A humble apology

The vile and unforgivable attitudes inferred from my remarks and/or actions bear no resemblance to any attitudes I hold, and any suggestion to the contrary is entirely baseless and without merit.

But of course I take full responsibility for the hurt feelings of those who took offense, regardless of whether these arose due to constitutional predisposition, personal malice, groupthink, ill humor, thoughtlessness, or simple ignorance.

I apologize unreservedly.


True religion

In the wake of the attacks in Paris last night, I once again have reason to write a few words on the corrupting influence religion has on the pursuit of truth and goodness in the world.

Dogmatism & irrationality make people immune to reason. Religion allows people to rationalize their selfishness as something holy, and hardens them to the erstwhile human capacity for compassion and empathy.

When extremists claim divine sanction for their barbaric acts of murderous tribalism, we can call this false piety if we like, or claim that it’s a corruption of the ‘true’ intent of religion; but this is just marketing. With deft and repeated application of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy, apologists for religion continually redefine religious faith in such a way as to exculpate it from all blame.

And yet the extremists sincerely believe that they are doing what is right and holy; the particularly religious character of this belief both shields it from criticism and makes it extremely resistant to change. If we are to make progress against the ideologies of fear, intolerance, hatred, and violence, we must have the courage to attack the irrationality and dogmatism that lie at the root.



For decades, I proudly identified as part Cherokee, based on the compelling oral history, passed down to me through several generations of my father’s family, of a distant white ancestor and his wife, a Cherokee woman.

Then last year, my 23andme results arrived, and I was forced to accept that even though I may identify with some Native American values and cultural traditions, I cannot claim to possess Native American DNA. Others have had similar experiences. Modern DNA testing has upset many assumptions about people’s ancestry and heritage.

What role do a person’s genes play in determining his or her identity? Surely, one’s genes help to shape one’s personality directly; but what about the indirect influences? One’s genes greatly shape one’s physical appearance — one’s body, face, voice, eyes, hair, and so on. To the extent one is judged by others on the basis of these outward traits, these traits can greatly influence one’s identity.

In the case of my mythical Cherokee ancestor, just the belief in her was enough to influence my sense of self. I never tried to join the tribe, and my only contact with Native American culture growing up was through the hodgepodge pastiche of traditions observed by the Boy Scouts. Still, I felt a connection to my legendary great-great-great grandmother. When I was younger, I even imagined that we might have walked the same trails, and I wondered if my Cherokee blood might explain some features, of my face or of my personality. When I discovered that the tale passed down to me had been false, I felt as though a small but precious part of my identity had been taken away from me.

Most people do not fashion a completely different self out of whole cloth, but grow into some version of the people who have been influential in their lives. When we are children, our sense of self is deeply rooted in our parents, family members, and classmates. In early adulthood we often rebel against the expectations put upon us, and try on different identities for size, trying to find the identity among the thousands of possibilities that fits us perfectly.

Many identities come ready-packaged: races, religions, languages, nationalities, political parties, sports teams, and companies. Identity lends membership in a group, and the many benefits that group membership can bring. It can also be a sort of prison, locking people into narrow roles and ways of thinking.

Ultimately, each person chooses his or her own identity. Acceptance of one’s chosen identity is not guaranteed. A person’s former tribe may label him a traitor, or his adoptive tribe may brand him an imposter. Most people seek a balance between being who they feel they truly are, and being someone who can find acceptance among others.


Europe’s shame is the world’s shame

This needless deaths of thousands of African migrants on the Mediterranean Sea is a scandal for Europe, but it is also a scandal for the whole world. Any nation can if it wishes offer material assistance and asylum to the refugees. Any nation can commit financial support to the nations proximally impacted — to the Southern European nations bearing the greatest portion of the burden of accommodating the influx of migrants but just as importantly, to the strife-riven and war-torn nations of Africa that are the source of most of the asylum-seekers. (For any lasting solution must address the root causes of war and poverty in the source nations.) All wealthy nations can and must help with this effort. This includes the U.S., China, Japan, Russia, and many others. Nations that can help in these ways, and do not, share Europe’s shame.


Nuance and context, but just for me

There is a special species of hypocrisy oft exhibited by ideologues and pundits:

  1. a person makes an outrageous, insulting, thoughtless, or simply foolish statement. When called out for it, he chastises his critics for their failure to understand and appreciate the context and nuance of his position.
  2. Then the selfsame person lambasts, labels, and denigrates his critics and ideological opponents ruthlessly, with nary a thought to nuance or context.

“When I do it, it’s okay! When you do it, it’s evil.”

Well-meaning and intelligent people who ought to know better still fall prey to this bias. When people do this, it gives the impression that rational argument and irrational bluster are for them merely arbitrary and interchangeable tools used to improve their own situation — fairness and consistency be damned.


Interstellar: unanswered questions

Warning: SPOILERS ahead!

Here are some unanswered questions from Interstellar:
  1. Why build a rocket silo inside an office building? Wouldn’t the exhaust make an awful mess?
  2. If a big rocket is required to lift one Ranger shuttle from Earth into space, how can the same shuttle lift off unaided from a planet whose gravity is 1.3x greater than Earth’s? Moreover, how can the ungainly Landers even land, much less lift off?
  3. Brand and Cooper speculate that Miller’s beacon was repeating the same message over and over. However, the message would have been extremely time-dilated. It would have taken months to receive a message that took seconds to send. Why is the time dilation ignored here?
  4. Moreover, it should have been immediately apparent that this was the most dangerous planet. How did the crew of the Endurance fail to notice the giant waves when they were a safe distance from the planet? Seen from a safe distance outside of Gargantua’s intense gravity well, the waves would have appeared to be standing still, but they would still have been unmistakable. Why risk landing on Miller’s planet anyway? Time dilation would cause incredible logistical problems.
  5. Supermassive black holes and stellar-mass black holes are entirely different beasts. The story mixes incompatible characteristics of both.
  6. If TARS can roll across the water like a paddlewheel, why didn’t the human crew remain safely inside the Ranger, and let TARS do the work? This would have been safer and would have spared precious time.
  7. The Rangers’s airlocks are slanted at an angle, and are not perpendicular to the body of the craft. How do they even dock when they’re not spinning?
  8. The Endurance has two docking airlocks for Ranger shuttles. Each one is offset from the central axis by a few meters, meaning neither is coaxial with Endurance’s axis of rotation. When Endurance was damaged, even if it’s spin axis was not altered (highly unlikely), the axis would not have been centered on one of the airlocks. Is there a third airlock at the central axis?
  9. Why did Mann try to kill Cooper? Why did he sabotage and booby-trap KIPP? These were pointless, needless acts. Despite his treachery in sending a misleading message, he must have known his best chances of survival were to enlist the help of Cooper, Brand, and Romilly.
  10. At the end, why would Brand be alone on Edmund’s planet? Wouldn’t NASA have sent many more people immediately, as soon as they received word that Brand had successfully established a base there? And wouldn’t Brand be much older by then?
Update 2014.11.18:
I found answers to questions 7 and 8. There are actually seven airlocks around Endurance’s central hub — only two of which are suited to Rangers. The Landers have docking points on both their dorsal and ventral sides. Cooper piloted the Lander so as to mate its dorsal docking port with the Endurance’s aft airlock.


More handwaving from Reza Aslan

In the very first sentence of this interview on The Young Turks, Reza Aslan claims that he does not read Sam Harris’ writings. He then proceeds to criticize Harris and modern atheism at length, making several deliberate misrepresentations:
  1. Atheism is an intractable and inflexible belief system.
    This is demonstrably false. Harris and most modern atheists adopt a scientific worldview, where all ideas are tentative and subject to reconsideration when new evidence comes to light. The unsupported claim that atheism is based on faith is a tired old trope of religious apologists.
  2. Atheists believe that they are under siege.
    Harris would certainly have reason to. Atheists are among the most widely distrusted groups in America, and all outspoken opponents of fundamentalist ideolgy invariably attract haters. Even so, if he believes he is under siege, Harris does little to reveal it. In his writings and public appearances, he is always respectful and polite, remaining remarkably calm and poised even in the face of hostility. Bad ideas deserve to be criticized, no matter how long and honored a position they hold in society. Some people so dislike having their sacred ideas challenged that they project their fear onto those with the temerity to shine a light into the dark places.
  3. Atheists demonize and dehumanize their ideological opponents.
    To say that atheism automatically treats all religious people as murderous fanatics is a specious straw man argument. There are demons in the world, but they damn themselves by their own actions. Fair-minded people are entirely right to call out injustice in the world, and to condemn both the perpetrators of heinous acts, and the ideas and cultural institutions that perpetuate them. People should be judged good or bad by their ideas, words, and — most importantly — by their actions.
Based on the above mistakes, Aslan leaps to the conclusion that Sam Harris and his readers (to whom Aslan refers as “zealous disciples”) are fundamentalists, no better than religious fundamentalists. Aslan does his best to come across as a moderate voice speaking reason to the uninformed and easily excited. However, his unfounded arguments and deliberate misrepresentations betray an emotional commitment to a more deferential tack toward religion.

Aslan makes this clear in his next remarks, wherein he makes a roundabout admission that Sam Harris’ blunt criticism of religion may be intellectually honest, but that it is nevertheless “dangerous”. Note that Aslan never makes the claim that any of Harris’ arguments is mistaken or unreasonable. He just thinks that they are dangerous. Why? Because religions “aren’t going anywhere,” because “religion is a growing force in the world,” and because an intellectual approach to religion “keeps us from having some very important and necessary conversations about the role of religion in society; about the problem of extremism in religious communities; and about how to reconcile the realities of the modern world with these ... scriptures that so many people nowadays view as ... inerrant.”

He’s basically saying that pointing out the irrationality and inconsistency of religious ideas to devout believers in those ideas is counterproductive precisely because these people think and behave irrationally. The sad thing is that Aslan and those like him appear to have concluded that that the principles of the enlightenment — reasonableness and humanism — are lost causes, too risky even to be attempted.

Watch the rest of the interview. Aslan goes on to claim that all religions are ways of expressing the inexpressible — the mystery of faith. Aslan compares religion to language, suggesting that a person’s religion is as arbitrary as any other aspect of a his culture, depending more on where he was born than anything else. With verbal sleight of hand, Aslan then leaps to claiming that religious ideas are not arbitrary, and that the different regions of the world are merely different ways of accessing the same source: “religion is the well... but faith is the water... the water is the same regardless of what well you are drinking from.” Aslan’s flowery metaphorical rhetoric may distract some listeners from the fact that he is contradicting himself. Religions either differ about important matters, or they do not. We know that moral teachings, strictures, and commandments of the religions of the world are different, and this is evidenced by the actions of so many believers, who regularly murder their fellow humans for drinking from the wrong well.*

That people are willing to kill over these differences is significant! Religious moderates and atheist humanists have one thing in common: they wish to overcome these differences and reduce suffering and strife in the world. Where they differ is in their approach. Religious moderates (among whose ranks Aslan surely counts as an honorary member) espouse interfaith cooperation based on a common ground — always claimed, but never agreed upon — of core religious values. They also demand a diplomatic deference toward all believers. Atheist humanists promote a rational worldview where reason, science, and consensus are the common ground. This difference in approach is significant, and it underlies the disagreement between Aslan and Harris.

Aslan and his fellows tacitly concede that religion is often irascible and irrational, and their tack is essentially one of Realpolitik: accept that people are emotional, unreasonable, and often driven by ridiculous & selfish ideas; accept the limitations of the the world the way it is rather than trying to change it; don’t speak truth to power if doing so might stir up trouble.

Harris and his supporters on the other hand believe that bad ideas should be (politely and honestly) exposed and criticized no matter how sacred they are.

* Aslan would have made a good preacher. I get the impression that he likely would have joined the clergy, but for his apparent and enthusiastic intellectual curiosity. Aslan appears a man torn between emotionally appealing mysticism and intellectually satisfying rationality. He clearly hopes to build a bridge between these two views of the world. His attempts to reconcile the irreconcilable amount to hand-waving, but this is his talent.


Flirtation tips for men

Here are my tips for men on how to flirt with women:

  1. Keep busy with lots of activities and interests, and maintain your close friendships. This will ensure that you are busy and seldom lonely, mostly eliminating the awkwardness and creepiness that come from desperation.
  2. Strike up conversations with random people you encounter—not just attractive women, but also men, children, old people, and women whom you do not find attractive. People you don’t find attractive will be easier to talk to, simply because you will be less nervous. I’ve found that older people are usually very approachable, and are also often glad to have someone to talk to. They have a lot of life experience too, so you will probably learn something you didn’t know each time you speak with an old person. The key here is to get practice in talking to strangers. The more practice you get with it, the easier you will find it. Do this for several weeks or a month, until it begins to come naturally to you.
  3. Chat with at least one woman whom you find attractive every day, but with only the goal of having some nice conversations, spreading a bit of friendliness, and getting practice. Do not ask for her number or other contact details. Provide yours only if directly asked. In other words, plan from the beginning of the conversation to say goodbye without any expectation of seeing her again. Seriously. This is important. The key is to have fun and relax, and not be invested in a particular outcome. Don’t be upset or offended if your friendliness is met with coldness or hostility. You have to remember that you don’t know what sorts of experiences other people have had. Not everyone will appreciate your friendliness, and that’s okay. Just move on and try not to take it personally.
  4. After a month or so of that, you should be able to move on to a more assertive approach, where you express your interest more directly. Continue flirting with lots of people, including one attractive woman per day. Be straightforward but respectful. Be clear about your interest, but do not be blunt. Remember that her wishes are equally important. Pay attention to her tone of voice and body language. Be wary of letting wishful thinking cloud your judgement. And again, do not expect a particular result. Gracefully accept rejections, glad in the knowledge that you’re still getting practice, and there will be more opportunities for fun flirtation the next day!
Any other suggestions or ideas?

Suffer these indignities stoically

Men who entreat us to remember that ‘not all men’ are wicked fail to understand something fundamental about people: we humans learn from experience — the more intense the experience, the more indelible the lesson. We also make generalizations based on superficial but easily discernible markers like gender and race. And because almost every woman has experienced violence — or at least the threat of violence – from men in her life, almost every woman learns to develop a keen watchfulness (if not paranoia) of strange men.

The sad fact is that prejudice against men protects women from harm. Alienating erstwhile allies and friends is the price women pay for protecting themselves.

Fear has always inflicted a higher toll on the good than the bad. Men who cares about women must pay this price too: they should not complain about mistreatment or prejudice, but suffer insults and indignities with as much stoicism as they can muster. They should go out of their way to allay women’s fears, and
accept that they will seldom see gratitude. Moreover, they should do the right thing even if no one notices or cares. Virtue is its own reward.

The unsettling corollary is that people of racial minorities should also be stoic in the face of racial discrimination. People who have experienced mistreatment or abuse disproportionately from one race will naturally make unconscious assumptions about members of this race. So even though no single person is to blame for the crimes of other members of his or her race, this doesn’t matter to those who are just trying to protect themselves, and must sometimes make snap judgements.

But wait a minute. Gender profiling is acceptable; racial profiling is not. Right?

Why? There is an important difference between a woman walking down a dark street at night, who fears a strange man she encounters, and a white person who fears a strange black person in the same setting.  In the former case, the woman is not only the potential target of violence; she also belongs to the traditionally discriminated-against group. In the latter case, the potential target of violence belongs to the traditionally privileged group. It’s often harder to have sympathy for the victims of abuse when that abuse can be cast as just comeuppance; whereas it’s easy to side with the perennial victim. Note thought that belonging to a traditionally privileged group is likely no solace to those who suffer from discrimination (or worse, violence).

So, the other side of the coin is that people who discriminate should be aware when they’re discriminating. They should strike a balance between making snap superficial judgements and taking the time to evaluate each person’s character fairly. Moreover, the bad apples who tarnish the reputations of their respective groups should be educated and corrected, or separated from the rest of the population.


Why you should stop using the word ‘mansplaining’

In a post from last week, Melissa A. Fabello of Everyday Feminisim offers 5 Simple Ways Men Can Better Respect Women. I like her suggestions, but I do have one quibble: Fabello uses the gendered pejorative ‘mansplaining’ to describe the phenomenon wherein men presume to understand and explain the experiences of women.

I honestly cannot understand why reasonable people think it’s acceptable to use this word.

The phenomenon she describes is a general one: people often assume to understand things that are outside their own experience, and sometimes even presume to try to explain these things back to those in a better position to understand them.

The phenomenon has nothing to do with gender. Women can make the same error, presuming to understand men and their experiences. It’s not even about privilege. Different groups can misunderstand one another regardless of how privileged one group is with respect to the others.

The problem boils down to self-centeredness, arrogance, and a basic lack of humility and perspective. Everyone can succumb to this failing: men & women, black & white, young & old, native born & immigrant, empowered & marginalized.

The key thing to remember if you want to avoid this pitfall is that no matter how intelligent and open minded you are, you cannot possibly understand everyone’s perspective; and you should not be so presumptuous as to try to explain other people’s experiences to them. Instead, you should invite them to tell you about their experiences as they experience them.

Some claim that just as we use the word feminism to refer to the general principle of fighting for gender  equality (and other types of equality), it is appropriate to use the word mansplaining to refer to this particular species of hubris. Feminism however is a positive descriptor, of a noble movement. Yes, perhaps there too we should find a more apt word to be more inclusive, but at least with the word feminism we are not insulting a whole group of people simply because of the insensitive arrogance of a few members. Moreover, because this kind of arrogance is not limited to one group, we need a term that is more general.

I know people like neologisms, and they like slogans and phrases with brand recognition. But this is one you should give up. Just think about it: you wouldn’t say womansplaining, blacksplaining, or jewsplaining. If you believe people should be judged by their actions rather than by their gender, their race, or the groups to which they belong, then you should not implicitly tar all men with an insulting epithet either.


Brutal honesty about relationships

In her article entitled My “Naked” Truth, Robin Korth provides a poignant and thought-provoking account of a nascent romance cut short by incompatible desires and brutal honesty. After a short and unconsummated romance with a man she met online, she ended the relationship because he was not physically attracted to her.

Korth’s date found fault with her body, and blamed her appearance for his lack of desire. Korth never comes out and says it, but it’s clear that just as he found fault with her body, she found fault with his character:
  • that he did not find her attractive just as she was;
  • that he was too brutally honest about his feelings; and
  • that he asked her to change herself to fit his desires.
Some of the online responses provoked by the article make it clear that many people hold a perceived culture of patriarchy accountable too. I can their point. Advertisers and the media certainly do no favors to people with human imperfections; the ideal of happy wealthy healthy youth is continually paraded before our eyes, and these images can certainly warp our worldview.

We have only Korth’s side of the story, but from what she wrote it seems her partner was narcissistic. At a minimum, he appears not to have understood that the way he chose his words could be hurtful to her. Honesty Is good; insensitivity is not. He should have known that his forthrightness about his preference for younger women would cause her distress.

I can empathize with Korth. It is a sad fact of life that we must all grow old, and most of us are eventually reminded of our diminishing prospects — and ultimately, of our mortality — by the declining interest that others express in us.

Korth believes that she deserves a partner who likes her as she is. This is almost accepted wisdom today: that everyone deserves someone who loves them just the way they are. But a moment’s reflection reveals that this desert imposes an implicit obligation on others. This is obviously an untenable position. Apart from familial obligations like the duty of a parent to love its child, no one owes anyone else love.

Part of Korth’s frustration surely has its roots in the expectation in Western society that every person can find one true soulmate. In this childish and romantic vision of love, physical attraction is always coupled to a deeper companionate affection. Unfortunately though, the real world seldom is so accommodating. In real relationships, there are different kinds of attraction. One can feel a strong attraction in one way, but a weak attraction in another way. For example, one can be very attracted physically to someone, but only fancy their personality a bit. Or vice versa. When people get together it is because the sum of all of the types of attraction is sufficient. It does not mean that they both have the same feelings, or that they have the same priorities. Physical attraction may be more important to one, and a personal connection may be more important to the other. How many people are honest about these priorities early in a relationship?

Yes, most people long for a partner who loves them just they way they are; but most people also want a partner who is at least a little bit better than average — in appearance, personality, culture, wealth, etc. These two desires are not compatible. Many people make compromises to find a partner. Many end up alone, and not always by choice. Those who expect the perfect partner will likely be disappointed. People should either adjust their standards to fit reality, or they should learn to be happy alone. As I wrote in a comment to Korth’s article, “there are many lost souls caught between plaintive hope and bitter resignation, because their expectations of the world are so far out of sync what the world has to offer.”

There is no point in blaming someone for failing to match your desires.

Likewise, there is no point in trying to shame someone for having desires that exclude you.

If a relationship doesn’t work out, don’t blame the other person, don’t blame yourself, and don’t curse human biology or deride the whole culture. Just move on.


The five stages of climate denial

  1. Global warming is not happening.
  2. Okay, global warming may be happening, but it’s part of a natural cycle, and human activity has an insignificant effect.
  3. Alright, human activity may be causing climate change, be we shouldn’t try to fix the problem because the planet will take care of itself. And besides, doing anything would be too costly, and would harm productivity, growth, comfort, etc.
  4. Yes, yes, maybe we should have tried to fix the problem, and maybe that would have been the most cost-effective solution in the long haul. But it’s too late now. And besides, by the time things get really bad, I’ll be dead.
  5. I see climate change as a sign of the end times, and because I’m convinced that I’ll be saved, I actually want to hasten the planet’s demise. The sooner we destroy the Earth, the sooner I can go to heaven!
    (Stage 5 applies only to apocalyptic religious fundamentalists.)
Update: It looks like I was not the first to make the observation that climate change deniers tend to move the goalposts.

Update 2016.08.08: There’s another variant of stage 5 — perhaps it could be called stage 4½ — “The increasing rate of natural disasters (floods, droughts, hurricanes, heat waves, etc.) is caused by sin/apostasy/blasphemy/colored chalk.”


Reasonable fear, self defense, and murder

An article in the CSMonitor reviews the state of stand-your-ground laws in the U.S. Here’s a salient quotation from criminologist and gun policy expert Edward Leddy, professor emeritus at St. Leo University in Florida:
“If somebody breaks into your house in the middle of the night, the presumption is you have the right to assume that they are armed and intend to do you harm. How reasonable is that presumption? The problem is there’s no clear-cut answer to that. It depends on the situation and the reasonableness of the person’s fear.”
If gun rights fundamentalists have their way, and turn the U.S. into a nation where an ever-larger percentage of the populace owns guns, the fear that an random person is armed will become ever more reasonable. This will in turn provide racists, xenophobes, and other vigilantes the justification they need to commit state-condoned murder.

A worldview based on fear is self-fulfilling.


Vladimir Putin’s M.O.

Vladimir Putin:

  • If the people are against me, then to hell with them. I’ll do what I want, and justify it based on the law.
  • If the law is against me, then fuck the law. I’ll do what I want, and justify it based on the clamoring mob fired up by my propaganda.
What else would you expect from a paranoid, Machiavellian ex-KGB agent?


Occam’s Blender

This week’s debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, was predictably uneventful, with the participants talking past each other most of the time. This was not surprising at all. Nye is a scientist, and Ham is a mystic. Their world views are incompatible.

A wise person reexamines long-cherished assumptions when presented with new evidence. A fool clings to beliefs in spite of the facts. At the close of the debate, the participants made clear to which group they belonged. When asked what it would take to convince either man to change his mind, Nye said ‘just one piece of evidence.’ Mr. Ham said nothing could convince him to change his mind.

Confirmation bias is a well-researched phenomenon within psychology, and it can affect scientists as well as laypeople. The advantage of the scientific worldview is that it is designed to actively fight the pernicious and truth-corrupting influence of bias. Fundamentalists institutionalize confirmation bias, apparently unaware that it’s even a problem.

There was a time when the seasons, earthquakes, lightning, and celestial events were considered supernatural phenomena. Ancient men had no better explanations than the myths they invented. Today we have the benefit of centuries of advancement of knowledge, and the modern person no longer need resort to supernatural explanations. The devout however, are emotionally dependent on a worldview wherein supernatural causes are still important. These are erstwhile modern people, encumbered by a Stone Age mindset.

Occam’s razor states that all other things being equal, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one. Ham and his ilk do not appear to follow the principle of parsimony. On the contrary, they ascribe to what I’ll call Occam’s Blender:
No explanation is too complicated, provided it confirms pre-existing beliefs.

It was clear to anyone who is familiar with Mr. Ham that he is simply incapable of entertaining ideas that do not conform to his pre-existing beliefs. I actually found it rather ridiculous that Nye stooped to debunking the glaring physical impossibilities of the Flood, Noah’s Ark, and so on. To a thinking person, these arguments are obvious; to a believer, factual defects in scripture can always be answered with magic. Not enough room on the boat for all the species? Magic. Not enough time for rock layers to have formed? Magic. For every impossibility in Ham’s account of Biblical history, the answer is always the same: God.

I’m not sure what Bill Nye thought he could achieve during the debate. Perhaps he hoped to reach out to an audience of young people who might not otherwise be exposed to an enthusiastic proponent of the scientific worldview. I hope that he accomplished this goal. It’s clear though that he wasn’t able to reach everyone. These hilariously ignorant comments from self-identifying creationists are a staggering display of purposeful and prideful stupidity. They exemplify the backward anti-knowledge worldview that is holding back an otherwise great nation.


An ad in the guise of a warning message

“You are using a version of Internet Explorer which* Gmail no longer supports. Some features may not work correctly. Upgrade to a modern browser, such as Google Chrome.”

WTF, Google?
  • You know who I am, and you are capable of remembering my preferences.
  • You know I’ve clicked “Dismiss” about a dozen times.
  • You know that I use Safari, MSIE, Firefox, and Chrome.
  • You know that have reported exactly zero Gmail problems until now, so you can reasonably surmise that I’m not suffering from my decision to use browsers other than Chrome.
Do you really think annoying me is the best way to convince me to use your browser?

Make your browser significantly better than the alternatives, and I might switch. In the meantime, please stop prodding me with misleading warning messages.

* It would be more grammatically correct to write “You are using a version of Internet Explorer that Gmail no longer supports.”


Vigilante takedowns of Facebook pages

It’s not uncommon for people to report Facebook pages they don’t like, in an attempt to get them removed. Sometimes, people report pages even though there is little evidence of any actual violations of Facebook’s polices. Many probably hope that when Facebook is presented with a large number of reports about the same page, it will simply remove the page without investigating, or will remove it after a very superficial investigation.

In a feminist group on Facebook, I encountered some folks who are enthusiastically engaging in this sort of vigilante action, collectively reporting pages they find sexist, using “nudity or pornographic content” as a pretext. In one recent case, they paraded the results of a successful removal, congratulating one another on a job well done.

This kind of vigilante action is troublesome for a few reasons. First, it is dishonest, and likely to result in short-lived, Pyrrhic victories. Pages that actually violate the policy will remain closed. However, ones that were reported on false pretenses will quite often be reopened following review. If the grounds on which the page was reported were found not to be valid, the integrity of the reporter will also be called into question, limiting the effectiveness of the approach in the long-term, like the boy who cried wolf. Moreover, this approach does nothing to address the problems that actually motivated reporting the pages in the first place.

That brings me to the second problem with this approach: it is simplistic. There are many feminists who do not object to nudity or pornography per se, but who are dedicated in the fight against sexism, gender discrimination, unequal treatment of women in the workplace, the negative effects of outdated gender stereotypes, and so on. Where do these feminists fit in? There are surely also pages that have nudity or sexual content that runs afoul of Facebook’s policies, but to which many feminists do not object. There are many points of view among feminists on the topics of women, nakedness and sexuality. These topics are worthy of fair and open discussion. It’s dismissive and disrespectful to the diversity of opinions within the feminist movement to use nakedness and sex as a false pretext when pursuing feminist aims.

The common ground shared by feminists is fighting for gender equality and for an improvement in the lives of women. It would be far better to be honest about our motivations, and report pages for sexism if that is what we find objectionable about them. If Facebook’s policies are not clear enough in prohibiting this sort of content, then that’s where we should take the fight. We can accomplish more by convincing Facebook to prohibit pages that “promote discrimination on the basis of gender”. (And while we’re at it, we could get them to include gender identity and sexual orientation too!)


Modesty, shame & sexual propriety

The furor over Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs the other night truly surprised me. I expect a fair amount of screaming and wailing from the idiots in the cheap seats. But even some people I love and respect couldn’t stop themselves from joining in, leveling not just artistic criticism at Ms. Cyrus, but also personal insults and accusations of immorality.

Why? Because Cyrus used sex to shock, to get attention, and to make a point.

Everyone has the right to dislike a performance. No harm there. And on that count, I actually agree with the critics who panned the performance. It was was not particularly entertaining1.

I draw the line though at the point where critics resort to sexual epithets to express their dislike, and extend their criticism beyond the performance and onto the performer. It’s one thing to say you find a performance distasteful. It’s quite another to chastise the artist for her lack of self-respect or morality. What I see is a lot of people trying to pass off their indignant yet self-satisfied slut-shaming as though it were artistic criticism. You cannot do that. ‘Bad performance’ is not equivalent to ‘bad behavior.’

Let me start with those who level the epithet ‘slut’ (or its variants) on artists whose performances they find too risqué. In addition to perpetuating an outdated and uncivilized binary view of womanhood, this slur also perpetuates the idea that those who employ sexuality for personal gain are not wholly human. Every woman deserves respect. This includes the ballerina, actress, fashion model, pop star, porn star, and sex worker. You may find distasteful the choices some people make; but besmirching a woman’s basic humanity and dignity is beneath contempt. If you fall short of this basic standard of respect, you contribute to an atmosphere in which, for example, attacks on women are justified on the basis of what they were wearing.

I’m all for publicly shaming people who do actual harm to others — murderers, rapists, abusers, thieves, liars, vandals, fraudsters, corrupt officials, embezzlers, and polluters. I do not see that is is my right though to tell another person how to express her sexuality.

I hear the cries of conservative parents, lamenting the loss of Miley’s previous childish image. “She’s setting a bad example for young girls!”, they shout. Well sorry to break it to you, but Ms. Cyrus is a grown woman, and has a right to grow up. She owes nothing to to your your daughters, and certainly not an obligation to remain asexual and prim. If you don’t feel that Miley’s new image is appropriate for your children, then don’t let them watch.

Still others say they just don’t want their daughters following Cyrus’s example. My friend Jason offers an apt rebuttal to these parents:
     “Just so I understand it, we’re supposed to slut-shame Miley so that little girls don’t see her and grow up to get slut-shamed? OK then.” 
You see, most of the ‘harm’ these conservatives imagine arises from public expressions of sexuality is in truth harm those very same self-righteous moralizers inflict — both on those bold enough to transgress against the old social mores, and on those who come to their defense. This view of the world — that we must shame our children so that they don’t do things that others might shame them for — is also a very bleak and hopeless one, in which people blindly and unquestioningly perpetuate their parents’s customs, without so much as a thought to whether doing so is right. Shaming people just for the sake of upholding an outdated notion of sexual propriety is morally wrong and destructive.

People like to fool themselves into believing that they can judge a person’s moral character by observing just a few superficial markers. More specifically, people like to imagine that they can judge the morality of a woman by how she dresses, how she expresses herself towards men, how flirtatious she is, and so on. This old-fashioned view of morality, that groups women into either the Madonna category, or the whore category, based exclusively on how steadfastly they uphold a chaste and Puritan version of the monogamist tradition, is not just unfair — it’s immoral. It fosters an atmosphere where girls feel ashamed just for being sexual creatures. It lends the aegis of adult approval to schoolyard bullies who hurl sexual insults at teenaged girls. It perpetuates an egregiously broken one-size-fits-all approach to sexuality and relationships. And perhaps most importantly, it encourages a slavish obsession with superficial gestures, and not the true determinants of whether a woman is good. (In a better world, we would judge a woman’s morality in the same way that we judge a man’s: by whether she were trustworthy, caring, thoughtful, and fair-minded.)

And to those who actually intend to pass moral judgement, let me offer a word of caution: before you smugly reassure yourself that you are standing up for standards of sexual morality, remember that in 1797, the newly-invented ‘waltz’ spurred similar moral outrage. People could not believe that such deviance was being practiced in public. In every generation, there will be those who are disgusted and shocked by the openness and temerity of their younger cohorts. Disabuse yourself of the conceit that your particular notions of modesty or sexual morality hold special significance.

Critique the performance all you want. Keep the bitter, hateful, sexist moralizing to yourself.

1. Cyrus’s performance was unabashed, brash, and raw. It was also energetic, wild, and playful. I found it a bit entertaining just because it was obvious that she was having such a good time. To be honest, I actually found the sexually suggestive repartee between Cyrus and Thicke the most enjoyable part of the performance, precisely because it was so clear that while she was having a blast, he was just going through the motions. I think she caught him a bit by surprise with her enthusiasm. It was hilarious!


Freedom vs. equality

Consider the following statement:
Parents should work hard to provide their children with the love, care, education, and resources they need, so that they grow into well-adjusted adults and productive members of society, and so that they have the best possible chance at a successful, fulfilling, and happy life.
 Do you agree with this statement? I’d wager that the vast majority of people do.

Next, consider another statement:
All people may not be equal in their innate capabilities or strengths; but all people should be given the same opportunities in life. Every child deserves the same chance at success, fulfillment, and happiness.
I’d guess that most people would agree with this statement too. Now, try to reconcile the two statements. How can every child have the same chance in life if parents struggle to give their children advantages that other children do not have?

Of course, life is about finding the right balance. Here, the balance is between selfishness and altruism, between individualism and collectivism. It’s interesting though that many selfish behaviors that might otherwise be shunned are often forgiven (or even lauded) when they are conducted in the service of one’s offspring.

Selfishness for the sake of one’s children is still selfishness. It is especially important to remember this where collective action is required to tackle a problem that affects the whole community.


Sex and scouting

Recently, the Boy Scouts of America announced that it was considering changing its longstanding policy of discrimination against gays. A news report on the radio covered the protests outside the BSA’s headquarters in Irving, Texas. Asked for his opinion, one protestor commented:
“Allowing homosexuals in scouting would send the wrong message. The Boy Scouts is not a place for any kind of sexuality.”
This remark reveals an important truth about the Boy Scouts of America, and about the conservative undercurrent in American culture in general:

The BSA’s fear of gays is grounded in its general discomfort with sex.

The conceit that boy scouts are asexual provides comfort to those who would prefer not to tackle the complicated issues around teenage sexuality. By excluding girls and gays, the BSA has heretofore been able to pretend that sex wasn’t an issue that needed to be dealt with. Parents and scout leaders convinced themselves that scouting was a place completely safe from the influence of sexuality. As one of the few remaining bastions of conservative religious Puritanism in American life, the BSA has attracted many who seek refuge from the complexity and diversity of the broader culture. These conservatives would prefer to be able to continue pretending that they live in a world where scouts are entirely asexual. Allowing gays — or girls — into the group would make it more difficult to keep up the pretense.

Unfortunately, this way of thinking actually stands in the way of progress, because it is not based in reality.

It is precisely during those scouting years that a man truly awakens as a sexual creature. To deny the physical and psychological aspects of a boy’s growth into manhood is to turn a blind eye to the foundation of one of the most important parts of life: building fulfilling, meaningful, and effective relationships. How many scout leaders out there would be comfortable talking with a 15-year-old scout about how to handle feelings he has for a girl in his neighborhood, how to be safe if he begins having sex, or how to be respectful toward girls in general? I’m afraid the answer is very few.

In Sweden, there are no boy scouts and girl scouts; there are only scouts, with boys and girls in the same organization. Because scout leaders in Sweden lead desegregated troops with both boys and girls, they are certainly more experienced dealing with issues related to sexuality. This goes a long way toward explaining why homosexuality is simply not a big deal for scouts in Sweden.

If more scout leaders in America were comfortable talking about sex, they could help the boys and girls in their organizations to develop into mature, responsible, emotionally healthy adults. As a bonus, they could then probably relax a bit about homosexuality too.


NASA needs women

A recent NASA article describes an effort by a team of engineers to learn from old rocket engine designs. The initial phase of the project involved resurrecting the gas generator from an old F-1 rocket engine that had been sitting in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.. The formidable F-1 engines are among the most powerful rocket engines ever built. They powered the Saturn V rockets that took astronauts to the moon as part of the Apollo program. The article opens with this paragraph, focusing on the efforts of a hypothetical female rocket engineer:
“Imagine a young engineer examining an artifact from the Apollo era that helped send people on humankind’s first venture to another world. The engineer has seen diagrams of the rocket engine. She has even viewed old videos of the immense tower-like Saturn V rocket launching to the moon. Like any curious explorer, she wants to see how it works for herself. She wonders if this old engine still has the ‘juice.’ Like a car mechanic who investigates an engine of a beloved antique automobile, she takes apart the engine piece by piece and refurbishes it.”
Accompanying the article are several photos of engineers working on the refurbished gas generator. All of these photos depict men. A photo of a team of engineers posing in front of a massive Apollo-era F-1 engine does include one woman, and eight men.
A group of NASA engineers stands in front of an Apollo-era F-1 rocket engine
The hypothetical woman rocket engineer fantasized by the article’s (female) author does not appear to be representative of reality—not yet, at least. For now, it seems, the majority of engineers at NASA are men; and the women remain largely consigned to non-engineering roles like media relations and public affairs.


Unrealistic images warp our perception of reality

In a tweet this morning Alain de Botton linked to a Washington Post editorial he wrote in December, with the provocative title, Why most men aren’t man enough to handle web porn.

His basic premise is that because men have much the same brains today that their ancestors had millennia ago, they make unwitting—and often counter-productive—assumptions, judgements, and choices when faced with the apparent abundance of sexual opportunities depicted in pornography.

I think de Botton has a point, but I am not sure it is particularly novel. As he rightly points out, religions have for centuries recognized the two-faced nature of sexual desire—that it can be an expression of love and affection, can be a transcendent experience, and is of course the impetus behind the perpetuation of life; but that it can also lead to dishonesty, betrayal, jealousy, obsession, and even violence. I think de Botton presses a bit too stridently the idea that religions are the only institutions that have recognized the potential dangers of desire’s darker side.
Only religions still take sex very seriously, in the sense of appreciating the power of sex to turn us away from our sincerely-held priorities. Only religions see sex as potentially dangerous and something we need to be guarded against.
I know many conscientious atheist parents who teach their children about the dangers of acting without thinking, and carefully educate them about the potential pitfalls of lust. An important part of this too is teaching children how to deal with strong emotions, how to handle conflicts with others, and how to communicate openly and honestly—for it’s fine and well to realize that desire can get you into trouble, but you have to have a strategy for dealing with the emotion when it comes, not merely avoiding it altogether.

It’s an unfair oversimplification to paint men (or even ‘most men’) as slaves to their emotions and desires, but of course underlying de Botton’s broad generalizations lies a kernel of truth. Compared to women, men are more promiscuous, more jealous, more aggressive in their pursuit of sex, and—importantly—more attuned to visual stimuli. Combined, these traits make sexual imagery more appealing to men. Here again though, de Botton makes an unsubstantiated claim:
The secular world has no problems with bikinis and sexual provocation of all kinds because, among other reasons, it does not believe that sexuality and beauty have the potential to exert a momentous power over us. One is meant to be quite able to behold beauty, online or in reality – and get on with one’s life as though nothing in particular had happened.
I would not say that the secular world denies the power of sexual imagery. Every advertiser knows the sway that beauty and desire hold over us. If advertising were not effective, it would not be such a big business.

Men today are expected to resist temptations that in an earlier age might have seemed irresistible. In any given day, the modern man beholds many images that would have inspired his more primitive male ancestors not just to feelings of lust, but also to actions such as unwelcome advances, sexual assault, or even rape. Men today are more acclimated to such temptations, and better able to handle them. (The real challenge arises where groups with widely disparate standards of modesty & courtship meet. Think of the many Muslim immigrants in Western Europe, and the difficulty they often have adapting to the continent’s more open and liberated attitudes towards sex.)

Both primitive religious societies and the modern secular world demand personal responsibility. The crucial difference lies in how the responsibility is allocated. In the modern world, it is no longer considered acceptable to blame women for tempting men. What sets the modern secular world apart is that it demands that men take personal responsibility for their actions, and live up to a high standard of respect for women, even in the face of temptation.

Culture-clash problems aside, the modern secular society does a good job holding people to a high moral standard, and gets better all the time. Men today are allowed to think all the lustful thoughts they want in response to tempting stimuli; but unlike with their forebears, men today must behave in a civilized way toward women. Men who transgress in the sexual sphere are shunned by society and stand to loose their treasure or even their liberty (or life) when the violation rises to the level of criminality1. I do not believe modern secular societies fail to recognize the problem of temptation or fail to hold citizens to a high standard.

That having been said, I think there is a nugget of important wisdom buried in de Botton’s words. Specifically, he calls upon men to recognize their own weaknesses, admit that they are a potential source of strife and suffering, and guard against letting these weaknesses take control. Many things that offer short-term satisfaction can stand in the way of more lasting and fulfilling contentment later on. If you realize that certain temptations fall into this category for you, then it’s probably in your best interests to try to avoid these temptations.

Sexually-charged imagery can have a powerful effect on people, and can shape their ideas of their environment in ways that are damaging to their happiness. It has been shown, for example, that married men who are shown photos of attractive women report being less satisfied with their wives. It seems that on some primitive level, images people see are automatically incorporated into their mental worldview. Somewhere deep in the subconscious mind, the men believed those attractive women in the photos were potential mates, present in their surroundings. Remember: in the environment in which our brains evolved, there was no internet, and there weren’t even photographs. In that world, every face you saw belonged to a person there in front of you — likely a member of your community. Nowadays, we see hundreds or thousands of faces per day of people we will never meet.

This phenomenon is not limited to sex, either. When we are bombarded with images of happy, contented people using a particular product, we unwittingly make the assumption that using that product is a potential source of happiness. Or more basically, when we see people living a life of luxury in an advertisement, movie or in real life, we subconsciously compare ourselves to them, and feel inadequate if we do not measure up. Each picture we see changes our perception of the world.

Quite simply, sexual temptation is one of the many areas where our savannah brains are ill-equipped for the modern world. We compare ourselves and our situations to our imagined cohorts—but these days, the concept we create in our minds of our community is likely to be an illusion—an exaggerated fantasy hodgepodge of images from our actual lives combined with images from the media.

Each day we are assaulted by images of health, beauty, happiness, wealth, freedom, and contentment in the media. Some of these images we seek out, such as the movies we watch; others seek us out, such as advertisements. To the extent that these images depict a fantasy life that is unrealistic or unattainable, they will provoke unease and dissatisfaction. We should therefore be careful about the images we allow ourselves to see.

1. Population genetics provides an interesting perspective, and suggests the following optimistic possibility: thanks to increased respect for women and readily available birth control and abortion, rape is quickly declining as a viable reproduction strategy for men. To the extent that sexual aggression is partially hereditary , these advances in the areas of respect for women and women’s reproductive rights may lead to a general decline in violence in future generations.


Swedish panic over nakedness in advertising

One of the Seqr advertisements:
“All I need is my mobile”
This morning, my friend Martina brought my attention to an ad campaign by a mobile payments company in Sweden, in which several of the company’s staff appear naked beside the tag line, ‘All I need is my mobile.’ The ad campaign sparked a fair amount of criticism from some feminists in Sweden, who often view feminine nakedness in advertising with suspicion.

In an article on Resumé.se, Nina Åkestam echoed a common refrain—that depictions of naked women were damaging to the position of women in society:
“Det riktiga problemet är att i och med den här kampanjen fick de här kvinnornas döttrar lite mindre sannolikhet att få lika bra lön som deras söner. Några fler personer drabbas av psykiska problem. Och det dröjer ännu lite längre tills Sverige får sin första kvinnliga statminister…”
“The real problem is that this campaign has made these women’s daughters less likely to get as good salaries as their sons. More people will suffer from psychological problems. And it’ll be even longer before Sweden gets its first woman prime minister.”
I think Ms. Åkestam overestimates the influence one photo of a naked woman has on society. One could just as well say that the problem is that society treats the human body as something unusual and exceptional, to be hidden from view except in a very limited set of contexts. Surely there are better ways to empower women than decrying ads with naked women in them.

To better understand this point, step back for a moment and imagine a similar feminist argument, but made in different country where women are traditionally expected to cover themselves from head to toe. An ad appears showing a woman revealing her hair, arms, and ankles. A similar outcry erupts from a well-meaning feminist, who is outraged that an advertiser could be so short-sighted and crass as to use such sexist imagery (hair, arms & ankles!) just to grab attention and make a profit.

With this added bit of perspective, it becomes quite clear that the nakedness per se is not the problem.

The problem—what makes this kind of ad appealing to advertisers and offensive to some people—is the implied significance of nakedness in the societal context in which it appears, and in the mind of the observer.

If women and men truly wish to be free of the unfair and arbitrary gender-based assumptions, they also need to accept that many of these assumptions are based on even-more arbitrary societal customs like standards of modesty — standards that are mostly arbitrary, and that vary greatly between cultures.

So when someone claims that ads like this one encourage people to make unreasonable assumptions about women, the natural retort is that shunning such ads also encourages people to make assumptions about women—just other assumptions. Where Ms. Åkestam might claim, “It is harmful to women to encourage the idea that women are valuable only as objects of sexual desire,” another feminist might answer, “It is harmful to women to encourage the idea that women are respectable only if they are fully dressed.”

Which assumptions are good to encourage, which are not, and who gets to decide?

Another of the Seqr ads, this one depicting a man
When informed that the ad campaign included men and women of different ages and body styles, Ms. Åkestam did not change her position, but simply replied that naked men were different from naked women.

In the comments to her article, Ms. Åkestam wrote:
“Jag tycker iofs sällan att nakenhet är befriande när det används i kommersiella sammanhang för att sälja en irrelevant produkt. Inte för att kroppen är fel i sig, utan för att den har blivit så märkligt laddad i vår kultur. Den här kampanjen hade både män och kvinnor av olika åldrar och storlekar med, men jag tycker inte att det gör saken bättre faktiskt.”
“I believe that nakedness is seldom liberating when it is used in a commercial context to sell irrelevant products. Not because the body is in itself wrong, but because it [nakedness] has become so strangely sensationalized in our culture. This campain featured both men and women of different ages and body types, but I actually don’t think that makes it any better.”

Ms. Åkestam acknowledges that it is a problem that nakedness has become sensationalized in Swedish society; yet in the very next sentence, she argues against a campaign that would actually help to normalize nakedness in a non-sexist, non-ageist way.

She does not explain why she focused on just one photo from the campaign (the photo of the young woman), nor why she sees men’s and women’s nakedness so differently. And evidencing what migh be described as a lack of perspective, Åkestam also fails to realize that through her writing she is contributing to the very atmosphere of sensationalism about nakedness that she herself acknowledges is damaging.


Moral relativism

One complaint often leveled against atheism is that without a holy scripture to follow, atheists are  left with a set of morals that is inferior because it is relative rather than absolute. This line of argument can be easily refuted by simply pointing out the obvious fact that morality has always adjusted with the times, and that an inflexible moral code is usually worse than one that is adaptable to the time, the place, and situation.

However, there’s a much simpler way to refute the moral relativism attack.

Every holy scripture contains some bits that the religion’s adherents would prefer to overlook. Rather than throwing out the whole book though, the faithful pick and choose the passages they want to follow, carefully interpreting scripture to conform to the moral beliefs they already hold.

In this way, most religious people are also moral relativists. An atheist uses common sense and logic to derive a reasonable code of ethics. Religious people on the other hand use common sense and twisted logic to choose which parts of their holy book they wish to follow, and which they plan to ignore—all the while claiming that their morality is absolute because it originates in a higher power.


Jul, jul, strålande jul

My favorite Swedish Christmas carol is Jul, jul, strålande jul. The choir I sing in, Nota Bene, performed this song at the end of its Christmas concert on Wednesday.

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Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar,
himmelens kronor med gnistrande ljus,
glimmande bågar i alla Guds hus,
psalm som är sjungen från tid till tid,
eviga längtan till ljus och frid!
Jul, jul, strålande jul, glans över vita skogar!

Kom, kom, signade jul! Sänk dina vita vingar,
över stridernas blod och larm,
över all suckan ur människobarm,
över de släkten som gå till ro,
över de ungas dagande bo!
Kom, kom, signade jul, sänk dina vita vingar!

The lyrics in Swedish are quite beautiful, and I would like to share this beauty with my friends who do not speak Swedish. Because I have been unable to find a satisfying English translation to the lyrics, I decided to translate them myself. Here is my rough English translation:

Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas: shine over white forests,
heavenly crowns with sparkling lights,
glimmering arcs in the houses of God,
hymns that are sung throughout the ages,
eternal longing for light and peace!
Christmas, Christmas, glorious Christmas, shine over white forests!

Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings,
over the battlefield’s blood and cry,
over the breaths from the bosoms of men,
over the loved ones who’ve gone to their rest,
over the daybreak of newborn life!
Come, come, blessed Christmas: lower your white wings!


Goodbye, Mama-Papa

My grandfather Lorn died Monday evening on his way back to his apartment after dinner. He was walking back from the restaurant to his apartment in the retirement home where he lived, when he sat down for a rest, and simply died. It was probably a stroke or seizure; he died quickly and without suffering. Lorn lived a long and full life; his 95th birthday would have been next month.

Thoughtful Lorn by Michael A. Lowry
My maternal grandfather Lorn Lambier Howard was always ‘Mama-Papa’ to me.

Lorn Lambier Howard was born on 28 November 1917 in Poplar Bluff, Missouri. He came from a family of simple means, but he worked hard and diligently to improve his situation in life. He served in the U.S. Navy from 1936 to 1946 so that he could go to university (thanks to the G.I. Bill). He studied electrical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia and the University of Illinois at Urbana. He obtained his doctorate from Michigan State University in 1959, and became professor of electrical engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. While on shore leave from the navy once in San Diego, Lorn met his future wife Etha Johannaber. They married in 1941 and they had three children. Their first child was my mother Alaire.

When I was growing up, Mama-Papa (as I always called him) was one of my favorite relatives. He was generous, kind, and loving, but also thoughtful, introspective, and rational. His characteristic blend of logic and humanity were an inspiration to me as I grew from boy to man and sought my own identity in life. Here was a man who had built houses as a side job during college, but could also play the piano. He was a true renaissance man, and I always admired and looked up to him.

Music was always important in Lorn’s life. Some of my earliest memories are of the music that filled our home, thanks to the love of music my mother inherited from her father. When we visited my grandparents in Dallas, Mama-Papa would often play the organ or piano. I also remember the winter mornings in Austin, when Lorn would wake us all up playing jazz renditions of Christmas carols on the piano. He could play almost any tune you asked him to, and he was always inventing playful and poignantly melodic improvisations. A few years ago he even recorded an album of jazz standards together with my cousin Lowry, who also wrote a touching remembrance today. I attribute my love of jazz music to Lorn. Although my parents occasionally enjoyed jazz, it was at my grandparents’ house that I heard the widest variety of jazz—played on Lorn’s record player, or by him on the piano. When years later I fell in love with swing and Lindy Hop dancing, it was surely in large measure due to the fact that I was already a big fan of the jazz and big band music to which these dances are danced! Lorn also played the carillon at SMU and Highland Park Methodist Church. I’ll never forget the time when he rang in my birthday on the carillon in the U.T. tower in Austin two decades ago.

Lorn had a keen scientific mind. I looked up to him, and as a boy always wanted to follow in his footsteps and become a scientist. At family gatherings, Lorn often retold the story of the time when, as a young boy, I took apart his alarm clock . Rather than getting angry at me, he took the opportunity to turn it into a learning experience. He sat with me, showed me how the parts of the clock worked, and helped me reassemble it. When he heard me (or another family member) make an unfounded or imprecise statement, Lorn would often quiz me about why I held that particular belief. ”What do you mean by that?” he would ask, or “Why do you think that is?” He never let me get away with making vague assertions. If he suspected that I did not understand what I was saying or lacked the facts to back up my claim, he would ask questions and help me find the answers. It could be infuriating at times, but it was immensely helpful in helping me to form my rational worldview. From Mama-Papa I learned how to think.

Despite his ability to be stubbornly rational, Mama-Papa was nevertheless a very funny man. I remember the time one Christmas when the whole family was gathered at their house in Dallas. Someone had the idea of buying a bunch of plastic dart guns, and the family proceeded to engage in a rambunctious dart gun war throughout their beautiful home. Lorn was a real sneaker, starting down one hallway only to turn back and go around the other way. The laughter and joy that filled that house are among my fondest childhood memories. Lorn and Etha shared many grins, winks, and knowing glances. They had their own humor to which the rest of us were only occasionally privy. Etha’s dry wit contrasted with Lorn’s warmer and more playful humor, and it was a true joy to be with them together.

Despite their differences, Lorn and Etha truly loved each other. It was sad to see the change brought about by Etha’s strokes. She was no longer the same person. The sparkle in her eye was gone, and she was tired and moody much of the time. Despite this, Lorn loved her until the day she died. He also did not give up once she was gone. He continued to find pleasure in life, playing piano for the wine & cheese parties at the retirement home, flirting with younger women (only in their seventies!), and going out for Mexican food with his Dallas grandsons. Lorn was a rational rather than religious man; perhaps it was partly because of this that he strove always to get the most out of life. He fought to stay alive and remain active until the very last day of his life. For example: until just recently, Mama-Papa still played the carillon at his church regularly—a task that required climbing the steps of the church tower. For a man of almost ninety-five who’d undergone three open-heart surgeries and was on his eighth pacemaker, this was no mean feat! Lorn’s perseverance and ability to find motivation and joy in life are yet another source of inspiration for me.

Lorn was also one of the inspirations for my love of nature and the great outdoors. In his youth, Lorn had been an Eagle Scout, and years later I followed in his footsteps. I have many happy memories of camping together with my family and with the scouts.

For years now, Lorn had been living on borrowed time. After his heart troubles, he changed his diet and started a regular regimen of exercise. Even so though, no one lives forever, and I knew he would be gone soon. He knew it too. In recent years I heard more sentimentality in his voice, and when we talked on the phone or on Skype, it was clear that he never wanted to say goodbye. I tried to resist the temptation to cut him off and end the conversation; but often he would want to stay on the line just a bit longer. Lorn also opened up to me in recent years in a way he had never done before. He told me stories about his youth, including some of the challenges and doubts he had had as a young man. When I was growing up, Mama-Papa always seemed like an invincible hero to me; it was touching to see the more human side of him, and to switch places with him in a way. Now he was the one telling me of his troubles, and I was the one offering consolation and reassurance.

When one gets to be almost ninety-five years old, most of one’s friends are gone. It’s a lonely stage of life. I owe a great debt of gratitude to my Rummel cousins in Dallas for being there for Lorn. They lived nearby, and often visited Mama-Papa for meals, to help him with his computer, or to run errands. I know they were a source of comfort and camaraderie in the last years of Lorn’s life. They were also there by his side just minutes after he died. After saying a few words, my cousins toasted Mama-Papa’s life with bottles of his favorite drink, cream soda. It was a touching tribute, and I’m sure Mama-Papa would have appreciated it.

I knew this time would come, so in a way I was prepared for it. Yesterday I distracted myself with chores and work. Today though, when I sat down to write this remembrance, the memories of my beloved Mama-Papa came flooding forward, and I was overcome with emotion. I’m sad I’ll never be able to talk with him again. I will miss his warmth, his humor, his common sense approach to life, and his quiet determination to keep on going no matter what obstacles life threw in his path.

The best way I can remember Mama-Papa is to follow his example and be the best man I can be. As I see it, Lorn’s philosophy of life comprised two main parts: thinking and feeling. The thinking part means learning, practicing, and becoming good at what you do. The feeling part entails treating others with love and respect, and trying to make the world a better place. I am reminded of a famous quotation by Neil deGrasse Tyson that sums up this philosophy quite well:
“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”
Goodbye, Mama-Papa. I will miss you very much.


Religion is laziness

Religion is, at its heart, laziness. First, it is mental laziness—an unwillingness to do the mental work necessary to understand the world as is truly is. Second, it is a moral laziness—an abdication of the responsibility each of us has to securing a bright future not just for ourselves or our own tribe, but for all of the inhabitants of the planet.

“If we long for our planet to be important, there is something we can do about it. We make our world significant by the courage of our questions and by the depth of our answers.”
—Carl Sagan


Respect for religion

There has been much discussion lately of purported offences against religion, and of the anger and violence these alleged offenses have provoked. Overlooked in the whole brouhaha though is the shameful fact that erstwhile civilized liberal democracies are talking seriously about the need for ‘respect for religion’—that is to say, censorship and other curtailments of liberty in the name of not offending religion. These retreats from modern liberal principles are couched in the language of multiculturalism—as though religions were esteemed cultural institutions deserving of special deference. Of course, the opposite is true. Religions have received too much respect, and for too long.

In what other area of life do people demand respect without earning it? Imagine an employee who demands a promotion despite being a poor worker who doesn’t get along with his colleagues. He can yell “value my work!” and pound his fists all he wants; but if he does a substandard job and doesn’t get along with others, he will not earn the respect of his coworkers, and he certainly won’t get a raise. It’s always the unintelligent, immoral, and intellectually inconsistent people who feel compelled to resort to shouting and violence to defend their weak-mindedness.

Respect must be earned, not coerced under threat of violence. Not all ideas deserve respect, and the time has come to put religions (and other harmful ideas) in their proper place. If you want respect for your ideas, perhaps it’s time to cultivate ideas worthy of respect.


iOS suggests address book names over dictionary words

iOS suggests corrections for words it believes are incorrect. Usually, this is a great help, because with auto-corect, one can type more quickly than one would otherwise be able to type. However, iOS often makes mistakes, correcting words that are already correct. A common example is that iOS almost always wants to change its to it’s. Enough people make the mistake of inserting an apostrophe in the possessive pronoun its without help from iOS; with iOS, the rate of these errors has only increased.

Recently, I have noticed that when I am typing using the Swedish keyboard, iOS attempts to correct perfectly good Swedish words, replacing them with names from my address book.

Here is an example. A few days ago I posted a comment on a photo that a friend posted of some freshly baked cinnamon buns. I wanted to post the Swedish sentence, “Dina kanelbullar are jättegoda.”

The word dina is the plural second person possessive pronoun in Swedish, and kanel is the word for cinnamon. Both are perfectly good Swedish dictionary words, but iOS nevertheless insists on trying to change them. Sina and Karl are names that appear in my address book.
iOS 5.1.1 suggests Sina instead of Dina.
iOS 5.1.1 tries to replace kanel with Karl.
I could understand this behavior if I were using the U.S. English keyboard, but it happens even when I use the Swedish keyboard as in these two examples. I have been unable to find a setting or option to change the auto-correct word list precedence so that dictionary words are preferred over address book words.


Microsoft’s post-PC future

I think [within a decade’s time], Microsoft will be an enterprise software and services company with a strange, but successful gaming sub-division that will probably be spun off by then.
I agree with MG’s analysis. The trend is clear, but Microsoft has been complacent.

Until very recently, Microsoft has been denial about its predicament. With Windows Phone, Windows 8, and Surface, the company has shown it is capable of making bold bets on innovative products. Unfortunately for Microsoft though, these are probably too little, too late.

Microsoft does a few things very well, and many more things merely adequately. Where Microsoft excels, it will continue to be met with success. However, where Microsoft does a mediocre job—or is timid and complacent—others will take the lead.


Mystics & scientific discoveries

With each major revelation in science, the mystics of the world express enthusiastic interest, and often even try to coopt the discovery, claiming that the natural phenomenon newly described by Science powers the mysteries they hold dear. Unfortunately for the cause of Reason though, these seekers do not pursue—and in fact fear—true understanding. Thus, predictably, they soon retreat from their pseudo-science claims, inventing or embracing novel mystical ideas that are invariably further removed from the reaches of testable observation and reproducibility.


Podcasts app for iOS

With the new Podcasts app for iOS, Apple has created a one-stop-shop for finding, downloading, and enjoying podcasts. Podcasts have long been a bit neglected in the iTunes and Music apps, and the new aspires to obviate the podcast features of these earlier apps. It’s a promising first release. Even though the app still needs a bit of work, Podcasts offers capabilities that many users will find compelling.

The Podcasts app is divided into two parts: the Library and the Catalog.

The Library
You can think of the Library as ‘your podcasts’. It lists the podcasts present on the device. There is a distinction between subscribed and unsubscribed podcasts. This is a distinction is important because you cannot download episodes of a podcast you have not subscribed to, even if episodes of that podcast are present on your iOS device. The interface does not make the distinction between subscribed and unsubscribed podcasts very clear, but there are a couple of ways to tell. For unsubscribed podcasts, only episodes present on the device are shown. For subscribed podcasts, all recent episodes are shown, whether or not they are present on the device, and a small download button appears next to the names of episodes that have not been downloaded. Also, if you tap the little gear icon in the upper right corner, a menu of options appears in which you can choose whether to subscribe to the podcast or not.

The Catalog
This is where you go to find new podcasts. The Catalog is essentially the Podcasts section of the iTunes Store, without the distractions of Movies, TV shows, Books, Audiobooks, and Music. The Catalog hosts exclusively free content. This means when you’re browsing for content in the Catalog section of the Podcasts app, you don’t have to think about how much things cost. This is the first app from Apple that has let you subscribe to podcasts right on your iOS device. This means it is no longer necessary to use iTunes on a Mac or PC, or to download individual podcast episodes from the iTunes app for iOS. Just view the details of the podcasts in the Podcasts app, click subscribe, and download the episodes you want. Unsubscribe later if you find that the podcast is not your thing. You can also enable automatic downloading of new episodes, meaning there will be new stuff for you to listen to each time you open the app. Great!

Two apps in one
Initially, I felt that the new Podcasts app blurred the distinction between downloading and streaming. However, this impression was a misleading one. In fact distinguishing local (already downloaded) content from content that has not yet been downloaded is quite simple. In both the Library and the Catalog, if a podcast episode does not have a download button next to it, the episode is present on the device. The user interface and layout of the controls is quite inconsistent between the Library and Catalog though, and there are some obvious oversights. For example, when viewing a podcast in the Library, there is no way to switch directly to that podcast in the Catalog. Similarly, there is no way to quickly switch from a podcast in the Catalog to the same podcast in the Library. One gets the impression that the Podcasts app is two separate apps in one: a new app for viewing locally-stored podcasts, combined with the Podcasts view of the iTunes (iOS) app. The marriage of these two views is done in a somewhat inelegant way. It really feels like two apps.

It the iTunes app for iOS, there is a Downloads that displays all the items that currently being downloaded. The new Podcasts app lacks a Downloads view. Interestingly, if you start a download in the Podcasts app, the iTunes app’s Downloads view does not show the download. However, both the iTunes app and the Podcasts correctly show which podcasts have been downloaded and which have not.

User interface & controls
The design of the Podcasts app is a departure from the simplicity and consistency that have marked most of Apple’s other iOS Apps (iPhoto being a notable exception). The default view in the Library is a scrollable list of square tiles, each displaying the photo of a podcast (the photo that would be called the ‘cover art’ for music albums). The scrollable list of square tiles is a bit reminiscent of Windows Phone. Tapping on a podcast’s photo takes you to the list of episodes for that podcast. Tapping an episode begins playback.

Following the trail blazed by iPhoto (among other apps), the Podcasts app eschews platform-wide UI consistency in favor of a tailor-made skeuomorphic design. Gone are the standard flat white-on black playback controls. In their place are metallic buttons arranged in a mostly familiar layout. I write ‘mostly familiar’ because there are some changes. The button to skip backward 30 seconds has been replaced by a button to skip back only 10 seconds. In addition to the skip-back-10-seconds button, the Podcast app adds a new button that skips forward 30 seconds—quite useful for skipping ads. The back button behaves a bit differently than before in one situation: when playing the first episode in the list. In the Music app, tapping the back button in this situation stops playback and returns to the list. In the new Podcasts app, it does nothing.

Swiping up on the cover photo reveals even more controls underneath, along with an animated Dieter Rams–inspired facsimile of a reel-to-reel tape player. The timeline has been moved here, so it is necessary to slide the cover photo out of the way first before one can scrub forward or backward in the track. Interestingly, the timeline contains what appear to be back and forward skip buttons, but both of these buttons are non-functional. Under the cover photo, you’ll also find a control for adjusting the playback speed, as well controls for sharing and setting a sleep timer. The latter is particularly useful if you, like me, listen to podcasts in bed.

The Podcasts app shares the same underlying library as the Music and iTunes apps, so any podcasts downloaded in the Podcasts app are visible in the Music app, and any Podcasts download in iTunes will be visible in Podcasts. However, when you’ve listened to part of an episode, the place where you left off is not synchronized between the Podcasts and Music apps. This is a first break with the past. I surmise that Apple intends to move Podcasts into their own separate domain, distinct from other media. This initial release of the Podcasts app at once represents a first step in this general direction, and gives clues to the direction Apple is heading in the future. It’s clear to me that the Podcasts section of the Music app will disappear in a future iOS update. Most people accept that iTunes on the Mac and PC has become too big, trying to accomplish too much in a single app. There are rumors that Apple will break out some features into distinct apps. This process has already begun on iOS with the Podcasts app.

Performance & stability
The Podcasts app is polished and offers capabilities in a single app that previously required using two apps. However, the app is not without problems. First of all, the user interface is quite sluggish. When scrolling, there are jerks and lags. I found similar results on both the iPad 3 and the iPhone 4S. It’s surprising to see such poor performance on Apple’s latest hardware. The Podcast app also appears to freeze at times. I observed that if I launched Podcasts when it was not already running, the list of podcasts appeared immediately, but was non-responsive for about 5 seconds while the list reloaded. It appears that the app refreshes the list of podcasts at launch, and does not accept any user input during this operation. In addition, the app crashed while I was using it on several occasions, and at one point, even caused iOS to restart.

It’s clear a lot of attention went into the new Podcasts app. The skeuomorphic tape deck UI might be off-putting to some user interface purists, but I found it mostly inoffensive. The amount of tape on each reel changes depending on the playback position; the reels spin and the tap jiggles periodically; and the tape guide moves out of the way when one jumps forward or backward in the episode. It’s elegant and pixel-perfect, and the attention to detail that went into it is remarkable. However, there is a trade-off between eye candy and performance. That pretty spinning tape deck requires memory, meaning less is available for other apps. This means more delays reloading apps and web pages when you switch back and forth between apps. The animations probably also impact battery life. Obviously Apple feels that the pretty UI elements are worth the cost to performance. Considering app’s responsiveness and stability problems though, I wonder if the right things were prioritized during the app’s development.

Overall, Apple’s new Podcasts app for iOS is impressive. Like several recent iOS apps, Podcasts shows that Apple is not afraid to try new things. The app introduces several new UI ideas while borrowing some from elsewhere. Apple obviously wants to help users manage their content more easily, without having to switch back and forth between apps. The dual pedigrees of the Podcasts app is still very obvious though, and some work remains to make the app feel unified and consistent. Even with its problems, Podcasts has now supplanted another app on the first page of my home screen. When I want to download or listen to podcasts, I no longer use any other app—I go to Podcasts. It’s clear that this app is a work in progress, and we can no doubt expect that Apple that will fix the more serious problems soon.