Sunday, September 30, 2012

Enjoying the Mists of Panderia launch?

Why yes, yes I am.

It's gorgeous, the music is fantastic, I get to play a monk finally, and there's all this new questing to do. Loving it. If you've dropped WoW, this might be a good time to pick it up again.

Not a shocker

I've taken the ISideWith quiz before with similar results, but that time I basically zipped through it and this time I actually expanded all of the questions using the "see more" function on each one, and then decided from all possible answers. And this was the result:

Generally speaking, I vote. I don't consider it a moral obligation, but I do it. However I have never voted for someone who then went on to win, and most likely never will. If America had preferential voting that might not be the case, because-- you'd think-- people would be both more knowledgeable about a variety of candidates rather than just the dominant two, and less concerned about voting for someone other than one of those dominant two because they could always specify one of them as "backup," as their second choice, thereby eliminating concern about needing to vote for the lesser of two evils.

The test said that you could always enter your own answer instead, but that would decrease the accuracy of the overall assessment. So I only did that once-- on the death penalty question, I said that I would support the death penalty only by choice of the prisoner. And all prisoners should be able to make that choice.

International Blasphemy Rights Day
Blasphemy. Noun:
The act or offense of speaking sacrilegiously about God or sacred things; profane talk.

In other words, the act or offense of speaking about religion as though you are not religious. Speaking about a religion as if you are not an adherent of it. And all of us are at least non-adherents of all religions except our own. Some of us aren't adherents of any religions.

Therefore we are all blasphemers.

Most of us try not to gratuitously insult the religious beliefs of others. This is considered a gesture of respect for the person, since religious beliefs and behavior are not regarded as ordinary beliefs and behavior, but as part of a person's identity. Perhaps the most important part, to them. But belonging to an exclusivist religion means believing that other religions are not paths to God-- at least, not as direct paths as yours is. So even if they don't say so, adherents of these faiths believe that other faiths are wrong. Or at least mistaken. If you are a committed skeptic, you are aware that religions generally make empirical claims, and some of those empirical claims are false. They do not align with objective reality, so far as you can tell. And if you are an ethical and honest person, you recognize and are willing to acknowledge that sometimes adherents of religions commit grossly harmful acts, and that sometimes they even exalt as admirable figures people who have committed grossly harmful acts in the name of their deity or deities.

Therefore if you are an adherent of an exclusivist faith, a skeptic, and/or an ethical and honest person, you are a blasphemer.

And yet in some places in the world, blasphemy is either illegal or on its way to becoming so. In other places in the world it isn't illegal, but people consider it grounds to physically attack someone. If you condemn the latter but approve of the former, you are like Shaykh Abdallah bin Bayyah, Vice Chairman of the International Union of Muslim Scholars who recently cautioned fellow Muslims to refuse to respond to depictions of Muhammad, even insulting ones, with violence. That was admirable, but in the same breath he also asked the U.N. and Western governments to make it criminal to "denigrate the religious symbols" of Muslims. As commenter Abby Normal eloquently put it, "He essentially wants to replace chaotic mob violence with orderly state violence." It is not the job of the mob or the state to commit violence in order to protect religious feelings.

For these reasons I celebrate International Blasphemy Rights Day today. Not because I get a thrill in provoking or antagonizing, but because I recognize that doing so is both inevitable and necessary. And that religious feelings, while special to those who have them, cannot dictate the freedom of others to speak. If you want to join me in celebrating this day, you don't need to blaspheme if you don't want to (or at least, you don't have to knowingly blaspheme, though you very likely will on accident). You can just think about it. And maybe tell someone else, so they will think about it. That in itself will benefit us all.

Saturday, September 29, 2012


From artist Grant Snider of Incidental Comics:

Humans are social animals, and that includes introverts. But we're sort of like camels or deep-diving whales, in that we can go without this thing we need to survive for longer periods than others can, and seem to prefer it. We're more adapted to it. We don't necessarily dislike being around other people, but if it's for a sustained period we can feel drained afterward, even if it was a fun time spent with friends. The benefit is in not being lonely when a more extroverted person might be climbing the walls. The detriment is being assumed anti-social and/or missing out on opportunities that more outgoing people often receive. But you know what? I can't imagine being any other way.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Enjoy family life...with parrots

Yesterday some Jehovah's Witnesses came to the door. I was not available, but fortunately they left a pamphlet curled under the door handle. I say "fortunately" because while I would rather wash a battleship with a kitchen sponge than engage in five minutes' worth of theological debate with any sort of evangelist, I do appreciate being kept abreast of the form that these attempts at conversion tend to take. It's been a long time since a Chick tract was stuffed under my car's windshield wiper one rainy day whilst I was attending a lecture given by Bishop John Shelby Spong at a Unitarian Universalist church, you see, and I was curious to learn about the form of a Jehovah's Witness missive left when the party whose home is visited unannounced and uninvited proves to be curiously not at hand.

As an owner of two budgies, I was instantly charmed by the inclusion of a blue-throated Macaw in this cover image to signify family happiness. One can't help but wonder how it gets along with the two overweight Jack Russell terriers being petted by a daughter who looks rather like I looked and dressed when I about six-- in the early 1980's. Son with the unfortunate bowl-cut hairdo could use some work on declarative pointing as he seems to be a little unclear on where the bird is (or maybe he finds Dad's chin really fascinating), while Mom sits on...something and gazes adoringly at something out of frame, long past the object closest to her face which happens to be Dad's crotch. "Enjoy Family Life" is the title, bizarrely enough, but the subtitles are even better: "Can families really be happy?" asks the first one. "How is it possible?" wonders the second. If you're the sort of person to ask these questions, one of those folks who finds him or herself gobsmacked at the very idea of a family being something other than miserable, well here's your solution...get a parrot.

No, apparently that's not the entire solution, as can be seen in the fact that the pamphlet continues. "Do you know any families that are as united and happy as those seen in this tract?" it asks. Well yes, actually, because I've been to a Sears portrait studio. I appear in several similar pictures, as do most Americans who have ever lived, judging by this site. And those are with our actual families! There's no telling whether the Dockers clan above is actually related to each other, or whether they came from the Happy Family subdivision of Central Casting.
If we want to know how to have a Happy Family (TM), the pamphlet continues, you would think that the best way to go about doing so is to consult the originator of marriage and family, if such a being exists. But doeshe/she/it/they?
Actually, hold that question-- because the pamphlet sure does-- in favor of something else: "Interestingly, many believe that the family arrangement had no Originator [sic]. The Encyclopedia Americana says "Some scholars are inclined to trace the origin of marriage to pairing arrangements of animals below man."

Wait, what?

I had to look this one up. I found a Google books result for The Encyclopedia Americana, and went to the listing for marriage. Under Marriage, it reads
In the natural history sense of the word marriage may be defined as a more or less durable union between male and female lasting till after the birth and rearing of offspring. In the ethical and legal sense marriage is a union between man and woman living in complete community of life for the establishment of family.   
In the natural history sense of the word marriage may be said to exist among many of the animals below man. Pair marriage is common among the birds and some of the higher mammals. It especially characterizes the anthropoid apes, the pair marriage of the chimpanzee being monogamous and durable, probably not unlike that of primitive man. The origin of marriage is therefore to be sought in the family, rather than the origin of family in the marriage.  
The function of marriage in human society is twofold: 1) to regulate the relations between the sexes and 2) to determine the relation of the child to the community. This latter function is often overlooked, but is quite as important in any scientific consideration of marriage as the former.
This edition of The Encyclopedia Americana was published in 1919...and boy, does it show. But all it's really saying about the origin of marriage is that animals other than humans form lasting pair bonds, which it would be silly to deny-- although the claim that chimpanzees form "monogamous and durable" pair bonds is overstating things, to put it lightly. Chimpanzees along with their notoriously sex-crazed and very non-monogamous cousins the bonobos have large testicles precisely because of their promiscuous ways, in order for males to engage in regular sperm competition with their rivals. And they're equally related to "primitive man," which is to say that they're equally related to modern us.

The pamphlet uses this to claim that there are "scholars" who insist that the family has no Originator [sic], but while this is certainly true, you don't find that claim in this passage of The Encyclopedia Americana-- if anything, it would be logical to infer from said passage that the Originator is originator of all marriage and families; not just those of humans. I wonder if this even occurred to the Jehovah's Witnesses. Probably not, because the temptation to use something published nearly a century ago in contrast to the more sensical-sounding religious doctrine was just too great to pass up. But if there's one aspect in which they agree with the long-dead author(s) of that particular entry of The Encyclopedia Americana on Marriage, it's that marriage functions to "regulate the relations between the sexes."

Why? Because the Originator-- oh heck, let's just let the cat out of the bag and call him Jesus, because lord knows that no other deity could be behind the creation of everything-- set certain standards in place, standards which must not be violated! Under no circumstances must we pursue "life-styles" which contravene what Jesus wants for us, and if we do, the repercussions will take the form of Unhappy Families! Unlike these lovely people seen here, in which Father levitates a red rubber ball just above his palm for the benefit of Baby, who is not nearly old enough to psychically manipulate it herself. We know Baby is a "her," incidentally, by the pink clothing--the relations between the sexes must be regulated. Repeat that to yourself, Borg-style, over and over: You will be assimilated. The relations between the sexes must be regulated. You will be assimilated. The relations between sexes must be regulated. These are the words Mother lovingly chants to Baby as she holds her aloft, and Baby stares into space away from both Mother and Father in order to concentrate on absorbing this important standard so that it will never be violated.

But what is the standard for regulation of relations between the sexes, exactly? Well, let's see here...husbands, you must love your wife as your own body. Oh dear. Have you seen how little regard some husbands have for their own bodies? The husband is to "assign his wife honor," by giving her "special" attention (I guess this means attention beyond that earned by the UPS guy), including tenderness, understanding, and reassurance, and valuing her opinion and listening to her. Wouldn't any family benefit if the husband treats his wife with concern, as he would want to be treated? Well, fact, wouldn't it save time to just note that since they both presumably want to be treated this way, they should treat each other this way?

No, apparently not-- you need to remind the husbands to love the "girl" they married, because otherwise they'll forget and cheat on her.

Actually I'll give this pamphlet props for the fact that it is remarkably even-handed when it comes to instructing spouses how to treat each other...and by that, I mean that it ignores the significant patches of the Bible which are not even-handed in that regard. Such as the most famous, Ephesians 5:22-24, over which the Anglican Church of Sydney Australia has received some grief lately:
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

1 Timothy 3:1-7 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God's church? 

1 Peter 3:1-6 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands

Genesis 3: 16 To the woman he said, “I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children. Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”

And so on and so on. If you want to find a biblical basis for separate-but-decidedly-not-equal in a marriage, there is no shortage of material. And as the Supreme Court has said, even separate-but-equal does not cut it-- you cannot come back and say "But the bible tells husbands to be nice and loving and respectful and kind to their wives!" as if that makes everything okay. As we remember, the bible also tells masters to be kind to their slaves, and slaves to be obedient to their masters.

Basically, this pamphlet attempts to proselytize by picking out the most innocuous, bland, inoffensive-but-also-not-remotely-insightful passages in the bible about how spouses should treat each other, and how they should relate to their children and how their children should relate to them. The problem is, of course, the fact that 1) any of the advice cherry-picked is so banal and generic that it wouldn't merit a mention in Marriage For Dummies, and 2) it's cherry-picked from a document (the bible) which says a lot of things about how spouses should relate to each other than no (presumably secular) Marriage For Dummies guide would include, and 3) unfortunately, offering marriage and family advice from the Originator of the universe doesn't carry much weight if you haven't first shown that a) there is an originator of the universe, and b) he/she/it/they give a damn about how people conduct their marriages and families, and c) you know what he/she/it/they want. On that topic,  or, you know, any topic.

Imagine someone came to your door offering a guide called Marriage And Family According to Xenu. Would you care what was in it? At all?

My guess is no. And so, Jehovah's Witnesses....
...I doubt it.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Skepticon 5

So, I'm going. Registered, got a hotel room, time off work scheduled, etc.

Haven't been since 2010, and I'm sure a great deal has changed since then, well beyond a good portion of the speakers. It should be really interesting and a lot of fun...hopefully things like sleep and wifi will be included rather than unexpected bonuses.

If you're anywhere in the Midwest, you might consider coming too.

A man of jeans

At Dispatches, Ed mocks Washington Post writer Jennifer Rubin for being aghast at an image of Barack Obama sitting on the desk in the Oval Office, conferring with a denim-clad staff adviser:
There are few things more ridiculous in politics than when some right wing shill cues up the righteous indignation machine over something utterly meaningless. Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, who has no business writing for any site more credible than the Worldnutdaily, shows how it’s done in reacting to an article that shows a picture of President Obama sitting on his desk and another man wearing — gasp! — blue jeans in the Oval Office! She tweeted:
Good grief Get you rear end off JFK desk, Mr. president .. And jeans in the oval office?! .. Slovenly inside and out
When a fellow conservative pointed out that Reagan and Bush both word jeans in the oval office, Rubin replied:
never ever in oval office.. bush made his chief of staff stand outside oval office on a saturday when not wearing a jacket
Really? Here’s a picture of Bush in the Oval Office without a jacket on. And here’s oneof Reagan with his rear end on that same desk. And here’s one of Reagan wearing jeans in the Oval Office. So we can expect Jennifer Rubin to Tweet a retraction any minute now, right? Or to declare that Bush and Reason were both “slovenly inside and out”? Of course not. And in her defense, there is an obvious difference; those presidents were Republicans. And white.
I'd just like to take a moment to reiterate the virtues of being casual. It doesn't mean you're right or wrong, better or worse-- if it did, then surely Reagan/Bush and Obama would cancel each other out-- or even that you're necessarily more honest. Just that you're not relying on formality to make the case for any of those things for you, and the ease of such reliance can be an indicator of privilege...there are false pretenses some of us literally can't afford to make. And slovenliness sure doesn't restrict itself to the relaxed, let alone those on a budget.

Just saying.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Ew, gross, ban that

Recently I finished listening to Jesse Bering's book Why is the Penis Shaped Like That? And Other Reflections on Being Human. The book is a compilation of his essays posted at Scientific American so it ranges in subject all over the place, but his introduction states an interest that essentially ties all of them together-- Jesse, a research psychologist, enjoys discussing, topics that make a lot of people uncomfortable. Things that are not discussed in polite company, and even in not-so-polite company might turn some stomachs. As the book's title suggests, much of that is sexual. As a gay man, Jesse is more than familiar with the common homophobic position which holds essentially "I am disgusted by (what I presume) you do in the bedroom, therefore you are immoral/mentally disturbed/criminal/sub-human/etc." But his book is about far more complex topics than this, taking an evolutionary ("What might be an adaptive function of this?") approach to topics ranging from female ejaculation to zoophilia to masturbation to age-related sexual interests (pedophilia, ephebophilia, gerontophilia, and so on) and much, much more.

I enjoy learning about topics that make people uncomfortable and gross them out, too. But my interest is more for the sake of the discomfort specifically-- I want to know why things disgust people, and how that translates into disgust-avoidant beliefs and behaviors. Sometimes it's obvious-- feces smells bad. It's not good to eat, have on you, or be around in general. Any of these things could make you sick, and being nauseated is both a sign of being sick and a response to things that could cause sickness. Rotting food, same story. Decaying corpses, same story. But we have developed elaborate responses to these things way beyond what would be necessary to simply keep ourselves safe from contaminants. The anthropologist James Frazer articulated two forms of "sympathetic magic" which have been found to apply very closely to disgust-- the first being the law of contagion, which is that a thing takes on the properties of another thing by having contact with it. Homeopathic magic, or "like affects like," suggests that the resemblance of thing A to thing B can cause one to act similarly to the other. So in the first case you have the obvious example of, say, a dead fly in a glass of water. It doesn't matter how much water is in that glass; you're not going to want to drink it because of that single dead fly. In the second case, you have fake dog poo, and such things as brownies shaped (and colored) to look like dog poo. Even with the full knowledge that what you're holding in your hand is in fact a tasty confection, you're very likely to look at it with some skepticism.

Of course, you're not guaranteed to look at it that way-- people have different levels of squeamishness, and we can become accustomed to something to the extent that it no longer grosses us out even though it once did. I'm pretty sure that I will never become comfortable with watching a surgery being performed, but some very necessary people-- surgeons-- either began with a comparatively low level of disgust for the whole experience or adapted sufficiently to be able to handle it. The disgust you feel when looking at an open wound is classified as a response to "body envelop violation," which is pretty much just as it sounds. The body has been opened in some way, which presents us with the alarming sight (and occasionally smell) of blood and guts, which is frightening because our sense of empathy compels us to identify with the person who has been injured (in the case of surgery it's obviously not an injury, but this distinction matters not at all to my amygdala) and consider that we also can be hurt, suffer, and even die. A parasite is disgusting for its similar functioning as violating the body-- parasites invade for the purpose of benefiting themselves at the hosts's expense, up to and including death. "Animal reminder" disgust is the emotion we can experience when we think of ourselves as flesh and blood creatures different only in shape from the millions of other forms of furry, scaly, scratchy, or slimy creatures that crawl, fly, sprint, or swim across the planet. You can see this disgust in a person who adamantly avows that his or her ancestors were not monkeys (apes, really) when confronted with Darwin's tree of life theory of evolution. If we're animals, the thinking goes, consciously or unconsciously, we're not special. There is no particular reason for us to be unique in any way. This thought is not at all disquieting for someone knowledgeable about evolution, but can be downright stomach-turning for someone who has been raised to believe that our existence as humans is a result of a special act of God. To say that we are otherwise seems...impure.

In concerns about purity, it's easy to see where disgust as a physical response translates into a moral emotion. Going back to male homosexuality for example, it's where the feeling of discomfort is interpreted as an unease in the face of what is obviously a violation of the laws of nature, the way God made things. If you want a good analysis of how disgust as a moral emotion plays out in the theater of public opinion and even makes its way into legislation, I'd recommend Martha Nussbaum's excellent book Hiding From Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law. In it she recruits study of psychology, psychoanalysis (unfortunately) and the philosophy of John Stuart Mill to examine how moral disgust as a justification for political stances and law-making has led to oppression of minority groups and some very backwards positions on bioethics over the years, as a barrier to compassion, understanding, and acceptance of new science and technology. If you want to read about the most up-to-date psychological understanding of how disgust works as a moral emotion, especially through means of association, I'd suggest checking out the publications of psychologist David Pizarro, whose TED talk on that very topic you can watch here:

You'll notice that he cites Nussbaum, as well as psychologists Jonathan Haidt, Clark McCauley, Paul Bloom, Roy Baumeister, and the mack daddy of disgust research Paul Rozin. They are all interested in how intuitions shape moral reasoning generally, and how disgust does so specifically.

Pizarro cites studies he himself took part in, as well as those of other scientists, to show that people with conservative political leanings are much more prone to disgust, and that it can actually be predictive of their voting behavior-- specifically regarding gay marriage, gay sex in general and other sexual issues. Pizarro actually found that arousing disgust in people caused their political judgments to shift toward conservatism. So not only do conservatives appear to be people who are more susceptible to disgust generally, but you can apparently make a person more conservative by exposing them to sensory input that they find disgusting-- in this case, by making the room they were in smell gross.  He even found that prompting people to take precautions involving keeping clean (such as reminding them that washing their hands can help to prevent flu infection) achieves the same effect. Yes, telling people to wash their hands made them think more conservatively in their moral reasoning.

For this reason when Jonathan Haidt articulated his domains of moral emotion, he placed the domain of Purity/Sanctity (along with Respect for Hierarchy and In-Group Loyalty) squarely in the category of conservative thinking. I'm thinking that while this might be entirely valid, there are some things which can be counted upon to arouse disgust in liberals but not conservatives which have not been evaluated in these studies, which have mostly focused on sexual practices, body envelope violations, and excrement. But that is for a post in the future.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Atheism Minus my term for the collective group of idiots who contributed to Jen McCreight deciding that blogging is no longer worth the harassment she has faced on a daily basis. I wish they would form their own organization already. As soon as they hold a conference, the organizers of all other secular conferences could examine the attendees and speakers lists, and know who to forbid from future meetings of their own.

And this news comes only a week after Jen gave a very interesting and hopeful interview with Ed Brayton on his show Culture Wars Radio (available here, and in podcast form on iTunes). Give it a listen-- the interview is in the latter half of the show, starting at 59:48.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Geek news

Bad tidings: Podcaster Patrick Beja is shelving two shows, The Phileas Club (current events from international perspectives) and The Movielicious (discussion of recent movies, also from international perspectives). Both of these shows have been part of The Frogpants Network for quite some time, and have included hosts who also do other shows on that network.

Good tidings: Dead Gentlemen Productions, makers of The Gamers and The Gamers: Dorkness Rising,  raised enough funding with their Kickstarter project to create a sequel to the latter movie, which will be called The Gamers: Hands of Fate. Their funding period has not yet ended, so you can still get in on being a backer. Since Dorkness Rising came out in 2008, they have been producing a web series called JourneyQuest which you can watch at that link or on Youtube. I discovered it as a result of learning about this Kickstarter project, and got caught up on the episodes in two evenings.