Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Well I'm Off For A While

So I'm leaving in a half an hour for a little New Years getaway (yay) so I can say for sure that I won't be updating this blog until the New Year rolls around. A very happy new year to everyone, and I suppose I shouldnt be linking a talk that is this serious on such a happy note, so I'll post a funnier one to balance it out. No offense to PZ but these were my two favorite Skepticon IV talks this year! Enjoy til I get back

Sunday, December 25, 2011

It's The Streisand Effect MotherFuckers!!

Merry Xmas everyone!!

What better way to celebrate this day than a reminder to everyone the reason for the season from the fabulous Tim Minchin

Since this video was cut from the Jonathan Ross show by a freaked out overreacting asshat it has been featured on numerous blogs as well as mirrored repeatedly on youtube and making Peter Fincham look like a complete tit. I'll lel Tim Minchin explain the whole story, but in the meantime enjoy my new favorite Christmas song: Praise Be To WoodyAllen Jesus!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Repost: Why Does Anyone Like Ron Paul?

I came across this great post over on Ashley F. Miller's blog that she has given me the permission to repost here. I have mentioned before the crazy cult-like following that Ron Paul seems to have, there doesn't seem to be a single YoungTurks video on youtube about Obama and the Republican Party's failures that doesn't have at least one of the two most upvoted comments being "Ron Paul 2012!", but I think the problem is deeper than that. The inherent problem is that many people without a Ron Paul shrine in their living room still shrug their shoulders about the guy. Well, he wants to reduce military spending right? The Republicans all seem to ignore him and not give him any air time, maybe because he has some liberal values at heart! Maybe he's reasonable, sensible, look at his old man face, doesn't that look like a sensible face to you? I'm afraid he'd have a real shot at winning and people don't know anything really concrete about him. This post puts together all the reasons why Ron Paul is a perfect match for the Republican Party, and all things you need to know about Ron Paul's policies and opinions.

Why does anyone like Ron Paul?

I’ve been trying to understand why smart people I know support Ron Paul and I just can’t get my head around it.  I get the sense that maybe the Ron Paul People I know just don’t realize what Ron Paul’s all about. That or they just don’t care.
The Ron Paul People I know are almost all straight, single, relatively young, non-religious, white men. Available demographics suggest that this is an accurate picture; there are others in Ron Paul’s camp, but it’s basically youngish white men.
They do not consider themselves to be Democrats or Republicans. Some of them hate the idea of rules, many of them hate the idea of having their money taken away in taxes, but none of them are stupid or without the resources to learn more about their candidate. And none seem to care about any of Ron Paul’s policies outside of cutting spending, regulations, and taxes.
Every Ron Paul Person I know comes out of the woodwork any time anything negative is said about the guy, no matter how true the statement and no matter how much that individual disagrees with Ron Paul’s position or behavior. I get the sense that libertarians are so excited to have someone on the national stage that they don’t want to see anything problematic with the guy, but he’s transparently a bad deal.
So, why are these people supporting a crazy, racist Christian fundamentalist?

Why People Love Ron Paul:

  1. He believes in reduced military spending
  2. Less taxes, less rules, less government
  3. He wants to end the “War on Drugs”
  4. He is “philosophically consistent”
That last one seems to be big — people seem to think that Ron Paul offers a coherent philosophy to deal with politics and that’s why they like him.
He’s very consistent on the whole taxes idea — he wants to get rid of the income tax, which apparently makes us all the property of the government, and his voting record shows this.  I can see the appeal, even if I totally disagree.

Ron Paul is Anti-Free Market:

But if we take this libertarian personal freedom thing to its logical conclusion, Paul would also be all for open borders and a completely open labor markets, right?  Yeah, but not so much — he’s very anti open borders.
The toughest part of showing any compassion or tolerance to the illegal immigrants … is the tremendous encouragement it gives for more immigrants to come illegally and avoid the wait and the bureaucracy.
So, bureaucracy good when it keeps the brown people out? Taxing the insanely rich is slavery! Letting foreign people work in America should be illegal!
He voted for building a fence on the Mexican border, reporting illegal aliens who go to hospitals, and for banning student visas from “terrorist nations”.  He’s all about reducing the military and allowing the free market, except when it comes to this for some reason.
Oh, it’s also great that he wants to get rid of the fed, I love this. You know who made the fed what it is today? A guy named Alan Greenspan. You know, Alan Greenspan, the most famous and powerful libertarian ever to work in the US government. He was a disciple of Ayn Rand and was part of the inner circle of her cult. Alan Greenspan almost single-handedly caused this recession. By all means, let’s fix the fed, but let us also acknowledge it was a libertarian that got us here!

Ron Paul Doesn’t Support Minorities:

He thinks the Civil Rights Act of 1964, you know that whole equality thing, was a violation of people’s rights and wouldn’t have forced anyone to lift the Jim Crow laws. He called MLKJr day “hate whitey day”.  According to Ron Paul supporters, this is OK because he wants to legalize drugs and end the death penalty, both of which would disproportionately go to help black men.
I don’t even want to go into all of the sketchy things that he’s said, I’ll just offer you this link and be done with it.  Suffice to say, the guy’s said some unkind things about minorities.
On top of this, he wants English to be the official language of the US and thinks government shouldn’t offer services in any other language.  How’s that for federal bureaucratic overhead?
A lot of people respect his position on gay marriage, which is that it shouldn’t be the federal government’s business even though he personally is opposed to it. It may not be the federal government’s business, but he’s certainly voted to enshrine homophobic behavior in federal law. He voted against including “sexual orientation” as a protected class in ENDA, meaning he thinks it’s OK to fire people for being gay, and he voted to ban gay adoptions in DC.

Ron Paul is Against Church/State Separation:

Ron Paul has a 17% rating with the AU, meaning he almost never votes in favor of a bill that would be promoting the separation of church and state.
The guy is crazy fundamentalist, no lie. It informs most of his political positions, including right to life stuff that I’ll address in a minute. But it also includes something that maybe some of my libertarian friends agree with. Ron Paul is one of the few politicians in DC willing to say anything negative about Zionism or Israel, and I know a lot of libertarians think that we shouldn’t be Israel’s protector anymore. But do you know why he doesn’t support Israel?
Despite the fact that many Fundies, known as Premillenialists, support Israel because their end-time theology tells them that it is necessary for the return of Jesus, Christian Reconstructionists like Paul have a different view, basically that the Israeli government isn’t the right one for the end of days and the right sort of Christians are now the chosen people of Revelations.
“I think of the Israeli government as different than what I read about in the Bible. I mean, the Israeli government doesn’t happen to be reflecting God’s views. Some of them are atheist, and their form of government is not what I would support… And there are some people who interpret the chosen people as not being so narrowly defined as only the Jews — that maybe there’s a broader definition of that.”
He and Sarah Palin can get into a fight over whose Christian end of days attitude towards Israel is the right one!
He often gets accused of being anti-Semitic because he’s anti-Zionism, and he may well be, but his position on Israel is all about religion. He’s generally isolationist anyway, so it works with the rest of his shtick.
And, while his faith isn’t his number one talking point, he sure does have a statement of faith on his website and includes a reference to it in his debates.
And, despite the fact that he thinks the education department should be dismantled, he also thinks that public funds should pay for private Christian educations and supports a constitutional amendment in favor of school prayer.  Again, not a libertarian stance at all.

Ron Paul is Rabidly Anti-Choice and Anti-Science:

This goes hand in hand with the crazy religious stuff, it’s all related.
This man, who is a doctor, does not believe in evolution.

This man, who is a doctor, believes that life begins at conception.


He has a somewhat complex view on abortion in that he believes that it, like murder, should be tried and controlled at the state level, not the federal one. That said, he has voted repeatedly for national bills that promote the pro-life cause and introduced a bill that would say that life begins at conception.
He voted not to authorize embryonic stem cell research multiple times. He has a 0% by NARAL, meaning he votes 100% against abortion rights. He voted yes on the Stupak Amendment to prevent health insurance companies from offering abortion coverage. Voted to prevent funding from going to schools that make the morning after pill available and to provide funding for abstinence only education.
He cosponsored a bill to take funds from a needy family benefit program to go to support non-governmental groups that counsel people not to have abortions.
Again, how is this not federal interference?

Ron Paul Helps Billionaires Not the Poor

This section, I know, is where a lot of libertarians are going to agree with his votes, but I have to say I think they don’t reflect well on him.
He is completely against environmental regulation and trying to find alternative energy sources.  Despite his claims that he’d rather have unions control the market than a minimum wage, he voted for legalizing union busting more than once.  Despite his supposed belief in the free market, he voted to ban shareholders from weighing in on executives’ compensation.  Extended the Bush tax cuts for the rich, expanded them, and undermined Social Security by changing the standards.
Voted against the Healthy Hunger Free Kids Act to feed children and voted against a measure to ensure children had health insurance.Voted yes on a measure to prevent federally funded laborers to be paid the prevailing wage of the area, so that people making less than a living wage could be reduced even further into poverty!

Ron Paul is a Hypocrite

He is completely inconsistent, not just philosophically as a libertarian, but also on very specific issues like federal funding to local areas.  Which brings us to his response to Katrina.  You’d think someone who was so waffley about his own philosophical convictions when it comes to women’s rights and immigrants would be willing to waffle a little to save lives, after all he’s all sanctity of life, right?
Is bailing out people that chose to live on the coastline a proper function of the federal government?
But at least his congressional district in Texas doesn’t rely on tons of federal funding, right? Oh, no, it’s one of the top in Texas. Federal government using money to save people’s lives is apparently not OK, but him earmarking funds for his district is cool. More important than Katrina victims? Removing a sunken ship from a harbor and sending a few million dollars to Texan shrimp fishermen.

Ron Paul is a Little Nuts

But of course, my favorite part about Ron Paul is that he thinks the executive branch shouldn’t have very much power. The problem with that is that if you elect Ron Paul, he can’t do anything without violating his own philosophy because he would be the executive branch of the federal government.  Ron Paul just doesn’t make sense for anyone.
He thinks we should go back to the gold standard, which I think is pretty crazy, but that’s hardly the only place he goes a bit weird. On The Daily Show he said the following, I guess suggesting that he’s for regulations after he’s against them:
The regulations are much tougher in a free market, because you cannot commit fraud, you cannot steal, you cannot hurt people, and the failure has come that government wouldn’t enforce this. In the Industrial Revolution there was a collusion and you could pollute and they got away with it. But in a true free market in a libertarian society you can’t do that. You have to be responsible. So the regulations would be tougher.
And then there’s this:
I’ve been told not to talk, but these stooges don’t scare me. Threats or no threats, I’ve laid bare the coming race war in our big cities. The federal-homosexual cover-up on AIDS (my training as a physician helps me see through this one.) The Bohemian Grove–perverted, pagan playground of the powerful. Skull & Bones: the demonic fraternity that includes George Bush and leftist Senator John Kerry, Congress’s Mr. New Money. The Israeli lobby, which plays Congress like a cheap harmonica.
If people know this about Ron Paul and still want to vote for him, that’s obviously their choice, but I can’t help but feel like the only way you could vote for him would be in ignorance or denial of these facts.

Well said Ashley Miller. Of course her blog got swamped by the members of the United Church of Ron Paul Blessed Lord and Savior, but let them stomp their feet all they want. Information is important and if you don't like it tough shit, if you think he was taken out of context then provide the context to demonstrate why you think that, and if you agree with all this and still want to vote for him that's fine too. So long as your vote is not an uninformed one, have at it.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Woo Woo and the Scientific Method

The other day I wrote a blogpost about en example of bad science, in which I explained that a common misconception that people have about scientists is that they dismiss anything that they can't explain. The idea that everything has to have an explanation and until that explanation is found it is completely rejected is fundementally untrue. The problem here lies in confusing the word "explanation" with the word "evidence".

I think that an excellent example of this is this video that I saw a few weeks ago on TheYoungTurks about a study on the effectiveness of prayer in curing AIDS

This kind of study is one that left many non-science minded people scratching their heads. Prayer? But that's bullshit! How can mumbling some words about someone help their sickness in any way? What a waste of time and money! Well yes, it is bullshit, but how do we know it's bullshit? By doing a study.

Our logic tells us this doesn't work, but what if it does? If the study were to demonstrate that people who were prayed for were statistically more likely to get better we would have evidence that prayer might work, even if we wouldn't necessarily have an explanation as to why it works. The topic would be pursued and an explanation would be searched for, but many scientists would stop their scoffing and take a look at what might be going on. To do this, prayer would have to pass the same test that any other drug would: a double-blind random placebo-controlled study. Placebo-controlled meaning that people would not know what group they are in, therefore you control for the placebo effect. The double-blind part ensures that the researchers/doctors that collect the data for the study also do not know which patients are in which group, minimizing their own (conscious or unconsious) bias in collecting the data. Random so as to ensure that any patient has an equal chance of being placed in either group, to avoid (consciously or unconsciously) placing people that are doing slightly better in one or the other. If prayer passes this first hurdle then there is evidence that prayer might help, and the subject is pursued further. Problem: it hasn't.

It is not a useless waste of money. It is a valuable demonstration that prayer does not work. When scientists say that prayer doesn't work it is because there is no scientific evidence that it works, not because they simply can't figure out how it could therefore dismiss it offhand. Although there will always be people that refute evidence and believe whatever they want, studies like these keep logically minded people informed and hopefully further from the hands of scheming faith healers and con artists.

Don't be afraid to demand the same evidence of "spiritual" or "supernatural" phenomena that you would anything that comes out of a lab. At the same time, don't spit on studies like these that thoroughly debunk these phenomena as "too obvious to waste money on". Believe it or not scientists do have a very open mind, they are open to the possibility that these things could work, the only problem is that there hasn't been a single supernatural phenomenon to pass the first basic scientific tests. That is why scientists (most, of course) do not believe in this crap - not because they don't want to, but because they have no good reason to.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Who The Hell Is Ayn Rand?

The name Ayn Rand is one that I had heard thrown around quite a lot, but it wasn't until today that I found out exactly who this person was. With all the permutations of the names "Ron", "Paul", "Rand" and "Ryan" in politics today, especially since many of them also mention Ayn Rand in their speeches, I was very confused to find out today that Ayn Rand was actually a Russian woman who died in the 1980s. Anyway, thanks to Ben Fenton over at Resisting the Milieu (great blog, go read it, fell in love after reading this post) I was linked to an incredibly fascinating article about her.

I am intrigued to the point that I want to read one of her books to review for this blog. From the quotes posted in the article they seem so contradictory and so ridiculous that I am fascinated to see if I can understand what it was about them that made them so intoxicating and convincing to people. However, I refuse to buy one of her books online. Although she is no longer alive I don't want anyone associated with her to profit from my purchase. It is the same reason why I have not yet read Dianetics, although I am dying to sink my teeth into that one as well. With both books I am keeping an eye out at flea markets, second hand book stores or libraries that might have what I'm looking for.

If you know of anywhere I can get my hands on a copy without giving the publishers money or boosting their stats let me know! I will keep you updated in case anything progresses. Until then,

damn Ayn Rand was fucking weird!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bad Science: Urine Therapy

I get asked a lot of questions about strange alternative therapies quite often, and this is one that has been on my radar for a while now. People who drink their own urine for therapeutic reasons. Gross right? Well, yes, but that's hardly the reason why I'm going to call it out now. My father drank a cup of horse blood every day for two weeks after a terrible car crash left him very dangerously anemic in order to get his iron levels back up, and that's pretty disgusting too, but that doesn't mean it didn't work. I'm going after urine therapy for the two most important, fundamental reasons:

1. It doesn't make any sense
2. There is no scientific evidence for it

Reason number 1 can never stand on its own. Just because something doesn't make any immediate sense it doesn't mean that there isn't another unknown mechanism at play that could be having an effect. This is a common misconception held by many proponents of alternative medicine, that scientists say "I don't get how it works, therefore it doesn't". This would be incredibly arrogant and completely contrary to the scientific method. Tapping away at something with our logic is only half the job, the rest is devising experiments that test to see if the conclusion our heads came up with work. If the tests find our logical conclusion lacking our theory needs revisiting, and that is the whole point. Nevertheless, it is useful to see why exactly this doesn't make any sense, given our current knowledge of human anatomy and physiology.

Unlike faeces, urine is not a dangerous substance from an infectious point of view. It is a sterile solution, which is why so many people have been able to drink it and/or wash themselves with it without risking adverse health effects. However, urine is still a waste product. The whole purpose of peeing is to eliminate nitrogen waste that our cells produce, which our species excretes as urea, as well as to keep a decent balance of salts and water in our bodies. It's a laborious and essential process that all vertebrates undergo to ensure the elimination of toxic nitrogen waste from their bodies, and what are humans doing when they are partaking in urine therapy? Putting it right back in. Now that is just downright disrespectful to those poor cells. In cases of extreme dehydration it can buy you a couple more days before dying of thirst, but other than that there is no point.

As I said earlier, this is what logic leads us to believe. How could an excreted liquid filled with our cells' toxic waste be good for us? Still, evidence can negate these steps in logic if it demonstrates otherwise. The man in the video I previously linked states that there is research and abstracts available attesting to these health benefits, while conveniently forgetting to mention any of them, and also stating in his video description that one thing a "urine therapy community" could accomplish is "a global scientific experiment on the efficacy of urine therapy run by scientists and doctors". Well, a look through the scientific literature does not yield any evidence to support the practice of urine therapy.

The only article I have managed to find is this one on the anti cancer benefits of cow urine. Exceedingly curious I opened it immediately, to find that it was published in the International Journal of Cow Science, which you'll be shocked to discover does not have an Impact Factor. Go figure. Also telling is the wonderful English the article is written in. Here is a brief excerpt from the abstract

It has been recognized as water of life or “Amrita” (beverages of immotality), the nector of the God. In India, drinking of cow urine has been practiced for thousands of years. It is an important ingredient of panchgavya, a term used to describe five major substances (urine, milk, ghee, curd and dung), obtained from cow. All the five products possess medicinal properties, and are used singly or in combination with some other herbs against many diseases, even those not curable by allopathic treatments. This kind of alternative treatment, termed as ‘panchgavya therapy’ or ‘cowpathy’, has been reported to be beneficial even for dreaded diseases like cancer, AIDS and diabetes.

Experimentally it has been proved that among all sorts of urines, the urine of the Indian cows is most effective. Seeing the potential use of indigenous cow urine in several ailments including even the cancer, the use of Gomutra (cow urine) of indigenous breeds of cattle should be promoted extensively. However, scientific validation of cow urine therapy is required for its worldwide acceptance and popularity. This review highlights the anti-cancer activity of cow urine and the strategies for promoting its vital medicinal potential and prospectives for the benefit of mankind with the view that cow urine therapy needs immediate attention, promotion, and wide popularity and proper support of the scientists, researchers and clinicians to strengthen this alternate low cost therapy having no side effects, as generally observed with chemotherapy and radiation therapy being followed for curing cancers, and thus inspire confidence in the public about its good virtues.

So it has been experimentally proved to work, but scientific validation is required for it to become accepted?! This needs proper support from the scientists! Ha OK, I think we can all agree this one is a swing and a miss when it comes to evidence for urine therapy.

If there are any real articles on this subject out there that I am unaware of please let me know. However, as of now, urine therapy fails on both levels, which is why I am giving it the label of bad science.

Don't agree? Prove me wrong

Monday, December 19, 2011

Making The Distinction Between Personal Belief and Being Flat Out Wrong: Part III

With the gay marriage debate raging on in many parts of the world right now I am going to come right out and say the obvious. If you don't think gay marriage should be legal you are a homophobic hypocritical bigot. That's right, I said it, and I stick by it.

But CE, I just don't believe in gay marriage! I just believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. That's just my view, my opinion, you can't condemn me as a bigot just for disagreeing with you. You're right, I can't, however you can still believe all those things and still think it should be legal. Once again I am just asking for a little consistency.

Let's take a Catholic as our example, simply because I am quite familiar with Catholic doctrine and its belief system is quite standardized thanks to the constant intervention of the Vatican in telling everyone what they officially believe. As a Catholic, you also don't believe in divorce. You don't believe in the validity of secular marriage, Muslim marriage (especially when a man is marrying a second wife), birth control, many things, but that does not mean that you believe that any of those things should necessarily be illegal. You may think it is immoral to get divorced, you may think that getting married outside of church is not a real marriage, but do you deny that it should be legal for others that do not agree with you and/or believe different things? You may never get divorced, but do you really think that the laws of your country should be based entirely on your religious doctrine?

If you do, you should move to Vatican City, or at least show a little consistency in your arguments. I will respect you more if you tell me that its not just gay marriage that should be illegal, but all marriage outside of the Catholic faith. The same goes for divorce, abortion, birth control, for everyone and not just for people who believe in what you do. You should ask that everyone in your country obeys your rules and believes in your God or get the fuck out, because that is what you believe. Sounds a little stubborn and pigheaded when put like that doesn't it? Well, it sounds just as pigheaded to the rest of us when you whine about gay marriage.

You are denying other people the same rights that you have because of how they were born. That in itself is reprehensible, but it becomes outright bigoted and hypocritical when you decide to pick on the gays and not on everything else you have an issue with it, hiding behind your beliefs to wiggle away from the label of bigot. Sorry, but you're not getting away with this one. Either you advocate for every single law in your country, ones that apply to everyone including those not of your faith, to obey the rules of your religion, or you understand that while you will not partake in the freedoms the laws of your land provide because you believe them to be immoral doesn't mean others should be kept from making their own choices. You can't have it both ways.

So if you are against gay marriage ask yourself why? Are you consistent, or are you just plain bigoted?

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Book Review: Hippo Eats Dwarf

I managed to squeeze a second book into my long weekend before coming back to wrok and reality and an avalanche of scientific papers, and while it was a good deal more lighthearted than the first book I read I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

It is a collection of the most widespread and believed urban legends, hoaxes and general all-round lies throughout history and particularly thanks to the power of the internet. It was eye opening because I recognized a number of the stories, I received some of those emails, and it really makes you think about the criteria you hold for believing something. Although I am getting much better, as someone building a career as a scientist, in making sure that I have all the facts about something before repeating it as fact, I still realized there are a few things that I'm not as rigorous on.I honestly did think, for some reason, that Fargo was loosely based on a true story. Also as someone who loves to talk about things and start 75% of my sentences with "did you know that" or "have you heard", I realized that I am one of those people that give credence to these urban legends until they become so diffuse that people say "there must be some truth to it!" even if they are presented with evidence that it was made up.  Our brains just haven't caught up with this era of information and it still baffles us that something that someone just made up could become a generally accepted truth despite it being born from pure fantasy.

It is great entertainment, an easy-going lighthearted read, all the while giving you a valuable lesson in taking everything you hear with a grain of salt. While as a whole we are getting better at applying that criteria to things we read on the internet, we are not as good at assuming that people we know are just as likely to get their information wrong.

The best part is, of all the wacky stories in this, there are a few that are true thrown in there to constantly keep you on your toes. So, can you tell the difference between fact and fiction?

1. Did you know that a Republican Senator tried to change the name of Interstate 69 to something less obscene, tired of being sniggered at for wearing a button saying I-69?

2. Did you know that the state of Ohio tried to add Klingon as an official language by including it as a patient's right to have a Klingon interpretor to help Klingon speakers communicate with their doctors?

3. Did you know that in the early 20th century a scientist successfully impregnated a chimpanzee with his own sperm, demonstrating how closely related we are as a species?

4. Did you know that overly stimulating some men's nipples can cause them to lactate?

Two of those are true, two of them are fake. Cany you tell which is which?

You'll have to buy the book to find out! Or I suppose you can just do the research yourself....

Friday, December 16, 2011

Goodbye Christopher Hitchens

Today we lost a great mind. He was a freethinker, he was a drinking badass, an intellecutal, an activist with balls of steel. I didn't always agree with all of his methods, but he was an incredible mind that was lost too soon. djarm67 has posted a great tribute to him to remember him by

May you rest in peace in the nothingness

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

I'd Like A Million Dollars Please!

I just got back from a science meeting in Milan, it's late, so I figured I'd tackle an easy one before going to bed.

PZ Meyers has brought to us another side-splittingly excellent creationist post from the Missing Universe Museum, which includes this hilarious "evolution test" for students to give their teachers, then saying "When they fail it, ask them why they are teaching this nonsense!". Unfortunately they fail to give the students a grading scheme so they would have no idea whether or not their teachers' answers qualify them to pass or fail it. I'd like to give it a shot though. Darn that degree in Zoology was useless, I barely would have had to pass 9th grade bio to be able to answer these questions! OK here goes

1. Which evolved first, male or female?

 Here I am unsure whether the question is about humans or the evolution of sex in general. For humans it's extremely easy, neither. The first population of Homo sapiens had both males and females.

The evolution of the sexes is a little more complicated. You have to really define "male and female" first to get a good explanation. Are hermaphroditic species male or female or both? anyway it doesn't matter because the question doesn't ask how the sexes evolved, they just ask which evolved first, and the answer is the same. Neither. They evolved together

2. How many millions of years elapsed between the first male and first female?


3. List at least 9 of the false assumptions made with radioactive dating methods.

Well here's a loaded question! Of course the obvious answer is there are no false assumptions made with radioactive dating methods. No one would base a method on an assumption that they believed was false. The only real assumption made is that the laws of physics have remained the same throughout the history of our universe. Is it possible that this assumption is false?
Of course anything is possible, but it is extremely improbable. The fact is that there are numerous radioactive "clocks", each with their own time scale, that can be used to check each other. Not only would the laws of physics have had to have been dramatically different in the past, but they would have had to be altered in different ways for each radioactive isotope speeding their decay at different rates and giving the illusion of all coming to the same old-earth conclusion for radiometric dating to be based on a "false assumption". Even for creationists, that's a stretch.

4. Why hasn’t any extinct creature re-evolved after millions of years?

Because that would be impossible. Let's say that a population is divided in two parts by the formation of a geographical barrier between them. One of these populations evolves into a new species (A) and subsequently goes extinct. Why doesn't the population on the other side (P) re-evolve this species A? Because that population has not frozen in time. They have carried on reproducing, accumulating genetic mutations and adapting to their environment. They may have changed less if, for example, the environment they found themselves changed far less than the one that species A found itself in, but it has changed and evolved nonetheless. Once you start taking a path through time you can't jump back and start over from the beginning. Species P might branch off again, and a subgroup of P might evolve into a new species (B), this species may even share some physical similarities with the extinct species A if the population finds itself in a similar environment, but it will never be a "re-evolved" species A. Evolution just doesn't work like that.

5. Which came first:
…the eye,
…the eyelid,
…the eyebrow,
…the eye sockets,
…the eye muscles,
…the eye lashes,
…the tear ducts,
…the brain’s interpretation of light?

Once again this is difficult based on what you mean by each. Does a patch of light-sensitive cells count as an eye? In that case the eye came first. First came the eye, then the eye sockets, then the eye muscles, then the lid, then tears, then lashes and brows, all along the brain tagging along and getting more complex at interpreting the information as time went on. Let me be more specific and look at the evolution of the camera eye in particular, since I presume this question stems from the human eye.

It all starts from a photosensitive spot which has the ability to tell the organism whether it is light or dark. Backing this spot with a pigment gives some directionality, as a translucent organism would not be able to tell if the light it was detecting was coming from above or below it. If this photosensitive spot then deepens into a cup even more directionality can be gauged by how the light hits the cup. This gives the organism an evolutionary advantage in that it can detect what direction a shadow (which could be a predator) is coming from, and thus escape in the opposite direction. This "cup" could be considered to be in the first eye socket.
The deeper the cup the more directionality you get, so the more advantageous it is, until we begin to get a very rounded cup with a small opening. There is only one problem, the smaller the opening the less light can actually make its way in, so there is a limit to how small this hole can get and still be advantageous. BUT if the hole gets smaller you can start to get a rudimentary image forming, so how do you optimize this? With a lens to focus the light on to a smaller spot. I'm making this extremely brief for the sake of time, because this is where the muscles come in. You need muscles to contract this lens in order to focus on things that are closer or farther. So now we have eye muscles.
Eyelids, tear ducts and eyelashes were not needed until animals left the water to pursue a life on land. eyelids were probably the first as they protected the eye from debris in our amphibious ancestors which still spent most of the time in the water. Tear ducts were advantageous for animals that left the water definitively in order to keep their eyes moist once they had to adapt to much drier environments. Eyelashes, being hairs, most likely came last as a novel adaptation of hair to help keep the eye clean. Eyebrows would also have had to come along around this time, since it is also hair which is exclusively a mammalian characteristic, but I'm not sure what eyebrows really have to do with the evolution of the eye.

All along you have the brain. The thing is you don't need a brain to "interpret light". There are plenty of animals from jellyfish to scallops which don't have proper brains but do have eyes and "interpret light" just fine. There are also animals like cavefish that have proper brains and don't have eyes. Brains have functions that are entirely independent from "interpreting light", so their evolution is not as tightly linked to eye evolution as it appears from this question.

6. How many millions of years between each in question 5?

 Well this depends on numerous factors. It has been demonstrated that it actually takes very few genetic "steps" to evolve an eye, but that doesn't mean that all eyes evolved that quickly. Some animals, like planarian worms, are perfectly happy carrying on with just a patch of photosensitive cells. Others, like scallops, have the beginnings of an eye without a lens. It all depends on what kind of selection pressures the organism was put under, how prone the organism's genome is to genetic mutations, how long the organism's generation time is, and of course which particular organism's eye you're tracing back through evolutionary history. Point is that there is no definitive answer to this question, but it is physically possible for each of these structures to evolve in a very short time indeed.

7. If we all evolved from a common ancestor, why can’t all the different species mate with one another and produce fertile offspring?

 Because there is more than one species of animal on this planet. Shocking right? When a population of animals splits and enough time passes without interbreeding those two populations become so different that they no longer have the ability to breed. Here's a question: if there was originally only one language in the world why is it that we can't understand every person on this planet?

8. List any of the millions of creatures in just five stages of its evolution showing the progression of a new organ of any kind. When you have done this, you can collect the millions of dollars in rewards offered for proof of evolution!

 This really doesn't make any sense at all. How do you list a creature in five stages of its evolution? What does that even mean? I presume they mean list five species that demonstrate the progressive development of an organ. OK how about the tetrapod limb? Pandoerichthys, Tiktaalik, Acanthostega, Ichthyostega, Temnospondyls. BAM! Can I have my moneis now please?

9. Why is it that the very things that would prove Evolution (transitional forms) are still missing?

That's easy, they're not. I just listed some for you in the previous question. Before asking this question, give a solid confirmed definition of a transitional form and state what criteria you would be satisfied with, then we can talk transitional forms.

10. Explain why something as complex as human life could happen by chance, but something as simple as a coin must have a creator. (Show your math solution.)

Easy again. The choice is not either A) chance or B) creator. There is an entirely non-random process that is involved called natural selection, combined with a random process of gene mutation. Those two together are the recipe for the evolution of a human being, not chance. Carved pieces of metal are not capable of making copies of themselves, nor do they die or survive, so they can't evolve in the way that biological species can. No math necessary.
But if you're so interested in math and suggest that there is a "math solution" to this question, I'd love to see your "math solution" that demonstrates that there is a creator of the universe. Go ahead, I'll wait.

11. Why aren’t any fossils or coal or oil being formed today?

Who says there aren't? There surely are, it's just something that happens so slowly that we wouldn't see it happen under our eyes

12. List 50 vestigial or useless organs or appendages in the human body.

There are no useless organs in the human body, although some argue the appendix is good for nothing except to get infected. The appendix however is a good example of a vestigial organ from our leaf-eating past. Another is the tailbone. Another is the tail we have as embryos that later disappear with development. Not sure why you landed on 50 though. If humans were created we shouldn't have a single vestigial organ, don't you think? If the creator thinks its appropriate for us to have one, why would 50 disprove divine creation? If anything its evolution that would put a cap on the number of useless vestigial organs we could cart around with us, since an animal born without all that useless baggage would probably have a better shot at surviving than one with it.

13. Why hasn’t anyone collected the millions of dollars in rewards for proof of evolution?

Because the creationists offering the rewards are not willing to part with that well swindled err I mean earned cash

14. If life began hundreds of millions of years ago, why is the earth still under populated?

It's most certainly not. We are in a panic about how ridiculously overpopulated the earth is at the moment. There are millions of people starving, we don't know what the hell we're going to do to meet our energy requirements, we've run out of places to dump our waste, we're systematically drying up our resources, how does any of this smell of underpopulation to you?

15. Why hasn’t evolution duplicated all species on all continents?

Because evolution doesn't work like that. Different continents have different environments, different resources, different selection pressures, different niches, all of which organisms would change and adapt to. This by definition would create different species, not loads of the same ones. Also, as in my answer to question 4, once you've gone down an evolutionary path you can't go backwards. You can't look over to your sister species in South America and think damn, now that the weather is changing I should have evolved what she's got, let me go back and start again! Once you start in one direction you can only keep moving forward, which brings species to be ever more genetically different, not all one in the same thing.

 Well, that's what I got for someone ready to get into her pjs asap. Can I have my million dollars now please? Thanks a mill

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On Flogging A Dead Horse

A few days ago I alluded to a youtube user, who has now given me the permission to identify him as Andrewh313, who was peppering me with questions about the morality of meat eating, and to whom I responded in a blogpost hoping it would be the end of it. Alas, it is not, but it will be soon. I had given him the benefit of the doubt when I saw him misinterpreting my words and rehashing old arguments in saying that he probably was getting his various comment threads of arguments mixed up and not getting the full meaning of my words in the limited comments of youtube, but it seems I was wrong. He has responded to my post with another infinite PM, telling me to post it here. I will, with a few short comments and that is it. I said I would not readress this issue any more unless there was a new thread of discussion to address. Although he is still harping on the same issue, in the spirit of fairness and clarity I will post his rebuttal in its entirety, no editing, so you can see exactly what he is saying and decide for yourselves whether or not you think I should have continued further. So here it is, with my comments in red


Sorry it took me so long to respond. I read your blog, and would have posted this as a comment had there been space. I encourage you to post my last epistle and this one to your blog, if you'd like. I have been thinking of starting a blog myself, and I may do the same for your words if you have no objection.

I suppose your restatements of my points are correct if rather facile. However, the bit about intelligence is not correct. I posed that problem to you as an example of the use of Reflective Equilibrium to examine our moral premises. I did not believe that you really believed that intelligence is the deciding factor in what sentient beings on this earth may be killed and which may not. I was trying to show you that whatever moral premise you hold that protects the right of human life can and ought to be extended to animals, but more on that in a bit.

Let us look at your introductory words first, shall we?

"First of all, all of us make the distinction between things that are OK to kill and things that are not based on "intelligence", or rather neurological complexity... Here, we are going to draw the line at animals that possess brains and are capable of feeling pain, for the sake of argument."

I would not use the word "intelligence" at all. I do not feel comfortable eating plants because they are "dumb". "Neurological complexity" is, as you say, the better term. Consciousness is what I am really going at. But all's well thus far. How convenient, since "consciousness" is not a scientific concept, does not have a conclusive definition that can be agreed upon, and cannot be measured. But it we have compromised on neurological complexity, so we can continue with that

"Secondly, it would be an incomplete answer without pointing out that there is a biological precedent for this opinion.... It is the most natural thing that exists...."

Oh! How you make me cringe. I hope your readers are smart enough to realize that this is a non-argument, as I hope you realize. Although you said, "please don't ask me to readdress something I have already stated because I wont", I suppose I will. I repeat again that just because something is "natural" or has a precedent is no argument for its merits. To say otherwise is to commit Hume's Is-Ought Fallacy. How sickened would we be to hear a conservative say, "The oppression of homosexuals has a long historical precedent." or "One group of people going to war to kill and take the resources of another is a natural thing. Chimps are our closest relatives, and they do it." Thankfully, this kind of arguing is not salient in your rhetoric. I never said its natural therefore its moral. I am fully aware that things that happen in nature are not precedents of morality. However it would be asinine to deny that we are creatures who have evolved certain instincts and that some of those are still ever present in our systems. Conveniently he left out how I ackowledged this when I said "
However, we have developed the neurological complexity necessary to be able to override these instincts in the pursuit of logic and morality", but lets continue

But you do have an untruth in this paragraph: "...there is no animal that would put the survival of an animal of a different species over one of its own." It is of course well known that dogs will defend their human companions to the point of their own deaths. It is simple, Darwinian instincts of course. Wrong. Dogs have been bred for thousands of years to be extremely loyal to their owners. A wolf, an animal with "darwinian instincts" (by which I presume you mean instincts developed from natural selection) could give two shits if a human is in trouble. Even given the manipulation of dogs instincts over thousands of years by humans, you will still find yourself in a tight spot if you ask a dog to choose between its owner and its own puppies. Either way, you even quote me, I said "over one of its own (species)", not "over itself". An extremely important distinction. Dogs are social animals, like us, and it serves the species if some of its members are sacrificed. This is, as you know, why human's display the same behaviors. You may counter by saying, "Well! Animals have no understanding of death. A dog that gives its life doesn't know it's going to die. Therefore, it's not really making a conscious choice to die." This is not a point I am making in this part of the post at all. It's not about choice and choosing to die on the dogs part, its about what naturally evolved instincts will cause an animal to do, and occasionally it means sacrificing yourself for a child. Its called gene selection theory, and it is well demonstrated in the natural world.  This may be so, but your point would still be moot, because that would mean that human's are the only sentient beings that are capable of taking death into consideration when making choices. We certainly do choose to dole out a lot of it, don't we?

Now, what is this about meat produced in European factory farms? You say you are morally comfortable buying meat produced in European factory farms. Really? Do you really believe animals do not suffer in those places? Do you really trust the moral integrity of EU agribusinesses that defend scorching off the beaks of chickens with hot irons because, if they do not, the chickens will peck at each other and that would be more cruel? Do you think it is naïve of me to say that, in that case, we shouldn't be raising chickens at all? Example no. 2 of putting words in my mouth. I never said that every single animal in the whole of the EU is kept well and happy. I explained the methods of killing animals in the EU has been standardized to minimize suffering and fear. I am aware that there are battery farms in the UK, I dont live there and wouldnt buy battery farmed chicken eggs even if I did. Ive been to many farms were chickens are raised for eggs and meat and not a scorched beak in sight. I am not saying that there are not places where animals suffer in the EU, I am saying that it is not difficult to get your animal products from a place where they do not, so long as you make a conscious decision to do so. Do you think I am foolish or idealistic for being outraged that one EU member, the UK, has blocked legislative proposals such as "Cages for poultry should be large enough for a bird to be able to stretch one wing at a time" and "Any animal should at least have room to turn around freely" because these proposals were "too idealistic"?! (Cited from Peter Singer's "Animal Liberation"). Do you honestly believe that animals do not suffer in such places?

Forgive me for attacking you, my friend, but you are smart enough to know that animals do suffer in European factory farms. Forgive me for being accusatory when I say that you probably do not exclusively purchase the free-range beef Why the hell not? free-range meat tastes much better, its not filled with hormones or other crap, the animals are happier, why the hell wouldnt I buy all my animal products free-rage? Its a win-win-win that you see "roaming around huge fields, just as nature intended." (Assuming that those grass-fed cows aren't shipped to CAFOs after a certain age, as most are in America. No, they are the property of the family that owns the butchers on the same land. They own the land, kill the animals, sell them out the front of the shop) Please, my friend, do not insult my intelligence by saying that animals do not suffer in EU factory farms, because you also insult your own intelligence. For the record, the whole "my friend" thing is quite condescending and thus increasingly annoying
Now I move on to the challenge that I issued to you with my last epistle. I challenged you to tell me why you believe that it is wrong for a human to kill another human, and I told you that any moral precept you believed should be logically extended to animals. Let us see what you came up with.
So, you rest your opposition to killing humans due to the suffering it causes. Really? You make a note that even if the death is sudden and painless "you are still causing pain and suffering to that person's friends and family." I do not believe, madam, that you would have ever couched your belief that killing humans is wrong in such terms had it not been for me pressing you on the issue. I do not believe that you have spent your life believing that the physical act of killing someone is not immoral Of course it is immoral. you asked me WHY is it immoral.. I do not believe that you believe that the only reason why we should not painlessly murder another person is because it would upset his or her family.
I gave you multiple reasons why I, personally, think it is immoral. true not many ask that question but I gave you reasons, plural, why. To say that each of those reasons by itself is insufficient is silly. And really, you dont think that causing a person extreme suffering because by taking away a loved one from them immoral also? I guess we will have to agree to disagree on that one. If you don't think that the suffering of family is a factor, you should also be pro euthanasia for comatose patients even if it is not what the families want, because the only people that would suffer in that case are the person's loved ones that don't want the person to die.

You have the good sense to realize the problem with this logic:

"What if you kill a person that has no friends, no family, no acquaintances whatsoever, by sneaking up on them and smacking them over the head so they don't know whats coming, cause them no pain, just kill them."

Your answer to this shows, I think, just how little thought you have given this issue. "Well what fucking sense would that have??!" Yea, what fucking sense would it have? What fucking sense is there in murdering another human being? Why would anyone ever do that? But maybe a murder would ask you "Why not? Why shouldn't I painlessly remove a sentient being from this world if it gives me pleasure?" Our society expects you to be able to explain why it is wrong to kill another human with no pain for them or their family. You do not explain it. All you say is that "I would be also astounded and morally outraged at someone doing the exact same thing to a stray dog."No that is not "all I say" about it. I also point out we are straying into hypotheticals because a person that fits that description is an anomaly, if existing at all. I also talk about people's choice over their own lives, but you do eventually get to that, although you frame it as if it was a seperate issue. And yet you are not outraged by our systematic killing of pigs, who are smarter than dogs, and we do it merely for our own pleasure. You are not even making an argument here.
It is wrong to painlessly kill a human being for pleasure, and it is wrong to painlessly kill any sentient being for pleasure. This is your moral opinion, and I don't have a problem with it.

So, after you made this nonsense argument, you moved on to a completely different argument nope, same argument, but fine go ahead to condemn human killing. Perhaps the logic was to throw two incompatible arguments at my challenge? Maybe one would stick. Let's see:

"Humans are unique in that, because of the fact that they know their life is finite, they have the capability of making choices.... Call me crazy, but I don't like the idea of robbing a person of that choice, because I wouldn't want anyone to rob me of it either."

Ah! I applaud you for such a subtle and erudite rejoinder. Humans are the only creatures that know they will die and have the power to choose which they would prefer. It is wrong of us to deny another human the right to choose whether they would like to live or die. Because of this logic, I am sure that the profoundly retarded should have their lives protected, because they would surely want to live if they had the intelligence to make the choice Example 3 of putting words into my mouth. You're teasing all the reasons I give and asking each them to stand up seperately, on their own, to every single different circumstance that exists in this complex world of ours. Forgive me for not having such a simplistic view of morality as that, giving me a single platitude that fits all. I gave multiple reasons that can cope with multiple circumstances of death and killing, they are to be taken together as such. I am also sure that animals should be killed, because they would surely want to die if they had the intelligence to make the choice. I can't find any logical absurdity with this argument at all.

Or maybe my moral precept that suffering is wrong would be better. No sentient being should have to suffer a loss of life. No sentient being should be made to lose their conscious experience of existence, unless their lives would have nothing but pain, hence euthanasia. Maybe this is a more sensible morality. Here you go with consciousness again. How do you know a chicken has a conscious experience? You dont, it is an ongoing debate as to what that even means. Right now all you have to go on is your opinion on the subject, not fact.

On to your final words:

I repeat that I did not believe that you believed that animals should be killed because they are unintelligent, but you go on to harp on the point. "First of all it is pretty much impossible to give a pig an IQ test...." Cute of you to call it an IQ test. Condescending of you to call me cute Psychologists study the mental capacities of animals and humans. With the possible exception of art, which may be an emergent property, human brains are better only by extent. "Human brains are just different from pig brains in too many ways." Really? "For example, even if a person has the 'problem-solving capabilities' of a pig... would they still have the capability of emotional suffering and distress, of forming social bonds and interacting with humans." No. There are profoundly retarded human beings that lack this capacity. Still waiting for a citation on this. As someone who has volunteered with the mentally disabled I find it quite obtuse (at best) of you to equate the capabilities of problem solving with the capability of emotions and emotional suffering. Give me a well studied example of a mentally handicapped person that lacks the capabilities of emotional suffering, other than the one I gave that you completely glossed over, and we can discuss this further. If not stop bringing up disabled people There are human beings who are otherwise normal but have lost the mental capability to form emotional bonds. Once again you have to be a little more specific. Do you mean sociopaths? Autistic people? Each case has a unique answer with regards to what they are and are not capable of. Should we not worry about killing them? Are their lives less valuable? You do not believe this. No I dont, then again I never said I did

If you do not like my comparison with the mentally retarded, fine. Let us compare animals with the mind of a human infant. Infants have emotion, in all likelihood, but their brains are utterly inferior to a dog's, which have emotion as well. An infant cannot solve problems. An infant cannot reason. You see how you are the one constantly bringing intelligence into it. We have discussed that the capability of an animal to solve problems has nothing to do with the morality of killing them.  An infant cannot even form lasting memories or function on its own. To a newborn, the world is likely a haze of experience with each memory quickly disappearing. You know this how? No animal could live with such a brain. Bullshit again. Animals live just fine with much, much less. There are plenty of animals out there with no brains at all and they get on splendidly The frailties of the infant brain is sometimes cited by apologists of infant genital mutilation. There are people who believe that that it is ok to inflict the agony of circumcision and clitoridectomy upon the mind of a child. I believe this is a sick and monstrous belief, and I hope you do as well. Yes I do, but it has nothing to do with what we are discussing here.

If we are to be consistent with our moral actions in this world, it is clear that higher mental faculties should not be considered the deciding factor. It is wrong to deny life to any sentient being, according to you and we should be consistent on this point. I leave you now with the words of Jeremy Bentham, a man who lived in a time when it was legal and socially acceptable to own and torture another human being:

"The day has been, I am sad to say in many places it is not yet past, in which the greater part of the species, under the denomination of slaves, have been treated by the law exactly upon the same footing, as, in England for example, the inferior races of animals are still. The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been witholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognised that the number of the legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog, is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day or a week or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" Yes they can suffer, but we talked about suffering and it being wrong over and over again. Enough now.

You have made it clear that your morality is not just "it is wrong to cause suffering", because that would leave the door open to killing animals while not causing them suffering. You have said " It is wrong to deny life to any sentient being". Of course the intended subtext there is "it is wrong for humans to deny life to any sentient being". Even if you have decided that other animals are sentient you still ackowledge that there is a fundemental difference between our mental faculites and that of other (in your opinion) "sentient" animals. We are the only animals that can make moral decisions or ponder the morality of doing anything.  

So that is your morality in a nutshell. Mine is more complicated, based on a more complex view of how we came about thinking about morality in the first place. You seem to possess the arrogance of those that think that there is only one opinion that can be based on solid logic and that all other opinions are based either on false evidence, false facts, bad logic or no logic at all. If you believe that it is really your problem, not mine. 

Not a single new point was brought up. No new thread of discourse, just a load of twisting words, nitpicking and repetition. This is why I am letting this dead horse lie. If someone else has something fresh to say please do, I will listen. If not, stay tuned for some drastic changes in topic :)

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Book Review: Gypsy Boy

While working on a PhD you really don't get all that much time to yourself. When you're not working you're reading papers, or doing housework, or just collapsing in front of the tv out of exhaustion when you can't concentrate on a single thing any more. So when I knew I'd be taking this 4day heaven sent weekend which involves a 3 hour train ride I thought fucking brilliant, I get to bring a couple of books with me. So at seven o'clock in the morning I sat on the train and opened Gypsy Boy by Mickey Walsh.

At 6pm that evening I finished reading the last page. And I loved it.

I'm not going to lie, it's a tough book to read. It's not a lighthearted faff book and sometimes I had to take a five minute break and imagine myself plucking in to the little boy between the pages and saving him. But it was powerful and it was amazing, and I am happy to have read it.

The only problem I have with it, in fact, is with the criticism of the book itself. While on Amazon it got a lot of 5star reviews it also got a lot of 1-2star ones, saying it perpetuated stereotypes of Romany Gypsies thereby giving credence to people who are prejudiced against them. Also it contains a lot of abuse, which doesn't make for an enjoyable experience. I think that criticism is bullshit.

This is not a fiction by some white dude that knows nothing of gypsies and just paints them with this terrible brush. This is a true story about this man's childhood, is he supposed to just shut up about what happened to him because some people might use his story as an excuse to be prejudiced? There are some stereotypes about gypsies that he dispells. there are others that he confirms as being part of their culture while explaining why they may have come to be. I know it is in vogue right now to harp on how muslim men mistreat women while being overly PC about gypsies, but it's just as bullshit to ignore the precedent for these stereotypes as it is to automatically assume that ALL members of a community exactly fit that stereotype (whether we're talking about muslims or gypsies). This man's story is all about him no longer being able to keep secrets and needing to tell his story, I find it extremely pigheaded for anyone to say that he should have kept it to himself for fear of making a some PC-obsessives a little uncomfortable.

One of the main stereotypes that he confirms is the cultural idea that it's "us against the world", never trust the outsider. What was made evident is that it becomes a vicious cycle, and it is something that strongly reminded me of a documentary of the Westboro Baptist children.

Growing up in an isolated community gives children little initial contact with outsiders, but it is quite evident from their parents ways that they believe the outsiders are "wrong" or "untrustworthy" or "out to get us". Other children, in turn, are horrible to any child that is different, and tease them or pick on them for it, confirming to the child that they belong to a seperate world. This causes the community to band even tighter together, giving them a sense of family and society that no one not from such a community could ever fathom. These children grow up to be adults and continue to antagonise those outsiders, whether by not having moral qualms about conning them or stealing from them or by picketing their funerals. This causes the outsider adults to be more disgusted by them and angry with them, not wanting their own children to have anything to do with them, and the cycle continues. Both sides remain ignorant of the other, and neither can gain (nor would want to gain) any good that the other side can offer them. It is something tragic to watch unfold, not something that makes you more hateful towards gypsies.

So the really big question is why did I like it? It was an extremely heavy book, loaded with abuse, and yet I am so glad I read it. Why? Do I like reading about abuse? Of course not. The book made me feel like it was written for therapeutic reasons, and that  it was a story that needed to be told. It made me feel like I was bearing witness to his struggles and his triumph, like I was helping him stop needing to hide those secrets that were poisoning him. If my trying to put it into words sounds totally corny I apologize, but I cannot state it any better than that.

I suppose Stephen Fry summed it up in the best possible way

"It is a revelation. Moving, terrifying, funny and brilliant. I shall never forget it."

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Happy Immaculate Conception Everyone!

Today is the holiday that is called the Immacualte Conception while not actually celebrating the immaculate conception, and as per Italian tradition it is the day we put up our Xmas decorations. Woo!

Living with a total grinch for a boyfriend and having an Italian half of the family that is just the same, this means that there are zero decorations going up in my house, but here at my grandmother's I get to decorate the tiny plastic xmas tree she bought fifty years ago for 7lire (which is.... oh dear.... consider that when we went over to the euro 1USD got you 1700lire).

Let's not be too hard on them though, because the Italians are never really about the xmas tree, it is all about the nativity scene and my grandmother happens to be particularly proud of hers, complete with pebbles I collected from a park at age 4 and terracotta figurines some of which I painted for her myself. It doesn't matter that she has been an atheist since the '40s, it's tradition and she enjoys having the wise men travel across the table top to the manger and putting the baby jesus in its cradle on xmas morning.

So lo and behold the Roman mystery ladies and gents. This morning my grandmother goes up to where she keeps her xmas decorations and takes them all down to the living room. The tree, the lights, the plastic colored balls are all there. The nativity box is opened.... there is the manger, there are the pebbles, but no figurines!!! What the hell happened?! They're always kept individually wrapped in that box. She didn't mistake the box cause the manger is there, so where the hell are the nativity figurines??!!!

As soon as I got here I climbed up to where these things are stored and opened every single box and piece of luggage there. Not even a little sheep to tell me I was on the right path. So you tell me, what possible explanation is there?!

So here I am on my 88 year old grandma's computer hoping that by typing out this crazy story an answer will spring to my mind. Nope, got nothing.

Any ideas?

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Tough Questions: Is Eating Meat Immoral?

Ever since I uploaded a Penn and Teller Bullshit! episode about PETA I've been getting a swarm of comments about the morality of meat eating, what I think about it, how I justify myself etc. Not only are 500character comments very limiting, I am also getting extremely tired of repeating myself. Prompted by waking up this morning to the longest PM I've ever seen, I've decided to explain myself once and for all here. If there are follow-up questions ask them here, but please don't ask me to repeat things I have already stated.

I am using the PM in question as a model for my answer as it seems to cover the basics of coming to an opinion on the morality of the subject.  To summarize the main questions that are being asked of me here, I guess they can boil down to the following:

1. How can you justify treating animals in a way that you wouldn't treat humans, when we are all related and species barriers are just an arbitrary distinction?
2. If you don't think it is morally wrong to kill an animal, why is it not morally wrong to kill a human being?
3. If you agree that animals suffer the way humans do, how can you support an industry that thrives on this suffering?
4. Since there are mentally retarded humans that have the same IQ as a cow or a pig, and you base your "OK to kill" morality on intelligence, either it is OK to kill retarded people or it is not OK to kill pigs.

If I have misinterpreted any of these points please correct me.

OK so this is what I think about the whole thing.

First of all, all of us make the distinction between things that are OK to kill and things that are not based on "intelligence", or rather neurological complexity, at some point. We are biologically related to every living organism on Earth, including plants and bacteria. Here, we are going to draw the line at animals that possess brains and are capable of feeling pain, for the sake of argument.

Secondly, it would be an incomplete answer without pointing out that there is a biological precedent for this opinion. Of course there is a biological precedent for giving your own species more importance than any other. It is the most natural thing that exists and there is no animal that would put the survival of an animal of a different species over one of its own. The instinct becomes even stronger when it comes to family members. While mathematically it makes sense that you should kill your sister, or mother, or son to save 10 other people, there are very few people out there that would be able to make such a choice. There is also a biological precedent for eating meat, we have evolved as omnivorous animals and as such it is a normal part of our diet. However, we have developed the neurological complexity necessary to be able to override these instincts in the pursuit of logic and morality, something that we are unique in being able to do as a species. So, given that we are smart enough to be able to figure out ways to survive without meat etc, can we still morally justify our doing so?

I responded that the thing I find to be immoral is causing animals to suffer, whether it be emotional or physical suffering, both for humans and other animals. We can agree that while humans hold first prize in being able to suffer emotionally (especially since right now we're talking about farm animals, not other more intelligent ones that are not routinely killed for food), other animals have the capacity to feel pain. That should not be done in my opinion. Great, so far we agree.

The problem that follows is the anthropomorphic idea that killing a farm animal is the same as causing it pain and suffering. I understand that the US is behind when it comes to legislation with regards to minimizing animal suffering, but in the EU and especially in Italy it is much simpler to buy meat from animals that have not suffered. First of all, EU regulations state that each farm animal be killed in a swift and clean way that does not cause them pain or fear. Cows are taken to a room and killed with a swift blow to the head delivered by an air-pressure gun which gives the exact amount of force necessary to instantly kill, removing human error that might stun the animal and cause it unnecessary pain. Pigs are walked into a chamber that contains CO2, they fall asleep and die without even knowing whats going on (this happens often enough with humans that we are sure its painless, people die in their sleep without even knowing what is happening). Chickens are killed with a swift electric current delivered to the neck, stopping their heart instantly and none of that running around with a snapped neck shit. When I drive past my favorite butchers at Testa di Lepre I can see the cows roaming around huge fields, just as nature intended. Here it is really not that hard to make sure you are buying meat that has lived a normal happy life until being killed in the most humane way possible. For this reason, I do not have a problem with buying and eating this meat. Compared with how their ancestors had it as being prey animals, being chased down (extremely scary) until exhausted and then having their throat gashed (if chased by a big cat) or being disemboweled and eating while still twitching with life (if chased by wild dogs) I'd say they have a pretty sweet deal.

OK so moving on to humans. As I said I do not agree with causing pain and suffering. If you kill a human being chances are you are causing them pain and suffering. Humans know what death is, that they are going to die, and they are often terrified of the idea. Killing a person for sadistic pleasure means by definition causing them pain and that is immoral to me. Even if you sneak up on them and smack them over the head you are still causing pain and suffering to that person's friends and family, just because it is emotional suffering it is still suffering. I also don't think you should kill any animal for no reason. What if you kill a person that has no friends, no family, no acquaintances whatsoever, by sneaking up on them and smacking them over the head so they don't know whats coming, cause them no pain, just kill them. Well what fucking sense would that have??! Apart from the obvious point that you would be extremely hard pressed to find a person that fit that description, I would be also astounded and morally outraged at someone doing the exact same thing to a stray dog. What the fuck would you even do that for? Now surely there is some residual instinct of putting your own species above all others, but there is also one other thing that sets humans apart. Humans are unique in that, because of the fact that they know their life is finite, they have the capability of making choices. I don't mean the choice between turning left or right that might incidentally affect your lifespan, I mean they can make a conscious choice with what direction to bring their lives in, and even to end it if they like. Call me crazy, but I don't like the idea of robbing a person of that choice, because I wouldn't want anyone to rob me of it either. That is why I am pro-euthanasia, I feel that just because someone is not physically capable of fulfilling that choice they should not be robbed of it.

That brings us full circle to the mentally disabled. Here I find a flaw in the science of talking about people with the intelligence of pigs. First of all it is pretty much impossible to give a pig an IQ test, but even if you could I really don't think its a fair comparison. Human brains are just different from pig brains in too many ways. For example, even if a person has the "problem-solving capabilities" of a pig (only for the sake of argument at this point, I am still waiting on any citation of a mental disorder that is said to put that person's intelligence on par with a pig's), would they still have the capability of emotional suffering and distress, of forming social bonds and interacting with humans. Also there are the people around them, parents and loved ones that care for them to take into consideration. The only almost comparable situation could be someone in a vegetative or semi-vegetative state. Someone that is not capable of interacting with others, are not aware of the presence of their loved ones in a conscious way, someone with no hope of recovering the damage done to their brains. In these situations I am once again pro euthanasia if that is what the family wants.

This is my conclusion based on my moral logic. I do not think that others have to reach the same conclusion, because as I have said may times, morality is subjective. Many people morally object to my view on euthanasia, that's fine. All I ask is that your opinion be based on real facts, although I have already dealt with false facts surrounding vegetarianism here. It also irks me to be accused of having an opinion about something "just because", which I have also discussed before.

I hope I have been clear. If there is another aspect of this you want me to address, or I need to be more clear on something please let me know. Just please don't ask me to readdress something I have already stated because I wont.

Anyway, this is going to be my last post for the next four days seeing as I am taking that wonderful "immaculate conception" four day weekend and not taking my computer. If I come across one and I have something to say I might peek in before then, but if not I'll see you all on Monday

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Asked And Answered, Thanks

OK so it finally took a priest to explain this last question to me. Not a single Catholic-raised person I have asked so far had any idea that this was the official story. Either the priest was totally bullshitting me, or the Holy See has done a good job of keeping this story fairly under wraps.

Apparently, the Immaculate Conception does not refer to when Jesus was, well, immaculately conceived. It refers to the moment of Mary's conception.

Well if Mary was immaculately conceived too doesn't that make Jesus' birth less special and miraculous? What if parthogenesis just ran in the family?  Now wait for it, Mary was not actually immaculately conceived. She was brought to be with a good old fashioned romp in the haystack. However, God interfered at this quite private moment and made sure that the normally-conceived Mary would not be born with original sin. How very thoughtful of him.

And what passages of the Bible was this complicated convoluted story inferred from exactly? Enough with the fucking questions! Just take your four day weekend and enjoy it!

Oh well, don't mind if I do :)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Someone Please Explain This To Me

My progress report gets ever nearer and I am ever more freaking out. However, I am very lucky because this week ends at Wednesday for me, and so I can finally put my feet up and relax for four days after this final push. We don't get Thanksgiving weekend over here, but at least we get this!

And what is "this", you might ask? Well, The 8th of December is the Immaculate Conception, a holiday in this Catholic country of ours.

While I am, as always, sincerely happy to take any excuse I can get to have a couple of days off, there is only one thing I really don't get. How can the 8th of December be the Immaculate Conception?

Quit the eye rolling, I know there was no immaculate conception. The Bible doesn't even really talk about it all that explicitly. However it has been a fully absorbed and accepted part of Catholic doctrine for centuries now. So I want to know what the official Catholic story is.

You're telling me that Mary conceived Jesus on the 8th of December..... and gave birth to him on the 25th?! DAIMN that's a short pregnancy! That's like some shit out of Fringe

I want an explanation. Everyone I ask here who was raised Catholic but not practicing for a very long time seem to never have thought of this and have no idea. The only properly Catholic person I know is a bit of a history/archeology buff so she is fully aware that the 25th of December was a borrowed date from the pagans so she does not believe Jesus was literally born on midnight of the 24th, so she wont explain it to me either. But I want the official story from the Vatican or any other Christian authority that believes in these dates literally.

What is your precise explanation? Are you really saying that Mary had a two-week pregnancy with Jesus?

Do let me know

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Repost On Rape Jokes

I know I said I would be moving on to other topics soon, and I will, but I came across an excellently written blog post through a FB friend of mine. The comments on this blog are now closed, but it is so great and has been reblogged so many times I'm sure they won't mind if I repost it here. Enjoy

To all those men who don't think the rape jokes are a problem:

I get it—you're a decent guy. I can even believe it. You've never raped anybody. You would NEVER rape anybody. You're upset that all these feminists are trying to accuse you of doing something, or connect you to doing something, that, as far as you're concerned, you've never done and would never condone.

And they've told you about triggers, and PTSD, and how one in six women is a survivor, and you get it. You do. But you can't let every time someone gets all upset get in the way of you having a good time, right? Especially when it doesn't mean anything. Rape jokes have never made YOU go out and rape someone. They never would; they never could. You just don't see how it matters.

I'm going to tell you how it does matter. And I tell you this because I genuinely believe you mean it when you say you don't want to hurt anybody, and that it's important to you to do your best to be a decent and good person, and that you don't see the harm. And I genuinely believe you when you say you would never associate with a rapist and you think rape really is a very bad thing.

Here is why I refuse to take rape jokes sitting down…

Because 6% of college-aged men, slightly over 1 in 20, will admit to raping someone in anonymous surveys, as long as the word "rape" isn't used in the description of the act—and that's the conservative estimate. Other sources double that number (pdf).

A lot of people accuse feminists of thinking that all men are rapists. That's not true. But do you know who think all men are rapists?

Rapists do.

They really do. In psychological study, the profiling, the studies, it comes out again and again.

Virtually all rapists genuinely believe that all men rape, and other men just keep it hushed up better. And more, these people who really are rapists are constantly reaffirmed in their belief about the rest of mankind being rapists like them by things like rape jokes, that dismiss and normalize the idea of rape.

If one in twenty guys (or more) is a real and true rapist, and you have any amount of social activity with other guys like yourself, then it is almost a statistical certainty that one time hanging out with friends and their friends, playing Halo with a bunch of guys online, in a WoW guild, in a pick-up game of basketball, at a bar, or elsewhere, you were talking to a rapist. Not your fault. You can't tell a rapist apart any better than anyone else can. It's not like they announce themselves.

But, here's the thing. It's very likely that in some of these interactions with these guys, at some point or another, someone told a rape joke. You, decent guy that you are, understood that they didn't mean it, and it was just a joke. And so you laughed.

Or maybe you didn't laugh. Maybe it just wasn't a very funny joke. So maybe you just didn't say anything at all.

And, decent guy who would never condone rape, who would step in and stop rape if he saw it, who understands that rape is awful and wrong and bad, when you laughed? When you were silent?

That rapist who was in the group with you, that rapist thought that you were on his side. That rapist knew that you were a rapist like him. And he felt validated, and he felt he was among his comrades.

You. The rapist's comrade.

And if that doesn't make you feel sick to your stomach, if that doesn't make you want to throw up, if that doesn't disturb you or bother you or make you feel like maybe you should at least consider not participating in that kind of humor anymore, not abiding it in your presence, not greeting it with silence...

Well, maybe you aren't as opposed to rapists as you claim. 

Note: A quick and simple rule for language and behavior if you want to be a decent person: Ask yourself, who is more likely to be made to feel comfortable around me based on whatever I'm about to say/do? Rape survivors? Or rapists? Who is more likely to be made to feel uncomfortable? If you're doing something that is more likely to make rapists feel comfortable and/or rape survivors feel uncomfortable, then don't do it!

The original writer is a "Guest Blogger", so we don't know who it is, but kudos to you anyway, whoever you are. Well said without overcomplicating it with too many words, the way I sometimes tend to do. Bravo