Tuesday, December 18, 2012

To Lighten The Darkness: Part III

With all this talk of injustice, maybe an inspiring story of perseverance in the face of it, finally managing to change it for the better, is ideal for this episode of lightening the darkness. While the overall story is still quite sad, the demonstration that things can be changed, even by the little guy, is extremely important.

On Having Nothing To Say

I have not commented on the shooting in Newton because honestly I feel that I have nothing to offer the conversation. Adding my voice to the horror and outrage that is spreading across the web seems fruitless, there is nothing on the subject I may have to say that I have not seen said a hundred times. However, I do not want to pass by this excellent post by Avicenna on the subject, and I urge you to read it. It almost brought me to tears, and I think it is very much worth the read.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

How To Speak Of This Injustice

I can't handle injustice very well, it gets under my skin the way nothing else really does. I find it hard to even put it into words, because I can hardly bring myself to believe that it happens, and when I am accused of exaggerating (something that is common given the heated way I tell stories, despite the fact that I almost never do it) just adds insult to injury for me. I will therefore let Cenk do the talking, as he is so much better at it than I am.

Please, please sign this petition to free Stephanie George, and pass the word on to as many people as you can. This epic failure of a war on drugs is destroying lives, and is built on the most monumental hypocrisy. I am amazed at how few signatures it has. Let's change that. 

Friday, December 14, 2012

This Gave Even Me Pause

The other day, I stumbled upon a quick graphic that PZ Myers had made and put up on Pharyngula. Now I consider myself to be fairly educated with regards to women's issues, I talk about it quite frequently and even have been accused of exaggeration, people telling me the situation is really not as bad as I make it out to me. And yet, even I was shocked at this one

That is unbelievable.

Now when I look at this graphic, my mind automatically goes to how my statistically impaired friends would attempt to tear this apart.

The first point of contention being: Yea well, there were women killed in 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan too! So the graphic is even more skewed than this! But that's not really the point, because they were not killed for simply being women. But then that's not fair either, because the women killed by their partners were not necessarily killed for being women, although the fact that they were women definitely was the largest indirect reason for their murder. 

The point of this graphic is the national conversation. 9/11 was a tragedy, and we are reminded of how tragic it was constantly, how many American lives were lost, how devastating it was. We are constantly talking about supporting the troops, and how it is insanity to be losing so many American lives overseas in such a pointless war.

And yet, when is women being killed by their partners ever made a big deal? When is the national day of remembering them? How many discussions about that are had on television? Where are the sorrowful television specials dedicated to so many more American lives lost? 

Monday, December 10, 2012

An Atheist's Reason For The Season

This post is appropriate for (two days after...oops) the 8th of December, which as I have mentioned before is the day in which, traditionally, the Christmas season officially starts in Italy. It is the day the trees go up, the Christmas lights come on on the streets and the Christmas markets officially begin (although I have noticed that this year, in light of the economic crisis, they were given permission to open shop earlier than usual) all to coincide with that famously confusing Immaculate Conception. I am one of those atheists that does in fact celebrate Christmas, or Mithrasmas, or Xmas, or whatever I may feel like calling it. I like it, its fun, and every year I act as Santa for my grinchy Italian family buying everyone's gifts for everyone else, so getting to Christmas knowing what's in all the packages except for my own. This does not mean, however, that I do not know plenty of people that are of Taslima Nasreen's opinion, that it is silly to celebrate Christmas:

I get surprised when ex-Christian atheists instead of celebrating a day off work, celebrate Christmas. Christmas is a Christian holiday, a religious event — it is for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Atheists don’t believe in God the father, Jesus the son or the holy spirit. Atheists are not Christians, they do not need to participate in Christian holiday.  

Well, I think that part of the answer come in her next paragraph (emphasis my own)

Many atheists even celebrate the pagan festival of winter solstice. Why do they need to celebrate a Pagan festival? It is true that many rituals of modern Christmas celebrations are pagan. But this is not a good reason to celebrate Christmas or Solstice. Atheists are neither pagan nor Christian. They don’t uphold ancient pagan superstitions, so why do so with those which happen to be popular at Christmas time? There’s nothing about ancient paganism which is any more rational than modern Christianity.

That's exactly it, Christmas celebrations as we know them are really bastardizations of much older pagan rituals, adopted when Christianity became big. Those who believe in a historical Jesus say that, if he did exist he most likely was born in September, so why change it all up in order to fit nicely with a pagan holiday which has nothing at all to do with Christianity?

Well, because people like their holidays and like their traditions. They are some of the best childhood memories for some people, and often they want to continue those great memories for their own kids. For Christians it was strategy: it's much easier to convince people to switch over to your religion when you tell them they don't have to change some of their favorite things about their old one, but for many atheists it's for similar reasons that we continue to celebrate it. People have been celebrating this time of year for ages, all under different names, so why can't we do the same thing this time around and have atheistic Xmas? I had some great Xmases in my time and I want to have that for my kids, the tree, the presents, the dinner, the family, all of it holds a special place in my heart and is an experience I wouldn't want to deny my future children. So what if Christians also celebrate this time of year for their own purposes? Why should that affect my celebrations with my family?

Now, do any atheists have to celebrate Xmas? Of course not! If they don't have any special memories attached to it or don't like it, then don't celebrate it! Celebrate, as Taslima suggests, Women's Day or Anti-Slavery Day, or hell make up a random date and call it My Family Day and come up with a bunch of traditions for your family alone!

The only thing that I would personally suggest, as I did to a friend of mine who does not have the happy Xmas memories that I do, is not to forgo having any holiday at all to celebrate, especially if you have kids. I know people say "well I can see my family at any time", but when life starts to get going and each family member starts doing their own thing, it's amazing how quickly time slips by until you stop for a minute and think crap, how long has it been since we've all been together in the same place at the same time?

 Having an xmas-like holiday gives everyone something to look forward to. It makes you stop and think what would my brother/sister/uncle/mother really like? What present could I get them that would make them happy? It gives you an excuse to bake cookies, make a nice meal or whatever else you don't indulge in when you're far too busy working. Most importantly, it gives everyone an excuse to drop whatever they're doing, take a break and visit with family and friends. I don't think there is anything wrong with that at all.

So as for me? I just bought my xmas tree and decorated it over the weekend listening to Nat King Cole carol for me. I then made myself a nice hot chocolate and relaxed, enjoying the beginning of the season, amazingly watching it snow outside. I was content, and I could care less that at the same time there were others boring themselves silly at mass. They're celebrations have nothing to do with me, and mine are for my benefit, not for Christianity's.

As an aside, if you haven't seen Taslima Nasreen's blog yet, do check it out. I may have disagreed with her in this case, but I do think her writing is remarkable. However I do think a trigger warning is in order: many of her posts are very hardcore: she blogs about women's rights and fundamentalist Islam, so the sad hard truth about rape, beatings and torture, including graphic images and videos, can often be found there.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Is It Sexual Assault?

This train of thought came upon me when watching one of those famous TYT Supreme Court moments that I've blogged about before. This video involves the so-called "Alabama Teabagger", and while from that title I thought I was going to get a few laughs at the Tea Party's expense, what I actually saw was just kind of gross.

As usual, the person that I disagree with the most in this case is Jayar, whom as usual is the one that, in my opinion, has the most unreasonable perspective. I could rant on and on about how much I hate the argument that he makes, the close cousin to the "well I was beat up at school and turned out alright, therefore I think that bullying should not be addressed because it builds character!" argument. However this is not about that. This is about a question that I immediately asked myself even before Ana brought it up: if it was a woman, would I have a different opinion as to how harshly he should be punished?

I appreciate the point that Cenk makes, that context matters and that it would be different if it was sexual in nature. If the guy did it to get off it's blatant sexual assault, whether he's doing it to a woman or a man. However I think it is pretty clear in the video that the act was intended as a prank, one which would humiliate the victim. However, even so, even if there was the exact same stupid-college-prank intent behind it, a part of me still feels like it's worse if the victim is a woman. Why is that? Is this another possible deep core of sexism hidden within me?

I realized that my feelings stemmed from the reaction that I imagined the victim, upon seeing that video, would have. When you see a burly college guy passed out at a football game getting pranked, you imagine that when he wakes up and discovers what happened he would be enormously pissed, and either beat up the prankster or devise an extremely elaborate and equally humiliating counter-prank. When you see the same thing happening to a woman, you imagine her being extremely humiliated, possibly depressed, possibly not having the guts to face her classmates for some time afterwards. Some of this is unfair stereotyping, some of it is from the cultural double-standard we have regarding men and women and embarrassing sexual-related things happening to them, but most of it is the imbalance of power. When you humiliate your peer it's a prank, when you humiliate someone who is weaker than you it is bullying. The fact that imagining the same thing happening to a young man that was weaker and picked on by the football team gave me the same gut reaction that imagining it happening to a woman did confirmed that this was the source of my double standard. 

Therefore the question becomes: is it fair to assume that a woman has less power? Is it fair to automatically jump to the conclusion that she would not be able to take it the same way and defend herself in the same way that another man could?

I think the answer is yes and no.

I know for a fact that there are women out there who would immediately try to devise the most complicated and terrifyingly humiliating counterprank imaginable. I know that there are women that would not be afraid to find that guy and kick the crap out of him in front of his friends, accomplishing both tasks. However, I do think that the football, frat-like and overall college culture would not be expecting that reaction, and I think that is the point.

Except for very special circumstances in which some girls may have been accepted into certain groups as "one of the guys", I think that the reaction that the "prankster" would expect from the woman would be the first that I described. All of a sudden, the prank moves away from being humiliating-but-harmless-fun into the realm of actively trying to make that person miserable. I think that a man who would do that would be trying to provoke that reaction from a woman, even if he does wind up getting a good kick in the balls for his troubles. That's where I think that the intent would be significantly different, and where it would not necessarily apply solely to women. 

It's not that women necessarily have less power than men in this circumstance, it's that more likely than not the man would be doing this because he expects her to have less power and not be able to defend herself.

This is why there are trials for this sort of thing, and why it shouldn't be a one-size-fits-all sentence. I think that, regardless of the victim being a man or a woman, if the person doing it has the intent that I last described, I could accept two years. If, on the other hand it was meant as simply a very stupid prank towards a peer, it's way way over the top.

In this case I have no idea where the victim stood in this regard. For all I know the prank could have been payback for something the passed-out person did previously. Because of this, I reserve judgement on the severity of the sentence in the absence of all the facts.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Judging What Is Real: Part II

A continuation, if I may.

It is interesting that while I was mulling around the contents of yesterday's post in my head, something happened that made me want to extend the topic of what constitutes as real.

This weekend I started my first Coursera course, and I was incredibly excited. It's given by Caltech, and is about Drugs and the Brain. I need a good refresher course in neuroscience, as I haven't even looked at it since my first year in college (when I was not a good student at all, thanks depression!), as I only did a very specific neurobiology course in my last year. It's all stuff that can be useful to me in my career and PhD, so I signed up, took my little notebook out and almost nostalgically started taking notes while watching one of the mini lectures during my lunch break. A colleague of mine saw me at in, right in the middle of copying down and trying to make sure I understood a physics equation (something I haven't studied since my second year in high school, so I really needed a refresher there), when she asked me astonishedly: you're taking notes?! For a coursera course??!! 

I replied well... yes! Of course I am! how else am I going to learn enough and pass the exam! To which she replied but.... it's all fake! What are you doing that for?!

Here I was befuddled and quite a bit miffed. Never mind that she knows exactly what coursera is, what it's about and at least said that she thought was absolutely brilliant. Never mind that she knows full well that these courses are offered by some of the most prestigious universtities in the world. And yes, this specific course is relatively brief and might not earn us an unofficial certificate of completion, but what about all of this makes the course "fake"?

What is so "fake" about knowledge?

Is it because the course is not one that carries university credit, and therefore cannot be used towards getting an official degree from Caltech? But then does that make any class that someone audits "fake"?

Is it because it is not a course that is directly improving my career chances? But does that make her own pursuit of her second degree in archaeology, despite being a biologist, "fake"?

What is so fake about learning?

It really comes down to what your priorities are, when it comes to deciding what you think is "real" and "fake". She obviously gives far more importance to officiality, and what others will officially recognize as something that you have done. I understand that coursera is new and relatively open in structure, there has been no standardization of course structure or examination, there is no way of comparing how strict or lax the grading method is, and therefore as of now is not as "offical" as it could be. Nevertheless, it is still education, it is still knowledge and it is still something I want to learn. I may not get an unofficial certificate of completion, but the knowledge that I gain from this course could really help me explore other avenues of research, or make me be able to hold my own in an interview in which knowledge of these things is required. To me, that makes this course very real indeed.

Officiality is, in my opinion, extremely limited. There are diploma mills out there that have not yet been discovered, where you can buy a degree without putting in a day's work. Less obivous are universities (and some high schools) which are exceedlingly expensive but also pathetically easy, which require next to no work to complete so long as there is a healthy influx of cash. Some may officially recognize certificates from these institutions, but to me they are the real "fakes" here. 

Where do your priorities lie when it comes to deciding what is real, and what is fake?

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Thoughts On: How We Judge Reality

Now that I have managed, somehow, to get through my 2 presentations in 10 days, I think I can breathe a little bit and get to the topics that I have had mulling around in my head for a while.

I'm sure that all of your have heard this narrative at some point in your lives. For me, I found that it became particularly prevalent in my pre-teen/early teen years, when kids really start to delve into their first existential questions. 

The very first ones of course tend to come up much earlier. For example, I remember thinking I was HOT SHIT when, at 8 years old and first discovering the existence of color-blindness, I came up with the age-old question: How do I know that what I see as blue is what you see as blue? Maybe what I call blue, you call purple! OMG SUBJECTIVITY FTW!! But apart from those classic one-hit wonders, the real "deep" discussions (which often ended in, if not tears, a lot of brooding and moody pondering), at least for me and my peers, began at the pre-teen stage. Things like whether or not love exists, whether or not the soul exists, whether or not the supernatural exists, what that all means with respect to us and our lives and our meaning and purpose, these were all hotly discussed. 

Of course these discussions were not as "deep" as we thought them to be at the time, which is about as much as you can expect from a bunch of barely pubescent kids. They were riddled with logical fallacies and a whole lot of "this is what I would like to be true and therefore this is what I believe" was going on, but that is immaterial to the point I will finally get to. The common thread of discussion that I want to bring up is one that I'm sure you've all heard by now, and I want to bring it up because it is one that I have heard come up among adults as well. It goes a little something like this:

Desperate Romantic (DR): Of course true love exists! I believe in it fully! It is what makes us human! It is what binds us! 
Presumed Skeptic (PS): I don't believe in true love. It doesn't exist. 
DR: Well I've found a soul mate! How do you explain that?
PS: There are no soul mates because there is no soul. The soul is just electrical impulses in the brain. Love is just hormones firing in the brain, that's all.
DR: You're diminishing what it means to be human by saying that! That's such a nihilistic perspective! 

And here is where I get lost in the backwards-ness of our culture.

Notice how DR is the one who says s/he believes in things like love and the soul, while PS is the one who claims not to.
And yet PS is the only one that is pointing to a physical, measurable something that either love or the soul could be, while DR insists they have to be invisible, unseeable, unmeasurable, untouchable.
Catch my problem here yet?

What I don't understand is how in the bleeding hell we managed to get so twisted in our logic that we accept that if something is invisible, unmeasurable and untouchable makes it more real, while claiming that it can be seen or measured makes it less real. That is why I called the second generic person in this back and forth "presumed" skeptic, because despite being seen as the nihilistic atheistic person in this exchange, they are making just as much of a backwards and illogical argument as the first person is. 

What is so bad about finding the chemical, measurable source of love? Doesn't finding that, measuring that, by definition prove it to be real? Why are so many people, PS-es out there included, so ready to dismiss the natural world as less-than? But more than that, how did we get here? Isn't it amazing that if tomorrow scientists came out and demonstrated a measurable compound which causes the feeling of love, and demonstrate that that feeling of love can be viewed in the brain beyond a shadow of a doubt, so many people would throw up their hands and cry "well that does it, love doesn't exist!" ??!! 

I believe that there is a physical, natural source for love, and therefore I believe that love exists. Interestingly, I was always on the outskirts listening in when this particular debate came up in my childhood, because I hadn't quite made up my mind about it.

Now I realize that the reason for that is because I was truly in the middle.