. Great stuff!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Cross-Post: The Man with the Bag

My mom was fretting about there not being enough money this year for all the Christmas miracles she'd like to have happen. I tried to comfort her, so I asked what made Christmas magical in her youth, expecting that she'd reflect on things like family togetherness, a few nice surprises, and the hoopla of celebration; instead, she looked me in the eye and sadly said, "Santa," as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. My first thought was, "You child," but then I realized that calling her out on this would do no good, so I tried to constructively point out what really made Christmases good for her: the actual good things.

Anyway, the Santa Claus lie (and misinformation with intent to deceive is lying, no matter what your intentions are) is still being perpetrated upon my youngest siblings, so here's this.
Sometimes I feel like I'm the only one in my family who doesn't think it's OK to believe something false because it makes you happy. There are only two situations where we do this: the "Bunny, Tooth and Claus" trinity, and religion. My parents have asked me to keep mum once again about Santa Claus, insisting on perpetuating the myth in young E’s mind. I assured them that I would maintain my position of evasive neutrality – really, it would only do more harm than good at this point, and he’ll soon figure it out for himself, anyway. Plus, he’s not even my kid. After that, C’s practically in the bag. Next on the hit list: the Easter Bunny, and then the Tooth Fairy!

I want to take a minute to clarify something, though, lest it go misunderstood: I love winter festivities. Sure, a few people turn into raging dick-bags when discussing the proper etiquette of how to greet someone, and fuck the haters (I say “Happy Holidays” a lot because I don’t really identify with the religious reasons behind any of them and therefore don’t really wish well for any holy day in particular, but if someone wishes me Merry Christmas or Happy Chanukkah, I’m content to interpret that as a wish that I have a good time throughout the season), but by and large, most people get a whole lot nicer. Also, winter is awesome and gift-giving is one of my favorite traditions. On the one hand, yay free stuff; on the other, it helps you get to know someone and keep them in mind when you’re shopping for something you think they’ll enjoy. I also think that the history of the Santa Claus myth is a fascinating case study in memetic evolution; however, as with any other work of fiction, I think the myth is valuable as a myth and only as such.

A lot of people are willing to get on one’s case about such things (like my parents), and I find it puzzling that they treat this with such idiosyncratic uniqueness. One of the more idiotic attacks that I hear is that if I don’t endorse the systematic teaching of the Santa Claus myth to young children as fact, then I must hate fun. It should be obvious that one can enjoy an end without approving of every single means available to achieve it (disapproving of rape doesn’t mean that someone hates sex). Similarly, I don’t have to hate Christmas to harbor qualms about one or two aspects of certain groups’ celebration of it – for example, the over-commercialization of the season, of which many people of varying creeds disapprove.

A more subtle approach is to say that I’m simply being no fun on this one subject, in this one respect – I take it too seriously and am making a mountain out of a molehill. I can actually respect that position, so long as I’m afforded the opportunity to defend my own, which is my goal in this entry (and this isn’t really directed at anyone who’s likely to read it, it’s mainly shit I would tell my parents if I thought it would do any good). First and foremost, Santa Claus is a symbol, and symbols are important: they shape the way we think, teach us lessons, and often serve as paradigm cases upon which we may base more pragmatic beliefs or courses of action. As a symbol, I think Santa Claus is actually a good thing; it’s the treatment of this symbol – the teaching of it as literal fact to young children, the reasons for doing so, and the attitudes with which this practice is commonly regarded – to which I take exception.

I also want to take a moment to head off any accusations that this is a thinly-veiled rant against religion. I don’t want there to be any veil at all, really, but this isn’t about religion specifically - it’s about the perpetuation of a tradition which I think is both totally unnecessary and harmful to a certain degree, yet paradoxically enjoys what I think is an undue amount of respect in mainstream culture. It just so happens that this is the same kind of problem I have with religion. These two issues share a huge amount of overlap, I make no bones about this. However, I wish to confine the discussion here strictly to Santa Claus. Once again, this is a beef I have with parents in general, and mine in particular.

As I said, I like the Santa Claus symbol, because it appeals to the na├»ve intellect of children but also bears out on a more mature reading. He’s a magical man who lives beyond the reach of human civilization and gives gifts to people in accordance with their conduct by means impossible to us mere mortals. To the child, this translates as, “Behave well and get stuff you want.” And, really, I think that characterizes the experience of children in most decent households: good behavior is rewarded, bad behavior is reprimanded. Good symbol. Us adults know, however, that sometimes a severely unethical course of action, when rigorously pursued, can still net a positive result for the agent (for example, the Enron fiasco, wherein corporate pirates robbed a lot of innocent people of money they deserved and – injustice of injustices! – were only lightly reprimanded for it - the punishment in no way fit the crime).

Good behavior, on the other hand, often goes unrewarded for a very long time, and sometimes is never rewarded at all. Obviously, the karmic reciprocity embodied by Santa Claus holds little sway over real life, but I think that the symbol here serves not as a lesson, but as an example: should we not strive to make our society such that the good are recognized and rewarded, and the wicked are chastised? This is not a mechanism by which the world works, but rather an embodiment of values which I think many of us share. Reap what you sow, and all of that.

Additionally, I think there actually is a much deeper lesson that is instructive (as in the children’s example), rather than exemplary (for the grown-ups): you can cheat other people, but there’s no cheating reality. If you do a good job at something, then that will be reflected in the product of your labor; if not, then it’s garbage in, garbage out. There are exceptions to this, of course, but this is the general rule. OK, maybe this last one’s a stretch, but still.

The problems arise when we consider the teaching of this myth not as a symbol, but as a literal fact. In the first place, it’s a lie: misinformation with intent to deceive, plain and simple. This, on its own, is not much – it’s the context and the consequences of actions that determine their moral content, not their mere descriptions, but I think this should serve as a warning sign. Lies generally turn out bad. And let’s not forget the enormous, conspiratorial scale on which the Santa Claus myth is foisted upon young children.

When taken as literal fact rather than fable, the “be good, get stuff” ethic can be disheartening to children when compared to how things actually play out: if Santa Claus is really magical, and satisfies the wishes of children based on their behavior, shouldn’t you be able to get anything you want if you’re just good enough? And if you don’t get what you want, then doesn’t that mean you’ve been a bad child (or not good enough)? And how come Tommy, that spoiled brat next door, got what he wanted from Santa, but you didn’t? What’s this guy up to, anyway?

Of course, this isn’t the way it always goes down, but my point is simply that Santa isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There’s also the fact that a lot of kids, upon learning that Santa isn’t real, are heartbroken: obviously, this is a cherished belief, since they’re not saying, “Huh, I thought there was something strange about that whole story, I’m kind of relieved to learn it was all hooey.” This effect has a double-edge, I believe – on the one hand, it provides evidence that belief in Santa is a good thing while that belief is maintained (and that’s the killer); on the other hand, the more cherished the belief, the harder it is to let go of it.

So yeah, Santa’s got his up-side, sure, but there’s also a down-side which I think a lot of people underrepresent. It’s kind of a wash, though, as most of this business goes down at an age that many don’t very clearly remember, so who cares? Let’s look at the ostensive reasons behind Santa, then; or, just what this myth is used for. “Be good, or Santa’s gonna give you a lump of coal in your stocking.” That’s a threat, right there. A fairly innocuous one, to be sure, and almost always empty. However, what strikes me as sleazy is that the source of the threat is externalized from the threatener: Mommy or Daddy is threatening to do something you don’t like, but under the guise that it’s a threat from someone else, an all-seeing and implacable judge of right and wrong who – wait, I said I wasn’t going to talk about religion.

The other side of that coin is that when the kid gets stuff they really like, who gets the praise? Not the people who did the actual work to make the Christmas Miracle happen, but the unseen benefactor in the sky – err, I mean, at the North Pole. Dunno what I was thinking there, innocent grin is me! (Look, I find it tremendously ironic that Santa’s like training wheels for a monotheistic deity, but so few outgrow the latter as they outgrow the former. No further comment on that, I promise.) In all seriousness, though, I do honestly think that the substitution of a false and magical justification for good behavior, in lieu of a rational and Earthly one, is a bad thing – both for the fact that it’s empty and wrong, and for the precedent it sets at such an impressionable age.

Look, one may say, all of this is small potatoes. The whole point of Saint Nick is that it’s an entertaining fantasy that’s fun for kids to believe while the magic of childhood lasts. Right? Still bad, says I. The fact that it makes you feel good to think something is true does not mean you actually ought to think it’s true. Take romance, for instance. Say one of your coworkers fancies another: do you think it would be good to make that person believe the feeling was mutual, knowing that that’s false? Of course not, you’re simply setting them up for disappointment – either quickly, when they start to act on those affections and get embarrassed, or gradually, as they wait for the other person to act on affections which are simply not there.

The same principle applies, and the same thing happens, with jolly old Kris Kringle. Perpetuating the illusion just adds to the let-down. And the whole “magic of childhood” tack kind of rubs me the wrong way, too. The message, as best I can tell, is that “magic is fun, reality is boring” (or “childhood is fun, adulthood is boring”). I find that false, and frustratingly so. If magic were real, then it would be like any other part of reality: discoverable, usable, investigable. There would be nothing special about it, just like there’s nothing special about computers (which, to my mind, are a kind of magic). As far as I can tell, what’s exciting about magic is not that it’s magic, but that it’s different. Kids who know there’s no such thing as Batman can still have fun playing Batman with their friends, or Hell, playing Cowboys and Indians when they know that they are not in fact cowboys or Indians. I did. Shit, I still do this stuff whenever I roleplay.

“Something Different,” every now and again, is exciting. It breaks up the routine. And you don’t need to think it’s true to have fun, you just have to pretend and have a functional imagination. Plus, reality is fucking exciting, too – you just have to know where to look. Boredom sets into the boring mind, and all that good stuff. Plus, the “magic” of childhood never really has to die, anyway. I find that, as an adult, I have more access to the stuff I liked doing as a kid, and now that the responsibilities are my own (which, to be sure, carries its own price – a price I pay gladly, by the way), I can determine when and how I do those things to a much greater extent than I could as a child. Being a grown-up fucking rules (and screw you, Mom, cake is a breakfast food!).

The point with all this is that I don’t have a problem with Santa decorations, or Santa floats in parades, or any of that nonsense. Go nuts. Really. Please, just, do whatever you like – I like the Santa myth, and adults know what’s up, so it’s all in good fun (for real). But when it comes to treating it like fact in a misguided attempt to "magic up" your kid’s childhood, I mean, nothing good comes of that which can’t be had by more wholesome means, and the bad stuff could all be rather neatly avoided by treating it like a superhero comic and telling your kid that it’s not true, it’s just a fun story. That’s really the source of my confusion: why the Hell isn’t Santa Claus treated just like Batman or Spider-Man?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

101 Interesting Things, part thirty-five: Ye Olde Science Repository

I saw on Pharyngula today that the Royal Society is putting up a bunch of their oldest stuff online!
One of the world's oldest scientific institutions is marking the start of its 350th year by putting 60 of its most memorable research papers online.
They've got this super sweet timeline browser that takes you through the history with pretty pictures, and the papers touch on everything: meteorology, optics, medicine, anatomy, geometry, astronomy, everything! It's awesome!

OK, so this is really like sixty interesting things in one, but still: looking at the world to figure things out about it? Best. Idea. Evar! But enough out of me, go and learn!